Tuesday, February 24, 2015

lingering litost: or, the geography of yearning

I become keenly aware of a feeling I've never experienced before. It comes from outside me, fills me and the room. It's longing, in a shade I've never known before: for something I can't name but that I know viscerally is unbounded, an object or state that's protean, divine. [...] it's a melancholy laced with joy and expectation. [...] These opposite qualities make the feeling nearly unbearably bittersweet, and also so transporting that I never want it to end. Even if I could figure out what it is I'm in longing for, I wouldn't want the desire to be satisfied, as that would kill the feeling.
--Dreaming in Hindi, Katherine Russell Rich

And I'm sitting in the warm, decadent living room, which would look like any other New York old money house wife's, except that there are the unicorn tapestries hanging merrily on the wall, lending a touch of infinity to the dimensions of the room, and decorating the space with an air of mysticism.

Well, what do you mean by joy? asked the man. And I automatically, in my head, turned the word to Joy, because C.S. Lewis and Northerness and That's Just the language I know.

In my head, I knew exactly what Joy was and what it wasn't. I knew that it was more majestic and stern and permanent than happiness. And I knew that Joy was most often found in what other people would call pain. In what could easily be misery, there are usually the greatest opportunities to find Joy. But I was struggling to find words to describe exactly what I meant now. Because what I meant now was not how I had learned what Joy meant so many years ago.

But what I meant now was Joy as the antithesis of mournful pride; Joy as the peaceful knowledge that one is loved, even in the midst of hardship. Particularly, perhaps, in the midst of hardship, Joy is the belief deeper than knowing that I am loved.

Then, I remember what Joy felt like: the first longing I ever had that I wished could go on forever, the longing that felt too large for me to grasp. My small young mind was inundated with a sense of goodness too large for it to comprehend, and how it wished it could understand it, and that longing to understand was Joy. That insatiable thirst was Joy. 

When I first read C.S. Lewis' description of Joy, I remember that first, primal image bursting again into my heat, breaking all the reservoirs of desire open once again, as I nodded in assent and wonder, astounded that another human had language to so perfectly describe the numinous emotion that I had felt once long ago.

As I read Katherine Russell Rich's Dreaming in Hindi, I found the passage once again that made my heart beat faster, and at the same time stop. This. I know this feeling. I know this tugging at your heart by something larger than your comprehension. Ms. Rich's book is a memoir of her time in India, when she immersed herself into the dry desert heat of Rajasthan as a sort of second baptism: emerging from her endeavor to learn a second language a new woman.

Her book is a fascinating examination of how we learn a second language, and how language itself, and these other languages that we absorb, can change the way we see the world. Her adventures are familiar because they remind me of my own adventures in India, and the one day when I realized I'd hardly spoken in English at all. But more importantly, now, I'm reminded of the adventure we all embark on each and every day: to learn to hear the world through someone else's words.

Too often, I expect the Truth to sound much like my voice, to speak a familiar cadence, and to use the same sentence structure as I do. I imagine that their grammar of beauty and narrative style are much like mine. I am surprised and usually disconcerted when they are not identical to mine.

 Each day presents the new adventure of learning to add new and deeper definitions to words whose meanings you thought were set in stone. Each day presents the opportunity for another baptism, of seeing the world with new eyes. Each day is a foray into the foreign and an abandonment of the familiar.


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