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.”

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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?