I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of a changeling.
You know what that is, I’m sure. Although come to think of it, when I ask my students what a changeling is, most of them don’t know. They ask, is it something that changes? And I say, no, the “change” in changeling comes from the same root that gave us “exchange.” A changeling is really an exchangeling.
My friend the Oxford English Dictionary says that the word “change” goes back to the late Latin “cambium,” meaning “exchange.” Among its meanings, it specifies that change is the “substitution of one thing for another; succession of one thing in place of another.” It’s also a round in dancing, “passing from life; death,” and “a place where merchants meet for the transaction of business, an exchange.”
So what is a changeling? “A person or thing (surreptitiously) put in exchange for another,” or more specifically, “A child secretly substituted for another in infancy; esp. a child (usually stupid or ugly) supposed to have been left by fairies in exchange for one stolen.”
A changeling is a child who actually belongs elsewhere, left here in our world. That’s what I felt like, as a child. I wondered what I was doing here, when I obviously belonged somewhere else. I didn’t know where, but somewhere. I could not understand why the other children at my elementary school read books that were not about magic. I mean, how boring, right? I could not understand how the other teenagers in my high school could be so interested in popular culture — the latest movies, the latest music. Although by then I had learned to disguise my own lack of interest. I looked like everyone else, I spoke like everyone else. But I didn’t feel the way I imagined they felt. I was in love with Robin Hood, not Scott Baio. (I bet a lot of people reading this post won’t even remember that ’80s teen heartthrob. But most of you know who Robin Hood is.)
What I’m trying to describe is that sense I had, when I was young (and, confession, still have) of being permanently outside things. Not just that: of belonging someplace else. Part of it, of course, was being an immigrant. I did in fact belong someplace else, another culture. I had lived in that culture long enough to learn its language, to be Hungarian. And then I was taken away, and I had to become something, someone, else. I had to become American. At that time, the land I had come from was hidden behind an Iron Curtain, so it might as well have been fairyland. That’s part of it, I’m sure.
But I’ve met lots of people who feel this way, who are convinced they somehow belong elsewhere, and are still nostalgic for their home country. C.S. Lewis described this feeling, although it converted him to Christianity. I honestly don’t think it has anything to do with religion in particular. What is it then? I think perhaps it’s really the condition of being an artist. Or perhaps of being the sort of person who has an artistic approach to life. You know there is a fairyland, a magical country. You feel it when you create, and see it when you observe. You catch glimpses of it just beyond the reality other people insist is the only one. (I have also met people who don’t feel this way, and who did not at all understand what I was talking about. Sometimes I envy their comfort, how easily they move in this world. It seems to me that being a changeling is a state of continual discomfort.)
What I’m trying to say, I think, is that there are people out there (perhaps you’re one of them) who identify with the story of the changeling, the fairy child left to live in this world. The child who is convinced it belongs elsewhere, but does the best it can here, because that’s what it has, right now. The child who often feels (going back to the definition) stupid or ugly, because it doesn’t quite fit. It thinks, well, perhaps what I have would count as wit and beauty elsewhere? Under a different system of values?
The compensation, for me, of feeling as though I’m a changeling, a sort of perpetual outsider, is art. It feels as though what I do, the stories I tell, the poems I write, all come from someplace else, the place (wherever it is) that is my home. It feels as though I have access to a fairyland, a place where words come from and magic is made. And I see it, too, in little bits and pieces. Fairyland is there: in pools of water, curled up in flowers, as though it were one of those other dimensions described by quantum physicists. It’s as though I can see it interspersed in this world, intersecting it, or behind it but visible as though through a film or veil. Fairyland haunts this world like a ghost. It is always there: what we need are the right eyes.
Recently, I read a book called Writing Wild by Tina Welling. She says something about writers that struck me, although I would apply it to artists in general:
“As writers, we pretend to be among the normal people, all the while living in a way that no one, not even we ourselves, believes is normal at all. What we yearn for is to be acknowledged for who we really are. It may be the reason behind writing in the first place.”
“As writers, we choose a particular way of life. It is our business to see what others may miss; we see life as an exciting wilderness of connections, and we make it our work to discover these connections, mark the path through them, and pass the information on to others. We have noticed that we are after a larger experience of life than most. It doesn’t make us better than others, but it does demand that we be more alert to life. And so it makes us different. We know that, and we like our differentness. Yet it is uncomfortable at times.”
There are things I question about this quotation: for one thing, I don’t think anyone is actually “normal,” or that there is a normal to define ourselves against. There are simply different ways of being abnormal, defined against an imaginary normal that we have somehow made up. But artists may be particularly bad at fitting that imaginary template. They may be particularly incapable of appearing normal. And I do agree with what she says after that: it is our business to see what others may miss, to acknowledge it and represent it. It is our task to understand the connections, to experience and describe life as larger than most people imagine. Not all artists do that, but the ones who do are the ones I most admire, the ones whose work most resonates with me. They are the ones who seem to be looking into another dimension, who see fairyland curled into the trumpet of a flower.
If there is a good thing about being a changeling, it’s that you can see the magic, wherever it hides. And you can write about it, draw it, paint it. Dance it, even. (Change is a dance move, remember?) You can work to re-enchant the world. The world is already enchanted: re-enchanting it means helping other people see the enchantment that is there, and that we often seem to pave over, I think because it makes us uncomfortable. Because it reminds us that what we have, here, now, is only temporary. (Remember that a change is also the passage to death, and fairyland, in old stories, is the land of the dead.) It reminds us that we are ephemeral. But I think we need to be reminded.
Being a changeling means you feel as though you came from somewhere else, and will go somewhere else. It means acknowledging that you are here temporarily. It means seeing the magic in the world, and if you can, representing it for others, so perhaps they will see it as well. And it means being uncomfortable, feeling lost, sometimes feeling alone, because you see things differently than other people seem to see them — unless you can find other changelings to hang out with. But I don’t think I would exchange the way I perceive the world for comfort. It lets me see too much, it makes the world so much more vivid for me. And it allows me to create, which in the end is what I think the fairies left me here to do . . .