There’s a painting that hangs in my bedroom. It’s of a long, wooden dock tucked into the side of a forest. The water glistens, but what really draws my eye are the trees. The painting is dyed in sepia; it’s rusty brown and pink hues create a scene of warmth.
If asked to name some of the happiest memories from my youth, the Pine Mountain comes to mind. It was in a place like the painting: nestled in the middle of a forest, high on a mountain, far away from civilization. It had a wrap around porch, an amazing view and smelled of pine and Georgia clay. Some really scary things happened at this cabin. It was here I finished reading Martin Gilbert’s book. It was here I wrote Mountains of Hope , my second book on the Holocaust. One night, I couldn’t go to sleep because there were these evil beings that gathered in front of me. They were nameless and faceless, but one. As cliche as it sounds, one wore a black cloak and stared at me unflinchingly. All of them were laughing.
I was absolutely terrified.
I turned over, trying to get away from them, but they didn’t leave. Instead, they moved to stand in front of me again, still laughing. I ran to the bathroom and turned the light on because light chases away darkness. Still, they stayed. I started reciting the Armor of God, putting on the breastplate of righteousness. Still, they stayed. I fervently prayed, asking God to hold my hand and make them go away. He did hold my hand, but still they stayed. When the prayer didn’t vanish them, the terror turned paralyzing because prayer always worked. Eventually, I fell asleep, reassured that God was in the room, He was holding my hand and, therefore, they couldn’t touch me.
My dad came; only once that I can really remember there, but once. My parents fought.
There were lots of scary things at the cabin and, honestly, given these things, it’s a bit disconcerting that I loved the place so. Yet, I did. There was a swing on the porch; we watched a deer in the morning mist nearly approach our steps; the smell of nature was thick and there were no distractions.
My other favorite memory that pops out was horseback riding Lady and Prince. Both were dangerous, half wild horses that should not have been available to ride. Lady was black and so rarely ridden that, when I’d request to ride her, the guides could only catch her about half the time. She didn’t listen and she didn’t much care for riders: all she did care about was racing. She fascinated me. I lived my life in fear, made walking a tightrope an Olympic sport and yet Lady did not scare me. I was fearless, reckless almost, when it came to horses. I’d saddle up and practically beg for an open field. The day Lady took off with me and nearly crashed into some woods, I held on for dear life. I remember thinking, “she’s got to stop,” and jerking so hard on the reins that it forced her head up. She stopped on a dime, undoubtedly deliberately so to throw me. I clung, refusing to fall.
Prince was much better trained; he didn’t need the reins to be guided; you moved and he followed. But he was just as fast as Lady. Lady memorized me, but I loved Prince. Even when he threw me (something Lady never managed to do) and left me hanging upside down, my foot stuck in the stirrup, when I finally hit the ground and stood, my first question was, “Is Prince ok? I want back on him.” Looking back, I’m awed. I was not me around these horses. It is absolutely breathtaking to me that the risks involved in riding either of those horses (particularly Lady) didn’t deter me; I mean, seriously, I staunchly refused to even learn how to do a cartwheel because it was scary.
Once, my Freshman year in college, before cell phones were really a thing and before Facebook could tell your friends you were safe, I volunteered to show a couple of young guys who were complete and absolute strangers around Nashville. This meant I blindly trusted them to the point I got in their car and let them drive me around, singing with them to country music. Today, that very thought paralyzes me with fear and I have a mobile phone I could use to call for help but, back then, all I knew was that strangers were friends.
It’s like there are pieces of a kaleidoscope, brightly colored pieces, that shouldn’t fit together to make up who I am–but they do. While most of the time, I was your typical bookworm, wallflower, teacher’s pet, pieces of me were as untamed as the Georgia forests or the racing stallion. While most of me was walking a tightrope, content to stay on the safe side, pieces of me were free, even then.
Today, the girl who came home daily crying because math made her feel stupid and inept helps determine revenue strategies for a five diamond Forbes magazine rated property and teaches Geometry. Seriously, if you only knew the amount of pain math caused me growing up, this would be so much more impressive. It’s not because I’ve gotten smarter (I haven’t), it’s because I’ve gotten braver. Or maybe I always was, I just didn’t see it. What is it that Pooh says, “You’re beaver than you believe”?
Have you ever wondered: who am I, really?
For many people, the ocean brings a sense of peace. It brings a sense of awe to me, perhaps, but the idea of being tucked away into mountainous cabin, surrounded on all sides by the imposing strength of wilderness, makes me feel safe. The ocean reminds me of how vulnerable and small I am, but the woods where songbirds are the alarm clocks and deer are the company make me feel strong and comfortable. The painting in my room brings with it a sense of peace, of comfort. It makes me think of Huckleberry Finn and Henry David Thoreau and spending my days learning the stories of my own legendary characters like Ash and Haven.
The quietness of the mountains soothes me. A perfect day is padding barefoot down some dirt road to a cold creek deep enough to swing into from a rope and then curling up in the back porch swing to listen to cicadas and frogs. Yet I’m perfectly at home in Suburban neighborhoods, a fast paced, ever growing city in which there are no deer and the only stars that shine brightly are those with guitars. I’m pretty sure I’d miss said city pretty fast if living away from it. Its hills and music and people have some of my DNA engraved in it and it is home. A perfect day is also traipsing from one museum to the next before ending up at the drive in movie theater, tailgate open and kids spread out on blankets.
I write books about really sad things but I also invented silly games like Human Obstacle Course, Elephant in the Jungle and Knot Not. I like peach tee and I always wanted a treehouse, but I also get up at the crack of dawn and have never slept well. I like the mountains, but I also like staying busy. I’m cautious by nature, scared of doing things without very clear instructions, yet I teach kids to paint on the walls and out of the lines because there’s no wrong way to do art. I like being organized and scheduled, yet messes don’t bother me.
Who I am is not an easily definable question; I’m a Rorschach with traits that change and evolve by the day. But, through it all, there’s glue that bind the pieces of the kaleidoscope together.
Regardless of the circumstance, whether I was a 13 year old writing a novel about the Holocaust or a 38 year old watching Khan videos on geometry late at night, I teach. Teaching motivates me, gives me joy and inspires me to try harder. It’s not something I do well, everything I create, everything I do is ultimately a form of trying to provide knowledge, an attempt to educate. It’s something that I can get excited about, even when little else excites me.
I’m a mother. My girls are my being; they are my favorite people, my greatest friends, the source of my joy. I believe in tomorrow because I believe in them. And where I am or what I’m doing never overrides the thought of my daughters. In everything I do, they are the reason why.
My faith. There are too many reasons to list, but there is absolutely zero doubt in my mind that God, the one of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, exists. Moreover, even though I have believed at times that He was angry, I know He’s still there. Ultimately that belief anchors me, prevents me from drowning in loneliness or fear because I know that He is bigger.
Stories. They are life changing, they are comfort and, no matter what comes, they are never far from my thoughts.
These pieces, these are the biggest parts of me. Lately, though, I’ve found that it important to make room for all the pieces, to feel the freedom of doing things and trying things you wouldn’t think fit who I am. Spinning the kaleidoscope is the only way to see all the colors. When it makes me worry I’m changing, remembering the times in which joy was present were when I stepped outside my comfort zone and embraced calculated risks. Freedom comes with the permission to make mistakes, the courage to reach beyond the expected and the assurance that rainbows do come after the storms.
This piece is so refreshing. You allow us to see the ‘overcomer’ in you as you talk about Pine Mountain and the horses. I appreciate your openness allowing us to see how your life has taken you from surviving scares to bold actions of strength and brilliant expressions of motherhood. Thank you again for giving us another look at pieces of who you are–can’t wait to see how God uses all of them for His glory!