Tag Archives: Pain

And So It Was Not So

solitudeThese 20 minute stories resemble dreams more than fiction, and everyone knows how odd another person’s dream can be. Nonetheless, here’s another one…

At first the delay was years, and then months, then weeks, days, hours, minutes. When his childhood became fiction, it made little difference—who didn’t invent growing up?—but the moment others regarded his memories as artifice, he began to worry.

You may not think it matters much, the past might as well be constructed because we can’t return to it anyway, but he relied on accepting yesterday as fact. He needed everyone to know where he worked and which house he occupied.

His family, though they found him charming and handled his presence with equanimity, regarded his claims on them as part of a fanciful and absurd story.

“We can’t be expected to believe that—

“But it’s true”

“It’s too unlikely.”

You may wonder how they accounted for his clothes and possessions strewn about, but the objects inspired more delight than skepticism. They clapped their hands and tittered. They begged to know what magic placed his things there and celebrated his skill. They were perfectly content he should have them “back,” for they’d never seen them. They belonged in his fabrication.

He didn’t know what to do but to leave and walked from the city into the countryside’s expansive fields—any place the reality or fiction of the past seemed immaterial, where less required faith. At first, he felt happy enough. Other creatures knew only monolithic Truth and, when they met him, showed the usual sort of instinctive, self-protective distrust.

One day, gleaning the landscape for food, he met someone equally unseen. They began talking, and he resolved to accept her as imaginary. She, apparently, decided the same. They unwound their histories around a fire and a simple meal. They laughed with abandon, all their anecdotes performed as fantasy. After making love, they fell asleep in each other’s arms.

Perhaps “love” is the wrong word, you might think. Knowing each other so little, you may say the label couldn’t be right. Yet that’s the word they’d have chosen in the moment. Both felt lucky to be sure of an unfettered present.

When he woke, she was gone, and he began to believe he dreamed her. Afterward, nature changed. Nothing expected transpired—rain seeped from earth and, as if drawn through straws, ascended to the heavens. The sun wandered, a skipping stone on the horizon before it settled in darkness. Dew disappeared the moment of notice. The four seasons received random orders.

His final acquiescence took the form of a wish, one you must have considered too. He wished all of it had never happened, and, instantly, it was so. Our story continues without him.

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Filed under Allegory, Doubt, Dreaming, Experiments, Fiction, Fiction writing, Grief, Identity, life, Pain, Parables, Play, Solitude, The Apocalypse, Thoughts, Worry, Writing

Jenny

rooney-mara-thomas-whiteside5Another character sketch. Another exercise. This time, I started with this picture of Rooney Mara and then wrote from that. I’m not sure what I’m doing with these yet…

The two hours before dawn passed in half-dreams and worries. A couple of times a voice seemingly outside Jenny’s mind spoke nonsensically—one silly pronouncement, like “It’s too cold for that!”—loud, as if she still shared the room with someone. She took these random pronouncements as signals she’d fall asleep again, but noticing them meant awakening too. Lately inattention required will, effort to elude and escape her thoughts.

Jenny tried not to look ahead to a midday meeting with her boss and instead recalled a high school hayride. One of the boys in her English class, a football player and avowed Christian, asked her out, and, worn down by the many times he’d tried, she agreed. She pictured the truck idling in a scrubby field at twilight. The scene reduced to that openbed truck, and the other couples—they were all couples—huddled under blankets amid hay bales, breathing exhaust. Jenny didn’t know the month exactly, but the chill of winter lay weeks away. During the ride, a sheen of sweat gathered on her legs under the blanket. She remembered that. The boy’s arm over her shoulder felt like wood, like the yoke the oxen wore on the cover of her US history textbook.

Her husband died in spring. At the wake, Jenny’s brothers and sister repeated how mercifully short his illness was. He’d been going to the gym daily before the diagnosis and, even in his final week, his eyes possessed their usual vitality. Up until the end, as frail as his body became, he still seemed young, joking that he’d finally lost those few extra pounds he’d been trying so hard to shed. She laughed because she thought it might make him happy. Just after he’d gone, she left him with his family and went outside to cry, the first light of the pale sky impossible to bear, its ill-timed beauty taunting her.

“You have to be ready,” he’d said the day before.

“I know, but let’s not talk about that.”

“Tell me you’re ready.”

“I am… but don’t want to be.”

This morning, Jenny opened her eyes to light and roused herself. The alarm hadn’t sounded, but an early start meant missing traffic. Her closet seemed spacious since she and his sister cleaned it out. Jenny laid the new blue skirt, a blouse, and her underthings over the rumpled covers of her bed.

She sighed as she turned the shower on. Her work had fallen off—her last review was not nearly as glowing as ones from last year—but her boss would be sympathetic, asking how she was “holding up” before turning to instructions repeated with a pleading expression she’d come to hate. She’d prepared for that day’s meeting until very late the night before, assembling a presentation full of statistics and new marketing plans. She shouldn’t have to bring work home, she knew that, but revising her resume and reaching out to contacts used up hours too. Jenny felt tired of driving, tired of working.

Water met skin like summer rain, tepid and gentle as another day began.

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Filed under Ambition, Anxiety, Depression, Desire, Doubt, Dreaming, Empathy, Experiments, Fiction, Fiction writing, Grief, Identity, Laments, life, Love, Meditations, Modern Life, Pain, Showing and Telling, Solitude, Survival, Thoughts, Time, Voice, Work, Worry

Another Exchange

800_Bare-Bulb-400x320I thought it might be fun to try something dark and Kafkaesque. I was wrong, but, nonetheless, here’s another twenty minute fiction…

The inspector says, “No good fortune eliminates life’s little troubles,” and, with that, breaks another finger on the accused’s left hand. The force—he knows from experience—is big enough, and the responding howl will diminish into a whimper before long.

When silence settles again, he readdresses the accused and says, “You couldn’t have expected anything else.” Really, expectations are immaterial—the inspector stopped thinking of justice as more than fiction long ago—but the statement sits in the script he’s built over years.

“Do you want something to drink?” he asks.

Perhaps the inspector pours too fast, but the accused doesn’t expect alcohol, and what he doesn’t spray across the room dribbles down his chin, pink with his own blood and thicker than it ought to be.

“A shame” the inspector mutters. He half-expects the accused to say the same in unison—some relief might be welcome—but somehow that never happens.

“Can’t you speak?” he asks instead.

The accused’s crime remains unnamed, needs no name. The way of things places them in these roles, and they act. Outside this room, the inspector hears birds, their song filling the lapses between sobs and heaves of breath sawing the air. A gust stirs the leaves. Sunlight surges and fades as clouds pass.

“You might as well,” the inspector says, “it doesn’t matter.”

The accused is mute. It’s the nature of an accused to be so. Some transcendence would be nice but, to the inspector, it’s all so predictable—the questions, the answers, the inevitable. Sometimes, he finds himself suddenly as here-and-now as the accused, but the inspector slides into another moment, no second persisting long at all.

“Listen,” the inspector says, “We only want something, anything you can give.”

The accused may be unconscious—so hard to distinguish—and that’s fine with the inspector. The best time for acquiescence is exhaustion. Accept a reality other than your own and you shall be freed.

“Yes,” the accused whispers.

The rest joins history.

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Filed under Allegory, America, Anger, Brave New World, Dissent, Doubt, Experiments, Fiction, Grief, History, Kafka, Laments, Metaphor, Modern Life, Pain, Parables, Politics, Silence, Sturm und Drang, Thoughts, Worry, Writing

Not the Post-Independence Day Message You Hoped For

superman-citizenship-1303916053While visiting Canada two summers ago, I learned Superman renounced his American citizenship. Apparently—I don’t follow Superman anymore—he wanted to be a citizen of the world instead of belonging to one nation.

Or so he said. Was he just being politic, eluding the fall-out from admitting he no longer felt proud of being from the U.S? Judging his feelings by my own, I wonder, was it really Superman’s queasiness about “The American Way”? Could he no longer group America with “truth” and “justice” as he once did?

I can’t be as diplomatic. Aside from wishing—almost involuntarily—for my fellow Americans’ good fortune in international sporting events like the World Cup, aside from feeling special affection for those who risk their lives for American ideals, I’m not patriotic. Oh, our history includes grand aims. Our founding principles inspire me, and our experiment in representative democracy evinces noble intentions, maybe the most enlightened espoused up to that point. Our people, despite seemingly insurmountable struggles and a system increasingly rigged against them, remain determined to make the American Dream true. And many Americans affirm my hopes for altruism and self-sacrifice.

Yet recently I’ve felt ashamed. It isn’t just that we’ve cheapened liberty by transmuting it into the freedom to profit or that we’ve placed the needs of the quite well-off above others, it’s that we’re duplicitous, espousing values we don’t follow—consciously (and seemingly systematically) informing the disenfranchised the system is working just as it ought to, was meant to.

Harsh, I know, likely to land me on an NSA list, but idealists make great cynics. The business of business dominates American discourse. The corporation is not just a citizen but the first citizen. Shareholders and employers eat first, and employees are force-fed a steady diet of cant. “You’re lucky to be working,” they’re told and “we can’t afford to raise minimum wage.” Meanwhile CEOs net in an hour what the average worker makes in month. The brave few who, Oliver Twist-style, step forward to ask for more receive cold comfort. “If we allow unions or pay you more,” they hear, “we’ll go out of business, and your job and everyone else’s will be gone. We’re all in this together, right?” We can’t even tax those who benefit from short-changing others because, despite considerable contrary statistics, they’ve renamed themselves “job creators.”

In the past, Americans asked government to protect them, and the president and congress served to monitor and police industry and curb the excesses of capitalism. Many politicians are still at it, but others say social programs and the muscle of government won’t help, that, in fact, any restriction or handout is bad for U.S. citizens. What Americans need, they say, is “opportunity” and opportunity arises from unregulated growth and tough-love self-reliance. Yet, in American English, opportunity often translates as looking away. “We need less government!” shout those who ought to know better. A cursory scan of American society tells us the majority (which we pretend is our most wise and reasonable perspective) doesn’t stand a chance against the moneyed interests of the self-interested and self-absorbed. Though materially and statistically well-off, this minority shouts at each infringement on their right to amass more. They purchase megaphones to assure they drown everyone else out. They’ve set aside their life rafts, after all.

The Canadian newspaper that brought me news of Superman’s ex-pat status included a point-by-point analysis of how difficult it is to rebuke American citizenship. Perhaps Superman could grease legal wheels, but I suspect more and more Americans feel as trapped as I do. Our nation can’t acknowledge the need for reform, much less create it. We’d rather watch fireworks, charge the iPhone to our credit card, and congratulate ourselves for pretty ideas that, each year, vanish from our reality.

Someone made money on those fireworks, the same way they made money on that patient or that student loan or that prisoner or that gun or that access to oil or that foreign invasion or that special amnesty from pursuing higher ideals and caring for others. I don’t know how Superman feels, but being born here doesn’t inspire me to love that.

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Filed under America, Anger, Dissent, Doubt, Essays, Grief, History, Identity, Jeremiads, Laments, Modern Life, Opinion, Pain, Rationalizations, Sturm und Drang, Thoreau, Thoughts, Worry

Finding Myself Here

bwphoto_assignment_3+copyMore flash fiction…

One tail of his shirt lay outside his pants, which I noted as he spun to face me. His tie hung loose. His right fist hovered like a hammer before its fall.

“You have no idea!” he yelled.

But I did. He pelted me with his breath, beer-sour, as dank as bars he and I knew, ones created to serve desperation.

“You don’t know her!”

Even closer. So that, had I less control we might bump and, from there, tangle. I resolved to go limp if our skin met, but my skin buzzed of its own accord.

“Listen…” I said

Some hopelessness swallows expression. You reach the end of air before really speaking. The silence of dread follows.

“You fucker!”

“I…”

“Shut the hell up…”

As boys out on the lake we’d worked as halves, reacting to the least shift in wind with the proper measure of canvas and rope. We’d never needed voices, even the time we’d capsized and clung to the hull. Then I’d only heard him chuckle from the other side.

The first blow hit my temple and slid off as I turned my head, but the second, in my stomach, departed before I knew he’d launched it. I’m not sure how I landed on all fours, but when he kicked my side, I arched like a cat, the keen taste of bile in my mouth. The rest was lost in scraping along the asphalt parking lot ahead of his pursuit, all elbows and knees, forehead, shoulder, hip. I may have fought back but can’t remember.

When I opened my eyes, I was between two cars. He’d left me the strange stillness of dusk. Only the sky remained bright. The rest bathed in gray, and no one stood near. I was afraid he would be close before realizing I didn’t care, that I might prefer it.

“I’m sorry,” I said. I crawled two more steps and lifted myself up by the car’s sides.

When I kissed her the first time, I pictured this. I peeked to see her eyes closed, the hint of a smile daring fate and abandon.

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Filed under Anger, Apologies, Chicago, Desire, Envy, Experiments, Fiction, Identity, life, Love, Memory, Pain, Voice

No Buddhist

11621426-big-golden-buddha-with-lotus-flower-at-da-lat-vietnamEvery moment, a Buddhist might tell you, possesses infinite promise and infinite futility. “Promise,” however, doesn’t imply some potentially positive future outcome but instead an opportunity to know that moment as itself.

“Futility,” they might say, is a misnomer. Nothing can be futile if you live it. Each instant is full. You only need to pay attention and accept every sensation, thought, and feeling as what life is… with emphasis on the present tense. The butterfly doesn’t resent a storm, and the storm does not object to the butterfly.

I’m paying attention. This week, as I was going down stairs I’ve traveled hundreds of times, I missed a step and, finding my foot somewhere I didn’t expect, I landed awkwardly. I turned my ankle, which I’ve done and mended many times, but this time I fractured the long bone leading to my little toe, the fifth metatarsal. I walked home a kilometer sensing what happened, cursing my stupidity, punishing myself for mindlessness, and hoping I imagined the pain.

The emergency room physician confirmed my misfortune. She said I had six to eight weeks of recovery ahead of me and gave me that look doctors often do when you’ve done something hapless, that mixture of amusement and chagrin and regret and sympathy. Sometimes they tell you they’ve done something as dumb. Not this time. Before offering the diagnosis, she said she was sorry. I appreciated that.

Apparently, my injury is quite common among the aged.

A Buddhist might not cry as I did. Exercise is such a central part of life for me, and now I face one trial as I seek to heal and another as I regain fitness I’ve lost healing. We all need challenges, I suppose, but we don’t desire adversity we haven’t engineered. As much as you’d like to be calm and accepting, you can’t help re-imagining (and re-re-imagining) the wrong second, wondering how fate screwed you over.

There’s a Buddhist parable where a farmer loses his horse and a neighbor says, “How unlucky!” and he replies, “Maybe.” When the horse returns with two other wild horses, the neighbor changes his mind, but the farmer still says, “Maybe.” The next day, one of the wild horses throws his son, and the son breaks bones. The neighbor says he’s “unlucky” again and the farmer says again, “Maybe.” Then the army comes seeking soldiers and passes over his son as unfit… you get the idea.

I’ve been stumbling around on crutches wondering what benefit might come from my regret, what test this calamity signifies. I’ll pass through grief, and that’s necessary. I’ll learn new ways to live with myself that don’t involve punishing my body every day. That’s good too. I’ll need patience, which is what I’m worst at.

Intellectually, I’m fine. I can handle it. On the other end of these six to eight weeks, I may be a better person. But right now, honestly, I feel lost.

Perhaps this event meant to remind me how far I am from becoming Buddhist. This second—this very second—I’m pissed, I’m pissed as hell. I’ll be better because I must. The next few weeks, I hope, will determine how.

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Shrouded

Dark_house_by_F3rd4I’m so busy this week, I worried I’d have nothing to post today and actually only have this, a vignette and an exercise of sorts. I opened Chronicle of a Death Foretold to page 54 and stole (with adaptations) one sentence. Then I set off,  just to see what occurred next…

He drank the second bottle more slowly, sitting down, looking insistently toward the house on the sidewalk across the way, where the windows were dark. The night hid him, and he felt sure if she looked from one of those windows, she wouldn’t see him. But the familiar wave of vertigo rolled through his body—maybe he was more visible than the thought.

He knew how foolish he could be and how wrong he often was when drunk. He put the bottle down gently beside him, determined he’d had enough.

She might not be there at all, and he hoped instantly that was so. Why had his feet carried him there when he had no more to say and she said every word already? At first, he’d believed if—as she spoke—he held his love in his mind like a candle, she might see it behind his eyes or feel its faint warmth. His silence might speak. Staring at her house in the dark might speak.

Ridiculous. He pulled his feet into the shadows from where they’d edged into moonlight.

He knew her mother didn’t like him but hadn’t heard her speak in her mother’s voice until the last night they were together. “You have no plans,” she said, and it was true. He had no plans except her.

Closing his eyes, there in the night, he whispered, “Except you.” His voice startled him. He grabbed the bottle and took a long swallow. His head swung to the space behind him, and the world momentarily blurred in flux.

He wished again for something else to say but, anyway, he had only himself to say it to.

Down the street, a couple passed through the intersection. She laughed at a witticism he couldn’t hear and shouted, “You have no idea!” The rest tumbled inaudibly between them, her and him, all of it incomprehensibly but vividly intimate.

Once he’d said to her, “I’d like to say what I feel,” and she’d said, “Then do it” and he tried, but it never sounded right, even when he thought ahead to what he ought to speak.

“You aren’t what I need right now,” she’d said. That was the last time they touched.

Another swallow, and the bottle emptied.  He lifted it over his mouth, and a drip missed and rolled off his chin and down his neck. He wiped the tear away. He stood unsteadily, dusting himself off, straightening his pants with a tug.

Before he stepped into the streetlamp, he’d gather himself. Drunken dignity was still dignity. If she saw him, she might think he had purpose, that he was between her and someone else, marching still.

He took the greatest volume of night air he could, sighed, and stepped onto the sidewalk.

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Filed under Apologies, Desire, Doubt, Experiments, Fiction, Fiction writing, Grief, Hope, Identity, Laments, life, Love, Meditations, Pain, Silence, Voice

Unrequited

thought30Jan08At an undefined place, an undefined couple eat an undefined meal together. They talk across the table, each question and answer bringing them closer to definitions. She desires that. For his part, he likes mystery, sees his absent identity as the vital trait making him himself. She adds to what she knows about him, and he fights being known.

When he leaves the frame, he disappears, but she continues assembling him. What she remembers and what she invents are barely different, each the mirror of the other, and a picture forms from mist. She makes a face for him. All that she guesses tells her the face is real, whatever its deficits may say. While he’s away, he’s still in some sense there. He isn’t anything she cherishes, just something sensed and realized, enough.

He wants to return and delays, feeling named already, feeling embraced.

She waits. The clouds cradle the moon. The breeze doesn’t surge to attention, won’t arrest her thoughts of reunion. She watches other tables, looking for another story like their own.

She remembers another time, one hidden from her before, some part of her own definition she’s forgotten. Her father once warned her about this moment, once said she’d be deceived. Creation isn’t certainty, though it might feel so. Faith is made of steel, he’d said. Though you wish for more, it’s a wish and not him.

He pauses again. He watches an image staring back at him.

The sky loses its focus. The night barely proceeds and still passes. Has this music been playing all along? Has the table been between them all this time?

An itch rises. She thinks of all that can’t be true, and mountains collapse. The moon, despite its still place, sags. Her eyes identify she’s alone. He’s gone, and did he ever appear? Time, the ever patient, blinks.

He comes back to find her gone.

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The Messenger

chicago-downtown-sunset_30728_990x742I’m having a busy week and only found time to get a little writing exercise. I’ve tried to compose a very little story of ten sentences, the first of 50 words, the second of 45, the third 4o… you get the idea. It felt a little like rolling downhill, and the tone and content may have tumbled with it…

Because you left the door open and because your expression said you meant for me to enter, I walked through it, and, though you wanted comfort—isn’t comfort all we ever want?—I was only silent company, another heart in a room, a near stranger often worthless even to himself. Once, as my mother waited for my father, sitting in the gray light of a Saturday’s end, an empty glass in her hand, her hand resting on the table, staring toward the street, she hummed music I barely heard and didn’t know, and I spoke. She turned as you turned, eyes landing on my face as if my face were dusk itself, the final whisper of light when sun slips past the last obstacle, and every echo of reflected gold in every window blinks out. Now I don’t remember exactly what either of us said, but her half smile, which she hoped offered warmth and attention, couldn’t hold its place on her lips and, despite her, fell with her tears. So perhaps you understand why I didn’t extend a word but sat just out of your reach and vision, more keen to be present, frightened to topple your fragile calm. When you grow up in a house that swings between ferocity and exhaustion, you harmonize without noticing, settling into whatever keeps you safe but close. And what was there to say that you didn’t know?—he was gone and meant to be, wouldn’t be back. Sorry as I was then, I couldn’t tell you so because I loved him too. He left both of us, and he meant to leave. I only found him gone.

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Large Talk

small-talk-graphic“Small talk” is a strange term for conversation intended to put people at ease. The terrain seems too expansive to be comfortable to me—what can you say about where you work, your education, or even tomorrow’s weather that’s small in any way?

“Do you like living in Chicago?” someone asks.

“Do you have an hour to discuss my mixed emotions?” I reply.

So, okay, maybe I’m just bad at keeping small talk small. If you ask me how I feel about something or what something is like or where I call home, I’m likely to fumble for what to say because, despite being prepared with a reliable answer, I can’t help thinking you really do want to know. And that means my answer is complicated, always complicated.

Those good at small talk manage to amuse while offering little. The friend I consider the greatest master of the art deflects every inquiry that penetrates more than a centimeter. He volleys like a tennis pro and wrong-foots listeners with spontaneous laughter and faux intimacies. He says nothing substantial, and everyone who meets him walks away a. liking him greatly and b. learning little. He likes to talk small.

Small talk, he says, is personality sampling. You communicate yourself. Content is irrelevant. If people believe they know you, it’s because they see how you talk and how you think. Possibly, they know nothing, but belief matters. They meet, they think, a genuine you.

Men seem to be the smallest talkers. We expect other men to avoid emotion and speak sports. In the absence of a postage stamp of common territory, we generally meet there. I know enough about baseball, basketball, or football to understand the language, but, when I turn the conversation to running—the only athletics I sincerely care about—small talk founders. My conversation mate’s face says I’m teaching.

And teaching isn’t small.

I live for the moments talk goes large. From my perspective, the unlikely reunion of strangers offers a precious opportunity for anonymous confession. We might get to discuss what these small talk questions mean, what they imply about human interaction and where and how we protect ourselves.

At one of my wife’s work parties, someone wanted to know whether students had changed in all the years I’ve been teaching, and we wandered into discussing nostalgia and the personally revealing nature of what we wish to believe about the past. We didn’t learn each other’s names, but if I ever saw her again, we could start just where we stopped when her husband joined us and started talking about the Bulls’ chances once Derrick Rose returns.

Because it’s modular and superficial, small talk can’t truly be interrupted. Mingling must be fluid. It requires elusiveness and suggests being no one. Large talk, in contrast,  says you should be universal, human, real, vivid, and sincere… as anyone actual might be.

Unfortunately, I’m a failure as a decorative spouse or crowd-sweller. I misread when the desire for large talk is mutual and welcome. Instead of both parties venturing and returning important statements, I convince listeners I’m a little off. I console myself believing I’ve given them something to begin their next, smaller conversation, but mostly I’m awkward.

At a recent gathering, the topic turned to the paleo-diet, the eating plan that has people eat only what early humans might. I commented, as food was scarce, early humans would have to be omnivores and, if you left a case of Pepsi or an open bag of Cheetos, they’d consume it… so maybe, I suggested, we’re already on the paleo-diet.

Some people laughed, but then I said, “I wonder about paleo-parties. Do you think early humans talked about their diets? Do you think they had paleo-chit-chat?”

Silence.

I have to learn to stay small.

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Filed under Anxiety, Apologies, Doubt, Essays, Home Life, Identity, Laments, life, Meditations, Modern Life, Pain, Thoughts, Words