I have finally gotten around to reading An American Childhood by Annie Dillard. My friend Liza and Justin both love this book about Dillard’s life growing up in Allegheny county. She writes of herself as a child, “I began reading books, reading books to delirium.” In that chapter she describes her discovery of The Field Book of Ponds and Streams at the library. I was reminded of my own obsession with the field books my dad kept as drawing reference. For years, I was absorbed in even grander version; a Smithsonian coffee table book, which visually detailed the natural history of the entire world. The tome covered everything from shells to reptiles. I was a dreamy kid, often lost in a book or a story of my own. I still am pretty transfixed by the greatness of books and nature, especially since moving back to the country. Just yesterday, after a run around the lake, we spotted ospreys, herons, finches, bluebirds and some
I could not identify. Since I no longer have a bird book, the internet tells me they were purple martins.
I am comfortable in my own skin now, but being a dreamy kid wasn’t easy. I collected some shame about my “spacey-ness” over the years. Through high school, I started to distance myself from, well, myself. There was a moment after college — a decision like a a late august lightning bolt — where I ditched creativity. I had spent undergrad writing with deep insecurity; too frightened to dig my heels in. I worked in a bookstore, read the backs of great books and attached myself to men who had lots of artistic ideas, but little love for me. Not too surprisingly, I wasn’t very happy. Amidst my lightning bolt fears and hopes of feeling like an adult, made up my mind that stories were merely an escape from the real world.
After a few years in Austin, I went to get a Master’s in Teaching outside of New York City. The shift came with many positives, including friends and self-discovery. I was able to define many things related to my own style of learning. Between my fraction confusion and social awkwardness, school had been tough (with the amazing exception of art class and theater.) Graduate school sort of allowed me to rewrite this particular story, which was cool. Then I started teaching and watched kids make things, all the while feeling very far away from myself but not understanding why. I loved to be in lives of kids and families, but something was not quite right. I started to wonder; is a child’s work — the creation of stories and worlds, the full emersion into art — so far from the real world? Perhaps they are the ones living out days in full expression of their human-ness. They are building tree houses, standing in as the heroes, falling in love with beautiful books. They are making a life for their souls.
Books are, as written by Marilynn Robinson, “bread” to the people who really need them. Even if I wanted the consumption and creation of stories to provide me with escape from life’s challenges, it would never happen. Stories aren’t fluff. They are sustanence. Reading and writing bring me closer to my own life, not farther from it. This knowledge came together as a slow epiphany through the end of a terrible job, the beginning of a my relationship with Justin and then a year of a great teaching gig. After an exhausting, fulfilling year of teaching preschool in Brooklyn, I decided to focus on writing.
Last summer I began reading books again, but not quite to delirium. It was a slow crawl with very little focus. My adult brain got in the way. It has not been easy to extricate myself from the belief that creative work was kid stuff; it was a lot more painful than I anticipated. When we allow ourselves to be fully who we are, we have to face the scary parts of who we are, too. The doubt, the fear of failure, the fear of what might happen if we share our soul’s real shape and voice.I had created a zone where there was no risk of inspiration or reminders of what I’d rejected. If I was inspired by a great book or article, I might actually feel compelled to do something difficult like finish a story or plug through a blog post even if I was worried it was dull.
But now — I am feeling compelled and it’s really not very scary. I have been reading, watching, taking is all in. An American Childhood captivated me the way the books of childhood did. So much so, that now when I walk down the streets of Pittsburgh, the city of bridges feels new (it doesn’t hurt that it is finally Spring.) On Penn Avenue, I imagine the scene Annie Dillard found after a tornado hit. I can hear the streetcars and feel the heat from fallen power lines. In Shadyside, I hear the voices of softball game and feel that the golden evenings of the 1950s are somehow closer in this town. I write things down in my notebook and feel eager to work. I may never be that caution-to-the-wind, space cadet kid again, but at least I have terms with being a creative type. Inspiration is no longer something to avoid and the world is, once again, a trove of beautiful mysteries.