Category Archives: CULTURE


The only word from Finnish to make it into English is sauna. But there is another important word that is perhaps equally ancient and valuable in Finland. Talkoot – now talko in Swedish-speaking Finland – means communal work, when extra hands are either needed or welcome. A talko can be any sort of endeavor large or small, involving dozens of people, or just two or three. It may last just a hour or two, or go on for days. Of course volunteer work is a worldwide concept, but in Finland, it is very much an integral and natural part of daily life and community-building.

When I travel to Finland, it is my honor to be invited to join in talkos. It might involve clearing small trees and pruning branches along a dirt road leading to a set of summer cabins. Helping someone pack or move. Foraging for mushrooms. Gathering and cleaning berries for the winter, or making jam or juice. Stacking firewood outside the sauna. Harvesting vegetables from the garden, or preserving cucumbers. Carrying dried brushwood and burning it by the seaside. Working together in the kitchen to prepare a large meal for a gathering. Setting out lanterns to celebrate the coming of the dark season. At the heart of each activity is shared labor.

I am quite sure that the people of Finland would survive their harsh winter without whatever small tasks I am able to accomplish during my precious summer weeks here. With their own work ethic, and countless shared acts of kindness between them, my humble work is literally a drop in the ocean. Yet I am enriched, and feel closer to my dear ones, having used my hands in their service. Each talko brings me closer to nature, and is a reminder of the communal living that our ancestors relied upon for their very survival. These shared efforts are useful and healing and lovely. And they provide a deep and abiding sense of deeply-rooted connection. Talko.


I have the extreme good fortune of owning two passports and having dual citizenship in the birth countries of each of my parents. So that even now during our COVID lockdown, I have been able to travel to my father’s birth country and absorb some much needed healing and rest. It is hard to explain why I feel such an open heart, such a deeply rooted peace, in this homeland, but I will try and share it from the linguistic point of view.

Something that strikes me every time I arrive here is that whether they speak Swedish or Finnish (and I would venture to guess the Sami language as well) people walk around constantly saying yes to the person speaking. In one form or another, they are constantly and naturally reminding the person speaking: I hear you. I understand what you are trying to convey. I see your point of view. I am with you. They are giving the speaker permission, consent, approval, and support in such a natural, kind and loving way. Quietly and peacefully acknowledging their humanity. Not interrupting or talking over. Lots of turn-taking time and spaces of silence that are not empty, but filled with the ongoing exchange and the leisurely pace of what is gently being spoken and shared.

Already at the airport, I saw two little boys eagerly move close to the moving luggage return, and in my two US language communities, a lot of tired airport parents would have called out something along the lines of “get back here!” or “that’s dangerous” or simply grab the child’s arm. But the Finnish father said in the gentlest of voices: “Listen now, fellows! You see there is a sort of a line on the floor, and that is so we can all stand on this side and thus the other passengers can see their luggage coming, you see, and that way no one is too close to the moving conveyor belt.” The boys looked and saw the line, and came back and stood my their father.

Think about it. This father had actually not commanded his children to think like him, much less ordered them about or tried to physically move them. He simply offered them some very neutral and factual information, and allowed them to draw their own reasonable conclusions. They were not viewed as people to be convinced or controlled, but simply as two reasonable individuals who could be trusted to form their own opinions and draw their own reasonable conclusions.

This man felt no need to argue or scold or tell them what to think or do. Even though they were very young children, probably three and five years old. How lovely. To accept the individuality that lies at the core of every person – an individuality that is not reliant upon any specific held opinion, but rather upon the reasoning ability and the common sense of each person, developed in earliest childhood and fostered throughout their lives. These children were trusted, and trustworthy.

In my birth country, the United States, this is not the common practice. We love to tell children and adults alike what to think and how to think. We have opinions about everything, and there is no direct correlation between what we know as a factual matter, and how strongly held our opinions about that matter are, unless there maybe an inverse correlation. We are focused on individuating, and showing that we have strong opinions, because those opinions make up a huge part of our personal identity. And when someone tries to shake our opinions, it feels very much like a personal attack, so closely do we identify with them. So it turns out that the listener must almost necessarily fight against another person’s words and negate, deny, or resist their stated opinion – about almost anything under discussion!

Then the listener goes on to try and show how the speaker’s opinion is not quite valid, how the listener knows more, and can correct and enlighten the speaker. Somehow, we must stand out and “know” something that we can then posture about. Even if three people read the same article in the same paper, say, about a sporting event, the next day, they will happily misquote it and argue about the relative merits of the players and why and how the game was really won and lost. It truly is a strange cultural pastime, this constant need to separate ourselves and be right by making someone else wrong. It is as if we fear we would be annihilated without our opinions. We cling to each opinion like a life preserver.

I remember seeing a cartoon with a man sitting in front of his computer in surprise calling out to his wife across the room: “Honey, come quick! It’s the weirdest thing! You’re not gonna believe this! All my friends who were experts in national politics have all suddenly become experts on COVID!”

In my experience, my cousins who have lived always in Finland have no such drive to be “the one who knows” or to correct others. I remember my surprise when I asked an older cousin a few questions conversationally, and he had no opinion. He considered, and then said he didn’t have an opinion, because he didn’t know so much about it. At the end of the visit, he told me that one of the things he had become more comfortable with as he aged was accepting that he knows very little in the grand scheme of things, but that he knows a comfortable amount about the things he needs to know, and so that is just fine. He felt no need to have an opinion on every possible topic.

When I taught Asian students in an international program in the US, many of them reported that the most difficult cultural clash for them was the common academic requirement that they “state their opinion and defend it” in other words, take a side, and then argue against the other side. Several students told me they simply did not feel the need to take a side, and could easily see both sides, and had no problem with the ambiguity. They felt it was strange to have to stand on one side or the other of something that was essentially multi-faceted and complex. The very idea of “two sides to the coin” is odd. Few things are that flat and simple. And if you think about it, if you and I hold a coin between us and each of us sees our side, we are still, in the end, looking at the same coin. To argue about it seems a bit ridiculous.

So I luxuriate for a brief and lovely moment in time, which not coincidentally happens to be the present, as I wander in the forest and along lake shores, in villages and summer cottage areas, along bicycle paths and even “in town”, and all the while, I hear my cousins, friends and strangers saying yes to each other in a hundred ways. Nodding, listening, humming, sucking in air in adorable breathy whistles, almost in birdsong recognition of each other. I have no doubt these traditions have been carried forward unbroken since humans first started cooperating in the misty beginnings of what we like to consider societies. I feel so happy to be immersed in this ancient recognition, this socially condoned and constantly reinforced acceptance of the points of view and personal experiences of each individual member of our clan. What utter rest and quiet, what peace and contentment, when each person’s humanity is so constantly upheld and respected. Yes.


People live in such different realities. Some of us believe that we are the absolute masters of our fate. We plan our lives, take the necessary actions, and as a direct and predictable result, we make things happen. There is nothing we cannot achieve if we put in the effort. Failure is a personal problem that we can avoid if we try hard and keep pushing ourselves. Others feel that we cannot change our destiny. It is written in the stars, and our fate is to a large degree determined and inevitable. We make our puny efforts, but have very little influence on the ultimate outcome of our lives. Many religious philosophies proclaim some version of “Man proposes, and God disposes.” The other side of the same coin is the more down-home and gender-inclusive saying: “The devil fools with the best-laid plans”.

The vast majority of the lawyers and doctors I interpret for lean heavily into the first camp. They are the directors of their fate, and have worked hard to come far. They expect life to go the way they mold it. They take great personal pride in where they have gotten, and where they are going. And without question, they can say what they are going to do next week, next month, and probably next year. They have plotted out their lives, even to saving for their children’s college (born and unborn) and preparing for their own eventual retirement. They are the masters of their own universe.

Most others, though – including the patients and families, witnesses, crime victims, and defendants for whom I interpret – have a widely different experience of life in a human body. Most were raised to believe in a very near and dear higher power that rules over us all, even to the hairs on our head, and this power must be appeased and acknowledged in our daily actions. This Almighty has the absolute power to reward and punish, in mysterious ways beyond our ken. So we must be duly humble about our place in the grand scheme of the universe. Call it God or Fate.

As our lives unfold in unexpected ways, we are given opportunities to garner extensive firsthand knowledge of just how puny and helpless each incarnated soul is in this fragile little snippet of flesh. Most of us find that we – and our loved ones – are hanging onto our lives by a single thread that can snap at any moment. We can get sick. We can become disabled. We can lose what made our lives meaningful, and be cast out to seek meaning anew. We can even get struck my lightning, if that is our fate. And of course, we will all die. But not everyone is comfortable with this “helpless” philosophy. Some cling hard to the idea that life is what we make of it, and we can do just about anything if we just try hard enough. These ones fearlessly continue carrying out their life plans with great determination and self-confidence, and consider the fatalists to be passive weaklings.

Something as simple as setting a medical appointment can reveal this philosophical divide and bring these diverging viewpoints into collision.

Doctor: So I’ll see you for follow-up next Tuesday.

Patient: Yes, if God is willing.

Doctor: But you WILL come, right? I need to remove the stitches!

Patient: God willing.

Doctor: I need to know that you are coming. You need follow-up!

Patient: I’ll come if God is willing.

Doctor, angrily: Well, I don’t see why God wouldn’t want you to come to your follow-up appointment next Tuesday!

Interpreter: Doctor, the interpreter would like to clear up this misunderstanding by clarifying that making any future plan without acknowledging that God is in charge is taboo, and considered tempting the fates to intervene and remind us that we are merely human. So please understand that the patient has every intention of coming, but considers her future to be in God’s hands.

The interpreter then back-interprets the same statement into Spanish, and the patient’s face lights up, and she says, “Yes! So it is! Man proposes and God disposes!”

Now, I have a very strong philosophy that when two individuals, whatever their power differentials on the surface, become deadlocked in a linguistic misunderstanding, it is not for me to merely clarify the underdog’s strange and mysterious philosophy to the apparent overlord. No. To quote another old adage, that train runs both ways! So I quickly tell the doctor that in order to clarify the linguistic misunderstanding, as I just explained the patient to him, I now need to explain the doctor to the patient, and with his permission I will tell her that the doctor thinks he knows where he is going to be next Tuesday. He thinks he is in charge of that. He shrugs a terse consent: “Go ahead, but make it quick!”

The patient is quite frankly amused to hear that this doctor thinks he knows absolutely what he is going to do next Tuesday, without considering God or Fate or even the devil. That is simply hilarious! She literally laughs in his face and slaps her knee. Ha ha ha! She clearly finds him so delightfully innocent. She points up to the sky and nods sagely at the doctor, kindly admonishing him: “The greatest Healer, above all doctors, and above us all, will decide if we meet next Tuesday! Only God willing!” She nods again, encouraging the doctor to stretch his narrow perspective and save himself future disappointment. We must be resigned to our fate!

The doctor is quite impatient as he receives this concluding bit of the patient’s philosophy. His hand is on the door. He is on a very tight schedule, and had expected to be with the next patient by now, and here we are exchanging ideas after he had neatly closed the session with a clean “see you next Tuesday” exit. He is visibly frustrated by this delay, as he is now 13 instead of 10 minutes late to his next patient. Time is money, and wasted time is wasted money. He has yet to truly fathom that the devil fools with the best-laid plans. Far from being resigned, he is frustrated!

The patient, meanwhile, is continuing to have a very different experience from the doctor. The patient is smiling as the doctor frowns. She is slow to gather her things and leave the exam room. She positively lingers. She has thoroughly enjoyed their extra three-minute conversation, in which she not only expressed her deeply held opinion, but was able to hear his surprising and misguided view of things. What a babe in arms! Truly, it is laughable. He thinks he knows where he will be next Tuesday! She walks out beaming and shaking her head with amusement. He is a good doctor and a good surgeon, but so simple-minded. What a childish philosophy. To think he is in charge of the future! Poor, misguided soul. We know better.


I was just talking with someone about how many people are hopeless, depressed, presuming the worst of others, and not giving people the chance to show the good in themselves. It just spirals, he said. You presume the worse, you act on it, and others respond in kind. They reinforce your negative opinions, so it becomes self-fulfilling. It’s one of those “keep your jack” situations, he told me. I asked him to explain.

“You are in your car, driving along in the forest, and you get a flat tire. You open your trunk, and you don’t have a tire jack. You are all alone in the dark. There are no cars coming by. You walk and walk along the road, but there are no houses. Finally, you see a light in the distance. It is a house! You are freezing, and you walk as fast as you can. It starts to rain. You wrap your jacket around you tighter. But as you get closer, you start to worry. You start to talk to yourself in a negative way:

“Can I really just go up to this house in the middle of nowhere and knock on the door? What if the owner doesn’t want to help me? What if he gets mad? What if he refuses to even open the door? Why should he care about me? He doesn’t care about me! He probably thinks I’m an intruder and I don’t deserve any help! He will view me as a trespasser on his property, and a threat to his home and family. If he comes to the door, he will come with a knife in his hand, ready to stab me! And here I am, an innocent person, needing legitimate help. What an asshole he must be! Damn him!”

“So by then you have made yourself so angry, and are so sure what you can expect from this person whose help you need, that you are filled with rage. So you stand outside in the dark, shaking your fist at the house, cursing the owner and all the occupants. Finally, you pick up a rock from the roadside, and you throw it at a window of the house, and as the window breaks, you yell out: “You can keep your damn jack! I don’t even want it anymore! Go to hell! People like you make the world a terrible place. “

And so it goes, he explained. Almost everything we know about other people is just a story we tell ourselves in our head. And a lot of how we perceive them, and how we choose to treat them, grows out of our stories. So we need to be careful about what we choose to believe, especially about people we don’t know.


Those of us who walk between worlds see all kinds of gaps between the cultures we traverse. One thing that many cannot fathom is the level of fear and confusion that refugees and undocumented immigrants live with on a daily basis. What are they about to get in trouble for? What is going to hit them next? It pervades everything they do. The only other people I know who live with this worrying fear are children who were abused. Am I about to get into trouble? What is going on? Harm seems random, because it comes at random times and it makes no sense.

In asking a woman with terminal cancer if she would like to fill out an advanced directive or living will, she gets really scared. She is worried she will get in trouble with immigration if she signs anything legal, she explains. When her nurse tells her it is only for hospital use, so she can name her adult son to speak on her behalf, her face lights up with joy. “I didn’t know I could name him! I thought you were going to choose someone I don’t know who could make decisions for me! And I would get in trouble with immigration.” The nurse cannot understand how the patient can worry about this kind of thing with cancer looming, but the fear pervades every aspect of her life. The fear is always there.

An ultrasound during pregnancy shows that a baby has anencephaly. Most of the baby’s brain did not develop at all, just the brain stem area. The ultrasound reveals a face, and behind it is an empty space where the brain and the round back of the skull should be. The doctors tell the young patient that they will offer her an abortion. First, the baby cannot survive without a brain. Second, these pregnancies can last even 12 months without treatment, because the baby’s (missing) brain is involved in signalling the mother’s body that it is time to go into labor. This can be very dangerous or even fatal to the mother. They cover the informed consent form. Any questions? “Yes. Are you going to call the police on me?
Will I have to go to jail for this? “

Human trafficking victims who don’t dare to call police. Domestic violence victims who are told if they ask for help, they will get deported. Workers who don’t get paid and don’t dare complain. Miserable conditions that are so hard to fully grasp, still happening, all over. I even worked with a woman whose rapist told her that she would also go to jail for child rape if they got caught, because her mother let her immigrate with him to the US when she was 13 and he was 47, so she, the child victim, was equally guilty of rape, her told her. She never told the police. It came out in counseling. And she was really confused that she was not going to be considered a criminal. She was in disbelief. The therapist couldn’t understand. But so many things had been blamed on this victim. So many things had been her fault. This concept didn’t seem any crazier than so much else in her life.

And in less serious, more routine matters. How many of my readers need a note from a doctor if they take half a day from work to go to a medical appointment? My clients regularly request a note, so they don’t get into trouble at work. How many of you worry yourselves sick at arriving somewhere five minutes late, yet sit patiently for an hour in the waiting room, hesitant to even ask if you can get coffee while you wait, because you don’t want staff getting mad at you? How many find out the hospital has a program that gives uninsured low-income patients a discount that you qualify for, but don’t dare to apply? Being disempowered, being out of your known world, and the expectation of being treated punitively, creates a level of stress, anxiety, worry and fear that is hard to fathom, if you have never felt it.

These fears are not imagined. They are not silly. They are not based on ignorance. They are based on experiences. Repeated events that didn’t make sense. Because they were wrong. They were unfair and unjust. Let’s take this into consideration when we are explaining how things work to those who are most vulnerable among us. Let’s be aware and thoughtful in how we present things. Let’s not take for granted the things others cannot take for granted. Our kindness goes a long way. We can help to lift the burden of fear, if we are willing to take it seriously, and understand its foundations.


I was on the bus home after a very long day, when I found myself seated among three homeless neighbors on their way to a church dinner.  They started out talking about their tents and their setups, but seemed to have a shifting sense of what their respective roles were as to each other.  I found it interesting to ponder those roles and our underlying assumptions about how we should treat each other based on what we call each other.  Mother.  Sister.  Friend.

Man One was sitting next to Woman.  He seemed to be closer to her than she wanted and she was pushing at him as he tried to drunkenly drape himself around her.  But she seemed to be holding her own.  As I quietly observed and considered whether to offer help, she suddenly got up and moved across from me.  We made eye contact and smiled at each other.  Then she rolled her eyes and indicated, get a load of that guy!  Huh! I nodded in sympathy.  Men.  Argh.

Man One started yelling at her and telling her to get her ass back to where he was.  She refused, and they argued across the bus for a while, but he didn’t actually get up to approach her, so we all just waited.  He kept bossing her around until she finally said, “Dude. You ain’t my pimp.  You can’t tell me what to do!”

Then she struck up a conversation with Man Two who was also heading up to dinner.  Man One was very upset by this marked attention, and there was a lot of tough talk.  I could see other passengers subtly shifting in their seats and trying to decide how to interact, if at all.

Finally, Man One called out to Man Two, “You keep the fuck away from her!  She’s my wife!”

People tensed up and watched.  Then Man Two calmly said, “She may be your wife, but she’s My Sister, so you just leave her the fuck alone.”

There was a slight ripple, like a breeze through birch trees, through our section of the crowded bus.  It felt almost like a collective decision on whether to clap.  Then everyone seemed to relax and go back to zoning out as the bus mounted the hill toward home.

The Woman (now known as My Sister) was very grateful and thanked Man Two for standing up for her.  She told him he was a Real Man who knows how to be a Man.  He told her it was his pleasure.  I could see on his face that he felt really good about what he had said.

Man One not so much.  He got off at the next stop and once the bus started pulling safely away, he pounded on the door and called out a fight challenge to  Man Two, calling him a “Motherfucker” and telling him to get the fuck off the bus right then and “fight like a man”.

Man Two was happier to stay on the bus and accompany My Sister to the church dinner, and I hope they thoroughly enjoyed it.  I went home to my own dinner thinking about my sisters on the street.

I wish them all safe, and warm, and well.  And the same wish goes out to their brothers, their children, and any other wanderers.


By definition, interpreters traverse at least two worlds at each meeting.  And that is just the surface.  There are layers upon layers of cultures and subcultures.  We deal with historically imposed languages and native languages, occupations and resistance, second and third languages.  We see mixes and mismatches of cultures, including whatever we think of as our own.  But in a predominantly monolingual culture such as the US, most of these cultural underpinnings that form the lifeblood of ancient societies  go undetected and unmeasured, only straddled by the interpreter.  Sometimes I find myself in the presence of someone who still has, intact, the soul and the speech pattern of people whose culture is as incomprehensible as their native speech to those of us who have not been exposed to its rich treasures.

Albert Einstein, in what may be the only thing he ever said that I could actually understand, told the Progressive Education Association in 1934 that schoolchildren across the United States should be taught “a sympathetic understanding of the characteristic of various peoples … and this understanding should include those peoples commonly designated as ‘primitive’ or ‘backward’.”  He posited that this cultural understanding would add to our chances for peaceful coexistence.  In the truncated quote I saw, he did not expand about how that would enrich us as well.

One of my most rewarding moments at work is when I get a glimpse into one of these ancient worlds, where the human connection and the collective social fabric seems to be less fragmented and torn than in some of our modern industrial societies.  One experience that really stands out in my mind was at labor and delivery many years ago.  I noticed that the fifteen or so family members from four generations who were squeezed into the delivery room were very careful about walking between any two people.  They would stop and ask for permission to proceed, and the people who would be “walked between” would give permission before the walker moved through.  It was very ritualized and carefully performed.

I asked the elder about it, and she explained that there is a golden thread that ties us all together in all our relations.  It makes up the web that sustains and holds us, and we need to constantly repair and build it – strengthen it and be aware of it.  Each action of each person can unite or divide, and it is unity that is the desired state.  After I became cognizant of it, I noticed that some of the less traditional subcultures had held onto some form of this.  They would ask permission to step between two others, and especially to leave someone’s presence.

I started asking permission to leave the patient’s presence at the hospital until it became habit for me, too.  Once my eyes were opened to this, I would notice how the roomful of people would give an almost imperceptible shudder when some of the young medical staff would throw open the door, greet no one, and barge through and past people as if they were not there.  The young doctors were rushing to carry out their very important work, but they were not building relationships, because they just didn’t have that on their radar.  It was not one of their measurables, and they were there to perform up to a set standard.

Years later, when a baby presented with a herniated umbilical cord, the mother explained to the doctor that it was a young relative’s fault, although he had meant no harm. He came home with dirty hands from work, and he went to wash them, and then he completely forgot, after the fatigues of the day, to greet the newborn baby when he came back out.  This naturally caused the baby distress, and such a longing to be seen, that she strained until she had created the hernia, essentially tearing the stomach muscle wall and pushing out a bit of her own intestines.  It was the baby’s longing to be acknowledged by each person present that had caused the harm.  Her kinsman felt terrible about it!  The doctor gave her a very different story to explain the hernia, ignoring everything she said and talking about bowel movements.  They sat facing each other, each with a look of bemused pity at the ignorance of the other party.

I was with a recent arrival to this country who was completely new to the hierarchical formality of the criminal justice system.  The judge sat on high, commanding silence, and people had to stand up every time the judge stood up.  Imagine suddenly being trapped in another culture’s ritualized formalities, where any misunderstanding might influence whether you are to be kept in some sort of a cage.  The turn-taking orders, the formality, the audience.  The staff and the paperwork.  The vortex of unknowns.

Here was my newcomer, mind reeling, in just this situation.  Having a lawyer on one side, an interpreter of his non-native second language on the other, and straining to comprehend his huge risk of jail and possible deportation, after fighting with his own brother, which he had no idea could be considered a crime against the state.  Knocking some sense into a younger sibling actually had seemed like a pretty good idea at the time.  It was his job to keep the lad under his wing and on the straight and steady road.  Why would the state care?

It must have been overwhelming, yet this newcomer was gracious and respectful.  He knew how to behave in this situation – in his own culture.  And that became a problem. Because at each utterance of the judge, he would follow a “call and respond” pattern, showing his obeisance and respect for the judge’s authority, just as he might with a village elder at home.  He would interject shows of respect, and acknowledgement of the other people present, while nodding.  “I hear, and it is for me to obey.”  “I respect each and every person in this courtroom.” “God stands above us all – may we be rightly guided.” “I thank Your Honor and the blessed prosecutor and all others who are present here today.”  When the judge ordered the defendant to day reporting and UAs – urinalysis – he encouraged the judge, in case the judge might have mixed feelings about his ruling, by nodding and calling out, “That is surely the safest thing to do.  I hear and agree!”

Meanwhile, the judge was getting testy.  He interrupted his ruling and ordered the defendant to listen several times, but this defendant had no cultural background to know that the judge meant he was both to listen – which he WAS doing quite actively – and to NOT respond – to remain dead silent.  So he kept showing that he was actively listening by responding appropriately – for his own culture.  Finally, the judge warned the defendant, “My decision on whether to let you remain out on bail or day reporting is based in part on whether I think you will obey court orders, and you keep interrupting, after I ordered you to be quiet!”

The defendant had never been in a situation like this where his silence was needed to show that he was listening.  He now grasped what the judge was asking of him, but it seemed wrong and unnatural.  Even disrespectful.  So he contented himself with whispering things like, “I hear and obey,” “Thank you,” “I am grateful,” and “This is right,” with the occasional “God’s blessings!” Sometimes he would raise his voice, and I would hover between raising mine, or letting it be more quiet while others were talking.  But I could not stop interpreting whatever he said, because it is my ethical duty even when ethical systems collide.  The judge finally ordered the defense attorney to “move the mic further from the interpreter and closer to yourself!”

In hindsight, I think the judge saw it as a bit of a power struggle.  But I am absolutely sure that the defendant had no idea that anything he did could be read as anything but respectful.  I am convinced he was showing the utmost respect to the authority figure by encouraging him, backing him up, approving of the difficult decisions he had to made, and using the call-and-response speech pattern that was clearly quite familiar to him.  He made a point several times of including the other people in the room, acknowledging them as important, valuable individuals, and calling god’s blessings down upon them – even to the other defendants in the benches behind us.

I accompanied the defendant to take his first court-ordered urinalysis, and he was equally gracious and loquacious with that court employee, who in a one-on-one, was quite charmed with him and found him polite and respectful.  She was careful, knowing we were using me as interim interpreter, to speak slowly and clearly, until he could later get an interpreter for his native language, and not his second tongue.  She encouraged him to ask any questions, and things seem to flow along smoothly, right up to his final question, which was beyond her knowledge.

“I am suffused with sadness, because I cannot believe that my own brother would accuse me of hurting him.  I have helped him throughout his life.  I have sent him money to study and to clothe and feed him.  I helped him to come here and work.  I stand in the place of a father to him.  I must guide him.  And now this.  I cannot sleep at night, as this sadness permeates my being and robs me of sleep.  This is what I am worried will show up in my bodily fluids.  Will that be a problem for me?”

The employee’s  response was to tell him straight up that he is not allowed to drown his sorrows in alcohol, because yes, of course it will show up, and then he will be sent to jail to await trial there.  She said he’d better admit it if he had been drinking or taking anything, so we could have that as a baseline measure.  He looked so surprised at her.  How could she not know?

“You misunderstand me.  I am drowning in sorrow.  I am filled with sadness.  So it will naturally come out in my bodily fluids.  I am not drinking.  I am talking about my sadness.  Will that be a problem for me with the judge, when they measure my sadness in your laboratory?”

Now she in turn was looking surprised at him.  What the hell?

The rule is law.  We need measurables, in part to show equal treatment and due process.  But beyond all of that, we are dealing with very human drama and people’s fates lie in the balance.  How can we own our sadness – how can we fully experience it, if we have lost our connection to feel it, and yet we do not yet have the tools to measure and acknowledge it?  How can we acknowledge the suffering of others unless we know that we too are suffering?

If you ask the cutting-edge neuroendocrinologists, who study things like stress hormones and more, they may in fact be able to detect long-term depression or acute sadness in our bodily fluids.  I don’t know where the science stands.  But outside of science, this newcomer understands on a very deep level that his sadness permeates every cell of his body.  He is very aware of his feelings, in a way we are taught to repress, for the most part.  Part of his life is still taking place in a magical world that many of us have completely lost sight of.  A place of cosmic innocence.

It is a magical world that I sometimes get the merest glimpse of through my work.  Like seeing the tail of a fox disappearing behind a stand of trees in the forest, and you stand wondering – was it really there?  What else is hidden from our sight? What else are we not trained enough to see and experience?  Where does our ignorance keep us in darkness? What have we forgotten, and what do we not yet know?  What can we recall, and what can we yet learn?  How can we recover?

We humans have so much in common that is absolutely universal.  And yet the individual human experience through time, culture and geography has so many layers and manifestations that we cannot begin to grasp from our personal vantage points.  We are each floating in our own tiny duck pond, with our familiar ideas and ways of speech and manner and thought.  We cannot know our own blind spots.  We cannot grasp the absolute collective immensity of the tiny, wild pockets of endangered cultures that lie just outside our spheres of vision and speech.

I am blessed to have some glimpses into these other worlds, through my work as a linguist. I am suffused with gratitude.