Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Sketches of the journey, and beginner's mind

I'm hoping to capture something more on this trip than just some happy snaps and a few travelogue entries. That's by way of explanation for the rather drastically different tone of my last entry. Travel - especially travel alone - throws up so many unique moments where the strangeness of one's external circumstances intersects with a particular coloration of subjectivity, and I want to try to capture some of this, this inner journey. On my couch surfing profile (I'm couch surfing at least part of the time in Germany), I put down my 'mission' as 'chasing my tale'. I'm after stories to tell. Not traveller's war stories, though that's always nice, but stories that illuminate the inner world as much as the outer. Stories for the writer. In that sense I hope to make this blog a sort of sketch pad from which I can later work up more complete portraits. I'm not aiming for perfect, polished pieces. I could of course keep them to myself and work them up into something a little more professional and publish them properly. That would be less risky and less potentially exposing, but I rather like the idea of doing it this way, going out on a limb a bit. It's a fun creative challenge and part of the pleasure of blogging not to be too concerned with perfection.

I had a very enjoyable conversation in the main square of Cordoba with a guy from Peru who had come to study in Cordoba - a city with no less than seven universities. It turned out he spoke reasonably decent German as well as English and Spanish, and in the end we had a conversation that moved spontaneously between the three languages. My German is good enough that I can forget I'm speaking it, so half the time I was in a strangely pleasant meta-linguistic plane, the conversation bouncing like a skipping stone over the surface of language, in flight in those moments when the form was forgotten, touching down when we had to reflect on the underlying language. Of course I can't forget I'm speaking or listening to Spanish, but part of the enjoyment was our incompetencies and failures as much as our fluency, getting the stone skipping again with a bit of help when it splashed in the water, and learning something in the process.

At one point he clarified for me the correct form of 'to be' in the sentence 'I'm just a beginner'. Spanish has a verb for intrinsic being ('ser') and another for temporary or 'state' being ('estar'). I wasn't sure if my beginner status was intrinsic or temporary. It's intrinsic, at least in Spanish grammar: 'Solo soy (ser) un principiante'. It made me reflect on being a beginner, and on the value of it. As I've said before, I initially hated the feeling of incompetency which my rudimentary Spanish gave me in my first few days. I'd be in a shop trying to buy a SIM card - everything about the situation was familiar, in all visual respects almost identical to a situation I might encounter in Australia, but here I'm linguistically disabled, I'm reliant on the kindness and patience of multiple people to guide me here and there, to make gestures of explanation, to speak to me like I was a child or an idiot. I stumble about from one counter to another, making a fool of myself at every point of interaction.

Appalling. But appalling to whom? To the adult who is ensconced in his armour of competence and assurance and mastery, who wants to ride along safely inside the shell of his habits and perfected skills, like a man in a Mercedes on cruise control. But think of a child, whose life is learning, who is constantly confronted by a world which is beyond him or her. Children cannot afford to despise the experience of being a beginner, because it is their very intrinsic condition. Ser not estar.

Neither should we, as adults, because we too are intrinsic beginners. Will always be. It's just that we end up staying as much as possible within the sphere of our established competencies. We hate nothing more than looking a fool. But consider the gifts of embracing our beginner-ness, our beginning-ness. When we begin we are being born, and we all know what Bob Dylan said about those no longer busy being born. There's an immense liberation in being comfortable with being bad at stuff, with failing, falling on one's face, with screwing up, with being utterly crap. And yesterday's beginner is today's journeyman, tomorrow's master. The breadth of what we will be in the end all comes down to what we are prepared to be bad at today.

And finally, it's the precondition of creativity. Because as soon as you're a master of your art, as soon as you've 'got it down', you're finished. When nothing is being born any more, all that remains is the dying.

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