Tag Archives: peas

Peas

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Peas_0001

To me this story is about power – who has it, who wants it, who needs it.  Last month we dealt with Krishna and his mother and touched on issues of motherhood.  This month the story brings me to issues of childhood.

When I was little it seemed like I was in a continuous struggle for power with my mother; a struggle into which I had arbitrarily been plunged without instruction book or reason.  Of course I’m describing my feelings – the language came with education and experience and years of introspection and reflection – but I knew instinctively, as all young animals know,  that understanding the power dynamics of my tribe was vital to survival.

I know now, she did not see me as her adversary.  In fact, the struggle I took so personally wasn’t personal at all.  Her anger, come by honestly, could not be directed at its proper target and so she turned it on herself and on me.

Peas were a huge issue.  I hated them, she insisted on serving them.  Truly they made me gag.  It was the texture more than anything else, but the color didn’t help.  In the beginning they were canned.  The frozen ones were mildly better though by the time they came around the battle lines were so entrenched no one could back down.  On the nights she served peas I often sat in front of am congealing food until bedtime.  I devised all kinds of devious ways of folding them up in my paper napkins and then excusing myself to go to the bathroom where I flushed them down the toilet. I stuffed them in my pockets, pushed them into the soft stick of butter in the butter dish, dropped them in my glass of milk, and fed them to the dog who spit them out.  He didn’t like them either.  Naturally, these stratagems usually failed, resulting in interminable lectures about starving children in foreign climes.  The slightest hint of defiance in the form of body language or glances led to high-pitched angry tirades that shattered everyone’s peace for the rest of the evening.

Years later, my mom went back to college and took all kinds of classes.  We grew to expect weird innovations in our family routines with each new course and teased her unmercifully, but I was proud of her.  She willingly embraced those new ideas, pondered their meaning and applied them to her own internal process.  One day, I was sitting on a kitchen stool chopping onions for the meal she was fixing when suddenly my mother burst into tears and said, “I’m so sorry I made you eat your peas.”

It was an extraordinary moment of contrition on her part and forgiveness on mine.  It was all that was said.  I think we were both shocked.  We didn’t talk about my childhood again until years later when I had garnered the courage and experience to be able to initiate the conversation.

My collage shows a child spitting out her peas – her mouth, like Krishna’s, is full of stars to remind us how precious children are.  There are two other little ones here – the goblin I thought myself to be and the defiant self-possessed little girl who clung to her own identity and integrity.  The fabric in the background refers to the part of this month’s story I liked best – the bed covers and mattresses of many colors.  My mom loved fabrics and patterns and taught me to love them, too.  My eye for color and talent for composition are part of her legacy.

Bed was a special place for me – the place I could be myself, escape into imagination, and read to my heart’s content with the help of a flashlight.  It was also my cache.  I hid food under the bed.  Not peas, of course, stolen cookies and forbidden chocolate made up my stash.  You can see candy wrappers and cookies peeking out beneath the pillows.

My peas, like the princess’s are like  grit rubbing against the soft vulnerable flesh of an oyster.  Year after year,  I exude nacre to ease my discomfort, working and re-working the raw material of childhood until it becomes a luminous, precious pearl that enriches and enhances my life.  The proverbial pea also provides grit in the sense of “true grit.”  I’ve found that in my life it is the dis-comforts that make me strong and build my character.

The Princess and the Pea

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Princess and Pea

This month we leave ancient myths and time-honored tales to devote ourselves to a modern composer of fairy tales.  It takes real art and a profound grasp of human nature to create the kind of story that rings true across differing cultures and thus becomes told and retold time and time again, fitting seamlessly into the repertoire of wonder tales read aloud in the evening before bedtime.

Hans Christian Anderson was such a fellow.  Bullied during an impoverished childhood he took refuge in books and made the land of enchantment his own at a very early age.  He was an awkward shy man with unfortunate features, given to romantic crushes on beautiful unobtainable people.  The suffering and depression thus engendered added that dark undertone to stories based on acute observation and understanding of the quirks of human behavior.  Though humor isn’t an overt feature of his stories it lurks in the character sketches of his secondary characters.  The mother duck that hatches a swan, silly Thumbelina and her toad, the poor soldier’s magic gadget which allows him to know what everyone in town is having for dinner all represent sly tongue-in-cheek sketches of human psychology and culture, keeping the stories just as fresh today as when he wrote them.

It is just this combination of bold plots, dark pathos and embedded humor that appealed to me and also thousands of other children around the world.  Certainly it is a mix that strongly mirrors the reality of many childhoods.  Though adults often choose to forget, children often find adult behavior ludicrous.  They quickly learn to hide their smiles and opinions, but revel in stories, which subtly mock their guardians.

“The Princess and the Pea” is one of our favorites.  It is very short- we’ll see how we get on as we go along.  Lot of other stories by H.C. Anderson are jumping up and down right off-stage impatiently waiting their turn!!

Meanwhile, today the story hit me as very African, in that African tales often deal with relationships between people involving their place in the family, tribe or society.  The Princess and the Pea is a mother-in-law story.  It has only three characters and two props – the mattress(es) and the pea.

African families tend to be large intimate extended associations with little privacy and an abundance of opinions in which the mother’s voice and views dominant in domestic affairs.  When a new wife enters the household she is frequently in competition with her husband’s mother for his attention.  Of course this happens in many cultures around the world, but in western countries, particularly the United States where women exercise power outside the home and families live in small private units, mother-in-law issues have greatly subsided.  However, Anderson was writing at an earlier time when living space was divided into two domains – the domestic and public.  Women ruled the domestic sphere and men the public. This story depicts a power struggle between the matriarch (queen) and the son’s fiancé.  Though the prince loves this woman, he will not save her from the trials imposed by his mother and closes his eyes to any conflict. The bride wins her place in the family because her innate character and backbone (depicted in reverse as sensitivity) let her prevail.

In my collage racism (hinted at in the different skin tones of mother, son and bride) is a metaphor for all the ways we humans rank and judge each other according to our differences.  In this story we sense no one would really be good enough for the queen’s son, because she doesn’t want to share him at all.  Thus she is looking for any and all reasons to discredit and discard his lover.

However, the young woman is accepted and she does become part of the family, so the different skin tones also show the beautiful melding and acceptance possible when we manage to set prejudice aside.

The earliest known bedding dates to 77,000 BCE and was discovered in Sibudu Cave, South Africa. Beds have always been a sign of wealth.  Until recently they were often listed in wills as significant pieces of property.  The number of mattresses available to the Queen implies prodigious wealth.  When the girl calls for more and more of them, she is attempting to demonstrate ability and poise in coping with that unfamiliar wealth.

Dried peas are still a very important food staple in Africa as they were for many centuries in Europe where they often served to ward off famine.  (“Pease porridge hot, pease porridge cold, pease porridge in the pot nine days old.”) Perhaps this bride-to-be’s sensitivity to the pea portends a respect for food, survival and the necessity to provide and care for the general population of her new kingdom.