Something is happening.
There’s quiet here, in a morning where I woke too early and fell victim to a busy brain that was ready for Thursday far before the rest of me felt like it. There is stillness outside, movement in. There’s a thought I’ve held in my hands for a long time, turning it over and over again like a smooth river rock: language is the closest we come to magic on this earth.
What I can’t stop thinking about this morning is what language actually is. It’s a thing that connects people; it’s a thing so private we dare not let words escape our mouths. It can travel through time and deposit emotions thousands of years old into a mind that’s only been here a few years. It is printed; it is sung. There’s a philosophical debate about whether language is public or private or both, whether it’s something we use to explain our world to ourselves or to explain ourselves to the world or both or neither.
What interests me today is how it unlocks doors in us that we might prefer to keep bolted–and doors we’ve been hammering at with our hands until our wrists throb with the impact and still nothing will budge. Learning a new language is a dance of breaking through and running into walls alike. It’s moments of absolute pure clarity and moments of being humbled by how much you don’t know. Today I’m interested in the former.
I wish I could tell you exactly when it was that I first wanted to learn Gaelic (or Polish, or German, or Spanish). I’ve tried to answer that question when it was posed to me several different times this week, several different days in a row, by several different people. Mostly I felt like I was fumbling my answer. So let me try again, this time to try and explain it to myself:
Polish is an old friend who first greeted me by asking how I felt about George W. Bush. It’s moments of shock and laughter at my first attempts and curiosity about why I’d even try. It’s the first time we were able as friends to move from my native tongue to his. It’s having a conversation that bridges years and salmon-coloured walls and halting nervousness and bone deep camaraderie.
German is laughter and community. It’s being surrounded, unintentionally, by words that just sort of hover there, happily existing until I can’t help but ignore them. It’s afternoons in Kraków sitting across a desk in a room that smells of paper and floor cleaner, reading out newspaper articles. It’s a sick anteater. It’s a cafe on the Rynek playing word games and packing imaginary suitcases with absurdities and extraordinary moments of friendship.
Spanish is kind of like that too, but quieter and waiting and nonetheless ready. It’s accidentally using a slang word that’s faintly vulgar in a conversation with a friend’s grandma because I learned it from context but didn’t quite grasp the tone. Whoops. It’s laughter at my expense without malice or meanness, just the understanding that sometimes this stuff is hard–finding the funny keeps it human.
And threaded through all of that, Gaelic’s been there, woven through whatever tapestry makes up my life like a song I feel like I should remember the words to because I know I’ve heard it a thousand times, maybe a thousand thousand times, maybe I always knew it, maybe it always knew me. Every so often I’d turn and look at it, with longing and frustration because I just couldn’t reach.
Language is magic. The word for bicycle in Polish is rower, pronounced like Rover if you can roll your r’s, and I always liked that because it reminded me of an old friend’s cat, and her little brother who couldn’t pronounce his r’s and said them like y’s and used to very earnestly tell me that “Rover goes pee pee in the yitter box.” Which has nothing at all to do with bicycles, but for whatever quirky little programming makes up our brains, it kept that word cemented in mine. The word for bicycle in Gaelic is rothair, pronounced a little like the Tolkein land of Rohan, if the han part were faintly head instead. And I made a noise that was neither of those words when I discovered that, because now the Gaelic rothair is married to the Polish rower and a pinprick of time a long time ago, and a bit of silliness.
Language has something of physics that makes it up, like the strong nuclear force that holds the protons and neutrons at the centre of an atom. It connects things that don’t seem like they should go together and yet do, likely in more than one way, as unexpected as a Polish-Gaelic cognate pair. It connects people.
Yesterday I was diligently going through my wee (not really that wee) list of common words, trying to see what holes there are, what I need to fill into my Gaelic foundation before I can really start to build. This is where something happened, between forest (coille/mòr-choille) and key (iuchair). I like that it happened there, even on an arbitrary alphabetical list. I make my home between forests and keys fairly often. It’s a good place to be.
The word was a month, and the month was June, which in Gaelic is quite literally the young month. An t-Òg-mhìos. The thing that happened was a thing that is starting to happen with a lot of frequency to a lesser degree. Often now I’ll look up a word and discover I’ve heard it before. (Laugh at me if you’d like for not bothering to learn the names of months before now.) Last night I saw the word and immediately said, “Oh!” I knew precisely where I had heard that word before, so I went there. It’s a song from Julie Fowlis’s album Mar a Tha Mo Chridhe, called Tha Mo Ghaol Air Àird a’ Chuan. I looked at the line of lyrics, which I’d listened to recently but hadn’t really heard, and suddenly it was clear. Clear as the June dew it was speaking of, and I heard it. That thread of song woven through and unreachable was right there, in my hand, where I could see it and hear it and feel it for what it was.
If that’s not magic, I don’t know what is.
This morning I finished my fiftieth day of consecutive yoga. For years people have suggested it to me, but I brushed it off because I am the Least Flexible (TM) and because I’m that kid who got told too often that they were precocious and smart and that smart was something you were and not something you built and thus I still suck at realising I’m allowed to suck at things before being good at them or kind of okayish at them.
So anyway, in January I decided to give it a shot and got on the mat. Fifty days later, something is happening.
I can put my nose on my knees now. That’s not something I used to think would be a life goal, but it’s been a hard few years of navigating this world where Nazis are bubbling out of the mire again and we entered the darkest timeline. Touching my knees with my nose may not serve any greater purpose to the world, but one thing it did teach me is that sometimes I can surprise myself. Two days ago, I went into a forward fold with a now-familiar kind of relief and release, letting my weight hang, and I realised my palms were on the mat and my legs were straight. I’d been so focused on finding what felt good and right for my body that I forgot I used to be unable to touch my toes from that position at all and suddenly I’d reached past them. Then yesterday? I balanced the weight of my body on my hands in crow pose. Just for a couple seconds, barely even a breath, but if you’d asked me to do that a year ago I’d likely have made a noise like a crow at you and flown away squawking.
It’s something to build on, something to move forward from. Something to enjoy right now or right then or whatever dot of time is currently flashing by.
In giving myself space to explore, I was able to better understand the language of my body. And now, looking forward, I’m excited for what comes next, because language is a breathing, powerful, living thing that connects people and bridges time and space.
Now Gaelic is laughing so hard I cry with people who were strangers in September. It’s someone quietly muttering “dè cho mòr?” (how big a CAKE, you perverts) and giggles filtering through a classroom and someone replying with “bhodca ‘s orains, mòran taing” which is not even a logical progression but makes sense in a context we made together. It’s sixty blending voices striking a chord that hums through my skin. It’s seeking language within language to be able to speak about myself with clarity. It’s people from points all over a map drawn to one singular space and moment. It’s being a bit of a deer in headlights and muttering under my breath until I can pronounce a line of a song without tripping over my tongue. Gaelic is becoming a friend instead of a distant hope. Language is transformative.
Something is happening. Something magical.