If I stand in front of the small dock and face Little Spencer Mountain, I can get a weak cell signal—just enough to text or make a phone call. Anywhere else on the shore of Spencer Pond, my phone is searching, or better yet, it’s turned off. I like it that way. I’ve forgotten what it’s like to live without the constant churning of news. I’m here for a week with friends. Here’s some of the news I’m taking in: loons call to each other across the pond. Their cries are sustained in the night air. A full orange moon rises over the water. A hummingbird probes some leggy petunias in the yard. The clouds are reflected in the still water so that when I’m in a canoe, I grow dizzy looking at the world upside down. I could be paddling across the sky.
I haven’t been this quiet for a long time. How long has it been? Since Trump was elected, since the pandemic, or longer than that, I’ve at times felt overwhelmed by the sense that we don’t know how to speak to one another anymore. What a relief for a week not to hear the disingenuous bloviating of a politician or pundit after pundit fill columns of digital newspapers and cable TV with hyperbole. The worst. The best. The most. Headlines and exaggerated language grab our attention, but mostly these serve to agitate us and keep us apart from what joins us together.
Language matters. The words we choose to use matter. If every politician tells us in the most obligatory way that we are “the greatest country on earth,” and we believe that, it makes it harder to learn from others. It’s harder to make changes that could make us greater. We’ve become a country where we deliver our set-pieces—characterizing one side as right, the other as wrong. Simple slogans make that possible, but slogans don’t allow us to dig more deeply into who we are and who we want to become. Remember “America—Love It or Leave It”? Love is certainly deeper than a catchy phrase that isn’t willing to fully examine the complexities of loving a country or a community. We’ve made it too easy to categorize one another when the truth is we’re all equally complex.
Language is a remarkable tool our species has. It can allow us to convey our deepest feelings of contentment and our deepest fears, our gratitude, and our anger. Our language would never have evolved if we only spoke, and no one listened. Communication comes from the Latin communicare—to share. Sharing implies reciprocity and it’s what’s lacking in our relations with one another.
We all have stories to tell. We’ve all loved. We’ve all lost. We were all born innocent and full of possibility. Recognizing that and choosing our words carefully when we speak to one another would be a good place to start. And speaking can be like any creative process; when we put our experiences into words, it helps us to discover what they mean.
The day we leave the pond, the morning air is cool, and mist rises on the nearly still water across the water. There’s a jagged line across the surface, running from east to west. It’s the reflection of a contrail from a jet high above undulating on the water, but it feels to me like something that has been stitched together—sky to water, us to one another.
Image at top: Stuart Kestenbaum, Little Spencer, photo.