It’s the official first day of spring tomorrow. My garden doesn’t read calendars. It’s already declared spring. There are fairies everywhere.
My childhood was populated with the same imaginary characters as most. Santa Claus would bring presents for Christmas, the easter bunny would deliver eggs and the tooth fairy would swap lost teeth for a coin.
I always had my doubts about Santa. The kids next door got much better presents than we did even though, to my mind, they were not any less naughty or any more nice than we were. Our easter bunny was also a bit on the slack side, sometimes delivering eggs late or not at all, but you could always rely on fairies.
My mother would encourage us to look for fairies while we were driving in the car. My older brother had no interest but my younger sister was particularly good at spotting them. She would see them in tree tops or flying through the sky. I would search until my eyes hurt. I couldn’t see them, but I trusted they were there.
Once Christmas my sister and I decided to take our decorations out to the wattle tree beside our bedroom window and to decorate it as a tribute to Santa, and to fairies. My older brother took this opportunity to inform us that there was no such thing as Santa. Outraged, I sought my mother’s adjudication. She would, I was sure, correct my brother and point out the error of his ways. Oh the betrayal! Of course it’s funny now but I can still remember my distress. Shocked and starting to cry I asked the question, “I suppose next you’ll tell me there are no fairies either?” Her face was her answer.
I think I was six or seven and I can remember sobbing in my bed for what feels, with so much time and distance, to have been days of grief. Of course it was probably half an hour of being angry and embarrassed and sad and humiliated that my brother and my parents had been playing a trick on me all this time. My father confirmed the horrible truth and that was that.
I continued to play ‘make believe’ and to enjoy fairy tales, but I knew the difference now between reality and fantasy. Nobody would ever trick me like that again. My sister just decided to keep believing in fairies. I wonder why that didn’t occur to me.
When I became a parent I was faced with a dilemma. I honestly think that imagination and creativity are becoming the most important things we can teach our children. In a world where they can look up factual information with a phone, what use is there in memorising lots of information? When super computers can calculate previously impossible equations it’s the people that design those equations that become employable. In a world where you can manufacture things using robotics it’s the designers that are at the top of the pyramid. More than this, I value creativity for it’s own sake. I garden, I paint, I make music and I imagine things.
I also value honesty and truth. I think that good parenting involves explaining things to children and not simply imposing your will on them. If we want to raise honest humans we must be honest with them. If we want them to learn not to be violent we must not be violent towards them. All this seemed self evident. How then should we handle the whole imaginary realm of childhood visitors?
I decided to include the traditional make believe characters into my daughter’s life but to adopt a way of speaking about them that let her know we were fantasising. The same sing-song voice that I used to tell her bedtime stories became the voice I used when I spoke of Santa and fairies and chocolate toting bunnies. We also busted Santa down to the status of glorified postman. In our family, parents bought presents and Santa delivered them. I wanted to be able to say “You can’t have that for Christmas because we can’t afford it.” and “Those kids got more because their parents spent more money.”
Bluebell, the resident tooth fairy, delighted my daughter with personal notes about her oral hygiene and the easter bunny left poo remnants that looked suspiciously like sultanas. We’d put out carrots for reindeer and milk for Santa and all of it was played like any other game. All of the verbal and physical queues were deliberately designed to signal that this was make believe.
In our house, fairies remained the firm favourite. We would look at the light refracting it’s colours through a dew drop in the garden and see fairies. A single crystal could fill a room with them. They were tiny rainbows, too small to see in detail, and they would ride around on dragonflies and butterflies. Light bouncing off any surface was fairies.
I knew my daughter was growing up when I woke her from a deep sleep one night to come and see fairies in the night garden. Grumpy and tired she rolled her eyes at me and said, “Oh Mum. They’re just fire flies!” before stomping back to bed.
As she grew older and started asking us directly if fairies were ‘real’. We would ask her what she thought. We had some wonderful discussions about reality and belief, about truth and fiction. For a long time, she made the decision to keep playing the game. She understood that it was a game but it was fun to keep playing it. She transitioned into accepting that stories about fairies were no more ‘real’ than the stories about talking bears or foxes that we read at bedtime. I hope this process didn’t involve any sense of betrayal on her part.
The fairies have never quite left us.
We will still sit at the breakfast table, looking out into the morning garden, and point out the glittering, coloured dew drops. “Plenty of fairies in the garden today.” They’ve become a bit of a family tradition and we like to jokingly attribute all kinds of good fortune to fairies.
I have parking fairies.
To earn and keep parking fairies you must be on the lookout, when returning to your car, for anyone needing a parking space. You must signal to them when you are about to leave. You must drive courteously in the car park and not cut people off or steal a spot from someone waiting longer than you. Do this enough and you’ll be blessed by parking fairies.
To invoke parking fairies you need only to twinkle your fingers and say “parking fairies” and then, when they provide you with a spot, you must say “Thank you parking fairies.’
A bit of fun and a bit of silliness but ask anyone that drives with me and they’ll tell you that I have remarkable success with my parking fairies, even during the height of Christmas shopping.
Given the success of the parking fairies it seemed only natural that we’d invoke their support for all kinds of things. We have rain fairies, gardening fairies, luck fairies (although they do not hold with gambling in any form so don’t even bother asking about the lotto) and even real estate fairies.
When I was diagnosed with cancer it seemed only natural to invoke cancer fairies. I have had great fun imagining my friends, with their many fine qualities, transformed into tiny cancer warriors with wings. My favourite is a friend that owns a business blasting concrete onto difficult surfaces to retain them. I imagine him encasing my cancer cells in concrete as he flits about on tiny wings. One of my friends is a beautiful singer and I imagine her healing my cells with her glorious voice. My gardening friends are weeding fairies, pulling those cancer cells out of my body and making way for healthy, new cells.
I also imagine my cancer fairies as those tiny, multi-coloured dots of light, flooding into my body and filling me with a kind of healing radiance that floats the cancer out of my body. Some days they are savage warrior fairies and some days they work tirelessly to restore my healthy cells with love and tenderness.
This is the power of the imagination. You can use it to visualise anything at all. I am choosing to use mine in a creative and familiar way to help my body fight cancer. I keep wanting to write that I don’t literally believe in fairies but that’s far too simplistic. Fairies exist for me as a kind of analogy. They represent my ability to create a positive, healing environment for myself. They make me smile. They are my symbol for whatever it is that makes something alive instead of dead. Energy. Light. Life force.
Many people use creative visualisation to fight disease you might want to give it a try. You don’t need to use fairies. You might prefer Star Wars characters, or something like a computer game. Some people use dragons, or angels. You might like to stick with something ‘real’ and imagine T cells and red and white blood cells attacking your cancer. What matters is that it’s something you can relate to and that helps you to feel stronger.
This is not like believing in a supernatural power that is going to save my life. I recognise that the fairies are a product of my imagination. I do not think that a supreme being, if one existed, would be more concerned with my cancer than all of the other human suffering. I wouldn’t want to worship a god that would intervene in the life of a single individual but ignore crushing poverty, or hideous child abuse, or violent rape in other parts of the world. That just doesn’t make sense to me. If you’ve laughed at Tim Minchin’s song about god fixing the cataracts on Sam’s mum’s eyes then you’ll understand how I feel.
But I think I have a better understanding of religion as a consequence of my cancer. I know from my conversations with some of my church/temple/mosque going friends that there are plenty of atheists and agnostics sitting in places of worship every week. Contrary to the picture painted by some atheist groups, those practicing religion are not mindless sheep, duped into believing a lie. Many of them view the text of their faith as more fable than fact, more fairy story than doctrine. They believe because it makes their lives happier, easier and more pleasant. They believe in spite of evidence to the contrary, and because it makes them part of a supportive, loving community.
Some of these places breed hatred and prejudice and I have no time for them, but many are more moderate places, attempting to bring ancient faiths in line with current, broader ethical standards. I have too many concerns with them, particularly with regard to the things that are taught to children, the status of women and the justification of discrimination to ever join a religion. I can still appreciate the important lesson that they teach many people about belief.
I also struggle with the ‘Santa’ nature of many religions. Be nice and get this. Be naughty and get that. I don’t believe we need a promise of an afterlife to act with kindness and compassion.
When the Dalai Lama toured Australia this year his theme was ‘Beyond Religion’. He spoke of a need to walk away from traditional divisions between faiths, to focus on the critical needs of humanity and the planet. He called on us all to work together in a spirit of love and compassion to heal the earth and ourselves. Some atheist academics talk of a new age of enlightenment, where we throw out the old gods and develop a deeper understanding of true spirituality; one that is grounded in a love and respect for the natural world and fellow human beings rather than an awe of a supernatural god.
These are things worth living to see. What a wonderful world that would be.
If you’ve ever seen the Dalai Lama speak you’ll know that he always opens by saying that he’s just an ordinary person speaking from his heart. He doesn’t hold himself above other living beings. It’s ironic that so many of his ‘followers’ miss this important message. Faith is a personal journey. We need to figure things out for ourselves and not rely upon other people.
Certainly faith and belief have an important role to play in our lives. There is more to life than science. A scientific explanation of light refracting through water doesn’t even begin to describe the experience of seeing a rainbow stretched across a misty sky. That’s where my spirituality resides. In nature. In my sense of connection to all other living things and my sense of awe at the beauty of the natural world. In my wonder at what it is that makes something ‘alive’.
Or to keep it simple, fairies.