Last night, I finished Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi. It’s a thought-provoking novel that uses an inverted tale of Snow White to tell of three women affected by America’s warped perception of race and beauty during the 1950’s. Honest yet fantastical, funny but probing, sparkling while simultaneously really freaking dark, the novel has profound things to say about race and self-esteem to be sure. But where it soared, for me anyway, was when it got to the truth of family relationships.
Without giving anything away, the book plays a little game with the reader and makes you wonder who the “villain” of this bizarre fairytale actually is. Oyeyemi does a terrific job of presenting multi-dimensional characters all of whom are deeply flawed. Things get cray-cray in the end and a burst of compassion even rushed over me for the one character who seemed like the most clearcut villan of the book. It’s some good writing to be sure. But it’s also real life.
Once upon a time my own story had an entitled little princess at the center of it. Despite her own awful actions, the princess was convinced that the world was out to get her. And there were, consequently, some actual villains who had done awful things to our little princess. So to deal with the sordid and terrible hand life had dealt her, the princess snorted some enchanted powder of the magic mirror, guzzled down an evil potion (or forty) and lived under the spell that everyone else was the problem, not her. For a really long time. Like 20 years. Luckily, her spell, I mean my spell was broken 5 years-ago and now the only Evil Queen in my story is usually just me.
Thank god too. Living in a good guy/bad guy world, especially when it comes to my past is incredibly dangerous. Yesterday, the grandfather of magical realism and surely an influence on Oyeyemi, Gabriel Garcia Marquez passed away at the age of 87. Marquez once profoundly said, ““What matters in life is not what happens to you but what you remember and how you remember it.” This punched me in the gut. Marquez is basically saying the victimization of our past is up to us and we have the power to tell our bad memories to, well I’ll let him explain it.
In recovery, I’ve gone through a process of inventory to find my part in relationships where I have resentments. I’ve done this process twice in my own sobriety and walked others through it on several occasions too. They wrote a great book about all of this stuff which certainly describes it better than I can but what I’ve learned is that even in the worst, darkest situations I’ve usually done something fucked up too. This process has freed my story from bad guys hell bent on destroying me.
The incredible thing is when I own my shit, everybody is let off the hook. This doesn’t mean I have to like everyone or hang out with them. And this is not easy. Forgiveness is punk rock. Compassion is a ninja skill. If these things were easy to hand out like starlight mints, I think we’d all do it all the time. “Sure have some compassion and while you’re at it take some forgiveness!” But they’re not. this shit is hard and takes a really long time. But for me, freeing my story of witches, evil queens and bad guys has been really worth it. Teachers who gave me shit for being a sissy, kids who beat me up, bosses who failed to see my brilliance– somehow I’ve let them all go and they don’t fuck with me anymore. That’s what I call magic.