January 26, 2010

Miss Mary Quite Contrary

Today I have been thinking about secret gardens. No, I am thinking about childhood, really. As a child I fiercely loved the 1993 film adaptation of The Secret Garden. It is an oddly mournful film, to be about children. It is also a very lonely film. While watching the scene from Mary’s dream, in which a toddler version of herself gets lost in the tropical plants in an enormous garden and is left by her mother, who later dies, I always cried. When I watch it today I feel old panic crawling up the back of my spine. The whole story has the feel of a ghost story, and Holland’s film shows it. The soundtrack, too, is unnerving. Mutations of Greensleaves weave and trill, overlaid often with the sounds of the howling wind on the moor or the resonant screams of Mary’s cousin, lost in the gothic labyrinth of Craven’s mansion.

How did I know to like such a lonely thing? Sometimes when I look back at my early tastes in film they only make sense retroactively, as if I knew somehow who I was going to be. Maybe I was that person already. The little girl who would rather rent Sea Prince and the Fire Child or Wild Swans weekly than Lion King, or Home Alone. I feel like if I could have the chance to speak with then-Carolyn I might understand more, better.

I bring up The Secret Garden because it evoked the same emotions in me as Virginia always did. A sense of antiquity and wonder, almost fearful. The forest here thrilled me in my childhood, the dark tangles of branches and blackberry vine menacing and magical. I would like so much to have retained more of myself over the years. I feel stirrings, now and again, more here than anywhere else. It’s maddening to think that all the drive and talent and knowledge you had as a child is still in there somewhere, all entombed in layers of experience, like dry skin. I remember trying to start secret gardens everywhere, digging up plants here and there and transplanting them there and here. Few took, but the satisfaction was in the secret, I suppose. I could spend a lifetime trying to recapture the intensity of youth. Maybe that is what genius is. Maybe that is the best life project anyone can really hope to pursue. Maybe we learn to layer life around ourselves because it is too hard to be a child, so quick to rage and to love. I suppose that is a seductive aspect of The Secret Garden: Craven is freed from the physical and emotional shackles of his life by the stubborn will of a child. It seems unfair that we should look to something so fragile and strange as children to redeem us. All this boils down to a wish I’d like to grant then-Carolyn. A garden, secret or not.

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