I’ve always loved dolls and the delightful escapism I can find in their tiny world. This lovely if somewhat tattered display case resides in my living room.
I found the case, wet from rain, by a tiny shrine many years ago. The dolls are my own; I made some of them. I spend time staring at them, thinking, “What if you were real?” No more than that. That’s enough.
I also love fairy tales, but not Disney extravaganzas. While I love the music in Fantasia, I’ve always found hippos wearing tutus disturbing. I also have to admit I’ve never seen Bambi and don’t want to. Those aren’t the tales I’m talking about. Sometime around high school, I discovered Andrew Lang’s Fairy Books of Many Colours. This was one of my favourites (British spelling by courtesy).If you thought ballet dancing hippos were weird, there’s a whole universe of strange in these books. They’re fairy tales collected from all over the world. According to Lang’s preface, “cruel and savage deeds have been softened down as much as possible” and most “take the side of courage and kindness and the virtues in general.” Still, there’s enough weird in these pages to satisfy…well…me.
In the Scandinavian tale The Enchanted Wreath, there is a couple, each bringing to the union a daughter from a previous marriage. The man’s daughter is beautiful and good, no doubt a virgin (spoiler alert!) until the prince has his way with her, while the woman’s daughter is cross and ugly and the prince will never look at her twice because beautiful men don’t marry ugly women, at least not in Hollywood or the pages of fairy tales. Ugly men can marry beautiful women, however, (Mick Jagger, Billy Joel, love them both despite their looks) and we’re meant to accept that as a social norm. Check Google if you don’t believe me.
Both daughters are asked to go out in the rain to fetch the man’s axe after he’s been woodcutting, although why the dumb-ass can’t remember to bring it home himself is beyond me. Each daughter finds some cold, wet doves sitting on the axe handle. Beautiful feeds and pets them and is rewarded with a wreath of eternal rosebuds adorned by invisible birds that never stop twittering, which sounds a bit thorny and annoying, but I didn’t write the story. Ugly, on the other hand, shoos the doves away calling them ‘dirty creatures’. Her reward is that she can never say anything but, ‘dirty creatures’ for the rest of her days, which seems to be giving those doves an awful lot of power and outweigh the crime, but again, I didn’t write the story.
“What do you want for breakfast?”
“Um…we’ve got some stale corn flakes. Will that do?”
Long story short, a prince happens upon Beautiful in the woods, falls in love and proposes on the spot. The king is displeased but gets over it; the kid had always been headstrong anyway and the girl is just so darned pretty. Ugly and her mother are also displeased but don’t get over it. Instead, they indulge in some unethical conniving, including drowning Beautiful who somehow turns into a ghost and then a slimy snake that writhes in the prince’s hand until he lops off its head with his sword and Beautiful is returned to him intact, complete with thorny roses and twittering birds. There’s no explanation of how he knew he should do that; I rarely use a sword to lop off the heads of people I love, hexed or not. Ugly and her horrid mother are banished to a desert island and everyone else lives happily ever after. And that’s how it works in fairy tale land.
In real life, the hexes are more straightforward and less easily dealt with. Since the curtain came down last October, I’ve made it through surgeries and chemotherapy, more needles and bandages than I can begin to count, mostly delivered with caring and professionalism but also half-lies and brick walls and indifference. And there’s still a long way to go. Leaving home for the final chemo session last week, I put my hand on the knob to open my front gate and thought “sixteen.” Sixteen times I turned that knob, opened the gate, walked to the station, got on the train. Sixteen times I opened the door to the doctor’s office, sixteen times I sat in the chair and went through the procedure, sometimes easily, usually not. Sixteen times I got up again and came home. Sixteen.
With all of that, the past year has sucked in more ways I can name, but at the same time, it has brought so much love into my life. I am finding it not only in other people but also in myself. I find a capacity for giving and sharing that I didn’t know existed, a mutual need for human touch, for connection, but also to let go of the people who, intentionally or not, cause me nothing but pain. I hope this is a form of wisdom. I’ve got my people, all of us perfectly imperfect, all of us on a journey, all of us in the same boat, whatever form it may take, wherever it may be sailing, to paradise or to a desert island or just to the convenience store on the corner.
I have found the strength to trust myself, to make decisions and live with the consequences, right or wrong, to feed the doves or shoo them away. I’ve never had to face this kind of challenge before, never really been sick before. The surreal world of Cancerland has posed such contradictions, such questions, offered so few answers and I am the kind of person who needs things to be straightforward. I am only now beginning to realize how much this has changed my life, not just my body, but also my mind, my outlook, my overall perspective. Forever, I will have this threat hanging over me. The old normal will never return; I have to learn to live with a new normal. The collateral damage is still unimaginable to me, the snake still writhing in my hand. I can never know which way he will turn his slimy head and I seem to have left my sword somewhere, perhaps next to dumb-ass’s axe.
This journey is both beautiful and ugly and that’s real life, unadorned by the good or the bad, the dancing hippos or perpetual roses or slimy snakes or jealous stepmothers. Despite all that, or maybe because of it, somehow we find a way to keep going.