Mourning kings and angels

china nell, cropped

This regal picture was snapped several years ago. Happily, my daughter seems to be moving out of the princess phase. I like to think it’s because she listened when I told her that princesses were overrated — she says “over-aided,” which is also true — but maybe it’s just a natural progression and has little to do with me. What irks me about so many of the princess stories is that the heroine does so little for herself. Sleeping Beauty sleeps. Cinderella weeps until the birds and mice come up with bright ideas.  These are beautiful victims, desperate to be saved. What makes us adore them so much?

Actually I don’t remember loving a princess when I was little, but I’m sure I must have. The heroine who sticks with me from early childhood is Pippi Longstocking, who could outsmart policemen and lift up her horse with one hand. She was no beauty, not in the traditional sense. But later, as I approached my teen years, something must have shifted: I had a Farrah Fawcett poster on my wall (along with Vinnie Barbarino and Fonzie), and had already been infected by that adoration and the accompanying dread that I would never be nearly so lovely, no matter how I styled my hair.

Since Farrah Fawcett and Michael Jackson died, the news everywhere speaks of “the king” and “the angel.” Radio stations and websites and talk shows are asking us to share our thoughts, about “Jacko” especially, as we embark on some collective form of mourning. But what are we mourning, exactly, aside from the loss of talent and the tragedy of famous lives cut short? An old friend of mine said, “It’s always sad when part of your childhood dies,” and that seemed to encapsulate the wave of sorrow so well — celebrities’ highs and lows, from our perspective, are more about us than them. So in this way the screen that we stare at is really a lens that looks inward.

I remember when Elvis Presley died. He was a king too, of an earlier empire. I was eleven years old, and knew of him just because everyone did, not because I or my parents listened to his music. We didn’t. But I knew it was an historic day, and I remember taking the front page of the newspaper up to my room, and folding it and putting it in my drawer. I thought it was something I would always keep, and I recall having the sense that this was the first time I had consciously shared in something that touched so many people, united by their focus on one man. I suppose one of the functions of celebrities is to form a community among strangers.

The Kiss, with crowns on

The Kiss, with crowns on

Who would ever wish to be so relentlessly famous? People are gathering in huge crowds for Michael Jackson just as they did for Elvis and John Lennon and Princess Diana. I keep thinking of one of the interviews I watched on David Lynch’s new Interview Project, in which an 85-year-old woman, rocking on her porch, sums up her life as child, mother, grandmother, in just a few minutes. “I just don’t know of anything I would change very much,” she says. “I’ve lived a good long life. … To be right honest, I don’t care if anyone remembers me or not.”

I find these stories about ordinary people so refreshing. Interview Project is not perfect — in my opinion, it relies too heavily on romantic rural images like dusty roads and birds on a wire, and the questions asked of its participants are often too broad to really be meaningful in such short clips. But the idea behind the project is excellent — a crew traveling across the country and finding people as it goes; collecting and documenting their stories.

When my sister and I were first working on The Occupied Garden, someone asked me what made our family worthy of a book, what was different about them than any other family. And I found myself scrambling for an answer, when really the point was that they weren’t different to any great degree. It’s interesting how in fiction we like to read about “ordinary people” as characters, but memoirs, biographies, and autobiographies in large part are reserved for the celebrities among us. We crave their stories. And yet it’s hard to decipher the truth of those stories — to find the person inside them — when we make them into kings and angels.

***Just adding an interesting aside to this post, having recently come across the Fallen Princesses photos by Vancouver photographer Dina Goldstein. Here, “Disney’s perfect princesses ” come up against “illness, addiction, and self-image issues.”



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5 responses to “Mourning kings and angels

  1. Jeff

    Yes I agree Kristen. I also think when we elevate others (celebrities) to the status of Kings and Angels, we also diminish our own importance.


  2. Lenny

    It is interesting that the very act of telling stories condences things down into the essentials and many of the bumps and scratches of a life lived are smoothed away. The fairytale and story telling has played such an important role in elevating people out of the real difficulties of life while boiling down the essence of life’s lessons.

    It’s tricky to negotiate around the pink and purple princess culture – to not be drawn into stories of tragedy – but maybe it is a rite of passage through which we eventually discover that the stories closer to our own reality are the ones that sustain us.

  3. Marcel

    On being famous – I just finished (minutes before reading this post) reading about William Smith, the father of geology, who yearned to discover and map out what was under the earth’s surface. But, probably more than anything he needed to be recognized for his work. It’s interesting how his scientific curiosity and his need for recognition played against each other and cost him dearly financially to the point that he even landed in debtor’s prison. If he’d kept using his increasing knowledge of geology to drain fields, build canals, and discover mines he would have been a rich man, but instead he decided he needed to fight a losing battle against the British scientific establishment simply to become famous.

    The story made for good reading but the whole story, was about being famous, or standing out and being recognized for it. If he’d been famous from the start or never become famous, I doubt the story would have been as entertaining. But as you say, it works for biographies but not for fiction.

    • kristendenhartog

      Interesting, Marcel. Funny, too, how I first thought of Will Smith the actor. I think even in small, ordinary ways, our need for recognition (validation?) can so often get in the way of what in the end would be a more worthy and more rewarding path.

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