AML Presidential Address 2012

From my early childhood, I remember people with dark skin and black hair in my home.  I understood that they were working with my father on projects in different languages.  Most were Mayan Indians, from various places in Guatemala.  The summer I was eight, our family went to Yucatan, where Dad was working on his dissertation.  I would see him with his Mayan assistants, and would interrupt frequently with a question.  “How do you say…?”  “What does it mean if they say?”  Finally, Dad had to tell me to just try to figure it out on my own. He couldn’t be my full-time interpreter.

Dad completed his dissertation, a landmark in linguistic history.  Its title is—wait for it—Yucatec Maya Noun and Verb Morpho-Syntax.  Translate THAT!

When I was nineteen, we went to Guatamala.  I hated Guatemala within a week of our arrival.  How would you feel if someone came up to you and said. “Yin ninwajo ri ki’j chila c’o chicaj.  Pero xpe ri job chupan ronojel ri ru wachuleo.” Clearly, it makes no sense.  How could it possibly?  Everyone was making nonsensical sounds to mock us.

But of course, understanding came.  A little grammar, but mostly relationships. Children teaching me to say q’un (yellow). Ri k’ij?  The sun.  Jabel?  Beautiful. Rat at jabel.  YOU are beautiful.

Cakchiquel is a poetic language.  A door is “ru chi ri choch.”  The mouth of the house—as though the house were an organic thing.  Perhaps that’s a better way to see our homes than we often do, particularly during the ever-popular covet-fests when we traipse through a “Parade of Homes” to identify the amenities we must have.  In a living home, there are particular smells—my children probably think of sweet bread and apple betty and burned toast.  There are familiar sights—a hand-me-down couch which bears the indentations of every family member’s bottom since 1900, or a family tree cross-stitched by a great aunt.  There are sounds lingering from every entrance and exit: “Mommy’s in labor.” “Grandpa broke his femur.” “Look what I made, Mom!” “I got the part!” “Nobody likes me.” For me, memories of Strawberry Shortcake birthday parties my best friend, Buffy, and I put on for our daughters mingle with the still jolting memory of September 12th, 1994, when my brother called to tell me Buffy had died in a car crash. Home: where we want refuge and support, where a mother is there to embrace us in that primal way that reinforces our first bonds with her, and where our sins against one another become trite and ephemeral. They are swallowed up not just in a pair of arms but in a particular pair of arms. I remember my mother saying to me after I suffered a miscarriage, “Come home.  Just come home and rest.”  It meant, “enter ru chi ri choch and enter my particular, healing embrace.”  I remember kneeling at my father’s wheelchair a few months ago to receive a father’s blessing during a difficult time in my own parenting, and hearing him call me, “Precious Margaret.”  Home, because it’s ours.

In Guatemala, I entered one ru chi ri choch.  It was an adobe hut with only candles for light, a dirt floor, and all of the little branch crowded around the bed of a dying man—the former mayor of Patson, the first LDS convert there.  The missionaries supported him, lifted him into sitting position as he prepared to speak his last words. He spoke Cakchiquel, and—as I had done when Dad was working on his dissertation—I asked the missionaries what he was saying.  But this was a sacred time, not to be interrupted by questions.  “Shhh,” said Elder Garcia.  He listened and wept, as did others in the room.  And suddenly, I desperately wanted to understand.  I loved this man who lay dying before me.

We returned to Utah in May of 1975. On February 4, 1976, an earthquake leveled the town where we had lived.  It killed 27,000 people who spoke Cakchiquel. We learned that Dad’s assistant, Daniel Choc, had died.  A third world tragedy struck our hearts, because we knew so many. Daniel was “Qa-cha’lel”–our brother.  He had been the interpreter for a language learning game Dad played with the Anglo missionaries.  They would say a sentence in English, and Daniel would whisper the Cakchiquel translation into their ears.  They had to listen closely.  “Give me your chocolate.”  “Ta-ya chwe yin ri chocolate.” The picture of these same missionaries bearing the coffin of their companion, friend and interpreter is one of the most tragically evocative I’ve seen.  I see the missionaries’ youthful faces from my position in the future and glimpse what lies before them. I see the picture of my father—younger than I am now, his hair still dark—and I remember a time when I couldn’t see his pink scalp under his thin, white hair; a time when his hands didn’t shake.

We are in the last paragraph his life, and we don’t know how many sentences are left.  He relies on a dialysis machine to clean his kidneys, but when he’s able, he works on languages and how to teach them.  Often, he uses stories, repeated words and phrases, simple sentences.

This was how I learned to learn. Whenever I’m working on a language, I use as many new words as I can to create a story.  Dad and I both love the story of Joseph in the Old Testament.  I’ll tell it to you in English, though you’d understand a lot even if I were using another language.

Imagine seeing your brothers—they who had betrayed and sold you—recognizing each one, though they are much older than when you last saw them, understanding their every word but not letting them know you understand.  You speak through an interpreter. You are dressed in fine cloth, for your position in Egypt is high.  You wear the headdress and the make-up of a high-ranking Egyptian.  You, too, have aged. Your brothers have come to you for grain. Each face is familiar to you; each brings memories, and many are sweet. Finally, you can bear it no longer. You send everyone but your brothers from the room.  In Egyptian, you even order the interpreter to leave. You look at your brothers.  Do they recognize you yet?  With a cloth, you wipe the make-up from your face.  You remove your headdress—everything which divides you from them.  And then you speak in the language of your childhood: “I am Joseph, your brother.”

Oh the journeys in that story—spiritual journeys, physical journeys, journeys from prison to power and from wealth to destitution; from bondage to deliverance; from conflict to reconciliation.

Dad has the gift of tongues.  When I mention that he’s a linguist, I get one predictable question: “How many languages does he speak?”  He will never answer that question.  The gift doesn’t include bragging rights, but responsibilities.  Dad has spent his time entering other worlds on the wings or words and the pulse of love, and has then invited others to join him, teaching through stories.  I tried once to remember all of the countries he has lived in, and I couldn’t.

Ask him about China and he might speak of his student, Sharon, who converted to Christianity and broke the law by going to universities and reading the Bible out loud.

Ask him about Finland and he might tell you about Helvi, the quadriplegic woman he helped baptize in the 1950s.  Four men were needed to baptize her safely, lowering her down and bringing her up.

Each country brings faces, not tour stops.  My dad never toured.  He always unpacked and settled in.  He took journeys that happened to involve planes, but each journey was made with love.  He returned with his heartstrings tethered to many stories and characters.

Most good writing has some kind of journey in it.  The temptation in 2012, when computer games have come of age, is to have only the journey, the goal, and two-dimensional characters—a video game on paper, a tour of exotic places with sudden dangers popping up unpredictably and THE ENEMY (however defined in the game) finding increasingly devious methods to thwart the player.  But it is a game.

Of course, we in the AML can list many wonderful fantasy/sci Fi writers whose books have beautiful writing, nuanced characters, and profound plots.  The best of them have trained their writing craft while unleashing their imaginations.  I remember reading a David Wolverton (aka Dave Farland) story in a class we had together and being amazed at his skill.  I trust him to do as well in fantasy as he did in literary fiction. I recognized Tracy Hickman’s talent in High School and was touched by his true story of a soldier giving him his military medal.  One of Tracy’s characters had inspired the soldier to an act of heroism.  Many good authors hear from their readers, “You changed my life.”

Likewise, when people ask about how my father is doing, they often follow up with the sentence, “He changed my life.”  I don’t ask how; I already know.  Dad introduced them to a language, which opened “ru chi ri choch,” and then another and another.  They entered each door into brave new worlds they hadn’t imagined, peopled with strangers waiting to become friends.  Tender relationships started with a few words.

At first, they needed an interpreter, but soon they reached a point when they could let the interpreter leave, and approach their brother or sister in a language and a setting which felt like home.

As writers, filmmakers, and philosophers, we are charged with opening doors to the infinite nature of human possibility, to write characters who become true-to-life and may even think for themselves.  We are the parents letting our characters grow.  We are the children, supporting our parents through the insults of old age. We are fierce wordsmiths, demanding that every word earn its keep, because what we’re saying matters.  It isn’t a game.  We find nuance and chance.  We visit new worlds, and open them for exploration.  Our words may move a soldier to an act of valor, or urge weary brothers to reconciliation.

“Yin in Jose, ra-chalel.”

This entry was posted in International Scene, Literary Views of Scripture, Thoughts on Language. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to AML Presidential Address 2012

  1. Jonathan Langford says:

    A beautiful talk. Wish I could have been there…

  2. Richard German Ellsworth says:

    Thank you Margaret for this very touching, meaningful message.

  3. Mahonri Stewart says:

    I think this is beautiful. It’s especially interesting having read your book _Salvador_ last year.

  4. juliagblair says:

    I love this talk! trying to forward it. So glad I was present.

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