Monday, March 29, 2010

Teeter Totter

At 1:32 p.m. last Saturday, after a winter that was long and hard and heavy, spring arrived. At that moment, known as the vernal equinox, the center of the sun was on the same plane as the equator of the earth and there was a perfect balance of light and dark.

Or so they say.

Balance is a tenuous, ephemeral thing. It is achieved when my checkbook and the bank’s records agree. It is executed when an elfin woman-child throws her body into the air in some stupefying combination of twists and turns and flips and lands steadily on a 4-inch piece of wood. It is attained when, the life coaches and self-help gurus tell us, one’s physical, relational, professional and spiritual lives are seamlessly integrated into a whole.

I repeat: Balance is a tenuous, ephemeral thing.

My friend Margaret is 81. A few years ago her doctor, explaining that as people age their ability to balance wanes and that it is this declination that most frequently results in bone fractures, gave her an exercise to do every day. For two minutes she was to stand on one foot and, at the conclusion of the two minutes, switch to the other foot for the same length of time.

Margaret shared this with several of us not just to receive kudos on the ease with which she accomplished this (She did, in fact, get a enthusiastic round of applause.), but to encourage us to do the same. And I have. Not every day, not even once a week, but often enough.

This is what I have learned: It is more difficult to balance in bare feet than in shoes. It helps, starting off, to use your arms as ballast. And it, that is, perfect balance doesn’t last for long.

Which brings me back to the vernal equinox. One moment it was winter; the next spring. One moment the earth was tilted; the next it wasn’t. One moment everything was the way it had been; the next it was, suddenly, the way it is.

I saw, the other day, a clock face with no numbers, only a minute hand. On the left-hand edge of the hand were block letters spelling out "the past." On the right-hand edge of the hand were block letters spelling out "the future." The fairly obvious point of the artist who designed it was that everything except this moment is either the past or the future. All the time that ever was and ever will be is balanced on either side of the moment we call the present.

So, in a way, every moment is the vernal equinox. Every moment is perfectly balanced between light and dark, good and bad, what was and what will be.

I spent most of the winter complaining about the weather. Complaining and wishing for temperatures and conditions more to my liking. Complaining and using the weather as an excuse for my general malaise. Complaining and walking through most days oblivious to the fact that I was – in my cold, bare feet and, at times, with my arms waving wildly to avoid falling – exactly where I was supposed to be.

I can say with some assurance that the checkbook kind of balance isn’t ever going to be a problem for me. I can say with greater assurance that I will never perform a successful "flight element" on the balance beam. What I can say with no assurance, but with a great deal of faith, is that, with the spring sunshine on my shoulders and the spring breeze in my hair, I’m going to try really hard for that seamless integration kind of balance. And, with any luck, it will last for more than just two minutes.

Copyright 2010

Monday, March 15, 2010

Pants On Fire

Spring is always a flirt. Occasionally a tease. But this year, ah, this year Spring has been nothing short of ... well, a liar.She pranced into town with a two hundred-dollar haircut wearing 4-inch Jimmy Choos and trailing Chanel No. 5 just as the puddles of melted snow dried up. All of us, every last one of us, ran outside stripping off coats and gloves, tilting our chins into her scent and holding out our bare arms to the laser-beam sun that streamed in her wake.

We woke up the next morning to clouds as thick as meringue, rain as heavy as a fallen pound cake and our girl having vanished sometime in the night.

Another week of morning frost and evening chill, another week of resigned bundling up, another week of landscape colored in every shade of gray and she appeared again – strutted down the sidewalk with nary an excuse or apology for her bad manners. And we, fools that we are, took our lunches outside, went running in shorts, tried to cajole her into staying by calling out to each other, "Isn’t it a beautiful day?" and "I’m so glad that spring is finally here."

But she would not be charmed, would not be swayed by compliments. One warm and sunny afternoon was all to which she was willing to commit.

When I was a little girl I was pretty sure that the worst thing a person could be was a liar. I didn’t know about murderers and rapists and terrorists. I was not, thank God, conversant with infidelity or abandonment. I lived in a world not unlike that of Beaver Cleaver and, in that world, speaking an untruth would have resulted in the immediate infliction of corporal punishment and, worse, the proclamation that my parents, indeed, the entire world was "disappointed."

Which is why I never lied. Never. I would, in fact, go to great lengths to avoid even the appearance of lying. Once, I came home from school and told Mama that a friend’s mother was going to have a baby. Surprised at the announcement, Mama asked, "Are you sure?"

Confronted suddenly with the possibility that I might have misunderstood and determined not to be that most horrible of miscreants, a liar, I responded, "Uh, I don’t know. Maybe I made it up." Even now, forty-something years later, Mama laughs when she tells the story. There is probably a mental health professional somewhere who thinks I need therapy.

I don’t live in Beaver Cleaver world anymore. I live in a world where elected officials lie about everything from campaign contributions to paternity. I live in a world where professional athletes lie about performance-enhancing drugs, where celebrities lie about domestic violence, where religious leaders lie about everything that everybody else lies about. I make my living in a profession where my job some days is doing nothing more than trying to convince people to admit that they are lying.

You would forgive me, then, if I confessed that I don’t believe much of anything anybody says anymore.

But I won’t say that. Because it’s not true.

I believe people when they say they are going to call me back. I believe people when they say they would like me to come visit. I believe people when they tell me they are sorry.

That is not to say, however, that my belief is always well-placed. Some people never call me back. Some people find reasons to rescind their invitations. And some people aren’t really sorry. But the burden of the lie – And it is a heavy heavy burden. – is always on the liar, not the believer.

All that to say that the minute Spring comes back for good, the very second she crosses the county line carrying the azaleas and the fireflies and the baseball games in her Louis Vuitton bag, I’m going to be waiting for her with open arms. All will be forgiven and all will be well.

Copyright 2010

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

You Must Remember This

Maybe in Reykjavik people can render an image of snow in cliche-less terms. Maybe in International Falls they can avoid words like pristine in describing the scenes outside their living room windows. Maybe in Kiev, where my Kate has been for five months, one can be so accustomed to it that it hardly merits mentioning.

But this isn’t Reykjavik or International Falls or Kiev. So if we Zone 9 dwellers acted the fool a little with our once-in-a-generation snowfall we should be forgiven. That our dogs didn’t know what to do with the crunchy white stuff beneath their feet, that there were far too many photos of dwarf snowmen posted on Facebook and that the people in those photos had on far too much clothing are things that should be overlooked.

The last time there was that much snow was Christmas Eve of 1989; Adam was 7 and Kate was 5. There was reason to stay outside until fingers and toes began stinging with, strangely enough, heat not cold. There were snowballs to mound and throw and the smallest of hills to slide down. There was magic in the dinosaur-tooth icicles that trimmed the eaves of the houses.

This time, on almost Valentine’s Day, I sat at my desk as the flakes began coming down, fluttering against the just-dark sky. They fell hard and fast like tiny swords slashing through the air and then settled quickly into glistening puffs of icy quilting on the leaves of the holly bushes.

Within a couple of hours the fields on either side of Sandhill, bumpy and lumpy with tractor ruts earlier in the day, were flat and even like the ocean on a windless day. Even in the darkness I could see the white shimmering under the navy blue sky.

I walked out on the deck to take a few photographs – the furniture, all its hard edges buffed away with a thick layer of snow; the limp brown stems of the Gerbera daisies that had lived all the way through December and finally succumbed to the January freeze; the spindles and railings and steps.

At first I didn’t notice the rosemary. Three large pots of tiny tiny leaves frosted like cupcakes.

Rosemary likes it hot and dry. I should have brought the pots indoors before the first freeze and I most certainly should have done something to protect them from the inordinate amount of rain we’d been getting. But I hadn’t.

And I felt bad. I suspected that the rosemary would succumb just as the plumbago and lantana had succumbed. I suspected that I’d walk outside in a day or two, after the snow had melted and the ground had dried out, and find wilted stems and brown-tipped leaves.

I took a photo anyway, knowing that once I got it developed I would feel even more guilty for my neglect.

What a surprise, then, this morning as I was leaving for the office in bright sunshine and without an overcoat to see the new leaves sprouting from the top of the rosemary plants – bright green and pointed straight up into the sky. Barely a week later and the hot-and-dry herb had shaken off the cold and wet and gotten on with the business of growing.

It’s easy, but not a good idea, to neglect something just because it is particularly well-suited to its surroundings. While low maintenance is preferable, in plants and people, you get better results when you pay attention. Better results when you remember.

"There's rosemary; that's for remembrance. Pray, love, remember."

Copyright 2010