“Honey, I can’t speak to you in English.”

I’m just thinking about how I can crank out such sentimental music when I’m such a typically unsentimental, rather hard person in real life. And I am, and I know it about myself. I can express things in music that I haven’t a prayer of getting across in words.

And it reminded me of two experiences that always stuck with me. One was listening to an interview on television (some talk show, I can’t recall which) with a woman who had survived the Holocaust in Europe. She was describing some of her experiences of being marched through horribly cold weather in street clothing, and only surviving because a member of her family — father, brother, someone — warned her out of the blue as he was being rounded up, “Wear your ski boots.”

She put on her ski boots. And then was gathered into a group with other young girls and marched through a brutally cold winter to a work camp. Girls were losing toes and parts of their feet to frostbite, but she had those ski boots on and managed to survive the march. She never saw her relative again, but he must have overheard someone talking about what was going to be done with the girls who were subsequently rounded up.

Someone in the audience asked her, “How can you manage to talk about things like this?” and she said something that I never forgot: “I can only talk about it in English. I tried to give a talk in German, and I couldn’t do it. I broke down.”

And on a far, far lighter note, I remembering being in Wales with a few nice folks I know there, and chatting with them — and having them do the Welsh Thing where they speak in English to keep you from feeling excluded. (It can be frustrating as all hell when you’re trying to learn the language yourself.)

I was chatting with them, and the husband made a side remark to his wife about something domestic like cleaning out rain gutters or something. A homey subject. She started to reply to him, blinked and stopped, and then said, “Honey, I can’t speak to you in English.” About a casual or removed topic, they could chat with me in the room just fine, but when the subject turned to something domestic and everyday, English felt alien to her.

It’s a parallel, that’s all. Certain languages make it easier or harder to access certain things, and for various reasons. Domestic conversation meant domestic language to my Welsh acquaintances. And English gave enough emotional distance to the woman speaking of her Holocaust experiences that she could describe it without it coming too close to bear. It’s not a matter of music specifically making one a different person, but that a different means of expression may enable one to access parts of oneself that perhaps one wouldn’t even know were there otherwise, or that were just too hard to say.

It’s a good argument for why the arts and languages are so unbelievably important without the old saw of “it teaches discipline and makes you smarter when you do other stuff.”

Arts (and languages) enable you to express parts of yourself that you would otherwise go to your grave without even knowing were there, or that were vitally important to express but simply too difficult to get across otherwise. You explore yourself more fully the more means of expression are available to you.