The lock on the door

I don’t like public bathrooms with those button locks, you know, the ones that you can’t check because when you turn the handle the button pops.  Without a latch.  It’s worse when the the bathroom is large.  When you’re at the toilet you can’t reach the door.  You’re 90% sure it’s locked, but once you have your pants down you’re too far away from the door to do anything about it if you’re wrong and someone comes barging in.

You’d think I’d had a traumatic experience in a public bathroom.  I haven’t.  The lock on the door never failed me.

So what is this phobia?  This underlying concern that the things that should work out…won’t?

I don’t like not being in control.  I know I know.  I live in a social world where I depend on the many wonderful people in my life.  I live in a society where I depend on electricity and running water, garbage pick-up and grocery stores.  I know that I cannot grow plants like my mother and father, cook like my husband or sister, fix things like my childhood best friend.  My post-apocalyptic skill set is limited.

But it is when I am in a public bathroom, more than an arm-span from the door, when it really strikes me that so much of life is about closing your eyes and hoping for the best.  So much is just trusting in the lock on the door.

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Hair

I have great hair.  No sense beating around the bush.  I wake up in the morning with a fabulous mop of tousled, dark curls.  My complete lack of skill with womanly primping means that my ‘do is unimpressive most days, but that’s not the hair’s fault.  The raw material is there.

photo credit: Erin CT

I’ve gotten a little bit better with product use and such.  As with most things (physical and mental), it was worse in middle and high school.  I grew up in East Texas.  Meteorologically, the heat and humidity are just awful for curly hair.  Culturally, it isn’t much better.  My little sister admits that when we lived there she used to wish she were white.  She wanted a cute blond ponytail like all of her friends I guess.  And her hair, black as it was, at least was straight.

I never actually wanted to look different.  In my mind I fantasized about growing up to be some kind of exotic beauty.  The wind would catch a soft lock and blow it across my face and suddenly I was a foreign princess, striking and mysterious.  What did it matter that it was really a plume of frizz set on top of an awkward kid in ill-fitting clothes?  That’s what fantasy is for.  Out in the real world I resigned myself to just being weird looking.  I wasn’t ugly, so I counted my blessings and turned imaginary heads.

I had my mom straighten my hair once for a school play.  I found it curious and intriguing to realize how long my hair actually was…but then when I got to school my friends were so impressed and excited.  I was appalled.  My hair was curly!  How dare fashion and society suggest that I should spend hours of my life blow-drying reality into submission?  How dare these people with their straight hair suggest that somehow I could be improved by looking more like them.  They should all get perms and leave me in peace.  Maybe I would have been prettier with straight hair, but just as I had no dreams of getting a nose job to flatten out the bump in the middle of my face, I had no interest in “correcting” the thick mop that, for better or worse, was mine.

I’ve made myself sound very strong and self-possessed.  I wasn’t.  I was a kid, like any other.  And like so many dorky teenagers I had visions of being “popular”.  I don’t know exactly what this meant to me.  I found the popular crowd to be by turns intimidating and repellent.  I never looked at a cheerleader and thought, “oh yeah, we’ve gotta be friends one day.”

Nor did the football players or other classic male heroes of the school-aged set do much for me.  While I may have been intrigued by a boy here and there I don’t even remember actually desiring a boyfriend.  Jesus, then I’d have to go out to a movie or something with said boyfriend, and therefore tell my parents I was going to a movie with a boy!  Even my mom noticing that some kid my age was talking to me at a family barbecue made me want to throw on a habit and get me to a nunnery.

My inner monologue has always had a snide take on my social failings.  I offered myself absurd explanations for how things worked.  A nice shirt from XYZ trendy brand, now people will like you!  Plucked that single, unruly eyebrow hair, problem solved, you are now beautiful!  I would say these things to my reflection in the mirror then snort at the absurdity.  Maybe deep down inside I wanted it to be that easy.  But that easy to what?  What did I want?

The vague adolescent longings didn’t explain themselves to me at the time, but in retrospect I think I just wanted confidence.  I wanted to feel good about myself.  Movies and my peers taught me definitions for “cool” and “pretty” that had no room for a book-worm with dark skin, dark hair, wry humor, and a knack for getting As.   But then, I guess I didn’t want to be cool and pretty badly enough to get over being really lazy about messing with my hair.  (And as a teenaged girl, cool and pretty are really all you’ve got.)

I wasn’t a sloppy kid; I just refused to get into the hair and makeup thing.  Beauty had straight blond hair and no amount of good conditioner was going to make that grow out of my head.  So why bother?

During my late teens and early 20s I slowly, really painfully slowly, started to realize that there were people out there (besides my parents) who thought I was attractive.  At first I was highly suspicious of these people.  I wasn’t ugly enough to be made fun of by this kind of behavior, so what was the end game?  Once the idea of diversity really being a thing and not just some slogan finally fully digested I started to pay more serious attention to my hair.  It was nice hair!  Thick, healthy, shiny.  After a mere two decades of life I embraced the idea that a smidge of attention could make my hair really gloriously lush.

For Christmas a couple of years ago my husband got me some fabulous hair product that he didn’t realize was marketed to African-American women.  It was great stuff, and he wasn’t concerned about the racially specific marketing.  He often refers to my “ethnic hair”.  I love that.  Really, I do.  It sounds vaguely like he’s being offensive, but it made a light bulb go off:  I have ethnic hair!  Not failed, white-person hair, hair that is big and dark and curly on purpose.  What a revelation.  One that, even now, I have to repeat to myself, just to make sure the sentiment really sticks.

“As he stood on one leg, like a big stork bird”

Before I had ever heard of yoga or something called “tree pose” I stood casually with my left foot  (always the left) pressed against the thigh of my standing leg, watching Mom make us our Sunday pancakes.  I stood like this because my mom read us the story of Ki-pat, who stood on one leg as he watched over his herd on the dry Kapiti Plain, waiting for rain to revive the grasses and feed his herd (Bringing the Rain to Kapiti Plain).

Every night the four of us would pile onto one of our beds for a bedtime story.  We rotated between the girls’ room and the boys’, and we took turns picking the book.  Sometimes Mom would read us two.  We loved our books and the nightly ritual of listening to the familiar words and seeing the familiar illustrations of our well-worn picture books.

I am the oldest of four, eight years ahead of the youngest, so the books were always well below my grade level.  Literary prowess wasn’t the point.  Eventually we graduated as a group to “chapter books.” We would try to get an extra chapter out of her when things were getting exciting, but even after Mom insisted that it was time for lights out, those of us with more advanced reading skills never tried to sneak a peak to find out what happened next.  It never occurred to us.  We wanted to experience the story together.

Whatever muscular references I have now for tree pose, balancing on one foot will always make me think of the dry plains of Africa, just as overstuffed armchairs will always make me think of a little girl saving change to buy her mother a present (A Chair for My Mother) and having the heat on in winter will always make me imagine a retired piece of construction equipment living in my basement (Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel).  These are the legends and histories of our private family culture, informed by our books, the movies we watched and re-watched (no TV), the games we played, the puzzles we designed, all guided and inspired by the loving and creative mind of my mom, who established (not on purpose I think) our rituals and encouraged our imaginations.

I am conscious in my yoga practice of trying to cultivate balance.  I do poses on both sides, force myself to stretch the stiffer, less cooperative leg.  Tree pose remains much easier on my right leg.  I don’t mind this.  In fact, I like the idea that years of standing in the kitchen like the big stork bird has created a permanent imbalance in my body, that childhood memories have imprinted themselves onto my bones and musculature.

More important than any ideals of well-roundedness or symmetry is the thought of a physiological badge, linking me forever to the little tribe of children, huddled close and listening to the gentle rhythm of their mother’s voice.

She loves me

She was torn, she told me, because her love for me was rivaled only by her unadulterated hatred of yoga.

I had invited my sister to come to my “final exam”, the full length class I taught at the end of my yoga teacher training program.  The night before the class, she and my husband came to my graduation ceremony.  They were both quite gracious, keeping the incredulous smirking to a bare minimum through an evening of clapping, chanting, singing, and dancing.

Raquel eats meat, but she ate quite happily from the vegetarian buffet.  She was only put off by the fact that half of the cupcakes were left unfrosted (as was I, to be frank, we are a highly dessert-focused family).  Only a hint of a giggle passed over her face when I explained the mala and the little crystal my teachers had given me.  What a trooper!

But attend a yoga class?  She loves me, to be sure, but she had already gone down that dark road…

We started yoga at the same time.  Years ago, my mom put mats and class cards under the Christmas palm tree (we were in Miami) and the three of us trotted off to our first class.  We became regulars to an evening class, and, since we had just moved to Miami from Brazil, we found our lithe little Brazilian teacher totally enchanting.

Well, Mom and I did.  Quel got progressively more worked up by the whole operation, finally confessing that even the thought of yoga actually made her feel stressed.  She was a high strung kid to begin with, but yoga really put her over the edge.

I’m a fan of yoga and persistently try to share it with my family and friends, but it doesn’t bother me that my sister doesn’t like what I like.  She prefers to run actually, an activity that I find immensely unpleasant.   Happily, we are neither of us so defined by our likes and dislikes that our preferences alienate us.  That sounds obvious, but it isn’t.  There are plenty of people in the world who have so strongly tied themselves to a list of activities or interests that they forget how to relate to people with different lists.

Yoga, as it happens, is not about whether or not you will stretch on a mat for 90 minutes.  It’s about looking outside of yourself, about finding something that transcends your self-conscious perceptions and connects you to something bigger, more universal.  However much I love yoga, I hope to never mistake my own interests for the “right” way.  I hope to never assume that I have found “the” answer when all I have found is my own answer.

So my nearest and dearest and I don’t have to share all of our interests.  No interest or hobby or doctrine that demands the hearts and souls of everyone you know is really worth it anyway.

I don’t really care how she feels about yoga as long as my sister loves me.

An unlikely review

We interrupt your regularly scheduled blog experience for a bit of an experiment: I’m going to review an album I have absolutely no business reviewing. It will be awkward and out of place, and you will be glad you read it!

First off, a confession, I am incredibly out-of-touch and incurably uncool.  In preparation for writing this I googled “what’s the difference between rap and hip hop” because I honestly couldn’t figure it out.  Still can’t.  The internet is useless sometimes.  Those more in the know will have to forgive me if I sound ignorant, but despite a penchant for folksy indie-rock, yoga, and veggie burgers, I feel compelled to share my impression of the first studio album of Hartford’s own Joey Batts & Them, Bowtie Chronicles.

“Boom Bap” is my favorite selection off of the album, probably because of its great rock edge.  It makes me want to ball up my tiny fists, punch a wall, and tear around town on my bicycle like I mean business.  More than just a bad-ass beat, Boom Bap has plenty of the signature Joey Batts word play, so sophisticated (dare I call it high brow?) that you might need a college degree to prepare for it.

The final track, “Spaceship”, is an incredible, autobiographical piece.  Raw and unflinching, it’s the story of the quotidian tragedies that go unseen, the angry pain of people who life kicks the shit out of, but they can’t or won’t roll over and play dead.  You know people like this, they are your friends and neighbors and lovers.  Your heart aches because you hope they get to take a break from fighting to find a little peace one day.

If you live in the Greater Hartford Region, this might be your one and only chance to hear your area code memorialized in rhyme in “860”.  As a former 305-er I found this pretty amusing (I mean Miami is legitimately cool, but Connecticut…?)  Still, if you are a resident of New England’s “Rising Star” you are in the enviable position of being able to see Joey Batts & Them live.

Joey Batts is a phenomenal performer.  In the dim, grim, and frankly more than a bit sketchy cave of Sully’s Pub, he circulates through the crowd , talking to everyone, before exploding onto the stage with a superhuman energy and enviable charisma.  He’s not far off base in “Best Friend” when he claims he’s cooler than anyone you know.  Talk to him for five minutes and you’ll find yourself hoping he’ll hang out with you later.

In the interest of full disclosure, I love Joey.  I used to live with his sister in Brooklyn, and he’s family.  What’s wonderful about having talented people in your life with interests that diverge from your own is that it opens up your world.  If someone said to me, “Come see Hartford’s greatest alternative hip hop act!” I would have responded, “Rap? Huh? Who? What?”  But it’s Joey!  So I’ve been to a couple of shows.  I’ve listened to music that I didn’t understand, listened to it carefully and more than once because I wanted to get more out of it than a paltry first impression.

And look at that!  When you wander outside of your comfort zone, out of your knee-jerk responses, you find brilliant things!  You find poetry and emotion and @*#!ing humanity in ways that you never could have imagined.  I, for one, am grateful for a life filled with unexpected discoveries.

Check it out, here.  http://itunes.apple.com/us/album/bowtie-chronicles/id566409634  And here. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X0ZLdZqFQS0

Stupid laurels

Although I am the oldest of my parents’ four children, and the oldest grandchild on my mom’s side, I’ve always been the youngest one doing whatever I was doing.  Because of differences in cut-off ages in schools between Virginia and Texas I was younger than all of my friends in my grade.  Through a series of events having nothing to do with intelligence, I graduated from college six months before I turned 21.  Add to that the fact that I’m a little short person (and therefore look young) and wherever I go and whatever I do people are awed by my accomplishments.

I didn’t realize that I had let other people’s amazement go to my head a bit.  Until now.  I am turning 30 this year and I am no longer the youngest person.  No longer can I rest on the laurels of my assumed precociousness.  The precocious child grows into nothing more than a well-balanced adult.

Like moving away from the glamorous Big Apple, I find that who I am in the world can no longer depend on cheap tricks or sleight of hand.  I feel like a reasonably accomplished person, but that’s not so hard to do at this grand adult age.  Certainly not the same as holding a college diploma and giggling about how you can’t legally drink yet.

One of the things I appreciate so much about my yoga practice is that has nothing to do with my age.  I was never a dancer or a gymnast and, as I am fond of telling people, when I first started I couldn’t even touch my toes.  I had no kind of physical head-start, and as a result I have had to slowly and patiently chip away at my physical limitations.  I have admired (OK fine, envied) the ex-ballerinas and childhood acrobats who have leapt on well-stretched limbs onto the yoga mats beside me.  Yoga is so visually pretty when you can do those amazing things with grace and ease.

After the short flush of green rises into my cheeks then fades I remember that I’m actually lucky to lack those natural physical gifts.  However lazy I’d like to be, however much I’d like to shut down my brain and pose like a glamor queen, the fact is yoga is still hard work for me.  Even the “advanced” poses that I can do require a great deal of concentration.  The humility is profound.  The lesson is not one that you can learn early by being preternaturally clever.

There is something exhilarating by stripping away your pretentions.  If time (the bastard) must pass it’s nice to know that there are exciting discoveries that can only come with age, with time and patience, with an acute lack of interest in praise.

Shame

It started with Mary Poppins.  After his children inadvertently cause a riot at the bank where he works, Mr. Banks is fired.  More than that, he is shamed.  The glowering old men he works for have his umbrella turned inside out, his hat punched through.

I hated this scene.  I knew it was just a hat and an umbrella, and I knew that Mr. Banks would suffer briefly only to rediscover the joy of spending time with the loving family his job had kept him too busy for.  I knew this, but I couldn’t stand to watch.  Because I also knew it was more than just a hat and an umbrella.  Mr. Banks lost the material icons of “success” as he understood them.  The twinge in my stomach was from a deep understanding that those horrid men were not just mussing his accessories, they were clawing at his sense of self.  They, the sneering and unsympathetic powers-that-be, were blind to his humanity, indifferent to the wretchedness of the culture they presided over, in which Mr. Banks could only feel like a proper husband, father, and man with a certain kind of hat and a certain kind of job.

Maybe I read too much into that scene, but as a pretty young child my reaction to it had a dramatic and visceral quality that made my stomach ache.

I still hate these sorts of scenes in movies, when a character (even a relatively unsympathetic one) loses some silly treasure that they took pride in.

I’m not much into material objects myself.  I have my own little treasures, of course, but I’ve trained myself very well to always imagine their imminent disappearance and my subsequent calm reaction to their absence.  I left a favorite teddy bear on a school bus in 1st or 2nd grade.  The next day the bus driver held it up and asked who it belonged to.  I was shy and sitting towards the back and said nothing.  I passed the little bear on my way off the bus, but there were kids in front and behind me moving at a steady pace.  The bus driver didn’t look at me as I approached and so I kept moving, silent.  The bear made no more appearances on the bus, and my mom assured me that he had probably found a safe and happy home with the bus driver’s own children.

I thought about that bear a lot.  I had personified a very sad, abandoned stuffed animal, and I regretted my own absurd inability to get him back.  I resolved that it was important to be at peace with the absence of objects.   Even if Mr. Banks was proud of his hat and umbrella he ought to be comfortable with their impermanence.  If he and I could just let those items go we could save ourselves some pain.

Still, we all cling to items for comfort.   I can’t take the sad fact that little items of delight get taken away by brutal fate.  Very early on I accepted impermanence as a condition of the material things in my life, but I can’t demand the same decades of trained indifference from others.  Their suffering hurts.  I wish they could keep their treasures.

We cling to items, to titles, to things we cannot control.  We allow them to define us.  And then they are taken away, with or without malice, by the churning of time and the hands of others.  We forget how to find wholeness without those external things.  We are ashamed to find ourselves so stripped.

In the wake of the spectacular WorldCom cluster-f#*% my father lost his job with the company where he had worked for over twenty years.  My parents, in their mid-40s, lost their entire retirement savings.  My father shrugged.  Too bad, he said, but he had his family and that’s what mattered.  I’m sure he was hurt by the whole mess, but to my father the hat was just a hat, the umbrella just an umbrella.

There is no shame in losing mere objects.

Word hunger

It was summer in Texas.  I don’t remember how old I was or the year, only that we had long reams of the perforated computer paper with the holes running down the sides.  As children, toeing the line between delightfully imaginative and pitifully dorky, we came up with all sorts of creative uses for the piles of half-inch wide, hole punched paper strings.

The paper was in the same room as the floor to ceiling bookshelf.  Where ever my parents move they have built-ins made, leaving behind curious, empty white rectangles attached to the walls when they move.

But summer, in Texas, we lived there and the shelves were packed tight with books.  My mom’s completely unpretentious organization system has always involved grouping books by size.  No alphabetization or subject sections, just maximum use of space.   Beowulf and Confessions of an Economic Hit Man are next to each other; Martin Amis’s The Information and Paul Farmer’s Pathologies of Power are separated only by The Last Days of the Inca.  Browsing library and bookstore shelves lacks the exciting thrill of discovery that my parents’ shelves possess.

I wanted to read all of them.  I was hungry for stories and meaning and understanding, for narratives and elegantly placed adverbs.  School was out and now was the time to devour literature not contained (and conveniently abridged) between the hard covers of English textbooks.

Mom explained to me that most of the novels were really adult books.  What was in them that was so “adult”? I asked, imagining the sex, language, and violence that made movies rated R.  Nothing like that, she explained, just themes I wouldn’t understand.

I plowed ahead, sure that adult lives could not be so difficult to comprehend.  But of course, she was right.  Novels about the subtle concerns and disappointments of life post-secondary school were written with a vocabulary that I understood but from an experience that made no sense to me.

I’ve tried re-reading some of those books, and reading other books by those same authors.  The rhythms are familiar, the tone of contemporary literary fiction feels like a childhood memory.  Only now things have started to make sense.  When you’re a kid you feel like you’ve got problems, you’ve got worries, and you do, but they lack dimension.  Then one day you’re older and you still have worries, only now you really understand them, you start to understand yourself not as the omniscient narrator of your own story, but as a character in a tangled plot populated by hundreds and thousands of other characters.

It’s not a bad thing, to be one of many.  It’s just perspective.

I thought reading those words would give me more intelligent thoughts.  I was looking for answers to questions I had not yet articulated.  I was pretty sure life had more depth than I had yet experienced and I was impatient for a glimpse of the deep.

It’s hard to be patient.  Especially when you are young and greedy for the future, before you truly grasp that the future is finite and the present substantial.  I still hunger for words, still lust after plot and creative grammar, but I no longer feel like these stories are supposed to make me who I am.  We are colleagues, the words and I, discussing life and exchanging experiences.

Understanding privilege

I’m middle class.  I don’t make very much money nor do I come from money.  But I’m well-educated, I can travel, I have good credit.  My parents own their home and put four kids through college.  None of us has ever worried that we wouldn’t be able to afford rent, or had to choose between necessities like food, electricity, or a doctor’s visit.  We’re thrifty during the year, but we don’t skimp on Christmas presents for each other.  We aren’t the “1%” so we feel pretty average, but the fact is that we have it pretty damn good.

Despite having a kind of charmed life I have a pretty keen awareness of my privilege.  Not necessarily “middle class guilt”, though I’m sure I’ve got some of that too, but a true, and ever evolving, understanding of what I have and how even my values are a product of my social reality.

Case Study: Biking to Work

I bike to work.  I do this not only because I didn’t have a driver’s license until a few weeks ago, but because I like to.  I glide past traffic.  I feel the sun and wind on my skin, and I get my blood flowing again after a cramped day in front of a desk.  As any avid bike commuter will tell you, biking is cheaper than driving.  No burning gas while idling in traffic.  Lower maintenance costs.  No parking fees.  Those avid bikers would love to tell you about how just riding to work once in a while can make such a difference to you and to the environment.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m totally on board with that.  In my ideal society cars would be used only for trips to the farm share three towns over and visits to relatives out of state.  But the fact of the matter is, with the exception of a handful of places where the public transportation and biking infrastructure is really well built out, biking to work is a privilege.

Biking to work is a privilege for me because I can buy myself a nice bike that makes the ride into work smooth and pleasant.  I can live close enough to my place of work that biking is an option.  I work in an office where I can bring my nice bike inside, thus not having to worry about where to lock it or locking it well enough that it is still there when I leave.  My schedule is my own; if it’s going to rain I can arrive a bit late or duck out early to avoid getting soaked.

And finally, biking to work is a privilege because I don’t have to.  If the roads are frozen I can take the bus (living close to work makes this possible too).  If I have to be at work really late for some reason, my husband and I do have a car that I can use.  I don’t like driving, but if a series of circumstances made it necessary for me to use a car on a regular basis I would be in a financial position to do so.

I don’t mean to diminish the accomplishment of biking to work regularly.  I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I feel like a bit of a bad-ass when people say, incredulously, “you bike to work even when it’s raining/windy/hot like this?!”  It takes some guts to brave downtown Hartford’s traffic; it takes even more guts to just be different, to walk into the professional, car-philic world with a bicycle helmet on.  I feel a bit pleased with myself for shaking my tiny fist at society’s preconceptions and saving the environment one pedal at a time.  But I cannot forget that this good feeling, physical and emotional, is made possible by my class status, by circumstances that are not available to all.

So what? What’s the point?

This is what is so easy to forget about privilege: that it isn’t a bad thing, a character flaw, or something possessed by only fat-cat bankers and Russian heiresses.

Why is this important?  What is the difference between awareness and guilt?  What does awareness do for us?  Being aware of what privileges you take for granted gives you a moment to be grateful, of course.  But more importantly it is an opportunity to exercise tolerance.  Knowing how much goes into being able to do something as delightful and beneficial to myself and to society as biking to work, I find myself less judgmental of people in cars.  Sure, I wish more of these fools would just use their damn legs to get around, and I wish they’d be more considerate to me while I share the road with them, but even as I judge them I catch myself wondering what I’m missing.

I find that rather than being pleased with myself for pedaling to work I am instead profoundly grateful for all the little circumstances that make it possible for me to travel about town as I do.

Speaking in tongues

As a kid I figured that one day I would speak Spanish.  I listened and understood much of what my parents and their friends were saying, and I studied dutifully in my Spanish classes in school.  With the same surety that I would one day feel like an adult (PS, I don’t) I knew I would speak Spanish.

My father’s native language is Spanish and when my mom, brilliant and in love, started dating him at age 15 she just taught herself the language like the rest of us teach ourselves to jump rope.  She doesn’t even have a gringa accent.  She works in Peru and most people simply assume she’s from another Spanish-speaking country.  My own acquisition of the language did not go quite so well.

When we moved to Brazil when I was 16 I learned my first Portuguese words in the airport passport control line, “bem vindo,” welcome.  My Portuguese quickly outpaced my Spanish.  Not only was I surrounded by it more than I had ever been with Spanish, but I really loved it.

I wanted to love Spanish.  I thought I did, or could.  But it wasn’t love, just grasping at something that I thought was supposed to be my cultural birthright, the life raft that would float me through the sea of pale Texan faces where I did not belong.

Not that I belonged in Brazil.  My social stiffness stateside doesn’t go away when I go south of the border.  It might even be worse in Brazil, where my natural demeanor is in stark contrast to the culture of rhythm and music and warmth.  I am not white, Anglo-Saxon, or Protestant but I am as priggish as they come (I mean honestly, who uses the word “priggish”?!)

But something about Brazil hugged me close and murmured words into my ear that I wanted to understand and speak back.  I studied Portuguese and just reveled in the cadence of it, which seemed intuitive to me.  The more I learned, the more comfortable I was making mistakes and asking people to explain things to me that I did not understand.  Why waste time being a shy perfectionist when there is communicating to be done?

Last week I went to Peru.  It has been a decade since I studied Spanish and almost as long since I attempted to speak it.  And lo and behold, I can understand airline instructions! Ask for directions! Carry on a conversation for over a half hour with a random stranger!  Negotiate my way through a clotted airport line to make my flight on time!  My Spanish was slow, shaken painstakingly from my brain like so many grains of sand found tucked into every conceivable crevice after a day at the beach, but it was there.

It was comforting to know that even after I had abandoned it like an ungrateful child, Spanish still lingered in my mind, waiting calmly and patiently to serve the marvelous purpose of sharing thoughts with other people.

I had always wanted to speak Spanish because I thought it would give me something.  But over the last decade I’d experienced what it was to enjoy another language, to just try (sometimes in awkward tenses and misplaced nouns) to share thoughts with another person without worrying whether or not I sounded smart enough.

I won’t ever speak Spanish fluently.  But that doesn’t really matter to me so much these days.  As a kid I thought Spanish would solve problems for me by bestowing me with an established cultural history and ethnic identity.  I thought it would be “cool” to speak another language.  I thought the speaking of a foreign tongue would imbue me with a magical confidence in myself that I did not yet possess.

But that isn’t really the point, is it?  Knowledge and new abilities are not neat tricks that you perform for personal glory.  Our perceived skills are not anywhere near as important as the heart and motive we bring to our actions.  It is more important to reach out with what we do know than it is to scheme for the personal satisfaction of knowing even more.

My adventure into my long-lost friend Spanish was fun and peaceful.  It felt grown-up.  I am confident in my ability to do what I can do, confident in my understanding of what I cannot.  I am grateful for the former, I am grateful for the latter.