A better word than joy?

I knew from the beginning that my second novel would be centered around the theme of joy. My first novel was all about our connection to others; I wanted this one to celebrate the authenticity of being oneself.

Because I’m the kind of person who gets carried away with an idea, I decided to center the action around the place on the globe that was exactly opposite of Nigeria, where my my first novel took place. Turns out that location is just south of the equator, smack in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. This fact might have discouraged someone else, I but I was determined to introduce this symbolism of opposites into my already half-developed plot. So I delved deeper and discovered the island nation of Kiribati, and began to write a novel that encompassed a swath of the sea.

Just as “peace” seemed an inadequate word to describe x0, “joy” barely touched the surface of my overarching theme for y1. What I wanted was a word that meant

the sheer exhilaration that can only be found when a person is true to who they are.

We do need a word for that.

The book was orange in my head. Orange for sunsets over the Pacific and orange for crazy-strong exuberance and for all that glows. This had to be a book about the fire within.

I already knew that later in the series I would write a book that was blue, and it would be about the virtues that tug us in the other direction. I’m still struggling to find a single word that encapsulates the theme of my blue book, but I know that it is about something important, too.

Why would anyone call a collection of books 46. Ascending?

I spent most of my free time over the past six years writing a collection of six novels. I’d never written a book before and, now that I’m finishing the last one, I’m starting to puzzle through what possessed me to do such a thing.

It seemed like fun? I’d always wanted to write fiction? Why the hell not?

Part of the answer lies in something I wrote today to put at the end of the sixth book to explain to any curious reader who had stuck with me exactly why I called this collection of books 46. Ascending.

Here is how I explained it.

  1. It is an I Ching hexagram.
  2. It is what I came up with when I decided that my six proposed books could be made into an I Ching hexagram. Those with a female protagonist would have two lines and those with a male protagonist a single line and book one would be at the bottom and book six at the top because I was pretty sure that was how you were supposed to do it. I thought it was a cool idea.
  3. The lines make Sheng, the I Ching hexagram number 46, as I discovered when I looked up the above cool idea.
  4. Sheng answered the question that bothered me most. The question was not “will my books make money?” or “will I sell a lot of books?” It wasn’t even “will these be good books?” or “will I enjoy writing them?” Those would all have been fine questions. But, this I Ching hexagram answered my question “should I do this or not?”
  5. Researching Sheng, I read that “it is a time of development and progress, the direction is correct” and “hexagram 46 shows a time where a steady progression will occur where the predicted outcome is positive  and “keep working on your plans and maintain confidence in their success.” Those all sure sounded good to me.
  6. My research on 46 Ascending also put this quote in front of me. It is always better to fail in doing something than to excel in doing nothing. – Chinese Proverb . It is undoubtedly a good quote for anyone contemplating anything.
  7. I learned that Sheng was also referred to as the Symbol of Rising and Advancing, Ascending, Ascension, Rising, Promotion, Advancement, Sprouting from the Earth, and Organic Growth. Who can argue with all that?
  8. Sheng’s details included “The emphasis is on upward motion, from obscurity to influence, with growth that is supported by adaptability and an absence of obstacles.” and “Make a sincere effort to apply resolute effort against the forces of inertia, bending around obstacles that arise, and good fortune will follow.
  9. In other words, everything I read about the I Ching hexagram told me loud and clear “write the damn books.” So I did.
  10. Was the universe talking to me? Was I talking to myself? Am I lucky I didn’t put the lines in the reverse order? Those are all great questions. But the one I started to consider was how well did the hexagram fit in with the books themselves.
  11. If you asked me what this collection of books was about, from the beginning I would have told you it was about how all humans have so much more potential than they realize. We can improve, we can rise, we can ascend. Climb the mountain. Move towards the light to the south. You know. Grow.
  12. So this collection of books is named after an I Ching hexagram that not only got me off my butt and writing, but just happened to perfectly describe what it was I was trying to say. Go figure. At the least, it seemed reasonable to name the collection of books after it.

What I don’t address at the end of my novel is the question “did writing the books make me happy?” It’s an important question, but it’s important to me, and not really to my readers. That makes it a more appropriate topic for my blog.

Well …

I can tell you that I wrote these books filled with a sense of energy and purpose unlike anything I have ever experienced in my life. Many days, writing wasn’t just what I wanted to do, it was all I wanted to do. It was an addiction, an obsession, and a nepenthe against all the world’s ills. I let it consume me, and I enjoyed the ride.

I emerge at the other end, tireder, older, fifteen pounds heavier and with six years of my life mysteriously gone. But, I was lucky enough to have five people in this world who loved me throughout this process and I was lucky enough to have a way to make a living while I wrote that kept serious worries away. Neither is to be taken lightly and for both I count my blessings.

Everybody always tells you to pursue your passion in life. I don’t think that “everybody” has much of an idea of all that really entails. It changes you in ways you do and don’t like. It’s not always fun. It doesn’t always turn out well, certainly not in the Hollywood kind of way.

But once you’ve done it, you can’t imagine not having done it, if that makes any sense. Like not doing it wasn’t even an option, or at least it shouldn’t have been.

Is that happiness? I’m not sure, but I think it might be something even better.

 

Am I sure I’m Sherrie?

“Do you want to know what I’m thinking?”

“Of course I do.”

“Why?”

It was a trick questions, and I knew it, because we were in the middle of an argument. I guessed he was about to make the point that no, I really didn’t want to know because if I did then I wouldn’t be doing blah-de-blah.

But I was trying to diffuse the situation, for once. I’m not known as the diffuser in this relationship, but every once in awhile I have a good day. So I said ….

“I do want to know, because we are all always changing. If you don’t tell me what you’re thinking, I’ll be loving an outdated version of you, someone who used to exist. I want to love the you who is here now and I can’t do that if you won’t tell me what you’re thinking.”

Oh. We looked at each other and we both realized that, for no apparent reason, I had just spoken a fine truth. I had no idea where it came from. It did kind of diffuse the discussion, though, and we both went on about our day feeling less angry.

Later, as I sat down to work on the novel I am so, so close to finishing, I read the scene I wrote last night before dinner. It was about Zane, the shape-shifting protagonist of y1, the novel that is the basis for this blog. Zane is in my nearly finished book as well, and in this most recent scene he has been forced to assume the appearance of and substitute himself for an older businessman named Warren. Here’s the scene.

Zane woke up Friday morning and he knew that it was show time. The real Warren would be safe somewhere at a location unknown to Zane. Jerry would be in nearby room listening to Zane’s every conversation, making sure Zane behaved…

Warren had a series of appointments that day, starting with the ones that were likely to be quick and easy. First up were the non-telepathic executives who oversaw Accounting, HR, and Legal. Each needed a few minutes of the big boss’s time to approve this and discuss that and be reassured that Warren’s unprecedented absence for the past two weeks had been necessary and that the issues had been resolved. His administrative aide needed time with him as well, and Zane guessed that she would be the toughest one to fool.

But really, what was she going to say. “Are you sure you’re Warren?”

He already knew how he would answer.

“Yes. Are you sure you’re Denise?”

But the conversation would probably never happen. People saw what they expected to see.

I’ve gotten a lot of good things from my obsession with writing novels. I’ve learned facts, met people, experienced a lot of personal satisfaction. But to the best of my knowledge, this is first time part of plot has worked to supply me with the perfect answer to a question.

Am I sure I’m Sherrie? If it’s the April 14, 2017 release you’re asking about, then yes, I’m sure.

(For more short excerpts from my upcoming novel, also see Worry about those you love and write about what you know, Point of View, The Amazing Things I Get to Do, and Cease worrying when you can and write about what you know.)

It’s an angry world in some places.

I do have fantasies of running away. I want to leave behind my chores, my email, and my sense of obligation to be nice. And more than anything right now, I want to get away from American politics.

I’m traveling abroad and the little news that I’ve gotten this week confirms my worst fears about my country’s current regime change. Identities of incoming cabinet members make it clear that the angry non-professional whites are not going to get a better deal any time soon, and that possibility was the only silver lining to this mess that I saw. No, they will only get poorer as the very rich use their new cabinet positions to find ways to siphon ever more money away from the working class, making them angrier and more disagreeable. Not something to look forward to.

img_3287At the moment, I recognize that I have anger issues of my own. I cannot seem to stop seething at those who made the stupid decision to vote for this man, no matter what their reasoning. I don’t use the word stupid lightly. If I hear one more person make the uninformed claim that “she was just as bad” I fear I may loose my remaining respect for my fellow citizens. Please stop chanting “lock her up” and look what she actually did and did not do, folks. Read the results of unbiased fact checkers about who lied most of the time and who didn’t. Listen carefully to the things your candidate said. And then show some remorse for what you’ve brought on this great nation.

Okay, I admit it, I’m not in a forgiving, let’s all come together kind of mood and it looks like I’m not going to get there for awhile. It is probably a good thing that I got to run away for a week, and that it was all the way to Morocco.

This is an ancient land, but one in transition as well. The internet is everywhere, with satellite dishes decorating the top of most of the roofs inside the Medina, the oldest, walled parts of the city. Leaders have worked hard here to eliminate terrorists from their midst, knowing well that it is the peace loving citizenry of a country that suffer the most from its own radicalism.

img_3318Two of my fellow travelers are gay men, and they are aware that homosexual acts are illegal in this country. As in many other places, no one they encounter goes out of their way to learn more about their relationship. In the city, they share a room and a bed, and the housekeeper drapes it with roses just as, I assume, she does for every other couple.

After a few days we leave the noisy mesmerizing city of Marrakesh for the countryside. Morocco is largely rural, with the kind of conservative beliefs that that remind me of my own roots in Western Kansas. Yes, I know, we were Catholic and they are Muslim, but below that surface is the same innate code that people should dress modestly, talk nicely, and behave well. My travel companions are given a room with twin beds, of course. No one would think they wanted otherwise.

img_3399Then we are on to the desolate Atlantic coast in the southern part of the country, where beer is sold and limbs are shown as people from a whole mix of ethnic origins and beliefs come together to enjoy the sea and the waves. Lodging and food are even less expensive and there is a feel somewhere between hippie and surfer. Our hostel beds are several to a room, and no one cares at all who sleeps where, with who or why.

The writer in me is wide awake, her head full of stories begging to be told. Traveling without my computer for the first time in years has meant writing first drafts by hand, something I have not done for decades. At first it felt awkward as I scratched out words and used circles and arrows to move blocks of text round, but by now it has become fun as I rediscover the joy of making a fancy arrow or giving an extra flourish a the base of a “y”. Writing is once again a visual experience as well as an intellectual one, encouraged by the sight of the beautiful Arabic alphabet that surrounds me here.

Part of me wants to stay on this beach forever, or at least for a few more months. I’ve found Moroccans to be friendly on the whole, and as a woman who made part of this trip alone I’ve had no more problems than I would have expected anywhere. And oh the stories I could write here. But I don’t belong in this place. I have a home, one where I and a whole lot of other people are very angry.

It’s time to board my plane. I linger as everyone else climbs up the steps into the aircraft, thinking how I’m glad that Morocco does not have so many angry people. I appreciate that no one has tried to make trouble for me or my fellow travelers. I wish this country ongoing peace as it makes its way along in a modern world. I vow to take some of that peace with me, as I prepare to head home to deal with all the angry people in my own nation, including myself.

(For more about my trip to Morocco see Happy International Day of Peace Lahcen and NajetI See Ghosts, My Way, and That’s Why you Make the Trip on my other blogs.)

Four Reasons I Love It When “Love Wins”

Reason number one: Love makes us happy, and happiness is wonderful.

Several times now I’ve posted about a report on which countries have the happiest people. I’m intrigued that six attributes account for most of this variation, and I summed them up as health, wealth, freedom, love, fairness and kindness. I’ve already written about the first three and today I’m thinking about love.

life lessons6Now, the people doing this survey were not asking questions about romantic love, wonderful as is it. They used a broader definition, by asking something more like “do you have people in your life that you care about and can depend on?” This careful wording included family members and close friends along with intimate partners, and as far as I’m concerned it covered every type of love inclined to bring one happiness. (Unrequited love for someone who does not know you exist doesn’t exactly bring a lot of smiles. A spirited discussion could be had as to whether it is love at all, but that is outside the scope of this post.) Suffice to say, if you have people, or a person, you care about and who care enough about you back that you feel you can count on them, then you have love. Lucky you.

love wins2. “Love Wins” has become associated with the LGBTQ community’s struggles for marriage equality and other rights. I’m a heterosexual woman with a 34-year traditional marriage, and an avid supporter of equality in every sense for my LGBTQ brothers and sisters. Zane, the main character in y1, is gay, and I did my best to present his love affair with Afi as a beautiful thing to be cheered on by anyone with a heart. In the real world, friends, relatives and co-workers of mine are LGBTQ, and every time “Love Wins” it makes me smile too. Love is funny that way. It likes to see more love.

SPLC3. Love wins every time that hate does not. I’m also an avid supported of the fine work that is done by the SPCL (Southern Poverty Law Center) even though donating to them means that I get a lot of letters from them asking me for more money. It’s okay. I glance through them all and give when I can. Recently I got one such letter that moved me more than usual. It discussed the nine people killed a year ago in the white supremacist attack at Mother Emanuel church in Charleston, and noted that “Hate won’t win” were the brave words Alana Simmons spoke to her grandfather’s killer in Charleston.

Yes,“Hate won’t win” are brave words coming from someone who has been grievously wronged, and the words brought a tear to my eye. I know that love wins every time that hate does not.

cosmic conduit 24. The last reason has to do with music. I’m fixing up the music pages on each of my blogs, and today I was expanding my post about David Guetta and Estelle’s One Love.  As the lyrics to One Love say …. “if we stand together than we’ll be okay.” You know, more love wins kind of stuff… and it’s what got me started on this post.

Think of how many great songs there are about love. Luckily, far more than those about fear, hate and hopelessness, although I will concede that there are a few great songs about those emotions too. Yet in the grand overview of musical topics, love wins and I’m glad.

I’d forgotten about exactly how I’d referred to the song in the book, and when I found the excerpt it made me smile.

Joy felt like she was living two lives at once. In one life, she taught Samoan third graders by day, dressed demurely in lightweight long-sleeved tops and loose colorful skirts to her ankles, and pretended to be Afi’s wife by night. Given the vast number of options open to humanity in 2010, it wasn’t a bad life. She wasn’t hungry, she wasn’t hurting, she had a friend nearby, and she was doing useful work. Life came a lot worse.

In her other life, she sailed the ocean, barefoot in a tank top and gym trunks. Her hair blew free while her body moved softly with the thunk of the boat hitting the waves and with the rhythm of her latest favorite song. For the past few weeks David Guetta and Estelle’s One Love had been about every third selection on her MP3 player, and when she wasn’t listening to it she was generally singing the song in her head while she imagined Toby’s hand on her thigh as he sat at the helm of Miss Demeanor. She would see his hint of a smile as his fingers started to rise higher up her leg and then each time he would turn to her, with his soft brown eyes asking her a question. As the song picked up tempo she felt herself smiling her answer back to him and then he always set the sails and they went below deck where the song was playing loudly and life was very, very good.

Of course, that other life existed only in her mind. But anyone who had ever been in love would know that it was the more important of her two lives.

Ah, yes, that romantic love stuff does bring us joy, even when it is just in our imagination.

I confess to having a weakness for amateur videos that make me feel like I am standing right  at a concert and this simple and seldom viewed video of One Love being performed at Electric Zoo in 2011 took me in with its tag line of “right place right time last song.” I’ve had that feeling and it’s a fine one. Go ahead and sing along with the audience, and enjoy letting love win in one more way.

 

(For more posts on the subject of what makes us happy see If you want to be happy move to a cold country?, Happiness fascinates me, None of us are normal if we’re lucky, Some Kind of Kindness, The fairest of them all?, and When is it time for “More”?)

Of awkwardness, birds and monsters

I have a secret motto for my writing. If I put it in my blog it isn’t going to be secret anymore, so suffice to say it has to do with leaving my fears behind as I pen my prose. I believe that if you comfort zoneconstrain yourself to write only what others expect, or what you think others want to see from you, or what you think is acceptable, then you will never write anything great.

So I was happy to see this on twitter the other day, tweeted by @HeyJamie, who is really Jamie Jo Hoang , author of “Blue Sun, Yellow Sky.” I’m not a big liker and re-tweeter, but this got them both.

Which brings me to the song “Of Moons, Birds and Monsters” by MGMT. Not the song itself, which I’ve loved ever since the first time I heard it because it somehow makes me think of magic, but rather my mention of the song in my novel y1 and the scene it was used in.

y1 is the story of a young man who can reshape his body at will. This is all well and good for his solving crimes but if you start to think about it a little more, sooner or later you end up doing this.

Zane had seldom altered his shape to appear female, but except for his height there was no particular barrier to doing so. He could approximate breasts and wider hips. A wig would work wonders. He could add years, and a more ambiguous ethnicity. He would practice making himself as short as possible. The stooping of age would help. Meanwhile, he needed to learn more about a part of Penthes that he had, up till now, ignored, like most people. That was the beauty of the janitorial group. They just did not get a lot of attention.

In his office, Zane began to gather supplies. A janitor’s jumpsuit just a bit too small for Zane, women’s sneakers, and an unattractive salt and pepper woman’s wig were locked in this bottom left drawer along with an old iPod holding the brightest, shiniest pieces of electronic dance music and remixes that Zane had been able to find.

This last item was so much more than his favorite songs. Over the past months he had discovered how he could use music as a tool to push his body to new limits, with the music he loved helping him concentrate as he became ever more adept at controlling his appearance at will. He had finally, reluctantly, let himself begin to refer to his gift in his own mind as “shape shifting” and he now thought of this particular music as his cache of shape shifting songs.

He plugged the iPod into his computer and let himself enjoy the wonderful Holy Ghost remix of MGMT’s “Of Moons, Birds and Monsters.” Zane savored the ocean imagery and the upbeat tempo of the song for a moment, then as he began to coax his body into another form, Zane tried to imagine how wonder itself might be shaped.

IMG_1625I don’t write erotica, so I didn’t end up taking this nearly as far as it could have gone, and yet, well, my hero’s inevitable transformation from male body to female body made me squirm a little at the fuzzy line between the genders. It was probably a good squirm for me to have, given that I live in a world that increasingly acknowledges how complicated human sexuality is and encourages every human to discover and be in the shape that is right for them.  I welcome this enlightened acceptance, but philosophical agreement doesn’t always convey complete ease with something, at least not right away.

So, as so often happens, my writing took me out of my comfort zone and I was the one who gained the most from it. My hero Zane changed his gender a few times before the book was over. I don’t know what my various readers thought of it, but by the last edit of y1, I was better off.

Back to twitter. One of my other favorite tweets came via writer Jose Iriarte, who described himself in third person as “a Cuban-American writer and high school math teacher …  [who] writes because he can’t afford therapy.”

Exactly.  Except for the Cuban-American and math teacher part, of course. Otherwise, that’s it exactly.

While pondering your own monsters and other discomfort zones, you can listen to and enjoy Zane’s favorite Holy Ghost Remix of “Of Moons, Birds and Monsters.”

 

 

Are you “performing,” or performing?

I get the idea for this blog post while I’m doing yoga, right when I am instructed to be “totally present in the now.” This is a common prompt for anything involving meditation, but the problem is that the instructor takes it one step further and asks us to reflect on what keeps us from doing so.

“I know, I know” the eager student in my head clamors.  She likes getting answers right. “I replay scenes from the past, and I concentrate on tasks and I worry about the future.” But then another voice in my head speaks up, and it is less anxious to please.

“Just how effective a human being do you think you would be if you didn’t focus on getting something done?” it asks. “Performing the tasks that help you survive is what buys you the freedom to sit around and chant om and do this other shit.”

“Shhhhh!” I hush both voices, and then just when I finally have things under control, the yoga instructor joins in the conversation.

true voice 5In fairness, he is a profound individual, and on occasion he will mix his own insights into the class practice and this always enhances the class for me.  This day, he has an answer for the question he has just asked. And he wants to share that answer with us.

“Performing,” he says. “You can’t be present in the now when you are performing.”

“I got that one!” the eager student yells in my head. “Performing tasks. It is one of the three things I said. You heard me. I got it. And I get extra credit for coming up with two more answers, too.”

Only it turns out, I didn’t get it. My yoga instructor is not concerned with my performing tasks or my living in the past or the future. He seems to think those are pretty trivial problems. He is hoping to help me avoid acting like I am someone who I am not. He believes that you can only be present in the here and now, when you are authentic.

Okay, that’s another idea. Decades ago we told each other not to be fake, but recent years have introduced the similar concept of personal authenticity. I like the nuances of this new word better. Unfortunately, though, the contribution from the instructor gets the various voices of my monkey mind going once again.

“Do you even know what is authentically you?” one asks. “Good student, good mother, good worker, good wife. You’ve played roles all of your life. When didn’t you?”

“Well yes, we all play roles to some extent.” my calmer and wiser monkey mind chines in. “It doesn’t mean those aren’t facets of the real you. They’re just not all there is to you.”

“Go deep beneath your roles and your accomplishments,” the instructor continues. He is managing quite well to be part of this conversation. What the hell. I take a deep breath and try to distance myself, to become the objective observer he is urging me to become. What do I see?

Psychedelic 16I see a soul sitting quietly on a mat. She cares deeply about things, but has learned to muffle the intensity of her emotions as their force often bothers others.  She wishes to be liked, and she knows that people seldom enjoy another who is too passionate. She is a ridiculous goody-two shoes (is that even still an expression?) who hates injustice, despises bullying, and truly believes in living an honorable life. She exaggerates to tell a story but won’t tell lies, and she would rather be by herself than with most people. Finally, she has never felt like she was normal and she thinks people would like her better if she was.  She has no idea how to go about being so.

“That’s it,” the instructor says. “Reach for the authentic you.”  I occasionally wonder if the man is telepathic.

The woman on the mat looks up at me and she smiles.  She is usually happy, but I know that she is happiest when she is writing. When something she writes comes out just the way she wants it to, she wants to stand on top of a table in a crowded place and scream “yes” several times at the top of her lungs, but of course she knows that would make her even less likable. And possibly incarcerated.

We are moving into end-of-class shavasana now, and a quiet corner of my monkey mind points out that I haven’t exactly been silent throughout today’s practice. No I haven’t. I’ve enjoyed this search for the true me, though, and think that it has been as good as enjoying the quiet in my head would have been. Many paths to the top of the mountain and all that. Today, this was my best way to be in this moment. I think that it doesn’t get any more authentic than that.

(As for what my monkey mind had to say about focusing on the past — see my post Bring back the good old days? on my z2 blog. For thoughts about my never ending preoccupation with performing tasks — see my post Frittering life away? on my c3 blog. And for my concerns about planning for the future, see Prepare for the worst? on my d4 blog.)

When I wrote this scene in y1, I was scratching away at the idea of a person’s authenticity being tied into doing the things that they love. Now I’m even more sure that is true. Enjoy this short excerpt.

“What’s this?” he asked Toby, lifting a large bulky paper sack out of the dinghy.

“Tonight’s entertainment,” Toby replied. Afi’s eyes widened as a single, almost forty-inch-long fire knife fell out onto the sand, its regulation fourteen-and-a-half-inch blade glistening. There was a fire wick and a small can of outboard motor fuel.

“It was just sitting there when I walked into the farmers market,” Toby confessed a little sheepishly. “The man was quite happy to sell it to me, and I figured you could use it to at least start getting back in practice.”

fire dancingAfi shook his head in disbelief and Toby thought he saw a hint of tears in Afi’s eyes. “After dinner I want you to show me and our new crew member what you can do with this,” Toby said.

So after food was finished, the knife and wick were prepared, and as the very last glimmer of light vanished off to the west, Afi did a careful hand spin with the burning baton. Then he tried a slow figure eight. Then a cautious toss and catch, followed by a slightly more confident toss and catch behind his back. Then a bolder under-the-leg throw. He was grinning now, and the muscle memory was coming back. Joy and Toby watched in increasing wonder as Afi’s hesitant movements transformed, until he was confidently moving the glowing stick to the beat of drums only he could hear in his head.

He began to stomp his feet as he moved, adding head movements in the Kiribati style. Toby and Joy gained a sense of the rhythm to which Afi was moving. Joy began softly clapping with the motion, adding a little percussion. Afi grinned in appreciation and she clapped more forcefully. As his movements sped up, her clapping sped with them, and the two of them were working together now to create the performance. Joy clapped. Afi spun the fire knife. Toby watched in absolute fascination. Finally, by the end of the dance, Afi had become a whirling, glowing swirl of orange flame, powered by Joy’s now jubilant participation and by his own sheer joy in the exhilaration of doing something that he truly loved.