Last week in Warsaw, Poland, competition at the World Scrabble Championship reached a new high.
Or maybe it was a new low.
In the throes of the etymological battle, a Thai player accused an English player of cheating and demanded that the English player be strip-searched in an effort to find the missing letter “G.”
Scrabble officials declined, and the English player went on to win the game.
On a few rare occasions, I’ve played Scrabble with people who take the game just as seriously as that. While I love Scrabble and have been known to win a game or two, once it gets to a certain level, even Scrabble is just not fun anymore. It becomes kind of like Monopology—a long slow, painful loss.
But Scrabble doesn’t have to be like that, Scrabble can still be fun and open minds to new words and ideas.
That’s what Scrabble has done for me over the years.
Long, long ago, way back in the fall of 1982, my parents took me to college on a Sunday afternoon.
They helped me unload all my belongings and get my new dorm room in order, and then they did what parents do when they take their kids to college. They left.
With my bed made and my clothes hung, I wasn’t sure what to do next. So, I went to the room next door and met my neighbors, Nellie and Alice Jasper. They were twins and had grown up in a small town about 25 miles from the university we were entering. They knew the campus well, as both their parents were engineering professors there. The three of us talked for a moment. I could tell they were my kind of people and asked if they’d like to play a game of Scrabble.
It seemed like the thing to do.
We went to the dorm’s lobby and started setting up the game. A guy they knew walked by and ended up joining our game.
I have no idea who won the game, but I do remember one specific play from that afternoon. Midway through the game, this guy (who’s name long ago went missing from my head) played the word, “TORK.”
I said, “That’s not a word.”
He said, “Yes, it is. We learned about it in physics — something about the force required to turn an object.”
Nellie and Alice both started laughing and said simultaneously, “That’s not how you spell “TORQUE.”
The three of them debated the spelling of “TORQUE” for a few minutes before one of the twins ultimately decided to challenge the word. Of course, she was right and he had to take T-O-R-K off the board.
Throughout the exchange, I had stayed rather quiet.
Until that moment, I had never heard the word “TORQUE” and certainly had no idea what it meant or how to spell it. I vaguely remember the three of them launching into further discussion of exactly what “torque” means, but what I really remember is the major realization that came to me on that early Sunday evening in the lobby of Critz Hall: “It’s a good thing I’ve come to college, because apparently, there’s a whole lot I’ve got to learn.”
In the big picture, that may have turned out to be one of the greatest lessons I ever learned.
You just don’t know what you don’t know.
Immaculée Ilibagiza may be a living saint.
Miraculously, she survived the Rwandan genocide that took the lives of her entire family and the vast majority of her fellow Tutsis in Rwanda during the horrors of 1994 — a reminder that no one should be lulled into complacency believing previous generations cornered the market on genocide.
Less than 20 years ago, the Hutu people of Rwanda killed up to 800,000 of their fellow countrymen, women and children.
Ilibagiza survived by hiding 91 days in a 3’ by 4’ bathroom with seven other women.
In case you don’t remember the Rwandan genocide or those terrors, Hutus killed Tutsis during the tribal genocide. Neighbors killed neighbors. Students killed teachers. Teachers killed students and on into the horrible on. Death was everywhere in Rwanda. Now many of the killers acknowledge that they had no beef with the people they murdered. They were just following orders. They thought the powers that ordered the killing might reward them with a banana plantation or something more or less valuable.
With wild abandon, the Hutus killed Tutsis. No gas chambers necessary. Just machetes and sticks and daily calls for killing on the radio. The leaders of this chilling call especially wanted Tutsi children dead. They wanted to kill the people off entirely. They almost succeeded.
Yet, a few are left to tell the story.
Ilibagiza is the only one of her family who survived — villagers killed her father, her brothers and her mother.
These days, the theme of the story Ilibagiza tells is not the one most of us would expect.
The story she tells is one of forgiveness.
“People do evil things and hurt themselves and others, but during that time I was in the bathroom, I was praying. When I got to the part, ‘forgive those who trespass against me,’ I realized I was lying to God,” she said.
So she prayed for her heart to be changed. She didn’t want to lie to God anymore.
And there in the bathroom, Ilibagiza says she went from a person in a rage who wanted to become a soldier and avenge her family to a person who realized that people had the capacity to choose good or evil — and that people could change.
She began to incorporate a new part in her prayers.
“Please let me live to tell my story,” she said.
And now, “I don’t hate anymore,” she said.
Instead she laughs. She dances — and she encourages others to do the same as she spreads a message of forgiveness.
“I can smile. I can live in peace — no matter all the hundreds of people I have lost in my life. It is a journey. If I can forgive, others can too,” she said.
Ilibagiza’s New York Times best-selling book, Left to Tell, which chronicles her experience hiding in the bathroom and surviving her country’s genocide, was released in 2006. She said she hopes her time in Lafayette will lead to more peace and love between neighbors and any people who don’t understand each other or believe they are different from others — much like the Hutus and Tutsis of Rwanda, who now live side-by-side again.
Ilibagiza will be in Lafayette April 15-16 to lead a retreat at Our Lady of Fatima Catholic Church. The cost is between $60 and $75. For details, go to www.immaculee.com or call 337-278-9257. Ilibagiza stresses that though she is Catholic and the retreat will take place in a Catholic church, that this retreat is open to people of all or no faith.
“We are all living the human experience,” she said.
As it turns out, Piper, our family’s resident 9 year old, picks a new favorite color each year.
For her, this decision seems as logical as the Pythagorean Theorem did for Mrs. Beasley, my ninth-grade geometry teacher.
Last year her favorite color was purple. The year before that, it was pink. This year, she has picked Tiffany blue.
I won’t lie; the choice caught me off-guard.
As does so much about this child.
And so many other children out there. She just happens to be the one I hang with the most these days.
For us, this girl is full to the brim with love, dappled and flecked with something almost otherworldly wonderful.
Her love of color is one of the ways we get to peek into that regenerative joy.
“Just having one favorite color gets too old for me,” she said. “And, I believe that change is also good.”
She explains her deep thoughts on the subject, as though she’s announcing a major plank in her platform in a campaign for office.
I’d vote for her.
Like a good diplomat, she quickly assures me that having one favorite color is fine for some people, just not for her.
At least once a week, she asks each member of our family, “What’s your favorite color?”
Much to her initial dismay, my answer has remained the same.
“For some people, their personalities go with one color, but for me personally, I think my personality is to change,” she said, trying to assure me and my evergreen color love of blue, that I’m OK.
Just in case though, she asks regularly to check.
This week, I learned that she had a method to her madness.
“When I get older, I will remember all my colors, and I can remember how I changed. I can go back through my memories,” she said. “When I get 20, I can have a rainbow.”
Please, my love, please. Have a rainbow.
She was on a roll.
“As I get older, I feel like I need a more mature color,” she said.
I hope not. I thought. Have whatever color you feel like having, sister.
“The year before purple, it was hot pink. You know, that’s a different generation?” she said with brown eyes wide. “I picked purple cause it’s a good color for being eight — when you’re younger, the more silly colors you can have.”
At the wise old age of 9, her take on silly being associated with young makes me know that the world is chipping in, even on Piper’s palette. She’s taking notice of what’s out there. Nothing has flattened her spirit yet — and I’ll do everything I can to prevent that from ever happening — but that time will come.
For now, she and I giddily spend at least 20 minutes a week talking about our favorite colors and why one or the other works for us — or what color would be our favorite color if there was a law that we couldn’t have the one we wanted.
The conversations are little treasures that parents the world over recognize — those moments when a child’s wonder and innocence come into full view. I listen to my multihued wonder child and wish I could bottle up what this kid gives off.
Surely, that spectrum of thinking could solve a lot of issues in this world that tries so hard to view things in the simplicity of black or white.
You’ve got today and tomorrow to get your pie on.
Yep, February is National Pie Month. It’s time to make the most of it.
Foodies are asking the cupcake and the macaroon to move over as they anticipate the humble pie to take the sweet-tooth world center stage.
For a girl who enjoys a good cupcake and is a total macaroon convert, pushing aside those two treats doesn’t come easy. Yet, there is something so right about a good pie.
Pies and I go way back.
My great-grandmother made an apple pie fine and flaky. She lived a block away from my childhood home and frequently would call in the middle of an afternoon to say she had an apple pie ready.
I didn’t always fully appreciate the offer. Which goes back even further. My great-grandmother didn’t coddle young children. When I stayed with her in pre-school, I can’t swear that she actually locked the doors to keep us outside, but she might as well have. Children were meant to stay outside and play.
And we did.
Of her scores and scores of grandchildren and great-grandchildren, I was fortunate enough to live the closest. Don’t get me wrong, living the closest came with a price. I was often her errand girl. My bike served me well, and she knew I could be there in three minutes or less, which is the kind of service she expected.
Sad to say, but I was 15 by the time I realized what a gift this woman was — which was about the time she seemed to begin thinking I wasn’t half bad myself. The pie calls started coming more frequently. She and I would sit and visit, going through cigar boxes of old photographs.
Both of us eating pie.
A year after I graduated from college, I left Mississippi and moved out West. She was used to sons and grandsons leaving. In her mind, I’m not sure my leaving was supposed to have happened.
Before I left, one day she and I were eating pie, and she said, “Now, tell me, are you going to cross an ocean?”
I explained that I wasn’t, which seemed to help.
About four months after I left, I was making arrangements to fly home for Christmas. I was 23 and it was my first-ever plane ride. The day before the grand event occurred, my phone rang.
When I said, “Hello,” my great-grandmother began to sing “She’ll be Coming Around the Mountain.” She got to “We’ll have chicken and dumplings when she comes,” before she took a breath.
She had not called since I moved away. Long distance phone calls were a big deal, and she was trying to make the most of it.
She paused and asked what it was I’d like to eat when I got home. I told her apple pie would be just the ticket.
She fixed at least four pies for me during the week I was home. On the day I left to head back to the West Coast, it was raining. Just as we were heading out the door for the airport, the phone rang.
It was her.
“I’ve got something for you,” she said. “Stop by on your way to the airport.”
My mom and I loaded my last suitcase and drove the one block to my great-grandmother’s house.
She met me at the door. I stood on her tiny stoop in the rain, and she handed me an apple pie she had forced into an old five-gallon ice-cream bucket.
“This is in case you get hungry,” she said as she hugged me bye.
Standing there in the cold rain, I opened the lip of the plastic container and could see the steam rising.
To this day, I can smell the nutmeg from that pie.
I have an edge.
And, I’m not talking about a competitive advantage edge.
Instead, it’s one of those not-so-pleasant edges — certainly not strength of character. All in all, that little line of vice and has gotten me into untold trouble through the years.
Finally, at age 46, I have found the cure for the less charitable side of my nature.
I’m not saying that I’ve discovered a remedy for all that ails me, but I will say that knitting takes the edge off. All that extra energy usually bumbling around my head? The general culprit of that has stirred up trouble in my world for years? With knitting, it dissipates. It’s been the genesis of the strife in my life for years. Now, I have a place for it.
I don’t mind long meetings anymore. I simply view them as a chance to do more rows. My husband prefers driving when we go on long trips? It’s no problem now. Telephone calls that take me away from what the task at hand? Not a difficulty these days.
How much edge I need to take off depends on whom you ask. My youngest daughter probably believes it’s a potholder’s worth, but there are days when I’m certain my husband thinks it’s a good idea if I get cranking on a cover for his old pick-up truck.
To be clear, I am not an expert knitter. Basically, I’m a newbie. I learned long, long ago and haven’t done it in nearly 15 years. Maybe I wasn’t ready or didn’t need the relief knitting now provides me back then. I haven’t been back at it for long, but what it’s done for my head (and subsequently for my heart) has made me a believer. It’s been a boon to my spirits — and likely to those around me too.
Knitting makes me a better and more focused listener. After all, in reality, knitting is just tying one simple knot after another. Its simplicity is its brilliance. For me, the repetitive motion is conducive to thinking and stirs the creativity in my bones.
To take its zen-ness a step further (and this may seem strange in concept), but there’s something about knitting that reminds me of yoga. It’s very focusing, but allows just enough room for the mind to wander and promotes good conversation with those around you.
One of the people who re-taught me how to knit explained to me that the Red Cross taught her to knit when she was in high school during World War II. She said students would get out of class to learn knitting and have time in school to knit create helmet liners and fingerless gloves for soldiers serving in the European and Pacific campaigns. Her story made me wonder why our country abandoned habits like that. What a good means of reminding the rest of us of the service of so many. What a good way for high school students to spend time. What a gift for students in that moment and in their futures — on so many levels.
For example, knitting has helped me to recognize and consider some patterns in my life. I get in over my head because I don’t do sitting around well. Having a fun, productive outlet to use up that excess energy cures that sitting around feeling that leads to over-committing. As much as I’d like to plant my feet firmly in the opposite camp, perhaps the Puritan work ethic has influenced me than I sometimes admit.
All in all, I find it good for the soul. Plus, there’s some magic in turning a piece of string into something wearable, warm and wonderful.