Musings from the Pacific Coast Highway

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I don’t understand when people tell me they are comforted by the ocean. Or by nature in general. “Comfort” isn’t a word that captures what I feel when I’m running the mountains, or standing by the ocean. It’s not peace either. The quiet of the places is often peaceful, but the essential places themselves do not make me feel restful and calm.

Nature, to me, is very much like space. It’s vast, changeable, and it doesn’t hate us. Nor does it love us. More terrifying than both of those possibilities, it gives absolutely no fucks about us. Our living and suffering and dying doesn’t register at all on that scale. Despite how harsh that sounds, it’s not a negative feeling to me. It’s almost akin to a…respect? An excitement?

The feelings I get in nature are the same as those I get from reading an excellent piece of writing that turns my chest inside out. Or listening to music that makes my “self” -everything that makes me, ME – disappear. It’s a feeling that makes me think about connection back through the whole of humanity, a connection to everyone who has ever connected with stories or music or to the overwhelming power of the world that has surrounded us for the entire duration of our history.

But to me, none of those feelings are described in the word “comfort.” I feel adrenaline, an aching hunger in my soul, a feeling that a sense of a cosmic completion is just out of reach.

Language is necessarily imprecise. We use it as shorthand, to hopefully convey the essence of things that we are thinking and feeling and doing. But it falls so short, and we fall so short in our use of it.

Take “I love you.” The words that make your heart beat faster when the person you’re hoping feels the same as you do says them. The words you say to a mother or father or sibling at the end of a phone call. The words that you say to a friend when they hand you a coffee after a long morning at work.

We use those same three words to mean so many things – I desire you sexually. I desire you romantically. I feel a deep connection with you. You are family. You are important to me. I would die for you. I would die without you. I’m grateful for you.

We assume that the listener understands what we mean from context clues, and from past experience. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. But it’s rare that we stop and acknowledge that what we say doesn’t always communicate exactly what we mean.

I’m thinking about all this because I just drove up the coast to Malibu. I’m working at the annual 7th grade retreat for the next few days. When we got there, the staff asked the teachers to join the introductions, telling the kids where we were from and what our deepest fear is.

I said tsunamis, because I’d just driven up the coast, and because the ocean always has an edge of malevolent possibility in mind. It’s not true that it’s my deepest fear, although it lurks somewhere in my Generalized Anxiety Disorder pantheon. I don’t know if I know what my deepest fear is. Or, to be accurate in my language, I’m not sure I want to think hard enough to find out.

I’m not sure why I’m so obsessed with the meanings within and behind words. Sometimes I wonder if I’m bored by the everyday routine of my life and I get wrapped up in ways to complicate and analyze the hell out of it. Maybe it’s because I often feel like spoken words fall short of what I’m actually trying to get across. Or maybe I just read too many books.

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