All posts by Maria Stanislav

Author. Immigrant. Fat chick. Co-conspirator of one Firebird Rain.

My Stranger – A Writer’s Love Story

Once upon a time I would spend a lot of time in one bar I know. Some weeks, I would show there every evening. Others, once or twice. There would be weeks when I couldn’t make it to the bar once. But I never stayed away for long.

In that bar, I would meet a stranger. And a stranger they would be, always, no matter how many times I had met them before.

There was no knowing how the night would go. On some nights, we would make each other laugh, or try to outwit each other in cheesy banter. On some nights, we would stare into each other’s eyes – in confusion, in understanding, in anger when the understanding went too far, revealing things we were not prepared to know about the other and ourselves.

On some nights, we could dance like a perfectly choreographed musical troupe; on others, we stepped on each other’s toes, slipped, tripped, laughed in amusement, groaned in frustration, left in a huff. Some nights, we would be all over each other for hours; on some, a five-minute talk would make it clear that neither was in the mood.

Ultimately, I didn’t mind how the night would go. I would just be glad to be there. To have shown up, be it for five minutes or five hours, be it for a dance, a chat, a kiss, or a fight.

Then, one day, the stranger wasn’t there. I wasn’t sure what to do. It felt so sudden. It seemed to have come out of nowhere. I took it personally. I left the bar, and didn’t go back.

I told myself it was for the best. Looking back, I could see that my stranger’s disappearance had not come out of nowhere after all. In the weeks preceding it, there were many more fights than kisses, and the dances felt stiff, half-hearted, the definition of going through the motions. I had stopped showing up at the bar in wonder, in preconceived acceptance of whatever the night would bring. I had begun showing up with expectations, or in anticipation of disappointment. My expectations would be disappointed. My anticipation of disappointment, fulfilled.

For a while after that, I would shun all bars of the kind where I could meet my stranger, or someone like them. I had taken a turn towards fear. I didn’t want us to fight anymore, but saw no way through. I wanted things to go back to the way they were, but saw no way back.

So I stayed away, opting for a perfect never-was instead of a messy up-and-down. An easy no instead of a hard-won maybe.

For a while, that was enough. Right up until the one day when it wasn’t.

I’m going back to the bar. Because I miss my stranger. I miss the dancing, elegant and awkward alike. I miss the way we made each other laugh. I miss the moments of terrifying vulnerability, moments when I wasn’t sure who was more exposed: them who answered my questions, or me who asked them.

I have been missing these things more with every passing day, and I think my longing has finally outgrown my fear.

Tonight, I’m going back. I’m going to perch myself on a tall bar stool, stare into my drink for a while to gather my courage, tap my stranger on the shoulder… and find out what happens next.

On Choosing Where To Make Your Stand

(Photo above by V. E. Schwab)

I recently had a rare and precious chance to get a cross-section of public opinion on my act of civil dissent, while remaining largely anonymous (i.e. “that stupid cow in the red hat”). While I’m cultivating a habit to steer clear of internet comments, I waded through this particular minefield in the name of research. Said research was quite rewarding: I found that people’s criticisms usually fell into one of three categories: (1) why aren’t you at work? (2) what is this going to achieve?; and (3) why aren’t you protesting something closer to home?

It’s N3 that I want to talk about. Not the blindingly obvious reasons why I’m protesting against Trump while I’m in the UK. But the connection between protesting and home.

The very notion of home is currently very mercurial for me. I’m a thoroughly globalized Millennial snowflake, and while my passport isn’t fancy enough to let me travel just anywhere without a colonoscopy at the embassy and border visa application process, I don’t have a problem with the idea of uprooting my life and moving to a new country at the drop of a hat. (My bank account may have a problem with it, but that’s a different story.) Any bonds I have to my birth country that’s fighting tooth and nail to be in Europe, and to the soggy island that’s trying to paddle away from it, are forged of people I care about. Whether these people are the family I was born into, the family I found, or the crowds that spend weeks on the barricades at minus twenty Celsius. I sound pretentious as I say it –Millennial snowflakes are expected to – but over the past ten years I’ve become a citizen of the world without trying or noticing.

Citizen of the world, with a Ukrainian passport and a UK residence card. Instead of having one home, I could have three.

Then, one by one, each of these three homes got threatened. Ukraine made it through the revolution, only to spend every day since then fighting back a wannabe Tsar who wants his empire back. The UK, while convulsing all over, decided it’s best to kick out job-holding, tax-paying freeloaders like my husband and me. As for the world, well…

trumpocalypse

So you tell me where I’m supposed to protest.

Should I go back to Ukraine? What help I could give there I’ve been giving over the past three years, with my knowledge of English, writing skills, and donations to help soldiers. Even when the revolution was happening in the downtown, I wouldn’t have been any more useful on the field than I was at my laptop.

Should I fight for civil rights here in the UK? Conservation in the UK? Labor unions in the UK? Climate change policy in the UK? Any search for campaigning advice will tell you to “get in touch with your MP.” I don’t have an MP. I don’t have a vote in any election that takes place here. Even if the EU citizens had a vote during the Brexit referendum, I still wouldn’t have had one, because I’m from outside the EU.

So I’m left with one just battleground. The world. And make no mistake that the stakes in any protest against The Clockwork Orange in the Oval Office are on the global scale.

The good news is, this is one battleground on which I have power. Here, I don’t need the right to vote. I don’t need representation in any parliament. The requirements are simple: a brain with which to create, and a body with which to show up. I’m a human being. That’s plenty. (In fact, I’m a human being with a fucking internet connection! For this battleground, that’s, like, officer material.)

Go protest at home?

I AM.

Go protest about something closer to home?

I AM!

I’m a citizen of the world. I’m a citizen of this goddamn planet.

And this is why I will keep making my stand, on whichever geography, while there’s still geography left to make a stand on.

In the hope that those who have more power than I will take note. And those who have less power than I will take heart.

Sincerely,
That Stupid Cow in the Red Hat

If You’re Scared, Put It On A Banner

On January 22nd, I lay awake at 3 am. If you know my nightowl self at all, you’d sooner be surprised by the lying down part than the awake part. But over the past few days, I’d gotten sleep in two-hour scraps around the clock, so I was trying to restore a semblance of a circadian rhythm, hence the early-for-me bed time.

The past week had been a flurry of preparation for the protests on Friday and Saturday. Friday, January 20th saw the first rally I put together myself, to support #BridgesNotWalls worldwide. Saturday the 21st was Women’s March in Liverpool. During the weekend, I made a couple of new friends, talked to more people I usually interact with in a month, was approached by a handful of reporters, and had my first, albeit peaceful, encounter with the police. I made it to two newscasts of local radiostations as well as the regional branch of the BBCan article in the local newspaper, and a Facebook video of the same local newspaper that got some 40k+ views and made a few hundred people very angry.

Photos by Liverpool Echo, myself, and our photographer Simon

The whole experience was gratifying. Following protests on social media is an entirely different experience when you’re also a part of them. Whether or not you see a picture of your event/face crop up somewhere, you feel connected to these hundreds, thousands, hundreds of thousands of people around the world.

But enough with the platitudes, positive as they may be. Here’s the real talk.

When you try and fail to sleep, your brain is your worst enemy. It’s at those moments that all useful feelings – strength, camaraderie, even anger – fade away, and give room to fear. That cold feeling in the pit of your stomach that tells you that you can’t really change anything. That it’s all for naught. That all the ill-wishers– actually, let me take a moment and speak to the ill-wishers.

Hello, ill-wishers. Yes, you who slam protesters and activists for being pointless. Guess what – you’re not original. Or did you really think that anything you can say to us we haven’t already heard from ourselves? Spoken in our own voice on sleepless nights, from the dark corner of our minds, from the cold pit of our stomachs? You think your comments are a revelation to us? Then again, I doubt you’ve given it much thought. You just want to give yourself a little meaning at someone else’s expense. You’re pathetic. Moving on.

To battle my 3 am demons, I turned to my vials of light. You know, in The Lord of the Rings, when Galadriel gives Frodo a crystal vial containing the light of a star, and says: “May it be a light to you in the dark places, when all other lights go out.” I have a few vials like that, with distilled memories of certain days that shine brighter than others. When I need some light, I reach for them. Last night, I imagined it very clearly – pulling on a stopper, and watching the memory unfold from its crystal container, flooding my senses. It was a memory of a summer day a few years ago. It helped.

earendil

And then, with the vial back on the shelf, I turned back to my 3 am demons, and that was the moment I learned something very important. I figured out why I take action, online and offline – and why I will KEEP doing that, for as long as I possibly can.
I do it because it helps me be less scared. Because you see, the insomniac small hours of the morning always have and always will be full of demons. That’s nothing to worry about. It’s when they spread to your other waking hours that you have a problem. And taking action, it doesn’t banish the demons, doesn’t erase the fear – but it does keep them contained. Shackled to their 3 am prison. Only capable of hurting you when you’re at your weakest.

And when you’re forced to walk through the demons’ dungeon at night, through a corridor that’s so narrow they can claw at you through the bars of their cages – it’s important to know that at the end of this corridor, is another morning. When you will wake up, and take action. And the demons’ cages will slam shut, and stay shut.

Are you feeling scared about the world right now? Drag your demons out into the light. Fight them until you draw blood. Then put it on your banner.

Photo by ghost_with_flowers
Photo by ghost_with_flowers

Do You Want a Gold Star?

Dream with me for a moment, guys.

Let’s say you’re on a diet. No, scratch that. Diets are bad. Let’s say you’re on the path towards a consistently healthier lifestyle: keeping an eye on your portions, eating more veg, drinking more water, exercising, etc. And every day, you wake up to a message that says something like:

“Thanks to your healthier habits yesterday, you lost about 50 g of fat. Also, your reduced sugar intake throughout the past week reduced your risk of type II diabetes by a further 1%. Keep it up!”

Then you go to brush your teeth, and your mirror shows a comparison of your left molar now vs. the state it would’ve been in had you not been brushing your teeth diligently for the last six months, and the progress that a wannabe-cavity would’ve made. It also tells you how many days you’ve had without your teeth sensitivity acting up.

And then you go for your morning run, and your fitbit doesn’t just keep track of your speed, heart rate, whatnot, but tells you exactly how much you’ve improved since last time and how much muscle you’ve built,  Or maybe you’re doing yoga, and you know that you’re some 75% of the way to that one position that’s proving tricky.

Oh, and the best part? There’s a setting in your omniscient statistician that lets you skip any negative messages. As in, on the day you forget to eat your greens or skip your run, it doesn’t tell you off. There’s no negative reinforcement, simply lack of a positive one. And the funny thing is, that’s how most people keep their OmniStat set up – and studies show that is, indeed, the most effective way to get their stuff done.

So, how do you like my dreamworld? Does this system remind you of anything?

If not, let me give you more clues. Imagine that you fight monsters and go on quests. And every time you defeat a monster and complete a quest, you gain a certain amount of “points” that either get distributed to various abilities you have, or go towards your next “level”, upon reaching which you find all your abilities and characteristics boosted.

With me now? Good.

What if life were more like theater? asks Neil Patrick Harris, and while I thoroughly enjoy his performance to illustrate that world, I’d prefer it if life was more like a computer game.

Imagine you got a reward for everything you do that is healthy and productive (and maybe not even get penalized for failing to do those things, simply have no further reward). Imagine if every piece of progress you made was measurable and known to you. In fact, imagine if the exact information about your progress – actual, unbiased data, not “so far so good”, not “miles to go before you sleep”, but REAL data, like “the first draft of your novel is currently 25.5% complete”. Imagine that info alone WAS your reward.

For me, that would be enough. A token, robotic “well done!” with a progress report, every time I made progress in the right direction, be it health or career. (Let’s leave relationship and morals out of here.)

Of course, there’ll be many of you out there who will tell me to put my big girl pants on.

“You want to know why she doesn’t kiss you on the forehead and give you a gold star on your homework at the end of the day,” says Nigel from The Devil Wears Prada to Andy, who’s having a crisis over being the underappreciated assistant to the titular character. Well, screw you, Nigel! I WANT that gold star! Maybe not from someone who pays my wages, but from a friend, a partner, or at least from an AI that’s been programmed to do so!

Yeah, yeah, I know. Big girl pants. Maybe you’re right. After all, the rest of the world is coping just fine. Every human adult (that has the financial and societal means to do so, anyway) keeps on top of their work and family responsibilities, pursues satisfying hobbies in their free time, eats healthily, exercises regularly, is in touch with their personal brand of spirituality and/or emotional management, never suffers from burnout, and knows how to prioritize long-term improvement over short-term gain. Also, the Vulcans have landed and Starfleet is recruiting.

With this in mind, if you’re a proponent of the “big person pants” method, feel free to put yours on. (And tell me where you got them, since my size-20 butt is in constant search of a good denim supplier.)

The rest of you, let’s embrace our inner five-year-old for a moment. Because I’m willing to bet that an average five-year-old is a lot happier than any of us grown-ups.

Games Are Fun

The word “gamification” gets thrown around a lot lately. At its core, gamification is exactly that: transforming a non-game element of life into a game of sorts, with a reward. You probably heard of various apps that help you build habits and reward your performance with their own gold star equivalent. Maybe you’re using one. Maybe you tried one once. Maybe you never wanted to try, because you figured that your deeply entrenched habits (or lack of) wouldn’t be affected by a mere app. (Maybe you’re also someone who never played Farmville, Mafia, or any other Facebook game that requires you to regularly log in and press buttons.)

Thing is, gold stars are fun. V.E. Schwab agrees, and her writing work ethic is something that still leaves me crying in the corner with white envy.

They don’t give gold stars on the homework where I come from, and I didn’t gamify much for myself when I was young.  In fact, I was a pretty boring child, teen, and young adult. I’ve learned academic achievement (graded since age 7), embraced the system and learned to work within it very effectively. Then again, grades themselves are an imaginary reward. Sure, grades have a lot of impact on your life, but the currency of grades is converted so many times and affected by so many factors that the reward itself IS mostly imaginary.

Thing is, I got so good at working inside that system that I was quite lost outside of it. In school and uni, I’d get graded on my achievements. At home, I had no such motivation to keep my place clean. I also had little motivation to exercise: sure, my back hurt a lot from the sitting, but I’ve always had a bad back, plus a neck trauma at age 9, so moderate back pains were just my reality. And as far as eating healthily went, I’d absorbed just enough toxic beauty standards from the media and the family to periodically count calories without regard to the real nutritional value of the food I was eating.

Boy, was the 20-25-year-old me a delight.

Don’t get me wrong, she had a GPA somewhere upward of 3.9 and a well-paying job in an international financial company – but these were combined with zero ability to take care of one’s home and health. I read books on time management and followed several programs for struggling homemakers (as well as an online food management plan). And I won’t deny it: some of it worked. Some useful tricks stuck.

Preteen me, however, gamified chores. She play-pretended a help agency that employed various fictional characters to assist other fictional characters, in a land that was a mishmash of stories that would give Once Upon a Time a run for its money. Every chore was storified (one I remember right now is that changing bedsheets was cleaning a giant eagle’s nest), kept track of, and even invoiced (heavens know where I found a stack of self-copying flimsies).

It was  fun. I got my gold stars from the system I’d put in place myself – and somehow, they were reward enough.

Now, in my early thirties, I still remember some of the tricks I learned from self-help books and courses. But mainly, I use Zombies, Run! for jogging, I recently got back to HabitRPG Habitica when I realized how much my routines suffered when I abandoned it, and I’m still considering the Nerd Fitness Rebel Academy as a way to shape my exercise routines into something more than a month of running twice a week followed by a month of skipping out.

And let me tell you: it’s working. Last night, I fell asleep without brushing my teeth, and today,  I felt bad about that.

Not because I worried about my dental health. But because didn’t get to check off “Brush teeth – evening” on my list of daily habits. Which meant not getting the XP and gold I would’ve gotten for my tiny level 61 rogue, who’s currently riding a lion into battle.

rogueGo on, call me silly and tell me to go put my big girl pants on. But tomorrow, I’m restarting my thrice-weekly running habit, because I want to know what happened to Abel Township after some zombies fired a grenade launcher to it. And tonight, I won’t forget to brush my teeth.

P.S. I’m not lying when I say I realized how much my habits suffered when I went off my usual gamification game (heh), so I’m pretty psyched about picking that stuff up again. Expect more blogs like this one.

Another Year Closer to Being a Millipede

By JHallComics
By JHallComics

I turned 31 last week. People are expected to have some large existential am-I-getting-old-am-I-a-real-adult-what-am-I-doing-with-my-life crisis when they hit the big three-oh. I didn’t, so I was half-expecting it to hit me this year.

It still didn’t.

Why? Who knows. Maybe because I spent the second half of my twenties having this crisis, and, dare I say, either answered some of the above questions, or have worked out a reasonable proxy for the answer, or learned to rephrase the question?

Am I getting old? Yes. No-one’s getting younger, except Benjamin Button, and he’s got his own set of problems. But I’m in pretty good health. I’ve got no chronic diseases. I’ve accepted that my metabolism is more suitable for post-apocalyptic survival than the modern-day beauty standard. If I want to fit the latter, I’m looking at a lifetime of starving myself, and that’s not my idea of a good time. Making myself fitter for the former, though, means actually making myself fitter. So I’ve been exercising on and off for about a year now, I ran my first 5k this spring, and I’ve been pleased to find that even semi-regular cardio and exceedingly basic yoga are enough to stave off any back pains brought on by my multiple desk jobs.

So: older, yes. Frailer, hardly.

Am I a real adult?

leslie_knope_laughs

I celebrated my thirty-first birthday with my two friends from middle school, drinking rum and coke – from a coffee jar, because I gave them the only two clean glasses in the apartment I’m currently renting in Kyiv, my home town which I’ve been visiting this month. Does that sound very adult to you?

Then again, I’m reasonably capable of solving problems that I face in the course of daily life. Then again, I am apt to complain about those problems on social media, to my husband, my sister, and whoever else is willing to listen. Then again, I am usually solving said problems even as I’m complaining. Then again, I tend to complain about people who complain too much. Then again and again and again, I have a tendency to lone-wolf my problems (which means I complain yet reject offers of help, or specifically avoid complaining to those who are likely to offer said help) and take on too much responsibility and crash and burn, and refuse to talk to people when I’m crashing (even though informing them of the fact of said crashing would be helpful) and, and, and…

Then again, I’m aware of these things I’m doing, so that’s a plus?

Some say that adulthood is a process. I think adulthood is a gumbo. You throw things in to boil together, you scoop out a bowl when you’re hungry, and other people will take some too, and some of it might spill, and things might bubble up to the surface that you haven’t seen in years, and others might add their own ingredients, and it might taste better on some days than others. But at the end of the day, you’re fed, and so are the people around you, and, with some luck, you’ve got a cool idea on what you want to add to the pot tomorrow.

(Disclaimer: I’m a white person whose highly romanticized version of gumbo mainly comes from Terry Pratchett’s Witches Abroad, but I know a good metaphor when I see one. Also, someone make me some gumbo.)

To sum up, am I a real adult? NEXT QUESTION!

What am I doing with my life?

Oh, right. That was the next question.

It’s the biggie, right? Yes and no. Because I know what I’m doing with my life: I’m a writer. I write novels and comics for life, and everything else for a living. I hope that after many years of hard work, I can make a modest living just from my creative writing, but if that point never comes, it won’t be a tragedy, because I don’t hate my paying job.

The Guardian recently wrote that “A good night’s sleep became the ultimate status symbol”. Arianna Huffington is largely credited for that, and my first instinct is to roll my eyes at someone who advocates the value of sleep while having nine assistants waiting on her – but if I try to imagine myself with even one assistant, I can see the epic struggle for delegation that I’d have to fight against my control freak self. So, good on you, Ms. Huffington, even though as a writer who likes to get paid for my work, I profoundly disagree with your business model.

But if a good night’s sleep is a status symbol these days, then the air is getting pretty thin around my bed – because after finally landing a freelance gig that I enjoy, I work hard on refusing the call of sleep deprivation. I have learned am still learning to budget rest into my schedule, and to tell the client if a deadline is indeed too tight for me. I’ve worked myself into hating my job in the past. I actually like this one, and I don’t want to grow to hate it.

As for my art, well, I recently got a book deal for my first novel. More importantly, I’ve been writing novels for some five years now, and I think I’ve learned how to write a decent book. Even more importantly, I’m writing the story I want to tell. I strongly believe that’s the order of importance. Love for your art > skill in your art > commercial success in your art.

So there we have it. I’m 31. I don’t presume to have all the answers, or to have life figured out (that was something I used to think when I was 25). I don’t pretend to be 100% comfortable with being a “grown woman” – otherwise I wouldn’t feel flattered when I get ID-ed to buy alcohol, or when someone disbelieves the answer when asking my age. (Because a woman is supposed to always be youthful, and all that crap? Another time for this can of worms.)

But I do feel that I’m leveling up at an acceptable pace. After all, the age 30 technically counts as, what, 30% of life expectancy (or more like 40% where I come from) – but I count my adult life from the age of 20 or so. The age when I really started making my own decisions, rather than coasting in the carpool lane with my family’s ideas. It took me five years of that adult life to figure out what I didn’t want out of life. It took me a few more to figure out which one of the things I do want I want the most.

So, yeah. I’ve still got a ways to go to be the millipede from that comic at the top of this blog, but I’m growing a few extra pairs of legs every year. (Now, if only I could teach each one of them to use their own keyboard…)