Michaels creates Shabbat tale complete with dragons

By: Rabbi Rachel Esserman

What do the laws of Shabbat and dragons have in common? The answer will be obvious for readers of “Mindel and the Misfit Dragons: A Magical Tale By An Ancient Hand” by Xianna Michaels (Alcabal Press). Michaels, the daughter of Samuel and Clare Ladenheim, of Binghamton, uses poetry to create a Medieval-style children’s story that combines Jewish faith with a lesson in how everyone – even if they’re different – can find their place in the world.

Although Michaels has written novels before “Mindel and the Misfit Dragons,” this is her first work for children. “I wrote ‘Mindel and The Misfit Dragons’ after my oldest grandchild, 10 at the time, asked me to write a book for children,” Michaels said in an e-mail interview. “She and her siblings wanted it to have a Jewish theme, and I had fallen in love with dragons after researching them for a workshop for her brother’s class. Dragons meant castles, medieval times and fairytales. And somehow there was Mindel. She came to me and began whispering her story about the castle she loved, how hard it was to keep the Sabbath there and how her family might have to leave.”

The misfit dragons are Serpenfin, Pointilla and Bibinfor, whose parents fear they are so odd that they will always be outcasts. Michaels deliberately wrote about three dragons because the number has mystical meanings in many religions, including Judaism. “There are three patriarchs in the Bible; the Jews are a threefold people (the Priests, the Levites and the Israelites),” she added. “We often repeat a prayer three times. It is the number of completion, of the beginning, middle and end. For me, it is the rhythm of stories. Remember there were three little pigs, three bears, three fairy godmothers, three wishes. So there were three dragons, each one a bit strange, whose own parents considered them misfits. I knew that the dragons and Mindel would meet and be the answers to each others’ prayers.”

Each of the characters speaks to Michaels, whether it’s Mindel, a child wanting her family to remain in its home and still be able to celebrate Shabbat, or the dragons, who must leave home in order to learn to use their special skills. “I love Mindel for her courage and feistiness and refusal to give up,” Michaels said. “I love Serpenfin for never going against his nature and for searching until he finds his place in the world. I love Pointilla for knowing she has a purpose, a mission, and, that somewhere, somehow, she will fulfill it. And I share Bibinfor’s love of books, the written word and lifelong learning. But I do not feel that I created these characters. They came to me because they had a story to tell, and I am honored that they chose me to tell it.”

Michaels acknowledges that people might be surprised to read a fairy tale in verse, but to her, it’s a natural fit. “Once upon a time, all stories were told as poems,” she noted. “Before the printing press, books were handwritten, but mostly stories were recited orally, and the rhythm and rhyme of poetry made them easier to remember. But that’s only part of it. The truth is, I’m a poet and almost all my stories come to me as poems. The characters talk to me and I transcribe. And as I write their stories, I come to love them, each and every one.”

Poetry has always been important to Michaels. “I began writing poetry at a very young age,” she said. “It was my way of recording the events and processing the emotions of my life. Others kept diaries; I wrote poems. In adulthood, this gradually evolved further into a means of clarifying dilemmas, finding meaning in difficulty and, ultimately, of healing. My poems became a way for me to connect with my deepest intuitive self, with my own soul; a way of praying to God and, sometimes, of getting answers.”

At one point, Michael’s life went in a different direction. “In high school and college, however, I somehow lost that connection to my creative center and became a full-on left-brained academic, eventually earning a master’s degree in linguistics,” she said. “When I began re-connecting to my creative core in my late 20s, it was through story. I did not choose a particular time or place in which to set my novels, any more than I chose the characters. They came to me and I crafted their stories. I enjoyed the process very much and learned a great deal about setting, characterization, about what constitutes a story and what gives it meaning. I learned about the discipline required of any writer, as of any artist, to go to the desk or studio, every day; and to work on balancing the writer’s need for solitude with my need to connect with those I love.”

However, Michaels learned something important from her experiences: “What the world defined as success might not necessarily be success for me. I enjoyed writing novels and received accolades for them. But I was blessed to realize fairly early on that this was only a stepping stone. My real work lay in seeking spiritual connection through my writing. And my medium, I knew, was poetry.”

Writing them became part of her spiritual practice. “I would go into my study very early each morning, light a candle and enter a meditative state,” Michaels said. “I would begin to draw with pen and ink, and then I let words come. I write rhymed, metered poetry. There is a mystical synergy that arises from the interplay of the music and meaning of the poems, often yielding revelations I would not have accessed with my conscious mind. Gradually, I was able to systematize what had become my daily practice. I created The Alchemy of Illuminated Poetry® process so that I could share it with others. It is a profound vehicle for inner transformation, which I am teaching and about which I am writing a book.”

Although “Mindel” teaches children and adults lessons about believing in themselves, Michaels didn’t plan for this to happen. “Firstly, I have to be clear that I did not set out to teach any lessons when I wrote this book,” she said. “I was simply writing the story that came to me. But when I was finished, I was delighted to realize that children – and adults as well – might learn something from the three so-called misfit dragons. Everyone is here for a purpose, and each of us has a special place in the world. Even though being different might at times be painful, it is often through what makes us seem odd, or not quite fit in, that we are able to fulfill our purpose. I would hope, for instance, that a child who is ridiculed for preferring playing the piano over playing sports might draw courage from the dragons and decide it’s okay to do what he loves. Or that someone who gets rejected over and over while trying to pursue her dream would keep trying, would think of Pointilla and her determination to light the world. Perhaps, too, parents might relax a bit about children who don’t seem to fit in and realize that one day they will, indeed, find their place.”

“Mindel and the Misfit Dragons” differs from many books in yet another way: the publisher has duplicated Michaels’ handwritten manuscript instead of using typeface and included her drawings to illustrate the work. The author noted that she always writes with a fountain pen, rather than using a computer. “The flow of pen-and-ink on the paper is an integral part of my creative process,” she added. “I first discovered fountain pens when I was a little girl visiting my father’s law office in downtown Brooklyn. He would sometimes take me to work with him in the summer. Everyone there was enamored of the new ‘ball-point’ pens. But I would sit at the big, old empty desks in the back and there discovered drawers full of abandoned fountain pens and bottles of ink. It was love-at-first-sight and I never looked back.”

The creative process, though, is still a mystery to her. “I do not always know what I will write before I put pen to paper,” she said. “But there is something about the movement of my hand and the flow of the ink that quiets my analytic left brain and lets my creative right brain take over. I find keyboards disruptive to my creative process, although for a book-length work I often have someone type the finished manuscript so I can edit with greater objectivity.”

Michaels notes that “Mindel” took her six years to finish: two years to write the story and four more to finish the calligraphy and illustrations. Michaels doesn’t begrudge the time and effort, though, because the work “was a labor of love originally undertaken for my grandchildren.”

The Reporter, Issue 48
Friday, November 28, 2014
Link to the original article.