So whenever I read trc, I'm always overwhelmed by this almost pathological desire to experience the same feelings of wonder and beauty and magic that you describe in the series. Yes, I understand that there is no sentient, magical forest to discover, and no sleeping king that I can search for, but I still have this urge to have similar feelings and experiences in my life. So how do you experience a similar kind of magic and wonder that you describe in your books, in everyday life?
Are you listening closely?
As an author, I travel a lot. At one point, I was on the road one day out of every three — planes, hotels, rental cars. There’s a rhythm to it, like running up a very long flight of stairs. You figure out how many stairs you can take in a jump, and how to breathe-in-breathe-out to keep from wasting your lungs, and you learn how to tell when you have to stop to rest your knees or you just won’t make it to the top.
The airports and the planes and the people can all start to seem the same after awhile, if you’re looking at them wrong. If you let them. Anything in life can sound ordinary if that’s all you’re listening for.
Back in 2014, I was in a Texas airport. The night had that glittering senseless jitter to it that happens when you’re tired but going home, finally going home. I was early for my flight and sitting several gates away from my real gate, listening to music. A young man sat down two seats away. Ordinarily, tired and occupied with the peculiar every-day magic of the music in my headphones, I wouldn’t have noticed him, but a moment later, a phone rang. He asked if it was mine; it wasn’t. Someone had forgotten it on the seat between us.
We both looked at it.
It rang again for someone who didn’t know to pick up, and then he took it away to one of the United desks for them to give it to someone who would listen. He didn’t return.
Two hours later, I went to my real gate to board. Full flight. Everyone was checking and double-checking their seat assignments as they defended their right to aisles and windows. When my seatmate settled himself next to me, I looked up, and it was the guy from the waiting area. He had a tilt to his chin that telegraphed that he thought he was hot shit and a grin that said he recognized me.
We laughed ruefully and applied our headphones — we both knew the routine of polite air travel. But the agreeable tingle of the coincidence still ate at me, and I could tell it ate at him, too, because after a few moments, he offered me a truffle from his bag. I told him I couldn’t take it because of my allergies, but the headphones came off. We started to talk.
And he was a big talker. He was cocky. A surgical resident. He told me how he loved the hell out of taking internal organs out of people. He described how he listened to sixty-minute epic soundtracks in his ear buds while he removed appendixes and gallbladders, kidneys and stones. He told me of watching Dateline by himself at the end of seventy and eighty hour work weeks, and he told me about his Hyundai, which I made fun of. Confidentially, he whispered to me about a surgeon he knew who had the goal of removing every gallbladder in Texas. Two hours into the flight, the conversation tilted toward spirituality. He’s hot shit, he confessed, and works hard, but he sometimes wonders if he’s allowed to want to be successful, or if that makes him a bad person. Because he’s working a lot of hours in a week, and he’s tired, but he’s pretty sure that he’s hot shit, but maybe that’s not allowed.
I was watching him fumble his fingers over each other. He was scratching a hole in his own palm.
And all at once there was a phone in my head, and it was ringing just for me.
“One of your parents has obsessive-compulsive disorder,” I told him. “Maybe both.”
The shimmering grin slipped. “How did you know? How could you know that?”
I asked him if he was getting treatment for it.
He said, “No, no, I’m over it. How could you know that?”
Because in a foggy way, that phone was still ringing between us, and now, I recognized the number.
I said, “Don’t kill yourself.”
He replied, “No way,” and then he started to cry.
The shit-eating grin had vanished. He told me how he’d made up his mind that he didn’t want to make it to 35. He’d researched all the ways to make sure he didn’t. Over the next hour, I told him about my OCD, and how I thought his uncertainty over wanting to be successful but also wanting to be humble was a function of his OCD’s spiritual obsession. That he wasn’t over OCD, that you never were, but that his agony didn’t have to be a real thing. He could be both humble and successful. It wasn’t against the rules of goodness to be proud of what you’d done, as long as you were doing things for the right reasons. I told him how once I bought a race car, but I’d given it away to someone who could use the money, because I realized I was only racing to look sexy in a car, and not because it was really making me happy.
I told him he didn’t have to worry about looking sexy in a Hyundai, though, and he replied that he would look sexy in anything, and then he cried a little more.
Everyone else in the plane was asleep, but we were wide awake.
When we got off the plane in Virginia, the surgical resident gave me an awkward side-hug, and he wiped his face. Then he dug in his bag for the wrapper from his truffle. As the other travelers shuffled past us sleepily, he pressed it into my hand. He didn’t want to give me his name, he said, but he wanted something for me to remember so that when we ran into each other again in 15 years, I’d know who he was.
After we’d parted ways, I turned my phone off airplane mode, and a text came in that had been sent while I was in the air. It was from the person I’d given the race car to. I hadn’t heard from him in nearly six months. The text said only: thank u maggie i have such a hppy life bc of u
You have to be listening closely. Phones are ringing all over the world, and sometimes they look like magical forests, and sometimes they look like race cars, and sometimes they look like surgical residents.