At Halloween, that time of year when tradition and legend tell of a slippage between the world of flesh and the world of spirit, I’m thinking about portals, those openings, doors, passageways between one sort of place and another. In magical fantasy we find keys to the passages, clocks that strike thirteen in the night, and womb-like wardrobes leading to an old-fashioned streetlamp in another world. In horror, we find zombies and ghouls walking the streets of our world. In paranormal romance, we find boyfriends who are vampires or guardian angels who want to be boyfriends. In time travel or sci fi, one era bleeds into another, one faraway galaxy wormholes into another, maybe our own.
Portals, scientists have found, cause us (here on earth) to reset our brains and prepare for the new environment. That’s why we walk through a door from the living room to the kitchen to get a pair of scissors to snip off a wayward thread on a throw pillow and stand there asking ourselves what we were going after and have to return to the living room to jog our memories. Once we see the thread again, we hold that image in our minds as we re-cross the threshold and reenter the kitchen, thus making the thought move through the portal with us. This happens to us all, whether aging or school aged; it’s a phenomenon of human existence.
I wonder if that is why the idea of magical crossing of portals originated and why the idea of passing from one world to another is so powerful in story. Of course, the original portal was birth into life and the final one, death out of earthly life. What more powerful, magical, frightening, and completely normal passages are there?
Recently, my husband and I were in New Mexico where we visited my cousin and sat on her adobe house’s portal (a long, covered porch-like patio that wrapped around the back and side of the house) where we enjoyed a cool morning’s breakfast and regaled each other with stories and memories from our lives. Something about that sense of being neither outside nor inside seemed to be conducive to storytelling, just as it had been on our old southern porches with porch swings and wicker rockers. Neither outside nor in, we slipped between the old days and nowadays, and time lingered with us.
What can we make of this for the writer? For me, walking from one part of my house to the new addition where I do my creative work, reminds me who I am and what I’m doing here, resets my day’s trajectory and opens up the magic mind for story. I have one place I sit to work on my student’s writing packets and another, a window-seat, where I sit to imagine into the worlds of my own stories. Just having the outside there, so close at hand, with me half-way between the inside and the outdoors, sets my mind free to wander about in that realm between things, between the real and the imagined, the ordinary and the magical, where I can travel to the nearest earth-like planet with its orbiting laboratories or skip along a sidewalk with a little girl who lives on a houseboat on the Seine, travel back to Mississippi at the beginning of the Civil Rights era, be silly as a cartoon-like prospector who loses his voice or a young woman in the early 1900’s who gets sent aloft by a tornado, run away and write graffiti, or even imagine what it would have been like to have imagined Frankenstein’s monster.
This time of the year I sometimes visit schools and read the ghost story from Through the Tempests Dark and Wild: A Story of Mary Shelley, Creator of Frankenstein and when I do, I find the entrance portal to the children’s imaginations is our popular culture’s depiction of the monster, green stitched up forehead, bolts holding head to neck, and large lumbering frame. Through that image, I get them to focus upon the young girl who heard such ghost stories and imagined Victor Frankenstein and his creature, who at only 18 wrote the novel that came out of her own sorrows, the death of her mother, her rejection by her father, and the death of her own firstborn child. Science was opening a portal to understanding of electricity and of anatomy and physiology. The French Revolution had loosed ideas of freedom and equality, the new century had begun, and nothing would ever be the same.
A portal, a place between here and there where magic resides. As writers, every night we go into the portal of sleep and wake on the other side into a new day where in our stories’ other worlds exist with our own, simultaneously real and imagined. Like a perennial All Hallow’s Eve, our writer’s minds allow flesh and spirit to work together as one to make story. For writers that is what life is all about, making the unreal real, the real magical, and bringing the outside and the inside together, just touching, where our minds meet that of our readers’, in the portal.
P.S. My trick or treat suggestion is for you to treat yourself to Frankenstein by Mary Shelley if you haven’t read it—or if you have, why not reread it?