Finding Words for Spring

Baker_Street_CD_CoverIn the 1970s, I had in my possession a Broadway cast album of the musical “Baker Street.” Yes, THAT Baker Street, and, yes, there was a musical about Sherlock Holmes, based on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “A Scandal in Bohemia” and featuring a romance between Holmes and Irene Adler.

Why I owned this obscure LP is the real mystery. I did like reading mysteries, so maybe that’s why my mother — the greatest of all bargain hunters — bought the record for me or my older brother? My brother initiated me into the sleuthing world with the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, and Encyclopedia Brown; eventually, I graduated to Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Father Brown, and the like. We found at least one use for “Baker Street”: an instrumental segment from “Finding Words for Spring” served as background music for our “radio” play, “Murder Man,” a long-term project. With our neighbors, my brother and I intermittently recorded the play on my parents’ tape recorder. (Before you get too impressed with our creativity, we borrowed the concept of the “Murder Man” play from an Encyclopedia Brown story.)

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We loved mysteries, and we loved musicals: how could the album be anything but a hit? Devotees of Sherlock though we were, the songs seemed more laughable than laudable.  Was it because we were kids? Maybe we were more discerning than I realized, if reviews of the album are to be believed. Did Broadway patrons agree with us? “Baker Street” hasn’t been revived yet, and, as far as I know, hasn’t been made into a film. The songs weren’t particularly catchy, and Inga Swenson’s rendition of “Finding Words for Spring” was the sort of soprano warbling that sent adolescents running in the opposite direction.

Even so, a fragment of this song floated into my thoughts as I admired the azaleas lining my driveway: “Finding words for spring / Is no easy thing.” Soon, I was flipping through my stash of LPs, but the album wasn’t there — which is just as well, since my turntable stopped working 10 years ago. Maybe my parents have the album? Thanks to YouTube, I was able to listen to “Finding Words for Spring,” as sung by Swenson, and a nostalgic rendering by songwriter Ray Jessel. Surprisingly, the song isn’t about spring or natural beauty; it’s about the difficulty of articulating romantic feelings:

P1080030 (800x600)Finding words for spring

Is no easy thing

Still, I’m sure I’d find a few.

What words could be right

To describe the night?

Somehow, I would find them, too.

P1080035 (800x600)How can one explain

Love’s sweet splendor?

The most tender words won’t do.

You must fall in love;

Then you’ll find that love

Will explain itself to you.

Should you want to praise

Lazy summer days,

I could find a phrase or two.

As for love, mere words —

P1080040 (800x600)Though they’re clever —

They’ll just never, never do.

You must fall in love;

Then you’ll find that love

Will explain itself to you.

Did I misremember the song? The title “Finding Words for Spring” seemed to promise a song about the inexpressible freshness of spring — not a love song. Honestly, it may be more difficult to describe a landscape than to describe one’s love.  At least you can use images from nature as symbols of love or of the loved one’s perfections. But how to depict with mere words the wonders of spring?

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It has been a glorious spring here in North Carolina. Dogwood blossoms have graced my backyard with a snowy whiteness; daffodils, hyacinths, and tulips have added brilliant colors — yellows, blues, oranges, lilacs, reds — to the greening grass. The azaleas have flamed crimson and scarlet and so many shades of pink against an even greener background. Even my teenage daughter has remarked on the abundance of chlorophyll. Now the rhododendrons are coming into their own, with purply-pinks against glossy, dark-green leaves. Soon it will be time for the roses to fulfill their promise.

Whenever I get a free moment, I find myself rushing off for another stroll at the Biltmore Estate. We treated ourselves to season passes this year, partly because of the “Dressing Downton” exhibit that runs through May. There have been afternoons of pure happiness, riding bikes alongside the river, or hiking up a gentle slope to the house, or slowly strolling through the Azalea Garden. Meanwhile, our passes to the North Carolina Arboretum are good through September, so we can enjoy the beauty of spring blooms there as well.

IMG_3971 (800x600)Why am I even sitting at my computer, when I could be outdoors? Spring in the southern United States is beyond beautiful, especially in the early evening, which seems to be the time of most of our Biltmore jaunts.

IMG_3898 (800x600)So, if anyone has wondered why I’m not writing much, I would say, “It’s springtime, silly!” Alas, I am not a gardener myself, but I can enjoy the fruits of other people’s labors at the Biltmore and the Arboretum. I’m thankful that the people who built our house planted so many azaleas, rhododendrons, and dogwoods. Benign neglect has been our policy so far, with remarkably few ill effects.

With the end of the school year upon me, I am unlikely to blog much in the next month. I’m a slow starter, but I like to finish strongly. This is one homeschooling mom who kicks into gear in the second semester, and especially in the final months. “What? We’re not going to get through the one-year American history curriculum? Says who?” Fortunately, my youngest son likes history.

Look for me when it starts to get hot again. My blogging anniversary is coming up in June: I cannot remain inactive until then. And I still have Doug’s challenge to fulfill: five stories about five photos in five days. Can it wait til spring is over?

For now, I’m off on a final April expedition. (Or not. Now it’s raining. The other side of spring.)

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Writer’s Quote Wednesday: Portrait of the Artist as a Middle-Aged Woman?

The Arnolfini Portrait. Artist: Jan van Eyck (1434 ). Source: http://www.nationalgalleryimages.co.uk/ Contact: picture.library@nationalgallery.co.uk  Copyright © The National Gallery, London

Some scholars believe that Jan van Eyck’s famous Arnolfini Portrait includes a self-portrait of the artist within the mirror.

“Every man’s work . . . is always a portrait of himself.”–Samuel Butler

Not long after I started blogging, I had an eye-opening conversation with my mother. This blog is the first public writing that I’ve done since college, and she was happy to see me exploring a creative outlet.

My mother explained that she sees my blog as a way for my children to know me better — the real “me,” that is, not just the mom who chauffeurs them, or washes their clothes, or makes sure they do their schoolwork. Her next remark took me by surprise: “You may not realize how much of yourself is in your posts.” Hmmm. Now I felt nervous, wondering what I had unknowingly revealed about myself in my newly minted blog.

The point that Samuel Butler makes here — “Every man’s work . . . is always a portrait of himself” — is one of the reasons that I’ve been wary of writing fiction. What if I unwittingly incorporate real people into my fictional world? If my fiction is to be lifelike, can I avoid using people I know for models? And (shudder) what if those people aren’t portrayed in a flattering light? There is a thin line between the world of reality and the world of fiction: I don’t want to be like fellow Ashevillian Thomas Wolfe, unable to go home again. No satirical descriptions of my hometown, past or present, thank you very much.

But, if Butler’s observation is right, fiction isn’t the only medium that could give me away. This very post will betray something about me — about what I value, what I believe, what I fear, what I love. Am I okay with that? Honestly, I’m not sure. Maybe I should change this site’s name to The Tentative Blogger? (I suspect that name is not in high demand.) It’s not as if hordes of readers are flocking to my posts, but someone might stumble upon a part of myself that I try to conceal. Have I unintentionally bared my innermost self to the public eye?

Even when we try to play our cards close to our chest, we may give glimpses of a King here or an Ace there. Any creative endeavor will reveal something about the artist’s personality. There are so many nuances and subtle choices behind a photo or a painting, for instance. What color palette did the artist choose for the portrait of his wife, and why? Fiction, with its need for believable characters, still seems dangerous to me: one’s judgments will surely creep into seemingly innocent descriptions. But is prose any safer? How can you write about the life you know without writing about the people you know?

self-portrait 2015In the end, the blog world is no place for the faint of heart. Neither is the world of literature, of course. The semi-autobiographical work for which Victorian writer Samuel Butler is best known, The Way of All Flesh, was not published during his lifetime, by Butler’s own wish. George Orwell praised Butler for his courage, but how courageous was Butler, if he didn’t want his novel published while he was alive? Perhaps Butler was uneasy not only about his criticisms of Victorian society but also about his self-revelations. The older I grow, the less charm I find in mirrors. Should that distaste carry over to the unconscious mirror of my words, spilling heedlessly onto the screen?

This dialogue begs the question, “Why are you afraid to expose your innermost self ?” Fear of criticism? Fear of self-discovery? Reluctance to accept the face that timidly peers back from the mirror? I am not the person that I wish I were, or the person that I hope to be. If I don’t want the world to get a glimpse of the woman behind the facade, I should stop writing blog posts.


This post was written as part of Silver Threading‘s Writer’s Quote Wednesday event. Thank you, Colleen, for continuing to host this event, week after week. I first encountered Butler’s observation in my son’s English language book. After writing this post, I discovered that the quotation had been abridged. The full quotation reads, “Every man’s work, whether it be literature or music or pictures or architecture or anything else, is always a portrait of himself, and the more he tries to conceal himself, the more clearly will his character appear in spite of him” (Chapter XIV, The Way of All Flesh).

Ginger All the Way

My children's Hansel and Gretel gingerbread house, November 2006

My children’s Hansel and Gretel gingerbread house (November 2006).

For 22 years, the Grove Park Inn has sponsored a gingerbread house competition: these edible creations take gingerbread architecture to a new level! Many hours of planning, baking, assembling, and decorating go into the construction of each gingerbread “house” — and, usually, some heartbreak as well. Aside from the base, all components of the house must be edible.

Little House in the Big Woods gingerbread cabin (November 2002)

Little House in the Big Woods gingerbread cabin (November 2002)

Despite my lack of domestic skills, my kids have entered houses in the competition three times. I learned the hard way that, yes, you can get food poisoning from Royal Icing. My older daughter’s Little House in the Big Woods cabin even made it to the Top Ten in the children’s category one year!

As you can see from the photo taken in our kitchen the last time a Fleming entered the Grove Park Inn competition, making a gingerbread house wreaks havoc on your actual house. The kitchen chaos is more than repaid by the fun of finding creative ways to use candy, crackers, pretzels, cereal, and, of course, marzipan.

My daughter's rendition of the arrival of Gandalf, Bilbo, and the dwarfs at Beorn's Hall

My daughter’s rendition of the arrival of Gandalf, Bilbo, and the dwarfs at Beorn’s Hall from J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit (November 2010).

She ran out of time, so several plans for embellishing Beorn's Hall had to be abandoned.

She ran out of time and had to abandon plans for embellishing Beorn’s Hall. All 13 dwarfs are rendered with correctly colored capes, however.

Beorn's bee hives, on the other side of the hall.

Beorn’s bee hives, on the other side of the hall.

With several out-of-town guests here to see my younger daughter in The Nutcracker, we decided to make the trek to North Asheville to view the winners — and the non-winners, which are often just as impressive — of the 2014 Gingerbread Competition.

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My photos are a sampling of the teen, adult, youth, and child entries in this year’s competition. If you’d like to see even more gingerbread houses, you can watch a video of the Grand Prize winner or check out photos from the judging at the 2014 competition. The wonderful smell of gingerbread permeated the Grove Park Inn!

And now, back to wrapping those presents . . .

Tea Time with the Master

Wenham Tea House, March 2014

Wenham Tea House, March 2014 (iPhone 5s, edited in PicMonkey)

“Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.” With this qualified statement, Henry James welcomes us to The Portrait of a Lady, an arena in which Old World and New World meet. His first sentence is masterful: to borrow a line from Jerry Maguire, Mr. James had me at “afternoon tea”  (and “agreeable” didn’t hurt). Mr. James lays the groundwork for his plot as he describes the three men sipping tea on the lawn of an English country house — tea drinkers “not of the sex which is supposed to furnish the regular votaries of the occasion,” as Mr. James notes wryly.

Isabel Archer, the lady of the title, does not make an entrance until the second chapter, but the young American is enamored of the Tudor house and its trappings from the moment that she walks onto the lawn: “I’ve never seen anything so beautiful as this.” Mr. James’ naively independent heroine does not find European society as agreeable by the end of the book, but that is a spoiler. At this point, the reader is mentally settling into a cushioned wicker chair and — if the reader is an Anglophile — reveling in a scene that includes not only tea but an eligible English aristocrat. By the time we realize that Isabel, like many nineteenth-century heroines, is a victim of her own illusions, Mr. James has caught us in his novel.

Although I glanced at Leon Edel’s introduction and Mr. James’ lengthy preface recently, I haven’t read The Portrait of a Lady in decades. Mr. James began writing the novel in Venice, where the beautiful view from his rooms was so distracting that he complained about it in the preface. It might be interesting to read his carefully crafted novel now as I would read any book, not because I was assigned to read it (which is how I experienced it). Would I read on to the end, or would I put down the book in exasperation as Isabel refuses one good man after another? I tend to finish books, unless I cannot sympathize with any of the characters, and Isabel, caught between her desire for culture and her wish to remain independent, still compels our sympathy, despite her failings.

I re-read enough of the first chapter to renew my appreciation of Mr. James’ abilities as a writer. His novel first appeared in serial form in two magazines, and he had not completed the novel before the first installments were published in 1880. The opening chapters have the crucial job of getting the reader interested enough to buy future magazines. Clearly, Mr. James is skilled in the art of drawing in a certain kind of reader — a reader who, like Isabel herself, is enchanted with the ceremony of afternoon tea.


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My choice of this famous first line for Writer’s Quote Wednesday was inspired by Lucile’s photograph of a glass teapot. I took my photograph of a glass teapot in March, when I had tea with family members at the Wenham Tea House in Wenham, Massachusetts. To his credit, my brother, who is not much of a tea drinker, suggested that we eat there because he thought his sisters would enjoy it. (He was right. Our one sadness was that another sister and my mother were not there to share the experience.)

As always, thanks to Colleen of Silver Threading for hosting this event. To read other submissions, click here and look for the pingbacks at the end of Colleen’s post. Leon Edel’s introduction appears in Riverside Editions’ The Portrait of a Lady (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1963). Text of the post and photo copyrighted © 2014 by Sandra Fleming.

O Brave New World

Miranda:
O wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world
That has such people in’t!

Prospero:
‘Tis new to thee.

The Tempest (5.1.181–184)

I had planned to stay off WordPress today, but I wanted to respond to a post that I’d read last night. As I was firmly forcing myself away from my desk, I got a notification from WordPress. Typically, I ignore those, but this one got my attention: “Congratulations on getting 500 total likes . . .” “Total” includes “likes” on my posts and on my comments, and I felt deeply grateful to every WordPress blogger who ever sent a “like” in my direction. Bruce Thiesen‘s “like” for The Edge was the 500th that put me over the edge, so to speak. Too bad there is no jackpot for being #500, Bruce, but I recommend your thought-provoking blog, Ram On.

500 likes

When I started this blog in June, I was unaware of “how many goodly creatures” there are in the blogging community. I have been impressed by the respect with which bloggers treat other bloggers, and the kindness shown to struggling bloggers. Blogging 101, Class of September 2014, was the catalyst that forced me into interaction with other newbies — Beth, Aileen, Deborah, Karen, Terri A and Terri B, April, Lucile, Flavia, RoseRed, Kellie, and Doug are just a few of the many bloggers with whom I crossed paths. I am grateful to WordPress for facilitating those connections: it’s a marketing strategy, but it builds relationships. Blogging has become a “brave new world” in which I interact with people like Teresa and Momma, who live in another hemisphere, and in which I am challenged to post more regularly through events like Linda‘s and Colleen‘s.

In an effort to keep this post short, I cannot thank every individual whose “like” contributed to the 500, but I will note the bloggers whose “likes” for my latest post preceded Bruce‘s lucky “like”: lrod1726, Teresa Ohjswunxin, Dan Antion, Wandering Dawgs, LifestyleswithLia, restoredpeople, fillyourownglass, Victo Dolore,  Priceless Joy, Allison, Terri Webster SchrandtBespoke Traveler, and kcg1974. The bloggers who most recently liked comments are: annanolan2014, Deborah Drucker, thecraftyladyincombatboots, jswunxin, Retirement Lifestyle, Silver Threading, luciledegodoy, Beth, Bespoke Traveler, and sorannymm.

Thank you to the readers who cannot “like” because they are not WordPress bloggers but who have demonstrated support for my blog in other ways. You know who you are!

“A Humour for Writing”

Jane Austen humour“I am not at all in a humour for writing; I must write on till I am,” wrote Jane Austen in a letter from Godmersham Park to her sister Cassandra on October 26, 1813. Is there any writer among us who has not felt that way at times? For whatever reason — and there are many good ones — writing is the last thing you feel like doing some days.

Maybe it is a grey day, and the clouds seem to have drifted inside, obscuring your flow of thought. Or maybe the sun is streaming through the windows, tempting you to forsake your writing for a long walk. Perhaps the topic has been assigned to you by someone else, and you’re “not feeling it.” Are other people in the room, asking for your input or making just enough noise that you can’t concentrate?

While any number of outside distractions might have contributed to Miss Austen’s disinclination for writing, I take heart from her resolution: “I must write on till I am.” Although Miss Austen initially wrote for her own amusement and to entertain her family and friends, two of her novels — Sense and Sensibility (1811) and Pride and Prejudice (1813) — had been published by the time she wrote this letter. The modest financial success of these books was probably an incentive for Austen’s pushing herself to write on, despite her mood. With another novel drafted (Lady Susan) and two more in the works, she surely knew that the words would come, sooner or later. Rather than waiting for a moment of inspiration, she presumably picked up her quill and wrote.

How thankful I am that Miss Austen pushed herself to write, regardless of her “humour”! Five of Miss Austen’s completed novels are among the books I have re-read most often. Which gem might we lack today, had she allowed an uncongenial humour to defeat her? Mansfield Park? Emma? Persuasion —  the last novel she finished and possibly my favorite?

Her implicit advice — write yourself into a frame of mind for writing — is worth remembering. Sooner or later, every writer has one of those days. I have found that, once I get some momentum going, the words spill onto the page, almost of their own volition. Do I have to cut more words from the writing than I do on days when I’m pulling out the words rather than the words pushing me along? Undoubtedly. But an imperfect draft is better than no draft at all.


writers-quote-wednesday (2)Note: In the context of Austen’s letter, she was almost certainly referring to letter writing rather than to novel writing when she made this statement. Because I have personal experience with writing as a means of getting past a block, it seems legitimate to apply Austen’s quotation to all writing.

Many thanks to Colleen at Silver Threading for hosting the Writer’s Quote Wednesday event. In deference to Miss Austen’s nationality, I have used the British spelling of “humour” in this post. Text and photos copyrighted © 2014 by Sandra Fleming.

A Swarm of Trees: “Till the Wood of Birnam Rise”

The folks at Photo 101 are forcing me to get creative with my camera. Photograph a “swarm” in late November? An old poem about swarming mentions only the months of May, June, and July:

A swarm of bees in May is worth a load of hay;

A swarm of bees in June is worth a silver spoon;

A swarm of bees in July isn’t worth a fly.

I might add, “A swarm of trees in November is worth a photo.” Looking along the Blue Ridge Parkway for “something that overruns your scene,” I was forcibly struck by the bare trees seeming to march towards me, line upon line of bark-clad soldiers with outstretched arms.

Encroaching trees (Coolpix L320)

Parkway trees prepare for attack! (Coolpix L320)

Parkway trees prepare for attack! (Coolpix L320)

Was it looking through the narrowed view of my camera that made the trees appear to move? Trees without leaves seem threatening, somehow — although trees with leaves can be hostile, like the apple trees in The Wizard of Oz. But bare-branched trees, thronged against the sky, create an eerie effect:

Trees on the Blue Ridge Parkway

After I posted this photo, my brother made it into avideo of swarming trees for a joke — I think it was a joke? While not high quality, the video is unnerving. (Panasonic Lumix)

As I sought “swarming” trees to photograph, I began to think about literary examples of trees that moved. The most famous instance of moving trees occurs in William Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The witches hint that a moving forest will precede Macbeth’s defeat: “Macbeth shall never vanquish’d be until / Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill / Shall come against him” (4.1.91-93).

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Panasonic Lumix photo, edited in PicMonkey

Confidently, Macbeth asserts:

That will never be:

Who can impress the forest, bid the tree

Unfix his earthbound root? Sweet bodements, good.

Rebellious dead, rise never till the wood

Of Birnam rise, and our high-plac’d Macbeth

Shall live the lease of nature, pay his breath

To time and mortal custom. (4.1.93-99)

Macbeth’s arrogant optimism is ill-founded. In Act 5, soldiers camouflage themselves with tree branches cut from Birnam Wood as they march on Dunsinane Hill, creating the illusion of “a moving grove” (5.5.37). The “forest” that advances on Dunsinane is, in reality, an army of men who overwhelm the castle and force Macbeth’s downfall at the hands of Macduff.

In J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth, Treebeard leads an enormous army of bonafide trees to the Battle of the Hornburg. This time, the trees can walk — vengeful Ents and Huorns, who uproot themselves to aid the desperate men of Rohan at Helm’s Deep:

The land had changed. Where before the green dale had lain, its grassy slopes lapping the ever-mounting hills, there now a forest loomed. Great trees, bare and silent, stood, rank on rank, with tangled bough and hoary head; their twisted roots were buried in the long green grass. Darkness was under them. (J. R. R. Tolkien, The Two Towers)

Haw Creek Valley Overlook (Panasonic Lumix)

Aroused, Tolkien’s Ents and Huorns decimate the terrified Orcs at Helm’s Deep. The next morning, the mysterious forest of Huorns has vanished, leaving instead an enormous mound of dead Orcs.

A moving forest does not have to be fantastical to cause destruction. In Edith Nesbit’s The Railway Children,  trees suddenly begin swarming down a rural hillside toward the railroad tracks. Had it not been for the quick thinking of Bobbie, Peter, and Phyllis, the landslide might have caused a tragic railway accident:

And, as Peter pointed, the tree was moving — not just the way trees ought to move when the wind blows through them, but all in one piece, as though it were a live creature and were walking down the side of the cutting.

“It’s moving!” cried Bobbie. “Oh, look! and so are the others. It’s like the woods in Macbeth.”

“It’s magic,” said Phyllis, breathlessly. “I always knew the railroad was enchanted.”

It really did seem a little like magic. For all the trees for about twenty yards of the opposite bank seemed to be walking slowly down towards the railway line, the tree with the gray leaves bringing up the rear like some old shepherd driving a flock of green sheep. (Edith Nesbit, The Railway Children)

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Panasonic Lumix photo

In western North Carolina, incidents of trees that suddenly begin to move are rare, although there are occasional rock slides along I-40 heading west. While I am being fanciful with the idea of trees that swarm, landslides and mudslides are a real danger in mountainside communities not far from my home. An actual swarm of trees, caused by erosion or earthquake, would be terrifying.

I have made much of the oppressive character of bare trees on a bleak day, but I like to walk in the woods in late fall and winter. Stripped of leaves, the hardwood trees reveal their clean lines and rough texture. Depending on the time of day and the light, row upon row of leafless trees can create a soothing effect. This cluster of trees suggests not a restless swarm but a graceful gathering of grey-clad Quakers.

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Panasonic Lumix


Photos taken November 2014 by Sandra Fleming with a Nikon Coolpix L320 and  a Panasonic Lumix. Text and photos copyrighted by Sandra Fleming © 2014.