On Sunday, I landed in Salt Lake City, returning from about 38 hours spent in the city of New Orleans. It’s a trip that covers a great distance, both figurative and literal. Bourbon Street and West Temple never intersect, and not just because they both run north-south. I wish I had words to describe it, just as I wish I had words to express how joyful it was to be in New Orleans and how similarly (but differently) joyful it was to be home. “Home” is clearly Utah, Ogden, Binford Street, the little yellow house, the family within, and everything else that’s found there, but I can’t describe it any better than I can describe the beauty of returning to Cafe Du Monde a second time in one evening and laughing so hard that the exhaling through my nose blew the powdered sugar from my plate of beignets all over my pants.
Within a certain circle with a certain culture, I can simply say “beignets” and the single word encapsulates an entire attitude and situation. Concretely, this is a deep fried pastry stacked on a small plate with a landslide of confectioner’s sugar, about three times as much as is needed to coat the dessert, atop the stack. But among the five of us, it’s a concept that describes and encapsulates a weekend’s worth of thinking, conversation, and events. It’s enviable to have such a word, even if it only has the right meaning for the right group of people. (“You had to be there,” is the typical explanation you’d give to others.) The right word is exactly what we seem to be searching for in writing, research, and other endeavors. Karyn, on the other hand, has images like this one, pictures that replace any possible word or words:
The image of the infant cradled in the palm of her father’s hand is so much more than the meaning of “infant-cradled-in-the-palm-of-her-father’s-hand.” There’s something else there that evokes beauty that I can’t produce words for. But when you’re trying to describe something that you yet don’t even understand yourself, you can’t document it with a picture.
In our current line of inquiry, we’re trying to come up with a conceptualization of some social phenomenon. We find ourselves working in this semi-pseudo-Vygotskian zone of proximal development where we know part of what we’re doing and part of the words that describe it, but aren’t sure how they all go together. The image isn’t preformed and ready to be taken, even if we had the right lighting and the right angle and the right f-stop. So instead we have to construct it ourselves. Words like “caring,” “community,” and “capacity” get tried on; and we keep trying on words as though we’re shopping for the right combination that give just the right meaning, not just to a certain culture or small herd of friends eating pastries, but to all. I want words that are as universal as the image of the sleepy newborn cradled in her father’s hand.
Sometimes we underestimate words, as though they’re just individual combinations of letters; and that the individual combinations of words make “just” a story. But if you’ve heard your friend describe the adoption story of his child, filled with Russian street scenes, mobs, passing of $100 bills, a compassionate but non-understandable Russian judge versus an understandable but non-compassionate U.S. Embassy, all wrapped up with a pot bellied New York customs agent welcoming them and their new U.S. Citizen son with “now get the hell out of here.” So the words are one thing essential, but also the sequencing of them and how they create the image from where once there was none. Or sometimes we re-create an image that corresponds to a sense that we tuck away, either having forgotten its existence or never realizing its possibility. Garrison Keillor describes one of those that resonated with me:
But now it’s gotten cold again, which we’re grateful for because the ice is terrible when it gets warm. As long as you’re going to have ice, you may as well have good ice. We’ve had such great ice this year, and skating is something that even if you don’t do it you might think about doing it. And if you’ve ever done it and you look at a great sheet of ice so you can feel in your bones how beautiful that felt back when you were young and you could do all those turns and skate backwards.
I don’t know what it is about this passage, but immediately when he describes things this way I don’t think about the cold or the ice or the bones or the youth. I get the whole picture — a “picture” that could only have been recreated by these particular words and this particular sequence and, maybe, the particular moment in which I was listening. The narration of the story puts it all together, and there’s a single image that I can understand. Moreover, I love the gift of the image that Keillor has given me as soon as he’s uttered it. I can’t tell you why; I just am suddenly appreciative that I had a chance to have my own recollection and relation of what it means to “feel in your bones how beautiful” something can be.
Upon arrival in New Orleans, I got a stack of new books from my colleague. All relevant and interesting, I can’t decide what I will read first, or if I’ll dabble on each and bounce around from page to page. The real problem with these books, and others that have preceded it, is that they’re all filled with so many words. We’re tempted to use them to try to explain what it is that we’re doing. Simultaneously, there are the participants we’re interviewing who also have words, and all of these words makes sense. But we have to make sense of them in a way that creates the new meaning. We have to find the equivalent of our beignet or perhaps the sheet of ice — something we can create for the more global reader, rather than the “you had to be there.” We want the image of the child in her father’s hand so that the reader can just sigh and know what it is we’re trying to say.
We’re still looking.