Thomm Quackenbush, author

12.21.05 11:33 p.m.

Modern Man is free to despise mythologies and theologies, but that will not prevent his continued reliance upon them.  

-Mircea Eliade

 



Previously in Xenology: Xen was a querulous heathen and author.

Hippy Art Day

My twenty-fifth year started out inauspiciously. I woke up fifteen minutes late, having slept through the alarm Emily helpfully set for me. I thus darted about my pet related morning activities, feeding, walking, and counseling three animals before I could consider caring for myself. I ended up shaving and eating my breakfast in the car on my way to my subbing job for the day, which was fortunately at the closest and my favorite school. The two qualities are not wholly unrelated. First period was a prep period, which meant that I could relax for a few minutes to digest and make sure I remembered to comb my hair.

I sparked my phone to life that to be greeted by a voicemail from Emily, singing "happy birthday" in a way I would describe as sultry. I do not know if this was her intent or if her predawn voice - she twice weekly wakes when I once went to sleep - merely sounds sultry to me. When I logged onto my computer to check for additional jobs for the week, there was an off-line message from my mother, wishing me a happy birthday. The e-mail I downloaded onto Flea suggests only one other person knew it was my birthday, Jacki, whom I neglect terribly.
You love us  
Clearly I am mature and enlightened

When I went into the teacher's lounge, people were singing happy birthday. I froze behind the refrigerator door, where I had been placing my sparse lunch. Could they know it was my birthday? Even if they did, would they actually care enough to embarrass me over the issue? But no, it was the birthday of another teacher and I just happened to butt in at the inopportune moment. I could breathe again.

I was a math teacher that day, which I enjoyed more than I thought I would. The day before, I had been a different math teacher at this school. Aside from splitting my pants down the front because I was trying to sit as it most comfortable to me (the half-lotus position), I just gave math quizzes all day and tried to remember the corporate sins of major retailers to use the spare cycles in my brain. Don't fret about the pants. No one was aware of what had happened, so I concertedly sat with my legs close together until the end of the period. Then I drove back to my home and changed.

What will this year bring me? If all goes as planned, it may result in my getting married. This is an idea so preposterous I feel it almost has to happen. Emily and I are on a hiatus from talking about it because I think she fears she is going to scare me away. I do agree that it was putting undue stress on my end of the relationship at a time when I was uncharacteristically stressed about quite a lot. With any luck, this might also be the year that I get a teaching position with full benefits. Preferably one where I know where I am going to be on any given day and do not have to feverishly check a website for openings. That seems the sort of preposterous that I do not focus on. Otherwise my eyes may slip and I will be left with a 3D image of a schooner.

I told a class of home economics students (I do not know if the class is still called that; it may have been Domestic Arts or something more euphemistic) that was my birthday. It came up in conversation, I'm sure. They started singing to me, which was faintly satisfying. I could trick people into embarrassing me, if it came to that.

I do not think of myself as twenty-five any more than I considered myself twenty-four. I can easily think of a few occasions when somebody asked me my age and I thought about it a half-second too long. It simply isn't a part of my core identity. I could tell you I was a writer without thinking, but would struggle with in telling you my blood type, which I think might be AB. While my age exists a few rungs up from my blood type on the hierarchy of identity, it still feels really irrelevant. What should twenty-five mean to me? I've been able to drink for four years, smoke for seven. I do neither. As near as I can tell, my insurance rate should be dropping soon and I can now rent a carpet shampooer. Beyond that, I am now in my mid-twenties. I am a decade older than most of my temporary students. So the heck what? I am no different than I was last week. If I were to change, it would not be owing to some arbitrary number.

Cliché Consciousness

"Those ideas are clichés," Emily said after I tried to explain a possible story arc for Vale Falls.

"Pardon?"

"I mean, you want to use things that have been done before. You use them well, but they are still clichés."

I feel a quiver of defense wriggling up my spine and a wish it away. "They are clichés for a reason, though. Clichés work and appeal to the collective unconscious." Still, I want to be original and this fleshing out was only to use Emily as a sounding board and critic, both roles at which she excels. Some of my ideas are unworkably bad, particularly given that I do not want to mold the future of Vale Falls too much. People understand the broad strokes I suggest because they have seen them before, but they can make finer things with their own stories; if I am too specific and original, no one will know what is going on. Likewise, things also have to be fairly dramatic to attract the attention of writers.

The idea of Vale Falls is that I will push forward the plot based almost entirely on the stories I am sent and the ideas they give me. Both Stevehen and Emily have suggested things that are going to decide what will happen in the distant future of Vale. Right now, as things are just beginning, it is easiest to create the whole universe from a few simple words. A few months from now, the world will be made of cement rather than bubbles and creating a mountain will take a lot more heavy lifting.

Vale is only slightly mine, though I suppose it is currently mine much more than it belongs to any one else as I am the only one who has posted a story.

You hear so often from writers and pretenders that they do not feel in control of their characters. Writers created the characters, gave them the breath of life, and from there just want the writer to keep up with detailing what happened/is happening to them. Trying to tell them where to go, except in the vaguest of terms, is the way to heartbreak and writer's block. Once a character is described, it begins to take on vestiges of life and you certainly cannot tell them who they are if they simply aren't. The characters will happily march off a cliff if it is in them to do so, but may the gods help you if you write that the character is an alcoholic when they are not. They will fight you at every turn and it is their domain; you cannot truly win against a stubborn character.

In addition to being a writer, I am a Pagan or, to speak more exactly, a student of magic. Within magic, there is this concept of egregores. I will forgive you for not knowing it, it is fairly arcane in an occult field and not the sort of thing one usually spends their time in the supermarket check-out line considering. I will also forgive you for not believing the slightest word I am writing to you now, because I am the forgiving and generally realistic sort. An egregore is a thought-form. Anything given enough psychic - which is to say, mental - energy begins to have its own texture. Golems and homunculi are better known historical and mythological examples of egregores. As such, one could politely ask the thought-form of empty parking spaces to hook one up, since a great many people devote their psyches to this and expend energy in spades. Ceremonial magicians can create these beings for specific purposes, which don't tend to involve parking spaces. Doing so would be foolish, like creating an autonomous android to help you loosen the tops of pickle jars, but it could be done. The android would resent the hell out of its creator and, if the roboticist hadn't prepared an off-switch or installed in it the Laws of Robotics, could become dangerous. The metaphor, it is said, extends and books on this subject of riddled with specific warnings against being permissive with one's thought-forms.

This conversation can quickly spiral into a discussion of the very matter that forms deities, but we won't let it. To return to our literary topic, characters, once one spends enough time with them, get enough mental energy that they are almost living. I know Shane, my dear protagonist from Delirious/Deaths Worse than Fate, better than I know most people I spend my days around. I know her likes and dislikes, which veer wildly from mine at times. I know her history, what that first bubblegum kiss tasted like, how she felt when Eliot died. I have bawled my eyes out writing her, though you have yet to read the aforementioned chapter as of this entry. I would know what Shane looks like naked, if I put my mind to the task. She is real, even if she is only a projection of my mind. As such, she guides my hand whenever I write about her. Similarly, Virgil was never supposed to be as important to the narrative as he actually is. He certainly shouldn't ever have ever had the narrator sitting behind his eyes, but such certainly happens now. I look at what he does and how he thinks and am just as surprised as you at his behavior and his internal consistency.

I know how the story ends and occasional plot points I need to touch upon, the skeletons of story arcs, but that seems the only way I am in control of this story. I cannot change who my characters are and still have them be mine. No, scratch that. I cannot change who my characters are and have them be.

Still, to return to the point, I try not to exploit clichés unless necessary, but I am a product of this culture. Clichés are the shorthand of cultural literacy. I can be original for my Fates saga - that is the informal title for the series of at least four books I have planned - but Vale requires appeals to what is known. Yet, just because something has been seen before, it does not mean that it cannot be seen in a new way. It is simply not my place to be anything but nearsighted about Vale Falls.

Erisian

"So this is robed tonight?"

"Yes," Emily mumbled through the foam of toothpaste in her mouth.

"I do not own a robe."

She rinsed her mouth out. "Sure you do; the clothes from the Ren Faire."

I grumbled for a bit at the idea of this. Those clothes, a poet shirt and puffy pants, are a costume I wore to get paid. While I do not have a specific objection to poet shirts, they do not put me in the mind for magic or spirituality, just trying to sell overpriced jewelry to the gullible.

I returned to the bathroom door, within which Emily was getting ready. "The purpose of robes is to put us in a magical mindset, right?"

"Right," she said, braiding a tendril of hair.

I motioned to the clothes I was wearing, the Tibetan peasant shirt and blue jeans. "Done."

"Fine," Emily insisted, "I don't much care. I'm bringing my robe. If you don't want to, that is fine with me. I think it is ridiculous to have fifty-odd people robing up at the same time."

"You have a robe?"

"Of course," she said, walking past me and pulling her dress from the Renaissance Faire out of the hall closet.

After a long drive into Connecticut, we arrived at a small building that Emily's grove rented out. As far as I knew, the majority of the attendees were coming from proximal areas of New York, so crossing state lines for these festivities didn't make much sense to me. Last year, it had taken place in a smaller venue within a few minutes drive from the majority of the grove.

I walked in and quickly noted the abundance of men in suits and women in dresses.

"This was formal? I could have been formal. No one told me," I apologized to no one in particular. It little mattered that I was more likely to see them dressed more casually as I now was or, given that many of them went to FreeSpirit, wearing nothing at all. I felt immediately and conspicuously underdressed, which was a rare and intimidating sensation for me.

I scanned the crowd and, though I was rewarded with a sea of faces spanning the variations between "friends" and "complete strangers" with a pit stop at "It's Whatsherface, that girl who was at that place," I didn't spy Dives Dives. I had hoped she would be at the party with her beau Auratus in tow. I am fuzzy on how connected she is to this group, but I did first meet her at one of their holiday ceremonies seven months ago. She is a busy girl of late, playing shows several times a month, only one of which I have attended despite my intentions. I imagined that I could attach myself to Dives Dives during lulls in conversations or when Emily was called away to be a social Pagan, that I could use her as yet another snarky life raft.

Everyone at this gathering was at least tangentially involved with the grove to which Emily belongs and were thereby Pagans of one stripe or another. I found is something of a chagrin-worthy relief that some of the unfamiliar faces were attached to bodies that may well have normal jobs. There is this stereotype that I am abashed to admit. Many Pagans seem to condescend and acquiesce to succumb to an inability to look nice in a suit or hold a job where on will be paid more than minimum wage owing to their religion. At this juncture, let me make clear that I haven't the slightest issue with people looking inappropriate in suits - I most certainly belong to this faction - but assuming that your deity force compels you to stretch your earlobes just isn't viable in modern American culture. I know people that hold very nice jobs and wear their bodies as a tattoo artist's canvas. However, they wear the tattoos - Pagan though they often are - because of who they are, not because they worship pre-Christian deities.

One certainly must pick one's battles. I can be a superb teacher with long hair and an earring and my students don't even flinch. Yet I am keenly aware that my hair must remain a color that should be on a human scalp and that most of my jewelry - and most every piece I currently wear is personally significant to me - must remain tasteful or hidden. I pick my battles in order to pursue other avenues of my personality. My religious views inform but do not control my daily life.
There.  Magic.  
Who needs robes when you look this goo... okay, maybe I needed a robe.

The mix of chattered conversations of fifty people, ten of whom were also forming a drum circle, quickly overwhelmed my senses and I fled to the outdoors to detoxify in the snow, which reads as far more biological than is my intent. I did not bother to put my coat on, as slightly chilling my exposed skin is grounding for me. I had tried food from the potluck and a conversation with the teenage daughter of one of the attendees, but neither quite did the trick. The snow crunched under my black boots, making footprints behind me as I tried not to cross my path. The unintelligible rivers of words leaked out of my head until I felt like myself again, rather than someone with autism and social anxiety.

When the time came to clear the tables away and set up for the ritual, I very nearly sat out. I was still feeling frazzled and overburdened, though less so after several jaunts through the snow. For one, I am not a Gardnerian Pagan, as Gardnerianism is a very rigid and dogmatic form of Wicca. I did not care for their accoutrements, which must be made and used to exacting specifications, something that gets in the way of the divine for me. Secondly, I fidget uncomfortably at the idea of doing rituals with people I have just met, most of whose names I didn't yet know and would not learn. Magic is something of an intimate act for me, as I think it should be. It exposes a primal and powerful part of one's soul. The shame is that those people with whom I would be most comfortable practicing my religion are atheists and Christians.

Though I was a part of the circle, I did not feel a true connection to the beginning of the ritual. Reciting from rote seems to me a terrible way to honor the gods and a precise way of killing the power of the words. While the high priestess was undeniably passionate, delivering the words with the strength and cadence of William Shatner confronting a moral dilemma on a populated world, to me they could not cease to be words she was drawing from one of the least sacred parts of her brain, just to the left of recipes and the times tables.

Incidentally, this passionate priestess was Deborah Lipp, ex-wife of Isaac Bonewits, grandmother of Emily's grove and author of quite a few purportedly influential books on witchcraft. I have not read any of them, so I cannot speak to this. Emily informed me later that Deborah can chart a direct lineage to Gerald Gardner, father of modern American witchcraft and founder of brand of witchcraft bearing his name. Emily further informed that this means her group is quite rare, having a short and unbroken connection to Mr. Gardner through their teachings.

My feelings on all of this is that it is all very nice to have been taught by someone who was taught by someone who was taught by someone who claims to have been taught by Gerald Gardner. It certainly does a lot to help one's books get published. However, I was a witch long before I had the foggiest clue who Gerald Gardner was and do not now require a pedigree of teaching to justify how I feel and practice my religion. I find Gardner's form of witchcraft stiflingly rigid and am well aware of the manifold accusation against him, from sexual pandering to plagiarism to outright lying. Are all of the accusations true? No. However, I will wager some have a grain of truth and it is curious at best that a pre-sexual revolutionist bondage freak somehow managed to discover that Pagans stripped, tied each other up, blindfolded, and scourged one another. His sources are constantly called into question and there is even some doubt he is the author of the very books attributed to him, instead having been said to have concocted them with dear Aleister Crowley. Crowley, it should be noted, was in a rather old occult organization by the name of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn around this time, so Gardner discovered witchcraft about the same way as I could discover my neighbor's flat screen TV.

In a circuitous way, this brings me to my point. I acknowledge the divine spark in people based entirely in how comfortable I feel around them, as I don't think the divine generally wants me to be petulant and out of place. So if I feel a person lacks pretense and is generally a good person, that means a lot more to me than if they were the apprentice of Lady Falderal, who was scourged by Lord Flibber, who was bound and gagged by Gerald Gardner himself. Not that Gardner would tie a man up. Why, that is just sick. He was very clear that men practiced bondage upon women practiced domination upon men. Anything different was deviant.

If knowing that you are in a coven that is directly derivative from the founder of American witchcraft, then I have nothing but the kindest words for you. If you believe it has power, it certainly does. However, such is not how I feel or practice. I believe Emily's group has immense spiritual power, but not because of their lineage. They had strength because of who they are as individuals and how they work to keep the group a cohesive and healthy unit. That is the power I recognize, but I do not believe it has anything to do with Mr. Gardner.

The rote "thees and thous" of the ritual ended after a covener in a paper-mache adorned with sparkly pipe cleaners simulated giving birth to a cauldron full of sand. Looking across at a woman in a loose red velvet robe holding a candle - a woman, I do not hesitate, that I have only previously seen in well tailored clothes and high-heeled shoes - it struck me how utterly bizarre this religion would look to the casual observer. I have been a Pagan since I was eleven (I was advanced) and so can understand the inherent power in passing a flame around the circle to light everyone's candle. I can even understand wearing special clothes when it comes time to put aside one's ordinary life. Southern Baptists certainly go all out in this regard with their fancy hats and suits. However, I cannot deny that fifty people - most in flowing robes - holding candles and chanting over a prone figure in a mask isn't the sort of tableau one would expect of Norman Rockwell.

After this, sanctified bread, cookies, and drinks were passed around and we were allowed to offer some mead to the gods and say something. Several people passed and most said very profound or sentimental statements. When the cup came to me, I libated (which is something of Pagan jargon for spilling some of our forty on the curb for our peeps, but does derive from the word "libation") into a bowl and said, "To Eris, who is sometimes the only way we can learn anything." I actually tend to regard Eris, the goddess of chaos, as something of a patron of mine and certainly a shaper of my pedagogical methodology. That sounds extreme, but you must understand that, to learn anything, one must be slightly off balance and, to whit, the fool is the only one in Shakespeare's plays that is allowed to tell the truth. Chaos is the natural order, not to be ironic.

Emily looked over at me and made a derisive sound composed entirely out of the letter "e."

"What is that about?" I asked. She insisted that she would tell me latter and, when pressed, admitted that she found it charmingly annoying that I manage to say nothing for hours and then say exactly the right thing. Given how much the circle laughed at my statement and the hearty "blessed be" I received I cannot fault her.

This finished, Deborah's son, a sweet and nebbish boy named Arthur, began reading his school report about the ancient custom of appointing a Lord of Misrule, whose job it was to keep the party lively by acting as a one man game of Truth or Dare. It is difficult to keep a circle of people who are supplied with food and drink from breaking into conversation with their neighbors, more so when the focus of our attention was to be a school report, the gist of which was apparent in the first paragraph as is the nature of school reports. When finished, the priestess announced that all men were compelled to give campaign speeches as to why they would make excellent Lords of Misrule. When many of the men quickly denied any interest, she informed us that we were compelled to give speeches as to why we were not qualified. My speech lasted only as long as the sentence, "I libated to chaos." I did not care to state whether this was a speech asking for or denying appointment. When it came time for Arthur to give his speech, he had one written out and in rhyme. His appointment to a position that would not have existed had he not given his school report had been the whole point of this exercise. His mother was the Katherine Harris of Misrule, but I repeat myself.

He was appointed, of course, though I did get at least one vote from the teenager I had chatted with earlier. I pulled her into a hug and pronounced her my new jailbait girlfriend for having faith in my abilities to torment friends and strangers. Arthur of Misrule proceeded to tell me to put my hair in pigtails, attacked a man, and then sprayed seltzer all over a girl. For him, misrule meant actually being obnoxious. I would have just made people kiss, as I imagine had been at least part of the intent of all of this activity. Parties become more promising through osculation than annoyance.

After telling the Arthur that my hair simply resisted being put in an orderly fashion and watching him fume away, Emily and I went to pick runes out of this basket to forecast our coming year. The runes were actually just smooth rocks on which someone had sketched a glyph in permanent marker, but we cannot fault divinatory tools. If a chicken bone or tea leaves can be used by the gods to tell you things, black marker is just as logical. Emily got the blank rune, Wyrd, which suggested that she would be accessing the very hand of fate. I opened mine up and was greeted by a message telling me that my rock was to protect me from the Dark Arts.

I showed it to Emily and said, "Dark times are ahead at Hogwarts." Then she refused to trade destinies because that was somehow inappropriate. See if I save her from He Who Shall Not Be Named.

Soon in Xenology: Emily Ritz. Christmas.

last watched: Dead Poets Society
reading: The Catcher in the Rye
listening: Convict Pool

Thomm Quackenbush is an author and teacher in the Hudson Valley. Double Dragon publishes four novels in his Night's Dream series (We Shadows, Danse Macabre, and Artificial Gods, and Flies to Wanton Boys). He has sold jewelry in Victorian England, confused children as a mad scientist, filed away more books than anyone has ever read, and tried to inspire the learning disabled and gifted. He is capable of crossing one eye, raising one eyebrow, and once accidentally groped a ghost. When not writing, he can be found biking, hiking the Adirondacks, grazing on snacks at art openings, and keeping a straight face when listening to people tell him they are in touch with 164 species of interstellar beings. He likes when you comment.



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