Iíve been thinking a lot
about words lately. Words in business writing, words in everyday
discourse, words in literature. Iíve been thinking about the thrill of
learning words and the tragedy of losing them.
This morning my sister in Cincinnati called
to tell me our mother, who is
suffering from Alzheimerís, may be "actively dying," in the words of her
attending nurse. Just before writing these words to you, I booked
a flight from here to there, from a world Iíve made for myself and my
family here in Minneapolis to my motherís world in Cincinnati Ė from a
world of words I write and teach to make a living and words I read to help
me understand the joys and grief and mystery of life, to a world where
words are locked somewhere deep inside, shunted away from where they might
surface to tell us what someone is thinking and feeling.
Over the years Iíve written many columns about the importance of learning words. Iíve suggested a variety
of ways to expand oneís vocabulary, from owning and using a dictionary to
taking part in one of the great pleasures in life: reading. A word learned
is a personal victory. For every new word, Iíve pontificated, a new
synapse is created. Without the right words, certain thoughts cannot be
thought or communicated.
But thereís more to it than knowing words.
There's also owning them and possessing them. Thereís keeping them alive and well and
handy for when theyíre needed. Thereís standing behind them and using them
After 38 years of teaching writing, I
decided to treat myself to a novel-writing class taught by Mary Gardner at the
Loft Literary Center. One student in class described a helpful
writing exercise: Make a list of objects you might associate with a
character you are developing.
In the novel I'm writing, the objects are an
accordion, a black stallion (named Dangling Participle), and a little boy.
For Henry David Thoreau, they were a hound, a bay horse, and a
What are they for you?
More to the point, what words do
you associate with your identity, values, and character? Do your
words do justice to the story of your life? Are you dissatisfied
with your grasp of language? If not, what are you doing to improve
it? Do you take the time and go to the trouble to find the right
word, the word that captures your precise meaning, the words that
express exactly how you feel or describe a problem without causing
Thereís one word my mother has
not lost. My sister said she heard it yesterday. As she was
leaving her room, she heard Mom say, ďI love . . .Ē Mom didnít
complete her sentence, but my sister was thrilled. It has been a
while since Mom has done anything more than stammer the same
If "love" is the last word she says,
Iíll count my blessings. I accept her gift, and Iíll try to pass it on.
On May 4, 2010, Mom died
peacefully. My sister was with her.