There was a very specific practice at the dinner table of my childhood. Every night, my mother would ask about school. Greg, my older brother, would mention some test he did well on, or a question that he answered correctly. Geofrey, my little brother, would complain about eating chicken for dinner two days in a row. I would tell my parents that I did, in fact, go to school. That’s how it was.
After the round robin of daily anecdotes, my father would start talking about something. A general concept, a life skill, some sort of scientific anomaly – it varied from day to day. And in the middle of explaining it, he would slip a higher-level vocabulary word or technical term in to the conversation. Greg would nod along. Geofrey would complain about how he didn’t want gumbo, he just wanted white rice with butter. I would fume silently for a few minutes, pushing my food around the plate, mentally scraping together all the context clues I could accumulate. My first concern, of course, was if I was being mocked; after I could eliminate that, my focus turned to what the hell Patrick Thibeaux was talking about this time.
“Okay, stop. What does ‘anachronism’ mean?” I would cave. Every time.
My father would look to Greg first, who, by this point in the meal, had already finished inhaling his food, as he is the fastest eater on the planet. Greg would mumble something close to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, and my father would then recite the actual definition, complete with the parts of speech and a quick pronunciation guide.
“Why couldn’t you just say that? I knew those words,” I would whine. Every time.
“Knowledge is power,” Greg would reply as he reached across the table to steal the last slice of French bread.
Fifteen seconds later a fight would erupt over dishes versus homework. Thirty seconds later my parents would send us all to our rooms just to shut everyone up.
As adolescents, defining people and words and concepts is a cornerstone of development. Starting out, it’s just objects, or tangible ideas. People are identified as how they relate to you: teacher, mother, crazy person at the bus stop. Learning how to put finite words to specific people or ideas meant that they were understood, and understanding builds confidence in one’s ability to navigate the universe around him/her. The next time I heard the word “anachronism” in conversation, I wouldn’t need to spend 45 seconds trying to decide if that was a word that meant, “Eleanor sucks.” I already knew all of those words by heart anyway. Confidence, and competence: definitions are the gateway to effective communication, and self-esteem.
So naturally it seems remarkably unfair that the older I get, the less I am really able to define in a universal way. Definitions change, words are adapted, shifted ever so slightly to fit a new purpose. What was once micro is now being viewed from a macro perspective, and all that I once had confidence in knowing begins to distort away from the edges of my mental reach. People and concepts I previously put in one compartment of my mind now belong in different compartments, or no compartment at all. It has become painstakingly clear to me that definitions are no longer just for memorizing. Words are loaded, and labels mean so much more than any dinner conversation could convey.
For example, all my life I have been gathering information on what it means to be a grown up. I watched my parents reach the top shelf where the good cereal was kept; I watched my mother attend parent-teacher conferences to discuss Greg’s “gifted” status, or my inability to just shut the hell up. I watched my father make sacrifices and work terribly long hours so my brothers and I could want for nothing and get the best education available. I watched as the ‘he said – she said’ game blew up in my face when I tried to pit my parents against each other. But now that it is almost time for me to leave the 18-24 bracket, the only thing I know about being a grown up is that my parents were awesome at it, and I should still be an undecided college major.
What I seem to stumble over most is that definitions have multiple meanings now. There is what the word means according to Merriam Webster – the idea that when I use a word in this manner, people will know that I mean this thing. Then, and maybe more tragically, there is what the word means to me when I say it. I feel this way, and I have selected this word because that is how my feelings are best reflected. Take, for instance, when I say the word, “girlfriend.”
To me, this word is a label that means I have chosen to be on his side no matter what, to spend my time and energy invested in his happiness, to say, ‘You, more than any other person, are worth the blinders.’
To the world around me, this label means, “I have decided that I will not let anyone else buy me dinner, unless I’m really hungry.”
And occasionally and unfortunately to him, the word means “someone who is supposed to do everything I like, make my life easier, and have no more friends that are just her own.”
We all have little compartments in our minds where we define people and ideas: this is my brother; she’s like my sister. He’s my ex-boyfriend, or that’s just my coworker. Each term means something very specific, not just about a person’s relationship to me, but more significantly, how I relate to them. So when someone’s definition changes, so do the compartments. When he tells me that he cannot think of a reason he wants to be with me, he is giving notice of moving out. And so I adapt. He leaves the boyfriend box, the box that is a relationship like no other, and I clean up afterwards. Sweep up the floors and plaster over the holes in the walls that got punched through when he flung open the door too hard. I prepare the now emptied room for a new tenant. I change the locks.
Change is uncomfortable, but inevitable. Starting something new, letting go of something old, either situation brings with it an alteration in what was previously defined. It’s a strange territory to live in, the limbo of not knowing what to call someone, of not knowing how to interact with someone, but it is absolutely necessary. The confidence of having all the right words falters; the dizzying notion of opening and soon closing my mouth out of an inability to explain how I feel in common terms is so very frustrating. He is, well, he is who he is. And I am who I am. We are whatever we are. It’s not eloquent and it’s not safe, but it’s the truth.
Adaptation is a skill; being ever resilient, faithfully taking the blows and returning to a new, compromised medium is no small feat. There are people in this world who welcome change; there are people who fight it. Then there are people who ignore it. It doesn’t much matter which person I am, because it doesn’t diminish the fact that nothing stays the same, not ever. Sometimes definitions change in a positive way, and sometimes getting someone to get all their shit out of the compartment they didn’t want to live in anymore is like pulling teeth. It’s not ideal, but it is what it is. Like a very smart person once told me, “you don’t have to embrace it, but you have to accept it.”
At the dinner table now, my mother might ask how our day was. Greg would mumble something about ‘fine’ through mouthfuls of whatever food was on the table. Geofrey would mention a new concept he learned in college, or maybe a paper he did well on. And in a flurry of words, I would describe a conversation or two, something that was amusing, and something that was uncomfortable. Maybe my father would offer a new vocabulary word, or abstract concept.
But always, my brother would finalize the argument.
“Knowledge is power,” Greg would remind us as he grabbed the 7th and 8th slice of pizza without asking.
Definitions are knowledge. Knowledge is power. Power is control.
Definitions are just another form of control; to not have definite answers to people and words and concepts is just a lack of control, like a roller coaster. And I think I’ve made it abundantly clear how I feel about those things.