I should have learned longing from my brother's early death--he was just shy of four years old--but I learned it instead through books. Perhaps I was just practical: I knew that no matter how much I missed my brother and wanted him back, promised God I would not complain about babysitting if he could just return alive, it wouldn't change things. That wasn't longing because it didn't represent possibility. Dead was dead; that much I understood from my grandparents' farm, where chickens I'd hand fed appeared on the dinner table with regularity. I experienced grief, but not longing.
When I first read C.S. Lewis's The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, however, which I followed quickly with all the chronicles of Narnia, I knew real longing. The word would not settle in my chest until decades later, but the pangs were palpable then. A thrill drilled through me: another world existed (could it be true?) where an ordinary girl with obvious shortcomings (like Lucy's lack of faith and occasional selfishness) could not only live but be heroic. That thrill signaled transformation: I who didn't welcome change (hadn't my parents divorced, my brother died, all against my will?) would welcome it if it could mean transport elsewhere, where my worth would be clear.
I must've felt unworthy. Unnoticed. I do recall feeling misunderstood, the one red thread in the blue weave of my family. I also felt odd; my love of school and books set me apart from my mother and my sisters who, though wonderfully tender and funny people, didn't understand how I could disappear into a book. They would call me for dinner, saying my name over and over again, a cadence for their steps as they approached me; I never heard until they were right next to me. Sheepish and a mite guilty, I put down the book and took my place at the table.
I dislike most science fiction and fantasy (an obvious shortcoming on my part) because it takes too much mental energy to imagine an alternate world and simultaneously keep the characters straight. In other words, I would say now after years of training in reading literature, the setting tends to overpower characterization. What I thought then about Narnia was that it was pure--a world close enough to ours to be familiar, different enough to be tempting. The children were like many friends I knew, and I loved that their nicknames reflected their best qualities: Peter the Magnificent, Susan the Gentle, Edmund the Just, Lucy the Valiant. And there was something enticing about the fact that all of the natural world had character, had personality--trees had spirits, animals could talk. It touched a truth buried in me that would grow slowly and emerge fully when I began to garden. Mr. Tumnus, the faun, was a kind-hearted old soul who tried to do the right thing even when though he gave into temptation and agreed to trap Lucy. In the end, his kind heart won out. And I understood that his weakness was just that: a weakness. I wept when he was turned to stone and wept again in relief when Aslan breathed him back to life. He was a person--I didn't think of him as a character--I would be happy to know.
The books appealed to ideals I didn't realize I had. Because of that, they represented hope. I would not have said at the time that I lacked hope, but I was only eleven when I read the first book. Fifth grade wasn't comfortable; I was not yet physically maturing, and I cringed when the boys eyed me and jeered, "Flatsie." It would be four more years before I would mature, becoming "one of them." I was to live on the fringes for a while. On the fringes, one wonders if one deserves the attention one is denied.
And I did--too often to admit comfortably--wonder whether I was "worth it." That wondering sapped my confidence. I wanted fiercely what the books represented-- a sense of purpose, a purity of thought and action, the ability to see the significance of my life. My life seemed fairly insignificant. Reading the books and imagining a purpose ignited me. Perhaps what I really wanted was a god-like view, the long view: the view we get as we age and can see segments and phases unfold and assign meaning to them. Narnia gave that to me; I would like to say that I understood it was fiction, but more than once I flung open the doors to closets, hoping for an end to my paltry life as the walls dissolved and I entered another world.
Ah, meaning. Those fairy-tale novels got under my skin and gave meaning to something I couldn't articulate. I guess literature--all good literature--does that. But the aspect of longing I reflect on now, in the middle years of my life (I turned 50 this year) is that it must remain unfulfilled. That's why it's so painful and so exciting. If it becomes realized, it ceases to be longing. Wanting, in other words, keeps us living.
I still want my own Narnia, a country where I am queen without the associated condescension and arrogance. More than that, I want to keep hoping for something to help me rise above my own weakness and pettiness. I want the eyes of the world to pay attention to my lowly life--so pedestrian, so plain--and see something noble. Is that hope a kind of faith? Maybe. And if it's false (as faith and hope may be), I will still cling to it for it scratches where I itch. It gives me the comfort of pressure, the knowledge that pain can give way to pleasure.