On Loss.

Our family lost a beloved member this week – Ted’s only cousin’s husband. He was in his early forties, a stay-at-home dad, and a caregiver to his grandma-in-law. He was funny, interesting, a great storyteller, into all the wonderful geeky stuff that I’m into (he was, for example, the only person in the family with whom I often had serious discussions about Buffy and Firefly); he was wildly in love with his kids and his wife, a dedicated family man, fun at parties…. and then, in a flash, he was gone.

And we miss him.

And so I’ve had several discussions with the kids about death and dying, about what happens to us when we die, and about the fragility and preciousness of the fact of our breathing and the fact of our living. Particularly Leo, who was most fond of our cousin’s jokes, who felt the strongest connection to him, and therefore most keenly feels his loss.

Each moment is a miracle, I told them. Though I didn’t entirely believe it.

Death is a part of life; life is precious because it is brief. Again, my words felt hollow and without meaning. I hoped the kids didn’t notice.

Last night, I woke up at about midnight to find Leo standing next to my bed. He had his hand resting on my forehead.

“What are you doing up?” I asked.

“You put on the flower blanket,” Leo said, ignoring the question. “It’s beautiful.”

“I’m glad you like it,” I said. “What are you doing up?”

“I was just checking on you,” he said.

I told him I was fine, and I kissed him, gave him a glass of water and tucked him into bed.

At two a.m., he was back, his hand on my forehead.

“Hey,” I said sleepily.

“I’m just checking on you,” he said again.

“Well, I’m fine,” I said. “But I’m a bit sleepy.” And I walked him back to his bed and tucked him in.

Then at four thirty, I was suddenly pummeled by a riot of arms and legs, as Leo scrambled over my body and wedged himself between his dad and I. “I though you might be lonely,” he said.

“How can I ever be lonely with such a nice family,” I yawned as I carried him back to bed.

Then, this morning, after breakfast, he went outside and gathered leaves. Red leaves, brown leaves. Leaves the color of mustard, and the color of gold, and the color of roses. He put them in the sink, pushed in the plug and turned on the tap.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“They lost their water,” Leo said. “So I’m putting their water back in and then they’ll be green again.”

“Honey, that’s not how it works,” I said, turning off the faucet. “They will never be green. We’ll rake them into the garden beds, and they will become less leaf-like and more dirt-like. Then they will become food for the flowers and the hostas and the vegetables. But they won’t be leaves again. In the spring, the trees will turn gold, then pale green, then the buds will burst open, and the world will be filled with leaves. Leaves as far as you can see. And everything will be green.”

“So,” he said, thinking. “The leaves become flowers?”

“Sort of. Everything is recycled. Everything becomes everything.”

“So.” He paused for several breaths. “Is Kurby a flower? Or is he everything?”

I picked him up. “Baby,” I said. “Every atom in your body was once in a star. Did you know that? And that star formed, and burned, and exploded into dust, and that dust spun, and collected and congealed into planets and our sun and your body and every blessed thing on this whole beautiful earth. When we die, our atoms become flowers and dirt and leaves and wind and worms and bunny rabbits and fire and stars. And we become memory and thought and song and stories and spirit and Word and children of God. I don’t know where we go, honey. But I’ll know it when I see it.”

“Will I know it?” Leo said. He wound his arms around my neck and hung on tight.

“Yes, darling,” I said. “I do believe you will.”

Today’s Poem: “Cheating at Cards With Jesus”

Cheating at Cards With Jesus

The Lord is a pain in the ass when He’s had too much whiskey.
But then, so’s anyone, so I couldn’t fault Him for it.
He leered over the rim of his cards and winked.
The table had cleared out. It was just him and me.
He sipped on the dregs of His drink and belched.
“Well,” He said. “What’ll it be?”

“I thought people bet their souls with the Devil,” I said.
Jesus yawned. “It’s cliché,” He said. “And you’re stalling.”
He fingered the card that I knew was a queen of hearts.
“And anyway, the Devil sucks at cards. Only a poet can play poker properly.
The Devil’s a numbers guy.”

“Hit me,” I said. Jesus paused.
“You sure?” He said, thumbing the top card.
King of clubs. I already knew it. I had marked it myself.
Or Jesus had marked it.
After all this time, the cards were well-worn and as readable as faces.
There were no more surprises, and I was about to go bust.

“Hit me,” I said again. Jesus nodded and filled our glasses.
The whiskey burned its way down until my whole body gleamed.
Jesus held His glass next to his drink-flushed face. He closed His eyes.
“A poem works, not for what it says, but what it does not say,” He said.
“A poem speaks from the empty spaces; silence brings light to the gloom.”

“Your point?” I asked. Why drag it out? I snatched His drink and gulped it down.
“A game is the same way. Just when you think you’ve won, you’ve lost,
and just when you think you’re lost, you are found.”
“I think you’re confusing your words,” I said.
Drunk asshole, I thought.

“I fold,” Jesus said. “You win.”
A boozy smile. A hard stare.
Two bright eyes,
hot and old as nebulas,
burn across the table. I wince.

“So,” He said. “What are you gonna do about it?

On Entropy, Accretion and Exploding Novels

https://kellybarnhill.files.wordpress.com/2011/05/6a0120a6b6d001970b0120a6c9603e970b-800wi.jpg?w=300

There was a time in my life when I was a lot tougher than I am now. And though I was strong enough to break a man’s nose (and did once, but that is another story) that time in my life was marked – no, defined – by terrible, terrible fear.

When I was a teenager and early adult, I never feared death – which can partly explain the ridiculous risks that I took with my personal safety and well-being (walking alone through sketchy neighborhoods late at night, fist-fights, jumping off bridges for fun, dating boys who liked punching things, and etc.). I didn’t fear death at all. Now, I will heartily admit that I was (and I really and truly admit this) a certifiable idiot, which accounts for at least some of my…..misguided behavior. I was an athlete and very fast and very strong, and I somehow equated that with invincibility, with deathlessness, with indomitability.I was intoxicated with my body’s ability to preserve itself.

It wasn’t death that I was afraid of. It was decay. It was entropy. That my strength would ebb, diminish and fail. That my skin would stretch and fold and hang, that my eyes would dim and my ears would clog and my brain would muffle and cloud and fade. But mostly, I was terrified that, one day, after I had coughed and shuddered and stopped breathing forever, that every cell in my body would disassemble, disassociate, dissolve.

It was, at the time, a terrifying thought.

It wasn’t death that scared me. I knew that everything that breathed would stop, and that alive and dead were just two different sections of that same long road. I was pretty sure there was a heaven, and I was mostly sure that God had enough of a sense of humor to let me in. No, it was the corruption of the body that gave me the creeps. And kept me up at night. And haunted my dreams again and again and again.

http://blog.cleveland.com/pdextra/2007/08/large_zombie2.jpg

For a long time – for much of my twenties and into my thirties – this notion of entropy of dissolution – defined much of my understanding of the world. Entropy increases, I told myself. That is the nature of living: We form; we complicate; we undo; we fade; we blow away. We don’t just fall apart; we become food.

And I accepted it, and was okay with it, because it is true. Mostly.

Last year, I participated in a yearly workshop called Launch Pad, a program funded by NASA and the National Science Foundation. I wrote about the experience here. Now, after listening to lectures for eight hours a day and looking through telescopes at night and reading textbooks until the wee hours before finally falling asleep in a desk chair, waking with a crick in your neck, and heading out to do it all again – for an entire week….. well, it leaves an indelible mark on a person, I’ll tell you what. I felt the metaphors upon which my understanding of the world was organized start to shift, wobble and reform.

We are all made of stardust, our professors told us. Every atom in your body, every atom that surrounds you was once part of a star. That star exploded into dust. That dust became a new star, a new system, and everything began again. Indeed, our universe, being about 13.7 billion years old, went through some pretty dynamic changes along the way before morphing into the images that we’ve all seen and loved from Hubble and other beloved telescopes.

http://www.mhs-science.org.uk/images/Horse%27s%20Head%20Nebula%20Hubble.jpg

The first stars that formed in that primordial soup of dark matter (about 100 million years or so after the Big Bang) and glowing plasma were hot and bright and brief. Live fast, die young, indeed. They exploded, sent their matter across the universe, and their atoms bound to other atoms, and more, and more until they accreted into stars. And then those stars exploded and the process started again.

The point is that the atoms that made me were not just in one stars, but more likely they were from many. And from everywhere.

I tried to explain that to my son. He thought about it for a while, and said, “You mean when Buzz Lightyear said, ‘To Infinity And Beyond’, he was talking about me?”

“Yes,” I said. Leo was thrilled.

And while the central bulge of our galaxy was formed while the universe was still very young, our own star is under five billion years old. How many other stars were born, lived and died before our own emerged?

Billions.

And billions.

A star explodes and becomes dust. Another star explodes and the shock wave incites the dust to become stars. Such is the nature of things.

And I bring this up because I’m working on a book.

A book that I destroyed.

A book that I exploded.

A book that became dust, ash and wind. That became plasma and fire and energy. That was given over to the universe as an offering. A book that fell apart, bloated, liquified, decayed, jellied and became food. A book that I left for dead.

A nebula is the dusty, gassy, dissolved remains of an exploded star. It is also the dynamic womb for a forming star. It is both. I like things that can be both. There are entire universes in both.

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/7/72/Omega_Nebula.jpg/250px-Omega_Nebula.jpg

The thing is, as far as my process goes, this is nothing new. I start books in a flurry of heat and light. They are all I can think about. They are all I can do. And then they collapse. And I need to learn to accept the collapsing. I need to learn that entropy is part of my creative process. Hell, my book that’s coming out this summer, The Mostly True Story of Jack, ground to a halt no less than twenty times while I was writing it. My book that’s appearing next year – Iron Hearted Violet -  had to sit and wait for an entire year before I could finish it.

I start books; I create universes; I foment stars, and then I blow them up and leave huge clouds of dust behind.

Last year, I’ve been suffering from an increase of entropy.

Or, it isn’t so much that I have experienced the entropy, but the book did. I shouldn’t be surprised, not really. This is how I make books. I wrote The Firebirds of Lake Erie last year. Wrote the end. Hated the end. Erased the end.

Then I erased the last third.

Then I erased the last half.

Then I left it for dead.

Recently, I felt a shockwave. A jolt. The energetic pulse of an exploding supernova, half a universe away, and it knocked me out of bed and onto my knees. The book was in pieces. It was subatomic. But the tiny bits were starting to coalesce. They were starting to stick. And I think I know what to do now. The thing that was dust is becoming book. And it was good.

This makes me happy, because the other book I started last fall – Witless Ned and the Speaking Stones - suffered a similar implosion in February. So now I just have to trust that the undulating cloud of dusty novel bits will one day shudder, tremble and live. And the best thing I can do for poor Ned is to leave him be.

Change exists. Matter recombines. The Universe reinvents itself again and again and again. There is no death. There is no destruction.  There is only formation and history and newness and memory and structure and pattern and arc.  And, deep in our souls, is the unshakable knowledge every atom within us gleams with the memory of stars.

http://www.universetoday.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/02/sirius-580x550.jpg

*******

I told my son that all the matter in his body was formed when the universe was formed, and that his atoms are as old as the Big Bang. He thought about that for a while.

“You mean that I’m the same age as you?” he asked.

“Yup,” I said. “In a matter of speaking.”

“Well,” he said, “next time you do something naughty, I’m totally going to send you to your room.”

A year buds, swells, blooms, dies.

All things considered, I really dug 2010, despite its rather inauspicious beginning at which I learned that my book, originally slated to slide into the world in the fall of 2010, was to be delayed until 2011. That was a blow, and a crushing one at the time. Looking back on it, though, I don’t disagree with it and am actually pretty happy about how things have turned out. In the meantime, I was pretty productive this year – finished some projects, started some more, met some good people, tended my family, read some books, and generally had a pretty nice time. Here is a list, in no particular order, of some of the things I managed to get done this year.

1. Wrote two books. One will come out in 2012, the other I have no idea.

2. Sold a short story collection.

3. Caught a fish. My first one. Likely my last.

4. Learned a bunch of cool stuff at an astronomy workshop in Laramie, WY.

5. Hung out with lovely, amazing and ridiculously smart nerds. Will love them all forever.

6. After a lifetime of longing, I finally loaded the family into the car and headed northward to Canada and the Winnipeg Folk Fest, where I spent five glorious days in dusty squalor listening to an amazing array of musicians, and my kids managed to delight all who saw them with their dancing prowess.

7. Sent my baby to Kindergarten. Cried a lot.

8. Sent my other baby to Middle School. Cried even more.

9. Grew bushel-loads of vegetables in the garden. Ate very, very well.

10. Camped on an island in the middle of the Boundary Waters. Saw the Northern Lights reflected on the surface of a windless lake.

11. Showed the children how to find Jupiter. Listened to them gasp as they located it with their binoculars, seeing that bright red spot winking like a ruby in the dark night sky.

12. Welcomed a Brother-in-Law into the family. Learned of an impending Sister-in-Law.

13. Swam in the ocean. Did not get eaten by a shark.

14. Saw wolves. Two of them, and they were huge and wild and wonderful. They haunt my dreams.

15. Met more writers this year than I ever have in my life, thanks to Launchpad, Kidlitcon and World Fantasy. This is good, because the disparate jobs of writing and mothering makes me sometimes feel very alone in my work life. Or that my world life must always happen in the margins. Or something. In any case I just have never had a lot of opportunities to connect with other people in the same work as me – the people for whom the building of stories is a daily vocation, the people who sweat and groan under the construction of sentences, who mine words like precious stones. It was astonishing for me; a revelation. It’s nice to have colleagues, even if you only see them once a year. It’s nice to know we’re not alone.

 

As for 2011 – this year I become a novelist, and while that thought makes me so nervous that I think I might barf with these incessant jitters, I’m very, very pleased as well. My little book! After fits and starts, revisions so severe that only a sentence or two survived, after begging, pleading and ultimate despair, my book will finally live. Grant you sure feet, my book. Strong legs. Clear eyes. Feathers. Wings. In the end, our books really are like our children: we conceive, we nurture, we labor, we tend; and in the end they fly away. Grief, pride, relief. Is this normal? I hope so.

 

In any case, hello 2011! Welcome. We’ll do our best to make you beautiful.

Processing My Way through the Launch Pad Experience; or, How My Brain Was Destroyed, Rearranged and Rebuilt by the Shockwave of an Exploding Supernova

Ok, fine, that subtitle is slightly misleading. Still, given the transformative power of an exploding supernova – both destructive and constructive, leaving that part of the universe indelibly altered – I’m starting to feel a lot of kinship with nebulas.

First: let me tell you about Launch Pad. It’s a free, NASA-funded astronomy workshop for writers and editors. Essentially, they gather a bunch of nerdy, science-loving wordy-types and gives them a crash course in astronomy. We sat in lectures from ten in the morning until six, then seven, then eight at night, and then often went out after dark to play with telescopes. The whole thing is the brainchild of one Mike Brotherton: astronomer, hard sci-fi writer, and all around good guy. And for most of us, having the chance to spend the day learning, then playing with high-tech toys – well, it was a geeked-out paradise that I was, quite frankly, loathe to leave.

Now, I have a lot to say on the subject, but I’m not going to go into the nitty gritty of day-to-day learning, since some of my fine compatriots have done it for me. (See Rachel Swirsky’s detailed and day-by-day accounts here, here, and….aw, hell, there’s a bunch of them. Just click on the Launch Pad tab and you’ll find the rest) Indeed, this is just the first of likely a few posts, since I’m still processing the whole experience and it’ll take me a while to really allow the thing to crystallize in my head.

Anyway, since I am, in my soul, a relational person, I always understand an experience in the context of the people with whom I shared the experience. In other words, anything I have to say on the subject of my time in Wyoming will be utterly meaningless unless I can say a few words about the people who sat in that room with me as our worlds were collectively rocked by SCIENCE!

First, here’s a picture of us:

Aren’t we adorable?

So, here are the folks I hung out with last week:

Walter Jon Williams – Author of like, nine million books, video game designer and writer, and a black belt, so he’s a person to whom you’d lose in a bar fight. Also, asker of incisive questions and cracker of the occasional wry joke which kept me giggling on my end of the table.

David J. Williams – The guy whose book I already bought and who also has a kick-ass accent. Also: every time he asked a question or made a comment, I realized that everything I thought I knew I didn’t know at all and I had to go back to the drawing board.

Carrie Vaughn – Author of some really cool werewolf novels (among other things), philosophizer, contextualizer, and explainer – not to mention a super-nice person and it was a pleasure to get to know her. Also: she’s the first person I’ve ever met who had watched Dorkness Rising! More on that in a minute.

Marjorie Liu – Woman of spirit and grace. Unfortunately, also susceptible to altitude sickness. Still, the creative output during the course of this lady’s early career is nothing short of amazing and I have no doubt that she is likely to one day rule the world with her bookish prowess. Plus, she’s sharp, funny and holds her ground in an argument.

John Joseph Adams Dude. I love this guy. Fer serious. He’s an editor, writer, publicist, and generally made of awesome. Also: funny. I appreciate funny.

Rachel Swirsky One of my favorite writers ON EARTH. Also, someone with whom you never want to get into an argument with because she’s smarter and better informed than 99.999% of the world’s population. From now on, if I’m confused about something, I’ll ask Rachel and she’ll always know. Also, she’s a wonderful person and it was really fun to meet her.

Cecilia Tan – Another person placed under the heading of “People Smarter than Me”. Editor Circlet at Press – the press that Neil Gaiman famously called the “naughty books” of science fiction, and someone who truly gets the power of speculative fiction to transform how we understand and interpret the world around us. She’s like the Jules Vern of sexual politics.

Alice Henderson Ah, the juxtapositioning of the Light and the Dark! Author of some delightfully wicked novels – both original and those part of a larger universe (Buffy the Vampire Slayer Choose Your Own Adventure novels, for example. I mean, does a person get cooler than that? No, my friends. No they do not.) and one of the most light-filled souls I’ve ever met. So enjoyed meeting her.

Genevieve Valentine Love this woman. Millions and millions of love. First of all, if you haven’t come across her fiction (Strange Horizons, Clarksworld, Federations and like nine million other places) than you really need to. Like, right now. She’s also smart, snarky, wickedly funny and a lovely, lovely person.

Monte Cook is the most famous man ALIVE!!!! Or, at least he is to me, after we found out – through my incessant prodding, of course – that he had a bit part in Dorkness Rising! I’ll pause for a moment to let that one sink in. (!!!!!!!!!) Monte’s been writing novels and RPG stuff since forever and has won scads of awards and has a really cool book that I must purchase called The Skeptics Guide to Conspiracies. Mostly, though, he’s like the geeky big brother that I never had, and it was my great pleasure getting to know him.

Jeremy Tolbert, our elder statesman of the group as he had been in the workshop before – also he and Mike Brotherton go way back. Cool-headed and thoughtful, a terrific writer and photographer, and an entrepreneur. I like people who have made the self-employment plunge because it makes my own situation seem less insane.

Ian Randal Strock The man with the van, and yet another on our roster of editors in the group. You know, I’ve often thought that editors only exist to throw water on the positively brilliant ideas of writers and to generally crush our fragile little spirits, but I’m starting to understand that’s not true. Ian is a man of ideas: able to stare down treacherous mountain tops and sinister small-town sheriffs with grim determination and verve. Also, he can follow an astronomer’s directions and those guys think that getting something in the range of a power of ten is pretty darn close.

Bud Sparhawk Avuncular and gentle presence on my side of the room, punctuated by the occasional one liner – sharp and bright as the tip of a pin. Also has written more short stories than anyone alive as far as I can tell. I so enjoyed his company and running commentary throughout the week and even today have found myself waiting for a Bud-type comment that never comes as he is far, far away, alas.

Nicholos Wethington (that link goes to the website he writes for rather than his own – which, if it exists, I couldn’t find it. Which is a shame, because the guy is friggin brilliant) Our own Gentleman Scientist in the Edwardian sense – though without the tweed nor the pince-nez. This guy is amazing: got excited about astronomy one day and set off to learn everything possible on the subject. And then did. And now he’s building his own telescope, and will likely have a home-made rocketship in his back yard by spring. Also, a lovely person who was kind enough to share his knowledge with me on more than one occasion when I was clearly floundering.

Okay, fine. I was floundering all the time. This is why it’s good to know smart people.

Anyway, that was the group. And they were magnificent. I’ll be writing more on what we learned and its impact on me as a writer moving forward, but it was an exhausting week and an exhausting re-entry into family life, and now I need to get to bed. More tomorrow.

But while you’re all thinking about outerspacy-goodness, watch this video on the origin of the moon and be amazed.