I made the mistake this week of reading a novel that is better than anything I’ll ever write. Bah humbug, was my incredibly intelligent critical response. I had to curl up and feel sorry for myself for hours afterward.
This is where it falls apart. Does this happen to you? When everything out there is prettier than what I’ve got in here…then all the richness of the landscape — both natural and manufactured — can only serve to make me feel poorer. And poorer yet. And poorer yet.
There’s a lot of beauty out there. But none of it will satisfy.
Have you ever noticed that all the children’s stories have talking animals in them? I mean, ALL the children’s stories. It’s not just a theme. It defines the genre. Those stories that don’t have talking animals have floating stars. Or talking trees. Or straight up here’s-a-pat-on-the-head-for-you visits from Jesus.
Do you remember, when the trees talked to you? Do you remember what they said?
This is one of our favorite fantasies, that there was a time in childhood when we had not yet made our compromises. We lived in the magic world, sisters to the creatures and the trees. Sisters to what in our house we call “our true things.”
Sometimes I think this fantasy is the very worst thing, because it teaches us that these aspirations are for babies. When in truth a good dose of listening to trees and birds could serve our deadened, anxious culture more than a hundred prescriptions for antidepressants.
It’s such a hopeless, lonely thing, to be a self. You know it is. But our post-existentialist realism says these feelings, too, are for babies. Okay, not babies, high school students, but still. Not for grown-ups. Since we were teenagers in love, we are no longer free to think about how much we want to be connected to the magic world…sealed at the heart with All That Is.
That’s not Grown Up.
Until some novel comes along and recreates the beauty, the depth of connection. It restores a vision of what was lost. And it makes me want to curl up and cry for grief.
For me it usually starts this way. I feel it through jealousy for another single soul. Somebody is in the kingdom, still. Somebody is talking to unicorns. Somebody has not lost the key.
I hate that person.
But I have felt it enough times to know it isn’t really personal. I grieve for what I want. I’d like to undo the rift, in which existentialism is only the other half of Manifest Destiny, and they are both philosophies of the dog-eat-man world of the Triangle Trade and the massacre of Indigenous people, and what all those dirty hippies might call “the rape of the earth.”
At some point in our history, we came so thick into destruction of the sisterhood — what we in our house call “our true things” — we had no choice but to pretend that the feeling of being hooked at the heart with All That Is is just a thing for babies. Ostensibly before you are old enough to hold a musket or a whip.
After centuries of this, dehumanizing the human and the inhuman in the name of “necessity,” and “survival” and “that’s just the way it is,” we look out at the world that isn’t made by our own hands, and we no longer speak the language. The trees don’t speak to us. The little animals. We get nothing. Some people have a fever for it, of course. But the rest of us think that’s boring and remember that camping is uncomfortable. There doesn’t seem to be any way back.
Grown Up Life happens. The veil comes down. The real things are far away. The result is pretty hard to survive without a good pharmacist.
(Or at least a good novelist.)
I grieve for lost Eden. I grieve for the true thread of connection, that weaves through our bones and ties us to the land. I grieve for the different realities, which I have lived across. (Just in this last year, I have crossed the line from mystic to Grown Up and back again, probably three times, but that’s another story.)
It takes a bit of will — a bit of steel — to say, I will not relegate true things to children’s books and master novelists. Even through grief and guilt, and ghosts of violence, I will reach for what has been lost.
I will remember.