One year after our Cinderella's explosive transformation from reviled servant to privileged princess in "The Orphan: A Cinderella Story from Greece," she reappears in our work-in-progress sequel, where we challenge ourselves to write a story that explores the fragility of the traditional happy ending. What if fickle fate intervenes in our tale--as she does in real life--to shatter the security of "ever after" happiness with a surprising conflict? Who best to serve as fate's agent than the heartless stepmother featured in "The Orphan?" In our sequel we disguise her as a traveling merchant who trades in fine fabrics. When she appears at the prince and princess's court seething with jealousy over the princess's success at winning the prince's favor, she conjures black magic to turn the princess into an enchanted sparrow. How will the princess be saved from the bewitchment? How will she restore her true identity?
Of all the characters I have brought forth into the universe of story, Lambros, my dancing, talking snake, remains one of my favorites. He appears mysteriously in "Loukas and the Game of Chance," my fantasy for young readers 8 years old & older. Lambros is a benign, nonvenomous Leopard Snake. As Loukas, a gifted flute player and the snake's faithful companion calls out from the seawall watching Lambros return to his shelter, "From now on, I will call you Lambros ... The name means 'radiant,' and radiant is the kindness you have brought to me and my family." Indeed, Lambros rescues this fisherfolk family from abject poverty by rewarding Loukas with three gold coins each time he dances to Loukas's flute music. When Lambros first appeared to me, he spoke to Loukas in a raspy, barely audible voice. The effort it takes him to express his gratitude deepens an emerging friendship. Lambros is a savior of sorts--he brings salvation to the family, and later, he points Loukas toward his redemption following his fall from grace. I feel nourished by this friendship that thrives on loving kindness.
In 1942, the year I was born, the US involvement in World War II escalated in many strategic ways. After losing Guam, Hong Kong, and the Philippines, US forces turned around the war with major offenses at Midway and The Coral Sea. Following the deadly attack on US troops at Pearly Harbor, the US Federal Government sent 120,000 people of Japanese descent to internment camps—an order precipitating a long-lasting civil rights controversy (cf George Takei’s “They Called Us Enemy”). Patriotism led American car makers to switch from making cars to making war materials. The minimum draft age was lowered from 21 to 18 (oh, such young warriors). Women’s Coast Guard Auxiliary (WACC) was established. The films “Casablanca” and “Bambi” premiered. The average cost of a new home was $3,770.00. The Declaration of the United Nations was signed by 26 nations, leading the way to the formation of the United Nations Organization and a call for international detente. When I was growing up during post-war years, I heard few stories about the war from family or relatives. Did war fatigue prevent folks from expressing grief over friends and relatives lost or patriotic pride in support of our troops? I now know I’d learn a lot by interviewing and recording relatives’ vivid war time memories.
I'm a synonym seeker. I search for strong words of any genre to enliven my story. Not just any word, though. Each word must be chosen to support action, mood, style, characterization, theme, intention, and so forth. That's why it takes so much experimentation to find just the right word, the best fit. Consider a few of the verbs I chose to tell "Loukas and the Game of Chance," my middle grade fantasy. "Loukas stammered" trumped "said" to reveal his shock and surprise. "Loukas staggered" replaced "walked unsteadily" to build up an unfolding drama. "Loukas plodded" versus "walked heavily" to emphasize his growing hopelessness and fatigue. And so goes the gratifying effort to build sentences that /interest?/ /attract?/ /captivate?/ /grip?/ my reader. Your choice.
As a student of Buddhism, I'm learning that "Compassions is sympathy for others specifically in the case of their suffering .... [it] means cultivating true and heartfelt concern for others ... based on the accurate wisdom that none of us is alone, we all need each other and are closely related to each other." (Norman Fischer, "Training in Compassion") Not easy. I'm learning that developing a compassionate heart and mind takes practice--daily practice. I am being taught to first breathe in the pain and suffering of others, and then to breathe out the comfort of their healing. The more I meditate on taking in the pain and breathing out the relief, the more I'm gaining--slowly gaining--a compassionate mind- and heartset. Especially timely during this pandemic onslaught.
One moment I'm moved to tears learning that my nursing home bound older sister has been diagnosed with the virus the next moment I'm whispering old Catholic rosary prayers with little relief calming my impending despair or is it my frustration that still no vaccine and oh damn why is it taking the white coats so long to come up with a cure that could save my sister and so many, many, many other diseased folks who could very well be other members of my extensive nuclear family including GREAT GREAT nephews and nieces yes I'm that old and then slipping into heavy feelings about the starkness of my own passing to catch up to my sister's should that happen before mine and I pray harder longer wondering if in my shortening life span I will ever witness a world purged of viral suffering knowing as the Buddha taught suffering is inevitable damn damn damn inevitable
In uncertain, troubling times, our garden is our refuge and hope. Soothed by bird song and awakening to the arresting return of nature's spring radiance, we toil at digging into rich soil and planting in praise of earth's nourishment (Petunias, Million Bells, Portalacka). We welcome our returning hearty plants as though greeting brightly clad dear old friends (Hostas, Ferns, Stephanotis). We lay new plants and herbs gently in plots ready for sun's majestic energy (Fennel, Oregano, Lily). We then draw on patience to sustain us as we watch for signs of new growth to bless our environment, spirits, and lives. In healthy times, we express our gratitude for nature's bounty by inviting friends to visit and savor nature's wonders. The sharing is the best reward for our labor of love.
For me, one effect of the COVID-19 threat is my improved long distance relationship with my adult son. I'm here in NE Ohio; he's out there on a ranch in the glorious mountains of southern Arizona close to the Mexican border. He's a busy medical researcher and a single parent--a part-time caretaker of his two sons. Prior to the hazardous days of the pandemic, our contact had drifted into an occasional cell call. The pandemic changed that. It's not only the frequency of our reaching out that warms my heart; it's the overt intensity of the concern that fills our conversations. 'Midst my fear of the virus, I now feel safe. Protected. Love. Indeed, blessed. I hope he does, as well.
When it comes to crossing paths with nature's critters, I'm a self-professed W-I-M-P. Now, get this: I live in a 90+ year old log cabin adjacent to eight+ acres of untamed woods.I treasure the deep seclusion and the mystery and wonder conjured by the intricate wildness of towering trees, wily shrubs, and scraggy vegetation--nature's blessings. Enter nature's pests--the ones that roam my domain and fill my nightmares. Weasels, skunks, ground hogs, badgers, and RACCOONS. Persistent, creepy, nasty, audacious RACCOONS. I open the door to the shed, and I'm met with a snarly family of hissing, growling adults tending squeaking babies. I scream. Quaking, I scramble out of there, and vow to return only with a friend as my protector and pest controller. And not too soon, at that. Not too soon will be way too soon. Get it?
During these hazardous days of infection, I turn to poetry for comfort and guidance and the "little alleluias" poet Mary Oliver mines in her poems when she (e)awakens me to the beauty in the world despite the dis-ease I am witnessing. Her "Wild Geese" is a meditation I return to often, saying it aloud like a mantra. I am also enlightened by W.S. Merwin's late poems where he offers me a moving vision of the eternal as he does in "Garden Time." Naomi Shihab Nye is a poet I go to when I need to quiet my mind, observe intentionally, and wonder: Stay with the poems in her "Voices in the Air: Poems for Listeners." Robert Frost: "A poem begins in delight and ends in wisdom." This I know to be true.
It happens. My mind turns into a blank tablet. I cannot summon my muse, my inspiration, my thoughts about any theme or topic that on a good day lead me to storymaker mode. Panic! Fear! Despair! When I am thrust into this hell of emptiness, I abandon my familiar writing space for the interim and engage in one or more healthy and helpful diversions: ~add seed to the six bird feeders that pleasure my sight and sound ~take a sure and steady power walk of at least five miles to power me up and ease my mind ~read poetry in print books (Naomi Shihab Nye, Mary Oliver, Billy Collins) to honor gifted language ~practice Thiich Nhat Hanh's breathing exercises to be here now. Revived and relaxed, I free write about anything ...moving toward a story idea.
The more I am drawn to vividly tragic COVID-19 reports and tallies, the deeper I find myself slipping into gnawing despair. As a student of mindfulness, I know that escaping from bad feelings and rank emotions only intensifies them. I am learning that suffering--my own and that of others--is a condition I must face head on, lean into, learn from, while breathing it in and breathing it out to transform it into, say, the white light of hope. Hope! I went in search of words of hope at wiseoldsayings.com. and found solace there: "Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness." Thank you, Desmond Tutu, who survived hardship sustained by this enduring sentiment. Amen.
Dr. Anthony Fauci (b. 1940), an immunologist and director of the U. S. Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has tirelessly pursued cutting-edge research to help prevent, diagnose, and treat HIV/ADS, respiratory infections, diarrheal diseases, tuberculosis, malaria, Ebola, Zika, and other life-threatening maladies. Acknowledged as "America's Doctor," he is the recipient of thirty honorary doctorates and abundant awards and honors. He is a modern-day healer driven by a staunch adherence to facts revealed by painstaking research. We are blessed by his presence and direction. All praise and respect for Dr. Fauci as he confronts COVID-19.
The battle rages each day from dawn to dusk. The hellions emerge from the woods surrounding our cabin and mount our deck ready for the heist. Two black squirrels determined to rob us of every morsel of food in the finch feeder that dangles from a hook on a pole several feet from a massive oak tree. I watch as they ascend the oak with lightning flash speed, their bushy tails twitching like electric shocks. Once the intruders reach a height parallel to their desired food source, they pause to ponder the distance from tree to repast with accelerated head turns as though mustering the courage to make the daredevil leap. When they go airborne together, they fly like circus acrobats, legs flared, paws in gripping mode. Once they land posthaste on the feeder to gorge on a tasty breakfast in peace, I navigate a stealthy move onto the deck, and fight off my enemies with shrill whistles that send the culprits scattering. They’ll return soon. They always do. I’ll watch for them on the from line—armed with my whistle.
Could I make Lambros, the old mystical dancing, talking snake a believable character? From the moment he came to me, I knew the snake was affable, altruistic, goodnatured, nonvenomous--the latter a characteristic of Aegean Island Leopard Snakes, my setting. When Lambros falls in love with Loukas's flute tunes, a nuanced friendship develops that opens the way to themes of loyalty, concern, commitment, & devotion, and the bond I crafted became a stark contrast to the cruel indifference of the merchant to whom Loukas succumbs, losing every meaningful aspect of his life. Thus begins his desperate search for redemption. If only he had held close Lambros's love.
I'm retired, so working at home is my norm. And yet, the haunting uncertainty that fills my life--as it does yours--invites me to pray more for the safety of my out-of-state adult son, my two grandsons, and my four out-of-state elderly sisters. I'm meditating more, sending out wellness wishes and loving kindness first to myself and then to my partner, my book clubbers, and my CritLit writing groupers. With the gym now closed, I set up a mini gym in my studio--weights, bands, exercise ball, and my yoga DVD--body/mind blessings. Feeling especially vulnerable, I often make my way to the studio on the far side of our cabin to check-up on my partner & to search for hope.
As Chaos reigns and "the center will not hold..." I will treasure~~ ~Spring sun ~First garden sprouts ~Male Cardinal at our feeder ~My partner's morning smile ~Rosie's playful bark ~My son's phone call--just because ~Pilates class ~Janet's poem: "Birds." ~Finding my new story, "The Imposter" ~Meditation ~Kindness ~Civility ~Wonder ~My precious golden life. Amen
These ominous diseased days, who is not concerned--even nearing panic--about this CORONAvirus pandemic that leaves us terrifyingly vulnerable? Who is not lamenting victims whisked away--suddenly, with little warning? Who is not deeply worried about family members and relatives far and near who might be fickle fate's prey of this vicious viral microscopic organism? Who also is not seeking solace in prayer in whatever form, genre, brand to plead for relief, a vaccine, and perhaps Divine Intervention? And so I light a small candle, its flame reaching toward hope. Amen.
As a writer, I lack confidence in myself. And while I have earned quite a few accolades for my children's books and a distinguished award for my university teaching, I am often stymied by low self-esteem and self-criticism. This foul state of mind is like a vise that tightens its grip on my writing life and suffocates the act of writing. Two remedies continue to rescue me from this darkness. The first is mindfulness meditation with its cleansing breathing. The practice awakens me to my worthiness and my writerly gifts. The second is the critique group I joined. Those folks support with honesty and wit and a sense of craft that make me a writer I can trust and celebrate. Blissful confidence!
"Gum surgery," said the oral surgeon. "Gum loss too deep," he opined. The word "surgery" lingered like a knife wound as I prepared myself for the ordeal on Friday one week later. I would let him cut away in time to heal--oh, please, tooth fairy--by the next Tuesday when I'd resume teaching my university lit. classes. Pain medication failed me throughout the weekend. "Agony" is the best word to characterize my condition. Swollen, bruised mouth settled in. Sleeplessness followed. Tears welled. Moaning helped express my dismay. By class time on Tuesday, I staggered in the room, a pained mess of a prof, and told them to read on their own, avoiding me, please.
Keeper of the Forest came to me by way of the book's illustrator. "The wizard you have Loukas meet right before he enters the forest is a stereotype." I was shocked, distraught, discouraged. I had spent many hours drafting my wizard, and now his presence and wisdom had come into question. "Too many fantasy stories feature a wizard," my illustrator said. "Find a unique character." Oh, my. I got to thinking about the forest--enchanted, eerie, mysterious. Who might govern it? Protect it? Watch over its inhabitants? Keeper of the Forest appeared in a dream. He's a steward, writer, protector, environmentalist, and Loukas's part-time sage. He's magical and a magician.
I happened upon an enduring change in my life as a writer the day I joined a local writers' group. It wasn't an easy decision. The thought of sharing my writing-in-progress with other writers summoned my fear of being exposed to criticism so harsh that I would opt to abandon writing altogether. Scared as I was, I took the risk head-on. As it turned out, the writers in this group graciously offered me tons of helpful suggestions that bolstered my confidence and encouraged me to consider scores of strategies for improving my craft. I am deeply grateful.
I am a prostate cancer survivor. Having been touched by my own impermanence, I have come to treasure life and living. Now, each day is a gift of life I cherish. And as I grow to love my own life, I find myself growing in my respect for the lives of others--family, friends, acquaintances, whoever I come into contact with in the course of a day. I am happier now that I have been touched by the joy of making each day matter for me and for all the others I happen to meet along the way. I've been blessed with an awareness I strive to honor each day of my treasured life.
As a student of Buddhism, I am learning that empathy for others begins with empathy for myself. I am being taught to breath in whatever tension, pain, or discomfort I am feeling, and at that moment, to acknowledge that others have felt the same feelings. Recognizing this, I reach out to others with my empathy. I connect with others by opening my heart to their tension, pain, or discomfort, with the intention of comforting them. I am also learning to connect by sending out to others that which is pleasurable, inviting them to enjoy my good feelings. I am awakening--slowly--to unity with community. So be it.
“Before God, the saints, and the sacred spirits that rule the Universe, I vow to free my family from the curse my madness has inflicted on us all,” Loukas cried out in anguish. While Loukas is playing his flute at the seawall one day, he befriends a mysterious talking, dancing snake that rewards him with fortune and favor, Some years later, tempted by pride, Loukas loses his riches and his family. He must now set off on a treacherous journey through a forest filled with suspense and strange creatures to find Destiny, Sun, and Moon. These celestial guardians will surely allow him to reserve his misfortune, restore his honor, and win back all that he loves and treasures, won’t they? Loukas and the Game of Chance is illuminated with dramatic pen and ink drawings that provide an ideal backdrop for the dark intrigue that fills this haunting tale of human struggle, courage, and resilience.
A family--mother, father, son--emerges from the very distant past on an ancient island in the restless Aegean Sea. A happy, close-knit family, but poor. Survival depends on the father and son's daily fish catch and the herbs the mother grows and sells at the village marketplace. The son's flue music offers the family solace as does praying at the makeshift altar set in a corner of the family's weathered cottage. Soon, very soon--as fate will have it--the family will witness a sea change in their livelihood, their status, their condition, and their social standing. The son's flute music will lead the way...
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