After another breath, I return to the sentence “This is because that is.”
Breathing in, I am aware of my in-breath.
We often glean meaning from the overall structure of a story, the narrative shape revealing something about subjects like reality, transformation, life and death. But before the story, there is the sentence. Across cultures and languages, the subject/object and noun/verb relationships we see in English are neither universal nor inherent. Not all languages focus on a subject’s action upon an object (many Asian languages, for example, put the emphasis on the verb, rather than the subject coming first), and many indigenous languages have an increased focus on verbs, rather than nouns. In Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer writes: “Only 30 percent of English words are verbs, but in Potawatomi that proportion is 70 percent.” The sentence itself can reveal an entire worldview through the shape it assumes, through the relationships it maps, which ideological systems it upholds, what power structures it validates simply through its grammar.
The way we relate things is related to how relationships are articulated in language, and these are not necessarily real relationships, but vantage points and perspectives. Investigating grammar lets us be more aware of how those associations are constructed in the first place. What are we complacent in when we “follow” certain grammatical rules and what are we resisting when we stray away from them?
There are many sentences that express these relationships. One famous first sentence comes from The Stranger by Albert Camus: “Mother died today.” There is an immediate focus on “Mother” as the arrival and beginning of this text; the speaker is assumed to be the literal descendent of his mother, showing us familiar and narrative relationality, but also this text as instigated by her death. The verb is in the past tense, so the death has happened; not only that, but there is a particular view on death already apparent, that death as a concept is real, that it is an event that occurs within the confines of a past-tense verb, and that it is has occurred already before this moment. This sentence enacts the myths of cause and effect (the death of one’s mother births an entire book), of linear time, of familial legacy, and of the need for a traumatic event to catalyze a meaningful narrative.
Or the all-too-familiar “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife,” from Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. This famously ironic and iconic sentence has many implications and embedded critiques. Despite the fact that the novel will indeed go on to demonstrate quite the contrary, this sentence still presupposes a worldview in which “universally acknowledged truths” can exist, that there are governing rules or principles that can apply to all groups of people, or more likely, that certain groups of people have the privilege of deciding upon these universal truths and then projecting them onto those with less agency. That “good fortune” is considered a blessing and desirable in its own right (aren’t we still enacting a certain notion of capitalist success?) and that “fortune” generally is something that can be “possessed,” rather than, say, practiced or cultivated. Fortunate is something earned, rather than lived. This is important because the sentence enacts a particular kind of desire, a particular kind of journey, a particular kind of endpoint, that fortune (or happiness or success or peace) is something that can be achieved and possessed (albeit by a select and elite few), rather than something that can be cultivated in the present moment. “There is no way to peace, peace is the way,” teaches Thich Nhat Hanh.
You might also consider these questions I often ask my students: What is the language with which you move through the world, through which you think, experience, “are”? Where does that language come from and what does it say about who you are, how you have come to be, how you continue to become, your environment, your privileges, your contextual entanglement with the world around you? When you look closely at just one sentence you have written, how does the sentence enact the performance of your existence and relationship to the world? What method of reading does the sentence invite?
In my own writing, my last novel Imagine a Death is very much a gesture of anti-colonialist sentimentality, at least in the refusal to offer a conventional or expected resolution or redemptive event, especially at the sentence level. The first sentence of the novel begins: “Imagine a death, which really occurs—that is, not the death which devastates inside a dream as you sleep . . .” and wanders for about nine hundred words. I wanted to set the tone for what arrival might look like, that is, in the Buddhist sense, the practice of arriving over and over again, the awareness of the movement during the movement, and the uncertainty around the specific conditions for arrival as a defined future event. In other words, I’m interested in excess, tangents, the movement away as important as the return. This expansion of space can create a different, often unsettling, relationship to time, and with the boundaries of the self.
The sentence represents and enacts particular ways of seeing the world, being in the world, relating to the world. Seemingly simple sentences often enact particular value systems and ideologies: privileging the individual or the subject; an emphasis on action and doing, rather than existing; the emphasis on things or nouns and on static boundaries of beingness; the belief in cause and effect or causality in general; the buying into linear (and capitalist notions of) time.
This is because that is.
This statement encapsulates both the limits and possibilities that I see possible in the sentence as a form and as a vehicle for increased awareness. As my friend Teresa Carmody reminds me, “Form is about listening.” I’d like to spend a little bit of time looking at this sentence in particular, inspired especially by a recent dharma talk given by Sister Chân Đức, given on January 2, 2022, at Plum Village as part of “The Gift of a Quiet Mind” retreat from which the above sentence also originates.
An initial observation is that this and that are distinct words, and the distance also creates an ideology of separation. That is, this and that are seen as separate entities. This ideology of separation is often taken for granted in Western culture, but in Buddhism, there isn’t the same separation of self or separation between things; rather, as Thich Nhat Hanh coined, all beings inter-are and exist in a state of interbeing. Thirii Myo Kyaw Myint writes in Names for Light, “Opposites are not vastly different, but often almost the same. Like a shadow or a reflection.” These concepts of interbeing, entanglement, and assemblage are critical in terms of how I imagined the landscape for Imagine a Death. There are many different characters in the novel, both human and nonhuman, each with distinct vantage points that are connected via various encounters. But also, they are all me, not just because I am the author and origin of these fictional beings, but because there is no origin point at all; like a shadow or reflection, each of these separate voices and existences are all my own because there is no separation. When I was writing from the vantage point of the dog or the pea plant, this was an exercise in listening as well, the kind of listening without expectation or attachment. When there is interbeing and deep listening, the pea plant is also me, and I am the pea plant.
The sentence represents and enacts particular ways of seeing the world, being in the world, relating to the world.
In a recent conversation, Thirii also remarked about the fragmented nature of her writing (which feels in relation to the short vignettes that structure my novel as well), explaining that though fragmentation is often seen as a break from the Modernist notion of completion, that this isn’t the tradition she’s working in. From a Buddhist, animist worldview, the fragmentation is about rebirth. “It’s not from breakage, but from the source of life,” she explained. For me too, I don’t think about my long sentences as a rebellious act against the expectation of what a sentence should look like, rather I’m inspired by the way pea vines meander and grow, the way they reach to touch different stimuli, and the way they continue to grow, reaching toward and away from. This is how I trust and hold the multiple vantage points of this and that, that though these are words made distinct by definition, grammar, and syntax, that there are ways to listen to the songs that bind them together. There is no separation here either.
After another breath, I return to the sentence “This is because that is.” The word is becomes important here as the main active verb, and it’s also used twice. The word is (derived from the verb to be) is about something being or existing. As made famous through Shakespeare’s “To be or not to be,” anytime we claim that something is, or exists, we are also implying that something can also notbe, or not exist. The very word implies a duality of is/not is, being/non-being, life/death. And the repetition of is indicates that one thing existing and the other thing existing are separate, but equivalent in a way. So the sentence reflects a worldview of duality, rather than non-duality, and presupposes a set of assumptions about how one sees the nature of reality. In English, we feel the need to draw attention to the act of existing in this way, but we also tend to organize meaning in narratives dichotomously. The protagonist and antagonist. Flat or round. Static or dynamic. Forward or backward. Life or death. Right or wrong. Does a dandelion exist only because we add a verb, or does the word dandelion not already connote connection, movement, wonder, expansion, continuation, prophecy? One way for me to get outside of this categorical thinking is to think of the sentence not as a container structured by rigid categories (i.e. subject, noun, preposition, verb, object, etc.) but as a living and breathing being. My sentences are utterly tied to the breath in the ways they move and grow (not to mention the breathing required to read these sentences out loud), but they also enact the Buddhist idea that birth and death are contained in every breath; so too does every sentence contain the act of being born and the act of dying.
The last significant word in this sentence is because, and as a connecting word, it brings Western rational thinking into the situation, implying certain relationships that are founded on reason and logic. Because reading prose in English presupposes chronology, the location of because in the middle of the sentence implies a cause and an effect, enacting an assumption of causality and of linear time itself. Of course linear time is just one possible relationship to time, and isn’t the expectation that we buy into the linearity of time as a given another marker of the pervasiveness of colonialism and capitalism in our consciousness? How would this sentence be different, for example, if because was replaced by and? This was especially important in Imagine a Death because though all of the human characters have experienced various traumatic events, I didn’t want these events to define who they were. They all cause harm to others because of their life experiences, yes, but not just because of their experiences. Healing is a complicated and sacred act, and for me, part of that is acknowledging and accepting what we can’t control. If we cling to the “because-ness” of an act or encounter, we become mired by the constraints of logic.
For me, the stakes are very high. As writers, when we’re wrestling with questions like “What is the most effective” way to portray a thought or feeling in language, “effective” for me is about how to articulate (and enact) my unique way of being in the world, my relationship to reality, my existence itself. Language absolutely reflects truth and reality, and so it matters with what awareness we craft our sentences. What relationships to language are we building? What ways of being, inter-being, relating, assembling, loving, and collaborating do we want to represent and enact? What ideologies do we want to uphold and which ideologies do we want to disrupt or unsettle? What kinds of invitations are we extending to our readers? Who are we including (or excluding) via our grammatical choices? How do we listen more deeply? And how do we work toward manifesting the reality that we want to see through our writing?
The thing is: This is and that is. This is and this is and this is. This becomes and this is becoming and we all inter-are. The invitation is for an increased awareness and deeper relationship to our own way of existing in the world, and for a more expansive imagination in how we might articulate what it is that we see and feel and hold. The structure of a sentence isn’t the structure of reality. We are so much more than we take ourselves to be.
Janice Lee is a Korean American writer, teacher, spiritual scholar, and shamanic healer. She is the author of 7 books of fiction, creative nonfiction & poetry, most recently: Imagine a Death (Texas Review Press, 2021) and Separation Anxiety (CLASH Books, 2022). She writes about interspecies communication, plants & personhood, the filmic long take, slowness, the apocalypse, architectural spaces, inherited trauma, and the Korean concept of han, and asks the question, how do we hold space open while maintaining intimacy? Incorporating shamanic and energetic healing, she teaches workshops on inherited trauma, healing and writing, and practices in several lineages, including the medicine tradition of the Q’ero, Zen Buddhism (in the tradition of Plum Village and Thich Nhat Hanh), plant & animal medicine, and Korean shamanic ritual (Muism). She currently lives in Portland, OR where she is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Portland State University.