The Weepies, “Antarctica”
When I was a girl, I wished for a map that showed me the movement of animals across any landscape I pleased. On drives with my parents, we’d pass through woods so dense I could only see a few yards past the road, and I’d think about how that wood contained secret worlds: groundhogs digging homes between roots, black bears scraping claws against tree trunks, deer passing quietly through seas of fern. I wanted those worlds opened up to me. My parents filled our house with topographical maps and books containing cross-sections of trees and mountainsides. I wished that seeing through the forest was as easy as flipping a page. Now, I play Dungeons and Dragons with a group of close friends. I always play a Druid, because as a Druid I can speak to animals. As a Druid, I can turn into a small fish and dive into a pond or a lake or a sea. I can see to its bottom.
Neko Case, “Wild Creatures”
I’ve been reading Clarissa Pinkola Estes’ book, Women Who Run With Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype, for months, trying to learn how to be a woman in touch with her inner wolf. I befriend people who have dogs, thinking it will help, and the dogs lick my fingers while I type. My boyfriend and I foster two dogs with mysterious origins, dogs found on streets, dogs put on euthanasia lists because they could not be calm and complacent. The problem is, the more dogs I have around me, the more I feel myself start to settle. The more wildness I see, the tamer I become. A month before my book is released, I travel with four friends and four dogs to a small cabin on top of a mountain in New Mexico. We sit in the near-dark, light a fire. Dogs sleep at our feet, curl under the tables, climb up and down the stairs to the loft. I could stay in this house that doesn’t belong to me forever.
Radical Face, “Always Gold”
2011 to 2016, the years I write my book, are also years of departure. I depart Pennsylvania for Scotland. I depart Pennsylvania for Arizona. I depart Arizona for Singapore. My family is so far away. Mothers and daughters and sisters and brothers walk into my stories where they didn’t exist before. I wonder, what do we owe someone who shares our DNA? Coincidentally, 2011 to 2016 are also the years in which the band, Radical Face, releases a trilogy of albums telling the story of a family in the 1800s. The characters in their songs wonder about the power of blood to unite us, to link us, when circumstances separate us. A friend once told me we continue to live out the trials of our ancestors until someone in the bloodline finds a solution, and I like this idea, because it assuages the guilt I feel for not flying home more often, for not calling every weekend. My life becomes a fairy tale: trying to find a cure to a curse that afflicts us all.
The summer after our first year of graduate school, my boyfriend and I take a road trip from Pennsylvania to Washington state and back. We’ve been going to separate graduate schools. He is in Ohio, I in Arizona. In his absence, I’ve started to doubt. I doubt my choice to move to Arizona. I doubt myself as a writer. I write nothing that year that I will publish, that will ever belong in a book. I am young, and I feel overwhelmed by the lifetime of decisions ahead of me. So, we drive. We unfold maps across our laps and struggle to fold them again. We pet the heads of prairie dogs, we visit the country’s smallest park, we camp in the Badlands. The floor of my boyfriend’s car is carpeted in National Park passes and Wendy’s to-go bags and coffee-stained guidebooks. I learn to find home in a place that is always moving.
In a YouTube video, the band performs this song in a living room. A blonde girl, seven or eight or nine, dances in an afghan she wears like a cape. She has pink socks. She has braids. So far, 1,000 have liked the video and 14 have disliked it. She is a warrior girl. Small and strong and old enough to know that she will one day grow up. I try to write about girls like her, but they always end up as passive as I’m afraid I am. At nine, I had my first crush, which I remember telling myself “I’ll grow out of.” Nine was when I felt bigger than other girls. Now I see girls who are eight and stronger than I was then, and I want to tell my younger self to be more like them. To steel, to prepare. Young Dana, do not expect people to be nice to you just because you are nice to them. Speak the way you danced in the dining room when you believed your mom wasn’t looking.
We Were Promised Jetpacks, “It’s Thunder and It’s Lightning”
In Scotland, I walked. I walked through puddled Glasgow streets in shoes with holes in the heels, I walked through frog migrations around the campus lake, I walked through fields unexpectedly occupied by Highland cows. I walked, and I took trains. I had the map of train routes flattened on the desk in my room. I’d choose a town with a train stop, and I’d go there. I didn’t write in Scotland, though later I wrote about Scotland. For an American, it was an easy place to romanticize. Old women on trains told me stories about the winter they were snowed into Inverness. I bought fish wrapped in paper at the docks and pulled the meat from the bones while seagulls clamored overhead. I walked on a quiet gray beach and stopped to watch a horse and rider gallop by, a dog at their heels. I wondered if it was possible for me to write in a place that already felt like myth, and learned it wasn’t.
The National, “Looking for Astronauts”
The National makes me think of women who are very different from me: composed, unsmiling (and unafraid to not smile), poised, red lipstick. Music-box women with no parts of their faces that they want to hide, not because they’re perfect, but because they don’t care about being perfect. The National tells stories about flawed people who know they’re flawed. In their lyrics, I feel a desire to want to be better. I see people who look for astronauts in the night sky, floating amongst the satellites and faraway shards of light and airplane trails. People who remember strange things about ex-lovers instead of lovely things.
Arcade Fire, “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)”
I began writing this book in a house I shared with eight other writers. It was our house, but it also belonged to the University, which meant it had padlocked doors we couldn’t open. A door to an upstairs patio. A door to an attic. A door to a cellar. One year the river flooded, immersed the tiny, residential island next to campus, and crept onto the main street, cutting us off from the bar, the coffee shop, the laundromat. We heard stories of students at the college down the road riding the river like pirates. The city issued a curfew, and that night, we went wild. The streets were empty and yellow under the street lamps. The dark silhouettes of houses rose like mountains beyond mountains around us. The water went up to our ankles. We sprinted down the street in the rain in our clothes. We dripped the flood waters onto the front porch. A couple of years after we left the house, my boyfriend and I returned over winter break from graduate school. The doors were locked, but one window was open. Inside, we found a dead bat on the staircase. It was the size of my thumb, and I was afraid it was dead, but more afraid that it looked dead and was actually still alive.