My heart is heavy, so I pick tomatoes. Not big slicers or heirlooms, but round dark globes black as cherries on a tree. Indeed, they are cherry tomatoes. Black cherry tomatoes. My fingers carry the lingering scent, a distinct aroma that can only be described as tomato, sharp like poison.
From the time I was a child, I called tomatoes poisonous. I can’t tell you why. I didn’t like them. Maybe I thought they muted the tang of a sandwich, or rendered a salad bland. Maybe someone tried to feed me watered down spaghetti, and I thought it tasted awful without proper spices.
As a kid, I favored spice — I appreciated garlic, herbs, black pepper, and spoonfuls of vinegar. Vinegar lessens the poison of tomatoes. It spruced up the blandness. Because of vinegar, I love tomatoes in ketchup, salsa, and Caprese. I grow cherry tomatoes for bite-sized snacks constructed of one cherry tomato, one fresh leaf of Thai basil, one small fresh Mozza-ball, and a good dousing of balsamic vinegar.
I eat two Capreses, sit in the canopy my maples, and contemplate the toxicity of the world.
We need less poison. Today’s headlines (and I’m referring to responsible journalistic sources) offer a range of trends from someone airing grievances to others demanding justice to a young person blasting and organization to families scrambling after a raid. And none of these stories relate to the loss of life from mass shooters over the weekend. It’s apparent people feel angry. Understandable. People also feel scared and unheard.
Voice is something I encourage writers to develop. You can think of voice as a person’s style of writing, an imprint on the page as unique as a thumbprint. The process of writing can also help people find their voice. It’s not a technique you can learn or imitate from another. You can’t take on someone else’s set of fingerprints. Voice is your core authenticity and something for you to explore and discover.
The late Toni Morrison — a mentor I read from afar but held close to my heart — has this to say about writing:
“Make up a story. For our sake and yours forget your name in the street; tell us what the world has been to you in the dark places and in the light. Don’t tell us what to believe, what to fear. Show us belief’s wide skirt and the stitch that unravels fear’s caul.”
The origin of voice comes from our bank of experiences. Where we have invested our energies, passions, and actions gives back dividends unique to each of us. Consider that every week, a group of writers set out to craft 99 words about the same theme or topic. Individually, we submit stories as unique as our own lives and personalities. Even when we share similar backgrounds or hit upon the same idea, each story carries a unique voice.
And the more authentic you can be to your own voice, the more it will stand out. The better we are at articulating our deep places — the dark recesses and the breaks that let the light shine in — the stronger our voices will be. Toni would agree to go where the prompt leads you! She said,
“Writing is really a way of thinking, not just feeling but thinking about things that are disparate, unresolved, mysterious, problematic or just sweet.”
Today, I’m thinking about the toxicity of words, not just what we say but how we say it. Yes, writing can help us poke into those painful areas where injustice is unresolved and equality not yet achieved. Writing explores our scariest what-ifs and most cavernous mysteries of the human psyche. But when we write about our darkest hours, fears, and observations, it is a clear voice of authenticity that resonates the most. In other words, scathing rhetoric does not justify the problems delved.
The world is losing the humanity of its voice. Those who want to air their grievances are doing so by stepping on the heads of others. Language of politicians — spin and bias — permeate mainstream media and choke the social media networks with soundbites that lose meaning with regurgitation. Language has become a battlefield, and not everyone fully understands they are speaking with grenades in their mouths.
On Sunday, I read more articles than normal, trying — once again — to get a handle on where all this toxicity is coming from and why my nation is killing itself with an icon of its democratic freedom. I read everything from how mass shooters have domestic violence in common to the accessibility to weapons of war. Take away the guns seems a simple solution, but how do you remove the hate?
Consider these recent acts: a week ago, three Michigan men (mid-20s) were run down by a neighbor when they shouted for him to slow down on their shared access road. After killing one man, and maiming another for life, the neighbor drove back to the scene and continued to shout at them. Over the weekend, two local friends had a dispute, and one got in his SUV and ran over his friend twice. In Montana, a man cracked the skull of a 13-year-old-boy for not removing his hat during the national anthem at the start of a rodeo.
I mention these three acts because they are people within my known circles, not removed mass shooters. Yet, all senseless acts of violence are rooted in hatred, in the toxicity of I’m-right-you’re-wrong. And this poison begins with language. Light bulbs went off after I read this article in The Atlantic about Language in the Trump Era. It addresses the clarity of Trump’s simple language and what many hear as truth-speaking. But it also addresses how the more articulate opposition also creates a hierarchy and sense of superiority with its language.
The more individuals shout for their voices to be heard, the more shouting. The more shouting, the more emotion rises without thought. The more shouting, the more intellect rises without emotion. Toxic shouting erases our common ground of shared humanity. Yes, I’m tempted to shout, “Stop shouting — and listen!”
Toni Morrison also had this to say:
“I feel totally curious and alive and in control. And almost … magnificent, when I write.”
Why? Think about your answer for a moment. Make that your next private journal prompt or public post. Why do you feel curious, alive, in control, magnificent when you write? Because you are exploring and discovering what is most authentic to you — your voice. All that shouting comes from people either desperate for their voice to be heard or manipulated by that desperation. And because it is not authentic (yes, you supposed truth-speakers are not speaking from your truth; you are voicing opinions because you are afraid to discover your own true voice).
It’s easy to tune out the shouting, to post memes of peace, and disengage from seeking justice. But apathy is as dangerous as agitation. Can I make the world write in 99 words what is really at the heart of their fear? Can I get them to write 99 words about what they love most and set it in a collection to show the world we are more alike than our othering makes us? If I had a hammer…I’d hammer out 99 words of love between my brothers and my sisters, all over this land.
I’d say love is the answer, but Toni Morrison wisely cautioned:
“Love is divine only and difficult always. If you think it is easy you are a fool. If you think it is natural you are blind.”
It’s daunting enough to send us all into hiding. Writer, Cheryl Oreglia, shared a post exploring her own experience with what it is to feel like hiding away from the toxic world events: Fill the Potholes.
Writing has a place in this world. You are called to not only tell stories but to use your voice in the telling. We can spend a lifetime — and I hope I do — exploring who we are and what our voices have to say. We can easily tear down. Toxicity does that — it destroys. But think about how we can build up with our words. What can we construct with our authenticity?
A final thought from Toni Morrison:
“I know the world is bruised and bleeding, and though it is important not to ignore its pain, it is also critical to refuse to succumb to its malevolence. Like failure, chaos contains information that can lead to knowledge – even wisdom. Like art.”
August 8, 2019, prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about a poisoned apple. Let’s explore dark myth. Deconstruct the original or invent something new. Negotiate the shadows, shed light, but go where the prompt leads you!
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Like a Poisoned Apple (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli Mills
Danni wrinkled her nose at Ramona’s offering. A tomato, freshly plucked. A Kellogg, an heirloom bright as carnelian and hard to grow in North Idaho. But Ike’s grandmother had forgotten that Danni gagged at the taste of any tomato.
“Thank you, Grandma. I’ll take it home.”
Danni sighed. “How about we share it?” Maybe Ramona would forget by the time they hauled veggies into the house.
The old woman continued to scowl. “I’m not your grandmother.” Dementia worsened when Ramona tired. It was like a poisoned apple.
Maybe Ramona would remember her if Danni took a bite.