Russian

3G came to Y-Town. Did I tell you that? All of a sudden everything on the web works. WordPress has become interactive and I can reliably view photos on Facebook. Oh, and I can download music.

Of course, all of this gets expensive if you get carried away, but it expands my world quite measurably. First I downloaded a few songs that I haven’t listened to in a long time that I missed a surprising amount and these made me feel (frighteningly) like me again. These were mostly in Farsi and Arabic. I don’t know why I missed those sings the most.

And then I started noodling around looking up things in Russian. Because I recalled Natalya whispering in my ear, and I wanted to know if I felt any sense of recognition at hearing the language she had spoken to me. I looked up how to write her name in Cyrillic and I don’t know if I recognized that, but it made me feel better to be able to write it that way. I listened to Google translate say a few things and I don’t really know how I felt about that either. After that, I thought I would download a few songs.

There’s this young girl-woman pop star whose name is something like Maksim although if you look that up, you mostly find works by a classical composer of that name. She seems to be about 12, but that’s just the makeup artist’s work. Anyway, I downloaded something of hers without really listening to it first—if I listen to it and also download it, I’ll run through all my balance in one go. But I don’t know anything about the contemporary Russian music scene. This was more or less at random and because Youtube recommended.

I can’t tell you how I felt listening to it. Shocked, I think. Shocked at the sense of recognition. I didn’t understand anything, but it sounded exactly the way language is supposed to sound. I can’t explain that, really.

When I was a teenager, in class 8, we were supposed to create a society of our own, with its own governmental system, customs, language, and so on. I was in charge of language, and worked out a sound system, grammar, and basic glossary for our project. I remember, while I was doing it, this sense of longing for a certain set of sounds, a familiar way of moving the mouth that wasn’t mine but I imagined would feel right.

In high school, I disliked studying French, although I chose to study that in school when almost everyone else opted for Spanish. (When more than half the population in your state speaks a language it does, in fact, make sense to learn it). French didn’t feel right to me.

Now it makes sense to me to think that what I was longing for was the way a language seemed to feel in someone else’s mouth, and that I would long for the language used to tell me that whatever happened, all was well. Whatever went down, I was not alone, and I was loved. I can imagine longing for that language again, even when I did not understand what the language was or why I longed for it. I suppose I did.

The thing about acknowledging the past is that other things start to make a little more sense.

As it happens, I used to live in a somewhat Russian neighborhood. When the city sent materials home to us, they were always in English in Russian, because Russian-speakers were the second-largest language group. I assumed I heard plenty of Russian there, but I don’t know. Maybe I couldn’t engage. Maybe I needed them to be young girls and not elderly men and women (which they mostly seemed to be). Or they had different accents. Or who knows.

I noticed something else, listening to this song: I felt safe. This inane Russian pop song is like a warm blanket, and I feel comforted and noticeably less alone when I hear it.

As it turns out, the lyrics translate this way:

When I die I’ll become wind
And will live above your roof.
When you die, you’ll become the sun
And will still be above me.

I’ll be following you as autumn wind 
around the world,
You won’t realize it and I will whisper to you insensibly:
“Oh, my sun, where are you?” 

But please don’t become the sun yet,
I’ll sing the songs to you from the roof,
I’ll be again the one due to whom you breathe,
It’s only left to become wind.

I’m only gonna wait for your smile
And listen to your recordings,
Take snowflakes away from your eyelashes,
It’s only left to become wind. 

When I die I’ll become wind,
I will cover the ground with the first snow,
I will laugh and follow you all over the world
And there will be no one happier than me.

When you die you’ll become the sun 
And will steal my frost
And mimosa will be in blossom in gardens
And the heart’s ice will melt to tears. 

But please don’t become the sun yet,
I’ll sing the songs to you from the roof,
I’ll be again the one due to whom you breathe,
It’s only left to become wind.


I’m only gonna wait for your smile
And listen to your recordings,
Take snowflakes away from your eyelashes,
It’s only left to become wind.

The thing about recognition is that it makes my life as I remember it feel real, instead of like a terrible story I am just making up to get someone’s else’s attention. It makes me feel a little more that I can be whole and that there is hope for the future.

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Language and silence: gaps

The one I'm talking about is the pink one on the top. I have since entirely forgotten what it is called and will have to ask. Yet again.
The one I’m talking about is the pink one on the top. I have since entirely forgotten what it is called and will have to ask. Yet again.

There was a horrifying moment six years ago when the child who collected the trash from my friends flat in the morning called me aunty. Either I was looking particularly old that day, or she was particularly young. Nonetheless, despite my fears that this would become a trend, there has not been a recurrence.

I remain comfortably “didi” (elder sister). I am, in fact, didi even to those with lower social status who are older than me and that begs some other questions. For example, what do servants call the children in the house? Do you call a six-year-old “sir”? I’m sure this is a question I should know the answer to. I probably did at one time. But I can’t find it. That’s lost.

There are some things I know quite well about life here and then there are other things that seem just as obvious and useful that I don’t. For instance, a moment ago, I didn’t know the name of that plastic broom thing-y commonly used to clean bathrooms. I had to ask. And I’ve had to repeat the word to myself in order to try to remember it—as if it’s an entirely new word for me and I have to learn it. But I know perfectly well what it’s for and how to use it. Evidently, the word is in some other category for me.

Perhaps I just never needed to. I don’t make a habit of discussing bathroom cleaning. As small talk, it somehow just doesn’t come up.

Nor do I know the name of my favourite laundry soap, come to think of it, although that would have been printed on the package. I’ve bought that before, and I’m perfectly capable reader.

The knowledge I need in order to live and be comfortable here is full of holes. And sometimes I find that strange. At what point did I decide it wasn’t really necessary to learn the names of things that are necessary for daily life?

Are there times when I simply find unimportant sometimes?

Laundry soap.
Laundry soap.

And I think that’s probably about right. I first visited India 20 years ago. I was a student. It was one of those culturally-oriented study-abroad programs where you are mostly just abroad. The studies, from what I recall, were not a major part of the experience, although we did have to sit through boring lectures, and read books, and take exams. Just less of them.

I learned a lot. It was also fairly exhausting, in that way that intense periods of growth and learning are. I slept nine hours every night in those days. It was delicious.

There was a point during that period when I was more or less on my own—no teachers, no classes, only one other student staying in the same city, and even she was not there for the full time that I was.

It occurred to me then that I needed to learn to speak Hindi, that I knew some things from the studies that I had done, but that I really couldn’t say very much because I hadn’t tried very hard. I thought that needed to change.

I know about 2/3 of the words in this image.
I know about 2/3 of the words in this image.

So, although I spoke English back at the hotel in the evenings (which was really its own foreign enclave), in the daytime I spoke only Hindi.

The reason I decided to do that, to speak only a language I wasn’t very proficient in, was that as long as I was willing to speak English most anyone else who can speak English also will. It’s hard trying to carry on a conversation when someone else’s language skills are only emerging, and as long as there is another option, most people will choose it. So I quit, in a sense, almost cold turkey. So that I could learn.

The result was that I said less, because there was very little I could say in Hindi, and I had enacted an English ban: if I couldn’t say it in Hindi, it just didn’t get said.

There is, in fact, a language-learning adage to this effect: talk about what you can say. So I suppose my approach made sense.

Nonetheless, my memory of that period in my life is one of an almost meditative silence. Returning back to the Sates, I felt intensely the sudden pressure to communicate all the time, to speak, and to listen. I wasn’t used to it anymore. I wasn’t even talking to myself in my head anymore. Words had taken a back seat—I suppose the way they had when I was a child and stopped speaking. Sometimes I still long for that kind of silence. Both in my head and outside it.

So words do seem optional to me, or at least tools that are only necessary sometimes—like a hammer, in a sense. Unless you’re a carpenter, you probably don’t need one every day.

But I still think I should know what you scrub the bathroom with. I’m trying.

More words

wordsSometimes, the obvious takes a while to register.

Yesterday, I felt something like hopelessness about language, about the entire realm of communication. As a writer–which I am these days if you define someone in terms of what what they do with their time–this is rather alarming.

And it also made me sad.

This morning, when I woke up at 5:30 a.m.–as I still seem to–it occurred to me that this had something to do with the past and with my childhood and that, as a child, I had felt this way nearly all the time. My mother didn’t make any sense, my father was a psychopath, and I wasn’t supposed to talk to or trust anyone outside our small religious circle. This wasn’t enforced. I was just brainwashed into expecting a lack of interest. That left only my sister, and she was never all that reliable.

So you can see where a sense of the futility about words might have come from.

There are times when I have these little bits of insight when I find what comes crashing over me along with it are all the things I’ve ever been told I might feel instead, or the sense I might have made out of it and didn’t. In other words, the interpretations I should make.

I should be afraid to speak. I should be worried about what someone else might think about what I have to say. And to some extent I am afraid. I am afraid to speak of the worst kinds of abuses. They make me choke up in a way–it feels like I’m strangling to death–and I’ve come to associate that with the act of speaking itself, as if speaking could kill me.

Until the countries that Joseph Kony has taken refuge in have viable systems of governments, police forces, and armies, I doubt the work of Invisible Children will make much difference. But what would help are services specifically devised to support those children who do escape.
Until the countries that Joseph Kony has taken refuge in are more stable I doubt the work of Invisible Children will make much difference. But what would help are services specifically devised to support those children who do escape.

But that isn’t really the worst problem, and it isn’t the most intense feeling I have about language. The worst problem is that it seems that there is no point. And that is both true and not true.

Words do, in fact, make us feel better. They allow us to access support. Sometimes, they even allow us to communicate about problems and plan for solution.

And there is a lot of emphasis on this in our world. People talk about “raising awareness” as if that alone will take care of things. It doesn’t, in fact. Due to the Kony 2012 campaign, I am perfectly well aware of the abuses of Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army, but I remain entirely unenlightened about what to do about it. The problem is just so complex.

But sometimes awareness is a start. Remember the introduction of the “vampire cough?” I must have watched at least three public service announcement a day telling me to cough and sneeze into my shirt, my elbow, or my sleeve. And now that is what middle-class Americans do.  (Poor Americans still don’t. Evidently, they don’t watch enough TV.) Bringing awareness helped.

No one in India does. Most Indians don’t even cover their mouths, which is probably why, despite the sturdiness of my digestive tract, I get every respiratory infection that floats my way when I’m here.

No awareness.

Bringing awareness is effective if the problem is a simple enough that most people can understand it without too much difficulty and for which there is a clear course of action. In other words, it’s great for teaching basic hygiene. Not so great for addressing the problem of a cult leader who uses child soldiers to defend himself in a country dominated by war lords and riddled with corruption.

One of the hardest aspects of severe abuse is the way it makes everyone seem powerless. Not only was I powerless to save myself, but everyone else seemed to be equally powerless to intervene or protect myself. But, like the problem of Joseph Kony, we aren’t powerless against severe forms of child abuse and exploitation. It’s just that it’s a difficult problem, and it takes time and effort to solve. It’s not that “raising awareness” is really ineffective, or that our words about this are truly useless. It’s that we need so many of them.

We need so many words to try to describe the problem, and more words to try to explain the problem, and then more again to consider and choose solutions.

We need more words–not less.

The end of words

wordsI don’t want to write today, although that is the bulk of what I do at the moment. If I didn’t write, in fact, I don’t know what else I would do with my time. I’d be terribly bored.

But I feel sometimes that words are the enemy, and that they are both harmful and inadequate. If you have ever said something you later regret, then you’ll know what I mean. Except this is only more so. It is a regret about having ever said anything to anyone, as if every word I have ever spoken has been a mistake.

Although it’s a general sense, I’m sure this is connected to something in particular: perhaps to a belief that if I’d said something different things might have also gone differently. So, I think I must have believed at some point that it mattered what I said, and that I had something wrong.

There is another possibility, however, and that is that nothing that I ever said as a child ever mattered, and so I’m more angry at having tried and failed than anything else.

And so this is another kind of mourning–a mourning for a loss of effectiveness, perhaps, and for a loss of a place in the world, because that is a part of what words give us. They allow us to define for ourselves who and what we are as well as communicate that to others.

 

This sense about words is one of sadness.

Sod Off

Worth watching just for the cinematography. It's cracking.
Worth watching just for the cinematography. It’s cracking.

After chores are done, and I’m so tired I can’t lift my head off the back of my chair, I watch TV. A lot of people do that. It’s interesting to note that in that regard I am a great deal like the rest of the human race. Very comforting, in fact.

I watch an awful lot of shows originally broadcast on the BBC (and a few shows made elsewhere and rebroadcast on the BBC).  I’m not some sort of weird Brit TV snob who believes the UK makes vastly better television shows. It just kind of happened. Mainly, I grew tired of CSI, Law and Order, and Crossing Jordan and moved on to Inspector Lynley, Inspector Morse, Inspector Lewis, Wallander, Spiral, Cracker, Taggart, Midsomer Murders and…well, you get the idea.

The US just does not have enough compelling shows in which people try to sort out how dead bodies came to be dead bodies. I’m afraid I was forced to look elsewhere.

Along the way, I have come across a great number of expressions and exclamations that I really wish I could work into casual conversation without sounding like a pompous twit. (Pompous twit among them). A selection of these follows, although I’m sure there are some I missed or forgot.

1) Cracking (even better–right cracking)

2) Brilliant

3) Better put my skates on.

4) Sod off.

5) Cuppatea (All one word. Usually a question.)

6) Muck about

I occasionally wander over to comedy as well. The character of Nessa on Gavin and Stacey is brilliant. She says "cracking" a lot.
I occasionally wander over to comedy as well. The character of Nessa on Gavin and Stacey is brilliant. She says “cracking” a lot.

I’m especially taken with “cracking.” All those velar consonants in a row–it really makes for a nice, emphatic sound, an even better expression than the rather unfortunately out-of-fashion “wicked awesome” or just “wicked.” (No, nothing to do with the musical.) And muck is just one of those words that seems to perfectly match sound and meaning. Muck sounds so very much dirtier than mess, doesn’t it?

Anyway, here’s an example:

Oh, brilliant! I have an appointment in five minutes. I’d better put my skates on. And, you! Stop mucking about! No, you can’t have a cuppatea! In fact, it would be right cracking if you would just sod off!

But I suspect none of my friends would ever speak to me again if I started sounding like that. Would they?

(As an addendum, upon further reflection, I think I’ll just stick to “cracking.” That’s the best of the lot anyway. So don’t mind me if I start throwing cracking into every second sentence. That’s just me, being my usual, cracking self. Well, okay, maybe me just being weird…)

Words

John 3:16 in ancient Syrian.
John 3:16 in ancient Syrian.

Words have power, both in a practical sense–that we are influenced by them–and in a metaphysical sense.  Most major religions have something to say about words and how important they are.

From the first verse of John 1:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (New International Version)

F. Levine, in his article “The Importance of Words in Judaism” from The Practical Kabbalah writes this:

In Jewish culture, the word is not simply a visual representation of an idea. In Jewish society, words have power, holiness, and even a life of their own, especially the Word of God. A prayer book is kissed out of respect when picked up, if it should fall to the floor; worn out Torahs are given a burial. The genizah is a repository for retired, mutilated, and fragmentary books and manuscripts which cannot be destroyed, simply because they contain the Name of God. The very Hebrew script itself is sanctified by virtue of being the holy tongue.

In Hinduism, there is significance and power in saying the name of a particular god 108 times as in this video:

I could go on, but I think you probably get the point.

I continue to be terrified of words.  Some of this is an illusion–a false belief that my words have had more power than they did, and that it was because of my words that my life was turned upside down, not once but twice.

But words also do have power.  They allow us to cut down complex experiences to a size we can remember and communicate.  If I want to talk about what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Friday, all I need to say is school shooting and you have some idea of what I mean.  If I add the word “kindergarteners,” I add a vast range of associated ideas to that: that they were innocent, that they were frightened, that their families are now faced with a terrible loss unlike any other–the loss of child whose life was still full of possibility.

Words give us a code to transmit commonly accepted feelings and experiences without spending all day trying to paint a picture, because they are shared and have meant similar things to us before.  If I say tree, I can get across much more than the simple fact of it.  In addition to branches, leaves and roots, I can express peacefulness, that sound of a breeze rustling through it that emphasizes quiet.  I might also mean hope.  I would perhaps need to say a few more words beyond “tree” to get that across, but because it’s part of our generally held associations of trees, I won’t have to say too much.  It’s quite a trick we humans have.

I continue to be petrified of words.  My blog started out as and continues to be an open confrontation with my fears.  Every entry I make is a wrestle with terror. But words are only a bridge.between us.  It is what we are sending across on that bridge that has the real power: reality and not words.