I rerun posts infrequently, but thought this one deserved another look. First posted 25 January 2008.
Last week, all I was thinking about (and writing about) was war. This week, it seems to be communication and forms of language (and Norovirus. But I know you're as tired of hearing about that as I'm tired of living it...and yeah, still standing. But tired of the smell of bleach).
Having just finished rereading Possession for the hundredth time, where language is all, where what is not said is often as important as what is, where a look is as significant as a sentence, I am now deeply engrossed in Smilla's Sense of Snow again. Like Possession, language and languages figure deeply in the story, as does communication, verbal and nonverbal. In one scene, a linguist is decoding a tape recording, not only identifying the speaker on the tape by use of language, but the location where the tape was made and who is making the music playing in the background.
Our world is so noisy, so full of distraction, that it is easy to lose nuance and subtlety, to overlook the cadence, the rhythm of language. We've traded in the pleasure of conversation for gadgetry like texting, abandoned the structure and beauty of words for MySpace and message boards. We allow discourtesy in place of discourse. I have little patience for the massively multiplayer experience, whether it's as a social experiment or as entertainment, because I've watched anonymity foster contempt online for two decades now, and I'm just not having any of it. Which means, sure I play Halo and Rock Band (100% on "Don't Fear the Reaper" on Expert! 94% on "Tom Sawyer" on Hard! And I really can't sing!), but there's no Xbox Live in this house. I'm not in ur base killin ur doods. I'd rather be in my garden sharing a bottle of wine with you.
I love words but I frequently don't trust them. Not that I trust anything, really. I don't trust a glance, or my own instincts. I don't trust that the oncoming car will stop for the red light. Words can be chameleons because even when used well, they can be misunderstood. I tend to choose my words with care, so I type, stop, read, erase and retype. Do I overthink my intent? Usually. Do I trust that subconsciously I will convey the right meaning? Rarely. Do I believe that I will be understood? No.
When I studied literary criticism, I was captivated by structuralism, by the idea of words as building blocks or story as edifice. But to build a safe structure, one must build with good words, words that are strong, full of meaning and richness. A love letter is not hearts and flowers; it is the hope and fear in a beating heart, and the right words race the course of the ebb and flow of that living tide.
I am raising two children. When I use my normal voice, they rarely hear me or the words that I'm using. Once upon a time, I would say things twice in my normal voice, but by the time I had to say it a third time, I found that I was screaming. I am not naturally a screamer, and with a naturally low voice, I sound horrifyingly shrill when I begin shrieking with rage. And I just don't like it. I hit on a solution quite by accident: a very low, quiet and absolutely deadly voice. Everyone shakes in their shoes when I use my "low, quiet voice," including my children, my husband, my former employer ("Really, couldn't you just yell at me when you're mad?"), and the members of the local community advisory board. I choose my words carefully, but I've learned they're only heard when I choose my tone carefully as well.
Today, I met with the parents of the child the son has been asked to mentor. As our conversation progressed, the mother suddenly asked if she and I could meet for coffee. Before I tossed off a self-deprecating laugh, I caught the look in her eyes and was filled with deep compassion because I've been where she is, and also with terrible fear because she believes that I have something of value to tell her and I can't bear the idea that I might fail her. But I told her that yes, that would be fine, because maybe, just maybe, I have something to offer.
I don't know why you (yes, YOU!) are reading this. Curiosity or accident, boredom or intent, seeking something (aren't we all?), but you have arrived here. I have seen you before and perhaps I know you, or perhaps I am without a sense of who you are. But you have arrived here again.
So have I. And I see that I am trying to get through.
Go listen to some good music: "How Do I Get Through to You?" from the album Tripped into Divine by Dexter Freebish. For what it's worth, I'm actually reading Margot Livesey's The House on Fortune Street at the moment.