We sat on the sofa, our feet sharing the colorful quilt that made the quiet evening feel safer. It had been so long since we had just sat beside each other. The journeys in both of our lives had shifted conversation to texts and phone calls, whispered prayers and quick advice. But on that sofa, time stretched out and the words slowed down.
We talked in a continual sentence, moving from subject to subject. There was marriage and relationships and navigating life when the road looks less like pavement and more like mud. We used the words that were sacred to us, holy to us, woven into the DNA of our knitted-together friendship. Words that had found new meaning when used in the pages of our story – words that were well-worn and still true.
She paused, and tears filled her eyes.
“Has anyone ever stolen your words?” she whispered.
She paused again. “I mean, maybe once they leave you, they’re no longer yours. Maybe they’re fair game for anyone who wants them. But has anyone taken your words and made them their own – with no regard to the sanctity wrapped inside them?” She wiped away tears, thinking about divinely tender words that had become irony when someone else shared them.
I thought about the art exhibit I had once seen at the Guggenheim. I believe the term used was “reappropriation.” The artist had taken photographs that belonged to other people – and had modified them – and then called them his own. And filled three floors of a museum with them, calling it “a statement.” Some called it brilliance. But it felt illegitimate to me. He didn’t honor the original – rather, he staked his claim on someone else’s work. And regardless of how beautifully he may have colorized or painted or scuffed or texturized things, his work was not fully his own.
I remember when a dear friend texted me a photo of a tweet with someone’s bold affirmation. “What the hell, Ronne? Those are my words. I used those words to describe ME.” And I remember when a most beautifully eloquent first-person blog post was discovered to be taken – word for word – from another blog. With not so much as a curtsy to the person who labored and gave birth to the painful, truthful, hopeful language.
Words are to be shared, no doubt. We are to speak them and receive them and let them dwell richly in us. We are to savor them in conversation and hold fast to them in teaching and allow ourselves to disappear into them in books and movies and songs. But we live in the land of thieves. We pilfer and take pieces and parts of things and use them in whatever way we see fit. We grab words and turn them back like a weapon on the person who shared them. We take advice given to us and then cut the precious thread of community as we repeat the words without thankfulness or heritage. We colorize and paint and scuff and texturize stories shared with us to make our story louder.
“Yes, my words have been stolen.
“And I have been a thief.”
And there was silence, for just a moment, as the sanctified words again found their place. I prayed they would be protected. And I prayed I would honor words more. Both the ones I had been given, and the ones given to me.
Have your words ever been stolen, or have you taken someone else’s words as your own? When do words move from connected to public domain? I’d really love to know.