By L&T Columnist Rachel Coleman
It was one of the best books ever, partly because it contained everything exciting an illustrated fairy tale required. There was the prince and his quest, the spunky princess, the magical helper, the seemingly-scary bear (actually the prince in disguise). And a three-headed dragon.
But while my children relished the action — and the detailed, ink-and-watercolor art by master illustrator Trina Schart Hyman — my favorite part of “Bearskin” came in the form of these reassuring words: “All the cakes in the oven are not burned yet.”
I’ve had that advice in mind for the last several years. The idea is deeply reassuring for this mother of teens and young adults. It’s also a comfort for me personally. At 45 years, I still find myself uncertain at times. I wonder if it’s too late for some things, too early for others, the wrong time or place for something off the beaten path.
I chalk it up to television — or at least what television represents. The idea that we can have what we want, and that we can have it immediately, and that these notions are realistic, is a modern one. In the past, people struggled with desire. Fairy tales are stuffed with it. Rapunzel’s mother wanted fresh garden greens from the neighbor’s yard. Snow White’s stepmother wanted to be beautiful forever. Various people wanted wealth in the form of golden goose eggs, harps and coins.
Back in the day, folks understood that getting these treasures would require magical intervention of some sort. A spell, a special garment, maybe the answer to some convoluted riddle.
Now, we seem to have the idea that craving is in itself the way to go. No desire should be out of reach: If you want it, it will come. And not eventually. Right now. Isn’t that why credit cards were invented?
Over the years, I’ve given this mental trick various names: American Idol syndrome, sometimes expressed as Talented Kids Disorder, Pretty Clothing Confusion, Early Diploma Disorder. Parents, with our deep store of affection for the offspring, seem to be particularly vulnerable to these ailments. We love our kids. We believe in them. We see their potential. And we expect to witness it blossoming in the most visible way possible, right before our eyes.
Maybe the girl will win a prize! A scholarship! A chance to dazzle on national television! Maybe the boy will be recruited at age 14, his promise recognizable even though he isn’t done growing!
The problem is, excellence takes time. People take time. Life doesn’t allow us to skip over entire sections of growth and development. Just look at Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus, who’ve hijacked the news cycle with incidents of astonishing immaturity. Beneath the layers of money and notoriety, aren’t they still just a couple of kids,?
Nobody’s story is quite like the next person’s. I don’t see life stories as linear, exactly, but as overlapping circles, each a distinct chapter in the story, all of them connected to the whole. I don’t fill in the same circles at the same time the person next door does, and neither do you.
A teenage runaway who started a family at age 16, I started college two years early, toting a baby to class in an early version of those hipster baby wraps. My peers were absorbed by the challenges of buying booze illegally, since the drinking age had just been raised from 18 to 21. I was fixated on the impossibility of a night of undisturbed sleep. In some ways, you might say I was “older” than my classmates. In other areas, I missed out on a basic late-adolescent, early young-adult stage of development.
Of course, I made up for that later. I took a motorcycle trip across Europe, having left behind me an apartment half-filled with furniture and belongings that my roommate had to sort and remove in order to retrieve the security deposit. Disappoint my friend? Forfeit my half of the money? I shrugged it off, the wind of South France rushing past my unhelmeted head. Responsible, non?
Those memories serve as a helpful reminder when I encounter parental panic. My three children, who are fabulous just like yours, don’t always comply with my television-fueled notions of early achievement. Wouldn’t it be great if they won every contest they entered? Earned acceptance to the most prestigious programs? Dazzled spectators in their extracurricular pursuits?
I didn’t. When I recently reviewed college transcripts, I was astonished to find I earned Ds in English-discipline classes like journalism, creative writing and 19th-Century British Literature. Meanwhile, my science grades shone. Evidently, I took it to heart that biology, anatomy and physiology required some study. The point is, the way things are now bears little resemblance to how they looked when I was 17.
Getting everything right the first time around might gratify the anxious parent, but it doesn’t make much of a story. Where would the story of Bearskin go, if the prince walked straight to castle doors, handed in his resume, asked for the princess’ hand in marriage, and got an easy “yes”? The thing that makes the fairy tale interesting is the problems the protagonist encounters. He gets discarded as a baby. He grows up in the woods with a kind bear and an uneducated woodcutter his companions. As a teenager, he is mocked for his simple ways and poor clothing. He does not make it into the castle on the first try. Just when things seem to be improving, an inconvenient dragon appears. Rivals trick him. All seems to be lost.
Throughout the chain of events, the wise bear observes “all the cakes in the oven are not burned yet.” It’s not the end of the story.
This is true for my remarkable children, and for yours. It’s also true for us, the adults who continue to trace our way through the circular vagaries of life. The process can be messy, disheartening at times, unpredictable, exhausting.
So what. The story’s so interesting.