Home > Random Musings, Writing > Presence, Dante’s Inferno, and Being Accidentally British

Presence, Dante’s Inferno, and Being Accidentally British


I have a talent for accents. I have an appreciation for them, too. For a class, once, I wrote a poem in the perspective of Clare (from Michelle Cliff’s Abeng). It was written in dialect. I read it aloud to the class as part of a project – with a Jamaican accent. After I finished, there was silence.

For a brief moment, I wondered if I’d forgotten to wear pants that day. Or if I had spinach in my teeth. Perhaps there was an evil monkey with a gun on my shoulder.

I don’t know. I wasn’t prepared for the silence. Then, after what felt like an eternity in a very wretched in Hell (one that Dante surely left out – it’s the one where the Writers go to have tomatoes thrown at their heads) – they clapped. Everyone was impressed.

They asked me where I’d learned to do that. I told them it was just something I’d pick up. That’s most true. The truer thing would be to tell them that I was imitating Brad Pitt in Meet Joe Black. (I think I’m the only person who truly loves that movie.) I would’ve lost a bit of credibility.

So, accents. I love them. I am good at imitating them. Of course, there’s a more embarrassing story, too. I taught riding lessons for a number of years. A British family, whose mother’s name was Allison, took lessons for a summer.

I was in the barn, awaiting the mother’s arrival. It was fairly early in the morning. She popped her head in and said, “Morning!” She said it with a very proper British accent. And I said it right back in the exact same way.

I didn’t mean to. I really didn’t. It did not help that (the night before), I’d seen a comedy sketch about a British werewolf – the only thing I can remember is the line, ‘Pardon me, I’m a werewolf. Would you mind terribly if I ripped out your throat?”

Yes, I’m good at accents, sometimes to my utter mortification.

This is a talent you can’t guess just by looking at me. There are a lot of things that can’t be discerned just by looking at a person. Today, as it’s raining and the world is dressed in varying shades of grey, that’s what I’m thinking about.

What we cannot see. What we think we see, sometimes. And what we fail to see, when we don’t really look. Life, I think, is a lot like reading. Close, active reading. You can miss whole worlds and characters if you’re not paying attention. You can let meaning slip through your fingers. You can overlook the most important gestures, because they seem small, or they’re made of whispers.

There is too much taken for granted. There is too much left unseen. How often do you walk by someone, without really noticing them? How often do you lack presence in a conversation, failing to invest your full attention? (Yes, I’m looking at you. Put the phone down.)

Stop judging. Stop assuming. Stop phoning it in. And just…be.

  1. April 8, 2011 at 5:00 pm

    I would add to the last sentence by saying “And just…ask.” So often I assume the worst, that people who are different than me in some ways are different in every way. But opening a dialogue more often has taught me that the differences are less than what I thought they were.

    • Ali
      April 10, 2011 at 12:22 pm

      That’s a really good point, Greek. Opening up a dialogue can illuminate so much. 🙂 Thanks for commenting!

  2. April 9, 2011 at 11:20 am

    You are not alone – I LOVE “Meet Joe Black”! And when I’ve had more than two glasses of wine, I speak with the perfect aristocratic British accent.

    • Ali
      April 10, 2011 at 12:59 pm

      Yay! Thank goodness it’s not just me!!

  3. Jak
    April 9, 2011 at 1:37 pm

    1. I love “Meet Joe Black” as well. It may be the only Brad Pitt movie I like.
    2. I love greekphysique’s suggestion of asking. So often people are too embarrassed to just ask someone something and it causes more problems than just owning up that you don’t know.
    3. I’m not good at producing accents when I’m not around people who are speaking it. Whenever someone is speaking to me in an accent I’ll automatically start speaking like them. I felt like an idiot when a customer came into McDonald’s and had a southern accent and I started imitating it. After they left and I realized what I was doing I hoped that they realized I wasn’t mocking them.

    • Ali
      April 10, 2011 at 1:00 pm

      Jak — I’m glad that you like “Meet Joe Black.” Between you and Maria, I feel much better. Greek’s suggestion is quite good. He’s a wise one. 🙂 As for accidentally imitating someone — I totally feel your pain! *Grin*

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