Like the wedding of Charles and Diana, William and Catherine’s wedding has been referred to, over and over again, as a “fairy tale.” Most of us are guilty of using commonly repeated words or phrases, such as “fairy tale,” without really thinking about what they mean. But just a short mental reconnaissance through our beloved childhood “fairy tales” reminds us that every story from this genre features a scary villain: the sharp-toothed wolf dressed as the trusted grandmother; the evil stepmother with the blood-red nails; the bitter old crone whose poison needle puts the beautiful princess to sleep for 100 years. Consider myths like Beowulf. Beowulf is nothing without Grendel. Actually, Beowulf is nothing without Grendel’s mother. Because killing Grendel doesn’t solve Beowulf’s problem. Killing Grendel teaches Beowulf the very painful lesson that what you thought you had to conquer was only the first step, and your real quest is to confront the way scarier thing waiting for you just around the corner (or at the bottom of the lake, in this case). This quest is what fairy tales are really about.
This is not a post about the Royal Wedding. This is a reflection on what true relationship “fairy tales” really are. Clearly, what they are not is gorgeous weddings, exquisite dresses, historic tiaras, or men in large furry vertical hats.
Neither are they “perfect” parents and their “perfect” children. My 13-year old son Jacob and I drive past a billboard every morning that reads something like: “You don’t have to be perfect to be a perfect parent.” And we always snicker because the photo that accompanies this (completely true and important) message has a multi-racial family all smiling and holding their arms out like they are the final act of the Ice Capades. I get it; families come in a variety of configurations and should be encouraged. But the “perfection” of it just makes me think that we don’t have any images of “good enough” families, so we’re stuck with ones that look like bad versions of a Benetton ad.
I’ve been married for almost 20 years, and my “fairy tale” has been filled with moments of transcendent joy, unspeakable gratitude, quiet pleasure, nightmarish anger, meanness beyond words, fear, pettiness, jealousy, small-mindedness, little insanities, and love beyond imagining. My “villains” have been as real and as terrifying as the old crone in Hansel and Gretel who throws children into the oven, and as life-threatening as Grendel’s mother. The only way Beowulf can save his kingdom is to dive into the lake where she’s waiting for him, a lake on whose shores even “the mightiest stag” chose to die rather than brave the waters. That’s the only way for most of us–going father and deeper than we ever wanted go, to conquer something we can’t even name. It’s either that or die on the shore.
If you need a less elevated way of hearing this, if you need something to remind you of the worst arguments you’ve had with the ones you love, remember the perennial reappearances, like bloated bodies floating down a contaminated river, of every hurtful word or bitter resentment you’ve ever exchanged and can’t let go of. Of every meanness. Of words and actions that you will spend your life regretting, and hopefully, learning from. Then remember how you keep trying.
Because that’s what fairy tales are–the willingness to continue the quest; the prayer that when you have nothing left to give, you will find more and give that, in the hopes that you are reaching towards what the Bishop of London Richard Chartres called Catherine and William, and in some ways the world to be. It is everything.
“’Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire.’” So said St Catherine of Siena whose festival day it is today. Marriage is intended to be a way in which man and woman help each other to become what God meant each one to be, their deepest and truest selves.”
This is never easy work. I don’t feel certain that the person God has called my partner to be is someone I can always get behind. I don’t feel certain that the person my God has called me to be is someone I understand or can fulfill. I don’t know if I can even recognize what God wants my sons to be. But what choice do I have? Going forward as partners, as parents, as sons and daughters, aunts and uncles, sisters and brothers, and as devout, resilient human beings is the most important work we can do.
There is always a bad guy, a villain, a terrifying evil, a petty meanness. Looking it in the face and saying, “I chose love,” is our myth, our quest. It is the greatest fairy tale of all, and we don’t need tiaras to be in it.
The Healing Time
Finally on my way to yes
I bump into
all the places
where I said no
to my life
all the untended wounds
the red and purple scars
those hieroglyphs of pain
carved into my skin, my bones,
those coded messages
that send me down
the wrong street
again and again
where I find them
the old wounds
the old misdirections
and I lift them
one by one
close to my heart
and I say holy
© Pesha Joyce Gertler
Powerful – and I suspect there’s so much more for you to share with us on this deep topic!
By the way, I’ve studied that ad campaign you referenced: “You don’t have to be perfect to be a perfect parent.” If it’s the Ad Council ad I’m thinking off, it’s designed to get potential adoptive parents beyond that lingering fear that says, “I can’t even try to do this until my life is perfect. Or better. Or the way it should be.” I think that this yearning for perfection a pitfall for all of us, and one that’s not even really the point at the end of the day. The proof is in the trying, and you hit on this perfectly!
Sorry that I was so long in responding. This is one of my favorite topics., Lelslie. I studied fairytales extensively with Sam Leuchli at Temple University. He was the best; he believed they were religious stories from the Pagans. They are the ultimate healing stories, the stories that explain the world to us, intended for adults as well as children. And of course, total happy ever after never fits into any explanation of the world. Fairy tales are so much more. I especailly like Grimm. They are the stories of the people, the colective unconscious, are shared dreams and nightmares. Thanks., again, Leslie. I put this on Face Book and sent to my mother-in-law.