The Unicorn in the Notebook

This is the circuitous tale of a unicorn, a fox, a stack of notebooks, and the strange way that life can connect the dots for us when we least expect it.

unicorn detail 2Unicorns have followed me around since high school, wheedling their way into pictures and stories – sometimes when I’d rather they stayed in hiding. Most of time, though, I’m glad when they show up. This particular beastie appeared in my journal at the beginning of this year, but the path for its arrival was cleared a couple weeks earlier, around last Christmas.

I was home for winter holidays – and by home I mean my childhood home. My 12-year-old autistic son was then in residential care, more or less full time, and so I was visiting my mother in Grand Rapids by myself – divorce still pending. I was also waiting to hear back from graduate school as to whether I would be granted an extension to finish my Ph.D. dissertation – a nerve-wracking wait not helped by the long holiday break. In short, I was not in a good mood, but I welcomed the opportunity for some extended down-time, both to reconnect with my family and to seek out a little personal space.

It snowed off and on, typical of winter in west Michigan. The snow hadn’t reached that constant stage where flakes of glitter seem to materialize out of thin air (my favorite kind of snowfall), but there was enough white on the ground for a pleasant sense of retreat and almost-hibernation. I had a well-chosen cave – a lower-level bedroom in the house where I’d grown up, one that had been occupied at various times by both my brothers and my sister, but never by me. The room was lined with books, all the furniture fairly close to the bed. It was cozy, quiet, and well-insulated from any anything that might be happening elsewhere in the house. I had brought along my own amusements — an electronic tablet full of books, games, video, and music. I always travel prepared to spend time alone.

But as it happened, I wasn’t interested in any of those distractions.

I had also brought a journal – the old-school kind – a notebook – a couple of notebooks, actually, and a stash of pens. But these too at first seemed useless. Words had recently deserted me – in some sense betrayed me. I had just expended thousands of them in service of a long academic project that had not gone as planned and now seemed doomed to remain unfinished. I was spent out of words, sick of transcribing my thoughts. Sick of thinking, period.

Flipping through one of my more well-used journals, I discovered several pages that my son had marked. Ross had made half-a-dozen random, largely shapeless figures in my notebook when I wasn’t looking. To say that my kiddo loves drawing is an understatement. He is, more accurately, a constant, often driven, maker of images. For him, a pen lying on a countertop is more than an invitation — it’s a tool demanding to be seized and used on the next unmarked surface that offers itself – a wall, a piece of paper, a tabletop, a ceramic plate – or a page in Mom’s journal. Any and all will do for the spontaneous, often disruptive kind of art that he makes.

Taking the hint, I dug some highlighters out of my pen-stash and began playing a game – filling in Ross’s flash-squiggles and hurried scrawls with color, tracing over them, expanding their reach, growing them big enough to fill the page. I became absorbed in the process, fascinated by the interaction of line, space, and color. And so I kept going. Once I had used up all of Ross’s drawings, I started making my own.

While never trained as an artist, I have drawn pictures all my life. Sometimes I drift away from drawing and sketching for months or even years at a time, but each time I come back to it, there is a sense of both newness and of coming home. There is a state of mind familiar to anyone who enters the world of putting marks on a page trying to capture an image. Consciousness becomes non-verbal. Ideas drift in and out, like wisps of smoke or distant chatter. The engaged mind is thinking about shape, light, and shadow, while the word-driven mind, if not exactly silenced, is pushed to the side.

This proved to be exactly the kind of mental space that I needed. I continued sketching in my journals in the days and weeks that followed, and after returning home to Ypsilanti and the secluded cave of my own bedroom.

Then, one fine night, just after New Year’s, the unicorn showed up – a memory of an earlier drawing, done when I was perhaps in my 20s.

As I put the finishing touches on the horn, the mane, the lionish tail, my artist-brain chose that moment to recall a bespectacled substitute teacher from a time some forty years earlier, slapping a page of homework on the desk in front of me and pointing to a creature that my ten-year-old self had spontaneously sketched beneath my name. Not a unicorn, but in its way, equally fanciful.

“What is that?” the teacher demanded, as if the drawing were an act of vandalism – a curse-word spray-painted on school property.

A little confused, I stated the obvious. “That’s … a fox.”

“Well,” he said tartly, making sure the entire class could hear, “Kindergarteners might put such things on their homework; but we don’t do that in fifth grade.”

Ah, yes, in fifth grade we are practically adults – much too old for fun. Far too old for drawing pictures and for thinking without words.

Back in the present, my hand was creating a suggestion of landscape around the unicorn. The creature itself had a sly smile – as if it knew something it wasn’t telling. Feeling both ironic and elated, as if the unicorn had told its secret to me, I finally found some useful words. Underneath the unicorn’s hooves, I wrote:

“Only kindergarteners draw pictures on their homework. So let us all be kindergarteners.”

unicorn for blog 2.1I was absurdly pleased with myself in that moment. The line of text and the drawing above it became my personal, feeling response – not just to some callous long-ago teacher who had wounded my artistic and academic confidence, but to the graduate school and dissertation committee which had more recently done pretty much the same thing. It was in some way my response to every entity – including myself and my own ego – that had ever demanded “perfection” of me at the cost of my self-confidence. It was also, however temporary, a victory for image and emotion over word and thought – a difficult thing for me, as an English major and lifelong parser of words. My non-verbal son and a couple of childhood drawings had helped to put me in a more positive frame of mind, to see things in a new way.

I never got the dissertation extension I’d hoped for. Circumstances forced me to walk away from my Ph.D. program, in some ways empty-handed. But I also walked away with a story that I still hope to tell — and in the meantime, my notebooks, for so long marked only with lines of text, have begun to fill up with countless interesting creatures and images – in the process becoming more alive, speaking to me as they never have before – through word and through image.

I have defined this as a writing blog (though I have written precious little in it over the past two years) – but recently I’ve realized that, for me, word and image are forever entangled. The unicorns, the foxes and wolves and the other creatures of my journal pages, as well as my son’s unfettered sense of design and artistic urgency — have all helped me realize that when I do more drawing, not only do I write more – but my writing becomes looser, wilder, more adventurous … perhaps to match the images on the page.

I said in the beginning that this tale was circuitous – and I chose that word for a reason. I am, after all, at heart still a parser of words. I don’t know if the dots that I’ve connected in this post will connect for anyone else. But for whatever it’s worth, fellow writers and artists of every stripe: don’t be afraid to make that brilliant, foxy flourish under your signature – and if a unicorn steps into – or out of – your journal, pay attention.

foxy blog 8

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