Oxymorons in Retrospect
©Arlene R. Taylor PhD www.arlenetaylor.org
I love oxymorons. You know those fascinating combinations of contradictory or incongruous words. I never gave much thought to underlying reasons, however, until John Hughson asked me to speak to students and faculty on differences and oneness. When I telephoned the college to give them the title of my presentation, Unity in Diversity, the student who took the message dutifully repeated the title back to me as, “Unity and Diversity.”
“The second word is ‘in,’” I corrected, “not ‘and’.”
“But that doesn’t make sense.” The very young voice came back over the wire.
“The title is an oxymoron,” I explained.
“Oxymorons?” was the next question.
“Yes. A term that is created by combining contradictory words. You know, likecruel kindness, alone together, or pretty ugly.”
There were a few moments of interesting dialogue and I ended up by saying, “I love words, and stories, and oxymorons.”
“What got you interested in words, and stories, and oxymorons?” The very young voice was persistent.
Good question. Hmmm. My immediate response was, “I’m a preacher’s kid.”
“Okay,” the voice said as if that explained absolutely everything to the student.
On retrospect, however, knowing that the reason is never the reason, my brain began searching for another reason. Preacher’s kid couldn’t be the real reason!
I knew that I liked stories. I liked to read them, write them, tell them, and listen to them. I had initially assumed that my interest had to do with the fact that my brother and I had spent a most of our childhood (at least is seemed that way to me) at church services of one type or another. We were the first to arrive and the last to leave more times than I care to remember. To pass the time, when I became tired of watching people, I would read a book. If I hadn’t brought one with me, I would get a book from the church library and lose myself in the writer’s telling while I waited, waited, and waited.
I recall being absolutely delighted one summer to actually hear Eric B. Hare telling stories in person. Not over the radio, not on a record player. In person. He made the comment that in Bible times Christ liked to tell stories. In fact, according to the Gospel of Mark, Christ never talked to the multitudes of people without telling stories. I remember thinking YES! Eric B. Hare was one of the most effective storytellers I’d ever heard and his children’s books (e.g., Clever Queen) were favorites of mine for years.
I also enjoy the words with which the stories were crafted. The meaning of words, the power of words. Again, I assumed this was related to my father’s occupation. While that may have played a part, it wasn’t the whole picture. Actually, my love of stories and words were probably an outcome of very early childhood experiences.
As I pondered the student’s question (What got you interested in words, and stories, and oxymorons?) I realized that I had never done any family-of-origin work around my love of stories and words. This seemed a great time to do that. I believe in family-of-origin work, getting to know more about myself against the backdrop of my generational inheritance and my environmental history. My father used to quote the Gospel of John: know the truth and the truth will set you free. Of course he quoted it only in reference to religious or theological concepts but I assumed that it could apply to a broader canvas. The truth about who we are as individuals and about what has happened to us thus far in life can serve as a map to help us to make more functional choices in the future. As I began to do some family-of-origin exploration around words, and stories, and oxymorons I began to develop a broader understanding of my upbringing and its impact on my adult life.
My father died in 1990, my mother in 1992, and my brother is younger than I am so I looked around to find someone who could help me do some family-of-origin work. My mother’s older sister might! So, on my way back from North Carolina where I had presented The Brain Program to a group of ministers and their wives, I decided to stop off in Houston for a few days of family-of-origin work with my beloved Aunt Isabelle. We spent hours talking about my family, our collective and individual recollections, and new information that she shared with me.
I learned that when my mother discovered she was pregnant with me, she carefully planned to repeat some very specific activities during my gestational period. For example, every day she spent half an hour playing the piano and singing. (The piano playing rubbed off; the singing didn’t.) Each day she walked for 30 minutes in the fresh air. (Walking is my favorite exercise.) And she read aloud to me, rocking back and forth in her favorite chair. (I like rocking chairs and I love stories.)
I joke that I was born in the late 1800’s; certainly well before my mother could have had access to current research on gestational learning. Work by Dr. Tomatis of France shows that the by the fifth month of gestation, the developing fetus can recognize familiar sounds, voices, songs and stories. In this vein, some researchers believe that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born with already developed harmony competency in his brain. History tells us that Mozart’s mother was a gofted concert pianist and that she sometimes spent seven or eight hours a day practicing the piano. Exposure to that wonderful music, coupled with his innate giftedness in the area of composition and arranging, may have jump-started his compositional career.
Perhaps in a similar way, my pre-natal exposure to hearing my mother read stories aloud may have jump-started my interest in stories. Certainly she was an excellent reader and continued the tradition of reading aloud to me after I was born. At a very young age one of my favorite activities was to have someone read to me. I started reading to myself, as well. That way I wasn’t dependent on someone else to read to me. We were rather poor and yet my parents allocated some of our financial resources to purchasing books. I had the entire set of Uncle Arther’s Bedtime Stories, the Really Truly Stories by Gwendolyn Lampshire Hayden, plus a variety of other books including Jolita of the Jungle and Clever Queen, in addition to periodicals such as Our Little Friend and The Youth’s Instructor.
My hands down favorite book when I was three years old, however, was The Pokey Little Puppy. At least one of my earliest recollections about stories and words has to do with that little book. We were sitting on the sofa in our living room, my little French grandmother and I. She had come to visit from far-away California (we lived in Northern Canada) and, as usual, I had asked her to read to me. I was smashed up to her as close as I could get. She was warm and soft and nurturing and I loved her. She smelled faintly of talcum powder and Evening-in-Paris cologne. We had just reached the part in the story where the Pokey little puppy realized once again that he was in danger of being late for dinner. His curiosity in following a butterfly had led him far afield and, when the breeze brought him tantalizing odors of food, he realized he had better head for home toute suite! With four brothers and sisters he might miss out on some of the delicacies if they all got there first. The Pokey little puppy began to run as fast as his roly-poly little legs could take him. Down the hill, across the creek, up the bank, over the meadow, and across the vacant lot. He managed to squeeze his plump little body through a hole under the fence and plopped down in his own back yard where he said, “Phew. I’m going to eat a lot for dinner tonight!”
It was precisely at this point in the story that my mother walked into the room and said, “Mom,” (speaking to her mother), “I want Arlene to learn the preferred meaning of words and the author of that little book has used the word lot in a nonpreferred way. First, the story says the Pokey little puppy ran across the vacant lot. That’s preferred usage. A lot is a piece of property. But then the writer has the Pokey little puppy say; “I'm going to eat a lot for dinner tonight. That’s not preferred usage.”
“But the second time,” my little French grandmother replied “the author uses a colloquialism, meaning a great deal.”
“Exactly,” mother responded. “Therefore, from now on when you read to Arlene and you come to the part about dinner, I want you to say: I’m going to eat a great deal of food for dinner.”
My grandmother got the tiniest French twinkle in her eye and replied, “Kathleen that poses a bit of a problem for me. When I read Arlene a bedtime story tonight, what do I say when we come to the part about Abraham’s nephew, Lot? Is he a boy, a piece of property, or a great deal?”
Now my grandmother rarely argued with my mother. Nobody argued with my mother. The fact that there was an argument going on about words was funny. Besides I wanted to get on with the story (even though I had it memorized) and here they were arguing about lot, lot, and lot. That was when I made a rather serious error in judgment (one that I’m afraid was repeated frequently throughout my childhood). I began to laugh. My mother, on the other hand, was dead serious about words and did not find the exchange amusing. I don’t remember what happened after that. As Uncle Arthur used to write in some of his stories, “We’ll draw a veil over what happened next.” I always wondered if he didn’t tell the rest of the story because he didn’t know the rest of the story or because he didn’t want to write about a child getting in trouble. I do date my interest in words from that incident.
So I learned about words. Antonyms. Synonyms. Homonyms. And any other nymsthere might have been. And a scant few years later I learned about figures of speech. I wanted a pet. Desperately. Other boys and girls in our neighborhood had pets. Usually a dog or a cat. My parents believed that an animal would be too much trouble, what with our busy schedule and travel. They finally agreed to allow me to have a parakeet. Keeto lived in a little cage inside the house. I loved Keeto but I was an outdoor girl, the quintessential tomboy, and being home schooled left me plenty of time to hone that appellation in the woods behind our house. A little bird inside a little cage inside our little house was not my idea of a thrilling pet! Consequently, I was always on the lookout for something that would do better.
Over time I collected jars of pollywogs that turned into frogs. Snails and salamanders. And made friends with wild birds that would dive into my pocket for sunflower seeds. And one day I had the great good fortune to discover a turtle down in the gully behind our house. It was a fairly good-sized box turtle, about eight inches long, and I decided it would make a wonderful pet. I pried it out of the soft creek bed and together, covered with mud, we managed to make it up the hill to our house. I played with that turtle all afternoon and was pleased to learn how smart it was. Why in no time at all I had taught that creature to grasp a stick with its beak and hang on so its front feet lifted right off the ground!
Of course I wanted to name it and, to assign an appropriate label, I needed to know if the turtle was a boy or a girl. I spent a long time carefully examining it, looking for some appendage or other telltale sign of gender. There weren’t any. At least none that I could find. And there were just some questions one did not ask my mother. I couldn’t imagine taking my muddy self and my muddy pal into the kitchen and saying, “Mom, is this a boy or a girl?” I wouldn’t have dreamed of going down that street in childhood. Finally I settled on the name Toby and, as I explained to the rest of my family when I was called indoors for supper that night, the rest of the summer looked pretty rosy what with my new pet an all.
As soon as we’d finished eating and the dishes were done, I ran back outside to play with Toby but he was nowhere to be found. After about fifteen minutes of frantic detective work I discovered him making slow but steady progress back toward the gully. He hadn’t asked to be uprooted and he was heading back to his preferred playground, although I didn’t realize that at the time. What I did understand was that if I wanted to have Toby as a pet I would have to come with some sort of pen in which he could live when I wasn’t playing with him. Otherwise, Toby would soon be a figment of my imagination. I cast about for something that would serve as a pen and ended up in my father’s workshop downstairs in the basement.
My father’s workshop was not off limits to me. As the eldest child, I had been hisson in some sense for the first few years of my life and had puttered around with him for hours at a time. I knew which tools I could use when he was present and which ones I couldn’t use when he wasn’t (anything that wasn’t electric). Casting about for something with which to construct a pen I noticed several boards leaning up against the wall. They were perfect. About eight inches deep and five feet long. One by one I carried four of them up to the backyard and then returned for nails and a hammer. Before you knew it I had hammered a pen together. Toby seemed to like it what with its collection of rocks, moss, a sunken pan filled with water, and a bush to serve as shade. That night I went to bed as happy as a clam and dreamed of Toby.
I’m not a morning person. Never have been. In that I take after my mother. Even now, I usually wake up very slowly. In fact, when the alarm goes off at 6AM and I tumble out of bed, I crawl to my treadmill and, if I’m very lucky, have finished my thirty minutes of aerobic exercise before I even wake up. So it was that next morning I gradually came to consciousness with the sound of a loud voice hollering up from the basement. Focussing on the sound, I heard my father say, “Kathleen. Yohoo, Kathleen. Do you know where the boards are that were leaning up against the wall in the workshop last night? I’m ready to start building the bookcase.”
Oh-oh, I thought to myself. I know where those boards are. Jumping out of bed I ran downstairs to tell my father that I had used some of those boards to make an enclosure for Toby. Then I had to refresh his memory about Toby and take him out to the pen so he could reclaim his boards. According to his assessment my carpentry had left a bit to be desired in that I had used a considerable number of nails in the building project. So many, in fact, that Dad decided the wood was no longer fit for bookcase shelves. He’d have to buy more and, since I’d failed to ask for permission to use those boards I would have to work off the cost of the new ones.
In addition to my regular chores I was assigned the job of weeding the asparagus patch for the next two months. There was a huge asparagus patch on our quarter-acre. It must have been at least ten feet wide and fifty feet long and it looked like a football field to me as I prepared to begin my weeding job shortly after breakfast. If there was one thing my father liked better than another for lunch it was creamed asparagus tips over toasted home-made whole-wheat bread. Consequently, he was very particular about his asparagus patch.
Everything went just fine for the first few minutes but I quickly got lonesome and decided that Toby would be a good companion. After all, it was his fault that I had to weed the asparagus patch because, after all, it was his new pen that had caused the problem. I lugged him with me to the asparagus patch and went back to weeding. I chattered away aloud to him and, every once in awhile, glanced in his direction to make sure he wasn’t headed off for the gully again. No, there he was crawling along behind me. Everything was hunky dory, as hunky dory as life could be considering I was weeding, when a shadowfell across my path. Looking up, I saw my father come to assess my progress. Suddenly he roared, “Oh no!
My father was not particularly given to loud exclamations and the sound rocked me back on my heels. It was so loud my mother heard it from inside the house and ran outdoors to see what was the matter. In response to her question, my father said, “Good Grief. That resident alien has clearly misunderstood how to behave in our asparagus patch!” I had no idea what in the world he was talking about. I looked at Toby. He looked fine to me.
“What’s wrong?” I asked. My father solemnly pointed to a couple dozen little green asparagus tips that were lying on the rich brown soil. Who would know that a turtle liked asparagus? Toby had been crawling along behind me and each time he came to a nice tender tip had lopped it off with his beak, taken a small bite out of it, and gone on to the next one. Much in the same way my brother had taken a bite out of eight or ten candies until Mother had noticed what he was doing and taken the box of chocolates away from him. As I was wondering what to do now, since it was obvious that I was in double trouble, my mother started laughing.
“I don’t see anything funny about this,” dad said.
“Oh, but Warren,” my mother gasped, “you just used three oxymorons in that short outburst.”
I wasn’t entirely slow and could grasp at straws rather quickly. “What’s an oxymoron, Mother?” I asked. After all, if I could get her talking about words, maybe Dad would forget about the asparagus tips. She explained that an oxymoron was a figure of speech in which contradictory ideas or terms are combined to form a new meaning. “Your father said, “Good grief, resident alien, and clearly misunderstood,” she explained.
“That’s all well and good,” my father said looking down at me, “but if you don’t get that turtle back into its pen now the rest of your summer may be a working vacation.”
At which my mother went into peals of laughter again and choked out, “You did it again.” Dad went back into the house in disgust and I began to think about oxymorons. Over the years I’ve collected them and some of my favorites are small crowd, pretty ugly, peace force, alone together, terribly pleased, genuine imitation¾and recently, military intelligence.
So it really was no surprise that, when John Hughson asked me to speak on differences and oneness, the title of my presentation came out in the form of an oxymoron, Unity in Diversity. But now I knew a great deal more about how that had happened. What fun!