What surprises me is that I feel most at home in the non-verbal. We’re all born there and it seems I have not left. Often, I feel completely inarticulate. Every word feels dredged from the depths of my unconscious, seaweed clinging, that strange stink of rot and life conjoined. Other times, words fly out with such ease, I think of the frog revered by the Haida people for its transitions from water to land to air, through which it soars with legs and fingers spread wide.
At first, doing something useful with my life meant training myself for a job in the social sciences. Literature was just for fun. I’d spent most of my childhood immersed in books. I‘d lie in the top bunk, reading till late into the night, thrilled by a turn of phrase, sometimes even a single word, chosen to describe the way a cloud moves or a person’s off-hand gesture, thinking, yes, that is it exactly, the writer has captured it exactly. (James Joyce, describing a dog trotting away on the sun-drenched beach, wrote its twinkling shanks!) What was it about that perfect alignment of words with life? A veil slid off, and there was the world, luminous and real, stripped. Or perhaps I myself was bared so that the world touched me with its amazing reality, and in that moment, I was only the touching, the knowing, and nothing else…
Perhaps because books expanded me so far beyond my own personhood, I never connected them with my personal life or vocation. After college, when I dedicated myself to a “useful” job for a year, I discovered I could no longer breathe. Apparently, the choice was not work versus pleasure but life versus not. My boss remarked, with a wry smile, on the elegant style of my report on the economic ramifications of European unification. Clearly, the love of language was out of place. I thought of medieval monks and their manuscripts. I imagined accountants creating for their tables gorgeous borders of flowering vines, fantastical creatures frolicking and hiding and eating the fruits.
There was no problem with the report, but how could I go from 9 to 5 without breathing?