On adventures

31 July 2015

To become my idol when I was seven years old, I asked my mother to make me her costume. Which she did. I got a hand-sewn dress of blue gingham, ribbons to adorn a pair of plaits, a basket complete with a stuffed black terrier and, most importantly, a pair of flats sparkling with red glitter. It was ostensibly just for Halloween, but I did not limit my imagination to a single day. Whenever I wanted, I could pretend to be Dorothy, a misunderstood young girl from the uneventful Midwest, adventuring in much more interesting land called Oz.

Some twenty-seven years later, I took my nine-year-old daughter to our local vintage movie theater to see a special screening of The Wizard of Oz. She had seen it once when she was very small, but it hadn’t resonated, and so this was effectively the first time she had seen it. She liked it very much, but it clearly wasn’t the same immediate, magical touchstone it had been for me. I wondered why it wasn’t for her. Which led me to consider why it was for me.

Watching Dorothy’s adventures as a grown woman gave me a new perspective on their nature, and of hers as an adventurer. The fact that we don’t typically consider The Wizard of Oz as an “adventure story” says more about our narrow definition of adventure than it does the story in question. Adventure, popular wisdom dictates, is about rugged heroes, non-stop action, violence, fearlessness. Dorothy, however, is different. She moves through her journey in ways that contradict adventure story logic, but that are profoundly authentic. She makes her friends by empathizing with their pain and unhesitatingly binding her quest to theirs. She is polite and kind no matter the circumstances (a good Midwestern girl through and through). She is honest about being scared. The only time she consciously engages in violence (whether a slap or an unknowingly fatal bucket of water) is in the swift, determined defense of her friends. Her bravery is quiet. Her goal is pedestrian. And, yet, she is the heroine.

Her authentic nature changes the nature of her adventure. Rather than pursuing action, defeating an enemy or winning a prize, Dorothy’s adventure is one of internal growth. She grows up. She learns that where she comes from and the values that made her are important. She learns to accept those aspects of her self, and cherish them. She also, although less consciously, learns what she is capable of and what she can survive. And so her example endures.

All external adventures only matter as much as they inspire internal change. In reflection of this, the best adventure stories play with the mythical, and create the heroes we need to pursue and understand our own journeys. We do them a disservice to walk down the road without thinking about where we’re going, and where we came from.

To the day she died, my mother mourned the fact that the upheaval of our lives had misplaced the Dorothy dress. She wanted to be able to give it to my daughter. But my daughter does not seem to need the costume. Somehow, she already knows that she is her own heroine. Somehow, she has already accepted her bravery, her fear, her adventure. And so I am happy to let her run ahead of me down the road, knowing that at some point she will be wise enough to come back.

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