Saturday, September 12, 2009

Listening, Learning, Knowing

Grace woke up on Thursday moony and moody, biting her nails and sitting quietly, staring into space. She hadn't eaten dinner the night before, but I assumed that was because I neglected actually to serve it, so sated was I on all the yummy food from the picnic we had had with our American friends during our most excellent Wednesday off.

After missing dinner, Grace spent most of that night and the early morning of Thursday in a quiet, pensive, anxious mood. I quizzed her on Thursday morning to try to figure out what I could do to intervene. I asked her what she might want to eat, if she could have anything that she wanted. Of course I first feared that her school wasn't going nearly so well as I had thought, and her odd character of a teacher was actually mean rather than benign. But she couldn't put her finger on what was bothering her, other than to say that she misses me while she is at school.

"I just miss you, Mom" is always so gratifying to hear, but immediately when she said it, I knew it wasn't actually true. She generally says this only when she is casting about for a reason behind another awful feeling that she can't otherwise account for.

I might be flattered to feel more necessary in her life, of course, but then again I'm proud to have such brilliantly self-contained little packages as my daughters. I love that Grace can be so separate from the world, so incisive and accurate in her thinking, and still have so few hard, cruel edges. Some independent kids are defiantly so. They say "go away" because they mean "you have disappointed me." Grace is simply more involved with what is internal, her own way of seeing the world. Instead of being cut off and angry as her form of independence, she is merely separate -- dreaming and mysterious, yet still so open in encountering and learning about the world in her own way.

Mid-morning after I had dropped her off at school, it finally hit me -- she was sick. Like her Dad, Grace often confuses physical and psychological symptoms; she thinks she is sad when she is sick, or sick when she is sad. Generally with Grace or Bill, if they say they are sick, they probably need some other sort of comfort, like an ace bandage or some mental downtime away from other people. Sometimes Bill has actually gone off to bed thinking he is feeling ill, only to be cured by a single telephone call from Alain, or Paul, or Terence, a band practice, or a beer on the stoop with Sean, Bud, or Buck. But if Grace or Bill say they are homesick, or miss me, they are undoubtedly coming down with a virus.

Thus my role is often to sort through the denial to help them figure out the real underlying malady. I'm getting better at my diagnoses, but I admit that I just wish I could more quickly read these patterns and help everyone back to balance and health.

Once I realized what was going on, we spent two days in the world’s most boring holding pattern: I would read her Harry Potter aloud for an hour or so, until I talked myself into a nap. She wouldn't eat much of anything for about 48 hours, languishing along on Orangina and an occasional end of a baguette. I would keep trying to get her to drink a few sips now and again so she would not get dehydrated and sicker. She would perk up and get close to normal when I gave her medicine, but go back to drooping around when it wore off. I would tidy up the house over and over again, put in a load of laundry or a load of dishes. Bill and I would take turns ferrying Abigail back and forth to school, (where she is still not speaking any French, but regularly plays with the kids, and has attracted several very cute little friends.)

Watching children and tending to a house requires the same set of repetitive tasks and quiet focus in any language. It’s like the quiet steady boredom of practicing scales or memorizing the conjugation of verbs. It feels like nothing is happening, while just under the surface, everything is transforming into something more solid and secure.

Grace didn’t have a fever, and really had no symptoms other than lassitude and a headache. If we had been back in Brooklyn, I probably would have just stuffed her full of Advil and sent her to school so that she wouldn’t miss anything and I could go to work. Part of the reason that I let her stay home was that I thought she would be overwhelmed by all that French blah blah blah in her current state. Trying to understand a new language makes you awfully tired. You pick out a word here and there while the rest flows by you. Just as you are trying to attach some other word to that one, some other nugget of meaning passes by.

But I also admit that I was terribly afraid to be blamed for bringing an illness into the French school system. And even though I was certain it wasn’t that virus, (no coughing, no fever) swine was on my mind.

A school a few towns over closed for two weeks on the second day of school because one child had one suspected case of flu. They are simply not messing around where this pandemic is concerned, and have very grave-sounding public safety announcements on the radio. In the context of the totally blasé French attitude towards traffic safety, playground supervision, cigarette smoking and plain old hard work, the cultural anxiety stands out as particularly fervent about the virus formerly known as Swine Flu (like the musician Prince once did, it has fashionably changed its name to its symbol H1N1). Perhaps only La Rentreé is more feared.

I do fully understand that the flu -- any flu -- is dangerous to people who aren't healthy. And I understand that while H1N1 is currently acting like a regular flu, it does have more than the usual potential to mutate into a more serious illness. I've done my reading on this one. But I am sort of amused by the overly-serious way that the French seem to be treating it at this stage.

My casual attitude comes from the fact that I feel somewhat fatalistic about the flu’s possible mutatation. It could get really bad, I suppose, but I am resigned to the fact that there is little I can do about this whole situation other than tending my own little flock of piggies and keeping them at home when they are feverish or ill. The bigger problem of viral mutation is one is for the World Health Organization to solve.

I’m also casual because I’ve been through Swine Flu Hysteria back in Brooklyn, (and as a lower school administrator, no less). A few kids got sick, then they rapidly got better. But the rest of us just got ourselves dizzy worrying about it for weeks. I am glad we took the precautions that we did, but now I'm happy no longer to be in charge. So having heard the boy cry swine flu one too many times, it's hard for me to get as anxious about this as the rest of France seems to be. (Full disclosure: I did have one particularly bad night late last spring when I bought a case of canned goods and bottled water from Fresh Direct because I believed a rumor that I heard that the city was about to be quarantined.) There are many things I worry about, even over-worry about. This just happens not to be one of them.

On the first day of classes, the girls picked up almost nothing, but certainly clued in to the tension in the room when the nurse came into class to talk about H1N1 prevention. Grace said, "They had a really scary talk. I think it was about vaccination," while Abigail was thrilled to have one more tutorial in hand washing, one of her very favorite leisure time activities. Abigail was unclear on the topic under discussion, but was pretty sure that she heard the woman telling them that in the event of a crisis, oxygen masks would fall from the ceiling.

I love this about Abigail, the way that she can take the inexplicable and turn it into something she understands. She took the crazed-looking mask-wielding health advocate who spoke no English, crossed it with the anxiety of an airplane ride, and came up with a totally sensible hypothesis.

We all have very different ways of knowing. I tend to question and worry over a problem until the mystical moment when it all becomes clear. I move from utter confusion to utter comprehension in what feels like the blink of an eye: there is not knowing, and then there is knowing. (And then, far too often, there is know-it-alling.)

Grace seems to intuit the truth in a situation without ever quite knowing why (unless, of course, she is crossing the wires between sick and sad. Then I have to be there to sort it out for her.) She has never needed to be taught to think outside the box to get at the truth; she would not even recognize the box if she stepped on it. Her understanding sometimes feels mystical, like E.S.P.

In contrast, Abigail makes sense of the world by building block upon block upon block of what is sensible and solid. While she won't say a French word on purpose and on her own, (why try if it wouldn't be perfect?) she is quietly building the foundation on which she will eventually have a great deal to say.

In this way, each of the girls and I are picking up more than we know. Bill’s rapidly improving French makes a lot of sense. He cares about it, he worked really hard on it this summer, and he takes every opportunity available to him to speak. Not so for the rest of us, who are moving more slowly and strangely towards our shared goal.

At dinner we play a little game that I call "Can You Say?" just to get all of us trying a little harder to learn some language. I act as puzzlemaster, and do my best to challenge the kids without ever stumping them. I might try, with Abigail, "Can you say blue?" because I know she'll get "bleu" right away. Grace usually gets harder words like “glass” or “pear,” but she nearly always nails them. Sometimes I ask Bill a word that I am confident that he knows, then I ask the girls the same word a few beats later. They are delighted to be able to give the right answer and seem not to notice that we just taught it to them.

But mostly I stump Bill intentionally, because it’s so awfully gratifying to the girls to see Mr. French 2009 struggle as much as they are struggling. I might ask Bill the French for "sleepwalking," and then he will get it wrong, and we'll look it up in the little dictionary, modeling proper learning behavior.

But we know that the girls are probably never going to look up a single word of their own accord, even in the new picture dictionary I bought at the grocery store. Dictionaries are for homework and grownups. Instead they will learn things in the way they always do: Grace by leaping like a pixie from idea to idea, Abigail by building her sturdy wall brick by brick.

So even though we all feel that we are making no progress at all, I can hear it when we play our game, or sprinkled through the day in little bursts. “What the heck is cartable?” I might ask Bill in frustration while trying to suffer through Abigail's first grade homework with her. He won't hear me, because he's equally involved in trying to translate Grace's homework: a Xeroxed copy of a Reader's Digest Condensed version of Michael Strogoff by Jules Verne, followed invariably by a crossword puzzle.

"Cartable is desk," Grace will say, without hesitation. When I look at her with utter astonishment, she just replies, "I heard the kids say it and figured it out." (As I learned later, she was not exactly right, but at least close. "Cartable" is bookbag, but at least these are both places where one puts one's books.)

It's hard to defend or explain these ways of knowing what we know. How do I know, based only on my own infrequent perusals of the WHO website, that I should not worry so much about Swine Flu, and focus my healing efforts on the people in my house who start to look dejected and bleak?

How are the words starting to seep into our consciousness, so that “verre” is suddenly “glass,” and the waiters often sound to me as though they are speaking something utterly clear -- just like English?

As I drive back and forth from home to school, I listen to French talk radio when the girls aren’t in the car. (It seems cruel to subject them to this “blah blah blah” after they have sat through it for three hours at a time at school.) I test myself to see how far into a broadcast I can figure out what they are talking about. Having heard it several times, and knowing all of the crucial facts, I can now understand the whole H1N1 Public Service Announcement, in its ringing and dangerous tones.

Sometimes, I can drive the whole way from here to Aups without understanding more than a word here and there. Then, suddenly a crucial term will reveal itself, and the whole conversation suddenly clears like a sandy puddle on the shore as a wave pulls back towards the ocean. Two days ago, they were talking about blah blah blah blah, and suddenly they were talking about the number of French women who watch pornographic movies independently of their partners. (Remember what I told you about pornography, kids: it’s that kind of Victorian lyric poetry you’ll learn about in college.) And then, later that day, the blah blah blah with dark and significant musical accents was suddenly the story of the murder in Miami Beach of Gianni Versace. In this case, the phrases “Miami Beach” and “News Café,” spoken in English, were my runes. From there, could follow nearly the entire sad and gory tale.

So I have to be patient with myself and with the kids as we are learning and trying to find our way. At some point, Grace is just going to wake up and be miles ahead of all of us in her comprehension and her precise, elegant accent. Someday Abigail will be done building her wall bit by bit, and will just jump up onto it and run along the top, scampering and leaping along with a brand new tongue. It might be February, it might be April, but we have set aside that time to let them learn at their own pace from the world that is all around them.

And for me, I am confident that listening holds the key. Someday, the voices on the radio will be like the waiters in the brasserie, and sound as though I always understood. The smoke will clear in an instant, and suddenly and miraculously I will be healed of my pathetic leprosy of total confusion and dismay. There is not knowing, not knowing, not knowing until I am hating myself, sure that I will never learn. And then it dawns on me in the car – Grace is sick; the French are being over-anxious about this flu; they are talking about women and pornography -- and suddenly I know for sure, somehow beyond learning and into certainty.

1 comment:

  1. I still call it swine flu. Vitamin D and laying low on sugar are your best bet. How much high fructose corn syrup is used in France?

    I just read Europe won't allow artificial sweetners and colors in Kraft Mac & Cheese. Too bad for us. Of course I don't eat it.
    I mention it in my blog.

    My swine flu post:

    Good luck with school. I am still working on Eirne tucking in his shirt (big Catholic school infraction but ok in K--I see other boys with the same problem at the end of the day) and tying his shoes. I am anxious about
    shoe tying. It must drive the teacher crazy.