I have been playing Words With Friends with a stranger from West Virginia. We were matched one day, and because we liked the way we each played the other, we have continued to challenge one another. A few days ago, he complimented a word I laid out strategically, giving me some 100 points. "Good one," he said. I thanked him. He said "your welcome." It was not by chance that we were matched. It was by skill.
So something told me to offer more of myself. "I am a writer living in California. My name is Pam." "I am a retired coal miner living now in North Carolina," he answered. He did not tell me his name. I was kinda thrilled to speak with a coal miner. I don't think I ever met one, and considered it an honor. But what would I say to him, I wondered, thinking how he worked down deep in the earth, and not with words, the way that I do.
I told him I lived in St. Thomas once, and wrote a book about the wound of slavery. "What color skin was the first slave?" he asked me, playing a big word that scored 60 points. I said I thought they were ancient people of Mesopotamia, not black, not white, but dark.
He said the first slaves were white. And you can't blame me for what my great great great grandfather did. Let it drop, he said. "The way people are today, it is just wrong. "
There is a wound, I said, a scar. Somebody has to acknowledge it, let those behind catch up. I played "optioned," got all the letters down with a triple word. I was anxious to hear what he might say, a coal miner who could very well be black for all I knew, since I did not see his picture, though he was not presenting himself that way.
Nothing. He played the word "fez" that landed on red and scored double. I told my therapist that this is what is wrong with America. When folks don't agree with one another they stop talking, go silent. They stop listening, stop being civil even. I know we we are not solving the world's problems playing WWF, but the way we relate to one another is a symbol of our brokenness. It is a fundamental problem we have, this lack of tolerance. I suppose he might be a bigot, and I would have some trouble tolerating that, so I kind of understand the dilemma. Hate is common, though, and rage. It is love that is in such short supply.
I told him that my new book is on a girl with an eating disorder, told through 17 of her dresses. I am waiting for a response. He has played two words without a chat. I expect him to finish the game and never request another one. It makes me sad, too, since coal miners are a dying breed and I was ready to ask him a million questions.
Being nice, being decent, it seems we have lost some of that too. White men despised me for blaming slavery on them. Even my old high school friends stopped talking to me. I did not like that some of them carried guns, but kept my mouth shut, out of respect for our shared history. Books are written to provoke discussions, some of them. I tried to open things up. But sometimes people get so angry at the messenger that the message simply gets lost. Differences don't have to define us.
I live among immigrants, workers from Mexico and Central and South America who pick strawberries and raspberries in the fields near the sea. I often stop to see them bent over, faces down near the soil as if bowed to the sun. There is a beauty to what they do, how they work the land. It is the same way I see the coal miner. Words With Friends is a cool approach to meet new people you might never get to know, a game that lets one play five letters into pearl as though it were wisdom. If we could only get passed hello.