Thursday, October 22, 2009

Lisps and dill

I used to work with a spitfire of a woman from Poland. Her English was nearly perfect and her Polish accent clipped or lengthened certain words, giving everything she said a seductive glaze. She occasionally asked for correct pronunciations which I gave gladly but couldn't help feeling that the way she expressed it had a fullness which my tone completely lacked. Despite this, she often mentioned how embarrassed she was of her English. I tried to encourage her that there was never any question of what she was communicating - something I long for now. My Spanish started off so vacant and looks I got in response were too. I imagine that if my Polish friend could hear her English when she first began, she would not be so hard on herself. As I hear myself trying desperately to communicate in the local language, I know that its laughable. The glimmering moments when I've done it on my own and the poor Spaniard across from me responds with an affirming "Ci!" are precious to me.

The other day I went to the grocery store, a tiny two aisle place in Els Ibarsos, and walked around looking for the herb Dill. It wasn't in my dictionary, so I proceeded to try and figure out how in world I could find it with out the actual word.
Rather than giving up, I told the grocer, a small Spanish woman who is used to seeing me and dealing with my fumbling of her language, that I was looking for a green herb sometimes used with pickles. That took some time.

I wasn't sure we had done the job but she was confident that a certain herb was exactly what I wanted. The one she pointed out, "eneldo", happened to be one that I remembered seeing back at the house, unopened. I thanked her and thought I'd go home to smell it and check the larger dictionary before buying it. Sure enough, she and I had understood each other perfectly! "Eneldo" was dill! I went back a few days later and successfully communicated to her that she had been right and that eneldo was what I had wanted! We were both so giddy at the moment, it was wonderful.

All of this thought given to communicating simple and complex ideas made me think of, what else?!, pottery. I remember working as the Ceramics Lab assistant in college. One of my duties was to be present during lab time to assist students fulfilling their studio hours. I loved sitting down with beginners to help them progress. Each person had a different approach to the wheel.
Looking back I see the incredible similarities to language: I was teaching them the language of pottery. The feeling of the clay spinning between thier hands was as foriegn to them as the feeling of a purposeful Spanish lisped word in my mouth. I helped them center the clay or pull up the wall of a pot to give them a better sense of the proper pronunciation with their hands to the clay.

The same glimmer (and virtual affirming "Ci!") came to them when they finally communicated clearly enough to the clay that their first few pots came off the wheel. They were not beautiful by any means -- standing alone and out of context -- just like my Spanish. But in that moment they hold a different sort of beauty, an interpersonal beauty, like a mother appreciating her child's first scribbles.

As I learn the language of pottery, of art, of beauty, I can feel certain aspects becoming more fluid, more natural -- the way English is to my mouth or Polish is to my coworker or Spanish is to my neighbors, Pepe and Rosa. I look back at my first attempts in this deep and complicated language of pottery and appreciate how much I've learned. But I see and work with potters so much more fluent then myself. There is always more to explore, more to understand, more to communicate. I love to hear my pronunciation change slightly as I'm corrected in my Spanish, just as my pots change slightly as I create and learn. While I'll always have my accent, I have a lot to learn to smooth and give coherency to all of my words, all of my pots, all of my work.

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