The Fall of the Princess
It All Began with Fairy Tales
I can’t imagine a world without fairy tales. They have always been a source of warmth and light. They invoke a time when the pleasures of life were simple, when the wind howled outside, but it was warm by the fire and a great old aunt sat in the rocking chair, knitting and spinning a tale that had the whole room spellbound. I am attracted to the people who can go into other worlds; they seem to be so much more able to live in this one. Every time I have ventured into a fairy tale, I have come back with a new perspective on life.
During the winter of 1999, I spent hours reading fairy tales. I had been unwell for a few years, and I had looked to the tales as a source of wisdom and comfort. I wandered through enchanted forests, sat by magic springs, explored castles and met the figures that inhabited them. In particular, I became interested in the princess. To my surprise, she wasn’t the two-dimensional character I had imagined—locked in a tower and crying for help, or stuck by a spindle and waiting to be woken by a prince. I read story after story, and rarely found a princess who was weak, passive, and fainting.
Take Cinderella, for instance. It would seem at first glance to be the most superficial of all fairy tales. The Disney adaptation is rooted in a version of the story that was written by Charles Perrault in the late 1600s. It contains the signature fairy godmother, along with a lot of seemingly frivolous fashion and flounce. However, if you look a little deeper into the Perrault story you will find a Cinderella who is suffering from a lack of self-worth, and her spirituality is perhaps a wee bit too high-minded for her own good. When she is dressing her sisters for the ball, they ask her if she would like to go, and she says, “Oh, you jeer me, for it is not for such as I to go to such a place.” Why not, you might wonder? Does she never allow herself to have a little fun?
When she does finally succumb to the frivolity (thanks to the fairy godmother) she brings her generous spirit to the ball and makes sure that her sisters are treated to oranges and citrons. When they get home, her sisters are positively gushing about the mysterious princess who clearly stood out in the crowd by showing them “a thousand civilities.”
Like Cinderella, many “princesses” in fairy tales are just ordinary peasant or servant girls. Their princess nature is revealed in the noble way they meet misfortune and injustice. I combed through story and after story, retelling them from the vantage point of the “true princess.” The more I studied her character, the more I came to see that without her, humanity would be a cold race, driven by sex, survival, and power. She gets thrown into every possible predicament—she is ridiculed, imprisoned, abandoned, abducted, forced into hard labor, and exiled. Whether she starts out rich or poor, she is a sensitive soul who is deeply affected by cruelty and injustice. She meets her hard experiences with compassion and generosity, attracting kindred spirits everywhere.
She is the heart of the world.
I spent so much time with the princess that my own heart ached, and I had to put her stories down. Then one morning, on Valentine’s Day, I went outside and walked up the hill to church. I had started going to the Unitarian church on Sundays, just to see if I could find a spiritual community somewhere and perhaps make some new friends. My mind was on getting up the hill. It was a cold, sunny day with a few large flakes of snow flying around in the air.
All of a sudden, I saw her.
She had staggered into a clearing and had fallen under the weight of her heart. She lay on her belly on a bed of moss, her golden hair rolling down her body like a wave of sunlight. She wore a blue riding coat and an ivory skirt, and her boots were made of soft white leather. Her heart had burst through her coat, and her veins and arteries ran back into the earth like the roots of a tree. She was unconscious, but even if she had awoken, she would not have been able to move because she was inextricably attached to the earth.
I could not imagine what surgery might release her. I had never seen anything more beautiful or upsetting. The vision was no daydream, no idle fantasy. It was a realization more real and true than the hill I was climbing, the bright day, and the snow flitting around in the air. Yet how could I tell anyone what I had seen? I wouldn’t be able to explain the vision, not even to my closest friend. What would I say? “I have seen the heart of the world, and she has fallen and I don’t know how to save her!” What was I to do? Go to the newspapers and say, “You’re missing the big story—the crime of the century. I have seen the heart of the world, and she is on the ground. Listen to me!”
For more than two weeks, my own physical heart ached and contracted, and I found it difficult to breathe. It woke me up at night, throbbing. Finally, I shared my vision with an aboriginal counselor and friend who had been providing support to me by phone. I figured if anyone could understand what I had seen, she could. After I told her the story, she said that I had seen a vision of Mother Earth.
“She is often portrayed by our people as a woman lying on the ground, with her face to the sun and her heart attached to the earth,” she said. She thought it was a beautiful image and couldn’t understand why I was so affected by it.
“But her face wasn’t turned up,” I said. “She was turned facedown. She had staggered into that forest under a weight that had become unbearable. She could no longer carry her burden of grief.”
My counselor fell silent and then she said: “When the heart of the woman is on the ground, the people are finished, no matter how brave the warrior or straight the lance.”
After some time, I decided that I would not flee from the terrible vision. I would dwell there. I would come back again and again. I would draw the finest cloak over her, and I would call upon all the good fairies to watch over her. I couldn’t wake her or rescue her. But I could believe in her. I could be a presence of hope.
In the Here and Now
At the time I saw the princess, I was living in the center of Toronto with my husband, Ian. We had no children, just a little canary named Sam, who, at the ripe old age of 11, was still singing at the top of his lungs and greeting us every day with a voice so piercing and exuberant that even with the windows closed he could be heard out on the street.
We lived in a rented apartment on the second and third floors of a renovated old house, overlooking a little island of green across the street around which the cars churned. The city was very noisy, and on our street a continual river of traffic and nearby trains roared by.
By the year 2000, I had been out of work for five years due to my health. I had run a communications business that served the nonprofit sector, and I had worked hard at creating big awareness programs for small organizations. In 1993, while exercising, I experienced an earthquake in my body. Something in my spine and hips shifted. The muscles in my back and neck seized. For days I couldn’t get out of bed and when I recovered, I couldn’t walk without limping, nor lift my right leg to go up the stairs. Then the pain began. I couldn’t sit up for more than ten minutes without intolerable suffering. I couldn’t meet deadlines or get through a workday. I tried everything to fix the problem. I went to physiotherapists, doctors, orthopedic surgeons, osteopaths, chiropractors, and spiritual counselors. Finally, the disorder was named fibromyalgia—meaning chronic pain in the muscles and fascia. There is no known cause or treatment for this condition, which mostly affects women, and the diagnosis is really just a description of a set of symptoms which include extreme muscle tenderness, insomnia, anxiety, fatigue, and depression.
Meanwhile, Ian sold his company, and we bought three hundred acres of rolling green farmland east of the city. An old farmhouse on the property had fallen into ruin, and Ian decided to renovate it. He and a carpenter friend spent their weekdays out in the country. They stripped the house down to its wooden frame, redesigned the rooms, and built it back up again. It took a couple of years to finish, but now the house was completed, and Ian and I had been going back and forth every other week from the city to the country.
I was deeply grateful to have access to the country, to be enveloped night and day by stars, birdsong, fragrant grasses, and gentle winds. It was a great luxury to have space to walk in and pure air to breathe. I had spent many years struggling to create programs that would meet the needs of others, and it had all been such an enormous effort and sacrifice. But as I walked through the country fields and forests, I marveled at the easy abundance of nature. It relaxed me just to be in a meadow, amid grasses and wildflowers growing at their own pace and seeding in their own time. The earth produced life with a generosity that was beyond my grasp.
At 44, I had come to the middle of my life, and my career path, as I knew it, had disappeared. The only work I had to do in the here and now was to find a way to ease the pain, calm my nervous system, and bring my soul to some sort of peace. My business life was a disappearing shore. I could never go back there. I couldn’t see the future either. Perhaps I would live the rest of my life in pain. I was trying to find a way to be okay with that, but deep down I feared that I had seen the princess because I was the princess, and I had almost, but not quite, lost heart.
The Missing Heart
For weeks the vision of the princess stayed with me. My heart throbbed. Tears flowed unbidden. My doctor suspected that I was suffering from depression, but I resisted antidepressants. I had seen something in myself and in the world that was valid and real. I looked for the heart in everything—in every conversation, every book I read, and every television program I watched. Everywhere I looked, it seemed the heart was missing. How different would the world be if the heart of the woman were not on the ground?
I felt a call to write more about the princess, and my mind went scurrying around to outline the work. I could compare princesses from fairy tales around the world, and look at their shared and unique predicaments. But even as I put pen to paper, I could see the princess turning to stone and becoming a figure of intellectual scrutiny rather than a living presence. I wondered how to get close to her, how to bring her to life.
The fairy tales suggested that to know the true princess, one must be prepared to take on the burden of the heart. That person is no “lightweight,” as we discover in the Grimms’ story, The Goose Girl at the Well.
The story begins when a great king decides to divide his land between his three daughters. To figure out who should get what, he proposes a little game. Each of his daughters must tell him how much she loves him.
The two elder sisters think up things that they know will flatter him. One says, “I love you as much as the sweetest sugar.” The other says, “I love you as much as my prettiest dress.” The youngest daughter doesn’t want to play the game. When her father insists, she says, “The best food does not please me without salt, therefore I love you like salt.”
The king is outraged. If she likes salt so much, she can have it. He orders a huge sack of salt to be strapped to her back and banishes her without a penny to her name. Weeping, she goes into the night and trudges up the mountain, weighed down by her burden. The tears of the princess turn into pearls and roll down the path.
Eventually, the princess comes to the hut of a little old crone who tends a flock of geese. People think she’s a witch, especially the young men who bully her. She’s kind to the princess and takes her in. She gives her work. She can do the spinning and the household chores. While she is with the old goose woman, the princess disguises her face by wearing a mask, pretending to be the old woman’s aging daughter.
Every night the princess goes down to the well in the valley, peels off the wrinkled skin, and washes it in the water. She lays the mask out on the grass to dry under the light of the moon. Her sorrows flood back, and she weeps so many pearls that the grass is strewn with them.
One day a young nobleman comes walking along the mountain path. Unlike the boys who run away from the old witch, he’s amazed at the strength of the elderly woman with her burden of kindling, wild apples, and pears. He asks her, “How can such a tiny, frail, old woman like yourself carry such a load?”
The crone replies, “Oh, you have no idea of the weight of the burdens that are carried by the poor.”
Well, he may not know, but he is willing to help her carry her burden. She puts her load on his back, and hangs a basket of apples on one arm and pears on the other. He’s nearly brought to his knees by the crushing burden. He stumbles up the mountain, sweating. Stones roll under his feet, and the weight of the load seems to increase with every step. Then, to make it worse, the old woman herself jumps on his back and beats him with her whip, driving him to move faster. The poor fellow is practically crippled by the time he gets to her hut.
The old woman’s aging daughter comes out into the yard and he doesn’t pay much attention to her. Meanwhile, the old woman tells him to rest outside. She goes into the hut, and a few minutes later, she comes out with a gift. It’s an exquisite emerald box containing a single pearl.
The young man thanks the old woman and heads down the mountain. After three days, he comes to the castle of the king and the queen who have banished their daughter. He introduces himself to the royal couple, kneels before the queen, and honors her by giving her the emerald box. When she opens it, she’s shocked to see the pearl that is one of her daughter’s tears.
“Where in the world did you get this box?” she asks.
He explains that it came from an old woman living up on the mountain with her elderly daughter. The queen asks the count to lead her and her husband to the hut. At this point, they’re desperate to reconcile with their daughter, whose absence has created great sorrow and regret.
The old woman knows they’re coming, and she tells the princess to go into her room, take off the old skin, and put on the dress she wore the night she came to the hut. “Stay hidden until I call you,” she says, and the girl does as she is told.
The king, queen, and count arrive at the hut, and the old woman calls “her daughter” out of her room.
When the king sees her, he drops his head on her shoulder and weeps. “My daughter, I have given away my kingdom. What can I give you?”
The old woman says, “Your daughter needs nothing from you. I give her the tears she has wept on your account, for they are precious pearls and worth more than your whole kingdom.”
No sooner has she spoken than the walls of the little hut waver and melt, and the house transforms into a beautiful castle. The geese become handmaidens, and the old woman dissolves into thin air. Her identity is never known, but those who tell the story suspect that the witch was the godmother who gave the princess the gift of weeping pearls in the first place.
I thought about that story for weeks. A good fairy tale wants to be read over and over. It wants to walk down the street with you, burrow into your dreams, attach itself to your memories and nestle within your heart.
I kept seeing the princess stumbling up the mountain in the night, weighed down by her sack of salt. She didn’t want to lie to her father, and for that, she lost everything. Exile would be hard enough to bear. But the truly crushing burden of her sorrow was her father’s denial. He failed to recognize the love and the courage it took to be honest, when everybody else was lying. She had to live with the “old skin” of appearing wrong when, in fact, she was the one who had been wronged.
In a world where appearances count so much, it’s easy to think that our only reality is what we see on the surface. The strange predicament of fibromyalgia is that you can look perfectly normal on the outside, while inside you feel like an aged person, sore all over, sleep deprived, and tired. I couldn’t carry around heavy things or bend to reach for pots and pans. I had to sit with pillows behind my back, and it wasn’t possible to last more than a few minutes walking or standing without having to lie down. People didn’t understand. One day when Ian and I were walking home from the grocery store and he was carrying the bags as usual, a young man on a bicycle came flying by and shouted at me: “Why don’t you carry your own weight?”
Some medical professionals I had met didn’t even believe in fibromyalgia. They implied it was a figment of the imagination, an excuse for not carrying groceries, going to work, doing household chores, and getting in line with the rest of the population.
No wonder I identified so deeply with the princess. Like her, my suffering was invisible. I appeared to the world as Cinderella did to her stepsisters—at best, irrelevant and, at worst, shamefully passive and weak.
We all come to a time in our lives that is defining. Depression was defining. How did I want to carry the weight of pain and invisibility? Like it or not, it was my reality. The predicament could be said, from one point of view, to be interesting. Curious. Strange. What had life given me here?
I found strength in the idea that I was in this situation for a reason. Not a reason of my own making, resulting from wrongdoings or bad karma. I was here to know something, see something. There was a big story at work, and her story was my story. Where was it leading me?