Since this is my first post for Life As A Human, I was musing about that phrase… life as a human, hmmm….when I came across a passage in my recent reading that seemed particularly apt.
At the end of the Pulitzer-prize-winning book Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, which my book club just read, there is an epilogue written in the form of an imaginary conversation between the author and Olive Kitteridge, the feisty, opinionated protagonist of the book. When Elizabeth Strout is asked what readers may get out of the book, her answer is:
“I would hope that readers receive a larger understanding, or a different understanding, of what it means to be human, (italics mine) than they might have had before. We suffer from being quick to judge, quick to make excuses for ourselves and others, and I would like the reader to feel that we are all, more or less, in a similar state as we love and disappoint one another, and that we try, most of us, as best we can, and that to fail and succeed is what we do.”
The stories in Olive Kitteridge often focus on human frailty: middle-aged affairs, suicide attempts, the dreariness of aging, the ways love can go sideways, or how minor miscommunications can lead to dramatic results. Yet Strout’s astute observations of small moments in life, of human tragedies that affect most of us, and of feelings that we don’t often acknowledge (“They would never get over that night because they had said things that altered how they saw each other.”) made the book particularly touching to me.
This gets me thinking about the power of words, something I’ve recognized as a writer, but maybe not always fully appreciated as a human. I remember when the long marriage of good friends was breaking up and my wise mother said, “Sometimes when things are broken, they can’t be fixed and it’s better not to try.” I was surprised when she said that, a bit shocked in fact.
I guess the trick is to know when it is worth trying to mend our brokenness. When the beautiful stained glass window my husband Russ had made for the Quadra Island United Church was vandalized and badly damaged, Russ offered to repair it for free. Later, at the re-dedication service for the newly re-installed window, Russ was asked to say a few words. He talked about the break and the repair and said he believed the window was stronger now than ever, and that we humans can also become stronger after being broken. We’ll all inevitably face a time of brokenness in our lives, and that can sometimes lead us to discover a strength within ourselves that we may not have known existed.
I think that words — carefully chosen or carelessly tossed out — have a surprisingly powerful role to play in how we live and evaluate our lives. I disagree with the children’s nursery rhyme, Sticks and stones can break my bones/But words can never hurt me. Instead, I subscribe to school of thought that says, The pen (or keyboard?) is mightier than the sword. In fact, I’ve spent a good portion of my life choosing and being acutely aware of the search for just the right words. Isn’t that what sets us apart from other species and makes us fully human, after all?
So, as I reflect on what Life As A Human means to me, I’m realizing that if words — spoken or written — are the defining characteristic of our humanness, I’m sitting in the catbird seat. Instead of complaining about the frequently impoverished state of writers, I should be celebrating our vast riches … we are wordsmiths, using our tools to try to make sense of the human condition. And right here is a good place to do it.
“Olive Kitteridge” © 2010 Star Weiss. All rights reserved.
“Stained glass window in Quadra Island United Church” © 2010 Star Weiss. All rights reserved.