The Gospel of John opens with, “In the beginning was the Word…”
But our individual human beginnings are always without words. Each and every one of us comes into the world a tiny, new being — naked and wordless.
In the womb, and then afterward, once we’ve emerged into the world and taken our first breath, we experience things. First, there’s the familiar rhythm and cozy, warm darkness of the womb. Then later comes a veritable cacophony of experiences: light, heat, cold, rough, soft, sour, wet, sweet — all manner of new sensations.
I wonder how they feel, these experiences without words? What do we do with them?
Maybe we don’t do anything. Maybe we’re just there, in the beginning. Just breathe, suck, sleep, shit, pee, feel, be.
In the beginning, the particular and the universal are one. This moment is the ONLY moment. Our mother’s face is the ONLY face. We know nothing other than what is right here right now, and it is everything.
Then, gradually, things change. We begin to recognize faces. What, there’s not just one face? There are more? Yikes!
Moments are followed by other, different moments. Daytime. Nighttime. Patterns emerge. We start wanting to make sense of things. We start wanting words. We attach names to objects in our world. We learn that having names for things really helps when we want something. And gradually, those names give shape to the worlds that we live and move and breathe in.
But here’s the thing I believe about names: as much as they give us, they take away in equal measure. Names, words, they’re certainly necessary and useful, but they diminish what they describe. Pinned down, circumscribed, something of the life goes out of the thing.
Remember how the particular and the universal were as one, back in the beginning? That’s what we can’t capture and hold with words. Here’s Wordsworth wrestling with it in his “Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood”:
There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparelled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it hath been of yore;—
Turn wheresoe’er I may,
By night or day.
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.
Or Thomas Wolfe…
Remembering speechlessly we seek the great forgotten language, the lost lane-end into heaven, a stone, a leaf, an unfound door. Where? When?
So here we are with our words, seeking the wordless.
Imperfect and often beside the point, they’re the tools we have as we move through this world filled with faces and experiences and moments.
Poetry gives me hope. Poetry and also meditation.
Powerful paths for discovering those magical places where, maybe just for a moment, the particular and the universal connect.
It’s almost always a process of subtraction. And it always helps.