Personal essay ~ words from the heart


The personal essay can be serious or funny, as revealing as you wish. A writer often puts into words life's deepest moments. A very personal essay is a bit like writing a letter to one's own heart.

~After the Poetry Reading~
Story and art
By Mo Conlan

I tell my friend after the poetry reading, “Sometimes I get tired of words.”

It is a good poetry reading, as they go. Six poets. Their words carry us to the Ordovician age when today’s rock fossils were formed, to the arid Wyoming plains and verdant Kentucky hills, into the dream of a daughter about her father, to an outdoor wedding in which a ferocious wind sweeps the bride’s veil off her head and sails it through the skies like a kite. (A bad omen.)

Words have meant so much to me, I am not sure what I am saying by this heretical statement.

When my father lay dying, my friend, dear sweet Jack, looked into my eyes deeply with his pale blue ones so full of life and story and feeling. “Couragio,” he said. I don’t speak Italian, but I understood. It was the right word. “Couragio” is what was needed as the person I loved most in the world prepared to depart it.

When I spoke to my father in his sickbed, the words I used seemed silly, not carrying the weight of the tenderness between us. “I hope you can stick around for the ninth inning,” I said. I don’t know why I used a baseball metaphor; neither of us was a fan. Perhaps it was that tradition of Irish irony and understatement that came down to me through my father. There were not enough words for the torrent of feelings I held inside me – the bargains with god I was willing to strike to keep him, to keep him safe.

Some things there are no words for. The time my mother took my hand and held it against her cheek. That look in her eye. She in a wheelchair, mute. I took that gesture to mean all the things we could not say. I love you. I forgive you. Save me. Love me. Do not abandon me. Forgive me. Forgive me. But the gesture was so much more -- so filled with “the tears of things”-- than these words.

There were not enough words, or maybe too many, to describe the loneliness and despair I often felt as a child. A loneliness that revisits me for spells throughout my life, punishment for unknown sins.

Dickens is the master of words about the wounded childhood. That unloved, unwanted boy Old Scrooge had been is the heart of “A Christmas Carol.” But Dickens writes of the childhoods of Oliver Twist, David Copperfield and Ebenezer Scrooge, not my post-World War II childhood in the middle of a big family in Cincinnati, Ohio. I have words that skirt the edges, but none to tell the desolate core. Perhaps that is why I write– to keep trying. Wasn’t that what Dickens was doing – trying in story after story to tell his own childhood? How the tender hearts of children are misused.

But words saved me. Words in books I devoured. Characters, ideas, far-away places. Schoolmates used to accuse me of staying home to read the dictionary. Actually, it was the illustrated World Book Encyclopedia volumes I loved to read, each bound in faux red leather with gold imprinting. Plus Nancy Drews and all the children’s literature contained in our small local library.

For a time I wrote short poems on rocks. “Ah, the soft rain falls down in sweet notes from above, a song for morning.” Ah, how I loved those words as I wrote them. How they thrilled and comforted me.

In a workshop with the poet Denise Levertov, a student wrote these lines: “Words always became you, like dark leaves hitting the water.” I used to turn these words over and over in my mind. Did words “become you” the way a pretty dress is becoming? Or, did words turn into you? Words so intricately twined into the essence of you that they and you become one in a mystical union? That is how vital words are to us: They are us?

My friend says that he is honoring my statement that “sometimes I get tired of words” by remaining silent.What a wit.

“It is not so much the words I get tired of,” I say, suddenly understanding what I mean by my statement. “It is what you have to do to write them – how engaged you have to be with the world, how open you must leave a tender heart, scarred and in need of protection; how clear you must make an over-cluttered mind.”

“Couragio,” I say to myself.


After personal essay, return to home page