Writing

How to Save a Village

Talis02
Black Pullet Grimoire, via Wikimedia Commons

“If you’re a very good girl,” Mother said, “they won’t get you.”

Yet she taught me things day to day.  How to grow living things, plants and insects, and how to harvest them.  The ways to read a person’s face, and flesh, to intuit the right word, and to guide otherwise, too.

Sleep with this bundle of herbs beneath your pillow.
Slaughter a hen by moonlight and make a brew of the bones.
Bathe in the stream where the water pools in the forest.  Be sure to see no one on your return.

The pieces all come together slowly, like the threads of a tapestry.  She taught me about balancing things, about finding harmony in those parts that could run alongside one another. Healing and ill-ing, to keep everything sustained.

They like the healing.  Expect it even.  It’s the other bit that no one understands.  Yet it comes of necessity.

Eat this mushroom at the new moon.
Dig up the root of this plant, boil it, drink its tea.
Cut your arm and let the blood pool. You must make no sound.

They try to find ways around it; to be very specific in what they ask, to be very clever, to outsmart the balance. “She will give you what you ask for,” they warn each other, “exactly what you ask for.”

Make me healthy, give me beauty, make me rich, admired, give me power, strength, love, long life. But say these sacred words, just exactly as they are written, have a care.

Because they have all heard stories of others who have returned weeping, “this isn’t what I asked for,” and then in further despair, amending themselves, “this isn’t what I meant!”

Sometimes it’s so, that they get exactly what is requested.  Other times not.  Other times they get what will restore rightness.  They always get what is necessary.

Why do they expect that when a child who is ill is allowed to live, another does not take its place?  Why do they expect that when vast fortune is amassed by one, many, many others will not lose their share?  Everything in life has a give and a take.  She taught me to be sure that one does not outweigh the other.

“Look what you’ve done,” they cry. “Witch! Monster!”

Yet it is they who come to my door, who seek me out, who ask for their lots to change, who bring me something precious in order to make it so.

“Are you good or bad,” he asked me once.

Yet every new beginning is also a death.

“If you’re very good,” Mother said, “they won’t get you.”
And what if I’m not?
“Then you will burn.”
And if I’m not bad either?
She touched my cheek.

“Are you good or bad?”
“You should go,” I told him. “Go to your heart’s desire.”
He smiled.  “But that’s you.”  From his pocket he drew the little pouch I had given him. The herbs, the mushroom.

“Steep it in broth overnight,” I had said.
“Must it be broth?” he asked.
I shrugged, “I suppose wine would do as well.”

The pouch, open, empty now.  His smile.  I knew.  “But that’s you.  Well,” he gestured to me, “this.”
The room felt warm, stuffy.  My throat felt like something had lodged in it.  “You haven’t learned…”  My voice was weak, fading in my own ears, nearly drowned by the sound of my own heart.  “You won’t save them…”
My vision narrowed.  He touched my cheek.  “I think I have.”

“If you’re very good,” Mother said, “they won’t get you.”
“What if I’m not good?”
“Then they’ll burn you.”
“But what if I’m not bad either?”
Mother touched my cheek.  “You have to be a little bad,” she said. “That is nature, too.”

 

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Thirty Days Hath September

I remember this little rhyme as though I had always known it.  I can’t remember learning it, I suppose my mother must have taught it to me whenever I reached the age that it becomes important to adults that children can calendar.

 

I’ve always said it as:

 

Thirty days hath September

April, June, and November

All the rest have thirty-one

Save February

To which twenty-eight we assign

Till leap year make it twenty-nine

Cellarius_schiller_1
From the 1708 reprint of the 1661 Cellarius Atlas Harmonia Macrocosmica, depicting the Christianized constellations by Julius Schiller, showing the hemisphere with the autumnal equinox point. Public Domain,  via Wikimedia Commons

The ending seems to be a familial fabrication, or my own misremembering, if still accurate.  I always liked the dramatic pause of “Save February,” perhaps out of being born a child of the wolf month.  “Save February,” seemed so heavy with implication, “oh, that trouble maker!”  It’s cold and dark and dangerous, and weirdly all out of order – December used to be the tenth month, after all, and February, with it’s consternating second r, was just made up of the jumble of all that extra time that wouldn’t be contained neatly in the rest of the year.  But I reveled in the difference of “my month,” too.

The rhyme came up recently while we were out at the usual spot, and half of us had never heard of the rhyme, and then it was discovered that, while it is marvelously old, first recorded in 1488, – and ludicrous as any kind of reasonable mnemonic – my ending (which I always stumble over beyond, “Save February!”) is all wrong. That old version just says, “February is excepted,” full stop, which just lacks a certain something.

Book_of_Hallowe'en

By Ruth Edna Kelley, via Wikimedia Commons
 

I’ve always been fascinated with the ways we humans mark time – by the sun and moon, and sometimes the ecliptic – the way the seasons are passed into and out of with much ceremony, with festivals and rituals that we don’t even always remember the origins of.  Perhaps being a child of the wolf month, I’ve always loved September and the onset of fall, with the darkening of our days and the coming of winter, the world taking a moment to rest, while we continue to scramble on through the cold and snow and gray, making our lives. People used to see fall as a time of abundance, with the full harvest brought in; it was a time of celebration and community and plenty and hope, knowing there would be hardship ahead, but also looking ever on toward a new spring and ever returning life. It was a time of looking to the future, of making predictions by firelight and osteomancy, apple bobbing to determine who would pair off, who would marry, and what kind of luck the coming months would bring.

This weekend, coinciding with the beginning of fall, I’m going to bear witness to another ancient rite, in the marriage of two dear friends, and I wish all these things – abundance and celebration and love and hope – on Amanda and James. May you always find yourselves in times of plenty; May you always be surrounded by those who love you; May you always have faith in the life you’re building together, through all the seasons and Septembers ahead.

 

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Writers on Writing Interview

This week I was interviewed by Amanda Bergloff for Enchanted Conversation’s Writers on Writing!  See my interview below!

3 QUESTIONS FOR

Kiyomi Appleton Gaines

“The experiment in vulnerability was not considered a success. He wanted to convey that these rumors were not true, were unfounded, yet only prevailed in terrorizing his entire kingdom. He was only a man like any other, he wanted to say. But no, his wise sister insisted, he was not like any other man. He was a ruler, and thus, he must rule.”
Kiyomi’s story, Re-Covered, explores a different side to the classic Emperor’s New Clothes fairy tale that is worth the read. In this interview, she gives some insight into her creative process.
1.  What is the first fairy tale that left a big impression on you? 

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Writing

Revisiting Mama and Baby

This is the first story I wrote after about twelve years of writer’s block.  I didn’t write again for another year afterward, but it gave me hope that maybe I would get it back.  I’m so pleased to find that I still like it.

 

By Howard Newman, via Wikimedia Commons

I was the oldest child. I was my mother’s co-conspirator and supervised my younger siblings. I became the result of my parents’ first experiments in boundary-laying and discipline, I tried everything before the others, led the way, cleared the path. I was the oldest.

My mother’s first baby was cream-skinned with fat pink cheeks and blue eyes. In the photo named “Mama and Baby” they are both laughing. Fine black hair lays across the baby’s forehead and a pudgy fist is pulling a white sunhat down over one ear. In a moment it will be caught by my mother’s hand before it falls to the ground. The woman, “Mama,” is most definitely my mother, though younger than I ever knew her. She wears a dress I remember, and have photos of, from my own childhood. The baby is in her lap, between her arms, arms that are ready yet relaxed in that protective yet comfortably familiar way a mother has, yet friends never do, with small children, assured of the complete impossibility that she could ever bring or allow harm to come to her child.

My mother’s first baby was a jolly ten-or-so month old, in a diaper with a fat belly, and no referents to gender. The baby looks like her.

My mother had a friend who was an artist of some sort, who owned a home in the country. We called him Uncle Arty, never understanding that it wasn’t his name, but my mother’s teasing. Every summer she would take us away from town to live “on the farm,” though I never saw any cows or crops. Instead there were huge empty meadows full of wildflowers, and clearings in the wood that streams bent through. As near to every day as I can remember, we would strike out to find the perfect place for a picnic. My brothers would swing from low tree branches and jump off rocks, my sister would trail behind with her doll, pausing to smell flowers and watch slugs leave glistening trails in their plodding wakes. At the head of our line, Mama would carry the picnic basket. I think we were at the very end of the very last generation to have such idyllic traipsings.

We started going to the farm after the fire. The house burnt toward the end of the school year anyway, and we all just stayed on through the summer months, except Daddy. My father went back to town to take care of things, and we had a new house waiting for us when we went back to school, with new things, and a book here or there, or the odd curio, that had survived somehow, but never lost the acrid, dead, burnt smell. I avoided those things. I don’t remember much about that day, but that smokey scent always brings back vividly to memory the sight of my mother screaming, weeping, clawing frantically at my father’s shirt, hands, arms, face, trying to get back inside our burning house. I remember my waddling gait, awkward with my arms stretched to encircle my three younger siblings, as I moved to stand in front of her. I remember trying to reassure her, telling her it was fine, we were all out, we were all safe. I remember realizing that she didn’t, couldn’t, see me.

“It was sad to lose our house,” I said once in that first summer, unable in my still half-formed state to articulate my fears and concerns and questions.

She nodded, grim, smile brittle, eyes moist. “There were things… family things, that I can never get back.”

She sat, quiet and still, for such a long time, I wondered if I should leave her. Then she squeezed my knee and smiled and said, “Let’s not talk about that, ah? Let’s make the best summer ever.”

She said that last bit every year when we got to the farm. Mama and her ducklings. We loved Daddy, but our summer never really got its start until he went back to town, and sometimes we got so eager for him to go back. Mama was a wife, and adult, for as long as he was there. Once he left, she was more like one of us, yet still possessed of the powers of adulthood, to name things permissible, and safe, and right.

In time we had to move her to a place where she’d be safe. She forgot things, left the gas burning on the stove, or the front door standing wide open. I never had children — the excuse offered by one brother and my sister — and I was the oldest — the excuse leveled by my other brother — so it fell to me to see to the house. That’s when I found the photograph, tucked into one of those old smokey books. I had the image of my mother, frantic, fresh in my mind, and the other image, glued to paperboard, fell to the floor, and then I understood.

 

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Elizabeth Gilbert is my spiritual master

I enjoy listening to podcasts. I hate commutes, and even my short little commute was not a joy until I started loading podcasts onto my old iPod Nano and bringing it with me every day. I have more podcasts subscriptions than I will ever be able to listen to, but like with a library card, it’s nice to have so many options. Among those I love to listen to are Gretchen Rubin’s Happier. I started listening after my sister loaned me the book, and I think all the tips and thoughts and ideas that have been sprinkled into my life actually have made me happier, or at least made some things easier.

Bodhi_seed_prayer_beads
 Photo: Thayne Tuason, via Wikimedia Commons

In an episode not too long ago (or at least, I listened to it not too long ago!), Gretchen suggested identifying your spiritual master; someone from any era, in any field, whose work you find resonates with you, and serves as a source of inspiration and encouragement. When I thought about where I had been drawing strength and courage from again and again in recent years, it was Elizabeth Gilbert. For a time, when I was living overseas, I read Eat Pray Love every six months, and it kept me going! Although the struggles we were dealing with were so vastly different, Liz’s humor and hope and continually pushing through the struggle she was going through, encouraged me, and reminded me to take care of myself in whatever way I could. When I came back home, with everything that entailed – changing countries, changing states, reestablishing house and work and life is, surprisingly, not as easy as one might think – I didn’t have the book anymore, but I almost knew it by heart by then.

Once all those essential things of survival were sort of established again, and I could just breathe, I started creating again, just a little bit after a very long stretch of writer’s block, and Elizabeth Gilbert’s podcast Magic Lessons conveniently launched around the same time. And of course she is a writer too! I continue to draw encouragement and inspiration from her work, from her honesty about her work and life, and the care and gentleness with which she treats the creative process. For me, Elizabeth Gilbert is someone who is further along in forging a path similar to the one I find I am making for myself – different paths, but I find overlapping in spirit.

What I admire so much is the courage she demonstrates in launching out into new and unknown emotional places, and sometimes also literal, actual physical places, and this pursuit of authenticity and the space to be creative and generous. That’s what I want for me too; to be courageous and honest and generous, and always creating. The reminder to go to a place of vulnerability, something so essential and oft repeated when it comes to making art as to be cliched, is nonetheless often also necessary! As is the reminder to just make something; to just create something, anything, and trust the process of it. It doesn’t have to be brilliant, it just has to be made. After so long carrying with me that old familiar longing to write, yet having my mind go completely blank when presented with an empty page or blank screen, I have a fear of that happening again, so gentle reminders are good.

 

book club

Book Club: Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town

Cory Doctorow’s Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town

I first read this book back in 2011 on a very long plane ride. Smart phones were not really the universal thing yet that they are today (remember that?) and the idea of free wifi everywhere did seem like an intriguing possibility, though even at that time, perhaps less subversive than when the story was originally written. Either way, the juxtaposition of technology and magic, and the weirdness of both, gripped me. This summer, a group of friends and I decided to launch our book club, and I was so thrilled when we drew this book title from The Hat of Destiny, and I got to share it with them!
Doctorow shares his books for free download on his website, and I highly recommend this one!  Then also go buy it, because artists need to eat too.  Fans of magical realism will enjoy the shadow world implied, though may wish more time was devoted to it – you will be left wanting more, but that’s not a bad thing!

Spoilers ahead!

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Book club #readabookday📚

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To begin, we were intrigued by the way the characters names constantly were in flux, indicating perhaps their own constantly shifting self-identity, as a result of the nature of the Sons of the Mountain (though I argue for their equally being the Sons of the Washing Machine). One of the characteristics of a fairy tale (as opposed to folklore, legend, myth and other forms of story telling pertaining to the non-empirical) is the lack of specific location in terms of person, place, and time; and while Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town is established firmly in Toronto in the early 2000s, the character’s identities – as being identified and identifiable to others – certainly are not. And outside of what happens in Toronto, the specifics of time and place do blur a bit.

This story is about men, and boys, and boys becoming men, or not. It is a story about Alan, and Alan and his brothers, so that’s fair enough; but it perhaps slides a little bit into the default position of male-as-neutral. Either way, the story doesn’t have a lot to say about women – in fact, arguably there are none in the book – but presents some interesting vignettes. Mom is literally a washing machine that produces babies, keeps clothes clean, and is otherwise, largely, what you would expect from a washing machine. Alan has two love interests in his life, both in underdeveloped woman-child form. Though Marci is perhaps the most fully actualized, fully human, fully alive character in the book, and provides a dynamic counter-point to Alan’s strangeness, she’s also still a little girl, and tragically remains so. Mimi (not her real name), whose memory really only begins at age eleven (the same age Marci was, or close to it), is too broken and confused to really ever demonstrate any personal agency. She doesn’t even have a name, that we’re told, and though that may be a function of her magical character, she isn’t given the benefit of multiple appellations, but remains fixed in the name Alan has assigned her.

We all wanted to see more of her auntie, and the the story behind those pictures!

Death_and_the_Gravedigger_-_C._Schwabe
Death and the Gravedigger by Carlos Schwabe, via Wikimedia Commons

And so we wondered if Alan’s “power” (in addition to regenerative healing) might be an ability to shape the world around him, or at least people, to his own will. The sheer force of his will and charisma are really only resisted by Krishna, whose ability to see things for what they are may have given him an advantage there. Krishna and Kurt we saw as perhaps being two sides of the same coin. While Krishna is Alec’s nemesis, who seems to revel in pointing out and mocking A’s weirdness, Kurt is Alan’s best friend, and hardly seems to notice Alan isn’t human. Kurt is the person Andrew seems to most really and truly care about. For example, consider Adam’s reaction when Kurt’s home is going to be burnt down, verses his spending several days with Kurt, pursuing their vision of free wifi for the neighborhood, after EFG have been kidnapped by Davy. Alan’s only real emotions seem to be anger and lust – stereotypically masculine – in an otherwise restrained and focused life of trying to appear normal.

The library scene was poignant. Adam’s library card was his first piece of identification, and the thing that made him real. It was his proof that he existed in the world, and the thing that allowed him to more fully inhabit it and to establish himself as a person. Documentation, or its lack, not only establishes where we have come from, but shapes the trajectory of our future. A little piece of paper can define to what degree we are allowed to exist, and what rights and privileges we’re entitled to claim. Mimi and Alan’s brothers had no such claims.

 

Public_library_of_Toronto_children's_card_(26366913801)

By Special Collections Toronto Public Library from Toronto, Canada (Public library of Toronto children’s card) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

 

Aaron was the only one who was ever even really able to try at a normal life. Benny, after his glory days in high school, perhaps could have, but still felt too far apart from the rest of society to pursue what his older brother did, and Carlos did perhaps achieve a degree of normalcy for what he was. For the other boys, and for Mimi, that was never really an option. The Sons of the Washing Machine were just too weird. There is a horrifying moment when Gerald points out that the others need him, not the other way around, and Alan rightly tells him, gently, that his implication is monstrous – he would leave his brothers to die. Yet who can blame Grayson for wanting to have his own life, free from the complicated entanglements of his complicated family? Who can begrudge anyone the right to live their own life? We usually resent and reject even familial claims of what is “owed” to wherever one comes from – yet that rejection, in this case, literally destroys the family and where they came from. And did Albert do any less himself, or was his departure functionally the same as what is so readily recognized as horrible to even suggest in Gary?

We didn’t have much to say about Link and Natalie, but we did wonder, where are H, I, and J??

Danny was well liked as a character by all of us. The most obvious villain (though that role may better be held by Brad and/or, to a certain degree, Alan himself), he was still a little boy trying to protect his family, his home, the world that he could understand and survive in, that was perhaps being threatened and undermined by the action of his brother. And he was also not human at all, like all of them, but instead a creature half out of fabled landscapes, and half mundane household item – similar, yet distinct from the modern world in significant ways. Perhaps because of both his naivete and because Davy is feral, he was manipulated by his brothers to become a monster, an object that embodied all their ambivalence and fear, an object that they then could (they thought) destroy. It doesn’t remove his culpability, or the terribleness of what he did, but it does raise the question of who else shared responsibility, and in what measure?

 

And there’s so much more. So, go read it if you haven’t! If you have, and you would like to share your thoughts as well, please do!

 

I have a newsletter now! If you enjoy my stories, if you want to support my writing, please sign up. If you subscribe to my Tiny Letter, you’ll stay with me, wherever I end up writing in the future, and I’ll send you previews of what’s coming up here.

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The importance of visual art cannot be overstated

I would be totally remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the gorgeous artwork that was created by Amanda Bergloff for my two stories in Enchanted Conversation .

 

Here is the piece made for Re-Covered. Somehow, though I never described her, the king’s wise sister comes through here very much as I imagined her! The image also reminds me of Camelot, and Morgan le Fee, another wise sister who should have been listened to!

Re-Covered-GAINES-Art by Amanda Bergloff
Re-Covered

 

This one was made for John Soldier. I’m so drawn to the energy and vibrance of the image, which strikes me as equally tragic, knowing what’s to come of those flames.

baller1
John Soldier

 

You can see more of Amanda’s artwork here!

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Fairy Tales and Social Consciousness

Princess_Nobody_-_a_tale_of_fairy_land_-_cover_2
Edmund Evans, via Wikimedia Commons

I was playing around with a story that I have been getting nice rejection letters about, and I realized that it can’t be published now. At least not for a while. In it, a flood devastates an entire community. When I wrote it, the August flood hadn’t happened yet, nor Hurricane Harvey. Now the parallel, though loose, seems too close.

“Ouch,” I thought, re-reading it, “too soon.”

So away it goes, into the proverbial desk drawer for a time. Maybe when it feels okay to bring it out again, I’ll know just how to tweak it for publication. At least, I am pleased to find, I still like what I wrote months ago.

As story-tellers we have an obligation to tell the truth – our truth, and greater Truth as we are able to do it – honestly, even when it’s frightening and when it hurts, and yet also to be gentle when it is in our power to be. We have a choice in the stories we tell, and how we choose to tell them. When discourse becomes volatile and raw, or when we don’t know what to say, fairy stories remain essentially a source of comfort, things we remember from childhood, things that tie us to our distant past, and a point of entry to our common desires. Like religious rituals, they commemorate that time in our lives when they first came to us, and all the times they were revisited, because something of them continued to resonate in us – Cinderella gone from a young child’s imaginings of a beautiful ball, or an escape from the unfairness of having to do chores, to learning that first love is never really a knight on a white horse, to a spouse rejecting traditional gender roles perhaps. In any event, our favorite stories shape us, as our experiences shape our understandings of what they mean, or what they might mean.

I like to say that I love fairy tales because they teach us about being human. These stories, many – though not all – with an ancient heritage, endure for a reason. They show us people who are trying to cheat death, to make the most of their lot, to bargain with fate; people who are just trying. Of course there’s magic, and gods, and even fairies, but each of those also say something about what is important to us – or at least what was at one time. The morality lessons are there of course – be kind to the old, and the frail, and the ugly, because whether witch or godmother, you’ll be better off if you’re polite! – but so, too, are those examples of strength and persistence in the face of incredible adversity, commentary on equality, and – since so many deal in nobility and rulership – the responsibility that attends great privilege. They tell us about the hopes and aspirations of people who came before us, not individually but corporately. And I think when we examine them, and turn them around, and approach them in a different way, when we share them from a different perspective, we can change, corporately, the way we see ourselves, and each other, as we move forward.

So while that story of nature’s destructive power is put away for now, there are others to tell.

 

To support immediate relief and long-term recovery efforts to help families in areas affected by Hurricane Harvey, go here.

 

I have a newsletter now! If you enjoy my stories, if you want to support my writing, please sign up. If you subscribe to my Tiny Letter, you’ll stay with me, wherever I end up writing in the future, and I’ll send you previews of what’s coming up here.