Once upon a time I read fairy tales.
Once upon a time I read a slightly subversive Victorian lady fairy tale to a virtual audience of about ten. We were all in little digital Zoom boxes, but outside of the boxes we were inside of homes.
Frankie and Penny were in their home. Brooke and Bill and Avi and Leyla were in their home. Sue and Rick were in their home and Vinca was with them; they had just finished making pear sauce from orchard pears. Melinda was in her home; I think her kids were there, too. I can’t remember if anyone else was there (I’m sorry if you were there and I’ve forgotten). I know I was there, reading on our big white sofa, underneath my bookshelves which lined the northern wall in a way that was both dignified and casual. The multicolored books kept watch through a long bank of windows facing south. Windows that always let us track the sun and moon. I know Milo was close by.
It was a time of smoke and pandemic.
It was September 27, 2020.
I planned to make it a regular thing. I was reading Edith Nesbit to a collection of children and adults! I was in my happy place! In fact, despite the anxieties of pandemic and smoke, I was in a happy place at that time in my life. I had some teaching experience under my belt again. Until the early months of the pandemic, I had been writing history and helping with our family income again, and I was sure that once the tumult of distance learning settled I would reconnect with the World History Project and start again. I was, in the face of the world’s uncertainty, feeling more sure than I had in a long time that I was in the right place, building beautiful community with companions, and using my skills. And now the new world of Zoom would allow me to tell stories—fairy tales!—and feel connected to a wider range of people, helping them in their own isolation and confusion. I had plans!
That night, we evacuated. The next morning, all those homes, that had held loved ones while I told a story of a sad dragon and a rebellious girl, burned.
My books burned. I need to say this over and over again. My books burned. All but nine of my books burned. I threw one anthology of slightly subversive Victorian fairy tales into my evacuation bag that day, so I could read another one soon. So that book (title: Forbidden Journeys) did not burn. Neither did my maternal grandmother’s book of Irish fairy tales, nor my paternal grandmother’s copy of Keats. For this I am thankful. But so many books burned. Forty years’ worth of curated, beloved books burned. That tall bank of bookshelves, plus the piles by my bed, the ones in the hall, the low bookcase of picture books I had collected for the kids, all the books in their bedrooms, including the very first book I ever bought for Vinca: Rosemary Wells’s Mother Goose. And all the books in the small building we called The Caboose, my writing studio tucked into an oak grove at the edge of our broad grassy meadow: volumes of Emerson and his letters and biographies of his first wife, about whom I was writing a novel, a novel I’ve told hardly anyone about. Books about migration and empire and poems and borders and fierce women and words and the forest and the sea. All burned.
I could not go back to the World History Project and ask them for work again. All of my history and reference books burned. As an unaffiliated scholar, I depended on those books. They were part of who I was in the world, the “I” whom I had nurtured and crafted, the “I” that I planned and hoped to still be. I told you I had plans! Those plans went up in smoke.
This is what we mean when we say that when our homes burn, our identities burn too.
It’s never “just a house.” It’s never “just things.” It’s never “You know, I think you’ll like your new house better. I think this was good for you.”
In the months after the Glass Fire, I watched as another writer, a very well-known writer, began a fairy tale reading series over Zoom. It was painful and beautiful to see the range of her wonderstruck audience. I never attended.
I am okay. We are okay. Yesterday an excavator broke ground on the site for our new home. It will be a beautiful home. We will host an open house there, next holiday season. We will watch sunsets from our covered porch and harvest greens and berries from the garden down the slope, towards the sheltering mountain. The trees along the ridge are still jagged and burnt, but many oaks are green.
I have new books. Those nine seed books plus two years worth of books, collected and given. I have ideas, but I don’t really have plans. I have this: what is right in front of me. Floor plans and elevations and so many decisions to be made; children still reeling, but resilient; a marriage tested by so much change, and a community stretched thin by calamity.
I also have roots that stretch into that mountainous place, and roots that go deeper and farther into my childhood place, my ancestors’ places. I have branches that are reaching but seemingly still in bud. Not blooming. Not drooping or ripening with the typical harvest of this season. My trunk is intact. I feel this. For this I am thankful.
But two years later, it is still an uncertain time, an in-between time. This is the life we have been handed. Thank you for witnessing.
2 thoughts on “Once Upon a Time”
wow. Amy. You never cease to surprise and delight me in what you do, what you write, how you share who you are. I’m really happy you are doing what you are doing and this reading of the fairy tale to all ages is astounding.
Beautifully written, moving and eloquent. This in-between time, memories of loss, burned identities, atypical harvests – just this, your humaness.