Last summer I was knocked for a loop when Kate DiCamillo, that is, THE Kate DiCamillo, wrote about enjoying “Cody and the Fountain of Happiness”. She especially liked the “whim whams”, an expression Cody uses to describe the feeling that her world is crumbling into an unrecognizable heap. Kate said she knew that feeling, and was glad to have a word for it.
Fast forward to the end of the summer when she came to the Cuyahoga County library and I waited in a long, long line of fans to say hello. In the photo, I’ve just told her I’m the whim-wham writer. Oh my goodness. She was so nice.
This summer, I heard Kate speak again, this time at Nerd Camp. She read a speech, a small perfect essay really, that began with the story of her being 8 years old and obsessed with digging. A Florida summer, the sun relentless, and every morning she got her shovel and dug. She didn’t know what she was looking for, just knew the urge to dig. One day she found a small smooth bone with a hollow just right for a young girl’s thumb. It was magic, she was sure. Or wanted to be sure.
I won’t even try to tell the whole story, because so much of it depends on her always startling and perfect choices of words, on her details (not just a dishtowel but a green and white checked dishtowel) and on her trademark rhythms, but the climax comes when she wishes for a pony and, moments later, one comes walking up the street.
Kate’s essay was about writing, and the pony became a metaphor for conjuring, creating, for calling something into being by sheer force of imagination and will. “Where there was nothing, now there was something.”
It was an amazing, stirring talk, a gift to all of us who heard it. I’ve thought of it often since. I thought of it just yesterday, when I was walking across the baking, dry-as-dust schoolyard down the street, on my way to the library. I could see the determined, lonesome little girl, digging in the hot sun, and I was back in my own childhood summers, all those endless, hot afternoons when there was nothing to do. We didn’t go to camp or art classes. We played ball in the street, swam in Nancy Wells’s above ground pool, swished our Barbies around in the backyard shade, but lots of the time, most of the time, there was nothing to do.
We never said we were bored, because our mother would immediately assign us chores. And now when I think about it, I’m not sure bored was the right word, anyway. I remember more a feeling of longing. For something to happen. To be the one who made it happen. To be the hero of a story still unknown. It was a diffuse kind of longing with no clear object, and that made it all the more powerful.
Trying to pin down that feeling might scare it away. Instead: the hot sun. The tar truck slowly coming down the street. The cicadas buzzing in the trees. A girl in red PF Flyers, standing in the shade, squinting into the light, waiting and wishing.