?

Log in

Back from the dead.

1126121057

I'm hard at work on Lifted Up, after a long hiatus. I've been saving these blue Moleskines for this novel in particular because aqua is Verity's color. Not for plot related reasons, that's just how I see her in my head--Manic Panic Pillarbox Red hair-dye against a cerulean backdrop.

As part of my social media resurrection, I've started a Tumblr for posting pictures and music related to Lifted Up, A World of Light, and Find Me Here (I need a collective name for these books. The Magical Raleigh books? No, on second thought...just no.) It is here: http://verity-odette-rose.tumblr.com. My three protagonists, come together in perfect harmony to...form a url.

Hope you've been well. It'll be nice to talk about books again.

Tags:

1997-2012, a musical retrospective

I used to do one of these every year or so. What on earth happened?

Interesting, possibly off-puttingly freakish fact: I've only been listening to music since I was 15. In the way that people usually listen to music, that is. Prior to the age of 15 my access to music was limited to singing in a Baptist school choir.

Then, in a fit of rebellion, I began to listen to the radio on the sly. Soon, I found myself watching VH1 continuously (which you cannot judge me for because it was the late 90's and everything was different, at least the TV music channels.) And then in 2000 I started college and discovered Napster and the untold freedom of being able to get that one song you loved without buying the entire album, so very necessary when you're never not broke. (The last time I made that mistake was when I bought the first Train album. Christ. I mean, I know I was 18, but there are some things not even youth can excuse.)

So, the following songs represent my exposure to the world of music that isn't hymns (I could, maybe even should, do a hymns-only post). They're sorted in order of when I first encountered them, from 1997 to the present day.

They are (I think) my top ten song of (mostly) all time.


1. The Heart Asks Pleasure First | Michael Nyman

There was a girl in my voice class in school who could be heard from either end of the music corridor practicing this piece before class every day. Whenever I listen to it, I like to imagine that I am some luckier, alternate-universe version of myself, gifted with the discipline to learn the piano as an adult, and in this happy dream I crash my way through this song. It's full of the most delicious rage. Also, running. It's definitely running music.


2. All Is Full of Love | Björk

This was my first exposure to Björk. Perfectly designed to catch my interest at 17. Weird and haunting, with soaring vocals, peculiar instrumentation--all trademark Björk qualities that pulled me into this song. The lyrics keep me pulled in now: you'll be given love / you have to trust it.


3. Get By | Talib Kweli

Summer of 2003, I was 21. I'd spent over a year living with people who didn't want me around, which did curious things to my head. Around the same time, I discovered the delights and perils of self-medication, and also this song, which I clung to as a kind of talisman against self-destruction. Perhaps ironically.


4. Don't Fear the Reaper | Blue Oyster Cult

I spent most of three years living with my parents after college to save money. It was a bit of a stagnant period. I went out walking for a couple of hours every night, getting to know pretty much every inch of my tiny home town. This song was usually playing on my iPod while I walked.


5. Hjartað hamast | Sigur Rós

I have so many ~feelings~ about Sigur Ros that I barely know how to talk about them. I discovered them in the summer of 2007, which I spent most of sitting in my backyard and writing stories in notebooks. Any song on this album, or Takk, transports me back there instantly, to the smell of growing tomatoes and the drip of sweat down my neck.


6. A Change Is Gonna Come | Sam Cooke

2008, the summer and autumn running up to the election. I worked at a public school in Durham and volunteered for the Obama campaign and made friends with the regulars at my favorite coffee shop by talking politics. Say what I will and think what I must about anything and everything that came after, I still think November 9th 2008 was the happiest day of my life, because it showed me the world was a different place than I'd thought it was. This song was the cornerstone of my election season playlist.


7. Verdi Cries | 10,000 Maniacs

Autumn in downtown Raleigh. Working on my novel at the 24 hr IHOP while it rains outside. My favorite thing to listen to when I'm working on a story is a story-song.

Guys. Natalie Merchant is 48. How did that happen.


8. Chaconne (Partita #2 In D Minor for violin) | Bach

Summer 2011. This piece is 18 minutes long and it feels like a life story. I can shut my eyes and do nothing but listen and never have my attention tempted away. The sort of music you can fall down into forever and never hit bottom. My iTunes registers 700+ plays, because I tend to turn it on and let it for hours.


9. The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face | Roberta Flack

This past fall, when I was homeless, I made a playlist of songs to listen to as I was trying to fall asleep in my car, and this was at the top. Because everything about it is perfect.


10. Magnificat | Arvo Pärt

I've been discovering Arvo Part this winter. Another piece to play for hours. If you listen to music that way. I do, clearly.

Tags:

Every Day I Dream About Sunshine

When I was a kid, I loved rain. Chilly, wet, foggy, grey days. I preferred winter over summer. "You can always put on more clothes, but you can only get so naked!" I would say, referring to the heat vs cold debate. I was born in January, I just assumed that ice was in my bones.

Then, I don't even know what happened. I grew up, stopped actually striving to resemble a Gothic heroine, and started writing novels. Outside. I just, I don't know, writing outside seemed like the thing to do, and then it worked, and it stuck, and now I can't write any. other. way. I am plein-air.

And in the winter, I am completely and totally screwed.

My cold-resistance capacities are greater than most people's, I think, but there is simply a degree of cold beyond which your fingers refuse to unbend and your hands won't stop shaking.

For about two weeks now, I've been finally getting into full time work on the new novel, LIFTED UP (27k and rising!) It took me an embarrassingly long time to realize that my writing cycle begins in the spring. Three novels is enough to establish a pattern, right?

When the sun comes out, my brain wakes up. My body has demands for sunshine that are more powerful than my morbid longing for atmospheric drama.

I write all year around, but most of the time I'm working on stories. (Short ones, I mean.) But novels are a completely different experience for me; they take several months to write and then at least a month to edit, and all during that time I feel strangely contented and peaceful under my skin, in a way I never do and never have at any other time or place in my life. Short stories are thrilling, but they're over too soon for my tastes, and then the case is solved and I have to get to know a new one. I presume this is the same sort of thing people who date find tedious about dating. Novels are--I don't know, probably not like a marriage, I hope, unless you're Tolkien and your life's work will never be done. But there's something about having the work-in-progress to come home to every evening, knowing that it's good, that you sink everything into it, that makes the pain of writing less, always, than the pain of not-writing.

The price to be paid, is, I suppose, the winter months. When I forget that, just because I'm not working on a novel right this second, it doesn't mean I haven't written a novel a year since I first committed to all this.

Next winter, I will have to work on being more mindful of this. For now, I'm just glad that my seedlings are sprouting and the chickens are laying and my brain is making a world.
As October, the creepiest month of the year, skitters to a close, I find that I cannot send you guys candy over the wi-fi. I promise that I tried really hard before I was forced to consume 300 Kit-Kats all by myself.

But--you guys know about the #allhallowsread project, dreamed up by Neil Gaiman, right? Where you give someone a scary book for Halloween?

Well, since I can't scan the text of all my favorite creepy books and hurl them at you via cyberspace, I present, instead, a creepy original short story, written by me and published here, free of charge.

It's called "Lines", and it's about an elementary school teacher whose students know something she doesn't about the woods that surround their playground.

If you enjoy it, I hope you will leave a comment and share the link with your friends. Or write a creepy story of your own to share with the rest of us. That would be marvelous too.

*

"Lines"
by Brittany Harrison


I'm a teacher. I don't get sentimental about children. Never trust a teacher who does, because that person isn't paying attention to their work.

I respect children. I love them the way I love thunderstorms that black out the sky and wind that tears branches from tree-limbs. In other words, from a wary distance.

Sometimes, when I look at my students, I think that if you could flip open the tops of their little cantaloupe-sized skulls and peer down inside, you'd find a miniature black hole or a tiny dark funnel cloud--a perfectly preserved fragment of the chaos in which they existed before their birth. It might explain why children are able to see the world as it is, unfiltered, while adults lose that clarity as they get older.

When I first started teaching, I didn't understand this as well I do now. I was very young. I felt superior to my students, in the same confident, assuming way that the third-graders feel superior to first graders. But any teacher will tell you that you have as much to learn from your students as they have to learn from you. And most teachers know this is something you can only understand by experience.

Unfortunately.

*

I was twenty-five. I was teaching fourth grade at a school on the outskirts of a large southern city. In October of that year, something strange started happening to my students.

First, their playground was vandalized. I didn't see this as being connected to what followed until much later, but that was where it started. I was the one who discovered the vandalism because I was, for no special reason, the first teacher to arrive at school that particular morning.

The windows of my classroom looked out over the upper playground. I raised the blinds, then froze, arrested by a vista of wreckage. Garbage lay scattered across the sand. A garden hose twined like a long green snake between the chains and poles of the swing-set. Amateurish profanity had been scrawled in spray-paint on every flat surface--words and phrases that made me think the vandals had been trying to shock someone, probably themselves. They'd lit a fire in a garbage can beside the plastic climbing structure my students referred to as "the fort". One whole side was black with soot. I had to look away because I kept seeing faces in the melted plastic.

I don't know why the sight of the ruined playground affected me so strongly, but for a few seconds I felt as though the universe had re-ordered itself while I slept, and I'd awoken in a world where cats barked and birds meowed. I was unnerved and strangely saddened. I knew the vandals were probably teenagers. I wondered if they had gone to school here once, if they had targeted their old play space because they had bitter memories of being children there.

Eventually, I tore myself away from the window and found one of the security guards. We walked outside to survey the damage up close. I stood at the edge of the playground while she took a few steps forward and kicked aside some of the trash. A glint of green caught my eye in the cold light of an autumn sunrise.

"Glass," said Rhonda, digging in the sand with the toe of her shoe to reveal more glimmering shards. "All over the damn place. They got to rake all this up and put some more down before the kids can play here anymore."

"Varmints," I muttered, meaning the vandals. "What the hell are we supposed to do with them now?" Meaning my students. I had a chilling vision of a future in which I spent recess after recess coaching kickball games in the gymnasium.

Rhonda squinted down toward the bottom of the field, out past the baseball diamond. "Nothing wrong with that old playground. Old as the school is. We played there when we was kids."

I followed her gaze and looked out at the little cluster of jagged metal structures flush against the dense pine forest that surrounded the school grounds on three sides. "It doesn't look very safe," I said.

"Hell," said Rhonda, "like it going to kill those kids, scraping they knees up. Won't a day of my life I didn't come home with blood running down both my legs. That's why these kids so clumsy nowadays, they sit around in front of they television and they computers and don't never fall down. They got to fall down some time, they better off to do it when they little."

*

Later that morning, Dr. Tandy, our principal, poked her head into my classroom long enough to tell me exactly what Rhonda had already told me, that we were to take our classes down to the lower playground for recess until further notice. I had drawn the blinds over the windows before the kids arrived, knowing that if they had the ruined playground to look at they would pay even less attention to me than usual. When I led them outside after lunch, they had to be threatened on pain of in-school suspension to keep away from the yellow caution tape Rhonda had looped around the swing, the see-saw, and the fort. Judging by their fascination and their reluctance to walk away, they seemed to think the vandals had made a major improvement on their play space.

"We're over here today," I said, gesturing to them to follow me down the slope of the field.

I'd thought that as soon as the kids realized they had new ground to explore they'd be on it like a pack of puppies, sniffing around and marking territory. To my surprise they approached the old playground gingerly, surveying the bare metal jungle gym, the enormously tall slide, the rusted swing set, and most of all the encroaching forest, with dubious expressions.

I sat down on the wooden bench and opened my grade book. As long as I didn't look at them directly, the kids always seemed to think that I wasn't paying any attention to them. This encouraged them to say and do things not meant for adult eyes, which was how I maintained my reputation for godlike omniscience. Pretty soon, three or four of my students had gathered beneath the shelter of the climbing structure, just within my earshot. I looked down at my work and tuned my ears to the frequency of their whispers.

"My brother," said a boy's voice, "he went here, and he said that a long time ag0, some kids--"

"--would he know?" A girl's voice, scornful.

"--they dared him, so he went way out in the woods, and he saw--"

My curiosity was piqued. I strained to hear, but they were talking lower now, and I could only catch disjointed fragments.

"--didn't want to--" said the first boy. "They made--never come back--"

Silence. Then a girl, speaking in a hushed voice: "Did they hurt him?"

"Must have, or--"

"That's not what I heard." The skeptical girl interrupted. "I heard--too close to the woods--"

"Maybe that's why--"

"Maybe." The first boy sounded unconvinced.

"--it's still there?" said the breathless girl.

"Dunno," said the first boy. Then, more authoritatively: "Probably."

"So what if it comes out?" The breathless girl spoke louder.

"It don't come out. It live in the woods, that's where it stay at."

I stirred involuntarily, and looked at the tress. I would never have admitted this to my colleagues, but ever since we'd come down to this end of the field I had been imagining that I heard noises coming from the trees--not enough to do anything about it, just enough to worry idly about wild animals or lurking pedophiles. When you're responsible for children, you cultivate a certain degree of paranoia, to keep you watchful.

I remember thinking at the time that if the kids were scaring the bejeezus out of each other by telling creepy stories about the forest, at least I wouldn't have to worry about them sneaking into it behind my back.

In retrospect, I suppose this was rather naive of me.

*

The next morning, I stopped Dr. Tandy in the hall and asked if she had any idea when the upper playground would be cleaned and ready for use again.

"Not until after fall break, I'm afraid," she told me, sounding so harried that I didn't dare press the issue.

All that day, whenever the kids were left to themselves, at snack time, at lunch, at activity stations around the classroom, I seemed to catch snatches of an ongoing conversation, in which the phrase, "--lives in the woods" was repeated at intervals. But I was so far from suspecting them of getting up to anything that at recess I sent them outside with my TA, Whitney, so I could get their spelling tests graded. I worked quickly in the quiet and went out to join them about halfway through the period.

As soon as I stepped onto the field behind the school, I knew something was wrong. It was too quiet, and the childish figures in the distance were clumped together, unmoving. I tried to catch sight of Whitney, but she was nowhere to be seen. My pace quickened.

As I drew closer, I heard radio static, whispering, and the low, quiet sobs of a child who'd been frightened or hurt. I dodged around the swing-set and saw that the kids were all clustered around two kneeling figures: Whitney, and Ben, a short, round-faced boy, pale beneath his light brown skin.

"What happened?" I asked, stooping beside them.

"I was just about to call you," said Whitney, looking guilty and slightly tearful. "He--I didn't see, I don't know what--"

"Ben, what's wrong?" I said, in my calmest voice.

Ben mopped the tears from his eyes, and as he raised his arm, I saw the bloody tear in the sleeve of his yellow windbreaker.

"Jesus," I muttered under my breath. I raked the other children with my gaze, and the looks I gathered in return were unmistakably guilty, as well as fearful. "Ms. Griffin, why don't you take everyone inside. Ben, you come with me."

I waited for the rest of the class to get a little ahead of us before I helped Ben to his feet and started walking him toward the office. I was hoping he would be more forthcoming, without his classmates glaring accusingly to warn him against breaking ranks. But he met all my questions with silence and head-shaking.

When the nurse had patched him up and called his mother, and I'd filled out the accident report, I returned to my classroom to put the fear of God into twenty-five ten year olds.

"I know that one of you saw what happened," I instructed them from behind my lectern. "This is no time to worry about being a tattle-tale."

Everyone looked down at their desks--including Whitney, still sniffling at the back of them room. Then a voice piped up from the middle row.

"We didn't see," said Samuel. He was a tall, serious red-haired boy, one of my brighter students. "He went in alone."

"Went where?" I demanded, pinning Sam with my gaze.

An uncomfortable silence. Then: "The woods."

"What was he doing in the woods?"

Chelsea spoke from beside Sam. She was tiny, bright eyed, and her many beaded braids bobbed when she spoke. "He was looking."

"Looking for what?"

But no one broke the hush that followed this.

"All right," I said, "listen up, because this is your only warning. I better not catch anyone else anywhere near the woods. You better not dare anyone to go into the woods, or see how close to the woods you can get before I catch you, or you'll spend every recess for a week scrubbing off the lunch tables in the cafeteria. Am I understood?"

They nodded in unison.

"I can't hear you."

"Yes, Ms. Bradford!" they shouted in unison.

"All right," I said. "Take out your reading books."

Just above the rustle of everyone reaching into their desks, I was sure I heard someone mutter, "We told him it was still there."

*

After school that day, I found Rhonda again. "Listen," I said, "would you mind taking a look around in the woods by the lower playground? It's probably nothing, but one of the kids got hurt playing there today."

"You don't figure he fell down?" she said skeptically.

"No, I'm sure he did," I said hastily. "But I hear noises sometimes, and I'm worried someone might be hanging around out there. It happened at my friend's school. Some guy kept coming up to the fence, trying to talk to the kids."

This was, technically speaking, a lie. But I figured it was a more convincing story, and I didn't want her to think I was wasting her time on my nervous hunch. Even though that was exactly what I was doing.

"Yeah," she said vaguely, in between bursts of static from the radio on her belt. "Kids was all the time going up in those woods and getting hurt. We'd dare each other, you know. Thought we was something."

Suddenly, I felt guilty for asking Rhonda to go down there in my place--what if there really was someone down there? But then, she had a gun, and I didn't.

I left her and went home, figuring I'd see her the next day and she would set my paranoia at ease. But when I got to school that morning, Rhonda was nowhere to be found. I stopped Karl, another security guard, who, to my knowledge, didn't usually come into work until lunch.

"Yeah, Rhonda." He scratched his head. "She quit."

"What?"

"She call me last night, said I better go on and cover her shift."

I gaped at him. "Did she say why? Was she all right?"

He shrugged and ambled off down the hall, leaving me to stand and stare after him in bewilderment.

All the rest of that day I was distracted, trying to imagine why someone might decide in a single afternoon to quit her job. Maybe she'd been planning it for awhile. Or maybe she decided she was tired of getting sent on pointless errands by nervous teachers.

Deep down I probably knew better, even then. But it's not enough to understand that your reality is changing. You have to change with it, for the knowledge to save you.

*

I took the class out for recess myself that day. I let Whitney stay inside and make photocopies. She seemed relieved.

When I caught sight of the lower playground, I thought the vandals had struck again. The bare, scuffed earth was scattered with debris. I was relieved; I would have been happy to coach kickball games in the gym from now till Christmas, if it meant never having to step foot on that playground again. But before I could recall my class and herd them back inside, I realized that what I was seeing was not trash, but leaves, dirt, and tree branches.

I wondered if there had been a windstorm in the night. I couldn't think how else to explain the haphazard pattern of the debris. It was almost violent. It made me think of a child who'd had a tantrum flinging its broken toys far and wide.

I started picking up some of the larger branches, and my students began to pitch in without my even asking. Instead of piling the wood in a neat heap, however, they arranged the sticks carefully end to end in an unbroken circle, a barrier dividing the playground from the woods and the field.

"What are you guys making?" I asked Samuel, as he passed me, carrying an armful of long, skinny twigs.

"We're building a wall," he said.

I opened my mouth to point out the logistical difficulties inherent in this project, then shut it again.

There was so much material to build with that by the time recess was over, my students had succeeded in constructing something not unlike a low, jagged wooden fence all around the edges of the playground.

"Good work," I couldn't help observing. But no one seemed to hear the compliment. As we walked away, I saw Samuel look worriedly over his shoulder at the meager fortification he was leaving behind, as though he felt the work was incomplete.

*

I kept the blinds open all the next morning. I watched the glowering clouds in the sky, praying for the rain to arrive. But the weather remained determinedly dry, and after lunch I took the kids outside.

When we got out to the playground that afternoon, the fence had been flattened on all sides. The damage looked deliberate to me. But I assured the children that it could only have been the wind.

"What about that?" said Chelsea.

I looked where she was pointing. There was a breach in the fence where it lay closest to the trees. The gap was narrow, and there were brush marks on the ground, as though something had been dragged through.

Everyone was staring. I wanted to say something reassuring, but I was disturbed, and I knew that I wouldn't be able to hide it.

I decided to call Karl on my radio. I would ask him to come down here and look around in the woods, in front of the kids. It was the only thing I could think of to reassure them. And, in all honesty, I didn't want to be the only adult down there anymore.

I turned my back on the children for less than a minute. I shouldn't have done it at all, but I didn't want them to hear me make the call, in case it scared them more. I was walking a few feet away, out of Chelsea's earshot, when the screaming started.

I pivoted: Samuel was lying on the ground a few feet away from the edge of the forest, on the wrong side of the flattened stick fence. As soon as I saw him, I realized he must have been trying to close the fence up again. I was furious with myself. I should have known he was going to do that, seen the danger coming.

I stared at his still little body for a few seconds. I was stunned, trying to make sense of how it had happened. Then the shock wore off, and I ran over, skidding to a halt at his side.

"Sam." I grabbed his shoulder and bent low over him. Something unclenched in my stomach when I heard him breathe. I straightened and examined his head for blood or bruises.

"His back," said Chelsea, in a shrill voice. Immediately, I turned him onto his stomach to look.

There was a long rip in the back of his shirt. The flesh beneath it was torn, the edges of the wound jagged. Bright red blood was seeping onto the pale blue cotton of his t-shirt.

"Did anyone see what happened?" I said, struggling out of my jacket so I could cover him up. I pressed the call button on my radio, trying to reach Whitney, who didn't respond. "Did he fall?"

"No," said Chelsea, insistent. She was standing at my shoulder, while the rest of the kids formed a hushed perimeter around us. "He was just standing there, and he turned around, and then I heard--"

"What?" I looked up at her. Her cheeks were tear-streaked.

"Something from there," she said, pointing at the trees.

I reached for her hand and squeezed it, and picked up my radio again, trying to reach the front office. It took a long time, as though something were interfering with the radio, but finally I got through, and told them I needed paramedics.

As I knelt there, waiting, applying pressure to the wound on Samuel's back, I became aware that the children were whispering amongst themselves.

It started with Chelsea. She'd stopped crying. I heard her gasp, and when I glanced up, I saw a flash of startled awareness cross her face.

I thought she'd seen something. I jerked upright and looked around for the source of the danger.

Chelsea dashed away from me. She seized the nearest child, yanked her forward, and whispered something in her ear. The child turned white. Then she wheeled around to face the forest.

Chelsea ran on to a cluster of three children a few feet further away. They reacted with the same look of terrified revelation. In a matter of seconds, everyone but me was in on the secret.

One by one, my students walked up to the ruined fence, where it bordered the trees. They stood shoulder to shoulder, facing the woods. For a moment, I thought they were playing a game, but their rigid backs told me that the stakes were much higher than that.

"What is it?" I shouted at them. "What are you doing? Come away from there!"

A minute later, Whitney arrived. I almost cried when I saw her. The children were still standing with their backs to me, their faces to the trees. A few of them were holding hands. The forest beyond groaned and swayed. In the darkness beyond, I thought that I heard something moving.

"Where were you?" I demanded of Whitney furiously. "Take them inside."

I felt cold as I said it; I didn't want her to go and leave me alone with only a wounded child for company. But more than that, I wanted to get the children away.

Whitney called to the kids. They didn't respond at first. But gradually, they turned away from the woods, trotting back toward the school. Chelsea was the last. As she passed me, she stopped. Her dark eyes were wide.

"Don't turn around," she whispered. "Keep watching the trees."

She held my gaze for a moment, as though trying to decide if she should say something more. Then she ran to catch up with the others, and I was left alone with Samuel.

In the distance, I heard the wail of an ambulance siren. I turned my face away from the forest and looked out over the hill, toward the parking lot where the ambulance would be pulling in.

"They're almost here," I told Samuel, who was still and silent. "You just hang on."

*

Two things happened at once.

I heard a noise: a rushing in the trees, a crack of shattering limbs. A warm stench of animal decay wafted toward me from the forest, as though it had breathed on me with a damp mouth full of rotten teeth.

Then I remembered what Chelsea had told me not to do.

I looked up. For an instant, in the space between blinks, I saw a shadow. A small, child-sized knot in the dark trees. Moving fast. Toward me, and Samuel, who had fallen on the wrong side of the fence-line.

I heard the whispering of a deep, angry voice. I felt it vibrate in my stomach. My mind, housed in the nerve-centers of my body, was no longer safely intangible. It was prey, being violated by a hatred so strong that it possessed shape and dimension.

Fear, at its purest, bypasses every higher impulse and commands the body to survive at any cost. I believe that is why, though I would wish to believe otherwise, I sprang to my feet in that last moment. Not to fight. Not to protect the unconscious child at my feet. To flee.

But I was already too late. All the sensations I have described occurred in the space of a second. The crucial moment had already passed. I had spent it wrongly. I had looked away.

Whatever it was that lived in the dark of those woods had already caught me by the roots of what was left of my mind. I couldn't run. I couldn't do anything, except feel all that it wished to make me feel: the heat of its breath, the tearing fire in my stomach, the world I had known falling away as surely as the earth under my feet, as it dragged me away along the path it had prepared.

*

The paramedics were close. When Samuel awoke, and asked where I was, they found me at the bottom of a culvert, only a few yards deep in the woods. I lay tangled in the leavings that carpeted the forest floor, my abdomen torn open, like a rabbit abandoned by a hawk before its meal is complete.

Nearby, they discovered the partial skeleton of a child, indistinguishable at first from the bones of other small animals washed into the depression of the earth. When they told me, I understood the mistake I had made. I had thought that in turning their faces to the woods, my students were staring down a predator, protecting themselves with a show of defiance.

But it was simpler than that. Something unspeakable happened to a child in those woods. He had died alone, with no one to see, no one to pay attention. It made me think of every student who ever hung on my arm, crying, teacher, teacher, and refused to be silent until their need was met.

I think the child who died in those woods would no longer endure us looking away from him.

I teach at a different school now, in an urban district, where there are no trees on the grounds, only a small garden. My first-graders grow carrots there.

I think I am a better teacher now than I used to be. I have learned the most important thing, which is that the only way to be a good teacher is to listen to my students.

And never to turn my back on their needs. For my sake, as much as theirs.


*


Happy Halloween!
This morning, I finally read Meghan Cox Gurdon's June 4 article for the Wall Street Journal, entitled Darkness Too Visible.

I am late to the #yasaves party, I know. Probably everything I have to say has been said by others, more coherently and articulately. But I'm going to say it all again anyway, because I honestly don't think it can be said too often.

If you don't already know, the gist of the article is that, these days, most YA fiction is so dark that no responsible parent who values their child's moral education should allow their teenager to read it. Here is a quote from the beginning of the article:

"If books show us the world, teen fiction can be like a hall of fun-house mirrors, constantly reflecting back hideously distorted portrayals of what life is."

The "hideously distorted portrayals" of life that Gurdon objects to include "kidnapping and pederasty and incest and brutal beatings". This makes me sit up and pay attention, because my book, FIND ME HERE, depicts kidnapping, brutal beatings, and several murder attempts made against the protagonist, Rose, by her step-father. And, frankly, most of my writing, including the book I'm writing now and the next couple of books I have planned, deal with similarly themes.

There is a reason I write about that stuff. There is a reason that lots of YA authors write about these things. It's because, however much we may resist the cliche, writers do tend to write what they know. We were all children and teenagers once. And the world that young people live in is not, and never has been, a safe place.

Sherman Alexie, whose book THE ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY OF A PART-TIME INDIAN earned a name-check in Gurdon's article, responded with an article of his own, "Why the Best Kid's Books Are Written In Blood":

"Does Ms. Gurdon honestly believe that a sexually explicit YA novel might somehow traumatize a teen mother? Does she believe that a YA novel about murder and rape will somehow shock a teenager whose life has been damaged by murder and rape? Does she believe a dystopian novel will frighten a kid who already lives in hell?"

To which I can only add the following:

Cox dates the inception of the young adult literary genre to the publication of S.E. Hinton's THE OUTSIDERS in 1967. "As elsewhere in American life, the 1960s changed everything," she writes.

Let me tell you about something else that emerged in the late sixties and early seventies. It has, I believe, a very particular bearing on the way that the YA genre has taken shape over the years.

Trauma theory--partly, the study of the impact that sexual, physical, and emotional abuse has on adults and children--developed in three stages. It began with Freud, in the late 19th century, when he discovered that rape and incest were commonplace in the case histories of his female patients who suffered from "hysteria". It was revisited during the first World War, when doctors began to study the phenomenon of "shell shock" suffered by soldiers in the trenches.

Then, in the 70s, the women's liberation movement began to force frank discussions of rape as a cultural epidemic into the public discourse. At the same time, veterans of the Vietnam War started speaking out about the lingering effects of their combat experience. The rape victims and the veterans discovered that they had a great deal in common, and out of this dialogue emerged the concept of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. I'm simplifying quite a lot, because I'm not an expert, but that's the quick version.

In other words, "teen literature" began giving voice to the experiences of teenagers at the same time that many other voiceless, marginalized people began speaking up and demanding recognition for their experiences. Gurdon is right; lots of things started to change in this country in the sixties. I find it disturbing that she clearly wishes this weren't the case. I can't imagine Gurdon regrets the activism that led to greater rights for women, blacks, and homosexuals during this time. I can only suppose she doesn't consider teenagers as rightly belonging to the roster of disenfranchised minorities. In this, she is hardly unique. For most of human history, children, like women, were considered to be the property of the adult males in their lives. If there were no socially privileged protectors available to them, then they were even less valuable than property.

Half the children ever born never survived to adulthood. This is what it means to be voiceless, vulnerable, and dependent. This is why the powerlessness we all experience in our childhood and adolescence is inherently traumatic, even when abuse is not present. This is why even your normal, happy, healthy teenager can relate powerfully to young adult literature that deals with traumatic themes. Their popularity is not necessarily a referendum on your parenting skills. But it is a reflection of the simple fact that abuse and trauma is tragically common in the lives of young people.

What I find most disturbing about Gurdon's insistence that YA writers play the "happy families" game is that abuse always occurs in secrecy and silence. Abusers are very careful to ensure that there are no witnesses to their abuse. And the refusal to bear witness to trauma compounds the trauma for the victims.

When Freud discovered that virtually all the women he treated for hysteria had been victims of rape or incest, he was forced to conclude that either rape and incest were endemic in the culture, or that the women were lying about their experiences, as a kind of wishful thinking. The paper he published, documenting the traumatic experiences of his patients, met with silence and contempt from the medical community at the time. Disheartened by this response, and ultimately unwilling to face the admit the truth that sexual violence was common in women's lives, he rejected his own findings.

Bearing witness to trauma is a kind of trauma all by itself. That's why we ignore it. But ignoring it doesn't make it go away.

Something else that distresses me about Gurdon's article is the fact that she fails to address an important aspect of the trauma-narrative sub-genre of YA literature that could, in my opinion, merit further discussion, which is that there are different ways to write about these issues.

I will admit that I was particularly offended when she indicted THE ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY OF A PART-TIME INDIAN as "warped", because I really, really adore that book. As far as I'm concerned, it does the most important thing that a story about trauma can do, which is resist the temptation to be nihilistic. It's a heartbreaking story in many, but it is, ultimately, triumphant, a tale of resilience.

I personally don't care quite as much for books that are unremittingly "dark", even though I believe there is a place for them. And when I write about murder, beatings, and kidnappings in the lives of my teen protagonists, I try very hard to model my conviction that anything you live through can be learned from, and that we discover our greatest depths of strength and courage and even joy in our darkest experiences.

I think this is much more important than maintaining the illusion that childhood is universally a protected and innocent period of our lives. And I think it is very telling that that particular fantasy of what childhood is like arose in the Victorian period, when most English children were orphans who starved on the street. It was a comforting delusion the grown-ups told themselves so that they didn't have to face their own appalling neglect.

It is long past time for us to stop telling ourselves that story, and it is neglectful and irresponsible to maintain this pretense to our children. They already know better, and so should we.
A recipe from my hotly anticipated new cookbook, Hell Yes, You Want to Eat That With Your Face, coming to stores this fall!*

ingredients:
1 butternut squash (they're the phallic looking ones)
2 potatoes the size of your fist
1 onion the size of a baby's head
2 apples (Gala or Braeburn)
handful of baby carrots

1 pint chicken broth
2 cups whole milk
1 can coconut milk

nutmeg
sea salt
coarse ground black pepper
curry powder
ginger
paprika

equipment:
great big soup pot
potato masher
biggest knife in your drawer
smaller knife

preparation:
In the bottom of a big soup pot, fry the chopped up onion and apple in butter or canola oil until the onions start to burn. Season occasionally with salt, pepper, and nutmeg. This makes the kitchen smell awesome.

While it's cooking, cut up the squash and potatoes. Leave the skin on the potatoes, but wash them and cut the eyes out. The screams of agony are only in your head. The easiest way to cut up the squash is slice it into round pieces, then peel the skin away in one long strip, before cubing. The smaller you cut them up, the faster they'll cook.

Once the onions and apples are done, dump the squash and potatoes in. Also add the carrots. Pour in chicken broth; it should not quite come up over the top of the vegetables. If you're me, you'll want to add a little more nutmeg at this point. And pepper. Boil this on medium until you can mash the squash into pulp with a fork.

Remove from burner. Carefully, without sploshing the boiling hot liquid into your eyes, mash everything up with a potato masher. Some people choose to puree the mixture in a blender. Those people are stupid. What's the point of soup you can drink through a straw?

Once you've got a consistency you're pleased with, add the milk, then the coconut milk. Add in small amounts, tasting frequently to discover what proportions of each you prefer.

Add the seasonings. Again, add conservatively and keep tasting as you go.

This soup thickens a lot when it's been in the fridge for awhile, so keep some milk to mix with it when you heat up the leftovers. Or eat it like it's oatmeal, what do I care.


Serves: Me for about a week. Your mileage may vary.

*I should totally write that, actually.

Tags:

the writer's season

This is why I moved back to the mountains. This weather.

For those of who live elsewhere (read: essentially all of you) allow me to describe it.

Raleigh, North Carolina, from whence I hail (and where all my novels are set, incidentally) is in large part reclaimed swampland. I don't know enough about...things to know exactly what sort of effect this has on the climate. But the worst case of sun burn I ever had, I got at a football game when I was 14. It was October 8th.

Most of July and August, stepping outside the door is like stepping into a tub of hot bathwater over your head. Sitting in the shade, in the grass, at midnight, your skin feels like it's melting off your body. The humidity begins to lessen, slightly, around the beginning of September, but you can never count on having seen the last of the summer weather until November. And even then, you'll see temps in the 60s more often than the 30s or 40s.

(I'm sorry, I can't translate that into Celsius. Even though I really should be able to. I know the little rhyme and everything.)

Anyway, fall arrived in Cullowhee on Thursday night. Suddenly, in a single gust, around 9:30 pm.

I spend much of my writing time (and much of my socializing time) at the local tea house, where there's a grassy side-yard with picnic tables, bordered by a fence. I sit at the back, under some old oaks, to talk and work.

I'd been there all evening. It got progressively chillier. I recently cut my hair extremely short, after having it mid-back my whole life, so I was obliged to get a shawl. It got dark a bit sooner than I was prepared for. Still, all seemed quite normal.

Then came a moment. I realized I was alone in the yard, everyone else having fled for the warmth of the house. The Christmas lights on the fence and the stoplights on the road seemed dimmer than usual.

And then came the came the wind. Like cold fingers on the back of my newly-bare neck. Whipping the tree branches, making them seem spindly and fragile, like skeletal arms.

It was not the witching hour, technically, but it was definitely a witchy moment. An abrupt shift from light to dark, mild to bitter. The sort of moment that reminds you, quite suddenly, that nature is not your friend.

It's been seven years since I was in the mountains during a change of season. I'd forgotten how much wilder and more chthonic the cold seasons are here. You feel like Grendel is prowling, and the only refuge is the mead-hall. (Though of course, mead-halls are no barrier to Grendels. A lesson from literature worth remembering.)

It's a good time to write. A really good time to be a writer. You can't hide from the darkness, or make it go away. It absorbs you, or you absorb it.

Each of my novels is set in a distinct season, because every season makes me have ~feelings~ that I don't have any other time of year. WISH DAY COME (aka A WORLD OF LIGHT) is the winter novel, about the darkest part of the year and the isolation of being human in a world that doesn't much care if you're safe and happy or not. FIND ME HERE is the autumn novel, about the beauty of the transitional season and the tension and suspense of the moments before the darkness falls. LIFTED UP is set in summer, when the nights are made for wandering.

I don't know when I'll write the spring novel, or what it will be about, but it will have something to do with renewal, and the fear that comes with having to crawl out from under the covers and live in the moving world again.

The funny thing is, I never write a seasonal story during the season it's set in. FIND ME HERE and AWOL were written in summer and spring, because nostalgia is my best guide into emotion.

I'm currently at work on a short story for the North Carolina Literary Review. It's set in spring. Go figure.

In more mundane news, I stil don't have a job, and I'm freaked out about it. But other things are good. Quite good.

And if you want to see my dramatic new haircut, go look at my Facebook album, "The New New Hair."

I am being very, very calm.

My computer is in the post office.

I know this because there was a package slip in my PO box.

However, the post office proper closed at noon today. Because of the holiday.

Time at which I discovered this: 1:30 pm.


Three weeks, without a computer. Three weeks of this...feeling, like I've had a limb amputated while simultaneously going through major drug withdrawal. Yes, just like that, like phantom bugs crawling under the skin of a limb I NO LONGER POSSESS.

I don't know if they're open again on Monday or if I have to wait till Tuesday.

Dollars to donuts, the library's keeping holiday hours too.


You know what I effing well HATE about holidays? They remind me just exactly how not-a-part of everything I am. I never get holidays off, when I'm working, because I'm the person who works so that other people can have holidays off. Ditto weekends.

No, the fact that I'm NOT WORKING at the moment does not make this better.



I am, in case you missed it, hideously ungrateful.

In the last twelve months I have had three massive computer meltdowns, and in all three cases I got rescued by other people for free. This laptop I'm waiting on is a gift. And I'm throwing a tantrum because I have to wait till Christmas Day to open it. Or something.

Forgive me, and walk on. I am a child, raised in a culture of instant gratification.


It's not like I haven't got other things to keep me occupied. My roommate going out of town, and my landlord coming over to "fix" our carpet in her absence.

For the record, men who feel it appropriate to show up at my doorstep, shirtless, at any hour of the morning or season of the year, are automatically on my no-fly list. You can pass that tidbit on to anyone you feel might benefit from it.

I slept in my own proper bed last night, though, and that was wonderful. It was the first night I've woken up in weeks completely un-sore or stiff.

For the rest of the afternoon I'll be sorting through my books and possessions, deciding what to give away, what to sell on Amazon, etc. Which is a nicely zen sort of activity. Letting go, over and over, until it stops stinging so much.

I shall be well, and thou shall be well, and all manner of flooded carpets, closed post offices, and anxiety-disorder symptoms shall be well.

I think it might be time to dye my hair again.

a short update, in list form

1.) I finished The Book Thief last night.
2.) I dreamed about the Holocaust all night long.
3.) I got my furniture from home (including my own bed at last!)
4.) I went to the store for nails to hang things, then my roommate called and said the apartment next door had flooded and the water was coming into our apartment under the wall, mostly into my bedroom.
5.) I met my landlord. He scares me.

6.) I'm going to find some water to drink now because I'm dying of thirst suddenly.
7.) I'm going to give The Book Thief to a friend on my way into town.
8.) I'm never going to understand why that book qualifies as YA, really and truly.

9.) But I'm happy that it does, because that means I really can do absolutely anything I want with my writing.

All the tired in the world.

I'm pretty sure that eventually I'm going to catch up on the sleep I lost during the Epic Adventure of Homelessness. AND, eventually, I will probably also make up the sleep I lost during the week before THAT. I have not related the events of that week on this blog, but just imagine getting locked in a batting cage with a machine that pitches, not baseballs, but molotov cocktails, and you'll have a fair idea what it felt like.

One day, soon, I am sure, I will recover from all of that. But not this day. This day, I lurch through the world like a zombie in a particularly advanced state of decomposition.

My apartment is pretty good, though.

My roommate, for instance, is a peculiarly sane individual. My neighbor appears to be a gentlemanlike creature. Mind you, my landlord, whom I have not met, is apparently a notorious meth addict, my upstairs neighbor seems never to have heard of noise ordinances. And my carpet is filthy. But I have a room of my own, and, soon will have a computer again, so I think the universe and me are pretty square at the moment.

Now, if I could just get a job.

In The French Lieutenant's Woman, John Fowler writes that if the leisured classes of the Victorian era were able to look into the future, it wouldn't be the technology or fashions that would astonish them the most; it would be the concept of time as a limited thing. The chief challenge of any wealthy Victorian's life was simply to fill all the many hours of the day. "The time signature over their existence was firmly adagio." And of course anyone who's read Chekhov knows the dangers of ennui in a leisured existence.

Being unemployed is like that, only without any of the fun of having money.

The sad, sad fact of the matter is that I find it very hard to write when I don't have a job. I have to have something to structure my time around, in order to squeeze every last bit of usefulness out of the time at my disposal.

In Cary, I could work for five or six hours a day, get home, and write for twelve.

But since my time has been largely unstructured, and my brain still resembles scrambled eggs, what I've mostly been doing is...art.

Which is funny, because when it comes to art, I'm not overburdened with, how do you call it--talent.

But the art that I'm making (attempting to make, whatever) is the art that Odette makes throughout the course of the novel I will, eventually, be writing again.

Maybe now is the time to introduce it? Those of you who read A World of Light may be squirming uncomfortably in your seats right now, but yes, I am rewriting it. Again.

Except, rewriting probably isn't the best word. What I'm really doing is writing a brand new novel, with the same characters and a plot that...frankly may or may not resemble the original.

I'm calling it WISH DAY COME.

I'm not tossing LIFTED UP aside--just shelving it for a bit. When there's a river in your brain, it's easiest just to flow downstream, and the current ended up carrying me in a different direction than I thought I was going. It's really very annoying to be so entirely at the mercy of one's brain.

(That whole river metaphor was rather painful. I apologize. See above re: zombie, advanced decomposition of.)

So, to sum up: I am tired and cranky, I have a place to live which is great but I'm still screwed in the head about it, I am tired, I want very much to have a job but I am hampered by the many characteristics that make me unappealing to employers, and my ability to even look for a job or distract myself from joblessness by writing is compromised by being TIRED. In the mean time I am making art and haunting rivers, libraries, and cafe patios, if anyone who is almost 6 feet tall, has pink hair and unnecessarily dramatic eyeliner can be inconspicuous enough to be said to haunt anything.

In other words, I'm fine. And getting better.

But I want a damn job.