on words

Ever since I was little, I’ve collected words. Each year at Christmas, my parents slipped the Guinness Book of World Records into my stocking, and I’d excitedly flip to the page with that year’s longest word. It was always the same, the ever-catchy pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis. The first year, I wrote it on flash cards until I memorized it. Each year after, I said it to anyone who’d listen (and plenty who didn’t). Soon, I just started storing away words that I savored the sound of — crestfallen, gumption, woebegone. I repeated them like a lullaby, muttering them to myself like a somewhat deranged, mini radio commentator (side note: if it hasn’t become abundantly clear at this point, I am an only child).

I dreamed of jobs that had to do with stringing words together —poets, speechwriters. Words, I felt, were meant to be said aloud. They had weight, heft, shape. They gained meaning when you said them. I thought words should always be spoken. Maya Angelou once said “words are things,” and it remains one of the truest things I’ve heard.

But travel has introduced me to an ever-changing relationship with words. At my Workaway in the mountains of Ireland, I was surrounded by people for whom words were more primal. There, each volunteer came mostly to learn English — from Germany, from Italy, from France, from South Korea. 

So, when I spoke, they listened. Every word a lesson in how to sound American. Or, Californian at least. Why do you say “oh my gosh” instead of “oh my god”? Why do you say “things” instead of “stuff”? Is there a difference between “quick” and “fast”? I found myself asking the same questions of the two Spanish girls, hanging on every word they said, a constant lesson in their entire language. 

Most of the time, I didn’t know the answer to the questions asked of me. But it made me pause before I spoke. I’ve always loved using words in unexpected contexts, so I was more careful here. More literal. People were listening. When you’re surrounded by people absorbing your language — be it students or toddlers — you’re even more deeply aware that words are things. They stick.  So, as someone who oftentimes defines myself by my playful relationship to words, I thought it would be difficult to find my footing when both sides were limited by a language barrier. When words were literal.  But, in these weeks amongst language learners and traveling in countries where I am the language outsider, I’ve been pleasantly surprised. I have been surprised by both my sense of self and my sense of connection — for the first time despite words, not because of them.

Because sometimes, words are the spaces in between. What happens in the pause. The bowl of peanuts offered up by the deaf Italian-Kenyan man who wants us to be well-fed during our nightly movie in the hostel. My Italian roommate who makes vegetarian carbonara the night my uncle dies, who offers up a home-cooked meal thousands of miles from California. My German roommate who hand writes 6 pages of notes in green pencil of where to go and what to eat on my German travels, passing them to me in that night of grief. The fresh piece of whole wheat bread the teenage boy makes, offering it to me from the hostel oven. The Zimbabwaean-Irish hostel manager who shrugs and laughs as he watches me write on the misty cold pastures. 

They are wordless gestures, gestures I’ve found to mean more than I thought.

Years ago, in the months after my dad passed away, I struggled to hear the gestures offered to me. They weren’t words; so, what was there to hear? It took time to notice them. The bag of mangoes left on my doorstep from a childhood friend. The carafe of coffee delivered wordlessly for my mom and me each morning. The way my best friend held me as I wept on our dorm room floor. These were the spaces in between. These were the breaths between words. They gave me life.

If grief taught me the weight and salve of silence, travel has taught me the power of simplicity, of unabashed directness. There have been moments of the in-between, moments when I’ve had to make do with less. Fewer words, fewer puns, fewer crutches of sarcasm. When words are stripped to their most primal meanings, I sometimes feared my core would crumble. What space was there for sarcasm, for playful wit, when I could barely remember the past tense in German? Words stood on spindly legs, pieced together solely to convey urgent truths. I’m lonely. I’m tired. Where the hell is the coffee?!

This past week in Prague, my mom and I gallivanted with a dear friend from Slovakia. She’s easily the most fluent person I know in a second language. She and I share a love of the English language and stringing together unexpected sentences. We complete each other’s puns and relish our dark sense of humor. I’ve known her for over 10 years now, and words have always brought us back together. I was reminded that my relationship with words will always bring me back to myself, but it’s not actually the core of who I am.

Because in her city and in these last few days, I’ve had moments of vulnerable, hilarious silence. In the hushed reverence in the Dresden church as my mom and I listened to Vivaldi; of the haphazard lip-syncing to “It’s Raining Men” with a table of drunk Germans at a bar; of the long, quiet late night walk through Prague with a new friend, savoring the misty lamplights. The words I used in those moments were spare and direct in ways I’m not used to. It was just the essentials. And I felt deeply myself.

on the winds of change

When I set out on this journey, there were two images that always stuck in the back of my mind. One was the protagonist in my favorite movie as a teenager, Chocolat. Vianne and her daughter roam the countryside opening chocolateries (as you do in postwar Europe), only moving when the great north wind sends gusts so strong that Vianne knows it’s time yet again to pack their things and go (we also know this is happening because her hair becomes perfectly tousled as she stares wistfully out windows, and a forlorn flute plays in the distance).  The second is Mary Poppins. Aside from being the only movie where you can watch Dick Van Dyke terrifyingly dance with penguins, it features one of my favorite chords at the opening of a movie. Bert, in his bizarre Cockney, sings about the winds coming from the east, a change brewing. Cue Mary’s famous, windy entrance.

The “winds of change” has been a phrase bouncing around in my head for many years now. It’s the name I gave the gut feeling that was brewing, the feeling I knew something needed to change. For awhile, I changed the small things. I briefly gave up coffee (HUGE MISTAKE), I started spin classes (surprisingly not awful), I adopted a cat (the best cat in all the land, shoutout to Toby). But, somewhere deep down, I knew what needed to change was the big stuff. Last March, I finally took a cue from Vianne and Mary. I packed up my bags and left because it felt right to.

In the time since I left in March, I’ve certainly listened to those winds often. I’ve changed course, I’ve come home; hell, I even got a tattoo of Mary on my ribcage (I committed hardcore to this imagery, apparently).

But, then I arrived in the hills of Ireland. You see, the thing about my interpretation of the “winds of change” idea is that it was largely internal. I was drawn to these women who knew their gut and acted upon it. It wasn’t about responding to actual wind; the extreme hair-tousling moments in those movies seemed a little excessive, and I thought a distraction from the inner language of instinct. Resolve.

A few nights ago, on a particularly wintry evening here in Enniskerry, my roommates and I huddled in our TV room and watched Chocolat. I hadn’t seen it in years and, like any good story, I heard it differently this time. Vianne, in all her comings and goings, was reacting just as much to the story the landscape was telling her, as much as to the voice within. She let that landscape shape her.

As a student always situated at the crossroads of literature and history, it’s a concept I’ve long adored. I remember reading Borges and Marquez in high school, fastidiously consulting my dictionary, fascinated with realismo mágico’s relationship with time. In college, I fortuitously took a class with an English professor who shared his undying love of Thomas Hardy with us. Mayor of Casterbridge, 100 años de soledad, Labyrinths — these were odes to the cyclical nature of time. When you ground your words in a singular place but you move down the axis of time, you see how stories repeat. People impress themselves on the world around them, but the world makes its mark on you. The landscape leaves an imprint; the stories it carries and the things it remembers linger on the surface. They can change you.

In my 9 months of travel, I’ve lived and worked in particularly remote areas. Miles from local villages, tucked on hillsides, waking up to cow bells and distant church towers. I’ve been in places where it’s easier, more inviting, to read the land for the stories it can share. At home, especially in the Bay Area, there is little focus on the land, much less its history. Land is for groundbreaking, for new beginnings. 

But in the places I’ve been, it’s about places that haven’t changed but for time. It’s about landscapes that haven’t been marked by physical developments, but by temporal ones. It’s a subtler story.

One of my favorite poets, John O’Donohue, hails from western Ireland. He writes often of this place and of its landscape. In my all time favorite interview (from On Being, which likely everyone has heard me wax poetic about at this point), he says, off-the-cuff about his native Ireland: “What amazes me about landscape [is that] landscape recalls you into a mindful mode of stillness, solitude, and silence where you can truly receive time.”

Every afternoon, after we finish our chores, my roommates and I go for a walk in the mountains. We’re nestled along the Wicklow Way, a famous rambler’s paradise in southern Ireland. The sun sets around 4, but I don’t seem to mind the darkness. The hours of daylight are greener, mistier, and more rich than most landscapes I’ve lived in. Most days, we walk in silence. We listen to the sheep, the wind, the hills. I wonder what stories haunt these hills. I wonder what story I’m now a part of. It’s easy to forget what this land remembers.

I recently listened to the first scene of Mary Poppins again, when Bert sings his eery opening chord. I’d never really noticed it before — I was distracted by this whole winds thing — but he ends with: “Can’t put me finger/on what lies in store/but I feel what’s to happen/all happened before.”

In this quest to listen more deeply to my gut, I’d forgotten about listening to a far more primal voice — and one, given my parenting, just as deeply in my bones: history. My story isn’t singular. It’s part of a bigger landscape, a story likely repeating. Though I only root myself in places for a short while, I’ve realized it’s my job to deeply plant myself when I do land somewhere, so I can stretch along that axis of time. So I can learn other histories and be shaped not just by my own resolve, but by the stories that came before, the stories these lands remember.

And, just perhaps, generations from now, another woman on the precipice of 30 will wander these hills and be moved by the winds of change.