Saturday, May 21, 2016

"Then they stay dead."

My father with his grandchildren, circa 2001

The line of the title of this post is from a poem by Donald Hall called "Distressed Haiku."

You think that their
dying is the worst
thing that could happen.

Then they stay dead.
I've been thinking of that line a lot lately because, like Hall in the poem, I am approaching the anniversary of the death of a loved one.

It's been almost a year since my father died. And yesterday represented the final saying of kaddish (the Jewish prayer recited in honor of the dead) after 11 months of mourning.

Nearly a year ago, I helped him move through the terrible choice to let go and I've been running away from feeling the echoes of that choice ever since. The time I spent with him in those final months were emotionally exhausting. Being fully present with him and letting us both feel the fear and the uncertainty: I never wanted to be the grown-up in that way. That was always his job. His job to guide and suggest, letting me come to my own decisions. I didn't want to do it.

But it didn't matter what I wanted. My father needed me.

No wonder I have been running away from my own emotions for the past year.

The boxes from his apartment are still stacked in the dining room. I haven't looked at them or opened them. As if leaving them unexamined meant I could avoid unpacking the complicated emotions that went with them.

And one of the more complicated things I have steadfastly not been facing is my fears for my children, knowing that I will not always be here for them.If I don't feel like I have the strength to cope when I am 52 and surrounded by family and love and stability, how can I help but worry about them?

I am feeling very mortal and very small these days, cut off from the past and fearful for the future. Which should leave me anchored in the present, except I'm not. I'm just floating in a void of anxiety.

So I started journalling again. Coming back to scratching words on a page is like returning home. This is who I am. Words comprise the force that energizes and grounds me. The truth of what I feel flows from the pen, even if I want to hide from it. Even if I have no idea where the words will take me. Even if no one reads them and I never read them again.

This is the truth I have been running from: my father's death shook me in ways I am still processing. I am afraid. I feel vulnerable and raw in a way that's different from how I mourned when my mother died

I miss my father's wisdom. I miss his clarity.

And I don't like feeling afraid.


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Wednesday, May 18, 2016

You Must Read This

I rarely write formal reviews, and even more rarely on purchasing platforms like Amazon because as a writer, it can often feel like a conflict of interest. (Even as I appreciate any reader leaving reviews for my novels - yes, I feel conflicted.)

What I do instead is rave about the books I have loved. Bug friends, readers, social media followers, random strangers on the street to READ THIS BOOK.

Maybe I come across a handful of such books in a year. GROWER'S OMEN is one such book. While it is book 2 in the Karmacorp "Fixers" series, I believe it can be read as a standalone. But I recommend you read them both. I really liked book 1. And I loved book 2.

Audrey Faye has tangled the best elements of fantasy and science fiction in this series about the Fixers of Karmacorp - individuals who have psychic talents working in an organization dedicated to helping to keep the universe in one piece. The Fixers have vastly different talents and personalities. Tyra Lightbody, the main character and POV voice of this novel is a Grower. She has a special gift with plants and manipulating subtle energies around her and she's sent, as a lone agent, to a biodome reporting strange behavioural problems affecting some of the station personnel.

What she finds there is no ordinary problem, but a moral dilemma that forces her to make a choice that might alienate her from everything and everyone she cares about. 

It's been several books since I found a character who I connected so strongly with. I raced through this book, fearful of what Tyra had to do and hoping she would emerge unscathed. I was emotionally fully invested in her story and that happens rarely in my reading life now.

Skillful writing, fascinating worldbuilding, fully realized characters, emotional stakes: Grower's Omen has it all and then some. It moved me and I needed to read it. Maybe you do, too.


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Friday, May 13, 2016

Creating full characters, not strong ones

Cover art, DREADNOUGHT AND SHUTTLE, Chris Howard copyright 2016

I write science fiction and fantasy stories. And in those stories are characters. They interact with other characters, move through settings, and deal with conflicts. They act and they react.

This is basic storytelling '101', regardless of genre.

Everywhere I look, I see articles talking about writing 'strong female characters', or praising them in TV shows or movies. It makes me wonder about the definition of strong and how media has limited the scope and range of ALL characters in elevating strength over all other aspects.

I understand where this push comes from. Looking at female characterization in popular media over the past few decades, for every Ripley or Sarah Connor or Peggy Carter are dozens and dozens of passive, poorly written female props, victims, and plot devices. And in an effort to change this, strength has come to mean the ability to fight against terrible odds and win.

But if you look closely at the three iconic female characters I named (and there are more, thankfully!), their power doesn't come solely from their ability to kick ass, but from their ability to be fully human and express both their strength and their vulnerability.

What made Agent Carter so compelling to me (and to many fans; just not to the networks, apparently) is that she is intensely real. She expresses a full range of emotions, including fear and uncertainty, and thrives within a context of solid relationships with the other characters around her. We see her vulnerability and root for her to survive, even as we recognize the sometimes outlandish plots and situations that the series placed her in.

Because she is so fully real, we are willing to suspend disbelief and enter into her world.

That is the difference in writing full characters rather than strong ones.

The character of Lara Croft in the Tomb Raider movie was strong, but not full. I enjoyed the movie for what it was: superficial action, but never had any sort of emotional connection to it.

This created dichotomy between strong and full characters is not limited to the depiction of women on screen or in written work. The characters who stay with me, who resonate for long after I've closed the book or turned off the screen are ones who have a reality far beyond their story. Captain America in The Winter Soldier. Morgan in The Riddlemaster trilogy, Samwise Gamgee from The Lord of the Rings.

It's this resonance and reality I strive for in all of my writing. In my Halcyone Space books, I have an ensemble cast roughly split between male and female characters. They all have moments of strength and moments of vulnerability. They all make imperfect choices and have to contend with the results. It makes for a much richer experience for me as a writer. I have to believe it does the same for the reader.

Dev, pictured in the artwork above, is a new addition to the series. She is smart and resourceful, but she is also hamstrung by her upbringing in the Settlements. She feels the sting of class prejudice very keenly and it colors her interactions. That makes her far more interesting to me than if she had had a privileged life. In fact, she would not be the character she is had she been raised otherwise. We see her vulnerabilities and want her to succeed. She is strong in the ways that matter, rather than in a purely cliched sense.

Strength that does not come from the fullness of the human experience is not true strength.

Who are your favorite characters who exemplify this kind of larger, truer strength?



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Sunday, May 08, 2016

On mothering and being mothered

Me and my boys, circa 1999
Me, aged 5, with my parents

Mother's Day, like all the invented holidays, has always seemed awkward and artificial to me. As a child, I remember feeling uncomfortable making my mom a card when even then I understood the image of mothering and motherhood in the media was some impossible perfect target that no one could reach.

 she gave me love and security bundled tightly with the anxiety she battled all her life.

How could I tell my mother she was the best mother ever when there were times when I was angry with her? When I wished she wasn't my mother. When I wanted her to be more like my friends' mothers.

I suspect all adoptees do this to some degree or another, but I do remember vividly imagining that perfect mother who had to give me up. Who would come back for me and give me the magical life I was supposed to lead.

From the perspective of adulthood and having parented my own children, I recognize how unfair I was to my mother in my expectations and how she gave me love and security bundled tightly with the anxiety she battled all her life. The fact that I am a reasonably healthy adult in a healthy relationship with both my spouse and my own kids is partly a testament to the mothering (and fathering) I received.

How arrogant I was. How full of myself.
How foolish.

Maybe it is enough to acknowledge that I wasn't the easiest of children to mother. I seem to remember spending my growing up years in an extended approach/avoidance phase with her. Maybe that's not so unusual, but it certainly made every Mother's Day feel fraught, somehow.

When I had my own children, I was determined not to make the mistakes (as I saw them) that she made. How arrogant I was. How full of myself. How foolish.

We are none of us perfect. Nowhere is this clearer than in the highwire act of mothering.


So many people give you advice when you are a new mother. And nearly all of it centers around how to care for newborns and young children. Honestly? I'm not sure any of it is more than basic responsiveness and common sense. Truly, any caring and competent adult can be a loving and effective caretaker for a baby. (It's a sin and a shame that so many children don't receive even that, but that's another conversation for another time.)

I found parenting older children far more difficult. The more individual my children became, the harder it became to find the appropriate boundaries. I wonder if part of my struggle was that I didn't have a good model of parenting the emerging adult child from my own mother; she and I continued that approach/avoidance dance well into my 20s and even into my 30s.

This Mother's Day, my children are now both in their 20s. They are adults. Yet, they also continue to be my children and continue to seek and benefit from mothering. And I continually struggle to find the right balance in how to be a mother to them.

 I finally understand the brutal fact of my own mortality: I will not always be here to be their mother.   

For all the sleepless nights and fears of being a new parent, their infant years were, in retrospect, far simpler than the reality of their adulthood. I can no longer pretend to protect them or even be their biggest champions. As much as I understood my role from the first was to prepare them to separate from me (first day of preschool, first day of Kindergarten, first unsupervised playdate, first solo drive, etc), now, after both my parents have died, I finally understand the brutal fact of my own mortality: I will not always be here to be their mother.   

And so I wonder and worry if I did and said all the right things when they were babies, toddlers, young adults. In my drive to be the best parent I could be, in trying to avoid repeating the mistakes of my own mothering, what mistakes did I make that burden my sons' lives? 

I am perversely comforted by knowing this anxiety has been passed down from mother to child, likely starting with the first parents huddled around some fire pit in a cave at the dawn of human civilization. 

Mothering is hard. 
We do the best we can. 
It is enough and it is never enough.


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