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Romantic Notions

What’s not to love about an unexpected turn of phrase?

The wee hours in the hospital are at once serene and riddled with noise. Machines whirl and beep, fans blow, alerts sound summoning help, feet scurry in the hallway, beds and chairs wheel by, televisions drone. At the same time, now that our emergency has been addressed and the bustle of professionals slowed, the lights dimmed in the room where my mother, Ninety-Three, has been admitted, and the pulsing adrenaline in both of our systems quieting, calm begins to descend. Ninety-Three’s night nurse comes through to check and make sure her patient is settled—in fact, Mom is already dozing, no doubt exhausted by the six hours we’ve been in the ER—when I ask my question about anticipated length of stay. I don’t really absorb the full answer, because I’m struck by the nurse’s timeframe:

“Two midnights.”

A memory from another night like this swims into my sleep-deprived brain. That time it was explained to me that Ninety-Three would need to stay at least three midnights to qualify for a rehabilitation stay. Then as now I ignored the calculated feel of satisfying some insurance requirement and found myself drawn to the poetic romance of counting by midnights.

Recently, kindly, a woman I admire called me a “collector of words.” Like a contestant bowing to receive a silk sash declaring her title, I’m honored by this beautiful designation. Aside from friendships, I can’t think of anything I’d rather collect.

“Three midnights” goes into a category of romantic notions that are highlighted for me by their unexpected appearance. In the sewing world, a notion is a button or a sequin, a zipper or a specialized tool, something that enhances the garment to which it is applied or the sewing process. Notion comes from the Latin noscere, to know or to learn. Every time I’ve heard a phrase I might call a romantic notion, it’s been a learning moment for me, often in the midst of enormous change. Is it any wonder that I hang on to the phrase that stands out?

Long before John Green made Paper Towns a well-known phrase, at least among the young people in my house, I was standing in a county office pouring over the plat map for Bethesda, MD, steeped in the go-go of purchasing a house. I traced the outline around our intended yard, a postage-stamp sized lot I would later mow with an old-fashioned reel mower, and queried the gap running from the street along the short end of the property, between the house I was already in love with and the neighbors to the south. Parallel lines ran the length of the block.

“What’s this?”

The bored clerk leaned over to look, “A paper street.”

“A what?”

A paper street is precisely what its name says, a street on paper that isn’t an actual street. The county, it seemed, reserved the right to carve an alley between our lot and the neighbors.

Maybe the clerk was chewing gum. She answered my concern with, “I really wouldn’t worry about it too much. These maps were made in the thirties. Nobody’s building any alleyways. What you wanna be concerned with is the light rail right-of-way.”

I would have welcomed the light rail, albeit the intended track was more than a mile from the house. I remember the fights over it, pro and con. Nearly twenty years after that moment in the property office, and thirteen years after we moved away, the official groundbreaking ceremony for the purple line was late last summer. It is a paper rail no longer.

Romantic notions are imbued with a sense of possibility. Whether it’s the chance that something planned for might be realized or the opening of care transitions after a length of stay, there’s a generosity of spirit I associate with these phrases that pop up at moments otherwise fraught or at least paint-splattered. Perhaps my favorite of all time was delivered by a friend of the family, a talented homebuilder who can fix anything. He was inspecting our handiwork; we had painted just about every surface of the new house.

“What do you think?”

He looked thoughtful and then smiled playfully, “It looks good, a few holidays, but good.”

“What’s a ‘holiday?’”

“You know, when your mind kind of goes on holiday while you’re working, and the brush slips a little, or you miss a spot, like behind the door.”

I knew exactly, and I spent the next hour shining a light on the newly painted walls, searching the house for holidays, my brush ready to touch up the mistakes.

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Starling and Leo enjoy a Sunday cuddle under the laundry drying rack, a visual romantic notion. I love the way Leo looks like Starling’s shadow.

The full moon finds Ninety-Three multiple midnights later through rehab, stronger, and back home in her apartment. Phew. May all be also righting itself in your world, and may you find phrases like flowers blooming between the cracks of otherwise unforgiving cement that somehow make you smile in spite of the circumstances. Thanks, as ever, for sharing. Love, Rxo

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Phrase Phase

Which one is correct?

When my newly minted teenager, Thirteen, was just beginning to articulate complete sentences at the age of about Three, she learned to say, “Actually.” She did not use it to correct others, but to make a point as fact. “Actually, I was going to pet the cat.” “I am hungry, actually.” “Actually, good night.” As a developmental habit, it was actually pretty cute and didn’t last long enough to become annoying.

Ten years later she might just as well append actually to every comment because she is a stickler for accuracy, and not only her own. If I report that it’s 4 and we need to leave, she’ll tell me it’s only 3:56. If her brother mis-quotes a song lyric, she will take pains to sing the refrain emphasizing the correct words. If she herself says her left hand but means her right, she’ll burst into giggles and ask loudly why in the world would she say left when she means right.

I can only hope that this linguistic phase will also be short lived.

I put aside my wondering about where her commitment to detail came from to do a little celestial research. I thought I remembered that July 31 this year brings us a Blue Moon, the second full moon in a calendar month. A blue moon is auspicious, of course, because it doesn’t happen very often. The full moon offers a big hit of lunar energy, and a blue moon shines its big light onto the truth in our hearts, offering us a path to follow those notes toward meaningful transitions.

Verifying my memory online, I was drawn up short when I uncovered an inaccuracy in my own understanding of the world. Traditionally, it seems, the blue moon was the third full moon of four in a single season (between equinox and solstice or solstice and equinox). That was according to the 1937 Maine Farmer’s Almanac. Then, in 1946 a reporter for Sky and Telescope, in an article entitled “Once in a Blue Moon,” interpreted the older definition to mean two full moons in a single calendar month (http://earthsky.org/space/when-is-the-next-blue-moon).

Which one is the correct definition? Do we have a blue moon this month or not until May 2016? According to the reading I’ve done, people can’t agree. But the author at earthsky wisely suggests that both definitions are folklore, and thus we get to decide and enjoy either. As I see it, with two definitions for blue moons in use, the phenomenon is less incredibly rare; so the phrase, once in a blue moon, is less laden with the meaning of something seldom happening.

A little further research offers this—five hundred years ago (okay, 487), there is printed evidence that if something happened once in a blue moon it would be something utterly absurd, akin to “when pigs fly.” The flying pigs were also popular parlance about the same time, alongside the moon being made of green cheese. Together they must have rubbed out the blue moon as absurd, allowing it to come roaring back to mean a rare occurrence.

I love language. I love that it shifts and grows and accommodates our changing communications, but I also consider myself something of a usage guardian and strive for accuracy in meaning, punctuation, and grammar. In clear communications, accuracy is powerful; and boom, I am handed new understanding. Living with an English professor turned editor, a Sixteen year-old-boy who knows most everything, and a grandmother with nearly ninety-one years of living experience, of course Thirteen is driven to discover the Actually in any situation. At this moment, when she is learning to navigate the world at an age during which she can enjoy the Minions movie and Dirty Dancing in a single weekend, this moment is more rare and precious than any blue moon, because when it’s over it won’t ever return.

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Valencia, earlier this month (July 2015)

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Either the hand has grown or the jelly fish are smaller … or both! California, January 2009

In spite of my general preference for particulars and a feeling that the oldest way is somehow the rightest, I’m sticking with the idea that this month (7.31.15) we see a blue moon; twenty-eight days ago my peeps and I were under a glorious full moon in Barcelona. The world turns and turns and we’re lucky to be on it. Thanks for reading, Rxo

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