On words that mean nothing

I’m teaching English again, which I’ve learned to love like a mother tongue. Don’t misunderstand me, I love Greek, but becoming so intimate with a language other than your own offers you the luxury of entering a different realm of thought. I teach my students, both children and adults, not to compare, although I can’t help but do it myself sometimes. “You must never think in Greek and translate,” I tell them; somewhat ironic as I did my undergraduate degree in translation, and fiercely appropriate that all they do now is ask me for the Greek equivalent of words, and I can only offer them meanings (most of the time, anyway).

Since 1998 English has been a guiding force, a bridge between two worlds. More than a decade of studies, a thousand books, and a PhD in English Literature later, I feel at ease with a language I have toiled over but can safely say I’ve now made my metaphorical bitch. Being in control of another linguistic kingdom gives you freer range over yours. Nuances become hurricanes, the thesaurus being your first line of defence. I do many things wrong, or poorly; my selection of words is not one of them. Another ironic fun fact being that I’ve always heard the phrase “why won’t you speak?”

I wrote instead, limited words, in Greek, in small poems. When these stopped being enough I turned to the long form of prose and switched language, inadvertently, unconsciously, and overnight. The last poem I wrote is my favourite; one I am certain I will never surpass. Maybe I had accepted my defeat; maybe I had peaked, linguistically. Since then, my expression has been more prolific, my stanzas have turned into complete sentences, but one thing has remained the same: as someone recently told me, nothing (I write) ever ends. It sounded strange and absurd the first time, but then it began to make sense.

I don’t think I believe in endings, not in the typical sense, anyway. The remnants are always there. The atoms never leave our universe. That is why the semicolon is my favourite punctuation mark: it looks like the end, but it isn’t. It never is. Things fade, they never end, even when we destroy them ourselves, gunpowder residue seeps through our pores. Believe it or not, in the past year I’ve spoken less but said more than I ever have. Regrettably, however, I’ve also sat through three-hour conversations, after which I was parched for meaning, some hint of essence, a tiny shred of significance.

There are pretty words, and empty words, there are simple and eloquent words, there are easy words, difficult ones, and some that are borderline unbearable; these are the ones we never use on ourselves, only others. The absolute beauty and horror being that they are all the same, as they come from a fountain of well-structured soupçons that form on our tongues as we verbalize thoughts. They are all within and outside of us; they belong to us inside our heads and we gradually become their slaves as they are uttered. We are their creators, and they our destroyers.

What have I truly learned from the hundreds of books whose pages I’ve turned? We write in a desperate attempt to bring order to chaos, in spite of the fact that as we look at it, it looks back at us and laughs. We must appreciate it for what it is and realize that what we’re really doing is looking at a mirror. 

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