I remember the first time it happened. I was five and we were at Disneyworld and there it was: Cinderella’s castle, right in front of me! The towering glistening lavender place where dreams were made. I broke free from my parents’ hands, and I ran into what was sure to be the most enchanted, world of wonder ever! The Magic Kingdom was going to deliver me my first slice of real magic. But wait! What’s this tunnel? I’m on the other side of the castle! Where are the crystal chandeliers and the marble ballrooms and the gold ceilings and the mice-turned-coachmen? The whole thing was a Disney-spun ruse! If castles were fake, then maybe princesses were too. But what about dreams? Was Jiminy Cricket full of it?
The next time it happened was in New York City. Broadway! I was ten and my parents were taking me to Annie. I’d memorized every word of it. Annie was a dreamer. She believed in infinite possibility– that she…she was special enough to have all her dreams come true. Seeing her live would mean that I could believe that too. And the voice of those dreams: Andrea McCardle. She was my hero. I was going to be Annie one day. Somehow. I wanted to be the deliverer of that supreme message. Andrea had a cold that day. Understudy. But I did see Patti Lupone in Evita. I didn’t cry for Argentina. I was too young to get it. I wanted to dream about Tomorrow with a raspy redhead. But more and more, dreaming seemed like a gamble. And judging by the bit parts I got in the community theater shows, maybe being a Broadway actress wasn’t quite it.
Then in 1983, I went to see the movie Flashdance. That angsty dancer in leg-warmers was me! (Proverbially speaking– pigeon-toed kids with scoliosis probably wouldn’t have flash-dancing in their future.) But the rest of it? Yes, please! I would live in a loft like that and do whatever it took, weld even, to go after my dream. So what if dreaming was a gamble? It was worth it. I just wasn’t sure yet what dream I should dream, and I knew that I had better figure it out fast. When these words came, they slayed me: “If you lose your dream, you’re dead.” Not me. That wasn’t going to happen. Whatever it was, I was going to dream a big one, even if the castles were fake and heroes got colds and you had to live in Pittsburgh. I was not going to die that death. But if not acting…then what? I started to dig deeply into spirituality. Seemed that the Divine would have some answers.
In 1987, I took trains through a Yugoslavia on the brink of revolution, to the Blue Mosque in Istanbul. I was obsessed with ceramic tiles and I was told that exact color blue existed nowhere but there…and that it was one of the most sacred, inspiring places on earth. I ascended those steps, ready to cover my head and slip off my shoes to behold this ancient sacred blue and yes, dreamy, place. The mosque was closed. Renovation. We didn’t have the internet so who knew anything prior to anything back then? I was crushed. Was I looking in all the wrong places? I spent the afternoon sitting on the ground next to the mosque, writing in my journal, and what came out appeared a lot like what you’d find in the pages of a novel about a young woman with undreamed dreams. I looked up into the minarets, not unlike Cinderella’s castle, and thought: Maybe I could write books. Yes. Books. I’d found it. And it wasn’t blue or red. It was the color of Wonder in the written word.
The same year, I went to the Sistine Chapel to see the Creation of Adam. I wanted to see what God’s finger looked like when He pointed to humanity and breathed it to life, still more soul than flesh. That surely must be what it took to be a writer—on both sides of those fingers– the constant act of co-creating with the Divine. That’s what I would spend my life trying to accomplish. I would wander in this wonder, and I would use words to do it. There it was again: ristrutturazione. Renovation. Scaffolding. Over one panel. That one. But I bought a postcard of God’s finger almost touching Adam’s. Still have it. It lives under my keyboard, where I write. It’s getting a little ratty, but it still breathes life into my muse, I like to think.
Skip ahead a few more years, and along came the children. I did everything I could to pass this wonder gene to them, in whatever form I could. Disney had failed me, so I figured nature was a good place to start. Our life in Montana served up wonder over and over and they received it, so we took it on the road. We went camping in Patagonia, Arizona, to see the Elegant Trogon bird. Each of us with our day packs and binoculars, and me with my Sibleys, we stalked through the forests slowly, all day. Saw a lot of people looking for the Elegant Trogon bird. But no Elegant Trogons. The next year, we went to Belize to see Howler monkeys, looked up at breakfast and there were eight Elegant Trogons perched in the tree above us. We didn’t see Howler monkeys. But we heard them. Family joke goes: If you want birds, look for monkeys. Works every time. My kids were well on their wonder-ful way. They knew that the expectation wasn’t the end game. The wonder was.
But when it came to the girl at the Blue Mosque, things were getting dire. She hadn’t had the kind of publishing success she’d coveted. In short, she’d sung a lot of Tomorrows, and had learned all about crying for her inner Argentina. Book after book. Rejection after rejection. And the postcard wasn’t working. My muse was under renovation. I was losing steam. My dreams hurt, deeply, and wonder hurt worse: Should I just give up? Weren’t dreamers owed anything? Were there not only no promises, but were dreams actually bad for us? Did dreams need to die after all? I wanted them to live! I wanted to sing my song on the page and have it land in hearts and yes…take my bow! Was Flashdance just another ruse? In short, I was bereft. But there was one moment when I felt that finger pointing at me, saying No. Never. Not you.
It was that same year in Belize, and I was in a little art gallery on Ambergris Key. I walked around that art gallery thinking, Maybe I need a new image to put under my keyboard. And then I looked down. There was a print of what looked like a marble Greek goddess with wings, holding her skirts apart, revealing the words Breathe. Believe. Receive. It’s all happening. I bought the print. Hung it on my wall by my bed, this time, so I could see it in plain light. I looked at it every morning and every night for years, and I spoke those words aloud. And I kept writing books. I breathed. I believed. I received. I received the joy of creating and let go of where my writing landed. I received the breath and breathed it back and deemed that the ultimate life: doing the work. That was all I could control. Whatever this “it” was that was “happening”…was a mystery, and the part I could understand was the part where I sat down and wrote. And wrote and wrote. But this time…surrendered.
And then…”it” all happened. Five years later, that girl who wanted to be Annie, got her version of “it.” But the “it” was very different than it was all those years ago. The “it” was what I brought to my writing desk every day, even though now the publishing world brought that “it” to the hearts and minds of people around the world. And for that “it” I will be eternally grateful. But even if they hadn’t…I still have my “it.” My dream is in the doing. That’s the color of wonder I paint with every day, and that’s what breathes my muse alive.
Just don’t tell that girl sitting at the Blue Mosque how long it will take. Or she might stop. But do tell her that she would have made a terrible Annie. Some dreams are better left as just that.
Do you want to wander in your wonder with words? I am now booking my fall 2017 Haven Writing Retreats! Come to Montana and receive…
September 6-10 (still room)
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October 18-22 (still room)