Tiny Stories, Tiny Tales

Ever since Masterpiece put out “Bleak House” 2009, I’ve watched it seasonally. My husband, Jeff, can’t help but get involved too. We get rattled, angry, Jeff swears off the series but comes back and in the end, it all works out because that is Dickens. Now there isn’t much Dickens I care for. It’s pretty much just the tv version of Bleak House and Miss Havisham that does it for me. I’ve read plenty of Dickens and have always felt sorrowful that I, unlike Jo March, just cannot get into Pickwick Papers.

And then life happens and we get older and I got older too and after all these years, I finally picked up Dickens again. I picked up Bleak House, naturally. Knowing the plot doesn’t bother me any and I was looking forward to what Davies couldn’t possibly pack in. And well, I get it now. I get why people love Dickens. I love him too. Loving him doesn’t mean he isn’t perfectly maddening at times with too many words. Loving him doesn’t mean that his psychology isn’t off at times. It’s just loving him. I love him because when I picked Bleak House and read just a few lines, I realized he loved writing.

“London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes–gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another’s umbrellas in a general infection of ill temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if this day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest.”

London. Now. Back Then. So yes, I see the Dickens allure. There’s also two characters that have caught my eye. One is Mrs. Jellyby. She has innumerable children but due to a heavy correspondence about forming and raising money for a colony in Africa, she neglects her household to a shocking state. Her children run ragged and dirty. The food on her table is served nearly raw. Her husband pines in a dark corner. Her oldest daughter is sort of a goodwill slave, always at her mother side, taking down her memorandums and letters. I’m certain this daughter will break free (okay so I know the plot but still! I’m intrigued at what she’ll do) though I doubt it for the poor depressed husband.

Counter to this is a Mrs. Pardiggle. She keeps her five young boys, age 12 to 5, in constant movement with her. She visits the poor and by visits, I mean comes to their house unwelcome and lectures them on what to do. Immediate assistance, she cannot give. Practical assistance, she cannot render neither. She is however, full of energy and strength. So she visits, commands and leaves, never tiring, never faultering. Her boys trail after her, pinching people’s arms for money when she isn’t looking and being as nasty as they can be whenever Mrs. Pardiggle is up to her ears in some other matter.

Neglect on one hand, control on the next. I’ve been mulling over those characters and wondered what Dickens’ wife thought of these women. What is the safe way through motherhood? How to not ignore one’s children for sanity or control them for some order? Mrs. Dickens had tons of children. I wonder what she thought of his ladies. And as much as I love these two ladies for their caricatures, I do want to see a lady of his creation who is both controlling AND neglectful. It seems to me that the two have a tendency to go hand in hand.

Also…Esther Summerson. So of course, I love her because she’s a sweetie but whot? Seriously? You must be joking. To quote Wharton:

“How this miracle of fire and ice was to be created, and to sustain itself in a harsh world, he had never taken the time to think out; but he was content to hold his view without analysing it…”

That’s Newland Archer but it might as well be Dickens. How Esther is supposed to be so sweet and dear and good when she was raised by a neglectful, demeaning aunt and servant is beyond me. The girl had no outside contact till her aunt died. And yet here she is, the dearest, sweetest of women, sprung fully formed out of a void. Not only is she such a blushing rose but she grows stern and severe when the pathetic Guppy proposes to her. So she’s harsh when she needs to be but a dear all the other times. There are no break downs. Self-hatred is sort of holy halo on Esther. To be perfect in action but demean yourself internally…the pinnacle perhaps of Victorian womanhood and womanhood even now, I would say.

Comments (2):

  1. Cindi

    October 9, 2011 at 9:20 pm

    I remember a present day author, who grew up with a mother reading Dickens to her, used to frustrate Jeff as well (in the good way). He’d swear off reading any further after she killed off a very much loved character. But then, still a bit upset at the author, he would pick up the book again & read a bit. He would find himself drawn into the story again (I think out of curiosity lol) and find that everything worked out there as well.

    I haven’t read Bleak House. I don’t think I’ve gotten past the name lol. Hmmm, wondering if it would be a good movie or mini series to watch.

  2. Cindi

    October 9, 2011 at 9:22 pm

    Your last statement leaves me something to ponder. I didn’t comment on that because I’m still pondering.

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I Have Wine and Moon and Flowers: Reading Su Tung-P’o During a Pandemic

As we watch spring growth overtake last year’s dead bracken and grasses, there is both consolation and brutality. This year’s greenery melds with disease: the emergence of flowers entangles with the blossoming of a pandemic.

While the novel coronavirus rages through communities, our lives have shrunk down to fit the small rooms and little neighborhoods that we must now be still in. What do we do in this diminished space? What do we see?

 

6th Moon, 27th Sun: Sipping Wine at Lake-View Tower

 

1

 

Black clouds, soaring ink, nearly blot out these mountains.

White raindrops, skipping pearls, skitter wildly into the boat,

 

Then wind comes across furling earth, scatters them away,

And below Lake-View Tower, lakewater suddenly turns to sky.

 

2

 

Setting animals loose—fish and turtles—I’m an exile out here,

but no one owns waterlilies everywhere blooming, blooming.

 

This lake pillow mountains, starts them glancing up and down,

And my breezy boat wander free, drifts with an aimless moon.

 

Su Tung-P’o (trans. David Hinton)

 

As the great poet Su Tung-P’o knew so well, we see our own natures in everything. The outside world becomes a reflection of our own states; though if we can still ourselves enough as we gaze out, a depth opens and time becomes immaterial.

A master of reflection and stillness, Su Tung-P’o 苏童 lived nearly one thousand years ago and is considered one of great poets of the Song Dynasty. He led a brilliant and varied career as poet, politician, writer, calligrapher, painter and aesthetic theorist. Due to his outspoken and opposing views on the government, he was jailed and sent into exile on three separate occasions.

After his experience in jail and subsequent exile, his poetry evolved and deepen and his surviving work reflect his delicate, painful relationship with loneliness and desolation.

 

Moon, Flowers, Man

 

I raise my cup and invite

The moon to come down from the

Sky.  I hope she will accept

Me. I raise my cup and ask

The branches, heavy with flowers,

To drink with me.  I wish them

Long life and promise never

To pick them.  In company

With the moon and the flowers,

I get drunk, and none of us

Ever worries about good

Or bad.  How many people

Can comprehend our joy? I

Have wine and moon and flowers.

Who else do I want for drinking companions?

(trans. Kenneth Rexroth)

 

To help alleviate the sufferings of a difficult life, he became the devotee of Zen Buddhism and his poetics reflects the practice of the “beginner’s mind,” the ability to meet each experience with equilibrium and a “spontaneous and crystalline responsiveness.”

 

At Seven-Mile Rapids

 

A light boat one loan leaf,

a startled swan two oars—

 

water and sky are pure clarity

reflecting deep. Waves smooth,

 

fish roil this duckweed mirror

and egrets dot misty shorelines.

 

We breeze past sandy streams,

frostfall streams cold,

moonlit streams aglow.

 

ridge above ridge like a painting,

bend beyond bend like a screen.

 

Here I think back to

Yen Tzu-ling’s empty old age,

 

lord and recluse one dream.

Renown’s empty then as now,

 

just mountains stretching away:

cloud mountains erratic,

dawn mountains green.

 

Out of his poetry emerges a beautiful balance, the ability to look at both joy and sorrow with gentle tranquility and wry amusement.

 

At Brahma-Heaven Monastery, Rhymed with a Short Poem of Crystalline Beauty by the Monk Acumen-Hoard

 

You can only hear a bell out beyond the mist:

the monastery deep in mist is lost to sight.

 

Straw sandals wet with the dew of grasses,

a recluse wanders. Never coming to rest,

 

he’s simply an echo of mountaintop moon—

light coming and going night after night.

 

(trans. David Hinton)

 

Su Tung-P’o’s poetry illuminates the beauty and loneliness running throughout ourselves and Nature. His work becomes a sort of map for this strange new world we find ourselves in: isolated yet surrounded, weary but still observing, cut off but yet deeply involved.

 

After T’ao Ch’ien’s “Drinking Wine”

 

3

 

This little boat of mine, truly a lone leaf,

and beneath it, the sound of dark swells:

 

I keep paddling in the depths of night, drunk,

pleasures of home, bed, and desk forgotten.

 

At dawn, when I ask about the road ahead,

I’ve already past a thousand ridges rising

 

beyond ridges. O where am I going here,

this Way forever leaving ever returning?

 

Never arriving, what can we understand,

and always leaving, what’s left to explain?

 

(trans. David Hinton)

 

Tides of Snow and Ice

This winter has been a continuous series of freezes and thaws: it’s the warmest winter on record, the tenth one in a row. A more usual winter starts with a deep freeze and then stays cold for months. Instead, snow falls, piles up and vanishes; rises up again and retreats, now falling as rain, swelling rivers and creeks. Rain and snow mingle together until everything runs with water; hillsides and flat-sides are coated in a deep, dark mud.

I stopped on my walk today, halted by a sudden flash of gold. The sunset rays were falling into a tiny puddle spanning the space between the root and trunk of a maple. The puddle reflected gold and silver on top and below was dark mud, black and brown, full of microorganisms and other tiny creatures unseen by the human eye. I briefly considered putting my hand to the shining surface. It beckoned, winking like a diamond, but pull of my walk was irresistible and I continued forward. 

Mud is for March and April, mud so thick and heavy that it can pull shoes off and make them disappear like a magic trick beneath the solemn and still brown. Mud in February is a strange slight, an awakening that shouldn’t be occurring yet. It’s all the more cruel because even though the temperatures rise, they inevitably dip into the single digits and everything freezes solid. Many times I’ve spotted squirrels and tiny birds on the creek’s ice, searching for openings to drink from.

During this particular thaw, the creek casts off ice, it’s center opening like a dark cut. The water sings as it cascades over the rocks, proclaiming it’s momentarily relief from the grip of winter. In Scandinavian folklore, there is a belief that given the proper offerings, a creek could teach a human how to play the most bewitching music. I crouch down near the creek, record a video of it singing on my phone and replay its music in the evening while lying on the couch. I should give something in return for the pleasure of its song and I consider. Perhaps some lavender buds I have stored away for a certain recipe, or a small pinecone I keep on a shelf to admire, or birch bark I retrieved from a favorite tree cut down years ago. 

The next day I return, and after waiting for a few dogs and their owners to pass by, I crouch next the side of the creek and sprinkle lavender buds into the small, clear stream. The buds vanish as soon as I drop them into the water– as if they never existed. I drop some more in and the same occurs; they’re gone before I can blink. The current flows by, washing over stones, fleeting by banks of mud, until it vanishes around the bend where the pine trees tower overhead.

As I gaze at the water, first downstream and then upstream, my own self quiets, stills, and momentarily dissolves into the landscape. The relief, though short, is palpable. Alone becomes together and perhaps that is what’s this practice of thanking the creek has been about all along.