Betty Duffy

Tuesday, February 21, 2012


In our house growing up, there was a plaque on the wall in the upstairs bathroom. It was one of those faux-parchment papers with burned edges, glued to a block of wood, on which a poem was printed by hand. "Oh, the comfort, the inexpressible comfort…" read the first line, and many a body in the family, feeling the relief of abdominal tension while sitting in that bathroom, mouthed the words, or perhaps said them aloud.

In the lull that followed, however, one might ponder the rest of the poem, and wonder why Mom ever hung it there. Was it a poem so meaningful to her, she hung it in the one spot where all of her offspring were certain to memorize it?

The poem went on about the comfort "of having neither to weigh thoughts, nor measure words, but pouring them all outright, just as they are, certain that a faithful hand will take and sift them, keep what is worth keeping, and then, with the breath of kindness, blow the rest away."

I just wrote that from memory. But perhaps more than committing the words to memory, I took them to heart.

I started keeping a diary when I was about eleven. My mother suggested I start writing to cure a weird childhood insomnia that kept me up late nights worrying that I was going to pee in my sleep, even though I'd not wet the bed since I was out of diapers.

When I was struck by pee-phobia, I would go stand by Mom and Dad's bed, and wait for them to wake up, which was weird, and when they did, often terrified by the stranger looming at their bedside, I'd say, "I can't sleep…" which is a phrase that, as a mother, I've come to associate with a caustic sense of annoyance.

"You can't sleep? Could it be because you're standing beside my bed rather than lying in your own?"

I wonder how many nights of sleep I pulverized for my mother before she suggested I write down my feelings rather than bringing them to her attention. I remember her saying something like, "How about for the next week, on the nights you can't sleep, write down what happened before you went to bed. Then we'll see if we can figure out what's causing it."

It was an ingenious solution. I stayed in bed rather than waking Mom up. I felt like I was participating in a scientific study. I'd write until I got tired, or until I realized that indeed, I did NOT have to go the bathroom. And eventually, pee-phobia went away.

I also developed this habit of writing down EVERYTHING that ever happens to me. And perhaps a new phobia was born--a phobia that events might occur without the proper documentation. Words took on an inordinate value to me. The volume of the words was more important to me than what they actually said. I liked to fill up composition books, and stack them, side by side. I write small, but I started writing even smaller, two lines to one on a college ruled notebook.

Then I'd look at all those words and feel like I'd done something with myself, something worthy. I had provided the evidence. I just needed someone to analyze it.

Where was the faithful hand? Who would take and sift all those words, and keep what's worth keeping? What a job.

When I was about twenty-two, I let a soul friend (you get only a few in a lifetime) read some of those words.

"Have you ever thought about filtering what you choose to write down?" she asked me. The thought had not occurred to me. But I read back over what I'd let her read, and realized that, yes, a filter was greatly needed, and that the filter was going to have to be me.

I am currently in the process of filtering some of that old stuff, to keep what's worth keeping. I wish I had known in my youth that the future me would not be impressed by tiny writing, that the future me might appreciate double spaced print, that the future me wouldn't need every bit of evidence, particularly about what made the former me have to pee.

There's a learning curve in writing, not least of which involves honing the filter.

I was talking to Pedge about a combox debacle on a piece I wrote for Patheos (Darwin has written a nice summary of it). I felt a great temptation to get into the combox and fight to be understood. Aside from the fact that arguing with some people is futile, Pedge pointed out that the experience offers a good opportunity for reflection: In politics, particularly in the debates, politicians never bring up conversations they don't want to have. And if somehow, the conversation goes in unwanted directions, they either ignore the diversion altogether, or keep bringing it back to the conversation they do want to have.

It's a sad commentary when writers look to politicians for advice on the craft, but it's a challenge of modern writing platforms that no longer is the author an untouchable mythical being who lives in some backwoods hut pouring out words upon more words, with a loyal editor faithfully guarding the brand.

Now writers are an internet presence. They can dialogue with their readers. They have to keep coming back and interacting, if not physically, then at least emotionally with the response if their audience. Never has it been more tempting to abandon the filter. And yet never has it been more necessary to exercise restraint.

I read a review recently about an author who wrote novels in the earlier part of the Twentieth Century. His corpus has been largely dismissed by critics, primarily because he was too prolific. He wrote a large number of novels, many of them not good ones, but a handful, the present reviewer asserted, were worthy of a much wider readership and critical notice.

Have you ever happened upon a blog, read a few sentences of the top post, and dismissed it? Have you read comments by people, trying to dialogue in a combox, been put off by their grammar, and dismissed them? Have you ever read a tweet by an author you enjoy, and then found yourself completely disillusioned with their work? There is so much information online, that if writers don't filter their own words, then readers will. And readers can be much less forgiving.

In a world with so much small print, with so many words put out at such high speed and volume, the old poem on the bathroom wall seems terribly naive. Not only is "the breath of kindness" nearly absent from the internet, but ninety nine percent of what goes into my brain simply has to be dismissed at some point, due to an economy of neurons, which means I'm constantly either weighing the value of words, or completely ignoring them.

This fact struck me the other day, when for the first time in weeks, I paid attention to the words of the Hail Holy Queen. I'd been slogging through a couple days feeling alienated by the world, only to realize that the exact words I needed to affirm my condition were right there on my own lips, several times a day: "After this our exile, show us unto the blessed fruit of thy womb, Jesus."

There are certain words we can hear every day of our lives that never lose their meaning, that always have the ability to draw us into deeper reflection, even to change our lives. The priest says the words of the Transubstantiation at Mass, and Christ becomes present in the Eucharist. Through words, the repentant sinner receives absolution for his sins.

In the beginning was the Word. The Word was made flesh. It dwelt among us.

For a Catholic, words have meaning. They have a body. They have life. We're very thoughtful about the words we use to pray. If they are not the words of Christ himself, they are the words of those closest to him: "My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord. My spirit rejoices in God, my Savior." Catholics pray the words of apostles, of saints, of a deliberate and carefully considering bride, the Church.

Clearly, not every airy word that falls off my keyboard carries the weight of this voice, but more and more, I want to choose my words with the same careful consideration the Church practices, if not to teach or to pray, then just to last.

Came across this passage in Saturday's Daily Readings--something to think about during Lent:

"Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you realize that we will be judged more strictly, for we all fall short in many respects. If anyone does not fall short in speech, he is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body also. ….the tongue is a small member and yet has great pretensions.

Consider how small a fire can set a huge forest ablaze. The tongue is also fire. It exists among our members as a world of malice, defiling the whole body and setting the entire course of our lives on fire, itself set on fire by Gehenna. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse men who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this need not be so."
--(James 3:1-10)


Ellen Johnson said...

Woah. The passage from James has huge significance right now, what with everybody on both sides of the fence endlessly debating and fighting out all of the recent issues with the healthcare mandate. I get so frustrated with the fighting in comboxes and especially on facebook. It's just an echo-chamber and everyone has to put in their two-cents. And no one is filtering themselves! Thank you for your timely and succinct reflections!

Julia said...

Huh. I tend to think of it as a matter of vision training: we need to hone our ability to recognize the few pearls in the midst of a vast trash heap. The words that stay with us are the ones that resonate in the heart; the wheat, as it were, in the midst of the chaff.

There's a lot of chaff in life.

BettyDuffy said...

Julia, "There's a lot of chaff in life." Very true.

The line in the passage from James that most resonates with me is: "My brothers and sisters, this need not be so."

Another one of the discussions that always arise around Lent is that there are Crosses in life that cannot be avoided. And there are Crosses that we bring upon ourselves. I guess the emotions I allow to be stirred by being too tuned into the chaff, and adding to it, are crosses I don't have to carry.

Peter and Nancy said...

I think often the lack of filtering is due to people wanting to be angry about something that is out of their realm of responsibility. They can rail away at President Obama, the bishops, or whoever, without having to change how they are wounding their spouses or children, for example. Sometimes venting about things we're not directly responsible for replaces or subverts a commitment to love well in real life.

Laura said...

I think if I always waited to write or speak until I was sure that what I had to say needed to be said, by me, right then... I would never speak. It's ok that a lot of writing is rubbish, especially in journals. The message does not have to be perfect for it to deserve a voice.

Dwija {House Unseen} said...

I want to leave a comment about how much I relate to this post right now, but even comment words are failing me these days. So thank you. I wish I knew what more to say.

TS said...

I sent this to a friend, who responded:

"Betty Duffy writes beautifully.  I hope that when she undertakes to "filter" her prose, she doesn't filter out the intelligence, the beauty, the perspicacity, the insight, the wisdom ..."

I second that emotion!

captcha: frojoun rinso