This Is What A Good Day Looks Like

My psyche is not a democracy. My fears and anxieties are the oppressed majority, and my tiny but fierce spark of optimism rules with an iron fist. Night is a precarious time for this balance, and so I try to spend the night asleep. Maybe my fears rule the night, but I don’t usually remember in the morning. I am lucky and I have a nice life, but there are bad days, of course. Everyone has bad days, but this was a good day.

My seven-year-old is a morning person. Well, he’s basically an any-time-of-day-or-night person, and the rest of us depend so heavily on his good nature that when he has a bad day we all fall apart. The five-year-old is not a morning person, but this morning he woke up and he was a sugar-glider hatching out of an egg. Sugar-gliders are easier to deal with than your average 5-year-old on a school morning, even newly hatched sugar-gliders, so that was a good start to the day.

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(Note: sugar-gliders are mammals and do not hatch out of eggs, we know this, but this particular sugar-glider loves to hatch in the mornings and is good at it. We stick to our joys, flying in the bleak and joyless face of The Truth.)

Mornings are peak gratitude, when fear is at its lowest ebb. I am a whirlwind in the mornings, making breakfasts and lunches, herding child and sugar-glider into clothes coats shoes backpacks ready out the door. It was sunny and windy but no tree branches fell on our heads and we didn’t get hit by a car on the way to school. I walked home, made coffee, washed up the breakfast things, opened my computer. This was tucked inside my typing glove like a love note, because my sugar-glider shares my love of monsters:

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Some days I write and write and then I stop and think, what is all this? Am I writing a book, or what am I writing? This day, I stopped and I felt like I was definitely writing a book.

I took the laundry down to the basement. We still had quarters for the machines in the jar and I didn’t drop my underwear in the gross cobwebby space between the washer and the dryer. The mail had come, and this was in it:

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I opened it up and the first line has dragon eggs in it, which made me happy. Dragons rank even higher than witches and pirates as far as I’m concerned. Every book I write has a dragon in it, but at some point I usually have to take the dragon out, because not every story really needs a dragon. That’s my version of killing my darlings. I kill a lot of darling dragons.

I read about Genghis Khan for a while – “research,” but whatta guy, srsly – and went to pick the kids up.

After school it was so warm that the kids ran around in t-shirts even though snow is forecasted for the weekend. I sat against the brick wall that we call “the beach” because the sun hits it in the afternoon, one in a long row of nannies and mothers, and all of us were tired because we’re always tired, but we were warm and that was nice. I ate all the snacks I’d packed for the kids, who wouldn’t pause from pretending to kill each other in order to eat, and I read this poem by the incredible Ada Limon:

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Let this photo serve as my confession: I dog-ear pages. But I promise I will not dog-ear your pages if you lend me a book.

I didn’t have to cook dinner because I’d made a huge casserole on Monday and we still had leftovers – enough to stretch into a proper meal with rice for one more night. The kids did not complain about their homework. My five-year-old read me this book.

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If I am very honest, being read to by a five-year-old, even a five-year-old I utterly adore, makes me want to down a whole bottle of bourbon. I settled for a small glass of bourbon and tried to breathe deeply and thought about the poem. Yesterday I was nice, but in truth I resented the contentment of the field. That’s how it is sometimes. I’m thirty-five and remember all that I’ve done wrong. I counted my misdeeds while he read, and then we were done.

As soon as my husband got home, I changed my clothes, looked in the mirror and realized there was nothing to do about my hair except stuff it in a hat and refuse to take the hat off, and then I went downtown with two dear friends to The Institute Library to hear Min Jin Lee talking about her new book PACHINKO.

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The talk was fascinating and funny and Min Jin Lee was so smart and so charming and I came home hugging my signed copy of the book, happy about the heft of it and the new-book smell.

The kids were still awake when I got in. I lay down with them and the little one wrapped his hands in my hair and the older one whispered his plans for a stop-motion lego war movie, soft like a lullaby in my ear, and I fell asleep. I didn’t mean to fall asleep just then, of course, and I woke up in the middle of the night in their bed, fully dressed and bewildered. Because it was the middle of the night, Fear seized its moment. My tiny spark of optimism toppled off her throne. My fears ran amok, buzzing through me, freezing me in place, painting vivid, horrible images of everything that could happen to us, all the things that could destroy us and our fragile peace. I tried to think about other things. I got a glass of water and tried wash the fear away. I thought about the poem I’d read – all these needs met, then unmet again ­– and tried to read a book, and failed, and failed, and was ruled by fear until sleep came to save me.

But that bit doesn’t count as part of the day because I think it was after midnight.

Like most days, I was happy and interested and lucky, and also disappointed in myself because I am never quite the person I mean to be and there is so much in the world that’s wrong and I don’t know how best to live and act or whether I’m raising my kids right.

I wish I knew how to do something productive with fear, but I don’t. It’s just something to endure. In the morning, I right the toppled throne, put Optimism back in her proper place, a little rumpled and frazzled but ready to rule, ready to build another day out of words and books and love, which is how I like it and how I try to keep it.

That’s what a good day looks like.

Good Bones

I used to be able to sleep through anything. I was known for it. When I was pregnant with my first child and people talked about how babies woke you in the night, we laughed at the idea. Nothing woke me in the night. I was actually worried about it – would I hear my child screaming?

Then I had the baby and that changed, along with everything else. Now the slightest sound will wake me. The other night, I woke to a whimper. Something splashing somewhere. I went padding through the dark apartment, found a flashlight in the drawer, and discovered water dripping down the blinds onto my older son’s head. His pillow and hair and face were soaking wet and he was still asleep. He gets the deep sleeping from me, I guess. Me before him.

I pulled the bed away from the window. I put towels down on the floor, replaced his pillow, dried his head – none of which woke him beyond a slight murmured protest. Was he dreaming that he was out in a rainstorm?

It was three in the morning but I couldn’t go back to sleep. I lay there listening to the splash of water on the towels, getting up every now and then to check on the puddle with the flashlight and to put down more towels, until the sun came up and the day began and I could call the building manager. Times like these, I’m glad to be renting.

*

This apartment has been crumbling around us for years. It isn’t ours, and we won’t stay forever – we’re just trying to hold it together while we’re here. I don’t feel a lot of angst about it. There’s always somewhere else to live. Not so if your city is being bombed. Not so for the planet.

Recently I read Madeleine Thien’s novel Do Not Say We Have Nothing, which takes the reader through the cultural revolution in China and right up to the Tiananmen Square massacre. It’s a devastating book, and full of the best writing about music I’ve read anywhere. Then I read Alexander Chee’s The Queen of the Night, also full of music and brutality, the French Communards slaughtered in a chapter that left me shaking. If history tells us anything, it’s that the kind of viciousness we like to call inhuman is obviously very human indeed. Maybe the moral arc of the universe doesn’t bend in any particular direction. Maybe we just blunder along through good times and bad, and sometimes into utter fucking atrocity, because we are a species easily capable of what ought to be unthinkable.

My kids and husband and I went on the March for Refugees in our city last weekend. The 7-year-old made a sign that said REFUGEES WELCOME and carefully affixed sparkly heart stickers all around it. For him this isn’t an abstract idea. Our city is a sanctuary city. Refugee, for him, means the new girl in his class. They can’t kick her out of my class, he says. After the march, playing with their legos, the boys were still chanting: “No Hate! No Fear! Refugees are welcome here!” and then the seven-year-old would shout, “Show me what democracy looks like!” and the five-year-old would shout back, “This is what democracy looks like!” They had a lively argument about one of the other chants, which went “Whose streets? Our streets! Whose city? Our city!” etc. right up to “Whose world? Our world!” Older Boy tried to explain that the chant was telling Donald Trump he couldn’t stop us from welcoming refugees, that the world belongs to all of us, and Younger Boy replied furiously, “the whole world doesn’t belong to us. It’s stupid!” I have to agree with Younger Boy, I think it’s a stupid chant. I didn’t say that, though. I said its intent wasn’t clear. Then again, I’m not big on chanting. Or marching, for that matter, but I’m trying to act better than I am. For the kids, I guess.

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*

The routines of each day are measured out with beverages. Coffee for writing, tea for reading, water for checking the news and anxiously calling my state reps, bourbon for helping the kids with their homework. There is a weird emotional whiplash to what I’m reading – the devastating historical novels and the current news – and my own cozy life. I am grateful for the beautiful snowy days, for a fridge full of food and shelves full of books, for good friends and caring, dedicated teachers, long afternoons sledding, a warm apartment to come back to, all of it. We curl up on the bed to read in the evenings, the four of us together and lucky, the boys in their pajamas, husband and I trading off chapters. The kids howl with disappointment every night when it’s time to stop, lights out, and then they sleep so deeply that not even a leak right overhead splashing water in the face can wake them up.

We took donations from the kids’ Kindness Club to the local animal shelter recently. As we left my older son said, “We’re changing the world a little bit at a time,” and I nearly choked on my chocolate bar. I mean, where does he get this shit? But of course I want them to have hope. I want them to be happy and empathetic and self-aware, I want them to be the kind of boys and eventually men who have learned not to walk into every room like it belongs to them. I want them to have the optimism necessary to move things forward. I want what we all want for our kids – to leave them something worthwhile. But sometimes I think it involves lying to ourselves as well as to them. This poem has been haunting me as I think about the way we talk to our kids about the world:

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Yes, I’m trying to sell them on the world, like the poem says. Every time I read this poem I’m wowed by what it pulls off – the emotional whiplash that is so familiar from my own life vs. the world. She basically tells us point blank that the realtor is full of shit, and yet I read that last line always with a ridiculous rush of hope – you could make this place beautiful. I want to believe the realtor’s lie too, I sort of do believe it when I read it, in spite of what I know, in spite of the whole poem preceding it. Because what use is nihilism to anyone? What good does it do to have no faith in the world when there’s nowhere else to go? Maybe we can’t understand each other, maybe we can’t change anything, maybe we can’t make peace, maybe we don’t really want to. Maybe half of us are truly awful and most of us don’t have the energy for anything beyond the private struggles of our little moment here. We’re all just renters, in the end.

But the kids, with everything ahead of them still, inheritors of our mistakes, we tell them it’s up to them and they believe us. We point them toward shining examples – people with the passion and energy and intelligence and empathy to spend their lives fighting for a better world. We know the foundations are rotten, but we keep fumbling forward, patch that hole, dab of paint, and we tell the kids that if they put in the work the place will hold. We hope and pray that it will hold.

I act like I have hope because I think it’s necessary to live that way, but in my deepest heart this is what I really think: when my child wakes up from a nightmare and I hold him close and tell him he is safe, I am lying. When we teach them to put their pumping little hearts on the line – to love, to care, to be brave, to fight for what is right – while the huge machinery of history is bearing down with all its grinding gears and an immense force of ill-will and apathy behind it, we are selling them on a lost cause. People as a whole are not good enough. The planet is poisoned. We live on stolen land in a nation built out of horrors. This place is done for.

I’m a lousy defeatist, I know, but I’m soothed by the idea of small acts. We can still take the joy of the moment, whatever we’ve been granted, and use it as a light. We can teach our children that no matter how hopeless things are, when you wake to the creak and drip of a crumbling home, in a building soon to be condemned, there is always something you can do to make the long night better for whoever is stuck under the leak.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ways To Be

A couple of weeks ago I got to go on tour with the brilliant and hilarious Kiersten White, Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff. I followed them around for one week, pretending that I, too, was a Real Author. It was fun and inspiring and energizing. After panels, I signed my name in copies of my book and thought, Well, sure, that makes sense, I wrote it, but it felt so surreal.

It was fun to try out the life of a “professional author on tour” – like putting on a costume – but it was also exhilarating in the way that travel of any kind is exhilarating, for that feeling of being out of context. Who am I without my life folded around me, defining me? Who am I out here, in this featureless hotel room or moving through the airport, away from everyone who knows me and loves me? When was the last time I wasn’t running through a checklist of things to do and, buried underneath that to-do list, the unwritten list of ways to be? Both motherhood and writing a book, in very different ways, narrow my focus tightly. I got to step outside all of that for a week. I felt like I might be just about anyone, for a change.

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Then I came home, and my kids were full of excitement about a particular tree they’d discovered near the university farm. It’s so AWESOME, you have to SEE it, they shouted, and just like that I slipped back into my life. It closed tight around me, but like a hug, let’s say. Everything is the same again – cooking eggs for breakfast, the clamor of voices and clatter of dishes, taking out the garbage, counting out quarters for laundry, the fall leaves and the fall light making everything beautiful, the chill in the air that has me bracing for winter.

The day after I got back, I took them with me to vote. We waited in line for over an hour. There were snacks and pizza, a party-ish atmosphere, applause for first-time voters. The older boy wore his I VOTED sticker proudly; the younger one threw his on the ground and said “I hate votes” because he hadn’t yet forgiven me for going away. I’d been away for a week and so my patience was boundless. I was feeling excited about the book I’m writing, excited about the future. I picked up his sticker and said, “OK, let’s go see this amazing tree.”

**

I was one of those idiots who thought Donald Trump was a joke. I mean, a vile, bigoted, sociopathic billionaire is not very funny, but the idea that he could ever be president, this ill-informed, unfocused, crude, racist buffoon? I figured, no way. The farther this thing went, the more alarmed I became at what he was stirring up, the ugly feelings that were there all along in America but became louder and louder, more and more emboldened by his rhetoric. But it wasn’t until around 10:30 Tuesday night when my husband said “shit” in a particular tone of voice and my stomach plunged that it became real: someone like this actually can be elected president. This horrible, arrogant, privileged man has believed all his life that he can have and do whatever the hell he wants – and it turns out he’s right. He can. And now he’s going to be the next President of the United States.

My seven-year-old cried when I told him about the election results in the morning. I rambled my way through some generic pap about being the good you want to see in the world, because obviously I didn’t want to say how frightened I was, truly and deeply frightened, for all the people in this country who are vulnerable, about what this reckless know-nothing bully might do to the already desperate situation in the Middle East, for the planet itself, and I’m not being hyperbolic. So I said, we will be OK, but more than ever we need to look out for people who might not be.

Because he is a better person than me, and because he is seven, and because he is reading Harry Potter Book 5 (Dumbledore’s Army!), my little beacon of positivity decided to start a Kindness Club. He invited all his friends, we set up a facebook group, and we’ve settled on a monthly budget for donations to organizations that have been working hard for a long time and who will keep on working to make the world better – like this one. He made a sign that said NO WALLS and took it to a rally on the green downtown, holding up his sign and chanting along with the crowd while his little brother held on to my leg and grumbled, “This is actually not fun.” I’m with the little one, but I’m trying. The older boy makes lists of things we should do, then sighs and says, “It’s hard work to run a whole club, but we have to fight for justice.” It cracks me up and makes me want to scream at the same time.

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He’s a child, of course, with a child’s simplistic view of the world, and a child’s energy and optimism. I can’t stomach the analysis of “what went wrong” or people trying to argue that wearing fucking safety pins is somehow a useful thing right now. The Kindness Club feels hokey but sweet and if this moment is my child’s political awakening, I want to be as positive and proactive as I can, because I’m his mom, and what else am I going to do? I feel as helpless as I have ever felt, but here I am, raising two goodhearted little white boys, heirs to all the good fortune in the world. If I have nothing else of value to give, I’ve got this kid, America, who at seven years old has got your number, and who will, I hope, retain his energetic idealism and the belief that it is his duty to fight for those who are not as safe and as lucky as him.

I struggle with my natural inclination toward cynicism and nihilism, but I still think stories and art are powerful and necessary. I still think there is no way forward without empathy. I still think local action is the best way to bring about change. If you believe in the importance of books, and if you’re appalled at how few people voted and how messed up the voting system is in this country, supporting WNDB and the ACLU however you can might be a good idea.

I taped an old tweet from Lin-Manuel Miranda to the top of my computer, so I see it every morning, which is kind of silly but I don’t care. Here we are, in the ugly, incredible world, doing what we can and messing up a whole lot, but still, for now, here we are.

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**

After voting last Tuesday, I felt so upbeat. My mind was racing. I’d just read two really great books on tour – Dana Johnson’s beautiful, wrenching collection of short stories, In the Not Quite Dark, and Laurie Penny’s short dystopian sci fi novel Everything Belongs to the Future. I was feeling inspired – by what I’d been reading, by conversations with writers and readers, by new places and new people. I was happy to be back with my family, ready to get back to my own writing. It was still hours before election results would start rolling in, before the sick feeling that’s been with me all week would settle in my gut. I packed a picnic lunch and took the kids to find this tree they were so excited to show me.

They were right – it is amazing, a huge weeping beech tree, perfect for climbing, the trunk scarred with carved messages and initials. ISN’T IT AWESOME? they shouted at me, running into the sheltering space beneath it, scrambling up the branches, and it is, it really is. We’ve lived here for years and I can’t believe we’re only finding it now, when it was here all along.

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Running After

I ran away for the first time when I was fourteen, because I wanted to go somewhere. I chose a man as my mode of transportation, and the wrong man, too. (Well, it could have been worse). I rode him like a wave across the border and almost all the way to California before shattering to shore. If I learned anything that time, it was only that if I wanted to go somewhere, I’d better get there myself.

My oldest son turns seven today. He lost his fourth tooth last night and I can’t get used to his weird gap-toothed grin. He’s reading me Harry Potter with a lisp: Thalathar Thlytherin, for god’s sakes. We’re at the beach on Vancouver island where my parents used to take my brothers and me when we were little. Now it’s my parents, my husband, G in her floppy hat, her kids and mine, all of us digging an enormous castle to face the tide. When we were kids, my brothers desperately wanted a way to defeat the tide, but for me the glory of it was always the tide’s inevitable triumph, the castle we’d labored over swept away like nothing at all.

I’ve left places I loved and men who made me happy, as well as some terrible men and some real shithole places, because leaving has always been something I was good at: starting over, clean slate, everything new again! The train pulls away from the station and my heart soars. How could any guy compare with the thrill of leaving him in my dust? When you’re young it feels like running towards the future, like there might be some brilliant remade version of yourself over the hill of the next adventure, every new horizon full of promise, but as you get older you might pause to ask yourself what the hurry is. I mean where exactly, after all, do you think you’re going?

 I had a boyfriend who used to take me fishing. I hated fishing. I didn’t like pulling the poor flopping creatures out of the water and I didn’t like standing still. I’ve never liked standing still. But there have been these moments, most of them while traveling, that filled me right up and I experienced a real, deep stillness. Like stillness within motion. I started chasing those moments – finding a box full of kittens at the ferry dock in Kota Baru at dawn, everything glowing, the tiny noise the kittens made and the boat coming over the pink waves to take us out to the island; swimming in a clear bright oasis in the Sahara desert, near Siwa, with enormous golden dunes all around us; walking out to the end of Rose Spit on Haida Gwaii while storm-clouds rushed in over the water with a speed that seemed unreal, impossible.

 Almost eight years ago, inside an ice-slicked tent on the way to Machu Picchu, I told the man I’d recently married that I wanted to have a baby. I couldn’t have said why. I tried to talk myself out of it. It was discouraging to feel so mammalian about the whole thing. I made pro and con lists and I had nothing to put in the pro column, just a long list of cons. All I could think about was what I’d be giving up, but this longing outweighed all of my reasons in the end. I had a baby, and then I had to stop pretending I was Katherine Mansfield and start planning on longevity, which is not to say that I was any good at it.

This summer I got off the bus in Vancouver and there was G waiting for me, red lipstick, earbuds in her ears, singing along to the Hamilton soundtrack – this summer almost everything I say garners a Hamilton-quote rejoinder – and two decades roll away, because seeing her there lights me up the same way it did when we were eighteen. I used to take this bus-line downtown to the café I worked at, feet up on my seat, her phone number written across the toes of my shoes, before we lived together, before we went running off in different directions, before we had husbands and children and a maze of dead ends in our wakes, before we’d really reckoned with defeat. We’re both chronic leavers but somehow I thought for sure we’d land in the same place. We wanted everything back then and we went racing after it, whatever it was, without a whole lot of thought, but now I think all I want is not to say goodbye to her every year.

I’ve been a mother for seven years, which is long enough to come to terms with the fact that no skin will ever feel quite right but I can’t keep shucking them off either. It’s long enough to get comfortable with my discomfort. But I still don’t have an answer to the who am I now question, or the question of what to do with all this love, how to live with all this fear, or what to hope for now that I can’t just pack up my life and run away.

It’s the evening of his seventh birthday and I think that if anything could ever still me or fill me now, it’s watching him run. He wants to be out of my sight, to go adventuring in the wide world, and nowhere is the world wider than here, where the tide pulls out for nearly a mile. I watch him and his little brother, their silhouettes against the dimming sky and the water rippling out beyond them. The two of them go farther and farther until they are just two black specks way out there and then my heart tugs with panic and I start to run as well. I used to run away, but now I’m always running after.

He can’t hear me calling, but still, he turns around, he comes back, his brother splashing along behind him. They are barefoot and shouting, their voices lost on the wind, but as they get closer I can hear them: Look, Mom, look! Holding something out before them in their cupped hands.

The tide is pulling out now and there’s just a lump of slightly smoother sand where our afternoon castle was. That’s what happens to everything we build, and soon the tide will turn and roar back in but from here it looks peaceful and slow. I’ll tuck them in bed and pretend I can keep them safe. I’ve bet my heart on it, my life, which counts for nothing at all, but look how happy and free they are right now, running towards me.

I go to see what they’ve found out there.

 

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This Bouquet

If you write a book, or a bunch of books, one thing that people will ask you a lot is where you got the idea.

I’ve tried to come up with answers that fit into a sentence or two and that sound sort of plausible, but those answers are lies, and I’m fine with that – making up untrue stuff is what I do for a living now, after all.

The truth is that there is this garden I like going to. You probably have one too. The difference is only what grows there and what you try to bring out of it, into the world. When I was little it was my favorite place. There was a path through the woods that came out into a field of monstrous, fanged flowers, and there were fairies there, armed to the teeth, ever at war, and the witch’s house in the shadowy far end of the garden, vines growing over the windows, but I could still peer through… and I remember that my dad would quiz me on directions to what should have been familiar places because he was concerned that I wasn’t paying attention, that I wasn’t taking in the world around me. He was sort of right, because I spent so much time in my garden, which was way more exciting than how to get to school. But it’s not that I was tuning out the whole world, exactly. I went to that garden with my pockets full of seeds from my life, things I wanted to plant.

I’ve planted everything that has ever happened to me here. Everything I’ve ever felt and everything I’ve ever read goes into the ground, and you wouldn’t believe how fast it all grows into something barely recognizable. You’d never guess what went into the earth in the first place from the things that emerge. The earliest stuff goes the deepest. Those roots are thick and powerful, diving right down to the center of the earth, and they bear the best fruit, the strangest flowers with exotic scents. Some of them are poisonous and it’s hard to tell the difference, you just have to trust me. Sometimes a little bit of poison can work as a cure, seriously, I know all about this. I never understood Cinderella, I never knew why the prince was the prize, there was no point in my life when that meant anything to me. It was a story about endurance, and I guess I wanted it to be a story about revenge, so that’s what’s growing on the Cinderella tree – knives, bloody feet, patience and pain, ashes and wonder, and maybe the prince can be an open road instead, or the window of the train and the world speeding by and just that feeling of being in motion, being on your way, being free.

So let’s say there’s a high point, up a slippery hill, and I go up there sometimes when it’s storming just to get hit by lightning. Let’s say it’s almost always night in this garden because that’s how I like it. At the bottom of the lightning-blasted hill there’s a swamp, and deep under the muck lives a swamp monster, a writhing, reptilian beast that surfaces sometimes to bellow his rage. Let’s say that I wanted some of that rage – rage being one of my favorite things that grows here – and so I went in to try and harpoon the beast and pull him out. I spent the whole morning (which was night, remember) flailing around in this foul-smelling swamp with my harpoon. I swear I nearly drowned about seventy times. Finally I got him and I dragged him out and I looked at the clock and realized I was late to pick my kid up from school. I ran all the way there, dripping swamp muck everywhere, weeds in my hair, stinking to high heaven with this thing flopping and roaring on the end of my harpoon. On my way down the street (realizing as I go that I left a shoe in the swamp dammit and what unearthly sort of prince might find my sneaker in those murky depths and what do you think he might do with it?) my neighbor spots me and gasps and says “What have you been doing?” and since this is currently how I make my living I stick my chin out as I go sloshing past her porch, and I say, “I’ve been at work.”

 My son’s first grade teacher tells me he’s having trouble focusing. He never finishes his phonics worksheet, she says. I try to imagine his garden, I see him running with a pack of wolves across a wide open plain, and I think, well, obviously. “Oh dear,” I say. “Hmm,” I say. I try to hide the swamp beast and the bloody harpoon behind my back. “I’ll talk to him about it,” I say. On the way home, I make myself ask him. Your teacher says you aren’t paying attention. He sighs and looks crestfallen. “I just can’t stop thinking about Harry Potter,” he says. Then we go out for ice-cream. All I can think is I’m so happy for him. This is something I understand.

I dig until my nails bleed and pull up my worst nightmares. I can’t say why I like doing this, but I do. The fruit trees hang with everything I want the most, and I won’t tell you what that is but let’s just say I’ve never longed for peace of mind. I love this overgrown tangle, I love the smells and the dark, the brambles and thorns, the way the ground might give out suddenly, just open up and swallow you. That will change you – having to dig your way back out from under the ground. Who knows what you’ll be when you reach the surface again.

If you want to know where I’ve been or why I wrote this thing, I can’t really explain it. It’s not like I can take you there. But for a long time now I’ve been bringing things out, because I do want to share whatever I can. I don’t know where that compulsion comes from either, but it’s as powerful as the desire to go into the garden in the first place: I want to give you something. I want to bring you a present from this place that is more mine than anything else has ever been mine.

That’s the real answer, I think, or the best lie I can come up with. I’ve been in my garden, and I picked you this bouquet:

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I, I will be king, and you, you will be queen

 

The metaphor is appealing, if you’re into books and into love: the first kiss of the new idea, the careening, breathless first draft of falling in love. And then the hard part – the commitment, the work of making it work, the attention to detail. (For example: you say ominously, I think we need to talk, and having learned the hard lessons of your plunging blood sugar levels he says, Absolutely, but have a banana first.)

And then sometimes you are committed, you really are; you spend your days untangling the tangles and you can see how great this thing could be if you just knew how to do it, if you were both just a little better. It’s complicated but also joyful and you think that this is all you want. Until! (Dun dun DUN): One day you’re at a party and Someone You’ve Never Seen Before walks in, drink in hand, looks around – looks at you. Your knees go weak. You know you shouldn’t hold his gaze, you shouldn’t think the things you’re thinking, but you can’t look away and everything that could happen is exploding in your mind at once. When he comes over and says hi all you can say is oh fuck because you’re done for. Yes, you’ve got a contract and a deadline, but you have to write this book. You meet furtively, keeping the Book Under Contract open on your screen, telling yourself (and telling the New Idea) that you’re going to go back to the Book Under Contract in ten minutes, fifteen, an hour, tomorrow. But day after day, you can’t stay away from the New Idea.

So, OK, I was going to write about the Brilliant!New!Idea! that sometimes just takes off and takes you with it, and then I was going to write about falling in love, and I was going to say ha ha they’re SORT OF ALIKE, get it? which lots of people have said before, including me, but in the end I seem to have likened it to having an affair, which is maybe less charming. Oh well.

Because when I thought about falling in love, the first thing that came to mind was meeting G when we were seventeen. Immediately the metaphor seemed insufficient and fell apart. Having a new idea for a book is not actually like falling in love.

I don’t want to be confusing: when I talk about falling in love with G, I’m not talking about romance or sex, but I still think falling in love is the best way to put it because that’s how it felt, and more than twenty years later I’m still in free-fall.

First impressions – she had long brown hair and a beautiful voice, whether singing or speaking (although I didn’t know about the singing until later) and everything about her was somehow bigger and brighter than what everyone else had. We batted around her like moths. Her smile was the spotlight we wanted to be in, and her laugh was this unrestrained bright burst that I adored. She was funny in a completely loopy and original way. I – who considered myself at the grand old age of seventeen a sort of master of running away ­– wanted to run away with her.

When she called me on the phone I was so happy. It didn’t occur to me until later that we’d spent half the conversation talking about J., my best friend since childhood. When he told me that she’d asked him on a date, I was crushed. I realized she had called not to talk to me but to talk about him – and maybe to make sure that our relationship was purely platonic, which was something she’d asked about, I now remembered. We weren’t going to be real friends after all, I thought sadly. I would be her boyfriend’s best friend and she would be my best friend’s girlfriend.

(Years later, all of us lying on the floor of his very old house in the south of Japan, they talked through some of what had gone wrong between them and I talked at length about How I Saw It. He laughed dryly and said, If you have so much to say about our relationship, I can’t imagine what you’re like when you’re actually involved. But I’d never cared so much about any of my own love affairs, and I never gave any thought to what had gone wrong there).

They became a couple and I became the firmly affixed third wheel. It felt surprisingly natural, like a tricycle. She would turn up at the café where I worked, hair swishing down her back, talking like a gangster out the side of her mouth and smoking her pen, or pretending to fall down the escalator in slow motion, making me laugh ‘til I cried. She wrote me notes in class. You are the most valiant girl I have ever known. I didn’t want to sleep with her or take her away from J, but it still seems right to say I was in love.

I think of this as the night I knew she was The One: We were all going to go see Interview with a Vampire. I went to her apartment, and J. was late, as usual. G. and I got horribly drunk on Canadian Club Rye Whiskey while we waited for him. New as our friendship was, we opened our pink teenage hearts wide, sharing all our gory secrets, the nearly mirror-image disasters of adolescence. I think there was somebody else there – I have a vague memory of blond hair and a disgusted expression, someone who was not nearly as drunk as we were and was appalled by our confessions – but she went off at some point and it was just me and G. Now I knew for sure I was not going to be just her boyfriend’s best friend but that we were becoming something to each other, beginning something huge and flawless that would last forever. I feel like the drunkenness negates it somehow in the telling, so you’ll just have to believe me that the breathless speed and depth of the connection was tremendous and we both knew it. Twenty plus years later I can say I wasn’t wrong. I’ve had many dear friends and lovers and I eventually married somebody who is not her, but that night was the purest experience I’ve ever had of falling in love, even if it did involve a bottle of whiskey.

J. finally called and told us he was with some other friends and would meet us at the movie theater. G. was angry and I pretended to be angry too but really I was having a wonderful time and am forever grateful to him for not showing up that night. We went to the theater but we couldn’t find J. He confessed later that we were so drunk and loud that he and his friends hid behind the seats so as not to be associated with us. I don’t remember the movie. I think we watched some of it. We ended up throwing up and giggling in unison in the theater restrooms, which is gross, but I can only think back on it fondly.

For a few years the three of us lived together, took classes together, worked at the same restaurant.

She left first.

She cut off her long hair and traveled around the world. We wrote epic love letters. Once, stoned and missing her, I fastened the braids she’d left behind to my own hair and went prancing out into the kitchen, thinking to make J. laugh. He did laugh, in a horrified sort of way, and then one of the braids fell off and came partly undone and we ended up kneeling on the kitchen floor, laughing and crying, our hands in her hair, trying to braid it back together. Is that weird? OK, kind of. But it was love.

The thing with being young is that it comes naturally – that feeling of endless possibility, of being larger than life – but I still associate that feeling with G. more than with youth. In both of our lives, after a whole lot of gallivanting around, sometimes together and sometimes apart, Capital-R-Reality caught up and squeezed out some of that feeling of possibility. Now we are responsible for and to other people, most particularly our children, and we are not on the brink of adulthood anymore but nested in what we can only hope is the middle of it, hemmed in by the choices we’ve made, disappointment and fear and the needs of others taking up so much space. I feel all of this squeezing in on me, and I watch it squeezing her too, more tightly and cruelly than it does me.

But: she is still bigger and brighter somehow than everything around her, I still feel like a moth to her flame, her smile is still the spotlight I want to live in and I love nothing more than her laugh. I still want to run away with her. Maybe what I mean is that she did and does inspire, she makes me feel my life could still be wider, stranger, more thrilling and surprising, everything still possible after all, if she’s there too.

So, fine, the New!Idea! metaphor didn’t really work, because L’Amour is so much bigger than that. If there is a connection in my mind, it’s only that these are the constants in my life: the thrill of thinking up stories and the work of making them work, and a few bright loves that endure, unfading no matter what. I can’t think what else has any real value to me.

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Home

I’ve never been without a home. If I went out into the world it was because I wanted to. Nothing was chasing me, and if sometimes I went looking for danger it’s because I was so spoiled I didn’t really know what danger was. There was always somewhere safe to go back to, for me.

Now I have kids and everything I’ve ever wanted for myself is dwarfed by the need to make them safe. They have always had a home, too. They don’t know much about fear or pain or real hunger. “I’m starving!” they will yell if dinner is half an hour late.

I took them to their nice schools this morning, through our tree-lined neighborhood, riding their bikes and chatting. I came home and made coffee. I’m trying to write a book but I can’t think straight. I can’t think about anything except the photos and videos I’m seeing of Syrian refugees. What it means to be without a home. What it means to be unsafe. What it means to not be able to protect your children.

YA author Patrick Ness (The Knife Of Never Letting Go, among other books) started a fundraiser for the charity Save The Children, an organization with a good reputation for using funds effectively. He promised to match donations up to £10 000. When that goal was met, other authors jumped on board to match donations, including John Green, Rainbow Rowell, Shannon Hale, Gayle Foreman, Ally Carter, Derek Landry, and many more. The fundraiser is still going and has raised a lot of money. If you can spare anything, click here and please consider donating.

There are days when the images wreck me and I want to bury my head in the sand, which is pretty shitty, and anyway the truth is if you keep your head in the sand too long you’re going to choke on it. Take a deep breath and maybe follow this remarkable page.

We’re all doing that thing where we weep in front of our computer screens and then get on with the day, but there are ways of being truly useful. One good list is here. If you’re in Canada, check this out.

I found this poem on The Middle-Eastern Feminist’s facebook page (linked above). It is by a Somali poet, Warsan Shire, and it is called HOME:

no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
you only run for the border
when you see the whole city running as well

your neighbours running faster than you
breath bloody in their throats
the boy you went to school with
who kissed you dizzy behind the old tin factory
is holding a gun bigger than his body
you only leave home
when home won’t let you stay.

no one leaves home unless home chases you
fire under feet
hot blood in your belly
it’s not something you ever thought of doing
until the blade burnt threats into
your neck
and even then you carried the anthem under
your breath
only tearing up your passport in an airport toilets
sobbing as each mouthful of paper
made it clear that you wouldn’t be going back.

you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land
no one burns their palms
under trains
beneath carriages
no one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck
feeding on newspaper unless the miles travelled
means something more than journey.
no one crawls under fences
no one wants to be beaten
pitied

no one chooses refugee camps
or strip searches where your
body is left aching
or prison,
because prison is safer
than a city of fire
and one prison guard
in the night
is better than a truckload
of men who look like your father
no one could take it
no one could stomach it
no one skin would be tough enough

the
go home blacks
refugees
dirty immigrants
asylum seekers
sucking our country dry
niggers with their hands out
they smell strange
savage
messed up their country and now they want
to mess ours up
how do the words
the dirty looks
roll off your backs
maybe because the blow is softer
than a limb torn off

or the words are more tender
than fourteen men between
your legs
or the insults are easier
to swallow
than rubble
than bone
than your child body
in pieces.
i want to go home,
but home is the mouth of a shark
home is the barrel of the gun
and no one would leave home
unless home chased you to the shore
unless home told you
to quicken your legs
leave your clothes behind
crawl through the desert
wade through the oceans
drown
save
be hunger
beg
forget pride
your survival is more important

no one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear
saying-
leave,
run away from me now
i dont know what i’ve become
but i know that anywhere
is safer than here.