“If there were a choice– and he suspected there was– a choice between, on the one hand, the heights and the depths and, on the other hand, some sort of safe, cautious middle way, he, for one, here and now chose the heights and the depths.”
–Sheldon Vanauken, A Severe Mercy
When I was five, I wanted a killer whale. Most kids go through a beg-your-parents-for-a-pet stage, but mine wasn’t for a dog or even the more ambitious choice of a pony. I wanted a killer whale and wouldn’t be persuaded otherwise.
This was long before Free Willy. I had watched an educational program about the whales, which explained how they weren’t killers of humans, but rather predators of large marine creatures. The program showed affectionate interactions between marine biologists and killer whales, who seemed to enjoy having their flanks patted, and was it just me or did the whales seem to be always smiling?
I fell in love.
We had a pool in the backyard. I loved to swim. Killer whales love to swim. It would be the perfect pet! And no matter how many times my parents tried to explain that there simply wasn’t room for a killer whale in our backyard, I knew one would fit back there like a loaf of dough in a bread pan. It was the swimming part I never really took into account.
I live in the Pacific Northwest now where we call them orcas, and I know that wild animals need to live in their own habitats and that my entire proposition was based on faulty reasoning. But, oh, how my little heart was broken when I couldn’t have my very own whale friend.
As a child, I also firmly believed in magic, especially the kind that would enable normal children to walk through a closet door and emerge in another world. (Wonder where I got that idea.) I vividly remember reading a book in the tree in our front yard when a wind came up and stirred the leaves all around me. I knew how to take cues. I hopped down into the grass, let the wind gather around my small body, and called out for Aslan to take me to Narnia. I’m not ashamed to admit that I didn’t stop trying to open mysterious doors just in case Narnia might be real until I was well into college.
I’m a believer. A hoper. A romantic. I always have been.
My magical thinking has propelled me into ridiculous goodness. I’ve feasted at tables rich with the delight of good food and great hearts, looked out over the Mediterranean from the cobblestones of a hilltop village, gone boating in the phosphorescent waters of fjord country, married the man of my dreams in a candlelit stone church, and spent silent days in a one-room cabin in the woods while I wrote my first novel. Life is indeed beautiful.
It’s not always easy, though, to live with a heart so open and expectant in a world like this. To hope daringly is to court disappointment. I’ve known it often, in small things and in long-held dreams. I’ve lost people I’ve loved. Relationships I’ve longed to see deepen and mature were instead stillborn. Health issues have at times forced me to abandon projects and plans. I have felt crushingly alone, without resources, filled with ideas that will never be brought to fruition.
After unavoidable harsh realities, I’m trying to understand how much magic I can expect from this life. I believe miracles are possible, but I doubt the potency of my own prayers. I don’t look for Narnia anymore. The limitations of finances, time, and energy seem weightier than ever before. I feel a bit like Wendy, who after all became too big to go with Peter Pan to Neverland. There may be no sadder words in literature than these: “Wendy was grown up.”
Sometimes I’m tempted to lose heart. When my daughter Avonlea was about four-years-old, after watching a Tinkerbell movie she turned to my husband and asked him. “Are fairies real?” Matt had not yet learned the diplomatic answer “I haven’t seen them myself,” and simply said, “I’m sorry, no.” Avonlea stared at him, furrowed her brow, and after a moment stepped forward and slapped him. While physical violence is a big no-no in our family and was later addressed, I understood where the girl was coming from. It’s no small thing to have lovely illusions shattered.
I’m learning to discover magic in the grown-up world, though it’s of a different sort. Making a person, two people in fact, with my own body was an otherworldly miracle. Falling in love, sharing my life with another person has been a magic of wonder against reason. Somehow we are two, but also one, like a vine grafted onto old roots. And my garden is a constant marvel. How the tiny seed holds all the information and power to make a massive plant. How food and nourishment abound from almost nothing. If a seed did its work in minutes instead of weeks and months, we would all become believers in the supernatural. This world is full of miracles in slow-motion.
Most of all, I think I write fantasy stories for children because it’s my way to still believe in the magic. I take all the things I still think are possible, somehow, somewhere, and give them a place to live and breathe and work themselves out.
And in doing this, I give myself a place to live in that belief.
It reminds me of an interaction on twitter recently with JK Rowling and her fans. She said, “All these people saying they never got their Hogwarts letter: you got the letter. You went to Hogwarts. We were all there together.”
For the artist and the dreamer, they are the living miracle of the seed. As my dear friend and fellow kindred Bridget said, “YOU have all the information for magic inside.” That is, if you let yourself believe.
To live in hope is to also live at times with disappointment. But I’ll take the heights and depths. No cautious middle way for me.
J.M. Roddy is a domestic creative, food enthusiast, and children’s author.