Yesterday Steve and I drove down to Bloomington, had a late breakfast, and took a long walk through the campus. I’m about to undertake new revisions for my novel, An American Tune, part of which is loosely based on my own life as a student there in the 60’s, and I wanted to see what walking around campus might dredge up or suggest.
In a passage from the book, the main character, who has returned to campus for her daughter’s freshman orientation, remembers what I remember from my first day at IU:
“This morning, pressing the elevator button in the dorm where parents who’d accompanied their children for orientation were staying—the dorm she once lived in—she was, momentarily, a college freshman herself, saying goodbye to her own parents and her little sisters on the day they dropped her off there, more than thirty-five years before. She could almost hear the stereos cranked up loud along the corridor, as they had been on that long-ago day. The Beatles, the Beach Boys, the Byrds. The Rolling Stones, inciting them to rebellion. She’d stood with her family, watching the elevator light blink each floor on its way up, feeling like a can of Coke shaken up hard. Finally, the door opened. Did they hug? Speak? They must have. But all she could remember now was how, suddenly, they were gone. And herself flying back to her room, her arms wheeling, her soul rising, wild and joyous. Thinking, anything can happen to me now. Absolutely anything.”
Which is exactly how I felt (and always feel) walking through campus—along with gratitude, wonder and a touch of melancholy at the richness and complexity of what “anything” turned out to be.
Later that day, my character would meet the love of her life at the Commons, just as I did. Her life played out differently from there, a life I might have lived—but, gladly, didn’t.
It’s so weird the way living a life is not so different from writing a novel. The material you’re given could be spun countless different ways, depending on choice, serendipity, fate.
I was thinking all these things, walking, yesterday.
But what I am thinking about this morning, what I’m seeing in my mind’s eye, is a carpet of yellow ginkgo leaves in a clearing just off the wooded area in the old part of campus and a not-young woman dropping to lie down in them, spreading her arms, and moving them in arcs, the way you do to make angels in the snow.
I am thinking about a November day, freshman year, the campus deserted because everyone was at the football game, which I had to miss because I’d put off making my leaf collection for my nature study class. I remember wandering through campus, looking for the leaves on the list—red oak, sycamore, sugar maple…
Ginkgo leaves: each one a tiny yellow fan.
The trees on campus are ancient. There’s a good chance there was a carpet of ginkgo leaves in exactly the same spot on the day I gathered the leaves for my collection. If I’d noticed it, thrown myself down onto it, made an angel would my life have been different in any way?
I can’t of course. Real time moves relentlessly forward.
I might have done it yesterday. Who knows what might have happened if I had?
It didn’t occur to me to do it, though. I didn’t know seeing the woman making an angel in the leaves would stay in my mind and make me wonder about…everything.
But I’m pretty sure that carpet of leaves will end up somewhere in the revised version of the novel, though I won’t know how or why until Jane throws herself down onto it and shows me why it matters.