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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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 . . .

Which Goose Is Getting Fat?

Double wreaths edit

Double wreaths, December 2014 (iPhone 5s)

Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat,

Please to put a penny in the old man’s hat;

If you haven’t got a penny, a ha’penny will do;

If you haven’t got a ha’penny, then God bless you!

Christmas Is Coming” has been playing over and over in my head lately. My sources, aka wikipedia, tell me that it is both a nursery rhyme and an American carol. Why the “ha’penny,” or half-penny, if this song is American? Maybe half-pennies were used in eighteenth-century America? I could find out, if I did extensive research, but there’s the rub: I can’t do research, because Christmas is coming, and, at our house, the metaphorical goose is looking lean.

Close-up of a Christmas wall-hanging made by my mother

Close-up of the wall hanging, made by my mother

Historically, I am the one who sees to it that Christmas cards are sent and presents are bought. Once my husband gets the lights on the tree, I’m the one, aided by my youngest son and daughter, who puts on the ornaments. This year, the strings of white lights were mysteriously missing, but putting on the lights never goes smoothly. Still, my husband got ’em up. He even put up the Father Christmas wall hanging and placed the angel on top of the tree. Despite the fact that Christmas cards have been on the dining room table for weeks, I haven’t started addressing them, nor have I put one ornament on a hook. I’m hoping that the influx of my college kids this weekend will motivate me. If I don’t buy the presents, who will? If I don’t bring up the ornaments from the basement, will they find their way onto the prickly fir branches this December?

A line from Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory drifted into my head as I thought about the many responsibilities that mothers and fathers have on holidays and birthdays: “We are the music makers, / And we are the dreamers of the dreams.” I’m not sure what Mr. Wonka meant by quoting Arthur O’Shaughnessy here, but, for me, these words mean: make music for your children, and dream dreams with them. In my childhood, my mother added the sparkle to festive occasions. She was the person who ensured that gifts were bought and cakes were made. Being a parent is daunting, and there are moments when I fail, or nearly fail. This year, my blog is threatening to derail Christmas at our house.

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Season of Symmetry? There seemed to be many “doubles” in this picture of a downtown church decorated for Christmas. Closer examination reveals more triples. (iPhone 5s)

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Designed by Douglas Ellington, First Baptist Church was completed in 1927. (iPhone 5s)

For now, I must shift my focus from the blog and to the family goose, which needs fattening with only two weeks left until Christmas Day. The literal goose is getting fat, by which I mean myself. I have gained between 5 and 10 pounds this fall. I’ve heard of the Freshman 15, but is there a Blogging 10? Too much time at my laptop, too little time in the kitchen, and a slowing metabolism have proved an unfortunate combination. When I first started blogging, I was taking hikes to generate fodder for posts, but then Blogging 101 came along, followed by Photography 101. So, yeah. The weight gain isn’t exactly encouraging me to roll out the sugar cookie dough.

Of course, the point of “Christmas Is Coming” is not a reminder to stuff the goose (whoever the goose might be) but to “put a penny in the old man’s hat.” While this phrase brings to mind a Dickensian figure holding out a battered top hat, an awareness of those less fortunate than ourselves is as important now as when this rhyme was first sung. (And when was that? My desire to research this carol is growing.) Recent posts by Teresa and Kim have reminded me to think of others in the midst of merry-making. This week, my mother-in-law took my son to buy gifts for a needy child; she has done this with my children for years. Many people, old and young, struggle through cold, hungry, or lonely days while I am busy making cookies or addressing Christmas cards.

Except that I’m not mixing cookie dough or putting on stamps: I’m on my computer, tweaking a sentence here, reading a post there. I hope that you see less of me over the next few weeks! I’ll miss reading your posts regularly as much as I’ll miss writing my own. My 10-year-old tells me that I talk about other people’s blogs too much, but how can I keep silent about Lia’s apple pie encounter on the New York subway, or Dan’s reference to a Star Trek episode in his post about comment spam, or Deborah’s post about the Christmas Train in Santa Cruz? In the meantime, I leave you with a Christmas poem that I wrote “many and many a year ago,” back when I used to make Christmas cards:

Starry Night poem


The “double” photos are for a Photography 101 assignment. All text and photos copyrighted 2014 by Sandra M. Fleming. “Starry Night” poem written by Sandra M. Fleming and copyrighted © 2014.

Note: I succumbed to curiosity about the origins of “Christmas Is Coming.” While the song experienced a surge in popularity in the United States during the mid-twentieth century, it first appeared in a British publication in 1882, according to the author of TreasuryIslands.

Developing a Philosophy of Photography: Landmarks

Birds on a wire at the Basilica of St. Lawrence

As I work through Photography 101, I am starting to grasp something fundamental: what a photo says to the beholder may have little to do with the conditions under which the picture was taken. At the outset, I was puzzled when the example photo for the “Solitude” assignment showed a solitary woman walking through the Hagia Sophia. While the woman seemed to be alone in the photo, a photographer had obviously been present. If the woman was not alone, how could the picture represent “Solitude”?

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NC Arboretum (taken with iPhone 5s)

Taking an authentic approach, I decided to pursue the “Solitude” assignment by seeking solitude. To my surprise, when I reviewed my photos and compared them to the “Solitude” photos posted by other Photo 101 participants, my photos looked more like “Empty” than “Solitude.” Later, I noticed that a photo I had taken on a “Natural World” quest with my husband and son expressed the concept of “Solitude” better than all my pictures of empty paths, empty seats in an amphitheater, or landscapes devoid of people. This photo doesn’t show a person, but the one flaming branch in a mostly bare forest suggests separateness and isolation better than the photos I had taken while separate and isolated.

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Pack Square skyline: Vance Monument, County Courthouse, City Hall, and Jackson Building (taken with iPhone 5s)

I’m trying to learn that the image is the thing. What matters is not the emotion that I feel when I push a button on my camera but the emotion that the viewer feels upon seeing the picture. The picture might communicate an idea or mood that has nothing to do with the photographer’s mental makeup or agenda. There are times when the emotion that the photographer feels and the emotion that the photo conveys are the same: that seemed to be true of many “Bliss” pictures (although not necessarily mine). At other times, a photograph may be more illusion than reality. I am thinking of those false tuxedo shirts that seniors wear for graduation photos: it looks as if a young man is wearing a full suit of formal clothing when, in fact, he is wearing only a false front.

Monument honoring Zebulon B. Vance, a native son of Buncombe County who served as Governor and U.S. Senator

Monument honoring Zebulon B. Vance, a native son who served as Governor and U.S. Senator

It may take me a while to get my head around the disconnect between image and reality. Like most bloggers, I think of myself as someone who is honest with her readers. (I’m dodging the sticky truth that “honesty” in social media is inherently compromised, since I decide what parts of my life to share.) How honest are lovely images that were taken in a stressful moment?

Happily, a landmark is only a landmark, no matter what I’m feeling at the time that I photograph it. A landmark might be a natural wonder, as opposed to a man-made creation, but it carries less emotional baggage. Or does it? A landmark like the Lincoln Memorial may have strong historical connotations. In addition, the choice of perspective or background for the landmark may subtly influence the viewer. Ultimately, the photographer’s goal in taking the picture will determine whether she opts for straightforward documentation of a landmark’s features or decides to focus on a particular aspect of the landmark or setting. During my “Landmark” photo shoot, I learned this: whatever the photographer’s goal, telephone wires, street lamps, signs, traffic signals, cars, pedestrians, and trashcans will get in her way.

The iconic outline of City Hall, designed by Douglas Ellington, has been adopted by the City of Asheville in its official logo.

The Art Deco outline of City Hall, designed by Douglas Ellington, has been incorporated into the City of Asheville‘s official logo.

DSCN0698 edit

Designed by Rafael Guastavino, the Basilica of St. Lawrence showcases what may be North America’s largest freestanding elliptical dome.


All photographs taken November 2014 by Sandra Fleming with Coolpix L320, unless otherwise specified in the caption. Text and photos are copyrighted by the author © 2014. Please do not use them without her permission.

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Sides of a City: Street Shots

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All Souls Cathedral

Biltmore Village

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Haywood Street

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West Asheville Community Center

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Walking on the West Side


Going clockwise from the top left, photos 1, 2, and 3 were taken with an iPhone 5s, while photos 4 and 5 were taken with a Panasonic Lumix DMC-FH20.

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