Studying literature for the past seven years (/my whole life) has yielded more beautiful things than there is space or time to tell. I wouldn't trade it for anything. But I have to admit that something ugly has grown inside me as a result: it's the feeling (and I can't shake it) that my personal worth is somehow inextricably tied up into how well I express myself. You're so eloquent, people tell me. The way you speak is beautiful. To those who have said so, thank you. You are too kind. And insofar as you're right, it's probably because I read all the time. I learn from the best. I figure if I can inspire anyone half as much as Whitman or Rilke or Mary Oliver have inspired me, I will have far exceeded my own expectations of what I have to offer the world.
But what happens when I don't have that anymore? What happens when my pretty words are replaced with the silence of uncertainty and "um"s and mispronunciations?
Well, I'll tell you. I start feeling pretty low about myself. Is it possible to be a good student when the only things you can say all class period are "I don't know," "I'm not sure," "I can't"? Not to mention, how could anyone possibly want to be friends with someone who might not be able to understand their stories or offer witty/kind/inspiring commentary? I love stories. I love talking. Back home, that's like, my thing. That's how I connect. That's where I thrive. But even my friends here who speak English to me (and all of them do at one point or another) seem more at ease with each other in their native Swedish. More intimate. And who could blame them?
I was feeling nervous and fidgety after my second day in Expo class last week. We had been discussing the nuances of antisemitism. Even when I understood enough of what was happening to have a relevant question to pose or comment to make, there was no way I had the words in Swedish for any of my thoughts. That is no lie and no exaggeration. By the end of class, I was exhausted and embarrassed and hoping more than anything that I hadn't offended the instructors with my radio silence and, worse, my actual refusal to speak when invited to do so by other classmates on a couple occasions. I decided to approach Åke after the lecture to apologize. I felt that bad about it.
After saying sorry about my silence, I somehow ended up explaining to him how impossible it is to show my personality in Swedish. I think my initial goal in bringing that up was to explain why it's maybe-probably-sort-of-possibly(?) okay that Beatrice always talks to me in English (something that has come under the disapproval of Åke and one Christian Borén). Even though it doesn't help my Swedish one bit, I'm glad that Bea communicates with me på engelska. I mean, someone around here has to know that I'm smart and have things to contribute, right? It's frustrating to feel like what's inside of you is being stifled by the difficulty (or even impossibility) of expression.
But what Åke said in return meant more to me than he probably knew.
We can see who you are, he responded. You are more than what you say.
I walked back to my room after that conversation and cried. I couldn't tell if it was because I was relieved to hear what Åke told me or because, deep down, I knew there was a huge part of me that would not be able to accept it. How am I more than what I say?
As is the theme of my life lately, I can't promise I know precisely what else he said, but I'll venture some guesses.
I am also what I do.
I am also how I treat others.
I am also my kindness.
I am also my smile.
A friend of mine gave me some advice early on in my trip. He said I shouldn't let my thinking-about-how-to-say-this face be squinty or pained. He told me to smile. I'm still learning the value of smiling, and doing it generously. Maybe the most important take-home message here is that I am not only more than what I say; I'm more than what I can't say.
So to any of you who also feel burdened by all those things you can't say, all those things you can't do, or all the ways you perceive you don't measure up, I feel impressed to tell you this much (and I mean it ever-so-much):
You are more than what limits you.
You are the smell of apple pie baking on a Sunday afternoon. You are the arms that reach out to hug when someone looks lonely. You are the warmth of an over-sized sweater. You are the trees changing color with the season. You are that magnificent sunset I saw on the train. Or maybe you're the rain. You are the sweetest smile. Yours are the eyes that flicker in the candlelight. You are the song I play over and over. You are the most beautiful language. You are a river. You are a prayer.
You are more.