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One Person’s Paradise

Do you ever imagine alternate lives?

What’s “paradise” for me could well be purgatory for someone else. This thought occurred to me when I was traveling in Kauai with my son and his family, and it’s at the emotional core of one of my short stories, “Almost Paradise.”

People often ask writers whether their stories are autobiographical of not. Often there’s an element of autobiography, a place visited or an insight about life that winds up at the core of a fictional tale. Here’s how a small, real life incident led to an important insight that helped me revise a story set on an entirely different island.

Fixer Uppers

To begin with you should know that I once worked as a carpenter, and when comes to old buildings, I’m sort of like people who are suckers for rescue dogs. I was in Kauai on vacation. Driving down a one lane road, my son passed the ramshackle plantation buildings on the outskirts of Hanapepe Town. The town is undergoing a resurgence, but many of its buildings have rusty metal roofs. Fixer-uppers! At one point in my life, there was nothing I liked better than a cheap property where a little sweat equity would make a difference. I did a windshield survey.

Scraping the paint would take a year, but the wooden shacks had made it through the hurricane of ’92. I saw myself standing with a can of glazing putty, my nail apron buckled around my hips. Despite the minor problem of telling my husband I’d bought an abandoned building in Kauai, I had to reckon with my age. I wasn’t thirty anymore or even forty. But, hey, I wouldn’t have to do the work at once. I could take afternoons off and snorkel. When I needed a break, I could stroll across the concrete bridge to the art galleries and curio shops. If I felt too wiped out and had to take off an entire day, I could write in a coffee shop and finish my novel. Eventually, I could turn my rehabbed building into a writers’ retreat.

“What a paradise!” I said.

“I don’t think it’s a paradise,” a little voice chimed from the back seat.

Alisa, my granddaughter, sounded certain of her opinion.

My son looked in the rear view mirror. “Why don’t you think it’s paradise?”

“For one thing, the buildings look rundown.”

“Alisa!” her mother said.

“That’s just what I think,” she said.

“I love this place,” her mother said. “The trees and mountains are beautiful. When your dad retires, we want to move here.”

“I love the beach,” her older sister Erika said.

“I don’t like the beach,” Alisa said.

“That’s because you won’t go in the water,” Erika said.

“The water’s cold and the wind blows all the time.”

“Wasn’t there one beach you liked?” my son said. (We had been to several.)

“I guess Poipu was okay,” Alisa said. “The sand was warm. On all the other beaches, it was wet.”

Poipu hadn’t been perfect either. Digging for shells, Alisa had unearthed a cigarette butt.

Alternate Lives

A day later, it struck me that one person’s paradise is another’s purgatory. As her parents and I imagined ourselves into alternate lives in Kauai, she imagined herself back where she felt most at home: in snowy New England, going to school, going to her dance classes, and hanging out with her friends.

As a writer I love the idea that we all drag emotional baggage with us, sometimes even to the point where we make ourselves miserable. It’s funny how some folks, even those with great physical or psychological challenges, manage to find joy and comfort in the familiar, while others feel most alert and alive in a place that’s strange and new.

My story “Almost Paradise” centers around the idea of two people traveling to the same place, but having vastly different experiences of it. The place is Thailand and the travelers are first cousins. Chicagoans, one has a birthmark, but has found his niche stocking candy machines near Wrigley Field. The other has failed at almost everything, and now he’s trying to start a new career as a tour guide. His cousin is the guinea pig, and off they go to Koh Chang island. You can read excerpts and meet one of the characters in the book by downloading Postcards Home.

What about you? Are you a person who thrives on the new and unfamiliar, or are you most content in your ordinary surroundings?

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