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So I read, lost, every day

In not writing, this is what hurts: not so much the absence of story or fiction or mere text, word count and progress, but the absence of words. True words. Any words. It is hard to lose the part of one's self that thinks in the rhythm of words; the part that sees the movement of water across a flooded lawn and tries to name its shape; the part that sees the first spring buds on the branches by the window and wonders how to shape a sentence, a line, a phrase to evoke this brief moment of joy, this brief flash of green.

To walk as one blind to everything surrounding; to speak only trivialities. To have nothing to say. Nothing at all worth hearing to say.


And I remember that there were ... are ... stories that can make the words come back.

I find on my shelf a book long forgotten, left unread since my final days in university. A funny book, this -- pieces of books, truly, and essays and short fiction and poetry, all bound together and called the Annie Dillard Reader. I'd never read anything by Annie Dillard before this text was assigned and have not read anything by her since -- and yet I suddenly remember how her words were an inspiration. I admired their precision, the shifting balance between obvious simplicity and stunning complexity.

Over and over again I'd read the piece "An Expedition to the Pole," having been shocked all but speechless by it the first time, the structure and deftness of that essay which spoke of polar exploration and the quest for God through formalized religion, and made them one. And over and over again I'd read one paragraph:

I walk in emptiness; I hear my breath. I see my hand and compass, see the ice so wide it arcs, see the planet's peak curving and its low atmosphere held fast on the dive. The years are passing here. I am walking, light as any handful of aurora; I am light as sails, a pile of colorless stripes; I cry "heaven and earth indistinguishable!" and the current underfoot carries me and I walk.

I used to read it aloud, just to feel the way the words tasted, the movements of my tongue as I shaped them.

And now:

I sit down on the edge of my bed and flip the book open right near the end, the lamp on the bedside casting a glow both warm and soft across the pages. A few paragraphs in I begin to read aloud. My voice is slow and stumbling as if from disuse, nervous to be speaking so -- here, in my empty room, in an empty apartment with the rain pounding outside. It is like being in school again, a classroom of one, and the text seems wholly unfamiliar, and my mouth is dry as I speak.

I stumble. I hesitate. I reach and fumble and stutter to a stop, only to begin again.

And this is how I read the lines I think I was meant to find today, a hidden piece from Holy the Firm:

Two years ago I was camping alone in the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia. I had hauled myself and gear up there to read, among other things, James Ramsy Ullman's The Day on Fire, a novel about Rimbaud that made me want to be a writer when I was sixteen; I was hoping it would do it again. So I read, lost, every day sitting under a tree by my tent, while warblers swung in the leaves overhead and bristle worms trailed their inches over the twiggy dirt at my feet; and I read every night by candlelight, while barred owls called in the forest and pale moths massed round my head in the clearing, where my light made a ring.

"Oh," I say quietly, and let the book fall.


There is a cadence to true words that, once spoken, once written, can never entirely be forgotten. It is not enough to merely write, word after word, and watch them all fall flat and lay there on the page, limp and wrong. The right rhythm must be fought for and sought after and courted, that rhythm when everything seems right; brief and elusive, those moments when words are afire.

I am not writing a story; I am not writing a book. I am not, in truth, writing at all, but rather ... speaking. Narrating what I might once have freewritten, words for the sound of words, for the feel of words, slipping into the air, heard and then gone. Forgotten.

I have been speaking to my empty kitchen in a slow and deliberate voice as I wash the dishes and ladle the soup into small containers, as I pull the last cornbread from the oven and pull it from the tray. And I realize: suddenly words have texture again, and rhythm, and flow, and I hear each with a precision, a clarity that seems to have been lost, wholly absent, for weeks and months -- no, in truth, gone from me for years. Two years, more -- need I count them? And while I know that they will leave me again, the brief clarity of such composition vanishing and leaving only the weight and fog of the everyday, it seems that perhaps the poetry is out here too, elusive but present, just waiting to be spoken.

Comments

ksumnersmith
Apr. 14th, 2008 03:21 am (UTC)
Re: Meditation on a theme
I even go out of my way not to translate thought to word because even though words are not exact representations of thoughts, often the words, imprecise as they are, replace the thoughts in my memory so that I can no longer recapture what I was thinking. I've been told that this is not uncommon, though not universal either.

Common enough that I spent a good few hours in one of my university classes discussing the way that our knowledge and recollection of our own thoughts and experience is changed by how we think and speak about them. We change our memories in the telling of stories.

Michelle's question to you is the one that also struck me: how do you think? While words are not the only way my thoughts are shaped, they are key, and I'd be fascinated to know how your thought process differs.

(I remember a time as a child when it suddenly occurred to me to ask: if someone knows more than one language, then what language do they think in? Or is it all of them, mixed together? I confused a few family members -- native German speakers -- with my rather intense line of questioning on this matter.)

The sense of living riven from a beautiful and necessary aspect of self, in more ways than one. Yes.

Oh yes, yes, that's it exactly.

Best to you on your own search, and may you find the words you need.
seabream
Apr. 14th, 2008 03:02 pm (UTC)
Re: Meditation on a theme
Since they relate well, I'm combining replies. Since what I wrote is so long, I have to split it.

Can I ask what you do think in?
Of course. I usually don't mind questions (exceptions including ones that indicate lack of thought/attention, intent to offend/hurt, misrepresentation of what went before). The actual answering can be difficult, but as long as it can be deferred until such time as answers can be developed without the deferral being considered impolite, that is usually fine. I'm not sure exactly how to answer the question, so let me know if you were looking for something else.

About most things, I could be described as thinking in conceptual bundles (conceptual in the sense of being made up of thought objects which include sense impressions, thoughts, memories (which of course can involve words), feelings) that link and interrelate components and other bundles in specific ways that are often fairly non-linear (in the sense that while I know that they are linked, and what the links imply about their impact on the overall object of thought under consideration, I won't always know how, in terms of being able to explain the reasoning steps, without focusing on and unpacking the webs, Also non-linear in the sense of not being readily spatially mappable since the connections between multiple concepts include assessments of degrees of sometimes interrelated difference (e,g.: information source reliability, age of memory, avoidance level) in more than three axes, let alone one.). Which like a lot of brain work is puzzling to me because at a social interaction level, based on professional evaluations, I do a lot of information processing that, for most people, is generally done at an unconscious level, consciously, and hence much more slowly, which in broad, seems to be the reverse of how it looks to me like I do the associative processing above. I imagine that parts of my thought processes resemble the way that thinking in words can work, but... hmm let me try this: A given word has many associations and contextually sensitive connotations, A thought can take the bits of the word's associations that are particular to the situation under examination, as well as bits that are not associated with that word, and make that a manipulable concept that fits into a thought model/structure without needing to find a label that says exactly that. Most of the time, finding communicable signifiers to tag everything with is not feasible, therefore I think of my thought as not being in words. Of course, words are often objects, or parts of objects in those conceptual bundles, but usually, apart from things like memories of someone saying a phrase (usually part of something treeing off of instances in which the phrase appears), only insofar as they are related to the concepts there, as opposed to as shorthand for the associational bundles.

Which is not to say that words are only generated when I need to talk or write. I have a cliché generator with various genre and accent capabilities in my head that triggers occasionally. Mental models of what certain other people, real or fictional, might say if they were looking at whatever I happen to be looking at. The bit that thinks about what I'm experiencing in light of the prospects of blogging/talking about it later (A distinctly different process than what is at work when I'm actually in a discussion in real-time.). But those are more automatic processes rather than me thinking.

I can admire and appreciate beauty in words, but as far as their use personally, I often find them a great trial and source of frustration for my inability to accurately and precisely say what I mean and understand what other people do because of their limits as a medium of communication.

seabream
Apr. 14th, 2008 03:03 pm (UTC)
Re: Meditation on a theme
I think in words. I practically dream in words. the strongest part of Karina's post for me, was: the part that sees the movement of water across a flooded lawn and tries to name its shape, because I do this constantly.

I'm curious how long you remember doing this for and whether you can link it to specific behavioural feedback training loops. Looks for words, writes them down, gets better at looking for words etc... I know that the way I think now has significant differences compared to how I thought when I was say six years old, though I think that I can remember beginning to have similar difficulties around thoughts and communication by the time I was in third grade. Certainly by age eleven when I was reading books and watching television, fictional (Brave New World) and not (TLC pre reality TV and <3 PBS, books from parenting to philosophy with some science thrown in.), which talked about the ways that language and words made some thoughts unthinkable/affected development, with their implicit and explicit assumptions and detailed descriptions of how the writers/researchers thought everyone's thought processes worked and developed, I was going "Well that's clearly not right." and "unfounded assumption.". I mean it was interesting, but I couldn't help thinking that these people must have had very different memories of being, say ten, than I did.

Words are metaphor, yes.

I'm having difficulty narrowing down to which way(s) this is meant to be read in this context. Please explain?

I have an enormously good memory for the spoken word and for voices, and if I need to fix something in mind, I will often say it out loud.

I will do that too, though it isn't hugely reliable for me. In conversation, my memory is getting flakier. I envy you yours. I used to be able to easily replay significant parts of dialogue - cadence, tone and all - if I was party to the discussion and the subject had come up later. If the conversation was peripheral to my attention, I could backtrack perhaps a few sentences into the immediate past if something had twigged. That faculty was far less capable of reproducing speech if it was not in a familiar language. Now it comes and goes. Mind you, I was never at my mother's teen level. Back then she had a near perfect memory for word based content whether on a page or verbally, whether she was paying attention or not. As in, able to absorb a lecture sitting in class, while reading a book on an unrelated subject, to the point of being able to answer questions requiring synthesis of information from different points in the lecture as well as earlier ones.

Common enough that I spent a good few hours in one of my university classes discussing the way that our knowledge and recollection of our own thoughts and experience is changed by how we think and speak about them. We change our memories in the telling of stories.

That sounds like a class I might have liked to attend. What sort of course was it? I've come at the theory side of it (as opposed to the feeling it happen side) from several different directions: a course in writing and activism, a sociology/anthropology one (side note: taught by the only faculty member at York cross-listed in Music and Sociology - John Gittens, a terrific professor in jazz and societal development, and a really interesting person to chat with. ), and in a workshop at Good For Her on the brain and sex run by a psychotherapist with a neuroscience background (Marta Helliesen) who does a fair bit of trauma and abuse related counselling. That said, the thing that I was un-clearly referring to as being uncommon was the fear of loss of self attendant on the awareness of the above phenomenon being strong enough to make me reluctant to verbalise thoughts.

msagara
Apr. 18th, 2008 01:21 am (UTC)
Re: Meditation on a theme
Words are metaphor, yes.

I'm having difficulty narrowing down to which way(s) this is meant to be read in this context. Please explain?


What I do, when I see something that causes me to stop and come up with words to describe it, is largely metaphor. I am not trying to scientifically or precisely describe what I see; I'm trying to come up with words that encapsulate what I feel at that time. The words wouldn't make useful non-fiction because they're attempting to evoke something I've experienced, rather than describe the actual thing I see.

So... if I went to the Notre Dame Cathedral, and I wrote about it, it's highly likely that what I write would make sense only to people who have already seen it, or have seen something that has moved them in a similar way; they won't be able to glean the significance of the architecture or the history or anything else from my words.

Much of the sense of naming the shape of what I see (which is what ksumnersmith mentions the loss of in her opening paragraph, is exactly that; it's metaphor. I would say, by the way, that it's not different from some of your modeling because the metaphor is evocative, and anything it evokes (in me) is tied to my own experiences and my own way of looking at and understanding the world.
seabream
Apr. 14th, 2008 03:04 pm (UTC)
Re: Meditation on a theme
(I remember a time as a child when it suddenly occurred to me to ask: if someone knows more than one language, then what language do they think in? Or is it all of them, mixed together? I confused a few family members -- native German speakers -- with my rather intense line of questioning on this matter.)

Why the confusion? It seems like a perfectly reasonable and understandable question from here. What answers did you get? The answers that I've gotten from the people I've asked have been that it is mostly contextual. If one is in an environment where one language predominates, then after awhile, one mostly thinks in that language unless there is a thought that one language can describe better than another, something that doesn't translate well. Also that languages come with implicit structures with respect to how people relate to each other that require mental adjustments in order to speak them properly which therefore has effects on which language one is thinking in in a given social context even if one isn't speaking that language. One person said that thinking in multiple languages offers one with more opportunities for puns and other word-play, but that mostly he stays with thinking in one at a time.

Oh yes, yes, that's it exactly
And here I heave a sigh of relief for having gotten it right. Which is not to say that you don't have a marvellously clear and well rhythmed stream of consciousness that is a pleasure to read. Merely that this feels like an important thing to get and I'm not all that secure in my ability to read meanings when it comes to things that feel important.

Best to you on your own search, and may you find the words you need.
Thank you very much. I'm sort of procrastinating about it at the moment as may be apparent.

Hail to rebirths.
msagara
Apr. 18th, 2008 01:08 am (UTC)
Re: Meditation on a theme
I remember a time as a child when it suddenly occurred to me to ask: if someone knows more than one language, then what language do they think in?

I asked :D. My oldest son's godfather is fluently bilingual in English and Japanese (father is white American, mother born in Tokyo), and his mother never spoke a word of English to either of her children that wasn't part of a grammar question.

His response: He thinks about some things in English and some in Japanese because either language throws up barriers to certain kind of thoughts, and makes others more easily accessible.