Cycles and Growth: the Hidden Blessings of 2016

New Year’s Eve has always held a sort of religious significance for me. Each year is a cycle, beginning with a clean slate on which to project your designs and desires. It will come with its own energies and events, but for those few brief moments at midnight on New Year’s Eve, the universe is full of possibility.
It also brings time to reflect on the year ending, and what we’ve learned along the way. 2016 will not go down as one of my better years. It was far from my worst (hello, 2012!) but it was a pretty spectacular mess. It was replete with drama, tragedy, and disappointment, along with what seemed like an endless string of death and destruction. There were times I wondered how I’d get through it, and times I felt like it would never end.
But through hardship there is growth. It might be an unpopular opinion, but I firmly believe that everything happens for a reason, and 2016 was full of learning opportunities. Whether we took advantage of them or reflected on the messages they sent was up to us—I know there were situations I immediately took as challenges and others that took me months to see the meaning in. But I know that I’m going into 2017 a very different individual than I started.
In 2016, I changed my major and narrowed my focus on what I hope will be a real career. I traveled abroad for the first time, and found that London really was everything I dreamed it would be. I met so many of my heroes and even for a moment, got inside their heads for a glimpse of what makes them so truly brilliant. I finally found my tribe, or maybe they found me (those of you reading know who you are, and I can’t tell you how grateful I am). But most importantly, I learned what really matters to me, and I learned how to fight for it. I found my voice and fought my fears and accomplished things I never really thought would happen–and I know there are more to come.
At the end of 2015, I posted this song. It felt like the perfect expression of optimism and embracing the unknown, and every new year comes with a certain degree of the unknown—we can either fear it, or face it with determination. This year brought us highs and lows. It ended cycles and lives, and gave us new projects, ambitions, and dreams. 2017 will be a new start, the beginning of a cycle. Undoubtedly, it will bring its own trials, its own hardships, but we’ll persevere, and we’ll use our knowledge of the past to propel ourselves into the future. I make a point of cataloging the first song I hear during the New Year, with a certain superstition that it will bring some knowledge of the year to follow. If you’re not at a party, or out with friends, queue up this song and manifest its determination. Think of how far we’ve come, and how to keep going. Keep trying, it’s all gonna be all right—in 2017 we’ll get it right.


Staring at the Ceiling: the Importance of Downtime

Two days before my first international flight, I broke my foot. Remarkably, it wasn’t the wild dancing in my five inch stilettos, it wasn’t from my dogged determination to channel my inner Cherry Pie on the club’s pole—I broke my foot when I kicked the door frame playing hide-and-seek with my cat. They say when you break a bone, you’ll know it, but this one took me a while. Once I got over the embarrassment and peeled myself off the floor, I washed my face, brushed my teeth, and went to bed. Sure it hurt, but I’d sleep it off. When I realized eight hours of sleep hadn’t given me back the ability to walk like someone who’s practiced the art for 20+ years, I thought maybe it was time to hit the doctor. Turns out, I’d split my second middle phalanx clean in half. I left the country with my foot precariously taped together and hobbled through England on a series of crutches and canes.
Four weeks later, I’d ditched the cane and stubbornly limped up and down the stairs of my third-floor walk-up like nothing had ever happened. In fact, my recheck was a formality: I never anticipated my podiatrist would tell me I should have had the break casted from the beginning, much less that I had damaged another bone from compensating for the better part of a month. Thus began my slow descent into madness as I found myself a club-footed prisoner in my family’s suburban home. When you live in the most notoriously bustling city on the planet, walk several miles daily, and enjoy the freedom of popping out to get whatever you want, whenever you want it, medical orders to stay off your feet in Suburbia, USA is a death sentence of boredom. Worse yet, my parents’ house is a Poké-Wasteland, nary a zubat or ratatta in sight. How was I going to hatch my 10k egg when I couldn’t even walk downstairs to check the mail?
Warstone Cemetery, Birmingham
Over the next few weeks, I plowed through a multitude of books, filled entire notebooks with journalistic psychobabble, and killed more than a couple bottles of wine. I colored my hair and called friends. I played cards and compiled playlists. In a time when other crises would have seen me running around town in an endless parade of distraction, my own physical helplessness had me trapped in far too small a space with my own thoughts. I spent far too much time sobbing into pillows and sleeplessly staring at ceilings. But it wasn’t all a desperate attempt to kill time—I signed up for some classes and meditations at the spiritual center my mother attends, returning sometimes several times a week for courses on crystal healing, astral projection, chromotherapy, mystical-feminine empowerment. In the process, I met several Channels who all had profound messages to pass to me. I’ve been working with tarot cards for over twenty years, but it’s been only recently that I’ve realized my cards have no power of their own—each card I pull means nothing on its own, but instead serves as a meditative tool to focus my attention and direct my intuition. The tarot is a comfortable system for me to work with, but given the practice and confidence, I could just as easily use anything to receive and deliver messages to my clients. With this knowledge behind me as I heard what each of these Channels had to tell me, I decided to explore the practice myself.
What I found was remarkable. It all made sense, and I realized I’d been using bits of the practice in my own life for some time. But most amazing of all was a passage written in one particular book about the importance of downtime. Downtime is imperative to clear the mind, relax the body, and allow ourselves to be open and ready to receive, whether we’re receiving divine wisdom, messages from the other side, or love from ourselves or others. As a Type-A Sagittarius with a streak of Overachieving Virgo Ascendent, my version of downtime is a lunch date with friends, window-shopping before school, outlining new essays, or painting something for a friend. But there’s nothing “down” about any of that. Even commonly-accepted modes of relaxation like Netflix marathons, devouring a novel, or catching up on YouTube subscriptions aren’t really downtime. Many of us haven’t experience true downtime since we were kids—laying in the grass and staring at the sky until we lost track of time, contemplating exactly nothing until we realize we’ve been sitting on the sofa in roughly the same spot for the last three hours. True downtime is literally taking the time to do nothing at all, and our minds and bodies need that.
So much of our self-worth is wrapped up in our productivity and our ability to be of service to others—if you can accomplish more than your coworkers, your friends, your family, then you become more valuable to the collective. But a constant stream of productivity dulls us like scissors: if our mind and body are out of synch, cutting at different speeds and intensities, we no longer function as we should. Everything is just off, whether or not it affects our lives noticeably. Downtime allows us to reset, to realign, making us feel more comfortable within ourselves and leaving us more room to connect to the people and things that matter most to us. It seems counterintuitive to spend those spare moments quietly alone when we want to be closer to the people we care about, but when we use that time to clear away the mental static and emotional haze within ourselves, it leaves more room for healthy, productive relationships.
This realization hit me like the Broadway local at rush hour—all these years, I’ve been struggling to fill every last second of my life with activity. Hustling is a full time job these days, and everyone seems to have at least three major games to play to set them ahead. Competition is a way of life. But there’s a reason we still hear about Aesop’s tortoise and his long-eared running mate: when you take time out to yourself, to contemplate your place in the world around you and simply exist for a few moments in time, you come out ahead, especially when your competition is racing along without the slightest idea of what they’re fulfilling…and what they’re not.
Two days after this flooded my mind, forcing me to spend the better part of an evening laying on the floor, visualizing these lessons like projections on the white space of the ceiling, the doctor cut off my cast and told me I was a free woman. I’m still supposed to take it easy, to avoid walking so many miles in a day or wearing my favourite heels for some weeks to come, but I can get back to the life I’ve built for myself. It was like everything—my broken foot, my damaged bone, my extended stay in suburbia—was a direct hit with the Universal baseball bat telling me to slow down, if not by choice, then by any means necessary. Being forced to a stop was the only way for me to learn this all important lesson. And like any lesson learned, once I passed the test, I was allowed to move on. My life won’t be like it was before all of this occurred, and I don’t expect it to be, but I’ll be implementing my newly acquired knowledge as I rebuild. Opportunities for downtime will be built into my schedule to keep things on track, even if it means forcing myself into group meditations or blocking off hours in the park. Personal growth should always be a priority—if you aren’t moving forward, you’re standing still.

Love Songs Don’t Lie: the Death of Romance, and a Valentine’s Day Playlist

Romance is dead. It was a devastating realization for someone who grew up on stories like the Phantom of the Opera and Wuthering Heights. I spent my childhood swishing around with stars in my eyes, writing my own love story in my head–my soulmate would see me in the opposite box at the opera, across a ballroom crowded with waltzing couples, drinking espresso at a sidewalk cafe, and instantly fall in love with my tumbling waves of raven hair, my fiery russet eyes, my almond-creme skin. He would find me irresistibly charming, witty, talented, and whisk me off to Paris, or New York, or Carpathia to love me til death and beyond. Every year, I waited for it to happen. It wasn’t an if, it was a when…

But ten years later with a string of volatile, unstable relationships behind me, I had lost faith. Romance was just another fairy tale, something reserved for novels and cinema, not something that happened to real people in everyday life and anyone who said otherwise was delusional. Those who had magical stories about meeting their partners were embellishing for presentation. There was no Heathcliff, there was no Erik, and my youthful ideas about true love were an embarrassing blip that time would eventually strike from the record. The stories I once loved now seemed pathetic. I told myself that it was all in the spirit of childhood fantasy, that I had simply grown up. So I swapped sighs for cynicism and swept it all behind me.
And then, one day, I found myself crying on 1st Avenue. It had suddenly occurred to me that I had resigned myself to a life of dull mediocrity, where things were convenient and accessible. Love songs and sonnets aren’t created from ambivalence. I had been moved to tears by a love song, one I had heard hundreds of times before—I realized that the romantic had never died, I had simply hidden her away. Romance is delicate, fragile. It can be wounded easily, and takes time and care to recover. I’ve always advocated self-invention, creating art out of life, yet I had completely ignored that particular plot point, leaving it all to chance in an often-hostile setting. But I also don’t believe in coincidences—standing that morning on the sidewalk, blinking back tears as I listened to lyrics, I knew something had been set in motion. I had opened up to the Universe, and the Universe never misses an opportunity to set things right.
If we’re being completely honest, part of me never stopped believing in love: I’ve always thrilled at vampire stories, paranormal romances—hell, I even stalked out wedding blogs. And despite a lifetime of truly disastrous events, Valentine’s Day has always been one of my favorite holidays. But since that fateful morning, I can fully count myself among the faithful. I love hearing about how couples met, I emotionally invest in relationships between fictional characters, and there have been many, many repeat performances of my sidewalk waterworks. It may sound sappy, naive, or radically uncool, but I believe my life is richer for it. It can be scary to open yourself up to something that might feel like nothing more than a pretty idea, but if you don’t take the risk, you’ll never see the reward. Believe me, I know what it’s like to be hurt, disillusioned, let down—it’s been worth every second of sadness to appreciate the happiness that can come from putting your trust into another human being, and watching the magic that happens when two people believe in a feeling.
the Lovers
This Valentine’s weekend, whether you find yourself banding together with friends, painting the town with a lover, or comfortably at home with family, consider your emotions. Where do they come from? Are they from the heart, from the core of your soul? Have you dredged whatever deep, labyrinthine recesses you hide under the surface? Or are you sitting safely in the shallows, feeling from the surface? Open up. The Universe is listening.
If you need some inspiration, I put together a Spotify playlist to serenade you. Inside, you’ll find some heartbreaking love songs, some smoldering seductions, songs for soulmates, and just-for-the-moment lovers. No matter where you are, there’s magic to be found: it turns out, love songs don’t lie.


Illustration from the Shadowscapes Tarot, by Stephanie Pui-Mun Law

(Un)lost: the magic of New Years and an open letter to 2016

Change happens. Time marches on and we’re all left to put together the pieces left behind. Every year, at 11:59 on 31st December, we hold our breath and wait for change to wash over us. It comes in effervescent waves of champagne, noisy blows of party horns and the drunken cries of elated strangers. For one beautiful instant, we’re all united in our desire for change, looking with fresh eyes at the first moments of the new year, dripping with possibility and sparkling confetti. Wishes hang in the air like raindrops, washing away the negativity of the expired year.

Somewhere beneath 53rd St, the last few seconds of 2015 drowned in the strains of an upbeat 80’s pop song. I turned to my boyfriend and closed my eyes as we greeted 2016 together in a kiss, mentally listing my goals for the new year in a ritual older than I can remember. Familiar strangers patted shoulders and shook hands, united in the experience of watching the resurrection of the year. Some ten blocks downtown, Times Square was still a tangle of bodies, littered with coloured paper inscribed with the wishes of tens thousands. Despite the frenetic energy all around me, there was something so natural about the fresh new year. I all ready felt at home in its round, even digits mere moments in.

2015 was a year of adjustments: I spent the first half of the year adjusting to a new city, a new apartment, a new school. I adjusted my courses, my major, my career. I adjusted to new rolls within my family, my friendships, and my personal life. Some of it was incredibly trying, painful, intimidating. Some of it brought more happiness than I knew was possible. 2015 brought with it moments I will undoubtedly recall forever among the best and the worst, and for all of them, I am grateful. But 2016 is here, and with it come new lessons.

For years, I’ve sat on the floor with my cards some time after midnight and drawn for the coming year: one initial card for each month with an additional card or two for additional insight, creating a twelve-spot circle before me, laying a single card in the middle for the general theme of the year as a whole. In 2016, amongst an assortment of ambitious wands and root-laying pentacles, that central card spoke of letting go, moving forward, and looking to the future. While this reading was a personal one, meant for my own meditative purposes, I can’t think of a better message to move into the new year.

from the Thoth deck

from the Thoth deck

Whether 2015 was a dream come true or a waking nightmare, it’s time to put it to bed. It’s time to process the past, take an inventory of lessons learned, and suit up for the journey ahead. 2016 can take you to fantastic new places as long as you’re ready to make the trip. Even if the past is full of heartbreak and hardship, it can be hard to leave. The past is familiar, and familiar is comfortable. We know where we’ve been, and it’s so easy to stay there. 2016 challenges you to look beyond the horizon, to trust that the wild unknown is better than the beaten path, that your destination is still ahead. There will be thorns to dodge, storms to weather, bridges to cross, but where there’s a will there’s a way, and fortune favours the bold. 2016 begs you to be bold. I can’t help but hear John O’Callaghan in my head, singing words I never knew would be so relevant when I first heard them in March–

Unaware of where I’m going
Or if I’m going anywhere at all
But I know I’ll take the leap
If it is worth the fall
So long as the blood keeps flowing
I’ll set a sail and swim across
I’m not looking to be found
Just want to feel (un) lost

So, 2016, take it slow, control what you can, confront what you can’t, and always remember how lucky you are to have yourself. Whether 2016 is “our” year remains to be seen, but I can pretty much guarantee it’s a step down the right path.


How Did I Get Here? How I moved to New York to follow my dreams

The other day, I woke up with David Byrne’s voice echoing through my head–“How did I get here?” As the sunlight streamed through my window much like the trickling synthesizer behind the questions posed, I realized that my life has changed beyond recognition in the proverbial blink of an eye. I got out of the bed I never thought I’d sleep in, fed the cat I never thought I’d adopt, walked the door I never thought would mark the boundaries of a space I never believed I’d inhabit. And like some fantastic notion of a life I’d always wanted but never thought possible, I head off each day to a school I’m proud to attend, and live in a neighborhood that swells my heart to call home.


But for all its upbeat new wave sweetness, the song so resolutely planted in my mind is actually quite melancholy. I marvel at how quickly my life has transformed, but the song itself recalls more of the emotions that kept me in my previous place. Like the “water underground”, so deadly and destructive in its most overwhelming, awesome form, I know what held me back was fear. I was afraid that moving wasn’t practical, that I wasn’t good enough to get into school, that my family would resent me for wanting more than I had. I was afraid that if I took the necessary risks, I’d be left with nothing. Fear is paralyzing, and having a little–a mind-numbing job, a general education, a room in my family home–is better than having nothing at all.

I often looked at people my age, even younger, living in New York City and wondered what they were doing that I wasn’t. They sold coffee or clothing or answered phones or served food, they enrolled in prestigious programs or worked towards higher degrees, they dressed in stylish clothes and wore their hair however they pleased–why couldn’t I? I asked friends and acquaintances who lived in the city how they organized their moves, but their responses were overwhelmingly similar–“I didn’t.” It seemed as if everyone I knew acted on instinct, following their hearts and figuring out details later. But I was too afraid to follow suit, citing practicality as my excuse.


And then some time in July of last year, everything changed. There was an itch under my skin that simply wouldn’t go away. No class I took, no work I did could banish the awful, creeping feeling that I was wasting my time. I felt like I was drowning in familiarity. So I did the only thing I could think of to push myself to the surface: I applied to new schools. Some were in places I’d never seen with my own eyes, others in places I’d visited and thought of fondly, but all schools I could envision as the start of a new life chapter. It wasn’t an instant fix–in fact, the fear got much, much worse before it began to fade. I can’t even tell you that it disappeared entirely–there are nights I come home and wonder how on earth I’ll be able to sustain this new life I’ve built for myself. The difference is, now I know it’s not impossible.


Every day is an adventure, full of hope and love and dreams I didn’t even realize I had. I meet fascinating people and encounter puzzling sights. I’m presented with challenges that I’m happy to meet head-on and best of all, I get to be endlessly creative. I’m still adjusting to the freedom I’ve given myself, still learning how to stretch and grow and quiet the fear that keeps me from testing my boundaries. But every step is a step closer, and I’m excited to see where I go next.

If any of this sounds familiar, take the advice that I never accepted: go. Do. Become. Don’t mistake fear for practicality. Don’t listen to the trickle of doubt in the back of your mind–it can become a flood without warning and sweep you away. Don’t drown in your uncertainty. Things will come together when you stop holding yourself back.


Is this Madness? Noveling in July: Camp NaNoWriMo

Caffeine buzz like a fever, hands flying over the keyboard as if controlled by an outside force, you finally get rolling halfway through your second hour in the bookstore cafe. Your word count is finally piling up, after hours of watching it slowly tick up one word after another. Things are finally starting to click. This is the National Novel Writing Month flow, the anticipated fury of writing 50,000 words in 30 days. Each November that I participate, I know it will be a headache-enducing, coffee-guzzling, free-falling dive into a brave new world of plot. Sometimes, I have a strict outline–I know how things begin, what needs to happen in the middle, and how everything will end. Other times, I have a handful of characters I want to write about and find that they grow and evolve and interact almost on their own, with very little direction from me personally. Each time is incredibly rewarding, and I come out feeling like I’ve learned something about myself as a writer and an artist that I might not have learned otherwise.


Last November, I did not participate. I had a full-time job, a photo lab that kept me in the darkroom for an extra ten hours outside of class time, and was struggling with balancing my personal problems with my professional life–adding a 50,000 words on top of it all was simply a commitment I couldn’t make. Since then, life has calmed down. I still have classes that require a lot of my time, but I quit my job which freed up a massive chunk of my schedule. Summer is usually more laid back, my schedule not quite as full, and not nearly as many challenges to meet head-on. As someone who thrives on challenge, this isn’t always a wonderful thing–I love an assignment, something to creatively think around and find my way through. When I heard about Camp NaNoWriMo, I knew I had to sign up. It’s still 50,000 words in 30 days, but it’s in July.


So what will I be writing about? I have no idea. But I’ve got six days to figure out my genre before Cabin Assignments are made–a cute little bit of camp kitsch to pair up with like-minded writers for inspiration and encouragement. With absolutely no ideas going in, is this madness? Not at all! Some of the most exciting writing experiences have started with nothing at all. At the end of the day, this is about having fun, stretching creative muscles, and applying yourself to something new and different. It’s an excuse to listen to some new (or old favourite) music, brew up your favourite refreshments, and fall in love with a fresh project.

Metamorphosis, Writing

Trusting my Path, or what three years of blogging has really taught me

There are days where I wake up feeling inherently dissatisfied with myself. It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact emotion–it’s a sadness, an anger, an anxiousness that’s so pervasive I feel like I’m drowning in it. It’s like waking up with a spiritual headache, a gaping wound in the soul. It’s impossible to say exactly why these days happen, what triggers them, and part of the anger is the frustration of knowing I should have a better handle on my emotions. –and that’s the very thought that reels it all back in: I am not a robot. Neither is anyone else living and feeling on this crazy little planet called Earth. We all have permission to feel and emote, regardless of how much sense those emotions really make sometimes.

cicadas Brood II

Before I even bought a domain, when I was still writing on LiveJournal and toying with the idea of starting a proper blog, I played with a few different themes–book reviews, food writing, recipes, makeup tutorials all spun through my head as I envisioned layouts, upkeep, coding, and producing content. When I finally bought this domain in 2010, my initial plan was to document the changes I wanted to see in myself, my personal transformation into the individual I wanted to be. I was going to face fears and take chances to become one of the bold and daring Internet Mavens I had followed on and off for years. There really wasn’t much of that, and the whole thing sort of de-railed and became a generic cosmetics blog full of lifeless product reviews and half-hearted looks. But in a way, I accomplished the original goal completely behind the scenes: I took chances and struck up conversations I wouldn’t have otherwise, I tried on roles I was too shy to originally assume, and I pursued jobs I might have been too insecure to apply for. It wasn’t that I was becoming someone else–I had been that person all along, and simply found the courage to realize it.

self portrait, April 2013

self portrait, April 2013

I have come a very long way in the last three years, but of course, I’m not fully satisfied with where I am just yet. I’m a driven individual and I don’t settle for “good enough,” but I’m learning to accept the steps along the way. I need to enjoy each level as I climb, to take in every detail necessary so I don’t have to head back down for something I missed. Trusting the path I’m on has been one of my biggest challenges. There are days I tell myself that I wasted my time in culinary school because I could have been finishing my degree in art, or I should never have gotten my cosmetology license because I should have been studying creative writing or journalism. What a waste of energy! It’s so tempting to think of what could  have been or what I should  have done, but the truth is that everything I’ve done and everything that’s happened to me has shaped who I am. I would not be standing at the point I am today without every decision I’ve made along the way. And it’s tempting to think that I’m no where, that I’ve accomplished nothing that makes this point notable–but compared to the point I stood at three years ago, it’s a remarkable change. 

photo by Made U Look

photo by Made U Look

Three years ago, I was adrift in a sea of comparisons. There were so many people I envied, so many people I wished I could be. But comparisons are unhealthy and destructive. You are your own person on your own path, and while other people may influence you to explore one direction or another, you cannot follow them or replace them. In the age of social media, it’s hard to ignore someone that annoys you, or makes you deviate from your path. Just remember that people act out for attention because they’re hurting–they desperately seek approval or put others down because they need to feel important. Their anger and sadness can be contagious, and it’s easier to disengage than to fall prey and remedy yourself. The next time you think about spewing venom at or about someone, think about why you feel the way you do. Consider what they’ve done to upset you and where that came from within them. Then let it go. It can be hard, but in the end, it’s better to let the negativity dissipate than to release it into the universe.


Any time I wonder if I’m heading in the right direction, or feel like I’ve gone down the wrong road in life, I take a moment to look around me. If I look hard enough, there are signs everywhere–a flower, an insect, a bird, a song on the radio, all confirming for me what I all ready know deep down inside: that I am exactly where I need to be right now.


Transformation, Rebirth, and Brood II

I believe in the power of Names. In their primary function of identifiers, they’re not only used to give commands but also offer insight into the thing being named. When I tell people the name of my blog (or my email address, or Twitter handle, or Instagram), they inevitably ask, “Why cicadas?” The answer is usually more than they bargained for because as much as I believe in names, I also believe in symbols–and the cicada is a powerful symbol.

FX Photo Studio_image-10

When I registered my domain, QueenCicada was simply the screen name I had been using at that point. My blog was originally titled “Metamorphosis,” tying in with my transformative theme and insect infatuation. When I decided to rebrand, I wasn’t sure anyone would understand the tie or that it would turn off potential readers–but the truth is, the cicada is a symbol of beauty and creativity too. Cicadas turn up in a fascinating myth mentioned by Plato in “Phaedrus.” According to the heartbreakingly beautiful story, cicadas were originally human beings devoted to the Muses, classic Greek personifications of the arts. They sang their love for so long and with such depth of emotion that they couldn’t stop to eat or drink, never even realizing they had died. The Muses rewarded them by transforming them into creatures that neither eat, nor drink, nor sleep, able to sing and dance from the moment they are born until the moment they die. Humans enchanted by their music clearly recognize beauty in life, more susceptible to the call of the Muses than those than continue on with their lives, ignoring the insects’ song. But that’s not entirely where my cicada inspiration came from.

FX Photo Studio_image-11

When I’m in need of guidance, I often seek out a model or ideal. I’ve never been one to look to heroes or idols like celebrities as role models, so while some people aspire to the beauty of Marilyn Monroe or the charm of Audrey Hepburn, I’ve found my inspiration in more primal sources. As a child, I saw the cheetah as a guide to reconcile playfulness with grace, while I later looked to the turtle to develop a strong sense of home while learning to reach out and explore the world before me. I turned to certain animals at certain times based on what I knew of their nature and life cycle, trying to incorporate their ancient wisdom into my daily life. But the cicada came to me in a very different manner.

FX Photo Studio_image-12

Years ago, the tea shop I worked in got a ceramic tea pot in from China. It was a delicate basket-weave design, topped with a perfectly sculpted cicada on the lid. I was positively taken with it. Each day I worked, I thought about the insect on top, why it would be chosen to adorn something people would put on their table and drink tea from–in our Western society, insects are usually considered unclean and just generally icky. What little I knew about cicadas didn’t seem to clarify anything: I knew they were periodic, and shed their skins to transform their shape much like butterflies from their cocoons. What I learned was that they’ve been powerful symbols of immortality and life after death in the East. Their lifespans are remarkably long for an insect, and the shedding of their nymph skins is symbolic of a triumph over death, of life beginning again as one stage ends. It’s an incredibly powerful idea, and the more I thought about it, the more it moved me. My life, like so many others’, has been cyclical.When things seem to be incredibly difficult and impossible to move past, I’m often too frustrated and exhausted to recognize the valuable experiences that I ultimately take away.  It’s only looking back that I realize what an important period of growth I had completed and can experience the amazing rebirth as a result. I firmly believe the universe has a way of wiping the record clean when we absolutely need it: we can be reborn into new cycles.

Screen Shot 2013-05-23 at 4.07.24

This week has been incredibly emotional for me: my area is beginning to see the first wave of Brood II. Just days ago, I watched as dozens of cicada nymphs emerged from the ground, perching on trees, plants, decks, walls, tables, or street signs to shed their skins and take to the air. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this event coincides what I’m sure is going to be a summer of self-discovery for me, one of my greatest periods of rebirth yet. Each one of those tiny nymphs represents a hope or dream I have for my future: some will tear through their skins and emerge mature and complete, while others will be trampled before they have chance, experience snags, or form improperly. My heart breaks as I see mangled wings, missing legs, blinded eyes, but I know that nature isn’t always kind and trust that it’s part of the universal plan. As long as some of those live on to give new life, to inspire future hopes and dreams, they’ve succeeded. It’s a standard I also aspire to.


The Monsters in my Head

The skeletons that tormented me as a child were very real, but most of my other monstrous fears were rooted in nothing but my overactive imagination. I had a knack for throwing myself into a fear-frenzy, imagining all sorts of spine-tingling situations and allowing them to escalate to the point where every cell in my body vibrated with nervous energy. It could happen anywhere: in my room after bedtime, in the darkened hallway that separated me from my parents, in the harsh light of the bathroom that I hoped would set me at ease. In the worst situations, I would fall into a sort of paralysis, too frightened to move but terrified to remain where I was–I could only gather every last ounce of my courage to make a sudden leap forward and bolt towards my ultimate destination. It was a near-nightly occurrence for about five years. My poor parents tried everything, arming me with dream catchers, rosaries, “magic” blankets, watchdog plushes, even cable TV to protect or distract me from whatever the Fear du Jour happened to be. While their creativity is commendable, I still found ways to scare myself.

And then, it suddenly stopped. It wasn’t the protective talismans, the magic dolls, the enchanted items–it stopped the same way it began: with my imagination. In a remarkable gesture of childhood logic, I realized that my imagination was far more terrifying than anything that could possibly exist in the real world. That meant that was far more terrifying than anything I could encounter in my hallway, or my bathroom, or my bed. I was suddenly empowered. Even as I grew up, reading about serial murderers and cult  killers and plenty of very real things that could do me harm, it remained a sort of mantra. Descending the basement steps to do my laundry at night it less unnerving when I remind myself that any monsters lurking beneath couldn’t be half as terrifying as the things that live in my own head.

As May Monster Madness draws to a close, I wanted to share with you some of my own work. I wrote these snippets several years ago, as a tie-in to a novel I was working on at the time. It was about a girl devoted to a horrific, ancient god and the man who sought knowledge of it, but the pieces below are about their daughter. They’re over-written and need a lot of work, but since they didn’t really belong to anything, I didn’t worry much about them as they sat in my scrapbook. Perhaps someday, Melissa and the monsters inside her head will deserve their own story.

Blue eyes stared upwards, studying the moulded plaster ceiling as if its bouquets ribbons held news of her fate. They hid no ghouls, she reasoned, but they bore no angels, either. Melissa sat up slowly, her watery eyes rippling with disturbances: every night, the terrors gripped her. The moment she turned out her lamp, they came, brandishing their talons like swords and licking their knife-like fangs. When she was little, she could close her eyes and will them away, but no longer–their eyes had taken on a deadly phosphorescence, piercing the darkness to find her. Now they turned her inside-out, her eyes stinging with the smoke of Hell’s fires as her lids fluttered against the back of her skull. They danced for her to the primal beat of their drums, terrible instruments crudely fashioned of parts she dare not speculate the origins of. …and each morning, as the sun rose, they would clamber towards her, claws outstretched, mouths and tongues shaping words of love and devotion. On the light of the Great Star they would disappear, uttering vows of their return…and finally, exhausted, Melissa would sleep.
From the foot of her bed, the mirror glinted, beckoning. She raised a hand to touch her face: long, pianist’s fingers brushed across the smooth, alabaster surface–so different she looked with living flesh. Certainly, she was more accustomed to seeing herself as a collection of gleaming red muscle and pearly pink bone, reflected in the eyes of her monstrous bedfellows and in the muculent trails borne by the floors where they walked.
Convinced as she was of their existence, Melissa crept cautiously to the foor of her bed, avoiding any swift or heavy movements that might rouse the beasts beneath. She was fixated, still, on her eyes, heavily fringed in white and gold–she remembered a time when these lashes gave her a sleepy, tranquil appearance. Now, it was rare that she didn’t look frightened, like a rabbit that has come to feel the hot, hungry breath of the fox on his neck.

“Yes, poor dear!–blessed as you are with those big blue eyes and golden curls!” The boisterous presence of the old housekeeper caused Melissa to jump, nearly tumbling off the bed–a mistake which, to her, could prove fatal. “Sorry to frighten you, but your father is holding breakfast…”

The warmth of life stirred beneath her, a welcome albeit alien sensation. Eyelids fought anxiously to open, wishing desperately to throw off the cover of sleep. …But for the first time in her life, Melissa resisted. Never before had she awoken at her leisure, undisturbed by her ghoulish consorts and their nightmarish mummery. Rather, she recalled nothing but bliss. Through the dusky veils of intoxication, she witnessed scenes of passion, played out as tenderly as she had never imagined love could be; with a script of foreign and endearing words; a choreography of writhing flourishes. The very thought brought a smile to her rosepetal lips and she playfully flicked a fingertip over her lover’s tool, touching it to her lips and tongue searching for the now-familiar bitterness. …this taste, too, was familiar, but not the same pungent salt of last night. This was too familiar, too customary…like sacramental wine to a priest, her tongue was trained to receive…

Blood. Sticky, hot…her spine quivered as the coppery spice hit her nerves. She wanted to be repulsed, both by the taste and by herself–for she knew no monster of her nightmare world could have committed these heinous tasks, created this grotesque work of deadly art. None of her horrid consorts would have torn his flesh to reveal the pearly bone and tendon within, sucking him dry of fluid and stripping him of tender meat. No…this was the stuff of her own dark fantasy. This was her own doing.

Looking over at the husk beside her, the bag of tattered skin and bones, her blue eyes glazed, water trickling down with a heat from the back of her skull…

Brought to you as part of the May Monster Madness Blog Hop —


Integral Fear: the Monsters of Junji Ito

Most children are afraid of the things around them, real and imagined, but I was worse than most. Halloween was a trauma that repeated every year–I couldn’t turn on a television, listen to a radio, or even follow my mother into a grocery store without being faced by some terrifying monster or another. Frankenstein’s Monster and Dracula adorned doors and windows in the form of stylized cartoon cutouts, and I often had the imprint of weekly circulars on my face from pressing them against my eyes as my mother led me around stores. But the thing that chilled me most was hardly a monster at all: it was a basic component of human life. My biggest childhood fear was the human skeleton. There was something about the proportions of it, the incompleteness of a creature full of holes and open space that gave me chills. The skeletal figures in films or cartoons moved with distorted, jerky motions that made my skin crawl. It was a monster I imagined at the end of every dark hallway, in every ill-lit closet, under every proverbial bed. My mother thought it would calm my nerves to tell me that we each hid our very own skeleton inside, but it only made things worse. That only meant there was a monster inside of me, hidden just beneath the surface of my own skin.

image by Shigeru Mizuki

image by Shigeru Mizuki

Perhaps this is why, when fear turned to fascination, I found myself obsessed with Japanese horror. There was a certain psychology to their hauntings and invasions that I was taken in by, and a sense of poetry to their direction that I couldn’t find in Western horror. As an artist, I was drawn to manga, the comic culture of Japan, and was pleased to find a decent amount of horror titles available to import. I loved authors like Senno Knife and Eiji Otsuka, but they weren’t being translated at the time and I had to rely on my own working knowledge of written Japanese to get a general feel of the stories. Luckily, I was able to find a good body of Junji Ito’s work translated for me. A true master of Japanese horror, Ito has produced about a dozen titles, some series spanning numerous volumes in length. Best known for Uzumaki and Tomie, two serials that later became films by the same name, Ito’s sense of the uncanny coupled with his distinct drawing style makes his work easy to recognize. But what drew me to his work above others was the idea that our own fear can turn us into the very monsters we try to avoid.

Ito's Mimi no Kaidan

Ito’s Mimi no Kaidan

Ito’s antagonizing forces are usually mysterious and unexplained–creatures that surface from the depths of the ocean, holes in the earth millions of years buried, plants that bear impossible fruit. Certainly, the uncanny situations in and of themselves are unsettling, but what makes his stories truly horrifying is the reaction seen in the characters and the people that surround them. Amigara Fault might be the title enigma, but the chilling part of the story is what the characters feel forced to do. While we find ourselves intrigued by the cursed village in Falling, we realize we don’t really care what happened to the sleepwalking townspeople or where the abducted group goes. What we’re really concerned with is the irrational reaction of the family members left behind to gang up on the sole survivor. In each of these stories, like so many of his others, the disturbance we are presented with is not inherently evil or bad as far as we can tell–instead, we watch the characters begin a complete psychological breakdown as they face the fears that arise within them. Their own sense of doom is what does them in–no one forces the residents of Amigara into the holes, they simply feel as if they must.

Ito's Thing that Drifted Ashore

Ito’s Thing that Drifted Ashore

Of course there are plenty of stories where the characters do face actual monsters: the Thing That Drifted Ashore is certainly monstrous, alien in its appearance and function. It might seem as if the most horrifying part is its belly full of hardly-digested human bodies, but one girl’s distant memory of a strange dream suggests that there’s much more at play than we immediately thought. The Thing itself is really just an object, like the carving in the Chill, that through some mysterious process transforms the ill-fated characters into monsters themselves. Through curiosity, or greed, or lust, or paranoia, the characters are changed into the worst possible versions of themselves with horrifying consequences. The Slug Girl seems to morph into the object of her revulsion simply through her fear and hatred, the same force that drives privacy-obsessed Saiko into the claustrophobic Town with no Streets.

The terrifying thing about all of Ito’s monsters is that they all began as human. We could easily have been any one of them, at the wrong place at the wrong time, equipped with the wrong set of phobias. I find myself obsessed with the imagery, the ideas he presents, and therefore find myself afraid of meeting the characters’ fates as a result. Like so many of the writers who imagine apocalyptic situations, Ito does not see a sympathetic and helpful population. Instead, he imagines our own fears will devour us, render us inhuman and transform us into monsters deserving of annihilation. His most terrifying forces are the fears within the human soul, as basic a component of life as the skeleton that hides inside every single one of us. And that thought in itself is downright chilling.

Brought to you as part of the May Monster Madness Blog Hop —