I had a great idea for my class’s end of semester project… I thought.
My students would write “inspirational quotations.” After studying quotes from famous authors and public speakers all semester, they would challenge us with their individual ideas. They would read and explain them in front of the class.
Similar projects I had undertaken previously, at a university in New York; there my students explained songs that gave them hope in dark situations. Those were powerful times, charged with energy. We would taste that here… I thought.
My English students’ original quotations, however, struck me as not terribly inspirational. Same, familiar words. The old themes: friendship, dreams, love, loyalty. But they are flat– no vitality– no depth.
Afterward, my “un-inspired quotation experiment” was something I could laugh off, putting it to the side while I focused on grasping my own new language. My study of Arabic, like Frankenstein’s monster, is many pieces pulled together and coming to life:
- a smattering of dialects
- a few different textbooks
- a half-dozen great suggestions from more experienced expatriates
- and a really funny YouTube sitcom in Arabic that I don’t actually understand.
One of the liveliest parts of my language study right now is learning to tell stories. My teacher, Ani, records the words, and I listen regularly. I feel their texture– the ridges and rough patches, the curls of grace and the crisps of the corners– and I try to shape the same sounds from somewhere inside me.
When I succeed… I start the story. I’ve been learning to talk about Jesus healing two blind men. In Arabic, “Have mercy on us!” is Irhamna. To me, this word tastes like mercy. It feels like longing, like imploring, declaring that He will hear you– He has heard.
Meditating seems to overlap with the study of language. I’ve experienced that phrase more deeply in Arabic than I did in more than 20 years of knowing it in English. I had lost my savoring of stories, urged forward by my fluency as a native English speaker.
Now, slowed down by my fragile Arabic, I swallow sensitively. I let every word sink deep. And although I never was a foodie, I sure love hanging out with those who are. They don’t count it loss to spend hours preparing something, and they delight in discovering and sharing good cuisine.
I’m learning to be like them. The taste of the phrase “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on us!” is so sweet that I tell friends. The texture of the miracle, when Jesus brings the daughter of a broken religious man back from death– is amazing. I savor it well when I share it. My friends, patiently, help me fill in the words that I don’t yet know.
Those “inspirational” words from my students that felt flat to me…. maybe they had deeper flavor, a richer taste, that I did not realize at first. We are both still searching for words. But that search itself helps to give us something to say.