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Hungry for Shadow and Light

"People need stories more than bread itself. They tell us how to live, and why." - One Thousand and One Nights


In the past months, while traversing our small condo with my mask on my face, eyeing piled-up dishes while vigorously washing my hands, I've craved stories like food or air. But I don't need rosy tales devoid of sadness. I value something else: the grit that becomes the pearl.


In hard times, in the dead of night, in the “winters of our discontent”, humans light up hope within stories like lighthouses. Some of our most familiar myths are bleak, crying for the coldest of human hearts to melt, ala Ebenezer Scrooge. I think of cultural myths that speak to the seasons. I think of fairy-tales in the scary woods. I think of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, which is frankly a heart-breaking story until Rudolph’s misfit red nose is celebrated. The stories that unsettle and fill me are frightening tales in which hope fights to shine forth.


One Winter when I was a kid, I sat watching a Sesame Street movie. In this movie, the spirit of a young Egyptian pharaoh stuck in a museum waited for Osiris to weigh his heart against a feather lest he be trapped there forever. His heart is too heavy, but when Big Bird says he’ll be his friend, his heart is lightened, and he can finally ascend to the gods and his parents. This wasn’t a holiday story per se, but it stuck with me. The injustice of the boy's predicament got under my skin. The ray of hope at the end reassured me. Forty years later, I scrambled to find the same movie on YouTube to share with my own kiddo to see what her reaction might be.


As a teenager, I spent one Winter Break painting a watercolor of Mary the mother of Jesus sitting in a grassy plain, a hand on her belly. She looked like a worried teenager. I was stewing over the story of the "slaughter of the innocents" and trying to reconcile those images with the birth of Jesus, transforming my disturbed feelings through the contrasts in the painting. How could the world be so bleak and so bright at the same time? As the Dadaists say: "LIFE."


Writing has been a ray of light as I’ve felt the bleakness of our world closing in. In these times of hardship, sickness, racism, and injustice, I have trouble shaking off feelings of anger and despair. But the act of imagining a narrative, particularly one that reflects both darkness and light, reminds me that transformation is possible.


This month, my kiddo and I are listening to Hadestown the musical, which riffs off two ancient Greek myths: Hades and Persephone / Eurydice and Orpheus. The whole thing rides on the push and pull of death and life, winter and spring, and how a song can stir an uprising. Sadly, it ends as it always has: with lovers separated forever. I had to smile and sigh when my 6-year-old said, “My next play with my friends is going to be a tragedy. They’re just more interesting!”


Interesting or not, I share with you my cold winter's short fiction, FROST, included in the December 2020 issue of the speculative fiction e-zine Electric Spec. You can find the story here:


https://www.electricspec.com/Volume15/Issue4/atkinson.nov2020.html


What kinds of stories are sustaining you in these challenging times?


Peace on Earth in 2021!



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