Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The Reign of Terror

It must be significant that the more I've been knitting, the more I've been thinking about Dickens. Despite having read his entire ouevre for my doctoral exams -- yes, even Bleak House and Little Dorrit -- I never knew that Madame Defarge was what was considered a "tricoteuse."
According to our time's ultimate source of knowledge, Wikipedia, "tricoteuse literally translates from the French as a (female) knitter. The term is used to refer to the old women who used to sit around the guillotine knitting during the Reign of Terror in France in the 18th century. Decisions on executions had to be made in public so these women were paid to be in attendance and give their opinion. During the Reign of Terror the opinions were rarely anything but 'off with his head.' In Charles Dickens' novel A Tale of Two Cities, the character Madame Defarge is a relentless and bloodthirsty tricoteuse ..." Feel free to click on any of those links and end up on Wikipedia, even though doing so may mean you never return to my blog. Perhaps I can figure out a way to get my blog on Wikipedia? Things did not end well for Madame Defarge. The hubris she had to judge and condemn others, even if it was a kinda popular thing to do, participating in the Revolution and quashing the power of the ruling class and all, came back and bit her on her derriere. She was completely unforgiving, and with a vengeance went after the descendants of the Evremonde family, who had, a generation before, wronged her family. She's a tricky one, that Defarge. She knits into her work the names of those she wants to ... and eventually does ... see die. Dickens modeled her on the Fates, who used to measure the lifespan of a human being in a string of yarn. When they wanted to end that life, they would sever the fibers. So very many kinds of friction have frayed the yarn that is my life -- most of which I had a large part in causing. Of course, friction comes in fits and starts, and lately, it's in a fit phase, the kind of time in which the amount of good you do, the quantity of truth or joy you spread, or the volume of love you share, is irrelevant. The Fates will do as they see best. It is the best of times, the worst of times. The best of times in which I have found so many ways to be kind. The worst of times in the ways I am repaid. The best of times, in which there is always another skein. The worst of times, in which I knit feverishly, to reach the next skein, because its fibers have not yet been compromised. Today, a small but memorable moment of my childhood came into mind -- a moment that I've since tried to convince myself made me as nobly intended as Robin Hood. But in fact, that was not the case at all. In fact, it was born of selfishness, and dissatisfaction with my basketful of yarn. You see, I was one of the several children in my second grade who didn't have a new box of crayons. In those days, we had to bring our crayons from home, and because my parents impressed upon my sisters the importance of keeping their things nice, I inherited a box of half-used crayons that had a most disappointing broken magenta, my favorite color. I didn't have any money of my own to buy a new box, and back then, we couldn't -- and didn't -- expect anyone else to provide them for us. I couldn't ask my mother for a new box, because that would be adlmitting that I was ashamed by the perfectly fine box I had. Anyway, there I was one day strolling a few paces behind my mother, who was searching through our local Five And Ten for notepaper. Cleverly, I let the space between us lengthen until I found it safe to lift what I saw as a beautiful, perfect, untouched-by-human-hands box of crayons and put it in my pocket. Immediately, the guilt descended. I was Catholic then, after all. Once home, I carefully stashed the box in my red plaid book satchel, and before we pulled out our brown bag lunches the following day, I retrieved the box and gave it to the little girl at the desk next to me who also didn't have a new box. In fact, she had no box at all. Her toothy grin was like a pardon. It may have been the first time in my life that I felt relief. But not enough to erase what I'd done. Prepare now for a mangled blend of metaphor: Only now do I realize that every step I've ever taken outside my box of perfectly fine crayons has frayed my yarn. Look around. There are so many kids without any crayons at all. We who had even an imperfect box were born lucky. But that imperfect box is enough to make us suspect now, to nudge our necks ever more closely to the guillotine's blade. Our names are written in society's fabric as those who have, as the descendants of those who oppressed the rest. I don't know what the answer is. Capitalism is as imperfect as any other system, and intrinsically demands that a poorer class exist. But since that early lesson, I strove to get, the honest, capitalist way, a nice new magenta crayon -- not only for me, but also for the little kids without one. And now I'm angry that I'm judged for that. A do-gooder who sees the have-nots as the lesser-thans. So, to find peace, and patience, and acceptance, I pick up my size 5 1/2 plastic needles and my black Paton Shetland Chunky acrylic/wool, and seed stitch another couple of rows on the winter scarf meant for my son. I know this entry sounds pious and self-serving. That's the problem with humility. As soon as you find some, you're proud of having done so. Repeat.

1 comment:

tom said...

Maybe it's my own love of Dickens showing, but I really thoroughly enjoyed reading this entry. Just thought you should know! :)