My Own Magical Realism
I am lucky to have lived so many different lives. I hope my fiction does justice to some of them. I grew up in the suburbs of Hartford, Connecticut, which was emblematic of the country at the time. Most of us lived in the vestiges of a Leave It to Beaver community and were struggling with change: the women's movement, the civil rights movement, the gay rights movement, and the decline of religion. I played my part. I got good grades. I went to UConn and graduated into a recession with a degree in writing, which gave me few options. I interviewed with the Navy and Coast Guard, and I ultimately accepted a spot with the Peace Corps in the Islamic Republic of Mauritania as an agricultural extension agent. My preparation for this was, apparently, having worked a summer job picking tobacco.
When I first got home people wanted to know "how it was." My answers were initially disappointing. The home town crowd wanted a selfless hero who had triumphed over unspeakable hardships to feed the starving multitudes, and that wasn't me. I got accustomed to saying, "I never got over it," which is true and avoids unpleasant realities. The friends I made in the Peace Corps still populate my imagination and my dreams; I sometimes dream in Soninke, the language of the people who took care of me for two years. The camaraderie and intensity of those days has been a rich well for my stories.
I returned home married, and transplanted to Vermont, where I fell in with a bunch of legal guerillas at Vermont Legal Aid. (I can hear their howls as I type these words. They will say I'm exaggerating.) In Vermont one may serve an apprenticeship rather than attend law school, so that's what I did. I studied the law with Fletcher D. Proctor, an attorney and lifelong mentor, but my experience was also enriched by "visiting professors" like John D. McCullough, III, and Gregory Mauriello. My work at Legal Aid focused on our poorest clients, those who relied on public assistance. The characters and stories around them would give even a modest writer like me enough material for a lifetime.
I left Legal Aid, and, after a brief stint with another firm, hung out my shingle. I worked for myself for twenty years. I like to think I helped some folks in that time, but I was so bitter and disheartened by the end that I still have trouble seeing the value of that work. I had what people in the 1950's called a "breakdown," and my legal career fell apart. I say good riddance.
What saved me was becoming a Registered Nurse. It is far easier to wipe an actual butt than to kiss a metaphorical one. (I'm looking at you folks in the black robes.) The opportunity to care for others, to be immediately useful in practical ways, was lifesaving. I found in my sister and brother nurses the fellowship I had not known since my time in the Peace Corps. Very few people know or understand what nurses do. In my new series, I pay tribute to their love and their sacrifices. The best of them are truly the best of us.