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Okay, not physical running – but mental running & walking – keep reading, you’ll get it.
A couple of months ago, after having spent the better part of a week physically and mentally fighting off a cold, the weather was sunny enough to get out, so I went to Golden Gardens to get some Vitamin D and fresh air. I sat there in the car for a bit, not quite ready to go outside yet because it was cold and I’d been listening to a program on the radio, which was actually a fascinating story about language.
And in it, a fellow said a number of things, but the two that stood out had to do with how the brain develops mentally along with the development and understanding of language. He said something about the inability to think without having language, and I differed with him greatly in my conclusion on that – not because I had reams of academic knowledge of it, but because I had personal experience in it.
And, this may come as no surprise, but I have a story about it.
The story was here, about 20 minutes in for several weeks – I wasn’t able to get to it just now, but that’s where it was.
I abandoned my idea of walking out in the sunshine and sat there, transfixed as this fellow talked about language, about communication, and then he hit a nerve in me (here’s the program about 20 minutes in – it’s when he talks about a controversial statement) – and I found myself rocketing back in the time machine – in a way that was different than all the others.
In my writings here, I’ve written nothing but true stories.
They’ve ranged in time from WWI, WWII, the Cold War, they’ve ranged from happy ones to sad ones, wise ones and silly ones, serious and and funny ones. I’ve written about my mom’s childhood, my own childhood, my children’s childhood, all the way up to the present.
I’ve joked with people that I write non-fiction because I’m not smart enough to write fiction, because fiction has to make sense.
Some of the stories were written with years of research corroborating a half-remembered story from childhood, and some were just a snippet of life that happened as I was paying attention, and I wrote it down.
And then there’s this one.
This story is the very first I could write in the first person because it… because everything that happened before this story is pretty much lost.
Because before this story happened – I didn’t have the one thing I’m using right now, and that is language.
So I’m going to use some of the language I’ve learned since this story happened to tell you a little story about a time when I didn’t have any language to tell stories with..
My first memory is from when I was in an oxygen tent overnight in the hospital for bronchitis.
The one moment I have burned in my memory is mom and dad coming to visit me or get me and the joy I had knowing they’d come for me. I don’t have words associated with it, just joy, and just for that moment.
I remember the color of mom’s dress, the color of dad’s uniform as they stood in the doorway in the far left corner, the color of the tiles on the walls in the room, the faint smell of the rubbing alcohol and ether that was always present. And I remember the light coming in from high on the right. I remember a large counter kind of a thing, strangely in the middle of the room, and the doctor standing kind of in silhouette off to the right in front of the windows.
The memory stayed with me, and over the years I kept asking my parents about it until we finally figured out where it was, but far more importantly to me, when it was.
And it turns out the only thing that fit was that hospital visit.
When I was six months old.
That’s me, and my sister.
A little older than that memory, but a little younger than the next one.
And it’s hard for me to understand, looking at that photo, that kids – babies – of that age can actually comprehend stuff and have thoughts and feelings and ponderings and not just react to instincts and impulses…
But I was one of them once, and I still have the memories..
I have a few other memories of that time – all of them raising more questions in me than they answer. The next one I have very clearly is of our first trip to Germany. Dad had orders to go to one place, and for the first part of the trip, we were on the same plane. I was on mom’s lap and remember looking across the aisle at him, and how proud I was of him in his uniform, with the sergeant’s stripes on the sleeve..
…and while mom remembers the flight as me having a tremendous earache and crying, I remember one moment of it being very quiet, and in that moment, as I turned to look forward, I had this thought:
“I wonder what’s going to happen to me in life?”
Understand there is significance of this, because dad spoke English and mom spoke German, and as kids, we were learning English and German at the same time.
And I remember having this thought.
The question asked has been partially answered by roughly half a century of – well – life, but the answer is not as revealing as the question that still baffles me.
How would I, being 18 months or so old at that time, know that I had life ahead of me?
If I knew life was ahead of me, that meant I had a sense of time, and my place in it.
If I knew that there was something, some things before me, what are the faded memories of those that were behind me?
How would, how could I know that things would happen?
There was a sense of understanding that the future existed long before you’d think a kid would be even capable of having thoughts like this.
Come to think of it – what about being proud of my dad? It wasn’t any other emotion… I was proud of my dad. But how could I explain that one? How could I, at 18 months, explain the sense of happiness in someone else’s accomplishments or achievements? Just trying to explain that would also mean that I could be aware of the opposite, someone else’s failings. Pride in their accomplishments would be happiness that those accomplishments, and not the failings, happened.
The more I thought about it – the more baffling it became.
And the questions kept coming: Who was I directing this question to? Or was it just me thinking to myself?
How did I know that there were options as far as what might actually happen that hadn’t happened yet?
Why did this thought come to me, fully formed, in English and not German?
I couldn’t talk verbally at the time, but I could clearly think.
I remember when we got to Germany – and when our uncle picked us up from the airport in his blue Volvo (I remember because of the bar speedometer I saw years later in my sister’s Volvo) . But it’s that little boy up there in that photo who remembers these things, not just the adult writing it down. It makes me wonder about memory, about the things we do remember, and what it takes to actually remember them.
And I realized that one could have thought, or thoughts, without language, but maybe what the person in the radio program was trying to say was that one couldn’t express those thoughts very well without words. And yet, I remember once, years later – having a fascinating idea that literally came to me in a flash: again, fully formed, poof, there it was. It took hours to explain it. And it makes me wonder how language can allow us to express the thoughts we have without language and communicate them. But at the same time, it feels tremendously slow and inadequate sometimes. There are times when words – well, when words are not adequate, and, going back much earlier, when words simply didn’t exist.
I remember very clearly, at about the time of that photo up there – actually it was likely earlier, being able to communicate with other kids my age.
Before we were able to use language.
I remember just… knowing not just what I was thinking and feeling, but what they were thinking and feeling, and we were able to let each other know that.
Please understand, I have no idea how this worked. And I can’t tell you what, if any, language we were using. I just know that it did work. I also know that as I learned to use both English and German, my ability to communicate with other kids like that faded, and I remember the ability to do it like one remembers a long lost, half-forgotten treasure, and much as I wanted to, still not quite being sure how it worked.
All this is from within about a year of that photo up there.
And that question about, “I wonder what’s going to happen to me in life” – that one still pops up now and then… the philosophical areas one could explore with that, the nature of ‘self’ and the whole ‘nature/nurture’ discussion – where we’re a product of both our nature – (genetics and the like) and the way we were brought up (nurture)… I wonder about that because there was far more nature than nurture at that time, but these thoughts, these ponderings, seem to me to be right at the border of nature and nurture.
And I still ponder…
And I still have questions…