I was sitting on the beach in Costa Rica with my brother-in-law, Roberto, last week, when he leaned in, poised to tell a story.
I love his stories. They’re vivid, filled with humor, and even a little mean. Not because Roberto is mean – he’s not. What he is, is a keen observer of nature, human and otherwise. Of reaction and interaction, of the way the light reflects upon the sea, of the way a campfire can smell like winter even on the hottest day, and a young woman can smell like a summer night no matter what perfume, or lack thereof, she’s wearing. He’s also a Latin bon vivant – a man who taught himself French, just so he could read Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas in their native language. And the only straight man I have ever known who can credibly wear an Ascot.
His stories are filled with piquant details, and I’m always happy to put down whatever book I’m reading in order to listen.
“Look,” he said, pointing to two dogs wrestling on the beach. They were roughly the size of Golden Retrievers, but in form looked more like Dalmatians without spots. One was pale yellow and the other a rusty-brown.
“Cute,” I said. And they were. Frolicking, rolling in the sand, nipping at one another.
“I’ve been watching them all week,” Roberto told me. He and my sister-in-law, Sheila, had arrived a few days before my husband and I, settling into their time-share and stocking up on supplies: insect repellent, Spanish ham, fresh papaya, gin, tonic.
“The female, the light one, belongs to a family who’s on holiday, while the male belongs to one of the beach vendors and lives here all year.”
Lucky dog, I thought. Because if there is a dog heaven, it has to resemble Playa Hermosa in Costa Rica. Black, volcanic sand, tiny islands just off shore – easily swimmable to a gifted athlete, a sky so blue it makes rain seem impossible. And these dogs were chasing each other on it. Sniffing each other’s butts, trouncing on sand crabs, radiating joy.
“Yesterday, a man walked by and made friends with the male dog,” Roberto said. “He had treats in his pocket and was giving them to him. And when he continued on his walk, he beckoned the dog to come with him. He didn’t call the lady dog along for some reason. Perhaps he didn’t take to her. Only the boy.”
I could see why. The male dog seemed like a bit of a rogue. Free and handsome. The perfect partner-in-crime for a young, single guy with a pocket full of kibble.
“And the male with the brown coat, he ran after him, so happy, while the lady dog, she sat up, cocked her head. She sat right there on the beach.” Roberto pointed to a log and some driftwood next to a colony of volcanic rock. It was the only lonely place on Playa Hermosa and even people in search of solitude seemed to avoid it. Although the palm log there was one of many that had been downed by a hurricane the previous week, no one would sit on it, while the others were full of coconut salesmen, women in sun hats, and beach volleyball players anxious for a way into a full game.
“This lady dog looked after him with such sorrow,”Roberto told me. “She watched her lover run away and follow this man, chewing his treats. Forgetting all about her.”
I looked over at the lady dog, with her pale yellow fur and one paw up, elegant, holding it the way a woman at tea might hold her pinky as she takes a sip of her Earl Grey. Then in the next moment, she crumbled, stretching out onto her back and taking playful swipes at her fickle beau. You’re too good for him, I wanted to tell her.
“And so it went for some time,” Roberto said. “The lady just sat there. She couldn’t even whine, she just looked on as he scampered away, oblivious to her suffering.”
“Typical man,” I said, and Roberto laughed, running his fingers through his thick, black hair, and scratching his scalp as if it were a decadent pleasure. The dogs were rubbing off on him.
“But every once in a while,” he continued, “The boy dog would stop and look back. The lady was still there, still looking after him. And this seemed to please him. Then the man would call him and he’d go. He’d take his treat and keep following this man down the beach. The boy dog was prancing, cheerful in the presence of his new friend, but then he turned around again. And still, there was the lady, longing for his company. She wouldn’t move. Such sadness.
Once more, the boy dog turned to the man, who gave him another treat, and he ate it. But as he started to go with the man again, the boy dog with the brown coat turned around one last time. Of course, she was there, faithful and heartsick, just as she had been.
And right then, he left his new friend and came running back to his lady. I have never seen such delight in the eyes of another being as I saw in that lady dog’s eyes. He ran to her and he jumped up and she sprinted towards him. And they have been in love ever since.”
It’s funny. Yes, they were in love – these two dogs. It was as clear to me as it was to Roberto and anyone watching them. I wondered how long the lady dog would cry once her family took her back to their home in San Jose. Or how long it would take before her vacation lover forgot her. Stopped gazing out over the water and moved on to another visiting canine, or another man with treats.
But that’s not the story, is it? The story is that he did come back. He chose his girl over his buddy, and over treats. That’s what this story is about. And while it probably didn’t end happily for the dogs – they are, after all, dependent upon their masters and will in all likelihood never see each other again. Their love, however, did inspire another story, as all great romances do.
It inspired mine.
My husband and I were having our first vacation alone, without our children, in fifteen years. Even Sheila and Roberto were leaving us after a couple of days, driving back to their home in San Jose.
Of course, we knew our romance wouldn’t last either. Soon, we would have to get back to our children and our jobs. Like the beach dogs, the week was pretty much it for us, and we relished our time together with the same, unbridled enthusiasm.
We got a couples’ massage right on the beach, took long walks, drank fruity drinks with little umbrellas, held hands, swam in a warm, frothy ocean, and kissed while watching a sunset that looked like burning embers.
We said I love you with real feeling, instead of tossing the words off in a hurry as we do when we’re on our way to another work event, another soccer game.
Sure, I whined for a couple of days when we returned. And my husband stared at his computer screen, barely able to move. Until a call came in and he had to take it.
Slowly, we moved on.
This is a list – just a list of things I’m grateful for. Nothing more, nothing less. It’s stuff I don’t think about most of the time, but that undeniably bring joy and purpose into my life. Things that perhaps you don’t think about either, but might put a smile on your lips, conjure a memory, remind you of a dream…
I’m grateful for my mother, and our loving, annoying, complicated and sometimes strange relationship. And that there are a bunch of black-eyed Susans that grow in our backyard right around mid-summer. My daughter puts them in her hair, making her look like something between a fairy and hippie.
I love when wispy clouds wrap around the full moon like a piece of white linen around a fat auntie’s belly…dirty jokes, I love those, too…and the way footsteps echo inside of an empty church.
I”m grateful for my youngest daughter’s scars, which serve to remind me how hard she fought for her life and how hard her doctors worked to save her…for contrarian opinions that challenge my most staunch beliefs…for a peanut pie recipe that sounds great, but I’ve yet to make…for my son’s pet snake, Fellina, because I don’t have to do one damned thing to take care of her…for a son who takes care of his own snake…for the wasp I sat on that didn’t sting me…the red and green light bulbs we screw into our porch lanterns every holiday season…that my husband makes my coffee every morning, and my cocktail every night.
In a grotesque way, I’m grateful for the swarm of houseflies that somehow got trapped between my office window panes and the storm windows just behind them…for the funny baby videos I watch with my twelve year-old daughter…and the smell of sweat and hormones that linger in our house after my teenage son has his friends over.
I love that my neighbors always say hi…that I speak Czech…that my husband told me I was pretty just last week…that there are ghosts in my house…that my nine year-old daughter is really into spaghetti westerns…that nobody in my family likes okra…but that we all love to dance to 1970s funk.
Then there’s the absolute insanity of our day-to-day lives – the sports, the Scout meetings, the school events, that create a rich flow and make us serve the greater good of our family…the fact that few things we truly care about have come easily…the taste of honeysuckle…the powerful combination of toothpaste and mouthwash that keep our teeth clean and our breath fresh…the invention of penicillin…and pasteurization…and vaccines…the space program…the human genome project…that Galileo, Michelangelo, Marcus Aurelius, America’s founding fathers, Ernest Hemingway, Winston Churchill, Oprah, Jonas Salk, Moses, David Mamet, Nelson Mandela, Vaclav Havel and Eleanor Roosevelt ever existed.
Great walking sticks – love those…the sun as it breaks through heavy cloud cover…the way the fall wind blows leaves in a cyclone…a good game of hide and seek…fake mustaches…southern accents and southern cooking…the Irish…the Jews…cringy disco songs…constructive criticism…nice butts…my best friend’s cat obsession and the songs she writes about it…a nagging conscience…lipstick…black licorice…campfire smells…yodling…ladybugs…insect repellent…candleabras…fiery sunsets.
And so much more, but I won’t put you through that.
Thank you for reading and for being a part of my life. And have a wonderful Thanksgiving!
I wasn’t always a die-hard country music fan.
Growing up in Chicago, and subsequently moving to other cities like Prague and San Francisco, I was raised on a steady diet of screaming guitars, blues, a smattering of jazz, and the occasional hipster band.
Don’t get me wrong – I still love them all! They’ve been the soundtrack to some of the best times in my life and when a song like Jane’s Addiction’s “Been Caught Stealing” comes on the radio in my car, I go off like a firecracker – pounding my hands on the steering wheel and frightening my children.
It wasn’t until I was in my early thirties and actually moved to a rural area that country music made its way onto my radar. Then subsequently wormed it’s way into my heart. A couple of years into living in my new home town, I realized that honky-tonk had pretty much taken over my iPod, leaving The Clash, Bowie, countless British New Wave bands and Madonna lonely for play.
(The Rockabilly songs of the Stray Cats got to stay in the fold.)
I’ve got to admit that a lot of my city slicker friends found my new taste in music questionable. Some openly wondered if my move to central Virginia didn’t coincide with a minor head injury.
City slicker friend: “You actually like John Denver. Really like him. You don’t listen ironically?”
Me: “I think he’s one of the great songwriters of the twentieth century.”(I’m deadly serious here)
City slicker friend: “Oh.”
Country music just ain’t on the playlist in yankee cities. Sure, a city dweller might enjoy “cool” country stars that have had Hollywood movies made about their lives. Singer-songwriters like Johnny Cash and Loretta Lynn come to mind. But for the most part, country music to a city person runs neck in neck with elevator music and polkas when it comes to their listening pleasure.
And I was right there with them.
It took changing my habitat dramatically to inspire me to learn an entirely new repetoire of songs that have little to no relationship with the good ole days of my teens and twenties.
I slowed down, started working out of my home office, and found myself noticing how the breeze would blow through so many leaves on a summer evening that I’d swear I was listening to wind chimes. Without even meaning to, I got to know – intimately – the movement of sunlight throughout the day and the phases of the moon. I can’t sleep when the moon is full, I’ve learned, so I might as well put on something soft. Maybe Willie Nelson.
It was finally seeing what a holler really looked like, and hearing the truly terrifying shriek of a fox’s mating call. Driving on roads called 22 curves (and for good reason), drinking whiskey in a rocker on my front porch (yes, we really do that), or hearing my daughter say her dream car is a pick up truck (not kidding here).
Still, all of those genteel country living experiences led me to water, but they didn’t make me drink. What did was my congential love of a great story.
Because in country music, I’d found some of the best lyrical storytelling I’d ever heard, and it was not confined to the usual trilogy of sex, drugs and teen angst that can make great music, too, but gets a bit repetitive. And frankly, starts to lose its oomph after you’ve had a kid or two.
Even some of the schlockiest country tunes tend to have very adult themes that present a complicated set of circumstances. Like a good book.
A country singer will warn you not to come home a drinkin’ with lovin’ on your mind, tell you to stand by your man, lament that if their phone still ain’t ringin’, they assume it still ain’t you. They teach you how to play the game of life through a game of cards, fall into a ring of fire, and go to Jackson, Mississippi looking for trouble of the extramarital variety. They sing about their daddies and their wayward loves, their friends, their problems, the mountains they grew up drinking in like moonshine. They take you this close to their face, till you can smell their breath.
And over the past decade – more than poetry, even more than reading – country music has inspired the way I’ve constructed the personalities of some of my favorite fictional characters.
Johnny Cash’s Delia, A Boy Named Sue and Number 13 colluded to help me create a bulemic Hungarian assassin with a penchant for rich food and sadistic murder…and a heart for only one woman.
Frankie Laine’s Wanted Man showed me how impulsivity and desire can spawn a fledgling outlaw.
Dolly Parton’s Touch Your Woman guided me in writing a heartbreaking love scene between two characters about to face their doom.
And Garth Brooks’s Friends in Low Places, about a regular guy who crashes his ex-girlfriend’s wedding to a high roller, always reminds me to give my characters a sense of humor – even amidst some of their most painful, cringy episodes.
Well, I guess I was wrong
I just don’t belong
But then, I’ve been there before
Everything’s all right
I’ll just say goodnight
And I’ll show myself to the door
Hey, I didn’t mean
To cause a big scene
Just give me an hour and then
Well, I’ll be as high
As that ivory tower
That you’re livin’ in
‘Cause I’ve got friends in low places
Where the whiskey drowns
And the beer chases my blues away
And I’ll be okay
I’m not big on social graces
Think I’ll slip on down to the oasis
Oh, I’ve got friends in low places –Garth Brooks
These artists continue to teach me not to waste words and to tell a compelling story in the shortest amount of time possible, so as not to bore a reader with competing descriptions and over-wrought emotions. They remind me that I don’t need a shoot-out or car chase or even a bunch of sex to put tension or excitement into a scene.
And they’ve shown me that having heart and brazen sentimentality can illustrate a powerful truth that kicks even the most cynical reader in the gut.
So, writers…and readers…next time you need to boost your imaginations, or just want to hear a great yarn – find your local country music station (I swear, even big cities have one), sit back, put your boots up and have a listen.
We have three children, ages fourteen, twelve and nine. I’m not sure when exactly my husband and I made the firm decision not to tell them how we vote, but I know it was when they were really young. Pre-political young. I remember one of them thought Barack Obama was the name of a candy bar.
I think it started as something of an experiment. We thought it could be beneficial to our kids and illuminating for us to see how their political beliefs developed if we exposed them to both sides of the debate. If we tried our best not to infuse our biases into their thought processes, yet demanded a certain degree of rigor. “I got it from the internet” is never the correct answer when offering support for your point of view, we would tell them.
In those early days, I guess you could say there were definitely some high falutin’ ideals behind our decision. We wanted to teach them how to think as opposed to what to think, in the hopes that it would make them more tolerant and less lazy. We didn’t like the tone that had crept into political discourse – the rants on social media and the everyday erasure of basic manners – and were hoping to help our kids become broad-minded enough to be comfortable outside of their own tribe.
But our decision was also rooted in how our own political opinions were formed as we grew into adulthood.
See, I was raised in a household of passionate beliefs formed by extraordinary circumstances. My grandparents and parents had front row seats for the holocaust and the Cold War, and their true to life stories were more thrilling and heartbreaking than most feature films. They knew from their own personal experience what it was like to be cold, hungry, frightened and exiled. To have made their home in a new country, knowing they could never return to the place where they were born. To have learned a brand new language – taping lists of vocabulary words by the kitchen sink, at the bedside table, next to the toilet.
They also knew what it was like to work hard and claw their way up into the middle class, to feel the buzz of success and the joy of watching their kids take piano lessons, graduate from college, publish books in the language that had sounded like a garbled cassette tape to them only a couple of decades earlier.
I learned pretty early on that even some of the most “out there” convictions – conspiracy theories about Soviet-spy presidential candidates, for instance – weren’t the result of either ignorance or stupidity. They evolved out of experience: “I saw this happen in the old country and it could happen here.” Or perceptions of identity: “I am a good person. Good people don’t like poverty. Candidate X says he doesn’t like poverty, therefore I will vote for X.”
As a result, I never saw the other side as the villain. I just figured we wanted the same things, pretty much, but had a different idea of how to get there.
My husband was raised in a die-hard democrat household where union wages put food on the table. His first job was doing opposition research for democrat and former presidential candidate Richard Gephardt and it lit a fire to his innate passion for debate. He now works for corporations, politicians and trade associations and has to get his head around both sides of an argument on a daily basis. Election time is hilarious around our house since the pollsters have no idea what to make of us. We watch both Fox and MSNBC and have at one time or another subscribed to everything from Mother Jones to the Weekly Standard – usually at the same time.
I guess you could say we were well prepared as we began the massive undertaking of making our kids do their own political due diligence.And to be honest, we haven’t always been sure our way was going to work. There are a lot of opinions out there, and who’s to say our little darlings wouldn’t just slack off and glob onto one of those? My mother has certainly never hidden her political beliefs from them and gleefully tries to influence their thinking.
We understood early on that we couldn’t just sit back and do nothing more than refuse to divulge anything either. We had no intention of leaving our kids to navigate the political spectrum and corresponding media circus alone. As exhausting as the prospect was, we decided to actively play devil’s advocate for every single issue and try to give the best possible arguments for both sides – even on opinions that inflame our passions.
It’s a lot of work and tipping our hand has always been a concern.
But all in all, I think we’ve done a pretty good job with confusing our children as much as we confuse the pollsters. At one point this summer, our son did a one-eighty between whether we were democrats or republicans about six times, until finally giving up and stating, “You two are evil.”Now, I realize our way is not the way for everyone. Nor do I advocate that it should be.
If the very thought of one or more of your children potentially forming a political belief that doesn’t reflect your own is deeply upsetting to you, then you might think we’ve done a lousy job. Only one of our kids has fully taken on our top-secret political views. Another refuses to tell us (we deserve that one), while still another is way off the reservation.
But overall, things have turned out pretty well so far.
Some of the most hilarious, thoughtful and downright brilliant political observations have come from our children. That alone has been worth it. Having to consistently argue the other side has also enabled us to keep learning and has even forced us to rethink or at least introduce more nuance into some of our most staunchly held beliefs. Even on hot topics such as abortion, capital punishment, and racism.
And it’s nothing short of amazing to watch how our kids’ innate personality traits influence their judgements. How being outdoorsy, interior, overly sensitive, chronically ill or even musical plays its role in the way conclusions are drawn, values are interpreted. It has helped us understand them better and established yet another layer of trust that we hope will keep them close to us during their more turbulent years.Surely, their current political opinions will evolve and change. Come five or ten years from now, our children’s notions of politics and the world at large might look nothing like they do now.
Political parties flip-flop.
The world moves on from our youthful perceptions.
Sometimes we discover we were just plain wrong.
And we hope we’ve given our children the tools to be as open and conscientious throughout their lives as they have been during this admittedly bizarre election cycle. We hope they don’t lose their temper too often when faced with beliefs that contravene their own. We hope they maintain their sense of humor and build a thick skin. Most of all, we hope they remain gracious towards all citizens of our great country, and retain their ability to change their minds. To us, that’s success.
I read somewhere – perhaps at an art exposition years ago – that Jan Saudek, one of my favorite photographers – believed that his purpose as an artist was to bring beauty into the most wretched corners of existence. As he spent a memorable part of his childhood in Terezin, the Nazi “show” camp in Czechoslovakia, it’s easy to see how he could view the monstrous and the holy with the same, adoring eye.
At least it’s easy for me. Others have called Saudek’s work “disturbing,” “violent,” “deviant” and “shocking.”
And certainly, a photo like the one above – a man angrily slapping a woman who seems to be enjoying it – can elicit some pretty strong emotions.
That’s precisely what I love about it.
If we strip “The Slap” of its obvious sexual undertones, of its politics, of its sarcasm, what you see is not just the wreckage of some sort of relationship – a husband and wife, adulterous lovers, perhaps, or a John and his harlot. You see two people holding on to something. Just barely, maybe. But it’s there in her smile. You can’t escape it. Her expression visits you over and over again – long after you’ve gone home and tried to put the photograph out of your mind. You might keep asking yourself what the hell she was smiling about?
I always thought I knew.
My mother endeavored to have a child – me – while in a wretched marriage. She didn’t do it to try and save her marriage. That ship had sailed years before. After the shouting matches and the violence and the blackmail and the affairs. She most definitely wanted out.
What made my mother approach my father about having another child – even when she knew that her marriage was utterly doomed, and she could hardly stand to be in the same room with him – was grief. Plain and simple.
My brother died about eleven months before I was born. His was a sudden, unfathomable death. He was only four, and died essentially of stomach flu. Only a couple of days before his death, he’d been climbing trees and picking berries from a neighbor’s garden, collecting bugs. Then, in what seemed like the blink of an eye, he became sick, then dangerously dehydrated, and ultimately drew his last breath.
He would remain four years old forever.
My mother says the only thing that kept her from taking her own life at that time was that my then seven year-old brother needed her. He was also grieving and looked to my mom to get them through that horrible experience. To bring hope back into their lives. And the only thing that gave my mom hope for the future was the prospect of bringing another life into the world. Not to replace my brother, but to bring joy back into hers and her surviving son’s lives. She needed to do something – anything – to the fill the black hole that my brother’s seemingly senseless death had left behind. The one that was sucking the life out her, crushing her spirit.
So, you could say I was born of lies, broken dreams and most of all sorrow. Grief was the sole purpose of my conception. Perhaps not surprisingly, grief – in one form or another – has become the purpose of my life’s work.
Now, I don’t mean to be a downer here. My books, stories and essays are not all about gloom and doom for heaven’s sake. I think more than anything they’re about hope. About the fragile, shimmering, silver lining that forms around every puff of smoke we see rising from the ashes of our latest heartbreak. What’s beautiful to me is that it’s always there – no matter how bottomless our pain seems to be. It can take the form of an unexpected gesture of kindness from the least likely person under the least likely circumstances, to a revelation you could have never imagined otherwise, to the fundamental relaunching of a life – the reinvention of an identity.
And it’s contagious.
When my youngest daughter was born with a catastrophic illness, I remember a conversation I had with one of her care givers – a doctor or nurse, I can’t remember which. But I think I remember her name. It was Diane. Diane told me about how working at the Children’s’ Hospital of Philadelphia – where my little girl was born – had expanded her own definitions of love. How before her job there, she could not understand the connection between a parent and child with severe brain impairment, for instance.
Diane recalled how one day she watched a mother as she brushed her teenage daughter’s hair. The daughter had been born with such low brain function that she was deemed a vegetable and needed help with every aspect of her care. And she just laid there all the time. She could never smile, hold her mother’s hand with intention. Her eyes didn’t even follow as her mother walked around her hospital room.
But here was her mother – every day – washing her, fixing her hair, filling her feeding tube, giving her dignity.
“It made me understand love on such a deeper level,” Diane told me. “It’s not about them – all of those kids with really big problems. It’s about us. How they change us and make us better.”
She then leaned in to me, like she was afraid of being heard.
“With genetic testing, we now have the ability to manage so many terrible problems out of our lives – and that is such a great thing. But we also lose something as we get closer to perfection.”
I’ve always thought perfection was overrated. Perhaps because I was born of so little that could resemble love, and during the worst time of my mother’s life. Diane’s words resonated so deeply with my own perceptions of purpose – my purpose. The grief without which I wouldn’t even be here.
And no, I want to be clear. I don’t think that couples shouldn’t get genetic testing, or try to cure their children not only of major illnesses, but even relatively minor issues – like allergies. I’d do anything for my kids. It is our biological imperative, at least according to both Charles Darwin and the Bible, to reach for the stars both literally and figuratively. To improve our lives and the lives of our children in every possible way we can. To crawl out of the swamp and grow legs to stand on and arms with which to make tools, and snatch apples off of trees, and hold our loved ones. To leave Egypt and spend forty years in the desert until finding the promised land. To enter heaven, or nirvana, or whatever kind of utopia you believe in.
It’s just that my purpose, I believe, is to remind anyone who will listen that there’s more than one way to get to paradise.
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Recently, my husband sent me an article on abandoned places. These were once glorious, but now forsaken European castles and villas. Dying tokens of splendor and opulence captured by architectural photographer Mirna Pavlovic, who has a thing for deserted structures. She risks getting arrested, falling through rotted floors, or just plain getting cooties by climbing fences and ignoring “no trespassing” signs in order to get some truly incredible shots. Ones of beautiful homes that for reasons we can only imagine, have been ditched and left to slowly decay. Their murals, marble and artisan carpentry are being encroached upon by the elements, until one day they will become part of the natural earth again.
“They are never truly dead, yet never really alive,” Pavlovic says of these villas. “Precariously treading along the border between life and death, decay and growth, the seen and the unseen, the past and the present, abandoned places confusingly encompass both at the same time, thus leaving the ordinary passerby overwhelmed with both attraction and revulsion.”
I love the duality she sees in these spaces. That the ghosts who visit while she snaps her pictures may tell a very different tale to her than to someone else. They might speak of folly, dancing, formality, and wing-dings. Or anguish, broken dreams, empty promises, death, hope, rebirth. Perhaps all of those things jumbled up into one, long Russian novel.
“Reminds me of the stories you write,” my husband told me.
And he has a point. It seems I cannot write a story without a double meaning or phantom of some sort. While Pavlovic focuses on place, I train my eye on people – emotion, memory, the senses. Picking apart and reassembling the interior mechanisms that conspire to make up a soul. Urging my imagination to recognize the spiritual components which make that soul eternal.It may seem counterintuitive, but I feel an inherent sense of optimism when I’m dreaming up characters who have been disavowed, betrayed, left behind to descend into ruin. From there, the only way is up. Thought by thought, step by step, decision by decision. Understanding this narrative is what gives life meaning. It opens our hearts to mercy.
So, I understand Pavlovic’s fixation.
The chronicling of this organic and at times supernatural metamorphosis is the sole reason I’ve never even considered giving up on being a fiction writer. Even when the frustration and fear of failure has been so great that it’s kept me up at night, found me tearing through my kitchen to cook up gourmet meals no one in my family really wants to eat, made me say mean things to my mother’s bird.
Because writing is so much more than a skill to me, or a way to do my part in keeping my kids ensconced in their expensive enrichment activities. Writing is an extension of faith, of compassion, of trying to leave behind something that will matter to someone else.
When I take time off from my stories for any extended period, I find myself averting my eyes from the ruined places and ruined souls that I would otherwise be exploring. Not because I can’t bear to look at them, but because I can’t spare the time. The hours in the day fill up with cooking and laundry and driving. And for a while, yes, the house looks better, our lives are more organized, our kids are always on time for their events.
Those intervals are important, too, and I’m not knocking them. Nor would I give them up.
But when they stretch out for too long, my interior life becomes a bit more stark. I might be a more competent wife and mother, but not necessarily a better one. I start to pick teams instead of examining issues. Ugly words begin to mean less, and even make me a little giddy. They feel like contraband – smoking a cigarette behind the shed doors.If I look away for too long, I start to give myself permission to retreat comfortably behind the sanctimony of political correctness, biblical passages, or quotes from my favorite philosophers – believing, wrongly, that I’ve got this empathy thing down. Smug in my place in the world, judgement and condescension worm their way into my daily thoughts. I have so much less to teach my children.
I don’t mean for it to happen, it’s something that creeps up – like the ivy in some of the mansions Pavlovic likes to photograph.
And that’s when I know.
It’s time to climb that fence again, march past the “no trespassing” sign, risk falling through a rotten floor and getting cooties in order to spend some time inside a soul – perhaps denied, friendless and pitiful, but still standing.
I live in a beautiful place.
Misty, Civil War battlefield mornings, hummingbirds zigzagging like bees from one open-mouthed hollyhock to the next, the smell of honeysuckle, dew and wood smoke in a heavenly perfume. It wafts in as I open my front door. The morning sun illuminates a large oil drum stain on our ancient wood floors, one of many historical scars in our house.
And this is the splendor of just any old day.
I haven’t even begun to tell you about the mountains, the orchards, the vineyards, the fact that we have as many rivers, streams and creeks as we do roads. Or the hot air balloons that float leisurely over our town on clear, fall days.
Where I grew up in suburban Chicago, unequivocal beauty was pretty scarce. The winters were harsh and a fresh snow would descend from white into gray within hours of falling. We’d have to make our Sno Cones quickly.
The city’s skyline was breathtaking – especially at night – and anywhere near Lake Michigan seemed like a vacation spot. But most of Chicago was industrial, gritty and rough around the edges in a way that was only charming if you grew up there. Even the so-called “beautiful” neighborhoods – the rich ones – weren’t all that great. They were fancy, yes, but when compared to some of the places I’ve lived in my adulthood, they were and remain fairly meh.
Truly beautiful days were uncommon enough when I was growing up that when they came, especially after a long and bitter winter, kids skipped school and adults called in sick. Or at the very least, tried to spend as much time outside as possible – maybe taking an extra long cigarette break (those were the days, right?), or offering to run an errand they would normally duck like an uncovered sneeze. In the city, people sat on their stoops after work, while in the burbs, they migrated to their porches or decks.
These were moments of stolen magic every bit as soul-stirring – at least for me – as the gentle, classical beauty of the Blue Ridge Mountains in my backyard today. They were beautiful because of the stockyards across town, the stained bricks and dirty smells, the mornings so frigid it took real effort to make an expression on your face, or grip your keys firmly in hand.
Those tiny glimpses of something fresh and wonderful – the dandelion that grew in the crack of a sidewalk, the vacant lot – weedy and clovered, offered plenty of fodder for my imagination. To this day, I can say without reservation that I have seen nothing as riveting as a thunderstorm viewed from my parent’s cluttered garage. I would sit in a rusty folding chair as rain pummeled our driveway, lightening cracked above the roof of the mud brown ranch house next door, and wind battered our American flag. It felt biblically wild and dangerous. Like anything could happen.
The creek across the street, nestled next to a four-lane highway, was like the wilderness to my friends and me. We pretended to fish in it during the summers (the water was too iffy for us to eat anything we might have caught) and it became our ice skating rink in the cold months. A grouping of trees huddled on no more than two, undeveloped acres on the other side of our block, was uniformly referred to as “the forest.” Every winter a dramatic icicle sculpture would burst out of split gutter somewhere – a surprise, poor man’s Michelangelo.
It was more than enough. In fact, the very personal nature of the beauty I experienced as a girl growing up in an unbeautiful place was what made it so special. To this day, driving down Interstate 55 in Illinois – what my husband calls “possibly the ugliest corridor I have ever seen” – makes me sigh. Forget the billboards and congestion, the railways, the chimney stalks billowing smoke, one’s my youngest daughter mistook for “cloud factories” on our most recent visit. This was the path to Chicago in my youth, and evokes nothing but feelings of excitement and possibility for me. I loved the way the streetlights came on at night, their yellow, harvest-moon glow. I savored the smell of air-conditioning puffing out of the vents of our metallic green Lincoln.
Perhaps it meant so much to me then, and still does now, precisely because of its paucity and particular nature. It belonged to me. Not even my own husband has grown to appreciate it over the years – no matter how many times I’ve tried to explain.
The beauty of where I live now – undeniable, unrelenting in every season, every incarnation – belongs to everyone. There is not a sane person living who would deny it.
And I do love it.
But it’s not mine.
In John O’Donohue’s book Beauty: The Invisible Embrace, he writes at great length about how beauty, whatever our interpretation of it, is the ultimate source of compassion and hope, the spark of both our collective and individual imaginations. The influence of beauty on our creative minds, he contends, is the only true tether to innocence.
“[only the imagination, through beauty] has retained the grace of innocence. This is no naive, untested innocence. It knows well the shadows and troughs of the world but it believes that there is more, that there are secret worlds hidden within the simplest, clearest things. The imagination is not convinced of the world of external fact. It is not persuaded by situations that pretend to be finished or closed. The innocence of the imagination is willing to see new possibilities in what appears to be fixed and framed. There is a moreness to everything that can never be exhausted.” — John O’Donohue
The moreness is what got me. That a storm watched from the garage of a 1960s style house can be as moving as a full, double rainbow over a pasture of wildflowers in the Virginia countryside is a testament to the moreness of the imagination. To the power of beauty as muse to the heart and mind.
John O’Donohue tells us, “Beauty is only a visitor. It’s not meant to stay.” But I’m not so sure. The beauty of my ugly childhood home has stayed with me, a travelling companion as I’ve passed through some of the most objectively beautiful places in the world. It will always be the standard to which I hold any surrounding, and the inspiration for some of my deepest, most contrary thoughts. The ones that help me understand people who are nothing like me, whose views I may find abhorrent, or whose values I deem silly.
The sumptuous beauty I live amidst today gives me serenity. It does inspire me. But my beauty – that of the chain-link fence, the brief summer, the gangway, the wall to wall carpeting, the tchotchkies, the plains – has been a wellspring of empathy and artistry. A dogged champion of independence and the fight for originality.