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Karen Benke Headshot

What's Your Word?

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I've read the book. Twice. Eat, Pray, Love. (Or "EPL" as we devotees use in shorthand.)

My husband assures me, however, I'll be seeing the movie without him. This, the ultimate
chick flick, is decidedly not his thing. I don't care. I love what Elizabeth Gilbert pulled off.
No, not just the book deal. But how she saved herself and, country by country, claimed and
returned herself to herself more fully formed.

I love how her friend Giulio in Italy explains that every city, every person has a word. Rome's word is Sex; New York's is Achieve. When asked what her word is, Gilbert isn't sure but knows she'll recognize it when she sees it. In India, she barks her recognition while doing research at her guru's ashram. Here, she stumbles upon Antevasin: one who lives at the border. That's her word, she decides. So she can live on that shimmering line between old thinking and new understanding. An "in-betweener" who can always be in a state of learning.

So I bring this simple question to a group of young creative writers who are always in a state
of learning too. Eight to 12-year-olds, ready with pencils in hand to play on the page. We talk about shape-shifting and how we don't have to be just one thing, and how we all have secret words inside of us that name who we are. We're not just our given names. But so much more. They immediately get what I'm saying. Kids are expert shape-shifters. We go around the circle. They're eager to claim their word and share it so it becomes real. The way they instantly know their word surprises and delights me. They don't wait or hesitate: "Firefly" "Black Mamba." "Shiny-Hologram." "Hider." "Seeker." "Great White Shark." "Star-Gazer." (We don't get hung up on whether they can use multiple words. This is about imagination, not rules.)

After our circle un-spirals, we say goodbye and I drive the highway home, wondering why so many adults -- whose only difference is a few more turns around the sun -- often take this what's-your-word question game so seriously. A few days later, I ask a man over the age of 45 what his word is and he looks at me as though it's a trick question. "What do you mean?" What word?" "Why?" My friend, J. laughs then says, "I'm not sure what I'm supposed to say."

It isn't a trick. My intention isn't to pull a fast one or put anyone on the spot. I'm not asking them to do anything. Are they worried they'll get their own word wrong? But oh how the right/wrong; good/bad; gold star/flunking grade mentality creeps up and slithers in. The imagination's drawbridge is yanked up; the mind's wild wandering mechanism shrinks. It happens to me too.

A sense of play and magical thinking is what's naturally alive in children. Poem making is a means for them to strengthen and explore that part of themselves that can instantly answer questions like "What's your word?" without a raisin's weight of fear.

A colleague once described the job of the poet-teacher in a child's education as someone who keeps that magical thing inside them alive and growing. And, in the case of older children, reviving it after it has succumbed to conditioning and desensitizing. In the case of the "What's your word?" question, I can see right away whose magic is still alive and whose is fading.

To trust, have wonder, experience mystery and joy is what we all need to keep opening to, in order to have instant and direct access to our word and the words of others. Not that questioning and skepticism don't have their place, but they must be in the service of something greater. In service to our creative literacy, which I consider a life-line to a better future.

"My word?" says my nine year-old son. "That's easy." He dribbles, fakes left, makes a reverse lay-up then answers, "Basketball!" Reflected in his eyes he's already jumping into his dream of playing in the NBA. When Livie who's mud-lucious and likes hiding in the garden is asked she smiles all shiny and instantly says, "Poetry."

My husband, who appreciates Elizabeth Gilbert's wit and writing style, but just didn't cotton to EPL, doesn't hesitate either: he tells me his word right away. I won't say what it is, but it suits him well.

So... what's your word? Don't know yet? There's plenty of time. Find it.