The school library smelled of paper and cloth, floor wax and hush. I chose Abraham Lincoln for the book report assigned by Mrs. Evans because of Abe’s thoughtful, clear-eyed expression from the split-rail fence he sat upon. He was barefoot, as I preferred to be; and he liked to read. Like me.
The pages were large in my hands and felt velvety but substantial, like the Catawba leaves on the trees shading my grandmother’s front lawn. I remember running my hands over the d’Aulaire illustrations, which looked so real that I expected to see gold, green, and rose-colored smudges on my fingertips afterward.
“Abraham Lincoln: Boy from a Log Cabin.” This was the title of my book report. It was the first book report I had ever written, being only seven years old. I liked my pink and turquoise lined manila paper, and my pencils all pointy sharp, lined up like cross-ties on a railroad track.
The pencil felt good in my hand. As I wrote, I was transported. I was Abraham Lincoln, lying before a flickering fire, writing with charcoal on a wooden shovel. I smelled of smoke and heard the split hickory pop in the flames.
I carefully copied the d’Aulaire illustrations, using the edges, sharp and dull, of my colored pencils, fancying myself an author-illustrator; and I was happy with my work. I lost all sense of time.
At school, when Mrs. Evans saw my book report, she held it up in front of the class and exclaimed, “Why, this is wonderful!” Waving it in the air like good news, she took it into the hallway when the bell rang, and showed it to the other teachers. And then she stapled it to large pieces of construction paper, page by page, and she displayed my book report in the hallway outside the classroom, so that everyone who approached our classroom would see what I had done.
I knew then that I’d be a writer when I grew up. This was always what I said, forever afterward: I’m a writer.
Since my last book was published eight years ago, and I finished the thesis for my master’s degree in literature, I haven’t published anything; nor have I tried to publish anything. I haven’t written, either, except for my personal journal and occasional blogging. I lost my personal true north and my compass needle went swinging wildly when my daughter died and, yes, even before then when I quit my work in psychology; when I noticed at the last conference I keynoted, that I did not belong in that world any more.
In what world do I belong, then? This is what I ask myself as I walk in the cow pasture, watching out for cow patties and horseflies. The bull, T-bone, regards me suspiciously when I greet him; I’m afraid of him, and he knows it, I’m sure.
“You’re no farmer’s wife, no cow poke, no bull rider,” T-bone says, tossing his horns at me.
“No, I’m a writer,” I declare. It makes me laugh, because I’m walking in a pasture and I haven’t published anything in eight years. I don’t write. How can I be a writer?
It has rained a lot here lately, and down by the creek, water still stands in the hollows made by the hooves of the horse and the cattle. I take my shoes off and walk through the mud, red clay oozing up between my toes. It sticks, feels substantial.
Writing oozes up between the chinks in my heart.
I know I’ll be a writer when I grow up. When I grow whole, when I grow some courage and have enough faith to write from my heart again; I’ll write.