I just came back from a fabulous ladies weekend in Boyaca. We found a cabin in the mountains and laughed, ate and almost blew ourselves up trying to light the propane hot water heater. On the bus ride there, passing through Chiquinquira to Tinjaca, I lisented to Brene Brown on On Being, reflecting on the power of being vulnerable, especially as I messed up the names of the towns everytime I said them, over and over and over again.
I was talking to a friend a few days ago, and she mentioned the desire she feels to be thought of as a kind person, by everyone she meets. During the conversation, I realized that my desire it to be seen as smart, a genius even. I like to balance this with being goofy, because life is too short and too hilarious not to be ridiculous most of the time, but by my secret desire is to be brilliant in the midst of it all. There was a period in my life when I instituted “Anna is Right Wednesdays,” a ploy to be the smartest one at the dining hall table at least once a week. I hate admitting when I don’t know.
For the last four and half years, however, every time I open my mouth I feel stupid. I go over already said sentences in my mind and re-read emails, noticing each and every mistake: the strange pronunciation, the wrongly gendered words, the confusion of subjunctive with conditional, the way I can still get por and para wrong. I am ashamed; after so much time, I should be better than I am at Spanish. What must people think of me?
I have felt a block inside of me since I arrived in Colombia, a hesitation that has probably cost me relationships and opportunities. I don’t like talking about not speaking. It is easier to say that I accompany, therefore it is my job to remain silent, to claim that I really don’t need to make my thoughts known than to share about the fear of being stupid I still feel when I speak. This, however, is the year of honesty, of being real about both the good and the bad. Another word for honesty is vulnerability.
Brene Brown says, “To me, vulnerability is courage. It’s about the willingness to show up and be seen in our lives. And in those moments when we show up, I think those are the most powerful, meaning-making moments of our lives even if they don’t go well. I think they define who we are.”
This is what I love and I hate about living here. I have to show up and open my mouth because that is why I am here. There is no escape- I must show up and be seen or I might as well just go back to Canada. I am trying to call that everyday bravery, but it is hard to not just feel like a fool.
This is a life lesson: the more I open my mouth, the stupider I will look. Paradoxically, the better at speaking I will become, but to embrace my failings is still a hard thing.
“One of the deepest paradoxes about vulnerability, which is when I meet you, vulnerability is a very first thing I try to find in you, and it’s the very last thing I want to show you in me because it’s the glue that holds connection together. It’s all about our community humanity, and when we own our stories and we share our stories with one another and we see ourselves reflected back in the stories of people in our lives, we know we’re not alone. And to me, that’s the heart of wholeheartedness, it’s the center of spirituality. To me, that’s the nature of connection, to be able to see myself and hear myself and learn more about myself in the stories you tell about your experiences.” Brene Brown
There can be moments of connection and creativity, when I allow myself to relax and be open. In struggling to find words, I come up with new ways of expressing myself in a creativity not found in simply being smart. I teach myself to be confident in who I am and what I am thinking, even if the words may not come out of my mouth perfectly formed. Perhaps my struggle allows other to feel they do not have to be perfect around me either. If I can do this, you can also face a fear or uncertainty.
When I lived in Mampujan, people from Bogota would come and lecture the community all the time. They would explain how to open bank accounts and invest money, using professional language to talk about interest rates and investment returns. People, the majority farmers who had never dreamt about having a bank account, would smile and nod, pretending to understand every word. The next day, people would slowly drift into my house and ask me to explain what had been said at the meeting.
In my simple, broken Spanish, I could not explain mortgage rates, but I could explain a basic process in a language we could all understand. The professionals may not have thought I was very smart, but maybe sometimes a relationship of trust that provides needed information is more important than always sounding like I know what I’m talking about.
Speaking two languages is a privilege that allows me to enter different worlds, and for that I am very thankful. Instead of seeing it as a burden, how can I approach my Spanish as a tool for the work that I do, that has allowed me access to communities and situations I would never have been able to enter?
There are no excuses for not keeping on actively learning, forcing speaking, and being myself in the middle of all of this, whoever that ends up to be throughout the process. And sometimes there are moments of ridiculousness that cannot be helped, illustrating that we are all human.
Two days after coming back from Guatemala, I received an emergency phone call to come and help with interpretation for a course on reconciliation next door. I agreed, assuming that I would be sitting beside perhaps one other person, whispering the English version in their ear from the back row. Instead, I was handed a microphone and ushered up to the front of the room. As I began to speak, frantically trying to figure out what the lecture was even about, a man came up to me, and in front of everyone started unbuttoning my jacket. By the time I had figured out that the topic of the day was forgiveness and that the sound guy was trying to place a lapel mic on my collar, my jacket was completely undone and a microphone box had been placed in my pocket.*
It was a surreal moment, but we all started to laugh over the sheer strangeness of it all. While I do not recommend or condone having strange men start to undress you in public to break the ice, at that point it did not matter how smart or not I was. What mattered was showing up and being able to take things lightly as I did my job. There’s probably a life lesson in there somewhere.
*No harm was intended, it was just a flustered sound guy trying not to interrupt an already late and disorganized lecture, although he should have asked or communicated what he was doing.