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The Fruit of our Lives

[1]As I write this, it is the last morning of summer.  My yearling kittens are crouched in the garden, watching a squirrel on the fence make his way through the face of a sunflower, methodically plucking out striped seeds with his tiny hands, cracking their shells, devouring the kernels.  There are piles of hulls, here and there, through the garden, where I have tied the flower heads to the fence or a branch or a gate. Light angles at a long angle, illuminating the withering squash, the tired corn.  As I drink my tea, I’m a little melancholy, knowing that this season is turning.  It is such a particular summer.

They all are.

One of the things that has come up in formatting my old books for publication in e-format [2] is the recognition that they are fruits of the years in which they were born.  This might seem a simple, clean observation—well, of course they are, you might say.  In 1993, the peaches were good and there was a lot of rain, and there were certain political events that influenced my views and ideas.  Music always shapes my work, so the popular tunes of the time will add spice and flavor.

When I began going through these books, written from about 1990 through 2000 or so, I never planned to rewrite them in any meaningful way.  I have so much work flowing through me currently that spending time on finished, whole work seemed a bad use of hours.  It is important to me to update glaring tech issues that date the material in negative ways—changing Walkmans to Ipods, for example, and updating language to reflect the moment.

But I find that reading even to do that much is almost impossible, because they hold too much of me, of my life.  It is as if the fruit of those months or years of writing has been bottled and turned to wine that now carries the most powerful notes of that period in a way that I almost cannot bear.   In reading a category romance from 1992, I am transported to the young mother I was, when my boys were small, and I snatched moments to write from the busy whirl of meals and shopping and laundry and simply loving them.  I am pierced with the golden light, distilled to amber in the wine of the book, that gilded us all one summer while I planted a garden.  My grandmother and my mother and my sisters and I and all the various children took a picnic to a local park.  I thought I was fat. My hair was cut very short, to my ears.  And there is my youngest sister, looking slim and happy in her oversize glasses.  She longs to be married and isn’t yet.  There is my grandmother, down for the day, free before the illnesses that kept her tethered to my grandfather’s side nearly till her own death.

The book carries that day, but there is a mood of earnest optimism in it that I have now lost.  I cannot be so young as that young mother.  Things sometimes do not work out as I hoped.  Things, important things, are often lost as life unfolds, as we live each day.

I’ve often felt it would be difficult to be an actor whose life and face unfold on the screen.  How difficult to see your face, untouched by time, with eyes wreathed now in folds and creases! How challenging to be the ingénue who has now become old and wrinkled.

Reading my old books is like that, in a way, only more intimate.  Only I, and perhaps one or two others, will know the meaning of details that lace this book or that one, will understand why the writer I was at 28 or 36 happened to choose those themes, those emblems, those ideas.  It’s as if I am stepping into the body of my old self, into my old mind.  Not even journals, of which I have thousands of pages, come anywhere close to the record of time that are my books.   It’s startling and intense and more than I can bear, up close.

So they will go into the world as they are, edited the tiniest bit, but mostly left as they are, written by a woman who was me and is not, my younger sister self, my daughter, someone I want to protect from the things that lie ahead.  As they do for all of us.  I love that she is preserved with her smooth skin and floaty skirts in a drop of amber, for all time.

And I realize, too, that the life I now live, the ears of white and yellow corn that I have plucked so tenderly from this summer’s garden, the squirrel on the fence, the dog I am walking, the passions I am engaged in, will all be contained in the juice leaking between the sentences of the books I write now, to be transformed by time into the wine of the future.  One and another and another, like days, like time.

What have you noticed about work you wrote before now?  Do you see those echoes?  Is this intimacy a little frightening to think about? 

Photo by Jaymi Heimbuch [3], via Flickr Creative Commons

About Barbara O'Neal [4]

Barbara O'Neal [5] has written a number of highly acclaimed novels, including 2012 RITA winner, How To Bake A Perfect Life [6], which landed her in the RWA Hall of Fame and was a Target Club Pick. She is a highly respected teacher who also publishes material for writers at Patreon.com/barbaraoneal. She is at work on her next novel to be published by Lake Union in July. A complete backlist is available here [7].