In language class, they give you a close-enough new name so it’s like close-enough being born again. My name is. My name is. They want you to repeat it to yourself so you’re sure of who you are. What’s your name? What’s your name? They always frame it like a conversation so you think with this new language, you will never be alone. Nice to meet you. Nice to meet you. Nice to meet you. We were partners before we were anything else. Paired up when everything else was pared-down.
The good language class instructors will cut the middle-man. They will point to a chair and they will not say the word in the language you know, they will name it something new to you. This eliminates the need to translate. This eliminates the need to think too much. Thinking too much leads to self-doubt and panic. It’s a kind of brainwashing, I guess, this re-learning. Every language class textbook has the same general lesson plan. You learn the words for the things they think count, like numbers so you can tell the time and the name for the place you’re in so you can locate yourself. They figure naming things makes them less scary so they give you the names for school things and train station things and kitchen things, the things they think surround you.
To continue this illusion that with this new language you will never be alone, they teach you words like mother and father and friend. You can’t yet say you’re a published poet / award-winning bowler / volunteer firefighter, so you learn to define yourself in relation to generic others. Daughter and granddaughter and friend and girlfriend. Is there a word for a regular at a coffee shop, and what do you call the boy you bore your bare self to? You can name the day of the week it happened, and the time, and the place but you don’t have words for why it still matters.
They teach you who / what / when / where / why fairly early on, so you know it’s okay to be curious.
In language class, they teach you words for the things they think you do so you know what’s normal. Waking up / getting up / brushing your teeth and not scrolling through social media / masturbating / singing Whitney Houston in the shower. You wake up at 6, but don’t get up till 7. You have eggs for breakfast every morning. You ride your bike twenty minutes to work. I know the outer lines of your days.
We’ve barely learned how to do things yet. We know what we are and how to be. We know emotions. We know how to feel basic things, like happy and sad but not the one where you’ve heard bad news and you feel frozen all over, and heavy, or the one where you’re both happy for your friend but also like you maybe want to leave an iron on their face. Or the one where it feels like you’re covered in ants, except the ants aren’t moving around, just trying to hold you back like they’re the people and you’re Gulliver, and where did ants get rope anyway? So maybe they’re spiders with webs, and the feeling is that the only way to get them off is to never stop moving at a steady pace. Is there a way to say you feel like you’re being pulled wildly in so many directions that you’ve never been more still?
We know temporary states of the body, too, like hungry and thirsty and tired. But is there a word for wanting to be full of something different? Like wanting a landscape inside you? What’s the word for when you finish something—it’s kind of like accomplished, but emptier.