Short Stories and Creative Nonfiction Essays

Saturday, May 23, 2020

DIVISIVENESS and the #coronaapocalypse

      For several years, I have toyed with writing a book on 'Healing Divisiveness,' or some variation on the theme. But hosting few convictions, zero answers, and a healthy resistance to stating anything remotely definitive, I've managed to jot down little more than outlines, the  beginnings of essays meant to become chapters, and the like. Whenever I've tried to write anything remotely academic or prescriptive in the past, I've always gotten bored (read:wanted to slit my wrists or jump out the nearest window) and gone back to my first love: narrative.
This time around was no different. 
       So far, I have resisted attaching any significance to what some are calling the 'new normal,' as ushered in by the #Coronaapocalypse. I have heard many speculate about the shift that will take place societally, but I have reserved a 'wait-and-see' attitude. However, today, a confluence of factors inspired a few ideas which I thought I'd share as #foodforthought or, to some, maybe even #inspiration! It loosely fits into the theme of my pipe dream, the aforementioned book that will likely never be completed. Enjoy!


DIVISIVENESS
Healing a Fractured World From Within

            Divisiveness seems to be the word of the day. Most evident in the political arena, differing ideologies in recent years (or platforms, as the case may be) have led to nothing short of an impasse. Or more accurately, one standoff after another. Threats of a government shutdown blend seamlessly one into the next. No longer tempered by the lost art of rational discourse, these conflicts fester as seismic rage, revealing cultural fractures in a myriad of other areas—tiny fissures that have widened to rival the Grand Canyon, no bridge in sight. Each political party points the finger at the other for the current state of affairs, each administration blaming the last. Talking heads posit that the incorrigible conduct of our leaders began with Newt Gingritch or the Whitewater Investigation, or the spawning of Nancy Pelosi by aliens, with the inception of CNN or Fox News or mention of cigars and presidential penises being slathered across national headlines. If our representatives have lost the ability to see eye-to-eye or even cooperate, how can we be expected to?
            I have always subscribed to the idea that change begins within. Michael Jackson suggested we all start with The Man In the Mirror to effect change. Mahatma Ghandi wisely counseled us to ‘be the change you wish to see in the world.’ We all know Ghandi is beyond reproach, in the way of Mother Theresa and Meryl Streep; the three can do no wrong. They are not just pillars, but—dare I say—a collective holy trinity of wisdom. And impeccable acting technique. Put clinically, the micro affects the macro when it comes to cultural change and paradigm shift.
            The recent health crisis known as Covid-19, or conversely, quarantine, lockdown, or #Coronaapocalypse—take your pick—has served as a Rorschach test for the masses. Just yesterday, I spotted a post in my Facebook feed which managed, beyond reason, to make Q-Tips a political hot button while also linking protective face coverings (from medical grade K95s to your run of the mill stoner bandana) to racial profiling. Each added stressor to daily life seems to reawaken a sleeping giant, signaling not progress or even a pendulum swing, but outright regression. There are myriad aspects to the bobbing corpse of cultural strife, and an equal number of conversations to be had. Many are speculating about the significance of this moment in time, the challenges this pandemic poses worldwide. They predict the ‘big shift’ that will result, the social and cultural evolution that will take place. Hence the Rorschach test analogy. Personally, my own life challenges of late have preemptively forged a broadened perspective, one that has compelled me to resist projecting any significance on this impasse. Or in the spirit of this essay, the crisis/opportunity it represents. J Without a grain of cynicism, I have heard myself say, ‘I have a wait-and-see attitude; folks are pretty slow to change. As is society.’ If that sounds grim, let me add that I one hundred percent believe as Dr. King did: that although the arc of the moral universe is long, it does bend toward justice. I regularly point out the ways in which we are evolving as a species, however slowly. I am also enjoying the reduced traffic, better air quality, lower crime rates and (almost) reasonable rents in L.A. that have resulted from said pandemic, but these shifts are regional and far from permanent.
            What has occurred to me in all of this is what I find most prescient, and what inspires the premise of this article. My entire adult life has been devoted to my craft—that of being an artist and a writer. Though no true artist or author wishes to identify an agenda, I did realize in my twenties that the umbrella informing all my work, regardless of concept or theme, was a desire to simply open eyes, hearts or minds. To many things—the multiple levels beyond the surface of any given moment, our interconnectedness, the metaphysical or spiritual aspect of biological life. But beyond those objectives, another aspect driving my work occurred to me in witnessing various reactions to the isolation demanded by this moment in time: my entire life I’ve touted the value of introspection and self-reflection. Some have called the current lockdown ‘an introvert’s dream.’ Guilty as charged. Being a freelancer who works from home anyway, and having been in self-imposed isolation due to the aforementioned health challenges, I have heard myself jest that very little has changed in my life, other than the ability to score toilet paper without resorting to the black market.
            Ironically, the social distancing now required by law has forced many to slow down. This, in turn, has forced them to spend time with their own thoughts. For some, this means a return to their true essence or childhood self; to others, it means anxiety, panic and outright terror. ‘Doers’ are confronted with guilt for not accomplishing enough, for being self-indulgent or lazy. Speaking for myself, I can’t help but see this moment as an opportunity for individuals to get to know cobwebby corners of their minds, to witness their own thoughts and feelings without diversion. The requisite contemplation is an opportunity to separate mind chatter from spirit and parse ego-driven, mind-dominated thought forms from a pure state of being. Or better yet—to appreciate the flutter of a leaf and the dapple of light that’s landed on it, or the simple sounds of silence. How could the resulting stillness (otherwise known as wellbeing or inner peace) not collectively impact the world on a macro level? At the risk of quoting a 1970s Ginsu knife commercial, don’t answer yet; it’s rhetorical.
            Many of the aforementioned divides could be bridged in society if we took the opportunity to do so—this opportunity. This moment of silence and stillness. Yes, the bridge begins with the person in the mirror and theoretically extends to tropes, collective thought forms and paradigms—even institutionalized dogmas on a mass level. Among the mental divides one could pinpoint that fuel cultural strife: the obvious political divide (Democrat vs. Republican,) the liberal versus conservative mindset, the debate between science and religion (which I correlate to underlying Empirical or Rational worldviews, respectively) and Western Medicine versus Eastern, (which correlate, arguably, with mechanistic or holistic models.) Then there’s the culturally pervasive divide between masculine and feminine in all aspects of society, from the conceptual to the practical, informing the current shift from an oppressive model of misogynistic patriarchy toward gender equality. There’s the right brain sensibility versus left, ageism versus youthism (or ‘Boomers versus Millennials’) capitalism versus socialism, all begging to be reconciled. These examples of opposing forces do not constitute a laundry list of grievances or even societal ills, but they are the tip of an iceberg. And now the clincher: they’re also illusions.
            The thing is, everything’s in the semantics. The ideas are diametrically opposed due primarily to the insufficiency of language and a lack of perspective.
            Socrates introduced what is now known as the ‘Socratic method.’ He found that if enough questions were asked, any definitive statement could be disproven. Example: the sky is not in fact blue; it appears so but only at certain times of day and subject to conditions like lighting and atmosphere. An apple is not always an apple: sometimes it’s a seed, or in complete decay. All its particles are subject to what is known as flux, or time and circumstance. Similarly, one could say that all accepted empirical fact is based solely on consensus. The former concepts were philosophical. But modern quantum mechanics confirms the role of the observer in all perception. Without an observer, waves do not fix as particles but remain in the field of pure potential. The narrow margin of perception that allows for consensus in human perception counts a very specific chemical balance among its requirements. If that precise balance of neural transmitters, peptides or hormones is off one iota, a wall can breathe or a shelf of yogurt in the supermarket can appear to extend to eternity, each stack of plastic containers arranged in perfect pyramids as far as the eye can see. Anyone who’s done shrooms or acid knows that. (Side note: author does not recommend dropping acid in a supermarket.)
            Humans rely, arguably, on five senses (though science is beginning to acknowledge more than the traditional five) for our brains to filter, process and interpret stimuli. However, if a fly with five eyes comprised of millions of photoreceptors enters a room, it will experience the environment very differently from you or I—with a nearly 360 degree cone of vision. If a dolphin enters the room (never mind how) it will rely, among other senses, on sonar to orient itself—a sense we humans don’t even possess.
            None of this is controversial or debatable (unless you are Socrates or generally an instigator) but in case you fail to connect the dots or see how any of this applies to the cultural divide, let me spell it out: the role of perception is paramount. Reality is subjective. So why would abstract concepts (morals, ethics, codes, ideas, values) be any different than the realm of the tangible? When asked to recount a purse snatching, every member of a test pool invariably describes the assailant as wearing a hat or pair of Vans Slip-ons of a different color than those reported by the other subjects. This fact is the reason I spend sleepless nights dreading the moment I am asked to participate in a police lineup. Similarly, I cannot imagine for one moment taking on the responsibility of being a judge, so sure of—well, anything definitive—as to have a hand in another’s fate. The play and film ‘Doubt’ beautifully and succinctly illustrate the hubris behind such confidence. In the context of cultural divisiveness, recognizing the role of perspective, across the board, is but one factor that could prove key to bridging it. Incidentally, another bi-product of broadened perspective is compassion. If only more of us practiced it.
            The second factor we could all consider in order to synthesize seemingly opposing ideas is this: they are really only diametrically opposed due to what I call the Grand Illusion: the human compulsion to create opposites. This ‘black-and-white’ mindset is most dominant in Western culture: the drive to label everything as good, bad, right or wrong, from one’s sexual orientation to, well…a Q-Tip. To attribute good or evil, to apply wings or horns. Perhaps we could all benefit from a more eastern understanding that the Yin cannot exist without the Yang, the darkness without the light. That balance and harmony are innate when both are assigned value. That everything in life is neutral except our response to it; every crisis is an opportunity in disguise.
            The Kybalion, based on Hermetic principles that predate Christ, speaks of gamuts. Rather than polar opposites, most concepts can be thought to exist on a continuum with extremes. Though the extremes are on opposite ends of a conceptual stick, they are not mutually exclusive. When it comes to any aspect of the human condition, like the gamut from love to fear, compassion to intolerance, or intellectualism to emotionality, most of us have experienced the full range at one time or another. Much as the body seeks homeostasis, the mind seeks balance. And we know when we are out of whack.  Both ends of any mental stick exist in all of us; I would posit that this reservoir of shared experience is innate to our humanity. The ability to tap into it explains Meryl Streep, for one.
            The third phenomenon we might be wise to rise above, culturally speaking, is that of confirmation bias. It is as pervasive as gravity, and potentially just as dangerous.. Like gravity, its tug on humanity is as old as time. In the fourth century BC, Thucydides wrote of treason during the Pelopponesian war: ‘... for it is a habit of mankind to entrust to careless hope what they long for, and to use sovereign reason to thrust aside what they do not fancy.’ Simply put, confirmation bias is the sociological principle that people tend to look for, interpret, favor and recall that which confirms existing beliefs and prejudices. Imagine a sixteen year-old who throughout childhood has heard his father complaining about ‘those damn Asian drivers,’ or ‘women drivers,’ and internalized the stereotype. When he gets his license and is first cut off on the freeway, he will speed up to see what an idiot looks like. If the driver happens to be Asian, or female, he will file it with his current worldview, bias effectively confirmed. If the driver is neither Asian nor female, the moment will be forgotten. Confirmation bias manifests in many ways, from ‘cherry picking’ data to rhetoric to the editorial choice of what to give mental ‘airtime’ to. It is most often subconscious. But practiced demagogues expertly wield their understanding of its effect; in fact, they rely on it to manipulate the masses. It is a common sentiment that most are on ‘autopilot.’ Rather than developing a MetaSelf, exercising the ‘conscious observer’ that witnesses thoughts and trains them to be more productive, they remain preoccupied with the almighty dollar, keeping up w/the Jones’s, shopping at Sephora and injecting Sculptra into one or more body parts to get more ‘likes’ on Instagram.
            A meme that got my attention recently stated: I have configured the parental control settings on my parents’ TV to disallow Fox News, and I truly believe this is what will save the world. I got a good laugh out of it, but also recognized its ring of truth. We are all guilty of submerging ourselves in propaganda that confirms our biases, or otherwise limiting our bubble to likeminded individuals. I am admittedly more likely to watch CNN or MSNBC than Fox News. I do believe that (conspiracy theories and ‘fake news’ aside) the truth is largely available to the masses. But it requires sifting through all reliable outlets, from MSNBC and CNN through Network News and Fox News to Al Jazeera, and judiciously distilling the information. In my twenties, before I was TOFTS and had more patience, I regularly tuned into the Rush Limbaugh show to remain abreast of all mindsets, with some innate understanding that I should resist settling into an echo chamber. That, or I was simply a glutton for punishment.
            The fourth factor worth investigating (if I were in the business of persuading) would be the phenomenon of cognitive dissonance. When confronted with new information that contradicts or conflicts with old beliefs, we experience tension. This anxiety accounts for the digging in of heels, the refuge we take in the all-too-easy shelter of confirmation bias, and nothing less than shouting matches in the halls of the Capitol building. It is simply ego (synonymous with both mind-dominance and pride, arguably) that drives us to protect our ideas and beliefs at all costs—to be right. But the rare, evolved individual recognizes that all tension is an opportunity for learning and growth once resolved. Conflicting ideas become synthesized according to Hegel’s model of dialectic: thesis, antithesis and finally synthesis. Such a process can be seen as vital to all growth or evolution on both the micro and macro levels. In storytelling—a basic human drive, the theme imparted is categorically a product of conflict resolution. This innate understanding may be what drives a cultural addiction to drama, explaining the horrible turn of events that is reality television. And yet, if tension and conflict are the gateway to growth and evolution, where lies the problem with divisiveness? There may be no problem at all; discourse and conversation drive social reform. All mindsets play a part, from those of militant activists to pacifists, from those who work ‘with the system’ to those who fight it. But it’s clear most of us would prefer to see the progress enacted with a bit more civility. While understanding the role of ‘righteous indignation’ and ‘rage against the machine,’ we could begin to return to a climate where new ideas are not threatening and healthy discourse is a virtue.
             I am constantly inspired by those individuals who take any opportunity to broaden their perspective, to expand their minds. Those intellectually curious seekers who have made a commitment not to be taxed by life or amass grievances, but to ever evolve. My peers often commiserate we were raised by a generation who had little capacity to ‘learn from’ their children. It is much more common now for new ideas (or those that each new generation believe they invented but which have been around since the dawn of time) to be adopted by older generations in their cutting edge form. It’s been said that beliefs are nothing more than ‘thoughts we keep thinking.’ In this way, our worldviews can be seen as jigsaw puzzles, one belief interlocked and fitted with dozens of others. Or better yet, as giant tapestries woven from many threads of belief. The thing is, it’s never finished. And we are our own weavers.
            The fifth or final factor that could have an impact on narrowing the chasm would be what I call airtime. Returning to the example I cited earlier, that of the politicized Q-Tip and the face-mask-as-racial-profiling post seen on Facebook. It came from the usual suspect—one of many who seem intent to prove with every post—or virtual online breath, if you will—that the world is a shitty place. We’re talking everything from the last asinine thing an orange dictator might have uttered to a bloody dog being dragged across coarse asphalt. We’ve all experienced it—that image we can’t scroll fast enough to avoid, and then can never unsee. This type is not an Internet ‘troll,’ per se, but may suffer from extremely poor judgment. In defense of the ‘world-shittiness’ purveyors of social media, I will say many of them likely believe they are using the platform to expose or draw attention to underrepresented causes. However, a case could be made that they are, in fact, perpetuating them. Beyond the conversation to do with the ‘proper forum’ for such, there is the question of efficacy. We’ve all heard of the phenomenon of ‘copycat’ high speed chases and even school shootings. Another example from the lexicon of cultural milestones might be the failed War on Drugs of the '80s. The Romeo and Juliet effect is alive and well in modern culture. Due to the Law of Attraction, ‘energy flows where attention goes.’ Or put another way, what we put our attention on manifests. This is true for individuals, and societally via all forms of media. Consider the idea that the frequency of a problem is far from that of its solution. There just might be immeasurable value in fighting for rather than fighting against. Beating old, tired drums effects only perpetuation, whereas taking inspired action to move toward a solution can change the world.
            It’s been said many of us are a walking grievances looking for a cause. And the current climate rewards the mentality. A climate of victimization and blaming has taken the place of the virtue of overcoming and emerging victorious despite circumstances. Personally, I recognize that all approaches work together, in order to keep everything in check, that all mindsets and approaches to effecting change have value. I really do say ‘Amen’ to all of it. Still, I can’t help but theorize that by recognizing our human compulsion to file mental grievances, my hunch is that progress would accelerate exponentially.
             In this author’s estimation, by practicing judicious, convergent thinking, understanding perspective (also known as compassion,) exercising brain plasticity and rejecting the temptations of confirmation bias, many imaginary divides could be bridged. If more individuals adopted free-thinking in favor of the base drive to 'belong' or identify with a group at the expense of the 'other,' there would be fewer casualties. There would be no need to forge a common enemy. Evolutionary theory posits that any social phenomenon that has persisted over time serves the propagation of the species in some way. But there is catch-up time. As we evolve, obsolete institutions take their time falling by the wayside. Example: canine teeth. We can be smarter than our biology, and some would say that capacity is synonymous with being human.  If more individuals graduated from unproductive habits of thought that no longer serve them, once critical mass was reached, paradigms on the macro scale would follow suit. Sort of like ‘herd immunity’ from outdated thought forms. This is the way of dialectic.
            Undoubtedly, the argument could be made that most cannot rise above their temperament or disposition. That DNA dictates a structural mindset, worldview, or ‘personality type’ that is set in stone. To this way of thinking, individuals appear to be bound by DNA to a type A or a Type B personality, to a distinct Enneagran profile, to their astrological sign by the stars or to their introverted nature by Carl Jung himself. But back to semantics. Each seemingly rigid chart can simply be thought of as a language—a way of looking at things; we are all complex amalgams of universal traits dictated by countless as yet mysterious factors. Further, epigenetics has told us for decades now that even DNA is malleable, more like clay than marble. We are all familiar with the shared role of nature and nurture on influencing genetic expression. Modern epigenetics indicates that every gene on one’s DNA strand can be expressed or repressed—squelched—depending on the methyl groups formed. These methyl groups are the malleable part, shaped by environment, habits, practices, diet and exercise regimes and…the chemicals regulated via our thought process. It is up to us whether those habits of thought are productive or destructive. The methyl groups we craft throughout life, like clay, those that express or squelch traits on our DNA strand, are what we pass on to our children in the moment of conception. Perhaps more inspiring is knowing we have an influence on the environment in which those children are raised—the values, morals, ethics, thought forms and principles they are exposed to. The implications are endless, especially in the intangible realm. Simple beliefs—about aging or love or money or how we culturally define success—are repeated by those who have observed the status quo, and thereby perpetuated as tropes, colloquialisms and limiting beliefs. By freeing ourselves from often-misguided sentiments, conventional wisdoms and understandings to which the mainstream has resigned, can we begin to create new paradigms. This is how we inch closer to our true human potential.
            The characterization that many in society are comfortable with diversion is not a moralistic ‘call to action’ for humanity to reject materialism and superficiality and return to intrinsic values (though that would be nice.) Rather, it’s a gentle offering of perspective—one way to look at things. And this stolen, unforeseen moment of enforced isolation is the perfect opportunity for self-reflection and introspection. If we all recognized when we were on ‘autopilot,’ we might catch ourselves trapped in rut, a comfortable ‘habit of thought.’ We all have them! Most destructive thought patterns are actual neural circuits that can be disentangled. Not necessarily through hard work—mantras, positive affirmations taped to a mirror, or chanting while throwing a dead chicken over one shoulder. But by simply clearing the mind. It is during moments of quiet contemplation that our neural connections disentangle, leaving room for new, better thought forms. It would seem this is an elaborate sales pitch for the practice of meditation; it is not. Some quiet their minds by engaging in a sport like running; it is then that alpha waves replace reverie, or mental chatter, in the brain. Others achieve the same diminishment of linear thought while singing or playing guitar, allowing vibration to resonate through every cell of their bodies. I have been surrounded by fellow artists for decades; I count us fortunate for having had the opportunity to engage in the creative process regularly. When drawing or painting (from the model, a still life, or when plein aire painting on location) linear thought subsides and restorative alpha waves take over. Though I am a big fan of the creative process as personal catharsis and its larger impact on humanity, one need not have a studied craft to find the space where stillness, wellbeing and inner peace reside; anyone can indulge a stolen moment of what so sorely lacks in contemporary life: silence. Anyone—even those buried in diapers and chasing toddlers about can steal a moment here or there to align with their core essence, absent mind and ego. And in the end, self-care can only benefit those we serve. We simply have more to offer when we are in alignment. There is immeasurable value in the simple act of watching that subtle, nearly imperceptible flutter of a leaf, the dance of golden dapples of light thereupon, or simply listening to the subtle breeze—even if it stirs outside a dirty, snot-smudged window.

Saturday, April 18, 2020

The Seeker


Here is the opening of my latest work, a Mythic Fiction reimagining of Icarus's fall from glory, and the fictional demigod Amitayus who plucks him from the waters of the Aegean. It is an epic love story and an inspirational tale of the journey we all share- that of discovering our divinity.

If you enjoy the sample, EMail me through the blog and I will send the full MS.

INTRODUCTION

            For ages untold, mortals have sought in vain to comprehend the gods. The words of men have ever fallen short of portraying the ineffable, insufficient to paint the awesome power, beauty and terror of the Celestial domain. Mt. Olympus was but an invention—an idea kings and peasants alike could grasp, one that satisfied earthly sensibilities. But verily the gods dwelt in the ethers, bodiless, invisible to men lest they chose to materialize on the lower planes. It was not as mortals imagined, the council of gods conferring about some chess table in the sky, thumbing long, white beards; the council was merely the silent communion of Celestial entities. It was only when visiting Earth in physical form that the gods found themselves subject to the terrible vanity man has ascribed them—the capricious, tempestuous wrath that earned them infamy.

            Man has ever muddled the line between the ethereal realm and that of Earth, further confounding the nature of the universe. Since the dawn of man’s existence, mortal charlatans have masqueraded as gods in self-aggrandizement, ambition or greed, chiseling themselves a name in history. Others, in the mortal quest for glory or power or redemption, have claimed divine heritage, fashioning demigods of mortal heroes. Usurping power or prestige from Celestial forces has cemented dictators, even dynasties, since the dawn of time. But the virtue is stolen; in truth, all of creation is made of the same stuff—stardust. There is divinity in all of us…


Chapter One

            The goddess Dianora had never encountered a mortal in all her time on the seashore. When one happened upon her, it was mere chance—or destiny—that sealed the irreversible consequence.
            Dianora visited Earth no more or less than any other deity. She kept a low profile when she did, hiding out in a secluded cove along the immaculate beaches of Milos. Other gods made themselves known from afar, unleashing their wrath in the form of plagues or natural disasters. Still others, according to the lore of men, took physical form and ravaged mortal women or took them as brides. They asserted their dominion by flaunting unearthly beauty, soliciting adoration or terror. Dianora felt compelled to engage in no such vanity; she was content to quietly partake in all the sensual world had to offer—the very reason to materialize in the first place. And her cove, a tiny chink in an otherwise broad, undulating shore of polished igneous fringed with alabaster sands, was the perfect place to bask in earthly splendor. The grit of the sand was a reminder of her aliveness, the visual luster and the auditory lullaby of crashing waves. All affirmed her being, as did the subtle breeze that moved through her silken hair, tickling. In Celestia she had no golden locks, or if she did, they went unflaunted for lack of form to refract the light and illuminate their existence. One had to visit the material world to appreciate beauty or exhibit it. Frankly, she grew bored in Celestia—too sterile. Too devoid of, well—anything tangible.
            Celestia was daunting, limitless; Dianora preferred intimacy. On the lower planes, where all was temporal, the hollow wind and surging tide were but breathless whispers of eternity. Her own breath took precedence here, so frail and tenuous. Somehow, she appreciated life more knowing it depended on the very act of inhalation and exhalation.
            And so she found herself among the diaphanous swells, time and again, tracing the careening volcanic contours of bone white cliffs, so sensuous in their own right. Each drift was fringed with succulent verbena that spilled over like low hanging fruit. Stark blue nothingness imposed itself just beyond the rolling crests, both near and far at once. The cerulean expanse hovering over the horizon yielded to ultramarine above, at its deepest hue a reminder that home awaited. But a sole puff of immaculate white sailed across the nothingness, reminding her she was here, now. Oh, she’d have to return home, and sooner than she would have liked, but she vowed to carry this moment with her, to file it with all the other precious glimpses that sustained her between inhalations of the material world.
            One day, the solace of quietly churning tide was interrupted by a scarcely audible stirring above. Rivulets of sand cascaded from a high dune, jarring her from reverie. It was not a riotous sound, but still it signaled the approach of something more than a sand crab. Though she’d never laid eyes on a mortal, part of her secretly longed to, for curiosity alone. She’d heard only lore of men—their folly, their fallibility, their fatal hubris. But the fact they were so faulted only appealed to her sensibilities, piquing a latent intrigue. Even so, she could not have been prepared for what rose up in her upon arrival of the cause of all the stirring.
            He appeared from beyond the brink of the dune that was her refuge, standing stark against the cobalt sky—a mortal man. Such juxtaposition with the heavens made his countenance imposing, more godlike than her own, an impression only enhanced by the broad and blinding smile that spread across it. The man navigated the maze of verbena that clung to the sandy knoll, finally stationing himself at her feet and placing his hands on his hips. His hair fluttered in the breeze, dark as obsidian against the pale cliffs.
            “I saw you from afar,” he said cheerfully. “I was captivated.”
            Dianora felt her cheeks blush, something that could never have occurred in Celestia—only when inhabiting earthly form. The inability to speak was just as perplexing, and altogether new. In Celestia, words were not needed.
            Sensing her awkwardness, the man kneeled to make himself approachable. “I was putting the finishing touches on my barge, just there.” Here the man made an ambiguous gesture toward a stretch of beach hidden by the dunes.
            “You’re a mariner, then?” Dianora managed. Despite the capricious and tempestuous reputation of the gods, she’d been well raised.
            “Yes, my lady,” came the answer. “Allow me to introduce myself,” he then offered. “I am Jakkobah of Adamas.” Here, the man raised a thick-muscled arm and waved toward the crystalline bluffs overlooking the beach like sentinels.
            And then, faced with a lack of response, “I have not seen you there. In the village. Are you from afar?”
            “Yes,” the goddess replied, prudence compelling her to refrain from saying more.
             To fill the silence that ensued, the man launched into a summary of his chosen milieu, his family and historical roots. In Adamas, the fortified village on the cliffs above, most were fishermen, traders or mariners. He’d inherited the trade and the barge.
            But Dianora heard none of this, so mesmerized was she by his terrestrial beauty. The man’s broad shoulders framed a chest in no need of puffing, nor did his slight waist need cinching—all held together in perfect combination, ideal in proportion and somehow more than the sum of its parts. An expanse of dark hair forested the ample chest, peeking from beneath a soiled tunic to rival others perfectly configured on his thick, sinewy forearms.  The wavy locks that spilled to his jawline were equally swarthy, effectuating a dark umber mane that shimmered with refracting sun. The man’s closely shaven jaw framed an impossibly fair smile and kind eyes, blue as the crashing—
            “Well, would you?” the man entreated.
            “Would I…?” Dianora felt blood rushing into her cheeks again, this time for having been so distracted.
            “Would you like to see it?” the man repeated. “My barge. It’s just there.” Again, the ambiguous point.
            “Well, I…”
            Here the man reached out a bronzed, thick-palmed hand, entreating her to rise. The familiar incapacity to form words compelled her to take it, and despite her own objections, she found herself being escorted along the beach.
            The barge was nestled just inside the inlet she’d always found so private; she marveled at having missed it on first materializing. The boat was docked in shadow, tied to the pilings of a single rickety pier.
            The moment the two stepped on board, the man spun about wielding an enchanting smile. “Shall we set sail? Go for a quick tour of the cove?”
            A bit surprised and trying to recover a modicum of her faculties, Dianora hesitated.
            “You won’t regret it,” the man wooed. “She may not look that great, but she’s strong.” The smile was seductive, alluring, nothing less than an invitation to adventure.
            Wasn’t adventure why she so often visited the material plane? Wasn’t it novelty and mystery and romance she so longed for—all the things that combatted the loneliness of eternity? She was just about to succumb, to answer the call to adventure, when the barge suddenly rocked.
            She turned to the nearest portal and saw that the wind had whipped up and great, angry swells were beginning to mar the sea’s surface. It was her father reminding her to use her better sense, to remember her divine heritage and not dawdle on the lower planes. No deity could animate particles like her father, from afar no less.
            Indeed, many gods interacted with the physical realm, orchestrated events remotely. Usually out of necessity, and for good cause. Others had their fun wreaking havoc while incarnated on earth, insinuated among mortals. It was then that flesh drives overtook their divinity. Dianora herself was still learning to manifest her will. As little as she knew about humans—their cunning and deception, their virtues and—beauty—she knew even less about manifestation. She was still earning her sea legs.
            “I’d better get home,” she protested, sounding more feeble than she’d intended. She punctuated the worrisome declaration with a promise of more, a look that said she was torn. “As I said, I am from elsewhere. I dare not form too many attachments.” The moment the words left her mouth, she wished she could take them back, or at the very least that they betrayed nothing more than a reluctance to fall in love with the scenery. That a tour of the cove might cement attachment to the locale.
            The man knew better. “I’m not asking you to marry me, love…”
            The comeback was playful, fraught with good humor. But then, in a flash, something shifted. The look Dianora read in the man’s eyes was that of one rebuffed, one easily wounded by rejection. Instinct took over, bolstered by the entitlement social conditioning afforded him; he could take what he wanted. In a split second, he’d clutched her by the forearms, pinning her to the cabin wall.
            “I’m sorry,” she pleaded. “Another day, perhaps.”
            Here the man twisted, reducing her arms to little more than useless appendages that just happened to be attached to her body.
            “I really must get home. I must—”
            The man’s tongue was in her mouth, invading by force. His shaven jaw was suddenly prickly, abrasive as sandpaper. The coarseness of the beach sand had been proof of her existence; this lacerating grind shouted to her wretchedness and all she could not have known about human nature. Despite her blind innocence, in half a millisecond, she knew as smitten has she’d been by earthly delights—by the rolling waves and the breeze—as taken as she’d been by his beauty, she was wholly unprepared for such deception. In an instant, she knew the world was not what it seemed, and more than she’d bargained for.
            The goddess forced her eyes shut, attempting in vain to quiet the churning of her mind, that she might dematerialize, cross over. But the space she sought was a world away, separated from her by fathoms of stormy sea, tempestuous crests cruel with froth, not a buoy or a lighthouse in sight. She’d not yet mastered the art of alchemy on the lower planes; she could conjure no superhuman strength to throw him off of her. Only in ethereal form would she have the power to animate waves to drown him. There would be no escape.  
            By the time he pried her legs apart and entered her, thick hand clamped over her mouth, she’d resigned. The lapping of waves took over, drowning out his grunts, the whistling of wind between imperfect slats. Only later would she wonder how she could have missed the signs, whether his intentions had been ill all along, or only once she’d rejected him.

*

            A deflowering, on Earth anyway, was the equivalent of a marriage contract. “No one wants used goods,” the man kindly explained to her as they sat on the cabin’s weathered cot moments later, staring vacantly at the floor.
            The gods would agree, she knew.  Even if she mustered the courage to tell her father what poor judgment she’d exhibited and what misfortune had befallen her as a result, the council of gods would bind her to remain with her attacker. She had no choice but to do so, and to bear the child she learned weeks later was growing inside her earthly womb. Even if she saw an escape—some way of appealing to the better instincts of her father and the council, she was in the mortal’s clutches now. He’d have restrained her and forced her to stay. The goddess Dianora’s second lesson in human nature was this: Most would own a thing of beauty to satisfy ego, even if that ownership diminishes its charms. She was nothing more than a plucked rose.



Chapter Two

            I have but one memory of my mother. It’s fog-shrouded and vague, diffused about the edges like an unfinished fresco on chipping plaster.
            The image visits me still: in the faded tableau, I am five. A single white cloud sails by like a lonely ship in a vast sea. My mother is with me, laughing with her toes in the sand. It’s just her and I; the stolen moment represents the rare occasion on which my father has given her leave without chaperone. Her golden locks flutter in the breeze, the few that have escaped her woolen scarf.
            All at once, she’s standing. She says she wants to feel the tide between her toes. She leaves her shoes on our blanket and romps down the steady grade to the margin of darkened, compact sand slick with reflections. I feel safe; it’s just her and I, my father’s ill temper nowhere in the vicinity to dampen our spirits. I lay back on the warm cotton blanket, fired up by the sun. It’s warm on my belly, but a subtle breeze tempers its wrath, forging tiny bumps. Her song comes to me amid the crashing waves and whistling wind—a lullaby. Her rich velvet tones mingle with the song of the sea, overtaking it entirely. She’s singing for me alone, I know. The soothing alto of her maternal voice soars with the enchanting melody, one I’ve never heard but which rings as familiar and comforting as her touch.
            Moments pass, or an eternity. When I start awake, bolting upright, she’s nowhere to be seen. Her shoes are still beside me on the woven blanket. And then, I spot her on the crest of the neighboring dune. She’s facing northward, up the coast, gazing off at the point where the road out of Adamas merges with heaven. Her woolen scarf hangs loosely in her grasp; strands of honey-colored hair float on the wind, scattering golden light. For a split second, she turns over one shoulder and her eyes lock with mine. The inscrutable look in them haunts me to this day—something between profound regret and the elation of one standing on the brink of freedom. And then she dashes beyond the bone white hillcrest and is gone.
            It’s the last time I see her. The memory visits me on countless occasions over the years. But it’s always foggy, as though seen through layers of etched glass, so much so that I wonder if I dreamt it or invented it altogether.

*

            I was named Amitayus. They say I was born at sea. On the Ziton, my father’s barge, to be precise. Any details beyond that seem to escape the man; his eyes grow cloudy with any mention of the past. The folks in town are no different with their downcast eyes and abrupt, stilted silence whenever I pass. I suppose it’s warranted, all things considered. After all, it’s shameful to be motherless. More virtuous to replace gossip with silence.
            I’ll be nineteen years of age before I learn of my divine heritage. Until then, my mother, or the idea of her, remains of the earthly variety, no different than anyone else’s. There comes a day I learn to put her memory to rest—to keep her name from my tongue in self-preservation. Before the age of seven, every cell of me knew I’d done something to make her leave—something unforgivable. I bore the guilt without voicing it to my father, sensing the man carried his own burden. After all, what kind of man is abandoned by his wife with no explanation? Oh, I’ve heard the conjecture from the lips of cruel children at school, repeated from those of unscrupulous parents: she fell in love and ran off with another man. She was abducted by a lusty deity, or sacrificed by the gods or threw herself off a cliff and was swept out to sea.
            The worst of the hypotheses has not yet occurred to me as I descend the rickety stairs from the wharf, at once splintery and polished by the sea. Father is overseeing the unloading of cargo from the Ziton’s bins, shouting commands to the longshoremen and dockworkers in Adamas’s port.  AT seven, I’m too young to be of any help; I’ve been told as much. I’d just be underfoot. So I wander to the beach, where white sands swell and dip as if to mimic the surf. From above, I’ve caught a glimmer among the littering of broken shells expelled by the sea where white foam churns against slick, darkened sediment. Abalone, perhaps. Or something equally alluring—the iridescent shell of some as-yet undiscovered sea creature spawned by Tethys herself.
            As my toes meet the sand, the familiar smell of brine infuses all, as much like home to me as the waving seaweed forests that entangle the wharf’s pilings. But today the cool ocean breeze carries an exotic balm, something indefinable from further out to sea. I’ve nearly reached the lacy fringe of tide when a raspy voice calls out from beneath the wharf.
            “Amit! I’ve been looking for you!”
            I turn. Three silhouettes trudge across dank silt, blocking the square of bleached out light between barnacle-encrusted pilings. The largest of them takes the lead. When it emerges into the sunlight, I see that it is Dimitri, a boy from school. He is three years older and twice my size. The others share my age, and they tag along like hungry lampreys.
            My heels stir the sand, readying themselves to flee out of familiar instinct. Instead, I bore them into the coarse sediment, standing my ground.
            “I’ve been looking for you because I want to share something with you,” Dimitri explains. He’s halfway across the gritty stretch that separates me from the wharf, and I can read the stain of duplicity in his glacier blue eyes. There is nothing charitable in whatever he has to share. On approach, he cocks a thick eyebrow, lending menace to a crooked, disingenuous smile. Dimitri is ten, but swarthy fuzz has already appeared on his upper lip, which glistens with the sweat of impending puberty. He’s beginning to lose the roundness that I share with his two lampreys; his towering frame is wiry and agile.
            I say nothing.
            He plants himself before me on the suddenly tenuous slope of beach. The horizon tilts, laying claim on my equilibrium. Still, I hold fast and wait.
            “I’ve just heard the most intriguing news,” he begins, relishing each syllable. The sun nearly blinds me as I look up at him, waiting for the rest. My heart accelerates.
            “It comes from a very reliable source,” he assures me. The other boys are looking down, one of them stirring sand with his foot in reluctance.
            I wait. Today’s news could not sting worse than any other tidbit of cruel gossip he’s been sure to impart.
            “Seems there is a record of your father’s arrest, back when you were but a runt. The charges, you ask? Well, it’s not easy for me to tell you this, Amitayus, but we’re talking about nothing less than murder…”
            The other boys’ eyes dart to me, unable to pass up the chance to relish my reaction, then back to the sand.
            I continue to squint into Helios’s emanation, refusing to blink. My jaw tightens, lower lip girding that it not begin to tremble. My heels grind the sand.
            “Yes—it seems he put your very own mother in a shallow grave.”
            I refuse to give Dimitri the reaction he seeks. “I’ve heard that one already,” I lie, turning away toward the rushing tide.
            “The good news,” he calls after me, “Is that there is also a record of his release. The revenue his shipping service brings in is too valuable to city hall. Nice break.”
            “It’s not true!” I protest, despite myself. Suddenly I’m flying across the sand, having wheeled about like a puppet on a string. An unearthly force takes over, launching me headlong at full velocity so that the crown of my head meets Dimitri’s flat stomach, hard as granite. Even so, he topples back into the sand and I quickly straddle him. My fists punch incessantly of their own accord, unable to or not wanting to curb the rage that has surfaced from nowhere. The only lucid part of me is shocked at my own strength.
            The lampreys jump in and pry me from Dimitri; the two of them manage to yank my thrashing form and fling it into the sand beside him. In a split second he has recovered his faculties and pounced, is now pummeling me with twice the force I was able to muster. Blood courses through every inch of me, searing my skin and setting my temples to throbbing. Only later will I feel the blood pooling in my mouth; for the moment I am but vaguely aware the mouthfuls of sand I spit between blows are stained crimson.
            It seems an eternity my opponent maintains the upper hand, slugging and jabbing, me hot in the face and ears ringing, sure my jaw has been unhinged. The lampreys croon victoriously, kicking sand. Dimitri is slick with sweat now; I’m cloaked by the smell of it.
            I manage, somehow, to wriggle from beneath his slippery mass. In an instant I am standing again, fists at the ready. The three of them circle, loath to advance at my ready fists for stance alone.
            They lunge intermittently, but I am able to deflect. Still, in the momentary lull my heartbeat slows to normal. My breathing relaxes.
            “We should call a truce,” I hear myself say.
            “Suddenly a coward?” Dimitri taunts. “A moment ago you thought yourself a hero.”
            “Who’s the coward?” I challenge him. “Three on one is not fair. You should pick on someone your own size.”
            Dimitri can conjure no comeback. I turn my attention to his goons.
            “None of this is true. You know it in your hearts.”
            They avert their eyes. The three continue circling, the two younger boys glancing to their leader intermittently for cues.
            I appeal to their reticence. “Be true to your hearts, what you know to be right. He is not worth your allegiance.”
             I know not from whence my own words have come, nor why a sudden calm comes over me. My fists relax.
            The inexplicable confidence compels me to fix my gaze upon each boy in turn. As if in compliance, they back away, lowering their fists.
            Dimitri’s knuckles only gird. He looks from one boy to the other, thick brows merging in an intimidating scowl.
            “What now? You, too, are but spineless jellyfish?”
            If the boys were conflicted only seconds before, the effect grows millionfold and they turn on their heels. In a flash they are running across what remains of the beach toward Adamas.
            The unearthly calm I will later recognize as faith turns me on my own heels. I find myself continuing on, not toward Adamas or home, but northward along the beach toward the glimmering jumble of broken shells that has caught my attention. If anything express drives me, it is the thought I refuse to give the matter further attention; I resolve to go about my day.
            I do not look back.
            I do not turn as the tide ebbs, reeling out to sea at startling speed and baring the beach. Nor as clumps of seaweed reveal themselves, strewn across it like flack spangling the cosmos. Nor even as the surge of tide mounts, the sound of it whipping up in a grand crescendo. The din is alarming as a tempest come without warning, the surge of sucking sea and riotous tumbling of waves, the reeling of tons of briny water back out to sea.
            It is only Dimitri’s cries that make me turn.
            A rip tide has spirited him far from shore, far beyond the longest pier in the wharf.
*

            When my father returns from port, I retire to my room that he not see my welts, the blackened eye that sheds acidy tears from within. Sofia, our domestic, has prepared dinner; I can hear her setting the table.
            I gaze into the warbled oval mirror in my bedchamber. I did not inherit my father’s swarthy coloring, nor my mother’s fairness. In my estimation, I’ve inherited in equal proportion. I’ve neither golden locks to refract the sun, nor dark ones to absorb it. My own hair is something in between, a sort of chestnut brown. This much remains familiar in my buckled reflection; the rest is scarcely recognizable. One of my normally wide sapphire eyes is swollen closed, as if to shut out the world. My jaw no longer clicks; swelling has fixed it in place, lent a hot thickness to it that denotes age and experience. I feel I’m gazing upon a future version of myself, one that would send Dimitri running away across the sand.
            “Amitayus!” My father’s voice jars me back into the present.
            Sofia has served dinner a good five minutes previous.
            My father’s voice resounds throughout the rough-hewn cavern that is our home: “You will come to the table, Amitayus.”
            I obey, fixing my eyes to the floor that he not notice my bloated and disheveled appearance. Once seated, I gaze at the cypress tabletop. But I can feel his eyes searching me.
            “Cyril and Niko saw what happened,” he says simply. He’s referring to the dockworkers who have loaded and unloaded the Ziton as far back as I can recall. “They saw all from the wharf.”
            I feel shameful.
            And then: “They were proud of you.”
            For the first time, my eyes raise from the coarse grain of the table, catching light. I am fond of Cyril and Niko; the news lightens my heart.
            But the look in my father’s eye is stern and forbidding; I know to hold my tongue. I will not repeat the rumor, nor justify my self-defense with the sordidness of it. It’s too far-fetched to consider; it’s but a corner of my mind that tortures me with curiosity, the inkling that there might be a grain of truth in it.
            “You must continue to be strong,” my father commands, cementing the silence. “You must pay them no mind.”
I know better than to look to my father to dispel unease or shelter me. I’ve long since learned there is no solace to be had there. The man is not cruel. But he seems vacant to me, like a dried up spring or an extinct volcano. Toiling away at sea and in the various ports seems all he can manage—putting food on the table and a roof over our heads. I would say he is content to meet our basic needs, but he is not. He is merely resigned to it, longing for nothing more.
“Hear me, boy,” he says with finality, heavy brows vanquishing me with a scowl. “Your mother will not be returning—that is all you need know. You must never let her name pass your lips, even to defend against lies. You must never mention her again. Ever.”

*

The deep well of purple blood drains over the next few days, fading to blotchy crimson and then diffusing altogether. With it, my hooded eye begins to open. Only a faint remnant of trauma remains when I return to mousike in Adamas.  
As lessons come to a close, I spot Sofia waiting on the edge of the open rotunda, adjusting her woolen headscarf in the slight breeze that has whipped up. I restore my tablet and stylus to the designated storage chest and join her.         
“Your father has asked that I bring you to harbor,” she informs me, her smile warm but inscrutable.
I’m taken with a reticence I hardly recognize; it’s on but rare occasion he wants me there at the wharf—when Sofia has other engagements and cannot stay on to prepare dinner or if father has other plans for us.
When I reach the pier I wave goodbye to Sofia and turn toward the Ziton.  My father is occupied on board securing her cargo bins. The longshoremen have just finished unloading a shipment. It’s Niko and Cyril who bound across warped planks to greet me, grinning mischievously. Before I can escape, Niko has grabbed me about the midsection and thrown me over a hulking shoulder. Cyril wastes no time in tickling me until on the verge of tears.  Doing so has been a ritual as long as I can recall. Even now these men are gargantuan and heroic to me, Cyril with his deep-set eyes and dimpled smile, Niko with his strong jaw and protruding chin, long coal black hair tied back save for one unruly strand. I find joy in being tossed about; in their hulking arms, I am impervious to the world. Truly, it’s the only place I’ve felt…safe. Though I will later learn I do not believe in gods or demigods, these men are the closest thing to it in my world: heroes.
“You surely gave that menace what he had coming,” Cyril lauds once I’ve caught my breath. “Never seen anything like it. And the urchin was twice your size!”
I find myself suddenly sheepish. Though their admiration and respect is anointing, I know full well diplomacy is ever preferable to physical violence. As much as I wish to bask in the men’s praise, a modicum of shame taints the glory.
“That kid would have done you in,” Niko assures me, mistakenly assuming I saw what transpired when my back was turned. Faced with my blank expression, he informs me that Dimitri found a large rock—laced with sharp mussels and barnacles, no less—and was poised to heft it against my skull when the tide carried him out.
“The sea goddess intervened at just the right moment,” he concludes. “The gods want you alive.”
I smile at the thought of it.
“Amitayus,” Niko begins, lowering his voice to a gentle whisper, “You must always remember this…”
Here he takes me by the shoulders, his strong grip reassuring and insistent at once. “You have something special. A power within that is undeniable.”
Cyril nods in affirmation, his deep-set eyes full of equal urgency.
“But it will always be a threat to some.”
After a moment, Cyril’s determined look yields to the broad, dimpled smile I know. “After plucking that terror from the water,” he assures me, “We gave him a good talking to.”
Dimitri leaves me alone after that.
A few years later, Thira will erupt and deforest our island. The cypress trade will dry up, forcing Dimitri’s father to find another trade and move the family to Crete.
In the meantime, surely at my father’s urging, the longshoremen teach me to spar. Under their tutelage, I learn swordsmanship and wrestling. The skills they impart will prove far more practical than the javelin, archery, and sling training I receive at gumnastike. I’ve no plans to go to war, short of a Mycenaean invasion. But I’ll surely have the military skills for it should such an eventuality come to pass.
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