Tourist Info Desk

Welcome to Fernweh, a blog concerning the (mis)adventures of one Fulbrighter during a year spent in Europe teaching English.
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Thursday, February 24, 2011

Utah sunrises and taking the trouble to practice

It's been very very cold here in Stadtroda this week; there's a light coating of snow on the ground, and every now and then we have flurries of tiny flakes, like God's sprinkling the world in powdered sugar. It's clear and wonderfully sunny and just above freezing now, but it feels like it's below. Still, it's quite lovely, and the temptation of the rolling hills was too strong yesterday, so I took a walk up one of Stadtroda's many valleys. I found a guest house among the trees along the half-frozen river most of the way to the next town, and was thoroughly frozen by the time I found my way back.

The days have gotten long enough now that the sun has risen before my first class starts, which goes a long way towards making that first 8am class better. Sunrises always remind me of one of the last days of the RV trip that I took with my mother and some friends many years ago--I was maybe 14 or so. We wanted to make good time, so before sunrise, while our friends still slept, my mother and I unhooked the RV and started off. I remember clearly pulling out onto a canyon road, with the sky neon yellow and orange, that rich fiery color that makes you think that if you could dip a goblet into it and drink it, it would taste like mead, warm and sweet. We turned on John Denver and sang "Take Me Home, Country Roads" and watched the sun rise, alone on the road. That song may be a bit cheesy, but it still is close to my heart.

In a mostly unrelated note, I was (finally!) asked by one of my students to help him with his English homework. As far as I can tell, this guy is kind of a teddy bear; he's smiley and friendly and laid-back and, heaven forgive me, farmer-y. I'm not sure how else to phrase it, but there it is. Now, I'm sure this guy is good at what he does, but English, at least, is not his forte. He's consistently lost and confused in English class and struggles to put even basic sentences together. Part of the problem is the aforementioned mixing of English levels, so that it's almost impossible to try to explain something to him without losing control of the rest of the class. I'm sure it's equally frustrating for both of us.

Now, school has always been my thing. I love being in schools, I love teaching and learning and studying and discussing things and I have trouble understanding why some people...don't. For me, a life of learning and scholarship sounds pretty darn good, whereas a job like, say, farming, would be like death sentence for my soul.

Anyway, after I helped him translate what we'd done in English, he had to pull out his computer and show me pictures of his tractor. They all inevitably do this, and I'd never understood it; how interesting can pictures (and video) of tractors possibly be? But listening to him talk--about how he was so glad that school was almost over, and how he couldn't wait to get back to work--I started to understand, just a bit. As far as I can tell, farming is his calling. It's what he loves, it's what he does best, and my kind of life would be just as strange and distasteful to him as his would be to me.

I've wondered a couple times--with, I must admit, insufferable arrogance, so I beg your forgiveness--why some of the intelligent, strong-willed, ambitious students who study here would ever want to spend their lives working on a farm. Is it because they have no other options? Not enough money to do something else? Is it just easier? The more I talk to them, though, the more often I hear that they simply love to do what they do. This guy yesterday, I could hear it in his voice. And I should know by now that everything is more complicated than it seems; if I've learned anything at all from Bienenkunde, it's that taking care of even the smallest animal is an exhaustive undertaking, demanding time and patience and skill and practice and years of dedication. My students--for very many of them, it's the same thing. Their craft is more complex and takes more acquired and natural skill than I'll ever be able to appreciate. It's what they want to do; it's what they love. I desperately don't want to sound condescending here; it's hard for me to comprehend the attraction of a passion different from my own, but I'm learning to appreciate their own feelings about their work and, by extension, the true worth of the work itself. I may get frustrated with them for their lack of enthusiasm for what makes my heart flutter and my soul leap, but the least I can do then is have respect for the calling that does the same for them.

It's still hard, nevertheless, to sympathize. I don't share their classes, their cares, their interests, their lifestyle; and this makes it hard(er than normal) to connect with them on a meaningful, personal level.

Part of this is that one facet of myself that is and continues to be a frustration and hindrance to me is my stunted ability to make conversation and, by extension, to get to know people that I want to make friends with. I have a blind terror of intruding on other people's private lives and thereby making myself obnoxious to them. As a result, I generally refuse, out of pure insecurity, to take the risk of seeking out others, and make friends instead with those who choose to come to me. If no one manifests the courage that I so markedly lack, I don't know how to bridge the gap to make a connection with another person.

I've been thinking about this a lot recently, because this painful and humiliating process seems to take, for me, about half a year. It takes me that long to get accustomed to other people, to get to know them a bit and to slowly gather the courage to knock on their door for no other reason than needing someone to talk to. Half a year--sound familiar? That was the duration of my exchange in Germany the first time, and how long the AUAP students stayed at WWU, and how long the Winterschule students stay at the Fachschule before they return to work. This means that consistently, I have gone through the long fight to make myself make friends, only to have them leave just when I finally am getting comfortable with them.

This is ridiculously frustrating, and I wonder sometimes if it's even worth the trouble; but I simply can't just sit in my room and Internet all day. I have to have other real people to talk to, to hear other voices besides my own, to be in proximity to other humans. It's like having a deadly thirst that can only be slaked by drinking molten lava.

This all reminds me of a conversation from, somewhat oddly (although appropriately), Pride and Prejudice. Elizabeth Bennett is sitting at the piano and engages in a witty repartee with Mr Darcy on the topic of the reasons behind Mr Darcy's failure to dance with some of the ladies at the last ball:

"I certainly have not the talent which some people possess," said Darcy, "of conversing easily with those I have never seen before. I cannot catch their tone of conversation, or appear interested in their concerns, as I often see done."
"My fingers," said Elizabeth, "do not move over this instrument in the masterly manner which I see so many women's do. They have not the same force or rapidity, and do not produce the same expression. But then I have always supposed it to be my own fault--because I will not take the trouble of practicing."

Elizabeth's reproof is the solution to this problem: if you want to get better at something--piano, underwater basketweaving, or making conversation--you have to practice. In other words, there's no way to learn to do it other than doing it. This is exactly the last thing I would want to hear. As I learn the guitar, my fingers are clumsy and uncoordinated, and the strings buzz and twang and make all sorts of awkward noises. It's embarrassing and frustrating and it makes my fingers hurt, but there's simply no other way to learn.

I know this very, very well. I realize it and understand it and comprehend it but still catch myself hoping, at least a few times every day, that somehow I will find an easier way and suddenly I'll go from being quiet and awkward to being eloquent and brilliant and everyone will like me. Not likely...

1 comment:

  1. What an eloquent and honest explaination of your heart. Thanks for being vulnerable enough to share it. Your struggle is so true of many but admitted by few. So now awareness leads to challenge and the opportunity to grow...relationships are what make life bearable more than any other beauty.