Life Changing Punctuation

When you drive a late model car and your Aux cord doesn’t work, a collection of CDs in the center console is critical. My passengers are often surprised to note that, in that dark cave, Dan Fogelberg, Spice Girls, Chopin and Meghan Trainor can co-exist peacefully. On a long commute recently, I was reminded that there are lyrics I’ve listened to a thousand times and yet never heard.

I put in my Neal Diamond CD and found myself playing the song “I Am… I Said” on auto repeat as I tried to discern its meaning: 

“I am”… I said 
To no one there 
And no one heard at all 
Not even the chair 
“I am”… I cried 
“I am”… said I 
And I am lost and I can’t 
Even say why 
Leavin’ me lonely still 

I know this gripping song by heart. And yet. While inching along the gridlocked interstate, it was as if I were hearing it for the first time. And, being a grammarian, I found myself questioning the punctuation. Arriving home, I looked up the lyrics and, specifically, the grammar therein. (Yes, yes, I know I go down rabbit holes). But here’s what I discovered:

I always assumed that “I am” and “I said” were separated by a period: distinctive pronouncements. Actually, though, these statements are separated by ellipses—indicating that Diamond’s major point is really “I am” which he shouts to an empty room. In interviews, Diamond has explained that this ballad was written during an “existential funk,” his way of coming to terms with who he was, growing through a crisis of agonizing loneliness. 

I prefer to use the period. For me, the song’s richness comes not in the interpretation of a man growing through a difficult period in his life: I am. The song’s power lies also in his ability to find himself and his voice: I said

JFK stated that the word crisis, written in Chinese characters, juxtaposes danger with opportunity: “The Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word ‘crisis.’ One brush stroke stands for danger; the other for opportunity.” According to scholars, a more nuanced translation of the Chinese word crisis is the juncture of emergency and the point at which things begin to change. 

So true.

Surely, as in Neal Diamond’s song—and his life—crisis can be a catalyst for growth. One wonders about the pandemic’s long-term ramifications on our worlds. Already we see that people have left jobs, chosen to retire early. It seems our world is in a massive state of self-examination. Out of the COVID cataclysm, perhaps we have grown in our abilities to articulate what’s most important in our lives, to focus on that. Writing in Psychology Today (4.2.20) Dr. Jim Taylor says that our “response to crisis [can be] an opportunity to become more positive, adaptable, and resilient.” 

I’m still fixated on the punctuation in Diamond’s song. Diamond says that he screamed “I am” in the futile hope that someone would hear him, see him, unburden some of the lonely angst. I argue that “I said” is equally important. Is it enough to find ourselves, to understand the crisis percolating inside (I am)? Don’t we also need a voice (I said)? Isn’t our movement from introspection to self-expression a manifestation of growth?

For instance, it was not only significant that the soldiers carried the flag to Mount Suribachi during the Battle of Imo Jima: It was the flag raising that made the iconic photograph. We don’t witness the servicemen’s struggle up the hill; we only see the view from the top. Those soldiers made a powerful journey; they also gave a poignant declaration. The Senators uniting on the steps of the Capitol after 9-11 is only one part of the story; uniting their voices to sing “God Bless America” represented the real power. 

We all know someone who is emotionally closed off. I submit that it’s not that they don’t recognize their own strengths and shortcomings; rather, I think what keeps them at arm’s length is their discomfort in accepting who they are—loving themselves to the point that they can give their struggles and triumphs a voice. Are you someone who has no problem saying “I am” but can’t scream it to a room? Maybe Diamond got it wrong: perhaps the point should be not that he was speaking “to no one there.” Perhaps real growth comes from our ability to speak, shout, cry, at all.  

Perhaps you’re thinking I’ve listened to the song too many times. Fair point, but in my defense I was stuck on the interstate for over an hour. However, it occurs to me that this legendary song gives voice to those life crises we have all faced—certainly within the last two years. It bears witness to the fact that we are here, all the broken, damaged and amazing parts of us. It suggests that we need to shout, cry and sing for our own sakes. Even if no one is listening. Therein lies our power. 

I am. I said.  

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