I was thinking just yesterday about how much I love my apartment. It’s not large: a one-bedroom in an old brownstone in Boston. But it has four closets plus a storage space, and ten-foot ceilings. I’ve furnished it with pieces I collected over the years, some from thrift or antiques shops that I’ve repainted or refinished, some from unfinished furniture places that I finished myself. The art on the walls was painted by my grandmother or bought by me in galleries or at conventions. Nothing in it is just as it came to me: I’ve changed the drawer pulls on furniture, put new shades on the lamps. Everything in it is very much mine.
Still, it’s a temporary home. I know that I won’t live in it forever. I know there’s another home at some point in the future, already waiting for me. I hope it will be a house with a garden . . .
We all go through a series of temporary homes, which is probably why the temporary home appears in fairy tales as well. Remember the Fairy Tale Heroine’s Journey, which I’ve been writing about? Here are the steps:
1. The heroine receives gifts.
2. The heroine leaves or loses her home.
3. The heroine enters the dark forest.
4. The heroine finds a temporary home.
5. The heroine finds friends and helpers.
6. The heroine learns to work.
7. The heroine endures temptations and trials.
8. The heroine dies or is in disguise.
9. The heroine is revived or recognized.
10. The heroine finds her true partner.
11. The heroine enters her permanent home.
12. The heroine’s tormentors are punished.
I’ve already written about the heroine receiving gifts, entering the dark forest, and learning to work. Now I want to think a bit about that temporary home. Remember the dwarves’ cottage in “Snow White”: that’s a quintessential temporary home. So what does Snow White do there? Well, first she finds refuge. It’s a safe place to stay for a while, a place she can find another family, a place she can learn to work. But it’s not a refuge for long, because eventually the Wicked Queen does find her, and then she has to endure temptations there, in her temporary home. The temporary home is important in part because it’s not the final home, the place of rest. It’s not where happily ever after happens. It’s still part of the story.
The temporary home does not always look the same in fairy tales. In “Vasilisa the Beautiful,” the temporary home is Baba Yaga’s hut, where Vasilisa must learn to outwit the old witch. It’s a place of work and trials, but also the place where Vasilisa learns what she needs to know, becomes the person who will eventually marry the Tsar. In “Donkeyskin” the temporary home is also the place of trials: Donkeyskin or Catskin or Thousandfurs must travel to a house or castle where she works in the kitchen, performing the most menial tasks. That house or castle is her temporary home, but also the place where she meets the prince. In “East o’ the Sun and West o’ the Moon,” the heroine marries a bear and goes to his castle, which she thinks will be her permanent home — after all, she’s married and with her husband, right? But when she tries to discover who he truly is, she loses that home. He goes away to marry a troll princess, and she is left in the dark forest. The place she thought was her home disappears around her. The opposite happens in “Beauty and the Beast,” where the castle Beauty comes to, initially so forbidding — the place she’s convinced she’s going to die — ends up being her permanent home. But it can only become the permanent home once she accepts the Beast for who he is. She has to leave it first, go back to her family, almost abandon the Beast, and learn about generosity and love before the castle can become what it’s meant to be.
These are all different ways that the temporary home appears, aren’t they? You’ve reached the place you think is home, where you learn to do productive work and find a place to rest, but then your past catches up with you (“Snow White”). You learn to work in what you think is only a temporary home, but it turns into the permanent home when who you truly are is recognized and appreciated (“Donkeyskin”). You think you’ve found a permanent home, but then you mess up and lose it, and there you are in the dark forest again (“East o’ the Sun and West o’ the Moon”). You find a home, and leave it, and come back to it after having learned important lessons — only then can it become your permanent home, only then can you recognize it as yours (“Beauty and the Beast”). I think we recognize these patterns in our own lives. We go through them, usually a number of times. Fairy tales are, as I’ve pointed out, reflections of human experience.
The temporary home can also be a prison, as in “Rapunzel.” It can be the place where you’re in stasis, where you can’t grow. The place you have to run away from. In “Cinderella,” the heroine’s first home actually becomes a temporary home when she’s reduced to a servant in it. It’s no longer a home for her–she has lost it without moving out of it.
Do you recognize any of these patterns in your own life? I bet you do . . .
So what lesson can we take from this part of the Fairy Tale Heroine’s Journey? Throughout our lives, we will go through a series of temporary homes. They may be actual houses or apartments, or metaphorical homes of one kind of another. The important thing is to recognize them as temporary. To not get stuck, or fall into despair at being in a situation when it can end. To know there is a permanent home, although it may be more metaphorical than actual. I think that permanent home is found when we feel at home, when we’re at peace. The permanent home has to be found in us, before it can be found elsewhere. And yes, we can lose it, because this is life and not a fairy tale. Our happily ever afters are always for a while. But I have friends who have found houses or careers they love, where they feel at peace, fulfilled. Where they can say, truly and with conviction, “I have come home.”
As for me? I know this is temporary, but I’m still going to hang paintings, make my apartment as beautiful as possible. I’m still going to enjoy being here, even though I know it’s only part of the journey. My temporary home is where I’m learning, building a career for myself. At the end of the day, I love coming home to my furniture, my books. It may as well be a castle, as far as I’m concerned (though a small one). It may be temporary, but it’s still a home, and I’m going to inhabit it fully.
(The illustration is by William Timlin. I’m not sure what it’s for, but it reminds me of a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale called “The Shadow.” I just wrote a fairy tale of my own inspired by “The Shadow” for an anthology . . .)
If you want to read the other blog posts in this series, here they are:
The Heroine’s Journey
Heroine’s Journey: Snow White
Heroine’s Journey: Sleeping Beauty
Heroine’s Journey: Receiving Gifts
Heroine’s Journey: The Goose-Girl
The Heroine’s Journey II
Heroine’s Journey: The Dark Forest
Heroine’s Journey: Learning to Work