Here’s my column in today’s Greenville News.  I can’t build much with tools, but I’m trying to build something out of words.

I sure wish I could build things. I stand in awe at people who, given an afternoon, a few boards and some mysterious power-tools, can construct a windmill or a yacht. They build garages and gazebos for fun, and when someone asks if they build their house, they can honestly say ‘yes!’ All I can say is, ‘well, I went to work to pay another guy to build it…that counts, right?’

Most of all, I wish I could teach my children to build. I wish that they could look back on their life, from the front deck of some amazing cabin they build from hand-hewn logs, hand-forged nails and honeycombs, and say ‘yep, Papa taught me to do that!’ Thinking on it recently, I wondered what it was I could build for them, and in the process show them how to build themselves.

And it occurred to me that, since they were babies, I have been building them a castle of words. Words are important to me. That sounds obvious, but it isn’t. To some people, words are necessary and utilitarian. To me, words are gold and silver, diamonds and rubies. Or, in this case, the bricks, mortar and timber of my life.

I use words constantly. In the practice of medicine, it helps to use the right ones. Words are necessary to inquire about symptoms, to explain risks, diseases, and treatments; words are required to discuss procedures, discuss tragedy, offer hope, provide comfort and give encouragement. I wouldn’t be much of a physician without a black bag full of good words.

Obviously, as a writer I’m also a huge fan. Writers are obsessive about words. Sometimes, we’re down-right annoying when we always try to insert the right word in conversational pauses, or when we offer to correct definitions, or describe situations using uncommon words, then go on to offer the etymology of the words. ‘Oh, that comes from the Greek…’ It isn’t that we want to annoy, we just treasure the darn things.

But it brings me back to my children. A builder loves the smell of wood, the grain of it, the feel of it in his hand. He adores the way it fits together, the way structures rise, made up of planks and boards, stones and steel. And often, because he loves those things, he teaches his children about them.

I’ve done the same thing, but my materials are less tangible. From infancy, I have been reading to my little apprentices. I have laughed with them at the Berenstein Bears, Doctor Seuss, Shel Silverstein and many others. A list of our favorite children’s books would take more than one column, so I won’t even attempt. In addition, I’ve read them the Bible; Psalms, Proverbs, Gospels, Pentateuch, History, all different parts, and have paused, saying ‘did you hear that? Do you get the beauty of what Moses was saying here? Can you see the poetry in Jesus’ words?’ Along the way, I’ve been building them houses of words, to comfort and shield them, to encourage, delight, enchant and protect them for the long years of their lives ahead.

In addition, they have been surrounded by words of blessing. If a stone were laid every time their mother and I said ‘I love you,’ to them, we’d have a castle of Medieval proportions in our yard. She and I have joked with them, made puns and word-plays, have told them they were wonderful, told them they could do so much, that they are invaluable, amazing, talented.

Likewise, we have warned them against danger, taught them right from wrong, explained the poison of hateful, profane words and ideas. These are also part of the structures of words we have built for them, though more like a moat and drawbridge than the building itself.

The rewards are evident. They now collect words and word histories the way Jan and I do. They look for reasons to use their new words. They say them, and repeat them, they look at them with love, the way a mason touches stone, a carpenter the curve of perfect wood. They tell me they want to write books and present me with poems they have written. They discuss Bible passages they have read for pleasure, and season their sentences with words like ungulate, fortnight, incarcerate, whereas and therefore.

I may never teach them to use tools. But I have not left them devoid of the ability to make things beautiful and powerful from the raw material of words. As a father, I could do worse.

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