Some of you may know Marge/Jennifer from her writing on Off the Rails. We’ve been together for forty-two years… Ups and downs, thick and thin.
Words become inadequate.
Friends of the Secret Keeper, I am writing this for Marge – or, as many of you know her, Jennifer/jennifer kiley/jk – because she cannot.
Marge’s stay in hospital and then short-term care has turned into hospice care. I am hoping to bring her home when she is able – and when I can be sure home is the safest, most comfortable place for her to be.
Until then, we take it one day at a time, treasuring every moment we have together.
The posts she had scheduled will continue to be published….
Good energy, thoughts, and, if you are so inclined, prayers are welcome.
Warren MacKENZIE… (1924-2018)
On New Year’s Eve, 2018, my father died.
He was an artist. A master with clay and wheel, glaze and fire. He was a teacher, a mentor, and, though he’d likely shrug it off, an inspiration to generations of potters. His pots are in homes and museums around the world, his life and lessons frozen in time on film and in print. Perhaps some of you are even reading this with a MacKenzie vase full of hopeful spring blooms on your table or a yunomi full of Earl Grey in your hands.
For weeks, I have been trying to put pen to paper, to find the right words to talk about him, to cut through the swirl of emotions, and I always seem to come up short. How can I possibly put him into words? Then, with my mind’s eye, I see him throw up his hands. “Get out of your head, Shawnee,” he says. “Memories, reflections. Just keep it simple.” Then he laughs.
Good advice, as always.
There are some individuals so comfortable in their own skin, the rest of us feel like pod people by comparison, struggling to fit in. My father was one of those people. I always marveled at how at ease he seemed, regardless of the situation. Whether in clay-covered T-shirt and jeans or the occasional suit – I even have a picture of him in a tuxedo! – it didn’t matter (though I’m sure he preferred the former). Whether showing a class of eager students how to center a ball of clay or dining with ambassadors and kings, he was always himself: passionate, generous, and curious about everything.
He was a natural teacher who thrived on the exchange of ideas, the opening of minds. Decades past, when – weather permitting – the yard would be covered with pot-laden tables for one of many quarterly sales, I remember how he held court under our maple tree, wrapping chosen treasures in old newspapers recycled from the neighbors. Perched in the branches overhead, I’d hear his laugh filtering up as he talked with old friends and new acquaintances, about form and function, or how a bowl fits in the hand and why texture is for the eye as well as the fingertips. Whether at the University, doing workshops, or sitting under the maple tree, what he taught was as much philosophy as technique, and, like his pots, it endures.
Growing up, he urged us to say YES to life whenever we could. To try new foods – no matter how strange – at least once. To read voraciously and listen to music, familiar and foreign. To embrace the aesthetic of the world wherever we found it, be it in the smile of a cat, the simplicity of a Han bowl, or the kitsch of pink flamingoes standing in the Minnesota snow. To look at everything with a sense of wonder and trust the world – even at its darkest – as much as we could. And to always vote Blue.
Though I could never convince him to get connected to the Internet, he always had a certain fondness for gadgets, especially tape recorders. I remember many an evening, after long-ago dinners with friends, when he’d bring out the reel-to-reel, and set it up on the table, recording conversations about pots and politics, love and literature, well into the night. I don’t know if he ever listened to the tapes after that, but, at the time, it was the recording that mattered.
He remembered well and told stories with flair, something I like to think I learned from him.
And he loved – and was loved in return by – two remarkable women: my mother, Alix,
and my step-mom, Nancy.
Before Joseph Campbell made it popular, he followed his bliss. Of all the things he wanted for us kids, I think that was top of the list: to find our own paths – even if by happenstance, as he did – and follow them with as much joy and passion as we can muster. To be true and happy in ourselves, and move through life with kindness, loyalty, and love.
A friend of mine remarked how strange it is to be an orphan in one’s 60s. And she’s right. After being independent for years, suddenly we want nothing so much as to be little kids again, to feel safe in arms no longer here, in an infectious laugh now silent.
Tolkien wrote: “So comes snow after fire, and even dragons have their endings.”
My father was a bold, creative, long-lived Dragon. The most remarkable Dragon I have ever known.
It’s his birthday, today. He would have been 95.
I miss his laugh.
When I sat down with the WAFDE Dragons back in 2011 to celebrate the first Month of the Dragon, they insisted, in their don’t-pin-us-down way, to make it a movable feast. So it was that, every year, we would confab in the late summer and, until now, we decided to keep it in October. Personally, I think Halloween was a major draw.
This year, however, we are going to take advantage of the movable part of the feast and push Month of the Dragon to February. The Dragons are being very gracious in this, acceding to the fact that I am on a book deadline – about them, always a plus in their minds. Also, yesterday, one of my furry hose-dragon cats sunk his teeth into my wrist and, though on antibiotics, computer work is rather hunt and peck right now. [Parker is very contrite and promises never to do it again. Right.]
By all means, anyone who wants to celebrate Dragons in October, or November, or every day of the year, have at it with draconic gusto. World Dragon Day is Saturday, October 6, this year, and we will certainly be hoisting a flagon in festive cheer. And, as February approaches, I will be posting reminders for one and all. It may be a short month but it will be packed with draconic fun.
Thanks for understanding. See you all then.
It is always a pleasure to spread the word about good books, doubly so when they are written by friends. Today I want to tell you about Dark Draughts, a collection of short stories by John Goodrich. (Crossroad Press, 2018)
For years, my appreciation of horror lay somewhere between the casual and the academic. Oh, I knew the classics well enough, but was not really familiar with much modern horror. Then I started reading John’s stories, of which Dark Draughts is an evocative debut collection.
Here are tales steeped in Lovecraftian mythos and ghoulish sojourns to the Old West, ancient Egypt, and the acrid battlefields of WWI. There’s even a piece of extreme grotesquery – “Champagne” – for good measure. [Note: I find “Champagne” funny as hell, but it is definitely not for the squeamish.]
Rendered in crisp, redolent prose, these 16 stories are chilling, witty, and unsettlingly modern. John delves into the shadowy recesses of the soul where ancient fears lurk, keeping us awake at night. In short, Dark Draughts is a disturbing delight.
Drink deep and keep the lights on.
Six years ago – can’t believe it’s been that long! – Gatsby the Great came into our lives
and blessed us with three marvelous, magical, mystical children, Parker, Poe, and Carter-Lion.
Sadly, we lost Gatsby the next year, but her kids are still with us. They have grown into amazing beings: Poe wide-eyed and a little wild, in a constant state of surprise; Parker burly but a bit insecure which can make him scrappy (I think he might have taken his mom’s death the hardest of the three); and Carter who is a wonder – an extraordinarily Zen cat if ever there was one, a profound thinker.
Now every Earth Day is doubly joyous as we hug them close in grateful birthday celebration.
Happy Birthday to Poe, Parker, and Carter-Lion! May you have many, many more.
What a time it has been!
From the Master, Terry Pratchett
All right,” said Susan. “I’m not stupid. You’re saying humans need… fantasies to make life bearable.”
REALLY? AS IF IT WAS SOME KIND OF PINK PILL? NO. HUMANS NEED FANTASY TO BE HUMAN. TO BE THE PLACE WHERE THE FALLING ANGEL MEETS THE RISING APE.
“Tooth fairies? Hogfathers? Little—”
YES. AS PRACTICE. YOU HAVE TO START OUT LEARNING TO BELIEVE THE LITTLE LIES.
“So we can believe the big ones?”
YES. JUSTICE. MERCY. DUTY. THAT SORT OF THING.
“They’re not the same at all!”
YOU THINK SO? THEN TAKE THE UNIVERSE AND GRIND IT DOWN TO THE FINEST POWDER AND SIEVE IT THROUGH THE FINEST SIEVE AND THEN SHOW ME ONE ATOM OF JUSTICE, ONE MOLECULE OF MERCY. AND YET—Death waved a hand. AND YET YOU ACT AS IF THERE IS SOME IDEAL ORDER IN THE WORLD, AS IF THERE IS SOME…SOME RIGHTNESS IN THE UNIVERSE BY WHICH IT MAY…
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“My soul is ten thousand miles wide and extremely invisibly deep. It is the same size as the sea, and you cannot, you cannot cram it into beer cans and fingernails and stake it out in lots and own it. It will drown you all and never even notice.”
There are writers who touch us, who teach us, who look at the world in eye-opening ways. Writers who not only reflect the world we live in but also dare to shape it into something the rest of us mere mortals had not even imagined. And when they are gone, and their voices silenced, there is a hole in the world; we are all the poorer for their passing.
For me, Ursula Le Guin was such a writer.
The Lathe of Heaven; Left Hand of Darkness; Tales of Earthsea; The Dispossessed…In Fantasy and Science Fiction, novels, short stories, poetry, and essays, she pushed boundaries and, ahead of her time, challenged us on subjects such as race, gender, love, ethical balance (her translation of Lao Tzu is wonderful), and the power of words. Her use of language was by turns elegant, wry, funny, and profound. Her observations of our human condition were both mystical and realistic, and, to this reader, failed utopias aside, ultimately hopeful. She also understood Dragons as well as any of us.
I could go on, but Ursula’s words are far better than mine. As Harold Bloom said, she “has raised fantasy into high literature for our times.”
She raised commencement addresses, too. The following is the speech she gave at Mills College back in 1983. It was wise 35 years ago and seems positively prescient today.
A Left-Handed Commencement Address
Mills College, 1983
I want to thank the Mills College Class of ’83 for offering me a rare chance: to speak aloud in public in the language of women.
I know there are men graduating, and I don’t mean to exclude them, far from it. There is a Greek tragedy where the Greek says to the foreigner, “If you don’t understand Greek, please signify by nodding.” Anyhow, commencements are usually operated under the unspoken agreement that everybody graduating is either male or ought to be. That’s why we are all wearing these twelfth-century dresses that look so great on men and make women look either like a mushroom or a pregnant stork. Intellectual tradition is male. Public speaking is done in the public tongue, the national or tribal language; and the language of our tribe is the men’s language. Of course women learn it. We’re not dumb. If you can tell Margaret Thatcher from Ronald Reagan, or Indira Gandhi from General Somoza, by anything they say, tell me how. This is a man’s world, so it talks a man’s language. The words are all words of power. You’ve come a long way, baby, but no way is long enough. You can’t even get there by selling yourself out: because there is theirs, not yours.
Maybe we’ve had enough words of power and talk about the battle of life. Maybe we need some words of weakness. Instead of saying now that I hope you will all go forth from this ivory tower of college into the Real World and forge a triumphant career or at least help your husband to and keep our country strong and be a success in everything – instead of talking about power, what if I talked like a woman right here in public? It won’t sound right. It’s going to sound terrible. What if I said what I hope for you is first, if — only if — you want kids, I hope you have them. Not hordes of them. A couple, enough. I hope they’re beautiful. I hope you and they have enough to eat, and a place to be warm and clean in, and friends, and work you like doing. Well, is that what you went to college for? Is that all? What about success?
Success is somebody else’s failure. Success is the American Dream we can keep dreaming because most people in most places, including thirty million of ourselves, live wide awake in the terrible reality of poverty. No, I do not wish you success. I don’t even want to talk about it. I want to talk about failure.
Because you are human beings you are going to meet failure. You are going to meet disappointment, injustice, betrayal, and irreparable loss. You will find you’re weak where you thought yourself strong. You’ll work for possessions and then find they possess you. You will find yourself — as I know you already have — in dark places, alone, and afraid.
What I hope for you, for all my sisters and daughters, brothers and sons, is that you will be able to live there, in the dark place. To live in the place that our rationalizing culture of success denies, calling it a place of exile, uninhabitable, foreign.
Well, we’re already foreigners. Women as women are largely excluded from, alien to, the self-declared male norms of this society, where human beings are called Man, the only respectable god is male, the only direction is up. So that’s their country; let’s explore our own. I’m not talking about sex; that’s a whole other universe, where every man and woman is on their own. I’m talking about society, the so-called man’s world of institutionalized competition, aggression, violence, authority, and power. If we want to live as women, some separatism is forced upon us: Mills College is a wise embodiment of that separatism. The war-games world wasn’t made by us or for us; we can’t even breathe the air there without masks. And if you put the mask on you’ll have a hard time getting it off. So how about going on doing things our own way, as to some extent you did here at Mills? Not for men and the male power hierarchy — that’s their game. Not against men, either — that’s still playing by their rules. But with any men who are with us: that’s our game. Why should a free woman with a college education either fight Machoman or serve him? Why should she live her life on his terms?
Machoman is afraid of our terms, which are not all rational, positive, competitive, etc. And so he has taught us to despise and deny them. In our society, women have lived, and have been despised for living, the whole side of life that includes and takes responsibility for helplessness, weakness, and illness, for the irrational and the irreparable, for all that is obscure, passive, uncontrolled, animal, unclean — the valley of the shadow, the deep, the depths of life. All that the Warrior denies and refuses is left to us and the men who share it with us and therefore, like us, can’t play doctor, only nurse, can’t be warriors, only civilians, can’t be chiefs, only indians. Well so that is our country. The night side of our country. If there is a day side to it, high sierras, prairies of bright grass, we only know pioneers’ tales about it, we haven’t got there yet. We’re never going to get there by imitating Machoman. We are only going to get there by going our own way, by living there, by living through the night in our own country.
So what I hope for you is that you live there not as prisoners, ashamed of being women, consenting captives of a psychopathic social system, but as natives. That you will be at home there, keep house there, be your own mistress, with a room of your own. That you will do your work there, whatever you’re good at, art or science or tech or running a company or sweeping under the beds, and when they tell you that it’s second-class work because a woman is doing it, I hope you tell them to go to hell and while they’re going to give you equal pay for equal time. I hope you live without the need to dominate, and without the need to be dominated. I hope you are never victims, but I hope you have no power over other people. And when you fail, and are defeated, and in pain, and in the dark, then I hope you will remember that darkness is your country, where you live, where no wars are fought and no wars are won, but where the future is. Our roots are in the dark; the earth is our country. Why did we look up for blessing — instead of around, and down? What hope we have lies there. Not in the sky full of orbiting spy-eyes and weaponry, but in the earth we have looked down upon. Not from above, but from below. Not in the light that blinds, but in the dark that nourishes, where human beings grow human souls.
“And though I came to forget or regret all I have ever done, yet I would remember that once I saw the dragons aloft on the wind at sunset above the western isles; and I would be content.”
… The Farthest Shore
I hope you are content, Ursula. The world is diminished by your absence.
Month of the Dragon has come to a close. A hearty roar of appreciation to all who have participated. And a draconic welcome to all our new WAFDE members! Hope everyone had a spikey-wikey, rip-snorting time.
Halloween. All Hallows Eve. Most Dragons prefer the ancient name, Samhain. This has always been a liminal time – a day when the misty barrier between the spiritual and the corporeal worlds thins and the inhabitants of each can come and go at will.
If you are up on your Dragon history you know this is a very special day for Dragons, especially among the Westie Weyrs. It is a solemn time of both remembrance and hope. A day to honor ancient sorrows and proffered sanctuary, ancestors lost and triumphant returns.
I am speaking, of course, of events that date back to the Dark Times of Dragon persecution. When Dragon-slaying was not only the “sport” du jour but also the surest way for would-be heroes, saints, and princelings to claim their bona fides. The Weyrs of Europe were decimated and anti-Dragon sentiments even inched their way east along the Silk Road.
Some Dragons flew west to the New World (Trans-Atlantic Transmigration), and some stayed and fought. But most Westies chose the better part of valor, discreetly taking the Sidhe up on their offer to dwell in the Otherworld until humans regained their sanity. In short, they faded into the mists. And – Surprise! – after many centuries, things in the physical realm did improve. Yet, while some of our friends chose to return to this world, other more cautious Dragons, did not.
So it is that Samhain takes on a certain long-distance family-reunion quality, with flights between planes and all-nighter confabs. There is music and dancing and visiting old haunts. There is catching up with the grand-dragonlets and telling of tales of past lives and future dreams. Some Dragons even seek out the relatives of Dragon-friendly humans they once knew.
For now, we here at the Nest wish you all a very Happy Samhain. May your harvest be bountiful and the coming year warm with Dragon-fire and fast friends.
Halloween is fast upon us. For most of us, it’s our annual nod to the weird and spooky, to the inner desires of our fantasy selves. And to sweet-induced stomach aches we regret in the next day.
Much as Dragons relish the weird and frightening – some might even say it is their default approach to the world – they are decidedly old school when it comes to Halloween. Not that they don’t get a vicarious kick out of our human penchant for dressing up and banding through the streets in search of sugar highs. But they prefer to embrace the day less as a time for digestive overindulgence and more as a solemn celebration of the Otherworld, beyond and between. In the spirit of the Old Faiths, of the Wiccans, Druids, et al., they prefer to keep the 31st – Samhain – sacred.
The same cannot be said for Samhain Eve, aka Mischief Night. Or Devil’s Night or Cabbage Night – Western Dragons are particularly fond of cabbage – as local customs dictate. In centuries past it was a time for late night raids and scarecrows ablaze with Dragonfire.
When humans got in on the fun were eggs dripping off windows, frost-spoiled veggies smashed hither and yon, and toilet paper in the trees. I remember when I was a kid, our mailbox was an habitual target for exploding paint cans; at least I knew the mailbox makers were kept in business. In all, it is a night of messy but (usually) harmless hijinks. The tricks before the treats.
What Dragon wouldn’t want to join in? For, awe-inspiring though they may be, Dragons are not exactly sober beings. They have wild, fittingly over-sized senses of mischief. And, after a month of chipping in and generally being on their best behaviour, who among them wouldn’t want to blow off a little good-natured steam?Still, the mood around the Nest is a little different this year, bouncing between weary tail biting to anarchic rebellion. Given how empathetic Dragons are, this is likely a reflection of the general angst around them. Right now, I am hard pressed to keep the Dragons from flying south, buzzing the White House, and leaving noisome mountains of draconic fertilizer in the Rose Garden. (I won’t tell you what they have planned for a certain West Palm Beach residence.)
But I remind them that all the positive PR we’ve been doing throughout the year can be negated in a puff of ill-placed Dragonfire.
Not to mention, drawing unwanted governmental attention can be extremely problematic in these dark times. Low profiles do have their benefits.
So, as you and your Dragons head out tonight for a little pre-Samhain hell-raising, be wise and careful. And keep a thought for the less fortunate Dragons of the world. For the Dragons who don’t have the luxury of frolic, who are being pushed to the fringes and struggling just to survive.