How deep goes the ocean

Last night I laid in bed talking with my nine-year-old son. My wife usually gets to participate in this ritual. My son has things on his mind, and every evening, after putting the younger two to bed, she crawls in with him and they talk about their days. I often arrive home too late to participate, but today was my day to whisper secrets.

This week, he’s been focused on a story he’s writing, just for fun, about a boy who wins a trip around the world. (Call it wish fulfillment.) At one point, he wrote for four hours without a break. He’s a machine, bringing his own worlds to life, one word at a time.

I, however, have not been a machine when it comes to my writing. I’ve let circumstances—mainly my moods—dictate my willingness to sit in front of a blank page. And I’m paying for it.

The author Julia Cameron has said, “Writing is how I metabolize life.” I think that’s the case for me, and it’s meant that a frustrating January has mostly gone unmetabolized, the fatty acids of life backing up into my arteries, shorting my breath, weighing down my movement. (It’s not lost on me that I was just exploring the relationship between meaning creation and habits.)

Another way to describe it: the process of reading and writing to me has always been like the ocean. Most of life is spent swimming from place to place, exerting effort to accomplish a task. But occasionally, I hold my breath and dive below the surface, remembering just how deep the ocean goes, and all the treasures it holds underneath—things surface dwellers never see. I can’t stay under forever, but the occasional dip reminds me why I’m swimming in the first place.

I once heard a fantastic Radiolab podcast, “Words,” that explored the centrality of language to our existence, and I still remember it for the story it told about 27-year-old man who learned to speak for the first time, who was literally language-less for most of his life. When asked what it was like before he acquired language, he kept saying he couldn’t remember. It was like the dark ages for him: “Learning language is like the lights went on.”

Memory and language are so closely related that bilingual people have been shown to associate particular experiences with one language over the other. The work of structural linguists like Ferdinand de Saussure was so influential in the 20th century that philosophers began using the interpretation of words as signs and symbols that define all reality. Heavy.

We’ve seen in our three kids how their worlds came alive once they were able to make sense of it through language. Maybe through his writing, our oldest isn’t done with that process. Maybe I’m not either.

Back at it, Caleb.