I have always found words captivating.

I’ve always been precise with my words because that is how I convey the meaning of my inner thoughts. Everything in spoken languages is dependent on definitions. During conversations with others, I always asked, “How do you define this word?”  Definitions reveal one’s perspective and thought processes. The differences in definitions enable one to understand subtle yet imperative differences in perspective. We might say the same words and mean to say entirely different things. Definitions are constructed from meaning. I am always searching for meaning in spaces, including the spaces between inked letters.

Starting in the 4th grade, I quenched my thirst for understanding words by flipping through my Kids Edition of the Merriam-Webster dictionary. Clutching my $10 bill in my right hand, my nine-year-old self entered the book fair full of colorful chapter books, little gadgets and candies. While my classmates gravitated toward the rock candy, I gravitated toward the Merriam-Webster Children’s Dictionary. I craved something sweeter. I didn’t need rock candy when I had words. 

Words were my favorite kind of candy because they held the sweetness of deeper meaning. Like hard candies, I let words sit on my tongue, savoring every bit of sweetness as they melt into my mouth. Rushing towards the sunshine yellow and lime green cover, I grasped the paperback pocket dictionary in my hands, carefully tracing the astronaut and ladybug drawn on the cover with my little fingertips. As I stood in line to pay for my dictionary, my mom took one glance at the dictionary, only to laugh in utter confusion. 

Raising her eyebrows, my mom inquired: “Madison, are you sure you don’t want to buy a book?” 

“This is a book,” I retorted with alacrity, eyes fixated on the front of the line, feet firmly planted. Stubborn? Perhaps. Headstrong? Absolutely. I wanted a dictionary, and I was taking it home tonight. With my dictionary, an endless candy jar, I was ready for the sugar rush of a lifetime. 

Flipping through definitions, I wrote down my favorite words in a composition notebook: punctilious, parsimonious, pugnacious. I reveled in the sounds of each word, letting each syllable roll off my tongue.  I began using complex words because I thought complex equated to smart. Did I understand what any of these words meant? Absolutely not, and neither did anyone else around me. Interjecting words like “lugubrious” or “subsequently” became my not-so-subtle way of flaunting my intellect. Bravery comes in all forms— including speaking like a walking thesaurus. 

I learned the hard way that reading the dictionary for fun and inserting “extensibility” in conversation was not the golden ticket to popularity. Despite my vast vocabulary, I struggled to express myself. When speaking to new people, my words were like little beads. When I tried to string the beads into bracelets of meaning, they slipped through my fingers, remaining disconnected and scattered. However, I reassured myself that even if I didn’t have friends, at least I had words. 

Composed of pages and potential, my friends simply came in a different form.  I discovered new collections of words in the form of books. Combinations of words constructed companionship and characters. Words became meaningful through stories, bringing joy and solace, transcending definitions to infuse meaning into touching narratives. 

Reading became my world of “happily ever after.” I immersed myself in books beneath my bed covers. Despite my mom’s attempts to encourage me to play outside, I always had a strategy. When she called, “Reading time is over, Madison, get up!”, I’d pretend to begrudgingly hand over my book. I kept a set of books I was currently reading hidden underneath my bed and in the sock drawer of my dresser for good measure. But I also hid from the outside world of real life and real people. 

For me, it was simple. Why did I need people when every interaction felt like an impending disaster? Why bother with conversations that made me feel like a fly under a magnifying glass, scrutinized and dissected? Making friends was hard, but keeping them was even harder. So, whenever my parents inquired about school friends, I’d scowl before confidently retorting, “I don’t need people. I have books.” They hoped I’d have “real friends,” made of flesh and not fiction. Yet, the characters from books weren’t merely “imaginary friends”; they lived within the meticulously crafted realities of my mind. Everything I’ve ever needed or wanted resided within these pages.

 Or so I thought. After a decade of retreating to my room, closing the door, and delving into books, I spent most of my time alone. Immersed in the two dimensions of book pages, I neglected the richness of living in the three dimensions of my own life. Although I cherished my book characters, I still needed connections. The concepts of “having a best friend” and “hanging out” felt foreign to me. Although people were friendly with me, that did not mean we were friends. Books could only partially fulfill my social needs because, as humans, we inherently need people. I needed to venture beyond the stories of fictional characters and embrace the stories of those around me.

I began my journey with words believing that the dictionary contained all of the answers. I championed the straightforward and concise definitions provided by the dictionary. However, I soon realized that relying solely on dictionaries left me lacking a deeper understanding of vocabulary. Essential concepts, such as friendship, kindness, and connection, couldn’t be adequately defined in a dictionary. Friendship, for instance, is not a definition that can be found in the dictionary. Friendship is an experience that is lived through moments with those you love.

Before my freshman year of college, forming genuine friendships and stepping out of my comfort zone became my goals. I endeavored to understand people’s stories by asking questions — no longer seeking definitions from a dictionary but through conversation and curiosity. I want to truly engage with people to discover the stories they hold and the words they share. One of my favorite ways to delve into someone’s thoughts is by taking a walk around campus. As an avid speed-walker and speed-talker, I synchronize my walking pace with the tempo of my thoughts. Wandering around campus and up Science Hill, my friends and I wondered about the deeper existential questions of life, such as which dining hall has the best pizza (Morse and Stiles). 

Through making friends in my math classes (trauma truly does bind people together) and through the Christian Union, I have been blessed with wonderful friends and people. Through late-night karaoke and long runs with my close friends, I realized I always enjoyed being around people. I just didn’t know how to effectively use my words to connect with those around me. Words were the answer, but not in the way I expected. They hold meaning because of the individuals who use them and the narratives they craft. They, like us, cannot survive alone.

Abacus, abstain, abode… and many words later, I still have my dictionary, tucked away on the bookshelf of my childhood room. I began as a student of words, but now, I am a student of stories. Words are not meant to remain isolated in a dictionary; they’re meant to be woven together to form stories. Words, like people, gain strength and significance when connected. When you connect words, you craft stories. When you connect people, you create meaning.  

Communicating with words is how humans create connections and translate experiences and emotions. Words are not simply strings of letters, woven together into language. Words are strings of connections that weave people from a “human” into  “humanity.” Words do not live in precision and perfection. Words live in perspective and people. 

This is why I have always found words captivating.