future of transport
Much of my day, and evening, is spent looking at words. It is a constant search for meaning, for the conveyance of an important understanding, feeling, imagining, insight. Something memorable. Something worth retelling, talking about, and thinking about.

When I was younger, I was a collector of words. I sorted and organized them and put them in folders for later recollection. Sometimes I would be astonished at what I found, later, thrown together in one folder: One plus one equals wonder.

These days I am more a browser of words, jaded, looking for more, looking for phrases, sentences, and, rarely, whole paragraphs that really pack a punch, tight, every word counting, saying so much more than the mere definition and aggregation of the constituent words. I am impatient, stingy, hard to please, now.

It is as if, when I was younger, I was foraging in a rich, biodiverse wilderness, full of exciting discoveries, and now I am scrounging in a scrub desert, a vast tundra, a wasteland of broken debris, things that no longer work.

I go through books, now, like an absent-minded man looking everywhere for something he’s lost, only to discover he’s forgotten what he’s looking for. I read hundreds of web pages, indifferently, rarely stopping to read more than headings or boldface quotes. Drowning in oceans of words, almost all brackish, saline, undrinkable.

Just as I find it harder and harder to find music I like enough to save, or artwork I like enough to look at twice, I am finding it harder and harder to find compositions that still have meaning to me. My recent learning is convincing me that much of the writing I once thought important is really not: The words of tragic, forlorn songs that once I found profound and stirring I now find pretentious and maudlin. The words of love songs and poems that once I found romantic and brave, I now see as social propaganda. 

There is not enough extraordinary writing. Not in songs, poems, fiction or non-fiction. This is nothing new. It’s just that with so many words everywhere, now, the finding of that rare well-crafted piece of work, that rare passage, is so much harder. (The word ‘passage’ comes from the Latin word meaning ‘step’, so passages, stories, are, literally, pathways that lead us forward, upwards. Voyages. Vehicles that transport.)

We need more passages like this one, from Jacqui Banaszynski’s article in the writer’s compendium Telling True Stories (thanks to Patti Digh for this one):

Stories are our prayers. Write and edit them with due reverence, even when the stories themselves are irreverent.

Stories are parables. Write and edit and tell yours with meaning, so each tale stands for a larger message, each story a guidepost on our collective journey.

Stories are history. Write and edit and tell yours with accuracy and understanding and context and with
unwavering devotion to the truth.

Stories are music. Write and edit and tell yours with pace and rhythm and flow. Throw in the dips and twirls that make them exciting but stay true to the core beat. Readers hear stories with their inner ear.

Stories are our soul. Write and edit and tell yours with your whole selves. Tell them as if they are all that matters. It matters that you do it as if thatís all there is.

Each such rare passage is like a spark in the dark, a cinder that roars suddenly into a blaze that turns night into day, a night light, a faerie protection that keeps away the demons, a candle that, flickering but never dying even in the howling wind, shows us the way forward.

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9 Responses to Words

  1. Chaitanya says:

    Words are symbols. abstractions. concepts. As John Zerzan says, symbolic thought abstracts reality. We humans look at the world through a screen of words and ideologies (religious, social, economic, scientific). Perhaps, this is what Krishnamurti meant when he said we interact with the world not afresh each moment but through a huge screen of past knowledge and past conditioning. All our endless discussions stay within the set-of-ideas permitted by language and past knowledge. I wonder if “Now time” is possible when we are in realm of words, language and thought — It seems impossible and contradictory, since thought itself means brining up some concept or word from the past. As Krishnamurti said “Thought is time”.It seems to me, the whole exercise of meditation etc, is to try to look at the world in a whole new way .. not in terms of concepts and ideas .. not through the screen .. but in terms of <obviously a word cannot express this>. Again, the best phrase i can think of is from Krishnamurti. “Thoughtless awareness”.Maybe this is what Buddha meant when he said: “If only we could see the miracle of a single flower, our whole life would change”.

  2. Mariella says:

    maybe “a new sense” is being born in you….. meaningless moments are usually the mother of new ways of perceiving at the world….

  3. Richard Bell says:

    I have been a “word” person my whole life, writing newspaper stories, press releases, blog items, books, magazine articles. I have read voraciously my whole life; at my most addicted, I subscribed to 50 magazines about environment, social change, fiction, etc. I have come to understand that once my reading had convinced me that humanity faced a global planetary environmental crisis, I read for many years in the hopes of finding some presentation of the crisis so compelling that almost anyone capable of reading it at all would be persuaded to change his or her life and start working to make things better. And there are writers who touch me deeply, like Wendell Berry, Gary Snyder, Terry Tempest Williams, Edward Hoagland, Bill McKibben….But I no longer believe that any writer, not matter how sublime, is likely to write a piece or book that can change the current world. Even books that are said to be world-changing rarely are. How many times have you read how Rachael Carson’s Silent Spring changed everything? The book had an enormous impact, but yet the tonnage of pesticides continues to grow, and dangerous pesticides remain on the market decades after the book’s publication. Reading these environmental authors now, I find myself more in a wistful mood, usually in agreement with much of what they say, while remembering how hard it is for anyone who writes, or in any other way tries to shift world consciousness away from the destructive model of unlimited economic growth, to reach new people. How much more do I need to know about the mess we’re in than I already know? If I’m being honest with myself, I don’t need to know even one more fact. But I am still left with the mystery: how is it possible for others who know what I know, or have access to what I know (like the Bush White House, for example) to continue to ignore all this information? And so I still find myself scanning the headlines, and the environmental news services, wondering if today I will see an article, an op-ed, a new scientific report, that breaks through the defenses that sustain our destructive economic practices. Take dead polar bears. Why would Bjorn Lomborg open his latest screed with a chapter in which he concludes that global warming is virtually no threat to polar bears? I conclude that the corporations that control the world have discovered through their endless market research that the concept of polar bears drowning at sea because the ice that sustained them was no longer there was cutting through the public’s apathy and ignorance, that here was a visual symbol that touched people deeply. I remember my heart being rent the first time I saw a picture of a polar bear swimming alone in a vast, ice-free sea. Having felt that heart-hurt, it was not surprising to find Lomborg, and similar global warming apologists, focusing so intently on denying that polar bears were in trouble, even claiming that any photos we might see of dead polar bears floating in the water were nothing more than green propaganda. We need words, but words are not going to deliver us from today’s world crisis. We have to fight the propaganda of the apologists for planetary destruction. But I find myself cutting back more and more on inputs about how bad things are, or will be, and more and more time on what I can do, and what people are doing, to make change, to relocalize, to cut back, to build zero energy buildings….I feel at times there is something almost pornographic in the appeal of climate/economic destruction scenarios, a perverse wallowing in visions of death and destruction. Fear is a great motivator, as George Bush has so successfully shown over the last years since 9/11. As any email or direct mail fundraiser can tell you, fear produces much more money than positive visions ever have for issues. I once wrote email for Oxfam America, and time after time, appeals for funds for disaster relief far outdistanced appeals for positive actions, like buying solar pumps in arid regions. (Obama’s online success shows that an appeal to reason and hope, properly delivered, can compete with fear, but most politicans are too inauthentic to deliver this message with enough credibility to equal Obama’s success.) I am deeply skeptical of the approach that environmental groups have taken by partnering with corporations, like the Sierra Club’s recent endorsement of Clorox’s Green Product cleaners, in return for which Sierra Club will get an undisclosed portion of the profits. Likewise all the so-called environmentalists who have taken the money and run down to Arkansas to work for Wal-Mart and its “greening” strategy. It appears only natural for humans to want and to expect tomorrow to be mostly like today, only with a few more gadgets and higher-speed internet access. Can’t we just turn all of our cars into all-electric cars and get on it with (leaving aside the unpleasant fact that regardless of what they are powered by, automobiles are arguably the most destructive technology ever massively deployed by human beings, in terms of the destruction of habitat, the shattering of community, the acceleration of species extinction, etc.)Words will only get us so far. We aren’t going to stop using them, but there are enough words on the table to know that drastic changes are coming. More than words, we need actions by the hundreds of millions, from the individual level to the UN. (By way of disclosure, I work with the Post Carbon Institute (www.postcarbon.org), which focuses on community efforts to relocalize the production of energy, food, and goods.)

  4. Melisa Christensen says:

    A picture is worth a thousand words.

  5. Jon Husband says:

    @ Richard Bell …I used to more or less believe that “knowledge is power”.Not so much any more. If that were the case, there is so much information (and yes, some knowledge) of that which has been done in the name of so many causes / peoples that is demonstrably false, propaganda, etc.It is that which commands or diverts attention now, that has “power”.

  6. Siona says:

    I love words; this should be obvious by now. But I remember, vividly, the day when I realized that language does–and ought–not have a monopoly on meaning. There is richness elsewhere, too.I think the problem is not so much a surplus of words, but a dearth of deeper experience, or sensuousness, to back them. And yes, for me, too, stories are important. I think the world is full of stories waiting to be told. Perhaps we just need more listeners.

  7. Dave:Have you ever read Jorge Luis Borges, the argentine writer? I read it and keep reading it. I find his writing full of brilliant passages, besides of being, in a general level, extraordinary. His essays are at the same time entertaining, enjoyable, easy to follow, and profound. His short stories are exquisite. He blended thoughts and feelings in a unique manner. He became blind, and started to write more poetry, because the rhythm and the rhyme helped him working his ideas with his mind. In “Poema de los dones” (spanish for “Poem of the gifts”) he wrote: “Let neither tear nor reproach besmirch this declaration of the mastery of God who, with magnificent irony, granted me both the gift of books and the night.” His sonnet “La lluvia” (“The rain”) he narrates a raining afternoon, in which the sound of raindrops awakens longings of his childhood, and “the whished-for voice of his father coming home, who has not die”.I think reading Borges could help you build meaning (because I believe meaning is built, not found) through emotions and thought. Besides that, I think you will love him. If you happen to read it, I’d like to know what you think of him.Best regards,Juan Pablo Martínez.

  8. Dave Pollard says:

    Thank you all for your kind words on my critique of words. I think words have always been used more to deceive, and to persuade otherwise, than to inform, which is why their imprecision and abstractness is advantageous. We can make any word ‘mean’ anything, if we abuse language enough (e.g. Bush’s Orwellian program names). Meanwhile, the things that words purport to portray ‘mean’ simply and complexly just what they are. They need no words to do that.

  9. I do as you do, Dave. I am constantly checking my favorite aggregator – reddit – for the latest information out there. But I jump quickly from page to page. There is lots of interesting information out there – but very few writers have something to say which originates within their own ideas. Most internet authors are simply using narrative writing – they are retelling an event that they heard about, or saw. That’s a very easy form of writing. Only people who muse a lot and write copiously, will have ideas and insights of their own to communicate and to put into their prose.I also think, however, that there’s an extended stage of life that thinkers go through, when they don’t really want to spend time enjoying a novel. They want to spend time collecting information, and musing with their own pen, instead.

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