When we are small, a canopy of conversation spreads above our heads. Before we can speak it is a part of our environment, like the trees rustling in the forest when we walk. The texture of voices and the emotion they contain inform our sensibilities long before we begin to decipher that other layer of language, that which we impose upon words and call meaning. But there is another sense in which language has meaning, apart from even the words themselves, and this other form of meaning teaches us just as much. Sometimes words obscure those other meanings and become like clouds covering over that sky spread above us.
As we grow taller, we begin to poke our noses into that canopy, begin trying the words in our own mouths: we engage. And after adulthood we have so few new occasions to experience that sensation again, of finding a new world of language. I think that is why I enjoy the ladies' locker room at the gym so much. I go midday, to change before I go on a run outdoors on my lunch break, most days of the week. At that hour, I am by far the youngest person there, in my mid-30s. Everyone else is 70 at least, and they come every day in large groups to take fitness classes in the pool. They all know each other and the place is filled with mirth. (In fact, just the other day one of the women forgot her underwear so a whole group of the ladies decided to go commando with her!)
But mostly what I overhear is conversations about visiting their grown children in other states and trying not to impose; who they hired to do their yard work; things their doctors told them. One woman brought in a quilt she had made to show her friends one day. There's a rich social environment there that I want to be a part of-- not now, but some day. I want to be the kind of person who behaves that way when I'm 80-- someone who's still meaningfully connected and engaged, thoughtful and open. I guess I am at least in the right place.
I have the feeling, when I am around them, of being a child again in a grown up world that I am not yet ready to access or even to fully understand, but one that I hope to gain the language for one day. It's a precious thing, at 36, to be able to feel that way. It reminds me of running around extended family members' houses on holidays playing games with other children while the grown ups cooked the meal-- feeling carefree and surrounded by the ones who are carrying the real weight of existence, because they are a head taller than I am, rustling above me, forming the shape of the larger world around me. One day I hope to be one of the few left looking out above the forest canopy and still shaking my leaves with laughter while the children run around my feet.