"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 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

1 comment:

  1. Opal sounds like my kind of woman. Thanks for bringing her to me. Love you!