Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Breaking the Chain

A friend of mine forwards an e-mail to me, Subject: Keep her going – hilarious! I quickly scroll through the body of the e-mail, a series of photos that would bring a smile to any woman's face: a mouse with a lid that flips up to reveal a compact mirror, make-up included; a hammer in the shape of a shoe, part of a tool set that includes a screwdriver that could double as a knife; a toilet seat chained down. All the way at the bottom is an animated woman walking the world for breast cancer.

Someone else forwards an e-mail, Passing the Purple Hat, in celebration of Women's History Month and in memory of Erma Bombeck. An 'angel' has been sent my way. She brings me classic Erma Bombeck reminders about casting off the petty things that keep me from living my life to the fullest. She asks me to pass the purple hat along to women I love. Good things will happen if I do.

I consider forwarding the missive along with the caveat: I don't usually do this (which, by implication means that sometimes I do.) It would be a simple act of good will; take a quick look through my contacts, choose some names, hit send. Instead I find myself hesitating, thinking back to the days when chain letters had to be copied verbatim, no simple hitting of a button to send them along. Copying words makes you think about them, just a little more.

, an early form of armor made from small links of steel or iron, was designed to keep a sword from penetrating. Originally known as chain maille (French, derived from the Latin macula, "mesh of a net"), the soldier wearing it might still suffer from the force of a blow, but he would not be cut. The development of plate armor diminished the need for chainmail.

From a linguistic standpoint, the maille that gave rise to armor and today gives us the modern variant in the form of jewelry and handbags, is no more than a cousin to mail, derived from the middle Dutch word for traveling bag (i.e., the kind used by mail carriers). But in a fast-paced communication mode that forces us to read between the consonants, I can opt to slow down, make the metaphoric leap between the mesh of a net and the mail circulating around the world with electronic speed. And instead of hitting the forward button, I might (with only a modicum of guilt at breaking the chain) share a poem by Dorianne Laux:

Enough Music
Sometimes, when we're on a long drive,
and we've talked enough and listened
to enough music and stopped twice,
once to eat, once to see the view,
we fall into this rhythm of silence.
It swings back and forth between us
like a rope over a lake.
Maybe it's what we don't say
that saves us.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Limited Sun

Everything is nuance. The postage-stamp-size weather preview on the front page of the New York Times informs me that today there will be limited sunshine. I look out my window. The sun, hidden by cloud cover, casts a milky glow onto the fresh snow. Any hour now (3 p.m., according to, the clouds will break, the sun will peek through, maybe even start melting the snow. In Greek mythology Helios is responsible for giving us sunlight. In Norse mythology it is Sunna, in Shinto lore she is Amaterasu. Only in a world governed more by the exactitude of science than the metaphorical framework of mythology could sunlight be trumped by language.

If sunshine every really becomes limited, can I stop wearing sunblock? Would I even want to? Or would the grim reality of a sun deficient or constrained in some way afflict me with a variation of SAD (solar affective disorder), or worse, a full-blown depression. Everything is nuance, le mot juste. Partly sunny (which, by implication, means partly cloudy) suggests a trope of a totally different hue. There is a softness to the phrase, a perception of possibility; even a little sun is better than a limited one.

Which brings me to the heart of the matter, a reflection on the nature of language (in general) and writing (in particular). More than one wise person has said, "It's not what you say, it's how you say it." And one particularly brilliant writer (Joan Didion) many years ago wrote an essay that addresses, with Didion-esque insight, the question of "Why I Write. " The essay appeared in The Writer on Her Work, edited by Janet Sternburg. Didion admits to stealing the title from George Orwell: "One reason I stole it was that I like the sound of the words: Why I Write. There you have three short unambiguous words that share a sound, and the sound they share is this:
In many ways writing is the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind. It's an aggressive, even a hostile act. You can disguise its aggressiveness all you want with veils of subordinate clauses and qualifiers and tentative subjunctives, with ellipses and evasions – with the whole manner of intimating rather than claiming, of alluding rather than stating – but there's no getting around the fact that setting words on paper is the tactic of a secret bully, an invasion, an imposition of the writer's sensibility on the reader's most private space."

Even if there is some overstatement in equating writer with bully, the "three short unambiguous words" that set the essay in motion strike a deep, resonant note. And Didion's bully, being a 'secret' one, insinuates herself into my consciousness, even years after first reading the essay. Why, after all, do I write? In a world apparently filled now with more writers than readers, where do I find my place in this growing band of bullies? I could answer very simply, three words of my own: I just do. And if that isn't enough, I can remind myself how I love the puzzle of piecing words together, the cadences of sentences and paragraphs, the images demanding that I take note.