This is a repost of a reflection I wrote for Bliss Chick in the fall of 2009. I have been studying German again in preparation for a possible sabbatical time in Vienna next year and these words have been shimmering for me:
O die Kurven meiner Sehnsucht durch das Weltall” /
“O the curves of my longing through the cosmos”
-Rainer Maria Rilke, from Uncollected Poems (translated by Edward Snow)
My husband and I had been on a five-week ancestral pilgrimage, visiting the landscapes of our genetic roots. We were on the train from Munich to Brussels, after nearly a month in Austria and Germany, when a man joined us in the compartment where we were seated. He immediately began talking with us in German, making friendly conversation. “Ich spreche nur ein bisschen Deutsch” I offered in response, I speak only a little German.
This wasn’t entirely true, I speak more than a little, but less than a lot, so this phrase was a way to warn my new conversation partner that I wouldn’t catch everything but I was willing to try. He smiled enthusiastically and continued on, barely pausing for breath.
I grew up in New York City where my father worked for the United Nations. He was born in Latvia, the land of his paternal ancestors and had to flee at age twelve when the Russians occupied. His family went to Vienna, where his mother’s parents lived and spent the rest of his adolescence in Austria before eventually coming to the United States.
When I was a child, my father would often insist on speaking German at home, “auf Deutsch bitte,” he would say to me, in German please. As a general rule I was a rather unrebellious child, except in these instances when I would often refuse. I’m still not exactly sure why. But our conversations were frequently back and forth, in English and German, each of us pretending not to understand the other.
We traveled quite a bit, returning to Austria every year or so to visit family, but my German remained rusty from lack of regular practice. I regret those stubborn childhood ways. My father died soon after I finished college, and it was nearly twenty years before I had the opportunity to return to Vienna.
Speaking German again over our month of travel, even with all of my stumbling, touched something in me I still can’t quite fully express. It opened up a longing in me, a riverbed of memories shaped by the words of another language. I suddenly could feel myself connected to generations of ancestors for whom German expressed the ‘curves of their deepest longings.’ I began to discover that the shape and trajectory of those longings threading through the cosmos dwelled inside of me and called me forward. That moment in the train I was overcome by joy in discovering that my ability exceeded my self-perceived limits. I was also moved by grief over the nearing end of our trip and my years of neglecting this language which beats in my blood.
My father used to repeat a Czech proverb: You live a new life for every new language you speak.
I am rediscovering within myself whole worlds I had forgotten were there. I feel as though I have re-opened a locked room, one filled with dust but also radiant with sunlight illuminating old, forgotten photos and letters. As my mouth forms these words, I become aware that these were the very sounds which emerged from the mouths of my ancestors to gently comfort one another, to whisper secrets, to cry out at night after a great heart-rending loss, to utter their most essential truths. The nuances of language express the soul of a people.
My unexpected bliss has emerged from the call to begin once more to inhabit this other life. I step through the door again.
Are you interested in exploring the hidden gifts of your own ancestral longings? Join the Abbey for the upcoming 3-week online contemplative art retreat on Honoring Saints & Ancestors: Peering through the Veil (October 30-November 19, 2011) for the season of remembrance. Register before October 10th for an extra gift.
A wonderful post that really spoke to me. My ancestral language is Spanish, my ancestral “home” is Mexico/Spain/California. Unlike my bilingual parents, I embraced English without much anxiety, taking Spanish in high school and speaking it only when it seemed absolutely necessary. I married outside the culture, didn’t speak Spanish with my children. It didn’t hit me until my father died several years ago: I was losing the people with whom I had that language tie.
Some years ago, I watched a TV program about a Mexican American family where the eldest son came home with a very poor grade in his Spanish class. His father told him that knowing another language is like having another soul. Thanks for reminding me of this Christine. May God bless you
Oh! I loved and continue to love this piece and see and hear a book in it.
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