I got a text Sunday night while I worked in the middle of a quickly emptying stage at the Long Center; Ballet Austin‘s most recent production had closed that afternoon. We were halfway through the load-out. I was exhausted and a little depressed because I hadn’t managed to work on my WIP in weeks. This was one of those periods where the pull of my day job was testing my commitment to maintaining a writing practice. And I was failing.
The text came from my brother in Maine:
“Hey Brad just wanted to let you know that Marylou passed away today. Love you Brian.”
Mary Lou was his mother-in-law, and her death had been imminent for months. I still considered her a friend, even if her crippling dementia had wiped any memory of me from her mind. We had gotten close one winter in the mid-nineties when I lived and worked in her home trading my then meager carpentry skills for room and board. She and her husband, a master carpenter, had hired me to help them convert their 18th century farm house into a B&B.
That text from my brother, so simple, with barely any punctuation, destroyed me in a way that I would never have predicted. I made an excuse to my crew head and fled to the upstage bathroom before I lost it. Luckily it was empty. I locked the door behind me and leaned against the gray tiles to stare down at my phone, nose dripping onto its screen. The words blurred out of focus.
Eventually my vision cleared and my breath smoothed. But I couldn’t pull my eyes off of my phone. Each time its screen went black I woke it back up to read my brother’s text another time.
A half-familiar thought was trying to penetrate my grief. Eventually I let it.
We humans are communicators like no other creatures on the planet. Sure, non-humans use language in varying degrees. I get that. But not like people. Our communication skills border on the divine. Take my brother’s text. With a few dozen keystrokes he quite literally pushed me into a new world where my friend Mary Lou no longer existed.
That is power.
And he’s not even a writer. But his message (re)taught me a lesson I’ll probably never finish learning: written expression has the power to change the very fabric of the universe. That’s at least part of why I started writing poems and stories as a kid. When I write I become a little god.
All writers do.
I’m not speaking metaphorically here. Writers of all kinds put words together in ways that transform their readers’ worlds. Whether it’s a text telling of a loved one’s death or a thousand page novel or a treatise on quantum mechanics, when it’s done well writing has the strength to shift any paradigm. Just consider the hundreds (if not thousands) of holy scriptures that humans have created, or the U.S. Constitution, or the Odyssey. I could keep going, but you get the point.
This post is not one of those of seminal documents. I know that. I just wanted to publicly thank my brother for his unintentional reminder of why I write. And say goodbye to friend Mary Lou. Both of them showed me something I needed to see at exactly the moment I needed to see it. It hurt to learn of my friend’s death, and I know her passing leaves a hole in a lot of lives, including mine. But at least one good thing came from her passing.
I went home that night and I wrote for hours. Most of it was crap, over-emotional and meandering. Stuff that will most likely never see the light of day. I didn’t care; I was writing again. It didn’t matter how I felt the next morning when the alarm slammed me into another fourteen hour workday. I had remembered my power. I had reclaimed my tiny slice of divinity. Once more I was a little god, however sleep deprived.