All the Words I’ve Loved and Lost

Fierce, Flowery Words by Jo Hannigan

Mementoes and memories of old lovers went into cardboard boxes—box coffins of dead love affairs. A label displays a number, a year or span of years, and initials; sometimes I’ve also hand-drawn images of daggers, a skunk, monkey, or donkey; or a black moon, zodiac sign, or stars. The boxes still rest on an unpainted shelf in a hall closet, behind winter coats, wool shawls, and seasonal decorations. I’ve pondered whether I should perform a similar ritual for words I’ve lost, forgotten, abandoned, couldn’t decipher, or threw away unintentionally. At very least, should I hold a wake or elegy, or would that be one more excuse to drink in poor imitation of Hemingway, Joyce, Parker, or Chandler; or grieve nostalgically for what’s gone forever?

Writers make stuff up. We pull words from walls of graffiti, from dialogue misheard on movie screens, and from living and dead lovers and friends. Our words are inscribed in diaries, the back of envelopes and hands, and in the marginalia of books. Language that conveys our most explicit thoughts comes from a dark, inscrutable place inside us, and sometimes reveals our ethos, our vulnerabilities. Despite knowing that, writers occasionally take words for granted; we abuse our muse and display an unzenlike attitude. We brag about editing grocery lists, finishing crossword puzzles first, and creating Scrabble words worth 75 or more points.

Words seduce us, arising from the haze of a damp dream—you know what I mean—then pull away abruptly, leaving us longing and unsatisfied, muttering four letter words and epithets. Words we’ve lost remind us of ex-lovers that refuse to be taken advantage of and never call. We cringe in embarrassment when we think we’ve created a work worthy of praise, only to realize someone else said it first and more succinctly. Sometimes, instead of cringing, we stubbornly cling to a phrase, or an exotic gypsy caravan of words that don’t belong in our story—or anywhere else.

Words escape all the time into dark and stormy nights, rap lyrics, and formulistic novels. Dogs and computer programs eat our words; brilliant phrases sail down the shower drain because we lacked a pen or recorder. Without a wave goodbye, words evaporate into the recesses of a tired mind. Our beloved words lie on the floor of editing rooms and become scratched out rewrites destined for the trash bin.  

Where do lost words go, hide, hang out? Can we journey to a word Hades and retrieve them if we promise to not look back? If words fall down rabbit holes, can we eat or drink a magic potion and rescue them? That didn’t work so well last time I tried it, though I still recall the vivid tangerine and violet colors and a whiff of Arabian musk incense. Words we assume are fixed in time or place can vanish when we look away for just a second to check on a child’s whereabouts, or adjust the oven temperature.

How hard can it be to capture and organize 26 letters; 20 or so phonemes; five vowels; a dozen critical punctuation marks; 100 rules of grammar usage, composition, and form; nine number symbols and a zero; and a few stylistic devices of rhetoric, while avoiding clichés and awkward metaphors? It’s plenty hard when the right word behaves like a devious doppelganger hanging from a mirrored ceiling. And what about words that stalk you like a jilted lover but have nothing to offer that you need?

Do degrees, workshop apprenticeships, or the rapturous reading of the world’s best literature endow us with a backstage pass to the wonderful world of words that inspire? Do we get extra credit for being awake and banging the keyboard from the witching hour until dawn, or entering 15 writing contests in 10 days? These actions confirm our persistence and dedication, but don’t guarantee anything. What about parties and opportunities missed because we had a deadline and couldn’t find the right words? What’s the exact amount of dues we must pay to make our words dance and perform like a pro, which in turn enables us to get paid?

Sometimes we get accused of not being able to make meaningful or useful products because words already exist. Are we simply rearranging deck chairs or mimicking monkeys that could eventually type a Shakespearean sonnet or play? It is an art to be able to polish, parse, and persuade words, or when needed, perfume or punish words to ensure the symbols on a page do our bidding. We create tangible products in the form of manuscripts, a Dewey Decimal assortment of books, instruction manuals, and how to guides. We create intangible art via the smile on a child’s face, the sigh from a reader’s lips as the last page is turned, and the magic we feel as we slip into someone else’s skin and life.

How infuriated are you when you had the precise word the sentence needed, but you misspelled it so badly it was unrecognizable? Or worse still, autocorrect reinterpreted the entire sentence and made it as unfathomable as a lover you meet 20 years after your affair, and he has, shall we say, let himself go—and he doesn’t even remember your name. Oh cupid, you half naked chubby cherub, we need to talk about your aim.

Despite images of skunks and skulls and crossbones, I’m fond of most of the box coffins of lost love affairs on the shelf in my closet. Occasionally, I peak inside. There I am with him, grinning giddily, my head resting on his shoulder, my body pressed against a tree. I can still feel the rough bark against my backside. His friend snapped the shot and yelled at us to hurry; it was going to rain. In that same box are thousands of lovely words—his letters and mine—recalling a time when we were as passionate about each other as I still am with words.

The most poignant memories captured by words can reach through time, summon a longing, can still make us blush. I mourn the persuasive words I meant to say before a lover left—words I used as weapons, only to find I’d shot blanks into the corpse of our relationship. I have been assailed and humbled by so many losses. There are also words of forgiveness that form just as we drift off to sleep or retreat exhausted after an argument, which remain unsaid. I bewail my addled brain for forgetting the perfect word to describe a pain sharper than a sudden loss, deeper than regret. I miss the absence of a lover’s presence in my bed and words stripped from a page that somehow still leave an indent. I bemoan words I wish I could forget that sound more like begging and less like an appeal to turn back the clock; and words that are so ravenous they consume flesh and soul.

I am grateful to the younger me that diligently kept diaries, scrapbooks, and stinky sniglets of awful poems and prose attempts. These bits of writing serve as signposts and coordinates, word trails and contrails that vanish into blue sky or alert me to new vistas ahead. Just like the contents of the box coffins, the scrapbooks show me detours I took, new roads I paved, and instances when a pothole full of words was able to sink or resurrect a joyful memory.

Into boxes, notebooks, and early attempts to seduce myself and other lovers of words, I’ve poured my most intimate memories and aspirations. I discovered new writing techniques like Frosting or Moneting, how to use dialogue to speed the action arc, and acquired substantive editing and technical writing skills. Is it enough to learn and go on, without those words I loved and lost?  Without words that when read would enable me to deliver the impact the last drop of a bone dry martini has, the intensity of a lover’s consuming embrace after a long absence, or a child’s infectious giggle?

Words I’ve loved and lost do infrequently return. With open arms, I welcomed back words I’d written on a post it note that outlined the theme of an article I wanted to write after staying at a hotel hosting a clown convention. I group hugged words I rediscovered in the lining of a purse I donated to charity. The creased paper contained thoughts I’d jotted while walking the dog and became a published article. However, one set of words strutted back, cock sure and glittering, literally, having adhered to the underside of a craft project. Those words were rubbish, though a few survived to serve as decoupage. Like a suspicious paramour, I have rummaged through lingerie drawers, old computer files, and jacket pockets searching for the loveliest words I ever wrote. In fact, the return of lost words has occurred more often than the reappearance of lost lovers. None of my ex-lovers have returned to collect the pen knife, the silver dollar, or the CDs they left behind.  

Caring for box coffins requires intermittent visits and the vacuuming of cobwebs. I wrestle with what to keep, what to discard, and what to say outside the box. Which box gets a R.I.P. and which box bears a few extra caustic, descriptive words? If only the words had the power to elicit a solace similar to what I feel when I touch the objects residing there, the concert and airline ticket stubs, cocktail napkins, matchboxes, broken jewelry, and pressed flowers.

I decided to hold a dirge for all the words I’ve loved and lost, and for words twisted by politicians, mistreated by the media, and maimed by the inarticulate. Adieu tempest tossed words, so long cherished journal erased when my purse and its contents drowned in a downpour. Goodbye words dearer to me than the lover in box #3. I loved you and now I must let you go. I’m moving on; off to seek younger words with taunt muscles that can multi-task. I’m on the lookout for words with long expiration dates and plenty of pizazz. I’m also dusting off words languishing in notebooks and idle computer files, and words that contain words inside themselves, like beau-you-tiful and ass-u-me. My tablet is fully charged and portable; my ink is indelible; my Thesaurus is open wide. Love will come again; I will be ready.  

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