My friend Joan and some Catholic friends were praying for a priest friend, Father John, who was making a trip to the Holy City. “It’s such a volatile part of the world,” Joan said. “I don’t know why he would go to Jerusalem now.”
Eventually Father John returned to the parish safe and sound. When the women told him about their prayers, he responded with a hearty laugh – the Holy City was New York!
I’m with him on that. I’m preparing for my own trip to New York next week, and of course I’m excited. Friends have been asking me about the trip (a Broadway play, a ballet, two art exhibits, and more). Often their parting words are “Be safe!” It’s a mantra that’s supposed to reassure me, but instead my brain starts to conjure up the opposite of safe – images of a mugger, gunman, or plane crash.
Blame language. So often we fashion a string of words to convey a particular message – only to discover that a shadow message has joined it.
You tell a friend how attractive she looks today, and she worries about what she looks like the rest of the time, or – worse – reports you for sexual harassment. You tell a child that there’s nothing to be scared of at the amusement park – and she panics and has to be taken home. You warn a teenager about the enticements of street drugs – and hear yourself listing all the reasons for experimenting with them.
I had a life-changing moment in graduate school when I heard my mentor, Richard F. Dietrich, make an offhand remark about Bernard Shaw: “I think of Shaw as a writer struggling with language.”
I was bewildered. In my mind, world-class authors didn’t struggle with language: That was a problem for college freshmen. That remark set me on a quest to figure out what this “struggle” might be. Slowly I began to see that Shaw indeed was a man struggling with language – and that he came out on the losing side of more than one battle.
We all do.
I’m planning some posts about the potholes and roadblocks that we’re likely to stumble over as we tackle a writing task.
But there’s no time for that right now because I need to pack a suitcase. I’ll be returning to this topic in future posts.