Up and Leaving

A few weeks ago I walked out of the cabin where Annie and Rio were playing on the couch, climbed into my car, and got ready to drive to nowhere in particular. I paused for a moment before turning the key to ask myself what I was actually doing.

It’s not that Rio and Annie were bothering me. In fact, we’d been having a great day up at the lake in Connecticut. The truth I came to is that I needed a break  — I knew it from a tightness just under my skin — and physically removing myself from my family is the best way I’ve found to do this. Some might disengage on the sly, turning to the phone, or the television, or the computer; others might cruise along on autopilot, pretending with a nod here and an “uh-huh” there to be listening, all the while living internally in another world. No, when I’m on, I’m on, but then I need to hit the off switch. In those moments, mobility calls.

I hesitate to play gender games, but I wonder if there’s something male to this penchant for departure. Pablo Neruda once wrote, “It so happens I’m tired of just being a man. . . .  / A whiff from a barbershop does it: I yell bloody murder. / All I ask is a little vacation from things: from boulders and woolens, / from gardens, institutional projects, merchandise, / eyeglasses, elevators — I’d rather not look at them. . . . / I stroll and keep cool, in my eyes and my shoes / and my rage and oblivion.”

It’s one thing to take a harmless “little vacation”; it’s another to avoid difficult situations by orchestrating great escapes. I’ve left many a room with a slam of the door right when the going got tough. I remember one day when I was 13 and over at my friend Sam’s house. He and I were fledgling punk rockers and wanted our appearances to match our burgeoning fuck-you attitudes. Sam’s grandfather had been a barber and still had his razor. We convinced him to give us “buzz cuts,” and I asked for a “number one.” I arrived home that evening with a cut so short you could see my scalp. My mom couldn’t hide her disappointment. “That looks terrible!” she exclaimed, and rather than fight or reason it out I left the house with a slam and a scream, spending the next hour on foot on Pasadena’s sidewalks, cursing the meddling world and yet feeling freed from it through my ambling.

Rather than deal with my mom, I just left; how many men had I seen do the same at critical moments, finding some odd errand to do or simply retreating within their own homes to basement workshops where they’d tinker on projects no one else seemed to take as seriously as they did? Although most of the fathers I know now are more communicative than many of the men who came before us, it seems the penchant for sequestering behind some safe wall lives on.

It’s hard for me to know when this yen for distance will arrive, but I know when it comes: I start losing patience and interest in my loved ones and jump at chances to leave the house, as though the milk we’re out of were some precious lifeblood. What men do on these outings, whether to the store or to the shed, is largely mysterious, even to them it seems. Tom Waits has a great song, “What’s He Building in There?” to which I respond, “I’m not quite sure!”

Perhaps the point for the man is less the activity and more the time away: there is a power to severing proximity’s cord for a while, feeling for a few moments as though there is nothing tying us to the world. I wonder if this is partially evolutionary: sure, wives and children need us, but not in the biological way they need each other. I remember feeling almost jealous of Annie when she was nursing Rio: he needed her milk in a way that nothing I had to offer could compare. Could men’s sudden exits actually be a defense mechanism springing from their fear of being left?

Perhaps the best I can do is to make these sojourns out into the world interesting, to gain something other than just the fleeting pleasure of separation — to have something to share with Annie and Rio when I return. You can’t believe what I found! isn’t a bad sentiment to aspire to. And on the other hand, I’ve also learned that sometimes I stand to gain when I resist the urge to leave; that the maddening details of home are not always hassles to flee but rather messy treasures that family life offers up.

If I’m really honest, I’d say what often prompts me to leave is not difficulty or fatigue but more often intimacy; in the mornings, just as Annie and Rio start to cuddle, I usually leave the room to get my day started. I seem in these moments uncomfortable with the closeness that comes so readily to them. The fact is, they’ve practiced their intimacy, while I too often avoid it. This makes no rational sense, and when I’m able to catch myself and stay in the room for just a few extra minutes, I experience a familial love that often patches whatever holes I have in me.

Rilke wrote a beautiful poem that grapples with the push-pull a father faces:

Sometimes a man stands up during supper
and walks outdoors, and keeps on walking,
because of a church that stands somewhere in the East.

And his children say blessings on him as if he were dead.

And another man, who remains inside his own house,
dies there, inside the dishes and in the glasses,
so that his children have to go far out into the world
toward that same church, which he forgot.

I hope that Rio sees a man who seeks both the promise of distant churches and the opportunity for growth in the house he lives in. May he learn to pull off the great balancing act of embracing both.

Deep in the Batch

With Annie and Rio in California for two weeks, I’ve been submerged in what a friend of mine once referred to as “Deep Batch.” It’s what happens to a man when his partner and kids are gone.

Deep Batch usually begins with a sweet honeymoon period where I am absolutely delighted to have no one to answer to. I get to do exactly what I want to do! What a change from the compromise inherent to cohabitation and parenting, blessed beings that they are. For days I lounged around, proudly not checking items off my overly long to-do list (I’ll have so much time on my hands, I’d thought during a pious moment days prior,  I’ll be able to accomplish so much! Ha.) I was messier than usual, resorting to my childhood ways of not really cleaning up after myself in the moment and instead leaving it for a furious cleaning session later on. I…sunk…into…shit.

There’s something to be said for this. I am dutiful, functional, and organized normally, so there’s a profound release in lying back deep into the sofa and doing absolutely nothing constructive. I started contemplating sloths.

Just then I heard a loud knock and opened the door to find two friends who visit sometimes: Stimulation and Anesthesia. You may have met them. I knew they’d come.

“What the hell are you doing on the couch?” they sneered. “You look terrible. Get something decent on and join us: we’re going to a fantastic party.”

Off we went.

It was truly fun for a while. But then the rush of the ride started to wear off. As much as indulgence can sound like “Me! Me! Me!” ultimately it’s not self-serving. And so I returned to where I was when I first touched down solo in Raleigh days before: the black hole of me. I’m not comfortable there! Never have been. It’s easier to check out or run away.

The next night I watched the film Another Year, which has a scene where a family is burying a mother. Only a handful of people are there, and a stranger presides over the short ceremony. The mother’s only son comes late and misses the service. Suddenly I started thinking of my own father, how alone he is, and I began to worry that his end might be like this. I felt my breath catch and I immediately recoiled, as though touching the fear that was coming up in my solitude would injure me. That night (and the subsequent two) I dreamed that I was tripping over monstrous snakes that appeared out of nowhere. In one, I jumped back in terror as a monstrous copperhead slithered in front of me, only to watch Annie and our good friend Kate swoop in calmly, put the snake in a bag, and take it away. What am I so scared of?

Pema Chödrön has referred to the art of finding “cool loneliness”: those sublime moments when we grab a flashlight and crawl into the hole of ourselves and accept what we find scrawled on the walls. I believe the term was first coined by D.H. Lawrence, who wrote in Women in Love, “What did people matter altogether? There was this perfect cool loneliness, so lovely and fresh and unexplored….Here was his world, he wanted nobody and nothing but the lovely, subtle, responsive vegetation, and himself, his own living self.”

Why was this kind of loneliness so elusive and fleeting? I’ve had moments of deep union with myself when I have stuck with my fear and traveled alone into my own abyss. Why could I not choose that again more readily?

I do not know. I do know that if I am patient I usually find my way there. If I overact to the times I fail, or run, then I get stuck on recrimination and am therefore closed to the moments when I do stand my ground, dig in, and come out holding the slippery light. And so I decided to surrender to my own vagaries and imperfections — if you are on a roller coaster, enjoy the damn ride. It was then that those slivers of light began to come in through the cracks: watching live music and feeling joy swell inside me from the sheer talent of the performers on stage, that warmth finally released in slow tears I didn’t bother to wipe away. Later that same night, an impromptu dance with a stranger: lively, daring, sensual. And the day I helped a friend; the gazpacho I made for my own delight; the many dips in the river to wipe off all the grime from the fight.

And then the sweetest ones came. Alone in the living room, listening to a song Annie and I sing together, and feeling an ache so deep for her I can barely believe it’s real. And then the next day, finding a card Rio made for me, the scrawled letters and the way they spelled “I will owas love you Timuthe.” It is then I truly miss them: not in that needy way of requiring their anchors, but in knowing they are allies and partners on this jagged path we each ultimately face alone.

The Portable Divine

Sunday morning I was enjoying a dip in the river with Rio and two kids from the neighborhood when I suddenly realized that people across the country were settling down into pews for their weekly sermon. In fact, just a stone’s throw away folks were bowing their heads in the Bynum United Methodist Church. For a moment I felt a pang of guilt — if I were really “good” I’d be right there with them.

But then I looked out at what was before me: Rio splashed while Glenn laughed. Caroline had just gotten off my back after a “dolphin ride.” The sun was glinting just right off the rippling water, and the trees and bushes beside the river were almost every shade of green. I took it in and felt it ping off the chunk of coal in my chest that sometimes glows amber.

My church is right here.

Later that day, I stopped by a friend’s house for some solo hang time, and we played a game of channel surf, skipping over the good stuff and alighting momentarily onto various bits of schlock. We stopped for a few minutes on a man who was sermonizing very unconvincingly from a thick and dog-eared Bible that he held solidly in his hands.

There are so many good books out there, I thought to myself, and that one isn’t bad. But how can anyone decide they have found the one true story?

Because I prefer to find sacred texts in the millions of lives and moments swirling around me. Divinity sure seems a lot more transportable that way: instead of having to be at a certain place at a certain time on a Sunday morning, I could be swimming in a stream. Instead of packing the same big book in my suitcase every trip I could bring Baca one day and Rumi the next, maybe no words the time after that, just the earth’s topography from thirty thousand feet my holy map.

I was once trying to help a man who had lost his way. I told him that the next time he felt really good, I mean really good, he should pay attention to where he felt it in his body. “In my chest,” he told me a few days later. “It feels like I’ve got a little bouncing ball in there.” Next I asked him to observe and jot down over the course of a week every time he felt that feeling: what had happened that had brought it on? A few days later he had a long list: sitting in church listening to a good sermon; helping a friend in straights; going bowling with his son; cooking a meal from scratch.

“Keep that list in your wallet,” I suggested. “When you find yourself sinking, do something on the list.”

The psychologist Dacher Keltner has spoken about the physiological roots of this feeling; he points that our body actually has a neural map to feel divine, alive, and joyous: the sensation travels largely by way of the vagus nerve, moving from medulla to chest (expansive feeling, slowed heartbeat) to throat (it often catches for a moment) to the eyes where tears often form the final gush of the rush. Each person’s specific response to joy has its own quirks, but Keltner’s point is that we are built to feel this feeling; our body knows what to do with it.

I felt the sensation strongly a few weekends ago at a retreat center where 100 people gathered to write and and share their truths. Prompted by good teachers, safe space, and mutual support, we wrote what came forth and read aloud what we’d written. This act was alchemical, and I got so used to my body’s joy-delivery system working that I felt a nasty comedown after I left that spot in the woods and entered my first florescent convenience store. I found myself chatting up the cashier as though he would be game for the same unveiling. He just raised an eyebrow.

This brought to mind leaving Burning Man one year; after spending eight days enmeshed in that carnival of free souls, where the supreme commandment is to be your true self, I burst into hot tears and irrepressible sobs the moment  our car left the playa [desert] and hit the pavement. The challenge is, as one saying goes, to “keep the playa alive 365.”

But as I’ve reminded myself incessantly after such peak experiences: I vow to not reenter old parodies. Those moments of joy and transcendence stretch me to new places, and there’s no reason I need to return to the humdrum after my true drum has been struck with an invigorated rhythm. If the ecstatic moment lives and dies in the churches that evoke it, then I must return to those particular pews to taste it again. This can lead to an overdependence on the source of joy, be it an event, a substance, a lover, or a place — just because I felt divine at the river on Sunday doesn’t mean I will feel it so strongly when I return on Friday. The best I can do is find my wells, to visit them regularly with respect but not oversized expectations, and to be open to new ones, which often appear where I might not expect them. I prefer to think of church as a floating palace, one that changes form by the minute and yet is always an open eye away.


I never would have described myself as someone who worked with his hands until last month when I could barely write due to pain in my wrists.

What happened was: I took a day off from work and did not rest; I worked in the yard doing in one day all the tasks I’d been wanting to do for weeks. I loaded and hauled off yard waste. I weed-whacked. I dug out a bed around the oak tree in our yard and covered it with mulch. I shoveled new gravel onto our driveway. I was manic homeowner determined to get as much done as I could before the sprouting dandelion came home from school.

A week later I woke up with my left forearm and wrist swollen and sore. I didn’t connect it to the day of labor; instead I thought its occurrence was random, mysterious, perhaps the onset of some kind of more serious disorder. What is my body doing? I wondered. Google didn’t help; within minutes of typing in “sore wrist” and “symptoms” I was enmeshed in descriptions of carpal-tunnel syndrome at best and rheumatoid arthritis at worst. The next day I tried to help Rio cast a fishing line into a lake and had to stop because my wrists were burning so bad. I slipped away into the boat house and sat quietly in the dark, shaking my head, rubbing my aching arms.

In a strange and melodramatic way, I wanted a diagnosis — not to earn pity points but rather because otherwise the condition would be deemed lifestyle-related and the remedy would be a long series of small adjustments. Anything but that. I wanted a name for the pain so that I could find a prescription to kill it.

Panicked, I went to my doctor, and she asked me to detail what I’d been doing with my hands and arms recently. I told her of the day in the yard, of the months tapping feverishly at the keyboard. She did a few tests and declared my wrists and arms overworked. Her prescription? A month of wearing wrist braces and keeping yard work and computer use to a minimum.

I am still young, but the burning in my wrists was telling me I could no longer bang my body around and not notice the bruises. I’d had older friends warn me that a day would come when soreness and stiffness would show up like a stray dog at the door and never really leave the yard, despite my foot-stomping and screams to scram. Damn, that fateful day had arrived, I realized, and I had to fight off the feeling that it was all downhill from here.

But I refused to go lightly down that stream. I focused on changing what I could, which in this case was, first off, swearing off the weed-whacker, which from first purchase had felt all wrong; something about its tiny vibrations made my body feel like a tuning fork struck hard against a piano. Who cares if my grandmother whacked her edges without incident until she was 90? That invention and I were not simpatico. Next I took a good look at my work station from an ergonomic perspective and found that I was basically doing the exact opposite of everything I should. Because I had never had any wrist problems before, I had simply never noticed how I sat, how I typed, how I beheld the magic screen. Now: new chair; new keyboard; new monitor height and placement; new keyboard tray. More breaks. More time in chair by window, reading. More editing standing up. Wrists much happier. Have yet to swear off typing and surfing machine though tempted.

To be sure my condition wouldn’t linger, I paid a visit to a physical therapist in town. She asked a lot of questions, took a mess of notes. She told me to take off my shirt and walk around, lift up my arms, twirl about. It felt odd to be so scrutinized, but comforting too; just trust that this person can help you, I kept thinking to myself as she uttered another “hhmm.”  Her diagnosis? That I was farming out too much labor to my wrists and ankles (low-grade soreness) because of problems in my “core.”

“You are not weak,” she said, “You just need more balance.”

Ah, so my metaphysical struggles find their brethren on the physical plain! Evil little creature, existence!

“Well, I’d like to be balanced,” I said, dead scared, knowing that to change I would have to let my entrenched physical patterns die ignoble little deaths. Adios, status quo. It would mean doing daily exercises with balls and rubber straps and working on tiny forgotten muscles who surely would have preferred their slacker existence.

Over the last two weeks, I’ve doing her exercises, unsure of the science but certain of my faith. It helps to remember my old high-school football coach, Mr. Hirsch, one of those elderly gentlemen with enough “core” to knock your seventeen-year-old ass right on the floor. He’d scream at us to hit the blocking sleds and, if we did that with insufficient vigor, he’d order us to “drop and give me fifty!” I’d  just put my head down and do what I was told. Obedience to authority has its place. So when my physical therapist sweetly but firmly tells me to sit on a huge inflatable ball in front of my computer, I’ll do it, even though it violates in all ways my sense of sleek. Pain, in this case, has been the alarm clock that awoke the slumbering man, reminding him to sit up in his chair and pay attention, to not neglect the gifts that help him live out his purpose.

Healing Wounds

Not long ago I saw a therapist who guided me through a hypnosis session that profoundly changed me.

I had talked with the therapist several times and had told him about a sense I had of a wound within me. It was a physical feeling I would sometimes get of something large, heavy, and overwhelming weighing down on me, a deathly kind of chill that would crop up unexpectedly. I didn’t know what was inside this wound, but I had the sense that something had happened to me that I’d repressed so deeply that I couldn’t name it. I have no memories of any deep trauma, so I was unable to talk or think my way toward resolution. I wanted to get into this dark hole and excavate what was there. I asked the therapist if he could help me.

He told me he might be able to help me heal the wound, but that it was likely I would never be able to understand it. “You may never discover why it is there,” he said. “But we can still try to treat it.”

To get inside the would, I’d have to get into a deeply relaxed, or hypnotic state; to get there, I’d have to open myself up and shut down my rational mind. In a few of our previous sessions, the therapist had noticed that I’d catch my emotions and compose myself right when I was beginning to cry, thereby shutting down the valve that was about to open.

“I can get you down to that spot,” the therapist told me, “but you are going to have to let yourself fall into it.”

I believed this therapist, whom a friend had once referred to as a “shaman in the woods.” I’m suspicious of hocus-pocus, but I also believe there is much to life we cannot see. I realized that I harbored a bias against hypnosis, cartoons from childhood the principal source of my crude understanding of it as a manipulative practice induced by a swaying pocket watch. The therapist was seasoned, smart, and kind. The foundation he provided was firm enough for me to trust leaping off the cliff with him.

To prepare me for the session, the therapist asked me to make a list of spiritual guides I wanted to accompany me on my trip inside. I listed specific family members and friends:  my deceased grandfather Joe and father-in-law Bill would be there. My Mom and Dad, and Annie and Rio would come. I even invited Rumi.

The day of the hypnosis, I was excited but not nervous. I had felt this wound for decades and was inspired by the idea of healing it. My therapist had me lie down, and he used soothing words and silence to bring me into a quiet, floating world where I seemed suspended outside of rational thought. He, as a person, and the room I was in, began to float away. His voice asked me to picture a place I wanted to be, and I ended up choosing the sandy beach right beside the Haw River near our house in Bynum. He invited all of my guides there, and before long I was standing foot-deep in the river surrounded by my friends and family. (That I was literally on my therapist’s couch had become an irrelevant fact.) Rio stepped forward from the circle and stood eye-to-eye with me. I was now a small boy, and not Rio’s father.

Rio said, “Come play with me.”

I shook my head.

“What’s wrong?” he asked.

“I’m scared,” I replied.

“Of what?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” I said.

“It’s OK,” he said. “You are OK.”

Suddenly the scene was replaced by a blank screen with a strange small black circle slowly moving and circling in front of it. I told the therapist about it, and he encouraged me to look inside the circle. I did, and I only found more darkness. I had the sense that I would find what ailed me if I kept going.

Almost like an abrupt cut in a movie, suddenly I was in my grandfather’s garden on a bright summer day. I was a child. I was kneeling, and my grandfather was on his knees too, carefully showing me how to pick a green bean off the vine. I could feel the warmth of the sun on my arms. This was a scene, but it was also something I had really experienced; my grandfather had always had a huge vegetable garden in his backyard in Connecticut, and my sister and I had spent hours in it helping him and my grandmother pick green beans. In my twenties, I had lived an entire summer in a nearby lake cottage and had visited my aging grandfather weekly. Every visit, we went out to tour his garden, and we picked fresh vegetables for me to take back to the cottage.

But in this moment I was a boy, the same age I’d been with Rio by the river, and I suddenly felt a surge of positive emotion so strong it is hard to describe. It felt like the warm sun was gushing through me, like photosynthesis, like my whole insides were being flooded with the brightest white light. I was awash with love. Tears came gushing down my face in a sudden torrent. “My grandfather loved me so much,” I said out loud with utter clarity.

Just as soon as I felt the sensation, it was gone, and the therapist slowly guided me back to the river, and he soon closed the loop on the ceremony and brought me back to waking life.

As time has passed, I have understood some of what occurred. My sense is that my wound was partially healed through physically experiencing the embodiment of my grandfather’s love. This is not at all what I expected. His love had been so constant and pure in my life that I had largely taken it for granted — I certainly never considered him when I thought about pain. I’d had tumultuous relationships with other men in my life, particularly my father, but my grandfather’s love and presence had never been in question. Perhaps that is why his love, and a scene that epitomized it, was at the center of that swirling black mass, which I believe was a visual symbol of my wound. The session took me not to an answer of what my trauma was, but rather to a source that could heal it.

Today I sat on that same beach in Bynum, looking out over the water as Rio built a sandcastle. At one point he came over to me, nudged my legs open, sat down, and leaned his back against my chest. I put my arms around him and felt the sweetness passing between us. Sometimes I wonder what all of these loving moments between him and me will add up to. Which minutes will become memories? I suspect that love given and received doesn’t just evaporate; I believe it lodges deep inside of us, light we may harvest when later darkness falls.

Gray Skies

Annie found an apt term for what I was in this week: a “grump funk.” I can’t determine its cause but can describe its symptoms:

*General feeling of grayness, like the rainy sky above me. Normally the spring’s burst of blooms sprouting from the trees would get me smiling, but this week they’ve been like tiny worlds I don’t have the passport to. It’s not that I don’t see them (maybe I’d almost prefer that); it’s that I can only shrug at their beauty: nature’s twinkling offerings met only with an indifferent eye.

*Substantial time and energy spent in constructing myths about those around me.  I’ve been flitting between extremes, either romanticizing people so that I can envy them or judging them so I can feel better about myself. It’s a pretty lonely spot.

*Hypercriticism toward works of art, my own or otherwise.  I went to a movie the other night and hated it, despite the fact that it was me solo in an artsy theater taking in the heartbreak of a foreign film. The recipe didn’t work: I almost left halfway through, my inner art critic loudly condemning the film’s every move. Wisely I stayed away from my own writing during this period.

*Isolation. Yesterday I saw one of my favorite acquaintances at a restaurant and gave him only a cursory wave from the safety of my table.  I didn’t feel like I had anything to offer him, or him me. My world is gray and I like it that way, the voice inside me said.

In spite of my grump funk, I put on a good show. My high-school football coach used to admonish us to keep an “even keel” on the field no matter what was happening around us. I try to remain calm, knowing my short-lived malaise is hardly a tragedy. But I still can’t hide it from Annie, nor did I wish to. What good is a relationship if it’s not a safe place to shake out our dusty shadows? Let them fly free for a while. This weekend: nonstop rain both days. I told Annie that if I didn’t have a kid I’d just hole up with her in bed all day, rising only for food and coffee, watching movies and intermittently napping over the hours, unfazed by the changeover from light to dark. I wanted to disengage from life for a good long while, to have a good dose of “I give up” so that I could try again. (Sometimes I flip it and think the singer John Popper had it right when he said, “I think a need a prison in order to dream of being free.”) But then there was Rio wanting to play and explore together, unaware of my motives and offering a real way out of the blues if only I could see the portal he was holding up.

Then Annie stepped in and said, “Why don’t you just curl up for a few hours with the door closed and watch Friday Night Lights? Take the break you need.” And I did, Rio watching his own movie out in the living room for a bit and then he and Annie cooking together, or so best I could discern from my sweet sad nest.

And it was downright medicinal to float in that bubble of jack squat for a while; I smiled and laughed through the show and found myself in a small town in Texas. The respite gave me the wherewithal to stay on the saddle. The psychologist Barbara Fredrickson has written that pleasurable emotions come and go. No matter how we court it, we are at the mercy of joy’s vicissitudes. I know I can’t turn on happiness like it’s a switch, but it still sucks to be in a dark empty room. But I know I’m also lucky: for me the situation is temporary, and even then I see sunlight coming in through the slats.

In the meantime, according to Fredrickson, there is one positive emotion I can actively cultivate: gratitude. While I wait for joy to return from her sojourn down the road I can do more than just curse from the bus stop; I can run through the blessings in my life, say them aloud, even express them to those who bring them.

It may be strange to watch a cranky gringo suddenly telling the people around him what he’s grateful for, but it’s not an act; I’m trying to thank my way out of it. I hope I don’t take those blessings for granted when I find myself again on the coveted perch.

Lost in Translation

I once spent a week at youth hostel in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, where I met a big bearded Greek man named Nikos. He and I seemed to stumble into good conversations almost every time we opened our mouths. Nikos was adept at English, but one evening he was trying to make a point, and he couldn’t find the English word for it. “Yes, yes, you see, it’s all about…about…hold on.” He grabbed his Greek/English dictionary and scanned his index finger over the pages. “Yes, it’s all about passion!” he declared.

A few days later we were having a very different conversation, and Nikos was again caught at a linguistic impasse. “That’s such a good example of…of,” he paused, grabbing the book, “of…passion.” This time around he was a little less enthusiastic about his find.

Finally, the next day, we were smack in the middle of more kismet when he turned to find the English translation for the word in Greek he wished to express and once again found “passion,” which he uttered with much less, um, passion. “This English of yours is not so great,” he explained. “You see, those three ideas were three entirely different words in Greek, and they each had an important meaning. In English, it all gets mushed together into one word. I’m glad I have my Greek!”

Nikos’ point was valid, and I can think of other great words that don’t translate neatly into English: duende in Spanish, schadenfreude in German, and ubuntu in Zulu would all need at least a sentence in English to convey what they mean. In such cases, English’s motto seems to be, “When in doubt, appropriate” — Webster’s is littered with words that derive from other languages; we can thank the French for debonair and ennui and the Yiddish for kvetch and shtick, just to name a few.

Interestingly, many countries have fought against importing English into their native languages because so many of the words creeping in are commercial in nature. Say “prime time” or “talk show” in Paris and watch for scowls. But still, I’d make a case for a few English words: how many languages have a term for the last little bit of food left intentionally on the plate? That would be ort. How about “fond of using maxims in a way that is ponderously trite?” Hello sententious. It’s also hard to beat the word jaunty.  Doesn’t it just sound right? I’m also a big fan of panoply.

The truth is, all languages are inherently imperfect. I see the spectrum of light refracted by rain in the sky and say “rainbow,” and you understand, though that label can hardly capture the infinite associations we each have with that particular phenomenon. Any word is shorthand for something that is, if it were to be fully expressed, utterly unique, and thus, in a word, ineffable. In the face of complex concepts, experiences, or emotions, sometimes words do fail, regardless of the particular language that contains them.

It’s also true that all languages evolve through their contact with other tongues. What’s wrong with a free trade of words? I should have asked Nikos for those three different Greek varietals of passion and integrated them into my lexicon at least. In South Africa, Afrikaans is a good example of a rich melange, even with its checkered racial past. Its root is Dutch, but as Dutch settlers in Cape Town interacted with the indigenous Khoisan people, French Huguenot settlers, and the thousands of slaves the Dutch brought in from countries such as Malaysia, Madagascar, and Sri Lanka, the language became a hodgepodge of dialects. To this day, Afrikaans is notorious in South Africa as the best language to swear in. Its phrase for “Get lost!” (Voetsek!) is so effective in scaring off dogs that I still use the phrase to intimidate suspect canines, even when they are North Carolina natives.

Kids are wonderful innovators of language and seem to have no problem mixing and melding for maximum effect. Years ago Rio decided that except and besides were so interchangeable that it was easier to just use becept. I’ve been tempted to call this evolution and use the word. And to this day, we still refer to Rio’s favorite fruit as strawbabies, relishing rather than correcting that particular malapropism. Now that he’s starting to write phonetically, his linguistic inventions are growing exponentially. My favorite right now is how he writes was as ouz. I didn’t know he’d already been influenced by the French oui.