The first story I ever wrote was about a little boy whose parents were divorced. It was an odd subject choice, being a girl with married parents, but my teacher loved it and was curious as to my inspiration for the story. I didn’t know, and I was embarrassed, did I even know what inspiration meant? It popped into my head and I wrote it down and I turned it in, is what I was thinking, but instead I turned scarlet, shrugged my shoulders, and wished to melt into my chair and disappear. My teacher gave me a proud pat on the shoulder, which was unusual, and dropped my paper on my desk with a big red A on it, and moved on.
I reread the story several times when I got home and wondered where on earth the idea for such a crazy, sad tale came from? And I was accustomed to being asked questions that had right and wrong answers, and whose right answers were already known by all the grownups. Usually, imagination wasn’t even talked about, and the kid day dreaming in the corner or doodling in his notebook got into trouble. Intentional exploration of the source of imagination was uncharted territory.
At that time, I was in the forth grade in a small classroom on the second floor of a sixteenth century Tudor manse that had been dismantled, stone and plank, in the English countryside, sailed across the Atlantic, and reconstructed in Richmond, Virginia. It was lovely and creepy and we were constantly recounting ghost stories, the library, basement and elevator all reputed to have aggressive spirits guarding their hidden treasures.
From our classroom at the end of the hall, there were two sides of small pane windows in diamond shapes held together with black lead. They swung open easily by twisting the iron latch half way up the inside, and in the Spring we would clamor over one another to release the stagnant air from the room and replace it with a cool scented breeze from the gardens.
I will never forget this place: the P.E./History teacher who threw erasers and chalk with startling accuracy at students who misbehaved; the teacher whose shoulders were always dusted in white flakes of skin, her hair piled high on her head in a Victorian bun, teaching children the elements of music and theatre with the patience of a saint; the mild-mannered Principle/English teacher who always seemed to enjoy my stories; the Math teacher who just didn’t understand why I just didn’t understand. For many reasons this school was memorable, but the moment that I held magic in my small hand was by far the most, and it was an iris.
There were several colors to appreciate, but the particular one that I was drawn to was special, it was the most beautiful arrangement of colors I had ever seen. It was violet laced with white and yellow, brushstrokes of subtle hues of blue and purple, set against the purest white and soft as chalky silk. The petals were long and curved like the panels of a gown, opened in vulnerability and invitation, the furls of ruffled pollen outstretched for all to behold. I studied this iris: there is nothing more beautiful. I inhaled its fragrance: there is nothing more lovely. If I were a fairy, I thought, I would live here, in the iris, and at that moment, I believed that this place was indeed magical and that fairies whistled all about disguised as bees, butterflies and hummingbirds.
I picked it, oh sin. In full bloom it was about the size of a child’s head, and I climbed tentatively into one of my favorite trees, the one with smooth black bark and low branches, careful not to crush my forbidden prize. The trees were draped in thick ancient vines that made climbing and hiding easy, and planted in a row alongside a mossy brick wall that disappeared into the foliage and followed the length of the lawn. I settled in a well-worn crook that was out of sight and offered a perfect view of the green expanse, the roses that needed pruning, the boxwood maze that needed tending, and of the slated terrace with it’s scalloped staircase that led into this wondrous place.
Every day I climbed this tree by the hidden wall and memorized every shade and shape that revealed itself to me. I sat in the back of the classroom and would catch glances at that mighty terrace below, wondering who could have created such a place? From that moment, the intimidating halls and imposing paneled rooms, the secret staircases and empty closets, the basement and attic, none of it frightened me anymore. There were stories about the crippled old man who was mean and cruel and who chased all of his children away. And there was talk of hidden passageways and secret doors, of catacombs under the gardens. Anyone responsible for that garden was no evil brigand or murderous father or merchant outlaw, that I knew for sure.
I continued to develop my lopsided education and dreamed of writing operas and painting canvases and singing duets, and longed to experience inspiration. I needed to see it in the way grownups see right and wrong; I needed to know that it was the right answer and I wanted to understand it, to capture it, so that I could call upon it when I needed it. I wonder if my meeting with the iris was a serendipitous one, one that provided an illustration of inspiration, one that showed me that some things do not fall into reason, that some things are unexpected and unconditional and unexplainable. Perhaps it was a question answered, a resounding YES! For, after all, what is inspiration but the planting of a seed?