How many of you enjoyed the story of Cinderella as a child? It may seem like I’m addressing the female readers here, and perhaps I am. My younger brother was game for stories that featured women and girls and were written from their perspective. He still seems to be and I’m grateful for that, as I imagine are his wife, daughter and son. But I never got the impression that going see Disney’s animated Cinderella in the theater (it was the seventies, The Little Mermaid hadn’t rebooted Disney princesses yet, nor had the VCR brought movies to our living rooms) was something he preferred compared to creating makeshift bicycle jumps with his friends and risking their skins. He seemed to enjoy the story, though, at least as much as the popcorn we snuck in.
I was struck today that the pattern of Cinderella’s life has as much to teach adults as children about achieving their dreams and creating their hearts’ desires.
The beginning of the story is always more of a prologue. It talks about a well-loved only child of a loving couple of some means. The details differ depending on what version, but there are at least two constants: (1) the family was loving, the couple loved each other and they loved their child; and (2) they were financially comfortable. The very young Ella did not experience want. She had everything her young and tender heart desired: a world that was made of unconditional love and abundance. Then her mother died, giving her a few words of advice, and she and her father grieved. And a period followed when she lived only with her father, who was as attentive as she needed, which varies across the stories.
The story really begins with the explanation that her father wished to remarry, and the introduction of the stepmother and her two daughters. It is always implied that the father chose the stepmother because he believed she would bring good fortune to the family, although not directly monetarily. She typically has rank and breeding, if not always gracious manners. And Cinderella always welcomes her stepmother and stepsisters with her open and loving heart.
Then there is a period of time where the blended family of five seem to live together harmoniously. There are hints that it’s quite different from the original family of three, unconditional love not flowing as freely between all the members. Cinderella notices and continues to put her best foot forward, rooted in her innocence, ignorant that family can harbor dark, unspoken conflict. Her father falters in some way. The story is not his, so we don’t really know it. Ultimately, he absents himself from his daughter’s life, leaving his wife in charge of the family, in a way that contains at least two of the components of weakness, negligence and bad luck. Cinderella’s world is reformed in a new and very harsh image. The unconditional love and abundance into which she was born appears to be gone. In all the movies, the father dies. And the widow is left with her two daughters and stepdaughter, living in her husband’s home, which has been Cinderella’s since childhood.
Am I the only one who thinks at this point how much better off she would’ve been if her father hadn’t married and Ella had inherited the beautiful house when he died? She may not have had the income to keep it, but she would have had some tangible assets of her own, and no doubt a few precious keepsakes, left by her parents. But she is always described as completely alone in the world, in a time and place where it seems there is no system to prevent orphans from being exploited. So it seems that was never possible. Likely the same way it was never possible that Harry Potter could’ve “accio’d” his broomstick back during his escape from the Dursley’s home, broken Hedwig out of her cage so she could fly on her own and saved himself both those painful losses. Someday I’ll find a purpose for my ability to change the direction of wildly popular, epic stories. But I digress.
As it is, Cinderella must watch her stepmother and stepsisters use, be careless with and even deride the only remaining evidence of her beloved dead parents’ lives, which includes herself. It’s at this point in the story—the moment of realization—that I marvel at the cruelty of the imaginations of the Brothers Grimm. Although, if you read the original (link at the bottom), in many ways it’s even worse than our movie makers have interpreted. Don’t read it to your kids without previewing it yourself, believe me.
It seems that the purpose of all the Cinderella stories is to link goodness with beauty, bravery and the ultimate achievement of heart’s desire. And when we consider that, it always seems to me that the story has something to teach us as adults, as well. Or rather, to remind us of.
All the movies develop the stepmother’s story to a degree. We see how angry she is, and how harboring that anger affects her every minute of every day. She is tired, her face is drawn, she is short-tempered, even with her own daughters. How enraged she becomes every time she is faced with the power of unconditional love that she sees in the home around her—which she now regards as a prison and largely disappointing—but especially in the unquenchable glow of Cinderella’s goodness. The stepmother has been hurt terribly in the past. Like Cinderella, we know nothing of it. It makes it easy for us to hate her.
And the stepmother seems ignorant that she has been given both an opportunity and a choice. She can choose to avoid the pain of healing by perpetuating her suffering on one who is as innocent as she was, or she can reclaim her own goodness by embracing Cinderella as a daughter. To do this, the stepmother believes she would risk losing everything she actually has. Lose the appearance of prosperity, which would expose her to humiliation by showing the truth of her own struggles—her true poverty—to the world. We know the choice she makes. We know if Cinderella were not present, she would have been more cruel to whichever she perceived as the weaker of her own daughters.
As I was walking my dog this morning, it was a beautiful, 78 degrees (Fahrenheit… I’m in the states), sunny day, with a bit of a breeze. I sought the shady sidewalks for Lila’s comfort as well as my own. My skin is pale and light-sensitive, she’s furry of course and her feet come in direct contact with the pavement, so shade suits us both. As I very naturally made the choices that would be most comfortable for us, I looked up at the tree we were standing under. I noticed how it spread its branches and held its leaves, gently swaying in the breeze. And how much cooler it was in its shade. I was overcome with gratitude for everything that had brought me to this exact place and time where I could have this experience.
With my gratitude, my muscles relaxed. I felt lighter, more energized. And I remembered that throughout all of the Cinderella retellings she very naturally gravitates toward relationships and activities that bring her joy.
She doesn’t have much to choose from, does she? In the animated Disney version, she makes friends with the mice and birds. In the more recent live-action Disney version (starring Lily James, such beautiful costumes and passionate acting!) Cinderella also makes friends with the mice. And she sings the songs of her childhood that seem to bring her back to that place of unconditional love. All of this without giving any impression of effort. If you watch her, Cinderella releases herself into these beautiful, small reveries, and they become the most powerful of all.
Cinderella’s anger has a place too. It is in anger and frustration that she jumps on a horse and rides, bareback, into the forest, where she meets the prince for the first time. Anger isn’t our enemy. It’s a sudden realignment that comes from our higher self that asserts “this is not who I am!” It’s meant to create a speedy change into a new and preferred reality. It always feels a little out of control, but in the same way extreme sports do. If you’ve ever enjoyed skiing—downhill or water—surfing, shooting the rapids in a kayak or canoe, or even just pushing through a very difficult and effortful challenge and coming out victorious, then you understand what anger is meant to do for us. It provides the energy to get us there. It is not meant to live with us at the destination, however. And though it might’ve been too soon for many of us, Cinderella forgives her stepmother before she even leaves the house.
Parenthood and family living can feel like being lost in the forest sometimes. Or at the Sisyphusian mercy of endless chores that only need to be done again tomorrow. It can feel challenging to remember to find and identify things to truly and deeply appreciate. Finding and nurturing our own connection to the limitless, unconditional love that the universe has for us not only makes the going easier, it brings us closer to our heart’s desire. We’ll know we’re on the right path by the beauty we find along the way.
Thank you for joining me today.
Photo credit: Pixabay on Pexels.