“Words that build or destroy
Dirt, dry bones, sand and stone.
Barbed wire fence cut me down
I’d like to be around
In a spiral staircase
To the higher ground.”
~ U2, Promenade
Moving through days and distances, the skies and air revealing changes, the increments themselves are what fascinate. In a split-second’s snapshot there is a complete scene before me: of trees, terrace, and a chair to be inhabited. In a fleeting tilt of a silent gesture is the kindness of a stranger. Comprehensible small steps. When the view forward appears pervasively unsure, and institutions uncertain and tenuous, it becomes necessary to take stock of interior treasures reminding me of my own foundation. The exterior gems become easier to find, albeit in a current of overlapping multi-tasks, one interrupting the other. Frequently, work and words are so consistently cut into that it’s hard to tell if something’s ended or if it’s just been broken up again to make way for yet something else. It becomes a challenge of coexistence- and one more balance to master. Average days are replete with fractured efforts and transitions; streams of consciousness diverted into stray rivulets. Of course I want to be able to unify all spheres of my continuum, and see far ahead as vividly as the table upon which I presently write. But long-distance views are often elusive. Simply looking to the present uncovers humble incremental steps. Perhaps the fragments are as much as can be managed.
Now I am pressed to consider if there is any voyage, of any extent, that is not pursued in paces. Like the correspondence between subject and photographer, that which attracts our gazes and draws our attention is composed of fragments. Perhaps rather than being thwarted by a life of puzzle pieces, steps, days- even words- may be constructively perceived as structural modules. Walking across town today, a steep street brought me to notice my steps, cobblestones, and clouds. Simply being in view, these fragments are brought together. Even the spaces between and around components are, as I once learned in typography classes, counterforms. Contours and contiguous spaces define one another. Definitions of objects and spaces can even effect a dynamism. Consider shadows cast by backlit subjects and how light shines through trees.
As with structural elements, accumulating into paths and solid forms, words have momentous potential. These are modules which can build or destroy. We assign by way of our appellations. Further, when communications and rapports must be truncated, the few emerging words become critical pivots. Verbal “sound bites” can wield even more influence than their intentions. Ironically, a culture that shuns silence with space-filling media cannot countenance completeness. I try to prevent myself from following this trend.
Our words are finely-faceted mirrors and windows, reflecting and revealing. From antiquity, we have Saint James’ timeless discourse about how expressions of faith are tarnished by careless talk. He didn’t really focus on words, but instead referred to how we address one another and how we speak to our own conditions. James compared an unbridled tongue to a ship’s flawed rudder. He challenged his readers to match their verbiage and lives consistently. Not knowing what our words can potentially do to others is akin to not knowing one’s own lethal strength. In a conscientiousness of language and movement, we are brought back over and again to the source of life-giving words. In our transformation we may find a new vocabulary building within us- and even new tones. The simplest articulated reference can cause changes of perspective.
I believe we all have our own “root words.” For me the word trust has been a poetic gift from the monks of the Taizé monastery. They use it parallel to the French word confiance, to describe faith, a life of confiding in God, and confident forward movement. This sense is prominently in my lexicon of pilgrimage. It causes me to think of ways to encourage sincere trust wherever I go. When I started journaling, about 15 years ago, it was my antidote to workplace unrest which demanded enormous patience. One of my colleagues saw me writing in my notebook during an outdoor break. Between drags on his cigarette, he commented “it’s good you write; it concretizes your thoughts.” Too good to forget. Words and thoughts, alike, have textures. And the sounds of the pronounced letters cause the mind to visualize.
Yet another fascinating module is the measurement of chronology. Apart from calendars and clocks, we interiorly mark our passages of time. Parallel to fixed frameworks, we have our own timepieces and milestones known better by ourselves than anyone else. Our own relationships with time. The long shadows cast by my academic sundial extended from my school years, to teaching years, through post-grad, and then on to years of working in schools. I still buy calendars in August and divide the year into “fall” and “spring” seasons. The late-summer light and air transitions return vivid recollections of returning to school. And there are “eras,” characterized by personal watershed events, as well as small moments counted as tastes of life. The aroma of pine and sweetgrass. The heightened expectation of travel. Invoking a loved one’s name. An ancient Jewish custom assures the ceremonial remembrance of the departed on the anniversary of their passing: yohrtzeit, which means time-of-year. This is a special memorial, among the numerous, more informal ways souls are remembered.
Then there is the currency of time. If we choose to cultivate a skill, or to simply appreciate a silence, it will demand of our schedules (even as we’ve been conditioned to believe time is money). That means there is an expense involved. But perhaps we may measure time (and its worth) a bit differently than others. I know that I do- considering that I chose to write at this moment, above other leisure activities or any other amusement (wait, this is an amusement!). Time may move in a universally measurable progression, but it can be for me to set the increments, even if not the sizes of the notches. Perhaps that’s it. We each have our historic landmarks and festive days (as well as our days of mourning), but we can determine our own quantities- if not the units of measure. I wonder if impressions may also be fragments. Indeed they are ingredients portioned in each soul. That which we have seen, and heard, and held; these are as tangible to us as they are indelible to our memories and hopes. Imagery has an iconic staying power, and it has always drawn me to seek meanings beyond surfaces. It is a wonder to me, how I can remember moments- tiny snippets and fragments of the distant past- above and beyond other things. But just as the senses can surprise me with reminders, I cannot predict which present ingredients will endure into the future. Today is amidst notions and encounters that will be fixed in time as remembrances.