I’m in the car with my son, headed home from Oregon to Montana. I’m thinking about my second novel, the one I’m working on, the story of a woman who enters adulthood with the baggage of a perfectly happy childhood and discovers a world where morality isn’t glamorous, motivation isn’t pure, and reason doesn’t triumph.
I hand Simon a fistful of licorice.
“No thanks,” he says.
“You don’t want licorice?” I’m thinking he’s not feeling well. Too much of my hard cornering on mountain roads.
“Superheroes,” he says, “don’t eat junk food. I’m a superhero, you know.”
“Oh,” I say, cramming red whips into my mouth as we twist north, listening to Willie Nelson sing about regrets and angels.
I take a dangerously long look in the rearview mirror at the perfect assurance on my son’s face. He doesn’t care about baggage; he doesn’t know how the world will someday fill him with doubts and regrets, and he’ll wonder if anything matters. He just believes in himself and his power to change what’s wrong. I turn back to the road, and suddenly I no longer care about capturing a woman losing her religion, so to speak. I just want to capture him, the magical faith of my son’s belief. I want to write it and live with it for a few years, which is, I’ve learned, what writing a book means. I turn back to the road with another story opening before me.
So now, three years later, I’m immersed in writing about a superhero who doesn’t eat licorice, who may be a saint or an angel or crazy, who carries weapons instead of baggage, who doesn’t doubt she can set the world right.
Simon, that four-year-old in the backseat, had done this to me before. Although he was fresh to the world back then and could only nurse and excrete and cry and smile, it was his fault I’d written the first book. He’d turned me from a reporter to a novelist.
I didn’t mean to do it.
I was perfectly content with non-fiction. Then Simon was born, and I didn’t care about anything but figuring out how to nurse without shooting milk across the room and keeping that silly little blanket covering up the action. I wanted to tuck Simon next to me and sleep, watch re-runs of Law & Order, and eat cookie dough. For a whole year that’s all I thought I wanted.
But there was this woman. A phantom of my wayward years, who kept bothering me. She was naggy and irritating. I don’t know why she came then, after I’d officially settled down with the right man and a baby. Maybe it’s obvious. Once I had become a wife and mother, I could look back from a safe vantage. Because I knew who that woman was. She was the woman I didn’t become. I’d misspent my early twenties, dropping out of college, more than once. I’d ended up in Dutch Harbor in the Aleutians off Alaska. I got a job cocktail waitressing at the Elbow Room, which was once rated the “most despicable” bar in America. That experience helped finance the rest of my education, as I worked my way through journalism school, serving food and drinks at places of varying repute.
And always I’d see that woman.
You know who I’m talking about. She’s too old to be acting like that, wearing that skirt, flirting with that tired need. She should have moved on. She haunted me as I nursed and watched Law & Order and ate cookie dough.
She kept asking me to figure out who she was. Why she was still acting like that. And she kept asking me if I could figure out how to set her free.
I knew she was in her 30s, although as I’ve aged and seen more, I think she could be older, too. I knew she had ended up in the Aleutians because that place was such a frontier. Everything screamed end of the line and at the same time second chances.
I had no idea how she got stuck or how to free her. But, I had a place, so that’s where I started: the Aleutians.
I’m a researching geek, so I ordered everything Amazon had to offer on the Aleutians and the Aleut people. Holding my precious and vulnerable baby, I read about the Russian conquest of the Aleutians in the mid-1700s. Babies smashed against rocks, mothers throwing themselves — infants in their arms — into the sea. I wish I could adequately explain how motherhood colored those histories. I was flooded with vicious and dangerous feelings I was not prepared to feel. Everything — not just my son — but everything vulnerable and tender was mine to protect with everything strong and courageous I had.
I had become part of something ancient, I had become a mother, and those women from another time and place and culture were no longer “other.” They were me. Motherhood brought me into their time and their lives. And them into mine.
I started to need to write a book. I couldn’t capture the strength of those feelings in anything but a novel, where I could bring those histories into that naggy woman’s life and into mine and see what the consequences would be for all of us.
Learning to write fiction and learning to be a mother became one horizon. By page two, I realized I was writing fiction, and three-month-old Simon was recovering from surgery. By page 30, I wasn’t itching to interview a source to find out what happens next, and Simon, in his mud boots, was falling into puddles of melting ice in our back field. By page 60, I couldn’t stop. Then it was done, and Simon was asking to go to the park, demanding the big and twisting slide, giggling and crying all at once.
And two years later, in the evening light on a twisting Montana road, my son did it again. Because he wouldn’t eat licorice. Because he believed we can be superheroes. And because now I kind of believe it, too. Because now I research a superhero’s trade. I still eat licorice, but only if I’ve done my karate today and my marksmanship last week and my combat-driving course last month and have my night stick tucked between the seats and only if I have my son to remind me that it all matters even for a mother always on the edge of understanding what comes next.