by Nicole Howe
“Well, the clock struck midnight, it’s time for the coach to turn back into a pumpkin!”
When my children were little, I mumbled those snarky words more often than I want to admit. Whenever I’d get a rare break – an evening out with my husband, a coffee date with a friend, or even a scanty five-minute respite in the bathroom (the Loch Ness monster of occurrences when one has small children) – it always, always, felt like it ended too soon.
No matter how much I might be enjoying myself, the shadow of the clock always loomed, hanging over me like a ticking dictator. I dreaded midnight. I knew “the ball” would soon be over, and I’d have to return to my Cinderella-like existence back home. To baskets of unmatched socks, dusty mini-blinds, and to-do lists. To the sound of my own huffs and sighs which tacitly announced to my family I really should be somewhere else, dancing and having the time of my life. To a plain and ordinary world in which I was simultaneously bored and exhausted, with no talking mice to cheer me up.
I had become, in every sense of the word, disenchanted.
It’s difficult to look back and see myself that way. Of course, it wasn’t my children’s fault. There’s just something about new motherhood and existential crisis that go together like milk and cookies.
Climbing out of that pit was not easy, but life did get better. Over the years, I experienced the renewal of a flailing marriage, a reawakened sense of purpose, and a better appreciation for the “magic” of good boundaries. I came a long way. And through it all, my faith was the one, steady thing always holding me together.
Then I became disenchanted with that, too.
That was a twist I never saw coming. My kids were older and finally getting more independent, my husband and I were closer than we’d ever been, and we had just moved into a beautiful new home. I actually washed and put laundry away on the same day (mostly). And I was happy. But I finally had the luxury of time, which afforded me the ability to question things I had never seriously questioned, and it wasn’t long until I found myself sinking into a frightening abyss of doubt.
The rug had been pulled out from under me before but never the very ground beneath my feet. I felt completely unraveled. My prayer anthem became a feeble whisper, “God, please just put me back.”
What I know now that I didn’t know then is that this season of doubt was perhaps God’s biggest move in the project to re-enchant my life. I had overcome so many challenges, and my faith had carried me through a lot. But somewhere along the way, it had gotten reduced to a means to an end. Practical. Instructive. Useful. My reading list rarely deviated from the non-fiction shelf and the Christian “how-to” book. It was a left-brained faith, evidenced by the fact that I only ever quoted fairytales to make a point.
While I had rediscovered a sense of gratitude for my life, I’d lost my child-like wonder at the marvel of life itself. As G.K. Chesterton would say, I had sinned and grown old.
This season of doubt led me to pursue a Masters of Apologetics at Houston Baptist University, and it was there I began to understand how atrophied my imagination and sense of wonder had become. It is not a typical apologetics program, which can conjure up images of older men behind lecterns exchanging philosophical arguments. Though philosophy is part of the curriculum, we also focused on the relevance of the imagination as a truth-bearer, the study of art, culture, and history as an illuminating light to our own time, and the importance of imagery and symbolism in understanding the Christian faith. We dove into poetry and medieval cosmology. We read Homer, Augustine, and Dante. And I learned that C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien both talked about – wouldn’t you know – the importance of fairy tales to awaken the imagination.
It was also an ecumenical program which meant that I had Baptist professors, as well as Catholic, and my classmates ran the gamut of Christian traditions. This non-denominational evangelical suddenly found herself learning about St. Benedict, the Church calendar, and the rich inheritance of Christian history that was rightfully mine. It felt like coming home.
Josef Pieper says that those who undertake to live under the sign and constellation ‘wonder’ must be prepared to be lost sometimes. We cling to certainty because wonder threatens our capacity to know. The darkness of doubt was a necessary trial, so I could learn how to hold hands with uncertainty and get comfortable with “lostness.” After all, getting a little lost is often a prerequisite for adventure, isn’t it? No wonder I felt like Cinderella; my desire to know – to control the outcomes of every situation – was choking out my ability to marvel at my life and to see my little world, and everything in it, as sheer gratuity.
One of the most beautiful and wonderous things about the Christian faith is that it makes the astonishing claim that all fairy tales exist because reality itself is one, enchanted story. Tolkien tells us the Gospels are a true fairy tale. George MacDonald tells us the only reason fairy tales speak of golden apples is to refresh the forgotten moment we found that they were green. There is no more magic “out there” than what is happening right in front of us. It blows me away every time I let that really sink in.
I still get lost sometimes. I still have unmatched socks and dusty miniblinds. And I still have days where I feel disenchanted. But I don’t believe in them anymore – not like I used to. I am planning to graduate from HBU this December and not long after that, I will celebrate my fortieth birthday. With each passing year, I think I’m becoming less and less like Cinderella and a bit more like the fairy godmother.
And I’ve never felt younger.
Nicole Howe is a wife and homeschooling mother of four kiddos. Her writing can be found at www.anunexpectedjournal.com, where she and several classmates from Houston Baptist University discuss popular topics explored in the M.A.A program. More personal writings can be found at her new website, www.nicolemariehowe.com. When Nicole is not writing, she enjoys cooking, singing, and performing with her local Improv Comedy Team.