Saturday, May 23, 2009
I turned and headed into the Heath, my feet following a thin dirt trail until the path exploded into a field of knee high Queen Ann's Lace and long lush green grasses, blowing softly in the breeze. It nearly took my breath away. But my fear of the unknown was palpable. Where did the path lead? And if I got this lost attempting to follow simple directions, how on earth would I find my way back through an 800-acre park? Some of the trails of the Heath, I imagined, followed horse paths from hundreds of years ago, when anyone traveling to London did so on horseback. So they would, eventually, lead out and through -- but through to where? I only knew that one, small section of town nearest to Becky and Tony's house. Finding their street again from some far fangeled direction would prove nearly impossible. And yet, how could I not explore, now that I was here?
Breathing in the sweet smell, I found my way to a wooden bench under the shade of some tall trees, right at the edge of the field. Above me the leaves were dappled with sunlight, and I realized, in that moment, that it was 1:15 in the afternoon and I was finally in England. From my perch on the bench I could still see the path that led to the road, but I could at least sit here for a bit and write in my journal, without feeling like a complete and utter chicken. I dug out my pen and the small notebook my friend Laura had so artfully made for me, and began to write. I hadn't been writing more than a few minutes when I heard a snuffling sound coming up the path toward me, and turned to find a floppy eared black and white speckled spaniel bounding toward me.
"Hi Puppy!" I crooned, massaging his velvety face in my hands. This dog belonged on calendars, it was so cute. I smiled at the woman following him.
"I love your dog," I murmured, as he jumped onto the bench next to me and proceeded to crawl into my lap.
"Oh, Harry, no!" The woman laughed.
"It's okay, I don't mind." I reassured her. She looked to be in her late 40's with dark brown hair and surprisingly warm brown eyes. "Could I ask you," I ventured, "How to get to the street in Hampstead, the one with all the shops?"
She looked at me, surprised. "Oh, you're American!"
"Yes," I said, slightly embarrassed.
"How wonderful!" She exclaimed, setting me immediately at ease. As we began to talk, she not only gave me directions, she told me about all the many points of interest that were within walking distance, including a stunning view over all of London that could be seen from just across the road. "Actually," she said, glancing at her cell phone, "I've got a few minutes. Would you like me to take you over there and show you?"
"Uh, yes! That would be incredible, thank you!" It was bound to be a little awkward, but I knew I was lucking out big time. As we made our way to the traffic circle, she turned to me. "I'm Alison, by the way." she said, giving me a wave.
"I'm Signe." We went through my usual spelling... no, it's actually S-I-G-N-E. Mmmhmmmm. It's Scandanavian.... yes, like Sidney but with a "g."
And before I knew it, my new friend Alison, and her adorable puppy Harry, had invited me to come along for their daily walk through the Heath. I followed her along the path, wondering at my good fortune, as we made our way down a shady pathway that led deep into a forest. Not only was this a bizarre turn of events (I can't tell you the last time I accompanied a total stranger on what promised to be at least an hour long walk while living in New York City.) but Alison was fascinating. Five years earlier, she'd had a call to life when all her pets died in the course of one week, and on the last day of the week, her husband of 17 years came home and announced that he was leaving her -- he'd been having an affair. The next day she found out she had a life-threatening tumor that needed to be removed by a surgery that required her to be cut open from just below her breasts all the way down to her uterus. She'd not only survived all of those things, but she has vowed from that day on to live her life to the fullest.
"I spent 17 years married to a man that on my wedding day, I had second thoughts about. And look what happened. His behavior completely changed, after we were married, he became so dictatorial and controlling, and for 17 years I stayed in that marriage for the sake of my children. Never again!" She said, with a triumphant finger raised. "Now I live for myself, and my kids. I do what I want, when I want to." She smiled. "So what brings you to England, Signe with a 'g'?" She asked.
I don't know what it was about Alison, but I found myself spilling my very guts out to her. I told her about my father passing away three years ago, about how hard it was to not know the hows or the whys, about how much I missed him. About meeting Eric, getting engaged, leaving New York together, and about the book. I told her about my desire to find out the truth behind the existence of faeries. "Because," I told her, "I wasn't raised with any religion. And I find it really hard to believe in God. I mean, no one else in my family ever has. So in a roundabout way, if I can discover what else there is out there, if I can discover whether or not there really might be some invisible, magical world where creatures like faeries really do exist, maybe it will somehow make losing my father.... " I trailed off, not really knowing how to finish. I had been so fabulous, so far, at convincing everyone -- my literary agent, the editor who acquired the book, that there was a strong connection between losing my father and the desire to want to find something magical. But now that I was here, now that I was actually here, saying it, I suddenly didn't have a clue what one thing meant to the other.
She looked at me for a long moment, with a slightly amused look, as if we were playing a game of chess, and she. the chess master, was about to sweep in with one simple move, that would change the course of the game forever. When she finally spoke, it was rather softly.
"Well really," She said simply, "It's entirely about trust. You're searching and trying to teach yourself how to trust again. That's where the real magic lies. And to find it, you've got to trust again. "
Thursday, May 21, 2009
In retrospect, I may have taken on a little too much.
But as it was, within a time period of no more than eight weeks I had quit my job, packed up my apartment, moved a 14-hours drive from Manhattan, unpacked my apartment, decorated a house, shopped for a roof estimate, shopped for a car, started a freelance business, and nailed down a wedding venue to host about 150 people near some natural body of water. The result being, I had no time or opportunity to plan one of the most important trips of my life: a trip to find out the truth behind the existence of faeries.
At this point, I don't know how I could possibly catch you up on what had put me on an airplane, flying across the Atlantic ocean in search of a supposed winged creature that most adults have ceased to believe exists. So I'm afraid I'll have to be terribly annoying and suggest you read the book when it comes out next May, in which I promise I explain everything, down to the Mexican troll I may or may not have seen in an outdoor bathroom in the middle of the night. But for now I can only tell you that on Monday May 18th, I found myself on a plane, shooting over the Atlantic ocean with dimmed cabin lighting and a choice of either gluey pasta or gluey ginger chicken, which would be landing in London at 7:00 AM Tuesday morning. My original plan seemed like a good one: for two nights I was staying with a pair of brilliant authors in their guest room in North West London -- one of whom, Rebecca Campbell, I'd been lucky enough to edit during my time at Ballantine Books, and the other, her husband, Anthony McGowan, a fantastically talented writer of both YA books and adult thrillers. From there, after two brief nights, I was going to head into Dartmoor National Park, or perhaps down to Cornwall, before heading over to Devon England on Sunday to meet the magical, mythical Brian Froud and his incredibly talented wife Wendy.
Now I've gotten ahead of myself.
But what I've already discovered is that here, everything is different. And sometimes, even when you try to end up somewhere, you end up someplace else, but it is exactly where you need to be. My first morning in West Hampstead, I looked up directions online to visit Hampstead Heath, a 790-acre park that Becky mentioned was quite beautiful. And knit my brow in confusion as I read the directions through. They might have well said, "Wind your way up the hill, when after a certain point, the hill will slope and then rise again. Make a slight left and then your first right, but not the immediate right, as the road splits, the third right, that's really more of a veering than anything..." and so on. I knocked on Tony's office door and told him about my dilemma. How could a place that was only about 15 minutes away be so hard to get to? He began to give me his own directions, which were, regretfully, equally vague. Seeing my utter bewilderment, he smiled and said, "How about a nice day of shopping in the Hampstead town stores instead? It's reaaaallly easy to get to."
I was disappointed to be missing the park, but the directions Tony gave me to town seemed beautifully straight forward, and I set off with confidence. The streets that go uphill toward Hampstead are lined with tall stone walls bursting with color -- shiny green ivy, purple and pink and yellow flowers. Behind the walls peeked grand homes disguised as quaint English cottages, with old fashioned paned windows and secret gardens buzzing with life. I felt the welcome stretch in my legs as I walked up hill, repeating Tony's directions over and over in my head. I was going a great job, surprisingly -- everything looked just as he said it would, and I knew I was on the right track.
I just knew... eventually... if I continued climbing this steep road... and oh no, here's a branching... I don't remember there being a branching in the road... left or right? Left or right? Um....
My stomach began to tug with hunger but I pressed on. I'd find an adorable little coffee shop just at the top of this never-ending hill, I just knew it. A coffee and a snack would be so perfect, and I'll have one very shortly, I promised myself. At a total and utter loss, I resorted to following people who seemed to be walking with some sort of purpose. Well, wouldn't everyone be going to Hampstead to get coffee and a snack? Or perhaps to do a bit of shopping? Acquire some new candles or perhaps a small container of "b-AH-sil" or maybe some "oreg-AH-ano." I managed to stay about 30 yards behind a young woman wearing workout pants and a pony tail, who kept turning around to look at me, as if I was following her. At long last, we reached a traffic circle at what felt like the top of the world.
Fantastic. Now where the hell am I? I looked around as small cars with large license plates zoomed by me at mock speed. There were no shops.... only houses. Damn it! Suddenly I noticed that to my left there was a beautiful grassy green space.
As I walked past, I stopped to read the sign.
"WELCOME TO HAMPSTEAD HEATH: You are here."
They say that when you go walking in the woods in the United Kingdom, one must be careful not to get "pixie led," meaning, the pixies, who are apparently a terribly tricksy bunch who delight in toying with mortals, will jumble your head, leading you this way and that, until you end up exactly where they want you to be. And exactly where you don't want to be. It seemed that, for reasons yet unknown, I was meant to be in the park, for the park certainly found me -- despite my very best efforts.