Monday, May 25, 2015

Fairy Godsisters of the Internet

Writing a scene may be a solitary sport, but the creation of a written work is ultimately social. All of us writers have something to say and something to explore about what it means to be alive. Our success as authors hinges upon our ability to perceive, learn, and communicate with others.

So much of my writing inspiration, motivation, and quality control comes from the powerful charms of my Fairy Godsisters, women who challenge and support me in various ways--directly or from afar. Most of them are people I know in flesh and blood real life; others are virtual connections that I've made with the writers who generously share their journeys online.

For the next few months, I'll highlight some of the women who inspire, support, or challenge me as a writer. This month's duo are women I've only "met" online, who have already started along paths I hope to take one day, who kindly hold their lanterns of internet sharing to light the way for those of us just entering the woods.   

Kindred Spirits of the Internet

Michelle D. Argyle

I first connected with author Michelle D. Argyle when she co-hosted a blog called The Literary Lab years ago. Michelle is a sweet, thoughtful, and emotionally complex woman who shares many personal and lifestyle traits with me--she's an introvert, a mom of one high-intensity girl, wife of a sexy nerd sword-wielder, and lover of fairy tales and folklore. I fell in love with her fairy tale-inspired novel Cinders a few years back and participated in several fun charity projects and contests that she organized online.

Michelle is incredibly open with sharing the ups and downs of her writing journey, between those quiet breaks that we introverts need to take once in a while. Michelle is a multi-talented and prolific author who has written in many genres, designs book covers, participates in many writers' and authors' events, and has published books herself and through a small press. Last I heard, she was considering seeking an agent for her next book. (Do it, Michelle!)

Follow Michelle if you are an introverted or shy writer who needs a vicarious shot of confidence--watching Michelle take risks, succeed, and overcome struggles has helped build my own confidence as a writer--and has convinced me that building a career in this field will be so much more possible once my little lady starts full-time school!

Mary McMyne

I discovered Mary McMyne when she won a Sustainable Arts Promise Foundation award in 2013. I had written up an application for the same award, to fund a trip to Germany and central Europe to do research for a medieval fantasy novel based in fairy tale. But I didn't end up submitting the application, because I decided that the logistical and emotional hardships of leaving the country without my family would be too difficult that year, even if I received the funds to go. Also, I thought to myself, my idea probably wouldn't win anyway.

Lo and behold! When the contest ended, I made the eerie discovery that a writer-doppelganger of mine had won! Mary is a fellow resident of Michigan, who got married just days apart from me, the same year, and had a baby girl the same year that I did. She won the award for a very similar proposal--to write a novel based on a fairy tale, set in medieval Germany--and went on damn near the exact same trip I had almost applied to take. I scrolled through her photos of medieval German towns and forests in wonderment.

Friends asked me, "Are you jealous?" But that reaction had never occurred to me, firstly because I had decided not to submit the application because I wouldn't have gone anyway; secondly, because I doubt my very similar proposal would have won, Mary being an established, professional writer; and thirdly, because Mary's win gave me such validation that my novel's genre and setting are, in fact, worthy of interest! Better still, I've discovered a new author and virtual kindred spirit to follow as she walks the path ahead of me.

Follow Mary if you are as excited as I am for the release of her medieval fairy tale novel, The Book of Gothel!

Monday, May 4, 2015

Saved by Savoring: Lessons of War and Windigos

Nux bakes homemade oatmeal chocolate chip cookies with fancy ingredients.
"Give us the luxuries of life, and we will dispense with its necessaries," -19th century historian John Lothrop Motley

This was one of my late father-in-law's favorite and oft-repeated quotes.

And he would know. "Grandpa John" was born in a Nazi work camp, enslaved in child labor on a Canadian farm, tormented by an alcoholic stepfather in Hamtramck, Detroit in the '50s (where everyone he grew up with ended up dead or in prison before high school graduation), and sent to a monastic reform boarding school. Then he ran away and joined the circus, developed carnie skills such as sharpshooting, worked as a double agent for the CIA and power-to-the-people movements of the '60s, and surprised himself by settling down with a wife and baby (once he had met his personality match, of course--my mother-in-law was flouncing about town at that time in leopard fur, having a wild affair with an aging mob boss). After spending an idyllic few years as a more or less normal family man, he suffered financial and health crises that left him severely disabled with a traumatic brain injury, living with his family in a rough downtown Lansing neighborhood.

With the support of his devoted family, Grandpa John lived to a ripe old age and never gave up his favorite luxuries such as silk smoking jackets, Cuban cigars, his antique fez collection, flirting inappropriately with his wife in public, painting, drawing, gaming, whimsy, spontaneous glee, and general mischief.

As I struggle to make ends meet in my relatively stable and fortunate life, I try to remember World War II survivor Sophie and her son Jannush--Grandpa John, who rarely had everything he needed and still woke up each morning like it was his exoneration day from death row. Which, I suppose, every day you wake up is. He was just more acutely aware of it than most.

Robin Wall Kimmerer, author, biologist, and Citizen Band Potowatomi tribal member, writes in her book Braiding Sweetgrass that "Scarcity and plenty are as much qualities of the mind and spirit as they are of the economy. Gratitude plants the seed for abundance." In contrast, as I read in a post by Terri Windling, Kimmerer describes the windigo--the zombie-giant-abominable-snowman monster--of Anishinaabe folklore as a metaphor for contagious, soul-consuming greed.

Terri's post startled me because I had just happened to read a story about a windigo the night before I saw her post, for Nux Gallica's bedtime story. Fear not! I totally skipped over some words and phrases--mainly about the cannibalism and how the creature had eaten its own lips off--and in my defense, the story was embedded in an otherwise not-too-scary children's chapter book series about a little Anishinaabe girl, by Louise Erdrich. It's literature, y'all.

The culture I have inherited, as a white American, middle-class, of bootstrapping immigrant stock descended from German Catholics, is a culture that puritanically equates frugality with morality. Now, personally, I don't think there is anything inherently virtuous in self-deprivation. It might be a badass thing to practice (all hail the winners of the realest Lenten promises) and a potentially useful skill, but I'm not that interested in martyrdom. To be honest, I feel like you only live once, and every diem should be carpe-d. I value happiness over material success or prudish virtue. I don't believe heaven waits for us until we die. I'm a carnal, five-senses pleasure-seeker.

A strategic one.

Because I recognize that greed and addiction are the enemies of pleasure. Greed and addiction are states of feeling the pain of scarcity. Desires are motivating. Cravings can lead to pleasure. But feelings of want are only good if they prime you for a heightened payoff. Food tastes better when you're hungry. Water refreshes most when you're thirsty. A soft bed is most comfortable when you're sleepy, and sexy times in that bed are more enjoyable the more you want them.

Addiction cycles are the opposite of a healthy lust because they increase want while decreasing the payoff over time. Consumerism is much like substance abuse--the returns diminish, and you need to work ever harder for less satisfaction. I've learned to look out for this pattern and mindfully break addictive cycles so I can find someone--or something--more satisfying to fall in love with.

This is true for drug dependance, unhealthy relationships, chronic overeating, and trying to keep up with the Joneses. The moment you enter that spiral of addiction or the old rat race, you can't win. Your only hope is to break free and start over.

They say the best way to learn something is to teach someone else. Preferably via beautiful stories. Preferably not via actual wars and winters of starvation. (Thank you, ancestors, for learning so much the hard way and leaving your stories behind!)

Having a child who sucks up a load of your time and resources (click here for the dirty dirt on my personal budget and schedule) while asking a bajillion questions is kind of like living 24/7 with a tiny meaning-of-life guru. Mothering is the most difficult thing I've ever done, and it's also intensely satisfying, in part because all my life, I've wanted to do this so badly. There's also a deep pleasure in overcoming challenges. So after I painfully extricated myself from the lifestyle of my 20-something self--one that had a lot more to do with going out, traveling, spending excessive time and money on cosmetics and fashion, dilly-dallying, procrastinating, and scarfing processed food--I've transformed, through hard work, into a person I like much better, a less anxious and more confident person who knows how to find the veins of pleasure running through my mature life's rugged terrain.

My So-Culled Life

My days now are pared down to the essentials. Parenting-while-not-independently-wealthy is like a detox cleanse for your whole life. After living this way for a few years, I've developed a sincere appreciation for simpler pleasures--and I'm also more sensitized to the fancier things in life. These days, luxuries feel--well, luxurious, instead of routine.

Food: We eat at home now, almost always. My husband and I have both improved our cooking skills, and we consume more fresh, whole, homemade foods than before, along with fewer processed foods and desserts. Because we almost never eat out, we can afford high quality groceries. Food snobs, take note: you get way more bang for the buck than when you're not paying out the ass for service and "ambiance" and sneakily added sugars, salts, grease, and preservatives at a restaurant. When we do buy special treats, we don't bother with junk--we go for the good stuff. (Hello, Mooville Choclinator ice cream!) Mindful eating and food preparation are good for the body, soul, and wallet.

And when we DO go out (like when Oma babysits so we can go on a special-occasion date), it feels truly special.

Fashion: I used to go shopping for clothes at least once a season, just to "refresh" my wardrobe, with a wad of about $500. I thought this was perfectly reasonable. Ha! Maybe this is because I went to high school and college with rich kids, I don't know.

As a grown woman over 30, I now have a dresser and two closets filled with clothes that I like. There is no more fashion "experimentation." I've graduated to a more refined look that exclusively retains only garments that fit me, physically and in terms of personality. I know what I like to wear. I don't feel compelled to try out every trend, and anyway, I'd look sort of pathetic if I tried to copy every look seen on the newest teenage pop star. Now, my celebrity idols are the devastatingly glamorous actresses I see in the foreign films I watch when I'm folding laundry--If you don't believe that women of all ages and body types can be effortlessly and astonishingly sexy, watch more European films. It's witchcraft, I tell you. It emanates from attitude, posture, and unapologetic simplicity--not from desperately over-processed beauty looks or ostentatious clothes. (Sorry, Real Housewives, you look like sad circus clowns next to the eternally chic Liliths of Spanish, Italian, French, and Russian cinema.)

Each season now, instead of shopping, I go through my masterfully organized wardrobe and move forward the items that best fit the season and my preferences of the moment. Stuff that wears out or no longer fits quite right goes straight in the Goodwill bag. I participate in clothing swaps and occasionally (though far less frequently than before), I actually go inside the thrift store on dump days to look for a specific item that I truly need. I buy nothing new unless it's absolutely necessary, and I never pay retail prices or waste a penny on disposable crap. It's all fine stitching and high quality, natural fabrics from here on out! Ah, it feels good to dress like a real woman.

Beauty: See above. After organizing my cosmetics cupboard, I realized I might have a lifetime supply of lipsticks and blushes just from my grandma's Clinique bonus bag leftovers. And as with clothing, I know by now what I like. I need not use my face as a billboard of every makeup fad. At my age, which is both young and mature, I've shifted resources to nurturing healthy skin instead of amassing palettes of colors that may not suit me. My everyday beauty routine consists of skin care, a little concealer dotted on spots, and tinted lip balm. I haven't purchased makeup in years (though a friend did buy me some awesome mascara recently, so I'm not living on crusty old leftovers!), but I just got a coupon for that new Burt's Bees lip crayon, which I will probably pick up on my next grocery trip.

Through my more playful and self-absorbed 20s, I became a pro at applying all kinds of more advanced things, from highlighter to bold eyeliner, on the right occasions. I can slap on some hot red lipstick or smoky eyeshadow in seconds and get the party started.

Music: I used to think I couldn't go through my day without a soundtrack. OK, I still feel that way. But instead of spending hours each week building playlists (or even fiddling with a custom channel), I just turn on the 24/7 music stream from All Songs Considered at A whole lot of my favorite musical artists are featured there, and almost nothing comes on that I hate. And because I'm always with my four-year-old when I'm home, we needed to find a compromise between my German heavy metal and Nux's Katy Perry obsession. The NPR station is mostly chill, yet eclectic and interesting enough to please everyone in the house. Better yet, it's made it easy for me to almost completely stop purchasing music--something I never could have imagined in my 20s!

Now more than ever, my husband and I cherish the rare opportunity to enjoy a live musical performance. Not even the best fabric-speakers-and-vinyl setup can compare to the experience of hearing live singing and instrumentation...

...even when it is performed tunelessly by your own adorable progeny on your vintage electric keyboard! It's so much fun to sing and dance with a kid who is too young to care about talent more than enjoyment.

TV and Movies: Again, only the good stuff. While I pray for The Mindy Project to be renewed, I scour the free realm of Hulu for artsy, foreign films that take me to distant places while I sort socks and fold towels. Going out to a movie theater has happened three times in the past four years. When we do it, it feels like a real treat!

Home: I saw the way you looked at my '80s wallpaper border in the picture of my kitchen at the top of this post. I know. I hate it too. But you know what I love? Living with a four-year-old in a house that I plan to renovate when she enters elementary school. Right now we have chipped paint, scuffed floors, and thrift store furniture with washable slipcovers--and that means no stress about things getting messy, stained, or coated in stickers.

Not just that--I actually encourage my daughter to style her own body, possessions, and living space however she likes--within certain parameters, of course. She can play hair salon with her dolls all she wants--knowing I will not buy her new ones if she gets tired of fashion mullets.

She can choose her own outfits. She can color herself head to toe in washable, nontoxic markers and safe makeup if she likes.

She can glorify my ugly bathroom tiles with bath crayons and bath markers.

In her bedroom, glossy paint + washable markers = go for it, kid!

And I love what she's done with her mini-kitchen and bath crayons.

"Give us the luxuries of life" indeed. There's nobody like a preschooler to show you how to find them in what you already have.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Crack the Nutshell; Enter the Lime Tree

illustration of Allerleirauh by Arthur Rackham
This blog is named after the magic nutshell found in the German tale of Allerleirauh. According to some sources, it was given to her by a fairy godmother; in other versions of the tale, it is just something she has--no explanation given. Inside the magic nutshell are feminine objects of supernatural beauty--ball gowns that shine like celestial bodies, golden jewelry and tools designed to make clothing. In some versions, Allerleirauh's father has given her these things as incestuous wedding gifts--in the first version recorded by the Grimm brothers, it was her fiancee in another kingdom. In every version and variant, she uses these items to control her own fate.

I love the magic nutshell because of all the symbolic power it holds in its small, simple form.

It symbolizes femaleness, fertility, and the seed of life. The meat inside is precious food. Crack the shell in half, and you see a heart inside. Take off the green hull, and you see ink on your hands--ink that was used by many ancient people for writing.

In folklore, there are plenty of stories of magic found or held inside a tree or a part of a tree--a branch, a fruit, a hollow trunk, or a nutshell.

I just discovered another of these stories, in the 1914 Norse collection illustrated by Kay Nielsen, East of the Sun and West of the Moon: Old Tales from the North. "The Widow's Son" mirrors the story of Allerleirauh, with the genders reversed--the hero is a boy called simply "the Lad." I was delighted to find Allerleirauh's gender-twin, having believed that it must exist somewhere, because all the old tales seem to have gender-flipped variants, from "Cinderella" to "Beauty and the Beast," throughout the folklore of Europe, from the British Isles to Eastern Russia. Until I read this book, though, I had not discovered a single one for "Allerleirauh."

Instead of a bad widower father, the Lad has a bad widow mother. Allerleirauh runs away because her father wishes to marry her; the Lad's mother kicks him out on the street because she can't afford to feed him. (At least she doesn't try to eat him as some fairy tale parents do.)

Instead of a magic nutshell, the Lad keeps his impressive treasures in the phallic trunk of a magic lime tree (an odd species to be found growing in a Norse tale, but a folktale does travel and mix like a gypsy punk caravan).

Allerleirauh and the Lad both set out to work as servants for a royal household, disguised as crazy homeless people and sleeping under stairs; Allerleirauh wears a patchwork fur hood and soot, while the Lad wears a wig of fir-moss and smears of dirt.

Both are summoned to the suspicious, opposite-sex king/princess's bedroom on successive nights; Allerleirauh gets boots thrown at her face, while the Lad gets a place to sleep by the doorway.

Both appear three times in their magical garb but run away before the royals can find out their identity; Allerleirauh attends fancy balls, while the Lad engages in battle wearing shining, beautiful armor. Both are discovered while in disguise by an object placed on their bodies while they were in their magical garb--Allerleirauh by a golden ring, the Lad by a handkerchief tied around a leg wound. Both have their lovely hair forcibly uncovered by their suspecting royal; Allerleirauh's king throws off her hood, and the Lad's princess orders her maid to yank off his wig while he sleeps.

In both cases, then comes the royal wedding.

I love this story and all its densely packed symbolism. It's about growing up and leaving home, separating from one's parents to find a mate, and all the danger and indecision and vulnerability of revealing one's true nature to a romantic partner. In both gender variations, it's the vagrant (even if one is a runaway princess) who initiates contact but the royal who does the pursuing. The visual images in these stories are so evocative (even without these gorgeous illustrations), and the sensual tension runs high.

Alone, the story of Allerleirauh looks like a tale about an oppressed female character using all of her wits and resources to survive in a male-dominated world. And so it is. But if Allerleirauh shows us how bad it is to be a woman in an oppressive patriarchy, the Widow's Son shows us how much worse it is to be a man in the same context. Because in the world of folktales, filled with gender-reversed variants of every story, it becomes clear that masculinity and femininity were not defined by whether one was the hero or the prize, the brave one or the innocent, the one with the pretty hair or the one who was desperate to see it. Gender was all about tools and trades. Allerleirauh's "battles" are fought in ball gowns, and her tools are innocuous household objects. The Lad's finery is armor, and he wears it on an actual battlefield. When she is decorated with a ring, he is festooned with a bandage for his arrow wound. At first glance, it seems that Allerleirauh's love interest treats her worse than the Lad's, but it is his life that is in danger, not hers. Allerleirauh's ill-treatment is more insult than injury--certainly with the implicit threat of worse--but it would not be expected for the king to seriously injure, let alone kill her. However, when the princess brings the Lad into her bedroom to toy with him, she knows full well that her father would have him executed if he were discovered there.

If I could choose my weapons, I'd take a ball gown over a suit of armor any day--a pen over a sword, a golden trinket to trade over a spear to throw. I love prettiness, femininity, relative freedom from violence, and the emotional complexity of being a woman. I can imagine the thrill of those who enjoy wielding physical power, but I'm glad to be a lady. And so I celebrate the power of the magic nutshell.