Drawing the ruffled leaf-edges of the rose-scented geranium whose limbs suddenly seemed so gracefully curved and stretched that I had to try and record them. The shapes are so delicate and complicated but general patterns show up as I go. Repeated proportions and curve-lines; each leaf is a fractal image. Paying so much attention to the tiniest lines, my concentration focuses even my usually-wandering imagination on the rocky green island-shores I’m drawing.

And it sounds silly, but the lines and shapes, the corners and curves start to take on meanings with rich depths, as if they’re words or bites of sandwich. I’m not just drawing, but conversing. This level of too-close-to-mysticism makes me feel self-conscious and I tie my thoughts back to reality. Those leaf-edge shapes do have meaning – what rules governed the way the leaf grew, the way the edges moved and split out along the veins? There are such important patterns below those of the superficial appearance of the plant.

I see diagrams of spinal-column development, cells dividing and rolling, veins pushing like tree-roots through tissue doubling over and across itself, fingers and toes splitting and stretching.


Sometimes I’ll be crouching on the floor reading a cd’s liner notes, or in the shower enjoying the hot steam, or laying on the couch with my face over a book, and I’ll become unburied in what I’m experiencing; I’ll hear a low rumble or a soft click and feel that the world has changed completely while I’ve been absorbed. Completely and scarily. And I hesitate, and concentrate, and look up to see.

a trap door in the sand

I like how language is a very basic kind of set theory. Whenever a word is said or heard, read or written, a circle is drawn in our consciousness. A word is a circle that knows what is inside it-and everything else in the universe is outside. The stuff inside is, in a way, the complete definition of the word. Words categorize the universe. Sometimes, I guess, the “word” is more a unit comprised of several words. Like in the phrase “a trap door in the sand” you’re drawing circles:

* a circle for “sand.” Everything in the universe that you could define as sand goes inside the circle. Everything else goes outside. It’s sand and not-sand.
* a circle for “in.” Everything in the universe that means the state of being inside something else. The states of in-ness and not-in-ness.
* a circle for “trap door.” You could start by drawing a circle for all doors, and then creating a smaller circle within that circle for all doors that can be classified as “trap” doors. That’s the way modifiers would look in this visual set-based description of language?

Don’t bug me about where articles (a, the) and stuff fall into it-I’m not trying to prove anything. I just like the shape of the idea. Of course it’s incomplete-the only people who get meticulously complete and defensive at this kind of thing are philosophy grad students and people looking for book deals. That doesn’t mean I don’t want to explore it more.

like snowflakes in museums

The words we use aren’t really real. They’re a tool, they’re a construct. They’re like objects we hand back and forth to each other to put pictures in each other’s head. Words aren’t the bottom layer of language-the pictures and thoughts in your head are. Words themselves are a couple of floors up.

How hard is it to hold a thought in your head when you don’t have the words to express it? I can feel thoughts like that inside myself all the time, and they dissolve before I can get a grip on them. Because I can’t find the right words. It’s confusing-we have this big dictionary full of words that we call the English language, right?

On one hand, I’m saying those words are just sounds we’ve invented and all kind of agreed to use to stand for different thoughts and feelings, objects and actions, ideas and states.

But on the other hand, if there’s a thought I have that no word in the English language matches, the thought can’t really exist. I can’t understand its meaning. Instead, I get random shapes & colors in my head that filll in for the words I don’t have – but my brain doesn’t know what to do with those. My brain only knows what to do with words. Words are my tools, but they’re also my prison.

So will I have richer thoughts, live a more vivid life as a human if I learn lots of languages? Assuming, of course, that different languages have different priorities on what they give words to. But I think that’s a safe bet.

New words come into our language every year to accommodate the changing human experience. Would we create a richer, more aware culture capable of having more interesting and creative ideas if we mounted a campaign to infiltrate our language with more and more good new words?

Like a word for when you’re frustrated at the crowded grocery store but you choose not to let that frustration turn into ugliness. Instead you smile at a stranger or let them go in front of you or just say “excuse me” as you brush past in the aisle. If there were a verb just for that, would we be more conscious of how important it is to do that? Would we do it more often? Would we make the world a better place by giving more words to good things that currently take a sentence or two to describe?

Madeline L’Engle wrote in “A Circle of Quiet:”

The more limited our language is, the more limited we are; the more limited the literature we give to our children, the more limited their capacity to respond, and therefore, in their turn, to create. The more our vocabulary is controlled, the less we will be able to think for ourselves. We do think in words, and the fewer words we know, the more restricted our thoughts. As our vocabulary expands, so does our power to think…If we limit and distort language, we limit and distort personality.

I’m glad I took the time to hunt down that quote, because the book is fantastic. But I think she just said what I’ve been trying to in fewer, better words! I’m okay with that-our thoughts and ideas are influenced by other people’s, but that doesn’t mean they’re not worth having. They’re all the more worth having. We each need to discover the world for ourselves in order to develop as responsible beings; hearing and reading other people is a part of that discovery.