Naming the World

The summer before I turned seven, my family moved several states over to a place where I knew no one. We bought a house, but while we were waiting to move in, we stayed for a few weeks in small one-bedroom apartment. I think it was one bedroom. Honestly, I’m not sure. All I remember about the place was that my brother and I slept on the floor. This isn’t important because it was uncomfortable. I was six. The floor was fine. It’s important because I can still close my eyes and go back to lying on that floor in the semi-dark, listening to the music my parents were playing in the next room. It was beautiful and haunting, and I felt a heavy weight on my chest pressing in painfully. I lay there, breathing through the tightness around my heart, wishing that beautiful music would go away because it was making me feel worse. My brother lay silently next to me, and I wondered if he felt the same, but I didn’t ask. Even then I believed that speaking that heaviness aloud would make it crush me.

It was years before I learned otherwise.

I spent half my life avoiding negative emotion. When I was a kid and my friends sought out the thrill of being terrified by watching scary movies and raising their arms on roller coasters, I wanted nothing to do with it. Who wants to be afraid? When I was a teenager, and my friends luxuriated in the angst of feeling sad and misunderstood, moping about listening to grunge and reading the negative headlines with relish, I climbed a tree with a book and got lost better worlds. Who wants to be sad if you don’t have to?

For me, words were an escape, a way to be someone other than myself, a way to retreat from any reality that would be uncomfortable.

In short, I lacked courage, and so for many years I missed out on what courage could have gained me.

We kissed and I closed my eyes and inhaled lavender and her, and I felt so terrified and so in love that I realised they –the terror, the love –were one and the same thing.

–Matt Haig, How to Stop Time

You can trust a human being with grief. That’s what I tell the wardens. I tell them, “Just walk fearlessly into the house of mourning, for grief is just love squaring up to its oldest enemy. And after all these mortal human years, love is up to the challenge.”

-Kate Braestrup, The Moth Presents All These Wonders

There’s no life without risk. You want love? It walks hand in hand with pain. You want fulfillment? Reality is going to drop kick you, but that’s the only way to get where you truly want to be. As David Foster Wallace says in Infinite Jest, “the truth will set you free but not until it is done with you.”

Of course, the real sucker punch of it all is that refusing to acknowledge fear and sadness doesn’t actually make them go away. On the contrary, negative emotions grow in the dark. But what I discovered, to my delight and detriment, is that years can pass before they send shoots out to disturb your sunny day. In the meantime, denial looks like serenity, like self-control, like maturity. It’s great for the ego.

Just not so great for the soul.

“Briefly, he tried to tell himself he should not feel hurt. His parents had not meant to diminish him by their exclusion of him and his sister was under the stress of grief. Then he recognized the lie and turned to embrace what he felt and thus understand it. His mother and grandmother were pre-occupied. His father and his sister had both deliberately attempted to wound him, and he had let them succeed. But these things that had happened, and these feelings he now experienced were not faults to be conquered. He could not deny the feelings, nor should he try to change them. “Accept and grow,” he reminded himself, and felt the pain ease. Wintrow went to pack a change of clothes.”

–Robin Hobb, Ship of Magic

This is what I’ve learned, the way I am training myself to live. When I am faced with loss, with uncertainty, with obstacles and a world that’s upside down, I put words to what I see and what I feel. When I’m awkward and unprepared, the words are faltering and inadequate. When reality is harsh, the words are harsh. When my experience is painful, the words bleed.

Naming things takes away their power, gives that power to the namer. God gave Adam dominion over all the animals, and his first task as ruler was to name them. In ancient civilizations, parents named their children with care, believing that the name they gave would influence the outcome of their child’s life. Throughout history, slave owners have stripped their slaves’ names and given them new ones. If you refuse to acknowledge the way a person has identified himself, if you force him to respond to the name you have assigned, you assert your ownership every time he answers. Naming is a powerful act, for good or for evil.

When I was writing TWIN, I heaped problem after problem on my characters. (Because that’s the way the universe works, isn’t it? Once the hits start coming, they don’t stop until you’re good and pummeled.) Naturally, they resolve some things, but, as in real life, many problems have no resolution. The turning point for my characters, the first step toward making peace with what can’t be changed, is the moment they begin to name the world around them. Naming is thinking the unthinkable, familiarizing the unfamiliar, exerting control over the uncontrollable.

I still write about unexplored worlds, but not for the same reason I did as a child. I no longer write to be absent from my life, but rather to be fully present in it. I’ve stopped trying to skip to the end, where truth has set me free; instead I’m standing here while it works me over.

I’m no longer trying to escape the world, but rather, to name it.

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