I’ve spent the past two weeks on a full-time intensive Gaelic beginners’ course.
Each day, I turned up at college early, spent hours in the classroom with my fellow students, trying to learn the rudiments of a language utterly foreign to my ears and mouth.
It’s fair to say I struggled. I was out of my comfort zone.
I was exploring – not entirely willingly – a little of my edge.
‘Edge’ is a term I’ve heard about a lot this year. Discussions about the value of our edgelands – that unchartered territory that exists one step beyond our comfort zone – taking place around the kitchen table and online have had me thinking about how infrequently I push myself to those wild, scary-but-exciting places. The place where we find the real gold, they say.
The first morning of class, I was unexpectedly nervous. I’d been so excited to sign up for this course, so keen for it to begin, yet here I was, about to go in to the welcome talk, and I suddenly wanted to run away. I understand why. I don’t like being a ‘beginner’. I haven’t been in a classroom for a long time. I’ve been my own boss for years, how will I deal with being told what to do all day, every day?
Mostly, though, it was about confidence. I never had a natural knack for languages and I was expecting to be bad at this. Sadly, my personal comfort zone ends where I find something a little difficult – I’m all too ready to say ‘nope, can’t do this’ and turn away to do something that comes more naturally instead. There’s so much in life to do – why struggle with the difficult things? Being a beginner, making mistakes, struggling to grasp the basics of something new…ugh, that doesn’t sound fun.
But I couldn’t turn away this time, and so there I was, at the bottom of the class, really struggling to get a grip on words, sounds and concepts others seemed to be finding easy. A lot of the time it was okay. Sometimes it was humiliating. Some of the time I wanted to throw a tantrum and run away. In my worst moment, we were learning numbers. Our tutor would throw a cute stuffed penguin at us whilst saying a number in English and we had to catch it and repeat back in Gaelic. Whilst everyone else in the class seemed to have no problem remembering the numbers 1-20 in this new language, I couldn’t seem to grasp a single one. Each time the penguin flew my way, I ducked, then sat there, tongue-tied, tears pricking at the corners my eyes. I felt angry, stupid, frustrated, humiliated, and I wanted to get out of there. At lunchtime, I ran to the library and watched a video lesson over and over, then paced around the garden counting to 20 until the numbers were properly stuck in my head.
Then last weekend, when I probably should have been chilling, recuperating, resting my brain or perhaps preparing for week two of my course, I visited another of my edgelands: face-to-face tarot reading. Although I have carried out many hundreds of readings in my years as a tarot reader, very few of these have been face-to-face. I’m afraid of getting tongue-tied when I’m on the spot, and prefer to deliver my readings in written form, where I can take the time to form the words and sentences I really want to express. I’ve always preferred writing to speaking; it’s safe to say that the written word is a comfort zone for me. So, too, is communicating from behind a screen.
Yet there I was, at Free Pride, reading for hours, for a big long queue of my beautiful queer peers in a noisy event space, loving the hell out of it all. Was I out of my comfort zone? You bet. But both my tarot practice and I benefitted hugely from the experience. I left feeling even more in love with tarot than ever, and all the more in love with my queer community.
My course, too, had a hugely positive effect. I didn’t ace it, not by a long shot. (In fact, I found it so hard that I’m taking the entire course again, from scratch, in slow motion.) But my brain and my spirit were so happy to be pushed, so excited to be in new territory and so grateful to be exercised, I finished up those two difficult weeks feeling exhilarated, happy, tired and satisfied.
All those feelings of wanting to run away – yet by the end of it all I was so happy I had done it.
This edgeland exploring got me thinking about the value of giving ourselves that kind of push every now and again. Stepping out of our comfort zones and embracing the challenge of doing things we find difficult. Taking those first steps is hard, but very few people finish up wishing that they hadn’t done it. Failing can be embarrassing, but it’ll never feel worse that wishing you’d done something when you had the chance.
And it’s got me thinking about new challenges. The joy of saying ‘I can’ when previously I said ‘I can’t’. Swimming in the sea when it’s just a little too cold for comfort. Facilitating a seasonal ritual with friends. Singing that little bit louder at the ceilidh, projecting my voice, knowing others can hear it.
None of this is as terrifying as it feels when I’m busy saying no. And none of it will I regret when I’ve done it. I’d like this autumn to be one of brave decisions, of accepting challenges rather than automatically saying no.
If those edgelands are where the real gold lies, then I’m ready to get myself out there and find it.