Monday, March 17, 2014

Stories Along the Way

(From The Way-Back Files -- Connecticut Muse, Autumn
                               2009.)

The morning was cool for August...but, then, it was always cooler at my grandparents’ farm up in North Canton.  I wandered out into the side yard with its giant weeping willow and played-out fruit trees.  I was a month shy of ten, and my father had been rushed to the hospital late the night before following a heart attack.  All of us kids, except my oldest brother, who was in college, had been sent up to our grandparents’ place:  I’d been sick shortly after we’d arrived and was still feeling washed-out and wobbly-legged.
              I stood by the porch steps, staring at my grandmother’s pink and blue morning-glories.  There was a rusty drainpipe lying alongside the unpaved driveway, spilling its water out onto the sand and pebbles.  I picked up a yellowed willow leaf and set it down in that stream.  Entranced by the burbling sound of the water, I followed my leaf friend as he bobbed along, making up a story for myself about where he was heading and what adventures he was having....Then I decided he might be lonely, so I found a “lady” leaf  to keep him company.  And when I’d made up all the stories about them that I could possibly come up with, I let them live happily ever after.
            Thirty-one years later, that memory-picture is still vivid to me...so vivid that I’ve often felt as if I could step back in time right into it.   It was the first time that I clearly remember making up a story to help me through something that was very frightening to me.  Creating that story comforted me in the wake of my dad’s heart attack.  Oh, I had scribbled stories before (little stories about my cats, lavishly illustrated in red, black, and green ink, or endless sagas about the characters in my favorite books) but nothing that had ever given me the sense, as that story did, of what makes writing magical for me:  namely, the ability to step outside of yourself into other worlds, other lives -- even if they’re the lives of two yellowed willow leaves -- and, paradoxically, heal your own pain and loneliness.  “The stories people tell have a way of taking care of them,” says Badger in Barry Lopez’s book Crow and Weasel.  “Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive.”
            I needed that story.
            Twenty-four years later, the powers that be gave me the opportunity to learn that truth anew.  Granted, it was not an opportunity that I had sought -- indeed, it was one that I would have given anything to give back.  On July 11, 1995, my husband, Tim Spooner, was killed in a freakish car accident, tearing our world -- the world that we had created for ourselves and our three-and-a-half-year-old son, Zeke -- apart with the intensity of the bombing of Hiroshima.  Leaving me feeling that I, like the people at the heart of that terrible blast, was nothing more than a shadow burned into the sidewalk.
            But blasts are peculiar things.  I remember reading that the very same bombing that reduced innocent bystanders to shadows etched in concrete also damaged the eyes of a young Japanese boy.  His eyes eventually recovered, and he grew up to be a photographer.  But he saw things differently than he had before -- was intensely alive to subtle nuances in color and form that had always escaped him before -- and his photos reflected that.  And I found that the same held true for me as I struggled out of my own personal wreckage and slowly, painfully began writing again.
            Less than a year after my own personal Hiroshima, I began writing a time-travel novel, Souleiado.  My recently widowed artist heroine, Miriam Souleiado, has been chosen by some particularly restless spirits to solve a mystery that ruined their lives:  traveling back to the late 19th century, she finds out the truth for them as well as a few home truths for herself.
            Always in my writing before, I had stopped short, unwilling to push myself that extra distance and focus on what most needed focusing on.  I’d been able to dazzle most folks with my word-play and make them think I was being completely open and forthright with them.  “How well she describes feelings,” a published poet had written to a friend’s father after he’d shown her some poems I’d written back in junior high.  And that was the truth of it:  I had described feelings, not put myself right in the midst of them.
            In short, I had been hiding behind my own words.  And doing it very well, I might add.
            Not now, though.  Miriam gave me the mouthpiece I needed.  Through her, I could finally give voice to all the grief, pain, and loneliness that were surging through me like so many electrical currents, and I did not hold back.  And during the three years that I spent in Miriam’s company, both in our own time and in the past, her healing became my healing. 
            Funny, but when I stop and think about it, both those stories, crafted so many years apart, were about just that -- finding what my highly intuitive little son used to call  “yes” at the end of the tunnel. Miriam’s story was obviously (and infinitely) more complicated than that of the little willow leaf making his way down the stream of water.  But both Miriam and the leaf were on journeys: and telling their stories helped me along on mine.





9 comments:

Samantha Mozart said...

"Stories Along the Way" -- I love this piece and these stories, T.J., just love them. This one wandered out of your "Way Back" files and into the stream of my life just when I needed it.

Truly: These days I have been pondering my past, present events and the journey of my writing and direction it might take.

You reconfirm my original thought about my writing, that I should share my thoughts and feelings via my writing, because maybe, just maybe, what I have to say may help another.

Thank you.

T. J. Banks said...

Thank you, Samantha. It's good to hear you say that.
That morning at my grandmother's farmhouse was definitely a turning-point moment for me...even though at eight,I didn't know what a turning point was. But looking back, I'd have to say that that morning marked the beginning of my life as a storyteller.
Your last sentence got me thinking about wounded healers. Is that what we writers are?

Gwynn Rogers said...

I'm not the storyteller that you and Samantha are, but writing about the past is extremely cathartic for me. In cases of when I was quite young, writing has shown me what the problem was. The best part is that the problem wasn't me as I had been told.

Your story IS wonderful and healing. Plus, you have the gift of being a descriptive writer. I can actually see your grandparents' property. I want to be like you and Samantha when I grow up! ;-)

I very much enjoyed your story. Thank you for sharing.

T. J. Banks said...

Thanks, Gwynn! I think you're right -- writing DOES frequently show us where/what the problem is. It brings all sorts of things to the surface...things that are never as random as they first seem.
My grandparents' farm was an important part of my life growing up, and I carry it with me. Always.
(P. S. I have not grown up yet.)

Gwynn Rogers said...

By the way... DON'T EVER GROW UP!! Remember that the mirror LIES!! ;-) I haven't grown up either!

T. J. Banks said...

Good advice, Gwynn! I don't think there's any danger of it!!

Samantha Mozart said...

Wounded healers, yes, that IS what we writers are. And writing is cathartic for us, the storytellers. I, too, keep wondering when I'll grow up.

T. J. Banks said...

Yep, we writers have to pick at the scab, probe the wound, and share what we've learned. As for growing up...well, perhaps the secret is (as someone once said of Lewis Carroll) growing down, not up.

Samantha Mozart said...

Pick the scab, probe the wound and share. And Lewis Carroll's "growing down."

I love these. You need not comment on my comment, this time, T.J. Otherwise, we'll have a story called "The Neverending Comments." But, when a writer writes a great line or a phrase, as you have, I just had to let you know I liked it. :-)