Language, emotions, and memories

Latvian countryside

So, this was what I promised to write more about. Learning a language teaches you so much more than just words. I learned that in our brain words, memories, and emotions are inextricably linked to each other.

My introduction to a new language

My first time visiting Latvia was two years before we moved there. We spent a month. We both knew we wanted to move there but we also knew it would be wise to give it a test run.

I spent most of that month feeling like I was in my own little world. The friends were so welcoming. They treated us like royalty. But they didn’t speak English or they were embarrassed to try or they purposely didn’t so I would be forced to learn Latvian faster. I kept pestering my husband for translations, but he soon got tired of doing that.

At times I would listen attentively to everything going on around me, making guesses and hoping to piece together something of what was being said. Other times my brain was too fried to even try and I just sat there, letting everything wash over me.

Immersion

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A quaint little train station that I passed every day on my commute to my Latvian class. Photo credit @murmurmuliite

Two years later, we moved there, to the same city we had visited. It felt like coming home. The first few months were quite a blur. I spent every morning going to language class and every afternoon in the ministry practicing what I had learned. I really studied hard. Having such an accelerated course meant I was learning grammar I certainly couldn’t use yet, so it was difficult. But I was so determined to make this place my home that I didn’t mind a bit.

One of the first things we did was attend the biggest event of the summer for Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Regional Convention. It’s a three day event, and in a small country like Latvia everyone goes to the same one. It was a great way to start out, because we got to meet a lot of new friends right away.

My conversations were primitive since I hadn’t learned much Latvian yet, though at the time I thought we understood each other quite well despite the language barrier.  The following year at convention I found that I could remember faces of the ones I had met but not names, and nothing at all of our conversations. Pictures, but no words.

I began to realize that our brains use language to help store memories.

The link to emotions

I was amazed to discover that words gradually gain more emotional impact as they become tied to specific memories. For example, my mind knows that the Latvian verb ‘to love’ is mīlēt. But the number of times my brain had connected that word with the feeling of being loved was relatively few. So my brain understood but my heart didn’t. Apparently, if it doesn’t cause an emotional response, the brain files that thought under “not important”.

On the other hand, if someone started using foul language around me or even at me, it didn’t bother me at all. Those words were just a string of sounds with zero emotional meaning.

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Our mysterious brain

I never expected that learning another language would allow me to feel how powerful words are. How they shape our memory of events and our emotional reactions.

There was a big hole in my life when I couldn’t communicate freely. I discovered how very much I need people and interactions and conversations, the exchange of ideas. In English, I prided myself on being able to choose just the right word to express exactly what I meant. Now I was restricted to a basic set of vocabulary. So, in my case, it was desperation that helped me learn.

What should you do? 

Total immersion into Latvian worked for me. It had growing pains. It was a shock to the system. The most agonizing moment was the time I met a sweet older lady who really wanted to know if God cares, why do people suffer. My language capabilities only allowed me to say, “The answer is in the Bible.” After much study and a few months of practice, I was able to return and answer her question, thankfully!

Language and communication are truly a gift. I never understood that as fully as when I learned a new language, full immersion style.

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Roots


Somehow, where a person grows up defines them. This seems to be a recurring theme in my life lately. 

At my recent checkup, my doctor asked whether I had made any trips to third world countries lately. I jokingly said “Indiana, to visit my sister”. He asked where I was originally from and when I said Minnesota, he seemed satisfied. “That makes sense, because why would she move to Indiana if you were from the East coast?” Then he apologized in a lighthearted way for his prejudicial view on what he considered a “downward” move. I laughed and said it was no big deal, my husband has felt the same way since I met him. He considered New England to be the proverbial promised land. 

New Englanders aren’t the only ones guilty of an inordinate pride based solely on geographic location.  On the highway which slithers northward along Lake Superior toward Canada, there stood a billboard blazing the words, “Tired of the rat race?” I discovered recently that piece of advertising shaped my entire view on where to live. I’ve always felt that the “smart ones” escape big city life to settle in some remote northern territory. A place paradisaic in beauty during the summer, but barely habitable in winter due to massive snow banks and deadly wind chills. These are the ones who were living their hamster wheel lives, but one day while fishing on a northern lake during their one week of vacation, they decide it’s not worth it.  They decide to quit fighting the traffic snarls on their way to a dog-eat-dog corporate job in the city. Why wait until retirement to enjoy nature every day?

I was not one of those “smart ones” trickling in from the nearest big city. I was lucky enough to have been born there. I didn’t have to learn my lesson the hard way. I was already in God’s country, and only I was going to choose where and when to leave. 

Researchers have pinpointed a connection between our sense of smell and our memory. A few years ago on a family road trip we drove through Wisconsin in summer. The smell of the wildflowers and fresh mown grass along the country highway took me instantly back to my childhood. It felt strange to have my senses supersede conscious thought and transport me bodily to a time and place I didn’t know I had forgotten. No gourmet dinner could smell better. No luscious perfume could have delighted me more. In that moment of recognition I became “me” in a way I hadn’t felt in decades. 

I feel enriched for having these realizations about my roots. Would I have had them without leaving? Maybe not. Each place I have moved has set off a new evolution of self within me. I first seek to understand and fit in with the locals. At some point I discover some fundamental way I differ. Unconsciously, I analyze whether this difference is something I like and agree with or not. At some still further point I inevitably find a difference between myself and my new abode that I refuse to assimilate. I then go through a rebellion of sorts, as I stubbornly assert my own identity shaped by my home. 

I’ve come to welcome this process. Even though some of it can be painful in the moment.  It’s part of what makes travel and moving so positive. It has helped me learn about myself in ways that would never have been possible. The only problem with this is people who understand my perspective have become fewer and farther between. 

The other day we were walking on a quiet street in Pawtucket and saw a home for sale. I wondered aloud what it might cost (this curiosity comes from having a builder husband). My friend asked whether we would consider buying a home there. I said probably not. We would be more likely to look for a place in a quieter area. She couldn’t understand what more I could be looking for. Only 2 cars had driven by on that street in 30 minutes. She said, “that’s only because you come from ultra wilderness.” I agreed. 

When I get near a lake, any lake, my whole being exhales and each muscle releases all accumulated tension. The waves greet the shore with a display of sound and reflected light that changes by the moment. The sky meets water like a friend and opens up to reveal it’s beauty, whether it be breathtaking sunsets or enigmatic cloud formations or pinpricks of star shine on a blanket of blackness. Each season displays it’s own shade of blue in sky and water. Each day has it’s own mood ranging from introspective stillness to raging froth. And when I slide into the water, it envelops me like a womb, and I am home. 

Don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater

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Hoxie House: Photo by Swampyank at en.wikipedia

That saying has been around a long time. Probably because the meaning endures through the ages, in your rush to get rid of waste, don’t lose out on a valuable treasure. During a tour of Hoxie House Museum in Sandwich, MA, I learned an explanation for that phrase that shocked my modern parenting sensibilities.

The house was built around 1675 and has been restored to reflect what it looked like then. I went into the tiny house expecting to have a short, somewhat boring visit, but I was very surprised how interesting the tour was! It gave me a glimpse into the everyday life of the pilgrims. What I remember most was the distinct feeling that if one of them were to come back to life and observe modern parenting and family life, they would think we are crazy.

Vice versa, I could not believe the way children were treated. Thinking about the context of the times, it makes sense, but it is still shocking. We were ushered into a large darkish room with a fireplace at the center. Logically this was the central work area for the women, especially in winter. On the floor next to the hearth was a tiny cradle, and next to that a toddler sized chair with a hole in the seat and a leather belt. The infants were kept in the cradle (which looks doll-sized, too small even for a tiny human) until they started to walk. From the age of 3 until about 5 they sat strapped into their little potty chair because no one could be spared from working to look after them and keep them from getting hurt. Around 5 they were considered capable of doing work under the supervision of an older sibling. When the family ate, the father got the best food, the littlest one the worst, usually the burnt bottom crust on the loaf of bread. When they bathed, once a year in the spring, the hierarchy was the same. The father first in the clean water and the baby last in all the family’s grime. Thus the reference to throwing out the baby. Because the father was the most indispensable to the family’s welfare.

Unbelievable, right? But it made me realize that more has changed in modern parenting than we know. The fundamental way children are viewed has done a 360!

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I sometimes struggle to reconcile the “children should be seen and not heard” of a few generations ago, with the massive guilt a parent is taught to feel for denying their child anything nowadays. I do believe we are not serving our children well by these extreme shifts. Of course children should not be ignored or made to feel less valuable as a person simply because they are young. But unless we teach them that they are not the center of the universe and that they need to respect others, we are setting them and ourselves up for epic failure.

Children need to be specifically taught that their actions affect others. It’s ok to tell them that their whining is ruining your day.  It’s ok to tell them “no” when you really don’t have the patience or the money to take them toy shopping. It won’t break them. But it just might make them kinder, more empathetic people. 

So don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. I think we have something to learn from previous generations about teaching our children respect. Every human is deserving of being treated with dignity. While treating our kids that way, let’s not forget to teach them to return the favor.

Source: https://www.jw.org/en/publications/magazines/g201504/child-discipline-that-works/

When nature gets shut out

The area I live in is absolutely gorgeous. The forests have an array of evergreen and deciduous trees, ensuring a display of every shade of green and many a golden hue. There are lakes, streams, and ocean.

It’s right there, behind the neighbor’s fence or across the road. But you just can’t get to it. Canoe and kayak access to water is a subculture that requires research and networking with other enthusiasts to find. Trails are relatively few. Bicycling in many places is like placing your life at the mercy of lunatic drivers. 

Highways have crowded out ecosystems and wildlife. People try to destroy pests but end up creating whole neighborhoods of chemical stench. The lawns are only meant to be enjoyed from indoors, gazing through the window at a thick carpet of unrealistic green without a single dot of yellow dandelion or creamy clover. Nature is being shut out. Or we are being shut in. 

Case in point -This morning I saw a breathtaking sunrise while I was driving. The sun was just clearing the horizon turning everything a golden coral, mist was rising from the tranquil waters, outlining the silhouette of a lone fisherman in a boat.

But there was no place to safely stop and enjoy it. I actually turned my car around and tried again to find a place, or at least a break in the traffic that made it safe to go slower than the 40 mph speed limit. Here’s what I got: 

This one was taken when I turned around and went back. I had set it up so I could use the voice activation feature to take the picture.
This one was from the safe place to pull over. Don’t you love the scenic guardrail taking up most of the picture?!

I find this maddening and saddening. Modern life has set aside the wonders of this earth and replaced them with strip malls, mega-marts, and interstates. We zoom along in our planes, trains, and automobiles; minds fixed on the next thing we need to rush off and do. We don’t notice nature. We don’t even notice the gates, bars, and guardrails that we have put up between ourselves and nature anymore. 

I know, this isn’t an original idea. As long as this has been happening, people have been mourning the loss of the connection humans were meant to have with the earth.  

I ask, how can humanity reach its full potential if it ignores it’s purpose? Which is this: to inhabit, explore, and care for this planet, to love each other and the animals, to dig deep into the wisdom of it’s Designer.

How can we as individuals reach that purpose if we are distracted and caged off from our own home? That’s why I say, let’s break out! 

Breathe, be still, connect, stop rushing, just be. 

(All photos my own) 

Endings 

So it’s the end of the school year. Another year done. Finished, complete. That means my baby is getting older!(sobbing voice, sniffle). But I’m so proud of her for all she has accomplished this year.

I’m such a rookie mom, but I hope I’m starting to get a few things figured out. Having my oldest start school was like entering a whole new world. I have had little to zero contact with the world of formal education since my own graduation from high school. Not only has it been a long time, but times have changed, and the style of education has changed too. I’ve changed. Now I’m approaching it from the perspective of a mom not a student. School years seem to go by quickly and slowly all at once. One school year ends. The next one will start up before 2017 gives way to 2018. My newfound mom perspective makes the time seem to fly.

I’ve been thinking about how deeply children feel the changes involved in their school career. They say goodbye to a beloved teacher, they move on to a new classroom, often with a new group of students. Some switch to a new school. Everything starts again. It’s true, they have the experience of past years, but essentially it’s a new start. It’s almost like changing your entire family every year. There’s a new mother or father figure, new siblings. If the child is moving into upper grades, there could be a complete structure change, from one classroom most of the day to different ones per subject.

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I can see the positives of these changes. If there’s a bad mix of personalities in a class, well next year there will be a new group. Also, the teaching style has to change with the development of the children. But the emotional aspect of it all took me by surprise. Imagine the emotions you would feel if you literally had to change parents and siblings. The time it takes to build trust again. To understand your new family and your place in it. To mourn the absence of your old family. That all seems to happen on a mini scale. The summer break softens it a little. It gives an emotional respite, some breathing room to regroup.

As for myself, I look forward to the summer, to having my girl with me all day every day. To being the main adult in her life again. To not having to share her with perfect strangers most of the day. On the other hand, when the new school year starts, we all enjoy having the added structure to our days, accomplishing something that is measurable in lesson plans and report cards.

My conclusion so far has been that the benefits of change have outweighed the drawbacks. Sure it can be tough in the moment. But we also want our little ones to learn how to be resilient, adaptable. And each teacher leaves his or her stamp on the children’s little minds. You never know which one will be the one to unlock your child’s hidden potential or help them spark a lifelong passion.

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I overheard the sweetest goodbye speech by our K-3 gradeschool’s art teacher to her third graders. She reminded them that everyone’s an artist. She said even if they don’t know it yet, each one of them has a talent they can enjoy and share with the world.

Each school year is a milestone. Maybe it seems more so to me now than it did when I was in school. In my mom perspective it marks the calendar with a date that symbolizes the physical and mental growth my child experiences with each passing year. A stamp that marks off the passage of time.

That one day, The Last Day of School, embodies all the achievements and growth, all the challenges met and overcome, all of the inches and shoe sizes gained, all the baby teeth lost.

Another school year gone, never to return. Did she learn what she needed? Did she enjoy the process? Did she make friends? Was she a good friend? Did she stand up for herself and for what she believes in? I hope and pray the answer is yes. Because what comes to pass in these formative years will leave it’s indelible mark on her mind and personality.

Three ways I have been changed by learning another language

a miniature Danish-Norwegian-French dictionary by Tomasz Sienicki

Ok, I’m a wierdo. I love grammar. Not so much that I’ve kept learning English grammar since finishing school. Somehow, though, it came easy to me and stuck in my memory. When my husband started trying to teach me Latvian, I realized how much my brain relies on grammar. It’s a little OCD. If there’s no structure, I can’t learn it. He spoke Latvian from infancy, so as a native speaker, he just instinctively knew when it sounded right and when it didn’t. But he did NOT know the grammar terms for it. He couldn’t explain WHY it was right or wrong.

Here’s my classic example. I was reading aloud from an article in Watchtower magazine in Latvian. (Which by the way is a great resource if you’re learning another language because it’s the most widely translated magazine in the world.) My husband was correcting my pronunciation. The pronoun She was capitalized, so I knew it was referring to God, but it had a feminine ending. I was like, “whaaaat?! whyyyyy?!” And all he could say was, “I know it’s right”.

Thankfully, my official Latvian teacher was a wonderful grammarian. Her first language was different from her husband’s, and together they had lived in Latvia and learned Latvian. She needed grammar too. In the end I learned that the masculine possessive has the ending -a, which is usually a feminine ending. The text I was reading was talking about “His love”. It was not calling God a female. Now it made perfect sense!

1) So here’s my first strange side effect of learning another language: I’ve gotten worse at my English grammar! Now, the logic or spelling of Latvian sometimes creeps into my English writing or speech. The only problem is, it may or may not be logical in English too!

2) I became less polite. 

All my life it has been super important to me not to offend or make waves. But when your vocabulary is limited to the very basics, you don’t have the words to be polite.  You may not know how to say, “Please pass that delicious native dish you so hospitably cooked for us newcomers.” So you say, “Give me that,” while pointing.

Honestly, this has been a good change for me. I lived there almost 8 years, so I eventually learned how to be polite. I also learned that there’s a place and time for being straightforward and blunt. It doesn’t necessarily offend, but it may just help a situation. If I hadn’t been unable to couch my words in politeness, I may never have been brave enough to try the blunt approach.

3) I no longer enjoy baby talk as much in English.

If you know another language, you may realize the English language has something missing. I mean seriously! English has lost it’s edge a long time ago when it comes to diminutives. And how can you properly speak “baby” without diminutives! When it comes to making your speech seem more lovable and sweet, a diminutive form of the noun comes in really handy!

In the two languages I’m most familiar with besides English, they use diminutives a lot. In Spanish, it’s the ending -ito in masculine and -ita feminine. You simply tack that onto the end of a noun or even a person’s name, and presto, it sounds extra sweet and cute and lovable. In Latvian there’s more than one diminutive ending.  There’s -iņš or -ītis or -ulis masculine and -iņa or -īta or -ule feminine. Then you also have the more colloquial -ucis un -uks. The possibilities to create adorable nicknames are almost endless! You can even combine endings in Latvian. For example lāčuks (little bear) can become lāčukiņš. Which would be literally ‘little little bear’.

An excerpt from “Teach Yourself Latvian”

I looked up diminutives in English when preparing this post, and they are, or were there. They usually only show up in words that are properly in their own right diminutive, like names for baby animals. The one that seems to have been truly English and not borrowed from another language is -ing or -ling, as in duckling. Then there’s -ie or -y as in doggie or daddy. But that one is borrowed from Scottish. Then there’s -et or -let borrowed from French as in ringlet. Probably the one most used currently is -o as in kiddo.

These are not used as much as in other languages. People don’t usually just tack them on to the end of a baby’s name or a word in general. So baby talk is much more fun in other languages!

One of the principle things I learned while learning another language is the way words carry emotion, and how words, emotions, and memory are intertwined. But that will be a subject for another post, so stay tuned!

 

Time

Is time real? Opinion is divided among physicists on this question. I’m not a scientist but I love science.

I’ve noticed that many scientific ideas are presented to the public while they have yet to be proven. This has definitely been the case with this mind bending question, what is time? When I think about it, my brain almost hurts and I feel as if I’m straddling the borders of science, philosophy, and religion. 

From a physics point of view, time defies categorization. Physicists attempt to explain the universe by breaking down each component into the smallest possible increment, the fundamental measurement, the quantum. (Space and light cause controversy as well. Is light a wave or a particle? How many dimensions does space have?) Time seems to break down into nonexistence after 10 to the -43rd degree. This has led to the possible conclusion that time only exists in our perception. The only reality is now, and time is simply a series of nows that we perceive as past, present, or future.

If I understand this theory correctly that argument disintegrates into an infinite mirror effect. Like when you look at a reflection of yourself looking in the mirror and in that mirror you see yourself looking in the mirror on into infinity. If time doesn’t exist, does physical matter even exist or do objects exist only when we perceive or measure them? From that point of view, this theory of time is also just the perception of the scientists who believe it. When they cease to exist, so will this idea. This logic leads to the belief that nothing is real.  

I wondered, what does the Bible teach about time? Here are a few truths I found:

  1.  God made the heavenly bodies and natural laws that allow humans on earth to perceive the passing of time. He also made our brains with the ability to understand this concept. “Then God said: “Let there be luminaries in the expanse of the heavens to make a division between the day and the night, and they will serve as signs for seasons and for days and years.” Genesis 1:14. So the natural division of a day is created specifically for human inhabitants of earth. Seasons and years also have natural divisions visible on earth. This is not inconsistent with scientific theories that time is relative. A person standing on Jupiter would perceive a day and a year much differently. To the Author of the Bible though, the important perspective was that of humans on earth, the intended readers of that book.
  2. Since He Created ‘time’, He stands above it’s constraints. The prophet Daniel wrote, “He changes times and seasons.” Dan.2:21. At Psalm 90:2 it says God is “from everlasting to everlasting”. And verse 4 says a thousand years to him are “as yesterday when it is past”. For him even a thousand years could be just one unbroken time period in which he begins and completes some activity or purpose.
  3. Many verses in the Bible inform humans of the definite time appointments God has set for certain actions toward earth. For example Gal. 4:4 says God sent his son “when the full limit of the time arrived”. Prophecy is an integral part of the Bible, which means that our view of the future is important to God. He wants us to have hope, and so the Bible is full of promises of everlasting life. 

From these points I conclude that God meant us to have a sense of time.

Consciousness and our sense of self depend on experiences and memories, which require the passage of time to accumulate. These things can’t be easily measured or quantified, they often tend to be skewed and illogical, yet they help form who we are. It’s a miracle of life that each human who has ever lived is completely unique.

My question is: does it matter whether time disappears after being broken down into immeasurably tiny increments? In the grand scheme of things does this theory, even if it turns out to be true, change anything about the way we should live our life in order to be successful and happy? I would argue that it doesn’t. If I want to make sense of human history, and my place in it, I need to accept God’s construction of time. 

This doesn’t mean I believe time is a restriction of my free will. I believe the passing of time molds my choices based on my previous experiences and thus develops my exercise of free will into a more rounded out process. Which is another way of saying what the proverbs already say, knowledge and understanding build wisdom. However, true wisdom requires a reverence for the Creator, otherwise how can our choices fit the construction of the universe and fulfill our place in it?

To me, it’s a beautiful thing, the way space, time, energy, matter, and the perceptions of each of us meld to produce the physical world we inhabit. It contains limitless potential for exploration and fuel for the imagination. 

Photo credit: Holly Ziemba

Articles and videos used to research this post:

http://wakingscience.com/2016/02/quantum-physicists-why-time-is-not-real/
https://www.google.com/amp/amp.livescience.com/29081-time-real-illusion-smolin.html#ampshare=http://www.livescience.com/29081-time-real-illusion-smolin.html
https://wol.jw.org/en/wol/d/r1/lp-e/1200001132
https://wol.jw.org/en/wol/d/r1/lp-e/1200000970