At a house in Sunnyvale I'm alone installing bathroom lights when a girl appears at the bathroom door. "Oh cripes!" she says. She's sweaty, hair bedraggled, wearing an athletic T shirt and running shorts.
"You must be Laura," I say. Her mother had left me a note asking me to "make way" for her 15-year-old daughter if I could. She'd be coming home after track team workout at St. Francis High School.
"Give me a minute," I say, "and you can have the bathroom."
"I'll give you a minute if you can give me the sink," she says, and without waiting for an answer she steps in and starts splashing cold water on her face.
There is nothing - nothing - as quickening to the senses as the presence of a 15-year-old. Either gender. At no other age are we as fully alive. Laura has mousy hair, freckles, sweaty shirt clinging to her back outlining the knobs of her spine. She smells like an old sock. I love her.
I go to work in the kitchen. I hear a shower running. An hour passes.
Laura comes down the stairs looking like a fox — a 21-year-old fox. Her face shines. Her hair is gathered in a sweep over her head. That's the beauty of this age. In a flash they switch from kid to adult.
"Do I look like Ohio?" she says.
"What do you mean?"
"I'm flying to Ohio tonight. Visiting family. I've already been to New Jersey and Connecticut." She laughs. "That's my summer. Not exactly Paris and Rome, but oh well."
"You look fine," I say.
She looks surprised. "Thanks!" she says. "Nice to meet you!" And she's gone out the front door.
It's as if I stood on a platform at the station while the express train blasted through, leaving a few eddies of wind in its wake.
I'd been struggling with a passage in a novel I was writing, and now suddenly I know what to do. The passage has absolutely nothing to do with anything Laura has done other than the bolt of energy she shot into my brain. The scene involves an 18-year-old boy named Abe giving a graduation speech as valedictorian of his class. Abe, who is an impulse-driven brainiac, has just started a summer job as a laborer on a construction site. In the fall he'll go to Princeton.
Given a chance, Abe would fall head over heels for Laura - which, again, has absolutely nothing to do with the passage I'm trying to write except to give me insight. I drive home and go straight to the keyboard. Through my fingertips, Abe gives his speech to the graduating senior class:
After twelve years in a classroom, I took a job last week on a construction crew. I found that my grade point average didn’t make a lot of difference. Some of the men I work with never even finished high school, and yet they know so much more than me. Now I’m learning a whole new body of knowledge. Physical, practical knowledge. Like the Zen of swinging a hammer. The more you force it the worse the result. Your role is to guide the hammer’s own internal force, not to push it. If any of those carpenters are in the audience right now, they’re laughing at me because they would never call it Zen. They’d call it banging nails.
I’m learning a new set of laws. They’re intended for construction, but they might apply to life in general.
Work smarter, not harder.
What looks simple, isn’t.
Measure twice, cut once.
Honor thy tools.
Respect the tree.
You have to get dirty.
Don’t leave a mess.
Help your crew.
Slow down and do right.
Build it tight.
Each house is a miracle.
If you’ve ever built a wall—framed it, sheathed and insulated—and a week ago, I couldn’t have told you what sheathing was—if you’ve ever built a wall and with the help of five other workers tilted it, lifted and nailed it into place with muscle and brain and heart, then you’ve had a chance to practice each of those laws.
That was the one and only time I ever saw Laura. I'm sure she has no memory of me whatsoever. Honor thy tools. Thanks, Laura, for helping me write Clear Heart. What looks simple, isn't.
Here's my own advice, given at age 63: always keep a teenager around. Even better, two or three. Nothing else will keep you as alert and alive.
They're like sparklers on a dark night. So bright. Then gone.