Two months ago, I found myself in the back of a cab in the English countryside, asking the driver—a woman with an accent so thick, I understood about a third of her melodious chatter—to pull over. This was not surprising to me, since I'm long familiar with my irreverent motion sickness; it likes to hit hard and fast, Sopranos-style.
The driver pulled to the edge of the road, right along the lip of a thicket of trees, and let me out of the car. We had about ten miles to go-ten miles, I found out later, that would have been a straight shot had the driver followed her instincts and not her GPS. "Aye, this thingamabob is taking us a strange, windy way!" she said, or I think she said, as we passed sheep farms that made meat, not wool.
I was visiting Kent, the "Garden of England," but I wasn't there to see Kent or its gardens, but one Garden in particular, a Garden so important to me personally (and now to my second novel) that it deserves a capital G: The Secret Garden, the one for which the famous children's book is named, the one where Frances Hodgson Burnett once lived and later wrote about when she was, ironically enough, living on Long Island.
It was a Thursday and this is what constitutes a business trip in my new, still-a-revelation-to-me life: a day out in the beautiful countryside. When I was a lawyer, not a novelist, travel consisted of sweaty suits and dragging a suitcase. My end destinations were usually windowless conference rooms. Motion sickness—I can tell you from personal experience—feels worse when you're trapped in high heels, in a chokehold of file folders and litigation binders.
The cab driver dropped me off in front of Great Maytham Hall, which, at quick glance, had at least eleven chimneys, fifty windows, and a long, curved drive to show off its magnificence. Roger, the property manager, greeted me like an old friend, and with tea and biscuits to boot. No matter that the grounds aren't open to the public; Roger is interested enough in the history of the place to share the details with anyone who is interested enough to listen.
We took a tour of the house, which has been converted into condos that cater to retired aristocrats. Yes, condos. Apparently they have both condos and GPS in the English countryside. Who knew?
During the walk, I took notes for my new novel—the main characters, also worshippers of the book, will soon make their own pilgrimage here on the page. I think all writers like to believe the worlds we describe exist somewhere, perhaps in an alternate universe, and we readers are in on the compact, too. But to stand in my favorite fictional place turned real, to see it in 3D after visiting it so many times in print? I felt what can only be described as an overwhelming nostalgia, a bittersweet vertigo, the same feeling you get when you catch yourself talking in your head to someone who has long been dead.
I will not describe the Garden; a better writer has gone there before. If you've had the pleasure of reading Burnett's masterpiece, it's exactly as it should be—the pink buds, and the blue bells, the smell of earth, the overhang of shrubs, green enclosed by stone. Magic lives in that Garden. Magic, or God, or whatever term someone as agnostic as me may feel comfortable using.
Here is the truth: You can't be sad or angry or even nauseated in the Garden. You can't worry about whether your cabbie will take the windy road home, or if you'll have to pull over again. You can't do anything but sit, and if you choose to speak, it will be in a whisper, out of reverence for the slow whish in the air that must be wind and trees, not cars and road. You may, in fact, feel grateful that your life now takes you to magical places like this, that smelling the fresh air is not a metaphor, but what you actually do for a living. You may even put aside your agnostic reluctance for a moment, and find yourself saying a silent prayer of thanks.