When you think back to your adolescence, what stands out as important to shaping who you became? What age was significant for your personal growth?
For me, it was thirteen. Thirteen was the age at which I went to China; the concrete floors, smog-laden air, and lack of access to basic services like trash removal and running water were lifestyles I had never imagined. To say the least, it was a life-altering experience that opened my eyes to how huge the world is and to how I lucky I was to have felt so little sorrow in my life. I remember reading a stack of Mark Twain books–Roughing It, among other selections of his work–on the day-long flights and falling in love with his writing during that trip.
A few years later, when I stepped off a plane in Phoenix en route to the Grand Canyon with my dad and experienced the heat of the desert for the first time, I remembered this passage from Roughing It:
“The sun beats down with dead, blistering, relentless malignity; the perspiration is welling from every pore in man and beast, but scarcely a sign of it finds its way to the surface–it is absorbed before it gets there; there is not the faintest breath of air stirring; there is not a merciful shred of cloud in all the brilliant firmament; there is not a living creature visible in any direction whither one searches the blank level that stretches its monotonous miles on every hand; there is not a sound–not a sigh–not a whisper–not a buzz, or a whir of wings, or distant pipe of bird–not even a sob from the lost souls that doubtless people that dead air.”
I knew when I read the prose above that I wanted both to read and write as much as I could about what I saw in my life. To be accurate, I should say my writing experience began just prior to discovering Mark Twain. As soon as I knew what the word diary meant I began keeping one. Thus, when I began my current writing journey, I chose to start typing memories from being thirteen because it stuck out as a significant age.
Thirteen was also the age at which my great grandmother, Elizabeth, had to stop going to school so she could work and add income to her family. What must that have been like for her to witness her older sister continue school and piano lessons while she slogged through work as a laundress? I cling to the knowledge that even after removed from the school she loved, Bessie never stopped reading, memorizing poetry and imaginative stories. I can picture her reading her sister’s schoolbooks up in her bedroom. I wonder what her favorite books were at that age. Who were her heroes? Did she keep a journal too?
I grew up adoring the Laura Ingalls Wilder series, but I never clung to them so much as when I was thirteen. A year after leaving the comfort of my childhood home, my elementary school, I had lost my sense of connection to the wild nature I had always known. Those years had been a magical time when I was free to enjoy the simple pleasures of life in whatever rhythm sprung from the day’s activities, and then suddenly I was thrust into the unfamiliar scene of lockers and cafeterias.
In the evenings after middle school let out, I sought a sanctuary in the world of books. I identified with and idolized characters like Laura, who was so connected to nature and in touch with the details of her life that were required for survival. And yet, she could at times be found playing with a blown-up pig’s bladder as a ball with her sisters; she straddled the line between maturity and childhood.
Who were the literary heroes of your adolescence? Fern from Charlotte’s Web and Jo from Little Women also offered great heroes for me; they were girls who saw within themselves a sense of otherness and had the courage to chase it instead of running from it.