Language itself is an abstraction. The word “tree” does not actually have roots and leaves and rough bark; the word tree is either a sound you make with your breath and your lips, or even more abstractedly, little marks on a piece of paper. Even describing a real, physical object such as a tree can be challenging – an apple tree looks, smells and feels quite different than a fir tree, so you must use specifics, not generalities, if you want your reader to know what your word tree actually means. And if describing a tree is challenging, it is even more so to describe an abstract concept such as justice or compassion in sensory specifics that will ensure your reader feels what you are describing. A good exercise is to take an abstract concept and describe it in actual physical detail – what does justice/compassion/etc look like, smell like, taste like, feel like, sound like?
Here’s what I wrote describing perhaps the ultimate abstract concept – God.
I sing to God, and she whispers back in a voice like cotton, a normal prosaic voice, just folks talkin’, and her voice sounds like my own. I am God and She is Me, so it makes sense that she would speak of homely matters like brushing one’s teeth and raking the leaves and the problems with advising adult children without hopelessly antagonizing them. So God’s voice is nothing special, and yet when she speaks it fills all the air and nothing else is heard anywhere.
What does God smell like? Well, I think God smells like strong things and weak things both, like cold fish on a slab at the fish market, and the first lilac buds of spring, and oh yes, like dirt, the smell that rises from the damp earth of the garden when the worms have been especially active.
God feels like a scratchy broom that pricks your finger and the soft butter feel of suede and the icy numbing pain that stings your legs when you wade in a mountain stream. And the hot humid breath of vines in a tropical jungle, that’s God too.
And God tastes like chocolate, not too sweet and not too bitter, and like macaroni and cheese, thick and gooey, and like fried chicken and hot buttered toast and raspberries fresh from the patch in the back yard.
To see God, you must see it all. The smiles of children and the fiery eyes of frightened warriors and the melted tears of mothers and the blooming of tulips and the big brown maple leaves crumbling on my lawn, and the intricate spider webs made in unlikely places, and the struggling flies dying in those webs.
God is too big to write about even if you use detail so I won’t try any longer, I’d rather write about the poem I wrote today and the sorrow in my friend’s eyes when she told me about her divorce and the sharp sweet taste of lemon ginger tea, and how it comforts me to drink it even while it reminds me of how lonely I am because I cannot really know God.
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