Words are social creatures, with every word defined by other words, and dictionaries are a party. Interactions define things: words can’t write themselves. Meaning emerges in connections and gaps. Take some scissors to a Webster’s and cut out your favorite word, tack it to a whiteboard, and show it to someone who can’t speak the language. The entire system falls apart. Human beings are no different.
I spent my days in Japan reading English phrases out loud to students who read them back to me, empty exercises in repetition. All we, the teachers, hoped for was that mouths made the motions appropriate to the prompt. We didn’t expect anyone to communicate in English – only to carry on the illusion of it.
In Maine, there was a flow to who I was, maintained through relationships with people and places. My car, my radio stations, my newspapers, my restaurants, my habit of drinking a can of Moxie with a coffee on the side: These rituals wrote a dictionary of me, and doing them every day became the solid reminder that I was always carrying on the adventure of yesterday into today.
Then I left Moxie behind. With no anchor to my identity in Japan, I was unmoored with no reliable assurance that the world I remembered – the things that made my memory of me – were still out there somewhere. The rituals were cut from the dictionary, glued to a piece of cardboard and defined in weird disconnected fragments.
And then someone came along who helped me scribble some notes in the margins: This is the meaning of ‘and.’ Remember?
When I met her I was instantly smitten. I admired the grace with which she conducted herself with strangers and friends, a mix of real curiosity and an eagerness to wrap even idle chatter in substance. I do not consider myself good at these things, so I felt a bright spark of admiration. And after a year of a complicated and stressful solitude, her arrival in my building heralded a return of some human connection to a life I had only been silently enduring. Someone else knew this story.
It was good to be human again, and not just a foreigner with a work function. I’d sneak texts to her from my desk during school hours and we’d commiserate over the frustrations of our day in rich, complicated, nuanced English sentences. It was a profoundly important friendship.
I’ve got a bit of a revving engine in my brain that propels me to interrogate the world in hopes of finding clarity out in it. Some weird desire to make sense of myself and the perpetual inability to believe in the imagined ‘me.’ I feel I’m always falling short.
After 34 months in Japan, the sun bouncing off white sands of a high school baseball field and through my corneas, I realized that this desire to know myself was myself. It’s a perpetual presence. Everyone, everywhere, feels like they are incomplete, but I am one of only seven people who always wants to talk about this shit. I understand the burden that places on anyone who I define as an important friend.
This conversation about incompleteness and the struggle to make sense of who we are is the one trick I have up my sleeve, that and jokes, which if you don’t like my jokes leaves you in a very sour position.
Incompleteness and uncertainty is a scary chat. It’s the same kind of scary I felt when I watched that ‘Powers of 10’ educational filmstrip from the 1970’s, where the camera zooms out from a blissfully unaware couple picnicking in a Chicago park and just keeps going out, forever, until the world shrinks and the rings of Saturn pass by and then the Milky Way itself disappears and then the camera still keeps pushing itself away from those poor (or blessed) picnickers.
Half way through, the narrator, in his comically nasal, ballpark-frank-selling voice, announces:
“This lonely scene, the galaxies like specks of dust, is what most of space looks like. This emptiness is normal. The richness of our own neighborhood is the exception.”
And then it comes back, crashing through those picnickers and drilling further and further until the atoms reveal themselves as the basis of everything and then drills into the atoms until miraculously it’s just the same darkness as the universe?
They show us this when we are 17, and then they wonder why we are all trying to sleep with each other. Darkness and emptiness are the normal state of things. The people beside you are the exception.
3. The Richness of Our Own Neighborhood
It’s tempting to assume that you have contributed to another person’s life in a way that they have contributed to yours. And then, the memo: Everyone has pitched in on a retirement cake, delivered to the office, written in cursive in blue frosting: “Actually, You Just Weren’t That Important!”
Everyone has the right to think I am Not Very Important. 8 billion people say the same thing to me, every day, and don’t even bother buying a cake. I’m less interested in why and more interested in how I managed to make, and sustain, the mistake that I did.
I came to Japan to write uncertainty out of my dictionary, to invent a new language to define myself, one that didn’t rely on anything outside of itself. That was a stupid idea.
But equally absurd was living by the mistake that other people could see me more clearly than I did. After all, they know if my loud drunk voice is annoying or amusing. They know if I am asking too much of a friendship. They know when I am being manipulative, even if I don’t. I work hard to be self-aware, because I hate to be the person who gets the memo on my personality only after everyone else in the office has signed it.
But really, nobody cares, and when they do care, their exterior presentations are just better masks of their interior mental state. Nobody ever runs around talking about this, except me, so I bought the illusion that everyone except me was fully complete. I wanted to know their secret.
So of course a person struggling to define himself by not needing anybody would idealize someone who didn’t need him.
In my first moments in the Japanese airport, met by my new supervisors, I rambled excitedly about the lush green beauty of the mountains and inquired about the drone of the cicadas while my co-workers stood silently nodding. Finally, as I remarked, amazed, at how tall the sky seemed to be, one of them asked me to slow down: “Our English is not so good,” she said. One of them, who had been nodding and smiling the whole time, spoke no English at all.
That’s how I relearned the art of conversation. I stopped using most articles. This is pen. Where is car? We all knew what words were missing; the sentences made more sense if we didn’t say them. The listener might ask what thecar was. I didn’t miss ‘the’, ‘a’, ‘will,’ etc. I thought about why we would ever use them at all.
And I had learned that communication was best served by saying nothing at all whenever you could; to never disrupt the wa, the harmony, by creating conflict or tension. Words had a way of doing that. The offices were always eerily silent.
The point is, even without words, everything comes out anyway. I don’t know what I did in the absence of words. Was I manipulative? Needy? Sarcastic? Bitter? Did I fold my arms and sigh when they should have been on the table? Did I roll my eyes? I worry about this now, in hindsight, now that I am fairly certain that I say what I mean and that my body moves in the way I intend it to move. In Japan, I couldn’t say anything, in English or in Japanese, and so something was always being said that I didn’t want to share.
I was always accidentally disrupting the wa, and nobody was ever telling me, and that was the central anxiety of my daily life.
A dictionary is a collection of meanings, and when you only have a few pages with you, crucial words go missing. But you always deliver the message anyway, whether you intend to or not.
Expressing emotions without a complete dictionary is something all of us are doing, all the time. Every acceptable form of desire has been linked to some word, and if you have feelings that don’t exactly make sense according to that vocabulary, you’re a weird person with a fetish or sexual issues, or you need therapy (everyone needs therapy).
Two people spending all their time together without expressing it sexually or romantically is weird, because we don’t have a proper social vocabulary for it. Anyone will tell you that someone in that room wants to sleep with someone else, or is in love with someone else, because that is the official, sanctioned activity for expressing human emotions between adults.
Definitions are the pleasure and the limits of dictionaries.
Was I in love? Yeah, but, (1).
(1): If you’re writing a dictionary of you, the footnotes are where the truth lies. In abridged dictionaries, missing words written on a few Post-It notes stuck to random pages are inevitable as your meanings grow. The main entry for ‘love’ is probably not very honest, because the only word we have for a whole range of emotions are romantic ones. But if that word, ‘love,’ entered into the dictionary, the whole book would go missing.
I didn’t really care what it was called, I just wanted some reassurance that it was real: That my story meant something to someone. How the hell would you define that relationship? The closest I can get is the relationship between two authors who are also two readers.
This is not crazy by itself, but the less secure I felt about actually being a person, and not a talking word-robot, the heavier it got for everyone around me. And that heaviness hung. What was once a gratitude for the presence of someone who knew me turned into a desperate need for validation. I didn’t care if that meant a relationship or not.
There were few places a person can go for validation in Japan. So I just hung out, feeling kind of creepy, until people showed up that reminded me that hey, I’m alright.
This is my last day in London. The dictionary has been made a proper mess by geography, cut and taped and pasted in, and nothing like the cohesive whole they once made. Leave anyone or anything behind and you erase something, change meanings, delete as much as you add in at the next place.
Many people who have helped me write this dictionary have been lost to distance of various kinds. Things end, and the dictionary keeps their traces in your definitions. I spent this year transcribing certain words from one binding into the other, writing the drafts of myself fresh from previous work scattered across the volumes, trying to reinvent lost pages. Some people that I have lost are, nonetheless, so integrated into these definitions that it is hard not to find traces of them coming through. And I want that to end, because it has to end, or I’m a crazy person, particularly for missing someone who does not miss me; but then maybe there’s nothing that crazy about missing someone who mattered.
I’ve got scrapbook materials from various moments with many of the people I love, notes scribbled on the back of Japanese convenience store receipts, Nepali newspapers, French napkins, hot dog wrappers from Reykjavik and British notebooks that smell like absinthe spilled on a night of chemically-induced completeness.
But maybe that’s the beauty of it: Darkness is the norm. The richness of our own neighborhood is the exception. All of this meaning at our fingertips, ready to be written into the dictionary of ourselves– in places and people, nostalgia and actions; the connections made across blank spaces, ready for pencil marks and white-out and the most pleasurable of all, the solid bold and permanent marks of a typewriter.
Sometimes the people you love disappear. Life is always being written and revised. The spine might break and old notes may be scattered but we’ll always piece it back together, with annotations and adaptations, waiting for those moments when we all, as careful authors, find our careful readers.
You can miss anyone you want.
I think the emo-blogging is done now; it’s probably safe to follow This Japanese Life on Facebook.