Origin Stories

“A beginning is the time for taking the most delicate care that the balances are correct.” – Frank Herbert, Dune

I’m fascinated with origin stories. Not the trite, tired, and done-to-death origins of super- and folk heroes that seem to haunt movie theaters like a lingering fart, but real origins: the beginnings of peoples, cultures, places, and movements – the moment when old ways of life die and new life begins.

As I researched my latest novel, a fantasy story based on Scottish faerie mythology, I delved deep into the origins of the Celtic peoples: their centuries-long journey out of the mists of prehistory to their present-day descendants in the British Isles and Brittany. At first, their history seemed to be shaped by sudden, dramatic upheavals. Looking closer, however, I realized those forces of cultural change were like landslides: they fell suddenly, with all the weight of a mountain behind them, but they were started by a single pebble, knocked from the crest of the hill thousands of years beforehand. The past was intimately bound to the present and future, in the same way a spring is tied first to the stream, then to the waterfall. One small change early on reshaped the landscape for millions of years to come.

Dune is one of my all-time favorite novels and greatest influences, as the small cross-section of people who’ve read both Frank Herbert’s timeless masterpiece and The Gräzland Tales can probably guess. This quote – fittingly enough, the very first line of the novel – captures this idea like a metaphysical snapshot. An imbalanced, improper start will spin out in disastrous consequences, like a top with an unbalanced spin. It might start out strong, looking to all the world like it will keep spinning forever. But this is not Inception. A twitch to the left becomes a shake, a shake becomes a wobble, until eventually, the top falls, and great is the fall of it.

Balances indeed.

“May Happy Returns.” -Traditional Birthday Greeting

At the end of March, I turned 25, and discovered how much needed to change.

I’ve lived in Mammoth Lakes, CA for the past two and half years, ever since I graduated from Biola University in the winter of ‘16. For those unfamiliar with the town, or those who only know it as a visitor, let me give you a thumbnail. The town sits at the foot of Mammoth Mountain, one of California’s largest ski resorts. The wild and wooly winters that regularly bury the region in snow were once considered too severe for human habitation – and going by this February’s 207 inches of powder, sometimes they still are. That didn’t stop a hydrologist named Dave McCoy from dreaming about, and eventually building, a highly successful ski resort on the slopes of the mountain.

Mammoth is, first and foremost, a resort town. Everything is in service of getting people on the mountain so they’ll spend wildly in town. While the 2010 census reported a population of 8,234, something like a third of that number is actually second home owners. As a result of those factors and the island-like isolation, the cost of living is astronomically high, especially for such a small community. That’s especially true when it comes to finding housing. A large portion of working-class folks live in their cars most of the year, and those who don’t either live in employee housing provided by the mountain, couch-surf, or if they’re very lucky, get in to one of the few low-income apartments in town.

Living in Mammoth is hard. Hell, life everywhere is hard. So let me soften the edges of the picture I’ve painted. I love Mammoth (more so in the summer than the winter, but still). I love being able to step out of my door in the early morning to see the alpenglow reflecting off the Sherwins. I love the miles of trails, the wonderfully varied lakes and forests, and the simple comfort of knowing every square inch of a small town. While I have my problems with the community, there are dozens of organizations striving to improve the quality of life for residents, and some of my dearest friends are people I met in Mammoth. Here, more than anywhere else, I learned how to work hard, write well, and live life alive.

And yet it’s stifling – soul-crushing at times. The terrible contradiction of Mammoth is that while most people come to play, they need to work two or three jobs just to make ends meet. Some thrive on the “Work Hard, Play Hard” mentality. For workaholics like me, burnout is almost inevitable.

“Burnout: (n) : exhaustion of physical or emotional strength or motivation usually as a result of prolonged stress or frustration.” -Mirriam-Webster Online Dictionary

Over the month of December last, as I worked long, late hours at the local theatre as a stage manager and long, early hours to finish The Gräzland Tales (working regular hours between), I blissfully announced that I was “burning the candle at both ends” to make it work. It was only last month I realized that once the play and the book were both complete, I didn’t stop.

My main job suffered as my second job(s) demanded more and more of my time and resources. I wrote the first draft of my newest novel at a breathless pace of 2,000 words a day while putting in 40-50 hours at work every week. I lost track of when I last had a day off. My health, usually a constant, guttered over the long winter. And when the snow clouds finally burst (or rather, my family and I ran away from them to the beach), I realized just how much I’d lost. With just a little perspective, my burnout became so obvious I couldn’t think why I didn’t see it sooner.

That was a month and a half ago. Since then, I figured out why.

“Where there is no vision, the people perish.” – Proverbs 29:18a

For much of my adolescence and young adult life, I’ve struggled with depression. Not clinically (at least, I was never diagnosed), but dangerously. It mostly manifested in a need for personal perfection – a feeling that unless I eliminated every one of my flaws, I was unworthy of love. I was obsequious, quiet, and polite to a fault. I refused to accept anything less than straight-A’s. I began running and dieting to lose weight, ultimately leading into an eating disorder which occupied my every waking thought with anxieties about what I’d eaten that day and what I was going to eat next. More than once, I found myself of the highway after at the end of a long day, thinking how easy it would be to swerve into the other lane and put a stop to my endless, joyless existence.

Thanks be to God that I never had the courage to act on that impulse. My family finally convinced me to get help, and though I still have those dark moments, I have tools to deal with them now. Despite the very real, physical threat that depression represents, however, the most long-lasting damage came from hopelessness. I didn’t imagine I’d live past 25. Why plan for the future? I was goal oriented, and so long as I could hop, skip, and jump from one short-term goal to another – ace the exam, pass the class, lose ten pounds, graduate, write the book – I could distract myself from the fact that I had no long-term plans. I had no dreams. Plenty of stories and ideas, but no dreams. No vision.

Some people just can’t help but think long term. Visionary is usually the term applied to such people – Dreamer is another. Despite my love for writing stories and the value I place on creative vision, I’m not a visionary – not under normal circumstances, at any rate. But over the last few months, I’ve been challenged by friends, family, and even my employers to examine my goals – to think in terms of decades rather than days. The uncomfortable realization I arrived at was this: that although I’d built a financially profitable life in Mammoth (a feat in and of itself for a film student in a 5-square mile town), it wasn’t leading me in the direction I wanted to go. In fact, it was pulling me away from it. I’d traded my dreams (stunted as they were) for security and stability.

Now isn’t that a sad old tune?

I’m a storyteller. In every chapter of my life I’ve told stories, using everything from comic books to films to photos to novels. That’s my passion, and I believe it’s my gift: to take the mess of life and make music of it – to explore ideas and questions through the great metaphor – to bring characters and worlds to life and see what they become – and to expose people to ideas they might never have considered otherwise. That idea excites me more than anything else in this life – more than food or money or sex or fame. And that craft (difficult and head-to-desk frustrating as it is sometimes) is what ultimately brings me life.

So I’m back on this blog, putting my heart on the screen to tell you that I’m ready to start taking the work seriously. I’ve resigned from my second job to make space for the margin and mindfulness that the writing life requires. Of course, it helps that changing circumstances allow me to make a living with one job, but even if I couldn’t, I doubt I would’ve stayed in my old ways for much longer. I doubt I could’ve.

The call to create is as old as time itself – a pebble loosed from the side of a mountain, a landslide that has cascaded through the lives of billions as civilizations rose and fought and fell beneath its enormous weight. Answer, or be crushed.

If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, don’t pretend it’s not important. That’s what I thought for a long time, but life is too precious and fragile to waste. Please, please, please, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline today.

1-800-273-8255

Homestead on the Corner is back in business! New posts every Sunday Morning, and keep an eye out for the forthcoming podcast and companion vlogs!

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