The Princess and the Spell

princess in distessThe kingdom had shrunk and yet the Princess Caoilainn and her consort, Caoimhin, had found refuge in a high corner of enchanted forest. The wood elves kept watch over them. The ravens and eagles acted as sentries to warn of danger. The lumbering bears prowled the perimeter. The deer and horses, skittish by nature, sounded alarms. But none of these were proof and protection against the ancient curse that was laid on the princess  before  birth.

Once before the curse had struck her down and only the kiss of Caoimhin had brought her back from death. The wizards had worked hard to find the antidote and it seemed for a while they had succeeded. Then it struck again.

Caoimhin, distraught, sought to give her into wizard care again. Different wizards for the old ones were far away. She railed against him for his betrayal as she was carried off.

He summoned the queen, her mother, from a far off kingdom. She answered the call swiftly. Together surely with the wizards’ help, they could defeat the spell.

They journeyed down and down from the mountain, deep into the hot centre of the earth where the new wizards held sway. Caoimhin knocked at the gate. He asked for entry.

The door keeper said,”I will ask the princess if she wants to see you.”

But the princess was so deeply cursed that she rejected Caoimhin. The queen, she allowed in. The queen found her daughter much changed, head bowed, her body wrapped in white, cold in this hell hole. She held her sad child long and hard. When they sat down Caoilainn sat beside her.

Dance princess“Wrong!” the guard shouted. “Other side of table!”

Caoilainn began to rage. The apprentice wizards and the guards had rules she did not know. Sit here, wash there. Eat here. Ask nicely. Be good. She would not, she shouted. She would not bow. She had not forgotten she was a princess. The giant guard threatened to take her away.

“No,” she said. “You will not. I’ll go myself.”

Riding home, the husband and the mother considered this curse. Its origin. The mother wept with guilt and grief. The husband regretted what he’d done.

“She cried out for help,” the queen said. “She is getting help.”

At home in the enchanted mountain valley, the queen saw the beautiful things her daughter loved: the talismans, the raw jade, the lovely furniture rescued from the palace. She remembered her exquisite taste, her deep learning, her beauty and her charm. The queen heard the finch’s melody, saw the deep blue sky, the immense green pines, the mirrored lake and grieved that her daughter could not.

She travelled daily down to the centre of the earth with Caoimhin and begged for entry. Only once more did she succeed. Again Caoimhin was left standing  outside the gate- alone and sadly loitering. Then the princess decreed there would be no more visits.

“We’ll get on with life,” they vowed. They tried to eat and sleep and take the air, let the sun warm their faces. To no avail. There was no life without the princess.

Then she who had rejected them sent a message asking help to summon the other wizard who had brought her back before. At last Caoimhin could act.

What that loving wizard said to her they never really knew. Later Caoilainn  said it was just his voice that brought her back, trustworthy and assured.

By then the potions made by wizards of the hot and guarded cell had begun to work and the princess had grown calmer.

“Come take her home,” they said.

She was angry still but not at Caoimhin. For two days she railed against the guards and lesser wizards, at the lack of loving care. She talked of other people there, wounded beyond bearing, sometimes locked in solitary cells but caring for each other.

Then one day she said, “It worked.” She was herself again.

She made decisions. She forswore her title. She would make no further claim to royal power. She would sit in her window weaving tapestries. She would rest and love her husband. She would complete her healing.

lady weavingThe young princeling rode up from the coastal lowlands. He lived there in the guise of a merchant, for the merchants now ruled the land. Caoilainn rejoiced to see her son. There were tears and there was laughter.

Now they recognized the spell as they never had before and they had powerful allies to guard against it. Nothing is ever sure, but the queen had seen with future sight a very, very old woman wearing her daughter’s face.


Black Humour: Despair young and Never Look Back

We were laughing. I remember that. It was Mother’s Day, wedding day. The hotel room was suddenly full of people. We oldsters were waking up from our nap and the youngsters had descended on us, bearing greetings. The last to arrive was Leo, 17, my grandson. And we were laughing.

It had been a bad year really. Someone was very ill, awaiting  surgery. Some, still getting  hit hard by this recession. Someone was grieving the lost love of his life. Someone else, heartbroken. But here we were from both sides of the continent, together at last. We were laughing. Blackly!

And then I said to Leo, “Despair young and never look back.”

How could I? He was a fresh-faced seventeen year old. How could I lay Samuel Beckett’s bleak advice on him?

Leo laughed.

It’s hard to be fresh-faced and seventeen under the circumstances, but, more to the point, Leo shares that black sense of humour. He figured out as a much younger person what life can be and he, like the rest of us, in that room had decided to laugh.

I first came across Beckett’s advice in MIchael Ondatje’s The Cat’s Table, the story of a 10-year-old’s voyage from India to England on his own. He befriended two other children also on their own and ate with them at the lowest table, the one farthest from the captain’s table, the cat’s table.

I knew Samuel Beckett, having taught Waiting for Godot to puzzled teenagers for many years. (Why were the tramps waiting? Was Godot God? Why didn’t he come? etc.) It was impossible to say. Beckett had pared the language down to the point where the audience had to decide. But it was clear that, apparently abandoned and betrayed, they suffered in their waiting. Whether that suffering was comic or tragic was harder to say.

Beckett’s advice in response to a young fan’s letter was equally hard to decipher, but it came down to that: figure out early how bad life can be and accept it, then you’ll get along fine. Okay, I added that last bit, but Beckett must have agreed I figure: he kept on.

Why is it so comforting to find people who share this black sense of humour? Why does my sister find my post “Why I Will Never Sleep Again”, a useful indicator of whom she can relate to? (Those who think it’s funny – yes. Those who just look puzzled – not so much.)

Beckett’s advice will be interpreted as terribly bleak and totally inappropriate by some of us, and so absolutely true as to be mundane by others.

When I sit down to dinner, I enjoy the company of the second group. How comforting to know that they have been there too, that they know how absolutely awful life can be and they can find that funny. That doesn’t, by the way, necessarily mean that they are drunkards. Beckett was indeed Irish and they are famous for their black humour. They are also famous for drunkenness, although Beckett was not. It is possible to be drunk without alcohol. It is possible to be drunk on life, to rise up from whatever disaster is trying to put you down and laugh.

No, not in its face, not defiantly, cynically certainly, but not bitterly. “I see you for what you are, Life and I am not impressed.”

And so in that hotel room, on Mother’s Day, before the wedding, I added words from Beckett’s play, absurd in their resilience, in case Leo didn’t get it : “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”

And there is barely a pause between the two thoughts.

The Void Again: Something out of Nothing

A friend of mine beset by ill health and economic downturn, bewailed the fact that at 50, she has nothing. Her business is being sold. Her house is under water (over mortgaged in the failed housing market). She has no pension and she has used up her savings.

Ah, yes, the void again, the great emptiness.

Here we go, my dear, my answer to you: like me you have made you living by talking to others. It was the principal way you helped them heal. All those generous and compassionate words took wing and settled in their minds. They carried your words away and gradually understood them. They became better and better people for it. There is no way to see or measure this effect.

This week, Charlie Rose interviewed Oliver Platt, Lily Rabe and the producer and director of As You LIke It which is being presented in Central Park this month. Lily Rabe, who plays Rosalind, said that she never feels as alive as when she is playing Shakespeare. There is something about just saying the lines over and over that improves her mental health.

I know that feeling from years of reading his plays aloud and listening to students read them and listening to them go out the door still speaking in iambic pentameter without the slightest idea they were doing so. The very cadence and rhythm of the poetry change your brain waves. Behind that, lies Shakespeare’s deep understanding of feeling and his brilliant logic and insight into life. A bracing stimulant like a cool Perrier mist in a tropical bar above a deep blue lagoon.

All that talk just seems to vanish, like my grandmother Gladys’s deep throated story-telling and her great laughter of, for example, the time her French cleaning lady came running downstairs crying, “Gladness, Gladness, the house is on fire.” Indeed the house was on fire and subsequently burned to the ground, but fifty years later, Gladys rocked with laughter. After 96 years and 2 burned-out houses, Gladys is gone and only memory can hold that treasure now.

But it is real no matter how invisible.

Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen. (Hebrews XI, 1). Now faith is a slippery thing. As best as I can see it is the light of our looking and the sound of our listening. It isn’t some dread effort of will. The important idea in Paul’s words is that what is invisible can have substance, can indeed be evidence.

So we could count up what you really have accomplished substantially and visibly, mention, for example, two brilliant male off-spring and a soul mate. Or we could have faith that much more is going on here, the love that people bear you in their hearts is your Pulitzer, your Nobel Prize, your pearl of great price.

This is, after all, only an imitation of defeat and not a very good one at that.