On Stories

I like stories. Always have. “Like” might be an understatement. They’re the lens I use to understand the world. Ever since I was a toddler watching all three Star Wars movies in a day because my mom was on bed rest and what else was she supposed to do with me, I’ve loved them. They were explorations of people and situations I might meet (or not), heroes I could examine and emulate, reminders that no matter how dark things got, there was always hope.

I love ancient stories that people with lives I can never hope to understand told. I love retellings of those stories that take them apart and put them back together in ways that challenge my assumptions. I love stories about worlds entirely different from the one I know, and stories of humanity that continues no matter what planet they’re set on. I love stories that force me to imagine what it is to be someone else, someone whose appearance or struggles or beliefs are alien to me.

I love telling those stories, too. I love pacing and thinking and pacing and thinking and wondering what it is to be a sentient robot, or one of the Fair Folk, or a dragon. I love discovering the personhood in those characters, even when they do things I would never do.

One of my favorite things about people is that every single one is different. No two people experience life in precisely the same way. No two people make precisely the same choices. No one sees the world exactly as anyone else, and yet we constantly find common ground and ways to connect. They might be fumbling, grasping connections, full of misunderstandings and unintentional hurts, but they’re connections all the same.

Stories are a lot of things to me. One of them is a chance to celebrate all the ways we are different, and all the ways we are the same.


Let’s Talk About Spiders

I grew up in a high mountain desert, where spiders are a fact of life, like sunlight and gravity. Doesn’t mean I like them much, though I’m fond of tarantulas. They’re big and fuzzy and they stay outside where they belong generally, and the way they move doesn’t make my mammal brain tense like most other spiders do.

I am significantly less fond of other spiders, though how un-fond depends on the day, and the type of spider. My brother once woke the entire house up screaming because a spider had crawled onto his hand while he was asleep. I’ve never gone that far, but I have spent hours at a time quietly panicking over a quarter-sized spider on the ceiling. Too many quick little legs.

I’m not sure fast-moving spiders with sprawly legs are from this level of reality.

Sometimes, though, I’m pretty brave about the little beasts. You get used to them, after all, and if they’re not in my room or on my sketchbook or otherwise invading my space, they tend not to bother me much anymore. This isn’t always a good thing.

When I was thirteen or so, I was invited to a schoolmate’s birthday party in the summer. There were maybe a dozen other girls there, of which I knew three. There was cake, though, and pizza, so I didn’t worry too much about it.

For reasons that entirely escaped me, we spent the later part of the party outside in the August evening, on the sidewalk in front of my schoolmate’s house. All was well, until a large-ish spider skittered across the pavement, in the middle of the gaggle of tweens. Several of them were in flip-flops. There was quite a bit of shrieking.

I was near the spider, and wearing decent shoes, and decided to be a Super Hero and maybe endear myself to some of these girls by jumping on the spider. Unfortunately, in the cheap orange street lights, I couldn’t see that this particular spider was a mama wolf spider, with all her babies clinging to her back.

When I squished her, the babies went everywhere. The shrieks got louder. I was not a Super Hero.

This is why I avoid parties.


Days pass by

like carousel horses

red and gold and green.

Sit on the horse with the silver mane

and ride—up and down, round and round

no two cycles quite the same.

It’s not the years that change.

Ravens come and go,

mountains gather snow.

Riders come on,

others get off

as we spin round the sun like a carousel

but it’s never quite the same.

We’re never quite the same.

It’s not the years that change.


Tragically, there’s no way to make the art in my head appear directly on the page, as I imagined it.

I’m not God; I can’t simply command the graphite or paint to do as I wish and expect to be listened to. I have fallible mortal hands that make smudges and mistakes. My lines wobble sometimes. I can’t draw every facial expression perfectly—shocking, I know.

As a teenager, I found all this very difficult to accept. My inability to control everything in my art infuriated me. Nothing turned out right, when I defined “right” as “exactly how I imagined it”. Watercolor painting was the worst. The colors never stayed where I put them! They kept wandering off with the flow! And I couldn’t erase it, or simply paint over the errors like I could with other mediums. Any mistakes I made stayed.

At some point I mentioned this frustration to my sophomore-year art teacher, Mrs. G. Her response? Handing me a watercolor set and some paper and telling me to go play with them. And for the next few weeks, I did.

You can learn a lot through play. Any child knows that, but by fifteen I’d forgotten it. Mrs. G reminded me.

Spending all that time being furious with my art for not being perfect took me away from why I was doing it in the first place—I love making pictures. I love colors, and shapes, and lines, and combining different shapes or ideas in fun new ways. I love art, to the point that my mood goes awful when I’m not doing it.

But when I played with the watercolors, I remembered. I painted a whole page light blue, the put more colors over it to see what happened. I put a drop of water on a section that had already dried to see how it changed things. Then I made the drop a heart shape. It was a lot like experimenting in a science class, but without the lab report.

I’m (still) not God; the materials I put down on paper or canvas will behave as they always have, and the marks I make on the screen will follow their programming. It’s up to me to learn how they work, and what to expect from them. When I do that, I find myself working with my tools rather than trying to order them about, and everything works more effectively. It’s like working with a person that way—but I don’t have to share the credit.

The Very Blind Mouse

Thanksgiving has come and passed, and now I can sing Christmas carols around non-blood relatives without risking murder.  In the spirit of the season, I’m here to share a memory of a time when I was a wee young dragon, performing in The Nutcracker. It’s the story of why I started wearing contacts at the age of nine.

I’ve needed vision correction since I was five. I have a very distinct memory of asking my mom why something in the neighbor’s front porch was so fuzzy- it was a newspaper wrapped in plastic, apparently. I got glasses shortly after, and spent the next decade becoming progressively more nearsighted.

Having glasses in kindergarten was not the most wonderful experience, but the real difficulty was in trying to dance with them. They slide down your nose with every fast turn, and you’re expected to take them off for performances.

Twice a year, my ballet school put on a show in the high school’s performing arts center, which featured a large stage with an orchestra pit I was never allowed into, and lots and lots of backstage space.

The December show was always The Nutcracker, a popular  ballet for the holidays—Disney recently released a movie adapted from it. The first act of the ballet features a Christmas party, sentient snowflakes, a growing Christmas tree, and giant mice (Not in that order).

At nine years old, I played a mouse, complete with pointy gray mask and inconveniently placed eye holes.

If you’ve ever been backstage during a show, you’ll know what it was like—lots of lights reflecting off of hands and faces and glittery costumes, but mostly dark, dark shadows. There’s an art term I learned later for works with that lighting technique: chiaroscuro.

Chiaroscuro is hard to see in normally. Sans glasses, and wearing That Mask, Little Dragon had a difficult time of things.

The party scene performers crowded up everywhere as they went on and off the stage, making my already atrocious vision useless, and I lost track of the other mouse dancers (surprising absolutely no one). I was in a hurry to get to the other side of the stage, though, so I decided to press on without them.

There was a sort of tunnel behind the backdrops, against the wall at the far back of the stage, where performers and techies could travel back and forth with no one in the audience able to spot them. A blue rope light was stretched across the floor, meaning I could actually see for once, and there were hardly ever props or scenery lying around to be tripped on.

Naturally, I did not take that path, but instead went for the space directly behind the backdrop that people were dancing in front of at the time, and I took that path running.

You aren’t supposed to run behind backdrops; the air displacement makes them ripple in a way that’s clearly visible to the audience. That was one problem with my plan. The other problem was the reason this backdrop had such a large space behind it: the growing Christmas tree.

At full height, the growing Christmas tree was a thing of beauty, a monument to human stubbornness and ingenuity. Its top was an ordinary five-foot fake evergreen, festooned with colored lights and tinsel. As it rose up, rings of new branches would hang beneath it, lighting up as they went along, until the thing was almost too tall for the audience to see the top.

At its smallest height, in the dark, the growing Christmas tree was wider than it was tall, and the rings of lower branches brushed the backdrops on either side of it.

Little Dragon, however, could not see the lower branches, and was too nervous to think of them. I made a rather loud thunk when I tripped, breaking a lightbulb or two as I went.

It wasn’t the first incident caused by my vision, or lack thereof, and That Mask, but it was the incident my mother cited when she took me to the optometrist before rehearsals for the May show began.

The Makings Of Monsters

Lately I’ve been making a series of digital paintings about monsters—for a loose-ish definition of series, and monsters, anyways.

They’re all monochrome, square, digital, and contain weird creatures, at least. Which color the painting is based around varies each time. I’m gradually going around the color wheel.

Whether they really deserve the term “monsters,” however, is a different question. Just because it’s strange, or staaaaaaring at you, or has too many teeth, do those things make a monster?

I’m not so sure. That probably-not-a-deer especially, seems to just be reading. Nothing monstrous about that.

But monster stories aren’t really about the monsters, they’re about the things we’re afraid of. Spiders, the unknown, death, familiar things becoming strange and dangerous.

I should make a painting about something moving that shouldn’t, like scarecrows. That’s one of my big fears.