Words slip and slide. I discovered that a long time ago. In writing essays for high school, papers for college, accounts of trips and adventures, I found the words take over and dictate the story, not the other way around, and the story doesn’t turn out the way you intended it even when you sometimes, almost by accident, choose the right word. Much is the same with life itself.
A story should be a pattern, a jigsaw, of tightly fitting words with a point to it. But the words slip and slide, refuse to mesh, and the meaning you intended disappears or wasn’t there in the first place. Evanescent as the dew before the morning sun. Writing can be very frustrating.
Maybe there was no point in the first place. It was just a string of words. English is notorious as a language that has a very large and rich vocabulary but a loose construction. You can pile phrase on top of phrase with very little connection. You can start a sentence in many different ways. And for words, the language of Shakespeare and Chaucer offers a huge vocabulary with an infinite variance and subtlety of meaning.
It’s a good language for poetry and oratory but not so good for written orders and exact descriptions. In high school I studied Latin, which is a very exact language with a limited vocabulary but a rigid sentence construction, generally following the sequence of subject, verb and object. Part of our work was translating Latin into English. Fairly easy. The tough bit was translating English into Latin. Sometimes it could not be done. You suspected the English phrases had no meaning in the first place. I’m reminded of that in reading the wordy, often incomprehensible agenda items listed in a city council or school district agenda.
Beginners in the Latin language start with reading Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars because that famous Roman general wrote simply and clearly about the wars he led against the Gauls in what is now Germany. His stuff is simple to translate. But he was a practical soldier writing factual history.
While words seem to slip and slide, I suspect life does so also. Every time you try to put a direction and purpose on it, it skids off sideways.
“Life is messy. And I embrace it in all its messiness,” as the actor Brad Pitt is supposed to have said about the time of his divorce from Jennifer Aniston.
Case in point. I did not mean to come to America. I could have gone to Russia or Canada. I planned to visit the West Indies.
Growing up in England as the scholarly son of elementary school teachers, I followed at least in my youth a conventional, apparently predestined pattern, high school, college and then the British Navy; there was a compulsory two years military service (the draft) at that time.
For military service, Navy authorities offered me the chance to learn Russian (after Latin, that would be a breeze, they said), at a London college and then go to Russia as an interpreter. As an alternative since I was interested in flying but failed the pilot test, I could be commissioned and train in Canada as an aerial navigator.
But no, I’d been reading the romantic sea stories of Joseph Conrad — and wanted to go to sea or nothing. So I finished an able seaman on the lower deck of a destroyer. Hard, physical labor and not enough sleep. A most unscholarly experience. But it did wonders for my posture, my father said.
Released from the Navy and still young and foolish, I idled around in London, got my first job as a journalist at a magazine, then signed up for a sailing vessel bound for the West Indies. That fell through. The captain decamped with the funds and the owner’s girlfriend. Since I was at a loose end and still determined to travel, my sister said the West Indies was noisily seeking independence from England but suggested instead visiting California where she’d recently taken a trip. Assuming at that time California would be just a stop on a trip around the world, I came to America and have been here ever since.
See what I mean about life slipping and sliding.
John Branch is editor of The Riverbank News and a staff reporter for The Oakdale Leader and The Escalon Times. He may be reached at email@example.com or 847-3021.