Sunday, April 19, 2015

The Hard Learning

We are pressed together in this mass transit world, nomads in a city older than buses and trains. It has been a stressful week, and the cool, worn stone laid by men with lost names steadies me as the bustle turns to lullaby. I am nearly asleep when his voice distinguishes itself, and I listen long before I open my eyes.

What I couldn't hear was the way his mouth is pressing itself into shapes that don't come naturally, his brow scrunched with concentration. His command of my foreign language is solid, but the distance from his shores to mine still show themselves clearly. Where English demands a staccato T, his Asian tongue finds a softer W before struggling for a small D in there at the end. And he is reading out his name, letter by letter--a particularly cruel joke, these layers of language, especially over a cell phone. He reads it three times, and even with the assistance of his face there are a couple letters I'm not sure of. I balance whether to offer help--is it still help if it takes his dignity as payment?--but my New England social walls stand firm.

I remember learning the alphabet in French--ah, bey, cey--and wondering at this refraction of English, or rather sister-refraction to something older still. Even that sister-tongue was too much for me, and after a few years of tests and one trip to the country I refracted, myself, spinning hard into this language I was born to, admiring others from a cold and comfortable distance.

I have never needed to know someone else's words. I've picked up a phrase here and there--I can apologize and order a street hot dog in Castellano, can pepper my speech with French tones, can make an occasional German outcry--but these have all been casual, friendly, uncritical. I know nothing of women fleeing war and rape, coming to cold New England cities with their walled-in people. I know nothing of college boys crossing half the planet for education and career. Even in Houston and Salt Lake City this spring, I went nowhere without my iPhone in hand.

My best friend calls me an intellectual snob, and this is true: I like knowing things, and I like demonstrating that I know them. I like learning new things from you--but partially so that I can demonstrate knowing them later. (It occurs to me, I may be a minor comic book villain: Dr. Thesaurus, ABD, perhaps.) And so I spun hard into an English degree, learning grammar and linguistics and Shakespeare, learning to say "kuh-neef-eh" when reading Chaucer (a world when you used every letter and none were silent), learning the rhythm and form of sestinas and sonnets, learning how this (every) language is a breathing, shifting, living thing: that my grandmother's English died before she did, and that I will live to see "whom" become archaic, and have already seen "new-ku-ler" be an accepted pronunciation.

And it comes back to the boy in the bus station, to the woman in the grocery store line. It comes back to what I do as they force my words out of them. And in the wondering, a memory from fifteen years ago slams into me, resounding like a gong. So clearly, I can see the ancient woman in Arles, running her little shop of cookbooks and wooden kitchen tools. In Paris, every native had cut us off with, "English, please," with an eye roll. But this woman--the wood witch from any fairy tale you can name--clasped her hands and leaned forward. She had none of my language, and so she waited with eagerness, nodding enthusiastically at each successful (though butchered) word. I don't remember our words, but our conversation is clear in my head, where the refractions play themselves out: She did know the fish soup from the restaurant last night. This cookbook, here. No, no charge. Take it. Make soup. Remember your night in Arles. I don't remember the cookbook, or the soup. But a lifetime later, I remember her.

In there somewhere is why this learning, this ever-trying-to-know-more is good to be applied here, in the devotion to something that will never be stagnant and finished, where there will always be someone learning. I hope I am a good teacher, and student: one who remembers the hard learning, and doesn't become my grandmother, insisting that being right is better than being understood.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Blog in Three Parts

My iPhone has proved helpful in a great many ways, but toward the top of the list is its allowance to write when I have no pen, when I barely have time. Mostly, when I am squelched into a seat designed to hold a 7-year-old child comfortably, surfing over clouds and miles of open air.

Unfortunately, those snippets of writing end up sitting on my phone forever, going nowhere, feeling unloved. So today, they get their moment in the sun--err, on the blog. The "suffered a loss" one is from Thanksgiving 2013--I remember clearly stewing in O'Hare, waiting for my connection to Iowa;  "And here again" would have been around that same time, shortly after hearing some of our authors talk about hyphenating adjectives; and using context clues, I think "To sit up here" was from last April or May, one of my flights to/from New Orleans.


To sit up here above the clouds, clenched and white-knuckled, is as foreign to me as not enjoying cheese.

With half a handful of exceptions, this is the most restful, peaceful state I have: a row of seats to myself, a window revealing a geometry of landscape edged by puffs of cloud. A literal and imagined removal from earth, and every care that goes with it. Even a depressed mind or a broken heart seems partially numbed this skyward--the extra oxygen in the cabin, or just the childlike understanding that the pressing, breaking agents have been left miles below.

I flew as a child, before my father left, before we would trade four airfares for a double-double at the Motel 6 outside Toledo. I flew this banner proudly as a teenager, when my wealthier friends would disbelieve my chronic earthboundness. I would insist that I had flown... I just didn't remember it.

A short trip to Dad's at 15, across the Atlantic at 17, and to Alaska at 18. Those were the first trips. Even then, I don't remember fear. The flight to Maine, I don't think I did anything but press my face and fingertips to the window, and there are still trips like that: crossing the full-moon-bathed Rockies, or last year's Vegas-Denver connection where twilit landscape seemed straight out of a NASA transmission.

This trip I've spent reading, but with the book propped to the window to allow for seeing what lies beyond. I remember, as they fall below, the strange linear hills of western Virginia and Tennessee, and my book falls for minutes--10? 20?--on end while I gaze out.

Some turbulence shakes the plane. The pilot comes over the speakers, but there is still no fear up here--it, too, was left down on the tarmac, too sloughing to keep up when the engines roar and we are pressed backward and lifted up into sky.

This is where I write most predictably, too. Even when I have nothing to say. Down there at home, with ergonomic laptops and comfy couches, I cannot be bothered; but even crunched diagonally across the seat, the iPad propped on a crookedly-crossed leg, I type even when words fail me. Somehow, unsurprisingly, that part of me is most buoyant, and once so much else falls with gravity, it floats.


And here again Your truth settles over me. No metaphor fits it, much as I search it out. It is not my mother's voice, long-memorized and watermarked with tears; it is not the rain, soaking but brief; it is not an old familiar song coming to me unwarranted and incomplete.

It is not my view from this plane--how Portland was in one moment shrouded and dark with fog, in the next, lost in white-gray, and in the next obliterated with blue sunlight refracting off pristine cloud. It is not this, but it is something in its direction, something coming to me as a thing unmoving, ever-present, that I re-find and treat as newly-arrived. That You have been the Love that Would Not Leave, that You have never known failure, that even in the face of my long absences, my infidelities, my faithlessness, You will not be undermined. You remain--not passively, not out of size or weight; and not out of duty or stubbornness. You could leave--it is not impossible, and is certainly not unjust.

But You choose to sit here with me. To listen to me mouth words I do not live and scarcely understand, to watch me cry and fume at enemies real and imagined, to wait for me to remember. To lift my head from my own shrouded world, to raise my shoulders through white-gray unknown, to seek out the blinding, obliterating oneness of You, this truth that radiates and refracts off each thing--the good and the hard, the buoying and the breaking.

You don't break me for breaking's sake. You do not hope to see me like this, busted and leaking on the floor. But You will have me, come what may, and every time I'm given the chance I'm clinging to every other thing but You. Even good things. Beautiful, holy, You-given things--I kill these things by turning them into false Yous. And joy turns to ashes.

So here I am, breaking again. I have gripped too hard, and You have given me time and a thousand chances to let go, but I have had none of it. You did not come to wound and destroy, but to seek and save--not only what is lost, but what continues to lose herself in every thing she can find until she finds herself broken by it, desperate for something higher, truer, still. And here again, Your truth settles over me--like cloud, and nothing like cloud. Like warmth and soothing coolness, like the surprise of familiarity, like the roaring stillness of refracted blue-white sky.


I have suffered a loss--a small one, and the pain will be faded to gray before the day is over, but for now it still smarts. I had had hours to lose that day, but spent pieces of a few of them carving words into something better than reality--because at a hard glance, reality was not much to remark on: airport, crowds, noise.

But I had worked words, choosing and removing and shoving them into place, my best attempts at pottery. (How I love that the verb is "throw"--because that's so much of writing, throwing things out across a page like flour, like Legos, and seeing how they want to come together.)

Now all I have are snippets: something about the cold Midwestern wind seeping through glass, something about a woman's smile and insistence as she thanked a maintenance man, something about us hunching ourselves and choosing against the drift of cold and isolation. It was art, or something approaching it, and now it is a vaporous thing I can't quite hold, with no memory of the file in this machine.

It is a small loss--so tiny a thing that a few paragraphs seem too much to give in mourning--but it was mine and now it's gone and no one asked permission. Like other small losses, it will be forgotten, the place it held taken up by the grocery list or the email I need to send on Monday--but for just a few minutes, the silence aches where words should have been.