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Cathy Tallady: Don’t take for granted the power of words

Many years ago, I reconnected with a college professor I knew when I was a drama student. He had directed our children’s theater program. I’d played the role of Cinderella’s dog in the play by that name. There had been an article about this professor in our alumni magazine, recording his outstanding service to his community in Illinois. I wrote to congratulate him and wondered if he remembered me. He wrote back to thank me and said he did – probably because, as a “dog,” I’d had to sing a solo on stage, and I was usually off key, and that was memorable!

We started writing letters and gradually began sharing creative things we’d written. He even began calling me once in a while. One year, he sent me a Christmas tape he’d made. I became overwhelmed by this unexpected connection, happening across the miles.

One day when he called, I asked: “Kelly, how did it happen we’ve created this special friendship, so unusual with the distance between us?” And, without even a pause he said simply, “words.”

Words. By letter. By our creative writings. By phone. Slowly, over time, we’d shared our lives and become real to each other, negating miles.

It started me thinking about words. There was a time, eons ago, when there was no language as we know it. Just primitive communication we can only imagine. We celebrate the invention of the wheel. But what a celebration when humans could first find ways to meaningfully talk to each other.

Such a breakthrough was dramatically brought home to me by the story of Helen Keller. Anyone who has seen the movie of her childhood will never forget that scene when Helen put her hand in the water from the well and suddenly connected it with joy to the spoken word “wa wa.” That magic moment brought tears and opened up the world of communication to Helen, who, for the rest of her life, became a true miracle.

Words are a miracle when I think about it. The ability to express ourselves accurately and thus to be known. The ability to give information, debate ideas, express feelings. A wonderful gift that perhaps we take too often for granted. Especially today with the overwhelming diminishing of our language over the Internet.

I do need to acknowledge that words can hurt. The well-known saying: “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me” is not true. Words last much longer than black-and-blue marks and often do great damage, remembered forever.

But, I must also acknowledge the grand words, also remembered, spoken throughout our history. Words that inspire: “Give me liberty or give me death.” “Government of the people, by the people, for the people.” “Ask not what your country can do for you ...” “I have a dream ...” We treasure these words and they move us still.

But they don’t have to be dramatic moments in history to be meaningful. We are blessed with words every day. Words spoken over a cup of coffee or tea, sitting around a campfire, “pillow talk.” Words shared without fear, with those we know and love. Over the phone when distance separates us, through letters and notes written on special cards.

Beautiful words: “I care about you.” “Can I help?” “I’m coming over.” “Are you OK?” “I miss you.” And, best of all, “I love you.”

My dear professor was right when he replied to my question, “What brings us together?” His answer, given without pause and with such certainty: “words.”