Happily Ever After

“You think I’m not serious?”

“That’s what’s scaring me. We’re too old for fairy tales.”

–Terry McMillan, I Almost Forgot About You

We have forgotten how to live fairy tales. Not the ones that are only light and sunshine, but the dark, gritty fairy tales. We have decided that we are too old for that nonsense. But I don’t think it’s nonsense at all.

Sure, not everybody gets their happily ever after. Yet it seems to me that most people do. It might not be the one we envision as children, but that doesn’t stop people from creating happiness in their lives. Besides, if we think about the history of those fairy tales, we would do well to remember that the heroes and heroines find themselves in light-less times long before they ever reach their happy endings. Rapunzel? Locked up in a tower for the entirety of her life, only to watch her savior be thrown into thorns and blinded. Sleeping Beauty (or rather, Aurora)? She’s actually denied access to a part of the world–spinning wheels and anything similar–in an attempt to shelter her from her destiny. And then her destiny becomes to fall into a deep sleep. Snow White? Her stepmother actually tried to kill her, and she’s forced into the woods to fend for herself as a result. Cinderella? Enslaved by the woman entrusted with her care.

Fairy tales are dark things, full of suffering. Many stories are. What makes fairy tales unique, in part, is that they never lose hope. No matter how dark the story gets, the reader can be assured that things will end with hope and joy. It might not be the happiness the characters hoped for, but it is a thing of beauty nevertheless.

So, as McMillan eventually assures us, we’re never too old for fairy tales.

To Be Known

“When the time comes to you at which you will be forced at last to utter the speech which has lain at the center of your soul for years, which you have, all that time, idiot-like, been saying over and over, you’ll not talk about the joy of words. I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?”
C.S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces

It is perhaps unusually appropriate that my choice for Valentine’s Day is C.S Lewis; he is, after all, my first love.

Not in a romantic sense; it would be better to say he is my first literary love–but that does not quite get at it.

He was the first writer I read that made me think, “Here; I am known, after all.”

With Lucy, I was consumed with jealousy for Susan’s beauty; with Susan, I longed to grow up and felt guilt for leaving my first love. With Edmund I shared the dark petty desires that destroyed me and felt the remorse and cleansing of forgiveness. With Peter I acknowledged my inadequacy and fear of failure.

It is in Orual, however, that I most keenly see myself. The jealousy, grief, longing, the pettiness and pretence. Her self-righteousness masked as hurt and her desire for what she thinks is justice–these are my own sins. Her selfish longing for Psyche, her self-loathing, her mask, her ugliness, within and without–I am Orual.

Now, you may be asking what all of this has to do with love. This is supposed to be a Valentine’s Day post, after all. To answer that, I will pose my own question.

Who knows your darkest secrets?

Who would you share them with?

After all, to be totally known–for the babble at the center of our souls to be revealed–that is a shameful and terrifying thing. We can never truly escape the fear that once we are truly known, those we love–and those who love us–will leave us forever. For “who could love a Beast?”

And yet–

Until we are fully known; until we have a true face, not just another mask; until are seen in our naked ugly truth, it is not we who are loved, but our mask.

Orual spends the entire book protesting her love for her sister, but learns that it was never truly her sister she loved. Orual never thinks that she can be loved, and so she hides herself behind a mask and becomes a terror and a mystery, but it is not till all of her masks are truly stripped away that Love can come to her. To be known is to be vulnerable.

But to be loved, we must be known.

A Little Self-Love

“Hi, Leslie. It’s Leslie. Hang in there. I love you. Bye.”

–Leslie Knope, Parks and Recreation

Caught up in all the excitement or anxiety of Valentine’s Day, it can be easy to forget to love ourselves. Maybe it feels too selfish or too cheesy. Maybe we want to focus on the other lovely people in our lives. Today is about the people we love, definitely. But have you ever though that maybe one of the people you should love is yourself?

We don’t need to be Narcissus to show ourselves a little love. For those of you who watch Parks and Rec, you know that Leslie Knope is pretty much the opposite of selfishness (99.8% of the time). Her little voicemail to herself is no exception. We all need those little encouragements from time to time.

So this Valentine’s Day, go out with your significant other. Spend time with your best friends. Hug your children. Send a card to somebody you haven’t seen in a while. And on your way out to dinner, buy yourself a flower or some chocolates (or whatever else you might be craving). Write yourself a note, reminding yourself that there is light even when things look dark. Love the people around you, but don’t forget to love yourself along the way.

Love for its Own Sake

“Loving someone after years is not reductive, retrograde, antifeminist or weak.”

–Louise Brealey (AKA Molly Hooper)

BBC’s Sherlock recently screened another season and it had a lot in it.  It had questions about power and justice, how to deal with loss, and several different kinds of love.

In this version of the story of Sherlock Holmes, detective, he has a unlikely friend.  This friend is Molly Hooper.  She is a pathologist who works in the morgue in London.  Over the past 4 seasons, she has gone from a mousy doctor who meekly supplied Sherlock with the body parts necessary for his various experiments to standing up to Sherlock and making him apologize for a really awful series of remarks to saving his life by faking his death.  Throughout the seasons Molly is steadfast and loving towards Sherlock, holding in her seemingly unrequited romantic love for Sherlock.  In the most recent season Sherlock and her were entangled in his psychopathic sister’s game of pushing all of Sherlock’s buttons and forcing him into moral dilemmas.  One of the tests was Sherlock calling Molly and getting her to say three simple words—I love you—within a set time limit. Sherlock also gets a warning that a bomb will go off if he fails.  Molly refuses to say those words until he does. The reason she refuses is because it’s true; Molly does love Sherlock after all these years. And this is where the quote from the beginning comes in.  Louise Brealey, who plays Molly, tweeted after the episode, defending her character’s steadfast love for Sherlock despite any return on that love.

Unrequited love is a heartbreaking thing, especially over a long period of time, but it is a beautiful self-sacrificial thing. Molly has loved Sherlock for years, and that in no way diminishes her character.

The Idea of a Person

“I don’t know why, but I always thought she would look different. Older…. But there she is, and I am watching her through the Plexiglas, and she looks like Margo Roth Spiegelman, this girl I have know since I was two – this girl who was an idea that I loved. And it is only now… that I realize that the idea is not only wrong but dangerous. What a treacherous thing it is to believe that a person is more than a person.” – John Green, Paper Towns

Paper Towns is not your average love story. And as much as I love Romanticism as a genre, John Green’s book points out the trouble and heartbreak that romanticizing a person will cause.

Quentin had built up an idea of what Margo was like mainly by watching her from afar. It should not be a surprise, then, to find out that his idea of her is not entirely true to life. Whatever he thinks she is – hero, goddess, sprite – is fictional.

The theme of Paper Towns is stripping away fiction to find reality. This is Margo’s quest. Quentin’s quest is to find Margo. But he does not realize that the harder he chases after her the more of his fictitious idea he will lose. He finds Margo, but not the Margo he was looking for. Rather than the paper girl he created, he discovers a flesh and blood person, as well as all the baggage that entails.

While romanticized stories that make heroes out of humans and delete all the baser details are all well and good, it will only cause pain and suffering to romanticize real people. No one is a superhero, and no one is meant to be. The sooner we can accept that, the sooner we can begin to love the people around us for who they truly are.

Special Announcement

Hey everyone! Since tomorrow is Valentine’s Day, we will be changing the formatting a bit. So keep your eyes peeled for some special pieces and enjoy the holiday!

(This post was written by the sole single writer of the Uncommonplaces. Don’t worry, other singles, tomorrow’s pieces will be for you too!)

Dramatic Exposure

“There are no curses, only mirrors
held up to the souls of gods and mortals.”

–“Demeter’s Prayer to Hades,” Rita Dove

The turning of the seasons, the tension of life and death. A myth where the goddess that grows seeks her daughter back from the god of death. Okay, fine the god of the underworld. But death sounds so much more dramatic.

And that is what Dove’s poem (which you can read in its entirety here) focuses on–the dramatic. Not the dramatic for drama’s sake though. “Demeter’s Prayer to Hades” pulls on the mythos that lies behind it. This is drama with a purpose. The Greeks explain the seasons; Dove faces intentions and reality. A goddess’s daughter is traded between Olympus and the Underworld; a human being explores belief and knowledge.

To be honest, I don’t entirely understand what Dove is saying in her poem. I feel the tension–the sorrow and the beauty mixed–nevertheless. I can’t help but thinking that this poem-prayer knows something about myself, and I look forward to turning its melancholic curse into a mirror.

Self-Sustaining

“But where will we go?” Klaus asked.

“Burb,” Sunny said, which meant “Anywhere, as long as it’s out of town.”

“Who will take care of us out there?” Klaus said, looking out on the flat horizon.

“Nobody,” Violet said. “We’ll have to take care of ourselves. We’ll have to be self-sustaining.”

“Like the hot air mobile home,” Klaus said, “that could travel and survive all by itself.”

“Like me,” Sunny said, and abruptly stood up. Violet and Klaus gasped in surprise as their baby sister took her first wobbly steps, and then walked closely beside her, ready to catch her if she fell.

But she didn’t fall.

–          The Vile Village, Lemony Snicket

In honor of the new Netflix series that came out this month, I thought I would write my first post for The Uncommonplaces on A Series of Unfortunate Events, some of my favorite books both as a child and as an adult.

My mom never understood what I liked so much about a series that begins with three children being orphaned by a fire, and that only gets more depressing from there. But I think one reason I liked it so much is exactly because it deals with such morbid events. Snicket does not shy away from the reality that life is sometimes just plain awful, despite your best efforts to the contrary. He does not insult children by pretending every story has a happy ending, and that is a refreshing change when it comes to children’s literature. He treats his readers like intelligent people, and makes his readers more intelligent through his books.

Snicket has a delightful way of expanding one’s vocabulary that is neither dry nor condescending, a word which here means “treating perfectly intelligent blog readers as though I were better than them for putting an opinion on the internet, as if that were particularly difficult to do.” Among the many words and phrases I learned from his books as a child are “stiletto,” “red herring,” and “penultimate.” Snicket’s explanations of words and concepts that may be above his audience’s current reading level are sufficient enough to educate them and amusing enough to keep more advanced and even adult readers interested. I am enjoying reading the series again now at least as much as I did when I was a kid.

In fact, one of the things I love most about A Series of Unfortunate Events is something that I only fully began to appreciate on rereading it as an adult: Snicket’s books give children the mental and emotional tools to deal with unpleasant or downright nasty situations in their own lives. They show that adults, even when they have the best intentions, do not always act in a child’s best interest. The very people who should be protecting them sometimes place children in harmful situations, whether intentionally (like the evil Count Olaf) or unwittingly (like the bumbling Mr. Poe).

Bad things happen to good people – even clever, intelligent, and resourceful people like Violet, Klaus, and Sunny. Circumstances beyond their control sometimes force children to grow up more quickly than they should. They must learn to become “self-sustaining.” And while things may not always end well, Snicket shows us that there is no situation so bad that it cannot be faced alongside someone you love.

Especially if that someone happens to possess mechanical skills, a love of reading, or four very sharp teeth.

Protect

Scan Complete
No Threats Detected

but…
i…
Janet.
JANET Relationship at 100%
i feel different.
i feel.

Open Sorcery, a text game (Link)

Boundaries are funny things. Often, the only reason they exist is because humans decided this is one thing and this is another.

For instance, the boundary between science fiction and fantasy. Sometimes, it seems obvious. (Star Trek is scifi; The Hobbit is fantasy.) The more you delve into either world, though, the closer you come to that wide fuzzy space between them.

Is Star Wars scifi? or is it fantasy? Is the Mistborn series fantasy or scifi? And what about superheroes? Where do they fall? Batman exists in the same universe as Zatanna, and Steven Strange is in the same universe as Tony Stark.

Another boundary: The line between games and literature. Is a detective novel just literature? or is it a game, where you try to deduce answers and uncover mysteries before the main character? Is an adventure video game solely about fighting, or is it also about the progression of your character and the story that he or she lives?

At the intersection of these four boundaries lives Open Sorcery, a text game that is itself about the boundary between awareness (a soul) and intelligence.

With as few spoilers as possible, you start the game as a ‘spiritual’ firewall, an entity that protects certain areas from spiritual viruses and dangers. As the game blurs the lines between AI and the magician’s familiar, you make choices about how best to protect and preserve your charges–and those choices are the difference between life and death. There is more than one happy ending and more than one sad ending–and once a decision is made, it cannot be changed.

I have long had a fondness for these sorts of text games, and in a world overflowing with options both for stories and games, it can be easy to overlook them–they are not as flashy as their video game counterparts, nor as time-tested as books. But they are worthwhile literature. By forcing the reader to interact with and affect the story, they also force the player to examine why she makes the choices she does. Did I make that decision because it was right? Or because it is what I think the game wants me to do?

Do I make my own decisions because they are right, or because they are what others want me to do?

I hope I have piqued your interest, and you decide to try out other text games for yourself. I also hope you give Open Sorcery a try, and remember that even in the fuzzy boundaries of life, there is still sharp line between right and wrong.

 

The Silent Confessional

“Once you’ve opened your heart, you can’t close it again.”

–Culverton Smith, Sherlock, “The Lying Detective”

I wonder if the frightening thing about murderers–about serial killers and kidnappers and dictators–is that they are not so different from each of us. They are motivated by the same things, or similar things, that motivate us all. The king who wanted to share prosperity. The victim who couldn’t stand one more minute of injustice. The businessman who feared vulnerability. We call them generous, survivors, human.

Of course, when the deed is done and the culprit is on trial, we refuse to see them as human. They are monsters, despicable, hardly human. But I have to wonder if the most terrifying thing about villains like Culverton Smith is that they are just like us, if we’re honest.

Culverton Smith has a dark secret–a secret despicable enough that he knows he ought not share it. Perhaps our secrets are not like his, but we hold keys to our own skeleton-filled closets. We’ve heard the relief of the confessional, of admitting the darkness inside of us. Is it any wonder that Smith feels the same?

But the Sherlockian villain faces a dilemma common to humanity: who to trust with our most vulnerable moments? The main difference between him and the rest of us (other than, admittedly, the depravity of his secret) is his means to create a confessional in which the priest cannot remember.

He gathers his friends, the people he can most trust, and confesses his sins. But he puts in a fail safe. Shortly after the meeting, not one of them can remember what he was said, or even the meeting itself. The lure of this concept is what makes Smith so compelling. We want what he was–not the villainy, but the security. The certainty that our secrets remain our own combined with the release of admitting our brokenness.