Saturday, November 14, 2015

Words: I want to play with them awhile

I love words. From long summer days filled with book after book against the loneliness of school-break exile at Grandmom’s to the pleasure of writing letters and essay answers and college papers, to the intrigue of word permutations and possibilities uncovered as I studied English literature and journalism, to the mysterious potential for transformation through living deep with God’s Word: living Logos Jesus, and the sacred biblical writings, words have been my still-point, my anchor to truth, my self-expression and understanding of others, and my window into ideas and into prayer.

I spent my college years with old English literature, all the way back to Anglo-Saxon. This rendition of the hokey-pokey tickled me. But how few English-speakers without my background get anything at all out of it today.

This summer brought spacious time with poets and song-writers, wordsmiths who love Jesus, who make me want to shout, “This is my tribe!” Books and travels left me noticing certain remarkable words, and the ways meaning evolves and takes on fresh edges. A new thought, which immediately resonated as truth I experience, is that the metamorphosis of words can speak out loud a metamorphosis in human, perhaps cultural, self-perception. So that, whether we are reading a book from 50 or 200 years ago, or literature much more ancient, careful consideration of what words meant then can completely alter our understanding of just what is being said.

So much to unpack. But not all at once. I suspect these few paragraphs are an introduction to a season of play and posts to explore fresh brushes with words. At least I hope so. I have been the most sporadic of posters in recent years.

This morning a friend reacted to my use of the word “eccentric” to describe myself. “I looked up the actual definition, ‘unconventional and slightly strange,’’’ she wrote. This was thoughtful. She’d taken time to look up the word that bothered her. “It fits,” she said. Well, actually she used the words “technically appropriate.” But it “connotes weirdness…. It has a hard edge, I feel, that doesn't fit you.” 

The thing is, I love the word eccentric. It whispers to me that someone is a tad other-worldly, her inner self caught up in a realm of ideas and images that no one else sees but that spill over from time to time. She’s not overly concerned with what other people expect or with keeping up with the latest fads. I think of Judi Dench in the film Tea with Mussolini. Or, in fact, in just about any of her films. I think of writers and artists and the best university professors. I think of wild hair and flowing scarves, and of opening a book with a child only to ignore the words on the page and create some wandering adventure in which the child herself is heroine and the other characters are all named after her pets.

When I describe myself as eccentric, it is with hope tinged with humility. I want to be so free in my spirit that it delights my Father and blesses my world, that my life vibrates with curiosity and truth and depth. But I know those places where I cling to rules and the way things are done, where I color like a chameleon into subcultural surroundings without intelligent or prayerful examination of their presuppositions or my own heart.

It’s a conundrum, this aspect of words and their meanings that my friend raises for me. In addition to a dictionary meaning, words carry an emotional load all spikey and repellant to one person, and to another all warm and inviting. The same word means different things based on a person’s upbringing, worldview, subculture, and experience.  Differences lurk out there, and we don’t suspect their impact until someone reacts and clues us in. A few that pop up in my frame often: contemplative, prayer, Christian, missionary, spiritual director, monastic, Muslim, American. And others more under the radar: black, white, clean, rich, love, date, rules, discipline, death—to mention a few others have challenged in my speaking over the years.

Which raises the question: what do we do?

Recent months have been rich with word-lover experiences. Credit is due:
  • The Kindlings, and their glorious KindlingFest held every July on Orcas Island; 
  • Regent College and its offering of summer graduate courses. In particular, this summer’s course on the Liturgical Year, taught by Malcolm Guite and Steve Bell via their poetry and music; 
  • JRR Tolkien and his academic work on words in his groundbreaking paper on Beowolf. A rich offering, The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings, by Philip and Carol Zaleski, explores ideas about words shared among the Inklings.
  • Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes, by E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien, highlights, in their words, “what goes without saying,” that is, the nuances of meaning that are embedded so deeply in our gut that it would never even occur to us that one from another place or time would have an utterly different response.

No comments: