The Liberating Failure of Learning Something New

I got this hair-brained idea last summer that I wanted to learn a language. It all started when I went to Paris with my daughter, who happily chattered her way through Paris cafes and department stores, through the Uzes market negotiating for AOC goat cheese and brightly colored napkins, ordering the bits of duck we cooked on a grill at our table outdoors in the plaza in front of our glorious, sun-drenched apartment. There she was, petite and lanky and gorgeous, perfectly dressed and coiffed in that casual but perfect teenage way she has, ordering le chocolat chaud and canard-being told everywhere what a great accent she had-while I couldn’t even ask where the bathroom was.

One day in Paris, queued up to commune with the vast collection of human bones in the Catacombs, I was desperate for a bathroom, so I left Lizzy to hold our place in line while I tried to find one. I couldn’t ask anyone, so I spent five desperate minutes trying to figure out how to open the door to a shuttered transit information shed, before I finally realized it wasn’t a public toilet.

I was completely dependent on Lizzy, who, at 14, translated when it was something she wanted to do, and if she didn’t-well…I hated that. Hated how vulnerable and isolated it made me feel. I hated that I had forgotten my dismal grasp of 7th grade French. All I remembered was bonjour and au revoir and Ou est la biblioteque? The only new phrase I mastered during our vacation in France was, “L’addition, si’l vous plais”-the check please.

“I should learn a language,” I decided. I want to travel more as I move in to this next phase of my life. I know I used to suck at languages and I probably suck more now, what with chemo brain and all, but why not try it? It will at least exercise my atrophied brain. What have I got to lose? Besides my pride, my dignity, my self-esteem, and my former image of myself as a “smart cookie”-not much.

So when I got back to Santa Cruz, I actually did something about it. I contacted the language school downtown: Aux Trois Pommes. I think that means the three apples-and I signed up for a class. The first thing I had to do was decide between Spanish and French. At first, I thought I should study French since Lizzy speaks fluently. My reasoning went like this: “Well, we could talk French together over dinner. In the car on the way home from school. On walks to the beach.” Not. Whatever was I thinking? She’s a sophomore in high school and the last thing she wants to do is talk French with her pathetically incompetent mother, who can’t remember anything and just doesn’t have a clue.


And so I chose Spanish. It’s practical. I mean I live in Santa Cruz; I’m surrounded by people who speak Spanish every day. I’d be able to talk to Manuel who helps Karyn in the garden and Nora, who cleans our house twice a month. Besides, I’m scheduled to go back to Mexico in February to teach at the San Miguel Writer’s Conference. Wouldn’t it be nice if I had some Spanish under my belt? Lizzy and I even talked about the possibility of finding a Spanish immersion program for a month next summer; she wants to be an ambassador someday, and would like to learn another language. And unlike me, she seems to have a propensity for just picking these things up.

It also so happens that I have a new student, a woman who very much wants to write, who ran out of funds to pay for my class. And so we started knocking around ideas of services she might be able to provide in trade and everything she brought up felt like fake “make work”-nothing I really needed or wanted. But I really didn’t want to let her go.

A few days after our initial conversation, my student called to tell me she hadn’t thought of anything to trade yet, so she was calling to say thank you and goodbye. And then just before she hung up she said, “If only you wanted to learn Spanish,” and bingo! That was it. She’s a native speaker and a lifelong teacher, so we arranged to spend one hour together a week speaking Spanish.

Yesterday, we had our first class. We met at the parking lot behind Denny’s on Ocean Street. She refused (as she should) to speak a word of English to me and suddenly the tables were turned. I was the stammering, terrified, incompetent, fearful student, convinced that I was too old, that I could never learn, that I would never remember a single word, and that I would suck my way right out of any possibility of ever learning anything-especially Spanish.

I sat in the passenger seat of her car and she smiled. She said something to me in Spanish, full of animation and life, gesturing to get her point across. I stared back at her blankly. I had no idea what the fuck she was talking about. But eventually, I got the gist. She was asking if I wanted to go to the beach. She had emailed me before we met and said that was her idea so when she said la mer or whatever the hell the Spanish word is for ocean is, I said yes. She said, “Playa?” And I said, “Si, playa.” Beach. And off we went in her car.

It was a very quiet ride. There were all kinds of things I might have discussed with her, but we never got beyond the fact that her sweater was whatever the name of blue is in Spanish is and that my pants and sweatshirt were negra and the traffic light was something that rolled and started with a “r” that sounded remarkably like the name for the big rocks we saw on the playa near the ocean, which I can’t recall the name of. Rrrrr-something. Forget it. I’ll never roll my r’s. Failing in my first five minutes.

It was a really miserable hour. At one point, feeling the same sinking despair I felt in Paris at being so pathetic, and unable to communicate, I blurted out, “I can’t learn, I’ll never learn, my brain is too old.” And she looked at me and gestured and said something in Spanish that I could definitely not understand. But even though I couldn’t understand the words, I did catch her meaning because of the gesture she made to go with it. As she said the Spanish words, she simultaneously made the universal gesture for monkey, a goofy face and scratching under the armpits.

“Monkey mind,” I said, laughing. “You’re telling me that’s just monkey mind?” Of course she would say this to me. In my first class with all my new students, I always tell them, “Beware of monkey mind”-the harsh critic who sits on our shoulders insisting we can’t write, that we’re frauds, that we’ll be found out as imposters, and that we will inevitably and spectacularly fail.

Repeating my own advice back to me-very tricky!

When we parted, after another very mostly silent drive back to my car, I wanted to say, “See you next week, ” but instead I said, gracias and buenos tardes and hasta luego. Which I think means I said goodbye to her three times. But really, it was the best I could do.

Subscribe to my mailing list and I will immediately give you a beautiful eBook: Writing Toward Courage: A Thirty Day Practice

A Gift to Inspire Your Writing

Subscribe to my mailing list and I will immediately give you a beautiful eBook: Writing Toward Courage: A Thirty Day Practice.

Scroll to Top