Patron Saint Bluebell

Hey, listen. I know the world’s on fire. But listen.

I’ll tell you a thing.

On the day after the election, when everything was worst and all I could do was go numb or cry hysterically, do you know what gave me the most comfort?

It wasn’t the words of Lincoln or Gandhi or Maya Angelou, it wasn’t Psalms or poetry, it wasn’t my grandmother, it wasn’t contemplating the long arc of history. It wasn’t even hugging the dog.

It was the Twitter account @ConanSalaryman.

This is a joke account. It’s somebody who narrates as if Conan was working in an office. Tweets usually sound like “By Crom!” roared Conan. “You jackals cannot schedule a mere interview without gathering in a pack and cackling?!” or “Conan slammed his sword through his desk. Papers and blood rained through the office. Monday was slain.”

I followed it awhile back and have found it funny. (I’m not a huge Robert Howard fan inherently, but whoever is writing these does the schtick well.) But if it had not posted once that day, no one would have noticed at all.

Instead, Conan the Salaryman posted something inspirational. And then replied to dozens of people replying to him, for hours, in character, telling them that by Crom! it was only defeat if we did not stand up again, that the greatest act of strength was to keep walking in the face of hopelessness, that the gods have given the smallest of us strength to enact change, that we must all keep going as long as Crom gave us breath, and tyrants frightened Conan not, but we must look to those unable to fend for themselves. (“Though by Crom! We must hammer ourselves into a support network, not an army!”)

I have no idea who is behind that account. But it was the most bizarrely comforting thing I saw all day, in a day that had very little comfort in it. There was this weight of story behind it. It helped me. I think it helped a lot of people. If only a tiny bit–well, tiny bits help.

I have been thinking a lot lately about Bluebell from Watership Down.

There’s absolutely no reason you should remember Bluebell, unless, to take an example completely and totally at random, you read it eleven thousand times until your copy fell apart because you were sort of a weird little proto-furry kid who loved talking animals more than breath and wrote fan fic and there weren’t any other talking animal books and you now have large swaths memorized as a result. Ahem.

Bluebell is a minor character. He’s Captain Holly’s friend and jester. When the old warren is destroyed, Captain Holly and Bluebell are the last two standing and they stagger across the fields after the main characters. By the end, Holly is raving, hallucinating, and screaming “O zorn!” meaning “all is destroyed” and about to bring predators down on them. And Bluebell is telling stupid jokes.

And they make it the whole way because of Bluebell’s jokes. “Jokes one end, hraka the other,” he says. “I’d roll a joke along the ground and we’d both follow it.” When Holly can’t move, Bluebell tells him jokes that would make Dad jokes look brilliant and Holly is able to move again. When Hazel, the protagonist, tries to shush him, Holly says no, that “we wouldn’t be here without his blue-tit’s chatter.”

I tell you, the last few days, thinking of this, I really start to identify with Bluebell.

I am not a fighter, not an organizer, certainly not a prophet. Throw something at me and I squawk and cover my head. I write very small stories with wombats and hamsters and a cast of single digits. I am not the sort of comforting soul who sits and listens and offers you tea. (What seems like a thousand years ago, when I had the Great Nervous Breakdown of ‘07, I remember saying something to the effect that I had realized that if I had myself as a friend, I would have been screwed, because I was useless at that kind of thing. And a buddy of mine from my college days, who was often depressed, wrote me to say that no, I wasn’t that kind of person, but when we were together I always made her laugh hysterically and that was worth a lot too. I treasured that comment more than I am entirely comfortable admitting.)

But I can roll a joke along the ground until the end of the world if I have to. And increasingly, I think that’s what I’m for in this life. Things are bad and people have died already and I am heartsick and tired and the news is a gibbering horror–but I actually do know why a raven is like a writing desk.

So. First Church of Bluebell. Patron Saint.

Keep holding the line.

New Chapters Up

I am tired, friends, and completely out of…everything. But let me give you what I have. I’ve posted three new chapters of Summer in Orcus, because we need comfort right now. It’s not much, but it’s a few thousand words you can spend among friends, and hopefully give your heart a brief respite.

 

Summer in Orcus

Finnish Candy & Kingfisher Dreams

So we recorded KUEC last night, and made, on air, salmari, from a recipe and candy sent to us by our Finnish Correspondent. This is salted black licorice hard candy. You simmer it in vodka in a jar for two hours.

I do not know what is in that candy, but if you have a shot (only a shot! the bit that wouldn’t fit back in the bottle!) of the resulting infusion, while you have been drinking “sipping tequila” (courtesy of Friend Of The Show Petrov) you will have the sort of dreams that religions are based on. (I am told, by our Finnish Correspondent, that this is a known side-effect. Also, the hangover that would kill a demigod.)

I distinctly remember getting up at least five times in the night to drink water and visit the bathroom and I would then fall asleep back into the same dream.

Parts of it were complex and nonsensical and there was a long stretch where I was trying to identify birds in a strange dystopian South Africa with ruined monorail lines hanging over these odd little neighborhoods, while visiting my friend Foxfeather (who actually lives in Minnesota, which may not be the farthest point on the globe from South Africa but is arguably in the running) and fighting off a groups of possessed MRAs who were dressing up as my books to attack the house, and also a woman’s bathroom that included an X-ray machine. This sort of thing is normal in my dreams and not particularly significant. It was when I was driving to the airport (which was in Mumbai, also not terribly close to South Africa) that I stopped at a temple, and things got…odd.

Stylistically, this temple was all over the place–Chinese historical drama architecture with Sri Lankan gold details; statue of Buddha-only-more-like-Shiva-only-hey-have-some-Assyrian-winged-bull-in-there-too-too; held up by Greek columns; with a tiny museum in the front that very strongly resembled the Butter Museum in Cork; and an entryway that was the classic circular driveway, glass & brass luxury hotel affair. Plus when I was upstairs taking photos, I think I was in the Guggenheim. My brain was clearly just throwing every damn thing it had at me to Be Impressed By This.

The temple was 30,000 years old, I was told, and when I said that was a lot older than Jericho, the person at the little museum out front said “It’s been here for awhile.” (I have absolutely no idea where my brain was placing this temple–along the road from Johannesburg to Mumbai, which apparently ran through Ireland, so take your pick.) I wandered around taking pictures. (There followed a sequence where I couldn’t get my phone to take high-resolution photos and much flailing until Kevin fixed it. Sometimes my dreams are tediously realistic.) Then I went into the sanctuary and accidentally stepped into an offering bowl lurking in the shadow of a pillar.

At that point, I realized that the temple was full of people praying and I had just committed a dreadful faux pas. I picked up the bowl, which was full of some kind of shredded fruit and rice, and went to apologize to a priest for having been clumsy. The priest, somewhat annoyed, told me that if I’d touched the offering, I had to eat it–but apparently the head priest wanted to eat with me. So I sat down for a meal with the head priest, during which I apologized a great deal and ate slightly squashed fruit salad, and the head priest told me to come with him. We passed under transparent red silk hangings and into a huge warehouse-like room with branching paths laid out of the floor. He told me to pick one and I wound up at a door with a pale green circle on it.

He opened the door and I was in a long hallway full of wood-carving equipment–work tables covered in wooden blanks and chisels and sawdust. There was a shelf running along both sides of the top of the hallway and it was covered in carved kingfishers, all sorts–I remember half-finished ones with red heads, like a red-crested cardinal. I was completely flabbergasted, and went down the hallway, looking at all these carvings, and then got to a door at the end. It had circles on it like an elevator, only with no floor numbers, and when I touched it, one of the circles turned pale green again, with the number 1 on it.

“The Garden of the Harsh Voice,” said the head priest, and opened the door. It led to this garden full of low bushes, with a huge fish pond, very naturalistic, like a marsh, and the head priest roared and this gigantic pike came out of the pond and roared back. And kingfishers descended into the bushes, all chattering–mostly European kingfishers, I think, maybe a few malachites in there–and I burst into tears and tried to explain to the priest what kingfishers meant to me and showed him my tattoo. And then he ushered me out the temple, and said “Of course I knew that would happen, why else would I leave an offering bowl on the ground like that where someone would step in it?”

And then, because it was a dream and dreams are like that, I discovered that during this incredible experience, I had missed my flight and ended up calling my publicist because my subconscious apparently believes that my publicist is capable of ending all my travel related woes, (which she does when I’m on tour and sends me hour-by-hour itineraries of where I am supposed to be and what happens next and who is taking me there, and I am pathetically grateful for this because by the third day of school visits my brain is a gentle mush congealing at the bottom of my skull) and the rest was spent wandering through a strange city trying to find the airport by following the logo, which was a dancing blue goat with a little arrow on it, and my publicist saying that there was no problem, she had booked me on a direct from Mumbai to Spokane.

I am quite certain there is not actually a direct flight from Mumbai to Spokane.

Anyway, I woke up quite early for me, feeling peaceful and euphoric and lovely except for the bit where I was godawful hangover. I do not know how the Finns drink this stuff regularly and survive.

Journal 10-30-16

journal10-30-16

Ernie’s in pretty good shape, just has some neurological issues as a result of…whatever happened. He turned up in a rural shelter with no information, had heartworm, pretty much as sad a case as you can imagine. Farm Friends Rescue, who are a wonderful local group, took him in, patched him up, and describe him as “velcro dog”–he just gloms onto a person and wants to be near them. He is not very bright, but his issues seem to be mostly balance-related–he tips sideways then rights himself. (He’s listed once or twice while I’ve watched, but it doesn’t seem to be severe at the moment.) We are told he is great with small children and would follow the foster’s toddler around happily while she stuck post-it notes to him.

Everybody in the house gets along really, really well at the moment, so adding another animal is a tricky business–we are a very laid-back, low-energy household for the most part, which is surprising granted how many personalities are at work here–but Ernie so far seems to be very quiet and friendly. So here’s hoping!

Escapism & Representation

So I spent the weekend at the TweensRead book festival in Houston, which was wonderful and amazing, and I found myself having some thoughts.

First of all, if you were still of a mind to question the need for many kids to have books about people like them, this would dropkick it from anyone with an ounce of sense. Over and over and over I heard stories from authors going “I am writing these books because they’re what I needed when I was a kid.” Our keynote speaker, the utterly amazing Jason Reynolds, talked about how he quit reading at the age of nine because the books he was given in school were no one he’d ever met, in a world nothing like his, and had nothing to say to a nine-year-old from D.C.

I sat on panels multiple times with amazing authors, gazing at the back of my fun little book about hamsters, and thought “This is a great truth. We are all writing the books we wanted or needed when we were kids.”

Then I stared at my hamsters and thought “Jesus, what am I doing?

I thought of all the books I read when I was young. Star Trek. Narnia. Roald Dahl. Robin McKinley. Andre Norton. Harper Hall. Earthsea. My struggles to get through The Hobbit. Watership Down. Books of fairy tales. Books about dinosaurs. And then a tween asked about the books we liked to read as kids and why we liked them, and I found myself saying “I didn’t want books about my life. I knew all about my life. I was an expert on it, and books had nothing to tell me about it. I wanted books about dragons and aliens and talking animals. I wanted something else.” And then, because that seemed rather curt, I added “Escapism rocks!” (I try to be very enthusiastic, even when I’m babbling.)

I was the kid who never read a Sweet Valley High book, or the Babysitter’s Club. I liked Honestly, Katie John, which I think my mother picked up at a garage sale or something, but her attempts to get me to read Jacob Have I Loved and Jane Eyre were met with moaning and/or sulking nine-year-old resistance. I was only really willing to read about kids my age if they had horses or if they were stranded alone on a desert island (my copies of Island of the Blue Dolphins and Call It Courage fell apart from re-reads.) I read Little House in the Big Woods because it was frontier competence porn, not because of any great attachment to any of the characters. I had a massive collection of those weird books that were written from the point of view of a non-sentient animal–Yellow Eyes, about cougars and Red Ben about foxes. (I think there were a bunch about foxes, actually. And one about a lynx. And enough Jack London to build a fire with.)

I didn’t want a boyfriend. I wanted a fire lizard.

(As there is no world where a middle-school boy lives up to Tor or Luthe or Ged or Bigwig, I stuck to a rich fantasy life.)

This does not mean, for the record, that I was Not Like Other Girls or any such foolishness. I fit quite nicely into the female nerd archetype, which many of you are likely familiar with. I am certainly not recommending this as a Better Way of Being. (Actually, in some ways it’s probably worse. My understanding of relationships with other people mostly involved Vulcans, survival on desert islands, and a lot of Edgar Allen Poe, which prepares one nicely for being buried alive and not much else. As some of y’all might have noticed, my social skills are finely honed in extremely narrow channels and if you get out of my particular area of emotional expertise, I will go skipping across a minefield whistling and then wonder why things are exploding behind me.)

Now, obviously it is infinitely easier to have the option to read books about kids like you and to reject them then to not have the option in the first place. I wasn’t being erased, I was being annoyed. There were eleventy million Ramona books and Judy Blume and Paula Danziger and at once point or another, I probably read most of them, although I recall a certain weird cynicism toward many elements. (When Ramona is going to say a bad word and says “GUTS!” I recall thinking “Jeez, that’s the best you can do?” I was extremely sheltered in a great many ways, and even I knew far better swear words than that.) We had to read Skinnybones in fifth grade, and I believe to this day that the book would be improved by a desert island, or possibly having the protagonist trapped in a room with the air running out, trying to dig their way free with a spoon.

My memory of the third grade is a bit hazy, except that Having Your Name Written On The Board was the worst thing that could happen to you in class, and our well-meaning teacher, Mr. Christensen, tried dozens of variations on the writing-your-name-on-the-board thing, including one where everybody’s name was up with a window next to it, and if you misbehaved, you got a crack in your window. I remember, though, that as my parents were divorced, I went to talk to the school counselor once a week. I think I was given pamphlets or something about kids with divorced parents that were supposed to be written from their point of view. I have a vague memory of feeling intense contempt toward these pamphlets. Christ, what a waste of type. Not a dragon to be seen.

(I would spend the rest of my life with an intense dislike of Very Special Episodes and After School Specials. Every time they showed us a video in health class of kids struggling with alcoholism or sucide or teen pregnancy, I would slump in my seat thinking “The real issue here is that these people are too stupid to live.”)

I am the only me that I know, so I cannot give you the report from the other me in another timeline who had no books about kids like them. It seems likely that since I had a thousand options of representation, I was free to reject them all and read about dragons. I had the option to view Ramona as a peculiar anthropological oddity (what the hell was zwieback? Why did people eat it?) and identify with Wilbur from Charlotte’s Web. Having that option is vitally important, even if only so that you can choose not to take it. I could afford the luxury of contempt.

No escapism without representation, maybe?

Do I have a point? Oh, probably not, or I’ve forgotten it already. Maybe just that in any class, you will likely have one beady-eyed little contrarian who wants nothing to do with the books that they are supposed to identify with, and would rather take their life lessons from Spock or Hazel or Bilbo.

Maybe just that at the end of the day, all of us authors on those panels really were writing the books we needed as kids. And some of us desperately needed to be acknowledged, and some of us just wanted to escape. And here I am, today, still trying to write books for that beady-eyed little contrarian who never had enough books about talking animals.

Anyway. Great book festival, great people, great everything. Recommend it highly if you’re anywhere near Houston next year.

(And does anybody else remember getting their name on the board?)

 

ETA: By the way, this is NOT to say in any way that fantasy/SFF is free from the responsibility of providing representation–far from it! People want to know that people like them are welcome in fantasy worlds, too! More musings on the weird divide between people wanting books about their world and some of our strong desire to kick that world to the curb…