Diann asked such thoughtful questions, it was a pleasure to do this interview.
An author’s name cited in a student’s paper jumped out at me as if it somehow didn’t belong in an academic context. Pigg. Names like Pigg and Hogg beg to belong to characters like the “rude mechanicals” in a Midsummer Night’s Dream, not Ph.D. psychologists.
Speaking of Bottom, a friend whose last name was Butt (I’m not making this up) married a man with the surname Broadass. They decided not to hyphenate.
I saw the name Ole Aass on an old gravestone in the cemetery of a simple white Norwegian Lutheran church in the town of Norge, Virginia. The setting was serene, spiritual, and idyllic but for a moment all I could think of was how his name would have looked in the phone book if he’d lived in a later century.
I’ve used some of my favorite off-beat names in my books. My protagonist Mae’s maternal grandmother was an Outlaw, a wonderful North Carolina moniker that is both realistic for the region and reflects the way some people treat Mae because of traits she gets from that Outlaw grandmother.
Strange coincidences can happen around names. I have two students with an unusual first name—I’ll change it to Cordelia to protect their privacy. One has the last name Casto, the other is Castorina. There are eight sections of this class and yet they both ended up in this section, sitting next to each other. They still find it weird.
A young man who took my yoga class a few years ago got an e-mail addressed to someone with the same name. I’ll call him Chase Merryman, a name about as odd as his real name. That other person must have had a dot or dash in his e-mail address which this fellow did not. The intended recipient Chase Merryman was being offered a job interview for an editorial position with a sailing magazine based in Australia. The wrong Chase Merryman was qualified for it. He answered the e-mail, explained the mistake, but added his resume nonetheless. He got invited for an interview.
The classic synchronicity is a meaningful coincidence. The Chase Merryman story is a good example. The instance of the two Cordelias is not. Only the synchronicity gives me an idea for a story. The Wrong Chase Merryman makes a pretty good title. I have the start of a plot I can work with—only the ending won’t be as simple as what happened in real life. (He didn’t end up taking the job, but he had a great trip to Australia.) When you read the story, whenever I get it written, know that it was based on fact. Strange coincidences can really happen.
So can strange names. Maybe Dr. Pigg and Ole Aass have places in some writer’s future work. If I come across them, I’ll wonder—did the author read this blog, or was that a coincidence?
This post is an expansion of my review of Dwellings on Goodreads.
I began re-reading Linda Hogan’s book of essays Dwellings and Michael Harner’s The Way of the Shaman at the same time. This pairing of readings couldn’t be more dissimilar in style, content and purpose. I finished the latter book quickly, but took my time with the first. It’s too beautiful to hurry through.
Poet and novelist Hogan, a member of the Chickasaw tribe, writes of the spirituality inherent in the natural world. Her insights into the relationships between living creatures and our own souls is anchored in places and in specific experiences—with hot springs in a cave, or at work at a bird sanctuary. She doesn’t write about animals or earth in general, but this piece of earth, this particular sunflower, this colony of mud-building bees. When she cites other writers, often scientists, she finds passages so beautiful they flow into her own essays like the breath of the same breeze. Her topics range from wolves, to the Amazon rainforest, to the life cycle of water and rock, to the deeper meaning of ape language experiments, and more.
These essays wake the reader up to the aliveness of every moment, as the author hears the song of corn, or discovers the liquid, graceful, wing-wrapped mating of two bats she rescued from their fall back into hibernation in sudden spring chill. “I put them in a warm corner outside, nestled safe in dry leaves and straw. I looked at them several times a day. Their fur, in the springtime, was misted with dewy rain. They mated for three days in the moldering leaves and fertile earth, moving together … then apart, like reflections on a mirror, a four-chambered black heart beating inside the closed tissue of wings.”
In addition to this subtle observation of their beauty, she sees the bats from a Native spiritual perspective. “The bat people are said to live in the first circle of holiness. Thus, they are intermediaries between our world and the next. Hearing the chants of all life around them, they are listeners who pass on the language and songs of many things to human beings who need wisdom, healing and guidance in our lives, we who forget where we stand in the world.”
This forgetting where we stand is Hogan’s theme. We need to heal ourselves back into what she refers to in her novel Power as “the real human beings”. If you love language, you will love this book, and you may come away from it loving every living creature, every crack in a rock, every sound when the wind blows, as if you had never seen and heard and known them before. I hope you will, like I did, love this book so much you want to read it again and again.
Harner’s book is almost the opposite of Hogan’s. An anthropologist turned shamanic trainer, he does his best to distill the essence of shamanism into a kind of how-to book for modern people. After an introductory chapter in which he tells of his studies with the Jivaro tribe, he intentionally presents shamanism divested of culture, land, language and tradition. Even the animals are not real creatures that walk the earth and breathe and live their lives, but animal spirits, guardians and guides for humans, and plants are also their spirit essence, for use in healing humans.
His citations are dense and thickly strewn, sometimes without any background on the culture or lives of people he is citing. That, however, is his point. This is shamanism as modern medicine, a world-wide range of healing traditions pared down to their “active ingredients.” Shamans from Australia to North America use quartz crystals, drums, rattle and dances. Shamans all over the world take journeys to find knowledge, and have power relationships with animal spirits. He turns these elements into a kind of recipe for being a shaman. Maybe it works for some people, but for me the best parts of this book are the direct quotations from real shamans such as the “sucking doctor” Essie Parrish, rather than the parts about modern Americans “dancing their animals.”
Compared to my experience of traditional ceremonies, or even to running outdoors, or dreaming, neo-shamanism feels incomplete, but then I wasn’t reading with the intention of putting it into practice. I had read the book before, and gone to a workshop with Harner at an alternative therapies conference years ago, and already knew I wasn’t going to use this for spiritual guidance. It was research for novel in which one character is a teacher of neo-shamanism—not based on Harner himself, only on the kind of practice that he teaches—and I needed to refresh my recollections.
I dreamed once that I turned into a bat. In this form I flew though the dome of an art gallery and then descended to the bottom floor as the blue outline of bat, a bat made of twilight sky. In Truth or Consequences, I like to walk down to the Rio Grande at that low blue time of evening in the summer and let the bats surround me at the edge of the little wetland where redwing blackbirds sing by day. While the bats dance for bugs, I can stand in the midst of them and they swoop close without ever touching me, perfectly aware in their busy flight, flawless pilots of their world of sound. To me the animals themselves feel more sacred than a journey to find my “power animal.” This bat immersion is the bat medicine I need.
In my freshman honors seminar on current health issues, a discussion of the impacts of screen time on sleep and stress digressed into a discussion of paper. My eighteen year old students all declared a liking for paper. They found the increasing tendency of professors, myself included, to put all assignments and syllabi online and to accept all “papers” only though an online course management system frustrating. These students want to read as much they can on paper. They say they understand it better. Some also need to write outlines and first drafts by hand. Computers are for revisions, for them, not for creativity. They like the tactile quality of paper, the way it looks when you read outdoors, the peaceful energy of holding a book, and the smell of bookstores.
Their sense of community and happiness when they shared this last thing fascinated me. The smell of books in second hand bookstores and libraries, as well as the smell of new books, is a kind of aromatherapy for them. It takes them into the world of quiet pages where all the stress and intrusion of electronics stops.
How often have you heard that young people are overly attached to their phones and live by technology? This group liked places and events where they had to be phone-free, whether it was going to church, or spending two weeks at a camp where phones weren’t allowed, or simply turning the phone off and settling down with a paper book.
I just packed up five paperbacks of Shaman’s Blues to ship to winners in my Goodreads giveaway. It was somehow special to see each book and wrap it up. The love of paper is alive and well. When I gave away the same novel as an e-book on Booklikes twelve people entered. When I gave away the paperback on Goodreads, close to eight hundred people entered. That could have to do with the price difference—a free paperback feels freer—but it might also have to do with the smell.
For a lot of people, paper is alive in some way that plastic is not. Perhaps the energy essence of a tree comes through in its reincarnation as words. I read e-books and paper books, but I only read the paper ones in bed.
As anyone who has read my books and this blog knows, I’m intrigued by healing and mysterious phenomena. Something I found in a closet a few weeks ago got me thinking about miracles.
El Santuario de Chimayo in northern New Mexico was built on a site sacred to the native Tewa people. It is known as the Lourdes of the Southwest. In keeping with the nature of this part of the world, it does not have healing waters like Lourdes, but healing dirt. The architecture is simple and beautiful, like all old churches in New Mexico. A fence around the churchyard is covered with testimonials, tiny crosses and other small works of art, placed there by grateful people who were healed. Inside a small room to the side of the main sanctuary is a hole in the ground. Legend says that with a loaves-and-fishes kind of abundance, this hole never gets deeper, though year after year people have been scooping small amounts of the dirt from it for healing. The priest who was there the day I visited told me that skeptics suspected him of filling it up with dirt from somewhere else while no one was watching. He said he didn’t. According to the Santuario’s own web site, though, the sacred dirt is in fact replenished from nearby hillsides.
I packed my little plastic bag of Chimayo dirt when I moved from Santa Fe and forgot about it. This winter I was cleaning a closet and found it in a box. Hm. My sprained left middle toe was taking way too long to get well. Placebo or not, a little dust bath of this soft beige earth did wonders. The next day it didn’t hurt to walk.
My experience wasn’t a miracle, more like a placebo-induced acceleration. I was due to recover. But real miracles apparently do happen. Dr. Larry Dossey wrote a fascinating editorial on documented miracles, some of which took place at Lourdes. Miracles don’t seem to happen to a particular person for any clear reason. Devout people who are suffering are not always healed, but some are. Those who are healed don’t always have patterns of faith or behavior that predict susceptibility to miracles.
“These cures happen not just to those who have saintly dispositions, fierce determination, or positive thoughts, but to reprobates and passive quitters as well. Exceptions can be found to any psychological pattern yet advanced. I rather like this confused state of affairs. It suggests that no one has a monopoly on miracle cures … We ought to come clean and admit the obvious: we don’t know why spontaneous healings happen.”
What we do know with certainty is that they happen. The International Medical Commission of Lourdes keeps meticulous records of its healings, and of before and after diagnoses of those who receive them. The miracles have to be proven by modern medicine.
Dossey describes the case of man who was apparently cured by a sham treatment in modern medicine as miraculously as others were cured at Lourdes. Mr. G., an elderly man with advanced lymphoma that had spread to his bone marrow, chest, abdomen and lymph nodes was beyond treatment, but so debilitated his physicians wanted to admit to him to the hospital. To justify admission they had to come up with a treatment so they “began irradiating a single lymph node in his groin, knowing this was a sham treatment that would satisfy the hospital authorities.”
Though he seemed ready to die at first, Mr. G gradually got stronger and gained weight. His pain subsided. He was discharged to a nursing home. Over subsequent months the masses in his body shrank. 83 at the time of his hospitalization, he lived several years longer in the nursing home, and his physical condition returned to normal. He said he felt better than ever.
If Lourdes and Chimayo healings are placebo responses, some people must have more faith in the sacred power behind the water and the dirt than in the treatments they’ve been given by health care professionals—unlike Mr. G.
Imagine being so powerful in your own mind that you can change your physiology just by belief. This belief, as far as I can tell, though, is seldom if ever a belief in one’s own power but in something beyond the self, whether medical or divine. Every drug trial includes a placebo arm. The medicine has to prove that it’s more effective than belief alone in healing the body. A body which is made, in essence, of water and dirt.
When the laws of nature appear to be occasionally broken, what’s going on? Can something or Someone reach in from another aspect of reality and move molecules, or are these phenomena natural but not fully understood? Maybe some events are spiritual and others psycho-physiological—or maybe there’s no difference between the two except in our perceptions and our labels.
That’s a mystery I am content not to solve. Like Dr. Dossey, I like this uncertainty.
Work cited: Dossey, L. Canceled Funerals: A Look at Miracle Cures, Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine, 1998; 4 (2)10-18,116-119
Santuario web site: http://www.elsantuariodechimayo.us/Santuario/windex.html
This started as a virtual tour of Santa Fe last week, but I decided to expand it to other locations as well.
First stop, music. Santa Fe Bandstand is one of the highlights of my summer. I enjoy the atmosphere and the range of artists, and as a writer of course I especially like watching the audience. Every summer I come up from T or C for a week or a few days, timing my trip for the performers I most want to see and hear.
Bandstand plays a key role in Shaman’s Blues. If you’ve read the book, see if reality matches your imagination.
Not many videos available right now, but here are a few. My personal favorite among the bands in these videos—Felix Y Los Gatos. Love the blues accordion!
This next stop on the tour is part of the “on location” visit for Shaman’s Blues. New Mexico Magazine recently featured an article on my beloved Truth or Consequences, where Mae moves in the beginning of the book. Read the article and you’ll see how an off-beat artist like Niall fits right in, and how a place like Dada Café just might happen. (I located it on Broadway in a building that has had a high rate of restaurant turnover.)
Turtleback Mountain is prominent in the picture that accompanies this article, and it’s in Mae’s view from her back yard.
If my book or this “tour” made you fall in love with New Mexico, I recommend New Mexico Magazine as a way to keep the virtual tour going year round. They cover art, music, books, food, history, recreation, and their photography alone is enough to make the publication worth my subscription.
The final part of this tour is immersion in the natural beauty of the state. These pictures are not related to scenes in the book, other than the fact that one can’t drive on the interstate in NM without seeing something breathtaking, and that is part of Mae’s experience in her new home.
I discovered this photographer’s work at an outdoor art show in Santa Fe a few years ago. His way of seeing the world is attentive to grand vistas and subtle details, often in the same picture, and makes me feel the sacredness of the land. He has a name that somehow suits his work—Amadeus Leitner.
The photo gallery could keep you in a state of exalted bliss for quite some time. Imagine the smells of sage and juniper, the breath of the wind, the texture of a rock heated by the sun, and you’ll be there.
Welcome to the Land of Enchantment.
This week, take a look at some of the art my characters see in the book.
- Manitou Galleries, works in glass inspired by Native traditional art. First stop on the gallery tour in the book. http://manitougalleries.com/artists/Ed_Archie_Noisecat
- Next stop is the Worrell Gallery, which was still the Frank Howell Gallery in the year I set Shaman’s Blues. Bill Worrell’s mystical sculptures, paintings and poetry shared space with Frank Howell’s reverent portraits of Native elders. There had always been a Worrell deer shaman or two outside as well as a few of them inside. They have titles. I call them deer shamans. The scene in Shaman’s Blues where Mae and Jamie start to have a serious discussion of shamanism and a tourist says something funny takes place here. http://worrellgallery.com/
- The Howell Gallery has moved to Canyon Road. This link to Howell’s posters shows some of the images I have Mae looking at earlier in that scene. http://frankhowellgallery.com/j25/artists/frank-howell/posters
- Blue Rain Gallery, glass, pottery and paintings. The blue glass bird sculpture that provokes a significant revelation is set here.
- The whirling sculptures at the Mark White Gallery. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QloFhVK9Gb0
- This next location is the store where Mae finds the corn mother fetish.
Enjoy. Don’t you wish you were there? Next week, more!
Please welcome guest Amber Foxx to this week’s Saints and Trees. Amber writes the mystery series featuring healer and psychic Mae Martin. Amber’s professional training and academic studies in various fields of complementary and alternative medicine, as well as her personal experience and travels, bring authenticity to her work. She divides her time between the Southeast and the Southwest, but Truth or Consequences, New Mexico is HOME.
It is my great pleasure to interview Amber today:
SAT: THE CALLING, the first book in your Mae Martin series, is such an original and fresh story. What sparked the idea for the series? Did it start with the character of Mae or something else?
AF: The idea started in several different ways. The part of me…
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The second Mae Martin psychic mystery
Mystery crosses between the worlds and romance gets turned upside down in Santa Fe, the City Different.
Mae Martin gets a double-edged going-away gift from her job as a psychic and
healer: beautiful music by a man who’s gone missing, and a request to find him.
When she arrives in her new home in New Mexico, aiming to start life over as she comes to terms with her second divorce, she faces a new challenge in the use of her gift. Her new neighbors are under the influence of an apparently fake psychic who runs the health food restaurant where they work. When Mae questions the skills of the peculiar restaurateur, the woman disappears—either to Santa Fe, or another dimension. The restaurant’s manager asks Mae to discover which it is.
Finding two missing people proves easier than finding out the truth about either of them, or getting one of them, once found, to go away again.
Once in a while, writing paranormal mysteries, I need to introduce a character who is no longer alive. In Shaman’s Blues, Mae has no concept of ghosts at first, but Jamie, an anthropologist’s son, assures her that every culture has them.
Ghosts fascinate us, even when we don’t believe in them. People sign up for ghost tours of historic districts, and some choose the option to get the presumably haunted room at a B&B. Part of the attraction in ghost stories is the curious pleasure of safely experienced negative emotions. There is something frightening about an encounter with the dead, and most ghosts are said to have fallen into the place between worlds through tragedy. By seeking out ghosts, we can dip into terror and sadness for a quick swim and come back out, invigorated by the plunge.
It’s different for the ghost. Stuck in the crack between two worlds, attached to earthly life yet incapable of living it, looking, perhaps, for one particular soul, the ghost must be frustrated, bewildered and lonely. No wonder they behave badly sometimes. It can’t be much of an afterlife.
I say that lightly, but at the moment that I met a ghost, I was scared to the bone. It was quite some time ago, but I can still feel her when I think about her.
The cold is what made her frightening.
I was a college student on Christmas break visiting my sister and her husband, and my boyfriend and I stayed in the attic bedroom of their old house. In the dark before dawn the alarm went off, and my boyfriend got up to go to work. We spoke briefly, kissed goodbye, and he left. Wide awake, I stayed in bed under a heap of quilts and blankets, hoping I could go back to sleep. Our shared body heat had made cozy nest of the bed and I didn’t want to get up early on my vacation.
I snuggled the blankets around me, and was suddenly chilled. I wasn’t alone. A woman’s head and shoulders floated on the far side of the room. She stared at me, her face stern and judgmental over a high collared dress, her hair pulled back in a severe tight bun. I was terrified, not by her apparent resentment, but by the deep, unnatural chill. At the same time, I thought her features were like the country comedian Minnie Pearl. I’ve cited Stephen King’s Danse Macabre in a book review before, and it fits here: comedy and horror go hand in hand. I pulled the blanket over my head until the cold went away.
Prior to that, I didn’t believe in ghosts. I’m not sure I do now, either, but it’s like what anthropologist Michael Harner says about shamans not believing in spirits. They don’t have to. They know.