Different Lenses

 

Find Cotton Valent on Facebook @CottonGallery

“The Star” by Cotton Valent

 

Old photos tell stories.   ::stage whisper::  They steal your soul, you know.   I joke, but I do love the older images that show us a time other than our own.  Not necessarily better, but different.  Old letters tell stories, too, through the paper they’re written on, the handwriting, the ink, and of course the contents.  Taken altogether and they open a window onto another time and place, a time of ideas we’ve lost, and mindsets limited by what we didn’t yet know, or were unwilling to grasp. We are given the chance to experience life, for the span of the pages, through another’s eyes.

For me, tarot cards open windows as well.  I had a ton of them at one point–35 or so decks–which, looking back, seems excessive. I guess I felt it was excessive then, too, as I gave most away. They should be loved and used.  No point in hording, or keeping things in a box.  I feel this way about anything “collectible” whether rare or not.  You won’t do anything with it once you’re dead.  May as well enjoy it.

A few years ago I put away my tarot decks.  Stacked them neatly in a tray in their wraps, then let them collect dust.  There “wasn’t time” for them, and I wasn’t reading for anyone anymore, even myself.  I had no more questions to ask.  Life was life, and you take it as it comes, and you make things work.

I sometimes drift away from a passion to never really pick it up again.  I’m famous for dabbling.  Or–as someone once told me–I take in all I can from something, and when it no longer nourishes, I slough it off, like a snake does its skin, then move on.  I thought that was a very gracious way of putting it.  In this case, however, it didn’t feel true.

Last week, I met with two friends who also do the tarot thing.  Before we met, I pulled out a few decks to see if I wanted to take any of them with me on the visit.

In going through the different cards, I felt I was throwing back the curtains on a window, exchanging my black-and-white view to one of color and birdsong.  I had a sense of coming home again.

I mostly used tarot for inspiration and storytelling, for clarification, insight, and even focus.  And when I call them windows, I really mean lenses–often 78 different lenses in each deck.  They remind me of the gels I used to use when doing lighting design back in long ago.  The light fixtures we used were always the same, but by placing a different colored or textured gel front of the beam, it changed the way we saw what was on stage.  Mood, focus, drive, subtext all changed with the use of a gel.  And that’s how tarot works for me.  I have a subject I’d like to see revealed or enhanced, or whatever my focus is … and the card gives me a new way of viewing it, of considering it.  Pretty much as simple as that.  There are other ways of using them, of course.  This just happens to be mine.

For twenty years I’d used them.  Some of these decks are old friends.  They fit my puny hands.  There’s a whispering *whuffle* as they’re shuffled together, a worn softness to their edges from repeated use.  The colors please my eyes, the illustrations intrigue, inform, reassure, and reveal.  I love how their depicted archetypes and incidents cover the whole range of human existence.

I’d missed them, and not even known it.

Tarot has its lovers and its haters. For me, they’re a tool, and like all tools it depends on what you do with them.  Evil and good come from the hand which wields the tool.  It is one aspect of my life I don’t talk about much, though.  I find it’s less socially acceptable to read tarot cards than it is to be a role-play gamer, which is weird to me, but hey, I don’t write the social norms … I just try to change them.

I realized that I’d put aside my cards–my form of meditation and inspiration–because I’d also stopped being in a community which valued such tools.  The greater world didn’t seem to have room for them, or me as a user of them.  There’s a lot of side-eye to sidestep when you pull out a deck.

And that’s fear talking.  I may write about socially unacceptable people, but I’ve always tried to pass as socially acceptable myself.  Somehow, after stepping away from that community, my use of the cards made me an outlier in my own eyes, and set me up for judgment.

Guess whose voice was the loudest Judgey McJudgerson?  My own.

So … all this is to say, “Just do what brings you joy.”  As long as it harms none, go for it.

As for me, I’m back to my old morning routine of a card with my second coffee, and a page of poetry.  It sets my brain right, starts the day with imagery and lyricism.   And we all need a different view on the world now and then.

 

What’s your jam?  What have you given up from imagined peer pressure, or the real thing?  What would you do again, if you could? What tool do you like to view the world through?

 

"Ace of Cups" The Druid Craft Tarot. Illustrated by Will Worthington

The Druid Craft Tarot. Illustrations Will Worthington

 

It’s Personal

 

personalize-it-main

 

Twice a year, like clockwork, I ponder the correlations between writing fiction and running role-playing games.  The first is in the spring when I start thinking about what games I want to bring to AmberCon Northwest (an excellent roleplaying convention in Portland that centers around the Amber Diceless RP Game).  The second time is in November immediately after the con wraps and I have to decide whether my games were a success.

Some writers I know gaming and writing are two very different things.  I beg to disagree.  On the gamemaster side of things, you’re creating plot, history, world-building, secondary characters, and conflict.  The only thing that is different is that the main characters are out of your control … though a good GM will find ways of giving player characters growth through an emotional arc–exactly what a good writer will give their own main characters.

My metrics for gauging success of both novel-style fiction and gaming are the same: Did you enjoy it?  Were you engaged?  Or, better yet, did you have a stake in how it turned out?  Did the ending satisfy?  Do you want more?

The mechanics for building a satisfying story differ for each form–or at least I find them to differ substantially in most respects.  The thing I have been coming back to though, the similarity between them, is finding ways to make the plot personal to the main characters, whether they’re yours or a player’s in your game.

Okay, I say that like I know what I’m talking about, but this is all a work in progress–a hypothesis undergoing rigorous testing.

By “make it personal” I don’t mean that the player characters are the center of the plot–though if it’s a small enough group and they’re tied together in some way, maybe they are!–but that the choices they make can change the outcome or move the plot forward in significant ways.  Their choices have consequences, for good or ill.  The plot moves forward because the PCs made choices.  Even choosing not to choose is something which should bring consequences.

And that’s not any different from making the plot of a written story tie intimately to the main character, even when the events propelling the MC into the plot didn’t have anything to do with them previously.  With written fiction, we have the luxury of knowing our character’s backgrounds, and knowing which part of their history is driving them with each scene.  With gaming, not so much, even if your players send you a ten page history to work with.  The best–if not only–thing we can do to make a plot personal to them, is give them the chance to make decisions which matter.  Each time they move on a decision, there’s buy-in.  Once there’s buy-in, stakes can be raised.  Once stakes are raised, consequences become greater and rewards that much sweeter.

So that’s my goal for my upcoming games (and the story Simone and I are in the middle of) … to make it personal.  I’m sure I’ll let you know how successful I am come mid-November.

How do you make your RP scenarios and/or stories personal to the main characters, assuming the plot isn’t all about them?  This inquiring mind wants to know.

 

Writers’ Fuel

 

 

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a wordsmith writing a story is in want of some coffee.”

 

I’m pretty sure that’s what Jane Austen said.  Followed by, “Gimme some java.”

I write, sure.  I plot and plan.  I noodle with friends.  And yes, I’m invariably in want of some coffee.  But more, I want a lovely, quiet, clean place where I can sip and type, or lounge and talk in peace for a few hours.

Shout out to STORYVILLE COFFEE!!

If you’re in the Seattle metro area, give Storyville a try.  Four locations.  Two types of extremely freshly roasted coffee: Prologue for the full caff, and Epilogue for the decaf.  Breakfast bits.  Luncheon stuff.  Beautiful ambiance.  Comfortable seating.  Uber kind people behind the bar.

Also?  Hand-crafted espresso.  This means they don’t push a button and let the machine do all the work.  They actually know how to pull espresso.  It’s a disappearing art here in Seattle, lemme tell ya.

What’s more, they have a wonderful objective:

“… STORYVILLE is a FOR GIVING company, created for giving. At STORYVILLE, our desire is to support the fight against human trafficking worldwide until no child, woman, or man is trapped in slavery.”

This is a coffee company I can get behind.

If they were also open until 9pm, it would be a match made in heaven.  However, they are open 7a-6p M-Th, and 7:59a-6p weekends. [edit: summer hours begin THIS weekend, so they’ll be open at 6:59a Saturday and Sunday.  Wheee!]

Pssst … you don’t have to be a writer to enjoy Storyville Coffee.  All that is required is a desire for a bit of something lovely in your day.

Give them a try.

PS:  They did not pay me for this endorsement.  I just loved them.

 

Have you been to Storyville?  What did you think?  What is your favorite place to write, muse, converse, chill?

Open Letter

 

From Me to You

From Me to You

 

An Open Letter to the people who have shared their stories and their lives with me lately–mostly strangers–but also a few friends.

 

Dearest Fellow Human –

You may know me, or we may have only met briefly in the Starbucks line, or through a drop-in flashpoint in a game, or from a comment made in a Facebook group we’re both in, or standing in the sunshine on the sidewalk.  But that’s okay.  However we came together, you were having a hard time, and you needed a friend.  It’s good we talked.  I’m glad that when we parted you felt like you were heard and supported.  I’m not always good at listening, so I’m glad I could be there for you in that time and place.

A lot of people I know are having a hard time right.  They’ve lost loved ones, are struggling with health issues, have too little money, feel out of control, fear the future, struggle with who they are, or simply are so damn tired all the time.  You’re not alone in feeling this way.  Truth.

After we parted, I wished I could have given you more.  I wanted to wrap you in a warm blanket, hand you a mug of hot cocoa or lovely tea, read you a good story, and let you know things can be okay sometimes, even if they’re not right now.

There are a few things I wish I could have shared with you, things I think you don’t know how to believe in, or are forgetting just now.  And I don’t want to sound pushy, but I hope that you will believe me, even just for a little while, as I tell you:

  1. You are worth loving just as you are right now.   You Are Worth Loving Just As You Are.
  2. Your story matters.  You matter.   I want to hear your story, in whatever way you want to share it.
  3. We can’t save other people, no matter how much we want to. We can only love them for as long as they’re in our lives, near or far.  The only person you can truly save/fix/change is yourself, and that’s where we need to start.
  4. You can only do your best. Some days your best will be excellent, and some days you’ll feel it’s not so much.  Celebrate the good days, and forgive yourself the hard ones.
  5. You’re allowed to feel whatever you are feeling, even the ones that others think are ugly.  
  6. It’s okay to ask for help. Some people won’t be able to do much, but others will.  We all suck at asking, but everyone needs a hand or a hug sometimes.
  7. Be kind to yourself and others as much as you can. You deserve kindness, and so do they.  Sometimes kindness is hard to come by, but give and receive what you can, as you can. 

 

I don’t know if we’ll ever see each other again, Fellow Human, but thank you for sharing your time and your story with me, and for including me in your life for a while.  I hope it gave you at least the seeds of what you needed.  I wish you gentle days and restful nights, and all happiness in the days to come.

 

With love,

The Stranger In The Coffee Shop / Online / In That Game You Love / At The Park

 

Review: Ink and Bone

 

Ink and Bone

 

Rachel Caine’s new book, Ink and Bone: The Great Library, is the first in a trilogy set in an alternate world where the Great Library of Alexandria was never sacked, and information is truly power — in this case, the only power worth mentioning.  In a life where everyone across the globe has magical access to every piece of writing the great Alexandrian Library deems worth reading, personal ownership of books is forbidden.  Young Jess Brightwell grows up part and parcel of his father’s London-based black-market business, literally running precious contraband of real books–not mere copies–to buyers with the deepest pocket.  When his father sends him to train as librarian at the great library itself–becoming an inside source for original volumes, the rarest of the rare–Jess’s priorities become tangled, and he questions everything he’s ever known about knowledge and power, right and wrong, cowardice and courage.

I loved this book from cover to cover.  It is considered suitable for grades 8 and up, but there is plenty there which skews older (characters you like die bloody deaths galore).  The premise is fascinating and pertinent to our world of digital media and questions of ownership vs license.  The alternate Earth is interesting, complex and well-devised and the characters are as interesting as they are diverse, with the women as unapologetically awesome as their male counterparts (people who know me will understand this is huge in my enjoyment of a story).  Caine thoroughly explores the ideas of information, absolute power, and the corruption which follows hard on its heels, and cunningly weaves them into a plot which will hurl you forward like a feather in a hurricane.

For those of us who are audiobook inclined, I give the audio version of Ink and Bone, narrated by Jules Elfer, five gold stars all around.  The story was conveyed so well, that I bought the hardback for my husband (who read it in a weekend–and likewise loved it), and immediately pre-ordered the next book in the series.

July needs to arrive so I can find out what happens next!

 

 

Rock Band Revelation

 

Image Credit: Rock Band 4

Rock It Like You Mean It

I love music.  Most kinds.  I love everything from 13th century chants to opera to bluegrass, big band, mainstream rock and even some metal–don’t judge, I’m expanding my horizons.  I love to sing, but only in my car or in the house when no one is around.

I used to love singing even when people could hear me.  Then, someone whose opinion I held highly told me I didn’t have a voice worth listening to.  And that opinion was reinforced by being involved in musical theater where people are literally judged by how well they can belt a song.  You want the best on stage.  Totally understandable.  But I, in my angsty teenage years, heard only that my singing sucked, rather than I simply wasn’t strong (or clear or whatever) enough as a vocalist.  So I stopped singing anywhere I might be judged, e.g. in public.

It’s a common story.  We’re told that what we put into the world isn’t worth someone’s attention, as if our joy needs to equal a product for another to consume.  No one ever tells us that the monetization of something doesn’t nail down the only way of expressing or experiencing that something.  The message we get is, if we can’t sell it, it ain’t worth shit.

Thirty years pass.  No karaoke for me, no sing-alongs, just solos in my car–unless I’m super tired or tipsy and my guard is down.

Enter the XBox game, Rock Band 2.

Stick (my daughter), Red (her partner) and I started up a band, The Facehuggers (we’d just finished watching Alien and Aliens, and we’re geeks–but you knew that).  Red is our kick-ass guitarist.  I’m usually on drums.  Stick does a lot of the singing, except when the game tosses out a tune from before she was born … then it falls to me. That version of Rock Band was pretty forgiving about how you played, how you sang.  Energy wasn’t needed.  You could whisper or meow your way through a song as long as you hit the beats and phrasing, so I could hide even as I was singing.  It takes a certain amount of talent to be self-effacing when you’ve got a mic up to your face.

This winter, we splurged for the newest version, Rock Band 4, and everything changed.  Now the score is based partly on how much energy you put into your performance.  You can’t tap the drums lightly, you have to play them HARD.  You can’t merely breathe your songs into the mic. The best scores come from rocking it like you mean it. And we’re all competitive enough to want the high scores. We have a tour bus to earn and fans to win!

I had to put up, stop playing, or fail out of the game, and no one wants to be a loser in front of their kids.  So I put up, let loose and belted out an old Pat Benatar rock ballad.  And it was gloriously fun!  In that moment, I had a revelation.  We live so much of our lives ashamed for being normal, ashamed of not being what’s reflected in our media.  I know so many people who won’t sing in public–it’s not just me–or write, or draw, or garden, or sew, or anything, really, because they fear derision.  They have joys they keep in the closet.

Who are these nebulous gate keepers who get to determine how we find our happiness?  If we take joy in what we do, what we put into the world as play, as self-expression, isn’t that what is important?

So sing out, I challenge you. Give yourself permission to do what makes you happy however much you can.  Sing out loud and long.  Paint, dance, yodel, write, role-play, act, build, create … whatever lightens your heart.  And for your own joy’s sake, break it out of the closet and rock it like you mean it!

See you on the high score list!

 

A PNW kind of day

It’s a typical Pacific Northwest kind of day.
The sky is that overcast grey that makes it difficult to tell whether it’s 8AM, noon, or 3PM.
There’s a promise of spring, but not yet, just wait a little longer.
In the meantime, have more rain.
Oh, and don’t get too excited, in fact worry, because those daffodils and crocus that are peeking up may get frozen if there’s a cold snap.
And everything that thinks it should be blooming right now will be sorry.
But all those weeds? Oh yeah, they’ll be just fine. In fact, the cold will make them stronger.
And it won’t be cold enough to kill the slug eggs.
The babies are out there right now, marching to war on the daylily buds.
So in the meantime, snuggle up in a blanket with a good book, and a cup of hot tea.
Take a nap.

IMG_6118

A New Hope

 

No, not that one, not Star Wars Ep. IV, though it qualifies.

I’m talking about the feeling that comes from experiencing a story with a Happy Ending™.   Not even a Happily Ever After™ ending, but simply the heroine-prevails-in-her-quest ending, whatever that quest may be.  It brings satisfaction that wrongs have been righted, justice prevails, and the worthy find love.  In other stories, something intrinsic to the human condition endures, and we, or those important to us, will be able to partake of it.

I remember how terrible the last half of 2001 was.   The US was attacked on September 11th, and then we took war to the Middle East.  So much pain and national anxiety.  At the end of the year, for the holidays, Warner Bros. released Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.  It was a fun movie, I’ll grant you, full of good performances by actors I enjoyed.  But what hit me like a blow was how much hope it instilled in me at the end.  I wept as the credits rolled.  It was all out of proportion to the movie itself, but I felt that if Potter could overcome his trials and tribulations, then we, as adults and as a country, could surely emerge from the pain and hatred and fear we were snarled in.  I felt hope again for our world.

That’s some good, heart-tugging storytelling.

Maybe at that time, I just needed to believe in the possibility of happy endings, and that–like young Skywalker, and the hope he embodied–the sunset would be followed by a new, better day.

 

Epic yearning!

Epic yearning!

Happy Endings aren’t an American invention, but we do tend to eat them up.  I sort of blame Disney–or maybe Frank Capra–and I’m sort of not kidding.  They’re hard to get away from, and I sometimes wonder if we do ourselves a disservice by not embracing more ambiguity as the curtains fall.  Ambiguity makes us dig for the hope we want, makes us examine possibilities.  Ending with uncertainty is less like hot chocolate and Milano cookies on a cold winter’s night, and more like a meaty borscht–complex and nourishing, but we have to work to get it in the bowl, and we often are unsure of the ingredients.  Ambiguity makes us wonder what’s next?  Happy Endings rarely do.

All this is to say that I wonder about the stories we, as a people, tell.  I wonder in our communal psyche demands the reassurance and certainty of a Happy Ending, even when we know they’re rarely “real”.  I wonder which stories give us the tool to find our way through this crazy world, and if it’s simply a matter of having our Milano cookies along side our borscht.

What kind of endings do you crave?  Which ones satisfy you?  What do you want from your stories?  Inquiring minds wanna know.

 

"Delicious ambiguity." -- Gilda Radner

“Delicious ambiguity.” — Gilda Radner

 

Put On Your Red Shoes

My mantra for 2016.

If this post was a car, imagine that I started it up, and while I left it to do its engine-warming thing, someone hijacked it and drove it clear out of town.  The hijacker was Life … or really, her necessary-evil brother, Mortality.

Last week was rough, and not just for me.   The world lost two icons, David Bowie and Alan Rickman, and I lost a dear friend.  Almost lost my dog, too–no joke–but Alistair Rocket Dog is one very lucky pooch.

Everything that lives dies.  We all face it.  Parents, lovers, friends, children, strangers, pets.  The deserving and undeserving.  The old and the young and those in between.  We who are left behind–and everyone has someone who is left behind–struggle with survivor’s guilt, tangled in the darkness pouring through the gaping wound in our lives.  We combat the darkness with only stardust and memories.  Fragile, intangible things.

But this is the truth I hold to: We all get one life, whether it’s brief as a flickering candle or as long as a century.  We don’t get to know in advance what our allotment will be, but we all get a portion of feeling air in our lungs, and hearing the susurration of blood through our veins.  Sometimes life sucks.  But we get one, and if we’re lucky enough to make it to some semblance of adulthood, we get a say in how ours goes.

We have choice.  Sometimes it’s not much of one, but it is choice.  And this is the question of all our lives: What do you choose?

To quote part of my favorite poem, “The Summer Day” by the sublime Mary Oliver:

 

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?

 

Read the full poem.  Go ahead.  I’ll be here.

I think of Bowie and Rickman and my friend.  Their day-to-days were very different, and yet all were full of creativity and courage.  Despite whatever fears crowded their minds, whatever limitations were placed on them by others, they stepped into who they were from minute-to-minute and year-to-year.  They did what they loved, and surrounded themselves with the people and work which gave them joy.  Then they shared that joy with the rest of the world.  What a fantastic legacy!

I hope that’s what we do–step into our joy, and share that joy with others.  We only get a brief time on this amazing ball of rock in this splendid galaxy, and there’s only one of each of us.  Whether you’re a butcher or baker or candlestick maker, you’re the only you that will ever be in the entire history of the universe.  Live your life as richly as you can, with all the love and pain and wonder as you can hold.

I know it’s easier said than done.  I do, I know.  But when my life is over, I don’t want to sigh and regret and think, “I could have, but I was too afraid.”  I don’t want to have merely existed, trapped in the shell that fear wrought.

Fear lies.  It tells us we can’t.  It tells us we shouldn’t.  It feeds us reasons to not.

 

Fear is a liar

It really truly is.

 

We don’t have time to “not”.  Don’t let fear win.

Shine on, my lovely, glorious friends.  Be brave with yourself, be bold. Remember that everything starts small.  Take one step, then take another.  Shine your unique, weird and wonderful light, and I’ll do my best to shine mine.  I hope together we light up the sky for whatever time is given us.

My small step is to write every day, regardless of depression or mood or subject.  What’s your small step?  What will you do with your one wild and precious life?

Put on your red shoes.  Let’s dance.

Digging to Hell

Digging to Hell

Students stare into hole to Hell.

Heaven and Hell. When I was younger, I believed.

I had a friend, Erica, raised on fire and brimstone. Erica would come to school with terrifying stories from Sunday school about deluges, eternal damnation, glowing castles in the clouds, and people with wings. We decided to go see these things.

After long discussions (including diagrams), we determined Heaven was out of the question. Being up in the sky, we would need stacks of ladders, tied together one atop another. Ladders weren’t practical to acquire or hide from the recess lady. But for down, all we’d need were a few sandbox shovels and pails. Hell it was.

Unable to convince the sandbox kids to give us their shovels and unwilling to explain to the teachers that we needed shovels because we were digging to Hell, we used sticks.

The site of our dig was behind the school lunchroom in a chain-link enclosed area where the grass never grew. Back in the corner, away from tree roots, we dug in peace.

Occasionally we’d measure our work. I’d lay down in the hole, and wiggle around a bit. Then Erica would lay in it and tried it on for size. Satisfied, we continued our frenzied digging. As we dug inches deeper and deeper, we discussed what we thought Hell looked like and what we’d do once we got there.

Once we got there, we needed special flame-retardant outfits to protect us from Hell’s fire. On rainy-day recess, we designed paperdolls to model our patchwork asbestos jumpsuits. We talked strategy for hiding from demons (the jumpsuits had chameleon powers). We made demon paperdolls for identification.

At first, our activities went unnoticed. We were happy, content, and staying out of trouble. Two little kids digging in the dirt, no big deal. Then one day Cindy with her blond pigtails and pink jumper showed up at our hole. “What are you playing? I want to play.”

We lied. “We’re digging for dinosaurs. Don’t need help. Go away.”

She tattled.

Erica and I received a stern lecture about sharing, having more than one friend, and playing nicely together. With the recess lady watching we let Cindy play with us as we pretended to dig for dinosaurs.

Cindy talked constantly about her dinosaur. “Look at mine! It’s the biggest one! Bigger than yours! It’s a new dinosaur. No one knows about. It’s purple. My dinosaur is the best dinosaur. Better than all the other dinosaurs. I’m going to be famous.”

That was it. This was our hole. Not hers. She didn’t get to be the best. So we told her the truth.

“We’re not digging for dinosaurs. We’re digging to hell. Yeah. HELL. And you’re helping. When we get to HELL, we go first because we know how to fight demons. We’ll try not to let them eat you, but they might. Your job is to close the hole behind us, so the demons, from HELL, don’t come through and EAT EVERYONE YOU LOVE!”

Cindy’s lips quivered. “Hell? Demons? Eat me?”

Cindy ran crying to the recess lady. “They’re digging to HELL and demons are going to eat everyone I love and Idon’twanttogeteaten!”

Suddenly, half a dozen teachers stood around the hole staring down at as.

This was a semi-Catholic Montessori school. They couldn’t have their kids digging to Hell! We could read about it in the Bible, learn about it in Sunday school, but we couldn’t actually try and /get/ there! They immediately stopped all excavation.

At least at school.

Hell Excavation Site #2 at my house was a great success. But after a couple months we realized Hell was a lot deeper down than four feet and neither one of us really wanted to dig that far. So we filled the hole with water and played in the mud instead.

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