Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Four Weeks: Lost

Around and around the looping roads of the campground, I galloped an imaginary horse, clutching invisible reins in my hands. I was too old for imaginary horses. As a rising seventh-grader, I felt too old for a lot of things. But who cares about convention when you live in a tent? I was happy to stay a horse-crazy kid before school came and forced me to acknowledge those imminent teen years I'd been dreading.

In the lazy heat of midsummer, I stretched out on my red blanket in the shade and I drew several versions of my stable logo, for someday when I would own my own stable. I read SADDLE CLUB books and thought myself into them, and when the time came to get up off the blanket, to gallop my restlessness away, I had the horses pictured perfectly. I knew their names and personalities. I, on my own two feet, spooked at tree branches and gusts of wind. I whinnied and snorted and pawed the earth with my flip-flops. I tossed my tangled mane.

I must have looked plain crazy to everyone except my family. They were accustomed to me. They could see my imaginary horses.

Then one day, out of shy boredom, I silently nodded when a stranger asked me to seesaw. We didn't talk much and the awkwardness grew -- until she said, "This feels like jumping on a horse!" -- and I nearly fell off in shock.

"You like horses, too?!"

There was hardly any silence for a week after that.

We spent the days cantering our bikes side by side along the lake. We swapped favorite horse books and favorite horse tips and favorite horse stories. When she finally had to leave, we stayed in touch for years.

Today is September 27. On this day five years ago, grown, and with the campground the furthest thing from my mind, I knelt in the pasture at the head of a horse named Stuff, who I met and started riding just a year after my campground time. I rode him for three years before I bought him at the age of 16, and spent the next nine years revolving around him like the earth around the sun.

I didn't know, in the campground, that those dreams I wanted so badly I could taste the dust and smell the leather were only a year away. And of course I didn't know how it would end, twelve years down the road. A morning too warm for September, the engine cooling from my long drive home, a breeze stirring wisps of hay that should have already been eaten. Except he wasn't hungry.

In every book I write, there is an animal and it is usually lost. There is Orange Cat in LIVVIE, lost to a car. There is Widdershins in BODY OF WATER, maybe lost to a fire.

I can write about being homeless and I can write about lost dogs and lost kitties and little girls who feel lost themselves. But I can't write about horses yet. Even while I ride my new horse and spend hours at his side, I can't write about horse-crazy little girls, jumping seesaws and cantering bicycles. I haven't found the right words to describe something that isn't there.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Five Weeks: Morning and Evening

Ember Goforth-Shook, who in a brief five weeks will tell you BODY OF WATER if you let her, worries a lot. She gets that from me, but not twelve-year-old me. I didn't start worrying till a year or so later, older and not quite as wise.

In the campground, what was to worry about? Morning was like this: Weak, early, seven o'clock sun peeking up over the mountain, shadows spilling down the grass. The sun not touching till halfway out to the swim line, so the water out there was lit up orange, still and silent but tossing the sun back up into the sky. Quiet water and quiet minnows and quiet sand, as yet untouched by feet. Except for ours. Special, privileged. The first humans each day to touch the water.

And night was like this: Sun smoking on down toward the mountain, fires springing up, twirling sparks into the sky like stars with every log tossed on. And logs were free. Every family that left, left firewood and we were gatherers. And hunters. We hunted ghost stories along the edges of the friendly woods. We hunted secrets in the warm, soft mud. Found treasures like, literally, a silver spoon -- dug up out of the mud with our toes, the irony was not lost on us. Campfire evening leaned down into cozy-tent night with the crickets and the tree frogs singing, and all at once, shushing each other so we could hear the water lapping, soft, and the rumble of distant thunder.

What wasn't to love?

I mean, there was stuff in the middle. Daytime stuff, like seventh grade and house-hunting and grocery stores. But that isn't the stuff that sticks. For Ember, either, that isn't the stuff that sticks, because, as her time in the campground draws to a close, she stares out across the lake and she starts to feel homesick.

Homesick before you've even left. This makes more sense than you maybe realize, unless you're like us, and you've moved and moved. Unless you've ever stood and wished yourself backward in time, so you could smell the woodsmoke once more, feel the sand and the mud on your feet, grip lost silver with your toes and cup your hands around fireflies.

I don't always drift so far away, but today I am distant like the thunder, spinning toward the sky like the sparks. On this warm September evening in my grown-up town, I am looking back at twelve and it is shining like sun on the water, halfway out to freedom.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Six Weeks: Haiku

Swimming at daybreak,
we had special privileges.
Forget walls and doors.

Water is warmest
when the air is cool with rain
or with September.

Sand deep and shifting,
We mocked stability, we
Tripped over driftwood.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Seven Weeks: Building Character(s)

We are on day two of a cold, soaking September rain, the kind that stirs the earliest dead leaves to scatter on the sidewalk, the kind that stirs the earliest embers of autumn and of story. I am close to writing something new. I know because I am vibrating with energy that has nowhere to go, so I am dropping coffee cups and walking into storm doors. I am distracted, half-lost in impatience and anticipation and the hope that the story gets here soon, before I start forgetting to eat and to go to work in the mornings.

Seven weeks from BODY OF WATER, rain makes me think of my red blanket, which is not mentioned in the book but which is pictured in my head. September 1993 was warm enough, from what I remember. But I know it rained. Any time it did, we had to pull our belongings to the center of the tent, to keep them off the nylon walls that would let the water through if we touched them. There was a scramble to close the “skylight” – the removable cover that hid the mesh roof of our dome-shaped bedrooms – and then we would pull in, blankets and tennis shoes and roller skates and dirty clothes pile and ever-shrinking clean clothes pile, gathered to the center as if it were all a part of one big turtle hiding in its shell. Me, I always sat cross-legged on the middle of the pile, ratty red blanket draped over my shoulders. It was my beach towel on warm days and my shawl on cool days. In rain, it was my shelter.

Sitting in the middle of a dome-shaped tent, on top of all your earthly belongings, imagining yourself as a giant turtle while the rain pounds away outside, you can’t help but giggle. And if you’ve ever had, or been, a sister, you know that one sister can’t laugh for no reason without the other sisters joining in. So there we were, three blue and gray tents, giggling in the rain.

The next morning at sunrise, me and Heather went walking, looping the familiar streets of home. The storm-weakened sun was barely up in the sky and was nothing but a faded red ball, so dim we could look straight at it without hurting our eyes.

“It looks like one of those dots,” I said.

And, remarkably, she got it. “On a library book!”

We kept walking, cooking up a whole story about how we were nothing but characters in a library book, and the sun was only red-orange here because we were in the middle grade section, but characters in other books, in other sections, saw their suns in different colors. And maybe one day we would look up and the sun would be a different color and we would know we had been reshelved, and we could spin a whole adventure about trying to get back to our own familiar section.

Every word we thought as children scrawled itself across the pages in our minds. Everything was story. As long as the sun stayed its own familiar color, we could trust, more or less, that we were where we were supposed to be. We could relax and let the story write itself. We could dream up other worlds with different-colored suns, and secretly wonder if the other sections were as fun to write, and live, as ours.

Then the sun rose and yellowed and burned into full daylight, and we ran off to other settings, scaring up new plots and building our own characters.