"There are years that ask questions and years that answer."
--Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God
We just entered a new year on the Jewish calendar. In preparation, I have been going back over the pages of my journey.
I discovered that somewhere along the way I learned a form of Braille: the bumps on the page finally mean something.
I no longer feel like I am in the midst of a series of blank pages that are waiting to be turned, waiting to be written on. Instead, I see pages and pages that are filled with text and I am voraciously reading through them.
It reminds me of something that happened on a trip I took to Europe as a teenager; I traveled to France the summer after I completed my fourth year of French.
One afternoon, a friend and I were lost in a small French town, on foot and an hour from our hotel. It was not until I stopped to ask for directions -- when a quick request turned into a conversation that spanned over hours and was exchanged over dinner -- that I realized I was really fluent.
I was amazed. Words I did not know I knew came out of my mouth, with clarity and in context. It was like I shifted into a different part of my brain and I had access to everything I had been storing up during my four years of study. It had been there all along. Perhaps I did not know it existed because I had never needed it that badly.
In much the same way, I have been storing up knowledge on another subject, learning to speak a more ancient tongue. I have been poring over books, memorizing words and phrases, practicing this new language through conversation, using all the same strategies I used when I learned to speak French, though I did not realize it until now.
Then recently, when I found I'd lost my way and needed to get back to my safe place, back to my center, I discovered again that all those years of study were really doing something. I really became fluent.
I know the language of my own soul.
After that summer in Europe, I did not use my French anymore. I finished my senior year of high school, went on to study English in college, and never found myself having another conversation like that again.
Most of the French I learned is locked away in the recesses of my brain, in a place I have not been able to access again. I can barely ask you how your day is going in that beautiful language.
It is a shame, n'est-ce pas? But that experience taught me something, something I am holding onto now.
First, I know that if I really want to speak French again, I can. The information I stored up all those years ago has not disappeared, but it needs some coaxing to come to the surface again. I would have to study, to remind my brain of what it's holding onto.
What was lost can be recovered.
Second, I know that if I had continued to use the language after that trip, I'd still be fluent. I could still be exchanging How do you do and What do you do for work and What's the dream of your heart over cappuccino. It is all a matter of practice, of keeping it fresh.
I feel like I just completed four years of study a second time. I have had a few inspiring conversations where I've been able to flex my fluency muscles, and I realize that now another layer of work begins. I have to keep speaking, keep practicing. I've got to keep doing the work to stay fluent in the language of my own soul.
"... I want to describe myself
like a painting that I looked at
closely for a long time,
like a saying that I finally understood...
like a ship
that took me safely
through the wildest storm of all."
--Rainer Maria Rilke, The Book of Hours
in the dense forest
of your life
and wait there
until the song
that is your life
falls into your own cupped hands
and you recognize and greet it..."
--Martha Postlewaite, "Clearing"
Happy [Jewish] New Year, friends. Methinks this is going to be a good year. A very good year, indeed.