During Jack’s first visit with my family, we went Christmas shopping in my hometown, a place that is historic, bucolic, nestled along a sleepy river, a town complete with Midwestern charm and a popcorn shop. As we wandered from store to store, he began to notice a pattern, which he found unusual. “There are so many trite phrases stitched onto pillows here,” he said, smiling. There were also quite a few of those trite phrases printed on coffee mugs and paperweights.
I know now that Jack loves the Midwest in many ways and the surprising, delightful reality that he is now married someone from there. I make small talk with new mothers in coffee shops. I smile at strangers we pass on hikes. I introduced him to true American treasures, like Fruity Pebbles, Pop Tarts, and s’mores. He loves diners, wants to help me canvas for the midterm elections, has caught fireflies, and has eaten bacon on cheeseburgers because of my Ohio roots.
During final weeks of my sophomore year in college, I found myself at an emotional standstill. I’d weathered two upsetting, unexpected breakups that year. I was struggling with a chronic health condition. I felt sad and lonely. I was so close to the end of the academic term and yet the four weeks remaining felt like the steepest and most impossible climb. I took refuge in washing my laundry with lavender scented detergent and listening to Lake Street Dive with my windows open, in calling my mom, in reading: soft and simple comforts.
On a Saturday evening, when I was avoiding parties I had no interest in attending, I began to write motivational phrases, excerpts from poetry, quotations from men and women I admired in black marker on crisp white paper. I liked the clean contrast, so I papered my dorm room with these noble thoughts, as though I was wrapping myself in a strengthening cocoon.
Waking up to words drawn from the work of Maya Angelou and Barack Obama helped me feel better and more capable again. Be crumbled, so wildflowers will come up where you are… But, still like dust, I rise…Be intimate with the life in front of you.
Some may find phrases printed on household objects to be obnoxious or saccharine. Fair enough. But as a writing teacher once told me, though it is so unfortunate for the poet, trite things are often true. Trite things might be exactly what we need to hear, to see, to absorb in this culture that is so hypnotized by novelty. The trite and true are connected because anything that feels true, that resonates with enough people to be passed down from mothers and fathers to children for generations, becomes folk wisdom.
We take in so much violence, depravity, fear, and grief on a daily basis. The media obsessively circles around death, precipitated by either human violence or natural disaster. Culture circles around nothingness: social media, reality TV, celebrities and consumerism. This can leave us feeling cynical about the direction of our lives, our country, and our world, so we can either become numb and choose not to notice the meaninglessness that pervades our cultural foci or take up emotional defenses. Much of what we absorb in this cultural moment is visual: strings of edited videos and doctored images. It is overwhelming, the amount of time we spend before screens that show us collections of pixels, two dimensional artifice.
I now have a partner who isn’t afraid of emotional intimacy and who listens to my deepest feelings, so there is not the same great need to paper my bedroom walls with Angelou’s “Phenomenal Woman” or Rumi’s mysticism. But I still want more words, and I want more inspiration because the world feels so misguided to me. I still want to see words every day that encourage me to be kinder, to be braver, to stand tall within myself, and look for ways (small ways and broad ways) to help the world become more beautiful and more just.
Culling wisdom from books is one of my favorite pastimes, so it’s lucky I find myself in graduate school where it is my job to read esoteric texts and discuss them with others. In the lack of free time and from within exhaustion, reading is not always possible. The busyness and entropy of everyday life make it challenging to slow down and find the necessary silence. Visual overstimulation can be lessened I believe by placing words, helpful thoughts, trite truths, around us. They are centering. Seeing and reading bite-sized pieces of lessons learned can help us slowly become wiser, the way mantras help the practitioner bridge volition with action.
Like pleasantries and sugar cereal, I believe the Midwesterners are right yet again on this one. Inspirational words, whether printed on a coffee mug or extracted from a poem, are penetrating to the mundane, to hopelessness, to the vicious circuity of anxiety. Trite and true expressions are like flame-retardent to the unsure, wild mind: efficient, effected, and tested. They fill the gaps within our lives, and they can help to fill us up.
So here is your daily dose of trite and true words:
Live your values.
Do all things with love.
You’ve got this.
Today is a new day. Begin again.
Let it be.