Between Words

I fell in love with stories before I had learned to speak. My grandmother told me the story of being a little girl coming home from school and being chased by a gaggle of particularly aggressive geese. As she neared her front gate her mother emerged from the kitchen, spied the geese, grabbed the hem of her apron, and drove the beasts back to their pond with two fierce flaps and the direct admonition: “Shoo!  Shoo!” I loved this story. I knew how small my grandmother felt against her waddling attackers. I loved that there was a race for the safety of home. And I loved that my great-grandmother dispersed the monsters with something so common and benign as an authoritatively wielded apron. Because I could not yet speak, I would retell the story using only mime, sound effects, and enthusiasm.

That was more or less my model for storytelling until I was fifteen and discovered The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. When I read the verse—

Day after day, day after day,

We stuck, nor breath nor motion;

As idle as a painted ship

Upon a painted ocean.

—I felt that unique synthesis of sound, rhythm, and meaning of which only language is uniquely capable. I had always wanted to sing, but I struggled to hold a tune. Now I understood that words alone could do the singing for me.

Five years later still I would read about Jacques Derrida deconstructing texts word by word. The French Philosopher seemed to suggest that when you pulled a story or essay apart, there was nothing there. How surprising! All that’s left between those words is the enthusiasm the writer had to put them on the page in the first place. Trying to hold that enthusiasm with something so puny as your brain is like trying to understand an orange with a calculator. To know it, you have to eat it up, and then it’s gone. If it was good you are left wanting more.

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