My 6th-8th-grade Sunday School class has been working on an environmental education project for our church. The project, initially about doing one Adult Education session after worship next week on the environmental hazards of bottled water, has expanded to include topics of water conservation, consumer culture, misplaced federal spending priorities, and more. We’ll be working on these issues for the foreseeable future.

All this talk with the kids about plastics and dioxin and other toxins has made me commit more deeply to detoxifying my home and lifestyle. I’m going to learn more about the work going on over at I’m going to figure out how to live without my chemical-filled laundry detergent and fabric softener. I’m going to learn more about the science around broken food, like GMOs and glyphosate.

Some recent events, though, have me thinking about the need to detoxify our language, too. Yesterday, during the sermon my minister used the phrase “an explosion of.” And I thought, “No. Why not ‘a blooming of’?” Given what happened in Boston a couple Mondays ago — and what happens on a regular basis in other countries year round — I can no longer use the word “explosion” unless I mean an actual combustion.

A blossoming. An efflorescence. An opening. A burgeoning. A growing.

After church yesterday I went to run some errands on the bus. I was enjoying the feeling of afternoon sunlight on my face when a car pulled up. It was a big Tahoe with the windows down. A man was shouting angrily and using the word “bitch” over and over. At first I stayed facing the opposite direction (my general policy — looking just invites trouble) but the tone of desperation and crisis in his voice eventually made me look up.

A 20-something man, twitchy, barely able to keep himself sitting in the driver’s seat, was on the phone shouting at someone. “You need to tell me what the fuck is going on over there, bitch,” he yelled. Over and over, variations on this demand apparently went unanswered. As he drove away, I noted the license plate number and wondered if there was something I should do. Ultimately, I decided that the overburdened Milwaukee police wouldn’t take my phone call seriously. Being angry at someone isn’t a crime, after all. So I just prayed for him, for the woman he was furious at, for anyone within hearing distance.

The rage and menace in his voice felt like a form of violence to me, a bystander as collateral damage, and maybe even against the blue sky and my neighbors’ joy at finally being outside after so much rain. His words were cutting into all of us, with a poison I’m not sure how to draw out.

In a couple hours I’ll go teach another set of middle schoolers. We’re working on a project about the power of words and today I’m going to help them coin their own word. Part of the lesson is about how language is a contract: You and I must more or less agree that the word I’m using means what you think it means, otherwise understanding is lost. I think I’ll talk to them about a rider to that contract. Let’s agree to detoxify our language, too, so we can stop poisoning each other with our words.

April 29, 2013 Blog Posts