March 15, 2010 | Korean
A Strange Journey Forward, and Backwards
I feel as though I am traveling backwards in time.
Time continues to flow strangely backwards. Yesterday I ran more than 12 miles (to test my legs for the NYC Half-Marathon next weekend); it is a distance I have run many times in my life, but probably not for more than a decade. Then, in the evening, Brandt and I went to the birthday party of a friend I hadn’t seen in many years. I used to go to her and her husband’s parties a lot, but I realized it had been about 11 years since the last one I attended. I saw her family, whom I used to see frequently, but then didn’t, and I was just very happy to spend time with all of them again.
I can feel the shadow of the hand of a giant clock spinning counterclockwise in the back of my mind.
These language studies contribute to that feeling. The last time I studied a bunch of languages was in school. And then, after that, as I watched my language skills decline in the ones I had studied (Spanish, German, and French), it felt as though there was not enough time to dedicate myself sufficiently to new ones to get fluent enough—and even more important, to maintain them enough—to bother. It seemed as though my first goal should be to get back what I had already lost of the three I had studied. But recovering three foreign languages before even beginning a fourth: that’s a pretty big burden. As with most things, I had a very all-or-nothing mentality.
Some people hearing about this project for the first time have said, not without an aura of scorn or irritation, “What’s the point? Can you get fluent in a language in two months?”
Of course not. But fluency is not the goal. Am I better off saying, “I can’t get fluent, so forget it; I’ll watch Biggest Loser instead”? Or am I better off visiting and experiencing a small corner of a much larger language world?
It would be fantastic if I could become fluent in each language in two months, but I can’t. And I don’t mind in the slightest. The pressure, the fantasy, of fluency is what prevented me from doing something like this long ago, even though I would have loved to. Why do I have to be fluent? Why not just know more than I did before? More about a language’s structure, more about its alphabet, more about its sounds, more about what some of the words in that language feel like, more about what you can and can’t express in the language, more about its grammatical idiosyncrasies? Isn’t that fascinating all by itself? Many, many details will leave me, but the residue will remain. And that is world-enlarging.
My friend’s party last night was in Greenwich Village, two blocks from where I was living when I first met Brandt 16 years ago. It was held in her uncle’s restaurant, which I remember from nearly 20 years ago. To get to the restaurant, Brandt and I walked by the West 4th Street basketball courts, which we rarely walk past today, but where I used to watch him play in the early years of our relationship.
So I run, and I study, and it feels as though the clock of my life first slowed, and then stopped, and then in a sudden grand sweeping movement, began rushing backwards. Everything seems fresh and new. And there is much happiness.