Wednesday, January 27, 2010


You can say what you will about the generally grouchy tone of the people who live in our small town – and of my own sad and sorry self these last few weeks. There is way too much grumpy to go around, given all the sunshine in the sky of the Var.

A behavioral scientist in Britain, after coming up with a complicated mathematical equation taking weather, economics, and the schedule of holidays into account, recently named the third Monday in January the "most depressing day of the year." So perhaps this is a little broader than Var-wide.

But despite the general frowny town tone, the actual friends we have made here are among the most warm and generous and open-hearted people I have had the honor to know.

They feed me, they are unfailingly funny and nice to my kids, and they gamely put up with my poor French skills, and the worse ones of my still mono-lingual children. They do so even when all I can seem to say is “Please you would to pass me meat now please if you will. That is good to being.” For some reason I can’t quite fathom, and don’t feel like I deserve, they kindly help me limp along, even when I can barely follow the topics of conversation.

Sometimes when I’m a solid ten minutes into not being able to catch hold of a thread of conversation, I feel like I’m a retired champion swimmer suddenly drowning in an unfamiliar sea. Having spent my whole life in language – reading, writing, listening, and barely shutting up for five minutes at a time unless I’m asleep – I am suddenly so often at a loss for the deeper meanings of things. I went years having all kinds of in-depth conversations on everything that floated through the transom of my head. Now, even when I can follow what is being discussed, I don’t often have something useful to add, aside from a head nod and a hopefully encouraging “Oui! Bien sur!”

It’s been shocking to me how much this dependency in conversations has changed my sense of self. When I first named this blog, I assumed that my old self would just come along for the ride, and I would enjoy life and torment myself in all the usual old ways. I wasn’t counting on how different it would feel to be me, but in a different language.

I almost had attained a sort of rough fluency, back in December. But those lovely three weeks in Brooklyn took the wind out of my sails. Mostly these days, I feel just quiet. In a peaceful sort of way. I listen more now, and more intently, if only to figure out what’s going on and what I am supposed to do. 

But I also feel a whole lot less smart, which is interesting. Doctors and public servants and even the cashiers in stores talk to me as though I am an imbecile.

Bill has not suffered this fate. Both more courageous and more skilled than I am, he has forced himself out into the world with greater confidence. I'm not used to being the stay-at-home anything, much less the dependent helpmeet back home watching the kids while he stays out at band practice. Wasn't it just a few weeks ago I was the one belting out the tunes?

Before this year, I built a whole life out of being somebody completely comfortable with language, and now I’m so damn awkward. But I find that rather than frustrated, I’m generally quite relieved a lot of the time. It reminds me of one of my favorite Emily Dickinson poems:

I'm Nobody! Who are you?

Are you – Nobody – too?

Then there's a pair of us?

Don't tell! they'd advertise – you know!

How dreary – to be – Somebody!

How public – like a Frog –

To tell one's name – the livelong June –

To an admiring Bog!

In my old life, I was a particularly public Somebody, a sort of decent-sized fish in a medium-sized pond largely of my own making. I made my living, and my relationships, out of talking about books and ideas and even more talking. I could rarely leave the house without running into somebody with whom I had a history and could trade witty remarks. But while the Bog wasn’t really dreary, it wasn’t always particularly admiring, either.

Now I’ve built a cozy, quiet little Nobody of a self here in a new place and a new context.  I am out of work, and out of my element linguistically. I leave the house and say nothing at all aside from "Bonne Journée" or "Bon Soir." Instead of talking to the Bog, I write to the blog. Even at home, with the people I love, I can go entire days without talking about much of anything aside from adding fractions, have-you-made-the-bed, and what’s for dinner.

And here's what's weirdest: most days I can’t say I mind it a bit.

1 comment:

  1. As always, your words resonate deeply with me, Launa. I agree; being a nobody can feel lonely and difficult at times. Being a stay-at-home somebody causes me to yearn to break free and run for the hills sometimes. At other times, being a stay-at-home nobody is exactly what I need to find the necessary quietness and space to reconnect with my wandering soul and those I love most.