So I never really knew why my mother mumbled to herself or saw things that weren’t there or broke the silence of our shared bedroom with her piercing screams. As hard as my subconscious tried every night to make sense of the daytime chaos through recurring nightmares, I would always awake vastly unsettled, paradoxically craving both complete order and fantastical escape.
I can’t recall the exact year, perhaps it was in third grade, when I was given entry into just such a magical world: the school library. I can still smell the heady combination of dusty paper and waxed wood. My fingertips can almost touch the low cases filled with rows and rows of plastic-covered books in a room, bright and open, punctuated with colorful posters telling us to “make friends with books.”
On that beautiful, fateful day decades past, our teacher left us in the care of the school librarian, a woman whose features are lost to me. Instead, in my mind she has become an amalgam of every kindly face I’ve encountered. It was she who inducted us into the secret society of the dewey decimal system, a system of classifying and ordering and numbering knowledge which immediately comforted and excited me.
To gain entry into this club we needed a membership card – our library cards – and the librarian wouldn’t hand them over until we understood the weight of responsibility that comes with being allowed to borrow a book. No religious man’s sermon has ever affected me as deeply.
It was through these books – “The Cricket in Times Square,” “The Littles,” “A Wrinkle in Time” – that I fell hard for the written word, as hard as any school-girl crush. When I read these books, against the tree at lunchtime or on the green, striped velvet couch in our small living room, the chaos around me quieted and almost disappeared. In its place, I found imaginary lands and real cities and broken people. I found reclusive, female writers like Emily Bronte and Emily Dickinson surrounded by isolation, their words an anchor to the world. These women, these Emilys, were my real companions, because they – not my friends with whole mothers – understood a world of illness and chaos and loneliness.
But like a school girl who loses touch with her first, true love, I lost my way throughout middle and high school. It took until my college years to realize that I deeply missed the written word and its inherent power to transport and comfort and disturb. But my childhood crush had now turned to a grown-up obsession as I longed to master it and manipulate it and make it mine through my own storytelling.
And I tried, mostly failing, writing stories and poems for my various journalism and English classes. My failure came in great part in not understanding that a story’s beauty is in the words that are left at your feet. It took one of my professors, a small man with a bowtie who quoted Henry James, to hand me back one of my papers covered in crossed-out sentences. He sat with me patiently in his office and went line by line through my essay. Gerunds and adjectives felt the sting of his sharp pen the most. Left behind were words that now had a clear path to find their story.
This exercise enlightened and emboldened me. It wasn’t long after that I wrote a story for one of my fiction English classes, a story which provided a glimpse into a pancake-house waitress’s day. Even now, I want to giggle over the excitement I felt when the professor chose to read it aloud to the class.
(Sadly I gave the paper, with its large, red A+ to the owner of the restaurant where I worked because he enjoyed the story so much, never to have it returned. I imagine the paper frayed and dirty sitting in a landfill, its A+ reaching toward the sky.)
I could tell myself that I didn’t pursue writing after college because it was too financially risky, but that would only be a half truth. The other half is that it was too emotionally risky as well, and I wasn’t ready or able to go there. So I entered the world of nonprofit where my writing would sneak in through form letters, departmental procedures, and grants.
This went on for years like an arranged marriage where you grow to really like the person you’re with, but not quite enough to say you are in love. But just like a marriage, I had a midlife crisis. Maybe it was because people around me started dying, and no matter how hard I ran I could still feel the Grim Reaper’s breath on my own neck. Or perhaps it was because I felt like a fraud, telling my kids to ignite their passions and jump into the flames, as I sat with my own matches tucked away. Whatever the case, one day not too long ago I made the decision to devote myself to my lover. I made the decision to write and to be a writer and to not only leave a trail of unspoken words at my feet, but to hopefully leave pages of words long after I can’t outrun the man with the scythe any longer.