The joys of incomprehension

makuhari
A tree grows in Makuhari. Chiba-shi, Tokyo, circa summer 2008.

In the new year, I am trying not to lose Japanese. I spent so many years of my young life studying this impossible language, and it would be a great shame to forget it entirely.

I have been plowing through kanji flashcards on Memrise. I vacillate between feeling super-proud of myself for not having forgotten everything and super-frustrated because I have forgotten most of it. I console myself, weakly, with the knowledge that Japanese is often called the hardest language for English speakers to learn.

The frustrations are rife. For instance: I’m re-reading War and Peace now, and a good deal of the social dialogue is in French (preserved by the translators, with footnotes providing the English). I have spent about 3 months of my life studying basic French grammar and vocabulary and I can more or less read and comprehend an entire paragraph in French (but don’t ask me to translate any spoken French).

In contrast, I have spent 15 years, off and on, studying Japanese, and I can’t read more than a few sentences in a simple Japanese news story. (A simple explanation for this is that I can remember only about 200 out of the 2,500 requisite kanji. I literally cannot read most of the words yet.)

engakuji
Engaku-ji. 2008.

But I have been thinking about the pleasures of incomprehension.

I have been watching a Japanese reality TV show for a bit at night, while preparing dinner. Even though I understand about 5% of the dialogue, I am resting in unknowing. I can find some happiness in letting the vaguely familiar sounds wash over me. Just hearing it spoken in everyday conversation (albeit between flirtatious twentysomethings in a Tokyo mansion, Real World style) is beneficial. I put on the Japanese short stories CD that I have had in my car for three years. I am still totally lost in the plots, and I couldn’t tell you anything about the stories aside from a few nouns and key actors, but I am learning to be OK with this lack of knowledge.

You have to start somewhere… even if “somewhere” is building on 15 years’ of forgotten knowledge.

Prayed heartily

Some flowering bush
Some flowering bush in our old yard.

“No man has ever prayed heartily without learning something.”

— Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Nature”

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

My family is heading into this sadder, weightier Christmas time, but my heart is gravitating toward simple expressions of faith and comfort. I suppose this is what happens to all of us when we are so nearly confronted with grief and death. Small things resonate with me, like the verses from Psalm 4 (one of my favorites, probably because of the influence of Jennifer Knapp on my teenage self) that Guion read to me one night when I could not stop crying: “In peace I will both lie down and sleep; for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety” (Psalm 4:8). And even silly lines from Sufjan songs: “Since it’s Christmas, let’s be glad/Even if your year’s been bad, there are presents to be had.” Hugs from friends and my boss. E-mails from people I rarely see. Lasagna with these wonderful women this week:

Left to right: Me, Audrey, Stella the terrier, Sarah, Rachel, Casey, Palmer, Kendra, and Lizzie. Photo courtesy of Lizzie.
Left to right: Me, Audrey, Stella the terrier, Sarah, Rachel, Casey, Palmer, Kendra, and Lizzie. Photo courtesy of Lizzie.

There is hope and joy. Wishing you both during this Christmas season.

Third ballet class

Katya Gridneva, “Olga Dressing.”

My adult beginner’s ballet class continues to go well, even though I still look ridiculous and cannot figure out how to get my brain to follow our instructor and then direct my limbs to mimic her movements. I sometimes feel like my brain is short-circuiting in class. Repeating the same routines each week has helped build my memory, however.

Forcing myself to check the mirror is something I have been thinking about as well. Watching oneself in the mirror during ballet is often disheartening. My arches, for example, are far less awesome than I thought they were. My arabesque arms occasionally veer dangerously into resembling a Nazi salute. And then you catch a glimpse of the girl in the back who’s been en pointe before, kicking her leg up above her hips, and you think, “What am I doing here? I look like a cow.”

But as Stephanie said last night, during our post-ballet drinks, “I am done with hating on my body. Done!” It’s high time we, as adult women, stopped disparaging our bodies and started treating them with gentleness and respect.

These are the bodies we have, and they have been good to us. And even if mine is currently struggling to be graceful, I am enjoying this learning curve.

Things you get if you’re homeschooled

Religious Homeschool Kids
Homeschooled? OK, not like this. Source: Still from "Mean Girls."

The scene above from “Mean Girls” is what most people seem to think when they find out you were homeschooled.

The fact that I was homeschooled from kindergarten through my senior year of high school is not something that I often divulge to people (until now, I guess, Internets), because you get asked about a million insulting questions right after that. “Did you have any friends? How were you socialized? Did you even learn about evolution? How did your parents teach you everything you needed to know? Do you make all of your own clothes? Was college really, really hard for you? But you seem so NORMAL!” And so on. Sigh.

That said, today I was reflecting on the reasons why I’m thankful I was homeschooled.

So, here’s my list:

Things You Get If You’re Homeschooled, Apart from a Lot of Discrimination

  • An extremely high tolerance for “weird” people and “nerds.” Later in life, you have a lot of grace and common language with these people, because you were/are one yourself or spent a lot of time with them. Either way, homeschooling makes you patient with the uncool.
  • A total lack of pop culture references from your childhood. If you grow up without TV, like we did, you have to pretend that you really miss Nickelodeon shows and 90’s bands that you are supposed to cherish just to appear normal. Even today, when people are like, “OMG, don’t you wish you could watch ‘Saved by the Bell’ all day??” I always pretend like it’s my favorite, too, even though I’ve never seen it. As Emily likes to say, “I cultivate a nostalgia for a childhood I never experienced.”
  • Great rapport and ease of conversation with grown-ups. Yeah, we dress funky, but your parents love us because we carry on conversations with them like mini-adults.
  • A curious mind and an excitement about learning. Unlike our more traditionally educated peers, homeschoolers often have no shame about loving school. We didn’t get recess or video games or texting; our default hobbies were usually an extension of our educations. Best day in the world for me? Library day!
  • Natural ease with humans of all ages. We spent time with adults, babies, and kids of our own age every day, rather than just kids of our same grade. This means you could entrust your infant to just about any homeschooler and he or she would be equipped to care for it, solely from their experience raising their own six siblings day in and day out.
  • Interests and knowledge in unusual areas. We can’t just join the school soccer team like everyone else. So you meet kids who are free to follow their own bizarre passions and became self-taught experts in things such as calculus, roller hockey, the Elvish “language,” debating the implications of medical malpractice law, tap dancing, origami, mastering the viola, and castrating goats.

Yeah, it was a weird way to grow up. But I wouldn’t trade it for anything.