. . . it often comes through the discovery of words.
When and where did your marveling at words begin? If a picture is worth a thousand of them, here’s one that captures the emerging of that for four of us. With my sister and our baby cousin Marcia sitting in a chair at the bay window of our grandparents’s home, and my brother Tom looking on from the left as I am from the right, Marilyn — the only one of us who could read — unfolds our then just-dawning fascination with language, and its attendant wonder of making-sense of everything that is.
But no word is ever just a label stuck on something from the outside; for it arises there on the inside of the person calling anything a ‘this’ or a ‘that’ — and thus, beyond the letters any word consists of, it is also an act or little deed, creating in a person the notion that connects a this with a that and turns anything into a definite something in the first place. (To me, if one but looks at the bodies of the four in this photo, you can plainly see the wonder in them all.)
To name something is also to do something, and to do something of that kind is also to create something, which is to bring something into being. And every time a person uses (or thinks, feels, imagines — or anything on the long list of possibilities) a word, the same deed is done once again, the reality is brought into being once more or, if you will, re-created. That is what gives words their great power, the power to create the world in which we dwell and live our whole lives long.
This is what all human experiencing is made of, and that is what this blog is here to explore. It would be folly to attempt to explain experience when we understand it as little as we do. It’s not something one can get outside of enough to see it clearly from an external vantage point. It never stops operating from wherever you are. (And how would you be able to investigate it if it ever actually did?) Or take your understanding of yourself, for instance? Can you cast the net of your own understanding out far enough to encircle your whole life and draw it in? (To cite an inorganic analogy that finally doesn’t fit: You know how the upgrade on your browser cannot be put into effect until you turn off your computer and reboot. Well, how is it possible to apply this to oneself?) The path to a greater understanding of our experiencing leads through the unmatchable intricacies of its own actual operation. In this, there is no substitute for the thing itself.
And it is this matter of words that we meet right at the start:
A book is just ink, paper, and dried glue until someone comes along, picks it up, opens it, and starts to read. Then an amazing thing happens which even today we are not able to explain or fully understand. For as the eye moves along to take in what it sees, what are nothing more than marks on a page are transformed wondrously into words. Each word starts to stir like a little Pinocchio that can act on its own to speak, shout, soothe, sing, sting or startle. Now the book, a lifeless lump before, can “say something.” when it does, the door to a whole new realm is opened, and in that moment we enter into the world of what things mean. (The opening paragraph of The Stuff of a Lifetime.)
But that is only the beginning, because as the words mold the experience, the experience, in turn, leads on into everything that then follows from there. Allow me to give two far-reaching yet by no means rare examples of what I am referring to here.
First: The year I was born there was a song way up near the top of the list of hits: Jerome Kern’s music with lyrics by Otto Harbach, from their 1933 operetta Roberta. In 1934 it soared to number one in the arrangement Paul Whiteman recorded, seeing its staying power boosted again in my birth year of 1935, thanks to the movie of it featuring Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire. “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” went on to become an American standard, recorded by hundreds of artists in almost as many versions, a very famous one made by the Platters in 1958. [Once the piece starts playing, you want to click the ‘Next’ arrow right away, and that will take you to the Platters’s number; if not, keep clicking it until it does.]
A whole generation later, in 1989, that Platters version made its way into the film depicted here — a remake of classic World War II Spencer Tracy and Irene Dunne film called A Guy Named Joe. This time it was called Always. It is filled with things very significant to me: Audrey Hepburn’s final appearance in film, the same planes in which (and wheat fields over which) I learned to fly, a piercingly poignant truth about a love not adequately expressed . . . and all of this, of course, set to music grand enough to do it justice. The song’s words never changed a letter from how they appeared the year I entered the world, nor did the melody change a single note — as both were bonded to twists of plot and circumstance into a chain of events carrying the whole bundle across all those years right on up to now.
Second: And here is another piece which, though wordless, played an indescribably revealing role at a pivotal point in my life. In the throes of a major turning-point and the rigorous compilations necessary to organize and launch an intensive doctoral program, this musical rendition, upon first hearing, with the haunting purity of its profound theme, etched the overall timeline of an individual’s existence traced in relation to the human life-process. The words finally chosen to express this will be presented later, but only after people interested in listening to this for themselves, to make of it whatever they may — or, equally appropriate, to simply absorb it for the finely rendered work of art it is. I still possess the very vinyl record from the jacket pictured here of Charlie McCoy‘s “Shennandoah.” I’ve used it in public speaking venues over the years many times since, the last time being no more than a year or so ago. The record came out in 1973, but encountered this way you get to hear it without the scratches mine has — though they fade for me the instant the music pours through the speakers on its way into my soul.
These two pieces, then, illustrate what wonders words are, how arresting and varied their effects may be even stretched over years, and how they take root in the core of what we think and feel, forming there a lasting strand in whatever meaning life holds for us personally, showing clearly the hand they have in making us what we come to be.
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