Disappearing Words

When I was a teenager, I read a newspaper column about a myth related to the autumn equinox. After all these years, I can still see the kitchen table where I was sitting, and see which side of which page the column was on. I remember that it was about a Germanic pagan goddess of second chances who opened a path that was only visible on the night of the autumn equinox, a path seekers could take to redo a mistake or regret in their pasts. I made an effort remember her name and wrote it down, although I was confused as to whether it was Llobrodga or Llobrogda. Having had a short story published in a teen magazine, I already thought of myself as a writer, and I knew I would have to create a story about this myth someday. An image of the goddess’s twilight path of golden leaves stayed with me. When I finally wrote the story decades later, she didn’t exist. I looked up everything I could think of about goddesses of second chances and pagan mythology and the autumn equinox and found nothing. I can’t explain this. But I hope you enjoyed A Night in Betsy Gap.

The title came about a few years ago during a training session for professors who were teaching a first-year seminar class. One of the presenters was named Betsy, and she didn’t use all her allotted time, so someone referred to the open space in our schedule as the Betsy Gap. I said it sounded like some place out near Naked Creek (a real town in that part of Virginia) and we all started joking about the way things are done in Betsy Gap. The name stuck with me as perfect for an obscure place where a traveler could get stuck. Then I saw a prompt for a short fiction contest in which the theme was crossing a line, and it had to include the word six-pack and another which I’ve forgotten. The idea for a short story about Edie had been brewing in the back of my mind for a while, since she’ll never be onstage in the Mae Martin series. Her only role is in Hubert’s past. I was surprised when Will Baca showed up in the story, but this other-world experience prepares him for the big changes he goes through about ten months later in Ghost Sickness. (Not that he remembers.)

If you read the short story before it disappeared,  you know something Mae and Hubert don’t know, since Edie cut off contact with everyone she knew in Cauwetska, intentionally making herself hard to find. Her fate won’t show up in the series for a while. But in the September before the events in Ghost Sickness, she spent a night in Betsy Gap.

*****

A Night in Betsy Gap will return eventually, either in a short story collection or here next fall, after dark on the equinox.

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Shape-Shifters: How Did You Think of That?

SwainsonHawk23One of the hardest questions for a fiction writer to answer is exactly where an idea came from. I was asked that question recently about some of the imagery in one of my books. The short answer is that I imagined it, but the long answer mixes research, experience, imagination and dreams.

In what is basically realistic fiction with paranormal elements, I create some characters who have unusual abilities—psychics, healers, mediums, and shamans. A few can take—or seem to take— animal forms, and my Apache characters speak about this with fear and caution as the sign of a witch. Bearing is a horror story (though gore-free), so in that genre I made the shifting real. In the Mae Martin Mysteries, characters who shape-shift are not physically becoming animals but psychically manipulating others’ perceptions to create the illusion of another creature, or so strongly identifying with an animal that a psychic could pick up the imagery. The power of our minds to share images and information is astounding, and that ability is at the root of the stories I tell.

When I was choosing search terms to help readers find Bearing, one of the ones I chose was shape-shifter, a concept that I associate with skin-walkers and similar witches. I was surprised to find that there are shape-shifter romances. The possibility that this power was romantic had never crossed my mind. To me it’s scary, so it’s an element I use in fiction to give readers goosebumps. What makes an animal image scary to one person and beautiful and powerful to another is often regional and cultural. One of my Apache friends told me some terrifying stories of owl-witches that chilled me to the bone. He scared himself by telling them and said he shouldn’t be talking about the subject. When I was in my teens, I had what turned out to be a premonition, a frightening image of someone prowling outside the house hooting like an owl. Around ten years later, my roommate and I were disturbed at night by owl calls first at the front and then at the back of our townhouse apartment. Her cat’s hair stood on end and he quivered and made pitiful sounds, his fear scaring us all the more. We’d never seen him act like that. My roommate looked outside and saw a man she worked with but didn’t know well, and she called the police. The man admitted to stalking her but couldn’t explain what had gotten into him with the owl calls. Somehow that was creepier than if he knew.

One of my good friends in high school had repeating nightmares about wolves looking through every window of her house, and the way she told it gave me the shivers. When I was a very small child, I had repeating nightmares about bears, including a strange one in which I was a fourteen-year-old boy camping on a hunting trip with an uncle, and it ended with being attacked—I think killed—by a bear. No one in my family hunted or camped, and I had never seen a bear or a gun or even a tent at the age at which I dreamed this.

A little girl I knew years ago liked to think she had hawk powers. We were swinging in swings and she told me the reason she could go so high was this special power she had. She stayed in my mind, too, as another way that people identify with animal spirits.

This can be a “treasure hunt” through the series now. (Obviously the bear story is the standalone Bearing.) Readers will find the wolf, the hawk and the owl in the Mae Martin series. No spoilers. I’ll let you look for them.

Healing as a Mythic Journey: Book Review of The Healing Path

The unifying theme of this book is that healing calls for making meaning out of illness. Stories have arcs that organize experience into meaning, as they grow from the initial alarm into conflict and struggle in pursuit of a goal, and finally come to a resolution. Marc Ian Barasch uses classic films as myths of the healing path, a framework within which he tells his own story and the stories of others who have confronted serious illness. The essence of healing isn’t always surviving. Some of his journeyers, as he calls his fellow travelers on the path, died. Others had virtually impossible recoveries through spiritual and holistic approaches to self-healing, defying both medical predictions and medical advice. Still others, like the author, had conventional treatment while integrating psychological and spiritual changes.

Barasch did substantial research. His own encounter with cancer and his bizarre dreams that diagnosed it long before his doctors did and predicted aspects of his treatment provoked his curiosity about how others heal. (He wrote another book, Healing Dreams, which I highly recommend.) I’ve read just about every book or study that he cites in The Healing Path , which made this section of the book a little too familiar to me, but then, I’m a professor who has taught a course on alternative medicine. The book is few years old, so its medical information isn’t the latest, but the essence of the message holds up. His adventures as a seeker of alternative options, and the profound self-explorations of the journeyers he interviewed, make for a compelling story.

His language is extraordinary. I bought this book as a used paperback, idly curious after having liked Healing Dreams, and I’ve actually highlighted and starred sections, something I don’t normally do to my books. There are so many shining jewels I had to make sure I could find them again.

The final sections of the book blew me away. I’ve studied energy healing, psychology, and a lot of yoga and meditation. I teach the latter two. I write fiction that involves a healer. I know this stuff, but he knows more, because he has lived through things I haven’t. He taught me, even though all the facts were familiar. His wisdom isn’t platitudinous. It’s hard won.

In James Scott Bell’s writing guide Super Structure, he discusses how great movies and fiction all have a turning point in the middle where the protagonist confronts a painful or frightening truth about himself or his life. Bell calls it the Mirror Moment—looking in the mirror literally or figuratively—and says the essence of it is change or die. This might not mean bodily death; it could be spiritual or emotional or professional. (Synchronicity: He uses one of the same movies Barasch does, the Wizard of Oz, to illustrate his ideas.) This next observation is a minor spoiler, if nonfiction can have spoilers. Barasch says his realization at the key stage of his journey through cancer was change or die. He had to change his whole life, not just get the disease treated. He was facing all the forms of death, not just the one threatening his body.

Change or die. That’s the hardest lesson—we fear change. It can seem like a death of sorts. When sick people change, it can upset those around them. This aspect of healing and illness is examined frankly in this book. The larger story around each journeyer shows over and over that healing is not a return to sameness. Disruptions ripple in all directions.

Anyone who is or has been seriously ill, knows someone who is, or simply loves good writing, could appreciate this book. And strangely enough, there’s a lot in it for fiction writers to learn from, as Barasch uses fiction to illuminate aspects of the plunge into illness, the confrontation with mortality, and the helpers and obstacles encountered on the way out—the healing path.

 

Spider Old Woman, Part Two

A synchronicity isn’t just a coincidence. It’s one that means something to the person to whom it happens. My synchronicity story is about a Spider Old Woman story.

Quite a few years ago, I was in a relationship with a man who denied that he was keeping secrets from me, secrets that were unhealthy for our relationship, but the evidence added up and I broke off with him. A few months later he got in touch and persuaded me that I had misunderstood what was going on. I had planned to drop him from my life and move home to New Mexico, but I chose to disregard my intuition and judgment and trusted his words instead. I still moved, but we had an unexpected reunion the day before I left. After his visit, I sat on my back porch in rural Virginia gazing out into the woods, and the herd of deer I had come to know as my closest neighbors came into view. I was stunned to see an unfamiliar animal among them. At first I thought it was a horse, though it made no sense for one to be in the woods—but it was a white deer, gazing directly at me. It felt miraculous, a sign of some kind.

On my way out of town early the next day I stopped by my landlady’s antique shop to drop off the key to the house and she had a sculpture of a white deer on display in the window. The message seemed to be begging for my attention. I was sure it had to do with this man, and since the deer was so beautiful, I took it as a positive message that I’d done the right thing.

I stayed in touch with him while I lived in Santa Fe, but we didn’t see each other until another change of jobs brought me back East, this time to Northeastern North Carolina. Shortly after we had our reunion number two, I went to the Meherrin tribe’s powwow where I bought the book, Spider Woman’s Web. In it, I found the story, The Woman Who Kept Secrets. My short retelling below doesn’t do justice to it, but you can get the message—and then read the book.

A long time ago, on one of the ancient Pueblos, there was a woman who waited until all her friends had married before she would commit, and only when she was lonely did she finally agreed to marry a young man who loved her, though she didn’t love him. He was kind, and for a short whole they were happy enough, but then she became restless. Sometimes he woke at night and discovered that she was gone. One night—though she claimed he must have dreamed her absences—he decided to find out where she went. He pretended to be asleep, but once she’d gone far enough from their home, he followed her by moonlight and came to kiva outside the pueblo. (A kiva is a ceremonial underground chamber) He peered in and saw a strange ceremony going on.

Some versions of the story have a shape-shifting shaman in this scene, an act of possible witchcraft; other versions have people misusing the sacred chamber by coupling with partners other than their spouses. The man was discovered and thought he might be hurt or killed, but instead he was invited in. His wife sat beside him and assured him all was well, better than it seemed, and he fell asleep with his head in her lap. When he woke up, he was on a narrow ledge on a cliff, hungry and thirsty and alone. His wife and another man were on the far side of the canyon on another cliff. They threw roasted corn to him, but if he moved to catch it and eat it he would fall. He had to avoid snakes, too, so he held very still. He lost consciousness and woke again, this time in the home of Spider Old Woman. She gave him medicine, an ointment to rub on his wife’s shoulders, which she promised would solve the problems in their marriage.

That night as the man and his wife lay together he rubbed the ointment on her shoulders. To his surprise, she became agitated and got up and went outdoors. He followed her. She began to pace, looking wildly about, and then her body started changing. Her legs, her torso and then finally her face became those of a white deer. The deer gazed at him for a moment with tears in its eyes, and then joined a herd of other deer and ran off. He never saw her again, and he got on with his life.

In my new home in North Carolina, I encountered another white deer, this one grazing with its brown herd-mates in the field behind my house. I’m not the only person ever to see a white deer—Northeastern North Carolina has a few of them—but for me, they carried a message. I had been right the first time. I needed to send this man out of my life for good, and I did. He was the man who kept secrets. The white deer.

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/528968.Spider_Woman_s_Web

Spider Old Woman, Part One

I can understand why a mythical wise woman who is helpful and powerful could be called Spider Old Woman. From big furry tarantulas to tiny jumping spiders who can spring eight times the length of their wee legs, I think spiders are amazing and often beautiful. I once saw a sparkling emerald-green spider, no bigger around than the little tip you press to click a ballpoint pen, sitting on a gas pump in Suffolk, Virginia. Also in the South, I’ve encountered delicate pale green spiders, even their legs the color of spring leaves. I let some rather dull-looking spiders live with me all summer in Truth or Consequences, NM, because they did such a good job with the gnats or whatever those were that used to come to the light when I was writing at night. Webs are functional for catching gnats, and they’re also works of art, especially outdoors after a rain when they’re beaded with drops of light.

As part of a get-acquainted activity in my academic division, faculty from different departments were asked to pair up and tell each other where we from, what we teach, and who we would be if we could be superheroes, and what our superpowers would be. The answers were varied, creative, and revealing. Some professors admired real humans as their superheroes. Young mothers who are also teachers and scholars wanted multi-tasking superpowers. My superhero was Spider Old Woman. My power would be, if I had one, to make people aware of the interconnectedness of all things—aware that when they touch one thread of the web of life, it truly does vibrate everything in it.

Spider Old Woman—or Spider Woman or Grandmother Spider as she’s variously known—may be familiar if you’re a fan of Southwestern mysteries, such as Anne Hillerman’s Spider Woman’s Daughter and James D. Doss’s Grandmother Spider. She’s found in the mythology of Native tribes all over the western half of North America. In New Mexico Pueblo stories, she “creates order from chaos by drawing two intersecting lines, the first from north to south, the second from east to west. It is she who creates the four seasons and adds the four elements of weather—thunder, lightning, clouds and rainbow—to the sky.” (From Spider Woman’s Web by Susan Hazen-Hammond.) I love this view of creation as connection and pattern, and the emphasis on the sacred importance of those events in the sky.

In some stories Spider Old Woman seems to be a sort of magical helper, but she’s old and wise. She doesn’t bring what we want so much as what we need. I found the book cited above at a booth at a powwow in Northeastern North Carolina. Its subtitle is Traditional Native American Tales about Women’s Power. A Spider Woman story in it bore a startling resemblance to real events in my life, and cast a new light on them in a way that changed my life story and helped me reclaim my own power. I’ll tell those stories—both mine and the traditional story—next week.

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/528968.Spider_Woman_s_Web

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/913105.Grandmother_Spider

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/17349269-spider-woman-s-daughter