Jealous Palm

hairAfterward, Silas and I had Holy Communion with Laurel on the beach: grape Crush and Goldfish crackers and Silas’s reassurances that it was not irreverent.  We spread a bed sheet over the sand, which felt cold and tired here at summer’s end.  A cool breeze came over the waters from the southwest so that Laurel’s hair blew out behind her like bridal veil.  Silas read a poem he’d written in his Moleskine notebook:

 

Is she the only one to notice the way
the low orange moon walks the streets tonight,
this full satellite standing at the intersection beside men
out late, their shadows stretching behind them like secrets?

She loves the peculiar, the collision of common and celestial,
holiness networking with profanity.  Magnificent absurdity,
the whole of it: God putting on skin and walking with liars,
divinity stapled to a death machine. 

The phenomenon holds her like a jealous palm.

“Silas, that’s really good,” Laurel said as she leaned back on her elbows, looking out at the waves on the water.

Really good!” I gushed.

The praise bounced right off of him.  “It’s about you, Laur,” he said.  He handed me the bottle of Crush and Laurel the bag of Goldfish.  I felt the bubbles of carbonation burn my throat as I swallowed.

“I know,” Laurel said, then tasted a cracker, God’s body.  “I am held by a jealous palm.  I believe that.  Right now, I believe that.”  She closed her eyes, perhaps in prayer, and breathed in the scent of the breeze: algae and white clover that carried over the water onto this holy space.

What He Says

Silas’s college visit had gone great.  “Their creative writing program is fantastic, West,” he said to me up on his roof that evening before the August Arms episode, this week’s theme being “August August” since the calendar had flipped once again.  Last night’s story had been centered on Caesar Augustus, for whom the month was named, and his rise to power that incited Mark Antony and Cleopatra to each commit suicide.

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.  Most of the English professors there have published books, and they have this really cool literary magazine run by the students.  And the campus is gorgeous—brick buildings a hundred years old, and they’re crawling with ivy.  It’s on a lake—well, I guess pretty much everything in Minnesota is—but anyway, it has seven miles of lakeshore and its own island with a community garden.  You really should check it out too.  We … we could … go together.”

By the way he was stammering, I knew that he meant we could go to college together and not just we could go visit the campus together.  I liked that he was thinking of me so far in the future.  Then again, college really wasn’t that far away—senior year was starting in a month, and I’d turn eighteen in just a few days.

“Did you get any info for Laurel?” I asked.  Please say yes.

            He nodded.  “They have a BFA in dance there.  Mom and I asked the recruiter lots of questions, and it seems perfect for Laurel.”  When Silas paused, I could hear the words he didn’t say: “if only she were healthy again.”

I told Silas about my conversation with Laurel while he was gone, the conversation about all her strange ideas about God, not the one about Whit.  He sighed.  “I knew that sometimes she doubted God’s existence, but I didn’t know she had all those alternative theories of spiritual reality.  Dammit,” he said, “just listen to that phrase—‘alternative theories of spiritual reality.’  It’s more Descartes, that bastard.  Is she really only seventeen?  She drags those few years around like they are a backpack full of bricks.”

The story on the radio that night was about seven Rwandan children—six girls and one boy—who, in August of 1982, had visions of the Virgin Mary showing them a river of blood, people killing each other, decapitated corpses.  Twelve years later, civil war broke out in Rwanda between the majority and minority tribes, including 100 days when about 800,000 people were killed, many beheaded by machetes and dumped into the Kagea River.

It was the vision, come true,” the voice on the radio said.  “A river of blood, bodies without heads.”  It told how the Kagea carried the bodies to Lake Victoria, creating a health hazard in Uganda.

“… Our Lady of Kibeho apparations were later declared authentic by a local bishop …”

“Do you really think so?” I asked Silas.

He shrugged, the flickering bonfire casting light and shadows across his face.  “Maybe.  These days, we’re so removed from the burning bush and the pillar of fire that they somehow seem tamer than a vision of Mary.  But God speaks softly sometimes too.”

“To you?”

“Maybe.”

“What does he say?”

Silas leaned backward and looked at me with furrowed eyes and a crooked grin.  “I can’t tell if you’re making fun of me,” he said.  “Are you?”

Was I?  I thought of the stories he was referring to—God speaking to Moses from a bush blazing with fire that did not burn it up, God leading the Israelites to the Promised Land as a pillar of cloud by day, a pillar of fire by night.  I’d heard the stories a hundred times in Sunday school as a child.  Did I believe them?  I hadn’t really thought that—what do I believe?—for so long.  I’d just been limping along from Sunday to boring Sunday, doing my best to avoid encountering it all.  Had I been creeping around corners to hide from Dad—or from God?

“No,” I said.  “I’m not making fun of you.  What does he say?”

Silas was quiet for a moment, an odd, lingering moment that made me wonder if I’d been too forward in asking a question like this so flippantly. 

But then that moment was over, and Silas looked at me.  “He says to abide.”

abide

accidental novelist

I never meant to become a novelist.

While pursuing my creative writing degree, I took the stance of an archer and aimed my arrows at poetry.  Sure, I took a semester-long class in fiction and even one in the writing of young adult literature, but when the time came for me to set my goals for my senior project, it was all poetry and creative non-fiction.

Years later, in the throes of an intense, prolonged obsession, I found myself jotting down tiny thoughts here and there.  Just chicken-scratches really.  I was heartsick and frantic and depressed, and I couldn’t handle much more than a thought here or there.  Perhaps a month or so later, I looked at that collection of lines and thought, What if I collected them into a book?  Thoughts, poems, short stories, all related to OCD.  Someone would want to read that, right?

For six months or so, I collected stories from life: my thoughts and experiences, poems I wrote about my obsessions, little stories from life.  It was more like a journal than a manuscript, but it felt great.  I was writing every day, a regular at the coffee shop near the university where I work, their very own “writer-in-residence,” as the baristas would tease me and ask me to include them in my book.

It was a mess of thoughts, with little order to it.  I printed off the whole shebang, cut all the parts up, and quite literally sorted each into various categories, trying to force some semblance of order onto it.

cutting apart

After it was all re-grouped, I gave it to my friend Anna for her review.

She said, “Yeahhhhh … it doesn’t work.  Why don’t you ever include real dialogue from your life?”

“I might not get it exactly right,” I told her.  “And that would be like lying.”  It could have become an obsession so easily; instead I avoided it completely by not including dialogue.

“It needs dialogue,” she said.  “It needs to be more of a story and less of a collection of random thoughts.”

But I was months away from the therapy that would give me that kind of freedom, and I knew that I couldn’t make it my own story because I wouldn’t get every detail right, and that would be wrong.  So I decided to make it fiction, which would allow me to invent as much as I wanted.

It took years to transform that original journal into a novel.  I had no idea what I was doing.  Anna kept telling me I was still writing like a memoirist instead of a novelist, and I thought, What’s the difference?  I honestly didn’t know.  I plowed through that like someone wading in a foot of water with cement blocks strapped to her feet.  It was really hard.

But somewhere in the midst of those years, something both incredible and strange happened: I became addicted.

Addicted to writing fiction, to the limitless creativity available to novelists, to the act of creating something out of nothing— trying my hardest to in a small way mimic God in those earliest days of earth.

One year ago, and hooked beyond rescue on fiction (and with no desire for such a rescue), I started a young adult novel.  I gave myself six months for the first draft, and when six months was over, I was shocked that it was a complete story with a beginning, middle, and end.  At the end of six months with the first story, I had a jumbled collection of journalled thoughts.

So I was learning.

Now, a year into this writing, I asked for help from an editor.  Sometimes my life feels like it’s on repeat: he said, “Yeahhhhhh … it doesn’t work.”  Essentially.

It’s okay.  I know that I can massage it into something workable, something publishable, something excellent.  It’s just going to take a lot longer than I first thought.  I want to plead the excuse, “Well, what did you expect?  I’m a poet.”

But not really.  I still love, read, and write poetry, but it’s not the right descriptor anymore.

I am a novelist.

On accident, but a novelist nevertheless.  A clueless one, but learning every day.  Discouraged, but never enough to stop.

I love this identity.

novelist