This one might sound pretentious, but I don’t care.
Sarah and I brought probably 15 or so books along with us to Makassar. You might remember that I listed some of them earlier on this blog. We heard books in English were difficult to find in Indonesia, and we couldn’t be without good reading while we were away. One in particular that I brought along is a little book by the great American poet Robert Pinsky. I’ll pick up this book once or twice a week and read a couple of poems.
I just re-read Pinsky’s “The Want Bone” not too long ago, a short poem from the book of the same name. It has stuck with me for several days now. In the first stanza, he writes, “The dried mouthbones of a shark in the hot swale/Gaped on nothing but sand on either side.” It’s a great little piece about desire and longing written in such a beautiful and simple way. It’s a poem I read a bit differently in Makassar than in Portland.
This last time I read it was one of those moments when I really understood the power of language. When what was communicated was greater than what was just in the words. And being so far from a Western culture I know and understand (for the most part), it’s times like these that keep me grounded and oriented in my life.
There are times when the richness of life actually can be carried with words – taking language beyond just dictionary definitions. Though I’m obviously not Robert Pinsky, I feel something of what he felt during the time he was writing this poem. It’s humbling sometimes to be in the midst of language pure as this. It’s got little to do with the author himself, because he did not invent the language or the feelings. These exist to some degree whether he or I are alive or not. He was able to tap into his existence in an honest and powerful and profound way.
Earlier this week, I was teaching a group of more advanced students – late teens, early twenties – about comparative adjectives and adverbs. (That’s just jargon for words like better, easier, more beautifully.) We did an exercise in which I wrote random nouns on a small piece of paper – like pencil, police officer, David Beckem. I (somewhat) randomly picked two nouns and then wrote an adjective/adverb on the board – like easy, fun, interesting. Then the students had to write a sentence correctly using both nouns and the comparative adjective/adverb. For instance, if I drew pencil and computer from the stack, and wrote easy on the board, they might write: “A pencil is easier to use than a computer.”
It’s a good exercise because it takes foreign language students beyond fill-in-the-blank types of stuff and forces them to create sentences. At the same time they begin to find humor and think in English.
We worked on this for a while with varying results of effectiveness. Then toward the end, one young woman named Nia wrote, “The color of a bird is more beautiful than a taxi sign lamp.” This is a very good use of English for someone at her level, and I was instantly taken by how simple and profound it was. It went beyond just correct grammar and usage. It was a good sentence.
Crazy as this might sound, after she read her sentence I felt the same thing I did when reading the Pinsky poem. Nia’s little sentence had power of its own and communicated something pure, something greater than just words on paper. I felt something she also felt.
It’s refreshing to have this memory. After two months of living in a new culture all the romance is gone. I now get angry with the gawkers, the scammers, and the plain old ill-mannered lazy creeps that seem to make up so much of Indonesia. But now in the middle of all these bad feelings, I have a supernatural moment of sorts. Something common that goes far beyond any culture.
The Creation story for Muslims and Christians and Jews is the same. God spoke. It’s interesting to think that language, like God, did not need to be created in this story. They both simply always were. Language is part of us too. No one is without it – whether it’s English, Indonesian, or non-verbal. Something so many traditions give as an attribute of God is also an attribute of ours. There’s a bit of the supernatural in language that is in all of us, a bit of God’s – Allah’s – character. Coming from a Christian upbringing and now being in the most populous Muslim nation in the world, it’s nice to know we have this in common. This incredible attribute.