Jan Donley, Author of The Side Door

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16 February 14

Ollie

I have been drawing and painting using a wonderful (amazing really!) iPad app called Paper. Please visit my Tumblr site to see a collection of my own work plus some work by others using the same app. Click below.

Tumblr Lines and Images

A Place

24 October 13

Today I gave my students a writing exercise. I asked them to write about a place, and in writing about the place to include the words, “tobacco,” “sleep,” “pinch,” “winter,” “enlighten,” “neck.” These were all words that they had used in a previous writing assignment.

I did the exercise along with them and came up with this strange little piece:

I am going to tell you about this place. It is called darkness. It is not darkness like night or darkness like a room with the lights off. It is darkness, a place to go, like a spot on a map. I know a man who talks about where he lives as “his neck of the woods.” My neck of the woods is darkness. It is very particular, my place. It smells of winter with a pinch of tobacco thrown in. I sleep there for long periods of time. In the deepest of darkness, here’s the irony, I am enlightened. Like a lamp comes on inside my core and shines so brightly. It sends its beams to every corner of this place called darkness. But the place is still dark. Still winter. That same man who has his own neck of the woods, he talks about winter, about the depths of winter when three feet of snow cover the ground, when wind blows and white swirls, and even in all that white movement, there is darkness. That’s what enlightenment looks like, I think: like a white out—where the world is blank but true.

In the blank truth of it all, where winter and tobacco combine, where sleep comes easily and dreams drift in like maybe they happened, maybe they didn’t: that’s my place of darkness. My spot on the map. My neck of the woods.

Scratch

21 December 12

The first time she showed up, I was in my room, drawing. I was wearing her robe. It had become my habit to wear her robe while I drew at night, late into the night when I was supposed to be sleeping.

The streetlights shone in through my window like they always did. And the moon was just the tiniest sliver, like a scratch on the dark sky. But I had looked at it. Studied it. And I was thinking about how to draw it—that one little piece of light with all of that blackness around it.

I left my curtains open, even though Aunt Gail was always closing them and telling me that I should want my privacy. At night, when I drew, I liked them open. I don’t know why, but somehow I believed I was inviting the outside in.

I had this idea that there were others like me, somewhere. There had to be. I didn’t like feeling so singular and alone. And when I looked in the mirror, I saw my face, my freckles, my red hair, but I saw something else, too. What I saw there made me not want to look and look all at the same time. I wanted to see them, but maybe not. I wondered if someday we would all find each other at a particular age and time—and we would no longer be lonely, no longer be subject to that heavy feeling in our guts that just would not go away.

And so, in keeping my curtains open, I thought I was inviting others like me to come inside, and I imagined that they were there, simply not talking or showing themselves yet, and they were helping me draw my pictures, helping me find the exact right image, helping me choose the pressure I would put on the pencil lead, the shading, the lines.

But I did not expect her to come. My mother.

Okay—you’re thinking I’m talking about some ghost. And you’re thinking this is one more of those stories where a dead person comes back and only one person can see her. And that dead person has some kind of comic timing, the way she’ll show up when others are around and they ask, “Who are you talking to?” And you have to shrug and say, “No one.” Or “Myself.”

But it wasn’t like that—not like that story or that movie or that book. She came to me with her hand on my pencil, her eyes behind mine, her feet in my socks. And here’s the thing—it was brief, like that moon scratch on the sky—like a tiny piece of light that could be swallowed by the darkness at any moment.

It was like that.

The rain fell on yellow leaves

14 November 12

She remembered a place. It might have been a place in a dream. There were no trees, and there was no sky. She had looked out of eyes that did not belong to her. And then she remembered, there was no ground either. No dirt. No grass. No branches or trunks or leaves. Just air. There may have been light. Yes. She remembered light coming from some distance—maybe a star or a moon or a lamp. She wanted it to be a lamp. And she heard a voice—a voice that whispered and whistled. That was the language of this place: whispers and whistles.

When she awoke from the dream or what may have been a dream, she looked across her room to the window. The window was open, and a breeze blew in. She saw leaves on the ground. Through the window, she saw the yellow leaves. And the rain fell on them.

It should have been a familiar sight. But ever since the dream, her eyes were not her own. And ever since the dream, she knew the sky and the trees and the ground could disappear. She knew that familiar languages could suddenly become unfamiliar.

It unsettled her, the way a dream can do.

And it must have been a dream; otherwise, why would she wake to look out a window and see rain falling on yellow leaves?

She could not be sure.

The yellow leaves whistled in the wind. The rain that fell on them whispered.

Alley

1 October 12

She had read about this alley in story books. How each of its doors—one green, one blue, one white, one yellow, one black—opened onto a mystery. The doors were not locked. They were there for the opening. But choosing which one, that was the trick. There was always a trick, she had learned. Always. And an alleyway, well, it was made for trickery, or so it seemed. With its dumpsters and high up fire escapes. With its brick walls and narrow windows looking down—moments of light behind them. And other moments of light, barely there, from the sun making strips and shadows on the concrete floor. She stood looking up to a sliver of sky on a Monday in October in a year that would go by in a footstep. And then another October would follow. And another. And she would look back at this moment, this footstep of a moment, and try to recall the year. Someone would ask her, “Remember that time when you looked up at the fire escape? When you wondered what it would be like to climb up and over and through an unfamiliar window into a room where you had never been?” And she would close her eyes, searching for the time, and she might say, “Let me get back to you about that.” It was the phrase she said most often to herself these days, “Let me get back to you.” Because she wanted to do that, to get back to herself. And she never imagined it would involve metal rungs high up on brick walls, narrow windows with no ledges to stand on, slivers of sky, and doorways she had read about in a storybook. Her father used to take her to the library. He came home with stacks of mysteries that he set by his chair and read one by one. She brought books home, too. One was the storybook with the alley way and the unlocked doors and the possibility behind any one of them. All that possibility! And now she was actually there, in the alley way with its puddles of water left over from the morning’s rain. Light shone off the water, reflecting the sky above, a hint of a cloud, her arm, her hand, the ring her mother left behind. The sapphire—when light hit it just right—it became a star, and there it was in the reflection. Just a footstep away.

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All writings © Jan Donley 1985-2018
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