Wednesday, November 9, 2011


Last month, I was privileged to attend Viable Paradise, a week-long workshop for writers of speculative fiction.

After we left, many of my fellow students blogged lists of what they learned that week. Usually ten things, generally about writing.

I tried, but I couldn’t.

That week was -- and the memories of it remain -- too expansive to compress into a list. And I think I still need the memories to sprawl like fabric before the pattern has been cut. To remain as potential. There is no need to hurry. I will run my fingers over the cloth and appreciate its beauty before I make it into something more.

(It will be a cloak. That’s a different story).

I can’t tell you ten things I learned about writing. I can -- and will -- tell you this one thing I learned about me.


When I was a child, I lived between two unrealities: the Little House on the Prairie books and the Star Wars movies. Each, in its own way, resonated with my internal wiring -- they rang the heck out of my bell -- and I spent a lot of time in my own head, telling myself stories drawn from those sources.

At the time, it occurred to me -- in the vocabulary extant before someone coined ‘mashup’ -- that it would be kind of, well, awesome if this prairie place could include (and this -- I thought -- sounds so crazy that I can’t tell anyone because they’ll think I’m nuts...) the Force.

And Lightsabers. And Wookies! And evil emperors, princesses, and monsters!

And a Quest! Oh my God... A QUEST! What if they had to do something? Go out and fight... Something evil. What’s more awesome than fighting evil?

Wow! Someone should write that! That would be so cool! It would be way cooler than anything anyone ever wrote!

Or, obviously, it would be Fantasy.
But I didn’t know that.

It amazes me that I remained ignorant so long.

My world didn’t lack for doors. Sometimes I stepped through them to enter rooms filled with wonders of fairies and elves, princesses with swords, quests, myth, dragons, wizards, mechanical wonders, vampires and warewolves. The Horse and His Boy, The Last Unicorn, Time/Life's The Enchanted World books, The Eyes of the Dragon, The Princess Bride, Greek Mythology, Monte Python’s Holy Grail, The Gunslinger, Twin Peaks, The Sword of Winter, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the Hobbit, Dune, Harry Potter.

I didn’t comprehend the gravity that bound these things together. That what rang my bell was the speculative element. The sense of wonder.

So I walked through doors into rooms I believed were singular and unconnected. I marveled over the contents, and then exited by the door I’d used to enter. I never tapped the back of the wardrobe or looked behind the curtains for the hidden latch. I never knew there was an entire realm of wonder on the other side.

And -- to be brutal and honest -- I was enmeshed in a destructive myth about myself and my place within the larger world. From a young age, I believed that I had to get a PhD and then discourse in an erudite manner with my fellow academics about some really big, important topic in order to call myself a success. In order to be listened to. And I wanted someone to hear me. My belief that “great” books were only found in the section marked “LITERATURE” was part of this. I kept to the far edges of the bookstore, away from things with the taint of genre.

It is hard to write those words. To admit I felt that way.

At twenty, I walked through Prague with a friend. Two characters appeared in my mind. One held a sword, the other had magical powers. A story spun out from them, and it remains the place that my mind goes when it is free to do as it will. Sixteen years later it has sprawled into a world much richer than any I could have imagined that first day. I know which parts I imagined in grad school, the ones I hid in during the first hard months after my daughter was born, and the ones that came to me on long drives across this country. I tell myself these stories over and over, refining as I go.

Perhaps someday I will write them down. I didn’t at the time because this life-encompassing story felt subordinate to my college degree, to my work, or to whatever else I had going on. I mean, how could the overarching narrative that dominated my imagination be important when it was just... A fantasy?

It took a long time to strip all that nonsense away. It took the solitary confinement of Death Valley; an unplanned, career-ending baby in the Land of Little Childcare; and a single-wide, up-on-blocks, filled-with-mouse-shit Inyo County library trailer. A trailer where I found Paladin of Souls, The Mists of Avalon, and Silver Birch, Blood Moon. A trailer where someone handed me Assassin’s Apprentice. There was nothing to stop me from Googling these authors and ordering their books off Amazon. So I did.

My career felt over. My baby wasn’t impressed if I read Literature as he nursed. I wasn’t getting enough sleep and I needed to listen to the tolling of bells that resonated. I needed to spend time with things I loved.

So I opened the window and moved -- unabashed -- into world of wonder.


There are no words more powerful than these. Maybe all human language, myth, and story is no more than us telling each other this one truth, over and over again.

The path was the first sign that I was not alone. There are no paths where none have traveled. This path -- the one with the stories that resonated -- was covered with fresh footprints and breadcrumbs. The trees along it were marked with neon blazes. I knew there had to be others.

I wrote. I read. I found authors I liked. They showed me doors into other worlds. I went through those doors to find other rooms, more doors. I took classes. I learned. I wrote more. I became better. I took a hike, saw a man, had a dream (and listened to it), and then I started to write a story. When it slowed, I had another dream, took another class, connected with other writers, heard a song, wrote more, and submitted the thing.

That is how these things happen.

This makes me smile:

I wrote a story about a woman who learns there are doors to other worlds. Magical worlds. This knowledge changes her life. I was accepted to Viable Paradise on the first 8,000 words of this story. I crossed the water and went through a door to a magical world that has changed my life.

It is one thing to know you are not alone. It is another to spend time in the community of storytellers.

I arrived at Viable Paradise to find myself among friends. People who love what I love. Magic and science, myth and words. Not just as consumers, but as creators. The fledgling gods and goddesses of our own worlds. Together we learned from others with even more experience at godhood.

Professional deities.

They didn’t act like deities, or expect to be treated like them. They’re just folks, too. People who like to talk and sing and have fun.

In that week, we talked about books and writing, and about the coolstuff that you have to put in there. We talked of demons and children and jellyfish, triangles and spirals, mazes and labyrinths and chess, poker, the environment, yarn, of boats versus ships, writing markets, snow, love, hats and ipads, horses, rocks, cookies, swords, knives, hair, hair dye, spaceships, guitars, birds, kimchee, whiskey and curry. And all the wide worlds in between.

We were not constrained by the hard edges of reality, only the sense of wonder which -- in the end -- isn’t a constraint at all. It is wings.

On the final evening, I sat on the floor of a room surrounded by people playing music. It started with Signal to Noise and it ended with Landslide, and I can’t recall where it went in between. But somewhere in the midst of those songs I moved through a door in my own mind and left a piece of myself elsewhere.

My initials are carved into some old tree. You probably know the one.

Oh, gods. There is this whole other world. It is Fantasy but it is also Real, and I spent way too much of my life denying its existence. It is the world that we make together when we tell each other stories and sing each other songs. When we create things.

I went there. With a whole bunch of amazing people. It was awesome.

I am still struggling to come back. Maybe I never will, and I hope that’s fine, too. Writing, like life, is a journey. And it isn’t easy. But I’ve heard nothing worth doing ever is.

I sit in front of my computer and look down this ancient road of story and myth. It is covered in breadcrumbs and footprints. And coolstuff.

I look to my left, and I look to my right. I have companions now. My new Veeps, and the other writing friends who have joined me along the way. I am ready for the journey.

What did I learn at Viable Paradise?
More things than I can count or list. This one truth that contains them all:


Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Itsy-Bitsy Spider

“Mom, sing the song about the spider.” Will is investigating a web spun between branches. A single ray of morning sunlight has pierced the canopy of leaves, illuminating the fragile structure.

I am out of breath from climbing the steep hill on which we live. Still, I sing:

The itsy-bitsy spider climbed up the water spout...

We seldom walk this hill. We’re far enough from town that walking it only renders us slightly less far from town. And, though a pretty walk, there is only one destination along it: the swimming hole. We never walk there, either. Any day hot enough to make wading in the chill water pleasant is too hot to make the return climb attractive.

We drove the hill quite a bit, though. Back and forth, everyday. Often several times. It was the fastest way to town.

The laws of nature being what they are, it was also the fastest course downhill for Irene’s great deluge. Now our steep road is just one of the hundreds of destroyed roads that crisscross Vermont.

So, today I walked the hill with my son.

In summer, the swimming hole is a shady spot with lots of large, flat rocks above a slight plunge pool. It is deep enough for the kids to submerge, but not so deep or swift that we have to worry about them; they are within arm’s reach as we sit on the rocks and let the water sluice around us. After cooling off, the kids wade upstream and peer under the old stone bridge. It has been reconstructed over the years -- reinforced with concrete on the uphill side -- but the original rock structure is still exposed on the downstream edge. The kids like to peer into it, daring each other to venture inside. The dripping masonry walls are slick with moss and suggest something ancient and dangerous: a troll that will exact a payment more precious than blood or a toe-eating monster lurking in the depths.

Now, a great crevasse runs just above the swimming hole and below the bridge that was not enough to contain the vast volume of the flood. Though the waters have subsided and the brook is back to its usual path under the old stone structure, it is still far to swift for me to feel comfortable letting go of Will’s small hand. We scramble up and over the cut, examining the exposed rocks. Quartzite and schist: much of it quite beautiful. My son throws pebbles into the torrent, then finds a smooth, purple rock to put in his pocket. We turn and start the steep walk home.

Will talks as we climb, but I am silent, wondering how long it will take to fix the damaged roads, to reconstruct buildings that were the product of decades of labor. Things that -- like the old stone bridge my children dare each other to explore -- stood for centuries before Irene.

Weeks? Months? I don’t know. Maybe it will be patched up by then. But there is so much to repair across my town and my state that it will be years before it is all put to rights.

Half-way up, Will spies the brilliant web and asks me to sing. How many times have I sung this song? Today, in this old bit of doggerel, I heard something new. Something about renewal.

...Down came the rain and washed the spider out.

Out came the sun and dried up all the rain.

And the itsy-bitsy spider walked up the spout again.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Trouble Me.

Yesterday, just as my daughter was due to return home, a thunderstorm that had been brewing all afternoon broke open with pelting rain, winds, and a lot of lightening.

We're in a house at the top of a long, steep driveway. The driveway isn't onerous: a minute's quick amble and you are up. But for a seven-year-old - with a backpack - at the end of the school day - in a thunderstorm it's... just... a little much.

So I drove down the driveway to hang out in the car and wait for her. With, of course, my four-year-old son along for the ride. After all, I can't leave him by himself: too risky. Don't get me wrong - he's a good kid - but still a bit too prone to using four-year-old boy logic (i.e. a dangerous mix of curiosity and illogic, overlain deep desire to still be attached to me via umbilical cord).

In any event, there's no telling what he'd get up to.

As I sat in the car with my son and was serenaded by near-constant thunder while watching the forest of trees around us sway alarmingly in the wind, it occurred to me that it would be sadly ironic if my daughter's school bus arrived to find us crushed beneath a fallen tree.

It's not just idle, unrealistic supposition that one might fall. Later that evening, driving home from a friend's house, it was clear that a lot of trees had already been cut off the road. And a couple of smaller ones fell in our woods during the storm.

have been much better off in the house.

But it would have left my daughter out in the chaos. And, in the end, we were all fine.

This time.

All of this came back to me this morning when I got a Facebook post from a cousin telling me of the dangers of raising backyard ducks. Specifically as regards avian flu.

I'll admit it: I hadn't, at any time up until this morning, given avian flu a single, solitary, passing thought.

My husband broke the news to me - sort of - as I finished up packing my daughter's PB&J sandwich. I could tell he was worried. Not about the flu - he's not much of a worrier on those sorts of scores - but about the fact that it would cause me to worry. Because, historically, I have proven to be capable of worry about any number of problems. Often, I worry about several problems simultaneously.

What can I say: it's a gift.

Husband: "One of your cousins posted something to your Facebook page. They think you should worry about the ducks."
Me: "Should I worry?"
His voice was hopeful: "No?"

So I looked. And I learned this: we should not raise poultry in our backyard.

At all.

Chickens are dangerous, but ducks are worse (because - unlike chickens - they don't become visibly ill).

Our ducks could kill us. They could give us the flu.


And - of course - while mulling this new information, I remembered sitting in the car with my son wondering if we would die crushed under a tree simply because we were trying to save my daughter a walk up the driveway in a lightening storm.

What are the odds of getting struck by lightening?
What are the odds of getting crushed by a falling tree?
What are the odds of dying of avian flu?

I have no idea.

They're better if you are out in a storm. Or if you live in the woods. Or if you have ducks. These are the risks we take.

Humans are notoriously bad at assessing risk. They'll talk about their fear of flying while driving in a car without a seatbelt. It doesn't have to make sense. The more visceral the fear, the greater the perception of the potential disaster, the more it scares us.

And, the more information we get, the faster news travels, the more things there are to worry about.

Like e coli.

I mean, first off, it could be in a hamburger. So I should char those until every vestige of deliciousness is gone.

But then it could also be on my spinach. Or my tomatoes. Which means that I should cook my veggies and not have a salad. Or maybe I should wash them with a very dilute bleach solution? And then rise them really well? But should I worry about cross-contamination? Should I wipe everything down with Lysol and antibacterial hand sanitizer after I make my lightly bleached or slightly cooked salad? But what if - in using antibacterial products - I contribute to the creation of a super-bug that will resist all possible antibiotics?

What if - in attempting to feed my family a salad - I end up dying of infection by flesh-eating bacteria?

Maybe we'll just have some fruit instead. What could be wrong with a nice fruit salad? Well, is it organic fruit? Have the strawberries been sprayed with carcinogens that will eventually kill my children? Well, I'll just wash them. Or maybe I'll just have a melon. That was shipped here from Argentina. Using fuel resources that can never be put back into the Earth and that are contributing to global warming. Is the oil from Nigeria? Have you seen what's going on there?

Okay, I'll just get a bunch of nice, organic grapes. But - holy shit! - what if the kids choke on them!

Okay, back to the supermarket. Let's try again.

1. Buy eggs. Should I get the expensive, local, free-range ones that come from places where hens might have access to the outdoors and disease vectors? Or the ones from massive poultry houses where hens are housed in atrocious conditions.
2. Buy coffee. Organic, shade-grown, fair trade coffee? Otherwise I will have to worry about pesticides, endangered species, and the lives of exploited workers on other continents. I guess I'll just suck up the oil that was spent bringing them here?
3. Buy butter. Because, as it turns out, margarine isn't better for us after all. Maybe? Or should it be olive oil. Or coconut oil? Is it organic? Because in refining non-organic oils, the pesticides apparently get concentrated.
4. Buy fruits and veggies. Organic? Conventional? Local? In-season? Integrated Pest Management? Not picked by exploited migrant workers or shipped across oceans?

Okay. Go to check out. Paper? No... that kills trees. Plastic? No... that just ends up in the oceans. Cloth? Of course! Except, of course, that the material from which the cloth bags are produced also comes from somewhere. Is it organic? Is it sustainably harvested? Irrigated? Harvested by people with health care who earn a living wage?

Um... No?

And, in case you haven't heard, studies show that because cloth bags are used to carry food they are often covered with surprisingly large colonies of harmful bacteria. Which also might kill you.

Okay... Get out the antibacterial hand sanitizer and let's cause some evolution!

Or... not. Let's just try to escape all of this by growing our own food.

Like ducks. A reasonably low-hassle, generally healthy way to produce protein.

Except, of course, that the very fact that they appear reasonably healthy might cause us to get avian flu from them.

Seriously. Locally produced food was supposed to be the thing that got me away from large-scale industrial agriculture and processed food. It is supposed to be part of the answer to the unsustainable use of oil. And, here, I learn that it's going to kill me too.

Just in a different way.

Inexplicably, I thought of this:

The moment that initially occurred to me comes at about 1:57 in, and has to be one of my absolute favorite moments in the Star Wars trilogy. And that's a high bar.

What are the odds that we'll get Avian Flu from our ducks? I don't know.

"Never tell me the odds."

Watching it, though, I realized that the moment of true analogy comes later, starting at nine minutes in.

I could get rid of the ducks. I could search for and take refuge in what seems to be a safer place. Eggs from an industrial, large-scale source. But I'm guessing that I'll soon discover that the surface on which I've built that plan is, also, not entirely stable.

Every path has it's pitfalls. And we've got to eat.

Maybe I should be really, really worried about avian flu. It's possible that it will kill me. Or, worse, kill my kids.

We're probably going to look into some new ideas about sanitizing duck stuff. And having specific shoes. And we'll ponder some other options, I'm sure.

But I don't think we're getting rid of the ducks.

Because I've come down with a raging case of anxiety fatigue. I've hit a wall. It's too much. I just can't get all wound up in worrying about another thing.

Maybe we'll get hit by a drunk driver on the way to the movie theater.
Maybe the theater will catch on fire.
Maybe we'll choke to death on a piece of popcorn.
Maybe a grape.
Or a piece of hard candy.
Maybe a tornado will hit the theater.
Or a strong wind will blow a tree onto our house.
Maybe some crazy guy will shoot us in the supermarket.
Maybe I'll get salmonella from picking up a turtle.
Maybe I'll get avian flu from the robins nesting in our woodshed.
Maybe avian flu will evolve and become capable of human-to-human transmission somewhere very far away.
Maybe it'll be Ebola.
Maybe someone else will hit a black bear through the windshield of my car.
Maybe it'll be a plane crash.
Maybe I'll slip and fall on some ice and hit my head in exactly the wrong way.

Maybe, maybe, maybe...

Maybe I'll just sit in my backyard, watch my ducks frolic, my corn grow, and the sun set. I'll take in a deep breath and enjoy life.

I'll put on sunscreen. And some carcinogenic bug spray. I'll wash my hands afterwords.

And I'll sleep well at night, and try not to worry about the fact that we'll all die, eventually, of something.