SquirrelThings Five

squirrel icon The entire right side of my body aches today, from neck to ankle. The pain is centered in my right glute, and the reason for this is just exactly what you’d expect.

Yes. A goddamn squirrel.

…I’d better back up.

I was sitting in my office, minding my own business and writing a citywide conflagration, when the ruckus from outside became too large to ignore. The window was open, since it was a reasonably warm day, and for once both dogs were paying little attention to scrabbling and screeching from outside. They were, I think, both exhausted by the morning’s walkies. Since B was injured, even an amble around the block is an adventure that frays my nerves as well as hers, because she is so goddamn determined to stick her nose in everything to make up for being unable to run it’s a full-time job keeping the leash (and my legs) untangled. And Odd, well, his legs are short, his trundle is arduous, and anything above 60F is much too warm for his taste. (Poor little compromised-airway fellow.)

Anyway, they were both sprawled on the office floor, Odd with his head mostly under B’s skirts. I think it’s a holdover from his puppy days, when she could curl completely around him; now, of course, he’s far too big, and the only thing he can rest against her belly is his ginormous head. She suffers it, of course, as she suffers so much else. And the noise from outside just kept getting bigger.

THING 1: I DID NOT!
THING 2: YES YOU DID!
THING 3: YOU DID, YOU DID!
THING 5: POOP! POOP!
THING 1: I DIDN’T! I DIDN’T!
THING 5: RACECAR! I’M A RACECAR, YOU’RE A RACECAR!
THING 4: SLOW DOWN! IT WON’T HURT!

I had to swing my office chair around, craning my neck, to look out my window at the fir tree in the middle of the yard. Scratching and scrabbling came from up the trunk, so I had to get up and peer out my window.

It was (you’ve already guessed, I bet) squirrels.

THING 5: MRRRRRRROWP! MRRRRROWP!
THING 1: FINE! I DID IT! GO AWAY!
THING 3: YOU DID IT! YOU DID IT!
THING 5: BRRRRRRRP THPING ARGLEBARGLE!
THING 4: COME BACK! COME BACK, DAMMIT!
THING 2: OW! YOU ASSHOLE!

Not one. Not two. Not three or four.

Five. Five young squirrels. They were small, they were bouncy, they were the toddlers of squirreldom, and they were having a grand old time.

I glanced down to make sure I was wearing shoes, even though I was (relatively, I hoped) safe inside my own home. Fortunately, I was shod, and I looked out again, trying to discern what the little bastards were doing. After a little while, it seemed like Things 2, 3, and 4 were attempting to mate with Thing 1, Thing 1 might have been attempting to find a quiet moment to mate with Thing 4, and Thing 5 was simply running around and yelling various things.

THING 5: GILBERT! SULLIVAN! HAMILTON!
THING 4: DON’T MAKE ME COME OVER THERE!
THING 3: LOOK WHAT I CAN DO!
THING 1: STOP BREATHING ON ME!
THING 2: NO NO NO NO NO NO NO!

Ah, youth. Ah, exuberance.

I watched for a few moments, wearing what I am sure was an expression of complete mystification, then glanced back at the dogs. Who were still blissfully oblivious. It seemed a little unnatural, but the noise had started to gradually, maybe they’d simply adjusted to it as it rose.

I settled back in my chair and began to look at maps for roads out of the city I was burning. Research, that perennial writer’s–

The noise went up to eleven. I actually spoke out loud, I was so taken aback. “What the ever-loving fuck?” I stood up again, turning to the window.

My friends, there was gray fluff, majestically floating down from the seventy-plus-year-old fir tree.

It was fur. Actual fur was flying.

Squirrel fur.

Flying.

I don’t know what happened to turn the tree into Squirrel Thunderdome. I do know that they were suddenly serious about their battle, whatever it was, and there was an unholy screech. I had arrived, it seems, just in time to see a meteor plunge to earth.

Well, it was a squirrel. A tiny squirrel. It fell out of the fir tree and hit the ring of rocks at the bottom. And it lay there, supine, while the battle continued raging overhead.

“Oh, fuck,” I breathed. I could tell, sure as shooting, that this boded no good.

TO BE CONTINUED…

Yes, Something’s Afoot

I stepped out on the back porch with my coffee this morning, and a crow landed on the deck railing. She looked at me sidelong, I straightened under the inspection, Miss B for once did not decide to go scrambling after something new and quite probably chase-able…

…and Odd Trundles, wriggling between my ankles, threw himself at the railing. Which held up, thank goodness. The crow rode out the shuddering, cawed sharply three times, and flew away with a wingsnap and something suspiciously like laughter.

After the bees the other day and every cat in the neighborhood coming out to greet me on my 5K yesterday, I’m beginning to suspect Something Is Afoot.

Yesterday I tried cooking eggplant for the second time, and the results were…unsatisfying. I think when I eventually get a grill, I’m going to have to just grill the snot out of some eggplant and hope for the best. So far, though,it’s like okra–I never want to put that in my mouth again, world without end, amen.

This morning I tried the new habit of sitting down at the piano just after breakfast. Hava Nagilah is still difficult, but it’s not making me cry now. I can limp along through it, so not it’s just a question of brute practice. I’m up to the seventh piece in my Bach book, too, and either they’re getting a little easier or he’s just trying to fake me out before dropping something full of sixteenth notes on me.

At least it’s not Mozart. I get the sense that Bach really wants you to succeed and is pulling for you, where Mozart is sort of a bro who really loves adversarial music, deliberately trying to trip you up. I hate rigged contests, so I don’t think I’ll ever like playing Mozart.

In the “really good news” department, B was allowed to accompany Odd Trundles on his daily constitutional yesterday. A very slow, very gentle, very short walk did wonders for her nervous twitches, and stretched out her injured leg. Consensus is it was a simple sprain, and the only thing to do is keep her activity level down until it heals, and watch her carefully for a long while before she can be my running buddy again.

In short, it will be torture for her, but Odd Trundles’s slow ambling is the only speed available for her silly furry butt right now. Every time she gets snitty with me about not going on a run I just tell her, as Hyperbole and a Half so memorably said, “DOG, YOU DO NOT MAKE GOOD DECISIONS.”

That’s all the news from this side of the fence, I think. Now I go back to work revising Cormorant Run and knocking down my List of Things To Do Today, which has grown to truly massive Wednesday proportions. I’m sure whatever the crows, bees, and cats have been warning me of will hit soon.

*sigh*

Star. Wars. Fish.

Our local craft store is home to more than a few kindred souls. I laughed until I sneezed, and nobody paid any attention. (They’re used to things like that, I guess.)

sw fish 1

Betta fish in lovely little vases? Sure. But these fish are special. (Kylo and Solo need to be separated a little more than the others.)

sw fish 2

The Force is strong with them. And syntax theirs strange is.

sw fish 3

This one, naturally, gets the biggest bowl.

Fairytales, Tooth and Claw

Kin-Lili-St.-Crow Once I had written Cami and Ellie’s stories, well, Ruby couldn’t be far behind. I had only foggy idea of what her story entailed. It was one of those situations where I just had to trust that the Muse knew what she was doing and it would turn out all right.

Red Riding Hood has never drawn much of my interest. I suspect Freud ruined it for me. “Don’t go into the woods, little girl. Those are huge… tracts of vast dark sexuality!” As a slut-shaming or even a cautionary tale, I found it objectionable. Even the violence in it didn’t move me. It took me a while to figure out that I didn’t have to listen to the (mostly male) academics (or the male-gaze dominated cartoons or movies or TV shows or or or) winking and nudging about how the wolf was a guy hanging out at the corner to lead a virginal girl astray and RUUUUUUUUIN HER.

Fortunately, my little Red didn’t have to buy into such bullshit.

Instead, her story became about different things. The pressures of love and obligation, for one. Ruby has something I never did: she was born into a tightly knit, loyal clan. It took me a long time to realize not all families were like mine, minefields of pain and degradation. I did go through a phase where I went the opposite direction and assumed other families were perfect, and mine was fucked-up because I was poisonous. (After all, I’d been told for most of my life that I was a mistake, that I made everything worse, that I was a problem.) It took a long time before I realized there was a continuum of family fuckedupness–like much else in life, there’s a gradient. Even a good, loving family is full of pressure. (Even good stress is still stress.)

Ruby spoke to me of things I hadn’t thought of since my own teen years. Boyfriends with quick fists and how they move you bit by bit through a maze until you’re trapped. Hated, necessary duties, and the feeling of being cheated upon learning which things were not necessary. The fear of adulthood, the massive change that hits once school’s over. Suddenly being on your own in a world they’ve told you is worse than what’s at home–because how would they get you to stay if you thought there was a chance of a place where you wouldn’t be beaten or screamed at by rageaholics?

The longer I wrote, though, the more I realized Ruby’s story wasn’t so much an exorcism for me as a synthesis. The structure of Little Red Riding Hood was an alchemist’s set-up, and I was distilling.

Ruby, Cami, and Ellie save each other. Sure, there are princes in their fairytales, but it is the friendship between these three young women that brings them through. It is the friendship that keeps looking for each of them when they disappear, that breaks well-meant (or not so well-meant) rules in order to keep searching, that brings each of them back from their abyss. Each of them is a reflection of the others (those doubles and triples again) and the message they carry is the same.

You’re strong enough. You’re good enough. You matter.

That’s another thing about fairytales–you can choose to find hope or despair in them. Cautionary or elevatory tales, it’s up to you.

Life is dangerous, and when you’re young, there’s a certain lack of proportion. You haven’t lived long enough to understand some things are molehills, not mountains. If you survive (psychically or physically, or both) you can eventually learn. Survival, like telling stories, is most often a bloody process. Even in the best situations, with people who have the best of intentions or who are doing the best they can, blood can be drawn and pressure can mount.

Ruby was always the character who seemed the most “together.” Even Cami and Ellie expected her transition into adulthood to be seamless. One of the more surprising things about her was that she was just as uncertain as either of her friends, she just coped differently. It’s like Madame told me once about ballet class–nobody is looking at you, everyone is worrying about their own dancing. But you don’t know that when you’re young. You don’t know everyone is faking it. You don’t know that everyone around you is as uncertain as you are; it takes a long while before you begin to suspect that everyone is stumbling along in the dark no matter HOW seamless their confidence appears from outside.

All these things came together while I wrote Ruby. All these things went into the cauldron and boiled, and the soup surprised me.

The exhaustion that hit at the end of the trilogy was some of the most severe I’ve ever had. I’ve talked before about snapback–the exhaustion that hits at the end of a book. It happens exponentially at the end of a series. The massive flywheel in your head that’s been powering yo along, pushing this boulder uphill, has too much momentum to stop right away. It has to spin down, and while it does that, your head can feel like the inside of a bombed sieve.

When you set out to tell a fairytale, you’re opening the door to forces bigger than yourself, an accumulated lightning-charge that will teach you all sorts of lessons, painful or not. I’d made it through the woods, to the castle, past the gate. I’d told the stories I needed to tell, the stories that needed me as an outlet. It was exhausting, and I grieved a little, because I knew Cami, Ellie, and Ruby had other mountains to climb as their lives unreeled. I had to say goodbye to them, because they were different people now. It’s a good feeling, but also a painful one. There’s no birth without that pain, no creation without that discomfort. Even the stories that tear their way out, red in tooth and claw, heal over.

If there is a balm to be found in the ending of fairytales, in that happily-ever-after, it’s that even the worst things can heal. It doesn’t have to be ever after, it can just be for now, and that’s okay.

A scar, after all, means you’ve survived.

Perfect Skull

No, really.
No, really.

Me: LOOK AT WHAT I’M TEMPTED TO BUY.[1]
The Princess: DO EET.
Sister 1: …I hope that’s not a real animal.
Me: Uh, no, it’s resin.
The Princess: We can put it on the front step.

If there is a more perfect explication of my, my daughter’s, and my middle sister’s personalities than this, I haven’t run across it yet.

(I had a fairytale post planned for today, but things didn’t work out. Next week!)

[1]No, I didn’t buy it. The urge to bludgeon someone with it would overwhelm me, and that would create paperwork. BUT I COULD HAVE BOUGHT IT.

Fairytales, Survival’s Price

Wayfarer My week of fairytales continues!

I’ve never liked Cinderella. The idea that one must be patient and submissive even under the worst treatment and someday, someday you’ll be rewarded strikes me as damaging at best and a culturally approved way to groom people to be abuse victims at worse. I was always faintly uncomfortable with the endings of different versions–the stepsisters cutting parts of their own feet off, shoes full of blood, casks full of red-hot nails rolled down a hill with the stepmother inside. It wasn’t the violence that made me uneasy, I knew from a very early age the world is a brutal place and safety largely an illusion. It was the feeling of righteousness welling up when I read about abusers getting theirs that made me queasy. I often wondered if those feelings made me just as bad as the stepmother and sisters–or just as bad as the people who beat me.

So when I realized Ellie from Nameless needed her own story, it irked me. I didn’t have the trouble in choosing the tools to excavate it; they came easily to hand for once.

That should have been my first clue that the exorcisms weren’t over.

I wrote Wayfarer during the Great Casa to Chez situation. About halfway through, I deconstructed under the stress, and for only the second time in my life, the words refused to come. I had no emotional energy to spare and yet the urge to write tormented me with spurs under my skin. I would sit down, look at the files open on my desktop, and slide straight into a panic attack because I was too burnt out to feel my way from word to word. Having the urge and being unable to scrape together even a single syllable was a very special kind of hell.

Buying a house is not for the weak.

Anyway, that passed, and as if in payment for keeping the faith, I fell into Ellie’s story as soon as I turned on said desktop in the new house. It occurred to me, now that I’d achieved some distance from the story (not by my own will, but still) that I wasn’t really writing about someone else.

I was writing, in some ways, about myself.

The fairy godmother doesn’t show up when Cinderella is being beaten for not cleaning something properly, doesn’t show up when she sleeps in the cinders, doesn’t advocate with her when her inheritance is stolen. Instead, she arrives before a goddamn ball. Which has always seemed to me like she’s not really very invested in dear old Cindy-Rella, but has an agenda of her own. You find out when you survive a bad childhood that escaping carries a price and risks all its own. Those who offer to “help” you often have their own agendas, and your wellbeing may be only a small (or nonexistent) priority. A few harsh lessons from that quarter and the devil you grew up with starts looking like a marginally safer bet. Some kinds of help aren’t really helpful at all. In other variations of the tale, it’s the dead mother and a Giving Tree who step in to send Cinderella to the ball, and if that doesn’t make a false dichotomy between the dark and passive feminines, I don’t know what does.

Ellie understands very well she’s trapped because she’s a minor. She puts a brave face on at school and doesn’t invite her friends further into her problems than she is absolutely forced to. “Help” isn’t something she feels is possible, it isn’t something she feels she can ask for. When she is finally driven to a certain cottage, the “safety” there is just as perilous as “home.” She does well in school until she can no longer go, understanding it’s one of her few ways out. When you’re that young, and that under siege, isolation begins to feel like your only and safest bet. You cannot trust anyone else, even those who really do want to help you. You fight even the best support, because trust is a liability you can’t afford when you’re holding together your psychic integrity under assault 24-7.

Not only that, but one can often feel…corrupted. Being told over and over that you’re worthless, evil, the worst thing that ever happened to your parent, that it’s your fault they do these horrible things to you, fucks up every sense of priorities, perspective, and worth you might have. The effects go on for years, and even therapy cannot completely erase the stain or the sting.

It can take a long time to piece yourself back together. Therapy has helped me immensely, as well as medication to get the anxiety under control. (Just give me a stick!) I have found people who can be trusted, and I have allowed myself to trust. There was no fairy godmother, even though I wished for one. In the end, it’s Ellie’s own strength, and her bonds with people who are willing to give the right kind of help, that saves the day. The latter is never guaranteed, and the former isn’t either, but I’ve spent my life betting on the latter and am, incredibly, still breathing.

I found out I was stronger than I ever suspected. Ellie’s survival is in part mine too; this is part of why fairytales stick around. Even under the trappings I care very little for–the prince, the ball, the dresses pulled from a nutshell or bibbity-bobbity-booed into existence–there is a hard kernel of truth that can ignite the bonfire I burn all the pain and rage and helplessness in. I don’t sleep in those ashes anymore, I have difference sources of warmth.

But when I go into battle, I paint my face with them, because I’ve survived. That was the story I needed to write, and I think–I hope–I did.

Fairytales, Twos and Threes

nameless One does not simply walk into fairytales. Not without an axe and a pocketful of breadcrumbs, anyway. And when you are inside, you must look carefully at every face, because it carries an echo of its opposite.

Nameless started with a single image: an injured little girl in the snow in front of a gleaming-black limousine. I was about sixteen when the image came to me, and it occurred periodically for years afterward. I didn’t write the book that went with that image for almost two decades. I wasn’t ready, and I knew I wasn’t ready. Still…the story stayed inside me, closed up on itself.

When I was ready to begin excavating, I chose a shovel. It broke, and I had to choose another. (As one does.) Over and over, every tool I wanted to use kept breaking, it took about six before I found the one that would work and settled into a rhythm. About a third of the way through–thankfully, the pickaxe was still holding up–I realized I’ve absorbed, by dint of sheer cultural saturation, the fairytale laws of twos and threes.

Snow White and the Queen are two sides of a coin, the Prince and the Huntsman (Nico and Tor) likewise reflect each other. Once I realized that, the structure of the book almost built itself. The difficulty was stepping into each character. Camille’s terror, and the abuse that robbed her of easy speech, was heartbreaking, but it was something I was familiar with. The White Queen’s fear of old age and death, and her selfishness, was arduous in different ways. It’s a lot harder to feel empathy towards a nasty, self-centered villain.

Actually, I take that back. The empathy is easy. The hard part is suspecting there’s some part of oneself that reflects the villain’s awfulness. We are large, we contain multitudes, and every archetype casts a shadow. To tell stories is to delve into those dark patches.

A character can function as a double more than once. For example, Papa Vultusino (the widowed king) and the White Queen express different conditions of authority. And the old Vultusino and the new (Papa and Nico) are in creative tension with each other, just as Cami’s own shadow-side is reflected in her acceptance, through most of the book, in her persistent feeling of being nameless.

When I was younger, the variations of Snow White filled me with a sort of antagonistic loathing. I hated that she was passive, that she bit the damn apple, that someone else had to save her. Then I went through a period of considering the entire story an allegory, with each character a part of the psyche. There was a time I thought it was about “found family” and how you could be helped by people you could trust when your own flesh and blood betrayed you.

Writing Nameless, though, became about something even more personal. I went into a jungle full of mirrors and shards of other things I’d thought the story meant, in order to answer a deep, almost-unarticulated question from my own childhood–how can a mother injure her own child? I didn’t understand it then, and as a mother myself I don’t really understand it now. It’s utterly foreign to me, but at least writing the story, with each character refracted through its double or split into threes, helped me achieve some sort of tenuous peace.

I have come to believe that retelling a fairytale is similar to performing an exorcism. If one isn’t prepared, it can go badly. The accumulated charge of these stories, told and retold, repeated in threes and sevens, is great to plug into but dangerous as well. Under each variation is a core of something halfway between emotion and truth, taking the strength of both and reflecting. Two mirrors facing each other, and a candle between them to light up the labyrinth. The glare can blind you if you don’t have a ball of thread, or pebbles to drop in each intersection, or…you get the idea.

Over and out.