(Some have been asking about pre-ordering signed copies of BIOGRAPHY OF X; a few indie bookstores are offering this as an option. More info at the bottom of this post & here.)
I had been studying Spanish alone for a few months when I enrolled at a language school atop a steep hill.
Prior to this the learning had been slow. Alone, I spoke to myself, and half-alone I spoke to my teacher over zoom, and more than alone I spoke to the gamified app on my phone that made me feel like a child. But I still froze when I tried to talk to real, live, in-front-of-your-face people, so the intensive was both necessary and necessarily difficult.
Day one: I opened my mouth to introduce myself to Tabi and started crying. She didn’t ask me what was wrong which was good because I wouldn’t have even known how to explain myself, even in English. Nothing was wrong. I must have just been nervous, I reasoned. It would pass.
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Two seasons earlier I’d spent a month at a writing residency. I’d “just begun” learning Spanish, I told the others, though in fact I was still getting used to the idea that I would soon, in earnest, begin this study— newly 37 and quietly panicked about becoming a novice with words.
One of the Spanish-speaking writers there, Natalia, took it upon herself to nightly ask me, Qué hiciste hoy? What did you do today? And so, each night before dinner, I practiced a response for Natalia.
Yo escribí, I told her.
Y qué más? she asked.
Since we were all detached from our usual obligations and habits, the only things I did other than write were practice standing on my hands (a hobby is sanity’s life raft at these things) and either cry or not cry. As a result, the somewhat impractical phrases I first learned were:
1. Practiqué mi parada de manos
2. Yo lloré
3. No lloré hoy
Measuring your days by the presence or absence of weeping is weird— I know— but that’s one of the many dumb, true things about venturing into the wilderness of another culture’s words. You grab the first thing it makes sense to grab, not unlike the way a first trip to the market in a foreign country always ends with the strangest assortment of groceries.
Though I wasn’t exactly prepared to cry with my teacher, Tabi, within minutes of meeting her, at least I had the vocabulary to excuse it.
Todo bien. Everything’s fine. Me encanta llorar. I love to cry.
Over the next four weeks Tabi and I told each other stories for two hours a day with the new nouns and verbs I was learning, and for many reasons—some more obvious than others—this almost always ended in tears.
After I learned the word for lentils I told her the story of being given (as a joke) six pounds of lentils for Christmas one year, which was once a funny story but as I told it then—years and borders and languages away—it seemed tragic and weird, and I wept while laughing. A different day Tabi told me how she’d lost her mother to cancer a few years earlier, and of course we both cried, and another day I told the story of how I used to sing in church choir but didn’t sing anymore and we cried, then Tabi told me about the songs she was writing and I am pretty sure we cried, but we probably cried the most the day that she told the story of how she lost Tondo.
Cuando era niña was the new phrase and tense that week. When I was a girl. Tabi was telling me about the year she took her brand new doll, Tondo, to a Christmas party at her parents’ friend’s house in Mexico City and woke up the next day realizing she’d left it at the party. But the friend’s house was too far away, demasiado lejos, and her parents didn’t have the time to drive back to get it. She never got it back. Nunca? Never. We both lost it, bent over and gripping the table, laughing at ourselves, but sincerely weeping, too.
The thing about Tondo, Tabi told me, was that he was sick. He was always sick. The way you played with him was by taking care of him. He cried. He had a fever. He needed a nap. Which just made us even more upset—thinking of that that little kid who needed to take care of plastic bolus named Tondo.
Who was going to take care of him now that he was lost?
Pobre Tondo! we shouted, then— Ay, Tondo, softer, then we cried again.
Crying is a kind of speech that doesn’t have to be translated, which is part of what makes the [Cries in Spanish] meme so ridiculous. What’s even more ridiculous is that the meme began as a real screenshot from the telenovela María la del Barrio. Its English subtitles really did include the explanation [Cries in Spanish], as if the anglophone audience wouldn’t understand the image or sound of a weeping woman.
A few weeks ago, someone answered my “what have you lost” page by revising the question: “What about what I am losing?” But that’s all they wrote. They didn’t tell me about their present tense losses, which are so often difficult to explain or understand.
Loss in the present tense may be another way to describe how it feels to sit there, wanting to speak, unable to speak, the thoughts stuck in your head without language to ferry them out. Maybe that’s why I cried so much in Spanish class.
So often people who are thought to be good with words are really just practiced at arranging, setting the lighting just so. Without that tool, it seems, the self dissolves almost immediately. (I didn’t cry today, I reported to near-strangers, because I didn’t know what else to say.)
Is this the best and worst reason to study a new language in the first place? It withholds the pleasures and pains of being yourself.
If you’re interested in pre-ordering a signed copy of Biography of X, here are some bookstores that are offering that option, and yes I think they all ship:
P&T Knitwear in Manhattan
Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn
Odyssey Books in South Hadley, MA
Exile in Bookville in Chicago
Politics & Prose in DC
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Crying is a necessary step to language learning <3 I remember being in CEPE with six strangers I never would have had a reason to meet, for six weeks, six years ago, and how we would share our deepest intimacies and memories during each class. You can't practice the past tense without sharing deep memories, and you can't practice subjunctive without sharing your fears and desires. I never saw any of them again.
I love this, Catherine. Thank you for normalizing crying.