By Patricia Van Pelt
Guest post, first published in The Lathrop Nor’Easter, Summer 2017.
“It was reported that the SAT (standardized college admissions test) was to remove unfamiliar and unused words”
Each morning I walk up to the St. Mary cemetery and look out to the distant skyline of the Mt. Holyoke range. The flow of this range, the line it draw across the sky each morning is thrilling and though unchanging, always surprising and curiously satisfying. I am still looking for the words to describe it — ‘anthropomorphic’? It has enough syllables to mirror the shape of these hills but it feels too mortal for such a heavenly writ form. ‘Undulating’ is too even — this music is uneven, takes breaths, rises and falls at unexpected intervals. ‘Intermezzo’ describes the way it intrudes on an otherwise mundane valley landscape…. Yet… it turns out that this is not a mountain range at all. These molten hills are just that, solidified lava from time immemorial. This explains their musical flow, their simplicity.
Words have always been important to our family; perhaps living in other cultures and learning other sets of sounds heightened our interest. Our son plays competitive scrabble, not necessarily needing to know the meaning but fascinated by the sounds and endless interlocking variations of the letters. Our daughter throws words out to a dance class to stimulate their movement — to have the dancers respond physically to sound, rhythm, and meaning. Our youngest is a poet and teacher of languages — words are her sustenance.
We have always read aloud — words need to be heard. The other day my husband and I read aloud Kipling’s Just So story, “How the Camel Got His Hump”. Each time the camel was asked a question he replied, “Humpff!” It needs to be heard, spoken out loud, “Oh Best Beloved.”
Our house in Mexico City was was set out in the University district literally built on the lava flows from now extinct volcanoes. The garden ran down from the house with a view to Popocatepetl and Iztaccihuatl — active volcanoes, wonderful musical words. We often read aloud in the garden. Our daughter liked the different stressed syllables similar to a Mexican word she had just learned, “no estacionamiento” — no parking!
The very sounds and curious rhythms conjure up this green and volcanic grey vista.
How sad to limit vocabulary to the present, mundane and familiar. New words, unknown words, foreign words, are the wings that take us to new worlds, new ideas, that give us the ability to stand outside our narrow now and look to new horizons; to look afresh each morning at the mountain range.