Longing for a better world
An invitation from the fairies

On loss and transfiguration

Kenneth Grahame's Wind in the Willows, illustrated by Inga Moore

"The classic makers of children's literature," writes Alison Lurie, "are not usually men and women who had consistently happy childhoods -- or even consistently unhappy ones. Rather they are those whose early happiness ended suddenly and often disastrously. Characteristically, they lost one or both parents early. They were abruptly shunted from one home to another, like Louisa May Alcott, Kenneth Grahame, and Mark Twain -- or even, like Frances Hodgson Burnett, E. Nesbit, and J.R.R. Tolkien, from one country to another. L. Frank Baum and Lewis Carroll were sent away to harsh and bullying schools; Rudyard Kipling was taken from India to England by his affectionate but ill-advised parents and left in the care of stupid and brutal strangers. Cheated of their full share of childhood, these men and women later re-created, and transfigured, their lost worlds. "

Kenneth Grahame's Wind in the Willows, illustrated by Inga Moore

Kenneth Grahame's Wind in the Willows, illustrated by Inga Moore

J.M Barrie falls into this category, the happiness of his early childhood vanishing into darkness and gloom when an elder brother, the family favorite, died in a skating accident, after which Barrie's mother retreated permanently to her bed. C.S. Lewis was ten when he lost his mother to cancer (and just four when his beloved dog, Jacksie, was killed by a car -- a loss that so effected him that he insisted upon being called Jack for the rest of his life). George MacDonald lost his mother to tuberculosis at the age of eight. Enid Blyton's happy childhood in Kent ended Inga Mooreabruptly when her beloved father left the family for another woman, leaving Enid behind with a mother who disapproved of her interest in nature, literature, and art.

The sudden loss of a happier childhood world doesn't turn everyone into a children's book writer, of course, but it's interesting to note how many fine writers' backgrounds are marked by such loss; and Lurie may be correct that the desire to re-create the lost world lies at the heart of a particular form of creative inspiration. Or perhaps I'm just struck by Lurie's idea because it maps onto my own childhood, which was, from a child's point of view, safe and stable for the first six years when I lived in my grandmother's household (with my teenage mother and her sisters), and then plunged into darkness upon my mother's marriage to a brutal man, a stranger to me until the day of the wedding. Loss of home at a tender age can indeed send an unhappy child inward, seeking lands in imagination uncorrupted by the treacherous adult world.

Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden, illustrated by Inga Moore

In many previous posts (such as this and this), we've talked about concepts of home, place, connection to the landscape, and the way these things influence our creative work. In yesterday's post, we looked at longing -- for a lost home, a lost world, a lost way of life -- as a frequent theme in fantasy fiction. But loss can come about in so many different ways, and needn't be dramatic to cause lasting trauma. I'm thinking, for example, of a loss all too common today in our over-populated world: the loss of treasured chilhood landscapes to the unchecked sprawl of cities and suburbs, of beloved old houses and places we can never return to, buried under shopping malls and parking lots. 

Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden, illustrated by Inga Moore

The Secret Garden by Inga Moore

In her essay collection Language and Longing, Carolyn Servid writes poignantly of her husband's childhood in an isolated valley in the mountains of Colorado. Lightly populated by old ranching families, artists, and hermits, the valley was a sanctuary for humans and animals alike...until the development of the nearby Iga Mooretown of Aspen into a ski resort and playground for the wealthy began to raise property prices on Aspen's periphery. When the dirt road into the valley was paved, change was not long behind: land speculation, housing developments, a golf course. The valley as generations had known and loved it was gone.

Servid writes that her husband "had witnessed this gradual transformation during summers home from college. He witnessed more changes every time he visited after marriage and various jobs took him out of the valley. He chronicled those changes to me before he ever drove me up the Crystal River Road to the Redstone house. The landscape stunned me the first time I saw it, and I watched it bring a deep smile of recognition to Dorik's eyes, but I knew his memories were of a wholeness that was no longer there. I realized he held a kind of perspective and knowledge that has been lost over and over again in the settlement of the continent, over and over again in the civilzation of the world."

Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden, illustrated by Inga Moore

A little later, he learns that a neighbor's ranch has been sold off to a developer. "I watched his face tighten," Servid writes, "and knew that a deepening ache was filling him. Places and people he loved were both caught in the wake of rampant development that grew like a cancer. The impact was like a diagnosis of the disease itself, as though one of the most fundamental aspects of his life was being eaten away. I wondered then about the grief that comes to us when we lose the places we love. This grief doesn't have much standing among the range of emotions that our society values. We have yet to fully acknowledge and accept just how much our hearts are entwined with the places that shape us, tolerate us, hold us, provide for us. We have yet to openly testify and accede to the necessity of such places and love of them in our daily lives. We have yet to fully understand that our links as people living together in communties will never be more than transient and vulnerable without rootedness in the place itself."

Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden, illustrated by Inga Moore

Just as Servid wonders "about the grief that comes to us when we lose the places we love," I wonder about the ways such a loss impacts us as writers and artists. Grief is a powerful thing, and especially so when it rumbles away, unexpressed, in the depth of our souls, the quiet but constant base note of our lives. Grief for landscapes paved over, ways of life that are gone, for whole species that are rapidly vanishing around us. Grief can indeed be a spur to art, leading us to "re-create or transfigure" our cherished lost worlds, or it can do the reverse: deaden and silence and paralyze us.

Your thoughts?

Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden, illustrated by Inga Moore

The art today is by Inga Moore, who was born in Sussex, raised in Australia (from the age of eight), and returned to England when she reached adulthood. Joanna Carey, in her lovely portrait of the artist, writes:

Inga Moore"An imaginative, somewhat subversive child, she drew constantly, illustrating not just her own stories but also her schoolbooks, her homework, tests and exam papers. 'If you'd only stop all this silly drawing,' said the Latin teacher, 'you might one day amount to something.' She did stop -- 'for a long time' -- and is still resentful about that teacher's attitude. She regrets not going to art school, and endured 'one boring job after another' before eventually getting back to the drawing board. Supporting herself making maps for a groundwater company, she embarked on a series of landscapes and happily rediscovered her passion for drawing."

Moore worked as an illustrator in London until the economic downturn caused her to lose her home there -- a fortunate loss, as it turns out. She relocated to the Gloucester countryside, discovered this corner of England to be her heart's home, and produced the remarkable illustrations for The Wind in the Willows and The Secret Garden for which she is now justly famed. The pictures above are from those two volumes; the picture below is from The Reluctant Dragon.

Kenneth Grahame's The Reluctant Dragon, illustrated by Inga MooreThe passage by Alison Lurie is from Don't Tell the Grown-ups: Subversive Children's Literature (Little, Brown Publishers, 1990). The passage by Carolyn Servid is from Of Language and Longing: Finding a Home at the Water's Edge (Milkweed Editions, 2000). The quote by Joanna Carey is from "Inga Moore, illustrator of The Wind in the Willows" ( The Guardian, Feburary 6, 2010). All rights to the text and art above reserved by their creators. This post first appeared on Myth & Moor three years ago, and relates to yesterday's post on "longing" in fantasy fiction.

Comments

Wonderful post, and so true. I, too, experienced this in some ways when moving country aged six. Good to see Inga Moore's exquisite illustrations for The Secret Garden, too.

Grief at 71 is no less as I remember ...
the mango trees
no more
because they
drop so many leaves
the red hibiscus hedge
no more
because the sounds
have reached
beyond
a human's
state of ease

Grief at 71 is no less when ...
the thoughts of
the Ko'olau range
pricks at
my heart
leaving
rain the color
of blood
no more the
plane rides
home ... too carbon costly
hala!


Grief at 71.

The Hawaii of my girl years is mostly memory now, and with believing mirrors to help me with the collection of those memories, art of a sort that transfigures might be left for a neice I have yet to know, or a stranger who happens upon medicine in stories, or, a self reincarnate reborn to check on the quality of grief this time 'round.

As usual Terri, your gift of story place is much appreciated. A birthday gift. I am 71 today. Thank you!

I hadn't realized until the last few posts how intertwined longing and loss can be. It makes me wonder if one can even long for a time that lives outside of one's actual experience, and what that might mean in terms of carrying in the psyche some felt sense of life prior to the time in which I am living. My own body seems to mark the sense of belonging as one in which my senses feel wholly open, without the need to reject anything. Thanks, Terri, for exploring this topic.

Hi Terri

This week's posts have been both enlightening and very touching. I have been able to relate to them so personally. I love the gorgeous illustrations and can relate to remembering or existing at least spiritually or metaphorically in a different and lost world. Thank you so much for these viewpoints, essays and art. What a treat to read and contemplate them!!


A Corner In The Courtyard

The hedge lost half of its leaves
to wind and frost. What remains
is bleached pale gray
along with branches that host
a bird and a spindled view
of the garden.

Even the bird is a dull shade
of silver with metallic green
patching its throat
where light, chords and feathers
spasm into a song
of kaleidoscopic joy.

Something Shelley would call
a blithe spirit, and Wilde,
a swallow that didn't leave
but stayed with her friend
stripping the princely statue
of his jewels and armor
to aid the poor. Molten flecks
of his gold were seen
sparkling in the winter air -- and now

it's my fingernails
scanning a leaf- thin fence
that separates me
from a quaint and quiet world
I used to know -- but have forgotten how
to inhabit. The ghost in me
just beginning to haunt.

Hi Mokihanna

Wishing you a birthday filled with peace, creative inspiration and quiet beauty. I love your poem and think you capture the concept of grief with all its facets of loss and longing so beautifully in your poem. I can feel the lines, the heartbeat of memory pervading throughout and sense of resolve to accept what is and long for what has been. These lines , in particular, deeply haunted me, moved me --

the thoughts of
the Ko'olau range
pricks at
my heart
leaving
rain the color
of blood

Thank you for sharing this,
my best to you!

Take care
Wendy

When I grew up there were acres and acres of wood and forest behind our house. I spent most of those years playing in that wood, contriving to somehow wade across the wide stream down there without getting wet and wander the wildness of the deeper woods beyond it (because if mom ever found out I'd crossed that 'border land' there was punishment to be had!). Further along the stream there was a wide open field of high grass that sloped gently down to the water. In my high school years, when there was no longer any kids of my age to play with, I would often go there and sit in the sun warmed grass and let my imagination wander. I told myself many stories in that same spot. Years later, that field was plowed under and developed into housing units. I always refused to see what improvements (as my parents would call them) had been brought to my old haunt.


The pond I dipped in that was in the fields at the end of our garden has long gone. As have the fields.
There was once a primary school where you could talk to the cows who hung their heads over our school fence. Now it sits in a sea of brick and tarmac.
Our worlds shrink and we gaze back over our shoulders trying to catch glimpses of what we knew.

However it does frighten me that some turn nostalgia for things into crusades. And I fear it is driving people into trying to stop the world and turn it into a past that never really existed.

This notion of loss and longing is something I'm acutely aware of, something I feel. It's the underlying theme in my Wolf Bride project, that we are all suffering a collective loss, a forgetting, and a longing for what we have forgotten. I think this longing, a longing we're not even aware we feel sometimes because it's been there so long and it's so pervasive, is at the foundation of so much of what's wrong in the world. We try to allay it with 'stuff', but it doesn't work. We try to blame it on others who are 'different' but that doesn't work either. We try to find the answer in ideologies that promise much but rarely deliver. And at its root is simply a longing for 'home', in a real sense. A place that we can belong to, and that is safe from the destruction of the modern age, so we can return to it always, to find strength, nourishment, solace, and to be able to bequeath it to our children. Not in a 'here is your domain, I leave it for you to do what you like with,' way, but in a 'this is where you belong, this is your place, that place that whispers in your blood, take care of it' way.

And regarding the post yesterday on fantasy writing, one thing that I think is also an important part of a great deal of fantasy, is the notion of an 'animate' world. How many children's books feature talking animals, trees, rocks, rivers? I'm reminded very much of the children's return to Narnia in 'Prince Caspian', to find the animals and trees have been silenced, Narnia has become like our world. I think there is an enormous longing for that because it reflects a distant truth. Once upon a time, we did listen, we did hear those other voices. We were not alone.

Mourning with you.
Lovely, lovely elegaic poem.

Jane

What Remains--for Wendy Howe


What remains after loss?
The poetics of memory,
transformations, transmigrations,
the alchemy of need.
We remake a mother's death
into glass slippers,
father's escape into a kingdom,
A friend's sloppy disappearance
into a pumpkin coach ride.
It is what we do
to save ourselves from sorrow.


When you died, a saint was born.
It has taken years to make you human.
I wish I could smell you again
in the rigid night.
I wish I could hold your cold hand.

©2018 Jane Yolen all rights reserved

Hi Jane

This is absolutely gorgeous! This poem personally speaks to me --

We remake a mother's death
into glass slippers,
father's escape into a kingdom,
A friend's sloppy disappearance
into a pumpkin coach ride.
It is what we do
to save ourselves from sorrow.

Yes, it is what we do to "Save ourselves from sorrow". We take refuge in the fragile corners of our imagination, we invent and we survive.

And what an intense and poignantly beautiful ending -

When you died, a saint was born.
It has taken years to make you human.
I wish I could smell you again
in the rigid night.
I wish I could hold your cold hand.

It is always so difficult to deal with one's passing. Memory beautifies the one who has passed and we are left haunted by the lack of touch, the absence of their presence being there and being so human with all the light and dark, endearing and unsettling parts that comprise our human condition. Thank you so much for this beautiful poem, Jane, I am deeply moved and touched!!

Take care,
my best always,
Wendy

I’m fascinated by the childhoods of writers, particularly those who suffered illness, loneliness and loss as I did. This post moved me profoundly, Terri. Thank you once again for your luminous wisdom and insight. And thank you also to all who shared themselves so beautifully in their comments.

Loss of loved spaces and places, loss of the world's diversity and species. When I was at school, more than forty years ago now, the phrases used almost constantly in science and geography lessons were 'over population' and 'population pressure'. Now the phrases of the day are 'climate change' and 'global warming'. But as we all know almost all this world's ecological woes are directly attributable to the size of the human population, just as we used to say in my school days back in the 1970's. But I do wonder just how many of us who rightfully bemoan the situation we find ourselves in today have also contributed to the ever-increasing human hordes. And I also have to wonder just how many of those voices raised in protest continue to add to those hordes with each new child they decide to produce.

I was shaped growing up in the Chilterns, but unfortunately at the age of 16 my father decided we would emigrate to Canada. My heart has always been in the place that shaped me which over the years has puzzled many people I met. They could not understand why I would wish to return. So reading your musings on loss and longing really spoke to me. I did eventually move back to England, three years ago to the northern edge of the Cotswolds, not the Chilterns but just as good.

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