Monthly Archives: July 2011

A Natural Palette

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The bowl of zinnias decorated our dining room table—red or orange or yellow parasols that seemed to reflect the sun. I pulled out my watercolors but soon realized that there was no way I could outdo Nature.

            Those bright zinnias

Arranged in a sky-blue bowl

Brought sun’s heat indoors.

Nature paints summer blazing bright, using the most extravagant colors in her palette.  The red, pink and purple cones of the crepe myrtles, the flame of cannas, sunflowers with their great, dark hearts—everything that blooms or grows around us is scorching hot to the senses.

Such a difference from early spring, with its tender pastels! Back then there were dogwoods peering self-consciously from woodlands before turning to milky elegance. There were cherry and apricot and plum blossoms and the miracle of first leaves. Do you love the first leaves of spring as much as I do? They are a color which we never see again throughout the whole year, a hopeful, delicate green.  As spring deepens there come tulips and  violets and azalea, and there are always the redbuds… but at first Nature paints spring with a gentle palette.

Then summer arrives with all its bang and bluster. The creeks dry under a scorching sun, and the land gasps for shade and rain. Neither of them seem to be in great supply, these days, and that pleases the cicadas to no end. As finite as a summer breeze, these vociferous insects’ clamor is as brash and as hectic as the season itself.

Autumn’s approach is more measured. The innocence of spring has been burned away by summer’s heat and the trees are weary. As a reward for staying the course, they are brushed with a mature brilliance:  magenta, red, gold and bronze.

Nature keeps things hopping during the fall. Squirrels scamper about hiding their acorns while destroying my garden in the process. Pumpkins decorate state fairs. The October moon glows like a golden coin in a sky filled with migrating fowl, and crickets accompany this exodus with noisy ragtime.

Of all autumn’s spectrum, I love yellow the best, for it seems to reflect a sun that has turned mellow and kindly. When I stand under a sun-dazzled tree and look up into branches laden with gold, its life force seems to flow strong and sure. The days of warmth and color are coming to an end, but not yet… not quite yet!

Then here comes winter, and Nature brings out a neutral palette. Skies favor a chilly gray. Much of the woodlands lie bare, and fields have gone to sere. Those songbirds that have not migrated south come more often to the feeder, and the squirrels are trying to remember where they buried their acorns. Snow comes with a wind that has no kindness in it, yet even now Nature offers counterpoint: nandina and holly berries sport their jaunty reds, the male cardinals fairly glow against the snow, and the evergreens bristle with tough, dark green.

Bright red cardinal

At snow-encrusted feeder…

Cold wind from the north.

Winter’s colors may be stark, but already deep in the frost-frozen earth seeds have begun to stir, and under a coverlet of ice frogs rest and dream. They know with an ancient wisdom  that in time the snow will melt, the winds will lose their bite, and Nature will once again bring out her gentlest paints to recreate the first leaves of spring.

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Life Is a Dance

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"Moondance"

Between June and July, our family celebrates three wedding anniversaries and two birthdays. These are such joyous occasions, and a time to reflect that truly, life is like a dance.

To begin, many hands are joined in a happy circle for the mystery of birth. The music can vary with cultures, but its traditions are always rooted deep in time and memory as families dance together to give thanks for a new life.

Then come the growing up years, a time of exploration and change, a time for meeting challenges—and each other. The swing is always in motion, the young dancers stamping and whirling to a pulse-pounding beat.

Draw close, swing away,

Move to the beat of young hearts

And age-old rhythms.

Later, the music changes and becomes the rumba, the courtship dance. Sensuous and silky, slow and fast, loving and yearning, the rumba weaves between and around young lovers, drawing them closer or pushing them apart.

Then comes the Argentine tango, tempestuous and complex. The first years of married life mean adjustment to each other and then to parenthood. Sometimes there is a misguided kick that leaves a partner limping. Sometimes there is a forgotten step. Swift and slow, in and about weave the dancers.

From there to the quickstep as  children and responsibilities grow.  Young parents are in five places at once; they juggle responsibilities and jobs and school events, teacher’s conferences and income tax returns. And, yes, once in a while they step on each other’s feet… but the dance goes on.

Middle age brings the fox trot, slightly slower but intricate still. Partners whirl through years of discovering new pleasures, new parts of the world—and each other again as the children become adults and find their own paths and families.

At last, then, the waltz that can be as swift as a Viennese… or sweet and slow to Country time. The strains of a waltz are sometimes nostalgic, sometimes sweet, othertimes bittersweet. It doesn’t matter. The dancers are familiar with each other’s steps, now. They recognize the beat of the music and intuit each other’s moves. They can circle the floor  with smooth steps and with confidence.

Life is a dance in which we all begin and close in a circle. We move to music that is as old as time. Our steps and patterns have been used by all people everywhere—but they are always as unique as we are, ourselves.

Lights In the Windows

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Tineanmen Square, China

Driving homeward at dusk last night, I watched lights flicker on in windows of the houses we passed. Those pale rectangles of light made me wonder—not for the first time—who lived in those houses and what stories they could tell.

Stories are with me always… the true  stories of family and friends that I have heard through the years, the ones I make up to amuse the grandchildren, the ones I research and write. Stories are everywhere and none fascinate me more than the ones I will never hear.

Have you sat on a beach or walked in the street or lingered at a store in the mall and heard a snatch of conversation that floated by? A half sentence that caught your ear and made you wonder how it was finished? Those bits and pieces of talk are often the bag and baggage of a writer, and I find myself playing with the words and picturing the story. Yes, the cat was up a tree for five days and nights, and …? So the screen door to the porch was slashed when….? And what do I think happened when she came home and found…? Oh, indeed, there are stories waiting to be told.

Sometimes, the stories involve not just unfinished sentences but people we meet for just a little while before the river of life flows on and we drift apart.  The beautiful elderly woman who watched American troops liberate Paris; the small, calm gentleman who explained, while we were sailing along the Yangtze River, that he had long ago been one of the protesters at China’s Tiananmen Square—their lives and mine intersected for just a little while, but I remember them and wonder how they are.

A long time ago, my eighth grade English teacher told me that I had a frightening imagination, and perhaps this is true. But, consider—everyone has memories and stories that will be inevitably lost if they are not told. And such rich stories they could be! I remember buying an old quilt once and learning—quite by chance—that the long-ago quilter was a poor farm wife who had seven children and who used scraps from her sewing basket to piece seven large quilts so that all  could stay warm during the bleak winters. I  also fondly recall a formidable old lady who whispered to me that, when she was young, she wrote a bright red dress and danced the hoochy-koochy on the table. There is also the story of my Uncle Harry and the old beggar.

Long ago,” my uncle once told me, “my company was almost ready to collapse. We had no business and no ready money. We were,” he added, “existing on what you might call the smell of an oil rag. But that was when the beggar came to the office…”

My uncle’s secretary wanted to send the ragged man away, but Harry would not allow this. “He looked old and weak and hungry, so I gave him cash for food, and he thanked me and handed me a rather dirty print of the gods of fortune. He said it would bring me luck. And if you can believe it…” a dramatic pause… “the next day Mr. K. walked into the office.”

Mr. K. was to become my uncle’s  financial backer and patron, his lifelong friend. The beggar’s print? I remember it well, for it was framed and hung behind Harry’s desk for years. I don’t know what happened to it, but that really doesn’t matter because I have the story.

We need to remember our stories. We need to record and tell them so that they can be like those lights glowing in the windows of houses we pass in the night.

At your knee I heard

Things that made me laugh or sigh…

Yes, I remember.

The Magnolia Tree

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On my morning walk a few days ago, I chanced upon a small tortoise crossing the road. He (she?) was a very small tortoise and to him the road must have seemed like a concreteSahara, but he was furiously inching forward. Even when I picked him up to move him to the grass on the other side, those stubby feet kept moving. For a tortoise, he was hurrying for all he was worth.

Tortoise trundles on,

Claws digging into concrete,

Eyes on goal ahead.

Hurry seems to be the watchword of our times. People everywhere are in a hurry to get somewhere or to do something, and I am no exception. There always is a multiplicity of things to be done, so each must be done quickly in order to move on to the next. Even when on holiday, schedules become crowded with things to see and waiting experience so that while I am enjoying something I am very often thinking of what comes afterward.

Suppose there is an idle moment? Ah, but isn’t there that awful old saw that idle hands are the devil’s playground? I don’t believe this, of course, but the Puritan work ethic is insidious and sneaks into that lovely, peaceful, do-nothing afternoon. Hey, whispers the niggling voice of my conscience, what about the article you were supposed to write? And what about weeding the garden before it gets too hot? And who is going to clean out the closet if you sit around and twiddle your thumbs?

It wasn’t always so. When I was young, I would climb a certain magnolia tree in my parents’ garden and sit in its fork to daydream. Children still have the capacity to enjoy each moment for its own sake. Our grand daughters can sit and with their dolls and enter a world so wonderful that it holds them in thrall or write a story or become absorbed in an art project.  Our grandson, though he is now in his teens, can still disappear into a book and stay submerged for hours.

But what about adults? On my walks I often see men and women striding along while all the time talking on their cell phones. In restaurants, all four diners at the same table may be talking on cell phones (which is another topic altogether,) or texting someone. Moments that might be spent absorbing nature or interacting with friends are lost. As for me, I have to wonder how often I really pay full attention to the here and now or truly listen to a friend’s conversation without hurrying to think of my own response?

Well, you may well object, what world do you live in, lady? Sometimes we need to hurry! You are right. Children need to be picked up, a business meeting must be attended, schedules must be kept or chaos will result. There are plenty of times when, like our friend the tortoise, we need to glue our eyes to the road ahead and keep our feet moving—after all, slow and steady did win the race. Still, there are other times, aren’t there?  Times when we can stop what we are doing, draw breath, and fill our eyes and hearts with the beauty of a dawning sky, or the majesty of waves crashing onto a beach, or savor every precious moment of lunching with a friend? Surely there are times and places where we can rest and refresh the spirit and simply be?

I think I need to find a magnolia tree again.

Watching the sunset

Paint the sky scarlet and gold,

Locking world away.

Reflections On Water

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 Reflections on Water

I’m sitting by the window and listening to some of the sweetest music this side of heaven—the sound of rain. Raleigh has been dry for so long that lately I’ve been discounting Greg Fischel’s predictions as wishful thinking. So, last night when he spoke about the probability of rain, I scoffed, until—

Yes, it’s raining! Actually raining! Taking time out to enjoy the sound, the sight, the scent of rain I sit here and suddenly I am remembering Loy Kratong .

Of course Thailand’s Festival of Water and Light is in November and it’s across half the world, but we are talking about memories. Memory is our private time machine that will take us anywhere, anytime, and for any reason whatsoever.

There are memories and memories, and  Loy Kratong  is one of the keepers. Back in the 60’s when we lived there, Bangkok was unspoiled and beautiful with jewel-toned water lilies blooming in the many klongs, or canals. On the night of the festival, the tropical twilight was as translucent as a watercolor painting, and while hilarious water-fights were being waged all over the city, thousands of Thais took little, candle-lit boats down to the klongs and let them float away.

Ah, the scent of incense mixed with the scent of frangipani and jasmine! While we snacked on ice-cold custard apples and mangos and bananas plucked fresh from the tree, our year-old  baby, Bert, perched on his father’s shoulders and sang, “Loy, loy, krathong!” meanwhile clapping his small hands.

We all have remembrances that we put away until some unrelated happenchance releases them. When this happens to me, I’m sometimes content just to reminisce. On occasion, though, I gather up the threads of the past and try to weave them into the present day. It doesn’t always work because the people we were back then are different from who we are now, and revisiting old dreams makes me realize too clearly the passage of time. These days I can’t manage what I once hoped to do. Bicycling through Europe or dancing the Viennese waltz in Vienna on New Year’s Eve are beyond my capabilities, and the young family that rejoiced in the festival of lights so many years ago has grown older. So hasBangkok. What I hear about pollution and crime in the City of Angels grieves me to the heart.

rain

So, instead, I find I’d rather remember how things used to be. I’m not alone in this, mind you. “Remember when…?” we ask each other, voices softening as we share and revisit the past. Looking at these memories is rather like staring at our reflection in a clear pool. Filtered through the years, wrung dry of petty annoyances or imperfections, long-ago events are as lovely—and as ephemeral—as the images shimmering in the water. Look, I can say to myself. See? I was young once. I could dance all night when I wanted to!

If we stir up this pool of water, other memories will rise to the surface. Should we let them come? Do we really want to? Perhaps it’s wisest to accept what is reflected back at us, smile or laugh or wipe our eyes, and then turn back to enjoying the present which, in the fullness of time, will also fade and become memory.

Across the years,

The river blazing with light

And a baby’s voice.

The Freedom To Learn

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This past week our grandson, Ben, graduated from Durant Middle School. Sitting amongst the crowd of proud parents, grandparents, relatives and friends, I watched as row after row of children from 6th to 8th grades rose to claim certificates and trophies: honors, high honors, awards of distinction. This beautiful grouping of young people made me think of one of our most precious freedoms: the freedom to learn.

At this time of year we are likely to think of Freedom, its implications, its precious legacy. Still, beyond those that are outlined in the constitution, beyond even the sacrifices that are made by dedicated men and women in the defense of our country, there are other freedoms which we as a democratic people too often take for granted. Education is one of them.

All right, I can hear the younger generation stirring. I can hear muttered protests that Grammy must finally have lost it. Since when has school equaled freedom? But though nowadays it is taken for granted, education wasn’t always available for all.  Who can forget that in the poisonous days of slavery those in bondage were forbidden to learn to read or write? Or the ‘separate but equal’ laws or the shameful, segregated schools?

In the world today there are many impoverished communities where education is an unaffordable luxury and other lands where girls are not allowed to go to school because men fear that knowledge will empower them. There are totalitarian regimes that only allow their twisted version of the truth to be taught and which ruthlessly suppress and punish any who think otherwise. Yet even in those repressive places there are groups of young women who teach other women no matter what the consequences, and there are educators  who speak out, students who dare to question, even though they lose their freedom…or worse. The thirst for knowledge is so strong, the need to learn so great, that it will not be denied.

Ben’s classmates wear their Freedom with ease. Why not? It is their birthright, after all. Theirs is a society in which all citizens are guaranteed the right to go to school. Granted, there have been agonizing cuts in education and the system of allocating schools is hardly perfect, but this is still a far cry from countries where the nearest school … if there is a school at all… is a five or ten mile walk away or where youngsters  drop out of school at age nine to help support their families. All that is asked of our children is that they learn. And learn they do, these beautiful young people, discovering facts that my generation could only imagine. At their fingertips lie worlds of knowledge yet undreamed, and from them one day will come amazing new achievements.

They come, smartly dressed

Hair combed, shirts pressed, bright-eyed…

Sunny day in June.

Not so long ago, many women, forbidden to become doctors, endured slights, insults and countless difficulties to become healers. Now, there are women in every field: medicine, engineering, the arts, the sciences, education, politics… the list goes on and on. Not very long ago enslaved African Americans secretly learned their letters. They braved brutal punishment in doing so because they knew that without learning there was no understanding and without understanding there could be no hope for dreams.

And the freedom to dream— the knowledge that any one of us can make those dreams a reality— has to be one of the sweetest gifts of freedom.

Photo by Lynn Wartski