Language Salat(d)

by J-Me Photography
by J-Me Photography

Language salat(d) is commonly served up at our house. It’s colorful with heavily-accented English words thrown randomly into German sentences. Or in my case when an English word hides somewhere in the chaos of my brain, the German word steps in, covering for its English equivalent. Our general rule – Mama speaks English and Papa speaks German – guides us, but does not constrain us.

Patrick and my love language is German. It is the language that accompanied us through our courtship and early years of marriage when I spoke almost no English. And German is the language we return to now in conversation, even when recently this comfortable habit has elicited protests from the children.

            “Warum redest du immer Deutsch mit dem Papa und English mit uns?! Du kannst doch Deutsch!“
(Why do you always speak German with Papa and English with us?! You can speak German!”)

“What did you say? I didn’t understand you.”

“Ach Mama!”

Of course I understand them, a truth my children grasped from the beginning. And, I suspect, the reason my children all respond to my English with German. Early on I questioned our language tactic, wondering why other bilingual children we know always responded in the appropriate language, switching effortlessly from Mama to Papa. What were we doing wrong? But when a friend shared about a Spanish mother who refuses to respond to any language from her children but her own, I hesitated. Is that what it took to hear my children speak English?

I realized it was. And I also knew I did not have the tenacity to follow through with it. The interaction with my children – applauding their first attempts at forming words, no matter what language; allowing them to tell me their stories in German as they gasp for breath from running the whole way home from school; listening to the Bible stories they’ve learned in Sunday school – has priority and constantly playing a game of not understanding would get in the way.

And so I revel in those moments when the English word comes first, making our language salad even brighter. For example this sentence Alida said as she put her shoes away:

“Dann mache ich deet, deet on the shelf, ganz nicely.”

Of course, a sentence like this is hard to translate, but in essence she said when she puts her shoes together on the shelf it looks very nice (deet, deet is a Schmidt word with multiple meanings, in this case “together”).

Or this response from Fenja to my question “Fenja, why are you wearing my socks?!”:

“Immer, immer (always, but said with a heavyAmerican “R” on the end) sind meine in die Vesh! (combo word of the German Wäsche und English wash).

I can’t imagine speaking to my children in German because English is my heart-language, the one with which I still best express myself and the language I heard while being loved upon as a child. That matters. And I am convinced my children notice it too. When Fenja is bursting with love and exclaims, “Oh Mama, I love you so much!”, I know she’s comprehended on a deeper level the honesty of her mother’s tongue. It is those moments that fill me up and remind me it doesn’t matter if they speak fluent English; my kids can communicate in the language of my heart.

When we began this journey of bilingualism it seemed exciting and scary. While introducing ourselves at my first mother-baby-group with Fenja, I tacked on that I am an American and speak only English to her. Everyone “oooed” and “aahhed”, appreciating the advantage my child would have, but I felt more vulnerable than I had in years. It had become easy to merge imperceptibly with the Germans around me. Only by choice or after longer conversation was my Americanism revealed. And now I was “the American” in the group, no longer just another mama with her baby. Bilingualism demanded I become comfortable being different.

Sometimes it’s hard work too. In those first years switching between German and English left me exhausted. My brain was being pushed as it had been when I first came to Germany. Back then putting German words into a coherent sentence left me ragged. I would take hour-long naps on the tiny blue sofa hoping to give my brain time to recover, but even in sleep, it didn’t rest. I would dream of people trying to communicate, speaking the poor broken language I used. When I woke I felt tired and headachy.

After an hour of mama-baby-group I would nap with Fenja. It was joy to speak my mother-tongue with my baby, but a chore to look up and make other sounds come out of my mouth. Again I often felt tired and headachy. But as with anything, practice makes perfect and after almost nine years of practicing, my brain can now keep up.

I see bilingualism as a great gift Patrick and I are able to offer our children, and perhaps a small recompense for “giving up” my own country. I am impressed when my children understand my English mutterings, even when fast and mumbled, and proud when I see their eyes light up at their own ability to express themselves in English. It’s fun to hear my kids translate for their visiting friends and amusing when at about age three they realized for the first time that their mama really does sound different from most everyone else. (“Most everyone” because we are blessed to be imbedded in a community where several native English speakers are friends, giving our children a place among others like them. They even get to have piano lessons in English – a great learning experience and fun for Mama!)

My kids do not speak fluent English, but I’m convinced it’s there, ready to make an appearance when needed. I no longer ask what we’re doing wrong. Instead when we do things at our house like “laufing” (laufen, German verb for “to run”, with the English –ing ending) and schlafing (schlafen, German verb for “to sleep”, with that English ending again) or when Liam asks for more bones at lunch, and I know he means green beans and a conversation like this takes place:

Alida: Was gibt’s zum Mittagessen? (What are we having for lunch?)

Mama: Something yummy! Spinach omelette with potatoes.

Alida: What for potatoes? Mashed potatoes? (looks concerned)

Mama: No, those little crushed potatoes. You like those!

Alida: Oh, I am glad because I love not mashed potatoes.

I know we are only adding to our lovely language salat(d).

 

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Regaining Balance

Last Friday I was geared up to wish you all a happy Mother Language Day, as February 21st is International Mother Language Day, designated by UNESCO. The day has been observed since 2000 in the hopes of promoting “linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism”. (You can read more about it here: http://www.un.org/en/events/motherlanguageday/) I have a gorgeous picture from J-Me Photography waiting to be called from the depths of my computer files to adorn a post I’ve been meaning to write about raising bi-lingual children. Seriously, what day could have been better for such a post?

But as you might have read in my last post, Before and After, we have entered the state of “after” and everything has changed. With the cancer diagnosis of our Dear One, we have begun a journey entailing many doctor visits in different cities and now a bit more testing before beginning therapy an hour away. I can no longer say with certainty, “If you need me Friday morning, I’ll be at the computer getting my post up for the week,” because I might instead be listening intently to a doctor, wondering exactly what questions I need to ask or waiting for our Dear One to emerge after having poison washed through his veins. This has become our new reality.

I feel I might need to give a clarification: don’t understand it as complaining. I am in the luxurious position of taking the few no-kid hours of my day and miraculously having it multiplied. Unlike Jesus the miracle does not evolve from my hands, although certainly God is involved here too. Amazing friends accomplish the miracle by gathering my children in with their own, feeding them and giving them a home for a few hours with a simple, “Of course I’ll take the kids.” We are in the midst of a community which pours out support in the way of words, prayers, car rides and child care. No, I am not complaining that in this state of “after” nothing is predictable, but rather I am thankful that because of our friends and family, I am able to lend support when necessary.

But something does bother me: I am consumed by the topic of cancer, even as I struggle against that consumption. I am confident that even this new state of “after” will become routine, so that one day there will be room in my head for other topics again, but in this moment, writing about anything else (i.e. bi-lingual children) seems unfitting and too difficult. It could not possibly be authentic, which you, my faithful readers, would detect. I have no capacity for anything else – is that part of the disease? Does cancer not only consume healthy cells, but takes over healthy thoughts and turns them into dark, ugly one-topic repetitive records? Or is it just a natural process, a time we need to digest all that has changed and might change in the future?

I am a big believer in the balance of all things, whether diet, raising children or topics of conversation. Maybe that’s why balancing poses are some of my favorite in yoga: it’s obvious if I’m in equilibrium or not. And then after one side is complete, the other side strains to complete the cycle, creating not only physical balance, but also balance in the brain, both sides equaled out.

Right now I feel completely out of balance because everything revolves around this evil cancer.

I feel I can’t spend energy writing about anything else. Everything in me is on low-burner. I’m just getting by with those things absolutely necessary, and feel incapable of going beyond. I’m hesitant to commit to anything not knowing if I might need to be available for driving or other support measures, and my brain is too full to deal with other things. We have been pushed off-balance because our regulated routines and false security in daily life which give us equilibrium have been shaken. We sway with flailing arms; we continue to gasp for air, hoping the calming waves of deep, easy breathing will soon wash over us.

One of these days, we’ll catch our balance again. I’m sure of it. And until we can hold it ourselves, we have others around us, bearing some of the weight. I’m not the one with a cancer diagnosis, watching as my body is destroyed in order for it to one day regain strength. I can’t directly jump in the fight against it. But maybe there is a way to not allow cancer to get the upper hand – by not allowing our equilibrium to be destroyed. Every day we’re gaining a bit of it back, and we will continue to work at it. That much we can do.

With thanks to Miriam and Hanna
With thanks to Miriam and Hanna

When a Clan Gathers

When a clan gathers, it is beautiful. Even when the reason for the gathering demands solemnity and sadness, it remains beautiful, perhaps only then becoming perfect.

This past week I have observed a clan gathering around its matriarch. She is dying, finally succumbing to the cancer she has defied already much longer than the doctors supposed. It seems the fight left first; her strength followed. The downward slide began when she woke one night in pain. Within a week’s span she went from daily walks in the woods to barely finding the strength to eat.

But what has happened during that week moves me. Already a tight-knit extended family, it has pulled together like emperor penguins huddling together to flout the devastating cold. But here it is not the cold they are attempting to keep out. It’s not even death, although to ponder – if we surround her with enough love, could we have just a bit more time – is normal. No, it’s not even that.

They have flown and come by car. They coordinate their comings and goings, day and night, to be sure someone is always there. Not necessarily next to her bed or sitting holding her hand, but in the house baking, cooking, and chatting – just being. Within days those awkward necessities were organized: toilet commode, shower stool, a better recliner. Favorite meals are made one last time. They call to encourage one last reunion or to offer one last peace.

The clan has gathered around their matriarch and has taken up where she once led. With the years her steps have slowed, but never has she stopped offering up her dining table as a meeting place, open to any religion and all ideas. Over a cup of coffee she stood her ground, but always in love. Her hospitality has been my beacon in the fog of “perfect” German housewife expectations. From her I remember it does not matter if my house is perfectly clean or the presentation of food is impeccable. The food should be tasty, but most important is the warmth with which it is offered and the genuine interest that accompanies it.

Her table remains open; her family has seen to that. And even if her community is not physically present there, we too have gathered around her in our thoughts and with our prayers. For when she feels that final nudge from her Maker, telling her it is time to come home, she will be able to go, knowing her clan and community into which she has invested so much passion, good cooking and love, is ready to carry on.

This is love and it is community. Her clan has come to gather around her and lift her up in order to let her go.

Tree Reaching Up

A Tiny Bit

A riddle: What do a goose, paper lanterns and sweet yeast pretzels all have in common?

If you’re German the answer should be obvious; if you’re North American you are probably shrugging your shoulders.

The answer: St. Martin’s Day

So now you really have no idea what’s going on. Let me explain…on November 11 every year we remember Bishop Martin von Tours who was buried on that day in 397. Yes, the year was 397! Contrary to the lack of Halloween tradition (read about my feelings about that here), St. Martin’s Day rituals have developed from the stories of a man who lived from 316 to 397. Now that is what I call holding with tradition!

The Goose

Martin (actually Martinus, his father being a Roman solider), as family obligations demanded, became a solider at the age of 15. Already at that immature age he was admired among his colleagues because of his humility and helpfulness. During those first years he prepared for Christian baptism from which Source he found ways to feed the hungry and clothe the needy with his meager allowance.

Liam, last year, at St. Martin
Liam, last year, at St. Martin

During a particularly harsh winter Martin rode (apparently there is little evidence that he actually rode a horse, but the story has evolved so that today’s St. Martin always sits upon a white horse) into the city where a beggar begged for mercy and help. Martin’s colleagues rode on, but Martin felt compelled to help. With only his sword and officer’s overcoat with him, he unbuckled his sword, removed his overcoat and slashed it in half with his sword. One part he gave to the freezing man; the other he wrapped around himself again. His fellow soldiers mocked him for such an act and he was punished with three days in jail for destroying military property.

But as the story goes, that event changed his life. The same night he had a dream in which Jesus appeared to him, covered in the halved overcoat. An angel spoke to him, “Martin, who is not even baptized, has covered Christ with this coat.” It was also because of this dream that Martin felt obligated to end his military service in order to serve God. Not until two years later did Martin finally leave the military with the reasoning that as a Christian he could not use the sword to kill and shed innocent blood. (He was, actually, the first Pacifist!) He soon began his training to become a priest and eventually entered a monastery.

Ten years later, when a new bishop needed to be anointed, the people called for Martin. He was well-known because of his good deeds, and the people were confident he would be a worthy bishop. Martin, on the other hand, was still humble and felt unworthy for such a position. He tried to escape the pull of the people, and as it is told, he hid in a goose barn. The loud cackling of the geese revealed his hiding place and eventually sealed his fate. On July 4th, 372 Martin was consecrated as Bishop von Tours.

Because of their betrayal, the goose now belongs to the traditional St. Martin’s meal.

Paper Lanterns

The kids with their lanterns.
The kids with their lanterns.

A week before the actual event, Patrick sat huddled over a too small table in kindergarten (preschool) creating a silver cat lantern with a pink-striped parchment paper middle for our youngest daughter. As agreed upon in our marital contract, Patrick is responsible for all things crafty and St. Martin lanterns definitely fall into that category. We agreed when Fenja began kindergarten that each of our children would get one parent hand-crafted lantern for the duration of their childhood. Each year we blow off the dust and check the condition of the lanterns and corresponding lights-on-sticks that make the lanterns glow. Fenja’s mouse lantern, already five years old, has some water damage from one particularly wet St. Martin’s fest, but looks good otherwise. Liam decided he wanted something new this year. Fine, as long as he did it himself. And he did. He crafted, with very little help, his own bat lantern this year. And Alida could not be more pleased with her kitty. With one new light stick and a few new batteries, the lanterns were ready.

Unfortunately this year we arrived too late at the church and only got back row seats. As the organization of the event at some point fell to the kindergartens, the littlest ones carry the responsibility to awaken the adults’ enthusiasm. And this they do, at least in our town, with success. Filled as if it were Christmas, each bench and side aisle was stuffed with eager and restless children and parents, some looking stressed, others with large cameras hanging around their necks. Again, just as with the church service for Liam’s first day of school (read about that here), this service was voluntary, except for the maybe ten children taking part in the program, and yet they came. The majority of the people there have little to no contact with church, and yet because “that’s what you do on St. Martin”, they come. It’s mind-boggling, every time.

Each year we sing songs specifically about St. Martin and the story of how he shared his overcoat, but also other songs about God welcoming all of us. And each year the story is re-enacted so that we will remember and take St. Martin as an example. Every year the children in the program pray for poor children in our world and that each person may find a way to help. Even among the noisy children, it is moving. Every year.

The masses are then released. We walk through the streets of our town, if we’re lucky in a spot right behind the town band where you can actually hear the music and sing along. The kids proudly carry their lanterns, shining light into the darkness of our world.

Sweet Yeast Pretzels

The Bonfire
The Bonfire

Finally we all meet up again at our town square where a blazing bonfire has been prepared by our firemen. We walk by this year’s St. Martin, sitting atop his horse, where each child sees the man whom we strive to model, just like in one Martin’s song: “Ein bisschen so wie Martin, möchte ich manchmal sein und ich will an andre denken, ihnen auch mal etwas schenken. Nur ein bisschen klitze klein möchte ich wie St. Martin sein.” (A little bit like Martin, I would like to sometimes be. And I want to think of others, sometimes give them something too. Just a tiny little bit would I like to be like him.)

St. Martin
St. Martin

Like every other parent at the square, we rummage through our bag and produce cups of varying sizes. Then Patrick and Liam stand in line. And wait. With all those parents and kids, it takes a while. But finally it’s their turn and our cups are filled with warm punch and (for Mama) warm wine, called Glühwein. By now the cold has seeped into our toes and fingers; the girls and I wait impatiently for the boys to return. When they do we gladly wrap our hands around the cups, feeling the warmth spread out. And then the best: Patrick produces five huge soft pretzels, one for each of us. The sweet dough is a treat.

Yummy!
Yummy!

We stand with our friends and their children in a circle, dancing from one foot to the other to warm them. It seems the whole town has come out and we meet acquaintances we haven’t seen for awhile. Despite the cold there is warmth radiating through the people. The bonfire and punch do their part, but as we share within this community, it is as if we indeed, for a few brief moments, have become just a tiny bit like Martin.

Heart Language

J-Me Photography http://www.etsy.com/shop/PhotographyByJme
J-Me Photography
http://www.etsy.com/shop/PhotographyByJme

When I’m at the soccer field cheering for Liam in English, it’s not unusual to hear other comments being yelled in Albanian, Dutch or Turkish. While skipping around the gym during our weekly mother and child fun exercise hour, I’m not the odd-ball out because I only speak to Alida in a language other than German. I overhear other mothers calling to their children in Portuguese, Hungarian, English or Thai. German is the language we parents use to communicate to each other, but often our heart language is a different one.

Raising bilingual kids has been an exciting and interesting journey. (I’ll write more about our personal experiences in a post soon!) But I’m glad Patrick and I aren’t the only parents running this experiment with their children. We’re lucky enough to represent a small piece within a large community of couples who are raising bilingual children. Patrick’s brother and his Japanese wife have been encouraging in their example of raising two kids, now teenagers who are fluent in German and Japanese and strong contenders in English and French (school subjects). Patrick has a teacher friend whose husband is French: their children switch effortlessly between French and German during their holidays in France. A dear teenage friend of ours speaks beautiful English with the kids and me, but alternates to German with Patrick. Thanks to her Canadian mother and German father, it’s easy.

We’re not alone and thankfully we have many parents around us who we first questioned thoroughly about the best way to do this bilingual thing and whom we now can ask when we’re unsure about a certain child’s language development, for example. It’s fun to compare and hear stories: one little girl developed her own language because obviously if her papa spoke one language and her mother a different one, then she too needed her own. Eventually it became too tricky for her to keep track of all three languages, so she ended up concentrating on the two her parents speak. Another bilingual child identified the language his mother spoke with women and the language his father spoke with men, meaning with all women (no matter if they understood or not!) he spoke his mother’s language and with men, his father’s.

Even when in our globalized world raising bilingual children is nothing extraordinary, it is still a gift. And being able to give our children two languages from the very beginning is a gift I am thankful to be able to give.

Over a year ago a mother of one of these bilingual families gave me a book to read:
Mit Zwei Sprachen Groß Werden, Mehrsprachige Erziehung in Familie, Kindergarten und Schule by Elke Montanari. (I was unable to find an English translation, although it doesn’t mean there isn’t one, but the English title might be something like “Growing Up with Two Languages; Multi-lingual Nurturing in the Family, Preschool and School”.) I just read a scathing comment about it on Amazon.de claiming the book is not “scientific enough”. That is exactly why I found the book to be so great. The author is encouraging in all matters of multilingualism; her main credo being if you have the opportunity to involve more than one language in your child’s life, do it, no matter how much or how little (and in an authentic way).

A disclaimer here: I (and I believe to speak for the author as well) do NOT encourage people running their small children all over kingdom-come to learn languages they have nothing to do with on a regular basis. I’ve seen shows about parents who send their nine-year-olds to another country for an “exchange” in order for the child to learn another language and wonder in the end why their relationship with their child had negatively changed.  I’ve heard of people hiring Chinese nannies so that their children will have an advantage in the “real world”. This is NOT what I am talking about. Forcing foreign languages in that way upon children is succumbing to the “What My Child Should Be Able to Do Perfectly by the Age of Ten” checklist and has nothing to do with authenticity.

One point that stuck with me is how Montanari identified some languages as being seen as “good” or “desirable” (unfortunately I don’t remember her exact terminology), and others as the opposite. Of course which language is desirable has changed over the course of the centuries. At one time Latin was the diplomatic language, used for international relationships; in the 18th century French took over. Thanks to the colonization by the Brits in the 19th century and the United States’ rise to world power status in the 20th century, English is now the “in” language to speak.

In Germany they begin learning English at least in elementary school, if not even in preschool. English is the one language required across the board, no matter what type of school a kid attends. In some schools, especially in a university-track school (called Gymnasium) a pupil might choose to begin with a different language, maybe French or Latin, but it is almost impossible to end a high school career without some English schooling. Most of the German people speak some sort of English, even quite often pride themselves in their ability to communicate in the language. Even if you want to speak German in a rough-going beginner’s way, you can be hard-pressed to find Germans who won’t find it better to switch to English. But the point is it is defined as “good”; therefore, our children, according to comments made to me, are especially lucky to be learning such a fabulous world-worthy language.

I agree English happens to be a good language to know and to grow up hearing, but if I were Hungarian, my mother-tongue would be no less valuable. And passing it on to my children would not be less important. My children have a huge advantage because they are constantly told from others how lucky they are to be learning English. It has been and continues to be made clear to them that their second language is “desirable”. Of course this is an easy way to motivate, although being able to speak to Grandma and Grandpa also entices. Having several native English speakers in our community is an added bonus, which naturally encourages practicing English, and makes it more than just a strange Mom language.

Of course learning a more obscure second language can make it difficult for a child to see the necessity in it. They can’t see any immediate importance of knowing and speaking that language. Maybe the child never hears anyone other than family speaking it and wonder, “What’s the point?”

BUT, and I’m going to repeat myself here, it doesn’t make the language any less valuable. A mother tongue is a heart language, no matter if the world considers it to be “desirable” or not. It is Heimat (That word again! For more on it, see this post.); it is a mother’s whisper from long ago. Nowadays languages are often identified as “first” and “second” languages, depending on what language is stronger. My children’s first language is German because they live in a community where German serves them best, but English is more than just a “second language” to them. It is their “mother’s tongue” (a “father’s tongue” is no different) and expresses warm cuddles, loud laughter and softness; it lends identify across country borders. It is my heart language and with it, I communicate tenderness and love, and I am confident my children have heard it.

What breaks my heart is when I hear people in one breath praising our efforts at “teaching” our children English, while shaking their heads at Turkish families who continue to speak Turkish in the home. (In Germany there are many Turkish immigrants; often people speak negatively of that language, although I think it is no different in the States. Think Mexican immigrants and Spanish.) The usual argument goes something like this: These people live in Germany now, and so they need to learn the language here. They need to integrate. If they want to live here, they need to at least try to fit in!

How can I be praised for speaking my language at home and others are denounced for it? How can a person be denied his mother tongue, when without it he cannot fully express himself? The language that helps these individuals remember where they come from; the language that holds fast a connection to family members in the native country. All foreigners should proudly speak their language and obviously pass it along to their children. Yes, they live in another country now, and yes learning the language of this country will help them succeed here too. Most are more than willing to do this.

But I am convinced if Turkish parents – I’m going to continue with our Turkish friends as an example, but any other nonnative could be used interchangeably – would be encouraged to speak proper Turkish with their children, those children would go on to learn proper German when they come into kindergarten. How often have Turkish parents been told by Germans that their children must learn German? Obviously the parents begin to waver and want what’s best for their children and so renounce their own beginnings and speak German with their children. As I can attest, any learned language is rarely spoken from the heart. It is often riddled with mistakes, and is in a way, cold or without feeling. These children come into a school setting having learned neither proper German nor Turkish, the language that would have given them a place to spring from. And instead of being told how special they are because they can already speak two languages, they are made to feel ashamed because they can’t speak proper German. Do we really have to wonder why there are Turkish people who don’t feel welcome in this country?

Bilingual children, and not just ones with “desirable” languages, need to be built up and encouraged. These children need to feel proud of the gift they have been given. They are not just learning another language, like later at school. With their mother and father tongues they receive a gift of belonging, of a beginning. And with it they are better prepared to continue their lives’ journeys. It is a gift that we cannot refuse them.

When we finally learn to embrace this gift of multilingualism, the mosaic of our communities can only become stronger and more colorful. On the surface the German language connects us, but looking closer we see each tiny piece that is a different language, each of which speaks from the heart.

 

Don’t forget to look for a post coming soon about our personal adventures in raising bilingual kids!

When I’m Well

girl with flowersLuckily I had been warned. I knew I wouldn’t meet the same man I had once known and this information gave me consolation. He wouldn’t be the energetic, opinionated, articulate man who had welcomed me, along with his wife, into their home so many years ago. He had been changed by the enemy cells that had taken over too quickly and by the resulting therapy to fight them. Our meeting after several years of this fighting would be different.

Pushed in a wheelchair because he can no longer walk on his own, he sits, cap on his head I assume to cover the scars, with a somewhat bewildered look on his face: bewildered at how it has come to this; bewildered at how people greet him with varying looks of sympathy, pity and alarm stemming from their own uncertainty.

I am genuinely so happy to see him, and although I too feel uncertain about how I should greet him, I do what comes naturally. For him unexpected I lean over and envelope him in a big, awkward wheelchair hug. Then comes the easy stuff: asking if he needs more coffee, introducing myself to his son whom I had yet to meet, asking about the family weekend. And then because I do want to know, but without thinking where it may lead, I ask,

“And how are you doing?”

“Na ja,” he replies. (In German class we learned to reply so la la, pronounced exactly the way it looks, when we were neither doing well nor badly. Of course in class this is how we always responded when asked, Wie geht es dir? because it’s just fun to say. Unfortunately Germans do not use it on a regular basis. Na ja, pronounced “nah yah”, is used more frequently and in various circumstances and means something like “okay” with resignation. Often and in this case with a sigh thrown in.)

It is a simple, yet completely appropriate response because really, what else should he say? He no longer has exciting vacation tales to tell and going into details about the latest therapy possibilities and struggles in his day-to-day over a quick cup of coffee and in the midst of a curious crowd is impossible. So we leave it at that.

I smile, wishing I could telepathically share all of my thoughts, feelings and wishes for him, but am at a loss as to what I should actually say.

“You look good,” he says.

“Thank you,” I grin. “I’m doing well too.”

With that our conversation comes abruptly to an end, as another old acquaintance greets him. Before he is swept away to lunch, I kiss him on the cheek and tell him again how good it is to see him.

Our encounter stays with me and forces me to repeatedly ask the same questions: was it appropriate for me to say I am doing well, even though I know he is not? Can I be sensitive to the situation of others, even while I am enjoying life and am thankful for where I am in my life right now?

In our little town and among church family, we hear predominantly bad news. Spouses of fellow choir members have been diagnosed with cancer and fight for their lives. A fifty-year-old man with school-aged children recently lost his battle to the tumors that consumed him. One older church member waits for a hip replacement while recovering from the last and is, in the meantime, lonely.

These are the individuals with whom I struggle along. I pray for them; I worry with them: nonetheless, I am happy. It feels good and freeing to be writing. My children are healthy and carefree. We have fun and exciting summer plans to look forward to. In this moment we are in a good place, and I am so thankful for that. But when I interact with these friends who are not well, is it fair to them to reveal the truth of my happiness? Will I not be a carnival-type mirror that only serves as a painful reminder of their reality?

Knowing full-well everything can change in an instant, I want to savor completely this moment of goodness we are experiencing. But my happiness silences me when face-to-face with a hurting person. Although running away would be easier, my faith and desire to care for others does not allow it, and so I awkwardly stand there, wondering what words, if any, are the right ones. It seems I have a knack for allowing the wrong ones to cross my tongue, so even with the best intentions, I offend. Caught in a vicious cycle, I wonder again if I should remain still, but what if, by Divine Intervention, I manage to find the right words? What if I can be a balsam to a soul? I then have no right to refrain.

It is a balancing act, but perhaps one I can only truly grasp when I have endured such difficulties. Questions still plague me, but for now I will continue to revel in the joy of our contentment. Even in my uncertainty and in each unique circumstance, I will search for the best way to communicate my care (and possibly work on my telepathy).