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“Once upon a time in a distant land, but not that far away, lived…” So opens fairy tales fraught with cosmic clashes between good and evil, useful for today’s conflict resolution if properly studied in depth; and so opens listeners’ imaginations, hungry for worlds mirroring their own. Life has always been hard, and still is.

So how did these fairy tales as we know them come about?

In nineteenth-century Germany the spread of literacy and the improvement of indoor illumination began usurping the role of itinerant storytellers carrying tales of mystery from village to village. Such had been their practice for hundreds of years. Into this changing world came Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, both philologists, who recorded and first published their tales in 1812; their volume fire-stormed collectors from other countries, worldwide, to do likewise.

It would be interesting to track the accretions to the fairy tale “The Two Brothers,” before the Grimm’s Brothers recorded it. Twenty pages long, it contains the classic elements found in fairy tales: good/evil, golden egg-laying bird, a King, a Princess, their castle, talking animals, a fire-spitting seven-headed dragon, a witch, an enchanted forest, magic potions, contests, and trickery—Even the use of numbering to facilitate the memory of the storyteller. This fairy tale could have ended in several places, but seamlessly, it continued on and satisfied its listeners, and still does.

Unlike the integrity of the Grimm’s Brothers cherished tales, our collectors of stories—journalists—play havoc with truth, their intent to rouse fear and manipulate imaginations, rather than ennoble them. I wonder which version of the spin-doctors’ palaver, if any, will be remembered one hundred years from now.

 

This morning, two dreams stirred my psyche:

At 2:15 A.M. – A very old nun whose influence touched many lives has just died in her convent infirmary. It is midnight. Crews of professionals carrying their gear climb the stairs to her room and begin working on her remains. Others sit around her writing table and compose her obituary for the newspaper; another writes for literary journals. Bright fixtures cast a garish light upon this scene.

In the wake of this dream, pain crimped my breathing. The busyness of professionals fulfilling their respective roles angered me; their chatter screened feelings toward the deceased, a venerable old nun in my perception. The lighting seemed vulgar, obliterating shadows better served for viewing the deceased in her hospital bed. Yet, the dream’s noxious attitudes revealed deeper truth about my own passing. True, I’ve been blogging my hospice experience, now in its seventh month, seemingly open to the demise of my body—In my head, perhaps so; but in my body …?

And at 5 A.M. – I’m seated in a large classroom with other students, awaiting exams on the English poet we studied, our black folders stacked upon the professor’s desk. My folder, unlike the others, bulges with additional research on this poet’s striking images and meter. I had intended to remove my material before handing it in, but forgot. As the professor begins passing the exams, I leave my desk and retrieve my material.

The next dream suggests a time for testing. Unlike an examination for completed coursework, this one scrutinizes the mettle of our flawed humanness at life’s end. In biblical language, it’s called the last judgment. Somewhere lodged in the shadows of my psyche will be its unfolding. I dread the experience, given my sensitivity. But in the dream I’ve produced more material than was prescribed by the professor—perhaps a ploy to manipulate the outcome of the test.

To all of this, I cry “Mercy!”

 

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