Whether we are describing a king, an assassin, a thief, an honest man, a prostitute, a nun, a young girl, or a stallholder in a market, it is always ourselves that we are describing.-Guy de Maupassant
Only connect.-E. M. Forster
Steam is water-in-air, tiny droplets almost too small to differentiate from one another. It is earth-in-air, too, carrying the residue of tea leaves. And it is fire-in-air, heat dissipating in the late summer breeze through the window.
I have not noticed these things before. That is the gift of a new mindfulness–suddenly the ordinary becomes extraordinary. I am smiling–no, grinning–a big, ridiculous grin. I sit in a trapezoid of sunlight that slants through the window. I drink tea, and I give this my full attention.
It is a struggle at first, wresting my thoughts back from the thousand paths they long to tread. They strain like hounds, eager to be off on the scent of a new worry, a new discovery. I pull them back. They pull against me . But finally, they settle, into this moment, this space of time and sunlight.
And it is then that I see the droplets, almost too small to comprehend, and I realize that I have never really looked at steam before. I have seen it, but I haven’t observed it. It has never mattered. It is inconsequential–a side-effect of boiling, of heat, a scrap of arcane knowledge from a science textbook. But when I look at it, I realize that it is a miracle. It is the kiss of two elements until they almost blur together.
It is embarassing how much this delights me, or it would be, if there were anyone here to laugh at the goofy grin on my face. And then the magic uncoils itself suddenly before me. The heat of tea is fire-in-water, the leaves earth-in-water, the bubbles air-in-water. Hot water soaks the leaves–they drink it deep, unfurling into their truer selves, becoming water-in-earth, air-in-earth, fire-in-earth. The elements collide and dance in a teacup, and I realize that this is possibly the most important thing that will happen today. It is possibly the most important thing that has ever happened, will ever happen. It is alchemy, the permutation of the impossible into beauty, the reconciliation of elements, the marriage of forces.
As I drink my tea, my thoughts wander from the miracle of steam to the hands of the women who picked and rolled the tea leaves a thousand worlds away. I wonder what their stories are. I wonder what they are doing now. I call down blessings on their hands as I cradle my cup in my own.
Like the tea in my cup, writing is a strange and wondrous alchemy. I let my mind drift on the tendrils of steam rising into sunlight, water-in-fire-in-air. Strands of thought converge, clarify. I realized last night that the new story I’ve just mapped out is, like all stories, about the writer. Not in any truly autobiographical sense, but in an allegorical one. Stories always are.
One of the most fascinating and uncomfortable things about writing so-called Young Adult fiction is trying to explain it–to explain why I, on the deceptive surface a mature, respectable adult, am spending my time writing about teenagers. I always wonder what people think when they ask what I write and I tell them “Young Adult fantasy.” I don’t believe it’s at all frivolous, but when the words escape my mouth, they sound like it in my ears. I write books about impossible things happening to people I am not. I left my teens behind long ago. On the one hand–on the surface–I write YA because I really haven’t yet figured out what grownups are and what they want. But looking deeper, I realize as I sip my tea that I write YA because of alchemy.
When we are children and teens, we are becoming–fiercely and ravenously and sometimes violently. We are the gut-wrenching twist of the caterpillar as it shrugs off its skin and becomes a chrysalis. We are becoming, too, as adults, but not with the single-minded ferocity of youth. It’s subtler, maybe, but even more than that, I think, it’s choked off by the things we’re taught to want. We’re supposed to have careers, be useful, be responsible, make sense. We’re supposed to balance checkbooks and budgets and juggle minutiae and pay taxes and do the grocery shopping and all the million horribly important things without which our worlds will come to a shrieking halt. Too often, adults view teens as frivolous–obsessed with friendships, relationships. But these are the things that matter. Not the car repairs and the meetings and the carpools and the paperwork. The most essential thing about being human, being us, is the way we connect with one another, and teens are rightly obsessed with it. I think we forget this as grownups. We let our friendships take a backseat to a thousand soccer practices. We’re so horribly busy we have to work at being with the people we love.
My children are seven and five. Yesterday, they discovered a praying mantis in the garden, and my oldest son decided to take it to school to show his classmates, who are studying insects. We put the mantis in a jar. The jar did not have airholes. It was not big enough. There was nothing in it. Thing 1 insisted that we needed a bigger, better, airier jar, and we needed it NOW. NOW. His grandfather and I both assured him that a praying mantis could survive in a jar for a little while, long enough to finish digging carrots, to do the supper dishes, to do a thousand other supremely important and adult things. Thing 1 persisted. I found myself becoming increasingly grouchy, and then I realized–No. This praying mantis is the most important thing. My mind snapped backward to a hundred childhood moments when I pleaded with my dad to do something NOW, put the baby bird back in the nest NOW, help me finish this project NOW, hang this picture on my wall NOW. Not because I was bratty and entitled, but because these things were important–other living things, creation, beauty.
I helped my kids research praying mantises online (did you know there’s a pink-and-white one that looks exactly like an orchid? one with spotted eyes? one with long pointed eyes like horns jutting from its head? one that looks just like a battered autumn leaf?). I helped them set up an acceptable mantis habitat. Thing 1 insisted on more airholes. I poked them with a knife. Thing 1 worried that I was poking too close to Inigo Monteia (apparently this mantis is the love-child of Inigo Montoya and Princess Leia). I stopped poking airholes.
I acquiesced to the demands of childhood not because, in the teachings of a gazillion mommy-blogs, my kids should always come first and I should perpetually sacrifice myself on the altar of their youth. I did these things because the discovery of a praying mantis is important. Because Columbus did not feel half the wonder that Thing 1 felt.
A praying mantis in a cranberry juice bottle is everything. The world in miniature. Humanity staring at nature and finding nature staring back. We are not alone. And sometimes it’s good for us to be creeped out because holy freaking crap, this bug is looking at me like it knows what I’m thinking.
This is why I write for kids. Because they know what’s important. Because they exist in the crucible of becoming, water-in-air, fire-in-earth. Because the world exists in a cup of tea, and because
so much depends
a brown praying
gazing with round
upon the green