More than a decade ago while on a family cruise and seeking a way out of boredom, I started drawing again. I had pursued visual art in earnest through the seventies, attending art school, and earning a Bachelor of fine arts in painting. A few years later I purposefully set it aside to more fully invest myself in non-visual media that had piqued my creative interest. Having already gone on one cruise that would not have been our choice, we were surprised when my father-in-law announced his sponsorship of another large family gathering on the rolling seas the following summer. This time, knowing what to expect, I came prepared with drawing paper, ink, and pencils.
For one of the drawings, I began to write down the words “Erie” and “Greenwich” repeatedly, filling a page of drawing paper. I tried to hold the pen in a relaxed manner, successfully forestalling writer’s cramp. Erie. Greenwich. They’re both two-syllable words, and they both employ the same vowels: two E’s and one I. Both words have a long E sound, but arrive at it through different means. Erie uses only one consonant in delivering its two syllables, while Greenwich has latched on to a half dozen.
This activity was not meant to be meditative, as it took some focus to keep my printing consistent. As I worked with this level of attention, the similarities and differences in these two words came to occupy my thoughts. On a personal level, the primary association is that the largest part of my life has now been spent living in one or the other of them.
While saying a word or phrase aloud over and over again in succession can turn it into sonic gibberish, writing the words did not obscure their meaning. The pair retained their status as information, representing an industrial city and a small town. Yet thinking about each name in relation to the geography where that municipality is located opened the door for a metaphorical overlay. Erie, on the shores of the Great Lake that shares its name, can be a bracing place to be in the winter, as winds blow across the frozen waters. With one R stuck near the center to barely keep them warm, E, E, and I look exposed and vulnerable. Meanwhile, out in the rolling, protective hills of Greenwich, the same trio of vowels wrapped themselves in a pair of double consonants at the front and back ends, with an additional pair near the center, making for a warm, two-room shelter.
Outside of their linguistic denotation, words are visual. I often see them as shapes that, with some poetic license, can mirror a word’s meaning. Greenwich offers a tidy little yard, with the taller end letters shading the row of seven within. My first name, when not busy reveling in its alternating consonants and vowels, enjoys a sort of post and beam construction. Erie, short and with its height all at one end, looks powerful, like a locomotive. That’s a connection I made in my youth because of the General Electric plant there where my father worked. Erie’s manufacturing base has been in acute decline for half a century, however, that diminished G.E. plant still produces the mighty engines for those locomotives.
And look at that word: locomotive! It’s long like a train, with all those O’s as wheels to roll along the tracks – and the C is trying hard to be one as well. I was delighting in the thought that the word’s origin could be loco = crazy and motive = reason. (I looked up the definition and I know this is not correct.) But in fact, now that I think of it my way, I may never let it go.
Artist David Greenberger lives in Greenwich, NY www.davidgreenberger.com @davidbg