Friday, September 2, 2011


Let's talk for a minute about words. I don't want to get all 'meta', and I'm not about to describe my 'process' for writing, so don't panic. What I want to talk about is what we say to each other, and what we say about each other.

The Buddha speaks of the Noble Eight Fold Path. The third path is Right SPeech:

" 1. to abstain from false speech, especially not to tell deliberate lies and not to speak deceitfully, 2. to abstain from slanderous speech and not to use words maliciously against others, 3. to abstain from harsh words that offend or hurt others, and 4. to abstain from idle chatter that lacks purpose or depth."
(from, with thanks.)

Now, my family will swear to you that I will never master number 4. They may have a point, as, given enough caffeine, I can rhapsodize about the quality of writing in a specific episode of any given Joss Whedon show until even the most die hard fan gets glazey-eyed. Or about the wonders of my childrens eating habits. Or the insanity of the current state of US Politics. I am a *master* chatterer.

But as my teen enters his own "chatter' years, and I become more aware of the glazey-eyed look creeping over my own face when he goes on for what feels like hours about the intricacies of his battle games.. It is teaching me, slowly, to censor myself. Or at least pick my audience better.

Writing, too, has helped me, if not master, than at least acknowledge this 4th rule. When I write, I am trying to convey something, and so the words I choose become tools. I edit, and shorten, and cut, and use the thesaurus, in an effort to keep my readers on track. To get my point across.

So maybe there's hope for me and the 4th rule, yet.

The 1st rule is pretty simple, on the surface. "Don't make shit up." Most people learn not to out and out lie when they're young: they do it and they get caught at it, because children are terrible liars.

A giant dinosaur came through the window and broke the lamp, huh? Go to your room, kid.

You learn when you're young, too, that it's ok to lie sometimes. "I don't know what Daddy got you for Christmas, Mommy!" (You helped him pick out a bathrobe.) "Oh, my gosh, Sally, I LOVE your new hair." (you think it's terrible, but never admit it to her or anyone else.)

I, personally, had a problem with a subset of this rule: exaggeration and tall tales. I'm a writer. I make up stories. I use words to make up stories. I love an audience. When I was younger, and especially when I lived where nobody knew my background, I could and did spin tales. Every action was bigger, more elaborate, more glorious, and everyone I knew was more important. I name dropped like a hipster.

And that backfired. Because, eventually, you go home. Where everyone knows you, and no one cares. Years of building a reputation, down the drain in 1900 miles. C'est la vie.

I still exaggerate though, and I doubt I'll ever stop spinning tales. I'm just more careful, now. Or maybe more careless? I only exaggerate to my own detriment and for the sake of humor. And when I'm asked, at a bonfire or cafe, to relate a story I once told, and I can't remember the version I'm supposed to give? I've got no problem turning to my husband, or my best friend and saying "Right! The time I had tea with the governor dressed like a Hampton Beach hooker. How's that go again?" Because anyone who knows me knows I like to tell tall tales, and anyone who doesn't know me is welcome to the information.

(for the record: I really did have tea with the governor of NH while dressed as a Hampton Beach hooker. And I really did get him to say "I'm just waiting for the flying monkeys." It's a long story.)

So there's rules 1 and 4. If you've survived your teens and 20s with your sanity and soul intact, you've likely broken these rules, gotten slapped around a bit, and now understand them pretty well.

How about #3?

"3. to abstain from harsh words that offend or hurt others,"

Well that's easy, right? Don't be mean.
"you're fat." and "Your family is poor." and "You're dumb." and "I hate you." are all pretty easy things not to say.
How about this one, then. This happened the other night, here in my house.

I was sick, Tris was *beyond* stressed out, and we both were working on day five of bad sleep. I asked him to do something, I don't remember what. His reply was gutteral, loud, and sincerely disrespectful. And I replied along the lines of

" Look, you spoiled rotten self centered little brat, I've worked my ass off today, Josh has worked his ass off today, and we're both exhausted. How about you stop thinking about yourself for two freakin seconds, and do what I asked you to do without mouthing off?"

Was that harsh? Yep. Did I mean it? Yep. Did Tris deserve it? A bit. Should I have said it?


Because I'm the grown up. He's not. I'm old enough and experienced enough to know when I'm too tired, too sick, too stressed to speak rightly. He's not. It's my job to teach him. To act. I failed, that time. I resorted to name calling. Which proves that I'm human.

I apologized later, and said: "I'm really, really sorry I called you names. I shouldn't have done that, and it wasn't ok. You're not any of the thing that I said, not really. But in that moment, that is how you were acting, and so that's how I reacted. Please forgive me for being human for a minute."

He did forgive me.

Then I said: "Thank you. Now, the way you spoke to me does not excuse the way that I spoke to you, because I'm the grown up and your mom and should do better than I did. BUT. The way you spoke to me was disrespectful and hurt me a lot, and you need to apologize to me and try to do better in the future. "

He apologized. And he did better. And I'm absolutely positive that we're going to have this conversation again in the next few years. Because we're human. Because rule #3? Not speaking harshly? That's a life long lesson, for all of us. That's overcoming every time your parent, sibling, relative, teacher, friend, acquaintance, and store clerk had a bad day and took it out on you. That's realizing that you are human, and that your basic monkey hind brain wants to pass shit down the pecking order. And that you're not always going to be able to stop it.

This story is a good example of a corollary to Rule #3, as well. It's the other side of talking. the other side of using words. It's choosing which words you hear.

When Tris mouthed off, I could have said "It's unacceptable for you to speak to me that way. Please apologize." or "I don't think you realize how much that hurt me." or any of a dozen other things. But I didn't. I listened to his words, which he really didn't mean, and I responded in kind, with words I didn't really mean.

So the corollary to rule #3? Consider the source.

Who's saying it? Why? What history do they have? What state are they in? And then respond with honor and dignity. Don't feed in to the self created worlds of people who have not mastered rules 1, 4 and 3. Listen as well as you speak.

Listen. As. Well. As. You. Speak.

Tomorrow? Rule #2. Gossip is bad.