No podcast this week. Instead some ponderings about where stories originate.
When I read about other writer’s childhoods, and about how many took refuge in books, the written word, I have such mixed emotions. Jealousy, shame, hunger, loneliness, envy, sadness. Hard, pointy, sharp feelings.
There weren’t many books in my house when I was a child. There were some; two shelves, to be precise, on a small black bookcase at the end of the hallway, between my parents bedroom and the one my sisters and I shared. Most of the bottom shelf was taken up by a set of thin, illustrated encyclopedias that I could never bring myself to read, but I spent many hours studying the pictures of ancient civilizations.
The sentences in most books seemed to be in a language that my anxious mind could not decode. I could read words, but I couldn’t settle into sentences, couldn’t rest in or even access the thoughts and ideas behind stories. Things inside me were churning, but I didn’t know that then. The churning was my normal, so I never named it churning—it just was what I was.
And so when I retreated, found refuge, which I often did, it was not to books; it was to my imagination. I’d fashion tent houses from a thin bedspread flung across the porch and front steps, clipping the blanket to the black wrought-iron railings with clothespins. One particular old cotton bedspread, the kind with little upraised tufts that I’ve since learned is called chenille, was the best. When the sun shone through it, the world underneath blushed warm, glowing peach.
In winter, stuck indoors, I’d wrap big bath towels around my head. Sometimes the towel was long, blonde hair, like Rapunzel (I did have one book of fairy tales, retold in a friendly way “for modern children”); other times the loopy terrycloth was a high steeple Medieval headdress, which I’d seen in a picture and was captivated by. I’d dance in the living room, carefully balancing the heavy towel so it wouldn’t unravel as I waltzed with an imaginary Disney-style prince in front of the TV where figure skaters leapt and spun and sent blue and white flashes onto the walls of my royal ballroom. Outside the big picture window, snowflakes gathered on the blue spruce and dusk fell.
I did not read for pleasure until a few Nancy Drews, Dorothy Parkers and finally Anne of Green Gables came my way. The latter captivated me. Changed me. But the reading habit did not stick. Occasionally, I’d wander the aisles of the local library, which was a long drive from my house, but the French-speaking librarians were unhelpful, even unfriendly (those were the Rene Levesque days in Quebec) and I was overwhelmed by the choices. I had no clue what to touch and what not to touch. It was scary.
There were no bookstores anywhere that I knew of and no money for books if there had been.
So I came very late to books and that is okay, I think, though it has made for a particularly long and difficult journey to this place I am now, where words are finally a refuge of sorts. All along, I have slowly gathered the tools to understand and to express—or strive to, it’s always striving to understand and express—the complexity of human existence, human emotion. Words are my tools to mine that long childhood and beyond it, too.
Beyond it, I say, because what has surprised me in all of this is that when I write, story threads to which I do not remember being exposed emerge from within—the darker myths and fairy tales, the ancient feminine, the magic, the archetypes. They arrive unbidden, which encourages and truly fascinates me. It leads me to trust the unseen, believe that the stories are there, shared among us all, in a Jungian way, in a collective unconscious that is not contained in any one story or book or body. Stories that connect us, frizzing sparks of electrons speeding along a wire suspended. Words that are more than language, but an ancient rumbling of stars in darkness, light from a long way off that’s also within.
Perhaps you feel it, too? A feeling that starts a little lower than your anatomical heart, rising from that place, rolling through your chest and catching in your throat, then bubbling up in words that you didn’t know you knew.
Imagine that. I do.