From a very small age I liked Henry Moore’s sculptures, and even now, I associate them with childhood. My grandparents would take me to the sculpture park to see them: long peaceful walks, with reverent pauses in the presence of these art-forms. Sculptures many times bigger than me stood beside well-worn paths, like fellow walkers, or lay out, beneath the clouds, in fields surrounded by sheep-nibbled grass. Others hid among trees, surprising the passer-by as they shimmered into view and others peered out over the lake, watching the swans paddle along. Sculptures of bronze shells or stone limbs reminding us of our own bodies, positioning us beside them, exuding and sharing strength with their size, a guardianship, a guide. Sculptures with smooth voluptuous surfaces telling us to touch, skin to skin.
Trees can also be like this, with broad roots bulging from the base, their bark peeling like flakes of paper, layer on layer, branches just out of reach, solid and unmoving, reassuringly still. Grown adults in a forest, when they’re not conscious of being watched, run their fingers along the rough bark. A fingertip trace, reading the world to find a connection.
Interestingly, the benefit of therapy stems not from the words spoken, but from the relationship, the carving out of a safe space, a human contact that is non-judgmental, where forgiveness is not required or solicited. If words sufficed, we could heal ourselves through reading a book. And books are wondrous things, but they are a vessel of human connection, a one to many, not a one to one. Sometimes it’s the being with each other that’s necessary. It’s the presence. Like a tree, the psychotherapist does not move, does not rush. Connection takes time, and time is given with patience.
Meditation is the crafting of stillness, a pause where thoughts are encouraged to flow without sticking, without getting caught, where the body is calmed, and balance is restored to the breath. Time passes, but time is allowed to pass. There is a flow, a curve, an evenness, a beauty in being. Within this pause, there is sometimes clarity, insight. Sit calm and you learn to appreciate your own company. Solitude separates ‘now’ from the haste. Why is haste so frequently harnessed to life? With the harness unclipped, our shoulders lift, we consider the spine and rest in the breath. Listening to our breath unites us with the truth of what we are feeling.
Connection is not complicated, but does have to be given to, it has to be trusted in, it has to be devoted to. But it’s also what makes being worthwhile.
It’s hard to listen. You risk hearing something that you don’t want to hear. Your view of things might get a little crumpled. Someone might say something that doesn’t align with what you wanted or expected them to say or think. People, it seems, have different opinions. Not everyone sees the world quite like me. Maybe nobody. It’s terribly frustrating.
Listening inevitably reminds us of the gap between us. Listen closely, and you’ll hear how clunky our words actually are. We try to express ourselves but our ten of thousands of words create an insufficient digital approximation of our analogue experience. Body language steps in to compensate. Facial expressions give texture to our meanings. But our noisy biases result in erroneous conclusions.
“Slower,” I say. “Please speak slower.”
As a non-native speaker, you work with a smaller vocabulary and all the noise of your own language and culture. Listening in a foreign language takes a lot of effort. Sometimes you might sit and nod, putting all your effort into understanding, following the speaker’s fragmented, straying lines of thought, trying to congeal some sort of understanding from the words you catch. At the end of the conversation, you realise you haven’t said anything at all. There was no time to compose a thought.
“Give me a moment.”
Normally, in our own language, we can compose our thoughts as the other person speaks. It takes a conscious effort to calm our tongue – the words want to escape. We butt in with our opinions. We thrust ourselves into the conversation, spurred on by the essential nature of our thoughts, our words, our opinions, us. In a foreign language, deciphering the sounds into words and words into phrases and phrases into meanings is an all-encompassing task. The cogs whirr. The opinion doesn’t have time to form.
“Sorry, could you repeat that?”
People might mistakenly believe that it’s good listening not to jump in and interrupt the conversation. My Spanish listening is like this: mostly silent. I don’t think anyone would describe my Spanish listening as good. Or, at least, if they did, we can safely assume that they mean ‘for a non-native speaker with only a few years practise’ or they’re trying to be kind. We should be sceptical of such compliments. How many people want to feel they’re speaking to a bad listener?
Occasionally though I do interrupt and ask for clarification of the meaning of a word. A single word. The more confident I feel, the better I listen and the more I interrupt. Lost in a conversation about Queen Victoria and the Chinese Emperor, I picked up on the word knee, I got stuck on the word knee. Why was the word knee in the conversation, why was it so emphasised? Why knee?
“Rodilla como knee?” I ask, pointing aggressively at my own right knee. Of course, knee. To go down on one’s knees, the emperor subservient to the empress. It makes sense when you know.
The speaker might feel frustrated at my ignorance, but this interruption is actually better listening than my silence. If I don’t interrupt, I won’t understand. To listen, to understand anything I hear, I need to pause and ask for clarification. Otherwise, I’m just sitting and nodding.
“Sí, sí, sí…”
The best conversationalists, for me, in Spanish, are the ones who think about what they are saying and consider how I listen. One of my dear friends actually stops and asks me to wait while he chooses the best to explain his thoughts. He’s one of the few people I feel comfortable having a conversation with, in Spanish, on the phone. He’s not just speaking: he’s gaging whether or not I am understanding and then he’s adapting his language to compensate for my poor vocabulary and need for simple sentences. He allows me to parrot back his meaning in my own words so that we both can be sure that I really do understand what I’m being told. Often though, if I’m being totally honest, I’m tired and lazy and I don’t listen well.
I say, “Sí.”
I’ve written here a lot about listening in a foreign language but listening in a foreign language is not so dissimilar to listening when you’re distracted, when you’re preoccupied with your own concerns or where the content of the conversation is beyond your ability to comprehend.
We’re all lazy. If the content is technically too difficult, say requiring prior knowledge, we zone out. And if we’re preoccupied with our own thoughts, or distracted by something, for example messages popping up on a screen, the conversation often falls into silences. Divided attention leads us to nod, sí, but unlike the struggling non-native speaker, we often mistakenly believe we were following and did understand. Maybe you got enough to keep the conversation flowing, but how deep did those words go? Did they just scatter into the wind? Have we missed the clues? Were the words what was being said, or was there a secondary message we were supposed to hear? Are we just guessing?
When the non-native speaker is asked, they can usually admit that they only understood maybe 80% of what was said.
And sometimes we listen blindfolded because we’re on the defence before we’ve had the chance to begin. We assume we know what other people want, what they think and what they believe. We listen to the words, but we don’t wonder what’s not being said. We don’t take time to understand the motivation behind the words. Why does the conversation matter to the other person? Are they trying to sell you something, convince you of an idea, convince themselves? Do they believe what they’re saying, or are they wishing they believed it? Can we tell when someone is lying to themselves?
How are these words serving?
I think often we rush through conversations. It’s hard to listen. We all so busy: thoughts crashing through our minds, places we ought to be, things we should have read, emails that need attending to. The bathroom needs cleaning. We don’t really want to deal with the inconvenience of our routine being crumpled by something we weren’t ready to hear.
Yet I don’t know there’s much anything more valuable than an honest, open, slow and interested conversation with someone who’s attentively listening. A good conversation creates a space in which we grow, it connects us to the world, and to other people’s words. What’s more human than attending to each other’s choice of words?
He escrito en este sitio de web por diez años – no cada semana, por supuesto, pero cientos de textos hablando de cualquiera cosa entra mi menta. Comencé cuando estaba estudiando en el U y me sentí aburrida con mi curso y necesité crear algo para enfocarme. Mi padre, quien tiene solo un puñado de palabras en español, ha dicho muchas veces que debo escribir acá en español.
Estoy imaginado él usando un traductor para leer esas líneas porque ahora estoy escribiendo en español y justo como algunos de mis amigos no pueden leer inglés, él no puede leer español.
Nadie en mi familia ha aprendido un idioma segundo, afuera de la escuela, excepto mi abuela. Su idioma segundo es inglés porque su idioma original es galés. Frecuentemente voy a la casa de mis abuelos y mi abuelo, con una cara serio y viejo, me pide cuantos idiomas puedo hablar ahora. Solo dos. Pero digo que también tengo mis manos y una menta creativa y donde falto las palabras correctas, tengo una habilidad a inventar una solución. Practiqué.
Pero usando un traductor no es igual a entender el idioma real. Un idioma no es solo las palabras. Usamos tarjetas de aprendizaje a expandir nuestros vocabularios, pero una palabra no puede ser descrito completamente en una hoja de papel. Una palabra es un símbolo. Es una representación de algo de nuestras vidas, un concepto, un sentimiento, una idea. Pero, por supuesto, tenemos vidas distintas y usamos palabras en formas únicas a compartir nuestras propias perspectivas. Los idiomas viven a través del uso. Hay algo mágico de las partes del idioma que no están estándar.
Como lees este texto probablemente has encontrado muchas faltas, formas de construir las frases que, para ti, pareces raro. Tengo una inclinación a estructurar mis frases como estoy hablando inglés, como te gusta usar una estructura española. Probablemente, mis faltas tienes, pero en la otra dirección. Me tomé mucho tiempo antes dije ‘pensar en’ en lugar de ‘pensar en’ y muchos de mis alumnos dicen ‘think in’ cuando ellos quieren decir ‘think of’. Está como mirar en un espejo, todo es al revés. Puedes ver tu mismo estilo en que te hace sentir incómodo en mi escritura.
En español, una ilusión se mantiene con el dictamen de la academia de español, y muchas veces ustedes hablan y dicen que una forma de español es mala, incorrecta, fea, sin educación… Pero la riqueza de cada idioma es en cómo puede ser adecuado por la vida que representa. Es la variedad. No somos idénticas. No hablamos idénticamente. Aún mi hermana y yo hablamos distintas de cada una.
No hay problema, mientras que escuchamos con cuidado e intentar a entender.
Suppose a Sentence starts, in the way many books do, with a list of nice things intelligent people have said about the author and his work, but because this is an unabashedly intellectual book (a book for people who proudly think of themselves as being intellectual) then this fawning includes words like ‘erudite’, which to me looks like it means something inappropriate for polite company; ‘elegiac’ which I don’t know how to pronounce has little to do with the Spanish verb ‘elegir’; and ‘edifying’, which to me initially reads as closer to the word ‘edit’ than ‘educate’, like the book is one that will edit your mind, perhaps.
Some of these words strike me as fanciful.
This very good book (I’m paraphrasing) “…serves as both an autobiographia literaria and a vital exemplar of how deeply literature and language can matter in life.” I think Maggie Nelson is saying here that the book is a record of some things the author has read… but alas, as she’s using words not in my dictionary, I’m not sure. Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for fancy words; I just may not understand them. Suppose a Sentence invokes a lot of shoulder shrugging.
I don’t know. Or I don’t know exactly. These apologetic phrases crop up all the time in my classes. I often teach with the dictionary open in one tab and WordReference in the next, pre-empting my students’ questions. I don’t trust my pronunciation or my spelling, and so I invariably refer to dictionaries and phonetic transcriptions to guarantee that the words my students are learning are standard, ‘correct’. It turns out that a lot of words have many meanings; sometimes sifting through to identify the writer’s intent is an intense challenge. Sometimes my students think they know what a word means, and I have to push them to reassess.
The bright light. The intelligent look. Her bright eyes …?
Careful listening, close reading, real, acute attention… these moments of deep focus can reward us with a new perspective, an insight, a fresh appreciation. And I guess that’s what this book, Suppose a Sentence, is all about. When the pandemic has bound you to the house, your social endeavours have fallen apart, all plans disintegrated, then don’t fret: one can always suppose a sentence.
If only I knew what it meant to suppose a sentence…
The quotation’s attribution reads: Maggie Nelson, author of The Argonauts.
Today, when reading Brian Dillon’s Suppose a Sentence, I learnt that the title structure, such as mine here, starting ‘on’ was typical of Montaigne, who I haven’t read, and was played with by Virginia Woolf, who I have read, creating titles such as ‘On Illness’. Dillon writes about the introductory sentence of Woolf’s essay On Illness, which I feel I have read, although maybe I have merely read that oft-quoted first sentence. I say oft-quoted meaning I’m sure I’ve seen it quoted before and therefore assume that it’s the sort of sentence that people who have sentences to hand for demonstration frequently choose to show.
If my words are wandering today, it’s because at some point, I took a turn off the main path, followed a goat track, tripped over an unexpecting branch and left my life in a pickle trying to carve a route all of its own. Sometimes this route is carved with a machete, sometimes the butter knife. At the moment – pandemic and all – it’s definitely the butter knife style of progression I’m witnessing. In other words, I’m feeling a little disorientated. Slow even.
I am being chased by the word ‘obdurate’. Yesterday I had to look it up in the dictionary. Today I find Dillion uses it. As does the article I read in the London Review of Books this afternoon. The same thing happened fifteen years ago with the word ‘altruistic’, which followed me around until I wasn’t sure whether it was a normal everyday word, and I was dim, or it was a poncy word and better left unsaid. ‘Altruistic’ makes it into a video on elephants I’m studying with one of my students. Selfless elephants are good at caring for one another.
My writing is undoubtedly, or indubitably, mutating (albeit in a butter-knife fashion of progress). I’m reading so much and writing so much it can hardly do anything but change; yet I’m doing so ploddingly, we can hardly call anything here machete action. That said, I’m pretty stubborn – or shall I say obdurate? – about writing. It’s like a compulsion: an addiction to unravelling a language that refuses to be pinned down, my mongrel tongue, idiolectical phrasing, use of words like ‘happenence’.
But my writing mutates to what exactly? And my life is wandering where? And are the two irrevocably connected. And for a woman who spends so much time putting words on the page, why is my spelling so atrocious sometimes? And…
In addition to Dillon’s book on sentences, I find myself reading Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, which throws you on the first page with its ‘—“I prefer men to cauliflowers,”—’ entrapped in two em-dashes, giving you no guidance as to what you’re reading and leaving you pretty much confused until a third of the way through the book where you settle down praying that dear Mrs Woolf will keep the surprising cauliflowers out of her prose and instead give you something that resembles a story.
‘—“I prefer men to cauliflowers,”—’ such a line would have been better placed in Terry Pratchett. I’ve just finished the father’s copy of Moving Pictures and that has a section referring to cabbages. Cabbages, cauliflowers… Although Pratchett most loved to use his em-dashes to end a line of dialogue. Thus the phrase might need a slight stylistic rearrangement… “I prefer men to cauli—”
I am unsettled. Uncomfortable with myself just sitting here. I’ve placed myself in front of the computer as if expecting that some miracle of composition will spring though my fingers, across the keyboard and with a twist of logic express something meaningful onto the screen.
It doesn’t happen like that. Any time I think about the product of writing I run into a wall. I know that I can only write by burying myself in the process. Settling down into the process isn’t always easy. Right now, I’m tired, despite sleeping what all the textbooks describe as enough hours. It’s not a physical tiredness but a sense of being worn away. The threads are a little too thin. And I’m overwhelmed.
Overwhelmed although it feels like nothing much is going on. I didn’t know that overwhelmed was the word until I hit out the letters. It’s these surprises which force me to keep writing. I trust my fingers to speak more truthfully than my mouth. I rely on my fingers to speak, as if their decisions are the voice within.
I’ve been tracking my thoughts, listening to my fears and another truth I’m hesitant about admitting is that it’s February. At this time of the year, I feel like I’m staring at my feet and hoping the ground beneath them stays put. I find it a difficult month. My mind traverses downward, as if weighed down by some great anchor embedded in the past, and I have to persuade myself to come back to reality.
I’m reminded of the elderly colonel in Nobody writes to the colonel by Gabriel García Márquez who in the beginning of the book is uncomfortable with it being October since he knows October is a month which his frail body despises. He approaches the month with knowing and familiar anxiety, his mind struggling to look beyond the rains of October to a dream of December sunshine. His explanation for feeling under the weather is that it’s October.
It’s February. It’s fair to say that February heightens my anxiety. This time last year I picked up my bags, and headed into a realm of quiet. Somehow I had known from the outset that February was going to hold a challenge, that it would creep under my sky and disrupt my sleep, and wanting to stay afloat, I chose to give myself what I needed: quiet and space, a long hot shower and apple cake.
This year, as usual, I watch my thoughts with caution. I’m trying to avoid a self-fulfilling prophecy, but it’s probably too late. I believe February, especially these later weeks in February, to be difficult. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy which works in two directions. Once we get past past International Women’s Day on March 8th, I’ll feel a sense of relief. call it irrational if you want, it will make no difference to me. I believe I’m much more likely to have a flashback or have a haunted dream in February than any other month. Of course, it’s not guaranteed, anything might happen, yet it happens to be what I believe. Belief is a powerful thing.
This year, I am in a different situation. I can’t simply take the time off and hide away. I have ambitions for the coming year and so I need to work and (both practically and legally) I need to stay put. I can’t wrap myself in sunshine, my go to anti-depressant, because… England.
It’s all tough work. Instead of hiding from myself I need to continue with myself and somehow, hand-in-hand with my discomfort, keep going. It’s invisible work. Hidden work. I wonder how many people live with such a rhythm as mine with the past and present wrestling with each other whenever any anniversary comes to pass.
Part of me wants to have the time alone with my emotions so that I can unravel them and do a spring clean. This isn’t an activity to be undertaken with an audience, although it may lead to more writing which may, or may not, have an audience. I’m not scared of being alone with my emotions, whether those of sadness or of anxiety and fear, but I despise drama and do not want to create it in the presence of others.
I promise myself that at some point I’m going to take myself somewhere sunny and quiet and give myself that much needed time-less space.