Tuesday, December 30, 2014


If you hadn't noticed, I have a confession to make. I am a polyglot, having various degrees of competence in about a dozen languages. As an infant, I spent my first year in the household of my maternal grandparents along with my mother, because our little family (I am first-born) had no home of our own. Dad was in Korea when I was born and didn't see me till he got back about a year later.

In that extended family household, a variety of languages could be heard daily: English, Polish, German, Russian, and occasionally others. I attribute my facility with languages, especially my ability to corral unusual sounds, from hearing this buzzing around me in that first year. And later, when we did get our own apartment (this is inner city Chicago in the 1950s) I was still exposed to even more languages. Certainly Italian, Greek and Yiddish get added to the pile. It's no wonder I was speaking Polish as a pre-teen, though my English never had a foreign accent.

When I got old enough to bike it out of my ethnic ghetto neighborhood to the outside world where I could find a well-stocked public library, along with juvenile science fiction I was bringing home books on Hebrew and Russian, the first two languages I taught myself at age eleven or twelve. I didn't stick to either very long, just long enough to learn the alphabets and their sounds, but they were there waiting for me when, as an adult, I went back and gave them another try. (I only read Russian, not speak it, and when I read it aloud, it's with a Polish accent. Sheesh!)

To me, language is a mysterious subset of a greater human capacity for detecting patterns and meaning in our environment. (When I took an IQ test a decade or so ago, I was classified as a 'visual mathematician' because of my adeptness at recognizing all sorts of rhythms and patterns in numbers, words and objects.) I think the border between spoken language and various categories of symbolism is fuzzy and very permeable if it exists at all.

And it is exactly in the subtle regions between all these linguistic and symbolic kingdoms that we sometimes find meeting places between us humans and other animal and even plant species. It is stories like saints preaching to fish, or reprimanding wolves, or talking to birds, or to forest trees (or their imagined or imaginary spirits) that tantalise us with the possibility that communication is a corridor of meaning between beings both rational and irrational (if there is such a category).

I am not quite insane yet (tho 'still crazy after all these years') but one evening as I lay on my sofa in front of a large glass window facing the sparsely wooded green way across the street, a solitary, tall pine and I seemed to communicate, its slowly moving branches, its head bowing from time to time, its swaying against the dusk of a sun already below the horizon, all spoke to me, even answering my pondering mind as I extended it my greetings, admiration, and thanks.

Afterwards, had someone asked me what I was doing, I'd not have hesitated to say I was talking to the tree, and it to me, and if pressed, I think I could have even summarised our conversation.

Perhaps there really is a Narnia somewhere, after all!

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