Miracles and Mountains, Or Finding the Fantastic in the Ordinary

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I was in the mountains when I first realized that miracles could exist.  Not in the biblical sense, the way I saw it, but in that visceral feeling you get when something is real and at the same time magical.

Our rental car on the ride up to Mt. Cook was a nice one.  One of those shiny, tank-like creations with the headlamps that look like cartoon shark eyes.  We’d been in the car for several hours, already and everywhere around us the fields had sunken into valleys so deep you had to crane your neck out the window to see the bottom.  Did I mention that we had forgotten our map in the previous night’s hotel room? Oh yeah, and (once again) we were feeling like we might have taken a wrong turn.

It started quietly at first, a flash of cotton speeding past my window.

I blinked. “Was that a bush?” I asked?

Except a moment later, two more muddy “bushes” sped past the other side of the car, their milk-coloured ears flicking, heads bobbing up and down as they ran.

Matt broke out into a laugh.  “They’re sheep!” he said, driving slower.

Sheep poured over the horizon, hundreds of them crowding up the nearby hills and in every direction of the road.

“It’s already two,” I said, trying to keep the nerves from jangling into my voice.

Matt turned off the engine.  Frowned.  “Hm,” he said.

“They’ll cancel our reservation!” I said.

Then he turned to me with one of his mischievous grins that got me hooked on him in the first place, opened the door and took off running down the road after the sheep.

“Move along little sheepies!” he hollered.  “Git! Git!”  He turned around to wave me out into the crowd, his wild, curly hair the only thing setting him apart from all of the wooly heads.

I laughed.  The spell was broken.

We did reach the mountains, eventually.  They were only around the next hillside, we soon learned.  Together, we looked up at Mt. Cook, stepping out of the car into the biting winter air.

It’s not like I hadn’t seen mountains before.  In Christchurch and the country that surrounds it the mountains rise out of the fields like silent spectators.  Can a mountain—or a herd of sheep—be a miracle?  Miracles, I think, are those ordinary moments that make you realize the wonders of the mundane.

This time, seeing the mountain was different.  It had the feeling of an end to a journey, the way Frodo must have imagined himself when he finally reached Mordor.   In a few short weeks, we would fly home and the future seemed uncertain.

“It seems far,” I said, as we headed down the boardwalk, the mountain looming icily before us.  I had to shield my eyes with my hand to see it clearly.

Matt jogged ahead, then stopped to peer at Mt. Cook himself.  “We can make it,” he said.

I smiled.  I didn’t know for sure if we could–make it, that is–but I took off down the empty path anyway.  “Maybe so,” I said.  “We’ll just have to wait and see.”

Snapshots of Wisdom: Pythons, Spiders & the Uphill Climb

Photo by: Chen Siyuan

A couple of years ago, I was camping in the Australian Outback.  (You might have heard about my encounter with a python.  Spoiler alert: I totally won).  When I was there, my husband and I ended up doing a lot of hikes.

Fact: I strongly dislike hiking.

Fact: A sign at the beginning of the trail that claims to be a “moderate” hike is totally bluffing.

I can recall one hike where, amidst the poisonous neon blue spiders and the miles of searing hot sand, I was getting particularly tired of the uphill climb.  We had been hiking for a few hours now and as the unforgiving sun seared into the backs of our necks, I huffed and puffed my way through the rocky wasteland.  Might I add that we were totally and irrevocably lost?

“There’s no end!” I whined.  “We’re just going to be stuck out here forever!”

The husband was equally unimpressed, but ever the optimistic soul that he is, he insisted that we push on.  “The trail has to end sometime,” he said.  To which I replied “Yeah, when a crocodile has eaten us.”

Without a hint of irony, my husband said “In this part we’re more likely to die of heat exhaustion, I think.”

After some deliberation and a lot of backtracking, we did eventually find our way out of the sandy wasteland.  What we found was a pretty awesome sight:

Ubir, Australia

Ubir, Australia

Every once in a while, when I am knee deep in stories that don’t want to come together, I have to remind myself that all of the best adventures happen when we go a little further, step outside of our comfort zone and work hard to dig deeper.  It’s only when we force ourselves to keep going that we are rewarded.

Lost at Sea, or How to Make Plot More Exciting

Surfing at Sumner Beach, NZ

I don’t know about you, but I like to avoid being uncomfortable.  I like being in control of everything.  So when my New Zealand roomies suggested that we go surfing a few Christmases ago, I could think of all kinds of reasons to stay out of the water.  What’s that you say? Sharks and jellyfish and undertows? To say “oh my” would be an enormous under statement.  But when I watched them out there, skimming along the sun-dappled waves, I felt a tug of curiosity that led me to a board rental truck.  Before I knew it, I was floating in the icy water with a board attached to my foot and feeling a little bit like a package of shrink-wrapped fish in those briny wet suits surfers wear.

Paddling out into the waters was fun; the moment when I turned my board around and felt the swell of waves rush up underneath me was scary.  Blinking back the burning salt water, I rushed towards the beach face-first.  There was still the matter of standing up.  Shakily, I attempted to pop up onto the board like everyone else, but instead slipped under the waves.  For a few seconds, I was tugged side to side as I clawed my way back to the surface, the leafy hills and colourful houses shrunken and far away.

I was thinking about this moment the other day when I found out something that made me realize I’m not always going to be in control.  It wasn’t a horrible moment.  Nobody is dying here.  But it was a moment of discomfort. Because everything eventually circles back around to writing for me, I began to think of something that I have been starting to realize: writing a story can be uncomfortable in a similar way.  To make readers feel the excitement as if it is really happening to them, we have to feel it first when we are writing.  This doesn’t always happen when we “begin with the end in mind.” Instead, we have to focus on getting lost in our writing—drifting towards ideas we didn’t plan.

Like washing ashore after a bout of being trapped underwater, when you reach that moment where you land on an exciting plot twist it feels like warm sunshine, sand and a cool breath of fresh air.  Yes, it is scary not to know where you are going, but it makes for some damn good suspense, doesn’t it?  It’s okay to be uncomfortable.  It’s just the way life—and writing—happens.  But it’s not so bad.  Let yourself get swept off in the drift and see where it takes you.  I can’t promise you won’t get swept under the waves, but I guarantee it will be one wild ride.

The Road Not Taken: Plotting Excitement

Foot Path in Reykjavik, Iceland.

The roads in Iceland look more like winding, gravel foot paths than, well, roads.  Amidst the moon-like lava rock there are plenty of places to wander off the track and fall into a hole (or something like that); this is why they tell you to stay on the main roads and don’t go off the path.   So when we began driving around the outskirts of Reykjavik, we were being careful, but also we didn’t really expect to get into trouble in the city.

Wrong.

It had been a few hours already when we saw the lighthouse in the distance.  Letting our curiosity be our guides, we started driving towards it.  It was a pretty drive—the water was on our left and the puffins were out fishing.  In the distance, was an island with unusual looking houses on it.  Transfixed by the mystery of the lighthouse, we wound along various roads, trying to find a way to the pier where it stood.  And slowly there started to be some unusual sights for a road: suddenly we were much closer to the water than we had been and now instead of grass on one side there was grass on two sides.  A team of soccer players jogged by.  One of them gave us a strange look, which I think roughly translates into “look at those morons on the walking path.” A moment later, we saw a sign depicting a car with a big red “X” through it followed by a little stick person walking.

Being that we were in the middle of a park, there was no place to go but forwards.  So we did.  We got a lot of weird looks, but we laughed like crazy when we finally got back to the road.  That’s the thing with straying from the path.  Sometimes, you have to step away from your plans—or outline—and follow that mystery, because you never know what great story will emerge from the adventure. Sometimes, the best discoveries when writing come from following the unexpected twists in our imaginations.

Paranoia, Planes and the Bigger Picture

Hawaii from the Air

Airplanes freak me out.  It’s not that I think they are going to drop out of the air or even that they might explode; it’s more like a building certainty that SOMETHING will go wrong as soon as I am locked away in the cabin.  There is no rational evidence behind these fears at all.  It’s just a paranoia of mine (of which I have many).  Bleary-eyed and cold from the jarring trip through security, I am always searching for some sort of sign that will tell me “Lauren, get off the plane.  It’s going to implode when you buckle your seatbelt.”  But, of course, that never happens.

Instead, I find my seat and begin eating mints like a crazy person, because this is calming.  When the engines rev up for take off, I can’t help but close my eyes.  Are the wings still in tact?  Is that a new kind of whirring I hear?  Possibility is the enemy of paranoia at times like this.  Teeth clenched, hands clamped to the armrests I can barely breathe.  Inevitably, the plane always takes off.  Sure, there are lots of horrible things that could happen, but they never do.  It is only when we are rising upwards that I find my courage to look down at my departure and take in the sights below.

Thinking about the views from an airplane got me thinking about my habits as a writer.  Often, when I am stuck on a piece, I close the file—I might print it out first—but then I put it away.  There doesn’t seem to be much closure in this act of “filing,” so why do I do it?  I used to tell myself that it was so I could start a new project.  Recently, I’ve been thinking that instead of simply putting away stagnant thoughts, I need to try and finish them.  I guess you could say it’s a little bit like opening my eyes in those last moments of ascent: if you keep your eyes closed for the whole time you miss the bigger picture.  And if I am going to write truthfully, I will have to see first what the work has become before I can see where it will go next.

Roadblocks: Or that Time I Ran Over a Python

Cave painting at Ubir, Australia

Let me tell you a little something about roadblocks: they aren’t really like writers’ block, although I guess you could count that as one.  Roadblocks can take any shape—in your mind or elsewhere.  Right now, I have hit a road block with my writing.

…Did I ever tell you about the time that I hit a python?  It was just after dusk, and we were rambling along the red dirt road from Ubir, where we had just watched the sunset.  If you’ve ever been to the Australian Outback, you probably have some idea of what the terrain is like: flat, red and full of creepy crawlies.  You are not supposed to go night driving in a rental caravan, say the rangers.  Being young, foolish and eager to soak up as much sights as we could, we went driving at night.  The roads were quiet for a long time before we heard the noise:

THUMP.

It could have been a speed bump.  Peering out of the window, I blinked.  Speed bumps don’t writhe around.  Nor are they a pale, creamy white with yellow spots.  Or maybe they are in some places, but I’ve never heard a speed bump hiss.

Turning back to my husband, the driver, I said “That wasn’t a speed bump.”

“Oh,” he said.  “So what was it?”

“A snake.”

In comparison to other roadblocks, a snake is an unlikely one to encounter, but encounter it we did.  The thing about roadblocks is this: most of the time, they are in your head.

Five Ways to Get Around a Roadblock:

  1. Get a writing buddy who keeps you accountable: for me it is my cat, Salem, who bites my feet when I stop typing.  True story! (Or sometimes my husband, who bribes me with food).
  2. Meditate
  3. Do Yoga
  4. Record yourself talking: maybe you are a secret genius and you will surprise yourself with what you hear.
  5. Take a shower: things getting kind of chilly in the brain department? Take a warm shower.  At the very least, you’ll smell nice and fresh.

So what did I do with my roadblock? Maybe the PETA people won’t like this very much, but we just kept on driving.  After all, when there is an angry snake outside your car, do you really want to go outside?  Or do you tell yourself “I’ll do better next time” and keep on driving?

The Meaning of Life, the Universe and Road Maps

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I’ll admit it.  I’m one of those people who likes to have a plan for everything.  When I was in high school, I wrote pages of outlines for each and every essay that looked something like the plans to the White House underground facility—only less legible.  University was no different, except for the fact that I could now drink beer while outlining papers (legibility not guaranteed).  Countless organizers over many years of polished, planned, prepared work and goals have taught me that the only way to be successful is to have a plan.  Up until this point in my life, the road had been laid out clearly.  Graduate from each year of school and at the end all would be revealed.  So when I found myself suddenly with no schedule or plan whatsoever I found myself asking this question: what do I do now with my life? It’s a simple enough question, but it inspires a lot more questions than answers.  I’ll try and answer that question for you [the imagined reader] or at least for myself.  But first: a story.

In her lifetime, my grandmother got lost many times.  But this time, in particular, was the worst. She had only just gotten her license—at the young age of 40—and this was to be her first road trip ever.  My mom, thirteen at the time, was sitting in the back seat of the old car, sandwiched in between her two crazy brothers and they were getting tired.  They had been driving along the winding, dusty roads of the countryside for hours.  Nana wasn’t used to driving, so she went slowly, pulling off to let the fast cars pass every once in a while.  When they had been driving for three or four hours and the sun had begun to set, my mother remembers feeling that rising panic as the realization set in that she might have to sleep in the car…with her brothers (ew).  But Nana didn’t stand for that.  She might have been terrible at reading maps (a trait that I inherited too), but she was incredibly resilient.  So instead, she said “Don’t worry, the sunset sets in this direction.  I see it from the kitchen window every night.  We’ll drive that way, because that is the way that home is.”  Sure enough, after another hour and half of driving into the sunset, they were home.

Thinking about this ill-fated car journey made me think: maybe, the magic of the journey lies in the mystery?  So what if my plans have changed?  Road maps aren’t the only way to get to where you need (or want) to go.  Maybe it’s not always a conventional route that we need to take, but either way you’ll get to where you need to be.  Maybe, like E.L. Doctorow says: “It’s like driving a car at night.  You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” So what do I do now?  I write.