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How to Embrace Your Dark Side Without Getting Lost

 

The-Devil
From the Ghetto Tarot by Alice Smeets.

I begin most days by drawing a tarot card. It's part of my spiritual practice to think about the current challenge or lesson and draw a card that, when it's all working well, gives me insight. One day last week, I drew The Devil.

This can be an alarming card to have pop up in a reading, thanks to the bad rap the hooved one gets in Christian-influenced culture. I'm many decades away from the colorful images of El Diablo that illustrated my Catholic children's bible, and it still gives me pause. These days, I see the world less in terms of good vs. evil and as more of a continuum. But The Devil in a one-card reading is cause to sit up and pay attention nonetheless.

The deck I currently use is the Ghetto Tarot, created by talented photographer Alice Smeets, who based it on the 1909 work of another artist, Pamela Colman-Smith. There's a lot to love about Ghetto Tarot. First, it's a photographic representation of each card in the traditional deck, of which most people are familiar, and set entirely in the Haitian ghetto. The images are stunning and powerful, showing how the themes in the traditional deck resonate well in a culture outside that tradition. Second, this deck uniquely embraces the darker side of the tarot. Smeets offers her argument:

We tend to concentrate on the light aspects of the seemingly more positive cards and are afraid of the apparently negative cards such as Death, the Devil, and the Tower ... That's because we are conditioned by our society, our parents, and our teachers to categorize the negative as bad, instead of helpful. Many of us fear pain instead of welcoming it. But every negative situation is an opportunity to grow and learn, while every positive situation has the potential to spin out of control.

The deck plays on "shadow" as well as "light," with each card in the deck possessing both sides. The Devil's shadow side can be "acting against your convictions." The "light" is "finding and accepting your dark side." 

Drawing The Devil would have been reason enough for me to mull over the idea of finding and accepting my dark side, but sometimes the Divine hits you over the head with things that seem to have extra importance.

The same day I drew The Devil, I went to the library to pick up a book I'd requested through interlibrary loan. I had learned of the book from a review and either hadn't seen or didn't remember the cover, which is this:

  Generation of Sociopaths cover

Yeah, I know. Pretty interesting coincidence. The book is a provocative read, all right, challenging everything I've believed about my parents' generation. Maybe that was the lesson of the day: To go there, to push my thinking into a dark place again. The book sort of chose me, along with a few others on class in society--after this in my stack are White Trash and Poor But Proud. It's all research for an in-progress novel based on a real-life murder.

My previous work is a lot of light: the Dreamslippers Series. Back in 2012 when I began to write those stories, I started to take my first book in a darker direction, and the result is that I relapsed into PTSD nightmares, which I'd been free of for some time. So I backed away from that and wrote a cozy-ish series about a 70-something yogi named Amazing Grace instead.

But of course, some of the darkness seeped in. It's called conflict, and you can't have a story without it, especially if your sleuths are solving murders. Besides murder, I also tackled anti-gay violence, racism, murderous jealousy, BDSM, child pornography, and incest. So, yeah. Even when I've got my head turned toward the light, the darkness fringes. At the corners, at least.

I'd been content to relegate it to the edges. But this Devil showing up in my life with such force made me wonder. A recent bout of writer's block specific to the aforementioned novel-in-progress came to mind. Maybe the block had to do with suppressing the dark side? Not wanting to go where I sense this story will make me go? And if I had any doubt, scanning through my email the same day of the two devil-related incidents above dispelled it, as one subject line in particular jumped out at me:

Writer, give in to your dark side

The email came from one of my favorite follows, Colleen M. Story's Writing and Wellness Blog. And lo and behold, the entire newsletter was devoted to this "dark side" issue, and specifically for writers. The articles? Here you go:

 The email was illustrated with another devil:

Devil girl

At this point, I'm like, OK, OK! Dark side! Got it! Thanks, Spirit! Paying attention now, I promise!

But ugh.

Didn't I already know this? 

Over the winter, my stepson turned us onto a movie he loved called Inside Out. It's a Pixar animated film, brilliantly done, and the gist of it is that [spoiler alert] the character you think is the hero, the one who's relentlessly positive, actually turns out to be the villain. At least of a kind. The movie does a remarkable job of illustrating how terrifically bad it is to suppress feelings because they're "negative." The filmmakers consulted psychologists in making the film. I highly recommend it for anyone who's convinced--or is tired of those who are convinced--that positivity is the only way to go, all the time. You're welcome.

There's a real benefit to healthy expressions of negativity. If someone's wronged or harmed you, swallowing your anger or outrage could actually make you feel complicit in their act, an enabler to your own victimization. Denial, sugar-coating the truth, false positivity--none of these things serve us well. 

But there's a balance to it.

One of many dead manuscripts I have in a drawer is something I finished back in 2007 called Meat: A Memoir. I gave it to the agent I had at the time, and, based on the title, she had high hopes. (She described me at a party once as "very talented and very intense.") She loved the short story collection she was then shopping around to publishers. But Meat? "I couldn't get through it," she told me.

It was all darkness, with very little light.

So that's my challenge, as both a writer and a human being.  To integrate my shadow and light sides, to allow them to coexist without judgment, suppression, or imbalance.

But how do you do that? Here are five ways I strike the balance:

  1. Be honest about your feelings. This starts with your own awareness: If something's bothering you, check in to see what exactly it is. Take a moment to get present; close your eyes; see what bubbles up. Writing can be a very powerful discovery tool as well. Sometimes I'll free-write about my project if I've got writer's block. This story is difficult right now because...
  2. Don't guilt or shame yourself into forced happiness. It's OK to feel angry, disappointed, sad, depressed... feel all the feelings. A spiritual leader I know once advised that sometimes, lying on the couch and sucking your thumb is exactly the right response to the situation. This goes for fictional characters, too. My best writing comes when I "torture" my characters and let them respond in very human ways.
  3. Don't guilt or shame yourself into silence. Talking about the darkness can help bring it into the light. I once had a writing teacher say that Shakespeare's work continues to resonate to this day because most of the characters are speaking at moments of high crisis. This is where the best fiction lies.
  4. Don't let anyone else guilt or shame you into silence. Whenever I get to the point where I feel someone is just not capable of hearing me, I stop the conversation and find other ways to express myself. Truths can be uncomfortable, and when they threaten status quo, there can be a tendency to silence the truth-bearer. But silencing someone is a power play that comes from insecurity. This goes for writing groups, too. If someone's critiquing your work in a way that feels silencing, it might be time to reevaluate whether the critique is constructive or even helpful.
  5. Don't wallow. If you find you've been wading in the darkness for some time, and you're far past the point of gaining insight from it, then it's time to get up off the couch and rejoin the world. But even then, don't do the things people want you to do but rather what brings you happiness. That goes for the writing, too. Like my dead manuscript example above, an all-dark world doesn't actually make for good storytelling. Without the victory, conflict can feel relentless and suffocating. 

What it comes down to is your shadow side and your dark side actually need each other.

Thanks to Alice Smeets for her lovely Ghetto Tarot and Colleen M. Story for her insightful essays. I hope you'll check out their work.

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Partners in Crime Spring '17: The 21-Blog Salute!

Booktourlove

March was a busy month, as I had two virtual book tours running at the same time--with participation from a whopping 21 blogs. Partners in Crime sponsored the first tour, and then blogger "CMash" added a side tour when she chose me for Author of the Month.

The two giveaways drew huge crowds, for a total of 1,169 entries. Four participants snagged Amazon gift certificates, two received signed paperbacks in the mail, and nine won ebook copies of the focus book for the tour, Cat in the Flock. A huge thanks to the army of book bloggers who stumped for the Dreamslippers Series, and congrats to the winners. 

Besides the giveaways, the tour had several components: guest blogs, interviews (including a live radio show), reviews, and spotlights.

Guest Posts

I've very much enjoyed having authors as guests on my own blog for the "What's the Motive?" series, so it's nice to keep the karma flowing by serving as a guest myself. Per the book bloggers' prompts, I delved into the inspiration behind the Dreamslippers series as well as my current work-in-progress, in addition to other meaty topics. 

Guestblog

For Books, Dreams, Life, I talked about how the years of work I did as a narrative designer in the video-game industry shaped my intention for the Dreamslippers Series: "That experience—five years spent fighting cliché—drove me to create a kick-ass grandmother/granddaughter duo based on the real women in my life."

For CMash Reads, I wrote three guest posts. In the first, I reveal the premise for my current work-in-progress, a standalone novel that is quite a departure from the Dreamslippers Series. There's also a sneak-peak excerpt of the opening chapter. In another post, I discuss the book-body connection, drawing on my own struggles and victories in yoga and dance as I wrote the series: "The experience forced me to acknowledge limitations, as well as the need to heal." The last is a reflection on my love of "quirky" characters and where that penchant might come from: "My favorite females were made indomitably strong by the challenges they’d faced, and if that forge wrought them into a shape that didn’t fit any mold, we were all the better for it."

Interviews

I gave four interviews, but the most memorable was definitely the Blog Talk Radio interview with Fran Lewis. Fran asked excellent questions based on a very careful, thorough reading of Cat in the Flock, making me think of the book in a new way now that it's been nearly three years since its release.

Microphonehand

For the Author of the Month interview, CMash demanded something of me that no one's asked before: "Tell us why we should read this book." Read the answer here.

For Cozy Up With Kathy, I answer the question I get a lot these days: Will you continue the series? I could tell you here on my own blog, but Granny Grace says I should send you to Kathy's blog for the answer. It's only fair!

The toughest question came from the Writers and Authors blogger, who asked if I discovered anything during my work on Cat in the Flock that was unexpected. The answer is yes: "The biggest thing I learned writing Cat in the Flock was the difference between a mystery story that works for a game and what works for a novel."

Reviews

It's always nice to get reviews on a tour, and this one brought in new opinions from 14 bloggers. Here's a quick snapshot.

Blog #1: CMash Reads 

Stars: 4

Money quote: "The suspense in this book had me turning the pages. The plot contains spirituality, betrayals, truths, lies, murder, and a rekindled love. The thought of the dream slipping was intriguing. And a shocking ending."

Blog #2: Laura's Interests

Stars: None given

Money quote: "The women take the roles of strength and power in this series. Accept it." (Hands down my favorite quote of the tour.)

Blog #3: Reading to Distraction

Stars:

Money quote: "It was also refreshing to see the characters discuss the limitations of such a skill rather than having a solution to the mystery conveniently come up in a dream."  

Blog #4: A Dream Within a Dream

Stars: None given

Money quote: "Lots of details and vivid descriptions brought the story to life in my mind."

Blog #5: Avid Reader

Stars: 5

Money quote: "As a Christian, I was a bit concerned about the part of the plot dealing with a very conservative church. I think Brunette did a fine job portraying the culture of a church when the leadership has gone wrong." 

Blog #6: Wall-to-Wall Books

Stars: None given

Money quote: "I have already decided that I am going to have to read all up-coming books in this new series!"

Blog #7: Bookishly Me

Stars: 4

Money quote: "I really enjoyed seeing Cat develop throughout the story and I cannot wait to see what she will encounter next." 

Bookstar

Blog #8: Just Reviews

Stars: None given

Money quote: "Lisa Brunette takes us deep inside the world of dreams and hopefully Cat will find her way to her own salvation and not remain CAT IN THE FLOCK."

Blog #9: The Book Adventures of Emily

Stars: 5

Money quote: "Cat McCormick is such a great main character."

Blog #10: Books Direct

Stars: None given

Money quote: "The characters are interesting and likable, with full backstories. There are plenty of religious references, but it never feels as if the author is preaching or imposing her religious beliefs on the reader. There's even some romance for Cat - and Grandma Grace! A very satisfying read."

Blog #11: Mystery Suspense Reviews (Audiobook)

Stars: None given

Money quote:  "It was my first listen to Angel Clark as narrator, but I’ll be looking for more. She has just the right voice for Cat, did well distinguishing the voices of different characters, and read at an excellent pace."

Blog #12: Martha's Bookshelf

Stars: None given

Money quote: "I recommend this to readers who enjoy mystery with a touch of supernatural ability."

Blog #13: Wall-to-Wall Books (Audiobook)

Stars: 4.5

Money quote: "I thought the reader's voice was perfect for Cat."

Blog #14: Cozy Up With Kathy

Stars: None given

Money quote: "Although the topics involved in CAT IN THE FLOCK are heavy and filled with gravitas, the book has a lightness and a joy within."

Spotlights

Bookspotlight

These bloggers posted an excerpt, links, and the giveaways. 

b00k r3vie3s

Hott Books

The Pulp and Mystery Shelf

Now that I've done tours for three books and a boxed set, I've come to think of many of these bloggers as true partners in crime, beyond the tour! Most give of their time and energy without any other return besides the chance to read and talk about books. God love 'em.

Images courtesy of Pixabay.


New Release! Blog Tour! The Dreamslippers Series Boxed Set

Boxed set tour banner

It's happened. The entire Dreamslippers Series is out in the world as one tome.

That's all three novels in one fat ebook.* PLUS a bonus novella "prequel" that explores Amazing Grace's past.

The series centers on the question, "What if you could slip into the dreams of a killer?" This family of PIs can, but that isn't easy.

In Cat in the Flock, the first book, readers meet apprentice dreamslipper Cat McCormick, who moves to Seattle from the Midwest so she can train with her Grandmother Grace. The septuagenarian trailblazer is a dreamslipping pro, having used it to solve crimes as a PI. But Cat gets more than she bargained for as Grace puts her through her New Age paces, with yoga and meditation on the agenda. However, Cat gets drawn back to the Midwest when she discovers a prominent church leader stalking a woman and girl on the run.                                     

In book two, Framed and Burning, Grace pops for a trip to Miami to visit her brother Mick for Art Basel, which should also lift Cat's spirits. But when Mick's studio goes up in flames, and he won't give an alibi, the dreamslippers must defend one of their own.

The third book, Bound to the Truth, takes place in Seattle, with all three dreamslippers under one roof. An up-and-coming architect is found dead, and her wife Robin thinks she knows who did it. But Cat and Grace aren't sure they can trust the grieving widow's claims.

Included in the ebook boxed set is a bonus novella that answers key questions readers have asked about Amazing Grace: How did she get her name? What happened when her daughter Mercy was born? And did Grace really go undercover inside a cult?
 
The first two books won the indieBRAG medallion, and the second book was a finalist for the Nancy Pearl Book Award and a RONE Award nominee.
 
All three novels are for sale in print locally (near me) at Book ’n’ Brush in Chehalis, and the ebooks are available everywhere ebooks are sold, for any device. 

Buy Links:

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Look for giveaways, guest posts, and more all this week for the blog tour! Free ebooks, audiobooks, and paperbacks to the winners. Here's the first tour stop.

And here's the full tour schedule.

*The ebook clocks in at 262,920 words.  


The Big, Fat Book Tour!

  Booknbrushlisa

 It's rare that authors are treated to headlining book tours these days, if there ever was a day when that happened. Especially as an indie, my marketing budget comes out of my own (very small) pocket. So there was no book tour for the first installment in the Dreamslippers Series, and for the second book, the tour was almost entirely virtual, meaning online-only.

 While this is all well and good economically speaking, I craved the opportunity to connect with readers in-person. We writers live a solitary existence, going through our days mainly alone, talking only to the cat. So when it's time to turn our book babies out into the world, it's only natural we'd want to interact with others.  

By the time I was ready to release the third book in the series, I'd built up enough momentum that in-person opportunities just showed up. Here's a run-down of what became my big, fat book tour for the release of Bound to the Truth.

Nia Jam to Benefit Standing Rock

Nia_jam

 I dance at a local studio, Embody, which has not only given me a beautiful new practice in Nia but a supportive community as well. Nia features prominently in Bound to the Truth, so when I found out there would be a Nia Jam and fundraiser, I donated five copies of the book, which were awarded at the event by raffle. Separate from the studio itself and hosted entirely by Nia teachers who gave generously of their time and talent, the jam raised more than $1300 for Standing Rock. We danced for two hours straight that night. I couldn't imagine a better way to celebrate the book's release date. It's exactly what Granny Grace would do.

Book 'n' Brush Author Event

Booknbrush_poster

 Honestly, I can't say enough about how terrifically supportive the community here in Lewis County is. As an indie, I completely struck out trying to get my books into Seattle bookstores, even ones in my own neighborhood I'd frequented for a decade. But the owner and manager at Book 'n' Brush here in Chehalis have been enthusiastic supporters. They carry the whole Dreamslippers Series as well as the poetry collection, and in turn, I drive customers to the store whenever possible. It's a win-win. I felt honored to be included in their recent author event, along with others I've come to know, some of whom also have new books out.

   Booknbrushgroup1

 Authors Julie McDonald Zander, Texie Gregory, Kyle Pratt (who wasn't part of the event but stopped in to buy books), and me.

 Book 'n' Brush is a gem of a store, anchoring downtown Chehalis. As the name suggests, they sell both art supplies and books, for a perfect mashup of creative pursuits. We had a great write-up in the local paper about the event, and The Chronicle also covered my book's release.

Human Response Network Masquerade Ball

  Masksjpg

 My husband and I, incognito for a cause.

 A good amount of what you might call spiritual, humanitarian intention went into the Dreamslippers Series. I've written female-centered narratives peopled with a diverse spectrum of characters. I've tackled homophobia and tried to explore organized religion with humanity and compassion. I shed light on corruption in the art world and illuminated a corner of darkness that is the illegal child pornography industry. And finally, I celebrated sexual liberation and told the stories of those harmed by sexual abuse and repression. All while honoring the importance of plot and pacing, and I hope, without ever coming across as preachy. Everything I write is in service to the story.

 I always want to do more than this. I tied sales of Cat in the Flock to a donation to Jubilee Women's Center, a highly effective organization in Seattle that helps women transition out of homelessness and into independence. Here in Chehalis, I support the Human Response Network, which provides advocates for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. The Masquerade Ball was the organization's first major fundraiser, done in an attempt to ramp up service in response to an overwhelming increase in requests for help.

Auction_table

Copies of the books on auction.

Seattle University Talk 

 I've presented at Seattle University twice before, and it's always a pleasure to meet creative writing students there. This time, I discussed what it takes to get credits and bylines in three different arenas: books, games, and journalism. I related tales from the trenches in all three and managed not to bore them. While it feels odd to call myself a master of anything, the below slide did garner a few smiles.

Seattleu_ppt

 The students asked great questions and seemed encouraged by my career transitions from one arena to another, AKA the survivor mentality that has kept me consistently employed. Props to the university bookstore for carrying the Dreamslippers Series in connection with the event, and to the creative writing program for their incredible hospitality.

Seattleu_mag

 Seattle U souvenirs: Reflections picked up for free in the campus chapel, and the student lit mag, Fragments.

 An Evening with the Authors at the Lewis County Historical Museum

Eve_w_authors

 The last in-person event on my schedule for this book launch was the only repeat for me, as I'd attended the same last year. Located in a former train depot, the museum features local history displays and a gift shop. The authors event is a great party and opportunity to meet other writers as well as new readers. Poetry seems to resonate best with this crowd.

 So there you have it: This is how we do things in indie land. My family and I hosted Thanksgiving at our house in the midst of this, so I'm hoping December is a bit less eventful? Or not. I really did enjoy myself. Welcome to all the new readers who stopped by my tables, came to the talk, or danced by my side. I'd love to hear from you in the comments below.


Sex-Positive Research for Sexy Mystery 'Bound to the Truth'

The armory
The Armory. 

 In case you missed it, the third book in the Dreamslippers Series has a sexy theme. Cat and Granny Grace must find out who killed up-and-coming architect Nina Howell. Her wife is convinced a libertarian talk show host is the murderer. Following the clues takes the dreamslippers into what in another novel might be labeled Seattle's "perverted dungeon" or "dark underbelly."

 But not in Bound to the Truth. After a decade in Seattle and a lifetime studying human behavior, my position is that there isn't anything inherently dark or perverted about sex. And by sex, I mean the activity engaged in between two consenting adults that may or may not have anything to do with procreation but could include any number of "kinky" behaviors. Spoiler alert: Through the course of the novel, Cat explores a shop selling bondage gear, she and her grandmother go undercover in a sex club, and several characters confer on lingerie and sex toys.

 Readers of the series will know this is not shocking new territory for me. As I've said on social media, book one was about religion and sex, book two art and sex, and book three politics and sex. Septuagenarian heroine Amazing Grace is sexually active and forthright about her trysts; twentysomething Cat is exploring her sexuality as a new adult. These women own their desires and act on them, apologizing to exactly no one.

 HUGE CAVEAT: The sex scenes happen mostly off-screen. This is NOT erotica. This is NOT porn. Sorry to disappoint you. Now, continuing on with the discussion...

 Readers of the blog know I've been highly critical of Fifty Shades of Grey, which utterly fails because rather than challenging its audience in any way, it allows readers/viewers to preserve their judgmental prejudices against the kink world and the presumed "broken" people who inhabit it. They can naughtily dip a toe into the world but then ultimately reject it, just as the vanilla protagonist does. With Bound to the Truth, I wanted to treat kinky people with the respect they deserve, rendering a realism that I hope not only transcends cliché and judgment but results in fully developed characters and concerns. 

 While Fifty Shades served as a sort of negative inspiration, and my writing on this book started as a reaction against it, here's a peep show of my research sources for this book, all positive inspirations.

 News flash to any Emerald City resident who hasn't discovered this yet, but when Cat observes in Bound to the Truth that "Seattleites as a population must quietly be getting their freak on in the bedroom 24/7," that comes from first-hand experience. Enter the city's decidedly online dating scene for two seconds, yes, even as a middle-aged divorcée as I was, and you're immediately barraged with a cornucopia of kinky come-ons. After thirteen years straight of committed monogamy, it was eye-opening, to say the least. If you have single friends who are also dating, you compare notes and see the same. 

 I owe a debt of gratitude to Savage Love syndicated columnist Dan Savage, who not only writes intelligently, compassionately, and wittily on the subject of sex but also launched a brilliantly curated alternative porn film fest. I've attended a couple of Hump Fests, which seemed to both sell out, and I highly recommend them.

 When I wrote as a freelancer for several Seattle publications, I had the opportunity to interview University of Washington sex expert Dr. Pepper Schwartz. A well-respected academic with a long list of accomplishments, the occasion for my interview with her was the publication of her tell-all memoir, which chronicled her experiences entering the dating pool post-50. As you can see from my choice of subject matter and character, Dr. Pepper had an influence. The piece was one of my most popular, too. Originally published in Seattle Woman magazine, it was linked to by Crosscut, where it was in the top ten for traffic that year.

 While I never joined a sex club, I did talk with people who have, and I also toured The Armory in San Francisco. You might recognize the signature building in the image at the top of this post. The Armory is a sort of castle of kink. Tours are open to the public, and knowledgeable guides wearing nothing sexier than street clothes will lead you through many a porn set. The building itself is worth the price of admission even if you profess a distaste for porn; the Moorish castle was completed in 1914, with much of the stone staircases, wainscoting, and impressive corridors intact, not to mention access to an underground cave, Mission Creek running below the structure.

 I also toured the Erotic Museum of Barcelona, but who wouldn't do that on her honeymoon?

 The drag and burlesque communities deserve credit for shaping my thinking on sex. In Seattle, Portland, and San Francisco, you can catch first-rate live shows in which respectful, supportive audiences embrace a diverse spectrum of lovely people on stage in various states of dress, dancing in a variety of suggestive ways. Most notably for me is Seattle's Nerdlesque. In fact, I'm still pondering my affection for and confusion over "burlesque Carl Sagan." Affection because he was one of my childhood nerd crushes. Confusion because I'm not attracted to women, but this gal was a dead ringer for my beloved astronomer, so...

 I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Laura Antoniou's mystery set in the middle of a kink convention, The Killer Wore Leather. And Seattle's sex-positive culture in general for its art shows, film screenings, articles, workshops, and overall work toward making sex something that can be talked about without stigma, shame, and danger. If we could free ourselves from those chains, then the ones some people put on just for fun become simply that.

 I hope you enjoy Bound to the Truth. You can pre-order it, and Amazon will magically deliver it to your Kindle on the day of release. Or Barnes & Noble will mystically transport it to your Nook. Or, or, or...

 Now tell me what you think of all this in the comments! What turns you on? I mean in terms of literature, people.

 


Amazing Grace, the Seventy-Something Power Yogi: Could You Keep Up?

  Gap-Ad1

One of the main characters in my Dreamslippers mystery series is Amazing Grace, AKA "Granny Grace," a lifelong yoga devotee. At 77 in Cat in the Flock, Grace begins an apprenticeship with her granddaughter Cat not with a lesson on dreamslipping or even sleuthing but with yoga. Grace wants to train Cat in a holistic manner, not teach her "dreamslipping parlor tricks." The evening Cat arrives in Seattle, she and her grandmother practice together in the "Yoga Yolk," a room Grace designated specifically for this focus, a bit like this awesome meditation room I pinned to this board showing the entire novel as told through Pinterest photos.

Yoga-Meditation-Interior-Design-Photo-4
via CarolineBakker.com

Here's a roundup of Grace's poses. How many can you do? This first one is from that beginning scene in the Yoga YolkNote how in yoga, experience often trumps youth: "Granny Grace moved into crow pose, crouching forward till her knees touched her upper arms and then lifting her legs so her whole body was balanced on her arms. Cat couldn’t do that pose yet, so she sat in a wide-legged squat, watching her grandmother with admiration." 

via GIPHY

Cat struggles with meditation, especially taught by one 'Guru Dave' at a studio over a record store--you try holding Downward dog while listening to the umpa umpa sound of polka music. But Cat persists in her training: "They practiced yoga twice daily—an energetic round in the morning at a studio near the house and a slower style called yin that Granny Grace led in the Yoga Yolk each evening to wind down." Here's a yin variation on swan pose. Can you hold this for five full minutes? 

IMG_0585_2--_Swan

photo by Christy Collins, via Wikimedia Commons

Grace is adept at full lotus (spoiler alert: until book three), and she often turns to seated meditation when she finds herself stuck on a case. How's your lotus these days? If it's not exactly waterfall-rock-perch worthy, don't worry. There's an alt pose below.  

Tanumânasî_en_Meditacion_Loto_Padmasana

I've been practicing for twenty years and still can't get into full lotus. Neither can Cat. But all of us can handle Cobbler's pose, so why don't you try that instead. Yay for Baddha kohnasana! 

  Olderwomancroslegged

via Elephant Journal/Christine Festa

Probably my favorite yoga moment in the series is when Grace convinces Cat to try "Midnight Moonlight Yoga" in Framed and Burning. This powerful experience gives Grace metaphysical insight into the case, foreshadowing the darkness to come:

The energy was dark and red, vibrating to some frequency that wasn’t positive. She thought she heard the sound of large wings beating. Her eyes flew open. Breathing hard, losing her ujaiyi breath, she carefully extracted herself from the pose and took a resting pose on her knees, her hands in her lap. The place where her heart chakra should be ached.

The instructor is a composite inspired by the many memorable yogis who've taught me over the years, not the least of whom is Greg Bowles from Embody, who might recognize something here:

Their teacher, Spiritfire, was a master yogi who had traveled through the earth’s chakras, from points in India to South America and beyond. It had never occurred to Grace that one could travel through the earth’s energy centers. She made a mental note to do so before she died.

I dare you to practice yoga under the moon tonight. Just think of your sun salutation as moon salutation instead.

Beachyoga 

via Pixabay

If you're reading this thinking that someone like Amazing Grace (yes, it's her legal name) can only exist in fiction, here's some evidence to the contrary. First, she was in part inspired by my husband's mother, the late A. Grace. Second, I offer you these beautiful photos of the oldest living yoga teacher in the world, a woman who at 93 has more than a decade on Granny Grace.

Namaste.

Gap ad (kudos to them for the age diversity) via In My Own Style


What It Means to Write with Intention

Intentional_Writer_Interview

I was featured along with six other writers in a blog series about writing with intention. Our host, Alexis Donkin, believes that "fiction can shape the way we think about the world." She asked questions like this one: "If there is one thing you'd want people to do after reading this book, what would it be?" 

For Saadia Faruqi, the answer is for readers to read another book set in a culture different from their own. She wrote a short story collection set in Pakistan in order to "showcase the reality behind Pakistan’s complicated politics and culture," without presenting stereotypes. Author Sharon Angelici, a Midwestern stay-at-home mom, would like for her book about suicide to spark difficult conversations. 

In writing Cat in the Flock, I wanted to offer a warning about the damage of repressive, prejudicial beliefs while approaching the subject of evangelical religion with compassion for all.

You can jump into all seven interviews from here, and if you're looking for mine, here's a direct link.

What are your thoughts about writing with intention? To me this is different than political writing or propaganda because the material must first be in service to story. As I told Alexis, "Stereotypes and omissions on either side of the political spectrum usually weaken the story."

Weigh in on that below, or tell us about a book that changed your thinking--or your life.


Guest Blogger: My Secret Writing Walk, or How Spirituality Guides My Writing Life


Alexisdonkin2

by Alexis Donkin

LB: Writing for the blog today is Alexis Donkin, blogger, speaker, and author of what she describes as "a library of books," from fantasy and sci-fi to memoir and journal guides. I asked her to discuss how she meshes a spiritual path with her development as a fiction writer, or how the two intersect. Here's Alexis.

I think I wrote 10 different posts about this topic only to abandon them. How can I talk about spirituality and my writing? How can I not? How can I talk about my spiritual practice and not freak people out?

I grew up with two ordained ministers as parents, so religion has always been a topic discussed at dinner. Faith was linked to every aspect of our lives. Pastors are like politicians in that everyone has expectations for them, and their families. There were parts of our lives that never saw the light of day...well...until I wrote about them in my memoir.

Alexis_nonfiction

Because of my upbringing, I've had an unusual relationship with spirituality. I started out being very Christian. My faith led me to study other traditions as a path to addressing the world's needs (the product of this education is my world religion curriculum and associated interfaith devotional). In that study, I questioned my allegiance. I never identified with those publicly identifying as Christians. Somehow they managed to insert Jesus into every other sentence. They talked about prayer as if it was this transformative experience, and for me, being progressive, I couldn't decide if they were genuine – or lying. It didn't connect with my own experience.

So as I researched other traditions, I questioned my own. In the end, I discovered all faiths have parts I like and parts I hate. It just so happens, I like Christianity best. It speaks my cultural language. I like the story of Jesus.

This seems like a round-about way to talk about spirituality in writing, but it's important to know my perspective to understand why I write what I do – what drives everything in my life.

I am, by all accounts, a very spiritual person. I meditate daily. I go to church every week and even lead the worship band. I pray before meals. I express gratitude for the beauty of every moment – whatever that beauty is. When I submit a piece, I pray the outcome achieves the highest good of all. I meditate before I write my blog posts – checking in with my gut to confirm the topic is right.

Seriously.

I do that even for social media posts.

As I write this out, I wonder if this is an unusual thing. I expect it is rare for people to do these things, but for me, I have to interact in the world this way. Everything I do is centered around my personal purpose – to spread compassion and empathy through my writing and speaking.

Alexis_fiction

I tried to write commercially. I tried to write solely to entertain. Instead, I wrote about gender dynamics, equality, and climate change. I tried to write freelance articles about tourist things and the like – I can't do it. My head starts to ache and I grow restless. I have the urge to throw my computer. 

My call is too strong to ignore. When I try to avoid it, something always brings me back. So I embraced it. Once I did, things started falling into place for me. I embraced the fact that I am a deeply spiritual human, and became open about it. I found myself supported in this, even from unexpected sources (like staunch Humanists).

My spirituality is generally implicit in my blog posts. It's implicit in my fiction pieces. While I can't separate my faith and practices from my work, I'm not interested in converting people to my particular way of being. That doesn't serve anyone. I just want people to love themselves and love others. I think that makes the world a better place, and ultimately, that's the highest good.

 

AlexisdonkinAlexis Donkin lives in Southern California with her family. She is a classically trained artist, with a BA in Peace and Conflict Studies and an MA in Global and International Studies. Between writing, speaking, and chasing her kid, she paints, sings, and dances. Sometimes Alexis does it all at once.

Connect with her here:     Twitter     Facebook     Pinterest     Blog


A Moth and Mortality: Flying Back from St. Louis on the Day of the Massacre

Jun 14, 2016

It seemed to rest there, on the windowsill.

This Sunday I flew back to Seattle from St. Louis, MO. About half way into my return flight, so two hours in, a moth fluttered up out of nowhere and beat its wings against my window glass, then came to rest on the sill. I'd never seen anything like it before. It was strange, watching a moth try to get out--where there was no getting out at all. 

I was still reeling from the breaking news about Orlando. 

Just two days before, someone close to me told me he believes that homosexuality is wrong, that Jesus said it is a sin for a man to lie down with a man. When I lived in St. Louis twenty years ago, I was a progressive student activist, and a fighter by nature. My intellect had been forged by the rigors of a Jesuit education, I knew what was what, I was out to save the world, and I'd acquired a silver tongue for debate. Back then, I would have Taken. Him. Down. And I have--over the years, we've had some shut-outs, let me tell you.

But these days I'm more interested in being happy than I am in being right. In our limited time during my visit, I didn't want to spend it arguing about politics. I try to approach such differences with patience and expansiveness. I knew I wasn't likely to change his mind, so I told him I couldn't disagree more but that I respected his right to his beliefs, as long as he didn't violate any laws. I thought it was interesting that he said that if he were a baker he would gladly bake a cake for a gay wedding, as that's business, but that he believes homosexuality is a choice, and the wrong one.

It's hard when someone you love seems to judge others for their love.

I couldn't help but think of our conversation when I read the first reports about Orlando. But on my own social forums, I was speechless. My silver tongue had no words. Then a good friend posted to his Facebook page something beautiful and sad and just right:

  Screen Shot 2016-06-14 at 5.11.20 PM

A few nights before that conversation about whether or not homosexuality is wrong, I'd had this strange experience while driving around St. Louis late at night. Like a panic or anxiety attack, I felt a sharp pain in my chest, and my hands went damp. These symptoms coincided with a very clear realization: That I would one day cease to exist. Now it could have been triggered by the heady experience of being back in a part of the country where I practically grew up, having lived there from junior high up through high school, college, and for six years of adulthood. I kept comparing everything to twenty years ago--the city itself, which has changed dramatically, my family members, my friends. I've changed a lot, too, and not just in my penchant for debate. But it wasn't just that. I felt the unfairness of mortality. While I have no regrets about the choices I've made, I think like most people I've spent too much of my life in anguish over being hurt, or angry at those who've done me wrong, or worrying that I'm not good enough or skinny enough or I'm not this or that. There is so much I want to do, and I don't want to waste any more time in a comparathon or with people who don't return back the energy I spend on them or in berating myself for failings, whether real or imagined. Because it could all be gone, the time I have left to do the things I need to do. Like Ernest says, in the flash of a disco ball.

Today I read through some of the bios of the Orlando victims, looked at pictures they'd posted to Facebook and elsewhere. They were all so young, so beautiful. Did they know it? Did they feel it? They stare at the camera, some of them, as if to say, Do you see me?

I assumed the moth was just resting there on the windowsill of my plane, and I looked forward to seeing it flit outside with all of us when we exited. I'd even considered ways of helping it find the front door. But then I saw that it was listing unnaturally, off to the side. Its antennae quivered, then stopped. When it died, it lost its hold on the sill--and fell.

My husband tells me that when the police stepped into the club, there was a cacophony of ring tones coming from the cell phones of the dead. All those loved ones on the other line. Are you there? Are you OK? Please tell me you're OK. Please. I love you.

I think of the yogi's words in a video I've practiced to for twenty years. "Love is what's left when you let go of everything you don't need." Let's do that now, let go of everything we don't need. That's a lot these days, but look at what we'll have left.


This Poet Sent Me Her Book, and It's Not Even National Poetry Month Anymore

This lovely poet sent me her book

Elizabeth Tornes' award-winning chapbook.

I had just made a commitment to myself to scale back on activities (such as this and this) that don't have a chance of producing at least some kind of income. At the top of the list is poetry, which actually manages to cost me money and gets ignored when I post about it across social media (this should surprise exactly no one). Poetry had to go, or at the very least, I can only indulge in poetry during April, for National Poetry Month.

And then two things happened.

First, a woman I barely know here in town took it upon herself to a) buy a print copy of my poetry collection from our local bookstore and read it, b) give it to her daughter to read c) rave to me the next time she saw me in our dance class and d) post a review of the book on Amazon.

"Her language is perfect as it is," she writes in her review. "Each poem a wide eyed tribute to the bits that make up our lives."

Readers tend to respond to Broom of Anger in a very personal way, and I have to say these reactions have been some of the most gratifying of my career.

The other thing that happened is this: My cousin gifted my book to a poet friend of his in Wisconsin, and she liked it so much she gave him a copy of her poetry book to send to me. In the inscription, she wrote, "With admiration for your work!"

The book, Between the Dog and the Wolf, pictured above, was published by Five Oaks Press as the winner of their 2015 "Say Elves" Contest. For one of her other books (she has three), Elizabeth Tornes won first prize in the 2012 Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets Chapbook Contest.

It's a lovely collection that time-warps me instantly to the Northwoods of Wisconsin, where my people are from. The link of spirituality and nature also resonates with me. Here's a sample:

 The Elders

They are still with us, 

waving as oak leaves, roaring

wind through the pines. They echo

as woodpeckers hammering

hollow trees. They insist

that we remember, remember, 

remember their stories

and their long-lived lives.

Remember the hand

they gave us when we slipped,

the kind looks and words,

a balm for soothing a heartache.

 

I miss the grandmothers

who gentled me, who taught me

how to speak, and give to others.

How to go beyond the self

to hear the pulse of the barred owls

signifying wisdom,

the high-pitched songs of frogs

that lift the swamp

in the early evening,

the loon's tremulous call--

the voice of the Creator,

if we would only listen.

*

Mmm. So wonderful.

So there you have it. Poetry won't buy me groceries, but good words and a free book are great poetic karma.

One more thing: Hat-tip to my cousin Jay Halminiak for fostering poetic relationships! :)

And one ONE more thing: Happy Mother's Day!


All It Takes Is a Red Door

Reddoor

On Saturday I went down to Salem, OR, for a book event with the Red Door Community. This informal network was founded in part by my husband's mother, A. Grace, who died several years ago. The members of the Red Door engage in spiritual retreats and activities together, volunteer in their community, and support each other in times of need. They were there to help Grace through the difficult process of dying, a constant, comforting presence and a source for the divine rituals she wanted at that time.

The gathering on Saturday was gracious and giving. I read from all three books, a particularly emotional activity in this case since my character Granny Grace was inspired by the woman they knew and loved. My books aren't autobiography, and the real A. Grace and Granny Grace aren't one and the same--but I think they would have been great friends. Granny Grace would surely have been an honorary member of the Red Door.

I'd asked those in attendance to bring stories about the outstanding women in their lives. I read to them this profile of Cheryl Sesnon, the latest winner of the Amazing Grace Award for Outstanding Women Over 40, who is the executive director of an organization that helps women transition out of homelessness. A few shared stories of great women, included their own Grace. But one woman brought up an excellent point: That sometimes the most outstanding thing a person can do is simply endure.

Her words struck a chord in me, as just that morning, I'd been thinking the same thing in relation to my own mother. She has not spearheaded organizations or won awards or been interviewed by the press. It's unfair to compare any two women anywhere, but I can see the greater challenges in my mother's life and honor the strength and perseverance she's had to endure so much. While our society is built to pour accolades on those who accomplish things in the measurable world, it's those who survive tough circumstances who often deserve the most recognition.

So this goes out to my mother, who pulls herself out of darkness time and again through her own faith and mettle. That deserves its own award.

 


The indieBRAG Christmas Blog Hop: My Miami Christmas Tree, and More!

ALL-ABOARD-with-medallion

The fine folks at indieBRAG asked me to write about my favorite Christmas carol for this blog hop, but the first carol that came to mind is one I can't stand: "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer."

Maybe it's the crassness of it that has always bothered me, even at an early age, or the cliché image of a grandmother as a doddering, wig-wearing, egg nog-guzzling dodo who gets herself killed by Santa. I mean, Grandma receives short shrift in this tale, while Grandpa, on the other hand, "we're all so proud of" for "taking this so well." The vague misognyny, the lyrics, the music, everything about the song makes me cringe.

So I used my intense dislike for it in fiction.

In Framed and Burning, 78-year-old renegade grandmother Amazing Grace shudders when her granddaughter cues up the song to play at a party. Grace uses the opportunity to check in with her erstwhile beau, Ernesto:

Grace despised the song, deep down in her bones. She hung back as the rest of the crowd laughed and began to carry on. Grace hooked her arm through Ernesto’s and squired him to the balcony.

“Horrid excuse for music,” Grace said, shaking her head.

“Yes, well, it is Americana at its worst.”

There was a pause as they gazed at the moon casting a beam of light on the waves far in the distance. Then Ernesto turned to Grace, swept his arms around her and said, “I’ve missed you.”

“I’ve missed you, too,” she said instinctively, though she realized she was only being polite. She’d been so wrapped up in the case that she hadn’t had time to miss him.

I'll stop there, since what happens next yields crucial, plot-spoiling information about the case Grace is working on. The point is that it was satisfying to juxtapose the schlocky grandma from the song next to my sharp, savvy Amazing Grace.

That whole Christmas scene was great fun to write for another reason as well. I lived in Miami for two years and celebrated two Christmases there. Holidays in the tropics can be strange for anyone from a Northern climate, as the typical trappings of merriment--snow, snowmen, sleighs, evergreen trees--can seem out of place amidst palm trees and sunshine. It's a quirkiness I've always enjoyed, probably because my earliest Christmas memories are of growing up in Arizona as a military brat. In the Chandler town square back in the Seventies, they used to erect a Christmas tree out of tumbleweeds spray-painted white. 

That experience informed my thinking on the matter of how to celebrate Christmas when one's locale is far from snow and evergreen trees. One of my favorite Christmas carols is Big Crosby's tribute to Christmas in Hawaii, "Mele Kalikimaka." I've also tried to be environmentally sensitive in my domestic practices, so I've rarely ever purchased a Christmas tree that would only be discarded at the end of the season. So my Miami tree for two years running was a potted hibiscus:

  Miami_tree

Christmas in Miami, 2000 or 2001.

The bright blooms of the hibiscus lent themselves to quirky pairings such as this:

Snowball_flower

In Framed and Burning, the Christmas tree becomes a way to memorialize the friend they've lost:

...Cat and Mick came home bearing a small, potted hibiscus tree. Its tangerine flowers resembled umbrellas that would unfurl in full bloom, a decadent pistil of pollen beckoning from its center.

“Let’s set it here, in the window,” Grace said, beaming at her two lovely family members.

Mick and Cat carried the hibiscus together and set it down delicately. They stared at the tree for a moment.

“I’ll go get the other swag out of the car,” Cat said.

“I’ve got some bling upstairs to add to this thing.” Mick winked at Grace and slipped out the door.

“It’s perfect, isn’t it?” Grace said this to Rose, who was stroking one of the soft blooms.

“It smells like tropical Christmas.” Rose stuck her nose closer to the flower and inhaled.

Cat came in, her hands full of shopping bags, which she dropped onto her chaise lounge, now clear of paperwork related to the case. She reached into a bag and withdrew a box of retro bubble lights. Together, the three of them strung the lights onto the miniature tree. Once the lights had warmed, Cat, who said she had experience with these kinds of lights, tapped or inverted them to get them to bubble. Their effervescence made the room sparkle.

In came Mick with a canvas drop cloth he placed around the bottom of the tree as a skirt. He also brought down a box, which he offered to Grace. “Will homemade ornaments work for your solstice party, Miss Pris?”

“Oh, Mick.” Grace took the box and reached inside. He’d fashioned the most delightful ornaments out of bits and pieces from his studio: a few spines of an old Chinese fan tied together with red velvet ribbon; a garland of driftwood and shells; a vintage toy car hung with glittery string. The four of them decorated the tree together, marveling over Mick’s creations.

When they were done, they stood back to admire it, and Rose said, “We need a star.” She looked at Grace and smiled. “I know you’re not hot on the Jesus story, but that star of Bethlehem, it always makes me weepy to think about it, a beacon in the night.”

“I’m not against those aspects, per se,” said Grace. She thought about the church sermons of her childhood, the fire and brimstone and talk of sinning. “There’s a reason they’re always claiming it’s the greatest story ever told. I think it resonates with us to think of God as not just a man, but a small baby in a manger. He’s nothing but potential.”

“I think I have an idea for our star,” Rose announced. “Mick, come and help me.” The two of them left....

In the book, there's more here, but I'll cut right to the next Christmas tree scene. Readers of the novel know by this point in the story that Donnie, who died in a fire in Mick's studio, has been cremated, his ashes stored in an urn:

...Rose and Mick resurfaced, Rose holding something delicately between her hands. “I got to thinking about the star of Bethlehem, and the wise men, bringing gifts of frankincense and myrrh. Well, we don’t have any of that, whatever it is, but we have something better.”

She moved her top hand to reveal a star crafted out of thick white paper stock backed by tracing paper. There were cutouts in the thick top layer of paper so that the lights from the tree would shine through the tracing paper, dotting the star with glints of light. It was a six-pointed star with beams emanating downward. She shook the star softly, and fine glistening grains of sand filled the beams of light like stardust.

“Did you use beach sand?” Grace asked. “It looks sugary, like it came from Bahia Honda.”

“No,” Rose said with a glowing smile and a wink at Mick. “That’s Donnie.”

Miami_tree_night

Miami tree at night.

Tomorrow's stop on the indieBRAG Christmas Blog Hop is Carrie Beckort, Literary Engineer. Check it out!


What I'm Reading: Lost and Found: One Woman's Story of Losing Her Money and Finding Her Life

Lost and Found: Unexpected Revelations About Food and MoneyLost and Found: Unexpected Revelations About Food and Money by Geneen Roth
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've never suffered from an eating disorder or been a compulsive shopper, but I can see how this book would be a godsend for those who have. And it can have wider application, if you take Geneen Roth's conscious, practical spiritual work as a model. Roth calls us all on our false narratives and coping mechanisms to get to the root of our problems around money. While it could be hard for many readers to relate to Roth's basic position of privilege, the lessons here are worth the effort. For example, Roth describes the "what-the-hell myth," which is when your budget gets derailed by one indiscretion, so you throw your hands up and decide you might as well give up the budget and go on a spending spree. Since Roth's primary work has been with one's relationship to food, the myth applies there as well.

One of Roth's most powerful moves is her debunking of New Age "affirmations." She says:

You can repeat 'I am lovable' a thousand times a day, you can put 'I am successful beyond my wildest dreams' on your mirror, your computer, your dashboard, you can sing it to your yourself when you go to sleep and think about it the minute you open your eyes, but if an earlier belief or conviction of being unlovable is installed in your psyche, you will be wasting your time because you won't believe yourself. If you don't do the actual work of deconstructing your fundamental beliefs, the affirmations have no place to land or stick; they won't work.


She also takes to task those who wish to be "saved" when it comes to money and being responsible with it, whether that's by a mythical parent or actual higher power. Rightly, she asserts:

Being saved implies staying small and willfully blind. But it also implies one more thing: Since not everyone can be saved, the saved one must be imbued with something different, something extraordinary. To be saved, you must invest in being special.


Roth might have connected her lessons in the private sphere to our collective insanity in the wider economy, and that would have given the book more heft. It can also at times feel as if the reader needs to be more familiar with Roth's previous works on food to get the lessons here about money, which seem at times overshadowed by the food discussion. Nonetheless, it's a useful hybrid between memoir and self-help that has likely already made a difference in the lives of many readers.


View all my reviews


Born-Again Meat Eater

Inside_calf_barn

An old friend came to visit recently and was shocked to find out that I eat meat. Back when we met in the early 1990s, I was the first vegan he'd ever known. 

My friend had recently adopted a vegetarian lifestyle himself, but when I offered him beef made from grass-fed, organic, humanely- and locally-raised cows, he accepted. A nice, juicy hamburger is hard to turn down once you've removed the ethical stumbling blocks.

My food journey has been a bumpy one. I grew up a meat-eater like everyone else I knew and didn't meet a vegetarian until my high-school best friend became one. She was a strong influence on my decision to give up meat entirely, once I left home for college.

It was easy for me to make the transition. I'd always felt "meat squeamish," and considering the low-quality meat my struggling family of six could afford, such as cheese hot dogs and hamburger with bits of bone, it's not hard to see why. Away at college, I had access to an astoundingly good vegetarian restaurant called The Sunshine Inn, and my activist friends were either vegetarians themselves or at least flirting with the lifestyle. I went from vegetarianism to veganism, only missing the cheese.

But the problem was, those 13 years of the no-meat lifestyle were my sickest years. I bounced from one upper respiratory infection to another and constantly struggled with hay fever. I was diagnosed with asthma and went on an inhaler. Heartburn and acid reflux were regular occurrences. I suffered digestive issues as well.

By 2002, I wound up in an allergist's office after a severe reaction to soy. He put me on a restrictive diet, but without meat in the equation, that meant only vegetables and rice. He urged me to eat lean meat, a little turkey and chicken.

So I did.

And I immediately felt better.

Most of my symptoms went away for a time, but then they came back as my diet broadened again. It wasn't until recently that an acupuncturist had me keep a meal-by-meal diary and pointed out I still wasn't getting enough protein. 

This time I went whole hog, so to speak, working to get protein at every meal. I found out on my honeymoon in Barcelona that I felt better than ever on a diet of sustainably-produced, mostly local meat, cheese, yogurt, vegetables and fruit, with a few whole grains.

This year, for the first time in my life, I got to experience spring without hay fever, and I've stopped needing to use an inhaler. The digestive issues have mostly cleared up as well. Admittedly, there are other factors, such as the fact that I now work from home where I'm less exposed to fluorescent lights and the toxins of the average workplace. But I believe diet has a lot to do with my greater equilibrium.

When I moved to farm country, I realized I could buy meat right from the producer, and that's helped ease my squeamishness. Fascinated by their long-term commitment to sustainability before that was even a thing, I wrote a piece for LewisTalk about my source for local beef:

Paul_olson
Paul and Dalene Olson have been in the organic business since before there was one. The husband-and-wife team have lived and worked on their family farm near Chehalis since the 1970s. “We’ve always followed safe field and animal practices,” Dalene explains. “We only used treatments when absolutely necessary and stayed away from commercial fertilizers and herbicides. We’ve never used hormones.” Read More

I sometimes get snide looks or comments from vegetarians who think they're superior or smarter or stronger for being able to adopt a diet I can't, even when I can see they might be suffering from food-related illnesses as well. It's ironic. I spent the first half of my life dealing with conservative bullies who criticized my vegetarianism, and it looks like I'll spend the next half dealing with liberal bullies who criticize my meat-eating.

As for the ranchers and I, we're well aware of the poignancy in the circle of life here. Being able to meet the cows that will be your dinner puts you ever mindfully in touch with it, and raising them yourself does so all the more. Folks here often say they are "harvesting" animals, the same as the squash. Both are tended to with care. In the words of the rancher:

“Probably the hardest thing for us is sending the animals for processing,” says Dalene. “A person works so hard to keep the animals alive and healthy, and it can be hard to finish the process by turning them into meat for consumption.”


Pre-Order Now! Dreamslippers Series Book Two

Framed and Burning _ 1.96MB

I have a special offer going right now: You can pre-order Framed and Burning on ebook for $1 off. Once the book releases on November 27, the regular price will be set at $3.99. 

Framed and Burning is the much-anticipated second book in the Dreamslippers Series. The Dreamslippers are a family of private investigators who have the ability to "slip" into your dreams. In Framed and Burning, someone sets fire to Mick Travers’ art studio, killing his assistant, and Mick won't give an alibi. His dreamslipping sister--the eccentric Amazing Grace--is convinced he's innocent, but her granddaughter and the police aren't so sure. Was it really Mick, or is something even darker behind the fire? 

You can pre-order across multiple platforms and devices--just follow these links.





 
 
 

 

For even more options, including non-U.S. links, check out this page.

Still looking for a reason to pre-order? Here's the prologue:

Brickell Lofts, Miami

December 5, 2013

10:37 pm

 

Donnie Hines was passed out drunk in a corner of his studio when the flames made their way to the painting he’d finished that night.

It was a true work of art, and he knew it. Not just good, but great. He knew it even as the whiskey—a diabetic, he had no business drinking that much, and he knew, that, too—made his tongue thick in his mouth and his eyelids droop. When he could no longer hold a paintbrush, he’d sat back in a metal folding chair and realized he had finally done it. He had captured, perfectly, the fractal shapes he’d been chasing his whole life. Ever since his father took him to the Cleveland Science Center when he was ten, he’d seen them in his imagination. That day a scientist showed the crowd how fractals could be found everywhere: in mountains and rivers and seashells. Never-ending patterns that repeated themselves in an ongoing feedback loop, they were the most beautiful things Donnie had ever seen. For the past thirty years, he’d been trying to capture them on canvas.

And in the end, all he needed for inspiration was a bowl of broccoli. 

Not just any ordinary broccoli, either. This was special. “Romanesco broccoli,” the woman at the market stall called it. Lime green, its florets spiraling into fractal shapes. He bought a bag of it, had it sitting in a bowl on an old Formica table. Mick, whose studio Donnie shared, kept threatening to cook it up for lunch. But he agreed it was special. “Froccoli,” Mick called it.

Donnie had worked feverishly that night as a way to stamp down the loss he felt. Working always helped, always freed him from feelings he couldn’t sort through. But in the end, his masterpiece at last finished, it was the drinking that had won out. A bottle of Bushmill’s, three-quarters empty, sat on the floor by the cot where he slept.

Donnie hadn’t even signed the painting.

But it didn’t matter. The fire that devoured Donnie’s masterpiece knew no names and took no prisoners. The paint still wet, it went up in a shimmer of orange, igniting the wooden two-by-four easel behind it. 

Next Mick’s paintings caught fire. An angry slash of black on a field of red curled easily into charred shreds. A thick decoupage of mixed media first melted, its bits of metal and rock sliding down before the canvas disappeared in flames. One painting, then another, some finished, some not, went up in flames.

The fire leapt to a stack of framed paintings leaning against the wall like oversized dominoes, first eating their stretched cloth and then attacking their hardier wooden frames. Bottles of turpentine, paint thinner, and oil paint fed the flames, as did the men’s bottles of whiskey, wine, and gin, all of them exploding, their glass shattering. 

Donnie did not stir. 

Perhaps he was already dead. 

Or maybe he dreamed in his sleep as the fire raged, smoke pouring in behind the curtain surrounding his cot, enveloping his passed-out form and invading his lungs. Those who knew him would expect him to dream of the fractals that were his singular obsession, how they would keep repeating into infinity, so small his eye wouldn’t be able to see them. 

First his skin fried. The flames licked across the surface of his body, the top layer quickly peeling off. Then the fire attacked the thicker layer underneath, causing it to shrink and split. As it split, Donnie’s own body fat leaked out, feeding the fire, another kind of fuel.

Maybe in his dream, he was eating the broccoli. Maybe since the florets were made of the energy of fractals, they kept repeating inside him. He could feel them spiraling through his gut. Soon he could only watch as they emerged from his belly, bursting out of the core of his body, rippling in space, turning him inside out. He was a vibrating, swirling entity of math and matter. His body dissolved. 

But as Donnie died, maybe he still existed—in a larger way, his spirit flowing as part of the energy that is everything in the universe at once, the largest supernova and the smallest quark and everything in between. 

Maybe Donnie’s true masterpiece was this: He became a fractal, never ending.

 





 
 
 
 

The Joy of Movement and Mandalas

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Yoga teacher Cherie Althauser makes elaborate mandalas using Sharpie pens.

In case you missed it, I'm writing for a new site called LewisTalk, and my first article is a totally new, fresh take on 'Granny' Award-winning yogi, Cherie Althauser.

In this piece, I delve into Althauser's emphasis on the joy of movement at any age and condition, tell the story of her connection to Embody, the studio where she teaches, and describe her nifty hobby of making mandalas like the one above.

Here's the story:

Cherie_side_plank


Ask most people to describe what a yoga teacher looks like, and it’s likely the image doesn’t include grey hair.

Or a chair.

But both are part of the yoga life for Cherie Althauser, whose side plank could be the envy of the most youthful yogi. At 65 years and more flexible than many twentysomethings, she’s a walking advertisement for staying active past retirement. Read More

I really enjoyed talking with Althauser in person and corresponding with her further after she left the area for her fall travels. She's humble, but strong and centered about what she has to offer others.

When I met her in that first yoga class this summer, I realized she'd be the perfect recipient for the Granny Award. And that was before I found out she creates mandalas out of Sharpie pens and plays a lovely harmonium!

Namaste.


'Granny' Award Winner No. 2: Cherie Althauser

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Cherie Althauser, teaching yoga with the Sea of Cortez as backdrop. All photos courtesy of Cherie. Video by me.

I named the Granny Grace Award for Outstanding Women Over 40 after a trailblazing character in my Dreamslippers mystery series. Cherie Althauser could play her in the movie version.

Like Granny Grace, Cherie is an accomplished yogi who's committed to a spiritual path. I met Cherie when she taught a class called "Chair Yoga" at Embody, a gem of a studio in my adopted new locale. The inspiration for Chair Yoga came from Cherie's study of Iyengar yoga, which pioneered the use of props to help students get into postures correctly and safely.

As an experienced yogi, I was deeply impressed with Cherie's use of the chair to give students support--without sacrificing challenge. I took the class because I'd sprained my ankle. I made it through the class without any pain but left sweaty and feeling invigorated. It was especially fun to practice wheel pose using the chair.

Something Cherie said that day stayed with me: "All movement with intention is yoga."

Cherie's focus on movement began in childhood with ballet. She maintains she was never interested in the performance aspects of ballet, but she practiced it as a child and then returned to it for exercise as an adult. Now she applies her ballet training to teaching yoga. She explains: "In ballet, you learn that a movement can express itself from the core of your body out through the hands and feet. It's the same with yoga." 

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Cherie in arabesque on the edge of a cliff near Sedona, AZ.

It's clear that Cherie brings diverse movement experience and training to the mat. In addition to Iyengar, she has studied a little Rolfing and Feldenkrais, both methods that focus on movement in order to heal or retrain the body. "I'm interested in how the body moves through life," she explains. "Yoga is the platform."

But movement alone would not be enough to sustain Cherie's path, which is also a spiritual one. In 2004, she came to a fork in the road that lead her to engage in spiritual research. "My whole life turned upside-down," she says. "I had a quantum change experience. I had a vision." She read books on religion and spirituality, reaching out to the authors when she had questions. 

Eventually, this brought her to a guru, Paramahansa Yogananda, and provided structure for her spiritual path in the form of the Self-Realization Fellowship. Cherie, who strikes me as level-headed and practical, says she was highly skeptical at first, wary of being drawn into a "cult." But she learned to meditate, which she and her husband do together now twice daily, and she returns to the Yogananda center in Los Angeles each year to check in with others on the spiritual path.

"He found me," she says. "I wasn't looking for a guru."

Cherie has taken up playing the harmonium and is committed to learning all of Yogananda's songs. She sometimes ends her yoga classes with a short concert.

 

In the U.S. the term "guru" can often have a negative connotation, as someone who exploits his position at the helm of a community of slavish followers. In stark contrast is the way that Cherie herself conducts class: with a sense of humor, as well as humility. She never takes herself too seriously. "Let's do...whatever that pose is called, something in sanskrit; I forget," she'll say. Or this: "You might want to grab onto your chair, as I'm going to, since I'm the one losing my balance." Her teaching reminds me that at its root, "guru" simply means "teacher," or better yet, "guide."

Undoubtedly her yoga instruction is grounded in her longtime career as a teacher and then program manager for the Child and Family Studies department at Centralia College, where she worked for more than 15 years. "The divine has always placed me in the role of teacher," she explains. But this role didn't come naturally. Cherie describes herself as intensely shy, admitting that this call to teach pushed her outside her comfort zone, again and again.

Her first encounter with the Child and Family Studies department came after she gave birth to twins and found herself feeling unsure as a mother. She tried to remember that when she taught, and then again when she supervised other teachers. 

At 65, Cherie is an inspiration for anyone looking for such an age to be filled with vitality and well-being. She shares this gift with others, both in Centralia and when she winters in San Carlos, Mexico, where she teaches English to underprivileged children, as well as yoga to retirees. 

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 When asked what advice she'd give to others, Cherie answers, "Learn how to nurture your intuition. Learn how to hear it. Cultivate a close relationship with the divine, whatever that means to you. It's speaking all the time. You don't want to miss it."

 


Undercover Christians, Part II

BRAG medallion ebook AT IN THE FLOCK

In my last post, I shared the "undercover Christian" experience I drew on to write the Plantation Church scenes in Cat in the Flock

I was also lucky to have--right in my own home--a first-person source for what it's really like inside a fundamentalist megachurch. My husband, Anthony Valterra, went undercover in the Ted Haggard New Life church as part of the research for his Master's thesis in Religious Studies.

(Spoiler Alert: In this piece, I discuss aspects of the book that could take away from the experience of certain plot twists and reveals.)

Hours of conversations about our experiences with evangelicals informed my writing. I was most fascinated by Ted Haggard's struggle with homosexuality, and the scandals that resulted. While I can't stress enough that my character Jim Plantation is definitely not Ted Haggard, I did use him as a model--at least Anthony's impressions of him. I refrained from specific research on Haggard because I didn't want the real image of him to dominate the story. Rather, I wanted to give life to the character I already had in my head.

I kept seeing Jim Plantation in the dream that Cat slips into:

 Cat could feel the heat of a red wall of fire and need inside him raging toward the dolls in the cabinet. There was a strong feeling of ownership and also responsibility. It was up to him to deliver them from evil. It was up to him to make sure they didn't sin. He was their keeper; he would make them obey the will of the Lord. The temptations were so raw. The dark, powerful sins of the flesh could tear a little girl to pieces inside until she let evil overcome her, making her hungry, making her spread her legs and let her juices flow, beckoning men with her ripe, red--

Cat recoiled against the force of the man's roiling emotions, knocking herself back. She hit the door behind her, hard. And there was the man in front of her; she could see his lean back in the muddy suit. She'd done it. She was out of him. He stood there gazing at his angels. He seemed unaware of Cat's presence.

"My pretty little angels," the man said in a voice with a lovely cadence that sounded familiar to her. "So perfect," he intoned, his voice reverent. "So clean." 

There are two kinds of sexual repression in the book, the self-imposed one that Plantation and his brethren visit upon themselves, and the antifeminist strictures they place on women and girls in their church. To me it was important to get inside and understand both of them.

In conversations with Anthony, I was particularly struck by his characterization of the church leaders as true believers and not just charlatans trying to fleece their flocks. On the one hand, this meshed with my own experience with the authentic conservatives in my family and social circles. On the other hand, I'd cynically assumed that those at the helms of such large organizations were out merely to take advantage--of their 501(c)3 status, of the generosity of their congregations, you name it.

This is often the characterization of evangelical leaders in stories today. In the popular "Grimm" TV series, writers depict a wolf in sheep's clothing who seems to have little real belief, and the one villain who got away with that egregious crime in the first season of "True Detective" is a church leader.

But these portrayals are a bit one-dimensional, or at least lacking in complexity, according to Anthony. "Ted Haggard, and many of his followers, are truly answering what they perceive to be the Lord's call, and their struggles to live up to their own standards and beliefs are real."

Certainly he witnessed members of the church reaching for roles that would give them more claim, or power, or prominence within the structure of the church. But it was always done with authenticity and conviction regarding the faith itself. This he witnessed while undercover, with an assumed name, for a whole summer. To this day, his true mission there was unknown.

The feelings of betrayal that Wendy expresses when she finds out Cat is lying, though? That's all fiction. 


Undercover Christians, Part I

BRAG medallion ebook AT IN THE FLOCK

In my debut novel, Cat in the Flock, the protagonist goes undercover in a fundamentalist Christian church, where she finds redemption and goodwill amidst hypocrisy and lies. To write this world convincingly, I drew upon some powerful real-life experiences.

First were my familial relationships with fundamentalists, most importantly the in-laws from my first marriage. My ex-husband's family was conservative Lutheran, the type who listened to Rush Limbaugh and agreed with him. We prayed before every meal, even in restaurants. Children in the family were given--sans the permission of their parents--picture books for Christmas that refuted evolution. Once I was invited to join in a photo of all the women in the family, a grouping of  "moms and future moms," as if that was the natural and sole identity of any woman. And no one thought to ask me or my husband about our family plans; it was just assumed.

I remember my then brother-in-law, who is a math teacher, once set up his telescope outside, providing us with a stupendous view of the craters on the surface of the moon. "Whenever I see something like this," he said, "it confirms my belief in the Lord." I envied his conviction, even if I didn't understand it. 

But as certain as the majority in the family were about their beliefs, they were loving and respectful to those of us who didn't share them. They really were Christians in every sense of the word, kind and warm and incredibly giving. They worked hard, played fair, trusted in their God, and comforted each other in times of grief. I felt welcomed by them, one of the family. 

And I knew where they were coming from, despite my liberal/progressive/political college days and young adulthood. I'd grown up in very conservative environments, and while my military father was at best agnostic, my mother was a loyal Catholic who dragged all four of her kids' butts to mass on Sundays whenever she could, without my father's help.

Now there's a huge difference between Catholics and fundamentalist Christians, as my former in-laws would be the first to tell you. I remember getting a bit of anti-papist sentiment at family gatherings. One member of the family scoffed at a Catholic friend's offer to light a candle for him, and when I shared stories of my brother playing with the kneelers in our church pews, a family member snottily remarked, "Well, we certainly don't kneel." I had been raised haphazardly Catholic, was never confirmed, and hadn't set foot inside a church in years, but that remark made me want to show up at the next family gathering swinging incense and dowsing everyone in holy water.

But like my in-laws' Christian beliefs, my mother's Catholicism trended toward the conservative end of the spectrum. Furthermore, and she will probably berate me for sharing this, but she became even more conservative in the 1980s thanks to the PTL Club. Yeah, Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker's shows broadcast like mad in Sacramento, and my mother, left alone to raise us while my father was off on TDY to South Korea, climbed into that clown car and thought for a while she was among friends. But we don't have to judge her for this. Who among ye hasn't been momentarily led astray, especially during hard times?

Unfortunately for me, this coincided with a burgeoning junior high-aged discovery of music, and thanks to the Bakkers, and a silly stunt pulled by Ozzy Osbourne, I came of age only to find that all the most enticing music was now off limits. So the PTL Club made its mark on me.

Still, I credit the Catholic faith with saving my mother during a traumatic time in her life. Her journey back to God is one I deeply honor and respect. And my own political activism was founded within the Jesuit tradition. Like Cat McCormick, I graduated from St. Louis University, and I still hold a great deal of respect for Jesuit education (my own was rigorous and query-based) and the Jesuit tradition of service. 

All of this was in the background as I wrote Cat in the Flock. While my own beliefs, such that I have any concrete ones, sway far from the fundamentalist fold, I admire those who find redemption and liberation through a closer walk with God, however that manifests.

In Undercover Christians, Part II, I'll describe another inspiration for Cat's fundamentalist church undercover work: My husband really did go undercover in the Ted Haggard church. Yes, that Ted Haggard.

 


Cat in the Flock on Audiobook

Audible screen shot CITF

I'm thrilled to announce the audiobook version of Cat in the Flock, featuring noted radio personality Angel Clark as the narrator. With 100 audiobooks under her belt, Angel's a real pro. She also hosts a talk radio show on the subject of liberty. During auditions, we thought her voice for Cat McCormick was perfect!

And doesn't she kind of look like she could play Cat on TV? 

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Photo courtesy of Angel Clark.

You can download the audiobook now from either Amazon or iTunes.