Tuesday, April 12, 2016

The Indispensable Word

You know, one of the best, most vexing things about Latin is that it is so dang ambiguous.

Take the word pes or pedis, for example. It's where we get pedestrian, pedestal, pedal, and so many other foot-related words. But for the Romans, the term encompassed the whole lower leg generally - there wasn't a special word for things like "calf" or "shin". (How this became the language of medicine is really beyond me.)

But the wonderful thing about this ambiguity is that it let Latin speakers enjoy multiple meanings simultaneously. We do this in English too, to a much lesser degree. "Season" can mean the time of year, or spicing your food. "Mine" can mean an excavation, or something that belongs to you. So much of the most beautiful Latin poetry really can't be translated, because putting it into English requires choosing just one of a word's multiple meanings, and destroying the others.

So gratia seems like a good word for today. It means grace, for one thing. You hear it in phrases like Maria, gratia plena (Mary, full of grace). It also means "for the sake of" - which you invoke every time you use the abbreviation e.g. (exempli gratia, or "for the sake of example"). It's also thankfulness (gratitude), pleasure (gratifying), kindness (graciousness), and something freely given (gratis, gratuity). The phrase in gratiam even means "friendship".

Tecum in gratiam fui et semper ero.
This is something I did not appreciate at the time. Let me tell you: when it's already midnight and you have thirty more lines to translate before 9AM, ambiguity is not your friend.

But after this week, I am revisiting that.

English is by many counts a million-word language - a fact I've enjoyed and extolled to my students. After all, we don't just have a foot. We have a foot, ankle, heel, arch, ball, shin, calf, toes - some of us even have cankles! With so many words, it's easy not to get attached to any particular one. So if the word "diversity" gets too loaded, for example, we'll move on to "inclusiveness" or "multiculturalism" with no trouble. Because when you have a surfeit of anything, no single one is very valuable. When you have a million words, or a million workers, you might not even notice when a few of them get damaged or thrown away.

This is the dark side of plenty - one that we as a culture are seriously struggling with. We have more than at any time in our history - more people, more freedoms, more entertainments, more possibilities - and yet we've never felt worth less.

And I think in Latin we see the remedy for that. This old, sacred language carries old, sacred values. It was born from a time when people were precious, though not all well-treated - when everybody was valuable, because every body was valuable. It's been enshrined in a faith that says we are more than what we do, that we have worth beyond our works. And it lives on in us today, in our mouths and thoughts, as we go on blithely speaking daisy-chains of Latin children and grandchildren. This enduring language does not lose words easily. You can't cut out a word like gratia without leaving a bleeding hole in the lexicon.

So maybe it's not too late. Maybe our culture can re-learn to value its people the same way a language values its words - by giving them more than one meaning. Kristen was a disposable nonentity as long as she was a case number, a patient file, an unfortunate statistic. She has all too easily fallen through the cracks. But when you-all got to see her as a teacher, as a terrible-cat-lover, as a roommate and a friend and an underdog success story, she became real and precious to you - as multifaceted and meaningful as the Latin gratia. And now she can't be lost or forgotten about, because she is too many things to too many people.

So that's it, you guys. That's my plan. When we're well, we can be our own presenters. We can share as much of ourselves as we choose to. But when we're sick or hurt or grieving, we need someone else to communicate us - and if you're reading this right now, you have that power. You can be someone's avatar - communicate a person we otherwise wouldn't see or care about. This is how we can stay real to each other. This is how we make sure we don't get crushed by the engine of plenty.

Kristen is my indispensable word - my gratia, my grace. And now you-all are hers.

P.S.: If you haven't been able to sponsor her on Patreon but still want to get updates, please get me your email address (here, Twitter, Facebook, or tex at thetexfiles.com), and I'll be happy to include you.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

It's Latin for "I Need You Now"

You know, I had been wondering what this blog is for – whether it matters, what I have that's even worth putting here.

Suffice to say that I'm no longer wondering.  And I am about to need you guys more than I ever have. So if you've noticed me being especially raggedy-edged over the last few weeks – well, strap in, because here's what's up. 

Some of y'all have heard me tell the story about my first day of Latin class in grad school. The professor was explaining the basic declensions to us: nouns work like this, adjectives and adverbs do this.

And I turned to the student next to me and said "what's an adjective?"

Don't even get me started on the pronouns.
Because somehow I'd gotten through twelve years of high school, four years of undergrad, and a year and a half of grad school – that's two and a half novels, a bachelor's in history, and three-quarters of a master's in literature – without ever getting a clue about grammar. I just winged it in English class and it worked.

Until suddenly it didn't. I needed that class to graduate, and there was no way I was going to be able to do a year's worth of Latin AND catch up on English, all in eight weeks.

But that student next to me saved my bacon. She invited me to study with her. We shared colored highlighters and quizzed each other for hours on end. We became great friends. And after I graduated that spring, we moved in together.

And it was glorious.
(My photography skills considerably less so.)
And she kept right on saving me. She was the first Christian to tell me that I was enough, just as I was, without converting or changing anything. I can't tell you what that did for me. She was a spiritual comfort when my grandparents died - the first time I'd ever lost anyone. More than that, I was 24 years old and had never lived anywhere but home, with my parents, in the same city I was born in. I'd never had a full-time job or paid bills. I didn't know anything about being an adult.

Kristen, on the other hand, was a case study in realness. She grew up in North Dakota. Her childhood was dysfunctional, bordering on abusive. She left home at 18 and drove alone to a Catholic college in California that she'd never even visited, because it was her one chance at a better life.  She lived in half of a stranger's garage. She changed adult diapers at a camp for the handicapped. And when she graduated, she piled her things in the car and moved again to Texas, chasing her dream of a PhD in literature.

Well, she got it. She also got a kitten from the animal shelter (despite my protests), which she absolutely adores.

Believe me when I say that the trash can suited her.
And when I got married and our time as roommates ended, she went right back to living in back rooms and spare bedrooms while fought to make her student loan minimums and put herself through a teachers certification program.

Needless to say, we were DELIGHTED when she was hired by a local charter school – as a classics professor, no less. She was a part-time spring replacement, but they were so happy with her that they had already signed on to make her full time in the fall. She was getting to teach Latin – a rare privilege – to some of the brightest students in our community. She joined the DFW Writers Workshop. She had written a novel. After all her hard work and struggle, she was finally living the dream.

This is a close-up photo of a classroom projector screen casing. It's powdered steel. And when Kristen pulled down the screen on an otherwise-unexceptional Wednesday, she found that out the hard way: when this thing falls, it will crush a human skull.

That was two years ago. Kristen has long since lost her job. She still can't drive, or use a computer, or walk without a cane. She suffers from chronic migraines, spinal compression, and balance issues. Most frustratingly, the vision problems caused by the injury means that she often can't read. I don't have to tell you what that means for a writer.

We are still friends, of course. I take her to vestibular therapy on Wednesday mornings, and sometimes we'll share a frozen pizza from the grocery store afterwards. She can't read my books, but she interrogates me about the triumphs and travails of author-life with passionate, vicarious delight. We crack raunchy jokes together.

Then on the way home from therapy a couple months ago, she turned serious. "Do you think you could help me research no-kill shelters for my cat?" she asked. "I think I'm about to lose my apartment, and I don't want to surrender her somewhere where she might get euthanized."

And guys. I just can't tell you what a gut-check that was.

I mean, for one thing, we're talking about the world's worst cat. She is an objectively terrible animal. She pees on the carpet, attacks children, and looks like Winston Churchill. Literally nobody but Kristen could or will love her.

Much less throw her cat birthday parties.

More than that, though, I had not realized just what kind of dire straits she was in. I knew that she couldn't use her own medical insurance to pay for treatment. I knew that workers' comp was giving her the runaround. But there is this gene in our shared American DNA that says you don't talk about money, you don't rely on charity, and if you ask for help, it had better be something you can pay back in kind: a reference for a job application, someone to watch your kids, someone to drive you home from the doctor. No matter what, the checkbook of favors and obligations has to stay balanced.

And for two years, Kristen has done exactly that. She lived off her savings. She lived off her credit cards. She lived off support (practical and financial) from friends and strangers the local Catholic community.  And when all that was finally exhausted, she didn't come to me and ask, "can you help me with my rent?" She said "can you help me find a shelter that won't kill my cat?"

And I said, "No."

No, I will not help you find a shelter. No, I will not let you surrender your home. No, I will not let the world do this to you. You are thirty-five years old, and you have earned your 500 square feet of independence.

"The line must be drawn here. This far - no further."

I know that Kristen is not special. I know we all know somebody who has worked hard, played by all the rules, and been ground up and pulverized for their trouble. There is a sickness in our system that has grown so deep and pervasive that sometimes it feels hopeless to try and fix it. It is terribly easy to do nothing, because we can't do everything.

So here I am, writing to you in the space between nothing and everything. I have to help my friend. She took care of me when I needed it, and now it's my turn. But my effort alone isn't enough. By myself, I am not enough.

So I'm cashing in my chips – right here, right now. If I've helped you in some way, if I've banked any goodwill with you, if you've ever wanted to do something nice for me – please, please help me help her. Go to her Patreon page and add what you can. A dollar a month. Five dollars a month. Give her anything besides the nothing she has now.

And then do one more thing. After you've become a patron, you will be able to add a "patron post" to her page, where everyone can see it. Write there and tell her about the Kristen in your life – the person who played fair and got the short end of the stick, the person who deserved so much more than they received, the person whose life you would have done anything to fix. Her life is so small right now, and she needs to hear that she's not alone.

She is mine. Who's yours?
Today is her birthday. Saturday is the two-year anniversary of her accident. In between those two things, I want to make this right. I want to pick her up for her doctor's appointment and say "guess what?"

And when I do, I will read to her every word that you write, about every person you've wanted to help. And we will make it our shared mission to tell the world about them. No, we can't do everything – but every one of us can do something. This is the other, better part of our American DNA, the truth we feel in our bones: if enough of us do something, we can change everything.

Te egero nunc.