Karen Marie Moning

I Feel Fine

I’m still thinking about Dani O’Malley in Karen Marie Moning’s epic story, High Voltage. She haunts my thoughts because she is a great example of someone (albeit a fictional someone) who is “all in.” I’ve written about the elusive state of being all in before because it’s my very favorite state of being. What is it about being all in that I crave with every fiber of my being? I rummaged around in one of the many piles that litter my home office on every available surface to find some thoughts I had committed to paper a number of years ago. 

Limiting Beliefs


I've moved on in my reading, but I can't stop thinking about Feversong by Karen Marie Moning. In the beginning of the story, Mac has been imprisoned in her own mind, cut off from control of her body, and despairing of ever finding a way out. Mac believes she is trapped, and, therefore, she is. As the story progresses, however, Mac quickly discovers that the only things actually keeping her prisoner are her own beliefs. She thus realizes a truth so exquisite, so overwhelming, I can write it, but I can't quite wrap my mind around it, much the same way that Mac struggles with the concept—and here it is: belief is reality. There. I've said it. But what does it mean? For me and for reality in general? In the book, Mac is in a box that doesn't exist but that she believes inescapable. In the fantasy story, belief is reality and it's the keystone of all existence.  Is this truth in fantasy?  I think so. In the story, Mac asks, "What's the surest way to be victimized? Believe yourself a victim. To win?  Believe yourself a champion."  All true. And so simple. But if it's so simple why are there so many victims in the world? If it's just a matter of our beliefs, of our thoughts, then why are there so few winners?  

I have a coffee mug that says, "What would you do if you knew you could not fail?"  I've always been drawn to that quote, one of the square magnets and greeting cards that have spawned a cottage industry of tote bags and ashtrays and the ubiquitous coffee mugs. And I've given the concept a great deal of thought (and yes, I am inspired to deep thoughts not just by vampire porn but coffee cups and tee shirts too). The quote invokes the question that Mac asks by implication: what are the limiting beliefs that hold us back from doing what we want to do? What do we believe we will fail in the attempt and therefore neglect to try? 

For me, the superficial answers to this question involve physical gifts I know I will never possess. An early-to-develop optical astigmatism ensured poor hand-eye coordination and thus a pitiful performance on tennis and golf courses, not to mention in softball, field hockey and volleyball. I knew I would fail (after the first disastrous early attempts), so I never went out for such pursuits. I was also quite confident in my lack of musical skill, particularly of the vocal variety, although my singing voice was not to be eclipsed in its similarity to cats in heat by my dexterity on the piano or guitar. No, I had absolutely no innate talent for any of these activities and demurred from additional attempts lest I further humiliate myself. 

And while I can accept the futility of chasing dreams of winning Wimbledon, what about limiting beliefs of a more intellectual bent?  Could I will myself to become adept at physics or astronomy?  I don't believe I could. Only because I tried. And failed. So while I can believe myself to be Stephen Hawking to my heart's content, it's not going to have any significant impact on my calculations concerning the moons of Jupiter. I can believe I wouldn't fail at any number of endeavors, including maintaining a clean diet (fail!), exercising on a regular basis (major fail!) and establishing and following a productive daily routine (epic fail!!). I believe that I should be able to do these things, but as far as I can tell, my beliefs have not changed my reality. 

And what about our fearless leader, The Donald? We're being assured by his sycophantic mouthpieces that whatever the Donald believes is ground truth and that by his belief these fantasies are made manifest. And these ridiculous and dangerous delusions are endless fodder for late night comedy and social media commentary. So we know that, at least in some respects, this “belief equals reality” formula is poppycock. Or hogwash. Or horseshit. Choose your favorite animal adjective, my friends, it all means the same thing: untrue.

But on the other other hand, Mac (or her creator, Karen Moning) is only repeating an oft-quoted Buddhist idea, popularized by Mahatma Gandhi that thoughts become things. I looked it up, of course, and there are various iterations of the quote, but they are all along the same lines, as follows:

Watch your beliefs, for they become your thoughts.

Watch your thoughts for they become your words.

Watch your words, for they become your actions.

Watch your actions for they become your habits.

Watch your habits for they become your character.

Watch your character for it becomes your destiny.

And while we are spouting other people's quotes, let's add Henry Ford to the mix and bring to mind his take on these same ideas: "Whether you think you can or you think you can't— you're right."  I think herein lies the Rosetta Stone to resolve the apparent paradox of Gandhi and Ford being right while simultaneously making Donald Trump and his minions wrong (and how convenient is that for supporting my own very strident world views?).

Our beliefs affect us, but not necessarily others or the world around us. We have control over the way we view ourselves and over our actions—and, therefore, ultimately, over our own characters but no one else's. We can believe ourselves to be victim or victor, and, in truth, no one can take those beliefs away from us without our consent.  But no beliefs, no matter how strongly held, can make the sun rise in the west or set in the east. No belief can make verifiable truth a lie or fake news true. It just doesn't work that way.

Moreover, while the idea of beliefs impacting our own personal realities is simple, it is by no means easy. It's simple to believe ourselves victors and not victims, but the difficulty of this simple task explains the rarified nature of its accomplishment. I understand that much of what holds me back, whether from becoming a published paranormal fantasy author or an accomplished yogi, my two most fervent and fevered dreams, are only the limiting beliefs that keep me imprisoned in paralysis in much the same way that the Book kept Mac imprisoned in her own mind. Neither construct is real. But breaking free of our self-inflicted bonds is easier said than done. But I will keep fighting my own limiting beliefs and working to answer the question I read each day on my coffee mug. I'll ask you the same question and invite you to answer it for yourself and perhaps share it in the comments section. What would we do if we knew we could not fail?

Something from Nothing


"Here, where there's nothing, I have something, and it's enough:  choice. I will choose anything over fear."      MacKayla Lane In Karen Marie Moning's Feversong, Mac has been imprisoned in her own mind, unable to control her body. The description reminded me of my late father, who battled ALS and ended up with an active mind trapped in a useless body. Horrifying.  A fate worse than death, I imagine. And in the midst of this hell on earth, MacKayla, unlike my father, found it in herself to choose hope, life and love over fear. My father wasn't able to make that choice, which I understood, but it devastated me. On the other hand, Mac lives in a world of magic and fantasy, while us mere mortals, including my beloved father, are stuck in reality. Given that, I wonder, as always, whether there are any truths with which fantasy can illumine reality. I suspect so.  

At first, when Mac is tricked and trapped by the evil book residing within her, she panics. Relatable. I can't even find the wherewithal to go into a float chamber, which proponents swear is supremely relaxing. The whole sensory-deprivation thing makes my skin crawl. If I could feel my skin in such a place. Mac is lost in the ultimate sensory deprivation chamber, entirely cut off from her body while being left to imagine the demonic activities being perpetrated by her body parts. It's like our high school nemesis stealing our digital identity and going on a hateful rampage for which everyone holds us responsible. That would truly suck. And if the monster using our body—or our identity—was committing atrocities of the biblical sort, including deceit, death, destruction even cannibalism, and there wasn't a blessed thing we could do about it. I would probably lose my shit and descend into the eternal darkness of insanity and absolute surrender. I can't believe I wouldn't succumb to terror and unspeakable fear. Ya know, if some pod person stole my body and ran around in it. It could happen.  If I lived in Stepford, Connecticut, for example.

But what if our situation was less extreme? Because we all know that paranormal fantasy authors take circumstances and draw them in high relief so that readers can learn from their characters' mistakes—and also their successes. In this case, Mac falls briefly into despair, but quickly shakes that shit off and takes stock. She remembers the guiding principle of the Fever world, "Hope strengthens, fear kills," and she understands that no one, and no situation, can take away our ability to choose. The easier choice is often fear. The right choice is always love.

I've read the Fever series a number of times, although I've only read the latest, Feversong, once, thus far. In this last installment, Mac is subjected to the ultimate test:  can she choose hope over fear when it absolutely appears that all hope is lost? The answer, as expected, is yes, but its predictability in no way diminishes its power. 

There, in the confines of her mind, with access to nothing but her thoughts, Mac decides to choose anything over fear.  At first, the choice is beyond difficult. She goes where most of us have been, at one point or another: fear threatens to obliterate her and she craves obliteration if for no other reason than to stop the horror. But she decides that she "will not cede the crumbs of [her] existence to mindless panic."  Admirable.

I suspect that Karen Marie Moning is a devotee of Marianne Williamson, the spiritual teacher who popularized A Course in Miracles, the central tenet of which is that absolutely everything in life comes down to a choice between fear and love. Sound familiar? I've read Marianne Williamson's classic, A Return to Love, and I've also tried to navigate the murkier waters of ACIM. But I didn't really understand most of it until I read the Fever series. I believe we learn best through story and examples. And the Fever books are among my most cherished and effective teachers.

Often, in my most desperate moments, I fall into the perception that I have no choices. I'm sure you know what I mean:  we share our problems with a friend or counselor and they make a suggestion, or even several suggestions. And we shoot down each and every option as unrealistic or stupid or otherwise wholly undesirable. Soon, our friend slinks away, or the counselor fires us, understanding, perhaps more than we do, that nothing is going to penetrate the cocoon of negativity in which we've enveloped ourselves. We are determined to have no choices. By which determination, of course, we've made our choice. We've chosen fear, in whichever guise it's hiding—as hatred, or ignorance, or close mindedness, or extreme negativity. But any way we slice it, we've chosen the opposite of hope, life and love. Marianne would be appalled. As would Mac and KMM.

And what of ourselves?   Are we, too, disappointed and disgusted with our pansy-ass decisions? Probably, but we're so preoccupied with fear, we don't have time to hate ourselves. Or maybe we do, and that just adds to the viscous cycle of fear and loathing, in Las Vegas or anywhere else for that matter.

When I’m down I often ask myself, what would Mac do? Or Barrons? Or Dani/Jada? I figure I could do worse than make something out of nothing, even if it's the choice to meet whatever fate has in store with awareness, presence and a sense of hope above all. If I can do that, if I do that, then I've mastered the course, and validated the inordinate amount of time I spend with my nose between the pages of my favorite books.



Born Again


I'm not much for religious zealotry, nor for indiscriminately sharing my spiritual status with the world at large. That's one reason I'm not a big fan of those who describe themselves as "born again Christians."  On the other hand, I'm all for being born again. Having been born into a dysfunctional family of origin, I couldn't wait to be born again into a family I chose—my friends, my husband and my children (I didn't get to choose my children, but I'd like to think I have had something to do with them being more functional than non). Moreover, I'm also a big believer in reinventing myself professionally and personally, so the phenomenon of being born again is highly relevant to my life.  Why am I contemplating the joys and pitfalls of rebirth?  It's because I've been heavily immersed in the Fever world of Karen Marie Moning. I've stayed up late and ignored my family and friends to read this 600-page peon to the benefits of reinvention and rebirth. There is not a single character in this series that does not evolve to such an extent that they are different in kind, not just degree.  It makes me wonder about the life of an author who can write about these metamorphoses with such intimate knowledge that she must be a reincarnation of Kafka himself.

In the "final" book of the series, Feversong, KMM ties up a lot of loose ends and gives us a somewhat satisfactory finale to a journey that has lasted more than eleven years. I had issues with some of the bows she tied, but that is inevitable with such a sweeping saga. But it was surely epic, as all of her characters try to be. And, in keeping with great literary fiction (and boy am I tired of the supercilious circle-jerk mentality of those who define "literary fiction"), each and every one of KMM's characters evolves in interesting and unexpected ways. So much so, in fact, that none of them is who they were at the beginning of the series. Which leads me, albeit in a serpentine manner, back to the theme of being reborn.

According to one of the major characters in the series, Ryodan, adaptability is survivability. And I think this is true. The ability to adapt to changing circumstances and to thrive regardless of external contingencies is the hallmark of longevity and success in this life. Those of us who can bend around the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune like Keanu Reeves in the Matrix tend to be the ones still standing after the storm. The ability to face reality and to avoid distraction, dissembling and disenchantment are the ones who take center stage and tend to rule the world. They are the men and women others want to become or control.

The ability to reinvent oneself as the world turns and our existence evolves is the trump card of life, if you'll allow me a reference to a man who is a Trump but hardly anything like his namesake. If we stay in the same situation, if we fail to grow and evolve, we might as well let someone bury us, because we'll have died without the benefit of anyone telling us to lie down and be done with it already. As Karen Marie Moning says elsewhere in Feversong and along the same lines, status is stagnancy, change is velocity and Fate is a sniper that prefers a motionless target to a dancing one. Personally, I don't ever want to be that unmoving target.

What does it mean to reinvent oneself? I think it's something like the death and rebirth that Barrons and Ryordan go through. A painful, messy process that takes time and effort. It's not much fun. But it beats the alternatives.  And unlike Ryordan and Barrons, us mere mortals have no real idea whether we're going to come out the other side whole, with our higher selves intact and operational. It's a crapshoot, at best, a Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid run at worst. And each time we do it, each time we reinvent ourselves and come through the metaphorical birth canal, we leave pieces of our old selves behind, which requires some sort of grieving process that must occur simultaneously with the birthing  process. The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. Blessed be the name of the Lord. Although hopefully, most of us won't need to suffer the fate of Job.

There is no rebirth without death. Just ask Jesus. And the death part is pretty gnarly. The birth part isn't so comfortable either. And yet it's the only way. We must embrace the discomfort, the uncertainty, the doubt and the fear. Otherwise, we stagnate. And stagnation is death—shot through the heart with only ourselves to blame. Sucks to be us sometimes.

I'm inspired, always, by Karen Marie Moning's characters who can seem more real to me than my own flesh and blood. Each of them in their own way takes life by the horns and rides that mechanical bull for all they are worth. They embody the aphorism that it's not how many times we fall down that defines us, but how many times we get back up. 

The endless possibilities that we face when it's time to shed one skin for a new one can be daunting. It's a Faustian choice in some ways between the devil we know and the angel who could be lying through its teeth. Do we take door number one or three? Should we embrace the unknown with a belly laugh like Dani, or grit our teeth and so what we must to avoid stagnation, like Barrons? Or, do we succumb to the siren song of comfort and avoidance of conflict and live small, safe lives?

For me, even if it means certain misery and only possible joy, I will opt for rebirth every time. I'm a fucking born again human. Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, may creep in its petty pace, but I choose to eschew the slo-mo Joes  and jump instead into the slipstream of life. It's the only place to live life to the fullest and to embrace the grand adventure.

It's Where My Demons Hide


All of us have demons. No matter what we call ‘em, none of us is immune to the Seven Deadly Sins. Most of us strive to do and be our best. We valiantly struggle against our inner demons. Though sometimes, as I’ve written about previously, we snuggle with the devils we know. This theme of our inner beasts and the internal conflicts they trigger is explored in depth by many paranormal fantasy books. After all, what better way to examine our animalistic natures than to write and read about weres or warriors possessed by sins, or superhuman men who can transform into feral beasts?  Controlling or overcoming the beast within is a significant trope of the genre.

Karen Marie Moning is among the masters of her craft, and the theme of learning to live with our inner demons is central to all the books in the Fever world. Each of their main characters wrestles with various versions of inner conflict made manifest:  Mac has the evil Book that is part of her "essential self;" the Nine, including Barrons and Ryordan, are magical beasts in their altered forms; and Dani has her colder, more sociopathic alter, Jada, with whom to contend. Each of these characters has pieces of themselves that kill without qualms and survive at all costs – damn the collateral damage. And the manner in which each of them confronts and assimilates their own inner demons is that which makes each character so real and so memorable.

Mac starts off as Barbie, a southern belle without an inkling about the psychotic book that lies dormant in her depths. She flits through life, thin, dumb and happy, thinking her greatest flaws are superficiality and a touch of selfishness. When her demon is revealed in all its glory, Barbie – now Mac --- is thrown. But she bounces back demonstrating a level of resilience that her past did not suggest, but which stands her in good stead as she learns to confront her inner psycho. In Feverborn, the penultimate book of the series, Mac spends her time beginning to explore her inner landscape trying to determine exactly what is actually there. She starts to overcome her paralytic fear of what's going on inside her own head and determine what it means to access all the parts of herself. She wants her demon to play nicely with the rest of her.

But maybe demons don’t play nicely. Maybe it is the nature of demons to be feral and unpleasant and—well, demonic. Regardless of their likability, we must learn to love our demons. And not in the way of cozying up to them and enjoying the destruction and chaos they leave in their wake, but in the sense that we must acknowledge and embrace the totality of ourselves if we are to succeed. Integration is the goal. Just as Jung.

The ultimate example of an integrated entity is Jericho Barrons. Barrons loves his beast. In fact, he loves it so much it's hard for him to transform back to being a man after he shifts into his animal form. And no one is more successful than Barrons. Therefore, Ms. Moning seems to be arguing that by embracing the entirety of his being, Barrons is fully at peace and not fighting himself. He neither struggles nor snuggles. He simply accepts all aspects of himself and is unimaginably powerful as a result. He knows who he is and what he wants. His clarity of vision is what gives him the what it takes to achieve his goals. All of them. He is power distilled to its essence, and this power is a direct result of his ultimate integration—despite his two distinct forms.

The Dani/Jada character hasn't quite accomplished authentic integration. She is still fighting the parts of herself she perceives to be weak or undesirable for one reason or another. And while she may or may not be a true split personality, her rejection of parts of her essential self are the underlying cause of any actual weaknesses she may posess. I've been down this path as well, seeking to eradicate the parts of myself that weren't working for me. The eradication project didn't work for me either.

The message of Feverborn is clear: acceptance and integration of our demons is the path to power. It is the path to self-control, of the healthy, effective variety, rather than the locked down, stressed out kind that we see so much of in our world. Maybe it's not a matter of fighting our demons, but rather making room for them within us. 

There is a story I hear often in my various yoga classes. A grandfather tells his grandson about epic battle being fought within each of us between a ‘good wolf’ and an ‘evil one’ who compete with each other for mastery of our spirits. When the grandson asks, "Which wolf wins?" the grandfather replies, "The one we feed."  I embraced this tale until I started to think about the wisdom found in Feverborn. I no longer I like the idea of an ongoing war inside me for mastery of my soul.  It is distracting and enervating to continually referee the constant internal fight.

Instead of making one wolf gorge and the other starve, perhaps I could suggest a more equitable arrangement?  Thanks to Ms. Moning I’m now thinking that we should allow our inner wolves to share our food and spirits, as they are both a part of what makes us who we are. Maybe they don't have to fight. For now, I'm going to try to feed everyone in my crowded head and make sure no more demons are hiding under the stairs or anywhere else inside me. Acceptance and integrations will be my watchwords as I stop to consider, “What Would Barrons Do?”  




Survive and Thrive


I'm taking my annual pilgrimage to the shrine of Karen Marie Moning's Fever world. This may be the last such pilgrimage, as Feversong promises to be the final book in a brilliant series filled with so much wisdom and so many life lessons that I'm not sure how I will live without it. I will hold out hope that Ms. Moning has left a loophole through which she will create new stories in the Fever world, perhaps with new characters. I'm not sure because although the book came out two weeks ago, I'm doing my usual anticipation and savor dance with the latest offering, reading its predecessors and reminding myself of the events and developments that led up to the first page of the new book. This time, I started only two books back with Burned, followed by Feverborn, before I plan to dive into Feversong, which I would prefer to read on vacation, when I can devote hours and hours to swimming in the deep pool of KMM's extraordinary imagination. Today I'm contemplating a major theme in the Fever books—survival. At any cost. Which leads me to wonder whether I agree with Ms. Moning on this point:  is survival at any cost worth it? It's always seemed to me that unless we are thriving, life hardly seems worth living. And when I'm not thriving, it always seems tempting to give up.

According to Jericho Barrons (in Burned), there are two types of people, those who survive no matter the cost, and those who are walking victims. I'm on the fence about Barrons’ theory. I don't fancy myself a walking victim, but neither do I think that survival is worth any cost. In the story, for example, Mac kills an innocent human bystander while defeating one of her Fae enemies. She is distraught over her crime against humanity, while Barrons feels no remorse on her behalf. Mac lived through the incident. She survived. So, by definition, whatever she did was worth the cost in his mind. Mac is more ambivalent and I share her equivocation.

It's hard to put myself in the same situation, of course, but it's certainly a Faustian bargain. My life for someone else's—someone who wasn't necessarily hurting me, but who accidentally got in the way of someone who was. I know what the ethicists would say: it's never okay to trade one life for another. Catholic theology teaches that it is immoral to trade one life even for thousands or millions. Not sure I agree with that.  I'd like to think that I would give up my life to save a city, or a world, as Mac decides she will before the decision is beyond her grasp.

What if the cost of survival means becoming fragmented? Either literally, as Dani does in the story, losing herself to her “alter,” or figuratively, as we sometimes do when we live through something bad and come out in pieces. According to Dani, the key to life is to stop living in the past; "Dude, you survived it. Move on."  Not sure I agree with that viewpoint either.  I think it's how we move on that determines the success of our future endeavors. 

So, where does that leave me?  I think I'm in the camp that believes that survival isn't everything and that there are some things worse than death. But let's think this through. We have the adage that where there is life, there is hope. Plus the idea that self-destruction is wrong according to most religious beliefs as it assumes a power best left to one that sees a bigger picture than we do. If we subscribe to those truths, then there is no cost too high for survival. But does that account for having to do "evil" things to ensure that we wake up breathing tomorrow? I guess the answer is situational. If it's a question of my life or one who threatens me or mine, I'll take my life over theirs.

But what about when we're not clawing and scraping our way to a pacemaker-perfect heartbeat? What about when survival is more about finding the wherewithal to get up day after day when we are in pain—physical or emotional? In the Fever world, there are at least two characters that are helped out of their misery. Their lives of torture were deemed hopeless enough that Barrons was willing to commit the ultimate sin and help them to die. Apparently, even for Barrons, there is a price for survival that is too high.

I'm not sure this rambling walk through the Fever world has illuminated my final thoughts on this issue. I hope that the book I look forward to starting soon will provide some closure. On many levels.




Bad Hombres and Nasty Women


Note:  This is a shamelessly partisan post. I am viscerally, deeply opposed to Donald Trump and an enthusiastic supporter of Hillary Clinton. So if that offends you, stop reading now. I'm reading the new Anita Blake book by Laurell K. Hamilton, Crimson Death. I want to be Anita Blake. I also want to be Mac Lane, Jane Yellowrock, Mercy Thompson, and Meredith Gentry. These are nasty, nasty women in the very best ways possible. And they hook up with some pretty bad hombres, which works for me.

This election has provided endless fodder for Saturday Night Live, and I’ve laughed along with everyone else (except for Donald, of course, who has no sense of humor, but I digress). But there are real issues here and it is deeply disturbing that the American populace is becoming inured to each fresh revelation of the revolting actions and attitudes of a presidential candidate who commands almost 40% of the vote.  But beyond all of that anxiety-producing reality, there are some truly ugly truths about attitudes toward women that have emerged. And while these truths need to see the light of day so the shadows can be banished, it is a painful process for those of us who remember and know what men—not all, of course, but many—think of us and do to us with impunity.

For almost 30 years I worked in the male-dominated field of national security studies, analysis and policy. I worked at the Pentagon for almost 20 years. Within the macho world of Warcraft, aka the American military industrial complex, many men are pigs on the order of Donald Trump. Men don't have to be famous to think they can get away with ogling, touching, grabbing, propositioning and speaking offensively to women. They just have to have a modicum of power.

If I had a dollar for every time I was the subject of inappropriate, vulgar discussions and/or questions, I'd be rich. If I had ten dollars for every time a male colleague came to my hotel room, or put his hands on me (if you wouldn't put your hands on the small of a male colleague's back to "guide" him toward the door, why is it okay to touch a woman in that manner?  Or, if you wouldn't put your hands on a man's shoulders for an unsolicited shoulder massage, why do you think you can do it to me?), I'd be Trump rich. And my bad experiences are probably mild compared to many. Sad.

I have been subjected to sexual harassment and sexual assault. No one was ever punished or even reprimanded for these actions against me. And the worst part—the absolutely worst part—is that I never expected the perpetrators to be rebuked. This is the true tragedy. I figured what millions of girls and women just like me figured: 1) there was nothing I could do; it was the price of doing business in a male-dominated world; 2) to complain or make waves would only serve to punish me, because if I didn't lose my job, I would be the bitch who got good old Jimmy in trouble (but not too much trouble, of course—he would still have a job and the respect of his fellows; I would be forever labeled a troublemaker who couldn't be trusted to do the right thing; and 3) nothing would change, so why bother? 

And all of that is only part of the problem. The other part is that young women were and are raised to believe (or taught by the entertainment and advertising industries) that their greatest worth resides in how they look and how sexually appealing they are to men. As a result, we dress to show off our wares and cultivate our feminine "wiles" to trick, trap and torture poor, unsuspecting men. We believe our value resides in our looks and we have to conform to societal (patriarchal) standards of beauty. Even an older, massively accomplished woman like Hillary Clinton is not immune. I'd like to meet her plastic surgeon, her hairdresser, her stylist and her makeup artist. Because as an aging, accomplished woman in the US, I’m going to need them if I want to succeed.

And then there is the tyranny of standards for female presentation, and the extreme disadvantage it creates. Panty hose, makeup, coiffure, complicated outfits, these are all time sucks. Not to mention keeping our hair colored and our wrinkles relatively smooth. Ridiculously time consuming compared to the male need to "shit, shower and shave" (as an ex-boyfriend of mine described his morning routine) before throwing on a suit and comfortable shoes and facing the day. I would have loved to wear comfortable shoes for the average of five miles a day of walking I did to, from and inside the Pentagon on a daily basis. But that wasn’t an option. Even Anita Blake is not immune from this form of male oppression. She speaks eloquently about the calculation that she and all women must make with respect to calibrating our appearances to a level of precision not seen outside of measurements used to make sure bridges don’t fall. Is my outfit too flirty? Am I showing too much skin? Not enough skin? Are the heels the right height? Am I projecting an image of sufficient power to make sure no one fucks with me, but not so much that men will feel emasculated? If that isn’t a rigged system, I don’t know what is.

And what about the culture of rape on our college campuses?  I've heard no fewer than five men tell me—with an understanding that it is horrifying (so many things to be horrified about these days)—that for college boys, "No means yes and yes means anal."  Really?  In 2016? I thought things were better than when I was in college and was raped by a date. At which time I told myself that it was my own fault for putting myself into a bad situation. And I didn't tell anyone else because I felt ashamed for being so stupid. I'm not sure things have improved since the 1980s, except that we are more aware.

This is where my beautiful, inspirational, amazing fictional heroines come in.  These women would most certainly be considered "nasty" by The Donald and all the white, Christian, heterosexual men who fear the end of their reign of world domination (which is long overdue to be overthrown). They are nasty because they are smart, and accomplished, and fierce. They own their sexuality, their power, their bad-assness. They are each she-who-shall-not-be-fucked-with and they are the kinds of women so many of us want to be.  They've got skills and strength and if some asshole tries to touch them without invitation or permission they might lose a hand. I want to be them. I want all of us to be them.





Boon Companions

I've been contemplating a quote from Feverborn by Karen Marie Moning lately that states, "Want and responsibility are rarely boon companions." True statement. It is rare that what we need to do coincides with what we want to do. The whole cultural meme of "TGIF" and working for the weekend says it all. We fantasize about winning the lottery so we can kick our jobs to the curb and tell our bosses to stick it where the sun don't shine. And then there are domestic jobs—my personal seventh circle of hell—the cooking, the cleaning, the laundry and the never-ending scheduling and chauffeur duties (I loved that David Beckham, when asked what he'd been doing since retiring, admitted he'd become an Uber driver for his kids—I can relate). On top of all of that, we all tend to fill our lives with "have to's" instead of "want to's". And how sad is that? Plenty sad, I'll tell you. And why? Is MacKayla Lane right that want and responsibility are not often found in the same zip code? I think for most people, she is totally correct. We are all taught to do what we need to do before we do what we want to—obligation before desire.  And meeting our responsibilities often comes at the expense of our wants. Which sucks. Because, at least in our fantasy lives, we all want to relax and recreate, rather than work and be productive. We work and save (well some of us save) for retirement, that blessed state where we can do what we want, when we want and how we want it. Burger King has nothing on retirement. Or does it?

We complain about all of the "have to's" in our lives. One of my favorite movie lines is Steve Martin in Parenthood when his wife asks him if he really has to go to some meeting or other, and he looks at her and snarls, "My whole life is have to."  Powerful and depressing. And universal. My kids are already feeling the soul-sucking effects of “have to” and "not optional."  Homework?  Not optional. Summer job or volunteer position?  Not optional. Hanging out with friends, shooting hoops, taking a boat ride. Not an option. My sons are 16 and the party is definitely over.

The question is, though, is this as bad as we tell ourselves it is?  On the one hand, unlimited freedom sounds good in theory and also in practice at six o'clock on Monday mornings when we'd rather sleep. On the other hand, responsibilities are often clearly spelled out, making it easy to follow the path. Desires are much more difficult to pin down, making them more challenging to fulfill.  Meeting our obligations gives us a feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction. Pursuing our dreams, assuming we know what they are, is a lot harder. And the success rate is much lower.

Of course, many of us believe that we would make excellent use of more time— time that is not promised to our day jobs, if only we had the paycheck without the daily grind. We know that our wants are often the opportunity costs of our responsibilities. And while we can contemplate blowing off our responsibilities in order to pursue our wants, how many of us actually do it?  Or would really want to? We fantasize about it, but as most women will readily admit, what we fantasize about and what we want to occur in real life are often two wildly different things. 

Responsibility involves a commitment to others, while pursuing our wants makes us true to ourselves. A truly tough choice. Do we want to be the person who abandons our families to hang out in greener pastures—or at least in grass that looks greener? In the end, it comes down to the kind of person we choose to be. The one who meets our commitments or the one who indulges our desires? We know who Jerricho Barrons is. Of more concern, and perhaps less clarity is who we are.

And while want and responsibility are rarely boon companions, that doesn't mean it never happens. That may be the definition of heaven on earth. Responsibilities tend to limit our choices, whereas wants tend to expand our horizons. When we can have the box in which we exist also be the limits of our horizons, life is wonderful. 

We all make choices. There is no such thing, in reality, as have to, except dying; we all have to do that. But even taxes, contrary to conventional wisdom, are optional, if we are willing to face the consequences of our actions. And that is true for every single "responsibility" versus "desire" out there. Much of our view of reality depends on our perceptions. If we perceive an unpleasant task as a "have to," as Mac does in Feverborn, then it is. But it's not, not really. She didn't "have to" go into that house where her sister's memory haunted the hallways. Mac could have turned right around. It was her choice to perceive her options as limited. Just like Steve Martin in Parenthood. Just like us.

Want and responsibility can be boon companions if we choose to open the aperture of our vision. I know it sounds cliché, but our reality is what we make it. Have to versus want to, it's all in our attitude. Just ask Mac. Or maybe we'd be better off asking Barrons. 

Surrender, Dorothy

Why is it so hard to let go?  I’ve written about this quandary before, but I I'm still thinking about it, so there must be more to say. And, as often happens when I contemplate these questions, I find my thoughts mirrored in the words of the mighty Karen Marie Moning. In Feverborn, we are told that Jada, "simply couldn't let go. She'd let go of the wrong things." Letting go in the past of the wrong things a good reason not to let go, which made me wonder about some of the others. Previously, I’ve explored what it means to let go. But I didn't give a lot of thought to why it's so hard and how the explanations for these exigencies could help us facilitate the process. If we know that letting go is what we need to do, why do we continue to hold on?  In many cases, we don't let go until the pain of holding on is greater than the pain of letting go. Why do we do this to ourselves?  Over and over? Baffling.  But maybe not. I think we hold on for a lot of reasons, previous decisions being one of them. If, like Jada, we have let go of the wrong things in the past, we might be reluctant to let go of something presently. People often talk about "the one that got away."  If we have someone like that in our lives, a lover, a friend, a mentor, a protégé, or even a job opportunity, we might apply that situation to the choice at hand. We can relive the great Tom Cruise film, Top Gun, where leaving his wingman results in tragedy, so you know he's never gonna do that again, right?  If we've made bad choices before, we want to learn from that behavior and not repeat it. The issue is that we sometimes have trouble distinguishing between apples and oranges. Just because we took the wrong fork in the road previously doesn't mean we should reflexively take the opposite path this time. Each situation must be evaluated on its own merits, but this can be a Herculean task because past experiences can create tunnel vision.  Another reason it's hard to let go is because we almost always prefer the devil we know. This is illogical. It’s equally plausible that a new set of circumstances will be less bad than our current ones as they will be worse. But we usually assume the worst and decide that the devil we know is better than the unknown quantity on the other side of letting go. We just don't do well with uncertainty, do we? It's one of the main considerations when we are tying a knot in the rope to try to hold on just a little while longer.  An uncertain outcome is in many ways more upsetting than a certain bad outcome. Again, this defies logic. It's the old bird in the hand is worth two in the bush adage. Unless we are exceptionally tolerant of risk, and most of us are not, we will avoid uncertainty, and therefore we’ll hold on longer than warranted.  We’re also wary of all change, another factor in keeping our death grip on whatever it is we are reluctant to relinquish. 

Change is hard. It's uncomfortable. We don't like it when someone else moves our cheese. We prefer it not move at all. So we hold on and avoid letting go. Which is, of course, the classic definition of insanity—doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.  Some of us get better with practice.  I'd like to think I have; the Universe gives us as many chances as we need to learn our lessons. So if we can't let go in one situation, we will be given another opportunity. It took three serious relationships that lasted way too long for me to learn when to hold them and when to fold them in love. Luckily, fourth time was the charm. I also tend to hold onto jobs longer than I should. And employees. I've been told by professionals that this relates to my dysfunctional childhood where I incorrectly assumed responsibility for others' inadequacies in order to avoid facing the truth about my narcissistic mother (children have a hard time admitting their parents may not be fabulous). Jung would be proud of me for working all this psychological garbage out. But it does explain my previous inability to let go when it's appropriate to do so.  And if my childhood was messed up, it was nothing compared to poor Jada's, so she definitely gets a free pass from Dr. Jung. But she is working on her issues, as we all are, hopefully. In the interim, she's holding on for dear life. One can only hope that in the next installment of the series she gets her HEA. Because that's what we all want, and we hold on or let go when we think it will help us get where we want to go. We're just not always right. 

My Achilles Heel

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I have something in common with MacKayla Lane. Thankfully, it's not that I'm the vessel for unimaginable evil. It's our soft underbelly, the place at which we are most vulnerable, a congenital character flaw that leads to serious weakness. It has to do with idle hands being the devil's workshop. Specifically, as Mac says so eloquently, "Purposeless downtime has always been my Achilles Heel."  Mine too. Like right now, in fact, as I struggle to find purpose, productivity and meaning in a few spare minutes between the myriad activities that punctuate my life.  As I contemplated this continual thorn in my side, I tried to unpack Mac's insight. What, exactly, is "purposeless downtime?"  Does such time include minutes and hours that are unscheduled, where we have no responsibilities to dictate our actions? Such moments are rare and precious, or should be, but, historically, they have always filled me with dread. Why?  Before we explore the deep unease I share with MacKayla, let's think about the phrase "purposeless downtime."  I suspect such a juxtaposition is actually an oxymoron along the lines of yoga competition.  So, does downtime have a purpose beyond rest and surcease from doing?  I love it when my yoga teacher says, "Let go of all doing," at the end of class as we prepare for Savasana. But there's a reason they call Corpse Pose the hardest pose of yoga. It's hard to let go of all doing and just be. At least it is for me. Always has been. Because we judge ourselves and others by the doing, not the being. I'm not sure about the rest of the world, but here in the good ol’ USA, we’re taught to achieve. To get the A's, make the team, hit the home run, win that yoga contest and all competitions, for that matter. How many times have you heard someone say, "I'll rest when I'm dead?"   But in wanting to know how we can repurpose our purposeless downtime and make it purposeful. we are missing the point.  As does Mac Lane.  The purpose of purposeless downtime is to be purposeless. To recharge, refresh, relax and rejuvenate. To fill our gas tanks so that we can get to our next destination. The purpose of purposeless downtime is to be a human being instead of a human doing. That proposition scares the pants off many people. MacKayla and I used to be among them. I'm not anymore. I’ve learned to embrace unscheduled time and to make friends with my interior self. Why is purposeless downtime such an Achilles Heel? Well, part of it is the guilt of feeling purposeless and unproductive. But the real kicker for me, and also for Mac, is what we choose to do with that time. Most of us have no idea how to relax in a meaningful way—we watch TV and play video games, both of which are highly stimulating. We sit for too long in positions that stress our bodies. None of this is truly relaxing for our physical, mental or emotional selves, we just think it is. Moreover, in the name of R&R, we engage in excess drinking, binge eating, comatose-like activities where we make like vegetables for days on end, or hit the town and stay up for days on end, pub crawling or dancing till we drop. Again, this is not relaxation. Or downtime.  When faced with purposeless downtime we often get into trouble—deciding to paint our living rooms, only to get distracted when we've only finished one wall, or to plant an herb garden, only to make a big pile of dirt that serves as an eyesore in the front of the house. Or maybe we decide to butt into someone else's business, or take an unwelcome interest in our children's lives.  Perhaps we decide to clean out our closets, and we end up just making a mess. But any way we slice it, we tend to ruin our downtime with ill-thought-out activities because we cannot tolerate inactivity. It’s hard to be a human being. Downtime should be just that. A time to be still, turn inward, focus our gaze softly on the horizon, or into the fire. We can pet the soft fur of our dog, or experience the delicious warmth of a fleece blanket surrounding us on a cold day in early spring. We can listen to the wind, or take a leisurely stroll outside and breath in the scents of the new flowers about to bloom. We can think about all the beautiful aspects of our own lives, and send positive thoughts to those who we know are struggling. We can enjoy a warm bath, or let our kids grow heavy as we count our blessings. We can read a book and engage our imagination, or listen to music that soothes our souls. Downtime is just that, a time to wind down, not up. A time to experience the yin in lives filled with an over abundance of yang.  We can all benefit from purposeless downtime. And we need not be afraid of it. An empty gas tank isn't going to get us anywhere. Unscheduled, unstructured time is also where our wellspring of creativity is located. When we let go of the conscious mind, we are able to access the infinite and to be inspired.  There's a reason the major western religions advocate a day of rest, and why gospels enumerate all the activities that should cease on the Sabbath. Being with ourselves is not an occasion for discomfort; it's an experience of peace and tranquility. In a famous quote from the Bible, God exhorts us to, "Be still and know that I am God."  It's in the stillness that we come to know ourselves, too.  Given that she is possessed by a sentient book containing the most powerful magic in the universe, I understand why Mac might not want to go deep. But that doesn't hold for the rest of us.  So go ahead. Find some purposeless downtime and be still. Relax. Find purpose in being purposeless. It’s worked for me, I've turned my swords into plowshares and my Achilles Heel into my greatest strength.  


Bad Mojo

I'm still thinking about relationships. What makes them work, what makes them healthy, what makes them fail and what makes them dysfunctional? And I'm about to commit heresy, so read on only if you have a strong stomach. You know how I feel about Mac Lane and Jericho Barrons, right?  Swoon city. I want to be Mac and I want to be with Barrons. Or I have until now. But a seed that was planted in book six of the series, Iced, which germinated in book seven, Burned, has begun to poke through the soil in book eight, Feverborn. I think Mac and Barrons have a bad relationship. There, I said it. Let the death threats commence. But really, let's look at the facts dispassionately (if such a thing is possible), and see what there is to see. As far as I can tell, the only thing Mac and Barrons do well is mind-blowing sex. Which is great for them (and us), but generally not enough to make a good relationship. Relationships require work, of the non-thrusting variety. 

The work of any relationship is, first, to be scrupulously honest about what you want and need, and second to be able to live with it—or not—when our partners can't, or won't, give it to us. That second part of the work of relationships requires a determination about whether what our mates can't or won't give us is a deal breaker. Sometimes it is, and we stay anyway. Sometimes it's not, and we can learn to accommodate without (much) resentment or ugliness. And sometimes we must move on, because something necessary to our soul is being ignored or discounted, and we find we can't be who we want to be in partnership with that person. 

Usually when I read paranormal and urban fantasy, I engage in hagiography, as I've discussed previously. These fictional characters live lives I want to emulate and engage in relationships on which I want to model my own. If I had a dollar for every time I asked my long-suffering husband why he couldn't be more like Vampire Bill, or Eric Northman or Dragos or Raphael, we'd both be rich. But I don't think I've ever asked him to be more like Barrons. And I wouldn't want our marriage to be like Mac and Barrons' relationship.

Mates should trust one another, not keep secrets.  Mates should have a fair amount of confidence in one another's fidelity, not wonder whether he or she is straying because we aren't "enough" for them. Mates should know about each other's favorite foods, not wonder about the biological origin of our partner's preferred meals. Mates should not order each other around, nor should they take compliance for granted. Mac and Barrons fail in each of these areas.

Now, I'm all for great sex. It's a necessary component to any strong relationship. Sex and making love join us emotionally and integrate our physical bodies with our feelings of connection and contentment. Great sex includes lovemaking involves trust, comfort—with ourselves and our partners—and a sense of adventure and fun. Admittedly, Mac and Barrons have most of that—all but the trust. Which means that Mac and Barrons have sex—they don't make love. And while there are those who like to separate the two, and yes, of course, they can be different experiences, it is possible to have mad monkey sex and make love at the same time. But it doesn't always work that way. Unfortunately.

So, while Mac and Barrons have sex that is combustible, I don't find it compelling. Not like Pia and Dragos, for example. I thought one of the hottest sex scenes of all time was in the novella Dragos Goes to Washington, where he and Pia make mad, passionate love after discussing the laundry. As far as I can tell, Barrons doesn't think about laundry. And he and Mac have not made a home together. They live in roughly the same space, just not together.  Bad mojo, in my book. 

And while I get that once Mac had Barrons there was no going back, I wonder if she will ever come to regret the death of her earlier dreams of a husband like her Daddy? Will she be like Sookie Stackhouse and eschew the pleasures of vampire sex for the comforts of a real home and family? I'm pretty sure I would, over time. I'm not sure about Mac, but I am wondering how she will reconcile her upbringing with her current relationship. I’m also wondering how she will reconcile her essential identity with the self-perception that she needs Barrons to basically fuck her back into herself. I’m not sure I would want to rely on anyone for that, personally—the idea that could I lose myself if I can’t get it on with a particular man? I think the bodice rippers of the 1980s are calling and they want their plot points back.

On the other hand, most of us wouldn't want anyone else's partnership.  We look at other couples and think to ourselves, "Well, I guess that works for them, but that would never work for me." And others look at our unions with the same skeptical eye. And that is a good thing in real life. In my beloved fiction, on the other hand, I want to relate more to the choices of my favorite characters. I want to scream at Mac, "Why are you putting up with this shit—he barely makes an effort!  It's my way or the highway with Barrons. Move on! Figure out another way to find yourself!"

She doesn't appear to be listening, though.  Which is OK, of course.  But I don't have to want what she has. I can—for once—appreciate what I've got as being much more desirable.  

I Want What I Want

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I want what I want when I want it. When this refrain buzzes in my mind, I quickly walk to the other side of the street to avoid it. This kind of contemplation is bad for the soul and dangerous for the psyche. Why dangerous? Because many of us only think we know what we want, and the rest of us have no bloody clue. But we won't admit that we don't know, not even to ourselves, and thus we pursue our "dreams" to extremes, convinced we must attain them or be miserable and unfulfilled. What a sad mess. Why am I thinking about these potential tragedies? Because, as I discussed in my last post, I've been contemplating the content of my favorite paranormal HEAs. And I think I've discovered a common theme among them: every one of my favorite female characters ends up with an HEA that is significantly different from what she thought she wanted. Mac Lane begins her story hoping for a white picket fence and a genteel southern life complete with a husband and children. Sookie Stackhouse thinks she wants a nice Civil War vampire to have and to hold. Pia Giovanni just wants to hide and live out her life as anonymously as possible. Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. But in each of these cases, the authors—Karen Marie Moning, Charlaine Harris, and Thea Harrison, respectively, take their heroines on a journey of discovery about what they truly desire. Turns out, the truth does not match the fantasy for any of these fictional heroines.

I'm convinced that life imitates art in this instance: I'm predictably similar as so many of us when I say that the pursuit of what I thought I wanted didn't get me where I truly longed to be. In the end, I spent too much time listening to what my parents told me I wanted, what the media told me I needed for fulfillment and what Madison Avenue insisted I needed to be happy. I think most of us let others dictate our desires, and then we are lost and confused when we're not as content as we were assured we’d be, if only we could get all those things we’re told to seek.

It's quite the letdown when all that we ever thought we wanted is finally in our grasp and we still feel flat and numb—like someone spiked our celebratory champagne with Novocaine. We got the big diamond, large house, and the impressive title while maintaining a small waist, maybe even after a pregnancy or two. We worked and we schemed and we prayed and we bargained. And we made it, by God, we made it.

So now what? Nirvana, bliss, the Golden Ticket, you name it, it's ours for the taking. Except it's not.

What happens when all of that fails to fulfill?  Then what? Some of us refuse to acknowledge our empty reality and pretend to be satisfied with the trappings of ostensible happiness. We become plastic people with rictus smiles, reflecting the dead feelings inside us.  Others among us decide that we need to fix ourselves, and quickly, because the only explanation for not being happy with what is certainly making everyone else envious is that we are majorly damaged and in need of some serious psychological counseling. Misguided thinking for sure, but it keeps the therapists in business.  And then there are those poor souls who somehow don't get what they thought they wanted, and so spend their precious time pining for things that are not to be. I know a woman who wanted children desperately, but married too late to have them and then could not get past it, despite valiant efforts to convince herself and others to the contrary. She reveres all mothers, and is convinced her life is just not what it could have been. This is true. But it’s also true that she could have given birth to a child with developmental challenges, like one of my friends, or lost a child like another. These two mothers might sometimes envy my bereft, childless acquaintance.

We use the failure to acquire that which we think we desire as an excuse for compulsions, mediocrity, underachievement, loveless marriages, immoral and unethical behavior, sloth and procrastination. When we don't get the clothes, or the guy, or the kids, or the looks, the wealth or the health, then we can absolve ourselves of responsibility for our misery and justify our wallowing in it. I hate when I see that in others. I despair when I realize I've done it myself. 

So who are the lucky ones in this dismal picture I've painted?  Well, we have our favorite fictional friends, of course. We have Mac, Sookie and Pia, all of whom are young but wise.  They are able to adjust their perceived desires to accommodate the reality that all but bites them in the face. They each realize—over the course of many delicious novels, thankfully—that what they thought they wanted didn't fit the bill at all. And they were able to shift their perceptions to recognize their dreams and embrace them, finding their HEAs in the process. We can learn a lot from these paranormal people.

As soon as we even suspect that we've been chasing the wrong dream, it's time to make a course correction. Similarly, when it becomes painfully clear that whatever we thought we wanted is definitely beyond our reach, we need to let go of that fantasy and adopt objectives that are more realistic. If we must let go of a dream, by all means, mourn. But then move on.  We also need to tune out the cacophony of voices telling us what we want and what we don't want. Plug your ears and just say "no."  We must take the time to discern what we, ourselves, actually want, no matter that it's not what others think we should desire or seek to attain. Our true desires are rarely reflected by the two-year-old screeching in our heads, "I want it now!"  We need to go below that insatiable inner child to the essential part of ourselves that speaks more softly. She knows what she wants and she knows how to get it – maybe not right now but usually when it’s right.

We're Working on It

I've been married for more than twenty years, and with my husband for almost a quarter century. That's a long time, although not, of course, by immortal standards, where a millennium of togetherness is the expectation upon mating and marriage. I literally can't imagine. And I've been thinking about all of the HEAs in my beloved fantasy books, and the countless centuries of intimacy that each and every one represents. As anyone in a long term relationship knows, the honeymoon eventually ends, and much of the intensity of the passion fades, as does our tolerance for the many differences between our partners and ourselves. I've written before about how opposites attract, and that has certainly been true for me and my spouse. But even if we partner with someone who seems very similar to us on the surface, we all have shadow selves that are uniquely our own. In a lasting lifetime partnership, how do we accept the dark side of our mates, and how can we ask them to do the same for us? I'm not sure, but I know we're working on it. Whenever I think I'm terminally unique or that my relationship is different from those of others, I have but to read one of my favorite fantasy books. Pia and Dragos, Mac and Barrons, Sookie and Sam, and, most recently, Mariketa and Bowen all deal with the beasts within and the necessary accommodations each must make to be part of a couple. Over the course of their stories, each of these pairs learns to come to terms with the creature beneath a beautiful body as they struggle to become a twosome. And maybe it's the GQ looks that each of our heroes possesses, or the alpha male charisma, or their profound devotion to their women that makes it seem easier for their wives.  But any way you slice it, these guys got game—of the animalistic variety. Talk about a dark side. And their women have their own weaknesses and shadows that give depth to their characters and interest to the readers.

But how does this relate to the rest of us? If we ask ourselves honestly, do we truly accept the shadows of our mates? Have we revealed our own inner demons? I'm pretty sure I have, as my demons aren't quite housebroken, and come out to play even when I've told them firmly to stay inside. But they don't listen, and the mess they make can be epic at times. So my husband is well aware of the shadows lurking in my heart. Most of them, at least. But what about his? Can I embrace the darkness in him even as I demand his light? I tell myself I can, but sometimes my actions belie my claims.

In our wedding ceremony, the officiant spoke of the three elements of our union: my husband, our marriage and me. She talked about how we were two complete individuals coming together to create something distinct—a new entity. We had discussed this concept with the minister before the wedding, and she was able to write beautiful prose around our desire to avoid the two halves of a whole trope. I'd been to weddings where that was the theme—where the bride or groom represented the "missing puzzle piece" for the other, like the lyrics of that simpering Katy Perry song about being a teenage dream. I'd also read about this approach to love relationships in the historical romance novels of my youth in the 1980s. In those early bodice rippers, the hero and heroine were always two peas in a pod, two sides of the same coin, an incomplete soul waiting for its other half. Gag me. 

My husband, good man that he is, would never introduce me as his better half. The way I figure it, if I'm only half a person waiting to become whole through the addition of another, the half I'm likely to be is the good part—after all, who would want me (or anyone) if they represent the half that lives in shadow? No one, that's who. So if I'm half a person representing the good stuff, then when I come together with He Who Shall Complete Me, we're gonna generate shadows, not light.

Instead, when I was at the point where I was open to a lifetime partnership, I was looking for someone who would intensify my light and my strengths but also be able to live with my darkness and weaknesses. After all, the advice I give to all couples thinking about marriage is this:  take your intended's worst qualities, magnify them 1000 times, and decide if you can live with what that looks like, it's a good match.  Because if you're going in with the hope of change, as they say in my hometown, fuggedaboutit. 

So for me, and for the fantasy fictional couples I love, we're working on it. All of it. Making sure all of me loves all of my mate and vice versa. It's the work of a lifetime, and a labor of love. We have to take the dark with the light, the beast with the beauty, the good with the bad. Whatever the case, I'll take it all. 



Contempt and Doubt


'm having an interesting problem, to which I alluded in my last post. It’s one of the main reasons I don't read much straight fantasy. You see, I started with the best; I read all five books of A Song of Ice and Fire and was blown away. I lived in Westeros for month after glorious, enthralling month. I never wanted to leave. But when I finally finished the last page and realized how long it could be before there were any new works from George R. R. Martin, I was devastated. The best was now behind me. What was the point of reading other fantasy if it couldn’t compare?  Right now, I'm feeling the same way about my beloved paranormal and urban fantasy; I feel like I've read all the best, and now I can only wait for new books to be published. So when they are, I don't want to read them, because then I won't be able to look forward to spending time between their pages in the future. My sublime reading experiences will be over and leave me bereft.

o, as I’ve mentioned, I'm reading Burned again instead of Feverborn. And I'm reading very, very slowly. I'm pacing myself and allowing myself only a few minutes of paradise at a time. Luckily, I have a new idea for a blog post every few pages of Karen Marie Moning's books. Today's topic is self-doubt and self-loathing. Fun stuff, I know. But necessary to contemplate, and conveniently addressed by Mac Lane, one of my all-time favorite characters.

In Burned, Mac has gone from MVP to bench warmer in the quest to save the world, fight the Fae, and right injustice. She has good reasons to ‘ride the pines’ Mac is compromised by a monster inhabiting her body, who continually tempts her to acts of extreme power—and destruction. So she needs to lie low. Unfortunately for Mac, her fallow season has coincided with an impending, multi-faceted apocalypse. Timing is everything, now isn’t it? Anyhoo… being benched and prevented from action makes Mac frustrated, to say the least. To say the most, it's making her not only doubt herself, but also hate herself. As she says, "I do nothing. And my self-contempt grows."  I can relate. 

Obviously, I'm not being called on to save the world. Good thing for the world. But I do have responsibilities.  And I have the calling of my desire—that which I want to do and accomplish and achieve. Problem is, I often find myself where Mac is. I do nothing. And my self-contempt grows. Except when those feelings are eclipsed by my feelings of self-doubt.  Self-contempt presupposes I can do something, I just won't.  Self-doubt undermines this assumption with persistent thoughts that I won't because I can't. Sucks any way you slice it. 

I want to write books. Originally, this blog was intended to be a book written in thousand-word increments.  I thought I was pretty clever. The blog book would be my first offering. My second effort would go beyond the first, and dig deeper into all that I've learned about being human from my non-human teachers within the pages of my beloved fantasy books. My third tome – predicated on people actually reading my first and second - was to be my foray into fiction. I want to be like my writer rock stars—the authors I yearn to emulate, including, of course, Karen Marie Moning, as well as JR Ward, Thea Harrison, Laurell K. Hamilton, Charlaine Harris, Nalini Singh, Jeaniene Frost, Patricia Briggs and Faith Hunter. I want to join this club so much it hurts. 

But I do nothing—or almost nothing—or at least not enough. And my self-contempt grows. As does my doubt. Who am I to seek to join these august ranks? I've never been much of a fiction writer—just an avid reader—so what makes me think I can don the mantle in middle age?  If it were going to happen, wouldn't it have done so already? And if I can't even produce a non-fiction book when I have more than 500 pages of material, what does that say about my chances of being a published fiction writer? I know what it says about my chances for drinking too much.

The mind spins and the brain boggles. I'm paralyzed with contempt and doubt. I don't have a demon inside tempting me to destruction as Mac does… or do I? Maybe my demons are the doubt and insecurity that plague me and tell me I can't. Maybe those demons are in league with the others that tell me I'm shit because I waste time on Facebook or staring into space or watching paint dry instead of writing. Maybe I'm exactly like Mac with enormous power within, but too afraid of the destruction that could attend it.

Maybe I think entirely too much and I should just shut up and freaking ‘do it’ already. And maybe I should also consider that like Mac, doing something can sometimes look like doing nothing.  Sometimes the hardest thing to do is to stand down until the time to act is right. Maybe my expectations of what ‘doing something’ looks like are incorrect, and I'm doing more than I think.

And there I go, thinking again. Maybe I need to shut my brain down for a while and see what flows.  Maybe then I won't be consumed with contempt and I can stop drowning in doubt. It could happen… I hope.

The Four Faces of Fear

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've decided to savor my “to be read” list, so I'm saving the cream of the crop for my next vacation— if I can wait that long. The excitement is just about killing me. I’ve got two offerings by Thea Harrison, a new Iron Druid novel, and, of course, Karen Marie Moning’s newest book, Feverborn, which I’m positively salivating to read. To keep the hunger pains at bay for now, I’m rereading Burned, which I've only read once (unlike the first five Fever books, which I've read at least five times each). As you know, I live in abject fear that I will run out of great paranormal urban fantasy books, leaving me bereft and desperate. I'm sure there's a name for this, like aneobibliophobia—fear of no new books. What do you think?  Can we start a meme? Anyway, my fear that I will run out of amazing stories in which to immerse myself got me to thinking about fear generally.

As I've written about several times, it was Ms. Moning who taught me that hope strengthens, fear kills. True enough. But what is it about fear that makes it so commanding?  In the beginning of Burned, we read about the Unseelie King, an entity so powerful, so vast, that nothing threatens him. He knows no fear until he loves. At that point, he becomes vulnerable, as we all do. Then the king knows true fear: the fear of losing something he loves more than anything.

The fear of losing something we have is one of the four faces of fear. It is the counterpart to being afraid that we won't get what we want in the first place. These fears, in turn, go hand in hand with our fear of not being enough, and the terror that there won't be enough—of anything—to go around; the fear that we won’t get our share. The first two aspects of fear are specific— we know what we want and we are scared we won't get it or we’re scared we'll lose it. The second set of fears is more existential and diffuse. Together they can leave us running for our lives, belligerently fighting against fate, friends and enemies alike, or paralyzed with dread. Fear leads us to flight, fight or freeze. It never leads to anything good.

There was a time when my whole existence was mired in fear. I felt like a puppet whose strings were being controlled by my extreme reactivity to all that frightened me, which was pretty much everything. I was afraid of people and also of being abandoned and left alone. I was afraid of nature and scared in the city. I was afraid of failing and I was afraid of succeeding. I was afraid of being seen, and afraid of being invisible. I was afraid of being used, and afraid of being ignored. I was miserable, mired in the suffocating web of my paranoia.

But fear is a funny thing. Turns out we can overdose on the stuff and become desensitized to it. If we are in a constant state of panic, eventually the panic recedes to the point where we can become sufficiently sentient to realize we have neither died from what we feared nor has the fear itself killed us. At least not yet. It's why I'm generally only terrified in the beginning of a plane ride. The takeoff finds me gripping the armrests, or, on occasion, my traveling companion, whether I know them or not. By the time we level out at 35,000 feet, my panic is easing, and when the flight attendants are coming around to take drink orders, I'm getting bored.

Maintaining a specific fear is generally unsustainable. We can rally for a new source of terror, but consistently being fearful about the same thing gets old. For example, when our twins were babies, I used to check their breathing incessantly while they slept—to make sure they were alive. My husband was actually very happy about that, because it meant that I had stopped checking his breathing incessantly while he slept (which invariably led to his not being able to stay asleep). But the constant checking got old, and my fears about something happening to my family while they slept peacefully in our home slowly abated.

Fear is no fun. Fear causes us to live in the wreckage of our future where the fearful event will take place (where we lose what we currently have, or never get what we currently want and don't have).  Fear is always about what will happen later, because we can't be afraid about the present moment--either we have what we want in that moment or we don't. We don't need to be afraid about it; we can be sad or mad or happy about an existing situation, but we can't be afraid about this exact moment, only what will happen in the next one.

So, while hope can strengthen and fear can kill – it’s not always like that.  Fear reminds us of what we value, that which we do not want to lose, and also of our strength – flights and nights that we lived through – and how to prioritize our time.  If we keep fear in its place, we can use it to go after what we want, work to keep and protect it, and not take it for granted once we get it. Many, although not all of my fears are shadows of their former selves, thankfully. I’ve learned to live with most of them, and I’m at the stage where I’m being asked, “Coffee or tea?” by a friendly flight attendant. So, I will say, Thank you, Ms. Moning, now please get back to the keyboard… my aneobibliophobia is acting up.”

Can't Live With It, Can't Live Without It

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As the year draws to a close, I'm gearing up to set my annual intentions. I prefer intentions to goals, as they seem more flexible -- if I fall somewhat short of the mark, as we are all wont to do from time to time, I don’t judge myself as harshly as I would if I don’t achieve a goal. As I contemplate the New Year, and begin to visualize serenity, joy, freedom and happiness, I'm thinking about the meaning of these now – and a year from now — in the hope of positioning myself on the right path for 2016.

As you know, I would rather think about fictional characters who speak to my soul rather than real, cacophonous people. So, I'm manifesting the wisdom of Karen Marie Moning’s Jericho Barrons to help chart my 2016 course. Specifically, I’m contemplating the most profound thing Barrons ever said: "There's nothing I can't live with. Only things I won't live without." (Shadowfever). ) I've thought about this concept a lot. What does it mean? Could I be more content if I reoriented my thinking along the lines he suggests?  I suspect so. Should such a reorientation become part of my intentions for the New Year?  Probably.

I've always been a ‘can't live with it’ kind of girl. My prohibition list is long. I hate mint can't handle the taste or even the smell. I can't abide the aroma of bananas or cigarette smoke. I need complete privacy to shower in hotel rooms, even if the bathroom door locks. I can't handle random noises, like when my son starts to hum or whistle. I forbid reality TV in my house, as well as Fox News. I can't handle mess— it messes with my OCD. I can't live with being ignored or dismissed. I can't handle being wrong—so I'm a slave to my need to be right over all other values. I can't live with my brother or his wife being in the same time zone. I can't live with complacency, mediocrity, stupidity, intolerance, homophobia, pedophilia, bullies and queen bees. I can't live with hypocrites and hypocrisy. Etc., etc., etc.

Contrast the above with what Jericho Barrons said-there's nothing he can't live with. Sounds a lot simpler than my life. And simple is good, I know this for a fact. And because there's nothing he can't live with, his equanimity is rarely destabilized. Which contrasts with my near constant teetering on the brink of insanity.  Everything I can't live with exists on my last nerve. And then, as my children remind me, my nerves will be shot, sending me over the edge.  Seems to me there's a lot Jericho Barrons could teach me. 

So let me catalogue the items I can't live without:  my husband and my children; my friends; food and shelter. I think that's it. It’s a much shorter list. A much simpler list. A list that streamlines life and distills it down to its essential elements.  What would it be like to live with a focus only on what I can't live without? To live with the—relatively minor, more of an inconvenience really—discomfort of tolerating that which previously I believed was completely unacceptable? Would such a reorientation set me more firmly on the road to serenity, joy, freedom and happiness?  Maybe so. But that is a big ask. And I'm not sure I have any idea how to do it.

I'm equally whether Barrons provides much in the way of guidance for living life on his terms. He just does it. And, of course, he's had millennia to work on his technique, as compared to my paltry five decades. But I've got to try. Because living with a focus on what I can't live with isn't getting me where I want to be. Maybe it's time to reread the Fever series. There's a new installment coming out in January—Hallelujah!—so it's probably time to refresh my memory of all the wise philosophy embodied in those remarkable books.

So, as I contemplate my New Year’s intentions, I will look to the truths I find in my beloved fantasy books, and seek help with living in reality from my fictional friends. My books never fail me, and I'm confident I'll find what I seek. I intend to look closely.