Transitional Object, a Grammar for Letting Go

“Initially, one’s motives for translating happenstance into acts of language may be quite private.”

                        —Nancy Mairs

It was a new job. My old job was defunct, like so many jobs in Athens. I was teaching “pointer words” and “connectors” to students who were uninterested, trying to explain the importance of structuring a sentence but I was really trying to not fall apart. “Pointer words,” “connectors” and “transitions” seemed an apt way to hold a sentence together and using language a good way not to fall apart. “Spot is a good dog. He has fleas.” Says the sample sentence, and the instruction: “Connect your sentences . . .” What does Spot being good have to do with fleas?” asks the author.

What does falling apart have to do with my standing in a classroom doing a job? The whole country was falling apart; the bodies of refugees were being washed up daily on the island shores of Lesvos, Samos, Leros, and Kos, and I was trying to concentrate on pointer words and connectors.

There’s this about language and what we teach, or how we teach it, that it becomes a necessity to make sentences that make sense. It was a way to stay the confusion of what was not making sense. “You have coherence,” the instructions continue, “when there isn’t a loss of meaning, i.e. one sentence will ‘connect’ to another, and these will relate to one another when there is coherence.” Transitions can help keep the relationship logical, and “. . . help you cross from one point to another in your text.”

I was trying to cross from where I had been deeply involved with someone to being no longer involved, to standing in front of a classroom of students uninterested in the lesson. Pointer words then, “this,” “these,” “that,” “those,” “their,” are used to “point or refer backward to some concept in the previous sentence.” To refer backward to when I’d wake to my lover’s morning calls would make it hard to move on, a phrase as simple as hey hon, I’m thinking of you used to get me through the day. Though this was no sea, I had to accept that he was not going to be calling; if not equally terrifying it was still terrifying.

In class I mention the refugees from Syria and Afghanistan barely managing their journeys as they reach the Greek islands, I use the pointer words: Then. They. This. There. I also repeat that the connections we make are what shape meaning, “Then I went to the supermarket. They were unkind. This is because I was without enough money to buy what I wanted. There was difficulty when I tried to explain why.” The students are looking at me. I was, for once, more concentrated on them than the things my lover had said to me, one sentence in particular, we need to remind ourselves to link arms through this, had kept me looking back to how we might have gone from that point to the next: had we linked arms then, there might have been some possibility of getting through this.


I join a group of volunteers who visit a refugee shelter in Athens sporadically. We do activities with the children like making jewelry out of pipe cleaners, and give them magic markers and watercolors to draw and paint with. I don’t know if that makes things worse or better. The children who smile and sing when we sing with them and who draw pictures and write their names in bold reds and yellows and greens are always happy to see us. But then we are gone, and they are left with the memory of our time together as if they were still in lives where drawing on paper with colored pencils and markers are part of a regular day. This was our intention, for them to feel some continuity with what had been left behind, or been taken from them, that we could still make these activities a part of their lives.

There’s this about language too, that it is there to help us create continuities. The example in the grammar book goes on, “Spot is a good dog, but he has fleas” or “Spot is a good dog, even though he has fleas.” The logic of syntax can be comforting in the way it will keep even the illogical connected. What does being good have to do with having fleas? Fleas, now a threat to goodness, will not stop Spot from being a good dog. These children we brought paper and paints and colored markers to have come from disasters I can only imagine. When one of the older boys, a very polite 16-year-old, tells me that he will go to Germany, I want to touch him. He makes the statement so matter-of-factly I realize he’s never questioned that this will be where he will end up. Maybe this is the country his family kept naming as they made the decision to seek another life, as their dinghy overturned in the middle of the Aegean, and Greek fishermen rescued them.

He will go to Germany even though he is now in a squat with no papers, and the borders into northern Europe are closed. His English is better than some of the students I am teaching in a private college, and he is here living in the corner of a room with his cousins and an uncle where a curtain gives them some privacy. His name is Amir and he helps pick up the scattered markers and paper scraps after we’re done with the activities. One girl wants to walk with me to my car. She won’t let go of my hand, and I remember I have some tangerines and give her a couple. Someone from the group tells me I shouldn’t have because others will want one, but she is happy and keeps smiling, and I feel somewhat desperate when I see her watch me drive away.


I had become fixated on the images of refugees getting out of dinghies or being carried onto the various island shores, the fluorescent orange lifejackets piled up on the shorelines with other assorted flotsam. I also read “Holding someone’s hand was always my idea of joy” from Clarice Lispector’s The Passion According to G.H. and am haunted by that line when I stumble on the story of a young Syrian mother who is describing the loss of her eight-year old daughter at sea. The line reminds me that holding my lover’s hand really was one of the joys of being in love. The family had paid smugglers to take them from Turkey to Lesvos. Tarek, her husband was with Linette, the younger daughter, and Lina, the mother, was holding onto Laya’s hand when the boat capsized and she lost her grasp. “People were falling on top of me,” she says, barely managing the words. I keep replaying the clip, listening to Lina’s voice interrupted with sobs. She describes how they had not wanted to go into the boat but had been pushed at gunpoint by the smugglers. Tarek who had said the boat was unsafe, was forced into it with others. His expression crumbles as he listens to Lina speaking and his palm wipes itself over his eyes. Linette, who might be 6 or 7, keeps looking back and forth between her parents, leaning against them and occasionally pressing her face into her father’s arm.

I don’t know how Lina manages to speak, but she is trying, I think, to speak of Laya so she is not forgotten in the numbers of the lost. “ONE death is a tragedy. One million is a statistic.” This is the opening line of a New York Times editorial on empathy that argues against this to say empathy is a matter of choice. Syntax is consoling here too because syntax, according to the grammar book, uses transitions and pointer words “like an invisible hand reaching out of your sentence, grabbing what’s needed in the previous sentences and pulling it along.” I am back to imagining my lover’s hand in mine but I am also determined to get through the lesson. Syntax can make coherences out of “an ambiguous or free-floating pointer”; to link an ambiguous “this” to a more clearly defined object, like “you.” “This will affect you, too” I say, to the class, referring to the lives of refugees. “This” I keep saying to myself, to keep present, to stay coherent.

An interview with Lia Purpura I read online feels like an uncanny, and thankful, coincidence of language. Though I haven’t read the author or the book, I’m intrigued with what Purpura says about Jack Turner’s The Abstract Wild. She quotes this: “A created environment is a neutered wild, a wild to which we no longer live in vital relationship”; it makes me think there is nothing of the “neutered wild” in the lives of the refugees, their wildernesses of uprooted, exploded lives is always vital. Purpura continues, quoting Turner, “To create a wilder self, the self must live the life of the wild, mold a particular form of human character, a form of life. Relics will not do, tourism will not do, books will not do.” Purpura appreciates this, especially since she is a disciple of the word, believing “so wholly in language and books, frail as words are . . .”

Frail as words are, in this new teaching job, in my suddenly bereft state, I had to do certain things even though doing them could feel impossible. Maybe this was a reason I had become transfixed by the extraordinary ruptures in the lives of the refugee families I spoke to, they were teaching me something about fragility. They were the people a step away (or whole worlds away) from those of us in countries that were not at war, and still with jobs even if conditions had changed for almost everyone I knew in Athens. Maria made 200 euros a month, and it was black for weeks of 8-hour work days; Grigori was asked to sign papers saying he had taken his vacation leave but wouldn’t be given any if he wanted to keep his job.

In another uncanny interface of language, Wayne Koestenbaum’s review of Adrienne Rich’s recently published Collected Poems, has this line “Her politics, not abstract, took place in blood vessels. Precarious ecologies stirred her sympathies”; the refugees’ wild precarity is very much part of their journey in “blood vessels.” Lifejackets and inflated boats are in daily Facebook updates. “At least 17 children drowned today, that’s a whole classroom full” Alicia says in her FB status update. Alicia is regularly at the squat and provides supplies from readers to flip-flops, olive oil and lemons.

I look up uncanny; it is from Freud’s term “heimlich,” the word for homey or the familiar, and “unheimlich” the word for the unfamiliar or uncanny in his study about unexpected connections, an aesthetics of the fearful that takes over when what is unfamiliar becomes eerie. Koestenbaum continues, “Listen to her long vowels and keen consonants; listen to the leitmotif of pain.” Listen to “the physiologies of words like ‘crevice’ and ‘gobbets,’ ‘shearing’ and ‘vetch,’ ‘scours’ and ‘debridements,’ ‘pelt’ and ‘cumbrous,’ ‘juts’ and ‘bleak glare aching’ . . .” Maybe Jack Turner’s idea of a no longer vital relationship to his neutered wild is what Adrienne Rich was trying to salvage so wildly. She did remind us “a wild patience has taken me this far.” In the “bleak glare aching” of the difficult waking day I scour for a language to let go of what was once familiar. Pelt. Shearing. Juts. Connect what words take, what shearing will give back in its uncanny way, not simply in the body’s cumbrous value. The smugglers are charging 600 to 800 euros per person, per body, “It doesn’t matter if it’s a child,” Abeer says, who has made it from Damascus to Turkey, and then from Turkey to Lesvos and now is at the squat waiting for asylum papers to go to Berlin. Listen to the physiologies of the words, “It doesn’t matter,” a kind of transition as she articulates the matter of what matters, of words salvaged “frail as words are . . .”


A colleague at school is going to Lesvos and asks for donations of “soft toys, like stuffed animals and teddy bears” which she will take with her to distribute to the refugee children. “Transitional objects” is a term D.W. Winnicott uses for those first possessions experienced in “the intermediate area,” between an absolute dependence on the mother and the infant’s gradual separation from her; an “in-between space” that he also calls “the holding environment.” These objects are important for the infant’s initiation into the world beyond the mother. A psychotherapist-pediatrician Winnicott is interested in how a child learns to relate to the “not me” of the universe by using the teddy bear or blanket or doll or any object to enact an “object-relationship” of creative play and fantasy. This attachment becomes fraught when the environment is hostile. He names it “reality testing” that state “between a baby’s inability and his growing ability to recognize and accept reality.” At first I wonder what soft toys will do for children who have been in the midst of war and seen people drown but then my colleague says she wants to take these toys because she remembers when her family left the island and moved to Alabama; she was five and a doll she kept speaking to was what helped her feel that she would one day return to the island.

One day at the squat Aqdas, a fragile-looking Syrian girl helps me pump balloons. She likes doing this, and distributing them. The children all want one, and are clamoring for them but she speaks in a quick, strict Arabic and lines them up while she pumps one balloon after another and hands them out. I tell her that she can keep the pump, which pleases her. Each time I visit after that she asks if I brought balloons; I bring other things, coloring books and stickers, even a dartboard, but keep forgetting the balloons. We were told they were also winding up in the toilets causing them to clog. But I do bring a packet some weeks later and ask Aqdas if she still has the pump. She motions that it’s lost. I say I’ll bring another one, which I keep forgetting to do. It becomes a kind of code between us. Every time I visit, Aqdas will say, “pump?” opening her hands as if to ask “where?” I shake my head having forgotten it again, and she laughs. When I leave there is always a question of the next day and time I’ll be visiting, to which I gesture to help her understand “Thursday” will be the day after tomorrow. She shows me with her hands and expression that she understands we are skipping a day, and says, “pump?” which makes us both laugh.


“Annotate key phrases,” I am telling my students. “Highlight them: see how the highlights create a pattern; shape a meaning.” How do we make sense when the connections fail, shape-less where there was something (someone) to hold onto? Lina lost hold of Laya’s hand—does this mean she will keep trying to use words to shape what is no longer there? I am standing in front of my class and ask, “What are the key phrases and transitions?”—Darling, are you there? Yes hon, always here—is what I hear but read from the grammar book: “Ideally, transitions should operate so unobtrusively . . . that they recede into the background and readers do not even notice that they are there.” Key phrases whose context has been ruptured in trauma will be repeated in new contexts, sometimes suggesting uncanny connections. Anne Boyer points out “There is trauma which is fantastic in the way it is brief and clear and also the way it lingers around and emerges unpredictably as if it will forever. ” I was speaking to students about how a sentence can bring parts together, that transitions and pointer words, “this,” “that,” “then,” will create coherences. I was also remembering Abeer’s feet, that she wanted flip-flops when we brought a bunch of them to distribute at the squat. She wanted a pair for her son, and also for herself and showed me her swollen ankles and thick-skinned heels. I also think of the young boy Abude reading on the sheet we spread over the concrete, and that the flies kept interrupting him. Abeer’s classroom is its own kind of in-between space, I think of her as being what Winnicott calls the “good enough mother” who devotes herself to her students’ need for a language that might help them into more hopeful lives.


I start to go more frequently to the squat, a school building, which is where Syrian and Afghan refugees—some 400, and lots of children—have taken shelter in what were once classrooms. There are as many as 6 families in a room. Some of the donations I sort through include a halter with sequins, high-heeled shoes, sexy underwear, not that they wouldn’t be enjoyed, but I think these things as a good example of an ignorance of context, or indifference. On a scrap of paper taped on the wall outside the kitchen is a list of supplies needed; these include baby formula, olive oil, children’s underwear and flip-flops. We do simple activities with the children when we’re not passing out donations. We bring scissors and glue, colored pipe cleaners, paper, and paints. We lay a bed sheet or two over the concrete of what was the school playground. Denmark and Switzerland have decided they will use the refugees’ assets to keep them clothed and reinstated if granted asylum. On the Greek radio this morning there was a report that as many as 70 unescorted children are being put up in police stations in Athens. The journalist was saying there’s no supervision besides the police and sometimes volunteers from groups like “ΤΟ ΧΑΜΟΓΕΛΟ ΤΟΥ ΠΑΙΔΙΟΥ” (“The Smile of the Child”). Some of the children had started throwing themselves on the ground and hitting themselves to get attention. At the squat they want to touch us constantly, hug, and sit in our laps.

I reread the New York Times piece on empathy. It explains that certain groups are less likely to feel empathy, one being “powerful people.” They are like bordered countries with “less incentive to interact with others.” The governments of Denmark and Switzerland are afraid the refugees will change the state of their States. Empathy would make them, and the rest of Europe, more porous, less familiar, more of unheimlich, and eerie uncertainty. “Arguments against empathy rely on an outdated view of emotion as a capricious beast that needs to yield to sober reason . . . but this is not a deficiency in the emotion itself. In our view, empathy is only as limited as we choose it to be.” I like this explanation that considers the “outdated” view “of emotion as a capricious beast.” Perhaps my lover, like the Swiss and Danish governments, was afraid the beast of emotion might leave him with less self for himself, its uncanny shape-shifting effects too unpredictable.

In class I discuss this idea of digressing from the known on the level of the sentence. “Notice how we have used such connecting devices thus far . . .” and repeat “this chapter, for example, opens with the transition ‘And yet,’ signaling a change in direction . . .” To make your sentences cohere you need to choose an appropriate connector depending on what kind of logic is at stake. The connections I am trying to make are multiple, as are their directions. I now enter two classrooms, the classroom that Abeer is trying to make of the basement room in the squat, and the classroom where I am teaching composition to paying freshman who seem mostly uninterested; there is less of myself here than there is when I go to the squat “and yet,” I want to say, hoping to include more of what is “not me,” more of what might be important to them, and say, “the transitions are important,” and mean contexts have their own logic, which probably means, too, that my coherence is at stake.


When I go back to the squat I learn that Aqdas is no longer there. I didn’t bring the balloon pump but I brought her a pair of leggings she had asked for and am told the family moved to the Ellinikon camp, which is much larger and conditions rougher. There are thousands at the camp. Alicia and I wonder if we should try to go find her. Someone at the squat says her family is in the process of getting their papers to go to Brussels. The children pulling at our arms, hugging us when we arrive or leave, reassures me that we are not unfamiliar, we are expected and welcomed, and there is always something that someone asks for.

Today one of the teenaged girls says she would like hair dye and tells me she wants a blond color that is not too light because she shows me another girl’s hair and says “like this.” I start to make it a point to bring the more specific things I’m asked to bring. It is never enough. More women ask for hair dyes, and when Maedeh’s mother asks, and asks again, when I can bring the dye, I say “Thursday.” Today there were stories about Idomeni the camp at the Macedonian border where some of the families have come from, one mother says a guard gave her food but wouldn’t let her through; he is the border guard after all, and yes empathy is a choice.


A broken couch sits at the top of the steps where two men are sleeping, a girl is on the floor eating a flour wrap that looks like it’s filled with yoghurt; part of it falls and she picks it up with her fingers to eat. There’s a plastic Christmas tree that no one has thrown out in the corner of the entranceway, probably from the days when the school was a working school. Abeer wants blank printing paper, and white board markers, and so I bring a packet of the paper and two markers from my college, signing off on supplies as if they were for my own classroom. It is not a place that looks like it can manage some 400 people, and yet there are that many people here and many babies. It doesn’t look like it would be easy to concentrate on Abeer’s lessons in the basement room either. The windows are small and near the ceiling and when it rains, as it did the night before, there is water everywhere. But when I walk in with supplies, and Abeer is talking to a woman in the flooded room I look more upset than she does. She says she’ll get a mop, and asks if I managed to get colored tacks for her wall. She wants the thumb tacks to “to make learning fun” and shows me how she will spell that phrase with the tacks. She also wants “biscuits for rewards”; “ink for the printer,” and “an English dictionary.” Someone gave her a map and a white board.

There are lots of flies today, the children keep scratching at what look like bites but are also chickenpox blisters. Abude wants to read and says words he mispronounces but keeps repeating. He doesn’t pause at the periods or commas of a reader that describes locomotive engines; I wonder if he understands what he’s reading in the speech bubbles that describe steam, coal, and electric locomotives. We are sitting on a sheet in a corner of the concrete playground and the flies keep interrupting his words because he pauses to move them away from his face and I do the same. He says, very proudly, that he is now 11 years old. “This” he says, showing me a speech bubble on the page, and I say, “This is a conductor. He drives the train. He is saying, ‘Those gears control the speed.’” Abude repeats, “those gears control the speed.” I say, “he is saying . . .” and Abude repeats, “he is saying . . .” And I tell him we’re going to have a birthday cake for him later.


My colleague returned from Lesvos after having taken the donations of soft toys. She was having a hard time piecing together what she had seen. A Kurdish mother showed her pictures on her cell phone of her two sons being shot. She had video recorded the shooting. “This” she repeated in her bare English, and told my colleague to “Sit. Eat.” She was feeding her one surviving son my colleague guessed was around 10 years old. She had made a bean dish on a gas burner she had on the ground, with the cell recording still on. “For you” she said to my colleague who wasn’t sure if she was referring to the video or the food. She could hear the gunshots. “The food was delicious,” she said, and the Kurdish mother “half mad . . . of course.” Of course is another of the transitions suggested by the grammar book, in the category of CONCESSION words, others are “admittedly,” “although,” “granted,” “naturally” and “of course.” Although it’s true this Kurdish mother was trying to communicate the trauma of her sons’ murders, unlike Lina speaking of her drowned daughter, this mother was admittedly insane, or seemed so to my colleague. Admittedly, of course, granted, transitions that give emphasis, are trying to connect parts of a sentence, kinds of logic more difficult to contextualize.

I start to think grammar can become its own kind of holding environment, a space where ruptured continuities might find new ways to signify meaning. Winnicott explains that transitional phenomenon enables an infant’s separation from the mother, but that this can’t happen “unless there is a good-enough mother,” otherwise the child is afraid to part with its object which is then fetishized. Winnicott gives the example of the boy with the string, a 7-year-old “obsessed with everything to do with string . . .” joining together chairs and tables, but also his younger sister, who, Winnicott notes was “the first separation of this boy to his mother.” He explains the boy’s anxiety as a result of his mother’s depression and hospitalization when he was three years old and eleven months, following his sister’s birth. This anxiety of separation is certainly part of what keeps the children so close to us when we go to the squat. They want to be held, and hugged, and always ask, like Aqdas did, when we will be back.

The boy with the string had exaggerated its use says Winnicott, as “a denial” of what could make it “meaningless.” We need to link arms through this with its free-floating pointer, had left me unstrung; this, now detached from the promise of an arm linked into mine had me thinking constantly of a time when an arm had been linked into mine. I could be like Abude, and repeat the phrase and maybe like Abude repeating, “those gears control the speed” I’ll listen to the sound of the words as they teach me of a new way to describe my reality.

I try to explain to Adube what it is he is reading. I gesture to show how different trains have different speeds. He suddenly uses a German word that I don’t understand but we laugh. Wayne Koestenbaum describes Adrienne Rich’s “physiologies of words” as a attempt at salvaging meaning; to write that my hand in my lover’s, or his arm linked into mine, promised to make bearable, whatever “this” might have been is part of the work of speaking and writing and the crisis of speaking and writing when meaning eludes it, like this eating, as my colleague ate, of what feeds us, this stringing together of what keeps coming apart. My colleague said she thanked the Kurdish mother who smiled and insisted she have more of the beans and rice. Abude tells me he is glad I brought this book on locomotives for him to read.


I am back in class, and use the grammar book’s example sentence. A free-floating pointer can mean any number of things when unclear as to what the pointers are pointing out: “Alexis de Tocqueville was highly critical of democratic societies, which he saw as tending toward mob rule. At the same time, he accorded democratic societies grudging respect. This is seen in Tocqueville’s statement that . . .” The grammar book notes it’s unclear what this refers to, Tocqueville’s criticism of democratic societies or his grudging respect; this ambiguity of language is a sly way to keep open to possibilities though the grammar book considers this a fault.

I am deliberately keeping open to the possibility of threading what might otherwise stay unstrung even if I can’t always see the strands. “String can be looked upon as an extension of all other techniques of communication. String joins, just as it also helps in the wrapping up of objects and in the holding of unintegrated material” says Winnicott of the boy with his string. “I don’t want to remember,” Abeer tells me in the car as I drive her to the airport where she will finally go to be reunited in Berlin with her husband and older son. She bought a pair of espadrilles made of silver fabric for the trip and shows them to me. It’s been over a year since she’s seen her husband and older son.

Nothing was guaranteed at any point in the journey. Money given to smugglers, the wrong-sized lifejackets, some that didn’t inflate, the boat to Lesvos that ran out of gas, towed to shore by Greek coast guards. Children had drowned; others had arrived separated from their families. “It will be a new life,” she says, and I see her cheeks are wet but she keeps looking at the road and asks me of what to expect in Berlin; will she be shown the way out of the airport, will someone tell her where to go. She has never been through an airport, having traveled so far by car, on foot, or boat. I say once she’s through passport control her husband will be waiting for her. This is a strand of the story I thread for her, adding that I believe all will be well.


One of my students tells the class the story of Kunkush, the refugee cat who was separated from his family, a mother and five children fleeing war in Mosul, Iraq, when they arrived on Lesvos. Fishermen found the cat after the family had already moved on. An American volunteer, Ashley Anderson, saved him from strays and organized an initiative to locate the family. The drive cost 600 euros and was raised with a GoFundMe campaign. A local vet vaccinated the cat so he could be sent to Berlin where Anderson with the help of Amy Shrodes and Michelle Nhin started a “Reunite Dias” effort on social media, naming him Dias (Greek for Zeus) before they knew his actual name. I find this online:

Nhin, who set up the Reunite Dias Facebook group wrote: “In a small way, his journey represents the plight of all who are seeking a better life. We need each other. If it wasn’t for people taking notice of his vulnerable state and taking him in under their wings, he’d likely be fighting for food and struggling to thrive.”

It was another uncanny moment, my student Eleni describing Kunkush’s plight and reconnection with his family in Denmark, another example of the unexpected. I had asked the class to come up with topics for their writing assignments, and this was hers. I was now explaining transitions between paragraphs. We were back to pointer words. “Those efforts of the volunteers saved Kunkush’s life,” Eleni says. Students are taking turns demonstrating the application of a grammar exercise.

Someone talks of “creating flow” and quotes the line I’d mentioned earlier, saying pointer words and transitions “are like an invisible hand reaching out of your sentence . . .” I become superstition, thinking there must be a reason I keep hearing this sentence. When there is flow, when movement is journeying us (“I don’t like to use words like always, I’d said to my lover), we don’t think of these things so consciously; “the hand is there,” I say to the class, “when your transitions are building your ideas, but don’t take that hand for granted.” They laugh. They are going to pair up and read each other’s drafts. I want them to group “a constellation of key terms and phrases, including synonyms and antonyms.” According to the grammar book this will clarify their strategy for relating the points of their argument to each other. My key terms include “empathy” and “wild”; possible synonyms are “connect” and “uncanny,” possible antonyms, “rupture” and “border.”  

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