Normally, I avoid young adult or new adult stories; too much angst and not enough sex. Add to that my typical avoidance of apocalyptic books and those with love triangles, and the Arcana series would normally be relegated to my top three Greatest Miss List. But I’m a sucker for Kresley Cole. I would read toilet paper if she wrote on it. But, I’m hooked on the Arcana Chronicles. All hail Tar O! Also, there’s only one book left (which I’m sure will take at least another year to come out, dammit!) so I gotta find out how it ends.
I'm enjoying the many pleasures of Kresley Cole. Her Immortals After Dark series is fast, fun and hot, hot, hot. What's not to love? Her latest offering, Wicked Abyss, follows the unlikely adventures of a fairy princess, Lila, and the King of Hell, Sian. What could possibly go wrong? Absolutely everything, of course, and that's why I'm such a Kresley Cole fan girl. And while I love all her female protagonists, Lila is something extra special. Her grit, resourcefulness and sass won me over from the get-go, and I'm cheering wildly for her to get her HEA. Luckily, I'm pretty confident that she will overcome all obstacles to find true love and save herself and her realm. Her eventual success, I'm betting, will be the result of Lila's life's motto: "Figure it the fuck out." FITFO for short. I love FITFO. I've lived a goodly portion of my life under the assumption that absolutely everything is figure-out-able, in the immortal words of my favorite business guru, Marie Forleo. As you all know, I'm pretty confident in my intellectual capacity and I'm usually sure that with a combination of applied brainpower and a bit of creativity, I can always figure it the fuck out.
In college, I decided I needed to get out of Dodge and find a geographic cure for all my problems. My parents were less than supportive and my bank account was pretty flimsy. So, how to go abroad and have someone pay me to do it? I figured it out; I talked my way into a post-college program and convinced them that even though I hadn't graduated, I would be an asset to their organization. My parents were less than pleased that their financial obstacles had been worked around. Oh, well. At least I waved to them as the plane took off.
I've had to figure out how to navigate new jobs, difficult bosses, stupid administrative rules, mean girls, queen bees and wannabes. How to get my kids the resources they need. How to get out of my own way to marry the man of my dreams, and how to age gracefully (or, at least, that’s what I tell myself). I've figured out legal problems that have stumped lawyers, insurance issues that caused grown actuaries to cry, and esoteric graduation requirements. No matter the situation, I'm always confident that there's a solution if only I'm smart enough, determined enough and savvy enough to find it. FITFO has been an excellent strategy throughout most of my life. It's gotten me out of many a dark place and over many a high mountain. My superlative ability to figure it the fuck out has led to what some might call intellectual arrogance. I just call it "justified.”
But there is a downside to all this stellar brain activity of mine: it leads to the sometimes erroneous conclusion that just about everything is subject to being figured out. And if I haven't figured it out, it must be because I haven't tried hard enough or long enough or smartly enough. At which point I double down on my efforts and wait for solutions to rain down upon me because I'm just that good—roadblocks should disappear before me as quickly as the bag of M&M's I promised myself would last the week.
And therein lies the rub: the one thing that doesn't seem subject to the rules of FITFO is... me. Sadly, when it comes to myself and my bad habits, character defects and addictive behaviors, I simply cannot figure it the fuck out. And neither can any of the rest of us, if the prevalence of both self-help books and the people who continue to need them are any indication. One doesn't need to be a rocket scientist to know that eating too much and moving too little will result in more flab than fitness. Nor does one need an Ivy League degree to understand that spending more money than one makes will result in debt. Or that excessive gambling usually doesn't end well. Or that heavy drinking leads to miserable hangovers. We don't really need self-help books to tell us that being successful means leaving our comfort zone, getting our fat asses off the couch, working hard and daring to take risks. We don't need expert advice to figure out that relationships fail when we keep score, believe our partners should read our minds, put ourselves first all the time and expect our other half to actually be our other half. And yet we continue to read how-to books to figure out how to live. And then we continue to live badly. Or at least not as well as we could.
Because FITFO doesn't apply to us. I can figure out your life easily. And you can probably figure out mine. But we are more limited when it comes to helping ourselves. It sucks. But it is what it is, and if we know this, maybe, sometimes, we can figure out ways around our own blind spots and inadequacies. If not, we can continue to read self-help books instead of actually helping ourselves. I'm not sure, but I'm going to keep reading about Lila in Wicked Abyss while I figure it the fuck out.
When three paranormal fantasy superstar authors (Kresley Cole, Larissa Ione and Gena Showalter) get together to put out an anthology, Blood Red Kiss, well, I had to read it, of course. I was a bit disappointed to see that the Kresley Cole offering was a retread of "Warlord Wants Forever," an excellent short story, but one I've read and listened to, although not written about previously. The second offering, by Larissa Ione, called “Forsaken by Night,” was a real page turner and left me wanting more, as only a master writer can do. In the story, Ms. Ione gives us just enough of the world building to give the story weight and coherence, but not so much that I fully understand all that I'd like to know. She skillfully weaves several themes into the short piece, but the one that caught my attention, as it often does, is the theme of change. Apparently, change is the one constant for humans and paranormals alike. The thing about change is that it can be fast and dramatic, as in a revolution, or slow and easy, as in evolutionary change. In this story, the protagonist is forced to accept that the clan leader who exiled him more than a decade previously had changed enough to warrant a second chance, even as the protagonist himself was given a second chance based on his own evolution. That was the most dramatic element of the story—the lack of drama. Neither the outcast nor the clan leader who exiled him had had any sort of revolutionary shift. Just the steady forward movement toward wisdom and growth that constitutes evolution. Less an earthquake than the gradual erosion of rock under running water.
Evolution is not nearly as sexy as revolution. The slow and steady march of time that leads us toward progressive and meaningful change isn't glamorous, and often we don't even know it's occurring. It's not until we realize that we are meeting a situation with a new set of eyes and seeing things in a different way than we used to, or we notice that we are more or less reactive than before that we realize that evolution has happened and we are no longer who we were.
Sometimes, these evolutionary changes are for the better, but not always. I've learned to avoid wearing yoga leggings or sweats all the time, or really anything with spandex in it, because I don't notice when I'm slowly gaining weight until the muffin top threatens to breach even my stretchy pants and my regular clothes no longer fit. Similarly, we can skip a trip or two to the gym for a week or two in a row, but we need to be careful because before we know it, we're out of the habit of working out entirely and that pesky muffin top is back. Or we have a couple glasses of wine several times a week, which turns into every night, which turns into a drinking problem down the road. We've all been in one or more of these situations where the slow creep of bad habits turns into a much bigger problem than we realized because the progression was so incremental.
On the other hand, good habits can slip in under our radar as well, and before we know it, we're doing well without really trying. That's the theory behind adding green foods (i.e. veggies) to our plates; if we slowly increase our consumption of the good stuff, we'll have less and less room for the junk food that is ruining our health. Adding one minute a week to our treadmill or elliptical routine gets us over an hour by the end of a year if we started out at ten minutes. Adding five seconds every few days to our planks gets us to two minutes without our ever noticing it.
And what about other habits that seems so overwhelming when viewed in their entireties? Like people pleasing? Or the opposite of that, being a curmudgeon? Taking tiny steps out of our comfort zones can make a big difference. Even something as small as saying we didn't enjoy a movie when our friend clearly did can begin an inexorable evolution toward speaking our truth. Every little drop of water over that stone is one more step toward transformation, maybe from rough to smooth or heavy to light or sadness to joy. Each small step counts. Not dramatically, in and of itself, but slowly and steadily over time.
The thing about evolution is that it's a lot less scary than revolution. And it tends to leave much less of a mess in its wake. In my work as a health coach, I often tell people that while a pill or maybe surgery might seem to work faster, the mess such revolutionary tactics create often hardly seems worth it. It's like going out to dinner because we don't feel like cooking. Most of the time, it's actually faster and easier to throw something together than to get in the car, drive to the restaurant, order our food, wait for it, send it back because something wasn't right, eat it, drive home, etc. It may seem like it would be easier, and in some respects it is. But until we get a Star Trek-like device that can conjure whatever we want to eat out of thin air, most nights it's easier to just eat stay put.
As a society, we don't like to wait much. We have the collective attention spans of chimps on crack. With evolutionary changes, that can actually work in our favor. Sometimes change happens when we were paying attention to something else. Like we realize that "all of a sudden" we're looking forward to yoga class, or we wake up one day and understand that the ex-boyfriend we exiled to the friend zone is stirring decidedly more-than-friendly feelings. Or we realize that all the work we've done to launch a new business over the past five years has made us an "overnight success." The payoff in each of these situations was the result of evolution, even though, from the outside, it might appear revolutionary.
So don't knock evolution till you try it. As in Larissa Ione's story in Blood Red Kiss, we may find that change happens, even when we aren't paying attention. If it's change we like, we'll continue to go with the flow. If we find we've fallen—slowly—into bad habits, it might take a more revolutionary approach to stem the flow. But evolution beats revolution for ease and comfort every time, although it makes for a more mature story.
I'm still thinking about Arcana Rising, the latest offering from Kresley Cole in her Tarot-card based series, The Arcana Chronicles. In this original world, each card of the Major Arcana has been incarnated as a young person with paranormal powers. In Arcana Rising, we are introduced to the idea that some of the Minor Arcana cards may also be incarnated and what that might mean for our protagonists. The Minor Arcana roughly correlates to a deck of cards someone might use to play rummy; there are four suits with numbers from one to ten and four face cards (one more than in a regular deck, actually, but one can still "read" Tarot from a regular deck, if one is so inclined). In a Tarot reading, the significance of a card is dependent on its placement in the spread, but regardless of position in a particular reading, some cards of the Minor Arcana are more ominous than others. One of the worst cards to draw is the Ten of Swords (equivalent to the ten of spades). In the most popular version of the Tarot deck, the Rider-Whaite Tarot, the Ten of Swords depicts a person lying facedown on the ground with ten swords sticking out of his back. The imagery is explicit and disturbing. In Arcana Rising, the female protagonist, Evie, who is the Empress card (these books are easier to understand if you have some basic knowledge of Tarot to begin with; because it’s always been an interest of mine, I particularly love these books), is talking to her grandmother about how to proceed in the "Game," in which she is supposed to fight the other incarnate cards until only one wins. Evie's grandmother teaches her the most important lesson of life, that, "When you can't change your situation, you must change yourself. You must rise and walk, despite the ten swords in your back."
I've always heard variations on this theme: you can't control what happens to you, just how you react to it and you can't change others; we have no control over outcomes. And I get it—but what if I'm not strong enough to change myself or accept the outcome, even if I hate it? What if I can't do it—whatever "it" is—without a crutch? Or at all?
We have so many crutches from which to choose. We can get drunk, or engage in better living through chemistry, or numb out to the TV, or the computer/iPad or even—gasp—books. We can shop—online or in stores—and engage in retail therapy. We can have too much sex or gamble to excess or become workaholics or overeaters. I'm painfully aware of the myriad of ways we can anesthetize ourselves so that we can't feel the swords in our back—or anything else, for that matter. And the swords are still there. Not good.
What to do? What does it mean to change ourselves? After all, it's hard to function while being impaled by ten swords. And maybe the bad situation is temporary, or at least the acute phase is temporary—like an illness or injury, or even if we are grieving a death. But maybe the situation is our new normal, and we rebel against this evolving reality, denying its truth so that we don't need to deal with its consequences.
I've had a small taste of that just this week. I had a boating accident and damaged my knee. A severe MCL sprain and a medial meniscus tear. Big time owie. And just like that, life changed for me. Routine tasks, like, say, getting out of a chair or turning over in bed went from automatic to excruciating. My plans for yoga teacher training were now in jeopardy. Getting to my bedroom on the third floor was now a major undertaking. Would I need surgery? How long would this breathtaking pain last? Would I regain full function without having to favor the leg? Who has time for this? Why me? Am I getting old and decrepit? This was my second muscle/ligament tear in two months. Am I falling apart?
I'm a bit embarrassed to say that all of this precipitated a pretty significant pity party to which I invited my nearest and dearest. Shockingly, while everyone came to say ‘hello’, no one wanted to stay at my sorry soirée. Actually, neither did I. Boh -ring. So I decided to get up off the pity pot and take matters into my own hands, getting some effective help (beyond the advice to elevate and ice and stay off my leg and take painkillers). And while the swords haven't moved–I still have a bum knee, and I'm still in pain—my attitude about it is totally changed. Hope is on the horizon and action is the watchword of the day. I stopped feeling sorry for myself and started to look on the bright side and do something to ameliorate my suffering.
So maybe that is what Evie's grandmother meant by rising and walking, despite the swords in our back—awareness, acceptance, action—the A-Team of growth and change. But, in reality, dealing with a bad knee is one thing, dealing with the rest of my reality is something else again.
There are so many things about myself I want to change. I would like to be less reactive with my children. I would like to be more disciplined with exercise and food. I would like to develop and stick to a writing schedule and get my fiction work off the ground. I would like to be more positive and persistent. I would like to have more faith in a benevolent universe and the trustworthiness of people. I would like to be less fearful.
I get that meaningful change must come from within, although it took a while to get with that particular program. I think that I have finally—finally— accepted that it's me, and not everyone and everything else. I've given up the fantasy that life would be perfect if only…fill in the blank… the kids would behave, my husband would appreciate me more, I would never have to deal with another idiot driver (not that those things wouldn't be awesome), etc. etc. etc. But life isn't perfect and sometimes we have ten swords sticking out of our backs, which can really ruin one's day.
The life lesson here that Evie's grandmother was trying to convey is simple: pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional. We have control over our internal landscape and not much else. No matter what the situation is, we can always rise and walk, even with ten swords in our backs. We may be riding and walking to our just rewards, our final journey, but even death can be approached with dignity and fearlessness rather than martyrdom and abdication of responsibility for ourselves. These are indeed tough lessons, but I'm indebted to Evie and her grandmother for the good and necessary reminders to rise and walk, regardless of whatever swords are protruding from us.
I just finished Kresley Cole's Arcana Rising. I have no idea how this author puts out amazing paranormal romance, intelligent YA post-apocalyptic books, and adult erotica that will sizzle your skivvies—and all in one year! As you know, I don't normally like young adult or post-apocalyptic fiction, and I usually stay away from love triangles. However, The Arcana series has all three, and I can't seem to get enough. The series offers a very interesting premise about the incarnation of the the Major Arcana of the Tarot deck, and the battle for dominance a la The Hunger Games and Highlander—in the end, there can be only one. Each of the major characters is one of the Tarot cards—Evie, the heroine, is the Empress, and one of her love interests is the Death card. Other cards appear as well and in this book we get to know Sol, the Sun card. Sol is a "layered" character (his description), and while he loves to watch people battle to the death in gladiatorial games, and he's allied himself with the bad guys, he's also got some compassion and a moral compass that can flicker towards true north. When Evie spends time with Sol, she is struck by the pageantry of his set up and the way he interacts with his followers. Sol has fashioned himself a God, and looks for worship from his adoring crowds. When Evie comments on the grandiosity of the display, Sol tells her, "Presentation is everything." He has a point. There is a lot to be said about the power of presentation, and also its unsavory underbelly.
Sol models his organization on Ancient Rome, because, in his view, those guys knew how to throw a party—or a dictatorship. He could have chosen Louis XIV or the Catholic Church. Hell, Sol could have pointed to Donald Trump as a man who understands that presentation is paramount. Versailles, the Vatican and Trump Tower are all designed to elevate the builder. Kind of reminds me of Lord Farquaad from the movie Shrek—his very large, very phallic looking palace had nothing to do with insecurity about his statur—according to him. And there is NO PRBLEM with The Donald's manly man-parts. Yeah, right.
Compensation aside, however, there is something to be said for putting on the Ritz and making a good impression. I think I've told the story of how I wore blue jeans and red suede elf shoes (complete with pointy toes)to my Harvard interview, confident that my superior intellect would outweigh my disrespectful outward appearance. No dice. And no Harvard. Presentation counts. How we present ourselves will influence how people see us. I used to counsel young women starting out in the national security field to be careful with their wardrobe. Rocking our femininity is fine, but being valued for how we look instead of our professional performance was a sure way to forfeit promotions. Presentation counts.
And because a good presentation can definitely hide the void below, being able to see past the staging is an important skill. It's vital to be able to see the veneer beneath the veneer, as one of my friends puts it. Because sometimes there is no there there, but we're too hypnotized by the razzle dazzle to notice. In my experience, most of us could use a little help with our ability to penetrate the presentation and see the reality underneath.
By the same token, it's equally important to be able to see the potential of something without all its window dressing. Not everyone has the capacity to "see" how something will look when it's been "prettied up." It's why those with vision can see a major "fixer-upper" house and project an image of how it will look with new paint and maybe a new bay window and a custom kitchen. Others among us can't imagine how it will look, and so they need to see a prospective house already finished and furnished before they can even think about buying it.
And sometimes, a good presentation isn't just hiding emptiness or superficiality. Sometimes a pretty exterior is shielding an ugly interior. Form over function doesn't work when the form is masking something dysfunctional. After all, putting lipstick on a pig just gives you a slightly better-looking pig. In the final analysis, it's still a pig and you're not gonna want to kiss it. Similarly, I’ve never been particularly interested in an asshat with nice external packaging. Not worth it. A pig is a pig underneath the nice lips.
Sol’s role in Arcana Rising is important. Evie, like the rest of us, needs to be reminded that putting on a good show can serve a useful purpose. But it’s also vital to avoid judging a book by its cover. Discernment and depth are key components to success, as Evie will have to learn if she is going to win the “game.” For the rest of us, as long as we’re not hiding something dark underneath our light, like Sol, then we should be able to do good and look good at the same time.
I like to multitask. I'm totally ADHD and it takes a lot to hold my attention. Which is why I sometimes have several books going at once: a hard copy book (whatever non-fiction book is tickling my fancy); an audiobook (almost always a novel I've read before and want to revisit with someone reading it to me); and a new paranormal fantasy on my Kindle (unless I'm in a reading desert and have opted for an old friend to keep me company while I find a new author/series). So it's always kind of cool when I notice a theme or plot device in two books I'm reading at the same time. In the most recent occurrence, I was listening to Kresley Cole's Dark Needs at Night's Edge while reading Gena Showalter's The Darkest Night. And the common trope in both books was a curse that caused one of the protagonists to relive, in a very visceral way, the worst night of their lives. Over and over again, the nightmare reel is playing in a never-ending loop of pain and anguish. Sounds fun, huh? Good thing this is fantasy and that could never happen in real life. But wait—that's not quite right, because, as we know, there is truth in fantasy and this is no exception. In Dark Needs at Night's Edge (Really?! Again with the supremely stupid titles), Naomi was a celebrated dancer who is brutally murdered by a rejected lover. As a ghost, she is doomed to experience her death each night of the full moon, preceded by a compulsive dance that she can't control—it's as if she is a puppet with someone else pulling the strings. It's horrific. In The Darkest Night, Maddox, who houses the demon of Violence, is condemned by the gods to be killed each night in the same way he murdered another —stabbed to death and escorted to hell for the night, only to be reborn in the morning to do it all again the next night. More fun than the law should allow, is what I say.
The common theme here is the idea that we are often stuck reliving the past—usually the most difficult or painful aspects of our history, and usually an event or moment that forever alters the course of our lives afterward. Anyone who's experienced a trauma knows all about this. But even those of us who have made a bad decision, like an extra drink before getting in the car, unprotected sex, just this once, marrying the wrong spouse or letting the right one get away—we have a tendency to put all of these actions or events on an endless loop in our brains and just hit "play." It doesn't get any more depressing or limiting than this, at least for me.
What do we hope to gain by pressing the "repeat" button over and over? We're not idiots, or at least most of us aren’t, so there must be some perceived conscious or unconscious benefit to all of this ceaseless self-flagellation. Perhaps we think we can gain insights from our repetitive analysis of the events in question. Maybe we believe we deserve perpetual punishment for whatever sins we've committed, even if the transgression involves being a victim of someone else's evil. Or maybe we believe that if we replay it again and again, we can change the outcome in the past and affect the trajectory of our future. It could happen, right?
For me, my endless loop involved my husband getting sick. I came home from walking the dog to find him unconscious next to our bed. Ambulance, hospital, tests, terrible prognosis (that was totally wrong, by the way, and who does that to a spouse?!). Worst night of my life. It was twenty years ago and I still replay it. I'm still paranoid about coming home to see that terrible scene again. I can't help myself, and I look for things he or I could have done differently, or what could have gone the other way for an even worse outcome so I won't do that in the future. It's all bad. But I watch that inner movie and I take it apart piece by piece, and then I put it back together and do it again.
For some of us, our endless loop is more like Maddox's. We have one defining moment—the point before which our lives were one way and after which they were a different way, and we replay that over and over again so that we can punish ourselves and feel the burn. Or maybe we'd stop it if we could, but like Maddox, who is cursed by the gods, we can't hit the stop button, so we suffer continuous penalty. Whatever crimes we committed, real or imagined, I can't believe a benevolent Universe would want us to suffer for an eternity. If we're feeling guilty enough to relive our transgressions, we're probably sorry we did it and likely willing to make any amends we could and surely never do it again. At some point, haven't we paid our debt—to society, God, ourselves? I can't imagine not. And yet we persist with the endless loop of misery.
And then some of us just want to change the past, which is, of course, a fool's task. The past doesn't change, no matter how many times we relive it. We can only change our present moment, and perhaps those of the future that haven't happened yet. But that other ship has sailed, and our attempts to alter what's done is pure insanity—doing the same thing over and over—in our minds no less—and expecting a different outcome. Just say no to that life-stealing, soul-sucking pastime. Enough said.
So how do we stop hitting "repeat" and play another song? Therapy comes to mind, of any variety that works for us in our particular circumstances. I'm a big fan. Talking to friends, meditation, journaling, bodywork, self-hypnosis… there are many paths to healing. Love is also an effective answer. For Naomi and Maddox, predictably, true love and a willingness of their loved ones to sacrifice for their benefit is the road to happily ever after. And that can be true in our lives as well. Love heals. Always, if we let it. Time makes its contribution as well. But the secret ingredient of success for all of these scenarios is the willingness to let go of our pasts, and the conviction that we deserve a brighter future, one where we're not condemned to relive our misery endlessly. Turn off the endless loop and reclaim the rest of our lives.
I've been thinking a lot about self-image. I'm still being inspired by Kresley Cole's latest Immortals After Dark offering, Sweet Ruin. In the book, about which I've written previously, the protagonist, Rune, is limited by self-imposed restrictions because he can see himself only in one way. He has not been able to break out of the prison of his own self-image and is therefore crippled in what he believes he can and cannot do. As with so many of the characters in my beloved fantasy novels, art imitates life, and Rune's dilemma mirrors that of so many of us. I’ve written before about how others see us, but today I'm contemplating how we see ourselves, and the myopia within which it can cage us. Our self-image is a construct of the messages we receive… from society, the media, our parents, our peers and authority figures like teachers and counselors. Unless we are introspective and prepared to do the work to uncover our authentic selves, we will be who others tell us we are. And what a mess that is. Women are told we need to be femme fatales who maintain bikini bodies, while breaking through glass ceilings (it's on us to break them, not the idiots who put them in place to remove them). Then there’s the expectation that we become supermoms—who neither hover nor neglect—and perfect wives. Are we living in Stepford? Or amongst pod people? If not, no can do on all of this. These mixed messages come from everywhere but inside ourselves. They are not only crazy-making, but impossible—and ubiquitously pernicious.
And how sad is that? Not only do we not know who we really are, we aren't even encouraged to look! And if we have some inkling that there might be something underneath the expectations of others, like rippling muscle under layers of unsightly fat (that any number of gurus are eager to tell us how to eliminate), we are too afraid, lazy, skeptical or apathetic to do the work necessary to unmask those muscles.
Our self-image is created through distorted mirrors—mirrors that exaggerate our weaknesses or our strengths. What we see is not necessarily what's there. To take a simple example, when we've over eaten, we tend to feel fat the next day (I have fat on the brain today, can you tell?). It's probably not possible that the chocolate cake I ate yesterday has already plastered itself to my ass by today, but it certainly feels that way. Or take an opposite example—just because our parents (well, your parents, not mine, but stay with me here) tell us we are special and we're gonna change the world doesn't make it so. We have to want to change the world, yes, but we also have to take the action to make that happen. Yes, stupid is as stupid does, but that applies to smarts, too. It's not enough to be smart, or to see ourselves as smart—we've got to put in the time—intelligently. Smart is how hard smart works.
One of the most difficult tasks of a life well lived is to know thyself. I'm all about authenticity, but it's impossible to be authentic if we have no idea who we really are, which possibilities are available to us. And which aren’t.
One can simply look around to notice those who clearly think well of themselves (without obvious reasons) and those who don't (again, erroneously to the outside observer). I would dearly love to understand what creates true humility—the ability to embrace both our strengths and weaknesses with neither false modesty nor hubris. If someone could bottle that shit they'd be gazillionaires.
We tell ourselves stories—or, more accurately, someone tells them to us, and then they become our truth. We may not realize that it’s a false truth for quite some time, if ever. When I was little, I often heard my mother tell anyone who would listen how uncoordinated I was. She made me take ballet lessons to help me be more "graceful." Turns out, I'm not particularly uncoordinated—but I believed myself to be for so long that I eschewed activities that might highlight my clumsiness. And while I doubt I would ever have been a star athlete, I missed out on even trying fun things I might have enjoyed because I internalized what someone else decided was true about me.
I have a mug that says, "Imagine what we would do if we knew we could not fail." It's a sobering thought. What bullshit do we tell ourselves about who and what we are that stops us from being who we want to be and doing what we want to do. In Sweet Ruin, Rune sees himself first and foremost as a whore, very much the same way Zsadist sees himself in the Black Dagger Brotherhood books. This false self image dictates almost all aspects of their beings. For Rune, he can't see himself as anything but a spy who trades his body for secrets. Zsadist can't get over feeling dirty and unworthy, because he was a blood and sex slave. As a result, both almost lose the loves of their almost-immortal lives.
What have we lost or almost lost through a distorted self-image? What could we do if we stopped believing we can't? Which doors do we close off from ourselves because we refuse to turn the handle and walk through? These are the thoughts swirling around my brain these days. Along with the fat, of course. For now, I see through a glass darkly. But I'm always searching for the light.
I couldn't sleep last night. I was up from 2:30 AM until sunrise. This could have been a major disaster, and sure, I'm a little tired today, but who cares? Not me, because I had recently started Sweet Ruin, the latest in the Immortals After Dark series by Kresley Cole. So I just moved to another bed to avoid keeping my husband awake with the light of my Kindle, and settled in for a deep dive into an awesome book. And I was not disappointed. Moreover, I have ideas for several blogs, and I had time to write them all down, so life is very good indeed. Sweet Ruin is the story of Rune and Jo. He is a Dark Fey with poisonous blood and body fluids, and she is a rarity, part vampire and part phantom, immune to his poison. A match made in heaven. There is a catch, of course, and suffice to say that Rune has some major commitment issues, to say the least, which creates the central conflict in the story. But Jo knows what she wants, and she's willing to hold out to get it. For her, nothing less than the brass ring will do, no matter how determined Rune is to deny her. I loved the character of Jo. Her philosophy is to squeeze until something breaks. Boo-yah! She's a call-them-like-you-see-them kind of gal, and she knows what she wants. And what she wants is Rune. Forever. She wants monogamy, a wedding, and maybe little Runes running around someday. He thinks she's got the immortal equivalent of puppy love and anyway, he's not a one-woman kind of guy, no matter how amazing that one woman is, and why can't she that?! Rune decides that Jo has idealized and romanticized their relationship and has used an unachievable ideal as the "template for her love life." Clearly, she is misguided, uninformed, and too young to know her own mind. Besides which, he's not a one-woman guy for a variety of reasons that are valid in his eyes and bullshit in hers.
Why has this storyline captured my attention so completely? Because, as she has done before and will do again, Kresley Cole has taken a well-worn trope and turned it on its head. I love when she does that. In one of my favorite posts of all time, I wrote about how Ms. Cole puts the kibosh on slut-shaming by celebrating her female protagonists' sexuality and ridiculing the men who think women should be virginal. In a similar way, in Sweet Ruin, Kresley Cole abrogates the unfortunate motif of the needy woman dragging the long-suffering man to an altar. This is a theme I find particularly distressing, mostly because I think men are as likely to crave marriage and monogamy as much as women, but also because I fell into that particular hole myself, and it took a while to get to where Jo begins the whole process. Let me explain.
Before I met my husband, I had three long-term relationships. All three had a similar trajectory: I fell hard and wanted a commitment from each of these three men who personified commitment phobia. I used to joke that if I were blindfolded in a room with 100 men, I would find the one who couldn't make a commitment. Turns out, I was the one with serious commitment issues, which was why I continually chose emotionally unavailable men. But that is a subject for another blog. The point for today is that I must admit to feeling pathetic, unlovable and defective during all three of those relationships. What was wrong with me that these men didn't want to commit? I fell into the "what if" trap. What if I were prettier, smarter, sexier, wittier, yada, yada, yada? Looking back, I cringe at these memories.
But I didn't have the self-confidence or self-esteem to think it was them and not me. I was sure the fault lay in my perceived inadequacies, and if only I were more, more, more, I would get the brass ring—or the diamond ring, as it were. After three relationships like that, I began to believe that ring would forever elude me, and what's more, I probably didn't deserve one anyway. I got to a point where I was like Woody Allen—if there had been a man who wanted a commitment from me, I would have wondered what his problem was.
Thankfully, I eventually crawled out of my self-hating hole and figured out that these losers were just that, losers. After all, they could have had me—and I was a total prize—even if I didn’t realize it at the time. I eventually clawed my way to the place that Jo inhabits effortlessly, lucky girl that she is.
I love, love, love Jo's attitude about making Rune see the light. She never questions her own worth, and she never wavers in her desire to have what she knows she wants. She is steadfast in her belief that she not only deserves Rune's heart and physical fidelity, she never doubts that he will come around to her way of thinking—because she is just that fabulous.
Kresley Cole does not portray Jo as some poor little woman trying to "land" a reluctant groom. There's no faux pregnancy scares like in An Officer and a Gentleman. There is no manipulation and no subterfuge. Jo wants Rune—and why not? He's the smartest, sexiest, most accomplished man she's ever met, and she knows that when he loves, it's with all his heart. Moreover, she knows her own mind and her own heart, so his protestations that she is too young to make such decisions are lame at best, patronizing at worst. Jo is the epitome of a strong woman who knows what she wants and goes after it. She will get it or not, but there is nothing pathetic or sleazy going on there, just an honest assessment of desire and the determination to do her utmost to fulfill it.
So while Jo was encouraging Rune to the figurative altar, she wasn't dragging him, and she wasn't tricking him. Big difference from the usual marriage-minded heroine of days gone by. I think we should all take a moment to appreciate Jo and also Bob Marley who tells us, “If she's amazing, she won't be easy. If she's easy, she won't be amazing. If she's worth it, you won't give up. If you give up, you're not worthy." Boo-yah.
I'm struggling with the balance between ease and effort. I'm reading a lot of self-empowerment books, practicing yoga, meditating, and journaling up a storm, and it keeps coming down to the same thing: do we build on our strengths and follow our bliss or do we pay our dues, fight hard for worthy causes, and strive toward that brass ring so that when we get it, we can appreciate it? I have no clue. Is this a false dichotomy? Probably. So much of life is so much more integrated and less steeped in duality than most of us can appreciate. But that is the subject of another blog. Today, I'm focusing on a scene I just listened to in Kresley Cole's Wicked Deeds on a Winter's Night (a cringe-worthy title that has absolutely nothing to do with the subject of the story—sigh). This book is about Bowen and Mariketa, about whom I wrote last time. They are discussing her strong magical capability and she is bemoaning the fact that she finds controlling her powers difficult. And Bowen assures her that it is her arduous struggle that brings greatness, because what is easy does not prepare us. Immediately after listening to this fictional interaction, I saw a graphic on Facebook that said, "A smooth sea never made a great sailor." True enough. But what about the other side of that coin? The one John O’Donohue spoke of in his poem, Flow: I would love to live/Like a river flows/Carried by the surprise/Of its own unfolding. Do we go with the flow or swim upstream? Seems like a silly question. Who wouldn't want to go with the flow, enjoy the ease of having the river or the tide carry us along? In yoga class this morning, my teacher read a poem by Danna Faulds called Let It Go that told me to, “Save your strength to swim with the tide." Another of my personal gurus, Danielle LaPorte, tells us to do what's easy. All of these exhortations toward ease sound so good, but are they true? I want to believe but I’ve been conditioned to think that it’s all about the hard work. I’m so confused.
I've mentioned before that I am the mother of fraternal twin boys. My sons could not be less alike. For one of them, intellectual and academic achievement has always come easily, while his brother has had to work assiduously for his good grades. Fast forward to their sophomore year of high school: the work is harder and the expectations are higher. My son who's never had to toil too much is now struggling because he has no idea how to work, while his twin is continuing his hard working ways to great effect. Seems to me that a habit of ease is not fabulous under these circumstances, and a lack of hard work is beginning to bite him in the butt.
And what about the concept of value? Do we truly value that which comes easily? I think not. I think we discount what we don't work for and take it for granted. Back to my kids—we are asking them to earn (or work toward) the cars they so desperately want when they get their provisional licenses this summer. They've pointed out to us that many of their friends are getting expensive new cars the day they are eligible to drive them. I asked my boys whether these kids whose parents buy them whatever they want have strong characters. They tell me no. They are spoiled brats in many cases. No one likes a brat, and my kids understand that making them earn what they want will benefit them in the end (even though they grumble quite a bit). Incentives and disincentives. Works every time.
So, perhaps between ease and effort we must find balance, as in all things. Too much effort can make us fall into despair and burnout. Too little effort leads us to be frivolous with things that should have value. Finding the balance is the tricky part, of course, but it's gotta be there. With balance, we get the wounded healer, the successful failure and even the failed success. With balance we get an ugly duckling who turns into a swan, and the child who struggles in school who ends up developing the theory of relativity…maybe. I reassure myself that it sometimes works out that way.
Perhaps balance can be found in the sequence of things—maybe the bad must precede the good, so that struggle comes before triumph. It seems much more difficult to go the other way—riches to rags is always a tragedy, whereas rags to riches is a triumph. So when Bowen explains to Mariketa that it is her struggle that will help her to be a great leader, I think he's right. I remember learning to pilot a hang glider. A large part of the instruction is how to respond to worst-case scenarios. It's actually relatively easy to fly a hang glider when everything is going smoothly. But if the wind shifts direction or intensity, if an obstacle suddenly appears (like a truck crossing your landing spot), or the plane pulling you up suddenly disconnects you, who you gonna call? No one, that's who. You have to solve your own problems at 5000 or 500 feet.
And maybe the balance is between pursuing that which comes easily—areas in which we have innate talent and passion—and hard work in equal measure. If we are exercising our talent, maybe it just doesn't feel like work because we are enjoying it. Maybe it’s just that easy. Or maybe I need to struggle some more with this dilemma.
In the fourth installment of Kresley Cole's outstanding Immortals After Dark series, Bowen, a werewolf, is convinced that his long-lost mate has been reincarnated as a young, powerful witch, Mariketa the Awaited. One of the reasons he is hopeful that Mariketa is his beloved reborn is that his Instinct, which has been silent since her death, is suddenly guiding him again. Bowen is thrilled with the return of this important aspect of his psyche—the voice in his ear providing direction, validation, and the comfort of certainty. I envied him his Instinct and fantasized about what it would be like to have a similar beacon illuminating my path. I figured it was almost like being able to conjure my own personal burning bush whenever the need arose. Seductive. On the other hand, we humans are animals with instincts. I remember reading somewhere that the only true instinct humans are born with involve the urge to suckle and an innate fear of falling. Seems like a weird combination, but there you have it. So we don't have the Instinct like Kresley Cole's werewolves, but we have something else. Something better, perhaps: intuition.
Intuition is the inner knowing, the gut feeling, and the quiet voice in our heads that seems to understand the truth, even when our minds are less than clear. Our intuition is associated with our third eye—the one between our actual eyes—all-seeing and all-knowing. And if the mystics and the psychics are to be believed, all of us come into the world equipped with that metaphysical ability.
I struggle sometimes to know the right thing to do, the right path to take, the best choice to make. It can be quite daunting to decide based on incomplete information, or conflicting desires. And it can be excruciating not to know—sometimes until much later, if ever, whether I made a good decision. How much easier would it be to know—with certainty—that what we are doing is what we are supposed to be doing.
And that is where intuition is a lot like Bowen's reawakened Instinct. The major difference is that we humans need to cultivate our intuition, whereas Kresley Cole's werewolves have it at their fingertips (unless they've suffered major trauma, like Bowen). The problem for us is multifaceted. First, we can't hear our inner voices (unless, of course, we hear voices, in which case we may be in need of some serious meds or maybe even a padded cell, but that's another issue entirely). Secondly, we don't always trust our inner voices, even when we can hear them. We seek external validation for that which we know—deep in our hearts—to be true. Lastly, even when we hear and trust our guts, we don't want to do what we know we should—for whatever reasons, although mostly those reasons come down to good, old fashioned fear.
In our age of distraction, we can't hear much of anything. We have buds stuffed in our ears, music blaring from our cars, television, movies, video games, overworking, excessive play, and the constant rush, rush, rush of the busy modern life. Who amongst us gets quiet enough or still enough to hear that small whisper within? There are so few Hortons among us to notice the tiny, "Who?" coming from that speck of dust. To attend to our intuition, we must listen. Meditation is good. Long walks are good. Staring into space and contemplating the vastness of the cosmos is also acceptable. And while mindfulness, yoga, TM and other forms of meditative spirituality are gaining traction, not enough of us practice enough to make a discernible difference in the level of intuition being accessed in our busy, busy world.
On top of our perennial busyness, many of us have come to distrust ourselves. We get so many messages from the media, our friends, our parents, our employers, our politicians, etc., about who we should be and what we should think that we dare not trust that small, inner voice without checking with our peeps, or our favorite taking head, or our therapists about whether they think our intuition is correct. We behave as if we've been betrayed, stabbed in the back by our intuition, when that isn't possible. Our intuition is always right. On the other hand, when we listen to our egos masquerading as our intuition, we can go seriously wrong, and begin to believe that we can't trust ourselves. But that is just our delusion talking. Deep down, we know the difference between ego and essential self. We just choose to ignore that difference some of the time.
Which leads to our third and final problem with intuition—when we don't like what it's telling us, we reject it. Outright. We say, "I hear you, but I'm not listening, nah, nah, nah!" We know when a relationship is bad or going south. We know when a job is sucking our soul dry. And we know when we are making poor choices and willfully deciding to make them anyway. Because we are afraid of what will happen if we follow our inner knowing. What if people won't like us? What if we risk our job or our marriage? What if we won't get what we think we want (because someone else told us we should)? What if what we really want is so far off the reservation that we may never find our way back again?
Intuition is just hard. It makes us work for wisdom that we sometimes wish we didn't have. Truth is like that sometimes. Quiet. Uncomfortable. Difficult. But fighting our truth, closing our third eye, is a road to certain unhappiness and lost fulfillment. Keeping our (third) eye wide open is the best way to see the truth. Even in fantasy novels.
I'm still thinking about Kresley Cole's book, No Rest for the Wicked, part of the Immortals After Dark series. I talked about Kaderin the Cold (aka Kaderin the Coldhearted) last week, and her quest to turn back time and resurrect her slain sisters. Today, I'm contemplating her title. Kaderin is Cold because she was struck icy after the death of her sisters. In her pain and guilt over their passing, Kaderin prayed to whomever was listening in the hope of relieving her wrenching grief. Apparently, someone heard her, and just like that, Kaderin’s grief, sorrow, pain, and guilt vanished. But so did all of her feelings, not just the unpleasant ones. For a thousand years, Kaderin has felt nothing. She calls this her "blessing." Her family and friends call it a curse. I started to wonder about the winner of this name game. Feelings are funny things. We love them when they feel good, and avoid them like the plague when they feel bad. We identify with them, as if our feelings were all that we are - which would suck, by the way, if it were true. Some of us believe them to be ground truth. Others do their best to deny their existence… only for it all to come out sideways in the end, because, hey, we're not Vulcans. We indulge our feelings, restrain our feelings, become slaves to them, try to detach from them, and generally make a mess of the whole thing more often than not. So, what would it feel like to feel nothing?
When I was pregnant, I had to have a minor surgery to safeguard my babies. Because I was pregnant, general anesthesia was not an option, so I had a spinal block instead. The cordial anesthesiologist explained to me that I would feel nothing below my waist and that I wouldn't be able to move my hips or legs. "Alrighty then," I thought to myself. "No problemo," I replied. Well, in the event, problemo grande, with me hyperventilating and thrashing my upper body around wildly while I had a full blown panic attack on the operating table (I'm told by my doctor friends that they strongly prefer unconscious patients. I can see why). That kind anesthesiologist pulled me off the ceiling, and talked me down to earth, assuring me I was okay--even though I COULDN'T FEEL MY LEGS!-- and then held my hand and talked to me through the whole ordeal. So, my brief experience with not feeling was fairly horrendous – and not just for me.
But what if we weren't talking about physical feeling, but emotions instead? What if we could eradicate the heartbreak, the grief, the guilt, the shame, the anxiety and fear, the frustration, impatience, disgust, annoyance, overwhelm, regret, pain and discomfort. Wouldn't that be lovely?
Many of us (and I am a prime offender here, so I know from whence I speak) run as fast as we can away from anything that feels even mildly unpleasant, much less uncomfortable or painful. In fact, we behave in ways that can become compulsive or downright addictive when we make a habit of hiding from our feelings. Yep, the root of addiction is a desire to anesthetize our uncomfortable feelings. And we do it without a nice doctor holding our hands, like my anesthesiologist during that nasty surgery. We do addiction all by our lonesomes, for the most part. And isn't that fun? No, no it's not. But then we are stuck, not feeling our feelings until they erupt in an explosion of self-hatred we are powerlessness to stop. I don't recommend it at all.
But what about the good feelings, you may ask? Isn't it fun to pursue those? Doesn't that make us happy? In reply, I have two words for you: Paris Hilton. Now, there's a gal who has the ability to chase pleasure all over the world. She's the original trend-setting jet-setter. Yet, she doesn't look all that happy from my vantage point, not that I'm spending a whole lot of time looking. But hedonistic hunting--the unrelenting pursuit of pleasure without meaning--is pretty awful, to tell the truth. In the end, it just doesn't feel good--although it might take a while to get to that point, admittedly. And it might be fun to check it out for a while, certainly. But in in the final analysis, that way lies madness. I repeat, Paris Hilton.
So where is the path between Scylla and Charybdis? How do we face our unpleasant feelings and avoid the meaningless pursuit of the pleasant ones? Why are you asking me? Actually, I've given this some thought (shocked you are). I've determined a few things about the nature of feelings. First, I believe whole-heartedly that feelings are not facts. We absolutely do not need to act on them, no matter how compelling they feel. We can just let them flow through us. We can just feel them. They will eventually pass, just as everything does. Moreover, the more we allow our feelings to flow through us, rather than trying to avoid them or wallow in them, the better we feel.
Feeling our feelings makes us feel better. If the feelings are good, then we can enjoy the experience of feeling them. If they are bad, the sooner we let them permeate our beings, the faster they dissipate. Sometimes, like with grief, we need to learn to live with them, sometimes forever. At other times, like with love, we find our capacity to feel expands with increased use. My heart swelled to accommodate the love that engulfed me for my kids. I feel confident that if I'd had more children, my heart would have stretched commensurately – it is a muscle after all.
We are not our feelings and we can learn to detach from them as the yogis and Buddhists teach us. In the end, being human means having feelings--the good, the bad and the excruciating. It's all part of this wild ride we call life. And I wouldn't change it for the world. So bring it on. I would never want to be Kaderin the Cold. Her "blessing" is a curse from my perspective. And while I don't want to give anything away, I will say that Kaderin comes to see it my way in the end. Smart immortal.
I'm enjoying the Audible version of Kresley Cole's entertaining book, No Rest for the Wicked. It's an early entry in the Immortals After Dark series, which is one of my all-time faves. In this installment of the saga, Kaderin the Cold is competing in the Talisman Hie, a contest among immortal creatures, sponsored by a bored deity who enjoys watching what amounts to a paranormal scavenger hunt. Different strokes for different paranormal folks, I guess. The grand prize is compelling, which is why so many choose to compete. In this contest, the prize is Thrane's Key, purported to unlock the door to time travel. Kaderin is desperate to win this prize so that she can save her sisters from death on the battlefield. She longs to go back a thousand years to the moment she let her compassion for a wounded vampire stay her hand from killing him. In sparing his life, she doomed her sisters, whom the vampire killed as soon as Kaderin let him go. I've given this contrivance a lot of thought lately as it presents an interesting set of questions. First, would we want to travel back in time for any reason at all? And secondly, are there moments we can identify that would change the trajectory of our lives so profoundly that the future would be demonstrably different? As I thought about it, a few moments came to mind.
Wednesday was the anniversary of my father's death. I miss him terribly, even after more than 25 years. He was a remarkable man, and he never got to meet my husband or my kids. He never got to know me as an adult (even though I was technically of age when he died—I was a later bloomer). Moreover, my family of origin fell apart after he died; everything was sadly different.
So, would I use Thrane's key to bring my Daddy back? Absolutely. For sure. It’s a no brainer. Or so I thought… at first.
But then I thought about it some more. My father was old fashioned. He felt strongly that his only daughter should marry immediately upon college graduation. She had other ideas. But I am fairly certain my dad would have pressured my then-boyfriend (to whom I became engaged years later), to propose, and I would have had a disastrous first marriage (instead, I broke off the engagement and spared myself an unpleasant divorce). And, my dad was ailing, Would I have wanted to prolong his existence on this plane any longer than necessary? He suffered so, and it feels like the ultimate selfishness to contemplate making him stay for me, when his poor body was so worn out.
So, in the end, I'm not at all sure that I would use Thrane's key to bring back my father.
But what about using it to go back in time and have a do-over of my pregnancy, which was an unmitigated nightmare—mostly because I did not know then what I know now about nutrition and how it affects pretty much everything. Or, I could go back to the early days of my children's lives and re-do mistakes I made—with their foods, medicines, how we played, etc., etc., etc. I could go back in time and finish my dissertation, or my theology degree (I was so close to getting that darn degree and then I had a huge fight with the Dean and quit in a huff—maybe I could undo the huff?).
I could go back and rescue myself from the poodle perm I sported at my high school prom—that paired so beautifully with my Laura Ashley dress (of which there was far too much photographic evidence— hopefully all of which I’ve burned) looked like Scarlett O'Hara's window curtains. Or, I could turn back time and decide to study history instead of political science, or change the course of events that led me to run for my life after my cover was blown while working as a private investigator in Israel. So many times where I could have made much better choices.
But if I did any of that, would I still be me? Ah, there's the rub. If I'd married my first fiancé, even if we'd gotten divorced, would I still have met and married my beloved husband? And if I hadn't married him, we wouldn't have the kids that we do, and wouldn't have the life that I have. So, any way you slice it, I wouldn't be me, and I wouldn't be living a life that I love. And then where would I be? No flipping clue, that's where. I suppose my life might be better than it is now, but honestly, I can't imagine it. Nor do I really want to. Every single experience I've had--the good, the bad and the ugly (I told you about my prom look, right? I left out the white patent leather sky-high platform pumps with the ankle chain and metal lifts—with the Scarlett O'Hara dress and the electrocuted hair)— has contributed to who I am today. And while I am as far from perfect as Rhett Butler is from Ashley Wilkes, I can finally say, at the tender age of 50, that I like myself and I love my life (this is where I break my arm patting myself on the back). So when it comes right down to it, I don't think I'd want Thrane's Key at all. In fact, if I found it, I'd probably be tempted to throw it back to wherever it came from—hoping not to offend the goddess who sponsored the scavenger hunt, of course, cause that would be bad—and then I'd need the key to undo the damage I'd caused. But generally speaking, I'm good, thanks. No turning back time for me. I'll take my past, warts and all, not to mention heartbreak, humiliation and imperfection. It's all good.
f a book is good and worth waiting for, the day it’s released is better than my birthday and Christmas -- combined. When Thea Harrison releases a new addition to her Elder Races series, or when Kresley Cole adds to her Immortals After Dark series, and, of course, JR Ward adds to the Black Dagger Brotherhood and the new BDB Legacy series … that is a great day. And this week, was a trifecta. I'm completely beside myself as a result. I've decided to wait to read any of them, so I can extend the period of delicious anticipation. I know, I'm weird. No news there. As I considered which book to read next (Oh--and I have the new Elder Races novella that was released last week as well--still channeling my inner Carly Simon on that one, too… and it’s scrumptious… but) I had an unwelcome realization: it's possible to have too much of a good thing.
This brought me up short. I'm a more is more kind of gal. I operate on the assumption that if some is good, more is better. This has definitely gotten me into trouble while cooking, not to mention make up, hair care products and buying yarn (I knit, in spurts). So the idea that having too many choices seems oxymoronic at first blush, but when I started to delve into the idea, it began to make a certain amount of sense.
Here's the thing: I have three novels and one novella I am 100% sure I'm going to love waiting to grace my Kindle screen and… I’m not reading any of them. That's right, I'm reading the latest Sue Grafton alphabet book (X-- I guess she got stumped on that one), because I was overwhelmed with the choices in my favorite genre. How can this be? Well it is – and not just in my reading habits. This unfortunate phenomenon shows up in myriad ways in my life, and rarely to the good.
I don't think I'm adept at juggling infinite or even broadly-defined finite possibilities: I'm guilty of paralysis in the face of too many choices. I’m okay with options A or B. I can be decisive even if we go so far as maybe the letter G (which stands for "gumshoe" in Sue Grafton's world, in case you were wondering), but I have significant difficulty with the whole alphabet.
For example, my professional work is fairly light right now, only taking up a couple of hours a day, in truth. I have two teenagers, so there is work to do on that front as well, so I'm not completely footloose and fancy-free. But considering how much I used to work and how few free minutes I had in a day or a week, my current circumstances seem positively expansive. Relatively speaking, I have copious free time. And I get to choose how to spend it. I can work out, read, write, do volunteer work, take a class, veg out in front of the TV, take my dogs for an extra-long walk, talk on the phone with my friends, and cook elaborate meals on weekdays (alright, that last one is a stretch).
Which is great. Except when it's not. I was talking to a friend who recently left her job at a large corporation to take a job with a start up that is very small and not overly ambitious. She went from being a high-powered VIP whose actions affected many employees and government policies to a place where she wondered, "If I didn't do anything today, would anyone notice?" Ouch. A good, albeit hard, question.
Because there is no one telling me what to do and no accounting for that which I do do, I'm totally free... To do nothing at all. To become paralyzed with possibilities and consumed with utter frivololity or even counter productive behavior. Do I really need to eat a three-course lunch, just because I have the time? Do I need to "window shop" at the Mall, because I have nothing better to do? (I gave that particular time sink up some time ago, thankfully, but still browsing through catalogues is almost as bad, and I’m still doing that).
When I have too many choices, it can feel like I have none. When I have no organizing principle to my life, it's hard to prioritize options and choose well. How to decide whether to read Cole, Harrison or Ward first? Does it matter? And what happens when I'm finished? I'll be finished and then what? Maybe it's best to delay making a start, so that my time with these favorites wouldn't have to end. You see where this is going, yes? Nowhere. Absolutely nowhere.
When I have a bounty of alternatives, I can feel lost instead of blessed. An embarrassment of riches. That just leaves me embarrassed to admit my foolish inactivity. So, action is called for--and then more action. Pick a card, any card. You'll probably know which book I read first (when it shows up in this space on Monday). As to the rest of it, I'm going to try to get over myself while I still have some free time left to spend.
My work here is to reveal the universal truths I’ve processed through the prism of paranormal and urban fantasy. So, I usually avoid politics and current events in this space. Therefore, I won’t comment on the recent attacks in Paris, except to say that my heart goes out to all the victims, and my prayers go out to our troubled world. My topic today is the relationship between pain and change, and whether the two must be inexorably linked. My hope is that we can separate the two, and affect change without first being beaten into submission by pain. I started down this particular path as I listened to the first novel in Kresley Cole's fabulous “Immortals After Dark” series, A Hunger Like No Other (a title I actually like - surprise). In the book, Emma, our half vampire/half Valkyrie heroine, recalls an early childhood lesson. With her vampire nature, the sun is deadly to Emma, and she has the scars to prove it. When she was small, one of her aunts allowed Emma to place her hand in the path of the sunshine streaming through an open door. The rays quickly burned Emma's hand, and the pain taught her a lesson that no amount of schooling could ever replicate. Emma's other relatives were horrified, but the aunt who orchestrated the "lesson" said that it was better to learn early and well, through a relatively small pain, than to have to learn later when the stakes could be fatal.
So, is pain always the best teacher? Is pain the most effective way for us to become motivated to change our behavior? Unfortunately, this has been all too true for me in the past, and, as I look around, I’m not alone in this truth. I've said before that everything I release has claw marks, which is just another way of describing my need to be hit upside the head before I’m forced to make course corrections. Remember the rat bastard boyfriend who betrayed me on multiple occasions (I wrote about him here)? That was one of those times when I needed the pain to reach excruciating levels before I could let go. Sad but true.
It took a lot but eventually, as they say, “I was sick and tired of being sick and tired.” I endured the seemingly endless suffering and constant fatigue caused by my lifestyle choices (and a genetic predisposition), before I was willing to make the changes necessary to heal. And those changes were extreme. I had to leave my high-stress Pentagon job, rethink everything I ate and drank — and I mean everything — address my sleep, the way I exercised and my techniques for stress management (apparently, wine is not the technique of choice, more’s the pity). I went from a high-powered national security analyst who thought I ate pretty well, to a gluten-free, dairy-free, sugar and processed-food-free yoga and TM®-practicing naturopath. Not to mention I cut my long hair short and switched from PCs and Blackberries to MacBooks and iPhones. In the end, there was very little of my old existence left — with the important exceptions of my relationships and my home, all of which served to ground me during this upheaval.
I desperately needed to make all of these changes. My lifestyle was killing me —literally. But I resisted making the necessary modifications mightily; it all seemed too much to give up. I was very attached to my identity as a national security analyst doing globally important work. I was attached to the foods I liked, and addicted to the compulsive busyness of that existence. I felt that to give up would leave me as the hole in the doughnut. I had no idea who I would be if I wasn’t the person I thought I was.
Finally, I couldn’t tolerate the pain any more, even though part of me wanted to continue to hold on. So I let go. Not quite all at once, but I made enough changes that I started the snowball rolling down the hill, gaining momentum, gathering more changes along the way.
Such change brings about its own brand of pain — or rather discomfort, as the doctor always tells us. And through all of this, I learned something else: discomfort is often more intolerable than pain. It's like the torture device in The Princess Bride. Pain can be compartmentalized. Discomfort crawls up underneath our skin and slithers around in there, making us squirm. So we avoid it, like the plague, even if the price is pain. Until someone ratchets up the machine to 11, and like Westley in The Princess Bride, we can't ignore it anymore. That is always a bad day. But it's a day that sets us free, too, in a way.
I don't think we ever know, except in hindsight, what the final straw is going to be. Do we need more pain to learn and change? I don't know. I always hope not. But we shall see. In my experience, the letting go and the discomfort of change is never as bad as it seems in anticipation. This was true for Emma in A Hunger Like No Other, and I think this a universal truth, like so many I find in my beloved fantasy books. Often, the present reality is much less terrible than the fantasy we projected onto the future when we were back in the past. Emma came to that realization when she declared that if this was the worst life could throw at her (in her case, kidnapping and multiple attacks), then life could Bring. It. On. I agree. I’ve been through a great deal, and I’ve come out the other side. So maybe, next time, I won’t have to wait till the machine hits level 11 before I decide to embrace the necessary transformation. After all, life is change, is it not?
Some months ago I had the privilege of being asked to beta reader the second offering in the Bluebell Kildare series by Lilo J. Abernathy. It was a new experience for me, and one I enjoyed and hope to repeat. At the time, Lilo was primarily seeking comments on the plot progression and character development. One of the questions she asked her beta readers concerned how far she could take the actions of one of her characters before that character became too "unlikable" in the minds of her readers. It was a fascinating question--and an astute one. In contemplating the answer for Lilo, I was reminded about other books where this phenomenon occurred and how the authors handled it.
Another author who grapples explicitly with this question is Bella Forrest. Her series is not my usual fare, and is quite different in many respects from Lilo Abernathy’s series, but some of the central questions are the same. In the Shade of Vampire series, Derek, a 500-year-old vampire, struggles to contain his predatory nature and control his impulses to kill and destroy human lives for the sake of his beloved, Sophia—who is mortal. Another issue for the couple is the need to come to terms not only with his choices in the present day, but also with his past actions—the ones he cannot change, but which make Sophia cringe. Derek has done some horrible things over the course of his life--and he'd actually slept for the vast majority of his existence, so who knows how many more poor choices and dirty deeds he would have executed if he'd been awake for the whole time?
Sophia, our teenaged heroine, has a particularly well-developed moral compass for a such a young woman. She's in love with Derek, who has been nothing but wonderful to her, but she is fully aware of his darker vampire nature, and she is conflicted about all that he's done and still might do. She wonders if she's fallen for a monster. So do I.
This is a common theme in much of paranormal fantasy. It's hard to posit a centuries-long lifespan and not include a history of misdeeds and callous choices. Life has not always been as easy as it is in twenty-first century developed countries and the arbiter of moral choices was likely different in the Middle Ages, before running water, electricity, and IPhones. So, choices that were made when slavery was an accepted aspect of life (like, say, in Jesus' time), take on a different ethical timbre in light of the social mores and accepted practices of the era.
But what about more clearly defined moral choices? As I'm reading A Shade of Vampire on my Kindle, I'm listening (still!) to J. R. Ward's Black Dagger Brotherhood series on Audible. I'm up to Lover Avenged—Rehvenge's story. Rehvenge is a drug dealing bookie pimp--not to put too fine a point on it. He routinely engages in acts of depravity. How is Ms. Ward going to reconcile that with him getting his HEA? I won't spoil it for you, but you know he does, so it's an interesting question. One thing J. R. Ward does better than anyone, though, is to get into the heads of all her characters so we can identify with the humanity there, and relate to even the most morally challenging characters. Which is how she makes it work. Lilo Abernathy does an excellent job in this arena as well, making potentially unlikable characters—or at least characters who do unlikeable things—relatable.
Another example of this phenomenon is found in Kresley Cole's Immortals After Dark series. I had trouble with this one, because the actions of one of the villains Ms. Cole transforms into a romantic hero go over the line, even for me—and I'm inclined to forgive my fantasy characters quite a lot. As the series progresses, it turns out that one of the bad guys is the long-lost love of one of the heroines. As a result of their love, he comes to see the error of his ways, but those ways were horrific. I just couldn't go there, no matter how sorry he was or how much he loved his mate. I couldn't overcome my revulsion at what he'd done.
But that was the exception, not the rule. Most of the time, if the female protagonist can forgive the tarnished hero, so can I. Mostly because I want to believe that love heals and changes people for the better. I also want to believe that when two people are committed to making it work, it usually does.
In others, the impropriety is a bridge too far, and there is no going back. These are the waters that authors must navigate between their own convictions and attachments to the characters they create and the need to garner empathy for their creations on the part of their readers. It can be tricky. For example, a lot of readers clearly prefer female characters with little or no previous sexual experience as mates for their über alpha males (most of whom have had plenty of willing women). This is a trope that burns my butt, but I'm guessing that these tendencies reflect the majority opinion out there about the relative acceptability of multiple partners for men and women. I've written about how I feel about that here, and once again, Kresley Cole is the exception to that rule.
In the end, the question of how bad is too bad and how far is too far is in the eye of the beholder. Most of the time, most authors get it right for most readers. But there is no such thing as making everyone happy all of the time. So accomplished authors, like Lilo Abernathy, will continue to grapple with these questions while they ply their craft and shape their drafts and work to find a way to walk the line between realistic fantasy and characters who behave in a morally acceptable manner. Tough stuff, for sure.
I remember being seventeen and listening to Letty Cottin Pogrebin, a leader of the early feminist movement, talk about the vocabulary we use and the differences it makes. I don't remember the whole lecture, but what stuck with me was her observation that the word "history" was a meshing of two words, "his" and "story." “What about ‘her’ story,” Pogrebin asked. Being the self-absorbed teenager I was I hadn't given that a lot (or any) thought, but she brought me up short, and began my contemplation of words and how we use them. Words are powerful. Words matter. What you say and how you say it are the stock in trade of all writers, of course, and a profound love of words, phrases, analogies and thoughts expressed as lines on a page is one of the reasons I write—and read. But words can be misinterpreted—either the meaning or the intent.
I was reminded of this truth when a friend recently sent me a HuffPost article on "The Most Ridiculous Sexual Phrases from Romance Novels." The article had lists of "hilarious" euphemisms for the penis, vagina and sex. I think the author missed the point entirely. Words matter. Particularly when reading sex scenes in my favorite paranormal fantasy books.
Sticks and stone may break my bones... But words can always get me hot. And bothered. I've written before about what women want, and what they want is erotica that isn't crude, rude and in-your-face pornographic. While I have nothing against dirty talk—there is definitely a time and place where such language and suggestions are titillating rather than offensive and off-putting—I usually don't want to read about it in my romance novels. I love the euphemistic language that describes love in paranormal fantasy and romance books. I love the soft focus lens that such vocabulary imparts on the images described in these novels. If you really think about it, sex is an awkward, messy business that is wonderful when you're doing it, but can seem tawdry and a little sad when it's a spectator sport. To me, the rounded edges that the more suggestive language offers is more evocative than more explicit descriptions would be.
There must be something to this, because the romance genre is booming. Historical, contemporary and paranormal romances are all the rage. It's also been suggested that the advent of the electronic reader has given a boost to the chick lit market and made the classic "bodice-ripper" more acceptable fare than before we could hide the exact nature of our reading choices from curious eyes on the bus, train, plane or park bench. I've told the story before about my straight-laced boss sitting on a plane next to me, grabbing the latest Meredith Gentry novel out of my hands to read the back cover. Awkward!! These days, no one knows what I'm reading unless I tell them-- although, of course, I'm done with being embarrassed about my reading choices and have used this blog to announce my love of smut to the world.
Except it isn't smut, is it? Sex in romance books, including the paranormal variety, is so far from smutty that it's like calling a unicorn a horse. It's not. It's an entirely different animal. These characters aren't rutting mindlessly. They are making mad, passionate love after a well-written build-up of will they/won't they. They are soul mates, bonded couples, lovers for life—and if it's a paranormal book, that life could be hundreds, if not thousands of years long. Talk about commitment! But the sex these fictional folks are having is idealized for women--written by women, for women and, usually, from the female perspective. Let’s just say here that nice guys finish last, and they are all nice guys in these books--our heroines wouldn’t have it any other way.
So how these wonderful authors communicate all of this powerful emotion and intense physical and spiritual connection counts. I can't imagine it's easy to write an effective sex scene in romance literature. So my hat is off to those authors who do it well. Not too long ago, I was privileged to be asked to be a beta reader for one of the indie authors I follow. The book was very good, but I did have a number of suggestions (many of which were incorporated into the final version, I'm delighted to say). One question the author asked was whether we, the beta readers, liked the sex scenes and specifically whether we agreed with the vocabulary she used. Perspicacious question. In the event, I didn't like the specific terms she'd used. I felt they were too clinical. On the other hand, I also dislike Penthouse Forum-type language that tends to focus attention on only the physical aspects of the event and highlight the more salacious perspectives, which always makes me feel like a slightly pervy voyeur.
Instead, I love the well-written sex scenes that allow me to feel like I'm in the scene itself. I want to imagine myself as the woman within the pages, experiencing the transcendence of the moment. Because, in fact, that transcendent element is exactly what separates the good sex scenes from the cringe-worthy ones, and the pornographic from the erotic and romantic. l love the scenes where the two partners are taken out of themselves and are so into each other that the rest of the world melts away. And, yes, there are the Laurell Hamilton sex scenes that involve more than two partners, but Laurell is in a class by herself and she can make scenes that can only be described as hard-core pornography work from an erotic/romantic/loving perspective—but she is the only one I've read who can do that. And then, of course, there is the inimitable Kresley Cole who writes in three different genres, including adult erotica. Those books are smoking hot—and could also be characterized as more traditionally- focused pornography, but again, she makes it work from a woman's perspective. One of the things I love about Kresley Cole, and which I've written about before here, is that she celebrates women's healthy and enthusiastic sexuality. Which is awesome. Women like sex as much as men do. The difference is that women like good sex. Men just like sex.
So, please, all of your writers who are my rock stars (Mick Jagger has nothing on Kresly Cole, Laurell K. Hamilton, JR Ward, Thea Harrison, Nalini Singh, Karen Marie Moning, Charlaine Harris, etc.), please keep watching your language and conveying your descriptions artfully and beautifully. Women want sex to be beautiful, and that includes the words used to describe every, single, minute detail.
Note: Today is the one-year anniversary of my first blog post. Thank you to everyone who reads and supports my work. I am so appreciative of your comments, FB likes, tweets and messages. THANK YOU!!
When I was a kid, I loved to watch the Batman series on TV. It was deliciously kitschy and even as a child I recognized the cheese factor. It was highly entertaining and action packed, which I loved even then (these days I have no interest in a movie unless there are lots of explosions, car chases and shootouts. Rom coms, with the exception of Love, Actually, bore me to tears. Deep in my soul, I'm a fifteen-year-old boy). Anyway, back to Batman. I loved the show, but I had a major bone to pick with the creators. Actually, two, the first being that the bad guy always wanted to spend time gloating about the impending death and defeat of Batman, which allowed the Caped Crusader to effect his escape. In this, Batman is a lot like James Bond. I've learned to live with this trope. But it's the associated ploy that annoys me to no end; how is it that no matter how improbable the situation, Batman always had exactly right tool to save the day stashed in his utility belt? Have you noticed that? It's a deus ex machina of the silliest sort and it's a plot device that I despise.
It can be worse in paranormal and urban fantasy. Sometimes an author can decide to wave her magic wand and make all the protagonists' troubles disappear in what amounts to a puff of smoke. I am not a fan. I was reminded of this particular pet peeve as I was reading the latest in the Arcana Chronicles, Dead of Winter, and its main female character, The Empress, Evie Green, who seems to grow in power minute to minute (not really, and I loved the book, but the new-powers-all-the-time thing was wearing). I was reminded again as I whipped through Robyn Peterman's Fashionably Dead series starring Astrid Porter. Which in turn led me to think about Anita Blake, who is one of my all-time favorite kick-ass heroines. But all these ladies resort to the pull-a-rabbit-out of-your-hat trick when new, previously unheard of powers, that we've never seen before, and which have not been foreshadowed in any way, appear just when our fair damsels need them. Convenient, much? Drives me nuts. Or, it did. But then I got to thinking. The plot thickens. What I started thinking about was whether I was being self-righteously judgmental. Not that I would ever be like that. Well, maybe sometimes. Or maybe a bit more often than sometimes. I began to wonder whether it is really so unrealistic that new skills evolve over time to meet emerging needs and challenges. At one point, when Astrid, the Chosen One among the vampires, erupts with a new demonic power, surprising herself as much me, the reader, her mate points out that she is evolving, and that time will reveal new abilities as a matter of course. Which is true. As we grow and learn and evolve, we are all certainly capable of gaining new abilities and powers. After all, none of us is born knowing how to read or write or do math (I still can’t do math, but one never knows what new superpowers will emerge in the future!).I believe strongly in learning new things. All the time. I believe in changing it up, getting comfortable with new equipment, software, TVs and tablets, etc. I believe very strongly in continually challenging myself to do something new as often as possible and to get out of my comfort zone. I believe in making an investment of time and pain to keep myself sharp and relevant. I believe if we aren’t moving forward, we’re moving backward. And I believe that if we’re not making progress toward self-improvement, we are stagnating. And stagnation feels like death to me. Now, it’s true that there is a fine line between stagnation and contentment. And that there is an even finer line between necessary regeneration and sloth. But, wow, those lines are so hard to find. And I’ve got to say that I’d rather err on the side of moving forward with both barrels blazing than come to find out that I’ve become standing water that is inexorably evaporating.And I do understand that not everyone thinks the way I do (this is a good thing, I’m told by many who love me). But, honestly, I don’t really get it. Why wouldn’t we want to have new tools to use for the myriad situations life tends to throw at us? Batman had the right idea—a tool for every fool. Wait, no, that wasn’t it. A toy for every boy? No, that doesn’t work either. How about a solution for every challenge? An answer for every question? Is that a fantasy, more appropriate for mythical superheroes than for garden variety humans like myself? Probably. But I can still work toward that as my ideal. Nothing wrong with striving toward perfection, as long as we realize we aren’t going to get there in this lifetime.
So, new day, new trick. Just like Astrid and Evie and Anita. I could do a lot worse than be like them. Perhaps I will give my annoyance a rest, for today, and see the truth in this fantasy; where I believe that new powers are mine for the asking and the taking—provided that I am willing to work to get them. I’m going to strap on my handy, dandy utility belt—just like the Dark Knight—and I’m going to be extraordinary. Wanna join me?
Why is it that men who get around get lucky and women who do the same get slut-shamed? Why is it considered an advantage for men to be sexually experienced but that same experience makes women used goods? I actually know a man who asked his girlfriend, who is a friend of mine, whether her vagina had been worn out by its many encounters. Really?! Should I ask him if his penis has gotten smaller from all the friction he's generated using it--like a half licked candy cane? I can't believe there are really men out there who still think this way. But there are.
Why am I thinking about the haters today? It's because I just finished the new Kresley Cole Immortals After Dark offering, Dark Skye. Among other interesting themes, this book explores how two individuals, a virgin male and the sexually experienced woman he loves get past her past, which he finds both repugnant and hurtful. He has spent hundreds of years knowing she's given herself to other men (they were broken up, after all) and it's been eating him alive. When they finally get together, his attitude is one of forbearance and condescension; he feels she should be grateful for his willingness to consider her as a mate given her state of tarnish. Thankfully, his sterling mate spends quality time disabusing him of this Neanderthal attitude and explaining in no uncertain terms that she refuses to feel bad or ashamed for her choice to exercise a healthy sexuality. I was cheering her on every step of the way.
Dark Skye is the story of a Sorceri princess and a prince of the Vrekeners, creatures of the Lore of uncertain provenance. The two were childhood sweethearts whose story goes horribly wrong. She is his mate, the only woman who can complete him. She believes he killed her family. Needless to say, they have a bumpy road to achieve their HEA. But it's fun and exciting along the way, as it always is always with Kresley Cole.
I've always figured that men value virginity because they don't want to suffer by comparison. Which makes sense, of course, as most men have little idea how to satisfy a woman (see my post What Women Want). But the whole practice of making women feel bad for enjoying sex and celebrating their sexuality makes me crazy. And I become enraged when I hear about men who think less of women (or worse, their own woman) because the women sowed their own wild oats before settling down to domesticity. Personally, I want to be with someone who has been around the block once or twice and has chosen me above all others. I'll take on the competition any day of the week. Bring. It. On. Similarly, I want to be with someone who had already sown his own oats. I'd hate for him to get a wild hair later in life and wonder what he's missed. I really don’t share well with others.
So back to the double standard we call gender equality. Seems grossly unfair to me. And at first, I thought things were getting better when I listened to women talk about men who are “players” in a negative way. But then it quickly became obvious that the connotations are divergent enough to matter. Slut-shaming is a terrible term in itself and says something about the attitude implied by the nomenclature. When women talk about a man being a “player,” they are usually using the term in a derogatory way to indicate that the man is incapable of making a commitment—that he “plays” women, rather than being a “keeper.” Taken this way, it is a man’s lack of desire to commit that makes him undesirable—not that he’s dipped his wick in innumerable candles. Moreover, a man who is a “player” is considered to be in the power position—a player is someone who holds the cards, so to speak.
When a woman is referred to as a slut, she is not considered to be in control—she is considered to be the one who is controlled—controlled by her nether regions, or at least using them to get ahead in the world. Which usually implies she has no other discernable gifts or talents. She is tossed about just like a ship on the ocean—being buffeted from pillar to post. A “player” is looking to avoid relationships. A “slut” is using her body to coax a man into hanging onto her for good. Seems fairly inequitable, no?
And so, this is why I love Kresley Cole and her fellow paranormal and urban fantasy authors so much. Each and every one of Ms. Cole’s heroines enjoys a healthy sexuality and healthy sex—defined as anything consenting, otherwise unattached adults want to do between the sheets, or in the car, or in the trees or the fields, or the hot tub for that matter. And these women apologize to absolutely no one for their tastes or proclivities. They are women, hear them roar—and moan, and pant and gasp for breath as they relish the men they are with and the heat they generate. Slut-shaming is not tolerated in the world of Kresley Cole, or Laurell Hamilton, Thea Harrison, Nalini Singh, Jeaniene Frost, or Patricia Briggs, among others too numerous to name. All of these amazing authors’ amazing heroines are strong, independent women who are not ashamed of their bodies, their sexuality or the number of partners they’ve had, whether that number is high or low.
The point is, it doesn’t matter as long as everyone knows the rules. For Kresley Cole’s Dark Skye heroine, what she did when she believed her relationship to be irretrievably over was her business. And her virgin lover was finally able to get over himself and over her past as he understood that once she committed to him, what came before became irrelevant to their current reality. Past performance is not indicative of future outcomes. Isn’t that what the stock brokers tell us?
Dark Skye is a great book with an important message. There should be only one standard for both men and women. And what comes before shouldn’t impact what happens now and into the future. And true love trumps playing the field every time.