Writing from the Heart: Words run deep

Ask yourself before you speak, is it true, is it necessary, is it kind?


This piece isn’t about the fact that my first affair was with a girl, although that is a fact. It’s about how one spoken line, a few words, can change a life, a mood, an entire situation.

In the ’60s my sister and I met a guy who had started something called reality therapy. The questions you ask yourself before speaking are: Is it true? Is it necessary? Is it kind? We fell in love with the concept, and maybe with the guy too.

Many years later, when my son Dan started to lose his ability to hold a fork, to do his own insulin shot, and then started falling after taking only a few steps, screaming obscenities, I didn’t ask those questions. I said the exact worst thing anyone could say. I said, “I know how you feel.” It wasn’t true, it wasn’t necessary, and, I learned by his reaction, it wasn’t kind. He was 22 and had been diagnosed with MS, and I was telling him, “I know how you feel”? Of course I didn’t know how he felt, but what I meant straight from my breaking heart was, I know how hard this must be. But even those words weren’t accurate. I knew nothing of what he was going through. I only knew how hard it was for me. I learned after a bit of time and a little shrinkage, the best thing, the only thing, to have said was, “I can’t even imagine what this is like for you.”

In the first few of the 16 years Dan was sick, my dear friend Gerry just watched. He saw the relationship up close and very personal. He listened and he observed, and he never said a word until one day he said the thing that would change everything. He said, and it just about killed me to hear, “Your pain is so great, Dan doesn’t have room for his own.”

When I say it changed everything, I mean I switched from suffering in front of my boy to taking a huge step back, and for the first time, listening and letting him have his own experience.

So words that comfort, words that change a life direction, well-considered words, are what reality therapy is clearly about.

Once, without realizing it, I somehow said exactly the right thing. I found out how right a few years ago when a young woman came up to me holding a golden velvet scarf, and said, “You won’t remember me, but 10 years ago you stopped me on Main Street in Vineyard Haven. I had quit my job, closed my bank account, and written my suicide note, and you said, “Oh my God! You are lighting up the whole sidewalk. It might be that gorgeous scarf, but I think it’s your energy.” I just want you to know you saved my life, and I want you to have the scarf. I’ve saved it all these years.”

I still can’t believe how easily my words had rolled off my tongue without having a clue that they could have such an impact.

And yet I’ve noticed that a lot of people (and sometimes I’m one of them) think the kind thought but don’t go the extra mile to express it.

I was in a locker room once, and probably unattractively nude, when I overheard two women talking. One said, “Can you believe Maryanne’s cream of mushroom soup last night? Wasn’t that amazing?” And the other woman said, “It was the best I’ve ever had.” Now to be fair, their lockers were right next to mine, but to be completely transparent (no pun on the nudity), I eavesdropped, and this time, even though I had never seen these women before, I guess I felt we three had bonded. After all, what’s more intimate than dripping together in our birthday suits? Without skipping a beat, I said, “Well, did you tell Maryanne?” They looked at each other like, “Who the f___ are you?” Finally one of them said, “She knows she’s a great cook.” That’s where I wanted to lecture about the difference between withholding and gushing.

And the affair with my roommate in college? It was 1963, and on a long-distance call to my mentor older sister whom I hadn’t seen for a year, I had whispered that I desperately needed to talk to her. I told her I couldn’t say it over the phone. Three days later she walked in the door and after our initial hugs, said, “So? Tell me!” And I said, “I can’t tell you here. We have to go out somewhere.” So we jumped in the car and started driving around the neighborhood.

“Now, WHAT already?” she demanded, a bit peeved by this point. I said (gulp), “I’m a lesbian.” She said, “Oh, thank God. I thought you were going to tell me you were pregnant.” And if that weren’t enough to dissolve the 21-story building made of guilt I had been carrying on my shoulders, she said, “Have you even done it with a boy yet?” And I said, “No.” And she said, “Then why are you so anxious to label yourself? Why don’t you just do this and see what that’s like?”

In just a few chosen words she took away the shame and opened up the door of possibilities. And reminded me if it isn’t true and it isn’t necessary and it isn’t kind, let’s just keep our mouths shut. Otherwise, open wide.



  1. Nancy,
    Thank you for these powerful examples that help us see ourselves as we are. Words do matter; they can raise us up or take us down. Thanks for showing such beautiful vulnerability that we can relate to.

  2. Beautifully written.
    I have learned how deep words can run.
    A few years ago I worked in an office surrounded by big, burly men.
    Every day I walked through the parking lot to get to the threshold of my office. I would pass quite an interesting group of he-men with “High-T” (high testosterone) toking on their cigarettes.
    During one particular period, as I came through that group, I would asked one particular coworker, Adam, how his mother was. You see, she had been hospitalized with a serious ailment, and I could have only imagined the stress that was being put on him. So every single day, I stopped… and asked… and listened… until one day he told me she had been released and was doing very well. I could see the wave relief enveloping his face.
    Fast forward 6 months.
    Our office had a Christmas party, and I began to make my way around the room to give my best wishes to those in attendance. When I reached Adam, he leaned forward and began to speak. I noticed tears welling up in his eyes, and his wife, who was sitting beside him, squeezing his arm. He relayed to me how much my daily inquiry meant to him while his mom had been ill. He said no one ever asked him how she was doing or how he was coping. He told me I would never know how much he appreciated my sincere concern for him.
    As I drove home, I kept thinking how simple it was for me to just ask. I could have said “good morning” and continued on my way, but I asked. It took nothing from me, but meant everything to him. I will never forget the depth of the words that I carried and what it meant to another precious soul.

  3. Your words are medicine for my ears. Thank you Nancy. I need as much positive as you can give so let the flood gates open. Jo

  4. Dear Nancy,
    I took a course with you at the Rowe Center 8 0r 9 years ago. We drove there directly from an appointment with a pulmonologist who gave me a diagnosis of COPD. I had been reading your books and absolutely love your way of writing to this day. This piece inspired me to connect with you and tell you that you are precious to me. My granddaughter gave me a book for Mother’s day to fight “My Life’s Story and I want you to know that you continue to be my inspiration! Thank you from my heart,
    Mary Ellen

  5. Wonderful piece, as always. I love the story about the woman who gave you her golden velvet scarf in Vineyard Haven and how your uplifting words saved her life that day. Wow. We never know how our words will affect someone, do we? Very insightful, inspiring messages. Thank you so much for sharing, Nancy!

  6. Thank you, thank you, thank you Nancy for your warm compassionate words which encourage all of us. One of my sisters told me once that most people hear a lot of criticism on a daily basis, but like the cook in your story often the compliments go undelivered. Thanks for reminding us that saying something positive and kind costs us nothing but often makes a huge difference to the other person.

  7. Nancy, my guru, I was behind you in line at Net Result, years ago, but we had never met. Something happened (I don’t recall what it was) that inspired me to narrate a corresponding calamity from my past. Must have been fairly funny. Everyone laughed. But you turned around to face me and said emphatically, “You are a writer!” It’s still only been baby steps for me, but steps I could never have taken without your belief in me birthing my own.
    Side note:Dylan Thomas’ “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” comes to mind now, with old Mr. Prothero smacking at the smoke with a slipper and old Mrs. Prothero, ‘who always knew the right thing to say,’ hostessing the firemen with the friendly, ‘Would you like anything to read?’
    Thank you, Nancy.

  8. Every word is always worth the wait and always worth at least one read. Thank you, Nancy, for saving us all with your golden scarves of words.

  9. Hi Nancy- Thank you for your authenticity and insightful messages. I had the pleasure of joining your writing workshop in MV after loving your humor and inspiration in your book: Writing from the Heart.
    I remember a friend telling me she was suicidal until someone smiled and said hello at the grocery store. That impact made me realize our words, kindness and attention always matter. Thank you for sharing your stories and light.

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