I Need a Little Christmas

P1140041 (640x480)Anyone ever notice how December is overloaded with fun things to do? Christmas concerts, holiday events, office parties, productions of The Nutcracker and A Christmas Carol—the list goes on and on. Invariably, I miss some things—I haven’t been to view the gingerbread house competition at the Grove Park Inn in years—or I squeeze in too many and overwhelm my family with seasonal outings.

I might even suffer from FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) syndrome. As usual, I’m self-diagnosing. Like most of us living in the age of easy information, I did a quick search online and concluded that some of the symptoms seemed to fit. Unfortunately, my desire to experience as much of life as possible can have a negative impact. This week’s crisis resulted from my overcommitting my youngest son: he’s on the MATHCOUNTS team, a basketball team, and an Envirothon team; he plays chess and cello, and he is a Boy Scout. It’s a lot to manage, and sometimes things fall through the cracks.

I still haven’t resolved his latest schedule conflict. Consequently, a dark cloud has been hovering over me this week. Now is the time when I could really use the magic of the North Carolina Arboretum’s Winter Lights display. But we viewed that sparkling spectacle on Christmas Day itself. Christmas Day was the only day that worked for our crowded calendar, so a very cold Christmas evening found five warmly dressed Flemings wondering and wandering through the festive Arboretum. (Two Flemings opted to stay home.)

While the lights were as spectacular as ever, I don’t plan to go on Christmas Day again. Christmas Day felt rushed: Christmas breakfast, stockings, and gifts in the morning; a family game or two in the afternoon while I attempted to roast a turkey without the assistance of my mother or mother-in-law; Christmas dinner with my husband’s parents; and then the visit to the Arboretum. It was just too much. I hope I’ll learn from the experience, but I doubt it. Anne Shirley may have the gift of not making the same mistake twice, but I do not. I always plan to retrench, so to speak, but the lure of that wonderful experience or opportunity gets me every time.

This year, the Arboretum’s lights were wonderful. There’s an irony to the Winter Lights exhibit, in that the beauty of the natural world needs no enhancement. Nonetheless, the addition of artifice to natural beauty makes for a dazzling result. If memory serves me, this is the third year for the Winter Lights show, which is the brainchild of someone who once worked as a Disney Imagineer. Each year, they add more special touches. I’m not sure what the highlight was for me—perhaps the tall Christmas tree’s lights that were synchronized with music? The Quilt Garden’s lights were synced with music as well. It was too cold for us to spend as much time outside as I’d have liked, but I still took pictures (even though that meant taking off my gloves). It was so cold that my son’s phone stopped working briefly, but he was so impressed by the brilliant displays that he uncharacteristically took as many photos as I did.P1140058 (640x480)

Here, without further embellishment (because they need none), are a few photos from the Winter Lights show. If you’d like to see the effect of music added to the lights, you can click on the short videos that I uploaded to YouTube. The price of Winter Lights is a little steep, especially if you have multiple children, but . . . every year, I find myself going back. What can I say? It’s as if Disney comes to us. For a couple of hours, I feel as if I’ve been transported to another world, where all is shining and serene.

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As for the overcommitment crisis, I must “‘trust to Providence, as Mrs. Lynde says.'” My son and I are now listening to the audiobook Anne of Avonlea: it’s not quite as good as Anne of Green Gables, but there is much wisdom mixed in with Anne’s mistakes and whimsies. What would we do without the errors of others to give us hope? Or without the displays of beauty—natural and unnatural—that are to be found all around us, if we but look for them?

So Many Fall Photos, So Little Time

I take too many pictures. This is an indisputable fact. None of my children would quarrel with this statement. If I even start to say the “p” word when I’m on a walk with my older daughter, a frown creases her usually amiable face. Her brothers are more tolerant—two of my sons will obligingly take photos on request if I’m driving or lacking sufficient room on my phone. My younger daughter has a natural eye for a picture—much better than mine—so she’s tolerant of picture-taking, as long as it doesn’t make her late.

If you live in the mountains and you take too many pictures, what happens in the fall? You wind up with way too many pictures. Rekindling my blogs this fall has worsened the situation: I bet I’m not the only person out there who takes photos speculatively, thinking, “Oh, this will make a great blog post” or “I bet my readers would like to see fall at the Biltmore.”

From a statistical point of view, I thought it would be interesting to see just how many pictures I have taken this fall, but that information has proved elusive. I searched for all files in my “Pictures” library taken between 10/1/2017 and 10/31/2017; fall starts on September 22, but the date range proved difficult to set between months. The resulting search showed 713 pictures taken in October alone. However, not all of those photos were unique: I’ve started resizing (or “optimizing,” to use WordPress’s term) photos that I insert in blog posts. At first, I resisted optimizing, but I’m trying to make my storage space last; at least 50 of those files are resized photos. Some photos are scans and have nothing to do with fall color. Other photos are associated with events like my son’s birthday, the Highland Games, or Halloween. Still, my conservative estimate is that I’ve taken at least 400 fall photos this year. Wow. What was I thinking? So much frowning for my daughter cannot be good. (She wasn’t with me on most of my fall-color excursions—fortunately for her.)

Mostly, my photos aren’t that good, either. Occasionally, I’ll get out my son’s DSLR camera, and then—if I can remember how to use it—the photos might turn out well.  Primarily, I take photos for three reasons: 1) to capture the “thrill” of glimpsed beauty; 2) to capture a moment in time; 3) to have fodder for blog posts (sad but true). Occasionally, there’s a fourth, practical reason: to streamline life. It’s quicker to take a picture of a recipe than it is to write down all the ingredients; it’s quicker to take a picture of my insurance card than to copy down the info. And it’s handy to take a picture when I’m choosing between two dresses, particularly if I need fashion advice from my daughters.

I’m borrowing the word “thrill” as a reaction to beauty from L. M. Montgomery’s beloved book about an orphan girl who finds a home on Prince Edward Island. Yesterday my son and I started listening to Anne of Green Gables on our way to his out-of-town basketball game. (Please don’t tell his middle school buddies.) I may have waited too long to share this book with him; he was rolling his eyes occasionally. My eyes, on the other hand, filled with tears as I listened to Anne’s excitement about finding a home at last and to the details of her loveless existence prior to arriving at Green Gables. When I first read Anne of Green Gables, I was a child, so the pathos of her situation was lost on me.

My son came up with one of his one-liners as we were nearing home. We had to pause the book, and I said reassuringly, “You know that she gets to stay, right? After all, it is called, Anne of Green Gables.” His response? “Yeah, I mean, it’s not called Anne of Asylum.” Anne of the Asylum might be a slightly better title, but I see his point. Even Jane Eyre, part of which is set in an asylum for orphaned children, avoids the word “asylum” in its title. Authors have to think about marketing.

I bring up Anne of Green Gables because taking a picture is my instinctive response to the “thrill” that I get when I see a particularly beautiful tree or view or sight. The word “thrill” appears 37 times in Anne of Green Gables! The first time Anne uses the word “thrill,” Matthew is driving her from the Bright River station to Green Gables; Anne sees one beautiful sight after another—apple trees in bloom arching over the road, a lovely pond at sunset:

Below them was a pond, looking almost like a river so long and winding was it. A bridge spanned it midway and from there to its lower end, where an amber-hued belt of sand-hills shut it in from the dark blue gulf beyond, the water was a glory of many shifting hues–the most spiritual shadings of crocus and rose and ethereal green, with other elusive tintings for which no name has ever been found. Above the bridge the pond ran up into fringing groves of fir and maple and lay all darkly translucent in their wavering shadows . . .

“That’s Barry’s pond,” said Matthew.

“Oh, I don’t like that name, either. I shall call it–let me see–the Lake of Shining Waters. Yes, that is the right name for it. I know because of the thrill. When I hit on a name that suits exactly it gives me a thrill. Do things ever give you a thrill?”

Matthew ruminated.

“Well now, yes. It always kind of gives me a thrill to see them ugly white grubs that spade up in the cucumber beds. I hate the look of them.”

“Oh, I don’t think that can be exactly the same kind of a thrill. Do you think it can? There doesn’t seem to be much connection between grubs and lakes of shining waters, does there?”

Later, Anne uses the word “thrill” to describe how she feels about the poetry in the Fifth Reader, about puffed sleeves, about the upcoming church picnic, about having tea with Ms. Barry, about acting out a romantic scene, and many other experiences. Marilla, a spinster who has had few children in her life, is “thrilled” when Anne kisses her on the cheek. “Thrills” are few and far between as we get older, but the beauties in nature can be counted on to thrill the most stoic among us. Last week, even my oldest son, who describes himself as “not a nature person,” posted a photo of a particularly beautiful Japanese maple on Instagram.

I love Anne’s reaction to some birches she observes while at church one Sunday: “‘There was a long row of white birches hanging over the lake and the sunshine fell down through them, ‘way, ‘way down, deep into the water. Oh, Marilla, it was like a beautiful dream! It gave me a thrill and I just said, “Thank you for it, God,” two or three times.’” Last week, my son and I sang the Doxology in the car as we drove along a particularly beautiful stretch of the Blue Ridge Parkway. It seemed the best way to respond to the “thrill” we felt.

October was a beautiful month at Green Gables, when the birches in the hollow turned as golden as sunshine and the maples behind the orchard were royal crimson and the wild cherry trees along the lane put on the loveliest shades of dark red and bronzy green, while the fields sunned themselves in aftermaths.

Anne reveled in the world of color about her.

“Oh, Marilla,” she exclaimed one Saturday morning, coming dancing in with her arms full of gorgeous boughs, “I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers. It would be terrible if we just skipped from September to November, wouldn’t it? Look at these maple branches. Don’t they give you a thrill–several thrills? I’m going to decorate my room with them.”

Now that it’s November, the brilliant leaves are fading and falling. The austere beauty of winter is insinuating its presence, although a few trees still valiantly fly the red and orange battle flags of fall. Scattered leaves tumble and scurry over the street outside the coffee shop where I’m typing. Winter will be lovely in its barebones way, but there is a thrill in autumn’s glorious colors that I’ll miss.

One Misty, Moisty Morning

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One misty, moisty morning

When cloudy was the weather,

I chanced to meet an old man

Clothed all in leather.

He began to compliment,

And I began to grin,

How do you do? And how do you do?

And how do you do again?

I’ve been storing nursery rhymes in my mental warehouse since I was a little girl. Two Mother Goose books stand out from my childhood: one was “Baby’s Mother Goose,” the cover of which featured a sobbing child (Lucy Locket?) and the Rock-a-bye Baby; the other was a Little Golden book entitled “Nursery Rhymes,” and I particularly remember the pretty pastel illustration for “Lavender’s Blue” in that book: perhaps I aspired to be Queen? As I recall, my older brother and I were allowed to watch only one television show —The Flintstones—so I had plenty of time for looking at the pictures in nursery rhyme books. Like many parents, my mom and dad read aloud to us; being read to frequently was one of the perks of being an older child in a family with six children, or so my mother tells me.

Not only did my parents read nursery rhymes to us, but we also had a record—an LP, vinyl, call it what you will—of nursery rhymes being sung. Our Nursery Rhymes album was released by United Artists in 1962, so I suspect that it belongs to my older brother. (Want it back, Tom?) An extensive series of Tale-Spinners for Children albums was produced in the 1960s. While searching for the Tale-Spinners’ Nursery Rhymes on YouTube, I came across this wonderful Tale-Spinners’ Robin Hood featuring a young Robert Hardy, whom I first encountered on the BBC’s All Creatures Great and Small.  Alas, we didn’t own any of those exciting Tale-Spinners storybook albums, but I was content with Nursery Rhymes (probably because I didn’t know about the storybook records).

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The Famous Theatre Company and the Hollywood Studio Orchestra performed the songs.

I still have the record, so this morning I listened to the now-scratchy chorus singing classics like “Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush,” “Oranges and Lemons”—a childhood favorite—and “Oh, Dear, What Can the Matter Be?” (Listening to children’s songs sung by classically trained adults was not on my agenda today, but authoring a blog will consume your time in strange and mysterious ways.) I was surprised at how well I remembered every inflection, although I had not remembered the jazziness of certain songs or noticed the musicianship of the Hollywood Studio Orchestra; the creativity of “Humpty, Dumpty, Dumpty,” “Pop Goes the Weasel,” and “Three Blind Mice” must be heard to be appreciated. On the other hand, the upbeat style of “Three Blind Mice” was a little disturbing, given the subject matter,  and “Rock-a-bye, Baby” sounds almost like a dirge (which, in a way, it is).

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Lovely morning glories brighten the misty morning.

Fortunately for my children, I didn’t have this record in my possession when they were young; today I played part of the album for my youngest son, and he pronounced it “scary.” My husband and I continued the tradition of reading aloud to our children, particularly when they were little. Like my parents before me, I read nursery rhymes to my children: I wonder if people still do that? Even if I hadn’t grown up loving nursery rhymes, I would have read them to my children because experts have suggested that listening to nursery rhymes is good for developing minds. (I’ve always been a sucker for parenting advice.) Happily, my mother had kept the books that we had as children, so in some cases I was reading to my children from the very books that were read to me. That turned out to be another perk of being an older child: inheriting books and toys from my parents’ overflowing attic. Since nursery rhymes were read both to me and by me, I can rattle off Mother Goose verses when the occasion calls for it.

Friday morning, as I took a constitutional walk around tiny Lake Tomahawk in Black Mountain, the occasion definitely called for a recitation of “One Misty, Moisty Morning.” The Weather Channel has been referring to this unseasonably warm weather as  “Augtober”—a mixture of August and October—so perhaps the confluence of some weather systems resulted in the very humid conditions on Friday. “Misty,” “moisty,” and “cloudy” all described the scene perfectly.

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Do I always look so serious when I walk at Lake Tomahawk? I hereby resolve to smile on my next walk.

The conditions weren’t ideal for a walk, particularly since I’d forgotten my rain jacket, but thinking about how well the poem fit the occasion helped keep my mind off how damp my hair was getting. I kept opening up my umbrella and then taking it down again (it interfered with picture-taking, and it really was just misting, not raining outright).

While I didn’t meet an old man clothed all in leather, I did meet these gaily adorned ladies:

Lake Tomahawk adjoins a retirement center, so I also met a number of older men and women out for morning exercise, and I encountered mothers pushing strollers and young adults riding skateboards. It’s only a half-mile around the lake, so I tend to run into the same people repeatedly as I’m trying to get in my two miles. I’ve never been sure whether it’s correct to walk clockwise or counter-clockwise around Lake Tomahawk; as the Scarecrow says in The Wizard of Oz, “People do go both ways.” At any rate, it’s polite to smile or make eye contact with people as you pass them: “How do you, and how do you do, and how do you do again?” Sometimes I’ll even make a remark about the weather, but, mostly, we grin and nod.

On Friday, I chanced to pass a woman whom I know—another homeschooling mother who has two kids in college and several still at home. The first time that I encountered her, we smiled and nodded. The second time that we met up on the path, I decided to do more than smile and nod; I stopped to ask her how her kids were doing, and we had a lengthy conversation about homeschool tutorials and dance studios. Meanwhile, the mist and the moist kept coming and going: I put my umbrella away for a while, but then the drizzle started again.

It’s been a strange fall here: warm weather, leaves late to turn, more fog than I remember typically having. But I enjoyed my misty, moisty walk, particularly the spiderwebs glistening with raindrops and the geese and ducks who plunged into the water the moment they saw me approaching with my camera.

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My fascination with “One Misty, Moisty Morning” did not end when I left Lake Tomahawk. This morning I listened to both sides of the Nursery Rhymes LP (and making an almost inaudible recording of Side 2), but I did not find what I was seeking: an older man’s voice reciting “One Misty, Moisty Morning.” I knew that I had heard that nursery rhyme read aloud, and I was stumped when I didn’t find it on the record. I racked my brain, trying to remember other records we listened to as children, when it came to me: Kindermusik! Kindermusik was another one of those activities that were supposed to be good for children, so I spent years taking my kids to Kindermusik classes and playing the CDs. A recitation of the poem is on the Village DewDrops CD, which I own because I participated in the Kindermusik class with my two youngest children. Mystery solved!

“One misty, moisty morning” engraving by Alexander Anderson in Illustrations of Mother Goose’s Melodies

Still, my memory had played tricks on me, confusing my childhood with my children’s. However, I feel reaffirmed in my commitment to Kindermusik: aside from “One Misty, Moisty Morning,” many other nursery rhymes and folk songs were on the DewDrops CD. Folk music is another thing that I loved as a child, and Kindermusik exposed my children to songs from around the world. I decided to quiz my youngest son on his knowledge of nursery rhymes: he said he didn’t know any, but he was able to recite more than he had expected. One day, he may even read nursery rhymes to his children. I can dream, can’t I?

When Fish Have Wings: The Exciting Life of a Goldfish Owner

Until yesterday I’d never given thought to the phrase “a fish out of water.” The long-suffering goldfish in “The Cat in the Hat” came to mind immediately, which betrays my age; born in the 1960s, I practically cut my teeth on Dr. Seuss. If you’ll recall, a six-foot cat in a striped top hat shows up uninvited at the home of two children on a rainy afternoon. I’m not sure this storyline would fly in an age of stranger danger, but it’s probably okay to let in a talking cat, even when your mother is out? Promising fun and tricks, the Cat wreaks havoc while the officious family goldfish tries to evict him. Children’s programming was limited back then, and I looked forward to “The Cat in the Hat” TV special. I especially liked the Cat’s song with foreign words: “Cat, hat, In French, chat, chapeau!  In Spanish, el gato in a sombrero!” Still, I felt sorry for the fish, who tries to keep the irrepressible Cat and his minions from destroying the house. Who doesn’t pity the fish when Thing One and Thing Two toss his bowl about as if it were a football or basketball?

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Art from “A Fish out of Water” article on the Dr. Seuss Wiki at FANDOM and licensed under the CC-BY-SA.

Although his bowl nearly breaks during the Cat’s shenanigans, ultimately the fish leaves the safety of water on his own terms: he hops out to scold the Cat or to call for help. A few years after the publication of “The Cat in the Hat,” Seuss’ wife, Helen Palmer Geisel, wrote “A Fish Out of Water” about a fish who outgrows his bowl; her book was inspired by “Gustav the Goldfish,” a short story written by Seuss under his real name, Theodor Geisel. Out-of-water fish must have amused the Geisels. Me? Not so much.

A fish flying from its bowl sounds like something from a children’s book or a Saturday morning cartoon—except that it really happened last night. Imagine my horror this morning when I glanced at Faramir’s bowl to make sure that he’d lived through the night and saw that Faramir wasn’t in his bowl! Since my daughter had already left for work, my first thought was, “Did the fish die in the night? Did Emily dispose of him?” Wildly, I looked around, and there he lay, his vivid orange-and-black body motionless beside the bowl, not gasping for air but staring wide-eyed at me. I shrieked, and my husband came running from the breakfast room.

Bryson may sleep through high winds, but he knows what to do for a dying fish: he scooped him up and put him in the bowl. Breathless (not literally, like poor Faramir), we waited to see what would happen. To my amazement, Faramir seemed to breathe a little. Belatedly, we realized that Bryson should have scooped up Faramir with the net rather than touching him, but at least Faramir was back in the water. Mainly, I was relieved that the fish wasn’t dead . . . yet. By the time my son came down for breakfast, Faramir was moving around a little, although one of his fins seemed to be stuck to his body.

While Bryson drove David to his homeschool classes, I researched what could be done for a fish snatched from the jaws of death. Neither Bryson nor I had much doubt as to why this had happened: Bryson had added water to the bowl before he went to bed, bringing the water level up to just below the rim. Had I been paying attention, I could have told him that was a bad idea: I’d read the day before that it was better for fish living in a bowl to have more air at the top. Alas, I was on Facebook at the time. I don’t fault him. A supportive husband, Bryson had read my post about Faramir and had stepped up his vigilance with the fish’s water. He’d used the trick of diluting, rather than changing, the water with other fish: who’d a-thought this fish would make a break for it?

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“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” may not apply to Faramir.

Happily, I found one practical suggestion for Faramir: fish have a slimy coating, which could have been affected during Faramir’s time out of water. Adding water conditioner was the recommendation; fortunately, we had a small bottle in the cabinet. Almost immediately, Faramir’s fin seemed to come unstuck, and his swimming improved. Thank you, fish forums!

Faramir refused to eat even one Tetra-Fin flake, however, which seemed ominous. Then I learned that fish food can go bad. In our ignorance, we’d been feeding out-of-date food to Faramir since bringing him home from the fair. Bryson bought a small container of food and two gallons of distilled water after he dropped off David. When he got home, he moved Faramir to a tiny bowl; next, he emptied the larger bowl and, using distilled water, rinsed off the rocks in a colander. After adding fresh water and water conditioner, Bryson returned Faramir to the bowl and gave him a flake of the new food. Lo and behold, he ate a flake!

Will there be any long-term effects? Who can say? He doesn’t seem quite as active as before, and he still has the black splotches (possibly from ammonia poisoning): maybe they’ll go away, if we keep his water free of waste and leftover food? I’ve also read that the change in color could be genetic; the black-and-orange combination is rather striking—perfect for Halloween! Whether because of his ammonia burns or his personality (do fish have personality?), Faramir has been very active since we brought him home. A little less activity might be good for him.

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Fish with a death wish?

That leads me to the next question: why did he jump? Was it simply because he had the opportunity? Some folks say that goldfish will jump, if you don’t keep a lid on the tank. (On the fish-care forums, there was a lot of hate for those of us who keep fish in an open bowl, but I’ll address that in a moment.) Others suggested that fish jump when breeding or when they don’t like something about the water. With the water level so high, an active fish like Faramir probably couldn’t resist the temptation. Apparently, he has little in common with Karlos K. Krinkelbein, the rule-keeping fish from “The Cat in the Hat.” As my daughter said when she heard the latest development, “He’s a jumper.”

Is a tank in Faramir’s future? Probably—but we don’t want him to suffer the same fate as Merry and Pippin, whom we bought at PetSmart in the fall of 2013 because we didn’t win a fish at the fair that year. See? It’s a lose-lose situation with that fish game at the fair: if you win a fish, you bring home an unhealthy fish; if you don’t win a fish, you have disappointed children whom you placate the next day by buying them healthy fish. For Merry and Pippin’s well-being, we also invested in our first tank, but it wasn’t really large enough for two fish. Right from the start, as you’ll learn if you watch this video of my son introducing the fish to his college siblings, Pippin tended to gobble up all the food, leaving Merry to fend for himself. My daughter’s friend suggested that Pippin should be renamed Fatty Bolger, an amiable hobbit from The Lord of the Rings; presumably, Fatty enjoyed not only a first and second breakfast but even a third breakfast.

Food squabbles weren’t the worst of it, however. One day, my younger daughter rushed up from the basement to report that Merry’s fin was caught in the filter! Even though turning off the filter freed him, his fin was damaged (shades of “Finding Nemo,” but, trust me, that wasn’t a “lucky fin”). Before long, he died. Then Pippin also swam up to the filter, got caught and injured, and died shortly thereafter. See why we have a phobia about tanks with filters? Still, Faramir does need more room (assuming he makes it through the weekend). I’ll have to read up on tanks and filters before we make that transition.

How can I be putting so much thought and energy into this foundling of a fish? Clearly, my son isn’t the only one who cares about him: I found myself talking to Faramir several times today, although I did that annoying parent thing and called him “Frodo” instead of “Faramir.” In my defense, we once owned a betta fish named Frodo. Frodo was very short-lived, but Dave, whom we bought at the same time, lived for more than two years. Dave and Frodo were kept in separate bowls because the pet store people told us two male bettas shouldn’t be in the same space, and they used to glare at one another. After Frodo died, Dave’s existence was less intense but also less interesting. (My daughter dubbed him, “Dave, the Boring Betta.”)

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Merry and Pippin joined the family on September 23, 2013–just one day late for Bilbo and Frodo Baggins’ birthday celebration on September 22.

I fervently hope that my next post here will be a typical descriptive piece about one of our hikes and not an elegy for Faramir. While the poet in me might enjoy composing it, the parent in me wants Faramir to live a long and happy life. After so much emotion expended on one fish, it would be nice to get a good return on our investment. That is the problem with fish, though: they’re not much trouble—or not usually—but they can’t go on a walk, or learn tricks, or show affection. . . . I can’t complain: Faramir may be trouble, but he has added more drama to our lives than I was expecting. The moral of this story is, if you name your fish for an epic hero, he may decide to have adventures befitting his name.

When Men and Mountains Meet

Great things are done when men and mountains meet.

This is not done by jostling in the street.

— William Blake, Gnomic Verses

Who doesn’t love a view? Few sights surpass blue mountains stretching across the horizon beneath an endless sky. In my part of the United States, you can easily see such a view by pulling off at an overlook along the Blue Ridge Parkway, a 469-mile scenic road that begins in Virginia and winds its way down through North Carolina.

Sadly, I take this view of undulating blue hills for granted. In fact, my original plan for Photography 101’s Landscape theme was to drive out to Max Patch, a bald mountain on the Appalachian Trail. Situated on the North Carolina-Tennessee border, Max Patch offers an amazing 360-degree view of the surrounding mountain groups: the Bald Mountains, the Great Smokies, the Unakas, the Black Mountains, and the Great Balsams. You need a video camera to capture the astonishing scenery at Max Patch.

June 2011:  A partial glimpse of the 360-degree view at Max Patch

June 2011: A partial glimpse of the 360-degree view at Max Patch. Click here for my unsteady video of the view.

My son checks out an exhibit in the Blue Ridge Parkway Visitor Center. (iPhone 5s)

My son checks out an exhibit in the Blue Ridge Parkway Visitor Center. (iPhone 5s)

IMG_3197 cropLife interfered with my plans for a panoramic photo at Max Patch, so I chose an easy — and obvious — option for a landscape picture: the Haw Creek Valley Overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway. En route to the overlook, my son and I made an unscheduled pit stop at the Blue Ridge Parkway Visitor Center. This was my first time inside the Visitor Center, where several hands-on exhibits caught my son’s eye. Meanwhile, my eyes were drawn to William Blake’s words — “Great things are done when men and mountains meet” — emblazoned across a photograph near the entrance.

In this context, Blake’s statement is lauding the Blue Ridge Parkway as a “great thing” achieved by the conjunction of men and mountains. Construction of the Parkway began in 1935 as part of President Roosevelt’s New Deal and was finally completed in 1987. In every subsequent year since 1946, the Parkway has been America’s most visited national site. As the longest linear park in the United States, the Parkway annually gives millions of visitors access to campsites and hikes, vistas and waterfalls, wildflowers and trees. The Blue Ridge Parkway is a remarkable achievement.

Like most visionary projects, the Blue Ridge Parkway was not without casualties. Browsing through a bookstore in August, I came across When the Parkway Came, a children’s book written by Anne Mitchell Whisnant and David E. Whisnant. The Whisnants’ book looks at the building of the Parkway through the eyes of Jess, a boy whose family’s farm lies in the path of the proposed highway. While Jess is fictional, the book is based on a letter written to President Roosevelt in 1937 by S. A. Miller, owner of a small farm in North Carolina. Miller’s objections to the low offer made for his land were eventually rewarded with a better price. Although the book does not shy away from the Parkway’s darker repercussions, the Whisnants end on a note of optimistic reflection:

“I wish this land was still ours, Papa Jess,” I said. Papa Jess was quiet for a while. Then he looked up and smiled. “It is, Ginny,” he said. “It still is. Yours, mine, and everybody’s. And it is still so beautiful.”

As someone who benefits from the Blue Ridge Parkway, I am torn between sympathy for the mountain farmers whose property rights were overruled and gratitude for the engineers and CCC workers who made the mountains accessible to everyone. Because farmers like Miller sacrificed their land, the mountains bordering the Parkway are now a place for refuge and reflection – a beautiful place that provides recreational opportunities and inspires artists and writers.

In my reading of Blake’s epigram, he was not thinking of a specific “great” achievement when he wrote, “Great things are done when men and mountains meet. /  This is not done by jostling in the street.” A Romantic poet who hated the ugliness of industrialization and wrote of England’s “dark Satanic mills,” Blake is speaking here of that sense of wonder and awe that descends upon us when we gaze on a landscape too large for our circumscribed minds to comprehend.  Blake lived in London all his life — amidst the jostling of nineteenth-century London’s dirty, crowded streets.The great thing for Blake would have been solace for his soul and freedom for his thoughts as he gazed upon mountains.

Does the creation of a public treasure like the Blue Ridge Parkway justify the high price paid by Miller and many others? Thinking of the countless visitors who have gazed in wonder at views along the Parkway, I would answer, “Yes” – but, then, it wasn’t my land.

Haw Creek Valley Overlook (iPhone 5s)

Haw Creek Valley Overlook (iPhone 5s)


Thanks to Colleen at Silver Threading for hosting the weekly Writer’s Quote Wednesday event.

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All photographs were taken by Sandra Fleming in November 2014, with the exception of the Max Patch picture, which was taken in 2011. An iPhone 5s was used for the panoramic photos and overlook sign, while a Panasonic Lumix was used for all other photos. Text and photos copyrighted 2014 by Sandra Fleming.

Up a Road Slowly: Lagging Behind in Blogging 101

Road photo by Julia

It’s not quite the upward path I envisioned, but it is a road. (Photo by Julia Fleming)

When I was in the sixth grade, I read Irene Hunt’s Up a Road Slowly. Hunt’s best-known children’s book is Across Five Aprils, which I missed in my own childhood and discovered when my children and I were studying the Civil War. As a child, I didn’t particularly enjoy Up a Road Slowly, so I didn’t seek out Hunt’s other books. The visual image created by Hunt’s title–of climbing up a steep path, one step at  a time–is what I remembered ruefully this morning, after paying a visit to the Blogging 101 Commons with its busy chatter about today’s assignment. I felt so far behind most of the other bloggers. How can I reconcile completion of the Blogging 101 assignments with the demands of my real life (as opposed to my virtual life)?

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Is my voluntary commitment to Blogging 101 barring me from the beauty of fall in the mountains? (This photo was taken by an iPhone 5 with no filters or HDR.)

Thanks to being out of town the last two weekends in September, I got woefully behind on the assignments. Two days ago, I made a feeble stab at “Start Personalizing,” but what I am longing to work on is the assignment that the other bloggers are doing–which changes from day to day! My rate of doing assignments seems to be two a week, at best. My true dilemma: do I press on to the next assignment, even when I feel that I didn’t master the skill taught by a previous assignment?

For 24 hours, I erroneously believed that Blogging 101 had ended, after I misunderstood this assignment. Thanks to the entertaining, nostalgic, evocativewitty, and lovely responses to various community challenges posted by other Blogging 101ers, I realized that I was wrong. Nope, the powers-that-be are still posting assignments for the blogging novice; it’s not time to post that “Elegy for Blogging 101” just yet. I’ve gone back to following the Commons: sure, my Reader is overflowing, but at least I know that assignments are still forthcoming.

I’ve tried jumping ahead with the assignments–this post is partly in response to the Nature Photo Challenge but primarily a response to the Daily Post’s Photo Challenge, which was to photograph and write about a sign. The words “Patient Entrance” not only had a literal meaning for me, as I walked into the shot clinic, but they also spoke to me as a new blogger who loves the exchange of ideas that she finds here at WPW (WordPress World) but finds the balance of responsibility and creativity difficult to manage. Yesterday, my college son, who is home on Fall Break, expressed his concern at finding me on my laptop 24/7: “You’re like a teenager, Mom. You’re always on the computer!” As I explained, I didn’t own a computer when I was in college or grad school: shouldn’t I get some catch-up time for the years that I missed? He pointed out that I was using a logical fallacy to justify my excessive computer time. (At least he’s learning something at college.)

If I am to enter successfully into the blogosphere, my family will need to be patient with me. Even my husband’s stoic silence may crack under the strain of unwashed dishes and cluttered countertops. But a double measure of patience is needed here: I need to be patient with myself as the latest assignments on Blogging 101 blow temptingly past me. Maybe I should even make a written list as the assignments come up, so that–if I decide to jump ahead–I could cross that one off the list?

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The color of this maple tree’s leaves changed with my perspective.

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The light also made a difference.

Although jumping ahead is permissible in Blogging 101–almost anything is permissible in Blogging 101, aside from disrespect, theft, or violation of blogger etiquette (a crime that I have inadvertently committed more than once)–I know myself to be a sequential learner. I like the contents of anthologies to be arranged chronologically. I am not a fan of unit studies (a common approach in homeschools), because I prefer to learn about events in the order that they occurred, not through a common theme. If I’m starting to read a new series, I prefer to start with the first book. Using my trusty Blogging 101: Zero to Hero bookmark on my toolbar, I shall look to see what assignment comes next for me personally–after my son has returned to college!  (I’m only able to type this post because he stayed up late rewatching the first movie in the Bourne trilogy, but I hear him walking around upstairs now. Time to get off the computer and cook him the nice breakfast that he doesn’t get at school.) Meanwhile, onward and upward, as I patiently enter the blogging world.

This was an interesting sign, but it inspires thoughts of the Jazz Age as opposed to the Blogging Age.

This was an interesting sign, but it inspires thoughts of the Jazz Age as opposed to the Blogging Age.

Note: All photos in this post were taken on an iPhone 5s.

 

Dear Miss Alcott . . .

These dressses are from the Beth and Amy dolls that my mother made for me, long ago. The hope chest was made by my aunt.

My mother made these dresses, intricately trimmed with pintucks and lace, along with two “Little Women” rag dolls. I am grateful that she steered me in the direction of Louisa May Alcott’s books, even before I could read.  The hope chest, made by my aunt, brings to mind the four chests described in Jo’s poem, “In the Garret”: “Four little names, one on each lid . . .”

Dear Miss Alcott,

After years of admiration, I am writing to tell you how much I have enjoyed your books–especially Little Women (like so many of your fans) and its sequels, Little Men and Jo’s Boys.  On first reading Little Women at the age of eight, I was delighted with the frills and trappings of the nineteenth century: I longed to live in the time of petticoats and gloves, calling cards and carriages. But I was even more pleased to make the acquaintance of the four March sisters, who were bickering (as sisters are wont to do) about how to celebrate Christmas when you introduced them to me.

As a child, I loved all things "Little Women"--paper dolls, dolls, movies. Here are Madame Alexander's doll versions of Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy.

As a child, I loved all things “Little Women”–paper dolls, movies, and my precious Madame Alexander dolls.

Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy–they were as different from one another as four sisters could be, in both appearance and personality. Many nuances were beyond my understanding on that first reading. For years, I did not realize that the book given by Marmee to each daughter at Christmas was Pilgrim’s Progress, and I failed to appreciate how cleverly you used Christian’s journey as a parallel for the lessons that each of the March girls was learning.  Later, I grasped that the war taking Mr. March away from his family was the Civil War that I had learned about in school. My ignorance notwithstanding, the ambitions of the four sisters nourished my own ambitions: was I going to be a great writer, a great pianist, or a great artist, I wondered, as I built my castle in the clouds along with the March girls.

In 2011, I paid a visit to Orchard House, which is a National Historic Site.

In 2011, my family and I visited Orchard House in Concord, Massachusetts. Bronson and Abigail May Alcott moved to Orchard House with daughters Anna, Louisa, and May in 1858. Another daughter, Elizabeth, the model for “Beth,” died shortly before they moved to the home that would be the final residence for Bronson, Abigail, and Louisa.

Miss Alcott, as I read and re-read your books, the disappointments of the March girls became my disappointments. I watched with horror as Amy was punished for bringing limes to class and, later, burned Jo’s manuscript in a fit of pique; I sympathized with Meg’s longing for finery, Jo’s disappointment when Aunt March chose Amy for her European traveling companion, Beth’s fear of Mr. Laurence, and Amy’s realization that her talent was not genius. Their joys were also my joys, as Meg gave birth to twins, Amy and Laurie comforted one another after Beth’s death, and Jo finally found romance with the impoverished but lovable Professor Bhaer. Even after the three surviving sisters became women–strong, compassionate women, who coped with single parenthood, founded schools, and helped struggling artists–I loved to read about them. Again, layers of meaning escaped me, such as references to Goethe and Schiller or to Greek mythologybut it is a tribute to the richness of your books that I gleaned something new with every reading.P1010235

Like you, Miss Alcott, I am one of four sisters. Longing to be pretty and artistic, I initially identified with Amy, whose character was loosely based on your sister May. In time, I came to prefer Jo, your fictional counterpart, who poured herself into her writing, who put her interests aside to help her family, who could not perceive her own beauty, who struggled to rejoice when good things happened to her sisters.

Unlike you, I have never been called upon to sacrifice and toil for my family, as you did from your teen years. Indeed, without your tireless writing or the kindness of family friends such as Mr. Emerson, your family might have fared poorly.  When I read the book Marmee and Louisa,  a gift from my youngest sister, it seemed to me that your parents held you to a very high standard indeed and chided you for your failings less gently than they might have. But, rather than complaining, you used your talents to improve your family’s fortunes, and you endeavored to apply your parents’ criticisms.

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Orchard House is a museum today, open for guided tours. Louisa wrote most of her books here, often wearing a “scribbling suit” like Jo’s.

I feel, Miss Alcott, that your personal striving towards humility, selflessness, industry, and compassion communicates itself to your readers. I do not mean to imply that your primary purpose in writing Little Women was didactic: as I understand it, your publisher wanted you to write a book for girls because he thought it would sell well. (He was right.)  In writing about a way of life that you knew intimately and about the family that you loved, however, you created a world that has attracted and influenced generations of young girls. Even as your readers delight in the comic adventures and heartbreaking tragedies of the March girls, they are seeing examples of kindness, courage, and–dare I say it, in the age of the selfie?–modesty.

No matter how old I grow, Miss Alcott, I never tire of reading Little Women.  As recently as 2007, your best-selling classic inspired The Mother-Daughter Book Club, a novel for young adults set in modern-day Concord, Massachusetts.  An Old-Fashioned Girl–which contrasts the life of the hardworking poor girl with the frivolous rich girl–was also one of my childhood favorites, and I enjoyed your books about the orphan, Rose, and her cousins (Eight Cousins, Rose in Bloom).

Although your own life, sadly, was filled with hardship, loss, poor health, and personal disappointment, it may be some small consolation to know that you have brought a great deal of joy to a little girl growing up in the late twentieth century.

With the deepest respect,

A Devoted Reader

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From 1845 to 1848, the Alcotts lived in this Concord home, Hillside, where Louisa had her own room and wrote her first book. Later, they purchased and renovated the home on adjoining property, which they christened Orchard House.  In 1849, Nathaniel Hawthorne purchased Hillside and renamed it The Wayside.

This plaque at the Wayside (originally named Hillside by Bronson Alcott) tells about the house's history as a stop on the Underground Railroad.

This plaque at The Wayside (called Hillside by the Alcotts) tells about the house’s history as a stop on the Underground Railroad. Two fugitive slaves stayed here in the winter of 1846-1847. Today, The Wayside is part of Minute Man National Historical Park.