|you are here | 2002 | NYC by Soledad Arias
Hola! I’ve started taking Spanish, an extension course through Borough of Manhattan Community College. It’s me and several 20something women, many of them au pairs from Germany and Russia and Poland and Croatia, learning at least their third language. Aside from some fumbling high school and college French, I have no second language, which is a ridiculous state of events. And not to speak Spanish after decades of living in Los Angeles is just shameful.
Pero, that’s not what I’m here to talk about.
Today I visited my Spanish teacher’s website. Soledad Arias is an Argentinian-born artist who uses text in pieces and installations that encompass meaning, questions, thought. A few months after 9/11, she created neon tubes, placed in Times Square and other New York City locations, that slowly illuminated to reveal “you are here”—then gradually went dark again. For an “urban intervention” in Montreal, she created pennants that spelled out, letter by letter, phrases from Samuel Beckett’s Texts for Nothing: “What would I say if I had a voice” flapped over a gritty urban park frequented by junkies; “Who would I be if I could be” rustled between two trees in the city’s popular Parc Lafontaine. Their meanings changed with the viewer, the time, the mood.
Also, Soledad teaches Spanish at BMCC. I’m guessing that most of the other students in my class will never visit her website, and never think of her as other than the woman they took Spanish from. Which made me think about how our selves, like Soledad’s art-phrases, shape-shift depending on the circumstance—and on whether we’re defining ourselves or others are defining us.
I know this isn’t an original concept; all of us are multifaceted, different people in different contexts. But I’ve started to wonder if there’s some essential core of who-I-am-ness that doesn’t change. And if so, what the heck is it?
We learned in class that in Spanish you don’t say, as you do in English, “I am a writer” (as in, “I’m one of a million billion writers, all of whom have blogs”). You say, Soy escritora—I am writer! Is that bold, confident creature really down there running things in my engine room? I’m not sure I recognize her.
A long time ago, a cousin of mine said, “You’re not very ambitious, are you?” I was a little insulted—we’re supposed to be ambitious, dammit!—but I couldn’t deny the basic truth of it. It’s not that I didn’t want to work; I love to work. I love to create beautiful, true things from 26 characters. But I wasn’t compelled to get to the tippy-top of a success mountain, or to be famous (it seems like hell, actually), or to make obscene amounts of money.
Between some combination of talent and luck, I fashioned a career that’s enabled me to use my fingers and my brain (more or less of the latter, depending), made me enough money to enable non-starvation, and has kept me ocupada. Meanwhile, my deepest priorities were life priorities: raising the extraordinary Child-who-is-no-longer-a-child, finding my way to My Beloved, making the human connections.
Now I’m at that magical middling age when people lift their heads up from their desks and blink, mole-like, in the unexpected light. “What? What’s going on? How did I get here? And what have I done with my coffee cup?”
For me (and I know I’m not alone), it’s a reassessment time, a time of thinking, Shouldn’t I be doing something that matters? Shouldn’t I, like a backpacker in Yosemite, leave the campground a little cleaner than I found it?
So I’m slowly working my way toward knitting together the dual impulses that have been at the core all along: the writer who believes that a properly crafted sentence is a weapon and a gift, and the person who believes that the human connection can change everything. I want to use my fingers and my brain in the service of something that I feel in my gut. Something that’s worth it.
It’s a process, it may be murky, sometimes clumsy, but I believe it’s the road worth going down, toward the neon sign that says, “You are here.”