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Nearness On feeling and speaking

Feb. 10, 2021
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For the first time in a long time, I felt and lived with intensity.

I’ve cried over my homework more than once, but never like I did one night across the ocean, in another country, another language, another home; that night, I didn’t cry of stress but appreciation. I didn’t wipe my tears at first, just let them drip onto the words on the pages below me. I read the poem aloud a few times over, savoring the texture of the words and letting their impact manifest physically. Though I’d been moved by literature before, I’d never felt it as profoundly as I did that night; a long-dead poet in a foreign language had given substance to everything I felt but couldn’t define, and with it came catharsis. 

I’d gone abroad on a whim, a notion of “can’t hurt'' instead of “can’t wait,” and leaving where I’d been was more important than where I was going. After years of living, studying, and working in the same place, I’d grown restless and desperate for a new perspective. I didn’t know what I was doing, didn’t like who I was and felt passive; in a sense, directionless. Though I didn’t know what I wanted, I knew I wasn’t finding it, so I typed up an application days before the deadline to study in a town I’d never heard of in western France, hoping a change of scenery might shake my heavy malaise. Three months later, I boarded my plane. I played Adrianne Lenker’s Hours Were The Birds album a few times over and touched down in the country I’d call home for the next nine months. 

I moved as if on autopilot as I grabbed my luggage and walked through airport halls, the gravity of my decision not yet set in. My host family picked me up. They were older than they’d been in the pictures, and I didn’t recognize them. I tried to engage, forcing through the embarrassment of a thick American accent and poor conjugations, and they smiled, asked about my trip, told me about their family, the neighborhood, the rain. They spoke slowly and used simple language, but still my comprehension was limited, and my responses even more so. My difficulty interacting gave me the impression of being trapped in a glass bowl: I saw the world around me, but I wasn’t part of it. I couldn’t connect with my scene.

Stepping into my room for the first time, or the room in a stranger’s house where I would take up space, was unmooring. The family had done a good job preparing, trying to make the room seem lived-in and warm. They’d preemptively filled a cup on the desk with colored pens and placed hangers in the closet, only the objects here were connected to someone else’s life and not mine. I wondered if maybe another me had always lived here; maybe she'd already read the books lining the shelves and picked the three cacti out at the Sunday market with my host father, who was her real father, and had watered them and watched them grow. Perhaps I was simply posing for her, just returned from a long vacation, happy to see her three brothers, mother, and father once again. Maybe she loved Audrey Hepburn, hence the framed photo on the shelf. Maybe she’d likewise loved Matisse.

Despite a continued sense of disconnection, I began to understand. I watched movies on Saturday nights with one of my host brothers, my initial apprehension turning to gratitude as I felt the effort he was making. I’d record the sounds of my daily bus so I wouldn’t forget the soft chatter and mechanical jingle that played before each stop. I was moved by the pink sunrise over the suburbs, over the open fields cloaked in morning mist. Slowly, I began to find that something I’d been searching for: I began wanting to take part in my life as opposed to going through the motions. I was profoundly aware, and I was present. For the first time in a long time, I felt and lived with intensity.

And yet, my unfamiliarity with the language and consequent self-doubt prevented me from expressing, from interacting. I worried I couldn’t give back what my family gave me, worried what they thought, worried I couldn’t provide what they needed in order to know me. This persistent disconnect between me and my surroundings affected my ability to fully reciprocate my experience. I wanted to feel known as equally as I knew those around me, move as deeply as I was moved, return as much grace as I received.

I think it’s only natural that living in a second language makes you rethink your relationship with your mother tongue. How incredible is it to be able to express yourself, convey the same point three different ways, connect with people, and pick up on irony or a play on words? To write without thinking. To think without thinking. I longed to joke, be sarcastic, and communicate my experience to the people I owed for it but couldn’t.

My French literature teacher assigned Baudelaire’s “Le Fou et La Vénus” one night in early November. I admired her from the moment I met her; despite her age, she had an artist’s energy—a punk’s—and I felt she knew me instinctively. She spoke no English, and my French was of course halting and shy. Yet we developed a strong, silent connection. She assigned the poem from Baudelaire’s Petits Poèmes en Prose, referencing the same copy she’d used at 17 when she’d routinely skip class to read his words. Though she never said or suggested this, I felt maybe she’d chosen the poem with me in mind. 

The poem begins with the description of a lovely day; the narrator walks through a garden, appreciating nature and its overwhelming grace. In the midst of this natural splendor, the narrator sees a court jester, dressed in his gaudy outfit, kneeling at the feet of a sculpture of Venus. This “voluntary fool charged with making kings laugh when Remorse and Boredom overwhelm them” sits with tearful eyes, and he pleads to Venus:

“I am the last and most solitary of humans, deprived of love and friendship, 

and far inferior to even the most imperfect of animals. But still, I, too, was 

Made to understand and feel the immortal Beauty! Oh! Goddess! Have pity 

for my sadness and for my delirium!”

Despite his plea, the implacable Goddess’s eyes stay trained on the distance. The jester hurts because he feels more deeply than his life allows him. He’s moved, as the narrator is, by the grandeur of the natural world, yet he cannot share in it. He’s ashamed to be seen as a one-dimensional and ultimately superficial character, this assigned identity so at odds with the way he perceives the world. His inability to communicate his appreciation tortures him, yet he’s the one to blame. Doubly cursed, he can’t connect with those around him. Unable to feel known, worried he’s failed the better parts of himself, he feels desperate, less-than, alone.

My own fruitless struggle to translate the depth of my experience, to make sense of and take part in the life I was so gratefully overwhelmed by, mirrored his. I read the words over, feeling their shape in my mouth and meaning in my body. For the first time, emotions I’d felt but been unable to grasp were given substance, and therein lay validity; shame dissolved as my experience was affirmed by some poet, or some teacher, who understood. 

I still sat awe-struck by the scenery on the C2, my daily bus, passing La Plesse and Ricoquais, and I continued the ritual of making my coffee and buttered brioche every morning without fail. I still watched Jackie Chan, the neighborhood cat, climb up trees to get out of the Brittany rain. Nothing had really changed. But for once, I had the words, and with time, that would be enough.

Artwork by Frasie Molina