The world is a small town

” We need to make new symbols

Make new signs

Make a new language

With these we’ll define the world

                             — Tracy Chapman

They say I said my brother’s name first. Then, I learned how to say, “inconvenience” and “sorry” and “I’m going home.” I was three the first time I said, “Sorry for the inconvenience.” Learning how not to be one.  

What are the first words a child learns? Not “hold my hand,” not “love me” or “stay.” It’s “mama” or “dada” or someone who does all of those things – gives us the feeling we need to express. “Hold me” and “love me” and “stay.”

Now, I’m thirty-one learning Spanish, caballo and alto and tengo and hambre. When I forget how to say “thirsty” for the millionth time, I wonder if I’ll ever learn. But no matter how many languages I learn, I struggle with the first one:

He says the emotional granularity escapes him when I ask him how he feels, because we’ve been talking about this New York Times piece, so I hear: there isn’t a language for the feeling. So I thought about this for days: what if metaphors are how we expand the edges of everything.

She said, “I feel like the sky today,” so I had to look outside to know how she felt. It was low and gray. Under the weather, she felt braver than she seemed in her summer dress standing outside with full lungs in the park. Now, in bed, with her breath coming in soft waves, her extremities were cold, and I was cleaning the shower where her hair had been falling out. She was asking me, “Have you ever watched a single drop of a waterfall fall all the way down?” She told me that if I did, the water drop would start to move in slow motion. She turned over, so she faced the wall after she asked the question. I thought about how waterfalls were like her: tense and forever.

I think about a man who wrote his own dictionary for the words he wanted to exist, to describe the feelings he didn’t have a word for. To give a semblance of order to a dark continent, so you can settle it yourself on your own terms, without feeling too lost—safe in the knowledge that we’re all lost.

The word we use the most from this obscure dictionary is Gnasche, which we pronounce like ganache, a dessert. I wonder if I spoke Spanish we would both have a better time with nuance. I wonder if we can only communicate in one language at a time or if we need all of them to feel whole.

When I moved to the Netherlands, I learned Uitwaaien and Gezelligheid before I learned my numbers. Uitwaaien, the enlivening feeling of walking in the wind; Gezelligheid, the cozy feeling like the back part of the restaurant in winter with your friends like I was with Nikky and the girls when they tried to explain it to me. And I spent a week later arguing with a German in the courthouse about how it both does and doesn’t make perfect sense to have your cake and eat it too. Can you have your cake and eat it too? The language you were given, and the emotions you need to express.

We’re lying in bed listening to Brene Brown talk about “trust,” which she says is a word that needs more words before it can be a language. I wonder if it’s a language we need to speak, or we need to feel. The first language I learned: before I could speak, I could cry. And I’m trying not to cry in a restaurant in Lisbon saying, “I haven’t felt this way before,” and we build a framework for our vulnerabilities, saying, “This is level 1, this is level 2, this is level 3,” and it all means something to us, only us, but it works because we started to build a language for every color that a web takes in the light. He describes purple; I describe blue. 

I believe when I break it down to the feelings we cry to in the dark, the world is just a small town trying to figure out how to say I love you, be human, try your best. The boys are singing, Cry, hug your loved ones, visit grandma. My grandma was a woman from Switzerland who couldn’t speak English when I met her. The last language she learned was destroyed by Alzheimer’s, so she spoke French and German, and I didn’t understand her. But I understood the way my mom sat so long on the couch beside her. I understood, by the way my mom sat there and cried and held her hand, that it was important to be in that locked-up, cold home filled with patients who couldn’t remember why they needed to eat or who their grandchildren were. I didn’t need to understand the confusion precisely to understand that it was important to stay there through it. To sit in the feeling and be there under the fluorescent lights.

Even if I don’t understand it, even when the words escape me, it is important to sit there, to say whatever I can about the one drop in a waterfall as I follow it down. Can it even be described without describing the river it falls from? I wonder if this is hungry living, wanting to hear words, to have words, the desire to describe the inescapable, the drop and the river. Or perhaps all this is not wanting to have the cake but eat it too. 

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