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Sexing the Cherry

The enduring power of words

Jeanette Winterson in ‘Sexing the Cherry’ spins a wonderful tale about the enduring power of words. Cleaning women ascend into the sky each evening in baskets slung beneath hot air balloons. They scrub from the world’s ceiling all the words that once spoken, rose during the day. The women rid the atmosphere of the passionate purple pantings of lusty youth and black venomous spewings of hatred and nastiness that threaten to pollute the air. Each word leaves a trace – for good or bad, but all must be removed or the sky will be suffocatingly full of them. Beware any whisperings below a roof that will not let words ascend: their weight may crush you…

Sometimes the cleaning women illegally trap the sweet sighs of sonnets in small boxes, which if later opened just a crack, will continue to whisper their words of beauty.

Words endure. Used wrongly they can wound deeply. ‘Sticks and stones can break m bones but names can never hurt me.’ Wrong. Some of the most indelible words are the smallest ones. ‘Stupid’, ‘fat’, ‘ugly’, ‘slow’, ‘retard’, ‘faggot’. Words of beauty can be twisted to cause hurt ‘baby’, ‘black’, ‘girl’, ‘gay’.

Ted Kennedy’s death brought a replay of his words at his brother Robert’s funeral. Words of strength and love, delivered with such conviction that they could not help but endure. Who can forget ‘I have a dream…’ or ‘We will fight them on the beaches’ or ‘Vini, Vidi, Vici’….
A maxim of medicine is ‘to cure occasionally, relieve often and comfort always’. Perhaps we could extend this maxim – apply it to our words. Try always to relieve and comfort, and occasionally to heal.

Five short phrases I have learned working in Palliative Care. Healing words, finishing words, enduring ones.
“I forgive you’, ‘forgive me’, ‘thank you’, ‘I love you’, ‘Goodbye’.

The first four are healing statements, the final a finishing one – leaving no relationship dangling. Oh that we could feast ourselves on these phrases, that we could offer them when needed, and mean them. That we could each hear them when we need them.

These words would leave no stain on the sky. They would be trapped by the sky-cleaners in their little boxes and listened to in the dead of the night when their lack feels most great; they could be sold for enormous sums, such is their rarity.

Let’s make them common.