Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Strawberry Sadness for Breakfast

Disclaimer:  I know it’s April Fool’s Day, and I considered trying something clever. Then I remembered I’m not very good at fooling people, so I decided to stick with my normal fare. If you had your hopes up, please accept this video by way of apology.


Every week day, I get up at 4:30 in the morning—at least an hour before anyone else in my home is awake. With the pre-dawn darkness pressing in on me, it is lonely. But the loneliness is peaceful. When the world seems so much bigger yet so much closer at the same time, my mind processes more deeply and more quickly. Come pitch black and empty, with no other voices to distract me, I can hear my own thoughts again.

After my shower, where I have at least a couple ideas for current and future books (but no waterproof paper on which to record them), I head to the ground floor and plunk myself down by the picture window to read as the sun drags itself above the horizon. From my vantage point, I can see the first pink glow—almost red, maybe fuchsia, somewhat purple as well. Today the chipmunk who frequents our yard (my sister and I named him Squibbles) also watches this dazzling spectacle with me. Furtive and tiny, he pokes his head out of the snow and rests on his haunches with his little paws tucked closely to his chest. I wonder if he, too, likes the loneliness of morning, with only the fishermen and the clam diggers to destroy the gentle silence with their distant conversation and their speeding vehicles.

As I begin to cool off from my nice, warm shower, I check email and then Facebook. Often I get distracted and start researching random tidbits that may or may not have any bearing on my writing. Eventually I shake the stiffness from my joints and amble over to the island in the middle of the kitchen where I make breakfast. By this time my mother is usually stirring upstairs, and her creaking footsteps across the bathroom floor are lonely too. Truth be told, the peculiar melancholy of loneliness fascinates me—I hear it everywhere.

This morning, I pour strawberry yogurt over my granola, and when I take my first bite, I remember what I always forget, that strawberry yogurt tastes like sadness. I think it’s been this way for me ever since I ate strawberry ice cream during the week my family stayed as refugees in Ghana after escaping civil war in Côte d’Ivoire, the country that had twice been my home.

Often mornings have this effect on me—like time travel. The chilly air, the darkness, the tentative bird song, the sound of tires on slick road, the echo of voices through the valley—they bring to mind loved ones and loved places. Those feelings resurface—the confusion of adjusting to American schools and American customs and American thoughts. In Africa, I had been surrounded by so many other nationalities; coming home was like eating cardboard after living in a gourmet restaurant. Too normal. Painfully so.

Strawberry yogurt triggers that old notion in me—that old question. What other courses might my life have taken if the bombs had not driven us from our home, if our white skin had not turned us French in the eyes of the angry Ivoirians, if I had not lost my house and my friends and my possessions? Until I started writing in earnest—and analyzing that writing—I never truly realized how displaced my soul was, floating around in emptiness, bouncing off walls of nothingness, freefalling through a starless void.

I started writing in Africa; that’s something beautiful I remember frequently. I had the best teacher—Northern Irish and soft-spoken and oh, so polite. There was also a British Science instructor who encouraged me, who taught that editing and creating took time and patience. For my first Work of Genius, I wrote a trilogy of horse stories (which turned into a quartet), and I wish I still had them. When we evacuated, I left them on my desk, buried among my other school papers. I wish I could remember how they went so I could write them down. There were other things I would have taken with me too—the mango tree, the music box, the puppy I only learned to love when I was saying goodbye. The friends I never saw again.

But I think if I had stayed, I would not be the same person today. Sure, I would still love to read and write, but we have so much more in America. In Ivory Coast, we had one laptop, and we lived with the knowledge that technology does not last long in the tropics. We had books, but not many, and they cost money to ship overseas. Ants built impressive nests wherever possessions sat in one place for too long; geckos hung out behind the shelves; cockroaches hid in the shadows. Africa plays by a different set of rules.

Because we didn’t have a TV, my sister and I frolicked outside like yard apes, always with this knowledge in the backs of our minds:  watch the grass where you run, watch the trees when you climb, watch the darkness while you walk, and don’t go behind the shed. Mambas are green like grass, sometimes, and green like poison. Those are some of the deadliest ones. But also watch for the black cobras, the snakes that dance and spit and aim for the eyes. Without milk to wash the venom away, you’ll go blind. Watch the worms that flee their flooded tunnels when it rains, the worms that aren’t worms, the worms that kill. Once we had a tea party on a friend’s porch, only to find a writhing nest of green mambas the next day under the self-same spot—perhaps the closest I have ever come to dying. It was glorious.

We had walls around our yard—thick concrete blocks with shards of glass on top and a spiked gate onto the street—a smaller wooden one into the compound. It made me feel safe to have my whole world encompassed by my peripheral vision, to know that no thieves would climb over in the night—not like the time before we came when a man got shot in one of the neighboring houses. America is too open; I miss those walls. We had a watchdog too, prowling the grounds; first the one that bit me and got hit by a reckless taxi—later the other one, the puppy who cried all night after we bought it, crawling as it was with lice and fleas.

Africa was beautiful, but it was brutal. Would I be the writer I am now if I had stayed?

In the mornings, I retrace my existence, pondering the different turnings and twistings and windings that brought me to this point. At any spot, I consider, one alteration could have changed the entire course of events. When I advance in life, I leave a thousand discarded possibilities behind me.

Every story is like that. Every book begins with a catalyst, but that catalyst is nothing without the choice that follows. How will the character respond to what has happened? The answer to that question decides the book in the same way that it decides our lives. Stories come when we ask ourselves what would have happened if we had made another choice, become another person. Regret and longing and wishful thinking find themselves at the top of many a writer’s toolkit. Writing is freedom—is escape—is the chance to fix the course of events. Again and again and again we try, though sorrow never fully fades. So I keep working—I keep spinning tales until the day strawberry yogurt tastes of something deeper than sadness.


  1. This was beautifully written. Wow. I have nothing else to say. Just wow.

    1. Thank you! I was a little worried it was too serious, since I usually try to be more humorous. So I'm glad you liked it. :)

  2. The adventures you've lived are amazing, and powerful. I can't imagine living through that, and it almost makes me feel bad for not recognizing that there are people in my midst who have lived through that. Your response to those catalysts, though, I think really show your mettle. And, as Opal said... Wow.

    1. Thank you! I often forget that other people have lived through their own "adventures" too. But this definitely gives me something to draw from in my writing, so there's a plus. Thanks again! :)

  3. This was absolutely gorgeous. (Is it your life or fiction? Sorry! I feel really dumb for asking, but I think this is my first time to your blog?!) But GAH. I love all of this and I totally relate to the pre-dawn rising. Your writing is very tangible, too, with the yogurt and details. OHHH. SO WONDERFUL.
    Thanks for stopping by @ Paper Fury!

    1. Thank you! It's not a stupid question, don't worry. Yes, it is my life. And it's nice to know I'm not alone with the whole pre-dawning rising thing. Most people I tell look at me like I have three heads. Thanks again! And thanks for stopping by! I love Paper Fury, and I plan to visit more often. :)