Architects of Words and Life
King Solomon famously declared that the power of life and death is in the tongue. He went on to explain that a fool’s words pierce like a sword, but a wise man’s words bring healing. This idea that words carry a spirit heavier than their simple auditory symbol of meaning has always interested me. If Solomon’s words were true, the meaning that sleeps beneath our words, whether to others or about others, either bring life and healing or a degree of destruction to the world. The implications of such a belief are drastic. The idea that you are just a speck in a universe that doesn’t recognize your existence is replaced by a notion of a life with purpose that is capable of helping to build others if you so choose. I know this to be true, because I’ve experienced it as a writer.
As a natural born introvert and aggressively impractical idealist with no regard for the safety of status quo, relating to others in a world that favoured friendly people with socially acceptable opinions was difficult. Though I considered myself understanding and somewhat agreeable, I’d never been good at hiding my opinions if asked when I felt another’s words were not synonymous with truth.
I loved ideas. I loved exploring thoughts and possibilities and worldviews and challenging my own. That was one of the ways I grew. I didn’t care about a person’s nails or the shoes they bought. I wanted to know who they were and who they loved and what they loved and what they hated and their childhood and their greatest fears. I wanted to know about the things in their life that built them.
I couldn’t do small talk. Unfortunately for me, that skill was key in our society.
Something changed when I arrived at Lesley University for my first residency in January of 2010. For the first time in my life, I found a group of people that were just as bad as me at holding a conversation rife with small talk. Most of them were quiet people with big ideas. Like me, writing was their way of expressing their person to the world. I felt like I’d held my breath for years until the day I met my friends at Lesley. Ideas were my oxygen.
I could talk about politics or religion or philosophy or my favourite book and not feel pretentious. Conversely, I could sit at a table amongst my fellow writers and not say a word while they all spoke, and not feel awkward.
However, there was a downside to being around people so similar to myself. Like me, they were deep thinkers. There is no more lonesome a place than inside one’s own mind. I’d lived there all my life, and so did many of my colleagues.
My Coptic faith had always been a refuge for me that fought the echoes of doubt and fear in the darkness of my mind. I lived within one of North America’s most populous Coptic diasporas which helped me to fortify my trust that good things come from hard times. My faith in an innate greater purpose helped me to fight off my fears, and they were many. I feared that my degree in writing was frivolous. Financially useless. I feared that my belief that I could positively affect lives with my writing would never become reality. I feared the world would never see my words.
I loved my cohort, but the lack of faith in anything bigger then democracy and feminism chipped away at my defenses and I grew anxious.
The desks for our seminars were placed in a circle so that everyone within the class faced each other. Even amongst fellow introverts, I was the quietest student. I barely talked unless called upon and I had a horrible attention deficit that I’d fought off in my courses for so long since I’d discovered writing, but had come back in my residencies at Lesley. The instructor taught and the students discussed and I sat amongst them and slowly receded into the universe. I was confused. I felt as if I’d finally found people that understood me, but I’d lost myself in the process.
I had a friend named Enzo in my cohort. Enzo the poet. He was somewhat different from other writers I had known in that he believed in something bigger than the tangible. We often talked about faith and agreed on most things. Like me, he was a Christian. Finding someone likeminded in faith helped to anchor me to my identity which I sometimes felt fading within me.
My friend Enzo and I sat at a small table outside of Lesley University’s cafeteria on one particularly hot summer day at the end of our last residency.
“I’ve noticed you don’t talk much during our seminars,” Enzo said.
“I don’t have much to say.”
“I think you should probably speak up. Your opinions are just as valid as everybody else. Otherwise you wouldn’t be here.”
I didn’t want to mention my mounting fear that occupied my mind and stole my words. Verbalizing feelings was not something I did.
“Well, I could try I guess,” I said.
Breakfast ended. I picked up my plate and motioned towards the cafeteria.
“Wait I got something for you,” Enzo said as I stood.
He reached into his carrying case and pulled out a book. It was a thin blue chapbook called Higher Ground that he wrote and published years prior. I had asked him for a copy earlier that week. I grabbed the book from his hand, smiled and thanked him.
“Look inside,” he said.
I flipped the cover and spotted black ink on the page before the first poem.
The world awaits your words in print.
The words struck me. I was 24, unsure of my future and insecure about my writing. I often wondered why I didn’t become a chiropractor like my father insisted and made the money that came with the title. But these words reminded me that I had something to share with the world. Words and ideas I needed to spread, many of them caught in my throat because I couldn’t find a platform to speak them.
I took Enzo’s book home along with his message. I was encouraged to write because he was right, I had a lot to say. My friend Enzo’s words felt like prophecy, which gave me the courage, the audacity to pursue my goals. And it took audacity to wade through the waves of polite rejections from literary journals that I received for years, yet continue to submit my work. That is until I stopped submitting single short stories about small Coptic children to American journals that had no interest in the topic, and took the whole of my collection of these stories to a printing press that had no theme to the work they published. The only criteria Mosaic Press, my publisher, had for a considered work was that it be quality writing penned by a Canadian author. I was not surprised when they accepted my work for publication.
I often wondered how likely I would have been to disregard my many rejections as mere bumps in the road had I not gotten that small note from Enzo. I sometimes believe I would have likely stopped after all the setbacks I experienced when looking to get published. They came for years. I was never in short supply. But I pushed and pushed until I received my prize.
This story is a constant reminder for myself to speak life. Our words to others are not trivial. They build and they destroy. We are architects not only of our own lives, but of the lives of others. Good words spoken with an honest heart encourage character. Character pushes courage and the courage to push yourself and those around you past comfort builds life.