Veronica's Garden

Rachel Creager Ireland on writing, living, the Flint Hills, and the Post Rock Limestone Caryatids


I love enantiodromes. These are words which are their own opposites, also known as “auto-antonyms.” (Not that I have to tell you, you already knew that.) Enantiodromes often arise over time, as word meanings change with long use. Jung spoke of enantiodromia, a psychological phenomenon in which a tendency becomes so extreme that its unconscious opposite must eventually erupt. Shadow work, anyone?

One enantiodrome is oversight: it can mean carefully watching to make sure no mistakes are made; or it can be a mistake that one has carelessly failed to notice.

Another is bill. If I hand you a bill, have I just given you money, or a request to give me money?

I’ve long observed that advertising often says the opposite of the truth about a product. It was only recently that I realized that this makes advertising a fertile spawning ground for new enantiodromes. A thing of value used to be one of the highest quality, and precious; but, anymore, if you see the word value on a package at the grocery store, you know it’s probably the cheapest brand.

Original is another marketing enantiodrome. Something original is new, like an idea no one ever thought of before; it probably stands out, or above, the others. But if you see original on a food package, you know it’s the oldest flavor, and, let’s face it, the least interesting. It’s just the regular stuff, nothing special about it.

Maybe enantiodromes are a collective expression of our unconscious, emerging from the shadows to point out to us what we really want, who we really are, where we’ve come from, where we’re going. Watch for them, and ask them what message they bring.

What enantiodromes are you seeing in your world?

Toulouse and Wildfire

The venerable Toulouse with just-weaned Wildfire

Luscious, Moody Prose: On A Wizard of Earthsea, Ursula LeGuin

I read A Wizard of Earthsea as a kid. I was a big fantasy geek, and it was in the school library. I didn’t remember much, though. I liked it enough to read it twice, and to go on to love other LeGuin books; but the language was a bit challenging for me in grade school, so I mostly remembered a dark moodiness pervading the book, and a lot of sailing between islands.

Last week I happened to find myself wandering the stacks of the Emporia Public Library, and this book appeared in front of my face, so I checked it out and reread it, and it’s now my new old favorite.

I still love the luscious, moody prose. It would be a great book to read aloud, or listen to as an audiobook.

“In winter it was different. He was sent with seven other boys across Roke Island to the farthest northmost cape, where stands the Isolate Tower. There by himself lived the Master Namer, who was called by a name that had no meaning in any language, Kurremkarmerruk. No farm or dwelling lay within miles of the Tower. Grim it stood above the northern cliffs, grey were the clouds over the seas of winter, endless the lists and ranks and rounds of names that the Namer’s eight pupils must learn. Amongst them in the Tower’s high room Kurremkarmerruk sat on a high seat, writing down lists of names that must be learned before the ink faded at midnight leaving the parchment blank again. It was cold and half-dark and always silent there except for the scratching of the Master’s pen and the sighing, maybe, of a student who must learn before midnight the name of every cape, point, bay, sound, inlet, channel, harbor, shallows, reef and rock of the shores of Lossow, a little islet of the Pelnish Sea. If the student complained the Master might say nothing, but lengthen the list; or he might say, “He who would be Seamaster must know the true name of every drop of water in the sea.”

But what struck me more was the shadow. Unlike, oh, just about every fantasy book ever, Earthsea doesn’t have a real villain. There are plenty of bad people, but the real evil is merely a shadow. It hunts hero Ged, until he turns to hunt it. No one knows exactly what it is, but it is believed that this entity’s will is to take over Ged and do evil through him. And what is its name? Maybe it has no name at all. If you’ve done any Shadow work, you’ll guess the answer to the question.

I’ll try not to spoil the book for you. I’ll just say that I think I was a little disappointed in the ending as a child, or maybe dismayed; but as an adult, it is perfect. Because evil doesn’t really come from some Other person, and one might wonder if LeGuin was the first fantasy writer in history to notice this.

A Wizard of Earthsea is a relatively slim two hundred pages, but it’s rich, dense, and never falls into fantasy cliches. Nearly fifty years after its first publication, it’s far less dated than the books of Tolkien or Lloyd Alexander. (The latter being the author of another series I loved, The Prydain Chronicles. They’re still good, but . . . dated, particularly in the characterization of male vs. female characters.)

It’s a wonderful experience to reread a book I loved as a child, and find it even better than I remembered it.

fat lady on airplane

I took a picture of the cover of the book, but, for complicated reasons, the computer can’t find the photo. When I enter the name, it can only find this shot of me, taken by Kevin Ireland, on an airplane above the Central American Pacific Ocean. No, I can’t fix the exposure. Think of it as art.

Witchcraft, Chemistry, and Waking Up, Excerpt

Moon At Dawn 2

NaNoWriMo is almost over, and I’m not going to make my goal of writing a 50,000 word draft of a novel. But I do have a draft, and I’m very excited about it, though it needs way more work yet. Let’s see what we have here . . .

Stella is a witch who manages her family’s farm alone, while her mother and sister are under a sleeping spell. Stella is beginning to discover that her sister, Astra, is able to meddle in Stella’s life, even while sleeping. And se we begin:

By moonlight, Stella performed a ritual to attract spiders to the garden, as they were her best defense against pestiferous insects. She walked the perimeter of the space, invoking their spirit. She sang a song welcoming spiders to come and enjoy the abundance of insects that would surely come to her garden. She promised to avoid disturbing them and their webs as much as possible.

She also left honey, in a tulip bloom, at each corner of the garden and along the borders, to propitiate the fairies. They didn’t like spiders, because they were vulnerable to their webs. As she placed each tulip, she explained that she meant no harm to fairies, but that spiders assisted her to maintain the balance of nature. She warned them that the tulips marked the boundaries of the garden, within which there would be a higher density of webs.

Does the human who talks to plants love the human who is blind to fairies?

 What? Of course not. He helps me to grow the plants we eat. Nearly all humans were blind to fairies, but Trevor was unusual in that regard, here at the farm.

 The human who talks to plants grows food but not love, and the human who flies at night grows love, but not food! Amusing! Their laughter tinkled like tiny bells.

 Who is the human who flies at night?

 An image appeared in her mind, of a cascade of curls, shining gold in the moonlight. Fairies dancing among the shimmering waves, free of danger of entanglement in the hair. They could fly through it, as if it weren’t real, but some kind of non-physical form.

The face of the human who flew at night bore the same cheekbones and jawline as Stella.

The human who flies at night does not know what she is doing. She has no right to manipulate the human who talks to plants. The human who flies at night will not be successful in making other people love each other. Fairies may wish to lure the human to fly elsewhere, rather than disturb the sleep of other humans, who mind their own business.

They didn’t say goodbye. Stella immediately regretted her outburst of anger. Fairies were terrifically empathic, and probably felt it as if she were angry with them. She, an enormous human, lobbing her emotions carelessly at some tiny innocent fairies. It was worse than slapping a child.

That was what Astra did. She made Stella lose her center, and lose control. She didn’t have the power to coerce Stella to love Trevor, though. Stella would not give it to her. Astra would not make Stella fall in love.

Somewhere in Stella was a niggling little voice, so quiet she could pretend she didn’t hear it whisper, because it’s already happening anyway.

Writing the Metadream

I don't know who gets photo credit. Most likely my daughter Rowan Ireland. Or her sister Kiran.

I don’t know who gets photo credit. Most likely my daughter Rowan Ireland. Or her sister Kiran.

I should be writing my novel right now, because it’s almost halfway through NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month, and I’m way behind on my word count. But it’s not yet unthinkable that I’ll catch up, and sometimes—rarely— it’s just as helpful to talk about the book as to write it.

The idea originated in a dream. I dreamt about a woman who was a witch, and a farmer. She operated her family farm alone, because her mother and sister had mysteriously disappeared twenty years previous. Her secret was that they were buried in an egg-like pod under a field, because the farmer herself had, in a fit of adolescent pique, cast a sleeping spell on them. The problem was that she had forgotten the words to wake them up, and had been berating herself mercilessly ever since.

I found the forgetting part particularly amusing. It seemed like the kind of thing I would do. When I had the dream, I immediately thought it would make a good story. I’d written a short story from another dream once, and was pleased with the result. I did think a bit about the meaning of the dream, but assumed it was related to my relationship with my sister, which was a bit strained at the time. As for the mother in the dream, maybe I was also trying to put to sleep whatever remaining issues I might have with my late mother. I figured it signified some kind of avoidance of dealing with issues, but didn’t bother to do anything with that. Naturally.

Thinking about writing it as a novel, I decided that a romantic interest would be helpful, and he could help the main character, now dubbed Stella, to figure out what happened. Then I decided to lay partial blame for the forgetting upon the sister.

Then I didn’t do much with it at all until November 1, the first day of NaNoWriMo. Not far into the story, it occurred to me to give the sleeping sister a bit of volition, so I let her wander astrally. She can even visit other people’s dreams, and give them (questionable) advice. She became more of an actor in the story, not simply a passive victim.

As I write, I like to interpret a story as a dream. I’ve blogged elsewhere about that method of dream interpretation in which everyone and everything in the dream is the dreamer. If there’s a war, it’s an inner conflict. Love is a union of forces, such as one’s inner masculine and feminine.

So what to make of this story, inspired by a dream, in which dreams are part of the mechanism that drives the action? Whoa, this is meta. Let’s see. The woman alone is strong and capable, but ultimately needs to activate her masculine principle in order to move forward. She’s put to sleep certain parts of her feminine nature—it happened in adolescence, in a time of inner conflict— but it turns out she needs their assistance in order to access her masculine power as well. So maybe it doesn’t have anything to do with my actual sister at all.

Or maybe it’s all just a story. One that I’m really enjoying writing, and I hope you will enjoy reading it, when I start posting excerpts soon.

What are you dreaming and writing about?

Stubbornly Doing the Impossible: NaNoWriMo

Journal 2

Since she was very small, a baby, even, my eldest daughter has had a unique way of challenging herself to do impossible things, just because she’d decided that she wanted to do them. Invariably when reality sets in and she sees that what she’s trying to do is impossible, she becomes inconsolable. As a baby, at those times, she’d cry and take the breast; as a toddler, she’d tantrum; now that she’s eleven, she still cries and suffers quietly when she discovers that what she has set her mind to is firmly outside of her reach.

Everyone agrees she got this trait from me. Which brings us to NaNoWriMo. That’s National Novel Writing Month, for those who don’t know about it. When I first heard about NaNoWriMo, I was sure I’d never be able to do it until my children went away to college. But, since it’s impossible and lots of other people are doing it, and my kids really are much more independent than even a few years ago, and I’ve yet to fulfill my New Year resolution of writing a draft of a novel by the end of the year, It looks like just the thing to do.

The NaNo challenge is to write 50,000 words in the month of November. that’s commonly broken down to 1,667 words per day. I knew I’d slack some days, so I set my daily goal at 2000. It’s now the fifth day, and past 11:30, and I am dozing off between sentences, so I’ll quit. Just because I like to do the impossible doesn’t mean I want to suffer. So, at the end of the fifth day, I have 4,897 words of a draft which I am very pleased with. You can guess from that number that I haven’t actually made even the low goal in any day yet. The likelihood that I’ll get to 50,000 by the end of the month is looking very small right now. Should I give up? Ha! An attitude like that doesn’t enable a person to achieve the impossible.

Here’s an excerpt.

What we know up to this point: Stella is a witch, she operates the family farm alone, in the mysterious absence of her family, and she’s just met a scientist named Trevor, who is temporarily staying at a local motel.

Moon Trine Neptune

The only light was from the stars, but that was enough for Astra. It was easier for her to wander by night. Most of the interesting things people did happened at night, anyway, and she could sometimes float into the dreams of those who slept. She knew all kinds of gossip that waking people were clueless to, who was sleeping with whom, who was embezzling from their business partners, cooking the books in their offices late at night. Occasionally she would comfort an anxious dreamer (It’s okay, grades don’t really matter) or warn nasty people to change their ways.

It was getting a bit old, though. She was starting to feel a desire rising in herself, a desire to waken physically and do things of her own. Everyone had those computers and phones and things now, and she’d love to get her bodily hands on some of those. To talk to people in their normal state of mind, not just in the surreal landscapes of their dream states. Her old friends were grown up now, and married (some already divorced!) and had children. If only Stella would get a clue and figure out what to do. Astra knew exactly why things were the way they were, but she couldn’t tell Stella directly. She was firmly shut out of Stella’s mind.

Even as her desire to awaken grew, her ability to act out there was strengthening. She was finding she could shift things; if not always physically, she could shine light on things, make them appear differently. Her experiments with the radiator hose were encouraging. There must be a way Astra could manipulate Stella with further nudges. That scientist, for example, he might be useful. Unlike the locals, he didn’t know a thing about Stella, so he would have to get to know her to find out what a dip she was. Plus his rational scientist brain might be the one to finally put two and two together, and get Astra out of this situation. How to get their paths to cross . . .

And then her mother was there. Are you sure you’re doing the right thing?

Well, somebody’s got to do something.

Mm. I suppose. But be careful. You’re playing with people’s lives and feelings.

Nice to know you care so much about my life.

Mm hm. Likewise.

Astra drifted away. In town, a dog in a pen was barking through the fence at a rabbit. A couple teen boys were making out in the cab of a pick-up truck parked behind the abandoned movie theater. And at the Hillview Motel, Trevor Claraday was dreaming about Stella.

This was going to be easy.

The Fairy of Invisible Magic

She asked me what kind of fairy I am. I could be a Rainbow Magic Fairy, or a Romance Fairy. An Outdoors Fairy or a Creativity Fairy, or I could make up my own kind of fairy. I thought a while and told her I am an Invisible Magic Fairy. It appears I’m not doing much of anything, but I’m actually imbuing the world with magic, and magically making things happen that otherwise wouldn’t. Nobody knows, because it’s invisible.

Later I lamented that I’d gotten so little done that day. She said, “You were doing Invisible Magic, though.”

Levi Coffin Reminisces

I’ve been reading Reminiscences of Levi Coffin, a book that appears to be out of print in the unabridged version I have. I found it in my parents’ house after they were gone. They used to say we were related to Levi Coffin, though I don’t know in what way, and it appears it would take a true genealogist to put all the connections together.

In any case, Levi Coffin was a devout Quaker and an important abolitionist. He frequently aided fugitive slaves crossing through his home state of Indiana from Kentucky. He was well known for being willing to give shelter to fugitives, often in groups of a dozen or more, when others in his community were afraid to cross the law. Slave hunters marveled at the way the trail of runaways seemed to end at the home of Levi Coffin; it was as if there were some kind of underground railroad between his house and Canada, and apparently Coffin was the President of this Underground Railroad.

Coffin’s autobiography offers much detail to a period in history that some in our time might wish to gloss over (Ahem. Texas? You listening?) He relates dozens of stories of the people he helped, of their sufferings, their oppression, their fears. Many were motivated to seek freedom by the possibility of being separated from family members. Some of those he assisted took the huge risk of going back to the places they’d come from to retrieve children or spouses still in slavery. Tragically, many didn’t succeed, if they tried.

Of course we all know that slavery was (and continues to be) terrible and tragic. What is striking to me as I read Reminiscences is the economic framework which perpetuated the system. Slaves were expensive, yet, I don’t get the impression everyone who owned a slave or two was wealthy. One price named was $750 for a slave known to have escaped twice, which brought the price of that person down considerably. A more valuable slave might have been traded for $1000 or more. According to Measuring Worth, that $750 might be equivalent to about $20,000 today. (See the site for detailed discussion of the various ways such a value can be calculated.) What would be comparable in price today? A new car?

Imagine all the work you’d have to do to acquire a new vehicle.

Now imagine it suddenly disappears. (And no, you don’t have insurance on it!)

Of course you’d be pissed. And what if some people from somewhere else decided that your ownership of that car was terribly wrong, and that all cars should be removed from their owners immediately? Even if you were sympathetic to that idea, it would be awfully hard to give up the investment. Maybe there could be some compromise, a gradual process which would lead to an end to the ownership of cars, but wouldn’t cause such an upheaval and sacrifice on the part of the owners. Wouldn’t that be reasonable?

Possibly, unless you were talking about actual people. People leading real lives. There can’t possibly be any excuse for holding real people in slavery for one more day, can there? Somebody might suffer an economic setback? How can that compare?

Yet, even among the Quakers, who were known for being against slavery two hundred years before it was abolished, there was division as late as the 1830s as to just how bad slavery was, and exactly how it ought to be rectified.

So my question is: With what tragedies are we complicit today, which are commonly framed as ethical dilemmas? For what inexcusable horrors are we offered gradual solutions that would be less economically stressful for those profiting from said horrors? What atrocities are so embedded in our lives that we can’t imagine simply walking away from them?

Setting in a novel

NaNoWriMo is coming soon, and I’ve resolved to do it this year. I have an idea, I’m excited about it, and I’m beginning to outline it so that next month I can sit down and fill it out into a 50,000+ word novel in one month.

It turns out that, previous novel experience notwithstanding, I have no idea what I’m doing. I knew last time that plot was a weak area for me, and I’m determined to improve this time around, but I’m having trouble materializing concepts about love and familial obligation into events that take place in three dimensions, which is where my characters live.

With Post Rock Limestone Caryatids, my previous novel, I had distinct settings, and I basically placed my characters in them and let them flail around and figure out what to do. I took much inspiration from the Flint HIlls prairie, where I live. Writing about the prairie was one of my essential motivations for writing the book, and some of the highest praise PRLC got was about my nature writing.

This time around, I’m writing from a dream. The heroine, Stella, is a farmer and a witch. She lives alone, because her mother and sister, years ago, disappeared. She obviously spends a lot of time outdoors, and she works with plants and, I suppose, some chickens. So the location of her farm is going to be pretty relevant.

At first I was thinking New England. It’s a natural place for witches, and there are beautiful old mountains to place a family farm, and lots of trees and water. The problem is, though, that I don’t know how people farm in New England, and I don’t know any particular places to work into the story. My New England experience is largely limited to a summer in Boston, twenty-five years ago. Nice city.

It would be sensible to place the book in the Flint Hills, to write what I know, as the adage goes. I’ve done a little work on a farm in this region. I know the climate and landscape well. But when I imagine Stella on the open prairie, she doesn’t seem to fit. I don’t know that I have more to say about the prairie at this time. I don’t see Stella as a rancher, and I don’t see the prairie as the place for all the changes she’s going to go through.

At this time I’m kind of leaning toward an imaginary place, with temperate forests and abundant water, with cities closer than they are out here (it’s 75 miles to either Topeka or Wichita, which some wouldn’t even consider to be cities at all). A place with very old trees, rich soil, roads and streets that wind among ancient mountains. A place with a culture that’s been more or less continuous for at least a couple hundred years, as opposed to the 150 or so since the Native Americans were kicked out of Kansas and replaced by the Europeans.

There’s freedom in making up my own place, but in some ways it’s more work. Most of the writing about the prairie in PRLC came directly from my own experience. At times, when I didn’t know what to do next, I could close my eyes and recall the prairie and feel the answers, or even go there and hike and listen to the sound of my boots on the earth and stone, or watch turkey vultures ride the wind overhead. How could I not write such a place?

I have just under a month to figure out where Stella’s farm is located. Then the marathon begins.

Readers, what are your thoughts on setting, on writing place, on preparing for NaNoWriMo?

How could I not write this place?

How could I not write this place?

The Stolen Hall Pass

I can do what I want, Prue said so. So there.

I can do what I want, Prue said so. So there.

I found this object while clearing my parents’ house. It was in a box of stuff under the bed I used to sleep in when I was in high school, along with flows from past debate rounds and papers I wrote for classes. It took me a while to remember what it was, and piece together why I had it.

Looking at the red plastic thing, I finally remembered it was a hall pass. I don’t remember having a lot of times when I needed to be out in the halls, but, like many teenagers, I bristled at the thought of being required to justify my movements. It seemed that high school was mostly about acquiescing to rules. My brother had a rockier time of it than I, and he got kicked out once for giving somebody a ride to school (long story). I loathed what seemed at the time to be a highly authoritarian structure, at the expense of learning anything really consequential.

What’s more, it seemed in those years that everyone had an agenda for me, that my own needs and desires were the least of anyone’s concerns, that I’d best keep my feelings buried if I wanted to get through my four-year sentence. I’m getting short of breath just thinking about it, the suffocating hierarchy, the mindless spouting of rules and policies.

Prue Schmidt was one of my favorite teachers. She headed Emporia High School‘s gifted program. I always suspected I hadn’t really passed the test, but that she had fudged the rules and let me in anyway because she liked me. (Years later I ran into Prue and confessed my suspicion; her response was that not only was it not true, but that if I thought that, she hadn’t succeeded at her job.) The only regular class I ever had with her was called Critical Thinking, and consisted of a few kids going to a pizza place after school and talking about whatever we wanted to talk about. But I had periodic meetings with Prue in her office, and sometimes I just liked to go there, for any excuse I could think of. There were usually other kids hanging around, some working on projects, some maybe debating current events.  Prue loved “her” kids, and she wasn’t afraid to confront the school’s administration on our behalf. Prue’s office was like a sanctuary to me. She listened to everyone without judgement. She didn’t hold back her own opinions, but it was from her that I learned the phrase, “agree to disagree.” (I confess it was quite a few years later that I actually learned to do it.) She acted ethically and lovingly, but without much regard for rules. Prue had my back.

Why did I hang onto Prue’s hall pass, which I’m pretty sure I never used, and not even return it at the end of the school year? It must have had a symbolic meaning to me. Having it meant I could wander the halls at will. It was power. It was freedom. It was unconditional permission. Years before J.K. Rowling penned Harry Potter, I had a magical object to rival Harry’s Invisibility Cloak. No one could harass me, if I had Prue’s name sticking out of my back pocket. Whatever kind of jam I might get into, this thing would keep me safe. Prue would back me up, even if I had stolen her hall pass.

I’ll be attending my thirtieth reunion soon, and things look a lot different now than then. I have a lot more sympathy for anyone trying to run a school of 1200 adolescents, and those people with agendas for me probably truly believed that their agendas served my best interests. Nonetheless, I still sometimes find myself going through life as if I’m waiting for someone to give me permission to live, to make choices, to follow my passion rather than some rules or expectations I learned so long ago I don’t even remember where they came from. While writing my novel, I realized I often felt I was stealing time from my family to write, and I desperately wanted someone to give me permission to ignore the housework, and dedicate myself to what I most wanted to do. The day I found the hall pass under my old bed, I thought I’d return it to Prue, who’s been retired for years, with a letter thanking her for her positive influence on me. But since, I’ve decided that I’m not done with it. I can still use an occasional reminder that I am free, so I’m keeping it on my desk. I have permission, Prue Schmidt says so.

Your Good Old Days Are Right Freaking Now

I met Bryn Donovan at Knox College, and she wrote good poetry back then. Now she has an MFA and writes romance novels. I recently discovered her blog, where she shares writing tips and practical wisdom.

Bryn Donovan

In a great moment in the finale of the TV show The Office, the character Andy realized that a job he viewed as a way station rather than a destination is one that he will miss terribly.

In the past week, friends of mine have kids who are going to grade school for the first time, and off to college the first time. Transitions like that can be bittersweet or downright painful. But the end of an era is the beginning of another one.

It’s easy to think that happiness is located at some time in the past: back when I was in college, back when the kids were little, back when I had that job, back when I was in better shape.

And it’s just as easy to think that happiness is something that will happen some time in the future: once this semester is over, once I find…

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