Growing up is really hard to do. And at different stages of our lives, we have a shortlist, maybe a longish shortlist, of what we “must have done,” we imagine, in order to qualify for having “grown up.” As life happens, we adjust the lists. Maybe the “fairy tale dream” gets shelved or just drops off somewhere, possibly irretrievable, or so we think. But the thing with fairy tale dreams is that they tend to haunt us, for better or for worse.
September is a great time for contemplating our current list for what it means to us to have “grown up.” The kingdom of summer might linger a little, at least in memory, as we learn to wave goodbye, often with a tinge of sadness.
And with the cooling temperatures of coming autumn we ask ourselves, “How am I doing with my hopes? How do I want to grow this coming year?” And maybe we dare to whisper to ourselves, “What aspects of my fairy tale dream have already happened—and might yet happen?”
As I said in my August blog about my new fiction book, Letters to Annie: A Grandmother’s Dreams of Fairy Tale Princesses, Princes, & Happily Ever After, this is not only the coming-of-age story of Annie for the first 25 years of her life where her grandmother, Omi, chronicles their journey together, this is also the coming-of-age story of Omi. Omi is lucky: not only has she had amazing blessings in her 63 years at which time Annie is born, she gets to forge a close relationship with her one grandchild until she reaches the ripe age of 88, still healthy and hale. Who gets that? (Let’s leave this question and our reactions aside for now.)
At age 63, Omi is definitely in “autumn” when Annie is born but has this extensive season of grace into advanced winter to discover how she has responded to the extravagant gift of life. With each letter she writes she realizes more that she is writing toward her own death. She’s trying to say the things that matter to her while she still can, and say them in such a way that Annie might be able to hear her (at the time and maybe when she is gone).
So what has this grandmother learned? As an aging senior, definitely well beyond many people’s hills, what does she think she knows that’s possibly worth passing on? How might she ease Annie’s way in life? And how might the act of writing to her beloved Annie help Omi as she contemplates her own long life?
Here are some things that Omi discovers in her coming-of-age story:
Time is an enemy, but also a friend.
If what the best of fairy tale has to offer is in our hearts, as Tolkien puts it, this glimpse of “Joy beyond the walls of the world,” then time can surely feel like the enemy that cuts us off from what, as we feel in our hearts, should never end. Death is that last enemy to be overcome (1 Corinthians 13:26). But time is also this gift which has allowed Omi to grow through her own childhood to young adulthood and far beyond: and now to remember who she was and still is and still wants to become. She is seasoned: she’s fought many battles, she’s won many victories. She has wept and laughed, fallen and danced again, and in the end, in the big picture, can pretty much “call it all good.” Omi knows there is a grace that journeys with us, blesses us, redeems us.
Her story is part of a much larger story.
Omi has had time to consider her own life, and now the life of Annie, in light of the lives of their ancestors: parents, grandparents, great-grandparents. Through Annie’s promptings, Omi gets to face her own fears and how the larger story of their family legacy continues to speak wisdom into her heart. Omi is not a lone ranger; Omi is a player in this larger story, and if she plays her part anyway half right, learning from her own fears and failures, then, well, courage and hope can rise. There is indeed a baton for Omi to pass along to Annie and doing so the best way she can matters (see Letter 12).
She can’t fix a single thing.
Well, wow, that’s a terrible thought—or is it? Aren’t we supposed to know what to do to make things better? Get smarter? Prevail over confusion? The idea that you can’t fix anything, not yourself, not anyone else, flies in the face of a culture that esteems the “You’ve got this” message. But through Annie, Omi comes face-to-face with all the times she’s blown it, past and present (okay, not all of the times, because who could stand knowing that?). In Letter 17, Annie’s rage brings Omi smack up against her own battles with having been a selfish pig and lashing out in rage. In Letter 23, Omi writes, “One thing I came to learn—and am still learning—is that I cannot fix myself or anyone or any situation. That job belongs to the One who can.”
But instead of “not being able to fix a single thing” being a cop-out, Omi has been learning that good change happens when we look for the grace that covers a multitude of sins. Omi remembers more often now that she can’t make herself better (because she’s “a good person”), that she can’t control situations, that she can’t change people. She’s still learning that in the act of letting go she becomes available to the grace waiting to do its work in her and others.
When Omi is a mess, there is help for her. When other problems arise, Omi isn’t exactly off the hook either—she for sure is a burden-bearer. But she has freedom in the confidence that Great Good is coming. Omi’s maturation includes still learning to release her fear and egotism so that the Great Good that is always coming, as George MacDonald puts it, can have its way with her and with what she and others face (see Letter 32).
In a world badly hurting and divided, Omi learns love. When all seems to fail, love. When her heart seems broken beyond repair, love. When the happily-ever-after dream seems a dreadful cheat, whether through deception or death itself, love.
Love—really? What is it? humanity has asked throughout time. How do you know it’s love?
Letters to Annie has been described as “a love letter written for all of us.” Yes, thank you Carolyn Curtis for putting it like that! Because the theme of the book is “Love never fails” (1 Corinthians 13:8). (Gosh, that famous love chapter, 1 Corinthians 13, bears regular rereading.)
Omi’s coming-of-age story includes these lessons and more. Now that she’s 88, let’s ask Omi our September question: “Are you grown up now?”
Omi smiles a little, with moist eyes, and answers, “Sort of, yes, sure. I like to think so, at least. Man, it’d be pretty awful if I hadn’t learned a thing all these precious years!”
Omi fumbles for words: “But, uh . . . I think you’re asking me if I’m there now, where I wanted to be, at my high age?”
Then she laughs out loud, and says, “And, well, yes. I’ve so much to be grateful for! It’s all been extraordinarily wonderful! I don’t mean, of course, that nothing hard or horrid has ever happened. I hope I’m not lying to you. My memory still serves me rather well, just so you know. . . .
“But, am I there yet? Goodness, that reminds me of when we’re kids and asking, ‘Are we there yet?’ You see, I’m still journeying. Didn’t you know? I ain’t there yet! (Yeah, I still really and totally love slang—in moderation.) I still need to exercise patience and, oh dear, from all I’ve learned, it doesn’t get easier. I’m growing up the best I can, and as the Good Book says, I won’t ‘get there’ until I get to the Other Side. Footnote: when I get there, I have the distinct feeling that I get to start growing up all over again. Boy, am I glad for that! Doing it right, at last, then. . . . Does that answer your question?”
Okay, my hope for readers is this: that the gems from the best of fairy tales can help you to travel better through your own coming-of-age stories. I hope you’ll enjoy rediscovering what you already know and find yet more for your journey!
To learn more about fairy tales, how we share them, their impact, and more, remember to pick up your copy of Letters to Annie.
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