Saturday, December 21, 2013

Muses and musings

[Part 1 and part 2]

Fortunately, my daughter did not have to depend solely on her workaholic-inclined parents to provide inspiration and role models for the slower-paced life she craves. This contemplative sphere is densely populated with writers, and although the journalist subspecies to which her parents belong have a natural habitat in the busy portion of that world, we share some of the same feeding grounds with the creative writers who get to spend more time thinking, so we are fortunate to introduce our Matilda to empathetic role models.

We also are blessed in northern Michigan to be immersed in a local culture that celebrates and supports writing. Our small downtown has several (yes, several -- that is not a typo) thriving independent bookstores, two of which are a short walk from our house and regularly bring in authors for signings and lectures. The occupational hazards and joys of writing are well-known to our children.

Matilda's most treasured muse is Stephanie, an ecologist and writer of exceptional skill who is my valued friend and comrade in community activism. Stephanie has shown kindnesses to my daughter that I could never repay in a lifetime. She has written Matilda letters, loaned books from her vast library and offered her house as a country retreat. (Among the highlights of Matilda's 17 years was a week the two of us spent housesitting for Stephanie, who at the time had a cat with a talent for bringing in live prey through the cat door. The week's visitors included a bird, a mouse and a baby bunny, all of which Matilda deftly captured and restored to the wild.)

I suspect one big factor in Matilda's affection for Stephanie is that Stephanie has always conversed with her as a peer, soliciting and respecting Matilda's opinions, never disregarding the input of a child. The two also have an easy rapport, which may be attributed to their shared introversion, keen intelligence and love of the natural world, as well as their proclivity for a contemplative pace. If Matilda spends significant chunks of time staring into space in Stephanie's presence, she will be praised, not censured.

Occasionally, Matilda has received such affirmations from a sage on a stage. One of the amenities of our book-loving town is the National Writers Series, which draws well-known authors to discuss their work before an audience of several hundred (also not a typo). My daughter has attended several of these events with me, and the writer who most inspired her was Maggie Stiefvater, author of several best-selling young adult novels.

In her appearance at the City Opera House last spring, Ms. Stiefvater was asked where and how she works. She rose from her chair and stretched on the floor of the Opera House stage in yoga corpse pose, staring at the ceiling and telling the audience that is how she spends the bulk of her working time. Matilda was sold! This was all the evidence she needed that writing was the correct path for her. (I can't avoid pointing out to Matilda that eventually even the novelist must put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard.)

This brings me to the "well-rutted path" Ms. Stiefvater described in a TED Talk. [Really, I should link this video on the headline of this and the two previous blog posts to save you all the trouble of reading as Ms. Stiefvater captures this theme with eloquence and humor.] The achievement-focused path of Advanced Placement classes and extracurricular activities, so favored by striving families, is a reliable course for "success" defined as landing a respectable job that will afford consumer amenities. However, many of our artists, innovators, and creative agents of change did not find their way along this well-rutted path. I'm grateful for reminders that a C in high school physics does not foreshadow a future of crime or welfare dependency. It doesn't even preclude a career as a physicist! The results of any Google search combining bad high school grades and later success will provide solace to a parent with report card angst.

My crystal ball is fuzzy. I can't predict where the road less traveled will lead Matilda. In all likelihood, she will settle into an unremarkable adult existence, as most of us do, picking her way through the ordinary joys and disappointments of adulthood and defining happiness and success for herself. I know she will be guided by her own star; she insists on it.

But I won't be surprised if she does something extraordinary. Perhaps 30 years from now, I'll look back at this photo and wonder if she was sizing up the lawn of her future home.

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