I have come half-addled to a precious week of writing. It is mid-winter and the holiday season has been rough and ragged with a young adult son home for the week, all of us struggling with changing roles. There's also something wrong with my throat. The metaphor unfolds. My writing is at a standstill. And here I am on retreat, hoping to find my voice for a big new project. Making the effort to nurture my writer self, a blank page in front of me.
The huge antebellum house I’m in is a dedicated writers’ retreat called The Porches, and the time from morning until five p.m. is protected quiet time. I’m in the Blue Queen room on the second floor with everything I need to get to work: a big bed with luscious linens, comfortable sofa and chair, built-in bookshelves the length of one wall. There's a fireplace and mantel with a painting of a flower and a stone angel and three volumes of Proust. The window above my expansive oak writing desk looks out onto the upper porch and further to the James River and a set of train tracks. My laptop and notebook and pen are in place, the work punctuated by the passage of the train and the glimmer of water. During a writing break I pull Isak Dinesen’s Shadows on the Grass from the well-stocked shelves in my room and take it to the porch. I’m hoping for inspiration to override thoughts of home, to draw me deep into the work I’ve come to do.
As I read my mind wanders, then pulls me back to the house we used to live in. My eight-year-old daughter sits at our cluttered dining room table with my old typewriter, writing her first novel, entitled I Can't Tell My Painted Ponies Apart.
The book, she says loudly, might need my help getting published. "So if you know any publishers," she adds, now in the bedroom where I sit smiling, "you can let them know it's coming."
I politely refrain from saying that if I knew any publishers I would be priming them for my own debut novel. Instead I say, "I certainly will."
Satisfied, she heads back to the dining table. "Oh," her voice sails around the corner. "I might need some of your writer friends to see what they think before it gets published."
Her older brother interrupts, wanting to know how much money she’ll make if her book sells. He wants to read what she’s typed, offers suggestions he thinks will make it better. I lure him out of the dining room, promising that, of course, if she makes a staggering amount of money from this novel, she will likely share it with him. He's satisfied and I, buoyed by the confidence of my children, hover in the doorway between the dining room and my writing chair in the bedroom. How best to nurture this young writer, untainted by rejection, certain that anything she imagines will be born between hard covers with the blink of her blue eye?
All I can think to do is honor the creative process and sit silent while she works, awaiting the next question or announcement. It comes soon enough when she thrusts the first page of her first draft into my hands.
She likes putting many spaces between each word, which has the overall effect of making every word seem Very, Very Important. Plenty of room for editing, but does she want the hard line? Gentle feedback? I offer what I feel works best with tender new words: encouragement paired with a few notes in the margin. “I’m interested in these ponies," I tell her, and watch as she beams. “I’m eager to read more.”
“Is that all?” She manages it well when I point out that titles are usually capitalized and don’t need periods at the end, seems thrilled when I mark the corrections on her page, and zips back to the dining room to incorporate these changes. "How do you spell chunky?" she calls. I call back from the other end of the house. She types, then canters around the corner and into my bedroom. "I like that word CHUNKY!" She runs back to the typewriter.
With children, fancies sometimes pass quickly, so I wonder if this one will last a night of dreams. It does; she continues to work each evening, wedged in amongst the remnants of the day’s projects on our dining room table: brother’s masterful LEGO brick creations, pile of math books, skeins of teal yarn needing only knitting needles and know-how to turn into a poncho. There are also a dozen of her own sketches exploring the movement of a horse at the canter. I would need to clean the table before working there, but she merely shoves the typewriter into its own spot of creative chaos and takes up where she left off.
I realize when she comes in with a sheaf of papers—pages that she has meticulously typed over and over—that she is recreating the nightmare I used to endure before the advent of the computer. I can help with this. Her father installs the latest edition of MS Word for Mac onto her desktop and off she goes. No more crooked lines across a bent sheet of paper, no more groans of frustration after typing the same page three times only to make the same mistake yet again. In a flurry of excitement she calls me in to see the new document she has created. Giddy with the possibilities of the word processor, she has abandoned the first novel for a new one: Sue and the Half-Arab Mare.
Is she knocking off the new Harry Potter book? I don't know—we don't have it yet—but I suppose if she is, she's in the company of a slew of other YA writers. I settle into my chair and wait. There's a symmetry to the house now; me writing in my bedroom, daughter writing in hers. In opposite corners of our small home we anchor the house with words on screens. It’s only a matter of minutes before she gallops in. "Mom, I KNOW what the red ones mean, but what are the green squigglies under my words?"
In the name of creative writing I say, "Just ignore those." She is perfectly happy to comply. Satisfied with her evening’s work, she sets up poles (yardsticks) in the living room and walks, trots, and canters herself over them, she the young horse who gallops off, whom she has to coax back to the task at hand.
I am intrigued by the fact that in her play my daughter is both trainer and horse, so the work is seamlessly executed. As I watch her play, I travel back to my own childhood, one of those moments of maternal time travel, when I was obsessed with a book called Schooling the Young Horse. I pored over it page by page, fascinated by the time and patience required to teach a horse what it needs to know to carry a rider.
There was something about using treacle to help the reluctant horse accept the bit; I loved that word: treacle. It wasn’t a word I was familiar with, but I fell in love with the way it sounded, and with the idea that young horses loved licking it so much that they would take the cold metal bits without fuss.
Now, with my young writer, the bit is nothing more than the frustration of a poorly functioning typewriter or the green squigglies beneath her words. The treacle, I suppose, is the pleasure she gets from being taken seriously. In our homeschooling journey we’ve made an effort to nurture the joy of the written and spoken word: reading endless books out loud, listening to audiobooks in the car until we wore them out, making newspapers complete with feature articles and hand-drawn illustrations.
I have printed out short stories and essays intentionally riddled with mistakes and offered them to my children with red pens for editing. For a year or so we had a blackboard in the kitchen where I instituted “Word of the Day,” my not-so-subtle attempt to model a love of words for their own sake. I carefully printed the English word and its French, Latin, Spanish, Chinese, and sometimes Italian counterparts, because these were the languages we all wanted to study.
I chose the day's word each morning before they awakened, solely for the felicitous sound of a syllable falling off my tongue. Umbrella, because its French counterpart was parapluie, a word I adore. Bat, because of its Italian pepestrallo. Star, because of the Latin stella—and so on.
I was nurturing the young writer my daughter was becoming, but I was also learning how to nurture the young writer in myself.
My young writer also walked, trotted, and cantered, but had golden brown hair instead of golden red. She filled yellow legal pads with pretend sentences in blue ballpoint at the age of three, marked through the authors' names on title pages of her mother's novels and wrote her own, in tall angular letters that only approximated the real alphabet. Today, she worries whether her agent will like the new book, whether it will sell, if she has somehow pulled the wool over his eyes.
Mine, sometimes, in the dark, solitary moments, longs for someone she could send her writing to and just get back a grade in return. There is no A-plus in this writing world. My young writer secretly wonders if publishing is a world to which she really belongs.
And then the other young writer in the house, the red-headed one, comes flying into the room, does a handstand on the bed, and with a landing that might get her a ten in the Olympics, shrieks, “My book is almost done!” Her exuberant yet simple celebration of coming close to the end of a project makes me smile and offers a lesson for my own writing process.
Ten years forward, back to the present day. On writing retreat, my first day in the pale blue room, I begin reading Isak Dinesen, trusting in synchronicity to give me something I don't even know I need. My 18-year-old daughter, taking a gap year before beginning university studies, just learned she is low in vitamin D—blood level of six, the lowest her doctor has ever seen. We have battled her anxieties together and with help from professionals. Fears of bats, diseases, bacteria, and other things have disrupted her life and caused her world to shrink. She hasn't ridden her horse in almost a year. Time accordions back to her galloping through our living room, to riding lessons when she jumped her painted pony over poles with no hands, to bitless, bareback gallops around the perimeter of our farm. I send her messages reminding her to take not one drop a day of the vitamin D tincture but five, or even ten. Book in hand, I am drawn to the upper porch where I sit on the olive-green cushioned chaise, remove my glasses, and take in the sun as it comes, hoping in the way that mothers do that osmosis and magic might pull the vitamin D through me to her. An umbilical cord of air and light.
I keep reading Dinesen, charmed by the updates on Juma and Farah, whom I came to know in Out Of Africa. The reading fuels my writing while text messages from my daughter punctuate my days and evenings with updates and assurances. Yes, I took the vitamin D. Yes, I am feeling okay. I miss the days when the remedy for everything was a ride on the painted pony. Mother, writer, woman—the roles are like photographic slides that have gotten jammed in the projector. On day four I am taking the sun when Dinesen's gift to all three is bestowed:
I knew then, without reflecting, that I was up at great height upon the roof of the world, a small figure in the tremendous retort of earth and air, yet one with it; I did not know that I was at the height and upon the roof of my own life.
Often the time and space of a writing retreat allows me to see the entirety of a writing project, a view from above that allows for better editing. This retreat, and now this Dinesen passage, offer a view from above in a larger sense. The roles of child and daughter, woman and mother, writer and reader are suddenly distinct and clear even as they overlap and merge. Suddenly, from inside my deepest self, I see the long view. Like the river I can see only from this upper porch, the glimpse of train tracks in its foreground. My life, this river in the distance, shimmer together; the train tracks offer possibility but also draw the pureness of the present into focus on this chilly February morning.
A pair of hawks fly by so closely I hear the brush of their wings against their own bodies, and then, as if to ensure I've seen them, circle and fly past me again. Across the train tracks alongside the river a huge murder of crows holds court, debating a bill in loud caws and shrieks. I do not know what they are deciding but I listen anyway, until a faction breaks away to fly, black wings flashing white in the sun, down the river bank and up the hill to my left, curving in unison, still cawing, as they take roost in the crown of an evergreen.
The sun warms my belly, making me think of Hestia and hearth, the hearth of the home. Surely the belly is the hearth of the body. Mine is full of steel-cut oats and milk and honey. The warmth in my belly reminds me too of my daughter, who lived there once and grew, a red-haired beauty, spitfire child.
Fire in the belly, fire on the mountain, the glowing embers of creative process. Why I am here, to write.
The James River shimmers through bare winter branches, stretching in both directions like a snake warming itself in the sun.
A train pushes past, conscious mind; the river beyond is the source, unconscious flow. Stilling the mind brings me closer to source.
The spring peepers sing.
Two small birds with white breasts and bellies, gray collars and wings, black caps and bibs, come to perch on the bare vine climbing the porch post a few feet from my chair. Because of my daughter, a bird lover, I know they are black-capped chickadees. I send her vitamin D and she sends me encounters with the birds she loves to photograph.
In my notes I see that I made a slip of the hand. Instead of "the evergreen to my right" I have written "the evergreen to my life."
What would that be—the evergreen to a life?
I think of it now as being the very core of my self, the part of the woman called Billie who exists—and persists—across all the people I have been.
The shy child who loved animals and filled yellow legal pads with cursive handwriting before she knew the alphabet, the girl who read books and rode horses, the young woman who traveled to Paris to put herself in unfamiliar territory that turned out to feel more like home than where she grew up. The writer and psychotherapist, wife and mother, mother who stayed home with two children, playing and teaching, reading and feeding, nurturing and loving for 20 years, now mourning the fading of that phase.
Late at night my phone emits a tiny chime indicating a text message. My daughter. Took my vitamins! And a link to a critical analysis of a TV episode we recently watched. We can talk about this when you get home. Another chime reveals a photo of a monster, meant to spook me in this big antebellum house on the river. I determine the vitamin D supplement must be working. She is better. She'll be okay.
When I was a girl, long before I had a flesh-and-blood horse to ride, there was a magical red bay gelding who appeared every time I rode in a car. As the vehicle moved forward with its driver and other passengers, so did I, but outside on the red bay’s back, trotting and cantering and then galloping on the grassy medians alongside the streets and highways. We jumped any obstacles in our path, found ways around barriers too large to jump.
It was a way forward, my metaphor for managing interior struggles through the years. Eventually I had a real horse and I rode until I went off to college. I found other ways to think of moving forward. And then I had children, and a daughter who played the same childhood games I had played, with magical ponies and lots of cantering. When she bought her painted pony, the real one, I found and bought the red bay gelding from my girlhood, the same year my first novel found its agent, the same season my daughter galloped into her first creative writing.
Today, on this upper porch, I see the scene from Out Of Africa when Isak Dinesen gets in the plane with Denys Finch Hatton and he shows her the view from above. I see the exquisite way my own path intertwines with that of my daughter’s, how our journeys are separate but each influences the other. As her mother I could be considered the trainer, but everything she does trains me as well.
I see her riding her own magical horse, sometimes walking, often trotting and cantering, and then galloping forward when she’s ready. She’ll get back on the real horse when the time is right.
Meanwhile I ride and I write and I watch, up close and then from above, newly centered in who I am, all the roles distinct and yet whole. Woman.
In the morning the crows have returned to their congress. They could be debating the fate of their universe, or possibly a new path for this woman watching and listening to them from the upper porch.
The one who came to write, to nurture her writer self, to find a voice. Who found intention in a passage and permission to seek the great height, the long view, to be a figure in the tremendous retort of earth and air.