It will probably come as no surprise to hear that I have always loved words. As a former broadcast journalist, a writer, a pun enthusiast, and an all-around extrovert, words are kind of my thing. Just ask my parents, who will tell you in the kindest way possible that as a child, I never shut up. Just ask my husband and he’ll tell you that not much has changed.
I grew up in a house with what I like to think of as open linguistic borders. My parents, immigrants from Egypt, offered up delicious daily entrees of mixed English and Arabic, with a side of French (my mom had attended a grade school run by French Nuns), and a Sunday serving of Coptic, the ancient language of our Eastern Orthodox Church. It was hard to know — and I don’t think it really mattered — where one language stopped and another began. I went on to major in French, and for my master’s, I studied the very process by which we acquire language and the way it shapes our experiences. Words are how I make sense of the world, so you can imagine how it felt the day they abandoned me.
I can pinpoint it on the calendar: Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2018. It was the day after the election in which I was a candidate for state representative … and which I lost.
And with it, I lost my words.
Trust me, there was so much I wanted to say. So many stories I wanted to tell, feelings I wanted to share, things I was sure I needed to document in writing or out loud, but when I woke up that morning, the words were gone — and they stayed that way.
I wanted to talk about the pain. About how much it hurt to lose something that was never even mine to begin with — something that only existed deep in my heart. I wanted to tell someone, anyone about the searing humiliation of a very public rejection.
I wanted to say this hurts. But I kept remembering that no one likes a sore loser, so I didn’t. I couldn’t find the words and at some point I just stopped trying because quite frankly, it was easier that way.
I wanted to tell the world how amazing it felt to sit with my parents as candidate for public office — two people who, because of their religion, had no voice in their home country; who had to leave everything behind in the name of democracy. I wanted to thank them for allowing me to stand on their shoulders, for holding me up, but I couldn’t stop feeling like I had let everyone down.
And it wasn’t just the campaign.
I wanted to talk about my dad and his battle with Parkinson’s Disease. How unfair it seems that we are helpless to help a man who has devoted his whole life to healing others. How it’s robbed us of the future we thought we’d have with him. How his hands tremble with disease and mine with rage and resentment. In this case, I had words, but only the four-letter variety.
I wanted to laugh again and tell funny stories. Like the time someone took it upon themselves to write “Asshole” on the passenger side of my dirty car, which I didn’t notice and my passengers didn’t mention until the next morning, when we were pulling into the school parking lot, and heading toward the dropoff lane — where it just so happened that the school principal was out greeting. And because, even at age 45, I am at my core good girl who does not get in trouble with the principal, I did the only thing I could think of, which was to throw the car in park, jump out, run over to the other side, and use my body as a human eraser to eradicate the offensive term. So instead of the principal seeing some mild vulgarity, he was instead treated to the sight of a mom of three dry humping a Ford Explorer. It wasn’t funny at the time. (But thankfully, it really is now.)
This was not like any of the writer’s blocks I’ve ever experienced — the kind that can be cured with a nice glass of Chardonnay, or a jar of Nutella, or both. This was more like a muffled silence, a bad cell phone connection between my heart and my brain. The words just got lost en route to their intended destination.
And then, one day, they came back. I can pinpoint the exact day that happened, too.
It was March 15, 2019, and I didn’t just leave the theater after seeing “Hamilton.” I resurfaced.
Walking out into the cool night air, pushing past the crowds of people, I felt as if I had been sitting on the floor of the ocean and needed to take my time breaking the water’s surface, lest my body depressurize.
For those of you who haven’t seen the show, I won’t ruin it for you. Although, spoiler alert from the pages of American History books — it doesn’t exactly end well for the title character.
Now, “Hamilton” is loved for many things: bringing funky beats to the stage in the telling of an historical tale; redefining the pace of the modern musical; using contemporary language to express 18th century ideas; fielding a cast of diverse actors as our founding fathers. All of which are remarkable.
But what resonated for me was its truth. I’m not talking about how accurately the story stacks up to historical accounts. I’m talking about the truth of its art. You see, the kind of truth in “Hamilton” is It’s the kind that speaks directly into your soul. The kind that says, “This is what I see. What I feel. What I know. And whether you like it or not, I’m going to tell you my truth until I can’t speak, until I can’t breathe, until I can’t type anymore, until the blood runs from my fingertips and pools upon the page. And then, once I get my breath back, I’m going to start telling you again. But, this time, even louder.”
It’s the kind of truth that reminds you of the faith of your childhood, the words that ring with a melody you know could only be composed and whispered into the author’s heart by a loving father in heaven. The kind of truth that can make you want to speak your own, that can loosen the binds of your mouth, and more importantly, of your soul.
And as I felt the alphabet begin to tumble back toward me, another truth hit me over the head. As loud, and as proud and as big and bold a character as Alexander Hamilton is, in the end, he finds his redemption — he finds HIMSELF in solitude and silence.
I see that, and I know it’s there for me, too. That somewhere between the silence and the words, there is truth. That in the places where we stop to catch our breath, there is peace. That grace and strength and healing can be words unspoken.
Recently, I took my 12-year-old son to see “Hamilton.” It was his early birthday present, the one thing he wanted. A true Super Fan, going into the show he already knew every song, every lyric, the hip in every hop.
I sat next to him, alternating between watching the stage and and looking at him to see it reflected in his eyes.
At the end, I asked him what he thought.
“I don’t even have words to describe how amazing it was,” he said. “I’m speechless. Do you know what I mean?”
My heart was full as I smiled and nodded, squeezing his hand without saying a word.
I guess I’m learning to love silence as well.
This piece was part of the “Letters from Livingston” event at the Howell Opera House on June 20, 2019. “Letters from Livingston” — the event formerly known as “The Mommologues” — is an annual fundraiser for LACASA, the local, independent non-profit organization that works with the victims of child abuse, sexual assault, and domestic violence. For more information on LACASA, click here, or call (517) 548-1350.