In the middle of the night (in the aftermidnight, one might say) when I’m sleeping, I’m often awakened by words and phrases. The Night, in a basket full of dreams, delivers these sounds that wake me, and say, “Here, if you’ll take them, they are yours.”
Some choices I have at that moment include: get up right away and write down what I’m receiving, lie in bed and listen to the words and phrases—sometimes pictures, too—and ponder what they have to say. Or hope I can remember it all the next time a pen and paper is near, and go back to sleep.
It’s always been this way.
Even as a child, I’d lie in bed and listen to the words, watching the small sky above my bed, trying to find constellations in the popcorn ceiling, a universe in peppered plaster. The words were fun playmates who visited me in the quiet places I created in my head, when the rest of the world around me was too loud, or less interesting.
Sometimes the words were nightmares themselves—Devils from a nearby source. Those words scared me. I’d turn on a light and read and silence what I heard. My favorite place to hide was poetry.
On the whitewashed bookshelf my oldest brother made for me, I had a small collection of books. Of all those books, the one I escaped to the most as a child was a small book of poetry, a tiny hardback square book of poems, just the right size for a child’s hands. The words of that book softened the sounds in my head.
Who has seen the wind?
Neither I nor You:
But when the leaves hang trembling,
The wind is passing through.
Who has seen the wind?
Neither You nor I:
But when the trees bow down their heads,
The wind is passing by.
(Source: The Little Golden Book of Poetry, 1947. Poem by Christina Rossetti, 1830-1894)
Sitting on the floor of my room, I whispered those living words. Those words took my hand and brought me to a soft, quiet place beyond where my body rested. And I could sleep again.
Often my brothers, at night, would be awake, too. Our mother worked nights at the Post Office in Dallas. It was the ‘70s. My brothers were teenagers, doing ‘70s teenager things. I could sleep through the music in the next room, the strange scents, the visitors. But the words I heard in the night jostled me gently awake.
This shouldn’t have been a problem. The next day could be tough in a sleepy way. But what made me fight it as I got older was that one of my brothers, Tracy, battled with more ferocious words and pictures. The battles in his mind—in his war we learned was called schizoaffective disorder—truly were demons. When he was very ill, I remember lying in bed at night listening to him cry and wail. He’d yell out at the things unseen to me.
For a time the only place he could sleep was in my bedroom. He went to the attic and brought down the mattress from my baby bed and put it on the floor for me. He gave me a blanket and pillow and asked me to sleep there, so he could have my white canopy bed with the soft pink, frilly comforter. The place where I was a princess.
My long legs dangling off the edge of the tiny mattress, I lay and listen to his pain and groans. Sometimes he’d tell me he was seeing something. He’d shout for help, but none could come.
I don’t know why I didn’t find another place to sleep. There were other rooms, other beds. I know I didn’t want to give up my room. I remember sleeping some nights on the floor of my closet because it was quieter there. I can only guess that my mother put a stop to him sleeping in there with me.
There were other nights—after I had the room to myself again—that I’d awake to find him standing over me—high on something. One night I awoke with him tossing me up in the air, laughing hysterically. He picked me up and throw me again and again, letting me drop to the bed. I screamed for him to stop. And he did.
Other nights, he’d wake me to listen to some song with him. He’d pull me from bed and put me in front of his stereo. “You got to hear this.” I’d sit chilly and listening to Yes, Led Zeppelin, Rush. He’d tell me to listen to the bass line. Listen to the drums.
I liked the music. I also liked how the sounds made him glow from within. I listened until I couldn’t keep my eyes open anymore, then he would let me go back to bed.
There were a series of nights spread out over time, when the glaring lights of an ambulance and the sounds of men’s deep voices in the house would wake me.
“Where’s your mother?” they’d yell in a room where I wasn’t. I’d slip out of my bed to lie on the floor where I hoped no one could find me. I’d keep my body still, barely breathing, becoming only eyes and ears and heartbeats.
They’d take him away. And it would be quiet. So quiet. Another brother would come in to check on me. “Go back to bed,” he’d say.
After Tracy received his diagnosis, he asked me to walk to the hill with him to watch the sunset. He loved astronomy. He’d tell me about the sun and the stars. He showed me how to spot satellites, and how you could feel the Earth move around the Sun by thinking about things differently.
He told me what he was learning about music theory, and how much he loved Chris Squire and Geddy Lee.
And he told me that he was sick. But that it was a sickness that you can’t see. He told me that it’s genetic, probably, but that it could be caused by drugs, too. He said I might get it, if I wasn’t careful. He said don’t ever use drugs. I told him I wouldn’t. He told me about meditation, that it would help me watch my thoughts.
We stood in the field near where the South Dallas escarpment jags its way to the prairie. The light of the Sun filled our eyes.
He told me how absolutely amazed he was that we exist. The thought made him glow like music.
At school the words would come when I was bored or didn’t like what was going on. Daydreaming, that’s all it is, I told myself. It was like switching on a television or a radio. I’d watch scenes in my head. I’d move the characters around and laugh at the things they’d say. I was a quiet girl, and teachers often put bad boys by me. What I liked most about that is if I thought of something funny to say, I could mutter it near the boy, he’d say it and the whole class would laugh.
By high school, my daydream world required research. In the library, I’d browse books about the Russian Revolution. I carried around the The Brothers Karamazov for weeks, soaking in the feeling of Aloysha. I don’t know how much I understood of the book, but I loved the words and how the story gave me pictures to play with during the school day.
Tracy was an adult by then, but he wasn’t really able to live on his own. Sometimes he lived in Tyler with our father, or in Hooks with our grandmother or uncle, or in Colorado with another uncle. His medication was his battle now. He struggled to find the place between the Voices, his brilliance, and zombie life.
I was scared of becoming what he had become.
When I wrote, the words burst out of me in a flood. I couldn’t control them, and that scared me, too. Secretive, I’d tear up what I’d written into shreds and put the pieces into wastebaskets around the house or at school so no one could know what had been on my mind. As best I could, I shut it down. And I slowed it all to a trickle. Till I was quiet. So quiet it hurt.
I studied a book on mediation to learn to quiet my mind even more. I joined High on Life where we did “Just Say No” puppet shows for kids at elementary schools in my town. We went on retreats with kids my age who had just come out of rehab and needed sober buddies. I could help them.
I so was afraid of let the words get loud like they did for my brother.
In college, I met a nice boy English major with Bob Dylan hair. He was working on a master’s degree in creative writing. When he was growing up, his mother had been hospitalized a lot for her mental illness, so somehow I figured he’d know how to help me with my writing, with my mind.
So we got married with the idea of making art, not people.
We tried writing together. We made a few nice things. We made a silly video about a girl seeking a guru. We were both English teachers so we tried to write an Orwellian play about standardized testing (still a good idea, I think). The choir teacher at the high school where he taught asked if we’d write dialogue for a story that would string together a bunch of songs the show choir learned so they’d a cohesive story. That was fun. We acted in friends’ plays. I wrote a funny play for one of our best friends that we performed for his birthday.
But he seemed to want to work more with his other friends more than with me; they made a lot of videos together and were always doing stuff. They’d work on their videos when I was at the Wednesday night Dallas-Fort Worth Writer’s Workshop meetings.
I think it bothered him that I didn’t work the same way he did. His writing looked like a job of desks and sitting for hours at a time, sweating blood.
For me, writing looked like scribbling down some words for half an hour, then cooking dinner, going for a walk, reading a little then sitting down for an hour and writing a mighty-fine first draft of something lovely. (I firmly believe that I do my best writing if I can take a nap with a cat.)
I do remember the looks my husband gave me when I’d give him something to read that I’d written. He’d hand me back my words with too many emotions on his face, too many thoughts in his head. He’d tell me what he liked, what I could do differently.
He also told me it wasn’t fair. He’d work his ass for hours, for days and weeks. For eternity. And I just go take a nap and dash off poetry like it was nothing.
Still, he encouraged me to write. He created space for me to write. He sacrificed for me to write.
I wrote The Waking Tree. I wanted to write a story that captured what it feels like to be a little girl who lives in a house where there’s mental illness and deep dark secrets that haunt her parents. The book is told by a bodark tree who loves the little girl and family. The bodark tree has been watching this house for years and knows why there’s a ghost of a little boy in a chest of drawers. I was shooting for an epic prose poem, an exorcism. It has a dark feeling, but it’s still full of sweet magic.
He challenged me to write a “normal” so I wrote Daydreamaholic. It’s the most normal thing I’ve ever written. I like it, but I’m not in love with it. It’s as good as most of the books my middle school students were reading.
When I asked my husband if I could leave my job to stay home to write, he made it happen. His friends would ask me what I did during the day. They only saw me keeping the house clean and volunteering. They saw me going to dance classes and being healthier and happier than ever. I guess they thought I was wasting time because I wasn’t glued to a desk, suffering. They didn’t see the hundreds of pages I wrote and kept close while a story was coming together.
It was during that time, that a man named Ernesto visited my in a dream and told me the story of his brother and what happened when they were migrant workers during the Second World War. Ernesto showed me how his brother sang a song that was so beautiful he was able to run on the sky. In the dream, I ran right along side his brother in the air over a steep canyon. The story later became “The Canyon Flier,” the first short story I published in a national magazine. The illustrations were magical.
When September 11 happened, suddenly everything was different. Like everyone else, I looked hard at how I was living my life. I picked up another story that had been weaving itself beside me, a story called Waves. I got really still and helped it into the world. The main character steals the sacred storybook of her village and blames herself for the world swallowing her sister during an earthquake. It’s a story about coming out on the other side of guilt and sorrow.
In these days, it became clear to me that my husband and I were going in different directions. There’s no need to tell what those directions were, but the paths were unaligned.
I left to find my own way of living a life that was true to my heart. I walked away from comfort and ease, to one where I could serve my community and explore what I could do. He moved back to Chicago. For a time, he was writing and performing at Second City. He wanted to get back together, but I couldn’t see it happening. We weren’t the same anymore.
There was a joy I had that I hadn’t known before. Stories came quickly. One morning, when I awoke to go to work at JCPenney where I wrote for their catalog, a complete story was in my head. I looked at my cat, Ender, and said, “The Princess Who Had Everything She Needed.” I got to work as soon as I could and wrote it all out. I sent the story to the editor of an international children’s magazine I met at a conference. She asked for a handful of revisions, and it was published with delightful illustrations.
Another day, I was at my grandmother’s house out in the country near Texarkana. I stepped out onto her back porch, and the words popped into my head. “The Caretaker of Tree Palace.” Delighted, I stood looking at the pine trees that surrounded her home. I walked onto the red earth that’s so near the Red River, and knew this was the one I’d been waiting for. How sweetly that story came to me. How painfully, too.
I started the story in Texas, but I’d move to Chapel Hill, North Carolina—another tree-filled place. I moved there to gestate and to serve the Baha’i community. During the time I was laboring through several completely different drafts, I taught middle school for a semester, served on the Local Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of Chapel Hill—an extraordinary group of people; my God, their minds!—and helped train people to implement junior youth character development programs in the Raleigh-Durham area as well as in Columbia, South Carolina and Atlanta, Georgia.
And I married again—a story for another time.
As I do, I busied myself with the projects of others. But somehow—with the help and nurturing of Caryl and Ron McAdoo, the publishers at Longhorn Creek Press—I finished “The Caretaker of Tree Palace.” This tender story of how art and nature heals came together with the love of Christ in our hearts. Caryl and I put together a tour around North Carolina, Tennessee, Arkansas, and Texas, where I was able to speak to a thousand or so children at schools and parents at bookstores about writing and how wonderful nature and art is.
Though I have no children (another story to tell), this beautiful story is a child to me.
The Spirit that brought Caretaker to me feels ancient and full of grace. She’s deserving of sonnets, but I lack that skill. When I ponder Her, I feel our book is too small. There aren’t enough words. Somehow I missed all the good parts of what She told me. When I close my eyes and see Her smiling—this angel of Light—I know She is pleased with what we made together.
But looking at the tiny book, I know I could have given Her more. I ask: Shouldn’t this have gilded letters for Her? Where are the honeyed morsels for Her mouth? Why have I brought her no moon, no stars?
But She is content.
And, She tells me, She has more to give.
The last decade, I’ve done all but listen to Her. She waits patiently for me, I know. I’ve distracted myself with busy-work and playing. I worked on a couple dozen plays at the local theatres. I was on committees. I stood in front of groups and raised my voice to bring people together.
But now—gently, sweetly—She taps my shoulder. She points to a chair and smiles.
She says softly: Instead of speaking louder to match the noise of this world, get quite, come closer.
She beckons: Instead of raising the volume of this place above the din that it already is, sit—with paper, with pen—and join me, listening, in a small room.