Good House Keeping

The Coffee stains on the table are my grandfathers. Each intersecting circle creates an Olympic design. The curtains were sown by my grandmother, yellow with little red flowers faded by a thousand sunrises to varying shades of light pink. The chip in the oak countertop is my mothers, the place where she sliced a thousand cuts of meat and missed the cutting board only twice. The scrapes on both side of the back door belong to the dozens of dogs who have graced our lives with wet noses, wet kisses and the click of claws on the hardwood door. The scrape on the floor belongs to my father, the place where he drug his chair along the old oak planks, bellying up to the table, newspaper in hand.

If I were to find my place in this old farm house, it would be in the attic where the pink and green wallpaper now hangs like fly paper from the narrowly peaked ceiling. The floor where my brass bed once stood is scored by my running leaps which always moved the bed an inch. Other children slept here, my mother in her time, her mother before that. The attic is a child’s place, a lofted wonderland whose view never alters with the years. Stepping across the old planks to the warped single pain window, I see a hundred acres of oak trees. These are the same trees that my great-great grandparents planted one hundred and fifty years ago.

Reaching out I take a swath of wall paper, tearing a neat strip to make a sample. Now that the house is mine, the workmen repair the shingled roof and paint the gingerbread siding to its original peach and cream. Someday soon, on summer holidays my own grandchildren will sleep in brass beds in this attic room, their eyes tracing the green and pink wallpaper of my mother’s childhood. In turn they will mark the house, damage the molding, and scratch their ever increasing height into the door jambs. Someday this will be their house, filled with their stories, memories, dents and dust, creating the best kind of housekeeping for a well lived, well loved home.

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Slaying the Princess to Feed the Dragon

Weight is a huge issue in America. It consumes us, eats us up and devours us whole. Weight consciousness maintains a mind bending strangle hold on every aspect of our lives.  We count calories, workout harder and diet more than any culture in the history of mankind and yet year after year we just get bigger. Our fixation on the waist line has led us to embrace personal betrayal. We have broken away from our own authenticity and turned our backs on self-respect, all in the hopes that we can blend into society’s idea of perfection.

At the age of seven I wanted to be a princess. I had the face, round with large eyes and rosy cheeks, but I lacked that slender physique which said, dainty, graceful, slim and resplendent. Due to my lack of, “dainty,” I lost sight of the pretty, couldn’t see the rosy cheeks or the large round eyes. At the age of seven I embarked on a 30 year career of yo-yo dieting, self-hatred and illness. With eating disorders in tow, I stocked my fridge with “health food,” took hot yoga, took spin classes, weight trained, aerobicized, ran, skied, biked and dieted my way into a ruined metabolism, adrenal fatigue and depression. In my depression I finally realized that I will never be a size two princess. I will never be “dainty.”

I’m farm stock. It’s that plain and simple. My people have been hauling hundred pound sheep and thousand pound cattle through sleet and blizzard, over hill and dale, for time out of mind. I am in no way related to the blue blooded, pampered princess types capable of feeling a pea through a dozen layers of eiderdown mattress. My people were not made “dainty.” We never have had…not once…a “dainty” sixteen inch waist or long “dainty” fingers. We are farm people, built to work, built to survive, built to procreate in large numbers and eat whatever was dumb enough to wander into our way.

Still, I let the princess take my life from me. For thirty years she lived in my head and told me if I just cut more calories, if I just worked out harder and smarter, I could earn the right to live. She told me that I was worthless, big and stupid. I felt defenseless to fight her. I felt alone and unlovable, degraded and disowned. With help I gained the courage to slay the princess, feed my dragon like hunger and rescue my farm girl self from the nether regions of hell.

Now I eat when I’m hungry and remind myself often that nothing’s worth doing if it’s not enjoyable. After a life of hellish self-abusive workouts and diet regiments, it’s nice to find out what feels fun. Over the past year I’ve learned that I still love to work out, I still love to hike, swim and lift weights. I take care of myself and I look and feel better then ever. I’ve turned my back on “dainty.” I’ve chosen instead to feel powerful, athletic, happy, whole and healthy at every size. I’ve pledged to love myself no matter my weight and you know what? That’s OK!

So with a new respect for myself and women as a whole I have begun my fourth novel, a book about a big beautiful farm girl who’s relationship with God, clarity in being and love of authenticity, is unparalleled. I’m writing Marie-Celest for all my fellow Farm girls. God built some of us bigger and stronger so let’s stop starving away our God given strength.

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Cultivating Silence

I love silence. It’s a rare and beautiful thing. Silence eludes me at times but is easily cultivated once I let go enough to let it wander free. I love drifting through my silenced house with nothing to do. It’s these empty spans of nothingness that feed my soul in a profound way. I put on silence like an old coat, one that holds me close with its friendly warmth. I like the way silence buffers away the complicated storm swept world as it soothes my mind into quiet order.

In those rare moments when silence is accompanied by nothing to do I invariably finger a book I have no intention of reading or better still I pet my cat and break silence into a raucous flow of vibrational joy. My cats purr is deep and throaty. It is a cultivated purr won from silence, the silence of never having known love. That was not a nice silence. My cat has the purr of a feral cat dumped high on a hill top farm. It is the purr of courage which sings, “I dared to trust and in trust found love.”

Sometimes in my silence I contemplate at my toes. I have brave toes. I like to think of all the places my toes have led me. To the crib where my baby boy slept, to the door of my mother’s house, to the airport where together, toes and I boarded a plane. Finally I like to think of the moment my toes stepped to the top of Wearyall Hill. In this place the silence listens, builds and grows into a sort of spiritual wonder I can scarce find words to express.

One of the sweetest silences I know is barn silence. That’s right…barn silence. I have known barns filled with the slow breaths of big horses and the silent swoop of swallow’s wings. I have cupped my hands to catch gold bright dust particles suspended for a moment in the gleaming perfection of sunset; my horses quietly chewing in their darkening stalls. Barn silence is the best silence because it is filled with contentment. It whispers, well done, everyone is stalled, blanketed, fed, happy and safe. You’ve done your job, your free to find your bed but linger a while because contentment like this only comes to rose sniffers, day dreamers and those who understand and love the richness that comes with the knowledge that all is right with the world.

Silence gives rise to contemplation, the birthplace of epic daydreams. Epic daydreams become manuscripts upon which I labor hour after hour day after day. I nestle down happy with the certainty of my well spun plot, the depth of my characters,  enjoying the peace of knowing that everything will end as I wish it. What if life could be as conveniently orchestrated?

In Silence I disconnect from the global mind, allowing myself to once again become unique to my surroundings. In this great disconnect, I go off-line into silence and am again the girl I was, quiet and shy, no longer forced to brave a world which feels too big.

In silence I hear my heartbeat. In silence I’m glad I’m alive. In silence I am able to set aside my humanity, drink in the sublime and let go of all the petty rages which injure only me. In silence I am home, I am free and I am at peace because silence asks for nothing. It simply gives me space to be.

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What Phillis Wheatley Taught Me

Phillis Wheatley came into my life pressed between the pages of a rather lack luster anthology. I was twenty-one when I first sat down in my American Literature class ready to be thoroughly educated. My professor was young and handsome. He wore a tweed jacket with elbow patches and I knew that we would have great discussions that would change my life. I was right. My interactions with him would change my life.

The only Wheatley poem my anthology contained was the short but controversial,

On being brought from Africa to America

‘TWAS mercy brought me from my Pagan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand
That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too:
Once I redemption neither fought now knew,
 Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
“Their colour is a diabolic die.”
Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain,
May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.

I read the poem with understandable concern. My white Gen-X background in no way prepared me for a woman who spoke with gratitude on having been taken from her family at the age of 7, sold into slavery at age 8 and then named after the slave ship which transported her. How she ever survived the long voyage aboard “The Phillis,” no one knows.

I sat in shock listening to my professor discuss the hardships of her life in blasé tones. He furthered the insult by saying that Wheatley’s poem was ironic. My indignation was instant. Nowhere in her words could I detect irony. I heard a fragile voice, as gentle as moonlight, singing out an ideology forced on her through hardship, a new and vengeful God coupled with the tortuous cruelty of slavery. Surely, no one with a heart could read this poem and honestly believe that Wheatley’s poem was ironic. Slowly I raised my hand, stated my case and flatly refused to back down.

My professor believed that his word was the last word on all subjects literary. My refusal to understand that Wheatley’s poem was ironic angered him so much that he began yelling “ironic” at me every time our paths crossed: In the hall, out on the green, in the parking lot. My reply to each and every one of his attacks was to simply say, “sincere.”

At the end of quarter, after turning in every paper, after aceing every quiz and test I received a D-. The girl who sat opposite me never turned in her papers, missed tests and didn’t read the assigned texts but was shocked to receive an A. I approached my professor, I stated that he’d switched the grades and he replied, “How very ironic?” Yes it was ironic that I should fail this simple class with my strong English background. Yes it was ironic that I should fight for a defenseless black poetess, and yes it was ironic that I, a woman, was forced to defend my belief before an empowered white male. I went to the Dean, I filed my complaint and nobody listened.

So this is what Phillis Wheatley taught me. She taught me that even when you’ve been bullied, brainwashed, stomped on and threatened you have to keep on speaking what your heart tells you is right. Since failing American Lit. I have become a lover of Wheatley’s poetry. In her words I find sweetness, beauty, and a refinement not of this world. Her voice is more tangible to me now than any grade. My soul is strengthened by her poem On Virtue. My love of art grows in her poem To S. M. A Young African Painter, On Seeing His Works. My favorite of her poems is simply entitled,

On Imagination.

Imagination! who can sing thy force?
Or who describe the swiftness of thy course?
Soaring through air to find the bright abode,
Th’ empyreal palace of the thund’ring God,
We on thy pinions can surpass the wind,
And leave the rolling universe behind:
From star to star the mental optics rove,
 Measure the skies, and range the realms above.
There in one view we grasp the mighty whole,
Or with new worlds amaze th’ unbounded soul.

Phillis is one of the reasons why I write about silenced women. Her history is part of why I will always take up a cause my heart recognizes as pure. Phillis could not speak out against slavery when she herself was enslaved but read again On being brought from Africa to America and notice how gently she presses the truth that we all have the right to find grace.

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Locating your Authentic Self

Locating your Authentic Self is an important step towards relational intimacy. It is impossible to experience deep sustaining love if you are hiding behind a role. In life we misplace our true identity behind labels and ideas that obscure the person we really are. Removing the layers of pretense and fear driven identity can be an intimidating undertaking. Only through authenticity can you find freedom, joy and true love.

Fake identities manifest through fear, loneliness and a need to please, protect or be accepted. These labels come from parents, siblings, society, educational titles, or they may be self-applied. Labels start small but they quickly take on a life of their own, crippling their host’s ability to live authentically in the process. False identity states: I am not a whole person until you know this fact about me. Or, I wouldn’t be good enough for this moment if you knew the real me.

My most destructive false identity came with childhood. I was told that I was, drifty, irrational, difficult, bossy, too sensitive and controlling. These labels grew into, Bitch and finally Crazy Bitch, a title I took to with zeal. I wore it like battle armor, ready to shred my life and my family. Being Crazy Bitch, offered me a way to escape the permanent victim hood I was raised in.

When my husband first asked me out I said, “You don’t want to date me, I’m crazy.” Was this my truth? At the time I thought it was. After years of being labeled, of rebelling, and of being labeled again, I developed an identity that said I was crazy, untrustworthy and mercenary. He looked into my eyes and said, “You’re not crazy.” I remember how sad I felt for him. I knew that at some point I would shred him, break him, hurt him the way I had my family. I overcame my destructive false identity and have a healthy authentic marriage because of his love, trust and support.

In my book Magdalena’s Shadow, I introduce my audience to Coco, a girl who struggles with finding her true identity. Her story begins under the labels: idiot, unlovable and crazy. As the story progresses her labels grow to encompass: model, single mother and whore. Coco could succumb to these labels but like so many of us she strives to overcome the labels she was branded with. Guided by a strict code of personal integrity, Coco begins a compelling search for personal freedom, self-worth and lasting love.

Freedom is yours when you rise above unwanted roles and other people’s beliefs about what you should be. Sit down and list out the roles which you identify with and ask yourself, “how does this role make me feel?” Question, “who would I be if I didn’t believe this about myself?” Listen carefully to your heart’s answers. Be still with your authentic self. Take time to bond with the feeling of just being you, even if only for a moment. Stripping away the layers of false self can feel scary. It helps to understand that the false self has no integrity, is incapable of lasting love and lives wholly outside of intimacy because intimacy cannot be achieved in the presence of a lie.

The Covenant of Relational Intimacy Part 1

Blood is thicker than water, what does this really mean? In the book The Blood Covenant, by H. Clay Trumbull, a ‘blood covenant’ is a blood ritual more binding than familial ties. Under a blood covenant you remain your father’s son, your mother’s daughter, but your true allegiance rests with your sworn sisters, your blood brothers; the men or women you would die for without question.

As a child I became blood sisters with my friend Stephanie. We cut our thumbs, rubbed the cuts together and knew we’d never be apart. I lost Stephanie from my life eighteen months later and have passed years without once thinking of her. Why did I so easily accept her loss? Why did I allow her to fade into nothing more than a foot note in my history?

At the time my world felt too big, my community was scattered, my days fogged in by the names and faces of people I would never see again. I told myself that if I had been born in a village construct, raised in the intimacy of extended family, then perhaps I would not have handled the loss of my blood sister with such silent resignation. With an ideal home life I believed I would have fought her loss, grieved her absence, prayed for her in absentia instead of allowing her name to pass from my mind. Why did I feel such resignation to loss? Why did the memory of our friendship fade to indifference?

Desperate for answers and a sense of community I spent years in various churches, joined groups, went to parties only to feel as alone as when I first set out to find “My People.” This search for relational intimacy, for my place in the world, led me on a search for knowledge, for community, and for the home I longed for. What I found after years of wandering is a very simple truth. We have evolved sociologically beyond our original communal constructs. Our small village idea of community has opened to a world experience because of population density, global media exposure and our beloved internet. So many people pass through our lives that it is impossible to keep them all close, yet you can grieve their individual loss and love them in the moment.

In part two, I will discuss how covenant has remained an integral part of human relationships.

Literature Changes Lives

You are what you read. What a powerful statement! When you lose yourself in good literature, you are doing more than reading an excellent novel, you are sympathizing with the character; you are melding your own thoughts and self-identification with theirs, even if just for a moment.

Geoff Kaufman and Lisa Libby of Ohio State University found in a study that readers bond with protagonists to such a degree, that for a time, the reader takes on the emotions and beliefs of the protagonist. This process is called “experience taking.”

When I first began reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s, Eat, Pray, Love, I couldn’t stop crying. There was something so raw and gutting about her depression, entrapment and lack of self-awareness that I could no longer separate my own pain from hers. There was something about Liz’s character that made me confront my own long hidden suffering?

My heartache stemmed from the reality that I had let my most cherished dreams slip away. I was a wife when I meant to be a scholar, a mother when I’d planned to travel and a depressed shut-in when I’d meant to find my feet and lead a full life. I felt pain because of all the things I hadn‘t done. Two chapters into the book and like Liz, I  wanted a divorce. Four chapters in and I ended a long held friendship. By the time Liz arrived in Italy I was crying through every sentence because I felt trapped, suffocated and alone. If it were not for Liz’s distinct voice guiding me on I may have remained stuck in that place of regret and misery forever.

I cannot easily describe the evolution that took place within me but for some reason I began to heal somewhere between India and Bali. Somewhere during that mental trip my eyes opened to the reality of my life. In Bali I found peace for the first time. I saw where I stood and began to value all that I had accidently achieved in my mismanaged life. I had a husband, a son, and a home where I was unconditionally loved. So what had been so wrong for so long? The answer is…me. My thoughts and behavior, my idea of what life should have been, got in the way of what life was.

Eat, Love, Pray changed my life because it changed the way I saw my life. Now I am on track to achieve my dreams while I love and appreciate the life I’ve built. Could I have made my fresh start without Liz Gilbert? I really don’t know. What I do know is that literature is powerful. It gives a writer the chance to open minds or close them, to take their readers on a life altering journey for the better or for the worse.

So I ask you fellow writers to please be careful with the minds you handle. Words are powerful and they can bring light to a shadowed consciousness or just heap on more darkness.