Writing and rocks

My husband knew better than to ask “whether.”
Instead, he simply asked me “when.”
When could I teach my son’s Cub Scout den about geology?
Then he gave me a list of possible dates.
I was leery.
It’d been a long time since I’d buried my nose in rocks, 25 years to be precise.
I had always had a passion for earth science, but I loved books and writing more. Still, when it came time to declare a college major, I couldn’t bring myself to choose English.
I had moved out on my own at 17, during my senior year of high school. I had worked full time most of my junior year and all of my senior year while juggling sports and school work. I didn’t want to work that hard anymore.
An English major, I thought, wasn’t practical.
I wouldn’t make any money.
Too much stress.
So I choose my second love: rocks.
Or, more formally, geochemistry.
That lasted one semester.
Remember when I said I wasn’t willing to work that hard anymore?
Geochemistry is a lot of work.
So I drifted about as “undeclared,” taking courses in English and in interpersonal communications here and there simply because they were fun. Next thing I knew, my “fun” courses became my dual major and I was working full time as a journalist.
I had made the writing thing work.
And I forgot about rocks.
Until our oldest son became a toddler.
He was fascinated by rocks and fossils, and still is.
As I helped him hunt fossils and identify a few minerals, I realized just how rusty I’d become. My knowledge was old. I was busy. I didn’t have time to rekindle old passions, I thought.
But then this opportunity came along.
These kids, these Webelos Ones, are counting on me.
They want their badges.
I knew I couldn’t just wing it.
So I dove back in.
It took me about 30 minutes of review to realize why I loved earth science so much. As a hobby, it’s easy. No physics involved. No need to memorize world history. No calculus. Just me and a bunch of minerals. Minerals that might have been touched, walked on or looked upon by anyone from cavemen to Cleopatra to JFK.
My love for writing and my love for rocks are not separate passions. They stem from the same sense of curiosity, the same craving to imagine and create, the same appreciation for beauty and art. Rocks are, for me, a muse.
So next Tuesday, I’ll hand three Webelos Ones paper plates full of clay. I’ll watch as they smash chunks of clay together to create mountains. I’ll pay special attention to their eyes as they discover the beauty of creation and evolution.
I might even smile as order them to clean up the mess (because they are sure to throw the clay at something or someone when we’re done. How could they possibly resist?). I’ll smile because I’ll be thinking, thanks Tom.
Thanks for asking me “when.”

The Canadian professor from Sri Lanka

I knew the small man with the smooth dark skin the moment he walked in the door.
This was The Canadian Writers Festival at the New York State University College at Oswego.
The year was 1987.
I was the student director (and the bartender).
As far as I knew, only one author was not native to Canada.
A Sri Lanka-born professor.
A man I’d never hear of.
A poet who’d written two novels.
I served this man a drink and spoke with him briefly.
I don’t remember much except that he seemed kind, humble and thoughtful.
I bought his latest novel and got his autograph.
Despite my heavy class load, despite two part-time jobs, despite my editor position at the college newspaper, I read Coming Through Slaughter in two days.
It was unlike anything I’d ever read and anything I’ve read since.
A blend of poetry, fiction and interviews, all telling the story of Buddy Bolden, a real-life musician said to be the originator of jazz. A genius whose career was cut short by madness.
It was and is beautiful.
For more than a decade, I pushed that book on professors, friends and acquaintences with little luck. I just couldn’t get them to understand. This wasn’t just a novel. This was art. A multi-dimensional work of art.
Except for the woman I met in Arizona.
She understood. She was from Sri Lanka and her daughter attended preschool with my son. One day, she brought me a novel. Anil’s Ghost by the same author as Coming Through Slaughter.
I devoured it.
And I wanted more.
But I got busy.
And I forgot.
Until one day, in 1996, I was perusing the movie section of the newspaper.
I spied a review for a new movie, The English Patient.
The movie was based on the book by a Sri Lanka-born writer named Michael Ondaatje.
The man whose drinks I poured.
The man whose novel, published two decades earlier, was a masterpiece.
The man who forever changed the way I think about fiction.