Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
Will not stay still.
—T. S. Eliot
Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
Will not stay still.
—T. S. Eliot
It has been a bit rough lately, and it is not just the usual weariness of another commercially saccharine Valentine’s Day. However, if I am honest with myself, I must also say it isn’t exactly unrelated. Most everyone I know is heartbroken, disappointed, or borderline cynical about intimate relationships these days. Even the people I know in seemingly fulfilling and stable relationships. I’ll get to that, but the first thread I want to pull is the fact that I have been dealing with a tenacious form of laryngitis, which has been coming and going for over two weeks. Now, trust me, I get it. I GET IT. I have already been inundated by well-meaning advice and concern offered up from the four corners of my life, and it all essentially boils down to two perspectives: see a doctor to get that checked out or explore the more symbolic/energetic message of this prolonged struggle with my voice, my truth, blah blah blah.
Those of you who know me know where this is going.
And those of you who don’t—who only know me through these words on this screen—well, you are really the point of my story today. Yeah, you, stranger.
I probably don’t need to say that I have yet to see a doctor, but it’s not because I am dismissive of the physicality of this…this plague, as I affectionately call it. By no means is the physical aspect of this situation irrelevant. In fact, I would argue that the physical, embodied, felt experience of this…whatever it is…is the only point here. Truly. On some level, I am writing about—and trying to access—the meaning of my body, or your body…and how bodies connect and commune. Sometimes beautifully, sometimes painfully discordant. But there is no language for it, really. Nothing that can convey or express exactly what it means or feels like or suggests or challenges.
How we see and experience our worlds, our lives, and definitely our relationships to others is largely defined by (and thus so often limited to) the language we use to bind it all up. If you are trained to read the world as divided up by men and women, and even more specifically into roles we play within those careful scripts, that is what you will write upon each individual you meet. You will inscribe upon the infinite possibilities of someone a very restrictive category. And you will mistake that inscription for truth, and the danger is when we assume that what we are hearing is truth. As though your readings were objective, and as though the translation was clear. As though the filters were uncomplicated. As though we all got the same script and it’s just a matter of acting it out convincingly. You be the man I am dating and I will be the woman. Action.
We collapse who we are our into the words and lose that sense that everything is everything. And uniquely so.
So my words can never really convey to you—exactly—what it is I am attempting to say, feel, or express. Each word directs your attention to one of many fields of possibility, and I cannot control which way you go and what that evokes in you. Nevertheless, words do serve us—through them we attempt to access and excise the mystery of it all. Words are like tools, surgical and steely. But we are instruments, not tools.
I can tell you this is writing about sound. And maybe you read this as a rambling about love. Meaning cannot be contained. Or, if it is, it’s in everything.
As William Blake wrote:
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.
Which is why I find myself basking in the morning winter sunlight, sipping hot things, listening to sharp-angled, throbbing, loud music, and writing about the ways in which language fails. And music works.
And it will take me a long time to say something meaningful, though the words may spiral around in pretty (or awkward) sounds and images. Because they only ever point toward what I mean, deferring and deflecting meaning, like sign posts or web links: click here for more. And off we go, wandering in the labyrinth of all the words that suggest and invoke and evoke, one leading to another, never landing, never arriving.
I recently returned to an archived On Being.org interview called "Language and Meaning: An Ojibwe Story." Krista Tippett spoke with David Treuer, an Ojibwe writer and translator who has been compiling the first practical grammar of the Ojibwe language—a language, like so many indigenous languages—that faces extinction, obsoletion. One thing Treuer shares is his discovery that language is so much more than mere currency of meaning. His mother tongue allows for a distinct awareness and understanding of himself and the world that is not accessed through another language, like English. Repeat: awareness and self understanding is not always accessible through the language we wrap around it.
This tells us something very important about the words we use to express ourselves—they are not just labels slapped onto things we can all see and agree upon. In worlds both internal and external, there is infinite possibility for meaning, connection, and understanding. And these worldviews—entire systems of who and what and why we are—are not universal or generalizable.
Let’s repeat that one again, too: how one person sees and organizes the world is not the only way. There are infinite silent voices for every one given the power of Truth. And I don’t just mean to chafe at another example of cultural imperialism. I am just as surely digging around for the inner silence in each of us—the places and spaces within that haven’t yet found expression. Because the language fails. Because it can’t accommodate the experience. Some aspects of Treuer’s identity can only be expressed in Ojibwe. I get that—don’t you? I understand that there are concepts and perspectives only made available within certain discursive contexts. Language is not a reflection of what is out there. Language creates what we see and experience out there.
It’s probably worth noting, then, that space and sound are intricately and irrevocably bound. If you want to understand space, in other words, you should make a study of sound…the way it moves and undulates and fans out. And if you want to understand sound, you immerse yourself in space. Sound needs space, body. An instrument, we could say. And sometimes the only way to find space in oneself and ones experience is through a new language, a new song.
It is no epiphany to say that music so often conveys something for us—beyond the lyrics, even. We know that the melodies and the rhythms and feel of a song can express something shared, something we know is more than the words. But music doesn’t merely say for us what we can’t or won’t say…music holds the space for us to feel what we need to feel, uncensored, and to embody something that might in fact go against the confines of our language. Music allows vibrations to carry you, to give you shape from the inside out and the outside in, until a loose harmony is struck.
In the nerdy academic world in which I was first introduced to this perspective that language does more than communicate ideas, we explored the difference between constitutive and mimetic. Most of us believe that our words directly reflect and describe a solid reality—the fixed and objective world we can observe. By extension, we believe that if we just find the “right words,” we can capture that truth so that others will see it too. And so, we (mostly unconsciously) employ language and assume we are clearly, directly, and precisely conveying to another exactly what it is we are feeling, thinking, observing, or experiencing. In other words, we think and thus act as though language merely reflects something true and real, and thus the task is to become more adept at using the tools.
But a constitutive understanding of language recognizes that words, and the discourses that evolve from them, do not reflect reality, but rather create it. Words aren’t accurate and equal currencies; they can limit and reduce. They organize the world in its complex and interconnected relationships into manageable categories around which we can wrap our minds and land, if only for a moment. This is why an Ojibwe requires his mother tongue to express certain understandings and experiences. The words create a world, and that world is not available in all tongues. Not all tongues speak of the same world, even when the word is the same.
From a cultural perspective, I think we get it. I think we can grasp the fact that an Inuit really does see hundreds of types of snow, because they have a language that allows for wintery nuances ours cannot. Or maybe we are comfortable acknowledging the seemingly “foreign languages” of women to men and vice versa. The words might even be the same, but what they mean to each individual has less to do with something innate than it does with something they create. Feel. Embody.
And how we respond to creation—like what is created in me when someone says, “I love you” is a world all my own.
Yet it’s also, in part, a world that has been conditioned and reinforced through our shortcut use of the words. So I hear or read a word like “love” and the spiders of my mind and past instantly begin to weave a complex web that I think of as REALITY. But the utterance from the other person may have been woven according to an entirely different intention than the design I am now caught within. The more we struggle, the more we wrestle to reconcile what we have created with the intended creation of another in a word like “love,” the more stuck we get in the silky, sticky threads of language.
I guess laryngitis kind of draws my attention to the usefulness of words, or more specifically of speaking to people through them. Because it matters that “express” means both to give voice to AND to extract and force out. Slapping a word on something is neither, and yet I wonder if what I am after is a kind of surgical precision that can help me both articulate and excise this ache of collapse and the stripped down and whisper thin reedy fragile feeling of “heartbreak.”
We are all looking for the right words, the right tongue, to express something and therefore heal it.
So many wounds, only one tongue.
In spite of my academic training, I am also a student and teacher of yoga, and so I have another model to consider. The chakras, the energetic centers of consciousness—what we are aware of, and thus from what state we act and experience ourselves/others in the world. The yogi nerds in my life, upon hearing I am struggling with my voice and chest are immediately up in my esoteric business (always so lovingly, always so genuinely) pressing me to explore what Truth I am holding in, or asking what in my heart is not being expressed, or how I am resisting my own Voice or how it relates to my dislike of being on the phone….you know, very yogic sounding things. And, again, all very relevant. This is not news to me, I tell them. Vishuddha chakra, the throat center, is the center of communication. It’s also the next step from the heart, where transmission and reception can get stopped up. Communication here is not just what or how we say what we want to say. It’s also about what we take in/receive (the messages we internalize or hear), and all the things we don’t hear, say, or let reverberate deep in each cell. Vishuddha chakra is also related, as each chakra is, to certain relationships and essential understandings. Throat chakra? Your relationship to yourself as divine, whole, and holy.
Because that is the only Truth, as far as yoga is concerned. The rest is ego, and we choke on that a lot.
Of course, when we are least conscious, words act as a shorthand for thinking (or not thinking, as it were) and simply reconfirm, reproduce, and contain. Collapse.
If you have ever spent time in another country, where you didn’t speak a lick of the language, you know that there are some things that get communicated without words. Sometimes we make meaning together in spite of—or more likely, because of—the chasm where language fails. Those moments are the intimate transactions where, as bodies of sound, we entrain in something far more intimate than the words we might have spoken had it been easier. There is a space, in other words, where we find fluency in one another and it need not be pinpointed to a single action, a single utterance. A single tongue.
Physicists and yogis share perspectives on a surprising array of things, including vibration. That is, the essence of all matter is vibrating energy. Sound. Music, if you will. We are, at our most basic level, made of sound. Even our atoms and cells, our skin and tongues. Reverberating, resonating, pulsating. Where we insist there is concrete form, the physicists and yogis shake their heads and cluck their tongues and remind us, it is all energy, spinning and vibrating. For the practitioner of hatha yoga, the ultimate goal is to hear the nadam, the everpresent vibration of life itself. The universal hum, from which all things arise and back to which they all return. The song within all things, at all times.
This sound, this vibration, this thing emanating within and around us is what connects us more than any touch, taste, or word. It’s a song that holds it all together.
This is key. The matter, the essential matter, with me as with you, is vibration. The vibration of a thought is no less important or real than the vibration of a body. In fact, we might say that the body—the forms we see and feel, that eat and breathe and have sex and hold and take and sleep and die—are just the apex of the song that began with a single note. So when you are muted—either internally or externally, by fear, heartbreak, grief, self doubt, or shyness, or laryngitis or too much screaming or not enough speaking—the effect is the same. Think of it like this: you are an antennae, receiving and transmitting all the time.
The question arises, then, are we in fact listening? Or are we always superimposing onto the so-called silence?
The heart, we know, is an organ. An organ. An instrument. And all instruments require an outside force to bring forth their song. Yet in yoga, the heart center is anāhata chakra: the un-struck instrument. It suggests that the heart plays with or without an outside force—the love of another, the attention of another, the touch of another. The issue isn’t whether or not the heart has something to express. The issue is whether or not we can hear it over the din of all we are saying.
You know, like “heartbreak.” We say something like, “my heart is broken” and it creates this experience that may or may not be the real truth of it. The raw and ripped open experience of it. For us. It serves as a shortcut I can use so you can meet me somewhere in there, nod your head and say “I know how you feel.” But the problem with the shortcut is it disallows, hems in, and restricts. It mutes. If I tell you that I am heartbroken, I am being honest. But I am also withholding and tiptoeing around the silent space of it all. The shadowy place where the experience (the feeling, emotion, pulsation) is so much more than the label, and so it requires something other than the label to bring it forth.
Sometimes the only way I can really access and feel what I am, well feeling is to break out of words (she writes, nodding her head with you about the irony here). To quickly change course and run in a new direction, into the thickets of my body’s own language (wild and untamable) before discourse, like a neurotic and overprotective nanny, bundles it all up in a safe and totally suffocating embrace. A label. A word. An expression. Some experiences require a new contour, a new melody. They need to move through the body in a new way, or the new song will re-work the space for a new perspective. And this is what is so awesome and painful about playing the right music at the right time. We can lick the wounds with more than that one tongue.
This is also why this same cold dull February day I go running. Against the oppressive and well-meaning advice to stay warm and stay in and sit and drink things and just be. But today I know that what my silent screaming place needs is space. A new shape to move the sound, to find the voice, to find a way into expression. It isn’t that I am not speaking my truth or holding back or holding things in. It’s that I haven’t yet found the right language, the right tongue to give shape to something inside, much less lick it. And I don’t want to rush that. I don’t want to mistake the quiet for being dumb and without voice. I don’t want to assume that the pre-made phrases and sound bytes are enough. I don’t want to cheapen the depth and richness and singularly meaningful feeling of what I have to say by forcing it into something lifeless like “heartbreak.” You see, I don’t mind the silence. It isn’t punitive. I think the silence is my way of insisting I find something new to say. To myself. Gods know I need a new song to make sense of this space.
In the brittle cold, on a frozen dirt trail, I zip up my layers and cover my face (my eyelashes are already forming spiky little eyecicles). I can’t speak out loud, but I can listen. I can see the shape of my breath and know there is something big and loud brewing in my every garrulous cell. And as I start to make way down the icy trail, I realize all the trees around me are so still that the forest itself is a dense and woolly concert hall. Beneath the rhythm of my breath, I swear I hear the sap moving. Still, I want my body to be the amphitheater, the concert hall, the echo chamber. And though I am sad (shorthand for a feeling like bloodletting and rage and humiliation and a giddy freedom that doesn’t fit “heartbreak”), it’s not sad music my bones crave. It’s raucous and loud and hypermasculine and raging. It isn’t making me feel something or echoing a thought. The music is vibrating through my entire instrument and it is giving me the space to feel what I am feeling. It is carving out a new shape in me, and in that shape, sound arises from the silence. And my body is running full throttle on a frigid day, and I am sweating and my breath is forming tenuous clouds, like comic book balloon texts that ferry all I am saying—from deep within—into expression. And then into resolution.
Most of the time, we don't have words to corral what we feel or think into a useful shape. It's all so imprecise and fleeting--words on a page or words on the uttered breath do not hold meaning or convey it precisely. They stain the infinite space of all that is unsaid, leeching from all that possibility one ill-formed utterance that transmits a mere fragment of what you feel. When what you feel is so much bigger. Unruly. Vibrant. Unique to the hum of the organ within. And the wrong words, well, the wrong words are a labyrinth in which we too often lose ourselves trying to translate what was meant. John O'Donohue said, "music is what language would love to be if it could," and when I consider all physical matter is made of vibration-that we are music at our very essence--it seems wise to remember we are instruments so much more than we are tools...
Sometimes what we think of as a failure of relationship is really an inability to resolve foreign tongues and find fluency together in something new. Something not yet penned or spoken or sung. All I know is that an imposed silence has asked I be a better listener, and what I have heard has changed the very fabric of who I am and what I transmit, transmute, and receive.
Is this the resolution then? Have I said anything at all? Perhaps not. But I have made room for and given shape to something that was silenced when I would try to talk about it. And it isn’t up to me to translate for you whatever worlds these words evoked. When we think of “resolution,” we tend to think of something coming to an ending. Closure. Something final. But in musical terms, a resolution suggests the progression from dissonance to a consonance…the note or the chord toward which it’s all moving. Resolution brings all the seemingly contradictory threads together into a place, a space, a sound where each can hum and together, where two tongues come together, and hold the world together.