During the COVID-19 pandemic, Janelle went on walks along a trail with her sons and mom in order to stay connected while social distancing. One day, they came across a tiny door built into a nearby tree. This is the story of how these “fairy doors” brought a community together — and gave them hope when they needed it most.
With one swift motion, my son Nicky wriggled out of the stroller and scampered toward the nearest eucalyptus tree, “Mommy, look at this red door!”
As I knelt to inspect the 3-inch door he was pointing at, I realized it had been made specifically to fit that particular knot hole in the wood. The craftsmanship was impeccable, complete with miniature details like hinges and door knockers.
My sons and I were on a socially-distanced walk with my mom, along a trail near our house. It was the early days of the pandemic, and we were all balancing that tightrope of safety versus the need for companionship.
This particular walk began unusually with my mom shouting to my sons so she could be heard through her mask: “Are you ready to see something very special?” I raised my eyebrows toward her, doubting that anything she could show the boys would distract them from the glory of a wayward stick or passing dog.
But when they saw that tiny red door, the first of many they would find, they became enchanted.
“How many doors are there, Gram?” Nicky asked her. I recognized the crinkle in my mom’s eyes, the new shorthand for smiling, as she answered,“There are dozens, and some even have glitter.” He stood wide-eyed before flitting to another tree.
As the weeks passed, fairy mania ensued along the half mile trail. “What do fairies eat? Do fairies ever let anyone else use their wings? Do fairies like music?” My son’s curiosity was endless.
Other children noticed too — and would wave frantically and yell greetings to each other from yards away. “Did you see the purple door? I think it’s new this week!”
Elderly residents were out and about, enjoying the energy of the children. On one occasion, a woman wistfully looked at my son. “My grandson is about his age, but they live back east, and I don’t know when I’ll see him again.”
Teenagers would come to take selfies with the doors — tagging them with #fairiesofinstagram. I began following the creator of the doors, Dee, on Instagram. Nicky would grab my phone to endlessly scroll through the fairy door pictures.
A neighbor began placing painted rocks with positive messages like peace and love and leaving them in the trees so that no fairy doors were easily overlooked. Another local artist came and began painting murals on the back wall behind the trees — one of fairy wings and another of a landscape populated with mushroom homes.
Children began bringing small toys, treasures, and even edible offerings to share with the fairies. Several painted bird houses arrived on the scene with signs that encouraged the fairies to make use of the “move-in ready” accommodations.
The sheer joy of this communal art project held everyone spellbound. The fairies had come to represent a sense of the community that we all desperately craved. I loved that my neighbors found this whimsical way to connect when so many other fears and pressures could separate us. Walking along that trail, it felt like cheerful warmth created a bubble to keep the anxiety and desperation at bay.
But even fairy bubbles burst.
By early fall, we noticed that some of the fairy doors had been pulled off the trees. Dee could not replace the doors fast enough. Soon the city was dispatched to remove the bird houses, toys, and other accouterments of the fairy world.
Nearby I watched the mother of a sobbing little girl beg a city worker to reconsider. His shoulders slumped and he couldn’t meet the mom’s gaze, “This wasn’t my call. The city keeps getting complaints from one individual about vandalism along the trail. No one had permits for any of it.”
The girl continued to wail. Strangely enough, I envied her freedom to express such catharsis. Why did losing the fairy doors seem to trigger all the other pandemic-related grief in me? Grief for the loss of life, for the economic consequences to those already living on the margins, for those asserting that their lives matter, for the in-fighting and political denial.
Over the next few weeks, Nicky and I would discuss the loss of the fairy doors. I used big words like homeless and displacement to explain that people can be driven from their homes for reasons beyond their control. Yet, he already knew this intuitively. While staring at a knot hole where fragments of a pink door remained visible, he stamped his foot. “It’s not fair!” I knelt down to tenderly hug my son, and we did our best to move on, despite the loss of our fairy doors.
Fast forward two years later, I found myself gifted a stone with the word hope etched into it. It immediately brought me back to the fairy heyday, as it was exactly the kind of token we would have brought to the trail. Now, as I sit tracing my finger along the word, I think about the fairies and what they meant to so many people.
The real beauty of the fairy trail was the connection it provided. Despite the grief and fear surrounding us, we created new spaces to gather and to share joy. In retrospect, it was remarkable that everything that happened on the trail required little coordinated effort. Some might call it a spark of grace.
Without expectation, neighbors brought gifts, brought their creativity, and brought hope. And in that space, something special was created. Inexplicably, some small painted doors tapped into a deep longing for community.
Can fairy trails exist elsewhere?
Whenever we answer that call to connect, that call to extend beyond ourselves and beyond our own preoccupations, that is where we create a possibility. It is the possibility that strangers can be recognized as neighbors, and in turn, that neighbors will recognize one another as community.
And that, indeed, is magical.