I honestly cannot say whether my 2020 was worse than what others around the country experienced. Even aside from the burden of dealing with the pandemic and the ever-worsening spectacle of the geopolitical scene shaking the world at large, my family experienced more loss and trauma this year than I would have thought possible. Believe me, I'm not bragging, but rather am sincerely working through my experiences by airing some reflections on the past year. Whether or not I actually internalized any lessons from these experiences, especially to the point where I might truly mature as a human being, remains to be seen. But in keeping with end-of-year retrospections and predictions, I'm willing to take a shot at being optimistic---at least in public.
In the space of a few short months (only months? Really?), we witnessed my mother's rapid decline and horrific death due to cancer. We endured the uncertainty of another family member's isolated, extended ICU stay and lengthy recovery. We were continually separated physically from our friends, which led to some of us experiencing acute (and completely justified) mental health crises and ongoing depression. I will never forget watching in fascinated horror as the needle on our local air-quality meter reached toxic deep maroon, while wildfires advanced practically to our doorstep. We lived for ten days in an eye-stinging, lung-choking Hellscape of smoke, through which black-clad, political-minded thugs and suspected arsonists rampaged with impunity. But perhaps most disconcerting has been living under the contradictory, arbitrary edicts of a state government that seems to take spiteful delight in regulating access to our vital Catholic sacraments.
Under these turbulent conditions, it was imperative for my mental survival to cultivate a good attitude, to carve out a psychic sanctuary in both my home and heart that represented a restful retreat, rather than an imprisonment. The irony of the predicament was not lost on me---I am a stay-at-home introvert-----but choosing to stay home and being ordered to stay home are very different things, and the difference really tells in one's emotional responses. So, like the painted handprints, bison and horses that adorn the walls of prehistoric caves, different coping strategies came to represent different aspects of my circumstances. Prayer, of course, being number one. Paradoxically, being quarantined from the Eucharist gave me an opportunity to re-think my attitude of entitlement, while growing sensitive to the different ways Christ is still present in my life and heart. Also, the support of family and friends, through their abundant prayers and loving messages, was absolutely vital and more humbling than I can say. And of course, my spouse and kids helped me find humor wherever and whenever possible, (although this was largely unintentional on their part).
But I have to confess that the walls of my imaginary cave ended up being decorated more heavily through the exercise of my own creative gifts than with anything else. I certainly had plenty of time to work on both fine art and literary projects, and a pleasantly surprising side-effect of the lockdown was the increase in online sales for my fine art doll business, including some private commissions. On these, I was privileged to work directly with clients to make their unique visions come to life---and so mountain lions stalked, dragons flew and unicorns pranced across the walls of my spiritual cave.
The literary world taking shape in my mind's eye has also made considerable progress, moving further from the flickering light of vague imagination and approaching the daylight of public revelation. The Beyond Cascadia series has been a long time in the works: For years, I have been alertly taking notes about possible futures our nation and world might eventually inhabit, as well as creating the characters that I imagine might be shaped and challenged by those futures. Consequently, I had assembled a comprehensive map of the cultural/geopolitical horizon which I believed was many decades off---so far off, in fact, that I selfishly assumed (or rather, hoped) it would not seriously impact me, only my children or grandchildren. But like the painted backdrop of the artificial world in "The Truman Show", that horizon is much closer than it appeared and my own literary ship has run smack into it. The compression of 5 or 10 years' worth of events into the space of 8 months or so caught me just a bit off-guard, to say the least. See exhibit "A" above---spiteful state interference with free exercise of religion.
Living in a dystopian reality scripted by a Cosmic Playwright----who is apparently fueled by caffeine while racing to cram all possible events into His story in the face of a looming deadline----definitely presents challenges to my own efforts at originality. Author Margaret Atwood claims that after 9/11, she was so disturbed by the thought that much of her own fictional world was coming true, she was unable to write for about 6 months. I get where she was coming from: It's extremely frustrating to write anything more weird or cautionary than what is literally unfolding around us all, minute by minute. And yet----what else is a writer to do, other than use their gifts to bring a lens to these overwhelming issues, while attempting to apply some form of balm? To examine and try to make sense of some small part of the world, by transmuting our own observations and even personal experiences into a wholly new, separate creation-----one that will hopefully bring a few hours' enjoyment to some of those passing alongside us through this vale of tears? Through the writer's shamanistic vision, looming dangers of political-realignments and deteriorating cultures become somewhat tamed, like mammoths and sabertooth cats, reduced to manageable symbols carefully incised on the walls of our comprehension.
The artist's responsibility to help interpret reality is part of the philosophy that J.R.R. Tolkien called 'sub creation', a concept that I have always found both inspiring and daunting. It reminds of the awesome burden we have been given in our creative gifts. This philosophy has led me to take seriously the task of crafting characters and events that will hopefully stand the test of time, by using topical real-world, 'warning' elements as an underpinning for more universal, human themes. While pursuing this commitment, daily prayer and reflection are a deliberate part of my creative process. I am not a slave to a detailed plot-board and professional writers' guides, but am alert to more subtle inner promptings. Sometimes critical scenes come in the dream state between sleep and wakefulness; once, an entire chapter was revealed to me almost verbatim while I contemplated the crucifix in our parish church.
My search for the 'universal' ----or even mythic----themes that I hope to incorporate in my work has, I trust, made me flexible enough to absorb the challenges that reality is throwing in the way of my story plotting. I am forced to think harder and more inventively, even as real-world experiences continue to deepen my understanding of human psychology. I think I have an advantage over some writers, in that my novels are ultimately character-driven, rather than plot-driven. I believe this fact helps highlight universal themes. Altogether, it's an exhilarating undertaking and I'm grateful for anything that pushes me to be a better artist. Based on the positive and highly supportive feedback I've received from readers, I am confident I am achieving these goals.
However, looking forward to the new year, I do hope the Cosmic Playwright will slow down the pacing of His plot twists and allow all of us more opportunities to enjoy the settings in which we find ourselves, to develop and explore our own characters without being crushed any further by improbable events. I am praying He will lighten our collective story with more private scenes of gentleness and humor to contrast the boldly staged scenes of loss, conflict and destruction. I also pray we all gain the wisdom to step back from events and see that the world is a stage, but that this story is not told by a madman. Rather, it is guided by a Mind that has infinite care for the outcome, and for each and every player.
As I face 2021, I'm determined to be thankful for the many unexpected blessings of last year, to look for and honor the Playwright's hand in all things that may come. And I am also eager to continue sharing my own contributions to the realm of 'sub creation': Readers anxious to find out what "happens next" after the conclusion of Echoes Through Distant Glass, will be happy to learn that Book Two of Beyond Cascadia, entitled Eclipse Rising, is on course for publication early next year! So if you haven't already opted-in for updates here, please sign up! That way, you won't miss any new posts or bulletins about other surprise projects that are coming in what I am confident will be a blessed New Year for all.