It was Wednesday, somewhere between 2:00 and 3:00 a.m. I was in the middle of a shoulder workout. Joe, the sole employee on duty, was parts unknown; so I essentially had the entire gym to myself. I had just finished up a set of lateral raises and was placing the dumbbells back on the rack.
That’s when I started crying.
I received quite a bit of feedback with regard to last week’s atypical post. Responses ran the gamut, with people enthusiastically supporting or decrying in about equal proportions a wide range of things — some of which I never actually said or meant.
What I found even more curious, given the nature of the topic and its accompanying challenge, was that for all the disparate thoughts shared, not a single person asked a clarifying question toward being sure they understood my intent.
And that, of course, only further underlines what the post was actually about — our seemingly inescapable inclination as human beings to perceive through the lens of our own existing belief systems what others are saying, taking as a given that our interpretations are accurate.
As it turned out, that post was one of my longest to date. And yet, for all the words, clarity still had a tendency to remain elusive.
I’ve always felt that language grants us magical powers. Yet like any tool, I’ve found it to be a double-edged sword — capable of being used for both enormous good and dire ill.
Words allow us the ability to mitigate or to manipulate.
To clarify or to confuse.
To liberate or to label.
To draw people in — or to draw lines that keep them out.
I recall having seen a movie where an inmate at a high-security prison killed someone with a plastic spoon. It occurred to me that, much like words, the spoon was not the problem. The intent of the user was.
Still, this great capacity to help or to harm only accounts for willful uses of language and words.
Some years back, I read a memorably strange news article. A woman had waded out some distance from shore at a beach and was dunking herself under, perhaps seeing how long she could hold her breath. Suddenly, a pelican dove, apparently mistaking the bobbing hair on the surface of the water for an injured fish or squid. But instead of finding an easy dinner, it collided at high speed with the woman’s skull.
Both the woman and the bird died.
Neither of them meant the other any harm. Neither was good or evil, right or wrong. It was just bad timing. Faulty perception. Miscalculation. Nonetheless, great damage was done.
Words are sometimes like that, I’ve found.
I visited Paris for the second time in October of 2012. I posted this to social media on October 11 of that year:
We entered through one of the back gates of the Louvre and into the central courtyard. The rain had stopped, but the square was virtually empty. From the shadowed archway of an alcove, a single cellist played “Ave Maria.” As it echoed through the towering stonework and courtyard, a woman stood for a fashion shoot on the edge of one of the fountains in an exquisite couture dress, the diaphanous scarlet train of it billowing in the wind.
If I close my eyes even now, I’m right there again. Sitting astride a rented bicycle. Soaked through from the rain that had been relentless until then. My own heat causing mist to rise from my body as if I myself were evaporating into the moment that unfolded in that courtyard. Breath suspended. Throat tight. Trembling for more than the damp and cold. Turning to see the dearest friends of a lifetime smiling silently back at me with tears brimming. Knowing that we were a part of something almost sacred, something that would never be repeated again. Anywhere. For anyone.
Something we would never be able to convey to another soul as it truly was.
Even now, as I read the words I wrote in my best effort to try to capture the scene that unfolded there, I know full well that they don’t come close to actually explaining that window of time. What I felt. And whether I were to have spent another hour or another decade trying to perfect my written account — no words in any combination or volume could ever recreate the reality that existed for those few fleeting and precious moments.
As powerful and wonderful as words and language may be, they remain dim reflections of direct experience — shades of truth, but not truth itself. That is to say, for all intents and purposes, words may be true — spoken or penned with a goal of conveying truth — and yet another’s understanding of those words may very well be false. Unclear. Incomplete. Check the box marked “OTHER.”
Last week’s post was words about words. This week, I’m going to attempt to use words to talk about no words.
I’m aware of the conundrum I face here, as I set about using words to describe the depth of an experience that was devoid of them — one that had a profound effect on me, even without so much as an internal dialog.
All the same, I’m going to try. Because even if only some of you get some of the impact, I believe it will still be significant and worthwhile.
So there I was, in shorts and a racer-back tank, crying alone in the middle of the gym’s weight area.
I wasn’t injured or in pain.
It wasn’t a reaction brought about by some melancholy musing.
So … what then?
Affixed at various places high up along the walls and ceiling of the gym are plasma television units, all tuned to different stations. Now, I stay pretty focused during my workouts, so I’m not the type to stand around watching shows. And each set is muted anyway, with no closed-captioning.
But for some reason that particular night, as I was pondering my last post and the seemingly paradoxical nature of words, I found myself hyper-aware of the silent scenes playing out around the room on those overhead screens.
Much as it had all those years ago in Paris, life was happening. And all without a single word.
To my right, a man in a lab coat spoke with exaggerated facial expressions, hands forming large symmetrical gestures, an ultra-white smile never leaving his face. I needed no words to inform me that he was selling something, though I couldn’t make out the product.
Diagonally to my left, a man in a plaid button-up shirt crouched between the driver’s and passenger’s seats of a tractor trailer. Two other men occupied those seats, wearing hardhats and reflective gear. The vehicle’s steering wheel was moving of its own accord. The man in the center looked back and forth between the workers, scrunching his eyebrows as his mouth moved. The others regularly looked or pointed toward the wheel as it self-adjusted.
Suddenly, the attention of all three men was drawn to the driver’s window. They squinted downward at someone in the neighboring lane. The truck’s driver looked at the man in the center with raised eyebrows and a smirk. The eyes of the man in the center got big as saucers as a broad smile split his face. He moved forward expectantly in a crouch, stretched his arm upward and pulled something.
Instantly, his mouth and fingers flew wide — a child’s reaction to what I could only assume was the sound of the truck’s horn blast, given in answer to what I imagined was a fist-pump request from the unseen commuter. The horn puller shout-laughed, his hands holding his head in exuberant disbelief, as if his team had just pulled the Hail Mary of a lifetime in the last five seconds of the SuperBowl.
I heard nothing. Not a word. Not a sound. But there I was, a big stupid smile on my own face as well, and something that felt like soda bubbles effervescing inside, to see this grown reporter’s joy at getting to live out a childhood fantasy of being the one to sound the whistle from inside a big rig.
I felt genuine happiness for him. No one used words to instruct me about how I “should” feel. And it didn’t occur to me to wonder about the man’s past or his political stands or his world view or anything else as prerequisites for my reaction. I just had what I’d like to think was a normal human response.
The television directly in front of me, overhead, frames a close-up of a swarthy young man with dark curly hair and a strong nose bridge. He is perhaps 30. He looks down, then tentatively glances at whoever is speaking to him off screen.
The shot cuts to a bomb blast. Pale bricks fly outward as a cloud of ochre dust fills the scene.
The camera zooms in slowly on a photograph of the curly-haired man emerging from the back seat of a car, eyes full of life, mouth quirked into an awkward smile. Two small children are asleep on his lap, a head on each shoulder. A boy and a girl.
The interviewer is a petite Caucasian woman with short brown hair. Her head is tilted to the side as her mouth moves.
The man draws a breath in through his nose and releases it. Teeth show briefly, moist eyes flashing upward. Then just as quickly, the corners of his mouth draw downward, tightening. His bottom lip begins to tremble.
The screen cuts to a metal platform in a dirt street. Hollow-eyed men and woman are moving slowly, bent at the waist, pulling back corners of filthy blankets. Bloody feet lie exposed at the other end of one of the makeshift shrouds. The curled fingers of a small hand are just visible from underneath another.
Cut to the same shot of the man in the car with the two toddlers in his lap.
Back to the curly-haired man, who continues to look down as his mouth works. Three large droplets fall from thick eyelashes to land on wringing hands.
The interviewer’s own hand appears in the shot, offering a handkerchief. The man takes it and presses it unceremoniously over his eyes. Then his whole body gives way and he doubles over, forehead to his knees, shaking.
The interviewer’s own eyes well up. She does not talk.
The curly-haired man has recovered a bit. The whites of his eyes are now red, his face blotchy and wet.
It appears time has passed. The man is waiting outside what looks like a New York hotel. A black car arrives. The curly-haired man weaves his head back and forth, attempting to get a glimpse inside the car. The car door opens. Shyly, another curly-haired young man, perhaps 20, emerges. He looks up. They see one another. Both men weep openly and run toward each other, embracing roughly, pulling apart only so that hands can feel one another’s face, hair. And then the embrace continues, as they rock slowly together, side to side.
The men are sitting on a couch in a lobby. The younger man has his face buried in the first man’s shoulder, hidden. His body shakes intermittently. The first man also continues to sob, but his eyes are grateful. He strokes the face of other over and over, drying the younger man’s tears with a tissue even as more continue to come.
I didn’t know the men’s names.
I didn’t know their nationality, their religion or their political views.
I didn’t know how they’d come to leave their country or to have arrived in ours.
I never considered their marital status or sexuality, income or intellect.
No words — no labels, no categories, no boxes were necessary.
I only knew that the man had lost his children. He was grieving to the core of his being.
He had been reunited with someone he’d thought was also lost. He was given hope.
No one instructed me on how I should feel. I just … felt.
And in those silent moments, as my own tears rose and spilled over, I was reminded of just how much we already know about life and what’s important, when we don’t allow ourselves to get hung up on the words.