One day the world appears as expected, in its order, everything gradually shifting and rearranging itself as it does, and the next day the world is entirely different. We’ve all experienced these before-and-after moments, sometimes more or less alone, sometimes collectively. In these moments “after” the very air seems changed, and you can’t just say good morning the way you did the day before. There’s an awkward silence everywhere you go, as at a funeral, where to admit anything but grief seems obscene, and joy especially so. And yet there it is, the sun is shining and birds are doing their thing, people, even, eating and drinking and laughing. And while some days the crack between before and after seems particularly deep, and joy seems particularly wrong, you can be sure that this is the case on any given day on earth, that somewhere it is somebody’s “after.” It just so happens to be ours in the US right now.
When language is enlisted to describe or respond to such moments directly, it fails. Words like “I’m sorry” and collective cries of hatred, solidarity, and outrage, all feel useless, become mere rhetoric. They can’t bear the weight we assign to them. How could this terrible thing have happened, how could we, with all our words, not have prevented it?
Words don’t prevent floods and they don’t clean up after floods either. But when allowed to admit and create complexity, they can help a person continue to live in the aftermath. When joined with imagination, story, music, and reason, words fill back up again, reaching across time and cultures. Not with the rigid literalness of this means that, but with enough fluidity that they are once again able to mean. Then words can become an antidote to suffering. An antidote to rhetoric. It’s why poetry, whether from the Bible or Shakespeare or Rumi, is so often welcome at times when words otherwise fail. There are many ways to counteract dread, confusion, fear, and meaninglessness. Language with imagination is one of them.
This is why so much of literature endures beyond the death of kings. Your before-and-after may not be mine, my flood might not have reached you, my world may continue after yours ended, but to suffer is human.
Reading these particular pages both before and after—both when I thought I knew where our common humanity would take us and after I knew I didn’t—I find that instead of no longer mattering, no longer meaning anything, as I feared, the words here actually mean more and mean differently. We need places free of rhetoric and assumptions about who suffers, what matters. We don’t need to escape so much as to move through, and into, and around our anger, fear, and hope, whether collectively or alone. We can find such freedom when people use language with imagination—use it in ways that risk being wrong or ugly or uncertain, or even risk pleasure and joy—in order to say something truer.