What are your bells?
The semicolon won my heart as my very favorite punctuation mark when I learned, first studying ancient Greek as an undergraduate and then in pithy usage from essayist-physician Lewis Thomas, that it originated as the Greek question mark. “The semicolon,” Mr. Thomas explains in “Notes on Punctuation,” “tells you that there is still some question about the preceding full sentence; something needs to be added; it reminds you sometimes of the Greek usage. It is almost always a greater pleasure to come across a semicolon than a period. The period tells you that that is that; if you didn’t get all the meaning you wanted or expected, anyway you got all the writer intended to parcel out and now you have to move along. But with a semicolon there you get a pleasant little feeling of expectancy; there is more to come; to read on; it will get clearer.” The semicolon invites the reader to pause in anticipation; what’s not to love?
In recent years I became fond, too, of the ampersand. I feared it might edge out the semicolon in the run for favorite; but in a wonderful save it turns out—as savvy readers will already know—that the ampersand is in a league of its own; it’s a logogram or written character understood to have evolved from the handwritten letters “e” and “t,” or et, Latin for and. English has other logograms and, one author argues, is cultivating countless more from the shorthand arising on our mobile devices. However, it’s unlikely any will replace the ampersand in my heart.
As a proofreader, I am often given the opportunity to do far more than pause when I encounter semicolons and ampersands. In spite of my delight in the latter, I do not believe they belong in running text. As a writer, I’m likely to overuse the former; it’s so much fun to craft the phrase following that so nearly always illuminates the phrase in the fore. But whether writing or proofreading, it’s the act of considering that I have set out to address. When I stop to look up a word, consider the usage of a punctuation mark or logogram, check a subject’s name in the photo cutline against the spelling in the text, or rifle through pages checking the table of contents against the page numbers, I am fully present. I can’t do this work and think about something else. (If I get to a point where I realize I don’t know what I’m reading, then I’ve lost touch with the process, the words, line spaces, punctuation marks, and logograms. It’s time to pause and regroup.) As proofreader especially, I am both fully present and not lost in the flow.
Coming back to the present moment resonated for me as the central tenant of life in Buddhist Monk’s Thich Naht Hahn’s Plum Village as its portrayed in the documentary Walk With Me. A fan of Hahn’s writing, when I had a chance to be the captain for a local screening of the film, I thought, “why not?” Sitting in the dark theater with 100 beautiful spirits who chose to spend a rainy Monday night in September experiencing the movie, I was stunned by what is a cinemagraphic meditation. In discussions after, several people said they’re ready to pack their bags for a visit to Plum Village. Did I want to go asked one?
“Not really,” I surprised myself as well as my questioner. “The bells would drive me crazy.”
In the film every time a bell rings—every fifteen minutes and then some—everyone is expected to become still. To come back to the present. To breathe. While I love that idea—we can all use regular timeouts to breathe deeply and with intention—I value flow as well. If the words are pouring out of my fingers onto the keyboard or I’m lost in a drawing or spooning cake batter into a pan, I don’t want to be interrupted because someone else has decided that it’s time for me to pay attention. There’s so much jangly interruption in our world already. That said, I do believe it’s important to pause and pay attention; so I recognize that I have scores of personal bells.
As Eighteen noticed this summer, I brake for butterflies when they flutter past my car. I will pause and be utterly charmed by a flight of grackles, reporting on them later to Ninety-Three. I watch the clouds roll by and change shape. I rarely have a moon sighting without pointing it out to Fifteen. When the sky is drenched in color at sunset, I’m at the window marveling. If I hear the whistle of a train in the distance, I consider hard whatever I was thinking or saying at that moment, certain the whistle is meant as an underscore. There are work bells, too. Along with the aforementioned proofreading pauses to consider usage, a misplaced foot or a knee out of alignment can cause me to shift the entire focus of a yoga practice I’m leading. A room full of beautiful poses can take my breath away. The collection of smiles and hugs after class routinely keeps me from mentally racing on to the next task or worry.
These days, there are serious bells—for most of my life I was discomforted deeply by sirens. News stories of hurricanes, tornadoes, fires, disasters, protests and political upheavals shock and startle. I am learning to take a breath here, too, to send a silent “blessings” in the direction of the retreating ambulance or fire truck, to imagine and honor the light within the individuals whose deeds may seem so very counterproductive to my own philosophy. Being present is only a platform from which to begin; however, it is the platform, the only platform, on which I can safely stand. Some days that’s the best I can do.
What are your bells, dear reader? With gratitude & love & best wishes for the new moon, Rxo