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.

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Welcome to our world, Faramir!

Faramir the Fish became a part of our family over a week ago. I won him at the Mountain State Fair! At the time, I felt bad because my 12-year-old son had clearly hoped to do the winning himself. For $5.00, my husband, son, and I received a bucket of ping-pong balls that we attempted to toss into one of numerous tiny fish bowls (the actual fish were kept somewhere else). Only one of our 35 balls actually made it into a bowl. The midway at the fair is one of those places where it pays to be cynical: they’d lose money if the rate of success was much higher than ours.

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The fair took place the same week that Irma hit our corner of North Carolina. Happily, the weather was perfect when we finally made it to the fair.

Although my son would have preferred to win the fish himself, he was excited to have a pet again. I’ll probably alienate readers by confessing this, but I’m not much of a pet person. Neither is my husband: his family briefly adopted a cat, but neither of our families ever owned dogs. (My parents used to tell us that we had little sisters instead of dogs—no offense, Lesley and Christie!) I’ve concluded that my disinterest in owning a pet is due to a character flaw—a lack of warmth, or affection, or optimism, or interest in the outside world? Owning a dog might help me work through those issues, but it’s a vicious cycle, since I’m unlikely to ever own a dog.

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It feels great to beat the game at the fair.

Most of my children have expressed interest in owning a pet. Poor kids! It’s hard to overcome the anti-pet instincts of not one, but two, parents. Our objections largely had to do with expense and care issues; over the past six years, we’ve put two kids through college, and two more are currently in college, so there have been other places for money to go. Add in the inevitable home maintenance costs and the odd car incident, and there goes any extra money. My husband was concerned that he’d wind up being the one who took care of the dog—and what about when we went out of town? So, no dog. My middle son wanted a rabbit, but his timing was off: we’d just had child #5, and I felt overwhelmed with homeschooling four kids and maintaining the much-larger home that we moved to before the baby came.

We have owned fish on and off through the years, though. My husband’s dear grandmother wanted all the great-grandchildren to have one of those betta fish who lived with a lily (remember those?). Mark lived for more than two years! Lion was next: my daughter won him at a school carnival, and he proved fairly long-lived. If Faramir stays around much longer, we’ll haul up the tank from the basement. Merry and Pippin were its last inhabitants; we briefly owned a Frodo, but he went to the Grey Havens before we’d had him long. (Yes, there’s a Tolkien theme; check out this post for more about my Tolkien obsession.)

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The setting sun was a challenge during the high-diving show.

Currently, Faramir inhabits a classic goldfish bowl on the island in our kitchen. At the moment, he only has rocks to keep him company, but, as my daughter pointed out, he might appreciate a plant or two—something he could hide behind. I’m excited that he’s alive, because we’ve heard reports of other fish acquired at the fair that didn’t make it a week. From our previous fish experience, we knew to use distilled water rather than water from the tap: maybe that’s helping? Or maybe it’s the devotion from my son?

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Fish aren’t that easy to photograph.

While I’m not thrilled about pets, I am thrilled about the name that my son chose: Faramir, continuing the Tolkien tradition. His name could be spelled “Fairamir,” as a nod to his place of origin, but I’d rather be accurate than cute. David picked the name “Faramir” in gratitude for my winning the fish (we were down to our last five balls when I made the lucky toss). Faramir is possibly my favorite character from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy (turns out he was Tolkien’s favorite as well). It’s hard to pick a favorite LOTR character when there are so many good options: Frodo, with his desire to do the right thing and his openness about his weakness; Sam, whose folksy comments and sturdy courage get him and his master through many a dark moment; crusty Gandalf, whose bark is much worse than his bite; Éowyn, a feminist trapped in the wrong time and place; and, of course, Aragorn, the humble, healing would-be king who veils his glory in the tattered garments of a ranger.

Faramir, the undervalued younger son of Denethor, proud steward of Gondor, is more approachable than Aragon, although he resembles him in his humility, patience, and wisdom. Both soldier and scholar, Faramir takes a chance on the halflings that he encounters on the borders of Mordor, even though he suspects that his father will not approve of his assisting Frodo rather than dragging him back to Minas Tirith. Without the respite that Frodo and Sam received under Faramir’s care, would they have had the strength to complete their task? In fact, Sam uses the staff that he was given by Faramir to whack Gollum, when Gollum finally betrays them to Shelob. And what a resolution to Éowyn’s heartbreak: ultimately, she and Faramir, both convalescing in the Houses of Healing, find one another; Faramir’s kindness and love melt the bitter frost of the shieldmaiden of Rohan.

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I skipped the Twister for the second year in a row (but I rode the Tilt-a-Whirl).

Yes, David could hardly have chosen a better name than Faramir for our new fish. Initially, I was excited about Faramir’s black patches, since those in the service of Gondor wear black-and-silver livery. When my daughter heard me comparing our goldfish’s black spots to Gondorian armor, she said, “Mom, I hadn’t wanted to tell you this, but David and I think Faramir is developing more black spots. He may have ammonia poisoning.” Oh, dear. I did some research, and it appears that she is right: before he came to us, Faramir was apparently kept in a waste-filled tank and was burned. The black patches mean that he is healing, but we should not overfeed him, and we need to change his water several times a week (at least as long as he is living in the little bowl).

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See his black spots?

For Faramir, every day of life is a miracle. Actually, that is true for all of us. May I make the most of having life today!

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

Purveyor of Beauty

img_8740As I circled beautiful little Lake Tomahawk for the third time (four times around is approximately 2 miles, I’ve learned), I paused yet again to snap a picture of the gorgeous red leaves against the blue sky.img_8743 Simg_8754ure, the picture-taking limited the effectiveness of the exercise, but who cares? Given the glory of the scene before me, how could I not take a picture? How could I not try to share the rich colors of the fall foliage, the smell of sun on pine straw, the glimmer of light on the water?

“Are you a camera person?” asked a friendly man who watched me interrupt my walk to clumsily frame a scene. I said yes, but, really, I’m not much of a photographer, and my iPhone 5s is showing its age. What I am, I decided, is a purveyor of beauty.

I liked the sound of that phrase—”purveyor of beauty” —but later, seated at the coffee shop with my café au lait (I liked the sound of that phrase, too), I looked up the meaning of “purveyor,” just to be on the safe side. What a blow: “purveyor” didn’t mean what I thought it did! I had confused “purveyor” with “surveyor”—someone who takes stock of the situation or assesses the value of something. “Purveyor” actually means someone who is endeavoring to sell or trade something: it can also mean someone who is trying to promote a view or idea. Reveling in my felix culpa, I realized that the real meaning of “purveyor” fit much better.

After all, if I wanted to soak up the beauty for myself, would there be a need for picture-taking? Maybe: I don’t trust mere memory to capture experiences. Memory is fickle and tricks me up with dates or blurs similar experiences. How many falls have I lived through now? How many achingly beautiful autumn scenes have I tried to pin down with camera, verse, prose?

So I suppose I am taking the pictures to remind myself of what a wonderful walk I had, smiling pleasantly at the other folks doggedly rounding the lake along with me, some with dogs in tow. But, even more, I want to share the beauty with you, dear reader—with you, who couldn’t be with me to watch the ducks dabbling in the water near the bridge; with you, who couldn’t count the peaks of the Seven Sisters off to the right.img_8744img_8751

Because beauty kept to myself feels like hiding a joyful secret from someone. Beauty shared is so much better, especially if the other person gets as excited about trees turning from pale-green to vivid yellow as I do. Strangely, though, I kind of like my morning walks alone (alone, with a dozen other people out for their morning constitutionals). If I’m walking with someone, I’m talking or listening. If I’m walking alone, I can let my thoughts float free. Or I can try to notice details that might escape me: the watercolor brush of colored leaves on the lake’s surface; the leaves slowly somersaulting to the ground, the little island with its air of sanctuary, the cross-section of shoe prints in the dirt trail, the half shorn tree hinting at the season’s progress.
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Enjoy the beauty of fall in Black Mountain–and purvey it along!

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?

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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.)

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).