When I was little and it was naptime, my desperate mother taught me to feign compliance in order to trick my hyperactive younger brother into lying down as well. I’d go into the bedroom beside his and play silently until he nodded off and Mama sprang me. Often, I just peacefully counted the daisies on my wallpaper, running my hands over the bumpy pink flowers. But there were days that I drug my Scrabble Junior game board into my bedroom closet and sat there on the floor, making words by the dim light of the closet slats.
I hated the board–abhorred it so much that I feel the repulsion viscerally, still. The pressboard letters slid around on the slick board; the pictures were stupid–but, oh, the satisfaction of making words. It was the purest of pleasures–the simple joy in creation, in order itself.
As a child, I collected words the way other kids collected baseball cards or sharks’ teeth. When I was thirteen, Grandmother Nella gave me my own Roget’s Thesaurus, and I read it like a novel; I carried a crossword puzzle dictionary with me everywhere. (In middle school, after asking my teacher Mrs. Zachary if she knew where I got my “vast vocabulary,” I whipped out my five-pound dictionary, and, to her credit, she didn’t laugh.)
Around the same time, Grandma Williams bought me a set of leather World Book Encyclopedias. They filled my bottom bookshelf, their beautiful gold embossment sparkling satisfactorily. My mother often told me how expensive they were, how fortunate I was. But what I liked best was the accompanying free gift: an unabridged dictionary, a two-volume set–A through L and M through Z. Two thick books–because there were so many words in the world that one book couldn’t contain them.
(Can I confess that I read etymologies?)
But the greatest joy in the dictionaries, the truest happiness perhaps of all my childhood, were the brown pages at the beginning of volume one. There were word lists for the college-bound; grade-level vocabulary tests; root words; lists of countries; and scientific formulas.
Everything was quantified and orderly, and I liked that.
Eventually, I got a real Scrabble board. An expensive one. The tiles locked in place. The board spun like a lazy Susan. My father would play with me whenever he got a chance. I memorized the two-letter\ word list that someone had cut out for me from Games magazine. I got good. And, my father wanted to play me less because I won, every time.
So, nine years ago when I broke my leg and spent six months in bed and discovered Scrabble online, I was elated. I found my tribe.
I have played 11,000 Scrabble games since. I know that I should be ashamed of that. I know I could have spent the time doing other, more worthy things, but, oh, I love the game. Today I spelled GECKOS, a first–and it brought me great joy. I even run a Scrabble group on Facebook called Scrabble Addicts with members from around the world.
As I’ve explained in previous blogs, I began this blog unintentionally. It was seeded in outrage.
I was mad that every Christian internet site I saw about unplanned pregnancy was shame-based and condemning, and, morally, I just couldn’t ignore that void–I had to attempt to fill it. Then, when everything unraveled and my daughter’s baby was stillborn with anencephaly, I had to document that journey as well.
I started this as one thing, with one message–an unexpected pregnancy is an opportunity for grace, faith, and good, not an occasion to “sit down with your daughter’s siblings and discuss her sin.”
This was going to be a blog about babies.
I’m a teacher. I stand in a room and tell students things. And, so, when my life became a series of tsunamis of pain, the only logical thing to do with everything I was learning and feeling and being cast into was to try to find and share some sort of teachable truth.
People tell me that they know I keep this blog to process everything. That it’s cathartic for me to write and release things. That’s such a fundamental misunderstanding. It’s going to sound rude to say, but the deepest truth that writers know is this: if you are a writer, you are possessed. The truth just emerges. When you truly believe something you write, it comes so quickly that it sometimes startles you, yourself.
After reading the draft of one of my earliest pieces for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the editor called me and said that must have been very painful to write. It must have taken months. In truth, it took perhaps ninety minutes (because middle school English teachers are right: writing is sometimes just vomiting on paper).
Online Scrabble changed corporate hands this summer, from EA to Scopely; the transition was disastrous–one reason was that Scrabble GO was simply Tinder and board games. Each night “oil rig engineers” from Europe would fill the online queue with sweet talk. It was embarrassing for everyone. (Scopely finally fixed it.)
But one night, a particularly persistent, fairly decent player named Jimmy wanted my profession. To shut him up, I said, “I’m a writer.”
I felt it when I wrote the words–it was the first time I had said them, ever.
I had never before claimed the thing that claims me–because writing is not a thing any of us claim. We pass it off as a hobby, something worthy only of dabbling in. I don’t understand why painters and musicians are seen as artists and those of us who report in tuneless, colorless words are seen as something other.
Ours is still art.
Forty years ago, the world was one of letters–going through my father’s memorabilia has reminded me of that. People used to write letters every day. After lunch, before dinner, just prior to turning in. It’s what everyone did.
In my house, I have boxes of letters, some a hundred years old; I saved all the papers from my grandparents’ attic because they were full of words.
There is something in me that cannot throw words away.
I read scores of letters. Some were boring–the logistics of buying a window unit for my parents’ mobile home; news of long-dead dogs; reminders to write the maiden aunts. But some are now stained with my tears. An exhortation from the parents of my great-great aunt’s fiancee, dead in the war, to marry again and marry well. A condolence letter from the first-grade teacher of my distant cousin William Ransome Gwynne, an only child, who died in a hunting accident in the cliffs of Alabama. (His best friend sat beside his body until rescuers found them.) The words of comfort she offered his mother, the assurance that he had no equal and would always, forever be remembered–oh, what a treasure those words were. And what a treasure they are.
So, I’m writing blogs because that’s what we do now. They are where our words go, where the memories will be.
I shouldn’t, I’m told, write about some things–the very things I have lived through should, evidently, not be shared. Imagine if I said to you in conversation, “Don’t talk about your new baby. Don’t talk about your grandfather’s birthday party. Don’t talk about your work.” But that’s what people will do with a blog: they will attempt to dictate acceptable terms.
Words we speak are okay because they disappear like vapor–but things that we write down and see and keep forever are somehow wrong. They make us uncomfortable because they will not go away.
If I write about my father’s suicide and post it on the web, that emotion stays, captured forever, and I don’t control who sees it. If I talk about my granddaughter’s death, if I tell you about the tiny weight of her body, it’s hard for you to skip that line. You have to feel those words. You take on some of my pain, you experience it. But, remember, too, you experience my good days as well. I can bring you the feathers of a cardinal. I can bring you a baby’s fingernail. The rough tiny tongue of a kitten. Yes, I am a difficult container, but when my words spill out, the sadness and the joy both ooze.