The Mysteries of Language

“The Tower of Babel by P Bruegel the Elder 051a” by Andras Fulop is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 

I can’t understand a word. I like the sound of it, but Turkish is a language far beyond my linguistic acumen. The marks and accents on the vowels and consonants feel familiar, though. I’m visiting North American friends who recently moved to southern Turkey and are currently studying the language, so I ask my friends what languages it’s related to.

A quick Google search gets us our answer. It’s part of the Turkic language family that shows up across Central Asia. Hungarian also carries a significant number of Turkic words. Ah, Hungarian. That’s what it looks like, though it’s missing the identifying “gy” construction I see in so many words there.

As the days go by I start to navigate the words slightly—I learn that the squiggle mark under a “c” turns it to a “ch” sound and that one under an “s” turns it to an “sh.” That there are two versions of the letter “i,” one with a dot and one without. The dot is a long “eee” sound, without is a short “ih” sound. I proudly order a “piliç şiş” a few days later, impressing our waiter and getting myself a chicken shish kabob out of it. My friend had to tell me that “piliç” meant “chick” but I knew how to pronounce it.

I still don’t understand though. I hear over and over in conversation, “Evet, evet,” and I gather that it means, “I see,” or “I understand,” or “I agree,” but I couldn’t tell you the actual translation of the word without using Google—and my phone has no data in this country. So I walk through town in with a strange sort of deafness, hearing sounds, but lacking meaning.

I wonder if this is how it felt when God confused the languages of the builders of the tower of Babel. Suddenly, instead of understanding they simply heard sounds. I remember standing on a train when I visited Poland and thinking the whole language seemed to be made up of the sound “sh,” “ch,” “cz,” and “sz.” I felt like every other word was “checzesheszik.” That’s not a word, by the way.

I can imagine standing there on the tower, my chisel striking off excess stone from the block before me, chatting with my neighbor who’s doing the same work one block over, and then suddenly hearing just, “checzesheszik.”

“Seni anlamıyorum,” I’d reply.

And my neighbor would say, “Nie rozumiem cię.”

And we’d drop our chisels in shock and look around, crying out for just one person to understand us.

There’s something strangely comforting about understanding words when you’ve been surrounded by sounds you can’t understand for days. Hearing your language cut through the cloud of noise and settle on your eardrums with sounds that travel to your brain and translate into meaning. You look about, lock eyes with the other speaker of your language across the train  car, and smile. You’ve found an ally in the wilderness.

I can think of no more effective way of pushing humankind to spread out across the land than confusing their languages. The allies would find each other and then find their way away from the tower, seeking a place where they could hear meaning, not just sound.

My dad likes to say that some people think in the New Creation we’ll all speak one language, but what if instead of that, everyone will speak their own language, but we’ll all understand. I love that picture. I think it echoes Paul’s words to the Corinthian church, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Cor. 13:12).

Now I hear in a noise chamber confusedly, but then I’ll hear meaning. Now I understand in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood.

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Lamentations for Today

This is a collection of laments I wrote for a worship service I led with a friend in my church. Modern worship is a bit too positive sometimes, but biblical worship makes room for disappointment, frustration, and mourning. Modern worship usually praises the singer as much as the Sung To, while these laments—written topically for those things that get us down —remind us that He’s God, we’re not, and that’s okay. Really, it’s okay. Even when it totally is not okay, it’s still okay. Or it’s going to be. The ship may totally go down with all of us on it, but it will still be okay. Okay?

When those enthroned usurp
Sanctity from those in their care
And when the lowly seek status
In yet more enthroning –
Lord, have mercy on us.

When deep-rooted wisdom is pruned by short-cutted data,
When the senses are dulled by the sensual,
When Creation is blurred by the created
And the created grow bored with Creation –
Lord, have mercy on us.

When we listen in chambers of silence,
When we search through tunnels that grow,
When we hope against nature, believe against science,
And stand firm in the face of a daunting approach –
Lord, have mercy on us.

When we count our days like apples
Dropping from the brittle branches of drought,
When a child goes with more unrealized tomorrows
Than remembered yesterdays,
When our bodies no longer carry or recall
Or agree to nourish our weight –
Lord, have mercy on us.

When the cupboards we maintenance
Are as bare as brand new,
When the fields we tend
Yield nothing or less,
When a paycheck is the substance
Of things hoped and unheld –
Lord, have mercy on us.

When I simply cannot be asked,
When tragedy holds harmony with gossip,
When I prefer screens to windows, sleek skin to whole hearts,
Pabst Blue Ribbon and pumpkin spice
To pouring out spirit or providing sanctuary,
When the nation, the state, the city, my people
Can all go blank-verb themselves –
Lord, have mercy on us.

When sleep beyond rest,
When obscurity be my bed,
When the locust devours my ties to the truth
And when I open the window for his return –
Lord, have mercy on us.

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Inspiration for Another Day

“Day 48 – Dishes, dishes” by Sarah Cady is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 

You do not have to write an entire book all in one day. You do not have to get every word right the first time you plunk the little keys that put the letters that make a sentence on the screen. You do not have to finish a whole page. You do not have to have sunshine, or feel tranquil, or even brush your teeth. The laundry can wait, the dishes can wait, and your stomach will not start to feel better until after you sit down at your desk. You know all these things, already. You’re just stubborn, and whiny, and anxious; and you like your sentences to be built on multiples of three.

Or maybe you’re the kind of writer who wants to have a shiny new book, yet doesn’t want to do all the work it takes to have a shiny new book. Or maybe you’re not opposed to the work, you just don’t know where to begin. You have so many ideas and it’s hard to commit to just one thing, so you get inside your head and imagine all the things that could go wrong with your first chapter, or the narrative arc, or your tendency to only come up with three items in a list before moving on to the next topic.

Because maybe you don’t have what it takes for the long haul. Maybe your attention span is too short, or your ideas are too shallow, or you just don’t want to find out what happens when you write a whole book that nobody wants to read. Or buy. Or publish. So, why bother with the work in the first place?

After all, you’re feeling kind of hungry now, and you’ve already made it halfway through the page. In fact, this is probably the three hundred word mark, right here. Close. 298. (Dang. This is harder than it looks.)

So, now what? This is usually where a good idea first starts to show its face, but you’ll have to keep ignoring that churning in your stomach, and now your fingers are starting to shake, too. Ah, what the heck! Go eat a bowl of cereal; nobody’s going to read this post anyway. Because there’s no point to it. It’s just a bunch of gibberish you came up with to make yourself do the thing, hit the keys, and fill up the blank space looking back at you. What good will it do anyone to see what it’s really like when you get started with a new project?

But then again, maybe you’ll have a change of heart after you eat that bowl of cereal. Maybe low blood sugar was your real enemy all along. That and being so cold that you had to warm up your tea for the third time this morning. So what if you spilled it when you opened the microwave and cursed loud enough for the dog to wake up from her nap? That’s beside the point, because now you’ve remembered the other people out there trying to get their work done today. The other writers who might need reminding that this real life is the only place we have to get our work done.

Though we often wish it would, the real work doesn’t happen at writers’ conferences, or in daydreams, or overlooking a small villa at the beach. Well, not for anyone other than James Patterson.

For the rest of us, the work happens at our kitchen tables—with dirty dishes in the sink and unfolded laundry on the couch. Whether the weather is great or terrible. It happens when we push through the doubt and anxiety and fear of failure that plague each one of us. It happens when we tap that first key, and decide what word will come next. It happens with faith, perseverance, and surrender—just like the rest of life. And like lots of other good, good things; sometimes it happens best, a little at a time.

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Bottled Emotions

“_DSC5537” by sayo-tsu is licensed under CC CC0 1.0 

(On the Anniversary of My Mother’s Death)

When I turned seven my mother began
explaining the colors. Took the bottle
down from the medicine cabinet, emptied
it out on a white glass plate, rummaged
around for reading glasses and then
picked out a pale green jelly bean.

This is laughter, she said, this is the milk
inside your popcorn, the old-fashioned
elevators floating your stomach, the suck
of white water that swallows your oars and
the pinch of new skates just a half size too
small, the night you’re introduced to the ice.

This is the flicker of vanilla flame when electricity’s
out, this is your first and second and 22nd time
wrecking your snowboard, this is your half-breed
husky chasing invisible squirrels in his sleep and
this is the slap of your deposit forfeited when
the landlord discovers spray painted galaxies
on the bedroom ceiling. She gave it to me and it
tasted like Sunkist lime, which felt right.

On my eighth birthday I ate bright yellow
piña colada and she told me it was loneliness,
extra twenties in your wallet and sunny
afternoons in the park with too perfectly
trained pets, plus an unexpected afternoon
off spent ordering only one drink.

At nine I tasted danger as strawberry jam;
wasn’t much good at math but I counted
the rest, found there were sixty-six colors to go
and decided my mother had started too late.

Since then I’ve known ennui and anger and
ease and the feeling you get when you stare
mesmerized at the shapes the cream clouds
in your coffee are making and think about
all of the places that flicker over the airport’s
departure time screens, cities of strangers
still not expecting you to come.

Some years I wrote some of them down –
how ecstasy smarts like new blood in your
bedsheets, how trust is like wild geese
winging through mist, how the feeling of
missing the bus in time for the first snowfall
of the year goes down like cream soda.

But there are so many colors and not enough
birthdays. When I left home there were still
fifty-seven jelly beans in the bottle, fifty-seven
unfamiliar flavors floating out there for me
to run into, not knowing how to recognize them,
not having anyone to teach me their tastes. I wish
you could have stayed I wish I could have stayed
longer I think maybe I would have been better.

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