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Fresh ideas: My Personal Pyramid of Palenque

Marilee Swirczek

We were the first people for more than a thousand years to look at it.

— Ruz Lhuillier, Mexican archaeologist, upon first peering into a tomb at the great pyramid of Palenque

As I resign myself to middle age, I find it marked not so much by predictable changes in my body, but by the way I see the world. I’m liable to linger over a sunset, for example, and find myself uttering spontaneous little prayers of thanks (thanks for one more sunset, Lord).

I now actually drive at the speed limit instead of a few miles over to “save” time, and I pity those drivers who dash from lane to lane only to end up at the red light just ahead of me; I’ll bet they missed seeing that fiery flowering quince on Combs Canyon Road or the impeccable little rose garden on Bath Street. Why rush through King Street’s elegant corridor of hawthorn trees in full bloom come spring, or zoom around Ormsby Boulevard’s curves and miss the familiar Herefords munching away in the grassy meadows?

These days I’m not surprised when a new season rolls around. Not long ago, each season ambushed me: What? Summer already? Hey! When did winter come? I was so busy living for the future that I never noticed when the future arrived.

Now, though, I take time to prepare a spread of sunflower seeds, peanuts in the shell, and millet for birds migrating through our high desert, and to study my field book for identification. If I had busied myself with the usual chores a few months ago, I might not have heard the buzzy trill coming from my crabapple tree — a flock of cedar waxwings engaged in a unique feeding ritual: passing a tiny crabapple back and forth, one to the other, until one bird finally ate it and they started the ritual over again. If I had been diligently dusting, I would have missed it.

I’ve sat still long enough to see where the pair of Rufous hummingbirds have made their tiny nest in a pine tree, and, although magpies have built remarkable nests in our trees for years, I realized only last week that their wing markings are unique. Now I can recognize each magpie in our little backyard family.

Even exercising feels different now. I used to jog quickly through the scrub behind the house, making sure I reached my target heart rate, checking my watch to return in exactly 30 minutes. Often now I walk and find myself slowing down and then standing still to hear the clear bell of the meadow lark. I never had time for that before.

To fully appreciate this new perspective, I think you have to attain a certain age. For example, a few years ago when the kids were still at home, I forced them to look at the Hale-Bopp comet every night. “Can you imagine,” I said, passing the binoculars, “how lucky we are to be living right now?”

The kids uttered appropriate responses at first: “Wow! That tail is long!” But soon the novelty wore off. “Just a minute,” they would say to their friends on the phone. “Mom says I have to look at the comet. I’ll be back in a second.”

After a couple of weeks, the kids perfected their timing: as Hale-Bopp appeared, they disappeared. But I was awestruck each evening and still wonder where in the universe that megalithic snowball came from and where it went — and will still be going long after we are gone. Maybe that’s when the truth hit me: my life span really is finite.

These days, however, it doesn’t take a universe-sized event to amaze me. Little things that I’ve been too busy to notice now seem wondrous — like cutting up fruits and vegetables. If my kids, grown now, are visiting, I yell, “Come look at this!” They rush into the kitchen to find me peering into a ripe cantaloupe or a green pepper. “Have you ever seen such color?” I ask. “No one has ever seen the inside of this melon but us! And look at this pepper’s architecture!”

But they’re still too young to get it. “Mom wants us to look at another piece of fruit,” one of them will say, eyes rolling.

“That’s nothing. She made me look at the inside of a hard-boiled egg,” another answers. And then the inevitable: “Don’t do that in front of our friends, Mom.”

Ok, no more melons or peppers. But I’ve got a real surprise for them: I bought a star fruit at the market today. I might have to call the entire neighborhood in for this one.

Marilee Swirczek lives and works in Carson City. With four small grandchildren, she is looking forward to a new audience for her everyday miracles.