There is hardly any activity, any enterprise, which is started with such tremendous hopes and expectations, and yet, which fails so regularly, as love.
– Erich Fromm, The Art of Loving
Nowhere in the Odyssey or Iliad will you find the color blue. Homer’s sea was dark as wine, his sky fingered rose. Indeed, the word itself is missing from the whole of ancient Greek.
This defies logic. The vast canopy envelops us in blue. What blindness could obscure those coruscating waves as the bolt of silk billows open to the day? Sapphire, azure, cobalt, cerulean. We see this now and maintain it must always have been so.
But this too: What name was glass when those first Mesopotamian beads fell from the fire? What did we call that handful of thatch when we ventured out from the cave and found ourselves in need of a roof? The people of Atacama never have foggy memories. And you, city dweller, suburban native, may live a whole lifetime without capturing in words the clank and groan of the pumpjack as it drinks up oil from under the broken steppe.
To know a thing is to name it. We describe what becomes familiar as our mind splits it from the mottled everything and our senses fight to trace its shape into being.
When a thing is everywhere it is nowhere. Sky becomes blue when we develop the capacity to make blue and the concurrent desire to trade in it. Indigo velvet, lush royal moire. Now we grind a once exceedingly rare pigment out to its dizzying extremes. Now we call up a spectrum of descriptors for the field across which the sun and stars make their journey.
Indeed, we have dozens of terms where we used to have none. These words pin our eyes to ever-finer slices of hue, and we discern every shade as a distinct and almost solid thing. It is impossible to un-see what’s fixed now on the canvas, so we assume these shades were born with the world.
We believe we name what exists, when really, we birth what we name.
Ask this: what might the sky be without lapis and cornflower? To the ancient Greeks, it could have been a copper valley laced with honeyed streams, or herringbone and almond root, or blood seeping through sheared wool. From dawn to dusk and around again, petal and wing and wine and jewel. The sky holds anything given a name.
But only that, and nothing more.
Now you pull the door closed as you leave.
You take our words, all the ones we’ve only just begun to distill and to weave and — yes, we were almost so bold, we came so close — to conceive.
You, one who was not until he was. In the anonymous swirl, a faceless other. I was as blind to you then as Homer to a 21st century sky. If my language had a word for you at all, it would have been as it is with “bird” until the plangent whipporwill calls down night, with “tree” until sweetgum briars bite tender feet. You were stranger, neighbor, father, man. The general is where things might have remained.
Then I saw you.
I see you.
Then we have in our hands the material of us, thread and patches, a whalebone form. But what is it? What word do we coin for this new architecture?
Do we even think to ask?
When the sand-burnt debris fell out of the fire, it could have been stone, it could have been trash. Its very existence was determined by the lexicon’s outer limits. Beyond that horizon line, all things embryonic swim in the invisible not-yet.
Until someone picks it up and says, this is something else.
The boundaries shift. The world expands.
Sifting through ash, someone finds it again, shares it, and someone else finds it yet again. They begin to recognize it as an it, to spin it and shape it, and the infant entity takes its place in the vocabulary of civilization.
How many beginnings are discarded or broken, how many — for want of notice — fail to hatch?
How many nameless wonders already walk among us that we are unable to see? What kaleidescopic marvels sing against our blind skin?
We can garnish our curiosity with courage. This ability is our human birthright, and we can let our minds split an almost imperceptible variance from the mottled everything. It is up to us to marshal the tremendous combined force of sense and choice, and to trace the shape into being.
Kinship becomes love when we develop the capacity to make love and the concurrent desire to trade in it.
Love becomes the invention into which we breathe life when we sift it from the ashes and say, this is.
This is something else.