Sometime in the midst of prepping for Mom’s hip surgery, Duolingo announced that I was in the running for the semifinals, of something. I spend some time every day on Duolingo, practicing my Hebrew and French, learning Spanish or German or Yiddish. I’m sure that part of my language learning adventure has been about wanting to feel smart and impressive, but first and foremost I’m fascinated by what languages can teach us about who we are and how we understand ourselves. I don’t practice each language every day, some days I do a little of a few different languages, some days I do a deep dive into one of the languages, sometimes I just do enough to keep my streak alive for another day.
But then there was this tournament. It wasn’t hard to get into the semifinals: I just had to do the same number of lessons I usually do every day. And even getting into the finals didn’t take much extra effort. But once I was in the finals I started to feel pressure to spend hours each day earning points, by studying old lessons and learning new ones. By then, Mom was home from the hospital, and struggling. I was basically on call 24/7 to make sure she took the right medications, at the right times, and had enough to drink and food, if she could stand to eat, and I was also taking care of the dogs and the apartment and the laundry and the shopping.
And, at first, the extra time spent on Duolingo was a relief, a chance to think about something other than life and death and pain and all of the ways I was failing my mom, and all of the ways I was failing in life overall. I won eighty points with one lesson – I must be a genius!!! But as the week of the finals went on, and the pressure grew, I was on my cellphone so much that it kept running out of power. I usually don’t notice how much battery is left on my phone, I just put it on its charger when I go to sleep and it takes care of itself, but now it needed to be charged multiple times a day. I was doing Yiddish lessons in between trips to the laundry room, and Spanish lessons while the tea was steeping, and French and German when I had free time and would normally be trying to write, or read. Every time I saw my name fall down to, say, twentieth place, when only the top fifteen would win, I felt like a failure. I had to push harder, do more, and win! I didn’t even know what I might win if I made it into the top fifteen, but it said that the top fifteen would be winners and I wanted to be a winner!
The dogs handled the early days of Mom’s recovery really well, thank God. Ellie was her usual sweet self, sleeping on the floor of Mom’s room, sending good vibes throughout the day and night, and knowing to come to me for food or trips and let Mom rest. Even Cricket did better than I had expected. She (mostly) listened when she was told to stay off Mom’s lap, or away from her feet when she was walking slowly down the hall. There was one bad night, though, when she didn’t listen. I found out in the morning that, using her good leg, Mom had kicked Cricket off the bed, and Cricket flew across the room, losing her tags halfway across the floor (I reattached the tags the next morning, pressing extra hard with the plyers so that at least if she went flying again she’d still have her identification on her).
By the weekend of the Duolingo finals, Mom was starting to feel better, not needing me to be on call as much, and my obsession with my placement in the Duolingo rankings became constant. By midday, Sunday, I was in 16th place, one spot away from the winner’s circle, but the whole thing was becoming tedious and I was starting to hate learning languages, which is not like me at all. The only time I could get any perspective was when my phone ran out of power and I was forced to take a break while it was on its charger. I was still able to walk the dogs, and clean, and cook, and make tea when necessary, so there were a few minutes here and there when I wasn’t on my phone, trying desperately to keep up, but not many.
By early evening I had made it into thirteenth place and I thought it was safe to take a break to make dinner, and eat dinner, since the competition would be ending at 11 PM. But when I looked at the rankings again, an hour later, I was back down in sixteenth place. I sat with Mom in the living room, supposedly watching TV, but really trying to earn enough points to get back into the winner’s circle. It was about 10:40 PM and I was still about one hundred points from fifteenth place – winner! – when the battery ran out and my phone shut off. I had seen the warnings that I was low on power, twenty percent left, ten percent left, but I was too busy to stop and charge it, and I was sure I had enough to make it through the end of the tournament, and I was wrong.
At 10:40 PM, I knew that even if my phone charged quickly, I’d still be too far behind to make up the points by 11. Each point I earned would be matched, at least, by the guy in fifteenth place, and he would always be at least a hundred points ahead of me. I wasn’t sure if the people ahead of me in the rankings had more free time, more competitive spirit, better strategy, or if they just had Duolingo Plus, the paid version, which makes it much easier to earn a lot of points at once, but I knew I was out.
So, I finally let go. I put my phone on its charger, and took the dogs out for their last walk of the day, and brushed my teeth, and tried to accept defeat. Some small part of me felt guilty for giving up, telling me I could have switched over to the Duolingo site on my computer and at least tried to earn the last one hundred, two hundred, three hundred points, however unlikely success might be. But I didn’t do that. I just made my overnight oats for breakfast, took my evening meds, and watched the clock as the last few minutes ran out on the Duolingo tournament.
I was already planning this essay by then – because the extremeness of my behavior around this meaningless tournament worried and intrigued me. I could stand back, finally, and wonder if I was specifically vulnerable to this obsession because of the helplessness of watching Mom struggle to recover from her surgery. Or if maybe there’s something in my brain in general that can’t tell the difference between what’s important and what isn’t important, and I truly believed that winning this tournament could change my life in some significant way.
Mom had a much better way of distracting herself. For Mother’s Day, before the surgery, when I was searching through Amazon for something Mom might like, I found a butterfly kit. I’d never heard of such a thing, but Mom loved the idea, and then spent half a day looking for the right one (not the one I’d found), and it arrived a few days before the surgery. She set it up in her room, and read diligently through the instructions for how to take care of the caterpillars, and their habitat. Luckily, there wasn’t anything I needed to do for them while Mom was in the hospital, because I was too busy cooking and cleaning and freaking out, to have made sense of more instructions.
And when Mom came home and was dealing with all of the pain and discomfort of recovery, she watched the caterpillars creating their chrysalises, and she fed them and cared for them, and when the butterflies started to emerge, Mom was starting to feel better, and by the time Mom was ready to start walking outside with the physical therapist, it was time to hang the butterfly habitat outside on a tree, and open the zipper, and let the new butterflies find their way out into the world.
The metaphor of the whole thing really resonated, for both of us (though Mom was disappointed that the butterflies flew away so quickly after their transformation). The presence of these creatures, transforming in her room, gave her something hopeful to look at every day. Even if she never intended the butterflies to be such a clear metaphor, some unconscious part of her brain knew what she would need and sought it out.
And, for whatever reason, my mind sought out the Sisyphean task of trying to win a Duolingo tournament I could never win.
There was such relief when the tournament was finally over, even though I’d ended up right outside of the winner’s circle in sixteenth place. I was able to look away from my phone again and realize that Mom really was feeling better, and moving better, and ready to make her own tea again, the way she actually liked it. And I was finally able to go back to my other obsession: watching endless episodes of Murder, She Wrote, and basking in Jessica Fletcher’s ability to decipher clues and solve murders and believe in herself despite constant criticism. In a way, Jessica Fletcher is the butterfly version of my caterpillar self, and watching her gives me hope that someday I might come out of my chrysalis and really be able to fly.
At the same time, Cricket started to realize that her Grandma wasn’t in as much danger anymore, and decided to resume her regular habits: including her insistence on sitting on her Grandma’s lap and barking her demands as persistently and loudly as possible. She made it clear, in her own way, that there was more to life than winning a Duolingo tournament, or even watching episodes of Murder, She Wrote, and it would require me to get up and take her and her sister outside to look for the butterflies.
If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.
Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?