On the Importance of Fairy Tales

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 are good, and kind, and patientyou 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. 

Frankly, we could do worse. 

And often do.

Moving Forward

So, I have been engrossed in writing the sequel to North of the Tension Line, and then, this past month, immersed in a long and lovely visit from family.

But it has been the writing, mainly, that has engaged my entire heart and mind these past eighteen months. I have done nothing but go to work and write, and in the process have ignored everything from friendships to laundry, and all the common attentions to little things that comprise daily life. The weight of a deadline was heavy, and I simply did not have room in my head for anything else.

With the novel finished and in the hands of my editor, I have begun the process of digging out. I am attempting to renew my connections to the people I care about, to do the laundry, sort the mail and the many dropped details of life, and to attend to this blog. The neglect has left a field strewn with casualties.

So yesterday, alone and unscheduled for the first time in almost a year, I sat down to re-engage here. In the process I re-read old postings, and began, with some dismay, to discover how heavily the theme of death marches through my thoughts. I suppose that I have played out my grief here more thoroughly than I had been conscious of.

I heard someone say recently that we get sadder as we get older. That is clearly the natural trend of things. We are battered by life, by the struggles and the losses, and as we lose our people we become less sheltered from it all. The multiple losses these past eight years have made me acutely aware of my own mortality, and it looms.

This is the struggle. I look back at my parents’ lives, at the lives of my godmother, my 95 year old aunt–who is still with us and struggling herself to find meaning in her loneliness–and I wish I had known enough to listen more closely to them. I did try. I did my best. I still do. But then we get caught up in our own lives. And that is right, too.

I am sure Fiona Campbell would have a quote from Marcus Aurelius to fit here.

So anyway. Getting older and facing loss requires strength and courage and determination and a whole lot of cussedness. We cannot succumb to despair. We must accept the new landscapes of our lives and get on with it. Not with sadness, but with joy and gratitude and, well, cussedness.

Damned if I won’t be happy today.

28 Lessons We’ve Learned from Pride and Prejudice

Today is the 202nd anniversary of the publication of Jane Austen’s masterpiece, Pride and Prejudice. I doubt, when she wrote it, that she expected it to endure for two centuries, and I wonder how many of our contemporaries realize how perfectly modern–and perfectly biting–its humor is. If you haven’t read it, now’s the time.

Here’s to Pride and Prejudice. May it long endure.

Bas Bleu Bluestocking Salon

Pride and Prejudice 1895 edition illustrated by Hugh ThomsonJanuary 28 marks the anniversary of Pride and Prejudice’s publication in 1813, a cultural milestone that almost never was thanks to a dismissive publisher who rejected Jane Austen’s manuscript First Impressions in 1797. Sixteen years later, Thomas Egerton bought the rights to Pride and Prejudice for just £110…and the rest, as they say, is literary history. So today, the twenty-eighth day of January, in honor of P&P’s birthday, Bas Bleu is sharing our list of twenty-eight life lessons we learned from Miss Austen, Lizzie Bennet, Mr. Darcy, and, yes, even Mr. Wickham.

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The intricacies of the casual conversation

CHuckles flickr

I am on a first name basis with the people at our local hardware store. I am there sporadically but often, and they have patiently–and without one note of patronization–advised me on various topics ranging from the correct size of a wall anchor to replacing an outlet. They greet me like an old friend when I come in, and this minor element of small town life cheers me.
The frequency of my visits has increased recently for various reasons, so our conversations have taken on a serial quality, generally picking up where we left off. I was standing at the register this week piling up my purchases. “Will this be all?” I was asked politely. I struggled perfunctorily with myself and lost.
“And a package of Chuckles.”
Chuckles are a candy I know from my childhood, rarely seen anymore, at least in the midwest. They are an oblong package of five flat squares of gum drop style candy, with little ridges shaped into them, and coated with a crystal layer of sugar. They are always laid out in the same order: red, yellow, black, orange, green. I’m not sure when the hardware store started carrying them. But I first started noticing them this summer, when I was making frequent visits for items to prepare my late mother’s house for sale.
After our business was finished, I stood chatting, and opened up my package of Chuckles as I did so. Watching me, the owner said:
“You know, no one who buys those can ever leave the store without opening the package.”
“Really?”
“There’s something about their connection to childhood, I think. It’s powerful.” She paused for a moment, recollecting. “One guy who comes in stands at the counter to eat them so he can throw away the package here and his wife won’t know.”
“Maybe it’s better as a guilty pleasure.”
“So many things are.”
There was a moment of silence as I ate the first Chuckle.
“Which is your favorite?” the owner wanted to know. She pointed to the clerk. “He never eats the orange ones.”
“Really?” I was aghast. Orange is one of the best flavors.
“I find the orange ones hidden behind the counter.” She looked sideways at her assistant.
The clerk was not in the least abashed. “I start to eat them, and then forget about them.”
“You have to eat them in order,” I said.”It’s a cardinal rule.”
This interested them, and they both looked at me.
“You must be right about the childhood thing. I’ve been eating them this way since I was small. Green first. And then each flavor in order. Because the best one is the red one, and you have to save the best for last.”
As I thought about this piece of childish philosophy, I suddenly realized that it was more complicated, and I hadn’t been aware of it until this moment. I spoke slowly as my awareness of the process unfolded from my subconscious.
“And you can’t bite them right away. You have to let them melt in your mouth until all the sugar is gone, and then you bite into the little ridges very carefully. Then you can chew the pieces. But it’s better if you let them slowly melt in your mouth.”
“It’s a childhood ritual,” commented the clerk.
I nodded, thinking about the oddities of the mind, and how this leftover from my very early life could still be, unconsciously, part of my behavior. Another customer walked in, and we all went on with our day.
Somehow the conversation came up with my friend later on.
She listened, and then she said:
“How long have you been doing this?”
“All my life.”
“No. I mean eating the Chuckles. You don’t eat candy.”
I thought about it.
“I don’t know. All summer, I guess. I’m not used to eating sugar and they make me feel terrible afterward, but I can’t resist. It’s weirdly comforting.”
“So you’re eating a childhood candy, using a childhood ritual, as you work on fixing up your late mother’s house. You don’t need a degree in psychology to understand what’s going on here.”
“I guess not.”
Hardware stores are interesting places. I’ve always thought so.

Going With the Flow

Pirate ship

My niece’s wedding took place on a dock on Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, a fashionably updated working harbor surrounded by sailing ships, industrial areas, refurbished warehouses and chic shops and restaurants. It was a formal wedding, with the bride in cream satin, five bridesmaids in teal organza, and the groom and groomsmen in classic black tuxedoes.

Among the various tourist attractions on the Harbor is a pirate ship. It has lots of flags and sails, and a skull and crossbones, and its purpose, apparently, is for people to get happily sloshed while sailing around and experiencing various kinds of pirate schtick, all electronically amplified. I’m not clear on exactly what this involves. Maybe it’s something like the routines of the flight attendants on SouthWest Airlines only with a pirate theme, and probably a cannon or something. Anyway, the bride had been warned by the venue that the pirate ship made regular trips on Saturday afternoons, and that the pirates and their passengers tended to be somewhat…uninhibited.

Sure enough, just after the officiant had begun the service and The Sainted Aunt had been invited to come forward to speak, the pirate ship made its appearance, accompanied by amplified uproar. Naturally, it was impossible to speak over this, so the ceremony paused and everyone turned to watch the ship go by. This took some time. Everyone on the pirate ship waved, and the entire bridal party and guests all waved back. A ceremonial ARRRRRRRRRR was raised from the ship, and the guests responded in kind.

No matter what what else was said and done that day after more than a year of planning–what the vows were, what music was played, what was on the menu at the reception–I’m pretty sure that this act of exuberant spontaneity–and the response to it–is the one thing everyone will remember twenty years from now.

Another lesson for married life.

Words for the Newlyweds

From my talk at my niece’s wedding.

I would like to point out to those who don’t know me that I am not merely an aunt, but that I am in fact, The Sainted Aunt. In that role—and since you’ve given me a microphone—your mistake—I would like to offer some small pieces of advice which the bride and groom probably won’t hear today or remember later.

Never mind.

Madeleine L’Engle is best known for her science-fiction children’s books. But she was also a prolific essayist. One day while reading something of hers about creativity, one sentence brought me up short.

It was this: Love isn’t an emotion. It’s a policy.

That may be an odd thing to say at a wedding, but it is the secret to all relationships. Because if we base our relationships solely on how we feel, then we have the power to ignore them if we become tired; to throw them away if we can’t forgive; to crush them and destroy them if we are angry.

The intense passion and devotion we feel for one another at the beginning is not an experience that continues constantly. People annoy us; they bore us; they disappoint us; they desperately hurt us; they forget to pick up their socks. So does that mean if we aren’t feeling passion we don’t love? Of course not—if it did, no human relationship would last more than a few minutes.

No. Love has its seasons of emotions that come and go, but it is, in fact a policy. It is a decision we make about commitment, about value, and for the day to day essence of any relationship: It determines how we treat each other in the casual exchanges of every day life.

It is so often true that we make more effort to be civil to strangers than we do to people in our own house. Surely these people whom we love most deserve our most full effort to be kind? So my first piece of advice is to be polite to each other. Save your best selves for each other, not for strangers. If you do that, your home will always be a place of refuge.

Life with humans—even with dogs, as any of us who loves dogs will know—also involves a lot of mistakes. And thoughtlessness. And grievous hurts. And when we are hurt, it is natural to be angry. It is an instinct of self love and preservation. But to nurture anger is to willingly harbor a killer within your heart. George MacDonald said “It may be infinitely less evil to murder a man than to refuse to forgive him. The former may be a moment of passion: the latter is the heart’s choice. It is spiritual murder, the worst, to hate, to brood over a feeling….”

And in any relationship—especially in marriage when, at our most vulnerable, we can innocently hurt one another—it is essential to drop your pride and to forgive, forgive, and to forgive again.

But if you remember one thing, make it forgiveness.

My last piece of advice may be, ironically, the most difficult.

We have some friends who have a very busy life. He has a very successful business; she does, too. His 93 year old grandfather with the beginnings of dementia lives with them and likes to wander out on his own to mow the lawn; they have 3 children, and one of them, a teenager, is seriously ill. Their life is full and busy, and demanding. It can be hard. But every morning when they wake up, he says to her: How are we going to have fun today?

One of my favorite public figures is John Cleese—one of the original members of Monty Python. Think: a sort of 1970’s version of Eddie Izzard. Since the days of the television show he has gone on to a career—believe it or not—as a creativity consultant—which sounds like a sketch from the show, but it is actually perfectly true.

Cleese talks about the distinction between being serious and being solemn. He points out that you can be sitting around a table talking about the most serious things in the world: Love, death, the meaning of life, great literature, and you can be laughing while you speak of them. Serious doesn’t mean humorless. And you don’t have to go to the circus—or the New York trapeze school—to have fun.

But laughing and finding escape can be liberating and inspiring, and relationship building.

Not to mention a whole lot cheaper than psychotherapy.

Our life’s landscape isn’t geographical. It’s human. When you are young, life is an endless horizon of years ahead. It’s hard to realize how fast time goes, and how quickly the people we assume will always be here can suddenly be gone, changing the landscape of your life forever. It’s easy to allow the demands of every day to take up our energy and our hours. But in this, in every day, we have the essence of our lives. Our lives are only time, and, however far off the horizon seems, finite. So take the time every day to have fun together.

For all that, Marriage is serious business. To return to Madeleine L’Engle, (and I am paraphrasing) marriage is a fearful gamble, requiring risking everything of yourself. Marriage starts with love, and it is something that you must create together. And, she says, it is that creation that is part of our human calling.

So…Remember: love isn’t a feeling. It’s a policy.
Be polite. Forgive, forgive, forgive.

And have fun.

Off you go.