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Bourbon and Milk: Wonder and Worry

Bourbon and Milk is an ongoing series that dives into the perplexing spaces parenting sometimes pushes us, and explores the unexpected ways writers may grow in them. If you’re interested in joining the conversation or contributing a Bourbon and Milk post, query Giuseppe Taurino at giuseppe@americanshortfiction.org [1].

Gerkensmeyer_ORIGINAL full size [2]I have a photograph of my son Simon—then four years old—holding up my collection of stories on the day it arrived in the mail. He’s so proud, his smile so huge that his eyes are scrunched shut. He’s oblivious.

When I took that photograph, I knew I was supposed to be nervous, if not terrified. I knew I was supposed to imagine a thirteen-year-old Simon opening that book, reading it from cover to cover, and swallowing back horror at what his mother had done.

My stories are strange. I write dark and often sad things. But what I’ve come to realize is that there is a fine line between worry and wonder, between darkness and light. As a mother and as an author, I’ve become especially self-conscious about why I write the kinds of stories I write. Am I splitting myself in two, creating a self that is nurturing and soft when it comes to my children, and another that is bizarre and harsh when it comes to my work? Should I try to hide that second self when I’m with my children?

I want to believe that I’m a writer because I’ve managed to hold onto something from childhood that is huge and unbridled, and that worry is a big part of it. On my seventh birthday I wrote a story titled “The Snowman that Came to Life.” The protagonist does not like it when the snowman she has made comes to life. She is extremely frightened when he begins to talk to her. But wouldn’t you know it, he’s a nice guy and they become good friends. Her worry turns into wonder, and at the end she says, “So if you pruomis you wonte hert me I wonte be scered eneymore.” The snowman makes that promise, and he keeps it.

While my spelling has improved a bit, I’m still writing this story many years later, thinking about how a thing can be so wonderful and horrible all at once. And I want to believe that having kids has helped me recognize and negotiate the line between worry and wonder even more expertly.

*

My two sons and I love documentaries about insects and oceans. We love things we know nothing about. There is a constant jabber between us, whether we’re hunting for unicorns on the way home from school or watching for three-headed wombats when we drive through the tunnel beneath the train tracks. And these conversations have the same tone as any other discussion of the mundane details of our lives. For the three of us, the extraordinary has dull, rounded edges; it can be hard to distinguish from the ordinary.

Last summer, Simon used an old shoebox to build a fairy house. He made leaf beds and set out a berry feast and constructed a twig picket fence. He carefully placed the box in the garden, hopeful that a group of relieved fairies would stumble upon it that night and gorge on the berries before they passed out in their cozy leaf beds. He was excited, but he was also worried. Was that particular corner of the garden the right spot? Was his berry offering big enough?

When Charlie was two, he was convinced that his older brother was headed off to meet some mythical, huge beast on his first day of kindergarten, and he was very nervous for him. I could see him imagining what that beast might look like, thinking through it so hard until he was full of certainty and belief and he could have convinced anyone of the amazing danger inherent in sending his brother off to his first day of school.

This is the wonder I would like them to hold onto, the kind in which worry and darkness are allowed to play an integral part. If we have to deal with anxiety in our everyday lives, let’s put it to good use. Sharma Shields tackles this idea in a phenomenal piece titled “Parenting on the Dark Side” [3] in The New York Times. At the end she writes: “I gather my kids close to me at night. With a child tucked in each arm, we hunker before our books as though before a campfire, marveling at the world, a terrible place, but also a place for the brave, for those willing to love well and hard.”

My sons and I have had to turn off a movie that became too dark and intense. Sometimes a book we loved paging through the day before is suddenly terrifying, and we have to hide it away for a while. But wonder always returns. It becomes a weapon against worry. As an author, this is why the down-and-out characters in my stories encounter the magical and the odd. And as a parent, this is how I reach laughter when we are upset. If Simon is crying, I might ask him to imagine there are one thousand clones of his little brother—one thousand Charlies stomping around the house yodeling and spilling cereal all over the floor. We laugh and laugh.

Recently, we made worry boxes so that Simon and Charlie could write or draw their worries on little slips of paper and stuff them away. And I bet if we opened those boxes up, quite a few of those worries would also be wonders.

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Last year I discovered Wonderbook, an amazing book on writing by Jeff Vandermeer. It’s a glossy tome full of essays, exercises, and vibrant, colorful charts, illustrations and paintings. It’s a feast for the eyes and for the writer’s soul, especially for those who have an interest in the surreal and the fantastic. In the introduction, Vandermeer talks of how “even the most mundane moments of our existence can be inhabited by hidden complexity and with wonder.” In the first chapter, he explores the importance of creative play, quoting Jung: “The dynamic principle of fantasy is play, which belongs also to the child, and as such it appears to be inconsistent with the principle of serious work. But without this playing with fantasy no creative work has ever yet come to birth.”

And this is the true gift motherhood has given me as a writer. Not just the permission to play, but the necessity. For a long time now, I have been trying to articulate how the extraordinary can be a wonderful and accurate lens with which to view the ordinary. Sometimes when we’re tackling an issue that is so full of familiar emotions like confusion or sadness or longing, it’s most effective to look at things slantwise. If we come at it from a different angle, we’re going to experience everything in a brand new way. I’ve discovered that worry is often the engine that pulls us into that magical and wonderful way of seeing things sideways.

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I’ve been working on a novel since just before having kids. And once that first child arrived, I thought: Okay, time to pull on those grown-up pants and start writing some serious, realistic stuff. I set aside my strange, surreal stories, stuck to what’s real, and in a few years I had several drafts full of flat characters and an empty setting.

In my most recent draft, however, I’ve let things get a little out of hand. Dragon creatures have shown up, and ghosts. Paul Bunyan has dropped in along with mermaids and chipmunks the size of wolves. And amid all of this awful strangeness, I’m starting to finally see who my characters might be. They are breathing for the first time. Finally, all of their worry and anxiety is attached firmly to their sleeves. And I’m worried, too. Because I finally care one thousand percent what happens to these people. And I’m going to take it, that worry. Because here I am at the doorstep of authentic hope and joy, nudging right into empathy. And I want to get there any way possible when it comes to writing stories and raising my kids. We pass down our worries, yes. But we pass down our wonder, too.

*

I went on a safari. There was a fake dinosaur, and he holded me up with his paws. I tried to hide, and there was a house with a door. A dinosaur came. He holded me up with his paws. It was a dark, dark safari.

–          Told by Simon at age 3

 

Once upon a time there was a boy named Charlie. He had a friend named Simon. They had a baby named Jovie. Jovie wanted to see the sky, but she was alone. Charlie wanted to see the sky, but he was alone. Simon wanted to see the sky, but he was alone. The sky became full with moons. The moons stretched up high in the sky. Look at that. The sky became full with ponies.

–          Told by Charlie at age 3

 


Sarah Gerkensmeyer‘s story collection, What You Are Now Enjoying, was selected by Stewart O’Nan as winner of the 2012 Autumn House Press Fiction Prize, longlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, and selected as winner of Late Night Library’s Debut-litzer Award. A finalist for the Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Short Fiction and the Italo Calvino Prize for Fabulist Fiction, Sarah’s stories and poetry have appeared in American Short Fiction, PANK, Guernica, Tweed’s, The Massachusetts Review, BODY, and Hobart, among others.