Friday, August 14, 2015

On Learning a New Language

Learning a new language means frantically running around in my mind snatching at the coat tails of words I might now, hoping to catch a consonant-vowel combination that hopefully means what I am trying to say and then trying to spit it out in a halfway intelligible way, while my conversation partner is patiently waiting for my hmms to turn into something he or she can make sense of. This works if I'm talking to my Ulpan teacher, but isn't so practical when I'm trying to understand what the guy behind the cash register wants from me.

I just completed two weeks of intensive Hebrew at Ulpan-Or in Jerusalem. In addition to helping me make progress with my Hebrew language skills, this experience threw me back into Beginner's Mind. It made me remember and appreciate what it's like to begin something and stand before the tall mountain ahead of you and constantly wonder if you'll ever be able to climb it.

It threw me back to my years of studying French and Spanish in their respective countries, when in the beginning, in my encounters with locals or upon turning on the TV, a wall of words was coming at me, and I had no idea what people were saying. I had to brace myself to be immersed and trust that eventually that flood of words will become intelligible. I haven't reached that stage yet but at least I can now make out a word here and there.

It also reminded me of the frustration a toddler must feel (unfortunately I don't remember my own toddlerhood) when he or she has so many things to express but hasn't the tools to do so yet. A lot is left unsaid! It's a humbling experience, but at the same time it is also immensely gratifying when, once in a while, I actually do understand something, when I manage to decipher a shop sign while passing by in a bus, or understand a word in an overheard conversation. It is so gratifying precisely because it is so damn hard to get to that point! It is also a reminder what a powerful tool language is. When you're not in command of it, you're left by the sidelines.

Learning a new language also reminded me that once again, as with writing, consistent practice (over a long period of time) is everything. The wall of words will only make sense if confront it every day. At some point, it will give way. The wall will break into individual bricks and you might even be able to use them to construct your own sentence. Ok, maybe I'm taking this metaphor too far, but that's what it feels like.

Studying Hebrew these days I had to tell myself, "le'at, le'at" (slowly, slowly). I expected too much, I wanted too much. It could not be done. Rather than getting frustrated with all the words I could not remember, all the consonant-vowel combinations that became jumbled in my mind, I told myself to be happy if I acquired one new word a day. It was, after all, one more word that I didn't know the day before. And that is progress!

Something else struck me: As with writing, when learning a language it is better not to think. It is better to simply talk, to open your mouth and utter whatever comes out and hope for the best. You might make a fool of yourself now and then, but overall those who do have command of the language will appreciate your efforts. And if they once in a while do laugh at you, you will at least have learned not to make that mistake again.

All in all it has been a humbling experience. I am not confident yet whether I will be able to manage four to five languages successfully in my head to the point where French, my dominant foreign language, won't be activated whenever I'm trying to express myself in a foreign country. Up until now that was always the case. These days, however, my brain was exposed to so much Hebrew that I was happily swimming about in that sea of words until I happened upon a French bakery in Jerusalem. Waiting in line to buy a birthday cake for my son, I found myself snatching at French phrases that would otherwise have come easily. New roads are being charted in my head! How to maintain the old ones? Can languages be compartmentalized or does it become one big jumble? If I manage to continue on this road, I guess I shall find out. If anybody has advice on how to manage several languages in your head, I would love to hear about it!

In any case, my Hebrew learning experience has given me a fresh appreciation for the languages I do know and for how fortunate I am to have grown up with two of them that I didn't have to rack my brain to learn.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Shuk Mahane Yehuda, Jerusalem

Any market is a feast for the eyes, and a shuk (= Middle Eastern market, pronounced "shook") is especially so. It is also a photographer's paradise. All those colors, shapes, forms and people! All that character!

My son and I spent an evening strolling through Jerusalem's Shuk Mahane Yehuda, and I hope my photos will give you a little taste (pun intended!) of this marvelously stimulating place of abundance and interaction.

At the fish monger's

Nuts are one of the few things that I found are cheaper in Israel than in the United States, so our bounty from this shuk visit includes half a kilo of cashews and half a kilo of Brazil nuts.

Middle Eastern cornucopia

 Diversity a la Jerusalem

One thing I love about this kind of "street" photography: Candid shots like this one. Someone looking straight at my camera while not intending to do so.

Plastic bags reign supreme.

Some of the poultry is plastic, too.

Fish restaurant and cafes in the midst of it all

The end of the day

Clean up


Sunday, August 2, 2015

Jerusalem Street Library

While walking to my Ulpan (Hebrew school) in Jerusalem this morning, I passed by this street library set up in an old bus station. Of course I was immediately charmed and would have loved to stop and browse but, alas, I had to be on time for my lesson. Still, I snapped this picture and maybe, if I manage to leave for school a bit earlier, I can browse tomorrow. Later in the day is not conducive to browsing because temperatures in Jerusalem are currently insanely hot at 41C (106F) by midday, so all I want to do is scurry from one air-conditioned site to the next.

Just passing by I spotted a bunch of English books (It will be a long time before I can read Hebrew books!). Not that I need to have any more books but still, I love this idea of having a "station" where you can deposit books you no longer want and can stop for a few minutes to browse and perhaps pick up a volume. Of course, this set up works particularly well in a country where it doesn't rain much and not at all for one half of the year. I'll be passing by there for the next two weeks, so if I find something intriguing, I shall report!

Happy reading, even in the heat...

Monday, July 27, 2015

Rejection vs. Failure

"You do your best work after your biggest disasters."

       Tim Robbins,
       as quoted in The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp

I'm not sure that not finding a publisher nor an agent for my memoir manuscript constitutes my biggest disaster, but in terms of my writing it does. There's no creative project into which I have poured more time and energy.

I spent a good part of my time as writer-in-residence at the Hemingway House on querying agents and publishers. I stuck to the old adage that persistence is everything, that you just have to plow on. Overall, I sent 70 query letters and/or proposals. Each time I pressed the Send button, hope rose again. In each email sent there was the possibility of success. If I don't try, I won't succeed, I kept telling myself.

There were lots of nibbles, requests for manuscripts, but none went anywhere. With each rejection my heart sank a little lower, and my composure got more frazzled. When I reached the end of my list of agents, I plowed through databases of similar books to find publishers who take unagented work (of which, thankfully, there are plenty). One day, as I was finding similar books that got published while mine wasn't finding a home, I got so mad that I texted my husband. A good deal of my fury and frustration must have been evident in that text because he wrote back, "Maybe you need a break?"

So I took a break. I left my little studio up in the Hemingway House, walked over to the French bistro down the street and had a glass of Chardonnay with an omelette lunch. Then I chucked the process. I worked other writing.

Soon thereafter an email from an editor came in, suggesting a rewrite and offering to look at it again after that. That made me even madder. I didn't want to rewrite it based on someone's advice who had no skin in the game. A rewrite would be a lot of work and I wasn't even sure I could do it.

Then I had dinner with a good writing friend who yelled at me that this was a terrific second chance and that I'd better get to it. I didn't want to. I was scared.

"Change--changing the work and how we work--is the unpleasant task of dealing with that which we have been denying. It is probably the biggest test in the creative process, demanding not only an admission that you've made a mistake but that you know how to fix it."
Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit, p. 218

"The unpleasant task"--yes, that's what I was dealing with! That's why I had been dragging my feet. I hadn't wanted to admit that this version of the manuscript had failed.

Thanks to my friend, by the time I was reading The Creative Habit, I was deep into attempting the rewrite. Up until then, however, I had seen my problem in terms of rejection. I had hunted around for advice on how to deal with rejection, how to keep up the fight in the face of continued, repeated rejection when really rejection had turned into failure.

When does rejection turn into failure? I wish I knew! I wish I could say, "it's after sending out 70 unsuccessful queries," or "when a second chance comes around." Part of the challenge of the creative process is that you're always operating in this foggy no-man's-land. Other writers and artists can only give you advice, share where they have been at, but it's you yourself who has to decide what to do about the work.

I am happy to report that I am glad I attempted the rewrite. It was easier than I thought. I shouldn't have doubted myself so much. I am done now, and I feel it is a better book.

What if the second chance doesn't pan out? Of course I am dreading that, but at least I gave the second chance a chance.