words and phrases

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“Do stuff. Be clenched, curious. Not waiting for inspiration’s shove or society’s kiss on your forehead. Pay attention. It’s all about paying attention. Attention is vitality. It connects you with others. It makes you eager. Stay eager.”

– Susan Sontag

 

Perhaps it’s because I’m an only child, and didn’t grow up amidst the distracting ambient noise of siblings.

It might be because my parents often argued in other, further rooms of our house, while I listened behind my closed bedroom door for key words and silences to signify my safe emergence.

It could be due to the fact that that my earliest years were spent in New York City, in a rhythmic patter of dialect and language, in the call and answer of shrieks, sirens and horn blares, and in the random, sudden amplification of conversations and radio stations from passersby underneath second-story bedroom windows.

It’s possible that my ear for accents and gift for mimicry have allowed me to hone in on turns of phrases, and pay attention to the minutia that makes such things so.

It could be all of these things. I know this: I listen. I have always been attuned to nuances. I notice the ordinary. So much can be mined from the seeming plainness of an everyday interaction.

On my smartphone, I keep a list of overheard discussions and head-cocking phrases uttered by nearby strangers. Sometimes, I find myself listening in, and write down dozens of phrases that graze and tickle me. At other times, I’m on autopilot, I think, and the list lies dormant for months. For the past few weeks, I’ve been writing down phrases again. There’s an uncharted rhythm to my list-making. Entries from April, then May, and again in August and September, all plot points of creativity, and bursts of energy and thought. It’s a random ebb and flow. This, I’m learning, is how life works.

I want to document what I see, feel and experience. Sometimes, I am pained at the thought of moments incidentally lost, like wisps of smoke dissipating and mixing into the greater mass. I mourn unknown recluses dying in cramped, hoarded apartments on Second Avenue, with stacks of photographs at their bedside, and their stories untold. I am heartbroken at the mysteries, revelations and tendernesses enmeshed and locked up in the grips of fear and silence. As I grow older, I sense that these wisps exemplify the nature of life itself — that we are all temporal movements of molecular energy. But what fire, what flame had licked at life before it was extinguished? That’s what I want to know. That’s what I want to search out and describe, because I believe that such a process is significant. The surface meaninglessness of random events, when linked together, sometimes reveals something greater, something that we ourselves often cannot discern. Yet, we find comfort in the telling, because there is communal understanding in its reveal. The urge to witness and testify is within all of us. To be seen. And to be heard. So, I listen. I often like what life has to say.

A recent list of words and phrases:

[AT THE 826 VALENCIA PIRATE SUPPLY STORE IN SAN FRANCISCO, FROM A MUFFLED, UNSEEN MALE VOICE BOOMING BEHIND A LUSH MAROON VELVET CURTAIN, WHICH SEPARATES THE RETAIL STORE FROM AN EVENT SPACE AT THE BACK:] Do you think the benches should be ad hoc? Or more purposeful?

[AT A NEARBY TABLE IN A SEAFOOD RESTAURANT IN MONTCLAIR, NEW JERSEY:] Do you have anything non-oyster-related?

[ON THE UPPER EAST SIDE, OUTSIDE AN APARTMENT BUILDING, AS A MAILMAN AND FEMALE RESIDENT TALK OVER HER BARKING SCHNAUZER AND THE MAIL CARRIER'S ROLLING CART:] I’ve been everywhere in the world, and now I don’t know where to live.

[IN AN ORGANIC SUPERMARKET IN NEW JERSEY:] California notice. What’s a California notice?

[AT THE DIANE ARBUS EXHIBIT:] You see this? They had a couch. Where was this taken? Levittown? We lived in Levittown. We never had a couch. Couches were for other people.

[AT THE DIANE ARBUS EXHIBIT:] This one looks perfectly normal. This could be me in the picture.

[ON A STREET CORNER OUTSIDE THE MET BREUER IN MANHATTAN:] Is God even effective anymore? Has anyone asked that lately?

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Comments

  1. Love this! Reading your work feels like reading Anne Lamont. I often re-read your words because the experience is so real and visceral for me. I hear myself repeatikg, “Oh yeah” because I so get what you’re saying.

    Love how you grab me as a reader and refuse to let me go!

    Didn’t know you were an only-child. Would not have guessed that given your large extended family! Thanks, Kathleen!

  2. Yes, to all of this. (I love “Couches were for other people.”)

    Two favorite overheard exchanges from our travels that are still in regular rotation in our house:

    Setting: Barcelona, 2000, a British couple in shopping in the Barri Gotic.

    WOMAN: Oh look! Pottery!
    MAN: Oh joy.
    WOMAN: You can wait outside then.
    MAN: I think I will, actually.

    Setting: Palatine Hill, Rome, 2011, an Irish family wandering among the ruins; the father has gone over to one of the public taps.

    TEEN DAUGHTER: Oh, Da, you splashed the camera!

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