Misunderstanding

The poetry of misunderstanding is related to all that intends, and fails, to meet its mark. The arrow that whistles past the target. The hammer that descends on the unfortunate thumb. It is tangled up in many of the misguided habits we have perfected. Of chasing wild geese, counting chickens prematurely, and locating carts before their horses. It is implicated in our undignified tendency to bark up incorrect trees, and in our fondness for laboring under delusions. Also in our reluctance to bite our tongues, bide our time or swallow our pride.

In a world of variable weather conditions, the poetry of misunderstanding rolls into our lives, sometimes like fine mist in the valley, sometimes like thick fog off the ocean, sometimes like rampaging tornado, full of sound and fury. It obscures the view, shrouds the sun, and introduces a vast capacity for confusion. It creates labyrinths of resentment, riptides of blame and guilt, and dark woods of inarticulate rage. It also, however, embeds in all things, an element of mystery. With it the potential for adventure. Were every path unconditionally clear, and all maps readable, life would amount to little more than a long walk in the park. Pleasant for awhile, but soon grown tedious, and eventually, unbearable. Uncertainty is the price of every quest. The risk of misunderstanding who you are, where you are meant to go, and what you are meant to do.  It has always been this way and will so always be. We are susceptible to blundering. And it is this liability that renders our best efforts noble.

On happy occasion, misunderstanding can be dispersed as gracefully as a cloud of butterflies, dissolved effortlessly as a sugar cube in your cafe au lait, by a gentle word or a well-timed gesture of sincerity. In less fortuitous instances it springs out of ill-nourished soil like an enchanted hedge, intractable and laced with thorns. Or an unscalable concrete wall, studded with watch towers and armed guards. The poetry of misunderstanding casts shadows and spells, whose effects often lie far beyond the conjuring of prediction. Imagine at large in the world, a persnickety dragon beleaguered by a chronic cough. When he flares up it is difficult to say with any degree of well-reasoned certainty whether the trigger was merely a tickle in his throat, or his temper. This ambiguity leads to many singed encounters and tragicomic quantities of heartbreak on all sides.  It does not require familiarity with dragons, persnickety or otherwise, to understand how this plays out.

Meaning is implicit. The facts require reading into. A slammed door might mean the wind, or someone’s desperation. Errors of interpretation are inevitable. One day you say ‘water’ and mean ‘I am thirsty’. Someone brings you a shining glass full to the brim. It is not far-fetched to assume that someday you will say ‘water’ but what you mean is ‘My house is on fire!’ And someone will toss over their shoulder, directions to the well, as they run to catch a train, a plane, a falling star. It is natural and also absurd, that in that moment you will feel fiercely betrayed. It has occurred to you that the message spoken was not the message heard. Yet somehow this consideration is insufficient to soothe the sting. In the middle and the muddle of it all, it does not help that sometimes you will say ‘water’ when what you actually mean is, ‘I do not agree’,  or ‘What are you thinking?’, or ‘There must be another way.’ It does not help that under other people’s pleasantries and your own, you sometimes sense the slosh of deep, unquiet waters. Language is gorgeous, convenient and faithless. Perhaps it is our extensive vocabulary that complicates things. It affords us inexhaustible ways to say what we do not mean, and to hear what was not meant. The quarrels of birds are of a simpler, less exhausting sort.

Because our gaze is untrained, and our spirits sometimes perverse, we often seek what we do not wish to find. And the strange truth is, that if we are looking for disappointment, we will never be disappointed. All things will oblige, will fall short if we wish them to. A fact that is exceedingly hard to remember when the world fails to measure up. We are creatures well-attuned to dissatisfaction and not unprimed for despair. Amidst our mixed messages, our cross-purposes, our contradictions and frictions and frays, is is easy to miss the miracle.

The miracle is this: That we are ever understood at all. By anyone or anything. Sometimes you catch another’s eye in a crowd and feel reinforced in sympathy. Sometimes a child cries and is cradled, fed. Sometimes a single line in a single letter wakes a slumbering giant in your heart. And a perfect conversation is held in the hammered gold silence of friends. Sometimes we complete each other’s sentences. Sometimes we are the answers to each other’s unspoken prayers. Sometimes the colors of twilight, or the whir of a hummingbird’s wings, a thieving squirrel, or a flower that opens in the rain is all it takes to set the record straight. To right a series of wrongs. And restore the tumbled crown. These affinities are available, this communion possible.

And when properly considered, the facts are astounding. That we, who have yet to perfectly understand the one person we have lived with all our lives, are granted this kinship. Again and ever yet again. A grace so great, that sometimes we are ready to be the one who forgives before being forgiven. The one who comforts before being comforted, and understands before being understood. The one who throws open the prison gates, releases into stormy skies a brave flock of snow white doves, draws woodland animals and woeful mortals alike into a circle of love. Where all is resolved, and all refreshed. Sometimes we are ready to do these things. And sometimes we are not. But it behooves us to believe that we each do our best.

And in the end, the poetry of misunderstanding is why poetry exists at all. In a world where no true thing is utterly sayable. No sayable thing ever utterly true. It has always been left to poetry, to perfect the delicate art, of miss and tell.

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