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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The Light Changes: Books for the Autumn Equinox

Summer is coming to a close, as usual marked by heavy rain and fitful sunshine. I woke up to a downpour a few mornings ago. It took me awhile to fully wake due to the gloom-heavy atmosphere in the bedroom. When I finally got up and opened the bedroom door, the cats were waiting in the hallway, small triangle faces tilted and full of questions; they were unsure if it was breakfast time or not due to the strange murky light. It was so dim that even the street lamps were still on.

I padded with the cats out to the living room. Water was pouring down the western windows, giving the room a half-submerged effect as if it was about to give up and dissolve with the rain. The kitchen was a little better: I opened the eastern-facing window and a heavy, damp breeze rushed into the room, lifting napkins and papers and then setting them down again.

I set the kettle going and brewed a cup of green tea, sitting down at the kitchen table with the cat. She had gathered herself into the windowsill and we drank in the oxygen heavy air together. As the wind struck my face, the sensation of being sealed up alive in the house relented and I was able to breathe easier and drink the tea slowly, savoring the light, toasted flavor. The cat looked at me a few times as I drank but she inevitably returned to staring out the window, sniffing at smells I couldn’t detected but were utterly engrossing.

The loss of morning light in autumn makes the shortening days more noticeable. I love the night but hate early evenings and as sunrises comes later and the sunsets earlier, my fingers curl a little in my pockets. The long endless nights are coming. I’m not ready for summer to end but I attempt to reconcile myself by pulling out a few books.

As the light eases towards the darkness, I pull out the books that were once the spoken word, told during the long dark evenings to family members, friends, and the community; they’re usually called fairy tales or folk tales but “wonder tales” work just as well. I make a small pile: Franz Xaver von Schönwerth’s The Turnip Princess and Other Newly Discovered Tales, Zitkála-Šá’s American Indian Stories, Legends, and Other Writings, and Zora Neale Hurston’s Mules and Men.

Schönwerth collected fairy tales in the 1850’s when he traveled around his beloved Bavarian homeland, listening to fairy tales and writing them down. The Grimm Brothers were recording fairy tales at this time too, racing to preserve stories that were disappearing as print culture was erasing the need for verbal storytelling. In the centuries that followed, much of Schönwerth’s recordings was preserved but many stories were lost. In 2009, Erika Eichenseer found 500 previously lost fairytales of Schönwerth’s in the municipal building of Regensburg, Bavaria. She found a fairy tale treasure. The stories were recently translated from English to German and stand alongside The Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault’s fairy tales.

Next to my copy of Schönwerth’s The Turnip Princess is Zitkála-Šá’s American Indian Stories, Legends, and Other Writings. Zitkála-Šá was born during the Battle of Big Horn and was educated at a boarding school that enforced assimilation of First Nations’ peoples. Despite the school’s attempts to flatten her mind, body and spirit, Zitkala-Ša (Lakota for the cardinal bird) went on to be a political activist, writer, editor, translator, educator, and musician. She recorded Dakota Sioux legends, saving them for posterity. Many of them center on the trickster Iktomi, a spider fairy. I’ve included the beginning of a legend below.

Next to Zitkála-Šá’s folk tales is Zora Neal Hurston’s Mules and Men. Around the same time Zitkála-Šá was writing, Hurston was recording African-American folk stories that were fast disappearing. She recorded the stories she heard in her home of Eatonville, Florida and other nearby communities and logging camps. These stories often center on John Henry cleverly outwitting everyone, sometimes even the devil. Alongside the folk tales, Hurston recorded her experience learning hoodoo in New Orleans. It is not for the faint of heart.

These three books and the deep histories they invoke make the evenings richer, more bearable and in closing, I leave you with this opening of Zitkála-Šá’s retelling of “Iktomi and the Muskrat”:

Beside a white lake, beneath a large grown willow tree, sat Iktomi on the bare ground. The heap of smoldering ashes told of a recent open fire.  With ankles crossed together around a pot of soup, Iktomi bent over some delicious boiled fish.

Fast he dipped his black horn spoon into the soup,, for he was ravenous. Iktomi had no regular meal times.  Often when he was hungry he went without food.

Well hid between the lake and the wild rice, he looked nowhere save into the pot of fish.  Not knowing when the next meal would be, me meant to eat to enough now to last some time.

“How, how, my friend!” said a voice out of the wild rice. Iktomi started.  He almost choked with his soup.  He peered through the long reeds from where he sat with his long horn spoon in mid-air.

“How my friend!” said the voice again, this time close at his side. Iktomi turned and there stood a dripping muskrat who had just come out of the lake.

“Oh, it is my friend who startled me.  I wondered if among the wild rice some spirit voice was talking.  How, how, my friend!” said Iktomi.  The muskrat stood smiling.  On his lips hung a ready “Yes, my friend,” when Iktomi would ask, “My friend, will you sit down beside me and share my food?”

That was the custom of the plains people.  Yet Iktomi sat silent. He hummed an old dance-song and beat gently on the edge of the pot with his buffalo-horn spoon.  The muskrat began to feel awkward before such lack of hospitality and wished himself under the water.

The rest can be read in Zitkála-Šá’s American Indian Stories, Legends and Other Writings.

Please feel free to share your favorite fairy tale or folk tales in the comments section.

The Delicate Balance of a Crescent Moon

Spring is turning towards summer now. It began so delicately with a soft green — the hue of a tender rumor murmured only in off moments — but then the green rumor became bold, became the truth, and over the course of seemingly a night the grass is long, the trees are full, and the peonies are about to bloom. Every night I smell smoke and charcoal, my neighbors busy with their grills. They mow their lawns, weed their flower beds, dump their mulch, and then go to their backyards to cook up dinner.

I do none of these things. The rhythms of suburbia are pleasing to watch with their precise, ticking movements but they are less pleasing to indulge in. There’s a deep pressure to conform, and so I recede to the sanctuary of my old deck, watching the birds and bumblebees pass through my yard.

I’ve been toying with the idea of sinking a spade into the ground, ridding one area of hideous orange daylilies and planting a few tiny bits of bleeding heart and bluebell, gifts from a friend. It’s been years since I’ve played in the dirt, dug around, sorted things out, grimaced at the grubs and bugs that emerge from the dirt. Intolerable joint pain cut off many activities, and gardening was the first to go. But this year, after so many years of pursuing healing and wellness, I am feeling better and I think it might be time to poke and prod at the earth again. To see what I can do about weeds and debris.

But then again, this might not happen. The doctor told me yesterday that my body was “currently struggling with inflammation due to increased activity,” that I need to take it slower, that I needed to continue working on a low-inflammation diet.

Dreams of gardening haze in and out. It might happen this weekend, but it might not until later. Depression surges forward and I struggle with it. Life is hard with fibromyalgia and chronic pain, and there are always so many small, difficult choices to make. I chose to increase my exercises by a small amount last week; my body responded with intense shoulder pain and a flare up of inflammation throughout my system — primarily in my hands, shoulders, back, feet. It is just this way and I walk slowly through it, sometimes crying but mostly not, because life has been like this for years now and slowly, as time passes, the tears dry up.

Pain makes us discard some goals and pick others up.

There is a waning crescent moon in the sky, a thin sliver that sets in midafternoon and rises in early morning. It will soon be a new moon and then we will pass into summer.