Words, words, words

This morning I found an old Dove Promises wrapper in my Bible. It read, ‘Find your passion’.

My passion is words — words strung into stories, stories that tell of our lives, of our past, future, where we come from and where we are going. Stories about what we do, believe, feel, think, live, love, and how, why. Stories about who we are.

It’s no wonder my life is wrapped up in books.

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Unaccustomed earth

Human nature will not flourish, any more than a potato, if it be planted and replanted, for too long a series of generations, in the same worn-out soil. My children have had other birthplaces, and, so far as their fortunes may be within my control, shall strike their roots into unaccustomed earth.

–Nathaniel Hawthorne, “The Custom-House”

The above is the epigraph to Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri, one of two short-story collections written by her. (The first is Interpreter of Maladies, which won the Pulitzer Prize and is, of course, brilliant. There is a nice review at the American Literary Review Blog about it.) Some of you may be familiar with The Namesake, her novel that was made into a film. Each of her stories is a microcosm that offers a glimpse into the lives of those who move from one side of the world to another, from one world to a different one, different in language, colors, culture, and of their children. Most of the stories deal with Indians who move to England or to the U.S., but they also tell of the pilgrimages back to India and the tension of being caught between two worlds.

As I was reading Unaccustomed Earth, and reading about Interpreter of Maladies at the ALR blog, I noticed that in all the stories and discussion of the stories, the people who move are called immigrants. Which, yes they are. But as I thought about my own experience, and of the international community I know here in Scotland and in England, I have not heard any of us call ourselves immigrants. I tend to refer to myself as an ex-pat, and to us at large “internationals”, or to be more specific, “international students”. The definitions of the two words are as such:

immigrant, noun.
1. A person who migrates to another country, usually for permanent residence.

ex-pat, expatriate, noun.
1. One who has taken up residence in a foreign country.

As you can see, by technical definition they are very similar. I still find it curious that it is usually the “Other” that is referred to as an immigrant, and not oneself, but when I consider again the international community I know of, the key issue that separates the two terms is the idea of permanence. There are several of us who are entertaining thoughts of staying here, of putting roots in this foreign soil, but there is no sense of solidity to these plans, of being set in stone.  “A stranger am I, and a wanderer, searching for the edge of the world.”

And so I make this post on the 4th of July. This was not planned, but it is fitting. I consider myself an ex-pat because it is easier to love my country from a distance — I love its founding, the promise that it held, that it still holds to some extent today. But sometime over the past two hundred years, the eyes of the people turned inward; the American pioneering spirit became individualistic to the point of selfishness, and I, who had seen the outside world, first through books and imagination and then with my own two eyes, could no longer bear to be caged.

My American readers, I hope you have a good 4th of July. I also hope that you remember to read the Declaration of Independence. This is a day to enjoy with family and friends, with cook-outs and fireworks and games, but it is also a day to remember the spirit and the words that first created the United States of America.

And on a completely unrelated note, for the curious: 6066, but I haven’t yet written today.

The observer

From my room I can see out across the town, across the forest, the estuary, to the air force base and the hills and, on a clear day, the mountains. I can spend hours gazing as the clouds blow in or out of the sea, at the changing silhouettes of the hills, at the rain falling in bands of purple and gold, as the sunset lingers for hours. When I should be writing, I watch, trying to see every color, the brilliant white on a seagull’s wing, the flash of windmills turning in the sunlight. I used to watch until I saw the first star of evening, but darkness draws ever later, and now I find that I draw the curtains while it is still light.

As a science-fiction writer I personally prefer to stand still for long periods, like the Quechua, and look at what is, in fact, in front of me: the earth; my fellow beings on it; and the stars.

–Ursula K. Le Guin

I never feel that this watchfulness is wasted, for there is no crime in appreciating beauty or the hand from which beauty cometh; ‘There is no answer to beauty but silence,’ Christopher Morley.

Word-hoard

Today I went back to the dictionaries. There are few things as mentally stimulating as going through the Dictionary of the Scots Language, the Dictionary of the Welsh Language, and two etymological dictionaries, one for modern German and the other an Old English-German dictionary, and finding what you are looking for. And there are few things as intellectually satisfying as finding that your German, while rusty, can still puzzle out that ‘elf’ comes from Middle Low German, from Middle High German, from Old Icelandic, from Latin, and to find that the German dictionary supports your thesis by saying that elves were rather dangerous, that the idea of graceful, friendly elves comes from the Romantics…

Wild Geese

Sometimes introverts need to have their introversion validated; to be told that it’s okay to wrap themselves up in the soft comfort of solitude, to talk only to the few people they want to and take a break from the rest of the world, to stare out at the long horizon and feel all the things that had been piling up spread out, thinning. Snow covers the hills in the distance and the clouds hang low over them, blurring the boundary between earth and sky.

I don’t like poetry as a rule, but I do like this one. And despite my reputation to the contrary, I do have a certain fondness for geese.

Wild Geese

by Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Tact

A word that I like:

tact. noun.

  1. a keen sense of what to say or do to avoid giving offense; skill in dealing with difficult or delicate situations.
  2. a keen sense of what is appropriate, tasteful, or aesthetically pleasing; taste; discrimination.

Or as the OED puts it:

‘Ready and delicate sense of what is fitting and proper in dealing with others, so as to avoid giving offence, or win good will; skill or judgement in dealing with men or negotiating difficult or delicate situations; the faculty of saying or doing the right thing at the right time.’

I recently read a short story in which rhetoric is described as the art of ruling; if so, then tact is the art of conversation.

Before tea

I recently explained to some friends that my brain tends to organize words by sounds. This can have some rather amusing consequences. I hadn’t had my tea yet this morning when Neil suggested that gin cures all ills for postgraduates. What I heard was jinn. So while he was wondering why I was staring at my tea with a very puzzled expression, I was wondering why on earth he was talking about genies. Unfortunately, if you were to give me a bottle of either, neither gin nor jinn would avail me.