Where I was born and raised in small town Kankakee, Illinois, the advantage of nature and reminders of the spirit are ones residents often take for granted. It is expected the birds will chirp us up in the mornings, the butterflies and lightning bugs will announce the heat is nearing faster than we would like, the leaves will turn into still lifes we only notice once they have fallen, and wind will break through the sturdiest windows to tell us how to dress for the days. The big cities of Chicago and New York enveloped my mind and spirit after I left home to become more educated. Due to these relocations, I regret years of disdain for the quiet and slow life I was fated to be born within.
I lost touch with the spirit of God through nature, the Earth, the land, the cornstalks, the living grass, and yes, even the trees we owe a huge debt to. And when my mind was unclear this was my core nature and therefore I was left out of whack, my spirit woke me up and called me home.
Through a chance encounter with a neighbor in my Chicago apartment building, I was offered to share a mobile home in the middle of nowhere right in back of my hometown. It was explained: “It’s very dark out there,” “There’s nothing around,” and “It’s so quiet you may get a bit scared.”
I just smiled at the naivete of this urban native and dweller. Most people who know me today can not see who I was in the past: a girl running through vast rural parks, our required front and back lawns, and the majestic Kankakee River famed throughout the state for its fishing crop. I had run after hundreds of lightning bugs in my innocent lack of humaneness to our animals; all my prized catches would soon die, stuffed inside whatever glass jars the adults would let us kids take for our little adventures. I had caught catch garter snakes and frogs in the grass, though I admit this is not my favorite memory. This was the little girl locked inside me all the education, city life and grown adult responsibilities had thrown away the keys on.
“I think I know what you are talking about,” I smiled.
And I did. However, it all still surprised and excited me me.
With glee I drove down on slick gravel under uninterrupted horizon, with scarcely a car or truck in sight as I passed over a one-lane bridge and two railroad tracks. I reached that type of place we all do, physically and otherwise: no one can find it unless they already know it is there. The cell phones can not catch signals. Yards flow like rivers. RVs and trailers and lived-in mobile homes tick lights on and off according to the times. I was the only black face, something I totally lost touch with whilst in urban centers I accustomed to. It did not matter. But still this was my home, my perfect space, the milieu which formed me and the caste I fit.
So, my first few nights of sleeping all day without interruption and walking out of just one door before my bare feet sank in soft dirt jarred me. And the night I came out to without stoplights, streetlights or store lights alarmed me. Before me, larger than life, were all the trees I had thought were so friendly in the day, including weeping willows whose hanging leaves blew like a banshee’s hair on a chilly night. On a night the moon was shy and stars were fogged, the trees let us know who really owns the Earth- who hides us from heat and discovery, who circulates our oxygen and water, who provides our prized natural resources, who alerts us where we are headed with the seasons. “Respect me,” they seemed to tell me. I did. I returned inside to lock the doors like a child afraid of something I could not understand or control coming in to get me.
But this, of course, was just the imagination I was blessed with, by that place I grew up in and knew better than anywhere else in the world. And my imagination had been allowed to grow and flourish in directions advantageous to not just me, but all others who read my work to see real life in it. For, way back then, I would have turned that locked door moment into a story to give my mother or my teachers about something they could marvel at me even thinking of, much less writing down. The nightmare of a stunted imagination embedded itself into my blood and heart, so I could not stop wondering how much different things could be for me in my life without it.
For Solemn Redvine, my main character in my latest novel Solemn, her imagination is percolating at the time crises of others’ makings shut it off for her. Or, rather, crises redirect her imagination away from all she wants it to be: talented, a gift to the world, in service to others and earning recognition to herself. Imagination turns against her, as wonders of darkness and mature adult matters steer her mind off-course rather into her own creations.
At just about this time my main character was born in my mind, yet another of my many elders I was raised with died. My father’s mother and her husband transported their clan of nine children from Mississippi to the North for land, opportunity, jobs and better privileges. My first trip down South was to my father’s father’s funeral. I had always been obsessed with the towns of my heritage there, due to the profound memories of landscape and community similar to but distinct from mine.
This grandmother’s loss shattered me, especially since she was an Aries like me; she spoke out loud many of the truisms I marveled someone so much older believed as well. I was not going to let more time pass before I explored these ancestors’ birthworld and where so many of my other relatives had come from, to bring their customs and cooking and attitudes and strengths to build whole new clans up North. Solemn Redvine and her story became my conduit for this purpose, in a perfect collision of an imaginary character’s expressive needs with a writer’s spiritual ones.
Simultaneously with my writing of the novel, our entire world took a turn we had long avoided: opening our eyes to the monstrous coverup the Civil Rights Movement and instatement of a Black History Month had worked to eradicate all we know it was supposed to. So, rather than set the novel back in the times when my ancestors and parents would have been growing up in the South (as I had first started it), I updated the book’s time to today and its plotlines to a world now that has scarcely changed beyond laws saying it should have.
However, this social commentary was done with a light touch and careful hand. Things may not have changed but people, I do believe, have. So at the heart of the storytelling are the people, not the problems of race and social ills. The beauty of writing fiction is I can pretend, and chances are high a young child like Solemn would be like I once was.
She would remain unawares of anything but her own little world: routine and whole, normal and pure, unmolested and untargeted. The portrait I was most interested in her voice and others’ sharing with us were, mainly, about the longing to just have time to look up at the trees without being scared of anything about them or our world. Not ever.