I recognize this statement will require some explanation, but:
Last week I interred my father, who died thirteen years ago.
You see, he died overseas, in Switzerland, having accessed physician-assisted suicide in that country after a diagnosis of rapidly advancing ALS. The story of his life and death can be seen in the documentary The Suicide Tourist, available online thanks to Frontline.
This is the story of what came afterward.
Mom remained overseas in Yorkshire, finishing up her Doctorate in socio-legal Studies. As such, dad’s ashes were delivered to me here in the United States, in an air mail package wrapped in brown paper and official-looking documents in German. It was tied up with a string, with a red wax seal over it, and had a comfortable weight.
I didn’t want to open the package until mom returned to the States. After all, in my mind, he was her husband – and he really did belong to her, now that his own sense of self had been left in the crematory fire.
So I set him in a little altar-space in my basement studio, surrounded by memorabilia: Photos of him in his hated wheelchair with myself and mom, his favorite drinking glass, the storybook he read to me over and over when we were both so much younger. But I didn’t unwrap the package – and the string now held cards, news articles, expressions of sympathy from around the world.
I thought about him every day, but to be honest, I looked at him less and less often. The little altar space became a cubbyhole of sorts, not forgotten by any means … but not something with which to engage. Not a place to show love, or respect, or to mourn.
But a place of endless waiting, and anticipation, which slowly turned to dread.
Because mom returned to the US, but picked up a rather nomadic life, moving here and there, ill-suited to the weight of an earthen urn and earthly remains. So he remained in my art and writing studio, which, over time … became a place I had to avoid.
My family is great, full stop; but we’re not always great at communicating our feelings, you know?
So, unexpressed and unexamined, my feelings got heavier and heavier. Mild depression turned into moderate anxiety which turned into something rooted far more deeply. Coping mechanisms that were never ideal became less and less healthy as time went on. Also, less and less effective as the years went by.
I didn’t realize how much of it was tied up with the bones beneath my feet until some recent life events forced me to admit the rest of my family had moved on from where I had buried myself, years ago, alongside my father.
I finally forced myself into therapy.
I’ve spent the last several months working my way through a lot of things, but more than anything, working to allow myself to feel everything I tried to shut away. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression … trying to come to acceptance.
I bought a display box, made of metal and shaped like a massive library book, to display his love of literature and reading. I had a plaque engraved for him, I asked my mother for photos of him before he had fallen ill, and I posted those photos in my office where I could see him, every day.
On Thursday, August 15th, beneath a full moon, I disturbed the altar-that-was-clutter. I cut the cord around him and broke the waxen seal. I unwrapped the paper to find the ashes were already held in a rather plain terra cotta urn, with a brass plate containing his name and date of cremation, and a Dutch stamp of a gryphon that looks rather kingly.
I wasn’t able to open the lid, though. Perhaps thirteen years in a humid cardboard box in the Midwest has sealed it shut, perhaps I’m too delicate or just insufficiently committed to the task, but I couldn’t pry it open. Besides which, I’m not confident the ashes (based on the sound they make, bone and ash in a foreign giant’s rattle) would all fit in the new display, anyway.
So we found a place on top of our family curio cabinet, the one with pictures of our families and Dia de los Muertos figurines and the Tupilaks brought back from Greenland by my father-in-law. The earth-orange of the urn blends almost, but not quite, invisibly into the burnt orange color of the living room walls, and he is in between the doors of our home, facing the hearth which had been his respite growing up beneath these walls.
We poured white wine into his favorite glass, a Waterford thistle, and toasted him with our own, and ate his favorite meal – bratwurst with sauerkraut and boiled tatties, to which we added slices of apple and pickle, which I think he would have loved.
I stepped out after to watch the few remaining fireflies dip and weave and dance, their end times near, seeking a connection of their own with little lights amidst the gathering darkness. We walked to the end of the street in an attempt to see the full moon rise, but no dice between timing and sky conditions, and so we came back home where I retired early.
But I saw him, for the first time in years, in my sweet dreams right before waking.
I was at a semi-college reunion sort of thing, and a chauffeur drove my father up in a car. He’d been unhappy with the drive and complaining about the taste of the coffee, the length of the trip, and more; but in my dream I knew he had been sick the last time I’d seen him, and here he was at last, up and about in a fine new sports coat.
An old friend came up and asked if he remembered the old home. He smiled and said that he certainly did … and then, of course, I woke up.
It was at least part what I’d been hoping for. And while I understand it was probably brought on by the psychological toll of the past week, the anticipation of a necessary but potentially unpleasant task, the unresolved guilt and shame and pain and anger of having held onto this for so long; there is, naturally, a part of me that believes there’s something more.
That the paralysis, dread and nightmares that preceded that dream were guardians of the otherworld, the chauffeur a psychopomp, and my father, well …
He was, and remains, my father; until the day I pass and until the end of all things. But the crags for which he was named no longer have to loom over me. They should really become a part of my foundation, not my ceiling.
So. We are home.
Finally un-interred, together.
On Books (On Writing)
“I have found that collecting books and reading them are two very different hobbies.”
I own quite a few books. Years ago I signed up with LibraryThing and put my bookshelf in by hand, but haven’t updated that list since … probably the initial draft. I’m on GoodReads as well, and here I make a more good-faith, though admittedly sporadic, attempt to keep up with what I’m currently reading.
My bookshelves are generally organized by subject. One shelf for games, one for anthropology, one for history, one for spirituality, one-half for comic books, one-half for To Be Read, one-half for novels … and one for creativity.
The creativity shelf isn’t just for writing. It includes inspirational fluff from people like SARK (whose colorful, childish spirit of play I continue to admire in my late forties, thank you very much) and publishers like North Light and HOW Design. It includes some rather optimistic books on “Making a Living Without a Job” and, oddly enough, on stock investing. There are a few books on other hobbies such as leatherworking, and some books on topics of interest to genre authors, such as worldbuilding and language construction.
But it certainly includes books on writing, and today I’d like to share my personal top five.
Steering the Craft by the marvelous Ursula K. LeGuin is one of three pillars which rescue me in times of creative despair. A workshop in a book which can be used independently or in a group of any size, I find this collection of exercises and reminders sparks both joy and imagination. With dry wit and sly winks, the late LeGuin has become a favored professor and a cherished memory. It is slim – many of my choices are – but meaty, and the nautical metaphor of writing as a river-journey unsurprisingly calls to me. While your mileage may vary, it’s the first book I would recommend to any young person seeking to learn.
Poemcrazy, by Susan Goldsmith Woodridge, is the second pillar. Perhaps even slimmer than LeGuin’s, and focused entirely upon poetry and language rather than technical craftsmanship in terms of prose, each chapter is a tiny bite of Woodridge’s reflections on her own path and inspiration for how one can find magical words of their own. I love poetry, from the bottom of my heart, though sharing it online is even more fraught than sharing fan fiction; and being able to spin magnificent, meaningful language – without fretting over verb tense – is a balm to my soul. I often make a small poem before starting any serious writing, in order to get words flowing.
Make a Scene, by Jordan E. Rosenfeld, is the book that … well. It hasn’t stopped me from writing meandering, meaningless paragraphs of dithering protagonists and conversation which goes nowhere, but it has stopped me from trying to get them published. Dryer and more to-the-point than the two above, Rosenfeld truly helped me understand how much every scene has to mean in a well-crafted story. Chapters on tension, intension, theme and subtext all do wonders to help me edit what I’ve written and pre-edit what lies ahead.
The Plot Thickens, by Noah Lukeman, is the best-selling and probably most well-known of my top five. Its first half is a marvelous checklist of things to think about while creating your characters: from hair style to relationships to food and authority. After this, Lukeman discusses the far more relevant application of characterization. How can you best build tension and conflict between two characters? Within a group dynamic? Why does this character’s journey matter in the end? What part of this characterization is going to change by the end of your story, or by the end of your scene? It’s a remarkably practical reference book, though reading it end to end may be a bridge too far.
Hamlet’s Hit Points is a queer little gem by author and game designer Robin D. Laws. Technically more a book for role-playing gamers than for authors, Laws’ “beat theory” nevertheless makes a good deal of sense to me – and is easier to apply to individually written stories than to collaboratively narrated games. In addition, seeing a story I know well (Hamlet) broken down into individual beats gave me a way to look at the overall structure of the things I write, rather than the scene-specific focus of the two above.
Now, I know the classic answer from most writers of my generation is the much-beloved On Writing by Steven King. It is a good book, to be sure, and one I did read cover to cover. Overall, though, I didn’t find it as valuable as those listed above. Perhaps a contrarian streak, perhaps just a preference for workbooks and exercises over collections of thoughts. I honestly don’t know.
So tell me – what helps you write? Or, in other arts, from cooking to calligraphy, what are the reference and inspirational books which let you steer your own craft?
The Naming of Things
And the power thereof.
Many of the things I own have names. Part of this is human nature, part of it is a joyful animistic pantheism, and part of it is the joy of imagination.
My last car was named Beez, short for Beezle, short for Bealzebuddy, a friendly little daemon who ferried me wherever I wanted to go. When an accident took Beez to the great big scrapyard in the sky, I found Buzz, who is bigger and bulkier Subaru, and whose primary attraction was a much wider windshield that reminded me of the Apollo missions.
Not that I was there, of course. Still sparked a memory.
My first iPod, a surprise birthday gift from my wife pre-loaded with Gorillaz, was named Goblin. I’ve had three Goblins in succession, but my newest iPhone is Maury, not after the conspiracist on Stranger Things but a corruption of Mawhrin-Skel, the artificial intelligence in Iain Banks’ marvelous novel The Player of Games.
You want plants? Oh, we got plants. Roo and Drew and Hazel and The Twins. I am sad that it took me this long to think of Basilbub just this moment, but then, I probably ought not ingest anything with that name, given my history with demons under the skin.
I’m typing this on Skuld, my PC, named for the youngest of the Norns in Norse myth, who decide the fate and destiny of every man, woman, and child. With as much time as I spent on the keyboards, it’s best to accept a certain hand of fate. Perhaps my next will be Manos?
My paintball marker is Lady M, after Shakespeare’s grandest queen, pushing this gentle soul into the fields of fire and flame, where I seek to slay my closest friends … all in play, of course. All in the name of fun.
My kitchen knives are from Victrinox, but are collectively The Children. Not my children, but The Children, who will feed me in my dotage but whom I now hone and shine and sharpen into the forms which suit me best.
Some things are not yet named, but will be – the bicycle and kayak, once they grow closer to me. The endless journals of paper and leather and black and silver ink.
Some things will go ever nameless, it seems; my clothes as one example, the tools of the dayjobbery another.
Which makes me wonder: What summons a name? Is it familiarity? Commonality? Perceived usefulness to the giver of names? And while we know the magical power of knowing a name, how much greater to bestow one unsought?
Send me your names. What inanimate, or partly animate, friends fill your own home?
And then he woke.
So, um, hello. Been a while, hasn’t it? Looks to be just over one calendar year since I posted anything to this page.
It’s also been just over one calendar year since I created anything I felt was worth talking about, but that, my friends, is changing.
I told my publisher and friend a while ago that I had gone back into therapy, and I have to level with you. Hearing her tell me she was proud of me for doing so made a bigger difference than she could have realized. Words mean a lot to me. They always have.
While that encouragement is important, the fact is that only I can do the work that stopped so long ago. I see people everywhere online doing so. How much music is being made? How many words are being written? How many writers, performers, costumers, photographers, leatherworkers, mapmakers, worldbuilders, sketchers, and digital artists do I follow and envy every day?
I pushed myself away from the only table where I’ve felt I truly belonged, and chose a bog of my own cultivation. By ignoring the nobility of effort, the dignity of work, the excitement of learning, I did not just slip away from creativity.
I slunk away, under my own power.
Success, to me, looks like attention. That’s hardly a surprise to me and shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who knows me. But …
It is the Attention Age. When I realized just how many people were shouting into the void about efforts and work which I judged less worthy than my own, I became disillusioned. Twitter became a nightmare void of incorporeal shoggoths, babbling from a thousand mouths at once, trumpeting the end. Hashtags are fun to play with, but people using the same tag on every post become dull as February ice, gray and worn and never-changing. I can’t abide it, and I fear becoming an obsidian mirror of sameness, I fear being lost in these endless tides which move and shake but do nothing in the end.
And when I compare myself to those whose work I adore – the wondersmiths and wendigos, the ministries of constant love and constant hope, the furious lions of political change, the sheer volume of prolific authors, the youthful vigor of success – ah, how much more do I despair? Because I tell you something true, I haven’t believed I deserve to sit at that end of the table. Slink away, little charlatan, and lose yourself in the mosses and cattails of your beloved bogs.
Yet … still.
Yet still, I want to watch the light of creation stream through every window of my home. I want to see the waters glow, streaked violet and naranjine from firefly skies, to watch the fire pour from eyes and fingers and chakras. I want to feel the chariot pulling me forward, pulling us all forward, riding everywhere and nowhere for the simple joy of moving, dancing along with the invisible driver as music fills the endless air.
I am so, so tired of slinking. I am tired of the nails I’ve driven into my own eyes and hands.
I don’t think I’m alone. So if you needed a message, this is it …
Wake up, little wonders. The table’s not going anywhere. Your seat’s still warm and waiting.
Wake up. Every day.
Spring is so many things to me.
Today, it’s the pull of thick black mud, rich with possibility and riven with seeds, but difficult to get through. It’s a felt-gray sky sliced through with chilly raindrops, pelting your scalp, your hat, the back of your neck. It’s a cold breeze from some unseen high country, carrying a voice which counsels you to stay indoors, to cultivate your patience just a little longer, to light one more fire at the hearth to keep the cool at bay.
It’s not the ideal spring equinox, is what I’m saying here; but it is my forty-seventh, and expecting each one of those to be beauties is simply silly. Particularly in northwestern Illinois. Yes, I’d prefer to plant my butt on the warm and ripening earth and dig bare toes into fresh green grass, to wait for the chill to flow up my spine and welcome me inside come evening with a mug of warmed wine; but I’ll make the day lovely with some braised greens in place of the grass and a hearty frittata in place of the sun.
As if to call it further, I saw a neighbor this morning on my drive – not a rabbit, symbol of the season, but a raccoon, ungainly and waddling, bright of eye and sharp of tooth, held to the hours of darkness rather than day. I don’t mind it. Little clever thieves have always had pieces of my heart, and I was glad there was so little traffic in the hours of my driving to threaten his own little peace.