Dana VanderLugt | Teacher & Writer

Photo by Thom Holmes on Unsplash

A friend’s mom,  (a dear woman I’ve written about here before), raising four kids — all six years and under and with only one family car her husband took to work each day — once wrote a letter to the State of Maine Forestry Department, requesting to buy an island, if they had one available. Maybe she had intentions of escaping there alone. Maybe she was going to bring her family and just spread out a bit.

She received a response back: sorry, all the islands are taken, but find yourself a good realtor.

My go-to fantasy, when life seems hectic and the world seems to be crushing in on all of us, is to move way Up North. Find a little cabin on a lake where my kids can fish all day and I can sit on the porch and read. Where the school district is tiny and my kids can play sports without devoting their childhoods to specializing in them. Where “working out” looks less like cueing up a video or stepping on a machine and more like a long walk with the dog or a kayak in the lake.

I realize (1) these dreams — and these problems I’m dreaming of escaping — are incredibly privileged ones. I realize they’re built on lies and assumptions about resources and money and time and what’s worth pursuing. And (2) When I’m irritable and stuck, the allure of running away is just a cover-up for other stuff in my life that needs to be brought to light.  

Photo by Daniel Sturgess | @daniel_sturgess on Unsplash

Truth be told: I’d bring a lot of my baggage Up North to that cabin with me. My kids would still need parenting (i.e. yelling), we’d still have to find jobs (which would impede my front-porch sitting) and no lake in Michigan is conducive to kayaking year-round. (But, I could buy snowshoes.)

Because it’s June — and I work in education — this is the season where our schedules slow a bit. It’s high tide for my writing life, a mini-sabbatical: the time when I set much longer chunks of time aside for reading and research and drafting and revisions. And despite the sports and camps I enroll my kids in to keep them occupied and active, we don’t have as many set bedtimes or wake-up times or even schedules. Breakfast becomes brunch and afternoon snacks become dinner and ice cream is okay.  Any time of the day.

Minus the cabin and the lake, this is the season when my life looks most like those dreams in my head.

And yet, idyllic is still mostly an illusion. My kids still bicker, the writing is much harder than it is relaxing, and some summer days it is 50 degrees and raining, and I get fed up with technology and hide it all in closets and then my kids must deal with their terrible boredom.

Idyllic — the idea that some people are just lazing around living a peaceful and stress-free existence — is probably a lie that I’ve formulated from too much social media, from listening too attentively to the world’s messages about what would make me content and happy.

I’ve been studying writing for children and young adults this semester, in the MFA writing program I’m enrolled in, and one of the things that has struck me most is that many assume that literature for kids is “easier” or “safer.” That what you’d find in the children’s section at the library doesn’t tackle as complicated issues as the books a few shelves away in the adult sections. This is untrue. The magic of great children’s literature is it does exactly that — it boils down life’s essential issues into stories that work for every reader. Don’t believe me? Go read (or re-read) the following: Because of Winn Dixie by Kate DiCamillo, Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White, The Crossover by Kwame Alexander, or Home of the Brave by Katherine Applegate.

Remember those dreams of escaping? To Maine, to somewhere way Up North. Think of all the great children’s books where the main character escapes or is catapulted, parentless and alone, to a new world: Hatchet, My Side of the Mountain, The Boxcar Children, Harry Potter, The Hunger Games.

Photo by Kimberly Farmer on Unsplash

No one writes a book about the blissful experience of a completely relaxing, peaceful life. Maybe it’s because the magic is also where the mess is. Because fantasies, when played out, contain equal parts of fright and fearlessness.

My friend recently gave me a copy of her Maine-island-requesting-Mom’s favorite book. The title? We Took to the Woods by Louise Dickinson Rich. It’s an original copy, published in 1942 with yellowed pages and a nondescript cover. It’s about a woman who dreamt as an adolescent of moving into the middle of the Maine woods to write and found herself, as an older woman, doing just that. The book is anything but idyllic. Imagine Maine in the 1940s without central heat, indoor plumbing, modern conveniences. Imagine towering snow and twenty-below-zero mornings and making a list of groceries that must last you four weeks. Also, imagine a winter sunrise: “The eastern sky flames with red, and the whole world turns rose” or “unbelievably blue lakes” and hills as “hazy tapestries with the red and gold thread of frost-touched maple and birch embroidering a breath-taking design on the permanent fabric of the evergreens.”

But, lean in close for this passage from the end of the first chapter: “I don’t know what to answer when people say, ‘But isn’t the way you live Escapism?’ I don’t even know, really, what escapism is. We haven’t tried to escape from anything. We have only exchanged one set of problems for another: — the problem of keeping out from under car wheels for the problem of not getting lost in the woods, for example; or the problem of being bored to death by one’s neighbor for the problem of being bored to death by oneself.”

I’ve got a hunch that finding and pursuing our own dream spaces is what some might call finding their “calling.” It’s not a pursuit for perfection, but moving closer to the kind of life that contains more of the problems we’re okay with putting up with. Maybe we needn’t stop dreaming; maybe we just need to be a little more realistic about which obstacles we’re willing to encounter once we arrive.  

Those fantasies built out of equal parts fright and fearlessness? Sometimes they transpire when we pack up and venture somewhere completely new. And sometimes we raise our eyes, reorient ourselves to the horizon, and remember that we’re already in the middle of the adventure, right where we are.

Last night, on my walk after the rain.

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