A little while back, I got a phone call from my college roommate … a woman who shared a God-awful basement apartment with me our senior year, enduring a crazy co-habitant, unruly basketball players living upstairs, flood (said basketball players got drunk one night and knocked their toilet off its mount, and the gushing water ended up as a waterfall in our living room), pestilence (the landlord started to replace our tiny windows and left them half-finished, allowing half of Providence’s flies to invade. We ended up vacuuming the flies out of the air, they were so thick), and more personal crises than even college students have a right to have.
Jackson (her given name is actually Jacqueline, or Jackie, but one of our other roommates, a quirky but brilliant computer guy named Gil, nicknamed her Jackson after Reggie Jackson, although the exact reason for that escapes me now) earned an organic chemistry degree and began life as a chemist. But then, well, life intervened. She fell in love with a guy who—to this day—adores her so much that he called me one time to inquire about buying a surplus military tank for Jackie’s birthday, because she said she’d like to have one for the back yard. The fact that Jackson wanted a tank for her back yard should tell you something about her independent mind and imagination, as well. (Personally, I think it was her reaction to living in a somewhat stultifying, way-too-homogenized suburb. That and a particularly inspiring encounter with the movie Tank Girl.)
Anyway, her new husband had two little girls from a previous marriage, which Jackson did her best to raise, in addition to another girl she and her husband had a few years later. In the midst of all that, she started to explore her creative side, in what little time she could carve out for creative anything. She learned glassmaking and started selling her stained-glass creations around the New England area. And she also started to write.
Jackson had always had a knack for writing—she used to entertain me in an engineering class we took together by writing limericks on the margins of her notebook, and she composed song lyrics to commemorate some of our wilder escapades together. But she only began writing book manuscripts in her 30s. And since I’d gone on to become a professional writer, she sent me some of her beginning efforts. The first two novels, or big chunks thereof, were based on intriguing ideas, and had some promise, but also felt as if they’d need a bunch of revision and work to make them viable stories.
But then, after—I’m not kidding—maybe seven or eight years of effort on various other story lines, Jackson sent me the beginning chapters of a hilarious book about a couple of Sasquatches, a potbellied pig, a clairvoyant manicurist, and a few other oddball characters in a small, Pacific Northwest town who have an unexpected encounter with aliens. It was a story worthy of Douglas Adams and Christopher Moore, if you know either one of those two authors. (Adams is best known for the best-selling Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy; Moore for books like Practical Demonkeeping.)
On the earlier manuscripts, I’d sent back pages and pages of notes. After reading this one, however, I wrote her back and said, “I have not a single comment or item I can think to change. I just want to know what happens next!!!” After years of effort and false starts, Jackson had found her voice. Or at least one of the many writing voices I suspect she has inside her. Anyone who’s read my stuff knows that I’m very good at painting experiences in vivid words, and wrestling with complex topics about life, meaning, and human motivation. But Jackson has the gift and skill of a wild writer’s imagination that I will never have.
Jackson continued to send me chapters over the next year or so. Her daughter was approaching high school graduation, and Jackson was looking forward to her post-parenting life: leaving suburbia for New York City—or at least some kind of city—and making writing her profession. The book seemed to be nearing completion.
And then life intervened again. There was a baby boy who was in need of adoption. Without going into all the details, Jackson and her husband were asked if they could take him in, because they could provide the most stable and complete family connection and environment for him. Jackson called me to tell me of her decision.
“I’ve been agonizing about it,” she said. “But I just keep imagining this 20-year-old young man appearing on my SoHo apartment doorstep one day and saying to me, ‘I just need you to explain to me why the apartment in New York was so much more important than me.’”
So at the age of 43, Jackson became a mother again. An adoptive mother this time, which as far as I’m concerned means she’s attained the triple crown of motherhood—step, biological, and adoptive. All this from a woman who didn’t actually think she’d have kids in the first place. Surely, I tell her, there’s a book in THAT, somewhere. But the unfinished book about Bigfoot and aliens was put into a drawer, because in order to pay for another child, Jackson got a management job in a textbook publishing company that requires 10 and 12-hour work days, including weekends, sometimes.
I think of Jackson whenever I get frustrated at my own career or life turns. Because she’s stayed both upbeat and focused on the prize, no matter how far off that trajectory the turns of life have taken her. She appreciates the gifts of wherever she is and manages—at least most of the time—to keep her sense of humor at the frustrations and lunacy of her daily life, as well as the unplanned places life has taken her. She’s endured tragedy and loss with a level of strength and grace that takes my breath away. She hasn’t gotten cynical, or given up on her dream, even as she’s given to the world in all the other ways it’s required of her along the way. And her sense of adventure, exploration, and discovery is every bit as vibrant, alive and joyful now as it was when we were 21 and every possibility still lay open and ahead of us.
So why do I share all this about Jackson now? Well, for one, because she’s a role model for any and every dreamer or adventurous creative soul out there who’s struggling to keep their dream alive against the seeming vagaries of the market, life, and a need to survive in the midst of all that. Dreams deferred are not dreams lost.
How do I know this? Because Jackson’s novel about the psychic, the pig, the Bigfoot, the aliens, and the oddball collection of friends brought together by all that … was published last November.
P.U. D.Z.S. (which stands for the institute of Previously UnDiscovered Zoological Specimens), is a riot of a book, in my own humble opinion. Perfect beach reading, and way more intellectually entertaining than your typical spy/mystery/action-adventure genre books. Especially if you like the Douglas Adams/Christopher Moore kind of books.
P.U.D.Z.S. was published by a small publishing house (Black Coffee Press, in Garden City Michigan), which means it hasn’t been marketed as widely as novels published by bigger houses. (It also means the proofreading budget wasn’t all it should have been, but that’s a minor point.) It’s available through the publisher and through Amazon.
(Of course, I’m always a fan of ordering direct from the publisher, especially with a small independent press, so more of the profits stay in the little people’s and author’s hands.)
In any event, the book and its author should give heart to anyone trying to hold onto a dream in the middle of too many other demands and life turns. And stay tuned for Jackson’s own take on why she spends her evenings writing when she could be sleeping. It’s coming up next in a new “I Do This Because …” essay … which she wrote in between working her day job, raising her adopted son … and, of course, working on her next novel.
I can’t wait to read it.