The Limits of Language

Last night, near dark, clambering out of the pond, newly charged from heavy rains, I thought about how when I was teaching, I bought each of my students one of those little pocket-size, spiral-bound memo books, and how for every class, I asked them to bring me at least 10 observations from the day before. I placed few stipulations on this assignment, only that they carry the books with them wherever they went, that they consider all the senses, and that they write down whatever catches their attention. I told them that writing, like life, is mostly about paying attention (or as I like to call it – in consideration of my scruffy, young charges – paying f’in attention), and then engaging with that attention. Not letting it just drift by on the flotsam of life.

It was the shock of the water, colder than in recent days, the slow turn toward autumn begun in earnest the week before, and the realizing that I had no good words for what my sudden immersion felt like, or at least no words that filled the hole in my vocabulary where I thought maybe such a word should reside. And therefore, the notebook useless (not that I had one with me, anyway), the limits of language (or of my language, anyway) rearing its head yet again, and wondering how to talk about experience that just won’t fit itself into the alphabet, no matter how carefully I arrange the letters.

But still, words or no: Pay f’ing attention. Engage. I’m pretty sure it’s the best free advice you’ll ever receive.



12 thoughts on “The Limits of Language”

  1. Honestly, my first thought was that you meant paying Fin attention . I trust there is no relation here to the origin of his name.

  2. This morning I listened to a guided meditation (Reprogramming The Brain: Pt 1, by Elliott Treves. After 20 minutes I got it: Pay f’ing attention. Thank you for driving the point home.

  3. Totally! I’m an old man who has been trying to learn how to ‘pay attention’ for some years, and I am constantly amazed about the things that the twenty year old daughter of a friend of mine notices and records or remarks upon. And she was already doing this when I met her when she was 16. It is pretty obvious to me that this is genetic thing and those of us who didn’t inherit that gene have to work hard to make up for its absence. But practice and thinking about it helps; I am much more aware of my natural surroundings than I was even ten years ago. Thanks for the insight and I sympathize with your inability to capture ‘perfectly’ it in words.

  4. I didn’t tell you this yet, but Steve and I love your article in “Outside” magazine. Right up our ally, this re-wilding kids stuff.
    When we held our homesteading/wilderness retreat for kids this summer, one kid stood out: a depressed, screen-addicted teenage boy, whose mom send him to our camp as a last ditch effort to get him away from the frigging computer.
    Sitting at the creek, cooking around the fire, or strolling in the forest, he and I talked. For hours. He totally opened himself up, and he completely touched my heart. With no screens to distract him, with no junk food to clog him up, he blossomed. In just two days, his skin cleared up, and the dullness of his eyes gave way to something bright.
    Although he didn’t participate with as much jumping-into-the-river enthusiasm as the other kids, just being out in the wild transformed him a little tiny bit. I wish more kids could do this.
    Hopefully, your article will inspire parents to find ways to get their kids out there…

  5. I credit my children with helping me pay attention. They are the best “noticers” I have ever seen. Nothing gets past them (which is good and bad and I think will become more and more interesting the older they get.) I try to always remember to thank them for helping me notice things, too.

  6. It’s a comfort knowing a seasoned writer finds himself at a loss for words, sometimes. That is the main reason I shy away from writing, the shame I feel for my very limited vocabulary, but it’s encouraging that some things will be too difficult to express into words. I’m currently working on engaging with “the present” to fight off stress and depression and it’s a hard practice for me. I tend to use observations to take me away from where I am… not to be mindfully present in them, if that even makes sense. Maybe it’s because I’m not in nature most days. Great piece!

  7. Ben. I just read your piece in Outside mag. First, congrats on that! Then, thank you. I will share it with all my students. I’m a practitioner of Experiential Education in a traditional high school. I’m seen as the “different” sort of “hippy” teacher. Luckily, I’m also seen as the “cool” teacher. What you write about and practice IS experiential education at its best. If you’ve not heard of it, I encourage you to look it up. Thanks again from a 5 year follower of your blog and other writings.

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