In some ways, my entire life has been about words. The domain in which I feel most comfortable, the place I fly. (Skis and words. Two places to fly.)
I used to feel so comfortable in English. I have a strong submissive streak that pops up in funny places and one of the most obvious, in retrospect, is grammar. No matter what quirk English threw at me, some stupid new spelling rule or strange irregular verb, I lay down before it like a martyr.
I was sixteen. I’d spent most of those sixteen years reading or writing, absorbing English into my very bones. Misspelled words gave me headaches. Poor grammar construction felt like a sour note. I was a finely-tuned instrument for the sexy, sexy rules and I knew exactly where I stood.
Then came Spanish, and my head exploded. Holes appeared in what had previously been solid walls of syntax and semantics.
Sensing the first cracks
Now there were two systems in my head, and tantalizing places where they didn’t quite overlap, hinting at a heartbreaking lack of rules somewhere in the actual experience of life language tries to describe.
It was then, I suppose, that I became more of an expert on the places where the rules break down, than on the actual rules themselves, though only through the teeniest cracks. It was uncomfortable. I’d reach for the firm comfort of the rules and find small hints at confusion. How many double letters in occasionally again? I still remember the day in debate when I was working myself up into a dramatic conclusion to my argument when I found myself completely unable to remember the English word for “almacenar.”
Subsequent forays into Russian and Tajik (okay, so they were more like mad love affairs) added to the breakdown. There are so many ways to organize experience! So many different perspectives embedded into “the rules” invisibly shaping our ability to even conceptualize our reality. And suddenly I couldn’t be so loyal to any one system anymore. I started to care less about using English “correctly” and more about stubbornly stretching and pulling at its edges, often inartfully, to try and cram more experience, more felt reality, into this container I loved so dearly.
I’d edited out the point
This breakdown happened everywhere at once. I’d spent my entire life learning to craft academic essays in exactly the “right” way. I could write a five page A-level paper in under two hours. Half an hour and I was assured of at least a B. Having mastered the game, having followed the rules with submissive devotion, I woke up and realized I’d edited out the point when I rid myself of “errors and inconsistencies.”
(This is when I started loving blogs. Intelligent people a little less sanitized than you find them in books and articles. More flux and uncertainty showing through. More humanity beneath the logic. You can feel them.)
All this logic and rationality is the province of the masculine. Logos. The organizing principle. The feminine is a little bit harder to pin down. Not so intellectual. Not so clear cut. She’s that thing pulsing in the breakdown of the system. The feeling that denies all logical thought. I didn’t know what to call her except hysteria and craziness. Something that came up a lot in my romantic relationships (“I know I shouldn’t be mad but somehow I still am!”) and was otherwise sanitized from my life.
Having a baby, I find myself entering my feminine as never before. Coming back from birth, out of that deep struggle, my entire self is expanded. And so far beyond words that I find myself mute in response to almost anything (“how are you?” “Who am I?”), trying to master the basic art of feeling. Before it was a hobby, and now it’s essential.
My words come out in a jumble. I feel for the walls, the rules, governing sentence construction and find everything strangely fluid. I say one word when I mean another. (“Thanksgiving” when I mean “Christmas,” “you” when I mean “me,” “acronym” when I mean “abbreviation”) I struggle mightily in that gap between experience and expression, trying to develop new structures when nothing seems big enough to hold me anymore.
300% of who I was
Nothing satisfies me like it did before. Or rather, it satisfies me the exact same amount, but there’s so much more of me. I am 100% tired and exhausted and despairing and also 100% satisfied, joyful, content to stare at my baby all day long. That doesn’t even sum up the other 100% of me I don’t quite understand.
And my words are inadequate, puny, silly in the face of that. I reach out for them and they slip through my fingers. So I sit in this cavern, this deep pit at the bottom of an ocean of feeling, and turn my head one way and another, marveling at the strange clusters – too formless to be creatures – of experience floating by.
Maybe I’ll put myself back together. Maybe I’ll find some solidity in words again, or more comfort with their shifting. Just like the stretched muscles of my abdomen let it be known, at six weeks exactly after I gave birth, that they were ready to begin tightening themselves again, maybe my expanded self will condense down into something approaching its former dimensions.
In the meantime I’m here. Nearly speechless but still struggling for the words, the form, the structure. Overwhelmed by immensity. Unable to quite put it into words…