Meet the main cast

Sometimes I forget, after years of working with my characters and nattering about them to any friends who are willing to stand still, that all everybody else has by way of introduction to them is the cover blurb and jacket copy. So here is a brief introduction to the five characters who serve as our eyes for the story of Ryswyck.

Stephanie Speir

Speir was the first character to develop a viewpoint in the embryonic story, and she is our ‘in’ to the world of Ryswyck Academy. By necessity she’s capable of reflecting on what she encounters, but given a choice, she really wants something to do. She has the fighter’s addiction to total abandon — in whatever arena she finds herself in. Her greatest strength (and greatest weakness) is her drive to set things right for people she cares about. Her motivating force is velocity.

(Disclaimer: The person in this picture is a real swordfighter and not an actor, and though I’ve been fascinated by this image ever since I first encountered it, I don’t know how much she’d appreciate being made the avatar of some rando’s original character. So I use it with cautious respect. Forgiveness, permission, &c.)

Walter Douglas

My first outline notes for “the Academy story,” to my amusement, contain the parenthetical aside: Is any of this in Douglas’s POV? It takes a while to draw him out, but once his presence unfolds, the pull of his gravity is irresistible. Continuously aware of the big picture, Douglas is not hasty to act, but when he does, it’s decisive. He loves deeply, and so can be hurt deeply. He’s not a visionary by nature, but he is a determined idealist. His motivating force is integrity.

(The image: Luigi Lucioni, Paul Cadmus, from the Brooklyn Museum.)

General Thaddeys Barklay

Ah, Barklay. In this story, everybody has an Opinion about Barklay. And nearly all of them are right. Like many visionaries, he is wilfully blind to his own compromises, and skates over the discrepancies between his visions and reality. Is he a good man who does terrible things, or a bad man who does some good things? My advice: don’t get hung up on the question. I write from his point of view because I wanted to evoke what it feels like from the inside to want to be justified, even when you know you shouldn’t be. His primary grace? He knows it’s not about him.

(The image: Hugh Bonneville, looking appropriately seedy.)

Emmerich du Rau, Lord Bernhelm

One of these days I’ll write a post about the collapsing option trees of choosing a structure. And du Rau will be at the center of it. An elusive man, du Rau is the Lord Executive of the country of Berenia, the antagonist of Ilona, the island country of my other characters. I wanted to write from his POV because I was tired of stories in which the enemy is the Other whose perspective is either given no place or depicted as evil. Forget that. Du Rau knows intimately the desperation of his water-starved people, and has leveraged all his leadership behind his plans to make Berenia stable and safe. He has more than one secret weakness, which he guards from view with the help of his wife, Lady Ingrid. In his youth he was friends with Barklay, before the war. Now he is an implacable enemy. Like every other member of the main extended cast, he is indispensable: without him, the ultimate situation would utterly deteriorate.

(The image: just imagine Diego Luna here aged up a little.)

General Eamon Inslee

In this landscape of idealists and antagonists, Inslee is just a practical man trying to run a military installation on an inhospitable rock. He views the Ryswyckian culture of courtesy with an ironic skepticism tempered by suspended judgment. Wise and (mostly) patient, he has a sneaking admiration for passionate skill, but that’s not going to stop him from doing what he has to do. His POV is there to remind us that there’s more than one valid approach to the grind of military duty, even if those approaches come into conflict. Plus, I really enjoyed writing his dry sense of humor.

(The image: it’s hard to find a good type of what my idea of Inslee looks like, but here’s Kevin McKidd doing his level best.)

So there you have it: the people whose perspectives open the world of Ryswyck to our eyes.

This ain’t your usual Stadium Rock

According to Mark Polizzotti, when Nikita Khrushchev declared “We will bury you,” his immediate translators did not do the Russian phrase any favors. Rather than issuing a direct threat, Polizzotti says, Khrushchev was saying that they would survive, outlast, be vindicated by the eventual demise of, the West. Not that anyone in the West cared for nuance at the time; believing your enemy to be wholly malevolent is a time-honored tradition in wars both cold and hot.

It’s possible Khrushchev knew this and didn’t feel like he had much to lose no matter how the phrase was translated. If so, I get the sentiment.

This morning I went down to the absentee polling place set up by my local election authority and banked my vote. I don’t usually vote absentee, though if I lived in a state with proper early voting I would certainly do that — but I wanted to get the basics out of the way ASAP. Now to the next thing: getting everyone I know and care about to do the same thing however they may.

Just do it. Just vote, as soon as you can. Why? Because the only possible answer to this revanchist zombie confederacy of misogynists, white supremacists, and white-collar thieves is to bury. them.

Bury them in an avalanche of votes, everywhere. Everywhere. You don’t live in a swing state? I don’t either. I don’t care. Bury them. You didn’t begin with wanting an ideologically unexciting septuagenarian white man at the top of your side of the ticket? I didn’t either. I don’t care. Bury them.

And if you’re already on the same page with me, I have an offer to make.

For at least fifteen years I’ve been following journalist Al Giordano for my electoral politics news. And for the last five years or so I’ve been subscribed to his newsletter, América, which he puts out on a semi-regular basis. He’s the most level-headed, light-hearted source of politics news in this country (and out of it). And when someone comes to him freaking out — and let’s be real, there’s plenty to freak out about — his answer is invariably, What are you doing about it?

Today, this is what I’m doing about it: I’m offering to subscribe an impecunious fellow-traveler to a year’s worth of Al’s América newsletter. The subscription fee is an $80 contribution to the nonprofit Fund for Authentic Journalism, which trains journalists and community organizers for effective work on the ground where they live. Besides the newsletter, subscribers get full access to the Fund’s website, Organize and Win — and thereby to a whole community of ordinary folks across the country and overseas who are doing things, however and wherever they can, to make a difference. This is good value even in a year that is not frickin’ 2020.

It so happens that I have $80 right now, and I want to subscribe someone who doesn’t to a gold mine of good reporting. If you have $80, you should subscribe too. The pandemic has hit everybody in the pocketbook, some harder than others, and the Fund for Authentic Journalism like many nonprofits depends on donations and subscriptions for its bread and butter. So if you would like this subscription and need the scholarship, don’t be shy, drop me a line by email, comment, or social media message, and I will give your preferred email address to Al for the subscription rolls with my donation. You won’t be sorry!

And, in closing: VOTE.

The gift of dynamic readers

Without getting into that whole death-of-the-author thing, there’s no denying that once a book is out there in the world, the die is irrevocably cast in many ways. The author can’t really take it back, nor trail around after their readership explaining what they really meant, nor prescribe how people read the book when they pick it up, nor adjudicate their opinions once they have. In many ways, a book is its own and only advocate; it stands or falls on whatever ground it is written to occupy.

So when I say that dynamic readers are a gift, I don’t mean that I-as-author can or even want to do any of those things. As Flannery O’Connor says, “When a book leaves your hands, it belongs to God. He may use it to save a few souls or to try a few others, but I think that for the writer to worry is to take over God’s business.” Letting God mind God’s business is a lot easier said than done, generally speaking. But most authors want to get their trajectory right without having to correct it in midair.

Which is why we still crave the return of evidence showing where the arrow landed. And that’s where dynamic readers come in.

I would have said “engaged readers,” but that term has dropped out of the realm of vital encounters between individuals, and fallen into the pan of ad-speak. I would have said “transformative readers,” but that comes on a little strong. “Active readers” doesn’t come on strongly enough.

A dynamic reader is one who, well, engages with the text and then makes their engagement known either to the author or to the public at large, in a way that reveals something about the text that the author couldn’t say or didn’t know. I have a pretty modest and quiet readership, so finding a dynamic reader is like gold.

Here’s a thing I didn’t really know about Ryswyck before a reader showed it to me: the characters grow slowly on the reader until the first major plot turn, when the security breach happens. Oh, I knew that the first two or three chapters were slow; I made a deliberate choice to start the story where I did despite the risk of losing people — which I suspect has happened more than once. What I didn’t know was that there is a certain point in Act One where readers tend to look up startled and realize that they’ve been drawn in, that the characters have got them compelled, that they’re invested.

It’s not that I wasn’t employing the skills at my disposal to make that happen. It’s just that I can’t know I succeeded till it actually does happen.

And that leads to the other face of the thing I didn’t know, which is that the characters — Speir and Douglas and Barklay, at least — are Ryswyck‘s own best advertisement. Intrigue, sure. The community, which I was determined to write as a character in its own right — absolutely. But those need advertisement. Let a reader get to that certain point, and the characters will advertise themselves.

This is actionable data. We likes it, precious.

Not actionable in the sense that I can or want to do anything to the book that’s out there. But there are things I now know I can and should keep doing, or do again to calculated effect.

And it’s extremely gratifying when a reader grasps things you tried to do, and tells you about it. When a dear Community friend went down to officiate at V’s funeral, I asked her to bring back the copy of Ryswyck that I inscribed to her, as she was bringing things away from V’s apartment. Now, I didn’t at all plan this, but putting a book in C’s possession, even for a short time, is a temptation to her to read it; so she read it, despite avowing that she didn’t want to read a Long Book in a genre she dislikes.

The next thing I know, she’s texting me with raves about how much she’s loving it. (You never have to wonder what C’s opinion is about a thing.) Then when she finished it we talked for two hours on the phone, about what we could have said in a three-cornered discussion with Virginia about it, about the nature of offerings, about du Rau’s secret illness, about Barklay’s peccadilloes and the thematic choices thereof, about my allusions to the Gospel of John, which I put in for Virginia and myself but which C did not fail to notice. There’s not much that she does fail to notice — and remember well enough to quote and ask questions about. After one reading.

And that really is a gift, a gift to me as an author as well as a friend. Other people might read my book as observantly and enjoy it as much, but no one’s obliged to tell me so. No one’s obliged to dig into the text up to their elbows and play with its ideas, explore its ramifications, have a dance with the story — or a duel. And if they do, I might never know about it. And that’s just the nature of sending a book out into the world.

“Are you going to write a set of questions about Ryswyck for book discussion?” C asked me. I hadn’t; I hadn’t thought Ryswyck the kind of book that would be in much demand for discussion groups, nor any idea what its readers would even want to talk about if they did.

But I sure do know who I’d like to ask for help writing the questions.

The ground-clearing of nonviolence

After an annoying spate of illness and a negative COVID test, I find myself with a small backlog of ideas for posts. But I think I won’t do an omnibus post for them, so here is the first topic: nonviolence.

The first thing everyone has to do when they raise the topic of nonviolence is clear the ground for discussing it. That is, we’re obliged to give some kind of sop to the idea that nonviolence “doesn’t work,” or “isn’t realistic,” or is somehow the province of the impractical, the unambitious, the servile, the passionless, and the naive.

I’m sure there are more than two ways of clearing this ground, but I want to talk about two: the tactical argument, and the strategic argument. The tactical argument is very familiar to me: nonviolence, it goes, is actually more tactically useful and effective than violence when it comes to leveraging, say, protest for change, or wrongfooting someone who is trying to dehumanize you.

I’d say that’s true. The disabled sit-ins in support of the ACA and Medicaid were far more effective tactically than many a “dirtbag” protest roundup. I’ve already noted how Michelle Obama’s dictum, “When they go low, we go high,” is (among other things) a way of offering generosity as a gift before racists can demand it of her as their rightful due from an inferior. Disrupting the script of oppressive action and reaction is itself a good tactic.

Then there’s the strategy of nonviolence. Nonviolent direct action does not take place in a vacuum: it takes place in a social context, in a nexus of relational connections between individuals and families and affinity groups, “the inescapable web of mutuality,” as Martin Luther King Jr. put it. The one who avoids being reactive is the one who can advance the more convincing insight into reality. Why would you let the oppressor decide what “reality” is and set the terms of the interaction?

So, thus we clear the ground to be able to talk about nonviolence and dispose of all the usual scornful stalking horses that seek to dismiss the topic as not worth examining. As G.K. Chesterton said of Christianity, nonviolence is rarely tried and found wanting; it is found difficult and left untried.

Because it is both concise and entertaining, I link theologian Walter Wink’s interactive lecture Nonviolence for the Violent — a title that acknowledges from the outset that people don’t undertake nonviolence because it is easy. Wink is interested not only in Jesus’s tactics of nonviolence, but in a larger critique of what he calls the “domination system” — a homeostasis of violence that strikes downward in the social order and has resisted eradication even by religious communities founded specifically to destroy it.

And in another vein, I also link Judith Butler’s present-day exploration of the strategy of nonviolence as shaping and being shaped by a more relational reality. (I found this link because of her recent interview pushing back against terfs’ efforts to pass themselves off as the face of mainstream feminism: another present-day instance of reactivity closing down the horizons of reality.)

Now wait a minute, you might say. Didn’t you write a book about war in which the characters celebrate the principle of single combat in an arena spectacle? And you’re talking about the superior tactics and strategy of nonviolence?

Yep.

Because as Judith Butler makes clear, we have refused to frame nonviolence relationally or use it as a tool of vision to reshape social reality, no matter how many times MLK told us that that was the whole point. Individual Ryswyckians may love combat or hate it, but the use of the arena is specifically to frame reality as a place in which people interact with one another in unambiguous mutual equality. The use of the community of Ryswyck is to foster respect for the other, both in body and soul, even if one is obliged to hit them.

The use of institutional violence, on the other hand, is to do mortal harm to the soul, to the human identity, of the other: to insult their existence by using their body as an effigy. Nonviolence isn’t about not-hitting the other, as Butler says. It’s about not using the other’s body as an instrument of insult.

“It’s deadly force that wins wars,” one of my characters says at a turning point in the plot. “But only courtesy can end them.”

So why clear ground for nonviolence now? Because otherwise we will be allowing the horizons of reality to be closed for us. I don’t need to tell you what’s going on outside: we are being treated to a vast spectacle of violence done by people who are so afraid of mortality that they have to pretend that dying is something only bad and stupid people have to do. So they tweet and rage and vandalize and kill and refuse to wear their goddamn masks for the common good. Is this who we want telling us what reality is? Is this who we want setting the tone for our concerted plans and efforts as a (trying to be) civilized society?

With the ground clear, this is my advice: put away any hint of thinking that your opponent’s body is to be used as an instrument of insult. Get with your neighbors in this network of mutuality we’re in, and start making plans now. Don’t wait to react. Start thinking about the reality you want to see acknowledged, and who you need, and who needs you. If you haven’t already, get used to the idea of making common cause with people you don’t agree with.

And stay tuned for one of my other topics on deck, which is: Vote.

On stories and “On Stories”: or, how I updated C.S. Lewis’s argument by accident

Recent reading — my own and others’ — has inspired me to tackle a subject that’s been simmering quietly for a while: the value of writing stories that satisfy expectations.

This has been brought to mind by my social media’s reactions to Harrow the Ninth (which I haven’t read yet), leavened by the occasional post complaining about showrunners killing people or plots off to frustrate their viewers’ expectations that bobs up in the Tumblr flotsam from time to time, and topped off by a recent mention of Gérard Genette, of all people, on my dash.

Any post I was going to make about plot and story was bound to reference C.S. Lewis’s essay “On Stories,” in which the most memorable passage to me was about the quality of “surprisingness” in stories being what makes them worth reading more than once. So I pulled out that essay and reread it, and was rather shocked at how unwieldy the argument was. Lewis does not, for instance, have handy access to the idea of the trope. (If he could surf TV Tropes he’d know exactly what it was all about, but half his argument was circumlocution trying to get at what the word represents in our present fora.) He seemed to think that if a story had Things Happening, explosions and travels and adventures of various sorts, it would by definition not be concerned with character development or social commentary. I had to remind myself that in 1945 Lewis has not read N.K. Jemisin or even The Old Man and the Sea. Benveniste is not in his rearview, much less Genette or Joanna Russ or René Girard or Walter Benjamin.

Nor has he read Robert Alter, who, I note, did not have a chapter devoted to Plot or Story in The Pleasures of Reading in an Ideological Age — in blogging about that book I had to get at those things sideways from his chapters on Structure and Character and Perspective. (So it’s possible Lewis was right about critics having a blind spot there.) Yet part of Lewis’s argument is still relevant, if we clear away the class snobbery he festooned it with: that danger (no matter what quality) and plot twists (even — or especially — if executed in an adversarial spirit toward readers’/viewers’ expectations) can be a weight against the attraction of the story’s central idea; that being able to project what will happen is not by definition a flaw in a story; that “surprisingness” in stories isn’t actually generated by surprises.

I find this borne out by both how I read and how I write. I’ve mentioned before that when I pick up a book, I give my full credulity — and the author has to work to lose it. This extends, very often, to not guessing the murderer in mysteries even when fellow readers have it worked out halfway through; I’m often not just struck by the surprisingness of a story but by actual surprise. But if I really, really liked a book, the first thing I do is turn to the first page and start reading it again. If I like it even more than that, it winds up on my bedside table, or sits open while I eat dinner.

(Oh, that reminds me — I need to put out my copy of A Memory Called Empire so I won’t forget to lend it to F.)

The plots I choose for the stories I write are sometimes flagrantly projectable. With some plot points, my feeling is that if you didn’t see that coming, either you’re as credulous a reader as I am, or else I did something wrong. Sometimes the excitement of a story depends not on not knowing what will happen, but not knowing how it will happen. That’s halfway to “surprisingness” right there. Even so, I’ve had someone comment to say they figured out a story’s punch line early on, like I was trying to hide it and failed. Uh, I…wasn’t? Good for you?

We’re so aware of tropes now, so sensitized to their particular pitfalls of laziness and bigotry, that we rec a book or film or show to someone on the grounds that it “does interesting things” with the tropes of its genre — sometimes by subverting them but sometimes also by giving them their full dimension. Tropes themselves can be spoilers: there’s another handy word not circulating in 1945. I like to avoid spoilers when I can…but it’s not the plot so much I worry about being spoiled for. It’s the quiddity of the clutch moment and all that ties into it, the thing I like to come to without preconceptions being formed.

And it’s hard to market a story with “This story has Fencing and Explosions and Submarines and Grief-fueled Sexual Interludes, but they don’t necessarily happen right away because the story is Not Entirely About That” — though in keeping with strict truth in advertising, that’s my shortest pitch for Ryswyck yet. Despite the common currency of tropes as story foundations, it’s not (yet; Netflix seems to be working on it) the thing to sell or rec stories using nothing but the tropes they contain. (Though honestly, if someone maintained a rec list or a database of titles searchable by their tropes, I confess I’d use it. TV Tropes is too haphazard and sometimes disappears up its own whatever from high atop the thing, or induces me to do so, which is why I stay away.)

But even without that, we’re living in a rich, if somewhat frangible, critical environment, where you can seek out stories based on whether you want surprisingness or merely to be surprised — and have a menu of options for each. You can squee with an Oxford don on Twitter about Doctor Who, or read elegies for Chadwick Boseman from a savvy working man, swap Old Guard gifsets on Tumblr with a scientist on the other side of the world, or start a critical revival of Charlotte M. Yonge on Facebook. We’re all hoi polloi now; and possibly, if Jack Lewis were here to observe it, he’d call that the most surprising plot twist of all.

Review: Jo Walton, Or What You Will

Because Erica so much enjoyed this book for the meta of writing that so easily beguiles writers into nattering about their process (I say; beware), I thought I had better read it. I checked out the ebook at my local library and read it over the course of a few days, and gave it the standard four stars on Goodreads that I always give to books that I enjoyed and that were well-written.

(Honestly, the star method of rating books is so two-dimensional. If only there were some way of rating books with an opaline sphere with colors for the quality of writing, colors for the emotional pull, colors for the personal impact, &c. But that’s not very useful in late-stage capitalism, is it? No, it’s five stars or bust, for book evaluation as for customer service. I hate to think I might be letting good authors down by not giving them five stars, but I can’t help using the metric the way I think best, and anyway, writers can’t be fired — or even deplatformed, as the opal orbs of their past indelible impacts would testify if only they could. )

— Clearly, I’m still under the influence of the narrative voice of Or What You Will, which is effortlessly strong, like a deep, pellucid current. How else could Walton get away with writing a book in which the entire first half has maybe one chapter devoted to the vehicle story and the rest a series of digressions about — if you do not come too close, if you do not come too close — the history of Florence, the history of the author being narrated into being by her own muse, the history of Montreal, the nature of religious experience, the evolution of a writer’s relationship to her own past art, and anything and everything the muse thinks important to enlist our participation in his project of saving Sylvia Katherine Harrison’s life. Or her soul, as the case may be, if there be a difference.

(And anyone who knows me by my fanworks knows there is no way on God’s green earth I wouldn’t notice all the references to T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. Anyone who’s read my fic, that is, or Virginia, who’s not here for me to talk with about this book. The moment when a loved one of the author texts her that they can’t wait to discuss a book with her, but dies before they can, gave me a pang.)

From a writer’s point of view — and for all I know, from a critic’s — this book is a narratological puzzle box, bound to give delight to those who like such things. Would people who are not writers or critics find it self-indulgent? I don’t know, but the thing I said out loud at one point was How the fuck is she getting away with this?! — so Your Mileage May Vary is not going to apply if Our Muse succeeds in getting you on a Vespa, which he probably will if you’re interested enough to pick up the book in the first place.

I am not sure the ending quite succeeded for me, after all the buildup, after all the debate between author and muse about what is real in the real world and what is real in the worlds of her invention. But then, the narrator is ultimately thinking about his own life and soul, and I can’t help centering on the author’s — and the narrator’s arc is satisfying, so far as it can be (and the fire and the rose are one).

I can’t help thinking about characters I drew up when I was in my teens and early twenties, and how, in some respects, they saved my life, by living out stories — and sometimes telling me about it — that I needed to “see” lived out, as some kind of internal healing mechanism. (In some ways, especially that way, writers are always seeking eucatastrophe.) I suppose it was while writing what’s so disparagingly called “self-insertion” fic that the germinating plant began to peel away from the cotyledon’s husk: a prolonged meta exercise like writing yourself into a media-property story teaches you exactly what wishes can be fulfilled, what parts of yourself you can save, and before very long at all the avatar I’d built was an entirely different character with a different trajectory, different preoccupations, different needs. She was a lot more heteroromantic than I am, to start with; but I didn’t know that at the time.

In any event, I didn’t do much of that with my characters in Ryswyck. The situation was the other way around; instead of saving myself (“saving” like Dante’s “salute” — greeting with true recognition which when you think about it is nearly all of what salvation is) by means of writing them, I saved myself so that they could be written. Yet the enacting that I suspect all writers do behind closed doors — weeping one’s own characters’ tears, rehearsing their cadences as if playing them upon a stage, laughing at their jokes — is still present, and does me as much good as it does them, maugre Socrates and Freud and all the dour, humorless figures who cluck their tongues from their pantheons over this process of selving as if it were invalid. I can go and kneel where prayer has been valid, if I so desire — and I can also make the valid prayer in the first place. I have never not thought so, even at my deepest depths of self-suspicion.

Because of this, I deeply appreciated the Muse making the point that people who have suffered abuse in their lives (like Sylvia, his author), or been exposed to some traumatic and humiliating event, are not, despite common wisdom, blighted people. They can know or learn how to love; they can be happy; they can pray and make art and live full lives. They can have a coherent sense of autobiography. They can co-inhere. And the best thing about this assertion is that the Muse is making it on behalf of the author who made him, is advocating for her in a way she cannot advocate for herself. And if nothing else, it is a good thing that Or What You Will exists, to reach out, grasp the reader by the collar, and insist that if you greet the author, you should greet her with true recognition.

Thus do we all save one another.

Things to be noted

A couple of blogs ago I used to borrow Harriet Vane’s method of detective synthesis and make corresponding lists of “Things To Be Noted” and “Things To Be Done.” It was a fun posting format, but honestly so many of the things to be noted at present would have a corresponding line item reading “Nothing to be done about it” that I have decided to dispense with the second half for this post. So, things to be noted:

The author at fencing — or banditry….

1. Fencing is good for your health. I mean, obvs the thing to be done about that is keep doing it, but that’s been hard during the pandemic, plus Coach M has been stricken with a non-COVID illness (like they still have those apparently), and is on a slow mending trajectory. The weather was clement enough this week to have outdoor practice, so I showed up both times and although I was barely good for a hour’s drill the first night, by the second night actually managed to bout the other two people there. With masks and masks, of course.

2. I “attended” my friend’s funeral via Facebook yesterday, and I don’t know what exactly to note about it. On the one hand, fuck the pandemic for making the funeral for V of all people to be one where very few people can attend, no one can sing except one person with a piano accompaniment, and there’s no touching fellow mourners or public Eucharist. On the other, I’m pretty sure V doesn’t care. I bet she’s enjoying the irony! And even with all that, it still seemed a lot more Eastery than Easter was this year. Eucatastrophe doesn’t come cheap, I suppose is what I have to note about it.

3. Despite all my nursing efforts and a clean pot, caterpillars are munching my spider plant for yet another year. Honestly I don’t know what’s to be done about it, except to stick garlic cloves in the soil again, which I’ve done. Also I note that a few hummingbirds are checking out the possible action on my balcony, and there’s definitely something to be done about that, but whether I will get up the gumption to do it is another matter.

4. I…do not have the executive function even in a normal year to keep track of podcasts and actually listen to them, but I did discover a podcast doing interesting recaps of Leverage episode by episode, and since that’s firmly in the column of my comfort viewing, I am all about it. Unreserved rec.

5. Writing productivity has been, as already noted, roundly and profoundly situation-abnormal-all-you-know-what. But I did manage to sketch a scene from TLT with a dialogue throughline that I will now not have to remember on my own. Also, and I’m sure this comes as a surprise to no one, Douglas is being stubborn, so I have had to rethink certain aspects of the structure — but in a hopeful way, as it looks like Douglas is quite right. Which is also utterly unsurprising.

So, there you have it — all the news that’s fit to print for a hot August Sunday.

The Lady with the Lamp

Today is the feast day designated in our church for Florence Nightingale: today my dear friend passed away after suffering a massive stroke yesterday.

Virginia and me, Pentecost 2016

I don’t…even know where I would start to bear proper witness to Virginia Dabney Brown’s life and ministry, let alone how I’d finish up. Over a 43-year ministry as a priest, she gave light and healing to so many people that probably the National Cathedral wouldn’t hold them all — and that’s just the people she blessed directly. This is by way of saying that although I’m writing this blog post about me, a thousand thousand equally unique and momentous tributes could be — should be, will be — written by other people.

Other than my family of origin, Virginia is the person I’ve lived the longest with under one roof. I’ve joked before that the fact she didn’t kill me at any point during our sojourn together is possible testimony for her sainthood — but saints are, themselves, not always easy to live with. As Frederick Buechner said, “A saint is a life-giver… A saint is a human being with the same sorts of hang-ups and abysses as the rest of us, but if a saint touches your life, you become alive in a new way.”

She was, by all reports, the first woman to be ordained to the priesthood in the Episcopal church at whose ordination no formal protest was lodged. That was in 1977. By the time I met her in late 2002, she had ministered in both church plants and large parishes, founded a religious community, and given spiritual counsel and direction to an untold number of people. The earth moved under my feet the first time I heard her preach. Never before had anyone delivered me a sermon that reached all parts of my soul — intellectual, emotional, and spiritual — and with such unruffled, simple clarity. I think it was only the second time I’d set foot in that or any Episcopal church, and — already half in love with church in this mode — I saw a woman in the pulpit preaching in a thin, idiosyncratic voice the best good news I’d ever heard. And that is how I came to haunt the Rivendell Community, to be wherever that round of prayer and praise and laughter was happening at its fullest, and take vows as a member six months later.

The Rivendell Community is so named because the Lord of the Rings was Virginia’s favorite mythopoeic story. She told the story often of how Tolkien gave her unexpected spiritual sustenance when as a young woman studying physics she was horrified to find herself contributing to nuclear weapons research. Rivendell was a waypoint refuge, “the last homely house,” but in the Community “last” has come to mean “latest.” Any house Virginia was in became a Rivendell; every house a community member was in became Rivendell too.

Virginia was notorious for the best-worst puns ever made. She could make a witty joke out of a mere banana lying on a table. She could deliver a profound meditation on the spot at an instant’s notice, and make you laugh doing it. She and I played themed Scrabble in the rectory in Branson where we lived for a few years — “Lenten Scrabble” where all words played had to have something to do with Lent, or “Thomas Cranmer Scrabble” or “Mary Magdalene Scrabble” or “Inklings Scrabble” — or anything. It made Scrabble more fun, and more fun to me because Virginia always beat me by upwards of a hundred points; I think I beat her twice, and the first time I did I crowed for hours.

Virginia liked singing the Daily Office liturgy a lot more than anyone else in the Community did. Still enamored of everything to do with the church, I minded it less, so V and I found excuses to use the cantilated version of Compline — Saturday nights which were the eves of every weekly Resurrection feast, all through Eastertide, and any other excuse we wanted. About the only time I didn’t like singing in chapel with V was the year she set the Pascha Nostrum to “Sine Nomine,” a tune I abominate with a hatred I can’t account for in words. She wrote songs on her guitar, and sang others, with a voice not beautiful but pure.

One evening when we lived at the Motherhouse, which was the second Rivendell house and our retreat center at the time, V came in to the chapel for Evening Prayer from an afternoon reading The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. It reminded her so forcibly of people she knew in the years she served in the Peace Corps in Uganda, when Idi Amin came to power, that we had to delay the start of prayers so she could wail in rage for the lost. I could only watch in concern, not knowing such a grief or a rage — then.

I got Virginia into reading Connie Willis and Dorothy Dunnett (V had wry remarks about the treatment of the d’Aubigny family in the Lymond Chronicles, as those were her ancestors); she got me into reading Charles Williams (and Walter Wink, and Evelyn Underhill, and Julian of Norwich, and…). So when I dedicated Ryswyck to her as a Companion of the Coinherence, I meant it as tribute not only for her encouragement as I wrote the book, but for my being the kind of person who could write it. I would not be even half that person without Virginia. But it’s the whole of me that grieves.

Emaciated for years by chronic illness, Virginia was a perpetual fall risk. I found myself often walking alongside V not just as a companion but as a walking stick. I couldn’t be her walking stick when she got up to celebrate the Eucharist, but I didn’t need to. Her thin frame generated a palpable presence behind the altar, her arms, no matter how weak, held in a wide, graceful orans curve, her eyes lifted up, seeing what I could not except by proxy. She spoke often of that moment in the fraction, when the bread is torn like the veil of the Holy of Holies, and how in that moment the witnesses of all the saints in death are joined to the witness of those present among the living. To her this was not metaphor but quantum fact.

She herself now is quantum fact; and I am a paltry scientist.

“When I am lifted up,” Virginia quoted John’s Gospel in sermons more than once, “I will draw all to myself,” and she would go on to explain that the passage arguably meant that Jesus would draw not just all people, or all nations, but all: every crumb, every atom, every speck of the dust of stars, everything, into the embrace of God, “so that nothing is left over,” or lost. In these days when my faith has half foundered, I think of her insight here, of her trust and assurance, of how safe it truly is to lose things into the hands of God, and I am glad I have such an advocate on the other side of the Eucharistic altar.

But still I am going to weep a little while longer.

Ma foi est mort; vive ma foi

It’s been one of those “she has a three” weeks, to be honest. 2020 in general and the pandemic in particular has tied together all the salley ropes of my alarm bells, so if you ring one, you ring them all. A church friend died suddenly; another friend has been in hospital; people I know are getting tested, getting exposed; my own health has been iffy in ways that ought to be familiar but with the backlighting of anxiety turns to a landscape of monsters.

So I did some things that Future Me would appreciate. I wrote down contact numbers and an outline of directions if I should be taken suddenly ill — “I, being of as sound mind and body as can reasonably be expected…” I bought a new sauté pan with a glass lid and used it to make Indian butter chickpeas; the kind of gift that keeps giving. Washed some dishes. Shredded some junk mail. Accepted the offer of local publication for a story. Sat on the front lawn of my building with a friend (she, socially distanced in a lawn chair) with a glass of rosé, watching the dusk fall.

A spiritual director I once had used to talk about “practicing the absence” as a photo negative to Brother Lawrence’s “practicing the presence”: strangely, it involves doing many of the same things. It was not a spirituality, nor a practice, that attracted me much. I did not have to practice a presence that was with me whether I wanted it or not, and doing tasks mindfully seemed to me to be extra makework for the ADHD brain. I preferred the kataphatic movement — the affirmation of images, the celebration of festal pleasures, the shame-less pursuit of fruition — to the apophatic. This also is Thou. My soul was not built to have lovers, and John of the Cross’s metaphor of going to one’s lover in the dark of loss was doubly alien to my sensibility.

But I think I’m in a place where I need an apophatic orientation. Neither is this Thou. Let the images crack apart like dropped tiles; let my need to care burn its last slip on a makeshift wilderness altar; let the treadle of sacred time turn on joys I don’t feel as I give it its minimal push; let it go, let it all go, fashion myself no facile hopes and cling to no impoverished pictures.

I once thought this kind of thing was as self-indulgent and over-dramatic as the lovers of the Affirmative Way were accused of being; but it is not. It’s just the offering that presents itself to be made. Best to do it by choice. Ma foi est mort; vive ma foi.

I’m sure there are some fellow pilgrims on the Via Negativa just now. I’m sure I’ll probably find them. That’s usually how these things work. Bless you, and let’s walk on.

…And the living is easy

Not much has been going on here at Maelstrom Manor in the last week or so. I have consumed an appreciable amount of media and an equally appreciable number of very good grilled cheese sandwiches. I cut my own hair for the second time this epoch in my life this epoch which feels like the equivalent to my entire life so far. My main objective was to lighten the load on my head for the summer months, but I did not meddle too much with the delicate bang-swoop my stylist had created in the Before Times, and so the result is coincidentally a bit like that of Charlize Theron in The Old Guard. Nominally; Theron is about my age, isn’t she? So why does she have such a smooth un-crepey underchin? Mysteries.

But, speaking of The Old Guard, I heartily enjoyed it and feel more fannish about it than I have about anything in a long while. It was exactly the shoot-’em-up hero-team movie I was looking for when I rented Birds of Prey some days ago. (Capsule review: yes, the cinematography is good; yes, the wisecracking peripatetic narration a la Kiss Kiss Bang Bang gets my affection; yes, some interesting characters — and Ewan McGregor is astonishingly creepy. The sum of the parts, though, I found a bit oppressive, and I can’t say I’m entirely glad I watched it.)

The Old Guard, though — it has all the things I like to see in a hero action flick. Charlize Theron kicking ass: check. (Bonus: she grins at Nile when fighting her like come on kid, hit me harder than that!) Team strength based on friendships (actual friendships, not snarkfests): check. The Operative Chiwetel Ejiofor as a morally-troubled chorus base note: I won’t say no! A coherent narrative structure with an equally-coherent moral imperative as a throughline: far too rare in these things. Opportunities for days for meta speculation: more fun even than the fanfiction, I have to admit.

For bedtime viewing I’ve been mining Youtube for all the seasons of Time Team that aren’t on Prime. Last night’s viewing was an episode set in coastal Scotland, and the local guest archaeologist’s name was Douglas Speirs; I snorted. A thing I very much enjoy about later seasons of Time Team is that all the regulars have this contentiously affectionate relationship with each other. You can count on Phil Harding getting into it with John Gater the geophysicist; John Gater getting into it with Stuart Ainsworth, the landscape archeologist (“Where’s Stuart?” someone inevitably asks; the answer is usually following a tangent in the undergrowth somewhere); and Tony Robinson starting a scene by waving his arms and crying, “It’s Day Three and we haven’t found a single thing!!” and all the archaeologists unite to retort, “Yes we have!” with varying degrees of injury. Then they all go down the pub.

Talk about vicarious enjoyment. I can’t go down to my local and watch the Royals game on the big TV with a frosty pint in hand, rubbing elbows with the other regulars. And I really miss that. But I can go to sleep in the comforting knowledge that somewhere, Professor Mick Aston is still wearing a hand-knitted jumper striped in many wild colors.

That’s the kind of world I want to get back to.

Ambition and salt: or, a fatphobia of words

You have to act as if it were possible to radically transform the world. And you have to do it all the time.

Angela Davis

I’ve been salty lately, and not just about other people’s books. It seems like every few days something pops up on my dash or my feed or some other place repeating sententiously that if your novel has more than 120k words in it, it is suffering from bloat, needs restructuring, and you’re kidding yourself if you think it’s good. Meanwhile, my book club is fixing to read The Stand. I cut my observant-writer’s teeth on novels by Richard Adams and Dorothy Dunnett. My copy of Gaudy Night has a crack in the spine. The best meditation I’ve read on death and grieving in fiction form is a brick by Connie Willis called Passage. And just as my classmates long ago were damaging their spines by carrying Stephen King’s tomes in their backpacks, folks are doing the same thing today with George R.R. Martin. What, as it were, the fuck?

I mean, I get it from the reader’s point of view. C.S. Lewis’s dictum, “You can never get a large enough cup of tea or a thick enough book to satisfy me,” never resonated with me, but that was for a very specific reason and it had everything to do with spoons. Even neurotypical people are being robbed of executive function spoons by this crazy society, and they all ask themselves what’s wrong with them that they can’t keep up in a culture that will literally feed children to the burning maw of the capitalism volcano god. My avoidance of long books is mainly about spoons. It is not about a book being good or otherwise.

But yes, I’ve mouthed the sneers too. “Does A Game of Thrones really need to be a thousand pages long?” Well, I haven’t read it, so I don’t actually know, do I? You can fit three of Book One in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, and we fans all gave that burgeoning book length a dubious side-eye. But ultimately we didn’t complain, because if we liked it, we wanted more of it. Every book I’ve read that needed editing, needed it on grounds other than word count. Word count is tangential, even ephemeral, to the real symptoms of a problem. It’s like we have a fatphobia of books.

A friend who, on hearing Ryswyck‘s word count, suggested I break the book up into its constituent acts and engineer its release as a series, started backtracking at the look on my face before I’d even measured to myself my own reaction. No, I didn’t research the prevailing commercial parameters of selling a manuscript to a publisher. I wrote to the parameters of the form I’d been reading all my life. The form I’d imitated and written papers on and dissected and absorbed. To me, a three-act story with a gradual build of tension leading to a sharp change in momentum at the end of Act Two was completely goddamn bog-standard. And it completely boggled my mind, and still boggles my mind, that I would have to remove two-thirds of its words to even get it looked at.

When I was a callow freshman in college, I finished an essay with a flourish that it didn’t take many years for me to cringe at in memory. The subject was gender politics, and my grand ambition was something like, “to add my note to the chorus in hopes it will bring the whole to harmony.” And I disavowed that sentiment as soon as I recognized how blithely unknowing it was.

But not really. Even in years when survival was my only conscious goal, when I suspected myself of every form of abominableness under God’s blue sky, when I wrote no words or crap words or the wrong words, when I abandoned and picked up again and abandoned again two novel projects, my disavowed ambition hunkered down, abiding.

Middle-aged me has compassion for callow me, now. And she may have been blithe and grandiose and unwitting how complex the world and the word really are, but she wasn’t wrong. A difficult situation needs an ambition to match.

I mean, it’s not like I didn’t launch this website and engineer this independent author business on the express premise that I intended it to contribute to tikkun olam, to the mending of the world. And it wasn’t like I didn’t know I was doing things the hard way. But for me, there is no such thing as the easy way. There’s no universe in which I take a glossy photo, and pump out bestsellers and effortlessly draw a streaming comet trail of admirers. But any universe I’m in is one in which I tell all the stories I know, of joy and generosity and mutual vindication. That’s all I can do, no matter how complex it is, no matter how impossible it seems, no matter how uphill it is for me to gain readers. And as I’ve observed lately, there are far worse things than obscurity.

But there are times when the only thing to say is: “Fuck it. Pass the salt.”