Recovering Mysticism: Part One

I walk into church on Sunday morning. I see people I know and love, I say hi, I laugh. I walk over to get coffee at the coffee bar, a line standing out to the door like it’s Starbucks on a Monday morning. Parents are toting their kids – some crying, some cheerful – to the nursery located just outside the auditorium doors. I walk through the auditorium; two huge screens display pictures of mountains or birds or what-have-you. I sit down in a plastic chair. I sing songs with some of the worst lyrics known to man, wishing they made me feel something other than ‘cringe’ (which yes, is an entire emotion. Looking at you, Sloppy Wet Kiss). The preacher walks out onto the stage; too far away for me to see his face, but at least it’s up on the big screens. I listen to a sermon. It’s a good one – nothing new or exciting, per se. Nothing that shakes me at my core or gives me a new perspective, but it’s a good one.

I leave the building – a big, square, unimaginative thing built to pack people in several times a morning. Space and efficiency are the names of the church-building game.

This experience has repeated itself in every church I’ve ever attended – with the strength of each element varying, of course.

Many wonder why people – especially people my age, in their twenties – are leaving the church. They wonder especially why they’re leaving the church for things like Paganism and Wicca.

I don’t wonder.

Living in Omaha, I made a friend. His name was Erik, and he worked at the bar across the street from the coffeeshop I frequented. He was the first Pagan I ever met, and I loved him. He was a tall, plaid-wearing, mid-fifties Jack of all trades – if you needed a private investigator, a carving, fresh vegetables from his garden, or a fence built, he was your guy. He would stop and talk to so many people, and everyone knew and loved him, and it fascinated me.

I would stop in at the bar after I finished my walks downtown and back – hot, sweaty, and ready to be refreshed by a ginger beer + bitters. He gave them to me for free, and I would sit in the cool air and talk with him.

He was excited to be a Pagan. We first met because I was reading Norse Myths and sketching, and he stopped by my table on his way out to chat with me about it.

(How often have you been reading the Bible, and had a Christian walk up, excited, to chat with you about it? How often have you done the reverse?)

Rarely do I see someone excited to not just talk about their faith, but to be their faith. He was. And, although I didn’t realize it at the time, it opened a line of thinking in my subconscious.

I began to wonder – what if Christianity, as we know it today, was missing something? I’ve always blamed people for not being excited enough about it, for not living it like they should. But what if it was the institution?

And there, I believe, lies one of the main problems. Christianity today is an institution. It’s corporate.

Not far from where I met Erik sits a Cathedral. And stepping into this Cathedral is one of the most spiritual experiences I’ve ever had. I’m not Catholic – that didn’t matter.

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photo of St. Cecelia’s courtesy of Yelp

It was magnificent. Every single detail about the building was designed with love and care and imagination. With worship. Inside, the very air you breathed felt like worship. You could tell just walking in – this place had been bathed in prayer. It had been built to do so.

God was there.

Without exaggeration, never once have I walked into a modern American church building and felt that. Never once.

I cried, for no reason I could name. I sat, and I prayed, and I cried, and I felt both convicted and refreshed. Convicted of what? I didn’t know. I just knew that in that moment, something had been planted in the dry soil of my faith.

I had no idea just how big it would grow.

 

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Still My Sister: A Prompt

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Kazariah Henge was a merciful man. You could ask anyone, and they would give you the same report – even-tempered, thoughtful, slow to wrath. Good qualities in a leader, anyone would agree. He was careful not to leap to a conclusion without thoroughly studying all aspects. He held the support of his vizier and the ephorate, all wise and knowledgeable men. Especially his vizier, who wasn’t as prone to polishing Kazariah’s words to make them brighter than they were.

Stepping back and looking at himself, Kazaria could understand, he supposed, why some people might not agree with him. Stars, they might not even like him very much – he was all right with that, as long as his conscience was clear. After all, doing the right thing was always met with opposition from people with dark intentions.

He just hadn’t expected the opposition to come from Linnet.

He sighed deeply and dragged his hands down his face, his fingers tracing every sharp angle, every little scar. It might not be the face of a saint, but it was the face of a good man. That, at least, he could say with confidence.

It might be the only thing he could say with confidence, now that he knew what Linnet had done. It was the sort of event that shook the very stones beneath his feet, the kind of thing that shot a tremor underneath the very fabric of the kingdom. Everyone would feel it. It would leave the entire populace unbalanced as soon as they heard about it – but Linnet was intelligent and clever, she would have known that before she did it.

Unless it was due to an uncharacteristic lapse of judgment, which he thought unlikely. “If only you were an idiot,” he said aloud to the dungeon door facing him, closed and inscrutable. It was a thick, well-built door, because quality was important. Besides, hearing screams from the dungeon really rattled the servants.

Kazariah shook his head and hauled on the heavy wrought-iron ring. The door opened with a hollow, reluctant groan, and the emperor began the slow descent down the long, twisted staircase. You had to be careful on these steps – they were worn and uneven with age, and a misstep could send you hurtling to your death, or at the very least a broken limb or two.

He reached the bottom and shifted his jaw, thinking. He could go back up the stairs. He didn’t need to confront Linnet about her actions – not today, at least. He could put it off. Eat dinner, sleep, wait until he was calmer and his head was clear.

But for all his virtues, impatience was a fault he had in spades. He lifted the ring of keys from the wall and strode to the farthest cell. His movements sped up; he twisted the key in the lock and shoved the door open, his blood seething in his ears.

Linnet sat on the floor, both ankles chained to the wall, her mouth twisted to the side and her arms folded over her chest like a petulant nine-year-old. “About time you showed up.”

Kazariah frowned and snapped his fingers. The torches on the walls burst into flame, roaring zealously for a few seconds before dimming to as steadier, warmer glow.

“Thank you,” said Linnet. “I was about to go blind down here.”

Kazariah couldn’t bring himself to walk any closer, so he remained where he was. “How can you sit there,” he asked, his voice hard and quiet, “and act like you did nothing?”

“Well, I got tired of standing after the first couple days, so I decided to risk your annoyance and sit,” she snipped.

“Linnet!”

“Don’t ‘Linnet’ me! I’m not pretending like I did nothing. I’m chained up in a dungeon cell awaiting your royal verdict on my guilt, what do you expect me to do with my spare time? Draft an apology?”

“Did you?”

“Of course not. I’m not sorry.”

He felt his shoulders sag and forced himself to straighten them. Broad. Strong. Confident. These were his attributes, and he wouldn’t let her steal them. Not even down here, where nobody could see. “You’re not sorry,” he repeated. “Why not?”

“Because.” Her eyes flashed in the firelight. “You and I disagree on certain policies. Sometimes, they can’t be reconciled.”

“So you come to me! You tell me your disagreement. You don’t—” His voice caught, and he paused to regain control of himself. Evenly, he continued, “You don’t rush off in the middle of the night and assassinate someone.”

“Of course not. I don’t assassinate just ‘someone.’ It had to be really special,” she said dryly.

“I genuinely don’t understand how you can be flippant about this.”

She opened her mouth to respond and he waited for a quip, but none came. Instead her gaze lowered to rest on her knees, and said nothing.

“Are you sorry?” he asked softly.

Silence.

Then, she shook her head.

Kazariah swallowed past a cold lump in his throat. “If I had known you disagreed with me so strongly, if you had only told me, we could have talked, Lin. We could have worked something out.”

“I know what your idea of ‘working something out’ means,” she said. The spark had gone out of her, a candle blown out in a sudden gust of wind.

“It has a better outcome than you chained up in the dungeon of our castle, awaiting a trial,” he snarled, his anger flaring. He gripped his face again, with both hands, to keep himself from lashing out. His nails, pristine and filed to small points, dug into his face.

She giggled. It sounded entirely wrong in these surroundings. “Yeah. Maybe. But you know, I kind of have the feeling I might have died mysteriously in the middle of the night, too, so.”

He stared at her, horrified, and sank down to one knee so he could meet her gaze directly. “How can you say that?” he asked hoarsely, the question twisting painfully out of his throat. “Whatever you do, you’re still my sister. We have a bond. A disagreement can’t break it.”

“No,” she agreed. “It can’t. But you can.”

She could not have hurt him more if she had thrown a javelin through his stomach. He rose to his feet, numb. His chest tightened, made it hard to breathe. He shut his eyes for a long moment. “The ephorate will find you guilty. You assassinated General Thur-Azaroth, there were witnesses. You didn’t even deny it.”

“I know. It wasn’t my stealthiest moment.”

He kept his eyes shut. He couldn’t bring himself to pry them open and see her sitting there, defiant. Stubborn.

Dead.

“Apologize, and I can forgive you. You know what happens if you don’t.”

“I’ll think about it,” she said, in a tone that implied she had already thought about it, and given her final answer.

He nodded and turned his back to her. As he lifted his hand to extinguish the torches, her voice stopped him.

“I’ll take whatever comes my way tomorrow. I can live – or die, I guess – with my actions. But how can you?”

“Excuse me?” The question caught him off-guard, like a punch in the face from a friend. “How can I?”

                “Just asking.” Her voice was cold. “I’m not the one who sent a brutal general and a warlock to make an example of an entire coastal city.”

He didn’t turn around. “They shouldn’t have committed high treason.”

“You’re the one who made it high treason.”

Her words fell on his amazed, horrified ears. She was so far gone she couldn’t discern left from right, right from wrong. “I am not looking forward to tomorrow,” he said stiffly. “But the kingdom will be the better for it.”

Nobody could insult him, call him a coward, and get away with it. If it took burning a city to ash to prove it, then it was the right thing.

He was the emperor, Kazariah Henge, and he had said so.

He snapped his fingers, and the flames blew out.

 

 

Walking Stick: A Prompt

Last week I wrote a brief scene (probably inspiration for a series of short stories – I’ve never been a prompt person before, but I’m finding it a good way to get writing in when I’m lacking a lot of energy) based on the common prompt:

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“He is a weapon, a killer. Don’t forget that. You can use a spear as a walking stick but that will not change its nature.”


Varlet didn’t bother looking up. “That’s a lot better than your last opening line.”

“I was talking about the creature.”

“Oh, him?” She patted the side of the enormous black dog lying underneath her, like a living rug. He was an impressive specimen, no matter what kingdom you hailed from – one of the last Ceberi, a three-headed creature, dog-like if not for the burning red eyes, hellish voice, and the fact it was the size of a king-sized bed. “He’s comfortable. Stop calling him a walking stick.”

“I didn’t call him a walking stick,” said Archimedes, his spectacles sliding down his aristocratic nose.

“Yes, you did.”

“I called him a spear, being used for—” He squeezed his eyes shut and sighed. “Nevermind. You know full well what I meant. And it wasn’t an opening line, just an observation.”

“Ah.” She rolled over on her back, thick swaths of Dionyro’s fur warm and soft against the bare skin of her arms. “Well, you should stick to writing plays. I really liked that last one you did – what was it? Smiling Without Teeth?”

“Varl – no!  A Sharp-Toothed Smile, and it wasn’t a play, it was a historical retelling of the murder of Praetor Chanice.”

“Oh, right! Sorry. It was excellent.”

“You didn’t even watch it.”

“I did so.”

“You fell asleep eight minutes in. I noticed.”

She sighed and sat up, leaning back on her palms. The monster under her rolled slightly, but didn’t knock her off. All three heads let out a tired grunt. “You have my deepest apologies. I trained all day that day.”

“Naturally,” said Archimedes, tweaking his glasses.

His eyes were twitching, Varlet noticed – they did that when he tried not to roll them. “You might as well just groan and call me hopeless before you give yourself a seizure,” she advised.

He snapped shut the book in his hands and straightened. “Bear in mind what I said, young lady.”

She scoffed. “I’m three years your junior. Should I start calling you Grandpa?”

“Spear,” he said tartly. “Walking stick.” And with that he swept out of the room, his scholar’s robe crinkling like tissue paper as he shut the door behind him.

Varlet rolled off the Cerberi. “Don’t listen to him,” she said.

The massive black shape shifted and shrunk, growing smaller, though still a good bit larger than her. The humanoid figure, still covered in glossy black fur, stretched his legs out next to her. All three of his jackal-heads grinned at her, red tongues caged by white teeth the size of her thumb.

“I won’t,” he said.


My favorite prompts are intriguing + angsty + probably a little foreboding, something with a lot of potential. Do you have any favorites?

More than Stardust

It would be hard to know me for more than a few days before figuring out I love David Bowie – if it even took that long. A glance at my room would show two framed pictures on the wall, and another painting of Jareth placed over my desk. A Jareth figurine stands on the top shelf of my book case. My denim jacket has a Ziggy Stardust pin. My phone lock screen features one of my favorite images of Bowie, and my phone wallpaper is a graphic featuring his lyrics, ‘We could be heroes just for one day.’ It’s not obsession, although I can see why it might look that way – but it is homage, because yes, I love David Bowie. I have for a very long time. But also, I owe a lot of myself to him.

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The first time I recall hearing any of his music, I was in my early teens. I was watching A Knight’s Tale for the first time, and his song ‘Golden Years’ played during the dance scene. I only knew it was Bowie because I looked it up. It wasn’t until a few years later that Bowie re-entered my life, but he did it at just the right time. I don’t even remember exactly how it happened. It was bit by bit that I grew to love him; a song here, a movie there, an interview over here.

I was at a time in my teens where I wasn’t sure who I was – was I shy and quiet? Was I outgoing and extroverted? What were my goals? Did I want to write, to paint, to train horses, to do something else entirely? I was messing around with my best friend at the time, in a toxic relationship. Was that where I wanted to go? Was I going to become someone strong and confident who could say no and make the right decisions, or was I going to sink into the mire of what was easy? Was I going to continue being an angry, hot-tempered, sharp-tongued person, or was I going to be the gentle, kind, wise, loving person I idealized? It was a time for making decisions – every decision possible, all at once; or so it seemed.

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I’ve always gone through phases. That hasn’t changed, even though I’ve become steady and I know who I am as much as anyone in their twenties can – things about me can change from year to year. One year my style is wildly different from the previous year. One year, my favorite genre is fantasy and the next year it’s non-fiction history. Who I want to be changes year to year, too. These drastic swings have always been a part of my life, even as a child, but I always felt they were supposed to stop at some point. One day I was supposed to figure out exactly who I was and stay that way forever.

Until, that is, I discovered David Bowie. Without realizing it, he began to teach me in ways I didn’t fully realize until after his death two years ago. Today would have been David Bowie’s 72nd birthday. He’ll never know what he did for me, but it was a lot.

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He helped me realize that it was okay to have phases. It was okay to change. He taught me that not every phase is good, and sometimes who you are for a season is someone who you regret. Granted, I never went through a neo-nazi phase full of sugar and cocaine, but I had my moments. Not all of his phases were popular with people, either, and that was okay. He expressed himself, whoever he happened to be at the time, and he did it without apology. He embraced regrets and learned from them. He shifted from one facet of himself to another with unapologetic ease and gentle good humor. For someone as flamboyant and dramatic as he seemed, he was a quiet, sensitive person. People don’t usually think of those two traits existing simultaneously.

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He taught me that I had to choose, yes. I had to choose who I wanted to be, but I didn’t need to stay that way. I could change. He also taught me that it was okay to seem like a contradiction. I could be thoughtful and quiet and still be dramatic and outgoing when I wanted to be. I could be strong without being angry. I could embrace the phases I went through, because as long as I knew who I was in my core, who my center being was, I could express it any way I wanted. He taught me that change doesn’t mean you’re fickle, that allowing yourself to change your mind and find new outlooks was a unique strength in itself. He had mismatched eyes, strange teeth. His voice wasn’t typical; sometimes it wasn’t even particularly good. He wasn’t perfect – but he was fully, vibrantly himself.

He would say things that resonated with me in a way nothing else did. “I always had a repulsive need to be something more than human.”

“I had to resign myself, many years ago, that I’m not too articulate when it comes to explaining how I feel about things. But my music does it for me, it really does.”

“I feel confident imposing change on myself. It’s a lot more fun progressing than looking back.”

“I feel confident imposing change on myself. It’s a lot more fun progressing than looking back.”

He would talk about how people would place their own versions of who David Bowie was onto him, and how he had to learn to live with that, to accept that who he was needed to remain free of those projections. My default setting is to please people, and for a long time I let people place their projections onto me, and tried my hardest to be that. Until, that is, I realized that it was okay to please people – as long as I was wholly myself, and didn’t sacrifice pieces of my being in order to feed lies.

There’s a story about David Bowie, right after Labyrinth aired.

‘I was withdrawn, more withdrawn than the other kids. We all got a signed poster. Because I was so shy, they put me in a separate room, to one side, and so I got to meet him alone. He’d heard I was shy and it was his idea. He spent thirty minutes with me.

‘He gave me this mask. This one. Look.

‘He said: ‘This is an invisible mask, you see?

‘He took it off his own face and looked around like he was scared and uncomfortable all of a sudden. He passed me his invisible mask. ‘Put it on,’ he told me. ‘It’s magic.’

‘And so I did.

‘Then he told me, ‘I always feel afraid, just the same as you. But I wear this mask every single day. And it doesn’t take the fear away, but it makes it feel a bit better. I feel brave enough then to face the whole world and all the people. And now you will, too.

‘I sat there in his magic mask, looking through the eyes at David Bowie and it was true, I did feel better.

‘Then I watched as he made another magic mask. He spun it out of thin air, out of nothing at all. He finished it and smiled and then he put it on. And he looked so relieved and pleased. He smiled at me.

‘’Now we’ve both got invisible masks. We can both see through them perfectly well and no one would know we’re even wearing them,’ he said.

‘So, I felt incredibly comfortable. It was the first time I felt safe in my whole life.

‘It was magic. He was a wizard. He was a goblin king, grinning at me.

‘I still keep the mask, of course. This is it, now. Look.’

I love every song on the Labyrinth soundtrack. I love the classic songs, like ‘Heroes’ and ‘Space Oddity.’ But my favorite song of his remains the still popular but slightly lesser-known ‘Starman.’ Without any discernible reason, that song reminds me of myself. It feels like home. It feels like the place in my soul that wants to be a secret, and also absolutely known.

My mom and I joked once, a handful of months ago, that David Bowie was keeping an eye on me from the stars. Later that day, I was in a book store, studying the beautiful artwork in a book of Labyrinth tribute art. As I studied my favorite painting – the one on the cover, the process of which was shown at the end of the book – what song should start playing through the store speakers but ‘Starman.’

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I’m a YouTuber Now (Kinda)

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While I tend to talk about writing on this blog, I’m actually an artist. It’s what I do, it’s where my revenue comes from, and I talk about it everywhere but here – which is a little odd, honestly. If you want to hear more about art here, let me know! That said, I’m here to give myself an old-fashioned plug – where you can find my art around the rest of the internet!

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FACEBOOK: http://www.facebook.com/theartofmirriamneal

INSTAGRAM: http://www.instagram.com/theartofmirriamneal

MY STORE: http://www.mirriamelinart.storenvy.com

YOUTUBE: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCut73-Q5xVFu_jKqxpmXqrQ

YouTube is a brand-new venture for me, and I have a ton to learn + am very much figuring things out as I go. One of my goals this year is to get the whole YouTube thing figured out and have a high-quality, Aesthetically Pleasing™ channel for timelapses, paintings, Q and As, and general shenanigans.

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If you have any questions, feel free to leave them in a comment below or shoot them to my business email, mirriamneal@outlook.com!

I’m looking forward to incorporating more of the art-side of my life into my blog here in 2019. I hope you come along!

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