Finding Words That Ring True

Things of magnitude settle over you with excruciating slowness.
~Sue Monk Kidd

I’ve got a husband and an ex husband and a daughter and a son and a dog and a hive of honey bees and they are all significant to me. I’ve got dear friends, Cassandra and Lisa and Mary and Barbara and Martha and Louisa. I’ve got a brother and a whole slew of in laws. Not one is insignificant to me. So if I were invited to a banquet, could I bring all of them? There’s not room on the form. And what about at the doctor’s office when they ask this question? What about when you sign a release form? I think we are at a loss for words for what matters most.

Miraculously, I’m still alive thirteen years after being diagnosed with stage three breast cancer. But I can’t find an accurate label for myself. Survivor? No. That means that Brenda and Sally and Katie are not survivors, are somehow lesser. And they were far, far more heroic than me. They had this disease but are not here anymore. And what about the term battling cancer? How wrong does that sound? Battling? That implies winners and losers. And that is so far from the truth. But I still cannot proclaim that I have an answer. I simply don’t have the right words.

When I go back to our nation’s capital, the city of my youth, I religiously visit the National Cathedral. The peel of the bells is so sweet and carries so far. Those are the right words, that peel. I am a teacher, a writer. Writing has allowed me the space necessary to touch and unravel my thoughts, my feelings, my emotions. Perhaps not always with the words that others expect, but with words that ring true for me.

I think we all yearn to hear that peel, to have others pause to listen. This is why I created Whistle Words, a project I hope will allow us all to hear those bells. For the past year I’ve been writing with groups of women impacted by cancer. Writing is our tool to share out stories and to listen to one another in a way that matches the magnitude of our experiences. I’m humbled, am awed, by what has been shared, what has been written, what has peeled. And sharing our words, through a website and anthologies and even a film, will hopefully allow others to hear our sweet peel. To have our words, our voices, collectively resound.
Charlotte Matthews is a poet and professor at the University of Virginia, and co-created Whistle Words in early 2017. The project’s first anthology will be released on Amazon in September. To read what other women have written, learn more about the project, and participate in a monthly writing challenge, visit


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