I love this video and this story with a passion. Someone in New Brunswick was videotaping in his backyard when a giant face appeared in the clouds. According to The Star "a lightning bolt from the related storm went on to kill 40 goats." Now that's great journalism! If you watch the video, don't be disappointed (as I was) that the giant face doesn't turn toward the camera and say something magnificent. I guess some people are never satisfied. Thanks to Sara O'Leary for the link.
According to Alexandra Popoff, author of Sophia Tolstoy: A Biography, Leo Tolstoy's wife has been maligned by history. Popoff, who had access to a great deal of previously inaccessible archival materials, explains that it all stems from Tolstoy's final years, when he experienced a religious conversion that led him to renounce his marriage, his family, and his property (or try to). However much Tolstoy may have believed in his principles of poverty and chastity, this renunciation put his wife in a completely untenable position. Sophia was left to look after the couple's eight surviving children pretty much on her own. Clearly Tolstoy felt some responsibility to his family, because he kept waffling on property and money matters. Admittedly, Sophia kept fighting him on these -- who wouldn't, when she had eight children to feed, clothe, and educate? He also kept waffling on the matter of sex -- he kept sleeping with Sophia and then blaming the matronly woman for being a seductress. Tolstoy's most famous follower, Vladimir Chertkoff, managed to insinuate himself between the couple in Tolstoy's final years and ended up controlling his literary works after his death. Popoff argues that it is he who is most responsible for discrediting Sophia Tolstoy's character. This book is a must-read for anyone who is interested in Tolstoy, and really, anyone who is interested in the concept of marriage and women's historical role within it.
Tolstoy was a literary genius, to be sure, but he also must have been infuriating to be married to. Sophia was not only Tolstoy's muse, she was a tireless worker who devoted all her efforts to creating the proper environment for her husband to write in. She was Tolstoy's copyist and later his publisher. She managed his home and often his estate and related business matters. She made most of the childrearing and educational decisions on her own. (At one point, when she asked about appropriate education for one of their teenage sons, her husband brushed her off with a comment that he should become a street sweeper or the like because of his own religious beliefs against taking part in a money-based economy.) Sophia gave birth to thirteen children, although she wanted to stop after seven or so -- but Tolstoy wouldn't allow birth control. She breastfed all these babies herself at Tolstoy's insistence even though it never became easy for her (she often developed mastitis) and most women of her position employed wet nurses. And she watched six of her children die. Exhausted and completely emotionally and physically spent, at times Sophia wanted to end these pregnancies:
By now, she was certain of her [twelfth] pregnancy. As she wrote her sister, she felt like "screaming of despair and rage."
Told the news, Tolstoy wrote he was glad they would have a child; Sophia's unhappiness came from her revolté. It would be easier for her and people around her if she assumed a more accepting attitude: "Why can't you surrender?" Sophia thought his position was morally superior and felt crushed. "If I were bad before, now I am loathsome! And if you were good, you have become so much better!" Her pregnancy explained her abnormal state, Tolstoy replied: "I know, I've heard, that it's terribly oppressive for the soul."
Meanwhile, Sophia attempted to induce a miscarriage: she took scalding baths and jumped from a dresser. To a nanny who tried to talk her out of it, she said that Tolstoy considered leaving her and their children. When her attempts failed, she approached a midwife in Tula, asking for an abortion. The midwife, afraid of exposure, refused: she would perform an abortion for someone else, but not for Countess Tolstoy.
At times, Sophia Tolstoy wanted to end her own life.
You can read a brief excerpt from the biography here.
Since this year Luke is really aware of and anticipating Christmas -- mostly because of all the presents he is expecting Santa to bring him -- I decided to introduce the nativity story. Actually, it all started when Luke saw this Little People Nativity set in the Sears catalogue and asked for it. He has a number of other Little People sets that he's recently begun to play with constantly, mostly to enact various scenes of violence:
"Let's set up a Little People town, Mama, and then this Little People school bus can crash it all up!"
"That's too violent, Luke. I don't like going to all the trouble of setting up a town when you're just going to destroy it."
"But, Mama, it's a WIOLENT town."
Hope springs eternal, I guess, because I went ahead and ordered the thing. I also picked up a copy of This Is the Stable to go along with it. We set up the manger and read the story this evening.
"Who's this, Mama?"
"That's the baby Jesus's mother, Mary."
"Um, that's Joseph, Jesus's father. Uh...I mean, stepfather. Yeah, I guess that's Jesus's stepfather."
There were a few lovely moments when we turned the lights down low and pressed the angel on its head to make the star light up and play "Silent Night." And then Luke -- who had begun rather ominously to call the angel the "rangel" and the manger the "ranger" -- asked if we could use the figures to play a version of the video game "Raft Wars." After I demurred, his stuffed cat Cheryl decided to attack. You can barely see her, she's moving so fast:
And here is the aftermath:
Silent night, indeed.
I reserved Elizabeth von Arnim's Elizabeth and Her German Garden at the library after reading about her (and her weird second marriage to Bertrand Russell's brother Frank Russell) in Uncommon Arrangements. It seemed strange to me that I'd never heard of Elizabeth and Her German Garden, which was a bestseller for ten years or so after its anonymous publication in 1898 -- in Uncommon Arrangements, author Katie Roiphe called it "captivating" and "a serious critique of the institution of marriage" with " a light teasing tone." She said it was "a charming birdcall of a protest." My interest was also piqued by the facts that Katherine Mansfield was von Arnim's first cousin and that E. M. Forster had been tutor to her children. From the little I gathered, neither of them seemed to regard her work very highly.
While von Arnim does indeed seem unhappily married in the book -- in the few passages where the "Man of Wrath" appears he is revealed as pompous, sexist, and possibly sadistic -- she doesn't seem to make any kind of clear argument against marriage. These passages are difficult to read, actually, because she tries to make the Man of Wrath seem amusing when he is, by today's standards at least, boorish and incredibly offensive. But her marriage really isn't the focus of the book -- the book doesn't seem to have much of a focus. It is indeed highly readable -- it's both atmospheric and witty -- but it's also highly episodic, almost anecdotal really. Actually, it's very much like reading a well-written collection of modern diary-style blog entries. Most of the anecdotes are about her garden, some of them are about her children and houseguests, and only a few are about her husband. If Elizabeth and Her German Garden was in any way a protest against marriage, I think it was very much an unconscious one, for von Arnim went on get married a second time, to an even more unpleasant man than the Man of Wrath, at least according to Uncommon Arrangments.
But this is supposed to be about babies in literature -- and Elizabeth von Arnim had three when she wrote this book. Here is a passage about religious education, of a sort, featuring her three little girls, whom she refers to throughout the book as the April, May, and June babies:
The April baby came panting up... the others hurrying along behind, and with flaming cheeks displayed for my admiration three brand-new kittens, lean and blind, that she was carrying in her pinafore, and that had just been found motherless in the woodshed.
"Look," she cried breathlessly, "such a much!"
I was glad it was only kittens this time, for she had been once before this afternoon on purpose, as she informed me, sitting herself down on the grass at my feet, to ask about the lieber Gott, it being Sunday and her pious little nurse's conversation having run, it seemed, on heaven and angels.
Her questions about the lieber Gott are better left unrecorded, and I was relieved when she began about the angels.
"What do they wear for clothes?" she asked in her German-English.
"Why, you've seen them in pictures," I answered, "in beautiful, long dresses, and with big white wings."
"Feathers?" she asked.
"I suppose so, -- and long dresses, all white and beautiful."
"Are they girlies?"
"Don't boys go into the Himmel?"
"Yes, of course, if they're good."
"And then what do they wear?"
"Why the same as all the other angels, I suppose."
She began to laugh, looking at me sideways as if she suspected me of making jokes. "What a funny Mummy!" she said, evidently much amused. She has a fat little laugh that is very infectious.
"I think," said I gravely, "you had better go and play with the other babies."
"She did not answer, and sat still a moment watching the clouds. I began writing again.
"Mummy," she said presently.
"Where do the angels get their dwesses?"
I hesitated. "From lieber Gott," I said.
"Are there shops in the Himmel?"
"But then, where does lieber Gott buy their dwesses?"
"Now run away like a good baby; I'm busy."
"But you said yesterday, when I asked about lieber Gott, that you would tell about Him on Sunday and it is Sunday. Tell me a story about Him."
There was nothing for it but resignation so I put down my pencil with a sigh. "Call the others, then."
She ran away, and presently they all three emerged from the bushes one after the other, and tried all together to scramble on to my knee. The April baby got the knee, as she always seems to get everything, and the other two had to sit on the grass.
I began about Adam and Eve, with an eye to future parsonic probings. The April baby's eyes grew wider and wider, and her face grew redder and redder. I was surprised at the breathless interest she took in the story -- the other two were tearing up tufts of grass and hardly listening. I had scarcely got to the angels with the flaming swords and announced that that was all, when she burst out, "Now I'll tell about it. Once upon a time there was Adam and Eva, and they had plenty of clothes, and there was no snake, and lieber Gott wasn't angry with them, and they could eat as many apples as they liked, and was happy for ever and ever -- there now!"
She began to jump up and down defiantly on my knee.
"But that's not the story," I said rather helplessly.
"Yes, yes! It's a much nicelier one! Now another."
"But these stories are true," I said severely; "and it's no use my telling them if you make them up your own way afterwards."
"Another! another!" she shrieked, jumping up and down with redoubled energy, all her silvery curls flying.
I began about Noah and the flood.
"Did it rain so badly?" she asked with a face of the deepest concern and interest.
"Yes, all day long and all night long for weeks and weeks -- "
"And was everybody so wet?"
"But why didn't they open their umbwellas?"
Just then I saw the nurse coming out with the tea-tray.
"I'll tell you the rest another time," I said, putting her off my knee, greatly relieved; "you must all go to Anna now and have tea."
"I don't like Anna," remarked the June baby, not having hitherto opened her lips; "she is a stupid girl."
The other two stood transfixed with horror at this statement, for, besides being naturally extremely polite, and at all times anxious not to hurt any one's feelings, they have been brought up to love and respect their kind little nurse.
The April baby recovered her speech first, and lifting her finger, pointed it at the criminal in just indignation. "Such a child will never go into the Himmel," she said with great emphasis, and the air of one who delivers judgment.
Novelist Julia Glass, who writes beautifully about families and who has two sons of her own, talks about the books that have most influenced her mothering, including The Earliest Relationship, A Stone Boat, The Wonder of Boys (which my mom has given me but I have not yet read), The Stardust Lounge, The Important Book, and What Is God?
I'm particularly intrigued by that last one. Ever since my dear childhood friend Sara asked me to be one of her daughter Jennifer's godparents, I've been musing on the subject of how best to teach Luke about religion and spirituality. (In Jennifer's case my role is more a social one than religious -- although I did just purchase her a mini Ostheimer nativity set.)
While all three of Luke's living grandparents have strong religious beliefs, David is pretty dead set against organized religion and the notion of a personal God who, he would argue, behaves like a bipolar Santa Claus. I guess that, when pressed, I'd have to say that I'm an agnostic. But I feel pretty strongly (yet vaguely) that there's more to all this than... all this. What's more, I strongly believe that many of the stories from the various religious traditions are based on universal truths, that these stories are invested with a special kind of power, and that we should all be familiar with them. David and I agree that we need to be open-minded and respectful when talking about this subject with Luke and to stress that different people believe different things and that it's important to be tolerant. I've been looking for simple picture books that introduce the concept of God and religion for a couple of weeks now and What Is God? looks like it might be good. Two others that are on my radar are Because Nothing Looks Like God and In God's Name but I haven't held either one in my hands just yet.
I have to say, as I have said before, that Cookie magazine's "On My Nightstand" column, in which writers highlight the books that have helped to shape their parenting, is a really terrific feature.