A wordy, personal meditation on language, communication, music, and a circuitous path home.
If you’ve read even one of the posts I’ve written for this blog over the years, you’ve probably come to the realization that I have a deep and long-standing love affair with the English language. It’s not just that I like to talk a lot (although I do!); I relish the way I can take the slightest inclination or the stirring of emotion, an interesting sight or a querulous question, and turn it into a turn of phrase that inches closer to the truth. I’m poetic, I’m wordy, and I love finding the art in words and the language of art. Even more so, I cherish the communicative nature of it all. The way that combinations of sound can stir up feeling not just in one heart, but in many, bringing them closer together or alienating them with the power of their invisible vibrations.
But I’ve realized that in the last almost-two years, my relationship with language has become strained. I thought, what better place to explore this than in my gratuitous language-zone, this performative space of long-form blogging. Part of me feels like blogging has become passé; so different from the 140 characters or fewer of Twitter, which I sincerely fail to wrap my head around, so foreign from photo and pithy phrase meant to inspire jealousy for your beautiful life of Facebook, which I want to engage with for community’s sake but always come away from feeling more and more estranged.
Society values “quick and to the point”. I do too, sometimes. Sometimes a well-directed arrow is what is needed to pierce to the heart of a problem, or to express truth. But words are not always directional, transactional, functional. Words also hold the role of wanderers, traveling companions. Joining you as you explore your all-too-familiar surroundings with the same vigor as navigating a foreign sea or a Martian moon. Art may always have intentionality, but its effects are unique to the beholder, and no two journeys through language are identical, even with a fellow-traveler on a narrow path.
These are some of the thoughts that drew me to study literature when my love of music failed me. Music was my first language, my sweet mother tongue from that lonely corner of my heart I call home. I learned and studied other languages well, their complex structures and flourishes, but not so music. I didn’t need to. My clumsy and simple understanding of it, my childlike uncritical love, was enough.
But then I discovered how rough and provincial my musical language was, by objective standards. I was made to feel like I had no vocabulary, no syntax, no style, as though my mother tongue was actually a clumsy foreign language that I had been using all wrong, ignorantly and foolishly the whole while, in a thick, slow accent that made others impatiently cringe. I have spent much of my life since then struggling with truly foreign languages in foreign lands and the frustration of being misunderstood, but nothing compares to that disillusionment and sadness I felt when I first turned away from music.
I turned first to English literature, and then to Russian, a perpetually foreign tongue from an eternally foreign land, which taunts me daily with its impossibility and its shining seductiveness at every chance. A fresh start. I wonder if a large part of me saw Russian as a chance at redemption under different terms; Russian would always feel foreign, and I would conquer it to prove myself. There were no surprises or delusions about how hard loving Russia would be, and at first I took comfort in the reliability that challenge. Russia would never let me take the easy way out, and I knew I wouldn’t let myself quit again.
Time passed, I moved to Russia, and felt the agony of struggling to be understood in even the most pragmatic ways. At the beginning, if I managed to run an errand successfully, it was a great success, and I learned not to expect anything greater out of my day. Even if it made me want to cry and hide under the covers for the next week and a half, and even if I very honestly had to go home and decompress for the next hours before facing the world again. By the end of my stay there, I was ready to buy a backpack, a fistful of train tickets, and let Russia show me what I needed to see on her own terms, such was our new, if frail, understanding of each other.
But still, I remember one poignant moment. In the springtime, about halfway through my Russia year, I returned home, to my hometown, during a whirlwind weeklong trip to visit grad schools from coast to coast. Somehow I found the time to wander through the mall where I had spent so many of my idle teenage hours, and stepped into that shop that sold candles, cheap silver jewelry, pewter dragons and polyester brocaded “renaissance” garb. You know the one. The cheery brunette behind the counter looked up from her magazine, gave a warm smile, and said, “Hey, how’s it going?” with a characteristically plucky American twinkle in her eyes, and it was as though every stiff, neglected, fibrous tendon in my body had been strummed to form a perfect, unique, harmonious chord. In that moment, she was me, and I wanted to pour out everything I felt and thought into the pool of familiarity welling up in the space between us. I took a deep breath, and said, “Great, really great. How are you?” with more sincerity than any good New Englander ever gives in a greeting. I looked around the shop for another minute, and then left, feeling reborn, ready to figure out the future and face incomprehensible Russia once again.
That summer I came back to the States, settled into an airy apartment about an hour from my birthplace, and began fashioning myself as an academic. The process seemed like a welcome challenge at the time, but I didn’t realize that the quest to create a polished identity, a refined inner language, and a simple, serious life would actually start slowly draining the soul out of me. I made lots of friends, the kind of friends you can meet for coffee or tapas and discuss Heidegger with, but are afraid to go any deeper than abstract metaphysics, if that makes any sense. Before long, I fell in love with a charismatic and goofy Québecois, whose slightly off-kilter English charmed and challenged me, and whose steadfast love supported me as grad school and health concerns dragged me down.
We were married in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, which is pronounced without the /a/ or the /w/, so the word begins with an explosion of air, followed by a hurried “tuck it,” except that you swallow the final /t/ in your throat with your mouth agape, instead of letting it cross your teeth. The things only your homeboys know. The secret languages of home, the shibboleths of space and time.
Moving to Montreal seemed like the obvious choice for a French-English couple and their darling son with an unambiguously French name, with their love for art/artifice and the bustle of cities alongside the quiet green of trees and the hushed roar of fast water. In Cambridge, though, surrounded by the old poetry of my childhood dreams, I never really took time to think about language, and what it would mean to adopt a city with a schizophrenic tongue. That it might feel like the Norman conquest in my own home.
Montreal is fascinating for its language politics, and I won’t pretend to understand them in the slightest, except that I can’t help but feel the centuries of fear and anger embedded therein. But I can share my reflections. Most overwhelming when moving here was the feeling of being silenced. By myself, mostly. Despite being functionally fluent in both of the city’s languages, I felt stifled by the inability to understand the cultural context of language, the ways in which words take and influence meaning here. So often I was imperfectly understood when trying to navigate in French, only to have my interlocutor switch to English for my benefit, a move that was kindly intended, but left me with doubts. You don’t really understand my French, you’re telling me, but how can I trust that you will understand my English? Will you understand me?
Not unlike when I was living in Russia, I felt my vocabulary whither and shrivel with each day that I had effectively avoided speaking to anyone at all. At the same time, I was pouring my energy and words into this dissertation I’m writing. A big block of words, each one of them with hopes of perfection, the expectation of some magnum opus, a life’s work. A delusion, of course — no dissertation is perfect, and striving for perfection only leads to stagnation. But what frustration you feel when all your elegant, careful words are forced to flow through your fingertips, and meanwhile you’re at an utter loss for a phrase when someone bumps into you on the street, or shoots you a kind glance, or asks you for help. It makes it very hard to make any kind of connection at all.
In our house, first in Cambridge and then in Montreal, we took a linguistically and pedagogically informed approach to language around our son, each parent using his own native language as exclusively as possible. Our son learned to navigate these two spheres natively, and in his first words, he responded “oui” or “yes” to the correct language from the very start, then translating for the other parent as he gained more words. Mediating our two languages for us, between us, our little Rosetta stone. But, being in a French-dominant environment, often la langue de Molière would win out, and my sweet child with my eyes and my lips would come running to me with words overflowing in a language that didn’t speak to me. I understood the meaning of his words perfectly well enough, I could respond or translate back, but I would still feel some pang of regret. Forgetting that Pushkin’s first language was French, yet he would go on to find a voice and language for the Russian soul, I worried: would my son somehow be forever estranged from me because of the stamp of these mellifluous Latin words on his young mind? Paranoid fears from a place of deep insecurity, unrooted and grasping in strange soil.
To quell my feelings of rootlessness, I started planting things, getting my hands dirty. Seeds became sprouts, became leggy plants that bore no fruit but meant a great deal to me nonetheless. I acquired a yogurt-container full of specialty worms from a kind woman giving them away, and made myself a vermicompost bin, hoping to turn the waste and refuse of my day-to-day into nourishing food for my new eisenia fœtidae, which in turn would give life to these tender roots of mine. I began rooting into friendships, too. Finding others to share company with. These friends weren’t of the Heidegger variety; more the Dinosaur-Train genus. People with children, who understood the inherent challenges without needing to say a word. Native anglophones, too, with whom I could avoid the awkward dance of “what language works best right now?” — a dance that’s only slightly less awkward than the “what cheek do we kiss first” tango. My conversations about diapers and bedtime routines and meal planning multiplied.
And as I found a bit more voice again, I remembered music. I remembered the set of bagpipes that I’d bought with my first graduate stipend check, I remembered the ache in my chest that I felt when just the right chord was struck, I remembered my feeble attempts to wed words and sounds into meaningful songs that could evoke something in someone somewhere. So on a fateful Thursday, the same day that I relinquished my Massachusetts driver’s license for my new Québec licence (or really, permis de conduire), I made my way out to the western part of the island of Montreal for the first time, bagpipes in tow, to try to find home again.
That night was the first of my sleepless nights. When I came home, I didn’t want to talk to anyone, to share my space with anything but my own solitude and the ringing in my ears. I was in love, intoxicated, consumed by a fire more potent than anything I could remember feeling before. Maybe the brightness of that feeling was so intense because of the drabness of what came before, but it illuminated every corner of my being. Music. Why had I forsaken you? Why didn’t I realize? Have you always been there, waiting for me?
I played with the piping school for a year; a school is exactly what I needed. A safe space where I could learn how to speak the language of music again, to cautiously test out the phrases and structures that I could barely remember, those that I feared would come out all garbled, spoonerisms all around. And I began to be able to use that language, not just in pragmatic ways, but to express myself to others. To share in conversation. In communion. I found a band of surprisingly sympathetic and appreciative souls, and felt an opening in my heart where something had been locked tight.
And this is where the story ends, for now. At the beginning of a deep exploration of an old and forgotten love, at the creation of a new родина (roughly “homeland”), at the beautiful start of many new friendships, the tender rekindling of old ones, and a celebration of communication in whatever language resonates most deeply at the moment.
Now back to writing my thesis…with an open heart.