Words / by Sarah Schwartz

My Mama loves to tell the story about a December afternoon she volunteered in my second grade classroom—my teacher that year was very much into arts and crafts, and had us decorating ginger bread houses.

"But you," my Mama likes to say, with a grin, "you slapped two peppermints on the roof, stuck a gumdrop to keep watch by the door, and you were done."

I've never had an eye for design, or the small motor skills necessary to create with my hands.

"Miss Sunderland told the class that when you finished your house, you could write Christmas cards, and that's where you wanted to be. I can still picture your blonde little head bent over a pile of construction paper, writing Christmas cards to everyone we knew.

You couldn't care less about arts and crafts, but words? Words have always been your thing."

I smile, because while I don't remember this particular afternoon, I have no trouble imagining the story. From a young age, I'd memorize the lyrics to songs, write letters to family members in other states, and build towers of chapter books on my nightstand.

16 years later, and my love affair with words has only gotten stronger—they are how I express love, and how I receive it, how I process change and pain, growth and gratitude. I wear a ring on my right hand that's engraved with  the words of a poem, and inked on the left side of my ribcage are lines from my favorite song.

On the top shelf of my closet sits a black and white polka dot box that holds almost every note or card I've ever received. I got rid of everything from my last relationship—deleted pictures and threw away letters—except for one text message I have saved in a note on my phone. I can't bring myself to read it, but I can't quite bring myself to get rid of it, either.

In college I majored in Communication, falling hard for a field dedicated to the examination of this means we've been given to relate to each other, to know and make ourselves known. I find myself in awe of it still, this power we hold to love, heal, & inspire, or the weapon we wield to wound, devastate, or destroy.

Words shape us. They shape how we see ourselves, others, and the world.  The book of Proverbs says,

"The tongue has the power of life and death,
    and those who love it will eat its fruit."

Some words are passing—they stay with us only as long as they are useful, and then fade into nothing. But we all have words, that as soon as they left someone's lips, took up residence in our bones, and never left.

You have words coming to mind, even now, don't you? A memory of just where you were when that person said that thing that changed you forever? You know what you were wearing and what the weather was like, how the sound met your ears and made your heart race, for better or worse or something in between. How it straightened your spine or sunk anchors into your stomach.

It seems like all I've done for the last few years is sort through words, deciding which ones to keep and believe, and which ones are lies that need to be shown the door. Some days I sort through them with a machete, a laugh, and a sense of victory, and others with tears and doubt and the sinking feeling that I'm never going make it through the trees. I suppose the downside of loving something so much is that it has the ability to pierce you to a degree other things can't.

And perhaps the most important thing I've learned in this process is that I need safe people with whom to sort through all these words, to expose them to the light of day so that they don't gain any more power than they are supposed to have. I need to spill them out over the coffee table in my living room with my best friends, speak them into the phone with my mentor, and let them tumble out into the safety of my therapist's office. I need their help watering which ones need to grow, and plucking those that are hurtful and untrue.

And so all of this sorting has reminded me to be careful with what comes out of my mouth, to make sure it's fruit will be life, rather than death. I want my words to settle into the soil of people's hearts and produce a robust crop of confidence, delight, and a deeper belief in their own belovedness. I want to be lavish with kindness and affirmation, but tender with critique, always remembering that the words I forget tomorrow may live inside someone for a long, long time.

May it be so, oh Lord.

"May the words of my mouth
    and the meditation of my heart
be pleasing to you,
    O Lord, my rock and my redeemer." Psalm 19:14