When You Reach “The End”

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve spent hour upon hour absorbed in the deeply unhappy task of clearing out the home of someone I loved very dearly. This task fell largely to my sister and I, and we did it because that’s the way life works. It gives you unpleasant tasks from time to time, and you do your best to complete them.

So we’ve sifted through old books and clothes. Through what amounts to a history of her life as a teacher. Through quilts and notebooks containing the careful sketches of all the quilts she designed and made for members of our family. And as the sifting went on and on, I kept finding myself, as someone who thinks a lot about story in general, in the midst of stories about her.

There are stories about when she cooked a particularly awful meal, but still met with a whole family’s groaning about it with good humor. About the times when she brought my sister and brother and I to her school for the day, with us dressed to the nines—because that’s what one does. About the time she took me to a Color Me Beautiful consultant to have my colors “done.” I was thirteen at the time and stymied by the request to bring all my make-up (which consisted of one Wet N Wild eyeliner and some lip gloss). About the composition notebooks full of lists and advice she used to give us (for real) and the Vogue magazines with dog-eared pages with looks she thought we should try (also for real). About her joking that the wig she wore during chemo looked much better than her real hair.

But it wasn’t just thinking about these stories that got to me—it was dealing with the realization that these were the only ones I was going to have of her. These old stories that we’ll tell and retell—that we’ve already spent considerable time retelling—are the only ones we’re going to get. There are no new ones to come. Cleaning out the house made that more finite for me.

I sometimes joked, while she was alive, that she was a real character. We all are, in a way—the protagonists of our own stories and the secondary characters in the stories that belong to other people. And she was one hell of a character. None of which makes it any easier that her story has reached its “The End.” But like a well-worn edition of a favorite book, I’ll reach for these stories again and again, for comfort, for laughter, and to remember the importance this particular character played in my life.


In Which Storytelling and Character Defeat the Dark Side

Seriously, though, would you mess with Leia?

My husband has, on occasion, told people that our greatest failing as parents was our inability to get our kiddo interested in Star Wars. For her, it all seemed to boil down to: parents’ love of the movies + stubborn resistance to things parents love = disinterest in Star Wars.

Fair enough—we’ve all been there with our own parents and our own personal Star Wars.

But this past weekend, we finally sat down and watched Episode IV: A New Hope. The next day, I got a request to doozy up her hair in Princess Leia buns. I’d love to say this was a parental victory, but it had nothing to do with us. In reality, the conversion happened because of the power of story and character.

It was an interesting exercise watching the movie through someone else’s fresh eyes—and through the eyes of the person who matters most in the world to us. It also was interesting talking to her about characters like Han Solo, who seems like less than a good guy at first (and who maintains that delicious edge of scoundrel even later on)—and about Darth Vader, whose back story my kiddo doesn’t know and whose role in the story remains mysterious. It was amazing to hear things like, “Don’t mess with Princess Leia!” afterward and to see how this character captured my kiddo’s attention just as she did mine when I was a girl.

Because who doesn’t get caught up in a bold, brave, problem-solver like Leia—someone whose dedication to her cause is unstoppable, but who is completely human (and more than a little sarcastic) at the same time. Or Han, who is more than he believes himself to be. Or Luke, who yearns to do something important and change the world. And don’t even get me started on the layers upon layers that make up Obi Wan.

So, it wasn’t dedicated Star Wars parents who changed my kiddo’s mind—it was the story and the characters. And it served as a good reminder that these two things aren’t just to be found in books. They’re on television and in movies, in video games and in plays—and they’re important in all forms. So as much as this one movie opened my kiddo up to new possibilities, she (and the movie) reminded the die-hard book person that I am that my chosen story format isn’t the only one. Star Wars: blowing my mind since 1977.

Just don’t get me started on episodes I-III….

Have a Magical Day!

Sure, Cinderella's castle isn't really covered in glowing icicles. But it sure does look pretty.
Sure, Cinderella’s castle isn’t really covered in glowing icicles. But it sure does look pretty.

Disney World is one of those places that you either love or hate. I definitely fall into the love category. Having just returned from a trip there—with hours upon hours spent on rides, watching shows, meeting characters (Chip and Dale rock), and generally having a wonderful time with my extended family, I have some insight into the Disney experience. I also gained some unexpected insight—and perspective—on my own writing. Specifically:

Sometimes it’s good to turn the laptop off and leave it at home. Rid yourself of any possibility of writing or revising and let your brain just rest. I am not good at this. As a slightly compulsive person who’s also a working mother, finding time to write isn’t always easy. So I force myself to work after work and on weekends. I make myself sit at the computer and put words onto the page. This can be a good thing. It can also be damaging when it leads to no rest and no playtime. A gal needs a break every now and then.

There’s no such thing as “real” magic. I know this as a sophisticated adult-type person who’s view of the world is firmly grounded in reality. But magic is so much fun, even if it isn’t real. The magic at Disney World is so seamlessly created that it almost feels real at times. And even when it doesn’t—even when you know the snow on Main Street USA isn’t the real thing because chance snow squalls don’t happen in Orlando—it’s still pretty darn awesome. The careful orchestration doesn’t lessen the greatness. Instead, it adds to my marveling at it. Someone (or more likely a large team of someones) crafted every last moment of the Disney World experience. It’s world-building of the highest order. Magic isn’t real—it’s created. Writers create magic in the same way, and it’s nice to be reminded of that now and again.

Embracing one’s lack of cynicism is a good and healthy thing. I am not a cynical person. I hope never to be one. Sitting on a Disney shuttle bus surrounded by happily chatting families from all around the country—whose kids are sporting Elsa dresses and whose dads are wearing mouse ears—it’s like a breath of fresh air wafted through. And on a crowded shuttle bus, that’s saying something.

The world needs more fireworks. And song and dance routines just for the sake of having song and dance routines. And dance parties in which people wearing large, furry character costumes bust a move with you. And folks who without a shred of irony wish you a magical day. Because who doesn’t want to have a magical day?

So, I thank my lucky stars that there is such a place as Walt Disney World and people who have job titles like imagineer and kindly folks who are happy to chat with you about how awesome their vacations are—and how much they hope yours is as well.

Now I’m back to work and life and even some writing and revising. But if you wish me a magical day, I’ll be happy to wish one right back at you.