I love words. Talking was my first love. My mouth got me in a whole lot of trouble growing up, but it also helped me drop kick doors that had been closed off to people like me for so long that we assumed they were welded shut. I even managed to finagle my way out of a punishment or two running my mouth.
One time, my brother was really bored and decided that the antidote to his suffering was harassing me. He kept kept picking at me and I reached my breaking point when he flicked at me with a wet towel. “Mama!” I ran through the house screaming with him at my heels until I got to the kitchen to find her half-heartedly preparing stir-fry for dinner. I was too young and self-centered to register her level of exhaustion and take my insignificant problems elsewhere, so I launched into my diatribe against him while he hovered near the door, waiting to hear the verdict.
“Punkin!” She called out lazily. “Leave your sister alone.” I stared at her while watching him smirk at me triumphantly out of the corner of my eye. This was not my goal: this apathetic woman calling out half-hearted commands. I wanted the dragon mama who was doling out beat-downs and taking names later. I snaked my head around her frame until I could look into her eyes and said, “I stand in awe of your discipline.” A belly laugh ruptured out of her mouth and she had to bend over, steadying herself on the counter. If my brother were telling this story, he would cite this incident as further proof that I’m spoiled and could always get away with being disrespectful. But the reality, it was just funny. If you can make them laugh, the chances of you being punished are low. I learned the same lesson at school when I was constantly getting Ns (Needs Improvement) in conduct (a guaranteed whoopin when I got home) for talking too much until I matured and learned how to make my teachers laugh. I never decreased the volume of my conversation, just increased the appeal factor.
I always took pride in my clarity of expression. I was very insecure about my writing abilities, but if attaining the object of my desires depended on vocal communication, it was all good. Imagine my distress when I moved to Guatemala and I lost the nucleus of my identity. Gone was the opportunity and ability to massage and manipulate words into doing my bidding. No, we were at ground zero. All I could do was get from point A to point B and back again.
My first day of work there, I was supposed to wait for the bus to pick me up in front of the church. Once I got to the church, I remembered that I had no idea what time it was supposed to come. I waited there fore about 15 minutes before I freaked out, assuming that I had missed it. I ran to a cab and tried to get myself to work.
Eres un taxista?
Puedes tomarme al colegio Inter American? (I have since learned that the verb tomar is inappropriate in this context because of the sexual connotation. Llevar is better for future reference.)
I was so proud of myself for getting that out and that pride was quickly engulfed by disgust. Andrea, I know you’re not about to do a praise dance over managing to articulate eight words. No ma’am. At the time, I had no idea that my ego was about to take a few more tumbles before it would be allowed to rebuild.
That year, I spent spring break on the eastern side of Guatemala with a family that didn’t speak English. The daughter and a niece spoke English and they would give me relief from the rapid-tongued, heavily accented Spanish that was flying around my head, effectively muzzling me. I longed to converse with them in their language because even though I couldn’t understand half of what they were saying, I could see it in their body language and hear it in their tones that they were my tribe. I wanted them to see it too.
The mom didn’t speak any English and she was unapologetic about that. I loved that about her. In Xela where I lived, there is a high concentration of American ex-pats, so many of the Guatemalans I met could speak some English or at least were used to being around Americans, so they were very accommodating: speaking slower, speaking in English, and being patient with terrible accents. This was not the case with this family.
The mom made it clear to me that I was in her world and I was either going to get hip to the learning curve or I was going to Helen Keller my way through my time there. I respected her (understatement of the year: I respond very well to dominant maternal figures), so I tried.
One day, the family took me with them to this natural waterfall park and I didn’t get the memo that I needed to bring water shoes. I was slip sliding all over the place. At one point, I fell down and started sliding down this bridge. In the middle of my fall, the English-speaking niece asked me if I was ok and I said, “I don’t know yet.”
We were laughing about it when another cousin walked up and asked what had happened and I started explaining at the speed of molasses. The first cousin jumped in and beat me to the punchline, “Ella me respondió, ‘Todavia no sé!’”
Did this woman just finish my story for me? What is this life? No one has ever had to tell my story for me. I do that for other people. One of my best friends in college was a terrible storyteller. Jane would start laughing in the middle or lose her train of though and by the time she got to the end of her narrative, any laughs that she might have been able to garner when she began the story had all been exhaled away. If I had borne witness to the anecdote, I would jump in and help her along to keep up the momentum.
Now, here this woman was treating me like I was Jane. I was devastated, but I couldn’t be mad because I knew I was incapable of reaching the ending with her level of efficiency. So, I just stood there looping her words in my head as if I thought another opportunity to tell the story would arise and I wanted to be ready.
Living in Guatemala was humbling. My words failed me constantly. Even in English, there were still barriers that talking couldn’t transcend. Early in the second semester, I came into conflict with a couple of teachers at my school whose daughter was in my class about my teaching methods. The conflict escalated severely and died out in a passive-aggressive way (that’s a book for another day, that demon called Passive-Aggression). A few weeks ago, one of them came to talk with me about another issue that was tangentially related to the first issue and at one point, our conversation circled around to the first issue. For a split second, I was tempted to launch back into the merits of the original disagreement, but the voice inside was like, “Don’t Dre. Nothing productive will result from rehashing the same old arguments. You’ll just end up more frustrated than you were before.” So, I let it go and after witnessing these two people engage in other fights with other coworkers, I knew I had made the right decision. But, I left that conversation feeling bereft of my life’s joy.
Trying to communicate in Spanish had already greatly altered my perception of the world. I was learning to stop putting so much emphasis on other people’s ability to verbally communicate. I used to want to walk around Guatemala with a sign that read, “I’m smart! I’m funny! I just can’t speak Spanish!” Through my struggles, I was able to process the possibility that other people had treasures in their minds and hearts even if they couldn’t voice them.
But, I still believed in my own ability to speak power and change into the world. Now here I was, speaking in English to a native English speaker and I was still unable to bring about the change I desired to see. What was happening to me? This was my thing! Whenever I fell out with my friends, I was always the one pushing for reconciliation through conversation. I’m not about that let’s-just-pretend-x,y, or z- didn’t-happen-and-move-on life, but if healing was possible through sitting up and having a 4-hour conversation over the course of several evenings, I was all about it.
I used to place so much value in the spoken word. I thought there was nothing that a well-phrased expression couldn’t heal. The first author’s style I ever fell in love with was Eric Jerome Dickey because I would read one of his sentences and laugh, thinking yes, that is exactly what that situation feels like and you found a way to commit it to words. Well done.
I recently found one of my sporadic journal entries that I wrote just before I moved to Guatemala. Essentially, it was about how I was never going to be able to write the book I desperately longed to write because I couldn’t find the words. When I sat down to the computer, I wanted Rilke to come shooting out of my fingertips and when he didn’t arrive, I would shut the computer down in disgust. When I read over what I had written, I started laughing. Good God, Dre. No wonder you couldn’t write. That self-inflicted pressure was paralyzing.
It’s interesting because I feel like the last two years have been about significantly reducing the value I place on words, which you would think would impede a a writer’s development. But, quite to the contrary, I had to stop taking myself so seriously, so I could just be. Discovering my limits didn’t diminish me; it propelled me forward. My expectations are more realistic. I’m not trying to change the world. I’m just trying to tell my truth because my own freedom is tied to my truth-telling and if I can bless someone along the way, then so be it.