I stepped from Plank to Plank
A slow and cautious way
The Stars about my Head I felt
About my feet the Sea.

I knew not but the next
Would be my final inch -
This gave me that precarious Gait
Some call Experience.

Emily Dickinson, c. 1864

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Another week rolls around

Today is St. Patrick's Day, so I had to find a bit o' green for the picture. This was taken last Thursday in the forest; moss is everywhere here in the Pacific Northwest. And what has been on my mind this past week? Other than the usual trips to town for my daily workouts at the Y, the coffee shop crowd along with the obligatory latte, I just finished the third book in a trilogy of memoirs written by Jennifer Worth. She was a midwife during the 1950s in the East End of London and captured a time and place that exists no longer. She was only a few years older than me, and she died at the age of 75 in 2011. She wrote the books towards the end of her life. A BBC series based on the books, Call the Midwife, captured my imagination last season, and I look forward to the second season.

Jennifer was able to capture not only the essence of the period, with characters who sprang to life on the page, but she also managed to reproduce the Cockney accent in dialog. The first book has an appendix explaining the way she worked to portray it in the written word. I learned about the "glottal stop" which typifies the accent. In one story, which has shopkeepers testifying in court, a translator is required to allow the judge to understand what is being said. My friend Peggy told me that she used the subtitle feature on her TV when she watched the series, so she could understand the heavy brogue. It's funny, I have no problem at all understanding the Cockney accent, but sometimes the words themselves are puzzling.

Although I enjoyed the books tremendously, as Worth is an outstanding author, I must admit that I also had a few sleepless nights over some of the more traumatic events that occurred in the books. The hard lives that East Enders endured, and especially the awful circumstances of many of the girls and women, hit me hard. I had nightmares about some of the workhouse stories and the exploitation of young girls. I guess the fact that this was not fiction, but her recollection of actual events, was part of the reason I found it difficult. Not to mention that she is a brilliant writer.

It has also made me think of how the written word gives us a chance to leave behind us a legacy that is unique to each of us. I know how much I love to read certain blogs that are written about the daily lives of my virtual friends. Sometimes nothing much happens in them, but I am given a chance to peek into the hearts and minds of those different from me, people who look at life from a different perspective, and I am enriched. But blogs are not permanent records, as books are. Or are they? And what difference does it make? Anything "permanent" is only a difference in degree, as all written words will eventually fade into obscurity.

Years ago, when I came down with infectious hepatitis, I spent months flat on my back in bed. I was so weak and feeble that I could only manage to walk a few steps every day. The doctor told me to honor that weakness and not try to push my way through it, or I would be in danger of becoming chronically sick. So I read a lot and discovered my favorite poet, Emily Dickinson. My caretaker, Robert, introduced me to her and filled me with biographies of this very singular person. She has been gone for more than a century now, but her poems live on. There are scholars who still ponder her poetry and make entire careers out of its study. She lived in New England in the mid-nineteenth century, and her poetry was not understood back then. The few poems that were published during her lifetime were altered to fit the conventional poetic rules of the time, and she refused to submit any more. It was only after her sister discovered a chest filled with them when Emily died at 55 (in 1886) that the breadth of her work was known. It wasn't until 1955 that her works were published without any alterations.

I have always been fascinated by the way the passage of time changes things. To gain a little perspective on my life today, I will sometimes think back to those days when I was a toddler, when my parents doted on me, and I wonder, was that truly me? The person who sits here in the early morning dawn, tapping away at my laptop, thinking these transitory thoughts, is this any more me that the toddler I envision in my mind's eye? Perhaps the process of trying to define my own essence is the error in my thinking. Although I know that Jennifer Worth and Emily Dickinson are no longer on this planet, are they really gone? In Emily's own words:
Long Years apart — can make no
Breach a second cannot fill —
The absence of the Witch does not
Invalidate the spell — 
The embers of a Thousand Years
Uncovered by the Hand
That fondled them when they were Fire
Will stir and understand —

13 comments:

Rian said...

I missed the first season of "Call the Midwife" but am going to get a copy of it so I will be ready for the second.
And I too love Emily Dickinson's work. Two of my favorites are "Hope is the thing with feathers" and "I'm nobody,who are you?" Her words speak volumes...

Trish and Rob MacGregor said...

Beautifully written!

Arkansas Patti said...

Last time you mentioned the Midwife, I checked but I didn't get BBC. Just checked again and it seems it will now be run (1st season) on PBS. Just set to record the series. Thanks for the tip if I have trouble with the accent.

Retired English Teacher said...

Wow. Thanks for this beautiful post. The quote at the end says it all.

Gigi said...

The books sounds intriguing, I've added it to my To Read list.

Red said...

You cover two topics. At times the some English were worse off then slaves. there are some very dark stories. I read Somerset Maughm's Of Human Bondage last year .
Yes sometimes you stop and wonder what you really are . What is perception? I like the poem you quote. I'm going to have to look at Emily Dickinson's poetry.

Blue Ridge Mountains said...

As long as we remember people of the past they will never be gone.
I wasn't aware that "Call the Midwife" was adapted from a book. Being a book nut I and loving that program I will put it on my kindle.
Thank you for the great blog you wrote this morning.

Linda Reeder said...

So much to respond to here!
I'll have to look into "Midwives". I have seen it listed in the TV guide.
Young self/old self - is it the same self? Today as I was out gathering up spring, I became very nostalgic. I thought of how I would like to share the moment with my mother, who taught me the beauty of nature. Certain early spring bloomers remind me of when I was a child. Although there is no part of that life that I would rather return to, it still makes me wistful. Yes it's still me in there.
Emily - we visited her in Amherst last spring on our trip. We went to her home and to a special archival room in the city library where she lingers. Just yesterday I was showing Irene the book I bought there of poetry for young children which is a compilation of some of her poetry.
Here's one that suits you and me.

I dwell in possibility
A fairer house than Prose,
More numerous of windows,
Superior of doors.

Of chambers, as the cedars-
Impregnable of eye;
And for an everlasting roof
The gables of the sky.

Of visitors- the fairest-
For occupation - this-
The spreading wide my narrow hands
To gather Paradise.



Dee said...

Dear DJan, thank you for these reflections on who we are and who Emily Dickinson and Jennifer Worth are and were. All this, for me, is the wonder and mystery and glory of Oneness. Peace.

Friko said...

A lovely early morning meditation on the transitory nature of everything on this earth.

Those harsh days Worth wrote about are long gone too but the fact that you can feel enriched by her experiences surely means that the afterglow remains.

Randall Cogburn said...

That's a lot of moss. We get some down here in Texas but I bet yall have a lot of it :) Nice photo and story about Emily Dickinsons work.

~Randall

Star said...

I haven't seen 'Call the Midwife' except for little bits and pieces in between other programmes, but I know it is very popular, here and there apparently.
I like the poem you've posted. It is truly beautiful. I have much to learn about Emily Dickinson.

CrazyCris said...

I haven't seen "Call the Midwife", but I have a vague memory of several people mentioning that it was worth watching. I'll have to check it out!