Friday, July 22, 2011

Intermediate High

Ten years ago, my proficiency in Bangla was rated "intermediate high." In its second year in Bangladesh, the Peace Corps wanted to establish a baseline level of its volunteers' capability with the language. The idea was to judge our performance against that of future volunteers, who would, in theory, improve on our progress. We were evaluated in the Peace Corps office, in Dhaka, in an air-conditioned room, by the chief cultural officer. During the interview, we were encouraged to not stop talking; better to fill the gaps with nonsense words, to even repeat ourselves, than to be silent. I remember thinking that it was not unlike preparing for a beauty pageant. Memorize a few sequences of phrases and work them into the conversation, however relevant.

When I first taught middle school in Chicago, I would doodle during meetings, on the bus, etc., by phonetically spelling out English words in Bangla. Even then, I knew that I was forgetting the finer points of the language, but I wanted a hedge against losing it entirely, and also, a reason to practice it. Bangla is an alphabet with 56 characters, many of which sometimes seem to repeat the same sounds in different pronunciations. For example, the eight g/k sounds--go (nasal), gho (nasal), go (plosive), gho (plosive), ko (nasal), kho (nasal), ko (plosive), kho (plosive)--might begin any number of common words and proper names. As the only Americans living and working in our villages and towns, we learned a mix of English and Bangla to get by in the day-to-day. Most of us took more formal language instruction on the side (the Peace Corps reimbursed it), which made daily life easier.

Toward the end of my Peace Corps service, I had this idea that I would translate of the shorter works of the modernist Bengali poet, Jibananda Das. My language teacher often brought them to our lessons. I would copy his poems into a page of my journal, then try to get an English version onto the opposite page. Then, I memorized the sounds. "Abar ashibo fire dhanshiritir teere," begins his most famous poem. "I will return again to you, my country," is one translation. The poem moves cinematically through a riverside landscape, although I understood from my Bangladeshi colleagues that the poem was really about death and exile, as much as place. I didn't quite understand the implications of the poem, and I was reluctant to impose my own meanings in their place. What matters now, I think, is that I kept wanting to read and write poetry while in Bangladesh.

In Chicago, I imagined Bangla separate of its grammar and meaning. For example, "Chicago Cubs." Did it matter whether I used the aspirated or plosive "ch" sound? Wrote the vowel on its own (impractical) or hashed it under the "ch" (typical)? The words meant nothing in Bangla, or, Bangla was becoming my personal secret code. At the end of the first year, after the exams, I was looking to pass some extra instructional time with the seventh graders. I printed out a .pdf file of the Bangla alphabet, then encouraged my students to practice spelling out English words. When they lost interest, I offered to write their names on the board in phonetical Bengali. They copied into their notebooks looping imitations of my own approximation of a language. What did our final products mean? It was a lesson of cross-cultural exploration and exposure, I explained to my colleagues. The outcome was incidental to the purpose.

Once, in a fit of guilt, I ordered a teach-yourself-Bangla language CD series. I had an idea that I would undertake graduate study in South Asian languages, and then use this knowledge to keep writing and teaching poetry. But after a few weeks, I lost interest in the repetitive instruction that seemed to intermix words I already knew with rules that didn't seem right to my memory of the language. I told myself that I still knew Bangla. I could write on job applications that I spoke and read Bangla at an intermediate high level. I had the government evaluation to prove it. And, if I really wanted to write poetry, why not go to a creative writing graduate program?

Almost exactly a month ago, on June 22, I said goodbye to my brother and his family, who were visiting from Chicago for a week. We spent our time together in a rented house in Santa Cruz. A couple of days later, Cait's sister arrived with her family from Ethiopia. One week into their month-long visit, we all left for the family cabin near Lake Tahoe, where 17 family members bunked into a 700-odd foot family cabin in the middle of the woods. I came back early from that trip, so that I could teach my EPGY classes, which met despite the holiday, on July 4th. A few days later, Cait came home with Walt. Three days after that, Beth, Emma, Chloe, and Chase arrived from Indianapolis for a week-long visit. We went again to Santa Cruz, bookended by two nights at our place. The day after they left for Indianapolis, we returned a final time to Santa Cruz, for our ten-year Peace Corps reunion. As I write this post, ten adults and five kids hunker down in a rented house near the beach. We all leave Sunday for our various family homesteads across the country; lucky for us, it's a pretty quick trip over the hills and back to Palo Alto, where we'll have a few weeks of down time before we fly to Colorado for a week-long Evans family get-together.

It has been a busy summer. I've taught three classes, and done some other minor teaching work. It is all coming to a close, for which I'm very, very grateful. The curveball has been factoring into all of the plans a ten-month-old; much as we might like to believe we can handle it all, as wonderful as Walt is, he's still a kid, we're still new parents; all of us thrive on continuity and schedule, our routines are pretty easily disrupted, and its hard to get things back into order once we start playing catch-up. We are eager to see everyone, we are lucky and grateful to gather everyone in our direction. On some level, it is all a kind of elaborate distraction from the situation we like to imagine is the center of our lives. Parenting. Being married. Work. Writing. Family. Friends. How does it all fit together? How do we establish priorities and sequence? I suppose that, with time, things will take a more predictable shape, and there will be more breathing room.

There is a moment in The Year of Magical Thinking where Joan Didion says that in order to live our lives, "we must relinquish the dead, let them go, keep them dead." I wonder if she continues to believe that, if it doesn't seem a bit dogmatic and impractical a few years later, as though she is building an elaborate bulwark, a crude warning system against something that is essentially diffuse and dormant. How do we keep any continuity in our lives without sacrificing some understanding of agency? Where do the dead have to go off to, so quickly and resolutely, anyway? How do we distinguish the memory from the circumstances of the life?

A large group of Peace Corps volunteers turned out for Katie's funeral. They arrived, on a few days' notice, from everywhere. I loved that they were there. I didn't expect it, the situation or the scope, in spite of what must have been improbable circumstances. I was, and am, grateful for their coming. At the wake, then the funeral and dinner, the Peace Corps contingent was an especially vibrant and cohesive cadre. They moved in a group. They knew each other. They remembered Katie as someone particular, in a particular place, and none of them competed to claim the loss. This period of time is never far from my mind, but is especially so recently, here. I have written an essay, "Elegy and Narrative," that deals somewhat directly with those few days. That essay is in the current issue of The Missouri Review (and is previewed here). That night, Eric bought a giant bottle of Katie's favorite scotch, Johnnie Walker Red. There was a terrific thunderstorm that night, and we sang a bunch of songs, together, until the bar closed. Ed, Katie's brother, drove me back to Katie's mom's house. I remember he said to me, "Man, those people really liked Katie," and I remember telling him, "Oh, Ed, she couldn't stand those people. They are here mostly for me."

Katie, and her death, are everywhere this summer. Many of the ways that we made a life together have come front and center. There is no assertion of value in saying that. And, it seems ridiculous to deny it. The associations of a life get blurred, after death, by distinction and repetition. If Katie's death is not at the center of our lives, as it used to be, it does not diminish her presence. It is strange to feel gratitude for certain kinds of continuity. The last time I saw this same sequence of people--Peace Corps, Jeff and Sheila and the boys, Beth and the kids--was at Cait and I's wedding; before that, Katie's funeral; before that, Katie and I's wedding. Two years later, and ten years removed from our Peace Corps service, the people gathered this weekend in Santa Cruz are grateful to still see and know each other. We witness firsthand everyone settling into new lives. There are tradeoffs. We try to stay up late; it is too much. We go to bed early; we miss the old festivities. The space we share is transitional. We manage it, but we no longer feel at the beginning of things. Our ambitions, expectations, and limitations, and our experiences, have clearer shapes and limitations.

1 comment:

KATE EVANS said...

This last paragraph touches on the deep ambiguous wisdom of life. Thank you as always, John.