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Outside of Language

Monday May 18, 2015

Outside Of LanguageI study creative writing at the University of Washington; my classes are small, and my peers make jokes about Shakespeare. Between fanciful themes and critical theory, the English major enriches my everyday—and oversaturates it. Coffee shops are the stuff of deconstruction. Dog parks give rise to poetry. Trips to the grocery store brim with literature!

“That’ll do, pig.”

Language. It empowers us, and deepens our lives with meaning. Yet, what could also be more hollow, more alienating?

A foreign tongue seems to equate a foreign self. Have you ever worn that blankness, felt it drape over your face, because you couldn’t understand the French conductor, who just announced that your train is leaving in five minutes with or without its bewildered American passengers?

Because you didn’t know how to say, “Can you help me”?

Or because you do know how—and nothing comes?

In pursuing literature’s scope, then, I must also explore the exclusivity—the limitations—of language as we think of it. But where this really gets interesting is back at the grocery store; “interesting”, a daughter’s euphemism for Parkinson’s. My dad’s great struggle is with his speech. Sometimes a stutter motors out; public outings are strained. Discouraged, my dad tends to minimize social interactions. Language tends to keep him inside.

Among other needs—like sports—food gets him out. In face of empty cupboards and sweet cravings (a mutual affliction), we swing by Trader Joe’s. An array of produce and chocolate fills our basket. At the checkout stand, I take up my usual place as interpreter, or representative, between my dad and the cashier.

One day, however, the usual dynamic was thrown: I forgot to grab bananas. We were next in line, so I made a quick dash—I assumed urgency for my dad. His reluctance to communicate with others had settled into a norm.

But instead of embarrassed tension, I came back to find a flow. Their movements—card-swipery, egg-finessing, cash-backing—fused with understanding. By the time our reusable bags were stuffed, I only made a corny crack about bananas. The three of us had exchanged a handful of words; we left with a feeling of authenticity.

My surprise is unfounded: as a part-time worker, proficient in customer service, I know that stepping out of weather-recaps and grunts of conversation is more often a relief than uncomfortable. Shoot! As an English major, I know that “unusual” interactions create space for something interesting—something genuine in its difference.

Of course, that’s literature spilling over again. Just as I’m privileged to get lost in France, I’m likewise free to observe the beauty of difficulty, and the benefits of PD at TJ’s. Liberated from speech, the cashier and my dad engaged in, yes, compassion and patience, but more significantly, connection. I hope to illuminate language as fluid; as diverse; as expressive. I hope to share this with my dad, and with anyone who feels outside of meaning.

I acquire language through English courses and a household with Parkinson’s. They’re two of many little globes of life: I can thank literature and difference for their expanding radiance.

Bette JaneBette Jane
NWPF Guest Blogger

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