There are so many ways of identifying ourselves: where we come from, where we grew up, whom we love, who loves us, our education, work experience, various affiliations — all of them stories.
I’m not sure where my story begins.
I am a writer of fiction and poetry. I enjoy blending the supernatural with science and a touch of the macabre. We can thank an early fascination with Saki, Heinlein, and taxidermy for that.
I wrote poetry initially, inspired by the works of Thomas, Elliot, and Rimbaud and was fortunate enough to receive the mentoring of the late U.S. poet laureate James Dickey towards the end of my undergraduate studies in English literature. I only began writing short stories in my twenties. Some I even liked. I flirted with the idea of developing a writing career then, between adventures to France, Belgium, and California, and an unsuccessful dalliance with parapsychology. Professors at the University of South Carolina in Columbia encouraged me to keep up the writing, fiction as well as non-fiction. And when I finally graduated in the mid-nineties after completing a creative writing thesis titled “Laslo: Part I of A Relativist Work,” I’d spent more than a year obsessing over it.
Nevertheless, I reached the end of my twenties longing for financial security, and so I veered towards software development. If this seems surprising to you, maybe I should mention I began USC in the Honors College in the math and science department as a physics major.
Computer programming seemed the logical thing to do at the time — and it felt daring and exciting, something new, satisfyingly impersonal — but when I was at last prepared to launch my brilliant new career, Columbia’s largest employer of tech had laid off over three hundred experienced programmers, and there was no room for me. As a result, in 2000, I packed my shop cat and moved to Atlanta, hoping my IT prospects would improve. They didn’t. The IT industry crashed. Working with legacy systems at Georgia D.O.T., I grew impatient with the whole idea and let it go, and sought out some other reasonable profession…
I became a lawyer. At 33. Snapped my fingers, just like that, and voila! No, I’m joking; it took a minute or two. But like many lawyers seduced by the promise of earning a good living through writing, I’d neglected to ask: “Writing what?” But by the time I did, fully invested and with a job lined up, I’d moved to North Carolina with my husband to live in a cabin on the side of a mountain, foolishly imagining we’d be able to afford to live off the grid. Hah! I practiced law for a couple of those years before concluding it was the wrong path for me.
Then the Great Recession happened. Last I saw that cabin, wild goats had moved in.
But you know, I was always going to find myself in this predicament, needing to leave wrong careers, discovering more and more of my precious time had slipped away from me. Why do that to myself? Why do that to my husband, or the others I love and who love me back? Apparently, my mind would have me tell stories. And aren’t our most precious and monumental dreams the ones with the power to jolt us from slumber, gasping for air in a desperate sweat? Set them down, I say. Share. Maybe someone someday will be glad for it.
I still don’t know how to introduce myself.
I’ll say this:
We can probably agree that much of what makes up a person passes by us unseen. And yet, somehow, we do come to know the people in our lives, those we care about — and a few we don’t. Mountain peaks loom. Icebergs bob above the waterline. Eyes peer through parted leaves in a dense wood.
A child can tell when there’s more to a person than is obvious. I concluded when young that if I knew what I’d do, then maybe I would stand a chance of knowing what they’d do — those others. Of course, this gave rise to convolutions. What would I do “if this” and “if that”? What if I wasn’t who I thought I was?
Growing up on the coast of South Carolina, I was a thoughtful and vocal child fascinated by the prospect of danger and death. We roamed barefoot on the hot slick sand and bogged in the marsh: my younger sister and I and our group of neighborhood friends. By the railroad tracks and an abandoned train depot, in a tree fort suspended over the saltwater, crawling through underbrush — you could say we explored an inner world as much as an outer one. Both thrilled me with their traps, which I carefully marked, and for this reason, much to my parents’ and teachers’ dismay, daydreams of adventure consumed my waking hours, and sleep came with more horrors than I care to remember. I wouldn’t sleep in my own room when I was little and instead joined my younger sister in hers on one of her twin beds. Still, poor Dad spent many a night with his flashlight checking the bushes outside her windows.
When I was ten, I learned to sail a Sunfish. I was allowed to sail just a few times before our boat was stolen. I sailed with my friend Sani. We always spoiled the fun bickering over who got to man the sail and who was going to be stuck with the boring rudder. And as soon as we’d settle that, we’d wrangle over how to operate them. You had to agree, you see, or you’d tip the boat.
The day of my first and only race, the winds were strong, and Sani and I spent most of the race sailing backwards down Beaufort Inlet until we ran aground at a tiny island.
I knew that island and could hardly believe my luck that that was where we’d ended up. I’d spent a great deal of time on the landing dock, on my belly, ears filled with the roar of wind and the subtle creak of fiberglass floats, wondering what it might be like to explore that island, if only I could get to it. Was there hidden treasure? Who in the world would have a treasure and hide it there? Could I live there, in the searing sun or under a shade of palms, spying on the mainland? There’d be only scrub brush and those few lopsided trees to keep me company.
In spite of this incredible opportunity, Sani and I never set foot on the island that day. It would have been foolish to leave our boat. Oyster beds, rusted metal, and brittle degraded plastic often lay underneath the water and in the mud, which could slice you up or snag your foot. Not to mention rip tides. Deadly currents, rip tides often lurked just below a water’s surface, especially when it looked glassy and smooth.
We waited in our cramped little sailboat in our stuffy lifejackets, not racing, for over an hour. Because of the high winds, others had to be rescued, too, and it was obvious to the adult rescuers that we were safely stranded. The island was small, the size of a small back yard or a big garage. Marsh grass jutted in green clumps from the sloshing shallows and trapped thousands of dried reeds that rustled in the waves as they sucked at our few inches of hull. Seagulls cawed in a sky so blue it hurt. All the while, Sani, arms folded, sulked at the stern. Well, after a few choice words.
But I accomplished a thing that day. I’d made it to the island, and saw what I wanted to see.