"One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture
and, if possible, speak a few reasonable words." ~Goethe

~ also, if possible, to dwell in "a house where all's accustomed, ceremonious." ~Yeats

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Talk to Me


No doubt in the last year or so, you've been subjected to way too many get - to - know you quizzes on e-mail and facebook.* They can be silly, but also mildly entertaining. Talking and listening to them, is probably a better way to get to know folks, but occasionally the quizzes are informative, especially if you care to learn various odd facts about your friends and acquaintances . . . such as:

What was your childhood ambition?
To sing on the Ted Mack Amateur Hour.

Do you like your handwriting?
When I can read it.

What is your favorite Crayola Crayon?
Burnt Sienna.

Would you bungee jump?
Are you kidding?

What is your favorite sport?
Is reading a sport?

Chocolate or vanilla?
Duh! Chocolate.

Red or pink?

Summer or winter?
Summer for swimming; Autumn (THE BEST!)for Halloween;
Winter for Christmas; Spring just for a change.

That kind of thing . . .

I particularly appreciated the rather more innovative quiz that turned Hobbies into a two part question: Stated Hobby (Writing cards & letters) and Secret Hobby (Rewriting history). I also really liked one of the items that my cousin Alicia included in her list of hobbies: "Thinking."

I've always claimed to be the kind of person who doesn't mind standing in line or waiting at the airport -- AS LONG AS I HAVE A BOOK TO READ. Without a book, I would go crazy crazy crazy and start scrambling around desperately for any available reading material: an old map in the glove box, an orthodontia brochure, the nutritional information on a candy wrapper. However, after seeing my cousin's answer, I became a different person. Of course, the best plan is to never leave home without at least two books. I recommend "two," because what if you finish the first one and need another? But if for some reason, I end up stuck somewhere without one, I just say to myself, "Well, it's too bad you can't read right now, but -- look on the bright side -- you can think." Lucky me, getting to spend some time unexpectedly on one of my favorite hobbies!

My friend Milly also gave a perspective - changing answer to the hobby question. She claimed "Talking" as one of her hobbies. Naturally, talking has always been one of my favorite (time - wasting?) activities. After reading Milly's quiz, however, I perceived it anew -- as a hobby! Not time down the drain but a creative endeavor, an artistic pursuit, a cultivated skill. Personally fulfilling, but also leading to knowledge and experience, leisurely but also life - enhancing.

The poets agree:

Antoine de Saint-Exupery (French author and aviator, b. 1900 - lost in flight 1944) gives us the mystical Little Prince who wants a friend and learns to listen. He comes to see that it's the time he has spent listening to his rose, even when she is sullen, that makes her so important in his life (The Little Prince 24).

Walt Whitman (great American humanist, transcendentalist, and free verse poet, 1819 - 92) confides, "This hour I tell things in confidence, / I might not tell everybody, but I will tell you ("Song of Myself," 38).

Anne Morrow Lindbergh (American author and aviator, 1906 - 2001) is intense and single-minded: " . . . it is not possible to talk wholeheartedly to more than one person at a time. You can't really talk with a person unless you surrender to them, for the moment (all other talk is futile). You can't surrender to more than one person a moment" (Bring Me a Unicorn, 147).

Dame Rebecca West (prolific British writer, 1892 - 1983) describes a similar certain truth: "There was a definite process by which one made people into friends, and it involved talking and listening to them for hours at a time."

Robert Frost (four-time Pulitzer Prize winning well - loved American poet, 1874 - 1963) has an earnest narrator explain his decision in this wise poem, one of my long - time favorites:

A Time to Talk
by Robert Frost

When a friend calls to me from the road
And slows his horse to a meaning walk,
I don't stand still and look around
On all the hills I haven't hoed,
And shout from where I am, What is it?
No, not as there is a time to talk.
I thrust my hoe in the mellow ground,
Blade-end up and five feet tall,
And plod: I go up to the stone wall
For a friendly visit.

In connection to the above bits of poetry and prose, the following insistent contemporary lyrics keep echoing through my head:

Here Comes the Rain Again
by Eurythmics: Annie Lennox and David Stewart

Here comes the rain again
Falling on my head like a memory
Falling on my head like a new emotion
I want to walk in the open wind
I want to talk like lovers do
I want to dive into your ocean
Is it raining with you

So baby talk to me
Like lovers do
Walk with me
Like lovers do
Talk to me
Like lovers do

Here comes the rain again
Raining in my head like a tragedy . . .

So baby talk -- talk talk talk talk -- to me . . .

I know this song is entitled "Here Comes the Rain Again," but what's the most important line? Talk to me!

Here I am in 1973, talking and listening to my friend Joni
. . . for hours at a time!

*If you're not all quizzed out already, here are a few more:

Possible ~ Plausible ~ Improbable

"Christmas Quiz"

"You're Out Walking"

"Take This Quiz!"

"Monday: Pop Quiz"

Next Fortnightly Post
Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Between now and then, read
my shorter, almost daily blog posts

Looking for a good book? Try
my running list of recent reading

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Opal: In Love With The World

"The sky sings in blue tones . . .
The clouds go slow across the sky.
No one seems to be in a hurry.
Even the wind walks slow.
I think the wind is dreaming too.
This is a dream day."

~ Opal Whiteley ~


"The sky sings in blue . . . The earth sings in greens"

Morning is glad on the hills.
The sky sings in blue tones.
Little blue fleurs
are early blooming now.
I do so like blue.
It is glad everywhere.
When I grow up
I am going to write a book
about the glad of blues.
The earth sings in greens. . . .

The clouds go slow across the sky.
No one seems to be in a hurry.
Even the wind walks slow.
I think the wind is dreaming too.
This is a dream day.

~Opal Whiteley
from her childhood diary (92, 151)

I came to know of the enchanting, mysterious Opal Whiteley (1897 - 1992) a year or so ago when, thanks to the miracle of google, I began following the career of my talented second cousin, Robert Lindsey Nassif, who wrote the script, music, and lyrics for a play (click to watch) based on the childhood experiences of this remarkable woman. Upon learning of Rob's successful musical, I ordered copies of the book and soundtrack and have taken great delight in reading, listening, and learning more about the heroine, American naturalist Opal Whitely. I look forward to the day when I get to see a performance of the play, Opal: A New Musical Adventure (winner of the Richard Rodgers Award). In the meantime, based on my reading, I feel sure that if you ever liked Our Town or The Fantasticks or A Midsummer Night's Dream, then you will be entranced, even gladdened by this play.

Angel Mother did say,
"Make earth glad, little one--
that is the way to keep
the glad song ever in your heart.
It must not go out."

~Opal Whiteley
from her childhood diary (85)

Opal spent her youth immersed in the natural world, much like her nature-loving predecessors, Edith Holden (1871 - 1920; Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady) and Beatrix Potter (1866 - 1943). Her intense communion with the natural landscape, from sweeping vistas to the tiniest insect, brings to mind the writings of Emily Dickinson, Emerson, Thoreau, Annie Dillard. Opal's musings and journal entries describe the out of doors with such vividness, so much trust and so little fear that you feel you could follow her down any woodland path, as in fact many children did during her days as a teacher of geology and natural history.

One of her earliest projects was to create a hand-illustrated textbook, The Fairyland Around Us, based on her popular nature talks; but it was her childhood diary, published in 1920 as The Story of Opal: The Journal of an Understanding Heart, that led to her fame. Both the authenticity of the diary and the circumstances surrounding Whiteley's birth were disputed during her lifetime, and continue to be so even today. Robert Nassif was Opal's friend and confidant in the last few years of her life, and he finds no difficulty in believing that she was an orphan of noble birth and that she did indeed write the diary as a child.

I appreciate his observation that it's best to take the diary at face value -- as the beautiful, perplexing story of an inquisitive little girl's fascination with language; her creative understanding of our connection to Mother Nature; and her amazing grasp of an astonishing array of flora and fauna. Nassif says, "I have no investment in whether or not the diary is true. [It] has no bearing whatsoever on the value of my play. I do not deal with [the issue] in the play; in fact, The New York Times gave me some credit for wisely avoiding that issue. I deal with the diary . . . on a personal level. . . . If the diary were to turn out to be a hoax, I would only admire the author all the more. What an astonishing accomplishment! . . . It doesn't matter to me. It's a phenomenal work of literature. I love Francoise, and so of course I care that she cares, but I am sophisticated enough to be objective, and it doesn't matter to me if her story is true or false. It was true for her, that's all that matters" (254, 260; all ellipses and brackets in original, as quoted in Opal: A Life of Enchantment, Mystery, and Madness by Kathrine Beck).

A few more connections and coincidences:

My friend Cate and I have a favorite book by Paul Collins: Sixpence House: Lost in a Town of Books. The town of the title is Hay-on-Wye, and the two of us often fantasize about the trip we will take there someday. So imagine how excited I was to tell Cate about the fate of Opal's vast book collection (I know -- you've already guessed it!): "The rest of the collection was sold in a lot to legendary bookseller Richard Booth, and it ended up in the bookish village of Hay-on-Wye on the Welsh border" (242, Opal: A Life of Enchantment, Beck).

BRIT-SPEAK, AMERI-SPEAK: Like me, Robert's sister is married to a Brit, and I had a lot of fun reading her husband's humorous book about life in the Midwest as seen through British eyes. A Brit Among the Hawkeyes, by Richard, Lord Acton, includes an essay "To Live Again in Music: The Riddle of Opal Whiteley," in which he describes his attendance at two poignant events in February 1992: Opal's funeral mass in London; and the New York premiere of Robert's play Opal: A New Musical Adventure."

LAWN CHAIR MAN: The Flight of the Lawnchair Man is another Robert Nassif Lindsey musical; and no sooner had I purchased and listened to the soundtrack than my mother-in-law mailed me a stack of Telegraph clippings from England. She knows that I'm a fan of Chain of Curiosity * expert Sandi Toksvig, and in this particular batch of "Sandies," as we call them, there just happened to be one about the eccentric (and not really well) Larry Walters, also known as Lawnchair Larry or the Lawn Chair Pilot, who was determined to launch himself skyward in a garden chair attached to a few dozen helium balloons. Nassif's fictional plot is inspired by the attempts of several balloon pilots, including the bizarre flying adventures of Lawnchair Larry.

(* Sandi's chains of curiosity are similar to what I mean on this blog by "Connection and Coincidence"!)

ANIMALS ARE PEOPLE TOO: Like St. Francis of Assisi and Beatrix Potter, Opal Whiteley was devoted to animals. All of her pets were grandly named: Elizabeth Barrett Browning was the cow; Peter Paul Rubens was the pig. Opal wrote in her diary:

So many little people live in the woods.
I do have conversations with them.

When the cornflowers
grow in the fields
I do pick them up,
and make a chain of flowers
for Shakespeare's neck.
Then I do talk to him
about the one he was named for.
He is such a beautiful grey horse
and his ways are ways of gentleness.
Too, he does have likings
like the likings I have
for the blue hills beyond the fields.

Today there was greyness everywhere--
grey clouds in the sky
and grey shadows
above the canyon.
And all the voices were grey
And Felix Mendelssohn* was grey
and down the road I did meet a grey horse--
and his greyness was like the greyness
of William Shakespeare.

[*Mendelssohn was her pet mouse;
another mouse was named Mozart]

Euripedes [pet lamb]
did follow after me.
He does follow me manywheres I do go.
I looked for fleurs that I had longs to see.
I lay my ear close to the ground
where the grasses grew close together.
I did listen.
There were voices from out the earth
and the things of their saying
were the gladness of growing. . . .
All the grasses growing there . . .
from the tips of their green arms
to their toe roots in the ground.

~Opal Whiteley
from her childhood diary
(4, 20, 59, 116)

CHICKENSHED: Opal liked to be called "Francoise" and referred to as "Princess." I can't help thinking of her whenever I listen to the inspiring, all-embracing song by the British theatre company Chickenshed that appears on the "Diana Princes of Wales Tribute" CD. It seems an equally fitting tribute to the Princess Francoise Marie de Bourbon-Orleans. As I have learned from Robert Nassif's dedication to preserving and presenting the story of Opal's life, Opal was in love with the world, even when the world was not entirely on her side. Thank you Opal! Thank you Rob!

I am in love with the world
With its fires and its seas and its pain
I am in love with the world
As it spins round my soul again

I fell in love with the world
When it gave me a place to be
You cannot fall out of love
With your world shining through
Let your world fall in love with you

You think you're lost to the world
With your life lived in shadows of fear
Days lost without you too long
No-one close no-one kind no-one near

You try to hide when your world dies inside
Never fade away
Dreams turn to stars so you don't
Lose the end of your day
Let your world fall in love with you
With you

I felt your feelings before
And the world tried to pull me through
Through all its time and its space
It is speaking to you

Words and Music by Collins / Morrall

Young Opal Whiteley: In Love With The World!

Next Fortnightly Post
Saturday, August 28, 2010

Between now and then, read
my shorter, almost daily blog posts

Looking for a good book? Try
my running list of recent reading,
including all the titles by and about
Opal Whiteley mentioned in this post