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  • Aarik Danielsen

The Weight of Words

I want the faded strains of “Auld Lang Syne,” now absorbed into the encircling hum, to lead straight into the next song of our eternal medley. For the Christmas strands still lighting our neighborhoods in these early January nights—which become early February nights before we’re ready—to guide our steps, leading wherever what flickers in you and me might shine.

So I seek assurances, to borrow rock and roll poetry from my beloved Counting Crows, a “reason to believe maybe this year will be better than the last.”

Tiny realizations—that we don’t have to live in certain ways, that every moment of clarity offers us a brand new world.

Not resolutions exactly, as if God ever answered our prayers for better years with verbs like resolve. Something more modest, like tiny revolutions in the way our blood cells travel the body, animating our every gesture. Tiny realizations—that we don’t have to live in certain ways, that every moment of clarity offers us a brand new world.

And so my eyes sweep what’s closest to home, before begging for something like X-ray vision, enough to see a few degrees south and into the heart these eyes vaguely know.

Edges come into focus first, then shapes and patterns. Naming them means drawing near to talk with people like me, people who spend their lives reconciling two forces they love: divine mystery and language. This is my manifesto, Jerry Maguire-style, for spiritually-inclined writers and readers. The preamble, at least.

I watch the phenomenon repeat, but only among Christian writers. An article or a book resonates, often for the most right reasons. Then the writer starts to say more; frequently, they deliver their words on social media but also across other platforms. Their voice sharpens, taking on timbres of conviction and authority. Sometimes they write beyond themselves, expressing an apparent need to comment on every modern matter, weighty or not.

And what I loved about their writing, what’s so wonderful about any writing—curiosity, the rests between the notes where unknowing lives—doesn’t so much disappear as grows weaker.

I don’t know where to lay the fault, if fault even is the right word—writers or readers, the soul’s supply or demand. So many of us, raised among the pews, were taught to follow a certain eye chart, to read even the subtlest spiritual counsel as law. And then to want nothing more.

So we participate in an exchange of authority no one actually asked for but everyone seems willing to oblige; one that gives a natural feeling, but is far from natural at all.

Rarely does the spiritually inclined audience make gurus of slightly damaged, deeply soulful people “sweating out lines of poems,” as my friend Joseph Fasano once put it. Not till they’re dead anyway.

Whatever the negotiation, the strangeness is with us. Every day I sit in the same chair, one I place along the border between Christian writers and those whose beliefs rest upon other rocks. When one of these more ecumenical poets or essayists publishes, an audience reads and affirms. They shed a tear or cheer a sentence, perhaps even express that rarest, sweetest feeling—of being seen in someone else’s words.

Then they move on. Rarely do they make gurus of slightly damaged, deeply soulful people “sweating out lines of poems,” as my friend Joseph Fasano once put it. Not till they’re dead anyway. At most, they desire the satisfaction of James Baldwin’s sensitive, staggering words:

“You write in order to change the world, knowing perfectly well that you probably can’t ... The world changes according to the way people see it, and if you alter, even but a millimeter the way people look at reality, then you can change it.”

This is why we write—and why we read: to shift and be shifted a millimeter at a time.

And yet we make preachers of the poets. We ask artists to carry commandments down the mountain. We fail to acknowledge this one, quietly bothersome truth: every word carries a certain weight. This weight is determined by time and place, intent and context; often the weight is calculated in collaboration between writer and reader.

But there is an upper limit. When we ask a word to carry more than its weight, or to exist as a guarantee against the weight of future words, we lose beautiful, precarious balance.

I know the preaching comes easier than the practice. I fall into the same habits, asking the words of my favorite writers to wear rucksacks loaded up with expectation and infallibility. Then we all buckle beneath the weight.

In this year, still holding its newborn pink color, perhaps we can share this lighter yoke, broker another accord.

Whether reading Christian philosopher James K.A. Smith or the luminous poet Maggie Smith, novelist Haruki Murakami or my dear friend Courtney Ellis, I want to want the right things. To hear and respond to the sounds of their voices, to internalize descriptions of how the world is and could be, and to let those passages work their way through me at due places and times. No more weight, no less.

In this year, still holding its newborn pink color, perhaps we can share this lighter yoke, broker another accord.

Writers, how might the feeling of our labor change if we learned to embrace and not cower from conversations, whole days even, which arrive with nothing to say; if we laid down load-bearing words, only offering those born from undeniable love—the ones which burn against our chests from inside out.

Readers, let us aim to know our favorite writers as people first, not teachers. Then we are actually free to learn something from them, as we should from every life. Yes, they carry the words of God—because everyone does. We all have some sliver of holy writ dancing along our tongues, living at the ends of our pens. To know this is to be edified anywhere and everywhere, and to let our favorite writers breathe easy.

Once again, irony points back at me. Sure, I offer you this diagnosis from within a regularly-scheduled column. But here’s how I hope you read these and any other words of mine: with your hands across your face, one eye peering out from behind the natural space between your index and middle fingers. Slightly more benevolent and discerning than Thomas Jefferson, I pray your mind’s eye crosses out every unfruitful line, keeping only what shifts reality by a millimeter. Even if that’s only three, maybe four words.

I never want to live out this writing life believing someone must read my words on a given matter, that I must have something to say. Embracing the occasional, magnificent radio silence is good for me and good for the words which faithfully, eventually come.

In college, I clung to the later words of Isaiah 55. Eugene Peterson renders them this way in The Message:

Just as rain and snow descend from the skies

and don’t go back until they’ve watered the earth,

Doing their work of making things grow and blossom,

producing seed for farmers and food for the hungry,

So will the words that come out of my mouth

not come back empty-handed.

They’ll do the work I sent them to do,

they’ll complete the assignment I gave them.

I handed out this passage like finish-line cups of water to my fellow young sojourners, promising God would never waste their efforts, never count their words as vanity. I still believe them for my writing friends, for myself. But new aspects occur to me.

Much as it might seem this way in Oregon’s rainy season or a Buffalo winter, precipitation isn’t always falling. God uses seasons of regular, heavy rain or snow to suit his purposes as well as the driest interludes. And God never forces the clouds; rather, he coaxes and woos till the right moment when they give up what’s inside.

Remembering this from both ends of the literary relationship keeps us from assigning one another to categories: content creator, content consumer. Free, we head back into the discontent, stumbling upon as much clarity as each moment is made to yield.


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