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.

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