I suppose it should be comforting that it was a small group of friends much younger than I who shared their common insight.
“Words are hard,” they had all agreed, laughing, as one of them couldn’t find the word she was searching for as they congregated for breakfast after a morning walk.
When they told me this story a little later, standing in front of my table at the Lexington Farmers Market where I had three books displayed that co-opted tens of thousands of those sometimes intractable words, I smiled knowingly and looked at my friends a little closer.
One is a visual artist and professor. Although words are not her preferred medium of expression, I am certain she is articulate and profound during classroom discussions about creating and interpreting art. One is an engineer with a natural talent for managing people, who solves complex problems and coaxes her colleagues in the direction she needs them to go. One is a teacher who compassionately interacts with teenagers from widely diverse cultures, students whose first language is rarely English.
In their professions, words are their currency. All are expert communicators. They are quite comfortable expressing themselves. I imagine they rarely think about how fluidly the words come…until a cantankerous one goes missing.
These days, I seem to have a particular problem recalling proper nouns: names and places, titles and characters, famous people and family members and longtime acquaintances. Shortly after my conversation with these three remarkable women, a former boss of mine—someone I reported to for four years—stopped by my table and chatted for several minutes. A week later I finally remembered her first name. I still haven’t come up with her last.
(If you detect this happening when you next encounter me, please don’t think that means I don’t cherish our relationship. It just seems that my brain has made room for the mountains of new trivia necessary to navigate the modern world by archiving information I would choose to keep close at hand. Too bad my rather headstrong cognitive processes don’t consult me before making these sometimes critical decisions. On the other hand, as I glance around my cluttered office, perhaps that’s for the best.)
I also recognize that words’ elusiveness is part of their charm. Ask any writer. Words can indeed be hard. Hard to come by. Hard to conjure. Hard to differentiate. Hard to define. Hard to know. Hard to let go. Hard to lasso for a specific need. If words were easy, we wouldn’t take so much pleasure in wrestling them into cohesive, lyrical patterns.
Words can also be hard to hear, if we’re not inclined toward the truth, or if we’re feeling unusually burdened. And they can simply be hard, if their intent is to bruise.
Sometimes I seem to have too many words. I can’t get to my computer or to a pad of paper fast enough to capture my thoughts. In those instances, I’m typically just letting off steam about some issue that has me riled up. Or perhaps I’m sorting through an emotion that blindsided me. Occasionally I feel I’ve distilled some human experience in a way that may be worth sharing.
Sometimes I say too much when I should have kept my mouth shut. Knowing when to use your words can be hard, too.
Those of us who love words, who ache for more time to immerse ourselves in the carefully chosen words of others, who can disappear into a world fabricated by a word artist—we’re the lucky ones. Words are our friends. We’ll put up with a little petulance now and then, even as we sense their smirks as they refuse to come out of hiding.