Nasty Language


Last Sunday, about one hundred of us got comfortable on the floor of the Boston Public Library, because they are finally letting us move in and live there. Kidding. We were outside the downstairs lecture hall, already full ten minutes after opening, for the Writers Resist Event. Organized here by PEN New England, a diverse group of writers spoke up and shared Creative Work. We were all there to resist fear, intolerance, indifference to social/environmental justice, and anything else that felt important.

Talk about being creative in a brimming-over world. Young people read poems about other young people, injustice, and hope. Someone read poems by a political prisoner incarcerated for his views. Writers quoted others writers who gave them ground under their feet. One that stuck I will half-quote and half-paraphrase, with apologies to James Baldwin, because I want to share what I remember. He said that to Love means taking off our masks, the ones we don’t feel safe without, the ones we can’t live within. That was Love facing off against fear, no pun intended. Well, I did intend it. You know that.

And the friend I was with did it, there on the floor, in a moment of Creativity. She’s a writer and an environmental activist, and she mused and fused those two things together. We need another language, she suddenly said to me, to talk about what we’re doing. We always use the vocabulary of battle: the fight and struggle for the environment. There was a stillness and a vulnerability in her face as I leaned close to hear her. She said, as if seeing something in the glare of a bare bulb, we need new words. I asked if she meant words like love for the planet and care for one another.  She nodded, but we both think of words pretty easily, and nothing had been answered by that. But she took off her mask and willingly let go of familiar, empowering language, and she looked into that empty space where the work needs to be done. She was willing to unmask and look at it. An act of language and an act of love.

And last week I had a long talk over coffee with another friend, a painter, a person as gentle as grass and as resilient as stone. The whole question of What Do We Do Now came up, and he asked how we escape feeling inadequate in these days. My other friend had just showed me the power of showing her face, of being present. I guess we need to Practice adequacy as people and Artists: do the work in front of us to do. That work is probably going to be dire, difficult, and absolutely essential.

Not knowing What To Do signifies Attention, not inadequacy. As a teacher I love suggests, be steadfast, even when it doesn’t feel adequate. Show your face. Your Creative Work is one of your voices. Tomorrow many of us will be gathering, Marching, and speaking up. We have to Act in numbers, as One. But I find I believe in the small daily stuff a lot right now, whether Creativity or Kindness. We need to find the “languages” that let us, and help others, keep going.



8 thoughts on “Nasty Language

  1. This reminds me a bit of my favourite feminist theology book, God’s Fierce Whimsy, by the Mudflower Collective (Katie G. Cannon, first author alphabetically). In it they have a chapter about theoria and praxis, but that one does not do one, then go out and do the other, and then come back and refine, but to do them simultaneously. Theoria and Praxis done one and the same time, a dance of redemption. We need words for that.


  2. I enjoyed reading this, and found lots to start me thinking in the future. Similarly to these thoughts, perhaps, I have been thinking about how we each have separate private aspects and collective public aspects. What artifact becomes the most useful tool to express and idea, or to refute one? Mostly, the current political climate makes me wonder which things in my life would make a difference to someone not already agreeing with me. As you say in the essay, sometimes simply existing, as a representative, can be enough. But when referred to as the fight or the counter-argument, it already frames the interaction in terms of conflict. Is there other language? Science might help as a metaphor.

    How do we justify and peacefully ramp-up our resistance without overtones of conflict? Maybe it’s hard to do. Maybe the theoretical idea is that there is a pendulum of a certain weight, or more pleasantly, a child on a swing. The swing needs to be stopped, let’s say. The momentum is bringing the pendulum or child in the wrong direction. Science has all kinds of exacting language that refers to what is necessary, and never needs to resort to the intent of the factors involved. It might be sterile, but I wonder if everyone recently is a little prone to reacting more than they normally would.

    Maybe if we can get to some kind of neutral language that still doesn’t flinch from the forces involved, we can be happier while we do the work. I think any dissent and productive, action plan can be crafted to counter pretty much anything.

    Anyway, thanks for writing the essay.


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