As a woman who hails from the southern United States, and was raised in a family that valued “traditional female behavior,” thus I’ve always struggled to talk about difficult subjects. Just as Eliza in Pygmalion (or My Fair Lady for the musically inclined) was counseled to do, I try to stick to topics such as the weather and health; avoid politics, avoid religion. 2020 has shown us that we cannot talk about the former without embracing their deep relationship to the latter. I cannot think about the fires on the west coast without dwelling on the impact of the weather (or more precisely, climate change). I cannot think about the health of the people suffering through them without some thought of the medical system and red-lining practices that put people of color in more danger during them and the evacuations they demand. I cannot think of COVID-19 without picturing the (again) role our country’s inability to right its medical system has had on those suffering and dying, and the disproportionate effect all of it has had on people of color. Everything is tangled up and connected, even though none of us can (physically) connect and play those fun theatre games of pre-COVID times, like the good old Human Knot.
I have been wrestling with my shying away from talking about the tough stuff. I’ve only recently gotten comfortable with saying “pre-COVID” and “COVID times,” preferring euphemism (weird times, difficult days) to reality. I realize that though words are, quite literally, my living, that can mean that my relationship to them becomes a bit of a game of status. Because I recognize the power of language (and its effect on others) so much, I am very careful with the words I choose. The words, therefore, in effect, govern my choices rather than the other way around. 2020, in myriad ways, has only enhanced my battle with language. As the pandemic struck and millions lost their jobs or were furloughed while “essential” (what a word) workers put their lives at risk, I began to see how systematic racism was increasing the pain for so many. Directly connected to the killing of too many people of color, Ahmad Aubrey, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and on and on, hard conversations and protests linked up to health concerns—masks or no masks? And all of that, all of it, became embedded in the politics of our time. Eroded trust in institutions led to eroded trust in individuals and we all have watched as our country has split, along lines none of us might have imagined in January.
A healthy respect for words, and their impact on others, may be just what we all need right now. Without language, the ideas we have would not spread to others. Without words, gossip and lies would not exist. Without our ability to communicate, we would be disconnected from one another. I hope that, as this year continues, we will all grapple with the power of language for connection and seek opportunities to use language to that end—to the end of education, of love, of unification. Words are symbols for the ideas in our heads, and as we deploy them they reveal who we really are. It is my wish that we will return to finding ways to use them to build up and grow. I look forward to reading your responses on ways we might do that together as a country and a global community.