May 08


Reality by Pat Schmatz

I joined Brownies because I wanted to be a Scout like my big brother. I wanted to go camping and hiking. I wanted to tie knots and learn first aid.


I did not like the Brownie dress and beanie. I did not enjoy baking or needlepoint or crafting, but I was willing to suffer through them on my way to “real” scouting. I didn’t like the mean girls in the Brownie troop. They were seriously mean. They made me want to quit.


The troop leader promised that if we stayed with Brownies, then we could FLY UP to Girl Scouts. When I asked what it was like to FLY UP, she told me it was secret and magical, and I would be forever changed. I was all in for that. I loved secrets, I longed for magic, and I desperately wanted to be forever changed. I stuck it out.


On FLY UP day, I was beyond excited. I had a zillion imaginings of how things would change, forever and ever. I couldn’t wait to join the magic.


The scout leader and a couple of older girls took me to the library. They blindfolded me. They helped me walk up three stairs. At the top, they took off the blindfold and pinned a set of plastic wings on my shirt. I was on top of a wooden platform. I walked down the stairs. That was it.


There is no way to describe the depth of my eight-year-old disappointment, or the height of my outrage. My mom frequently told me, We have to live in reality. FLY UP day was reality.


I’ve never been a fan of reality. My favorite place in every story – biography, fantasy, horror, realistic fiction – is that liminal space in between. Because really…what is reality? Whose reality? I look now at the history I learned as “reality” and I know it was reality only for the smallish segment of people who had the power to write the books and plan the curriculum.


I think some part of me knew that even then, because I wasn’t seeing my reality written anywhere. Most of the adventure stories had a boy as the hero. The occasional girl hero could be counted on to clean up her tomboy act and be a good little girl with some extra spunk.


It’s not that I couldn’t relate to those kids. I did relate. I loved them. But they were not living my reality as a genderqueer kid in the rural Midwest.


I escaped the reality of my school days with novels tucked inside my textbooks. I read through recess and lunch. I kept searching, constantly, for the shimmer that I could touch, and maybe move through, out of This and into That.


I loved – and still love – the stories that take me right up to that shimmer. Is it a wall? Or is it a portal? And if it’s a portal, how do I pass through? Is there a key? And what’s on the other side? I don’t want a quantifiable answer. I prefer to be left with the questions.


I went to the books that I put down and wondered – was that really…? Could it really…? I was obsessed with The Forgotten Door by Alexander Key. A Gift of Magic by Lois Duncan, Jane-Emily by Patricia Clapp, and A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle were also at the top of my middle-grade list. As a teen, I quickly moved into Stephen King. I wasn’t a fan of horror so much as the walk-a-day characters and situations that shifted suddenly into realms we don’t discuss in polite reality.


Although The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton is realistic fiction, it’s all about that shimmering wall. Ponyboy longed and searched for a world beyond his own, and her found it in the sunsets and the mist in the valley. I recognized him immediately as my comrade in the search for a better world.


As a writer, I write first for my young self. Every book I write, realistic or not, carries that question – what if? What if what we see is not what actually is? Or if it’s only a small part of what is? What if there’s a parallel “what is” right next to this one? Can we shift this reality by looking at it a different way? What is the key to that perspective shift?


As humans, we are born into a hard, weird world. There is an ever-expanding web of nonsensical rules and expectations, many of which are in direct conflict with what seems sensible and pleasant. I’ve been looking for a way out for as long as I can remember.


One interesting thing about being human is, eventually, we all find a way out. Meanwhile, we just have to be patient, and look for the shimmering walls and the keys that open the portals. Maybe the key is in my pocket, right now.


Pat Schmatz is the author of six books, including Bluefish (Josette Frank, Crystal Kite and Elizabeth Burr/Worzalla Awards) and Lizard Radio (James Tiptree, Jr. Literary Award). Her next book, a middle-grade novel entitled The Key to Every Thing, will be coming from Candlewick Press in May of 2018. Pat grew up in rural Wisconsin, and has lived in Michigan, California, and Minnesota. She is a lifelong lover of language, learning, and stories of all kinds.