I’ve been thinking about fairy tales a lot today. I’m always thinking about fairy tales in one way or another, but today they were everywhere–people becoming princesses, young people in love. Another Royal wedding. I didn’t care that much about this one, apart from being happy for their happiness–I wanted to see the dress, which I did, and then I ended up watching the whole ceremony because royal weddings will do as they do. It was lovely. I enjoyed the preacher. I loved the cellist.
I am something else, though, somehow. I can’t quite figure it out. Not sad, but not exactly happy either. Wistful? Maybe that’s what it is.
I always thought, growing up, that I’d be married by now. (I’ll confess that as a teen I dreamed of one day marrying Prince William–my whole family can attest to this.) Married, a couple of kids, maybe a house. I would be living somewhere other than Hamilton. Somewhere either overseas or by the sea. I’d have published a few novels. I’d spend my days writing. None of that has happened. There is plenty of time yet to come and still I feel this mounting internal pressure, this growing sense of things being off-kilter, the life that I wanted slowly wisping out of reach. It might already be gone.
It might, in fact, not actually be the life that I wanted at all, but I don’t yet know that. And so I find myself thinking about fairy tales–about magic and transformation and happy endings and people who meet and fall in love. The things that we want, the things that we long for.
But also fairy tales where dark things happen–where parents die and children are left alone in the forest, where a woman will cut her own toes off just to have a chance at marrying a prince. Where a woman who transformed herself into something other in order to be with the man that she loves jumps, instead, from a cliff after seeing her prince in bed with another woman. How darkness runs through all these stories, even the ones that we paint bright and cheery.
I’ve always been obsessed with transformation. With the idea that you can become other than what you are, as though what you are is in fact not enough and never has been. You can transform yourself through God, you can transform yourself through exercise. Through books and hard work and practice and trying. The fairy tale ending awaits for you, as it does for everybody. But when things were at their darkest for me three years ago, this idea felt like the cruelest kind of trick. I saw no happy endings–only a lie that I’d been told, or a lie that I’d let myself believe, over and over. If you do X, then you’ll get Y. If you do this, you’ll be rewarded. If you put yourself out into the world, the world will pour itself into you in spades. If you’re good, if you do everything you’re supposed to do, God will reward you. That fairy tale ending is waiting, one way or another. Everywhere you go is filled with magic.
It seemed so cruel to me to wake up every day and realize that none of that was true. That I had, in effect, boxed myself in a trap of my own making: I’d treated my faith like a fairy tale. I’d played tit-for-tat with the world and the world was not playing back. I’ve spoken before about the image that played through my head during much of that time: a zipper that I could pull from the top of my head down to my toes, a need to physically step out of myself and slink away from my life. To become something other, become something new. Someone other than the girl who’d decided to focus on the fairy tales that all had happy endings and ignore the ones that spoke of darker things. (In “The Fir Tree“, by Hans Christen Anderson, the sentient Christmas Tree burns to death in a fire, having wished its life away in search of bigger, brighter days.) I’d worked hard but the world had not, I felt, played fair (even though to all intents and purposes it had–that’s what depression will do to you). It was a long time before I felt like I could believe in those stories again.
But here’s a truth from farther down that road of recovery: sometimes fairy tales don’t feel like fairy tales at all. Sometimes a fairy tale is just a story of ordinary work and striving that occasionally erupts into magic before going back to work and striving again. Sometimes, as with the first time I worked at the FOLD, a fairy tale feels magical precisely because hard work and faith–in oneself most of all?–bring about something beautiful. There is no fairy godmother waiting to bless the day. Instead, we make–we are–our own magic.
Things have opened up in ways unexpected and glorious for me in these past few weeks. The 2018 FOLD was amazing. This newfound ability to work full-time from home has me feeling more rested than I’ve felt in years. And with that rest, a smattering of the adventure that moved me through my twenties has come back to find me. This coming weekend I’ll be flying to London to take in Bare Lit. In the summer, I’m off to Seattle and Hedgebrook to do nothing but write for three weeks.. Late in the fall, I’ll be writing from the Scarborough bluffs. It is, in many ways, very much the life I’ve always wanted.
And yet here is another truth: not everyone gets to have everything. And I wonder this, on yet another day where I’m captivated by beautiful white dresses (the second one was my favourite) and storylines so romantic they feel as if they can’t quite be real. Sometimes I feel like the Fir Tree in that Anderson story–always waiting for what comes ahead, always finding it hard to enjoy what’s happening right now. How do you tap into that mindfulness and stay there? Where’s the fairy tale about recognizing the magic in your own life? How do you carry the dark memories–the things that you have lost, the parts of yourself that are gone or disappearing and will probably never come back–and the happiness at the same time? These are things I ask myself constantly. Sometimes it’s easier to imagine more transformation and change than it is to imagine staying the same, and hoping for that magical eruption from time to time. Not everything will be magical for everyone. Not everyone transforms. (And not everyone views “magical” in the same way!) We don’t all of us get to live exactly the lives that we might want.
But then, there’s been a great deal of change in my own life in the last 2.5 years. Another thing to remember: change doesn’t always feel that way. We picture a landslide, and what actually happens is a small stream that trickles through, softening the ground so that moss starts to grow and flowers, eventually, to bloom…