Once Upon a Time

I saw a wooden sign in a store yesterday that said something about life being like a fairy tale – meaning the life of the person who designed the sign, I guess, and meaning that his/her life was a happy- ever- after type of affair with lots of love and magic.  That didn’t seem to describe my life, and I felt little twinges of something like jealousy, sadness, or annoyance or all three rolled into one.

Oh, I know my life has been pretty good, and I have much to be thankful for, but it’s also been, in a lot of ways, very hard –  not as hard as many people’s lives, but still seeming really difficult at times.  

Maybe, I thought, I’m just not the type of person to think of life as a fairy tale.  Maybe it takes a certain innocence, lightness, sweetness, or optimism that I don’t have.  Maybe I’m too serious, think too much, or had too many ACE’s (adverse childhood experiences) to see life as a fairy tale.

Then my mind takes me to August, 1965.  My mom asks me to call my dad for dinner.  He spends a lot of time in the basement drinking, so that’s where I head to find him.  I find him lying in a pool of blood at the bottom of the stairs.  He never regains consciousness.  We get the call from the hospital the next morning saying he has died.  I become numb and stay that way for a long time.  A week later I start seventh grade at the age of 11.  I went from a sixth grade class of 4 to a class of 130.  I recall having no one to eat lunch with because I just didn’t  know how to reach out to people.  At times I felt invisible and at other times I felt like a big, ugly, awkward blob.

My dad suffered fear and hunger and who knows what else as a prisoner-of-war in WWII.  He was a talented and creative man who also lost the only way of life he had really known when the family farm had to be sold to keep my grandmother in a nursing home.  He certainly wasn’t the only one to suffer because of war. Multiple millions of people have lost loved ones, homes, livelihoods, health, and their own lives due to war and genocide.

As long as I’m thinking of the tough times, I think of October, 1981.  I am preparing dinner and get the phone call from my mom telling me my brother, 12 years older than me, has suffered a fatal heart attack while hunting in Canada.  His beautiful wife and 10 year old son are left without a husband and father.  It seems too sad to be true.

January 1985 – I am happily three months pregnant with our third child.  I have church nursery duty that day, and as I’m playing with the kids, I suddenly discover that something is very wrong.  By that evening I’m in the hospital ER and am no longer happily expecting a baby.  I’m beginning the grief process of losing a very wanted child.

It’s the mid 90’s.  My daughter and I are at odds with each other.  I thought I’d have the emotional connection with my children that was missing in my family growing up.  It hurts.  The fact that I love her so much and feel that I contributed a lot to the problem by my criticism makes it hurt even more.  I know it’s a fairly normal part of children growing up and maybe even a necessary part, but that doesn’t lessen the pain.

My younger sister hasn’t been feeling well.  I talk to her on the phone often and just don’t realize it’s as bad as it is until I receive a call from her husband saying she’s gone by ambulance to the hospital.  I can’t go to her because we’re celebrating my mom’s 91st birthday the next day and she doesn’t know how sick her daughter is.  She dies that day on my mom’s birthday, and I have to tell my mom the news.  Hardest thing I think I’ve ever done.

Tears fill my eyes as I write this.  Life can be so hard.  I’ve written before about the beautiful moments in life so I know that life can be wonderful and amazing and magical, but a fairy tale?  Who made that sign?  What was their life like?  How could it be that good?

Then I remember what fairy tales are really like.  Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Hansel and Gretel, Little Red Riding Hood – these people had some serious issues.  Life wasn’t a rosy, floating-on- a- cloud type of existence for these people.  They faced wicked step-mothers, wolves dressed like grandmothers, poverty, famine, people who wanted to eat them, and wicked fairies who caused them to go into a deep 100 year sleep.  Yes, it’s true, something usually happens to bring them out of their peril and danger and they live happily ever after, but their lives are not without trials.

I suppose the person who made the sign about life being like a fairy tale was thinking about the magical qualities of life, the dreams- come- true kind of thing.
And I’m thinking that maybe it’s about taking the real stuff of life – the alcoholism, the miscarriages, the arguments, the ordinary days, the mundane chores, the loss of a job, the bullying, the insecurity, the ashes left after a death or divorce – and spinning them into gold.

Sometimes we bring some of the troubles in life upon ourselves through ignorance or refusing to listen to the vision inside of us calling us to a higher life.  Often though, especially as children, things just happen – things that bring us pain and sorrow.

It’s what we do with those things that determines the fairy tale quality of our lives.  For me, the biggest miracle in my life was discovering that by changing my thinking I could change my life.  By changing the way I saw myself, I could be a different person.  By changing the way I looked at the painful parts of life, I could transform them into parts of a beautiful tapestry that could contain the shadows and the light and be all the more beautiful because of it.

I can see now that my growing-up-years gave me compassion for many different kinds of people and a small understanding of their pain.  My experiences with conflict at first made me avoid conflict, but then allowed me to see the reasons behind it and the gifts that can come when we aren’t afraid to deal with it.

My youngest daughter would not be here if I hadn’t had the miscarriage I had. I can’t imagine life without her!  I also have empathy for the many women who have lost children or aren’t able to have them.

I’ve learned to just trust when I don’t understand why certain things happened.  I don’t always have to know why. At least not now.

I’ve learned that expressing sorrow and remorse for things we’ve done that we wish we hadn’t or things we’ve not done that we wish we had can go a long way toward healing.  So can forgiveness.  I’m sure that walking away from something or someone and taking our lessons learned with us can too.  So can looking at ourselves as accepted, loved, worthy, and designed with a purpose.

Maybe that’s the fairy-tale part of life – picking ourselves up, becoming stronger, having hope, gaining courage, believing in our dreams and not letting them go, and finally seeing reality unfold as Jesus said “according to our beliefs”.  It is magical that we are meant to be co-creators of our lives.  It might take us a while to figure this out,  but the picture we paint on the inside is often the picture we end up seeing on the outside.

I can’t look back and say my life always felt good.  I can’t erase the painful times.  I can look for and experience the joy in today though, and I can keep faith alive that joy will be there tomorrow and that love, that grand design behind everything, will never fail.

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