Mark O'Brien

in defense of words, and the people who write them.

I have spent all my adult life trafficking in the language of words to one degree or another. It is a bittersweet business, because words are of course just half the equation for the mystery that is incarnation—everybody needs flesh as much as they need words. There are plenty of things words cannot do for you, places in you where they cannot go, nights where they cannot keep you warm; experiences of grief and ecstasy where they brazenly, flagrantly fail you.

But there are plenty of places they can go, plenty of nights they can shave the chill off if not quite keep you warm. And for all the experiences that words cannot translate, perhaps there just as many experiences that they can yet create. Words can get under your skin, get caught in the back of your throat, burn in the hearth at the center of you. God’s word called creation into existence; Jesus Himself is the Word made flesh. The epistle of James warns that the tongue can be set ablaze with the fire of hell—but another way of framing it may be that words have a hell of a lot of power, constructive or destructive. To play with them is to play with matches and with magic, and so the words demand their due reverence. But are there not some among us, that are born to make fire?

I have long lamented the impotence and inefficacy of words, as least as they pertain to me and come from within me. I love writers and I love writing, but there is still a bit part of me that feels like it is not respectable work. That it is a hobby, not a real job. That some time you’ve got to quit the trifling business of pounding at keys, and pound something with a hammer instead. And I think there is a kind of truth to that, insofar that words are insufficient to get you out of your head and into your body, or get you outside where creation is still happening, whether or not you pay attention. I am indeed learning the value of “kitchen work” as a man moves into the second half of his life, in the words of the poet Robert Bly.

But I am also getting awfully far past the self-loathing and self-flagellation that would make me bury my birthright, and hide the holy marks the words gave me. They make me who I am; they say where I am from. They are in part mother and father, and yet my offspring too—they are where I am from and where I am heading. I will not hide them in the trunk, or treat them like some bastard children.

You get a few moments in your life, when the words won’t serve you at all; and there is peanut butter in the back of your throat, and you are too overcome by the beauty of a thing, to utter any words you’ve learned. And the silence, the wordlessness, the redness that comes to your cheeks while the language vacates you, is in fact it’s own kind of sacrament. There must be space for the wordless, and for the wild words too. I am Pentecostal enough that I will always hold the space for unknown tongues. But even when the joy or agony is no longer intelligible, unintelligible speech is a kind of speaking still. The words don’t stop being words, just because nobody around you understands them.

If you doubt the power of words, I could tell you a story—of walking up a mountain, feeling like I was dying, while I listened to Martin Luther King’s “I’ve been to the mountain top” sermon. And there was the moment listening, when I knew I would not live forever, like the Reverend’s words, but that I was going to live beyond that day—that the words would be enough, to at least carry me into tomorrow. I could tell you of the evenings, where I did not know where else to go or who else to go to, but the words stayed up all night. I will not act as if some are holier than others, because the novels were as faithful of companions as the Bible verses.

It is well and good I am sure, for the rest of the world to go out dancing, or to go to the movies. But you’ve got your friends, honey, and I’ve got mine. And if the words could not take me everywhere I would want to be, they have always taken me more places than I had a right to go, and they still do.

I could tell you too about going out to my father’s utility building, in the little spot beside the trains he collects, where I set up the folding card table, and opened up the laptop. Utterly disoriented, disheveled, and out of my head, I would start striking the keys, like I always did—striking blindly, flailing words like a blindfolded boxer. I struck until something took over, something familiar. It reminded me of my great grandmother, years after Alzheimer’s stole all her names and dates and memories, sitting down at the piano, and playing the hymns she played as a girl. The quiet clicks of the keys on the macbook are the only notes I know, the only kind of music I ever learned to play. And when the other functions did not work, somehow the words still did, even when they were words I did not know I knew, that came as distant strangers. The quiet clicks were the sounds of the words, and the sound of me, not dying.

Don’t think I don’t ever wish that I could be a carpenter, or maybe even a lumberjack, or that I wish my big hands were gifted at something other than making those droning, pitter-pat sounds. I would love to be stronger; I would love to be faster. I wish that when I played basketball, I had more than that one drop step in the paint I started doing when I was in the ninth grade. There are so many gifts I do not have. But the words that are given to me, when I am reading them or writing them, are a gift I cannot ever again take for granted.

When all the other strength is all gone, they are still stronger than you think they could be. They are stronger than the rest of me, and can get into places that the rest of me may not have the capacity to go. I think of the poet Mark O’Brien, after polio had taken the ability to use his hands or feet, writing “a love poem to no one in particular”:

Let me touch you with my words
For my hands lie limp as empty gloves
Let my words stroke your hair
Slide down your back and tickle your belly
Ignore my wishes and stubbornly refuse to carry out my quietest desires
Let my words enter your mind bearing torches

admit them willingly into your being
so they may caress you gently

“Let me touch you with my words…” I know perfectly well that the words are not everything — the making of them, the feeling of them, the sound of them. But they are something.

There are plenty of things that I know how to be sorry about. But this is not one of them: I am a writer.