Agenda: Four days in Paris, steeping myself in all things bookish. A children’s literature ‘salon.’ The home of Victor Hugo. Gawking at Gothic with Cher, Trixie & Mo Willems, Tioka Tokedira, and Mina Witteman. Dining out with writers Claire Merle, Anne Nesbet, and Amy Plum.
Nightstand: The usual cluttered pile, including Kathi Appelt’s The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp (listed for The National Book Award, in case you hadn’t heard), Nancy C. Lutkehaus’s Margaret Mead: The Making of an American Icon, Mo Willems’s Don’t Pigeonhole Me!: Two Decades of the Mo Willems Sketchbook; Anne Nesbet’s A Box of Gargoyles, and Lenore & Daniel Jennewein’s Chick-o-Saurus Rex.
Catalog of Fears: Spider Ghosts. Jennifer Laughran mentioned on Twitter that after killing a large arachnid, a secret part of her brain was plagued by the idea of spider ghosts returning to haunt her. Well, my brain is now plagued by that idea too. Spider ghosts are lurking under sheets and inside drawers. But only when it’s dark.
Dream Guest List: Noel Coward, Rex Harrison, Constance Cummings, and Kay Hammond—the writer and cast of Blithe Spirit, a 1945 film about a couple haunted by the husband’s first and now-dead wife. Watch, be charmed, and add them to your own Dream Guest List.
Mind: Ghosts. And the possibility of the unknown and unknowable.
All of this has been on my mind since I was a lonely, angst-filled 14-year-old. To be exact, since October 22. 6:57 pm. Newton, Kansas. I had just come from visiting the shy, profoundly devoted woman that was my grandmother. I opened the car door, and stepped right into a . . . a what? A ghost? An angel? Ectoplasm? I’ve never been able to find the right word. But whatever it was gave me a peace that doesn’t exist in this world; a sense of calm and confidence that I had never come close to before and have never known since. It lasted until the end of October 22, and on October 23, I woke with all the angst and loneliness I had had at 6:56 pm the evening before.
This sort of experience with the unknown and unknowable tends to change one’s ideas. Possibilities are everywhere. And those possibilities go to the heart of human yearning, to the hope that even in the darkest times, a person is never really alone.
Some years later, when I was plagued by panic attacks after giving up my law job for a more creative life, I sensed a protective something whenever I walked onto the streets of New York City. It was as if that something were watching over me—and I had the sense that it was my grandmother, the one who had been shy and so wonderfully devoted before she had died a few years before. Once in awhile, I even caught the scent of peony, her favourite flower. I thought: Great, I’m not only panicked, I’m turning crazy. But because of what had happened when I was 14, I also thought: Maybe. Maybe she really is here.
More years later, when I was living in Paris, I heard the musical toys in the baby room playing on their own when my daughter and I were in the kitchen. They would also play when we were in the room with them—but only if my daughter was crying—as if a spirit energy was watching over her, trying to cheer her. Once, I even asked it to play when my daughter was fussing, and it did. I thought: Ha! What a coincidence. I thought: Faulty batteries. But, I also thought: Maybe. Just maybe.
Even more years later, I sat down to write a middle grade novel, and the first words that came out were those of a ghost. I wasn’t expecting that. A ghost narrator. But she was insistent, so I stuck with her. She was adamant about following around two 12-year-old girls, who had been shipped off to a boarding school because their parents didn’t want them around. She tried to help them. She watched over them.
When I wrapped up the first draft of the novel, I went into my garden, to visit a row of peonies that were just opening up. It was only then that I realized where this ghost had come from. How blind can one be about oneself and one’s own work? The ghost, of course, came from when I was 14. From the spirit energy or whatever it was that had brought that mysterious feeling of peace. She came from the scent of peony on a New York street, from music in a baby’s Paris bedroom, from the human yearning that even in the saddest, loneliest times, we are not alone.
Sandra Nickel Sandra Nickel Sandra Nickel Sandra Nickel Sandra Nickel Sandra Nickel Sandra Nickel
Be sure to stop by again on October 10, when Maggie Lehrman, both a writer and a senior editor at Abrams Books, will be joining us for the next guest edition of What Was on Her . . .l