ALCHEMY OF WORDS
ALCHEMY OF WORDS
A word is a magical thing.
Young children are not that interested in books without pictures. No matter how good the story. When we are very young, a word on a page, by itself, is just not that interesting. We need pictures to make the words more engaging.
As we grow older, our stories also grow, and there are fewer and fewer pictures. As this happens, another kind of magic takes hold. The words on the page begin to mean something. And we start to participate in the story. We bring our imagination to the page and create our own pictures.
This is because a word is a magical thing. And the reading of words is actually an act of creation. As readers, we get to participate in the art itself coming to fruition like no other art form. We are brought into the world made by the writer and get to do our own co-creating while we’re there; completing the circle of art in a way wholly unique to the written word.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I love the visual arts. Words and pictures have long worked together. And they’ve enjoyed a beautiful working relationship. I’ve just noticed that lately the relationship has become a little lopsided. As if there’s been a regression of sorts. At least as far as the internets are concerned.
The truth is, we’ve gotten a bit lazy. We can’t be bothered to write out the full words for things. And in order to get us to read something, there needs to be a picture attached. It’s like we’re all in kindergarten again, and we’re easily bored.
Which is a shame. Not just because I’m a writer. But because the word is fundamental to our understanding of everything in our world. Including pictures. Imagine describing a picture without words. Now imagine seeing a picture and not attaching words to it in your own head.
And the thing is, understanding is pretty important. Because mostly what we understand is so vastly outweighed by what we don't understand that if we understood only that simple truth it would blow our minds. And maybe it would lead to things like humility, compassion, and even curiosity.
In order to understand our world a little better, we need to exercise our brains a little more. Reading is a little like yoga for our minds. And who among us couldn’t stand to do a little more yoga, right?
Here's something really crazy. New studies show [I promise this isn't a gum commercial] that our brains might actually see words as pictures. Did you hear that? At least some of us see words as pictures. If that’s so, then putting pictures with them is redundant.
I guess what I’m saying is: In a world that is already increasingly disconnected -- and almost unbearably truncated by letters and numbers that are supplanting words -- to continue to act as if words themselves are not important is to further distance ourselves from each other and from our natural environment.
It’s not just that always supplying the picture is too much spoon-feeding. Nor simply that it doesn’t allow us the space to create our own worlds with words. It isn’t even that it makes us lazy. It’s that it also deprives us of the raw beauty of words.
And beauty, as you know, is just about everything. So bring on the written word, the spoken word, the poetry slams, the calligraphy pens, the handmade paper, the ragged journals, and the tattered book covers holding so many precious gems.
Language existed before the written word. But the written word built bridges for us that language alone could not. Let’s get creative and figure out how to lift up the word again. In all its art forms. In all its glory. In all its ravenous beauty.
After all, if a picture is worth a thousand words, why not let the picture speak for itself. And set the words free again.
Words contain questions. I know that sounds funny. But it’s true. While words give us answers like who we are talking about or where they are or how much they’ve had to drink, they also contain questions, like what did he mean by that? In fact, the very word what could be a question or an answer. Words can tell you what she was wearing and also leave you wondering, what’s going to happen next?
Pick a word, any word, and I'll bet you'll see what I mean. Here's a random list: light, bar, clock, sort, kiss, swim, trace. Are these words verbs or nouns or adjectives? [It’s time to sort the laundry. –or- He’s the sort of guy you don't want to date.] Are they commands or descriptions? [Trace that call! –or- She left only a trace of perfume her lover's torso.] Are they meant to be friendly or foreboding? [It was their first kiss. –or- That’s the kiss of death.] I could go on...
Everyday we use hundreds of words without really thinking about their meaning, without even acknowledging the questions. Take the word illegitimate, a word that -- until very recently -- was widely used to indicate a child born of two people who were not married. To me, the unspoken question in this word is, Really?
Consider the phrase Happy Holidays. It seems innocent enough, a straightforward gesture of goodwill. Apparently though, there are many questions lurking in those two simple words. Enough of them to evoke complaints and pleadings for us to use the words Merry Christmas instead, so as not to exclude Christ in the season’s greetings. But Happy Holidays is meant to be inclusive not exclusive. It is meant to enfold the Christian celebration along with many others.
The best example of a word that comes with questions is love. I think Howard Jones has my back on this when he asks, What is love, anyway? The question is not merely lyrical. Love is so vast that it defies explanation. More than this, it begs for questions. Questions which force us to stop and pay attention. To examine ourselves and our actions, our thoughts and feelings, our preconceived notions. Love asks us to reach beyond our ideas of ourselves in order to find bigger answers.
We give honor to words, to ideas, to beliefs, to our common humanity, by acknowledging the things that lie outside our understanding and experience. These questions hidden in words are born of the things that awaken our curiosities, things that form questions on our lips, our hearts, our minds (and possibly other parts of our anatomies). Rigidity is good for things like dams, for objects which need to hold things back, to constrict and restrain. Trees, grasses, flowers, rivers, birds, minds, and spirits, these things need to flow and to bend. Let’s acknowledge the questions in our words and ideas of the world. Let’s embrace them and take time to discover their secrets.
Or as the master once put it:
Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart
and try to love the questions themselves.
-Rainer Maria Rilke
Be well everyone.
Stay in your magic.
The universe is an endless paradox of limited visibility. (How's that for an opening line.) Too often we believe that only this or that can be true. That there is such a thing as the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. That people can only be with us or against us.
From our flawed judicial system to the daily conversations inside and outside our heads, we live in an increasingly thin slice of reality. One in which people, things, and ideas are categorized, stereotyped, and affixed with childish labels like right or wrong, good or bad. Where, in the name of a loving God, people hate one another.
What all these thoughts and conclusions have in common is the arrogance of believing that the universe is knowable. And that the thinkers of all these thoughts know all there is to know. Think about that. Think about what this mix of certainty and arrogance requires.
The internet both connects us and keeps us separated from one another. Not just because we are glued to our phones instead of physically interacting. It also allows us to be insular in our associations and narrow in our exposure.
Yes, to a certain extent this has always been true. We have long subscribed to the newspapers and magazines that fit our worldview, favored one news channel over another, and stayed steadfastly true to one political party. Technology has simply amplified those tendencies. While also allowing us to avoid anything like an actual conversation.
It’s easy to hate on a certain segment of America for not seeing things the way we do. But there’s also a kind laziness in that behavior. And a measure of hypocrisy. If we’re honest with ourselves, we’ve all become willfully ignorant to things we find unpalatable or inconvenient, and those blond spots allow us to be unquestionably sure that our conclusions are the right ones.
The marketplace of ideas thrives when people are talking. To each other. Not just to the choir. I'm not talking about opening the corral gate so free speech can lead us to the truth. (See paragraph one.) I'm talking about expanding our ideas (of ourselves and each other), our possibilities, and our humanity.
Like never before, we need to step out of our bubbles and breathe fresh air. We need to understand that America is every gradation of white, black, brown, and orange. We are also young, old, gay, straight, transgender, strong, feeble, smart, dumb, courageous, and confused.
If we look around and all our friends are the same color, religion, or end of the political spectrum, we are part of the problem. We must go out and mingle outside our comfort zones. And while I’m not advocating we go out and make a token gay friend so we can say we’re not bigots, why not start with finding that one friend. And then have some real conversations with them. Conversations that are based upon curiosity and not knowing.
In fact, here's my recipe for a happier future: Take one part your ideas and add several parts of the ideas from others around you that you mostly agree with but have not fully explored. Next add another handful ideas you've heard of, but are not so sure about. Blend together and let sit.
Once settled, slowly add equal parts ideas you've never heard of and those you think you disagree with. Stir vigorously and put in the oven at low temperature for as long at it takes for you to understand that alone, your ideas are just flour, with maybe a little water sprinkled on top. In order for them to be truly interesting, they need to be combined with other flavors and textures.
Once your batter has turned into something with more substance, remove from the oven and let cool. Then invite over your closest friends, some people you know, but don't really hang out with, then add a few strangers, and those who do not share your political, ethnic, religious, gender, or sexual identity. Slice up the concoction. Set out the plates and glasses. Pour some lemonade, open some wine, and start talking. And listening.
Be well everyone.
Stay in your magic.
Music is known for its mysterious ability to unlock memories that have been secreted away for years. Somehow it has access to a portal that leads to a hidden world. But that’s not where the mystery ends. With just a few lines, a songwriter can tell us many stories. And it’s uncanny how often they seem to be about our own lives.
Let me show you an example. Because I don’t want to alter your own stories of one of your favorite songs, I chose something a little obscure: the Elton John song Come Down in Time (lyrics in bold):
In the quiet silent seconds
[I believe in jazz. I believe that the space between the notes is more important than the notes themselves. I believe in the in-breath. I believe in the power of silence. I believe in the importance of friends who do not have to talk to understand each other. I believe that less is more. And that the most powerful writing lets the reader fill in some blanks.]
I turned off the light switch
[One of my favorite poets, John O’Donohue, reminds us that the soul likes candlelight. And that it’s best not to use bright lights when seeking to know ourselves. For me, darkness is also comforting, seductive even.]
And I came down to meet you
[I believe in bridges. I believe that the meeting of two beings, even though it happens every day, all day, and we mistake it for something commonplace, contains all the mystical metaphor of life. Everything in the universe is constantly in motion. And everything (ourselves included) is constantly crossing a magic threshold, towards recognition, towards awakenings, towards oneness.]
In the half light the moon left
[There is no such thing as the half moon. And yet this metaphor is everything. We are all whole. And yet we mostly do not see this. And while the moon, like everything in the universe, has its own light, the light we mistake for its own is actually a reflection of something else. And the moon not only casts light, but shadows. Just like us.]
While a cluster of night jars
[I had to look this up, long ago. Nightjars are nocturnal birds. They have very small feet and so spend most of their time flying. I just love the way the words sound. There is something enchanting about them I can’t explain. Which is another reason to love it. Our desire to explain so many things, instead of simply feeling them, is part of our folly.]
Sang some songs out of tune
[We put too much emphasis on voices being pretty. What a shame if Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, or Neil Young had decided not to sing. Heart is far more important than technique.]
A mantle of bright lights
Shone down from a room
[Light can come from anywhere. And everywhere. Like the importance of silence, this phrase let’s us fill in the blanks. It could be a literal upstairs room. Or the room could be the sky. And the mantle of lights the stars.]
Come down in time I still hear her say
So clear in my ear like it was today
[Memory is a mystical thing. Songs, smells, words, sounds, and places all have the ability to transport us back in time. And time is an endless enigma. So much time elapses, and yet, no time at all has gone by, like it was today. And longing can bend time -- both backwards and forwards -- as deftly as any force in the universe.]
Come down in time was the message she gave
Come down in time and I'll meet you half way…
[Even though we are constantly interacting with one another, it is rare that we really meet. We must be present, in the flow, and so grounded that our own gravity lines up the stars. We must meet each other, opportunity, love, and beauty at least halfway. We must build these bridges together. We must remind each other of the oneness inside every split-apart in the universe.]
Be well everyone.
Stay in your magic.