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Original Essays | August 18, 2014 0 comments
Today, we wonder anxiously if digital media is changing our brains. But if there's any time in history when our mental operations changed... Continue »
A Place to Goby Claire Dean
Once on the ground, I called my dad, and, in a rush of tears, pleaded with him to let me stay in Arizona. My boyfriend had broken up with me, my friends were another species, freakishly happy with their families and optimistic about their futures, my mother had been drinking too much, again, and she seemed to think that if she shook me hard enough, she'd rearrange the pieces into a form she could stomach.
"I need a place to go," I told my father. "Or a bottle of pills."
It doesn't matter if you're 16 or 60; there are times when you can't live in your life another minute. Times when the walls close in on you, when you loathe everything you see out your window, inside your house, and in the mirror. Yes, I was 16 melodramatic, hormonal, and probably clinically depressed but I still had to get out.
"Can we go to your cabin?" I asked him.
The road from Phoenix's Sky Harbor Airport to Prescott, Arizona reminds me of a man on his death bed who has to be coaxed back to life. First, you don't hold out much hope for him. He has no color and his skin's all dried up and crinkly, but if you wait long enough, he'll pop up his head. More than an hour into the drive, the saguaros gave way to the first ponderosa, and, soon afterward, I noticed a few hardy grasses growing defiantly in beds of sand. We passed the turn to the old ranch and copper mine where my grandfather grew up, running cattle and riding a buckboard twenty miles when he needed flour from the store. Finally, after a hair-rising ride up the steep, windy road, we arrived at the little cabin itself, sitting like a moss-covered log in its shady grove, waiting. I started to cry again, this time from relief. My dad told me that this was only a brief respite, that I'd have to go back to L.A., but, for the moment, I was soothed. One of the greatest gifts of this world, I've discovered, is that when no one else wants you, the wild will take you in.
It doesn't have to be a cabin. When I was seven, I escaped the frightening, red-faced fathers at my brother's Little League games by sneaking off to a clump of indestructible cottonwoods near the parking lot and pretending the men's screams were part of a jousting match going on outside my enchanted wood. At 12, there was the tree house my brother and I built out back in the old maple a ridiculously rickety conglomeration of scrap wood and sheet metal that seemed, when my mother got into one of her moods, like the safest place on earth. At night, after my mom had started on her third vodka, I'd steal away to where the leaves grew as big as my hand, and even the crows took pity on me, stopping their squawking and coming to roost in companionable silence on our cardboard and linoleum top floor.
But when I grew up, finding a place to go got trickier. My first apartment was on a bustling, ugly street, and it didn't sport a tree house. I couldn't hang out in vacant lots without looking creepy, and I began to notice the vagrants and trash at the beaches and city parks. Still, I made do by walking through the vast tracts of dusty land slated for subdivisions and taking the occasional road trip to the San Bernardino mountains, where I had to hike a few miles to get away from the second homes and chalets of L.A.'s middle class.
Then, with a stroke of luck and good fortune, my husband got a job in Boise and we moved to a state that has nine million acres of undeveloped, roadless forest land, more than any other state in the lower 48. There is always somewhere natural and beautiful to go in Idaho a woodland trail or mountain peak or river that is a universe away from the noises and stress of city life. There's the "real world": jobs, bills, to-do lists, cell phones and satellite TV. And then there's the real real world: The sky changing from robin's egg blue to stormy gray, black bears slumbering in their winter caves, the first flowers blossoming on the wild syringa, hawks gliding on a current of warm air, birds singing for the pure joy of it. The natural world goes on whether we witness it or not, stress out about our deadlines and mortgages or not, live fully or not. A full life and living fully, it seems to me, are two vastly different things. People work, drive, shop, cook, eat, clean, sleep, watch hour after hour of television, and still wonder what's missing. My most blissful days are the ones when I walk the farthest and get the least done.
I wrote Girlwood for my daughter, to try to pass down some of the things I've learned about the secrets and gifts of wild places. In the novel, young Polly Greene struggles with the disappearance of her older sister and finds solace and strength in the woods. She has a place to go, and she's the only one who believes that her 16-year-old sister, Bree, had somewhere to go, too, when she ran away to the safety of a woodland sanctuary called Girlwood.
Should a 16-year-old girl run away? No. Is running away sometimes necessary? Absolutely. I'm a happy, peaceful, incredibly fortunate adult now, but when I look back at my teenage years, my stomach lurches uneasily. I know that if I hadn't gotten myself out of what felt, to me, like a broken, hopeless existence, I would not have survived. I'd have done something even more rash than drive myself to the airport and run away; I'd have rummaged through the medicine cabinet and swallowed every pill I could find. I stayed at my dad's cabin for only a few days before returning to L.A., but that was long enough for fresh air and peacefulness to work their way through my system and convince me that I was, after all, strong enough to face my problems. In Girlwood, Polly's sister doesn't run to her father or to a cozy cabin, but into the forest just as winter is coming on. Can a girl survive on her own in such an unforgiving environment? Probably not. But maybe.
As a writer, I'm a sucker for maybes. My books are about the things that probably couldn't happen but, with enough determination and hope, might. Real lives touched by magic; dragonflies that look like fairies; girls who can survive despite the odds stacked against them; love that rises miraculously out of sorrow; wild places that can't be destroyed or tamed, no matter how badly we screw up everything around them. I write what I want my children to read stories about the healing force of nature, and lives that, maybe, if you trust me and read a little longer, will turn out well.
Because, after all, if you can't get to the wild, a book is a place to go, too.
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Claire Dean writes from a bright green house behind an ever-growing garden in Idaho. She was inspired to write Girlwood for her daughter, who asked for a story about good stuff. "When I asked her what that meant, she said, 'You know, about hope and magic and fairies and girls.' Good stuff, indeed." Next up is a story for the author's son. To learn more about Girlwood and to find out what color aura you have, visit Claire Dean at www.clairedean.net.