The uphill climb

Last Wednesday’s writing prompt was in my feet, which led me to the freewrite below. I think of it as a sequel to the “Traveling Alone” post of a week and a half ago, and a postscript to yesterday’s New York post.

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I remember learning about Carnaval during one of my two semesters of college Portuguese. With four and a half years of Spanish education and one year of French, I could sign up for an advanced Portuguese for speakers of other Romance languages. Most of my classmates were native Spanish speakers whose listening comprehension of the new language was much more intuitive than mine. We were all on new territory as far as spelling, grammar, and speaking, but they seemed to grasp much more of what was being said in class. In spite of the three or four Portuguese courses I ended up taking, I was shy about speaking up, and so my understanding of the language remains rudimentary. But I remember talking samba with the teacher, Clélia, the kindest and most supportive language teacher a newbie could ever hope for. She taught us to samba the way they do at Carnaval, shifting our weight from ball to heel, and when she saw me doing it she beamed at me and exclaimed, Você tem o samba no pé! You have samba in your feet.

Samba no pé, by Xavier Donat via flickr

Samba no pé, by Xavier Donat via flickr

Actually I had learned the basic samba step a year ago, in my first term at Berkeley, when I took a freshman seminar on music and dance in Latin America. Over the fifteen weeks of the semester we learned about samba, mambo, plena, corrido, and Argentine tango; I’ve forgotten most of it, but I left the course with a solid love for Brazilian Portuguese and the music of Astor Piazzolla. Our teaching assistant for the course was a graduate student from São Paulo, a slender, well-dressed woman with long, sleek, honey-colored hair, who turned 30 during the semester. To my 18-year-old eyes she was the pinnacle of elegance and sophistication, and one day she removed her shoes and showed us the samba in her stocking feet. She coached the five or six of us until we had it right, and together we danced to Clara Nunes and Chico Buarque.

That year, full of teenage bravado and with all the world open to me, or so it felt, I decided to learn everything. I would learn to dance tango and play capoeira, I would learn French, Portuguese, Italian, Dutch, and Russian, and travel the world speaking with people in their native languages. I signed up for French over the summer and Portuguese in the fall, and thought I might minor in Romance languages. Eventually… I didn’t. Who knows why? If I had good reasons, I don’t remember them anymore.

Sometimes I feel like my entire life has been a back-and-forth between my natural curiosity and love of adventure, and my natural caution and cultivated fear of hurt and failure. Just when the explorer seems to be taking over, something bad happens and I tumble back into self-protection; either way, my inner critic tags along for a constant stream of what you’re doing isn’t enough, and from there it’s but a short hop to what you are is not enough. A month ago I started attending a capoeira intro series, facing my anxieties head-on, three times a week. As I cringe back from my classmates’ kicks and launch my own, gingerly, afraid of contact, I wonder how to bring that invincible feeling back into my body. Am I braver now, or was I then? I was quiet in my Portuguese classes, but these days I can’t even bring myself to say obrigada to my capoeira teacher, instead of thank you. And yet I’m attempting the capoeira I put off for a full decade, thrusting my body (however timidly) into total, dizzying unfamiliarity.

Does courage have a set point, like body weight, or – as researchers now believe – happiness? Do we spend our lives circling the same invisible quota, around and around, never breaking free of the orbit? Or is it more like exercise, where the fitter we get, the more we raise the bar? I remember spending one of our LA summers hiking up a steep slope of Runyon Canyon. The first time out, I had to stop several times before we even reached the entrance. It’ll get easier, I told myself, but it never did. By the end of the season I was still huffing and puffing, still dripping and exhausted, only now I made my first stop forty minutes later, at the top of the hill. Maybe it’s not that I’m less brave now, as I’ve been thinking, but simply that the things I’m trying are scarier, and so the fear is the same. While reconstructing my New York trip I was surprised to find glimpses of deep nervousness; I have to struggle to understand why I was so scared of exploring the city after dark. In my present self I scoff at that timidity, but that’s good; it means I’ve moved beyond what made me fearful years ago. I’d like to think that courage works like my muscles and my cardiopulmonary system, that while taking risks will always be scary, the things I’ll try will get bigger and bolder and more rewarding, until someday I finally can do anything.

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I love how my journalings and freewrites are in dialogue with each other, as this one is with “Traveling Alone” and yesterday’s New York entry. Your comments keep me thinking, too! Thank you for helping me explore my life and mind. 🙂