A Bowl of Words
“And I? …sometimes I tell a story. Because Promethea asks me for a bowl of words before she goes to sleep.” -Cixous, The Book of Promethea
When I was young, my mother would take my sister and I to the library to gather books. I was a voracious consumer of words from an early age and I would check out the maximum number of books allowed and finish my quota within days.
At school, our desks were those that had their bellies hollowed out so we could leave our books, pencils, and erasers inside when we left for the day. I used to carefully insert the books I was reading just beneath a cracked desk-lid and read while the teachers slogged through topics. Car rides, at the dinner table, under the sheets at night with a flashlight… I often found myself without a book to read.
I quickly learned there were thicker books in the “Young Adult” section, but then, the shelves were only a tiny fraction of what the YA section has become in today’s libraries. I pushed past those stories rapidly when my hunger for meatier narratives eclipsed the two-dimensional tales on offer by the Babysitter’s Club and Judy Blume. My desire for words was insatiable.
I don’t know when it began, but I figured out that I could re-create the sensation of being sucked into a story by writing my own, and so when I had thoroughly digested the words of others and had no access to more, I would begin to write down the imaginings that gurgled up in my own mind. If the books I picked did not satisfy, if I found them flat or distasteful, I would work on the stories I had begun to craft or experiment with thrusting words together in unexpected ways, training my mind to be a kind of linguistic collider.
I quickly developed an obsession for the feel of a good medium-point black pen on 3 sheets of paper and a hard, smooth surface. The subtle scent of the ink, how a blank page’s weight and sound when shuffled would shift once written upon, and the glorious smell of the paper itself made writing a tactile, engulfing endeavor.
Over time, I discovered that when I wrote, I could turn over an observation and move through ever expanding questions to reveal aspects of my thinking and the world not immediately accessible to my conscious mind. This coincided with my initial encounter with geometry and proofs and watching my family’s first new home being built from the dirt up. My father, who now has over 40 years of building experience, narrated the building process as we walked the site on weekends and after school, from foundation to framing to insulation to completed home. I watched geometry, mathematics, come alive and wondered secretly if language functioned similarly.
The revelation that my exploration of language, more so even than the religious ideology I was raised within, dredged internal depths and lent to the exploration of concepts and perceptions outside of my comfort zone, filled me with wonder and curiosity about how language interacted with and impacted others. I became intractably drawn to exploring how pre-thought moved through to human action, and sought out the language with which to think about the trajectory of theory to praxis in complex systems. Recursion, infinite loops, entanglements, randomness, order, chaos… I kept returning to language, while words gained weight and depth. Certain words began to hold the same kind of gravity I imagined stars carried. Might perception, even reality, bend around words the way that space and time curved around the dense coagulation of large swathes of matter?
Writing. Words. I was filled with wonder for language, the first technology of human kind.
“The most difficult lie I have ever contended with is this: life is a story about me.” -Donald Miller
When I first encountered the internet, the possibility of endless readings, accessibility to a way of learning driven entirely by my own curiosity, filled me with excitement. I could speed around, quickly cross-checking names and histories, thoughts and their thinker’s biographies, and absorb art and music I would not have encountered otherwise. This, a living library and reference portal that would surely awaken thoughts and new ways of perceiving in me. I could bounce from topic to topic in a way that I simply could not by walking around a thoroughly organized library.
It was good, for a time. I slowly adjusted to writing on the computer, a task I didn’t want to engage at first and still reserve only for a certain type of writing. I found that typing increased my ability to record and follow my thoughts. I journeyed into some amazing territory online, encountered ideas, images, and writing forms that did indeed alter the ways I perceived the world. Adjusting to the internet was an incredible adventure.
The internet was where I first dipped my toes into sharing my most intimate stories and my thoughts with others, disjointed as they sometimes were. The thrill of knowing my thoughts might be, and then were, read by strangers was interspersed with frustrations connected to communicating meaning. I have had to learn over the course of many years to disconnect from how readers interpret what I share. There were times, of course, that I reveled in abstract word soups meant to toy with myriad meanings. I wondered what others would read into the word-paintings, how they would be interpreted. In retrospect, I suppose I was testing whether words had the same impact between people as they did inside me.
Once I stopped being an anonymous online presence, the way I was read often supplanted the words, thoughts, and ideas themselves. This was, and continues to be, an extraordinary lesson regarding connection and communication. My curiosity about this has informed my journey into modes of meaning-making, especially in the realms of marketing and advertising, and continues to drive my curiosity about the emergence and ongoing internal dialogue around the relationship between subjects and objects.
A very simple love of language (preceded itself by a rich enjoyment of letter-forms) to meaning-making to the relationship between subjects and objects (coupled with an intense rejection of the commodification of everything), and my desire to participate in the world politically, might be best contextualized as a subtle exploration of flux.
“Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.” -George Bernard Shaw
These days, I browse online and do not find anything that I want to read or spend any time slipping into deeply. I have spent some time thinking about this and realize it is largely because there is a distinct, overwhelming irreverence and disregard for language (words) online now. In addition, and perhaps more importantly, the web is awash with a very particular kind of tone: fear. Fear that is undigestible, fetid, pale, flat, and lacking substance. It is ubiquitous, a semantic black hole toward which every word that is written seems irrevocably drawn.
I took time today to recall the periods when I ran out of books as a child, moments when I would take advantage of crafting my own stories and putting thoughts in a communicable form (regardless of cries of TL;DR), an activity I have come to embrace as a kind of sacred act. I initially recoiled from the thought of offering anything to the web, into all this violent noise, but I also understand that it is exactly into these moments that sharing stories of a perhaps vulnerable nature becomes a heroic, even radical, act.
I am certainly not here for the entertainment, nor to be the entertainment.
For all our technological advances, we have not fundamentally changed. We still require belonging, connection, and community to be healthy, functional beings, and this is ultimately fostered by our ability to effectively and meaningfully communicate with each other, to communicate complex ideas. Without the ability to organize and put into words the complexity of our lives, history, and states of being in transition (flux), we trap ourselves in a linguistic isolation bounded by fear of one kind or another. Language is the bridge between us and if there is no capacity for wording complexities, there is no capacity for receiving complexities. The world becomes flat, black and white, good and evil, binary, split between silence and screaming.
There is a reason that the worst possible punishment enacted on a human being, other than killing them, is isolation. All types of violence can be realized in isolation. There are many ways this isolation is made possible, both by external force and internalized fear, but the easiest way to isolate another human being is by preventing meaningful communication with other human beings.
“Just as terror, even in its pre-total, merely tyrannical form ruins all relationships between [wo]men, so the self-compulsion of ideological thinking ruins all relationships with reality. The preparation has succeeded when people have lost contact with their fellow [wo]men as well as the reality around them; for together with these contacts, [wo]men lose the capacity of both experience and thought.”-Arendt
When events lurch in impossible directions and the way folks try to explain ‘why’ further eclipses our humanity, our dignity, and segments us into ideological cabals where human expression is collapsed to parroting paroxysms, I return to my reverence for language. This is a very personal location for me and it colors every interaction and activity in my life, from listening to my neighbors to exploring possibilities for our future to surfing. Others might find this in music, art, architecture, dance…
The very location I find the most hope is also the realm within which I first encountered the fragility, complexity, and, at times, hypocrisy of the human experience. A great wonder and love for other human beings has emerged in this process.
If I cannot find what my soul cries out for, then I must work to create it.
A bowl of words. A bowl of hope.
“How do people recognize they have the power to be storytellers, not just listeners? Hope is the story of uncertainty, of coming to terms with the risk involved with not knowing what comes next, which is more demanding than despair and, in a way, more frightening. And immeasurably more rewarding. What strikes you when you come out of a deep depression or get close to a depressed person is the utter self-absorption of misery. Which is why the political imagination is better fueled by looking deeper and farther.” -Solnit, R., Hope in the Dark