This was never supposed to be an essay about Hansel and Gretel, and in a way, it is not. But in another way, it goes very deeply into that fairy tale in an attempt to understand how deeply that fairy tale went into me. I am trying to understand healing without making unjustified assertions about my own experience of healing. Along the way, much like the migration instincts of Monarch butterflies, this essay orients towards a new story that suggests another way of thinking about parenting and growing up. Healing.
Parenting is a kind of correction, a sort of cosmic do-over. You aren't your parents but in nontrivial ways your healing directly implicates your parents. The decision to have or not have children, and then how to raise them, is a form of repetition which allows for endless healing possibilities that flow not just to you and your kids but also to your parents (and their parents et super).
But wait, you say. My grandparents are dead. And I didn't even know my great grandparents, let alone my great-great grandparents. And no matter how I raise my kids, my mother still repeats patterns of neglect and hostility and whatnot.
That observation - true as it may seem - misses the point by locating healing solely in physical organisms. Healing also occurs at levels which are abstract and not confined to a particular body or bodies.
You carry your ancestors (parents on back) with you. What drove them, drives you. You live in cultural and geographical environments that would be foreign to them, to one degree or another, but still.
The spark of all life is in you. You carry it as it carries you. And the spark is unaffected by culture and landscape, even though culture and landscape are the inevitable canvas on which it is expressed.
Think of Monarch butterflies. The generation that migrates south will not necessarily arrive in Mexico because the time it takes to complete the journey exceeds their lifespan. Yet somehow, their descendants know precisely where to go. And where to return as well.
I do not suggest this is a mystical process, even if we have not yet fully figured it out (Sun compass? Gravity-sensitive molecules?). I merely point out that knowledge is not limited to a body, even when the knowledge is very specifically helpful to that body. Living is always evoked in broadly relational ways that often exceed a particular organism's capacity for total understanding. Don't kid yourself; in a lot of ways, you're just like those butterflies.
Family errors in extending love, and cultural errors in extending love, are not limited to bodies. So when we heal those errors, even a little, the healing is not limited to bodies either.
And here I will talk about Hansel and Gretel.
Hansel and Gretel is a story that endures because what it says remains viable. The ones who first told it did not envision our world or situation. They were not trying to create art that would last for centuries. They were trying to entertain their audience sufficiently enough to pass on certain critical information about living.
My father took my sister and me to see Hansel and Gretel in a theater in the early 1970s. I believe this was the 1954 Michael Myerberg version. All I remember now was utter fascination with the possibility of being lost in a forest. I spent a lot of time in forests in those days; "lost" was inconceivable. How did that happen?
When we drove home, I closed my eyes and leaned against the dashboard, burying my head in my arms, maximizing darkness. Could I tell when we made a right or left turn? Could I discern when we left the paved road for dirt? How does one become lost?
My father thought I was crying because the movie was over. He patted my shoulder and said we'd see another one some day.
[Perhaps one way to become lost is to be parented by men (like Hansel and Gretel's father, and my own father in that moment), men who cannot see the actual problem and so try to solve a problem that isn't actually there. Your Dad mistakes your deep spiritual inquiry for cheap grief and twenty years later you're drunk in Galway Ireland playing Hank Williams songs for free beer and hoping somebody wants to take you home because it's raining and you have nowhere else to go.]
The other part of that movie was the possibility of being eaten by a witch. It was deeply sexual for me, even though I completely lacked any language or imagery to know this at the time. I felt being eaten by a witch. I wanted it. The Tooth Mother showed herself - declared her intentions - and I wanted to be possessed by her.
I went all in, right away. I fell in love with "lost" because it seemed to invite the Tooth Mother into your life where she would consume you, black widow style. I had watched snakes slowly swallow toads, robins drag worms out of the lawn. I understood this was a painful way to die. And I understood - because all animals resisted dying - that death reflected at least the possibility of oblivion.
[Was it perhaps also possible that the Tooth Mother - even then - was patiently instructing me (beyond the grasp of intellect) that living was only possible through death, and that autonomy, as such, was a lie told by bodies to other bodies?]
For I did not question her. I did not fear her.
Around that time I began to notice that things could vanish from my mind as if they had never existed. I would go for hours not thinking about the cows and then have to rush out to the barn to make sure they were still there. I wondered what happened to things that I forgot and then didn't subsequently remember. Could you forget a dog? A parent? Could you forget yourself?
I experimented with memory's grasp. How long could I hold a certain dandelion in mind? There was a white stone by our driveway - I made a pledge to remember it forever. So far I have. But what I have forgotten from those years is . . . not coming back. And that "one" dandelion is now an idealized dandelion (it is all dandelions), and so it, too, is gone and not coming back.
The Tooth Mother is a destroyer but it is an error to think that her power is always given to evil. For example, Gretel is a Tooth Mother. She uses the witch's problem-solving tool - murder - to save her brother. The Tooth Mother was going to kill in a way that ended Hansel forever, but Gretel learns that killing can also save life.
You can burn a forest to the ground and within a few years, the forest is visibly growing back. Life rushes into death, colonizing it. We don't have to be scared. We are children of a living God who does not go by the name of God (nor bear much resemblance to the God of our mother and father).
The witch reminds us that death and life are conjoined and that we have to be intentional with respect to their conjoinment. When you sleep with the Tooth Mother, your dreams are full of blood and you wake up with a vague feeling of discontent. It's not that she wants to eat you. It's that she is hungry and you can be eaten.
You are apt to get confused here, as Hansel and Gretel's father got confused, and as Hansel got confused too. You think you have to go to war with the Tooth Mother and defeat her. Or you think the Tooth Mother wants you to worship her with terrific sacrifices, the bloodier the better.
But the Tooth Mother just wants you to be alert and make deliberate choices that bring forth life. She will eat some of her children and let others live, and this is not evil but fructive. It is true of everything that eats. Hunger is not special and eating is not a privilege. On both sides of the plate - eating and being eaten - we commune with the living God.
If you are stuck in a cage, look for Gretel to save you. She may assume some form outside of you, like a lover or a therapist, but she may be inside you, too. She isn't always a girl. Witches, like God, go by whatever name gets the job done. They don't distinguish between worthy or unworthy. Perceiving the utter equality of all life, and acting accordingly, they are truly in love.
This is not an essay about Hansel and Gretel so much as a story of my first meeting with the Tooth Mother, and what I learned (and some of what happened along the way). Perhaps it can be summarized by telling (adapting, really) another story I have always liked.
Once upon a time a little boy and his grandmother walked into a field. It was late afternoon (but not too late) and there were butterflies everywhere. Mesmerized, the little boy leaned into his grandmother's strong arms and fell asleep.
While sleeping, he dreamed he was a butterfly in a field, fluttering near an old woman who cradled a sleeping boy.
When he woke up, he told his grandmother about his dream. "Grandma," he said. "I dreamed I was a butterfly."
"No my child," his grandmother replied. "You are not a little boy who dreamed he was a butterfly. You are a butterfly dreaming he is a little boy."