We love to talk about fairy-tale endings, where everything is wrapped up neatly in a bow. Love is requited all around regardless of sexual preference. Bills are paid. Unemployment is a non-existent concept. Economies hum along nicely without creating abuses. No animals are sacrificed. Those in power respect their underlings and, strangely, vice versa. Food isn’t toxic. The sun usually shines. And war is an other-wordly rumble far from the peaceful interior of our impenetrable castle walls.
We grow up with these images and all their ancillary parts, with romantic notions, and unrealistic hopes that fade over time like heavy velveteen drapes. In (what was it?) 1992, Janet Champ and I wrote an insert for Nike Women’s fitness that began like this:
You were born a daughter.
You looked up to your mother.
You looked up to your father.
You looked up to everyone.
You wanted to be a princess.
You thought you were a princess.
And that ad ended up on refrigerators all over America. We’d grown up wanting to be princesses. And we were in the process of becoming, hopefully, as Janet eloquently wrote at the end, “significant to” ourselves which had nothing to do with wearing a crown and sparkly shoes. But there it was, right at the outset: that notion of being at the center of a fairy tale—the lovely young princess, up in the highest tower, waiting for Prince Charming, or il principe azzurro (as Italians say) to carry her away.
I saw my first real castle after that ad was written. I was traveling through Portugal with a friend, and we stopped at every castle we could fit into a three-week tour. That was when my true love affair with the castle began. Not because seeing real castles in varying states of decay furthered any romantic notions I’d fostered as a child, but because it put an immediate end to them. Castles are physically challenging spaces. They are hard, cold and damp. Their stone stairs are uncomfortably proportioned, challenging the most aerobically fit climbers on the way up. Their internal spaces are often large and echoing or tiny and cramped. And their intense fortifications remind you of one thing: how vulnerable you are. Vulnerable to your enemies. Vulnerable to airborne mischief. Vulnerable to the ravages of time.
Now, I live in a city with a castle at its center, the Castello Sforzesco, a massive hodgepodge of renovation through the centuries. It sits squarely in the middle of Milan attracting tourists, stray cats, and residents like me who can’t resist its pull. Two or three times a week, I walk around it and study its infinite (if discordant) architectural features. Sometimes I walk through its vast, empty middle. I once heard McCoy Tyner play here. It was August 1997, and he berated the audience for talking too much. I felt stung by his disappointment. It was hot and sticky—a typical Milanese August. And the fact that we were in a castle did nothing to sooth our nerves.
So what goes through my mind when I walk around the castle now—as I weave around its ruins or short-cut through its empty heart? What do I think when I see the heavy wrought-iron detailing and the caged windows? The soot-stained stones and the faded mosaics? I think this: there are no fairy-tale beginnings or endings. There are only fairy-tale middles. And the fairy-tale middle isn’t what is—or ever was—inside the castle walls. It’s the life outside it. The day-to-day stuff that makes up our lives. The real, flawed relationships. The exuberant Italian chatter at an American jazz concert. The misunderstandings. The coming and going of the seasons. The weak, yet still piercing, sun on a winter day. What came before and what will come after don’t really matter. The fairy-tale middle is now.
[If you liked this post, you might also enjoy “Time Out for Quiet Contemplation.“]