Tuesday, June 8, 2010

House Angst

I’m not sure exactly when I first noticed “The Mansion,” but I remember walking or driving past it countless times during my childhood and adolescence, on the way to my Aunt Ruth's house. It was (I realize now) a moderate-sized Tudor house, which I regarded with deep longing every time I saw it. It was as if it was my house, but some awful trick of fate had kept my family from living in it. If we lived in that house, we would be happy. Not to be happy in a house like that simply wasn’t possible.

The house we actually lived in was in one of those subdivisions that sprang up after World War II, a little crackerbox of house on a row of other little crackerbox houses that looked more or less the same. We moved in at the height of the Baby Boom, the mid-fifties. At one point, there were 55 children on our block alone!

It was a long walk to…anywhere. The park, the library, school. Sometimes I would pretend I was walking home to The Mansion. The living room, with its brick fireplace; the dining room, with its big bay window; the cozy kitchen; the rec room. My own bedroom, of course, with a canopy bed, a window-seat. Books, a radio, and a huge bulletin board covered souvenirs and snapshots of myself having a fabulous time with all of my fabulous friends—who would magically appear when my life in this house, my real life commenced.

I was absolutely convinced that I would own this house someday. Weirdly, though, dream was so attached to the idea that living there would automatically right all the sad, unspoken problems of our family that I couldn’t imagine past living there with them, in some teen-magazine version of the perfect life.

Thursday evening, I visited my friend Connie Mitchell’s young adult literature class for librarians at IUPUI. It was fun because most the students had read several of my YA books and had great questions. One observed that both Wish You Were Here and Everything You Want had “dream houses” in them. But in WYWH, the mom got the house she dreamed of and seemed genuinely happy in it, while in EYW, the mom refused the house she used to long for, even though, having won millions of dollars in the lottery, the family could easily have afforded it.

(A connection I’d never noticed before, myself.)

“Why is that?” she asked.

Starting with The Mansion, I described my lifelong dream of the perfect house, which began with the belief that life lived in my mansion guaranteed a happy family and morphed, over the years, to what I think of as “house angst.” The closest I can come to defining it is, “What I know now about what real happiness is, coming up against that old longing.”

Even after I understood that the house I imagined wouldn’t really make me happy, even after I chose teaching part-time so that I could write seriously and chose traveling, which I’d also always longed to do, instead of staying put in the perfect house I still can't help wanting the house.

Sometimes not having it, knowing I’ll never, ever have it feels like grief.

Which is crazy because the truth is I don’t want it anymore. I really don’t.

One thing that interested me about writing about a family (very much like my own) winning the fifty million dollar lottery, as I did in Everything You Want, was the idea that having all that money would bring you smack up against your dreams. Suddenly, you could have…everything you want.

Actually, everything you thought you wanted. Which is a whole other ball of wax.

Abby, the mom in the book, who gets totally whacked out about the money, explains why she doesn’t want to buy the big, beautiful house she’d dreamed of for years—which I realized, writing it, was exactly the way I’d come to feel about my own dream house.

“[The house is] what I used to want, she says. "I wanted it so bad I could taste it. I’d drive by it sometimes at night, when the lamps were on, and I could see inside to the living room and I’d imagine us all there. It scared me, it seemed so real. Like it was a life I’d lost. Or the life I should have had…It’s too late…The last thing I want to do is buy a big house and have to decorate it, buy stuff to fill it up, get used to living in it.”

Honestly, I think one of the major reasons I write novels is because it’s like getting to live more than one life. The houses in WYWH and EYW are real houses I’ve driven past countless times over the years and fantasized about—and I got to own one of them by way of a story.

How cool is that?

I see now that I gave Jackson’s mom her dream house because the time in her life was right for it—and it actually did make her happy. But that happiness played off of Jax’s sadness at leaving the house where his divorced parents had last been happy together. So there was a cost.

There always is.

Abby might decide to buy that fabulous house in her post-book life, she might not. I don’t know. What mattered was at that juncture in the story of her life she understood herself well enough to know that she needed to figure out what she really wanted before making any huge decisions.

As for me, in my real life, now--I’ve lived in our little brick bungalow since 1969!

I have a sort of love/hate relationship with it. I love how cozy it is and how our whole history is in it. I hate that it doesn’t have a window seat or a breakfast nook. Or a screened-in porch, where I could sit and read and listen to the rain.

But if I didn’t live here, who would I be?

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Summer Break

A former student of mine once sent me an essay she’d written in a college class that began, “I asked God to give me a break.” She was a lovely girl, a straight-A student. Sweet, earnest, with a flinty streak of determination that I loved to watch in action. She had been raised as a conservative Christian and was active in her church.

She was a good, solid writer in high school, but she had trouble engaging fully in the mess of creative process, especially when a piece took a turn and she found herself making an observation or asking a question that made her strong faith waver.

I remember writing in the margin of her journal, “God gave you a questioning mind. Why would He have done that if He didn’t want you to use it?”

College cracked her mind open in that wonderful way it does, when it works—and made her the writer I always knew she had it in her to be. The essay she sent me was about the evolution of her conservative childhood faith into one that embraced the questions and contradictions of a person fully awake in the universe.

I loved that she asked God to give her a break so that she could do whatever she needed to do to make that happen. If I believed in the kind of God that grants requests, I would ask him to give me a break, too. But from myself.

Seriously. I would like to take a break from feeling so driven about—everything. At least for a while, I would like to write without ambition, for the joy of it—just to see where writing would take me—instead of constantly wrestling with the puzzle pieces of a novel, obsessed with trying to put them together when I know that crucial ones are missing, not to mention the fact that the shapes of the ones I do have keep shifting. Plus there’s no box with a picture on it that shows what the completed puzzle is supposed to look like.

I love writing novels. I really, truly do. But right now, I feel weary of the long process, the constant clutter of people and places in my head.

Lately, I've been thinking about a summer day a few years ago. Steve was gone, fishing, and I’d just returned from a trip and hadn’t gotten back into my routine yet. For a whole Sunday I just did whatever I felt like doing.

Mainly, I remember being on my bike on the Monon Trail and being so happy. It seemed like the world was offering up all sorts of things as I rode along to make me see this was how life is supposed to be. There was a man with a parrot on his shoulder! There were babies and dogs. The trail felt like a big parade and I was in it.

I remember thinking, is this the way some people live their lives? You feel like riding your bike, so you just…do? Or watch a movie, go to a museum, dig in the garden for a while? What would it be like not to be thinking constantly that you should be should be attending to some made-up world in your head, trying to wrestle it into words?

I’d like more days like that in my life.

So, it’s official. I’m taking a (summer) break.

From myself.

(If I can.)