As a 15-year-old exchange student in France, I arrived in Brittany jetlagged and ill. My French mom offered delicious smelling homemade cuisine. I didn’t want to be unappreciative or rude so I rubbed my belly and told them I was full, “je suis pleine.” Their faces and forks dropped. I had accidentally told my French family I was pregnant.
Had I known this colloquialism, I would, of course, have avoided it. It could’ve saved a lot of embarrassment not to mention suspicious sideways glances for the rest of my stay. Not speaking French well was much of my problem. And I improved my infant grasp of the language and my delivery—without delivering an infant. And although my translation skills weren’t the strongest, I had good intentions.
Words matter. We must choose them with care. In the era of think-before-you-press-send, a few simply selected words can either uplift or hurt people. Misunderstood conversations, text message mishaps, and email blunders happen even with the best of intentions. Many years back, a dear friend received a break-up email that had gone not only to “Mary” the intended recipient, but also was inadvertently sent to an entire office team distribution list.
Written or spoken, words shape our perception of who we are. As children, we remember what others expressed to us repeatedly—often taking their criticism or praise in as truth. I have boxes of letters written by childhood friends, lovers, mentors and grandparents. I treasure those letters as though they contain a fragment of the essential nature of the person who sent them. After my grandmother died, I took her letters and savored them—each one a solace for my grieving heart. My grandmother was a beloved kindergarten teacher, but had suffered from Alzheimer’s in the last decade of her life. She taught the first class with both black and white children in the state of Connecticut. Her notes captured the soul of who she really was before the devastating disease.
My dad and I were cleaning her tiny apartment to donate her clothes and few belongings to charity. While my dad gathered her coats from the closet, I went to her bedroom to her dresser. Instead of clothes, the drawers were stuffed with thousands of letters from students and their parents—some written twenty or thirty years after my grandma had taught them. All were appreciating my grandmother for loving them and encouraging them to live their best lives despite family trauma, discrimination, poverty and a host of hardships. Some included wedding invitations, baby announcements, and award recognitions to share with the woman who had believed in and paid attention to them when others had not.
Writers pay attention to the world and the sphere of words. When I write, I hope to entertain. And I’d love my stories to inspire laughter and tears. But mostly, my writing prayer is to uplift and expand myself and my readers. Through my narratives, I hope that no matter how dark our stories may be, that we can all see our light.
I give you my word.