Embrace the Night

What do I have to do to put you in the darkness today?

News

For a limited time, my new novel ROAD OUT OF WINTER is on sale. Just $2.99 for Kindle, through Halloween. It’ll keep you up late, in a good way.

Embrace the Night

I spent election day of 2016 driving, listening to the radio, growing more afraid. I was alone that night except for my child. I stayed up, tried to read 50 pages of The Haunting of Hill House, comprehending not a single word—I eventually threw the book below the bed, never to finish it—and finally, drank Children’s Benadryl to get a few hours of sleep. 

I don’t want to do any of that again.

Halloween is coming, but right on its heels, we have a scarier day in the states: the election. I keep reading pieces about the pandemic in winter: how hard it’s going to be, the isolation, the long night. But I love fall, and the cooler weather that follows. My partner is actually concerned the new place we live is too sunny and light for me, that I’m going to struggle with it—and the truth is, I do prefer the darkness. 

I write best on gloomy days. What is there to do but stay in and seek comfort in stories?

I want to tell you to embrace the night. That there is magic in winter, and great solace. I want you tell you to prepare to spend time outdoors in winter, which might mean the warmest clothes you can afford. From living in a house with no heat, I recommend wool sweaters, silk undershirts, fleece-lined tights (you can find all of this used, especially the sweaters). I recommend a crock pot, soup, and roasts. I recommend candles. A friend from home just rigged up a sheet to screen movies in her backyard, before a fire pit for warmth and marshmallow-roasting.   

Whatever gets you through needs to get you through now. 

If you have to have a glass of wine every night, have it. If you have to watch a movie every day, watch the movie. If you need to get a cat or lots of plants for company, get them and care for them. 

But don’t forget, if you seek your care in stories, part of that comfort can come from telling them too. Don’t just watch fictional worlds, but make them. You can lose yourself in your own creations. You can build something that will comfort not just you, but others in the future.

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The first thing we have to get through is the first of November. This is a list of things I’m going to make sure my family has to carry us to the election and the days immediately following. This might seem extreme, but you know what? I come from a farming family; my mother used to tell me I needed to have brownie or cake mix, cheese and crackers in my house at all times. When my son and I were living in the country, cut off from town when it snowed, my friend who is a veteran taught me to stockpile beans, lentils, and rice. I always keep a first-aid kit and boots in the car, meat in the freezer, and a knife in every bag.

Whatever happens, there are likely to be some protests, and in a pandemic, you don’t want to have to leave your house just for milk. So be as comfortable as you can, be safe, hold fast, and be ready.  

Shopping List for Election Day:

Full tank of gas
Groceries to last a week if you can afford it
Cash
Passports, important papers handy 
Alcohol if you drink it
Hot Chocolate if not
Easy, comfort food (stews, frozen pizza, mashed potatoes, stuffed pumpkin
A treat for yourself (chocolate, special candle, new book to read, new or even just freshly washed PJs or a blanket or socks)
Something creative that will actually absorb and distract you: a book you’re in the thick of writing, a knitting or woodworking project, a piece you’re learning on the piano

Listen, my advice for winter is that the world is not dead, just sleeping. Take care of yourself and rest so you can rise.

The Crows were Our Company

Feasting at the end of the world

When my son was a toddler, we began feeding crows.

I’m sure how it started exactly, only that we had moved into a strange, free house. It was a housesitting situation, passed along, in the way these things work in rural Appalachia, by a friend. She had been the house sitter first, but now she and her husband were moving on.

The house came down to me, its opportunity: to live rent-free in a place newly remodeled inside with a dishwasher and whisper-close drawers, and its burdens: to live in the middle of nowhere, at a crossroads in the country, with an elderly landlady just up the road who had a habit of dropping by unannounced. She didn’t like anything on the walls. She didn’t like the busyness of my young son.  It was like living in a sterilized pod, maybe milkweed: sealed, coolly white, and prickly. 

A terrible crime had taken place in the house, which I managed to keep a secret from my son while we lived there so he wouldn’t be scared. An old woman had been robbed, tied up and beaten. She survived, and the men were sent to prison. I wrote a poem about it. The landlady had bought the house after, cheaply I think, and redid only the inside. The exterior walls peeled, the gutters tilting. My friend had seen a ghost there once, she thought maybe—but it was a child, not the ghost of the old woman who, presumably, still survived. The house was next to an graveyard. Did I not mention that?

I used to watch the tombstones through the bathroom window when I took a bath on sunny afternoons before it was time to pick up my son from daycare. The only trouble we had with the graveyard was around Halloween, when teenagers ran through, laughing and drinking. The only visitors we had to the house were lost: college-aged hikers looking for an infamous local hill.

And the crows. The crows were our company, every night.

I’m not sure how it started, except there was a cement slab on a high part of the large, grassy yard, which sloped to meet the road on two sides. It seemed perfect for a small picnic, or some kind of offering. One night, I left table scraps out on the slab. And crows came.

The crows started to come regularly. I gave them our leftovers, right after dinner. They knew the time. They would line up in the driveway if I arrived home late, strutting and cawing at my car. 

They did leave shiny things for us, what you may have heard is true. Old rusted coins, and once, a toy hammer, just the right size for my son’s hands, my son who loved tools and construction. The hammer had a red handle. They left it on the slab. I baked a quiche for them, after that.

We don’t feed the crows anymore, not in this new city. The first day we arrived at the house, there were big crows waiting on the neighbor’s lawn. I saw them a lot in those first few weeks. It’s like they’re telling you it’s okay, my partner said. We talked about putting a crow bath in the backyard, but it has to be larger than a bird bath, and crows might wash their food in it, which is sometimes smaller, dead birds. I don’t mind cleaning dead birds out of the backyard if it makes you happy, my partner said. 

The other night, I did a reading, and I was struck with how it felt different than most of the other virtual events I’m doing these days, except for my book launch. It seemed like old times, before we had to meet on screens—and I think I figured out why: it felt like community. I liked the writers I read with, though we didn’t know each before. There was an intro, a guest speaker. It felt friendly and warm, like we might all go out for drinks after, had been to a big dinner before.

This has to last you awhile, I thought. This is what you get.

Patterns are important now, and events to look forward to that mark a break. The changing of the season seems more meaningful and magic. We went for a walk the other night before dinner and I was amazed at how many leaves are already on the ground. I’ve gotta pay more attention to you, trees, I thought.

Maybe your community is with the trees now. Maybe it’s with the creatures there with you at home, which are cats. Or the neighbors you only see in passing, masked, and do not know or get to hear their names. 

My community now is my partner, my child, our cat, crows, and trees. The neighbors behind their windows, the family we see masked at a distance, the beloved friends I see only on screens. We’re doing the best we can, not only to survive this but to be happy, to make it special how we can.

People say to scale back Halloween this year. I say the opposite. Make it the biggest Halloween yet, with decorations that last to December. Watch a horror movie every day. Dress up. And cook a feast on Halloween night—it’s a Blue Moon. Make it a big deal, even if the only thing you’re celebrating is yourself enduring this darkness.

Stuffed Pumpkin

I dislike cooking, though I love to eat. If I’m cooking for anyone other than myself, I feel too anxious about pleasing them to do a good job. Potlucks—remember those?—always made me nervous for that reason. 

Then I stumbled onto this recipe years ago: Pumpkin Stuffed with Everything Good. It isn’t really a recipe, so much as a guideline. I find the pumpkin often takes longer to cook, and I use more of everything than the recipe calls for, while usually leaving out the bacon (it gets soggy) and chives. But this pumpkin is a show-stopper. Early in graduate school, I started bringing this to parties, and then it was all over for potlucks for me. Other people started making the pumpkin too, and then my go-to was no longer mine; I went back to bringing store-bought cookies to parties, too nervous and tired to do more. But this quarantine Halloween, we’re cooking a feast: a roast, stuffed mushrooms, molten chocolate cupcakes in a skull mold … And I’m re-claiming my pumpkin.

When Work is Self-Care

How I survive this world is that I leave it, at least in my head

News

In support of my novel ROAD OUT OF WINTER, out now, I’m doing a virtual reading with syan jay and Charlotte Pence on WEDNESDAY 9/30 at 7pm EST. This reading is sponsored by The Sundress Reading Series and is free! Go here and use the password ‘safta.’

When Work is Self-Care

When there’s a basketball game on, my family has developed a pattern. My son and partner watch the game, and I take a bubble bath. We have an old, giant clawfoot tub upstairs in our house, likely original to the hundred+ year-old home. It’s the first bathtub I’ve had in years, and I could take a bath whenever I want. My partner is here to watch the child. 

But I like the routine of basketball bubble bath. I do feel better after taking a bath, just like I feel better when we go outside, especially into the mountains or woods. But when I feel best is after writing. 

Month 5 million of quarantine, I hear a lot of people advising us to slow down. Take it easy, be gentle with ourselves.

I understand and appreciate that. At the same time, artists aren’t like other people. And neither are those who have survived violence, including the violence of poverty, which impacts your brain in different ways. One way is that you have to get going, you’ve got to keep pushing. You have to work or your brain freaks out. What if the work stops coming? What if the money dries up and you can’t afford groceries? You have to keep moving. 

And I think some of the time that’s OK. Maybe most of the time. 

For me, the definition of an artist is someone who must keep going, keep trying, try something different, experiment. There’s a lot of overlap with the brain that survived and the brain that creates.

My son gets reprimanded at remote school for doodling. But doodling is how he listens, how he thinks.

People say take care of yourself. But essential to my self-care is that I lose myself in a world of my own making. How I survive this world is that I leave it, at least for a short while, at least in my own head. 

I have often described the process of writing a novel, my favorite kind of writing, to my non-novel writing friends as: like binge-watching your favorite TV show, but you control what happens.

Sort of. And the “sort-of” is part of the magic and restoration of art. It goes its own way. You get lost in it. Getting lost is good for you. I think most of us know it’s pretty healthy for our brains to be swept along in the “flow” of certain activities: playing music, making art, solving puzzles, writing.

I see a lot of shaming people for working, or telling them to slow down. But work isn’t always a means to an end, especially if that means is creative. And sometimes in order to slow, you need first to run, as fast and far as you can. 

My witch hair—plus a goat

Coconut Oil

It has been … over a year since my last haircut. I have thick, fine, wavy hair. It’s heading toward my waist now, well-past witch-length, the longest it’s been since high school, and it tangles right in the middle, a tendency my son inherited. He calls it “the Stine family tangle.” I’m not getting a haircut anytime soon, unless I make my partner do it (which is a possibility), so one way I handle the tangles is coconut oil. 

Coconut oil all over your hair can work as a deep conditioner, but it’s often hard to fully wash out. I put oil on the ends of my hair to smooth them and put oil on any tangles before trying to work them out with a comb. It helps soften the tangles. 

Coconut oil goes from solid to liquid back to solid pretty quickly, depending on the temperature. Any form is fine to use, though if it’s rock solid, you may want to warm a bit with the heat of your hands first. It can also help with dry skin. You can cook with it, of course, and when I was pregnant and for a few months after, I ate tablespoonfuls of raw coconut oil to help with brain development. My son still likes to eat it to this day.  

A Balm to the Season

What do you do when you’ve done everything you’re supposed to?

News

I’m doing a virtual tour in support of my new novel, ROAD OUT OF WINTER. Upcoming on Tuesday 9/22 at 7pm EST is a reading sponsored by A Novel Idea, an independent bookstore in Philadelphia. You can find out more and register to attend (it’s free!) here.

A Balm to the Season

I actually felt relieved after my book release. There was so much pressure leading up to that day. There was much that needed answering—on social media, on email—and promoting and organizing. There was a launch party. To my amazement, my friends showed up. I couldn’t see or hear them, but I saw their names in the corners, their questions in chat. What better metaphor for the way we live.

Now I’m back to waiting.

I wrote a book to the absolute best of my ability. It got good reviews. And still, nothing. What will it take to change your life? I’m not sure, except continuing. I’ve had two tattoos in my mind for awhile. I want to get them once it’s safe—and now I have a new idea for a tattoo, a couple of lines from Octavia E. Butler, one of my touchstones. The only question is where on my body to put them and when. 

Waiting. 

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I watch my son humming as he recreates his mansion in a video game destroyed by fire, a fire caused by the massive fireplace he built in the game. I guess I just have to remake my mansion. I guess I have to build it and build it, no matter the fire— and maybe someday people will show up to a party, maybe they’ll return to the older rooms and see how grand they are; they have always been this way, people just overlooked them in a street of other houses.

So much of publishing is utterly out of your control. You do your part, beyond it, and then … you do it all again, mostly in silence—the only sound, your own humming. You start with a brick.    

So much of our lives is just waiting now for this current time to end, to endure and hopefully survive it. I’ve never wished for time to go by so quickly, to erode what is already eroding in my life, to get there faster, even to a year in the future, when we might have a vaccine (I hope!), when it’s safe to be together again in the sun.

What is a balm to this season? Its ending.

I love fall, I love Halloween. I love the trees turning colors. I love the turning of the wheel. Cooler nights, stuffed pumpkins, darkness, ghost stories, horror movies, costumes, early night, soup. I have always loved running around in the shadows. I have always loved haunted things. Now I’m trying to plan for my child’s and my favorite season without knowing if we can leave the house, go out or receive trick or treaters, wear costumes for anyone but ourselves.

There is a fire ban in the state where I live. How can I make things glow without flame? How can I make magic for my child who barely still believes in it? I’m planning to decorate early and a lot, trying to use what we have, making things dark and magic with a glue gun, construction paper, wire.

And to write. To build a new mansion, as dark as the book I wrote before it—but this one is strung through with winged things. It’s set in a river town in Ohio. It has deep secrets, and like the first book and everything I write: it has my whole entire heart.  

The best cure for publishing a book is to write another book. The best cure for time is just time.  

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Lemon balm 

I feel I talk about herbs for anxiety a lot, but that’s what we need now more than ever. So lemon balm is a good herb to have in your arsenal. It tastes sweet with honey. It’s gentle enough for children. Lemon balm is easy to remember for anxiety, because it rhymes with calm. Interestingly, it’s also called Melissa. You can find it in tea or liquid extract, or grow it easily in your own garden.

I’ve been trying to plant one of those, though we’re in a new place with a new climate, and have limited space for growing. I’ve been trying to give it time. 

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