A Direct Encounter with Language and Life

Wednesday, October 5, 2016 - 5:30 am

A Direct Encounter with Language and Life

I’ve been writing professionally for 40-plus years, and I’m addicted to similes and metaphors. What would I do if I could not write things like, “I fell into a dark canyon of despair”?

Fortunately, I’m also addicted to voices that invite me to think differently, as Linda Pastan does in this poem. She’s urging us to look at the natural world for what it is rather than what it represents to us.

I love Pastan’s line, “Let the eye enlarge with all it beholds.” If I can take an occasional break from reducing nature to a way of talking about myself, I’ll have a better sense of all the “otherness” that surrounds, supports, and enhances my life, and I’ll be more grateful for it.

I also love the fact that it’s the child in Pastan’s poem who doesn’t equate the ending of summer with death of any sort, but simply tastes “the sound of the words on her clumsy tongue: pumpkin; autumn.”

Isn’t that one of the reasons we grown-ups need to spend time around little kids — to help us recover the capacity we once had for a direct encounter with language and life that will make us feel more alive?

I think of Joseph Campbell’s words:

“People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances with our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive. That’s what it’s finally all about…”

And a little child shall lead us!

“Autumn”
by Linda Pastan

I want to mention
summer ending
without meaning the death
of somebody loved

or even the death
of the trees.
Today in the market
I heard a mother say

Look at the pumpkins,
it’s finally autumn!
And the child didn’t think
of the death of her mother

which is due before her own
but tasted the sound
of the words on her clumsy tongue:
pumpkin; autumn.

Let the eye enlarge
with all it beholds.
I want to celebrate
color, how one red leaf

flickers like a match
held to a dry branch,
and the whole world goes up
in orange and gold.

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is a columnist for On Being. His column appears every Wednesday.

He is a Quaker elder, educator, activist, and founder of the Center for Courage & Renewal. His books include Healing the Heart of Democracy, A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life, and Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation.

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