The gift of words

Things, possessions, life on the installment plan. This is the season to buy, to accumulate more folderols, to give things to one’s children and each other, which, we like to believe, will bring joy. It’s make-believe, of course, an adult lie conjured up out of guilt and fear that our lives, the stories we live and the stories we dream, are insufficiently meaningful to bring our children and ourselves the joy we say we seek.

Driven by a pure sense of guilt devoid of any sense of redemption in a capitalist culture, we buy and buy, accumulate and accumulate, in the vain hope that such tangible “gifts” will bring a magic that we can possess. Our exchange of gifts is a consumer culture’s parody of the true meaning of a gift: that gifts are given to be given away, to be passed around, like the peace pipe of native American Indian tribes. But we like to own, to stop the flow. As a result, we have become stuck, selfie people who can’t understand that to possess is to be possessed.

Describing art as a way of life, or walking life’s way as an art, the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke put it thus: “Not any self-control or self-limitation for the sake of specific ends, but rather a carefree letting go of oneself; not caution, but rather a wise blindness; not working to acquire silent, slowly increasing possessions, but rather a continuous squandering of all perishable values.”

Gifts must be passed on.

The truth is we are sustained by stories—oral, written, existential—not by things, as a commercial civilization would have us believe. From infancy to old age, we crave stories that will allow us to make sense of our lives, to give them shape and significance. And the greatest gifts we can give each other are stories that draw on the mystery and sacredness of existence, stories that express and clarify our lives. Wordsworth so well put it when he said that “getting and spending we lay waste our powers.” And the consumer gift stories we indirectly tell our children by participating in the madness of holiday shopping are tales unfit for young ears.

To live to buy is to tell them lies.

Our children (and all of us) wish not things but stories that will help them face life with enthusiasm and courage. When I was a young boy, my father would ease me to sleep with “Jiminy Cricket Stories,” imaginary improvisations on Pinocchio and his conscience. I can’t remember any of those stories today, but what stays with me is their underlying theme, their spirit: to become a real boy, a genuine person, one must determine to tell the truth.

It was a hard but vital lesson for a father to pass on to a son, but he did it in such an entertaining way that I took the lesson to heart. Ever since, in gratitude and wonder, I have been trying to make my story adhere to that spirit of truth. Trying; for as we all know, truth is a hard taskmaster.

When I became a father myself, I tried to pass on to my children a love for stories and the words we use to explain our lives. Without words, and the ability to use them meaningfully, we are lost in the world of things, a place where consuming replaces creating. So from infancy onward, I and my wife would read to them, and eventually I began to tell them imaginary stories of my own, “Willy Daly Stories,” inspired by a boyhood pal. They would hang onto each word, and swing into depths of reverie as I strung them together into tall tales. “At the bottom of each word/I’m a spectator at my birth,” wrote the French poet Alain Bosquet. Entering into the creative spirit, Susanne and Daniel would ask me. “Is that really true?” And I could not lie and say no. So they would laugh and we would go on.

Like all children, they loved these stories, the ones I told and the ones I read. They entered into them and they, into them; their inner worlds germinated. When they were very young, each started to read, not haltingly but fluently and with amazing comprehension. “Out of the blue” something clicked (and neither was “taught” to read, but was read and talked to by my wife and me as though they comprehended everything, even the most abstruse words), and from that day on the words that they previously heard became theirs. They received the gift.

“The bright book of life,” as D.H.Lawrence called the novel, opened to them. Novel: New. New life forever arising out of the old. Miraculously (is there any other word for it?), they were in possession of the gift of words that they then could pass on; had the power to hear and tell their own stories, to understand their lives, not as the pursuit of things, but as the pursuit of meaning. They felt proud and I felt blessed.

“Art tells the truth,” wrote Chekhov. Indeed. And the wheel of life turns. The gift of stories is passed on. People pass on, but so do stories. The wordsmith Leonard Cohen just died, and he sang in his song, “Famous Blue Raincoat,” that “I hope you are keeping some sort of record.” The words stick on the page, but the beautiful melody carries them into our present and into the future and we imagine stories carrying us on as the music and the words don’t stop and we keep humming and imagining as we move along to that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent, to paraphrase Victor Hugo.

My daughter: Susanne. Leonard Cohen’s Suzanne: “There are children in the morning/they are leaning out for love/and they will lean that way forever/while Suzanne holds the mirror.”

My son: Daniel. Like brave Pinocchio being swallowed by Monstro, and Daniel in the Lion’s den, the stories of courage and derring-do, told indirectly. Daniel Berrigan, my mentor.

Names contain multitudes, tales never told, stories traveling on.

The gifts must be given away.

I recently saw a book for sale at my local library—From my Father, Singing by David Bosworth—a beautiful book, a true work of art. I read it once at the suggestion of my storyteller father, and have just reread it. I am grateful to Bosworth for his gift and to my father for passing on the word. It is a tale in the form of a letter from a father to a son, a father in search of the meaning of his own father’s life, that elusive gift that can only be found in a story, in the telling.

The letter writer, our author, is in flight from a life lived “according to script,” a wife in love with money, shopping, and things, his dead-end job—“the place where I pretended to earn our living”—a life of pretense and lies, a living death in which all efforts were made to deny its meaninglessness: “to have fun, to keep busy, to buy something, to face the bleak descent of Sunday evening by preparing already for the following weekend.”

In order to explain himself to his son, a young infant, he explores his own childhood, the life he lived caught between his parents’ conflicting worlds. In the end, by fashioning this letter, by putting word behind word behind word, he comes to understand and appreciate his father and consequently himself; composes a letter to his son (who cannot yet read but whom we know will) “intended as a gift, a living legacy in words.”

Yes, art tells the truth.

Pass on the word, the true gift.

Edward Curtin is a sociologist and writer who teaches at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts and has published widely.

2 Responses to The gift of words

  1. Emanuel E Garcia

    A wonderful article by Professor Curtin, inspiring us all to keep the ‘word’, to use the word to bring ourselves together in poetry, drama, intimacy!

  2. Splendid! Wise and true! If only the New York Times would begin to publish work like this, I would begin to believe in their credibility again. Here, Curtin brings us “real news,” not the “fake news” we get in too much of the mainstream media. What is the meaning of life? Can we get beyond the gewgaws and baubles, get to the essentials? This is especially relevant at this time of year–which used to be a time of reflection and reverence but has degenerated (like so much of our culture) into a time of distractions and indulgence. I hope the good professor will think about writing books for children, too! He has much to share and knows how to give “the gift of language.”