I’ve been thinking a lot about words lately. Words in business writing, words in everyday discourse, words in literature. I’ve been thinking about the thrill of learning words and the tragedy of losing them.
This morning my sister in Cincinnati, Ohio, in the United States called to tell me that our mother who is suffering from Alzheimer’s may be "actively dying”—in the words of her attending nurse. Moments before beginning this article, I booked a flight from here to there, from a world I’ve made for myself and my family here in Minneapolis, Minnesota to my mother’s world in Cincinnati; from a world of words where I write and teach to make a living, and the words I read to help me understand the joys, grief and mystery of life, to my mother’s world, where her words are locked somewhere deep inside, shunted away from the surface where they might tell us what she is thinking and feeling.
Over the years I’ve written many columns about the importance of learning words. I’ve suggested a variety of ways to expand one’s 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, I’ve pontificated, a new synapse is created. Without the right words, certain thoughts cannot be communicated or even thought.
But there’s more to it than just knowing words. There's also owning them and possessing them. There’s keeping them alive and well and handy for when they’re needed. There’s standing behind them and using them genuinely.
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 the 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 turtle-dove.
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 offense?
There’s one word my mother has not lost. My sister said she heard it yesterday. As she was leaving her room, she heard Mom say, “I love...” Mom didn’t complete her sentence, but my sister was thrilled. It has been a while since Mom has done anything more than stammer the same syllable.
If "love" is the last word she says, I’ll count my blessings. I accept her gift and I’ll try to pass it on.
This article first appeared on wilbers.com