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.
Back in the pre-covid days of festivals and conferences, my husband used to travel a lot, and my closet overflowed with tote bags. This essay appeared in the now defunct Weekly Standard September 26, 2018.An article in today’s NYTimesbrought tote bags and all their environmental baggage once again to the fore.
I seem to recall an essay by Ralph Waldo Emerson in which he predicts that the world will be subsumed not by fire or flood, but by an overwhelming mound of common pins. It hasn’t happened so far, but that may be because we have shifted the cultural weight, as it were, to a far more voluminous enemy: the tote bag.
My husband is on the festival circuit. He goes to exotic and beautiful places like Maui and Aspen, cavorting with celebrities and beautiful people, while I stay home with the dogs. It’s not as bad as it sounds, really, and it has the advantage of enhancing spousal appreciation, but it does have a curious byproduct. Every time he returns, he presents me with a tote bag.
Tote bags are nothing new. They have been the mainstays of museum gift shops and the low-cost premium for subscriptions to magazines and public television for decades. Environmentalists made them important by urging us to pile our groceries into their bacteria-infested depths week after week, rather than wounding the earth with the clean, fresh, disposability of plastic or paper grocery bags.
I love the earth. But I have questions about tote bags.
I have never had a statement handbag, but then, I live in the Midwest where things like that are considered ostentatious. I do find, however, almost against my will, that I have begun to select the tote bag I want depending on where I’m going and who I will be seeing. There is a hierarchy to tote bags that is more subtle than the kind of car you drive. Tote bags can brag without your ever having to say a word. They are signaling mechanisms to announce your affiliations.
The local grocery store gives out a flimsy, paper-thin canvas wine bag when you purchase more than one bottle. It’s okay if you leave that one behind at your friend’s house. I have a beautiful well-made canvas bag with a painting of the Flatiron Building that I purchased in a museum gift shop. It is sturdy enough to carry books and signals my cultural sophistication. This may have slightly more cachet than the thin fabric WNYC tote that seems to suggest that I am a donor (I am not) or that I am part of the East Coast intelligentsia (I am most definitely not). I have a bag from the American Enterprise Institute, proving that I am “Fighting for Freedom, Opportunity, Enterprise.” That sounds nice. The TaxPayers’ Alliance signals my support for fiscal restraint, and the Hoover Institution is a nice way of encouraging people to enquire whether I have met Milton Friedman or George Shultz. I have bags from book conferences that suggest my writing bona fides. I have one that declares “We Can Change the World,” a claim whose sincerity I don’t doubt, but about whose particulars I am somewhat skeptical. Perhaps my favorite is my niece’s gift, a utilitarian lightweight “Totes Ma Goats” bag in which I carry my own books (especially my novel The Audacity of Goats) for publicity events.
But of all the tote bags, the most exclusive are those presented as swag to attendees of various high-level conferences, like the Aspen Ideas Festival. We now have three or four Aspen tote bags. One is beautifully made from military grade canvas with leather handles and represents philanthropy to a veterans group. A bag from an exclusive corporate philanthropic retreat has a lovely insulated pocket underneath to carry your properly chilled bottle of New Zealand sauvignon blanc or possibly a can of bug spray that wouldn’t mix well with the potato salad.
Does Davos have a tote bag, I wonder? Do Davos attendees ever do anything that requires the use of a tote bag? Or do they bring them home as a bonus gift to their nannies?
As my husband’s spoils of conquest accumulate in the hall closet, and the door becomes harder to close, I have begun to feel the need for some form of triage. How many tote bags does one family require? I ought to sort through, choose the most exclusive, and chuck the rest, but I’ll probably keep the nice plastic one from the now-defunct local bookstore. It’s easy to disinfect.
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.
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 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 →
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.
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.