A Peculiar Curiosity (A Review)

It’s that time of year – time for those lovers of darkness to unapologetically celebrate the macabre and get spooky.  It isn’t just Halloween looming around the corner; something about the seasons shifting from humid and sweltering to cooler, drier air with a hint of smoke, the crunch of dead leaves and the majestic, creepy huge spiders suspended from the trees that just gets you in the mood to curl up with your favorite blanket, a cup of something hot, and a wonderfully creepy book.

I’m a lover of all things dark no matter the time of year, and when it comes to literature, the darker the better. Give me any genre – thriller, horror, gothic, mystery, and everything in between, I’m your gal. I was recently given the opportunity to read a fellow Regal House/Fitzroy author’s debut, and it did not disappoint. Fans of the show Penny Dreadful will love this one.

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 Melanie Cossey’s A Peculiar Curiosity is one of those rare books that toes the line between all those dark genres and comes together in a vivid, melancholy and downright terrifying book. I couldn’t put it down. It was like Mary Shelley meets Edgar Allen Poe with a dash of Diana Gabaldon, and I mean that in the best possible way. Well-written, full of fascinating historical details (seriously, this woman did her research and I live for that) and genuinely scary, it is the perfect novel to get you into the October mood.

Recently divorced, estranged from his long-suffering daughter (and, as a result, his grandson) and put on temporary leave due to mental health issues, anthropology professor Duncan Clarke is understandably down on his luck. Alone in his newly abandoned old home with nothing but the mice in the walls to keep him company, he has far too much time to obsess over what his family considers unhealthy hobbies. When he intercepts a cache of old papers and books from the ancestor of a 19th century curiosities dealer who might have been up to some nefarious activities, Duncan falls headlong into uncovering a shocking, depraved mystery. Edward Walker kept journals, a disturbing daily log of his dealings with ‘Specimen Z’, a young boy entrusted to his care during a trip to the West Indies, smuggled aboard a ship and into London – a boy whose very existence is a lesson in terror. What happened to the child? At first glance, Walker thinks he’s merely suffering from some rare disease with unusual symptoms, but as time goes on, he wonders: could he be dealing with a monster? Walker is forced to extreme action to keep the bewitched child a secret, while a smattering of horrific and gory murders rock the back streets of London.  In present day, Duncan finds himself in a race against time, retracing footsteps and committing crimes of his own, in a desperate bid to discover Edward Walker’s disturbing secrets, and the fate of the doomed child. Will he uncover the truth before outside sinister forces, or his own insanity, catch up with him?

I especially loved the parallels to Frankenstein, the gothic standard of psychological terror written by the amazing Mary Shelley. Like Shelley, Cossey deftly illustrates the desire of man to “play God” with the most vulnerable, marginalized and/or misunderstood in society, and the havoc they wreak from such entitled selfishness. Both the curiosities dealer and the professor eschew family and every day domestic tasks to pursue their research, causing real harm to people as a result of their single-minded, manic devotion to their discoveries. The novel, while engaging and fun, does bring certain philosophical questions to mind – when does our meddling become harmful? And are we absolved of moral responsibility when our actions are ‘in the name of science’? Is the dogged pursuit of discovery more important than a person’s humanity?

Harkening to a time when Jack the Ripper roamed the streets unburdened and graverobbers sold severed limbs to the highest bidder in the name of research, A Peculiar Curiosity draws forth feelings of dread, despair, and good old-fashioned bloody fun. Terrifying, thought-provoking and deliciously morbid, A Peculiar Curiosity is a thrilling and well-written read all the way up until it’s shocking conclusion.

A Peculiar Curiosity is out October 26, 2018, just in time for Halloween! It is available for pre-order now at Regal House Publishing. 

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Boats Against the Current

Friday morning I woke up to a news alert – my phone vibrated beside my head, and I opened my bleary eye to a headline about Anthony Bourdain. I closed my eyes and for a few moments, pretended I was still asleep, pretended I had not seen the news.

This post isn’t really about Bourdain, much as I loved him. I was a fan of his for so many reasons – his activism and exuberant, loud support of the disenfranchised, the poor, women; his engaged but introspective approach to food and how it intersects with politics; his brashness; his eloquent way with words. He was so many things, but never fake. Just his authentic self, all the time. I maintain that while he was obviously a fantastic chef, and an amazing tv personality, his writing is where he really shone. Since Friday I’ve been alternating between feeling absolutely gutted that he’s gone and absolutely honored that he was with us for as long as he was. This is a man who had a full life, one that should be celebrated. Read everybody’s stories about the guy; you won’t be disappointed. My favorite thing about him was how honest he was. You can see, watching his show, that there were times when he was irritable, tense, blank. He did not hide his depression. But he unflinchingly – sometimes joyfully, sometimes painfully -produced the work, and the work is stellar. It is empathetic, nuanced, artistic. I highly recommend the Libya and Morocco episodes of “Parts Unknown” – they perfectly illustrate both dark and light, and in my opinion, represent Bourdain’s best work, especially when watched back to back.

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There were more introspective and relevant pictures I could have chosen but there was no way I wasn’t going to use this one of a ripped, tatted up Bourdain hanging out with Iggy Pop.

But this post is not about Anthony, not really.

It had already started on social media, after the untimely death of Kate Spade a week or so ago, and it hit fever pitch after it was announced that Anthony had passed on – what I can only describe as a barrage of well-meaning tweets and posts about how to deal with your friend who has depression. How to save them from the same fate as Kate or Anthony.

“Check on your strong friend”, they advised.  “They may not reach out, you have to reach out”, “If they don’t accept your help, if they lie, even if they get angry, keep trying.”

It all seems like good advice. But here’s the thing:

After reading a few of those posts, I started to feel bad. See, I’m a “strong friend” at face value. I’m also an empath, and someone who suffers from both anxiety and depression. And I can tell you that sometimes being a “strong” empath means that after helping someone with their own issues, your own often swoop in just as things are looking up and try to kneecap you. I can also tell you that I never feel like I’ve done enough. For anyone.

The problem is that we tend to see our groups of friends as handfuls of “well” people with maybe one or two “unwell” folks in the middle. And when we pop on Twitter to remind everyone to “reach out”, we’re assuming that we’re talking to a bunch of “well” folks who might be a little distracted or apathetic. We’re trying to tend the herd by pointing out, “Hey, look at your unwell friend!”

That’s not realistic. What is closer to reality is that we’re all the unwell friend at some point or another. The person who has no mental health issues at all is actually the rarity. Most of us are just trying our best to deal while helping our loved ones with theirs. We do our best. Sometimes we fail.

When someone goes on Twitter and shares a thread all about how we should do more to reach out, it’s not the oblivious, flaky, selfish friend who sees it and has a change of heart. Those people keep scrolling and always will keep scrolling. The ones who absorb those messages are people like us – people who are already doing what they can, who reach out as often as they are able, people who likely have their own hurts to deal with, but who are trying to juggle their own mental issues with that of their loved ones. These are the people who absorb your messages, who beat themselves up for “not doing enough”, who blame themselves for being selfish, for stepping away when someone else’s mental struggles became a trigger for them, became too much to bear, became dangerous. Even when they’ve given everything they’ve got to help and come up short, they blame themselves, because they didn’t reach farther, harder…

The posts about the “strong friend” are right, but only half-right. Your strong friend may very well be your weak friend from time to time, but they keep wearing that strong hat because you need them. It is important that we give them, and ourselves, permission to step back when necessary and take care of themselves.

When it comes to people who have succumbed to depression:

We need to stop assuming that nobody reached out.

We need to stop assuming that more can be done. Sometimes it can’t, at least not by us.

And when it comes to the rest of us, the “strong friends”, if you will:

It is okay to give ourselves permission to step away when it gets too rough. The old adage “you can’t fill from an empty cup” is true.

In the midst of all this reaching out, don’t forget to reach out for yourself, too.

Here’s what we all need: less stigma about depression and suicide (it’s getting better but there’s still work to do), better understanding of depression as a disease, which means more funding for research, better trained doctors and nurses, better understanding of how to treat patients, and better-equipped care facilities for those suffering; people learning the difference between sharing their struggles for “awareness” and just downright triggering people who are already in pain; working to push our legislators and government to make a world that’s frankly, a little easier to live in than our current one; and finally, a universal knowledge that depression IS a disease and that it’s not something we’ll ever be able to “fix” – we can only do what we can to make it better.

Yes, keep urging those strong friends to reach out, but only if they can. Keep urging people to share their stories, but only if they want to. Keep trying to help your loved ones in need, but never push them. Realize that your idea of strong may be someone else’s falling apart. Never judge a person for stepping away when their own mental health requires them to do so. And before you advise someone else on how to help a loved one with depression, make sure you’re taking your own advice, too. Don’t assume that friend who has always helped you has no need of your support – don’t flake out people, don’t disappear on them. Even if you can’t hold them up, you can thank them for the times they held you up. Sometimes that’s all it takes.

Someone on Twitter put it much more succinctly than I have. They said not to assume that this or that was or wasn’t done…sometimes you can exhaust every effort and it is still isn’t enough. Sometimes one tiny act is all it takes to make the difference. We can’t ever know, so all we can really do is be kind.

More of us are in the boat than we seem to realize. We’ll only push through the storm if we’re all rowing. At our own speeds and strengths, taking breaks when we need to rest, but all of us, rowing together. Maybe then, if we’re lucky, we can weather the storm.

Let’s keep rowing.

 

 

 

 

Objects in the Mirror are Closer Than They Appear (a short story)

My little nothing-special car careens around a curve; I’m going too fast, the music is blaring, I’m screeching at top volume, only a third of my mind engaged on the act of driving. I am escaping – not once but twice – escaping my location, and escaping my mind. On days like this, when the sun is bright, peering into every crack and pore, illuminating the dust and hidden things, I feel I might crack open like an egg, my contents fried on the hot leather seats. It’s not wholly bad – light is disinfecting, they say.

To drive is to fly, fly away from that possibility, to run from the past. I drive and I drive and I drive, and I don’t mind the endless errands, the to-and-fro, I don’t mind sitting with my legs cramped in this poor woman’s car for the entire day if necessary, because I am running, and it’s easier to run if you can drive. To drive is to fly; the wheels our limited human version of wings. On wheels is the only place I can soar.

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The warm crackle of the bonfire is a constant in my ears as I sit, huddled into myself, egg-shaped, the hard metal chair cutting into my back, as I watch you over the flames. You sit with a guitar in your arms, eyes closed, crooning, and all are crooning with you. A gathering of bohemian souls, awash with the light of the fire in its cleansing glory. Somehow, inexplicably, I am privy to this moment and I feel like a voyeur. I, sitting apart, a watcher, a wallflower. I get away with it because I have a pen, because they assume (secretly hope) I will document them.

I was never much of a singer.

But this is a lie I tell myself.

My reed-thin voice is of its own design; it is a mechanism, a thin egg-shell to enclose the tender yolk within. I cannot disguise pain from my voice. No matter the monotone I cultivate, it comes out in a wavering ribbon of unbeaten egg white, flowing and trembling through the cracks, giving me away. This happens in my normal speaking voice, when I speak of things beyond the comfort zone, when I zoom past the barriers I’ve erected for this purpose, and I’ve learned to talk with my hands to keep it at bay. When I sing, my hands are rendered mute and the voice emerges. The shell cracks and out I seep, and all is laid bare, and you can see, and you can see, and you can see. I cannot bear to be seen.

Not unless it’s through a filter.

But they are all singing, these denim-clad souls with their craft beer, cold and dripping with organic dew, with their sparkling eyes and clear skin, signs of health, of wealth; I long to be part of it, I want to be a bohemian, too, an artist, some inspired thing, mysterious and admired, part of the club. The kind of woman with free-flowing hair who oozes sensuality, who bakes homemade bread and strums out tunes on a sticker-covered guitar, barefoot, in flowing skirts. Some modern-day hipster Venus. Instead of this cracked, poor, pitiful excuse of a whatever. A woman who barely looks the part, who is inspired by everyone yet inspires no-one. What good is the pen I hold, if it only leaks ink on my bitter hands? I cannot tell a story if I don’t join a story.

This is utter nonsense, but I’ve learned to torture myself in his stead.

And so, defiant, I raise my voice, just a little, just enough to blend in but not stand out on its own. I sing along with your words to salt the wound and chase the bitterness.

And they hurt. Your words are beautiful but they hurt. Tender, swelling with perfect pitch, warbling intensity, warm and smooth like honey, but. Just when you give yourself to it, let yourself go, it bites.

I picture you as a little boy, doe-eyed and innocent, slightly crooked smile, child’s brows arched in curiosity. I picture you in your room, alone, I picture your scrunched face as it trains itself not to cry, but to sing instead. To write. To channel yourself into art, the way countless others have done before. To dance and writhe and scream it all away – you shaman, you charmer, you beautiful disaster, you punk-rock god-boy – you taught yourself to become art, the canvas and the paint – how do you do that, and will you teach me?

You’re so beautiful it’s hard to look at you, but it’s hard not to, too.

Will you teach me?

Your eyes open and meet mine. Blue on black. For whatever color my eyes are, they are black.

You hear me.

We sing together for a beat, a line, the longest I can go before I shut my mouth and look away. Your eyes don’t blink, and they don’t search. They hold a gaze that is full of a million shared understandings, you have heard the meek that cloaks the bleak, the stuff I’m made of, and the pit between my stomach and my heart clenches and aches and then I’m standing up, unfurling from the chair like a fern frond in the sun, and I’m running, running, running, with the crackle of the bonfire now my past, only the smoke trailing behind me.

It’s like a movie cliché. They always stroke their jaw thoughtfully (is this considered manly? Does it give a ‘man’s man’ a touch of intelligence, of sophistication?), and its always a big, strong, square chin. He strokes his square chin thoughtfully. The black hairs on his knuckles shine in the light overhead. That same square chin has a bit of stubble, a five-o-clock shadow, which makes him distinguished. Like the ‘before’ in a bad commercial for razors. He strokes and strokes his chin, cradles it gingerly between his thumb and forefinger, his chin a treasure in his hand, delicate. It is a moment that seems to repeat on a loop, the record caught, the tape jammed, the car stalled.

The egg cracked.

A fluid movement, the black-haired knuckles unfurling into a fist, moving from chin through air and to face, a quick, serpentine action. It is graceful, and I hate him for that. I hate his choreographed violence, how perfect it is.

The same hand that caresses his chin so thoughtfully smashes into my face without much thought at all.

Gasping, I let myself in through the sliding-glass door, imagining it shattering around my head, the crunch of glass raining down into my hair like shimmering glitter, baptizing me with a million tiny pin-prick cuts, the blood, running from my face in an elegant stream, a beautiful stream, mainly from my eyes, like the devil’s eyeliner.

I imagine so many things breaking; I suppose its good I don’t have that form of ESP where I can make things happen. So many broken shards of glass; they would be everywhere.

I dart down the hall; I don’t know this place well. I stumble into a bathroom. Splash water on my face. Look in the mirror, curse my appearance. Curse the lines around my mouth, the splotchiness of my forehead, my listless stupid fucking hair.

I am so embarrassed. I let myself be seen, and now I will disappear.

A gentle knock on the door. My chest freezes. My mouth forms an “O.” The shower curtain is mildewed and stiff, but I consider wrapping up in it, like a burial shroud.

Sometime later I emerge from the bathroom, confident that whomever knocked went to piss outside and I’m safe and alone. I yearn for the safety of my car. I haven’t drank much, I can flee now, I can fly away. Blast the music so loud my windows rattle, and scream along until my throat is raw. Escape.

But you’re in the hall. You followed me. You waited.

You don’t ask if I’m okay. You don’t smile or nod. You don’t say sorry or even wait for me to speak, to mutter an ‘excuse me’ – instead you reach for me, pull me close, and we hit the wall in a tumble of sweat and smoke and mouths, and I can’t understand why you’re kissing me or why I am kissing back. Your mouth is soft as a pillow but it moves rough. We’re a jumble of fucked up bodies on somebody’s hall carpet, you pressing me against the wall with the length of your body, small and compact though it is, and even though I am taller than you, you’re pushing me upwards, up, up, until I feel my head will hit the ceiling, and your mouth is like fire and I’m melting forever.

I’m hardboiled, bobbing in the water, and I’m solid and I’m seen and I’m –

The pain in me sees the pain in you.

Is there pain yoga? Where people go to do corpse pose and sun salutation and look at each other and cry? Can we stand stock-still, ramrod straight, like trees, and let the pain pour from our veins and down our legs, sticky-sweet and warm? Can we be sap together?

We went on so many drives, he and I. We toured the country. We rode, sometimes with the radio off, sometimes on – and one time I read him poetry as he drove – T.S. Eliot, my favorite – something I always wanted to do, fancying myself a romantic, a literary sap, and now that’s ruined because I did it with him, and he was bad, and I can’t very well do it again – but no matter the background noise, we always rode in silence.

We always rode in silence.

To this day, in the pit between my stomach and my chest, behind the ache, there is silence.

You peel me off the floor.

I’m out of breath, and you are too, but you are beautiful and I am not, all red-faced and leaking air like an overfilled balloon.

You’ve not said a word. You stare at me, your eyes full of…full of me, knowing me, understanding me. I quake. How is it you’ve read all of me when I haven’t written a word? You haven’t seen one single page.

How is it you are everything and nothing all at once?

Will you teach me?

He hated coats. He wore shorts and t-shirts and ugly sandals all year-round, even in the snow. How could a man so ludicrous, so unkempt, manage to break me so utterly. I hate myself for a lot of things but that’s the one I hate the most. The least I could have done is fall for a man who was gorgeous enough to get away with it.

What kind of stinking-shit thought is that, you utter betrayal of womanhood. What kind of backwards, stupid thought is that.

And yet-

Across the bonfire I saw your well-made light brown corduroy jacket, cloaking your arms as you in turn cloaked your guitar, and the corduroy matched the wood and the wood matched your shining hair, and everything about you was so warm and wholesome and alive and real, and I knew if I touched that corduroy of your jacket it would be sturdy but slightly soft, giving way under my fingers and would remind me of my teenage years, of corduroy pants, of a time gone by, of grunge, of youth, and god, I just want to cry thinking about that beautiful jacket and your beautiful mouth. Thinking about the kind of man who picks out a well-made corduroy jacket or a nice pair of soft boots to wear with his ripped jeans, instead of a guy who wears sandals in the winter and strokes his square chin with his hairy-knuckled, beating hands.

I never drove when we were together. It was a skill I acquired – forced of myself – much later. I always let him navigate, man the wheel.

And to this end, there were many nights and days of white-knuckling the ‘oh-shit-handle’ as he sped around mountains, squalled tires in the street, stopped in dark and still places to turn to me with eyes so devious they might have been yellow.

He quite literally drove me…

…well, to the brink. Right to the end of the road and then he stopped and, to our shared surprise, I got out.

Now I’m behind the wheel.

I listen to my music loud.

The pit between my stomach and my chest aches and seems to groan, but I turn the music up louder. I won’t listen to it.

My road is long and weary, but I’ve got plenty of gas in the tank.

Here, in my little car, I am as heard as I want to be. Here I am seen, too, by the sun that streams through my windshield, lighting up my face, warming my thighs.

Here I am the driver and god is my co-pilot, ha ha.

Here I leave you in the dust.

You extend a hand, help me stumble up to my feet. Your mouth twists into a crooked smile, beautiful. Your teeth are pointy and white and I want you to bite me. I don’t say that, though. I don’t say anything. Your blue eyes sparkle and shimmer along with the rest of you.

Unable to control the longing, I reach out and brush a finger over your coat. The corduroy is pliable, soft, but slightly rough to the touch. Just as I imagined. It’s an everyman coat, nothing special, but oh how you wear it. I know it must smell like you. Perhaps there are a few stray hairs clinging to the back of the fabric. Perhaps the inside is emblazoned with your name, in sharpie. Perhaps the pockets are filled with lighters, cigarettes, an errant phone number or two. Your car keys.

You’re still smiling. You lift up your arms, shrug out of the coat. And you wrap it around my shoulders. It slides over me like a hug; envelopes me and my heart fills with sweetness. I open my mouth to protest, but you shush me with a finger on my lips.

You lean forward, and I smell your sweetness, like wine, with a faint hint of smoke clinging to your hair. You plant a gentle kiss on my lips where your finger still rests and then you, your finger and your lips are gone down the hall. I hear a fragment of a tune as you hum your way out into the night. I yearn to go after you, to be a part of it, but it’s not for me.

You are one full person, and it has taken you time to get to that wholeness.

I’m not there yet, but I will be, maybe.

I get in my car.

Hold an egg in your hand. Feel the firm but delicate shell on your palm, cool. The oblong, satisfying slope of the oval. Oeuf. Huevos. The egg is a weird thing, so delicate on the outside, so oddly-made, but inside lies the universe.

What is your desire?

How do I presume?

Do you yearn to crack it under your fingers, exert pressure, feel your strength as the shell gives away in your fingers, splinters, pieces of it sticking to your skin, as the blob tumbles out, plops on the floor without grace? Or do you nurture it, cradle it, place it gingerly back in its crate, because it exists in its own space and purpose and unless its breakfast time, there’s no need for violence?

Breakfast was never my thing.

Sometimes I dream that I’m driving away from him. We’re in some random parking lot, and he’s standing there, and he’s changed, gone are the shorts and sandals; now it’s a sleek black suit, and his hair is slicked back, and he looks so good, so very good, sleek and handsome and almost oiled, but it’s too late, too late, far too late. He’s changed but so have I, and I’m one less egg in your carton, my dear.

I crank the car, and I turn on my music, loud. The heavy wind of our shared city, soon to be my ex-city, whips through the open windows, blows my hair around my face like a tangled halo. I buckle up, because I now care about my safety. I lean the seat back, cocky, look at him from the rearviewmirror. My bitter hand opens, the trim fingers extend, and the middle one grazes across his cheek in my mind, upward, upward, upward, flying like the most triumphant bird you’ve ever seen.

And then I’m gone down the road, leaving him in a cloud of dust that will never remove from his clothes. He will see me every time he tries to wash.

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I took a drive today

time to emancipate

I guess it was the beatings made me wise

but i’m not about to give thanks, or apologize

…saw things so much clearer…

once you were in my rearviewmirror.

-Pearl Jam

I put millions of miles under my heels

and still too close to you I feel…

I am not your rolling wheels

I am the highway

I am not your carpet ride

I am the sky.

-Audioslave

Copyright 2018 Lillah Lawson

Sit With It.

Earlier this week 

I see a police officer berating a young child of color – he can’t be older than eight – in the school parking lot. He’s yelling, his shiny, decked-out car blocking a clear view of the two, only his black-soled feet visible from below. I can hear the anger in his voice, the sobs of the child, the air thick with the disbelief  as we – us parents in the car rider line – try to position our ears and eyes like nosy neighbors, trying to gather understanding of the situation. I put down my book and ask myself questions. Is the child restrained? I can’t tell. His Mother has come to collect him, so he’s safe, it’s all ok…? The police officer watches them leave, and the rage that remains on his face seems misplaced. In what world can an eight-year-old child cause such anger, such bitterness? The memory of his fury sits in my gut like a heavy stone.

Yesterday 

My phone goes bing and an alert dips down onto my screen like a lead balloon. “School Shooting Underway in Florida” or some vague wording like that. The pest control guy is here, so I put the phone down and take a sip of water. I feel like I have to make pleasant-but-inconsequential chatter with him lest I seem rude or he calls my landlord or something – the worst a woman can do is be rude to a man hired to do a job – and school shootings do not make for lighthearted conversation. We talk about snow and mice and he tells me a story about a woman who called him because there was a dead possum rotting in her wall, but that’s not part of his job so he wasn’t able to remove it for her. I can’t tell if he’s relieved about that, or guilty. After he leaves, I go back to my phone. I make the mistake of watching a video. Then another. By the third, I’m wrenched with sobs, triggered, but I don’ t know why I’m triggered because triggered isn’t a thing that happens to me, or so I thought. I need to get up and cook Valentine’s dinner but I can’t move, I’m immobile, flattened, every last bit of energy and motivation gone from me like stale air, escaped from an old balloon. The students emerging, shell-shocked, from a bullet-laden high school holding their Valentine’s Day balloons, a holiday that is now forever ruined, that they will no longer associate with candy, flowers from Mom or think-pieces about capitalism, but with gunfire and blood.

It is fitting, in a way. Love and Violence are an uneasy marriage, but a marriage it is, whether you admit it or not. Hell, it’s even in the Bible.

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A few days ago 

I read an article about a teenage girl who lives with her Dad, but while on visitation with her Mom, Mom gets her hair highlighted. It’s a special treat. She goes home and Dad is furious. Dad is a firefighter who has been arrested previously on domestic violence charges. He is a control freak who exacts revenge on the woman he can no longer abuse by using their daughter as a pawn. He had previously told his teenage girl that she couldn’t highlight her hair, and she and her Mom went behind his back. Naturally, he is furious. Isn’t his word supposed to be law?

He and his wife – the evil stepmother in this story, and let’s not unpack the fact that she may well be living in her own hell – drag the girl to Supercuts and force her to sit through a haircut. By the time the botch-job is done, the girl’s hair is one step from a buzzcut, gaps everywhere, and in accompanying photos, the girl holding her hand to her face to cover her humiliation and tears, the highlights are still visible. 

Some of the comments suggested there is more to the story, but does it matter? I don’t really think it does. Bits of the story are probably wrong, context not given, but we all know the gist by now.

 Fifteen years ago

I sit nervously on the edge of the straight-backed chair, as my partner paces. He’s on the phone with the vet. Our kitten, after a four-day hiatus, finally dragged himself home – literally – pulled himself through the lounge window with his front legs, and fell in a pile in front of us on the floor. We raced him to the vet, who kept him overnight, though we already know that his back is broken. Likely hit by a car, judging by the ragged splinters of his claws and the way his formerly straight body is now at an angle.

He hangs up the phone, walks over to me. We can go pick him up now; they are done with the tests. There is no internal damage, and he will live – but his back is broken. Since he’s a kitten, still growing, not yet neutered, he will need to be contained within our home for at least three months. He will wear a cone of shame and is not allowed to jump, as if we could stop him. I listen to this glassy-eyed, but relieved – I put far too much of my emotional wellbeing into this cat, he is all I have, in more ways than one, and all I need to hear is he will live and the rest is immaterial. To imagine such a little thing, only a few months old, his skinny, spindly little cat-self living through the impact of a heavy, blunt vehicle –

I’m still sighing in relief, a brief moment of respite, just a nanosecond, my guard let down, a thing that I rarely ever let happen anymore – I am usually a fortress, protected with moats and fences and walls so high, so impenetrable, my every thought and fear aimed outward, at the ready – but the relief is so great I forget.

The hand extends, the pale knuckles bright, lined with dark hair – so much hair for such a young man, I often think. I have wondered before if he has too much testosterone, what a preposterous, weird thing to wonder – I do not know if my eyes close from relief or if my eyes subconsciously note what will happen before my mind does, a kind of preemptive protection, but whatever, I am sightless as the hand connects with my face, the side of my cheek, just above my jaw, with a slap so hard it whips my head around and I fall off the straight-backed chair and to the thin carpet, much the same way my kitten fell to the floor from the window. The slap is so hard it feels like a punch. The slap is so hard I taste the color red. The slap is so hard that my face feels like it’s crawling with bees, buzzing from my cheek into my ear, my mouth, my eyelashes. My eyes are still closed and they stay that way, because why look?

In my relief I have forgotten about the cost. The bill. The money. Stupid me.

“Better he’d have died.” He says, but really his explanation is irrelevant, as I’ve already had the punishment. “But you’d never forgive me, and anyway, euthanizing him would probably cost even more.”

A worse betrayal than the slap is that deep down he loves the cat more than I do. I saw him pace the floors, waiting for him to come home. I saw the way his shoulders sagged with relief when he tumbled through the window. I know he’d pay every last penny to keep him alive.

But he has someone to blame, and I don’t. An outlet for his frustration. That’s just the way it is.

This morning

If I told you my former partner was a feminist, with an astounding IQ, from a middle class home with two loving parents and a number of friends, would you believe me?

If I reminded you the school shooter was failed by a system that forces boys into boxes, denies them emotions, tells them they are “owed” love and gives them permission to use their hands, would it matter? If I uttered the word “gun” would your eyes glaze over?

If most people side with the Dad who chopped off his daughter’s hair because “kids these days need to learn discipline”, would you be surprised? If it had been a son, do you think he’d have gotten the haircut?

If I told you the cop I saw berating a kid is beloved by the school and the kids literally cheer when he walks onto the playground, would you wrinkle your nose in confusion?

If I tell you that this long, emotional, chaotic piece of writing has no actual conclusion, that I won’t be tying these things together with a poignant, smart, but just-angry-enough ending paragraph that gives us cold comfort and inspires us to act, to hope, to believe that these things will stop happening one day, that the world can be better for our kids and for us, too, that there is still reason to have faith – but rather just left it like this, left you wondering, hurting, pissed off, the point lost somewhere in the middle, if I ever had it at all…just leaving this post open-ended and without a conclusion…leaving you to figure it out, do the math, try to find some meaning in all of this…

Well, then you’d know how I feel.

How so many of us feel.

Sit with it. We have been.

Becoming a Rock

This is self-indulgent. It’s okay – I’m a writer.

I’m walking. Down my wooded driveway in the crisp winter afternoon, earbuds in ears, hoodie pulled down low, hands in pockets. I am listening with my whole body. Each movement in step with a tune only I can hear. The footfall on the rocks, the slope of my neck, the way my ponytail whips in time, all a coordinated effort. The man singing in my ear hits fever pitch – a wailing, high falsetto that keens and spirals and splits the atom with its intensity, then it wavers, falling from the crescendo like trickling water in my eardrum.

I keep walking, but the girl deep down inside me fights the urge to slink to the ground, slithering and boneless, and curl up into a fetal ball. It’s a mental image I have often, and have never told anyone about. When I listen to music that really hits me there, I want to slide soundlessly to the ground and become a rock.

It’s ok. You can say it. Weird.

I’ve tried to explain. But how can you explain something as bright and as wordless as the stars?

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Even as an itty bitty, I knew music (and Joan Jett) was everything.

There are so many avenues I could take to try and explain a thought process without a rhyme or reason. I could talk about synesthesia, the autism spectrum, anxiety and depression, that uneasy marriage – I could talk about the indulgent melancholy of being a writer, the ebb and the flow, the dark and the light, the way we flirt with the abyss, the way we crave distraction, always distraction –

So many words, phrases, paragraphs – stories inside of us, all. To write is to let out tales, a trickle at a time, bit by bit, a stream made of consciousness. To hold a book in your hand that you’ve written is the penultimate accomplishment, or so it feels, but if I can tell you this secret: no matter how many poems, stories, or books you write, you’re still full of letters. They trickle out of your ears, your eyes, your fingertips. Every person is a story waiting to be told, a page to be turned – every sound is waiting to be described – every feeling is in need of a narrator.

And while it is a blessing, this over-abundance of letters – just like any lake, if you swim too long in deep waters, you will tire and drown. You will need your life support. Music has always been mine, since the toddler years, when I sat in front of the stereo with my Dad’s too-big headphones dwarfing my face.

And indeed there will be time to wonder “do I dare?” 

I measure out my time in intervals of obsessions rather than ages. My memory grows fuzzy with so much of the past. I don’t remember much of 23, but I can tell you exactly where I was in Auckland when I first heard Salmonella Dub (riding in a black sedan with a guy named Bernard who was telling jokes while navigating down the hill in Parnell, headed towards Stanley Street, the sun glinting off the water ahead; like diamonds) and exactly how I felt. Every time I hear a pacific beat I think of my heart, too big for my chest. I think of the way the light is different there; I think of Bernard’s blond hair; I think of the smell of fish and chips.

Music is photographic, staining my insides like ink, an invisible tattoo to match the visible ones, of which I always crave another.

The other day, my friend Jennifer told me that every time she hears “I am the Highway” by Audioslave, she pictures me walking along listening to it, because I wrote about my experience with that song and it stuck with her. I was blown away, not only that she had read my random muttering praise, but that she had retained it, remembered it, associated it with me. I was touched.

From time to time I take to these digital pages and wax poetic about some artist who means everything to me in a way that must, to an outsider, seem like obsessive keening. How can I explain? How should I presume? Do you know I rein myself in? For my life is measured by muses, and god, have there been many. My current one, a tall, troubled drink of water with haunted eyes and vampiric trill, inspired an entire novel (Thanks, Pete).

I am in love with telling stories. So too do I love the storyteller. The sadder the story, the more I love you. Perhaps a storyteller that writes gothic odes to the moon and Bacchus, fairy tales about wolves, about druids, liturgies to the autumn months, when leaves are dying yet at their most beautiful. Who writes odes to cover pain, who has bitten off the matter with a smile. 

I was ruminating on this (read: navel gazing – us writers have it down to a science) obsessive nature to my aforementioned friend Jennifer – who I should note, is an absolute gem; a patient, lovely, sincere person who approaches friendship with her whole heart – in a stream of text messages. I’d been texting back and forth with her all day, sharing snippets of information I’d read about Peter Steele whilst falling down my latest wormhole. Because I do that, you know, I fall willingly in with my whole heart, my whole body, my whole soul, and then I bother the shit out of everyone. I have always been this way, but sometimes, I feel just a little bit weird about it. About me. I do not think they will sing to me.

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I text Jen, “Other than David Bowie, I’ve never felt a kinship with an artist this strong.” I don’t know if it’s a good thing or a bad thing, to feel so much. She responds that it is my compassion and empathetic nature that brings me down this road, that I feel such a kinship because I’ve felt the same pain, and I recognize the darkness. “It’s like a mutual empathy experience that he just doesn’t know he’s a part of.”

Those words hit such a chord, made such perfect sense to me, that I had to write it down. It’s no surprise that my friend Jen is an empath, too – how else would she have such perfect insight, and know exactly what to say?

I have known them all already known them all. Songs and words and notes and letters, reaching out from the ether, across time to a space where sincerity is allowed, and distance immaterial.

An artist whose sardonic meloncholy flirts with the room, words flying on gossamer wings, voice deep like good red wine. That tall drink of water who wears a mask to cover the mask that is also a mask; you need surgical tools to pry beneath, to see. These deadrockstars and their masks – they stay on even after their faces have returned to earth – thankfully, the voice makes it way through, and endures. The words shine a light in the dark, guide our way to shore, at least till human voices wake us, and we drown. 

The vulnerable, anxious empath in me reaches out and finds something to clasp. Something I recognize. Something that if it were not blinded by death and circumstance, might love me back, would understand.

It is the soundtrack to this story that is my true self, the one most people don’t see. The me singing loudly in the car, the me making footfalls down the path, the me with eyes open to a September sun or a wolf moon, depending on the day. Slithering to the ground, becoming a rock.

“Peter” means “Rock” 😉 
Poem sampled: The Love Song of J. Alfred Pruf(rock) (I had to) (Sorry)

 

Without Further Ado…

…I am very proud to announce that I am joining the team at Regal House Publishing, and they will be publishing my novel, Monarchs Under the Sassafras Tree in early 2019!

(I could have drawn that out a little more and been all suspenseful, but I’m wordy enough as it is and I’m much too excited for all that nonsense.)

Lillah Lawson @ Regal House Publishing

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I’m very excited to be working with Jaynie and the rest of the team at Regal. They have helped me realize a life-long dream. I’m very proud of my work on both Aroha and Ka Kite, and I wouldn’t change my experiences for the world, but this feels like a culmination of my efforts and I couldn’t be more pleased. There’s something extra special about having your work chosen and put out there, helped along by lovers of the written word who have honed in their craft. I feel so lucky that Regal House has chosen to work with me.

Check out their website to peruse the amazing authors that make up their team and look at the beautiful books on offer! I can honestly say that I want to read them all (and probably will because you guys know I read like it’s my job, which I guess it kind of is). There you will also find their blog, by which they update regularly on their various events, projects and literary works coming down the line.

As always, you can keep up with me and my various doings on Twitter (@LillahLawson), Facebook (facebook.com/LillahLawson) and right here on this blog. I’ll be sure to update everyone as I go!

I’ll stop gushing now, but I’m just over the moon with this news, and I hope you’ll join me on my journey! I can’t wait for you to read Monarchs Under the Sassafras Tree!

NaNo, Monarchs and Dead Rock Stars (updates and excerpts)

Hello darkness, my old friend.

That’s only partially accurate. I’m actually coming off an upswing of a weekend, and am still feeling rather warm and fuzzy. I hosted my first Friendsgiving, which is something I’ve wanted to do for years but never did, because it seemed so friggin’ daunting to make all that food and host a bunch of people, and anxiety is my ever constant companion. But somehow, despite my being there, it went well! I say any gathering with wine, tea, coffee and multiple flavors of pie is a success. My friend, who had never cooked a turkey before, just went all in and decided to deep fry a 20 lb bird on my porch (I am a vegetarian and hid my face in a pile of sweet potatoes), and nothing was blown up! Given  how I attract disasters like a magnet coated in hot glue, I consider the First Annual Friendsgiving officially a success.

And – I won #NaNoWriMo2017 yesterday! The book needs a lot – I mean A LOT A LOT – of revisions, because I am a pantser who types so fast that I make lots of typos, and I went hard on this one, just writing off the cuff, on autopilot, kind of a stream of consciousness thing, and I literally have no idea what the hell I wrote. I mean, I have a general idea, but…I went off the rails. And you know, after last year’s tome of a novel that I spent an entire year researching, with its heavy, historical subject matter and grim plot, I’m okay with that.

For those following at home, Monarchs Under the Sassafras Tree is the book I’ve spent the past two years of my life researching and writing, and the past six months revising to the point that I actually thought I might end up in the Milledgeville Asylum myself from the stress (it’s actually no longer operational, thank god, but you get my point). In between bouts of fervent, rapid editing and chugging enough tea and antacids to kill a large horse, I’ve been pitching like crazy. And let me tell y’all: pitching is the most soul sucking, horrible experience in the world. While you’re assembling agents and publishing houses, it’s fun! You’ve got your cute little spreadsheet and your list of possibilities, and with every website and agent bio you read, you feel more and more confident that these people are going to love your book! How could they not? You’re a match made in heaven! And then you send 100 queries over the course of a few months and you get 60 rejections in in your inbox, and you realize that somewhere along the way your soul seized up and died in a grease fire of self-loathing.

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Milledgeville Asylum/Central State Hospital, 2017

Did I mention I hate querying?

I’ve spoken at length about how I feel on self-publishing, and I still feel very strongly that it’s a viable option and spit in the eye of any book industry snob who tells me otherwise (fight me), but Monarchs is not a book that I ever meant to be self-published. Hence the soul-crushing querying, and participation in pitch contests, and generally wishing I had picked a different career.

Imposter syndrome notwithstanding, I just woke up one day and was like…”This book is going to make it. Somehow, I just feel that it is.” I still feel that way. There have been some signs. So I’m just sitting over here with my appendages crossed, because I put my everything into this book and I want it to be out there, living and breathing in the world. I hope to be able to update you all with good news very soon!

But for now, back to reality, and this year’s writing effort: .deadrockstar. This year’s effort is a lighthearted, dark and campy romp that fits firmly into the supernatural fantasy category. I have never, ever written in this genre. I am so out of my element, but damn, it was fun.

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I need a goth translation of ‘how you durrin’?’

I’m still two chapters away from the conclusion, and it needs an ass ton of editing, so I really have no reason to share an excerpt with you all. It’ll be light years before it’s a book I’m shopping around, and therefore doesn’t need promoting. But hey, it’s Tuesday and my book is a cute little campy goth nugget and it was just Halloween and we all know that October and November are Peter Steele Month(s) and he was the main muse for the protagonist in this novel and I could go on, but let’s just say I WANT TO SHARE A BIT WITH YOU, and if you’ve read this far you deserve it, so here we go:


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