Zen for Ten 11: For the Storyteller

[Note: this week’s post takes a brief break from music, to honor the memory of one of my favorite writers.]

British writer Richard Adams, who wrote the international bestseller Watership Down, died this past Christmas Eve. He was 96.

I remember:

Waking up in the middle of the night, in my grandparents’ house, in the back bedroom where my little twin bed – the one with the mattress that sank down in the middle – stood against the wall with the knobbly blue paint. (Knobbly is exactly the word. When you ran your fingertips over the wall, it felt like there were grains of sand trapped under the robin’s-egg-blue surface.) I was ten. That afternoon, sitting in my grandfather’s rocking chair, I had finished reading an amazing book.

In a year that’s already brought a lot of chaos and loss, it’s easy to lose track of a more obscure life: a life that, unlike the ones of the celebrities we’ve also lost this year, went on quietly, behind the scenes. Mr. Adams’s storytelling voice reflected his own character. Gentle. Meticulous. Understated.

I woke up in the middle of the night, in the little back bedroom where the nightlight cast a soft gold light on the walls, and I remembered that Hazel was gone. The hero of the best story I had ever read had…not died, not exactly, but he was no longer in the world I knew. His story had gone on somewhere else, and had left me behind.

If I had to pick just one writer, though, whose work changed my world forever, who helped direct me onto my own writing path and shaped my voice and the causes I care about, it would be Richard Adams. I read Watership Down dozens of times when I was a kid. It was a comfort in rough times, an anchor, and in a concrete and specific way, a home.

Later – not much later – I was back home, at my parents’ house. I remember the green backyard in the summer sun, the hill running up from the house to the neighbors’ back fence. I remember the young beech tree whose branches made a curtain that almost touched the ground. And I remember Hazel.

As an adult, I had actually lost track of Mr. Adams himself, to the point where I had assumed he, like his fellow great British fantasists J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, belonged the past. Only a few months ago I found out he was still with us, and the world felt a little brighter. Now his absence is a fact.

Or is it?

Hazel was part of that summer afternoon. He was there, under the beech tree, in a form I made myself believe I could see, with a voice I could hear. He and all the others, his warren, the brave and loyal group who had made the impossible journey with him and lived to tell the story: all of them were there with me.

Maybe it’s a cliche to say that writers live on through their words after their lives have ended. Cliche or not, I hope it’s true. It’s about as close to immortality as we can get.

A lot of kids have imaginary friends. Mine were different. I was different. Maybe, at age almost-eleven, I was getting too old to lean on my imagination that way, but what does “too old” mean? Hazel and his warren were there when I needed them. When you’re a kid, that’s what counts.

Fiver was fragile and sensitive, the one most like me, who got overwhelmed by the world’s roughness. But there was Hazel too, the wisest and gentlest of leaders; and there was Dandelion, the storyteller; and there was Blackberry, the smart one, who could solve any problem and get out of any fix. And there was Bigwig, tough and strong and totally fearless, never afraid to fight for what mattered. I needed them all.

Mr. Adams created his story as entertainment for his daughters, but the energy for it came out of his deep love of nature and his concern for what humans were doing to the environment. His detailed, careful descriptions of fields and woods, downs and streams, puts you in those places as compellingly as if he has lifted you up and transplanted you there. He shared his words to share that natural beauty with the world, and help to preserve it a little longer.

Eleven can be a tough age. Especially when you’re a lonely, “different” kid, an outsider wherever you are, it’s easy to get lost in the mix. You can get angry and sad and feel cut off from the world. That’s when you need an anchor.

He didn’t write Watership Down with the idea that the story he told his daughters would, more than a decade later, change the life of another girl on the other side of the world. But his words did exactly that.

At my loneliest, saddest, angriest, I had them. Always. My life was better with them in it.

If I had never read Watership Down, maybe I would still be a writer now. Maybe I would still have the same quiet, descriptive writing voice. Things might have been different, or not, if that story hadn’t found me twenty-some years ago.

But I do know that I wouldn’t be the person I am without it. Hazel and Fiver and Bigwig, Dandelion and Blackberry and all the others, were there when I needed them. I will always remember that.

Godspeed, Mr. Adams.

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