In the Company of Words and Strangers

We all know far too well that aching disconnect between who we really are and what we project into the world. For many of us, we consciously choose to disappear -- to be "less than" because the fear of allowing ourselves to be completely "exposed."
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Words have always had the magic of alchemy in my life. They captivated me as a child sitting in a circle on the floor at our teacher's feet as we sat entranced by the ominous fear of a Brothers Grimm fairy tale. And later, while studying poetry in university, I was in awe of wordsmiths like Emily Dickinson and Tennyson who gave the raw emotion of human existence a vocabulary, where there was none before. It's not surprising that I went on to become an English teacher, where my bricks and mortar are the words and phrases that I immerse myself in every day.

This morning I stumbled upon the poetry of Marie Howe, and once again I'm humbled by the power of words on a page, and a writer's ability to bestow meaning to feelings that would otherwise remain forever trapped inside me. In a recent podcast interview, the poet Marie Howe was speaking of the power of words to reveal the human condition, and how the older she gets, the more of herself she unmasks through her writing. She later said, "to be able to move through your life transparently would be a relief."

We all know far too well that aching disconnect between who we really are and what we project into the world. For many of us, we consciously choose to disappear -- to be "less than" because the fear of allowing ourselves to be completely "exposed," and yet still "unseen" by those who matter most to us, is simply too painful to endure.

It's tragically ironic that I've chosen to spend my life in the "company of words," considering as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, I traveled through life for almost four decades with the most "defining" words buried deep inside me. It is no coincidence when people publicly disclose their abuse, that we say they have "found their voice." From my experience, the only way I can describe this process is to say that I needed to breathe life into a vocabulary where one had never existed before.

I have written candidly about the disclosure process and its jarring impact on my relationship with my wife because we both passionately believe that substantive healing takes place when you heal the entire relationship, not just one partner in the relationship. For many years, I thought of the trauma I experienced in my childhood as something that cleaved a huge hole in my heart -- something that would never be mended. Today, I see that "hole" as an entrance, an opportunity, for my wife to reach a part of me that lies beyond the boundaries that many relationships ever get the chance to traverse as a couple. At times, the experience leaves us raw and vulnerable, but I can honestly say that the experience has brought each of us to the other's complete attention. In the words of the poet Marie Howe, I am now "transparent" with the one person who means the world to me.

I've heard it said that a lasting relationship is "two imperfect people unwilling to give up on each other." I'm not sure how comfortable I am with the negativity of that statement and the fallacy that somewhere out there, the "perfect" person exists. But what I do believe is that love encompasses embracing "what someone is" and not focusing on "what someone is not." Like any long-term relationship, our 27-year marriage has bended and twisted through everything that life has brought to our door. It's shown me that no "hurt" is ever completely "healed" and that it's completely fine, and I would venture to say "healthy," to revisit discomfort from time to time. I like to use the metaphor of a bandage; you need to rip it off to let the air heal the wound for a while, but then you put another bandage on to protect the hurt until the next opportunity arises to let the air get at it. Many issues we are working on as a couple during this disclosure process are too painful to heal all at once, but we have faith in our ability to step through the healing journey together.

I've come full circle in that once again, I am witness to the power of words in my life. When we were married 27 years ago, neither of us ever expected we would be sitting facing each other, fully present, grasping for the vocabulary to explain what we are feeling inside. I'm reminded of the poem "The Meadow" by Marie Howe:


human, your plight, in waking, is to choose from the words

that even now sleep on your tongue, and to know that tangled

among them and terribly new is the sentence that could change your life.

Those words are the essence of the frustration I feel at my struggle to find a way to articulate what I've never been able to say, but they also give me hope that lying in the midst of that lexical chaos is "the sentence that could change [my] life."

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-656-HOPE for the National Sexual Assault Hotline.