I love spending time with these friends who speak Spanish as their primary language. Opening myself to different speech patterns and word possibilities reshapes how I think of the world and my place in it. Once, when I was a young woman, I spent a little time in Mexico as an exchange student. My sister Berta took me all over the city on the buses with her friends, and we spent hours talking and laughing as young people do when they gather in every language. One afternoon I said with great enthusiasm, "¡Vamonos en el camaron para comer camiones!" This translates to "Let us go on the shrimp to eat buses!"
There are few things that tell a person they don't know everything like immersion in another country, learning another language.
As I drove one of my friends home, with my sleepy children in the back complaining like mewling kittens, we chatted about family and children and the difference between "American" culture and "Hispanic" culture, the way children are invited to exit the home at age 18 vs. the way multiple generations live together to create networks of support. It was a lengthy conversation that stretched the limits of my Spanish, and by the time I got home I was very, very tired.
As I crawled into bed it occurred to me that living in the middle of intimate violence is like being immersed in a primary language. And then I fell asleep while typing. Immersion in another language is good for the mind and soul, but it takes years to gain fluency. Learning how to be in this world without repeating patterns of intimate violence is good for the mind and the soul (not to mention the body!), but it takes years to find fluency.
Think of it this way: those of us who live with intimate violence (as perpetrators, victims, or both), learn to function in those situations as best we can. There are ways of being, moving, and speaking that can minimize violence. There are times when the tension in a household builds slowly, but inexorably, toward an explosion, and we learn to set off verbal dynamite to relieve the tension and minimize the explosion we know is coming. We learn to avoid anger, to become invisible, to protect others as best we can. We learn, without knowing it, that there is no escape from this intimate, familial situation. The world, when one is living with intimate violence, can become a very narrow, constricted place.
This chart is one way of looking at how patterns of intimate violence carve a narrow existence:
Sometimes we get a chance to learn a new language, to immerse ourselves in another culture, to live with people who do not hurt us. How frustrating it is to our friends and loved ones when we cannot acclimate to a new environment quickly! Individuals leave abusive situations, only to return home to more abuse a short time later. It seems from the outside to be an easy choice to stay where one is safer. But it's like this:
Walking away from intimate violence is like moving to another part of the world and learning a new language by immersion. Suddenly one must learn new patterns, new ways, and new words. If I don't have the correct papers, I may not be able to work. I don't have the right currency, so I am constantly having to exchange my old bills for new--and I must trust strangers who speak a different language to do it.
Learning new languages is easier for some people than others. Leaving intimate violence for healthy relationships is easier for some people than others. It takes years to become fluent. The process of learning the new language is exhausting.
It might be good for the body, the soul, and the mind to learn a new language, but it isn't always easy. There is need along the way for bilingual translators and a great deal of patience. Learning a new language requires a sense of humor, because sooner or later you're going to say with great enthusiasm, "Let's go ride the shrimp to eat buses!" And your companions are going to dissolve into laughter. For a while you're not going to get the joke about the boy corn ear who married the girl corn ear and got so hot that he became popcorn. It just takes time.
At one moment one might say "I need your keys" but it sounds like "I need your kiss."
Or perhaps one might simply mix up pronouns and verbs to say, "Te amo, Katie," instead of "Me llamo Katie." And the poor man you've just met will look at you quizzically.
Learning to live in healthy relationship when one's primary language has been intimate violence is difficult. And sometimes, especially when one is tired, it's easy to slip back into old patterns of behavior, old words, old ways of being. It seems sometimes like everybody else around is speaking too fast, one person on top of another, leaving a person behind, bewildered and longing for the familiar--even if that familiar is unhealthy or dangerous.
Sometimes the right words don't even exist to translate. In English there is no good verb to say "make love." We have euphemisms and curse words, but not a verb to express the act of "having sex" between loving partners. Even with bilingual companions, concepts do not always translate well and must be lived in order to be understood.
Or sometimes there is a problem of pronunciation. My friends last night asked me what the word is for a chin dimple. "It's a cleft," I said. And we spent a few minutes rolling around that word, trying to see how the sounds fit together. "Cleft" is not a Spanish word. It is too short, too few vowels, with consonants crammed together.
It takes time and energy to learn a new language. Time to learn new ways of being and perspectives on the world. And sometimes, when one is learning to live without intimate violence, this new language is so exhausting that one crawls into bed and falls asleep while typing.