We all come to life with a set of gifts, and I wonder how well we know them. Are some gifts more problematic than others? I’m thinking of the wise women who came to bring their gifts to the princess at her christening in The Briar Rose. Twelve gifts were welcome, but the king didn’t want anything to do with what the thirteenth wise woman had to offer. He banned her from the feasting hall, and, in her outrage, she stormed the ceremony and cursed the child to death.
What if she had been welcome in the first place? What would her gift have been?
What do we do with our own gifts when they aren’t welcome in the world? A cultural prejudice against fairy tales made it hard to for me to realize that I had a gift for understanding them. A few decades ago, when I started storytelling, I gravitated to fairy tales. I recognized the old language spoken by our ancestral spinning mothers. My interest soon grew into a passion which caused me to feel increasingly different and even disconnected from other people. It chafed me to hear people say things like: “There are no happy endings. Life is not a fairy tale.”
I would think, “Actually, life IS a fairy tale.” The princess Briar Rose sleeps for a hundred years, and that’s roughly the length of a lifetime. Maybe she dreams a life while she sleeps. Maybe she’ll wake when the self she has dreamed, dies. Maybe we all will.
But let’s go back to gifts. Why do we get these problematic gifts in the first place? Why were they entrusted to us if they serve no apparent purpose? When I first started studying fairy tales, I wrote in my journal: “I wonder if this gift (of understanding fairy tales) will help me to survive. Will it have some meaning or benefit in my life, or will I just be some insane artist wandering disconnected through life, lost in fairyland with my head in the clouds?”
Bringing the gift to life had become difficult. It was causing me to identify strongly with the thirteenth wise woman who had been excluded from the feast. How many other gifts of wisdom have not been given a place at the table of modern life? Not only did I feel more separate, I was in a battle with myself. My internal ruling, rational mind was as uncomfortable with my passion for fairy tales as the king in the The Briar Rose. It had taken me years to develop a useful, employable mind. I had sacrificed a number of gifts in order to learn about the world and figure out what I could do to make money and survive. Why not leave it at that?
I attempted to resolve the tension by trying to integrate this new interest in fairy tales and storytelling. I could bring storytelling into my communications business, write mythic stories for clients, introduce my colleagues to the power of myth and fairy tales. We could emphasize deep communication with our clients who were trying to promote wellness and change unhealthy habits and attitudes.
However, before I could find a real place for those subjects, my body cried out. For health reasons, I had to give up my business. I got swept out of the mainstream, and the current carried me off to the thirteenth kingdom. I found myself in the dark, wondering why I had come into the world in the first place. And there, in the dark, other unrealized natural gifts started to glow. Songwriting. Sculpting.
To know those gifts, to reach in and embrace them, I had to stop fighting my way back to being that other person, the one I’d manufactured to be on the invite list for the christening. I had to melt and surrender to the foreign intelligence of my own body, and open my heart to its mysteries. Then I was able to reach in and take the gifts. It was necessary that it not matter how the gifts would change me; how different they would make me feel.
In a culture that is tightly focused on outcomes, on material products, and on material worth, there is a tendency to think that the arts don’t matter. They’re luxuries: the first things to go when times get tough. In fact, though, these are the gifts that we need most of all when we’re having to accept realities we can’t change. I would have loved to have known, as a child, that the artist in me was welcome, and would one day be vital to my spiritual survival. I would have loved to have known that there were gifts in me more valuable than money, gifts that the whole species held dear.
Throughout our lives, our unseen gifts flicker and spark. A child who daydreams in class, an adult who doodles in board meetings, a person who sings in the shower, or makes odd little figures in clay should never be made to feel ashamed of those expressions. They are rays of light from our depths. When the surface fails to hold us, when we lose our ground in the upper world, we’re going to fall into that treasure that lies in our deeper selves.
The most surprising gift that came to me when I had fallen into the underworld was the gift of making gnomes out of modelling clay. It was as if my fingers had started to glow with their own intelligence, and before long, a whole tribe of gnomes crowded around me, along with a few dwarfs, trolls, and goblins.
People looked at the gnomes and asked me what I was going to do with them. Would I sell them? For how much? How would I market them? Could they be made into molds and manufactured?
I knew what the gnomes told me. They said, “Hey you can give us away but we’re not for sale.”
When I asked them, “What are you here for, then?” they laughed and said, “For delight.”
It took me a long time to wrap my head around the idea that I was worth their effort: me, a confused human being, who didn’t herself know why she was here. The words “your delight,” bounced around in my head until I finally got the pun: “You’re da light!” The gnomes would tell you that’s sufficient. Which leads me to wonder if the king in The Briar Rose excluded the thirteenth wise woman because her gift didn’t seem to have any worth in the world. It didn’t shine in the daylight, but it would glow in the dark when the soul was lost and needed some means of turning sorrow into joy.
A spinning wheel, perhaps?
Painting by Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis.
“Maggie” by me.