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On Making a Home for Myself in the Latin Language

A few weeks ago, I did something difficult and painful. Then, I went to a spoken Latin immersion retreat for women.

Let me back up: I planned it this way. I knew the pain was coming, and I wanted to follow it with a chaser of Latin. 

Since I was 13, Latin has been a cozy place for me. You know when you were a kid and you tried making up a secret language with your best friend or your sibling or your Furby? Latin is that for me, except my good friend Virgil was already using it 2,000 years ago. 

Learning Latin has been like moving into a private clubhouse and discovering all my favorite people are already there. The other people who study Latin, each for their own weird reasons, are my people. Latin is what I think about any time I’ve had one (1) drink, or any time I quiet down enough to think about my life’s biggest loves. I have dreams in which I’m translating Latin. I met 100% of my first several romantic dalliances through my high school’s Latin Club. 

Latin is in my roots, which means I’ve also drawn it up into my soul as I’ve grown, like a plant imbibing colored water. For instance, it’s a beautiful language in which to experiment with gender expression. (That’s not what this post is about, but Latin has a wonderful framework for referring to yourself as nonbinary, if that’s something that affirms you.) My quest for spoken Latin fluency is just the latest way in which Latin has infused itself in me.

At the Latin retreat, the group leader shared instructions for the immersion portion of the weekend. We were taught hand signals to use when we felt overwhelmed. We were encouraged to avoid even reading English, so we could begin to think in Latin. And then, it was time to cast “the spell.” We all gathered around a small stuffed pig – a tribute to ancient Roman rituals – and repeated a chant in Latin. And that was that: No more English, for 24 hours.

The magic spell was, of course, completely ridiculous. As the instructor noted, the spell would only work if we all believed in it, and any one of us could break it. But I was in the mood for magic. I had a totem with me. Hours before, despairing and unable to focus, I’d asked my friend Omri to help me come up with a packing list.

“Do you have a comfort item you can bring?” they asked.

I did – a “ruby” ring my beloved late grandfather gave me. I fastened it around my neck and kept it on all weekend.

Shortly after the spell began, we began to prepare for bed. My bed was one of four lined up side-by-side in the basement, dormitory-style. My roommates and I spoke sparingly, embarrassed at how sluggishly our vocabularies came to mind. After lights out, one woman put on white noise of waves on a beach. 

“Placetne vobis?” she softly asked into the darkness. “Does it please you all?” Or, more colloquially, “Is this OK with everyone?”

“Ita,” we replied, one by one. 

All evening my mind had been busy, and now lying in bed, my fear and sadness returned. Desperate for distraction, I broke the rules and began reading all the English-language notifications on my phone. 

They didn’t help. I retreated back to Latin. As it happens, Omri, the friend who counseled me to bring a comfort item, has been my friend since we met in Latin Club as young teens. Omri is as patient as the never-ending sounds of waves crashing on a beach. So I IMed them – in Latin – and clumsily explained what was happening.

“Vehementer lacrimo,” I wrote. “I’m crying violently.”

By morning, Latin had fully reclaimed my mind. Over breakfast we made clumsy small talk. I hadn’t been expecting to laugh so much. Laughter is a consequence of your expectations being pleasantly subverted. It turns out, when you’re talking to strangers in another language none of you speak well, your expectations get subverted a lot.

A bee landed on our outdoor table, and we seized on it as a topic of conversation. “It’s looking at that bread, even if it isn’t honey,” one woman said. “It’s sweet,” another noted. (“Est dulce.”) “Dulce et decorum est,” replied the first. And the whole table full of nerds burst into laughter, like Hell yeah, your Horace joke rules.

By afternoon break time, I was happy simply to wander the grounds, my phone silenced in my back pocket. I had doubted that it was possible for me to begin thinking in Latin. But I looked serenely at arbores et caelum and did not, at least, think of them in English. The English side of my brain felt like the remnants of a forest fire – fertile, but smoldering and empty. I’d opened up a new side of my mind and briefly moved in. “Nonne pulcherrima est?” I gushed to another woman as we both breathed the fresh air.

I had always shared an ineffable bond with the grandfather who gave me the ruby ring. A former Latin scholar himself, he was part of the reason I’d chosen the language. Once, after he’d had a stroke, he was asked, “What’s green and says ‘ribbit, ribbit’?”

“Rana,” he replied. So I wasn’t the first to try thinking in Latin.

That night, we gathered around the pig again and broke the spell. We drank wine, ate dinner, and made s’mores around a campfire. We chatted gleefully about our shared love of a dead language that still glows warm in our hearts.

When I returned home the next day, it was to a version of my life with the boundaries pushed slightly outward. Nothing was transformed, but new possibilities had appeared. The possibility to be known in a new language. The possibility to create new areas of peace within my noisy mind. The possibility to remake myself, anew, ad infinitum. 

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© Mary Gaulke 2023