The languages we speak

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The late poet Derek Walcott wrote: “To change your language you must change your life”. I’ve thought about this statement many times over the years, and usually find that the inverse is also true – truer even: “To change your life you must change your language”. And we speak many different languages, literal and figurative, to fit our lives.

Literal language

There are the obvious ways in which this is true. For example, in the life of a migrant, you only become integrated to a limited extent without changing your language, but you can make inroads with the literal changing and adopting of another language. The more immersive it is, the more it shapes your life (so these statements work in conjunction with each other: language changes life, life changes language).

I spoke at some length with a friend about whether a language inherently contains a power structure. We were discussing that the US and UK have buckled under the weight of crumbling infrastructure and insufficient provision for managing natural disasters/bad weather. He shared that a friend in Massachusetts boasted about how her new generator switched on automatically five times that winter, leading him to ask (once again), “What is it about Americans that makes them twist the shortcomings of the place they live into things to brag about?” I always go back to the same answer: they don’t know any better. Many everyday things (for me or for him) sound futuristic to people in America (and to some extent, the UK). “Empires”, if we could call America one, crack and crumble from within. My friend wondered if the English language contains a built-in predilection for “shitty societies”. I did not agree with this statement but thought a bit about the built-in attitude of English. He posited that something in the language creates fear and anger in its speakers that is masked by arrogance.

I admit that although I have analyzed the language – and language in general – from many points of view, I had never taken it on from this angle. I have, though, thought about the imperialism and spread of language, which then gives native speakers a sense of entitlement. He posed the question: “How else to explain why both London and NYC are crappy in similar ways?” I figured it is not so much something within the language itself so much as in its ubiquity and power. (Both places driven and developed by the original British imperialist way of thinking, the dominance of English, even among large populations of immigrants who end up united by this one powerful lingua franca, contributes.) Within the language itself, though, is it a magnet for the best or most useful elements of other languages? Has it not only overtaken other languages but plundered them for its own needs? Does the dominance of English come from how and where its imperialism ended up (North America, India, other parts of Asia, Australia), in places where dominance also meant colonization and the “conquering” people staying put and taking power – as opposed to “resource grabs” like those in Africa, where French colonialism was alive and well? Could it be the result of English having such a vast and even superfluous vocabulary.. another way of dominating just by sheer volume of words? (And we can’t even say there is one “English” – its spread and ubiquity have created all kinds of variations.)

I don’t know the answers to these questions, but the questions are fascinating.

The language of self-help and personal identity

Then there are increasingly less obvious languages. For example, the language of self-help: you are told to frame yourself and your issues in a new way. The frame changes perception and eventually the language used to describe that perception. That is, you are what you think. You are the language you use. This came to mind most recently when I was listening to a young colleague who is often cuttingly direct in the language she uses, and I wonder how she would respond to softer, more diplomatic language. I also note that she notices keenly when others are as direct as she is. Would she be as effective in her role if she were softer? No. But if I were as direct and abrupt as she is, it would not suit me or work for me. Each of us, thus, forms our own (kind of) language – by which we are identified and through which we craft our own identities.

The language of failure?

Similarly, in pop-self-help and some broader psychological discussion, “failure” isn’t used when something might just be a setback. Here I think of alcoholics… do we really want to say that because someone had 90 days of sobriety and then fell off the wagon that those 90 days are a loss, a waste or a step back to square one – and their attempts a “failure”? Does the language we apply imply judgment and set the groundwork or pace for the next “slip”? That is, for an alcoholic each day sober is a success, and even if they build toward longer periods of sobriety, is their success (or failure) measured cumulatively? Maybe AA or other people measure this way. But for the person dealing with it, the language needs to be more forgiving or less judgmental.

Language of experience

Maybe certain experiences we live through do not change the literal language – the words you use – but change the whole approach, so your set of sociolinguistic approaches and cues becomes different. Maybe experiences forge within you a different person, with different eyes, who can no longer speak the same language, with the same tone you once used before the experience. This is applicable in many cases, but I think in particular about consolation, grief and the expectation of it.

How little I understood when I recently read Eduardo Sacheri’s The Secret in their Eyes how prescient two takeaway quotes would be:

“…perhaps the man’s fate, a life destroyed by tragedy and grief, provided me with a chance to reflect on my own worst fears. I’ve often caught myself feeling a certain guilty joy at the disasters of others, as if the fact that horrible things happened to other people meant that my own life would be exempt from such tragedies, as if I’d get a kind of safe-conduct based on some obtuse law of probability…” – The Secret in their Eyes, Eduardo Sacheri

“I believed I understood that the reason we’re sometimes moved by another’s grief has to do with our atavistic fear that this grief may get transferred to us, too.” – The Secret in their Eyes, Eduardo Sacheri

These thoughts stuck with me after reading the book, which I was reading as I consoled someone through and after the death of his mother. While being supportive and compassionate to him, I turned to someone else for my own kind of consolation, and discussed at length the particular kind of grief that punctuates the loss of one’s mother. He only realized then, as if becoming prepared for grief, how very devastating his own loss would eventually be when his mother passes away. It seems especially cruel and unusual that he didn’t have to wait long to be confronted by the potential for this grief: his mother suffered a fairly catastrophic setback only a couple of weeks later, which has not resulted in her death – but has opened the floodgates and made him see that his entire approach, logically, was flawed, that he could not control or know what the loss would mean or do to him. Sacheri’s points on how we are moved by another’s grief – because it is so close to what we ourselves may soon experience – was applicable.

And yet, language cannot contain this kind of grief, the fear (or confusion) it creates and the mirror it holds up to us and how we live and feel.

Language is equally inadequate for consolation. But in such cases, it’s less a spoken language and more a listening language: giving the time, patience and love to listen.

He “…went on to assure us there’s no Devil, no Satan, no Hell. There is—(maybe)—Heaven but it isn’t anywhere far away or anything special. And we demanded to know, why isn’t Heaven anything special? (You always hear of Heaven being so special.) And Daddy said, because Heaven is just two things: human love, and human patience. And all love is, is patience. Taking time. Focusing, and taking time. That’s love. This was disappointing to us! This was not anything we wanted to hear. We were too young to have a clue how special human love and human patience were, how rare and fleeting…” –A Book of American Martyrs, Joyce Carol Oates

Photo by Kyle Glenn on Unsplash

 

lovers’ hands

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Coral
Derek Walcott
This coral’s shape echoes the hand
It hollowed. Its

Immediate absence is heavy. As pumice,
As your breast in my cupped palm.

Sea-cold, its nipple rasps like sand,
Its pores, like yours, shone with salt sweat.

Bodies in absence displace their weight,
And your smooth body, like none other,

Creates an exact absence like this stone
Set on a table with a whitening rack

Of souvenirs. It dares my hand
To claim what lovers’ hands have never known:

The nature of the body of another.

Photo by Joel Filipe on Unsplash

Baby steps toward the world

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I remember with some trepidation and self-consciousness my very first attempts to read and make sense of French – taking everything so literally at first, taking my time with grasping idiom. It’s always a series of baby steps when transforming your brain to take in and process new languages. To really feel them and live them, you must, to paraphrase the late Derek Walcott, you must change your life. I did not change my life, and thus I’m still no expert, but better recognize the fluidity of language in a way that my grammatical and rigid approach to English never allows for.

One window (or ‘windae’, were we Scots) to crawl through to find meaning in disembodied, lifeless translation drudgery was music. As soon as I realized, as a teenager who wanted nothing more than to run away from my hometown (tout de suite), that much of my favorite music was inspired by literary greatness, I could at least immerse myself in those other worlds. Imagine, though, that somehow in the intervening years, I had completely forgotten the connection between “Les yeux des pauvres” (Baudelaire) and the almost word-for-word treatment by The Cure in “How Beautiful You Are”.

I don’t know if you can imagine how much it was like opening a window to the past, almost like time travel, to be reminded of this and to return in my mind to that time in 1988-9 when this song so deeply moved me to tears and led me to Baudelaire. And how, now in present day, having the memory reawakened when someone sent me the Baudelaire describing it as: “unutterably sad commentary on relationships and the human condition. I love it”, I am moved to find someone else is as deeply affected by the same feelings.

“How can a plucked bird live?”/”Guns too are moral”

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An article reflecting on the passing of poet Derek Walcott remarks on the poet’s small world: “Brilliant poets find one another: their world is very small even though their influence is wide and deep.”

Therefore I hardly consider it a coincidence that I had already begun writing a brief blog post on Robert Lowell, after having read an article discussing a book about him and his mania/mental health when Lowell is mentioned as one of Walcott’s earliest champions and supporters.

I’ve always been partial to the work of Robert Lowell but never knew much about him – and his mania. But the first of his poems I remember ever reading has stuck closely with me ever since, so wrapped up as it was with gun-related themes tangential to my life 20 or more years ago:

Violence (Robert Lowell)
From the first cave, the first farm, the first sage,
inalienable our human right to murder —
“We must get used,” they say, “to the thought of guns;
we must get used to seeing guns; we must
get used to using guns.” Guns too are moral. Guns
failed Che Guevara, Marie Antoinette,
Leon Trotsky, the children of the Tsar:
chivalrous ornaments to power. Tom Paine said
Burke pitied the plumage and forgot the dying bird.
How can a plucked bird live? Whoever puts
arms in the hands of the people is a criminal,
arms given the people are always used against the people;
the only guns that will not kill the owner
are forged by insight… fear made wise by anger.

“Sit. Feast on your life” RIP Derek Walcott

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The great poet Derek Walcott has died. Poets die all the time; people die all the time, but some hit a little harder than others. I’ve always read and returned to Walcott but somehow had been examining his work more carefully earlier this year, returning again and again between recent weeks’ travels and thwarted travels. A lot of reading in general and so much appreciation for, as Maria Popova put it in her always enlightening Brainpickings, “undoubtedly one of the greatest, most soul-stretching poems ever written”:

“LOVE AFTER LOVE
The time will come
when, with elation,
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror,
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,
and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you
all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,
the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.”

Photo (c) 2010 Logan Brumm used under Creative Commons license.

Your own dictator

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“How could I tell you anything? You are not even talking to me.”

On to the second of the two “New Age” books I agreed to read:

“Remember that self-doubt is as self-centered as self-inflation. Your obligation is to reach as deeply as you can and offer your unique and authentic gifts as bravely and beautifully as you’re able.”

Self-doubt and struggling with a lack of sense of self are two different things – but interrelated.

I don’t feel paralyzed by strong self-doubt, and I certainly don’t feel like I lack a sense of self. But I do have those moments of doubt that stop me – maybe not the doubts that tell me I can’t do something. More that I doubt whether I have the strength to persevere through difficult things. I feel this keenly with practical things – do I have the fortitude to push through the difficulties and complexities of learning and understanding all the things I would have to learn and understand to take on X career or Y project? I never feel this doubt or self-questioning otherwise. But then, what of this obligation to reach as far, as wide, as deep as possible into your own capabilities?

Is it really an obligation? To whom? Yourself? The world? I wrote yesterday about projected expectations, and other people assuming things about you. I had a conversation with my father recently (it doesn’t happen often; he is the king of assuming things about others), and he told me something about his sudden bouts with anxiety and the nervous and constant buzz he has in his stomach; he asked if I had ever felt that way. Oh, only every day of my childhood. He was incredulous when I said this, “But why on earth would you be nervous or anxious? You were so smart.” As if being smart erases the kind of self-doubt, nervousness, shyness that shadows you every minute of your life – all it does is help you craft an identity, authentic or not, that you can use when you are out, forced to interact in the world. Does the innate ability or intelligence you possess eventually outweigh or overtake all the doubt or nervousness – or the complete misunderstanding or blindness that those, supposedly closest to you, have applied to you?

Are we obligated by having a natural gift or talent to pursue it? Sure, it seems a waste not to, but are we shirking a duty or responsibility by ignoring our “unique and authentic gifts”, or merely letting ourselves down?

Ultimately, as Julie Carr writes, “You have to be your own dictator
and the law is, hate yourself if you have to, but don’t stop doing the thing you said you were going to do
”.

FORECLOSING ON THAT PERIL
Julie Carr
I’ll keep explaining—because maybe you still don’t get it
Those children in California (substitute any state), dead from gunfire—
Let me begin again in a little roof garden with my friend
A perverse reader, he listens to my stories as if they were TV
I mean he mocks me lovingly on the roof and at the library book sale
My friend is not a banker but a prison activist
He used to be a philosopher, but like many philosophers, he’s taken a turn
that should be easy to understand
The trajectory from philosopher to activist is like the curve of a single brushstroke across a large canvas
Artists in the fifties paid attention to that
I hate flat language like this, but I’m pretty flat
sometimes. You have to be your own dictator
and the law is, hate yourself if you have to, but don’t stop doing the thing you said you were going to do
As I tell my daughters often
Emotion is a site of unraveling (JB)
I admit, gripping my T-shirt
I wish I were writing in prose an unfolding intensity that shocks history professors and prison activists equally
Later, in the grass, we’ll practice gymnastics and that way contribute our sweat
to Our Ephemeral City

And, reflecting on the doubt, and the not-entirely-accurate identities we inhabit in figuring out who we are, I realize we are like animals who shed their skin. You change identities no matter who you are, and the former you still informs, as memory and experience, but does not define, as the previous New Age tome I read wisely posited:

“To relinquish your former identity is to sacrifice the story you had been living, the one that defined you, empowered you socially – and limited you. This sacrifice captures the essence of leaving home.”

The writer also cited one of my favorite poems from Derek Walcott (here’s a piece); it half-applies:

“The time will come
When, with elation,
You will greet yourself arriving
At your own door, in your own mirror,
And each will smile at the other’s welcome,

And say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was yourself.”

Photo (c) of Mt Rainier by the late, great Paul Costanich.