on literacy

I don’t know when I learned to read and write. My guess is that the lessons came early: the membranes of two gametes touched first, embraced, fused, and that’s about when it must have started. Twenty-three unfathomably long strands of nucleotides found themselves in the company of twenty-three others, and they meant something. This happened in a bedroom, or a tent—I’ve never gotten around to asking—and when the shifting, seething plasma of those nuclei touched, there were two people in that bed; when they fused, there were three, and something was written. I don’t claim to know this, but if you ask me when and where I learned to read and write I will tell you it was then and there.

You will say the sequencing of nucleotides was not writing at all and the correlate recognition and generation of proteins not reading. But these chemical processes were driven by the same fundamental tendency of the universe that would later lead me be born, grow, recognize meaning in shapes and then sounds and finally become literate in the written word. All things must succeed their latent potential, else having never been potential they could, by definition, never have become. The universe is no exception to this rule. There once was, if we are to believe the scientists, nothing. But even this vacuum contained a potential, had a tendency towards becoming– there was a big bang. The cosmos that resulted seems to have grown according to the same inclination towards which I and all of us grew: in the direction of greater and greater degrees of complexity, towards the articulation of potential into being. So I was born, and learned; atoms formed and became molecules that eventually coalesced into life.

Life had qualities that the universe which preceded it lacked: it absorbs, ingests, inhales, assimilates, but it does so only to further the cause of which it is a product—creation. It is this impulse of life towards becoming that underlies the process by which an array of molecules spun the tale of my genome, condensing my potential into me; and I say it is this same impulse that underlies the process by which I, in turn, spin my own tales with an array of words that condense the potential of my ideas into sentences. And just as writing is a consequence of life’s drive to express, I say reading is a consequence of life’s drive to absorb; just as life ingests and inhales to facilitate its expression, I say I read, absorbing ideas in order to facilitate the expression of my own. By this The strangeness of reading and writing—and everything, really—is this: these words are only ink, I am only dust, but these splashes of meaninglessness, like particles at the dawn of the universe, aggregate and organize and animate, and literacy is simply the way that this process lives through us.

My own creation, then, was in a very real sense a literary process. I curled nascent and meticulously assembling, my potential slowly becoming me. Then, I inhaled. I blinked, there was light, and the world seeped bright, ragged, and blaring into my soft skull. I can’t help but think that the first thought through my head was wuuhga?! Soon those bulges of light and shadow came into sharp focus and I assumed, without ever thinking twice, that they meant something too. I took as given, for instance, that the particular shape of my mother meant the quenching of my thirst for milk. This is how the freak show of light and sound distilled into significance and, like when my DNA spliced into RNA and was sucked into a ribosome, I was absorbing data and processing meaning: I was reading.

Later still there were words, and with them came my next lesson in reading. Like the shapes that came into focus not long before, the assorted tonalities and frequencies that had droned, rung and beeped in my eardrums associated with particular placements of my tongue on my palette and teeth, the way the spewing of amino acids and the subsequent folding of proteins associates with particular sequences of nucleotides. Both are processes of absorption, expressions of the same instinct that drives us to eat or inhale. Instead of converting food into energy by means of ingestion, I was converting genetic and sensory data into meaning by means of interpretation. Then slowly something happened for which there is no metaphor in the rest of the natural world: as those sounds and lights differentiated, they related. Invisibly, sounds like mommy and car became bound to particular objects in space, permitting meaning to exist not only in long litanies of genetic molecules, not only in my perceptions of the world, but to reside in the world itself; and this, other than there being anything at all, is perhaps the greatest miracle there is.

Not all that long after I began to learn words I was given, on the first day of first grade, another new set of tools that initiated another leap in my literacy: a pen, a piece of paper, and the alphabet. I liked them. It is a stretch to say that they seemed familiar, but what they allowed undoubtedly did. I’d done that before, watched something that could be become. From the chaotic jumble of neurons firing in my little head I had been able to watch ideas differentiate like the shapes that materialize when you soften your focus just right into those tricky books in the dentist’s waiting room. Then with these new tools I could will those shapes into being. That was how I learned how to write with a pen, but it was not easy.

The difficulty was not only to translate the basic drive of the universe into the ungainly new medium of language. It was to translate it into the medium of intention, reassigning the task of conducting the current of the universe from the thick cable of my body to hair-thin wire of my still-forming mind. Whereas my body converted this current into cells, now my mind took to converting it into words. The moment we are handed a pencil and asked for the first time to write, we are tasked with doing intentionally with words what we have done by instinct with matter and meaning ever since we were conceived, since those two cells fused into one and our potential was realized: we are tasked with opening our minds—the way our bodies have been open since the beginning—to the force of creation and continue, in doing so, to further the realization of our potential.

Opening through language in such a way takes learning the A-B-Cs. It takes vocabulary lists and post-recess lectures on spelling and the rules of grammar. Most of all it takes what we learned in the first wet moments of our conception as the genes of our parents associated, condensed and became us. Time grants us these lessons and by time we are tenderized and left porous, like an egg drifting in an empty womb, so that when we read, words like sperm can penetrate us, and when we write we swell and birth what we could never have imagined.

Life, if nothing else, the perpetual oscillation between inhale and exhale, reading and writing. The impulse to absorb and express and become is the fundamental actuation and propulsion of life and by it we maintain a sort of existential isotonicity in the bizarre solution of reality. To be alive is to be porous, transparent enough for the world—in genes or thoughts or words—to move through us; we are all made, in this way, literary beings.

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