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speech becoming synonymous with existing

sara.gladwin's picture

This is the post that I had started after last week’s class and spoke about last Monday!


Bear with me as I seem to go in circles….


I was thinking about this after class- why is our first inclination upon recognizing the failures of language to give up on? Why are we so ready to claim that connection is impossible, simply because language does not always meet our needs of expression? I realized that the very rhetoric itself we employ to talk about these things is extraordinarily polarizing… this brought me back for a moment to a sense of hopelessness about the state of language and its connective potential; before I reminded myself that acknowledging that language can fail is not a reason to give up trying to connect or communicate- it is a call to be more attentive to the ways in which we attempt/do not attempt those connections; the words we do/or do not choose to utter. It is committing to the labor involved in creating and maintaining fulfilling connections …


Of course, I realize I have a particular stake in protecting language; a substantial part of my education the only thing I ever felt good at was “reading” language… which is why I spent most of my time at Bryn Mawr under the assumption that the only thing I could ever be was an English Major… being attentive to words and language is a critical tool in what I do on a daily basis.


On an even more personal level-


When I was younger, I struggled to connect with those around me, especially through language. I felt that by the time I reached sixth grade, I had achieved a “speechless” existence. I can still remember very vividly the day that one of my classmates approached me in the hallway and told me he had seen me doodling in science class and he thought I was really good at drawing and could I please show him more…?


Startled, I unintentionally broke one of my biggest “habits” that maintained my sense of isolation- I made eye contact.


I slammed my locker door shut and literally sprinted down the hallway. The very act of someone acknowledging my existence was so shocking that the encounter was terrifying; I was too paralyzed to know what to say. I had not yet learned the language to engage in a conversation.


It wasn’t until later that I realized my classmate probably would not have understood my actions were produced by anxiety, and not rudeness.


I always pinpoint the moment when speech seemed to truly return to my body around three years later; as I was walking home from school, holding a book to my face. I filled the empty spaces in my time with reading, and if I didn’t I felt at a loss for what to do with myself. However, this particular day, I happened to be walking towards the train at the same time as a few other students from my school. They were walking parallel to me, across the street. Afraid to say anything, I kept my book held high in front of me, only occasionally glancing over to see if the group had noticed me back. Looking over, I caught the eyes of someone who would later become my best friend. He immediately called me over, and I traded my book for the possibility of conversation.


I was emboldened with the recognition that speech rendered me visible. At some points, language became a torrent that I couldn’t turn off; broken faucet that kept running water…. However, not speaking became detrimental. Jane Tompkins wrote this about speechlessness, which I have time and time again found myself identifying with:  “I am feeling smaller and smaller, less and less substantial... I feel if I don’t move or say something soon, I’ll just disappear. At such times it was as if something had happened to the very quality of my existence; though I sat there in body, inwardly my continuation in being became precarious. Not to be part of that conversation seemed shameful, an admission of weakness, a sign that perhaps one did not really have the right to exist after all.”



And finally, language is crucial to my present existence…without it, where would I be? I am utterly indebted to language, and I am reminded of that debt everyday, from the moment I wake up in the morning and begin translating the world around me into words until the moment I attempt sleep am unsuccessful because I am unable to let go of the unending stream of thoughts. As I write this I get the sense that I am bound down by this; incapable of accepting a kind of quiet or “speechlessness” into my mind and unable to experience the world without putting it into words… and yet these seemingly unshakable tethers to language as deliverance are ties that I knotted myself; ties I am unwilling to destroy.