I was eating arepas in the East Village last Friday with a childhood friend whom I hadn’t seen in ages. We had gone to junior high and high school together on the blustery, tree-poor plains of Cheyenne, Wyo. While he had pursued the fast-track glitz and glam of advertising and media strategy, I had idled within the ivory walls of the Ivy League, taking the time—as we academics are wont to do—to pore over the proverbial parchment in an inexhaustible quest for some kind of “understanding” (lest we say “enlightenment”—a loaded term, indeed, for a contemporary French scholar) on her pilgrimage to Ph.D.-dom.
My friend and I were engaged in a lengthy discussion of the misadventures we had encountered in the professional realm and creative ways we had dealt with them. Casting all caution (and pride) to the wind as I bit into my corn-flour volveré, I recounted how I triumphantly transformed what, for me, was a horrifying mishap into a “teachable moment.” The gist of the story was that I had belted out a front tooth along with my first “bonjour” of the day (yes! That really happened to me!) in front of my Elementary French class. With as much dramatic flair as I could muster, I described how I hurriedly picked the marooned tooth up off the floor, launching the students into a choral repetition of the days of the week (lundi, mardi, mercredi, jeudi…) as I darted into the hallway to reinsert my incisor. Instead of responding to my dental distress, however, my friend interrupted my story and asked with incredulity, “Do you really teach the days of the week? Don’t you have a doctorate? Can’t they hire someone else to do that?” I was a little taken aback and felt myself shrink: Was being a beginning language professor really such a lowly profession?
His reaction got me thinking about language and the power of “beginner’s mind.” “Beginner’s mind” is a term that often pops up in my yoga classes and is most commonly associated with Zen Buddhism. It suggests a state of openness and receptivity, a capacity to respond freshly, without preconceptions or expectations, to an experience—the brand-spanking-new and the well-studied, well-known, well-worn and well-trodden alike. In the world of ivy and ivory we Morningsiders inhabit, beginner’s mind would appear to go against one of our most cherished motivational fantasies: the drive for mastery. After all, what good is an education if it doesn’t make you the master of something? To adopt beginner’s mind is to resist this narrative of accumulative control.
I, in fact, feel very fortunate to have the chance to come into contact with beginner’s mind every day of the week. With my beginning language students, I witness the way the world gets recast in a different hue as the signifiers fixing and decorating it change texture and color. In his autobiography, “Speak, Memory,” Vladimir Nabokov, well-known for his synesthesia, compares his sensorial experience of the sounds in English and French, discussing the different shades and surfaces each letter evokes: “The long ‘a’ of the English alphabet ... has for me the tint of weathered wood, but a French ‘a’ evokes polished ebony. … I am puzzled by my French ‘on’ which I see as the brimming tension-surface of alcohol in a small glass.”
While we are not all so fortunate to have these rich associations triggered when reciting the alphabet, learning a new language does have a very compelling way of defamiliarizing even the most banal of words, stripping away the caked-on layers of linguistic habit to reveal a raw materiality that paves a path, giving traction to more complex conceptual and cultural constructions. Hence, through teaching the days of the week, I see the dry woodiness of Thursday morph into the rain-washed cement of jeudi, and my mind transports the experience to another level; it giddily skips along the semantic slippages fostered by these two syllables—“jeu di,” “je dis.” More than other languages, because of its resistance to sounding terminal consonants, French lends itself so beautifully (or, for my students, frustratingly) to this homophonic play (jeu), which takes us from a dreary, damp day of the week to one of the most fundamental assertions of human subjectivity: “je dis”—“I say.”
Pondering these revelations, I bemusedly think back to my conversation with my old friend and the pleasure of experiencing a similar slipperiness across three languages with the word “arepas,” which were tickling our palettes as we discussed projectile teeth and mundane Mondays. For when I see “arepas” written, I break it into “a repas”—“un repas”—a meal in French, a repast. With repast, the past becomes past again, challenging the time/space continuum. As we see, the stakes are high once the beginner’s mind begins deciphering the quotidian. And with this in mind, as I am writing on this clammy jeudi, these are the imperative infinitives “je dis à mon ami”: To not assume mastery, to not trivialize the power of days—the verbal units ordering our time, carving out space for things to happen, for the world to open up. Indeed, to touch newness in that which is the most hackneyed, “ça me dit” (samedi).
Loren Wolfe is a lecturer in the department of French at Barnard College.
To respond to this column, or to submit an op-ed, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.