I live in the land of metaphor, the idea that you can use an image of one thing to represent another. Life is like . . . a tree, a railroad track, a well-made Manhattan. Give me an image, and I’ll hand you a metaphor.
Occasionally, I run into people who don’t know what to do with a metaphor and look at me strangely. They are literal. When they hear a metaphor, they are confused if the two items don’t fit neatly over each other. “That idea jumped at me like a cholla” will leave them explaining that chollas don’t really jump, and that many cactus spines have hooks that will attach to clothing . . . and the magic will be gone.
Except for one person. He works at a store close to my house, where I take my workbooks to ship them to clients. Yesterday, I shipped off a box of business writing workbooks.
A woman leaving the store looked at me and spun a circle with her finger next to her head. “Try to get someone else to help you. What a moron!” she said as she walked past me. Odd, I’d never experienced him that way.
He measured and weighed the box, carefully. He may have autism, although I would never ask him. He is meticulous in measurements and following rules, and he is best when you don’t try to joke with him, and answer in an easy tone of voice.
Forgetting the rules, I said, as he measured, “You don’t have to feed or water the package, and you certainly don’t have to walk it,” because the next question was going to be “is there anything dangerous in the package.”
He let me finish my sentence and then carefully asked, “Is there anything dangerous or poisonous, or explosive or likely to leak in the package?” I smiled and said, “No, just books” in a calm-mom voice.
He looked at the box and a hint of a smile crept over his face. “Books can be dangerous,” he said, and I thought he might be looking for a conversation. So I asked, “How can books be dangerous?” He knew.
“Because words can hurt. A lot.” I was surprised at the great answer, and the big truth.
“They sure can,” I agreed and then added, “But these are safe books. No words that hurt.”
“Well then,” he said, looking away again, “There’s always paper cuts.” I couldn’t help myself, I began to laugh. Giving him a smile, I said, “Will you mark them as dangerous?”
He looked at me for a long time and said, “I don’t think so. They aren’t that kind of dangerous.” And he was right.
What a gift that young man gave me. What an opportunity to play with words and laugh. And how very wrong the woman had been, the one who had passed me as I left. She had missed the opportunity to share a knowing laugh.
—Quinn McDonald teaches business writing and is studying poetic healing.