For weeks I’ve watched my blogging friend Proserpina entice her readers into accepting a simple concept - color-based blogs - and encourage them to help create a rich and expressive tapestry of personal preference. “Here is a color,” she says. “Here are its qualities. Here are some references to it in history and the arts. Does it remind you of something? How do you feel about it? How has it decorated your life?”
Such simple questions, and yet the answers she receives build one upon another to form patterns of exquisite complexity. Readers contribute images of famous paintings, or their grandchild’s refrigerator art. They bring limericks and literature, poetry, personal photographs of beloved objects, memories from days of long-past travel and dreamscapes from journeys yet to come.
With each new color, discoveries are made. When Proserpina designated “Blue” as her first color, I was a bit disappointed. I’ve always considered blue to be my least favorite color and yet as images, videos and snippets of literature were posted, I realized “blue” is too general a term. While I dislike the primary blue of the color wheel, powder blue baby blankets, navy blue and electric blue, I wear denim and covet turquoise jewelry. I’ve reveled in the azure, aqua and cerulean of Carribbean waters and will sit for hours watching the smokey indigo of disappearing sunsets. Clearly, there are distinctions to be made.
On the other hand, red seems more straightforward. When “Red” was announced as the second color in her series, I almost could hear thirty people say in unison, “My Love is like a red, red rose…” Everyone knows Rudolph’s red nose, and everyone assumes police love to arrest drivers of red cars. Afficionados of the color may delight in cherry red, fire engine red, claret, cranberry or crimson, but say “red” to the rest of us and it’s the bright, bold color that first comes to mind.
The third week’s color – orange – had a bit of a bite to it. I taste orange as much as I see it. It’s tied with lemon and lime for my favorite flavor and my closet is filled with its delectable cousins: salmon, canteloupe, pumpkin, peach and papaya. My favorite flower, the South African native Cape Honeysuckle, is a vibrant orange, a shimmering magnet for hummingbirds.
The photo of my honeysuckle transitioned perfectly to Proserpina’s choice for the fourth week – my favorite color, “Green”. Anyone who’s explored woods, field or swamp in the riotous season of spring knows there are shades and hues of green still unnamed, lush, living gems that remind us life is a force to be reckoned with. From algae to tree frogs, from the barely-there clouds of swelling tree buds to the push of bulbs toward sunlight, it’s a color that will not be denied.
Now and then, words capture the essence of a color as well as – or better than - more visual images. When I read that green was to be our next focus, my first thought wasn’t of the swamp, forest or garden, but of Dylan Thomas’ perfect words:
The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
drives my green age….
I first heard his poem in my fifth-grade classroom, just three years after Thomas’ death. It was the longest year of my young life, ruled over by a teacher whose sole mission in life seemed to be making us memorize and recite poetry. Was Dylan Thomas too much for fifth graders? “Fiddlesticks,” said Miss Johnson. Did we really need to be reading Whitman? “He’s American,” she replied. “They need to know him.”
Being normal fifth graders, we resisted for all we were worth. Because we hated having to stand and recite in front of our giggling classmates, we also hated the poets, both the living and the dead. We hated Carl Sandburg, and we hated his fog-footed cat. We were bored by Robert Frost. Robert Lewis Stevenson was stupid, and Lewis Carroll unintelligible. Shakespeare, Wordsworth and Keats were old and dusty, and as for Emily Dickinson - no slanted truth for us. We thought she was terrible, and said so.
Surely we did a little arithmetic in fifth grade, or learned history and geography. I remember only the poetry. As the months passed, we slogged and struggled through stanzas, meter and iambic pentameter until we thought we were going to throw up. And then, blessedly, it was over. Or so we thought.
Thirty years later, during my first night watch on my first offshore sailing passage, I was astonished by the number and beauty of the stars. Scanning the skies, picking out constellations and thinking of nothing at all, I found myself overtaken by words so familiar they surely were my own.
I must down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,
And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking
After all those years, the wonderful Sea Fever by John Masefield had dusted itself off and come to visit, in just the right time and place. For the first time in decades I recited poetry, and thought of my fifth-grade teacher.
Once the dam had broken, the verse continued to flow. A trip to the Low Country meant Longfellow:
The tide rises, the tide falls,
The twilight darkens, the curlew calls;
Along the sea-sands damp and brown
The traveler hastens toward the town,
And the tide rises, the tide falls.
A neighborhood dispute meant Robert Frost on fences. Carl Sandberg’s “woman named Tomorrow” eased the pain of a broken friendship. Poem after poem rose to consciousness, some in fragments and some complete, but all accompanied by memories of Mrs. Johnson, sweaty palms, and the horror of standing before the class.
My most recent experience with revivified poetry took place on a pecan-collecting jaunt two years ago. With a three-day weekend ahead of me, I’d decided to detour and visit the wonderful cypress trees that line many Texas rivers and creeks. Camera in hand, ankle deep in the waters of the Medina river, my casual wandering brought me to an especially beautiful pool. I was transported in an instant from Medina to Maine, the home of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and heard again his words echoing in the silence.
This is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks,
Bearded with moss, and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight,
Stand like Druids of eld, with voices sad and prophetic,
Stand like harpers hoar, with beards that rest on their bosoms.
Loud from its rocky caverns, the deep-voiced neighboring ocean
Speaks, and in accents disconsolate answers the wail of the forest…
A shallow, limestone-bedded river is no ocean, and the cypress sentinels lining its banks are far from primeval, however impressive they might be. It hardly mattered. The longer I lingered in the midst of the cypress, the more I remembered of Longfellow’s Evangeline.The more I remembered of his epic poem, the more grateful I became for a teacher who provided to my classmates and me something none of us understood at the time: the gift of words to interpret the mysteries of the world in which we live.
“The limits of my language are the limits of my world,” said Wittgenstein. In our increasingly constricted world, language is a necessary tool for pushing back the boundaries, enlarging the view, reaffirming our humanity. Text if you must, Twitter if you will, but tell as well the larger and more complicated truth. Tell it slant or tell it straight, but tell it clearly as you are able to a culture increasingly impoverished and narrow. Our children, too, deserve the gift of language and the joy of literature, the pleasure of metaphor and the delight of metre to enliven them when they come to their own time of discovery and stand, slack-jawed, before the wonder of the world.
They will not find those gifts and that joy without us.