Selina

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The old man hunched over an antique desk beneath the dim light of a small lamp. An open notebook stared up at him, empty though he’d been sitting there for hours.

Once, when he was young, he’d enjoyed a vibrant career. Back then, the words had flowed like wine. He’d brought stories into the world the likes of which had never been told before. But now in his old age, the well had run dry.

Of course, his books had never been his own. That was his dirty secret, the thing he kept from his readers whenever they asked him where he got his ideas. He’d always offer the standard bullshit, that he’d been a reclusive child, that it was his retreat into fiction that changed the way he saw and thought about the world.

But the truth was he was a fraud, for while the writing had been his own, the stories had come from someone else.

When he was only a teenager, a visitor came during the night. A woman, garbed in flowing silk that glowed in the dark.

“Wake up,” she whispered.

He almost screamed when he saw her, but she placed a hand over his mouth and assured him she meant no harm. She said her name was Selina, that she’d wandered the world in search of someone to tell her story. She placed a finger to her lips. Then she covered his eyes.

What followed was a supernova of sights and sounds, streaming before his eyes like a cosmic newsreel. An excerpt from a life outside the universe.

When he finally came back to himself, she was gone.

A notebook and pen had been left beside him. An open invitation, he thought, and he stayed up until dawn, trying to capture some small part of what he’d glimpsed in the mysterious vision.

She came to him the following night, and the night after that. Each time, he would sit down after she’d left to search out words that might do justice to the otherworldly snapshots of her life.

The books that resulted propelled him to unheard of heights. Nobody had read anything like them. People fawned over his work. Even the sharpest critics seemed at a loss.

But five years ago, Selina stopped visiting.

He flailed, struggled to recall something of her supernal sojourn through the stars so he’d have something new to write about.

But without those constant visions to guide his work, his writing became derivative, stale and uninteresting. People stopped buying his books. Eventually, he locked himself inside his house and never went out again.

Now, he gazed up at the lamp, still at a loss after five years. He closed his eyes, and he wondered if Selina would ever visit again.

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The Stone

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“Psst, boy.”

Adrian glanced toward the alley, where an old man stood hunched against a brick wall.

“Boy,” he repeated. “Come here. I have something for you.”

Curious and heedless of potential danger, Adrian did as he was told. When he was close enough to get a good look at his soiled rags, and to smell that he hadn’t bathed in weeks, the man glanced sideways, as if nervous he was being watched.

“Take this.”

Adrian looked down at the man’s closed fist.

“A gift,” he said, shoving a smooth round object into Adrian’s left hand. A moment later, he darted off into the shadows.

Adrian examined his prize.

A stone.

Brow furrowed, he continued home and placed it atop a shelf. He didn’t think about it anymore that day.

Meanwhile, the stone waited.

That night, when Adrian returned to his room to sleep, he found the stone where he’d left it. He picked it up and carried it with him to bed. Beneath the moonlight spilling through the window, it seemed almost to glow. Suddenly, his imagination went wild, and he was certain this simple object could reveal the universe’s deepest secrets.

When exhaustion overtook him and he finally fell asleep, the stone was still clutched between his fingers.

He dreamed that night.

He was tumbling through the stars, falling, floating, jets like cosmic sparks shooting through space. Galaxies spiraled in the distance, galaxies of every shape and size, whirling, colliding, bursting in blinding coruscating flashes.

Adrian felt lost, but he was not afraid because he held the stone.

“The cosmos are yours now,” said the voice of the man he’d met in the alley. The universe shook with the force of his words. They were a binding, the oldest and most powerful kind.

And then he was opening his eyes, and all he could see or hear was the pale light of the moon and the chirping of crickets outside. He glanced at the ordinary-looking stone, still firmly grasped in his left hand. It felt warm.

Adrian smiled.

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Alexandria

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Alexandria stood by the curb, looking out at the street as the sky poured rain. Meanwhile, a group of other kids was playing hockey. She didn’t ask to join. She knew they’d only laugh.

She stared after them for a moment before making her way along the sidewalk. The clouds above were a roiling sea of gray. The gloom pressed in around her, but it was not an uncomfortable feeling.

She could feel the imagination inside of her, crackling with feral wildborn magic. The storm amplified her power, so often latent and inactive, and she could feel a whole universe of possibilities fanning out before her.

Alexandria snapped her fingers. A world emerged. She snapped her fingers again. It disappeared.

Let the other kids have their game. She had something better.

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The Forgotten Magic

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The man stood beneath the moon and the stars, desperate and afraid. The world was bearing down on him, threatening to crush him under its immense and unyielding weight. He leaped into the air uselessly, tried in vain to spread his arms and fly.

Long ago, on the outer periphery of time and memory, he could have done it, could have sprouted wings, kicked the dust from his feet and soared into the air. But that power was lost to him now, forgotten with age and responsibility.

He couldn’t go on. He no longer had the energy to trudge through the trenches of daily life. He needed to escape, to run far away from the world and its heartless machinations.

He leaped again, flapping his arms from side to side like an off-balance windmill. It was useless. The man nearly cried.

When had the world lost its magic? When had it transformed from a bright glowing ball of potential energy to a soulless machine that had consumed his humanity and left nothing of it for himself? He had given the world everything, and the world had spared nothing for him in return.

The man looked up, away from the world. He gazed at the stars, and they gazed back at him with ancient understanding. If only he could touch them. They seemed to call his name, and he was certain that all he had to do was answer.

Had he changed? Was that why he’d forgotten? Perhaps the world had always been what it was. Perhaps the problem was not that the world had changed, but that he himself had changed. Perhaps the magic was not gone after all. Perhaps it had only been neglected, a childhood toy abandoned in the attic.

He basked in the light of the moon, bathed in it until he felt pure. Finally, he donned the cosmos like a cloak. The stars accepted him then, adopted him as their son, and in a flash of clarity they granted him the gift of memory.

He let it all go. He laid his burdens before the stars as a sacrifice, an offering to be exchanged for something much older, something pristine, something everlasting. He closed his eyes and the magic overtook him.

Transformed into something both new and ancient, he spread his arms, which transformed into the wings of an eagle. He flapped, and he could feel the air push back against him, countering gravity, bearing him high into the atmosphere. He flew toward the stars.

He didn’t look back and he never returned.

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Why Is Imagination So Important?

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This is the final installment of my four-part weekly series, Ex Nihilo.

You were born a philosopher. As a child, you spent hours beneath the stars, hypnotized by the transcendent mysteries of the cosmos. But with age came the people who told you it was time to grow up, that it was time to shed your imagination like a used skin so you could focus on more pragmatic concerns. You always secretly thought they were wrong, that you should never trade your fantasies for an ordinary life. But the world would always bear down on you with its facts and figures, wearing away at your soul like a grinding stone until you began to crack and buckle around the edges.

You never stopped using your imagination, but you did begin to keep it to yourself, afraid there might be something wrong with you, afraid you might be defective simply because you’ve always managed to see the world differently. A part of you wondered if the world had been correct, if you would have been better off abandoning artistic pursuits for more worldly endeavors.

You probably asked yourself, “Why is imagination so important?”

Imagination is a lamp set before us to light the way.

The universe is a mystery. Most of its secrets remain untouchable, impenetrable, making it a frightening place where all we can do is stumble around half-blind in the dark. Imagination is the light that dispells this darkness, making the cosmos accessible. It’s a mental framework, a way of perceiving the world. It doesn’t claim to know the answers, but endows us with the creativity necessary to discover them. Through fantasy, the enigmas of life and existence are revealed, making us better equipped to relate to reality.

Imagination is a covenant between the Universe and Man.

It hints at what lies beyond the horizon and assures us that all the universe has to offer can be ours if only we have the courage to pursue our dreams. It’s a promise made to us by a faithful cosmos, and through the years, this promise matures into a confident trust in the unknown, a sure belief that the world is fundamentally ordered and that one day we will know the answers to our deepest questions.

Imagination is a mentor.

It precedes every great discovery. It teaches not through rote memorization or blind adherence to established doctrine, but through hands on experience, passion and dedication, instilling within us a profound yearning for the Truth. It teaches us how to reach beyond the obvious to grapple with things we don’t fully understand, enabling us to cast our minds into the darkness like a fisherman’s net to capture something new.

And once we’ve hooked a mystery, we can use logic and systematic thought to reel it in, for imagination and reason are not contradictory but complimentary forces. Like the synthesis of body and soul, the fusion of imagination and reason is a sum much greater than its parts.

Imagination teaches us to love.

It sparks in our hearts a curiosity that drives us to learn about other people, and it gives us the unique perspective necessary to discover in an ocean of differences all the things we have in common. This understanding blossoms into empathy, so that it becomes possible for us to love our neighbors as ourselves.

Imagination facilitates creation.

It allows us to picture things not just as they are, but as they might be. Guided by this internal vision, we can shape and mold the universe according to our designs, so that we become manufacturers as well as consumers of reality.

Imagination is life-giving.

It’s a wellspring of potential energy, a supernova of the heart, an explosive force that illumines and breathes life into the cosmos. It transforms us, orients us toward a more perfect union with the world and its creator.

To turn our backs on fantasy and the imagination is to turn our backs on the Universe, to slowly wither and die, cut off from the cosmic vine that sustains us. We must not let the cynical voices of the world discourage us. Rather we must venture forth into the dark unafraid, so that someday, we can find the answers we seek, so that someday, at long last, we can discover the meaning of our existence.

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What Can Fantasy Teach Me About Reality?

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Who doesn’t love a good story?

Fiction is an indispensable part of the human experience. Without it, the world would be a dreary place. Imagination is essential for one’s sanity and happiness. But we always go into fiction with the understanding that what we’re experiencing isn’t real. Though we choose to suspend disbelief, there’s always that part of our brain that maintains the distinction between reality and fantasy. A vast unbridgeable chasm exists between the two: one is real, the other is not.

You might reasonably ask yourself, “what can fantasy teach me about reality?”

Fantasy teaches us about real people.

Though fictional characters are spun from the thread of dreams, their underlying natures are based on real people. Authors must always draw from a massive catalog of real-life experience; if what they want to write about can’t be found within its pages, it must be labeled as unbelievable and cast aside.

Fantasy is, in fact, an exhaustive study of humanity. It offers lessons from three unique angles:

  1. We learn about the characters. We’re privy to their thoughts, we observe their actions and we witness the ways in which they relate to others.
  2. We learn about the author. The way a storyteller’s characters think and act is a reflection of the storyteller himself. They can teach us about his cultural heritage, his upbringing, his prejudices, his interests, even how he might have gotten along with others. An artist’s creation is as much an expression of the artist as it is of the art itself.
  3. We learn about ourselves. Given that a realistic fictional character is based on authentic human nature, and that we are in fact real people, it stands to reason that we would find ourselves at least partially reflected in their image. We experience bits and pieces of ourselves in the characters we encounter, and we have the benefit of an outsider’s perspective. As a result, we discover more of who we are.

Fantasy teaches us to appreciate the extraordinary within the ordinary.

All good fiction no matter how whimsical is rooted in reality, because we can only relate to something that aligns with our understanding of the universe and how it works. There might be magic, but that magic is always governed by rules, and the basic laws of nature, though extended, always remain backward-compatible with our own. People don’t walk through walls or breathe under water unless they possess special powers, and in such cases they are the exception rather than the rule.

Unfortunately, we take reality for granted. Because it’s something we interact with every day, because it’s no longer new as it once was when we were children, we disregard it. Thankfully, fantasy reorients our perspective.

Free from that thin veneer of mundanity that ordinarily coats the surface of reality, we’re involuntarily struck by the raw beauty we encounter in the world of our dreams. We take these experiences with us and assimilate them into who we are. Gradually, we become accustomed to seeing things through the lens of childlike awe. Eventually, without ever realizing what’s happened, we rediscover the extraordinary that lies hidden just beneath the surface of the ordinary.

We become sensitive to the great emotional epics that play out within the confines of real relationships. Our hearts are smitten by the jaw-dropping beauty that manifests itself in real landscapes. We become aware of the magic that’s existed all along, operating under the name of Science. We become sensitive to a hidden splendor that’s always been accessible to us, but was until recently outside our once narrowed field of vision. Imagination is like a mirror: the mystery and wonder we encounter in fantasy is reflected back onto our perception of the world, flooding it with new light so that we can see the world anew.

Fantasy teaches us to accept difficult truths.

There are uncomfortable realities we prefer not to think about. We’re faced daily with poverty, hunger, war, mental illness, even the evil within ourselves. Life is much easier when we allow ourselves to forget that the world is a dark place. As a result, we erect mental walls when sensitive topics are broached. Our eyes glaze over and we assume the mental stance of a three year old, covering his ears and singing “la, la, la…”

Reading fiction is one way to become more receptive. Because stories aren’t real (at least on the surface), we have a much greater tolerance for controversial ideas. We open the gates and we allow the author’s beliefs to make a home inside our hearts.

Because good fiction is grounded in reality, it’s inevitable that we begin to apply these beliefs alongside our own. Like Inception, the ideas communicated through stories bubble up into our conscious minds as if they were our own. In this regard, artists wield a very real and profound power over the rest world, and therefore have a grave moral obligation to always tell the truth.

Fantasy teaches us how to approach and solve real problems.

Simply put, fantasy makes us better problem solvers. We observe how different kinds of characters respond to adversity, learn from them and apply what we learned to our own problems. Fantasy teaches us to be creative, to think “outside the box,” to be more adaptable.

Neil Gaiman cites an interesting example. In an article for The Guardian called Why our future depends on libraries, reading and daydreaming, he writes:

I was in China in 2007, at the first party-approved science fiction and fantasy convention in Chinese history. And at one point I took a top official aside and asked him Why? SF had been disapproved of for a long time. What had changed?

It’s simple, he told me. The Chinese were brilliant at making things if other people brought them the plans. But they did not innovate and they did not invent. They did not imagine. So they sent a delegation to the US, to Apple, to Microsoft, to Google, and they asked the people there who were inventing the future about themselves. And they found that all of them had read science fiction when they were boys or girls.

Conclusion: Fantasy is reality remixed.

Fantasy is only fictional on the surface. Humans may be capable of imagining things outside their immediate scope of experience, but they can only do so by forging new connections between existing ideas. Like so many songs on the market today, stories are nothing more than reality remixed.

If it’s not real, it won’t make sense. If it doesn’t make sense, we won’t connect with what we’re reading. And if we don’t connect with what we’re reading, we’re going to get frustrated and put the book aside.

In order to concoct convincing tales, authors must resort to unabashedly plagiarizing reality, and in the end all they can do in their never-ending quest for originality is to hope and pray that they were clever enough not to get caught.

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The Puddle

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I remember standing on the playground at school after a storm, my hands numb from the cold, my nostrils filled with the scent of wet earth and asphalt. I peered down at the blacktop, made slick and shiny by the rain, and I scurried to where the water had pooled into a large sprawling puddle. I stared, transfixed by that shallow body that seemed so deep, and my breath caught. Was that just a reflection I could see, or was it, perhaps, some exceedingly rare glimpse of another world?

I felt that all I had to do was jump, and I would find myself falling, tumbling, down and down into endless blue. Or perhaps floating, flying, borne by great billowing clouds and fearsome bellowing winds, up into that vast ocean of upside down sky. Holding my breath, I took a leap of faith and jumped. But beneath my feet to break my fall were the shoes of an upside down boy.

He looked just like me. I gazed down, sad, and he gazed back up with the same doleful expression.

I stepped back, and the boy beneath my feet did the same. I waited, hoping he would go away. But when I slowly craned my neck forward to make sure my path was clear, I saw the boy had returned. I took a deep breath. If only I could slip past him. If only I could trick him into moving away. I cast another furtive glance over the edge of the puddle, but the boy was still there.

I made as if to draw away, then suddenly whirled and lunged into the air with eyes closed. I felt the rush of frigid morning wind as it whooshed and whipped over my arms and shoulders. I was certain I’d outsmarted him.

The puddle shattered as my feet struck the water, and a magnificent spray of shimmering liquid glass rained down around me. For a fraction of a second, I was certain my body would clear that thin barrier between the worlds, tumbling and falling into infinity. But when my descent was stopped short, I opened my eyes. I looked down, and there was the boy, gazing up at me. His face was set in a solemn expression. There would be no freedom that day.

I stood and stared at the boy who had denied me access to his endless world of blue. Only after the bell rang and a teacher took me by the shoulder did I go, and as I proceeded toward the dim and dreary classroom where I would be locked away for the remainder of the day, I glanced back at the puddle, that gateway into another world. The boy was gone, but it was too late.

A captive sun pushed through charcoal clouds, and throughout the day, while I sat at a desk with my head bent low in my hands, it drank up all the water. That temporary portal into another existence receded, falling into itself until at last there was hardly more than a drop. All the while, I imagined the mist that would have risen up around it, the soul of a dying world.

After school, I stood over where the puddle had once been. I mourned the loss of a world. I mourned the loss of freedom.

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How Your Imagination Is Like a Mirror

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I’ve always been fascinated by reflections.

On the surface, a reflection is so ordinary, so mundane, so uninteresting. And why not? We see them everywhere we go. We look at our twin in the mirror every morning. We catch glimpses of upside down skies in puddles left behind by rainstorms every Spring. And we know — have known since early childhood — that they’re nothing more than reflected rays of light. How can something so simple and so common possibly be interesting?

But what if a reflection were something more? What if, whenever you looked in the mirror, you glimpsed the doings of another world, parallel in every way to our own? Perhaps these are not merely rays of light reflected back from our universe, but rays of light projected from another. Maybe, this other universe is populated with its own people, each gazing into their own reflections, worlds stacked upon worlds. And perhaps some of them are gazing back at us.

Suddenly, by the incredible power of the imagination, something ordinary has been transformed into something extraordinary. Your vision has been forever altered. For the rest of your life, when you look in the mirror, a part of you, if only a very small part, will wonder if the man or the woman you see every morning is really just a reflection.

And that’s not all.

The sense of mystery and childlike wonder that you experience in your imagination, it bounces back. It’s reflected, like light off a mirror. You begin to see ordinary things in this new light, and you suddenly realize that they’re not so mundane and uninteresting after all.

In the case of a simple reflection, you might ponder the nature of light. You might wonder what makes it bounce from one surface to the next. Eventually, you’ll feel the need to search for answers. And when you do, you’ll discover just how surreal and otherworldly reality actually is.

Once you do, neither you nor the world around you will ever be the same.

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