Friday, April 29, 2011

The New Duke and Duchess of Cambridge

Already habitually awake at that hour--5:30 A.M. which translated to five hours later London time--I turned on the TV this morning "to see what I could see" in this Wills-Kate event.  After all, I've enjoyed watching a royal wedding or two and even remember seeing (then) Princess Elizabeth and Philip's 1947 wedding.  Since no one really had TV then, we saw it in one of the news-reels that accompanied movies in those days.  But, as today's ceremony unfolded, I was not prepared to be so moved.  There was a bet in the news last night:  who would tear up first:  Kate, her mother, Elton John, the Queen?  (Long odds on that one.)  Well, the answer was:  me. 

English tradition simply swept over me.  As well as a very ingrained familiarity.  (I can remember my first arrival on Britain's shores.  It was 1963.  I'd taken a boat from Bergen, Norway, to Newcastle and had no sooner stepped ashore and gotten an onward train than I felt as if I knew this land, like a DNA connection.  The countryside, the hedgerows, the abbeys.  Some of it was undoubtedly from seeing English movies.  Some from sharing a common language and literature.  Maybe some from my British ancestry.  But, whatever, we seemed kinfolk.)

So, watching the ceremony this morning, I felt Britain's tradition and history surge up in me again as the glorious bells rang out.  Here was Westminster Abbey from 1066 and its chapel of St. Edward the Confessor where the ceremony was held.  (One of my favorite spots in London.)  Besides history, here, too, was continuity.  The longevity of the Queen who had been a young woman during the war.  I was even moved by the fly-over in formation of a 1940's Spitfire, Hurricane, and Lancaster bomber.

And then, it was a joy to see elegance in action.  A quality that gets short shrift these days.  Elegance, dignity, and tradition.  Something the Brits are good at.  And something that we could use a few lessons in.

Of course, the bride and groom were stunningly gorgeous.  And it was a delight to know that times had changed enough that it no longer mattered that she was a commoner.  That their feelings for each other were more important than station.

I took a few snaps of my TV.  They're wobbly, but you get the idea.

Entering Westminster Abbey

The Maid of Honor holding the Flower Girls' hands

The ceremony from on high.  (The bride's train is in the lower center.)

Processing out

In the open carriage on the way to Buckingham Palace

With this last photo, I just want to say, here's to the celebration of beauty, joy, and happiness!

Sunday, April 24, 2011


I opened the kitchen door this morning and realized that night-time showers have begun to green the garden.  I tried to deconstruct the smell of a chilly morning.  Cold isn't a scent yet the 30Âș smells cold.  A bit tangy, spicy.  The scene is a simple one:  a row of daffodils blooming their little hearts out over by the stone wall, still-empty flower pots newly set out, evidence of buds on the lilac bush, the satisfaction of having finished my spring-raking.

"Hi, Guys.  You're so beautiful," I tell two daffodils--a double white with a rain-muddied face that I picked and washed.  And a double orange that was bent over, hiding its beauty.  Now clean and perky--both in a vase where I can talk to them when I stand at the kitchen sink.

Wordsworth's most famous poem is "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud," written after he and his sister Dorothy went out walking one April day in 1802 and came upon what Dorothy called "a long belt" of daffodils. Here is the first stanza:
I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
Though the poem is her brother's, Dorothy wrote in her journal that "some rested their heads upon these stones as on a pillow for weariness and the rest tossed and reeled and danced and seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind" (1).  A local friend notified me recently that one of our town's hosts of daffodils is now in bloom:

Accented with these sunny splotches of pure yellow, a green haze begins filling the land.  As if blowing up balloons, putting out decorative streamers, taking freshly-baked cookies out of the oven, it feels like party time.  Time to celebrate the fact that we are (hurray!) entering one of the year's two most beautiful seasons.  In their own party hats, violets, dandelions, and tulip trees will soon be joining the fun.

This may look like a poem, but it isn't.  It's my April list.
Or, What makes April April.

Packets of seeds are now sold in the stores
Along with the first flats of flowers--pansies
Daffodils bloom
And forsythia
The last of the snow melts
We rake our gardens
And, rather than a chore, spring cleaning feels like getting spiffed up for a new year

(1)  "The Grasmere Journal" (Thursday, April 15, 1802), Dorothy Wordsworth

Sunday, April 17, 2011

"Whan That Aprille"

April is poetry month.  National Poetry Month, to be exact.  And the opening of Chaucer's "Prologue to The Canterbury Tales" seems a good place to begin.  "Whan that Aprille with his shoures sote/The droghte of Marche hath perced to the rote..."  Its eighteen lines have been a part of my life since I was a child.  My mother used to recite them, often for no particular reason ... whether she was frying chicken, driving the car, or sitting, oil paint brush in hand.  She--and I in turn--loved the sound of the words, the flow of something almost intelligible.

In college, one of my Lit professors--a Chaucer scholar who even named his son Geoffrey--said, "Don't think of it as Old English.  Chaucer's language was Middle English of the London Dialect."  I loved knowing that; I never forgot it.  Since he had us memorize those same lines, I later recited them to my daughter.

Because of Chaucer, I got to Canterbury some five years later.  I did not have a camera then, but, I did when I visited York minster one April a decade or so ago ... 

... a picture that reminds me of Browning's poem that begins, "O, to be in England/Now that April's there." (1)  He wrote it in Italy when feeling homesick. 

As well as hearing my mother come out with Chaucer, I became immersed in poetry early on by way of A. A. Milne's magnificent books, When We Were Very Young and Now We Are Six.  Plus Robert Louis Stevenson's A Child's Garden of Verses.

And then my grandmother gave me Silver Pennies, a compilation of poetry appropriate for children, all in a small format (4½ x 6) that very much appealed to me.  I was small; the book was small.  We liked each other.  (I wonder today that so many children's books are so large, so adult size.)  I often picked up this little book and prowled through its words with enormous pleasure and concentration.  It prompted me to write my own poems when I was six.  And again, in my teens.  In the preface, the editor urged the reader to listen to poetry as much as to read it.  To simply sit and hear the words, their sounds, their rhythms, their glorious proximity to each other ... to whatever images they conjured and whatever nebulous wishes they might help articulate.  Less a mind thing than a heart thing.
"Queen Anne, Queen Anne, has washed her lace
(She chose a summer's day)..." ("Queen Anne's Lace" by Mary Leslie Newton)

"Animal crackers, and cocoa to drink,
That is the finest of suppers, I think ..." ("Animal Crackers" by Christopher Morley)

"Sherwood in the twilight, is Robin Hood awake?..."  ("A Song of Sherwood" by Alfred Noyes)

"Nymph, nymph, what are your beads?
Green glass, goblin.  Why do you stare at them? ..."  ("Overheard on a Saltmarsh" by Harold Monro)
Once, as an adult (having expanded my library by then), I gathered my poetry books before making a cross-country car trip and sat at my typewriter to copy favorites onto 3-hole-punched 5½ x 8½ notebook paper.  I bought metal rings to keep the pages together.  Then I took two pieces of cardboard, cut them to size, covered them with pretty paper, and used them for front and back covers.  One family member asked, "Why don't you simply take the books with you?"  No, I said, I wanted my favorites right at hand.  Easy access.

I began my three-holed compilation with two poems by Horace.  I added those Middle-English-of-the-London-dialect lines.  Some Shakespeare, of course.  The Romantic Poets.  The Rossettis, brother and sister.  Several from "Spoon River Anthology" by Edgar Lee Masters.  Many from the late nineteenth/early twentieth centuries.  Plus contemporary works--James Wright, Pattiann Rogers, Mary Oliver, Yevgeny Yevtushenko.

Off in the Great Plains, I could read aloud, "They went to sea in a sieve, they did./In a sieve they went to sea.." (2)  Or "Elysium is as far as to/The very next room .." (3)  Crossing the Continental Divide, I might want to fish out, "Look at the stars! look, look up at the skies!" (4) (And though that book is now frayed, I still enjoy opening it to John Gould Fletcher's poem about "Rain and a ravel of cloud." (5)  Or to Dylan Thomas, W. S. Merwin, Charles Wright.)

I was actively writing and sending out poems then.  Some even got published.  But it seemed there were more people writing poems than reading them.  The journals even "complained" that if everyone who submitted a poem would also subscribe, they could stay in business.  And so, though I obviously did not subscribe to every journal I submitted to, I did subscribe to one a year.  "The Georgia Review."  "The Iowa Review."  "Poetry."  Then I would cancel my subscription and start another elsewhere.  Of course, every journal wanted me to stay on ... and on ...  But I had to spread the goodies around.

At a time in her life that Buddhism would call one of "impermanence," my mother found herself with little more than her oil paints, clothes, and a few things in storage including some old family dishes.  "I wish to heck I'd never gotten rid of my book, Great Poems of the English Language," she'd say.  "I loved it so."  A 1,500-page anthology, she'd often haul it out and look something up.  But then she sold it; perhaps she needed the cash.  So later, finding it out-of-print, she was on the look-out for another copy.  It was a happy day when I finally found one and gave it to her.

Now, it's on my bookshelf.  I think of my mother whenever I see it.  Inside are those words by Chaucer.  I can still recite them.  And--going on to the third generation--so can my daughter.


(1)  "Home Thoughts, from Abroad," Robert Browning
(2)  "The Jumblies," Edward Lear
(3)  "Elysium Is As Far," Emily Dickinson 
(4)  "The Starlight Night," Gerard Manley Hopkins
(5)  "Blue Symphony," John Gould Fletcher

[N.B.  A blog glitch I'm trying to resolve:  If you've tried to add a "Comment" and haven't been able to, you have company.  As I understand it, you don't click onto the envelope symbol with the arrow but "0 Comments" instead.  Except that doesn't always seem to work.  Hmmm....]

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

My Piano Got Its Spirit Back

"It's lost its spirit," I said to myself as I played my piano one day five years ago.  I'd only just gotten back into playing, setting myself a time each day to practice.  I'd even gone through all my music books and stuck post-its on works to learn or re-learn.  Gavottes, Suites, Nocturnes, Lyric Pieces.  I'd gotten out "Les Barricades MystĂ©rieuses" by Couperin, Satie's "Gymnopedie No. 3," some Mendelssohn ... plus pages of sheet music with the years I'd studied them written in pencil.  1949, 1954.  And one penciled "1898" in my grandmother's hand with her note, "Studied with Miss Plesner, Grieg's first cousin."  I'd be a faithful student again, I told myself.  I'd practice every day, stretch my hands so I could reach the keys better.  But then, playing, I began to notice that some of the keys were sticking.  After I'd play them, they'd stay stuck and or come back up very slowly.

I called my piano tuner who made references to lead counterweights, the capstan screw, returning hammer blows to 1¾".  What was he talking about!  The problem, he said, was that the counterweights within the hammers were positioned for a grand piano.  (As he pointed out, mine wasn't a grand.)  He also said that the weights were put on the wrong side of the keyboard.  They had to come out.  Taking them out would prevent the sticking.

This was no small-change piano.  This was a Steinway.  A comfortable console--a small upright.  Ivory keys.  Steinway knew how to build a piano, I mused; they wouldn't put leads on the wrong side.  But, for some reason, I followed along and let him take them out.  I was skeptical enough not to let him dispose of them but to put them in a coffee can so I could stick them in my cellar.  Who knew?  I might want to put them back one day though they seemed to be different sizes which would complicate things.

After he left, I sat down to play.  No ... no ... I was dismayed.  The keys no longer stuck but the piano seemed to have lost its spirit.  It was no longer the lively instrument I'd once played--that my grandmother had bought (used) in 1961 and loved for so many years.  And on which she had made her living teaching piano in a small bungalow in a foggy coastal town in Southern California.  (Getting something like $5 a lesson.)  She made payments on that piano, it seemed, for years.  She finally retired at age 89.  Then after she died, I had it trucked across the country to my home where I made sure to set it on an interior wall to lessen its exposure to the Northeast's extremes temperature changes.  

Distressed at having allowed the tuner to remove the weights, I called Steinway in New York and spoke with a technician.  He expressed dismay (as well as derision), said that the weights had, of course, been put on the correct side and needed to be put back.  He conceded that the piano had been made at a time when a liquid paraffin had been added to stabilize the action against humidity.  Something that was later found to corrode the center pins.  He said it would need new action parts.  He said, for this era piano, it wouldn't be worth fixing.  Then he said, "Give it to charity," and hung up.

Disheartened by what he told me and by my error in allowing the counterweights to be removed, I could not bring myself to sit down and play.  Then, shoulder problems intervened and playing became painful.  I kept the piano oiled to lubricate the wood, but I didn't play it or have it tuned for five years.  I considered giving it to a church or school.  I even made a note on my "to do" list, admittedly followed by a question mark.

Then, two weeks ago, I sat down and opened it up.  It was so horribly out of tune that I called a tuner.  A different tuner this time.  He came two days ago--as the roofers arrived to pry off the old roof and hammer on a new.

I could hear the tuner downstairs, tinkling gracefully over the keys ... and the roofers overhead ripping and pounding.  The tuner complained that though they'd been sufficiently quiet when he was in the piano's lower registers, by the time he began work on the more difficult upper notes, they really got started with their power drills and hammers.  Nonetheless, he carried on.  He would tune something, crank something, or readjust something, then play delicate Bach-like passages to test what he'd done.  And as I listened, I perked up:  that was my piano I was hearing ... and it had a lovely, light, airy sound.  Not ponderous, not stuck, not sad.  "It's a nice little piano," he said when he left.  If I ever wanted the counterweights put back, he could do it.  But things seemed okay without them. 

I pulled out Schumann's "About Strange Lands and People" plus a Bach Minuet.  My fingers moved happily over the keys.  The sound was sweet, almost bright, and quite charming.  "My piano's got its spirit back," I said aloud.  I ran my fingers silently up and down the keys, gave it a little pat, and apologized to it for even thinking of giving it away.  After all, without a piano, how would I play Christmas carols!  And what would happen to all those Schirmer and Peters editions with their scotch taped covers, gold stars marking a piece well played, penciled notes in my grandmother's hand reminding me to heed a ritard or crescendo!  Maybe it wasn't quite as nimble as in its younger days but it and I were about the same age, and we were both doing just fine!


Saturday, April 9, 2011

The Sense of Possibility

The sense of possibility that I mentioned last time--which the approach of spring brings out in me--reminds me of Dorothy's opening the door onto the Land of Oz and everything switching from a black-and-white maelstrom into a bedazzling Technicolor landscape.

From something like this, winter's view out my front door ...

to this ...


... the view out my door one January day two years ago when I arrived in Bali.  I even felt like Dorothy as I left behind what I characterized as a black-and-white part of my life and looked down from my veranda onto a magical garden of banana trees, coconut palms, sparkling pool, stone statuary of Hindu gods, and rice paddy beyond.  The only sounds were the occasional chirping of a lizard and some far-off rhythmic drumming.  That and the gurgling of a fountain that flowed into the pool.  Talk about possibility!!  Suddenly everything was sunny and promising.

But though a trip to Bali--or, more recently, Hawaii--can produce this shift from a grey and white world to a blue and green one, the advent of spring accomplishes the same thing.  The Bali trip took forty hours door to door.  The full extent of spring's renewal will take a few weeks.  But then it's as if you took a box off your head that had been there for months.  Or you found yourself pounds lighter--which, in fact, you were by removing parka, sweaters, scarves, mittens, hats, and clompy boots.   

As an aside, an insurance adjuster just came to assess winter roof damage--vent pipe, flashing, aluminum snow belt, ceiling plaster--and said, "It's very pretty around here, but I couldn't live through your winters.  It's too cold."  He had a soft accent, North Carolina plates, and he called me "ma'am." (To reach the roof, he also had the cutest--yes, that's the word--aluminum ladder I've ever seen.  Maybe 15" wide by 2 or 3 feet long--all telescoped into itself.  I mused that it might even fit into a suitcase.  He took each rung, and with a ka-chunk, ka-chunk, extended it out 12½ feet, set it against the house, and climbed up.)  

But to get back to my point, it is with that sense of possibility that I now push my own personal Refresh button and begin this new blog.  The idea began to germinate in October, but I needed to get through the dark months first.  That, at least, gave me time to think what I wanted to say:  "Words, Pictures, Homey Things ... Travels, Opinions, Fun Things."

The Words part will include comments on books, language, grammar, with occasional excerpts from various writings including my own.  Pictures will include photos I've taken, art work I've painted, plus maybe occasional comments about movies.  Homey Things might take in some nostalgia, a recipe or two, whatever.  Travels can be just that:  tales of adventures, past and recent.  Opinions can be something else entirely:  the lost art of conversation, the pleasures of puttering, tinkering, sauntering.  Fun things--well, that can be the goofy, the silly, the leavening, if you will.

As for the blog's title, it's right there in plain view (for me, at least), but I'll talk about that another time.  

In the meantime, here's a spring up-date from my front lawn:

©2011 Door Number Eight

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Rum-Rumming Up My Street, or Signs of Spring

Each spring when I first hear him rum-rumming up my street, I know the man in the next block has retrieved his motorcycle from winter storage and (despite traces of road salt and sand that remain) is trying out the now ice-free, snow-free roadways.  He comes up my hilly dead-end street, loud as can be, quiets a moment as he reaches the top and turns around, and then races like bloody hell back down to the main road.  I hear him, too, going up the next hill two blocks away as he then roars off to I-don't-know-where.  Almost as well as putting away my snow shovel (which I haven't done yet), I know that spring has now arrived.

And though heaps of snow remain, I get out into the garden and begin the raking process.  Autumn's oak leaves huddle in damp corners, no early chives yet appear, and leaves from last summer's day-lilies lie swirled like wet ribbons.  But the first daffodil shoots are up.  And the crocuses are in bloom.

There is a new freedom in the air--the same that sends the motorcycle man racing about.  It's what I like to call the sense of possibility.  That, too, is surely a sign of spring.  When the sidewalks, no longer choked with ice, are good for walking once again.  And the sun--and our temperament--feels just that much brighter.  And though we had a snow-storm only four days ago--a great April Fool's joke, or so it seemed--by then the earth was warm enough that by mid-day when the storm seemed to shrug its shoulders and say, "Oh, let's just forget the whole thing," nothing was sticking and someone even mentioned seeing the sun peek out. 

It's also that migration time of year when volunteers are called upon to join salamander road crossing brigades.  And when Canada Geese, back again, poke about the fields.

And though people were out ice fishing on the river just a week or two ago, now the shelters are being brought in.

Edward Thomas, the English poet (1878-1917) wrote this:


          Over the land freckled with snow half-thawed
          The speculating rooks at their nests cawed
          And saw from elm-tops, delicate as flower of grass,
          What we below could not see, Winter pass.

A friend just emailed me this quote by Henry Van Dyke:  "The first day of spring is one thing, and the first spring day is another.  The difference between them is sometimes as great as a month."  

Around here, anyway.