Ah love let us be true...

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Ah love let us be true...

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

Recently the words of Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” have been echoing like a mantra in my head: “Ah, love, let us be true to one another!”  The past few weeks have been a cavalcade of tragedies, from bombings to mass shootings to police brutality to sniper executions.  In my white, middle-class corner of Northwest Arkansas, it’s difficult to place these events in any sort of meaningful perspective.  And sadly, my first inclination is to hold them at arm’s length, to refuse these events and their implications entrance into my thoughts.  But they must be faced.  This is the world we live in.

And so I’ve turned, navel-gazing introspective that I am, to literature to help me, not to make sense of these atrocities—for I simply cannot fathom the ideologies of hate that spur such violence—but to at least absorb them, to admit them into my reality. 

In “Dover Beach” the speaker seeks to find some means to navigate the world he finds himself in, a world whose tremulous cadence is an eternal note of sorrow.  He mourns the receding Sea of Faith, blaming its retreat for the senseless misery of life as he knows it.  His only consolation: love.

While this poem deals more with existential angst than with tragedy, and the speaker turns more to individual romantic love than to love in the broader sense, I’ve still found myself circling round this parting stanza.  Sometimes I, too, feel stranded on a darkling plain, beset by confused alarms and clashes by night.  But I, too, turn to the only answer there ever was or is: love. 

To conclude, I offer the benediction I wrote for my church’s service the morning after the Orlando shooting:

If we let it, this world will set us adrift, sever every tether as the winds of tragedy and enmity buffet us this way and that.
Because it is so easy to hate.
But a man laughs as he pumps round after round into screaming, pleading victims, a brutal reminder that this is the face of hate.  These are the depths it beckons us to.
So we must, at all costs, embrace and embody love—that life-giving movement toward others in the world. 
So let us move.
Let us love.

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A Paean to Catan

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A Paean to Catan

Don’t call it an addiction.  Don’t dismiss it as a childish hobby.  Board gaming is the noblest of pastimes, a passion shared by all who are true of heart. 

So when was my revelation of this truth?  Where was my Damascus road?  The seeds were there in my youth.  I spent hours with my brother playing campaigns of Heroquest.  I branched out to D&D briefly.  I dabbled in chess.  I lorded over the battlefields of Axis and Allies. 

But these seeds didn’t find soil to root themselves in until I stumbled upon Settlers of Catan (Klaus Teuber’s 1995 Spiel des Jahres Winner).  This game exposed me to the wider world of hobby games and set me on a path I’m still running down.  This is your quintessential gateway game, and if you haven’t discovered it yet it’s time you were introduced. 

The very box itself screams excitement: “A game of settlement, discovery, and trade!”  But don’t let that deter you; it really is a blast.  The game is equal parts resource management, area control, and chicanery.  Your goal is to build the most thriving network of settlements, cities, and roads, which then will grant you access to more and more resources, all in pursuit of being the first to amass ten victory points (primarily granted through those settlements (one point each) and cities (two points each)).

So why does this game stand out among all the other games that are out there?  The engine that makes this game hum is its simplicity—and its capacity for ruthless play.  After the initial set up, where players take turns placing their initial settlements (I recommend using the tournament quick-start rules: one settlement and road, then a city and road, and then a final road), the gameplay is quite straightforward.  You roll the dice at the start of your turn; gather resources if the number rolled is on a land tile on which you have a settlement or city; then spend your resources if you can, trade if you need, or pass the dice.  This simplicity makes the game very accessible to the gamer and non-gamer alike. 

But beneath the surface lies a satisfying amount of depth, which is what draws me back to the island of Catan even after hundreds of plays.  As you journey here again and again, you learn to assess the best initial placements in the beginning, anticipating what spots will be left to you for your second placement.  You begin to predict where players are heading and cut them off.  You gauge how badly players wants a resource, and to exact as much from them as possible when they want to trade.  You endure the couch the night after playing, knowing that your spouse’s ire is no match for the thrill of victory.

This is the only game I’ve rated a 10.  It nearly always leaves both the novice and the experienced gamer craving for more.  It has enough luck to allow newcomers a chance, yet it rewards quality play enough that certain players reach victory more often than not.  It scales well, from two to four (for two players, increase the goal to twelve victory points), and even does well with the 5-6 Player Expansion.  It has high replayability; its modular board ensures that each game is its own puzzle.  Once you want more variety, Seafarers is available to keep the game’s feel with an added wrinkle of sea tiles and boats.  Want more depth?  Cities and Knights is available too. 

Mostly, though, I love this game because it was my gateway—as it was for so many of us—into the hobby gaming world.  This changed the nature of our family interactions.  We’ve sat around the table more, laughed and squabbled (“Trade me your sheep, or you'll never see your grandson again!”) more, and found more opportunities to gather under the same roof.  And while I tend to put more tactical strategy games on the table during my weekly game nights, this game will always be held in special reverence for how it has been interwoven into the texture of our lives. 

Happy gaming!

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Aesthetics of an unabashed frolicker

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Aesthetics of an unabashed frolicker

Driving partway across the country this week, I was awash with welcome sights of lush, rolling hills as well as long stretches of unappealing flatlands.  Driving through the former, I stared contentedly out the window, my soul nourished by the surrounding beauty.  Driving through the latter, I leaned on the gas, eager to be free of the monotony. 

I’ve noticed this my entire life.  The Plains States (with apologies to its denizens) bore me.  They’re obstacles en route to better scenes.  The desert I can appreciate, sand dunes folding into each other in smooth contours, but it is an academic affinity, a fondness felt in the head rather than the heart.  I understand the appeal of destinations like Utah and Northern California, but the land is draped in colors too drab for my liking.  There are too many tones of brown and gray, a land of death too seldom punctuated by sparse shoots of green. 

In contrast, places like Colorado, with its alpine meadows and verdant valleys, call to my deepest parts.  Switzerland, a land of too-green woodlands and noble, jutting peaks, captivated me every moment I was blessed enough to be within its borders.  Beauty in these regions is insistent, glutting the eye with resplendent greenery too overwhelming to ignore.  

While most acknowledge these places as striking, I don’t imagine that my criteria for beauty is universal.  I know that there are those who would praise the plains, who would savor the savannah, who would revel in the red rocks of the badlands.  But these lands are not for me.

I am struck by how much my sense of beauty is shaped by the land I grew up in: the Ozarks.  My birthplace is a land of gentle hills and flowing streams.  It produces in miniature everything that I treasure in the Swiss Alps and the Colorado Rockies.  I wonder how much my cross-country travels would change if I had grown up elsewhere.  Were I born in Wyoming, would I find refuge in more rugged beauty?  Would Arizona have taught me to look for splendor less-gilded, more lean and muscular?

Regardless, I remain an unabashed frolicker.  You’ll find me near streams and fields of green.

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The Gift

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The Gift

What a legacy fathers leave. 

My own son, at three and a half, mirrors my actions in so many ways.  In me, he finds his bravery, comfort, and joy.  He laughs my laugh and sillies my sillies. 

It’s an awesome responsibility, one full of mini-failures.  For he also takes on my impatience, reads my fatigue at the end of a hard day.  But those failures are couched in love, and that is a banner that I hope envelops all.  My son knows he is treasured.  He understands that he should value others the same. 

What a gift, to be a father.  It’s one I try never to take for granted.  Happy Father’s Day to all of you fathers and non-fathers out there. 

“The Gift” by Li-Young Lee

To pull the metal splinter from my palm
my father recited a story in a low voice.
I watched his lovely face and not the blade.
Before the story ended, he’d removed
the iron sliver I thought I’d die from.

I can’t remember the tale,
but hear his voice still, a well
of dark water, a prayer.
And I recall his hands,
two measures of tenderness
he laid against my face,
the flames of discipline
he raised above my head.

Had you entered that afternoon
you would have thought you saw a man
planting something in a boy’s palm,
a silver tear, a tiny flame.
Had you followed that boy
you would have arrived here,
where I bend over my wife’s right hand.

Look how I shave her thumbnail down
so carefully she feels no pain.
Watch as I lift the splinter out.
I was seven when my father
took my hand like this,
and I did not hold that shard
between my fingers and think,
Metal that will bury me,
christen it Little Assassin,
Ore Going Deep for My Heart.
And I did not lift up my wound and cry,
Death visited here!
I did what a child does
when he’s given something to keep.
I kissed my father.

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Words Create Worlds

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Words Create Worlds

Written across the banner photo on my home page is the phrase, “Words create worlds.”  As a writer of fantasy, this phrase holds significance for me on an obvious level.  Much of my job is world building, creating new landscapes with my words.  But this phrase has come to have greater significance for me. 

At the end of each school year, I give the same lesson to my students, the first words of which are this familiar phrase: “Words create worlds.” 

As an English teacher, I’ve spent the year emphasizing to my students the power of language when wielded with precision and care.  Mostly this discussion has remained in the sphere of dry academicism.  This is still important—I want my students to achieve their academic and career goals, and strong communication skills will propel my students to greater success—but more important to me is how my students use language in their everyday lives.

While I am pessimistic at times about politics, about change efforts on a national or global scale, I’m extremely optimistic about the transformative power of interpersonal relationships.  I believe that people who live purposefully can part this world with a wake, and they change all of us in their passing.  I want to be that sort of person.  Despite my repeated failures, I try my best to keep that aim centered in my focus.  I want my students to be those sorts of people as well.  It starts with how they use language.

Our words change the way we view ourselves and others.  Words of love can uplift those around us, and a biting remark can pierce them with barbs.  An offhand remark can implant a lie that poisons a person’s sense of self-worth, and a heartfelt compliment can awaken the truth in people of their inherent value.  Used correctly, our words can sow the seeds of insurrection of love and grace that have a ripple effect that changes lives.

Looking around at the world, it’s obvious that this approach to life is sorely needed.  In recent years the streets of cities across the globe have erupted with riots.  Public discourse on any topic reverts almost instantly to demonizing opponents, drawing hard lines of division to separate us from them.  We see this in our politicians and newscasters, our internet forums and podcasts.  But more than that we see it closer to home.  We see it in ourselves.

But if our words create worlds, we must take care not only to avoid these negative paradigms with our language, but also to speak purposefully into the void messages of positivity and grace.  All of us are surrounded by people sorely in need of a kind word.  There is much truth in the old adage: Be kind to all that you meet, for we are all in the midst of a great battle. 

I appreciate giving this lesson every year because it serves also as a reminder for myself.  I conclude my lesson each year by giving each of my students a written compliment, and every time I’m reminded of the power of such compliments.  I’m also reminded of how rarely I use my language so purposefully with this intent.  There are so many people in my life whom I value deeply, but seldom do I take the time to give voice to these feelings. 

This was cast into harsh relief for me recently.  A dear friend of mine was given a few months to live after years of battling cancer.  In the weeks that followed this pronouncement, I, along with scores of others, wrote messages and letters that expressed what he meant to us.  I was so thankful for the opportunity, and luckily I delivered my letter to him before he passed away.  It was significant for my friend to receive this outpouring of love, and it was significant for us to be able to express it. 

This opportunity to express words of love is always before us.  Words create worlds.  Let us use them well. 

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Book Review: The Young Elites

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Book Review: The Young Elites

One recurring feature of my blog will be reviews of a variety of books, and the honor of the first review goes to none other than Marie Lu’s The Young Elites.  One of my favorite YA series of all time is Lu’s Legend series (if you haven’t read this yet and enjoy YA lit in any fashion, stop what you’re doing, reevaluate your life, and pick it up), so I was excited to start Lu’s new series.  In brief, I was not disappointed.  The writing is vivid and fast paced, always enticing you to read on, and the world is rich and rewarding as you delve further and further in. 

The Young Elites follows Adelina, a malfetto—those left scarred by a fever that ravaged the land a decade earlier—who has just discovered that the fever also instilled in her magical powers that are just now awakening.  And she is not alone.  Other Elites, as they are called, have developed powerful abilities, some forming the Dagger Society to band together to challenge the kingdom’s decree against malfettos.  Adelina soon finds herself among them, though she’s uncertain whether she can trust them enough to call herself one of their own.  But there are other forces at work, forces that pit her newfound loyalties against her old.  She’s left with nothing but painful options, made all the more challenging by the darkness gathering within her.

Traces of what I enjoyed about Lu’s first series show up in this one.  Just as with Legend, The Young Elites alternates among several characters’ perspectives to give a more global view of the novel’s conflict and also a fuller view of its protagonist.  Just as with Legend, the novel features a strong, compelling female protagonist who possesses agency and who, while she does become entranced by a man, does not let the whole of herself become subsumed by her feelings for that man.  I also enjoyed how Lu precedes each chapter with a quote from a source from within the world of the novel, adding texture to the culture and ideology of this world (something I do in The Nephilim, so of course I'm partial). 

Mostly, though, I enjoyed the novel because Adelina was, refreshingly, an anti-hero.  She is not simply a character with faults—a character who, despite her failures, is defined by her good heart.  She is someone who thrives on the brooding darkness within her.  She thrills in it, draws strength from it.  Her magical alignment centers on the threads of fear, passion, curiosity, and fury that course through her and those around her.  Her upbringing broke certain parts of her, crippling her emotionally so that these darker forces surface in her suddenly, and with violence.  And she’ll need that darker strength to navigate this world that pits so much against her, that demands so much.

I’m excited to pick up the sequel, which promises a broader view of this conflict as characters from other nations become involved.  Will Adelina find a route back to redemption, or will she entrench herself further in darkness?  Will her and her allies’ power be enough to rival that of her enemies old and new? 

I look forward to discovering the answer.

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Where Am I Going, Where Have I Been?

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Where Am I Going, Where Have I Been?

It’s startling to put this into print, but I’ve been working on my novel for six years now.  I write mainly during the summers, but even during the school year my novel has been a weight pressing at the back of my mind.  And I’ve loved every moment of it. 

The inkling that I wanted to try my hand at writing a young adult novel began in my classroom.  I had a student who had decided that he wasn’t a reader, but I was determined to convince him otherwise.  I scanned the shelves of my classroom library and found Rick Riordan’s The Lightening Thief.  I put the book in my student’s hands and then left him to escape into Riordan’s world.  30 minutes later I checked in to see if he liked it, and he gave this sheepish grin and nodded.  I think it was the first time he had enjoyed the written word.  From that point on, I knew I wanted to craft a world that could do this for others.

Just weeks later I shot up as I was falling asleep and started scribbling in my notebook.  For an hour, the ideas just poured out of me.  The beginning sketches of the plot and world of Shifter had begun. 

Much has changed since that time.  The first year I spent mainly world building, and most everything that was written that first summer was scrapped by the second.  Characters were condensed into one; others sprouted into several.  But the core vision of the world and main character have remained constant. 

Now years later, I am nearing the end of my first draft.  Then it will be on to a round of revision (so much to revise!), and then another round of revision with some beta readers, and then finally I’ll be ready to send out query letters to literary agents.  One never knows how long the revision process will take, but I plan to be ready to send out queries within a year at the most. 

And that will lead to more revisions, a longer process, but one I welcome.  However laborious it gets, I love my craft.

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The Beginning!

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The Beginning!

And so my foray into the blogosphere commences!  I am thrilled to finally establish a foothold on the interwebs (may it never be the same!).   

The best place to begin is probably to explain the title of my blog.  It’s a reference to a poem that recurs often in my thoughts, Robert Frost’s “For Once, Then, Something.”  In the poem, the speaker is kneeling at a well-curb, gazing into the depths of the water.  At first, he sees only his reflection, but one time the speaker peers “beyond the picture” to catch a glimpse of “something white, uncertain, something more of the depths.”  But then he loses it.  The poem concludes with the speaker pondering what that whiteness was: “Truth? A pebble of quartz? For once, then, something.”  

I have always loved that line for the sheer magnitude of it, for its incomparable breadth.  In it the pendulum swings from the most abstract, Truth, to the most concrete, a pebble of quartz.  I love, too, that the speaker finds that even the pebble of quartz, in the long absence of graspable meaning, would be something.

Perhaps, too, in our daily lives we might come across a pebble of quartz if we would only watch for it. If we looked and listened, we might even come to find something deeper.   

I hope you’ll join me as I chronicle my own journey.

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