Words Matter: A New Lexicon For These Isolating Times

April Arotin

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Unprecedented. Disorienting. Destabilizing. Uncertain. Historic. Harrowing.
For novel experiences, we combine words and phrases and bend them to suit, hoping to lose little meaning while still rightfully accounting for the thing at hand. Or we group words and phrases together as a stand-in until someone somewhere makes the right words work. The limits of our language are the limits of our world, and they expand and contract, shifting in relation to one another. We are at a place in time where the shortest distance between one another has become our words.
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A year ago, we’d never heard of social distancing and shelter-in-place was reserved in practice for active school shooters. And now, we are social distancing and sheltering in place, worldwide, in the midst of this awkward mid-air leap.
We live with one limb outstretched to the future, the other deeply grasping for the past that we’ll never access in the same way again. We are at once looking back and forward, without the right language to describe where we might land. We don’t have words for the vulnerability and exposure when we aren’t sure where the ground is anymore. It’s more than uncertain, while simultaneously urgent, yet evasive, and destabilizing, disorienting and alarming, but with this comes a distinct faith and optimism, still.
We have no words for the depth and breadth of this experience. There are no words for the scope of this collective fear and grief that is married to the unwieldy massive weight of anticipation. We all feel it
We are grieving a past that doesn’t exist and the future hasn’t started yet.
We don’t know how to talk about any of it just yet, because we are living it. We don’t have the right words because we’ve not needed them before.
There are unknowns that we don’t even know about yet, and we don’t know how to talk about those either.
And there will be more words to come, ones rarely used, previously unspoken ones, or maybe new ones altogether, that will so boldly interject themselves into our collective vocabulary and the private conversations that, six months back, we would have never thought we’d be having.
Like social distance. Quarantine. Isolation, respirators, ventilators, lockdown, martial law. Viral load. Essential business, front line workers.
Words matter. How we use them matters. What we say matters. How we say it matters. How we follow through on what we speak matters.
It always has, but integrity seems to matter more now.
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We are learning now, through this unwanted shared experience, how fragile our systems are, and our collective frayed edges are showing.
There are zero singular words for this level of sudden widespread instability and the odd, jarring heartbreak that rides along with it. Not in English at least. Because we’ve never needed them. Maybe there’s something in German or Japanese, where there seem to be words for the most nuanced of human experiences, that could be bent and altered to fit what it is we are all living.
And the discomfort in this unwanted unavoidable experience is revealing layers of connectedness in the way that the disease is spreading through our communities, holding a mirror to our mortality. Not one of us is out of reach. Our interdependence is evidenced in the ways we have found to soothe and care for one another at a safe distance with newfound and unprecedented authenticity and depth. This evidence is in our longing to gather, to share meals and occupy space together.
To share this lived experience is our birthright, a human instinct.
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We have shifted into a phase of history that has brought a breathtaking immensity, a seemingly unnecessary gravity to our days, where nothing is as it once was. We are minuscule in this global web, but even our smallest actions will show immense impact. The outcome of these days and weeks will alter the trajectory of millions of lives. The choices we make now will shape the lives of people who have yet to be born.
This time is a rite of passage for humanity.
There is a word for that. Liminality.
“Liminality is the quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs in the middle stage of a rite of passage, when participants no longer hold their pre-ritual status but have not yet begun the transition to the status they will hold when the rite is complete. During a rite’s liminal stage, participants “stand at the threshold” between their previous way of structuring their identity, time, or community, and a new way, which completing the rite establishes.” (from Wikipedia)
There is something else of immense value in our current state within this collective rite of passage, that, surprisingly, I’ve yet to see discussed.
It’s in the way we talk about things that haven’t been experienced before in history. It’s in the way that we discuss and debate the things that are novel, like this virus and these moments in history. With each historical event, the significance is only revealed as time passes, statistics are analyzed, wartime strategies revealed. In the somewhat distant future, with the knowledge of time and how it all came to pass, historians and the morbidly curious will connect these events in ways that those who lived through it aren’t able.
Our understanding is limited by our proximity. We are veiled by opinions, current events, and witnessing this all unfold. When historians look to the past, they look to primary sources for insight into the lived experience of the time. Primary sources are things like diaries, journals, autobiographies. Even recordings are primary sources for more recent history.
What is truly unprecedented about this history we are living, aside from the obvious is this:

This is the first time in human history that we are experiencing a large-scale, globally destabilizing event coupled with the level of connectedness of modern virtual life. In short, all that we say or do online right now will become a primary source for a version of history that we’re writing now, even without all the words. Generations from now, these words and our interactions online will become record of this perilous time. All the live videos, TikTok challenges, the memes, the unsubstantiated ’news’ articles, the conspiracy theories, the pleas for help from doctors and nurses in far away hospitals and in our own cities, the patient accounts, and the way that we all react will be tiny pieces of what generations to come understand us to be. There will be whole movements in art and culture predicated on the things we don’t know how to say, and they will make sense only as time passes. These things are evidence for how future us will understand our lived experience in the most tangible way.

Even more interesting is that we can trace, in real time, the way our collective lexicon shifts to account for the lived experience as it happens. We can zero in on words and phrases, hashtags and memes. We can pinpoint the days and geographic areas where the terms we now use began to rise in usage. We can see how and where people started to worry, prepare, panic, and grieve, when the time comes (if it hasn’t already) by virtue of the language we use and the words we invent.
There will be a wealth of data that comes from the way we interact during these grave weeks. In addition to the numbers of infected, the death tolls, the projections for how many ventilators and beds we will be short, the data will be softer, too. It will include our lived experience through our interactions recorded digitally for prosperity, the intensity and frequency of our interactions increased due to our isolation and boredom, and some distant descendent will trace to us, their ancestors, the words, actions and feelings around this event. People will look back with a morbid curiosity at this history, hoping to take from it lessons that they can avoid repeating. There might even be video.
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I’ve considered this often — that my future grandchildren might find attached to my name the odds and ends of old social profiles, my Tumblr page or an abandoned Etsy shop. Maybe even my Tinder profile. This piece of writing, even. I’ve considered how my lived experience and digital life will be handed down, a unique package of digital heirlooms from me to future progeny. This consideration shouldn’t be reason enough to self-censor our truth and presence in the world, by any means, but, there is an opportunity here. There is the opportunity to consider how the words we use, the things we share, how we treat one another with language — we can consider how all of those things matter. How do they matter to us now, and how will they matter a few generations down the line?
When we look back to the greatest generation, that of my grandparents, we see a united front. We see that, for the most part, everyone was all in on the war efforts. Aside from a few outliers, it was mostly unheard of not to be making some sort of sacrifice. There was solidarity. That’s what made the greatest generation truly great. They came together in the face of the terror of war and fought for the dignity and value of human life. There is a wealth of primary sources from that time, letters written from the front to lovers stateside, diaries of soldiers, diaries of lovers back home. Autobiographies of concentration camp survivors. Old reels of creaky footage, digitized to stand the test of time. We see now what the lived experience was for these men and women.
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What will be seen of us later? My best guess is that these years of division, fear and othering culminating in these moments and months to come will be evidence to what went wrong and why things went awry.
What will matter ten years, ten decades from now?
What we did with these moments.
How we treated one another, and how we used this destabilization to create new words, new orders of things. A world, invisible now, will emerge on the backs of these new words written into our stories. Four or five generations from now, they’ll see what we did and, hopefully marvel at what we got right.
The night before the closures in my area started, my former lover and I talked over dinner in public (which seems like a novel concept today) about where we were at on 9/11. The discussion is an ominous bit of foreshadowing in hindsight. We discussed my deep fascination with the World Holocaust Remembrance Center, Yad Vashem, particularly the stories of the Righteous Among the Nations, and how I’ve read every single one. The Righteous Among the Nations are the every day folks who helped Jews in the darkest time of their history. These stories are ones of great persecution, tragedy and danger, yet, there were people that silently stood to save their fellow men and women at a grave risk during the most vulnerable times of oppression, violence and unchecked cruelty.
It is in these times that we must fill one another with each other’s stories. To create words for the things that will only be clear later, so that we can collectively make sense, together while separate, out of this ordeal one day at a time. So we look to our words and our stories, and we look to one another in these times of social distance and ‘corn teen.’
We can work to write a story that minimizes the damage and maximizes hope, while holding space for the myriad truths of our collective human experience, from words that haven’t even been made up yet.
We are grieving a past that doesn’t exist and the future hasn’t started yet.
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Contemporary artist and jewelry designer. Advocate for radical self care. Meandering wordsmith, lady metalsmith. I write about radical self care through unapologetic creativity, outline strategies for living a more creative life and honoring the call to be creative.

Cleveland, OH

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