Ode to November (and a Call-Out to Fellow Authors)

Anyone familiar with the northeastern United States in general, and Vermont in particular, may find the idea of an ode to November puzzling.  After all, November “up here” is one of the darkest months of the year.  The mercury consistently dips below freezing, and the foliage that lit the hillsides with red, gold, burnt-orange, and copper has long since fallen, shedding the hardwoods of their leaves and turning the woodlands into a stark and barren landscape.  And yet.  And yet . . . it is that very starkness, that very lack, that gives November its austere and minimalist charm.

 

The lush undergrowth of July, the tangles and brambles and the seemingly limitless expanse of all the green, growing things that, not so long ago, overcrowded the natural landscape, have vanished, crumbling to dried organic matter that will merge with the soil, slumber awhile, and spring forth in the new year to come.  For now, in this cold, quiet month of November, there are only the grays and the browns, the absence of, the empty spaces among the trees, the wind whispering through the gaps, the penetrating screech of a hoot owl under a dark and cloudy night sky.

 

And I love it.  I am here for it.  The deep frosts and snowdrifts of January have yet to overtake the land.  The natural world seems almost in a state of limbo, of waiting, of transitioning away from one season and meandering, slowly, shyly, perhaps reticently, toward another.  In this stripped-down landscape, I am reminded of some things.  Things that deal with the craft of writing.

 

When I was a college student, back in the last, gasping years of the twentieth century, I was drawn to the ornate, flowery language of the Victorians.  Bronte, Dickens, Hardy, Montgomery, and Eliot–I read them all.  No one will dispute the brilliance of these literary titans.  They rank among the best, without question.  But it can also be stated that Victorian authors, to put it delicately, were rather liberal with the amount of words they used to convey a message.  A modern-day editor very well might snip thousands of words from a Victorian-styled manuscript if said manuscript were submitted in 2019 by an aspiring author.

 

Don’t get me wrong.  I am still as big a fan as ever when it comes to the classics.  But over the years, I’ve learned the importance of snipping, cutting, pruning, and, as they say, killing your darlings.  While it would be fun to write four-hundred-word sentences and pepper dialogue attributions with adverbs, it would be over-the-top for a twenty-first-century audience.  Surely there is a middle ground for writers, like me, who enjoy compound-complex sentences, the occasional flowery turn of phrase, and who don’t always concern themselves with word count as they might!

 

This is why the month of November serves as a gentle reminder.  Looking into the woods, swept clean of leaves and berries and bushes, I think of William J. Strunk’s directive in his Elements of Style:  “Omit needless words.”  To be sure, what words are needless and what words are needed is a subject ripe for debate.  But the lesson is noted, nonetheless, and November serves as the natural world’s analogy.

 

All this to say . . . readers of this blog have probably observed that posts have been coming fewer and further between in recent months.  This is, in part, due to the amount of freelance work I have undertaken as an editor and proofreader.  What once was a “side gig” is rapidly becoming a full-time job!  Not that I’m complaining.  I enjoy the work, and relish the opportunity to provide a valuable service to fellow writers and content creators.

 

You will notice a new Page on this website: Freelance Editing and Proofreading Services.  Please consider this post (and the concomitant new Page) an invitation, a call.  If you would like a professional writer and editor, an old English major, and a proud grammar nerd to assist you with your work–be it a blog post, an article, a technical report, or a novel you are in the final stages of polishing for publication–I am here and eager to help.

 

Hopefully longtime readers of this site will know that I am uncomfortable soliciting work or sales of my novels.  Self-promotion does not come easily for me.  I thank you for your indulgence, and I do hope very much to work with many of you on your writing and publishing endeavors.  More than anything, thank you for your years of support of The Eye-Dancers blog.  I may not post as often as I once did, but I’m still here and intend to stick around for the long haul.

In this season of thanksgiving, I thank the month of November for its simple reminders.  And I thank each and every one of you for your support over the years.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

 

 

A Light in the Darkness (Or, Watching the Fireflies)

It’s night–a warm, muggy summer night in the hills of east-central Vermont.  It’s late.  I’ve always been a night person.  Even though I arise by five thirty most mornings, I still shake hands with midnight from time to time.  Tonight is one of those nights.

 

I’m at the window, the breeze wafting in, carrying with it the sound of crickets as they play their fiddles, unseen, in the grass that needs mowing.  Out there, beyond the house, is the meadow–five acres’ worth, surrounded on all sides by woodlands.  It’s a private spot, down a dirt road.  There is no neighbor within a half-mile.  And while sometimes, the distant sound of a car engine or chainsaw can be heard, for the most part, it is quiet here–except for the crickets and the hoot owls and the creatures of the night who crawl and run and slither through the grass.

 

I’m not sure what I’m looking for.  There are stars above–the night is clear.  I can see the silhouette of the trees as they sway, this way and that.  But then, then . . . I see it.  A light, a flicker in the dark.  And there!  Another one.  And another.  And another.  It’s like a pre-4th-of-July fireworks show.  Fireflies.  There are so many of them out there.  When one goes dark, another takes its place.  They blink, in and out, light and dark, in a showy, rhythmic dance upon the air.

 

I am mesmerized.  It is almost hypnotic.  There’s another one, and another still.  Why do they do it?  What motivates these tiny insects to produce such a vibrant, magical show?  There are several reasons, actually.  But one is . . . a desire to be noticed.  To be seen.  A call across the dark to attract a potential mate.  “Here I am,” they’re saying.  “See my light.”

 

I step back from the window.  See my light.  Isn’t that, in essence, what we’re doing when we’re sharing our writing, our artwork, our creations?  After all, sharing is hard.  There may be praise and encouragement and acceptance “out there”–and surely there will be.  But there will also be rejection.  Criticism.  Scathing reviews.  Whenever you acquire a new reader, a new viewer, a new listener . . . you don’t know what the reaction will be.  It might go either way.  You may be on a good run, receiving positive feedback day after day.  But the next day, some new criticism may emerge.  A negative review may be posted.  It’s impossible to predict.

 

I return to the window, and witness a dozen or more fireflies glowing over the meadow.  Then more join in, and more, and still more.  The displays on the 4th won’t match this.  And I realize–these fireflies, these beings who are a fraction of the size of my fingernail, are not afraid.  They aren’t overthinking things.  They’re just glowing.

 

See my light.

Do you have an idea you want to write, but haven’t yet, perhaps reluctant on account that “it won’t be any good”?  Or . . . do you have a recently finished work collecting digital dust on your hard drive, hidden from the eyes of others?  “It’s not strong enough,” you might say.  “People won’t like it.  Who am I to share this with anyone?” And even here, in the WordPress community . . . do you have a blog post in mind but are hesitating, second-guessing, questioning whether to publish it?

 

Mitchell Brant would certainly be able to relate to this.  And so would Joe Marma, Marc Kuslanski, and Ryan SwintonThe Eye-Dancers and The Singularity Wheel are, at their heart, about confronting insecurities and coming to terms with what and who we are, and learning to accept it.

 

Do you feel the fire within, the ember that burns, seeking release and recognition?  Are you attuned to the song only you can sing, the word-picture only you can paint?

See my light.

Directly in front of me, not five inches beyond the window, a firefly glows.  Farther out, a dozen others join him.  I don’t know how long the dance will persist.  Maybe a few more minutes.  Maybe all night.  Maybe they’ll fly and glow and glide till dawn, keeping at it until the first reddish tinge of the sun comes into view.

 

As for me, it’s time for bed.  I need to get some sleep.  There is writing to do on the morrow, scenes to craft.  Characters to live with.  Situations to explore.

Stories to share.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

Mud Season (Or, “Signs of a Literary Spring”)

Vermont is a land of seasons–hard seasons.  There is nothing subtle about them, from the rich green landscape of summer, to the reds and golds and oranges of autumn, to the icy, interminable wasteland of winter, and the riot of color that signals the rebirth of spring.  People in New England often say, “If you don’t like the weather, wait around five minutes.  It’ll change.”  Except . . . that’s not necessarily true, especially this time of the year.

 

March is, arguably, Vermont’s least attractive month.  Winter hangs on, stubborn, digging its frostbitten fingers into the earth.  Snowstorms still arise.  Freezing rain and melting snow that re-freezes overnight create conditions more suitable to ice skates than shoes or tires.  Trees remain bare, their trunks gray and brown against the rust and heaviness of the low-hanging clouds.  And as the month pushes on, the days inching inexorably forward toward a longed-for if mercurial April, there is enough snowmelt that the grass finally emerges after being buried and hidden since November.  But it’s not a green, healthful-looking grass.  No.  It’s yellow and flattened, bereft of vibrancy.  It will be weeks before it begins to turn.

 

Perhaps more than anything, though, March in Vermont is famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view) for its mud.  Rural Vermont is replete with dirt roads that wind along and through the hills and valleys of the state’s rugged terrain.  I myself live on a dirt road, and when Mud Season–as they refer to it here–arrives, well, let’s just say you need a good pair of boots and a tolerance for swerving while driving along the rutted, grooved surface of the road.  Some tire grooves are a foot deep or more–and many drivers have become stuck over the years during Vermont’s season of mud.

 

This all grates on the residents.  Cabin fever sets in.  After all, come March, Vermonters have endured nonstop Arctic conditions for months.  We long to see the tangible manifestations of spring.  The calendar, late in the month, tells us it’s spring–but it doesn’t look like it, and it sure doesn’t feel like it.  I always think about Groundhog Day, February 2nd.  If old Punxsutawney Phil sees his shadow, we’ll still be cursed with six more weeks of winter, they say.  That’s supposed to be the bad news.  But, in Vermont, if, on February 2nd, you were told there would be just six weeks left of winter, you’d celebrate.  Six weeks?  Is that all?

 

And yet . . . and yet . . . for all of its bleakness and unwillingness to yield, a Vermont March offers hope.  There are shy, subtle hints that Old Man Winter is retreating, or, at least, about to retreat.  On the surface, these hints can be easily missed if one focuses exclusively on the sub-freezing temperatures, the snow, the ice underfoot.  But they are there.  Like the daylight–which increases.  The four-o’clock evenings of November and December have melted away to longer afternoons and later sunsets.  (Not taking into account Daylight Savings Time, which, of course, creates its own species of havoc!)  There are also the blackbirds and the grackles, who arrive by the middle of the month, returning from their winter migration.  And . . . what’s that?  A sneeze?  Runny eyes?  A scratchy throat?  It’s not a cold.  It’s the first manifestation of seasonal allergies, the pollen that is my lifelong scourge stirring somewhere, unseen, in the shadows.  No life, no renewal is evident.  All looks as stripped and cold as ever.  But something is happening.  A latent life-force is awakening.

 

*******************

It can be like that with creativity, too.  Much like the seasons of our natural world, there are seasons in our creative life, as well.  Sometimes we’re swept away in the lava flow of words, ideas, images, inspirations, epiphanies.  Other times, however (and far too frequently), we lie fallow and windswept, our stories, our paintings, our songs snowed under, cut off from the light.  It’s as if we’re lost in a maze, with no idea how to find our way out.  In the distance, around the corner, through the mountain pass, there is an other side abundant with flowing waterfalls and fields of flowers, basking in the midday sunshine.  We long to get back to that place, where the art seemingly creates itself.  And when we’re not there, we wonder if we’ll ever return.

 

The winter wilderness, when ideas seem perpetually blocked, can cause a sense of panic.  Will I ever get a good, workable idea again?  Has the well run dry?  Is that it?  Am I done as an artist?  Have I written my last story? Believe me, I have been there.  (I was there in the months after finishing The Singularity Wheel.)  And I’ve learned that, sometimes, when we’re particularly fortunate, we emerge from our unwanted creative sabbaticals with a flourish.  A new story comes, like a gift from the muse, and you feel as if you must write it immediately.  A picture forms in your mind, as if by magic–and you know you have a tour de force in the making.  Such unasked-for inspirations are the ultimate highs.

 

But other times, and probably far more often, the rebirth of your creative self is gentler, quieter, less flamboyant.  It doesn’t soar from 23 degrees to 84 degrees Fahrenheit in a single bound.  It takes time.  Maybe a new idea comes, but it needs work still.  The foundation is there.  Now you need to build up, create rooms for the characters in which to live and breathe, and dream. But you’re moving.  You are escaping the dark heart of literary winter.  You have discovered the way out of the maze.  Now, you just have to get there.

 

One step at a time.

*********************

It’s cold today–temperatures not even reaching 20 degrees.  But the sun is shining high in the sky, and the rays are soothing.  And above me, ahead of me . . . what’s that?

The distinct, watery sound of a red-winged blackbird.  The first time I’ve heard a blackbird this calendar year.

 

I look at him, perched on the bare limb of a sugar maple.  He returns my gaze, a knowing sparkle in his eye.

He understands.  Despite the frigid conditions today, he realizes.  And he’s returned.  He’s flown hundreds and hundreds of miles for this.

Spring is almost here.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

“You Can’t Get There from Here” (But You Can . . . with Some Delay)

It was one of those lazy, hazy midsummer days in the Northeast, when the humidity hangs thick and wet over the land.  I was driving through the back roads of central Vermont, looking for a particular house–an address tucked away on a dirt lane far from the beaten path.  These were the years before I had settled in this area and called it home.  I didn’t know my way around.

 

Sure enough, as I came to an unmarked intersection, I took a wrong turn.  I didn’t know it at first.  It took a couple of minutes.  But when I drove several more miles and didn’t have a clue where I was, I decided to stop in the gravel parking lot of a country store.  It was the only place I saw, aside from isolated farmhouses and old, weathered barns, that might offer the hope of someone providing directions to steer me back along the right route.

 

I parked in front of the store, a clapboarded single-story structure with white peeling paint and two ancient gas pumps out back.  They looked like something out of the 1950s.  I had no idea if they were operational, and had no intention of finding out.

 

The door was open, without a screen, and I walked in.  The interior was small and cramped, complete with wooden shelves, a pot-bellied stove in the corner, and thick bark-covered beams overhead.  Beside the unlit stove, four men sat at a round table.  Each eyed me suspiciously.

 

I approached the table.  The men, three of whom were seniors, and the fourth perhaps in his thirties, continued to eye me.  There were poker chips gathered in the middle of the table, and the men were holding playing cards in their hands.  Already uncomfortable at the intrusion, now I felt worse.  I was interrupting their game.

 

“Excuse me,” I said.  My voice sounded too loud in the close, warm space.  “Sorry to bother you, but I was wondering if you might be able to help me find an address.  I thought I had everything mapped out, but I guess I was wrong.”

The men just sat there, motionless, looking me over as if I were a specimen to be driven over to the town taxidermist.  One of them cleared his throat.  A second placed his cards, facedown, onto the table.  The other two just stared.

 

I gave it a few seconds, and when no one said a word, I took a step back and turned toward the door.  I guessed I’d go knock on a farmhouse door and hope for a more cordial response.

 

That was when someone finally spoke up.

“Where ya headin’?” the younger guy said.

I turned back around, told them the address.  This brought on another round of silence.

Then, the oldest-looking guy seated at the table, a gaunt fellow with wire-rimmed glasses, said, “Thing is–if you was a bird, it’d be easy to get where you’re wantin’ to go.  But if you have to take the roads–it’s a field.  Fact is, you can’t get there from here.”

 

One of the other men smirked.  Another one coughed.

I wasn’t sure what to say.  I realized I was the amusement for the day.  There was no reason to hang around.  I’d just have to go back the way I had come and re-map the journey.

 

But then the younger guy held up his hand, and proceeded to give me the directions I needed.  He used short, staccato phrases, offering only the barest of minimums.  But I thought I had it when he was through.

I thanked him for his help.

“Would be easier if you was a bird,” the older man said again.

When I walked back through the doorway, I was sure I could hear them laughing.

As I got behind the wheel of my car and pulled away, I wondered if they had given me the wrong directions–just to further the joke.  But they hadn’t.  Twenty minutes later, I found the place I was looking for.  The directions were accurate.

 

“Though roundabout,” I was told later by someone in the know.  “He led you out of your way.”

But at least I’d made it–delay or no delay.

************************************

And that also accurately sums up the writing and editing process I have undertaken on The Singularity Wheel–the sequel to The Eye-Dancers.  It was a surprise project from the get-go.  I hadn’t even envisioned there would be a sequel–but then, out of the ether, an idea struck that wouldn’t let up and wouldn’t let go, and I had to write it.

 

When I began the book, over four years ago (!), I had no way of knowing how winding, circuitous, and bumpy the road would be.  I first announced the sequel’s existence in a blog post in the spring of 2014.  “It’ll take another year to write, no sweat,” I thought at the time.  But then 2014 bled into 2015, which morphed into 2016–and still, the book wasn’t finished!  There were character crises, plot points that needed wholesale makeovers, and twists and turns in the story line that needed alterations.  It was, and has been, the most challenging writing project I have ever undertaken.

 

Even so, as 2017 dawned, I was almost finished!  And in April, the first draft was finally complete.  I was at last able to key in the words, “The End.”  I even posted about it at the time.  So okay–I would release The Singularity Wheel at the end of summer!  Piece of cake!

 

During the editing process, however, I found that more changes still needed to be made than I’d realized.  Time slipped past, summer came and went.  Then again, The Eye-Dancers was originally published in November 2012.  I liked the symmetry.  Why not release The Singularity Wheel in November 2017?  It would be perfect.  Five years of real time had passed–and, in the story itself, five years of fictional time had also passed from the conclusion of the first book to the start of the second.  Everything was coming full circle.

 

But now–here we are, in November, and just like my journey through the back roads of Vermont that summer day years ago, I have discovered that “as the bird flies” isn’t always the way a story will proceed.  I am right now in the final edit/proofreading/copy editing stage.  The endgame.  But even here, I have found a few last wrinkles that need to be ironed out, a few tweaks that need to be inserted, a last assortment of fixes that need to be made.  Grudgingly, I have come to realize that the November release is too ambitious.  The project has been “a field” as the old-timer at the country store said to me once.  A field, indeed.

 

That said, the eleventh-hour adjustments are minor in nature.  Ninety-nine percent of the work has been put in.  It’s just a matter of trying to finish strong and present the best possible product I can upon publication.  As much as I wanted to meet my own self-imposed November deadline, I didn’t want to rush it now, at the end, after such a long journey getting here.

The delay will be one month.  And this time, there won’t be any further postponements!  The Singularity Wheel will be released prior to January 1, 2018.  I don’t have a single, specific date in mind–but it will be in December.  This time, I promise.

 

In this season of Thanksgiving, I want to thank all of you who have read and still read this blog and who have supported The Eye-Dancers these past five years.

 

Writing a sequel has been a long, long process, often beset with speed bumps and deep, tire-puncturing potholes, but, to paraphrase my old country-store friend, I have, at long last, “gotten here from there.”

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

A Land of Long Shadows

The hill country of east-central Vermont, where I have lived for over a dozen years now, is famous for its fall colors.  Tourists flock to the Green Mountain State from across the nation, and the world, to catch a glimpse of the reds, oranges, and golds that light up the hillsides every October.  The blazing foliage of autumn is as synonymous with Vermont as its ski slopes, dairy farms, and Rockwellesque small towns.

 

For me, though, October in Vermont is about much more than multicolored tree leaves.  Don’t get me wrong.  I marvel at the beauty of the season as much as anyone.  There is nothing quite like a stroll along a country lane in Vermont in the fall.  But it is the subtler, less showy aspects of the season that leave the most indelible mark.  The musky scent of woodsmoke on the air.  Fallen leaves crunching underfoot.  Warm, sunny days, the humidity of high summer over and gone.  Crisp, starry nights, quiet, the chorus of crickets silenced by frost and the encroaching winter.

 

And shadows.

Just the other day, I took a walk out back, in the meadow behind the house.  The land slopes down, gently in places, steeply in others, to the meadow, which is here and there interspersed with maple trees and elm trees and birches, their bark white and clean against the copper-yellow of the autumn leaves.

 

It was late afternoon, the sun was sinking to the west, and a recent end-of-summer heat wave was in the process of retreating, moving south like a migrating bird, leaving New England to the rightful, cooler temperatures of the season.  I looked at the maple trees at the top end of the meadow, standing, side by side, like deciduous twins, their leaves mostly green still, with the occasional flash of gold.  The sun was hitting them just so, and their shadows reached out across the expanse like dark, giant fingers.  My own shadow was long, too, as I stood in the path of the westering sun.  It spread across the grass, comically elongated, as if I were a colossus, a wanderer come down from Brobdingnag.  I walked south, changed direction to the east.  My shadow followed, sometimes merging with the shadows of the maples or the birches, or the woods, which ringed the meadow on all sides.  No matter where I walked, it came with me, always there.  Always present.

 

There was no escape.

********************

There have been times when I was told that I am not always present–not fully, anyway.  “Sometimes, even when you’re here, you’re not here,” a friend told me once.  And I don’t deny it.  Ever since I was a boy, my mind has had a tendency to wander, to daydream, to roam over hills and valleys in search of the unknown and the unexplored.  Sometimes it’s playacting.  I spent more time than I like to admit growing up visualizing, in vivid detail, myself winning Wimbledon or batting in the bottom of the ninth inning in the World Series, the game on the line.  I’d pretend to hold an interview with the press afterwards, going through an elaborate question-and-answer session.  I’d think of new games to invent, new theories to drum up, new ways of looking at the tried-and-true.  Often, at night, I’d look up at the sky, count the stars, realizing that, as numerous as the visible stars were, they represented but a tiny fraction of the whole–just a slice of the firmament, a drop in a cosmic sea without end.

 

Truth be told, I still do all of these things from time to time.  Not as much as I used to, but I still do them.  On one level, it’s embarrassing.  I’m not a kid anymore, after all.  On another level, I hang onto these wonderings, these musings left over from childhood.  Without them, something essential, something life-affirming and good, would be lost.

 

More than anything, though, I get lost in my stories.  That’s to be expected while I’m hunkered down at my PC, of course, frantically pecking away at the keyboard.  (I’m old school.  I don’t have a laptop.  I still prefer the bulky old desktop.)  But it’s not only when I’m physically writing.  My stories are with me always–especially the novels.  I can be seated at my desk at work, out taking a walk along the shoulder of the road or through the woods, showering in the bathroom, even visiting friends or family–and suddenly, out of the blue, an idea will hit me.  So that’s how chapter 27 should be resolved!  Oh, so Ryan shouldn’t do that, he should do this.  I’m not sure if Joe handled that the way he really might have.  How about this . . .?  And on and on it goes.

 

Beginning with The Eye-Dancers, which I started in 2009, and continuing on through its sequel, The Singularity Wheel, still on schedule to be released in November, I have lived and breathed with the protagonists in these tales for almost a decade.  They are never far from my thoughts, always ready to intervene or interrupt, as if to say, “Hey, remember me?  You got that last scene all wrong, partner.  I would never do that!  You better go back and fix it.”  Or the story itself, like a living, breathing entity, a sentient thing, will communicate with me, vying for my attention.  If I’m not sure what to do in an upcoming chapter, it does not stay silent, tucked away in the background.  It speaks, shouts, demands to be solved.

 

So forgive me if, while we talk, I occasionally have a distant, faraway look in my eye.  The story never sleeps.  The characters can never be put to bed.  The questions and musings and machinations of the creative process are as stubbornly and persistently present as shadows.

 

And while there are times when this is taxing, draining, even downright annoying, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

***********************

Ready to come inside, I walked back up the slope, leaving the meadow behind me.  As I crested the hill, I paused to take another look at the trees and the grass and the deep, forever blue of the sky.  I stood there like that, taking in the scene, pondering its beauty and its vastness, and its truth.  Then I turned around, and headed for the house.

 

My shadow followed me every step of the way.

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

A Winter Walk in Old New England (Or, Down the Rabbit Hole)

Winter in Vermont arrives early, and it hits hard.  Already there is a stubborn sheen of ice on my driveway, creating an adventure every time I drive down.  The meadow out behind the house, with its rolling hills and undulations, is an unbroken sea of pure white.  And the wind chills?  Let’s not even talk about the wind chills!

wintervermontstart

 

I make no secret that winter is my least-favorite season.  People sometimes kid me about that.  “You live in Vermont, and you don’t like winter?” they say.  I reply that it’s not a big deal.  I love the spring, summer, and fall–three out of four seasons isn’t bad.  Nevertheless, winter in New England has a way of holding on, reluctant to let go.  Even in the brighter, milder months of March and April, winter digs in its heels, delaying the inevitable, resisting the birth of spring with every harsh gust of wind and squall of snow.

snowsqualls

 

So I am under no grand illusions.  A long, unbroken string of arctic-like months awaits.  Still, I have no desire to huddle beside the portable heater all winter, hot chocolate in hand.  (Though surely there will be some of that!)  I enjoy the outdoors, and on days not quite so harsh, on days when the sun–too often a stranger in New England–chooses to shine, I will take advantage.

hotchocolate

 

Recently, on one such sunny, crisp afternoon, I took a walk.  Navigating the icy slope of the driveway, I walked down to the road.  The road in question, as are so many in rural Vermont, is dirt–dry and dusty in summer, muddy and soft in early spring, hard and snow-packed right now.  If I turned right, I’d walk toward a paved road a mile away.  But if I turned left, within a third of a mile, the road would morph into a narrow trail, not maintained by the town.

winterdirtroadvermont

 

I went left.

As I walked, I was struck by the silence.  No cars.  No people.  No sounds.  There was a gentle breeze, but no leaves to rustle–only the empty spaces in bare trees and lonely expanse of snow-covered fields and stripped woodland floors.  Even the songbirds were silent.   Briefly, a sound to my right–a wild turkey, startled by my intrusion, scurried into the woods, disappearing from view.  More silence.  I inhaled.  The air was a winter knife, cold, sharp, as if it might draw blood if I weren’t careful.

turkeyinsnow

 

I walked on, reaching the trail, where the snow depth swelled, coming up above my ankles.  Even back here, though, there were tire tracks, the residue of rugged four-wheel drives and snowmobiles, no doubt.  My footfalls crunched the packed snow, punctuating the stillness.  My breath hung on the air before dissipating, molecule by molecule.

tiretracksinsnow

 

Then I paused.  Stopped.  I listened to the silence.  It washed over me like a vacuum, snuffing out the sound.  I breathed again, in and out, in and out.  A gray squirrel chattered from a nearby tree, but then climbed higher.

squirrel

 

Everything was so quiet, so white–the world seemed asleep, slumbering beneath the blanket of snow.  For a moment, reality itself seemed slippery, as if, perhaps, I had gone down a rabbit hole and was standing there only as an apparition, or maybe some figure within the realm of someone else’s dream.

downrabbitholefirstmention

 

What is real? I wondered, looking over the frozen pond that lay just meters before me, and, beyond that, the snowcapped mountains that rose in the distance like ancient giants worn and weathered by time.

mountainsendpartone

 

****************

In The Eye-Dancers, what we perceive as real is explored, and challenged, over and over again.  Indeed, in chapter 2, Joe Marma feels so disoriented that “reality felt too elusive, too fragmentary, as if it were crumbling away into jigsaw pieces that could not be put back together.”  Indeed–are his dreams, along with Mitchell Brant’s dreams and Ryan Swinton‘s dreams, real or “just a nightmare,” something to wake up from and escape and put safely and securely in the rearview mirror?  Who is this “ghost girl” who continues to haunt them?  And when they are transported to a different dimension, an alternate universe, is what they experience “real” or illusory?

jigsawpuzzle

 

When the boys first arrive in the alternate town of Colbyville, Ryan isn’t sure:  “The line between dreams and reality had certainly been blurred, if it existed at all.”

Have you ever felt that way?

George Bailey did.

It’s a Wonderful Life is a holiday staple, and one I partake of every year.  Many people know the story of Bedford Falls and George and Mary and Old Man Potter.  We know George has a string of bad luck and at one point contemplates jumping to his death off a bridge, only to be saved by Clarence the bumbling but lovable angel who is still searching for his wings.  And we all know the movie ends with a rousing rendition of “Auld Lang Syne,” along with Zuzu’s memorable line, “Teacher says, every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings.”

itsawonderfullifefirstmention

 

And George’s response:  “That’s right, that’s right.”

But how does Clarence ultimately convince George to step away from the cliff, or, in this case, the bridge?  How does he earn his wings at the end?

georgeatbridgehowdoesclarenceconvice

 

By showing George what the world would look like without him.  Admittedly, this isn’t Clarence’s idea.  It is his response to a despondent George’s muttering that he wishes he’d never been born.  Wish granted!  You want to be erased, George Bailey?  Consider yourself erased.

clarencegrantingwishneverborn

 

In other words, Clarence helps George to see his many blessings not by hopping on to his personal soapbox or through any words of wisdom; rather, he rescues George by taking him down the rabbit hole and in to an alternate reality, allowing him to witness the fallout of a world that could have been, might have been, had he never existed to touch the lives of others.

georgeseeingworldwithouthim

 

He saves him by changing the very nature and shape of what we deem to be real.

*****************

I stayed there on that path, overlooking the iced-over pond and the far-off majesty of mountains and sky, for several minutes.  The wind picked up, and the bite of the cold chomped down, stinging my face and eyes.  But I just wanted to take it all in.  What is real?

whatisrealbeginningoflast6section

 

In an age where unfiltered bias is immediately disseminated to millions upon millions of people, when individuals can and do attempt to delegitimize the press, when various forms of social media can be used to spread truth or lies with equal fervor, what is real?  If someone tweets out a lie, and sixty million people read it and believe it, is it now true?

tweeting

 

The shifting, changing, amorphous lens through which the world views itself, and through which we view the world, is in a state of disarray.  Reality for many has become as confusing and inexplicable as George Bailey’s journey through his own personal rabbit hole.

georgebaileyconfusednearendrabbithole

 

But as I turned to leave the path, to retrace my steps in the snow and head back home, I attempted to answer the question that lingered on the air like wood smoke.  What is real?

George Bailey found the answers at the end of the movie.  Clarence the angel penned a personal note to George:  “No [one] is a failure who has friends.”  And with George surrounded by friends and family, singing off-key in a cinematic moment for the ages, he understands the truth, the essence, and so do we.

clarencenoteend

 

So, as 2016 nears its end, as we forge bravely ahead into the uncertain climes of 2017 and beyond, maybe, just maybe, we can all pause for a moment and tune in to a corny old holiday classic, walking the avenues and sidewalks of Bedford Falls, reliving the miracle on 34th Street, soaring with a red-nosed reindeer as he leads the way, or witnessing a walking, talking snowman.

miracleon34thstreetend

 

These are, it seems to me, rabbit holes very much worth exploring.

frostyendofpost

 

Have a wonderful holiday season and a happy and blessed New Year.

happyholidaysveryend

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

 

The Greatest Distance Is Only a Thought Away (Or, A Morning on the Beach)

I have always loved the sea.  From the first time I experienced an ocean beach, I felt drawn to it, its vastness, the steady rhythm of the waves, the sounds and smells and textures.  Growing up in Rochester, New York, hundreds of miles from the Atlantic coast, I didn’t have the chance to visit the sea very often (though Lake Ontario is a pretty fair facsimile!).  And so, whenever my family would take a trip to the coast, I always looked forward to it, counted down the days.  The trips never disappointed.

thesea

 

But there was one trip, one particular experience, that stands out, apart from the rest.

It was midsummer 1994, and my family and I took a two-week expedition to Prince Edward Island, Canada–to this day, the most beautiful place I have ever seen.  We toured the Island, took in the sights, the rich red dirt roads and farms and quaint seaside villages.  But most of all, we went to the beaches.  PEI is famous for its beaches.  We stayed at a hotel right by the shore.

pei

 

One morning, at dawn, I woke up.  I don’t know why.  I just felt an urge to get up early and experience the day.  Everyone else was still asleep.  I quietly let myself out of the hotel and walked down the narrow footpath, through grasses still moist with dew.  Off to the left, a raven, an early riser himself, pecked at something in the grass, ignoring me.  I continued on to the beach, empty at this hour, as the sun began its ascent in the east.

raven

 

I walked along the beach, my feet making patterns in the sand, down to the water’s edge.  A gull flew overhead, calling out, perhaps demanding a scrap of food I didn’t have.  The water was warm as it flowed over my feet and around my ankles–just another of PEI’s many charms.  Despite its northern location, the ocean water surrounding the Island is the warmest anywhere along the Atlantic coast north of Virginia.

peiwarmwater

 

The waves were gentle that morning, the breeze blowing in softly off the water.  I looked out, as far as I could see.  The sky was some nameless variant of pink, the sun rising, slowly, steadily, the start of a new day.  Another gull–or perhaps it was the same one–squawked again, its call echoing, echoing.

pinksunrise

 

I peered at the horizon.  It was hard to tell where the sea ended, and the sky began.  It all appeared to be joined somehow.  Not separate, but whole.  Not two, but one.  That’s when it happened . . .

I suddenly felt something, I wasn’t sure what.  It was a jolt, like a surge of electricity, but it was also airy, gentle, a feather swaying, nearly weightless.  I closed my eyes, opened them, and I saw.

featherinwind

 

I saw, in my mind’s eye–so clearly it was as if I were seeing it directly before me–a distant beach across the water.  It was hours later there.  People were milling about.  And some of them were looking to the west, looking toward me.  Maybe they, too, were feeling something above and beyond themselves.

***********************

In The Eye-Dancers, Mitchell Brant, Joe Marma, Ryan Swinton, and Marc Kuslanski travel through the void, whisked to a parallel world through an unexplainable psychic connection with the “ghost girl” who haunts their dreams.  While Marc, ever the rational scientist at heart, attempts to explain their remarkable situation through the principles of logic and quantum mechanics, Mitchell–inquisitive by nature, intuitive, with an imagination constantly in overdrive–believes there is much more to it than the laws of physics can explain.

imagination

 

And yet, he, too, wants a reason, something to grab hold of, something that might begin to explain why this happened, how this happened, and how Monica Tisdale, the “ghost girl,” was able to draw them into her universe.

dreams

 

At novel’s end, when she once again walks in the shadows and secret places of his dreams, Mitchell asks her, point-blank  . . .

“Why did you ever come to me in the first place?  We . . . I . . . don’t even live in your world.”

To which Monica Tisdale answers, “I never really picked you.  I didn’t say to myself, ‘I need to get Mitchell Brant to help me.’  I just called, and you were there.”

But Mitchell needs more than that.  It’s not good enough, doesn’t go far enough . . .

“‘But the distance,’ he said.  He couldn’t even fathom it.  The void.  The gulf.  ‘You and me, we’re so far apart.'”

“‘Are we, Mitchell?’ she said.  ‘Are we really?'”

Later, upon reflection, in his own words, Mitchell states . . .

“Maybe more than anything, I learned that everything’s connected. . . . I’m not sure how I can explain it to make sense.  It’s like, even the things that seem so far away you can’t even imagine . . . even those things are right there with you.  And the people, too.

“Maybe we’re all connected to each other, in ways we can’t even really understand.  And that’s okay, I guess.  Because maybe we don’t need to understand it.

“We just need to believe it.”

allconnected

 

**********************

Standing on that beach along the sandy shores of Canada’s garden province, the sunlight warming the morning air, I felt a part of the whole, as if a million invisible fibers extended from me, in all directions, everywhere, across the expanse of the globe.  I thought of the fish beneath the water, miles offshore, swimming, pursuing, surviving.  I thought of giant squid and crustaceans and blue whales, slicing through the water like living, breathing ocean liners, and blind, glowing creatures with fangs and stings, as yet undiscovered by humankind.

deepseafish

 

Looking across the surface of the waves, their rhythm timeless, eternal, I thought about the continents on the other side.  What were people doing at this moment?  And I realized–everything.  Babies were being born in London, Moscow, Johannesburg, and Rome.  Somewhere in Berlin, there was a car crash; elsewhere, there was an unexpected visitor popping in unannounced, perhaps a long-lost son returning home and bringing smiles to his parents’ faces.  In Ankara, in Casablanca, in Madrid and Paris and Warsaw and every town and village and hamlet in between, life was happening.  People laughed and cried, some shared and felt good; others were alone, in run-down apartments or dark alleyways, thinking of surrendered choices and opportunities now irretrievably lost.

theworld

 

Here I was, standing by myself on a fine Island morning, the sea and the wind and the gulls my only company, and yet–I was everywhere, plugged in, one small cog in an infinite and incomprehensible machine.

The gull squawked again, as if acknowledging my thoughts, and then another gull swooped in low, and then another, and another.

seagulls

 

I watched as, moments later, they flew out over the water, becoming smaller and smaller, until they vanished, like a sea mirage.

seamirage

 

It was then that I heard voices.  Other early risers were coming now, the beckoning of an Island summer day too much to resist.

The spell broken, I turned around and headed back for the hotel.

As I walked, I thought of sandy beaches halfway around the world, fish that swim in the dark, and stars that shine, like diamonds, in the night sky.  I realized, the light from some of those stars, distant beyond imagining, takes millions of years to reach our planet.

Yet reach us it does.

stars

 

Thanks so much reading!

–Mike

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