A few years ago I enrolled in a Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course. It lasted for eight weeks, and included a daily hour of meditation homework, along with some other exercises. It did, actually, change my life. But that isn’t my point.
For one of the exercises the members of the class had to keep track of instances of pleasure for a whole day. (We were also supposed to spend a day keeping track of unpleasant events but I ignored that exercise.)
When I wrote down pleasures I experienced that day I missed a significant pleasure. I’m guessing I missed it because this particular pleasure is such an integral part of who I am and such a necessary part of my daily work that I don’t notice the pleasures it affords as separate events. Now I think about it, recognizing familiar pleasures is probably precisely what this exercise is designed to uncover. Anyway, I discovered it a few nights ago when I was sitting around after dinner and asked my friend Sam about his name.
Sam is the diminutive of Samuel, his middle name, and he has been called Sam by almost everyone for his whole life. He prefers the name Sam, and we, his friends, like the name Sam too. It suits him. His first name is Alden. He explained where the name Alden came from, a story seeped in New England history, a story that would apparently be familiar to any American school child, and then talked about the number of men in his family with the name Alden.
As I listened to him I rolled Alden around my tongue, the open sonorous a, and then the smooth ski slope slide of the l, the d, and the closure of the n that follows. What pleasure the sound of his name gives, which brought to the surface for me the visceral physical pleasures of language.
I know I can get intense pleasure from, say, M&Ms, or good chocolate, or a triple cream Brie. And there are, of course, other intense pleasures, many of them also physical.
But until that moment I had mostly taken for granted the pleasures of words with their sounds formed by our lips and tongues and the spaces in our mouths. Then there is the particularly captivating confluence of meaning and sound. And this isn’t even to mention the extraordinary possibilities of metaphor, where sound and meaning seem to change both my brain structure and my knowledge of the world.
I remember being eight, in bed with chicken pox reading a book of poetry while my mother was at work. When she returned I recited a long poem to her that I memorized waiting for her, a poem I can still recite to myself decades later, loving the rhythms of the way the words are strung together, the hills and valleys of sound.
When I drive along the road between Ithaca and Binghamton I always think about how I’d refuse to live in the village named Catatonk, however cheap the house was, however beautiful the woods and stream and daffodils behind the house, however badly my partner wanted to live there. When I drive along Route 2 between Plainfield and Marshfield I think about how happy I’d be to live on Star Pudding Road.
How lucky I am that words give such pleasure and that I get to work with words and the arrangement of words, and that sometimes I get paid for it too.
I’m a sucker for pleasure, easily and quickly shifting into addiction, but I don’t need a twelve step program to cope with the pleasures of language, I don’t need to restrict language, or worry about its effect on my health or my work or my relationships.
So yea for the pleasures of it all, for language firing up all the pleasure circuits in our brains over and over and over, every day.
Of course Sam is Sam’s name, and I will always know my friend as Sam. And that word has its pleasures too, in the softness of the “s” and “m” in contrast to the quick thump of the name itself. I’ll never call him Alden and he’ll never want me to call him Alden, and that is how it should be. But I will pay more attention to my experience of the many pleasures of words. If, ever again, I’m asked to keep a list of pleasures experienced in a day I know it will be full of words and many pages long.