I wrote this in Monday’s workshop, and it’s the beginning of something longer, I think, about how different words are “charged” differently for each of us… xo, Jen

Yesterday at the bookstore I asked the man behind the counter if they had any books by James Pennebaker.

“I don’t know who that is,” he said.

I waited for him to offer to look the name up, but he didn’t. He was quiet, and for a moment I thought that was going to be the end of the conversation.

Then he said, “What does he write about?”

And so I described how Pennebaker writes about the uses of writing to mitigate the aftereffects of trauma. And the young man behind the counter at this Berkely bookstore said, “Oh, well, I don’t know – but if we had anything like that it would be up in self-help popular psychology – you know, we hear the word ‘trauma’ and we just throw it up there.”

Ok. I’d just spent the last hour scanning all the titles in their relatively (at least by today’s bookstore standards) extensive linguistics, psychology and popular psychology sections, and found no books about the uses of writing as a healing or social change craft or practice or tool. But, here, look – I did find this old standby attitude about trauma: It’s not a terribly serious issue, not really, those whiners, put it there next to the What Color is Your Inner Elephant? and How Your Catbox Can Guide You To Enlightenment. I felt that old internalized shame, to be asking for a book about trauma – just one more white woman looking for the language to my loss? What’s this attitude about the struggle and strain for transformative experience?

I mourn the feeling that these words of my life are the loaded curse words: trauma, incest: not dyke or pornographer. Those latter words have no power over me, carry no tethers to my own shame and still these years later I cringe under the gaze of real academics, real literary pursuers, rel social change workers who aren’t so ‘bound by their past’ or who are able to just ‘let things go, move on.’ This is me, moving on, with these words, sanded against my face always, chapping my lips and cheeks, reminding me where I come from. This boy-man behind the counter worked it out on my bald face, his fear of this word, this one of the many loaded words we all carry, and how the word becomes a crematorium to connection or even meaning if we aren’t truly listening to each other.

Some words that are loaded for me to hear: incestuous, traumatized, raped—especially, I’ll tell you, when those words are not used to refer to people and their actions against the bodies of, or experiences at the hands of, other people, and instead used thus: the women’s community here is so incestuous, you know? Or, The people are just being raped by the banking execs, huh? These images don’t work for me.

A loaded word is one that is too heavy for metaphor.

The loaded words I use that are not triggering or difficult for me any more but might still score an anvil-dropping line across another’s ear are: lesbian, gay, dyke, queer, survivor, rebel, survivor, Black, white, fucking…; I say these words with impunity, I spend them freely, I have earned the right to let them fall off my lips in every day conversation, at the credit union or with my father. The folks I’m talking to are not always so similarly prepared, their ears not exercised or stretched out, their eardrums are tensed still, they are accustomed to these words being laden with anger. But in my world, these words are laden with fear – ok, sometimes, sure – but they are laden also with love.

These are the buckets of cold water we offer one another to drink. Sometimes, we have to say the difficult thing, just because we know there’s another someone nearby, maybe also waiting in that bank line, whose ears are parched from all the silences, from all the years of people not saying the words that are too heavy for some people to hold. True, sometimes those words are going to sound like that cold water just got thrown in our face, our eyes pop open wide and we get that shocked look, like we just woke up – hard.

We wake each other up.

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