Later this afternoon, I’ll be going under the knife for a biopsy on my tongue. When the doctor saw the growth on my tongue he said: “I think we should cut it out – not the tongue, the growth.” He thought that was funny. I didn’t, and the thought of it has lingered with me.
Last time I wrote about the symbolism of the tomato, and now I’m thinking about the tongue. Maybe its the curse of a writer and someone whose contemplative and spiritual path involves the interpretation of symbols. But, I can’t help but be grateful for my tongue.
Yes, my tongue is too big for my mouth and that has caused me some dental problems and left me with a lisp as a child that I had to work hard to overcome, with the aid of a speech therapist. Yes, ‘my tongue is too big for my mouth’ is also another way of saying that I love to talk. As much as I am a good listener, I do love to talk. A great visit with a friend involves a lot of talking and I’ve had a lot of talk therapy in my life (I was, after all, a New Yorker, where you have to have talk therapy in order to be permitted to live in the city). To me, my tongue is essential to friendship and self awareness. I suppose that were the surgeon to slip and oopsie! my tongue was gone, I’d still be able to write. But there is a reason that we long to hear the sound of someone’s voice. I long to hear my mother’s voice, and I never will again. In the secret parts of my heart, where I don’t like to look, I also long to hear the sound of the voice of a lost love or two, just one more time.
I am grateful for the memory of their voices in my head and my heart, and I’m certain that I’m not the only person who associates the mystery of memory with the tongue. After all, when something is just beyond our cognition, don’t we say that it is on the tip of the tongue?
And as I go through my memory, the tongue was a great appendage of exploration when I was a child. I learned that metal would stick to the tongue when it’s cold outside, and that pop rocks would fizz on the tip of it, that it was possible to catch raindrops and to taste snow. And, I learned that my tongue could be used as a gesture of defiance, coquettishness, anger and humour. The tongue, even before I had command of complex language, was a means of understanding the world and expressing myself to it.
As I grew older, I learned that the tongue expresses not only through our words but also through touch. Passionate kisses and carnal pleasures pass by the tongue as we commingle with others. Whether it is a source of pleasure and joy or sloppy disgust, the tongue gets involved in amour. It is one of our most intimate appendages.
Oh yes, the tongue has been a great explorer. It is the means by which I’ve tasted food (along with the olfactory senses) and the means by which I derive pleasure from eating. While I’m not a great cook, my food is tasty and I’m grateful to have eaten in fine restaurants and local food stalls around the world.
And as I’ve gone around the world, I’ve heard and picked up bits of several languages. As a child I was bilingual and then as an adult I added a third language. In my travels I learned a bit of Hindi and Swahili but these days I’m lucky if I can remember words in a single language, let alone multiple.
I remember once being in a foul mood in London and sitting on the bus with people talking loudly on their cell phones in a cacophony of world languages. I felt like I was sitting atop the Tower of Babel with a migraine headache. And then, I suddenly realised how lucky I was to be living in a city with so many diverse cultures coexisting peacefully, and to be in a hub of airlines routes that made international travel from London so cheap.
I’m grateful for the languages I’ve learned, and the people and cultures I’ve experienced by way of the tongue.
The tongue even has a part to play in our own individual heritage and sense of belonging. Our first language that we learn at home is called our mother tongue and it is probably named after the mother because it is the primary caregiver (traditionally the mother) who first teaches the child to speak through efforts to mimic mother and belong. The tongue is a link to our home, to a sense of belonging, and to our heritage. It is an anchor as well as an appendage of love and adventure.
In Eastern medicine, the tongue provides a roadmap of the body and is used to diagnose illness and imbalance. Where the tongue is discoloured, or coated in milky film, or simply red and dotted reveals the condition of our organs and systems. The tongue is the microcosm of the macrocosm.
It may get me into trouble sometimes, but I very much want to keep my tongue.