Monday, May 19, 2014

A bird like you

The title of this poem has been in my head for a long time, and I knew the essence of what I wanted to say, but somehow I couldn't think of a single word to put on paper.  This morning it all came out at once. It's funny how writing works sometimes.

A bird like you

Brown, spotted, camouflaged
I see your movement in the trees
but I mustn’t get too close or you’ll fly 

back to your distant land
afraid but not afraid
of landing where the stars draw you

always migrating
looking for home in faraway places
meeting coloured birds,
looking for some other brown spotted bird like you.

But for this moment you rustle here, in these trees
I watch you from afar but do not know you -
my book has no label for a bird like you,

who flutters and dances and tumbles with a careful grace;
who dives and hops and jumps and fights the wind;
yet hides so carefully from the other birds,
making barely a peep or a song that would give away identity.

I must stay back here in the field,
admire you from afar,
with a little sadness that I’ll never get to know
the name and the song,
of a bird like you.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Writing to heal (Fairy tale vignettes)

I've been thinking lately about how people deal with sadness and loss. It seems to be different for everyone.  For me, I often turn to writing during periods of extreme sadness. Most of my best writing has come out of sadness.  (I'm not a very good writer when I'm happy!)  It seems to be a way that helps me process things and make sense of them. I thought I would share some writing I did a couple of years ago during a long period of sadness and grief.  In the writings are the different stages of grief, the steps backward and the steps forward, and reflections meant to make some sense out of the times the sadness was the worst.  It's self-indulgent writing, and was never meant for a "Reader", necessarily.

When we were children, we were told fairy tales of princes and princesses living happily ever after.  These iconic images persist in many of our psyches, despite our best efforts to avoid them.  When the illusion is shattered and fairy tales come undone, we are often left bewildered.

The following excerpts are fiction, but they are also non-fiction.  They are attempts to find meaning in the chaos of a severed relationship; they use the imagery of fairy tales as a way to reclaim some of the lost illusions and find meaning again.  There are no happy endings, and there is no intent to ever finish the stories or tie them up nicely.  They are solely moments of captured grief on the very slow journey towards healing, and highlight just how difficult it is to let go of the fairy tales we all want to believe are true.


Once upon a time there was a princess. But she didn't know she was a princess. It was a secret.

The princess was alone for a very long time. She lived in a very sad house, and the people there told her she was an ugly duckling. They told her she should never have been. Yet still, somehow, the princess learned how to dance. It was her own dance, strange, and not in step with anyone else's. She liked it, and was content to dance all by herself. 

She didn't know how alone she was until one day she realized that other people shared. That they knew how to dance together. She thought it was magical. She was so excited! She wanted to learn how to dance with them, but quickly discovered that she couldn't. That her dance would always be different. Out of step.

Then the darkness came. The sad house and the lonely dance were too much for the little princess. She cried and cried and said, I don't want to live in a world where I always dance alone. She tried to leave the world, but some of the other princesses and princes noticed and said, Don't leave! We like your dance. We will stay beside you until the darkness goes away. We will let you dance beside us even if your dance is strange and not like ours.

The princess was so happy! The darkness went away and she left the sad house and she danced beside the others whenever they asked, even if her dance was still different. She knew they didn't mind and this made her happy too.

Still, the loneliness persisted.

Then, one day, when she was feeling especially alone, she noticed a boy. He came from an Enchanted Forest. The boy noticed her too. He said, Hi! You are my princess, where have you been all this time? Will you play with me?

The princess was amazed. She had no idea where this strange boy came from, but she loved playing with him. They held hands and walked through forests, paddled down rivers, splashed in oceans. They watched the bluejays and cardinals visit their little home in the enchanted forest, and left food for them.   Sometimes the birds left them red or blue feathers.  They cuddled on stormy nights and they hid in the shade on sunny days.

She was such a happy princess. I have finally found my knight, she thought. Who has a strange dance of his own, and who doesn’t mind dancing beside me. 

When the ghosts of the sad house came to bother her in her dreams, he was always there to protect her. When the monsters from her own head made her cry and throw tantrums, he waited patiently beside her and held out his hand.

When her knight’s monsters came, too, she held him. When he was lost, she said, I am your home. You will never be lost as long as I am here. When he tried to hide from the world, she pushed him into it, so he would have other people to dance with, too.

They were happy in their innocence.

But then, one day, her prince said, I’m sorry my princess. I’ve lost my sword. I let my heart stray away from you and I need to find it again. I need to fly away for a little while, so I can come back home to you and be your knight with his sword, all shiny and new.

The princess was very sad, but she understood. She wandered the forest alone, tattering her dress, taking many adventures on her own. She had fun, but she missed her prince.

Finally, one day, he came back. He said, I found my sword! I will never leave you alone and sad again. We will play together until the end of the world. 

The princess smiled and danced, her own out-of-step dance, and held his hand. I will take care of you forever, she said. I will put on a new dress and we will have so many adventures. We will paddle through the storms, we will have picnics, build snowmen, and learn how to be grownups together. We will one day have a bouncing baby who will look like you and look like me and it will learn how to dance its own dance too.

The prince hugged the princess and said, There's nothing I want more. I am so certain of you, with my whole heart and soul.

“And they lived happily...”

For a little while, they did. But then one day the prince said to the princess, I am sorry – I thought you were my princess, but you were not. I liked playing with you, but I want to go and find another princess. I need to go away again, but this time I will not come back. I am taking my sword with me, because I need it to protect my true princess. We cannot play together anymore. And he left.
The princess cried, and the darkness came again.
Hop, hop, hop, went the frog.

"What are you looking for?" asked a passing bald eagle, on its way to a very important engagement.
"I'm looking for magic," said the frog. "I lost mine and I need more."

The eagle eyed him with disdain. "I thought you had already found magic? With that - what was her name - that girl with the tattered white dress that hugged all the trees. Odd creature, she was. But you seemed to like her."

The frog hopped around a tree stump, focused on its search. "I did find magic with her, for a little while. But she was too full of other things, and they tired me. I just wanted the magic." The frog paused to look under a pile of fallen leaves. "And she was only magic. She didn't have the other things needed to break my spell and turn me into a prince forever. Her magic wore off. I'm looking for someone who has all the ingredients to break the spell."

The eagle circled the tree above the frog once more and started on his way again, but not before saying, "Maybe you're right, simple frog, but the likes of her shall not pass through these woods again for many a day."

The princess sat alone in the forest, at the foot of a large oak tree. It was night-time. An occasional owl called mysteriously and solemnly in the distance.

It was cold. She felt snow falling but she couldn't see it in the dark. She wrapped her arms around her knees, trying to keep warm.

A nocturnal mouse scurried by. "Christmas is coming!" he squeaked. The princess half-heartedly threw a stone at him, but he ran off busily, paying no notice.

"I hate Christmas," the princess mumbled to herself. "Hoo," said a particularly sympathetic owl a few trees over.

You see, the princess was lost. She knew these woods well, but she had been walking alone in them too long, and sadness had undone her thoughts and her ability to find her way. She tried asking for help, but the squirrels, rabbits, birds, and all the other creatures of the forest, could not stop and give her directions for very long. They were busy tending to their own, or finding food for the winter. Some, like the mighty eagles, tried guiding her with bits of wisdom, but wisdom was lost on the princess.
For she was alone. Wisdom is only helpful when one has a hand to hold. And the princess had lost the one who knew how to walk beside her, how to hold her hand. He had run off in search of freedom, and had dropped his sword along the way. The princess had found it the other day, covered in weeds and leaves, rusting.

"Where are you?" she called out to the world, shivering. The only response was the sound of snowflakes gently landing on the ground beside her. "Where are you..." she whispered, without hope.

This is an important question. A fairy tale can only continue without a prince for so long. Eventually, the princess will fade, along with her forest, her magical animals. The very essence of her story will disappear like mist. Narrators can only wait, keeping vigil for the princess as she waits for her companion to return.
Well, perhaps we can do one last thing for her.

A passing eagle noticed the shivering princess, now sleeping, and with his beak, went to retrieve something it had seen lying on the forest floor. It flew over to the princess and gently let fall over her shoulders a warm cloak, and flew away.

The princess stirred in her sleep, for she recognized the scent. And she dreamed.
"Open your present," she said, whispered, from afar. For the princess was on her own, no one around but a sparrow perched on a nearby rock, and the wind, and the snow.

"Open your present," she whispered again, hoping he would hear.

And the prince heard. He sat, miles and miles away, in another forest, on a rock (as the sparrow) and held his present in his lap, and all the animals of the forest came around him, sat in a circle, and watched. They watched, for the princess could not watch. And the birds sang for the prince, once again a little boy with his present. And the birds sang for the princess, alone with the snow and the wind and the sparrow.
And the whole world waited.
All the creatures of the forest gathered quietly around the princess as she sat under the tall willow tree. It's thin, stringy branches swayed in the cold winter winds. The princess shivered and wrapped her blanket closer around her. She looked out at the bay. She was waiting.

The rabbits hopped nervously from place to place, wanting to comfort the princess but not knowing how. The geese sat quietly for once, occasionally giving a single honk up to the sky, almost as if they were calling. The squirrels, unable to sit still, softly ribboned back and forth across the stronger branches above the princess.

The birds were there, too. The male cardinal was easy to spot up high on his branch, stark red against the grey of the sky. The female, grey-pink and muted, could be seen if one took a second look, on the branch beneath him. Chickadees hopped and fluttered, settled down, and hopped and fluttered again, occasionally calling "dee dee dee". And finally the bluejay hopped near the princess and let fall one single, beautiful bluejay feather. The princess picked it up and twirled it in her ice-cold hands.
She turned around to look at them.

"He is coming," she said quietly. The animals just looked at her. They did not know if he would come, but they believed the princess. It was their duty to believe the princess, and to watch and wait with her.
The Eagle who soared above kept his eye on the scene. He expected nothing; yet he, too, felt compelled to wait.

"He is coming," she said again, a little stronger. She needed to believe in the dream. "We will hold each other in the cold, and we will become warm. We will once again feel that safety, that homecoming. We will hold hands and walk together through all the forests and cities of the world, and we will play. We will one day have a small little one - or two - running near our feet, and we will show them the forests and the cities and watch their eyes become amazed. We will teach them of magic and of science; we will teach them of reason and of playfulness. And he and I will hold each other's hands through cold winters, through long nights, and play together for eternity."

She turned back to the water. "I'm right here," she whispered. "I am your princess and I am right here."


Slowly, the animals left the circle surrounding the princess, one by one. The rabbits hopped quietly off into the bushes; the birds flew off without a second look back; the geese quietly sailed off across the bay; the squirrels silently drifted off in search of new adventures.

The princess was alone. Well, not quite. The eagle had come down from his high circling, and had landed on a branch above her.

"What is happening, Eagle? Where have all the animals gone? Why does the bay look grey and foggy?", she addressed him, squinting out at the water.

"Your story is fading, princess. All stories have endings, and since you have chosen to be a story, you must accept that there will be an ending. This may be yours."

"But Eagle... I am not done waiting. I am not done hoping and dreaming. I am not..."

But the princess wasn't quite sure what she was or wasn't, anymore. Her mind was foggy, as the bay. The trees around her were becoming undrawn. The sky was an eerie twilight colour. The princess no longer felt happy or sad; she no longer felt intensely anything. She had no more tears.

"Eagle... what is happening?" she asked quietly, a little afraid.

"Do not worry princess. You will not cease to be. This story is simply ending. You as a princess are fading. Soon the animals will fade, the sky, your willow tree. And then the lines that draw you will slowly erase, and the colours of your dress and your hair and your face will seep into the picture, and the princess will be no more. But YOU - whoever you are - will become something else. Perhaps a song. Perhaps a poem. These things are unknown. If you should meet these animals again, this tree, your prince - they will not know you. You will not know them. Still, do not be afraid."

"But Eagle... I am afraid. I do not want to become undrawn. I do not want this story to be over. I liked these animals, this tree, my prince. I want to wait for more of the story to be written..."

"You can wait as long as you like, princess. You are a fairy tale, and fairy tales may do as they wish."

"Eagle... if this story fades, and I fade with it and become something else, will you fade too?"

"No, princess... I do not fade. I will always be with you, whether you become a poem or a song or the sparkle in someone else's eye. You need not be afraid of that."

The princess heard all these words, and she stared out at the fading bay. Unnoticed by her, a small tendril of wind picked up the small blue feather next to her and blew it out into the water.


The princess heard something, almost like a voice, from very far away. The blue feather, instead of drifting away, stood still in the water near the princess. The whole scene stood still. There was no longer any wind, any movement at all. The princess trembled a very tiny bit inside. She knew that voice... or she thought she did. She waited.

The Eagle looked down at the scene, and disapprovingly lifted his wings and flew off to another tree, to watch from a greater distance.

As the princess sat fading under the willow tree, she dreamed...

She was walking along the ocean shore. The shore was empty of others as far as the eye could see - which wasn't far, for the air was thick with mist. The only other sound save the endless crashing of the shore was the occasional "pee pee pee pee pee" of a flock of tiny sandpipers as they dashed away from an over-reaching wave.

The princess walked barefoot through the water. She did not know where she was, or why. She knew only that the sound of the waves calmed her troubled heart. After walking for a long while, she stumbled on something half-burried in the sand. She knelt down to dig it out, the oncoming waves hindering as much as they helped while she dug, until at last she was able to pull a long metal object out of the sand.

It was her prince's sword. The one he had lost so long ago. Here it was, bereft of its owner, still.
The princess sat on the shore, half in the ocean. The waves washed over her legs and her tattered dress. She lay the sword in her lap. She looked out at the endless ocean, feeling only a distant kind of sadness. The sadness one feels when one knows the end of something is quite near and inevitable; the sadness one feels when one no longer has the will to grasp on to unattainable dreams.

Gliding on a gentle wind, there appeared an albatross in front of her. 

The albatross spoke solemnly (for all albatrosses speak solemnly): "Princess, the time has come to cut your hair. The sword is yours to reclaim. For this it appears before you now."

The princess watched as he flew away into the distance, into the mist, into the sound of the waves.


Somewhere else, in a land far, far away, a hopping frog suddenly stood very still, as if he had suddenly lost something so very important, and could no longer remember what it was.


The Eagle, flying high above the tops of the trees, surveyed the scene. Everywhere there was slow moving mist, obscuring everything that used to be in the Enchanted Forest.

The small mammals and birds were all gone. No wind blew. There was only silence.

The trees (or what used to be trees; even the forest is losing its memory of itself) scarcely moved, as they mist slowly crept through their branches.

The Eagle looked down at the scene once more, and caught sight of the last bit of movement left in the place now bereft of magic. Floating in the water by the willow tree was a tattered white dress, and floating beside it, a small blue feather.


As the Eagle flew off to other lands, something small and brown stirred under the willow tree. It hopped once, twice. It looked out at the water. It broke the silence with a small "...ribbit?" But there was no one left in the forest to hear him.


A new story

Once upon a time, there was a little girl. The little girl lived in a very large castle, far away from the rest of the world. The castle had endless rooms and very tall walls. The little girl loved the castle, for every day she discovered some new place in it.

However, it was also a very lonely castle. There did not seem to be any other people living in it besides the little girl. Sometimes, she had the feeling that she would occasionally find someone else in one of the rooms, and spend the day with them, but as the days went on, such encounters seemed as if they were only dreams. In fact, sometimes it seemed as if the little girl was entirely a dream. When she really thought about it (which was rarely), she could not remember where she came from, or how she got there.

But these thoughts did not trouble her most of the time, for there was so much to explore and discover. One evening, the little girl found an old wooden door that she did not remember seeing before. She opened it and saw a stone staircase, leading upwards. The little girl was not one to resist mysterious staircases, so she immediately ran in and tumbled up the large stone steps, almost as if she were climbing a mountain, as the steps were quite tall for her little legs.

The stairs seemed to go on forever. Up and up the little girl climbed, getting excited as she went. She had a small hope in her heart that these stairs would finally lead her to see the open sky. For you see, the little girl had only ever glimpsed the outside through tiny windows. Finally, she felt a cool breeze on her face. The stairs ended, and she found herself in a large empty courtyard. The little girl looked up, and gasped in wonder.

She had made it to the very top of the castle, somewhere she had never been before. And there above her was the open night sky, dotted with stars. The little girl, exhausted from her climb, lay down on the cool stone ground and looked up at the dark sky.

“What a beautiful thing is the sky,” she thought, her eyes darting from star to star. Her eyes landed on one star in particular, that seemed a little brighter than the rest. The star seemed to twinkle at her once she noticed it, and she smiled.

Suddenly, she heard footsteps behind her. She stood up, startled, and turned around. An elderly gentleman stood there, in long grey robes, and the little girl recognized him right away. “Hello Magician!” she said excitedly. “I forgot you! I thought you were a dream. Why does this always happen? Why did the stairs lead to the sky? Why is that star twinkling at me? Who am I, why am I all alone here?”

The little girl had so few chances to speak to someone (if they were someones at all, and not simply dreams) that her questions came tumbling out all at once, for fear he would disappear before they were all asked.
“Hello little one”, said the gentleman. “I see you have found me again. I do not understand why you insist on calling me ‘magician’ – there is no such thing as magic, or those who perform it. I am simply a wanderer.”
The little girl ignored this. “Magician, why is that star twinkling at me? I have this strange feeling inside me, like I know that star. I think that star is a person. I think I met him before, and we had adventures together, and then he flew away to become a star in the sky and I fell asleep and became a dream of a little girl all alone in a castle.”

The little girl trembled a little inside. It was not often that she had such strange thoughts.

“Little one, calm yourself. Those thoughts in your head are only dreams. A star cannot be a person, and a little girl in a castle can be nothing more than a little girl in a castle. You must sleep now.”

And the little girl did indeed feel herself getting sleepy. Her eyes felt heavy, and she lay back down on the stone floor. The ‘magician’ took off one of his robes and gently lay it over her. He was worried for the little girl. She was starting to remember things she should not remember; things that would bring back her unhappiness. It was better that she not remember. But he did not know how to stop it. He knew she would remember him when she woke up, and that was not how things should be. The spell was coming undone. He quietly went down the stairs and disappeared.

While the little girl slept, she dreamed. Her dreams were full of strange things. Water all around, and a long thin boat that she paddled with someone else she could not see. Bowls and boards full of chopped up coloured foods, on their way to becoming something delicious to eat. Small flutters of brown, blue, and red, that came and stole almonds and fluttered away again. Stories of a man who flew around in box that scared her, but some warmth always there to soothe the fears. Trees with long branches and eagles that spoke.
When the little girl awoke, it was still dark. She sat up and hugged her knees, looking up at her star. “I know you,” she whispered, not caring what the magician said. “I know you used to be a person and I used to play with you. “

The little girl’s eyes filled with tears that did not fall, and blurred her vision of the stars. Her star sparkled even brighter and bigger.

“You are my shiny star,” she whispered up to it. “And I will find you again.”


Sometimes, the little girl liked to sing. She would make up songs and sing them to herself as she explored the castle. Usually, she didn't mind singing to no one. But sometimes, after an especially beautiful song, the little girl looked around at the silent stone walls, and felt a little sad.

Today, she climbed up the mysterious stairs she had discovered the other day, and to her delight they still led to the same place. It was again the evening. She lay down on the cool stones and looked up at the sky.. Her star was there, twinkling at her. She let her voice softly carry itself up to the star, a melancholy song about loneliness and the moon.

The star stopped its twinkling, and listened.

As the days went on, the little girl found herself being drawn up the mysterious staircase to the terrace on the castle roof. Usually she just sat and watched the sky. It was always night time when she went. Her star was not always there, but she was always happier inside when it was, sometimes appearing from behind a cloud.
Today, however, was different. The girl, on her way up the stairs, had found a most curious basket. She had no idea where it came from or how it got there, but that wasn't the most surprising thing about it; things were always appearing in the castle with very little explanation. The basket was full of eggs, but most surprising thing about these eggs was that they were coloured. Red, pink, yellow, spring green, deep blue, purple. The little girl had never seen such a thing before. "Oh magician, where are you?" she called out as she walked up the rest of the stairs, carefully carrying the precious apparition. "I need you to tell me why I have a basket of rainbow eggs..."

The 'magician' was indeed around, and heard the call, but he would not appear today. He did not know where the basket of eggs came from either, and he did not like admitting that. Strange things were happening in this castle that was supposed to protect the little girl. He was not a fan of strange things. The magic of the castle was coming undone and the world was seeping into the little girl's perception, something that was not supposed to happen at all. Was that not why she had been sent here? To keep her from the strangeness of the world? The gentleman watched anxiously from a hidden place as the rest of the scene unfolded.
When the little girl reached the top of the stairs, she gasped. Growing out of the stone terrace was something she had never seen before. The little girl stood very still, her eyes taking in this second strange thing of the day, lit up by the moonlight. How tall it was! How strong, how green, and how... sad, somehow. The little girl rushed over to it.

She wrapped her arms around its base, feeling the roughness. "Why are you sad?" she asked it. But the long, thin leaves only brushed her face in response. She sat down, holding her basket tightly in her lap. She felt like this giant apparition was there to comfort her somehow, but she did not remember ever feeling sad...

Her face was brushed by the leaves again. The little girl suddenly remembered. "You're a tree!" she said up to it. "A tree... a very sad tree... how did I forget what a tree was? I used to know trees... in some... other place..."

The little girl was troubled inside. She could not recall any specific memories, but she knew that she had once seen trees, played with them, sat under them, hugged them.

It was cloudy tonight, and the little girl could not see her star. She could not see the magician, who had quietly disappeared, unable to handle things he could not understand, abandoning the little girl he was supposed to protect. He was starting to feel like she needed other protection than what he could give her, but he didn't know what that was or where it would come from.

The little girl looked down at her basket of eggs. "I need... a river..." she whispered to the tree. "I don't remember why, but I need a river."

So the little girl sat and waited, under the willow tree, waiting for a river that would never come, for a star that would always remain just a star.


The little girl could not sleep that night. She tossed and turned. It felt as if she had been asleep months and months, and yet was never rested. She had lost track of days and nights. The magician had long since abandoned her.

As she tried to sleep, she could hear a sound outside, a soft, roaring sound, the likes of which she had never heard before. The sound called her.

She climbed out of bed and followed the sound. She found a narrow winding staircase. Up she climbed, around and around, up the stairs. She felt cold, and the roaring was getting louder. She finally came to the top of a turret that had never been there before, and gasped.

Completely surrounding the castle, as far as she could see, was wild water. It was the ocean, but she didn’t remember its name. She stared at all that water. It was crashing against the castle, and it was rising.
The little girl stared out at the sea, and waited.

The castle was crumbling into the sea, and the little girl would soon go with it. She no longer needed the castle, its protection. She would go elsewhere, become other. Again.

High above in the dark sky, an eagle silently glided overhead.


A third story

Once upon a time there was a princess who grew up and grew out of the story book and forgot she was a princess.  The castle was dark and forgotten.  The dragons slept, the lilies ceased to sway, the wind and the ocean and the trees became still and grey.  But then a small flicker of a candle lit up in the darkest corner of the castle, and the dragon opened his eyes and softly wagged his tail, hoping, faintly, that maybe the story was not done after all. Maybe the princess was coming back to play again.


The dragon, sleepy but slowly regaining wakefulness, looked out the window and there she was, playing by the sea. 

She was glowing and new, and looked like more of a normal girl than a princess. 

The girl princess shielded her eyes from the sun and looked out into the ocean. She saw another girl on an island in the distance.  She waved at her across the sea.  "Come and play!" she shouted over the crashing waves.

And play they did.

The dragon smiled.


To be continued...