Lost in the Fog of a Story

It’s been foggy as all get out this week. I don’t mean one of dark, pea-soup fogs that blacken city centers for days, but a daily, thick, white, winter mist that layers everything outdoors in microscopic droplets and obscures any object more than 30 feet away. Fogs that makes the world seem even colder than it is. We’re talking weather an English Teacher can use to lecture about creating “atmosphere.”

Well, fog works in stories, doesn’t it? The very nature of the phenomena creates confusion, where good things and bad are hidden, and individuals are isolated. Writers have been using fog as set-dressing, plot-device, and symbols for longer than I care to think about. Since we’re stuck inside until the sun breaks through, why not take a look one or two stories that turned these earth-bound clouds into art?
Fog and England have been associated for so long, it’s practically become a cliche. Yet, if you are talking about bright, white, fog, forget about the stories of London. The soot and sulfur-filled clouds that permeate Bleak House and every Ripper tale ever written are peculiar to the city. Instead, look toward the southern coast for one of the greatest Gothic stories ever penned: Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles. Here, fog is used as a plot device to heighten suspense and terror during the story’s climax. Holmes and Watson are running through the Great Grimpen Mire (what a name!) to catch the villain and foil his plot. The thick fog slows down our rescuers and blinds them to the approach of the terrible Hound until the last second. But the fog is even-handed in its justice.Just as it keeps our heroes from seeing where danger is, it hides the escape route from the criminal of this piece. Unable to find his safety markers in the fog, our bad guy gets lost in the quagmire of a peat bog and comes (we assume) to a wet, miserable end. However, the fog and bog add a note of mystery. Because the criminal’s body is never found, Conan Doyle left open the possibility open for him to survive and return from the fog to threaten Holmes in a sequel!
My own Great, Grey Grimpen Mire
As isolating and dangerous as the fog can be, there are those that welcome it.  To Edmund Tyrone, and his mother, Mary, in Long Day’s Journey into Night, fog creates an illusion of isolation. It also symbolizes Edmund’s active alcoholism and Mary’s addiction to morphine. As the drugs isolate them from reality, Edmund describes how fog transforms their world into a place where “Nothing was what it is. That’s what I wanted—to be alone with myself in another world where truth is untrue, and life can hide from itself.” As for Mary, she admits,”I really love fog. It hides you from the world and the world from you. You feel that everything has changed, and nothing is what it seemed to be. No one can find or touch you anymore. It’s the foghorn I hate. It won’t let you alone. It keeps reminding you, and warning you, and calling you back.” Notice that neither character believes the fog makes them happier or better people; these tortured souls aren’t seeking happiness, but distance. The fog isolates them from their underlying feelings and their problems. Of course, like other wanderers in the mist, these two can’t find their way out of this half-life because they can’t tell how lost they are.  
It isn’t as gloomy as O’Neill’s Monte Cristo
Cottage, but it sure isn’t cheery either!

If you think of this play as autobiography, it’s amazing to realize these are the two family members who found their way out of the mist. O’Neill (as Edmund) eventually chose life and his work. His mother, by realizing her disease had a  spiritual as well as physical component, found recovery through a religious retreat. Ultimately, the fog’s illusion of comfort wasn’t enough for the real people.

That’s what fog ultimately means for people, in fiction and real life: confusion and the illusion of isolation from reality.  In the end, we have to deal with whatever comes along, even if it’s illness or a big, scary dog.  No matter what the mist obscures, we aren’t that far apart from each other. That’s something we’ll all see when the sun comes out again.

The Writer who Changed the World, One Story at a Time

Yesterday was the 65th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth’s accession to the throne.  It’s an incredible milestone, one no other ruler of England has attained, and she deserves all the honor and respect she gets.  The woman has seen a lot of changes during her reign, but that’s not what England should celebrate today. Today marks the 205th birthday of Charles Dickens, one of the most influential Britons and writers of any time. He didn’t just watch the world change, he changed our language and world with his stories. He was the literary Colossus of the Victorian Age, and his influence is still felt today.  
Dickens in his early years
The life of Dickens holds enough drama to fuel a multi-season mini-series. His terrible childhood has become so well-known we label all other impoverished, chaotic beginnings as “Dickensian.”  The funny thing is, he tried to hide these facts for years. Destitution was considered a social and character defect in the Regency and Victorian Eras and Dickens spent much of his life’s energy trying to get as far away from his impoverished past as he could. That drive turned him into a law clerk, a court reporter, a freelance journalist and finally a novelist.  Like any good storyteller, he wrote about what he knew.  And his stories changed our world.
After witnessing how poverty corrupts and ruins lives, he wrote Oliver Twist and satirized the Poor Laws that punished the very people they were supposed to help.  The book exposed the disgusting London slum, Jacob’s Island, to a heretofore unsuspecting public, who cleaned up the area so thoroughly that thirteen years later one bureaucrat insisted it never existed! In Nicholas Nickleby, Dickens wrote about the system of farming unwanted children out to boarding schools in Yorkshire where kids were neglected instead of educated.  An investigation shut that practice down.  In Bleak House, in The Old Curiosity Shop, in Hard Times, and more, Dickens attacked some social evil.  And because his books sold like hotcakes, his readers followed his pen to the trouble and tried to correct the wrongs.
Best-sellers!  It’s hard to compare the popularity of any novelist writing today with Dickens.  J. K. Rowling came closest with the midnight publication parties for her Harry Potter series.  But those were orchestrated affairs hosted by the bookstores.  Now, imagine yourself in Victorian times.   Dickens doesn’t publish a whole novel all at once, he serializes chapters in a magazine.  If you want to read the latest installment, you have to get each new issue of the journal.  In America, people gathered in droves on the wharves, to get the new issues as they came off the ship!  This wasn’t some publisher’s or PR agent’s operation, these were people who couldn’t wait any longer to find out what happened to Nell Trent or Little Emily!  Readers are crazy people, but they wouldn’t have done that if the man hadn’t created wonderful characters and stories.
Of course, his characters have entered our lexicon.  The saintly, too-good-to-live girl is known as Little Nell, and an insincere toady is labeled Uriah Heep.  (By the way, Dickens had a way of naming his characters that was second to none.  You don’t have to meet Wackford Squeers, Fagin, Quilip, or Uriah Heep to know they are all villains; the sounds of their names are enough.) And people who have never picked up one of Mr. Dickens’s books still know the worst miser is a “Scrooge.”  That single story, The Christmas Carol, changed how we celebrate the holiday.  It used to be a relatively minor festival in the Christian calendar.  Now it’s a season of family, parties, and charity because Dickens wrote about it that way.
Boz, the Grand Old Storyteller
Am I saying he was the world’s greatest man or subtle writer? Of course not.  There’s a fair amount of evidence suggesting he had faults as a family man and Ellen Ternen knew he was no saint. The way he treated his wife when their marriage fell apart is enough to make a feminist cringe.  And, as entertaining as many of his characters are, they lack the complexity and depth of real people. There are too many coincidences and far too much sentiment in a lot of his stories.  But that doesn’t make them any less compelling.  And his influence doesn’t lessen with the years.
So, pull out your noisemakers and cheer old “Boz” as he was known then.  Over-blown, over-sensitive, over-dramatic, Boz, who could tell a story that made you laugh, cry, and shiver with fear.  Boz who made money telling people what was wrong with the world and said it so well his readers tried to make it better. With Shakespeare and the Beatles, he may be one of Britain’s finest exports. We’re lucky he came our way.

A Mid-Winter Hiatus

The American South does lots of things well, but Winter ain’t one of them.  While hardy New-Englanders take February like a dose of nasty-but-fortifying medicine and mountainous regions celebrate the annual return of snow bunnies to the slopes, the denizens of Dixie roll ourselves up in fleece and wonder why God sent an Ice Age our way.  He didn’t, not really, but when you live in the sun belt, it’s hard to cope when the sun goes away. Our houses and wardrobes don’t accommodate perma-frost that well and neither do our moods.  We like living outdoors in a world drenched in green instead of staring through the window at a universe of muddy browns and grays. It gets depressing. That’s why Wednesday was such a ray of hope.  It was a Mid-Winter Hiatus.
Winter doesn’t look so dreary
when the sky is this blue!

After two fairly solid cold snaps and an impressive amount of rain, the sun came out on Tuesday and Wednesday and put some blue back in the sky.  Not that thin, watery blue sky that makes a cold day colder either, but the deep azure we’ve come to accept as a birthright.  I knew it was time, not only to seize the day, but opportunity, and my gardening gloves.

For all of our grumbling, the Deep South has a short dormant season, and this is it.  Now is the only time of year I can make headway against the kudzu, sawbriar, and Jimson weed that threatens to take over my yard each year.  My allergies return with every spring, and this stuff starts to grow…well, like weeds. So, if I want to get in front of the enemy and encourage real grass to grow, this is my chance to do it. With my wheelbarrow and implements of destruction in hand, I began uprooting and toting away the scrub.

My hero

Sometime after carting away the sixth wheelbarrow load of thorned and prickly fauna, I realized something I hadn’t noticed for weeks: it was too hot to work in a sweatshirt.  A quick check of the phone app verified the miracle: the temperature was 70 degrees and climbing!  I started back to the house to change my shirt and then saw my annual miracle: the first flower of the year.

Almost thirty years ago, while my home was being built, the wife of the owner-contractor planted narcissi in the yard.  Since then, these flowers have returned every mid-winter, as if to affirm that, no matter how impossible it seems, Spring will return.  Of course, narcissi are so common they may be a floral cliche but they are the first flowers to appear each year, and that’s why I treasure them. They give me hope and color when I need it the most.  As far as I’m concerned, they’re heroes.

And, for the next few hours, everything seemed right with the world. I cleared out weeds, while I listened to a book on tape and felt the sun on my face. When the work was done, I sat outside with a drink and decided the returning cold does not dismay me.  It’s part of the cycle of life down here and, at worst, it’s temporary. Spring is coming. I’ve seen the signs.  They were there in a mid-winter hiatus.