The right word may be effective, but no word was ever as effective as a rightly timed pause. ~Mark Twain
From an early age, I was fascinated by different languages. When asked what superpower I preferred, as bored children are wont to be asked, invariably I chose the ability to speak in every language and dialect. While watching the Matrix, I was so distracted by the possibility of downloading foreign languages into my somewhat learning-resistant brain, I lost track of the plot line.
The source of this fascination is a love of communicating. Of understanding others and being understood by them. To say that my fascination was exacerbated by a feeling of rarely being truly understood would be an understatement.
My love of communicating has shaped a number of my decisions, including pursuing writing as a career despite the cautionary words of my 7th grade English teach: “Let’s face it, Hollenstein, writing isn’t your strong suit.” I also studied French for 12 years and have studied Italian for the last year, mostly so that I can communicate with my boyfriend’s family and friends but also out of pure love of the language.
Words are my thing. My comfort zone. Yet I often find myself frustrated by their limitations.
I have been in Sicily for almost 2 weeks now. One might think my Italian language skills would increase with every day, but in fact, I hit a wall of sorts after about a week. I found myself butting up against my limits, slowed by the need to flip through my mini-dictionary or ask “Come si dice…”
I exhausted the list of topics with which I had some conversational comfort: thank you for having me here, the food is delicious, the weather is wonderful, how the kids have grown, my family is doing well, I continue to study Italian but the subjunctive might be my undoing, thank you again. And even in my comfort zones, I am never 100% sure if my words are landing quite right.
Even if I am grammatically correct, however, I often feel as if my true meaning may not be kept intact. As if the depth of what I feel fails to be communicated. My frustration with words when speaking in Italian is acute, a gnawing anxiety that complicates the process of comprehending multiple conversations in Italian and Sicilian dialect as well as translating my English thoughts into Italian responses. But a frustration with words in general, even those in English, of which I appear to have a firm grasp, exists on a more chronic level.
I feel remarkably inept, for example, at communicating how much I love my family, how I empathize with and appreciate them even (or perhaps especially) through times of tension and strain, that I also value what’s important to them, and respect how hard they work to make a good life. Words also fail to capture my feelings for my boyfriend, whose patience and bravery has helped me to become more patient and brave with myself, our relationship, and the outside world. I am damn near useless at communicating how thankful I am for Susan Piver, meditation, and Buddhist teachings. Even as I type the words, I am frustrated by my failure to imbue them with the full meaning of my intentions.
As a result, I am growing to appreciate wordlessness. Moments I spend with family, friends, and loved ones; coordinating what will be a much-appreciated visit; a shared experience without conversation; a homemade meal intended as a gesture of thanks; a meaningful look; or just allowing myself to feel the full weight of my love and appreciation for someone while silently sending them that intention.
The moments on my meditation cushion – or whatever perch I might find while away from home – also serve as a reminder: no words can be powerful too.