On Thresholds, Love, and Language

By Catherine DiMercurio

Sometimes we halt on a threshold and consider how words fail us.

As February inches to a halt in its slow, frozen way, and we in the Midwest stand here on the almost-verge of spring, I’m thinking of thresholds. Thresholds as in, the space existing after one thing and before another, and as in limits.

One of my earliest memories is of standing on the curb at the door of the school bus that was to take me to kindergarten. I remember the black rubber tread on the steps leading up and in, and little else. I remember feeling frozen. Years later, I asked my mother why I wouldn’t get on the bus. She said I told her it was too loud. A lot of the world feels that way, still. The overall sensory impact of a chaotic world is like a static-y radio turned up too loud. Outside that kindergarten bus, I imagine it wasn’t just the noise as overwhelming decibel level, but the clanging chaos of social unknowns, represented by overlapping voices, the chatter of classmates that I did not yet know, conversations in-progress, which I couldn’t access. My sisters were my friends, but they were in first and second grade.

I remember too the safe quiet bubble of my mother’s car as she drove me to school. I think she drove me for the first week, maybe longer. (The first time I managed to actually ride the bus was terrifying and I left my gym shoes on the bus and when everyone else was putting sneakers in cubbies against the wall, I was crying because I’d forgotten mine.) But in the car, there was reprieve. It was a hushed in-between place, and my mother was there, and it felt like everything was okay, at least for that little while, from house to school.

My son and I recently took an evening to visit my daughter at college. On the way home, he talked about how much he loved being in the car, because he did not have to be doing anything. He allowed himself to relax, chat, zone out, and not have to be productive. For him it was a reprieve from homework, student council emails, scholarship applications. Often, as I’m commuting 30 minutes or so to work, I similarly have the feeling of not wanting to get there yet. I can give myself credit for being a responsible adult going to work, but I do not yet have to face responsibilities and ingest their corresponding stresses.

I think of how much our lives create webs of responsibility and how there are very few places where we are legitimately de-obligated from fulfilling them.

Reflecting on that frozen moment when stepping onto the bus seemed equivalent to stepping off a cliff, I consider how words are such inadequate tools for conveying ideas related to feeling. We use collections of words as convenient but undersized vessels for ideas that don’t fit into them. We say terror or panic but what we mean involves the loss of a safe world, a known version of ourselves as its primary inhabitant, and the abyss of a new universe where there is no familiar anything, anyone. We try to contain with words emotions too big for our bodies, almost too big for our hearts to feel, let alone express.

I think of how else language fails us. I think of what mothering me would have been like, and though I am a mother I still can’t imagine it. I remember each of my own children’s first days – of preschool, kindergarten, high school. Dropping my daughter off at college. I imagine what it’ll be like, in a matter of months, to leave my son in his dorm room. How does one say, at such points of disembarking, I love you but I have to go this way. You have to go that way. Sometimes the simultaneous joy and pain of loving leaves us frozen.

That words never fail to fail us is especially true of love, all of our loves. We should have more words for it, better ones. There is no concise way to say I [love-that-holds-within-it-comprehension-of-all-my-maternal-shortcomings] you. No way to truly capture the sorrow of loss that grows like a long blade of grass alongside the child’s every accomplishment as witnessed from the parent’s perspective. The way loving means I am teaching you to leave me, to be you, to belong to yourself. Though you belong with me, now, you don’t belong to me. 

macro photography of droplet on green leaf during daytime
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Other ways of loving are similarly challenged by vernacular limitations. There is no easy way to express I [love-that-arrives-as-a-surprise-after-long-and-difficult-journeying] you. No way to really say that we simultaneously want to protect it as if it is vulnerable moss at the edge of a forest path in danger of being crushed by the heavy footfall of experience, and the way we lean against it as if it is the sturdiest oak in the woods.

I wonder, if we did have language for such things, would it be easier? If there were precise words for the types of love we wanted to express, would we use them more freely? Or, would our threshold for the feelings such words encapsulate still be in danger of being breached, and would we instead reach for softer words, blurry words, in order to contain? Perhaps language has limits for a reason. Perhaps as a species we have created the language we can safely wield, and nothing more.

I think, too, of those places of reprieve, and how they involve solitude sometimes, and quiet, supportive companionship at others. It might be in the car, in bed, over coffee. It might be that we don’t recognize these spaces as thresholds, as places in-between where we are allowed not to go this way or that way, not to have to deal with this responsibility, or that one. Where we don’t have to consider our threshold for what our hearts can express.

Writing this, my mind hops back to a couple of years ago when I began this blog and how the analogy of the road trip began it all, and how many times I have returned to it in various manners. Wherever you are journeying today, I hope you find that bubble of calm and quiet, when you are neither here nor there.

Love, Cath

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