All Those Defiant Sparks

All my life, I’ve believed that no matter how dark this world gets, there’s light behind that darkness, light that always shines through in the end.

This belief has been fundamental to my writing, to the sometimes-dark stories I tell and to all the stories I tell. Terrible things happen. But light—something within humanity that generates light—finds ways to fight that darkness.

This belief has been fundamental to my life, too, helping me see my way through the challenges of childhood—bullying by my peers, growing up in a home with a share of love but also a share of chaos and yelling and strife.

Things might look dark, but no darkness is absolute. Light finds a way through, one way or another. For so many years, I believed that. I was never sure where my belief came from: The stories I raised myself on? God? Some mix of these things or some other thing entirely? Whatever the source, I’d always been grateful for this conviction, always known it for the gift it was. 

Until the pandemic—and the years leading up to the pandemic, too—challenged all that.

Not because of the virus itself. Because of the many people—not just outwardly problematic people, not just actively hateful people, but more people than not out of all people—who’ve decided that in the face of the virus, they’re just not up for caring about each other anymore. At least not when it comes to slowing the spread of a contagious disease that even now kills thousands of people a day and disables a great many more.

Not if they have to do it for more than a handful of months. Not if they have to be inconvenienced or change habits or rethink how they live and socialize over the long term.

Not if they have to make real sacrifices.

Some people are out and out vicious about their lack of care for one another, bursting into hateful screaming and abuse and occasionally even violence when asked to do something as simple as put on a mask. A great many more people are merely indifferent, though, and in many ways I think this is worse. These are the people who shrug and say if mitigation measures like masking and testing and contact tracing are no longer required, they just won’t go to the trouble. The people who go with the flow and wear masks and get vaccinated and avoid indoor dining when other people are doing it, but when other people stop, they stop too. The people who say they care, but also that they miss concerts and conferences and indoor sporting events too much to do without them.

The people who instinctively reach for the “normal” they know and miss, and don’t think twice about the cost.

And then there’s the most indifferent, most immoral, and most common reason for pursuing that normalcy of all: 

I’ve evaluated my personal risk and decided it’s low.

My risk. Not the risk posed to others, even though during a pandemic no risk is truly “personal.” Our actions affect other people; that’s how contagious diseases work. We’re all more vulnerable than we think, but beyond that, the infection that’s mild for one person becomes part of a chain of transmission that could kill a vulnerable stranger they’ll never meet.

Yet more and more people are saying, with disconcerting directness, not just, “I’m taking care of myself (a good and necessary thing),” but “I’m only taking care of myself.” Everyone else is on their own.

Everyone is on their own. That’s the part of the pandemic that has broken me. We’re denying our connection to one another, denying it so deeply that we’d rather see strangers die than admit the world has changed without warning and might never change fully back.

Everyone is on their own. Where did all that light I saw shining through the darkness even come from, if it wasn’t from people finding ways to connect with one another, to care about one another, to in some small way redeem one another, even in dark times?

These are dark times, not because of the virus, but because of what we as humans have let the virus turn us into. (And because of other things too. If I’m honest I have to admit all of this began long before Covid, and that I bear a fair amount of privilege and responsibility for the fact that I’ve been able to avoid fully feeling and facing it until the past few years.)

But how do we come back from this? How do I come back from this?

How do I find my way back to believing in a world where light can be hidden, sometimes for a long time, but is still always out there, waiting to be found, waiting to shine through once more?

How do I find my way back when all around me are people so scared of the dark that instead of trying to light one another’s way they’ve turning their own small lights off entirely, because their personal risk is low and they no longer know how to think beyond that?

The fact that I want to believe such a world still exists is a start, I suppose.

Now I just have to figure out whether I really do still believe in it—and where to go from there.

I was ready to end this essay here. Yet even as I wrote the lines above, something inside me spoke up and said:

Start by focusing on your light—the light you yourself have to offer, the light you’ve defiantly refused to let gutter out, even now. Focus on that light and what you can still do with it, rather than on the light others have forgotten they even possess.

That sounds hard, honestly. It sounds lonely. 

But light sparks light, after all. Somewhere deep down I still know that. And shining our own light can make us more aware of all those other defiant lights out there sparking, too. 

Maybe, just maybe, that can be a start, too.

Decades Come and Decades Go

Or what I’ve been doing the past ten years

Recently, when I told an extended family member I had work to do, he snapped back at me, “What work? When was the last time you wrote a book — ten years ago?”

His response says more about him than me, of course. I’ve gotten “come on, you’re not really working reactions” from the occasional person near to me at every stage of my career—though less and less frequently over time—and I’ve come to know this response as a sort of leveling, a way of saying, “Don’t think too well of yourself.”

I’ve also come to understand that most people don’t bother saying “Don’t think too well of yourself” unless they’re feeling badly about their own selves, and are looking for some way to soothe that insecurity.

And yet. I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t an inner voice in my own head, too, after so many years, that also sometimes chimes in to say, “Come on, really, who do you think you are? What do you think you’re doing?

When that voice speaks up, the answer can seem like, “Not much.”

So I’m writing a post to push back against that inner voice. I’m writing a post to list out something of what I actually have been doing this past decade. Because from the outside, these might look like quiet years, but from the inside, they look really rich and full and challenging and significant and wonderful, and I need to remind myself of that.

Along the way, maybe this post will help some of you reading it to push back against your inner voices, too. Because whatever you’ve been doing the past ten years, it matters, and it’s enough, and you have every right to be proud of it.

And in the end, really, whatever we do or fail to do, whatever we achieve or fail to achieve, isn’t the entirety of who we are anyway. Every single one of us is bigger and more wondrous and more wonderful than that.

What I’ve Been Doing, 2012-2022 Edition 
(An Incomplete List)

  • Finished three novels, including Faerie Afterthe final book of my Bones of Faerie Trilogy
  • Published two of them, one under my own name and one under a pseudonym
  • Wrote a guest episode for the Zombies, Run! App
  • Wrote the video game script for The Huntsman: Winter’s Curse
  • Sold a new short story to Stars of Darkover (and then donated the proceeds when I learned some hard truths about Darkover’s creator)
  • Volunteered at a wildlife center
  • Volunteered with an expressive arts group for local refugee families
  • Camped and traveled and hiked and explored
  • Mourned several friends
  • Became a parent
  • Finished rough drafts of four novels-still-in-progress
  • Curated a Writing for the Long Haul blog series
  • Served as the inaugural Writer-in-Residence for the Pima County Public Library
  • Served as Guest of Honor at TusCon Science Fiction Convention
  • Spoke at countless other book festivals, conventions, comicons, and writing conferences
  • Practiced multiple styles of bookbinding
  • Created designs for t-shirts, journals, stickers, mugs, and more at my Redbubble store
  • Mourned my father
  • Settled my father’s estate 
  • Did I mention becoming a parent?
  • Became politically active and took part in dozens of pro-democracy actions
  • Battled depression
  • Wrote more than 400 blog posts
  • Redesigned and reorganized my blog and website
  • Launched and published two chapbooks in my new Writing Life series
  • Redesigned and re-released new editions of three short stories
  • Designed and published Unicorn Seasonsa new short story collection
  • Re-designed and re-released a new edition of Tiernay West, Professional Adventurer
  • Taught myself some basic Mandarin
  • Had open heart surgery
  • Recovered from open heart surgery and went through rehab
  • No, really, parenting needs more than a line or two on this list
  • Homeschooled my kid during a pandemic
  • Lived during a pandemic, one that is still ongoing
  • Volunteered at a vaccine clinic
  • Published a humor piece with the Weekly Humorist and three humor pieces with Frazzled.
  • Published a non-fiction piece with Modern Parent and two pieces with Blank Page
  • Mourned my mother
  • Redesigned and re-released a new edition of Thief Eyes
  • Redesigned and re-released new editions of Bones of Faerie Trilogy
  • Marketed the new Bones of Faerie editions well enough to have the best year, from a business perspective, of my entire career
  • Did I mention parenting? Because parenting could easily fill ten years all by itself 

So yeah, it’s been a decade. Love and loss. Lots of ups and downs. Lots of living. Lots to be proud of, some of it writing and career related, a whole lot of it not.

I’ll take it all. And I’ll look forward, with whatever cautious optimism as I can muster, to the next ten years.

[Arms outstretched in front of an image of a turkey vulture]
We all have larger wingspans than we realize.

Fact Check (a found poem)

Scientists
Are not opening a portal to hell.

Scientists
Restarted their accelerator—
The world’s most powerful accelerator—
To learn more about the origins of the universe.

Social media suggest a different purpose:
That scientists are using the machine to open a doorway
For demons,
Wicked spirits,
High Evil Principalities.

The claim is baseless.
Scientists are engaged in scientific-related activities.

Experts use the collider to study
Unexplored energies,
Microscopic particles,
The creation of the universe,
Dark matter.

Scientists are engaged in scientific-related activities. 
The collider cannot open up portals to other dimensions.


Found poem from “Fact check: Scientists at CERN are not opening a ‘portal to hell’,” USA Today, July 26, 2022.

There is no “back to normal.” There’s only forward to whatever comes next.

The trouble with talking about getting “back to normal” is that time doesn’t run backwards. It runs forwards.

We can no more return to a pre-Covid world than we can return to typewriters or gas lamps or steam trains or diplomacy without the threat of nuclear weapons.

The fact that Covid is likely to be with us for a while yet is not a reason to pretend it isn’t here anymore. It’s a reason to evolve and adapt and find better ways of managing and existing in our changed world. 

Whether it’s learning new ways of socializing outdoors or improving ventilation indoors, learning to live with masking, getting better at quickly developing vaccines that respond to current virus variants instead of long extinct ones, or countless other things we haven’t thought of yet because we’ve been so busy trying to go backwards instead of forwards that most of us haven’t really stopped to think, haven’t really tried get creative, haven’t put in the hard work of finding new ways of being and doing—as well as the hard work of finding new ways of communicating the need for change, too.

If we keep trying to go “back,” we pay the price in human lives, all while grasping for something that’s well out of reach—grasping for a time and a way of life that are no longer ours.

But if we let go of what was and instead try to move forward—well, then maybe we can find our way through where we are now to something new. Something that works better. Something that costs fewer lives.

Something, even, that makes us feel hopeful about the future, instead forever sad that we can’t reclaim the past.

And maybe, just maybe, once we’ve done that for the pandemic, we can also do it for all the many other looming challenges we face together, as well.

Broken windows

I always thought personal responsibility meant not just taking responsibility for how your actions affect you, but also how your actions affect others.

I mean, if you throw a ball and it breaks a window, you don’t just check whether any of the glass shards cut your own skin and then move on. You also apologize to the person whose window you broke. You especially apologize to the person whose window you broke.

You definitely don’t say the owner of the window is to blame for not using safety glasses or putting up shutters or for having the bad luck to live in a house within easy shot of a playground.

And okay, sure, there will always be people who hide or run or deny that ball was theirs. But they’re the ones who are failing to take personal responsibility. We all know that.

So how did we come to believe that, during a pandemic, personal responsibility instead means just taking responsibility for whether our actions cause us and our loved ones to become sick, disabled, or even die? How did we come to believe it only matters if the glass cuts our own skin?

That’s not how it works. If I willfully act in ways that increase my chances of infecting others, I’m personally responsible for that.

Even if the people I infect choose to be around me of their own free will. Even if they’re high risk or have comorbidities or are just in poorer health than me. Even if they seemed “healthy” but got hit hard anyway. I’m personally responsible.

Even if no one else around me was acting to protect others, either. Even if there’s peer pressure not to protect others, and I don’t want to speak up or say no or be the only person in the room wearing a mask. I’m personally responsible.

Even if the people I infect are fine but they go on to infect strangers I’ll never know and never meet and never hear about who aren’t fine. I’m personally responsible.

Even—yes, even—if they failed to get vaccinated, failed to protect themselves as fully as they could have. I still threw that ball through the window. It doesn’t matter if the window should have had safety glass in place. I’m still the one who broke it.

If we remembered what personal responsibility meant in other contexts, would we act to protect others during this pandemic, instead of mostly only acting to protect ourselves and those closest to us?

Or is that too much to ask, in any context? Have the stresses of an ongoing pandemic broken somehow inside us, making it too much to ask?

Leaving us unwilling to be personally responsible for our actions after all?

The stories we tell

As I enter this strange new unparented new stage of my life, I’ve been thinking about how my family gave me many gifts.

And I’ve also been thinking about how they gave me stories about myself, some less true than others, some more harmful than others.

As happens in families, there are those who’ve chosen to be the keepers of those stories, to try to keep them alive and to give them power, true or not.

But I get to choose, too.

And I don’t choose to keep these stories. I choose to be—to continue to work toward being—my true self, and not the self who others, through decades of family and time, wish to believe I am.

Their reasons believing—for needing to believe—are their own.

They’re nothing to do with me, unless I let them be.

There’s no pandemic in the universe next door

Some days I feel like I’m living in a parallel universe.

I’ve seen the data, data showing that my community, like so many communities, has yet again reached high levels of Covid transmission. I’ve heard the pleas from those at high risk, begging others to care about them enough to try to protect them, to try to help slow this thing down so that one day they’ll have a better way of protecting themselves than staying locked in while their friends—the people they thought were their friends—go out and party.

And I’ve seen those around me ignore these things, utterly.

When friends and colleagues talk about being excited to be return to in-person events, without a trace of hesitation, often without seeming knowledge that Covid is still here at all, I’m baffled. The best of them wear masks to protect themselves. No one talks about protecting others. I’ve heard otherwise kind, compassionate people talk about how others at these events are responsible for their own decisions, about how those at risk should just stay home.

I haven’t heard anyone talk about those who might caught up in the chain transmission that begins at these events, people who never even attended them but have friends, or friends of friends, or friends of friends of friends, who did. People who could experience long term disability or even—yes—death as a result of the actions of people they’ll never meet.

So many people seem unwilling to avoid doing anything, anything at all, to slow this virus down. So many insist on attending not just small gatherings but conventions and conferences (and concerts and plays and basketball games) with thousands, tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands of people. They say we can’t stay on lockdown forever, as if lockdown or a 100,000 person indoor meetup are the only options, no middle ground.

And—this is where I get to feeling like I really am in another, neighboring universe—so many don’t even seem aware these issues exist or need to be considered at all anymore. Those around me say they’re thrilled to be back in person, and then—maybe with a mask added for good measure, maybe not—they carry on as if attending these events, no matter how large the crowd, no matter how lax the safety measures, is perfectly normal, even admirable. They share feel-good group photos about how wonderful and heartwarming and healing it is to be hanging with others again.

If there’s a slight edge of desperation to some of these posts, some hint of trying too hard to prove that life is good and the cool kids are together again, well, no one talks about that either.

They do talk about going out for drinks and sharing meals at these events as if that’s perfectly normal too, as if it’s just what one does, as if it doesn’t undo so much of the good of whatever safety precautions they are taking—never mind that any safety precautions only go so hard in large enough a crowd anyway.

When pressed about this, people talk about the need for professional connections and professional collaboration and professional knowledge exchange. In the writing community, they also say that they have no choice because they have to sell their books, their work. And sure, that’s always a real and pressing and ongoing concern, but can’t creative people get creative? Can’t we re-imagine how we reach readers and viewers, and search for ways to sell our work that don’t require attending huge events, or doing all the other things we did Before simply because we’ve always done them?

But no one really wants to talk about that either.

Sometimes I wonder if I’ve imagined we’re still in a pandemic at all—but then I look at the data again and I listen to those at risk again. I accept that vaccines, while they’re so important and do help so much, aren’t the perfectly impenetrable wall we hoped they’d be. I remind myself that my mild case of Covid could become someone else’s serious case of Covid, because that’s how contagious diseases work.

Call it gaslighting, call it cognitive dissonance—but something strange really is going on here. The depth of denial is frightening, and isolating, and honestly kind of lonely.

I wonder why so few people seem to understand how much and how deeply we’ve stopped caring about each other, when it comes to this infectious disease, even as they keep caring about each other in so many other ways. It’s as if Covid exists in it’s own little box, separate from all the many things we care about. All the many things we allow ourselves to think about.

Many events have been ending with Covid outbreaks, outbreaks large enough to affect not just attendees but also their communities. But then the next event comes around, and somehow nothing changes—everyone is still thrilled to be back in person, back with their friends, back in business, as if the examples of the gatherings right before theirs just don’t count somehow.

Maybe it’s all just denial in the end, denial and desperation. Or maybe I do just live in a parallel universe after all.

But there’s something going on here that I don’t fully understand, and that I’m still grappling with as the pandemic—because yes, there still is a pandemic—goes on.

[May 31 CDC Covid Community Transmission Data]
Current CDC Covid community transmission data from this universe. Data from other universes may vary.