‘Tis the time of year to be thankful; for our friends, our health, our possessions. I’ve written extensively—though not exhaustively—on gratefulness. I think many of you know a good deal about my life, passions and loves. So when thinking about what I was grateful for this Christmas, a conversation with a pen-pal of mine prompted me to think of an old friend: my Chambers Etymological English Dictionary.
I’ll give you the same backstory that I gave my pen-pal. My family and I weren’t wealthy when I was young, we were in fact quite poor at times. I don’t recall us having a television until I was older, but you can’t quite trust the young mind. If we did have one, we didn’t use it often. Indeed, my parents did the best that they could to amuse us, and provided us with all manner low-budget toys and activities. We took swimming lessons at the YMCA. We played outside lots. Once, I smashed my head after freewheeling down one of those byways between two streets. You know, the ones with the chain link fences. Anyway, all sorts of memories seem to be surfacing in my mind as I think back. However, of all of what we did to entertain ourselves, there is no single activity that I cherished as much as reading.
I read everything that I could get my hands on. Well, mostly the stuff with the flashy illustrative jackets showing heroes, dragons and men with glowing staves. I can’t say precisely why fantasy intrigued me so strongly. I think it appealed to my solitary nature, my belief and deeply veined faith in good triumphing over evil. I’ve always liked “grand” things. I don’t dwell in the small stuff. Why read a Nancy Drew mystery when I could witness the saga of heroes being born, of wickedness being overthrown, and of legends being laid down in time? And still, past the imagery and evocative elements of these works, what held my mind captive most of all was the prose of these epics. At first, I tripped my tongue over most of what I saw on the pages. But, in time, I learned of the magic book where all such knowledge of English resided: the dictionary. Like a sorcerer’s apprentice, I studied the book. I repeated sounds like incantations, I tasted the nuances of language in my mouth as a sommelier learns his palate.
Language is a form of music, I believe. It is a slow and spoken song, and mastery of it, or appreciation, comes with dedication. I decided to dedicate myself to this music. Perhaps one day, to become a master of it. I would say that from that moment on—about five years old or so—I knew that I would be a writer. I had to become one, nothing else would satisfy me.
My passion, my obsession with the English language continued into my formative years. While other lads were discovering their bodies, their first kisses, their first Hustler, I read. I mentally fapped to the syllables of sycophantism, epicurean and zygote. I devoured books by Tolkien, Le Guin, Barker, Cooper—anything with complex language, strong narratives and morals, and a touch of the weird and wonderful. And so this behavior of reading, learning and devouring continued, quite unabated until my early teens. We’re going to gloss over this slice of my life since it’s not the greatest. Short version: depression, struggles with identity, various narcotics, unpleasant family relations. Teenage stuff. It goes without saying that me and my dear friend Mr. Chambers took a bit of a break from one another’s company. In fact, he stayed on my bookshelf, hidden amid all the literary relics of my childhood for years and years. It wasn’t until I was in my mid-twenties that I found him again. I dusted the fellah off and used him as an impromptu mouse pad. Finally, he began to see proper use when I flexed my atrophied literary muscles sometime later and tried my hand at poetry. Love poems, believe it or not, since I used to fancy myself quite the Romeo. We dabbled together in various stories and half stories, through different relationships and seductions. I did that dance people do when they know they should be doing something, and therefor engage just enough—writing, reading, in this case—to convince themselves that they’ll eventually get around to a real commitment.
Life goes on, as it does, regardless of our dallying. Then mom got sick. Her illness triggered a number of “shit or get off the pot” moments. I got married. I quit my job and became a caregiver, and aspiring author. I wrote my first draft of Feast of Fates (which was such a different animal). Mom passed away, and I wrote my way through my grief. I published Feast of Fates—dedicated to Cynthia of course. And here we are. You, me, and my dear dictionary (that wasn’t an intended rhyme, but I’ll take it). Seems that I went full circle in my life. I spent twenty and some years fighting the urge to write, repressing my thirst and passion, and now, finally, I’ve rediscovered all they joy of language that I’d forgotten since my youth.
Yes, at times my sentences become a bit of a carnival ride, words strung together with abandon. Usually, the editors have snipped the worst of what you, the reader, will ever see. But I can’t help myself. In the words of the dearly departed PD James: “We who write in English are fortunate to have the richest and most versatile language in the world”. She’s right. There is a nuance to so many of our words, a precision so great that we can extract sense, divine meaning from the unintelligible. Writing is a science, an art, and a drug all in one, with language being the components for that craft. Now that I’ve given myself so wholly to language, now that she and I are intimate bedfellows, I don’t think that I shall ever surrender her again.
Reminding me of these eternal vows, my dear friend Mr. Chambers sits beside my computer; now in a place of honor and no more a mouse pad. I feel his letters watching me like gold-embossed eyes. We are friends, we are teachers to the other. As with language, we shall never be apart. How odd that as an adult, creeping toward my forties, it’s not a favorite teddy that has come with me this far but an old and battered book. I can’t even remember where I got it from. It’s quite possible that it was wrongfully taken—children don’t have the greatest sense of ownership. I honestly can’t remember how we became acquainted, and it isn’t important. What matters is that we met.
On this Christmas then, I am thankful to my oldest, dearest friend. A toast to you, Mr. Chambers.
Merry Christmas to all.