In 1971, I was a junior in high school. Two friends of mine who were seniors and I made up what we called the “editorial triumvirate” of Early Wine, our high school literary magazine. (I was the first editor who wasn’t a senior; I don’t know if I was the last, but after what we put out as a magazine, possibly I was the last.) I wrote poetry—well, the “poetry” of a 16 year-old. I thought I understood and knew it all. And at the same time, I felt as though no one understood me amid waves of massive insecurity about all of the little codes and clues and hints about which I knew nothing at all. Adolescence.

One day at the record store, I came across a new Pete Seeger album, Rainbow Race and bought it. I don’t think that it is a very well known album of his, but I listened to it endlessly. It was in a stack of vinyl records that I typically played on Friday afternoons, getting ready to go out—along with David Crosby (If I Could Only Remember My Name), Incredible String Band (Liquid Acrobat as Regards the Air), Pink Floyd (Meddle)—granted, an odd mix. Who remembers stacking vinyl records on the long spindle of the changer and letting them play?

This song, Words, Words, Words, suited my adolescent angst. However, more than that, it likely shaped my sense of epistemology, of how we really don’t understand words, how we get tangled up in questions of meaning, how the structures they appear to build so easily come tumbling down… While I was still 16, and at the time thought that others were the ones who didn’t understand the words, the message of this wise and humble man tell me (us) that he also didn’t understand them planted a seed:

If I only understood them,
While my lips pronounced them,
Would not my life be changed?

I’m not sure that we can truly understand words the way an Other understands them. Part of understanding language, for me, is to remember that we all read the words from our own context and experience. While I may try to paint a particular image or idea with words, what it “means,” rather than being 16-year old sure of itself, shifts with the lighting and the seasons, with the perspectives of each reader.

This does not mean that every perspective is as acute or as accurate as every other perspective. However, it does suggest the necessity or empathy and compassion in writing and speaking—even or especially when communicating with those with whom we disagree. We might actually find that the Other’s perspective makes sense in context and from that Other’s experience, even if we still feel there are errors produced from the perspective and context. Experience, identity, so many things shape our understanding of the world. I hope to learn to better listen for those shaping forces and to the Other, toward an empathy of hearing, reading, speaking and writing.

So, here, for your listening pleasure, Pete Seeger singing Words, Words, Words from the album Rainbow Race.

Words, words, words

In my old Bible
How much of truth remains?
If I only understood them,
While my lips pronounced them,
Would not my life be changed?

Words, words, words
In Tom’s old Declaration
How much of truth remains?
If I only understood them,
While my lips pronounced them,
Would not my life be changed?

Words, words, words
In my old songs and stories
How much of truth remains?
If I only understood them,
While my lips pronounced them,
Would not my life be changed?

Words, words, words
On cracked old pages
How much of truth remains?
If my mind could understand them,
And if my life pronounced them,
Would not this world be changed?

Words and Music by Pete Seeger (1967)
© 1967 by Sanga Music Inc.

© 2015, feature, Michael Dickel, All rights reserved

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