I used to stand on my head and walk on the ceiling.
Well, actually I used to imagine I could do that. I would pretend I was walking on the ceiling, while I was pretending I was standing on my head. Actually, I used to lay on my back with my feet in the air, and think about the ceiling. Mostly, about what a lousy floor it would make, with that silly lamp sticking up in the middle.
As Ken Medema sings, ‘The world looks different when you’re flying upside-down.’
I was about eight at the time.
Between intervals of staring at the ceiling, I would also scale battlements in desperate sorties. Which meant crawling very slowly over the floor, panting and gasping and dodging the arrows and boulders and boiling oil that rained down all around me. Or that would have been raining, if it was a real wall.
I try to get a sense of that in my writing. In fact, I’ve often wondered, with a vaguely defined dread, whether I write fantasy simply as an extension of the ceiling-staring tendency. Or, conversely, whether I stared at the ceiling because I would later go on to write fantasy.
There is a startling similarity between the two. The Victorian fantasists—notably George MacDonald and Lewis Carroll—cited the subcreated world as an inversion of this one, discovered through the medium of a mirror. Contemporary fantasy often serves the same purpose. Consider the Mirror of Galadriel in Tolkien, or the Mirror of Erised in Rowling.
In an eight-year-old way, I was trying to enter another, inverted world. I liked the way it looked. I liked the way it was weird. I liked wondering what life would be like in that upside-down world.
We’d walk around the lamp as a matter of course, I suppose.
Earlier this week, A Light Inside posted a thoughtfully frustrated speculation about why we write the sort of things we write. She concluded with a haunting quote, saying that the story incises deeper than the syllogism. We can explore our own anguish and sorrow through the inversion story in a way we can’t otherwise. The inversion of story reveals that woundedness can be healing, that one day can be all of eternity, that crucifixion can be resurrection.
In a way, when we read or we write a story—that is, what MacDonald would have called a true story, one true to ourselves and our confusions, hopes, and grief in the world—we’re lying on our backs, staring at the ceiling. We’re looking at something perfectly, horribly ordinary—death, separation, war, grief—in a way we haven’t looked at it before. The lamp is upside down. The rafters are benches. The skylights are ground lights.
I think that writing story can be part of the process of healing from grief—that’s so profoundly true it almost goes without saying. More than that, I think that in the process of writing and of reading, we’re trying to confront these things continually, whether intentionally or not.
So we weep for Dobby—oh, brave, dear Dobby!—and unknowingly find a way to express our admiration and sorrow for everyone who’s dared lay down their life for their friends. We allow ourselves a reality of grief in the story, that in some way gives freedom and healing to our own grief, our own loss, in the world of the right-side-up.
That’s the world we’re in, really, when we’ve set down our pen, our book, or lowered our feet. But we can find it to be richer for having been somewhere else, strangely like and unlike it, for a while.