In late July, just as the lawns on my street were properly scorched and my small garden gave up its last stunted tomato, my daughter, Ellie, and I boarded a plane for upstate New York. We ate chocolate chip granola bars and chewed the gum we stuffed in our backpacks the night before. In flight, I jittered on Starbucks espresso, and Ellie drew pictures of clouds with the fresh blue notebook and green pen we bought just for the trip. And when we found our luggage on the carousel and headed toward the entrance where my best friend was waiting to pick us up, I suddenly had the strangest desire. For the first time in weeks, I felt compelled to sit down and write.
Known for his writing about the power of myth, C.S. Lewis believed that "the value of myth is that it takes all the things you know and restores to them the rich significance which has been hidden by the veil of familiarity." Standing in that airport in that moment plunged me into a story that could have belonged to someone whose life is much more exciting than mine. Everything about the heft of my backpack, the squeak of Ellie's shoes, and the drag of the suitcase along the airport tile felt bigger, more profound than it had six hours ago in Louisiana. This fresh place in location freed the ordinary to be all that it had been before, but that I was unable to experience under "the veil of familiarity." Suddenly, there was something mythic about holding my seven-year-old's little hand, her favorite doll under her arm, the both of us standing in a place we never stood before and might never stand again.
Writing in any place is tough. "Being a writer is a very peculiar sort of a job," writes Neil Gaiman. "It's always you versus a blank sheet of paper (or a blank screen) and quite often the blank piece of paper wins." I write, more often than not, against the urge to go back to bed, to clean my kitchen, or do just about anything else in the world besides sit down with that blank page. On my better days, I write, anyway. But the writing isn't always good; the writing doesn't always feel worth it. And sometimes, in the process of waking up, making the coffee, and staring at the screen, I experience the treadmill sensation of moving without moving, of writing in place.
In her poem, "Sometimes, When the Light," Lisel Mueller suggests that an angle of light is enough to produce the mythic jarring of relocation.
Sometimes, when the light strikes at odd angles and pulls you back into childhood
and you are passing a crumbling mansion completely hidden behind old willows
or an empty convent guarded by hemlocks and giant firs standing hip to hip,
you know again that behind that wall, under the uncut hair of the willows
something secret is going on, so marvelous and dangerous
that if you crawled through and saw, you would die, or be happy forever.
The surprise in the poem arrives not just in the "secret" taking place behind the shagginess of unkempt trees. The surprise in the poem also arrives with the word "again." The speaker knows "again that behind that wall" something "marvelous and dangerous" is taking place, and the fresh angle of light has transformed the crumbling landmark she might overlook on her routine drive to work into a revelation. She has seen this place before but forgotten to notice the "marvelous and dangerous" about it.
I seldom have the chance to board airplanes for New York. Somedays, the only landmarks I see are the ones I pass on the way to the kitchen table where I sit down, morning after sleepy morning, to drink my coffee and work out my writing. But right now I'm still charged with the loss of familiarity I experienced after that flight. And I'm also on the lookout for fresh angles of light to illuminate again the "marvelous and dangerous" that I have forgotten to notice.