Thursday, October 5, 2023

Back to the Garden

The wind, one brilliant day, called
to my soul with an odor of jasmine.

"In return for the odor of my jasmine,
I'd like all the odor of your roses."

"I have no roses; all the flowers
in my garden are dead."

"Well then, I'll take the withered petals
and the yellow leaves and the waters of the fountain."

the wind left.  And I wept.  And I said to myself:
"What have you done with the garden that was entrusted to you?"


-      Antonio Machado; Translated by Robert Bly


Every Fall for just about my whole adult life, I've read and re-read a book by Charles Dickens. His unforgettable characters, intricate plots, exquisite prose and deep humanity never fail to impress and inspire. This year’s book is Hard Times, one of his shorter novels about the way the emerging Industrial Age and its accompanying values make over people into machines, devoid of imagination and heart and caring only for numbers and statistics. It opens with the school master Mr. Gradgrind’s Mission Statement: (Note the brilliant names Dickens chooses—you can hear the mechanical wheels grinding out the fanciful mind of children.) 


“Now, what I want, is Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing, but Facts. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals on Facts; nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my children and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, Sir!”


 Indeed, in addition to the school children he refers to above, he brought up his three children—Thomas, Louisa and Jane— on these principles:


“No little Gradgrind had ever seen a face in the moon…No little Gradgrind had ever learnt the silly jingle Twinkle Twinkle little Star, how I wonder what you are! No little Gradgrind had ever known wonder on the subject. No little Gradgrind had ever associated a cow in the field with that famous cow with the crumpled horn who tossed the dog who worried the cat who killed the rat who ate the malt, or with that yet more famous cow who swallowed Tom Thumb; it had never heard of those celebrities and had only been introduced to a cow as a graminivorous ruminating quadruped with several stomachs.”


In the story that follows, Louisa grows up painfully aware of having had her childhood robbed from her. As a young married woman, she returns to her childhood home and reflects on what now would be called a trauma of sorts, a violation of the sacred space of the child’s impulse to play and imagine. (Buckle your seatbelt—Dickens wrote at a time when the long, long sentence was par for the course.)


The dreams of childhood—its airy fables; its graceful, beautiful, humane, impossible adornments of the world beyond; so good to be believed in once, so good to be remembered when outgrown, for then the least among them rises to the stature of a great Charity in the heart, suffering little children to come into the midst of it, and to keep with their pure hands a garden in the stony ways of this world, , wherein it were better for all the children of Adam that they should oftener sun themselves, simple and trustful, and not worldly-wise—what had she to do with these? Remembrances of how she had journeyed to the little that she know, by the enchanted roads of what she and millions of innocent creatures had hoped and imagined; of how, first coming upon Reason through the tender light of Fancy, she had seen it a beneficent god, deferring to gods as great as itself; not a grim Idol, cruel and cold, with its victims bound hand to foot, and its big dumb shape set up with a sightless stare, never to be moved by anything but so many calculated tons of leverage—what had she to do with these? Her remembrances of home and childhood , were remembrances of the drying up of every spring and fountain in her young heart as it gushed out. The golden waters were not there. They were flowing for the fertilization of the land where grapes are gathered from thorns, and figs from thistles. “


Still with us here? That’s a mouthful. The Cliff Notes version is Dickens celebrating the innocence of a childhood with its sense of wonder and awe preserved, a time when emerging Reason took its place side-by-side with Fancy without cruelly deposing it, a time we could return to to sun in its garden and remember its flowing waters when the inevitable adult life to follow began to tangle us up in its harsh demands. But poor Louisa never knew that garden as a child and felt its absence to the core of her soul. 


Back at her old home, she confronts her father with his wrong-headed ideas of child-raising:


“How could you give me life, and take from me all the inappreciable things that raise it from the state of conscious death? Where are the graces of my soul? Where are the sentiments of my heart!? What have you done, O father, what have you done, with the garden that should have bloomed once, in this great wilderness here!” she said, striking herself with both hands upon her bosom.”


Boom! When I read that, I was struck by its connection to the Machado poem above. Of course, Dickens came first, publishing Hard Times in 1854 and Machado wrote much of his poetry in the 1920’s.  But using precisely the same words (though translated from Spanish)—“What have you done with the garden…” In Louisa’s use of them, she accuses her father of robbing her of ever experiencing that garden. In Machado’s, he’s addressing himself, reminding himself that he has walked too far away from the garden in his heart and by saying it loud, makes the first step toward returning. 

At 9 am, it’s 75 degrees already in San Francisco and the forecast predicts 89. I did go to the beach yesterday and plan to return today. But meanwhile, I believe I’ll go sit in the garden. 


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