A Word to Describe

“This is not the year,” the radio voice is clear, no crackle, no hesitation. “Not the year to get everything you want, but to be grateful for what you have.”


I push the CD into the player. The machine hesitates and spits the disc back out. I curve my forefinger around the edge and push again, more slowly. I hold my breath and watch the digital numbers and arrows. The disc exits once more. I remove the disc completely and consider the temperature and the bumps in the street. I exhale and press with three fingers evenly one more time. This time the unfamiliar voice, again a female voice, begins to tell a faraway story. Somewhere, deeper than the intersection of my stomach and my heart, I know. Stories, no words. Words are what I’m grateful for.


Words and their everchanging attempts to define. Words and their subconscious truth. Words and their stabbing intentionality. Words.


Resilient. Normal. Identity. Distraction. Possibilities. Barriers.


I’m tired. I lean on the kickboxing bag before class even starts. I haul its weight to the farthest corner where I can hope to breathe in stolen moments, mask tugged down when the cloth barrier is too much. I used to talk more during class, but now it’s next to impossible for anyone to hear. They were never meaningful words anyway, mostly quips or complaints dressed up as observation that should have been meant only for myself. From the front of the room I catch isolated phrases between two others close enough to attempt a conversation. Those words, too, are complaints disguised as accusations.


“The family is suing the city. Say signs were put up for the white child, but no one took action for the Black girl.”


Thwack. Thump. Bump. Gasp. Smack. Whack. Thump. Thud. Arms. Legs. Punches. Kicks.


“Too bad. Shame on the lawyer making it about race. Misplaced anger.”


The next exercise is on the floor. My sweaty palms swirl grit and drops ooze between my blondish hair. This year is about words. Words I want to find. I would put air behind those words, I promise, if I could form the response. But, I don’t know the policy to quote nor the history to share.


Words matter because mattering is action. Words demand clarity. Words hold us accountable.


Smack. Thump. Thud. Thump. Whack. Thwack. Wheeze.


The next combination of punches and kicks ends. I lean forward and steady my hands on my knees. I sense the clench of fatigue, and then, release. No argument, because I realize it’s not an argument, but an acceptance of someone else’s actions unjudged against my own.


Not my words. Not our words that matter. Allow the story to play, on its own, without interference. Patience to listen. Learn. On the drive home, the disc begins on its own.


I sit at my kitchen table on Thanksgiving ready both for planting and harvesting. In the car on the way home, I remembered the question from a years ago literacy workshop telling a story I shouldn’t have been writing.


“Do you want to be right or do you want to learn?”


Words. Words are cyclical. They are planted. They can lie dormant in too cold soil. They can be warmed, embraced. They can grow into stories most beautiful. They can poison or sting the tongue.


Being right is about talking. Learning is about listening. Waiting for others to tell their own stories.


“A word to describe me,” Felix celebrated on the way to his happy ever after. Felix is grateful to find one word.


And I, my fingers trace the multicolored, plastic protected spines, I possess so many.


Recommended ‘words to describe’


Love, Bettina L. (2019) We Want to Do More Than Survive: Abolitionist Teaching and the

Pursuit of Educational Freedom. Beacon Press: Boston.


Bronski, Michael. (2019). A Queer History of the United States for Young People. Beacon

Press: Boston.


Caldwell, Patrice. (2020). A Phoenix First Must Burn: Sixteen Stories of Black Girl Magic,

Resistance, and Hope. Viking: New York.


Callender, Kacen. (2020). Felix Ever After. Balzer and Bray: New York.

Roberston, David Alexander. (2016) When We Were Alone. Highwater Press: Winnipeg.


Winfrey Harris, Tamara. (2015) The Sisters Are Alright: Changing the Broken Narrative of

Black Women in America. Berrett-Koehler, Inc.: Oakland.

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