Friday, August 11, 2017

Spanish, Superpowers, and Honoring Childhood Dreams

            I love the library near my house. They have free events all the time. The other night they had a grown up game night, complete with Twister, Nerf gun wars, and a life-size game of chess.
            One of their offerings is language conversation groups. I attend the Spanish group on Thursday evenings. Those of us learning Spanish or keeping up with our Spanish sit around a table and discuss various topics. What I love is that we’re literally just talking. But because it’s in a different language, it feels super productive.
In the city where I live, where time is a precious of commodity, just sitting and talking with anyone is somewhat rare. And, as one who has led many a church small group, I know how difficult it is to get everyone to open up and talk or ask questions. In this context, everyone wants to talk. It’s the whole purpose of being there.
            All that to say, I’ve learned more about these people than I have learned about most people I’ve known for months. Because all we do is talk for an hour every Thursday night and the topics are usually very interesting.
            Last night, the opening conversation starter was, “Why did you want to learn Spanish?”
            The answers varied. One gentleman lived in southern Florida and had a lot of Hispanic friends. One woman just liked languages (she speaks nine of them, in fact). Several people needed a second language for work. One woman had grandparents from Puerto Rico who didn’t speak English and she wanted to be able to communicate with them.
            When it came time for me to answer, I said I wanted to learn because I wanted a superpower. Spanish is my superpower.
            This hearkened back to the early days of my childhood when missionaries from Guatemala visited our home. I learned to count to 10 in Spanish and thought I was half way to being fluent.
            That summer, my mom enrolled me in a Spanish camp. I could order pizza in Spanish and I knew I was practically a native.
            As a teenager, I visited Guatemala for the first time. One of the missionaries told me how to ask for napkins at a restaurant. I remember walking away from the counter with a pile of white napkins proudly gripped in my fist. For the first time, I’d communicated in another language with someone from a different country.
            I felt like I had just saved the world.
            It’s been almost twenty years since that first moment of triumph. While I’ve never regretted putting time and resources into learning Spanish, I often wonder what the purpose is. I don’t live in a Spanish-speaking country. I don’t attend a church or live in a community with Spanish speakers. My job doesn’t use it. Nobody in my family speaks it. I can count on one hand the number of times Spanish has come in handy since returning from a year long posting in Mexico.
            One of those moments was in seminary. I was writing a paper on Catholicism and trying to figure out from which direction I wanted to approach it. My preliminary research led me to several articles written by reporters from Mexico, which were all in Spanish. I printed them out and started to read.
            At one point while reading, I halted my highlighter mid swipe, looked up from the article and said to myself, “I’m doing research in a different language. This is so cool!”
            Though I’ve never regretted acquiring this superpower, when one considers the money and the time put into its acquisition, one does begin to wonder what the point of having it is.
I mean, I’m sure Clark Kent—pre Super Man—had to wonder why he had super strength if he just had to keep it hidden.
            Not that I’m comparing myself to Super Man (yes, actually I am), I just sometimes wonder. If I had known how much time and money it would take, if I had known how many tears would be shed and how many headaches from studying I would fend off with ibuprofen, would I have pursued it? Was the utilitarian purpose truly worth it?
            Last night, as I sat in my Spanish conversation group, looking around at the odd assortment of people—people from all over the world with life stories so different from mine—I realized, I don’t need Spanish to have a utilitarian purpose. Many of the attenders had a utilitarian purpose for their language study, but by the looks on their faces, most of them were attending the group because they enjoyed it. As one group member remarked, “We’re all such geeks. We’re learning Spanish for fun!”
            His words were a timely prophesy for my soul. Yes, my superpower has come in handy on occasion. Yes, I hope to use it regularly, and I pray someday I’ll be able to enroll my children in a Spanish immersion school. Yes, I can see how it might be useful and could very well open doors somewhere in the future.
            But for now, my seven-year-old self is smiling up at me, beaming with the wonder of a girl who’s just learned how to count to 10 in another language. She has no idea how difficult it is to learn another language, but she doesn’t care. She loves it. It brings her joy and opens her mind and heart to a whole other world. Her dream is far bigger than she could ever imagine: it doesn’t make sense and is rather impractical.
            She is completely unaware of these realities and that makes her joy that much more inspiring.
            It’s an honor to help make her dream come true.
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Mexico, 2014

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Saturday, August 5, 2017

Fairydell and the Magic Paintbrush (Part 1-The Pixies and the Fairies)

This is the story of the Goodmund children who lived in the big white house on the boarder of Fairydell. Fairydell was a place, as its name suggests, where fairies lived. But not just fairies. It was also the home of many other creatures. Pixies, for example, also lived in Fairydell. Some people think pixies and fairies are the same thing, but really they are very different. You see, fairies look a lot like small children. So much so that you might see one and not know it is a fairy (they keep their wings hidden unless they know you are friendly towards fairies).
Pixies you might not be able to see at all. They are quite small and fly around, zipping and ducking so quickly that you might think one is a shooting star or a firefly who’s late for dinner.
These are the sorts of things the Goodmund children discovered while living near Fairydell. Eli was the oldest and he liked talking to the fairies and pixies and all the other creatures. He liked to hear their stories and tell stories back. He was quite gifted at remembering little things about each creature. For example, he new that blue leaves often hid under green leaves because they were shy and were afraid if someone saw them, they might wonder why the leaf was blue and not green. Eli could convince the blue leaves to come out and enjoy the sun if he sat quietly and spoke softly, saying all kinds of encouraging things about the sun and oxygen and how it was perfectly normal for a leaf to be blue.
Sophia was just a little younger than Eli and liked to draw and paint things. She would sit in Fairydell for hours and paint any enchanting creature who could sit still for a little while. She’d bring her paintings home and show them to her mother, who thought she had a facinating imagination.
Sophia liked to paint the fairies and the fairies liked to be painted. They would sit still, looking quite regal, as Sophia painted them. You see, fairies are very full of themselves and think they are rather important creatures. They would tut around Sophia as she painted and ask her whether she was sure she got the nose right or if her drawing of the pointed ears were not a little bit exaggerated. However, Sophia was used to the fairies being snobbish and was always very patient with them.
The pixies, on the other hand, would not sit still at all. They would land for a few seconds—just long enough for Sophia to choose the right color—and then they would fly off quickly, looking for something else to do. Sophia was determined to draw pixies one day and held out hope that she would find one who did not have quite as much energy as the rest.
Then there was Jude, the youngest. Jude was an inventor and liked to use his inventions to help the creatures of Fairydell. For example, the porskews--who look something like a hedgehog and something like a squirrel. In fact, if you see a hedgehog or a squirrel, you might not know if you are looking at a porskew--had more children then they expected and needed to move into a larger tree. However, the baby porskews were too small to move and too heavy for their parents to carry one by one. Jude constructed a lift with pulleys and string and was able to move the entire family from one tree to another. Of course, it got a little dangerous when the pixies started flying about the lift, poking and pulling at it because they thought the contraption was funny looking. Eli managed this situation by threatening to tell the fairies that the pixies were misbehaving.
As sometimes happens, this made the pixies misbehave more, and the baby porskews almost fell out of the lift. If Jude had not made the lift with walls—making it look something like a basket—the porskews might have lost their litter. At just the critical moment, Eli distracted the pixies by offering them chocolate (all pixies love chocolate) and the pixies left the porskews alone.
As you may have noticed, pixies are playful little things who are always getting into trouble. It might have something to with how difficult it is for them to speak English. Their language sounds a lot like a singing laughter. If you’ve ever heard someone trying to sing while they are laughing you know what I am talking about. Sometimes pixies get angry, but not very often because they are very happy creatures. If they should get angry it will sound a lot like gurgling water so you might not realize they are upset, especially if you happen to be near a pond or a brook when you hear them.
There is something else you should probably know about the pixies and the fairies. First, the fairies, as special and important as they are, do not like the pixies. In fact, they take very hard lines with them in order to keep them from causing too much trouble. The pixies seem to think the fairies are big bullies (big to the pixies, anyway, the fairies are really very small). They sought out any opportunity to play tricks on the fairies, which, of course, only made the fairies that much more strict.
The Goodmund children were constantly dealing with the squabbles between the pixies and the fairies. Once, after the pixies had played a prank on the fairies by dropping an entire pod of dandelion florets on the fairies during their morning dance lesson, Eli gave an exasperated sigh, “Why can’t the pixies and fairies get along?”
“Hmph,” said Regina, the head fairy (fairies could speak very good English as well as most languages of the other creatures). “Why can’t the pixies move somewhere else? This is Fairydell after all, and no one wants them here.”
Some of the pixies overheard this and it hurt their feelings very much. They retreated into their homes in the tip-tops of the trees and nothing Eli said could coax them to come out and play. He also couldn’t get the fairies to apologize since the comment was made after the pixies had interrupted their dance lesson. The fairies said they would only say sorry if the pixies said sorry and that was the end of it. It seemed there was no hope for the pixies and fairies becoming friends.
            By and by the squabble seemed to die down and things returned to normal. At least it seemed that way. Little did anyone know that the pixies were concocting a scheme in which they would play their biggest trick yet.
The fairies had a wooden chest that they kept hidden beneath the moss so as to keep it out of the way. It was a very special chest and held all sorts of special objects. One object was a magic watering jug used to help any fairy who was feeling under the weather. A few drops of water from the jug would help the sick fairy feel better. Another was a mirror that told whoever looked into it what they needed to do in order to improve their appearance. Each fairy would have a look every morning and might be told, “A strand of hair is out of place and falling in your face,” or “wash behind your ears or the sight might bring you to tears.”
            Then there was the most magic object of all. It was a paintbrush that only the head fairy was allowed to wield. It was used to decorate their home beneath the bushes and could paint very elaborate murals over the roots and branches of the their glade. The way it was used was somewhat of a mystery, but it took Regina no time at all to change the paintings and she would change them every day.
            The pixies thought it would be a great joke if they stole the paintbrush and gave it to Sophia as a gift. They’d tell her it was from the fairies and then the fairies couldn’t take it back. So one day, not too long after the day Regina said she wished the pixies would move somewhere else, the fairies were down by the brook having their spa day. Their blond ringlets were wrapped in moss and their pale skin as covered in mud with a few drops of the magic water mixed in. They lay on the bank of the brook, covered by a canopy of leaves in order to avoid the sun.
This was the moment the pixies used to steal the paintbrush.
Once they had it, however, they suddenly realized they needed to communicate that the paintbrush was a gift from the fairies (as I’ve already said, the pixies aren’t very good at English). As they were zipping about, tossing out ideas on how to tell Sophia about the paintbrush, one of the littlest pixies flew to the center of the commotion. In pixie language, her name was Hahahalalalaoolahahalalaoolalala. But in English her name was Aria. She called the pixies to attention, which just means she asked all of them to zip about closely and try to pay attention. “I---Write,” she said. And all the pixies gasped. Then Aria took a leaf and the juice of a berry and wrote, “Fum da Ferys.” The pixies cheered and they wrapped the paintbrush and hid it near the stone where Sophia usually sat to draw or paint things.

They watched from the treetops, waiting for Sophia to find their gift.
(Part 2-The Magic Paintbrush)

Fairydell and the Magic Paintbrush (Part 2-The Magic Paintbrush)

It didn’t take long for Eli, Sophia, and Jude to be seen running down the hill towards Fairydell. Almost at once, Sophia found the little package. She opened it slowly, wondering what “da Ferys” could have gotten her. When she saw the paintbrush, she put a hand over her mouth and her eyes filled with tears. She knew how special the paintbrush was and she could not believe the fairies had really given it to her.
Eli and Jude eventually realized that Sophia was just standing there in shock, so they came over to investigate. When they saw the paintbrush, they instantly became jealous.
“Did the fairies leave anything for me?” Jude asked, as he poked around the bushes looking for another package.
“How do you know it’s for you?” said Eli.
“They left it on my rock,” said Sophia.
“But did it have your name on it?” he asked.
 “It had to have been for me,” said Sophia. “I’m the one who paints and draws.”
“But I make things too,” said Jude. “I could use that to draw my inventions.”
“You can always borrow it,” said Sophia, but secretly she hoped he wouldn’t.
“It’s not fair,” said Eli.
“Either way,” said Sophia. “I think I’ll go down to the fairies and thank them.” She walked towards the brook with her head held high. She was sure the fairies considered her the favorite.
When she was almost there, however, Sophia stopped. Perhaps, she thought, I can draw them something to tell them how much this gift means to me. She took out her paper and held the paintbrush awkwardly in her hand. She had no paint, and she wasn’t quite sure how the brush should work.  Then suddenly, and image of a pixie popped into her head. To her surprise, the minute she thought of the pixie, the image appeared on the paper. “So that’s how it works!” Sophia said. All you must do is think of what you want to draw and the paintbrush does it for you. Sophia was so pleased. She began painting picture after picture. She painted the porskew family. Her brothers. Every fairy. And, to her delight, she painted image after image of the pixies. “Hooray!” she said happily. It was the most wonderful gift she had ever received.
Unbeknownst to her, the fairies had returned from their spa day. As they were waltzing up to their home, they came upon Sophia, wielding the magic brush. “How—how dare you!” Sputtered Regina. And the other fairies joined in speaking in so many different creature languages at once that it sounded like a horribly tuned orchestra.
Sophia had no idea why they were so upset. She looked around at the paintings and realized the paintings of the pixies were laying on top. That’s just silly, she thought to herself. But she cleaned them up anyway. She found the paintings of the fairies and held them out to Regina. “I made these for you,” she said. “Thank you so much for my gift. It is such beautiful present. You really shouldn’t have, but I promise to take care of it and use it to draw beautiful things.”
            The fairies were dumbfounded. They did not remember giving the paintbrush to Sophia, but they also couldn’t tell her that the paintbrush did not belong to her. They saw the happiness on Sophia’s face and none of them could think of a way to tell her the truth. They just stood there with fake smiles, thanked her for the paintings, and then went home.
            It did not take the fairies very long to realize the pixies were behind all this. “That does it,” said Regina. “The pixies must leave Fairydell for good. I have had it with their mischief. We must get rid of them at once.”
The other fairies agreed immediately. They set about calling all the woodland creatures to a meeting and determined to have a vote to expel all the pixies from Fairydell.
            Meanwhile, Sophia was enjoying her gift so much that she used up all of her paper and had to return to the house for more. Every painting turned out exactly the way she thought it in her mind and appeared on the paper perfectly without any flaws or errors in proportion. After a while, she decided to move from paper to other things. She began painting designs on the rocks, on the trees, and painting anything else she came across. Soon there were colorful paintings everywhere and Sophia began to feel very accomplished. She had done so much work in very little time. Soon there would be nothing left to paint.
Jude was near the water helping the lilysmuds (creatures who look like toads, only with bigger eyes. And they don’t make that horrible croaking noise when they wanted to communicate). Though lilysmuds are avid swimmers, sometimes the current of the stream was a little too much. Jude was attempting to make a sort of underwater bridge for them to use during times of rain. He was having difficulty with the design and after experimenting with a few ideas that came to nothing, he started to muse about how nice it would be if he had the use of Sophia’s paintbrush. Then he could draw what was in his head and test to see if it would work without wasting materials in experimenting.
Near the garden pond, Eli sat brooding. He wasn’t particularly jealous of Sophia’s pen. He didn’t much like to draw or paint. However, he had thought he was the favorite of the fairies and thought it was very unkind of them to give her a gift without giving him a gift, too. He didn’t need anything as fancy as the paintbrush, but anything would have been nice.
By and by, Sophia had run out of ideas for painting. She sat on her favorite stone and looked at all the work she had done and thought about how little time it took. Slowly, she began to realize she missed how much work it usually took to create things. She missed the feel of the paint on the paintbrush and the scratch of the pencil on paper. She missed color testing and, oddly, she missed the time it took to get things right and how sometimes mistakes in her work often turned out better than what she had originally anticipated. As she surveyed the pages of fairies and pixies she had made using the magic paintbrush, she realized that even though there was not a single mistake, there was something wrong with them. She hated to admit it—the paintbrush was such a nice gift—but its creations were just a little too perfect.
She though momentarily about giving the paintbrush back to the fairies, but then she was afraid of offending them, (fairies are easily offended). What would they say if they thought she didn’t like it?
There was one pixie who was watching all of this and was experiencing great distress. She watched the Goodmund children, who were normally such happy children, sitting in separate places looking very discontent. She did not like that her ability to write and speak English had caused this problem and she resolved to do something about it.
So Aria flew down to where Sophia sat with the paintbrush in her hand and started to dart about saying random words she thought might help the situation. “Pen—bad. Not—good,” she said.
Sophia stared up at her and tried to interpret these things. “Do you mean,” she asked. “The fairies gave me a bad gift?”
“Y-y-yes,” Aria ground out.
“Oh dear,” said Sophia. She suddenly felt betrayed. The fairies did not seem like the sort of people who would give her a bad gift on purpose. What had she ever done to hurt them? “That does it,” said Sophia. “I’m giving it back immediately.” She stood up and went straight for the fairies home in the glade, followed by a zipping and ducking Aria, who was feeling relieved at these turn of events.
When she reached the glad, Sophia encountered a sight she had never seen before. There in the glad was a council of all the Fairydell creatures. All of the leaders of each species was present and Regina was speaking to them, wearing a little paper crown that Sophia had made her for her birthday. She was speaking in many different creature languages and Sophia could not understand what the council was about. She heard the sound of gurgling water and looked up to see Aria looking very upset. Sophia got the feeling this was not a happy meeting. She took a step into the glade and immediately all the chatter ceased.
“What is going on?” asked Sophia.
Regina turned towards her and glared. It was very unusual. “We have reached our limit with the pixies’ mischief. We are voting to banish them from Fairydell.”
“But why?” asked Sophia. She was very concerned.
Regina crossed her arms and said nothing.
Aria zipped down to Sophia’s level and laughed and sang and gurgled so quickly that Sophia could not understand her.
“Don’t bother,” said Regina. “Your apologies will do you no good. You have gone too far.” Regina ordered Aria to leave.
Sophia thought the fairies were being very unreasonable. First they gave her a naughty gift. Then they were trying to banish the pixies from Fairydell. But what could she do?
Sophia left the glade, following the dejected Aria. She immediately called for her brothers and told them everything that happened.
“This is very unusual,” said Eli.
“The fairies can be snobs, but they’ve never been mean,” said Jude.
“What should we do?” asked Sophia.
“Well, it’s been a while since we’ve visited the Mushroom,” said Eli.
“Oh I would love to see him!” said Sophia. Then she became somber. “If his children weren’t so irritating I would go more often.”
“Agreed,” said Eli. “But this is an emergency. We should go at once.”

So the three children set off for the deep part of the woods, followed by the pixie Aria, who was hoping the Goodmund children would be able to help the pixies.