CEBU CITY—“Words unlock worlds.” The small note, scribbled in beautiful script by a girl named Alessandra Yu on June 28, 2014, was tacked on a board in a nook inside the Shakespeare and Company Bookshop, on Paris’ Left Bank. It leapt at me through a photograph taken by a friend who was in Paris this week. The romance of literature, and the Left Bank, immortalized in scraps of paper written by visitors from all over the world.
Serendipitous. My favorite line from Shakespeare is “Give sorrow words.” Very true, how words have the power to unlock worlds, but in the same heartbeat, build them, as well.
Today, I am in Cebu to attend a wedding. Finally finding true love at the age of 40, my nephew Josuel ties the knot with Mary Jan, a flight attendant based in the Middle East, who has traveled extensively and seen the world. Words built their world; with the aid of technology, this love took shape and was forged across datelines and continents, culminating in a wedding this weekend.
Coming to Cebu is like coming home. As a child, I would spend summers in Mandaue City, where mommy grew up. We would board a ship in early May and arrive a few days before the town fiesta. I would spend my days hanging out in my aunt’s store, listening to a cacophony, fully immersed in the dialect of the province.
Returning home, my dad, for whom English was the mandatory language at home, would complain to my mother that a week in Cebu always ruined my facility for the English language. Mom would just shrug and say, “It will serve her well one day.”
Words unlock worlds.
Growing up fluent in Cebuano enabled me to break barriers between myself and fisherfolk who had lost all source of livelihood in the aftermath of “Yolanda.” Walking with them last December, by the rugged but beautiful coastal town of Albuera, a town half an hour from Ormoc, Cebuano words allowed our disparate hearts to connect to one another. “Bahala na nga naguba among balay ug bangka. Basta buhi mi tanan. Ibalik ra gihapon na sa Gino-o.” ( It’s okay. Never mind if we lost home and boats. What matters is that we are all alive. God will give us back everything in due time.)
What amazing faith in the face of great loss. It was hard to hold back tears, that dusk, hearing a fisherman tell his story and watching Albuera’s children play tag, and fly their white kites defiantly along the shoreline against the backdrop of a gentle sunset and dark blue skies.
In another instance, after a toy outreach in the devastated town of Loon in Bohol, surrounded by the pulverized remains of their beloved cathedral, the children, who lost homes and all their possessions, would sit with me, hugging their stuffed toys, narrating stories in the local dialect, about the earthquake.
One of them, a girl around 11 years old, asked me if our group had visited Tacloban. She reminded me not to forget the children there and to bring toys for them, too. “Ayaw intawn sila kalimti, ma’am. Mas lu-oy baya sila namo.” (Please don’t forget them ma’am. They are in a worse state than we are.) Words unlock worlds. Mom was right, Cebuano has served me well.
Words, both spoken and written, have the power to heal.
Writing therapy guru Dr. James Pennebaker says: “When people are given the opportunity to write about emotional upheavals, they often experience improved health. They go to the doctor less. They have changes in immune function. If they are first-year college students, their grades tend to go up. People will tell us months afterward that it’s been a very beneficial experience for them.”
In another workshop entitled “Writing to Heal,” instructor Maureen Ryan Griffin says that each of the students came away with a new sense of the power of words. “They actually got access to using language as a healing tool in a way they had never used it before. Through writing, they become active creators of their life stories. They are not simply people that something bad or painful has happened to.”
Both good and bad
In writing to heal and restore, Pennebaker emphasizes the need to write about both the bad and the good. “The emotional findings, then, suggest that to gain the most benefit from writing about life’s traumas, acknowledge the negative but celebrate the positive.”
Pennebaker offers six helpful guidelines in his book, “Writing to Heal.” First, find a time and place where you will not be disturbed for at least 30 minutes. Second, write continuously for 20 minutes. Next, don’t worry about spelling or grammar. Write only for yourself. Fifth, write about something extremely personal and important for you. Finally, deal only with events or situations that you can handle right now.
Writing has always been my way in the world. As a young girl unable to verbally express my innermost feelings to my mother because, believe it or not, I was painfully shy at one point in my life, I would often write her these long, intense letters where I would either talk about my sorrows or apologize to her for some misdeed.
Words unlock hearts.
As a young woman in love for the very first time, I would write poetry and love letters to the object of my affection. I remember how my first boyfriend, who was a math wiz, would tutor me in Algebra by making number problems whose answers would result in short phrases. One afternoon, nursing a high fever, and struggling with the equation, I was on the verge of giving up. But his love was both stern and endearing. “No, solve it. There’s a surprise for you in there somewhere.” And so I did.
One of the equations resulted in the phrase, “I love you.” It was the first time he had ever spoken those words to me. Like me, he was a shy young man, too. Oh, the power of three words, and the various permutations of young love. Thirty-three years later, I can still remember how my heart felt at that moment. I went back to school two days later, walking on air.
As a bereaved mother, telling my story and that of other mothers like me was my way out of the gulf of grief. And now, at the midway in life’s journey, words continue to be my pillow and blanket, comforting me, helping me find my way through the many transitions in this season of life.
Words have carried me all my life, and writing has been as essential as breathing. Yes, words unlock worlds, break barriers, cross continents, bridge hearts. There is no pit too deep, no heart too broken, no distance too far, that the grace of God, and the power of words cannot overcome. Words are magic. Choose them well.