Words, Like the Wind…

I’m having trouble with something, but I don’t know what. It’s something I can’t seem to describe in words –nothing fits. I suppose I could be forgiven for dismissing it as nothing; there’s a word for everything isn’t there…? Everybody important gets a name –so does every place. I’m wondering about every feeling though, or every concept… Does everything like that get assigned a descriptor? A label?

For the longest time I assumed that everything that was too difficult to encapsulate in a word was either relegated to a category –the same flock, as it were- so that it could be described by a common theme, and whatever adjective or noun that seemed relevant for one, could be assigned to another by extrapolation; or the responsibility for describing its ineffability was delegated to metaphor. To poetry.

But as age slowly creeps across my neural circuits forcing me to neologate in order to deputize new sounds to stand in for those I’ve forgotten, I realize I’ve only had my hand in one pot. I’ve been drawing water from the same well all this time, and it makes me wonder what I’ve missed -or rather, what has missed me. Have I -limited as I have been by the cadre of words assigned to me, and bound by the metaphors my culture would understand- been restricted in what I feel as well? Would those evanescent emotions even be recognizable if they resisted condensation? If they were absorbed by some other, larger, but different entity?

It’s an interesting question, and one only partially addressed by a fascinating article in the BBC Future series: http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20170126-the-untranslatable-emotions-you-never-knew-you-had There are certain things that seem obvious when pointed out, but which might never occur to someone unaccustomed to viewing them that way. They are often fleeting, and if not captured as they occur, pass like the wind in a field of grain. Tim Lomas, from the University of East London, searched through the academic literature for ‘untranslatable’ words and his first compilation was published in the Journal of Positive Psychology. ‘“In our stream of consciousness – that wash of different sensations feelings and emotions – there’s so much to process that a lot passes us by,” Lomas says. “The feelings we have learned to recognise and label are the ones we notice – but there’s a lot more that we may not be aware of.’

The words he found range from the more banal, such as the Tagalog Gigil: the irresistible urge to pinch or squeeze someone because they are loved or cherished’ to the profound –Wabi-sabi: a Japanese term that describes our appreciation of transient and imperfect beauty – such as the fleeting splendour of cherry blossom’ – a “dark, desolate sublimity”…

And then there is Lisa Feldman Barrett at Northeastern University. ‘Her research was inspired by the observation that certain people use different emotion words interchangeably, while others are highly precise in their descriptions. “Some people use words like anxious, afraid, angry, disgusted to refer to a general affective state of feeling bad,” she explains. “For them, they are synonyms, whereas for other people they are distinctive feelings with distinctive actions associated with them.”

‘This is called “emotion granularity.” Importantly, she has found that this then determines how well we cope with life. If you are better able to pin down whether you are feeling despair or anxiety, for instance, you might be better able to decide how to remedy those feelings: whether to talk to a friend, or watch a funny film. Or being able to identify your hope in the face of disappointment might help you to look for new solutions to your problem.’

But, for me at least, these observations are largely beside the point. Too reductive. Too pragmatic. Like embarking upon a study to find out where the geese actually go as you hear their honking disappear into an early morning mist, rather than being captivated by the magic of its occurrence. Captivated by the feeling. The moment. It’s why, I suppose, I was so enthralled by the concept of Wabi-sabi –it seems so… perfect! It’s not needing a scientific explanation for, say, a beautiful sunset, and being unentangled by an urge to describe it further, but rather, watching it wordlessly. Mindlessly…

Experiencing is mindless, I think. Listening to a symphony doesn’t necessitate describing it. It isn’t a purposive exercise requiring a justification, nor even an explanation. Much like the evanescent bewitchment of the cherry blossoms on a tree one morning, it just is… And yet, if there were a word that acknowledged the feelings it engendered, a way of expressing it, characterizing its effect on you to someone not present, and conveying the emotion, it might help to reify something that would otherwise disappear -a memory unshared and unsharable no matter the desire for acknowledgement. For someone else, it might never have existed, and in fact didn’t…

So does the inability to adequately encapsulate a moment in words –or in a word- either diminish its appreciability, or lessen its likelihood of being noticed? I suppose, without reverting to the linguistically oppugned Whorfianism (which suggests that language itself can influence thought), I would prefer to defer to the Bard himself and paraphrase his Juliet’s ‘What’s in a name?’ –a rose, even without a name, would smell as sweet.

Even so… a name is something sharable isn’t it? You would know it wasn’t a lilac I had smelled. You could partake of my experience, if only vicariously.

And sometimes, that’s enough. It’s something, at any rate…








You and Me

A face is very personal –it is what our friends recognize about us, and it’s what we get used to seeing in a mirror. It may not be beautiful and it may have some features we’d rather it didn’t, but at the end of the day, it’s still us. And apart from reconstructive surgery, or some terrible accident, we’re stuck with it. I wouldn’t have it any other way –I like to know what to expect in a reflection. I like to know just who I am shaving.

I suppose there are many ways to compare faces: ‘“Most people concentrate on superficial characteristics such as hair-line, hair style, eyebrows,” says Nick Fieller, a statistician involved in The Computer-Aided Facial Recognition Project. Other research has shown we look to the eyes, mouth and nose, in that order.’ http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20160712-you-are-surprisingly-likely-to-have-a-living-doppelganger  And we tend to generalize similarities, even though side-to-side comparisons might not hold up, so unless a face is truly unusual, it could be mistaken for another. I was once mistaken for Steven Spielberg when I was visiting the old Jewish cemetery in Prague. I considered giving autographs, but I am neither Jewish, nor do I write very well. And anyway, I don’t think it was my face as much as the baseball cap I was wearing.

But that’s just the thing –if I’d been wearing a turban, nobody would thought to ask. Context is everything; you have to be lucky.

Edward was lucky –he was always being mistaken for somebody he wasn’t. And since he wasn’t really anybody in particular, he loved the opportunities it presented. Even I felt special if he came over to my usual table in the window of the local Starbucks. A tall man, with wavy  greying hair and impeccably dressed, he always carried himself like royalty. He looked like someone you should know. I’d known him since university when he was just a slob, though. I think that’s maybe why we used to hang out together –in those days he made me look good. Now, it was me who basked in his light.

“Thought I’d find you here,” he said, coming from the cold of a blustery day in February. It was snowing outside and I’d seen him hurrying by through the steamy plate glass window. “I need you to do me a favour…”

The way he said it made me suspicious. I’ve never trusted an ellipsis, and his was as obvious as a gravel road. I sighed, and reached for my wallet. “It’s not money again is it Eddie?”

His eyes immediately flew back to his face and his forehead, in a long-practiced sweep, suddenly appeared insulted. “No. Of course not… But, if you’re reaching for your wallet, I wouldn’t mind a coffee… Twenty dollars should do, I guess…” he said, eyeing the solitary bill inside.

Damn the ellipses. They were spilling out of him today. “Want your usual bagel, too?” I thought maybe if I were generous, he’d feel guilty about asking me to do something outrageous for him again. Last month, for example, he wanted me to tell a woman he had just met that I’d seen him in a movie.

“You can tell her you saw it a couple of years ago and forget the name of it now,” he’d said with his eyes holding out their little wings like they were pigeons begging on the street.

We’d arranged to meet right here as if by accident. But when he’d arrived at the assigned time, he was alone.

“Turns out she was married, and her husband came back early from his trip,” he said and shrugged, as if he couldn’t win them all. “But he saw me talking to her in the mall, and walked over and asked me if he’d seen me in a movie somewhere, though.” All was not lost. It never was with Edward.

I tried hard not to roll my eyes when he returned with a breakfast sandwich, a bagel and two chocolate chip cookies as well as a coffee –venti size, whatever that means. Oh, and a latte.

“Didn’t have time for breakfast today,” he explained. “And I have to meet Charlene again for lunch…”

“Again?” I could feel what was coming next.

“She’s the director of a small local film company and she’s looking for a lead male role –something about a guy who gets lost in a forest, or something…” He suddenly sighed. “I met her at a party last night, and we danced the hours away…”


He smiled his best innocent smile. “And I told her I starred in a little Nigerian film about an explorer in the jungle a couple of years ago…”

“So where do I come in this time?”

He wasn’t so shy about rolling his eyes when the need arose. “So, it’s a foreign language film, and you saw it on TV when you were visiting Britain last year and you immediately recognized a person you hung out with at university. But you don’t remember the name of the film, however.” Then he winked –or at least he closed one eye as if it was practicing for another role. “And the name didn’t make any sense to me either, of course…”

“Of course.” But I still suspected something. This time it was the italics that gave it away.  “When are you…?”

Just then he looked up and waved at the window. “There she is. We decided to have brunch here…”

I allowed my eyes to roll for a moment. Charlene burst through the door, her glasses steaming from the sudden warmth. A beautiful, albeit short, blond she immediately recognized Eddie and hurried over to the table.

“Charlie,” Edward said, standing up politely to offer her his seat, “This is my oldest, dearest friend…” but before he could say my name he realized she seemed to recognize me already. In fact, her eyes were saucers.

“You never told me, Eddie,” she said, her eyes prisoners on my face. “Wait, don’t tell me your name. I’ve seen you in something…” She closed her eyes for a moment, scrolling through her mental celebrity list.

I could already see that Edward was annoyed. “No…” I said, self-consciously using the dreaded ellipsis in my embarrassment.

But her face turned coy as soon as her eyes flew back to their little cages. “You guys are so protective of your privacy, I know. I won’t say a thing,” she added with a little theatrical gesture as her finger flew to her lips to ensure me that my identity was safe with her. She turned to Edward and blinked. “You never told me you knew him, Eddie…” she said, blushing, and then stared at me with eyes that flushed not so much with recognition, as worship.

Sometimes words are unnecessary; I decided to bask…