Saturday, January 30, 2016

My Gift

Here it is her birthday, the queen of our tiny, backwards Christian school's sixth grade class. We must bear gifts.

I love our queen, god bless her, and consider myself honored to be her side kick. She is flashy and brilliant and shiny and feisty and fun, unless she isn't. It didn't seem a big deal, the way she'd make fun of every thing I wore, every single day. At home my mother would be scolding me to not be so picky, "Life is NOT a fashion show." Except in Naomi's class it is, absolutely. But at least she isn't boring.

She is THE class artist, she declares, and we all know it's true. Her parents buy private art lessons for her while the rest of us muddle through Ms. Reinstra's painful, exacting, occasional drawing classes. Naomi is very clear that her work is the best, always, no exceptions. She laughs, "Remember in third grade when you all drew jack-o-lanterns with straight vertical stripes! Haha! So stupid! I was the ONLY one to draw them curved, with PERSPECTIVE." (This turns out to not be true. Much later, sorting though the piles of school papers my mother saved by the ton, I'd spot mine. The lines were not artlessly vertical.) This legend is true to Naomi and that's all that matters in our class.  The class is so small, no one can hide from her narratives.

At home, I am "the artist," although later I will not appreciate this old fashioned sorting and labeling of children. It's possible we were all good artists. But it was the one thing I am recognized as at home. I am not allowed to be that at school. At school I am just "the."

We are both young for the grade. I've turned 11 and now it is her turn. November. My mother told me there is no money to buy her a gift. Perhaps we try, but nothing in our price range is good enough for the queen of 6th grade.

"You'll just have to make her something. Draw her something! You're good at that."

Incredulous gawking.

"You'll have to think of something else then."

She tells me that home made gifts are the best anyway.

The other thing I do, always, is write. I will write for her.This gift is of the heart.

At 7, I'd asked my dad where the stories he read to us came from. He'd said "Out of the writer's imaginations."

"So, it's someone's job to make up stories and write them?!!"

"I guess. Yes."

I was electrified. THAT is what I would do. ONLY THAT.

The next day, driving through Eastsound, Orcas Island on our way to "our" summer cabin (a place rented out to pastor's families for nearly nothing, a perk of ministry) my father parked the sedan at Darvill's Bookstore. If I am going to write, I need to start practicing now, he advised. He bought me a journal then. I pick out a tiny, child-sized thing covered in tiny burgundy flowers and a Bible verse. And I was off, utterly certain of my path. My daily entries throughout vacation were shocking revelations of monotony: played legos, played on beeech, ate macaroni, plaiyed on beech, did puzzle, et dinner. In these simple statements, I felt there was a secret that would be revealed to me with time. And later, I filled it with the plans I had: work at Cookie Cafe (did it!), join Navy, marry Miles.

I moved on to larger spiral bound notebooks and a horse-covered trapper-keeper. I filled these with  novels and short stories and poetry. I hated reading, (until 7th grade, at which point I burst forth like a stop-motion flower, consuming the works of Shakespeare, the journals of Christopher Columbus, a tome of Naval stories, and every single thing by L.M. Montgomery) but I always loved writing. And I wrote prolifically and spontaneously and constantly, a volume which sprung straight from the artesian well of certainty within. I believed I had a gift and my job was to give it.

So, I write for our queen a novella. At first my gut instincts balk, but as I begin writing, the narrative carries me off and I begin to believe this is a wonderful idea. I won't remember much of the plot, except for the parts that become well known in our class. It is an over-wrought tale of high drama (much like this one), perfectly suited to the imagination of a middle school girl. There are star crossed lovers, perhaps a triangle of unrequited loves. There is a suicide, jumping off the cliffs of Ireland, realizing on the way down how beautiful the white cliffs really were, the soaring birds, the waves below, undulating, pulsing, all of it full of life, and there is so much more to it than the love of this one man. But oops! What has she done? Splat. A tragedy, every word of it.

I am consistently pulling F's in penmanship, although I spend my summers practicing. I am more concerned with ideas than the look of them. I complain that my hand-writing is more legible than most of the boys'. But our sixth grade teacher, Mr. Langford, tells me that it doesn't matter for them. They will be doctors and lawyers. I will be their secretary and my hand-writing matters and that is why he grades me so harshly. He's just looking out for me.

So my mother offers to type the manuscript. I bind it with my favorite ribbon: satin and velvet and seafoam green. I am proud of my work. I am certain it will cause tears and I am sure they will be the reader's.

Her party is at a house that was not hers. It is a darker house, with shag carpet. I have never been here before, nor will I ever be here again. I will dream about this house for decades, not remembering how it is I know this house. In these dreams I will be annoyed: Why are we at this house? Why is Naomi always in this house? This isn't even her house! I will forget this house in my early 20's when I will feel that this memory is behind me. But the house will continue to haunt my dreams. Nearly three decades after this party, I will pick up a book called The Gift and before I can start reading it, the entire memory is fully engaged, crushing me. The Gift, indeed. This is the house.

She takes my gift, wrapped in white tissue paper. Delicate, I think. I am beside myself with excitement. I have spent all of my spare time in the past two weeks working on this. It's the best story I've written to date. It's going to be the most unique and special gift ever (Naomi hates that word, "special," although she constantly strives toward the concept herself, it is, as a word, banned from our class.)

She opens it and things go wrong. I can predict it now. You can predict it too, right?

She screws up her mouth, recoils, "What is this?" she asks as if I've just handed her dog shit. She knows very well what it is, she just doesn't think it should be in the house.

"A novella!" I announce, proudly, trying to turn the situation around, trying to sell it, sell my gift. I pretend I don't see what I see, I don't hear what I hear.

"Why would I want this?" She is angry. In her voice you can almost hear a scream, "OFF WITH HER HEAD!"

"I wrote it for you!"

She tosses it aside.This moment, this disgruntlement at her party, will not enough for her. But I don't see any of it yet. I am confused. I am still trying to be enthusiastic. I am still trying to believe what my mother said, that home made gifts, from the heart, are best.

All weekend I anticipate her accolades. She will read it, I know, and she will be moved beyond imagining. Just wait and see. She will return to school on Monday raving about my abilities. Yes, she is THE artist, and she will crown me THE writer.  I even imagine that someday my novella will really be worth money. Someday, she can sell the original and buy herself the birthday present she deserves. Someday I will have value. Someday she will love me. I can hardly sleep, I'm so excited for the wonders that will unfold before me. I see my life as a spool of golden thread and each year a glittering moment will unravel itself into the world and it will be glorious.

Monday morning I ask if she read it. She smiles. Yes, she had. She spends the next several weeks making fun of every phrase and idea. She finds plot holes and announces them too our class, how stupid I was.  How do we hear the thoughts of the woman as she falls off the cliff? She dies and so we CAN'T know her thoughts. Plus, suicide is just stupid. Who doesn't want to live? What's wrong with you that you'd imagine such a dumb thing?

It occurs to me that perhaps I'm the only person that has felt that way. Later, I will see that it is  mostly when I'm around her, which is every day, for years and years. But I don't say that. It would be mean. I, for one, am not mean.

I no longer believe that the world inevitably wants and needs my gifts. I write anyway. I can't stop, though it hurts some times and I have to slaughter a million demons, half of them Naomi-shaped, to do it.


It's silly to have put so much power into the hands of 11 year olds, her and me. And yet they call them "formative years" for a reason. We cannot erase these things. We do not just "get over it," advice some people toss off so easily. I find these people bury, deny, and stuff rather than truly heal. True healing, for me, takes time and at least one honest glimpse at the depth of the wounds.  Like any healer, we examine the wound for a moment, we clean out the debris, get a good look, and then set to work with the antiseptics and the stitches and all of the time it takes.

I wish I had known better than to give her something she was obviously so unsuited for. Perhaps I should have. Oh, and she should have too. But she was not just any 11 year old. I don't know an 11 year old that would have responded like that to any gift: not me, not my kids, not my kids' friends. A three year old, maybe. At 11, despite my urgings not to, my daughter made gifts for her friends. And they loved them. They still exchange home made gifts and they agree they are the best. There's always one that can't bring a gift and no one even notices. I can see now that this story of mine was not inevitable. It did not have to be this way. The flaw was not with my naivete or my gift. There is not only one way to respond to home made gifts.

My consolation is that I am not her, nor will I ever be. I may be scarred, but I do not cut to the bone every person who loves me.

I don't use her real name here as some twisted revenge, tattling on what a disgusting child she once was. I used her real name here because I'm telling my story with as much truth as I can. This is my story and I'm entitled to it. And why should I take pains to prevent accountability? I have wasted too much time falling on my sword for people that seek to hurt me. I have searched my heart and I have no desire to protect her from the truth. Truth is not an enemy. And anyway, she will not read this blog. I don't even want her to. I hope she's better now. I hope she became human along the rocky way. I understand she was just a child too. Those were her formative years as well, and no one was apparently helping her grow or holding her accountable.

This story would be so wonderful if I'd found success in writing.  If I was now a well-published author, or even a mildly published one, this would be an uplifting tale of courage and bravery and triumph of the human spirit. People would look to it for inspiration. They would say, oh but maybe my dreams are possible too; did you know that Sarajoy Van Boven had to overcome the wicked witch of middle school, plus a high school creative writing teacher who declared she had no original ideas and then with no sense of irony accused her of plagiarizing her short stories because they weren't about highschool the way everyone else's were.  (Particularly one about a naval pilot who abandons his sinking ship and then is dragged down to his death anyway as the boat sinks, amid a sea of burning oil, losing in the end both his life (inevitably) and his integrity (his choice). Perhaps I'd never drowned in the South China Sea, but I had read an entire volume of such stories, plus The Black Stallion, which did inform my original story, but I did not copy.)  But I'm afraid that this tale, as is, is too familiar. That moment everyone endures in childhood, the crushing of dreams, the unrequited love, the death of something within. The struggle to make none of it matter, in the end.

I know, again now, that my gifts are for giving, although I am clear that one can never be sure of they're reception. It is my job to go to seed, it is not my concern upon what soil, fertile or hostile, these seeds fall. Although, as any flower, I can't help but long for some of my seeds to take root and thrive.

Coyote is 11 now. I wonder what he's going through, what feels normal to him but isn't. What will take decades (if ever) to heal from? What does he not even know he needs to talk about? What minor seeming incidents are wounding him today? What poisons is he ingesting that will take decades to kill him? What can't I protect him from?

A mouse ran this question mark in the snow.


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