My first children’s book, a book about love, available today
I had to redesign my website the other day, specifically the book-page. I don’t even remember off hand how many books I’ve released since my first in July 2013. Let me go check: nineteen. Today marks my twentieth release. Wow. Twelve novels, two non-fiction, one short story collection, and three anthologies. Today, I embark into new territory: children’s books. With the release of The Dragon Princess, I give you a book, unlike anything I’ve written before. To write for children is radically different than writing for adults.
Love is love and dragons are evil or are they really? The Dragon Princess is a story about love and how it holds the power to transform even the coldest of hearts. A classic bedtime story for children of all ages.
My son and I.
When my son was little, my husband and I were actively looking for books. Reading had been important to me when I was a child, and we wanted Sascha to be read to and to read by himself, too. We began to buy books, we were gifted lots of books and his bookshelf is well filled. But there are, at this stage, only two books that portray rainbow families and diverse love. Our son is five years old and he is starting to understand the differences between moms and dads. To him, having two dads is totally okay. It’s just the natural state for him, but just this morning he asked me if his mother was still alive. I know that he is trying to make sense of things, subconsciously. Ever now and then he’ll ask a question, and we’ve talked about this repeatedly.
Sometimes, it helps to have children’s books to help parents explain things. That was my starting point when I began to write about Valerius and Evander, the heroes in the book, two years ago. I wanted to create a series of children’s books where I could explore LGBT themes for kids, on a level they would understand.
Easier said than done
First, I wrote a text that encompassed sixteen scenes. I wanted to try and tell a classic fairytale. There are a lot of kids who love dragons and the struggle between good and evil. It needs to be a relatively simple plot, with clear-cut roles. And it needs to end well. Writing the first draft took a couple of hours, but I wasn’t happy with it. I don’t think I’ve ever edited and rewritten a text as many times as I’ve worked on The Dragon Princess. Sometimes I would edit the text several times in a day, then let it simmer for months. All in all, it took me over two years from the first draft to a final manuscript.
One of the amazing illustrations by Felicity Swan in the Dragon Princess.
When you write for small children, pictures, illustrations are a given. Kids like to read along, and when they can’t read, the pictures is where they ‘read’. They see the words in the picture, and as you read, they try to find those words in the illustration. My son is beginning to read for real, and it’s only now, at the age of five that he’s showing interest in the letters for the first time, asking me things like: “does this mean…?” pointing at the words on the page. In Felicity Swan, I was lucky to find a great illustrator to work with.
A new genre, new audience, a new approach
Yeah, how do you market a children’s book? I live in a country where marketing toward children is strictly forbidden and frowned upon. I have always been a genre hopper. Maybe it’s the Gemini in me that always sees new and shiny objects everywhere. From romantic love stories to gruesome books about child abuse, discrimination against first nations to debilitating dementia, I’ve covered new topics in every book.
To me, branching out into children’s book was a small step. Difficult, but small. The biggest challenge for me is to find my audience. We’ll see how that goes. For now, my take is simple, hoping that my existing audience buys the book for the children around them, from their own offspring to grandchildren, bonus kids, nieces, nephews etc.
Front cover of my coming children’s book The Dragon Princess, releasing September 20, 2018
A great big thank you to my publisher…
It’s no secret that I am very happy with my publisher. They’re a small house, but they treat every book as a gem in its own right. I felt that The Dragon Princess was handled even more carefully than my adult writing. Working with me and the illustrator, they put in a ton of time to make sure the book would be as perfect as humanly possible.
There is so much work going into even something as seemingly trivial as a forty-page kids book, from web pages, publishing, paginating, layout, proofing, editing, to making sure it’s available on release day on every single of the dozens of sites (and distribution) that sell books.
Beaten Track Publishing has that little extra love for children’s books. As an author, having my work treated that way makes my heart skip a beat. Thank you! Have a look at their catalog of children’s books.
Valerius and Evander are now yours to treasure, I hope you enjoy their first adventure in The Dragon Princess!
Hans M Hirschi
Meet Felicity Swan, the illustrator who made it possible
Writing a children’s book has been my dream ever since my son was born. I just wanted to add something to his life that we as rainbow parents are hard-pressed to find. Our son already owns a good hundred books, and some of them are positively archaic, with moms by the stove and handy dads. Horrifying! He also owns two books out of a hundred where rainbow families or being LGBT are mentioned. One is And Tango Makes Three (of course!), the other one is Marlon Bundo (the good version.) I began writing The Dragon Princess a couple of years ago (!) when we only had the book about Tango, and I’m finally able to get it out. This week. Thursday. To make it possible, I needed a great illustrator. Dozens applied for the job, I finally decided to work with Felicity Swan. You’ll understand why. Let’s get to know this amazing artist. I sent her a few questions, and she’s generously answered those for us:
Q: Who is Felicity Swan in her own words?
I’m a freelance writer and artist. I draw comics, illustrations, and write books.
Q: What is one thing you would like the world to remember you for?
When someone closes a book I’ve written, I want them to feel a connection to it. Whether its hopeful or feeling like they’re not alone in their struggles or even feel understood in some way. I hope they feel the same way I do when I read my favorite books.
Q: What got you into illustrating?
I’ve always been drawing from the time I could hold a pencil. I started taking it seriously after I got my associates degree and realized university life wasn’t for me. I wanted to find what made me happy, not what I thought others expected of me. I was good at writing and drawing, so I pursued those instead.
Q: What inspires you? Do you have any specific “style”?
When it comes to style, it depends on the work and the tone I’m going for. I don’t believe in being tied to any one style, but it’s all about effectively communicating with your audience. I’m influenced by a variety of artists: Art Spiegleman, Aaron Alexovich, Jason Brubaker, Hiayao Miyazaki, Yun Koga, and a variety of independent artists.
Front cover of my coming children’s book The Dragon Princess, releasing September 20, 2018
“First time I’ve collaborated on an illustrated book”
Q: One of the reasons why I absolutely fell for your style is the multi-faceted it is. I remember when you first sent me your sketches and how there was so much depth, so many layers or what I would call sub-text, but I guess it would be better to refer to just layers. How do you go about when you work with e.g. an author?
This is the first time I’ve collaborated on an illustrated book. When it comes to commissions and this collaboration, I’m usually given an idea of what someone wants – either a description or a set of images to work with. From there, I do my best to capture what the client wants, either through what they’ve unconsciously strung together through the images provided or from what I can get from their descriptions. For your writing, I was really drawn in by your use of contrasts in your descriptions – hot vs cold, young vs old, small vs large. So I used that as a base for everything – from colors to silhouettes. The parents have sharper edges than Valarius and Evander, both who have softer and sleeker designs. I wanted to have a contrast in warm vibrant colors for the protagonists and cold, darker colors for those affected by the curse.
“Ideas come from everywhere”
Q: Can you tell us a little bit about the process you work with, from idea to sketch to final rendering?
My ideas come from everywhere, to be honest – dreams, a simple idea, a “what if” thought, or even just a certain image or the way items are placed together. Heck, me misinterpreting a scene cut out of a show or game can lead to a cool story. Lately, I’ve been recycling old ideas in order to help flesh out new stories. When it comes to my comics, I’ll have a few ideas, I’ll write a summary, a few outlines, and then start the sketching phase where I start piecing things together or clearing up ideas and figuring out what I want the style to be. Some comics, I’ve had to leave off to the side and allow the idea to mature because I couldn’t think of an ending or I didn’t like the middle. Then I work on thumbnails (small mock-ups) of the pages, then I put my nose to the grindstone. Its a similar process for illustrations.
Q: Do you work exclusively with a computer or do you also illustrate on physical materials, e.g. paper, canvas?
I work mainly on my computer. When it comes to sketching or making “ugly sketches” I work on physical paper. My main medium is dry mediums. Thankfully, I was able to purchase a display tablet this time and my output has almost doubled.
One of the amazing illustrations by Felicity Swan in the Dragon Princess.
Q: Toward the very end of our collaboration, you mentioned that you were visually impaired, which – if possible – increased my admiration for your work. Does your impairment influence your artistic expression, the work-flow?
All my life, I’ve had going blind hanging over my head. I’ve also had horrible depth perception and ocular migraines (lights and colors over my vision; not painful aside from eye strain). I think my first encounter with near-retinal detachment at the age of ten was a real wake up call for me and I started really pursuing writing.
“Four surgeries to prevent blindness in my right eye”
Before you commissioned me, I’d had four surgeries to prevent blindness in my right eye. There’s a cataract over that eye now and I’ll have surgery number five in the near future. It’s likely that, in ten years, I’ll lose that eye due to scar tissue. So, yes, it does influence my artistic expression – I feel a pressure to hurry and tell my stories. Not only that, but my near-nearsightedness makes seeing things far away difficult, so backgrounds and landscapes are tough for me. And having one eye to look through has done a number on my ocular migraines and made it harder to read books with normal sized text. I haven’t noticed too much of a difference with my drawing, though.
“It was about the shooting of Abraham Lincoln…”
Q: Was this your first project to work on a children’s book? If so, what is the takeaway for you? Did you learn something?
When I was a child, I drew a picture book called “Pikachu Goes to the Moon” haha! I wrote and drew a children’s historical fiction book when I was in junior high/middle school as an assignment for history class. It was about the shooting of Abraham Lincoln from the perspective of an orphan who overhears the shooter’s plans and tries to stop the shooting. Ever since my family has been telling me I should do more children’s books in the historical fiction genre. Once I’m done with the work I’m currently doing, I might look into it. Who knows?
Q: What is next for you? Any projects you can/wish to mention?
I have a long form comic called Final Break and I’m doing short comics on the side when I’m not doing commissions.
Q: Where/how can people find you?
Find me on social media:
Instagram / Twitter
Here’s a hub for all my links to my works, as well as my portfolio:
Feel free to feed my cat and help with cataract surgery:
Patreon (monthly subscription)
Ko-Fi (tip jar)
The Dragon Princess in what might become the “Valerius and Evander” series is published by Beaten Track Publishing and releases this week on Thursday. It is available as an ebook and on paperback from all your regular sources, including Amazon. Check it out, and read it with your kids, grandkids, nephews, nieces etc.
Here are the sales links:
Migration is a symptom, not the root cause. We should focus on that instead
“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” From “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus
I often think of these two lines from the famous poem, engraved at the foot of the Statue of Liberty in the harbor of New York City. The statue represents, to me, everything that is good about humanity, and Ms. Lazarus perfectly captured the essence of the welcome to New York, Ellis Island and the promise of America, the promise of the Land of the Free, the Land of the Brave, the American Dream.
Why do people migrate?
Nothing symbolizes the promise of America like the Statue of Liberty, as she stands proudly in the harbor of New York. Yet never before has this promise been as threatened as it is now.
I’ve asked myself that question more often than not in these past weeks, months and years, ever since we Europeans saw the biggest refugee crisis since probably World War II at our shores, as the Syrian War escalated and millions left the country, fleeing to Europe. These days, we reap the crops from the seeds that were sown in 2015: every election, in every European country, is all about migration.
In the U.S., where–for now–the Statue of Liberty still shines her lamp at night, a man got elected into the White House on the back of a promise to end migration, the very core of America’s success, to build a formidable, “beautiful” wall along America’s southern borders. And we’ve seen the pictures and reports from the Texan border, where parents are separated from their children. Children which are kept in cages, kids as young as two to four years of age.
This makes me wonder. Migration? Why on earth would we migrate? I don’t have all the answers, of course, but humanity has always been migrating. If we hadn’t, we’d still be living on the edge of rainforest and savannah in Africa, and who knows, maybe Earth had been a more peaceful place.
But migration seems to be part of human DNA, this insatiable curiosity for discovery, learning new things, exploring new realms. It’s led to humanity populating every last corner of our planet, including places I personally wouldn’t want to live in, including the Arctics, the desserts of South Africa, the Amazon jungle or Australia’s red center. But for the people who migrated there from Africa eons ago, it’s home.
Most humans aren’t migrating voluntarily…
But curiosity isn’t the only reason why we migrate, or else farming wouldn’t have become a trade. We’d all still be hunters and gatherers. And we wouldn’t be having this discussion in the first place. When our ancestors reached the shores of Alaska, Australia, the Pacific Islands, the Andes, the Amazon basin, Scandinavia etc. they settled down. They developed distinct cultures based on what the land provided, and from those early ancestors, beautiful cultures evolved: Inkas, Mayas, Inuit, Sami, Aboriginal, Samoan etc. Too many to count them all.
So we do we see migration today? Shouldn’t it all be bliss then? Well, apart from those among us who have that migratory gene, some of us humans are forced to migrate for two other reasons: 1) threats to our lives and 2) inability to survive on the land/provide for ourselves. While the distinction may seem semantic, or intellectual, from a legal point of view, it is an important one: the former entitles you to the status of a refugee under United Nation conventions, the latter does not.
In the (filthy) rich west, we seem to have forgotten what it is like not to have that daily meal on the table, we seem to have forgotten what it means to risk life for speaking our minds, praying to the wrong gods, looking suspicious or loving the wrong person. We seem to have forgotten what it is like to be persecuted, hunted, just for who we are. But it’s all coming back to us now.
Empathy is the key to understanding migration
To understand migration, we need to understand the root causes. I may never know why Mr. Trump’s granddaddy left Bavaria for a life in America. Maybe he harbored thoughts that may have become a threat to his life or maybe he merely wished for a better life for himself and his family in America. He wouldn’t be the only one, because let’s not forget: all Americans today, par first nation members, are immigrants, and the vast majority came to America, not because of persecution, but to seek a better life, i.e. 2) above, that which is not protected by those important UN laws.
When you see central American refugees at the Mexico-US border today, they are there for the same two reasons. They didn’t leave because they wanted to, but because they saw no other reason, either because they were persecuted for being a minority or because they couldn’t provide for their families. So they pack their meager belongings and head north to the promised land, just as every white person in America once did. Now think about it: “how would you react if you were in the same situation?” In the case of my American friends, why did your ancestors leave your home countries?
Fight the root cause instead
Sadly, rather than fighting the causes that make people leave their countries, we fight the refugees. The U.S. treatment of children at its borders is inhumane, but I guess it’s easier than tackling the corrupt regimes in Central America. And the EU does nothing to stop the war in Syria, which is the main reason why people flee the country. Admittedly, the situation there is very complex and Europe has little leverage over a war fought between essentially Russia and the U.S., but maybe it was time we presented Trump with the bill for what the refugees cost us next time he reminds us of our debts to NATO?
The other big wave of immigration is from Afghanistan and sub-Saharan Africa. Both regions suffer greatly from corrupt regimes, and both are –at their roots–due to Western imperialism. Be it French or English colonies, it’s not surprising that many people in those regions look to Europe, France, and the UK for delivery from governments unwilling to provide for its people. Just today I was reached by the news that ethnic cleansing is rampant in Kamerun, a country historically linked to both the UK and France, with a French and an English speaking part. They’re now at each other’s throats. But the EU does nothing.
Why it’s easier to fix North Korea than say Iran
Fixing the root cause of migration isn’t easy. I’m not naïve. It’s also the reason why Trump chooses to meet with Kim and not Ayatollah Khamenei, even though a meeting with the latter would be more promising. Iran is, for all intents and purposes an open country, a country with rule of law, a democracy even, to a degree. North Korea isn’t. Kim is a ruler in the image of the best in Europe: Charlemagne, Louis XIV, or Henry XVIII. He need never ask his people for permission to do anything. Khamenei was brought to power thanks to a revolution by the people, to end the oppression of a ruler who was held in power by, at least partially, the U.S. The fact that many Persians abhor the U.S. is found right there. Iran is a proud country, with a history dating back thousands of years and having faced the west again and again ever since Alexander the Great. Lots of reasons not to trust us. But as swiftly as Khamenei and his ayatollahs came to power, as swiftly they could be removed again if they lost the support of the Iranian people. A sign of the openness perhaps, but not all Iranians dislike their government…
Whereas in North Korea, the situation is different. The people hardly have any information, the country is completely isolated, and the memories of American troops moving through the country north toward the Chinese border in 1952 are still alive among the elder. They genuinely fear America, from first-hand contacts (and decades of propaganda since.) But if that one propaganda channel suddenly changes its tune? If the leader suddenly smiles with Trump and shakes hands? Needless to say, reality is complex, in both cases, but there are reasons why people act the way they do.
To build trust in North Korea takes one person: Kim Jong-Un. In Iran, Trump would have to convince an entire people. That takes time. In Guatemala for instance, it would take years of working to strengthen the economy, fight corruption on every level of government, empower first nation initiatives etc. to stem the flow of refugees from that country. Makes for lousy tweets, boring Instagram updates, few likes on Facebook. Hence of little interest to the new generation of politicians like Trump, Orban, Söder, Farage, Kazcynsky et al.
Nobody wants migration unless want to themselves, or have to…
This is my personal story of “migration”. Luckily it was only a nightmare, but I promise you, waking from it was a great relief. Free for you to read and contemplate.
I am an immigrant myself. I left my birth country of Switzerland for primarily political reasons. I moved to Sweden because it was more open to people like myself, more open to the idea of Europe. I got to stay not because they sympathized with me, but because I met a Swede. Humans like me have always been around, we’ve never really seen borders as anything but hurdles to overcome. But for most of us, my family and relatives included, migration is not on the menu. We are close to our homeland, our own town or village. We rarely travel beyond county lines, and even when we take that charter vacation once a year we come home, applaud a safe landing and exclaim “borta bra, hemma bäst!” (Swedish proverb: good to be gone, better to come home)
Unless war comes, or a famine, and we suddenly find ourselves fleeing for our lives. Not primarily for our own sakes, but that of our partners, our parents, and our children. So think about it, what would you do? Would you flee if you hoped to be able to provide for your family elsewhere? I would. As an author, I am privileged to host a healthy dose of imagination in my brain. It once ran amok after the Russian invasion of the Crimea and the (still) looming threat of further aggression in the West. My story “Nightmare” is the result. You can read it for free, right here, or read it along with several other short stories here.
Why are we arguing over this?
The arrival of large groups of people, numbers likely to grow exponentially once our oceans rise significantly due to global warming, is–no doubt–a threat to Western societies, our way of life, our wealth, beyond the threat from home-grown extremists. Suddenly, we must make tough choices of paying for that extra opera performance or paying for beds for refugees. A new playground for our kids or a classroom for the new arrivals. Some politicians, always looking for short-term optimization of media coverage and thus an uptick in approval rates or votes will do whatever it takes to vilify migrants. Us against them is an easy sell, certainly easier than justifying investing in Africa or Central America, closing borders seem so much more effective and media savvy than behind the doors pressure on an African dictator or two. We built the EU to stop that, to tear down borders, allow for free migration of our people, only we forgot that Europe is no island. We’re not alone. And many members bring a dark past along, former colonies eying our riches, people seeing opportunities for themselves and their families. We really cannot blame them for that. We would do the same. Many of us have already done that, or have ancestors who did, ten, one hundred, one thousand years ago. The best way to stop migration is to remove the need for it. If people can safely and peacefully provide for their families in their own countries, 99.99% won’t want to leave. The handful that still comes will continue to enrich all our cultures.
As always, if you like my blog or my writing, feel free to subscribe to my monthly newsletter with competitions and hopefully interesting reading. Interact with me on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and/or Instagram. Have a great day and don’t be shy: your experiences and comments are valuable and most welcome.
Hans M Hirschi
Rainbow Advent Calendar
Merry Christmas to you all, whether you celebrate today, on Christmas Eve, or tomorrow morning, Christmas Day. You’ve just opened the last door of this year’s Rainbow Advent Calendar, and I’m happy and very proud to bring you the final story. And what could be more fitting than an homage to the master of all Christmas tales, Charles Dickens, and his “A Christmas Carol”. Our story comes with a twist, of course, and it may just be the first LGBT-themed one out there. Enjoy!
Paul’s Dickensian Christmas – A Short Story
“Who are you?” Paul offered weakly.
The old man who suddenly appeared before him was scary looking, with a big white beard, a severe expression on his face, and the strange, colorful robe he wore. And, as old as he appeared, his eyes were youthful and full of energy—intimidating yet strangely familiar. The man suddenly laughed heartily, as if he’d been asked the silliest question ever. “I’m God. Who else did you expect?”
“Am I dead?” Paul wasn’t sure he wanted to know.
“No, Paul, you’re not. You’re dreaming,” God responded, his voice paternal, patient, his eyes gleaming with mischief.
“So…I’m delusional. I’m dreaming about having a conversation with God—which is really quite upsetting, given I don’t even believe in you.” And as if he needed convincing himself, he added, repeating what he’d already said, “I’m an atheist, have been for most of my life.”
God laughed some more before raising his hand in an appeasing gesture. “This is a special dream, Paul. No, you’re not delusional, and quite frankly, I don’t blame you for not believing in me. Heck, given all the BS people say I demand they do, and all the horrors humanity commits in my name, I’m surprised any sane person still believes in me.”
“I don’t understand. If you really are God, why don’t you stop people?”
“Ah, the ten-thousand-dollar question, isn’t it?”
“Sorry, it’s been on my mind ever since I was a child. For all the misdeeds done to me, to others, I’ve questioned how anyone could really allow that—how evil done to any human being could be sanctioned by any deity, not just you. You do not, after all, have the monopoly on being a god to humanity.”
“Actually, that’s not entirely true. You see, I go by many names. You know me as the Christian ‘God,’ but I’m also known as YHWH, Allah, Brahma, Zeus, Oden, and a great many other names. Some worship me as the sun god, I’ve been worshipped as Gaia or Mother Earth through the ages of mankind. But it’s always good old me.”
“You’re Gaia? How’s that possible?” Before Paul’s eyes, God seemed to shape-shift into a dark-skinned, middle-aged woman with a full figure, standing before him in all her glorious nudity.
She laughed. “How’s this for you? Better?”
Paul shook his head in disbelief. “But…how…?”
“My dear child, you’re overthinking this. I am whatever you need me to be, whatever each human being wants me to be. If they feel the need to pray to a fertile woman, I can be Gaia, Mother Earth, Hera, Pallas Athena or Aphrodite, and if they need a man, I’ll be Allah or God or whatever. I’ve even been known to be a gender bender at times.”
“Are you real?” Paul was anything but convinced, doubting his own dream.
“It’s your dream… But seriously, Paul, I didn’t come here to debate theology with you. I am part of you, just as I am part of every other human being that has ever walked the earth, past, present, and future. Which is why I’m limited in what I can do. I am what you are, not more, not less. If humanity works together for the common good, I am omnipotent. I can achieve anything. Alternatively, I am powerless to interfere when you go to war, hurt each other.”
“Then why did you appear to me now?” Paul was seriously worried about God’s presence at this stage in his life—if he was real. At the age of fifty-five, he was what the lifestyle magazines dubbed the “new thirties”—a man in his best years, yet at the same time a man trapped by his upbringing, the wrongdoings of his parents, and the consequences thereof on his life, his lack of capacity for love, his commitment issues. A long list. Now he could add fear of death to the list. Why else would God appear in his dream?
“Am I dying?”
Again, God laughed heartily at the suggestion. “No, silly. Why would you be dying? You’re in good health, although you could finally get that lazy ass of yours out of your apartment and go to the gym. Working out a bit more wouldn’t do you any harm, and those non-existent abs aren’t really going to help you with the boys, not to mention your clogged arteries…”
“You know I’m gay?”
God shook his head. “Do you need this in writing, Paul? I’m inside your head. I am you, or at least part of you. So yeah, I know everything about you—probably things you haven’t even acknowledged yourself, at least not on a conscious level. Interesting though that you picked up on gay but let the clogged arteries go unnoticed. Interesting indeed… Can we get on with it now?”
“Get on with what?”
God rested his head in his palms. This was one tough client. “It’s your dream. You summoned me. Seems to me you have something on your mind…” He flashed Paul a smile and a wink that was more than obvious. Paul was relieved that it was only the two of them in the dream, or it might’ve been awkward. Was God flirting with him?
“Let me see if I’m getting this right. It’s my dream, I’ve summoned you, and you know everything about me—stands to reason you also know what’s on my mind, right? Why don’t you just tell me?”
“Excellent!” God exclaimed. “Now you’re talking. I’m actually here to talk to you about Christmas.”
“Twenty questions again? Yes, Christmas. Today is Christmas, remember? You know, the Christian holiday you observe, despite being an atheist? Tree, lights, presents, overeating, carol-singing, commercial overload?”
“I know what Christmas is, but I don’t understand. I like Christmas.”
“You do, yet there’s always a sadness in your eyes, particularly when you look back at a certain Christmas past, and it looms like a dark shadow to this day.”
“So now you’re Dickens?” Paul had an inkling where this might be heading, and he didn’t like it one bit.
“Let me remind you, Paul, that you’ve not always been a cynic. Until you were fifteen, you loved Christmas unreservedly—even after you’d found out that Santa Claus wasn’t the real deal. But that year, something happened, something that forever changed your views of Christmas.”
“I was outed by my parents and tossed out on the streets for good measure. That’s what happened. How’s that not going to affect a person’s view of Christmas? I can never celebrate without thinking back to that morning, and the events that took place.”
“Why don’t we have a look?”
Paul’s eyes widened with terror. “Do we have to?”
“Your dream, your Dickens reference. Come on, let’s go…”
God made a swooping gesture with his arms, and underneath them, the ground slowly dissolved and was gradually replaced by a familiar setting—a weird and ghostly scene from Suburbia, a house with typical seventies furniture, TV blaring in the background, Christmas tree in the corner of the living room, lots of colorful presents underneath it, and a family of four sitting on the couch.
“I believe that’s you, right there? The acne-ridden teenager with the bad hair?”
“What? You’re a style critic, too? Weren’t you supposed to be on my side?”
“I am you, and if I’m not mistaken, you are your biggest critic, are you not?” God sneered condescendingly, just about fed up with Paul’s constant nagging.
“Yeah, yeah, whatever. Let’s get on with the spiel. Do I have to watch this?”
God simply shrugged as the scene in front of them played out, just as it had played out in Paul’s mind hundreds of times since that fateful day back when he was a teen.
“Mom, Dad, is it okay if Jesse comes over later today?” Paul heard himself say from the couch in front of him, and the memory of what was to come cut painfully through him.
“No, son!” his dad replied forcefully. “Your mother and I don’t want you to see that boy again, ever.”
“But he’s my best friend.”
Paul’s mom cut in, “It’s for your own good. Did you not hear the sermon from the pastor last night at midnight mass? How he admonishes us to live without sin? There’s been talk about Jesse in church for some time now—rumors, serious allegations… We think it’s better if you stay as far away from that boy as you can.”
“What rumors, Mom?”
Paul’s dad raised his voice. “Trish, why don’t you go to your room for a minute? Your mother and I need to talk to Paul, alone.”
With an angry stare at her brother for inevitably delaying the presents waiting to be opened under the tree, Trish got up and stormed out of the room. Seconds later, Paul heard her bedroom door slam shut.
Paul tried again. “What rumors, Mom?”
She didn’t answer but stared pleadingly at her husband, who responded in her place. “Rumors, about aberrant behavior, things happening at the latest scout gathering, ugly things, abominable things, sin, mortal sin.” His dad pressed out the final syllables forcefully as if to convey their actual meaning, but Paul was lost.
“I don’t understand…”
“I’m relieved you don’t, son. Jesse is a homosexual, an abomination in the eyes of God, an evil monster sentenced to eternal damnation in the hottest fires of purgatory. I’m surprised his parents are still in town. I would’ve left. How they can face the Andersens every Sunday in church is beyond me.”
“What did he do?” Paul was utterly confused. He liked Jesse—liked him a lot actually, a feeling he thought was mutual. They’d even kissed and made out a couple of times, but what did Alex Andersen have to do with any of this.
It had made no sense to young Paul, and the pain from remembering the next few minutes in the Baker household was almost physical, particularly as he was seeing it now, staged by his very own “Ghost of Christmas Past,” for his personal viewing pleasure, or torture, as it were.
“He corrupted the boy. Did unspeakable things to him—things two men, two boys, should never even think about, let alone act upon. They were caught by their scoutmaster in a most compromising position, one I shall not dignify with mentioning out loud. Safe to say, you shall never see this abomination again. I will not have any homosexuals in this house. Ever. And that is final!”
“But I like him, he’s my best friend,” Paul offered defiantly.
“Nonsense. How would you even know what a best friend is?”
“We kissed…” Paul blurted out, blushing. He’d never thought about telling his parents about his feelings toward Jesse. It had seemed unnecessary somehow, an instinctive security barrier, keeping him from mentioning it. But asked about it, he wouldn’t, couldn’t lie. He’d been taught better. Lying was a sin. Sure, he’d been called names in school—faggot, gay, and so on—but he’d never connected the dots. Even the pastor’s sermons had never really made any sense to him, with regards to him. When the pastor had spoken of the sin of homosexuality, it had always seemed so theoretical, as if he’d spoken of much older men, and carnal things—things a fifteen-year-old did not understand, could not fathom. His feelings for Jesse were pure as snow, and the kisses they’d exchanged were pristine, innocent.
Not once had Paul understood the implication of his words, his emotions, not until he saw the horror on his mother’s face, the utter disgust on his father’s face. Not until they had coerced every last bit of information from him, not until his father had literally beaten it out of him, not until they’d forced him upstairs to get dressed, not until they’d thrown him out of the house, unceremoniously, wearing nothing but the clothes he’d just put on and with the few dollars he’d had in his wallet. Tossed out onto the street, in the middle of winter, in a small town in Northeast Indiana. Alone. On Christmas morning.
Paul watched the scene unfold before him, saw his young self being driven from his own home, his mother crying, his father yelling hysterically. He had never seen them again. Somehow, he’d survived that day, found shelter at another church in town—one more welcoming to Christopher’s Kind than his parents’ congregation. A kind soul had helped him move to Chicago, where he’d been placed in a home with other children his age, so he could finish school and get whatever education he could without money or parental support.
Paul had done well for himself. That he knew. He’d done better than to survive. He’d built himself a home, started a company in the suburbs of Chicago: express plumbing, services always needed, help always rendered. Paul’s company flourished, and he was in high demand. He had done well…except for his heart. He was lonely. He’d never trusted anyone again, unable to bring himself to place someone else in danger, or risk getting hurt himself.
“Have you seen enough?”
“Why did you show me this?”
“Because you always come here on Christmas. But I have a hunch that after today, you won’t have to, not anymore. Come on, we have two more places to visit.”
Paul wasn’t sure he wanted to. “More Dickens?”
“Yes, sir. Let’s go. Your parents await…”
“Why, yes! You get to see them how they are today…”
Paul hadn’t even known if they were still alive.
Underneath him, the world dissolved into a swirl of sand, and for a second, he seemed to float in absolute darkness before a new swirl of the grayish sand appeared and began to form an entirely different scenery than that of his childhood home. This room was dimly lit with yellow-brownish floor tiles, a hospital bed, sparse furnishings, yellowed curtains. Paul didn’t recognize the place, but it did remind him of a retirement or—more likely—a nursing home. A figure lay in the bed. Next to the bed, with their back toward Paul, sat another figure: slim, small, dressed in dark clothes. Crying.
“Come on.” God gestured, gently pushing Paul forward, toward the bed. “They can’t see you. This is still a dream, remember?”
“Who are they?” Paul whispered, still not quite believing that the two figures, the man in the bed and the woman by his side, couldn’t hear him.
“Don’t you recognize them?” God had an amused tone in his voice.
It dawned on Paul. “Mom? Dad?”
God nodded, nudging Paul to move even closer.
“What’s happening? Dad is barely breathing.”
“Your father will be dead before the night is over. Your mother is here to take her leave.”
“Where’s my sister?”
“No longer alive, I’m afraid. After you were forced from the house, your sister rebelled, against everyone and everything. She began to hang out with the wrong crowd, one thing led to the next…she died of a heroin overdose before she’d turned sixteen. Your parents lost both of their children to their god, their faith, and their own sense of moral superiority. They’ve been paying the price for over forty years. It’s too late for your father, but your mother can still be saved…” There was a knowing undertone to God’s voice.
“She looks so old, so small, so very fragile.”
“She’s suffered a lot. As you might remember from your previous experience, your mom wasn’t quite as orthodox as your dad. I doubt she would’ve tossed you on the streets had it been up to her. But she was brought up never to question her husband, and so she didn’t. Instead, she suffered silently, not only at the loss of you but that of her daughter as well. It broke her heart, but like I said, it’s not too late…”
“What do you mean?”
“What I mean is that your mother is still alive. You still have a chance to reconcile with her. Remember, you only have this one life. Make the most of it. Carpe diem and all that… Go see her, talk to her, make a fresh start.”
Paul was about to ask God about what he meant with this “one life” and all the lessons about an eternity at his side, but thought better of it. His mother looked up from the bed and stared right at him. She had cried a lot, her face pale and sunken. She must’ve been through a lot of pain in the years he hadn’t seen her. Her big brown eyes were barely recognizable, sad, murky, but she was still his mom.
“Are you sure she can’t see me? She’s staring right at me…”
“It’s your dream. Anything is possible… But no, she can’t, although she often thinks about you. She still lives in your hometown in Indiana, in the same house. It’s less than a four-hour drive to see her. What do you think?”
“I’m not sure. Do you really think she’ll want to see me?”
God smiled and beckoned. “I have one more place to show you…”
Once again the ground shifted beneath Paul, making way to the void as the yellow-brownish tiles, the walls, the furniture and everything else dissolved into that gray sand again, swirling and falling into the black abyss underneath Paul’s feet before re-coalescing into a completely different scene: a house, one he didn’t recognize. It was winter; there was a lot of snow on the ground, and a big Christmas tree was lit outside the house, along with other Holiday lights and decorations.
Standing on the sidewalk, Paul spotted a big, colorfully decorated Christmas tree through the front windows. “Whose house is this?”
God chuckled. “You still don’t get it, do you? We’ve been to your Christmas Past, your Christmas Present… What do you think this is?”
Paul shrugged. “Well, if this were Dickens, this would be my Christmas Future, but that would entail a graveyard and a lonely tombstone with my name on it. But this isn’t it, is it?”
God sighed. “You’re a tough cookie, a true skeptic. I figured the scary approach wouldn’t work with you, so let’s just call this…the promise of a Christmas Future…”
Paul looked up at the house. He noticed a character inside the house: a man his own age he didn’t know, and a dog running around the man’s feet.
“It’s a golden retriever. I love that breed. I’ve always wanted one. But living alone, working as much as I do, I just never felt it justified to get one. Who’s the guy?”
“You already know him…and you’ll meet him again…soon,” God said knowingly.
Just as Paul was about to respond, a car pulled up in the driveway. A man in his mid-fifties and an older woman exited the car. Paul became excited. “That’s Mom. What’s she doing here?”
God laughed. “Celebrating Christmas with her son and her future son-in-law, of course…”
Paul stared at the man who’d driven the car. “I’ve lost weight. I look older.”
“Always the critic. But yes, you’ll begin to work out and spend some time at the gym. Your dad’s heart disease and your mom telling you about it will be the final straw to break the camel’s back, to overcome your resistance—getting you to see your own GP, getting some straight talk about your own health—finally looking after yourself. Meeting Jesse again will also help.”
“Yes, Jesse, the one and only. Just like you, he had a horrible youth and ended up in the system, but in Indianapolis. Unlike you, he wasn’t quite so lucky. He did drugs, served time, and never really got a second chance. Mostly working stray day jobs, he never caught a break in life until he ended up in your hometown again, by chance.
“He met your mom at the nursing home where your dad was living out the last few weeks of his life. Jesse was working as a janitor, and he and your mom began to—or rather, will begin to—talk. One of life’s coincidences, really—that your mother is the one to bring Jesse back into your life. The rest, as they say, is history, or it will be, come next Christmas…”
Paul’s heart was racing, yet he remained skeptical. “Why are you showing me this? I thought I was supposed to do something different in order to change the outcome of Christmas Future? This makes no sense…”
“Paul, you really are one stubborn mule.” God tousled Paul’s hair. “You still have to do all the work, make all those changes, or you’ll wake up next year to a Christmas just like the one you’ve celebrated these past decades—in your apartment, alone, working Christmas Day rather than spending time with your family. Life, my friend, is not a self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s what you make of it. Just remember, I am God, and I am right here, right inside you, part of you. Therefore, in some way, you are God, and your fate, your future, is yours to shape, if you work hard, spice it with a pinch of luck and sprinkle it with some Christmas magic.”
Around Paul, the scenery began to dissolve again, but rather than the sand coalescing into another scene, Paul woke up, and found himself where he’d fallen asleep a few hours earlier—in his own bed, in his own bedroom, in his apartment.
Paul turned on the lamp on his nightstand before getting out of bed to go to the bathroom. God was no longer there… if he’d ever been. Yet when Paul returned and saw his phone lying on the nightstand, he was immediately reminded of God’s advice, to call his mother. He picked up the phone and walked out to the kitchen to make coffee. He needed to think clearly. He wasn’t sure if his parents still had a landline, but chances were they did, and given that so little had changed, chances were they still had the same number they had when he was a boy.
Paul didn’t need to think about that number. There had been countless times throughout his life that he’d considered calling, mulling the pros and cons, but ultimately, he never did. Better to be safe than sorry.
He grabbed a cup from the cupboard and poured himself a fresh cup as the coffee maker had stopped spilling the last drops into the pot, and was now mostly sputtering air. He sat down at his kitchen table, picked up his phone and dialed the number to his parents’ landline from memory. After a couple of signals, someone picked up on the other end.
“Hello, who’s this?”
MERRY CHRISTMAS AND REMEMBER, CARPE DIEM!
I hope you enjoyed this short story. May it remind you of the true spirit of Christmas, that of love for your next. To read the other stories in this beautiful calendar, look here:
Rainbow Advent Calendar 2017
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If you like my writing, feel free to subscribe to my monthly newsletter (top right on this page) with competitions and hopefully interesting reading. Interact with me on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and/or Instagram. This is my last post of the year. My family and I are already on Madeira celebrating a well-deserved (?) vacation. From all of us to all of you, a very merry Christmas and a Happy, Successful & Peaceful New Year. May 2018 bring about positive change to our world. It is, after all, the only one we have…
Our Christmas tradition: for thirty-four years now, the Hirschi family has (mostly) foregone Christmas presents
…and much of the stress associated with the Holidays, I might add. Christmas is one of the most traditional holidays we have in the western world. It’s a time when families gather, presents are exchanged, food is eaten in copious amounts and stress is permeating every aspect of it. You read Facebook posts of stressed mothers who don’t bake (enough), people who are stressed because they don’t have a family to celebrate with and people who are stressed because they can’t seem to find the right gift. In 1983, my parents introduce da new Christmas tradition in our family: travel.
Christmas tradition premiere: we traveled back to where I had spent the summer and visited my amazing host family in St. Malo, Brittany. From left: my mother, me, my host mom (from behind) and my host dad.
It is a trip I’ll never forget. My brother (thirteen then) and I had spent the summer of 83 in France, studying French. He had been in Sète, in the South of France, while I had ended up in St. Malo, in Brittany (a stunningly beautiful place btw!)
That year, my parents suggested we leave the Engadine, St. Moritz and the glitz and glam of the world’s oldest winter sports resort town to do something else: a few days in Paris followed by a few days in St. Malo. I don’t recall why that suggestion came. Was it some sort of envy of our summer trip and the memories? Was it a health issue? My dad had been forced to take an emergency vacation in the fall of 82 to avoid an imminent heart attack (or so his doctors claimed.)
So it began…
We loved it so much that we did it again, in Sète, the next year. Me with my parents back in 1984.
In any case, we agreed that we – henceforth – would forego Christmas presents and that we’d spend that money on a trip instead. Neither my brother nor I argued the point. It was far too exciting to go places, and both he and I had loved every trip we’d taken abroad, usually in May, for spring break. We never looked back.
After St. Malo in 1983, we ended up in Sète in 1984, (I was in the U.S. in 1985/6), London in 1987 (where we watched the musical Chess), and after a while, we added sunshine and warmth to our trips. My parents live in a place that while sunny, it also sees snow every month of the year, and winters are painfully long (October to April.) At some point, we began to travel to Thailand and we’ve spent the past few years traveling to the Florida Keys (2013), the Caribbean (2014), Bali (2015), and the Caribbean (2016) again.
No tradition without exceptions…
Sometimes, traditions need to be broken to stay alive. In 2012, mom was too ravaged from her dementia to travel, and instead, we visited her. It was to be her final Christmas, celebrated the way we used to when I was a kid. If you’re interested in how we celebrated when I was a child? Read my Christmas Tale, a short story depicting this Swiss-style celebration.
This year, we split up, for the first time since my mom passed away. There have always been years where one or several parts of the family spent their vacations separately, and there have been years where we stayed home, for various reasons, partially because both my brother and I are married and we have partners and their respective families to consider as well. And there have been exceptions to the rule, as e.g. 2012, when my mother celebrated her final Christmas (which we obviously didn’t realize), but she was far gone in her dementia to travel. We’d still been to Thailand the year before, in 2011.
My brother and his husband decided early one to celebrate one year with his in-laws and one year with us. My husband’s family was never much to celebrate with (loooong story), so we never really had that conundrum. This year is “our” year and my dad is flying to Mexico to be with them, as my brother and his husband recently moved back to Mexico.
Alex and I decided not to join them. Instead, we’ve booked a small cottage on the island of Madeira for a quiet couple of weeks on that green paradise. Just the three of us. We haven’t had that in quite a while. The birth of our son also meant that we had to re-adjust our traditions a bit. Rather than completely foregoing Christmas, we don’t want Sascha to miss out, and so we celebrate with him, shlepping Christmas presents to the farthest corners of the world, and back…
Next year, Christmas 2018, we’ll fly to Cape Town for the Holidays… I can’t wait to visit Willem’s hometown.
Our son’s birth meant changes were necessary…
And we’ve kinda, sorta, given up on our no gifts Christmas tradition, at least a little bit. Every now and then, a small gift for Alex may find its way under the tree, and vice versa. It’s not so much an expectation, but rather a pleasant surprise. And it makes sense, particularly as Sascha is curious about what we’re up to, what Santa does etc.
We still travel though, and our son is an avid traveler, and believe it or not, we already know where we’re heading to next year: Cape Town. Personally, I can’t wait, because that city has been on my bucket list ever since I wrote Willem of the Tafel a couple of years ago.
How do you celebrate the Holidays?
Does your family (do you) have any special Christmas tradition? Something out of the ordinary? Let’s share! I can highly recommend traveling. It’s very soothing and you really do escape all the stress of cooking, Christmas shopping and what not. LOL
If you like my reviews, my writing, feel free to subscribe to my monthly newsletter (top right on this page) with competitions and hopefully interesting reading. The next issue is due next week. Interact with me on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and/or Instagram. Have a great weekend and enjoy the fourth Advent week.
PS: Are you following the Rainbow Advent Calendar? If not, the stories are still up there for you to read, and new ones are published every day… My story will be published on Christmas Eve… 😉
I came to think of my own Christmas story last night, my husband and our first celebration together
A bit of a personal Christmas story today, all real, no fiction. We’re approaching the half-way point in the Rainbow Advent Calendar which I hope you’re following. I’ve already read some really cute and some quite unique stories. And plenty more to go. If you missed it, don’t worry, all the open doors stay open for you. You can go back and read anytime you like. My husband and I met in 2001, on 9/11 (it’s an important piece as you’ll see soon), and after that, things moved quickly. We had been talking online and on the phone ever since our first contact in April that year, but our first date was 9/11, in part because he lived three hours away from me.
Our official Christmas picture!
He moved in with me December 2 that same year. I’d spent the night up there in his apartment and on Sunday morning, we left it all, dumped the furniture (which was mostly old stuff anyway) and took what little belongings he owned, to my car and drove to Gothenburg. The lone exception was a bicycle, a gift from his parents we couldn’t fit. We’d be back for it later. I had known by then that Alex’s parents were quite homophobic but I wasn’t prepared for what I was in for. He’d also told me that Christmas had always been a dark period for him as he grew up, with his dad leaving for his mistress and/or both his parents drinking heavily. It was not a Holiday he looked forward to. For me, it had always been the opposite. I LOVE Christmas, and even when I was alone, I always had a tree. I was on a mission: I’d show Alex that Christmas was a time to enjoy, a beautiful time for family memories to be made, and yes for unconditional love.
I came to think of this last night, as our little family was enjoying a traditional Swedish Yule table, our Christmas version of the famous Smörgåsbord with delicacies ranging from herring to cold cuts, sausages, meatballs, ham, and fish, not to mention a great assortment of candies and desserts. It was one of the gelatine-pressed meat dishes that triggered my memories because back in 2001 I had bought food for a six-headed family and then some. I’d cooked the ham but most of the rest I’d bought in the story. I had, after all not spent that many years in Sweden and I wasn’t exactly an expert on Swedish cuisine.
Our tree this year.
So I bought “Sylta”, which is minced meats in a form surrounded by gelatine. Quite delicious, but yeah, I’d bought a big sized pack and it was more than too much… We sat down, as tradition bids after noon, to eat. We didn’t get far, as the phone kept ringing off the hook. Alex’s father had left his mother for Christmas, to spend it with one of his mistresses, up north instead. So he called Alex and expected him to be home with his mom, rather than spending time with a [insert colorful expletive] faggot… After fifteen or so calls, we put the phone on voicemail and after thirty plus calls, we pulled the cord. Finally, we’d get some peace and quiet… But by then, the magic was gone, and so were our appetites.
On Boxing Day, we fled the country. No, not because of Alex’s dad, but because that year was special. After 9/11, people stopped flying, for fear of ending up in a building, and in New York, hotels stood empty. We got a super cheap deal and were able to fly to New York on Swissair and stay at a four-star hotel for almost no money at all. We had a great few days in the Big Apple, visiting the various sights, even going to Ground Zero to pay our respect to the many victims we’d watched live. We had a great New Year’s Eve dinner near Times Square and celebrated the arrival of 2002 with a million New Yorkers chanting “Fuck Bin Ladin!”
On our way back to Europe, I was able to upgrade us to Business Class, a first for Alex. That was our first Christmas, and I’m happy to report that seventeen years later, we still celebrate Christmas, we’ve made some amazing memories along the way, traveling with my family around the world. Now that we have a child of our own, the Christmas tree is back, and I’m currently sitting right in front of it, watching TV with a bed-ridden kid. Things turned out alright for us, which is the one thing you never really find out in those romances. They just kind of leave you hanging after that first kiss, right? Well, sometimes, IRL really can rock. Today, 11/12 also happens to be our wedding anniversary. Alex and I got hitched today, thirteen years ago. Sixteen years as a couple, thirteen as spouses, certainly longer than the average marriage these days…
Have a great week, and now go on and read some more Christmas stories. I know I will. There’s one I’m not quite done yet. Remember, my own Christmas story is due On Christmas Eve… Don’t miss it.
If you like my writing, feel free to subscribe to my monthly newsletter (top right on this page) with competitions and hopefully interesting reading. The next issue is due next week. Interact with me on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and/or Instagram.
PS: don’t forget to check back in on Friday, when I’ll be posting my release day review of Roe Horvat’s new book, a total must read, just like her last one…