Tuesday, January 27, 2015

When Language Learning Is Like Dating

 “Language is the road map of a culture.  It tells you where its people come from and where they are going.”
Rita Mae Brown

Sometimes, speaking a second language feels like going on a date. You prepare in your mind what you're going to say in the specific situation. You're a little nervous, but you tell yourself to be cool, smooth, calm, relaxed. You want to put your best face - or voice - forward. Yet when the time comes, a single moment can leave you flustered. The words somehow end up tripping over themselves as they leave your mouth. An unexpected question comes up, and your mind is racing first to understand, then to form a response in the correct tense. You have to know the words, but then you have to know how to conjugate them, how to turn them into past tense, or plural, and if it's a formal language such as Spanish, you have to have to assess who you're speaking to and if the polite form of you - usted - or the more casual form - tu - is appropriate.

Sometimes you walk away from the encounter inwardly annoyed at yourself, embarrassed and blushing. Why couldn't you remember that one word? Why did you have to ask him to repeat himself twice before you understood?

Yet, as humbling as it is, it is also thrilling. Like going on a date that show so much potential, despite any initial awkwardness, speaking a second language leaves me wanting more. When I first started learning, I told myself again and again that I had to swallow my pride and be okay with sounding like a cave man or a toddler, stringing together painfully simple sentences to get by. Smile big, laugh at mistakes, be open to correction, and keep trying.

I'm still working towards fluency, yet by now there are hardly any situations I can't handle in Spanish. I attend weekly staff meetings in Spanish, give directions to taxi drivers, meet with the finance department, compose emails, and prepare devotions. The boys I work with sometimes laugh at me when I say something wrong or don't understand the first time, but it's a loving kind of teasing. They know me well enough to know I won't be offended. It's brotherly, which is exactly the kind of relationship I hoped for.

So if you're learning something new, don't be discouraged. Whether it's a new language or any other kind of skill (or yes, even going on a first date), keep at it. Don't give up. Prepare to be calm and expect to get flustered. It's just a part of the learning curve. There will be little victories along the way, special milestones, that make it all worth it. 

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Songs Of 2014

 Every year, there are songs which stand out, songs which have a message which seems so personal but which you want to ask the rest of the world if they've heard. Years ago, my sister started keeping a playlist of those songs, and a few years ago, I began to as well. Here is my 2014 playlist, starting with my top seven favorites.

"Lanterns" - Birds Of Tokyo. 

Lately I've found
When I start to think aloud
There's a longing in the sound
There is more I could be
In darkness I leave
For a place I've never seen
It's been calling out to me
That is where I should be

On we march
With a midnight song
We will light our way
With our lanterns on
On we march
Till we meet the dawn
We will light our way
With our lanterns on

This was my anthem of the year. Hopeful, strong, and bold; I carried it with me to a new country and new experiences. The thunderous here-we-rise bridge creates perfection.

The beautifully shot music video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mbJ3vacGOhw

"Skinny Love" - Birdy (written by Bon Iver)

And I told you to be patient
And I told you to be fine
And I told you to be balanced
And I told you to be kind

A classic, covered poignantly by young British singer Birdy. Her voice is perfectly imploring, yet not pitiful. There's a resolution to it which makes me put it on repeat.

"Brutal Romance" - Brooke Fraser.

Love and death, and death and love
Brutal romance
A silver thread, a sharpened knife
A spinning slow-dance
I can't remember before
Washing of wounds, won inner wars
Brutal romance

Thoughtful lyrics on life by my favorite artist. She layers deceptively strong juxtapositions within a drifting melody, and the result is arresting. The entire album is incredible: my vote for the best of 2014.

"Afire Love" - Ed Sheeran. 

And my father and all of my family
Rise from their seats to sing hallelujah

At first listen, if you only catch the refrain, it might seem like another love song. Sweet and all, when really, it's so much more. Sheeran sings about his grandfather who is loosing his memory, then dies, and how at the funeral his family is all together ("stapled together with the strangers and a friend"). The refrain is words of love his grandfather used to sing to his wife, so tenderly. I would have to post all of the lyrics to show the whole story, so instead I simply put a part of the ending, which so gloriously rejoices in life and love, even in the face of loss.

"The Hanging Tree" - from the "Mockingjay" soundtrack. 

Are you, are you, coming to the tree
I told you to run

So we'd both be free
Strange things did happen here, no stranger would it be
If we met
At midnight in the hanging tree

Since I first heard it on the big screen, I've been mesmerized by this simple, sad, haunting song. Slowly, carefully, it swells and grows to a breath-taking crescendo.

"Traveler's Song" - Future Of Forestry.

Sleep, and dream the dream of when you fly
When you fly
See, through traveler's eyes who want to give
To love and give

 If you travel here, you will feel it all
The brightest and the darkness

Piano and strings and talk of travel - wins my heart.
Lovely music video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7MVRRTIMl3U

"Flags" - Brooke Fraser

Come, tell me your troubles
I'm not your answer
But I'm a listening ear
Reality has left you reeling
All facts and no feeling
No faith and all fear

I don't know why a good man will fall
While a wicked one stands
And our lives blow about
Like flags on the land

Who's at fault is not important
Good intentions lie dormant
And we're all to blame
While apathy acts like an ally
My enemy and I are one and the same

You who weep now will laugh again
All you lonely, be lonely no more
Yes the last will be first, of this I am sure

I've loved this song since I first heard it several years ago, yet after my aunt and cousin were killed in an accident last year, I found myself listening to it and singing it over and over and over.  I posted a large portion of the lyrics, because it was so difficult to chose: the whole song is perfect. Plus, it's a waltz melody, and those songs very often win my heart.

Other songs which struck me and found themselves on repeat ever since, whether because they have meaningful lyrics or well-composed music or are simply delightful, joyful and upbeat:

"Turn Away" - Beck
"Take Me To Church" - Hozier
"Burn" - Ellie Goulding
"Come With Me Now" - KONGOS
"Things We Lost In The Fire" - Bastille
"Artifice" - SOHN
"Lost Stars" - Adam Levine, from the "Begin Again" soundtrack
"Love Me Again" - John Newman
"Hooked On A Feeling" - Blue Swede ("Guardians Of The Galaxy" sountrack)
"Happy" - Pharrell Williams
"Wake Me Up" - Avicii
"Coming Of Age" - Foster The People
"Talking In Your Sleep" - cover by The Civil Wars
"The Boys Of Summer" - cover by KT Tunstall
"Ordinary Love" - U2
"Holding On For Life" - Broken Bells
"Stay Alive" - Jose Gonzales, from the "The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty" soundtrack

Thursday, January 15, 2015

The Cancer Test

 "The sharp knife of a short life
Oh well, I've had just enough time
If I die young, bury me in satin
Lay me down on a bed of roses
Sink me in the river at dawn
Send me away with the words of a love song"
 - If I Die Young, by The Band Perry

For awhile now, I've had a question circling through my mind: if I were to die tomorrow, or find out that I had a terminal illness, would I be satisfied with my life, or feel regret?

Silently, I've called this The Cancer Test. If I were told, "You have cancer. You probably only have a few months to live," what would my reaction be? Would I pull out a bucket list of things I kept meaning to get to and try to race through them? Or would I say, "Thank you, God, for giving me a good, full life. 

There's a song that was popular for a long time called "Live Like You Were Dying". For a long time it seemed to play every hour on both country and pop radio stations. In it, a son sings about his father who went "sky-diving, rocky mountain climbing", bull-riding, and loved deeper, after being diagnosed with cancer, causing the son to sing that he hopes everyone gets the chance "to live like you were dying".

 It makes sense that when you realize time is slipping away, you want to make the most out of it. It's easy, sadly, to let the days pass by and pass by, letting concerns such as making money take up focus. So it's nice to think that we ought to live as though knowing we don't have much time left. But ... that song was popular while my Grandmother had cancer, and if my family learned one thing, it's that if you undergo chemotherapy and radiation, it's very, very hard to make the adventurous, impulsive, sweetly kept memories that the singer relates. There's bills and hospital stays and loosing one's hair. There's weakness and sickness that can make it impossible to leave home. There's fear. If I were to write the song, it would be a little sadder, and a little clearer on emphasizing the need to live like you are dying, before you are dying.

So, back to The Cancer Test. How to answer, when I ask, "Am I content with my life, or do I have regrets?" Well yes, sure, I've had regrets, but do I feel as though I've wasted time, wasted my life? No. I'm so thankful for everything. For having a closeness to my family, for deep friendships, for traveling and living in other countries and experiencing other cultures, for swimming in the ocean and jumping from an airplane and writing what's on my heart and trying new things. If I died soon, there would still be much more I would want to experience and do, but I would be so happy with what I've had.

I mentioned all of this to my brother, and he understood. He's in the midst of trying to figure out what his life should look like; dreams and goals and possible changes. With the things I still want to do, some of them are hopes such as getting married, and some of them are things I can actively pursue, like running longer distances and submitting stories for publication and thinking about what language I might want to learn after fully mastering Spanish. So yes, I want to live like I am dying, before I am dying, and I want to keep asking and checking and doing. To live as though I know the news that is about to come, because in a very real sense, I do. Death will happen, someday and somehow. We're dying a little bit each day, as some people put it. Ticking clocks and hourglasses, each of us with a set amount of time and no more. What a beautiful gift. What a wonderful life.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

What Were You Doing New Year's, New Year's Eve?

"When the lights turned down, they don't know what they heard
Strike the match, play it loud, giving love to the world
We'll be raising our hands, shining up to the sky
'Cause we got the fire, fire, fire, yeah we got the fire fire fire

And we're gonna let it burn"
 - Burn, by Ellie Goulding

I've had some interesting New Year's Eve celebrations. I've never been kissed at midnight, except for on the cheek, yet it's nice to have something iconic to look forward to. Most have been spent with my family, gathered around a bonfire in the backyard, roasting hot dogs and talking about the past year before watching movies until midnight. Sometimes we break out sparklers or fireworks. Those New Year's Eves will always be sweetly remembered and cherished.

One year, I traveled to Peru on a short-term mission trip. The team and I arrived in the airport minutes before midnight. We all cheered and hugged, and as we drove to our hostel, we passed by crowds of people who were celebrating with music, fireworks, and small fires on the streets. It was rowdy and different and fun, just like this year's Eve in Ecuador with all the youth I work with. We celebrated in the street by burning an old man figure which symbolizes the end of the old year. There were fires lit up and down the streets, everyone jumping over the flames and setting off fireworks, laughing and hugging and happy. I loved the energy of it.

In contrast, there were two years when I was alone at midnight. That may sound sad but it was actually wonderful in a different kind of way. One year, I went out to dinner and a movie with a girl friend. We parted ways just before midnight. I needed to do something memorable, so I drove to my favorite park and walked alongside the river. It was cold, my gloved hands sunk deep in my pockets and my breath appearing as small white clouds. In the park is a large white gazebo. It reminds me of the one from "The Sound Of Music". I ran to it. In the middle of the gazebo, in the middle of an empty park, with the echos of fireworks coming from a distance and every now and then lighting up the sky above the treetops, I curtsied, held out my arms, and began to dance. A waltz, of course, my favorite and the only dance I can decently do. I sang "Once Upon A Dream" and waltzed. That was how I welcomed in the new year. I laughed at myself and walked back alongside the river, back to my car. I drove home content.

Another year I was at a friend's house for a party. We played games and ate snacks yet after the ball dropped in Times Square everyone started winding down, and in fact left at 11:30. I was disappointed, but I decided again to find a place to greet the new year in peaceful solitude. I drove to a local university and parked outside the chapel. There's a small courtyard to the side of the ancient chapel, and I stood underneath the stained glass windows, beautifully lit from inside. As I counted down the seconds to midnight, I chose that time to sing "Come Thou Fount" at the start of the new year. Once again I drove home contented to have been with friends and also to be able to have a moment of peaceful wonder.
The year before last, my family and I did something I have long dreamed of: we set off paper lanterns. They were large and light, all in different colors. On new year's eve we walked into the cold night air and lit them one by one. Not everyone in my family could be there. I had pictured it slightly differently in my mind: my sister who is a photographer would have captured each person individually holding and releasing their lantern. My dad would have been there instead of working. Two lanterns wouldn't have caught in the trees, making my mom and one sister nervous. Yet even so, it was lovely. We helped each other hold and light each lantern. Slowly they filled with heat and lifted ever so gently from our hands. I found that I adored the moment of watching them rise, perfectly silent, into the dark sky. Higher they rose and farther they drifted, like new-born stars venturing bravely into the night.
We watched till they were nearly out of sight, before turning all together to go back into the warm house. The song above was playing in my head. It was a new year's to remember, a memory to frame and keep and wear soft with love.