29 June 2022

The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows – John Koenig

kenopsia: the atmosphere of a place that is usually bustling with people but is now abandoned and quiet. dès vu: the awareness that this moment will become a memory. nodus tollens: the feeling that the plot of your life doesn’t make sense to you anymore. énouement: the bittersweetness of having arrived here in the future, seeing how things turn out, but unable to tell your past self. onism: the frustration of being stuck in just one body, that inhabits only one place at a time. sonder: the realization that each random passerby is the main character of their own story, in which you are just an extra in the background.

Of course, we don’t usually question why a language has words for some things and not others. We don’t really imagine we have much choice in the matter, because the words we use to build our lives were mostly handed to us in the crib or picked up on the playground. They function as a kind of psychological programming that helps shape our relationships, our memory, even our perception of reality. As Wittgenstein wrote, “The limits of my language are the limits of my world.”

This is not a book about sadness—at least, not in the modern sense of the word. The word sadness originally meant “fullness,” from the same Latin root, satis, that also gave us sated and satisfaction. Not so long ago, to be sad meant you were filled to the brim with some intensity of experience. It wasn’t just a malfunction in the joy machine. It was a state of awareness—setting the focus to infinity and taking it all in, joy and grief all at once. When we speak of sadness these days, most of the time what we really mean is despair, which is literally defined as the absence of hope. But true sadness is actually the opposite, an exuberant upwelling that reminds you how fleeting and mysterious and open-ended life can be.

Chapter One: Between Living and Dreaming

chrysalism n. the amniotic tranquility of being indoors during a thunderstorm. Latin chrysalis, the pupa of a butterfly. Pronounced “kris-uh-liz-uhm.”

trumspringa n. the longing to wander off your career track in pursuit of a simple life – tending a small farm in a forest clearing, keeping a lighthouse on a secluded atoll, or becoming a shepherd in the mountains – which is just the kind of hypnotic diversion that allows your thoughts to make a break for it and wander back to their cubicles in the city. German Stadtzentrum, “city center” + Pennsylvania German Rumspringa, “hopping around.” Rumspringa is a putative tradition in which Amish teens dip their toes in modernity for a while before choosing whether to commit to the traditional way of life. Pronounced “truhm-spring-guh.”

kairosclerosis n. the moment you look around and realize that you’re currently happy – consciously trying to savor the feeling – which prompts your intellect to identify it, pick it apart, and put it in context, where it will slowly dissolve until it’s little more than an aftertaste. Ancient Greek καιρός (kairos), a sublime or opportune moment + σκλήρωσις (sklḗrōsis), hardening. Pronounced “kahy-roh-skluh-roh-sis.”

scabulous adj. proud of a certain scar on your body, which is like an autograph signed to you by a world grateful for your continued willingness to play with her, even if it hurts. From scab + fabulous.

VEMÖDALEN the fear that originality is no longer possible You are unique. And you are surrounded by billions of other people, just as unique as you. Each of us is different, with some new angle on the world. So what does it mean if the lives we’re busy shaping by hand all end up looking the same? We all spread out, looking around for scraps of frontier—trying to capture something special, something personal. But when you gather all our scattered snapshots side by side, the results are often uncanny. There’s the same close-up of an eye, the same raindrops on a window, the same selfie in the side-view mirror. The airplane wingtip, the pair of bare legs stretched out on a beach chair, the loopy rosette of milk in a latte. The same meals are photographed again and again. The same monuments pinched between fingers. The same waterfalls. Sunset after sunset. It should be a comfort that we’re not so different, that our perspectives so neatly align. If nothing else, it’s a reminder that we live in the same world. Still, it makes you wonder. How many of your snapshots could easily be replaced by a thousand identical others? Is there any value left in taking yet another photo of the moon, or the Taj Mahal, or the Eiffel Tower? Is a photograph just a kind of souvenir to prove you’ve been someplace, like a prefabricated piece of furniture that you happened to have assembled yourself? It’s alright if we tell the same jokes we’ve all heard before. It’s alright if we keep remaking the same movies. It’s alright if we keep saying the same phrases to each other as if they had never been said before. Even when you look back to the earliest known work of art in existence, you’ll find a handprint stenciled on the wall of a cave—not just one, but hundreds overlapping, each indistinguishable from the other. To be sure, you and I and billions of others will leave our mark on this world we’ve inherited, just like the billions who came before us. But if, in the end, we find ourselves with nothing left to say, nothing new to add, idly tracing outlines left by others long ago—it’ll be as if we were never here at all. This too is not an original thought. As the poet once said, “The powerful play goes on, and you will contribute a verse.” What else is there to say? When you get your cue, you say your line. Swedish vemod, tender sadness, pensive melancholy + Vemdalen, the name of a Swedish town, which is the kind of thing that IKEA usually borrows to give names to their products. Pronounced “vey-moh-dah-len.”

looseleft adj. feeling a sense of loss upon finishing a good book, sensing the weight of the back cover locking away the lives of characters you’ve gotten to know so well. From looseleaf, a removable sheet of paper + left, departed.

the Til n. the reservoir of all possible opportunities still available to you at this point in your life—all the countries you still have the energy to explore, the careers you still have the courage to pursue, the skills you still have time to develop, the relationships you still have the heart to make—like a pail of water you carry around in your head, which starts off feeling like an overwhelming burden but steadily draws down as you get older, splashing gallons over the side every time you take a step. From the till, a shopkeeper’s register filled with unspent change + until.

Even our own moon, which seems to hang so close to Earth, is so far away that all the other planets could fit in the empty space between them.

rückkehrunruhe n. the feeling of returning from an immersive trip only to notice it fading rapidly from your awareness, as if your brain had automatically assumed it was all just a dream and already went to work scrubbing it from your memory. German rückkehren, coming back + Unruhe, restlessness. Compare Zugunruhe, “migration restlessness,” the fidgety behavior observed in birds approaching migration. Pronounced “rook-kair-oon-roo-uh.”

mahpiohanzia n. the frustration of being unable to fly, unable to stretch out your arms and vault into the air, having finally shrugged off the burden of your own weight, which you’ve been carrying your entire life without a second thought. Lakota mahpiohanzi, “a shadow caused by a cloud.” Pronounced “mah-pee-oh-han-zee-uh.”

the kick drop n. the moment you wake up from an immersive dream and have to abruptly recalibrate to the real world – unquitting your job, falling right back out of love, reburying your lost loved ones. In American football, the drop kick is when a player drops the ball and kicks it as it bounces off the ground, used as a method of restarting play.

MARU MORI the heartbreaking simplicity of ordinary things Most living things don’t need to remind themselves that life is precious. They simply pass the time. An old cat can sit in the window of a bookstore, whiling away the hours as people wander through. Blinking calmly, breathing in and out, idly watching a van being unloaded across the street, without thinking too much about anything. And that’s alright. It’s not such a bad way to live. So much of life is spent this way, in ordinary time. There’s no grand struggle, no sacraments, no epiphanies. Just simple domesticity, captured in little images, here and there. All the cheap little objects. The jittering rattle of an oscillating fan; a pair of toothbrushes waiting in a cup by the sink. There’s the ragged squeal of an old screen door, the dry electronic screech of a receipt being printed, the ambient roar of someone showering upstairs. And the feeling of pulling on a pair of wool socks on a winter morning and peeling them off at the end of the day. These are sensations that pass without a second thought. So much of it is barely worth noting. But in a couple hundred years, this world will turn over to a completely different cast of characters. They won’t look back and wonder who won the battles or when. Instead, they’ll try to imagine how we lived day to day, gathering precious artifacts of the world as it once was, in all its heartbreaking little details. They’ll look for the doodles left behind in the margins of our textbooks, and the dandelions pressed in the pages. They’ll try to imagine how our clothes felt on our bodies, and what we ate for lunch on a typical day, and what it might’ve cost. They’ll wonder about our superstitions, the weird little memes and phrases and jokes we liked to tell, the pop songs we hummed mindlessly to ourselves. They’ll try to imagine how it must’ve felt to stand on a street corner, looking around at the architecture, hearing old cars rumbling by. The smell in the air. What ketchup must have tasted like. We rarely think to hold on to that part of life. We don’t build statues of ordinary people. We don’t leave behind little plaques to commemorate the milestones of ordinary time: HERE ON THE TWENTY FIFTH OF MARCH NINETEEN HUNDRED AND NINETY FOUR SOME NEIGHBORS WENT OUT WALKING THEIR DOGS THE CHILDREN TOOK TURNS HOLDING THE LEASH IT WAS A FUN AFTERNOON FOR EVERYONE INVOLVED But it all still happened. All those cheap and disposable experiences are no less real than anything in our history books, no less sacred than anything in our hymnals. Perhaps we should try keeping our eyes open while we pray, and look for the meaning hidden in the things right in front of us: in the sound of Tic Tacs rattling in a box, the throbbing ache of hiccups, and the punky smell that lingers on your hands after doing the dishes. Each is itself a kind of meditation, a reminder of what is real. We need these silly little things to fill out our lives, even if they don’t mean all that much. If only to remind us that the stakes were never all that high in the first place. It’s not always life-and-death. Sometimes it’s just life—and that’s alright. A tribute to Maru Mori, a friend of Pablo Neruda, whose gift of wool socks inspired his poem “Ode to My Socks.” Compare memento mori, a poignant reminder of your own mortality. Pronounced “mah-roo moh-ree.”

justing n. the habit of telling yourself that just one tweak could solve all of your problems – if only you had the right haircut, if only you found the right group of friends, if only you made a little more money, if only he noticed you, if only she loved you back, if only you could find the time, if only you were confident – which leaves you feeling perpetually on the cusp of a better life, hanging around the top of the slide waiting for one little push. From just, only, simply, merely + jousting, a sport won by positioning the tip of your lance at just the right spot, at just the right second. Pronounced “juhst-ing.”

It’s strange how little of the world you actually get to see. No matter where on Earth you happen to be standing, the horizon you see in the distance is only ever about three miles away from you, a bit less than five kilometers. Which means that at any given time, you’re barely more than an hour’s walk from a completely different world.

We all know that there’s no such thing as a tropical paradise, or hell on Earth. That faraway people are neither angelic monks nor snarling grotesques, that their lives are just as messy and troubled and mundane as our own.

Chapter Two: The Interior Wilderness

heartspur n. an unexpected surge of emotion in response to a seemingly innocuous trigger – the distinctive squeal of a rusty fence, a key change in an old pop song, the hint of a certain perfume – which feels all the more intense because you can’t quite pin it down. From heart + spur, a spike on a heel that urges a horse to move forward.