I mentioned it already, but I just finished reading “The woman warrior: Memoirs of a girlhood among ghosts” by Maxine Hong Kingston. The story, like many stories about English-as-a-second-language immigrants, talks about the difficulty of her voice. She has trouble talking, knowing what to say. She even is told that her voice is wrong, like a squeaking duck.

At one point, she attacks a fellow Chinese American schoolmate for not talking.

A persons’ voice is a tricky thing. I speak English as a first language. Lucky me! It should be easy for me. But I remember, I remember so well, how difficult it was growing up. I knew so clearly in my head what I wanted to say, what I wanted to have or to be given, and how impossible it seemed to convey that information.

I believe that the Chinese girl in the book was burdened with so much meaning, she felt it impossible to express in mere words. So many layers of complications and luck ramifications that the flimsy container of English words could never contain the meaning required.

I so often feel that way now. When I look at a certain juxtaposition of ideas or objects, I can see the meaning created by those particular things being in that arrangement. Each person, idea, or object has its own meaning, but perfectly aligned with those individual meaning, a new meaning is showing itself in how those things came together.

Sometimes the new meaning is so incredible I catch my breath with excitement. Revelation!

But how to show the pattern to others? It would seem to require the invention of a new language to tell.

Industrious people that we are, we human beings have indeed invented a new language. We have developed complicated symbology to express the relationship of things to themselves and to other things. We have words for mathematical concepts like integers and square roots. We have symbols for chemistry like the periodic table of elements. Computer science has 3letter acronyms for everything!

Each discipline has a steep slope of specialized words to communicate their ideas. The higher you climb this mountain, the more you know. You will be able to communicate in tight, terse language huge complex ideas, but you will be understood by fewer and fewer people.

How sad. It takes another person understanding what you say to make saying things worthwhile. Speaking and being heard are connected. It is important that speech be comprehensible.

So often I have felt my tongue turn numb, as I try to say something important to a person who does not understand. As I speak and begin to explain concepts that I worked hard to order in my own head, the person who hears looks at me blankly or stares at me as if I were a raving lunatic. All reason leaves my speech, and my mouth fumbles on into a final “Never mind.”

Is reason and order so fragile that a look can destroy it? Another person’s immovable block of understanding, or even their refusal to understand can scatter the carefully arranged thoughts with so little care.

Of course, the thoughts are not destroyed. They simply need regrouping. But what power people hold over one another. Even pretended disinterest can destroy thought, or pretended interest can give room for ideas to coalesce.


I got to visit my dad’s side of the family this weekend. They are the middle Californians. Some of them were complaining about “Kids these days”. Kids these days, apparently, do not help with harvesting the crops like they used to. Like all of THEM did. What’s the world coming to?

Some of my cousins made the point that there are child labor laws now. Good point. Those pesticides are only for adults!

They were all extremely congratulatory of my degree. “What was your major again? English?”

My aunt said it best. “What are you going to do with your degree? It’s fine to be educated, but it’s important to be able to eat. What are you going to DO? You can’t eat a diploma!”

One of the cousins said, “Well, you can, but only once.”

I took a deep breath and looked over the fence. I talked about how, when you live frugally, making a living is not as hard as it looks. I said that I was looking to do something meaningful, which would be exciting and focus on the things I love. I said I wanted to help people see the beauty of literature and affect the culture of America, but that I wasn’t sure what form that would take.

She looked at me blankly and said, “Are you going to be a teacher?”

My family loves me. She wants to make sure that I will be okay.

That’s what I had to tell myself the whole way home.

All of us liberal arts majors have the same conversation after graduation, I’m sure.