When Words Were Birds
Zephyr (May 1) sounds like a gentle breeze—the gliding z, the gust of the ph—which is exactly what it means. The Greek Zephyrus was the god of the west wind, god of spring. His wives Chloris and Iris were, respectively, deities of greenery and rainbow, his son Karpos of fruit.
Zephyr is also a light article of clothing, a loose shirt worn in competitive rowing, but the name has been adopted for athletic wear of all kinds. I picture something breezier. The light-weight multi-purpose scarf/headcovering/mask that I wear for coronavirus protection is called a buff, but it fits my idea of a zephyr.
Zephyr should be—but isn’t—a bird, except in the Joan Miró lithograph, “Zephir Vogel,” a joyous swirl of disjointed parts in primary colors.
Mindfulness (May 13), from the Old English myndful, “of good memory,” has become a 21st-century industry. The concept of being aware, attentive, conscious, thoughtful, in the moment, has been with us for centuries. As has meditation, stemming from Buddhist practice. Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn introduced mindfulness in its present self-help incarnation in the late seventies, and its practice continues to flourish.
In 2016 the New York Times ran weekly columns, “How to Be Mindful” at a wedding, in an argument, by the grill, while walking, running, working, eating, shopping, cleaning the bathroom, mowing the lawn, brushing your teeth, holding a baby, falling in love, shoveling snow, filing your taxes. To wash dishes mindfully: “Take a deep breath before you begin. Exhale through your mouth. Notice how your body feels, standing at the sink….”
My yoga class starts and ends with a period of meditation, during which we’re reminded to be mindful, to bring the mind back to the breath if it wanders (mind your mind). My class is from 11 a.m. to noon, and once my mind wanders to lunch, as it invariably does, there’s no bringing it back.
Bird watching, which I sometimes do in my canyon-side back yard, is extolled for its mindfulness benefits, in Audubon Magazine’s “How to Boost Your Mindfulness and Empathy While Birding” and the book Bird Therapy to name just two. Watching birds teaches mindfulness by helping people lose themselves in something bigger than themselves.
Heyday (May 17) is the period of a person’s greatest success, popularity, or vigor. In 16th-century English “heyday” was an exclamation that expressed elation or surprise, like “hey” now. Only later did the “day” part come to mean time and the term become a peak period, maybe interpreted as a “high-day.” “Hey” was originally a challenge or expression of anger (“Hey, stop that!”); now it’s also a greeting, like “hi.” The two have similar roots and are used interchangeably: “Just stopped by to say hey.”
People speak of their heyday in the past, a reference to a time of confident youth, physical prowess, unlimited possibility. As a late bloomer, I’d have to say mine wasn’t until my fifties or even later, after retirement. In spite of time’s toll and the body’s betrayal, my heyday was, is, about autonomy, creativity, and contentment.
Birding is in its heyday, considered one of the fastest-growing hobbies worldwide even before the arrival of Covid-19 and the rediscovery of such mindful pandemic pastimes.
Morphology (May 28) has been a field of biology since the early nineteenth century, “the science of the outer form and inner structure of animals and plants,” from the Greek morpho, meaning form or shape. In linguistics it’s the study of how words are formed and how they relate to other words. Morphology analyzes roots and stems of words, much as it does with plants.
To morph is to gradually change, or to change from one thing to another. I’ve been plagued in recent years with a generally benign skin condition called morphea, marked by changes in the skin—isolated patches of white and/or darkened and/or hardened skin, mine fortunately hidden on my rarely-exposed torso. Based on the same root, morph-, but not to be confused with morphia, which is morphine, named for the Greek god of dreams, Morpheus.
Bird morphology looks at the shapes and forms of beaks, wings, legs, and feathers, and their functions in nesting behavior and migration. I recently learned about a friend of a friend, an Oxford scholar whose research focuses on the evolution and plasticity of avian migration, how birds adjust their migratory behavior in response to environmental changes.
Polyphony (May 30)—from the Greek polyphonia, “many sounds”—is thought of mostly in musical terms, a composition that combines a number of harmonizing parts performed simultaneously. In literature polyphony is a form of narrative that includes varied voices and/or points of view, though not merged. I think of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, with a third-person omniscient narrator, the point of view changing among several characters.
A friend wrote a personal essay titled “Me, Myself, and I” about hallucinations he experiences as a result of Parkinson’s disease. I entertain the idea of a similarly titled piece with three distinct points of view. I’m not talking Three Faces of Eve, but rather internal and external voices, the third an idealized self (and any resemblance to Freud disavowed).
Some birds—the hooded oriole, the blue-gray gnatcatcher, the brewer’s blackbird—can produce polyphonic sound, blending separate sounds from each lung simultaneously. If Miró’s zephyr bird had a song, that’s how I would imagine it—issuing like soft breezes merging in the air.
Alice Lowe writes about life and literature, food and family. Her essays have been published in more than eighty literary journals, recently or forthcoming in South 85 Journal, Anti-Heroin Chic, Eclectica, Hobart, JMWW, Gold Man Review, and Epiphany. Her work has been cited in the Best American Essays and nominated for Pushcart Prizes and Best of the Net. Alice is also the author of numerous essays and reviews on Virginia Woolf’s life and work, including two monographs published by Cecil Woolf Publishers in London. She lives in San Diego, California and posts her work at www.aliceloweblogs.wordpress.com.