Finding the Words
Words lead to deeds…they prepare the soul,
make it ready, and move it to tenderness.
-Anton Chekov from Ward No. 6
It seems to me impossible, of all the crazy women in my family, that I am the first one mad enough to write or try to write. And when I asked myself why I write, as this essay does, what craziness led me from easier and better-paid ways of living, I remembered all the crazy women in my family. I can't remember when I first saw the pattern like a cave drawing mapping out my past, predicting my future, and linking me to a long line of dementia. At family gatherings, the older generation recalls melancholia, senility, and brain fevers; I translate their words to postpartum depression, Alzheimer's, or aphasia. In all of their illnesses the common theme is losing words. My family never locks them (our crazy mothers, sisters, and aunts) in attics or confines them to yellow wallpapered rooms; we live with their silent madness that is our maternal inheritance.
My madness is the hardest work and the only work I've ever loved: finding words. Writers, for their own crazy reasons, share this desire to find words. Some of my earliest memories are of stories, turns of phrases and word sounds in my head, but I came late to trying to put them into words. I lived on the outskirts of writing. I enjoyed those private images and dreamed of being a writer but had no idea how to translate the images into words. My first attempt to commit them to words was drudgery. Those shimmering moments of my memory and imagination became a mass of gibberish on the page. Images, which bring on an emotion or feeling, need words to transform them into stories. I had to wake from my fantastic dreams and will my subconscious to recall nightmares. I needed my inherited craziness to continue, so the drudgery could become the dream.
The dream of writing is easy. Writing is a cycle of frustration and excitement. Besides knowing what you really feel, finding the right words to express those feelings to a reader is still only part of the struggle. For it to work, the words must be built into human structures of sentences and paragraphs held together by punctuation. In the story “Guy de Maupassant,” Isaac Babel expresses this power when he writes, “No iron can pierce the heart with such force as a period put just at the right place.” A hint of dishonesty, even in punctuation, ruins the whole piece. Everything counts: one slip and your reader forgets your name.
After a second stroke, my mother forgot my name. That is, she knew it but couldn't find the word for it. Damage to the brain can cause aphasia-a loss of the ability to articulate ideas. My mother is a woman of words, from a cheerleader and class president to an outspoken union representative; she never seemed to me afraid to use her voice to raise hell. She speaks to everyone: babies, dogs, and strangers. I can't count how many times she left me hanging on shopping carts in cereal aisles as she shared stories with coworkers, friends, ex-neighbors, and ex-lovers. But who remembers words spoken in a grocery store aisle?
My mother's first stroke caused only minor aphasia, but the second time it was worse. She lost so many words that the doctors and I never imagined how many would come back. At first she thought she still knew how to speak, and waved me off with a brush of her hand through the air. But the brain is amazing, and in response to this trauma my mother's brain began a process of renewal and transformation. With help from rehabilitation, her brain transferred information through healthier circuits. Once she started rehab, she began to speak again with incredible speed. Most of the time now, she doesn't sound as if she has aphasia at all. She tells me that the words were always in her head, but they wouldn't come out of her mouth.
But there were so many other women in my family whose words are lost, and I began my secret scribbling as a child merely imitating my mother's elegant Palmer penmanship. I feel my dead ancestors looking back at me and imagine their words to describe my writing: crazy and useless. But I keep on looking for the right words to capture the sound and sense of images and emotions so that they stimulate the reader's mind. Finding the right word is more than searching through the OED. As Raymond Carver says in his essay “On Writing,” “if the words are in any way blurred the reader's eyes will slide right over them and nothing will be achieved.” Along with their eyes, I want the reader's ears. I enjoy words, like arbitrage and subterfuge, for their sounds, but sound needs sense. In poems like Sylvia Plath's “Daddy” or Edgar Allan Poe's “Annabel Lee” the sounds are so wonderful you can't stop yourself from chewing the words and spitting them out loud, but those sounds also hold meaning. In his essay, Carver goes on to say “we can write about commonplace things and objects using commonplace but precise language, and…endow those things-a chair, a window curtain, a fork…with immense, even startling power.”
A couple of years ago in a beginning poetry class, the professor gave us an exercise to write about an object. I tried to give my object, a fork, sound and sense. I'm not saying that this is “immense” or “startling” in its power but these are the words I found for my commonplace fork:
What can I say about a fork
you don't already know?
Define it as, “equipment with two
or more prongs for piercing,
raising, carrying, or utensils
for serving or eating.”
But this seems so stainless,
So, I go to the kitchen
and open the drawer
and I see none of mine
match as they did before.
Where'd you all come from?
You folks with no mates.
Vous, I remember Lavable en Machine.
Bonjour. You've been a long time away from Paris.
And you, “Stainless Japan” I forget who
forked you over on my wedding day.
You, foreigner! I can't place the face.
Ah! Ha! Stolen from the Danish on floor 34.
So many scratched, and one for the cat-
You're making me nervous as only a fork can do
When there are too many of you.
A poetry-class exercise on an object transformed a drawer full of forks into pieces of my past. In the beginning of the poem, I only find words for their function: piercing, raising, and carrying. I needed to go and open the drawer to see them separately, as individuals. When they are seen as scratched and used for the cat, the sentence breaks off and heightens the tension. In that silence there's the sensation of the drawer being slammed shut. But these are no longer commonplace forks; they contain experiences that have changed me.
My ancestors, crazy or not, had become to me as commonplace as a drawer of forks. My eyes slid over them, but you never know when the words will rise and carry the commonplace back to life to pierce your heart. A few years ago at a family gathering, I heard the story of my great-great grandmother Johanna's madness. Off a main highway, Johanna's descendants ate Sunday lunch at Wernsman's Restaurant and told how Johanna had outlived two husbands and three of her eight daughters. After stuffing ourselves with fried chicken, mashed potatoes, and soft-serve ice cream from the buffet, Johanna's granddaughters tried to remember the stories of Johanna's madness. Only the oldest of them remembered when Johanna came to live at their mother's house. Under dim lights dangling from a high beamed ceiling, we passed around a photograph of Johanna's strong, angular face with the narrow eyes of a woman who'd lived too long.
When Johanna came to live with my great-grandmother, she'd lasted longer than her money and her mind. She'd become terrified of being lost and followed her daughter everywhere: to the stove, upstairs, down to the cellar, to the backyard to hang laundry. It was there among the billowing cleanliness of fresh sheets, that Johanna set herself free. In a childish game, Johanna hid from her daughter between the sheets. Among their whiteness, she moved softly and stealthily over the ground, not unbalanced as she was in her daughter's house. The fresh smell must have made Johanna feel young and clean even though she refused to bathe herself for months at a time.
Her daughters knew that she'd gone completely mad.
The young Johanna, knowing she'd never return to Switzerland, came to Illinois through Louisiana, up the Mississippi River, and across the Illinois River to central Illinois. She never spoke English and spent most her life on a farm outside of town. The plains of Illinois must have been vast and lonely to Johanna. As she neared death, her grandchildren, who no longer spoke her language, were forbidden to join her play between the clean sheets. But they watched Johanna drifting in and out of the whiteness. Until one night, silently, between freshly laundered sheets, Johanna slipped into death, leaving this world without a word.
Johanna died years before I was born, but I imagine her wandering through white sheets. My first home was the plains of Illinois, and I felt art in that lonely vastness surrounding me. I remember running through my mother's freshly laundered sheets and between their folds, I felt free. There are stories and poems still without words between those faded sheets, feelings and emotions that make you feel as giddy as spring's first green. There's the day when the first snowflakes fall on your face. A hot day to lie under the shade of an old tree or a crisp autumn day to kick leaves from a newly raked pile. And there's the day when one season ends and the next one must begin.
Now I spend my time searching for words others no longer have at a white desk in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Before I could read or write, I waited for these words at a window on the landing of my childhood home. Outside that window, my view ended where the sky met the ground. On cold days I sat in the warm sunshine streaming through the glass and pressed my fingers against it. Steam spread out around my fingertips, and as I remember it now, I know that between my fingertips and that horizon are their words.
Today my window looks out on a roof, a few trees, and a small piece of sky. In an elm tree, black birds squawk in unison. There's no vastness outside this window. The huge birds seem too big for the confining sky. The vastness is inside the words I put on this white sheet of paper in front of me. I can't remember the last time I saw the horizon. A black bird flies by low.
Their lost words haunt me.