Gatekeeper

Issue #39 of heroic Fantasy Quarterly(HFQ) is running my short story “The Gatekeeper,” along with audio and art. “The Gatekeeper” began as a somewhat vague bit of poetry, and HFQ asked if I could turn it into a short story.
I’ve pondered over writing a sequel (in fact, I have a sequel half written), but I’m not sure if it would take away too much of the mystery I hope the first story conveys. The basis of the story is a sort of cryptic knowledge unknown to the audience and even the narrator. So…we’ll see!
http://www.heroicfantasyquarterly.com/?p=2666

Sphinx 1

 

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Unseen Warrior

One of my favorites, this was originally going to be a mystic scene in a novel-length work. But that was a writing project that was taking far too long, and I began to tinker with excerpts like this. It has since been reviewed (and though the reviewer liked it, he didn’t really get what it was about at all, bless him ^_^)
Think mystical, think spirit warrior, think Unseen Force beyond understanding. Then you’ll be headed in the right direction.
I’m appreciate that the editors at HFQ for gave me a shot, new and unknown as I am. This was my first piece accepted for publication. If all goes well, they’ll be running a short fiction piece of mine next month

https://www.heroicfantasyquarterly.com/?p=2633

Milestones

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After nearly three years of struggling to be published, I was finally accepted for publication, mostly through persistence and not over-rating myself. One editor asked me to do a re-write of a piece, pointing out several errors I should have caught (a blow to the pride of any former intellectual).

A paradigm shift has occurred in my writing over the years. I used to write unpaid nonfiction, and was fairly good at it. I had articles in a few local and regional publications, and wrote an article for a publication in another state.

This was years ago, before children and major illness, yet I assumed I’d be able to jump right back in to non-fiction writing. I was wrong.

The non-fiction market was flooded, or I just trying the right publications. I was heavily critical of my own writing. I would look it over and find it trite, facile. While I reasoned that other pieces published by the editors were every bit as mundane, it is entirely possible my contempt for the subject matter dripped through. I could hardly bring myself to compete in the modern miasma of insightful but self-reproachful parent anecdotes, lists ten things you must have or do or know…I actually managed to publish a gluten-free recipe that was promoted with as much tepid enthusiasm as I felt about the prospect myself.

I attempted to hop on a bandwagon or two, and fell flat before I really tried, and wondered—why?

It was a waste of time, and I was attempting to write about things I had no interest in. Why? To feel useful while bedridden, to make money while unemployable and waiting for disability (and afterwards to fill in for the low monthly compensation that is SSI disability): to contribute to my family when I felt I was worth nothing to them. To feel like I still had something to offer.

My spiritual director would probably tell me those were still prideful thoughts. No doubt they were. It was a dark time in my spiritual journey. And yet I kept trying.

But I switched genres. I dug through old writing files which were filled with dark and spooky and whimsical and thoughtful and sometimes passionate stories…and I had to admit, some of them had potential. Further, I had to admit, these were what I enjoyed writing. Even more than the literary highbrow stuff I couldn’t find a market for even if I had the political view to fit it.

So I dug up my ghosts.

I submitted and was rejected a few times, when I lighted on Weirdbook: a dark, varied, quirky collection of fiction published quarterly. It didn’t pay much, but I thought maybe it was better not to shoot too high. Besides, they had a submission call for stories about witches. I immediately had a story for a behind-the scenes of MacBeth, and hit the keyboard. Editor Douglas Draa emailed me back suggesting the changes I mentioned earlier, and I was both embarrassed at my mistakes and relieved to be on the right track. He accepted the finished story with good grace and humor, and asked for more. I sent more.

In the meantime I was accepted by Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, whose editors are more reserved, though equally quick to point out flaws (which I appreciate, in spite of the sting). And so it has gone…To date I have made $50 through my writing this year. And it’s just as hard or harder to get a story accepted for print. I have probably a 80% rejection average (at a guess). Some stories have been rejected two or three times and are now shelved.

Family and friends see my first contributor copies of Weirdbook and are at first excited (but notably say nothing after they have read the 3-page wonder I like to term my “one night write” to save face). I’m actually hesitant to show and tell. It feels like so little after so much work. And yet it is a start. And an honor to be included in the “good enough” category. I notice in the proofs for next quarter’s Weirdbook my name is on the cover. Again, pleased but nervous. I don’t really want to be noticed now that I have my work “out there.” And yet I do want it to be noticed, because I need to keep pitching.

Though I must keep asking myself the reasons:

Why? What drives me? What motivates all this work? Self-expression? The hope of “making it?” Or is it really what I like to tell myself: That I’m doing it for my family, to help us achieve a better life?

Stretched

I think the biggest problem for me with multiple disciplines (visual art, writing, ballet) is switching gears from one to another. After wrapping up the ballet season and feeling a sense of relief that I don’t have to plan classes or choreograph dances, I feel exuberantly unburdened. I feel like I have all the time in the world, and of course there are so many things to catch up on, now that I have all this “free time.” At the same time, I have a tiny sticky note wafting around, reminding me of writing deadlines, and some decent-sized sketchbooks looming in darkened corners. Those sketchbooks are definitely up to something. There is a predatory quality to their lurking that makes me wary.
And there are so, so many word documents and files of word documents on my laptop, just begging to be released into the world…And these disciplines–I used to call then passions–of mine perch precariously on the summit of a veritable mountain of tasks and responsibilities I carry as a mother, a wife, and a person who needs a certain amount of self-care.

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A quick “action sketch” from college art–a few too many muscle groups, I think

For years I’ve given myself motivational lectures about “narrowing my focus” to be more efficient. In a way, I feel my life has done it for me. The chronically ill can accomplish only so many tasks in a day, however much they may enjoy those pursuits. But the longing is still there.
I’ve never quite believed the Superwoman myth: that I could Do it All. “What is all this ‘it’ I might want to do?” I wondered… I do, however, have a tendency to embrace too much, to stretch myself too much trying to include just one more…And as my illness has taught me, when you stretch that much, sometimes things just don’t work efficiently. Sometimes there’s something to be said for being static. Grounded. Stable. And yet I am who I am.

Frailty

Shaken, I see myself more clearly.
Knowing my imperfections: humbled, and encouraged to practice patience.
Seeing another’s pain: moved to compassion and greater love.
Finding myself weak: finding the will to  fight for strength.
Finding myself broken: seeking to mend.
Seeing my flaws, I see my humanity, and that of others.
Ignorant, I seek the Light.

Flawed, I seek Heaven.

We never know what life is going to hit us with next–or hit someone we care about. A family member recently sustained severe injuries as the result of a freak accident, and the news jolted me so much that I lost myself for a time. Compelled to mend old bridges, I got back in touch, trying to shift my focus to them instead of me. The insights were humbling, especially hearing with what hopefulness and cheerfulness this near-tragedy was being managed. Taken in stride, almost. The way an event such as this can stir a deep, old bond is amazing.The way an event such as this can stir a deep, old bond is a reminder of how connected we are. I found that truly heartening and inspiring.  

My Life as a Rough Sketch

IMG_20170313_204024.jpgI have so many rough sketches I never finished–many I never intended to. My my life–that I always intended to do more with. I was thinking about this as I quickly sketched a rough self-portrait. My skills an an artist aren’t what they once were. But then, I reflected, much about me isn’t what it used to be.

The sketch, lacking in detail, nevertheless shows more than I would have thought. The not-quite-at-ease posture, the slightly lifted arms (as if to carefully hold the mug and keep it from spilling) are very accurate. I move differently than I once did, with more care and less ease. The hands are awkward, and grip too tightly, as mine do, to maintain their grip. I couldn’t quite get the foot right:my dancer’s feet that just won’t do what they’re supposed to anymore. They have the muscle memory, they try, but they are going the way many of my other joints have…

Yet here I am. Seated, contemplative, even if just for a moment. Looking into the distance as do most of the female figures I [used to] draw and paint.

But rough around the edges, just like my life: So many things I haven’t finished, and priorities have had to change. So much isn’t what I would have envisioned. So much is still vague.

Yet here I am.

Reflections on Sadness

Before dawn I was woken by a very sad little girl.
Lately I’ve noticed a strange melancholy in both my children that I remember in myself around the same age. I’m not sure if children pick up on sadness from living in a house with chronic illness, or from the depression of the parents (more likely), but it deepens my own sadness that this seems to be a legacy I have passed on. My daughter in particular asks questions such as, “are you and Papa going to die the way your mom and dad did?”
My husband says, “no, of course not. We will always be with you.”
I, unwilling to trust the backhandedness of life, say, “I hope not,” but try to reassure her she will always be taken care of.
And, I think grimly, no wonder she’s sad. I wonder if I should be so forthright and realistic with her, precocious as she is at age five. I wonder which is kinder: the promise we can’t keep, or the certain reality that one day we will die, though metaphysically, of course we will always be with her. We made her precious tiny human self, and so are ever and always connected: inexorably part of each other. Can she be secure in our intangible love when she craves the security of our physical presence?
This morning she huddled next to me in bed, crying that she would miss her brother when he grows up. Her mean older brother, who teases her, picks on her, calls her names, and is subversively jealous of her, in spite of our best efforts to teach and encourage him otherwise. She will miss him, and dreads being parted from him.
Such is the nature of sweet spirits.
I know so many young women who carry a heavy burden of sadness. And so many of them, too, are sweet spirits, undeserving of so much sorrow.
After being disappointed with my efforts to comfort my daughter, I carried a trace of sorrowful miasma with me through the rest of the day. Going on social media deepened it until I could wear it like a coat.
Finally, my ponderings outweighed my personal reserve, and I wrote a post about it. Almost immediately, there was a reaction, with surprised and almost irritated me. Then I realized it was one of the young women I know, one who has more than her own share of sorrow to carry. She was sharing in ours. I was deeply touched by the simple expression of an emoji reaction–though as a rule, I am dismissive, almost scornful of trying to relate through emoji expressions. This was different.
It brought my thoughts back to my recent blog on kindness. It made me think how valuable those small gestures are, especially when we are suffering with our own burdens, fighting our own demons of depression, poverty, frustration…how much we can give each other.
My daughter and I got through our day, and it would have been hard to tell she began it in tears. Both children played–reasonably nicely–together, and went to bed peacefully and happily–after I read them three or four bedtime stories, and completed our evening ritual of evening prayers, kisses, hugs, tucking in, and one last “good night” prayer.
And as the small gesture I received meant so much to me, I try to bring a little more mindfulness to my parenting, of all those little things that mean so much to children. Especially since I won’t be here forever.

It used to worry when when my children expressed sadness, but as I considered it more, I realized several things:

My husband and I both come from melancholy families. It seems a certain amount of pensive melancholia is inescapable.

But more significant is the role of sadness in the human experience. too little acknowledgement of sadness in our lives could be denial. too much, a sign of depression.

But in general, sorrow is merely part of the human experience, rolling over us in waves or cycles much like any other human emotion, coming to go again, to come again, and so on.

I think what is more telling about us is how we use that experience to relate to others. Knowing sadness ourselves, do we hunker down around it, feeling sorry for ourselves, or do we use that point of reference to reach out to others, extending empathy to them in any small way we can?

Thank you, my friend.

 

Reflections on Kindness….and Coffee

She limped into the coffeeshop, the heavy fracture boot throwing her walk askew.
“What happened to you?” the young man behind the counter asked, with a tone of genuine concern.
She was taken aback. Why would he care? He was young, good-looking, and could easily afford to be self-absorbed if he chose. She was–a wreck. Young, too, but she didn’t feel it any more. Her scars ran deep.
“Well,” he seemed oddly at a loss for words, “I’m–glad you’re alive!”ravens-prayer2
She was startled, but there was a place deep in the pit of her stomach that flip-flopped even as she felt an embarrassed gratitude. He wasn’t flirting, and she wasn’t trying to make something out of it. It was compassion, and she was grateful for it.
How many times have I said “hello” to someone, especially someone older than myself, and found them brighten in response. As I near 40, it occurs to me with some chagrin that I am now on the receiving end of those young day-brighteners.
And have you ever met with a friend for coffee, and while talking learned of her deep struggles, her life-changing decisions?
I often think that sometimes the best thing we can do is be kind (though let’s exclude one-liner quotes we might find on teabags). For all our web connectedness, we are missing out on personal human interaction. Even offline, we are all so busy we don’t have time to put away our phones and sit down with people–just to talk. Just to say Hi. Just to have a cup of coffee.
Reflecting on the value of kindness. I keep meeting people who just need to hear a kind word, have someone take an interest and care. I think about all the times someone did that for me, especially when I was struggling with depression. Sometimes it means the world.

The girl in the coffeeshop never forgot the barista’s kind words, even after her leg was long healed. There are enough Unkindness-es in life. Words (or lack therof) and actions can keep the world harsh and cold, or shine a light in a dark time. All it takes it one minute of genuine kindness.

Hmm, I should pitch that to Yogi Teas….

Spring [Personal] Discipline

The winter is so far from wearing to its end. I look out the window and see three feet of snow, but the sun is out and there is a freshness on the air when I venture to crack a window or open the door to call my children in, their noses and cheeks sufficiently red and snow gear shining wet across the yard. At least the promise of spring is in the wind, though still far off. I glance at our liturgical calendar and note the number of weeks left until Great Lent, the preparatory time before the greatest annual celebration of our faith, Pascha.
I have read that in many countries, Russia and Eastern Europe most notably, this 40-day period of abstinence from consuming animal products (among other things) was a practical means of getting through the last phase of winter, stretching a family’s supply of farmed goods until the weather relented enough to begin spring planting. The practice is threefold, however: we conserve what we have, but in order that we can give to those in need. Also: we pray and meditate as we work on increasing virtue and diminishing vice, and so draw nearer to Christ in preparation to celebrate His resurrection.

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Another Spring, without so much snow!

As a newly converted Orthodox Christian, the Lenten Fast seemed a horrible ordeal to be undergone. Admittedly, I was spared the first three years of participation because I was either pregnant or breastfeeding. But the first year I was eligible to participate, I was floored by the intensity of the experience. It also turned out my health was not going to allow me to eat vegan for such a duration without serious consequences. As a result, my Spiritual Director urged me to focus on the spiritual and giving aspects of the time, which were almost harder. Giving is a joy to me, and I can almost never do as much as I would like, but increased prayer and weeding out some of my worse habits proved incredibly challenging. And, after a time, I realized it is supposed to be exactly that. The challenge of leaving one’s comfort zone is immensely stretching. Being accountable to a priest/Spiritual Director ensures accountability. And I have noticed that, especially at first, the spiritual undercurrents in one’s life always make it harder, for me at least. I am always hit hardest when and where I am weakest, and usually just when I think I am starting to do well. I am beginning to find it almost worth a laugh. And I am beginning to settle into the rhythm of the Fasting seasons (they average one per season, of differing duration–Great Lent is the longest). So now, I find myself anticipating the change in the seasons, the change in spiritual rhythms, the outward practices in aid of the inner progress.
The first week of Great Lent is Clean Week, an excellent precursor to good old Spring Cleaning, but with the intent of clearing out all our junk, all we don’t need, and all our grime, personal and physical. In addition, things that we don’t need may be useful to others, and again we are encouraged to give/donate instead of hoard/clutter (a greater and harder act for some of us). We are also encouraged not to spend unnecessarily during Great Lent, to be less materialistic, and again, help those in need with either our time, talent, or resources (either money or “stuff”).
This year, something in me started Clean Week over a month early (perhaps because I usually start when everyone else does, and am still cleaning when Pascha rolls around), and interestingly, something in me followed step by taking a long, quiet look inward. Time to uproot the unnecessary and harmful, time to prepare the soil for the season of planting and growth. Time for the new season, the new “year” in the natural sense of things, and a time where we celebrate Life anew. Glory to God!
Though, knowing me and my house, I may still be cleaning when Pascha rolls around…