A snowstorm was predicted here so I headed downtown to Trader Joe’s for an ample supply of wine. Where some might add to the rush to the market for bread and milk, I have my priorities firmly in order. Actually, being a city rat, the food larder in our apartment is well stocked as I habitually ‘shop for a storm.’
And snow doesn’t cause a meltdown here, as it seems to have done in the U.K.. Snowplows are out clearing the roads at practically the first sign of a flake. Shovels shearing the pavement can be heard in recurrent waves across the city streets. But London came to a standstill! Busses ceased to roll and underground rail service was disrupted. Parents were up in arms at school closings. Snowmen materialized across the country like icy triffids; and what is it with Brits and igloos? The Internet was rife with photos of these snowy caves, little apple-cheeked kids peering from inside freshly built igloos. Methinks with the recession some of these might actually be homes—at least until the spring thaw when cardboard will have to do.
Being a world super power, we here in the U.S. have the snow thing better under control by relying on a chubby groundhog’s special day to predict winter’s duration for us. While the cameras rolled, an irksome peremptory mayor with little patience for Staten Island Chuck’s indolent response to the proffered carrot, reached into the apathetic rodent’s den to drag him out and was rewarded with a finger-chomping from Chuck who was promptly charged with being a terrorist agent of Al Qaeda
On the subway ride downtown to Trader Joe’s I was intrigued by a conversation between three teenage boys, hip-hop from head to toe. Intrigued because for the longest time I could not make out what they were talking about, though they were cheerily audible and unthreatening. Their vocalizing suggested a melodic rap song and their bodies kept to the beat of their conversation. The expression “sofa king” came through again and again, padded by “yo, yo’s,” “ahm a gon” and to the middle-aged white woman—me—the casually delivered and still off-putting, “ma niga.”
At the check out in Trader Joe’s, the First Mate (as the clerks are known—cue eyeball roll) was a spinning, bright-eyed hipster who trilled a chipper, caffeinated discourse that dissolved over me like spun sugar in the rain. Too early in the day for such perkiness, I smiled and nodded at the young woman but would never be able to recall a thing she said.
Before heading into the subway at Union Square I made a quick detour into Virgin for the new Springsteen CD. As I left with my prize I engaged in the first intelligible discourse of the morning, with the security guard. He had seen me go directly to the display and so knew I had bought the CD. A husky Puerto Rican thirty-something guy with a serene manner, he asked did I know his (Springsteen’s) old stuff and flashed a smile, lit by a gold front tooth.
“Of course,” I smiled in return. “I love this guy.”
“Springsteen—he’s a good guy,” he practically hummed. “He’s changed. Some people don’t like that, but it’s good he does. It was that song, 41 Shots, you know about the guy the cops killed…”
“Amadou Dialo,” I interjected.
“Yeah. Why everyone get so down on Bruce? He hadda write that, you know?”
“I know.” We wished each other a good day, parting with a smile.
Language, like song, is about the music and the lyric. Sometimes I’m attracted to the music of a person’s language and can be drawn to a playmate before I listen more closely to the lyric between us that will prove difficult for a friendship. Our language holds the notes of our histories, our families; the events in our lives that have shaped us, both good and bad. Our bodies move with the dance in our language.
Even without the visual proof of voice and body movement, there are signs in the language of the written word. I only communicate in e-mail with a friend in Spain whom I have never met face-to-face. I don’t speak, write, or read Spanish. She can sometimes slip on the wrong phrase in English, which changes considerably the meaning of her words; sometimes hilariously so but sometimes less obviously and I am left wondering what she really meant. I have learned to understand these are times when I can be unafraid to question her because the friendship is the most important thing. And the reverse is true for her. American bellicosity can be questioned.
We can take care of the ‘lamb’ inside each of us.
My sister and I do not speak the same language and I suspect apart from a few moments, sadly forgotten, we never did. She tore at me with words like weapons, her language that of an angry operatic libretto. Our tiny, shared bedroom was cut through with a wall, though invisible, far more impenetrable then the one that used to split Berlin; me on the one side with my messy life of paints and drawings and books and she on the other side stuffing psychic cement into any chinks she spotted in the divide. Custodial memory places me as the one willing to be the peacemaker. But reconnecting with her was like stepping into the ring again and again, dancing around the argument, and the only thing that happens in a ring is a fight. The furious resonance of my mother’s harsh language teetered us all on the edge of war until one of us fell to pieces, victim of her bullet-like anger. My dad had a secret language, wrapped up in his bittersweet comedy. We were a Russian novelist’s dream—or nightmare.
The Mister arrived in New York twenty years ago fulminating confidence that was quickly derailed when the shock of a language he thought he had no trouble understanding turned out to be the English we speak here and not the entirely different English tongue of his native country. I watched as he slipped further inside himself, not really sure what was happening; charmed at first by colloquialisms and then infuriated with something like the curtness he perceived in our verbal shorthand. New to each other, I picked up a completely unfounded intolerance at times when he responded to something I might offer him with, “I’m not bothered.”
Sympathies were extracted from me only when I experienced my first visit across The Pond. This self-possessed New Yorker was quickly out of her depth. The ‘wind-up’ delivered by The Mister’s—and soon to be my—friends, in fact, wound me up. Old lady drivers edged their passive aggressive way into traffic, cutting us off, leaving with a smile and me in a fury. I was all bluster in a land of disarming self-deprecation. A thickly accented bartender in a charming pub in Wales sent me back to our table of friends, having failed at delivering our drinks order, and humbled because, even though he was speaking English, I could not decipher one note of his tune.
So, what do you do in every day life to understand the strangers and friends alike who are on your path at any given time? Well, as one would do in a foreign country you read the signs with eyes wide open. You listen to the music that is new to you with ears unplugged and you appreciate everyone’s individual dance.
A good friend of ours whom we call Fairy Godfather has been helping out a disabled friend and he suggested that you had to understand the lingo, especially when communicating to the psyche of a friend whose psyche has been damaged. “It becomes a non-verbal thing,” he declared. “You don’t want to use the wrong words.”
Words like, “I’m sorry” in English can be said with so many intonations to mean very different things: delivered in anger, sadly, humbly or with sarcasm. Not everyone is a lion who can take it and dish it out. Some are lambs that crave a little more guidance and tenderness. Sometimes we are both the lion and the lamb.
The Mister and I have found our language and it binds us freely to each other. We write songs and tell stories with those songs. From the beginning we have struggled to be aware of each other’s meaning and have stumbled often enough to pick our way more considerately in our collaboration. For us, it results in more satisfying songwriting. So, we have happily been revisiting earlier songs and reworking them in our stronger common language. It results in a better, more satisfying marriage. Our road to generosity of spirit and awareness has come with lots of practice, not without hurt feeling and tears and has still to be periodically revisited as the best way to live a life.
Take care, because there are lambs on the road.