In Defense of Darkness

August 29, 2016

On Sunday, August 28, I delivered another sermon (an annual thing for me) at my home church of UU Church of Medford, MA. I dealt with darkness in literature and religion. The sermon text is below.

In spring of 2015, I finally put together a small collection of short stories for publication online. I say finally because while a few of the stories were older shorts, one was a new one that was at last on paper in a form I liked. Once that was finished, I gathered all of them together, packaged it with an introduction and a cover image, and posted the collection online under the title “Starry-Eyed Halluncnations.” The title is as much a play on words as it is a state of mind at that present moment. In the introduction, I spoke about dreams as a writer that had been deferred by life, economics, choices both in and out of my control. A lot of what I had hoped to accomplish as a writer had fallen by the wayside, what were once hard and fast goals had become mirages and to get anywhere now, I would have to be less starry-eyed in my look at the world.

To say the least, it was a much dimmer view of my life, but then so were the stories in the collection. A monologue by a guy who turns out to be a rapist, a first person perspective of an office massacre, a speculative fiction piece about society where abortion is illegal, and a man so far down that suicide is his prefered option. I never stated the plots so blatantly on the back cover blurbs (you have to leave the audience wanting to read it), but it all hinted at a series of moody and dark tales. When friends of mine bought, read it, and posted reviews online, “dark” was the operative word used to describe the collection. What did surprise me were the reactions from friends in this congregation. The oft-repeated phrase I heard was “How could you write so dark?” or variations of it. My immediate reaction to that was what’s wrong with being dark? For these particular stories the dark mood was necessary and would be a betrayal of the narrative. Thinking about it later, I realized what bothered me was that “dark” was being used as a pejorative, as if being gloomy is a bad thing and against the norm. I think this irked me more than anything else. I don’t think it’s realistic to expect someone or anyone to be in a good mood all the time; so, too, the various things they may create need not always be uplifting and cheery. Certainly life isn’t this way, so I don’t know why we expect it out of those around us. Hearing that review, I had the impression that people expected me to be bright and sunny all the time even in what I write, and I know that I’m not like that all the time, and certainly my writing isn’t like that. So I wanted to look at why we see darkness as a bad thing and how it is used in both literature and religion.

When faced with all the questions about the tone of my stories, I flashed back to a source I rarely think about: the fables of the Brothers’ Grimm. I say rarely because when one often thinks of the Grimm’s work, they are thought of as fairy tales for children. While they are mainly for children, these stories are not exactly fairy tales and not as innocent as people are often led to believe. The collected works of 19th century folklorists Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm are actually much darker than we may remember them. In any strange forest, wolves, witches, any number of animals or beings lie in wait for our protagonists to come in and be taken under their spells or guile for whatever purpose they seek. Make the right choices and you will be rewarded; the incorrect can cost you your humanity or life. And these are the tales that were told to their children for years and years hoping to impart wisdom and common sense.

Of course we don’t seem to remember the dark qualities of the stories, but often the lessons. Part of that isn’t because of the material but the attempt to brighten up things to the extent that dark elements are wiped out. The most egregious offender of this is Walt Disney and his company. For example, Disney’s first major animated feature was the Grimm’s “Snow White.” In the Disney version, the Queen, jealous of Snow White’s fairness, gives Snow White a poisoned (or at the very least cursed) apple that puts her in a deep, death-like sleep that could only be broken by a kiss from a handsome prince. The original Grimm story was different. The apple was truly poisoned and meant to kill Snow White. The rest is a comedy of errors. As the dwarves lay a vigil over Snow White in a glass coffin, a king rides through the woods and is enamored by her beauty. He asks the dwarves to allow her to be interred in his castle. As the king’s servants carry her down the hill, they trip, throwing Snow White out of the coffin, hitting the floor that dislodges the apple stuck in her throat and not digested, at which point she awakes from what can only be described as the strangest diabetic coma in recorded history. By trying to make the ending more palatable, it obliterates the original morale. Whereas the Grimm tale told of the folly of trying to stem youth and beauty and the consequences of ego, Disney changed it to be about goodness and beauty rewarded by true love.

While this may seem like subtle shift in tone, it has led to serious ramifications on societal thinking. The idea that someday my prince will come is a mantra we struggle against in stories, life and a patriarchal society. How many of the baby boomer generation had to be deprogrammed in that “it’s only a fable?” How often is such a lesson required in the movies produced and are inundated with? How many people still hold onto that moral? By making the original story all sweetness and light and family friendly, a false narrative emerged that was strong enough to have a life and consequences on their own.

One reasons for altering the events is out of protection, especially as these were lessons for children. The urge to protect our children from harm is natural and good. Trying to protect our children from everything is smothering and can lead to harm. While in later editions, the Grimms edited their stories to remove any sordid sexual innuendoes, the violence was kept in. In the “The Frog Prince,” while the Grimms took out the implication that there was an intimate relationship between the prince and the princess before they were married, they kept in how the frog was transformed back into a prince: the frog was thrown into a wall (it was changed to a kiss much, much later). In many ways the violence carried the moral weight of the stories. The protagonist was rewarded for good behavior and the antagonist was punished for their cruelty. In their story “The Juniper Tree,” the stepmother kills her stepson, tricks her stepdaughter into believing she killed him, and then cooks him for dinner to cover up her daughter’s crime. At the end, the stepmother is killed when a millstone is dropped on her head, and the stepson is brought back to life.

It’s also important to note how context can affect how we see how dark a story or action can be. Take the song “Long Black Veil” by Johnny Cash sung earlier. One of the lines in the first verse is “there were few who saw but all agreed/the slayer who ran looked a lot like me.” Having the Man in Black sing that lyric back in the 1960s obviously sets the stage for a gloomy song to follow. But having a black man sing that same lyric in 2016, with all the historical problems of the criminal justice system in a media driven society, has more sinister implications. Different context, different perception.

Cultural differences can also determine what might be considered appropriate. This is key to look at, as the Brothers Grimm were very keen to portray their stories in the light of a national identity (German in this case). In 1893, folklorist Marian Roalfe Cox collected all the variations of the fable “Cinderella,” and found 345 distinct versions that vary by countries, cultures, and morals. In the Grimm’s version, the punishment for the stepsisters’ cruelty was that birds—that Cinderella communicated with—pecked out their eyes, blinding them. As dreary as that may be, this was in the middle of the punishment levels. In the Philippines, the stepsisters were torn apart by wild horses, and in Indonesia, the stepsisters were killed, chopped up and presented to the stepmother as salted meat to dine on. On the lower scale, India had Cinderella forgiving the stepsisters who came to live with her and the prince (this is also the same ending as the Sesame Street version with Elmo). Yet no matter how harsh the punishment in any version, each one is considered a family fable.

As we bring the Cinderella story into this, one important feature that bears mention is the use of the “fairy godmother.” This was not in the Grimm version of the tale, but was a creation of French author Charles Perrault in 1697. He also introduced the glass slipper and the pumpkin carriage to the tale. In the Grimm’s story, as well as other versions, the magic interaction was at the hands of “natural magic.” Various Asian versions made a fish the girl’s protector and guardian; the Chinese version, the fish is the reincarnation of the mother. In the Grimm story, Cinderella took a twig given by her father from one of his journeys, planted it at the mother’s grave, and it grew into a tree which she would pray under; later a white bird would perch in the tree, Cinderella would tell the bird her wishes, and the bird would bring what she wished for. The version we hear and are more accustomed to—and codified by Disney—is the Perrault interpretation.

Part of the reason for this is religion and its impact on culture. While 19th century Germany was a Catholic and Christian majority, German paganism still survived at the time (in part due to the Grimm’s preservation of the folk tales of the German homeland). Meanwhile, Roman Catholicism was the overwhelming dominant religion in France despite racial diversity. At the time Perrault wrote his Cinderella tale, Catholicism was the state religion; so the necessity for an otherworldly intermediary to grant magical wishes to those worthy and of good virtue is more in line with canonical religion than say asking a tree or a fish. This in turn translates well into American Christian thinking when Disney gets a hold of it. Again it is this way of presenting the story—watched over by “fairy” godmother, the divine providence of the glass slipper fitting only her—reinforces a form of Christian magical thinking that is prevalent in society today. Not that the fable caused the thinking, but it certainly exploits a deep undercurrent within Western Christian thought.

This leads to a common problem in Christian thinking that unless it is of divine providence and affirming of God, it is heretical and inherently evil. Monotheism sets up an incorrect narrative that only the one God can bless, provide for, and rule the believers (“True Believers”), and that others are to be punished for their failure to believe, Having said monotheism does this, I must point out that Islam and Judaism recognize other faiths even if they don’t profess their beliefs, and they aren’t known for converting at the point of a sword as Catholics or Christians. One can also see the harsh, punishing God of the Old Testament as a very foreboding presence on the faith, however it seems that the stories of the Old Testament and Talmud are much like Grimm’s morality tales, warning people on what good behavior looks like and the rewards it entails. Also with the development of the Catholic and Christian churches and/or organizations, practices arose that normalized certain black and white perspectives that even subvert the idea of an all forgiving God. A perfect example of this would be the idea of Original Sin and views on homosexuality. Thus I use Christianity as the moral absolutist group, as the evolution of the church lends itself to such criticisms more so than Judaism or Islam. The lens through which one sees the world in the Western Christian thought is divided into black and white, good and bad, dark and light. If it doesn’t conform to Christian normative standards, then it is heretical, pagan or simply inappropriate.

What gets lost in all this moral absolutism is the nuances. Not everything in life is necessarily black or white, but often choices etched in gray that need to be decided by other human beings; and this can be seen in religions as well. Buddhism doesn’t see actions by judging them good or bad, but in terms of the impact of actions on our lives and others. In Roman and Greek paganism, the various deities had similar human vices, passions, and foibles, yet they were still deified. Neither of these contain black and white thinking or moral absolutism, but still imparted important lessons to their precepts. But the best example I can use to talk about nuances in religion and stories is the Taoist concept of yin-yang. This concept is about not opposites, but contrary forces that are complimentary and interrelated. The symbol is well-known: a circle with two swirling sides, one black, one white, with different dots inside the halves. Yin is the black swirl with the white dot. Yang is the white side with the black dot in it. It has been described as sunlight moving across a mountain and valley: with the light gradually moving across and revealing things not seen and visible things retreated to the shadows. In fact, one doesn’t exist without the other. One simplistic, yet meaningful definition I’ve come across said “the black side is the bad within nature; the white is the good within nature; the black dot is the bad within the good, and the white dot is the good within the bad; the whole circle makes up nature as we know it.” This is also reminiscent of a lesson learned in dramatic writing: find the comedy within the drama and the drama within the comedy. Well rounded storytelling isn’t a matter of either or, it’s about measures of both. Hence when stories are glossed over to paint a prettier picture than originally expressed, or sanitized to eliminate certain aspects, the stories fall flat or present a false positive meaning than intended. Stories and parables that make up religious texts are also about both, as well as the transformation of any character along the way. Good stories with a moral still can be the best way to teach young children (and some adults) life lessons; the ones that stand the test of time are not one-sided but have more nuanced tones, characters, and actions leading to the main theme.

Knowing that nature doesn’t exist without both positive and negative elements, why do we act or insist that all negative aspects or emotions of life is a bad thing? The answer can be as varied as the number of people on the planet. For many it’s a matter of not wanting to feel bad or feel the negativity of others. That to feel bad is only the start of a downward spiral that may have seemingly no end, so to ward against that is to never surround yourself with anything negative, dark or depressing. The biggest problem with that is no one can ever be constantly positive. If darkness, negativity, or however you would describe it is a part of nature, then such darkness is natural and a part of life. This is seen in basic psychology in that repressing unwanted emotions has deeper and more serious consequences than feeling it to begin with—supressing anger can lead to depression, unchecked depression can lead to potentially suicidal thoughts and possibly actions. Better to admit and deal with the negative feelings than wishing them away.

In some cases it is still a matter of societal pressures. Our society still sees things in black and white despite all the shades of gray surrounding us. We’re still under the influence of Western Christian normative standards and all that entails, including a disdain for anything dark or negative (“sinful”). As such that makes it harder to even approach the subject without scorn or derision, so we avoid it. That brings us back to the whole repression of negativity I just mentioned, and the vicious cycle continues without remedy.

Having said that, the question still remains as to why the stories I wrote were dark. In all honesty I answered that in the introduction the collection in “Starry-Eyed Hallucinations.” Each individual story had their own reasons for why dark and gloomy was the way to go, in subject matter as well as tone. The rapist monologue was a story that happened when the main character started talking in my head, and wouldn’t shut up. To quiet him down, I wrote his story. In 2005, I wanted to do a story cycle as a critique of the George W. Bush Presidency. Each story would revolve around a theme of despair that America was headed at the time: the uncertainty of the economy, polarization of discourse, disappearing ideas of how American life should be, and so on. The cycle never really manifested but the stories of the office shooting and the suicidal man in the hotel are now in this collection. The speculative fiction piece about abortion being illegal was something I had in my head for a while, but wasn’t able to work on for a long time. That was the hardest for me to write as I was doing it in my own downward spiral. Despite the spiral I kept trying to write. As I said in the introduction: “I’ve always been a writer, but for the longest time, I thought I didn’t have the time to carve out to write. The truth is I never had the wherewithal to make what time I had count. It’s a skill I never mastered. It’s one that every writer needs and has to make count. The way I realized how to do this was embrace any short form writing as a way to maximize time. It also gave me the accomplishment of finishing an honest writing project. Damn the word count, write a story and make it mean something.” Rather than repress the negativity, work with it. And it worked.

Not everything I do requires me to be positive, upbeat and perky all the time. More often I need the wherewithal to stand against a barrage of dark thoughts because that’s where the story is at. One of the great things about being a write is the ability to take negative energies and work it to create works of art, even positive ones. In my old apartment, I had hanging over my desk on the wall a Chinese caligraph of the word Chaos. I had heard that the chracters have within it for crisis and opportunity, but that is actually a mistranslation now taken advantage by motivational speakers. However there is something to be said about positive and negative energies to be creative. In the Hindu tradition, the universe was created out of the dance between Shiva the destroyer and Brama the creator. Destroying the old to make way for the new. We need to have a better relaitionship with negarive or darker things because both are needed. Positive cannot exist without negative, light can only exist in the darkness.

Blessed be.

Closing words:
“People are like stained-glass windows. They sparkle and shine when the sun is out, but when the darkness sets in, their true beauty is revealed only if there is a light from within.”—Elizabeth Kubler-Ross

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My friend, Adam Dickstein, is an old friend from high school as well as one of my RPG GMs. He wanted to do a profile on some of his favorite players and I had the honor of going first. I love the guy, but a couple of his stories of me are a little exaggerated (when we met in the city a few weeks ago, he told my daughter a great story involving a spy game he said I was running, but when he told me the same story when we were in tenth grade, it involved completely different people), but I’ve learned never let that get in the way of a good story. He’s a great guy and I was glad to be a part of his blog. Check out the profile at the link below.

http://barkingalien.blogspot.com/2016/07/player-profiles-david-concepcion.html

“Two Wolves” Poster

March 29, 2016

Wolves poster small

A couple of weeks ago, I had this idea for a pro-Bernie Sanders poster based on the Cherokee legend of the “two wolves” (sometimes also known the “grandfather tells” story about two wolves). The whole Bernie (and Drumpf) dynamic seemed to lend itself to the legend in a way, as we as a nation are deciding which wolf we will feed. It kind of consumed me as I worked on it, and finally got it done–even through some computer issues.

The image above is only the small version of the poster, even though the larger one isn’t that much bigger (larger than letter sized paper but not exactly legal sized). It’s public use for anyone who wants to post it in your voting area, bring it to rallies, put in your front lawn, or whatever. I’m glad I got a chance to produce this and hope others like it as well. 🙂

For larger image download, click HERE.

Final Tally

December 2, 2015

So for the NaBloPoMo is 20 posts for the month. I didn’t get a list of how many words total, but I was glad to get a larger output of blog writing over the month, and I’ve had larger overall readers since doing this. Good to see that. I still need to translate all of that writing into writing my fiction and scripts. I’d love to translate my readership into book sales, but that’s something for another day. Right now I need to get a consistent writing schedule so I can get blogs or fiction done. That’s part of what this challenge was for: consistent writing. I worked but I need to build on that. Need to be productive again before I can market things. I’m trying to get better and plans and goals and all that.

Is There a Square Zero?

November 30, 2015

“A dream without a goal is just a wish. A goal without a plan is just a dream.”

This has surely been in the back of my mind for the last month or so. A lot of the things I’ve been trying to do haven’t had goals or plans in place. So I’m basically been wishing and dreaming a lot without achieving much. This I thought I wanted never came to pass because I never had a plan in place to get to them or goals to achieve. There have been times when I’ve been disciplined enough to get things done—I got my Masters and completed 10 screenplays—it’s the steps afterwards that I hadn’t a clue what to do next. I think this is a pattern for most of my life. A lot of things I wanted to do or be never passed because I got stuck in my own head and stayed there daydreaming. Maybe that’s why I’ve felt so asleep these days.

I’m not sure how to get the discipline I used to have back. I don’t remember what plans (if I had any) to create what I have so far. I’m not sure of the goals I have to reach for; a lot of them changed from when I was younger, but haven’t settled into a visible or tangible thing. I used to want fame; I don’t anymore. I thuoght that would lead to wealth; now I simply want to thrive and not give up more yardage. I’m kind of lost and not sure where to begin. This seems to be my biggest problem: not knowing where to start or which way to go.

pj

Lag Time

November 23, 2015

Yeah I know, I missed a bunch of entries for the NaBloPoMo. I need to post one a day for the challenge and I’m behind about a week, at least. The thing is I’m not sweating it right now (rare for me I know, but interesting nonetheless). Life will always get in the way somehow; whether it will be illness, a death in the family, busy workload, or a desperate need for grocery shopping. For me it was the last two, usually not a problem but this week left me exhausted. Your brain should be at least 20% power for you to create and write, and I think I was barely at 10% most the week. So I took a break.

There’s lots to do creatively and real world logistics and you can’t do everything at once as much as I’d like to. Sometimes you’ve got to ride out the stuff going on. The trick I’m trying to get better at not beating myself up about it (as much as I’d like to do that, too). Sometimes the best you can do is forgive yourself and move on to the next day. Now THAT is something worth incorporating into your daily routine.

Solidarity for Paris

November 14, 2015

Stand with Paris as they stand up against terrorists of ISIL. I offer my favorite scene from “Casablanca” for obvious reasons.

Friday Night News Dump

November 13, 2015

This is a sort of compilation of mini blogs of events that I hadn’t posted during the week:

  • I don’t have a word count for all the postings I’ve written so far during NaBloPoMo. It’s obviousy way below the 25,000 word halfway mark of the NaNoWriMo challenge. Just glad to be posting more often and regularly.
  • I haven’t been keeping up on the sci-fi western short story. This is not even because of the aforementioned blog writing, but because I’m too exhausted. I still can’t get used to getting up at 5:30am for Sophia then waiting to go to work. All I want to do is sleep for a few days straight, that would help. Granted it doesn’t help that I haven’t been to the gym in forever…
  • I have my zombie apocalypse team in place. There is a pre-zombie infection feature length script I want to write and I figured out the of characters on the team and how they know each other. This is sort of Fear the Walking Dead and Contagion via Poe’s “Masque of the Red Death.” For what I have in mind, I can’t simply throw characters who don’t know each other and watch them come together; I need to get a loosely cohesive group of people trying to survive and watch them fall apart, Have the group; next is fleshing out the timelines and plot.
  • Rented Pitch Perfect 2 with Sophia the other day because the Peanuts Movie show we wanted to see was already sold out when we got there. The film wasn’t what I expected, not a bad sequel. Nice ending. Felt less cohesive than the first film. The original was better, but the sequel was a decent film.

SEH cover So my latest ebook short story collection “Starry-Eyed Hallucinations” has been out for a couple of months and is doing well. I’m still trying to push the book and it is available direct from the publishers, Book Country. A collection of short-short stories, “Starry-Eyed Hallucinations” gives a glimpse at the realities of the modern world, from the back alleys and seedy city diners to out of the way roadside motels. If you like atmospheric literary fiction with an occasional twist, this is for you. The ebook is available at Book Country for $1.99 a copy. It is still available at other retailers (Amazon and Barnes & Noble), but I needed to give the publishers a big thanks for having it out there to begin with. Please check it out and buy your copy today here.

It was an accident. At church she made a skull mask for a Day of the Dead lesson during Sunday school. I’m not sure what they were made of but they looked really nice. All white, the kids put glitter and paint on them like the Mexican Day of the Dead celebrations. She did a really nice job and she had already rescued it once that day; when they were cleaning up at the church, some of the older ladies threw out a whole bunch of them that were drying because they didn’t know what to do with them. She got hers out of the garbage and wanted to save it. I had my shoulder bag with me so I put it in there to bring home. Unfortunately I left it in the bag for at least a day without realizing it. In that time the skull mask broke. I feel bad about it, especially because Sophia sulked over it before bed last night. Not sure how to make it up to her. I am glad shes learning about this stuff.

What did you think I meant by the headline?