What a sentence is
Imagine water. Still, reflective steel.
Drop a pebble, then another, further away, then another in a line. Notice how the ripples arc away, loop back, echo into themselves.
This - the entire machine of water, pebble, ripple - is how a sentence is to me.
Some words plop, others s p l a s h, all of them make waves. Every ridge / crest / cadence / swell in those waves carries a slightly different flavour of meaning / intention / tone / hue / pitch, such that when the wave arrives at someone, it can mean different things depending on a combination of the weather of their mood, their previous relationship with you, and the complete sum of their lived experience. Punctuation, volume, abbreviation and more can further modulate the wavelength. The receiving person, too, can reflect the wave, subtly altering it in the process.
And when waves encounter each other, they act on themselves in unpredictable ways, merging, amplifying and creating new echoes of meaning.
Every word ripples away from you in unpredictable ways. If you’re lucky, they ripple in the right way, and create the loose shape of the thought object you intended. Other times, they ripple in unexpected directions, or at unexpected speeds, or the waves echo back, looping into themselves in a way that creates the wrong, cacophonous emphasis.
When that happens, you need to drop other pebbles to create new ripples in the hope that they cancel out specific waves, knowing that they also set off other ripples whose impact might not be obvious.
This is what a sentence is.
It’s a spell (quite literally, a spelling) constructed from runes and the pause between breaths. You pressure a density of heirogyphics into a small space, feed it the heat of your intention till it attains critical mass, and then it buckles under its own weight. From the heart of that dead star comes your meaning.
Or sometimes a sentence is a thing you make in a blacksmith’s workshop, except the anvil is water, and the hammer is water, and the iron is water, and sometimes it feels easier to just tip over the whole thing.
Because of what a sentence is, I have spent a very long time trying to figure out how to drop the pebbles. This is important, because if you drop the pebbles wrong you can hurt people, which is bad.
It has been very hard, learning how to drop pebbles.
I don’t regret it. Because while it has been hard, it has also been rewarding. I have come to know and love pebbles. When I hold them against my tongue, I love how they taste, their weight, the shape of ripples they make when they fall, and the entire polychrome chorus of what pebble words can do.
I like to think it has helped me better understand and appreciate people. After a while, you learn a lot by the silent sound it makes when different types of ripples reflect off different types of people. It’s like the different colours of tones that ring out when you flick a finger against a bell. The best reflection sounds high and bright and clear. It sounds like laughter. (One of the most interesting things to discover is that people can both make water shapes, and that they themselves can be a kind of dense water shape that you can read)
But it has been very hard.
It takes a lot of concentration to make the pebbles drop right. On a good day, I can sculpt a water shape that gestures pretty accurately to my intentions. On a bad day - when I’m tired - the pebbles fall wrong.
It takes a lot of effort to track where all the ripples are going, to pre-emptively cancel out harm. I’ve been told that my face can get very scary in conversation, which shocked me. I am yet to find the thought object water shape that says “I am concentrating very hard, turning every nerve ending in my body into a dowser for you.”
So, it has been very hard. But in general, I accepted it.
Recently, however, I have began to suspect, that other people do not do this.
I’m thirty three years old, which feels pretty late for this suspicion to come to me. But until recently I think I genuinely assumed that…I guess I just thought that most people generally labour over their water shapes like I do, and that there is an implicit contract that we extend grace to each other when the pebbles don’t drop right.
But this year, I’ve had a number of conversations so frustrating, I’m starting to believe, I am actually starting to suspect, that most people are not sculpting sentence pebbles.
I think people are literally just saying shit.
With very little thought about how the pebbles fall. At all.
I cannot emphasize enough how much of a shock this has come to me.
In any given conversation, I expend frightening amounts of focus and energy to be intentional about meaning. Not only my own, but listening carefully to the other person, intuiting the shape of their meaning. Simultaneously, I put energy to not have the effort show on my face. This kind of ventriloquism can be exhausting, and so when I’m with close friends, or people I trust, I let the strings go slack. (As I’ve gotten older, it’s also gotten harder to keep up the energy. Groups of people, for extended periods of time, where I have no agency over exit, can feel like hell. I mean this literally. It can feel like physical pain, like cooking from the inside out. The other people have done nothing wrong. It’s just that keeping track of all the ripples gets harder.)
It can be exhausting, but even when it’s hard, you bear it for the people you love. No matter how good it would feel to lash out, even when frustrated, you do your best to resist the urge to slap both palms against the water.
So, given this, it’s hurtful how one-sided this now feels. I feel like I work so hard to understand, and invest so much effort to try to be understood, and so few other people invest similar intentionality.
It is difficult to describe how frustrated this has began to make me.
I don’t think it’s too much to ask, that others put any effort at all, in understanding the shapes you’re making.
One day, this will be something I’ll smile about. One day, this will be a memory.
Right now, there is no rain of hail dense enough, pummelling a frothing steel sea wide enough, that begins to describe this anger / hurt / anger / hurt / anger / hurt.