“Do you know what this means?”
He pushes his workbook over to where I’m sitting on a couch in Maugenhard’s living room. I’ve helped set up an ice cream sundae bar tonight, and made a blueberry coffee cake now in the refrigerator, ready for Maug’s dorm mom to toss in the oven tomorrow morning. Now I’m sitting in a busy rectangle of boys, all in various states of studying. I squint down at the workbook, and realize the instructions requiring interpretation are in German. That’s a new one.
“Actually… yes. It means… Complete these sentences. Actually, it means Make whole these sentences,” I comment with a smile. The nuance of the language isn’t as interesting to him as it is to me, but he seems emboldened by the translation. He asks about a few more words, and I ask him how he, a French speaker living in Israel, came to be in second-year German.
“Took it in France. Seventh grade. So… I’m missing some words.”
I nod, understanding, and he points down to a new word.
“How about this one?”
“Um… dauert means lasts, sort of. Like, How long does it last?”
“You know your German, Mrs. Gaster.”
I can only laugh and shake my head, because lately that’s not how I’ve been feeling. At all.
Flash back a few days, to when I ran errands around town after school. There was the insurance agency, where I needed to cancel insurance I thought I’d already cancelled, before I got a bill for said insurance in the mail. Then the cobbler, who told me he could not fix my defective new Birkenstocks, at least not with the original… whatever the German word for buckles was. I never found out. In any case, I’d have to return them, a mail-order process involving a double-sided form I can’t really read, all to explain that yes, I’d like the same model in the same size, just not backwards-buckling.
This errand-venture ended at the grocery store, usually a haven of mastery. I understand this place, Hieber’s, which is a size of an average Seattle local grocer. I know where most things are. I even negotiated–in German–the exchange of a bag of quinoa a few weeks ago, when a newly-purchased supply proved full of moths. I’ve got this, I said like a crazy person, reassuring myself that I know something of the language and culture I’ve spent four years with.
Except that when I reached up for a pail of yogurt, on a top shelf well above my head, it brought its poorly-placed neighbor crashing down to the floor. This second pail exploded, sending yogurt and plastic shards everywhere–the floor, the dairy shelves, my feet in their flip-flops. I was marooned in a white sea, speechless.
And every German word escaped me. What does one say, stranded in a puddle of yogurt? What would I even say in English? Jogurt… um… fallen? Gefallen? Kaput? Who even knows?
I stood there for a while, catching the raised eyebrows of other customers, but unfortunately no store employees. Several minutes later, an off-duty cashier spied my predicament. Just as I opened my mouth to ask the question I didn’t know how to ask, she said, in German, “I’ll get someone to help.” Hilfe–help. That’s the word I was looking for.
I stood around a while longer, stood in the yogurt as friends, neighbors, colleagues walked by, eyeing me sympathetically, until a large floor zamboni and roll of paper towels came to my rescue. I went home crestfallen, yogurt-covered, tired.
This week at Black Forest Academy, Dr. Richard Alan Farmer has been speaking with our students–each morning in a special chapel before school–about prayer. Different types, postures, reasons for prayer, which he calls “conversations with Papa.”
I love this. And my struggles with language lately make me think of prayer and its many varieties. On occasion, like with the quinoa, I know exactly what to ask for, with just the right words, and I am overjoyed when God responds to me, right away, exactly as I expect. More often, though, I find myself crying Puddle-of-Yogurt Prayers, cries of my heart when I can’t find the words. And while I may find myself endlessly frustrated with my own inept grammar and sparse vocabulary in German, God isn’t so picky. How marvelous to know that He hears, He knows, He understands.
Even when I’ve been feeling particularly speechless.