Recently a friend asked a tremendously thought-provoking question on Facebook. These are the kinds of juicy things that turn into deeply introspective writing prompts for me.
The question was “Do you believe that you can fall in love with words?“
While there are certainly multiple interpretations to a wonderful question like this, the interpretation I chose was this: Do you think it’s possible to fall in love with someone through the words they write? I responded in the comments—yes, absolutely. I do believe that.
The words we choose to put down into written form go through a wild journey through our neurons. It activates very different parts of our brain. The words we write down have gone through extra layers of brain matter. They have taken a journey. In our rich inner universe, I like to imagine it as a slow, deliberate ride; like drifting down a lazy river in a canoe, their hand trailing in the water. They dangle and make shapes and swirls through the water and decide whether or not to complete the journey to the destination—onto the paper, or through the fingers, through the keyboard, surviving the backspace key, the eraser, and being committed to an unknown future. For all they know it could be ephemeral: onto a napkin, onto the back of an old bill on the desk, into a thoughtless social media post—but they could also become part of what defines a person, part of a permanent record. They could outlast their author by millennia. They could change the world. That’s a lot to consider, and so we put far more importance on them than we do when we speak.
If the written word, then, is our best chance to convey what’s really on our minds in a thoughtful and provocative way, then it holds that love, one of the most fundamental and human things we can feel, should be able to travel down that long and winding stream; languidly meandering, gathering feelings along the way.
Here’s where I admit something shocking—I know almost nothing about Anthony Bourdain.
He represents a cultural blind spot for me. The first I had heard of him in any meaningful way (beyond his name and that he had a TV show) was when he died; so many people I care about were mourning his death—even the kind of people who never talk about celebrity deaths. I was a bit taken aback by the outpouring of emotion I saw for what I just considered “some celebrity chef” among all the other celebrity chefs I knew nothing about. Many of my friends just simply assumed I knew everything there was to know about him and that I was going to be affected by his passing. Sadly, I was not, because I had no exposure to his work in any meaningful way. I never read his books, never saw his show, and never read anything he had written.
There had to be something there, though. Something beyond his dashing good looks and his celebrity status.
My partner clued me in. She started sharing passages of his writing with me, and his passage about Vietnam roped me in and hooked me:
It’s Christmastime in Hanoi again and the Metropole Hotel is lit up like an amusement park. In the courtyard, a monstrous white tree with bright red ornamental balls towers over the swimming pool. The decorative palms shine blindingly bright with a million tiny bulbs. I’m on my second gin and tonic and planning on having a third, settled back in a heavy rattan chair and feeling the kind of sorry for myself that most people would be very content with. There’s incense in the air, buffeted about by the slowly moving overhead fans: a sickly-sweet odor that mirrors perfectly my mixed feelings of dull heartache and exquisite pleasure. I often feel this way when alone in Southeast Asian hotel bars—an enhanced sense of bathos, an ironic dry-smile sorrow, a sharpened sense of distance and loss.
That really resonated with me, and I now understand why people loved this man so. His words evoke emotions. They aren’t particularly descriptive or place-setting, but they convey feeling. Those words are a heady stew, rich in flavor and scent, the kind of thing that sticks to you. It sure feels a lot like love.
This is the kind of writing I aspire to as well, and I have always felt that I am at my creative best when I am feeling big feelings: hungry, angry, desperate, frustrated, or madly and wildly in love.
I have seen many people proclaim their love for Anthony Bourdain, and now I understand why. They have fallen in love with his words.
Recently, I have fallen in love again. It’s been a very long time since I had this experience, and this time around—being in my 40s provides new perspective on everything—I am feeling quite academic and utterly confident about it. In the span of time since the last time I fell in love, I have changed a lot as a person. Mostly, I have become quite introspective—wondering how this happened, trying to tie the incredible rush of feelings I’ve been experiencing to bits and pieces of narrative along the way. I have fancied myself a bit of a storyteller over the last decade or so, and this time I’ve been asking myself what the tale of my own experience will read like. What will our story be?
I have been reading, and re-reading, the long chain of text messages we’ve exchanged since we first started talking. From innocent and professional to friendly and familiar—from cautiously flirty to ravenously hungry for each other’s presence. The narrative is all right there in front of me, almost a manual of how these two particular people fell for each other. I read them over and over again (she lovingly calls me an idiot for doing this, make no mistake) because I want to understand it. Even though I am one of the main characters in this play, I still have a sense of wonder and disbelief that this could really happen to these two people. Even though major beats along the way were defined by physically meeting, the real magic happened through the words we exchanged. After each time we met in person, the flurry of words that poured into the electronic ether between us intensified in tenor, tone, and a deep and gripping sense of longing. I re-read them to fall in love with her all over again, particularly when our circumstances prevent us from seeing each other or being together. They are real. The words swim, dance, and play between the very real feelings, both the ache and the joy. They sparkle at the edges of our experience, and I like to imagine that someday they will revisit me in a new way. Maybe they will become a song, or a poem, or a novel. Perhaps I will craft these very words that worked for us into something that may inspire love in others. That would truly be special.
The short answer
So, my friend, this was all a long-winded way to answer your question: Do you believe that you can fall in love with words?
Yes, yes I do.