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.
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.