good, happy words
Adam has a crush on a beautiful little girl—the fine-boned, blue-eyed daughter of one of my best friends.
They arrived at the beach on a Wednesday afternoon, and we stood on the front porch to receive them, wrapped in the thick heat and humidity of the island. The screen door snapped shut against the frame, and my friend and I embraced, our children spread around us like a web, sharing their own tentative greetings. Adam bent down to make eye contact with my dear, cherished friend’s daughter, lifting a hand to wave, his “Hi” and the soft, honeyed way he says her name coming easily. He lifted two hands, wiggling his fingers over her ears, which has long been Adam’s odd way of showing affection. And for him, the difference between one ear touched and two is like the difference between a side squeeze and a full embrace. He reached for her, this dainty, elegant friend, with both hands.
All weekend, when she came out on the porch to find her mom, Adam appeared at the glass doors, waiting to open them when she turned to go back inside. And all weekend I watched him position himself in front of this kind and patient little girl, bend to look in her eyes, and stumble over trying to talk to her. Yes, talk to her. In fact, on several occasions, I paused to help him, struck by his desperation. He clearly had so much to say, but he fought to find words.
“What do you want to say?” I asked him once, while my friend’s beautiful daughter stood patiently waiting, slightly uncomfortable but too sweet not to acknowledge Adam’s attention.
Searching for words, Adam leaned into her personal space, waving an excited arm frantically in the air beside them. Then he flashed me a single glance, mumbling, “beach” the only clear word I could make out. I guessed at his meaning. “Say, ‘Do you want to go to the beach?'” Adam looked at me again, all motion, as though he feared she’d slip away before he could work out what to say.
He leaned in once more, making sure he had her eyes, mumbling still, warming up. The first part came out quiet, garbled, but then, all clear, “Want to go to the beach?”
She nodded. “Yes.” And then she slipped away and Adam watched her go, his expression all joy. His desire for her companionship had not gone unspoken.
Sometimes, standing next to my son, trying to help him talk, I think about the rest of us, with our easy speech, all the ways we could use words to heal, and I wonder why we choose to leave things unsaid, why we surrender our building, strengthening, loving words to silence.
Running in the early morning, I’ve come to appreciate the difference between quiet and silence.
Warming up on my first hill, I listen beyond my rapid breaths, and I hear life so loud I can barely hear my watch beep. The quiet dawn of day, so pregnant with possibility and yet untarnished by our choices, rustles and chirps, flaps, each murmur and breath the tuning for a holy symphony. On the island, the cicadas’ buckled their bodies so loudly and in such numbers as to drown out the sounds of the few cars that passed. This morning, I counted seventeen deer, one rabbit, two squirrel, all out wetting their feet in the dewy grass.
I love to run at the break of day, not just for the cool, but for the quiet. The morning births day quietly, against the backdrop of a soft, crimson sunrise, before so many cars roll by too quickly, their wheels crunching asphalt, the light falling sharp on windshields and chrome.
Quiet is a breathing space, a patient place to savor.
But silence is another thing altogether. Silence is the absence of sound, breath caught and stopped, the cessation of life, the bewildering honesty of abandonment, the absence of all of life’s music, the end of expression in all of its creative forms. Silence is lack. It isn’t beautiful. It is the wounded, gaping awareness of loss, the shock of impending tragedy, the wilderness of doubt. And when it comes to speech, it is the choice not to use words at all, for any purpose.
In the dawn of my life with my autistic children, I learned to appreciate the difference between communication and talking, between quiet and silence. My children have been quiet, and I have grieved to hear them speak, but truly, they have never been silent. Oh, thank you Lord, that I have not yet grieved their silence.
And yet, we, with our easy speech, leave so many things unsaid.
Lately so many of our dear friends have suffered loss, family members ripped away from them, their voices falling silent, some over time, some in an instant. Oh, dear friends, we ache over your loss. We seek God’s balm for your grief.
And talking to God about these—about you, our friends–has continued a conversation started long ago about the difference between silence and quiet, about the choice to speak while we can. Job wished his friends silent (Job 13:5), but not because they spoke. He wished them silent because of what they said.
I don’t want to leave things unsaid. God doesn’t leave things unsaid—not the vital things, not the life-giving things, never the loving, merciful, grace-overflowing things. Slowly, He teaches. Oh Father, teach.
Every year, we joke about wave therapy, because it seems that words come more easily to Adam at the beach, as though sea breezes and the rhythmic crash of waves filters out some of the sensory chaos that imprisons him, allowing him to express himself apart from so much distraction. Without a doubt, Adam manages a lot more of the spontaneous, genuine communication we all love most during our weeks on the coast. Kevin and I force communication as part of life, but the things we make Adam say mean so much less because we obligated them. The things he says himself—without being asked—those are the words we treasure: when we walk in the room and he says “Hi” before we have a chance to wave, when Grandma presents him with his favorite breakfast and he says “Thank you, Grandma,” as she walks away. Whenever Adam chooses to speak, feeling motivates the words—love, gratitude, joy, sometimes even sadness.
And I think about the rest of us, with our easy speech, all the ways we could use words to heal, and I wonder why we feel things—beautiful, tender things—and we crush the impulse to speak about what we feel.
Last night, I sat patiently waiting, as Adam and I worked through his frustration and complaint over being asked to slow down so that we might understand the words he spoke in angry, hurried staccato. He jerked and spat the words impatiently, like machine gun fire. I made him sit next to me, where I could turn his face to mine.
“Adam. Stop. Good, happy words. Slow.” It’s taken me a long time, but I think I’ve finally learned that when anger and frustration have clouded Adam’s world, the fewer and more positive my words, the better.
He kept starting again, a whine rising in his throat, and I’d interrupt, repeating, my tone level.
“Adam. Stop. Good, happy words. Slow.”
Finally, in one of the moments after I turned his face toward mine, after his blue eyes caught and held my own, he said something different, something I’d said to him before, trying to communicate.
“I am sad because…”He started.
“Why are you sad?”
“No. Happy Adam is beautiful.”
Adam looked at me, wiping a tear from his chin, and I floundered, trying to figure out what he meant to say, snatching up the offered words, wondering how much of them he truly understood.
But whatever we’d said to each other, it must’ve been what he needed. “Ready?” He asked me.
“Are you ready?”
“Yes.” And he was. His words came out clearly, slowly, and minus the wail with it’s grasp around his throat.
So sometimes, struggling hard to connect with my son, I think about the rest of us, with our easy speech, all the ways we could use words to heal, and I wonder why we choose not to build bridges.
I asked God, some years ago, to teach me how to speak, just as I begged him to teach me to see, to hear, to walk, to touch, to love. Because I’m pretty sure that living in this world has maimed us all, and that being new means asking Him to wipe away all that went before. And He answered wildly, as He always does, reaching far past my expectations, setting aside all I thought I knew of words. He gifted me with two beautiful children who struggle to speak. And He uses them to teach me how to open my mouth only when I can let Him do the talking. It will take years of training, that surrender, but He who has begun a good work in me will most assuredly bring it to completion (Philippians 1:6). And He draws me next to Him, turning my face toward His. And slowly, I am learning.
I’m learning that the quiet is always improved by the utterance of all things true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, and praiseworthy (Philippians 4:8).
I’m learning that if kindness, grace, mercy, and love can be expressed in words, Love bids them pour out like a flood that rushes and pours over, covering a multitude of sin (1 Peter 4:8).
I’m learning that when someone hurts or when anger burns, the fewer and more positive my words, the better.
I’m learning that it takes time and hours of prayer to find the words to say difficult things.
I’m learning that busy-ness and distraction mute our best impulses to speak. So much sensory input all the time only locks us away from each other.
I’m learning that at every possible time, words should be used to build bridges. And no matter how wide the river, no matter how floundering the effort, crossing that chasm is always worth it.
I’m learning that I should care less about how other people will handle my vulnerability and more about having a pure heart. For out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks (Luke 6:45).
I’m learning that my genuine, spontaneous, love-moved words matter more than all the thousands I practice to say out of obligation.
I’m learning why a word, aptly spoken, is like apples of gold in settings of silver (Proverbs 25:11). Tender words fill empty, wandering places, but healing words left unsaid leave room for doubt and despair.
And so often these days, when I stumble and fall, and the words come out angry, hurtful, spat in staccato, hurled like weapons, I hear the echo of something so powerfully simple, something God whispers down deep.
Good, happy words.