Joan Rivers

On Not Mourning Joan Rivers+ What Are Words For?

At the news of Joan Rivers' death Whoopi Goldberg tweeted, “There are no words.” How can there be no words for the platinum woman who spent nothing so recklessly and callously as her words? When news broke of the two women who had been abused and imprisoned for 10 years in the basement of a house, she implied their fate was better than hers--having to live with her daughter in a small apartment. "They got to live rent free for more than a decade," she quipped. This is the woman who said of German supermodel Heidi Klum, “The last time a German looked this hot was when they were pushing Jews into the ovens.” A thousand other such phrases illuminate her career. When confronted with her affronteries, she refused to apologize. Her defense, always, "I made a little joke. That's what I do. Calm down."  

I believe in grace and mercy, having received so much of it myself, but I also believe it's fair to weigh the words of a public figure who made her living by her words. Her jokes were chosen to offend, to assure headlines, to keep her career racing along. And they did, right to the last. Her legacy? Variety magazine writes, she “paved the way for raunchy female comics.” Isn’t the world a better place now that Rivers has helped close that gender gap, proving women can be just as raunchy as men? And her followers this week rise en masse to bless that rasping tongue, now silent. 

 In her honor, I propose not only a dimming of the lights on Broadway, which is symbolic of her influence in a way not intended. But more, I propose a week of silence.

A week of silence to heal and to reflect. 

I have just come from this. The day Rivers died, I was in the midst of a week given to silence---and carefully chosen words (at the Harvester Island WIlderness Workshop.) Both reminded me what words are rightly for.

Words first brought ocean, dragonfly, fireweed and mountain beauty out of nothing. 

Words placed and welcomed First Man and Woman into a garden, a home . . . 

        Our words can open locked doors and make a home, even on an island in Alaska.

Our words are to bring order and loveliness out of chaos and mess.

Our words can collect far-flung strangers . . . .

and weave them into friends, a fellowship of listening.

Our words can bind the world together, make of us a family, one huge body, a circle of praying arms and feet.

Our Words, written from our empty closet, bring others into our aloneness, and the One is now Two and Three and Seven. Your story is now mine and yours and ours. We share the weight and the closet is now lit.

Words from grateful lips make of every plate a feast, every glass of water, wine.

And Words withheld, silence summoned, allow the mountains to speak, the tides to whisper, the jellyfish to slurp, the rocks and seals to cry out their own names, which are themselves prayers and praises.

Frederick Buechner has written this caution for us:

“We must be careful with our lives, for Christ's sake, because it would seem that they are the only lives we are going to have in this puzzling and perilous world, and so they are very precious and what we do with them matters enormously.”

In just the same way, if Buechner will permit me, we must likewise be careful with our words, for Christ's sake, because our lives are short; these are the only words we are going to speak in this puzzling and perilous world, and so they are very precious, and what we do with them matters enormously.

What we do with them matters enormously.

I do not wish to offend, but Rivers' death teaches me this: That we are not here in this life to insult one another for the sake of harm or amusement, but we are here to speak the kind of words that bind, that heal, that reveal, that blaze in truth and radiate with love. 

May we all spend our lives and our words well.