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When I Was a Wild Pony

The title of this essay comes from a dream I had last night, its mem­o­ry and mean­ing caught between mys­te­ri­ous dream­time and awak­en­ing in this harsh end-of-sum­mer world. I was nev­er a wild pony. Only as a writer of children’s books could I ever be one, a dream I’ve held since I was 15, and one that came true.

I’ve had oth­er dreams that didn’t. When I was new­ly mar­ried, I told my hus­band I want­ed to build a library for young chil­dren in the Blue Ridge Moun­tains. We would live next door, in a lit­tle house called Bram­ble­wood Cot­tage. I’d once vis­it­ed the fairy­tale cot­tage Noyes Library in Kens­ing­ton, Mary­land, an enchant­ed one room library with low book­cas­es shelved only with pic­ture books. That was the basis for my dream of the library and our house.

We often drove around the hills and hollers of the Blue Ridge, search­ing for pos­si­ble sites. The clos­est my dream became a real­i­ty was the Vic­to­ri­an doll­house I built, the mod­el for Bram­ble­wood Cot­tage. I paint­ed it blue, glued the win­dow shut­ters on back­ward (point­ed out too late), and filled it with minia­ture fur­nish­ings for a fam­i­ly of dressed mice.

I har­bored anoth­er dream from age 15 — that not only would I write children’s books, but also illus­trate them. I could teach myself to write and did but need­ed to go to art school to become a pro­fes­sion­al illus­tra­tor. Some day. The sum­mer I turned 36 and had been a full-time writer of children’s books for sev­en years, my moth­er died, a year and a half after my step­fa­ther passed. 

I would chan­nel my grief into learn­ing to draw properly. 

As the old­est in my com­mu­ni­ty col­lege class of twen­ty-some­things, I was dis­mayed when the teacher required us to begin with an 18 by 24-inch sketch pad and char­coal. I hat­ed the tex­ture of the paper and couldn’t bear the feel of raw char­coal sticks. Worse, I couldn’t “use the entire page” and was cor­rect­ed time and again for draw­ing (with a pen) in the bot­tom cor­ner. My class­mates were des­tined for the Cor­co­ran School of Art while I was des­tined to aban­don this dream. I would nev­er be good enough. 

My lat­est dream is the prod­uct of mag­i­cal think­ing at the fool­ish age of 70. For the past five years I’ve worked on a mid­dle grade nov­el. The book pulled me through Covid twice and long-haul­ing. It pulled me through my sister’s long, slow decline with the return of her can­cer. As long as I wrote and revised the book, a fairy tale about two sis­ters, we would both stay on this earth. The nov­el was ready to be launched into the world where I hoped it would go to auc­tion, be acquired as a tril­o­gy, and earn enough so my hus­band could retire. Imag­ine how ridicu­lous I felt when the book was reject­ed, and the one vague­ly-inter­est­ed edi­tor asked me to gut my story. 

My dream was shat­tered. It coin­cid­ed with the sum­mer of car­ing for my sis­ter, now in at-home hos­pice, her 23-year bat­tle sur­ren­dered. I told my agent I was fin­ished with children’s books. I would still write them because that’s what I do, but my life­long pas­sion for this field was over. I began donat­ing my vast library of children’s books. I quit SCBWI, a mem­ber since 1978 and founder of the Mid-Atlantic Chap­ter. I believed in its mis­sion to pro­mote the joy of mak­ing children’s books. Over the last few years, that mis­sion became entan­gled with pol­i­tics. I don’t dis­agree with those pol­i­tics, only that they are there at all, tram­pling that orig­i­nal joy. My joy.

Yes­ter­day, after yet anoth­er long day dri­ving 100 miles round-trip on I‑95 and reliev­ing my old­est niece — one of many days of round-the-clock care that’s left us exhaust­ed beyond sen­sa­tion — I told my hus­band I’d failed. He can’t quit work after all and I didn’t know who I’d be any­more after devot­ing my entire life to children’s books. I’m not 36 and able to divert grief to an unful­filled dream. I only want to con­tin­ue my first dream, but I don’t know how.

Last night I had a dream. Into my hands came a thin, square yel­low book, falling apart, its paper-over-card­board cov­ers six­ties-style art. Inside, though, was pure magic. 

The book had pen and ink draw­ings that came to life. Instruc­tions were both writ­ten and aur­al. The book taught you how to write and illus­trate pic­ture books by giv­ing you per­mis­sion to let go. To ignore rules and trends and cur­rent pol­i­tics and open your mind and heart. In my dream, I wrote the words When I was a wild pony. My sto­ry gal­loped across mead­ows. The yel­low book wasn’t mine. Near the end of the dream, I des­per­ate­ly tried to find the author and copy­right to order it on Ama­zon. But the book went on to the next per­son who need­ed it.

When I woke, I was cry­ing but also think­ing about writ­ing a pic­ture book called When I Was a Wild Pony, in which the nar­ra­tor would also be a tiger, an ele­phant, a bear, a raven. What was this dream telling me? 

Yes­ter­day, I sat with my doz­ing sis­ter. She reached for my hand, hers much big­ger than mine, her grip warm and strong and fierce. When she woke, she slow­ly typed on her speak­ing machine: When you come again, read me a sto­ry. I was remind­ed of the nights when we were young. A heat duct con­nect­ed our sep­a­rate bed­rooms, and we’d crouch on the floor to whis­per to each oth­er. I asked her to tell me stories. 

We are near the end now. This sum­mer will be over soon­er than we’re ready for and I’m still not sure who I’ll be. Will I write that pic­ture book When I Was a Wild Pony? Or will I let that sto­ry be my sister’s?

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