Only from relics in the attic did I know my mother had been a formidable painter in college. The faces of her Navajo women were sand-cracked and the flanks of her colts rippled with chestnut flesh.
But while I was growing up, the only thing I ever watched her paint were snowy pansies, pattered with butter yellow, on flowerpots. They were an Easter gift for the neighbors, and she covered the kitchen table carefully with newspapers. My father called her flowerpots dross.
"It takes away from her time with you kids," he said, "and the house."
But he, too, had congealed himself. When I found his splintered poetry on envelopes and the backs of invoices, I called attention to the seaglass phrases. He scoffed. "Dross," he said again.
As a child, I didn't know what this word had meant, but I posited that it was a glossier term for fluff. The silk of milkweed -- blistering in the wind and wiling into squatters.
Before my father had tripped into fatherhood, he had wanted to fly to Madrid and baste himself in poetry. And my mother dreamed of Africa. She drove a jungle-green car and worked menial jobs to put herself through art school. My father spent one summer crumpling paper at his desk, and he scuffed through Spain for a month or two, handing flowers to an ambassador's wife.
Then one errant seed took root and my mother held up a pink cross while sitting on the toilet. She was hardly out of her teens. My father's desk was shoved into a house and unforgotten ghosts flapped, but art was no longer something hefty. "It doesn't put meat on the table," my father said, as if he was a pioneer who now had to gun down bronze turkeys. He instead worked in real estate. My mother sewed quilts and wrote the calligraphy on First Communion invitations. I was the first seed, and five more erupted into sons.
My brothers and I ran rampant and created riotously. We didn't go to school, but stumbled over craft materials in the house. My mother stocked us richly with paints and glitter buckets. We made lighthouses and birdhouses and filled our woods with Sculpey clay creatures. We emailed fantasy stories to each other about Seminole chiefs, and crystal wars, and Boppers, and Léagol (Sméagol's long-lost lover) -- never finishing anything. We peopled our forest with winged Ipses who shot arrows to protect our borders. We dyed the carpet purple, and sifted through drawers for slips, and stole my mother's tablecloth for costumes, but she never stopped us. We strung up balloons in the birch tree to film "The Unexpected Party", and my mother gently carried out trays of iced tea. The message we received was that art was not worthy of adults, but it was wild and for children. Fruitless and our realm.
When I turned eighteen, despite never having finished my home-study course, I was somehow admitted to a liberal arts college. The campus was on a converted farm in New England, and I was ensorcelled by the flaring oaks. But my juicy life of creation ground to a halt in a single day. "Read one hundred pages of Livy," was the order. So I cracked open books of Latin, Roman history, logic, Euclid, political science, and French philosophy.
For four years I turned the crank and squeezed the pap till my brain was bone-dry. I eventually graduated, gasping for breath, and found that my heart had hollowed out. By then I did not want to dredge anything, and I could barely bring myself to trawl the motivations behind my choices. Only once did I pat the rims of my emptiness. Then the sudden thought flitted in: "Maybe I should have written, instead of frenetically reading other people's work for four years. Or maybe I should have painted more, instead of memorizing Doric and Ionic columns in Italy. Maybe I should have skipped college altogether."
After these flutterings brushed my mind, I violently swatted them. My father had told me it wasn't a question of whether I went to college -- it had been "when and where". So I put my framed degree under my bed. I shoved away a sense of self-betrayal and stepped forward to claim the next prescribed step of adult life. Parentally guided again, I shouldered a full-time job and installed myself in an apartment given by my father at half-price.
The loft was like an enlarged dollhouse, and briefly lifted my spirits. I stuffed jugs with Queen Anne's lace and begged my grandmother for her cast iron pots. Moving into my own solitude ripped open a barn of reserves that I had forgotten about: I had stored so much sunshine for myself. Alone, away from family convulsions, I felt a serenity and exploded with a joy that I could hardly contain. I sang in my car, and I decorated my loft with pine boughs. Red candles. Shelves and shelves of books. I even set up a table for writing and painting.
But if my Muse harbored any illusions that we would now return to our childhood creations, she was quickly disenchanted. Life flat-lined into a routine. I felt tightened by restrictions I had never known existed: paying for groceries, for rent, for car insurance, for electricity. But creativity is an unstoppable force, and it eked out in small places. I sometimes put globs of paint on a canvass past midnight, when I knew in five hours I would have to shovel my car out from a snowfall for an icy commute. I let my oatmeal grow cold while I wrote a poem about the morning chimney smoke, and barely got to work on time. I scratched a sentence on the back of a business card at a red light.
But my secret desire was to nurture a novel into life. I sat at a white gazebo on weekends, watching the Canadian geese float across the webs of red and gold. I wrote beams and architecture and skeletal thoughts. But it was stunted magic. Nothing grew feathers fully, and my thoughts were thwarted in their incubation. I was drained by work and by family sawing and by socializing. My spirit might have oozed around the cracks, but the main exit point of my soul was choked. Two years passed in this fashion.
Finally, I knew the only way to save myself had to be to uproot my life, violently and completely. I decided to give up the car, the apartment, the grocery bills, the idea of graduate school, and elected to move to another country and work in an organic garden.
Now, my family saw my move as fanciful and temporary; the sightseeing tour of a restless graduate. My father phoned me to say, "I want you to enjoy yourself, but also realize this is just a side path." (He then generously paid for my plane ticket as a late graduation gift.) I know it was not a staggeringly original idea, as many American youth in their twenties are seeking alternatives to the purely lucrative paths. But for me, what followed my choice changed the course of my life, irremediably.
I chose Ireland.
I had intended to go to the south, because my ancestors hailed from Kerry, but I landed accidentally on the opposite side of the country. When searching online for situations, I was drawn to an advertisement seeking a gardening volunteer in exchange for room and board, at a manor home. The photo showed the mansion, painted orange. It sounded juicy and eccentric -- exactly what I needed to shake up my life. I had contracted myself by email before I even consulted a map. When I drew my fingers up the country, I realized I would not have gone further from Kerry unless I wanted to swim in the Irish Sea.
Neither did I know what the gentleman picking me up at the airport looked like. But I knew him the moment I saw him. He was wearing trousers muddy from gardening and he clutched a tweed cap in his hand. He trotted up to the wrong girl and asked politely if she was I.
"No, no!" I shouted, jumping up with my bag and waving my hand. "Here I am! I’m over here!"
In the car, Sebastian entertained me with stories of growing up in India on a tea plantation, riding elephants and swimming with sharks, until we drove across the bumpy gate of his estate. Carpeting the ground were thousands of velvety snowdrops. The petals glimmered in the rising sun, and a lane swept up to the Georgian-style home on the hill, so breathtaking I said aloud, "I'm in a fairy tale!"
I started working immediately the next morning in the walled garden, with a Spanish girl who was dodging a soured romance and reshaping her life in English. We worked in icy February rains and under a looming mountain. Every day we wedged wet soil for a potato bed. I always opened her bedroom curtains and said, "Oh, what a beautiful morning!" She would roll over and cough. "Jolines. That means it's raining again."
At twenty-three, my new life in Ireland was sparkling and fresh. Within a couple weeks, both the girl and I were marching out with our rakes and shouting songs from "Oklahoma!" to chase away the dew. The days sprouted into months, and spring saw us holding lambs in the forest and cartwheeling into comfrey patches and sliding down banisters, arms full of apple flowers for the kitchen. Sebastian, our self-described "gentleman of the estate", grinned with indulgence at our antics, even when we overflowed the bathtub so that the ceiling leaked into his great-grandmother's parlor. . . or pulled his prized spinach, thinking they were weeds.
While I was coming alive again in the garden, my heart set on fire in the stables. There lived one of the loves of my life. I have heard it said that soulmates are not necessarily romantic partners, but red clay that lay together millenia ago and then one day broke apart. Daniel and I knew each other in the first reedy, ecstatic hug we shared. I instantly loved everything about him, and looking at him was an act of remembering, not of learning. He had creamy skin and his eyes were two blueberries; his jaw was strong, but his mouth was tender. And his hands were long and soft and pink. He was a pianist. Every night I wrapped myself in a blue blanket and settled myself at his feet and listened as he turned the room to a cave of stars. He lifted the ceiling until I saw the Milky Way.
After the last note of Ravel or Beethoven faded, we boiled the electric kettle and talked. Curled up in an olive-gold armchair, I learned about Daniel and his dreams of being a concert pianist. No one I knew from my cookie-cutter American suburbia had been audacious enough to take the path he had. When he was younger, he would wake at four a.m. and cycle through the rain to play the piano in the town hall before school. He often skipped classes to prepare for competitions. But to really advance his technique, he knew he needed to practice at least eight hours a day.
Following this call, at sixteen Daniel dropped out of school altogether. Soon thereafter he magically crossed paths with Sebastian, who offered him a place in his stables, where Daniel could bring his piano with him. The two other pieces of furniture in the room were his bed and my overstuffed armchair.
Though he was only eighteen, Daniel whetted me like iron on stone. I shared with him my dreams of writing.
"But I've never finished a novel in my life," I admitted to him in the manor's yellow kitchen. "I never even put 'The End' on my stories as a kid."
"And do you want to?" he asked.
"Then you've got to believe it. Say it to me now."
"Say to you what?"
"That you're going to finish your novel."
"I want to finish my novel. No, I'm going to finish my novel."
"Well, that had as much enthusiasm as a boiled potato. Try it again."
I raised my fist. "By golly, I'm going to finish my novel!" I exclaimed.
"Don't make a mockery of your real feelings," he reproved me. "Say it seriously."
I was taken aback. "Sorry," I coughed. "I mean, I know I'm going to finish my novel," I tried to say with surety. "I do know it." My voice sounded unusual to me. Exposed. Suddenly I broke down and giggled.
"Why did you laugh?"
"Because this is ridiculous."
"I think it's because you're afraid I'm going to laugh at you,” he said. “Or that I'm not going to believe you."
"I guess so."
"But no one is mocking or doubting you here. It's only me, and I love you. Now say it again."
I looked down at the table. I breathed in and out, softly, quietly. "I'm going to finish," I said at last. "I really am. I want to, and I am. And I mean it." I then dared to look up and his kind eyes were on me.
He said, "I know you are."
That year, sitting in Daniel’s overstuffed armchair and listening to trills and stanzas, I completed my first novel, Martje, and my soul flooded with a deep satisfaction I had not known existed before.
That was four years ago. Since then, I have lived in ten different places in three different countries. I am working on my third novel, and I have written a few novelettes and some short stories and poems.
Everywhere I have gone has been in pursuit of writing. Under a rusty mountain of Spanish gold mines, I received room and board in exchange for English language tutelage. On an Irish island, I stayed at a bed and breakfast for free, because I helped with gardening. In New England, I lived on a llama farm and mucked stalls. I also laid out an apple orchard in a brick house that was reputed to be haunted. I worked at a Vermont sleepaway camp and woke up, hours before any of the campers stirred in their bunks, to write on a buggy porch. I house-sat an eleventh-century castle in Wexford. I was given places to lay my head, and often food. For extra cash, sometimes I nannied for stretches of time.
When I announced that I was moving back to Ireland, and this time for a much longer duration, a concerned relative phoned me. I was standing in a pine forest by the sweaty burn of a campfire, swatting flies.
"I want to support you," she told me, "but I also need to tell you I think going back to Ireland might take you farther off your life path. Might delay it."
I paused in whacking a mosquito. The bile of fear momentarily soured my mouth. I knew exactly which type of life path she meant. A steady job. The career ladder, a mortgaged home, and a weekly paycheck. Permanency and stability. Car exhaust on a highway commute, and only buttons of time popped out at the end of a harried day for anything related to art -- when I might be too tired to lift a pen, too drained to pin together a colored sentence. Squeezing, always rushing.
I inhaled. I exhaled. Then I softly replied,
"I understand your concern, but I actually feel that, right now, art and traveling is my life path. But thank you so much for wanting the best for me."
Today, I am looking out my window, at rosy fields and a distant steeple. It is a misty September morning in southern Ireland. A saucy lark nosedives into a blackberry bush. The berries are sweet and viscous, dotted thickly on the stalks -- so good with clotted cream. The wind whispers over the sea, rustling furze and fen. The fields are shorn. A second draft is waiting to be taken out of its cradle. For now, I am twenty-seven years old. I am a writer, a painter, a poet, and a woman. The journey has not been pristine or perfectly glossy, but nothing ever is -- nor would I ask it to be.
Creating, to me, is not about being published, or being affirmed by others, or trying to prove any points -- to myself or the world. Art is simply releasing the cap that was on my soul. Expressing what is inside. And tonight when the red sun hisses into the sea and the lark harps her last song, my heart, too, will say, "Thank you," -- for the random landing at an orange Irish mansion on the wrong side of a country. . . for the runic meeting of a pianist. . . and for coming to believe I could have a life on my own terms and of my own making.
[Update: This was written last fall, and I am now in the U.S. and back to the humdrum existence of making money, but I set my hopes ahead when I'll be able to focus once again on stories! And in the meanwhile, I DO squeeze out "bits and pops and buttons" of time to write. I suppose that's the point: when I feel the irritation build in me, the art wanting to come out, then I have to not worry about not having a full day in which to practice, but just shift the baby onto the other hip and write a scene, or an eighth of a scene, while I can.... and that's enormously relieving. For the moment. It also helps to have a lantern ahead of me: knowing that my commitment will eventually bring me to my next place to play in, as always.] [And my friend is right now touring Ireland with an orchestra! His dreams are coming true!!] [And my mother is now an art teacher - finally using her college degree! - and is supremely happy with that, doing what she loves, 27 years later... And my father is writing incredible poetry and taking a weekly poetry class!]