This is the dread meta letter. To be fair, you probably knew it was coming. You know I am a person much driven into meta: not just the what and the how, but the messy whys. Face value is never enough.
For this project, I knew there were routes I wanted to avoid. This set of letters to you is not meant to be prescriptive or didactic. I worried that if I took either of those roads I’d end up boring you to tears or, worse, resistant and pissed off. I also knew that what I wanted to try to do was to leave space for dialogue. I think that’s why I’ve ended up dwelling in some of our past conversations and then building through them. In other words, these are not advice letters. I guess they’re more like “getting to know you” letters.
I don’t know what that will always look like, so I hope you’ll be patient. One thing that you know, too, about me is that I love words. You belong to a family who loves words, and we love them fiercely, watching words shimmer as they cross borders and reappear, meaning similar but not same. A moonstone is also a piedra luna and that means the same thing but feels very different. Moon and luna rhyme, they do, but only when you shear the ‘a’ off luna and make the Spanish ‘u’ match the American ‘oo’. So close. But no cigar.
Your families have long histories of word-loving. Your great grandmother Gela wrote verses that she would recite to all the cousins (your own Abi’s cousins, that is). Her sister, my tía abuela Amalia, wrote short stories and was well-respected in the Jalisciense literary scene. Your great grandmother Peggy studied literature; she earned a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania in 1939 writing a dissertation on J.M. Synge. Then I grew up in houses–many of them; we moved more often than you have–and each of them boasted bookcases crammed with books. I was the kind of kid who always had her nose stuck in a book but, to be fair, so did your Abu and Abi.
Loving words and the journeys they take us on —fuera de sí but also, of course, down into oneself–means that I feel comfortable telling you that I don’t know how these letters will turn out. I don’t have a map. You have to trust words, and listen hard to the stories they tell. Words carry large suitcases of past meanings and uses; we carry around those words and, in turn, have our own private suitcases of meanings, uses, inside jokes. Like maybe I will always call you by your pet name and maybe if I slip and say “buddy” instead, you will always get play mad.
It really does come down to having all sorts of words inside me that I’m burning to share with you. I remember when I first learned the word ojalá –it was the most perfect word I could imagine (I must have been ten, but maybe younger). It meant “I hope,” but with no trace of the subject who was hoping. It meant “if only,” but it had the open vowels of expectation. I didn’t know back then that it came from Arabic, and of course this new-to-me knowledge makes it an even more perfect word, a traveling word that, at least in my Spanish, had lost all of its religion but kept all of its faith. It’s a single word that cows verbs into the subjunctive and, honestly, I think we’re a world so very in need of the subjunctive right now. For a good year, I think I used ojalá for everything. “Ojalá que llueva!” “Ojalá que no haya escuela mañana.” “Ojalá hubiera pensado en eso.”
When I lived in Germany, I latched onto the world genau with a similarly unreasonable grasp. Putting ojalá and genau side by side is jolting: one dreams, the other assents. Genau, the way my 20-year-old self learned it, was a nodding head in response to someone else, a vigorous, “exactly!” (Apparently Germans often use genau as filler, just like we use “like.”) Genau helped me fill spaces in conversations when I didn’t trust my other German words. I was just nodding, but I was doing it with a hard ‘g’ and a lilt.
You belong to a family who loves words. Sometimes we gather them up and polish them so that we can see the bands of color; sometimes we lick them with our tongues to judge how salty they are and where they came from; sometimes we warm them up in our palms and hand them to someone else who will appreciate the heat. You are surrounded by our word collections and we tumble them around you, hoping that you will appreciate how rich we are, how very rich we are, surrounded by so many words from so many worlds that mean so much to us.