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?

Is There Life after NaNoWriMo?

NaNoWriMo ended November 30, 2017. The good news is that, despite my children coming home for Thanksgiving and my driving to Indiana three times between November 16 and December 2, I finished my novel on time: 52,146 words churned out within the month of November. The bad news is that it was not possible for me to keep writing the novel and writing blog posts: it was a difficult decision, but I dropped my blogs and went with NaNoWriMo.

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Snow on the Blue Ridge Parkway

Now, a month after my last post here, I wonder whether abandoning the blogs was wise. During my first week of abstaining from WordPress, I missed it terribly: like most bloggers, I found myself composing posts in my head that would never make it onto the keyboard. I missed reading other people’s posts and hearing about their lives. But then I lost the blogging rhythm. Three weeks off is all it took. I began to feel distanced from the blogging community. It would be easy to slip away silently, particularly since I am behind on Christmas preparations. Presents? The very word paralyzes me, yet presents for my family must be bought. Should I take a long vacation from blogging again?

Why do we blog, anyway? Each of us has a slightly different answer to that question. My posts are motivated by the desire to share something, with a caveat: whatever I want to express or share requires feedback. Some thoughts can be spilled out into a journal, but other ideas ought to be bounced back and forth, or fleshed out more formally. Aside from sharing what is inside my head, I take and share pictures of the natural beauty that surrounds me. Not surprisingly, when I ceased blogging, I backed off on taking photos. Mid-November isn’t the most photogenic time in western North Carolina, anyway. Fall color had come and mostly gone.

So what brings me back to blogging, half-reluctant, half-shy? Well, I have snow pictures, and those photos cry out to be shared. Yes, Asheville had an unusually heavy December snow last week. The airport’s official snow count was 8 inches, but we measured 11.5” in places! Snow in December usually causes conflicts and cancellations, and this snow was no exception. There were positive aspects: my son and I went sledding, while I enjoyed walking with my daughter and my husband on the Blue Ridge Parkway, which has been closed because of treacherous icy patches. There were two precious days of driving almost nowhere. Quiet. Walks. Beauty. So, yes, I’ve got photos to share, although it snowed so continuously last Friday that I didn’t risk getting my son’s good camera wet.


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And I’ve got a few reflections on NaNoWriMo to share. Winning NaNoWriMo left me feeling less satisfed than I’d expected. Yes, I wrote what technically meets the definition of a novel: “a fictitious prose narrative of book length, typically representing character and action with some degree of realism.” I tried to represent character and action realistically, but how difficult I found it! Moving characters from one physical location to another was challenging, and the passage of time baffled me. Not having any plan for where my initial plot was going—I’m a Pantser, in NaNoWriMo lingo—I found myself sticking very closely to my main character for the first several chapters. Where she went, I followed.

In answer to my question as to whether I should report on every emotion my character was experiencing, one of my readers helpfully advised me not to do that. Halfway through, my daughter—who has completed novels via NaNoWriMo’s contest twice before—read me a pep talk from NaNoWriMo in which the suggestion was made to change point of view. That was a life-saving suggestion, since I was tired of viewing the world from my main character’s perspective. I’ll never be good at plotting, I fear, but I found the flashback was an easy way to work in background information. One of the most delightful surprises I encountered was how new characters popped up in unexpected places. With both fear and elation, I let my characters lead me into the next episode of the plot.

For now, I’ve decided not to read through my novel even once until January, when my college kids have gone back to school. In January I tend to feel that nothing good will ever happen again. Once or twice, I’ve been tempted to get the novel out and tweak some inconsistency that occurred in my hurried writing, but I’ve resisted: if I can figure out how to resolve the ticket dilemma now, I can figure it out again in January, can’t I? On my last day of writing, when I churned out 7,101 words, I was tying several threads together so that the book would feel like it had an end. Frankly, I’m terrified of reading those concluding chapters, but, at the same time, I’m intrigued to see whether it hangs together.P1140001 (640x480)

My writing got sloppier as the novel progressed and the deadline drew closer. Near the end of November, someone asked what my first sentence was. When I went back to check, I was disappointed by the brevity and the blandness of my opening sentence: “Waiting.” So much for brilliance. I started my novel with a female character riding a train to a job interview; my confidence was seriously jolted in mid-November when I listened to a children’s audiobook that also opened with a female character riding a train to a job interview. A character on a train is a very obvious beginning for a novel. Ah, well. I’ll wait until January and find out whether what I have written should be shelved as an unsuccessful experiment or maybe—there is just the tiniest chance—edited until it is in good enough shape to be read by someone else. Now I understand why my daughter has never let anyone read either of the novels she wrote.IMG_1348 (480x640)

But I did it! I wrote something fictional. I created characters who took on a semi-autonomous existence and did things that surprised me. The last time I remember writing a story was in junior high, and that story was based on something that had happened to me. Parts of the writing were fun; writing dialogue was always enjoyable, while writing descriptions was often agonizing. Remembering what characters had done in previous chapters or what names I had impulsively given minor characters turned out to be much harder than I’d anticipated. It was very difficult not to start editing earlier chapters as I worked, but I tried to resist that temptation: I knew I’d never get done on time if I succumbed. (I’m an inveterate editor.)

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Go out or stay in?

On December 1, I found myself wondering what the point had been. Did my novel have something meaningful to say? Perhaps, in a very minor way. I had wanted to write a children’s book; I spent about an hour trying to write the first chapter of a children’s book. Then I gave up and wrote about a pivotal moment in the life of a youngish person who is trying to get from one day to the next without screwing up her own life or the lives of others. Not exciting. Not deep. Probably not marketable. So much for filthy lucre. Was it worth the minor sacrifices that were involved? I could not have finished, had we not eaten take-out food numerous times during the week after Thanksgiving.

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The Holly and the Ivy

So here’s a shout-out to the family members who left me alone while I typed away furiously, who let me talk to them about my characters and my plot problems. Without their understanding and tolerance I’d have failed. I appreciate the encouraging words of my fellow bloggers and Facebook friends after I posted about my writing challenge. While success has been strangely hollow, failure would have felt worse. Haven’t you worked intensely toward a deadline, thinking, “I’ll be so glad when this is done?” Only I’m not. I feel almost lost without Time’s winged chariot closing in behind me. Writing the novel was lonely, for the most part, and I don’t miss being trapped in a world of my own imagining. I don’t miss the self-doubt or the lack of feedback. But I do miss the feeling of satisfaction from writing my daily quota of NaNoWriMo words. I miss checking my novel’s stats on NaNoWriMo.org. Most of all, I miss the sense of importance I felt while writing: briefly, I felt like Jo March when “genius” burned. I felt like an Author.congratulations writer (640x354)

One-Liner Wednesday: Sports for the Spectator

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You know you’re a mom if you go to the gym three times a week but don’t get enough exercise.


nf-badge-1linerweds-2017This post is part of One-Liner Wednesday, which is hosted each week by Linda G. Hill. To read other one-liners, click on the pingbacks in the comment section of Linda’s post.

I’m still not sure how a basketball picture fits on my blog. “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” as Emerson pointed out. So I tell myself, but I’m not really convinced. If you need me, I’ll be in the gym.

 

A Day without Butterflies

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A light mist hung over the brilliantly colored maple by the parking area.

Last Saturday wasn’t a good day for a hike: my college son, who isn’t a fan of hikes (probably because I dragged him on too many during his formative years), was home for fall break; a football game that my husband and sons wanted to see was on TV; and the sky had been overcast all day.  But I knew that this week wasn’t going to be good for hikes because of my husband’s work schedule, and I hadn’t been on a walk of any length since Tuesday.

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Skipping the North Carolina-Notre Dame game proved to be a smart play for this UNC fan, since UNC lost.

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To the right of the parking area an overlook shows the valley, filled with clouds. A trail on the right leads to the site where George Vanderbilt’s hunting lodge once stood.

Leaving the boys at home with the football game as a temporary bond—their ages and tastes are quite different, but college football has the power to draw my sons together—my self-sacrificing husband and I drove off on the Blue Ridge Parkway, with the summit of Mount Pisgah as our destination. (My husband was divided in his loyalties, but I take it as a compliment that he chose me over the game.)

Although we’ve camped at Mount Pisgah several times, I can only recall hiking to the summit twice before. In 2001, our youngest daughter was only three, but she handled the 1.5-mile hike up to the summit AND 1.5-mile hike down with amazing determination. (That should have clued me in to her strength of character and her physical stamina. She is now studying ballet in college.) In 2011, we hiked to the top again. By then, our youngest son had joined the family, although my middle son was off at Boy Scout camp, so we still lacked a full roster. On both occasions, what struck me even more than the view of the surrounding Blue Ridge Mountains were the beautiful butterflies that swarmed around the wildflowers below the observation platform.

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Hard to believe a three-year-old went up and down that trail on her own, but she was determined to keep up with the older kids.

It’s not logical, but somehow I expected to see those butterflies on Saturday, despite the mist that draped heavily over every tree and stone on the trail up to the summit. We’d seen cars with their lights on before we got to Mount Pisgah, but my husband figured they’d forgotten to turn off their lights after leaving one of the tunnels; it wasn’t raining, and there didn’t seem to be a National Park Service ranger on the prowl for speeding vehicles. Silly us: we got to the Mount Pisgah trail lot, looked around at the creeping fog, and said, “Oh. That’s why.”

Still, the sun was peeking through the tiniest bit as we started the climb upward. We’d only been on the trail for a few minutes when we ran into someone we knew: a teacher who was gamely shepherding her two young cousins on the way down from the summit. We exchanged greetings but didn’t think to ask her whether you could see anything from the observation platform. She was scrambling to keep up with her energetic cousins, so she didn’t have time to chat.IMG_0385 (480x640)

You can see where this story is going. After an arduous climb—more arduous than it might have been because we’d forgotten to bring our trusty hiking sticks—we encountered a woman and her daughters coming down from the platform. An unspoken law of hiking is, “Let the faster person pass you,” so we’d stepped aside to let them pass several minutes before. “There’s nothing to see,” she informed us, as we headed towards the creaky wooden steps.

She was right. No butterflies. No view. Just a large antenna, some brown wildflowers, and dense white clouds as far as the eye could see. Frosted with fog, red-oak trees waved their leaves mockingly at us.

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A very Tolkien-ish tree on the trail

But you know what? We had the platform to ourselves. In fact, we didn’t see another person the whole way back down the mountain. I’ll admit I was disappointed that there were no butterflies. I’m no naturalist, but butterflies have been seen as late as mid-October in this part of western North Carolina. Earlier in the week I had seen a blue butterfly at the Arboretum, but the elevation here was much higher. Maybe butterflies only come out when it’s sunny? This could be a learning opportunity.

What we did have on Saturday was atmosphere. The golden leaves glowing through the haze made us feel like we had stepped into a different world. We’ve just finished listening to Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, so Lothlorien, the golden realm of the elves Galadriel and Celeborn, came to mind immediately. Sure, I’d have preferred to see a brilliant blue sky and blue mountains glazed with the golds and oranges of fall leaves instead of a blank whiteness at the summit. But the effect of flaming leaves against the pale mist was stunning. Magical.

IMG_0389 (640x480)Some sunny day, I’d like to try Mount Pisgah again. But mist in the mountains creates its own beauty, particularly when the leaves are golden and brown and the only sounds you hear are the birds calling, the wind blowing, and your feet tramping down the path towards home.

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Retreating to the Trees

IMG_0308 (480x640)Trees and I are on good terms again. On Tuesday, I even went on a walk at the Arboretum, which is literally “a place with trees.” The North Carolina Arboretum, located just off the Blue Ridge Parkway, features many plants besides trees. Its attractions include (but are not limited to) a quilt garden, a greenhouse, outdoor artwork, native plants, a model railroad, a cafe, an outdoor ampitheater, 10 miles of hiking trails, and a bonsai garden (more trees but tiny ones). You get a lot for your yearly membership fee at the Arboretum, which is how my husband justified renewing at the end of September.

To get to the trees, my husband and I took the path on the other side of the Baker Exhibit Building. Immediately, we were shaded by friendly evergreens and hardwoods, which was helpful since it was warming up. We both regretted not having left our jackets in the car. Most of the leaves haven’t changed color yet, although this sassafras sapling is getting into the act. sassafras saplingYears ago, we used to take our kids on the “tree trail” at the Arboretum, which featured 10 trees with a number nailed to the bark. The goal was to identify what kind of tree each was, but an even more important goal was not to accidentally miss one of the 10 trees: if we skipped one, that meant turning around and going back til we found it. I can’t fault my children for being obsessive about things like that, since I am myself. Aside from being one of those activities that gives you the pleasure of checking off tasks, the tree trail (officially called the “Carolina Mountain Trail”) taught me something about trees. I can usually identify those ten types of trees without much trouble: red oak, sourwood, tulip poplar, maple, pine, dogwood, white oak, mountain laurel, sassafras. . . . Oh, well, I remember most of them!

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On Tuesday, our destination was not the Carolina Mountain Trail but the Bent Creek Trail, which meanders alongside a pleasant little stream. Last time we took this trail, I startled a snake sunning himself on the path, but today the only wildlife that we encountered were an elusive blue butterfly, some busy squirrels, and numerous birds. I wish I were better at identifying birds, particularly since my father is a birder who keeps a lifebook of all the birds he’s seen. Still, we enjoyed listening to their calls as we got deeper into the woods.

It was good to be outside on Tuesday: I sometimes think if I could spend a couple of hours walking in the woods every day that I would be a better person. (I would be a happier person and a more fit person, but what would happen to home and hearth and homeschooled child?) Like most of us, I have been struggling to come to terms with the unthinkable tragedy in Las Vegas. On Monday, I was hardly aware of it and happily penned a fluffy piece about missing September. Then, after I’d posted it, I started scrolling through the Reader and browsing on the internet. I began reading more details and trying to fathom what could have prompted such an evil act. How can the world be such a beautiful place and such a terrible place at the same time? But it is.

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Today, as I sit at a bookstore and wait for my son to finish his chess game, I am surrounded by the tranquil beauty and normalcy that I often take for granted. It helps me to recall the lovely woodland scenes that my husband and I saw on Tuesday. You don’t get impressive vistas at the Arboretum; there are a few places where you can glimpse the mountains, but mostly what caught my fancy was down in the forest: a funny red mushroom, a place where the foaming bubbles in the creek had formed something that looked like a mushroom, the flaming red leaves of a slim sapling that caught my eye, an oddly shaped wildflower, the twisted trunk of a mountain laurel in the middle of the path.

At the end of our walk, my husband and I had lunch in the cafe, where the food was better than I had remembered with lots of yummy options. I went with the veggie muffaletta while he had the chicken salad sandwich with apricots, almond, and basil. No pictures of the food, though: I’m trying to cut down on my incessant picture taking, at least if I sense that it is annoying other people. But pictures help me to remember and to relive beautiful moments, so I’m not going to stop altogether. In the foyer of the Education Building, I saw a lovely arrangement of fresh flowers: something about the formality of the arrangement and the predominance of purple flowers, which I associate with mourning, made me think again of the 58 people whose lives were ruthlessly truncated on Sunday.

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Beauty helps to distract us from the horrors, although it doesn’t make them disappear. It doesn’t erase the evil, and, in some ways, it acts as an ironic contrast to the ugliness of life. An acquaintance of mine posted a poem recently that captures that sense of disjointedness: how can the sky be so gorgeous when there is such grief in the world? Yet I hope on, trusting to the providence of a God whose ways are mysterious and inscrutable. He is creator of the beauty and comforter of those who mourn.

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When Trees Are Not Our Friends

A couple of weeks ago, my feelings about trees underwent a change. Trees have always seemed like friends to me: I liked to climb them and to sketch them, to sit under their shade and read or to stroll beneath their branches. I’ve thought about changing the name of my blog from time to time, but I like the fact that it gives a nod to Joyce Kilmer’s poem “Trees.” Heck, I’ve even made the pilgrimage to Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest. Then Irma came along.

Oh, I know I have nothing to complain about, compared to the folks who lost homes, boats, vehicles, livelihoods, and even their lives down in Florida. Still, the morning that we woke up to this sight in our driveway, I began to realize that Tall Trees + High Wind = Potential Catastrophe.IMG_0157 (1280x960)

The night before, violent winds had tossed the trees surrounding our house. After two hours of flickering lights, we were relieved at 12:15 a.m. when the power finally went off and stayed off.  I’d been trying to print my son’s homework (air printers aren’t always our friends, either): every time the internet connection was nearly complete, the lights went out. We armed ourselves with flashlights and went to bed, but sleep was slow in coming.

Most of the trees around our house are hardwoods, but that didn’t matter to Irma. Limbs struck the roof, and mysterious objects crashed to the ground. My husband, who isn’t the worrying sort anyway, wasn’t much comfort: he was trying to sleep in case he got called into work. Drowsily, he told me that hardwoods don’t fall and went back to sleep. Thrashing branches and howling winds with gusts up to 31 mph kept me awake for a long time, but my efforts to see into the dark yard were useless.

Around 4 a.m., the winds died down, and I slept. The next morning, we didn’t even notice the tree in the driveway: a limb had hit my son’s trampoline, but we didn’t see any other damage. Suddenly my daughter, late to her work, dashed in to ask if someone could move a car so she could get out. And there it was, a majestic red oak, no longer destined to shade our yard or provide refuge for squirrels: down it had been thrust by those vicious winds, and down it would stay.

When I looked around at all the trees that could have hit our house, I knew we had dodged a very large bullet. Even the two cars parked in front of our house had escaped. Gazing around uneasily, I realized that we were surrounded by threats: tulip poplars, white oaks, red oaks, sourwoods, maples, and pines glared menacingly at me. No longer did our wooded yard seem a friendly place.

And what to do with this large obstacle blocking our driveway? My husband doubtfully said something about chainsaws and getting his dad to help, but, given his schedule, we agreed that professional help was the best solution. Happily, he knew a guy to call: two hours later, Element Arbor was tackling not only the large oak (wish I’d measured it!) but also a hemlock. The air buzzed with the sound of chainsaws, since our tree was not the only one to fall in the neighborhood.

As my son and I cleaned up the fallen leaves and branches that afternoon—his class had been cancelled, so the unprinted homework was not a problem—I heard the wind from time to time. And I trembled as I would not have the day before. Yet there was beauty even in the broken limbs, especially of the oak trees: never had I seen acorns so fresh and green. What will the squirrels eat this winter, I wonder? Surely the acorns fell too soon, and many will be carted off when the neighborhood crew clears away the brush.

Something about the red wheelbarrow, the crumpled leaves of bright orange and yellow, and the aching green of the new acorns caught at my heart. IMG_0162 (960x1280)After the rain—the ground was drenched, saturated with Irma’s angry tears—everything looked fresh and clean. My son had voluntarily gone out and started clearing leaves from the driveway: he hadn’t done it quite the way I’d have liked, since he’d pushed the leaves to the side rather than sweeping them up and dumping them in the wheelbarrow. But he and I were both busily working outside, feeling industrious, drinking in the cool air that had a nip of early autumn. And how could I be sad any more?

Although Irma brought destruction—in a small measure—to our yard, she also forced us to step out of our normal lives. No orchestra practice that afternoon, no boy scouts that night, no computer to tempt us back inside, and still no power, so my mother-in-law graciously invited us over for dinner. How pleasant it was to sit around her lovely dining table, eating spaghetti and talking of past storms and future plans. My in-laws were happy to share the leftover blueberry pie and softer-than-usual vanilla ice cream that we’d brought over, and we were happy to have a place to charge up all our devices. (I wish I could say that a day without power had cured us of the desire to check our devices, but that would be a lie.)

When we got home, yellow lights were gleaming in more than one window. Hooray for the power workers who had been pushing themselves since the wee hours of the morning to restore power! Aside from the ice cream, everything in the refrigerator seemed okay; even the milk was drinkable, according to my son. And, when all was said and done, the enormous oak tree hadn’t hit our house.

But I do feel sadder, if not wiser. Wisdom would be for us to call in a tree expert some time and have him check the remaining trees, especially those likely to fall on the house. I hate to lose any more trees, but I remember the menace in that howling wind.

The Red Wheelbarrow

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens.

–William Carlos Williams

Judge Not: Meditations on a Missed Blogiversary

Last week, while celebrating one anniversary early — my twenty-fifth wedding anniversary, no less — I missed a less important anniversary here at WordPress: sappyasatree@wordpress.com celebrated its birthday on June 16, 2015, with no fanfare at all. Belatedly, I posted about my missed blogiversary on my other blog, which was set up at the same time but had no posts until September 2014. I decided to reblog here, with apologies to the generous readers who follow me at both sites. (I did add a couple of photos to the reblogged post.)

What oft was thought

Back in my brief blogging heyday, I felt baffled and abandoned when a fellow blogger would vanish from my Reader. Not only did I miss the blogger’s words or photos, but I felt concern: had a crisis or illness prevented the blogger from posting? Sure, I could see skipping a few days or even a week, but to disappear completely from the WordPress landscape, without a word of farewell or explanation? That would never happen to me, I resolved with the smugness of a self-righteous newbie.

An unintended photo An accidental photo, reflective of my unintended hiatus from blogging

Fast-forward several months, and I have become one of those bloggers who dedicated herself intensely to blogging for a few months and then dropped out of the blogosphere abruptly, quietly, even unintentionally. How can it be that blogging — the refuge and sanctuary for those who toil through dreary days with little outlet for…

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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?

IMG_3977 (800x600) P1080052
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.)

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).

Pack Your Bags: Virtual Blog Tour Award!

Christmas at the mall

You know you haven’t been decorating your house when you have to use a photo of mall decorations.

 

After my post about readying hearth and home for Christmas, you may be surprised to see me here. ‘Tis the season not only for being jolly but also for passing out awards! The thoughtful and creative author of The Grizzle Grist Mill has nominated me for the Virtual Blog Tour Award, which humbled and surprised me. I have enjoyed her reflections on life, her photographs, and her poetry.

photo

My daughter prefers for me not to watch her rehearse, so I’ve been respectful of her wishes. She made this photo from a video — hence, the poor resolution.

One unusual feature of the Virtual Blog Tour Award is that nominees are assigned a date for publishing acceptances. My date is December 15. Once I’ve posted my responses to the award questions, I will return to preparing for Christmas and readying my house for the out-of-town guests who are coming to see my daughter dance the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy in “The Nutcracker” later this week. (Did that just slip out? Yes, I’m a proud mama.)

virtual tour

Here are the rules:

1. Pass the tour on to up to four other bloggers. Give them the rules and a specific Monday to post.

2. Answer four questions about your creative process. Your answers will help other bloggers and visitors know what inspires you to do what you do.

  • What am I working on at the moment?
  • How does my work differ from others in my genre?
  • Why do I write or create what I do?
  • How does my writing or creative process work?

3. Compose a one-time post which is posted on a specific Monday (date given from your nominator).

So, here goes:

DSCN0691Four bloggers whom I nominate: 

1. Heather Publishing

2. Perspectives On . . .

3. Glimpses of Beauty

4. Trees of Transition

If you accept this nomination, please respond by posting on Monday, January 5. (If it is more convenient for you to post on December 29, that is fine.)

Here are my answers to the questions (which make me realize that perhaps I am not enough of a Writer with a capital W to merit this award):

What am I working on at the moment? As far as blogging goes, I plan to take a break. I need to recuperate from three months of intense blogging that began with September’s Blogging 101 and continued through November’s Photo 101. Yesterday, I posted the final theme, “Triumph,” on my other blog. Eventually, I will review my Photo 101 pictures and put together a gallery of ten favorite photographs, but that can wait until after the holidays. Photo 101 was supposed to stop after Thanksgiving weekend, but, because I was so slow, it continued into mid-December; Photo 101 has crept into Writer’s Quote Wednesday posts and into Stream-of-Consciousness posts. Going places without a photo theme in mind will be strange, but I need a respite from thinking constantly about what to post.

This weekend, I read an excellent post on stepping back for a broader perspective. Blogging has insinuated itself into nearly all of my leisure hours — and some of my working hours. I need to assess why I’m here on my blog so often and whether that is an appropriate use of my time and energy. While I plan to take time off from posting, I hope to continue writing privately at 750words.com, which has been a great resource for online journaling. I’ve contemplated re-taking Blogging 101 in January, since I never finished the second half of the course. And I’m sure I will continue to take photographs through the holidays!

How does my work differ from others in my genre? Many bloggers seem to write fiction — novels and short stories — and poetry. Aside from one haiku that I wrote this fall, I have not written poetry in years. The last poem I remember writing was when my ballerina-daughter, who spends many hours a week in pointe shoes, took her first steps! I have realized that the most productive time for my writing poetry was during my college years, when I was reading quite a bit of poetry in my classes; I also had far more time for solitary contemplation. As a homeschooling mother with two students to educate, I am unlikely to expand my writing beyond essays at this time.

I illustrate posts with my own photographs, but that is not unusual in the blogging world, particularly with blogs that are travel-related (as mine set out to be). Literary allusions sometimes work themselves into my posts, but I see similar references in other bloggers’ posts.

Why do I write or create what I do? When I started this blog, my goal was to share my experiences of hiking, mostly in local places, and of traveling. We had just returned from California, and I had many photos and memories that I wanted to share, particularly with the children who weren’t able to accompany us on that trip. While I have rarely kept a journal of my daily life, I like to keep a travel journal. The habit of keeping a travel journal began when my husband and I went to Pakistan for two months. Before we left, friends gave us a blank journal with Bible verses or quotations written at the top of many pages. Later, I was very thankful that I had a detailed record of our experiences.

Writing, for me, is a means of self-expression and of self-discovery. It is a way of filtering the beauty of the world through the beauty of words. Writing is also a way of preserving the past and of creating a visual record, through photographs, of the places I’ve been. Some day, I hope to write something of more permanence than a “blog,” which seems such a flickering and insubstantial medium. I once envisioned myself as an author of children’s books, but my creative spark would need to be rekindled first.

How does my writing or creative process work? I prefer to write in response to an internal prompt: an idea or observation will start germinating; then, suddenly, I must sit down at my computer and write. I do not make a written outline, although I have a mental outline of what I want to say and how I plan to support my points. Once a draft is written, I will rearrange sentences and paragraphs or add transitions. I have to cut out many “extra” words, sentences, and, if I’m feeling strong, paragraphs. If I can get one of my daughters to read my draft at this point, I am a happy woman. Other eyes always catch things that I miss.

Blogging events and courses are more difficult for me creatively. I find it intimidating to write a post on a Photo 101 theme or a Daily Post prompt, with hundreds of other people responding to the same topic. I try not to read other responses until I have finished my own: if someone else takes an approach that I have considered, I move on. “There is nothing new under the sun,” but I find it easier to participate in an event like Silver Threading‘s Writer’s Quote Wednesday, in which each blogger brings her own prompt. There is less risk of duplication.

While I find it harder to respond to an external prompt, once I get going, the writing process is much the same. I prefer to do all my writing on a post in one or two sittings. When I am “in the zone,” I would not notice a herd of elephants stampeding past me, much less one of my children trying to get my attention. It is dangerous to interrupt me at such times; yes, my family is very patient.

It might be wise to wait a day before posting a completed piece, but I like to be done with a post. A half-written draft gnaws at me, so I try to finish drafts while the drive is there. It is a rare post that gets published and remains unedited. The day or so after I publish a post, I keep coming back to fix a sentence, cut an adverb or adjective, or change a caption. After a couple of days, I let the post go. I enjoy editing a piece that is still warm from the oven, so to speak, but revising an old post is like eating a piece of stale bread.

End of the questions! Good luck to my nominees (should they choose to accept this award).

Look homeward, angel

Look homeward, angel.