Fall is late this year. It is already mid-October, but for the first time the woods have a tinge of gold, just beginning, and the sunlight’s yellow is intensified when it shines through the trees. These are the kinds of days I count as finite in my life. All our days are finite, of course, but some seem to belong in a category as different as a gemstone to a handsome pebble.
Life hasn’t seemed, really, to have returned to normal for us. The contagion levels are still high where we live, so although we have tentatively dined outdoors a few times—and enjoyed it thoroughly—the cold weather will end that small bit of normality. The world feels smaller.
In pre-COVID times, I would go now to the Island. It is one of the places where the golden light of fall permeates everything. The long, empty roads mean I can walk for miles without seeing a car, and the dogs, who return to me instantly when I call, can run off-leash. We wander through golden lanes, and my brain, usually obsessedly plotting and exhausted by the extraction of writing, is distracted by the resonating vibrancy of the color. I remember these walks repeatedly, and return to them in my dreams, and in my books. They are, I think, how I would spend eternity, if I could.
But we are mistaken if the wet days, the bleak and dreary ones, are not treasured, too. My dogs, who love to swim, but hate the rain, nevertheless run joyfully through wet weeds and brush, shaking themselves with vigor when they come in, smelling of mud. Dogs have a capacity for appreciation that my ideal self would try to emulate, but I am not a dog, and can’t seem to achieve their purity of mind.
My joy ebbs and flows with the seasons. I have never fully understood spring, with its mud, its dirty snowpiles, its cold rains, and its disappointed hopes. For me, joy comes when fall it is at its peak, and even still later, with the stark, purple cold of winter. Once the leaves and crops are stripped away the sculptural shapes of the trees and the shape of the earth is revealed, and the light pours down, undiffused. The world seems a brighter, clearer, purer place. That cold clarity purifies me.
In our mortality, I wonder whether there is, too, a clarity that comes as we can, at last, see the end. There is no need for the extraneous, just the focus of comfort, where we can; of love, if we are blessed with it; and the firm hope that when the seasons pass, the essence of what we are will always be.
It was pre-dawn and I had been working for hours. I had just stepped out onto the porch at the house we’re renting in Maine, and was enjoying the calm, when I heard a soft, rhythmic noise. Tock-tock-whoosh, tock-tock-whoosh. I thought at first that it was drops from the eaves after all the rain we’d had, but that wasn’t quite right. I stopped, listening, trying to identify it. The sound grew louder, and I realized it was moving and coming from the water. I leaned against the railing to look out at the lake, waiting for a craft to come into view.
It was a shell with one rower. Elegantly thin, moving at a great clip, and leaving geometric designs in the water that widened and faded in its wake. The sound of the oars reverberated across the lake. I thought about the rower’s early morning, rising to be on the water before the sun rose, and felt a bit of envy at the pleasures of deep exercise, alone, with the sun just hidden behind the mountains at the east side of the water. I rise in the dark, too, but depend on hot coffee—although, perhaps, the same combination of joy and willpower—to sit comfortably on a chair, my legs crossed under me, pressing toward my writing deadline. I count words every morning, gauging my progress. Only two months left.
As he rowed back twenty minutes later, his pace was still strong, but just barely slower. Tock-tock-whoosh. The sound rose and fell as he approached, then moved off into the distance, fading into the morning’s birdsong.
It was a moment of deep and unexpected beauty.
It’s surprising sometimes the things that can make life magical.
The house we rented in Maine is very old and very large. It has history. Perched on a small hill above the lake, it has sprawling porches, front and back, and lovely views. There’s a spacious kitchen, a laundry room, and five roomy bedrooms with four baths. There’s a massive stone fireplace in the living room. But it does not have wi-fi, and the cell signal is only one elusive bar, which seems to flit from room to room like a butterfly, and then disappear.
It has been a long time since I have left my phone sitting on the night stand, turned off, and walked away for the day. I feel released from electronic bondage. The impulse, in an idle moment, to look down at the phone is gradually being replaced by a willingness to look up, to think, to let my brain idle. That’s how writing happens.
I had become increasingly aware of the way my phone had taken over my life. I am continually scrolling through my messages. There’s not a scene that passes before my eyes that doesn’t make me reach for the camera. There’s not a drive that isn’t accompanied by a podcast. It’s too much. It’s too many voices. It’s too much externality. And none of those things are good for a writer.
This week I wrote in the mornings. I hung around with my family. We did a complicated puzzle. I sat on the dock and dangled my feet, and thought about things. I jumped into the cold lake. I cuddled children. I drank cocktails. I went to bed with a book.
It was a kind of detox, and it has put me on the path to getting my brain back.
The temptations to return to my old habits will be strong, and I imagine there will be a gradual regression toward over-use. But I have a plan to keep it in check, and at the moment, it doesn’t even seem appealing to go back to my old ways.
Yesterday was a spring day of transient weather, but during an episode of sunshine (and between chastising Eli for chasing the neighbor’s dog) I took photos of the wild flowers blooming: blood root, violets, bluebells, and trout lilies. Later before bed, I opened up the photos from one year ago, to see if there were any fun reminiscences of 14 month old Eli’s puppy antics, and there were photos of the same flowers, exactly on time, blooming one year ago. When we had a snow storm a week or so ago, I opened my photos to find the storms of years past. Same patterns, to the day.
My mornings are usually the same. I wake in the dark, pour myself coffee, and wander into either my office or our cozy library to write. My writing is usually more productive in my office, but my ability to observe the morning rituals of the woods is better in the library, and this is where I usually end up. As the dogs settle into their customary places, I drink coffee and write. I like seeing how the tilt of the earth changes the location of the sunrise behind the trees, and I gauge the time of year by its place along the long horizon visible from the ridge where our house sits. With the leaves not yet out, the sparkle of the lake down the hill forces me to move my chair so I can see, but in a week or so, the lake will have disappeared behind the foliage.
I can see the turkeys flying down from their roosts, the deer browsing, the plump raccoons waddling up their trees to bed. On a sullen morning like this, there is no burst of sunlight, only a gradual undarkening. On sunny days, the mists rise from the valley in a haze of purple. For the dogs, the scenes of life outside the windows are riveting, too. I like watching the rhythms of life, the interplay of the different creatures who wander in and out of one another’s paths, and the sameness of it—with only small variations to account for the seasons—is reassuring.
At this time of year, in a ritual I now understand, the turkeys are dividing themselves from the large winter flock into smaller family groups. The males parade up and down before the females in full regalia—spectacularly beautiful and with great pomp—making a mechanical thrumming sound like enormous insects—I think by vibrating a set of feathers that skim the ground like a 19th century train’s cow catcher. The females scurry back and forth, cackling, in some kind of hierarchical battle with one another. In the end, it is unclear to me who choses whom, but there will be five or six adults in each final group, and they will pair off to start families. Every morning there will be fewer and fewer remaining from the main flock, until they have melted into the woods for summer. We won’t see much of them again until fall, when they come together again. Finding a nesting hen is extremely difficult, but they nest on the ground, and stay in place from the moment the eggs are laid until they hatch, with no apparent help from the males—although I suspect they keep watch nearby in military readiness to fend off attackers. Turkeys are fierce.
The deer, who do their pairing in the late fall, are already heavily pregnant and browsing hungrily, as are the raccoons, whose cumbersome travels up and down very tall trees make me hold my breath in suspense. I recall one spring watching the antics of a raccoon family, as five or six babies, chirring excitedly, popped out from the hole in their hollow tree, while their mother frantically clung to the tree with her back legs and used her front paws to stuff them back in like someone trying to close a drawer filled with too many socks. No sooner would she get one in, than two or three more siblings would pop out from another hole further down and swarm the tree trunk. They would fall with quite terrifying thumps to the ground, and call wildly for their mother. Then, while she made a laborious trip down to take them by the scruff of the neck to carry back up, more would fall like hail from the den above, while the sound of their frightened and excited calls came from above and below. She would try to carry two at a time: bringing one up a few feet, leaving it to cling to the trunk, returning to the ground to retrieve another, like a relay, while the first one promptly fell past her head with another resonant thunk. The cycle of babies was unceasing as they continued popping out, swarming, and falling with more thunks as is if they were in a cartoon. Mama’s increasingly desperate attempts to gather them up and stuff them back in were as futile as they were comically pathetic. This went on for more than an hour, and I can only imagine how tiring it is to be a mother raccoon. It’s remarkable how much noise a baby raccoon can make when it falls, and even more remarkable that they seem utterly unfazed—which is more than I can say for their mother.
It pleases me to understand these patterns, perhaps because it makes me feel a part of the cycles of the earth. Later, less charming cycles will begin: the annual infestation of deer flies who torment dogs and humans equally with wicked bites, the mosquitoes, the unceasing battle against invasive garlic mustard and buckthorn plants, and one peculiar festival we have come to refer to as “personal fly season”, when a walk down the driveway invariably includes one—and no more—fly to accompany each individual, buzzing and landing on our heads. They don’t bite, but their relentlessness is exasperating, buzzing with a particular emphasis on entangling themselves in hair and crawling on ears. A hat is essential, and preferably a handheld electronic bug zapper, which sizzles satisfactorily when it encounters the enemy. Success makes no difference, since a new assistant ineluctably appears to take the place of its fried colleague.
It is usually at this moment that summer in the woods ceases to charm, and we gather everybody together and decamp to the lake. There, we will inevitably find a different cohort of creatures with their own summer patterns, and we will begin our own. It is a modest place, a rickety cottage with only the water as an amenity, but that is amenity enough. There will be the pleasures of a quiet summer morning on the dock, drinking coffee with a blanket tucked around our toes, of wet dogs and floating, of visits from friends and family, of cocktails at sunset.
There are also the millions of wet towels to drag home to wash, dishes and pans to wash in the tannic water, muddy feet from wet dogs, and the back and forth of various necessities from one household to the other. It’s joyful at the beginning, but by fall I will be tired of the discomfort and upheaval, and ready to settle in at home again. Even as I anticipate the joys of summer, I am already excited at the prospect of the beauties of fall, and its own patterns of renewal.
When we return to the woods, the deer, unmolested by barking dogs, will have browsed the hostas and lilies to the ground, the raccoon babies will have grown and wandered off on their own, the turkeys will be returning to gather their clans together for the winter. And the sun, whose slow track across the horizon will have continued unobserved by me, will be rising far to the south as the days continue to shorten.
My city friends wonder how I can live without the museums, theater, restaurants, and vibrancy of the city. But I wonder how anyone could live without this vibrant scene of the earth, the animals, and their own dramas.
I have lived in the city and felt my soul shriveling among the pressures of a life removed from nature. Here, I breathe, and my soul drifts out among those of the animals and trees, their calls and their battles, and I know I belong, too.
As I write, the horizon brightens, and I hear the last sleepy calls of the great horned owls conversing with one another. The dogs sit up, alert to the presence of the deer in the dark, the turkeys thrum and cackle, the sun hits the water of the lake, and I settle into myself, content, and glad to be alive.
When I’m walking the island, my mind wanders to many things. Sometimes they’re related to the book—I often work through plot ideas while I’m walking—but not always. I have learned through hard experience that if I don’t record the idea it will disappear forever. In fact, if my notes are too cryptic, they will may still be unfathomable. Yesterday I had a thought about the coronavirus and the Greek gods. I don’t know why. They were trapped in quarantine on Olympus and bickering together—it made me laugh. but there was another idea—What was it?
Maybe not so funny: that quarantine’s illusion of immortality—of time stretching on infinitely—took away that sense we ought to have of racing against a waning lifetime. Maybe it was a respite for a while? Maybe it was a relief not to have to keep churning. But that idleness—that missing sense of time passing—is precisely what made the gods so mischievous. They had no real purpose, no goals. They were, in a word, bored. And aimless. Okay, two words.
But for mortals, it was an illusion. Time did pass. As survivors, we are, of course, just as old as we would have been otherwise. Or maybe, had the pandemic not happened, we would have been out in the world and hit by a bus. We can’t know. Even for those of us fortunate enough to have spent the pandemic merely unmoored in time, there was great loss; if not of someone we knew and cared about, then of community, of ourselves, of our precious time on earth. I feel new sympathy for the unjustly imprisoned, who must have some version of this same feeling: the sense of having been robbed of time. But especially, I grieve for those whose lives were so directly affected by the illness itself.
But as with all forms of grief, we must choose to either lie down in it and never look up, or to get up and get on with things, knowing that, whether we choose it or not, some new grief or old will be waiting to pop out at us when we are unwary. But then, so will new joys, and new, unhoped for experiences.
We move onward, with resignation and hope together, and that purpose, which comes from our sense of passing time, is the blessing of mortality.
I like silence. Perhaps it is a commentary on the state of my nerves, or maybe it’s because I’m a former musician and my brain is aurally focused, but I find unwanted noises distracting. I need silence to think and to write, and when I want sound, I prefer to choose whether it’s words or music. So I find the contemporary taste for household appliances that ping, beep, and play tunes extremely annoying.
If I seem cranky, it’s probably because I have been trying desperately to write a novel amidst continual interruption from household appliances.
I have a notion that devices should A) make your life easier and B) not require distraction from your thoughts, and, come to think of it, C) achieve their purposes in silence while leaving me alone.
In my quest to break my writing stalemate, I recently packed up and left home for the seclusion of the Island. The house I rent when I go away to write is a place I know well. I have been going there for years, and it’s like a second home. It’s a charming place: roomy, but cozy, with a wonderful property where I can walk in privacy with the dogs, and a lovely landlady who knows the precise formula of solitude and companionship to feed a writer. I have written parts of all my books there, and there’s something about the atmosphere that inspires productivity. My days there are a perfect pattern of writing and walking, and no one disturbs me unless I want to be disturbed. The house is not old, but my landlady had just replaced the range, the refrigerator, and the washer-dryer, all sparkling new and ready to be used. She is a generous woman, and likes to buy quality things.
Throughout my first day, unfortunately, I spent a great deal of time debating when to tell my host that there were red squirrels nesting in the roof. I knew it would upset her, and I also knew it would mean workmen disrupting my writing. The squirrels’ chirping and scratching was irregular but loud, and I feared they were doing damage. It wasn’t until late in the afternoon that I finally realized that it wasn’t squirrels, but the new refrigerator. I have no idea why a refrigerator should make a noise like red squirrels. Maybe someone thought it was cute. Or maybe no one ever spent any time in a room where it was running. I suppose it was companionable, in its way. I mean, at least the noise resembled living things.
The stove however, was much worse than squirrels. Writing can be both lonely and vaguely excruciating, and it is during these moments that I usually take a break to cook something nice for myself. Sometimes the food in my novels is actually something I’ve just made. Food, for me, is comfort, and when I’m alone, I look forward to meals as a way of permitting myself a break, and as a kind of companionship. In some ways, it’s as much about the cooking as it is about the eating. Cooking is a pleasant diversion, and creative, but as I’m chopping onions or browning beef, my mind is able to continue the intellectual rambling necessary for building a story.
So, having grown accustomed to the refrigerator squirrels, after a few hours of work and a long walk in lovely silence, I turned on the oven, and was jolted out of my plot-related reverie by a jaunty little tune. It wasn’t just a beep, but an actual musical phrase, only with tinky-tonk noises. When I set the timer it produced another tune, and like so many electronic devices, instead of one smooth dialing motion to set the temperature, I had to press it each time I added ten degrees, each time producing another beep. When the oven reached the temperature I had laboriously set, it sang yet another tune. Apparently each melody has a specified meaning, but I’m not interested in providing room in my head for determining which is which. I found myself missing my vintage stove at home, whose only noise is the satisfying “whomp” it makes when you light the oven with a match.
Then there was the new washing machine. I pack lightly when I go away to write. I mean to say: the car is full of stuff—much of it dog-related, and some of it bourbon—but I don’t bring a lot of clothes, so I’m happy to have a washer dryer in the house, and I often throw something into the washer while I’m writing. This new machine could be featured in a museum as The Loudest Washing Machine in the World, and it makes what I can only describe as a rhythmic mechanical gagging sound for the entire cycle. It’s some sort of water-saving design, which is, I guess, mandatory, but seems a little silly when you’re only steps away from—literally—a quadrillion gallons of water. I found the gagging somewhat less charming than the nesting squirrels. As if this were not enough, it beeps. Not once, for each time you choose a cycle, or once when it’s finished, but every 30 seconds after the cycle, until you interrupt the sentence you’re writing to get up and open the lid. I have had the care of less demanding puppies.
Thankfully, I was able to close the door to drown out the worst of the noises, but the beeping penetrated the walls. Not surprisingly, the matching dryer is also an electronic nag. But the thing is, if they make weird gurgling noises and show signs of nausea, how would you know until you got them home? I have a new washer and dryer at home, and they both have the options to turn off the signals. I made sure of that. Of course, I don’t live in the same room with them, either. So there’s that.
It used to be that appliances would sit silently and make themselves useful. Now, for reasons I do not understand, they seem to feel a need to call attention to themselves, as if, like electronic toddlers, they are announcing: Look at me! Look what I’ve done!
It strikes me as an indication of a deeply flawed society. What personal failings have led us to develop narcissistic appliances? Is it a reflection of modern life, the electronic equivalent of so-called influencers, who must announce their doings on Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, and Facebook, or be forced to question the value of their own existences? Have we created appliances like ourselves? Is there anyone who likes this incessant mechanistic signaling? Or is there something about the electronic miasma in which we all exist that assimilates our nerves into a state of noise acquiescence? Is there some consumer movement I need to join to dissuade manufacturers from this evil path?
The last time I bought a microwave oven I asked the saleswoman which ones beeped only once and stopped. It was clear by her reaction that no one else had ever asked this question, but she dutifully investigated the beeping of each one, no doubt thinking bad words that I am grateful not to have heard. But each time I buy a new appliance, I find that the noise factor has intensified, as if this has become a signal—as it were—of improvement. I believe it is, instead, an instrument of consumer torture.
A few days after I got home and settled into a new appreciation of my quiet appliances, the brand new, very expensive water heater silently burst a valve and unobtrusively leaked water all over the basement floor.
It was the most beautiful summer I can remember here. Day after golden day unfolded in rich, scented glory. The sun, the heat, the lushness of the woods and garden, the perfect refreshment of the lake were everything anyone could wish for. But it was an odd summer, too: no picnics with friends, no Memorial Day, no parties at the lake, no baseball in May and June, no Fourth of July, no parade, no fireworks, no farmers market, no family reunion, no Labor Day end of summer celebrations. There were no markers, no points in time. Just the silent turning of the earth, the move toward the sun and then away from it, the days turning, too, from morning to afternoon to evening. The light lengthening, the light retreating. The restless sleep. Then morning again.
It’s difficult to explain the dreamy quality of life these days. I tell myself it should be a time of joy and productivity, but somehow it isn’t. It’s not a happy dreaminess—I don’t know how it could be—but it’s not unhappy, either. It’s a sense of unreality; as if time is over.
While the pandemic rages on in the world, I feel a bit like a medieval monk, having raised the drawbridge and retired from the world to write my scrolls. My husband and I work from home at the best of times, and aside from the busy travel schedule we both had, our lives are essentially unchanged.
I am not ungrateful. But I am puzzled by the peculiar—I won’t say lethargy, exactly—but fatigue we both feel. He, in particular, has been working harder than ever. He has demands on him. My own deadlines are mostly self-imposed. But I have been in a heavy languor, having finished my novel in December, and then almost immediately plunging into grief. For the first three months after Moses died, I was deeply stricken. Then came Eli and the pandemic, which were, I suppose, distractions.
It feels now as if we’re on one long snow day from real life. It’s an illusion, of course. We don’t get to make up the days lost in our lives. They won’t come back. But the sense of being out of time is life-changing, and I sometimes fear I will never have ambition or energy again. I can’t even really say why.
The wheel of days keeps turning, but our lives feel stopped. I am one of the lucky few. I am living in a dream, away from the world, with the capability of tuning it out almost completely if I choose. Maybe I am numb to keep myself from missing things too keenly, from worrying about the world too much, from feeling there’s more than the usual tragedy and suffering. Or maybe it’s a lack of stimulation. There’s nothing but the weather to help discern one day from another.
Last year in August I came down with a severe case of influenza, picked up while cuddling my sick grandson. He had a mild fever and a cough. But it was the sickest I have ever been in my life, with a terrible, painful, racking cough, and high fever. There are two or three days that I don’t remember. I couldn’t eat. I didn’t want to. I could only cough in agony and sleep for almost ten days. It took me months to recover. Looking back, it feels like a warning. If I was that sick with regular flu, I suspect I would not survive this.
So when I do go out, every minor activity requires preparation: the mask, the hand sanitizer, the wipes, the gloves—just in case. The stress of being out in the world feels at the moment like a mere nuisance. It isn’t until I get home that I feel the exhaustion of it. But that’s not the source of my daily fatigue.
We have no reason to be out and contributing to the spread of disease, so we stay at home. Very few, limited family visits, no restaurants, no excursions with friends, no shopping. No hugs. The annual summer month with our daughter and French grandchildren was cancelled. By the time we see them two years will have passed. My sister has a new house in another state I haven’t seen. Our granddaughter on the east coast has started walking. My annual trip to Minnesota for a friend’s birthday is cancelled.
These are very small things in the wake of so many larger sacrifices by so many others. But I am ashamed to admit that it can be hard. For those who have lost their lives, and for those who grieve them, just one more of these slow, languid days would be a prize beyond reach. It is a sin not to be grateful every day for my family’s good fortune. But sometimes even the counting of blessings lies heavily against the heart. Everything seems to require tremendous effort.
The sunrises are coming later and later as autumn approaches. Dawn is marked by the stirrings of the geese, but I realize I haven’t heard a robin in weeks. Auggie lies nearby, waiting impatiently for the signal that I may be ready to take him outside for the first green ball session of the day. Eli snoozes on my foot. He has a softer disposition than Auggie, with less drive and more patience. Pete has already disappeared, without greeting, to lie at my husband’s feet in his office. With limited sight and hearing he moves in an ever decreasing world, but still loved, still happy, still nagging for his dinner.
We all have dreams, and hopes, and longings to color our thoughts, but life consists primarily of how we spend our days. We will go for a walk today, and do some chores, and call my friend for her birthday. I will do a crossword puzzle, with its utterly inexplicable satisfactions. There are pleasures in a clean floor, an orderly room, the first cup of coffee, the scent of clean air, the affection of an animal. We will watch the sunrise, walk in the sunlight, play ball with the dogs, and drink wine in the golden red light of evening, somewhat mitigated by the annoyance of mosquitoes. And then we will go to bed, and to sleep, hoping, in an uneasy world, for the wisdom and grace to appreciate what we have.
I began working on the stone path along side our house last year, but I’d been thinking about it for much longer than that. Our house is in the woods, which, while lovely, makes it difficult to grow grass, particularly since I refuse to use any chemicals that could be unhealthy for the dogs, or our well water, or for the trout stream at the bottom of our hill. Consequently, in an area with splendid green lawns that would put a golf course to shame, we have weeds and mud. We also have three large dogs whose ramblings, scramblings, and various activities discourage thriving plants.
Winter, when the snow has fallen, is a reprieve, but in the transitional periods, when there’s rain and mud, I fight a tedious battle with muddy dogs, floors, bedding, and walls. It’s not my preference, really, but it’s that or squalor, and I want to keep the dogs.
People wonder why I love winter.
In any case, fed up, I finally bestirred myself last year to build a stone path around the house where the worst of the mud is. My decision to start had nothing to do with the approaching deadline for the completion of my novel, or my writer’s block, or the peculiar urges for home projects that come upon me when I should be writing. I watched to see where the dogs had made their path, and went to the quarry to order stone.
My plans were for a rustic path—not a pristine suburban one, but a casual, old fashioned meandering of stone that wrapped around the house and met our patio in back.
The stones were local limestone: large, flat, heavy, and uneven, and cutting out the soil to make them lie flat was painstaking work.
Drenched in insect repellent, and armed with podcasts about the Constitution and Chapter a Day broadcasts of my own book, I sat on the ground like a child with my triangular digging tool, and hacked away at the clay soil, lifting each stone again and again to make sure the ground underneath accommodated its shape. I found I could lay only about four or five a day before my energy gave out. But gradually the path wound its erratic way down the side of the house from the kitchen patio, and began to curve around to meet the patio at the back.
I have a personal flaw that kicks in from time to time, which is a compulsion to complete something past exhaustion. I’m not completely sure of the factors that go into creating these personal storms, but when they come together, I am driven by them, occasionally to my detriment. They are more frenzy than conscientiousness.
I was in one of these fevers when I carried and began to maneuver a particularly large and heavy slab of rock. It was almost three feet long and a foot and half wide, and it was heavy. I wrestled it into my grasp and carried it the thirty feet or so to where I was working. I had already created a roughly cut space for it in the soil, and planned to place it, then cut around it to make it fit. I plunked it down, only a few inches from where it was supposed to go, did my work, and then, with all my strength, lifted up the edge to drag it into place. Somehow, when I dropped it, I missed the right spot. It fell onto the stone nearby, with my thumb in between.
That was last July. I still dream of the splendid vanilla frozen custard on a waffle cone I bought myself as consolation on the way home from the emergency room with a broken thumb. This is September. The path is unfinished, the remaining stone is still stacked at the edge of the driveway and beginning to grow moss. Another winter looms, and another muddy spring. I’ve been reluctant to break another finger–or worse–but I realize that I have to get the blasted thing finished. It’s a pandemic. I have time. I tell myself if I put down just one stone a day, I can be finished before the snow falls. But I know that the hassle of getting ready to do the job and of cleaning up afterward means that I will feel compelled to do more than one. I have promised myself that this week I will start.
When I was very small and just learning to read, my grandmother gave me a fat, red volume of best-loved fairy tales. I was very proud to have a grown-up book, and I was unintimated by the size of it, only by its lack of illustration. I doubt she ever had any idea of how much influence it would have on me. I lived inside that book. Through fairy tales I absorbed the virtues and values of a moral life that were highly prized and perfectly expressed in those stories. The rules, although never explicit, were crystal clear.
1. Be kind, particularly to strangers and very odd creatures. You never know who could be a fairy in disguise.
2. Be worthy. Because goodness is rewarded one way or another.
3. Be brave—which is not the same as fearless.
4. Be patient. There are trials in life.
5. Share. Even if you have very little, allow a hungry creature—human or otherwise—to partake of your meager meal. See #1
6. There are witches, evil fairies, gnomes, trolls, and cruel stepmothers who will try to harm you; and elves who will try to trick you. Beware.
7. Be wily, but be true. Put your values above risk.
8. Liars and crooks will be punished.
9. Beware of step parents (which, if you read the news, maybe isn’t such terrible advice).
10. The world is wild and cruel, but there is beauty and magic in it.
One of life’s most important lessons is an undercurrent in nearly every fairy tale: Be prepared to encounter evil. But—and this is key—the mere presence of evil in the world is less significant than how evil is faced. Fairy tales are filled with those who stand firm on the side of goodness, as well as with those who capitulate and meet a bad end. When faced with cruelty the heroes of fairy stories are kind. When faced with duplicity they are patient, wily, and clever. They persevere through great trials. They are hungry, cold, cast out, forbidden from attending the ball. But they win in the end.
Adults tend to be squeamish about the raw cruelty in fairy tales, and in this era of unhealthy over-protectiveness there is earnest talk about damaging tender psyches. We forget that children are a curious mix of literal understanding with no capacity to grasp mortality. Death won’t happen to them. Uncomplicated black and white rules are comprehensible. So amidst the fascinating stories of poisoned apples, evil enchanted dogs getting their heads cut off, witches baking children into gingerbread, and cruel stepmothers leaving innocent children in the woods, young readers are able to both express their fears, and absorb the lessons of the world without pedantry or ambiguity.
People often focus on the princess stories, believing how wrong it is to teach girls that they will be rescued by a prince. I don’t think that’s the message at all. I think the message is: if you aregood, and kind, and patient, you will be rewarded with love and happiness, and maybe a little bit of magic.
The classic heroines of fairy tales, Cinderella, Snow White, and Sleeping Beauty all endure cruelty and unfairness, but they aren’t changed by it. They are lovely because they are filled with kindness and generosity of spirit. If you get caught up in the their beauty—or that of the handsome prince—you miss the point. Their physical beauty (and the wealth and high status of the prince) are metaphor. These young women have good hearts; this is why they are desirable. This is why they deserve love and the rewards of a good life.
In my experience, little girls who want to be Cinderella want to be good as she is, not wicked, like her stepsisters. The stepsisters are sometimes depicted as being physically ugly, but their true ugliness is in their characters. They are proud, haughty, selfish, and vain, not to mention cruel. Little girls may want to be pretty, too, (who doesn’t?) but properly exposed to fairy tales, they internalize the real message: that beauty is inside. Wise adults refrain from imposing their own anxieties, and emphasize the true lesson of the stories: that what matters is how we treat others, and whether we give of ourselves.
In the world of fairy tales, how we treat others is of paramount importance. A recurring theme is the necessity of being kind to strangers—human or otherwise—even the ugliest, oddest, most terrifying of them. The hungry stranger at the gate is given a bowl of porridge when food at the cottage is scarce; the trapped wild animal is gently released, even at risk to the rescuer; the demanding and ugly frog is kissed. The result is more wonderful than could have been imagined.
It worked for me.
Many years ago, I was kind to someone when I didn’t always feel like it. He would call wanting to talk, and I would put my day on hold to listen, even though it was, frankly, a bit of a nuisance. We would sometimes talk for hours. I had not been kind as a means to an end. I had no inkling that he would have influence in my favor. This went on for years. One day, out of the blue, he called to tell me about an important job; one that changed my life. His recommendation got my interview. It wasn’t until much later that I realized he had been the fairy at my gate, disguised as a beggar.
Again and again, physical appearance is shown to be deceptive; it is the goodness of the character that truly matters. Cruel stepmothers can be beautiful but dangerously vain. Horrifying deformities may hide a fairy. A hideous beast may hide a loving prince. In a tale like Beauty and the Beast the power of love transforms the qualities of human nature, and children learn to look past superficial appearance and gruffness to the heart that beats beneath. Its message—like that of nearly every tale—is that love tames the beast in us all.
At the same time, any one of us can fall prey to greed, selfishness, and stupidity, and this, too, is wise counsel. Any wish-granting tale will caution what can happen to decent people when unexpected wealth comes their way. Or, come to think of it, any newspaper story about a lottery winner.
These stories mostly share Judeo-Christian values, but I believe that many of them pre-date Christianity. Consider the theory that legends of elves and gnomes hiding in the forest may be a memory of the interactions between modern humans and Neanderthals, who, we now know, existed contemporaneously. Fairy tale morality reflects the basic infrastructure of a healthy society. It shows an imperfect world made better or worse by the deeds of us all. And it suggests that acting with a good heart—without cruelty or rancor—will be rewarded.
There aren’t all happy endings. Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid—which is a relatively modern tale—teaches about injustice, and envy, and trying to be what you’re not. It is a tragedy as pure as Romeo and Juliet, with miscommunication leading to heartbreak and death. Nevertheless, the goodness of the mermaid herself is rewarded, even if she does not win her kind (though somewhat stupid) prince.
Think about what the public discourse would be like if everyone followed the standards of fairy tales. Twitter would dissolve like a wicked witch doused with water. Immigrants and strangers would be seen as beings with hearts and souls like our own, and welcomed at our gates. The hungry and afflicted would be treated with kindness and fed from our own pantries. Animals would be protected and cared for. Library books would be returned on time, even if it meant walking through storms to get there.
When I hear discussions about the dangers of fairy tales to young minds, I think of what I learned from fairy tales, and take a look at the world around us.
I was in New York for a book convention, and was heading home in a very good mood. My traveling companion and I have known one another for over thirty years. We met in the theater. She always comes with me to these things and acts as my carnival barker to attract people to my booth. She’s extremely good at this.
Although slightly hungover, we were reminiscing and singing old tunes on the ride to the airport. She got out at a different terminal, and for the remainder of the trip, the cab driver and I had a pleasant few minutes talking about friendship. He was a nice guy, and I tipped him well. We parted with a handshake. This is a lesson: be nice to people, and they’ll be nice to you. Also, get a receipt.
I was walking into the terminal when I reached into my pocket for my boarding pass, which was on my phone. My phone wasn’t in my pocket. It wasn’t in my handbag. It wasn’t in my backpack.
It was in the cab.
You know that sickening feeling when you’ve lost something of value. But we all have a particular and dangerous dependency on our phones that made this loss particularly dire. How would I call my husband to say I might be late? Or the dog sitter whose number I didn’t know by heart? Does directory assistance even exist anymore? I couldn’t reach my friend, only a short way away in the next terminal. Everything we need is on our phones: our TSA numbers, our insurance agent’s phone, and the most intimate details of our lives. Our wallets barely matter. Did I mention it was a brand new phone?
I checked my luggage, got a new paper boarding pass, and stood thinking about what to do. If there were any pay phones, who would I call? If I could only call the cab driver…
An airline employee named Phil was directing the lines, and when I told him my dilemma he handed me his phone. I wanted to call the cab company. “No. Call yourself,” he told me. “The driver will hear it ringing, and at least know it’s there.”
So I called myself, several times, and then went back out to the drop off, in hope that the cab might be able to come around again. But after a few minutes of waiting, the unlikeliness of this prospect sank in. I went back in to Phil, to ask, this time, if I could call the cab company. I had the receipt, and the cab number. “You’ll be on hold forever,” he told me. But I had to try. So Phil again handed me his phone while he continued his work with other passengers.
Then, as I waited on hold, a miracle happened: my own phone number popped up. I handed the phone to Phil to answer. It was the cab driver. He had pulled off and was in the LaGuardia taxi waiting area. He couldn’t just sit there, the line was moving, and he’d soon be pushed out. I needed to come immediately to get my phone. He told me to hurry. Talking fast, Phil explained that the cab area was off the airport premises, and down the highway. It was a distance, I couldn’t walk there, and I would really have to hurry.
I grabbed a cab as it was dropping off and told the driver the problem. Could he help me? We broke the rules about passenger pick-ups, and sped off. I asked him to call my phone. Soon, we were out on the highway, driving fast, away from the airport and my checked luggage, as the two drivers argued volubly about how to get to the right place
It had been maybe five minutes and I was beginning to worry when we headed up an exit ramp dodging and weaving slower traffic as if we were in a chase scene, all while the drivers continued arguing. The current driver, an African with a beautiful accent and a warm, deep voice, had a kind of other-worldly authority. The other, my kindly Afghani friend, had an almost hysterical sense of urgency. “No, No No!” I heard him screaming into the phone. “That’s not the right place! NO!”
“Listen,” said the African driver calmly as he whipped around a tiny Fiat that was driving too slowly and cut in front of it. “You have to stop talking and listen to me.”
The Fiat driver, a cute elderly lady with wild, curly hair, flipped us off.
We squeezed past a Hyundai with inches to spare, and squealed around the corner before the light changed.
The drivers, having apparently reached some kind of concord, hung up. I knew we were close, but I hadn’t understood what they were talking about. It felt like a flashback to my younger days, traveling in the Soviet Union with some Greek friends, where everyone was speaking English, but in accents I couldn’t understand. “The gas station,” my driver said, “is where the taxis get their gas. I know where it is.” But if taxi number one was in line with the cab, I wondered, how was he at a gas station. It didn’t make sense, but at this point, it was out of my hands.
As we pulled up to the gas station, my hopes fell. There was no cab visible. “He’s not here,” I said. “No,” said the driver. “I don’t see him.”
And then, at the same moment, we both saw a slight, middle-aged man standing in the gas station parking lot, jumping up and down, and waving his arms. It was our guy. He had left his cab in the line, somehow scaled a wire fence, and was waiting in the parking lot, waving my phone in his hands. He expressed his joy as freely as his frustration. I offered him a large reward, trying to put it into his hands, but he wouldn’t take it. I hugged him and kissed him on the cheek instead.
And then in a matter of seconds I was in the other cab again, racing back to the airport in a heady state of triumph. I really can’t overstate my ebullience. I was as proud of my resourcefulness in pulling this off as if I had led the troops to victory. I thanked my second cab driver profusely, and gave him a big tip. His driving had been both exciting and essential.
The rest of the trip was uneventful: even the usual irritation of the TSA experience felt soothing in its routine. It was too early in the morning to drink—although I was tempted—so I consoled myself with a latte and some $20 airport avocado toast. Still, I was reminded once again of the importance of kindness. One way or another, it will always come back to you.