COVID-19 and the Art of Suffering

John Singer Sargent – The Hermit

“No tree, it is said, can grow to heaven unless its roots reach down to hell.” ― Carl Jung

Introvert, Empath, HSP, INFJ. Ten years ago I had no clear idea of what any of that was. I’d come to think of myself as a tormented artist, “complicated” or, for lack of anything specific, fucked up beyond redemption. Suffering became an art form, a spiritual practice, a Dark Ages approach people sometimes adopt to give meaning to their lives, if not redemption. After way too many years of this, I decided the suffering-is-holy thing is crap. Spin. Like believing that sinking (or floating) in water proves you’re a witch — until the erudite town elder tells you to stop being a moron.

There is nothing especially holy about suffering. There is no backup, no rescue. Suffering is life, consciousness, and as such meant to be fully experienced. We have to go through to come out; we have to release old things to give new things a place to grow. Nature understands this (I rarely do, until I’m buried in shit). Like a virus, chaos runs its course with or without us and when we emerge, we’ve changed. Or something like that.

Enter the 21st century. Energy sensitivity no longer falls into that nebulous gray area between psychology and airy fairy woo woo. Those aforementioned enigmatic terms are all over the place now. We have books, articles, studies, and Facebook pages full of platitudes and self-identification mantras. “I’m an empath. I see this and feel that. Be nice to me, I’m sensitive. Watch out, I’m reading your shallow ass.” The INFJ ones are even worse. My inner curmudgeon is easily irritated by and properly skeptical of that nonsense. In true INFJ fashion, I scowl thinking that splattering those claims out there insults and defies the very thing. Don’t mess with my shadows. Leave my scar collection alone. Get off my lawn.

Having said that, I also have an intimate, if not compassionate appreciation for that basic human need to be seen and understood. Well, sometimes. On my terms. Ok never mind, you get the idea.

What I do have reverence for — and to be fair, the memes have a place in this — is information and understanding. Science. Research. Clinical studies. Open-mindedness. Awareness. Everything is energy; everything is connected; we are all part of the whole. No matter where on the radio dial you are, we all know the natural terror of feeling we’re at the mercy of something we don’t understand, and I think the terror comes because everything is connected, and not the other way around. How would you know there is a bigger picture unless something seemingly “out there” came along and sucker punched you out of your comfort zone? Interconnection isn’t a theory anymore. Those 10,000 year old shamans had this figured out, and science is catching up.

Enter COVID-19. When this broke open and fear swept over the planet, I started having panic attacks. I was abysmally depressed, physically weakened, freaked out, spun up for no reason, bursting into tears, my whole body fighting a deluge. Then I realized that while getting information and trying to make sense out of things, I had opened all my circuits and got fried. Finally, I remembered what I had learned in my extensive travels through hell. High-pass filter: ON.

Like many of my kind, I no more worried about social distancing than a fish would worry about being banned to water. Just another day in my weird universe. But then this other thing happened. Scanning my social networking threads, I began to feel a deep connection to people. Normally, I swing like a pendulum between this brilliant sensation of oneness with humanity — and a full-on belief that people are shit and a Deathstar would the best fucking thing that ever happened to this forsaken planet.

Ahh, but this breakthrough put those extremes into balance, didn’t it? Suddenly, my ridiculous and often crippling sensitivity became a vehicle, a bridge joining humanity in all its glory: fear, malcontent, anger, insecurity, suffering, abandonment; but also love, empathy, compassion, cooperation, appreciation and humor.

Ergo, I feel less alone than I ever have.

Stay safe, and hang in there. We’ll get through this.

© F.T. McKinstry 2020. All Rights Reserved.

Creativity and the Fallen Warrior

For three days I’ve been sitting her under a pile of chores and things that need doing. I’m not doing them. I don’t care.

I’ve lost someone I loved to cancer just recently. My cat is sick. I’m sick. In the news, another fifty people were senselessly killed in New Zealand by some fanatic. Another creature sliding onto the endangered species list. Wildfires. Glaciers collapsing. The usual array of messed up, cruel and childish bullshit in Congress. Trump and his stupid fucking border wall. Politicians ranting about every injustice to get us all stirred up for the 2020 elections. Authors and artists begging for clicks. I drift through my Facebook and Twitter feeds, taking the blows.

The only things I respond to now with any glimmer of life are humor, animals, and beautiful things. An otter crunching on a crab. A homeless man giving his last bit of food to a stray dog. A friend’s garden. Esther the Wonder Pig. A funny meme. Anything involving cats. A cool upcoming film about a monster hunter. But every time I laugh or squee, I feel like an asshole. Where are my tears and indignation?

A friend on Facebook recently posted a funding campaign for cancer. It’s not that I don’t care; how could I not? But my mind shut down and I didn’t touch it. And when he posted a picture of his cat I hit the love button. Why? Because the need for support felt like a black hole, while the cat let a ray of light into my heart. Maybe I really am an asshole.

Truth is, I’m numb.

I see plea after plea. We’re all suffering, we all have issues. We must band together to protect and stand for each other, for the environment, for truth and justice. Yes, we must. But when I try to rise and lift my sword, I crumple under the weight. I’m so tired of grief, pain and outrage. It’s incessant. There are only so many times my heart can get hit before it closes down to protect itself. My inner warrior is sitting under a tree, shit drunk, glassy eyed, darkening the earth with the blood of a thousand wounds. Where is all this resolve supposed to come from?

Numb.

Trouble is, I’m not an asshole. The reason I go out and surf the internet fifty times a day is to find things that remind me that my heart is still open. That it can be. That it’s worth keeping that way.

It’s been months since I’ve written or painted anything of note. I need to heal and I feel like a stagnant pool in an old forest, oily and choked with slime, abandoned by frogs, snakes and salamanders. I spend most nights reading fantasy novels and binging on Dark Shadows. But today I remembered something.

The Source

The Source, by F.T. McKinstry

Creativity. It’s one of those words we hear so often that the meaning is lost. To me it’s everything, the source of hope. Anything is possible. But the creative force is tricky. Firstly, the very senses that make me creative are those which expose me to the pain. Close one down and lose the other. Open my heart to the healing waters and I’ll get annihilated. But then there’s this other thing. I can’t shut off the creative force for long; it finds me. It’s very clever. Pain and trauma aren’t the end-all be-all, oh no. They’re like an engine, driving me. All the books and stories I’ve written, the paintings, drawings and poetry. Warriors, seers, sorcerers, old forests, animals, the in-between realms. My realms. Metaphors, visions, psychological archetypes.

Healing. The world would have us believe it isn’t possible. That there is only dissolution, deterioration. How can that be true when we are all creators? Just look around. There are no limits to this. It’s infinite. Divine, even.

I mean c’mon. The cat memes alone…

© F.T. McKinstry 2019. All Rights Reserved.

The Stories We Tell Ourselves

My demons are clever…because I help them.

I can turn anything into a story. I wander around here muttering to myself, spinning past, present and future events into stories like an old spider in a web. I make them beautiful, awe inspiring, and terrible. Some of it wanders into books I’m brooding on. Some of it I torment myself with. And some is just debris rushing down a swollen tidal bore. It’s creative, and it’s therapy. Stories reveal the essence of a thing, frame it in such a way or that, and help us to cope or understand.

I love my therapist. She has wild, white curly hair, an ornery laugh, and a dark side worthy of a crone in a fairy tale. Whenever I present one of my well-crafted descriptions of some personal demon or other, she grins and says, “That’s quite a story you’ve got there.” And we laugh, because I’ve given my demons an identity, a kingdom, power of attorney, and then carved my story in stone like a gargoyle on a cathedral roof. I’d be better off going in there with a finger up my nose. Because as any writer will tell you, no story is cast in stone.

So what’s real? If neuroscientists and quantum physicists would have their say, it’s not what you think. My therapist recently told me that when we experience something, the details of that experience begin to shift and fade in our memory after 20 minutes. Then our imaginations step in to fill in the gaps. Think about that. Twenty minutes. Now slap on a decade or three. What’s real now? Not that old memory, I don’t think. But the emotion around it convinces us that the story is real. Well. Yes and no.

Painting illustrates this nicely. Years ago, I was out in the woods and saw a trout lily blooming near the path. A beautiful thing. So I took a picture for something to paint. When I started the painting, I didn’t bother with the photo, I just went with how the experience felt. The result has nothing to do with that photo; it contains infinite impressions from somewhere else. The same is true of my memory of totaling my truck on a creepy wooded road in upstate NY, drunk and stoned out of my fucking mind. Or that argument I had with my mother about her meatloaf recipe. Just stories. I’ve long since lost the photos.

Trout Lily, by F.T. McKinstry

Trout Lily, by F.T. McKinstry

We live in an infinite sea of stories, alive and breathing, independent of time and space. It’s an open system, always in motion, always seeking balance. I read fantasy novels as a kid that changed the trajectory of my life and saved me from becoming a teenage suicide statistic. Were those stories “real?” Depends on who you ask. To me, they were. Not only that, those stories mean something different to every person who reads them — and they are just as real.

Middle Earth

Map of Middle Earth by J.R.R. Tolkien

Point is, if you can write a story, you can change it. And if you listen, the story will often rewrite itself…and then healing happens. I’ll end with one of those.

Little Tree, by F.T. McKinstry

The Rosemary Plant

Once upon a time, in the spring, when my heart yearns to grow things, I spotted a pack of rosemary seeds in a nursery. Lovely. I brought the seeds home and planted them.

Rosemary BloomsWell, for some reason, the rosemary seeds did not start easily; it took time and effort to get them to sprout. But they did, and one of them got strong and began to grow. It’s cold here, and my gardens are no place for a rosemary plant, so I brought it inside for the winter and put it in a sunny window. In late spring, I took my new baby back outside to bask in the warm, fresh air for the summer.

So it was for many years, and the rosemary got big, with long gnarled limbs and bark like a tree. It bloomed a few times. In summer, it lived on the back porch where it was greeted each morning by the rising sun. In winter, it took up the whole bottom half of the window. It had a soul, my rosemary plant, like sun, wind, river stones and healing mysteries. When I talked to it, it talked back. Sitting outside in the morning, we discussed all kinds of things. Beautiful things.

Last summer’s end, when the shadows grew long and the wind whispered of darker things, my rosemary plant grew silent. Puzzled, I brought it inside as usual, and placed it in the window. But something was wrong. As fall descended in the mountains, my rosemary fell too.

There was no discernible reason for this, as far as I knew. But I knew nothing, and never had that been so evident. I fretted, puttered, and despaired as the rosemary leaves, once grayish green, thick and fragrant, began to shrivel and turn brown. I combed the internet for everything I could learn from those who did know, and when that didn’t help, I prayed to the Soul of Rosemary flourishing in the halls of the Great Earth Mother. A comforting image with no shadow, that. It was like trying to stop the setting sun. Nothing had changed, and yet everything changed, until at last, without a word, my friend left me.

Baby RosemaryI did remember that life is infinite and her cycles never-ending, though grief doesn’t tend to care about such platitudes. Even so, I had managed to get some cuttings, which I put into water to root. In time — a long time — some of them did. Heartened, I let the pale, tender roots get strong, and then I planted the sprouts in a pot and gave them a sunny place by my desk where I can look after them. The plant still feels fragile, with strong places and weak ones, as if it’s not yet certain it wants to be here.

I know the feeling. But as rosemary taught me, some things must stay in the dark for a long time before they’re ready to come into the light.

© F.T. McKinstry 2019. All Rights Reserved.

Sorcerer in the Abyss

Leo Sketch

The abyss is never far from the summit. I am fond of this concept, not because it sounds romantic, but because it reminds me of a basic truth. I am presently working on The Wolf Lords, the sequel to Outpost and the second installment in my high fantasy series The Fylking. It’s going well, and at some point I decided it was high time to start working on the cover art. Past time, in fact.

I love painting things like this. So I sketched it up, put it on my easel, got out all my oil paints and accoutrements and well, that was a week ago and there it still sits–in my way, of course–with this monstrous black abyss swirling around it that will, if I go near the thing, suck me in and annihilate my soul and that’ll be the end of it.

There are names for this phenomenon, I’m sure. I could write a textbook about it and yet, romantic platitudes aside, the sketched board is still on the easel collecting cobwebs and I can’t start the thing to save my skin. It’s not as if I don’t do this sort of thing like, every day. But sometimes the summit, that high I get when the numinous floods up and turns into something cool, is so far away all I can see is the abyss. It is an empty, lonely place.

How This IsJust…pick up a tube of paint and squirt it on the palette. No, not black! How about green. Aaaahahahahah this sucks. I hate painting.

The character in the sketch above, his name is Leofwine. A sorcerer of the Fenrir Brotherhood, he’s more adept at dealing with his personal demons than I am.

Death metal might help.

Write a blog post about it, that’ll inspire me. I can write anything, here. I’m a fantasy author. Here we go. I am about to start this painting, yes I am, right after I post this. You all heard me say it.

Little Tree, by F.T. McKinstry

The Wolf Lords, Book Two in The Fylking.

The Fenrir Brotherhood is an ancient order of sorcerers who serve the Wolf Gods of the North. Traditionally hired by warlords to protect their own bloody, ambitious interests, the brotherhood now keeps to itself.

Or so it is generally believed.

The older something is, the more secrets it keeps. And with the help of the Fylking’s enemies, the secrets of the Wolf Lords are about to unleash armies of demons across the land.

Those with second sight will be the first to die.

Coming in 2017.

Little Tree, by F.T. McKinstry

Outpost Cover ArtOutpost, Book One in The Fylking.

A race of immortal warriors who live by the sword.
A gate between the worlds.
Warriors, royals, seers and warlocks living in uneasy peace on one side of the Veil.
Until now.

© F.T. McKinstry 2017. All Rights Reserved.

A Zombie by Any Other Name

I hate zombies. There, I said it.

Being a lifelong fan of monsters, mythical creatures and supernatural beings, I do have an appreciation for the concept. But zombies bore me. They stagger around, looking ugly, moaning, “Rar rar rar,” and who cares aside from the fact that one could eat your brains or something if you’re daft enough to get caught. The only advantage they have is numbers.

It is interesting to consider zombies as a psychological metaphor. We all have things we try to bury: shameful memories, a guilty conscience, something devastating we never got over. We want that thing to stay dead, and we’re horrified when it claws its way out of the ground and comes after us. No getting away from it. The psyche needs to be whole, won’t tolerate bits being buried, and if you try to ignore them, they will terrorize you and eat your brains. So there’s that.

Storms

I don’t think of these things when I’m writing. the story unfolds from the depths somewhere, and I’m often startled by what comes up. In the early stages of Outpost, one of my protagonists is set upon by nonhuman warriors stinking of death and resembling once-human men. As I got into this, I suddenly stopped in horror and thought, Zombies? Am I writing about zombies?

DraugrOh, no no no. No zombies here. So I did some digging into my tricky mind and remembered an undead creature in Norse mythology called the draugr. This creature is a bit more sophisticated. In Old Norse, draugr means “ghost,” but it’s closer to a vampire. Accounts vary, but generally, the draugr are described as walking dead warriors with superhuman strength, the ability to shapeshift, and the unmistakable stench of decay. They are implacable, seek vengeance and will kill anything that crosses their nightly rampages.

In Outpost, these beasties bear some traditional attributes: the smell of graves, unnatural strength, the ability to move with uncanny speed or to vanish into mist. But they are also created by a warlock and given life by an immortal with its own agenda. The essence of a mortally wounded warrior is captured as it flies and imprisoned in the last body it knew. They are not bound to the night and, because of their otherworldly origin, they appear half somewhere else, are demonic and malevolent, cannot be killed and can only be released by the magician who captured them.

Warlock

This ancient magic is forbidden, of course, but who ever listens? When dealing with the draugr, one experienced warrior’s advice goes something like this: Forget honor. While inhumanly strong, the draugr are only as skilled in arms and familiar with the land as the men they once were. Distract and disable. If overrun, flee.

Well. At least they don’t eat brains.

Little Tree, by F.T. McKinstry

Outpost Cover ArtOutpost, Book One in The Fylking.

A race of immortal warriors who live by the sword.
A gate between the worlds.
Warriors, royals, seers and warlocks living in uneasy peace on one side of the Veil.
Until now.

© F.T. McKinstry 2015. All Rights Reserved.

The Reflecting Pool

I see creativity as a reflecting pool. We gaze into the darkness and something appears on the surface, reflected by the light. The water is mostly unseen, rendering this process not only mysterious but also unnerving. To my mind, seeing a slavering monster is less uncomfortable than seeing nothing at all. The monster has form, at least.

I have a penchant for the darkness beneath the reflection. When I write or paint, I stare right into it, past the images, past the lily pads and the ripples on the surface, past what makes sense. My hands shake and my heart pounds. The archers man the walls in the middle of the night. But the self is much greater than the sum of its parts. It creates them.

Writing fantasy is my ultimate mirror, a way to explore the paradox of darkness and light through worlds, characters, places, and events. I tend to spin up stories that deal with the nature of the pool itself, beings and ideas that live in fairy tales, myths, and legends. Here are some variations on a theme.

Lone Wolf, by F.T. McKinstryIn the Ostarin Mountains, it is said, only wizards and hunters know the true meaning of darkness. – From The Hunter’s Rede

This was the first line I put down in this tale. I didn’t really understand what it meant; I had to write the book before it came into focus (which it’s still doing, by the way). It’s a simple enough idea on the surface: a wizard brings light from the darkness; and a hunter—local vernacular for an assassin—brings light into the darkness. The void is the common denominator. But that tells us nothing about the void, let alone its true meaning.

It cost the hero of this story quite a bit of trouble to figure this out, and he bears the skills of both a hunter and a wizard. Perhaps that gave him an advantage, though his shortcomings were every bit as powerful. That’s usually how it goes. The brightest light casts the darkest shadow.

Like a cat, the heart sees in the dark where the mind is blind. This is where the simple explanations end. The heart is connected to everything. It knows every thread in the cosmic tapestry and one must learn, often under great distress, to hear the whispers, subtle as they are. Like a force of nature, the heart does not particularly care what structures are destroyed to clear the ground for seedlings. This happens individually and collectively, in real worlds and imaginary ones. The darkness is terrifying because we can’t see what’s happening there until it comes into the light.

The void is the source. And that is a mystery.

Stars and Sea, by F.T. McKinstryThe forces of the sea give rise to imagination, which reflects them according to the nature and disposition of the perceiver. The sea itself is undifferentiated and without bias. – From The Gray Isles

The sea. What an awesome metaphor for the vastness and mystery of the unconscious self. As if the heart of every conscious being in the universe took shape in time and space to show us its nature. I focused on this without thinking, and came up with the fey progeny of a god and an immortal sea serpent, a child hidden in a mortal body and fraught with a restless heart indeed. It didn’t whisper. It clutched him by the head and shouted.

Here, metaphor and reality became one. A legend can abandon, isolate, or even kill. It isn’t real but it is and the sea, being a natural realm of mystery, passion and the perils of the unseen, can appear as anything: dreams, monsters, witches, assassins. Like the seemingly indifferent forces of the heart in its movement towards expression and illumination, the sea is bottomless.

When one is born of the sea, it will protect even as it destroys to bring forth life.

Echinacea, by F.T. McKinstryGardens are made of darkness and light entwined. – From The Winged Hunter

A girl recalls her lost mother’s words in a moment of crisis, when her beautiful garden is frozen dead by a roguish wizard who disturbed the balance of the seasons. While writing that frightening scene, it occurred to me that the balance can only be disturbed—or preserved—because light and dark are one.

If you want to see this in action, watch nature. In full bloom, vibrant with life, a garden is a wonderful thing of the light. Look more closely and you’ll see the threads of darkness: a leaf chewed clean by a caterpillar, a flower withering after its bloom, a tender seedling returning to the earth because it didn’t get enough sun. Roots find the darkness; rain and decay nourishes them. The cat catches a bird. The big spider in the blackberry patch snares a dragonfly.

Soon this cycle expands, and a larger one includes it. Late in the summer, the shadows start to change. Like a sigh at the end of a long day, the heavy boughs on the trees and the flourishing canopies of brush and perennials turn inward with a kind of longing. These forces are implacable. Try to start a tulip bulb from dormancy, or place a cheery annual in a window over a long winter. You can hear them pine for the void—and likely as not, they’ll return to it despite your mothering, like souls needing rest in a cold grave.

In the fall, I clean out my gardens with sad, cold intent, like some votary of the Destroyer. It’s like weeding in the larger spiral. I take it all down into the dark and when the earth is bare, I grieve for a few days. But in the gray and white silence of a long winter, when my gardens are but a dream, I feel them waiting.

 
© F.T. McKinstry 2012. All Rights Reserved.

Monsters and Gardening

I love monster movies. I’ll watch just about anything if it features an alien, a magical beast, a monster or a supernatural being, creatures that both frighten and attract by virtue of their strange and terrifying natures. I tend to root for them, which can be frustrating because the writers usually kill them off with some heroic bluster bent on saving the world or something. If only my personal demons were so easily vanquished! In a mere two hours, at that.

I see fantasy beings in stories as real in their own right, metaphors for the forces of the psyche, personal or collective. The attraction comes by seeing some part of myself in living color that I thought was safely banished to the hinterlands of my darker side. But it’s never a good idea to banish a shadow. Such a lonely thing. So I write; it’s the ultimate way to lure out the monsters and talk to them.

Cosmic Garden, by F.T. McKinstry

Book Three in the Chronicles of Ealiron began as a story about gardening. Well, not just any gardening, but wild, magical gardening, the sort of thing a wizard or a priestess would know about. But like all natural things, gardens have a dark side, and this one holds a spooky secret bound up in a young woman’s innocence. Born of wizards and yet sheltered from them, Tansel of Loralin reaches womanhood with little more conscious awareness than a flowering rose. Her instincts know more, however, and when a mysterious old wizard takes her away from her isolated existence to live in his castle and tend his garden, the cracks begin to show.

Sioros, by F.T. McKinstry

Enter the beastie. The locals call him crowharrow; and wizards call him sioros, one of their odd, multidimensional words for things like him. Immortal, utterly beautiful and fell, he is an expression of the Destroyer, the darkest aspect of the primordial Feminine. He does not appreciate mortal sentiments. He cannot be dismissed or bargained with—and Mother help any woman who falls in love with him. He is pure male in its darkest form: the edge of a sword, the devastation of fire, the blood of maidens. His appearance is never random or arbitrary, but has its roots in the shadows cast by gods.

Conveniently, Tansel believes the crowharrow is just a legend. But innocence crafts its own demise. A mortal cannot remain in that state. In the powerful, such as a child of wizards, innocence is perilous. When the crowharrow awakens her, Tansel floats like a butterfly under his thrall, instinctively knowing what he wants from her but not really understanding it. The wizards do. So do the ghosts of her ancestors.

This is not a monster that can be killed. He is more akin to treacherous seas: either you learn his nature through becoming aware of your own, or you die. He exists beyond the mortal will to control. He does not care. The beauty of such forces is that they affect everything they touch at the deepest levels. Drawn in by his power are not only Tansel but also those who would protect her: a powerful wizard with a wound involving the sexual initiation of a maiden; the old, broken wizard who attempts to shelter Tansel from a curse he laid on his own bloodline for want of a woman’s love; and a master shapeshiftress steeped in bitterness over what she cannot change. The crowharrow has his fangs in every pie, stripping off scabs and exposing each character’s ugly secrets to the light of day. Through interacting with him, these mortals are systematically dashed upon the rocks of their lost powers in a spiraling crescendo of lust, heartbreak, desperation and mishap that rocks the roots of the mountains. Only then can the immortal predator return appeased to the Otherworld, leaving renewal and healing in his wake.

Monsters create heroes. What dies is not always the beast, but those things that hold us from our greatest potential. Still, best to keep an eye on the trees….

The Winged Hunter, Cover ArtThe Winged Hunter, Book Three in the Chronicles of Ealiron.

Tansel is a gardener with a healer’s hand. Fey, they call her.
Her aunt, a dabbler in hedge witchery, calls her cursed.
To the most powerful wizards in the land, she is an enigma.

 
 
© F.T. McKinstry 2012. All Rights Reserved.