“If you are not learning, you have not been paying attention. / If you have nothing to say, it is because your heart is closed.”
I am leaning against the kitchen counter as Mom pours an afternoon pot of coffee, me gushing about the latest author I’ve been reading. We spend many days this way, and the best part of my coming home for the summer is having access to far more bookshelves than I can fit in a dorm room, stealing what Mom’s been reading, her listening to the essays and poetry I’ve been cramming into my mind in my freetime, on my lunch break, before I go to sleep. I’ve just finished an essay by Wendell Berry—one work out of hundreds of essays and poems and novels.
“Can you imagine having written that much in your lifetime?” I ask her. She pauses while she pours in her hazelnut creamer, quietly adding: “Or having that much to say.”
That notion has struck me and stuck to me closer than anything else, because if I am to contribute anything to this world, I would want it to be a voice. But it’s more than that. I want some way to scorch the world with meaning and purpose and beauty and whatever else actually matters. Or maybe I just want a name for myself—something that achieves the concept of legacy we all inwardly struggle for. Either way, it’s days like these recent ones that have made me feel more silent, more powerless than ever.
Because in a culture where you’re expected to prove your opinions, experiences, morals, and political agenda through tweets and statuses, remaining silent isn’t even an option. But the irony, or course, is that though everyone has nearly unlimited opportunity to speak publically and influentially, fewer and fewer people actually have anything of substance to say. And when media controls the story and dictates what people perceive as truth, and when the media is controlled by the people who yell the loudest, all you’re left with is noise. This doesn’t make people any less determined to add to it.
Zora Neale Hurston asks “What do you hang on the walls of you mind?” And so I wrack the corners of mine, scraping through the cobwebs and dust, searching for the things I know to be true. Looking for what only I can say, wondering if my mind could ever be full enough to fill the pages of books with words people need to hear. Not words they will buy, not even words that will get me published, but words that will stir and churn up the surface of lives.
But I’d be foolish to assume that I have within me some entirely original thought that had never been thought or expressed before. And that’s part of the reason for the stack of books I cycle through on my bedside table, as I keep hoping to learn and soak in the methods of these people who all had something built up inside them, needing to emerge. I pray that by reading and memorizing and imitating the sentences that have survived the oblivions of the world, the words that have kept on breathing, I’ll be able to communicate the truths that are bigger than what I can carry. The truths that aren’t exclusively or uniquely mine, but real.
I spend quite a few of my lunch breaks in my town’s library, running my fingers along the spines of books pinched back to back on the rows of metal shelves. Books on every topic, attempting to answer every question imaginable. I’ve had trouble trying to write lately. I think it’s my idealist nature still questioning whether the things I think are the things I need to say. And every time I walk through these aisles breathing in old paper, a part of me doubts that I really have anything to possibly add. I try to remember how stories matter. How there are things that are worth being said over and over again.
To speak about meaningful things, I am pursuing the ability to think meaningfully—that uncomfortable process that most have no real interest in. It means wrestling with myself, with my views of the world, comparing them with those wiser than I, treading water exhausted when I can find no answers and no explanation to cling to. And only the most broken and hurting parts of the world can topple us into that kind of questioning. But the broken and hurting parts are also the ones that mean the most. Look for the parts that grieve us and tangle us and cause us to double over in sorrow, and you will find the truths that make us human. You will find the treads that connect us to every other soul.
Not everyone wants to hear those stories, those truths. But that doesn’t mean they don’t need to be said.