Last month, the weekend I turned 43, I practiced my Parisian Rs for so long, I wore my throat ragged. I sat tall in my chair at the community college and learned about why the T is sounded when I announce myself, “Présente.” It’s because I am female.
Two weeks later, this féminin dropped out of French class.
Hi, I’m Ruth and I’m a quitter.
My closest friends console me saying that uninvited circumstances made it a bad time for me to learn a new language.
Circumstances be damned. Am I going to die monolingual? Am I relegated to an untraveled existence? Am I lazy?
When I was fifteen, my top concerns were:
- where that weekend’s party would be
- whether or not my girlfriend on the pom squad would have time to reteach me the new choreography (since I never remembered the moves after just one practice), and
- remaining on perpetual look out for the moment when I’d know, without out doubt, that what I was feeling was, in fact, true love — not infatuation — thereby meeting my personal criterion for losing my virginity.
With these hot topics boggling my barely-post-pubescent mind, I was tasked with reading Plato’s Allegory of the Cave and presenting a summary of it to my tenth grade English class.
The experience helped me survive high school.
I don’t remember anything from the oral report I gave. I can’t tell you if I drew stick figures on the chalk board. What I do recall is the way the work resonated for me — the epiphany it brought.
Someone, thousands of years earlier, had put in to words what my pompom-toting, hormone-wielding self had sensed all along: none of this bullshit is real.
- The undesired raisin cookie the cafeteria woman smacked onto my tray as she barked, “No chocolate chips today.” ILLUSION.
- The smirk on Jennifer Bailey’s face after three straight weeks of donning pink, canonizing the girliest pastel as the dominant hue in her wardrobe and herself as the girliest girl in the school. DOUBLE ILLUSION.
- The Mercedes convertible the goalie from the DeMatha soccer team drove when he and his friends picked up me and M outside McDonald’s that one time, the Mercedes with the telephone right there in between the two front seats. That car, the french fries, the beer cans and the blow job the fullback convinced M to give him. ALL SHADOWS.
What excited me more than having a new rationale for dismissing minor disappointments, annoyances, the allure of money and boys, and boys with money, was the idea of what lay beyond: the notion that something else existed, something so spectacular as to make everything we can see-smell-touch-feel seem as bland as shadows. I believed it.
I loved it.
I loved thinking about the fact that an object is to its shadow as something real is to what we have here.
Here |hi(ə)r| adverb: used to refer to existence in the world in general.
All of the poems I wrote that year were about two topics: reality vs. “reality,” and boys who neglected to call when they said they’d call.
My enthusiasm died in college, though. Philosophy 140 class discussions went on and on with pale (not even goth-pale just ordinary stay-indoor-type-pale) freshmen who seemed awfully passionate about seeds growing through screens. I don’t know whether to blame my libido or my public school education (or perhaps the patriarchy’s to blame for this too), but the crux of it was that no one I met in the Philosophy Department held any charisma for me whatsoever. The guys in my literature classes may have been just as pasty, but they had the good sense to wear all black and grow their hair long.
Besides, who had time for intellectual drive and discipline when there were Grateful Dead tickets to be scored?
For the rest of college, I took the easy courses. The longest paper I ever wrote was on Sex, Lies and Videotape.
This year, I downloaded Plato’s Republic to my laptop and gave it another try. Turns out, I had mistakenly plucked only spiritual messages from the Allegory. It never occurred to me to apply the metaphor to education — an ironic consequence of yet another reading assignment left incomplete. There’s so much beauty in it, really.
But I haven’t finished it yet.
If any Life Coaches are reading this post, please do not contact me: I’m not hiring.
Perhaps the best next step would be to throw my used paperback of Five Dialogues into a bag and hop on a flight to Europe. I walked 26.2 miles of a marathon, god dammit, je suis capable de lire Platon et manges des fraises dans un café, aussi!
With Google Translate on my side, I’ll be sitting in a cup of coffee in no time.