twelve

Mesmerizing charm
The marine hypnotist sails
Jellyfish garden

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My fifth grade class took a trip to the New England Aquarium, a trip I would obsess over for years to come. The part I recall most vividly was a small display with tiny bioluminescent jellyfish, which to my mind looked like small light bulbs with a warm, glowing filament inside. When I finally made it back to that aquarium, about ten years later, the place was sad and rundown, and the display that was so indelible to me was long gone.

One year ago, I made my third voyage to an aquarium – this time to the National Aquarium in Baltimore. After viewing all the sea creatures on the upper and ground floors, my partner and I almost made the horrible mistake of leaving before we discovered the jellyfish room downstairs.

The whole aquarium is impressive, but the jellyfish displays were superb. Hushed awe prevailed in the darkened room as handfuls of enchanted humans gazed at these graceful, alien beings. So many shapes and colors and varieties, silent, fluorescent, and dangerous behind their glass walls.

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lessons

Today I have officially survived twenty-five years in this world. As a mark of this achievement/miracle, I wanted to formulate twenty-five things I’ve learned in twenty-five years of experience. I wanted to – until I realized that’s way too long of a list for me to come up with (or for you to want to read) in one sitting.

So, you’re only getting the top five today.

Here they are, in the order they occurred to me.

  1. Everyone’s story is different. To disregard that in my actions and opinions is to be violently apathetic.
  2. It sounds backwards, but whenever I assume that most of the people (strangers) around me are goodhearted, I’m very often surprised to find that it’s true. On the other hand, if I’m expecting bad-natured behavior (often because I’m in a bad mood myself), that’s mostly what I’ll see. Everybody has bad days, but my perspective determines, in great part, my perception of the world.
  3. “Don’t pick up any wooden nickels!” My dad used to say this to us almost every morning as he left for work. I just thought it was absurd then, but when I inspect it more closely now, I find it to be as astute as it is succinct: Though being opportunistic has its advantages, one should be careful to be neither gullible nor greedy. As one remarkable person once said, “Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”
  4. Still learning this one, but for uptight people like me: U-N-R-A-V-E-L. I was born wound tight, but there’s no sense in making things harder for myself than they need to be. This has been by far the hardest lesson for me to practice.
  5. True to their dual nature as both signifier and meaning, words matter in two different ways. Although it’s true that you have to be careful with your words because someone could always be listening, I realize now that being heard could not in itself make words any more important, but only more influential. It is the fact that I choose to say – or refrain from saying – a word that makes it important. In other words, selecting a word is its importance, using it is its influence. My word choice has changed enormously over the years, and many people would argue with some of the changes I’ve made on either side. But it has become a living dictionary that mirrors the most significant changes in the past twenty-five years of my life.

 

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There you have it. A quarter century of wisdom. Stay tuned for the next quarter!

eleven

Sharp scissors scraping
Endlessly to make blazing
Christmas ribbon curls

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Christmas at my grandmother’s house was an over-the-top, magical miracle for us grandkids (my adult family would perhaps agree with only the first descriptor). You cannot even dream of the number of Christmas-themed stuffed animals and nutcrackers that littered the house. I have yet to see as many presents addressed to me sitting under a tree as I did for many years as a child, nor have I helped wrap as many.

You see, Nanny loved to cook and decorate and shop for her family, securing a line of brilliant hostesses behind her, but she tended to take on more than she could carry. So, she would employ her young granddaughters in the wrapping of all the gifts she hadn’t quite gotten to by the time Christmas night rolled around. We would sit together on the big bed in the Red Bedroom (so called after the solid scarlet hue of the 70s-style full carpeting in those quarters), surrounded by gifts, paper, and ribbons, and we would get to work.

It occurs to me now that this must have been a thought-through strategy. I’m pretty sure she always wrapped our presents first, so that when she ran out of time for wrapping, only the boys’ gifts were left, and we could finish the job without spoiling our own surprises.

Nanny’s big claim to fame is ribbon curls. Each present had dozens and dozens of ribbon curls, and there were dozens and dozens of presents, so you do the math. She taught us at a very early age how to do it, carefully tying many ribbon pieces of different colors in a crisscross pattern, and then one-by-one sliding the blade of a pair of scissors along the bottom of each piece, until you were left with an explosion of shiny, colorful curlicues – often dwarfing the present underneath.

With so many beautifully wrapped presents (and, let’s be honest, some badly wrapped ones done by a few eight year olds), perhaps the most striking thing about the whole event was not the sheer number of packages, but the love, beauty, and detail put into the wrapping itself.

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A present for me, beautifully wrapped by my father – although, according to Nanny’s standards, still lacking in the bow department?

aloud

When I was in middle school, my youth group signed up for a four hour shift to ring the Salvation Army bell outside the local Walmart one December night. It was particularly bitter that evening – in the teens – and so we took turns singing carols outside and running into the store to warm up for a few minutes. My parents bought us all mitten warmer packets from inside.

Despite having been in choruses and choir productions from the earliest age, no one had ever told me explicitly that you are not supposed to sing in the cold, for danger of injuring your vocal cords. I didn’t imagine that the singing term “to warm-up” might actually mean to warm up your vocal cords (something which is near impossible to do if with every breath you’re sucking in frigid northern air).

After four hours of hoarsely projecting Christmas songs at the top of my lungs (according to my logic, so as to have the greatest effect on the generosity of shoppers entering and exiting the store), I fully expected to suffer mild laryngitis the following day. What I did not expect was that my voice would still be suffering negative effects over a decade later.

Once the initial discomfort was over, a few months later, my main complaint was that my voice – speaking and singing – got tired very quickly. Words would thicken and stick in my tonsils. Reading even short things aloud became difficult. I could start out singing strong and clearly, but after about one song a hoarseness and fatigue would creep into my voice. This was not for lack of practice. I regularly participated in my school chorus, choral productions at church, and the church band on Sundays. I never had any medical confirmation of a condition, as it was only a persistent annoyance and frustration, but I knew that something had changed that night, for the worse.

Fastforward several years. Being an aunt is one of my greatest joys. Although I don’t get to see my nephews more than two or three times a year, time spent with them is very precious to me. I would do pretty much anything for them, but one thing that used to make me cringe during my visits was story time. They would request me to read book after book, and my voice would get smaller and grainier with every page. I dreaded when they brought out the books, because I knew I would have to curtail this important developmental activity. I wanted nothing more than to read aloud to them for hours (reading was pretty much the only way I could get these little boys to cuddle with me for a good amount of time), but my voice would not cooperate. I admit I was relieved (and impressed!) when the older one started reading for himself.

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The littler one, “reading”
Only in the last few months have I noticed a marked improvement in my voice endurance. When I found out that my partner had never read Roald Dahl’s BFG as a child, it could not stand. Seeing this as a huge oversight in his education, I began to read it aloud to him, voices and all. I was surprised to find that, after a little warming up, my voice performed much better than I had expected and than historically it had. I drank a lot of water throughout, but I could easily make it through a whole chapter without my voice feeling too strained to continue.

Encouraged by this and by the fact that my partner only fell asleep a couple of times during the reading, reading aloud has become a hobby of ours, and an excellent alternative to watching TV. We are currently rereading A Wrinkle in Time together (honestly, slow going because I keep falling asleep to his calming intonations), and I imagine we’ll even one day emerge into adult fiction.

In the meantime, this hobby is good practice for when I see my nephews over New Year’s.

supermoon

The event of the supermoon this past month was, I must admit, underwhelming. This is not entirely surprising, considering that widespread popular news tends to blow actual events way out of proportion by highlighting facts whose sole purpose is to raise your expectations unreasonably. Biggest Moon In 68 Years! Never Again!!* (*until 2034.) However, it cannot be denied that the moon was very bright and rather big and reddish at moonrise for almost a week, and where I live was lucky enough to have clear skies at the time.

Something I miss most about living in a rural area is the nighttime sky. Now that I’m surrounded by urban centers, all but a handful of the most prominent stars are allowed through the heavy light pollution, so when I do make it up north, I try to spend some time stargazing.

In winter this is easy because the sky gets dark there by around 4pm. I remember lying on the crusty top layer of snow in my back yard as a kid, staring up at the night sky. I can still feel the sharp air circulating through my nose and mouth and lungs and the chill of the air on my eyeballs with every hard blink. The surrounding woods make a frame around the northern sky, and the Big Dipper spins brightly within that frame throughout the year. The Dipper and Orion were – and are – like old friends, so easily recognizable even to a child, and so very bright when given the chance.

One of the drives between my house and church growing up brought you along a small ridge with an incredible view of the White Mountains. On really clear days you could even make out Mount Washington (especially identifiable if it had just snowed). But my favorite time to drive past that vista was at night. Sometimes in the winter we’d be driving back late from a church event, silently riding together in the car, maybe with Christmas music playing on the radio. I would press my forehead against the cold window so that I could see the huge, black expanse above me, unobscured by trees or streetlights, and scattered with thousands of visible stars. I say thousands – but how could I know? I would like to say a million, but I have no idea what a million of something looks like, so I compare those vivid pinpricks with the half dozen I can normally make out where I live today.

This past summer some friends and I went camping in New Hampshire and spent a long time lying on the beach. The sky was pitch black but for the stars, and we were completely alone, dwarfed by the sheer number of galaxies above us and grains of sand below.

Without looking up the science of it all, I always feel like I can see more stars when it’s cold out. I vaguely remember reading that the northern hemisphere faces more stars, or at least more bright stars, in the winter than it does in the summer. And I imagine there’s less interference from hot, hazy air, too. (I really am being very lazy by not verifying this for you. But you can do a bad google search just as well as I can.)

On the evening of the supermoon, my partner and I walked down to the water, to the end of a pier. The moon was bright and clear (just like most of the adjectives in this post) and cast a long, wavy reflection in the water, like a path across the bay’s surface. We identified Venus and Saturn.

A couple days later we went back again. The moon was still bright but waning at the top, as though it were looking down. Maybe it was the right time of year, or maybe the light pollution was less than usual, or maybe it was just cold, but we could see about a hundred stars – entire constellations – more than I had seen in months. And although I will always want more stars in my sky, it was wonderful to greet once again the Hunter and the Great Bear.

seas

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about a trip I took with my sister a couple years ago. I visited her at her flat in Vienna, and then we traveled together to Rome and back to Vienna. It’s taken a while to process the trip, and it’s only now becoming a monumental and formative part of my memory. I suppose I needed time to sift and dull the memories of travel stresses and weary fighting (have you ever taken a long trip with your sister?!). I’m now left with amazing memories of ancient streets and ruins and delicious bruschetta and real cappuccinos and navigating a foreign city by myself while my sister was at work. (“Kann ich einen Kaffee haben, bitte?” I did try, albeit pathetically, and the barista would give me a look of pity [disgust? amusement? strangled patience?] and reply in English. He was very hip, though, with his long white hair pulled back into a ponytail.)

I’m sure I will, at some point, write more at length about our Vienna/Rome trip, but today I want to focus on the rather modern experience of traveling by plane.

There’s something about a place that is utterly lost when you’re flying high above it. The things that make each area unique get swallowed up into vague lights, shapes, and shadows. This reduction turns farmland into patchwork during the day and cities into Christmas lights at night. It’s beautiful – sometimes breathtakingly so – but it is too removed from daily reality to be quite living.

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Austrian fields

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A city, rendered nameless by the distance
I stumbled across a poem that I wrote on one of my flights during this trip. It touches on the feeling of eerie yet peaceful detachment that comes from being above the world rather than surrounded by it.

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A perfectly silent sea above me
Another sea below
The one above is glassy smooth
The other, ragged snow.
From my hyperterrestrial limbo
I count the sleepy cities beneath –
Isolated pockets of snuffed lights
Above and from whom frothy milk clouds
Peel away the nights
West to east
Like a caravan returning home,
Not in the least
Bothered or aware
Of the double seas soundlessly raging
Above them there.

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ten

In light of the election, I felt like I both had to and could not write a post. I wanted to and didn’t want to. Don’t worry – it will not be political. Turbulent times, no matter the reasons behind them, always need moments of rest for those they toss.

I have a staggering number of friends and acquaintances who are afraid, and although I have no power to assuage their specific fears, I can, I hope, do my part to relieve some of the general darkness they feel. One excellent way to do that is with art.

For some reason, I have always been timid to say that I like a piece of art, or to declare that it’s good. There are plenty of people who study art (I do not study art) and they’re the ones who I assume have the authority to make such declarations. I’m afraid of being laughed at for saying that I like a painting when its subject is mundane. I’m afraid of being sneered at for saying a painting is good when maybe in reality it’s shoddy work. I wouldn’t know. But there is one piece of art that I saw years ago at the MFA in Boston that I still think about a lot. I even had it bookmarked on my browser so I wouldn’t forget it. It’s called Farmyard by Moonlight by Jean-François Millet, and it has many cliche things that draw me in: a moon, a pastoral scene, clouds, no people. It has a gate in almost the very center of the piece, which I know is a trope in art for drawing attention to something, but I also vaguely remember hearing that it’s an amateur way to go about drawing such attention. But I really like this piece and think you should look at it, and also look at other works by J.F. Millet, because they’re very peaceful and – I’ll say it – very good.

And now to leave you with a contribution of my own, which you may judge as you please.

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a candle quivers
momentarily expunged
darkest before dawn