Thursday, January 13, 2011

Fairy Godmothers

Originally published in the Montreal Gazette on January 3, 2011.

One of my fantasies has come true. No, it didn't involve leather or Javier Bardem, or revenge against the ex-boyfriend who dumped me for his first cousin. My fantasy was to have a fairy godmother.

Yes, like Cinderella. But not because I want glass footwear or a powder blue ball gown with puffed sleeves, though I wouldn't say no to either. Actually, I think everyone's entitled to a fairy godparent. It should be our birthright, and that's not as far-fetched as it sounds. Your Fairy G doesn't have to actually believe in God, or religion, or even be alive. They just have to provide guidance, encouragement and unconditional acceptance, without charging you $120 an hour.

Let me explain.

There's a voice inside my head. This voice spends most of my waking hours, and some sleeping ones, emitting a loop of impossible and usually contradictory demands. Wake up/You didn't get enough sleep. Don't eat carbs/You didn't eat enough carbs and now look, it's 11:00 and you're hungry. You didn't work enough/You don't get enough down time. You haven't become who you're supposed to be/solved the world's hunger crisis/fixed the BP oil spill. You, Natalie Karneef, have failed.

The voice happens to sound exactly like my Hungarian mother, but that's another story.
In fact, J.K. Rowling once said that once you're old enough to drive a car, you're old enough to stop blaming your parents, and I agree. I know I'm the one who keeps my Head Mother (also known as the Hungarian Horntail, in homage to one of J.K.'s more aptly named magical creatures) alive and well. I listen to her. I feed her goulash. I believe her when she tells me that I've managed to live my life 100 per cent incorrectly, from my socks to the state of my bank account. I continue to strive for her unattainable balance between too much and too little -a line so thin you'd have to be superhuman to even see it, at which point she'd accuse you of needing glasses. Or, at least, I used to strive for it.

In the last little while, for reasons I can't quite understand, I've tried to stop. I've begun to acknowledge that the Horntail's voice is not some omnipotent, irrefutable Truth. Baby Horntails have since popped up to remind me how badly I'm doing at it, but I do my best. Yes, I'm even hard on myself about not being hard on myself. Perhaps now you see why I needed that Fairy Godmother.

I met Barb at a yoga workshop she taught almost 10 years ago, and was both drawn to and slightly thrown by her. My mother also took the workshop - yoga, incidentally, is one of the Horntail's secret weapons to make sure I'm aware of how inflexible, unhealthy and spiritually un-evolved I am -and she and Barb got into a conversation about their children. I don't remember what was said, exactly, until Barb beamed at me and exclaimed, "Aren't our kids AMAZING?"

It felt like the sky had opened, and a ray of sun was shining directly down on my head. Amazing? Me? I'd never heard anyone talk about their children in such a way. Now, a decade later, I understand that somewhere deep in her heart, my mother might - possibly - think I'm amazing, and that her upbringing and genetic makeup doesn't permit her to say so out loud. But at that moment, I wanted to know this Barb. I wanted to take her home, or, better yet, move into her basement. Instead, I wrote her an email.

We corresponded over the next few years. Nothing heavy, usually: just questions about yoga from me and little notes of encouragement from her. I didn't tell her I'd taped a photo of the two of us to my mirror, or that, when things got tough, I imagined her reminding me to breath, like she did in the workshops. Until I got engaged.

I had figured that preparing to get married would be like living in a giant snow globe, with cupcakes, rose petals and lacy things fluttering around at all times. That I'd float through dress stores while Tony and I gazed together down the yellow brick road of bliss and happiness. Instead, we were fighting like wild dogs. And I could hear the Hungarian Horntail saying it, again and again: "You can't even be engaged properly. This is all your fault."

I didn't actually talk about this with anyone, of course. God forbid I admit that I was anything but over the moon about spending the rest of my life with another human being. No one would want to know, I decided, and by speaking my fears out loud, I figured I was was professing to some kind of failure. I was supposed to be happy. We weren't supposed to be
at each other's throats like guests on the Jerry Springer Show. I was convinced the rest of my married friends were barely able to keep their hands off each other except to hang framed photos of their weddings. I couldn't shame myself by admitting how terrified and confused I was. So, I wrote Barb.

I hoped that, with 40-odd years of marriage behind her, she might understand how far Tony and I were from premarital bliss. So I poured my heart out, and then threw in, very casually, right at the end, that I hoped she didn't mind that I sort of thought of her as my Fairy Godmother.

I didn't hear from her for a week. Then two weeks. And just when I'd convinced myself that Barb was trying to come up with a kind way of breaking it to me that perhaps I might look into paying someone $120 to listen to me whine, or worse, that I should just throw in the towel and stop trying to fool myself that I could be in anything resembling a relationship, she finally wrote, apologizing profusely for her computer being down. Then she said the most incredible thing: that it was good -healthy, even -to be questioning getting married. She told me about her own relationship, and all the doubts she'd had over the last 40-plus years. Also, she asked, where were these questions coming from? Could they possibly stem from some archaic belief system I'd strung together from Hollywood and Martha Stewart Weddings? Were they "voices," whose only purpose was to make me feel bad about not measuring up?

Yes, I thought. I know a little something about voices.

Barb said that the most important thing was to trust what I knew deep down, but that it was always wise to seek advice from those with more life experience.

"Please write me anytime and ask me anything you want," she said. Then she signed off "Your Fairy Godmother."

That email was three years ago, but I still go back to it when things get sticky. Especially because, in 2009, Barb began a too-long and too-short battle with Lou Gehrig's disease. I tried to support her as much as I could, but the truth was, Barb faced illness and death with more grace and wisdom than I've ever had facing life. She passed away this August.

As I'm sure you've guessed by now, Barb is still my Fairy Godmother. Even more so, actually, as she no longer has to obey the laws of physics. She can show up whenever she feels like it, and even by broomstick. In a small book you might have heard of called Eat Pray Love, Elizabeth Gilbert prays to God from her bathroom floor. God tells her, simply, to go to bed, and that's not far from Barb's brand of advice. When life seems ridden with potholes and failure and fear, she tells me to go for a walk. When I'm in full, throat-closing-up panic, she reminds me that I am not clairvoyant and that tearing my hair out about what I'm afraid will happen next week or next year is the biggest waste of energy there is. When the Hungarian Horntail is snarling and vengeful and punishing, Barb is gentle and loving and kind. Go ahead and call the men in white coats, but I feel saner now than I ever have before.

So give it a shot. Really. It can be Oprah or your next-door neighbour or a long-dead relative or Jesus. Just hand them a wand and ask them to do the honours. They will say yes. That's why you chose them. And you'll be amazed at what they'll do next.

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