the power of words

by christie shumate mcelwee

A story about a drunk and the power of words.

Since the Midwest July weather was unusually steamy and I didn’t feel like heating up the kitchen, my husband and I decided to run to the local grocery store to pick up some fried chicken and potato salad for dinner. As we entered, the first thing we noticed was a security guard standing at the door. “Well, I’ve never seen that before,” whispered my husband. I shrugged and said it’s probably because it was a Friday evening. He then went to the deli counter to order the chicken and I wandered around the bakery section, trying to decide on a dessert. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a man (one of the few in the store not wearing a mask) weaving in and out of the displays purposely knocking things off tables. He stumbled out of sight, and I, of course behaving like the mom/teacher I am, picked up after him. Rock met me with the chicken, we picked out a dessert and a bottle of white wine, and then made our way to the check out line. I did spy the same man making a small scene in another aisle, so I said to myself, “Please don’t let him near us. Please don’t let him near us.” At this grocery chain, customers must line up and wait for the clerks to wave them over when they are ready. We ended up in the first line. We were just about finished when I noticed this man throwing his beer and charcoal briquets on the belt. The clerk was stunned, so I automatically said, “Sir, you need to wait your turn.” He then bellowed, “What did you say? I need to wait my turn? What?” I then responded with, “I’m just sending peace and love. We all have to take care of one another.” His retort was, “You cunt!” Rock had the grocery bag in his hands attempting to counter the guy’s hateful rhetoric, but as the clerk threw me the receipt, I gave my sweet husband a look that said,” We need to get out of here…now.” So we quickly made our way towards the door. By this time the guy was screaming repeatedly “You cunt!” across the entire store and one of the other clerks had summoned the security guard. I held my peace sign up until we got out of his sightline and then practically sprinted to our car. My hands shook and tears fell the whole way home. 

This man went into the store drunk, itching for a fight. I was just the lucky recipient of his anger. I realize now I probably shouldn’t have engaged him. We would have gone on with our evening undisturbed, but here’s the thing: this is a man who, I’m pretty sure, uses that word whether he is drunk or sober, masked or unmasked. This disgusting word that demeans women with its violent sputter. I spent most of Saturday hunkered down, feeling bruised. I thought of all the store clerks, waiters, and others who have to put up with these types of people, individuals who feel their “liberties” are begin stolen from them with mask requests, who believe they have the right to call out strangers and weaponize language. I pondered all of the women in this guy’s life who have been on the receiving end of his vitriol. I then contemplated the repugnant words that have been lobbed at people throughout the history of man. Words that make stomachs churn and hearts cringe. We humans have immense jurisdiction to strike others down with just a cruel comment. I then decided I would not give this guy permission to break me. I scattered the word’s power and turned it to dust.

The words we choose are crucial. Do we spread love or scatter hate? The names we casually throw around hold tremendous weight, so how do we counter the despicable, the vicious, the evil language that permeates our society?

There isn’t an easy answer, that I know. Repulsive language has been around since humans first grunted. We quickly learned how to force others to their knees through one degrading slur. But perhaps…we counter divisive language with statements that stitch us back together.

So, dear ones, I offer up a few suggestions:

I love you.

You are magic.

Walk in peace.

I admire your strength.

You are a warrior.

What words will you give the world today?

Words: So innocent and powerless as they are, as standing in a dictionary, how potent for good and evil they become in the hands of one who knows how to combine them.

Nathaniel Hawthorne
Photo by ATC Comm Photo on

The Stand: Revisiting Stephen King During Quarantine

“If we don’t have each other, we go crazy with loneliness. When we do, we go crazy with togetherness.” 

“The place where you made your stand never mattered. Only that you were there…and still on your feet.”

Stephen King, The Stand

I have chosen to reread Stephen King’s 1152 page tome during this time of self-isolation. The Stand first begins with a manufactured “superflu” spreading quickly throughout the world, killing 99% of humanity within a few weeks. The 1% who are immune to the bug begin to seek each other out, hoping to find companionship and hope from the terror they have experienced. Their nightly dreams are inundated by both kindly 108 year old Mother Abagail and the malevolent dark one, Randall Flagg. Some pilgrims end up in Boulder, Colorado, and others flock to Las Vegas. The story then turns into an epic battle between good and evil, acknowledging that most humans struggle with both.

Parts of The Stand are extremely dark, which is King’s trademark. The chapters of Flagg’s rule over his minions in Vegas are especially stomach-churning. When I first read this book in the eighties, I was drawn to the stalwart characters of Stu and Frannie, but now Larry Underwood pulls me into his journey. He reminds me of most of us, those who are messy and flawed and stumble through life wanting to be decent human beings but more often are just complete assholes. Larry, before the superflu, was a third-rate musician who had just recently found a little fame, but blew it on drugs and alcohol. He’s a jerk, and he knows it. He uses people, yet often feels a sense of regret. After the flu hits, he still can’t seem to do the right thing until he comes upon Nadine Cross and Joe, a troubled young boy. As they travel west and come across more people, Larry becomes their default leader they all turn to for guidance, and he slowly accepts the responsibility. He changes, and I admire how he struggles with it. Leadership doesn’t come naturally to him. Judge Farris says this about Larry:

“Larry is a man who found himself comparatively late in life,” the Judge said, clearing his throat. “At least, that is how he strikes me. Men who find themselves late are never sure. They are all the things the civics books tell us the good citizens should be: partisans but never zealots, respecters of the facts which attend each situation but never benders of those facts, uncomfortable in positions of leadership but rarely able to turn down a responsibility once it has been offered…or thrust upon them. They make the best leaders in a democracy because they are unlikely to fall in love with power. Quite the opposite.”

As I continue to make my way through The Stand, I ponder this quote and others in the book that remind me of our current global crisis. I think of the leaders who are stepping up, others who are scurrying into the corners, and those who are pointing fingers and accepting no responsibility for misinformation or denial of the seriousness of the situation. We are drawn to the wise voices, the intelligent and calm individuals who never asked for all of this, but still know how to mobilize and selflessly do what is best for all. 

None of us know how long the virus will last. We can’t even perceive the extent of the havoc it will wreak on our health, the economy, or our collective psyche. For now, we work at home, order take out from local restaurants, FaceTime friends and relatives, and read books.

Me? I still have only read half of The Stand, and even though I know how it’s going to end, I’m diving into the story of Nic and Stu and Frannie and Lucy and Glen and Tom and Mother Abagail who go to war with Lloyd and Trashcan Man and Harold and Nadine and Randall Flagg, because we all battle the demons within, but in the end, even if evil continues to percolate beneath the surface, I believe good is stronger and more powerful and will win. Lucy Swan says in best when she talks to Larry:

Her voice rose suddenly, rough with unexpected power, and for a moment his arms goosefleshed. “I just happen to think love is very important, only love will get us through this, good connections; it’s hate against us, worse, it’s emptiness.”

Stephen King wrote The Stand in 1978. The unabridged edition was published in 1990 and adds 400 pages that were originally cut from the first version. It also changes the setting date from 1980 to 1985. Randall Flagg, the antagonist of the story, is a recurring character in some of King’s later books, which conjures up John Steinbeck’s quote:
“It isn’t that the evil thing wins – it never will – but that it doesn’t die.”