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Good Letters

20111013-word-and-place-by-tony-woodliefI did the math, and during the average waking hour I’m 2,227 feet above the earth. It’s a height that obscures one’s vision—too high to see the particularities, not separated enough from the dirt to see that all of it together is a particularity called creation, and me a part of it, and less and more of it than I often imagine myself to be.

The attendant on a recent flight couldn’t say the word “ask” properly. She stood at the front of the jet with the phone to her lips, reading the rote announcements crafted by the airline to make us feel especially welcome until such time as we ask for the entire can of soda or a packet of peanuts, and each time she said “ask,” I cringed.

The airlines, perhaps second only to math departments in major universities, seem intent on giving the floor to the person least equipped to speak so that the rest of us can understand.

But of course I understood her, I just didn’t like thinking that no one had taken her aside to teach her how to speak this word properly, or worse, that her colleagues were afraid doing so would mark them as racists, or worse still, that some brave soul had tried and she had ignored him.

I sat irritated until I remembered that there are at least a half dozen common words I can’t speak properly. Though most of my southern accent is gone, I still say “wadn’t” and “dodn’t” and “idn’t” where my friends from Indiana know to say “wasn’t” and “doesn’t” and “isn’t.”

I recently bought a balsam-scented candle for my depressingly stark new apartment, and I realized, in a convulsion of mortification, that the reason every server in every restaurant where I’ve ordered the balsamic vinagrette dressing has repeated my order—with extra stress on the word “balsamic”—is because I’ve been mispronouncing it for twenty years.

Most of us have a word or two we can’t say, and too often those words are I’m sorry or Please forgive me. When we do say them, they sound alien, and we wonder—and maybe the person listening to us wonders as well—if we are saying them because we believe them, or because we think they are the words to say so this person will love us again.

My nine year-old, Eli, gets flustered easily with his words. He says “uh” a lot, and sometimes takes longer to relay an event than the event actually took to transpire. He says “uh” and backtracks and wanders with his softly uttered words down rabbit trails until I am finishing his sentences and hurrying him along, an editor for brevity even with my own child.

I edit him and Eli gets red-faced and stumble-mouthed, and then later I realize that to edit the spoken words of your child like that is to abbreviate your child, to tell him that the who he is of his words is too much, not what it should be, not worth your time.

I edit my Eli and every time I do it I push him out of place, as alien at my side as me in some godforsaken fancy-pants restaurant, getting my “balsamic” corrected and asking the waiter to be sure the tuna idn’t served half-raw.

Our words, like us, must be situated in place, and maybe this is where the Gnostics first went wrong, and their modern progeny have gone sideways ever since, forgetting that the Word can no more be a free-floating formless abstraction than I love you can mean anything if you are anywhere other than within whispering distance of the one you desperately want to love you back.

Sometimes I wake up in a hotel bed or my apartment and I forget where I am, what bed this is and what city this is. I shower and sometimes I shave and I mutter sentences that have no meaning because they are not in the right place. They are divorced from all place, these words like I don’t understand this and I can’t do this and Please help me.

I mutter these sentences and I stop, the washrag over my face or the blade to my neck, and I wonder where the words came from, and who they are for, and why I am saying them, and if only God understands why we talk to ourselves in the bleary dark morning hours.

Only God understands if they are prayers or laments, and how words can be both, how every sentence spoken out of place is really just another way of saying: Where am I to go?

The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

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