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“Once Upon a Time:” The power of memory and story

In ABC’s Once Upon a Time, all the inhabitants of the Enchanted Forest have been flung from their world by a curse conjured by the Evil Queen and into a small town in Maine named Storybrooke without any memory of who they are. When Emma Swan—the daughter of Snow White and Prince Charming who was transported from the Enchanted Forest into this one through a magic cupboard as an infant to save her from the Queen’s Curse—comes to town, however, things begin to change. People begin to remember. And the last few episodes have begun to illustrate the power of memory and story when it comes to faith.

Emma came to Storybrooke to return Henry, her son whom she put up for adoption as an infant, to his adoptive mother, Mayor Regina Mills (who is the Evil Queen). Henry sought out Emma because he knows she’s the one who can break the Curse. How? He has a storybook that tells him what’s really going on. Emma and most of the townspeople believe Henry’s book is full of fairytales, but we know differently: We know Henry’s storybook is true.

And so do the Evil Queen and Rumplestiltskin (played by Robert Carlyle, whom I must say, portrays both Rumplestiltskin and his Storybrook counterpart, Mr. Gold, with relish). Over the season, it’s been interesting to observe the drive of those with evil intent to keep the memory of the Enchanted Forest reality and the truth of who they are from the townsfolk in order to maintain power. While Regina’s purpose is pretty clear (taking revenge on every person that’s hurt her) and Rumplestiltskin’s motivations are a little more murky, both use the knowledge of their shared story (and the inhabitants lack of it) to maintain power for their own purposes.

But in spite of their efforts to keep the townsfolk in the dark, the story seeps through—not only as fairytales in books but in the personal lives of the Storybrooke townsfolk as well. Who they are, their gifts and strengths, weaknesses and flaws, relationships—all of it seeps through no matter how hard the Queen tries to keep it away.

When people start remembering, it affects them differently. Some, like town counselor Archie Hopper (aka Jiminy Cricket), don’t remember their lives in the Enchanted Forest, but with Emma’s help they start to recall their gifts, hard-earned virtues and strengths which enable them to make decisions for good and love instead of selfishness and evil. For others, like Snow White and Prince Charming, it is confusing; they remember only bits and pieces and it just doesn’t make sense (and that causes some problems in their decision making). For those like the Mad Hatter (and, one could argue, the Queen and Rumplestiltskin as well), it is painful; the memory of how they’ve failed or what they’ve lost is overwhelming. But for some, like the Huntsman, it is freedom; in spite of all the pain and suffering he recalls from his life in the Enchanted Forest, the Huntsman’s returned memory of it makes sense of his present condition and frees him from turmoil he’s been struggling with for years.

Emma is the only one in Storybrooke without a memory to regain. Her memories are of this world only. But perhaps in Emma we find someone with whom we can most identify. In Emma, we see the power and wisdom we gain in trusting the larger story in which we live.

ABC/"Hat Trick" via Hulu

Emma resists the idea that Henry’s book and her part in it is true, but it’s getting harder for her to do so due to her encounters and experiences in Storybrooke. An encounter with the Mad Hatter in “Hat Trick” gets at this:
Emma: You’re insane. 
Jefferson: Because I speak the truth? 
Emma: Because you’re talking about magic. 
Jefferson: I’m talking about what I’ve seen. Maybe you’re the one who’s mad. 
Emma: Really? 
Jefferson: What’s crazier than seeing and not believing? Because that’s exactly what  you’ve been doing since you got to our little hamlet. Open your eyes. Look around. Wake up.
Emma is gradually beginning to consider there might be something to Henry’s storybook. We know that if she decided to step out and trust that it is true, she would not only be better able to understand herself and purpose but also help the townspeople remember who they are and restore their purposes and relationships—and have much greater power in confronting the injustice and oppression of the Queen.

I enjoy Once Upon a Time in part because so much of this story echoes our own. We too live our lives within a larger Story, one that is always seeping through into the world around us. If we look around, we can see it reflected in the physical world, and if we pay attention, we can hear it in the stories we tell.

If we, like Emma, begin to trust our own Story is true, we start to understand who we are. We discover we too suffer under a curse and that there are those that would keep us from the truth. But we also discover that there is One who’s relentlessly working to free his creation and us from the curse so we can be once again the people we are created, called and enabled to be. We discover that there is One who, as Henry Nouwen puts it, “loves us with an unconditional love and desires our love, free from all fear, in return.” We discover what we were made for—to love God and others—and the kind of world we were created for. And that not only helps us understand ourselves and our purpose but repairs our relationships and enables us to join with God as he works to free and redeem his creation.

The story we choose to live by makes a difference—and stories like Once Upon a Time help us remember that. And that brings God-talk into these open spaces.