Tuesday, June 21, 2011

This Thing About Words

I really can’t help it, this thing I have about words. This fascination with their power, this wonder at their flexibility, this compulsion to string them together into necklaces of sound and rhythm that sway around my neck as I walk. The way they feel spilling out of my mouth, puffs and bursts of air shaped by throat and teeth and tongue. The way they look on a page, black lines and squiggles that stand at attention, but only barely so. There is nothing quite so magical as the read, the written, the spoken word.

I am not, of course, alone in my enchantment. Not long ago Kate and I were having an internet chat when the topic of words came up.

"I was thinking on the way to work this morning," she told me, "about the word ‘sneak.’ Why is it that we always want to make the past tense ‘snuck’? It’s not even a word."

I thought about it a minute. "You’re right," I told her. "The past tense of leak isn’t luck. The past tense of speak isn’t spuck. Why would it seem so natural to say ‘snuck’?"

We did not, I should point out, come up with an answer. There may be one. The editors of the Oxford English Dictionary, the one they’ve decided not to publish in book form anymore, may have some lengthy etymological history digitalized somewhere citing the use of "snuch" by Samuel Pepys in an obscure diary entry, but for my and Kate’s purposes it didn’t really matter. What mattered was that in the dissection and parsing a little more of the power had been released, a little like nuclear fission.

My friend Mary Catherine understands, too. Not long ago she sent me a novel about a girl whose name was Ella Minnow Pea. How incredibly clever! Mary Catherine is also the friend who gave me The Professor and the Madman. It’s about the editor of the aforementioned Oxford English Dictionary and one of its main contributors, a patient in the infamous Broadmoor Insane Asylum. A book about writing a dictionary – and I found it nearly impossible to put down.

Of course, not everyone feels this way about words. This is why so many people think that correct spelling isn’t important. This is why so many people use bad grammar. And profanity. These are generally the same people who are satisfied with calling a bird a bird, a tree a tree and never wonder what kind. How can they not understand that it makes a difference?

I wish, sometimes, that I could have a conversation with someone and not diagram our sentences in my head. That I could read a magazine article without circling with a red pen phrases that sound particularly musical. That I could leave a bookstore empty-handed. I wish, sometimes, but only sometimes, that I could treat words like tools, like utilitarian items, objects that are useful but without loveliness. It would make many things so much easier if I could.

Alas (Now that’s a word that has fallen on hard times and really is one of my favorites.), some things cannot be changed.

And while it is easy to be discouraged at the dearth of apparent word lovers in our video-gaming, iPhone carrying, library-closing society, there was this one moment last weekend.

I got to the wedding a little later than I had planned and most of the guests had been seated. The polite young usher asked where I would like to sit and, at just that moment, my sweet little friend Katie Anne turned from her spot on the end of one of the aisles and vigorously waved in my direction. "Right there will be just fine," I told him.

I settled into the pew with Katie Anne, her mom and her older sister Madeline as the remaining guests were seated. I opened my program just as the mom gently nudged me in the ribs with her elbow and nodded toward Madeline. I leaned forward to get a look; she was hunched forward, her attention on the book in her lap. She was oblivious to everything else.

Ah. The barbarians are not yet at the gate.

Copyright 2011


Sunday, June 05, 2011

Paying Attention and Watching Our Steps

I went out early to go running. The grass was still damp with dew that did nothing to disguise the drought. Even at 7:30, the sun was already high enough to bounce off my bare shoulders with warmth like a toaster oven. I twisted the ear buds to my iPod into my ears; maybe the sound of someone else’s voice, instead of my thoughts, would induce some sort of runner’s zen state.

It is never easy to run on the dirt roads at Sandhill – they are uneven and rocky in spots, irritatingly sandy in others. When it’s this dry, though, and the passage of tractor and large truck tires have created the state that gives rise to the term washboard roads, it’s worse. Maintaining a rhythm is next to impossible. Zig-zagging from one side of the road to the other trying to find the spot least deep in sand takes concentration away from regular breathing. Tiny rust-colored pebbles skid dangerously under the treads of your shoes, leaving you constantly one stride away from a twisted ankle.

I knew all that before I started. And still I went.

The advantage of being out that early, other than the pretty much useless attempt to beat the heat, was getting to see all the animal tracks from the evening and night before. The thin delicate Y’s of bird feet had left angled seams all up and down the road, field to field, ditch to ditch. As I came across the first one, not far from the front door, I adjusted my stride to step over it, leaving the line unraveled.

The deer tracks, edges of the heart-shaped depressions indistinct in the fine sand, were thicker and wider. Their depths indicated how fast the animals had been moving and whether they had leapt over the ditch into the road or simply walked out of the field or firebreak. Deer are timid creatures and startle easily; their tracks don’t always show up in a straight line. It was harder to make sure I didn’t land a foot in a spot that obscured one of their steps.

At a low spot in the road I make a quick adjustment to avoid mussing a snake line even as I wondered why a snake would have been moving that early in the day.

I was nearly a mile down the road, tasting salt on my lips and wiping my forehead with the tail of my shirt, before I realized what I was doing – taking great care, at the risk of slipping on a rock or sliding in the sand, to avoid running over the footprints of the animals that had been out before me. It seemed a little silly. But only for a moment.

Animals don’t write memoirs or create time capsules. They don’t keep journals or make scrapbooks, but they do leave records of their days. Abandoned exoskeletons, shed antlers, empty cocoons. A buck scrape on a pine tree, a dropped feather, a dried nest. Hoof prints, paw prints, claw prints across a sandy road. Each is a story of a life that shared this small piece of earth with me, with us. Is it so much to imagine what that story might be?

At the bad curve I turned around. Paused. Caught my breath. Started home.

I’d been passed by several vehicles – Keith in his truck on the way to PoJo’s, a couple of four-wheelers with enough courtesy to slow down and minimize the amount of their dust I would have to breathe, a commercial pick-up – and I realized as I headed back toward Sandhill that all of them had driven over the tracks. The birds’. The deer’s. The snake’s. Mine.

The stories had been wiped away. The history of our presence in that place on that day was lost. Whatever message might have been written in the road had been erased. There had been no intent, no malice aforethought, not even an awareness of the consequences. And, yet, the result was the same as if there had been.

This earth, these days, these hearts that beat within us are tender. They bear the imprint of the slightest touch. We have no choice but to watch our steps.
Copyright 2001