Words Matter

Where are you right now? If you were to set down the little screen you’re holding, or look past the big screen in front of you, what would you see? If there’s just a wall there, what’s on the wall? What’s beyond it? One thing the internet can do very well is transport you from one place, where you are physically, to another, where you can be mentally. Let’s try an experiment and see how well we can transport each other someplace else. I’ll start.

Current status: It’s 9:30 AM on a quiet Sunday morning. I’m sitting at the table in our dining room, looking out the window onto the wild meadow my wife has cultivated in our front yard. I can see bees and butterflies feasting on the pollen of the flowers that grow there. I can see the seven-foot-tall sunflowers that bloomed late this season. The pup is laying at my feet, sighing. I’m playing Nebraska, by Bruce Springsteen, for the first time on my friend Mark’s recommendation. He was right, this is a surprise. I thought I knew Springsteen (and had written him off), but I was wrong. The cat is napping on a chair nearby that used to belong to my wife’s grandmother. It’s good to be home after a few days on retreat with the Newfangled team. Now it’s your turn. Where are you? Email me at chrbutler {at} gmail dot com and take me there.

CB, October 2, 2016


When I was six years old, my father remarried. At that age, it made sense to me that my new step-mother would want to be a part of my life, but I didn’t expect to be welcomed into her family, too. To them, I figured I’d be my Dad’s kid, but not their nephew or their cousin or their grandchild. But I remember the day we drove from Boston to Michigan to meet my new grandparents for the first time, and how they stood outside the door of their home as we pulled in to their driveway, arms wide with welcome.

My new grandmother was at the center of that family, and over the next decade, I would spend a lot of time with her. Most holidays, and every summer. Over the summer, she’d plan vacations for the entire extended Michigan family. She’d find a house on a lake somewhere, and we’d all caravan up there together and stay for a week. She’d plan activities, especially for the four “big kids” — me, my older sister, and our two cousins. Crafts, beach combing, little history lessons. She gave us a lot of attention. And despite how much I loved all my grandparents, if you had asked me then which I felt closest to, I’d have probably named her.

When I was fifteen, we spent one of those family vacations in Washington, D.C. My grandmother was a very patriotic woman and had always wanted to visit the capital with her family. To give you an idea of what I mean by patriotic, on those summer visits, she’d gather the kids first thing in the morning on Independence Day to recite the Pledge of Allegiance under the American flag mounted over her front door. So, we rented a house outside of the city, and, as usual, all eighteen of us stayed there together. As was also pretty typical on these trips, my Dad did a lot of the cooking and cleaning. One evening, he made hamburgers for everyone, and my step-mother’s youngest brother complained that they were undercooked. Based upon how most people I know prefer their burgers today, they probably weren’t, but nevertheless, he wouldn’t let it go, and my Dad, who normally avoids conflict, eventually had enough. The argument flared up, to the point where my uncle screamed that my dad was a murderer. A murderer whose weapon was e-coli tainted beef. Now, I’m sure my Dad said some equally ridiculous things, as we all do when we’re upset. But then my Grandmother got involved to defend her youngest. She said awful things, too. Eventually, my Dad had really had it, and stormed out. He said he was going to drive to New York to see his parents. He was leaving the vacation. A big deal.

Throughout this fight, I was sitting on the steps of the main stairway in the hall outside the kitchen, listening. I’m not sure where everyone else had gone, but I imagined many other solitary outposts throughout the house, from which we all could hear when my Dad announced his departure, and when my Grandmother shouted after him, “Good! And take your pompous older kids with you!” That meant me and my sister.

By that point, I’d been witness to plenty of family drama, but that one sentence in particular felt like such a betrayal. I’d spent the last nine years accepting my part in this family — accepting their acceptance of me despite our many differences — only to hear that, no, I was not welcome. I was not them.

I sat there a while longer, keeping that still, stoic face I’d learned well by then, while confusion, sadness, and anger boiled inside me. But then my uncle sat down next to me. Not the one who picked the fight with my Dad, but another one — my step-mother’s older brother. He was a big guy — a man’s man. Tall, mustache, high-school football star, corporate salesman, hunter. A man of few words. But he looked at me and said, “What my mom said just now was wrong. I love you. You’re a part of this family.”

I will never forget that moment. Not just because he comforted me and brought a little healing to the betrayal I felt, but because that was the first time anyone other than my parents said that they loved me. He didn’t know that. And none of us knew that just a year later, my Grandmother would be dead. I was able to talk with her about this event before she passed away. I know she said things she didn’t mean, and I know she regretted them. Her passing didn’t keep us from mending, but it did keep us from making many more new memories with which to bury the old ones. But as hurtful as her words were to me then, they didn’t last. My Uncle’s words did. I can close my eyes at this very moment and see the hallway in which we sat. I can see his face. I can hear his words: “I love you.”

I don’t know if he remembers. Perhaps he does, but I suspect not. I suspect this was just one of many seeds of kindness he scattered around him throughout his life. Now, he’s no saint; he’s a just a man. But, he’s a man who cares. Whether he knows it or not, he taught me the most valuable lesson I continue to learn in this life: Words matter, and we don’t get to decide which ones stick in the hearts and minds of those around us. We only get to decide what we say.

We’ll probably never be able to stop every hurtful word from escaping our mouths. We’re all human, after all, and none of us is perfect. But we can ensure that those hurtful words are merely drops in a sea of kindness. That is within our power.

Heavy Rotation: On the drive back from our yearly work retreat, I played a few albums by The Books. They kind of broke my heart when they disbanded a few years ago. If you’ve never listened to their work, The Books were a duo of musicians who made wonderful sound collages that, more than anything I can think of now, sounded like my thinking. The way they’d weave beauty, oddity, randomness — and every emotion under the sun — into these complex sonic landscapes was fascinating to me. And as surprised as I always am by their compositions, they always feel familiar. As if they’re describing an interior landscape we all have visited before. You can’t go wrong with any of their albums, but if The Books are new to you, I’ll recommend you start with my favorite, The Lemon of Pink.

Recent Tabs: It’s not too late for the media to fix its election coverage. Also, Liberals have failed to teach millennials about the horror of George W. Bush. You can pay $21,000 for a first-class seat on an airplane and this is what it would be like. Design a new banknote, design a new website for it. The LED exterior facade of Burj Khalifa. How many dots can you see in this image? Paperholm is still very good. You can kickstart a little box you strap to your head to help you lucid dream. One in four Americans didn’t open a book last year. This man filmed himself annually for 35 years and made a video going backwards to 1977. There are some new pictures from Mars. And really, take a moment to meditate on that. We can look at pictures beamed to us through space by a robot crawling over the surface of a planet over 50 MILLION MILES AWAY. So yeah, THE FUTURE IS HERE AND EVERYTHING NEEDS TO BE DESTROYED. I’m like.

Written by Christopher Butler on October 2, 2016,   In Essays

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