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.

Cats Will Stalk Anything

Bear

It’s spring here in northern New England. The grass is green, the buds on the trees are finally coming out, daffodils are blooming and all the critters are out of hibernation.

This morning I was sitting on the porch writing in a notebook (with a pen–yeah, people still do that) and I had a visitor. I knew it was something wild when my cats freaked out, stood to attention and/or ran growling inside. And here comes a young bear, clambering through the trees to check out the bird feeders.

Oona and BearSo my cat Oona (a.k.a. Yoga Crasher), what does she do? She takes it upon herself to creep up to the poor little guy and scare it up a tree.

I had a brief discussion with Oona about mother bears and the prudence of leaving baby bears alone and she, well, ignored me, not that this surprised anybody.

WTF

 
 
 
 

Cats. You have to give them points for nerve.

Hemlock

© F.T. McKinstry 2016. All Rights Reserved.

Noble of the Wood

Apple Tree

A seed hidden in the heart of an apple is an orchard invisible. ~ Welsh Proverb

The apple is a sacred tree with a long, rich history of lore surrounding it. Aside from its fruit and many medicinal uses, it was revered in ancient times as a talisman of love, healing and immortality. In Norse mythology, the goddess Iðunn gave apples to the gods to keep them immortal. Loki stole them, but had to return them when the gods began to age. In English tradition, one apple was left on each tree after harvest as a gift to the fairies. Apple wood is the traditional choice for magic wands, and a branch laden with buds, flowers and fruit enables the possessor to enter the Otherworld. Considered the food of the dead, apples are associated with Samhain.

Old Apple Tree

Apple trees grow wild in the woods where I live, and are particularly lovely in the spring, when they bloom. They tend to have dark, twisty trunks and low-sweeping, crooked branches, giving them a spooky air. A while back we bought a sturdy little tree and planted it in the back yard. It took years for the first blooms to appear. This year, it’s loaded with flowers. They smell incredible.

My apple tree has stories to tell. The winters are long and rugged up here, and the tree takes a beating, half buried in snow, torn by wind and ice. It split in an ice storm once, right down the middle and partway into the trunk. Heartbroken, I had the desperate idea of pushing it back together and holding it with electrical tape. This actually worked, if you can believe. It healed and now it’s strong as ever.

All kinds of creatures love the apple tree. The birds perch in it, and bees and hummingbirds love the flowers. In fall, I throw apples into the woods for the deer. Then there are my illustrious cats. The tree is easy to climb and perch in, and when the leaves are thick a cat can hide in it. Oh, and let’s not forget the spiders. Big, hobbit-eating spiders. They guard the tree and I’ve learned to keep my wits about me.

Oona in the Apple Tree

If all goes well this summer, we should have apples coming out our ears.

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

In Praise of Long Winters

Morning in the North Country

All right, it’s a controversial title. Here in northern New England, praising this endless, toothy winter is risking a scenario involving torches and pitchforks. However, I’m going to play the eccentric author card, so hear me out.

I’m an avid gardener and spring in this climate is a special thing. By spring I mean May or even June, as anything before that is either winter or this soppy, icy, muddy, drab phenomenon we call April. Enter the greenhouse. This adds a month or two onto the growing season, allows me to grow things that simply won’t thrive in the ground up here (like peppers, what is it with peppers?) and provides me with hope during the aforementioned month of April.

March Greenhouse

March 7, 2015

Most years, my greenhouse doesn’t look much different than this, come April, and I have to dig a trench in the snow to get to it. But once I tidy things up, plant all my little seeds and rig up the heat lamps it becomes the center of my universe.

I’m writing a new fantasy novel called Outpost (no amusing metaphor intended). I just passed 100,000 words and am rapidly closing in on the last few chapters. It’s all gathering and racing around in my mind to its beautiful, poignant conclusion. No problem staying dedicated to this when — ok, I’ll weigh in now — it only recently got above freezing for the last forty-eight days or something absurd like that, the temperatures in February were fifteen degrees below average and all it does it snow; yes and as a point of interest March tends to be the snowiest month. But I’m shooing off the winter whiners because right now it’s providing me with a great big pillow fortress to hide in while I finish and polish up Outpost so I can send it off to my editor.

Because when my seedlings emerge, the perennials wake up from the cold ground and it gets warm enough for me to sit outside like a pagan sun worshiper? You can do the math.

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.

Snowshoe Hare

Snowshoe Hare
Here’s a classic spring critter: a snowshoe hare. A creature of the threshold, it turns white in winter, and its big hind paws help it over the snow; hence the name. This painting shows the hare in its warm-weather coat, nestled in spring flowers.

© F.T. McKinstry 2014. All Rights Reserved.

For the Birds

Every season of the year has its distinguishing qualities. One of my favorite things about spring is the return of birds. In the north, where I live, winter is long and somewhat daunting; still and silent but for crows, blue jays and chickadees. But in the spring, suddenly I hear birds, lots of birds that I haven’t heard in a good while. The woods come alive with them.

My cats are interested in this too, of course. They do what they do—yeah ok, they hunt. Ferocious predators, cats. I’ve rescued quite a few birds from their clutches. I have this Radagast the Brown thing going on. I explain to the birds that they need to be careful around here. The phoebes get a special talk: “Oh dear no, you can’t build your nest on the shed door because that black cat there will eat you and yours and not even belch afterwards.” And don’t even get me started on the hummingbirds. Despite this, the birds kindly hang around all summer even after I take the feeders down to deter the bears, raccoons and skunks. Nature knows her own dark side, as do all balanced things.

In honor of our feathered friends, I would like to share some paintings I’ve done over the years…in the spring, usually.


When I began building the world of Ealiron, birds like raptors and swans became symbols for hierarchies of wizards. Ealiron: The Keepers of the Eye contains a series of pen and ink drawings depicting these.

Happy birding!

 
© F.T. McKinstry 2013. All Rights Reserved.

Winged Mojo

Chickadee, by F.T. McKinstry
I admit it, I love winter. In the northwoods of New England where I live, I get plenty of it. However, by the time spring comes—months after most everyone else is celebrating the season—the romance is gone and I’d do anything for a warm sunny day and something green. I settle for my houseplants. I tinker with and fret over cuttings I rooted the summer before and kept alive all winter. Precious things.

The woods feed my heart in every season. Nature doesn’t whine. It accepts, it breathes, it moves on. Change and transformation are inherent. Nature heals itself. Nowhere is this power more inspiring than in the ubiquitous chickadee. These little birds fear nothing; no bitter cold, howling winds, ice storms in April, not even my prowling cats daunt them.

Chickadees have mojo.

 
© F.T. McKinstry 2013. All Rights Reserved.