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.”