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Wednesday, December 30, 2009

THE WORK OF WINTER

The Work of Winter (from www.ncarts.org)

By Kathryn Stripling Byer

This time of year poet Adrienne Rich’s words bubble up into my

consciousness: “The work of winter starts fermenting in my head / how with

the hands of a lover or a midwife / to hold back till the time is right.” She

urges to “trust roots” and “learn what an underground journey / has been,

might have to be; speak in a winter code / let fog, sleet, translate; wind, carry

them.”

This time of year my imagination wants to trust roots. To go underground

where so much of our inner journey takes place. In other words, it wants

time to think about the origins of memory and language. It’s a time when I

pull out my Oxford English Dictionary, hold up the magnifying glass and

look up the sources of words I use everyday. Where did they come from?

How have they changed? Inevitably, this always leads me back to the

question, “How have I changed?”

Because I recently turned sixty-five, a truth that women of a certain age are

not supposed to own up to, I’ve been thinking a lot about the word “old.” I

don’t feel old, I just feel as if I’ve been around for a long time, learned a lot

(though not enough) and that I’m in my prime.

When I turned to the origins of the word “old,” I found that it’s a very old

word indeed, and that its root many centuries ago meant “to nourish.”

Tracking it into Old English, I discovered that it becomes “oeld,” meaning

mature and lasting, something to be valued. The word appears numerous

times in medieval writings, and nearly always in a positive context.

Knowing this, I now no longer mind thinking of myself being described as

“old.”

When we begin to think about how our language began, we are drawn back

to a speech that sounded earthy, no trace of Latin in it. A language of

survivors in a cold, rough landscape. Over the years that language changed

by absorbing words from all over the planet, but mostly words from French

and Latin. Just about any word one picks out of a dictionary contains a piece

of that history. The renowned English poet W. H. Auden once said that

every one of his poems is a hymn of praise to the English language. A poet

in any language feels the same way about what we call the mother tongue.

Our mother tongue nourishes us. Just as the word “eald” meant centuries

ago.

Each morning my husband reads a page from his “Calendar of Forgotten

English,” a ritual that began 5 years ago when I gave him the 2000 calendar

for Christmas. These calendars collect words no longer in use, or not often,

and they lie on our table, waiting to be read while my husband drinks his

coffee. Words like “flaws” (gust of wind) and “blague” (humbug). Old

words. And, finally, not forgotten. Here they lie beside the cereal box, the

jam and butter, another morning’s invitation to look back and realize what

the word “old” really means. Still here. Ready for another year. Pick a word.

Any word. And it will carry you back to the roots of our language, and

forward into a present made even richer for knowing how the past spoke

itself.

4 comments:

Vicki Lane said...

What a wonderful post, Kay!

I've been thinking about the 'old' label a lot recently, after reading several novels in which women in their sixties were described as 'quite elderly."

Aye, law! I'm 66 and soon to be 67. But as you say, I don't feel old (in my mind, at least; my knees feel ancient!)

But elder is a wonderful, strong, dignified word -- worthy of aspiring to.

Happy New Year, elder woman!

Kathryn Stripling Byer said...

Vicki, let's don't talk about knees!!! After breaking one of them, and then a few years later, an ankle, I try not to think about my joints too much. Elder woman is a designation we've earned by aspiring to live beyond that "old" label.
So, Elder Woman, Happy New Year,to you too.

Nancy Simpson said...

Kay, This means so much to me, especially in this last hour of the night, on the last night of the year. Thanks. I need to know it - "oeld" mature, lasting, something..."


Happy New Year.

My Carolina Kitchen said...

I think we're only old in our mind and we're getting better every day.
Wishing you a happy and healthy new year.
Sam