clearskies, bluewater

Insights, reflections and creative imaginings for our awakening world


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The four magic words of stories

As a writer I love to read stories. It seems I am always reading one, or possibly three, works of fiction at the same time. Due to the fact that I have been teaching English to Danish kids for the past 8 months, it has been a natural outcome that I have become more critically discerning while reading stories. This post is about fiction stories: what makes a story worth taking the time to read it? Or not? I will begin with some words from one of my favorite storytellers, Neil Gaiman. He says,logic_and_imagination_by_19eight_seven

“If I had a library wall to deface, I think I’d just remind people of the power of stories, of why they exist in the first place. I’d put up the four words that anyone telling a story wants to hear. The ones that show it’s working, and that pages will be turned: “… and then what happened?” The joy of fiction, for some of us, is the joy of the imagination, set free from the world and able to imagine.”

Gaiman’s words come from the introduction to a collection of stories that he, along with Al Sarrantonio, edited and contributed to with their own stories. On the subject of Fantasy, Gaiman writes,

“It seemed to us that the fantastic can be, can do, so much more than its detractors assume: it can illuminate the real, it can distort it, it can mask it, it can hide it. It can show you the world you know in a way that makes you realize you’ve never looked at it, not looked at it. G.K. Chesterton compared fantastic fiction to going on holiday– that the importance of your holiday is the moment you return, and you see the place you live through fresh eyes.” (from Stories, edited by Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio, HarperCollins publishers, 2010)

This particular collection of stories, containing 27 works from contemporary authors of the English-speaking world, is full of horror, fantasy and magical realism, as one might expect. As a reader, my personal preferences run more to the magical realism category than horror or crime tales, preferring the gentler sides of life to the more gruesome and morbid. And yet. I would venture to guess that crime and horror stories are by far the best-selling, hence the most widely read genres of fiction in the world today. Why is this so? one might ask. As I read through this collection of stories, the answer became clear. We read fiction for lots of reasons, obviously. But one of the main purposes, since time immemorial, has to do with the experience of catharsis. According to Wikipedia, “Catharsis (from the Greek κάθαρσις katharsis meaning “purification” or “cleansing”) refers to the purification and purgation of emotions—especially pity and fear—through art or to any extreme change in emotion that results in renewal and restoration.”

Through this we can see that by reading well-crafted stories of horror, crime, violence, sexual degradation and the like, we find an outlet for our deeply hidden desires, longings and secret fantasies concerning these shadow areas of the human psyche, in a harmless way. I was reminded by one of my daughters recently of the importance of seeing ‘reality’ (as she put it) for what it is, and not shying away or pretending that those parts of the human experience do not exist, that it is unhealthy to live in a kind of fairy tale life where everything is happy-dappy all the time, etcetera. Obviously there is much to be said about this one point alone; however for my purposes today I will leave it at that. The point is, she is correct in the sense that by ignoring, or pretending that those shadow aspects of us do not exist, we are in fact doing more harm than good for the human collective. By never acknowledging my deeply hidden fascination with, say, kinky sex or disturbing images of dark magic, or some other equally mysterious and perhaps frightening subjects, I will not be able to come to terms with those sides of being human. But, if I can release my curiosity and desire to indulge in those hidden fantasies through reading really great stories about them, I can bring them out into the light of day, so to say, and therefore release their hidden power over me. Depth psychology aside, the power of stories as catharsis of the human soul cannot, nor should not, be underestimated.

power_of_imagination_by_ssilence

During the past month or more, I read a long novel, nearly 500 pages long, entitled The House of the Wind, by Titania Hardy. Having just returned from a week in Tuscany, this novel fairly jumped off the library shelf and into my hands. As I began to immerse myself in the dual story, however, I couldn’t help but notice a kind of frustration with how the story was told. It is two parallel stories told in turns, chapter after chapter, first of a young woman living in San Francisco in 2007, then of some other women living around Volterra, Tuscany during the mid 14th century. In many ways, it is a very wonderful story, and very well written. But. In another way, reading this quite long novel was rather frustrating. For one thing, I kept wishing that Hardy hadn’t included quite so many details, especially concerning the modern woman’s story. I felt there were descriptions of things that were simply unnecessary and did nothing to really enhance the story, but rather detracted from it. Hardy is a writer who has a lot of historical knowledge, and has written considerable non-fiction, and it shows in her fiction writing. But I found myself impatient, wanting the story to ‘move along’ at a better clip than it often did. From this novel, I also learned a lot about ‘showing, not telling,’ the story. She told too much about how the characters felt, what they thought about, etc., rather than having more economy of words and letting the story tell itself. What evolved into a 500 page novel, could have been accomplished in at least a third less pages, and would have resulted in a better work. Hardy got dangerously close to historical romance several times during this long story, and nearly sentimental at times, neither of which she was intending, I am certain.

In contrast to that type of writing, there are authors, blessedly, like Neil Gaiman. The magic and beauty of Gaiman’s craft shines out of the page, and reading his words becomes a joyful act. He is a writer who understands the power of word economy, and uses it beautifully in his stories. His story, Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains, contained in this collection, is a small masterpiece of word economy. Here is an excerpt:

“The clouds came down at noon and the world was blanketed by a mist that was worse than rain: droplets of water hung in the air, soaked our clothes and our skin; the rocks we walked upon became treacherous and Calum and I slowed in our ascent, stepped carefully. We were walking up the mountain, not climbing, up goat paths and craggy sharp ways. The rocks were black and slippery: we walked, and climbed and clambered and clung; we slipped and slid and stumbled and staggered, and even in the mist, Calum knew where he was going, and I followed him.”

Of course, the world is full of creative writers, and many write brilliantly although in thousands of styles and ways. I admit that my preference is for those writers who can say so much with very few words, who choose each word carefully for maximum impact, who can give us strong images without too much elaboration. Plus, I love Gaiman’s use of alliteration here! He really is brilliant.

The collection Stories has several interesting works within it which I enjoyed reading. One of the other favorites is a story called Goblin Lake, by Michael Swanwick. It falls into the magical realism category, where the main character leaves his normal, brutal reality as a soldier in the area of Germany during the 17th century, and enters a watery world at the bottom of a lake, encountering a whole different, and very lovely, reality instead. Here he is given a choice: he can remain there, as a character within the pages of a fantastic story forever, enjoying all the pleasures inherent within it, or return above ground, to his ‘real life’ where he will become old, enduring all of the pains and suffering of that world. This story is also very well-written, and offers the reader a welcome glimpse into a different reality than one’s typical life. Swanwick takes up the challenge set by Gaiman, that of “showing you the world you know in a way that makes you realize you’ve never looked at it before.”

Dear Readers, I know that nearly all of you are writers too; have you thoughts about what constitutes excellent storytelling and why? I would love to read your comments and ideas here, if you can take a few minutes to leave some. As always, thanks for reading, and for contributing your imagination to our world, in order to bring it a little higher and make it a bit better than if you hadn’t.


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Understanding silence & words

“More than any other thing, language has the power to alter the outcome of events.” Boccaccio

“In human intercourse the tragedy begins, not when there is misunderstanding about words, but when silence is not understood.” Henry David Thoreau

Hello again, dear Readers. I am a person who truly loves and appreciates language, and the words which create it. People who know me well are fond of telling me that I never seem to have a lack of words at my disposal, for better or worse. Yet, curiously, these days find me at a nearly constant loss for words. If language can be seen as a kind of out-breath, then just now I am certainly all about the inhale– and consequently, the holding of that breath.

It isn’t writer’s block or anything like that. This lack of words is something altogether new and strange in my life experience. It is not a conscious phenomenon, nor something I am trying to do, like when one attempts to let go of all thoughts during meditation. Rather, what I am experiencing right now has more to do with some kind of metamorphosis, a type of fundamental change deep within the soul. Language as I have known it, no longer seems to be enough.

The times we are now living in, as I have often stated herein this blog, are simply extraordinary and rare. We are living through a fundamental change in the way humanity operates: in simple terms, we are collectively upgrading our operating system as we move into higher dimensionality. This is a fact, dear Readers, it is happening continually and most certainly for many years to come. As the changes occur, what went before, what was considered acceptable before (in words, thoughts and deeds) continue to give way to new and improved modes of being human upon Earth. And so, the words and languages that have served us all our lives up to this point, are beginning to seem nearly irrelevant at times. And yet. As Boccaccio stated seven hundred years ago, language is one of the most powerful tools we humans have at our disposal. Change we must, and so must our language and ways of communicating.

Living in a foreign country for the past three years has taught me a great deal about the problems inherent in language, its limitations, its judgements and its importance. Non-verbal communication, I have learned, will only get you so far when you are out of your native tongue’s area. In a foreign country, people become again like small children, dependent and often helpless to communicate at the same level of sophistication as they are used to doing at home. I have never before in my life felt as stupid as I have since coming to Denmark to live. Why? The answer is basic: if I cannot find the right words to express myself to the outer world, then I simply cannot express who I am, what I think, believe or feel to another, which leads me to feeling embarrassed and stupid, even though I know I am not.

We have all had the experience of trying to tell someone close to us how we REALLY feel about something, searched for the right words to try to tell our story, but no matter how hard we try or how many words we use, the other person still cannot understand us. This is, for me at least, an extremely frustrating situation, that leaves me wondering how in the world I can make this person understand me, what I am trying to tell them, what is in my heart. All these myriad emotions and thoughts swirling about inside of me, dying to get out, to be heard, felt and most of all, understood– and I hit the wall. Add the problem of being among people who don’t speak your language, and the situation is multiplied exponentially. What to do?

359556951_402b07ca8fGiven that it is indeed ‘new times on Earth,’ and the old ways of speaking and communicating no longer really work, then I guess we need a new plan. Perhaps we need a new form of language altogether. Today I was reading a short science fiction story in English to some of my Danish students. In the story, some beings from a far, far distant planet were attempting to communicate with a man here on Earth. They had a lot of trouble even finding anyone with whom to telepathically speak, and then when they did find one, he was very drunk and thought he was simply hallucinating. I asked the students, do you think there is anyone here who is telepathic? They all just shrugged, and then I commented that no, I don’t think that any of us are really able to read each other’s thoughts. But what if we could?

Of course, more and more humans are now finding it possible to hear messages from beings who are not human, not of Earth. Just do a Google search for channeled messages and the amount of webpages and blogs dedicated to this endeavor may astound you. I think it is entirely possible that, with time, humans will be able to learn a different level of communication that is far more sophisticated than using constructed language made up of words. I cannot help but think that the problem of language interferes with the people of the world being able to truly feel at one with each other, at least on some level. A good friend of mine here has illustrated this point to me by reciting some old and, I assume, lovely poetry in Danish. He can remember many poems and verses in his native, beloved mother tongue. And it sounds rather nice, nearly lyrical, as he recites the words. But only when he has afterwards made the effort to translate it into my own precious English do his Danish words give meaning.

When I was a child, I loved to watch mimes, whether on television or on the rare occasion to happen to see one live at a performance. There is something so magical about them, how they can say so much in silence, simply with their facial expressions and body language. With the amount of time that I spend in silence, within my own mind and heart, keeping it all inside of me, I have come to have enormous respect for both silence and for the power of language when used succinctly and well. Boccaccio is right, language well used can affect enormous change in the world.

Here are some quotes about silence, showing very clearly that there are always myriad ways to look upon this particular subject…. you decide.

“A voice is a human gift, it should be cherished and used, to utter fully human speech as possible. Powerlessness and silence go together.” Margaret Atwood

“True silence is the rest of the mind, and is to the spirit what sleep is to the body, nourishment and refreshment.” William Penn

“Silence is foolish if we are wise, but wise if we are foolish.” Charles Colton

“The small truth has words which are clear; the great truth has great silence.” Rabindranath Tagore

“We need silence to be able to touch souls.” Mother Teresa

“The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people, but the silence over that by the good people.” Martin Luther King, Jr.

“No person is your friend who demands your silence, or denies your right to grow.” Alice Walker

(quotes are from http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/keywords/silence.html)


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Ponderings on the journey

Now that the hubbub and hyperbole about the end of the world is dying away, and people have stopped holding their breath as they realize they are still alive and so is the Earth, I would like to take a few minutes to share a few impressions with you all, dear Readers. One obvious thing is the weather the past days: many storms all over the place, rumblings under the earth, lots of energy shifting about. Up here where I live the wind blew and blew, bringing a blazing snowstorm which blanketed the ground long enough for a White Christmas (Jul in Danish). Then a kind of influenza barreled through, which my husband had for several days and is only now beginning to recover from, the Copenhagen Flu, they are calling it.

BC_Father_Walking_With_Daughter_1-13.orgI too have had some storms passing through my body and psyche. My beautiful and lovely Christmas dinner of roasted duck with trimmings did not sit well and consequently last night became extraordinarily uncomfortable in body and emotions. For hours I went through a kind of Life Review, as a whole range of memories from different years and decades passed through my mind and heart. Some of the most poignant memories involved my early childhood in New York state with my parents, brother and grandparents. Long-buried memories came up and out for me to look at again: many joyous, remembering many fun times with my father and friends as a little girl; some that had fear attached, like certain moments when I was by myself and felt extremely afraid of shadowy, unknown ‘monsters’ outside of the house; and other memories containing the peaceful energy of playing in the woods, ice skating at a frozen pond with my father and brother, and otherwise enjoying being a child surrounded by love.

The prevalent attitude of many people at the moment seems to be a kind of “What now?” attitude: we have come to this point, December 21st has come and gone, we are still here, standing upon the Earth, some people’s blogs reflect enormous changes which they have personally experienced in the past few days, while others posts reflect a kind of deep disappointment that more, well, exciting things did not occur like they had anticipated. In a way I am reminded of the whole Y2K situation in December of 1999, when so many people were expecting the world to somehow collapse because of the computers not being able to make the shift from 1999 to 2000…. hmmmmmm…..some of you may remember that time!

Back to the “what now?” As I wrote in my last post, I believe that humanity has indeed turned an extraordinary corner, or tide, or whatever metaphor you care to use, somehow our world has shifted fundamentally, signifying not the end, so much as the very beginning of something altogether new here on Earth. Which means that instead of so many of us now being able to simply lay back and take it easy from here on out, we in fact have much more work to do: the very important and infinitely valuable work of awakening the rest of the humans to these changes, helping others realize that Love and Grace are ever-present and we need only to become quiet enough within our souls to hear Love’s voice.

Thank you to Emily of Bella Remy photography for this beautiful photo of a Peace Rose!

Thank you to Emily of Bella Remy photography for this beautiful photo of a Peace Rose!

Recently I also made the remark in a post that one of the most important learnings I have had in the past days is that I need to never again live in fear of anything. I continue to ponder the vast implications of this little phrase. In relation to my blog here, one thing that this knowledge implies is that I no longer need to fear offending or off-putting you, dear Readers, and so I wish to become stronger in my convictions and insights within this platform in the coming year. I will soon be re-vamping Clearskies, Bluewater blog somewhat to reflect my newly-gleaned inspirations and changes in attitude and latitude. Recently I had an interaction with a fellow blogger which gave me pause for thought. Here was one of the blogs which reflected a kind of profound disappointment over the lack of fireworks or some equally spectacular world shakeup happening on the fated December 21st. I could feel the blogger’s disappointment and so, in an effort to encourage and inspire, shared a portion of some advice I had come across in another blog, which happened to be channeled from a high spiritual being. But the blogger, instead of taking the words as encouraging, instead became quite offended and disturbed that I had dared to give her this type of advice, since it was ‘channeled’ and therefore suspect and most likely incorrect, possibly even dis-information which could be harmful.

After a few back and forth comments between us, I reflected on the whole business. It was quite a lesson for me in how easily communication can be misunderstood between those of us in virtual reality (or in face-to-face reality, for that matter.) I know very well that many people are suspicious of channelers and channeled information. Many believe that it is a dangerous or possibly even bordering on mad road to let oneself be used by other, non-human beings who are ‘out there somewhere’ in the spiritual world. Others just plain think the whole thing is utter nonsense, and really just a figment of someone’s over-active imagination. Still others will take channeled messages and teachings as The Gospel, and simply buy it hook, line and sinker. And still others may view it as the work of that old badass Satan and his legions of demons. Upon reflection of this channeling phenomenon, however, I have come to believe even more firmly than ever, that Life-Love-Spirit-God-Goddess (insert the name of your choice here for Divinity) uses whatever methods they can to bring each of us the information, advice and wisdom we need at the time, and at this time in particular, some humans are opening up and allowing spiritual beings whom they have come to know and trust, to use them as a channel, (much like a radio frequency) for specific information. Just as when a person walks into a library and has many choices of what they may read about and gain knowledge from that day, which books to check out and go home to savor and devour, so too can the knowledge, wisdom and information that a person needs or desires be discovered through channeled sources. And the same ‘rules’ apply: Does it resonate with you personally and have meaning? Is it benevolent and kind? Is it plausible to you, meaning can you believe it? Does it fascinate you and make you curious to find out more about it? Does it give you something, rather than take energy away from you? Do you feel more at peace and relaxed after reading or hearing it? These are my determiners for nearly anything I choose to ingest, no matter what the source.

PEACE LILY-Dawn-WilsherThe times are changing, and the wisest course we can all take is to relax and change with them. If in 2012 and beyond, beings from heavenly realms are choosing to communicate with us, either directly in meditation or nature, or else through other humans, I really believe there is no sin in this, and nothing to fear. Remember, the new way of living is through Love, as fear no longer has a place nor any useful purpose. Dear Readers, this is my way of explanation and of telling you all that I have a lot of respect for some of the channeled information I have received through certain bloggers, and come the new year may well re-post certain things I find which seem relevant. I am telling you all this now, so you can decide for yourselves whether to continue to read my little blog in 2013. If you choose not to, for similar reasons as the blogger who became offended with me, I completely understand and respect your decision. I thank you from my deep heart for reading Clearskies, Bluewater in 2012, it has meant a great deal to me that you had the interest and took the time to read my words and reflect on my musings and ponderings during the past year. It has certainly been a significant one for me!

Wishing all of you the very best, brightest, most loving and gentle holy season, no matter where you are on the planet, no matter who you are with, and however you choose to reflect, I hope that you will find much joy, peace and blessings in your life. Namaste, which of course means, I see the Light and the Love within You and I honor It!!
Love, Leigh Jardine, aka. SingingBones


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The beginning, the end, life, death and beyond

It is not often that a work of art comes along which has the ability to encompass the whole range of human experience: beauty, suffering, life, death and the mysterious beyond. Today I have finally finished reading Ben Okri’s epic work, Starbook. This book is such a work of art.

In fact the story itself centers around a tribe of artists who make incredible, magical and mysterious art. Art is their reason for existence, their life’s work, and everything in their lives revolves around it. It is the story of a prince, a maiden with whom he falls in love, and the story of a people, a kingdom, of the past and future, of humans on earth and of beings from the stars. It is a vast metaphor, a fable, an epic, an odyssey, a dream, a version of history and a prayer for the future. Starbook is Okri’s homage to the Christ story and the story of the Buddha, while also being his own uniquely creative vision of his homeland and its vast people in Africa. This is a master’s work.

As so many of us have, I too have been going through a kind of transformation during these last months. Today and this weekend seems to be another pinnacle of time, devoted to inwardly seeking, listening, opening to the voices and whispers of our spirit, a doorway into the beyond which lies above this earthly realm of suffering and pain which we have all lived in and with for so long that many have forgotten that there is another way to be alive. Yet the clear directive coming to us collectively right now, is exactly that: there is another way to experience life in human form, a way beyond all the unendurable suffering we have inflicted upon each other and ourselves all these many centuries. Okri’s insightful retelling of the human story brought me near tears throughout reading it, and yet simultaneously also helped me to somehow distance my heart from the pain of it, as all great cathartic works tend to do. For his story, although set in Africa, is not merely the story of the loss of innocence and the influence of the western world upon that land, bringing slavery and horrific conditions to an entire race of people. It is the story of human bondage, death and redemption, as old as anyone can recall.

As I contemplate life on this special October weekend of 2012, I wish to acknowledge and honor the immense struggle which humans have endured over the course of our known history, sensing that only by honoring and remembering what has come before, can we fully release and forgive our collective memory and thereby move ahead towards a different future that so many of us are waking up to now. Okri says that Africa lives in all of us, and in a very real way he is absolutely right. We are all tribal peoples from somewhere in the world, some distant (or not so distant) past, with many many stories underneath us as we stand upon our piece of Earth right now, today. Time is fast becoming non-linear and some say that the day will soon come when linear time becomes a thing of the past. Our common experience of past, present and future will be vastly different than how we experience it now. All the more reason to honor, remember, and change the past as well as the future.

If I may, dear Readers, I would like to share a tiny glimpse of the future that I would like to live upon this beloved Earth. In this new future, everyone is an artist. There is no longer a differentiation between those who are and those who are not. No matter what one’s interest, the things they spend time doing are their art form. Everyone cares for everything, no matter how small, how inconsequential it may be. From the lowest to the highest in the world, all is made beautiful through love and care. In this future world of Earth, there are only two laws: Love and Kindness. Creativity of every kind flourishes, nature is more abundant and richer than ever before, and humans live in perfect harmony with the natural world, including all the animals. There is no more killing of living beings.

In this new future Earth, the wisest humans are the ones who make the decisions that affect all others. Purity of heart and generosity are the most desirable qualities in a human being. Competition has long ceased to be desirable, and the ancient arts are again understood and practiced. The gods, or beings from other realms than Earth, have again been given their rightful place of respect and reverence by the humans, and they work together to create all sorts of new ways of being and doing things, things we right now cannot even possibly imagine can be. It goes without saying that peace has been utterly restored to all living on the Earth.

One of the most beautiful passages in Starbook refers to a sculpture which the master artist of the tribe creates, his last and most magnificent creation. It is described thus:

“And what was it, this mysterious sculpture? It was more than it seemed. And its mystery was as much in how it created a shimmer of illuminations around itself, against the sky, as it was the spirit-charged nature of the stone, as it was that of which it was an eternal sigh, a question mark without a name, concentrating the magic of the heavens into the illusion of space. It was the figure of a being, a man or woman or god or goddess or dream; and the figure stood with both of its arms stretched out unnaturally wide, embracing the whole universe, in a mighty act of acceptance. Arms outstretched and legs spread out wide, doubly embracing all of life, the universe, all suffering, all joy, the beginning, the end, life, death and beyond……”

Isn’t this precisely what we must all do now, to embrace all of life, the universe, all suffering and joy, the beginning, the end, life, death and what lies beyond? This is such a beautiful summation of our goal, our purpose, our common future of humanity. To stand with arms and legs wide open upon this glorious, magnificent earth, to embrace our humanity, our groundedness, our deep soul, as well as our soaring, dreaming spirit selves among the starry world? We are becoming multi-dimensional beings like never before, whether we understand it or not matters little. It is what is happening to us, right now! How I wish I could just be like a fairy, or an insect, or a dream, and go from one human to the next, waking them from their slumber, their forgetting of the truth of their being, giving them the magic potion to make them all understand who we all of us Really ARE!

I wish to thank Ben Okri for his amazing Starbook, and all the wisdom contained therein. I hope that many more people will find and read this story, and find it as enlightening, illuminating, and enduring as I have. And I hope that all of you will continue to dream into the future that you wish to have, not only for yourselves, your children, your community and country, but for all of us, all the tribes and cultures and species of this incredible, gorgeous, and wonderful planet Earth.

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Can stories save us?

‘Read any good books lately?’ was one of those popular conversation starters when I was young. Certainly more interesting than making small talk about the weather, and if someone was reading a good book and felt like telling about it, the conversation would quickly become quite stimulating.

There are some who believe that in our ultra-fast, iphone-in-every-pocket society, real books and their loyal readers are quickly becoming a thing relegated to some quaint history book, but I beg to differ. Despite seemingly all efforts to the contrary, the pasttime of reading books remains popular among all sorts of people from all walks of life upon the earth. Have you ever really stopped and asked yourself why this is so?

Dear Readers, I sense you are a clever bunch, and most likely are also of the opinion that Reading Books is one of life’s great necessities, as well as pleasures. Books are one of my great weaknesses, and upon finding a used bookstore in any town, any place, I cannot help myself: I enter, and become quickly engrossed. It is the story and the poetry within books which captures my imagination; the mystery and mayhem of our lives, the common sorrows and joys which we share, our horrors, deepest fears, highest aspirations. All of life lives within the pages of our stories, all which is known and much which is yet unknown and only surmised or intuited– or imagined.

Can stories save us? I think they can, and they in fact must. I am reading a couple of books from the library right now which speak to how stories read in childhood affect one’s adult life, shape life-changing decisions, impart knowledge which can steer one in another direction entirely, inspire one to greatness. One book, called Everything I need to know I learned from a children’s book, is comprised of notable people’s vignettes concerning the one (as if there is only one!) book which, read as a child, affected their lives the most. Interestingly, many of the people said they were around ten years old when they read it. Think back for a moment to the books you read when you were about ten. What kind of books were they? What type of stories did they tell? What did you learn from them? Which ones stand out the most in your memory and why?

“Perhaps it is only in childhood that books have any deep influence on our lives… In childhood, all books are books of divination, telling us the future.” –Graham Greene

When I was ten years old, the stories I read and loved the very most were about magic. They usually involved ordinary children who by one way or another, became involved somehow with something magical. Then they usually had some type or series of adventures in which they figured out how to use the magical abilities they had stumbled upon. The overall theme was of an ordinary person finding the power to do something extraordinary. When I look back over the course of my life, I can see that I have lived in such a way as to welcome extraordinary experiences into an otherwise rather ordinary life. In other words, I have done what I could, in my own small and unique way, to create some magic in my life. For many years I went on a meandering path, one could say, sometimes wandering, sometimes very strongly directed, but always searching for what was unusual, interesting, fun, lively, new, as well as what was very old but being tried again in a new way. I have been a non-conformist to the degree that I have been safely able; never too extremely radical, yet always on the edge of society’s approval. And the stories and books I read as I made my way along were a reflection of my soul’s landscape. I can basically map out, through the books I was reading, what I was thinking and feeling about life at any particular moment in time.

Here is an anecdote by one of the notables in the Everything I need to know book, named Laura Miller. She sums up the experience of discovering the magic of books as a second grader thus:

“A teacher I idolized handed me a slim hardcover bound in grey fabric with the image of a little stag stamped on the front and said, “I think you’ll like this one.” It was her copy of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. When I returned it to her, I told her that I didn’t know there were other people who had the kind of imagination that I had. It was this book that made a reader out of me. It showed me how I could tumble through a hole in the world I knew and into another, better one, a world fresher, more brightly colored, more exhilarating, more fully felt than my own.”

Zoom to present time. As some of you may know, I am currently fascinated by Ben Okri, a writer who is difficult to pin down in a few words. He is a rare combination of poet, storyteller, prophet, clairvoyant, mystic and visionary. His books are, for me, a bit like being ten years old again and feeling that sense of wonder and possibility which live in the heart and imagination and come alive through magical storytelling. I feel he is one of the Master storytellers alive on the planet today. Now I am engrossed in his latest novel, if you can call it that, called Starbook: A magical tale of love and regeneration. And it truly is a magical and timeless tale. In the beginning of the book, he writes,

“There is an ancient saying in the village that my mother used to tell me. They say it is not who you are that makes the world respect you, but what power it is that stands behind you. It is not you that the world sees, but that power.” He then goes on to write,

“Destiny conceals strange illuminations in the suffering life visits on us. The tale of fate is entangled with mysteries. Dare one say such and such shouldn’t have happened? History is replete with monstrosities that shouldn’t have happened. But they did. And we are what we are because they did. And history’s bizarre seeding has not yet yielded all of its harvest. Who knows what events will mean in the fullness of time? … In the presence of great things glimpsed in the book of life one can only be silent and humble. The ultimate meaning of history is beyond the mortal mind.”

From my recent investigations into the world of children’s literature one thing is strikingly clear. Story after story describe people embroiled in conflict, sometimes violence, life and death struggles, and grappling with sorrow and angst. Children, though young, are not only not immune to the realities of life on earth and beyond, but actually have a need and desire to understand the painful, as well as joyful, aspects of being alive, just as adults do. This may be obvious to many of you, but as a parent who raised three daughters, for years I had an overwhelming desire to shelter those tender young offshoots of mine from any and all tragedies of this world, and did so to the extent that I could. They themselves, however, sought after stories which told them of the more difficult aspects of life, of human and animal suffering, of anguish, of courage in the face of enormous odds against the hero or heroine. A year ago in the summer, my youngest daughter, who was eleven at the time, was absorbed by the Hunger Games series of books. We spent many hours on the phone together as she told me, bit by bit, what those stories are about, and especially about the main character, the girl who becomes the heroine as she goes to those horrific games in order to save not only her own family, but her entire community. To me, the story sounded gruesome and altogether violent and not something I fancied my eleven-year-old daughter to be reading. Yet she was fascinated, because she found something deeper and of real value in the story which she was able to take into her soul.

So yes, stories can save us, by educating us as to life’s problems and pains, its cruel realities and wonderous fantasies, its sweet revenge and just desserts, its peak moments of elucidation, its tenderest and most vulnerable places. All of us, young and old and in the middle, can and do benefit from the wisdom hard won through the main characters’ toils and troubles, their overcoming catastrophes, their explorations of unknown territories, their learning to love and become ever-more humane. Stories are powerful medicine in every age, every epoch, every culture. Without stories, humanity would quickly lose its very soul, the part of us which makes us feel, understand and love life and one another. Dear Readers, I hope you who are parents or have young children in your lives, encourage the young ones to read the best books, the timeless classics as well as the contemporary. You owe it to your children to instill in them a love of literature– the future of our world depends on it.


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When words become poetry

“I sing the body electric” once wrote Walt Whitman, arguably one of the greatest American poets. In our modern times, a song generally means some words set to a kind of tune or melody, and then sung by a singer, whether alone as they sit in their room, or in front a huge crowd of onlookers, matters not: a human sings a song. Simple, right? And yet. The idea of song is as old as humanity itself,while its meaning has changed down through the epochs of time. Long ago in the shrouds of forgotten history, the singer was the one who told us the stories of ourselves, our deeds and misfortunes, our glories and victories. Once upon a time, storytellers sang to us and as we listened, we began to understand more about life. It was the commonest form of education for undoubtedly thousands of years.

Likewise with poetics. The word poem in English, has archaic roots in Greek’s poēsis=poiēsis: making, poiēma: make. Its roots are simply about creating, making something from language. Our modern western languages have evolved into everyday phrases and meanings; most of us go around talking to each other and writing things without giving the words we use much, if any, thought.

Were we to ponder the words we use a bit deeper, we would soon see that these little marks on the page, or sounds which emanate so easily from our vocal chords are a well-honed, polished, and ever-evolving art form which, as if by magic, transforms our thoughts into a series of word pictures which we use to communicate with and understand one another. Language is an amazing achievement by humanity, any way one looks at it.

 Then, there are the poets themselves, those rare humans who take this art form seriously. They understand this mechanism of using words to create images within the human mind, and work tirelessly combining them into the most intricate nuances, the most fantastic subtleties, the most sublime confections, in order that some of us might read their creations with vast appreciation; sighing, nodding and even crying with resonance. In her book Rules of the Dance, Mary Oliver writes about metrical poetry, explains what it contains, how it functions, and why it is important. She writes,

“Poems speak of the mortal condition; in poems we muse about the tragic and glorious issues of our fragile and brief lives; our passions, our dreams, our failures. Our wonderings about heaven and hell– these too are in poems. Life, death, mystery, and meaning. Five hundred years and more of such labor, such choice thought within choice expression, lies within the realm of metrical poetry. Without it, one is uneducated, and one is mentally poor.”

In our modern culture, metrical poetry has become mostly relegated to high school and university literature classes. Poetic writing, as in ‘elevated or sublime in expression, lyrical, artistic, fine, aesthetic’ has fallen out of favor in the early twenty-first century. But not entirely, thank Goodness. Though it may be on its way to becoming an archaic art form, there are a few poets left in the world who are creating true works of art through words. I am of the opinion that to read these masters of language, to laud and to learn from them, is a critically important act in today’s world.  As we elevate our own caliber of language in speech, writing, and comprehension, we serve the greater good. And as we do so, we set an example for the youth, thereby creating a more graceful future humanity: something we should all be very concerned with creating.

I have just finished reading a truly outstanding poetical work, a story called Astonishing the Gods, by Ben Okri. It has taken me weeks to read it because I am not simply reading, but slowly savoring its evocative pages. It is an extraordinary work: part fable, part story, partly prophetic, partly pure poetry, this book is the work of a master craftsman of lyrical language, deceptively simple, containing many layers of meaning; going beyond mere understanding, one is taken to another realm by Okri’s unusual and highly pictorial word images. He is a very unusual writer and I encourage you, Dear Readers, to seek out his books and see for yourself. Now that I have read Astonishing the Gods, I will search for more of his wonderful works. In a recent post, I quoted some passages from this story. Now I will give you another taste of its poetry:

And the enchanted silences converged there too from all realms. And each of the silences also had infinite possibilities and magnification without end. Each of the silences, vast and serene, like a moment on the highest mountain, or a gentle breeze within a mirror, permeated the room, and dwelled at ease with all the others. The silences came from mountaintops covered with snow and the depths of unfathomed oceans, from the face of the moon and the forests at night, from the stalagmites of green caves and the axis of constellations, from human beings in their lonely places and beings in their higher spaces, from the dreams of a newborn babe and the first moments of emerging flowers, from angels and diamonds, from the heart of Time and the languid countrysides, from the hidden dimensions and the hidden heaven, from all the dead and all whose hearts quicken to the highest love, the silences came, and they passed through him, and they altered no spaces, and he noticed how real the room of meditations was for such dancing eternities.

Sometimes, though not very often, a book or a poem comes along that can change one’s life, can shift how one thinks about life, oneself, others. I remember how deeply affected I was when I first read The Alchemist, by Paulo Coehlo, many years ago now. Of course that book affected many people, and by now has become a standard part of many more enlightened readers’ most beloved book collections. Likewise Okri’s Astonishing the Gods will take its place in my personal favorites collection. If you, dear Readers, have a particularly beautiful, lyrical story or poem that you would like to share with the rest of us, please suggest it in the comments. As always, thanks for reading.


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Let love reveal itself

There are a thousand ways to let someone know that you love them. Each day gives us a new opportunity, how fantastic is that?! Today I gave my love to a group of Danish kids in these ways: through the gifts of poetry; playing Simon Says with them, instead of trying (fruitlessly) to make them write something in English which only one out of six was willing to do; sitting all together in a circle (something they, curiously enough, are not used to doing) and taking turns reading aloud from Frog and Toad arefriends in Danish; giving them the time to play some funny kind of hide-and-seek-tag-you’re-it game; and then asking them to find a picture of an animal from a set of books and try to copy it. Nearly all of them were willing to do nearly everything I asked. And the ones who weren’t? Well, I still loved them in spite of it.

During the lunch break, one very nice girl named Leah and I had a chat. She was looking sadly out the window and I asked her why. She explained that their Danish assignment was to imagine that they had been left all alone in Italy for some reason or other, and they were supposed to write about what they would do and what would happen. Leah is nearly fourteen, a tall, attractive girl with blue eyes, freckles and an open, friendly demeanor. She is quick and clever, and speaks and understands English more than most. “I can’t do this assignment,” she said with a frown. “It is my worst fear, to be left somewhere and be totally alone. I just can’t do it!” I replied, “Well, maybe you can think of it like you are the author of a story, and it is the main character who is alone, you know, like so many fairy tales are written. Then it’s not about you, but you are writing in the first person.” Leah shook her head, pouting. She was silent for a long moment, then turned to me, saying,” I have tried, but I cannot do it. I am so sensitive!” I thought for a moment, then tried to make her see that her mind was tricking her. “If you are in a car, going somewhere, you can either be in the backseat, letting your mind do the driving, making all the decisions, OR, you can get in the driver’s seat and take control of where you go. You have the choice to be in charge of your own mind.” Leah didn’t look convinced, and then it was time to return to the dreaded class assignment.

How often do we let our thoughts do the driving, while we are hanging out in the backseat of life? We know the voice of untruth, it has a rather insincere, brassy, unpleasant tone. Perhaps at the heart of it, we are just afraid that we really are alone, one puny human against the roaring tsunami called Life, which is ever threatening to overwhelm and engulf us in its murky depths, drowning and tearing us asunder. I propose that the deepest fear we humans have is of oblivion, the worst kind of hell. A place where we are nothing whatsoever, where we cease to exist. Even a fiery pit would be preferred. But. The truth is nothing like this. In reality, we are never, ever alone. Lonesome at times, but never are any of us alone. We always have the power of love at our disposal, if we simply can relax enough, breathe long enough, to let love reveal itself.

I found this poem again today, by the incomparable David Whyte. Few poets can read a poem as well as he, and personally I just love his lilting, melodic voice.

Everything is Waiting for You

Your great mistake is to act the drama
as if you were alone. As if life
were a progressive and cunning crime
with no witness to the tiny hidden
transgressions. To feel abandoned is to deny
the intimacy of your surroundings. Surely,
even you, at times, have felt the grand array;
the swelling presence, and the chorus, crowding
out your solo voice You must note
the way the soap dish enables you,
or the window latch grants you freedom.
Alertness is the hidden discipline of familiarity.
The stairs are your mentor of things
to come, the doors have always been there
to frighten you and invite you,
and the tiny speaker in the phone
is your dream-ladder to divinity.

Put down the weight of your aloneness and ease into
the conversation. The kettle is singing
even as it pours you a drink, the cooking pots
have left their arrogant aloofness and
seen the good in you at last. All the birds
and creatures of the world are unutterably
themselves. Everything is waiting for you. – David Whyte

Dear Readers, now, more than ever, is the time for each of us to ‘dive deep’ and find the love which resides within us, and to make best friends with ourselves. Self-hate and fear are the old story, and like old, outworn shoes, no longer fit with who we are now becoming. It is high time to embrace our own beauty, grace, and goodness, which I know we all possess in copious amounts. Take the reigns of your own power, not the old kind of egoistic power, but the power of love, of compassion. Now is the time, and here, in your heart, is the place.

I think that when we look for love courageously, it reveals itself, and we wind up attracting even more love. If one person really wants us, everyone does. But if we’re alone, we become even more alone. Life is strange.” – Paulo Coelho


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Astonishing the gods– and ourselves

I have been reading, and savoring, a most amazing book, called Astonishing the Gods, by Ben Okri. It is the story of one man’s journey through worlds, in his search for truth, wisdom, and meaning. This book is highly evocative and lyrical, and can be read on many levels. Tonight I would like to share some of these pages with you, dear Readers, to inspire and nourish your souls and imagination.

Cover of "Astonishing the Gods"

What a better, more enlightened world would actually look like, one has to wonder. Ben Okri gives us his wonderful imagination’s version:

As if in a mist, he saw whole peoples rising from the depths of a great ocean, rising from forgetful waters. Then, with a fixed and mystic gaze in their eyes, he saw them walking to an island of dreams. There they began building a great city of stone, and within it mighty pyramids and universities and churches and libraries and palaces and all the new unseen wonders of the world. He saw them building a great new future in an invisible space. They built quietly for a thousand years. They built a new world of beauty and wisdom and protection and joy to compensate for their five hundred years of suffering and oblivion below the ocean.

He was filled with wonder at the great and enduring beauty of the new civilization they had built for themselves in their invisible spaces. They had built it as their sanctuary. They had built a fabulous civilization of stone and marble, of diamond and gold. They had constructed palaces of wisdom, libraries of the infinite, cathedrals of joy, courts of divine laws, streets of bliss, cupolas of nobility, pyramids of light. They had fashioned a civic society in which the highest possibilities of the inhabitants could be realized. They had invented mystery schools and rituals of illumination. They had created an educational system in which the most ordinary goal was living the fullest life, in which creativity of all spheres of endeavour was the basic alphabet, and in which the most sublime lessons possible were always learned and relearned from the unforgettable suffering which was the bedrock of their great new civilization.

He was stunned by the beauty of their eternal sculptings. Their paintings were glorious: they seemed to have reached such heights of development that the works imparted the psychic luminosity of their artistry in mysterious colours, concealed forms, and even more concealed subjects.

His guide said: “When you stop inventing reality then you see things as they really are.”
He said: “But I can’t seem to stop.” His guide said: “There is a time for inventing reality, and there is a time for being still. At the gate of every new reality you must be still, or you won’t be able to  enter properly.”
“How do I learn to be still?”
“No one can teach you such things. You have to learn for yourself.”

(a bit further on in his journey, he experiences the following:)

A delighted mood blossomed in him as he passed the glittering arcades and marketplaces where the Invisibles from all over the world came to buy and sell ideas. Here they traded in philosophies, inspirations, intuitions, prophesies, paradoxes, riddles, enigmas, visions, and dreams. Enigmas were their trinkets, philosophies their jewelleries, paradoxes their silver, clarity their measure, inspiration their gold, prophecy their language, vision their play, and dreams their standard.

At this moment, I am about halfway through Okri’s mystical, dreamy world along with his main character, who narrates his own story but has no name: perhaps he is the Universal Human, or simply, in the tradition of the best storytellers, does not need to name himself since he is the one imparting the story to us. In a sense, this story is our collective human story, told in a very beautiful and deceptively simple way. This is the kind of book that stays with the reader long after the story is told.

In light of the times and what we are collectively experiencing, no matter how your personal world is unfolding from day to day, it behooves us all to take some time, daily, to dream into our future world. Envision the kind of world you would LIKE to see, to live in, to give to the world’s future children. Imagine it at the highest possible level. It is not enough to simply say that we want a better world, one cleansed of greed, violence, and fascists of every stripe. It will serve humanity well to envision this new world as vividly as possible. What will our government be like? Our educational system, health system, living quarters, worklife, family and home life, communities? How will different cultures interact with one another in our new world? What will the natural world be like? As you can see, envisioning the new is Big Work. Of course there are many fine people in the world today who are doing just this work of envisioning the future, and I for one am indebted to them for all their efforts and striving towards the new, improved, more evolved version of humanity. A thousand years, as Okri imagines in his book, is a long time to dream into. We may not be able to dream as deftly as he, but every step we take is a step towards the light. Towards a better world.

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Belles-lettres, or hackjob?

Like himself, they were sunk in books, chained to the alphabet, in thrall to sentences and paragraphs.” –Cynthia Ozick, The Messiah of Stockholm

I am dwelling on things I love, even if a measure of tragedy is stitched into everything, if you follow the thread long enough.” – Sebastian Barry, On Canaan’s Side

On a day such as this, I feel I have gotten myself into a mess by saying I am a writer. What does it really mean, to say such a thing of oneself in reality? These days I have taken more to novel reading, at the fine suggestion of some literary bloggers here at WordPress. Here in Denmark, the choices for English language fiction are somewhat limited, to say the least. And yet. I have been able to find some remarkable stories in the library, stories full of beauty, angst, sorrow, soul, in other words, works of fiction worthy of (and given to some) prizes and praise from those self-defined experts of contemporary literature. I would like to share a few excerpts with you today, dear Readers. Because there is writing, and then there is really Great Writing. Read the following and see if you don’t agree.

Excerpt from The Messiah of Stockholm, by Cynthia Ozick:

When he woke at seven into full blackness of night, he felt oddly fat– he was sated with his idea, he understood what he thought. He sat down immediately to his review. He wrote it straight off, a furnace burning fat. It was as if his pen, sputtering along the line of rapid letters it ignited, flung out halos of hot grease. The air brightened, then charred. He was very quick now, he was encyclopedic, he was in a crisis of inundation. He drove through all the caged hypotheses of his author– some were overt and paced behind bars, others were camouflaged, dappled; he was a dervish, he penetrated everything. When he was within sight of conquest he began to fuzz over with vertigo; he was a little frightened of all he knew. A greased beak tore him off his accustomed ledge and brought him to a high place beyond his control. Something happened to him while he slept. It was not the sleep of refreshment or restoration. He had no dreams. Afterward his lids clicked open like a marionette’s and he saw: what he saw, before he had formulated even a word of it, was his finished work. He saw it as a kind of vessel, curved, polished, hollowed out. In its cup lay an alabaster egg with a single glittering spot; no, not an egg: a globe, marvelously round. An eye. A human eye: his own, and then not his own. His father’s murdered eye.

Excerpt from On Canaan’s Side, by Sebastian Barry

“There is such a solace in the mere sight of the water. It clothes us delicately in its blowing salt and scent, gossamer items that medicate the poor soul. Oh yes I am thinking the human soul is a very slight thing, and not much evolution has gone into it I fear. It is a vague slight notion with not even a proper niche in the body. And yet is the only thing we have that God will measure.”

“And be thinking, remembering. Trying to. All difficult dark stuff, stories stuffed away, like old socks into old pillowcases. Not quite knowing the weight of truth in them much any more. And things that I have let be a long time, in the interests of happiness, or at least that daily contentment that I was once I do believe mistress of. The pleasure in something cooked just right, just the small and strangely infinite pleasure to be had from seeing, from witnessing, a tray of freshly baked biscuits. Like I had just completed the Parthenon, or carved Jefferson into a rock face, or maybe the contentment, felt in the very sinews, of the bear when he digs a salmon out of the water with his paw. Mightily healing, deeply, and what else could we have come here for, except to sense these tiny victories? Not the big victories that crush and kill the victor. Not wars and civil ructions, but the saving grace of a Hollandaise sauce that has escaped all the possibilities of culinary disaster and is being spread like a yellow prayer on a plump cod steak– victoriously.”

And on the other side of great, Dear Readers, is an excerpt from the now apparently #1 best seller of the NYTimes perennial bestseller list, Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, by Jenny Lawson: (this is listed in the nonfiction section)

My father was perpetually disappointed by our lack of trust, but I reminded him that just last week he’d brought his own mother a box he’d filled with an angry live snake that he’d found on the road on the way to her house. He tried to defend himself, but my sister and I had both been there when my father laid the box on the front yard and called his mother out to see ‘a surprise.’ Then he nudged the box open with his foot, the snake jumped out, and my grandmother and I ran inside. Lisa ran in the opposite direction and tried to jump into the bed of the truck, which was incredibly shortsighted, as that was exactly where my father stored the skinned, unidentifiable animals tha the planned to boil down in order to study their bone structure. The bed of my father’s pickup truck was like something that would have ended up in Dante’s Inferno, if Dante had ever spent any time in rural Texas.

A randomly chosen excerpt from Stay Close, by Harlan Coben (#13 on the NYTimes Bestseller list during May, 2012)

But why wasn’t Dave calling her back?
All those years he had been working, yes, providing, putting food on the table and all the rest of the crap men use to justify what they do– but Dave liked his work. He thrived on late hours and travel and golf on Sunday mornings and then coming home to his hot, willing wife. She had been all that for him, even when she didn’t want to be. Don’t get her wrong. Dave had never bullied her. He had never been mean or deceptive, but then again, why would he be? He had the perfect wife. She had given up on finding a career of her own. She paid all the bills, took care of all the shopping, drove all the carpools, made sure the household was in order. She took care of his mother, cared about her more than he ever could, and after all that, all the sacrifices she’d made, how did he treat her?
He was ignoring her calls– and he’d somehow been spying on her.

As we can plainly see from these contrasting excerpts, all novelists (Jenny Lawson is basically a humorist-novelist-writer-bloggess, apparently) are NOT created equal. Okay, call me a snob, but for good reason! The caliber and quality of prose by Barry and Ozick are light-years ahead of the two authors who have, undoubtedly, made a ton of dollars from the royalties on their bestsellers. Hardly fair, but that’s how it works in this business. See it as a business, play the game right, and you may end up well known (at least for a time) and well off. But dare to write in the tradition of the literary geniuses and you may become published, known in literary circles, and possibly need to hold onto your dayjob. Of course, you may be lucky and become both critically acclaimed and rich, the best of both worlds?

My exploration today is simply to emphasize that the reasons why people sit down at their computers and start typing varies wildly in the world of writing. Obviously, I have my own delusions of grandeur, my own opinions of what is actually worth one’s time to sit down and read. If I am a writer at all, then part of my mission as such is to remind (or teach if they do not already know) writers that what they write, as well as how they write it, matters. It really does matter, in the long run. Words, in this cyberspace world we live in, are getting unbelievably common and as such, cheap, becoming ever cheaper. I am one lone voice in the mass of written words which is encouraging the use of million-dollar words and thoughts, as my daughter’s third grade teacher once taught. Ask yourself why do you write, what is the motivation underlying your story, your thoughts, your efforts? It seems critically important to really understand yourself as a writer, in order to write well. Do you agree, dear Readers who happen to also be Writers? Please give me your thoughts, I would like to hear your comments on this.


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Vampire novels and one version of the Top 10 novels of the past twenty years

What a curious thing it is to be a blogger, and a writer (are they one and the same, or not, one wonders?). Yesterday was a weird day, emotions ran through me like water pouring through a drainpipe until at last I was so exhausted that all I could do was to sit and read through many of the blogs I have not kept up with for the past week. Which was tiring in itself; after two hours of reading some of your blog posts, dear Readers, I was in fullblown Overwhelm. Now it is a quiet, rainy Sunday morning outside my window. A grey and white cat sits on a green porch chair in the garden, cleaning its paws, then wanders away to find new cat adventures. Yesterday so many thoughts appeared in my mind, for blog posts, for sections of my languishing novel, such elucidation, yet I could not bring myself to write any words at all.
I have been giving some thought to the idea of Story lately. What makes a good story, one that others will want to read? But one that the writer herself wants to tell, that burns to get out of the soul and onto the page.

I spent some minutes in a Danish bookstore the other day, perusing the titles. As you can imagine, the majority of novels in Denmark are translated into Danish from the original language. Of course, here, as everywhere in the western world (which seems to be only growing larger and stronger, like an invasive weed, like garlic mustard on the roadsides) people are reading more or less the same stuff: vampire stories, fantasy, and of course, crime fiction is really huge around here, with quite a few Scandinavian authorDescription unavailables getting top shelfspace. Here is a list of titles of some of the most popular novels published within this past year or so, according to GoodReads:

Fifty Shades Freed, The Fault in Our Stars, Insurgent, Crossed, City of Lost Souls, Gone Girl, Cinder, Pandemonium, Lover Avenged, I’ve Got Your Number, Lover Mine, Deadlocked, The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight, Defending Jacob, Shadowfever, Bitterblue, Rapture, Reached, Stargazer, Under the Never Sky, Lone Wolf, The Selection, Everneath, Grave Mercy, The Snow Child, Shadow of Night, The Golden Lily, Incarnate, Lover Reborn, The Girl of Fire and Thorns, Hallowed, etc, etc, etc…..

Back to the bookstore shelves. I picked up one book, prominently displayed, with a cover photo showing a nicely built young man, his head raised high to heaven, arms outstretched, in a nearly crucified pose sans the cross. Curious, I read a bit of the back (in Danish, of course). It described a seventeen year old boy whose life was ‘deadboring’ until one day, a bizarre incident happens which changes him forever…. I ponder this newest phenomena in popular novels, that of your ordinary Joe or Jenny, tired of sitting at home bored out of their young minds, suddenly either meeting, or somehow being turned into, a super being of one kind or another. I suppose it is not an entirely new story, more like the 2012 version of Superman and Batman comics from the 40’s. Or something.

Now onto a different Best Of Fiction list. From a blog I just found, listserve.com, http://listverse.com/2010/10/10/top-10-best-novels-of-the-last-20-years/ comes this blogger’s picks of the best 10 novels written in the last 20 years. He or she writes,

“The ten novels on this list all substantiate the belief that books are the most elastic, introspective, human and entertaining form of media that exist. Not movies, not music, not art, not the theatre. A famous author once said that novels are the best way for two human beings to connect with each other. I believe this, and I believe that people who do not find pleasure in words have never had the opportunity to read one of the great novels. So, here I will present the ten greatest novels of the last twenty years, without apologies.”

Music for torching, A.M. Holmes (A. M. Homes deserves recognition for her amazing writing skills, her unique voice and her gloomy view of the world. We follow them in their search for happiness, or some form of contentment, which they never seem to find. Smoking crack in the dining room, having affairs, trying to burn down their own house…nothing seems to change their boredom and disappointment. They’re stuck. They’ve become strangers to each other, to themselves, to their children.)

Fight Club, Chuck Palahniuk (I will say that nobody in the world writes better, sentence to sentence, than Palahniuk. His quick, intelligent prose keeps the attention of the worst ADHD-sufferers, and the themes in Fight Club of revolt, of going back to zero, of anti-consumerism are universal, accessible and desperately needed in the world we live in today.)

House of Leaves, Mark Danielwski (Danielewski made us question our own sanity. He led us through the 3-and-a-half-minute hallway and then left us there, shivering and alone, waiting for the monster, who we’ve only ever felt, but that we know (for certain for certain) is the most terrifying thing in the world.)

We Don’t Live Here Anymore, Andre Dubus (it gives us a rubric of how to live our own lives. Shows us that nobody ever has anything figured out, not really. That what we do and feel morphs and shifts. Shows us what to do when everything we’ve held on to for so long goes away, how to bear it. Ultimately it’s about what it’s like to live in a world where we get to make all the decisions, and have to bear the repercussions of what those decisions mean.)

The Road, Cormac McCarthy (It’s full of McCarthy’s terse dialogue, minute detail,stream-of-consciousness, masculinity, and an excruciatingly intense violent plot (win!). Not to mention that, in addition to all of these things, it’s also overwhelmingly sad, which is not an easy thing for a novel to be.)

Rules of Attraction, Brett Easton Ellis (It’s about sex and drugs and horrible, self-absorbed, incomplete people, trying to get laid and quit smoking in a fictional University in New England. The things they do are despicable and immoral. There’s nothing redeeming about any of the characters in the entire book, no hope, and yet this book stings because nobody could write this well about people like this if they did not, in fact, exist in real life.)

Strong Motion, Jonathan Franzen (Franzen is a historian, and he tells us exactly why the world is bad, how it came to be that way. He goes all the way back to the colonization of America, but not in a preachy or boring way. He personifies a raccoon for five pages, which is strangely one of the most poignant parts of the whole book.)

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz (Diaz blends Dominican history and folklore, humor, love, sex, death, revolutions, Castro, and dictators into one of the best freshman novels of all time. He employs current pop references, historical footnotes, a bad-ass original refreshing writing style, a mysterious narrator, Spanish, a blazing humor, age-old plot devices, and one of the most heart-breaking characters in existence to make this an instant classic.)

Tree of Smoke, Denis Johnson (This mammoth odyssey about the Vietnam War transcends all other attempts to write about Vietnam, and makes them look like Hallmark greeting cards. This is Johnson’s masterpiece – a book you can imagine him writing under a succubus’s spell in a fallout shelter—hair long, unshaven, chain-smoking, frenzied to get the words out.)

Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace ( Ultimately, this book is about addiction in every form you could possibly imagine: Heroin, alcohol, cannabis, crack, cocaine, Diludiad, Percocet, sex, sports, cleaning, and on and on and on. Wallace created his own world in Infinite Jest. This is not something you finish and then say, “Well that was a really great book,” and then move on with your life. This book deserves its own cannon. It cannot be categorized. This book genuinely redefines the boundaries of what a novel can do.

Dear Readers, need I say more? Obviously we are living in the middle of Apocalyptic Times. The books on this person’s Top Ten list are all about death, horror, destruction, debauchery, evil, ennui and the deepest, darkest aspects of the human soul. And, the perennial favorite vice, sex. To be honest, there is only one book on this list which I would like to read. You can probably guess which one, the Dubus book of novellas, and here’s why: Ultimately it’s about what it’s like to live in a world where we get to make all the decisions, and have to bear the repercussions of what those decisions mean. I guess the human condition interests me the most when it is in its higher forms, meaning stories which show people striving ultimately to become better, higher, more moral versions of themselves, instead of exploring the worst of what a human can contain.

Towards the end of the 5th century A.D. The Roman Empire fell. “From the eighteenth century onward,” Glen W. Bowersock has remarked, “we have been obsessed with the fall: it has been valued as an archetype for every perceived decline, and, hence, as a symbol for our own fears.” (Wikipedia)

By now nearly everyone living in the contemporary world knows that the times we are living in are the equivalent of those faraway days, with a breakdown in nearly every sphere of society. No wonder that writers are writing such stories, tales of horror and strife, suffering and loss, as the decline of the human spirit itself grows around us like bindweed, spiraling around our souls and binding us to the darkest regions of humanity.

But. What is happening in the ostensible world needn’t drag us down into its murky depths permanently. I am not an advocate of living with one’s head stuck in the sand by any means. And yet we do not have to collectively dwell in despair, nor revel in it nor feed it. We have the choice, because we are still free human beings. In our souls, we have the freedom to choose which stories we will write, read, watch and listen to. We do not have to only be entertained by horror and evil. How the world would change in an instant if the majority of us chose to entertain and educate ourselves with stories which enliven and lift our humanity, instead of keeping us bound by the chains of darkness. I am not interested in lecturing about morality, not really. But I simply see so clearly how our society’s constant diet of death, destruction and utter degradation brings us only deeper into despair. Junk stories, like junk food, destroys the human body and spirit. What kind of world are we collectively creating?

Related articles
http://www.goodreads.com/book/popular_by_date/2012
http://listverse.com/2010/10/10/top-10-best-novels-of-the-last-20-years/

Sunday Salon: Top 10 Science Fiction and Fantasy Novels (shelflove.wordpress.com

11 Books You Should Read If You’re A Woman In Your 20s (thoughtcatalog.com)

My Fearful Symmetry and Women Scorned (horroraddicts.wordpress.com)