Every day, it seems, I find myself looking up words and their etymologies, trying to get at the root of what something I've just read means. Sometimes it's a word in the Bible, and I end up wading my way through ancient languages I've never studied, searching for clues. Other times it's just words from daily life that suddenly pertain to some matter I'm struggling with or considering. Often the word has changed over the centuries; I find such words particularly fascinating—particularly when, as is often the case, the word's current meaning is at odds with what it once meant. Some of these word studies find their way into my writing projects. My goal is to post new words weekly, sometimes brand new material and sometimes excerpts from my books.

19 February 2010

Spring, Birds, Lent, Tiger Woods, etc.

"We saw a red bird," one of my students told me in class yesterday.

"It was a cardinal," I told her.

"No it wasn't. I know what a cardinal looks like, but this one was different. Its body was orange. And it sang this amazing song."

She commanded another student, the other half of the "we" who saw and heard this bird, to "do the song." He had a good memory for bird voices and made a convincing twiddle that ended in a falling whistle.

"Cardinal," I said. I knew for certain now. But the students were skeptical. "First off, there's no other red bird around here this time of year. Also, the immature ones range from brown to orange. Plus, that was the cardinal's breeding song you just heard."

Spring approaches, although it's still cold. The cardinals have quit their feckless cheeps of winter and are singing with purpose now—as, indeed, everything seems to be doing this time of year. Students linger before class in pairs, leaning toward each other. Despite the yellow ratty grass, despite the chill yet in the air, they yearn to go outside, as my girls used to when they were little: I'd look up and there they'd both be—having stripped naked when I wasn't looking and escaped—sitting in the mud puddle at the end of the drive with our dogs.

It always impresses me how spring motivates people. Suddenly, they're touching, dieting, exercising, cleaning, noticing birds, whistling, attending church services they've neglected for a long time, practicing disciplines—fasting, sacrificing, setting spiritual goals for themselves—that would never occur to them the rest of the year. It is as though the desire for renewal is built into us, just as it is in the color-tipped branches of the trees, in the surprising downpours of spring, in the woodpeckers I see chipping away at the trees to make their nests this time of year. Somehow, in spring, we all want to be new.

Charlotte called me from school on Ash Wednesday to lament that she had already failed, ten hours into the first day of Lent, in this year's goal of no texting.

"I got a text from one of my teachers, and I had to answer it. So it's not going to work. You have to help me think of something else!" she whisper-wailed. I tried to envision where she was at that moment. In the hallway between classes with her friends? In some class where the teacher let them use their *&#^^%!! cell phones? In a bathroom stall?

I suggested adding, rather than subtracting, something from her life, and she said she was already planning that, too. She had counted up the chapters of the four gospels and decided she could read it all during Lent at a rate of two chapters a day.

"I can't give up rich foods," she confided, "because I know I'd be doing it for the wrong reason—to get in shape. But what else is there?" After some more whispering—I felt as though we were planning a murder—she decided to scale down the no texting plan to the hours between 7 and 9 at night, during which time she'd read her two chapters.

I just now listened to Tiger Woods' speech of remorse to his friends and fans. Generally speaking, I have little interest in sports or celebrities and their flashy troubles, and, without a television in our house, my only way of even knowing what's going on is in the summaries of our weekly news magazines. I'm interested in apologies, though. So, when Woods' apology headlined in the Google news as I turned on my computer, I clicked on it and cried my way through the whole sad speech, his halting words doubly halting because of our slow dial up connection.

For the record, despite what the experts in matters public seemed to think, it sounded like genuine remorse to me. And, more movingly, genuine desire to be a new person. As I listened, I heard the voices of others I think about this time of year: Peter, Judas, Pilate. I savored, through this golfplayer's regret and hope, the sweet regret and hope of us all, as we grasp at new selves in the springtime.

1 comment:

George said...

Thanks for this. Especially the words about Tiger Woods. I confess I have felt a bit guilty about feeling sorry for him. I hear comments critical of him and think "you have no idea what it's like to walk the path he is walking." On the other hand, maybe they do and feel his shortcomings excuse theirs.
Nonetheless, I am saddened and empathetic as you are, and you spoke very well in describing your feelings -- as you always do.