* Featured Image: “Thrive” by Anita Driessen
I learn that people love having words stolen out of their mouths and fed back to them. I become the world’s most benevolent thief.
The first time somebody forces me to translate thoughts to language, it’s twenty-four hours before the first of day of kindergarten.
The only person who cares about this phenomenon at all is my mother. She writes down twenty-six foreign symbols on a scrap piece of notebook paper, steers my head toward them, and waits.
I wait, too. Alphabet soup did not prepare me for this.
Twenty-four hours of screaming, crying, and high-stakes bargaining later, I recite them perfectly to my kindergarten teacher. Behind me, my mother beams.
I learn that letters are like chicken nuggets; you can try to fit twenty-six in your mouth at a time, but the physical limits of the human mind and body may inhibit you. Therefore it’s a good idea to start small and then build up, one by one, until you have finished a whole pack. Each one that you pop into your mouth is short and simple, round and dinosaur shaped; I stuff myself with them.
Words do not come as easily to me. They taste less like nuggets and more like brussel sprouts—and I hate brussel sprouts. My mother is never able to list them all for me on a scrap piece of notebook paper. Therefore I’m young when I realize you can’t build words, formulaic and one by one, the way you do letters. You have to create them. And creating is infinitely harder than building. Creating takes thinking, and thinking takes time, and children under the age of ten have a million more interesting things to do with their time. As a result, the words I create come out rough and mispelled, rushed and meaningless, thrown together with crossed fingers and raw, desperate luck. They are created with all the precision of a brain more preoccupied with the unfurling existence of everything else.
But creating is still too much thinking, and thinking is still too much time, and by the time I’m ten years old I live in a house of broken clocks. Words come more easily to my family, their tongues and teeth clicking in constant ticks and tocks—but the sound they make is cacophonous. My mother is always a few minutes behind my father, my father somehow a few centuries behind her; their hands rarely meet. My words race to both, land upon neither; my sister’s run strictly clockwise to mine. Four polarized time zones echo through our thick walls.
There is never enough time, in a single moment, to create words of my own.
Borrowing becomes much easier.
I listen as my mother applies modest shades of pink to her lips before puckering them, once, twice, and teaching me all the words I will need to know in life. She preaches on womanhood, on Indian culture, on the evils of all men. Her words are cryptic, nothing like our list of twenty-six letters. I remember them anyway.
I listen as my sister paints her lips a warrior’s red before puckering them, once, twice, and teaching me all the other words I will need to know in life. They sound nothing like what my mother told me. She speaks in her own sarcastic code, laced with sharp laughs and rolled eyes; I remember them anyway.
I listen and borrow and eventually forget how to create words of my own at all. I learn all the twists of their tongues, the bends of their lips and the curves of their cheeks. I paint over their words with the naive desire to bring and be brought peace. I offer them in times of comfort, in times of insecurity; I learn that people love having words stolen out of their mouths and fed back to them. I become the world’s most benevolent thief.
I become the world’s most remorseful thief. My words, no matter how good in intention, are black words, artificial words—they ricochet off each other and bounce wildly around the house, hitting myself more than anyone. By this time, words in my house have taken shelter in the loveless silences of shut mouths and closed doors. Like infants, we resort to clipped syllables and outbursts decipherable only unto ourselves. Words lose their meaning.
I begin to write more than I listen. It becomes easier to connect words in my head, where thoughts can be spun together like gold from straw, something from nothing. I bottle words up during the day and spill them across lined paper in the restless hours of the night. I create.
I borrow less—detached attempts to enjoy a family dinner—steal only on the scariest nights—forced words of consolation to a mother with a deathwish on her lips. Sometimes words fall out faster than my mind can process them; I learn this is called lying and try not to do it.
The words I create begin to translate into everything I touch. My words translate into diary entries and english essays and straight A’s, birthday cards and short stories and two hundred pages of notes on molecular biology. My words translate into making my friends laugh and making my friends cry, into serious discussions and thoughtless chatter over a fire. My words translate into metaphors. My words translate into poetry. My words translate into pure gold and fixed clocks and the best damn brusselsprouts you’ve ever tasted. My words translate into love.
My words may not have come easily to me, but they are all that come to me now. One day, my words will translate into epics and bestsellers, into proper reflections of what I have to say.
I will start letter by letter. All twenty-six.