I crave pardon from the gods of language, for not reading more of her work. I will cure that condition in the coming months. It is Toni Morrison’s passing that prompts these thoughts and words.
We’ve lost a great artist, writer and human being. It is fitting we take time to note her death and to celebrate what she gave. She made her living by igniting some of the hottest fires ever created with beautiful, stunning and wise language. Her jobs included novelist, essayist, editor, teacher, and professor.
She was the first African-American woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. It was for her 1989 novel, Beloved that she received this honor.
I dip here into just a few brief comments she made. For me they give a hint of her brilliance. Take these appetizing lines as small but substantial bites of wisdom. Nibble here, then go and dine more fully on the large banquet of her amazing words and stories.
We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.
Love is or it ain’t. Thin love ain’t love at all.
Language alone protects us from the scariness of things with no names. Language alone is meditation.
I get angry about things, then go on and work.
Morrison included these lines (below) in her Nobel Lecture some years ago. These words feel eerily, as if they were spoken this very day and perhaps will need saying over and over for many days to come.
The systematic looting of language can be recognized by the tendency of its users to forgo its nuanced, complex, midwifery properties for menace and subjugation. Oppressive language does more than represent violence; it is violence; does more than represent the limits of knowledge; it limits knowledge.
Morrison wrote very little poetry. These lines, however are rattling deep inside me. I think they will stay there for some time to come.
You shore up your heart to run. To stay.
But no sign or design marks the narrow way.
Always, there is the paradox of our heart gathering strength to both run and stay. Always there is joy and pain. Always there are beautiful words to help us, help us, help us… (Help us with what? To make the sacred connection to self, others and other.)
Finally, and with a deep bow of gratitude to Toni Morrison, here is to all our safe passage on this, our most narrow way…
PS: One last thing. If you find yourself frustrated and angry these days about matters political and social in particular, don’t forget her little reminder, “Go on and work.” Following this advice will place us upon firm, courageous and yes, hallowed ground.