When I started writing a recent post about cultural beliefs and archetypes related to aging and health issues, I have to confess that I wasn’t quite sure where it would end up. The plan was simply to visualize my inner Crone, ask her what she’d like to say on the subject, and wing it from there. I was pleasantly surprised when she offered to tell me a story.

Closing my eyes for a moment while I sipped my imaginary coffee, I listened. She began the tale with the traditional “Once upon a time,” and then she went on speaking in a smooth, flowing cadence…

——————————

In a far western desert valley, there lived a girl named Rose. The name suited her well because she climbed all over everything, just like the big pink roses on the trellis outside the kitchen window. She climbed pine trees, getting the sticky sap all over her saddle shoes and poodle skirts; and she climbed the high cliffs on both sides of the valley.

Her favorite spot to climb was the steepest part of the cliff, right next to a little stream that flowed out of the rocks and through her family’s small farm. A smooth ledge, almost all the way up, made the perfect place to sit and watch everything that happened in the valley. Sometimes she would lie down on the ledge and look at the clouds drifting by.

When her parents saw her up there, they scolded her about the danger. Rose had no fear of falling, and she imagined that she would keep on climbing to her favorite ledge forever. But eventually she grew up—as we all must—and her days of climbing cliffs became a distant memory. She spent time with friends, but she never married; and when her parents died, she inherited the farm and lived there alone.

She rarely felt lonely because she had a big shaggy dog, Jack, to keep her company. There were days when she felt unsettled, though, as if she had lost track of something that once had meant a lot to her. On a hot summer day, after going for a long walk with Jack, she came back to the house feeling tired and achy. A hawk passing over the farm made her glance up, toward the ledge on the cliff.

“I am starting to get old,” she said to herself, wondering what had become of the little girl who loved to climb. Had it really been that many years? Wanting to get such thoughts out of her mind, Rose impulsively decided that she might as well just go and climb that cliff right now. After all, there was nobody around to tell her to act her age.

She set off toward the cliff, taking long strides across the rocky ground. Jack happily trailed along, though he didn’t look as cheerful when Rose began to climb. She ignored his whine of concern as she pulled herself upward, searching for the handholds that once had been so familiar. It took a lot of effort. Sweat dripped down her face. The ledge still looked far away. Could this be the same climb that had felt so effortless in her younger days?

Nowhere to go but up, Rose told herself. It can’t really be that hard—after all, people say you’re only as old as you think you are.

The sound of splashing water soothed her as she climbed higher. On her right, the stream that sprang out of the cliff was flowing steadily. She placed a foot carefully to avoid a mossy rock that looked slick, and then she reached for the ledge.

Just as she started to pull herself up with aching arms, Rose lost her grip. The ledge hadn’t been as dry as she thought it was. She tried to catch herself, as she always had been able to do before; but she wasn’t nearly as slim or as limber as she once had been. She tumbled all the way down the cliff, breaking several bones in her feet and ankles.

Slowly, nudged on by Jack, she managed to crawl back to the house and reach a phone to call for help. The doctors at the county hospital patched her up as best they could; but even after they told her the bones had healed, putting weight on her feet was still painful. To get around the farm, she took slow, difficult steps, leaning heavily on a walking stick.

Almost every waking minute—which now included much of the night because her aching feet often kept her awake—Rose berated herself for having been such a fool as to think she could still climb that cliff. She also had a lot of anger toward the doctors, at first because they hadn’t completely fixed everything and, later, because they cut off her pain meds out of concern about addiction. Soon after that, she stopped going to town. It was just too hard, and she didn’t want to see anyone’s pitying faces. In fact, she didn’t want to see anyone—period.

Giving up any hope that she might ever be healthy enough to farm again, Rose leased much of her acreage to the power company for wind turbines. She arranged for her groceries and other supplies to be delivered. If there wasn’t anything perishable, she might leave the boxes on the porch for days. Nothing seemed to matter anymore.

After a while Rose’s old truck rusted out, and brambles grew around it. Weeds filled the yard. A cold snap one winter killed most of the climbing rose on the trellis. Rose didn’t care—she had no interest in looking out the kitchen window because that was the direction of the ledge on the cliff. She kept the curtains drawn and spent most of her days lying on the couch.

Jack, who faithfully kept her company, was by now an old dog. A veterinarian living nearby, whose name was Henry, was kind enough to make house calls. The day came, however, when Jack fell gravely ill, and there was nothing to be done.

When Henry came back with the urn after having Jack’s remains cremated, he also brought—much to Rose’s surprise—a small brown mixed-breed puppy.

“One of my clients was giving away the litter,” he explained in a deep, gruff voice, looking somewhat uncomfortable as he shuffled his big feet on the dusty hardwood floor. “I thought you might want him.”

“Well, you thought wrong,” Rose snapped. “Take him away.”

“Maybe just think about it for a bit, then. I’ve left a bag of puppy food on the porch.” Putting down the puppy, Henry scooted backward and was out the door before Rose realized what he was up to. By the time she struggled up off the couch and got to the door, Henry’s van was roaring away.

Rose’s first impulse was to shout something very nasty after him; but she didn’t want to frighten the puppy, who wasn’t to blame. Instead, she just said, “Oh, for pete’s sake!”

The puppy wagged his little tail happily, in the evident belief that she was talking to him. Rose couldn’t help but to smile at that; and then she told him, “All right, so it looks like we’re stuck here together for now—Petey.”

Although she gave him a name, Rose had every intention of giving him back to Henry at the first opportunity. The last thing she needed, as she saw it, was the nuisance of having a puppy around. She had to take Petey out for walks because he was small enough that he couldn’t be put outside unattended, or he’d be a tasty snack for a hawk or coyote. Leaning on her walking stick, she trudged along painfully on cold winter mornings while Petey, at the end of his leash, gave impatient yips.

As hard as it was, though, she had to admit that by the time Henry finally showed up about a month later, she was doing better. The more she got off the couch and moved around, the easier it seemed. By then, Petey was fairly well housebroken, and she had gotten used to seeing his perky face every day.

“I might keep him,” she allowed grudgingly. “Not making any promises, mind you.”

Henry just grinned.

Winter soon turned into spring, and Rose found that she had enough energy to start cleaning up the house and yard. She whacked weeds, cut back the half-dead rose on the trellis, and got rid of the old truck. Instead of just heating up random food from a can, sometimes she cooked a nice dinner and invited Henry over to eat with her.

Now that she was in better shape, Rose didn’t need to lean on her walking stick like she had before. She still carried it out of habit, though. Her pain, although no longer constant, hadn’t gone away. She still had twinges during the day and bone-deep aches that left her tossing and turning at night, often with her mind troubled by those old angry thoughts.

On a warm evening in midsummer, Rose was throwing a tennis ball for Petey to fetch. He had grown a fair amount but, still, he was a small dog—mostly terrier, she thought. She threw the ball especially far, and Petey dashed eagerly after it. Just then a large coyote bounded over a rise, heading straight for him.

The panicked dog fled toward the nearest cliff and somehow managed to scramble most of the way up. Rose ran toward the coyote, shouting and brandishing her walking stick until it ran away. Shaking in terror, Petey sat huddled on a ledge. It was the same ledge from which Rose had fallen; but, with her thoughts entirely on rescuing her dog, she didn’t even notice that until after she had climbed up. With Petey tucked under her arm, she carefully made her way back down to solid ground.

It wasn’t until Rose got back to the house that she realized she had climbed the cliff without any pain or difficulty. Climbing had felt natural, in fact—just like when she was a young girl. She hadn’t even remembered to pick up her walking stick, which still lay at the base of the cliff where she’d dropped it when the coyote ran off.

Just as soon as those thoughts came into Rose’s mind, the pain came back. But this time, instead of letting herself get overwhelmed by stale feelings of anger and helplessness, she opened the curtains wide and gazed out at a beautiful evening.

Rose sat down at the kitchen table, with a contented Petey wagging his tail at her feet. She sat with the pain until it faded into the last gleams of sunlight on the cliff, the pale blooms of the rosebush, and the stars coming out across the desert sky; and then she went to bed and slept soundly.

——————————

I put down my empty coffee cup and said to the Crone, “Thank you for the story, and for taking the time to visit with me. Both are very much appreciated!”

The Crone rummaged in her handbag for a dark red lipstick and touched up her lips before she answered. “Any time, dear. I’ve quite enjoyed your company.”

About two years have gone by since I rewrote my money story by sending my inner Cinderella away to start a new and happier life in the imaginary village of Channelwood. I’d say that the project was a success because I feel more confident about my finances now. Although my husband and I still have the same jobs with ordinary pay raises, we feel more comfortable talking about money. Expenses seem easier to manage, and in general, we have things better sorted.

Another area of my life that could benefit from revising outdated stories is health. I’ve thought so for a while, but my internal narratives are so jumbled and conflicting that it hasn’t been easy to get a handle on where to start. Objectively, I am in good health: I eat a reasonably good diet, get regular exercise, and have no serious medical issues. For the past few years, though, I’ve felt that my health is not what it ought to be. Annoying, persistent little aches crop up every now and again, for no apparent reason, in various places where I’ve had no injuries of which I know.

Many people would say that after age 50 aches and pains are normal, and I should just get used to that. But I suspect that some of it has to do with cultural expectations of decline—that to some extent they become a self-fulfilling prophecy, as the body subconsciously adjusts its physical condition to match whatever image the mind perceives.

What was I to do, then, in rewriting my health story? The logical starting point was no different than with the money story—that is, identifying the archetypes that shaped the narrative and deciding how best to plot a new trajectory. There didn’t seem to be any single character who represented my health story when I thought about it, however.

One major positive influence on my view of aging has been a family history of longevity. My maternal grandfather, who was an active, ambitious world traveler, appeared to be in perfect health until he died suddenly at age 90 of a heart attack. If anyone had asked me then how I felt about getting older, I would have said that I expected good health and a long life. That archetype includes Star Trek’s Vulcans, who often lived for centuries and greeted each other with “Live long and prosper,” and the almost-immortal elves from Lord of the Rings, with their patriarch Elrond relating tales of long-ago battles: “I was there, Gandalf, three thousand years ago…”

Obviously that wasn’t my whole health story, though, or anything close to it. Our culture has such deeply ingrained expectations of failing health that it has become nearly impossible to think outside that box. Although I couldn’t specifically identify any older characters with aches and pains who might have taken up residence in my subconscious mind, the general old-woman archetypes have been around for millennia: the poor old lady hobbling around with a cane who depends on charity; the cackling village witch who stirs her cauldron with gnarled hands; and the Crone, who imparts wisdom to younger generations while sitting most of the day to rest her weary bones.

I decided to sit down and have some imaginary French Vanilla coffee and blueberry scones with the Crone in a sunny breakfast nook. The reason I chose coffee was because my judgmental younger self, who disliked the taste and never drank it, thought that if you needed coffee to wake you up, that meant you were old. I didn’t start drinking coffee until the long road trips to my daughter’s college soccer matches gave me more appreciation of its benefits.
 

Sunny breakfast nook with brightly colored cushions on a bench.

(Creative Commons image via flickr)
 

While I brought the coffee and scones to the table, the Crone settled herself into the brightly colored cushions. She looked sort of like me, but with deep wrinkles and thinning hair that had gone mostly gray. On the table in front of her sat a big untidy handbag like my grandma carried.

She was not one of my older selves, to be clear on that point. Every once in a while, an older self shows up in a dream or while I’m half asleep and gives me a few words of advice, but I’ve never gotten a clear view of what a future me looks like. To be precise about it, the Crone, as I saw her, represented a present-day guess as to what my younger selves might have thought I’d be like when I got older.

“I don’t mean to bother you,” I said, as she picked up her coffee cup, “but I’ve been trying to get a few things sorted in my own mind, and I’d be grateful if you can help. May I ask you to share your thoughts on what people often call the aches and pains of old age?”

“That’s not something we ever talked about in our family,” the Crone calmly noted, highlighting yet another inconsistency in my internal narratives. It was true—I had never actually heard an older person say that in real life. Although I’d seen plenty of written descriptions of old folks who complained at great length about their many ailments, how much of that was reality and how much was stereotype? And to the extent that some of it was reality, that still left me with the question of how much was culturally determined.

Sunlight streamed in through the broad window as birds twittered riotously in the shrubs. Branches waved in a gentle breeze. I ate one of the blueberry scones, which were fresh-baked and still hot, while I worked on untangling my thoughts.

“Whether or not something is part of a family story,” I said, talking as much to myself as to my companion, “that doesn’t necessarily mean it is real for people in general, or even for those in the same family. There’s so much that goes into our perceptions of reality—what we hear from family and friends, what we learn from teachers and others in authority, our own experiences, and the cultural stories that create a framework to hold it all together.”

The Crone quietly sipped her coffee, nodding as if to encourage me to go on, but not speaking.

“What I’m looking for is not so much to understand how people decide what weight to give each of these factors,” I continued. “That gets into psychology, and cultural anthropology, and the social sciences in general, all of which have their own particular research studies and metrics. Rather, what I have in mind is just to explore where I might have gotten some of my own ideas about health, and how they can be changed in the realm of imagination.”

“Ah,” the Crone exclaimed, now looking quite pleased indeed, “you want me to tell you a story!”

I thought about it for a moment before I realized that this was exactly what I was asking. “Yes, please.”

After I brought her another cup of coffee, the Crone arranged herself more comfortably in the seat cushions and began, “Once upon a time…”

(continued here)

Although I’ve found that having imaginary conversations with my younger selves can give me a better perspective on the past, it does have some limitations. Because modern life is so busy and the human mind, by its nature, wanders randomly from one thought to another, sorting through bothersome memories whenever they pop up is not practicable. Even if it could be done, it wouldn’t be healthy to spend so much time brooding on them. My younger selves might not need long, detailed conversations, anyway—just a little bit of reassurance might be all right.

What was the best way to go about it? A quick “It’s okay now” didn’t seem to be enough, even if it was literally true that the problem or worry no longer existed in present-day time. Something more substantial was needed to make that a solid fact in the shifting, unsettled realm of the psyche. I needed a visual image to go along with the words—a quiet, protected place where my younger selves could feel safe.

Then it occurred to me that I already had imagined such a place when I sent my inner Cinderella away to start a new life in the abandoned village of Channelwood, from the old computer game Myst. I followed that up with another blog post in which she was joined there by Sara Crewe, another character from a classic children’s story. That imaginary village had plenty of space for a troubled younger self—or a few of them—to take a nice, restful vacation. Long walks on the beach, or along the wooden pathways through the bayou, would go a long way to restore their spirits.
 

Wooden pathway beside water, trees, and bushes. 

When I arrived at the island, traveling on an old-fashioned sailing ship, I brought gifts for Ella and Sara, in the nature of practical household goods. The only item that had any decorative value was a calendar from a London shop, open to the current month—September 1897, which had a picture of horses pulling a farm wagon piled high with the fruits of the harvest. My other gifts were cloth and sewing supplies, sacks of grain, jars of spices, and crates filled with clucking chickens.

That last gift, although certainly not as pleasant-smelling as the spices, was the most well received. Sara clasped her hands together and exclaimed rapturously, “Eggs! How wonderful! And grain too! Now we can bake bread and biscuits!”

“Rice pudding!” declared a less effusive but just as happy Ella, glancing from a sack of rice to a jar of cinnamon. “Just the thing—we’ve been picking grapes and drying most of them to make raisins.”

We started trundling the supplies up from the beach in wooden handcarts. After we reached the shade of the tall trees in the bayou, I let go of my cart’s handles and turned to face the girls.

“I’d like to ask a favor,” I began, doing my best to keep the request simple. “This is a very peaceful little village, with many empty houses. If I send a girl or woman here for a visit, so that she can rest for a while and become healthier, will you take good care of her?”

Sara chewed on her lower lip, considering the question. “Like a sanatorium, you mean? Where they send people with tuberculosis?”

“Well, sort of like that, but it’s for people who have been worrying too much and need a few days to sit quietly in the sun and dream of happier things.”

Water trickled slowly down toward the sea, and a slight breeze stirred the treetops. There was no other sound but a few squawking chickens that seemed anxious to get out of their crates.

“Oh, I understand how that is,” Sara replied, giving me a cheerful smile. “I always feel much better when I can pretend something happy instead of worrying.”

I smiled back at her. “Yes, exactly. But first, I want to set an intention for this village to feel like a safe and protected place. This wooden pathway makes a circle around the houses. I’m going to walk around it, starting here in the east, and look to each of the directions as I say words of blessing.”

Ella, with a very doubtful expression, took firm hold of the little cross that she wore on a simple necklace. “But isn’t that,” and she lowered her voice, though there was nobody else around to hear, “pagan?”

“Not necessarily. There are many rituals that used to be pagan but then became part of ordinary society. Christmas lights, for example. Long ago, pagans had ceremonies of lighting candles at the winter solstice, and then Christians started doing the same.”

Although Ella still didn’t look entirely convinced, Sara gave an understanding nod. “Like maypole dancing. Some people won’t do it because they say it used to be pagan.”

“Just so,” I agreed. “Now, when I look toward the beach, I am facing the east, where the sun rises over the sea. East is the direction of the dawn, of healthy buds and flowers opening in the spring, of the earth filled with green growing plants. May this village be blessed with all these things and feel safe and protected always.”

Then I walked a quarter-circle clockwise until I was under a particularly thick part of the tree canopy where only the indirect light of early afternoon came filtering through. I turned to face outward again.

“South is the direction of the sun, of the heat of midday, the fire that forever brings energy and life to the world. May this village be blessed always and feel safe and protected under the sun.”

I continued around to the west, invoking its late afternoon breezes and its winds of welcome change. In the north, I spoke of nightfall, of a cool rain, of winter and dormancy and a healing silence. Then I returned to my starting point beside the eastern shore and completed the circle by stating my intention that everyone within the village feel safe and protected forever.

“And there is no need to fear being attacked because no enemies can enter here.” I paused for a moment because I wasn’t sure where to send my past selves’ enemies. Maybe they bounced off a protective bubble of white light? No, that wouldn’t fit the Myst computer game. Even an imaginary scenario like this needed a consistent plot.

“They will go into a book,” I finally said, thinking about what had happened in that game. “And there they’ll stay forever—nothing but an old story, with no power to do any harm in the present. So let it be.”

The girls listened politely, Sara with what appeared to be genuine interest, and Ella looking skeptical. When I had finished speaking, we all rolled our carts up to higher ground. After putting the grain and spices away in a shed, the girls started planning how they were going to build their chicken coop.

“A few words before I leave,” I said, breaking into a discussion that quickly had gotten so animated that I wasn’t sure the girls still remembered I was there.

Putting down the sticks they were holding, the girls looked up from the diagram that they had been sketching in the dust beside the shed.

“I don’t expect to bother you too much with visitors,” I told them, “but every now and again, if a worried-looking girl or woman shows up in the village, please give her a kind welcome and a nice hot bowl of chicken soup—or maybe some rice pudding. Let her rest for a while, enjoy the peaceful landscape, and rediscover her joy in life.”

“Rice pudding,” Ella said, in a tone of complete certainty. “It would be just right to drive away melancholy feelings, especially on cool evenings when the wind blows hard against these little houses, carrying the cry of the seabirds.”

“Sometimes it can feel lonely here, especially on nights like that,” Sara confided. “But I’ve made pretty wall hangings from reeds, to brighten up the rooms and keep out the chilly drafts. It never gets as cold here as it does in London.”

“We’ll be glad to have visitors,” Ella finished, “whenever they come!”

The girls turned back to their rough sketch of a chicken coop while the hens went on clucking impatiently in the crates. I said goodbye and walked back down to the beach where my imaginary ship waited for the return journey. When I boarded the ship, I moved easily and felt light and energetic, as if I’d left behind a few worries of my own that I had been carrying around without knowing it.

I woke up to a dark, cloudy morning on Wednesday and felt gloomy for much of the day, brooding about past occasions when I had felt stuck in bad situations. Although that happened many years ago, it still bothered me that I had let myself get into such a negative pattern rather than taking timely and constructive action to deal with problems as they came up.

The sky brightened after a while, and I went rowing with my husband after work. We had to go slowly and carefully because the river was full of large logs and other debris that had floated downstream since the last time we were there.
 

Large log in the river. 

By then it was late in the day, but I still hadn’t managed to shake off the gloomy thoughts. As we returned to the dock, it occurred to me that some impulsive decisions I had made recently could be seen as related to that old pattern—or, more specifically, could be seen as my subconscious mind forcing the necessary action to break the pattern and ensure nothing like that would ever happen again.

“Okay, subconscious mind,” I said to myself, continuing the internal dialogue, “if you’ve been so busy protecting me from myself by any means necessary, then what was your reason to leave me feeling so totally blah the entire day?”

“To recognize the pattern, of course.” The answer popped into my head right away. It was not followed by a “Duh,” but sounded as if it might easily have been. Then the gloomy feelings instantly vanished, in what had to be the fastest mood swing ever. I felt fine while putting the boat away and getting into the car.

By the time I got home, though, my back muscles had tightened up for no apparent reason, making it hard for me to move around all evening. I don’t ordinarily have back problems, and I certainly hadn’t exerted myself too much when I was rowing very slowly around that obstacle course of monster logs. So what the heck was going on here?

Then another thought came to mind, which was that this drama had Dame Shadow’s fingerprints all over it. As I described in a December blog entry, Dame Shadow is one of my angrier and more defensive past selves. She feels like it’s her responsibility to protect me from the world’s evils when she thinks I’m not doing enough to take care of myself, which is often.

When I last had an imaginary conversation with Dame Shadow as she was getting ready to charge into battle with an army of mythological creatures in a landscape from an empire-building computer game, I came to the conclusion that she wanted recognition for her efforts, and I promised to show respectful appreciation the next time she had something to say. Gratitude for a sore back wasn’t quite what I’d had in mind, but that seemed to be where things stood for now. So I took a moment to meditate and let my mind quiet down. Then I thanked the Dame for kindly offering advice and told her that I was sorry, but I didn’t quite grasp what she was trying to tell me.

She didn’t step out into the light of my conscious mind, but I heard the fabric of her long skirts rustling somewhere not far away. “What or whom are you carrying on your back? You may want to think about that,” she remarked cryptically; and that was all I got out of her.

I realized that my back did indeed feel weighted down, as if someone had come up behind me and jumped on it. No particular images came to mind, though, and I spent the next couple of days pondering the question. Was it a younger self, heavy with old emotional baggage? Maybe another person that I had been trying to please without knowing it? Or a more general metaphor, such as having a monkey on one’s back?

Then I decided that I didn’t really need to have an exact answer; just thinking about the question was useful in itself. My back felt fine when I woke up this morning, and I wondered if perhaps the lesson might also have to do with patience—that is, setting aside any expectations that I ought to be able to get things sorted all at once. After all, everything always has another layer to it somewhere!

When I wrote last winter on the topic of sorting out my subconscious narratives about money, I imagined packing off my inner Cinderella to start a new and happier life in the abandoned village of Channelwood from the computer game Myst. After she sailed off into the sunset, I thought that maybe I would feel more comfortable with spending money.

It didn’t quite work out that way, though. This winter, I still felt that my subconscious money stories weren’t what I needed to feel confident about my finances. What was I missing? Then it occurred to me that I hadn’t crafted a new story to replace Cinderella. Just sending her away was not enough; I needed to fill the space with something better, or else those old anxieties would creep back into their familiar haunts.

So I decided to go visit Cinderella and see how she was settling into her new home. I’d promised to bring her some playmates anyway, whenever I found similar characters wandering around in my mind. The journey began with a leisurely carriage ride through the foggy streets of nineteenth-century London, accompanied by young Sara Crewe from the children’s classic “A Little Princess” by Frances Hodgson Burnett.

Sara was a well-mannered and thoughtful child, with dark hair and big green eyes, who had been left with nothing but her pride and her imagination upon being orphaned. All at once, she went from being the most pampered pupil at an exclusive private school to a bleak existence as a half-starved drudge living in the school’s attic with the rats. She never complained, but got through her days by pretending that she was a princess in a fairy tale and that there would be a magical happy ending (which of course there was, since this is an old-fashioned children’s story).

The author’s main point was that with enough imagination, anything is possible. When I read the book as a child, though, it also gave me the message that life is precarious. No matter how good everything seems to be at the moment, it all could vanish tomorrow. Fate is fickle, and even if the story may eventually have a happy ending, there’s no way of knowing how far in the future it could be.
 

Sun setting in orange clouds over the ocean.

(Creative Commons image via flickr)
 

Once aboard the ship, Sara gazed quietly out over the waves with a little smile, as if remembering happy travels in her past. We arrived at Channelwood just as the sun was about to set in a gorgeous orange sky. A small figure ran to greet us at the dock, with rosy cheeks, bright eyes, and strands of golden hair escaping from a simple bonnet.

“You’re looking very well indeed, Ella,” I greeted her. “The sea air and the peace and quiet certainly do agree with you! Here’s a young friend I brought to keep you company.”

After making our introductions, we walked up a neatly swept wooden path to the wicker tree houses of the village, set high in the branches above a bayou. Waves lapped gently at the thick trunks. Flower boxes at intervals along the path were bright spots of color in the fading sunlight. A breeze carried the inviting scent of ripe peaches from a well-tended orchard on higher ground not far ahead, where a windmill spun briskly.

“I’m used to keeping things tidy,” said Ella in a matter-of-fact tone, when I complimented her industrious work. “Really, it’s not that hard. There are oysters in the bay, and sometimes they have pearls, which I can trade for cloth and whatever else I need. The ship comes by often enough that I haven’t felt too alone. It will be lovely to have Sara here, though!”

We both turned toward Sara, who had tilted her head to one side and was gazing up into the branches. She declared cheerfully, “These houses are so tiny, I think they were built by a tribe of monkey people. I can imagine them leaping along the walkways between the trees and swinging from the branches, can’t you?”

Ella’s momentary look of bafflement made plain she hadn’t imagined anything of the sort, but she gave Sara a good-natured smile anyway. “If there once were monkey people, they’re not here now. We have the village all to ourselves, and with two of us, we can fix it up twice as nice!”

The girls chatted enthusiastically by the flickering light of peach-scented candles, over a simple dinner of baked fish and vegetables, about all the things they could do with an entire village to themselves. Then we all slept comfortably, up in the trees, on wicker beds heaped high with down-filled cushions. (In real life, I took a break from writing this post to eat pizza for dinner when I wasn’t sure how the ending would go, and after a while I went to sleep in my usual bed.)

When I woke up much refreshed (in both this story and real life), I noticed a positive shift in my mental energy, which can best be described as an “it’s not that hard” feeling. At first I wondered where it had come from, and then I realized it was the change I had intended to set in motion with this story! After I left Ella’s description of her new life to sleep on last night, it soon found a place in my subconscious where I wanted it. Pearls and orchards—a world of abundance for the picking!

I thanked Ella for her hospitality, said my fond good-byes to both her and Sara, and returned to the ship to sail back into reality—which, as all good readers know, is always intertwined with the realm of imagination.

I sometimes have imaginary chats with my younger selves, as I’ve described in past blog posts. That can be a helpful way to gain insight. One of those past selves has not been much fun to be around, though. Like a ghost, she haunts creepy corridors of the mind that lead away into darkness, wailing about long-ago hurts and betrayals. Her world is full of lurking enemies who might strike at any moment. Put in psychological terms, she is what Jung called the Shadow—that part of the subconscious where anger, fear, and other unpleasant emotions are kept for protective purposes, rather like a bad-tempered watchdog.

My Shadow-self roams at will through various time periods; she is not tied to childhood or to any particular incident. I generally picture her as thirty-something and angry about having been treated unfairly in one way or another. She doesn’t offer much in the way of constructive suggestions, given the fact that most of her grudges inhabit the distant past and there’s nothing useful that can be done about them now. All the same, that doesn’t stop her from wanting to yell about them anyway.

I couldn’t shut her up with positive thinking and reminding myself that all is well in the present. She just kept on muttering and grumbling to herself as she paced those dark hallways of the mind, occasionally rushing up to the ramparts in great alarm to scream about an invading horde of barbarians. When that wasn’t enough to get my attention, she resorted to splattering my dreams with nasty, gory nightmares. I finally decided there wasn’t much choice but to sit down and have a talk with her.

Because of her perspective that the world is always full of battles, I decided a suitable place for this conversation would be the landscape of an old computer game, Age of Mythology. It’s an empire-building game in which the armies include mythological creatures.
 

Screenshot of ancient village from Age of Mythology game. 

Bright sunshine blazed from an ancient Greek sky. Birds sang in the soundtrack. A centaur, armed with a bow, stood sentry duty near a temple of healing. Watch towers overlooked quiet fields where peasants picked berries and goats grazed. The scene was about as peaceful as it could get in a war game.

Spreading out a blanket on the soft grass beside the temple for a picnic, I gave the centaur a fresh fig and looked around for Dame Shadow. Garbed like a warrior queen in a deep blue dress with a dagger in her belt, she was striding impatiently from one tower to the next, gazing up at the soldiers inside to make sure they were properly attentive. When she came my way, I gave her a wooden plate with bread, cheese, olives and figs, in keeping with the surroundings. Two cups filled with wine sat on a stone; the centaur looked longingly toward them, but because he was on duty I didn’t offer him any wine.

Dame Shadow bit into the crusty bread and chewed for a while, scowling at a far-away smudge of dust on the horizon where an enemy army was on the march. Then she turned abruptly to face me and snapped, “It’s about time you started listening to what I have to say. You’re always acting like everything is fine and it’s all just a game—but the world really is a dangerous place, I tell you! It’s full of nasty enemies, and if you let down your guard for so much as an instant, they might get you!”

I put down the olive that I’d been about to eat. “Okay, so you want me to be more on my guard by doing what, exactly?”

“Trust no one!” Dame Shadow shrieked, jabbing an accusing finger toward me. Startled, I flinched out of reflex, and the olive rolled into the grass. A raven perched in a nearby tree screeched as if answering.

“Haven’t you learned by now that whenever you expect people to be kind and helpful, they end up hurting you instead? Maybe you think they have good intentions—but even if they do, how long is that going to last? Besides, what’s to stop them from doing something bad out of carelessness, ignorance, and wrong assumptions, even if they mean well? It happens all the time. You’ve heard that old saying about what the road to hell is paved with.” To illustrate the point, Dame Shadow stamped a dusty, sandaled foot on the stones of the temple courtyard. A peasant who was praying to an idol gave her a nervous sidelong glance.

I picked up my wine cup and drank slowly, putting my thoughts together before I gave her a reply. “Yes, things are always changing and people make mistakes. That’s all true, as far as it goes. How well or poorly something turns out in the long run depends on your time horizon, though, and how far you go in tracing the chain of cause and effect.”

She frowned in response, turning her head to gaze once more toward the blur of hostile soldiers marching in the distance. The dust had started to settle as they moved on by.

“You can be sure they’ll get here after a while, even if it doesn’t happen right away,” she said, waving her right hand generally in that direction. When it came back down, her fingers rested lightly on the hilt of the dagger. “They always do.”

A marauding army wasn’t likely to roam through my quiet suburban neighborhood, I thought, unless maybe it was a herd of hungry deer attacking the shrubbery. Of course, a snide remark like that wouldn’t have been at all constructive, so I just ate another olive while reflecting further on what was going on here.

“Building these defenses must have been quite a lot of work,” I finally acknowledged, as I looked around at Dame Shadow’s towers and military buildings. “You certainly put plenty of time and careful planning into them. Wanting to be recognized and appreciated for your effort is only fair. I haven’t shown enough gratitude for all your hard work on my behalf; and for that, you have my apologies.”

Her face softened, as much as it could with the rough frown lines etched into it. “Everything that I’ve done, for so many years, has been for you,” she declared, holding her hands widely apart to encompass all of the surrounding landscape.

“Yes, I understand. From now on, whenever you have something to say, I promise to give it respectful and fair consideration.” Picking up my wine cup, I raised it in a pledge.

Just then, a horn sounded in one of the watch towers. Dame Shadow glanced quickly in that direction before turning to give orders to the centaur. “Manticores are attacking! We must loose the Medusas!”

After the centaur galloped away, his hoofbeats echoing from the rocks of a nearby cliff, Dame Shadow turned back toward me with a cheerful grin. “A few stone manticores would be just the thing to strike fear into the enemy’s hearts, wouldn’t you say?”

“Definitely, and I’ll keep in mind the importance of having suitable defenses going forward.” Smiling back at her, I started to clean up what was left from the picnic, getting ready to make my way home.

Among my blog posts this past winter, I wrote about stories remembered from childhood and how they have a subconscious effect on perspective in adult life. I mentioned two novels on my bookshelf that had influenced my worldview as a teenager. One of them was The Left Hand of Darkness, which encouraged me to trust my intuition and to believe I could change the world, while also leaving me fearful that taking decisive action might lead to being attacked by enemies. The other was Marnie, which I decided to leave for more discussion later.
 

Two paperback novels, The Left Hand of Darkness and Marnie, on top of my bookshelf. 

Marnie is a young woman in the early 1960s who lives in England (unlike Hitchcock’s movie based on the book, which is set in the United States instead). She grew up poor, raised by her mother after her dad was killed in the war. Leaving school at a young age, she became a thief. She takes jobs under false names, enjoying the drama of inventing new lives for herself, and steals the payroll (in those days, wages usually were paid in cash).

Although she uses some of the stolen money to support her mother, who doesn’t know what she has been doing, Marnie spends most of it on herself. After every theft, she lives comfortably for several weeks at an inn under the pretense of being a wealthy lady, with nothing to do but ride a horse that she keeps boarded at a riding stable nearby.

Eventually she lets too much slip about her personal life when talking with Mark, a part-owner of a printing company where she works. When she absconds with the payroll, he quickly tracks her down. But instead of turning her over to the police, Mark tells her that he has fallen in love with her, and he proposes marriage.

Rather than counting herself lucky, Marnie feels trapped and resentful. She hates the whole idea of being married, but she goes through with it anyway because she doesn’t know what else to do. She daydreams about running away to France, and she gets even angrier when Mark insists that she visit a psychiatrist regularly and when he wants to repay the money that she stole from past employers.

After her mother dies suddenly, leaving some ugly secrets exposed, Marnie decides not to run away after all. She feels that there is nothing about her old life that she wants. Even though her marriage is a mess and she has told Mark plenty of lies, she makes up her mind that she should at least talk everything over honestly with him, and see where things go from there.

When I read that book in 1980 or thereabouts, I didn’t understand it in the way that its (male) author probably intended—that is, a psychological drama about a mentally unhealthy woman slowly learning to accept normal social behavior. Instead, Marnie came across to me as a feminist archetype, insistent on staying in control of her own identity. Yes, she definitely had some issues to work on; but she wanted to deal with them herself, rather than meekly conforming to other people’s demands.

To that extent, Marnie was a positive influence on my younger self’s development because she gave me confidence that I had the power to control the narrative and to define myself. Marnie’s worldview left much to be desired in other respects, though. She was very defensive and resentful, both toward others and herself; she never felt safe, but was always afraid she’d make a mistake and everything would come crashing down. She sneaked around like what she was—a thief.

The overall message I got from this story had much in common with what I’d taken away from The Left Hand of Darkness—that I could change the course of events, but that doing so would always meet with resistance of one sort or another.

When I was younger, I liked the drama of taking control of the narrative, but I didn’t understand how much harm could be done by the cumulative stress from subconsciously expecting resistance and enemies. I also didn’t understand that it tends to be a self-fulfilling prophecy—when we’re constantly on our guard looking for enemies, we generally manage to find them. When we feel that we can’t ask for help without something bad happening as a result, that is likely to come true as well.

So I took an imaginary trip to England a half-century ago, wanting to check up on Marnie and see how things had been going in her life since she made the decision to stay in her marriage. I found her standing on a path in a well-tended garden with masses of lovely roses on either side, on a bright cloudless July morning. She was heavily pregnant, and her eyes were half-closed as she stood quietly, breathing in the fragrance. Bees buzzed contentedly in the blossoms.
 

English rose garden with a path through the flowers.

(Creative Commons image via flickr)
 

“You’re looking very well,” I told her, with what I intended as a reassuring smile.

Marnie’s lips twitched nervously in response. “It’s rather a lot to get used to—marriage and motherhood, I never felt that I’d be suited to either; but here I am. And you’re not real, are you? I never let anyone know this, but I was always afraid of going mad.” She touched my left arm cautiously, and her fingers passed right through it.

“No need to worry,” I said, as a bee hovered above my other arm. “It’s only imagination, both yours and mine. Imagination is natural and healthy. Most people would do better if they had more of it. Sometimes it can get to be a problem, though, when we imagine that accepting help and support can only tie us down and rob us of personal power. I’ve been wondering—how have you managed those feelings? You look as if you’re happier than you once were.”

“Well, it has been a struggle some days,” Marnie confessed, her voice low, as if she worried about being overheard even though we were alone in the garden. “I’ve been seeing another psychiatrist, a nice older lady. A good mother figure, you might say; and it helps that I chose her myself, instead of Mark demanding that I visit someone he had already decided on. He didn’t mean it that way, I understand now; he was only trying to be helpful, and he never balked at leaving the choice to me after I explained how I felt.”

“Yes, that’s it right there.” I nodded, appreciating how simply this young ex-thief had summed up a complicated issue that I’d struggled with myself. “When people insist we do things a certain way, and it’s not what we would have chosen for ourselves, usually that doesn’t mean they are controlling or unreasonable. It just means they haven’t managed to step outside their own perspective for long enough to see that there might be other ways we’d prefer. And we don’t need to be defensive and argue about it—rather, we can thank them for their help and perhaps try it their way for a short time, without feeling as if they’ve forced us to do something we don’t want forever. As time passes, there will always be more opportunities to set healthy boundaries and to shape our lives into patterns that better suit us.”

Marnie smiled again, this time in genuine happiness, with a flash of straight white teeth and the corners of her mouth crinkling cheerfully. “I’d invite you in for tea, but as you’re not real I suppose you don’t need any. Besides, I expect Mrs. Leonard, the housekeeper, might get a bit of a fright if she saw me having an imaginary tea party like a little girl.”

“Oh, you never know about that, Marnie. She might wish she could have a pretend tea party herself!”

I had a conversation with a coworker in which she asked: Would you face a dangerous situation with bravado, like the heroes on TV and in the movies, or would you run and hide? She said that she likely would run away, since she couldn’t even be brave about facing a bug.

My answer was that we can’t know what we might do in a situation until we are in it. Someone who runs away shrieking at the sight of a bug might not hesitate to go into a burning house to save a child. We don’t have to swagger around with bravado like action-movie heroes before we can do something that is needed.
 

Three firefighters do a training exercise with flames in background.

(Creative Commons image via flickr)
 

Because we see hero images so often in our culture, if we are not full of bravado and don’t fit the hero archetype, it subconsciously makes us feel more powerless than we really are. We believe there’s not much we can do by ourselves, so we want a superhero to swoop down from the sky and save us.

As a result, we leave ourselves open to marketing efforts designed to prey on our sense of vulnerability. Companies promise to save us from the embarrassment of being our real selves if we buy their amazing miracle products. Political candidates who lack qualifications rely on bravado and bluster to make up for their shortcomings. Like the Wizard of Oz behind his curtain, there’s no real magic to be found; but we’ve gotten so used to looking for a hero that we often can’t spot a humbug.

Even if we don’t feel like heroes, we’re actually doing much more in everyday life than we give ourselves credit for doing. As with Dorothy’s companions, we are likely to find what we’re searching for through the journey itself, though we may not know it at the time. Bravado is not required.

After I packed off my inner Cinderella to find a new home last month, I considered what other stories from my childhood might still be affecting my life in the present. No other fairy tales came to mind. Then it occurred to me that my bookshelf would be a good place to investigate, on the premise that any books I’d kept that long probably had a significant impact on my worldview, even if I wasn’t consciously aware of it.

I found two paperback novels that I had bought from a used book store as a teenager. One of them was The Left Hand of Darkness, a sci-fi adventure by Ursula K. LeGuin. The other was Marnie, a psychological drama by Winston Graham that became a Hitchcock movie.
 

Two paperback novels, The Left Hand of Darkness and Marnie, on top of my bookshelf. 

Marnie’s influence on my teenage mind could easily take up a whole long post in itself, so I’ll save that for another day and briefly sum up the plot of The Left Hand of Darkness. An envoy from Earth visits an alien world seeking to establish diplomatic relations on behalf of an interplanetary alliance. This world is deep in an Ice Age, inhabited by a genderless species, and on the brink of war between its two major nations.

The narrative is told alternately through the envoy’s report and through the journals of Estraven, who is the prime minister of one of the feuding nations when the story begins. Estraven hopes to prevent a war by supporting the envoy’s mission, but instead is declared a traitor for doing so and must flee in disgrace to the other nation. The envoy then visits the other nation and gets seized by the secret police and sent to a labor camp to die.

Estraven stages a heroic rescue, guiding the envoy to safety across a glacier in winter. The mission ultimately succeeds and war is averted, but the cost is Estraven’s life; a friend’s betrayal leads to Estraven being shot to death at the hands of the pro-war faction.

A defining trait of Estraven’s character, and the one that made a lasting impression on me, was a strong reliance on intuition. Estraven had faith in being able to recognize moments when taking action can change the world. This led both to extraordinary political success and to the unhesitating sacrifice of that success to the greater good.

When I got involved in social activism over a decade ago, I felt confident—like Estraven—that I had the power to change the culture and that I could trust my intuition to guide me. Although my efforts succeeded, I got overly stressed out by thinking in terms of going into battle, as I described here. Consistent with Estraven’s fate, I expected that success would mean enemies were out to get me.

Last week, in the interest of banishing that residual fear, I decided to charter an imaginary spaceship for a social visit with Estraven on that icy, unforgiving planet.
 

Landscape with snow-covered trees and hills.

(Creative Commons image via flickr)
 

I brought down my spaceship behind a farmhouse on a hill, where Estraven was in hiding after the glacier adventure. Not long before sunset, a pale light stretched across the horizon; thin clouds looked like distant islands in a frozen sea. After putting on heavy winter clothes and tall boots, I trudged through the deep snowdrifts and up a wide stairway to a thick wooden door set high above the ground.

The door opened into a cheerful parlor where a fire blazed brightly on a red stone hearth. The room was otherwise unheated and felt very chilly to me; the people of this world had a much different idea of comfortable room temperature. Estraven, dark eyes glittering in a gaunt face scarred by the bitter cold of the glacier, hospitably offered me a mug of hot beer poured from a jug on the hearth.

Taking note of my unusual clothing and alien appearance, Estraven spoke calmly, in a voice higher than a man’s but lower than a woman’s. “You are one of the Envoy’s colleagues, newly arrived?”

Sipping my hot beer, I decided that this peculiar drink suited the frozen surroundings well. “No, I’m just a spectator who happened to get caught up in the story.”

Eyes gleaming with curiosity beneath a mat of dark hair, Estraven politely remained silent, waiting for me to explain. I still wasn’t quite sure how to phrase my question, although I’d thought about several alternative wordings while on my way here.

“One thing I’ve been wondering,” I finally said, “is what makes it possible to act from intuition without fear of the consequences. Although you have enemies, somehow that doesn’t seem to trouble you…”

The firelight glinted from even white teeth as Estraven smiled. “At present, what I have is this comfortable shelter and a mug of hot beer.”

“Mindfulness—just being in the moment,” I said softly to myself; and then my voice rose in mild annoyance with my own cluelessness, although I didn’t consciously notice at first. “Well, doggone it, I should have known that!”

Estraven smiled even more broadly, raising the beer mug in a friendly toast. “Often, it’s not the new insights that do us the most good, but rediscovering the truths we already know.”

I read a few blog articles last year about the subconscious emotional stories we tell ourselves regarding money, which can affect our choices and finances in the present even though they generally come from long-ago childhood experiences. That made sense to me; but when I first thought about it, I couldn’t identify any such stories that might have gotten stuck in my head.

My finances seemed okay—both my husband and I had fairly good jobs, which we had been able to keep through the recession, and a nice house. The only issue was that we had spent a lot on our kids’ tuition, room and board, etc., while they were away at college, and before that we had sent them to Catholic schools. As a result, there never had seemed to be quite enough money left over for me to feel comfortable spending it on clothes or other fun shopping for myself.

So I asked myself, what kind of story from my childhood would fit that pattern? The houses where I lived as a child were all good places, with plenty of space for me to run around and play. My parents were divorced in the ’70s, and after that I lived with my mother and stepfather. I often wore hand-me-down clothes from a cousin when I was little, without thinking much about it at the time.

The internal narratives that we rely on to make sense of the world are drawn in large part from archetypes—that is, familiar characters representing various aspects of the culture. When I thought about what character might have taken up residence in my head, Cinderella came to mind. Although Cinderella lives in a nice house, she is a stepchild who doesn’t have much that she can call her own, and the money always gets spent on other family members.
 

Girl dressed as Cinderella in old-fashioned clothing with a pumpkin.

(Creative Commons image via flickr)
 

Whether or not there had been any reasonable basis for such feelings when I was a child, they certainly didn’t need to be part of my life now, especially after my kids had graduated from college. So I decided to have a little chat with my inner Cinderella and explain a few things to her.

I found her playing with a rag doll family she had made to console herself for being left at home, with the village hag as the babysitter, while her stepsisters enjoyed a lavish trip to France. Sitting down on the rug in front of the fireplace with her, I said, “You know what, Cinderella, it’s time for you to grow up and find a place of your own.”

Dropping the dolls, she stared at me fearfully, no doubt imagining herself cast out to be eaten by the hungry wolves of the forest. After all, she wasn’t the Disney Princess version of the character, but instead came out of the old-fashioned books of fairy tales that I had read before modern revisions took out the gruesome and violent stuff.

“Don’t worry, I’ve found a good place for you to live,” I quickly reassured the poor frightened girl. “There is an abandoned village called Channelwood on an island that’s no longer inhabited. It has lots of pretty houses built high in the treetops, safe from wild animals; and you can gather fruit and vegetables from the village’s old overgrown gardens, catch fish and dig clams. All yours, with nobody around to take it from you or bully you, and a lovely ocean view to give you more perspective on the world. I’ll even send you off with a suitcase full of brand-new clothes for the trip. Doesn’t that sound nice?”

She gave me a hesitant half-smile. “But how…”

“Oh, it’s easy to get there!” I told her cheerfully. “I’ve already made arrangements with the captain of a cargo ship that sails past the island regularly. I know him well—he often carries away my shipments of emotional baggage and my consignments of mental clutter. You’ll be in good hands. And there’s no need to worry about getting lonely; I’ll send you a few nice playmates after a while, as soon as I discover where they have been playing hide-and-seek in my psyche.”

The fire crackled loudly, sending up bright sparks. Cinderella stood up, straightened her ankle-length skirts, and began putting on her big wooden shoes. She still looked just a bit worried as she asked, “Please, may I bring my pet mouse?”

“Yes, of course you may. I wouldn’t dream of leaving him behind.”