I’m not going to wallow in the now ordinary stuckness of life as I stare at the maw of the apocalypse; who doesn’t expect fire, flood, and loss of cable?
No, I sit today with six, count ‘em SIX, unfinished, unwilling, ungrateful projects eating my soul and shaking their figurative accusing fists as I open each in turn and walk away. Words, literally fail me, and with that statement I reel from the messes I’ve already made to an entirely new project, an attempt to find words that roll up their sleeves and get the job done. Some are imported, some uncovered right here at home, and a few are inventions at the end that have to do with facing the jaws of the voracious beast.
Maybe words can help.
Several years ago I enjoyed writing a piece celebrating words which exist in Japan but have not arrived on our shores. The two that I’ve adopted in my everyday life are “Monoaware”, the pathos of things – the awareness of the impermanence of all things and the gentle sadness and wistfulness at their passing, and “Wabi-sabi” – a way of living that focuses on finding beauty within the imperfections of life and peacefully accepting the natural cycle of growth and decay.
Loved the growth, and here comes the decay.
These are not the only linguistic gifts that have reached us from distant shores. A quick jaunt through European lexicons provides a snapshot of attitudes which I believe we share but have thus far not been able to put into our own words.
“Sang-Froid” comes immediately to mind. Literally translated as cold blood, the expression identifies poise, competence and composure under pressure. Our use of ‘cold blooded ‘as in cold blooded killer, on the other hand, describes someone who may be competent, but is reptilian without compassion; cold blooded is ruthless, heartless, callous. Hot blooded, on the other hand, does not suggest compassion. James Bond has sang-froid, but at least in the Ian Fleming iteration (00 Misogynist) Bond is also hot blooded. Go figure.
An increasingly useful German expression, “Schadenfreude”, allows the guilty pleasure of enjoying someone else’s misfortune. The term literally means harm joy, a pretty nifty clarification but clumsy in the moment as this rough translation will illustrate.
Why are you smiling as the shark attacks your employer?
I am enjoying harm joy as he many times of me fun made.
I guess we should include the various iterations of “it is what it is”, formerly a fairly innocuous truism, now freighted with partisan animosity. More gently reassuring? “Que Sera Sera”? “What will be will be” – Fatalistic but musical. In Polish the analog would be (please excuse absence of proper accent) “Co ma wiseiec nie utonie”, clumsily translated as “What is to hang won’t drown”. See, if you’re meant to be hanged, you’re not going out by drowning. That’s pretty dark, whereas the Turkish “Kismet” doesn’t necessarily mean doom; Kismet might simply be circumstance, i.e.a more romantic expression of, “it is what it is.
I need to look in my own backyard for the right words or expressions to kick my intentions into action, but, no surprise, it’s time for a digression, in this case very loosely attached to how words move around and one in particular that I used in the last paragraph. I’ve written elsewhere about “swim, swam, I have swum” and “drink, drank, I have drunk”, but ducked out on “hung” and “hanged”. Inquiring minds may not want to know, but in case the grammar police are hounding you, I came up with a little ditty when teaching kids that seemed to have some impact – “The stockings were hung by the chimney with care, but Santa was hanged with both feet in the air”. Just as my many witticisms about eating pandas fell flat (Panda Express?), so my hanging Santa kicks vividly but unhappily in the memory of depressed generations of students.
Ah well, off we go.
There are all sorts of regional or contrived locutions that are cute enough to use once or twice, but which cloy when frequently repeated. I’ll put “cattywampus” in that category, and “higgledy-piggledy”, and “osculate”. Why “willy-nilly” should have less cloy than “higgledy-piggledy” I can’t say, but try using each in ordinary conversation and see how you feel.
No comfort or resolution in higgledy-piggedly.
I’m interested in words than have some juice, a lingering kick to them. Contemporary columnists raging against the times for example have identified public figures as mendacious, craven, pusillanimous, recreant poltroons, and I agree, but where’s the impact in calling a cowardly self-serving politician a poltroon? Seems sort of bloodless.
I also need a slightly more elevated term for the state of mind we’ve experienced in the last few years. “Zeitgeist” works as a short form term for the prevailing tone of the times, but it is essentially neutral. The Germans, of course, introspects that they are, also give us “Weltschmerz”, a word that describes a profound and abiding sadness about the state of the world in the moment, melancholy weariness. The “Schmertz” in the expression conveys a state beyond cerebral ennui; “schmertz” is pain.
Do we not have a folksy analog for weltschmerz? Are we incapable of speaking for ourselves?
Welcome to the maw.
I blush in presenting this term, but it has been used in national broadcast journalism, so I’m taking a chance in describing the zeitgeist in our vernacular as a “shit show”. The ball of terminally tangled yarn that is our public life has so many corrosive threads that we lose track and focus in trying to express exactly what it is that has brought us world pain. Can I point to a strand or two? Sure, but as soon as I describe Covid denial, I am inevitably pulled into strident avowal of a flat earth and condemnation of blood sucking pederasts in Hollywood.
Tom Hanks? Really?
Day by day I find a new episode of the “shit show” and sink more deeply into schmertz.
There is an expression more graphic and obscene that describes the same condition with considerable force, a phrase I will loosely translate as copulation in a clump, clutch, bundle, or bunch.
Delicate readers may find my new coinage a more acceptable substitute in times of frustration.
How ‘bout we call the days of our current lives “Soul Trauma”? We could go with “Soul Rupture” or “Spirit Dismemberment”, but trauma suggests an injury so profound that the victim is beyond pain though not lifeless. Soul or spirit however, can take considerable punishment; after all, we can’t even point to the exact spot where it resides. Whatever it is or isn’t, spirit apparently latches on to other spirits, not simply one, a soulmate, but many, soulmates. In German they would be Seelendeverwandten, in Spanish Alma Gemelas, in French Ames Soeurs.
I’m perking up a bit as I write thinking about “alma”, a word so rich in meaning that it can denote kindness, nourishment, feeding of the soul, and lifting of spirit. A friend of mine cared for his partner in her last days. He described their life as “walking each other home”. It helps right now to think of myself as just walking home in your company with kindness.
That’s enough for right now. I’ll get back to work.