Monday, May 23, 2016

Always learning something new . . .

Here I am, seventy-six years old, and still discovering funny little mistaken ideas stemming back to childhood. I just learned I’ve been mispronouncing a word wrong since I first learned it in fourth grade.

My dad read aloud to us a lot. A favorite book of his and mine was Nathanial Hawthorne’s Twice Told Tales and A Wonder Book for Girls and Boys. The two books, originally published separately, were bound in the same volume we owned, and my favorites were Hawthorne’s retelling of many Greek myths. Before I took a fantastic course on Greek and Roman Mythology at the University of Washington, that first exposure in fourth grade was my base-line for everything I knew about Greek mythology (and I had to unlearn a lot of misconceptions that Hawthorne propagated based on his nineteenth century understanding).

One of my favorite characters was Pegasus the flying horse, and I especially loved how he heroically enabled the killing of the chimera. My father (who—when I was ten—could do no wrong) pronounced the name of the three-species-monster as “shimmer-uh” as he read the story aloud, with the accent on the first syllable and a nice, soft ‘sh’ sound starting off the word.

I’ve read the word from time to time over my lifetime, each time imagining that’s the pronunciation, and never questioned it—ever—and never heard anyone else say it, either. Well, at least not that I realized, until . . .

. . . an NPR story about biotechnology’s push to  intentionally create hybrid embryos from several different species came on my car radio, and the announcer talked about the creation of a modern-day monster, a “kye-meer’-uh.”

What? It took me a few seconds to make sense of this new word, and then a quick judgment that the announcer was mispronouncing chimera!  But wait—wouldn’t he have checked the pronunciation before doing a radio program about it? A big ‘oops’ crossed my thoughts about then, a big "Don't tell me it's my mistake!"

As soon as I arrived home, I opened the Mirriam-Webster dictionary on my iPad and touched the icon of the speaker on the word chimera—and, sure enough, I have mispronounced it for about sixty-six years. In my head, anyway. I don't think I've ever needed use the word.

I’m smiling as I write this. I love how humbling a little event like this can be. I’m smiling thinking about how my dad probably heard the word mispronounced by his dad when A Wonder Book for Girls and Boys was read aloud to him in the early 1900s. I’m smiling thinking how hard we both would have laughed over this perpetuation of error, if I could share it with him. I wish.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Please pass the peonies

There was a time in my life where I wasn't keen on peonies, at least not inside the house. Every time I picked one to use in a bouquet, an earwig (or two or three) would arrive with it. Earwigs are insects that give me the crawlies. But I guess I have something in common with them. If earwigs could talk, we might both say the same thing: What's not to like about peonies?

I love how peonies start out as round tight buds, not even hinting at the glory that will burst forth when they reach full bloom. They remind me of children--you can't tell what they're going to be like when they're little. You have to wait and see.

Peonies introduce fragrance and color into the garden and when brought indoors defy visitors and unobservant inhabitants to ignore them. A person simply cannot walk into a room with a vase filled with peonies in full bloom and not remark on them.
Photo  by Katie Sullivan Remley
used by permission

Many years ago, a favorite coworker married a young woman who was a serious photography student. When Micah told me that some of Katie's photos had been accepted into a juried art show, I was impressed and made a point of attending the exhibit to demonstrate my support for her hard work and talent. I fell in love with her photo of a peony and purchased it for our home where it's been hanging ever since. I don't know if Katie Remley is still photographing flowers, but I do see the amazing photos she takes of her two growing sons every year in her family's Christmas card.

My one and only
big vase--in use for more
than fifty years already!
As I was snipping the ends of a half-dozen tightly closed buds I bought today at my local farmers' market, I stopped to study the vase I was using. Received by Jay and me as a wedding present in 1962, it is the only large vase I own (except for a few florist freebies).  It's a great size and shape, but I rarely think about its enameled design.

Today, I couldn't help but notice the design. No wonder I like it!

The flower-grower at the farmers' market told me today's peonies could be the last of the season because of our early spring and the heavy rains of the past several days. The best thing about peonies is that they'll be back again next year and every bit as spectacular as they are this year.

Meanwhile, breathe in. Imagine a spring evening where the light is fading and a beautiful fragrance fills the air. What a wondrous gift.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

The Heartbreak of Cherry Blossoms

My recent sadness at the departure of visiting family reminded me of this essay, written nearly ten years ago. I searched for it in my computer files and up it popped. Unlike many titles, this one stays with me, and I think about it when when spring arrives in Seattle and the cherry trees bloom.

For almost an entire year I've looked forward to the last two weeks of April when my roving Canadian family (on sabbatical) would be staying with me. Their house in British Columbia, leased for the academic year, wouldn't be available for them until until May 1. When I was asked last summer if, by any chance, they could live here for a couple of weeks in April, I was thrilled and eagerly anticipated it all these months. But then . . . so quickly, the figurative cherry blossoms blew off. Poof--it was over.

Here's the essay written almost TEN YEARS AGO. Sometimes my old writing doesn't hold up--I write sometimes just so I can 'move on.' But this one? It still speaks to me.

~  ~  ~  ~  ~  ~  ~  ~  ~                          ~  ~  ~  ~  ~  ~  ~  ~  ~  ~  ~                    ~  ~  ~  ~  ~  ~  ~  ~

June 2006

   A photograph of my youngest granddaughter in newborn slumber greets me each time I sit down to use my computer. I have carefully arranged my software shortcut-icons around the edge of the lavender fleece blanket, which envelopes her as she sleeps in Grandpa’s lap. I can see her picture out of the corner of my eye every time I pass the den. She is ten days old today—already twice as old as she was when I snapped the picture, and I am wondering how much she has changed.

   Not that I wouldn’t recognize her. I am certain I could pick her out in a lineup of a hundred babies, even if we had not had the chance to meet at the end of her first earthly day. I saw her again when she was five days old, and enfolded her tightly swaddled little self in my arms. But this morning, when I turned on my computer and saw the picture of sweet Mae filling in across my monitor, I thought my heart might break.

Initially I was surprised by how I felt. My gut reaction upon seeing her picture, with her eyes tightly shut against the world, was to change the computer wallpaper. What about a photo of our garden in its full rhododendron bloom? Or the rocky Oregon seashore snapped last autumn? I realized that I was feeling a pang of deprivation, the loneliness that comes from having grandchildren who live elsewhere—whose lives are not entwined with mine. I recognized it as similar to my feelings when I see cherry blossoms.

Since my college days forty-five years ago, the sight of cherry trees in full bloom invariably makes me want to cry. Although the obvious reason for my tears would be the breathtaking contrast of the trees against the sky—the way they burst into the drab, still-wintry scene to surprise us like cheerleaders—only recently have I identified the real reason for my reaction. It is the fleeting quality of the bloom that I find upsetting, the foreshadowing of disappointment. A display of blossoms—even a spectacular one such as the dozens of blooming trees at my alma mater’s central quadrangle—lasts only a week or so. Then the petals fade and drift or blow away. Cherry blossoms are a tangible reminder of how fast the moment disappears. Obviously, my reaction is the glass-is-half-empty type, yet I think of myself as a person quick to celebrate wonder, one who enjoys life’s smallest pleasures. But certain things seem to trick my imagination into projecting absence instead of appreciating presence. I usually see the positive image in those psychological optical-illusion pictures, but with cherry blossoms it is though I can see only the negative space.

Observing contrail billowing from a jet plane in a clear blue sky has the same effect on me, but without the weeping. Instead, I just have a sensation of longing for something unnamed. I used to think my reaction was a yearning to travel. But recently, as I tried to explain to a friend why I feel that way, I realized it’s because contrail evaporates so fast. I want it to stripe the entire sky before it begins to wisp away, so the foggy thickening as it dissipates is almost unbearable to watch.

Little Mae lives two-and-a-half hours away from me. For the next few months I can see her frequently, possibly even once a week, but in a year she will be moving with her parents several hundred miles away. My other grandchildren have always lived a thousand miles away, so I have never been acquainted with their yearnings or sadness, their day-to-day achievements and little triumphs. They don’t know my foibles, either. Two visits a year never let us get past the acquaintance stage.

If I give voice to my disappointment about not living closer to my grandchildren, well-meaning friends quickly jump in with a hundred suggestions for developing and maintaining long distance relationships. I am willing to try them all, but nothing takes the place as frequent flesh-and-blood contact. The absence of easy-going rapport with my grandchildren is painful, for even when it is circumstantial, deprivation has no salve.  

I know I should enjoy the cherry blossoms while they are blooming, and contrail shouldn’t make me sad. I know Mae lives close-by for the time being. Perhaps my knowledge of how transitory our time together is will afford a deeper level of delight in the moments we have together—more than if the experience felt endless. Of course her picture on my computer monitor will stay put; it is too beautiful to replace. And ephemeral happenings—the pink puff of cherry trees or the blanched streak of contrail—bittersweet as they are—teach us to stay in the moment. And that, after all, may be the one lesson we can’t have repeated too often.