Thursday, February 28, 2013


or Coming to Terms (Again)

If you go back to its roots, a periphery is literally something that is "carried around."  Back in the 16th century (or the 14th, depending on your source), the word referred to the atmosphere around the earth.  I'd love to know what, in those long-ago days, people really meant by atmosphere.  Maybe they had something like the Belt of Venus in mind:  the pink glow carried around the horizon at dusk and dawn, at the point where light and dark merge—something visible and radiant with the vast unknown beyond it.

"Periphery" has long since lost that atmospheric shade of meaning, and even its literal one.  These days its primary definition is simpler:  the outer limit or margin of something.  It's a neutral word, describing plain facts.  Take the fine hairs on Sempervivum leaves, for example.  They grow on the leaves' peripheries, on their margins or outer edges.  That is a simple truth, and periphery sums up those little hairs' place in the world without question.

Something beautiful gets lost in the summation, though.  Even in the softness of shade, those delicate whiskers carry light around the periphery of the leaves and bring an atmosphere shining to life.  The edges are where light gathers and plays.  The periphery isn't a neutral place—it's where the magic happens.

Still, better a neutral meaning than a negative one.  The other definitions of periphery aren't so pleasant.  They're about relative position and status:  inside vs. outside; center vs. edge.  To be on the periphery is to be marginal, secondary, in a lesser or unimportant position.  It's to be like the second of the hens-and-chicks in the photo above—on the edge of your awareness, fuzzed out of focus.  Not central to anything, even though you might notice if it weren't there.  Just...not mattering all that much.

Is anything as fascinating as the periphery of a tulip leaf?  At least, until the tulips bloom.  Then the leaves become...peripheral.

I've been a little thoughtful about peripheries lately, a little pensive.  I've missed some activities that kind of broke my heart not to be a part of—an impromptu cello performance by my oldest nephew, some dear friends' son's bar mitzvah—because, even though I'm doing better than I have in years, I'm not well enough to participate fully.  CFIDS/ME really puts you on the periphery of your own life, because being in the thick of things is too disabling.  You make it work for you:  you find other avenues for life, like blogging and Facebook, and reveling in the small wonders in a small garden.  Over time, you kind of forget what "normal" life is like.  But then you have a sudden reminder of the everyday pleasures other people enjoy unthinkingly and realize how far out on the periphery you are.  You are a bit like Gomer Goldfish:

Except that I'm never that grumpy.  Obviously.

This really isn't a down-hearted or complaining post:  I know full well that being peripheral to activities does not make me peripheral in the hearts of those who love me.  There are so many things that I can do.  The things I miss out on do not diminish the value (or my enjoyment) of the "less important" things that come my way.  And I really like my sofa; you could not find a more comfortable sofa to lie on.  For hours on end. 

It is, however, a thoughtful post.  I've found myself wandering around the garden (in a non-strenuous way) looking at leaf edges, at boundaries and margins and outer limits, and wondering about them.  What does it mean to be on the periphery?  And if it means something unpleasant, what can I do to change it?  I can't change illness (so far).  It has set the limits.  So instead, what can I do to change the periphery?  To make it, not a place that's out of focus or on the edge of awareness, or even a place of neutral fact, but a place where light gathers and plays, a place that carries its own radiance around with it and has, maybe, just a bit of a pink glow?* 

On the periphery between shade and sun.

How can the periphery be a place where magic happens?

* Except that I'm not really all that fond of pink.

Thursday, February 21, 2013


or Joinery

Crocus chrysantha 'Cream Beauty'

Friends of mine who are woodworkers get a little tender about joinery—tender as in touchy, but also softhearted.  They will stew and fret (and quite possibly even curse) over a mortise and tenon that doesn't nest together just right.  If you don't notice their rabbets and dadoes they will be wounded to the core.  And their rough, scarred hands will touch a well-made dovetail as if it were a newborn baby.  End joints are well enough in their way, but to someone who loves wood for its own sake, they are poor substitutes for craftsmanship.  They lack the strength and grace of interlocking connections.

It's funny that we use the word dovetail for both joinery and transitions.  In joinery a dovetail brings two pieces of wood together firmly and permanently.  Separate things become one unit.  But a dovetail can also be fluid and ephemeral, the clean segue from one set of sounds or ideas or ways of doing things to the new ones that replace them.

When I worked in radio many years ago I loved the quest for the perfect segue, the transition that would make the pairing of two songs seem almost inevitable.  Words didn't do it.  The ideas they represent are too abstract to make strong links in a sonic art.  The bridge needs to be musical:  a shared timbre, a melodic riff, a rhythmic impulse that resonates between the old song and the new.  Important as it is, the segue only lasts for a few seconds before disappearing into the flow of the music, speeding on its way through time.

I've been thinking about dovetails and transitions lately.  I finished cleaning out the central bed, paring back the blue grama grass just as the crocuses came into their own.

Last year I wondered whether flowers that bloom halfway between the solstice and the equinox are really spring flowers or winter ones—whether they're signs of change on the horizon or just lovers of the cold, plain and simple.  This year I'm seeing the crocuses more as the transition between winter and spring, a bridge that spans them both.  Their timbre resonates with the straws and browns of last year's grasses and leaves, as well as with the warmth of a strengthening sun.  They are as china-thin as a brittle winter wind or a delicate dawn sky in spring.  Clean and spare, they fill the bare, spare places in the garden after the cutting back; clean and spare, they radiate freshness like the clean, fresh growth coming in.  Winter fades out; spring fades in, with the crocuses making a graceful dovetail between them.

I also find myself thinking about joinery, though, and the way things become inextricably bound together.  The sandhill cranes that winter along the Rio Grande are migrating, you see.  They arrive in October, their calls echoing against the garden walls, when the fall-blooming crocuses open.  When the spring crocuses bloom in February I know I will again hear a throaty purr above the garden and look up to see families and clans and nations of silvery, long-winged birds circling, wheeling, riding the thermals higher and higher, until with one mind they turn irrevocably to the north.  And then they're gone.  I miss them when they go.  So when the crocuses open, I feel a small pang of sorrow on the cranes' behalf, because crocuses and cranes—they just go together.

You'd think the link between them would be one of simple association—simultaneous impressions butting up against each other like an end joint, not something to get all tender about.  To my mind, though, the connection is stronger than that, more graceful, more finely crafted.  Those migrating birds and rooted bulbs share features that interlock them together, no matter how intangibly:  the way wings and petals both catch fire in the sun, turning translucent, iridescent; the way they cup themselves around the air.  The way their fragility is deceptive:  despite delicate bones and wings like china-thin petals the cranes will journey thousands of miles in the shadow of winter; the crocuses can endure biting winds and snow and still bloom at the next touch of sun.  They are not like the tulips, holding out for a little more warmth, or the hummingbirds, waiting for nectar to flow.  They respond to the changing season, the quickened pulse of the earth, the intensifying, vibrant message of the sun, with urgency—immediacy.  For them the time to move is now.  And the time is brief.  We will enjoy them for just a few short days before they're gone.

Before they disappear into the flow of a new season, speeding on its way through time.