“The glide of the smallest fish …”

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It’s tough to choose a favorite quote by Thomas Paine — American Founder, career revolutionary, and perennial skeptic. Pithy sayings and memorable phrases are Paine’s stock-in-trade, from “We have in it in our power to begin the world over again” to “These are the times that try men’s souls” and even “United States of America” – which first appeared, formally capitalized as our country’s name, in Paine’s American Crisis. In fact, Paine is so quotable that he’s even been credited (or blamed) for a number of things he never said or wrote. The Thomas Paine National Historical Association maintains a handy list of these bogus Paine quotations.

Since I began reading his work in 2009, my personal list of valued (and often memorized) Paine quotations has piled up almost on its own, the way books pile up in odd corners of my bedroom. Most of my favorites are drawn from his deist work The Age of Reason (1794-1795), a rationalist and often satirical critique of the Bible and organized religion. The book is filled with beautiful, compact, often proverb-like turns of phrase: “the word mystery cannot be applied to moral truth, any more than obscurity can be applied to light,” “The word of God is the Creation we behold,” and perhaps most famously: “My own mind is my own church.”

Still, if I had to pick one line of Paine’s that struck me on first reading, and that continues to linger for reasons that I can only partially explain, it would be this:

“ … the glide of the smallest fish, in proportion to its bulk, exceeds us in motion almost beyond comparison, and without weariness …”

Yes, that’s Thomas Paine — also in The Age of Reason — here stepping, however briefly, into the role of nature poet. This passage might seem atypical of his work. It carries none of the rhetorical or political punch of his more famous dictums. There is no humor, no sarcasm, no argument to be clinched. It reads like something pulled from the Tao Te Ching, or perhaps from the work of Paine’s friend, the iconic romantic poet William Blake.

Yet this is the line I always return to in thinking about Paine’s life and works. For me, it expresses not only a love of nature, but a deep sense of kinship with and compassion for other living beings.

It also marks the place where the narrative of my own life intersects with Thomas Paine’s.

In the fall of 2009, I was in one of life’s valleys. Two years out from breast cancer treatment, emotionally and physically exhausted, I had begun to realize that my more-than-ten-year marriage was unraveling. The daily care of my seven-year-old autistic son was making me ever more homebound and isolated, and the clock on my still incomplete Ph.D. dissertation was about to expire.

Somehow, I also found myself absorbed in reading The Age of Reason. I consumed it at first in small bites – a page or two each day. For fiction-writing purposes, I told myself. Background to understand the Enlightenment as a time and place. Fodder for the great historical romance I was going to create.

It wasn’t long, however, before my research became an addiction. I found myself reading Paine for the sheer and sometimes perverse joy of it. I loved following the turns of his arguments. I savored his gift for irony, his keen eye for the illogical and absurd. I was fascinated by the way his writer’s voice could shift on a dime — from biting sarcasm to patient pedagogy to pure lyricism — sometimes in the space of a line or two. Thomas Paine became for me the eccentric but lovable friend who sat each day at my kitchen table, cheering me up with rude jokes about religion – about the Bible, heaven, hell, and the devil – all things that I had been taught to regard as deadly serious during my childhood.

One afternoon, as I was coming to the end of the book, Paine — after a series of bitter arguments with the apostle Paul — abruptly dropped his tone of relentless skepticism. As if reductionist logic had finally exhausted even him, he paused in his argument to simply observe. I followed his gaze — and suddenly there it was:

“Every animal in the creation excels us in something. The winged insects, without mentioning doves or eagles, can pass over more space with greater ease in a few minutes than man can in an hour. The glide of the smallest fish, in proportion to its bulk, exceeds us in motion almost beyond comparison, and without weariness. Even the sluggish snail can ascend from the bottom of a dungeon, where man, by the want of that ability, would perish; and a spider can launch itself from the top, as a playful amusement.”

I was reading aloud, as I sometimes do with very old or very complex works (slowing down and hearing the words often helps me to better understand). At that point, and for no good reason, my eyes teared up. My voice broke. I had no idea why.

It was only later that I learned Paine had written this portion of the book while recovering from nearly a year spent in a French prison during the Reign of Terror. He was fifty-seven years old at the time, and while he managed to escape the guillotine, the stress of the ordeal destroyed his health for the remainder of his life.

Younger Paine Portrait for Blog

Yet Paine continued to write, almost until the day he died, despite chronic physical pain and frequent bouts of deep depression. It isn’t surprising to find that in The Age of Reason, he expresses the wish for “a better body and a more convenient form.” “The personal powers of man,” he laments, “ … are so limited, and his heavy frame so little constructed to extensive enjoyment …” It’s a rare moment of self-disclosure for a writer who most often defines himself through political rhetoric and the parsing of ideology.

As his biographers have noted, Paine tended to hide his private identity behind the assumed public roles of revolutionary and social critic. The historian Gordon Wood calls him America’s “first public intellectual.”

Accordingly, our culture has remembered him as an ideologue first, whether we see him as the rabble-rouser and maker of revolutions, or the scourge of religious creeds and establishment thought. Such caricatures, fostered in Paine’s own time – often by his enemies – go a long way to explain present-day efforts to make Paine over into a rabid nationalist or reduce him to ideological “bomb thrower.” I recently came across one piece on the internet arguing that Donald Trump, by virtue of making outrageous statements and voicing “anti-establishment” sentiments, was some sort of spiritual heir to Thomas Paine. The same sorts of claims have been made about Democratic insurgent candidate Bernie Sanders. Of course, neither Trump nor Sanders, nor any modern politician — could have written anything approaching Paine’s genius – and certainly not his brief and lyrical observation of the tiny fish.

Much of Paine’s writing, and particularly his descriptions of the natural world, do not fit neatly into the persona of either Paine the Patriot or Paine the Infidel. The detail of the fish gliding through the water is but one example.

In reading Paine at length, I find that he is not, in fact, generally a writer of “screeds.” Certainly, he can be caustic. He is often impassioned, with a tendency to get swept up in the drama and occasionally grand language of his own arguments (a trait that I, as a writer, find completely lovable). Paine can hurl insults with the best: his characterization of Edmund Burke as drama queen in Rights of Man is a witty extended metaphor that goes on for paragraphs. Yet undergirding all these writing choices – and that is what they are: strategic choices — something else is at work.

In our own time, when politicians can sneer at concepts like empathy and community, it comes as a revelation to find that Paine’s work concerns itself deeply with those very things. The “smallest fish” in The Age of Reason – a seemingly insignificant and fleeting life – becomes the occasion for wonder, for gratitude, and for a much bigger sense of longing that goes beyond the self – a wish that life could be kinder and “without weariness” for us all.

It is Paine’s constant identification with the smallest and the least – the poor, the distressed, and the exploited – his refusal to hold the suffering of others at a distance, that often makes his work so compelling. Compassion is the strong undercurrent of his major works, even when his words are full of righteous rage. In Common Sense, Paine characterizes England as an unnatural parent, callous toward her children in the colonies. Defending the principles of the French Revolution in Rights of Man, he rebukes his intellectual rival, Edmund Burke, for failing to bestow “one glance of compassion” on the wretched prisoners of the Bastille or the sufferings of the common people of France. “Is this,” he asks of Burke, “the language of a rational man? Is it the language of a heart feeling as it ought to feel for the rights and happiness of the human race?” In the same work, Paine repeatedly calls forth images of individual human beings brutalized in under oppressive regimes, “whether sold into slavery, or tortured out of existence …”

In Paine’s very first pamphlet, The Case of the Officers of Excise, written in 1772, two years before he left England for America, we find moving examples of the writer’s first-hand knowledge of poverty, which in the eighteenth century was epidemic. “The rich,” Paine writes, “… may think I have drawn an unnatural portrait; but could they descend to the cold regions of want, the circle of polar poverty, they would find their opinions changing with the climate.”

He also understands that ideology is no cure for suffering:

“He who was never an hungered may argue finely on the subjection of his appetite; and he who never was distressed, may harangue as beautifully on the power of principle. But poverty, like grief, has an incurable deafness, which never hears; the oration loses all its edge; and ‘To be, or not to be’ becomes the only question.”

Throughout The Age of Reason, Paine rages against the cruelties visited upon women, children, and other innocents within the pages of the Bible. There are moments when Paine seems almost beside himself at these horrors committed in the name of god. Indeed, his most telling criticisms of scripture rely not on the parsing of fact and logic (though he gives us plenty of that), but upon the idea that the Bible as narrative – as simple storytelling – is ultimately destructive of human compassion.

“To believe the Bible to be true,” he writes, “we must unbelieve all our belief in the moral justice of god, and to read the Bible without horror, we must undo everything that is tender, sympathizing and benevolent in the heart of man.”

This, for me, is what makes Thomas Paine stand out, as a writer, as a personality – as a human being: his huge and fearless compassion – for suffering children, the poor, the disenfranchised, for the spider and “the smallest fish.” This empathy drives his ideology and breathes life into his words. That feeling is crystalized in the image of the tiny, darting fish. I cannot read Paine’s brief reflection on this least of creatures without also considering the “tender, sympathizing and benevolent” heart that took note of its existence, saw a glimpse of the divine, and raised a pen to share that feeling with readers.

A little more than a century after Paine’s death, freethinker and Civil War Union veteran John Remsberg wrote this of Paine’s works:

“They are full of charity, they glow with patriotism, they are warm with love. Even yet, within their lids methinks I feel the beating of the generous heart of him who penned them….”

It is exactly those qualities of love and generosity that draw me to back Thomas Paine’s writings again and again. It is exactly those qualities that we, as a society, stand in desperate need of now as we consider the future of our nation, as we contemplate the functions of a just, and yes, a compassionate, future world.

Note: This post first appeared April 21, 2016 on my sister-site, paineandfriends.com. You can find more of my writings on Thomas Paine there, as well as graphics and a list of Paine resources.

NaNoWriMo Fiction: Worlds Over Again

Last November, as a participant in National Novel Writing Month, I created a rough draft novel of a little over 50,000 words. Beginning this month, I’ll be posting some excerpts from that draft, and later writing about my revision process as I work to make sense — and perhaps something publishable — out of my mad dash to tell a novel-length story in a month.

Below is the first selection from that story, a work of what I suppose might be called historical fantasy. It is also a work of fan-fiction, with several fandoms in play over the course of the narrative. I won’t say what those fandoms are just yet, in the hope that some of them will be self-evident. The text has been edited for readability, with obvious errors corrected. Otherwise it is more or less as I drafted it.

Worlds Over Again: A Fan-fiction
by Christine M. Bichler

“We have it in our power to begin the world over again.”
–Thomas Paine, Common Sense

“All the beautiful worlds that I have seen … they used to be yours.”
–Stevie Nicks, Songs from the Vault

Prologue: In which Our Heroine Discovers a Box …

It was a singular object to appear in the garden.

And at such a time, too, while the whole company, everyone who was anyone, was assembled in the ballroom under the light of the chandeliers and the spell being cast by the music.

It had to be magic, she mused. Magic was the only reason that otherwise rational people would crowd themselves into a confined space and dance and sweat and make themselves look like wax figures melting in the candlelight.

She had never cared for balls, nor for dancing, and so she found herself out in the garden when the mysterious object simply … appeared.

In fact, it appeared with considerable fanfare – a sort of thumping, wheezing, grinding cacophony of sound that could almost make one believe that the world was coming to an end. If one believed in such things. Elena du Chatelet, she told herself, was made of sterner stuff. Elena du Chatelet did not believe in apocalypses – except perhaps man-made ones. She believed in science and objectivity. She believed in seeing things with her own eyes.

If this thing was a meteor dropping into the garden, she was going to find out for herself.

Stepping out of the line of trees and into the courtyard that framed the fountain, she was oddly disappointed to find no smoke or large craters in the ground – nor indeed any evidence of anything having fallen out of the sky. In fact, the courtyard had gone eerily still. She gathered a handful of skirt in one hand so as to step out of the flower beds–and winced at the sound of silk tearing on something–probably rose thorns. Undaunted, she squared her shoulders and moved toward the dark object that had planted itself directly in front of the man-made waterfall.

A dark, rectangular shape, considerably taller than herself.

She pushed her spectacles back up on her nose. Most definitely, it had not been here earlier in the day. She supposed it might have been placed by workmen in the late afternoon – part of some landscaping project of the Comte’s – it would be like him to tell no one about it. The Comte was a man of secrets.

She pushed the thought away quickly, as she did not like thinking about the man.

The air had gone still. The strange wheezing noise had long since stopped. There was only the faint rustle of the wind in the garden, and for a moment, she just stood there, oddly mesmerized by this thing that had no place in the garden – that called attention to itself despite being a mere rectangular shadow.

She wanted to lay her hand on the thing, to make sure that it was real. Again cursing the impracticality of her voluminous skirts, she stepped closer, within arm’s length of it. On closer inspection, the shadow proved to have substance. It was a crate of some sort, laquered over with dark paint. She raised her hand to touch it, her fingertips hovering uncertainly for a moment.

Don’t be silly, Nell … it’s only a box.

– and yet, when her fingers made contact with the object, it felt … odd. There seemed to be a slight vibration, almost a hum coursing through her fingertips. As if the thing were … singing – as if it were alive.

And then the humming ceased.

She drew her hand back reflexively, afraid she’d somehow broken it, whatever it was. For somehow it had gone back to being an ordinary box. Yet still she held her breath and waited, sensing there must be more. There had to be something she had not perceived.

And so she waited, in the garden under the stars.

The box rattled, then revealed itself to have a door that sprang open.

Right there before her eyes, a man stepped out.

***

She stood rooted, unable to take her eyes away, though the fellow seemed perfectly ordinary.

His dress, it had to be admitted, was like nothing she had ever seen, uncouth even by her own patchwork notions of fashion. He wore long pants and a short coat made of leather. Like a common laborer, he was bareheaded, his hair loose and wild–though not long enough to be queued. It gleamed silver in the moonlight, though she was quite certain he wore no powder.

He looked up at her in surprise. He was tall and thin and had a long face–and the most remarkable eyebrows, which right now seemed to be frowning at her without any assistance from the rest of his face.

“Ah, you there!”

She stared back at him in momentary shock. No one of breeding would address a woman of rank in such a way, as if hailing a cab driver.

“Yes,” he said impatiently. “That would be you–with the glasses.”

Almost unthinking, she touched her fingertips to her spectacles once more, perhaps to assure herself this was real. She gazed in puzzlement at the tall man with the eyebrows. “Monsieur?”

The fellow rolled his eyes. “Can you tell me what century this is?”

She almost laughed. His French was abominable. He was probably an Englishman. Luckily, she could compensate for that. In perfect English, she replied, “The eighteenth century, of course, sir.”

It crossed her mind to inquire whether he was drunk. But she decided that would not be politic. Curiosity was her besetting sin, yet despite her mother’s opinion on that subject, she knew perfectly well how to reign it in.

The stranger looked skeptical. “You’re certain?” he said, taking a step away from his box.

“Sir?”

“That this is the eighteenth century?”

How did one answer such a question? The man had to be foxed. Or perhaps he was mad. It would explain his peculiar dress. He didn’t seem dangerous, though. She didn’t feel the least bit afraid of him. Then again, she rarely feared anything in the appropriate way. She knew that her feminine instincts were insufficient. It was the reason, Mama said, that she ought not to be let out of the house. She had no sense of what to be afraid of.

She blinked at the man through her spectacles, wishing that it was not dark and that she was not near-sighted. “Why, what other century should it be, sir?”

Upon reflection, that sounded almost witty. Nell stood a little straighter, proud of herself. She was so very rarely witty. It was the stranger’s turn to look confused. Then he seemed to see her for the first time–to actually observe her person. He gave a little sigh.

“Touche. I don’t suppose you could help me find Renette, by any chance?”

“Renette? I don’t know anyone by that name.”

The fellow made an impatient gesture. “Madame de Pompadour, of course – everyone knows her.”

Nell frowned. “I doubt that such a joke would be appreciated here, sir.”

“Do I look like I’m joking?”

“Either that or you are from the moon,” she snapped, irritated now. “The old king’s mistress has been dead these twenty years.”

Something flashed over the man’s eyes then–something that she could not readily identify but that seemed a little like … regret.

He shook his head. “Ah, well–she wouldn’t have recognized me anyway. Not with this face …”

Definitely foxed. “There’s nothing wrong with your face …” she said, though refraining comment on his hair.

“I ought to be going. Sorry to have troubled you, Miss …”

“Chatelet … Elena du Chatelet …”

The gentleman frowned.

She had an impulsive thought, one that would not stay unspoken, irrational though it sounded.

Are you from the moon?”

“Why should you think that?”

“No reason.” She gave a shrug. “People say I am from the moon, as a joke, you see … because I’m strange. But you are a good deal stranger than I am.”

The man seemed to deliberate within himself, but only for a moment. “Would you like to judge that for yourself, Miss du Chatelet?”

Without waiting for a reply, he stood to one side and flung open the door to the tall, dark wooden box with a flourish – as is he were revealing some secret of the universe, and Nell stepped up to the threshold to peer inside.

Walking on the Moon

Fourteen years ago tonight, I was nine months pregnant. Getting ready to go to sleep, I suddenly felt my water break. Contractions quickly followed.

A trip to the hospital, many hours and a c-section later, my son, Ross Gerard Bichler Kaplan, came into the world. I had no idea how much he would change my life.

Parenting is always life-changing and always involves a learning curve, but because of my son’s autism, diagnosed when he was three, I suspect that our learning curve has been steeper than most.

Despite the clever and well-meaning anecdotes that are often dispensed to parents of children with special needs, parenting an autistic child is less like visiting Holland when you had planned to go to France, and much more like taking a trip to the moon when you had planned to stay on earth. Your sense of normal gravity is forever altered.

Still, the moon is a wonderous place–far more interesting than either Holland or France, once you master the gravity and the trick of carrying your oxygen with you. And yet, even once you believe you know the terrain, it changes and will always change. You are always re-learning how to walk, how to breathe. How to keep breathing.

mom-ross-birthday1My little boy is now fourteen, taller than I am and sporting facial hair. He is a young man who still loves drawing pictures and watching Blue’s Clues with mom.

He has shown me worlds, and possibly taught me more about myself than any other human on this planet. And I am still learning.

Happy Birthday, Ross.

Love always,

Mom

The Longest Night

Originally posted to Facebook on December 24, 2015

Tonight is my 50th Christmas Eve, and as it happens I’m spending it mostly on my own (though the kiddo will be joining me before bedtime). It’s a little odd because for most of my life I’ve spent Christmas Eve with family–and this night, to me, has always been “Christmas.” My maternal grandparents, though born in the US (as were their parents) were traditional Polish Catholics who held vigil on the night before Christmas and celebrated at midnight. By the time I and my three sibs came into the picture, the celebration was simplified–an evening buffet with ham and kielbasa followed by some religious observance, and then–presents! Lots of times we kids “camped out” with our loot in sleeping bags not far from the Christmas tree.

So, after a year full of change, which finds me single again, in a two-bedroom apartment instead of my former house, and about to embark on the grand adventure of redefining my self, my career, and even my mode of parenting, it seems fitting to me that my bedroom is tonight graced by this authentic vintage 1960s aluminum Christmas tree that once belonged to my sweet and much-missed grandparents, Cecilia and Raymond Zdroj. It is a twin to the very first Christmas tree I ever knew, the one that my mom set up in our house when I was a pre-schooler; it weighs less than a pound packed up in its box, and takes 15 minutes to set up.

tree1

I am no longer religious in the traditional sense … but I do believe in tradition, and in memory, and in keeping a light burning through the winter (especially here in Michigan, where it gets dark pretty damn early).

Thinking of you, Grandma and Grandpa, on this, my favorite night of the year.

Peaceful and happy winter solstice to all, whatever you may be celebrating.

Running the Numbers

I decided to do it at the last minute. As a matter of fact, it was the last day of October before I even remembered that it was happening.

I am talking, of course, about National Novel Writing Month, known to its many fans and bragging, battle-scarred veterans as NaNoWriMo, or simply NaNo–that crazy annual internet challenge where aspiring writers strive to crank out 50,000 words of a first-draft novel in just 30 days–during the already insane month of November.

I have participated in NaNoWriMo eight times previously, and have “won” – that is, met the 50,000-word goal — all but one of those times. But taking it on this year was a special challenge for me. This year, I felt almost as if I were playing–and that’s how I always think of it, as joining in a game–for the first time.

1175The actual first time I played in NaNo was November of 2007. I was recovering from two of the most exhausting and challenging years of my life. In mid-2006, I was diagnosed with stage-one breast-cancer. During and after two surgeries, two debilitating hits of chemotherapy (I chose to stop after that–which is why I sometimes joke to friends that I “flunked” chemo), radiation treatments, and in the midst of post-op hormone therapy, somehow I discovered the urge to write again.

My desire to write has always been the truest barometer of how I’m really feeling–mentally, emotionally, physically. I gave birth to my son in January of 2002, and recovery from the attendant c-section was slow. Still, at some point when the baby was about four months old, I stole a few moments while he was napping to grab a pen and notebook and begin journal-writing, something I’d fallen away from during the busy-ness and exhaustion of new-parenthood. At the time, I felt as if I was doing something vaguely illicit, “stealing” time for myself and my thoughts away from my new parenting identity and duties.

But that time spent with pen in hand was nourishing. It didn’t matter what I wrote–a bad poem, a snippet of observation, a story idea, a character sketch for a bit of fiction, or even just a list of things I’d done that day–as long as I wrote something. That, to me, was a message from my own mind and body that I was starting to get well.

The urge to write was and is, to me, the urge to rejoin the world.

Similarly, as 2007 wound to its end, I was starting to come out of the chemo-and-radiation-induced fog of exhaustion that had slowed my life to a snail’s pace for months. During the worst of this, I would lie in bed as my husband took our toddler to preschool before he went to work. In the silence of the house after their departure, I would go back to sleep, or lie awake until I felt energetic enough to move to the futon in front of the television, where I would watch whatever PBS kids shows were running, usually in a state of zoned-out exhaustion, waiting for my body to gather sufficient energy to allow me to get up again, let the dogs out, and manage something to eat. And so it went.

By the time J.K. Rowling’s final Harry Potter book appeared in October, I was no longer so continually exhausted, and I remembered that, yes, I liked to read. So I finished Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and then read another fantasy novel, Sorcery and Cecilia, or the Enchanted Chocolate Pot, a faux-Regency novel featuring magic, which in turn reminded me of how much I liked Jane Austen–and also made me want to write fiction again.

I had written fan-fiction, online and for print publication, for something like ten years. I had an unfinished fantasy novel languishing on my hard-drive, which I had played with off and on during my cancer treatment and recovery. Now I wanted to do something else–a Regency or Georgian era romance, perhaps with magic and a dark-and-tortured hero who looked (in my own head) a little like Alan Rickman’s version of Professor Snape. (Go figure.)

A friend recommended that I sign up for NaNoWriMo. As I was soon to discover, my perfect storm had arrived.

I had never before realized that simple things like a deadline and tracking one’s word-count could be such huge motivators. Every day, as soon as my son was off to school, I would park myself at a laptop perched on the kitchen table and type like mad.Over the days and weeks that followed, I began to think in terms of word-counts and daily quotas. I broke through innumerable plot hang-ups and fits of writer’s block by stubbornly typing through my own anxiety and/or inertia to hit that daily word goal. I would “sneak” novel writing in at odd times – during lunch break at an autism conference, in an upstairs bedroom while visiting my in-laws over Thanksgiving, any time my son wanted to take a nap. There was something empowering about watching those words pile up, literally feeling the story grow under my hands, barging my way through stretches of uncertainty just by continuing to move forward, and alternately coasting through those sections where the words just flowed like water.

I even compared my daily totals against the posted word-counts for other writers in the Ann Arbor and metro-Detroit area (a nifty feature of the NaNo website lets you see the combined word counts generated in different locales, and by individual writers in any online communities you join). And here is possibly the weirdest thing: I was writing in solitude, but at the same time I felt myself part of a much larger, world-wide community of thousands of people, all typing their fingers off to finish those rough-draft novels.

When I got stuck, I would write long-hand, sometimes for pages a time, and then later transcribe. I told everyone what I was doing, and was shocked by how many of them actually seemed stunned or even impressed. For one month out of my year, I publicly identified myself as a writer and completely gave over to my writing impulse. Almost everything else — except making sure that I, the kiddo, and the dogs were (reasonably) clean and that everyone got fed–was secondary to making that damned word-count each day.

It was exhilarating.

I did it again the year after that, and I got probably a better-structured draft the second time out, since I had a better idea what I was doing. By year three, my storyline was starting to feel a little worn, but the thrill of doing the word-count remained.

1176By 2010, I had discovered Thomas Paine, and Paine-esque heroes and quotations became my stock-in-trade for the next two NaNo sprints I did, re-invigorating my own sense of what fiction could be, what it could tackle and encompass. At the same time, almost everything I wrote continued to be in that same half-magic faux-Enlightenment universe that I had first created in 2007.

But eventually, school work, complications in my domestic life, and a general sense of being overwhelmed and “too busy” got in the way of my NaNo participation. My efforts fell short of the finish-line in 2013, and I didn’t play at all in 2014.

But this year, being newly divorced and starting a new life in a new apartment, and having made a commitment to take my writing seriously–I decided on the spur of the moment, on the last day of October, to take that wild ride again, and to give an entire month over to my writing. I wrote any time and everywhere, even during a weekend sci-fi convention in Chicago, on the plane to get there and on the plane coming back. On the very last day of November, I racked up my final six thousand words with the help of dictation software, and crossed the finish-line well before midnight.

Despite feeling completely wiped out, I also felt recharged, just as I had when I completed my first NaNoWriMo effort in 2007. I had just drafted a novel in thirty days. What else might I finish if I threw myself into the task with the same kind of commitment and self-abandon?

In the coming year, I hope to find out.

Next time: The specific writing lessons that I took from my NaNoWriMo experience, along with a peek at what I wrote and how I plan to revise.

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Thomas Paine and Friends: Coming Soon

Paine Print Shop 6--Alt 8

I’ve had an attachment to the American Founders ever since I was dragged off as a schoolchild of eleven to see the musical 1776 (I’m tellin’ ya, it was *awesome* to be a kid growing up during the Bicentennial). As of today, I have begun building a new, separate blog to talk about Thomas Paine, Benjamin Franklin, and all those crazy, contradictory characters who invented this country — including amazing Founding Mothers like Abigail Adams and Mercy Otis Warren.

“Who?” you ask. Stay tuned and find out!

 

The Unicorn in the Notebook

This is the circuitous tale of a unicorn, a fox, a stack of notebooks, and the strange way that life can connect the dots for us when we least expect it.

unicorn detail 2Unicorns have followed me around since high school, wheedling their way into pictures and stories – sometimes when I’d rather they stayed in hiding. Most of time, though, I’m glad when they show up. This particular beastie appeared in my journal at the beginning of this year, but the path for its arrival was cleared a couple weeks earlier, around last Christmas.

I was home for winter holidays – and by home I mean my childhood home. My 12-year-old autistic son was then in residential care, more or less full time, and so I was visiting my mother in Grand Rapids by myself – divorce still pending. I was also waiting to hear back from graduate school as to whether I would be granted an extension to finish my Ph.D. dissertation – a nerve-wracking wait not helped by the long holiday break. In short, I was not in a good mood, but I welcomed the opportunity for some extended down-time, both to reconnect with my family and to seek out a little personal space.

It snowed off and on, typical of winter in west Michigan. The snow hadn’t reached that constant stage where flakes of glitter seem to materialize out of thin air (my favorite kind of snowfall), but there was enough white on the ground for a pleasant sense of retreat and almost-hibernation. I had a well-chosen cave – a lower-level bedroom in the house where I’d grown up, one that had been occupied at various times by both my brothers and my sister, but never by me. The room was lined with books, all the furniture fairly close to the bed. It was cozy, quiet, and well-insulated from any anything that might be happening elsewhere in the house. I had brought along my own amusements — an electronic tablet full of books, games, video, and music. I always travel prepared to spend time alone.

But as it happened, I wasn’t interested in any of those distractions.

I had also brought a journal – the old-school kind – a notebook – a couple of notebooks, actually, and a stash of pens. But these too at first seemed useless. Words had recently deserted me – in some sense betrayed me. I had just expended thousands of them in service of a long academic project that had not gone as planned and now seemed doomed to remain unfinished. I was spent out of words, sick of transcribing my thoughts. Sick of thinking, period.

Flipping through one of my more well-used journals, I discovered several pages that my son had marked. Ross had made half-a-dozen random, largely shapeless figures in my notebook when I wasn’t looking. To say that my kiddo loves drawing is an understatement. He is, more accurately, a constant, often driven, maker of images. For him, a pen lying on a countertop is more than an invitation — it’s a tool demanding to be seized and used on the next unmarked surface that offers itself – a wall, a piece of paper, a tabletop, a ceramic plate – or a page in Mom’s journal. Any and all will do for the spontaneous, often disruptive kind of art that he makes.

Taking the hint, I dug some highlighters out of my pen-stash and began playing a game – filling in Ross’s flash-squiggles and hurried scrawls with color, tracing over them, expanding their reach, growing them big enough to fill the page. I became absorbed in the process, fascinated by the interaction of line, space, and color. And so I kept going. Once I had used up all of Ross’s drawings, I started making my own.

While never trained as an artist, I have drawn pictures all my life. Sometimes I drift away from drawing and sketching for months or even years at a time, but each time I come back to it, there is a sense of both newness and of coming home. There is a state of mind familiar to anyone who enters the world of putting marks on a page trying to capture an image. Consciousness becomes non-verbal. Ideas drift in and out, like wisps of smoke or distant chatter. The engaged mind is thinking about shape, light, and shadow, while the word-driven mind, if not exactly silenced, is pushed to the side.

This proved to be exactly the kind of mental space that I needed. I continued sketching in my journals in the days and weeks that followed, and after returning home to Ypsilanti and the secluded cave of my own bedroom.

Then, one fine night, just after New Year’s, the unicorn showed up – a memory of an earlier drawing, done when I was perhaps in my 20s.

As I put the finishing touches on the horn, the mane, the lionish tail, my artist-brain chose that moment to recall a bespectacled substitute teacher from a time some forty years earlier, slapping a page of homework on the desk in front of me and pointing to a creature that my ten-year-old self had spontaneously sketched beneath my name. Not a unicorn, but in its way, equally fanciful.

“What is that?” the teacher demanded, as if the drawing were an act of vandalism – a curse-word spray-painted on school property.

A little confused, I stated the obvious. “That’s … a fox.”

“Well,” he said tartly, making sure the entire class could hear, “Kindergarteners might put such things on their homework; but we don’t do that in fifth grade.”

Ah, yes, in fifth grade we are practically adults – much too old for fun. Far too old for drawing pictures and for thinking without words.

Back in the present, my hand was creating a suggestion of landscape around the unicorn. The creature itself had a sly smile – as if it knew something it wasn’t telling. Feeling both ironic and elated, as if the unicorn had told its secret to me, I finally found some useful words. Underneath the unicorn’s hooves, I wrote:

“Only kindergarteners draw pictures on their homework. So let us all be kindergarteners.”

unicorn for blog 2.1I was absurdly pleased with myself in that moment. The line of text and the drawing above it became my personal, feeling response – not just to some callous long-ago teacher who had wounded my artistic and academic confidence, but to the graduate school and dissertation committee which had more recently done pretty much the same thing. It was in some way my response to every entity – including myself and my own ego – that had ever demanded “perfection” of me at the cost of my self-confidence. It was also, however temporary, a victory for image and emotion over word and thought – a difficult thing for me, as an English major and lifelong parser of words. My non-verbal son and a couple of childhood drawings had helped to put me in a more positive frame of mind, to see things in a new way.

I never got the dissertation extension I’d hoped for. Circumstances forced me to walk away from my Ph.D. program, in some ways empty-handed. But I also walked away with a story that I still hope to tell — and in the meantime, my notebooks, for so long marked only with lines of text, have begun to fill up with countless interesting creatures and images – in the process becoming more alive, speaking to me as they never have before – through word and through image.

I have defined this as a writing blog (though I have written precious little in it over the past two years) – but recently I’ve realized that, for me, word and image are forever entangled. The unicorns, the foxes and wolves and the other creatures of my journal pages, as well as my son’s unfettered sense of design and artistic urgency — have all helped me realize that when I do more drawing, not only do I write more – but my writing becomes looser, wilder, more adventurous … perhaps to match the images on the page.

I said in the beginning that this tale was circuitous – and I chose that word for a reason. I am, after all, at heart still a parser of words. I don’t know if the dots that I’ve connected in this post will connect for anyone else. But for whatever it’s worth, fellow writers and artists of every stripe: don’t be afraid to make that brilliant, foxy flourish under your signature – and if a unicorn steps into – or out of – your journal, pay attention.

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1860 Awesome

This little piece was originally posted to my Facebook page this past February:

More proof (like we needed any) that old books totally rule:

Okay, so I wasn’t actually looking for Thomas Paine stuff in the Ypsi Library, but as luck would have it, something of Mr. Paine’s came to hand (happens to me all the time …) – an 1860 edition of The Political Works of Thomas Paine published in New York by one Calvin Blanchard at 76 Nassau Street. My first thought: What is an 1860 edition of Paine’s work doing in the freakin’ general circulation stacks in the Ypsi Library? Second thought: Who cares as long as I can take it home with me?

Upon checking out and examining the volume, my curiosity only grew. The old book was obviously cut around the edges to make the pages even, and then rebound in one of those resilient-but-ugly institutional library bindings (brown, maybe from the 1960s or so?) Inside, a tissue-paper-protected engraving of the author–one that I had not seen before, and a facsimile Paine signature. I felt a little sorry for this book, as the page-trimming had made the margins appear crooked (the page numbers were partially cut off in a few spots), but still–how cool to hold in my very own hands an edition of Paine’s work that was printed just before the Civil War. On the very last page of the book was an ad for “Liberal Books published by Calvin Blanchard (sent by mail postage free)” The list of titles on offer included “Ovid’s Art of Love and amorous works entire” as well as Paine’s Age of Reason, and miscellaneous other heretical stuff: Wollstonecraft, Volney’s Ruins, etc. But the best part was at the bottom of the page, a footnote in what today would be about an 8-point font:

“But why does Blanchard publish such books as Rousseau’s Confessions, Boccaccio’s Decameron, and the Library of Love? those ask who, had THEY planned Nature, would have omitted all but solidity.

“Answer: I. Because Blanchard thinks that KNOWLEDGE IN AMOROUS AFFAIRS is far safer than ignorance. II. Because Blanchard loves Nature throughout. III. Because Blanchard is not ashamed to AVOW both what HE THINKS and what HE LOVES. Enough said?”

This footnote is, without doubt, the single best thing I have read for at least the last month.

Calvin Blanchard, publisher–I salute your awesome.

Doomed

Originally posted on Facebook:

Okay. I’m way late with this, and have seen only those last few tell-tale moments of the episode in question, but … “Introducing John (freaking) Hurt as the Doctor”?!??!! Are you (freaking) kidding me? Are all my efforts to resist getting sucked back into this fandom utterly doomed?

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Perhaps I should explain. Back in the early 1980s when I was a mere chit of sixteen, my adored high-school English teacher, Ms. Mader, suggested that our class check out the BBC adaptation of Crime and Punishment, then appearing on Masterpiece Theatre. I watched. John Hurt starred as Raskolnikov–and a whole new reality was opened up to me as I became hooked on at least three things at once: British drama, Russian literature, and … John Hurt–whose voice lingered with me until I finally put two and two together and realized that his was also the voice of Hazel in the (for me) much beloved and many-times-watched film version of Watership Down.

It was, as they say, the beginning of the end. I actually went on a reading tear through piles of Dostoyevsky that year. Became hooked on Masterpiece Theatre (where I also saw Austen’s Pride and Prejudice for the first time) and eventually became easily drawn into all kinds of British television, from “serious” drama to sitcoms, which eventually led to Blake’s Seven and thence onto that path to perdition known as science fiction fandom. So Hurt’s recent appearance on Doctor Who is, for me, like the completion of some weird pre-ordained cosmic circle.

No question. I am doomed.