There’s a song in Disney’s Cinderella that I often recall, its familiar refrain feels like a cool balm. “No matter how your heart is grieving/ If you keep on believing/ The dream that you wish will come true.”
I feel the tactile comfort of those words, sung by Cinderella and her animal friends, most sharply on my face and arms; the places I was most regularly beaten as a child. If I could just believe that life will get better, I thought in those dark hours, then one day perhaps it would.
As much as I related to Cinderella, I never guessed that I’d grow up to become my own villain.
As much as I related to Cinderella, I never guessed that I’d grow up to become my own villain, as I sat cross-legged on our maroon, Persian rug as an eight year-old, watching the movie for the hundredth time.
Maroon is a colour that saturated my childhood. Our maroon couches and curtain swags matched the rug. It was the colour of my mother’s bindis and favourite lipstick. It was the colour of Belle’s cape as she tried to make the best of her life as the Beast’s prisoner. It was the colour of my parents’ boiling blood whenever I angered them.
Unfortunately, that happened almost every second or third day. There were eggshells everywhere. But, like Belle, I endured. And like Cinderella, I believed with every fibre of my being that one day, I would depart from the toxicity of my childhood home and see a version of my own dreams come true.
Of course, it took more than just a 'bibbity bobbity boo' but many of those dreams did come true. I grew up to marry a special someone. We made a home together that doesn’t contain a hint of red, but coastal shades of blue, beige and white. We worked hard on ourselves and on our marriage. Still, something was out of balance.
The ugly side of my soaring expectation for the future was that I’d beat myself up whenever something fell short of what I’d hoped.
Having high hopes got me through an abusive childhood. But the ugly side of my soaring expectation for the future was that I’d beat myself up whenever something fell short of what I’d hoped. When the grit of daily life didn’t meet the brief of ‘happily ever after.’ At that point, my internal dialogue would take on the raspy, cunning voice of Ursula the Sea Witch. ‘Pathetic,’ she’d say. Leaving me cold.
The culmination of our family turmoil led to 2019 becoming the year of family counselling. For my side of the family and also with my in-laws. And of course, I took it upon myself to be the architect of happy endings on both sides of the family; coordinating availability, booking our appointments with the counsellor, thanking everyone afterwards for their efforts and so on.
I expected everyone to hop on board with glee. But my immaturity paved the way for a quiet frustration to flourish inside me. I was annoyed that I was the only one proactively trying to make things better, while some of my family remained reluctant to participate. Eventually, we all gave up. By the end of Winter, I was emotionally exhausted.
I’d had enough of bringing my horses to the water and watching most of them refuse to drink. When and how had I become their caretaker? I wondered.
I was used to taking on that role as a child. Between my own altercations with my parents, they had their own quarrels. And more often than not, I would be invited in as the adjudicator. “Ruhi, who do you think is wrong here?”
When I wasn’t called upon to mediate, I played the role of self-appointed peacemaker:
“Ma, can you please start talking to Pa again?”
“Pa, if you don’t be nice to Ma, she might leave. Please, just say you’re sorry.”
Years went by before I numbed myself to their fractious relationship. For a time, I learned to ignore the dusty tornadoes it kicked up in the backdrop of my youth and my adult years. That is, until I gave birth to my daughter.
It took me all of last year and the year before, to realise (again) that some things aren’t simple to change. I cannot, for example, change people.
It was important to me that her tribe was a harmonious one. But it took me all of last year and the year before, to realise (again) that some things aren’t simple to change. I cannot, for example, change people. And I cannot keep trying to fix situations when no one else wanted to participate.
My personal counsellor suggested taking a break from everything. I stopped organising family therapy. I stopped having one-on-one catch ups with individual family members, knowing that what would start as a harmless coffee would likely progress into a toxic discussion.
After a month of excommunicating myself, replenishing and reflecting, I determined that 2020 won’t be the Year of Fixing Things. I would not be the bringer of happy endings.
But while I’m letting go of the the cartoon-ish Disney optimism that kept me going through a difficult childhood, I’m hanging on to my child-like sense of wonder at what the future could hold. But I now have a renewed perspective that things can still change even if not in the way I imagined or within the time frame I hope for.
In the end, maybe Rafiki from the Lion king is a better role model for me than most of the princesses. A realist, up there in his humble Baobab. He speaks his mind. He distances himself when he wants to, taking life as it comes.
And perhaps “Asante Sana", which means “Thank you very much,” in Swahili, would be a suitable mantra for 2020. Being thankful for all that is in the present, not being prescriptive about what my future should hold and as Rafiki puts it so well, remembering that, “The past can hurt. But...you can either run from it, or learn from it.”
Ruhi Lee is a writer and co-host of the podcast, 'Young, Brown & Not Entirely Free.' She works and writes on Boon Wurrung land. You can follow her on Instagram @Lee_Ruhi.