Virginia Woolf Taught Me How To Small Talk

I’m still recovering from that dinner scene, and I read To the Lighthouse months ago, this spring.

The hosts are not talking. The teenaged lovers are late. Mrs. Ramsay and Mr. Bankes are fumbling at conversation. And Charles Tansley is sitting in judgment on them all, brooding. Don’t we all have a part of him in us? The student, the bitter young man who had never been to a circus as a child, who had worked his way up, he keeps telling himself, on his own, whose grandfather had been a fisherman. He is delighting, too, that he can later tell his friends that, at a dinner among people of a class who possess the freedom to speak their minds, they are talking such nonsense.

And they are. Mrs. Ramsay, the hostess, is orchestrating the chitchat, but her mind is elsewhere. In fact, she is desperate: her husband across the table isn’t talking. And is it forgiveness she needs from him or does she need to forgive him? Like the husband in Mrs. Dalloway, she cannot bring herself to tell her spouse in words of the love she feels for him. And Mr. Bankes, forcing himself to be charming, feels nothing for the woman sitting next to him. He fears the dinner party will discover that he would rather spend this evening, any evening, in his chair with a book, in silence. And so, they talk nonsense: Mrs. Ramsay suggests that Mr. Bankes must not like sitting in the garden.

But what the brooding Charles Tansley misses is that Mrs. Ramsay and Mr. Bankes are resorting to a language of which he knows no word. Imagine a roomful of people in incomprehension, Virginia Woolf says. They speak French, because that, at least, is a language everyone will know.

Perhaps it is bad French; French may not contain the words that express the speaker’s thoughts; nevertheless speaking French imposes some order, some uniformity. Replying to her in the same language, Mr. Bankes said, “No, not at all,” and Mr. Tansley, who had no knowledge of this language, even spoke thus in words of one syllable, at once suspected its insincerity.

This passage opened a door for me. Not until the reading of this book had I engaged with this dinner guest reality, had felt so urgently this need for a group of people to talk. And never before had I viewed small talk as a remedy to this blight of social dis-ease.

As Mrs. Ramsay says to Lilly Briscoe, but with only a glance, “I am drowning, my dear, in seas of fire. Unless you apply some balm to the anguish of this hour and say something nice to that young man there, life will run upon the rocks–indeed I hear the grating and the growling at this minute.”

am a theatre person. I’m comfortable in silence. I can look at you and say nothing. If it sounds fun I can “become aware of the architecture in the space,” letting my soft gaze rest on the beams of the ceiling, or I can let my thoughts gently to my own breath. I can even communicate for half hours in groanings and song-moans, and I can look you in the eye and say, “I love you” or “I need __________ (anything–sex, love, wealth, weapons, fire, blood, diamonds, a baby to hold, my papers back–you fill in the blank)” with a straight face, in complete honesty. I’m also a spiritual person. Like I get it: the apostle Paul wants the church in Ephesus to speak to each other in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, making music in their hearts to the Lord. I think I can do that.

But sometimes, just sometimes, we have to relate to each other like normal people. We have to have a relationship with conventionality. Everyone knows we can create space; sometimes we have to fill it.

So that is why I will be talking with you about the orange line and the transit system in Milwaukee. You say they have a church every corner? I’ll crack a joke, the obvious one, the one that probably stopped being said seven years ago, about how nowadays it’s more like a Starbucks on every corner. And I’ll laugh at my own joke, louder than you. I’ll even prepare to mention that I rode the trains once in St. Louis. I’ll shake your hand when I get off the bus. You can’t offer me your right hand because it’s full, but you’ll say, “Sorry for the left hand” and you’ll mean it, and I’ll be thankful that you helped me endure an unexpected journey on the shuttle on the last leg of my ride home.*

*This happened. All of it, I’m sad to say.
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That’s why I’ll ask you about your sister–you have a sister, right? And talk about the bug that’s going around. I’ll say things like, “Yeah, that post-Labor-Day bug” that “everyone got,” and I’ll say it like any part of that made sense. Yeah I’ll talk about flu shots with you. I’ll even tell you where the CVS I got to is. You’ll nod and murmur agreement. You’ll be complicit in the conversation.

You’ll ask me what my plans are for the weekend. I wouldn’t have thought to ask that. I think that’s almost invasive, especially on a Wednesday, but I’ll try to come up with something, even if I end up risking a conversation about Trader Joe’s or the Giants. We’ll probably talk about how good rest is always and how good friends are or how good we thought the weather was going to be.

Actually, so many things will be considered good. Your new job. My reasons for leaving California. People’s reasons for moving away or to California. The amount of homework you–in general–didn’t do. The amount of overachieving I–in general–did do. How you and I are feeling about the reading we did or didn’t do, right now or in any part of our histories in school. The number of people in my church. The different number of people in your church.*

*Both were considered ideal. Say what you wish about small talk, it is not narrow.

Your name again. My name again. Me not wanting to say I’m bad with names, but since you said it, we should probably have a moment of solidarity about this. In fact, us at names is the only thing we can agree on as being unequivocally bad. Nevertheless so many things are hard. Your job. Actually, your job must be hard. So is being far from your aging parents. (In some cultures that’s necessary to state in a first conversation. We don’t want anyone to think we are heartless.) Having a car is hard. Not having a car must be hard. Both are still “worth it.” In truth, so many things can be both hard and worth it. Like cooking for oneself or doing meal prep in advance or buying crockpot recipe books at yard sales or trying to make time to go to Disneyland (who am I talking to?). And depending on the day, the same can be said for walking in the rain or learning how to live in drought or being a San Francisco baseball fan.

Is small talk worth it? Virginia Woolf narrates that Lily Briscoe, the young artist that Mrs. Ramsay had compelled with that powerful glance to say something to Charles Tansley, had indeed succumbed. She engages the man who had before been rude to her, asking him (“quickly, kindly”) if he will take her to the lighthouse, and he tells her about sailing with his grandfather, about how he learned to swim. He regains his pride. He enters life.

“But,” Lily asks, “what haven’t I paid?” At what what cost? “She had not been sincere.”

Small talk, if we are to allow it, if we are to value it, if we are to embrace it because we cannot yet embrace each other, must be sincere. If we are to entreat each other with words because we sense that there are connections more meaningful in this moment than breaths, then let our words be heartfelt. And if we need our rambling agreements, our surface street witticisms, to orient us in all our fragility and triumph together in space, then let us, by all means, talk on.

But let us be sincere. Let us always be sincere. The rest, as Hamlet tells us, is silence.

 

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Driving in Central Pennsylvania

zvrftcf2jkn1wwrx1vxcWho among us have not gotten lost driving home from Harrisburg? Like the paths in an old garden, the highways twist themselves away from the town, clinging to, parting from, braiding themselves with the Susquehanna river, where the exit signs are just whispers from behind the oleanders, luring travelers to turn right, daring them to stay their course, offering used-car dealerships, promising orientation. Even the Statue of Liberty once lost her way among these paths, now planted upon rocks in the heart of the river, facing south with homeward longing, never to return. Look it up.

This is a story I keep going back to, the afternoon I took a wrong turn after leaving Harrisburg. I had just taken the Praxis test of basic skills, and so the three-hour silence of staring at questions on a computer screen gave way to the road’s silence, an October drive in central Pennsylvania.

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There is a stretch of the highway that follows the Juniata River, a tributary to the Susquehanna and, as it leads to State College and beyond, brings its drivers to the edge of existence. This was at least my experience of the canyons, the yellow soil and the drying grass, the brown riverbed, the convoluted plunging of river water, the emptying branches in the hills and the orange leaves. There was not a single farmhouse, only occasional bridges crossing the channel of river, the old rusting bridges and modern suspension bridges sitting side by side. To the left, a territory marker of green pines enclosed my looking out. I curved up around the hills at my right. I thought that this must have been what it felt like to American navigators, of whom I have heard an account, to ride through Montana for the first time, or maybe to any earlier explorers who walked in its rippling mass of rock and silence and trees. The isolation. The joyous emptiness. The wonder. I have never been to Montana.

I awakened from my dreaming numbness to worry if this stretch of road was in fact wrong highway. I couldn’t have missed all this beauty on the way down to Harrisburg. This seemed more unlikely every five minutes I didn’t see something I knew. I scanned my memory for landmarks I would be able to recall, but familiarity was starting to feel less and less like a trustworthy authority. In honesty, all I could remember were the sex shops and topless clubs, of which there were several, between Harrisburg and home. Had I finally reached that point in my adulthood where I could pass each of these without remarking on them? I started to guess that I was headed to State College and not back home. Was I close? State College has a Chipotle. If I can get there, I know how to get to Bucknell. That’s an extra hour and a half or so. Is it better than turning around and risking a complete trip back through Harrisburg? And we all know how that goes. I had thought that as long as I stuck to the Susquehanna, as long as this was the branch I wanted, the one that would bring me past the porn shops, I would be fine. These are the thoughts we have to have when we are lost. The sunlight was still glowing in the hills. It wasn’t the danger of night but the danger of loneliness. I don’t remember if I had seen another car since leaving town, but it would have been rare.

I turned around and headed back. I ignored some highways branching off to the east. I couldn’t afford to compound my disorientation. One of the suspension bridges led into a town. I could see its buildings through the trees as I approached. Gently, I pulled off the highway and onto the bridge with a sense of trespass. I crossed over the river under a tunnel of green metal and tree branches and, eyeing a gas station directly on the other side, I continued into the town.

In my telling of this moment since, I have suggested what was truly in the essence of my living of the moment then, that this was not a town that existed in any reality that I had known. It felt possible to me that this town was a thing of magic, one of those hidden places known from literature and all storytelling, if old Pennsylvania towns could be these kingdoms apart, these islands across the river that offer sanctuary to wanderers, to weary travelers in search of or fleeing from home. I had the feeling, and have since had the dread, that if I passed by that way again I would never be able to recover that town, just an empty bridge leading to a stillness in the tangle of woods.

But forgive this indulgence. The town of N—- does exist. Its high school has a show choir, a competitive sports program, and a gym. The music teacher directs musicals from the last ten years. Whether these rambling uncertainties were the thoughts of an outsider forever unfit to make a home in the back roads of central Pennsylvania or if this consciousness was induced by the taking of three-hour test that so proved my very ability to teach in this community I leave to the people of N—– to answer.

The afternoon light hung around the shadows in the town square and gleamed richly on the brick walls of every building. Cars circled. People stepped out of storefronts with large glass windows. Traffic lights changed. I came back to the gas station.

Not parking at the pump, I worried that I should be asking for help without offering any trade. I was obsessed, in those days, with the idea of exchange. I was also mindful of how some of my black classmates might have felt, have said they do feel, at the prospect of asking for directions at a gas station in a largely white rural town. Pennsylvania was a northern state, but Confederate flags are about as numerous as historical signposts indicating stops on the underground railroad, not that I saw either that day. I felt degree of safety, too, as a man. So, with a mixture of gratitude and guilt, and not without a sense of discomfort at having to ask directions of strangers, I stepped out of my car.

An attendant walked towards me as I approached. He was thin, teenaged. I asked him if he could point me towards Highway 15 North. He didn’t have an answer. How about Selinsgrove? I didn’t expect him to have recognized Lewisburg. He brought me over to the owner, an older man, possibly his father.

“He’s trying to get to–where was it–?”

“Selignsgrove. Highway 15,” I said. “Well, I’m trying to get to Lewisburg.”

The man collected his thoughts.

“Ok,” he said, “You’re gonna wanna cross this bridge and follow this highway straight towards Highway 11/15. You’ll run right into it.”

“Ok, just across this bridge and go straight?”

“Just cross this bridge and go straight.”

“Thank you,” I said, and I got back in my car.

There’s a Jack London story where a man freezes to death in Yukon territory, believing himself lost. When he dies, his dog runs up the familiar path of sounds and smells to the camp they had set out from that morning. I drove twenty minutes and hit highway 11/15. Selinsgrove was another half hour and just beyond, my own college town.

I wondered–and this knowingly, having heard of research done by Pennsylvania geographers about the sense of place and the social bonds that hold the communities of these towns together–if that teenager who tried to help me had ever crossed that bridge leading away from his town. He has no doubt stepped on the other side. How could he not have? But would he have had reason to? I have since consulted maps. Crossing that river, we see the sudden spiraling of state parks and forests, the great bending already underway of geosynclinal valleys, the topographical undulations leading away from Harrisburg and the East and down into the bulkier Appalachians. I wonder if crossing that bridge is more than just a psychological barrier, of the kind I imagine it would be for youngsters of any river town, but a departure from one set of cultures to the next, if places like Selinsgrove, Sunbury, Bloomsburg, and Williamsport were as exotic to him as his town felt to me when I drove in, if the sound of Highway 11-15 felt as fantastical as the vision of afternoon sunlight on the red brick, if my life was as incomprehensible to him as his was to me.

Yesterday I was talking with a professor about teaching license requirements in Massachusetts. He suggested that I might be a good resource for my classmates, given my familiarity with the process of taking educator tests, the CTEL, the Praxis 1 and 2. “You know, it’s a little strange that we require all those tests for certification.”

“Well, someone has to get paid,” I joked. “At least that’s my cynical side.” I believe I stole that line from a professor I had back in Pennsylvania. He agreed.

I was thinking about driving in central Pennsylvania, about the trees and the slopes of earth and rock and leaves, about the teenager at the gas station, about coal towns and river towns, and about the friends I haven’t seen in years.

Two poems of love and marriage: Translations

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1. Les vœux

Une fois je t’ai promis le tout
quand je t’ai offert ma vie.

Je t’ai promis les nuits et les soirées,
les matins ensoleillées, les journées de pluie.

Je t’ai offert la bouche qui sait désirer,
le front qui sait rêver dans tes caresses,
les bras qui gardent leur chaleur.

Je t’ai offert des sensations et des sensitivités
des mots justes et des sonorités.
Le lustre et les sauvageries une fois je t’ai représentés.

Je t’ai promis l’amour sous la souffrance,
le cœur qui ne cesse pas de se donner.
Les pleures et les regards ne t’ai-je pas jurés ?
Les yeux qui comptent les larmes,
mes propres sentiments ne t’ai-je pas offerts ?

Accepte donc la totalité de mes promesses,
l’addition, la somme, le début et la fin du compte.

Veuille recevoir alors la signe de mes promesses,
la main droite tremblante, la vérité blessante, la sincérité.

Et je te supplie, chère toi qui as déjà mon cœur,
qui as mes veines, mon souffle et mon sang,
d’entendre la voix de mon serment,
celle-là tout bas,
comme si elle venait de lointain,
obscurée de doutes,
celle-là que peut-être tu trouves trop tendre,
celle-là qui ne cesse pas de poser la question,
celle-là qui attend de toi une réponse.

Dis-moi.
Notre vie ensemble n’est-elle pas qu’une promesse ?

1. Vows (English translation)

I once promised you everything when I offered you my life. 

I promised you nights and evenings, sunny mornings and days of rain.

I offered you a mouth that knows desire, a brow that can dream in your caresses, and arms that can keep us warm.

I offered you sensations and sensitivites, right words and sonorities. Of brightness and wildness I gave you a vision.

I promised you love underneath suffering, a heart that never ceases to give of itself. Didn’t I promise you weaping and eyes that see you and eyes that count tears. Have I not offered my own feelings ?

Accept, then, the totality of my promesses, the sum, the bill, the beginning and end of the account.

Receive the sign of my promesses, a trembling right hand, truth that hurts, and my sincerity.

And I beseech you, you my dearest who have already my heart, you who have my veins, my blood and my breath, to hear the voice of my pledge to you—the voice soft and low as if it were coming from far off, obscured by my doubts, the voice that maybe you have found too tender, the one that will not stop asking the question, the one that is waiting for a response :

Tell me, is are life together not a promise?

2. La fête

Qu’il y aient à notre mariage des violons,
des bouquets de fleurs et des parfums de roses,
à chaque table des tintements de verres.

Qu’il y aient des costumes gris et des tissus légères,
de nouvelles robes et des aromes de cuir.
Pour chaque jubilation, une danse.
et pour chaque silence, une pause.
De la fraicheur à chaque fenêtre
et à chaque table une carafe d’eau.
Que les danseurs viennent mouiller leurs lèvres desséchées.

À tous ceux qui veulent causer, un partenaire.
À tous ceux qui veulent danser, des battements de cœur.
Et à tous ceux qui veulent en contempler, des points d’or
au moment où la marée nuageuse révèle ses perles.

Et que nous quittions, ma chère, la salle de danse,
avant que les pétales sortent de leur bouquets et les carafes se vident.
Avant les tremblements de branches
et les premiers soupirs du vent,
avant l’avance rosâtre aux champs
et les premières étoiles aux cieux,
que nous retrouvions notre propre espace de cœur.
Là nous nous donnerons notre amour.

Que nous nous offrions nos chuchotements
alors que les cadences des violons commencent à s’allonger.

Car notre amour est comme une fleur rare
si fine et si inconnue
qu’elle n’a qu’un seul nom dans une seule langue.
Or, notre amour est comme un chant,
si intime, si inscrutable
qu’elle ne fait aucun rythme ni aucun sens
aux ceux qui en déchiffreraient.
Mais que nous sachions, ma chère, mon cœur à moi,
quand nous partageons nos secrets
que nous touchons un amour de si sacré et de si commun
que les amoureux de tous les pays
ont pour lui leur propres adresses,
leurs propres salutations,
leurs propres tendres noms.

Que cet amour soit suffisamment grand pour entourer
un univers de solitude et de pertes dans son étendue.
Que le vent du soir, mêlé à la musique,
soulage chaque blessure.
Qu’ils trouve à chaque souffrance un regard,
à chaque espoir un accord.

Qu’il y aient des violons et des extases,
des saveurs, des danses et des parfums,
des carafes d’eau et des perles d’étoiles
l’entrechoquement de verres, des roses, des rires,
et à chaque table, des rêves du cœur.

2. The feast (English translation)

May our wedding have violins,
bouquets of flowers and perfumes of roses,
at each table the clinking of glasses.

Let there be gray suits and light fabric,
new dresses and smells of leather.
For each cry of joy a dance,
for each silence, a moment of stillness.
At every window may there be cool air
and at each table a carafe of water.
May the dancers moisten their dried lips.

To all who want to talk, may there be a partner.
To all who want to danse, stirrings of the heart.
And to all who would contemplate it, points of gold
at the moment when the tide of clouds reveals its pearls.

And let us, my love, leave the dance hall
before the petals spring from their bouqets and the carafes run dry.
Before the trembling of the branches
and the first sighs of the evening wind,
before the fields are filled with their pink
and the skies are filled with stars,
may we find our heart’s own space.
There, we will give each other our love.

When the cadences of violins begin their lengthening
let us offer each other our whispers.

For our love is like a rare flower
so fine, so unfamiliar
that it has only one name in one language.
Or it could be that our love is like a song,
so intimate and inscrutable
that it makes no sense or rhythm
to those who would decipher it.
But may we know, my love, my own heart,
when we share our secrets
that we touch a love so sacred, so common
that those who love from every country
have for it their own titles,
their own greetings,
and their own tender names.

May this love be big enough to circle
a world of losses and loneliness in its reach.
May the evening wind, mingled with violin music,
salve each wound.
May those who suffer find one who sees them,
and may those who hope find an answer.

Let there be violins and ecstasies,
flavors, dances, and perfumes,
carafes of water and pearls of stars,
the clinking of glasses, roses and laughs,
and at each table, dreams from the heart.


 

Twelve thoughts on “The Rescuers Down Under”

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  1. Today when I was baking, and listening–
    I’m on vacation. Please forgive me if it sounds like I don’t work. Sometimes I listen to Hamilton and I’m like “I too feel like I’m writing like I’m running out of time,” but then I realize I’m writing about The Rescuers Down Under and not drafting the Federalist Papers. I’m self-conscious. I’m looking for a mind at work. This movie makes the world burn.
  2. So I was baking, and listening to the Grieg piano concerto. There was the roaring statement of the first theme in the 3rd movement (You’ve heard it…it’s the musical equivalent of opening a hot, steaming oven with your eyes unshielded…and it’s beautiful), and then, the second theme rushed in, flowed in: waves crashing on the beach and filtering down through the rocks, returning to the sea. It gets majestic at the end, but this first time it is delicate, sensitive, and intimate, and I thought–as I always think, as I seem not to be able to help but thinking when I hear this theme–“Ah, this is the part that’s from Rescuers Down Under score. Fly, Marahuté, fly.” Please tell me I’m not the only one.6501_4.jpg
  3. Who among us have not had our childhood identity shaped by this movie? A three-year-old, I used to throw piles of dirty clothes on my bed to make it look as disheveled as Cody’s hammock. I used to dream of packing a pocket knife, kicking my feet over the picket fence in the early morning sunshine, and telling my mom I had packed a lunch for the day, and thus escaping with a clean lie.
  4. I also used to identify with Frank. No one understands me, and I am just a little lizard trying to have a good time. I could have trouble being brave sometimes, but I could spread out my ear-things and prance about the room, stick my poor tale into locks and pick them in my sleep, murmuring my steps to freedom like an incantation. When I yelled, “Look at me I’m free!” all the kangaroos (voire adults) in my life would scream “Shhh.” But Frank, little John, find the keys. Learn to be responsible. Learn to set the people free.hqdefault-1.jpg
  5. I have no words to tell you–just as I cannot explain why it could be so, considering my life experiences up to that point–how profoundly resonant this movie’s central themes of freedom and escape were to me at age three. Think with me of all the examples. There was Cody in a pit, Cody lowered by the hook of a crane into a crocodile-infested river, there was Frank and that aging Koala in a prison of animal cages, and, lest we forget, John Candy’s Wilbur in that hospital trailer scene to which I have never seen in the history of film a more nightmarish moment. But consider “release” in its purest form: when I saw Cody cut the cords from Marahuté’s neck, in the earliest, most spiritual part of my heart, I knew and believed that someday the cords that bound me could be, would someday be broken. And it came as no surprise to me that Marahuté should have been caught and bound so many times. I just accepted it. “This it what life is like,” I felt in my heart, and I could have said if I had the words. And I could have watched that eagle get recaptured and restored a dozen, a hundred times more. The mind of a child never grows tired of the iterations of life’s fundamental realities. And if we’re being honest, I am not embellishing my experience of this movie at all. I know I’m not alone. Erik Eriksen can take it up from here.Jake-in-The-Rescuers-Down-Under.png
  6. In the United Nations scene, Bianca says, mistakenly, that all she will need for her wedding is “a pair of khaki shorts and some hiking boots.” I don’t think I understood what was happening in this engagement mix-up scene when I was three. This came later, but when it did, at age eight, I assuredly snorted out laughter. And for all those out there who have had or attended a Bay Area wedding… “Just a pair of khaki shorts and some hiking boots”…isn’t that kind of what the ceremony was like? I mean, we didn’t ride flying squirrels, but ok, next point.
  7. I will not watch another funny video that someone wants to show me until they can be impressed upon to admit, with full sincerity, that America has not produced a finer comedic achievement than the scene with Joanna and the eggs. “THESE ARE NOT JOANNA EGGS.” I’m still dying of laughter.hqdefault.jpg
  8. “Daniel, the significance of that scene when Joanna was trying to steal the eggs was that McLeach was denying her femininity.” I actually said this once. College is a scary place.
  9. But speaking of gender, why should Cody’s mother not be given a face? Like I get it—this is an animal movie. And maybe we don’t need to see a mother’s face to imagine her despair, just her soft, pale, ill-defined hands folding gently over the remains of her son’s pack, holding in her mourning. Remember, the rangers had just explained that her missing son had fallen into a crocodile hole. (Do such things really exist?) But McLeach is given a face. And so is Cody. The villain and the protagonist. The movie has room for the faces of two human men. But is Cody’s mother not just as interesting and, indeed, complex? It appears that she is a single parent. Maybe she was widowed or the last one left in her family when her parents died. Or did Cody’s father take her out to the heart of the Outback, promising romance, freedom, a chance to start a new life, only to abandon his family? She’s trying to hold her life together. There’s a working generator (Remember Cody’s electric fan), a sturdy-enough looking chimney (We looked at it for almost the whole of the minute-and-a-half movie introduction). She drives a truck (Let’s hope it still runs). But none of these nor the relief she must have felt each spring to know that the roof had held for one more winter can hardly have offered much in the way of consolation. And, if I can say so, she has some shortcomings. She accepted the lie that her son had packed a couple sandwiches for the day. She seems unable to imagine what her son was up to, activities which include climbing Australia’s El Capitan without gear and flying through the clouds on an eagle’s back to Grieg music. Let us pause to give thanks that he never tried to share words with the dingos and the jackals of his community. When the rangers came to her door, did she say “Why did my son go near that crocodile hole?” We want her to at least say this. But maybe she could not, not just then. Her grief is too deep for her to try to defend herself, or to pass blame, or to put up any kind of front. I see her returning to her place by the sink and, looking out the window, adding this to her catalogue of so many events in a life that just never seemed to work out right. I would have liked to see her face.
  10. And let us thank the filmmakers for the transactive healing of young Cody and Marahuté. He, who needed as all children do affection, adventure, another chance to do good to someone, She whose husband’s death by poaching left her in the position of not being able to protect her growing nest from predators. She found a way to protect her babies, and he found, in the one he was protecting, not just a companion but a second mother, a bird mother with soft feathers and sharp talons who could help him rise above the pressures and traps and captivities of this life and restore him to his full humanity. Grieg couldn’t have been more proud.The-End-of-The-Rescuers-Down-Under.png
  11. And let us give thanks for Joanna, the true protagonist of this film, the only one other than Bernard who experiences character development (We can of course attempt to describe Cody’s mom’s inner life, but it is just that: an attempt. We imagine a change in her outlook on life once her son as at last found, free from crocodile teeth marks and the bruises of being kept in a cage by a potential father figure–I’m honestly trying to put a stop to this emotional content–this movie is just so rich). But Joanna, whether through self-interest (but of course it can’t merely be this) or through a growing sense of having trusted a man who won’t let her even enjoy the simple delights of life (i.e. eggs), who would force her to destroy another woman animal’s future to get these eggs, who she must have known would one day betray her when he no longer had use for her, would let this companion who can no longer be a companion walk out of her life. She waves goodbye, one finger at a time, with the hand that had once been crushed by the lid of the metal egg bin. She frees herself. And in so doing, I believe, frees Cody and Marahuté to soar among the clouds.
  12. There are many things that happened in our culture since this movie came out. The country lost and regained its 1980s interest in Australia. The internet made the world smaller–and so painfully small: the Codys of this world no longer play outside. The Pokémon species’ insistence on one-word self-identifaction replaced the wide-ranging syntactical repertoire of the Australian animal kingdom. Somewhere northeast of their continent, Nemo found his beloved father, Dory sang whale songs, and the fish of an another century wriggled onto the land. But in my deepest of hearts, I know that in this still violent, still disturbing, and still sometimes hopeless-feeling era, Joanna is somewhere eating eggs. Maybe she has collected them herself. Maybe she has given up poaching and now orders them off Amazon. But I have reason to hope that she is enjoying a freedom that feels every day to her as fresh as each new carton of eggs. I feel you, Joanna. I feel you.

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My Pablo Neruda scrapbook: This week

Para que tú me oigas
mis palabras
se adelgazan a veces
como las huellas de las gaviotas en las playas.

…like the tracks of the seagulls on the beaches.

Who introduced me to Pablo Neruda? It has to have been Joshua. He posts his poetry all the time and I think it was he who told a beautiful story–an incredible story–about a Spanish speaking worker, or someone like that, who discovered that they shared an affinity, and maybe developed one for each other, when the man noticed Joshua’s book of Neruda poems on his dashboard. I also had friends in college before this who read to each other poems and stories and translated vocabulary pages at the same table as me. It could have been a few months ago too, when I read as many banquet speeches of the Nobel literature prize as there were writers I was familiar with. I recommend Márquez’s, Camus’s, and Svetlania Alexiavich’s. I had to have at least recognized Neruda by then.

In his banquet speech, Neruda offered thanks and said that he would return “to the blank page which every day awaits us as poets so that we shall fill it with our blood and our darkness, for with blood and darkness poetry is written, poetry should be written.”

Part of me thinks of the suffering of political prisoners in Chile as Neruda knew it and in every civilization that oppresses its workers.

…porque con sangre y sombra se escribe, se debe escribir la poesía.

The Christian in me thinks of Jesus.

The still growing up part of me wants to shout, “This is when art is” and return to browsing the movies in the HBO GO account I don’t even pay for. And count out my likes later.

The child in me wants to share this with all of my friends.

And then they will come watch with me the 2016 film Neruda, directed by the Chilean filmmaker Pablo Larraín. It made me want to visit Chile–its cobbled streets lined with plane trees, its mountains filled with snow. It made me want to sing when I read poetry aloud. It made me want to read Spanish detective novels in bed and fall in love. It made me above all want to read more of his poetry.

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I texted my sister on Wednesday night saying, “I wrote a love poem in French. I’m a poet now.” She said something like, “Send it to me.” My sister “reads” paragraphs to me from French philosophical treatises on the subway in New York City. She even does her own “translations.” One time, in 2009, she was reading to me about the horse négligée that Lindsay Lohan once wore. My sister is as obsessed with language as I am. She does Spanish toasts in weddings. She has studied for the GRE.

I wanted to be as free as he was. I wanted not just to see the evening haze rise into the hills across from San Francisco, I wanted to feel it roll through me, like spirit. One of my favorite images from scripture is the Spirit of God moving in our hearts, filling them with love.

But I still get caught in the rhythms of what love poetry was supposed to be, what it must have meant for Victor Hugo. What people who love each other say out loud. “I strove to love you in the old high way of love,” wrote Yeats. And doesn’t language too often have a way of smoothing–as with a rich butter on a piece of crust–the sensations of our life together? I wasn’t picturing someone I’ve been in love with. That would have been different. That wouldn’t have been“Come to me, I see you standing by the lake.” It wouldn’t have been “The moon is rising on your skin.” These sound like bad translations of Chekov. We can’t be more in love with the moon than we are with the one we love or the words of love we share. It would have been “Your body is wet with the crests of waves. I’m chasing you.” It would have been “Your hair is dripping in shiny pearls, falling on your chest,” if I were picturing someone whom I loved.  Nevertheless, this is what I wrote, trying to be free.

Les eaux sont calme ice-bas, ce soir.
Les eaux qui te caresseraient le visage
qui t’appeleraient et qui t’emmèneraient au plus profond
qui t’embraseraient avec leur fraîcheur
ne sifflent plus, ne tremble plus,
ne chuchote qu’en mots d’écume.

Et toi qui savais une fois danser
qui exultais dans la valse vagueuse
de touches brusques, de secrets partagés, et de douces retraites,
es capté par le même silence
la même intransigence,
la même crépuscule douloureuse.

Veille bien tendre l’oreille,
faire descendre la main,
regarder autour de toi.
Fais un seul pas.
Toi, qui ne vois qui l’image d’amertume,
le reflet fixe, la surface mate,
tu vas voir le monde contorsionne à fleur d’eau.
Toi, qui ne sens que l’air frigide, tu vas réussir à sauter
avec des cris de joie.
Et toi, qui n’entends rien de vagues ni de soupirs de vent
tu vas ressentir, même au centre de cette nuit pesante,
les palpitations du cœur qui bat.

The water is calm here this evening, still.
The waves that would caress your face
that would call to you and lead you farther out
that would embrace you with a cool kiss
no longer stir, or tremble,
or whisper anything but words of foam.

And you who once knew how to dance,
who gleamed in the waves’ waltz
of quick touches, secrets shared, and soft goodbyes,
are stuck in the same silence,
the same intransigence,
the same painful obscurity of the evening.

 But come incline your ear,
lower your hand,
look around you.
Make just one step.
You, who only see the bitter image
of your fixed reflection, a matte surface,
you will see the world twist itself on the upper layer of water.
You who who only feel the frigid air
will rise to jumping with cries of joy.
And you, who now hear nothing of waves
or the breathing of the wind
will feel, even in the middle of this heavy night,
the palpitations of a beating heart.

 

The Nobel prize committee in 1971 evoked Pablo Neruda’s sense of, his yearning for, man’s harmony with nature. Some day, we’ll find this harmony. We won’t dream of disaccord and intransigence. We won’t be an unsettled people. We’ll sing our suffering and our jubilation, ours and each others, from the fullness of our breaths in our once sunken chests. Some poets have reached this. Some poets have lived this. Some poets have died for this. For the rest of us, and until then, we will have them–the ones like Neruda–to help us search our darkness and find our blood still moving in the life inside.

 

 

I Will Think About Your Heart

“Does the earth know what passes in those stars that are hurled like a spark of fire across the firmament–so far that we perceive only the splendor of some?…I never feel myself more alone than when I open my heart to some friend, because I then better understand the insuperable obstacle.” – Guy de Maupassant

In the morning we’ll have oysters and fruit. Leftovers, nuts, pieces of pie. I’ll watch you run on the beach until the fog rolls out. I’ll offer you coffee and another piece of pie. I’ll go for a swim. You’ll read a book. We’ll take naps together on the one scrap of grass we can find. If we were to die or if aliens discovered us, this remnant of civilization, they’d find our hands crossed into the leaves of our book, our chests rising and falling with breathing, even in a second Pompeii.

In the evening we’ll go dancing. Do you remember when your mom surprised us back in your high school room? “We’re only dancing,” you ran down the hallway calling after her. I only snorted out laughter so hard I could have made water fly.

I’ll collapse too early back into the wicker chair. There will be uneaten cuts of meat on my plate. Pork chops and slices of chicken, beef juice and scalloped potatoes turning lukewarm. The saxophonist will be swaying. The stars will start to dance a little too. I’ll search for you but won’t find you until I see you crying softly in the corner behind the plants. You’ll pretend you weren’t crying, and I’ll pretend I didn’t see you. I’ll read you poetry I wrote on my napkin. It won’t be mine. Chaucher’s.

We’ll order coffee and bring it up to our rooms. You’ll carry the cream and the sweet caramels that the waitress brought to us on a plate. We’ll stay up the night talking, both slowly and quickly, until the moon begins to fade into the smear of light that crosses the sky. We’ll pack our suitcases. We’ll forget about the caramels. We’ll sleep in and forget for just one moment about the sadness and the pain.

We will drive to your old home in the early afternoon before it gets too hot. Your sisters will clean the house. Your older sister will offer us drinks. Your younger sister will sit in the couch between a roomful of people that feel to me like strangers, beckoning us into the next piece of conversation.

So we will pass the afternoon until the curtains can be drawn and the windows opened to let in the cool smells of the evening. Everyone will leave. Your older sister will go to bed with a remark about the kitchen, not needing to say that she wished she had the strength to help more with the rest of the house. Your younger sister will stand with me as we see her off. I’ll say my sad words to her. She will touch my hand then touch my arm, feeling its hair. I’ll meet your eyes across the room. You’ll be standing in the door. You’ll be too angry to be tired. You’ll be exhausted. I’ll try to come to you, with your sister on my arm. But you, for a moment, will slip away.

You’ll have made it as far as the table. The iced tea will have run watery and warm, but we’ll drink it anyway, the three of us. We’ll play cards. We’ll try to make each other laugh, first you and then each other, until our chests feel sore as if we were coughing.

We’ll eat what is still good of the food your sister brings in from the tables and watch as she takes everything that is left to the trash and some to the sink. We will hear the scraping of the garbage disposal for about four seconds. At first it will sound like the way our laughter felt in our chests. I will think about sleeping on the beach with you the day before, our faces getting burnt, our arms and legs, water bottles, and the pages of our books crusted with sand. We will watch your sister filling another trash bag. You will stand to help. I will be too dizzy with tiredness and free of logic to notice you are gone until I am surrounded by the silence of curtains and buzzing fans.

You will come back and say you saw the stars out, tears in your eyes.Your sister will join you on the front deck, and I will find a bed to sleep in.

As I nudge my body into the sheets, I will think about your heart, and the saxophonist’s and the way your arms clench when you run and imagine the sounds your feet make, puff puff against the floor of the beach sky, tossing the sand behind you as you propel yourself into the disappearing morning fog.

The lesser-valued foreign language skills, and maybe rightly so: A list

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Because it is not always about the grand moments, the flourishes, the ecstasies. It is not even the culminations, necessarily, the closing of good books after a prolonged period of study, that characterize our knowledge of a foreign language. We may use them to define our ability and ease–I have asked for a seat on a bus–I have read Balzac–I have made a friend–but these are just benchmarks. If, in life, there are a few simple, uncomplicated rules that govern the new heights and depths, the few important moments of our lives, there are countless complicated rules that govern everything else. And I wonder if getting to know another language, like getting to know another person, resides mostly in the expansive matrix of everything else.

When I was studying abroad in France, I convinced myself to ride my bike from where I was staying in Tours to the nearby town of Ambroise, a popular route, one that followed a river, clung perilously to a highway, took me over a bridge to avoid a railway, and then deposited me in a forest of dark green leaves where I discovered a network of mountain bike trails. Not having a mountain bike, I stuck to the safest-looking paths, but what little I did of the twists and bumps and rises and falls was exhilarating enough to make me dream of coming back someday to take the trails more adventurously.

When we learn a language, we we follow the wide-ranging paths, laid by wide-stepping people who have crossed in both directions and in every direction (can I just add that the word for direction in French translates to “sense?”) we experience the same movements that we undergo when we meet a new “other”–the same awkwardness, the same formality, the foul and fair territory, the shifting between the poles. And whatever our capacity for familiarity or intimacy may be–will she be a friend, a regretted companion, a counselor to me (a judge, an executioner, a priest)?–few would argue that they knew the precise moment their love for each other became something different. Few could say that the warmth of their companionship consisted in the outline of cold hard facts of desires recorded, laughs counted, and tears measured. No one who is in love can keep track of the hours spent together. Time flies from this. So it is with the languages we learn to love, to hate, to reject, and sometimes to forget, but ultimately, I hope, to cherish.

These have never made my list of defining moments. We don’t get to learn them in class. No one thinks of these skills when they applaud your ability. But they are the kinds of things we do–and often half to do–when we choose a path and step into the matrix. And though we were following a clear, well-established thoroughfare, before we realize it and after several steps and missteps, we find ourselves cycling in the afternoon shadows on a woods-rutted path somewhere outside of Ambroise, rushing through the bushes down a sudden incline at full speed.

1. That one word.

For decades scientists, moralists, and middle school teachers everywhere have debated how often the human mind thinks about sex. I can’t speak for everybody, but I can say that at the very least, I think about it every time someone uses the reflexive verb “s’exprimer:” to express oneself. This has been a source of untold giggling, and please tell me I not alone. We all need that one word that keeps our 11-year-old self within reach, that keeps his unparalleled mind-unraveling wonder at the transgressive beauty of language–its curious new forms, its inexplicable forces, its bodies of work–in fresh supply. We keep him just around the corner. Because we have entered a new room: We are twenty-two. One of our classmates is applying Bourdieu’s theory of social reproduction to a novel by Émile Zola that we did not take the time to read. We cannot concentrate. Our mind buzzes with white noise. If there is cultural capital to be gleaned, we are on the wrong field. We want to look out the window, but this classroom has none. We are enveloped in darkness with nothing but the gently intoned words of our classmate dripping like pieces of melted silver onto the blank pages of our notebook. And then we hear him first, the 11-year-old’s clinking footsteps on the hallway tile. He peers in the doorway, and at that moment, like a thunderclap, the word is used. Bourdieu sexpresses himself. We sexpress ourselves. The individual suffering the blight of a post-industrialist existence sexpresses himself. Words cannot sexplain the vistas, the curtains raised, shuttered windows flung open, and, in less than a second, if we can respect our classmate who is still presenting, our 11-year-old self disappears, he has run down the hallway, he is basking in the morning sunshine, he is doing somersaults in the quad grass. And, invigorated, we are listening to our classmate’s lecture and, finally, taking notes.

2. We still need to know how to do things

I didn’t want to get political, but I discussed Sarah Palin’s possible candidacy once in 2011 with an older French woman. She said, “Dans la politique, il faut savoir. In politics, you have to know things.” And I would agree wholeheartedly, except that I had just been stopped when walking by the cathedral. A woman had noticed the watch on my arm, and she asked me what time it was. This is among the first things we learn in language class. Don’t ask me why I still wear an analog watch. Don’t ask me why I am twenty-seven and I still cannot tell time. This is among the first things we learn in kindergarten class. Don’t ask me why a French woman was asking me for the time like she didn’t already know it. (Telling time and complaining about the presidents all the way back to Henry IV are France’s national obsessions.) I looked at my watch. I looked at my wrist. I fumbled awkwardly in my pocket, opened my phone, and translated to one minus fourth in my head before brashly proclaiming it to the woman who, miraculously, was still standing there. When she heard my accent, she apologized. I’m sorry too, I wanted to say. I’m sorry for being a foreigner. Every time I look at a clock, I murmur an apology to this woman who accosted me at the cathedral. In politics and in life, you have to know things.

3. We still need know things, like really basic things.

Students who travel abroad are counseled to let moments sink in, to cultivate a sense of presence, to catalogue their sights and joys and then, in the angled sunlight of a different terroir, to let the pages ruffle open, and for several precious seconds, to practice breathing. I did this for a half hour once in an outdoor café in Montmartre. Actually, it may even have been longer. And I did it because I could not figure out how to pay for my coffee. Do I go up to the front? Do I keep looking around for a server? No one is coming. Do I just keep practicing breathing cigarette smoke and staring at a man reading a newspaper? The coffee was less than four ounces and took fewer than four seconds to drink. Do I just keep watching all the schoolchildren walking home from school? Do I wait for the next presidential election so that maybe the man will look up and I can say something witty I thought of myself about Sarah Palin? Is the person who served me invisible now? Is she a ghost? Are there ghosts all around us? Is this how the world ends? Is there even a man behind this newspaper? Finally, I just walked back inside, found the nearest human being–not even sure if she worked there–and said, of all things, “I need to pay.” And then I whimpered, “Where…” This is how the world ends, not with a bang but with a whimper. She told me to wait, disappeared–(French servers are great at this)–and then came back to receive my payment. On the counter was a toilet paper-looking roll of receipt paper, the kind that the machine keeps printing but that is never torn, the mythical snake not even looking for its tail that keeps growing. It was on this ledger that she recorded my payment. Ghosts don’t keep short accounts.

4. Culture

There might be a lot that I do not know, but there are a number of things I know how to do. One time I was so interested to know how the French internet interpreted Adele’s “Send My Love,” that I looked it up and went line by line, ultimately agreeing that on the whole it worked as a translation. I don’t even like that song.

5. More culture

One time I stood at the edge of a glacier field during a family trip to British Columbia reading the wonderfully informative description on a placard of Earth’s unchanging forces that have joined to create this icy marvel of eternally advancing ephemera. Because the placard was also wonderfully succinct, I read the same description in French. I still had time to watch the wind blow and think about my heart and wonder how many more minutes it would take until we were all back in the car if indeed the glacier could outlast the length of the line at the visitor’s center restroom.

6. Social media capital

Sometimes I make French posts on Facebook and then wonder why know one likes them. In these times, I need a friend to talk me through this–it could even be my 11-year-old self. He could say to me, “John, no one speaks French. No one knows who Marguerite Duras is. And look at what you wrote, ‘Tu as le droit to sangloter.’ You have the right to sob? No one is going to like, love, laugh, or be thankful for this. Even if Facebook had a baguette button no one would use it. Your posts would make Charles de Gualle himself quit the presidency again.”

I just want to add that the photo at the top of this page, which I took in Paris, received only one like. This is the kind of thing that happens in our world.

But thank you, small John, for your advice. I will take it to heart.

7. Trial but mostly error

Except I didn’t, because this was a conversation that I tried to have with my English-speaking family.

Mom: Who wants a slice of pie for dessert?
John: Moi, j’en veux.
Mom: Daniel, would you like a slice of pie?
John: Moi, j’en veux.
Daniel: Yes, please.
Mom: Here you go.
John: Moi, j’en veux.
Mom: Catherine, would you like a slice of pie?
Catherine: Yes, please. Thank you.
John: Moi, j’en veux.
Mom: Anyone else? Any last takers?
John: WHY IS NOBODY LISTENING TO ME?
[Silence.]
11-year-old self: Because you need to speak in English for your family to understand you when you say, “I, I want of the that.”

8. I would have liked to see…

Sometimes I feel frustrated that people who don’t speak French don’t quite know the thrill of starting a sentence with the words, “J’aurais…” Perhaps some of the most interesting sentences–in any language–begin with the words, “I would have…”

9. More “J’aurais”

And though there are many times I regret having spent years learning a language that has only served to help me judge the translations of Adele songs and glacier placards in Canada, I feel the regret the strongest when I think of all the Gabriel García Márquez novels I could have been reading (“J’aurais pu lire?”) in Spanish all these years. My 11-year-old self tells me there is still time. That’s actually a lie. Those books leave him alone in his room crying.

10. The modern conversation

But of course, nothing can compare–even if nothing can prepare us–to the everyday conversation with a familiar speaker of the foreign language into which we have invested our hearts across years of trial and error, classrooms full of inspirational messages and blank stares, and embarrassing encounters with the authorities in airport security lines. I was playing basketball with an uncle who speaks French. Another family member asked him to do something, and though my uncle is never given to complaining, I could tell that he wanted to keep beating me at horse rather than fulfill this request. Seasoned with a semester’s worth of the vibrant literary culture of 17th-century France, I turned to him and said, “Le devoir est beau. Duty is beautiful.” He shrugged and said, “What?,” sunk a basket, and then went inside to do his beautiful duty leaving me alone in the driveway to practice my breathing.

But the beauty of basketball is that one can still shoot hoops with oneself, even if one’s self is 11 years old. His defense is no good, but he knows how to s’exprimer once he gets you in the key.