What Not To Read When the World is Falling Apart

Let me tell you about what I’ve been reading recently. First of all, over the past week, I’ve been reading a lot of news about the horrors in El Paso and Dayton. As well as the continuing horrors in Washington, D.C., and most of the rest of the world.

Just before El Paso and Dayton, I had finished reading Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, a beautifully written dystopia filled with all the horrors that people of color already face in many of our cities every day. It ends on a hopeful note, but on the way takes the reader through a lot of violence and terror and despair.

Last weekend I attended ArmadilloCon, Austin’s convention for readers and writers of science fiction and fantasy. One panel was about what has recently been dubbed #hopepunk fiction. Panelists asked whether readers were becoming weary of a steady diet of dystopia. I’m pretty sure our answer was “Yes. Now what?”

At the convention, I bought two books from an up-and-coming Native American author, Rebecca Roanhorse, and found myself with plenty of time on my hands to read them this week after I fell victim to the latest virus traveling through the social circles my grandkids travel in.

Roanhorse’s Trail of Lightning and Storm of Locusts are skillfully crafted stories with larger-than-life characters in a post-apocalyptic world in which the gods and heroes of the Diné (Navajo) nation manifest in some stunningly impressive ways. Great stories. Very violent. Every character morally gray (which is fine). Many of them a very dark gray. And of course, since Roanhorse is writing a trilogy, book two ends with some sense of resolution followed by one of those “OH MY GOD, NO!!” moments that are the mark of the great writer who knows how to get you to buy her third book.

So there I am–sick, depressed, steeped in the eerily parallel violence of dystopian fiction and breaking news. What to do? I thought I needed a break, a different book that would pull me out of my funk. Maybe something contemporary. So I went to my bookshelf and found a nice hardback I’d picked up sometime back and carried it upstairs with me last night for a good restorative bedtime read. I was only a few pages into the book when I remembered what it was about. This was Elizabeth Crook’s Monday, Monday, which begins with the 1966 tower shooting at the University of Texas. Her description is slow-motion and elegant as a dagger. I broke down in tears as I laid the book aside.

I didn’t sleep well.

This morning I woke a bit late and scurried around in order to make my breakfast date with my son and his family. If anything could pull me out of my funk, the grandkids could.

Tacos and donuts and grandbabies. I was definitely feeling better. Well enough to share with my daughter-in-law what I’ve been going through. She confessed that she’d just finished re-reading Pollyanna. Maybe I’d like to borrow it? Tempting, but…no.

You see, I don’t want to just hide from the violence and hatred. I don’t want to cover it over with prettily-painted, trompe-l’oiel wallpaper and pretend it’s not there. I just want to see something in our world, something in us, that can reassure me that we’re more than this, better than this.

Show me some hope.

Driving home I remembered something from my college days that I had worked into the second book of my Recall Chronicles. Malia, the main character in Shadow of the Hare, is alone in a little hotel in India, struggling to cope in a post-apocalyptic world.

“I read for a while, [she says] struggling through a short story in French that Simone had shared with me. It was about a little blind girl whose parents, with collusion from the village priest, had conjured a beautiful and perfect world for her, never let­ting her encounter anything ugly or sad. She was so angry when she discovered what they’d done, what the world was really like. “Je ne veux pas etre heureuse,” she cried. “Je veux savoir!” I liked the story. I don’t want to be happy—I want to know. I made a cup of tea and read it again.”

That story has stayed with me all these years and it has kept me asking questions, never content to rest in my privilege or comfort, always wanting… to know.

Here’s what I know now: I want both. Yes, I want to know. But I also want to be happy. I DO want to be happy, dammit. And I want you to be happy, too.

My job as a writer, especially as a writer of speculative fiction, is not to write #grimdark, violence-filled dystopian and apocalyptic stories devoid of hope; nor is my job to write pretty #noblebright fiction in which saviors magically come to our rescue. No, my job is to face the reality of #grimdark and somehow dig out of it… some shred of hope. Some deeply human determination to hope in spite of everything.

They say we have to write the stories we want to read. Okay, then. If all goes well, my book will be out early next year.

(A version of this essay was read earlier today at Austin Writers’ Roulette, hosted by Teresa Y. Roberson at Malvern Books.)

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“This Changes Everything?” (Updated.)

NOTE: This was originally published in the aftermath of the shooting in Orlando, Florida, in June of 2016. Today I added a dozen more shootings. How many will it take? 

Aug. 1, 1966: A man with a gun shot and killed 16 people from a university tower at the University of Texas in Austin.

Maybe we should change some things.

July 18, 1984: A man with a gun killed 21 adults and children at a McDonald’s in San Ysidro, California.

Surely, there are things that should change.

Aug. 20, 1986: A man with a gun killed 14 postal workers in Edmund, Oklahoma.

This should change things.

Oct. 16, 1991: A man with a gun crashed his pickup through the wall of Luby’s Cafeteria in Killeen, Texas, and then shot and killed 23 people.

Would this change things?

April 16, 2007: A young man with a gun at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia, killed 32 people.

Certainly this will change everything.

Nov. 5, 2009:  A man with a gun killed 13 people and injured 30 others at Fort Hood near Killeen, Texas.

Things have to change.

July 20, 2012: A man with a gun killed 12 people in an Aurora, Colorado, movie theater.

This has to change everything.

Dec. 14, 2012: A man with a gun killed 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

Now. Now this will change everything.

Sept. 16, 2013: A man with a gun killed 12 people and injured three others at the headquarters of the Naval Sea Systems Command in Washington, D.C.

Will things ever change?

June 18, 2015: A man with a gun killed nine people at a weekly Bible study at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C.

This is it. This is the one that will change everything.

July 16, 2015:  A man with a gun opened fire on two military installations in Chattanooga, Tennessee, killing five.

Nothing has changed.

Oct. 1, 2015: A man with a gun killed an assistant professor and eight students in a classroom at Umpqua Community College near Roseburg, Oregon.

Nothing has changed.

Nov. 27, 2015: A man with a gun attacked a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, Colorado, killing a police officer and two civilians.

Nothing has changed.

Dec. 2, 2015: A married couple with guns opened fire at a San Bernardino County Department of Public Health training event and holiday party, killing 14 people.

Nothing has changed.

June 12, 2016: A man with a gun killed 49 people at a nightclub in Orlando, Florida.

ADDENDA (August 5, 2019)

October 1, 2017: One man with a lot of guns opened fire on an outdoor music festival on the Las Vegas Strip from the 32nd floor of a hotel-casino, killing 58 people and wounding more than 500.

This one. So many dead! We talk about bump stocks.

November 5, 2017: A man with a gun shot up a congregation at a small church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, killing more than two dozen.

At a church? We talk about mental health.

February 14, 2018: A young man with a gun shot and killed 17 students and staff members at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

Finally, change is coming. Such powerful student leaders will push for change!

May 18, 2018: A young man with a gun killed eight students and two teachers at Santa Fe High School in Santa Fe, Texas.

Another school, nothing has changed.

June 28, 2018: A man with a gun killed five employees of the Capital Gazette newspaper in Annapolis, Maryland.

Targeting journalists now.

October 27, 2018: A man with a gun killed 11  worshippers at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, during Shabbat morning services.

Targeting Jews? What can we do? What can we do?

November 7, 2018: A man with a gun killed 12 people at a country music bar in Thousand Oaks, California.

Again. And nothing has changed.

February 15, 2019: A man with a gun killed five co-workers at a manufacturing plant in Aurora, Illinois.

Nothing changes.

May 31, 2019: A man with a gun opened fire in a building that houses Virginia Beach government offices, killing 12 people.

Nothing changes.

July 28, 2019: A young man with a gun kills three people at an outdoor festival in Gilroy, California.

Now? We talk about children.

August 3, 2019: A man with a gun killed 20 people at a shopping center in El Paso, Texas.

We talk about domestic terrorism.

August 4, 2019: A man with a gun killed nine people in 30 seconds at a popular nightlife area in Dayton, Ohio.

Can we talk about the guns now? Will anything ever change?

Full Moon

 

My arrival in Bali was blessed by the full moon of June and today (7/16)  is July’s full moon. In my new novel, Not Knowing, my main character has a tendency toward deep dreaming (or else insomnia) on full moon nights. Here’s one of my favorite dream sequences. It occurs toward the end of the book but isn’t a spoiler! You’ll have to read the story to understand its significance. For now, just enjoy its beauty!

I’m standing on the banks of a lagoon or a large lake. I think it’s the Trinity River estuary, but the vegetation feels more like Belize. There are mangroves all along the far shore. A warm breeze ruffles my hair and it carries the ver­dant scent of the jungle. I look across the water and it is only in seeing the reflection of the full moon that I real­ize it’s night. There are stars, too, a sky full of stars, inor­dinately bright for a full moon night. I walk toward the water’s edge. Off to my right I see the unmistakable form and pattern of a jaguar. His head is lifted, and he seems to be staring up at the stars. Then he crouches to lap lan­guidly at the water with his huge tongue, drinking in the reflected stars. … He pricks up his ears and turns in my direction. I smile as he watches me, his green eyes half closed, the tip end of his great tail twitching rhythmically. He turns away, disinterested. Then he sits, and, like a kitten, cleans the water droplets from his whisk­ers. A massive yawn exposes a mouthful of sharp teeth. He stands, stretches, and begins walking into, no, onto the water. It isn’t a lagoon or a lake but a vast mirrored surface. The jaguar walks foot to foot with his reflection and neither image is clearer than the other. He walks toward the moon, or rather to where the moon would be if this were actually a reflective surface, which it isn’t. It’s a conjoining of worlds. Suddenly I don’t know which way is up and which way down. The two worlds connect seamlessly. The cat climbs/descends onto a tree branch and sits there gazing at me, inviting me to wander out onto this membrane between two worlds. ‘Xibalba,’ I whisper to myself as I walk toward the moon. The surface is solid and yet it shimmers with every step I take… 

Come learn more about Meg’s life (and dream life) at my book launch on Saturday at Malvern Books!

 

First Pre-Publication Review!

I arrived home after three wonderful weeks in Bali to find this pre-publication review of my upcoming novel! Thank you, Claire Villarreal!

Not Knowing weaves past and present, dream and waking life together for a ride you won’t want to end–and once you finish it, you might still be finding yourself absorbed in the characters and their growth. Meg Fitzellen, anthropologist and rationalist, confronts a recent trauma during an archeological dig in Belize only to uncover deeper and darker secrets from her more distant past. Uncanny dreams, occasional flashbacks, and some old-fashioned fortune telling compel her at last to face the emotional fallout of events she’s long buried in a hidden drawer of her mind. Once all the secrets are out, Meg finds liberation not just from emotional baggage but also from an overly materialistic worldview that kept her from living in the magic of reality.

Donna Birdwell has a talent for evocative prose, lush settings, and dark secrets her characters must face as they grow into themselves, as well as moments of soaring ecstasy. Grab some coffee, put aside a weekend, and treat yourself to this expedition into a magical vision of reality.

Pre-order the Kindle version of Not Knowing now, or get the paperback at my official launch event at Malvern Books on July 20!

Nostalgia

I’ve reached that moment of awkward disequilibrium that often occurs in my travels when it’s almost time to return home. It’s an ambiguous sort of nostalgia, where missing home is offset by awareness of how much I’m going to miss the place where I am now when I’m not here anymore.

I love Bali. I love the weather and the landscape and daily life in the banjar of Kutuh Kaja. I love the deep cultural persistence, the aliveness of ancient temples that are replenished daily with artfully composed fresh offerings. I love the strong sense of place among people for whom kaja (toward Mt. Agung) and kelod (away from Mt. Agung) are as important as east/west or north/south. I love that Mt. Agung is an active volcano. I love the artistry, the taksu, that has not (yet) been obliterated by the influx of treasure-seeking tourists. I love the dignified bearing and “bright faces,” the ready laughter, of young and old alike.

I’ll miss you, Bali.

But I also miss my family. I’ll get to see my daughter and son-in-law for a couple of days on my way home. I miss them a lot. I’ll soon get to hug my precious grandchildren again – I’ve missed them and their parents (my son and daughter-in-law). I’ll soon retrieve my little bird from her “summer camp”; I’ve missed her, too. I’ve missed my familiar spaces and places and habits.

They say, “Wherever you go, there you are!” But it’s also true that wherever you go, you’re not in any of those other places you hold in your heart. Nostalgia can happen anywhere once you’ve fallen in love with more than one place.

Maybe I’ll just go with Ram Dass: “Be. Here. Now.”

Happy Independence Day!

In honor of the Fourth of July, here’s a brief passage from my upcoming novel, NOT KNOWING, in which Meg’s archaeology students celebrate the holiday on site at Kawilkan, in the middle of the Belizean jungle.

Saturday would be the Fourth of July.  The students had purchased some fireworks in Santa Cruzita and now they were begging to set them off.

“We have to celebrate Independence Day,” Ashley said, following up with a vivid description (with gestures and sound effects) of fireworks displays in her hometown and some even more spectacular displays she’d witnessed in Beaumont on the banks of the Neches River while lis­tening to patriotic music played by the Symphony of Southeast Texas. Of course I’d finally agreed, warning the students to be extra careful.

“You can never be sure of the quality of fireworks,” I said. “I don’t want you to blow anything up. Especially not yourselves.”

Sarah had bought several packages of frozen wieners at the supermarket in Belmopan, as well as a yellow plas­tic container of mustard and some chutney that she claimed would be just like sweet pickle relish. Elodia and Seth had collaborated on making buns. And since it was a Saturday night, I’d okayed the beer as well, although I insisted that those who were setting off the fireworks must abstain until after everything had exploded.

Pacál said he’d had some experience with Mexican fire­works and volunteered to assist Brad in orchestrating the show. He read the name on each item and explained what they could expect from it. “Provided it really is what it says and provided it works at all.” He was obviously enjoying his role as cultural ombudsman. They cleared an area and agreed on which direction they would try to aim the fireworks.

They started off with a bundle of firecrackers. The spec­tators complained that they were pretty pathetic, not making nearly enough noise. I felt otherwise. I didn’t want to admit how much I hated fireworks. I remem­bered that one New Year’s Eve when Rick had gone with me to Charco Seco to meet my parents and how ashamed and angry he’d been at the way he freaked out during the fire­works display. None of the fireworks at the Kawilkan Fourth of July celebration were particularly loud or spec­tacular and a few were outright duds. But all in all they provided enough entertainment to satisfy our crowd. I was glad when the noise stopped.

The release date for NOT KNOWING is July 20, but you can preorder the ebook now on Amazon. Or join me at Malvern Books at 7 p.m. on the 20th and get a paperback. I’ll sign it for you!

Beaches

Full disclosure: I’ve never been much of a beach person. As a child, I got severely sunburned more than once on beach outings, so I learned early on that sun is not necessarily my friend. There’s a lot of sun at the beach.

I also react badly to wind; it exhausts me very quickly. There’s often a lot of wind at the beach.

Sand? It’s fun while you’re there, but it has a bad habit of lingering in shoes and clothing, where it is considerably less fun.

My main character, Meg, in NOT KNOWING has an aversion to large bodies of water. The water, in fact, is perhaps the only thing I love about beaches. But do I swim in it? No. Like Meg, I wade and dabble and admire it from the shore.

The beach here at Labuan Sait and Padang Padang, Uluwatu, Bali, is a beautiful beach, with majestic rock formations and soft white sand caressed by turquoise waves. Indonesians and foreigners mingle pleasantly, sipping chilled coconut water straight from the coconut or maybe a couple of Bintangs (Balinese beer). There’s also skewered chicken and corn on the cob, grilled right on the beach.

But that was yesterday, at low tide.

This morning the tide has come in, the beach has shrunk by half,  and the surfers are taking over. I have nothing against surfers, mind you. I know some really nice folks who surf and I get that it could be a really amazing experience, riding the crest of a wave and feeling the power of the ocean beneath your feet, trusting your strength and skill to keep you from being swallowed up. So it’s not the surfers I mind, it’s the culture that tends to spring up in their wake- the generic shops and cafes. Even worse is the luxury beach culture, with its insistence on all the modern conveniences of home, sprinkled lightly with a curated collection of enticing local flavors. But then you already know I’m not much of a tourist.

And yet…here I am, on the beach at Padang Padang. In Bali. I intend to enjoy my day to the fullest. Pass me the sunscreen!

 

Writers & Anthropologists

“Writers are even worse than anthropologists when it comes to taking notes on human behavior,” Meg thinks, as she watches Seth surreptitiously photographing people and making notes on his phone as they travel on an overcrowded bus from Belmopan to Belize City.

I am both a writer and an anthropologist, and creating characters I’d like to know in real life is one of the great pleasures of writing. I love my characters in my new book, NOT KNOWING. Yes, even the difficult ones.

Meg Fitzellen is a troubled but dedicated archaeologist, firmly committed to science but pursued by things she can’t explain. Magic? Surely not! Her husband, Seth, is a science fiction writer, wrestling with questions of time as his own fictional characters, the Timecrypters, shuttle from past to future and back again. Meg’s best friend Indra is a mycologist whose dissertation research focused on the psilocybin mushroom. And then there’s Pacál, the troublesome undergraduate who is the son of famous archaeologists and who may know more about Meg’s past than she would like to believe. There are also two parrots that really ought to be included in the cast of characters…

You can meet all of these and a few more when NOT KNOWING is released on July 20. Pre-order the Kindle version now, or come get a copy of the paperback at my release party at Malvern Books!

The View(ing)

In preparing for our visit to Pura Tirtha Empul at Tampak Siring yesterday, I had to decide whether I was going to enter the holy spring waters or not. “Can I just take darshan from looking at the waters?” I asked.

Not familiar with darshan? Here’s how it is understood in Hinduism: “Darshan, (Sanskrit: “viewing”) also spelled darshana, in Indian philosophy and religion, particularly in Hinduism, the beholding of a deity (especially in image form), revered person, or sacred object. The experience is considered to be reciprocal and results in the human viewer’s receiving a blessing.” (That’s what Google said.)

At a somewhat deeper level, there is the sense that viewing something/ someone sacred or powerful results in real contact. Even westerners sometimes talk about “laying eyes on” a person or thing. With darshan, it’s as if there’s a kind of energy that passes between the two participants in the viewing, with agency on both sides.

All of this led me to wonder something else: Can I take a blessing away with me in the form of photonic patterns inside my iPhone? Can darshan happen again when I look at such images as they come up on Facebook memories five years from now?

In the final analysis, I spent some time gazing at the waters of Tirtha Empul, quietly contemplating amid the splash and hubbub of my fellow  blessing seekers. Then I walked to the edge of the water, dipped my hands into the flow and sprinkled some water on my head. I also took pictures.

 

Guests & Tourists

I’m not a very good tourist. I tend to either avoid the highly packaged “attractions” or else sneak in around the edges, on my own time, doing my own thing. I deeply respect the rights of the local people to keep us gawkers cordoned off, herded into manageable tours and treks that interfere as little as possible with their “normal” lives while still permitting them to earn income from our desire to gawk.

Don’t get me wrong, I like to see the historic and cultural “places of interest.” But I like to know what I’m seeing. All too often, what you get from tour guides is a watered-down (and occasionally downright fabricated) version of history and culture. Like pablum for babies, with lots of sugar.

I’m reminded of clearing my Uncle Bill’s bookshelves in San Antonio, Texas, after he passed. His partner, Ann, had owned the travel agency at Joske’s back in the latter half of the 20th century and my, how the two of them did travel! Uncle Bill’s books were not travel guides, however, but travelers’ memoirs and language books – Chinese, Korean, Greek, Italian, Spanish, Russian, French, etc. They always wanted to know at least a little of the language of their hosts. Sometimes they even took classes before the trip. I think “tours” have changed a lot since Ann was selling them at Joske’s. I also think Ann and Bill were not themselves tourists. They were interested and respectful guests.

Earlier this week I stopped in at a little shop in Ubud that sells locally crafted fabrics. The girl behind the counter seemed quite knowledgeable as she told me about the beautiful cloth she spread in front of me and how it was used in her village as protection against bad magic. She would sell it to me for a mere five million rupiah (~$350US). She seemed almost apologetic about the backwardness of her beliefs and offered some admiring words about the culture I come from. “But why do you think we come here?” I said. “It’s because we have to get away from the chaos and noise of our culture. We come here for beauty such as this.” And she smiled as tears glittered in her eyes.