I am interested in how different people define the same word.
In another lifetime, I had a Critical Thinking teacher who tried to explain the difference between denotation and connotation. “This,” she said, pointing at her desk, “is the denotation of the word desk. The connotation of desk is how we all individually feel about desks.” She paused, letting that sink in, and then asked, “How do you all, individually, feel about desks?” There were sixty-some of us in this class, all college freshmen. I’m gonna go out on a limb here and say that, at the time, desks were not a primary focus of significant emotion response. Sex, maybe. Money. Grades or jobs or fear or art or all sorts of crazy things. Think back to yourself when you were a college freshman. What did you think about? Me?: my folks were splitting up, my boyfriend back in Michigan was seeing another girl, and I shared a 10X10 dorm room with a girl looped on esctasy three nights a week, I’ll tell you what, desks were the last thing on my mind!
sidebar: this all happened over a decade ago. Now, I have very strong feelings about desks, primarily A) I don’t ever want one in a classroom because pedagogically I find that it unecessarily divides my students and I and B) I’m dying to have one in my house so I can have a place to put all my shit. Right now, it’s everywhere, and I can’t ever find what I need, and my poor husband, he’s got to contend with my paperwork all over the place, and also my kid is at that phase where he wants to draw spaceships on everything, which is awesome except that now there are spaceships on my teaching contracts and time sheets and student work and story ideas and lesson plans and tax forms and schedules, and, yes, I know you’re thinking Get the kid some paper, whydon’tcha? and I promise you, he has it! He has every art supply you can possibly imagine! But why would anyone want to draw on paper when they can draw on the bathroom wall? Or Daddy’s web designs? Or mommy’s… everything? Also: last week, at his school, one of the little girls did orgami for show-n-share and now my kid is convinced that paper is for folding, not drawing, so my tax forms are now little birds. Which is actually pretty cool—birds are way more interesting than tax forms. Also: I’ll never again be able to think of taxes without thinking of birds. Which would mean that birds are now my connotation of taxes! Huzzah! Right back to the point!
Anyhow—desks were, at the time, not quite as ripe for connotation as some other words, words like love or race or faith. I remember, years after this whole connotation/denotation thing, reading One Hundred Years of Solitude and thinking about all the different connotations of the word solitude and how all of them were given to a different member of the (fictional) Buendia family:
You’re so brilliant that no one can understand you, so you’re alone.
You’re so beautiful that everyone’s intimidated by you, so you’re alone.
You’re so old that no one even sees you anymore, so you’re alone.
Your penis is so big that women are scared and men are jealous, so you’re alone.
And on and on.
sidebar: Dear Marquez I love you.
Anyhow—connotation. It’s mind boggling to think about how many misunderstandings I’ve had over the years because of differing connotations. On the flip-side, I’m in awe of what I learn by listening to the connotations of others; how much I’ve grown as a human being and widened my world view. I’ll listen to how different people—friends, artists, the guy sitting across from me in a class—define words like marriage and protest and illegal and and parent and education and life. Our connotations of these words shape our politics, our values, how we spend our money, how we love—and the thing that creates those connotations are our stories.
A few years ago, there was some big case in the news about parents who were seeking revenge for something that had happened to their teenage daughter—the clincher was, she didn’t want them to. She wanted it to just go away. I remember talking about the ethical implications of this over and over again: what was justice in such a situation? There’s another word with multiple connotations—justice. Justice for whom? For her, or her family? Did her parents have the right to move forward with something she didn’t want? I remember wondering why she didn’t want revenge. Or maybe she didn’t want the kind of revenge they were seeking—the legal kind. Maybe she wanted a different kind?
What exactly is revenge? When I wrote the story Shot to the Lungs and No Breath Left, I was thinking about my connotation to that single word. And—as often happens in writing—the story became about other things, as well: revenge, and the relationship between a parent and a child, and gender roles, and all this other shit that sort of surprised me, but hey—what the hell. This is what came out. It’s here, let’s examine it.
For over a decade, I’ve worked with a Chicago theatre director named Amanda Delheimer Dimond. She’s the Artistic Director of 2nd Story. She’s my friend. She challenges me to look deeper with every project, to really figure out what the hell I am talking about. I knew I wanted to make some sort of video for Shot to the Lungs, so I brought the story to her and the very amazing Kyle Hammon of KBH Media, whom I can’t suggest enough if you want to explore video/audio/multimedia in your own stories, personal or professional. The three of us got to talking about revenge, and we thought it would be intersting to ask some very different people to speak to their own connotations of the word.
I am grateful to Kyle and Amanda for creating a piece that digs into this question of how different people view the same idea, and what might happen if we take a moment to listen to each other. I am grateful to Ada Gray, Lauren Kelly-Jones, Nic Dimond, Aaron Stielstra, Jennifer Shin, and Coya Paz for sharing their time and their stories. I am grateful to a Faculty Development Grant from Columbia College for helping to fund this project, and to all of you for giving it a look and maybe a share.