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.
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.
It is a balmy, beautiful August morning. I sit drinking coffee by the lake, the dogs around me. Elderly Pete basks peacefully in the sun. Auggie snorts impatiently, waiting for me to engage with his ball-playing, and young Eli has left his watch post at the end of the dock to lie next to my chair. A lawn mower purrs in the distance. A door slams. Fish jump. Ducks quack and splash. Squirrels chatter. Birds call. A bull frog grumps.
All should be well.
But across the world chaos reigns. Death, destruction, fear, murder, torture, rape, and slavery threaten. People climb onto departing airplanes, clinging to the wings, in desperate fear of what is to come. The planes depart, and the bodies can be seen hurtling to earth, prey to the most horrific final fears as they fall.
An American flag flutters in the breeze across the lake.
Here, there is comfort in powerlessness. With no recourse but to drink my coffee, I can stay comfortable. I can’t fix Afghanistan. I can’t save a single person. Lucky me.
I am ashamed.
And yet…and yet…this day, this calm, this comfort, this stroke of fate that brought me here, to have been born in a free state, in a liberal democracy…this is fortune. And to leave it unnoticed, to ignore it, not to savor it, is the very definition of sin.
I envy my dogs in their innocence.
There are no clouds in the sky, but there is a cloud over this day.
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.
It is extreme early morning, and I have risen to sit in my chair by the fire. It is not a place for lounging, but for writing, because I discovered a while ago that I need the fire, and the view, and the companionable lickings and scratchings of the dogs to feel most at ease, and best able to write. But lately, it is not a productive place. My computer glares its ugly light at me, probably contributing to the addled state of my brain.
I am becalmed, unmoored, directionless, my rudder stayed. No words come.
Writing for me is normally a joyful process. The words spin a music in my head, and I record them. I know from experience that showing up to this place at this time is the only way to prod myself to create. But now, nothing is working.
I have written advice to other writers. “Just show up,” I wrote. “Write anything,” I wrote. “The muse will appear,” I wrote. But so far, my own advice has been useless.
My usual methods of procrastination are well known to me and to my husband. I paint a room. I organize my office. I cook. But these methods of avoidance are now habits, and a day spent in routine housework seems like a good day. But it’s not.
My brain feels addled, shallow, inadequate, like the gushing rain from the gutter that doesn’t nourish the ground, but spills over, ripping out plants, washing away the soil. Four books I want to write spin annoyingly around on the fringes of my thoughts, skipping away, avoiding my grasp. Is it the usual process? Or has something gone terribly wrong?
I try to pray. I try to meditate. I struggle to read. But always there is this random, unsatisfying, disjointed flutter of thoughts. No ribbon of continuity, just jagged lightning strikes of nothing very much. My brain flickers from thing to thing without any process.
I am not particularly interested in conversation. What used to be daily calls to friends have sputtered into sporadic text messages, without context, or any continuity. Lightning strikes brought to relationships.
In this pandemic, time is a limitless illusion, and therefore time does not seem precious. Long-term projects I could be doing: exercising, playing the piano, training the dog, painting a room, are all things I can do tomorrow.
I nap. Sometimes they are long, delicious naps, from which I usually awake with anxiety at the waste of a day.
I plan to read today. Long, engrossed, serious reading. I need to concentrate on something else. I keep hoping that turning away from screens and to words—my own and anybody else’s—will flip the switch.
But then I think of all the unplanned, unsuspected things that feed a writer’s mind: the sudden whisp of fragrance, the overheard snippet of conversation, the glimpse of light, or the flash of bird wing. These are the food for the inner world that comes out later in the scent of a character, her thoughts, or a description of a scene. I never know when something I’ve lived will come out in my books. But what if I’m no longer really living? What feeds the writing, then?
I walked outside in the unusually warm February sunshine this morning, and the dogs, startled by this break in routine, joyfully came along. I heard birdsong, and road sounds, and the slow dripping of melting snow in the eaves. Last night in the dusk, the sky was rose pink from the departed sun, and I heard, for the first time in months, the bells ringing vespers at the seminary nearby, and the soft chirp of flying ducks. The moon, almost full, rose and cast shadows on the snow. These are all markers for me, but they are not experiences of the sort I use most. I realize how much the natural world is my backdrop, the inner voice, but not the experience. Not the story line. And this surprises me, because I always thought it was.
In this long pandemic sojourn from the world, I have not been unhappy. I have felt calm, somnolent, and wrapped in solitude, almost like a fairy tale character set to sleep while the world passes. Cloistered, but not lonely. But in order to write, I need something more than being hidden behind a fortress wall. I know, beneath the melting snow, the bulbs have put down their roots, the trees are beginning to send their sap from their roots. I can only hope that somewhere my writing heart is stirring, too. But so far, hope is all there is.
We’ll hazard a guess that, at least once in your life, you’ve fantasized about packing up your life and moving to (what feels like) a different world—an idyllic small town, a bustling metropolis, a remote windswept isle… In J. F. Riordan’s sparkling North of the Tension line series, a writer does just that, moving from Chicago to a sparsely populated island in Door County, Wisconsin. Her ensuing small-town adventures are presented with enormous heart throughout this delightful series. Today in the Bluestocking Salon, Bas Bleu sat down (virtually, no masks required!) with novelist J. F. Riordan to learn more about why she chose Door County as her setting, how opera helped shape her novelist’s voice, and what effects the COVID-19 pandemic has had on her writing. Continue reading →
Yesterday I took a handful of earth and sprinkled it over Margaret’s grave. It’s a ritual whose insight was born in millennia of human grief, giving hard reality to the shock and disbelief of those first days; forcing confrontation with the black hole of mourning. It was a small outdoor service, with only fourteen of us, and in the midst of wild autumn storms, the rain stopped, and from a deep blue sky the sun shone on the yellow leaves above my home church’s tiny columbarium.
Margaret and I spent time together last week for only the second time since the pandemic. I brought Eli to visit, and we went for a walk. She gave Eli treats. Her daughter texted me that night to say that Margaret was the happiest she had been in a long time; how excited she was about Eli; how beautiful she had found him. I examined my conscience about why I had not gone to see her sooner, but I am still desperately grateful that we had that afternoon.
Margaret Rose was born in Sheffield England in 1930, a contemporary of the princess who shared her name. Sheffield was a manufacturing town, and when the blitz came, it was heavily targeted by the Nazis. She lived with her family in a block of rowhouses, all sharing a wall with the house next door. When the air raids came, the neighbors would crawl through holes in the cellar walls to huddle together, perhaps trying to get the little ones to sleep.
One morning they emerged from their shelter after a night of bombing and found that the other side of the street—identical to their own—had been flattened. Everyone was dead.
Her father packed them up and walked the 3 miles to the bus stop so they could stay with an aunt in the country. As they passed through the devastated city, he hoisted Margaret’s little sister onto his shoulders, and told his children to close their eyes so as not to see the gruesome sights of human carnage along the way. “Close your eyes, and take my hand. Trust me.” Margaret peeked, and to the end of her life she was haunted by the sights of her neighbors arms and legs lying disconnected among the rubble.
She told me she still dreamed of the terror of those nights, the bombs screaming and exploding, the children crying, the adults bravely cheerful in the face of utterly random death. From the safety of her aunt’s house they watched as the night sky above Sheffield—some 30 miles away—lit up with fire. Sheffield was bombed nearly to obliteration, and the casualties were overwhelming.
Life was unimaginably hard. The rubble from the bombings wasn’t cleared away, because there was no one to clear it: all the men were at war. There was a shortage of everything: housing, clothing, fuel, and food. Margaret had a passion for chocolate that may have intensified in the rationing of sugar, butter, flour, milk, eggs, meat, and chocolate. Her mother and father would give her their chocolate ration cards, knowing how much she adored it.
Margaret had a collection of stories, and she told them regularly. She was, in Ray Bradbury’s interesting observation, a living time machine, able to bring to life moments that to me seemed ancient history. As she approached her ninetieth birthday her short-term memory was failing dramatically, but she remembered the past in great detail. Her conversation was sprinkled with her well-worn tales, told anew as to a fresh audience. Each visit, each phone conversation became a ritual of story and repetition, a bit like the comforting ritual of the Anglican Church to which we both belong. At first I was frustrated and inwardly impatient, but she took the same pleasure in telling each time, so I learned to lean back and allow her stories to wash over me, giving her the responses I thought she would like most, even if I’d heard it again only a few moments before.
She married the love of her life, a British airman, and together they emigrated to Canada, and then to the United States. They loved to dance, they participated in theater. They had a family, with children and grandchildren, and many dogs.
Margaret was a dog lover from her earliest days. She worked as a volunteer at the local Humane Society for years, and inevitably brought more than one home. “I couldn’t live without dogs,” she told me. Her mother had forbidden dogs in the house, and one of Margaret’s stories told how her father had brought home a collie puppy one day, and her mother had made him take it back. “I hated her for that!” Margaret would say with delight at her own naughtiness. As soon as she had her own house, she was never without a dog again.
After her husband died, we went to church together now and then, when she could no longer drive. It was good to go home to the church and sit in the pews with old friends. Sometimes it was sad to look around and see the congregation diminishing, favorite faces gone forever.
At the funeral, I sang Jerusalem, that paean to British faith and spirit. It was outside, without the organ, so I stood on the steps leading down into the little brick-pathed columbarium, facing the small cluster of people, my eyes on the trees above them so I didn’t have to see their reactions. It’s difficult to sing at funerals at the best of times, but singing for someone you care about is hard. I made it almost to the end before my voice caught on the last four words. In that split second I saw the priest’s eyes turn to me in alarm, before I gathered myself to finish.
As I drove home I took a wandering back roads route, revisiting the countryside where I grew up, past the farms of old school friends’ families, past the little waysides I remembered. Here was where my friend and I stopped on our bikes one hot day, here’s where my best friend’s grandparents lived, here’s where the school bus stopped when I came home with her. There’s the stone farmhouse I used to dream of owning. The sky was filled with storm clouds and sunshine.
As I rambled around the narrow back roads a flash of white caught my eye. There was a bald eagle perched on a dead tree, huge and proud. Her mate was circling overhead, perhaps enjoying the currents from the storms. I thought of Margaret’s love of nature, and her oft-repeated story of her father’s Sunday lectures on trees, And I remembered the words of the hymn.
Bring me my bow of burning gold,
Bring me my arrows of desire.
Bring me my spear. O, clouds unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire.
I will not cease in mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
‘Til we have built Jerusalem
in England’s green and pleasant land.
I thought of Margaret’s stories. The love, the terror, the rebuilding, the long walks. The angers and the joys, the frustrations and the consolations. I knew so many of the high and the low points, because she had built the stories for me, unintentionally ensuring I remembered through their repetition.
She often told me how fortunate she was to still live on her own in a pleasant place surrounded by paths, a lake, trees, and gardens where she walked daily. Her death came suddenly, without lingering, at a healthy old age. It is the best any of us can hope for. And, then I remembered the last line of my favorite Willa Cather story, and a wave of peace washed over me.
Margaret’s life seemed to me complete and beautiful.
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.