Last week I wrote about being “between selves,” referencing an essay by writing teacher, Heather Sellers. I’m still mining that essay, “The Wizard in the Closet,” which is about how Sellers’ FSU writing mentor, Jerome Stern, shaped her into a writer (and a person).
As Stern’s grad assistant, Sellers often ran errands for him: “picking up a writer at the airport, dropping off a poster at the printer, hanging flyers on bulletin boards, getting a book from the library.” And when she returned, Stern always asked her, “What did you notice? What was interesting?”
Most of us don’t notice much of anything when we’re doing errands because we aren’t looking for anything interesting. We’re just in a hurry to buy rolls for supper, mail a package, fill up the gas tank, grab a latte at Starbucks. Only something extraordinary would make us pay attention, like falling into a sinkhole.
Sellers’ professor insisted that she take note of what was happening and find the story in it. “He taught me that all writers are essentially travel writers . . . Only after shaping the trip into a narrative could you honestly say, ‘I’m back.’”
I took Stern’s advice to heart. The next time out, I’d pay attention and find the story. As it so happened, my husband and I went to lunch at a café in Spotsylvania Courthouse, a new place for us. I sat down, ordered a BLT without the T and not much L, and checked out the scene. My gaze locked on an older couple sitting in the booth across from us.
The man wore the county uniform of John Deere cap, flannel shirt, suspenders, green work pants, and brogans. His wife had on a long knit skirt, a red flowy top, and sequined Converse sneaks. Pinned in her dyed black hair were two coral roses. Neither had any teeth, but that didn’t hinder them from chowing down burgers and chili while keeping up a brisk dialog with each other and a chatty waitress. Immediately I fixated on them.
My husband changed seats with me so I could observe better. I peeked around my menu. My ears practically bent forward like tuning forks so I could eavesdrop. Amazingly, the woman talked about museums. I itched to take their picture and record their conversation in a notebook. But I didn’t have my camera or even a scrap of paper with me. What kind of a writer goes out unprepared?
I ate my BLT, forking out the still-too-much L, as the couple finished their meal. Although they’d cleaned their plates down to the shine, the woman asked for doggie bags. I watched as they carefully scraped bits into Styrofoam boxes, poured dregs of sweet tea into to-go cups. When they left, the exotic air in the café leaked out into the autumn day.
What did you see? Jerome Stern would ask me if I were his student. I imagined myself proudly relating a colorful description of the farmer and his festively-dressed wife.
What happened? Stern would press. I’d stammer that they ate and talked and packed a doggie bag before leaving. Even telling it in my head, it sounded skimpy and anecdotal.
I glanced around the café. A line of crayoned placemats hung like pennants from the counter. One child had a drawn a cross and the word Faith. Another showed a sleek racecar. The woman in the booth behind us grilled the waitress about every single ingredient in her order. I cain’t touch dairy. A group of retirees in badge-studded VFW hats grumbled over politics. Why hadn’t I noticed all this before?
In my search for story, I’d chosen to focus on the curious and strange, ignoring the fact the rest of the restaurant offered up a whole novel on a platter.
What happened? Well, that part is up to me.
The couple aren’t characters by themselves (maybe they are, but you know what I mean); not until I let them interact with others in the café. Or give them lives outside the café.
Suppose they get into a beef with the non-dairy woman over the rights of cows? Suppose their granddaughter drew the racecar picture on an earlier visit—and they’re raising her because her mother is in jail? Or the doggie bags contain their supper for the next few days because today is their anniversary and they splurged?
There are the stories.
Heather Sellers realized her mentor wasn’t just trying to get her to observe, but to stretch beyond observation and note-taking. (What do we do with all those notes anyway?) So she wrote a short story about a character that combined her own traits with those of a fellow student she didn’t care for, and gave the character the assignment of breaking up with a fictional boyfriend. “I made the whole thing up, but it felt like the truest story I’d ever written.”
I never got to take a class with the late Jerome Stern (or with Heather Sellers, yet), but I appreciate knowing this new practice however it came to me.
Go out. Pay attention. Report back with a story.
Recently I attended our regional SCBWI conference. It was a great conference, as always, and like old home week. Lots of people came up to me: Hollins students, retreat attendees, critique clients, workshop attendees, even someone who heard me speak at a romance writers panel in 1982 (“You were a girl!”). I was pleased that people touched base or shared great news. But it seemed they sprang away like gazelles while I spluttered, “Wait! Here’s what’s happened to me . . .”
I realize that after nearly 40 years in the business, I’m sort of a fixture: Oh, that’s Candice Ransom, she’s published a gazillion books. I won’t deny that it’s nice to be well-published, but it isn’t always a picnic.
I came home from the conference wondering why I hesitate to mention my news. A large part of this reticence stems from a mother who told me never to brag. And she practiced this herself. If, for example, my aunt boasted that my cousin had made all A’s and one B, Mama would rather be thrown under a semi than report that I had made straight A’s. (This was after my early high school years in which I’d flunked Home Ec, P.E., algebra.)
Why did I feel isolated among people who love children’s books as much as I do? I watched and listened to the participants. They were bright-eyed with excitement and I could tell many were on the cusp of wonderful things.
Some of my hesitation to join in was my natural shyness. I’ve never felt comfortable in large groups, even if I know everybody. Then, too, I sense when I come to this conference each year, I’m a different person, in a different place.
Five years ago, I believed I’d finally reached the writer self I’d launched myself toward for so long. But things went wrong and I was tangled in confusion and frustration.
A few days ago I stumbled on an essay by my favorite writing teacher, Heather Sellers. In the essay, which is about her favorite writing teacher, Sellers says that “all of us, always, are between selves . . .” It makes perfect sense. I’m between selves again. Not exactly here or exactly there. Yet.
If Sellers is right, then everyone at the conference (and anywhere else) was between selves. Many were coming into their own as writers, connecting with the right agent, meeting an empathetic editor, hearing the one piece of advice that resonated, writing down the one sentence that jolted them from a rut, jotting down the title of the one book they needed to read. Some, however, may have been experiencing a kind of fugue, and were waiting for the fuzziness to clear up.
That would be me. I’ve shed the husk of that recent failure, but I’m still crawling toward who I can be. As Sellers says, “We forget how painful it is [sometimes] to be between selves . . . and that it is in that desolate gap that everything true and useful is happening.”
I’m taking notes, Ms. Sellers. And if I actually reach that “person-in-the-making,” I know I probably won’t get to stay there long. But that’s okay. Maybe the leap to the next self won’t be as far.
Now I will tell my news for this year:
- I have a new agent who makes me work and gives me hope, the best combination ever.
- I have a three-book contract from Random House for three more Step into Reading Level 1 readers.
- I have just been signed to write the sequel to my 2017 picture book, Amanda Panda Quits Kindergarten.
- I am working on a nonfiction book with National Geographic.
- Next year I will have five new books out!
As you grow older, you realize there are a great many things you can’t get back: your childhood home, your size two body, your mother’s moonstone pendant you lost in the front yard and never found no matter how many times you raked through the grass. In this era of ever-facing forward, you may think some decisions are irreversible.
Like how you exercise.
I never did a stroke of exercise unless forced at knife-point. Then I turned 40 and realized that whenever I walked upstairs parts of me were still moving even after I reached the top. I crept into a neighborhood Jazzercise class in 1992 and stayed (although in a different town and studio) for 18 years. And then I quit. I was teaching and gone all summer. My work seemed to take all my time. I didn’t like the music any more. I would walk instead. I’d take up running!
And I did, but only if it wasn’t too hot, too cold, too windy, raining, or a squirrel hadn’t looked crossways at me. I’m the Goldilocks of outdoor activities. I joined Curves and dropped out. Tried Zumba, but it wasn’t like Jazzercise.
When my husband had open-heart surgery, we joined a nearby gym and I discovered that even if the gym was next door, even if it was in my house, I would only climb on the leg press machine if it blocked access to the bathroom.
I spend my days in my office, or hovering around the goody drawer. At 64, I look great on paper as far as sugar, cholesterol, blood pressure, and BMI. While my weight isn’t terrible, I’m nobody’s tiny thing, as my mother would say. Then there are my moods.
Depression is insidious. One of my first symptoms is a sense of disappearing. I stop looking in mirrors. I don’t feel present when I’m out in public. I am nobody. I don’t count. Meds help, but only so much. My days lose shape. It happens almost every fall, but two weeks ago I decided to reverse a decision I’d made.
I went back to Jazzercise. I was very nervous. I was six years older and more things hurt. Would I remember the moves? Would I pass out from exhaustion? More important, would I be welcomed?
And then there’s the stamp of fuddy-duddyness associated with Jazzercise. Once, in my summer graduate class, I mentioned Jazzercise. My younger students snickered. When I asked them what was so funny, they said, “My mother did Jazzercise!” “My grandmother did Jazzercise!” I checked my pulse to make sure I was still alive and then I told those girls that if they walked into a Jazzercise class right now, the “old ladies” would mop the floor with them.
Jazzercise has always changed with the times. No more leg warmers or Sweatin’ to the Oldies. Yes, the morning class I attend is largely made up of retired people. The woman I dance next to is 80. She’s in better shape than many women half her age.
What inspires such loyalty? Sense of family. Was I welcomed back? You bet I was. I’d forgotten names, but not faces, and no one, it seems, had forgotten me. Going to the gym, or walking or running by myself offered no sense of community. People come to class week after week, year after year to work out and work through loss, problems, and illness. Jazzercise gives shape to our days.
The first four classes were rough. I had four different instructors who never repeated a number. I concentrated so hard to learn routines smoke poured out of my ears. Yet I left with a feeling of pride as I breezed through after-class chatter and out into the sunshine.
I was back.
When I think about the stars and how far away they are and how many, I get so I have to sit down.
And then I remember that matter cannot be created or destroyed, which means nothing ever leaves. Not dogs or fleas or mockingbirds or Jefferson’s eyelashes. The dust stirred by the hem of Cleopatra’s robe is still here. It all returns, all of it, some way or another.
My mother could have been a color or a drop of rain. What if I missed her? Will she come back again?
No tuna for the cats this week. These are the first of the season and Social Security only stretches so far. Time for homemade strawberry shortcake with real cream.
Fifty years ago you kissed Estee Lauder Swiss Strawberry off my lips. When all the kids had measles, you picked tiny wild berries and put them in my great-grandmother’s Satsuma teacup. At your passing, my world turned red. How would I get by alone?
This evening for supper, fresh hot biscuits, sugar-topped and brown, will pillow an old woman’s memories. The cats will have the cream.
Spring cleaning for this blog! Once a week, I plan to post a photo and write a story that has nothing to do with me or the photo. Artist’s exercise: take a photo, print it, and live with it for a week until it tells a story.
Something was wrong.
Sick of being buttoned-up, jammed-up, grown-up, I tore out in the Little Red Truck, down a wide-open highway, windows down, eating a Twix bar, CD player blaring Waylon and Willie in “Good-hearted Woman.”
It wasn’t too long before I met the girl who used to drive barefoot down tree-dappled backroads, sipping the dregs of a Pink Fink Slurpee, Neil Diamond’s “Brother Love Traveling Salvation Show” blasting from the a.m. radio. My redneck didn’t-give-a-damn self. How I’ve missed her.
Spring brings planting sprees, cleaning spurts, and spells of restlessness. We stand at the edge of summer, one leap from quarry-deep memories of “laying out” and evening jaunts to nowhere in particular, while we declutter the garage and tackle weeds.
At night I hunt that summer girl in my dreams. The brick rambler where she grew up is there (last night a forest of cellphone towers rose up in place of our woods), yet bumbling around inside is a nearly-sixty-four-year-old woman, confused and disoriented. The woman is confused and disoriented awake, too. Her memory is failing. Huge chunks of her past have crumbled to dust, like slabs of ceiling plaster fallen onto a concrete floor.
When we sold my childhood house in 1990, my husband took photos of each empty room, every forlorn corner. The other day I came upon those pictures. When did Mama change the kitchen counter? Was the linoleum always that color? Pictures don’t lie, but they didn’t match the images in my head, patched-together fragments from actual life and night-time stumblings toward a ghostly home.
Last night I finished Dimestore: A Writer’s Life, the memoir by my favorite writer, Lee Smith. Smith’s novels are like going home, even if you’ve never set foot in Appalachia. In the chapter entitled, “A Life in Books,” Smith speaks of the joy in her work:
For the time of the writing, I am nobody. Nobody at all . . . though I say I am no one at all, my every sense is keen and quivering. I can smell the bacon cooking downstairs in my grandmother’s kitchen that winter morning in 1952. I can see the bright blue squares of the kitchen wallpaper, bunches of cherries alternating with little floral bouquets . . . my grandaddy’s Lucky Strike cigarette smoke still hangs in the air, lazy blue, though he is already up and gone . . .
I am there now, and I want to stay there. I hate to leave that kitchen and come back to this essay.
I know exactly how she feels. It’s a harder trip for me to find our old kitchen, but necessary. You see, I left something important in there.
In her memoir, Smith recounts Eudora Welty’s visit to Hollins College where Smith was a student. Lee Smith hadn’t read any of Welty’s work, but she high-tailed it to the library after Welty’s reading. Eudora Welty opened a path for Smith to follow, much as Smith slashed a trail for me. In her own memoir, One Writer’s Beginnings, Welty said, “My imagination takes its strength . . . from what I see and hear and learn and feel and remember of my living world.”
Lee Smith quit writing frivolous stories about stewardesses and evil twins and began writing “plain stories about country people and small towns,” her own ‘living world.’ What Welty and Smith call “plain stories” I call kitchen table stories. The ones we told around the table after supper. The ones I’ve forgotten.
My work depends on tracking down that kitchen. Lately my writing has felt stale. My characters seem less like real kids and more like actors directed on a stage. Part of this is driven by a trend towards over-sophistication, a thicket of “swirly” covers in the children’s section of Barnes and Noble, and other factors that have led me to stray from writing truthfully and directly to my audience.
On that drive, I stopped at an antique shop, one of the best ways to jog my memory. The shop was divided into booths, some set up like old-timey kitchens. I lingered by Formica tables laden with Melmac plastic or green Depression glass dishes. Picking up a copy of The Moffats, a 1941 children’s book by Eleanor Estes, I read the first lines:
The way Mama could peel apples! A few turns of the knife and there the apple was, all skinned! Jane could not take her eyes from her mother’s hands. They had a way of doing things, peeling apples, sprinkling salt, counting pennies, that fascinated her.
I closed my own eyes as joy pierced the fog I’ve learned to live with. I owned this book in paperback, all of the Moffat series, in fact. But I carried the wonderful old hardcover to the check-out. I’d re-read the story of a family steeped in their living world, find my place at the table as nobody, nobody at all, and, hopefully, my salvation, as well.
Photos are from my collection of vernacular snapshots.
Last fall, social media buzzed with Elizabeth Gilbert’s talk on creativity. Gilbert, who has led workshops on finding your passion, presented the flipside at Oprah’s event. While she herself has followed her passion all her life, she understands that not everyone is cut out of the same cloth. She divided people into jackhammers—those who doggedly pursue a dream—and hummingbirds—people who explore many interests.
I realized instantly which group I’m in. I have little patience for people who don’t know what they want to do with their lives, students who dither over majors, or anyone who doesn’t single-mindedly follow a childhood calling. I’m tedious to be around.
If someone asks me how to become a children’s book writer, I’ll reply, “How bad do you want this?” and then I’ll scare the pants off that person by telling them to forget about going to the movies or messing around with friends or taking vacations that have nothing to do with work or belonging to organizations or even having coffee.
Once I was asked to give a writing workshop on a cruise ship. When I laid out the schedule, the director said, “People can’t do all this. They’ll want to take Pilates and go shopping.” “Pilates!” I shot back. “They’ll have work to do!” And so it’s gone my entire life–everyone else out shopping and taking Pilates while I did my work.
I mentioned the jackhammer-hummingbird discussion to my husband. “Why is it I’ve only ever been able to do one thing?” I asked. He said he actually admired my ability to stay with a passion sparked when I was seven. I’ve never quit, he said, not when I was sick, not when people I loved were dying, especially not when my career sank, more than once. “You don’t know the word ‘no,’” he said and I was stunned. It was true.
But I hate the comparison to a jackhammer with its implications of being single-minded, noisy, intrusive, capable only of tearing up pavement. Who wouldn’t want to be a hummingbird, a delightful fairy-like creature? Hummingbirds zip from one interesting flower to the next, pollinating joy wherever they go.
In my life, I’ve known lots of hummingbirds but only one other jackhammer.
When my cousin David was ten, he went with my aunt to the drugstore. David slipped behind the counter to watch Dr. Hook fill his mother’s prescription. From that day on, David wanted to be a pharmacist. He attended college and pharmacy school. After graduation he worked for pharmacies before opening his own. David had other interests, but never wavered from the dream that struck him at age ten.
I was around ten, too, when I began sorting out my own interests: watching birds, drawing, reading, writing stories. Yet I loved writing the most.
The only time my love of writing flagged was in seventh grade. Everything flagged in seventh grade. I went from a small rural elementary school to a big intermediate school. I weighed 72 pounds. I had bad sinuses. The bravado I’d stockpiled when I was ten and eleven dissipated in that new place where I had to change classes, open a locker, and, worst of all, change out in gym class.
My favorite class was three-hour ESG (English, Social Studies, and Guidance), though you’d never know it by my grades: Cs and Ds in Social Studies, and Bs in English. I adored Miss Dail. She was young, just out of teacher’s college, and pretty. She wore fashionable A-line skirts, Peter Pan collar blouses, circle pins, loafers.
I so wanted her to like me, but she didn’t because I was skinny and adenoidal and crooked-toothed and wore hand-me-downs. Miss Dail warmed to the “Annandale” girls, the cute, bubbly ones who’d traveled and were already interested in boys and clothes and make-up. I was still playing with Ellsworth and watching birds.
I tried to get her to notice me by doing long extra-credit reports on subjects like Australia and honeybees, researching in the library before school started, copying them in my neatest handwriting, including pictures, and putting them in store-bought covers.
I turned the reports in along with regular homework. And heard nothing. Nothing at all. Near the end of the year we had a unit on careers. Miss Dail set up a long box with folders on various occupations. I already knew I wanted to be a writer but was sure that wouldn’t be in the box. I needed a real job. I also wanted to be a bird scientist. I rifled through the folders but couldn’t find ornithologist. I went up to Miss Dail’s desk for help.
She smelled wonderful, light and sweet, and wore a crisp Madras blouse. I told her my occupation wasn’t in the box. “What is it?” she asked. “Or-nee-thee-o-LO-gist,” I said. I could spell the word and knew what it meant but I’d never heard it said. “What?” Now she was irritated. She wanted me away from her desk, my open-mouthed breathing away from her, my pale green face out of her sight.
She took me back to the box, ripped through the remaining folders, and yanked one out. “Here,” she said. The folder was labeled Forest Ranger. So I wrote up my occupation on being a forest ranger, picturing myself on a fire tower with binoculars, scanning the sky for birds. No wonder I got Cs and Ds. Nothing about seventh grade seemed to fit me.
On the last day of school, Miss Dail joked with the cool kids as she returned papers. She handed me back my extra-credit reports without a word. There was a check mark on the covers, but no grade, no note, only the barest acknowledgement of my efforts. I felt flattened, but decided from then on I’d please myself. Watch birds, draw, read. Write.
In high school thoughts of or-nee-thee-o-LO-gy were buried under a burning desire to become a writer of children’s books. At fifteen, I started writing for publication, submitting a picture book I’d illustrated myself in red, blue, and black ink pens, and a mystery novel that was so firmly rejected, the return envelope bore tire tracks. My mother steered me into secretarial courses, hoping I’d abandon this outlandish notion.
My senior English teacher recognized my desire. After class we talked about how I’d become a writer. She treated me like a real person. (By now I weighed 98 pounds and had had my adenoids removed.) Miss Boyle lent me a new book, The French Lieutenant’s Woman. She thought I’d love it, but Fowles’ story was beyond me. I didn’t want to disappoint her so I kept the book and kept the book and kept the book until near the end of the year when she asked for it back.
That spring Miss Boyle also tried to get me a scholarship at a small college. The scholarship covered tuition but nothing else. My family had no money for room and board. I wouldn’t admit that so I told her I couldn’t see how college would bring me closer to becoming a children’s writer. Between the book and the scholarship, I’d disappointed the only teacher who’d ever shown the slightest interest in me. I would follow my own path. And Miss Boyle would have new students the next year.
One day near graduation, I sat alone in our living room. The 1970 Spring Children’s Book World had come in the Sunday Washington Post. On our scratchy harvest gold sofa, I read every book review, studied every single ad with an eye toward my future. I would do this thing, become a children’s book writer, just like all these other people who’d had books published that spring. I even picked out a publisher: Lothrop, Lee, and Shepard. They published the kind of books I wanted to write. At seventeen I was beginning to understand how to play the game, though I was barely in it.
I stumbled and made mistakes, but never, not for a second, lost sight of my goal. Even though I reached that goal ages ago, I haven’t stopped because there are more stories inside me. A lifetime of reading and writing has led my curious mind from flower to flower, knowledge that has been funneled into my work.
I dislike Elizabeth Gilbert’s divisive terms of jackhammer and hummingbirds. I don’t like being pigeon-holed in any way. I doubt anyone does.
Those things I loved when I was ten—art, reading, writing—I do them all as part of my work. Outside, birds flit by. Sometimes even hummingbirds.
At the writing retreat in Luray a few weekends ago, participants wanted to know where I got the variety of ephemera I use in writing-related art projects. “My Paper Man,” I said.
Since I’ve been collecting–well, anything, I’ve had a source. Bottle Man, Postcard Man, Teddy Bear Woman, Depression Glass Man. Right now the “man” in my life is John Whiting of Whiting’s Old Paper.
I stumbled on his shop in Antique Village north of Richmond several years ago and, in a way, have never left. Thanks to John’s business, I have more than a dozen suitcases crammed with ephemera.
I’ve bought vintage photographs, magazines, catalogs, books, postcards, photo albums, calendars, maps, scrapbooks, greeting cards, comics, and all sorts of oddments like a jump rope that hangs in our breakfast nook and a 1930s hairnet (for the package graphics) framed and hanging in my sitting room.
These National Geographics date back to 1916, but none with a whiff of the last 40 years.
A rack of cabinet cards among piles and heaps of snapshots.
Some ephemera is categorized for collecting specialists, like Elvis fans.
This isn’t a place where you breeze in for one little thing. You need to spend time and be prepared to dig. Though John has everything organized, there’s a LOT of paper, narrow aisles, and teetering piles.
John’s shop is on speed-dial for Hollywood props people. The 200 Life magazines that papered the John Nash’s shed in “A Beautiful Mind?” From here. Whiting’s ephemera has been featured in many movies, including “Like Water for Elephants” and “Lincoln.” John provided maps for the latter movie, and earned a bit part as Lee’s cartographer.
Those Time magazines above are small versions sent to the military during WWII.
Today I didn’t have “want” list, like going into a chocolate shop with no particular flavor in mind. But lately I’ve been interested in photos from the 40s, 50s, and 60s. I have a collection of vernacular snapshots stored in a vintage 45 record suitcase (natch).
This beauty was just sitting there. I’ve been searching for a wooden photograph album. More than 100 pictures still in it (dealers often strip photos to sell separately).
How could I not have the image of this little girl with book satchel and lunchbox, gazing so earnestly into the lens?
Yesterday I discovered a new British writer whose work (what I’ve read of it) makes me gasp. Yesterday, our first real spring day with daffodils blooming and birds carrying twigs, we went to Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, the second most visited cemetery in the nation ( after Arlington).
I’ve always loved cemeteries, especially ones with old headstones and unusual statuary. Hollywood is 135 acres of winding paths, old roses, holly trees, and thousands of people laid to rest. As I strolled among thickets of granite and marble, I thought about the new writer I’d discovered, Graham Joyce, author of—his term—“Old Peculiar” fiction.
In his most recent blog post, Joyce wrote:
There is a place near Leicester called Wistow. Any English place that ends with the suffix stow or stowe means “holy place.” It’s a bit special and a great place to walk the dog. It is a place with an energy, and a good energy at that. When the last eclipse occurred we decided on a whim to go there to view the eclipse. When we arrived a surprising assembly of people had already collected there, drawn by a similar unconscious force.
It didn’t take us long to find the Iron Dog, one of the most popular attractions in the cemetery. The grave of the three-year-old girl, who died in 1862, is shrouded in legends. Caretakers have claimed the iron Newfoundland moves. Others have seen the girl and the dog playing at night.
There is a depression in the field outside the church where St. Wistan’s blood was said to have flowed, and one day of the year, you can actually see Wistan’s hair grow from the grass. I’m told this is a rare grassy herb and not hair at all. But it’s a good story.
Forsythia makes my heart lift. We had a huge forsythia bush by our driveway when I was growing up. I’d cut branches and bring them in for my mother. When we moved to this house nineteen springs ago, I planted a forsythia bush. It died. And so did the lilac and Rose of Sharon bush. Any dirt that can’t sustain forsythia is mighty poor.
There are 52,000 graves in Hollywood, including two presidents (Monroe and Tyler, three if you count Jefferson Davis), two Supreme Court justices, and, this being Richmond, twenty-two Confederate generals and more than 18,000 Confederate soldiers. Since I grew up and still live on former battlefields, I’m familiar with the anguish of war beneath my feet.
If you half close your eyes and let your imagination run free you can watch another remarkable historical event unfold in front of that same church where Wistan was put to the sword. You can see both King Charles 1st and his military commander Prince Rupert galloping past and up to the mansion hidden by trees just a hundred yards or so from the church. Their army has just been routed by Cromwell at nearby Naseby and they desperately need a change of horse in order to get to the safety of Leicester. In their haste they change horses but leave the royal saddle behind. I’ve seen the saddle. It is crimson and silver and enormous. A thing of great beauty.
The cemetery is bounded on one side by the James River, an ancient waterway that has carried soil and stones from the western mountains for eons. Clack. Clack. Clack. Below a coal train rolled slow as a funeral procession, each car mounded with black gold blasted from those same mountains. The train, pulling at least a hundred cars, snaked past the city, bringing power for lights and laptops, leaving behind a blighted moonscape. Warm breezes brought out VCU students who lolled on blankets with their devices.
So maybe it’s just a grassy field. But, with the weather being high, we took a rug and a picnic and settled on the bank of the river for a lazy afternoon. The Sence bubbled away gently, flowing as it does towards the River Soar and into Leicester in the distance.
The sun made me sleepy. I wanted to stretch out in grass speckled with bluettes. Maybe next to an angel who would guard my dreams.
If you’re prepared to put your head down on this grassy spot, you are of course courting ghosts. As the clouds drifted by overhead something glooped in the water of the Sence and I let my eyes close.
Despite this perfect day, I felt vulnerable and uncertain. Where was my work headed? After all these years writing for children—all I’ve ever wanted to do—would I only leave behind a pile of books? Nothing I’d written is that good or important. It would be so easy just . . . to stop.
I put my head down and gazed up at the clouds and thought: why would anyone want to die? Then my old friend the Heron flew up from the river. Did it fly from right to left or from left to right? Oh, let’s not get into that. It’s just beautiful.
What would be written on my tombstone? I’ve often joked it would be “She Wrote the Boxcar Children Series.” Too bad it won’t be “She was a good writer and a good friend.” But a spider claims that elegy. At lunch earlier, I told my husband the dream I’d had the night before. In the middle of all the chaos was a kernel of something wonderful. At least I thought so. Like most people, my husband wasn’t keen on hearing my rambling dream.
Even though much of my writing has the flavour of dreams I rarely describe a character’s dream. The act of writing is not dreaming. In any event, when you’ve had your go at analysing the dream all you’re left with is the shiny pelt of a once-beautiful creature.
Hollywood Cemetery is so peaceful, I told my husband it was the perfect place to be buried. Much more atmospheric than modern Stonewall Memory Gardens with its flat bronze plates that tractors can mow over. My husband, not surprisingly, quoted Socrates: “Is life better than death? Only God knows.”
I did dream and I had the notion that something was speaking to me, only to wake and find that a dragonfly with a wingspan the size of my hand was buzzing my ear. As I blinked up at the sky that buzzing turned into an aeroplane’s drone, high, high, in the blue. I wondered where those people were going for their summer holidays. Oh this mysterious life, full of cloud formations and dragonfly language and the auguries of herons and aeroplanes and the kingdom of dreams.
Over the river, a burst of seagulls caught the sun on churning white wings. I watched their flight. Angels are always present.
It’s not the diagnosis of cancer that will shock you, though that is enough. It’s the shocking clarity you are left with about life. And if a dragonfly buzzes my ear like an aeroplane I’ll still be going, ‘What did it say?’
Actually I know what the dragonfly said. It whispered: I have inhabited this earth for three hundred million years old and I can’t answer these mysteries; just cherish it all.
I thought about the wonderful kernel of my dream and decided to keep it close for a while but not bury it. I shut my eyes and saw its wavering green shape, its clean gold lines. And when I opened my eyes again I saw my husband, sturdy and steadfast.
And in turn the Heron asks, with shocking clarity as it flies from right to left and left to right: why can’t our job here on earth be simply to inspire each other?
These excerpts are from Graham Joyce’s last blog post, dated August 7, 2014. He died on September 9, 2014, of complications from lymphoma.
Last week I read this wonderful book, My Bookstore: Writers Celebrate Their Favorite Places to Browse, Read, and Shop. I lapped up every syllable about 82 independent bookstores, envious that I don’t have a bookstore where everybody knows your name, where books are recommended, where your own books are promoted.
The first bookstore I ever entered was Books and Cards, located in an industrial strip shopping center by a gasoline tank farm. Glamorous, it wasn’t. But I was seventeen, and could not believe such a wonder existed in Fairfax County. The store carried greeting cards, stationery supplies, and paperback books stacked on tables.
I snatched up the new U.S. Ballantine edition of The Lord of the Rings. I’d read library editions of the trilogy, out of order because some clod would have checked out The Two Towers or The Return of the King. At home I handled the 95 cent paperbacks like the Book of Kells. Lined up, the covers formed a small version of Barbara Remington’s famous Middle Earth poster. Now that I owned books, I wanted more.
The next time I remember going into Books and Cards I was eighteen, out of school and working as a secretary. With my first paycheck, I bought ten Yearling paperbacks: Elphi the Cat with the High I.Q., The Furious Flycycle, Charlotte’s Web, and others. I added a one dollar book rack and gave the bundle to my seven-year-old niece. It was the best, most heartfelt present I’ve ever given. Susan read all the books, even the hard ones.
Books and Cards closed and for a long while there were no bookstores in my life. Eventually, chain stores popped up in malls: Brentano’s, Waldenbooks, B. Dalton. While I loved having access to books, the stores looked alike from mall to mall. I knew about bookstores with cozy reading nooks and resident cats that were like second homes to real book people like me. Where were those stores?
Crown Books opened, the first big box bookstore. I loved Crown. It was close! It had a lot of books! But it wasn’t a second home. Neither were Crown’s replacements: Borders, Books-a-Million, Barnes and Noble.
We have a B&N and BAM in Fredericksburg. About once a week, I walk into one or the other. And walk right back out again. I rarely buy anything. I don’t feel comfortable. I don’t feel welcome. I don’t even feel like I’m in a bookstore.
When I finished reading My Bookstore, I felt bereft. And then I realized—there was one of those bookstores nearby! I just hadn’t properly claimed it. Riverby Books has been in downtown Fredericksburg for years. I’ve gone in occasionally. I liked the store, but didn’t trust that it would stay in business.
One day this fall I stopped in. Sunlight sprinkled the linoleum floors with gold coins. I went up the stairs and pulled out a book on wildflowers from a pile on the steps. I went down the stairs and sifted through a box of vintage Golden Books, a bargain at $2.50 each. I snapped up a dozen.
Riverby Books is located in a quirky old building. There are plenty of reading nooks. No resident cat, but that’s okay. They sell used and old books, interesting books, books you can’t find at Barnes and Noble. Books you didn’t know you wanted until you saw them.
I never walk out of there empty-handed. Or empty-feeling. A trip to Riverby fills up that book-shaped space. At home, I’ll read my new acquisition, then make room for it on one of my bookshelves. If the book is very special, it might sit next to my prized Ballantine edition of the Lord of the Rings trilogy.