Building a New Way with Words

August 19, 2016 | Tags: , , , , , ,

cairns stacked by artist John Felice Ceprano in Ottawa, Canada.I once had a dream about words growing on bushes, blossoms free for the picking that I was gathering in a basket.

Since then, I have come to believe that words are more like heavy ripe fruit or, possibly, like stones.  They have heft.  They weigh down the basket quickly when collected.  One needs to put them down periodically and leave them behind.  It is too much to carry them all with you.

Stack them up along the roadside.  They serve as memorials to what we’ve lost.  Markers of where we’ve been.  Tributes to beauty we have witnessed.  Signposts to travelers yet to come.

What words have been collecting in your mind these days? Are you ready to set some of them down on the page in your hand? What will you build when you do?

It is possible, I know, to use our words, like stones, to build walls. (We have no shortage of examples of this during our current electoral campaigns.) They can be used to mark off territory and claims of possession and rectitude that must then be defended. To separate one side from another, to fence things out or in, to narrow the path. We all do this at one time or another. I have done it myself only to discover that the walls I have built eventually need to be moved or come down. So it has proven more useful, in my experience, to instead arrange my words like cairns – those stacks of stones left behind by the Celts and other indigenous peoples and now often left behind by modern day visitors to shorelines and other places where stones and natural beauty are both plentiful.

20160716_155258Cairns have several attributes that make them a useful model for writing. First of all, they come in all varieties of shapes and sizes. Some piled high, some stout and wide, they make shadows as the sunlight shifts its way around them through each day. The stones can be large or small, smooth or sharp edged, but to build a cairn with them, you must find a balance in the meeting of their varied shapes. They must lean on one another in ways that borrow gravity’s force as one of stability rather than impending collapse.

“Literature is a heap of nouns and verbs,” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “enclosing an intuition or two.” When the piles of my words remain standing long after my hand is removed, it seems as though some intuition or two resides among the stones.

And the thing I especially love about cairns is not only the balance and space within them, but also the space between them. They can mark the way – a path or a route –  but unlike a wall, they also leave room for wandering. Even for getting lost, which it turns out is a necessary possibility if we are to find our own way. And, ideally, they leave space for more cairns. New passersby will stack their own stones, make new additions to the landscape while old ones sometimes tumble down.

The pages I stack with my own words day after day – and the pages I read piled with the words spoken and written by others, carefully leaning and balanced – are cairns through which I wander gratefully, finding my way. Remembering what I’ve heard, that words comprise only 7 percent of how we convey our messages to one another. So much is left to what lies between the words, the pauses between them, the lips that speak them, the hand that gestures wildly around them, the breath that shapes them, the ear that hears them.

We sometimes think of written words as permanent, as definitive and solid as walls, as if they leave no room for wandering, no space for the reader, no openings for the words of others. But the origins of books and also of Christian scripture remind us otherwise. In the ancient world, the scroll was the more permanent form for recording works of literature, science or religious wisdom. By contrast, the codex, the flat-paged ancestor of our modern book form, was more fleeting. The codex was made of wooden tablets dipped in wax and bound with string hinges, and a person wrote in them by tracing words in the wax with a stylus. The page could always be erased by reheating the wax to melt the words away, creating a clean slate with space for new words. Similarly, the first books using parchment or papyrus pages were also recyclable, recorded with soluble ink that could easily be washed away.

What does it mean that the earliest Christian scriptures, the gospels and Paul’s epistles, all were recorded not on scrolls as were other scriptures at that time but in codices?  It is a choice suggesting a kind of “sacred stenography” or “living transcript” as some historians have called it,[1] giving witness to one period in history and acknowledging that other witnesses of other times would surely follow.

I like to remember this with every book I read. Today, the words on our pages are not written in either wax or soluble ink, but the plethora of both books and virtual pages tells me there is ample space for stacking all our words, for adding many perspectives to the human story and many views of God. We are all, with our great diversity of faith and worldview, invited to add to the scriptures of our world, to make the witness more complete. We are each invited to build new cairns along the road to mark where we have been, to remember what we’ve lost, to set down the stones of our wide and varied human experience, to find our way, alone and together.

What will you add to this witness today? What words are waiting to be set down on your pages, words that may not match one another or may not match the words written by your neighbor, but all resting in a larger balance, leaning into gravity and relationship with one another. “The art of writing,” Emerson said, “consists in putting two things together that are unlike and that belong together like a horse and cart. Then we have somewhat more goodly and efficient than either.”

Remember, no scripture is completed by what is there, by the words themselves. More important is the invitation of what lies between, the space where breath enters, where new words can follow in response and new cairns will appear along the path, old stones stacked anew, again and again and again.  Like this, the horse and cart are hitched, and we move on together.20160716_155347

I invite you to stack a few words of your own on your pages. Close your eyes for a moment. Think back on just the last 24-48 hours. What words, what questions, what images, memories and hopes would you like to set down on your page, as a witness, a marker, a tribute, a guidepost…for yourself and others?

If you’d like a prompt to begin, you might start with these words, and follow wherever they lead:

What comes to mind now is . . . .

Make no mistake: What we say and how and when and where we say it, matters deeply. May we each add to the scriptures of our times with passages that spread peace, call for justice, evoke love.

(This is a belated adaptation of words delivered one year ago at “Seeking the Sacred Thread,” a four-day event in Minneapolis with John Philip Newell and Barbara Brown Taylor, August 2-5, 2015. An earlier version appeared in Cairns: Unity Church Journal of the Arts, Vol. 1.) 

[1] Eamon Duffy, “Early Christian Impresarios,” New York Review of Books, March 29, 2007, at

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