Leaf and Branch, Water and Stone

“What are you reading?” I asked my dad when he laughed out loud over his book.

He let me see it for myself. “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit…”

I was seven. I already wanted more.

“Would we like it?” my brother asked.

The answer was hours in the making, days and weeks living the adventures of Bilbo Baggins and then of his nephew Frodo and his faithful servant Sam. Dad did all the voices, he paused in all the right places, he read just one more chapter when we begged.

When I first visited Lothlorien, it was my dad’s voice that explained how elvish magic works. He made it deep and slow and resonant with wisdom.

“Are these magic cloaks? asked Pippin, looking at them in wonder.

“I do not know what you mean by that,” answered the leader of the Elves. “They are fair garments, and the web is good, for it was made in this land. They are elvish robes certainly, if that is what you mean. Leaf and branch, water and stone: they have the hue and beauty of all those things under the twilight of Lorien that we love; for we put the thought of all that we love into all that we make.”

Leaf and branch, water and stone.

For me the water was those hours of stories read out loud. Visiting Middle Earth and Narnia and the lesser-known country of Mensandor. It wasn’t the heroes that I loved. It was the journey they had no choice but to take. The friends they met by a chance so perfect it had to be fate. The impossible deeds done in tiny, ridiculous steps.

I still dream in stories because stories made me. Everything I make today has the thought of that first love.

Although, it wasn’t truly first, of course. The leaf and the branch came before, I think, though I didn’t recognize them until the stories watered them to life.

The branch grew from a seed of faith, planted before my earliest memories. A belief in a Creator, the same one who made the universe and also me. A constant awareness that what I could see, what I did in my little life, was not all that there was. There was something bigger, something grander, something more. A universe of mystery and purpose. A work of art beyond the scope of my imagination. And yet, I was a part of it. This story for the ages was not about me, but it was my story just the same.

The branches of that vine weave through every story I’ve ever told.

And those branches grew green leaves of deep connection, the first to sprout being love for my family. We bounced around the country as I grew up, different houses, different towns, different cultures, but this circle of four was a place of safety and belonging. A place to laugh and to argue, to make bold claims and to be believed. A place to sing songs and eat good food. A place to trust people even when I couldn’t totally understand them. A place to face a million unknowns and know there was always my brother facing them with me, maybe equally baffled by it all, but there just the same.

Relationships are complex and they only get more so as I grow older, but deep in the core of who I am those stubborn green leaves refuse to wither. Family, whether by blood or by choice, is not optional. Family is the heart of who we are made to be, complex and connected. Inextricably bound up together.

When I tell stories, they are stories of family; they are stories of what I love.

Leaf and branch, water and stone.

I was twenty when I dug down and unearthed my stone. On the brink of leaping into full-on adulthood and afraid that I was on the wrong path, I spent a summer at the foot of the Rocky Mountains. I had a job and room in my parents’ basement but my friends were far away. I stared at the mountains and felt the longing to disappear into them. I wanted to climb, but there was no one to climb with me. It was a turning point, looking up at where I wanted to be. The moment I decided that I would just go. I would find a map and learn to read it. I would pick a trail and strap on a backpack, and I would go. It would have been better to have someone go with me, but if there was no one, I would go alone. I wouldn’t sit around lamenting what I didn’t have. I went. I climbed. I found the most spectacular paths. It was all I could have hoped for. I have never looked back.

As much as I delight in words, action is what my heart craves. To go. To do. To risk. To walk the paths that I would otherwise only dream about. Eventually I found someone to climb with me, and that has taken me higher still, but stepping out is something we each have to do for ourselves.

So I write stories of risk, stories of growth and change and braving the unknown. I write stories that live because if we’re not living, there’s only one other option.

This writing itself is one those risks I take. Daring to think my words should be shared with others. With my new book, TWIN, coming out in a few weeks, I’ve turned to thinking about new projects and evaluating again why I even do this. I have no grandiose notions that my stories are changing the world, or even that they are changing the life of any one reader. So why do it?

N.D. Wilson said it better than I can:

“Growth requires food. Multiple times every day, throughout my childhood, I was fed. How many specific meals do I remember? How many peanut butter and jelly sandwiches do I remember uniquely as distinct from all the others? I remember meals the same way that I remember story times. The atmosphere and aura of feeding — goblets and goblins, milk and villains, ice cream and orcs. I was fed. I grew. Inside and out. We are narrative creatures, and we need narrative nourishment — narrative catechisms.”

This is my work. Just as I make dinner for my children every night and do my best to make it delicious as well as healthy for their bodies, so I keep telling stories, filling them with what has nourished my soul and captivated my heart and mind. No one story will be all that anyone needs just as no one meal will satisfy forever, but the sum of all the stories is a life. I so very much want for it to be a good life. For my readers and for myself.

So, leaf and branch, water and stone, I put the thought of all that I love into all that I make. That’s my kind of magic.

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