All the Grays

via Daily Prompt: Gray

Grey. It’s a simple word, that describes the color of the sky on an overcast day.

But wait! Grey is not the WordPress Daily Prompt I’m responding to here. The prompt is Gray – a fact that is quite telling, because gray is a word which does not have meaning in the English language, outside of the United States of America. Which is where I live. Outside of the United States of America, that is – ie, in that place known as the rest of the world.

Before I go too far, let’s just double check that I’m not making things up here. Maybe there are, universally, differing opinions on whether the word is grey or gray?

According to the site grammarly.com:

By the twentieth century, “grey” had become the accepted spelling everywhere except in the United States.

Here’s what Dictionary.com says about the two spellings:

….gray is the more popular spelling in the US, while grey reigns supreme in the UK. For centuries, the one letter difference between gray and grey has left people wondering if the two have different meanings.

They don’t. It’s the same word, spelled differently. As Grammarly goes on to say:

Here’s a tip: Gray is more common in the United States, and grey is more common in the rest of the English-speaking world.

Okay then. Or maybe that should be okey, depending on where you live.

So this is an interesting prompt. Given that a one word prompt is supplied with no context, what is someone who is not from the U.S.A to make of this word? That it’s grey, spelled wrongly? What’s the best way to respond to this if it’s not actually your language?

Of course, the strange thing about my reaction to this “misspelling” is that there are lots of English words that are spelled differently between English speaking countries – usually, between the U.S. and other English-speaking countries. Take colour, for example, which is spelled color in the U.S. I accept that these are just variations of the same word. If WordPress had put color up as a prompt, it would not have occurred to me to comment on the spelling at all.

So what is it about grey v gray that got me seeing red?

I think it’s because it’s only four letters long, so the variation in the spelling seems more significant. As noted above, Dictionary.com says the one letter difference between gray and grey has left people wondering if the two have different meanings. 

I think that’s quite reasonable. After all, one letter can make a big difference: try mixing up pray and prey.

So no, grey and gray don’t have different meanings. I understand that in principle, but I’m attached to grey being the correct spelling of the colour that’s half way between black and white. I don’t like replacing it with gray, because that just feels like bad spelling. But the prompt was gray. So I will write about gray.

Here in Australia, gray can be a name, and I do know of a few Grays.

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Gray was the name of the family Doctor I used to visit when I was sick as a child.

Imagination and memory crash together as one gets older, so I am not sure now if it’s because of his name that I picture this gentleman with a neat grey beard. Perhaps his beard was actually dark brown, or black. In any case, I’m 99% sure that he did, at least, have a beard, whereas I’m also 99% sure that he didn’t wear the black top hat that, for some reason, insists on popping itself on his head in my mental image of him. Apparently in my mental image of this doctor from my childhood, a frock-coat and a hansom cab would not be out of place. It seems that I picture Dr Gray looking as if he had stepped out of a Dickens novel.

Is this all conjured up in my faulty memory because his name was Gray? Who can say?

What I can tell you is that the doctor’s offices were in a little double-fronted Victorian cottage, and that he kept dingoes as pets. When the breeze blew the right way, we could hear them howling in the evenings. The doctor’s surgery was only a block or so from our house, which was convenient for my mother, since she couldn’t drive, and whenever one of her six children was sick, this unfortunate news would most often be uncovered around 8am when they woke up, and Dad, the only person in the family who could drive, would have left for work at 6am.

Therefore, no matter how sick we were, if we were certain that we were too sick for school, we’d have to get up and walk to the doctor’s surgery.

No wonder I never take sick days.

I can also tell you that in Dr Gray’s waiting room was the most interesting thing I’d ever seen in a house up to that point. It was a huge aquarium, at least 3 feet long and about the same in height, that hummed and bubbled, pumping air for fishes of various sizes and colours that flurried around in the water. I was too young to have any interest in the women’s magazines on offer, but my time in the waiting room was amply filled in by simply staring at the fish.

When you have a bunch of brothers, as I do, there are always other stories on the peripheries of your memory, stories you were told second or third hand, sometimes years later, tales of the things that your brothers got up to, that you never saw and so have only ever pictured in your imagination. I feel as if there is a funny story that involved my brothers and Dr. Gray’s car, or his sons, or his dingoes, or his surgery, or a combination of all the above, but I can’t recall any more than that.

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The other Gray I know of is an Australian Artist from the post-war period, Gray Smith. The only reason I recall the existence of Gray Smith is not because of his art, however, but because he was married to Joy Hester, an Australian modernist artist who is reasonably well-known within Australia.*

In an unusual gender reversal, which probably serves as an indication of their relative status as artists, there is not even a Wikipedia page for Gray Smith, while there is a brief entry for Joy Hester.  Hester’s body of work is unusual in that she worked mostly in brush and ink on paper, a medium that was not valued as highly as oils, and may be one reason why her work was not as well known as that of some of her male contemporaries such as Albert Tucker (her previous husband).

Many of the images she depicted were of women, or were about relationships between men and women, another reason why her work could have been viewed by some, particular given the period, as merely the frivolous doodlings of a lady artist.

Joy Hester, Lovers [II] 1956

Image: National Gallery of Australia

As for Gray Smith, I can’t tell you anything more about him, except that he fathered some children with Hester. Unusually, Smith suffers the fate that so many women throughout history were subjected to – to be remembered by the history books mostly because he was married to someone more famous.

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So that’s it I guess. All the Grays I know of.

 Gray

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The Gloaming

Darkness  (A very delayed response to a WordPress Daily Post prompt from about a week ago.) 

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darkness: absence of light; the quality of being dark in color

At this time of the year, when I rise in the morning it’s in complete darkness. There’s always that split-second shock, where I’m dragged out of some light-and-color-filled scenario busily taking place in that alternate reality we call dreams. One moment I’m on a moving bus (incongruously about to pour peppermint tea into a delicate china cup) and the next, I’m reaching out into the cold and dark, to switch my alarm off.

It’s still dark outside while I eat toast and prepare for work, the sky lightening almost imperceptibly, so that eventually  through my kitchen window I can make out the outlines and contours of ground, hedge, fence, trees, and tool shed. Due to the absence of light, my eyes perceive these objects in varying tones of grey, dark shapes against a lighter grey background that is the sky.

Although I know that plenty of people are up at that time of morning, I’m often the only person awake in my house for half an hour, and while it’s dark, it’s easy to imagine that the rest of the world is still asleep and dreaming.

Dark Street 2012

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darkness: gloominess, dimness; night

I am well acquainted with darkness, from years of being an insomniac. Lying awake through the night, you get to know the sounds of your night environment pretty well.

At different stages in my life I’ve felt a comfortable familiarity with my nightly soundscape. In the country town where I grew up, I would lie in bed listening to a deep silence, broken only occasionally by the sound of a truck driving through the main street, the sound of its engine reaching my ears for a surprisingly long interval, as it passed through town and then changed gears all the way up the hill, back on the highway towards Melbourne. Living in the city, I’ve listened to the rhythm of traffic stopping and starting up again at the traffic lights outside my apartment, off Punt Rd in Richmond, a busy main route that funnels traffic all day and night from north to south.

In this house, my current home, I’ve listened as evening noises (dogs barking, car doors slamming, neighbours talking, cars driving home down side streets) slowly die down, until in the depths of the night there’s just a soft hum, so soft that at first it seems like silence ringing in my ears, but then it becomes apparent that its actually the never-ceasing swoosh of traffic driving on the nearby freeway. Occasionally this is broken by a deep, thrilling rumble, that starts, quietly, to my left – in the south west – and grows louder as it travels solemnly across the sky, reaching a crescendo above my roof, and fades as it continues rumbling on, to my right, or the north-east, as a plane descends into Melbourne airport.

I like those sounds, the traffic and the planes; in the depths of the night they are proof that I’m not the only person who is awake.

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darkness: unhappiness or gloom

On nights of insomnia, darkness can contribute to your state of mind if you allow it to. I remember nights where I’ve felt utter despair when the sky begins to lighten, because it means having to get up in an hour for work with little or no sleep, or, (at another time in my life) that I’ll need to pull myself together enough after lying awake all night, to smilingly greet my baby daughter who will wake any moment now.

In the midst of months of chronic insomnia, it’s very hard to find the strength to do what books advise: don’t lie there in the dark desperately trying to go to sleep. Get up, switch the light on, make a cup of tea, settle in, read a book. Turn on the heater, create some light and warmth. Don’t let the darkness defeat you.

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darkness:  murkiness, shadowiness, twilight, gloaming

If we trace our history back to the stone age, we can easily see why darkness would imbue fear in humans – in those days, darkness brought with it a very real and practical fear of the wild animals that roamed at night and preyed on humans.

(Perhaps it was the remnant of this prehistoric, protective instinct, that kicked in when I was a new mother, so that sometimes in the dark of night, when my daughter was a very new addition to my previously self-centred life, I would manage to make myself more and more tense, as I imagined, almost compulsively, how I’d defend my child if an intruder entered my house and put her in any danger.)

Over the centuries, humans have developed and finely-tuned the art of story-telling, at first through a traditional of aural story telling, and then by using symbols and hieroglyphics, and then by developing rich, complex vocabularies. Across history and throughout all cultures, many of our myths and stories serve to embody our fears – in the shape of ghosts, witches, giants, demons – evil, personified into physical forms.

Inevitably, in these stories, evil is almost always encountered where light is low or absent – in the shadows, in the twilight, and in the dark of night. There’s an otherworldliness about the half-light, or the gloaming, that makes the hairs on my arms stand on end just as much as the pitch dark can do.

The contrast between light and dark plays a big part in the Greek myth of Orpheus, in which I imagine the River Styx, and the Underworld as gloomy places devoid of light. Orpheus wishes to bring his departed lover Eurydice back to the daylight of the living world. The King of the Underworld allows Orpheus to lead Eurydice out, on condition that he may not look back until they are both safely back in the land of the living. But when Orpheus sees the light of the Sun up ahead, he momentarily forgets this condition, and turns to look at Eurydice, who immediately vanishes back down into the dark of the Underworld forever.

 

 

Full Moon in cloudy sky 2012 (over Melbourne Airport)

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darkness: wickedness or evil; as in ‘the forces of darkness’

Darkness is effectively used to evoke fear and foreboding of disaster in any  form of storytelling. Take, for example, the opening of this scene in Macbeth, the night when Duncan, the King, will be murdered:

Banquo: How goes the night boy?

Fleance: The moon is down; I have not heard the clock.

Banquo: Hold, take my sword. There’s husbandry in heaven: Their candles are all out.

When light is absent, the benign forces of Nature, present in the light of day, are supressed, and evil has a free reign.

In the Lord of the Rings, the power of evil has created the Ring-Wraiths, creatures doomed to do nothing but relentlessly seek the Ring forever. These chilling presences, neither alive nor dead, invisible but for the black cloaks they wear to give them form, are referred to as Black Riders or Dark Riders. Formerly human, they now live in a kind of limbo; only half existing in the world that humans see :

…they entered into the realm of shadows. The Nazgûl were they, the Ringwraiths, the Úlairi, the Enemy’s most terrible servants; darkness went with them, and they cried with the voices of death

The trilogy makes symbolic use of dark and light throughout – in that epic journey, the heroes frequently traverse through forests covered with growth so thick that no sunlight can penetrate its depths, or down into the bowels of the earth, into caves under mountains. These places are always the abode of dragons, goblins, orcs, trolls, and similarly evil creatures, and the fear that even worser evils could be hidden in their depths. When they enter these dark, foreboding places, I am filled with the same foreboding that the heroes have. We learn, through reading and telling stories, that there is a the pattern to our story-telling, so we know it’s inevitable that when our heroes enter gloomy places, something disastrous will occur.

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darkness: lack of intellectual enlightenment; ignorance

Up until recently, European history from the 5th to the 14th Century was commonly referred to as the Dark Ages.

An implication in this term was, that during that period, which came after the decline of the Roman Empire, there was a period of intellectual darkness, that lasted until the Italian Renaissance in the 14th Century; a period of high achievement in art, architecture, literature, philosophy, music and science.

As noted on Wikipedia, the term Dark Ages employs traditional light-versus-darkness imagery to contrast the “darkness” of the period with earlier and later periods of “light.”

We also refer to the Age of Enlightenment, a period during the 18th Century which saw philosophers and scientists espouse reason, and scientific method, as legitimate modes of thought.

Thus even in colloquial language, a lack of knowledge equates to being kept in the dark, while gaining knowledge will throw light on a matter that was previously not understood.

Throughout history, education has mostly been the realm of a small minority, namely the rich and powerful, while a high proportion of the population has always remained poor and uneducated. In that environment, fear and superstitions are able to gain a strong hold on the collective imagination. It’s a situation that creates a ripe breeding ground for stories that instil fear; and in turn, not coincidentally, that situation creates a handy tool for those in power to utilise to their advantage.

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darkness: secrecy or mystery

The term Dark Ages, mentioned above, used in reference to a period of European history, has a second meaning. That is, that the period was

characterized by a relative scarcity of historical and other written records at least for some areas of Europe, rendering it obscure to historians

In the time in which I write, it is sometimes hard to believe that we can’t find the answer to anything we need to know by merely typing it into Google and seeing what comes up. So it’s fascinating to realise there is a period of history about which little is known due to a lack of historical and other written records. It’s almost as if that period deliberately and obstinately wishes to remain obscured to us.

Really, what could intrigue us more, than that which we do not yet know the answers to? Humans are by nature curious; this drives our desire to learn about the world. Centuries after the Dark Ages, we have a wealth of knowledge and reasoning at our fingertips….and yet for all our supposed modern sophistication, the tendency for humans to fear darkness has lasted through the centuries, despite higher levels of education and scientific advances that should dispel the predominance of irrational fears and superstitions.

After all, who amongst us in 2016, if left alone in the dark, even in the safety and familiarity of their own home, would not prefer to have a light readily available? And be brazen enough to say that it is merely for convenience?

I will be the first to admit it: if I’m home alone, I leave the bathroom light on.

 

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