Standing behind her in the supermarket line, I could see the girl was pretty. Slightly built, her dark hair cut in a bob, she evoked an Asian Audrey Hepburn. Then I saw the scar. Perfectly straight, it bisected her upper arm about six inches below the shoulder of her sleeveless blouse. More than anything else, it was the color that hit me: Against her suntanned skin, the gash was bright purple.
Tough break, I thought, as the cashier scanned her saltines, her soy milk and her fifth of Jack Daniel’s. (I live in Hollywood; this is what passes for groceries among wannabe actresses.) Maybe it was the tabloids staring vacantly from the rack, but my mind jumped to the cause of the girl’s wound—a late-night car crash, perhaps, or a sledding accident involving a barbed wire fence. In my head, I saw the girl in the ER, bravely biting her lip as a handsome surgeon mended her bicep. I imagined the argument she’d had with herself: Dare I, or dare I not, go sleeveless ever again? I admired her for answering yes, purple scar be damned.
Then she turned to swipe her debit card. This is the moment in the daydream where you hear the screech of a phonograph needle yanked across vinyl or the screen goes black. Because suddenly I saw that the thick purple line wasn’t a scar at all. It was a tattoo—a tattoo of a little bald-headed boy in footie pajamas drawing a fat, straight line with a huge purple crayon. It was a tattoo of a boy I recognized, a boy whose name I had known almost all my life. Harold.
In that moment, I thought: Maybe there is a God.
There is a photograph of me, age two and a half, lying on my stomach on a quilted pink bedspread. I am wearing a white nightgown and resting on my elbows, a book propped open in front of me. I have raised my head to look at the photographer, and although I am not smiling, I am very happy. I know this for two reasons. One, I’m kicking my feet in the air. Two, judging by the picture of a hot-air balloon clearly visible on the page I’m reading, I’m two thirds of the way through my first favorite book: Harold and the Purple Crayon, written and illustrated by Crockett Johnson.
Originally published in 1955, seven years before my birth, the book contains just 64 pages, many of them with only a few words. But the story’s impact on me—on how I see the world—could not be bigger.
I was raised not to believe in God. I’ve never turned to any religious text for solace, for guidance, or to make sense of my life. But at the age of 47, I still seek out Harold.
He’s easy to find. Open the book, and he’s on every page. Plunked down in an all-white landscape with only his wits and his crayon, he is nothing if not resourceful. “There wasn’t any moon, and Harold needed a moon for a walk in the moonlight,” the book says. So he draws a crescent in the sky. When he needs direction, he lays out a purple path so he won’t get lost. By his own hand, Harold always saves himself.
For me, Harold’s story has been a parable about making your own way in the world. Harold’s teachings are simple. His hand is steady. You could call him my guru. But that’s not quite right.
I guess you could say I worship in the church of the purple crayon.
"And he set off on his walk, taking his big purple crayon with him."
When I was four years old, my mother put me in a borrowed yellow Karmann Ghia with a man I’d never met and pointed the car west.
We had been living in New Jersey for only a few weeks when my mom decided on this course of action. She believed my father, a young philosophy professor who was just starting at Princeton, had cheated on her. But that wasn’t all. At the local supermarket, she saw other faculty wives trudging from aisle to aisle, screaming children in tow. Suddenly, she knew she didn’t want to be one of them. How much her moment of clarity had to do with the fact that she’d met someone else—a graduate student back in California—I guess I’ll never know.
When that graduate student came East to pick up a friend’s yellow coupe and drive it back to the other coast, my mother saw her chance. She asked if we could bum a ride. We left Princeton without saying good-bye to my father. By the time he came home to a dark apartment and found my mother’s terse note, we were long gone.
“All I took was the hi-fi and the records,” my mother told me recently. After a beat, she added: “And you.”
I’m told I spent the five days of our 3,000-mile drive curled up in the backseat, quietly watching our velocity tear at a sheet of opaque plastic taped over the missing passenger window. When we arrived in Oakland—that would be my mother, the graduate student and me—the three of us moved in together.
It was the fall of 1966; you couldn’t turn on a radio without hearing the Mamas & the Papas singing “California Dreamin’?” (“I’d be safe and warm, if I was in L.A.”). Now we were back in California, where I’d been born. But I felt anything but safe and warm.
I wouldn’t see my father again for almost a year.
“He didn’t want to get lost in the woods. So he made a very small forest, with just one tree in it.”
According to a story my mother likes to tell, for my sixth birthday I asked for only one present: an alarm clock. Although we lived directly across the street from Mills Lawn Elementary School, I was often late to first grade. My mother and her boyfriend were not hippies. (I’ve been corrected on this more than once.) They preferred the term radicals. They lived together without marrying, took me to antiwar demonstrations and held late-night strategy sessions in our living room about how to overthrow the establishment and bring an end to the Vietnam War. Their activism was mostly admirable, idealistic, even romantic. But since their ideals often got discussed late into the night, getting up in the morning was a constant challenge.
I didn’t like being late to school. First of all, it called attention to me, which I strove to avoid. More important, school was a place of consistency. There was nothing chaotic about it, and if I could have lived there, I would have.
As a kid, self-sufficiency was part of survival. I ate breakfast alone, packed my own lunch, then tiptoed into my mother and her boyfriend’s bedroom to dig through their pockets for milk money. By the time I was nine, I was sent to visit my father and his new wife every summer. The trip involved flying through Chicago, changing planes, then continuing on to Minneapolis, where he’d moved. I always did this trip solo, which made me nervous at first, and then, once I’d mastered it, made me think I was perhaps more capable than I’d realized. But the satisfaction I felt in being resourceful was often tinged with loneliness.
I felt different from other kids. That feeling was exacerbated by my lack of a religious education. Being raised by atheists obviously meant I had no church, no temple, no Sunday school or Hebrew school to complain about having to attend. When my friends bemoaned how those classes cut into their free time, I laughed as if I were the lucky one. But I wondered why I wasn’t among them.
I was a precocious girl, armed with the vast vocabulary of an only child who spent much of her time around adults. But while I could have told you from very early on that it was Karl Marx who said “Religion is the opiate of the masses,” my ignorance about religion was a soft spot with me. Why was I left out of this thing called faith?
So I improvised. Every night, I recited an incantation I’d invented to protect me and my motley crew of stuffed animals. “All year, every year,” I would whisper, imagining my words wrapping like a safety blanket around the plush residents of my twin bed. (I don’t remember if I coined that phrase before or after my mother, her boyfriend and I climbed over that same twin bed to escape out the window from a knife-wielding drunk who’d shown up at one of their parties).
On Easter Sunday, although I had no idea what the day represented, I held egg hunts in our yard, hiding treasures for myself. At Christmastime, I stopped lamenting that we didn’t have stockings to hang from the chimney with care. Instead, at age 12, I bought red felt and rickrack and ribbon, got out my mother’s ancient Singer sewing machine and sewed up six of them (three for those who lived under our roof, three more for hoped-for guests).
Even then, like Harold, I was determined to fill my empty page.
"After he had sailed long enough, Harold made land without much trouble."
We moved around. I went to high school in Ohio, in California and in Massachusetts. If I had to identify a single recurring theme of my upbringing, it would be my yearning for community. I always wanted more people at the dinner table. I wanted to feel I was part of something bigger, that I belonged. I hungered to believe things would be all right, but I was nagged by the idea that unless I was ever-vigilant, they wouldn’t be.
I fell in love for the first time when I was a college junior. Peter was an enthusiastic student of gnosticism, the esoteric religious movement that teaches that humans have a divine spark trapped in a material world created by an imperfect deity. I can’t say that Peter’s interest in mysticism was all that won me over, but the curiosity that fueled it and the confidence with which he pursued it were irresistible. He believed in something beyond himself. I loved that.
I may have been godless, but I didn’t want the men I dated to be too.
"So he left the path for a shortcut across a field. And the moon went with him."
After graduation, I was lucky enough to win a coveted one-year apprenticeship with New York Times columnist James Reston. Halfway through my year, as was the custom, I began looking for my replacement. That’s when I met Jim. He was whip-smart and a fierce believer in the power of the printed word. But his heart was never fuller than when he was in the woods. When we first started dating, I asked him if he believed in God. He told me he foundGod in nature: on a ski slope, on a remote hiking trail, anywhere the silence was broken only by wind through pine needles. That was a deity I could understand.
Five years after Jim replaced me as Reston’s assistant, we got married. For reasons of proximity, not theology, the ceremony was held in a Presbyterian church. Jim had been raised Episcopalian. We’d chosen this church, with its lavender stained glass windows and white clapboard steeple, because it was next door to a bed-and- breakfast that my mother and stepfather had opened in northern Marin. (Yes, my mother had finally married her boyfriend.)
When I walked down the aisle, my father on one arm, my stepfather on the other, I felt utterly joyful, certain that I was feeling one of the most powerful forms of devotion: true love. With Jim, I felt sure I belonged.
After the ceremony, the guests gathered under a tent overlooking a golden field dotted with dark green oak trees and grazing sheep. A rock and roll band played from the back of a flatbed trailer. It seemed that every person who loved each of us was there, eating grilled oysters and toasting the vows we’d just exchanged—to love, cherish, honor and forgive—with Champagne.
In my mind, the bride wore purple.
"And there wasn’t any other side of the mountain. He was falling, in thin air."
Reading those lines today summons the moment, 11 years ago, when I realized I was about to get a divorce
The arc leading up to Harold’s fall is the same as what precipitated mine: the desire to fix things, the hope that through hard work I could fix things, and the heartbreaking understanding that I couldn’t. Watching my marriage end was like falling on my head.
What to say about the things that drove us apart? Lack of communication, professional competition and the refusal to get help were only some of the factors. I’m not the first, I know, to subconsciously seek to address the problems of my childhood in my marriage. Looking back, I see how I strived to create a relationship for which I had no real model. That my divorce came right after the birth of our son, Jack—the most important thing either of us will ever have a part in—was especially crushing. After a lifetime built on an unspoken but fierce vow that I would never repeat the cycle of a child torn between two divorced parents, I was doing just that.
My devastation wasn’t pretty. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t listen to music. I set out to cut off all my hair but then, after a friend gently counseled restraint, decided to color it platinum blond instead. There is a photo of me, taken during my first year as a divorced woman, which I find every now and then in the back of a drawer. In it, my hair is metallic, my skin is gray, and my smile looks like a bruise. I’m thin, but not in a good way.
“This is temporary,” read the Post-it note that was stuck for months to my computer during this period. My friend JR had dictated it to me one day as I wept over my desk, whispering to him into the phone. He was right. Over time, if we let them, old habits wear out, and we replace them with new ones. As if our psyches were banjos and we were restringing them. But for me, that process seemed to take forever.
JR helped me turn the corner by giving me faith—not religious faith, exactly, but a resolve to believe that things would get better. “Happiness is a choice,” he told me, about 5,000 times. At first, I mocked him as a spouter of New Age pap. When that didn’t make him agree that I should continue my self-destructive (but self-sufficient!) behavior (wearing a rut in my brain by repeating all the things that had hurt me), I whimpered and cried and told him it was just too hard. But slowly, his words seeped in. And the more I thought about it, the more he made sense. You’re not in charge, he kept saying. It’s not your job to fix it. It’s your job to choose not to fix it, to trust in the future, to let things come.
I thought about Harold—about how he appears to be alone in the world, but really isn’t. You know about the crayon. But there’s also the crescent moon he draws early in the book. Everywhere Harold goes, every page he walks across, the moon goes with him.
Harold was not alone. Maybe I wasn’t either.
"But, luckily, he kept his wits and his purple crayon. He made a balloon and he grabbed on to it."
I started eating again. And listening to music. Which is how I ran across this country song by Carrie Underwood, “Jesus, Take the Wheel.”
A warning: It’s sappy as hell. In the song, it’s Christmas Eve, and a young mother is driving home to see her mama and her daddy (in Cincinnati, of course—it rhymes). Her baby is asleep in the backseat when, with 50 miles to go, she finds herself “running low on faith and gasoline.” She’s going way too fast when she hits an ice patch. So what does she do?
The opposite of what Harold would do. At least that’s what I used to think.
“She threw her hands up in the air,” Underwood sings; then she tells us what the young mother cried out: “Jesus, take the wheel/Take it from my hands/’Cause I can’t do this on my own.”
And of course, he does. And the car comes to a stop without even waking up the baby.
Now, when I first heard this song, I believed that in the church of the purple crayon, there could be no throwing up of hands. When you hit an ice patch, you took your foot off the accelerator and cut your wheels sharply in the direction of the spin. Then, for good measure, you used your purple crayon to draw a gas station where you could fill up your tank.
But I have to admit that, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve found that self-serve is overrated. I knew I wasn’t going to get baptized or to accept any deity as my personal savior; that’s just not me. But I was pretty tired of pumping my own crude.
I thought about the end of Harold and the Purple Crayon, when our hero feels tired and wishes he were home in bed. He’s been searching for a way back for pages and pages when suddenly he remembers the location of his bedroom window.
“It was always right around the moon,” the book says, as Harold sets to work drawing two panes of glass and two curtains.
“And then Harold made his bed”—the book shows him creating it with his crayon. “He got in it and he drew up the covers. The purple crayon dropped on the floor.”
"And Harold dropped off to sleep."
The other night, my 12-year-old described himself, in passing, as a Christian. I wasn’t shocked, just curious. “Do you believe in God?” I asked. He nodded with a calm certainty. “Where does your belief come from?” I asked gently. “Has Daddy talked to you about it?”
He shook his head. “No,” he said. “I just feel it.”
So many things have gone through my head since that conversation, but mostly I feel relief. Somehow, we have given our son the room to explore his own spirituality and exposed him to enough that he feels equipped to do so. Another realization: My son, an only child, is many things, but lonely is not one of them. I can’t help but think that his belief in something bigger is part of the reason why.
For so long, self-rescue was my mantra. But self-reliance in a vacuum is a lifestyle I wouldn’t wish on anyone. Now, I’ve come to see that Harold had faith in himself and the universe.
It has been a long time coming, but I think I am capable of that kind of trust, too. Imagine it’s Christmas Eve in Los Angeles, and a not-so-young mother is hanging the stockings that she sewed herself, more than 30 years ago. Her (preteen) baby is asleep upstairs when, after a lifetime running low on faith, she decides maybe it’s time.
Time to grant herself a little slack. Time to trust in the cosmos. Time to take her hands off the wheel.
Amy Wallace is a Los Angeles–based writer. Her work has appeared in GQ, Esquire, Wired and The New Yorker.
Harold and the Purple Crayon turns 55 next year. It’s aging well indeed.
From the December/January 2010 issue of MORE Magazine.