My superhero power is a bit of a niche one. I’d want to speak and understand ALL the languages in the world. Even (covfefe!) Trumptweet.
This tends to get a mixed reaction. ‘What?’ people say. ‘Wouldn’t you want to fly?’ or “Nah, invisibility – has to be,’ or ‘Going on holiday’d be a nightmare. You’d hear everything.’
I’m nosy, all right? It’s the magpie in me, head always tilted to one side, looking for the shiny glint of a story. I hate it when I can’t earwig on people’s conversations.
Worse still is how I feel when I’m floundering about in another language. It’s like a gag, the wordlessness that clots your throat. Leaving you mute and unmeaning, a tiny child again, stripped of your voice.
Meaninglessness. And being misunderstood. Two of my worst fears combined. The only thing I want in life is to have meant something to people. So yeah, Captain Earnest over here wants to be able to Mean It with everyone on the planet.
These past weeks, meaninglessness has stirred again. Struck out with bombs, blades and bullets. Brute blows that defy the burning need to understand, the quest for meaning.
What lands, like a slap in the face: the only way to respond to destruction is to keep on creating. Teeny Ariana Grande, who looks like she’d fall over if she batted those eyelashes too fast, being a ginormously marvellous egg, standing a million feet tall, singing even louder than before.
What also swipes at me: violence is a language that undoes itself. Ripping out pages, scrubbing out words. Robbing lives of time. Statements that say nothing. It is left to us to pick up the shrapnel and sit in the debris, and begin building again. We get the horrible nobility of making it mean something.
The French father, talking to his small son, after the attacks in Paris in 2015. Yes, they have guns. But we have flowers. The aching grace of holding up a shield that you know to be no shield at all.
Words – in whatever language – make a useless shield. They are broken, makeshift, incandescent chips of meaning. Bits of fly wing caught in a web, shivered by the wind. As puzzling and flawed and maddening and noble as the people who use them. Inadequate and shonky as they are, we have to choose to use them, despite that. We have to endure the rub and pinch of the places they don’t fit. And use them to keep talking to each other. That is struggle.
Athletes know exactly where their muscles give, their tendons pull. The limits of their bodies look godlike to everyone else, but they alone know exactly where better, stronger, faster falls down. When you write, you wrestle with meaning, you know where the words betray you. Where they mask what they should show: where they can’t reach. Everything that lies buried, all they can never say.
This week, the country teeters on a choice. Wherever your cross goes on the ballot paper, choose to make one, to honour the fact you can choose. We have to keep speaking the broken, clumsy language of our democracy, even when it feels like it’s not speaking to us. Keep on making the cracked tiles into a mosaic, bit by broken bit.
Because the alternative is no alternative at all. It is the tongue bitten off, spat bleeding onto the ground. It’s the animal howl, Macbeth’s tale told by an idiot: full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.