Snap. Snap. Snap. As a small child I practiced over and over again. Insistent. Determined. Until, with the passing of years, the passing of my second finger down the side of my small thumb converted itself from silence to thunderclaps. With each unexpected eruption of noise I sent out a tiny warning signal to the world that within the heart of this small child there rumbled a revolution.
Snaps. I worked hard on them. I knew that I would need them someday.
Now when I snap, I can command your attention across a crowded room. Yet, I choose to use that power not for commanding respect but for giving respect, so that I might give the poets their honor due. My snaps do not stand out, they meld into a wave of sliding fingers, crashing on the shore of inspiration, then receding into silent and expectant attentiveness.
Night after night, I listen for those voices that can change the world. I listen for the sound of truth, for the sound of justice, for the sound of change. I listen for the rumbling of the verbal revolution that matches the rumbling in my heart.
I know when I have heard a voice that must be heard at The Shout.
Sometimes when you speak, I fold ever so slightly as if a punch has tightened my gut. As if a string extending from a spot just below my chin all the way down to my belly button has been snapped taut. Tightened. Strummed.
Sometimes when you speak, it feels as if someone has reached right through me to grab my spine and set it straight, heightening my posture, commanding me to own the space where I stand.
Sometimes when you speak, your words shoot right through me, piercing me with their familiarity, making me wonder if words so long a source of betrayal can be redeemed. You drop allusions to words that promised us freedom and left us beaten, and leave me wondering, ‘can these dry bones live.’ You drop allusions to a national pledge recited long before there was or is “liberty and justice for all.” You drop allusions to the very words that condemned my calling for two of the three decades I have taken up space on this earth; whispering “the woman shall not speak” in our ears until we cannot help but shout!
Oh reckless poets, doing verbal battle with the very issues that silence the voices of your peers. I hear you trying. I hear you succeeding. I hear you boxing and wrestling for the win. And when you win, we win with you.
My eyes wander around the room, asking silently in the midst of your unsilenced voice, to those surrounding me, “Can you feel this without being moved? Without moving? Without acting? Without demanding action?”
You make me want to pick up a pen and write notes in the margins of my books, like my momma did in church when I was a child; inserting written words among printed words to preserve the power and to fight ever forgetting your spoken words.
You make me want to stand up and sway like I did at my first concert.
You make me want to dance in the aisle like they do at that funkadelic Sunday worship party we call church.
You make me want to change everything around me – until the things I see match the the words you speak.
You make me believe change is possible. For why else would your words hold such power if we were not able to make those words flesh.
I believe in the power of what you do. I believe that together, the poets and the dreamers and the activists and the thinkers, might just change the world. Because they understand something that not everybody understands: we have no other choice. Words must be spoken. Actions must be done. Community must be built. Change cannot be stopped.
This is why, as a small child, I worked so hard to learn to snap. I must have known someday I would find the voices that would match the rumble in my heart.
“Pato. Duck.” She taught me, as I repeated it to her delight and we fell giggling against each other on the deacon’s bench in my mother’s living room. It was my first and my favorite Spanish lesson. We were five years old, and we were the very best of friends. To my little literary mind she was the Diana to my Anne of Green Gables, the Jane to my Elizabeth Elliot, and the David to my Jonathan. When she moved away, she would leave an imprint on my heart of such devoted love that it would take a good decade before anyone could come close to the legend of Nina in my mind.
Over time I would pick up other words and phrases here and there. “Pato,” which humorously held such power over me throughout my childhood, would be replaced by words whose power was rooted in meaning rather than memories. Phrases like “La vida es la lucha,” whose force would hit me like a bucket of cold water to the face when those palabras opened to me the powerful truth that life is not about escaping struggle but engaging it. Phrases like “Vaya con Dios,” that millions have heard from the lips of priests with varying internal responses.
“Vaya con Dios,” indeed. “Vaya con Dios,” the words I had worn on a ring given to me by a couple at the first church I pastored. “Vaya con Dios!” the last words from my brother-in-law Jorge as I boarded a plane to Guatemala this morning to continue the journey that the word “pato” began. “Vaya con Dios…” the words that I fervently prayed I had the courage to live out as I left behind family and friends for more than a month to journey alone. “Vaya con Dios.”
I have been collecting beautiful Spanish phrases my whole life long. The problem is that like many collections of beautiful things, they become somewhat ironic when not put to their intended use. Like the collector acquiring, as time goes on, more and more beautiful specimens of stamps or cars or stones, I have transitioned my collection from words about farm animals to words about God. I have treasured the words, and admired the words.
But words are not meant to be curated, words are meant to be spoken. I don’t want to polish them and preserve them like artifacts. Unlike stamps and books and baseball cards, words don’t become less valuable with wear; they become more beautiful and powerful when they are used well.
I do not know how to use my words, to speak all the beautiful specimens and sentiments in my head, but I will learn.
I am weary of the privilege of my language, the language of the modern empire, that expects all the world to learn it and speak it, while we do not learn the heart languages of others.
One would think that the more languages a tongue bears, the heavier it becomes, but the reverse is true. The more words one puts to use the lighter the tongue flies, converting each syllable from collector’s curios to communal energy.
At this moment, as I fly on a plane over borders and lines, I once again traverse the man-made boundaries and walls that mar and divide the face of God’s one creation. I once again do so with the full knowledge that whatever struggles and obstacles lie ahead of me, the risk that I am taking to cross this border is minimal and the hospitality that I will find on the other side is almost guaranteed. As I cross this border with only the belongings that I can carry on my back, I do so with the full knowledge that there are others doing likewise – crossing in the opposite direction at the risk of their lives to reach Los Estados Unidas.
I risk very little to be a citizen of God’s world; I risk very little to say “the world is my parish”; I risk very little because I carry national privilege between a folded piece of blue cardboard in my backpack. This month, as we watch the lines being painfully redrawn in Crimea, I recognize that I too come from a country that has historically taken up the sword and the pen to draw lines on the face of the earth that others must obey. And while I may claim the identity of the Irish, a people that “have never been free,” I still benefit from the actions past and present of my nation, as it stumbles forward on the world stage, attempting to balance ethics and profit and all too often lurching into the latter at the expense of the former.
I risk very little as I enter this country tonight with nervous excitement, to experience and enjoy and learn, with the full knowledge that people are dying on their way into my country while hoping for the same things.
I do not have all the answers, but I know that I sure as heck need to be able to say more to them than “pato” when they reach my side of these man-made borders. If I want to live in a world that uses words to heal rather than to harm, than I have got to broaden my vocabulary. I have got to take my words off of the collector’s shelf and have the courage to use them, not only in the cause of compassion, but also in the cause of justice; not only in the cause of hospitality, but also in the cause of solidarity; not only in the cause of teaching, but also in the cause of learning; not only in the cause of giving, but also in the cause of receiving.
Thankfully, I carried with me more than one sheaf of papers fixed between folded cardboard. In addition to the small blue folder with United States of America stamped on the front, I carried a small bundle of paper and words and heart and truth fixed between a folded piece of simple brown paper. As I turned the pages in seat 26B my heart fell and then soared as I made my way through UP NEXT: The Epistemic Power of Spoken Word Poetry. In this small volume by Erica Granados De La Rosa, “hot off the presses” as it were, there was contained the story of the Spoken Word, the power of the Spoken Word.
As Granados De La Rosa shared in Chapter IV, “Spoken Word as Spiritual [Art]ivism,” about her own journey from the oppositional perspective to the non-oppositional spiritual activist perspective, I had one more of those flashbulb moments in life when something changes inside. My breath caught in my throat as she wrote of the oppositional perspective, painful memories flooding in and choking me; memories of feeling pushed away and trapped on the other side of the oppositional border by how I was born. But then my eyes widened as her words tore that wall down, and freedom flooded in as she wrote of discovering the nuances and complicated identities that each of us possess and carry and can share through the Spoken Word.
I sat blinking, as someone who had found what they were seeking at a moment when they were not looking for it. Healing. Freedom. Courage. Inspiration. That is the power of Words.
The written word – my first love – and the Spoken Word are the most powerful tools at our disposal for creating the world of peace and justice that God desires. Words are what we are; when accompanied by action, they are how we show who we are.
All of this brilliant, beautiful world was cast into view when God emitted the Spoken Word, “Let there be light!” And as we lived and breathed and spoke in this beautiful word, God could not resist becoming a part of the conversation. So the Word become flesh, and walked amongst us, and spoke amongst us, and listened amongst us. Just as the poet at the open mic, the Word made flesh chose to become weak and vulnerable and honest for us, so that we might know truth and love and justice. The Word made flesh was the most powerful thing our world has known. The Word said to a woman, “Go and tell!” – and those of us with the courage to obey have not shut up since, though it has meant torture or death for many who came before us.
The Word is not meant to be curated, the Word is meant to be spoken.
They say that you will know that you understand a language when you know when laughter is the right response and when tears are the right response. I am not here in Guatemala to add more beautiful Spanish word specimens to my collection. I am here to learn when to laugh and when to cry – and when to snap – so that I can do both when the Word is Spoken.
On a warm day twenty six years ago, a little tow headed girl laughed herself silly on the hard wood of an old bench, next to the best friend she felt sure she would ever know. If I could experience such deep love through the word “pato” used so very well, how can I not long to use words like Dios y lucha y vida to share that love with others.
The Word is meant to be Spoken.
"There's a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in." (Leonard Cohen)