Many years ago, I almost drowned–twice. Once, believe it or not, in the Dead Sea where no human being in recorded history has faced such a threat. I was 15 or so, I was on my back in the Dead Sea, and suddenly I felt like I was being pulled down. There was a minor panic on the shore, and then it was all over, the taste of salt in my mouth for days and weeks to follow.
The second time was in Great Neck, NY, when I was some ten years older. It was my first visit to the US; I was staying with a college friend, and we had gone to her parents’ club. And there, in the midst of the commotion and animation, and under the watchful eyes of the life guard, I felt the pull of drowning. I was promptly pulled from the water, comforted, dried. I did not go back to the swimming pool. After this second incident, I was determined to get over my fear, and tried every method under the sun to learn to swim well, but it was not to be. And so I ended up carrying an unexpressed fear of drowning though my love for all things related to water has grown in leaps and bounds.
And so it was with some trepidation that I signed up earlier this year for a course in Provence for immersion French. Immersion French? I must have lost my mind. Immersion French–a sure path to some catastrophe awaiting to snatch me in my frailest moment, and this time for real. Immersion anything meant drowning–in the French language, but still drowning, and drowning was the Dead Sea and Great Neck mixed into one lethal elixir.
But if immersion meant drowning, I’ll take a chance, I thought. I had been studying French with a great teacher, A.P., in Boston; I had learned to conjugate and elaborate and summarize and inflect–all of it out of context. It was time to see how all this accumulated information would play out in the native setting. Twelve hours of French, in France, in the constant company of French teachers. If that’s not the path to drowning, I didn’t know what was.
With an anxious heart, I entered the gates of Le Monastèré de Ségriès, a monastery built in the nineteenth century, in the beautiful regional park of Verdon, in Haute Provence. The beauty of the landscape and the grounds took my breath away, but I was suspicious, very suspicious. My suspicion grew into near-panic when the director of the program led us graciously toward the back, and there, under the beautiful sun was the shimmering waters of a swimming pool. But I held my panic in check, for I was determined to take this jump, come hell or high water.
Five days into the course with teachers who are as witty as they are skilled, as helpful as they are un-patronizing; with co-learners whose excitement is contagious beyond words, I am happy to report that I have been immersed, but I have not drowned though the swimming pool is a 3-minute trek uphill. I have thrown all the rules of grammar to the wind, and talked a broken, awkward French–and for 12 hours of the day.
I may not know the subjunctive; I may falter with the pronouns, but I know for sure that, as my Boston teacher (who’s also a jazz performer) said, When you practice, you practice; when you play, you play. I have no idea what the hidden thread between practice and play is all about, but I do know that learning is a mysterious thing, an opening of the heart and mind to something unknown and strange, something like water. And if this opening immerses me in French, then I’ll do it first kicking and screaming, but later with a certain alert receptivity. And if drowning is the dark side of immersion, then I’ll have to get behind my fear, walk through them, for there is no other way with fear. No escape, no self-delusion, no revising. Walk through fear knowing that there is no reward, no destination on the other side.
Practice, throw it away. Then, play.