Tuesday, November 21, 2006

LITTLE BOXES by Malvina Reynolds

I have just downloaded from iTunes the song LITTLE BOXES by Malvina Reynolds sung by Pete Seeger in 1962. The words are here.

The version I have downloaded is a live performance and the audience laughs every time he uses the word 'ticky-tacky'. I find this disconcerting because ever since I first encountered this song as a teenager in the seventies I have found it to be profoundly depressing - mainly because it seemed to be describing me.

My family's house was one of a row of identical houses, my father was a graduate (although he didn't play golf or drink dry martinis), and he had married, had his trio of pretty (well, not too ugly) children and these children seemed to be destined to do exactly the same.

The song seems to have been used to excellent effect in this YouTune clip which I believe is an introduction to an American TV programme called WEEDS. It summarises exactly how I felt when I first heard this song - a slightly sinister sense of pointless conformity and soulessness.

I think this song caused me to rebel - but like all my rebellions it was half-hearted. I began to write daft little poems about the ring around the woman's third finger being akin to the ring around a slave's neck (as in the film ROOTS that was showing at the time), I would go to art college rather than university, I decided, because this was much more liberating, and I certainly would never ever have children.

Happily for me the rebellion failed in all regards: the rings on the third finger of my left hand have rarely been removed for over 23 years; I graduated from university as soon as I could and had my 'pretty children' shortly afterwards. The house that I am living in now is very similar to all the other little boxes in my street and sometimes it does indeed seem that our particular version is held together with little more than ticky-tacky.

But now I am very glad to be in my little box. In fact I am so pleased with the concept of boxes that I frequently find myself making more. Often I imagine them stacked up in their pastel colours with every painful aspect of my life squashed inside them. I keep the lid firmly on, push them as far away from me as possible and hope the things squirming around inside never become strong enough to force the lid to open.


Blogger Susan said...

This reminds me of Dale Carnegie's advice about living in 'day-tight compartments'. He advocated sealing away ones concerns in much the same way as a ship will have heavy doors as an extra safety measure to seal out water. His was a good image that I often use to force myself to stop agonizing over something I can't do anything about. Little boxes are also good...One could focus ones attention on the size of the box, the paper around it, the rope or string or ribbon binding it...

Wed Nov 22, 06:50:00 am  
Blogger sensOtheque said...

Hey Clare,

Made you a promise some days ago to report on the literary event in Ghent where your book "98 redenen om te zijn" was discussed by a panel of literary critics/local celebrities.
First on the other books selected on the topic of female lunacy. Frénk van der Lindens novel seems to be too trendy, too laboured to touch deeply, so not really worth a reading, in my opinion. On the other hand, Michèle Desbordes' book on Camille Claudel appears to be an intensely sad but very moving book. I cannot wait to get it in the bookshop today!
And then, on your book! The panel agreed that it was very well written, and very informative/instructive, maybe a bit too 'clinical' in the first half. Also a very modern book on psychiatrics, knowing that Hoffman lived 150 years ago, even before Freud. His methods where already quite human and progressive at that time. You felt that the panel was going to love Hoffman during the reading, and that it made them think about what madness/sanity is, that the boundaries between sane/insane are not always very clear, theme on which the Guislain Museum in ghent already organised a fair number of expos.
The panel also loved the hilaric children's rhymes in the book, and one of them managed to get a children's book by Hoffman from the library 'Struwwelpeter', apparently still obtainable from Querido publishers down here.
Interesting suggestion for me in the field of (female) madness was the name of Unica Zürn, writer of several books and lover of the artist Hans Bellmer, do you know her?


Wed Nov 22, 09:38:00 am  
Blogger Jan said...

What a painting all this would be!! Hieronymous Bosch or what??
I put boxes on the shelves of my mind. Think the shelf will be getting a bit cluttered by now!

Wed Nov 22, 09:42:00 am  
Anonymous clare said...

Susan: yes the model of my boxes is helping me very much. I think your idea about concentrating on the bows and frills and wrapping will help me keep the lid tightly shut.

Sensotheque: Thank you very much for your report. It is very kind of you. I found this very interesting because I have had a report from someone else who was there too and although your two versions broadly agree there are interesting differences - particularly about the Camille Claudel book - about which the other person's description of the judgement was less positive. Not only do people have different opinions after reading a book, it seems, but also in response to criticism too. It is all to do with perception, I suppose - what aspects we remember and what we forget and these are never going to be the same.

Ha, I wish I could have answered back about the perceived modernity of Hoffmann's methods, though. I have lots to say but think I shall keep that for a future post.

Thank you again for your report. I am very grateful.

Jan: Just been looking up Bosch to check he was who I think he was. Amazing vision and so modern-looking too for someone born 1450. Another case of a man before his time. And cluttered is good.

Wed Nov 22, 03:21:00 pm  
Anonymous marly said...

You are wrapping and stacking your boxes of past pains but also downloading "profoundly depressing" songs that make you think of your boxes... I'll have to think about that a little bit.

Meanwhile, how about downloading something frolicksome, and practicing a little jig along that boardwalk between the trees and mushrooms?

Wed Nov 22, 05:51:00 pm  
Anonymous clare said...

Marly: I downloaded the song first then the song made me realise what I had been trying to do for days - shoving my thoughts away into boxes. Since then I have imagined this mental model more fully and things have become easier. The boxes are really working for me now. Everytime my mind starts to wander onto sad things I think of the boxes, shove all the sad thoughts inside and tie them inside with a big flouncy ribbon.

The frolicksome music would go with this process, I think. Any suggestions?

Wed Nov 22, 06:10:00 pm  
Anonymous Susan Balée said...

Compartmentalizing issues and problems works, otherwise I don't think people would do it. I've certainly done it -- it's a way of dealing with emotional pain.

And I don't know what happened to you, Clare, but I know you mentioned a painful anniversary in Nov. I send you empathy for whatever it was. Whatever it was has probably made you an even better writer, because the touchstone of your work is sympathy. Personally, I've learned more from loss than I've ever learned from joy, though I would happily be completely ignorant if it meant I could avoid losing the people and the things I love.

Back to the boxes and her next line which is that the people are all the same too: Even identical twins raised by the same people can have vastly different experiences, personalities, abilities. We aren't all the same, though it may seem so at first glance.

I reviewed Sue Monk Kidd's rather lugubrious last novel, _The Mermaid Chair_, about a woman having a mid-life crisis. The woman was an artist and what she made was....Little boxes into which she painted and collaged scenes. Metaphor was that she kept herself in a box, or couldn't think out of the box, or something like that.

On the level of objets, I like boxes: I have wooden ones, lacquered ones, old cigar boxes, etc. Everything in its place, a place for every thing.

Now I have a turkey I must start thinking about. Tomorrow is Thanksgiving here in the U.S. and I bought a free-range turkey who only ate grass -- more like what the pilgrims bagged, I imagine, than anything we've eaten in years!

Wed Nov 22, 11:42:00 pm  
Anonymous clare said...

Thanks Susan B. You're right about that second line. It does fail logically when analysed.

I'll have to get round to reading Sue Monk Kidd - I keep hearing about her books so much. That book cetainly sounds interesting.

Hope your turkey is delicious - it certainly sounds like it had a happy life - the most important thing I think.

Thu Nov 23, 08:41:00 pm  
Anonymous marly said...

Hi Clare--

I see that I have been using the old-fashioned spelling of "frolicsome" and getting you to follow my bad ways.

The Magic Flute? Pinafore? The Tiger Lilies? I can't possibly think of a thing, as my eldest as been singing Weird Al all day. Slaughters a slew of brain cells.

Fri Nov 24, 05:28:00 am  

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