How Language Perpetuates The Heartbreak of Ghostly Towns, Poverty, and Perhaps The End of Civilization As We Know It
Within our culture, linear language is triumphant, and yet nested within that triumph is our sure defeat…
In our human toolbox, language has always been the 1,000-pound gorilla. No other tool is mastered so fully, so quickly, and by so many. By the time you were 2 or 3 years old, you were speaking. By 5 or 6, you were happily swimming along in language with amazing skill and dexterity. You were using your freshly acquired words to announce to the world all the things you felt, needed, and wanted. And all this was accomplished without the shred of a formal or strategic plan. Miracle!
When you were hungry, you turned to words. When you felt discomfort you used words. When happy, amazed, or delighted, you mixed words with laughter. And when one of your siblings snatched your favorite toy, no doubt you exclaimed, no or mine perhaps accompanied by a few other more primal sounds!
And so it goes. We all get better and better with language. We get so good, in fact, and use our language so pervasively, that its use tends to go underground and largely unconscious. It hardly occurs to us, as it morphs into the only tool we can’t put down. Whether used internally as thought or externally as spoken words, we sail constantly upon the thrilling and magic waters of language.
OK, so what is the problem here? Let me explain. (And yes, I’ll get to the ghostly towns, poverty and more, soon…)
Language comes to us in two broad types. Both are powerful and both are needed. One type, however, gets the lion’s share of our attention and use, to our great disadvantage. This is the type you focused on as a child and have continued to use. It is “linear” language. It’s instrumental, utilitarian, and leans toward the literal.
We say, pass me the salt. I want to purchase a ticket. My client is innocent. The chance of rain is 70 percent. I want the job. That’s my house, or car, or dog, or wallet…
By contrast, we’ll call the second type of language, “non-linear.” We could also tag it with other descriptors to flush out our definition, such as imaginative, relational, and intuitive. While linear language is primarily aimed at our strategic mind, non-linear language is designed to fly under our strategic defenses directly to the heart.
And yes, non-linear language shows up in most good poetry and some good prose. Because of this, it’s often referred to as “poetic” language as well. It veers toward the narrative and swoons for metaphors, the kinds that help us both know and feel. Rather than having a pre-meditated utilitarian purpose, non-linear language invites us to step inside and have our own unique and rich experience. In this way, it’s like a trampoline that we step on and are surprised at how high or wildly we are launched into the air. All these traits skillfully united to transmit actually felt experiences and emotional engagements rather than simply facts, data, and information. My point!
Lastly, it’s important to note that in our culture, non-linear language is often discounted and marginalized. It barely limps along, even though as I will try to show it is deeply needed to help us deal with the most pressing problems of our time. Let me explain starting with the tragedy of what I call “ghostly” vs. “ghost” towns.
During a road trip, my wife and I had the fun and privilege of exploring the wonderful national park known as Death Valley. We witnessed one awe-inspiring moment and vista after another. Spectacular!
While there, we also visited the town of Rhyolite, which is an official ghost town in Nye County, Nevada. It’s located among the Bullfrog Hills, at the edge of Death Valley. Reading the self-guided history along the old main street, seeing the abandoned buildings and a few other remaining dilapidated structures and railroad cars was captivating. The town came and went in a little over a decade based on the boom and bust of mining and speculation. And yes, of course, we experienced a feeling of empathy with the plight of the town’s people over a century ago. And yet, as a museum we were seeing history more than tragedy.
Several days later on our way back to the San Francisco Bay Area, our perspectives were about to be expanded in ways we could barely believe or take in, while our hearts would be broken. We were about to learn the real difference between a ghost town and a ghostly town, although that distinction did not occur to me until some time later as I was paddling along in my notebook doing my journaling.
The first thing I’ll say about this town (I won’t name it here) is that it obviously did not feel historical in any sense. It felt like coming around the corner and seeing a massive disaster unfolded and unfolding. Seeing this town felt so sad and even tragic that it hurt. Run-down doesn’t touch it. Abandoned. Forgotten. These are the words.
We gazed house after empty house. Businesses boarded up, abandoned years ago. Buildings in ruins, some half burned others dilapidated and falling down in other ways. If a high school could be said to barely limp along and still be alive, that was the kind they had. And yes, there were bare signs of life too. In fact, there was one remaining factory, but the kind poor communities seem to always attract.
So what has all this got to do with linear and non-linear language? Remember, linear language is extremely powerful. It’s how we make a request and give information. It’s a miracle. It also constantly fails us.
For example, ghostly towns and ghostly parts of towns, lumber by the hundreds through our nation in chains, as if locked in a suspended state of perpetual defeat. They typically get described as simply numbers and percentages. The population is down 42 percent. Food assistance has increased by 39 percent. Opioid addiction has tripled. Crime is up. Income is down. The tax base is off 73 percent. The last new business opened 11 years ago. 4,275 people have moved away since the crash.
All true statements of linear and literal fact. However, notice how these statements also pull us toward a kind of intellectual, rational, non-emotional and statistical way of experiencing these tragedies.
Line up enough of these bloodless, linear statements and we eventually go numb. It all gets so deadly abstract. So removed, numeric, non-human and factual. We soon turn off the parts of ourselves that normally keep our hearts more open and receptive. We become shut-off to our true sadness. Next, we look away in despair.
This is far different than a full, engaged, and active sadness. A sorrow in motion that rolls up its sleeves and pitches in to help and support. A sadness that is willing to go courageously upstream to see where the systemic problems begin. A melancholy, which realizes that ghost town people actually left and started over again, while ghostly town people seem to be stuck and out of options.
So how might we unleash a different kind of language? A non-linear language with images, metaphors, with an embedded story that takes leaps and bounds and makes an attempt at reaching our hearts. The kind of language that engages and elicits a more human and emotional response. This little piece is what came to me.
Only the most happily decided places, may claim the honor
of ghost town as title. Done. Ended. Finished. Complete.
Where the windows glow green with all that is gone
and only the ragweed, rats, and rattlesnakes remain.
Train cars vacant, rusting, forgiving their old regrets,
the best cause and the worst result together departed.
But what do we call a city or town still alive, but just barely?
Wounded, pummeled by pain, still clinging to bare ground.
Dropped to its knees, burdened with a bulging bag of never,
where poverty has punctured the few remaining dreams.
Where the last standing factory yawns its thin line of smoke
and the old ragged high school glistens with its razored wire.
Where the dead ghosts bite like rattlesnakes
and the living ghosts dance and stumble among the rats,
deciding with such a fierceness beyond faith to recite,
sing, or simply moan, some distant and vacuous song.
Like all my writing, when I started this piece, I had no idea where things were headed. I had only my experiences, feelings, and the nudges that the words provided. A surprise is always the goal! I didn’t know there could be such a thing as a ghost town at peace and aghostly town in deep pain. Nor did I know that ghostly parts of towns and cities are just as tragic and exist all across our nation. Or that a catastrophe could roll on for decades. I had never seen an ancient train car seeking to forgive old regrets or a town with a bag of never! I had seen razored wires before, but only at prisons not at schools. I’ve had my heart broken, but never by a town.
What’s my point? Maybe my little poem has engaged and moved you and maybe not. Perhaps the leaps I’ve taken, the images I’ve used, and the metaphors I have turned to for help, has touched something deeper than thought. If not, of course, no worries. We all have different needs for the type of non-linear language required to fly under the radar screen of our strategic mind to reach our heart. The point is recognizing how deeply we need both the linear facts and the non-linear human emotional experience, in order to take on the devastatingly difficult challenges we face.
My stance is we need e-motion to get ourselves in-motion.
Of course, it’s not just ghostly towns and their entrenched poverty that need our care and action. The pale, bland, and abstract nature of so much linear speech has spread a layer of icy indifference over many other tragic issues as well. Issues we must now address. Despair, after all, turns out to be a luxury we can no longer afford.
For example, we must not only know the facts and figures related to climate change, but we must also experience their unfolding consequences in our hearts. We must feel the strongest emotions of awe, gratitude, and respect if we are to move from frozen despair and denial to a sad, grieving, and therefore skillfully focused action.
This same point also applies to our current state of unprecedented wealth and income inequality. It applies to gender and racial injustice as well. And it applies to gun violence and the need for universal health care. In each case, we must seek out both the linear and non-linear facts, stories, and perspectives. We need it all.
It is not an exaggeration to say our big, amazing, beautiful world (as we know and love it today) is unequivocally on the line… and in decline. For example, systemic injustice and poverty invariably deliver social and political instability. Danger!
Of course, climate change alone is capable of stopping the whole human project in its tracks. And sooner than many imagined. But this need not be. This does not have to become our collective human destiny. If we can simply begin and begin now. If we can begin by combining the power of our minds and hearts, using the integrated strength of both linear and non-linear language, then surely skilled action will be far more likely to follow.
As poet Mary Oliver once said in her famous poem, The Journey, “One day you finally knew what you had to do and began…”
That day is here. The journey is ours. And the time is now. Our language and then our feet and hands must not fail us.