One of my favorite writing events is the annual Writers at the Beach conference, held in the early spring at Rehoboth Beach in Delaware. I’ve been fortunate enough to have been invited to teach there since its inception four years ago, and have been awed at how the conference has expanded in terms of scope, attendance, and ambition. Originally a single day of workshops and readings, writers now flock to the beach for a full Friday-through-Sunday experience of music, socializing, panel discussions, workshops, classes, meetings with agents, readings, and more.
Undoubtedly she would deny this, but most would agree with me: this vision and transformation is the result of one amazing woman, writer Maribeth Fischer. She’s an inspiring teacher; the author of two powerful and mesmerizing novels; an award-winning essayist; and an aunt. This last fact is the one that has spurred Maribeth to take on the mammoth undertaking of organizing a conference like this one: two of her young nephews died of genetic mitochondrial disease, and all of the proceeds from the conference go to help fund the research of those looking for a cure for this terrible disease.
As you can see from the opening conference remarks that Maribeth has graciously allowed me to reprint (okay, after my incessant begging her to let me!), she is quick to offer thanks to others. But she is the one who deserves our thanks: for creating the heartfelt community and lovely vibe that swirls around every Writers at the Beach conference; for involving so many people in her battle and helping us feel as if we’re playing an important role; for raising our awareness of a tragic genetic disease; for never shying away from the darker shadows that haunt everyone’s lives; and, most importantly, for reminding us that while individually we may not be able to change the whole world, with some small bit of effort, surely we can all make it a better place. I hope you enjoy this lovely piece about the power of words:
by Maribeth Fischer
In her poem, “Not Only the Eskimo’s” the poet, Lisel Mueller writes, “we have only one noun but as many different kinds” and she goes on to list the different types of snow…"snow that blows in like the lone ranger, riding hard out of the west,” and “paper snow, cut and taped to the inside of windows.” Elsewhere I read that in the Russian language there are different words for the different permutations of love, so for example, there is a specific word for the feeling one has for someone that she once loved but no longer does in the same way.
More than ever, when I stand up here each year, I want it to be like this for the word thank you. I want there to be hundreds of different words to denote the hundreds of different kindnesses and acts of generosity for which I feel an enormous debt of gratitude.
I actually found a website that listed how thank you is said in 465 different languages. I learned that in Mali, the word men use for “thank you” is different from the word women use, that in Cantonese the word you use to thank someone for a gift is different from the word you use to thank them for a service. In Japanese, there is one word used when the act of thanking the person has ended, and another word when the feeling of gratitude continues on and on (as my own feelings of gratitude will long long after this conference is over). In Lithuanian there is a “thank you” that is very sincere and one that is...not sincere? In the Mongolian language there is a word to thank someone for hospitality and a whole different word to thank someone for help. There are many languages that have both formal and informal ways to say thank you, many languages that have one word for “thank you” and another for “thank you very much,” many languages that distinguish between saying thank you to one person and thank you to a group.
For me, in regards to this event, there truly are as many kinds of ”thank yous” as there are kinds of snow-there is the “thank you” to the strangers, people I’ve never met, who are at this conference for the first time, who added ten and twenty and fifty dollars to their registration fee to be donated to mitochondrial disease research . There is the “thank you” to the woman who has come to the conference twice before and who wrote in an email to me when she first looked at this year’s website… “When I saw that we lost Zachary.”
I wrote her back and I told her how much that “we” meant to me and she wrote again to say, Maribeth, the "we" was intentional indeed--from the first time I heard you speak, I knew I was right then and there "joining" your family.”
Another woman wrote to tell me, “I firmly believe that Sam and Zachary are zipping all over heaven in Angel Man outfits--” I pass these emails on to my sister and I cannot tell you what it means to her, to know that her boys, whom none of you have ever met, are mourned and remembered.
There is another kind of “thank you” for the authors who were at the first conference three years ago, and have been to every one since. I needed you all here at this one. Thank you.
There is also the “thank you” for the writers who are here for the first time, many of whom, before I could finish explaining what the conference was about and that I couldn’t pay them, stopped me, mid-sentence, and said, “Don’t say another word. I’m there.” There is the thank you to the writer, who when I apologized to him because the amount of time for each author to read is so small, responded: “I’m happy to read for just a few minutes. This isn’t about me,” But of course it is about these writers. They are why we are here, why you are here.
There is the thank you to the participants who are here for the first time, who want to write but perhaps haven’t in a years, and are hoping that maybe this conference can be the push they need. There are so many conferences, and I am grateful that they’ve come to this to get the inspiration and motivation that I know they will. There is the “thank you” to the woman, again, whom I barely know, who spent hours making copies of the different handouts, a “thank you” to the members of the Rehoboth Beach Writers guild an to my friends and my family. And of course, there is a “thank you” to Sam and Zachary, who are the reason behind all of this.
When my nephew Sam was 3 or 4, he couldn’t say my name. He called me Me BETH. And for a while his different teachers and therapists and nurses that I got to know called me Me beth as well. I loved MeBeth. MeBeth had nothing to do with being a writer or teacher or anything except being Sam’s aunt. As the poet Linda Hogan writes, “In so many ways, we are creations of language, the things people have said to us, the they things they tell us we are.” I became someone different and it’s almost, I used to think, as if Sam named the new person I became into being.
Eventually, Sam learned to call me MAURY BETH. The first few times, it made me ache a little. I missed being Me Beth, but it was okay, because Maury Beth was still Sam’s. Of course this changed too. Sam realized at some point that he said my name differently than his brother and sisters did and so for awhile I became HER. “Who do you want to wake you from your nap?” my sister would ask, and Sam would look at me and say “Her.” “Who?” my sister would press, and he’d just say it louder. “HER.”
The last time I saw Sam, the Thanksgiving before he died, he greeted me as soon as I walked into his house, “Hi Aunt Maribeth,” he said, and then, “I can say your name just like the big kids." And he did. He said it all weekend, over and over and over again. Aunt Maribeth.
I think of that, of how important it was for him to get my name exactly right and what a gift he was giving me, and how proud he was, and I think that this is what both love and writing are all about. That care, that absolute care with the words we use and the names we give to things.
One more story, this one also about words, and about my nephew Zachary….and I’m actually going to read a paragraph from an essay I wrote a few years ago called “Words.”
I think of my seven-year-old nephew, Zachary, who grows increasingly weak from a prolonged and incurable disease. He can no longer eat by mouth, but is fed intravenously each night. In the mornings, he shuffles through the kitchen, pulling the metal I.V. pole, tubes and plastic bags dangling beneath his pajama shirt. On the kitchen counter, the syringes, five of them, are filled with the medications my sister will inject into his central line. I think of him because the last time I visited my sister and her family, someone—Zach’s dad probably—asked the kids: If you were an animal—not the animal you like the best, but the one most like you—what would you be? Without hesitation, Zach shouted, “I’m a cheetah!” His sisters laughed at him, told him no way, he was a goldfish, a robin, something delicate and small, but he became indignant and bellowed, “I AM A CHEETAH!” and I thought then, as I do now, that nothing is more wonderful, more amazing than this: the magic of a single word and the story it tells—about hope and belief and who we are versus who we long to be.
This is what I want for all of you, to come away from this weekend, believing more fully in the magic and truth and necessity of your own words. I want you to remember that a single word, chosen carefully, used exactly, truly is a gift. This conference, which is in many ways, just another story that you are helping me to write, has truly taught me that as the poet Inez Peterson writes in “Missing you,” Miracles do happen in language. ~~Maribeth Fischer
About: Maribeth Fischer founded the annual “Writers at the Beach: Pure Sea Glass” writing conference in 2005 to raise awareness of mitochondrial disease, which took the lives of her nephews (Sam, age 7, and Zachary, age 15). 100% of the net proceeds from this event are donated to the United Mitochondrial Disease Foundation in her nephews' memories. Fischer is also the author of two novels, The Language of Good-bye (Dutton 2002) which won Virginia Commonwealth University’s award for first novel of 2002, and The Life You Longed For (Simon & Schuster 2007), which has been translated into five languages and was named a BookSense Notable Book in April 2007. Currently Fischer lives in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, where she serves as president of the Rehoboth Beach Writers’ Guild and Executive Director of “Writers at the Beach.” She teaches fiction and memoir writing and is currently writing her third novel. Please visit her website for more information.