hail sister mary, full of words

December 12, 2014 § 24 Comments

I collect sentences like other people collect action figures, traffic signs or snow globes. The kinds of sentences that knock you out with their cadence and momentum and carry entire worlds on their nouns. The kind that transport you out of body to unlooked-for places and keep you going when things get grim. Sentences like this one from To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf:

“It could not last, she knew, but at the moment her eyes were so clear that they seemed to go round the table unveiling each of these people, and their thoughts and their feelings, without effort like a light stealing under water so that its ripples and the reeds in it and the minnows balancing themselves, and the sudden silent trout are all lit up hanging, trembling.”

Or this from Toni Morrison’s, Beloved:

“The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order.”

And most recently this, from Charles D’Ambrosio’s, Loitering:

“At early weekday masses it’s always Eleanor Rigby and her devout sisters, the secret sufferers, the wounded, the inconsolable, women who show up in their hastily tied bonnets and tattered housecoats, each alone, scattered through the nave, and yet that morning their thin muffled voices held so near to the note and so exactly to those rising and falling rhythms I knew by heart that joining in with them was like letting someone else do my breathing for a while.”

Sometimes, on a Sunday, I’ll lie on our worn red sofa with my notebook of found sentences, the slide of jazzy music in the air and read the sentences aloud. I’ll close my eyes and breathe into the acoustical mood and truth of them. It’s how I meditate.

It was Sister Mary, my teacher for second, third and fourth grade, who got me going on this collection. We loved words together. Each day, during silent reading, she’d gather the skirt of her habit up in a swoosh, kneel down by my desk and ask, “What’s your favorite sentence you’ve read so far today?”

The first time she asked this question, oddly, I had an answer and read the sentence aloud to her. “Oh yes,” she said, like I’d just popped a chocolate in her mouth. “That’s quite wonderful.” Her interest in words was not teacherly —she didn’t pinpoint active verbs or precise details; she just seemed to enjoy the sparkle of them in the same way I’d seen other women swoon over pearls and gold bangles. Soon, I was sharing sentences with her before she asked and before long, she suggested I save the sentences in a notebook.

Though I no longer have my early notebooks of loved sentences, I do remember one of the first ones I recorded, because I reveled in it for months. It was from Fox in Sox, a Dr. Seuss classic:

“When tweetle beetles fight, it’s called a tweetle beetle battle and when they battle in a puddle, it’s a tweetle beetle puddle battle.

“Learn it by heart,” Sister Mary said. “It will be fun! Fun for your tongue! Joy for your tweetle beetle feet! ”

And I did. I rolled those words around in my mouth like glass marbles, tasted the tumble of them, rattled them off on the bus, the playground (which in retrospect might be why I didn’t have many friends), the dinner table, and while I waited in line for confession.

Next up was Jabberwocky. I. could. not. believe. someone wrote a poem with made-up words and people acted as if the words were real. When Sister Mary first recited it to our class, I fell off my chair laughing. “Who writes a poem about nothing?” I asked when I finally caught my breath.

I read Jabberwocky over and over to myself and copied my favorite stanza, the opening, into my notebook:

 “Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.”

“Read it out loud!” Sister Mary said to us. “What about brillig?” she asked. And slithy and toves? Close your eyes! What do you feel in your fingers, your legs? You’re not robots! Absorb them into your body like a sponge, like a symphony! Feel the words and you’ll know what it’s about!”

I was nervous. This was all so new to me. Also, I wasn’t sure if I was already supposed to know how to do this or not, this feeling language thing, which added greatly to my anxiety. But I loved Sister Mary and closed my eyes. I listened to the words as she read the poem again in her lilting voice. I relaxed. A wild tableau of glittery corkscrew creatures with extended necks trounced across my imagination. And I swear, I felt heat radiating from their beaming faces, felt vibrations from their springy bodies that made my own arms take flight. Around me, other kids were making little beasty sounds and whistling and singing and I couldn’t help but sneak a peek at them. It was like we had all eaten too much sugar. There was Janet, her arms tight at her sides, pretending to slither up a tree or something, while giggling hysterically. There was Bobby, normally shy, spinning his body around the room and making strange guttural noises while shouting gyre! every few seconds. He’d later tell us he’d seen Brillo Pads, like gyroscopes in a tremendous rumble of sorts—and as far as I can remember, Sister Mary never once corrected his use of the soft “g” in “gyre”.

She had us cut the poem apart. Move the pieces around on the veneer of our desks, share our wild sentences aloud with each other. “It’s the way you say it, that makes a picture in your mind, that makes a feeling,” she’d say, moving up and down the aisles between our desks. I’m sure I’m not the only child who peed my pants laughing that day.

And though I would later experience more than one teacher who insisted on Jabberwocky’s meaning, insisted we consider the etymology of every word, required us to read explanations from Lewis Carroll about why he spoofed bad poetry, Sister Mary stayed true to her own opinion and said, “It’s about whatever you want it to be about.” It’s this view—that imagination trumps all, I carried forth into my life.

When I was eight, I read E.B. White’s, Charlotte’s Web and things began to get more serious. In my notebook, I wrote: “Where’s Papa going with that axe?” but I wasn’t sure why I did. The words weren’t buoyant or beautiful or funny. I shared the sentence with Sister Mary. “Take it home,” she said. “Go somewhere quiet. Read it out loud. Pretend you are Fern. Draw what your hands look like when you read it out loud.”

Pretend I’m Fern? Draw my hands?

At home, I crawled into my writing closet with my notebook. Sat under the wool coats, near the rubber boots. Whispered aloud, “Where’s Papa going with that axe?” over and over again. Closed my eyes and put my hand on my heart. Felt the pound of it. Papa. Axe. Fern inside me. Opened my eyes. Drew a fist in the margin. Under it, a heart in flames.

When I showed Sister Mary, she wrote something on a piece of paper and gave it to me— vulnerability. I walked to the huge dictionary by the window and looked it up.

vulnerable |ˈvəln(ə)rəbəl|adjective: susceptible to physical or emotional attack or harm: we were in a vulnerable position | small fish are vulnerable to predators.

I looked up susceptible.

susceptible |səˈseptəbəl|adjective: likely or liable to be influenced or harmed by a particular thing: they only do it to tease her—she’s too susceptible.

I wrote both words and their definitions in my notebook. I drew a pig in the margin.

In fourth grade Sister Mary gave each of us a different sentence from the Bible and told us we’d recite them the following week to the class. If there was any context to the sentences she chose for us, I don’t remember. I only remember she gave me this one from Daniel 7:9: “I beheld till the thrones were cast down, and the Ancient of days did sit, whose garment was white as snow, and the hair of his head like the pure wool: his throne was like the fiery flame, and his wheels as burning fire.” I read it to myself and my chest hurt. I said to her, “I don’t understand what this means.”

“Listen to the words,” she said. “Thrones, garment, white, wool, snow, flame—you know those words. Imagine you are the flame, the fire. Imagine you are the garment—white as snow.” Her suggestions eased the stirring of tension in my chest and made me feel instead, curiously powerful, in the way a super hero might feel.

A week later, after hours and hours of imagining myself as fire and snow, I stood in front of the class, navy plaid uniform ironed, saddle shoes polished, and recited my sentence. I could hear a new boldness in my voice, an openness in my throat. Words were changing me.

But I had no sooner finished reciting the last line when Sister Mary said, “But of course, many have spoken of the white of snow—take Hamlet, for example.” She wrote on the board:

“What if this cursed hand
Were thicker than itself with brother’s blood,
Is there not rain enough in the sweet heavens
To wash it white as snow?”

Take Hamlet for example? “Who the heck is Hamlet?” I asked, jolted by the confusion of words she’d written. “Is this another kind of jabberwocky or something?”

She smiled and had us recite Hamlet’s lines (again, without any context) and of course, feel each word in our bodies. “Notice the shape of your mouths, your eyebrows,” she said. She pointed to her forehead, her chest, her stomach. “What do you feel here? And here?”

We called out our feelings, some concrete, some abstract, and she wrote them all on the board:

rocks heavy broken red afraid

mean slap guilty sword wrong

blind clean thirsty skin wet

soft milky glad fresh new

 And as each voice called out, she’d say, “Yes! That’s it! That’s what it means!”

I’m pretty sure most of my future teachers would not have approved of this glib introduction to Shakespeare, this lack of poetic analysis, but the truth is, the meaning I gleaned from feeling those words? Hearing and seeing them fall into place, the tremor and echo of them side by side? Even out of context? Pretty damn close to the construct of forgiveness.

Soon after our Hamlet experience, Sister Mary told me the term “snow-white” went back much farther than Shakespeare. She handed me a copy of Chaucer’s Second Nun’s Tales, and pointed out this passage (which of course, I recorded):

Valerian seyde, ‘ Two corones han we, Snow-whyte and rose-reed, that shynen clere, Which that thyne yen han no might to see ; And as thou smellest hem thurgh my preyere, So shaltow seen hem, leve brother dere, If it so be thou wolt, withouten slouthe, Bileve aright and knowen verray trouthe.

And so it went on like this. Books finding their way into my hands, words pouring from pages, sentences accumulating in notebooks—each sentence revealing who I was in the moment and, when read in sequence, unveiling the story of who I was becoming.

And somewhere in-between those found words? I began to fill notebooks with my own sentences and notions and pictures in the margins. Sister Mary had given me a well-lit entrance to the intimate language of self as it reached to join with others.


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