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“Once upon a time in a distant land, but not that far away, lived…” So opens fairy tales fraught with cosmic clashes between good and evil, useful for today’s conflict resolution if properly studied in depth; and so opens listeners’ imaginations, hungry for worlds mirroring their own. Life has always been hard, and still is.

So how did these fairy tales as we know them come about?

In nineteenth-century Germany the spread of literacy and the improvement of indoor illumination began usurping the role of itinerant storytellers carrying tales of mystery from village to village. Such had been their practice for hundreds of years. Into this changing world came Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, both philologists, who recorded and first published their tales in 1812; their volume fire-stormed collectors from other countries, worldwide, to do likewise.

It would be interesting to track the accretions to the fairy tale “The Two Brothers,” before the Grimm’s Brothers recorded it. Twenty pages long, it contains the classic elements found in fairy tales: good/evil, golden egg-laying bird, a King, a Princess, their castle, talking animals, a fire-spitting seven-headed dragon, a witch, an enchanted forest, magic potions, contests, and trickery—Even the use of numbering to facilitate the memory of the storyteller. This fairy tale could have ended in several places, but seamlessly, it continued on and satisfied its listeners, and still does.

Unlike the integrity of the Grimm’s Brothers cherished tales, our collectors of stories—journalists—play havoc with truth, their intent to rouse fear and manipulate imaginations, rather than ennoble them. I wonder which version of the spin-doctors’ palaver, if any, will be remembered one hundred years from now.

 

Like the Genesis story of Jacob wrestling with God/Angel, last night passed in a similar manner, only I was left with terminal illness, not with a sore hip, as was Jacob’s lot.

Stunned, I made it to my wing-back chair, my legs propped upon a hassock, and took stock: It felt like I was trapped in a monstrous ache, barred from all exits. My eyes burned. I rubbed them. I blew my nose, coughed. I began breathing, slowly, until enveloped in deep stillness. Outside my study window dawn softened the leafing lilac bush and patches of fescue grass in the backyard.

 

 

Other tumultuous images from the night flooded me: Joan of Arc’s visions, her suit of armor and white stallion, her slaughtering enemies, her restoration of the Dauphin upon the French throne, her arrest for heresy and imprisonment, her frequent interrogations, her death by burning in Rouen’s marketplace. I cringed, owning similar attitudes ill-suited to accepting the unacceptable, glaringly evident in my present circumstances.

Night work with another writer also assumed enormous importance. He depended upon my counsel and often sought my approval whether I was available or not.

Such disjointedness evidences yesterday’s curiosity about the global pandemic’s infection and death rates, stay-at-home-orders for the next month, governments’ measures to protect their people, on-line meditations/exercises to counter negative fallout from such untoward changes. Rather than keep up with developments I have no control over, better to maintain my usual self-care routines, pray, and move through each twenty-four hours allotted me.

My terminal illness remains…

It’s time to stop wrestling.

 

What were the true circumstances of Miss Margaret Fairchild, an impoverished woman living in her disabled Bedford van parked in the courtyard of British author, Alan Bennett for fifteen years? Thanks to his compassionate restraint, he delayed publishing her story in The London Review of Books until after her death in 1989. For decades he had already studied the downtrodden and heralded their stories.

Throughout the movie, The Lady in the Van (2015), its screenplay written by the same author, we glean hints of her past: a concert pianist, who had studied Chopin with the Swiss-French virtuoso Alfred Cortot; a former nun whose superior ordered her to sacrifice her passion for music with prayer; a psychiatric patient committed by her brother for treatment of her shattered world; an escapee who lived the rest of her life within its pieces. After her van accidentally killed a motorcyclist on a country road, she changed her name from Margaret Fairchild to Mary Shepherd.

Through the artistry of Alan Bennet, we have the portrait of a damaged woman, bold-spirited, eking out her last years among neighbors on Gloucester Crescent in Camden Town, an inner city district of London. Many of them remembered Mary and shared stories with the film crew.

Kudos to Alan Bennett for perceiving Miss Mary Shepherd as a lady, despite her stench, her stubbornness, her vinegar speech, her raucous laughter. Her nobility shines through the shards of her existence. We were touched.

 

 

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