Perspective

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In the early morning of August 21st, nature showed how blue a sky can be before a solar eclipse. What I wanted to do first was read again Annie Dillard’s classic essay. Her words, written thirty-five years ago, seemed to me the best preparation for my own eclipse event.

21w56ZraclL._BO1,204,203,200_In Teaching a Stone to Talk, Dillard shares her experience of the 1979 solar eclipse. Although the essay’s images stretch and sting my mind, the one that stays with me is that of falling: the avalanche that slowed traffic, the loss of altitude in the drop into Washington’s Yakima Valley, the hotel lobby devoid of air, the reference to gold mines dug so deep the rock walls burn the miners hands, the trek up a slope that offers a view down, down to a thin river below. She falls into indigo as the moon’s lens snaps over the sun. She writes of the hatch that slams down on the brain. Her husband’s presence is “down the wrong end of the telescope.”

I was not in Washington State, but Hillsboro, Oregon, and I did not climb a 500 foot slope for my view. I sat near an open window with a view of the sun and listened to children and adults gathered outside. I tried to ground myself, as Dillard had done. What was happening to the landscape? I walked outside.  Minute by minute the air cooled. A bush outside my window, once lime and emerald, shaded deeper until green-black slithered upward, leaf to leaf.

The eclipse took hold of the sky, but also the ground. Miniature replicas clustered on concrete and bark dust. They climbed the tree trunk. If I turned my back to the sun, my shadow, once elongated, grew bulky and squat. All the while, the moon took its sweet time to amble across the light.

Night took me by surprise. I knew it was coming, but still. . . the indigo of Dillard’s eclipse happened. In what should have been mid-morning light, the pathway’s lamps flicked on. What a reality check: given a natural wonder, even technology loses its equilibrium.

My eclipse experience lacked the drama and poetic sensitivity of Annie Dillard’s. Yet I watched the world descend into night—and right before my eyes. I could not help but fall into wonder. I’m glad I read the essay first. Falling is what great writing does for us. We tumble into another’s experience and then we ascend, better prepared to appreciate our own.

Heart-Rest

Five years ago my niece Andrea Bigcraft transformed my apartment terrace in downtown Portland into a magnificent garden. Besides creating beauty in every corner, she made possible the arrival of hummingbirds. 

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One at a time they came with iridescent wings, designing, as the poet Mary Oliver writes, “a perfect wheel.” How that wheel turns—eighty times per minute—is an eighth wonder of the world. The visiting birds hummed and sipped and my frenetic core stopped to watch.

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After one little fellow settled in, life was not so sweet. He refused to welcome the hummingbirds who swooped in for a visit. That metallic four-inch bully became plump and sedentary all the way through winter. My opinion of the hummingbird changed. Not so calming after all. Music on the wing this tiny guy was not.

Hummingbirds offer a reality check for me. Every day holds a combination of harmony and dissonance. Maybe that’s one reason why Puccini’s Madame Butterfly is a favorite of mine. Years ago, I sat with a friend in a convent music room and listened to the opera. The English-Italian script in front of me, I listened as Maria Callas sang her way into my heart. “Un bel di” rang of the anxious hope that one fine day, all will be well. “Humming Chorus,” though, had a different effect on me—a final respite before the sorrow. Puccini must have known that the audience needed this—not comic relief, but heart-rest.

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“Humming Chorus” is, like my terrace scene, a lull before death and regret. At times, my terrace creature was a miniature spokesperson for the world’s mercy, peace, and life. At other times, the bird was a rascal and a herald of rancor in the realm. Both dimensions are part of my human condition. That is why the space in-between, the lull, is essential.

One morning, after listening once again to the song, I saw Angel, eyes wide open, paws up, woof silenced, breathing into calm. I chuckled. She looks so peaceful, the little turkey. Maybe this is one way to inhabit the world’s garden terrace: alert, welcome mat out, weapons down, and heart-at-rest.

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Color Me

Green is my favorite color, so why are my only green possessions a tote bag, earrings, and a striped hoodie? Years ago, I got my “colors done.” After draping me in scarves and fabrics, the lady said, “You are definitely a summer.” My closet then is a combination of soft, cool shades of pink, blue, and purple. The color to avoid? Most shades of green.

I still love green best. This past week, another color test appeared. What color is my unconscious self? Good, I thought, now is my chance to prove I am a person of serenity, intelligence, and independence. The results? I am Gold. I should have been tickled that my psyche is gold–magnetic and charismatic. In fact, I am a Lioness. Purrrr. But Gold. Gold? I want to be Green.

hailstones-and-halibut-bonesBesides memories, a book encouraged my affinity with the color green. While teaching primary school in the 1960’s I first read Mary O’Neill’s delightful Hailstones and Halibut Bones. Of all the book’s color poems, I liked green best: green is lettuce and shade, moss and grasshopper, peppermint and jade, and the “fuzz that covers up where winter was.”

So, I cannot be green either in my wardrobe or my unconscious, but I can write about green treasures. Here is my take on the color, with a grateful nod to Mary O’Neill.

 

CliffsGreen is March, April, and May,
And earrings I wear on St. Patrick’s Day.
Green is Moher and moss-fringed cliffs,
View of the Blaskets from our tourist skiff.

Green is spinach, cilantro, and thyme,
Peppers and scallions, water with lime.
Green is Christmas, velvet, candy cane,
Rain running down my window pane.

Green 1Green is the park where I go for a walk:
Grasses and yarrow, and no human talk.
Green is the hum of a tranquil path
Bending around where birch leaves laugh.

Green are my pencils, shades light to deep
I use to color on nights I can’t sleep.
Green is the color of dresses not bought.
Green is my passion for what I am not.

Alma Mater

Two statues depict different versions of Alma Mater, learning’s nourishing, bountiful mother. The bronze sculpture at Columbia University is a dominant goddess, garbed in voluminous robes and a laurel leaf crown. She holds a book on her lap and a scepter in her hand. My favorite is the bronze statue of Alma Mater, a humbler version, at the University of Havana in Cuba. The sculptor formed her as young, beautiful, simply dressed, head bare, and hands open in welcome.

Sister Theona (whose name meant “The Good God”) taught me from 1961-1964. My Alma Mater, she was neither dominant nor laurel-crowned, although I cannot remember her without a book. Neither was she young or beautiful, although her hands were graceful and open. Sister did not necessarily occupy a favored space for every student at Our Lady of Angels Convent in Portland, Oregon. For me, though, her influence was, and remains, unmatched.

As an eighteen year-old, I had cemented my learning domain by taking shortcuts and spending quality time with the mirror, American Bandstand, and the telephone. I learned from Sister Theona that study walls are simply threads. A snip here, a snip there and what do you know? An academic world opens wide.

I remember the phrases she wrote on the blackboard:

It is not the event that makes us happy or sad, but the thoughts we build around it.
Live the questions (Rilke).
Husband the moments.
Correlations, anyone?

The last phrase was at the heart of Sister’s belief about learning. Correlations assume each academic discipline connects with another. One truth nourishes the next. Correlations promise entrance into a Wisdom that is intelligent and agile, unstained and secure, just and prudent.

Sister Theona (the Good Goddess) probably continues to ask, “Correlations, anyone?” Undoubtedly she expects a deluge of related ideas, even from God.