I reached maturity in a time when words were worth a death. Born in the 1920s, raised in the 1930s, I turned eighteen in 1942. As a young man, I knew, by the words Hitler used, that the Nazis represented a force that must be halted. The words describing horrors I could scarcely imagine evoked other words in opposition, words wedded to the deep meaning of the word justice my mother had so carefully taught me, sprung from her study of the New Testament. My mother’s abiding faith in justice, linked to the words of “freedom” and “liberation,” sent shivers over my flesh.
I volunteered for the draft in 1943 and was sent to the infantry, reaching France in the summer of 1944, where an artillery shell blew open my head, shredded my back. Words, then, by God, for me were worth a death.
I have struggled over my long lifetime to live by this fundamental truth: words, whether written or spoken, are, in the deepest sense, a gift of grace to humanity. In all these years of reading and writing, it is only when I discover in the proper sentence and paragraph – accompanied by the right rhythm, alliteration, and assonance – only then do I reach my “truth,” no longer locked deep in my unconscious, but shimmering with a conscious clarity that creates an inward certainty. When that understanding finally comes, I do achieve a grace, free to live according to my inner honor and integrity.
The meaning of words in American society has changed profoundly, and to my deep and painful regret, I played a part in their betrayal. In 1961, I entered the profession of city planning, where I survived by words – those words used for preservation of land and sometimes for projects of social justice and racial equality. Yet, that career and the way it used words let me down. The progressive social and housing programs of the 1960s became promises never fulfilled. The market and the bottom line ultimately determined how land was used. I found myself using the words of city planning less to consider social needs and more to describe the construction of those suburbs and the gentrification of our cities, and I found this change increasingly impossible to endure, to be a lie. I had betrayed the words I was wounded for in the war; I had betrayed the inheritance of words I had been given as a child.
As soon as I could, I quit city planning. The other stock of words from my past erupted from my unconscious, like the explosion of a long-denied love affair. Beginning April 1, 1979, I devoted myself to the proper use of words, to writing three books of nonfiction, poetry, essays. It has been the most satisfactory life a lover of words could imagine.
I so wish I could talk with my mother about what I have accomplished. For we would talk a little as she read from her Bible or as she painted in the May sun in her garden, while I worked on my journal at her side. We could both understand, together, at last, what John meant in the Bible when he wrote, “In the beginning was the Word.” ~~~
Edward W. Wood, Jr., was a member of Yarmouth Friends Meeting and an attender at Mountain View Friends Meeting in Denver, where he worshiped with the Westside Worship Group. He is the author of three non-fiction works: On Being Wounded, Beyond the Weapons of Our Fathers, and Worshipping the Myths of World War II. He died in April of 2021.
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