What Happens When You Focus On Your Words?

It was a normal Thursday afternoon. I pulled my red Prius into the garage after a long day at school, ready for the weekend. Our car ride chatter was nothing short of normal – with my teenage son, I’ve learned that some days are talking days, and some are best to be left quiet – and that words matter. Today we talked about the day, his classes, homework, and what he needed to do that night. As the radio clicked off and he swung his long legs onto the garage concrete, I heard him whisper, “Whoa, deja vu.”

“Whispers from your former life, bud,” I commented as I pulled my bulging bag of papers out of the back seat.

“No-not a former life, Mom. This has happened before. It’s the same thing,” he snapped back. Guess he’s not ready to  believe in past lives just yet.

“Seriously, Cam. When we have deja vu it’s you repeating what you’ve experienced in another time. It’s part of the Universe,” I patiently tried to persuade him.

“No, it’s not. I’ve done this before. In this life,” he shot back as the door closed behind him.

And we were done.

I’ve noticed that conversations with him require intense concentration. They are short, deliberate and to the point – or they’re not. Sometimes they’re full of hidden meaning, of twists of language, or simply a game of trying to appease my questions and get me out of the room.

As a writer and his parent, this does not satisfy my quest for stories, to use language to share emotions, to delve into the insides of his brain, or even to recount how he made his chicken/pasta concoction taste like something from a Food Network chef.

But it does start me thinking about words, and what happens when we focus on what we’re saying. In my classroom, I’m forever telling my 8th graders that English class is to learn to communicate – to use written and spoken language to understand each other, to share history, to create an understanding of the human experience.

I want my students AND my children to feel the urgency to use words to learn and move forward with the magic of life, and to always remember where we came from.

For writers, the written language is our sustenance. Moving pen on paper or fingers on a keyboard brings vigor to our veins and joy to our world. Writers teeter between words gushing out and over and tumbling down our bones as a waterfall carries the current, debris tossed in with beauty. We then sort and shift and question every single word, each letter becoming part of a canvas for our emotions and thoughts and stories. We can squeeze out language in the most excruciating fashion, hovering for days to capture that precise moment stuck in our minds and begging release into the world.

This consciousness of language, of purposefully and deliberately thinking about the words we put into the world, becomes at times both painful and pleasurable. Head down, we squint to see a story take shape, to illuminate the shadows of our world with words chosen with calculating concentration. We seek to be understood, to create community with our words, searching for the beautiful connection that comes when the reader pauses, looks up to wipe a tear or breaks into giggles. And we struggle with the pang of unkind comments, misunderstood intentions, and careless words flung thoughtlessly into the universe.

Writers know how much easier it would be to dismiss our thoughts, to brush them off and become part of the unconscious masses who struggle to put together 140 coherent characters. We understand the ease of dashing off an idea, pushing submit and walking away, and yet we continue to push through the pain of process. Why? To nourish our souls, to spread joy and understanding and passion and consciousness and hope that someday, in that deja vu moment, someone will call forth an experience and smile, reach out their hand, and make the world just a touch more beautiful.

That’s what happens when we focus on our words. We compose a wholehearted life. We create the kind of world we want to live in, for now and forever.

Jennifer Wolfe

Jennifer Wolfe, a writer-teacher-mom, is dedicated to finding the extraordinary in the ordinary moments of life by thinking deeply, loving fiercely, and teaching audaciously. Jennifer is a Google Certified Educator, Hyperdoc fanatic, and a voracious reader. Read her stories on her blog, mamawolfe, and grab free copies of her teaching and parenting resources.

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Travel with mamawolfe: Language Helps Us Share Who We Are

Nicaragua girls

I’m in a bit of culture shock, actually. I’m still thinking in Spanish – which is quite strange for someone who really doesn’t speak the language. In Nicaragua, communication was quite a struggle for me.

Sometimes I’d try to speak, and it would come out an odd mixture of Franglish – a twisted concoction of my college level French, mixed with years of listening to Spanish, and topped off with my native tongue. It scrambled my brain.

My kids say it takes them about 24 hours to reset the language switches in their brains from English to Spanish, and after that, their fluency takes over. Aside from the copious amounts of slang Nicaraguans use, as well as the dropping of the ‘s’, they manage to communicate quite well. They definitely shatter their ‘gringo’ appearance when they open their mouths, much to my delight.

One of the first nights we were in Nicaragua we walked to the nearby internet/phone cafe to make a few calls home. As my three teenage daughters and I entered the small room, we were greeted by a handsome young man behind the counter. I kid you not – he took one look at us, turned slightly to the side, and began slowly taking off his t-shirt to reveal his well-toned upper body. As the four of us stood there dumbfounded, I quickly gathered myself and whispered, “Say something in Spanish – he needs to know you understand him before they start making fun of us!” Quickly, the girls regrouped and asked to use the phone in impeccable Spanish, and he smiled and let them into the booths.

Walking home that night, I thought about my comfort level in Nicaragua. I’m basically at the mercy of my children to communicate for me, which is an interesting place to be. In Nicaragua, I’m much more comfortable being an observer. I can pick up enough of the conversation to act, to do something, to get to the right place, but to truly jump in and get to know what people are thinking, feeling or believing is nearly impossible for me. It keeps me at gringo status. It forces me to trust, to rely on someone else to do my talking.

To have my voice.

For someone who has worked so hard to find her voice and learn how to use it, that’s a little unsettling. My lack of language keeps me on the outside.

One day at the worksite things weren’t going so well for me. In the space of about 30 minutes I had fallen on my butt and dropped a heavy wooden sifter down my leg, leaving a huge, bloody scrape. I was hot, tired, and worried about what accident would happen next. Perfect time for a walk.

I set out down the road with Cameron and Niki, just hoping for a diversion from my looming injury. While I walked off to take a photo, Cameron struck up a conversation with a young man feeding his pigs. Curious, I walked over and started listening. I couldn’t follow much, and Cam kindly started translating about the beautiful cows in his pasture (well fed and bred for plowing the rocky fields) and the hungry pigs, who were being fed the milk left over from something or other.

Nicaragua pig farmer

We wandered down a path and caught a glimpse of a distant view. At Cameron’s urging, we started down the steep trail and soon stopped at a beautifully manicured yard, the dirt carefully swept and red hibiscus bushes in bloom. While Niki and I snapped photos, Cameron called out “Hola” to an old man sitting on his porch. With that one word, we were welcomed into his home and given a tour of his beautiful yard. He told us how he had lived there 50 years, and his wife proudly shared the fine construction of their home.

Casas Viejas, Nicaragua, family

After a few photos, the man told us to keep walking down the path for a view. Just as we were leaving, another young man spoke to Cameron in Spanish and asked us if we had time for a walk, and he would take us somewhere special. Cameron agreed, skipped after him, and Niki and I scrambled to keep up.

 Casas Viejas, Nicaragua

We walked through a community we didn’t even know existed, past well kept homes and smiling Nicaraguans. We were the only ‘gringos’ for miles.

Suddenly, we stopped at the edge of a cliff. The most breathtaking view awaited us, and we were speechless.

 Casas Viejas, Nicaragua  Casas Viejas, Nicaragua

Cameron continued his conversation as we snapped dozens of photos. Our guide pointed across the valley, and said he wanted to take us there. Again, Cameron agreed and we tagged along.

 Casas Viejas, Nicaragua

We wound up here, at the private watering hole for the community. We felt incredibly special to have this behind-the-scenes tour.

 Casas Viejas, Nicaragua

Walking back to the work site, I realized that without Cameron’s fluency we wouldn’t have had that experience. We would have snapped a few photos of the house and maybe, hesitatntly gone down the path a bit more. could I have said hello like Cameron did? Of course, but did I? Of course not. Would I have allowed myself to be led into the community alone, not understanding where I was going? No way.

To think of what I would have missed.

Sure, with my Franglish I can buy a Fanta or a pair of earrings. I can even get the kind of beer I want, and get myself to breakfast on time.

But I cannot ask why I need to drink the Fanta out of a bag. Or why I can’t take the bottle of beer instead of the can, or how Enrique prepared our delicious breakfast meal.

I can just smile and say, “Gracias”.

Language = power. Language opens doors, makes friends, and connects us. Language gives us a voice, enabling us to break down the outside and get to the good stuff – the gooey, sweet inside that makes us who we are. I’m so glad I got a taste of that.

Lily and her Agua Fria, Nicaragua brothers.
Lily and her Agua Fria, Nicaragua brothers.
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Jennifer Wolfe

Jennifer Wolfe, a writer-teacher-mom, is dedicated to finding the extraordinary in the ordinary moments of life by thinking deeply, loving fiercely, and teaching audaciously. Jennifer is a Google Certified Educator, Hyperdoc fanatic, and a voracious reader. Read her stories on her blog, mamawolfe, and grab free copies of her teaching and parenting resources.

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Sorry Paula Deen, But Words CAN Really Hurt You

Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind.

– Rudyard Kipling

sticks and stones
sticks and stones and words (Photo credit: Lisa monster)

So much of my life is consumed by language. As a parent, I read all the What To Expect  books before and during my children’s younger years. I remember reading that to develop language, parents should speak everything out loud so the child would learn to acquire the correct vocabulary. I happily spent my days with baby Lily repeating “book”, “dog”, “peaches”, “Daddy”, “tree”, “bird” with endless enthusiasm. I wondered it strangers thought I was losing my mind. I never was the outspoken type myself.

Not surprisingly, it worked. She acquired lots of language, and with the help of ‘Baby Signs‘ became quite adept at expressing her feelings at a very young age. I loved it. I knew when she was happy, confused, and frustrated, and whenever she flashed that huge, drooly grin I knew the mind-numbing repetition was all worth it. Of course, until the day she oh-so-appropriately exclaimed “God dammit” at two years old. I had some explaining to do, but it gave me a strong reminder of the power of language.

My son would talk to anyone. I pitied the poor workers that came to remodel our house when he was two years old. He followed around the plumbers, the electricians, and anyone who would pay the smallest amount of attention to his burgeoning vocabulary. His precociousness usually garnered a smile from them as they went about their work, often engaging him in dialogue. He beamed and kept right on talking.

As a middle school English teacher, I start each year with an intense study of connotation and denotation of language. We read Lois Lowry’s novel, The Giver, and discuss precision of language in great detail. I know my students have heard the ‘sticks and stones’ nursery rhyme, but I want to break down that notion. I disagree. Words can really hurt you. Badly.

The real origin of that nursery rhyme can be traced back to the late 1800s, when it was presented in a publication of the African Methodist Episcopal Church as

Sticks and stones will break my bones
But words will never harm me.”

As any socially aware person knows, incidents of bullying and racism still exist in our world, and with the advent of technology and the ability to speed up communication, words spread faster than ever. We need to teach our children that words WILL harm them, and that just ignoring them isn’t enough. We need to choose our language carefully, always thinking about what the connotation is and the historical implications that may forever be associated with them.

Sorry, Paula Deen, but you’re learning this lesson the hard way.

FC 250 Grand Marshal, Paula Deen
FC 250 Grand Marshal, Paula Deen (Photo credit: Bristol Motor Speedway & Dragway)

Celebrities have the unfortunate responsibility of being scrutinized for their every action. As much as technology and social media helps actors, musicians, writers, artists, and even chefs to spread their message and boost their sales, the flip side is the enormous social responsibility that goes along with it. Celebrities can choose to use their words to promote positive social change, like Macklemore does, or they can carelessly toss about hurtful and discriminatory language that does nothing but show their ignorance and perpetuate stereotypes. Sorry, Paula Deen. Apparently no amount of butter, sugar and friendly ‘y’alls’ can grease your way out of this one.

Some may say that the media  is over-reacting. That Paula Deen really isn’t a racist, a sexist, or anything else that she’s accused of. They may say that everyone makes mistakes and she should be forgiven. They may even say that anyone over the age of 60 should not be chastised for using the ‘n’ world, especially if they grew up in the South.

I don’t buy it.

There are no do-overs here. Once a word has escaped our mouths, it cannot be retrieved. It hangs there, in space, like a cloud that could either dissipate or drop hail. But it’s there for all to see. Words do hurt. Names do hurt. Stereotypes are perpetuated through ignorant use of language and irresponsible adults who think that if they get ‘caught’, they can just deny their culpability and say they really didn’t mean it.

How does that feel to the gay person who is called a ‘f’?

A black person who is called a ‘n’?

A woman who is called a ‘b”?

A Latino who is called a ‘s’?

A child who is called anything they deem hurtful, deflating, or just plain mean?

So thank you, Food Network, and all the other corporate sponsors who are taking this opportunity to stand up for language. You did the right thing. Don’t back down to those who say she really didn’t mean it. Because even if she didn’t, she said it. She had a choice with her language, and she threw down words that hurt. And she got caught. There’s a lot of kids out there who are watching her, and they need to know the power of language.

I hope we can all learn from this.

Sticks and stones may break your bones,

and words CAN really hurt you.

Sticks and Stones
Sticks and Stones (Photo credit: alsokaizen)

 

 

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Jennifer Wolfe

Jennifer Wolfe, a writer-teacher-mom, is dedicated to finding the extraordinary in the ordinary moments of life by thinking deeply, loving fiercely, and teaching audaciously. Jennifer is a Google Certified Educator, Hyperdoc fanatic, and a voracious reader. Read her stories on her blog, mamawolfe, and grab free copies of her teaching and parenting resources.

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Dear Family, Love J

Dear Family,
Last night, as we slumped around the table, bellies full and wine glasses empty, I took my turn and shared two words of gratitude.  Surprised, you asked if that was all.  The truth is, it wasn’t, but at the time, those were the only words I could say out loud.  Now, hours later in the light of day, I have the rest.
I am grateful for the dawn over the Sierras inching up, pale pink to my left, golden yellow to my right, unveiling my angels sleeping in the back seat.
I am grateful for the dark roast with cream warming next to me as I type, helping me greet every morning with a smile.
I am grateful for the new and the old, the memories that push me forward into the future and those that ground me in the past.
I am grateful for air conditioning, Bintang beer and chocolate-center Cotton Buns.  You saw me through some challenging times last summer.
I am grateful for friends I’ve made and lost, friends I’ve seen and those I have only thought of.  You may not know it, but I listen to you and learn more about myself from your presence.
I’m grateful for curiosity, challenge and conflict.  From them, I grow into a better human.
I’m grateful for brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, uncles and aunts, grandmothers and grandfathers.  Your eyes help create my vision, even when they don’t see in the same direction.
I’m grateful for simplicity, complication, and everything in between.  It always seems to come at just the wrong, yet just the right time.
I’m grateful for the 6,000,000-plus like-minded people who turned left, not right, and helped me see a future.
I’m grateful for the wind whistling through the trees.  Some say it’s the spirit talking.  I’m thankful I believe them.
I’m grateful for language.  The words I write, the sounds I hear, and the letters I read teach me in a way I learn best.
I’m grateful for faith, wavering in and out, back and forth, between the sky, the spirits, and the universe.  Sometimes, you’re all I’ve got.
I’m grateful for June 29, 1985.  Our worlds collided then, and life has been a doozy ever since.
Now, I’m back to where I began.  Two words.  Two spirits.  Two reasons to face each day, to walk the talk, to take a step forward when what I really want to do is stay right where I am.  Because when the pink glow is gone, replaced by a blaze of red, or orange, or a blanket of black, those two words are all that matter.
And that, dear family, is what I’m grateful for.
Love,
J

Jennifer Wolfe

Jennifer Wolfe, a writer-teacher-mom, is dedicated to finding the extraordinary in the ordinary moments of life by thinking deeply, loving fiercely, and teaching audaciously. Jennifer is a Google Certified Educator, Hyperdoc fanatic, and a voracious reader. Read her stories on her blog, mamawolfe, and grab free copies of her teaching and parenting resources.

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It’s Good To Be Home…Kind Of

I’m still processing my trip to Indonesia…over 8,000 miles one way is a long distance to travel.  Leaving everything that is known, for everything that is unknown, felt terribly unsettling.  The 14 hour time change, living in a country that exists around a religion I was very unfamiliar with, and having to think and wonder and guess about nearly every move I made left me feeling worn out and ready for home.

I’d like to say that the trip was easy, that everything went smoothly and all my encounters were pleasant, but that wouldn’t be honest.  I’d like to say that every bite I took, every car ride I took, and every breath I took was pleasant, but that wasn’t exactly the way it went.

I wish I could say that I was brave enough to try every food presented to me, that I learned to speak the language, and that I experienced every island and ethnic group in Indonesia, but I didn’t.  I did pet a Komodo dragon, cross Jakarta traffic on foot, eat Durian fruit and board a sailing ship via a precarious gangplank over nasty water.

I can say that the plane ride from L.A. to Hong Kong wasn’t nearly as bad as I expected, and that all the teachers and students I worked with were absolutely welcoming and made me feel like a queen.  I can also say that Indonesian Starbucks is eerily like California’s, and that nasi goreng might just be one of my new favorite foods.

from Obama’s elementary school in Jakarta

But most of all, what carried me through fourteen days of fatigue, over-stimulation, sweat and language barriers was what waited for me at home.  Knowing that what I was doing as a global ambassador, teacher and woman was teaching not only me, but my own children, that the world is a much smaller place than we know, and that when they grow up, my small contribution may make a big difference in their lives.

To read more about my day to day adventures, click over to travels with mamawolfe.

Jennifer Wolfe

Jennifer Wolfe, a writer-teacher-mom, is dedicated to finding the extraordinary in the ordinary moments of life by thinking deeply, loving fiercely, and teaching audaciously. Jennifer is a Google Certified Educator, Hyperdoc fanatic, and a voracious reader. Read her stories on her blog, mamawolfe, and grab free copies of her teaching and parenting resources.

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