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In Troubled Times: Antidote to Despair

Recently a friend voiced her despair about the effect of the elections and the president-elect’s nominations on the future of the planet. She said “fear” was too mild a term. Her conversation kept referencing the Permian extinction event and the destruction of the Earth. I admit I didn’t respond well. I tend to react to emotion-laden exaggerations of complex issues, and that reaction overrode the compassionate thing to do, which was to listen to her feelings. My mind flipped from a conversation about emotions to one about facts. Needless to say, she was not interested in whether current projects are for a target global warming of 3.6 degrees or 4 degrees Celsius.

In observing my own mind, I notice what I do when faced with the notion of looming ecological disaster. I run away to information. In this case, at least, I find it calming. The facts don’t change, but researching the issue and reading the considered opinions of people with legitimate scientific credentials who have studied the matter in depth changes my emotional reaction. I suspect a portion of this runs along the lines of, “Whew, I don’t have to figure this out all on my own!” I’m only one of many who are grappling with the problem.

Clearly, this was not my friend’s process. A little bit of information (the Permian extinction event plunged her into even greater hopelessness. From this I take away something so simple, its profound truth often escapes me: we don’t all cope with stressful news in the same way.

I’ve written about paying attention to what makes me feel calmer or more distraught, and then making mindful choices. Although information is helpful to me, it can also have an addictive quality. We writers joke about doing so much research on a novel project, the book never gets written. Similarly, I can mire myself in one source after another until I go numb. That numb state is a sure sign I’ve either made a poor choice or gone too far.

Blogging about my process, however, seems not to have a down side. I suspect this is because such writing puts me in better touch with my feelings and increases my sensitivity to what is good for me and what is harmful. It has the added benefit of being of service to others who are wrestling with the same issues, searching for a way through the morass of upset feelings to a way forward in what the Buddhists call “right action.”

Reaching out to others, offering my help, sharing my experience and insight and listening to their own, all these things lift me from despair.

What things help you?
A few days ago, John Scalzi wrote in his blog, Whatever, “…the Trump administration and its enablers are going to make a mad gallop out of the gate to do a whole bunch of awful things, to overwhelm you with sheer volume right at the outset.”

Pretty shocking statement, huh? That was my first reaction. My second was that Scalzi is very likely correct. All the signs are there…all the signs that in my panic-stricken moments, I want to ignore so hard they go away.

My next reaction was to surrender my mind to a gazillion chattering monkeys, each with her own idea of What Must Be Done Right Now. I can work myself into a downright tizzy in no time this way. Not only that, I can paralyze myself with too many alternatives and no way to prioritize them, jumbling actions I might take with those that are impossible or unsafe (crazy-making) for me.

Any of this sound familiar?

It’s all based on a false choice. I don’t have to either prepare now for the logically impending “awful things” or play ostrich on the river in Egypt. But in order to see other, saner alternatives, I must first evict the Monkeys of Panic so I can regard the situation calmly.

We’re in for some hard times, and knowing that is a relief.

At first, it seems counter-intuitive to say that acknowledging we are in for some dark times comes as a relief. The relief is because instead of nebulous fears running rampant, bursting into exaggeration and melodrama at every turn, vulnerable to any sort of fact-free hype, I’ve stepped away from the emotional storm. I’m facing the problem squarely, as my tai chi teacher used to say. We’re in for some tough times, and likely there will be a whole slew of bad news in the early months of 2017.

When I’m no longer trying to deny or distort the way things are (for example, Trump’s cabinet choices and what is known about them, or what he has said he will or won’t do) I not only become calmer, but better able to see things I might do, alone or in solidarity with like-minded folks.

This is based on a simple truth that in order to act effectively, I need to be sane. I can’t be sane if I’m bouncing off the walls at every headline on social media. I could, of course, disengage entirely from social media and refuse to read or listen to any sort of news. But I don’t want to do that. I want to stay engaged, but in a mindful way. I want to know what I’m up against. Once I stop fighting the reality of what that is, I free myself to use my energy and time in productive ways. I don’t know exactly what form these tough times will take, but I don’t need to prepare for every twist and turn. I can trust my ability to respond appropriately and creatively.

In Troubled Times: Emotional Sobriety

Most of us who drink alcohol have sooner or later imbibed too much of it. Setting aside the embarrassing and unhealthful effect of such overindulgence, we then got to experience nature’s own payback: a hangover. Not only do we feel wretched, we grapple with the fact that we inflicted this misery on ourselves by our own choices.

Recently I’ve noticed behaviors (other than drinking) that leave me with a feeling of emotional or spiritual malaise. Not “What was I drinking?” but “What was I thinking?”

When I take note of the symptoms of “spiritual or emotional” hangover, I become aware of the situations, topics, or even people that lead me to abandon my center. While it is undoubtedly theoretically true that no one can make me feel or behave in ways I will regret, in practice my will power needs help.

When I am already anxious, distracted, confused, or all the other things I have been feeling since the election, I’m not at my best. My judgment can be unreliable. Ditto my self-control. If I put myself in compromising situations, I am likely to say things I will regret. The regret stems not so much from external consequences but from how I then feel about myself. No matter how I value kindness, I can behave in harsh, unkind ways when I’m in over my head. Over the years I’ve gotten very good at admitting error and making things right, to the point that I would much rather avoid acting badly to begin with.

Many of us have remarked how social media is both addictive and inflammatory. In a fit of irritation or self-righteousness, we zip off a caustic comment and push ENTER. Then we keep coming back for another dose. It’s an engraved invitation to insanity! Very few of us are capable of going cold turkey, and I’m not sure that’s really a solution. When we return to social media, as most of us will, we will be in exactly the same state in which we left it. We won’t be any more skillful in detaching ourselves or of passing by the temptation to be cruel or snarky. We won’t be any closer to finding communities, people, topics, or environments that help us to feel calmer, kinder, and more hopeful. We’ll be like alcoholics who stop drinking but never address the underlying issues or the consequences.

In addition to being careful about situations that may provoke me to things I’ll regret, I can ask myself what keeps me coming back. Is it the illusion that news (including gossip) will somehow make me safe? Or popular? Or smart? What do I get from visiting those sites (maybe there is something positive)? Is there a grey area in which the positive benefits become negative, and if so, how can I better discern it?

What situations leave me with heart lifted and spirits mended? Who or what gives me hope? In what settings do I act my best? Who brings out the qualities in me that I value? How do I seek out such encounters?
Like many others, I did not sleep well on election night or the following nights. Shock and dismay had hijacked my mind. I felt as if I had been catapulted into a very dark Twilight Zone episode. My thoughts went hither and yon, partly batted about by a political racket, partly going from shiny/horror to next shiny/horror.

In my recovery from PTSD, I have learned to be protective of my sleep and my inner balance. I quickly detected warning signs and realized that I had to put my own mental and physical health first. Without that foundation, I wasn’t going to be able to make any sense or take effective action. So I set about using my “tool box” to reduce my anxiety. Besides sleep management and calming techniques, I reached out to my family and close friends. I tried as best I could to keep the focus on myself and my feelings, not politics. I took notice of which conversations made me feel better and which did not.

I felt better about myself when there was something I could do for the person close to me. Perhaps this was because I felt less powerless, but I believe it was because I felt more connected. Research suggests human beings are hard-wired to feel pleasure from helping others. Whether or not this is true, feeling valued and needed is a good thing.

So the first “movement” of my journey was to take care of myself and then to reach out to those around me.

Once I was feeling a bit more settled, I started to look around for other actions I might take. This required a great deal of filtering of news and social media. News sources inundated me with blow after terrible blow as events (and nominations or appointments) unfolded. I realized I could spend 100 hours a day on the various calls to action, and that not all of them were appropriate for me. Some would put me right back in the zone of risking my mental health.

How then are we to know how to proceed and what actions will not damage us?

We listen for that sense of rightness, no matter how frightening the prospect. I learned a great deal about this process from hanging out with Quakers. They talk about “discernment” and “leadings of the Spirit.” It’s one of the things that makes Quaker action different from other activism. One is led to take action by the promptings of the inner light, which means that arguments for or against make little difference. This made Quaker abolitionists (for example) tenacious in their cause.

What am I led to do? How will I know when that happens?

I’m still listening, and while I do that, I pay attention to small things that I feel able to do. They may not qualify as “Spirit-led,” but they seem possible. Then I notice how I feel. As an example, I wrote a letter of support to the nearest mosque; I felt lighter and more hopeful after I had mailed it. On the other hand, I felt low and discouraged after speaking with certain people I had otherwise reason to trust. I’m not likely to try that again.

I do not know how or even if this process of trial and reflection, slowly feeling my way, will lead to action on a state or national level. I’m definitely not going to fly across the country to attend a march in Washington D.C. or New York City. Because I’ve felt energized by writing letters, I am more likely to do that again. I’m considering volunteering in person at Planned Parenthood (where I volunteered when I was in grad school, before Roe v. Wade) or the ACLU, but do not yet see a clear path.

Meanwhile, I continue to practice reaching out, and find that the circle keeps getting bigger. By listening compassionately and seeking out safe places to share my own fears, I join a community of light. By sharing suggestions of actions, I become aware of those I might be willing to take, or inspire others to take actions I am not comfortable with. Who knows? Maybe knowing someone who is brave enough (or skilled enough) to do something will show me the way. Or perhaps the way will open in community once I see I do not have to act alone.

OryCon 2016 report

Any report I make of OryCon (in Portland OR, on or near Veterans Day weekend) must be seen in highly personal context. For me, it’s never been just another convention, but part of other aspects of my life. I used to attend OryCon regularly. I’d gone to college and then graduate school in Portland and retained a fondness for the city. My best friend from college still lived there, and I’d stayed in close touch with her. So attending OryCon also meant a visit, usually after the con when decompression with long-time friendship, and maybe a long trail ride, were especially welcome. These visits became even more important when she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. I made a number of trips to Portland to help her and her family through the rounds of chemo that led to a series of remissions. In the nearly five years that followed, our OryCon visits became even more precious. In fall 2013, she entered hospice, and again I was present to do whatever was necessary to support her and her family in that transition. She died in October, when the weather had already turned chill and overcast with the approach of winter. That year, attending OryCon was out of the question, nor could I bring myself to consider returning to Portland for some time. This year, however, I ventured north with my older daughter to a reunion at our alma mater, Reed College. That shifted my thinking enough so that when I received an invitation to be a guest panelist at OryCon, I happily accepted. Of course, the first thing to arrange was a visit with my friend’s surviving family. Two visits, actually; one before and one after the con. A family dinner, complete with home made lasagna (vegetarian and vegan versions) marked an auspicious welcome back to Portland.

I won’t go into a recitation of all things travel and hotel. Needless to say, my usual disorientation upon encountering a new venue kicked into high gear, fueled by the vertical arrangement of the hotel (events were on 4 different floors, or was it 5 plus the green room on the 16th floor?) The OryConOps folks were as warm and welcoming as ever. I had a splendid roomie in Irene Radford, although we were both a bit too old to stay up all night talking.

My panels began Friday morning with the topic “Fantasy vs. Science Fiction,” in which panelists and audience attempted to discern why anyone would think one better than the other when we all loved them both. Conventional wisdom suggests that in science fiction, the laws of physics must be observed (with the notable exceptions of psi powers and faster-than-light travel); whereas in fantasy, magic introduces a fundamentally different system. The level of technology of the setting tends to put low-tech, medieval worlds into the fantasy camp and modern, futuristic, or space settings into science fiction. I threw out the idea that readers expect different experiences (fantasy – emotional, science fiction – intellectual, idea-driven) from the two genres, hoping it would provoke a juicy discussion. We all agreed that with the popularity of cross-overs, none of these distinctions holds true any longer.

Then, after running across the street for Chinese food with a friend, came Finding Diverse Voices and Characters in SF/F. The sad thing was that we had only one person of color on the panel, but we did our best to talk about how to write respectfully about people who are unlike us, and where to go to find stories by diverse authors.

From there, I careened over to Reaching Writers Who Don’t Know You Yet. Although the topic description mentioned strategies for SEO (Search Engine Optimization) – that is, making yourself visible to folks who Google you or are looking for the kind of fiction you write – most of the emphasis was on offering free ebooks (as through InstaFreebie) and other ways of building up mailing lists. That is, the focus was indie or self-published writers who must do all their own promotion. I am not convinced of the value of these strategies, but I defer to the romance writers who write 6 books a year, use these methods, and earn a good income. Since this is my blog and I get to hold forth however I want, I present Deborah’s Strategy for Acquiring Readers:

1. Write great stuff.
2. Say interesting things on panels and on your blog.
3. Be kind to fans.

Dinner that night was a sort of mini-bar-con, since someone who clearly does not appreciate the rapacious appetites of fans declared the restaurant closed until 7:15 pm. I thought of snooping through evening panels or parties, but old age got the better of me, like Bilbo, and I oozed off to bed instead.

Sunday morning is usually SFWA meeting time, but I neglected to inform Programming of my unavailability, so I had a panel on Endings: Cuddling with the Reader. I love the idea of leaving chocolate on the pillow for my devoted fans, although sometimes a jolt to the solar plexus is just what the story needs. Although not all the panelists agreed with me, my takeaway is that the ending should fulfill the promise the author makes at the beginning of the book. A steamy romance calls for a very different emotional tone in the wrap-up than does a detective thriller or a fluffy fantasy or a gritty dystopic novel. I believe an ending does not have to be “happy” to be satisfying, but satisfying is what’s needed. Frodo is wounded in ways that can never heal while he remains in Middle Earth; hence “The Scouring of the Shire” sequence in the books (not the films) allow us to mend what we can and grieve what has been lost.

My last two events were a reading (most of “Sage Mountain” from Sword and Sorceress 31) and autographing. Much fun was had by all at both events. Then a wonderful, generous fan gave me a ride to Powell’s Beaverton for their Authorfest. This year, the event took place in a much smaller space with only 20 of us, but it had the feel of a mini-convention, with authors, fans, and people who just wandered in to see what all the fuss was about, all mingling and having a great time.

OryCon will return to Jantzen Beach next year (no more verticality); I have no doubt it will remain the warm, welcoming environment in which to share enthusiasm for books (and graphic novels and films and so forth). If you live nearby and have never been to a convention before, check it out. See you there!
Like just about everyone I know, I have been feeling anxious about this election. I say "just about" because for all I know, there might be some acquaintance who is blissfully uncaring of the issues and candidates. So for the rest of us, this season has turned in to a series of conversations that always end up on the topic, repeated and frequent checking on news (and polls and election predictions), and most of all, anxiety about what might happen if the other candidate wins. I've dubbed this toxic combination of worry and hypervigilance "Election Anxiety Disorder." (Although Electoral Anxiety Syndrome works, too.)

This is the most fear-driven campaign I can remember, and the first presidential election I remember was Eisenhower and Stevenson, so that's quite a few. Each side holds up emotionally manipulative predictions of doom, gloom, global thermonuclear destruction, moral deterioration, and general Bad Things as a way of galvanizing their followers into action and swaying the opinions of those very few remaining undecided voters. And it's happening on both sides, although the specific threats may be different.

Chronic anxiety takes its toll in physical as well as psychological symptoms. Sleep, work, relationships, all aspects of our lives can be impacted. We may lose or gain weight, depending on which we do not need to do. We definitely spend more time glued to the television or computer. Eyestrain, backaches, headaches, stomach pain, obsessive thoughts, irritability...the list goes on of ways our bodies and minds break down under stress. Recognizing this is what's going on is the first step towards better managing this stress.

Laughing at it -- and ourselves -- including giving the whole mess a silly name, goes a long way.

One of the obvious things to do to help ourselves is to limit the amount of exposure to news stories (and polls, interviews, social media, and the like). This can be easier said than done. Following every tiny change in information has an addictive quality. Our brains become alerted by changes in our environment, which has obvious evolutionary advantages. Fast-changing visual media like news programs and advertisements rely on this response to attract and hold our attention. In the same way our ancestors might have scanned the horizon for any change in the movement of herds of prey animals or signs of a stalking predator, we scan our information horizon for signs of threat (or reassurance, which can evaporate just as quickly as a tiger can burst out of the foliage). So it can be difficult to tear ourselves away from that screen or newspaper, particularly when our lives are in so many other ways attached to the flow of information. For many of us, this constant reactivation and connection with sources of perceived threat fuels our anxiety. However, some people use information as a way of managing their anxiety.

Getting enough exercise can be helpful. For some of us, cardiovascular activities that get our hearts pounding drain the constant levels of adrenalin from our bodies. For others, meditative practices like yoga or tai chi can restore calm. Most of us sleep better when we have had enough exercise. These fall under the general rubric of taking good care of ourselves. Other measures include eating well, limiting stimulants, drinking in moderation if at all, and so forth.

Most of us are not affected by Election Anxiety Disorder in isolation. We live in community, whether face to face or online. We talk about what we have heard and read, especially the things that trigger our fears or are otherwise sensational.Sometimes all this does is give us a chance to vent at the cost of escalating our tension. ("Can you believe what Candidate has done? Did you see the story revealing Terrible Secret From Candidate's Past?") Instead of egging each other on -- or, worse yet, turning the conversation into a contest of who has the juiciest scandal -- we can use these interactions to air our own feelings, defuse our anxiety, and brainstorm solutions.

Just about everyone I know responds well to the change in emphasis. "I'm so ready for this election to be over!" echoes on both sides of the political spectrum. Even if we're not willing to give up our attachment to the outcome, it is a relief to take an honest look at how wearying the whole process is.

Here are some other strategies:
Humor can be a godsend. The stakes may be serious, but we don't have to take ourselves seriously all the time. We admire public figures who are able to take it as well as dish it out at celebrity roasts. Why not find some way to laugh at our own foibles.

Remembering what we can and cannot control. Remember the Serenity Prayer, that talks about accepting what we cannot change? The tricky part is when there are some actions you can take (voting, phone banking, Tweeting insanely) that give you the illusion of control, and perhaps there is some truth within that illusion. Not that voting and campaigning are bad things in themselves, but ongoing election activities -- this leaves voting out -- can become problematic when you buy into the notion that the more you do, the calmer you will be. Everyone's mileage varies. For some, taking those actions like spending days at a candidate's phone bank, gives a sense of satisfaction, having "done my part," and the ability to then set aside the crazier aspects of the election. For others, increasing the investment of time and energy only escalates the tension and worry. The trick is to pay attention to whether it's good for you.

Then again, you can always give in to the Dark Side and stock up on voodoo dolls and stick pins...

Con-Volution 2016 Report

Con-Volution is a medium sized (700 ish members) convention in the Bay Area. I first attended a
couple of years ago and was pleased to be invited to return. This year’s theme was “Monsters,” so many of the panels and other events centered around Things That Go Bump in the Night, creepy-crawlies, and the like, a fitting greeting to October.

I arrived in time to attend part of “An Aviary of Beasties,” moderated by Juliette Wade and held in the parlor of a hotel suite, making it cozy and very difficult to find. Nevertheless, the small space was filled, and as I walked in, Juliette was discussing the difference between the wings of a bat and a pterodactyl. Panelists shared myths of flying creatures from many cultures. In wandered one of the residents-in-costume, wearing a marvelous kirin head, whose timing made a perfect introduction to tales about that creature.

My first panel was “Authors: Going to that Dark Place,” with horror author Fred Wiehe, Margaret McGaffey Fisk, Loren Rhoads, and Guest of Honor Ann Bishop. We approached the relationship between authors and “that dark place” from two directions. One involved delving into our own nightmares and using them to fuel our stories, and the stories then become cathartic or therapeutic in lessening the hold those catastrophes have over our lives and (hopefully) those of our readers. I was reminded of Octavia Butler saying she took her worst night mares and put them down on paper. This is also what I did in a number of stories (“Rite of Vengeance,” “Beneath the Skin,” “Crooked Corn”) following the murder of my mother, and also used for my hero’s journey in The Seven Petaled Shield. Others take another approach, which is to start with the story and find the darkness within ourselves to give it depth and power. Ann Bishop observed that horror stories are like a journey through a spooky forest with various companions that may survive or not, but we have faith that someone will make it through. “There is no light without darkness,” Fred Wiehe pointed out. Does the dark keep us sane?

For “How Cthulu Became Cuddly,” I was joined by Artist Guest of Honor Lee Moyer, Laurel Anne Hill, and Jennifer Carson.
We began with Lovecraft himself and his circle of followers, as well as authors who followed, who borrowed his mythos, sometimes made it their own and imbuing it with their own interpretive vision. Charles Stross’s “Laundry Files” and the “Lizzie Borden” books of Cherie Priest continue that tradition today. Laurel Anne Hill had brought a soft Cthulu hand puppet, which contributed its own nonverbal commentary, and we discussed the plushification of “nameless horror.” Lee Moyer shared that he had been on a panel with the same topic, where many held the vehement opinion that domesticating or making-cute the monsters that once terrified us is an unacceptable travesty. No one on this panel or audience agreed: we loved the various “takes” on The Elder Gods, vampires, and the like, pointing out that there is no dearth of things to be afraid of in today’s world. Someone—I think it was Moyer—pointed out how the drawings of Charles Addams shifted the view of vampire from an incomprehensible evil to a creature who was once human. Moyer recommended the HBO series Cast a Deadly Spell and the comic book series Zenith.

I attended a wonderful discussion on “Fear of the Other” with Juliette Wade, Lillian Csernica, Gregg Castro, Garrett Calcaterra, and Sumiko Saulson. Recently, much attention has been devoted to how to write respectfully and realistically about people who are different from you (race, religion, gender, ability, etc.), and this panel focused specifically on how we fear or don’t fear those “others.” It was particularly good to hear minority voices in the discussion.

Sunday morning (10 am) is not the most popular time to hold a panel, so I was pleasantly surprised to find a roomful of attendees for the topic I moderated on “Writing in Someone Else’s Universe.” The room was a “boardroom,” a big oval table with executive chairs around it. This limited the number of people in the circle, but was perfect once things got going. Co-panelists Valerie Estelle Frankel and Sarah Stegall helped get the discussion off to a lively start. We talked about the different ways you might end up creating stories in a world someone else devised. You might use a public domain world and characters (as many have done with Lovecraft’s mythos—a wonderful way of tying in to earlier panels—or Sherlock Holmes or the many Jane Austen mashups). You might be part of a senior/junior author collaboration, with the senior author creator supervising the work. Shared worlds like Wild Cards use a bible to ensure continuity. Parody and satire open possibilities for works still under copyright under the “fair usage” rules. Finally, there is fanfic and its cousins, media tie-ins and novelizations. Here is where the “audience” and “panelist” divisions broke down in a wonderful fashion. We all had different relationships to fanfic (from readers only to this-is-the-only-thing-I-write, to deep roots in media tie-ins to both original and derivative writing. In addition, Valerie Frankel has written a significant number of nonfiction treatises on various worlds. As moderator, I felt comfortable letting the conversation bounce around to whoever had interesting things to contribute, and as a result, enthusiasm soared, fueled by a shared love of our common fan subjects. There was not a smidgeon of “my favorite is better than yours” (Star Trek vs. Star Wars); instead, we all got to appreciate what we have loved and discover new worlds to explore. It was a wonderful way to end the convention, with such a strong reminder of how we all got here and gratitude to the creators of the worlds and characters that have enriched our lives.
In 1986, my 70-year-old mother was asleep in her own bed when a teenaged neighbor broke into her home, raped her, and then beat her to near death and left her face down in a partially filled bathtub. It was a spectacularly brutal, banner headline crime, called by the District Attorney one of the most heinous in the history of the county. On hearing this story, many people ask me, “How did you survive?”

I don't think survival is the question. Although numb with shock and drenched in grief, we get up in the morning. We brush our teeth. In my case, I had two daughters, one almost seven and the other 3 months old, to care for. We cry. We scream. We comfort one another. We go back to work. We take on the trappings of an ordinary life, carrying on in the blind faith that our insides will someday match the artificial normality of our outsides. Or we find our days transformed by what we have lost, not only our loved ones but our belief in the decency of our fellow humans and our sense of safety in the world. Some families dedicate themselves to finding the killer or to participating in punishment. Others become radicalized in other ways.

In other words, we do what seems best to us in order to survive. We do everything except tend to the grievously wounded parts of ourselves.

We know today that post-traumatic illness is not limited to soldiers in battle or the surviving loved ones of murder victims. We know that for most of us, it does not go away simply because we ignore it. Some people live reasonably functional lives by walling off their pain like an abscess, refusing to talk about it and “acting as if” everything is fine. I make no judgment about them; I am the last person to advise anyone else about how to live with something only they can understand. I know only that I was not among them.

I tried my hardest to be strong. Instead, I broke.

The man who killed my mother had pled guilty to a lesser charge, thus sparing my family the ordeal of a trial but leaving many questions unanswered. In 1995, he became eligible for his first parole hearing. There was no question in my mind about attending and speaking against his release. I poured myself into writing a speech, I marched into San Quentin Prison, I stood up in the presence of the perpetrator, I addressed the Parole Commissioners in the strongest possible language, and then I went home.

I thought it was over when parole was denied. I was wrong.

A year later, I went into a psychological and spiritual crisis. A series of increasingly troubling symptoms should have alerted me to my own emotional deterioration, but I clung too tightly to the appearance of normality to pay attention. When the break came, I folded like a house of cards: I couldn't eat, I couldn't sleep, I couldn't stop crying. I would look in the mirror and not recognize the person who looked back at me. It seemed to me that nobody was home behind those glassy, deer-in-the-headlight eyes. I've heard almost those same words from other murder victim family members. I call us “murder survivors.” This time, there was no question of “carrying on.” Slowly and painful, with many missteps and amazing, often unexpected, kindness from those around me, I began to heal from the inside out.

Because I am a writer, much of what I experienced — not the external circumstances but the emotions and insights — made its way into my stories. Why fiction? Stories keep our intellects busy while the deeper parts of our psyches grapple with things that are not easily put into words.

I am not a psychotherapist or an expert on recovery from trauma. Nor am I a military veteran or law enforcement officer, or war refugee, or family member of someone who has been executed, so I cannot speak from my own experience about the horrendous stresses those people face. However, I have found that I have much in common with folks who suffer from post-traumatic illness from other causes. I have exchanged support and become an ally of family members of offenders, as well. Their grief and pain is no less overwhelming than my own.

We are all survivors, and all of us are wounded in ways we sometimes cannot name. And there is hope for all of us. One of the most powerful ways we can help one another is by telling stories and listening to each other with open hearts.

You are not what happened to you, and you are not alone.

About the campaign:
#HoldOnToTheLight is a blog campaign encompassing blog posts by fantasy and science fiction authors around the world in an effort to raise awareness around treatment for depression, suicide prevention, domestic violence intervention, PTSD initiatives, bullying prevention and other mental health-related issues. We believe fandom should be supportive, welcoming and inclusive, in the long tradition of fandom taking care of its own. We encourage readers and fans to seek the help they or their loved ones need without shame or embarrassment.

Please consider donating to or volunteering for organizations dedicated to treatment and prevention such as: American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, Home for the Warriors (PTSD), National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), Canadian Mental Health Association, MIND (UK), SANE (UK), BeyondBlue (Australia), To Write Love On Her Arms and the National Suicide Prevention Hotline.

To find out more about #HoldOnToTheLight, find a list of participating authors and blog posts, or reach a media contact, go to https://www.facebook.com/groups/276745236033627/

[Jay Lake memorial link salad]

Modern rattlesnakes have pared down their weaponry stockpile from their ancestor’s massive arsenal. Today’s rattlers have irreversibly lost entire toxin-producing genes over the course of evolution, narrowing the range of toxins in their venom, scientists report September 15 in Current Biology.

Tortoises rule! Diego, 100, is a rare breed of tortoise called Chelonoidis hoodensis. These animals are so rare that they only exist on one of the oldest islands in the Galápagos. In 1976, when Diego was living at the San Diego Zoo, scientists realized that this handsome hero in a half shell was actually one of the last remaining tortoises of the Chelonoidis hoodensisas species. Diego then became the dominant male in a captive breeding program in the Galápagos.

A study of a well-preserved Chinese Psittacosaurus fossil shows it had a light underside and was darker on top - an arrangement called counter-shading. This suggests the species lived in an environment with diffuse light, such as a forest.
Thunderlord.jpgAcross genres, we accept the importance of bonds between brothers; I would argue that in speculative fiction, at least, we give less weight to the loyalty and emotional intimacy between sisters. This may be due to the domestic setting for sisterly concerns. Brothers march off to war together, but sisters hold hands when one is giving birth. If one or both is unmarried, sisters set up housekeeping together, often living their entire lives under the same roof. Yet the relationship between sisters opens many fascinating and challenging story possibilities.

I’ve found that once I step away from the models of male-bonding or male-female romantic love as the only possibilities for central relationships, my stories get a lot more interesting and also emotionally powerful. They don’t necessarily have to be the sole or pivotal bonds in a story. Just as in real life, they form a critical foundation for any social setting.

Thunderlord’s emotional heart is the relationship between the two Rockraven sisters, Kyria and Alayna. This being Darkover, I also included plenty of action and adventures — banshees and laran and bandits, oh my. Through all this — and a love story or two — the sisters are so integral to the tale that at times I felt as if I were channeling Elizabeth and Jane from Pride and Prejudice (or Marianne and Elinor from Sense and Sensibility). Sisters are not always close, but when they are, the relationships are complex, rich, and enduring. Lovers may come and go, the saying goes, but sisterhood is forever.

I didn’t set out to write “The Bennett Sisters on Darkover.” I began with a few pages of Marion’s notes on a sequel to Stormqueen, almost all of it backstory, and the title of the proposed book. I didn’t want to repeat the general plot of Stormqueen or its tragic ending, and I also wanted to experience whatever adventure the story took me on through the eyes of fresh, new characters.Read more...Collapse )

Although the Rockraven family isn’t anything like the Bennetts, I kept finding similarities: a noble but impoverished family, the pressure for one or both girls to secure the family’s financial future by their marriages, their wistful longing to marry for love, how the sisters are different but devoted to each other, and so forth. There are no balls in the neighborhood, no mother with imaginary illnesses scheming to “make a good marriage” for her daughters, no problem about the inheritance of the estate, and certainly no Mr. Darcy to be unpleasant to everyone. Practical Kyria deals with her family’s poverty by donning her brother’s clothes and trapping animals for food. Romantic Alayna dreams of love stories while understanding that such a happy ending means they must be parted, most likely forever. Distances on Darkover are much greater than in Regency England!

Kyria and Alayna made their entrance in my first draft as fairly conventional characters: the tomboy and the dreamer. I added Kyria – but not Alayna -- having inherited the Rockraven storm-sense laran into the mix, along with family legends of scandalous Great-Aunt Aliciane (who was Lord Aldaran’s ill-fated mistress in Stormqueen) and “The Rockraven Curse.” Kyria developed pretty much along the lines I’d initially set for her. When, for instance, she leaps on the back of a banshee, armed only with a knife, that does not present a radical departure from her character, as it would have been for Alayna.

Alayna, initially less interesting to me, nevertheless led me down some unexpected twists and turns. She grew more in the course of her adventures, in part because she had a longer distance to cover in terms of becoming her own person. She didn’t astonish me when she moved from timidity to desperation to heroism. Her compassion and her bravery in standing up for the people in her care did take me by surprise. I had no idea of her inner strength, a strength that comes from depth of heart instead of muscle and will-power.

By far the biggest revelations came from the minor women characters, in particular Ellimira and Dimitra. Ellimira, wife of the heir to the Rockraven estate and therefore chatelaine of the house, began as a fairly standard scolding, demanding older kinswoman. Not quite an evil stepmother (or, in this case, sister-in-law) but one laboring under the responsibilities of making too little stretch too far while somehow tending to her own children and husband. Yet when she bid Kyria and Alayna farewell, she presented me with a moment of insight: she has not seen her own family since her wedding, and if I knew nothing of whom she missed and what she had left behind, it was because she was such a private person, she would never volunteer that information and no one would ever think to ask, they were so busy either scrambling to obey her orders or trying to escape her notice. She never did tell me, but as this was not her story, I left her secrets for the reader to guess. Perhaps she will, in between counting the holes in the linens and nursing the baby who surely must have been born by now, suggest that I write it.

Dimitra made her entrance as the lady-in-waiting who takes Alayna under her wing upon her arrival at Scathfell Castle: competent, motherly, a bit chatty. Very quickly, it became apparent that she had a mind and agenda of her own. What was she up to with Dom Nevin? And why – money? a secret passion? rebellion against Lord Scathfell? When Nevin’s scheme was unveiled, Dimitra became the catalyst for Alayna’s kindness and sense of justice to overcome her timidity, and this later returned in a much more powerful way when Dimitra fell ill. Although a secondary character, Dimitra had a pretty remarkable story arc, moving from motherly guide to traitor to dying woman to loyal accomplice.

I hope you enjoy reading about these wonderful women characters as much as I did writing them. I lack Jane Austen’s wit and keen social insight, but if you hanker to read about women’s relationships and growth (along with adventure, thunderstorms, a banshee attack, and a couple of love-never-did-run-smooth stories), I hope you’ll check out Thunderlord.