Precepts of Right Speech


In this season of careless, mean and harmful speech, I have been thinking a lot about words. I have been accused at various times in my life of having a sharp tongue, of not thinking before I speak, of being an occasional blurter. I have watched the faces of loved ones crumple when my words were unintentionally cutting and I have had my children complain about the harshness of my tone. During the 5 day silent retreat I attended in June, I laughed when we broke silence for a small group session and people seemed to be telling our teacher why they had come. I wasn’t sure what I would say until my turn came and then surprised myself by saying I was there to work on practicing mindful speech, which, I quickly added was pretty funny considering it was a SILENT retreat. But tears sprang to my eyes as I realized how little care I had often taken with my words and the powerful impact that our speech can have on others.

I should know better because I have suffered on the receiving end. Ken referred to my extremely poor housekeeping as “a Mary mess” but then began to use that phrase to describe anything that might go wrong with or around me. “Ah, yes another Mary mess”. These words not only stung but started to be internalized. If someone says you are something often enough it will start to seep its way into your self image. There are many stories of super models being called ugly as children, (too tall, too skinny, to unusual of features) and taking years to erase that thought from their own minds, if they ever could.

My minister interrupted the long-planned stewardship service yesterday with his take on a deeply troubling post-election incident of bullying at a local middle school. A group of 7th graders surrounded a table of Hispanic kids in the school cafeteria and began chanting “Build the Wall!” while their victims wept. As Peter pointed out, we can tell ourselves that 7th graders are wired for cruelty and not be overly alarmed, but we know better. We know the atmosphere of hate, of divisiveness that has been fostered during this election. We remember word for word the reckless, impulsive and deeply damaging speech and actions of the person the electoral college will likely choose to be the President of what is still one of the greatest nations in the world—a land of freedom and opportunity. A land where it is legal to say almost anything except “Fire!” in a crowded theater if there is none. We treasure this freedom above all others for we have witnessed the very many societies where it does not exist. But it comes with a price.

The first of The Four Agreements in the brilliant book of the same name by the Toltec philosopher Don Miguel Ruiz is  “Be Impeccable with your word”. I originally interpreted this as never tell a lie and was squirming thinking of a few white ones I had told along the way, the omissions here and there, the tax returns that might contain a few inaccuracies. But that is not really what he meant. The message is to take great care with the words you choose to utter for they are powerful and can work for both good and evil. He is advocating for words chosen to uplift, to support, to comfort and to encourage both ourselves and others. He is asking that we use our words to spread love.

That is so very much harder than it seems. Many of us believe that the truth is all that is required for right speech. The truth is its own defense. If it is uncomfortable for someone to hear it—oh well, it still needs to be said because it is TRUE. This topic always reminds me of the scene in the lobby of a luxury hotel in Canada that my dad had booked for a family reunion. All family members were on their own to arrange transportation to the fairly remote site, but once there my dad was generously footing the bill for his kids and their spouses and kids. It was no small expense for a retired minister and an act of great kindness and generosity. Ken and I had experienced a number of inconveniences along our very long route and when we finally arrived in the lobby and were greeted by my very excited dad who said “How was your trip?”,  Ken replied “Perfectly dreadful.” This was true, I suppose, but in my opinion was absolutely unnecessary to share. A small white lie response of “Fine” or even” A little long, but we’re so happy to be here” would’ve been a far better choice in my opinion. Why make your host feel bad about something that is over and out of his control? There is no defense for such a response except truth and I don’t think that’s enough.

So what is right speech, anyway? Well, according to a yoga teacher of long ago, it is something that passes a three point check list, with two out of three affirmative answers required to justify speaking up:

Is it true?

Is it kind?

Is it necessary?

If you think about applying this in daily life it makes some real sense. Maybe you are already careful and measured with your speech. If so, I truly envy you. But if you are not, this formula may prove to be helpful. Think of all the times you have had to say something hard. Your roommate is a slob and you are on the verge of moving out. Should you confront her? Is it true-yes. Is it kind-no. Is it necessary—absolutely as she will soon be paying rent alone. Maybe a friend drinks too much and is worrying all her friends. True?-check. Kind?-maybe not. Necessary-for her health and well-being-yes. Maybe the person you love is leaving the house in an outfit you don’t like. They ask does this look ok? Saying no may be true, but it is not kind (unless they might actually embarrass themselves in something scary) and not necessary. There are better examples that escape me right now, but you get the idea.

The point is really just that we must take more care with what comes out of our mouths. People are listening. People who can be hurt by our words. People who may quote us in ways we never anticipated. I am pretty sure even crazy, orange Donald would not want his ridiculous, shoot-from-the-hip “We’ll build a wall” comment to be chanted by 7th graders to torture classmates. At least I hope not. At least I PRAY not.

Our speech has the power to destroy, but also to uplift. How many times have Americans listened to their eloquent leaders (or at least the powerfully delivered words of gifted speech writers) and found comfort and inspiration? FDR’s “We have nothing to fear but fear itself” and other fireside chats got an entire nation through the ravages of depression and world war. Or JFK’s “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country” which motivated a whole generation to take on public service.

Words can prompt action, give solace, change hearts and minds. They move us for good and evil. They help us figure out who we are and when we lack our own we can borrow those used by others. Let’s commit to making our words work to build people up, to encourage them, to make them feel good about themselves and spur them on to even greater goodness and accomplishment. So when I make a small step toward a cleaner house I hope people in my world will say “Looks great! Good for you. Can I help you keep it that way?” Instead of “Hmmm. We’ll see if it lasts.” When a student makes a step toward better grades or study habits, may we respond with “That’s wonderful! How did you do it? Can I help you keep going? I believe in you”. And when a political opponent extends an olive branch and says, “I honestly think we want at least some of the same things” try listening hard, looking for the thin spit of common ground and see if you can dredge up even more land you can both stand on. It seems the only way.

I would like to make those Active Listening exercises they make you do in relationship counseling mandatory right now. The super slow-moving, often tedious kind where you listen very hard to the other person list their grievances and then parrot back to them what you heard with “I think I heard you say that….” And then they can correct anything you didn’t hear correctly with “No what I actually said was….” I HATED this shit. It took FOREVER to cover one single topic, but when it was my turn to talk and be truly listened to, it was a powerful experience. It is really something when someone invests the time to hear you and try to understand and fully take in not just your words, but the feelings and emotions behind them. It can bring genuine healing, but it is very hard work.

I wish for all of us in the months ahead, the fortitude to have those kinds of conversations. To move past the blather and rhetoric and flat-out hate speech to try to really utter our truth as we know it and allow people we disagree with, are appalled by, are shocked to know even exist in numbers that make them nearly our statistical equals, to do the same. If you’re blue, ask a red person to lunch and vice versa. No way out except through and that means dialogue. Lots and lots of exhausting dialogue. Take your vitamins!


A Beautiful Day to be Born


Tom would have turned 66 today. It is an incredibly, atypically beautiful day here and Tom would’ve loved it. I bet we would’ve headed to the Huron river for some kayaking. He was famous for his ability to carry good weather on his shoulder. I am positive that heaven is way sunnier now than it used to be before he arrived. Both he and his brother claimed that good weather went with them on vacation almost without exception. One guy who usually vacationed with Rick, went without him one year and had two weeks of solid rain. He vowed to NEVER leave town without his buddy again.

Tom and I took a lot of trips in our short time together. We went to France, Florida several times, hiked the Grand Canyon in April and drove the coast of California in February. For the latter we were warned of the perils of our plan to visit my brother near San Diego and then book straight north through the interior, shoot over to the coast and make a leisurely drive south to our starting point. Everyone said there was a good chance that snowy passes in the interior would foil our plans and that the roads might even be impassable that time of year. We did it anyway and saw not a drop of snow and had glorious weather except for one day in Carmel and even that resulted in an amazing post-rain shoreline photo by Tom that could win a contest.

My sister took a picture of me in Ireland on the beach next to the sign we had carved in the sand saying “Thank you, Tommy” because having 6 days of solid sun in October on the Emerald Isle is unheard of. We were positive Tommy was watching over us and lending us his good weather ju-ju.

My friend’s daughter is due to deliver her second baby any day now and I was thinking how cool it would be if today were the day. I have twin piano students who were born on this date and we sang to them in class today. Alyssa was sad that she hadn’t remembered it was Tom’s birthday but I told her the only reason I did was because every single doctor’s appointment or hospital procedure or chemo treatment involved someone asking Tom his birthday. I heard him say 11/7/50 about 500 times. He wasn’t somebody who cared too much about birthdays. I don’t really remember doing anything particularly special on any of his, although I’m sure we got him presents and fed him a good meal. He was a simple man who loved his family, nature, music and us. He didn’t need much else. He liked to be outdoors with people he loved. And to make beautiful things with his hands. That’s what made him happy.

Last week we were remembering the time before Tom and I were married when he lived in a little house in Southfield. He invited us over to carve pumpkins and had bought all the fancy patterns and the carving tools and helped us create some flat-out amazing jack-o-lanterns. I know he had a picture of them on his computer and I think his brother included it in the slide show at his funeral. When Alyssa and I talked about it she said, “He was someone who just took full advantage of getting to be a dad.” Never were truer words spoken. The coming together of the (for all intents and purposes) fatherless child and the childless man was one of the most beautiful serendipities I have ever witnessed. They loved each other. She talked to him more than to any other person. He listened and doled out sound advice in measured  teaspoons. They laughed and joked and did Southern accents. He went to every football game, every band concert. He wrote her a check for getting good grades. He was so very very proud of her and loved her so dearly. And she him.

The world brought forth a rare and wonderful person 66 years ago today. And then took him back too soon in a really bad case of Indian giving. There really should be some sort of penalty, like when you renege in Euchre. But there isn’t. The only consequence is the broken hearts of those left behind, to remember and smile and cry.

Tonight Alyssa and I lit a little candle and just watched the flame as we talked about Tom and how much we miss him still. Some of the last of his garage things are going to the curb tomorrow. Someone in my neighborhood needs a place to store a car this winter so I let them clear space and bag up remaining odds and ends that no one seems to want. I recently did the same with a few remaining clothing items. But Alyssa still wears several of his shirts and sweaters and I cannot give up the forest green sweater I gave him, the one that brought out the green of his eyes. The one he had only one short season to wear.

It would be beautiful if Grace had her baby today, if a new soul weighed in on my sweetheart’s birthday,  one who could carry on Tom’s loving, patient and gentle spirit. That would be something worth celebrating.

Thomas Rue Hamill 11/7/50-2/13/15 A kind, loving carpenter who will be missed forever.

Hopes and Dreams

Every year my dad had a Christmas ritual. After all the hoopla was over, presents opened, dinner consumed, he would go around the circle of assembled family members and ask each one to share their hopes and dreams for the coming year. At least I THINK that’s how it went. I only remember going once, hating the forced intimacy of sharing my fondest wishes with family members—some of whom I did not know well, others of whom I did not like much—and vowing never to return. And I didn’t. My husband and I would go to my parents on Christmas Eve instead, which worked well because otherwise they would’ve been alone. Then we would wake up Christmas morning and drive to my in-laws for Christmas Day. Perfect. No more public display of hopes and dreams for me!

But I was in the minority. In fact, I think I was a lone wolf. Everybody else LOVED the Hopes and Dreams segment of the program and the grandkids especially cherished their tiny slice of the spotlight in an otherwise adult dominated gathering. Some of them still wax sentimental about it today, as middle-aged adults. My dad was a goal-oriented guy. He set them for himself and if you didn’t grab the bull by the horns and make your own list he would make one for you. I would often find a folded newspaper around the house with columns of numbers in the margins. He was always calculating something with his black Bic ballpoint—what the income versus outflow was for the month, how the church budget was progressing, how many weddings he would have to perform to send us all to college. I am like him in so very many ways, including this. Whenever I feel jittery, my self-soothing go-to is to work up a list of numbers—how many students I teach, what their tuition will generate, what my current expenses are, how long it will take to pay off my Visa card, how long my 401k will last, etc. If numbers don’t do the trick I can always fall back on a good old-fashioned TO-DO list which always makes me happy. My youngest refuses to ever write down anything– her own personal antidote to all the list-making going on around here. More’s the pity because the girl could benefit from a few lists!

But it turns out I do have hopes and dreams and today on my bike ride I started making my list. Here’s what I’ve got so far:

  1. I hope I will always live someplace that has leaves changing color in the fall. The splendor of our very late leaf changes in Michigan this fall has been breathtaking. I hope to always be able to experience wonder and marvel at that annual extravaganza.
  2. I hope my kids will remember to say at my funeral that I was genuinely grateful to each of my three husbands for the gifts they gave me. From Bill: the borrowed courage to take risks, especially to go into debt to buy a little piece of Lake Michigan property when we were just starting out and had not a pot to pee in. It changed my life and that of my family in wonderful multi-generational ways. From Ken: two beautiful, smart, funny, talented daughters who have enriched my life and given me the great good fortune to get to be a mom. From Tom: the bliss of finally understanding what love between a man and woman was all about. He taught me by example, by loving me so deeply and so well.
  3. I hope in my old age I will live someplace like the senior center where my piano students played today—airy and bright, full of smiling seniors who are either very active and fit or grateful just to still be moving with the help of a walker. I hope there will be a piano I can play and maybe some young kids like my students to come and give concerts. I hope there will be games galore—Bingo and Euchre and Cribbage and Scrabble and maybe Bridge. I want to play them all. And I will look forward to bitching about the food with my table mates as that seems to be an obligatory pastime. I will not be the goody two shoes who says “Oh it’s not so bad. At least we don’t have to cook.” No-I will complain at the top of my lungs! I hope I’m not one of the old women chasing after the 1 man per 50 females, but I’m not ruling it out.
  4. I hope I get to be a grandma, but if not I hope I will go to a school and read to kids or take them in the hall and help them with school work that confounds them. I hope it will be easy enough that it doesn’t confound me too! I hope there will be somebody in my family or neighborhood that will happily relinquish their kids for an afternoon so I can take them to the circus or the beach or a cheesy kid movie.
  5. I hope I will always want to try new things because I think that’s what keeps you young and interested in life. Also interesting.
  6. When I am old I hope I still want to write. I hope I can learn to paint. I hope I can be in a choir. And do yoga. Even if it’s from a chair.
  7. I hope both my body and mind stay fit. I hope I have the discipline to facilitate that with exercise and healthy eating.
  8. I hope I get to see some more of the world. I have Asia and Africa in my sights and Australia and another trip around the Greek Isles and maybe Iceland with Alyssa and Rome with Franny and Cuba with John and a return to Italy with Annie.
  9. I hope I will teach only as long as it is still a joy and then find a different way to be useful. Teach English in Africa, offer free piano lessons in the inner city, help in a school, help the hungry and the homeless with more than a check. We are on this planet together. I have had a blessed life. I want to share what I can.
  10. I hope my kids will still like me when I’m old and want to spend some time with me, but even more I hope that my life is so rich and full and happy that I am not sitting by the phone waiting for it to ring or pestering them to visit. I hope I am the cool kind of old lady that people actually want to be around.
  11. I hope when the end comes it is fast and painless. Surely everybody hopes that. If not, I hope somebody gives me a whole lot of drugs in a big hurry! I hope Tommy will be the one waiting for me when I get there. I hope the vision I had so long ago, during meditation, back when he was dying, comes true—the two of us dancing through eternity. That would be worth missing Fall Colors for.

Maybe you like to make lists. Maybe you want to write down your Hopes and Dreams. Maybe you want to take on my dad’s annual tradition of letting the whole family weigh in. I think it’s good to dream, helpful to hope. It keeps us looking forward instead of back. It makes us want to hop out of bed instead of drag ourselves into the light of a new day.

However you do it, I hope you keep dreaming.