How I Am Not Learning French in Eight Weeks or Less

By Sunday, I am undone.

Managing a rapidly-growing poetry blog, working five Facebook pages and three Twitter pages, serving an audience of over 22,000 writers, poets, and insurance adjusters is energizing, but when the week ends, it’s over; I deeply experience the metaphor underlying that well-worn phrase: I can’t think straight.

The first order of business to deal with my bent frame of mind is, of course, a bath. I take my time. I lock the door. I do not bring my computer with me—and not just because of the electricity-conducting nature of bathwater (with or without the bubbles). I need to be alone.

This need for solitude is often surprising to those who know me. After all, I appear to be an extrovert—outgoing, talkative, and rivaling the best of them when it comes to the characteristic New York talk-with-your-hands citizens. Yet, come Sunday, the introvert truth is apparent: I need my space and (I love this metaphor too) I need to unwind.

Sinking into the water, in a quiet room, the process begins. A hundred Facebook updates and comments, a hundred more strings of tweets float away, and my arms begin to move freely. I think of nothing. It is the ideal setup for what comes next: French.

I bought a three hundred page book of Malherbe’s French poetry. I thought it would have English translations. I was about 1/300ths correct in this assumption. There is a page directly before the one that says, “Poésies de François Malherbe.” On this page, I recognize the words public domain and the disclaimer that this valuable book might have missing or blurred pages, poor pictures, errant marks.

It’s okay, this imperfection situation; I wouldn’t know anyway if a poem about Henri lapsed suddenly into one about le frère de Louis XIII, due to that minor point about the translations also being… missing.

All in all, it is the perfect arrangement for a Sunday. After my bath, I take up a notebook, a thin-line Sharpie, and my Malherbe. I understand very little of the French, but I begin to copy words…

Il ne faut qu’avec le visage
L’on tire les mains au pinceau
Tu les montres dans ton ouvrage,
Et le caches dans le tableau *

My brain registers… not much, and this is Sunday serendipity. I feel more of my work-heavy self delightfully lighten as my pen makes its curvy, flowing marks across the page. I soak in the sounds and happen to notice the rhymes. I smile because I can’t help but remember avec from fifth-grade French class and dans and mains. Then I smile again at the internal rhyme playing in lines 2 and 3. (Those clever French, to make poeming so simple through the structure of their language.)

My grandmother was French, and sometimes when I was a child I would hear her either sing or swear in French. I learned nothing but the lilt and the intrigue. I have not made much linguistic progress since then; nevertheless, I rather like the feel of it all. And, I might point out, it is important to absorb the lilt and intrigue of the French language, lest one ultimately speak it a little wrapped-too-tight.

It will probably take me ten more years of Sundays to understand what my grandmother sang and swore, and what I’ve been copying for so long from Malherbe and others to come. Maybe in a decade I will, belatedly, surge with political passion or faint from shock or love. One cannot predict what ten years of after-bath French will do to a person.

If I had a need to actually learn French, if it was pivotal to secure my solitude or decipher the bath faucets, I might attempt to accelerate my progress. As it goes, I’m perfectly happy that I’m not learning my heritage Français in eight weeks or less.



Your hands should not, together with the face,
be drawn with the brush
You reveal them in your work
And hide them in the painting


Getting Out

“I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.” – John Muir

Thank you to Nicole Gliddon; I realized while reading and enjoying her piece A Radical Proposal: Stay Home that I find myself on the flip side of this particular coin. So I’d like to counterbalance her proposal with my current craving: getting out.

“You need to get out more.” It’s become a favorite catch phrase in our indoor-centric modern culture to highlight the odd behaviors people can develop after being cooped up too long, or when demonstrating an atypical lack of awareness of events outside their own little world. It’s used jokingly, of course, but belies a commonly accepted belief: a life lived only indoors can do strange things to us. How much, really, do we need to get out?

Luskentyre - 7
Luskentyre Beach, Isle of Harris, Outer Hebrides
Photo: Colin Campbell

In my eight years since graduating and venturing out into the big wide world with my graphic design degree and its attendant aspirations and ideals, I have transitioned from a job and a rented apartment right in the heart of Scotland’s largest city, with all its convenience, buzz, and general urban delights, to being self-employed and working from an owned apartment in the heart of a small, historic village within a five minute walk of lapping seaside and idyllic pastoral countryside.

I know – it sounds great. I should count my blessings, since I have been able to enjoy these diverse and stimulating living environments, and I do. But I grew up in one of the most remote and ruggedly beautiful parts of rural Scotland – the Outer Hebrides – and that really raises the bar when it comes to finding satisfying homeliness elsewhere. After three years in the city, I had drained the cup of city lights and the stimulating urban vibe and was aching to see sunsets instead of pavements again, solitude far from the madding crowd.

I moved to my current residence with the intention of finding more of a rural setting within the limitations of other life and work factors that make returning to the Outer Hebrides unsuitable. I found a ground floor apartment with surprising ease in a pleasantly situated village of Inverkip, down the coast within 30 miles of Glasgow (in Scotland, considered commuting distance), complete with village shop, inn, yacht marina, forests, and farms. But, shockingly, it’s taken me over four years to really begin to fully appreciate the very things I came here desiring. The blinkered demands of modern life had left me conditioned to spend all my energies on the inside of things while, at best, taking for granted what was around me.

Spango Valley, Inverkip - 1
Spango Valley, Inverkip, Scotland
Photo: Colin Campbell

“I mean, it is an extraordinary thing that a large proportion of your country and my country, of the citizens, never see a wild creature from dawn ’til dusk.” – David Attenborough

I lived and breathed my entire childhood years in an island environment surrounded always by uninhibited sky, wind, moor, and sea. I have dug earth, planted vegetables, sheared sheep, woven tweed, learned to name birds and bugs, and explored many a beach and hill. Having enjoyed these things as part and parcel of life, I am incredulous to discover, in increasing number, those whose life experience contains no firsthand knowledge of even the commonest of these things that I once regarded as the ordinaries of life. Moreover, these folk are often incredulous that I should have firsthand experience of so many things that inhabit the vague Out There when all they have known and know of me has been firmly ensconced in the civilized urbanity of modern life in the Scottish Central Belt.

This collision, of the dawning appreciation for what youth takes so easily for granted with the cabin fever that can creep up on anyone who shifts from an office/studio work environment to working alone in a domestic environment, has made me increasingly desperate to address the imbalance into which I have drifted.

Ponies in the summer evening sun
Ponies in the summer evening sun
Photo: Colin Campbell

Depending on childhood environmental conditioning and personality type, a person will adapt to the indoor “solopreneur” work model with varying ease. I was enough of an introvert to find the idea of working from home appealing, especially when I worked in an open plan office with a dozen colleagues. I didn’t discover my extroverted side until I had been working solo for six months or so. But I am one of those people near the middle of the extrovert/introvert spectrum. I need to be fed in both these areas, to some degree. But something more than simply balancing the social interaction equation is required.

It took me longer to realize that there is a distinction between working alone and solitude. It wasn’t that I didn’t understand that as a concept – I just did not value it as a necessity.

The frenetic pace of twenty-first century life pile-drives us into an uninterrupted round of tasks, communication, and stimulation. If you work away from the home, this torrent is probably naturally interrupted by commuting or family; if not, you have to be doubly wary of routine being overwhelmed by monotony.

Through a glass darkly
Photo: Colin Campbell

Routine and monotony are not synonymous – and if they feel that way, you probably need to perform a life diagnostic. Routine without variety produces monotony. Indeed, one person’s variety is another person’s tedium, and even your former self’s stimulation can eventually become your present self’s boredom. Variety really is the spice of life.

I found that no matter how engaging or satisfying a work routine I devised, I still felt drained. I realized that despite having healthy doses of non-work related activities – time with friends, church life, recreation – the one thing I was neglecting was solitude. It seems an odd way of putting it, but in all of these activities, I was spending time inside myself – and that’s a drain on anyone.

Scenic photography has always been a large part of my recreation. As an avid photographer and traveler, I have enjoyed exploring and photographing countless beautiful sights and locations. But when I am in that objective photographic recording mode, I am not always subjectively enjoying that place and moment. I found sometimes when I went for a walk without the camera, or even (the horror!) without my phone, I would become more aware of outside me than me.

Summer path by the shore - 1
Summer path by the shore in Inverkip
Photo: Colin Campbell

Nothing revolutionary in that, right? But what surprised me was how being outside changed and refreshed, to the core, the Inside Me.

The oaky smell of chimney smoke or garden bonfire drifting through the village street wrapped countless scent memories around me like a blanket. Feeling moving air buffeting my face was refreshingly unpredictable and reassuringly humbling. There’s nothing like the unseen force of the wind sweeping through the office desk of the mind to scatter our cares and all-consuming concerns and readjust their proportions.

Ardgowan Wood, Inverkip, Scotland
Video: Colin Campbell

Sunlight glinting like glistering jewels on waves whose gentle lapping seemed to waft in soothing power right through my whole being. Bird song flitting with ballet grace over cerulean waters and echoing unseen in the orchestra of forest. Trees gathered in age-old steadfastness, yet clothed in ever-changing wonder of color and blossom, always there, but ever different – hearteningly unyielding to fingers that surf the world wide web with ease. Path and thicket, field and mountain – all catalyzing a reaction of wholeness in my body at rest from itself and absorbed in the Outside.

This is why I need to get out more: so that the Inside Me can work happier, healthier, and more productively, and will more frequently remember that he is not the centre of any universe. He’s a very small and insignificant component of a thrillingly beautiful universe that he was created to be in, to live in, to enjoy, and to participate in to the benefit of all and to the benefit of one.

Do yourself a favor – go for a walk.

There is a pleasure in the pathless woods, There is a rapture on the lonely shore, There is society, where none intrudes, By the deep sea, and music in its roar: I love not man the less, but Nature more.
– Lord Byron