Which door would you pick?

Doors (archways) photo
Photo by Michael Lomza at Ubsplash: Marianne's Palace, Kamieniec Ząbkowicki, Poland

There was a question posted in LiveJournal a few years back: You find yourself in front of seven identical doors. A voice from above tells you, “These doors lead to seven different places: Narnia, Neverland, Wonderland, Hogwarts, Camelot, Middle Earth, and Westeros. Which door do you go through?”

Well, first of all I would add two more doors that lead into my own worlds:

Syai, the China-that-never-was-but-might-have-been, either in “The Secrets of Jin-shei” or the book set in the same world hundred of years later, “Embers of Heaven.”

Worldweavers, the home of Thea Winthrop and Elemental Magic, where you could walk and talk with Nilola Tesla and Corey the Trickster.

Okay. My answers on the original seven because asking an author which of her own worlds  she would choose to live in is like asking her which of her children she loves best:

First off, the obvious NO: Westeros. I’ve never read the whole entire series but what I’ve seen of the TV show basically tells me that unless I step out of that door on the far side as ALREADY a queen (and even THEY often don’t fare all that well), my life would tend to be short sharp and brutal and thank you very much. I’ll pass. Besides, for some reason, what I HAVE seen of George R R Martin’s epic I’ve enjoyed on the level that it’s a punchy story that rolls you forward but on some deep and fundamental level it just never did satisfy me.

Narnia – if you has asked me this question when I was 14 I would probably have run, not walked, to Narnia. Particularly if I could meet Aslan (who was not, after all a TAME lion). There was just… something. Something magical.

But then I fatally read, or was educated about, the stuff between the lines, and Narnia lost its gloss. I can still love it, and enjoy it, but there is a tight wary part of me that wants nothing to do with the allegorical layering within it and I do NOT want to end up where I think I would end up if I went there, with Aslan magically transforming into one of those religious-postcard blue-eyed Jesuses with an expression of inexpressible beatitude and an attitude of “you will be just fine if you do what I say you do and think only what I say you think”. I’m sorry, but I’m way beyond that. I have my own ideas. If I could be guaranteed Aslan and ONLY Aslan, I might consider it. Otherwise…

Neverland and Wonderland share a particular characteristic which means I’d love to visit but not stay there long term – an overwhelming preponderance of the twee and the whimsical. In the case of Alice – particularly in the Looking Glass books – you might say that it all means an entirely different thing and that if you pay attention you might actually understand this and have an experience that is vastly different from what you think you are seeing. And while I do ADORE Lewis Carroll’s obvious and irrepressible love of language – if I had to LIVE with that I’d be insane in short order. I’d probably TURN into a Jabberwock and start eating people.

Hogwarts – oh, I don’t know. There are wonderful things in that world. There are also things that make me roll my eyes mightily and go, oh, REALLY?!? And learning pig latin to do spells… would lose its charm fast.

Which leaves us with Camelot, and Middle Earth.

Camelot was an enduring love affair, for me. I LOVE the Arthurian cycle (well, the parts of it before it turns into a Christian tract and the only thing that matters is finding the metaphysical equivalent of salvation in the shape of the Holy Grail. But it had a power to it that I responded to, the power of PEOPLE living a MYTH.

When I was 19 I even wrote an entire novel from the POV of Guinevere (and discovered that it was a damnably difficult thing to do because she could not POSSIBLY know half the things that I needed her to know in order to carry the plot forward, without resorting to silly little-girl tricks like listening at doors…) Given a chance to go through that door and find myself in Camelot… ah, well, the rub here is WHICH Camelot, and what I will find there. But this one would tempt me. Tempt me hard.

In the end there is only one door for me, though, and I am sure those of you who know me picked this one for me right from the start.

I am a Tolkien girl.

For a very long time I have lived and breathed Middle Earth. I may not know Quenya, but my heart speaks that, and Entish, and knows how to sing “Misty Mountains” in the original tongue of the Dwarves who wrote it. I understand this world, and I treasure it. In fact, I hardly need to open that door and step through… because I am already there.

I’ve been there for as long as I know.

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A new treat for my Patrons

I have written a new short story set in a world I may revisit some day: Val Hall, the Bruce Wayne Foundation-funded Home for Retired Superherors (Third Class). It’s all about…well, you’ll just have to read it.

A note about Patreon: as publishing changes, most authors need new sources of income. If you would like to help me continue writing about wizards and Weres, Jin-shei sisters, and girls who rise from the gutter to Empress, consider pitching in with a small monthly pledge. For the cost of a latte or two you too can become a patron of the arts.

Details HERE

~~~~~
Wired asked writers to create 6-word SF stories

Gown removed carelessly. Head, less so. – Joss Whedon

More from Wired HERE

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The secret lives of books

My grandfather's book photo

My grandfather’s well-loved book that he read nearly every day

You trip over many listicles and other interesting things on the web while browsing – like the strictures at Mental Floss about how to keep your books looking good.

I stopped dead at #4: AVOID WRITING IN YOUR BOOKS : Don’t even think about writing your name on the first page. Modern ownership inscriptions are considered unsightly flaws in the current collectible market. But if you cannot resist the compulsion, use pencil. Even better: Keep a notebook … where you record quotes and thoughts from the books you’re reading.”

Yes. In theory, yes. But then I look up on the shelf above my desk where a bunch of my own books live – they, and one other – a very precious one.

It’s a tattered ancient dull gray old-fashioned hardcover, falling apart at the seams, stray threads poking out from the ageing spine. A workaday edition, nothing special, printed in 1940 (wartime Europe) and put out as a part of a series (#294, to be precise) by a literary endowment. It’s a book of personal essays and short prose pieces by one of my grandfather’s favorite poets.

It is in fact my grandfather’s book, perhaps his favorite. It used to live on the cabinet next to the couch where he took his daily afternoon naps, and usually before or after the nap he’d pick up the book – which he had read many times – and peruse its familiar pages again.

Inside, the book has many passages underlined in pencil by his hand, with particular bits annotated (in handwriting I can no longer read) in the margins.

It may be a sin to write in a book. But oh, am I glad he did so here.

Framed photo of my grandfatherBecause his spirit lives in this book, in his notes, in his faded chickenscratch handwriting, in the carefully cut out and pasted in (another no-no from the original list) newspaper cuttings about the poet who wrote the book, in the ratty pair of bookmarks (ANOTHER no-no from the list!) which have now lived in the places where he last left them for decades – one of them is a really worn old leather one which I gave him once a long time ago and the other is an incomplete bus punch ticket – incomplete, because the last date on it is shortly before he died.

Every time I pick up the book I see his gnarled brown hands folded around it. Every time I bring it to my face I catch a whiff of his pencils. Every time I look at it I see him, I remember him, and every underline, every scribble, every annotation reminds me of the man who woke my own love for poetry and for language, who made me what I am today.

I treasure that ratty old written-all-over book. No, it isn’t in “great shape”. But what it is – all of it, every sacred page, every blessed line of it – is a beloved reminder of somebody I loved, a memory I would HATE not to have.

So write in your books. Someday your grandchildren may remember and love you by those penciled thoughts you left behind.

Books don’t have to be pristine. They just have to be loved.

~~~
Mental Floss tips to keep your books looking great HERE

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Wired asked writers to create 6-word SF stories – e.g.

Machine. Unexpectedly, I’d invented a time – Alan Moore

More from Wired HERE

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Please Help Me Build New Worlds

As publishing changes, most authors need new sources of income. If you would like to help me continue writing about wizards and Weres, Jin-shei sisters, and girls who rise from the gutter to Empress, consider pitching in with a small monthly pledge.

For the cost of a latte or two you too can become a patron of the arts.

Click HERE

~~~~~
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The Moment

Woman reading photo

Photo by Hisu Lee at Unsplash.com

In fiction and in life

A life is made of moments. It is stitched together from the things you remember most vividly — the peaks and the valleys, the turning points, the places where you paused, or hurried, or changed direction.

In fiction, these are the things that will linger in a reader’s mind after the story is over.
And this is when a visual medium definitely has a edge on the written word. A moment in a movie can hinge on a gesture, an exchange of meaningful glances without a word being spoken. It can be the tiniest change of expression.

In an episode of the TV series “The Mentalist” a few years ago, one of the characters was a young man who was ‘slow’, developmentally disabled. The character presentation was utterly perfect – the open and trusting expression on the boy’s face, the way everyone spoke to him with an edge of pitying kindness and his apparent grateful acceptance of that attitude… right until the moment when everything changed.

The boy whom we had thought of as simple-minded was sitting in a chair in an interrogation room when his bluff was called and something indescribable happened. His eyes hardened and sharpened, somehow, and you realized with an electric jolt that he had been stringing everyone along in an expert con, that this was no simpleton but instead a very cold, calculating and dangerous mind.

Sometimes the entire emotional landscape of a character – frustration, hatred, love, triumph, envy, pity, sorrow, exultation, surrender, regret, fury, even a lapse into full and chaotic madness – can be distilled into a single gesture, a single glance. What you can convey in less than thirty seconds of film time… might take you a chapter to convey properly in a book.

This is the thing with the written word. It requires more mental engagement. A visual moment is seen, and shared, and immediately understood. A written moment needs more set-up, and develops more slowly in your head; it is probably never quite the same for any two readers of the same given scene because what is built up in each reader’s head is different and utterly beyond any writer’s control.

It is not to say that the written moments are the lesser. They can be more enduring because of the simple fact that the readers paint them with their own imagination, their own mental scenery, and etch it into permanence in their mind. But a book needs time, and effort, and attention to do this. You can look at a scene on a screen and you can respond immediately, viscerally, because you are responding to what your senses are handing you, to what you can see and hear.

But you have to give a book far more than that. You need to get deeply enmeshed, you need to reach in and wrap the words around you like so many tangled Christmas lights. A good book, one with good moments, becomes a lifelong friend and one to which you will return again and again because of that moment that it shared with you.

There are dozens of books with “moments” I remember, where the plot revolves around those moments, where the characters are built and wrapped around those moments. Guy Gavriel Kay’s “Tigana” has a lot of such moments. If you haven’t read that remarkable book I suggest you hie off and get yourself a copy now.

There are such moments in all of my novels. In “Midnight at Spanish Gardens”, for example, there is one which has been singled out by many readers. It occurs when John, my young doctor, is on rotation in the children’s cancer ward. In the beginning, he copes by treating the kids simply as patients with a disease and he as The Doctor who has all the answers.

The ‘moment’ comes when he realizes how utterly beyond his control it all really is – and everything instantly changes. The patient becomes a little dying boy; the disease becomes a monster against which he is helpless. And that breaks him

Before that moment he was one person, after it he was another. And there is no reconciling those two people. In the blink of an eye he has crossed from one world into another and he can’t go back.

Writers have to invest far more into that moment because all they have with which to evoke that visual and sensory response from you, are the words on the page. A writer doesn’t have the luxury of showing a viewer the transformation in a character’s personality just because the viewer is watching that character’s eyes change from “good natured, slightly simple” to “cold calculating potential serial killer.”

A writer has to describe this to you, the reader, and then you have to visualize it – there is an extra step in there, and you BOTH have to work harder for it, writer and reader alike.

As a writer, I am sometimes profoundly envious of the way that a movie scene of less than a minute, can convey a feeling, an attitude, that is an instant  gratification – something that it would take me pages and pages to properly present and explore in a book. But also as a writer I am also grateful that the medium of the written word allows me a more enduring connection with a reader’s mind… because what I present in those pages is not so much the destination as a map and then I allow the reader to create their own destination which will color and enrich their own experience of the things that I wrote.

A writer allows readers to create their own moments.

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Tea With The Duchess

The latest edition of my newsletter, Tea With The Duchess, has just been sent out to subscribers. It contains news about my latest fantasy novel, “Wings of Fire”, other projects I am working on, and plans for the coming year.

You can read it online HERE

Ever After book coverNew subscibers to my newsletter will receive a FREE ebook, “Ever After”, containing four stories about how the princesses you knew from your childhood became refugees facing far greater strength, far greater loss, far greater courage than you ever knew?

If you wish to subscribe, and receive your free ebook, send your email address HERE – or send it to me at AlmaAlexander@AlmaAlexander.org.

Please join us.

~~~~~
Wired asked writers to create 6-word SF stories

He read his obituary with confusion.” – Steven Meretzky

More from Wired HERE

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Quote of the Day

Occasionally, there arises a writing situation where you see an alternative to what you are doing, a mad, wild gamble of a way for handling something, which may leave you looking stupid, ridiculous or brilliant — you just don’t know which. You can play it safe there, too, and proceed along the route you’d mapped out for yourself. Or you can trust your personal demon who delivered that crazy idea in the first place. Trust your demon.” ~ Roger Zelazny

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A back door into magic

Skating alone on a pond photoPHOTO by Filip Mroz at Unsplash

If you walk into any bookstore you will find things shelved and classified according to rigorous  criteria. Cookbooks, hither, not to be confused with memoirs, there, or history, over there. There is an entire section called FICTION sorted into boxes such as Mysteries, Young Adult, Romance, Science fiction, Fantasy. .

And then you hit the sub-boxes – what KIND of fantasy? Is it historical fantasy with hints in the background about a real historical era? s it urban fantasy with gritty city streets? Is it high fantasy with a dragon on the cover? Secondary world fantasy? Tolkien clone? Does it take place in Hogwarts?…

My novels have had their share of labels.

For example, “The Secrets of Jin-shei” – by virtue of being carried by eight female protagonists – has been called “feminist fantasy.”

My “Midnight at Spanish Gardens“ has been called “religious fantasy” by someone struggling to pin this rather uncategorizable book down to a soundbite, although I struggle to find anything overtly “religious” in that novel.

An article on io9 a few years ago offered a new sub-category — “Bckdoor Fntasy”. Here’s what they meant by that:

When our everyday lives are full of devices and discoveries that feel magical, it’s time for fantasy to reinvent itself. And it has, in a new form you could call backdoor fantasy… instead of drawing us deeper into an alternate world of magic that seethes just beneath the city…it draws us deeper into the real world. What characterizes a backdoor fantasy is that it uses all the tricks and tropes of a fantasy story without ever actually showing us anything that can’t be explained by science.”

This sounds like most of my novels.

The io9 article says a Jo Walton novel “Among Others” is a perfect example of Back Door Fantasy. “In it we encounter familiar fantasy ideas: there is more to the world than meets the eye; evil is a part of nature; we can control reality with our minds. And yet Walton’s protagonist could easily be spinning a fantasy story in her head to escape the horrors of her home life. The fantasy in Among Others may, in other words, be a fantasy.”

If you haven’t read that book, I urge you to do so. But here’s the thing about that book for me. Walton’s heroine… was kind of… me. Okay, I didn’t have a vanished twin, or a witchy mother who could do actual awful crazy magickal stuff, or an estranged guilt-ridden dad who sent me off to a posh boarding school… but the boarding school and the escape into books, that was my own life.

I daresay that this particular back door is hardly likely to be there for other readers who haven’t shared my own particular life and times and experiences. The point, however, is that the magic in these cases might just lie in that kernel of pure recognition – something that leaps from the page at you and catches you by the throat and screams, YOU KNOW ME! YOU LIVED ME!

I touched that for readers of “Midnight at Spanish Gardens“. I know I did  because readers and reviewers have spoken of a feeling that they got from the book, a feeling of being able to identify with the place in which the novel is set, with the circumstances in which it takes place, with the relationships of once-friends who were being picked up after years of hiatus. Reviewers and readers said things like: 
“It feels like you had just sat down for a cup of coffee with some old friends”,
“It seemed as if I had been to this particular café before”,
“I kind of knew the people in this book, because they were me, they were my friends”

The only magic in this book is a sprinkling of fairy dust. There is a manifestly supernatural character who refers to himself as “the Messenger”, although he never says whose messenger he is. Readers have identified him as variously an angel or a sprite of some sort – someone through whom the power to make a choice is transferred to a human soul.

And it is in that choice that the magic lies.

I write about people. I write about what makes people change. Like I said to someone in a conversation about this very novel, what makes people change are answers to two polar-opposite questions: what makes you happy, and what do you fear. The first will make you run towards something; the second, away. But both will MOVE you, and once you are in motion you cannot help but encounter choices.

The io9 people go on to say, “This strand in fantasy writing is exploding right now. The more we suck information out of light waves and glowing boxes, the more we are slain by invisible assassins called viruses, the more obvious it becomes that we are living in what feels like a fantasy. Just because your world has been transfigured by science doesn’t mean your imagination will stop seeing terrible sorcery in it.”

I say, amen. There is just so much magic in our world, the “real” world, which we are so often too busy to stop and appreciate. Let me give you some examples from a real life. Mine.

The first one concerns a skating pond in the woods behind one of the world’s great hotels in Banff. This is one of those unreal hotels build in the shape and form of a castle, situated amongst tall firs, and I was there one cold, cold winter. You could go down a winding stair into the woods to a frozen pond. I went down the stair and found that it gloriously and completely empty of any other soul except me. Christmas fairy lights in the trees twinkled on the snow around me. The trees stood like silent white sentinels in the dark, and the stars in the night sky were bright and sharp like shards. It was just me and the wilderness.

I started skating, alone in the night, the swish of skate blades on ice, multicoloured shadows falling about my feet. And I felt like weeping with a holy joy because I felt as though I could pass right through this unreal scene and step – or skate – into a whole other world which trembled just there, just in the corner of my eye, just out of reach.

Tell me this moment had no magic in it. True magic. Real magic. MY magic.

The second example is a long way from that night, a bright day in the Florida Keys. I’m kneeling on a low wooden platform next to a pool with two dolphins, a mother and son I had just spent a half hour swimming with, holding out treats. The younger dolphin was still very much a “child” in every sense – exuberant, playful, pushy and completely and passionately free with his emotions. Instead of coming for his treat, this baby dolphin came swimming full-tilt at the jetty, leaped out of the water completely, and tucked himself under my arm. Our eyes met, and I swear he smiled. And then, with one flip of that powerful tail, he had reversed himself and had slid back into the water.

A dolphin had HUGGED me.

A little piece of magic, right there. Right in my arms.

The third one. A letter arrived at my house one day. From NASA. FROM NASA.

They were producing a commemorative poster for the Mercury 13, the women who trained in the early astronaut program back when women had no chance of going into space. They had stepped up anyway, because they refused to relinquish the dream of the stars or the idea that those stars belonged to them just as much as to men. NASA wanted to know whether I would grant them permission to use an excerpt from one of my poems on that poster.

I cried. I was so humbled, so proud, so full of feelings I cannot begin to describe to you.

Like the Mercury 13 themselves, I would never myself float out there amongst the stars – but my words are there now, for keeps, on a poster which commemorates women reaching for that then impossible dream. That is a piece of magic that I treasure, a very real piece of magic, something that I am reminded of every time I walk past the wall in my house on which a framed copy of that poster hangs.

I will find some little piece of magic to build into my next story, too, and the next, and the one after that. If that is what they want to call it, a back door fantasy, I’ll take it. But I’ll keep on opening those back doors. There is too much joy and beauty and sadness and glory and pure humanity behind them to leave them closed, and people need to be reminded – always, and constantly – that the magic is there for the taking, just by reaching out and touching it.

In this December, if you live somewhere where you might be expecting snow, remember this presence of magic in the white silence of a snowfall – go out and walk in one, and let that silence and whiteness surround you, and listen for the songs of that silence. If you live in a place where you aren’t expecting snow, wander out into the balmy air in your shorts and your short sleeves and wonder at the magic that lets you walk along a beach with your toes in warm water breaking into white foamy lace at your feet while someone else out there is wandering in that joyous snow.

When you wake up January 1 of the new year, open your eyes and know that you are living in a brand new world, just born with the sun. And that, right there, is a piece of magic that you can carry with you every day of your life.

Open the back door. Step into magic. It is waiting.

~~~~~
Wired asked writers to create 6-word SF stories

“Epitaph: He shouldn’t have fed it.” – Brian Herbert

More from Wired HERE

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Quote of the day

“The ability to “fantasize” is the ability to survive. It’s wonderful to speak about this subject because there have been so many wrong-headed people dealing with it…. The so-called realists are trying to drive us insane, and I refuse to be driven insane…. We survive by fantasizing. Take that away from us and the whole damned human race goes down the drain.” ~ Ray Bradbury

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The “Blessed Book”

The Secrets of Jin-shei cover frony and back

Hard cover of U.S. HarperCollins edition

An ebook version of “The Secrets of Jin-shei”, a historical fantasy that I wrote in a white heat in 2002, was released this year and has sparked renewed interest in the story of a group of women set in a China-that-never-was.

White heat means exactly that. Its 200,000 words took me less than three months to write and what came out was was a clean first draft which required very little editing. This was a story that was ready to live, and to fly.

I’ve never managed to match that blazing speed with any of my other books.

It’s a sweeping epic set in a land I called Syai that is modeled on medieval China; it is the story of a group of women, the Jin-shei sisterhood, who form a uniquely powerful circle that transcends class and social custom. They are bound together by a declaration of loyalty that transcends all other vows, even those with the gods, and by their own secret language passed from mother to daughter, and by the knowledge that some of them will have to pay the ultimate sacrifice to enable others to fulfill their destiny.

It has been published in 13 languages in more than a score of countries. In the United States it was put out by HarperCollins with the help of a wildly enthusiastic editor who loved the story fiercely… but the HC division which produced this book promptly went away as an entity. The book, after an initial publicity push, was pretty much left to fend for itself after the editor who had spoken so eloquently for it was out of the picture.

And yet it did exceedingly well in foreign editions. In Spain, for example, it sold more than 30,000 hardcover copies and “Bestseller” was stamped on the cover, I call it the Blessed Book.

It’s still in print, at least in the USA, but sales had dropped dramatically… until an ebook version as issued and it has been selling steadily ever since.

I am astonished and delighted that it still gets constant and on-going attention on reading venues like Goodreads where it has received 1,480 ratings (averaging just under four stars) and 166 reviews.

It has scored a respectable number of reviews on Amazon but because of Amazon’s astounding marketing power, I’d love to see the number of reviews climb there. (Hint, if anyone reading this blog has read Jin-shei and would like to add an Amazon review, I’d love to know what you think of it.)

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News about Children of a Different Sky

Carl Slaughter interviewed me on my themed fantasy anthology filled with  tales of migrants and refugees, with profits going straight to charities working with refugees and migrant..

CARL SLAUGHTER:  What prompted you to do an anthology with this theme?

ALMA ALEXANDER:  There are seven words that underlie the status of any refugee in the world, ever: “There but for the grace of God…”

It is not a new issue — people who run from disaster in the hope of finding a better future have always been with us. But what IS new is that now it is all being televised on 24-hour 7-days-a-week news channels, always available online on news websites.

We can no longer hide from the misery of these displaced souls because we see them running now — we see them on the crowded boats on open seas, we see them clawing to shore and drowning on the doorstep of salvation, we see them languish in camps where conditions are enough to horrify any sane mind, we see them crowding against barbed wire and against walls and being denied harbor because they are hated and feared and basically unwanted by the populace already on the ground in the places where the migrants wish to go.  People who cannot see that the refugees in this restless and lost crowd might one day, some day, just as easily be themselves.

 

I was eager to do what I could to help and the only way open to do that for someone like myself is to do that thing that I do – Tell Stories. And since there is always strength in numbers and I knew many stellar writers whom I knew I could ask to help this endeavor and who, if they were on board, would make a magnificent contribution.

That is how Children of a Different Sky came to be.

CS:  What was the story selection process?

AA: The theme of the anthology was the migrant/immigrant/refugee experience, and the story criteria were simple enough:

“Make me think; make me feel.”

And oh boy, did the stories in this book deliver on those terms. As an editor, this is a collection of which I am very proud. As a reader…this is one of the most luminous collection of stories I have ever seen in one place. This anthology began as a project with an idea – a charity anthology with proceeds of sales to go to organizations helping migrants and refugees on the ground. During the process of its incarnation, it grew into a living thing with breath and heartbeat.  And every story and poem in this book is one essential component of this transformation.

Read the whole interview HERE:

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Wired asked writers to create 6-word SF stories.

TIME MACHINE REACHES FUTURE!!! … nobody there …
– Harry Harrison

More from Wired HERE

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Quote of the day

Memory is not a storage place but a story we tell ourselves in retrospect. As such, it is made of storytelling material: embroidery and forgery, perplexity and urgency, revelation and darkness.”  — Psychologist Noam Shpancer

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Slava: a spiritual family reunion

2 slava dishes photo

 

A Slava day defines you, as a Serb

Where I come from, under the wing of the Orthodox Christian church, there is a custom which hinges on a saint’s identity and which is  I believe unique to the Serbian Orthodox faith. This is something that we know as “Slava”.

The word literally means “Celebration” – or maybe “Thanksgiving”. It is not an individual but rather a family celebration, and it is kept on the feast day of the patron saint of the entire family. The identity of this saint depends on the day on which the family celebrating the Slava first became Christians. The Slava of a family is something that unites the entire family under the banner of this commemoration of their first acceptance of their faith, and the same saint has been celebrated by individual families for centuries, for generations.

Even during the most suppressive of the Communist years, when the church was not popular and the people were hardly church-going on a regular basis, the Slava was kept – because in a  lot of ways it is embedded in a secular as well as a religious bedrock.

A Slava day defines you, as a Serb, in much the same way that keeping Seder would identify you as a Jew. There are celebrations and traditions which are passed down from generation to generation together with the icon of the family saint which is a treasured heirloom from the old to the young over the passage of decades and centuries.

In the traditional religious sense, on the day of the family Slava the family home is literally considered consecrated, if just for the day – it becomes a church, and the family within its congregation.

It is a day for the family to gather from near and far, traditionally at the home of the oldest living member of the family – the holder of the family icon. The gathered people, from great-grandparents to babes in arms, gather together to celebrate the existence of that family, to pray for the shining futures of the young ones, and to remember the ones who have passed from the family circle.

This is perhaps one of the most poignant and moving aspects of this tradition – the dead, the beloved ancestors, are not forgotten. The Slava has been called a “spiritual family reunion” by some, and while some may recoil from that, I think it is beautiful. In this church, in this culture, death has no dominion, and the grave does not sunder loved ones.

Those of us who have gone ahead are as present at these family celebrations as the noisiest of toddlers being kept a solicitous eye on by young parents. We are all one, we are family, we exist in a timeless place where there is always a memory. My own grandparents, two decades and more dead now, are as present to me on Slava days as if they were still sitting across the table from me at the family feast. I have loved them; they loved me; they live within me, always, under the blessing of the Slava.

The religious aspects of the celebration are – perhaps inevitably, given the identity of the celebrants – wrapped up and embedded in that feast. The family gathering generally culminates in a shared  smorgasbord which the women of the family labor for days to produce.

But there are two things on the menu that have deep religious and spiritual significance. One of them is the so-called “Slavski Kolac” (it’s pronounced “slavsky kolach”, and literally means Slava cake) which is a sort of bread baked specially for the occasion. It bears on its crust the sign of the cross.

But before you even get to the table you are greeted with a bowl of a special dish known as “Koljivo” (pronounced “kolyivo”) which is a dish made from wheat, nuts, sugar, and cloves. It is offered to visitors at the door in a bowl, and a spoonful is taken almost as a ritual greeting with “Sretna Slava!” (Happy Slava!) offered in return. The wheat has deep ecclesiastical meanings of its own – symbolizing such things as the Resurrection of Christ – but this is… a remembrance dish, made and offered and consumed in remembrance of all those who are only here with the family in spirit.

Every morsel of koljivo I take on November 11, my own Slava day, serves to take my mind back to those vanished and beloved grandparents whom I carry in my heart.

a slava feast and candleAnother of the Slava traditions is the candle – one that is supposed to have been purchased at the Church, or at least blessed by a priest, and which, once lit, is not permitted to be snuffed out. It must be allowed to burn down naturally  until it gutters out of its own accord. To do otherwise invites death into the family. (In practice, this has often meant that somebody has to sit up with the candle until the wee small hours,  until the moment it dies – leaving unattended open flames in a household, particularly one with (for instance) pets, is not a good idea and it needs to be supervised;

I have resorted, on occasion, to having the guttering candle tucked away in a metal foil nest in the bathtub in a bathroom firmly closed to unauthorized entry, if it persisted in still burning at two or three in the morning – but nothing on earth would  induce me to be practical and just snuff it out and go to bed. It must be allowed to burn down in God’s time, not my own.

Slava is passed on through the generations – but it gets complicated by intermarriage and the lineages of the families which celebrate different saints. It is usually the husband’s patron saint that the family takes on when a newly-wed couple choose their Slava – but the family icon is kept and treasured by the eldest member of the family and that only gets passed down to the next heir after he inherits the mantle of Eldest.

In my own family it was an interesting wrinkle that my grandmother and grandfather proved to have the same Slava day. This is very unusual, especially if the saint is a relatively minor one, and in this case the saint in question was St Avram, or Avramije – which translates into Abraham in the more westernized versions and when I was younger I was extremely puzzled for a long time as to what the Jewish biblical patriarch Abraham had done to deserve being turned into a Christian saint. But this was a different Avram, whose feast day fell on November 11, and my grandparents both held allegiance to him as their families’ patron saint –and thus he became ours.

This particular family, mine, has almost disintegrated in some respects – my grandparents had no sons, only two daughters, and each daughter produced a daughter in her turn, and one of those (my cousin) married a Jewish man, and so out of faith, and has only daughters herself in any event and the other (myself) married a relatively agnostic American and has no children who will ever embrace Slava. The two cousins, myself and my aunt’s daughter, both still keep Slava anyway, and our husbands have been trained to accept this and even to partake in it, being “adopted” into the family and the faith.

But after us, the branch grinds into dust because there is no son to inherit, no more generations to carry it further.

This “adoption” is partly possible because of the dual religious/secular nature of the celebration – because a big part of the family Slava is, well, family. And food. Traditionally anyone who calls at the door wishing the family a happy Slava must be fed; the women make appetizers and entrees, roast beasts of every stripe, and soups, and salads, and sweets of every description from tea cookies to rich cakes, and it’s all brought out and set out around the icon of the family saint, for the nourishment of the living and the souls of the dead. There is so much light, and love, and laughter, and remembrance.

It is truly a celebration, a celebration of life and of living, and it is a protection and a shelter against the onslaught of a world that does not care. FAMILY cares, and you will always have family – and the family will always have their Slava.

I will be celebrating once again, with the koljivo and the candle and the icon, come November 11. In honor of that St Avram on whose feast day, once, a long time ago, the distant ancestors whose blood now flows in my veins laid down their pagan beliefs and embraced Christianity. In memory of their blood and their bones, and the laughter and the loving arms of the grandparents who once loved me.

Happy Slava.

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Wired asked writers to create 6-word SF stories.

Gown removed carelessly. Head, less so.
– Joss Whedon

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The power of words

The magic in booksBen White (@benwhitephotography) at Unsplash

Unbidden, unrehearsed, we supplied the next lines

Many years ago, on Opening Day of the then-new glass-and-steel Library in downtown Seattle, my husband and I happened to be on the scene together with literally THOUSANDS of enthusiastic people who were thronging the street outside the edifice (and my writer’s heart was gladdened to see so many readers who couldn’t wait to pour through the front doors…)

We got inside, with the rest of them and wandered around inspecting the place. We sat down to rest a moment, together with a bunch of other people who were all strangers to one another, on a chair which was part of a grouping of seats in the foyer.

One of the other people there was a young parent with a small child, and the child was having a picture book read to it, out loud. It might have been any picture book, but the words were familiar, familiar, familiar – and not just to me. So while the kid listened, rapt, those strangers at the group of seats began to smile and their heads began to swivel.

And the picture book came to,

If the area window was found ajar
And the basement looked like field of war,
If a tile or two came loose on the roof,
Which presently ceased to be waterproof,
If the drawers were pulled out from the bedroom chests,
And you couldn’t find one of your winter vests,
Or after supper one of the girls
Suddenly missed her Woolworth pearls.

Several of us, unbidden, unrehearsed, supplied the next two lines in a Greek chorus:

Then the family would say: “It’s that horrible cat!
It was Mungojerrie-or Rumpleteazer!”- And most of the time they left it at that.

That kid’s eyes, as they lifted off the book and onto us, were wide and awed. I suspect we made a lifelong convert to the world of books that day – because it was utter magic, how these people who didn’t know HER and apparently didn’t know ONE ANOTHER all knew how the next line went.

The grown-ups all smiled and nodded at each other across the space between the seats. Readers, all. THank you, Old Possum and all the Practical Cats.

And there’s more where that came from.

Jellicle cats are black and white
Jellicle cats are rather small…

Some time after that my own Jellicle left me. The cat I had left out of my matched pair of black-and-whites, was lost and bereft, her cries piteous in the night for a long time after.

It took me much longer. Even now, years later, there’s a hole in my life where Boboko used to live. I miss him, so badly – his goofiness, his playfulness, his loving nature, his imperious demands. Mungojerrie has gone to wreak his gentle Jellicle havoc someplace else while he waits for us all wherever it is that loved souls wait for those with whom they shared their earthly lives. And in time, maybe, I will learn to leave it at that.

~~~~~
Wired asked writers to create 6-word SF stories.

His penis snapped off; he’s pregnant!
Rudy Rucker

More from Wired HERE

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