Open Lines of Communication

There’s an elderly South Asian woman in my building who doesn’t speak English. I see her in the lobby, in the elevator. And sometimes I see her at the building entrance as she is just arriving or just about to leave. I have carried packages for her from the door to the elevator, or held the door for her as she makes her slow way inside. She is, most times, in the company of a younger, somewhat stern-seeming woman who thanks me if I’m helping or just nods and carries on if we’re passing in the hall.

When I communicate with the older woman, I use gestures and pointing — to ask if she is carrying her packages inside, for example — but I also talk. I use my gestures and pointing as I ask, “Do you need help? Do you want these over by the elevator?” I talk even though I know she doesn’t speak my language. I do it because maybe the younger woman is nearby and will hear me and answer, but I also do it because it would feel strange to remain silent while grabbing her packages and walking away with them, so I hope my sweet, clearly-ending-with-a-question voice will assure her that I am trying to be helpful.

I speak to her, an I make my hand gestures … and she responds. Always. Sometimes, it’s just a nod, but most of the time she talks to me. In a language I don’t understand a single word of. I understand so little about her language, I cannot tell you what language she is speaking. What I can tell you is that sometimes we will go back and forth in our non-communicative communication. I will ask a question and she will answer. I’ll say more, or repeat my question, and she will answer.

It makes no sense at all that we do this. We are accomplishing exactly nothing, but there we are. Stranger still is that, as illogical as those non-conversations are, they are also entirely familiar to me … because I’ve done this before.

My two favorite examples: About ten thousand years ago when I was 20, I hitchhiked around parts of Europe. For most of that hitch, I was with a friend. One late afternoon, we found ourselves in Brussels. We needed to get our bearings, find the youth hostel. We were standing on a street corner when a bus pulled up across from us. I called to the driver to ask if he spoke English. He answered me — maybe in Dutch? maybe in … Flemish? So I asked him about the youth hostel … and he answered. Using my words and my hand signals, I indicated that we had no idea where to go, and he answered again. At that point, my friend asked what the hell I was doing, which was the first moment I processed that the driver and I weren’t actually making sense to one another. The light changed, the driver waved and continued his route, my friend and I were still hostel-less on that street corner.

Fast forward to my last job when I was running an adult education program. When I started there, an elderly Russian woman was in the ESOL program. Tatiana was always dressed semi-formally, her white-yellow hair teased and sprayed into a perfect, spun-sugar beehive. I found her adorable. She saw something in me that she liked, too, always coming by my office to talk to me. Except that she would come by and talk to me in Russian, a language I don’t speak. In Russian, I can give you a solid, “My name is Stacie,” and an equally confident, “I know nothing,” and a somewhat shakier, “I understand a little Russian.” The end. But Tatiana came to talk with me regardless.

One afternoon, I got a call from a social service agency. Tatiana was there, trying to apply for whatever services they offered, but they didn’t have a Russian speaker on staff and were struggling. Apparently, frustrated by their inability to speak with her, Tatiana gave them my number. “Stacie speaks Russian,” she told them.

So my “conversations” with my neighbor are comical but aren’t anything out of the ordinary for me. But really — what is this complete weirdness?

I’ve had curious language experiences before. In Budapest, I sat at parties listening to people around me chatting in Hungarian and waving off my friends when they offered to interpret because I understood what they’d been discussing. Making conversation with a man in Veracruz, surprising myself with my ease in a language I’d only just begun to learn … only to have him stare blankly at me and ask what language I was speaking and realize that my brain had been pulling from French and Italian to fill in the gaps in my Spanish vocabulary. And done that without pause, weaving the three languages together as if they were intended to be spoken that way.

I say all of that to be clear, what happened with Tatiana and that Belgian bus driver, what’s happening with my neighbor is something else entirely. Those other experiences have made me understand that there’s something wacky about my brain and languages. I like the wackiness, and I’m happy when it manifests, although I don’t pretend to understand it at all. But this thing with my neighbor, it’s just odd. Because here is another person participating in the wackiness.

My neighbor now talks to me when she sees me. She uses hand gestures, too, but I’m not sure what she means by them (just as she probably was never understanding my hand gestures in our meetings leading up to now). Mostly she looks and sounds as if she’s scolding me. She talks to me, and I respond — sometimes to remind her that I don’t speak her language, sometimes with general small talk: “I don’t know what you’re saying, but aren’t you glad the elevator’s working again? It was such a pain when it was out.” When other neighbors see us interact, they look at us as if we’re nuts, which we may well be. But as weird as the whole thing it, it also really amuses me.

I want a way to understand what’s happening. After my experience in Budapest, I read Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines, and I thought maybe my brain was somehow doing whatever it is Aboriginal Australian’s brains were doing in his description of how people on walkabout were able to communicate verbally with people they encountered. (I’m not describing that at all or well, and Goodreads will tell you the book is about something else entirely. Never mind. I hope this way they communicate is still a thing Aboriginal Australians are able to do. It remains one of my favorite things I have ever learned. It connects so many of my fascinations about language, about creativity, about possibility.)

When I’ve thought and written about this in the past, I’ve connected it to The Songlines, but also to a random experimental language workshop I participated in in college. The instructor called it “Super Learning,” and the trick was that we weren’t actually being taught the language. We were, instead, lounging on pillows, drinking vodka and eating poppy-seed cake and listening to music. And yet we learned some basic phrases in Russian (a few of which I can still say, as I noted above).

The idea was that being completely relaxed and not trying to learn Russian would open our minds and let the words slip in. I loved the idea, but since I only learned a few sentences, I wasn’t convinced that Super Learning would be the secret to my Russian fluency.

But whether it’s Super Learning or Songlines, how do our brains do that? And why? And why haven’t I ever heard that everyone’s brain does that? And, if that could explain Budapest, it wouldn’t explain Veracruz — a language mash-up that has repeated itself in Spanish classes I’ve taken since then and more recently when I was trying to brush up on my French. I imagine those are cases of my brain knowing I’m trying to speak a language other than English and just reaching for what it has at hand.

And none of that would explain my neighbor. People on walkabout were able to make meaning and comprehension with the people they encountered. My neighbor and I aren’t understanding each other. We’re communicating … something, but it’s definitely not being done verbally.

And why is my brain so strange with language? And is there a way to tap into this weirdness at will? It always sneaks up and surprises me. It would be nice to be able to call it up when I need it. And can it work for any language? The Songlines thing has only happened with Hungarian and Russian. Why not any other language? And what other forms of communication and comprehension is it capable of that I just haven’t discovered yet? And how can I discover them?

Yeah, a lot of questions I can’t answer. I feel a research project coming on! Well … or at least some feverish Googling. Surely someone has studied this thing and figured out parts or all of it by now.

In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I decided to keep working on personal essays, keep at this #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join in, it’s never too late! You can find our group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.

The Violent Male Gaze

Tonight, I stepped away from the Times and over to Jezebel for my source material. Found an excellent piece by Clover Hope to use for my poem. Definitely worth reading the full essay. She has a lot to say and says it well. Thank you to everyone who suggested I switch up my news source. Of course that was a great idea. I’ll be doing more of that.

The Violent Male Gaze
(An erasure of the Jezebel article on the #MeToo movement and film)

This is a cycle.
It’s happened her whole life
sexual assault, rape, domestic violence –

Public attention has escalated
acknowledgment of violent sexual behavior,
reflection and reinforcement of prevailing views,
our pessimism about change remains.

Violence has worked for decades,
the link between real-world sexual violence
and depictions of violence
confirming violence as a sexual stimulant for men.
Violence exists within a continuum
of culturally sanctioned, ritualized aggression,
a continuum from the symbolic, cleansing, and cathartic
to the desensitizing, exploitative and profoundly hypocritical.

What’s been robbed of women
is the privilege of complexity.
of how we respond to or reject violent imagery.
We are inundated with images
of women as victims,
images of murdered women’s bodies.
They are the narrative background,
acted upon rather than acting.

Men in power have stalled the course of evolution.
The issue of violence begins with how women are seen –
unconscious indoctrination.
Awareness of these images,
pointing out that women are sexualized,
made into sexual objects,
an overpowering message that you’re constantly seeing,
a consciousness created about what women are here to do.

Advancement of women is one obvious solution.
One of the clearest ways to combat sexual harassment:
Some enlightenment …
And a lot more women.

It’s National Poetry Month! Every year, I choose a specific form and try to write a poem a day in that form. This year, I am trying erasure poems and I want to use news articles as my source texts. I’ve practiced a few times, and it’s already feeling difficult! We’ll see how it goes.

Here’s an edited version of the Wiki definition of this form:

Erasure Poetry: a form of found poetry created by erasing words from an existing text in prose or verse and framing the result on the page as a poem. Erasure is a way to give an existing piece of writing a new set of meanings, questions, or suggestions. It lessens the trace of authorship but requires purposeful decision making. What does one want done to the original text? Does a gesture celebrate, denigrate, subvert, or efface the source completely? One can erase intuitively by focusing on musical and thematic elements or systematically by following a specific process regardless of the outcome.

Also, Robert Lee Brewer at Writer’s Digest has some good points to add about ethics and plagiarism:

Quick note on ethics: There is a line to be drawn between erasure poems and plagiarism. If you’re not erasing more than 50% of the text, then I’d argue you’re not making enough critical decisions to create a new piece of art. Further, it’s always good form to credit the original source for your erasures.

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Washington International School

Eyes and ears wide open.

Met with Sophia (my mentee) today. A lot of talking, a lot of laughing, some writing, some planning for Saturday’s workshop. After we hugged goodbye, I walked up the street, headed back to my office.

Coming toward me down the block was a group of five adolescent boys, a couple of tall ones and three small ones. They were all bunched together and doing something that had their arms in all kinds of odd raised and bent positions. I couldn’t make any sense of them at first. Then I realized one of the small ones had a can of Reddi Wip (which I didn’t know until just now is spelled this way). He was sharing it with the others. Sharing how, you might ask. Yeah. He sprayed whipped cream directly into the mouth of one friend, into the hands of another (yuck!), and — most alarming — into the Red Bull can of another! (Double yuck!) As I passed them, one of the tall boys had splayed himself against a wall with his mouth open, ready to get sprayed.

Boys be weird, yo.

I turned off that street to head over to my building. There were two women walking behind me. Content Warning: This story contains … ahem … mention of genitalia!

“You know, this is something I can do for myself. So, if I’m going to pay someone to do it, I’m going to give a big tip.”

“Do what?”

“My nails. This is — what do you call that, when you could do it yourself but you get someone else to do it?”

“Lazy?” [Laughter.]

“No, like … it’s a luxury. It’s some messy job I could do but don’t want to. So I give a big tip.”

“Cause you feel guilty.”

“I guess. A little, maybe. Like, if I wasn’t doing it myself, if I was paying some woman to wax my vagina, I’d give her a BIG tip. I’m saying.”


Grown women be weird, too!
That title? It’s from a long-ago comment, from the first time I wanted to name a post “Overheard.”

It’s the 10th annual Slice of Life Story Challenge!
Head over to Two Writing Teachers to see all of today’s slices!