Shortly after the moon entered the sign of Aquarius at 3am this morning I found myself awake. Then wakeful. As much as I would have loved to get back to sleep I have experienced the amrit vela hours of summer solstice. It’s not exactly dark then. But you do need a little extra illumination to do any writing. But mostly I was thinking. Yesterday was the penultimate event in what has been a hectic workshop season for me starting on St. Brigit’s Day, 1st February. I have worked intensively with children. Yesterday the Arts Officer from County Cavan asked my creative colleague and sometime workshop collaborator, Morag Donald, and I what we had learned from the workshops we delivered.
What I have learned is that we are rearing a generation of children who are not passionately engaged with words. With each group of kids I work with I begin by asking them to describe themselves as being a ‘words’ person or a ‘picture’ person. Overwhelmingly, they identify as pictures people. Of the thirty-five in the audience at Trivia House yesterday , about five put hands up as Words people, with about two describing themselves as both verbal and visual.
A good deal of my work with school age children touches on ‘The Lost Words’ – those words naming the natural world that were expunged from the Oxford Junior Dictionary in the 2015 edition. Words like birch, wren, nectar, acorn and dandelion. Words that with climate change may become extinct in an actual sense. It is as if we are extinguishing not just the natural world, but our language to describe our experience of it. As someone living in a country where the indigenous language was erased as policy for generations, I am sensitive to the fact that when you lose language – the words to express your reality- then you also erode and destroy a culture. We may want to be environmentally aware and climate change smart, but you need the language to connect with the natural world that is at stake.
Ben Okri has noted in his book of essays A Way of Being Free that toxic stories make toxic societies. Many of the stories we offer our children are of war, crime and consumerism. Plot needs conflict, of course, but how do we resolve it? Most often with violence, force, sex or shopping. How can we change this narrative? Fairy stories were dark tales, too. In those medieval folk tales it may have felt like the world was ending; this generation actually faces the prospect of the decimation of home planet earth. We need to create garden arks for the planet. But we also need to create language arks to be able to adequately express out feelings of connection to others and the wider world. For if we cannot name our feelings, describe our inner reality, how can we hope to form a bridge and comprehend those who are not exactly like ourselves? With the language to express that reality we might have less bullying, less reason to punch and physically harm others, and more peaceful resolutions of conflict. We need to be able to express the shades and degrees of our feelings with a wider range than an emoticon. That is shorthand. What we are losing is the longhand skill metaphorically speaking. (As well as the actual skill of cursive handwriting which is no longer on the curriculum in many places.)
How can we build a vocabulary of resilience in our children? Because it feels to me this morning that we are losing our mother tongue as much as a connection with text. I was reared by a mother who read aloud for 365 days a year for fourteen consecutive years. Being read to teaches listening skills, not just vocabulary with visual aids of picture books. It is a sensual experience – the snuggling in, the rise and fall of the reader’s voice, the taste or smell of the drink or snack you might be having as you listen. For me, words are the ultimate comfort, books my suckie blanket.
Ironically, to incite people to read the words in this blog I am tapping out on my iPad, I will need to add a visual teaser. I am not anti-technology. I yipped with glee over word processing and spell checker. I am delighted to capture the birdsong and ghostly moon at 5am for your delectation. But what legacy is there without the language to give context?
The daily poem…eventually.
My Mother’s Jewellery Box
It’s mine now, but
it used to belong to my mother.
She had few gems or other
priceless items made of gold –
some clip-on earrings, folded
news clippings, old prayer cards –
a display of her regard,
the printed word beside a broach,
a badge of honour, a vote
for what has equal value.
Copyright 2019 Bee Smith. All rights reserved.