Willowmena, Donovan the duck, and the Wild Man are sheltered under the overhang of a large boulder they have found in a wide space in the mountain path. The Wild Man has found wood again, astoundingly, though wood and water are not as difficult to come by in the mountains as they are on the plain. Still, they are never plentiful, and Willowmena is grateful to have a fire. She is even more grateful for her friends, these new friends, whose presence she never could have foreseen. Yet here they all are together, and she couldn’t ask for more in the way of companionship. She has become quite attached to them both, but particularly the Wild Man has stolen her pure heart. She cannot say why, but she loves him profoundly.
What suffering he has been through! She cannot even guess at the magnitude of it. Eons it’s been. More years than anyone can count has he been in the Land of Bleak. She would know more of him, his story. For Willowmena, and maybe for you too, story is everything. But she knows she must be patient. Without patience nothing unfolds as it should, especially a story.
Willowmena sits across the cozy fire from the Wild Man. The duck dozes peacefully, his head turned backwards, his bill nestled in the feathers of his back. It is quiet. The rain has stopped for the time being, and of course, the Wild Man doesn’t speak. Not with words anyway. But his eyes are so expressive. Willowmena thinks she can see his whole story there. She has glimpsed part of it through the magic of the horn. She would know more. For now it is enough just to be with him. There is the warmth of the fire, the security of the little camp. It is as close to a home as they may get for now. Willowmena finds herself filling the silence with a song. It is a mournful little tune, and she knows not where it comes from. She sings it sweetly and purely with the high, clear voice that only belongs to the Girl With the Pure Heart. It goes like this, though I cannot do its beauty justice, the way Willowmena sings it:
Where is home?
Lost and alone
On a barren plain
Without a name
Wanderers are we
As far as the eye can see
Alone . . .
Not to be so alone,
The Wild Man gazes at her with that almost brutally honest way that he has about him. And then the strangest thing occurs. He opens his mouth and howls, and a tear runs down his cheek. The sound of it is most unnerving, quite unearthly. Willowmena stops her song abruptly and just looks on as the Wild Man howls out his sorrow. It is nothing she would interrupt, but it is difficult to witness. The duck, Donovan, comes awake with a start and momentarily quacks his dismay. Then, he is silent, struck dumb, as is Willowmena, in the face of such a thing.
Presently, the Wild Man quiets himself and it is peaceful and still around the little camp once again. Willowmena cannot be sure, but she thinks she perceives a certain, new calm about her strange new friend. He seems ever so slightly less wild, she thinks. But it could just be her imagination. Truly, he is a mystery.
Copright 2018, Sandra Rhea and Blissful Light Press
I took Willowmena home this week.
I lifted her right out of the Land of Bleak and fled, with all my might, to the mountains and the water, my city in the hills, Seattle. It is no simple matter for me, to travel two thousand miles, even with a non-stop flight. It’s not cheap for a school teacher/writer, and I have a house and a couple of sensitive and demanding pets which need looking after. Nevertheless, I did it. Or maybe it was Willowmena. Because I felt like it wasn’t actually me sitting behind my desk in Room 6, twenty kids put to work so I could get on the computer and make the arrangements.
At first, I was simply going to look at prices, but before I knew quite what was happening, probably at the behest of one of the characters that are housed in my body, I had booked a flight and a hotel room. It was done. I was going, money, house, and pets be damned. I was going home, and no one or nothing would stop me. I told very few people of my plans. I just went. I fled, almost like a thief in the night. I went home. I took Willowmena with me.
I grew up in Washington state, was torn away from it very abruptly early in my teens with the sudden death of my mother, banished to Houston and the hot, coastal plain, away from any familiar family and friends. I hardly had any say in the matter as I was placed in school and found myself living my life in a place that felt as foreign as the dark side of the moon. To say that I was homesick in those early years doesn’t adequately express how I felt. I was sick for home, for the mountains and the water, for four seasons, for the sense of direction that I had lost in a place where there were no physical landmarks. I cried with the pain of it, listening to Carol King’s “Home Again” from the Tapestry album, over and over.
Of course, I moved on. You do what you have to. I have made Houston my home these past fifty years. My blood has become thin in this climate, and I shiver and chatter like a skeleton if the temperature falls below sixty degrees.
But for some reason, something in me had to get back to my real home last week, and so I just went. To say that it’s been a difficult year would be an understatement. There have been hurricanes and floods and freezes which have caused me no small amount of property damage. I will never forget lugging my aging yellow lab, Genevieve, up the stairs by myself as the flood waters of Harvey rose downstairs, even as I was getting texts and phone calls from well-meaning friends to climb up onto my roof because this was the flood to end all floods. My children had moved out the previous month, and I was alone in the big old house. I had unexpectedly lost someone very dear to me that same month. I had to put down Genevieve in November.
School started two weeks late, and when it did, the difficult group of parents that my second-grade colleagues and I had been warned about came on with a vengeance. I have never, in my nineteen years of teaching public school, had such a hard time with parents. They think they know everything, and all I can do is shake my head and think, “You’ll learn.” Children grow up and have minds of their own. I think they come to us this way.
So, for all of these reasons, or maybe none of them, I ran, to my mountains, my emerald city, a magical place of floating bridges and ferries, houses clinging to the sides of steep hills, coffee and flowers, fish and chips, a Space Needle – someone’s whimsical vision of the future which we are now living in. The numerous bums and pot smokers on the streets don’t even bother me. I came home, if only for a few days, and it was like an infant being returned to its mother’s breast. I stood on the edge of the continent, the very world, and I got what I needed, with every footstep, every breath of mountain air, every glimpse of the bay.
I said to myself that it would be a writing retreat, and maybe it was, but I did little more writing than my daily morning journal. I was too busy soaking it all in. What did I do? I had no plan. I checked into my hotel and then walked down Spring Street to the water, the piers. I stopped at Ivar’s and had some fish and chips, fed some of my French fries to a likely looking seagull. I’ve been writing about a duck that Willowmena has befriended, and I had been advised to feed some ducks while I was there. This bird sufficed. He was bright-eyed and cheerfully expressive. He was a pro at catching fries in mid-air. I came back every day and he was there – I swear it was the same bird.
I found myself on a Washington state ferry, bound for Bremerton. Never have I taken this particular ride, but it is magnificent on a fine, clear day. Mt. Rainier looms right out of the water, practically on top of you, and the view of the city cannot be beaten. It’s an hour one way, so you get your money’s worth. I have never thought much of the touristy joy rides around Elliott Bay that are offered from the piers. Take a Washington state ferry ride, either to Bremerton or Bainbridge. You will not be disappointed. You will get your bang for the buck.
Seattle-ites are not sharp dressers – indeed, it’s hard to tell the good citizens from the bums – but they are friendly, in spite of this thing you hear about the Seattle freeze. They are serious about their coffee; they put me in mind of the French with their bread, the way they carry their baguettes under their arms on the streets and in the subway. There must be a Starbuck’s on every block in Seattle. Still, you must wait in line to get your coffee, while customers discuss the specifics and nuances of varied blends.
I favor the Starbuck’s across from the main entrance to Pike Place Market. It is not the original store, but this I have never been able to find. This one works for me. I love to sit at the window, drinking my coffee, watching the Market open in the rising sun. It is a fascinating, colorful place, one of the oldest farmers’ markets in the country.
Readers of Willowmena and her adventures should recognize Seattle in the Land Outside and the City of Jewel. I am so happy that there is such a place that she can escape to, if only briefly. Even Willowmena needs a break from Bleak, as purposeful as her life there may be.
I am back now, in Houston, these last two days. It is like a dream happened, and like a dream can be, very real and immediate. I feel calm and replenished. I think Willowmena and I got what we needed. We can continue with the trudge.
The Land of Bleak came to me as a personal vision over twenty years ago, shortly after Princess Diana died. All I could see in my heart’s eye were her two little boys, the princes, William and Harry, wandering motherless through a dismal landscape that could only be described as Bleak. I pictured them trudging endlessly through that dreary land, a vast flat, unchanging plain, where the wind blew relentlessly and the sky was always overcast although it never rained. There was no greenery – no vegetation – only the occasional tumbleweed or the stump or gnarled limb of a dead tree.
I carried that picture in my mind and heart for years, knowing in the deepest recesses of my being that there was a story there just waiting to be told. It wasn’t until January of 2016 that I was compelled, with a great push of the pen, to begin writing about a motherless girl named Willowmena, making her way painstakingly through an endlessly bleak terrain. Thus the story began, and it wasn’t much of a story, because there was no beginning, middle, or end at that time, and everyone knows that a story needs a beginning, middle, and end. But as I grasped that pen, the words spelled out themselves as painfully as one trudges across the plain of Bleak itself.
There was just Willowmena, a brave, intrepid little girl, and the fairy she stumbled upon, the one with a broken wing, named Merloo, for whom she felt an immediate affinity. Who would ever guess then that on the bleak windswept plain they would meet a wounded rhinoceros with a flashing red eye named Gore? Certainly not I, for really, I felt like I was simply wielding the pen, and I didn’t know what would be written from it. But indeed, that is what happened. And so began a journey of sorts, a quest, to find their way through a land which consciously became a reality: the Land of Bleak.
Bleak is almost a character in and of itself. In fact, when I first finished the story, I gave it the title The Land of Bleak. But my publishing consultant didn’t like that title at all. She felt it was too dreary, and really, Bleak is a most dreary place, as I’ve already described. Because of the impossible terrain, the rare inhabitant one might come across is unfriendly and eyes never meet. People don’t get into Bleak on a winning streak. The mode of transport is generally a slow trudge, shoulder bent into the wind, and you don’t quite know where you’re going or even if you’re headed in the right direction. Once in the Land of Bleak, it is difficult to find your way out. Have you ever had a day that felt like that? I know I have. So you can see that the friendship between Willowmena, Merloo, and Gore is a rare and wondrous thing in the face of such despair.
Willowmena and her friends have more than their fair share of trials and tribulations, indeed, must even face death itself. But lest you think the story is too dark, consider the words of Joseph Campbell, the insightful mythologist who believed, as I do, that stories are everything; they convey the vey complexities of the human psyche. He said, “It is the business of mythology proper, and of the fairy tale, to reveal the specific dangers and techniques of the dark interior way from tragedy to comedy.” Campbell believed that the fairy tale should not be watered down from its original darkness and fearsomeness because children feel, dream, and experience these things. Conflicts, disappointments, and losses are real-world events that our children must learn to cope with, and stories provide models for how to do this. They allow children to face their very real fears and put a face on them, as it were. So in capturing the story we must not be afraid to follow it into its shadowy places.
Therefore, it was not in me, in writing Willowmena’s Quest, or as I would rather say, as it wrote itself through me, to shy away from her dark possibilities and happenings. I believe that children can handle it. Provided with guidance, boundaries, and love, our children are wonderfully resilient. However, the book is commercially targeted for the ages of children ten and up because of just such concerns. It might be too scary, too upsetting, for younger children, I was told. Parents would need to use their own judgment in sharing the story with their little ones. But let me add that since the book has come out, I have had numerous second and third graders read it and tell me about their deep affinity for Willowmena and her friends. So really, there is no targeted age group, as far as I’m concerned.
I believe the story will have meaning for all ages and not just for children. It is a story for everyone, for the child that lives within us all, may you find him/her now if you don’t know her/him already! And while I’m not claiming to be Shakespeare, or J. K. Rowling, a good piece of literature will speak to all people, to children of every age, following them into adulthood, because it validates the trials and vicissitudes of human experience at every stage. With Willowmena I seem to have stumbled upon a psychic energy, which the late, great Swiss psychologist, Carl Jung, called an archetype. For me it is the archetype of the Orphan who dwells within us all. The psychologist and writer Robert Romanyshyn addresses this archetype of the Orphan in the most lovely, lyrical way: He writes, and I quote “. . . in the deepest recesses of the heart we are all orphans . . . the orphan in each of us carries our shared, collective sense of human sorrow . . . we are all so far from home . . . The Orphan is a figure of grace who will meet you in your darkest hour.” My hope is that Willowmena will be just such a figure of grace for all of my readers.
My intention that you will find hope and redemption in the spirit and pure heart of a lonely orphan girl making her way through a difficult landscape, and the unusual friendships that sustain her. I believe that such children, with their pure hearts, and with our thoughtful guidance and instruction, can redeem us all.
Writer’s Block. . . The Inner Editor. . . Not having enough time or the right space to write. . . The Zone. . . these are all terms I’ve heard but do not buy into for myself. Well, maybe the Zone. I kind of get that. If you’re a writer, you must write. Right? And I believe everyone can write if they want to. I know this to be true because I have taught students who could barely read to be prolific writers. Anyone can write. It is there for you if you will but pick up the pen. Or pencil. It doesn’t matter. Use a computer if it pleases you. But write!
I know about those ideas that sit in the back of the brain, sometimes for years, decades even, waiting to be given birth to with the brave and often painful stroke of a pen. But those untold stories and brilliant, unformed treatises shouldn’t keep you from writing. With a little practice, writing can feel almost as natural as breathing.
I write every day, first thing in the morning. I call it a journal, for lack of a better word. But really it’s just the early morning ramblings of my just awakened brain spilling out onto the page through my pen, scribbled as quickly as I can chase them down. It is stream-of-consciousness writing, or free-writing – call it what you will. But is it really writing? I would say, “Yes, it is.” Is it something I would want to publish and share with the world? Hell no! I do date and keep these morning ravings in a bound notebook, which is why I feel I can call them a journal.
What I love about this morning ritual, this free-writing, is that there is no judgment, therefore, no Inner Editor or Writer’s Block can interfere. This is just the pure act of putting words onto a blank page, a kind of exercise or calisthenics, if you will. You don’t need to be in any kind of ‘zone,’ and the only space you need is a desk. You do need to make time in your morning routine, maybe about fifteen to twenty minutes. Just do it. If you want to be a writer, it can start here. This I can easily promise you.
I speak not only from my own experience, but also as a teacher of writing. It almost pains me to make such a claim because it really is as simple as that. It’s the way I begin, as a teacher in the public schools of seven and eight year-olds, as well as a private writing workshop facilitator for children of all ages. I’ve been doing this for years. It really works. It really is just that easy. It all starts with the morning journal. I tell the kids, “Just let whatever thought is in your head travel down your arm, out through your pencil, and onto the page.”
“But I don’t have anything to write about,” is the lament I hear, but don’t accept, ever. Because we all have many thoughts going through our heads at any given time. I tell the children there are thousands (I don’t know if this is true – but you get the point). Have you ever tried not to think? It’s impossible. I accept any and all meanderings on the page, as long as there is a date at the top that I can read. There is no penalty for misspelling or missing or wrong punctuation. And voila! By the middle of the year I have authentic, prolific writers, every one of them. It never fails, and I have been doing this for twenty years. My students go on to third and fourth and fifth grade, leaving me behind, but with a stamp on them as writers that their subsequent teachers recognize and appreciate.
Of course, this is not all there is to it. There is the formal writing that you want to publish, share with the world, which must be revised and edited. This is where you may fall into those ugly traps of Writer’s Block with that hateful, Inner Editor hovering over your shoulder, inhibiting every word that would come through your pen. This is where you might find yourself asking forlornly, “What is this Zone they all talk about?”
Do not give in to despair. Just keep writing. You may not have the time or space for it, but keep writing anyway. I wrote all of my papers for my Masters’ degree while at the beck and call of a newborn baby, frequently typing one-handed as I held that baby at my breast.
“How do you concentrate?” I have frequently have been asked. “How could you keep a train of thought going, much less a sentence, under such circumstances? Forget about the Zone.”
I can and I do. I can write almost anywhere, I truly know it. The Zone you’ve heard of? Yes, I believe in The Zone. But it isn’t a magical, impossibly rare place. It’s just in your head – that space between your ears – and you can get there with a little discipline and determination. No one can follow you into that place if you don’t let them. You may leave a thought hanging there to answer the phone or change the baby’s diaper. It will be waiting for you when you return.
In fact, it may be even better for the waiting. I carefully park my thoughts in the zone like a neatly parked car when the world demands my attention. They wait for me much like a car in a parking lot, none the worse for the wait. Frequently, I find that such thoughts have grown into something even better, richer, because they’ve been left alone to evolve into who or what they were meant to be, kind of the way a good parent will leave a child alone at the right times to explore and find out who they are.
When I want to introduce a topic for my students to write about, I tell them that I am going to put the idea of it into their heads. “There,” I say “it will bake, like the Gingerbread Boy.” There’s nothing they can do about it at that point. It is there, and it will bake. We don’t want it jumping out of the oven that is their brain too soon, scampering off and leading us on a merry chase, half-cooked, like the Gingerbread Boy, and that won’t happen if I have introduced the topic with enough time for them to at least sleep on it. My point is that a thought won’t disappear just because you have to leave it parked for a while. And it might even bake into something better. Sorry for the mixed metaphor…or not!
These are just a few of my thoughts on writing and the writing process. I, myself, simply do not suffer from Writer’s Block, but I would never invalidate another writer’s experience. My suggestion as a treatment, if not a cure, for Writer’s Block, for the Inner Editor, or whatever form your barrier to the creative process takes, is to free-write. If you do it as a morning routine I think you will find it to be enormously helpful. It would warm you up for the “real writing” that you may attempt, rather the way an athlete warms him/herself up with stretching exercises before the main event.
For all the magic there is involved with the creative process, there is also work, plain and simple. Writing is work to a large extent. But what is work? Gibran tells us in The Prophet, “When you work you are a flute through whose heart the whispering of the hours turns to music. . . And when you work with love you bind yourself to yourself, and to one another, and to God. . . Work is love made visible.” This is what writing is for me. It is, indeed, love made visible. It would flow through me, like a physical thing, from my brain and heart, through my arm, and out through my pen – an invisible presence, like love, but like the Invisibles, all the more powerful for its invisibility.
Do not be afraid to write. Go forth with pen and paper in hand, and bravely put words to the page. Do not judge yourself, for there is no bad writing. There are words that do not contain the ring of truth to them, but even such words cannot be considered bad writing if they would ultimately lead you to the truth. Remember: we always must rewrite, revise, and edit. Writing is a path on an unending journey, and as with every journey, you never know if you will reach your destination, or even what that destination may be. Go with the flow and swim in the river of words. Be brave, if not fearless. You must write. It is your right.
It is freezing here in south Texas – twenty degrees on this January morning. Ice covers everything, and we warm-weather Houstonians have been warned to stay indoors and off the roads again, for the second day in a row. School has been cancelled, and I am huddled in my meager home like a bear in its cave. The old house has little insulation and ancient, rattling windows. There is no central heat, only a gas space heater set into a faux fireplace, plus an electric one that I have recently bought from the hardware store. I have lit the burners on the gas stove, something I’ve been repeatedly told not to do for safety reasons. For all my years in Texas I have never lived in an abode where the heat was sufficient against these cold snaps, these Arctic blasts that we get with some regularity. I have always relied on my stove-top burners, the poor man’s solution to braving and surviving the cold in Houston.
It is good writing weather, I tell myself. Yet all my writing mind seems to want to do is what Brenda Ueland calls “moodling”, or daydreaming with a pencil in your hand. It’s a valid practice, but I feel like I must get some worthy words on the page. My intention was to write about the inner child, the little girl who lives inside of me, and who I feel has been misunderstood and actually caged, imprisoned for all her wild ways, her big needs. She needs to come out, maybe sing and dance, I am feeling it keenly.
I know this business of the inner child has been over-played in recent years. I would not harken to those overly-simplistic, so-called experts of the New Age psycho-analytic mind structure. This is very real to me. My Little Girl is a huge presence in my life. She is both friend and foe, she helps me and sabotages me; she is there at every turn. I have worked tirelessly, fearfully, expensively in association with a brilliant Jungian therapist to uncover her, set her free, let her say her piece and have her way without destroying me. I think she is finally finding her path.
She has found her voice and her place on the page with Willowmena, though let me be clear here: she is NOT Willowmena, though I think she and Willowmena could be friends, and I hope they are. I would not try to psychologize Willowmena. But the Little Girl has much in common with Willowmena, her love of animals, for example.
Where does that affinity for animals come from anyway? As I sit here writing I have before me a porcelain sculpture of a land tortoise and a stuffed wolf. My lovable, demanding cat, Tache, and my little, shy sheltie, Delilah, lie snuggled together on the couch against the cold. This I know: I love my animal companions. Or maybe it’s the Little Girl who loves them. I think it probably is. I get the dog and the cat. But a land tortoise? A wolf? And don’t forget Gore, the rhinoceros with the flashing red eye. From where did they come?
I will tell you, they came from no other place but the depths of the unconscious, from whence come all such noble and worthy creatures. They are friends of the Little Girl, and by writing them, I am honoring them, and her. Without the Little Girl there would be no Willowmena, no Gore, or Scout, or Claw, or Tomas the land tortoise, (who you will meet in subsequent books about the Land of Bleak).
The Little Girl makes possible these characters coming to life on the page. Without her there is no story. She is my best friend and my worst enemy. Her dark side is a thing to behold and wonder at in fear and horror, she is so hurt and angry. I won’t go into the why of it; that I will save for the therapy room. Thus, she has been imprisoned in a cage in my psyche, the good along with the bad. The baby has been thrown out with the proverbial bath water.
So, I write, and in writing I befriend her once again. She likes to sing and dance too, so those things I do when no one is looking or listening. She likes the presence of other children, so we sit and watch them play at recess, enjoy their unfettered liveliness, their unabashed and uninhibited joy. I am a teacher of seven- and eight-year-olds, so I am in a perfect position to provide this for her. I think there are no coincidences, no accidents. There’s a cosmic reason for me teaching second grade, as difficult and tedious as being a public school teacher in America can be. But that’s another story, for another day, a different page. . .
I privately teach creative writing to children of all ages, out of my own home. This is a joy to me, and something for which I seem to have a gift, though I couldn’t tell you what it is that is so special that I do. But I do get children to write, where other teachers struggle with this quite profoundly. It is a mystery and, I think, belongs to the mysterious Realm of the Invisibles as I like to refer to it. Accepting mystery in your life is an important part of embracing whimsy and finding your story, a place where the inner child would reside and revel.
Recently, during a Saturday morning workshop for little writers at my house, I overheard one little girl, Sophie, telling another, Adelyn, that she should buy my book Willowmena’s Quest and read it, that it was one of her favorite ones. Let me just say that this kind of love is new to me and very special. In loving my story, you love the Little Girl, it goes without saying. I said to her, “Sophie, you don’t know the good that you do to my heart when you say things like that.” She just smiled at me and said, “Well, it’s true, Ms. Rhea.” In gratitude my Little Girl did an invisible dance and silently toasted Sophie with a cup of cocoa. Then, I ate an Oreo by untwisting it and licking out the icing inside, the tried and true method of every kid. Is there any other way to eat an Oreo?
In closing I would encourage you to find your own inner child. Write, sing, dance, play . . . whatever it takes to find her/him. The inner child is the basis for your creativity, the bridge to your imagination. He/she is your best friend and will save you from a life of dreary meaninglessness. But you must find her/him, give him/her voice and expression. Reclaiming your inner child may not be easy. He/she may be very angry with you or with the world, or simply lost. He/she may be terrorizing you unconsciously from the prison in your mind where you may have placed her/him. But the effort is very worthwhile. It is a path that, once taken, you will not regret. Untold treasures lie waiting for you there.