On the first day of summer, my daughter created a makeshift microphone in the backyard with a curved branch stuck into the wet soil. Behind, her younger brother beat on an upturned ice cream bucket with two sticks. They were practicing fairy music, they said, to welcome the fairies on summer solstice.
Three days earlier, we’d made fairy oyle, partly from a recipe in my daughter’s fairy book, and partly, as many good recipes go, a bit of this and a bit of that: A pinch of thyme, a few chamomile flowers, some red clover leaves, and plantain (thrown in for the strength of its elastic leaf structure). The oyle, when put upon the eyelids on the first day of summer, was supposed to make the wearer able to see through a fairy’s glamour.
Here we sat on that first evening of the new season while I played an old Irish tune on my guitar, a song about a child walking through the woods, hoping to avoid the banshee, the fairy band, or various other creatures. I applied the fairy oyle to the children’s eyelids and sent them off into the woods to search for fairies. I stared into the clarifying light of sunset, hoping to also catch a glimpse of fantastical creatures.
The longing for the fantastical, for the unreal has itched within me from an early age. Like many readers and art-lovers, Tolkien’s elves, Shakespeare’s Titania, and Pre-Raphaelite paintings of literary heroines tap into my yearnings to cross over into other worlds.
I once cried in an art gallery while I stood in front of a painting of Daedalus’s son Icarus, a depiction of the mythical boy who flew too close to the sun. In the painting, Icarus lies dead against a rock in the sea, still strapped to his wings, one pointing to the sky, the other dragging in the water. Nymphs, white and naked, mourn for him. No doubt they think he is beautiful, even cold and dead. His only mistake is his craving to fly. The painting evoked an unnamed longing inside me, perhaps a desire for flight too.
My daughter has had much experience with fairies. When we visited her older cousins in Texas, they took a tour of the botanical gardens decorated with outdoor fairy houses. When they returned home, the cousins built their own fairy houses from broken flowerpots and branches, leaving a bowl of berries for the creatures to eat. The berries were gone the next day. Ever since, my daughter has been convinced that fairies live in Texas.
Sometimes, I wonder about the love of fairies and fantastical things that I’m fostering in my children. I’ve wondered if it was necessary for me to tell my daughter that the fairies who took her berries were really her cousins. I’ve wondered if I should separate myself from my own longing for encounters with unseen worlds.
When I started reading the Christian mystics, I felt the flaring of the old familiar ache. The mystics have these beautiful and terrible encounters with God, painful stigmata wounds alongside ecstatic visions of God’s goodness, revelations about Christ’s passion along with empathetic experiences of God’s divine love. Teresa of Avila speaks of castles in the soul—castles for goodness’ sake.
The mystics’ words make me think of wings again, of living in the trees of Middle Earth with the elves. Why, I wonder, would reading the mystics feel like reading Tolkien or searching for fairies in the dying light of summer?
I so want to encounter God in the way of the mystics. I want to know God is with me, right now in the moment, in tangible, visible ways. So I pour over their words and spiritual practices, wishing to have visions but knowing that God often comes to us in more mundane ways.
I know the things that war within me, war within my daughter too. I know that she wants to believe in fairies but her rational experience tells her that she won’t see them. Still she tries, eager to lift the veil of the hidden.
For months after her visit to Texas, as she built fairy houses on our porch and saw no evidence of them on the farm, as she stared skeptically at the card the “tooth fairy” wrote her, knowing she’d seen the card in her mother’s closet and the fairy handwriting was familiar, she concocted elaborate explanations about why there were fairies in Texas but not at our house.
At the end of the evening, on that first night of summer, I asked my daughter if the oyle had helped her find any fairies. I could tell she wanted to say “yes.” Instead she said, “kind of. We found some fairy houses. And we saw some lightening bugs. I think those were fairies in disguise.”
Maybe mystical things have many disguises; we just have to keep our eyes open. I hope, as my daughter matures, she will never stop longing for a brush with the unseen. I hope she won’t stop looking for fairies so that even when she doesn’t see them, she always hopes she will.
Image above is by Rel Ohara and licensed by Creative Commons.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Written by: Christiana N. Peterson
Christiana N. Peterson grew up in Texas and received a PhD in Creative Writing from St. Andrews University in Scotland. She has published pieces on death, fairytales and farm life at Art House America, hermeneutics, and cordella. She lives with her family in the rural Midwest where she is learning the joys and challenges of church and farm life. You can find more of Christiana’s writing on her blog at christiananpeterson.com and follow her on twitter.