Finding Home

Edmund_Blair_Leighton_-_The_Hostage (1)

Two weeks ago, I sat down to write about taking a trip to my hometown. That post on the ups and downs of going home would not come. Maybe it wasn’t fully grown in my imagination yet. I ended up with a poem about secret gardens instead. When I lamented that the words had taken me so far from where I started, friend and fellow blogger Rob Taylor pointed out that there are many ways of defining home.

Home. The place where I was born. Bakersfield, California is still full of stucco and Spanish arches and oilfields and orange groves. The ghost of my girlhood self runs wild-haired and barefoot over the manicured lawns. She steals cherries from a tree that overhangs an alley so she won’t have to take the time to go home for lunch. She climbs fences and dreams of princes. She looks west and plans to run away to the ocean so she can swim across the horizon to the world on the other side. She believes that when she grows big enough she’ll be able to reach up and touch the stars. No matter what anyone tells her, she could spend every night sprawled on the grass watching those stars head in her direction.

I tried to touch her transparent edges, but she’s an elusive little gypsy girl. I sat on the porch of my grandmother’s house and watched her dance in the front yard. She asked me if I still want to know what is over the next horizon, and if I still believe someday I will touch the stars.

I opened my mouth to tell her no, but out fell a poem about secret gardens.

Home. My safe return. While on my trip, I had the chance to go snorkeling in the ocean. At first, I watched the sandy bottom undulate beneath me as we swam. Out beyond the waves, the bottom dropped, and the ocean grew wide and deep. There was too much of the water and too little of me. My head popped up. I tread water and gasped for breath. I lost my nerve.  I couldn’t take care of myself out there. I couldn’t control the world around me. The current would sweep me away…

Home. My first story. Seven summers ago, I started writing. My daughter was still an infant then, and I was in bed nursing her. Somewhere between asleep and awake, an image popped into my mind of a girl and her father standing alone on a beach. I had the sense that the girl was waiting for love to come, and the father was waiting for love to return. They seemed so real and as barely out of reach as the stars I’d watched as a kid. What brought them to that lonely beach? How were they so close and so distant at the same time? I couldn’t stop wondering about them, and that day when my kids took a nap I sat down at the computer and started writing their story. My first novel, The Keeper’s House, was born.

In chapter one, sixteen year old Nula stands alone on a beach in the middle of the night. She fears sleep and the dreams that send her spiraling through the lonely, dark water. Nula watches the waves and listens to them whisper as the moon glows over the distant horizon. She feels the pull of the ocean, a tug on her heart. Maybe it will take her away…and maybe she wants it to.

Home. Friendship and romance. I have a friend who is currently entangled in a casual, long distance relationship. They go days without speaking to one another. Sometimes she fears that she has had her last time with him, that he will disappear from her life, but unless she makes dramatic changes to her own life, she isn’t in a position to ask for more. Why not just end it? She told me she has thought of that many times, but then she realized she likes him as much for his mystery as for his warmth. She likes him just as he is. Sometimes she misses the first days when they discovered each other from a distance and she left her lonely beach. Now here she is halfway to the horizon with no real way of knowing if she is going to get hurt. She keeps diving in because she has to know what is on the other side. She dives because she believes he is worth the discovery. One way or another, this relationship could pull her away from everything she knows…and maybe she wants it to.

Back to my day of snorkeling on the open ocean, terrified of this mysterious world that neither welcomed nor rejected me. I could return to the safety of the beach, or I could dive in and discover what was on the other side of my girlhood horizon. Ahead of me was the chance of danger, of being unprotected in a world I had no control over. I answered the ghost of my girlhood, and I dove.

Two hundred yards later, I was swimming with majestic sea turtles. One the size of my seven year old daughter swam right next to me, so full of simple beauty and grace. Those turtles and the chance to discover their world were worth the dive. The current didn’t take me or at least not the way I expected.

Maybe our real fear isn’t that what is hidden over the horizon will take us forever. Maybe our fear is that it will send us back changed in a way that redefines what it means to find home.

That got me thinking again about those stars I loved so much as a kid. Open just about any newspaper and you are bound to find a horoscope section. Who among us has not looked under our sign at least once for some guarantee of our future?

If the stars can tell our fortunes, I really don’t know. There is one way that human beings from all over the world have used the night sky for as far back as we can measure. The stars have always been a map to guide us home.

Dive in and discover what is on the other side. Swim the ocean or open your heart. There is no guarantee that you won’t get hurt, but the simple beauty and grace on the other side are worth the risk. Even when you have to go home again, the horizon will never leave you, but you have to let yourself be taken in order to find it. You can’t stay lonely on the beach and make a story worth the telling.

Read more here! Chapter 1: The Keeper’s House

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A Secret Garden

There is a secret garden
Dangerous and unexpected
Strange and wild
I found while falling
Rain-like in the summer heat
Tiptoe over the tiny heartbreaks
Through the empty and the lush

Do I possess it in my head?
It might have been my heart
The heart is fragile
But you have to keep seeking
Keep asking for life
Tiptoe over the tiny heartbreaks

Let my mind hold it alive and warm
Coax it with the hand of memory
Not much
Never very much

Or I will need it in that desperate way
A drug chased too long
A talisman held too dear

And the holding is how it is most often lost

I press along the edges
Until it aches
Like testing a bruise
To find it still part of me
Dangerous and unexpected
Strange and wild
A secret garden

Forgiveness and the Northern Lights

Northern Lights Aurora

Last week, I went to a local writing group meeting. We discussed our current creative challenges. Mine was Elin, the main character in the novel I’m working on. She lost some of her sight after an illness that killed her mother. I claimed I don’t know how to define her world, because I have struggled with how she perceives her world. There was some general discussion about what and how the blind see, which was helpful, but not really the point because it is ultimately a fable about seeing the light, not the dark.

When I left the meeting, I realized that defining Elin’s world is not the greatest challenge I am facing in writing this story. I know that if I sat down every day and let her talk, sooner or later I would learn how she defines her outer life. The problem is that day after day I avoid letting Elin tell her story.

Karen Blixen weaves a tale for Denys Finch Hatton in Out of Africa
Karen Blixen weaves a tale for Denys Finch Hatton in Out of Africa

In the movie Out of Africa, author Karen Blixen falls in love with the elusive and free spirited Denys Finch Hatton. Seemingly against his will, he falls in love with her too, and the thing that does it for him is her stories. With any random prompt (a spindle and a shoe for example) Karen can weave a full, rich tale right there on the spot, complete with beginning, middle and end. Denys stays up all night listening to Karen’s stories, but one day his prompt is “a girl steps onto a white beach…” Karen is stumped. She opens and closes her mouth many times, but no story issues forth. The girl on the beach is too close to Karen’s own story.

And that is Elin. She is too close to my own story. I know that Elin must learn to forgive. Not the you’ve done something wrong but I forgive you kind. Something much bigger. She must learn to let go of the world she thought she would have, and the person she thought she would be. She has to learn to see that what is waiting for her might be scary and strange, but it is much more magical than anything she could have imagined.

In my novel, Elin grapples with the meaning behind her grandmother’s stories of the Northern Lights. In my own life, I have my own Northern Lights story:

My freshman year of college, I went to a party. A guy I knew from school was there, and he asked me to dance…even though I had clearly come to the party with someone else. I said yes…even though I had clearly come to the party with someone else. We wove through the crowd until we came to a clearing. The music changed to a slow song. I suddenly felt very awkward. I’d never danced slowly with anyone before.

“Come here,” he said to me.

That “come here” felt like so much more than an invitation to step forward into the embrace of a slow dance. It was a call to step forward in my life, to choose not only one boy over another, but one path over another. I remember that his sweatshirt smelled like Tide, and his skin smelled like shaving cream. I remember that there were people talking and laughing around us, but they all seemed very distant. I don’t remember what song was playing; only that like most good things it ended too soon. We stepped away from one another, but I knew my life had changed.

We had one romantic year together. I was young, and I did many things wrong in that relationship. When we broke up, he vowed never to speak to me again. In some ways, I deserved his anger, but he hurt me too. His worst offense was that I believed he was the one who would see my inner artist. He would love that artist, nurture her and bring her whole and beautiful into the world. He fell short.

He was from the north country, and he used to promise me that someday he would take me to a cabin in the woods to see the Northern Lights. I loved the idea and thought of it often. We were both very busy with school, and the idea of having time away to get to know him took up a great deal of my thoughts. I was a late bloomer, and I hadn’t learned the secret pleasures of being a lover. A remote cabin in the Minnesota woods sounded like the perfect place to learn. He never took me there.

Many years later, I taught a dance camp up in Minnesota. It was close to fall, and the nights were chilly. I usually stayed close to the fire in my cabin, but one night the other dance teachers banged on my door. They reeked of peppermint schnapps.

“Get out of your room, Angie. The Northern Lights are out.”

I almost said no. It was cold, everyone else was far ahead of me in drinking, but then I remembered the old promise of the Northern Lights. I grabbed my coat and flashlight and followed them into the woods. We wove through the trees until we found a clearing.

“Look up,” someone whispered.

A green arc of light stretched all the way across the meadow. It vibrated and with every shudder, a new arc of green was born. Out of nowhere, the arcs shimmered and fell like a curtain across the sky. Red moved through the night, spinning like a soloist in the greatest dance I’d ever seen. Blue came too, and then indigo.

There, spread across the sky, was the inner artist I’d always wanted someone to love. If I hadn’t once been promised a chance to see the Northern Lights, I’d never have gone. I’d have stayed home by the fire in my cabin. I went because someone had invited me long before I got there.

I was feeling a little blue about my life recently, and a friend of mine gave me words an old writer might say when reflecting back on her life. It was about falling down and getting up and falling down again. Loving some days and losing others. The beauty of sharing our talent and experience. That is a life truly lived. What a gift!Thanks to my friend, I realized that is exactly what my character Elin must learn. She believes her childhood stories of the Northern Lights are about death and endings, but they are really about the people who light our path. Just like the Northern Lights, they weave themselves into the fabric of our lives in many different colors and help us find our beginnings. They become our life truly lived.

That is the story both Elin and I find in a cold Minnesota meadow. There are many people who have shown me what life has to offer, but none of them were ever here to love my inner artist, or nurture her, or bring her forth into the world. That falls squarely on my own shoulders. I didn’t forgive the hurts of an old romance that day, I accepted its gifts.

The boy who promised me the Northern Lights grew up and became a man. I’ve heard that he has a son. I hope that when he teaches his son about life, he tells him to always ask the girl to dance…even if she came to the party with someone else.

Why I Write

 

Today is my birthday. This time last year, I was hard at work revising my novel for a prospective agent.  When I sent her my revisions, I was as breathless as if I’d run the novel all the way to New York myself… The rejection took five months. The agent loved it, but she didn’t have time to represent a new author. She was intrigued, but she didn’t know if it was marketable.

There was also the time I got two rejections from two different editors in the same day for the same work.

“This is great,” said editor #1. “But I think the voice is too old for young adult.”

“Beautifully written,” said editor #2. “But I think the voice is too young for young adult.”

Like most aspiring authors, I’ve received a lot of rejection and heard how every author I admire has gotten them too. I know it is part of the process of putting my work out into the world, but as I sit here, a year older but not-so-much the wiser, and still no published work to my name, I have to ask myself:

Why am I here typing in the wee hours of the morning instead of sleeping or catching up on my mountain of laundry or anything else deemed more outwardly productive?

Why do I write?

In olden times, there was a belief that immortality was gained through story and song. To become part of a story was to live beyond our short time on earth. To be stricken from the stories or even worse to never do a deed worthy of the telling was to disappear into a purgatory of lost memory.

My need to get up before the sun to write might put me in the minority, but all of us have a story we need to tell. We all want to remember and be remembered.

When I was a kid, the carnival came to town for one week every year. Our carnival had a mad house with the usual hall of mirrors that made you look fat or tall or skinny. The crazy thing about this mad house was that it looked really small from the outside, but inside it was too wide and deep to be contained by the outer facade. I walked around and through the mad house countless times, but I never could figure out how the illusion worked. I wondered who built that mad house. When he looked at it did he see the illusion of smallness like I did, or could he see how wide and deep it was even when he stood outside?

People are mad houses. We seem small and contained but inside we are all wide and deep. It is a rare and beautiful thing to be allowed inside another person, and just like the carnival, it is usually fleeting. But on a blank page I can hold in my hand what usually slips through my fingers. That human connection.

Stories satisfy a human need to share and be understood. In “real life” those needs aren’t always met. We don’t have the time, or we weren’t brave enough when the time was right. We walk away from love and friendship because somewhere along the way we learn it is better to shoot first than be outdrawn.

I write because human connections are rare. More often than not, we miss each other completely. In stories, we are found…unraveled and fragile, rediscovered in the wide and deep imagination of another. Fleeting and immortal all at once.

Here’s to my connections lost and found. The stories that gave me another beautiful trip around the sun.

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