For as long as I can remember, I’ve looked for salvation in words.
Words in literature, poetry and magazines, crooned from behind the static of my favorite radio station, whispered unexpectedly in a new film.
Early in high school I began a blog, on which I reposted fragments of words that loosened my chest and seemed capable of expressing my experience in a way that I myself did not even try to put into words. Looking back on the site, I see now that the posts mark points in my teenage timeline like hasty pins on a cardstock map. “There is beauty, heartbreaking beauty, everywhere,” mused Edward Abbey — and as I stepped outside to walk my dog around the block and saw how the softness of afternoon light kissed the sidewalk, I felt my own heart leap.
As I continued through the seeming drudgery of my high school experience (though I would later come to look back on it with nostalgia), words propelled me forward. Indeed, it was in the most delicate moments, when the white walls of my bedroom seemed to threaten to collapse and I scrambled for breath, that I grasped for the comfort of an arrangement of words to remind me of the broadness of the world. Aloud, I would breathe the words of Wendell Berry: “I feel above me the day-blind stars / waiting with their light. For a time / I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.” And, for a few moments, I was.
A couple of years later, I began to collage. I obsessively collected bits and pieces of paper wherever I could — pamphlets, receipts, day-old newspapers. Voraciously, my eyes would scan these documents, searching for something that provided the indulgence of recognition or affirmation. Or simply, perhaps, a new, beautiful, ideally hopeful paradigm. Snippet by snippet, word by word, sentence by sentence, I pieced together fragments more rooted in potentiality than lived experiences. In one, a baby became a girl who became a young woman who became an older woman who became an even older woman. “How did I get here?” said the latter.
The summer after graduating high school, I attended my first concert ever — Jack Johnson at the Greek Theatre. Compelled by a recent urge to capture the world around me, I took eager notes on the event on my iPhone. I found myself most struck, however, by the opener, John Craigie. A scruffy man with a harmonica and a guitar, he strummed and twanged, “What phase is this? … All we do is change / So please tell me, how long do I get to keep this phase?”
It was the same compulsion to record that led me toward pursuing journalism in college, the same compulsion that led me to seek some higher truth in each piece of art I reviewed, each theatrical production I attended, each concert I covered. Indeed, it was the same compulsion that compelled me to pursue a literature-oriented major in college.
I drew inspiration from a high school English teacher who noted how, in humanity’s storytelling, one can find certain universal truths — the certain restless itch of a lazy day, perhaps, the deep satisfaction of an evening stroll, or the dull ache of homesickness. During my nighttime ritual of reading before bed, I began to wield a pencil or highlighter, marking passages that struck me, just as I pieced together literary fragments on paper through collage or online on my blog. As I sat in my new dorm room on the first night of college orientation, feeling utterly and completely alone, I recalled a line I’d underlined a few evenings before, a quote from Heather O’Neill’s “The Girl Who Was Saturday Night.” “It was terrifying having the responsibility of living in a world filled with so much wonder,” it read. And I agreed.
When I began my studies at UC Berkeley, I felt myself waylaid by a creeping sense of unrest and uncertainty, and my confidence in my own passions and beliefs staggered and tumbled. I trudged through the days, untethered and unclear of any feasible path. I had pushed the words that had once sustained me away, hoping to convince myself of their silliness, their impracticality and weightlessness. And yet, even when trying to run from them, I found salvation in these same words. Though practices of collaging and blogging slipped from my grasp, selected quotes (from David Foster Wallace to Mary Oliver to Ocean Vuong) remained plastered to my dorm room walls, gentle reminders.
When people write about being saved by poetry, it may sound trite, or perhaps like yet another instance of hyperbole for dramatic effect. But words have indeed, in a way, saved me — through darkness and despair, words have provided a warm and gentle solace.
I believe that the words of the poets whose lines I revere like scripture will always remain with me. From Abbey to Berry, Craigie to O’Neill, I find great comfort in knowing that I can carry these words with me wherever I go — no matter how dark, no matter how desolate, no matter how lonely.
Ryan Tuozzolo is the assistant arts & entertainment editor. Contact her at [email protected].