‘Success’ is a fairytale and you weren’t told the full story.

"Willing or not, we are all confronted again and again in our lives with the circumstance of myth. Like it or not, aware or unconscious, we will at one time or another be challenged to disconnect from our allegiance to the material world, be lost in the desert, will wander confused and bereaved until we fulfill the requirements of the gods. We will all be broken, will all be crucified, and, we hope, will all be offered the possibility of resurrection.”
- Deena Metzger

Earlier this year, I let go of every success in my life this far: a senior position in my professional field, my first home, a sound investment property and even my marriage. Everything I had worked for. Everything I thought defined and celebrated who I was.

In a culture that taught me to value precisely these achievements, this was a bold and bizarre move that I find almost impossible to explain. Something inside of me understood there was an unknown that was a greater expanse than the known. DH Lawrence wrote:

“You’ve got to very badly want to get rid of the old before anything new will appear – even in the self. You have to learn not-to-be, before you can come into being.”

Deep in the knotted muscles of my shoulders and around my heart a primal instinct urged me to stop gripping life so tight. Instead of letting go, just don’t hold on. So I didn’t, and like pulling a thread everything came undone and I tumbled into a terrifying, liberating free fall. Cataclysmically crashing through to draw breath, to wake up, to see the full starry sky.

But then what?

For this day finds me wrapped in a grey and bleary fog in a non-descript Asian location. A no-mans land where the way forward, back or even side-ways is obscured, and the present foothold too lacks distinct form and shape. This isn’t even a nightmare realm where I can congratulate myself on battling dragons and vanquishing great demons. It is just an empty desert, desolate in its futile uselessness. What am I doing? What have I done? For what reason?

In my girlhood, I was told, we were all told, the fairytale of Beauty and the Beast.

Illustrations by Kate Gillett

Once upon a time a merchant about to set off on a journey, asked his three daughters what he should bring them back. The eldest asked for a pearl and the second for jewels, but the youngest asked strangely for a rose. On his journey the father easily found the pearl and the jewels, but nearing the end of his travels he still had not come across a rose. When he had given up hope he came across an enchanted garden and growing there in the snow was a single red rose. He cut down the rose only to be immediately confronted by a Beast threatening to devour him for the theft of his rose. In an effort to avoid death by mastication, the man promised to send to the Beast the first thing to greet him upon his arrival home.

Fatefully his most beloved youngest daughter rushed to greet him first and there in the snow the merchant wept as he gave her the rose and told her its terrible cost. The young woman traced the soft petals of the bud still closed with secrets and pricked her finger against the thorns of its stem. Still, she did not spurn her gift and though the shadow of the Beast fell across her path she set off to meet her destiny.

Disney exclusively sang the successes of this brave young woman, lingering in her supposed happily-ever-after. How she arrived to the Enchanted Garden and found not a Beast but a cursed Prince waiting to freed by the arrival of her beautiful self. How the lovers recognised each other through all guises and his beastliness fell away. How rose red lips opened and whispered all the truth never spoken and many lifetimes of curses were lifted by the grace of their love. Disney closes his tale where the teapot turns back into a woman, the candlestick into a man, the ottoman into a puppy dog, the lovers embracing. We are greedy about love and happiness and we want the story to end here.

Illustrations by Kate Gillett

But folklore is brutal in its honesty, faithfully transmitting the long woven strings of past karma that have us tied up in torn destinies. The fairytale continues, and because brilliant love illuminates not only the joyful but also the gnarled places secreted in our psyche, once upon a time this husband and wife were arguing. The husband held up his hands in warning, Wife, I am afraid. These are tender places you are poking, but she pressed onward trusting the destiny of their love, For Husband, everything is revealed between lovers. He transformed suddenly into a bird and with tears falling took flight compelled by an instinct he neither understood nor wanted. Search for me! he cried, as she raced to the window to see his silhouette disappearing. A single white feather lying upon the sill.

In the light of this tragedy the sisters came rushing to the youngest's aid. The eldest sister, gleaming with the reflected wisdom of her father’s pearl, said Come home. He’s a Beast! He was never any good, look how he has left you! The second sister weighted by the many heavy jewels of her inheritance reminded her sister that Marriage has always been for the security of women and children. Choose a steadfast man to provide for you now! The father had passed on already so he had no opinion to give, which is just as well. For this was the woman who had asked for a rose still with thorns, who had fallen in love with a Beast, and who knew the preciousness of both gifts she had received.

The story told before bedtimes across the western world is surely only the preamble. For the real story lies where a young woman sets out against all reason, against all advice on a road whose end she does not know. A twisted road written long before her Father ever promised the fateful rose.

Illustrations by Kate Gillett
She wandered for seven years, or was it seven hundred? Through villages and fields and that held up their great emptiness in mockery of everything she sought. Through cities whose confounding streets contorted to lead her in circles. Through dark forests with bare trees that whispered doubts at her mission’s veracity. Beside streams that laughed at her foolish delusion.

I spotted her wandering a street in Kathmandu, in an alley so narrow that the houses on opposite sides lent forward to meet each other like a Maori greeting. She was alone beyond the crowd where the air turns cold and the light is crowded out by buildings. She looked up to a crack of sky and tumbling through the sunlight into the dim shade was a solitary feather falling, landing at her feet. She sank to her knees and kissed fingertips to its white fringe, tears marking her cheek. Then she stood up, walked on, chasing forever one feather after another, knowing her destiny, bearing her pain.

Does she regret that first brazen request for a rose? When her eldest sister chose to adorn herself in the all the wisdom of someone else’s experience was she saved the pain of diving for her own pearls? Could security have been bought with her second sister’s jewels? Would wealth have offered protection from this elemental life? When the youngest daughter accepted the rose, was she, was I, aware the bargain whispered was one of abandon and not a contracted agreement? Can we really bear to accept life on its own terms? This fleeting lush beauty complete with pain, opening into the full bloom of unknown mystery?

The youngest daughter’s path was an unlikely one filled with illuminating and difficult love. She walked alone against the advice of all others and for years was lost in a seemingly hopeless desert, chasing the faintest hints of her yearning, white feathers falling.

Countless myths map out journeys of falling and failing time after time. Of losing everything only to regain it and lose it all again. Tales of being lost in the desert. Of heroes’ mistakes costing them dearly. Myths speak of true love that isn’t contented and peaceful but involves walking directly into the fires of Hades. The pictures painted aren’t rosy and the chipmunks don’t sing. These are stories passed down from our ancestors, telling and retelling the very fabric of human existence, the labyrinth of the human psyche.

By grace, I have wandered out into the desert. Or I was cast out into exile? Who can remember or tell the difference anymore between the forces that conspired to turn me inside out? I released the fictional reigns with which I thought I steered my life and abandoned all markers of success. I even surrendered all shreds of morality, for whose right and wrong was it anyway that I was born into this family, this culture, this story that predates and postdates my slender life?

Time telescopes and I am the youngest daughter chasing white feathers and aimlessly ambling around Asia. I am lost in a great desert whose dusty breath is whispering inaudibly, and my weary feet are finally giving way. The sand receives my body, I collapse into the grains of its ancient hold. This is not failure. It is not inadequacy. It is at last yielding to the suffering and loss that is this life. Giving way. Because there was never anything to hold onto anyway.

“The overwhelming pressure from Western civilization is to disdain everything but the rational. Those who are fortunate enough not to be affected by our prohibitions on thought and psyche live within and according to myths that describe and express a most complex understanding of the universe. They are thus brought into profound and personal communication with nature and the cosmos while simultaneously being guided into their own psyches.”
– Deena Metzger

"You have set sail on another ocean
without star or compass
going where the argument leads
shattering the certainties of centuries." 
- Janet Kalven

* Acknowledgement to Grimm's Fairytale, The Lady and the Lion, who in fact do tell of the youngest daughter's eventual reunion with her lover. After battling a dragon, and twice overcoming an evil enchantress who stole the Prince. Check it out, she's so much more hardcore than Belle ever was...


Popular Posts