Opal Whiteley at 19, in the picture featured for her "Out of Doors" Lecture
Opal piecing together her childhood journal
If you ever find yourself at a time of life where cynicism feels comfortable and familiar, spend a week with Opal Whiteley's childhood journal The Singing Creek Where The Willows Grow. If my heart is ever numb after Opal explains shadows to the blind girl down the road, well then, after a moment's panic that I've become a monster, I will try my own hand at explaining light and dark to a person who has no seeing. Don't worry, you'll hear how that goes. Here's a moment's rest:
Today near eventime, I did lead the girl who has no seeing a little way away into the forest, where it was darkness, and shadows were. I led her toward a shadow that was coming our way. It did touch her cheeks with its velvety fingers. And now she too does have likings for shadows, and her fear that was is gone.
Or, if it's been a really rough year:
By the step is Brave Horatius. At my feet is Thomas Chatterton Jupiter Zeus. I hear songs- lullaby songs of the trees. The back part of me feels a little bit sore, but I am happy, listening to the twilight music of God's good world. I'm real glad I'm alive.
The Singing Creek Where the Willows Grow was one of the most widely read books in the world in 1920, and one year later was out of print. It was the author of The Tao of Poo (still on my 'to read list'- whoops), Benjamin Hoff, that discovered her writing years later on a dusty library shelf and became absorbed researching her life.
Opal spent her childhood days in Oregon studying the life of the woods around her. The beauty and power and kindness of the creations made them her treasured friends. Opal was intrigued by the death of French naturalist and prince Henri d'Orléans, whom she believed to be her father- hence her name Françoise. Opal's early exposure to Greek mythology and insatiable appetite for books (what an odd little duck) led her fortunate forest friends to be bestowed names like Agamemnon Menelaus Dindon, the pet turkey, and Felix Mendelssohn, the mouse.
Opal's knowledge of the animal world, her vocabulary, and her powerful mind were enough to make people question the journal really came from a child. The public began calling her a fraud, and while she traveled the world to prove her accounts true, the journal itself stopped being circulated. Whether or not Hoff vindicated Opal is still debated, but I cheer Hoff defending her life and soul. It could be a work of complete fiction, and still have great value. The same critics who set to tearing Opal to pieces probably ran over the neighborhood chipmunks on their frantic way to work that otherwise would have gathered around Opal for a little chat.
Opal's mind reminded me of the dancer Loie Fuller (just discovered at Maryhill Museum-thank you Michelle and Kaleb for that tip), being her own butterfly. They would have loved the shadows together, don't you think?