Animal Magic

I grew up with a lot of animals. Animals were our way of life. We woke to the sounds of chickens. We spent our days training horses and mucking out stalls and our nights cuddled up around our old wood fire place with cats, dogs, ferrets, a rabbit and a chinchilla. When it was time for bed it was just a matter of standing up to signal your entourage to follow. My entourage consisted of Muffy, a calico kitty our neighbors found in their garage and Zena the whippet who came to us after being shuffled through three other homes.

Mooney my house cat when he was a young stray on my farm.

Mooney my house cat when he was a young stray on my farm.

We were the collectors of the unwanted, the unadoptable and the hopeless. Our horses were slaughterhouse saves, our dogs were pound puppies and our cats came to us from every corner of the city. The most dramatic cat story we converged with was that of Mimsy. She was a beautiful silver stripped kitty who was rescued by an elderly homeless man from boys who were beating her to death in the streets of Spokane. My sister was a teenager in her car when the man knocked on her window and gave Mimsy to her. I can’t remember what he said but I do remember the look of grief she described in his eyes, a look that stemmed from an inability to understand why anyone would try to beat a kitty to death. I’m happy to say that in our large menagerie, Mimsy lived a long and happy life as mother’s favorite lap cat.

Tally, the $600 rescue, beat out valuable warmbloods at her first show.

Tally, the $600 rescue, beat out valuable warmbloods at her first show.

Since we adopted our new puppy last Wednesday, I’ve been thinking a lot about the hundreds of animals which have graced my life. I still miss my first cat Lilly and I still tear up when I think of Zena the Whippet, Serge the Greyhound and Nitro the incomparable Doberman/Shepherd cross who was in all likelihood an angel cloaked in fur. So many things have changed over the years. So many lives have come and gone and yet we plod on, loving those who will only grace a small portion of lives. Though their years are short, the love they leave behind lasts a lifetime. Animals heal us, they bring us close and they open our souls to a deeper experience of what really matters. With a pet, every snowfall is magical, every sunrise filled with expectation and every well warn path becomes riddled with joyful possibility.

Aria, our new puppy who was found wandering the streets of Everett with her mother.

Aria, our new puppy who was found wandering the streets of Everett with her mother.

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Christmas Lights

christmas-tree2
When I think of Christmas I see lights reflected off snow, sparkling red, blue and green. Somewhere in the distance voices raise in song and I am again a child, my hand in my mother’s as together we view the light display in temple square. In my child’s mind this temple embodied every kind of magic, its beauty shining like a beacon of beauty and peace into a wary world. I used to pray that this part of Christmas would last all year. I loved the silence of Christmas. I loved the sense of wonder, the love and warmth of light reflecting out into the darkness bringing hope. In no other time of the year did I feel as loved, as united, or as precious as I did in those long dark winters in Salt Lake City. I was still a child then, still innocent and open to the magic in the world.

In the days after we’d decorated our fragrant tree, I would gather my books, blankets and my teddy bear Rose-Amora and slide carefully into the corner behind the branches to read by Christmas light. I remember hearing my father walk through our old Victorian house while he called my name. I’d listen in silence, my book sitting still in my lap while my father pretended he couldn’t find me. I giggled when he return to the living room with my cat Cumulus Nimbus under his arm. “Find Eleanor,” he’d say, setting the cat down before the tree and sure enough Nim would run right to me meowing.

It’s so easy to forget what Christmas is in the hustle of holiday sales, family get together, and church events. It’s easy to fill silence with noise, and stillness with action, to remain so busy in preparation that we forget to rest in the fullness of experience. Each year when we take out the Christmas lights I am reminded of what happy feels like. Each year I take time to rest with a good book and a cat in the light of peace as I did so long ago in the light from a Christmas tree. Each year I listen to the world call my name while I pretend not to hear because it feels so good to rest in stillness. Whether your light comes from the star of Bethlehem, the Menorah or the Holy Fire, be still in its presence, practice gratitude for all that you are and all that you have and be childlike; for only in innocence can we know peace.

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Nothing to Prove

two girls holding hands
I no longer have anything to prove. Not to myself, not to my friends and not to the world. Stress, anxiety and worry, guilt and fear grow stronger when I reach for perfection; wanting in every way to prove that I am worth knowing, worth hearing, worth the time it takes to say hello. Freedom lives in acceptance, as does love, compassion and the greatest gift, contentment. I have set aside my need for riches, my wish for worldly wealth and I am at home with myself and to myself in a way I never was before, simply because I make no excuses for who I am. I am…and that’s enough.

The road to poverty is paved with unnecessary consumption; that driving need to own the latest, the greatest, the biggest and the best in order to be cutting-edge, cool and accepted. I have bought my fair share of acceptance based merchandise. I have run up my credit cards and wept when I couldn’t pay the bill. I wore the right shoes with the right dress to the right occasion where I said all the right things to all the right people? Instead of feeling exhilarated, accepted and admired I felt tired and jaded as if I’d shelved the best and brightest parts of me for one radiantly superficial occasion.

Once shelved, our best and brightest features begin to fade. Our true natures waste away into the shadowed recess of our souls, coming out in confessions to a friend who isn’t really a friend because in truth, she’s never really met you. Oh sure you’ve shopped together and gossiped together but the moment you let your true self slip into the open, you’re confronted with the reality that you’ve crossed that line into inexplicable depth. Your pretty friend’s eyes glaze over, there’s a lull in conversation accompanied by the reality that you’ve gone too far. “Beyond this point there be dragons,” the old maps used to read and you struggle through uncomfortable chatter, the bird song of small talk, until you reestablish the comfortable anonymity that kept you both intimate strangers. Then your friend grows busy, too busy, to shop and gossip and her world spins on without you.

I have nothing to prove, nothing to preach, I’ll love you in your best dress or in your most ragged pair of sweats. You know the pair you reserve for those days when you’re too old for teddy bears but too broken to understand how much you need one. I don’t care if you’re not wearing eye makeup or where you got your hair done. If you can’t stop crying I’ll probably join you. If you’ve got the giggles I’m right there to.

“A friend is one that knows you as you are, understands where you have been, accepts what you have become, and still, gently allows you to grow.”
-William Shakespeare

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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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The Farm Wife’s God

Shepherdess with Her FlockI will not pass through your “angelic” doors to be made insignificant by your lofted buttresses, shining alters and painted glass. I will not feel small in this world (my world); the place where my mother walked with her mother back to the beginning of time. Keep your sky God … a never wandering…never breathing…never living God who lets his children slip through his fingers into hell flame and fire.

My God rests upon the world, an invisible guest filled with a heady love, riotous in his moments of childlike joy. As one we live a life of love and laughter, blessed by the magic of a stocked pantry and a well-made stove belching out good scents: hot fresh bread, new beef stew, hot apple tart pulled from the flames just as the crust turns golden. This is a Good use of fire, the right use of fire, a fire that feeds and nurtures as fire should. My God is a hearth God, an earth God, a plentiful smiling God, his feet treading the wheat rows at my side from planting to harvest.

During long winters, my prayers are answered with the birth of a child, the well-wishing visit of old friends and neighbors, the scent and flavor of roasted ham and salted lentils. My God is here, his feet under the table. He blesses us when the sun hardly shines and we have only our stories and each other to pass the time with.

So I say to you now, threaten no one with your false doctrines, black clad papist man. For fear has no place among the peaceful. I’ve seen your cathedrals rising high into the clouds, calling the frightened to worship in dread of hell fire and false magic.

My cathedral is my hand-made house. My pulpit, a faded arm chair by the fire.  My doctrine is the doctrine of the farm: rise early, feed good fodder, share your bounty with your neighbors, always close a gate and be kind even in the kill, for kill we must to lay our table. As the fire heats the meat, my God and I give thanks, and are humbled by the beauty and bounty of the day.

I need no sky God’s magic, no promised afterlife, no cathedrals dripping in gold to know that I am loved, heaven made and purpose bent. I need no holy man to guide me to the heaven I already know, not while the hills call, the cattle low and there are sheep to be sheered.

When my time comes, my God will lead me by my work roughened hands that have fed people, birthed people, raised up the sick and buried the dead before the setting of the second sun and he will know that I have always been grateful to be alive. That  being the very best kind of worship there is.

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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 2

So what does the modern covenant look like? How do we swear to one another that we will stand against all peril, keep vigil and give solace when they are needed? The answer to this question changes with each individual experience. Though the word covenant means to cut a thing which is eaten, (break bread, offer sacrifice, feast,) its inherent meaning slices far deeper. Covenant is an act of coming together to prove we are not alone, that our individuality does not ensure loneliness and isolation. Covenant is the promise that someone, be it God, our spouse or our best friend, will always be there no matter what. Covenant is seen as a necessary component to relational intimacy because it is the promise of security, safe passage and safe harbor in a world fraught with storms.

How do you create a sense of safety, home and community in an ever expanding world? We must turn again to the covenant of relational intimacy, the sworn loves, fidelities and friendships that guide us, house us and keep us feeling safe.  Humans are born to enter covenants, to make packs, swear oaths, to love and care for one another, and to protect at the risk of personal sacrifice. Within true covenant friendships are not allowed to slip away.

The covenant of relational intimacy is the single most important thing you will do in life. Now we have the opportunity to do this on a global scale. Create community in every way you can. Educate yourself about the lands, beliefs and lives of others. Take advantage of this momentous time by immersing yourself in the flow of humanity; be it through twitter, spirituality or travel. Make time for conversation, even if you’re in a rush. Stop to ask a person how they are then take the time to really listen to their answer. Each interaction will feed your soul and expand your awareness of your place in the world.

I look forward to knowing you in this fast moving and fascinating time, maybe over coffee, maybe through the web. In the meantime, I’ll write about your loves, your courage and your covenants. I’ll write about the honor and strength it takes to become the person you were put on this planet to be. I’ll write about your losses and joys as our lives continue to weave through this modern age. It is our shared universal covenant that is the greatest epic story in the cosmos.