You think about a lot of things when you have time on your hands. That can be a blessing or a curse depending on where your mind takes itself. Writers, by their nature, I suspect, have a tendency to take themselves to a lot of places in their heads that other folks visit less frequently, if at all. And I suspect when they visit these odd mental destinations, writers are less likely to be in tourist mode, and more likely to set up residence there, soak up the essences and try to bring back significant new insights about whatever it was that attracted them there in the first place.
I have been curious about language all my life. My grandparents were immigrants from Poland. Three of the four never really mastered English well enough to be fully functional outside their ethnic enclave in the Chicago area without help from their bilingual friends or offspring. My maternal grandmother did a little better, although her English was halting and imprecise. She got by though, because she had a beautiful smile and a wonderful sense of humor. She could also turn furious on a dime and communicate authority with a voice and body language that could scare the stripes off a tiger. She also had a vocabulary of gestures and pantomime to rival Marcel Marceau.
In my work over the years I’ve been plunked down several times in language-challenged environments with little or no prior preparation, and required to function promptly at a substantial level of effectiveness. Mexico and Brazil were the biggest challenges. But even South Carolina, New Zealand, Scotland and Australia were surprisingly unsettling a time or two simply because the combinations of accent, word choice, word meaning, pace and phrasing made our common tongue uncommonly incomprehensible until my ears adjusted. I’ve always emerged from these emersion experiences grateful and invigorated. I find the need to incorporate these sounds and voices into my writing irresistible. And I hope I do the sounds in my head and the emotions in my heart justice when I try tapping into them for my writing.
In later life I’ve had a few experiences as a visitor or tourist to Portugal, Spain, Mexico, Chile and Peru, as well as a number of islands in the Caribbean. I was even brought along on a medical mission to the Dominican Republic in 2007 because I knew enough science and Spanish to be of use to the medical team. They put me to work doing patient interviews, recording medical profiles, taking blood pressures and administering routine prophylactic medications. I was one of only three among 17 that had any Spanish proficiency at all, and we only had the sporadic occasional assistance of fluent translators.
Several weeks ago I began volunteering as an English tutor in the ESL program of a local refugee center. I had the mistaken notion that my Spanish might come in handy. There are several ESL programs in town, and the Hispanic influx to our part of the country is fairly substantial. So somehow I took the mental shortcut to a wrong conclusion that that would reflect the need at the refugee center. What was it about the word refugee that my pea brain failed to consider?
Well, the answer to that question would be A LOT.
Refugees come from places in significant strife, or formerly in strife, or from places where people put themselves at substantial personal risk to perform major favors for the US. Favors that they sometimes can’t talk about once extracted from the danger they’ve put themselves in as a result of their deeds. Currently, in the program where I volunteer, that involves folks from places like Sudan, Eretria, Iraq, Iran, and Myanmar. They don’t speak Spanish.
Farsi (Persian, i.e. Iranian).
Burmese (and a few dozen dialects and minor languages).
These are the languages the current group of refugees are endowed with. Many of these folks are from settings and circumstances where they did not even read or write in their primary languages. Now they are immersed in a foreign culture (as if those last two words can even begin to capture the concept of the enormity of the difference in their life situation) in which the only gateway to success and assimilation is to learn English. They must also learn to read and write, sometimes both their former language and English at the same time, in order to achieve a degree of self-sufficiency in their new situation.
I am a sixty-five year old man who’s seen my share of speed bumps in my life, but I have to tell you: The first day after my first two hour tutoring session, I walked to the parking lot through the snow, sat in my pickup truck and cried. I’m a guy, so I only cried for a few seconds. I couldn’t let myself be in a public place and sob on for longer. But my heart was just aching.
I’ve spent many hours in the last few weeks trying to figure out why it affected me that way. I’m not an idiot, and, of course there were all the reasons one would expect. You can’t help but empathize with the plight of folks in their kind of situation. But knowing myself, I recognized that the emotion was coming from somewhere more central to my own identity. It finally hit me today just what it was that made the personal impact on me as profound as it has been.
For a writer language is enormously important. That notion shouldn’t shock anyone with an ounce of brain thinking about this. But language is more than a “Me Bob. You reader. You buy my book.” translation algorithm. Beyond bare bones communication, language is the source of a level of intellectual joy, satisfaction and fulfillment that can only come upon the mastering of a language sufficiently to have a command of subtlety and nuance. Humanity is so defined by its ability to communicate through language that it is arguably dehumanizing to be unable to deploy fully functional language to meet the needs of our minds and hearts to share thoughts and emotions with precision and grace.
Remember falling in love and being afraid to tell your special someone? You were afraid of rejection, but you were also afraid of not being able to say the right words to express what you felt and to win the other’s affection in return. Did it ever go badly for you when you tried to woo someone because you botched the message?
Now try to imagine that kind of scenario for every need and thought you are trying to share with everyone around you. Only now also imagine that those folks don’t even have the same cultural context in which to couch your stumbling attempts to communicate.
The art form we all share a love affair with, namely reading and writing, is important to me because it represents that effort to communicate at that higher level of perfection that releases our spirits to cavort with the souls of others nearly as intimately as lovers. A writer writes tens of thousands of words in the hope that reading it will be the foreplay that successfully delivers a few dozen words and a thought or two to readers in a completely unforgettable way.
This notion has had hold of me; I think that:
The art of writing, is to story as love making is to procreation.
Just as children are born of love, memorable stories are the product of wonderful writing.
Neither aspect diminishes the other, and each depends on the other for existence.
Language is the kiss, the caress, that delivers this kind of love from one soul to another.
Of course the reason I came to this flowery statement about writing is because my life experience these past few weeks has been such a perfect metaphor to me of our struggle as writers. Writing isn’t easy. If it was easy it wouldn’t be worth as much as it is when done well. When done well it is sublime. Of course not everything we write will be a soul’s love affair of cosmic proportions. Some of what we write will be a smile across a big room. Some will be a handshake after a game. Some will be a wink among friends, some will be a hug. Some will be a kiss and a hug. Some will be ecstatic love making. Some will be rancid coffee on a tossing ship at sea.
Here’s to ecstatic love making… the gift of language.