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  • Writer's pictureMr. B

Wordly Truths

In this episode, Mr. B examines how what we see as real, as true, is influenced by the words we know and how we understand them. By taking a close look at three words, Mr. B hopes that, like him, listeners will come to appreciate more of the beauty that exists in the world and within ourselves.

Yee-Lum Mak

dormiveglia (Italian) the space that stretches between sleeping and waking.

querencia (Spanish) a place from which one's strength is drawn, where one feels at home; the place where you are your most authentic self.

saudade (Portuguese) the love that remains...

Stephen Jenkinson, wawashkesh...

"Now it just so happens that in the corner of the province I live in, the field grass grows about knee high by early August, if the rains are kind, and no higher. The sand beneath it and the cooling evenings would have it so. Even with the rainfall the ends become brown and friable by that time, a sign that summer is making its autumnal way. As it happens, the fawns born in midwinter, those that survive, have grown by mid-August so that their stomachs are brushing those brown ends as they make their way through a meadow. Deer are all stealth when moving, especially in the open, alert in a way that would induce coronary arrest or free-floating anxiety in many humans I know and that would tend, perhaps, to make them suspect the worst.

Given all of this, if you are downwind of them on a calm day as they make their hesitant way, and you are stock still at the right time, and if your jaw is hinged open enough to extend your hearing to the cavity of your mouth and cranium, and if your creation story and your psychology has not placed you squarely at the centre of life and so you've managed something like an existential humility known as humaneness in other times and places, you might hear a kind of swishing sound as their bellies course the grass tips, a whisper of late summer song in grass. If so, you, too, might have come up with a word that imitates a yearling deer coming through yearling grass at summer's fine, burgeoned, opportune blessing time, and it might have sounded like what is was: wawashkesh."

Stephen Jenkinson, ambivalence...

"The programmes of certainty are an assault on mystery, bringing mystery to heal, training it to pee in the box in the corner. Learning is something like a counterintuitive willingness to be mystified, to be on the receiving end of a world that, in its dignified manner, does not give itself away, or succumb, or dissolve into its constituent parts. Learning is the case you make for mystery, and ambivalence is the courtesy learning extends to what it would romance.

Turn again to the great treasure, that story that is the family tree of words, the etymology of what has come to us as English. We have this word, ambivalence, and we know what it means to us now: something like 'indecision,' or in a stronger form 'paralysis,' that comes from being pulled in incompatible directions. Never understood as any kind of strength or competence or ability, we are warned away from ambivalence at an early age and experience some real anxiety whenever it comes to call. Ambivalence is something of a moral failing in a time of certainty addiction and heroism.

That is a recent meaning. Its constituent parts track the change and give us something of an existential lineage of the word. We have the prefix ambi-, which in one sense meant 'both,' or 'pertaining to both.' But its older meaning is closer to 'around.' So you can see that the prefix doesn't calculate or count. It is a relational word, and it signals something spatial, and it registers something like 'plurality,' like 'the consequence that rises up from diversity, something that rises when you move around the possible and the impossible things.'

And then we have valence -- a word used most often now in physics, but whose Latin origin means 'strength,' and which gives us the word 'valour.' This signals something like 'the proclivity or capacity by which something or someone can be recognized.' If you employ the poetics at the soul of the language granted to you at birth and that have probably slowly eroded during your formal education and encourage these words back towards each other in semantic reunion, a little revolt in the fiefdom of your certainty gets underway.

Ambivalence is 'the capacity to entertain a diversity of possibilities or tendencies at the same time, without recourse to the premature and often unnecessary decision to vanquish plurality for the sake of certainty.' In other words, the etymology tells us that ambivalence has, for the balance of its semantic life, been a skill born of being a child of a diverse world, not an affliction born of weakness of character or a lack of self-awareness.

The change in meaning of this word tracks a change in the dominant culture of the West as it appears in its English-speaking form, a change in what it values and what it slanders and suspects and is discomfited by. You could entertain the idea that whenever there is an increased premium placed on information and technique and certainty and singularity of purpose and precision and the like in the culture, it probably signals a growing ill-at-easedness with plurality, diversity, and the particular wisdoms of place, and an increasing uncertainty about personal or cultural identity. Real cultures affirm other real cultures, as initiated humans do initiated humans. They aren't unnerved or diminished by them. For a culture deeply at home in the world, ambivalence is a skill that learns as it goes and mitigates against accretion. For a culture adrift, habitually exercising dominion wherever it goes, ambivalence is an affliction best treated with certainty, the more the better. The change in the meaning of the word probably signals a kind of homelessness of the soul...."

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