Category Archives: Science Fiction/Fantasy and Spirituality

Meeting Cersei

If I lived in Westeros, I’d want to go back in time and meet Cersei Lannister as a young girl.

(General TV series spoilers; no book spoilers.)

I’d like to meet the girl who grew up with Jaime as a twin brother, only to find her life diverging from his the day he was given a sword and she wasn’t.

I’d like to meet the girl who began to be taught that her only value lay in her beauty, or who her father was, or who she would marry and the children she would have.

I’d like to meet her before she began to use sex with Jaime as a way to rebel and as a way to bind him to her; a way to get a vicarious taste of the power and glory he was able to experience as a warrior.

Before she became the woman who lives a life fueled by anger and fear; who walks the halls of a castle never her home and plays the game of thrones because it’s the only path to power she knows.

Cersei is like all of us as she arrays herself in her finery each morning. She’s more successful than most at hiding her fear; her beauty and ruthlessness aid her with the facade she cultivates. But her internal monologue is an unending, desperate stream of rationalization and self-justification. She tells herself she is powerful and in control, while living a life she can never, ever admit isn’t suited to her.

Yes, Cersei, come to me when you are young. Let me be the witch in the woods, and instead of telling you your future I’ll tell you that your choices play a role in it. Slip away from your lessons again and again; be part of the life of the forest as you make your way to my hut.

There I’ll put a quill in your hand, Cersei, or a brush, or a sword, until you start creating things that say your name without all the modifiers you’ve learned to attach to it. Slowly, you’ll develop a secret world no father or husband or rival could ever touch.

Then, when the time comes, you’ll make choices. They won’t be easy ones. Perhaps you’ll decide, in many cases, that obedience is your best option. But you won’t be a victim, because you won’t feel like one. And you won’t have to act out like one.

How much will you change your world now, Cersei?

How much could we change ours?

The Lorites

The idea for this piece comes from Anathem by Neal Stephenson. If you want a book that’s a bit of a dense read but well worth it–if you want a book that will draw you into a different and compelling world–if you want a book that will fuck your mind slowly and exquisitely–read it. There aren’t any spoilers here.

All you need to know about the Lorites is that they’re mentioned here and there in the book as an philosophical order. The guiding principle of their philosophy is simple: that there is no such thing as a new idea. Every idea that anyone in this present can conceive has been thought of before.

The Lorites are a minor sect and not given much thought by most. They have some practical use, since they have been around a long time and collected huge repositories of knowledge. If you are developing a “new” idea and want to know how badly you’re reinventing the wheel, consult the Lorites.

I am susceptible to Lorite philosophy, and not only because Lori is my first name. Having the human desire to be special, one of my negative voices is the one telling me that whatever I’m doing, writing, thinking is nothing new. Not only is it not new, but whoever’s done it before has doubtless done it better.

Writing a poem? Surely one of the thousands of past poets has captured the same essence of thought and feeling, and even though they didn’t repeat my exact sequence of words the difference isn’t big enough to make mine worth anything. Writing a speech? Someone’s done it more persuasively. Writing personal essays? I’m just reiterating basic human experiences, after all.

Dreaming of workshops, groups, work that helps others? There are so many out there more qualified and more functional–and since what I have to offer can’t be new, there’s no way my work can ever compensate for my limitations.

I imagine that the era I live in is more conducive to Lorite thought with the Internet linking the ideas of more people, present and past, than ever before. How easy it is to believe that our gifts are duplicated or surpassed by the billions out there!

Embraced in a balanced way, the Lorites can give me perspective and a healthful dose of humility. After all, to believe we’ve come up with something totally new would be to believe ourselves prophets–and a world full of nothing but prophets would be chaotic indeed.

But, of course, I don’t stop there. It becomes one of the weapons used by my addiction, or by my depression, or by my self-destructive impulses in general. It gets used to paralyze me, sap my creative energy and promote procrastination and apathy.

I’m not alone, nor does someone need to share my issues to be with me in this. For humans in general, it targets one of the deepest questions in our hearts:
“Is there really any fucking point to all this? ”
And since there are countless ways to answer this question, or to admit that we don’t know how to answer it, it’s easy to get stuck.

I certainly don’t know how. And I don’t know how to reconcile it with my growing need to create. As I sit here, right at this moment, I’m aware of stories I’m making up to comfort myself.

I tell myself that apples aren’t new–yet people enjoy the different taste of all the ways they can be prepared. It gives them pleasure, and comfort, and lets them have variety in the way they get needed nourishment.

I tell myself that quilts aren’t new–yet people enjoy the myriad ways of assembling them. It gives them pleasure, and comfort, and lets them have variety in the way they get needed warmth.

I tell myself that spiritual principles aren’t new, yet people enjoy different ways of framing and presenting them. I tell myself that emotions aren’t new, yet each of us responds more or less to the way they are expressed by artists of all kinds.

Love isn’t new.
Beauty isn’t new.
Death isn’t new.
Sex isn’t new.

I’m not new. And yet I am.

Birthright

Thanksgiving is over for another year. Gratitude has certainly been on my mind, not because of Thanksgiving but because of my general need for grace. But I am one of those people who tend to find the holidays an ordeal, because of their emphasis on two of my more difficult subjects: family and food.

I have nothing to complain about; there was no big family drama this year. Things were quite low-key, and if there was tension it was simply the normal tension of things unsaid, or a pretense that pain was not present. But the holiday has left me with some odd echoes, and thoughts about the whole concept of our “families of origin,” as some refer to them.

There’s a scene in the Marvel film Thor: The Dark World that keeps playing in my head. (Spoilers for both Thor movies ahead.)

Loki, during the first movie, has been seeking the throne of Asgard by various underhanded means. At some point he finds out that he is not the natural son of his father King Odin: Loki is actually a Frost Giant, found and adopted as an infant by Odin. This revelation disturbs and embitters him, especially since he comes to believe it’s why Odin will always favor Thor over him. Later he tries to conquer Earth, and fails.

Near the beginning of the Dark World movie, he is brought before Odin in chains. Odin sentences him to life imprisonment, chiding him for lusting after the throne. “It is my birthright!” Loki says angrily.

“Your birthright was to DIE!” thunders a wrathful Odin, referring to Loki’s origin as a helpless infant abandoned after a battle.

And, behind Loki’s defiantly prideful stare, something deep in his eyes shatters.

Maybe it’s only me who sees it, but I don’t think so. I think others know that moment too–that moment of knowing our quest will never be fulfilled; the well is truly dry; that certain someone whose acceptance and love we have desperately sought is never going to meet our need.

Yes, that look in Loki’s eyes stayed with me. But the words stayed with me even more.

Your birthright was to die.

What is our birthright? What is mine? Looking at the families we sprang from, it can be a sobering thing to contemplate. Many of us came from families very different from the ideas touted by the media.

Should I conclude, from the circumstances of my birth, that my birthright is addiction? Mental illness? Domestic violence? Trauma? Prison? Bitterness, isolation, chronic pain?

Not trying to bad-mouth my family here, really. I’m just thinking about whether, and how much, it’s possible to decline our inheritance. I’ve already manifested several aspects of mine, whether through them being passed on or through my own mistakes. Is it possible to skip the rest?

Once, in a class about psychology and culture, we were told to stand in a line through the center of a large room. The teacher called out various circumstances and told us to take a step forward or backward if this circumstance was true for us.

If one or more of your parents went to college, take one step forward.
If your parents divorced, take one step back.
If either of your parents had substance abuse issues, take one step back.
If anyone in your family had mental health issues, take one step back.
If your family was ever homeless, take one step back.
If there was violence in your family, take one step back.

It went on and on; some questions seemed arbitrary while others brought an intense feeling of vulnerability as I took that step backward. When the exercise was done, we were spread out all over the room. Some of us ended up close to the line, some were well ahead, and a few, like me, stood well behind the pack.

The teacher framed this as an analogy for where a person’s “starting point” in life was. I don’t know if she was right to do so, or not. I do know that people can turn their handicaps into strengths, and some do. But do those strengths ever bring a person to where they might have been if they’d been dealt a different hand?

No. They don’t. We create a different life, perhaps even a deeper and more joyous life, from what we inherit. But the ship of what-could-have-been has sailed.

So, to what degree do I truly shape my own life? I’ve changed some things, I know–my daughter is growing up in a nonviolent household, for instance, and that’s huge. I’ve had the privilege of much more education than anyone in my extended family, and that’s huge too. I’m in recovery today, trying to live differently, and my spiritual work stands a chance of making me someone who uses her remaining years more wisely.

But when I feel overwhelmed or depressed, or I watch a relative go downhill with some of their issues, I seem to hear Odin’s voice from that scene, telling Loki that his only birthright was abandonment and death.

I need to fight that voice. It’s true that, as a human being, my birthright is death. But I believe that, as a human being, my birthright is also life. And where there is life, there is hope.

The Romulan Right of Statement

How much does our story matter? In a world with billions of people and billions of other stories, why spend time and effort shouting ours into the aether? Will it not be drowned out by the shrieking multitude, so aptly portrayed by the human zoo we find online?

Storytelling is part of our basic nature, of course, but we overthink it. We think our story is only worth telling if it’s inspirational enough, or shocking enough, or has enough commercial value. And after we’ve told it, we think it’s not good enough unless it’s promoted enough and gets enough positive responses. We idolize a select few paid storytellers, aspiring to be like them and seeing ourselves as failures if we aren’t.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be a better storyteller! There’s nothing wrong with lusting to be the person who makes the tribespeople whisper excitedly that you’re going to be at the gathering tonight, and they’ve heard that you have a new story, and everyone can’t wait to hear it. Being that person is awesome–where we go wrong is in thinking that only that person gets to tell any stories.

The Romulans have the right idea. Yes, we’re off to science fiction; the original Star Trek series to be exact. In one episode, (The Enterprise Incident, if you want to know, and there are about to be spoilers) Spock is caught in an act of espionage aboard a Romulan ship and is about to be executed. As part of the formalities, he asks for and is granted the Romulan Right of Statement. A recording device is turned on and he is allowed to speak about what he did, why he did it and any other thoughts he has.

In the episode, Spock is using this speech to stall, and his executioner gets impatient because she knows it. Spock points out that there is no time limit on the Right. (By the way, there’s a Star Trek novel in which McCoy, standing trial on the Romulan world, uses this fact to conduct an outright filibuster–by the time he’s rescued, he’s rendered his listeners glassy-eyed with hours of rhapsodies about everything from his med school pranks to his pursuit of the perfect chili recipe.)

Putting aside the potential impracticalities (many wouldn’t be in a hurry to die, so would it just turn out that they talk until they fall down, having soiled themselves at some point because they can’t stop to go to the bathroom?) we’re still left with my basic point: the Romulans believed that even a condemned criminal’s story was important.

In the ongoing trial that takes place inside my head, the condition of our planet and culture is often used by the prosecution if they run out of material relating to my personal unworthiness. Placing my witnesses for the defense on the stand, they harangue them with questions designed to leech the meaning from any reasons the defense tries to give for going on, trying, creating for one more day. Declaring my evidence irrelevant or insufficient, the prosecution moves that it be stricken from the record and a verdict rendered.

I have always hated the idea of departing without telling my story. When I was close to the end, and believed I was out of options, the thing that bothered me the most was not having written the things I dreamed of writing. It tortured me more than the simple fear of death, or the shame, or the regret about other things unseen and undone.

Now I have a second chance–well, a millionth chance, really. No one forced me to keep my mouth shut and my fingers still for all of those years. It was my choice, no matter what sickness affected me. Today I can face the question: how badly do I want to speak my story? Am I willing to do it imperfectly? Am I willing to do it even if it’s not deemed important? While I stand (as we all do) awaiting my death, am I willing to put passion into my statement, even if it might only be filed away with a myriad of others?

I am an addict in recovery; I have a temporary and contingent reprieve from the worst consequences of my addiction. I live with another condition that drastically increases my risk of self-harm. I live on a world in peril; a world with an uncertain future. Perhaps I am only stalling and extending my trial. Perhaps everything I’ve been writing, and everything I will write in the years I have left, is only my version of the Romulan Right of Statement.

We’re back to the idea that I have certain illogical beliefs keeping me alive. Beliefs that tell me it does matter; that our stories matter even they only serve to contribute to a mass shriek of consciousness emanating from some future wreckage. Consciousness matters, my words matter, your words matter, and screw anyone who tries to tell us they don’t. Today, I will claim the Right.

Oh, Professor Snape

I write to you of struggles with demons; of image and word and symbol used as weapons in our existential battles. I write of reasons to go on. But I also write the human, mundane component of this story; the part about my personal foibles and the silly things I do to deal with, or escape from, my reality.

Meditation and Frog Breeding is an example of a time I revealed something that makes feel sheepish. Today I’ve decided I am due for another, and more embarrassing, revelation about what I do to pass the time when I just can’t think any more. Here goes: I read fanfiction.

When I first encountered sites such as fanfiction.net, I was astounded at the sheer volume of this kind of thing available. The Harry Potter universe is, by a large margin, the most popular template–on one site alone, there are more than 600,000 stories in this genre. Some incorporate erotic interaction among characters; some do not. Some are short and amateurishly written; some are novel-length and quite interesting. These fans explore a variety of plot-related questions and alternative ideas. Some of the most popular ones include:

–hello, why did no one ever check on Harry after he was dumped on a doorstep? And how could Dumbledore blithely send him back each summer to be abused and starved, blood wards or not. It must be part of a plot to keep Harry ignorant, desperate for affection and easily led. What if Harry grew a pair and got angry enough to seek help from somebody besides the man who, it turns out, was raising him to be a sacrifice?
–the epilogue does not exist. it never existed.
–Ron and Hermione? Seriously? Ron’s a fool, they have nothing in common, and it’s not going to end well.
–thousands of WAY more interesting ways the war with Voldemort could have gone, or what would happen if he’d won.

Don’t even get me started on the romantic/sexual plots. Every conceivable pairing has been done…the most popular ones being Harry and Draco (thin line between love and hate, I guess) Snape and Hermione (he’s the only one near her IQ) Lucius or Draco/Hermione (because it’s hot and dangerous, I suppose). Some authors just push the pair of their choice together with a magic spell or an arranged-marriage law.

But, by far, the character the most often, the most deeply, and the most variably explored is Severus Snape. Embittered outcast, double agent, brilliant potions master, seeker of redemption and ultimate martyr. There are a thousand versions of him out there, each far more explored than the one in the books.

Why do people love him so? Because they do. The fan universe, most of the time, flatly rejects the death of this character. They craft detailed romances between him and another character, lovingly building a story in which he gets the love and happiness they feel he deserves. They delve into just what horrific tortures he suffered during his times as a double agent. They have him misunderstood, persecuted or enslaved after the war, to be rescued by the aforementioned future mate. Or he’s exonerated and admired, building his career and taking on Hermione Granger as his apprentice. He’s usually far hotter than the book version, or even Alan Rickman.

Why am I telling you all this? Firstly, I’m doing it in the spirit of confession; to show that I haven’t just scanned a few of these things but read enough to know a bit about the genre. Secondly, I’m about to do one of my metaphor things.

I think the Harry Potter universe is the most popular one for fanfiction writers because it carries the largest number of opportunities for what-ifs. What some people, rightly or wrongly, consider to be holes or weaknesses in the author’s crafting are each transformed into tiny windows into an alternative reality. It parallels quantum theory; the idea that every choice and every variable give rise to another one of a vast sheath of other universes.

When I studied just a bit of quantum theory, this the aspect I found most exciting–and its implication that no aspect of reality is cast in stone. Our assumptions, our allegiance to the story of our reality, may not be as valid as we think they are. If we’re confronted by a scary gun-wielding person in an alley, there’s a universe in which the attacker is our cousin, or just asks us to name the capital of Wisconsin, or drops the gun and starts crying.

These writers–often young with dreams of doing other writing, or older and seeking diversion from their daily works–are reveling in the opportunity to riffle through an infinite sheath of possibilities and choose the ones that please them. This can feel easier, more fun, and more relaxing than creating one from scratch.

This, then, is my take on why I find it relaxing and diverting…it’s not a defense, only some thoughts. My daughter is mortified by my little habit; she’s a purist at heart. She’d be even more stern with me if she knew what happened during my last bipolar episode–what I did in the throes of my racing, desperate search for soothing occupation. If she knew that, last week, I actually wrote a little story. Oh, the shame.

Bookstore Sans Filter

Today I got to spend a couple hours in my local big-chain bookstore, perusing the newest science fiction books, writers’ magazines and anything else catching my eye. As has happened so many times before, I found myself looking at the self-help, addiction & recovery, and parenting sections with profound ambivalence. It’s really easy for me to get overwhelmed in any public place with much stimuli, but these sections get to me.

The self-help section–well, I have read some lovely books by self-help writers in my time, but when I look at a huge spread of currently popular books they seem to be giving off several basic messages.

1) You are not good enough, but if you do everything just like me you might be someday.
2) Whatever you’ve been doing is wrong, even if I recommended it last year.
3) Whatever difficulty you are experiencing in your life is 100% due to your bad attitude. Often, in the guise of encouraging higher self-esteem, the message is that what is wrong with you is that you haven’t worked hard enough on your self-esteem, inner healing, etc.

Then I move on to the parenting section; or, as I once described it to a friend, the “You’re a Bad Parent” section. There I can see why every parenting decision I have ever made, apart from a few no-brainers (don’t hit, don’t drop on head, don’t molest) is wrong. Any area of any controversy has books representing both or all sides of the argument, so no matter what I did someone was always screaming at me in print about it.

Again, I don’t mean to say there isn’t a wealth of wonderful, important information out there. It’s just that I need a thick skin to wade through it all to what helps me. There seem to be some basic messages calling from the shelf, especially about parenting a child with any kind of special needs:

1) Your child’s diagnosis or treatment is wrong, and if you don’t do what I say (which is the opposite of the book next to me) they will die, fail, end up on the street, etc. and it will be ALL YOUR FAULT.
2) Oh, you say there’s nothing wrong with your child? Oh, you’re just not attentive enough.
3) This world is a scary, dysfunctional place, and it’s up to you to protect your child from it…and if you let your child near any media, nonorganic food or item of clothing that costs less than an imported alpaca you are a horrible person.
4) You are solely responsible for helping your child succeed in this world…at age eighteen, your finished product will pop into this world with a destiny formed and determined by you, never to develop or grow again.

Then, as I tend to do, I drift over to the addiction and recovery section to see if there’s anything new and interesting. I like the fact that the topic gets its own bookstore section now; that there is such a wealth of material being written. What tends to make me tense is the adversarial attitude of many writers or editors. I’m too tired and lazy to go into this deeply, with specific names, titles and critiques, but my fellow addicts who like reading probably know what I am talking about. It’s a back-and-forth between two extremist camps:

1) We follow or promote a certain popular path to recovery, and that path is THE path. Anyone who doesn’t want to do it, or has tried it and is choosing something else, must be in denial or just not be ready.
2) We do not follow or promote this path, and those who do are idiots and sheep. This path doesn’t work, and there’s a giant conspiracy going on to make people think it does. Buy our book and find out the REAL way to recover.

It makes me tired. Isn’t black-and-white thinking one of our common problems?

So, I flee to the poetry section and the writers’ magazines (trying to drown out the voice interpreting their content as warnings about how many writers are out there, how little my work matters, etc.) and when I am done, when my brain cannot hold one more iota of thought or resist one more onslaught of insecurity, I come home to my last resting place: the science fiction aisle.

I don’t need extra reasons to love something I have loved since I was old enough to get books from the library, but today reminds me of one: this section asks nothing of me. It doesn’t tell me how to help my kid, or manage my weight, or improve my marriage. It doesn’t suggest I submit my writing to eight thousand magazines for only $25 each, or bombard me with writing tips that make my head spin.

It only wants to tell me stories.

Names and Namers

Shortly after my daughter learned to talk, she began to name things. If we went to a restaurant, the salt and pepper shakers had names, genders, a back story and a relationship drama by the time we got our salads. Our household got into the habit of naming, and it stuck. Our cell phones, cars, musical instruments and appliances still have names today, and I would not be surprised to see us surrounded by named objects decades from now.

Some cultures believe that we humans have several names. One might be our commonly known name, another for friends and family, another a secret name used only in spiritual ceremonies. Some cultures change or alter a person’s name as they complete rites of passage. In Norman Spinrad’s Child of Fortune, a person chooses his or her adult name only when grown, often in homage to a present or past role model or an abstract concept that speaks to who they want to be.

Why am I thinking about names today? In Fear Not? I wrote about needing to huddle around the fire of the Self when fearing annihilation. Needing to feed that fire. I’m thinking about names because the spiritual act of naming is one way of feeding that anti-nothingness.

If you have a specific way of worshipping, there may be names involved that are important to you. Whether or not you see other names as valid too, your names matter to you. You wouldn’t be as fulfilled by conducting rituals addressed to Hey, you! or To Whom it May Concern.

Some of you may know Meg from the classic A Wrinkle in Time, an iconic story blending science fiction, philosophy and spirituality. The lesser-known sequel, A Wind in the Door, is well worth reading and explores the concepts further. During the book, Meg finds herself working with a strange being whose most recent assignment was to memorize the names of all the stars. Her new partner tells her she must be a Namer, too, if only a primitive one. He describes a Namer as someone who makes another more of who they are; more of themselves. Sees them. Meg is later called upon to use her Naming quality in defense of her own and others’ existence in a battle against annihilating entities. Naming proves to be the only defense against nothingness.

Names mean something because we make them mean something. We infuse them with psychic energy and give them soul. When building that fire of the Self, we fuel it with Names. Names of deities, if that’s our thing. Names of ideas and passions. Names of beloved or inspirational characters. A whole story, or myth, or dream can be a Name, and we can be Namers when we tell it.