Long ago, in a cabin deep in the forest, there lived a woodcutter’s wife who imagined on Christmas Eve that she saw an angel through the fog outside her window. That was, at any rate, how her husband described it when she told him about it.

“You’re imagining things, Lindy. It’s only a trick of the light reflecting from the snow,” he said impatiently. There were chores left to do, as always. Time couldn’t be wasted with foolish daydreams.

When Lindy looked again, nothing was there in the twilight but snow and fog. “Yes, that’s what it must have been, George,” she conceded, as she began closing the blinds.

Christmas morning dawned clear and bright. The only angels to be seen were the statues at the church and the ornament atop the tree. After church, Lindy had a busy day preparing the holiday meal with help from her daughters, who were grown and married with small children of their own, but lived nearby.

After the roast beef had been eaten and the gifts exchanged, Lindy wasn’t expecting to see anything besides a happy family around the tree. When she stepped outside on this frosty evening, she had in mind only to say goodnight to her departing children and grandchildren. Standing on the front walk, however, she distinctly saw a silvery figure with glowing wings in the moonlight.

“I saw the angel again just now, George,” she declared, as she stepped back into the cabin’s warmth. “At the edge of the clearing, where the road leads into the forest.”

“Hmph,” he snorted. His muscular neck rippled under his graying beard. “Nonsense. It’s probably the change of life—doesn’t that give women strange thoughts sometimes? You’d best come with me into town in the morning, so that you can see the herbalist while I deliver wood. Maybe there’s a potion for what ails you.”

Although Lindy hadn’t been feeling at all poorly, she supposed there couldn’t be any harm in seeing the herbalist. She felt certain that George meant well; he was a sensible man and a good provider. And, however distinct the figure might have looked to her, seeing angels surely was out of the ordinary.

“I’ll come along with you, George,” she agreed.

They rode into town early in the morning with a cartload of wood drawn by their brown ox, Ralph. Strong and well trained, Ralph had been a dependable beast for many years. When they reached the town’s narrow, cobblestoned streets, Lindy hopped down at the corner where the herbalist’s small shop stood. She crossed the street, being careful to hold her long dress up out of the half-frozen muck.

A bell jangled when Lindy pushed the door open. Candles gave off a pleasant apple-spice fragrance, illuminating shelves full of jars and sacks. The herbalist, a kindly woman named Kate who was short and round-cheeked, asked Lindy what had brought her to the shop on this fine winter’s day.

“Well, I don’t rightly know,” Lindy confessed, taking in a deep breath of the apple-scented air. “I saw an angel outside my cabin—twice. George says that I’m only imagining things, and he wanted me to ask if you have a potion for that.”

“For angels?” Kate’s friendly laugh was melodic, blending with the high chime of a clock that had started to strike the hour. “Most likely, you just have a touch of the winter blues. No cause for worry—a good tonic will soon have you feeling right as rain.”

Lindy left the shop with a small stoppered flask, which Kate assured her would remedy most winter ailments. She dutifully took her afternoon dose when she returned to the cabin with George. It tasted of mint, among other things. When no angels appeared for the rest of the day, Lindy went to bed thinking that perhaps she’d been cured.

She woke long before dawn the next morning, jolted out of a sound sleep by howling winds that shook the cabin ferociously. George hurried to hitch Ralph to the cart by lantern light. Tiny particles of swirling snow left no doubt that a bad storm was coming; today’s wood needed to get delivered right away, before it got worse.

“Stay indoors after you collect the eggs, Lindy,” he warned. “Don’t wander off chasing angels. It feels like there’s a blizzard on the way.”

Lindy nodded in agreement. She didn’t need any convincing; the wind-driven snow stung her face bitterly, even through a thick scarf. After George drove away, she plodded out to the chicken coop, head down, with no thoughts of anything but getting back inside the warm cabin. It wasn’t until she reached the coop that Lindy raised her head and saw the angel standing, large as life, only a few paces away.

“Who are you?” Lindy asked, looking into the angel’s shimmering silver eyes as the otherworldly figure loomed above her, wings outstretched as if about to take flight. “What do you want from me?”

The angel only smiled, extending a hand in invitation. When Lindy took a step closer, the angel, hovering just above the frozen ground, began to drift slowly back toward the forest. Lindy felt compelled to follow, even though George had told her to go back inside after getting the eggs. She hadn’t yet collected them, after all; so she wasn’t exactly breaking a promise.

Soon Lindy found herself among the trees. Dawn brought only a weak light, barely enough to see a path that was quickly becoming obscured by new-fallen snow. The angel still gleamed brightly, not far ahead of her.

Footsteps crunched to her left, and Lindy turned her head. She recognized her son Peter mainly by his tall stature and nimble gait, rather than by his face, which was covered against the biting wind like her own. He carried a sack over his shoulder, from which a beaver tail protruded.

“What are you doing out here in this storm, Mother?”

“I saw…”

Raising a hand to gesture toward the angel, Lindy looked in that direction again, only to find that the silvery glow had vanished. The path she had been following sloped gently downward, barely visible through the thickening snow.

“Nothing,” she said quietly, as much to herself as to Peter. “I must have imagined it.”

“Mother, go home now. Whatever you saw, this is no day for anyone to be out of doors. I’m going back to my cabin as soon as I check my last trap.”

Without any argument, Lindy turned back toward home. She made her way along the path as much by memory as by sight; the whirling snow blotted out every landmark. When she got home, she collected the eggs right away and went straight indoors, as George had told her to do. No more foolish visions of imaginary angels for her.

It was much later in the day when George returned, shivering and covered in snow. Lindy took his coat and hurried to pour him a mug of hot cider while he stood by the fireplace warming his numb hands.

The empty cart had overturned in a strong gust, George told her, not far from home. The harness had snapped. Ralph the ox, spooked by the crash of a tree falling close by, had bolted into the forest. His tracks had disappeared almost at once in the blowing snow, and George had not been able to find him anywhere.

“I’ll have to go back there right away and search for him again, Lindy. We can’t lose our only ox. If he’s not found soon, he could freeze to death or be taken by wolves.” George drained his cider, handed the mug back to Lindy, and reached for his coat. “Keep an eye out—it’s possible Ralph may come back on his own.”

After George trudged back out to the road, which couldn’t be seen at all by now, Lindy went to take a look around the outbuildings. There was no sign of Ralph, but of course that didn’t mean much; the snow was falling so heavily that Lindy couldn’t have seen the ox unless he came within arm’s reach.

Muttering about how useless this was, Lindy turned a corner of the barn and found the angel standing directly in front of her. A radiant, benevolent smile graced the angel’s smooth features. Lindy, however, was in a very uncharitable mood by now.

“Just what are you doing here, you horrid thing! Are you trying to get me killed in this blizzard?” She advanced on the angel, waving her fists furiously. “You’re not real—and even if you were, I don’t want you interfering in my life! What good are you? It’s all your fault that my husband thinks I’m crazy—and I may very well be losing my mind, talking to you when you can’t possibly be real! And now the ox is lost, and without him we’ll have no money to buy food this winter, and, and…”

Lindy had been taking angry steps toward the angel with every few words, not realizing what she was doing. All at once she noticed that she wasn’t standing next to the barn anymore. Instead, snow-covered trees surrounded her. The angel had led her into the forest without her being aware of it.

“Now I’m sure you must be trying to kill me!” Lindy shouted, turning on her heel to go back to the cabin. She had lost all sense of direction by now, though. It wasn’t possible to retrace her footsteps, which already had disappeared under the thick snow; and nightfall was coming fast.

After she blundered around for several minutes without coming back to the clearing, Lindy saw the angel with open hands, beckoning to her.

“And just why should I follow you,” Lindy demanded, “when you’re responsible for getting me lost? I have no reason to trust you. Less than no reason!”

The angel silently beckoned once more and then glided away through the trees, leaving Lindy alone in the deepening gloom without any idea of how to get home.

“Wait, wait, don’t go away—I didn’t mean it!” Now starting to panic, Lindy hurried to catch up to the angel’s fading glow. Rocks underfoot, snowbanks rising on both sides, and indistinct shapes of trees looming high overhead came together in Lindy’s mind, showing her where she was. The angel had led her into a ravine not far from her cabin.

Just ahead, an animal bellowed in fear and pain. It was the lost ox. Ralph had gotten his forelegs tangled in a pile of fallen branches and could not move. Although most of the branches were too large and heavy for Lindy to pick up, she found a smaller one that would work as a lever to shift the others. After a few minutes, she was able to free the ox. Ralph had a few cuts and bruises but was not much worse for wear.

When Lindy looked up, she was not surprised to find that the angel had disappeared. That was all right; she knew how to get home. The storm had almost ended, and the setting sun’s faint rays helped Lindy to find her way. Ralph obediently limped along beside her.

George came home soon afterward, while Lindy was in the barn tending to Ralph’s injuries.

“He was in the ravine,” Lindy said, rubbing more liniment on the right foreleg.

Looking puzzled, George asked, “How did you find him in the storm? The snow was so thick, I walked in circles for hours and couldn’t see a thing.”

“The angel showed me where he was.”

“Hmph.” George looked as if he might have wanted to say more, but then—evidently thinking better of it—he closed his mouth again. Lindy finished tending to the ox and went back inside the cabin with George.

——————————

The Crone’s knitting needles clacked busily away as she finished a row of her scarf-in-progress. Leaving it in her lap, where it had been when she started telling me this story, she picked up a gingerbread cookie from the plate on the end table.

“Did Lindy ever see the angel again?” I asked.

Taking a bite of her cookie, the Crone chewed meditatively for a moment before she gave the question back to me.

“Well, what do you think—did she?”

“Yes. Maybe.” I paused to arrange my thoughts in a more sensible order. “If she had a reason to. If something happened and she needed help.”

“Indeed.” The Crone gave me an encouraging smile before she went on to say, “Wayfinding is much easier when we trust that help will be there for us, even if it doesn’t always come as we might expect.”

Picking my steps carefully, I made my way through the woods on a foggy Christmas Eve, traversing the chilly landscape of the collective unconscious. There in the land of imagination (just as in real life this year) a thaw had left the ground damp and squelchy. A thin film of half-melted snow blanketed the fallen leaves along the muddy path. Every now and again, something crunched underfoot when I stepped on a rotten branch or an icy puddle, concealed by the leaves and snow.

In the soft midwinter light, the cabin in the clearing looked tiny and far from civilization. It wasn’t really; the archetypal Crone kept her dwelling within a day’s walk of the village and was part of its communal life, although she often spent time in the solitude of the woods to gather herbs and meditate on nature’s wisdom. I had come here on this wet, dark day hoping that she could help me find clarity in a confusing world.

Cabin in a snowy, foggy woods.

(Image by Millie Walker)

As I approached the threshold, a flock of small birds took wing, dimly silhouetted against the snowy forest until they disappeared into the fog.

The Crone opened the door and welcomed me inside, taking my coat while I put my muddy boots on a thick horsehair mat. A crackling fire, complete with roasting chestnuts, made the cabin warm and cheery. A mostly empty teacup on an end table beside the sofa, along with a plate of gingerbread cookies and a half-knitted scarf, made plain what she had been doing before I arrived.

“I’ve been having some trouble finding my way through the fog—of life, that is,” I told the Crone, as she bustled around setting out another cup for me and pouring hot tea for both of us. “This has been a good year for me, overall; but sometimes I feel that I’m wandering aimlessly, without clear landmarks. Perhaps you could tell me a story about finding direction, if that wouldn’t be too much of a bother?”

“No bother at all,” the Crone replied cheerfully, pushing back a strand of silver hair that had fallen across her face. “I can easily talk and knit at the same time.”

I sat down in the old-fashioned parlor chair on the other side of the table, waiting while the Crone settled herself comfortably with her knitting in her lap. She finished the last bite of the gingerbread cookie she’d been eating, and then she began the story.

“Long ago, in a cabin deep in the forest, much like this one, there lived a woodcutter’s wife who imagined on Christmas Eve that she saw an angel through the fog outside her window…”

(continued here)

I didn’t sleep well on Sunday night, perhaps because of the time change. Waking up at some dark hour, I tossed and turned for what seemed like a long time. Old fears, mainly about having no money and being powerless and pushed around, wandered out from dusty corners of my mind.

Then I fell halfway back to sleep, and it only got worse. Some kind of thick, heavy energy was sitting on my chest, directly above the solar plexus. When I tried to push it away, it solidified into an enormous boulder and squashed the middle of my body totally flat.

Boulder in a field on a cloudy day.

(Creative Commons image via flickr)

Despite my dream-body now being mostly separated into two pieces, I was somehow as much alive as ever, and I was angrily trying to shove that gigantic boulder away from me. Not surprisingly, it didn’t budge at all. I felt that nobody would help me with it because all the people who should have helped me in the past, but didn’t care enough to do much, were responsible for putting it there.

After a while I thought of someone who might want to make herself useful: Dame Shadow, an eccentric bodyguard of sorts who inhabits my subconscious as a self-appointed protector of the realm. When I last wrote about the Dame on this blog, she had given me a backache as a melodramatic way of prodding me to think about how much emotional weight I’d been carrying around.

I figured she owed me something after that annoying stunt, and I launched into an imaginary tirade. “Dame Shadow, I know you can hear me, and you’d better do something to get rid of this horrible boulder RIGHT NOW! You like to pretend you’re a superhero who can move mountains to save me, but where are you when I really need help?”

Another minute or so passed. Crickets chirped. Finally I heard light footsteps, and Dame Shadow walked around the boulder. She was dressed in a Wonder Woman outfit, complete with lasso.

“Okay, whatever,” I gave an exasperated sigh. “Just lasso this boulder already, and get it off me.”

The Dame replied, with an evil smirk, “Haven’t you learned yet that letting gravity work for you is much more efficient than brute force?”

She beckoned with her right hand, and several peasants promptly came forward and began digging along the downhill side of the boulder. They were dressed in muddy clothes and had bits of straw sticking to their boots. The shovels they were using looked (and smelled) as if they’d been mucking out the Dame’s stables very recently. Needless to say, the Dame had prudently positioned herself at a comfortable distance upwind.

Given the fact that my body had been effectively cut in half, I didn’t see myself as being in much of a position to complain. So I kept my dignity and pretended everything was fine while the peasants kept on digging. Eventually they undermined the boulder enough so that it rolled a short way down the hill. My midsection started inflating at a steady rate, as if by means of an air pump, until everything was back to normal.

Dame Shadow smiled again, this time with what looked like genuine friendliness. “You see, there are always plenty of sensible solutions to be found, but first you have to take the time to reflect on them.”

Ever since Fannie, my imaginary 119-year-old future self, suggested a few months ago that I might want to invite the archetypal Crone to play tennis, I had been turning that idea over in my mind. It made sense on a basic narrative level—if I wanted to explore possibilities other than the usual negative beliefs about aging, then I needed to be more creative in how I pictured older people. That included expecting the Crone to do more than just sit and tell stories, as in my previous post about her last winter.

Tennis didn’t work, though, for several reasons. First, I never played the sport or had much interest in it, and an imaginary outing where I bumbled around cluelessly on the tennis court didn’t hold much appeal. Of course, I didn’t have to be as realistic as that; but I didn’t want to be the Crone’s opponent in a sporting event anyway, or even her doubles partner, which would carry another well-defined set of adversarial socially-scripted baggage about pushing one’s body to the limit and always competing to excel over others. I really did just want the Crone to tell me stories, but without the typical cultural strings attached.

So, after I recently spent some time browsing through winter landscape scenes and imagining myself (as I mentioned here) on a snowy forest adventure, I decided to invite the Crone to be my companion on a mountain-climbing trip. That would be active enough to dispel the old-woman stereotypes, but we wouldn’t be opponents in anything, and there would be plenty of time for insightful conversation. I’ve never been a mountain climber in real life either, but that was okay—a hiking trail along a mountainside, without need for rock-climbing gear, would be sufficient.

(Creative Commons image via flickr)

The crisp mountain air carried the scent of pine trees and snow. The wind was just right—enough of a breeze so that the Crone and I wouldn’t overheat as we hiked up the trail in our heavy winter gear, but it wasn’t blowing hard enough to make us want to pull our scarves up over our faces.

“Oh look, just over there!” exclaimed the Crone, as we went around a curve dotted by rocks and small bushes. I didn’t see much of anything else, but the Crone sounded quite excited indeed. She bustled over to a spot of green in the shelter of two rocks, where glossy leaves and a few bright berries could be seen poking up through the winter’s debris.

“It’s just another wildflower nowadays,” she explained, lovingly brushing away twigs and snow to give me a better view. “But long ago, skilled herbalists would have come out looking for this and other healing plants, even in winter. Many of them were older women, you know. They brought apprentices on mountain hikes very much like this, pointing out where the medicinal herbs could be found and how to recognize them.”

After carefully replacing the small twigs and dry leaves that protected the plant from the cold air, my companion stood up and went back to the trail. We continued around another bend, winding between several thick pines, while I considered the message in this little interlude.

“It’s just a myth, then, that old women didn’t do much but sit by the fire and tell stories,” I said after a minute or so, as I took a few quick steps to catch up to the Crone. She had gotten ahead of me while I was preoccupied with my thoughts, and she walked with plenty of vigor.

“Life was much harder in those days,” the Crone noted in a reflective tone, as if describing her own past. She slowed her stride a little. “Every pair of hands was needed. If an elder didn’t have the strength to work outdoors, she might indeed sit by the fire—but there would always be chores she could do while sitting. Of course, that didn’t prevent her from telling stories at the same time. When surviving through the winter couldn’t be taken for granted, stories and song went far toward keeping joy and vitality in the soul, just as herbal remedies kept the body healthy.”

We came out of the pines onto a steep ascent. The snowy peaks loomed majestically above us, just as they would have done thousands of years ago. I felt grateful for their enduring wisdom, as well as for my companion’s gentle words, as the imaginary adventure faded away.

Last week the rowing club was more adventurous than usual, traveling to a large regatta in Florida. My husband and I stayed with another club member at his mother’s house not far from the race course. She is a delightful English lady who loves to have guests and is very outspoken, making blunt remarks such as “Absolute rubbish!” when, for instance, my husband suggested that we might take our clothes to a laundromat rather than inconvenience her by using her washer and dryer.

She is 86 years old and very active, going sailing once a week and doing charitable work regularly. When the heat got to me on the practice day before the races started, she sympathized with me by saying that she recently had gotten rather dehydrated playing tennis for two hours on a hot day.

That evening I still didn’t feel quite right after rowing and being outdoors for a long time in the heat. When I got in bed, I felt as if it might be rocking gently, like a boat. That reminded me of reading Kon-Tiki as a child and pretending that my bed was a balsa-wood raft floating across the Pacific Ocean. So, as I couldn’t get to sleep right away, I decided to populate this imaginary scenario with my adventurous future self, Fannie. I pictured us looking up at the stars from a natural-fiber mat on the raft, with plenty of comfortable pillows.

Photo of the Kon-Tiki raft in its museum.

(Creative Commons image via flickr)


“So, Fannie,” I asked her, in my best faux-English accent, “would you say that the stories our culture tells about aging are absolute rubbish?”

“No, I wouldn’t actually,” she said, drawing out the vowel into an absurdly long ‘ah’ sound, “and by the way, you are rubbish with ah-ccents, and I never got much better with them over the years. So we might do better to stick with ordinary American conversation, though there’s nobody around but a few imaginary flying fish to hear us embarrassing ourselves.”

Fannie snuggled deeper into the pillows and went on to say, “Putting energy into rejecting a cultural narrative only feeds it more power. What we resist persists; that’s from Carl Jung, a very wise man. When you feel that society has you in a box, there’s no need to kick and beat on the walls. Just look up, and you’ll see the sky and feel a breeze flowing through. The box is not solid. All you have to do is step out of it. Dance and skip out of it. Do handsprings and cartwheels out of it. Oh, was there a box around here somewhere? I hadn’t noticed. Where it went, I can’t say. Maybe it’s in that field over there, behind all those tall weeds.”

“Once upon a time, long, long ago,” I said, getting into the spirit of it, “there were people who thought they had to stay in boxes; or at least, that’s what my great-grandmother told me.”

“Lost in the mists of time,” Fannie agreed cheerfully. “And while we’re on the subject, maybe instead of picturing the archetypal Crone just sitting and telling stories, you might want to invite her to play some tennis. Yes, I know you are rubbish at tennis, but the Crone hasn’t played in many years either. Of course, I’m no better at it, since I am you, so that’s nothing personal.”

I thought that I heard Fannie chuckling quietly to herself, but a fish leaped out of the ocean just then and landed with a particularly loud splash, so I couldn’t be quite sure.

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—when I was growing up, I never 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 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.