Learning Spanish

We talk about all sorts of interesting things – my FaceBook feed is filled with 3,000 fairly common views. The world as I see it looks pretty good. We all embrace the other. Different is the new normal. I have friends from at least 49 countries, there are multiple languages spoken by the folks in my feed. I feel my privilege as an English speaker, so often the working language.

While I grew up speaking French in school, I have to function in English, my mother tongue, most of the time. I relish the times when I am immersed in other languages, where I listen with a different kind of curiosity, where I guess at meanings. Where I am humbled because I think I can decipher Spanish, or is it Catalan, the words that are coming at me. I pore over a message that I receive from a friend in Spanish. I am sure I can figure this out. I have a third of it. Surely this is enough? I know that the beginning is a When/How/Why word, but I don’t know which one. I know the subject we are referring to – it’s an ongoing conversation. He just switched into Spanish to prove a point. I can guess fairly accurately at a few of the other words but I can’t make them make sense as a whole. And I speak French and English – two pretty good languages to cross check with Spanish.

I marvel at the people who switch languages multiple times a day, who have to think in second and third languages. I am lucky that the working language in the most of places I go is English, that Scandinavians have excellent English. I feel chuffed that I have 55 Finnish words. No one expects me to follow a conversation in Finnish. They also marvel that I know 55 words and can throw some in while teaching dance class, invented a bilingual pun and can pay someone a compliment. I have the general ordering of a meal words in German and Spanish and the yes, yes, ok, for sure, words that are needed for encouragement in conversation. I can say hello, good afternoon, thank you, bonne appetite and beautiful in Greek; Welcome in Irish, Thank you in Portuguese and the Scandinavian languages. I know so many food words in Italian, and a few others, all to do with beauty and enjoyment. I can also say good eating and good night in Dutch. Words around hospitality will get you far.

I want more languages. I have been a tourist in the world of late. Diving deeply into the practice of being in many places at once, of keeping counsel with much of what goes on in many places at once. This is a strange practice. It requires an amount of deep listening and observing, of getting involved and then stepping back. This is an exciting proposition. It creates meaningful connections and also a degree of pain. The relationships can only go so far. There must be some detachment. I leave. My life exists everywhere, and in my suitcase. And here. And in the moments I am engaging with new communities and bringing something from where I have been to where I am now.

And then, every so often I meet someone. Someone I desire to know in a way that language isn’t a surmountable challenge but somewhere we can meet. I want to understand the nuance and complexity of their experience. Language forms our thought processes.

This is slightly altered with different means of communication.

Taking lovers in different languages changes things. There is another kind of communication, that, while it feels essential, skips some of the details. Experience has taught me that the first person one meets from a specific culture and has the qualities that behoove them to you is not necessarily the trait of that individual. That what one reads into a set of qualities may in fact be a cultural norm. That is behooves me to get to know more of the culture before jumping into bed with someone. Or another way to say it is that just because their table manners are impeccable does not mean that their bedside manner will be. In my culture I think that one begets the other. However table manners may just have been drilled into an entire generation in one culture and that does not mean that they are considerate or attentive to detail or protocol in other arenas.

Working with dance or video the language of movement, image and expression is much stronger. I think of the number of studios I’ve been in with people who really do not speak the same language and what we have accomplished, what we discover is possible. How we meet.

Later, I read an email or message from this person and realize that without the in person energy and the leaning in, there is little communication can be achieved.

This also makes me wonder about the general effect of hormones, dopamine and ocytocin and seratonin. Are these the right ones? The thing that happens when there is chemistry between people in a space. Everything is possible. Amazing synchronicity and improvisation takes place. With beautiful unexpected results. That by the light of a computer screen in a different time zone just do not relate.

So why learn another language? Why delve into understanding another person’s culture and the phyche of the people?

There is a beautiful piece of theatre called “By Heart”. It is coming to PuSh Festival in Vancouver this year. It played at FTA in French two years ago. I saw it in Dublin last year. The actor can perform it in Portuguese – his first language, Russian, French and English. Maybe Spanish too. That is impressive. The premise is also impressive. He invites ten audience members up onto the stage and interwoven in the storytelling of censorship, book burning and speaking out, he teaches these ten people a Shakespearean sonnet, by heart. The idea being that if you teach 10 people something by heart, and they teach it to 10 people, an idea will never die. I love this so much. It seems all the more relevant today. Not just that the internet means that we all see a quote but that there is a human exchange that takes place. That as someone is learning something, reaching for something, there are others leaning in to help them remember, to support them in this action.

As politics of the world swing to the far right – contraction instead of expansion in times of fright – we need to keep opening, keep sharing. We need to release energy, not to restrict it. It is counterintuitive to open in these moments. I am troubled by how many people are willing to go along with the buffoon at the microphone who offers to reassure them in their primal, kneejerk, and childlike reaction to fear or threat. This isn’t how we evolve. And like the adults we have each grown to be, we understand that when we think the shadows are monsters, we have only to turn on the light and see them for what they are. We don’t hide under the covers. So when the world is in crisis and threatened in so many ways (by our own collective doing) we do not need to re-enforce our fear, we need to turn on the light. We need expand, to learn other languages, to embrace that which we do not know.

Nancy Stark Smith’s Underscore, Transcendental Meditation, singing together, potluck dinners with strangers, dancing together. Intercultural initiatives. International networks. Practice between faiths and languages. Leaning in.

Maybe America is too big. Maybe it has to fail. I think of Ireland and the Equality Vote for same sex marriage two years ago. They are a nation of 4 million, and lots of people came home to vote – their diaspora is more than 10 times the resident population. They did it by getting people to talk about love. Young people spoke to their older relatives and spoke of love. No one could disagree that having the right to love who you love is essential, fair and a human right. This year Trailblaze published a Census of the Heart to go with the National Census. It spoke not just about the number of people in a household, but of the kind of relationships that exist in that household. It asks if the people of Ireland feel happy, cherished and empowered.

Sex is another frontier. That’s for another day.

But love, we can all get behind love. In all the ways it works.

I was about to say I feel a song coming on. I thought of Love Makes the World Go Round. Catering to our base instinct. And then I thought of Imagine, a more complex idea. A song so profound in its simplicity. And then that John Lennon was killed for this view. This also seems impossible. And yet. Hillary Clinton, the most qualified person in history for the job of POTUS was hated for this fact alone. And was blocked from the position by an arrogant, misogynist, racist, bigot.

People, we need education.

This is a meandering post.

I can’t sum it up completely, but I know it’s related to the imperative that we must connect through our hearts. We must reach out and lean in. We must immerse ourselves in the practice of understanding the other. We must learn another language. We must listen before we speak. We must speak.

As one of my friends said of the #WakingTheFeminists movement that was going on in Ireland for the last year, “While I enjoy a good play about a man trying to express his repressed emotions as much as the next woman, I’ve already seen that one.”

Ok. Off to learn Spanish.


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