Shrines

peacock-feather In Martyn V. Halm’s one-of-a-kind suspense novel, In Pocket, the narrator Wolfgang, a pickpocket, begins to doubts the motives of a young woman who befriends him because her shrines don’t seem authentic. He says that in his observations of women’s homes, they make shrines. He doesn’t mean religious ones but highly personal arrangements of objects that honor special aspects of each woman’s life.  When I think of friends’ houses and apartments, the most common shrine is the family pictures shrine, but I’ve seen idiosyncratic ones. I recall a friend who had peacock feathers and other objects arranged around a mirrored dressing stand on the hall landing, her shrine to I know not what, but it had a kind of art deco bordello feeling to it.

Some people’s kitchens are shrines, arranged to honor the gods of nourishment and conviviality. My academic colleagues’ offices are shrines to scholarship, with diplomas and books and journals—but also softened with mini-shrines to family. In my books, I’ve used this kind of imagery—Charlie’s door and office in The Calling are the most vivid example—as a way of revealing character and also implying a mystery. Why do people  build the shrines they do?

I have so much meaningful art around me that my whole home is a shrine. And then I look at the clutter, the heap of writing reference books, the heap of journals on alternative medicine, the stack of books and magazines I’m reading, the notes on my work in progress spread on the left side of my desk, and I think—that’s not clutter, those are shrines. Shrines to reading and writing.

When I move to a smaller space, I’ll be parting with slice-of-life shrines, eccentric random gifts with stories behind them. A Roswell NM alien-face paper fan a friend gave me at the Mescalero ceremonies many years ago. A Gumby one of my yoga students gave me. A stuffed toy tree frog. I’ll trust my heart to store the people and memories I echo back to myself with things like these little green creatures. Sooner or later, we all part with everything we own. Practicing non-attachment seems abstract at times, but not when I am taking down my shrines.gumbyleaning2

Curiosity and Openness

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The boy braked his bicycle on the bridge over the creek and stood straddling the frame. “What are you doing here?”

As I adjusted out of the mildly altered consciousness that comes from a long, peaceful run, I continued stretching my calf muscles, listening to the stream’s soft burbling, the autumn trees rustling, and studied my interrogator. He was about ten years old, with a stocky build, short hair and wire-rimmed glasses. His question wasn’t unfriendly—not as if he owned the park, but more of an inquiry into what other people came here for.

“I just ran four miles,” I said, “and now I’m stretching my legs.”

Four miles?” His eyebrows shot up. “I can’t even run one.”

“It took me a while to build up to four. I didn’t run that far when I first started running.”

The boy asked what it felt like to run four miles and I said it was beautiful, being outdoors and quiet, moving through nature. It’s hard to describe the spirituality of running and I didn’t do a very good job of it. He said it must be a good workout. I agreed. He rode around a little while I finished stretching, and then pedaled beside me as I walked through the parking lot toward my neighborhood.

“What was it like the first time you ran?” he asked.

I told him a shortened version of the story that follows.

I’d been visiting the Apache reservation in Mescalero, New Mexico. A friend informed me that there would be a five-K and 10-K race the next morning, then looked me in the eyes and said “See you there.”

He and his girlfriend would be running, but I could tell he didn’t mean I would be there to cheer them on. He meant I would be running. I took the challenge and ran the five-K. At the time, I lived at sea level in the Tidewater region of Virginia, and Mescalero is 7,500 feet above that. Being an aerobics teacher, I was in good shape, but until that day I wasn’t a runner. I struggled uphill at that altitude, but the singer for the Navajo Nation Dancers kept cheering me on. His group had come for the powwow, and we had met briefly and chatted while waiting for the race to start. He couldn’t remember my name, only where I was from, so he shouted, “Go, Virginia! You can do it!”

I came in second for my age group, and I was hooked. Not on racing, but on the Apache concept of spiritual running. This race was not just any race, but a community event to promote health and traditional culture, timed to go with the four-day Dances of the Mountain Gods and the girls’ coming of age ceremony. My friend who convinced me to run had told me about spiritual running when we first met, and before the race started I got to know a number of other people who ran for cultural reasons. That was almost twenty years ago. and I never lost my love for running.running

The boy in the park listened to the short version of this story attentively. We chatted a little longer. He concluded that he would still prefer bicycling and then pumped his way up the steep hill, wishing me a good day and saying, “See ya.”

There was a synchronicity to this encounter. Back in 1998, I made friends with the man who got me to run that first race by striking up a conversation with a stranger. I was stuck in an airport due to a delayed flight, and as I walked to pass the time, I noticed him sitting cross-legged on the floor rather than in a chair in one of the gate areas, and was intrigued by the writing on his T-shirt. It read: All Apache Nations Run Against Substance Abuse. I was doing research in graduate school about using traditional culture to combat modern health problems in Native communities. The idea of people running all the way from the various Apache nations, from Oklahoma and Arizona and New Mexico, to gather at one chosen reservation, was inspiring. We talked a while, and he invited me to visit Mescalero later that year and put me in touch with a medicine woman who could help with my research.

On subsequent trips, I ran the five-K several more times. At the time, I was thinking about writing an ghost sickness ebookacademic paper, not fiction, but years later these races, the powwows, and the ceremonies inspired many of the scenes in Ghost Sickness. By the time I wrote the book, I had a lot of experiences to draw from.

My new young acquaintance’s friendly curiosity makes me think he has what it takes to be a writer. He has his own view—prefers biking to running—but he wanted to know what I thought and felt as a runner, and not because he planned to start running. He simply wanted to know. That’s a writers’ mind, or an actor’s or a psychologist’s. He asks: What’s it like to be someone who is not like me?

A Little of Everything

Today I’m a guest on fellow mystery writer Jim Jackson’s blog, answering ten questions about writing and reading. I had fun with this, and hope you will, too. Once you get to his blog, you can also find interviews with many other writers, including some of my favorites like DV Berkom. These Q&A posts could be great way to discover some new writers as well as get to know those whose work you enjoy.

Happy Tuesday.

 

 

Monsoon, Moon and Mandala

Luna023

Finally. A real monsoon.

The sky had to work up to it. After a couple of weeks with temperatures in the upper nineties and low hundreds, it took a few days of clouds and passing sprinkles to cool things off enough that rain could survive its trip to the ground without evaporating in mid-air in those beautiful but maddening long gray brushstrokes. This is a tough place to be a water droplet, but at last they came together in a grand, full-sized storm. And then the power went out. I tried not to think about how long it would be off or what would happen to the week’s groceries I had just put away. I stumbled and groped my way outside and sat under the overhanging roof to watch the rain, feel the cool (probably eighty-something) night air, and enjoy the view of T or C without lights. Occasional passing cars lit the streets, but the only steady glow was from the full moon behind the storm and one tiny cloud-hole with a star in it. My neighbors a few doors down were already sitting outside, their voices softer than the rain.

Having had little time for writing all day, I brought paper and pen out with me to do the mandala for the book in progress. I could see well enough by the clouded moonlight, and it didn’t have to be a work of art. This process was due, like the rain. I had to work up to it with eight chapters first, to see who was going to be in this book and get a sense of where the conflicts and connections would be. Able to see well enough to draw, I made a circle with the names of my protagonist and her significant other in the center and all the other characters’ names around them, connected in complex patterns that swirled around the outside and wove through the inside of the circle. It was satisfying, and will remind me of relationships and loose ends and potential allies as well as enemies. This is as close as I get to an outline, and I will refer back to it often. I got the mandala idea from Writing as a Sacred Path by Jill Jepson, which I found in Santa Fe’s magical Ark Books several years ago. Every book I’ve written has had a mandala.

I finished it and the moon emerged. The rain was over and big puddles reflected the moon back at herself from the streets and alleys. Then the power returned. My neighbors and I stood at the same time, and as if we were driven to light like moths we went inside to the electric glare, leaving the moon behind.

 

 

Picture: Luna023 by Cezar Suceveanu

Cross-Training—in the Lake and on the Laptop

During the summer, I like to mix up my usual weight-lifting routine with water exercise. The physics of water are such that you can use it for resistance training if you push against it. The technique is the opposite of lifting weights on dry land, where the more slowly you move the weight the harder you work. The faster you try to “lift” the water, the more it pushes back. Momentum doesn’t exist, and every movement is a concentric contraction, so the workout can be intense and efficient at the same time, a dual-purpose strength and cardio activity. It’s great cross-training, challenging my body to adapt to different demands and stimuli, and makes me less likely to get injured or over-train. Also, the variety enhances my awareness of what I’m doing. It keeps me out of a rut.

Today I was surprised to find the Truth of Consequences town pool closed for employee training, but I was in my suit and motivated, so I drove to Elephant Butte Lake State Park and did my workout in the lake. The change of scenery was invigorating. The water felt alive, and the people-watching opportunities were infinite.

This experience reminded me to cross-train as a writer. I do two things regularly: short essays such as blog posts and book reviews, and long, complex novels. I seldom write short fiction. It’s great cross training, though. The tight focus helps me in structuring scenes and chapters in my longer fiction. I get an especially tough writing workout when I enter short fiction contests, whether or not I win. The word limits and the required themes force me to sharpen my skills. So, I challenged myself to write a short story based on my people-watching at the lake today. Polishing it will be the next workout. I have to give it rest days between revisions. If I get it into shape worth sharing, I’ll post it here. Even if it doesn’t turn out to be publishable, though, it will have been worth the effort. There will be other results. The way my water workouts make me a better runner, my short fiction workout will make me a fitter and more flexible novelist

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For short fiction that I have published, go to the free downloads link.

Why Reading and Writing Can Make You Happy

BookFlow is a state of absorbed, continuous attention in which skill and effort are perfectly matched. I’m half-way through reading the book on it, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmilahlyi, and it’s given me a lot of food for thought

If your skill is high and the effort asked of you is low, a task could lead to boredom. For example, folding laundry. Most of us probably use some sort of additional stimulus like music or television to make it less dull. Sometimes I work on plots or blog posts in my head while I do things that ask too little of my mind. Boredom is also likely when you’re not paying full attention to a task, due to the lack of effort. Students who skim their textbooks often complain that the book was dull. Oddly enough, according to Csikszentmilahlyi, the man who named and first studied flow, paying more attention to a presumably dull thing will make it more interesting. If I turned laundry into a contemplative awareness activity, it could create flow. His research is full of examples of people who turned repetitious jobs into flow activities by how they focused their minds.

However, even if you are focused and aware, if the required effort for a task is too high and your skill is too low, you’re going to be stressed and frustrated. I ran into this trying to follow directions for using Canva, a web site that supposedly lets even tech-impaired idiots create complex images. My skill was too low even for that!

If skill required and effort involved are both low, you’ll be relaxed or apathetic, depending on the circumstances—or you might have flow, if you’re mindful. A massage requires little effort on your part, and little skill, and the match is perfect. Relax and receive. Unless, of course, you stop paying attention to the experience. I’ve sometimes caught myself becoming absent and had to invoke the skill of mindful presence so I could relax and have a low-key flow.

Paying attention in an unbroken way is a rare blessing for a lot of us. Many of our jobs are built around interruptions. Studies have found that people who get interrupted a lot, when left alone, will continue to interrupt themselves for up to an hour before being able to focus again. Flow is lost.

Fragmented attention is the nature of social media. Each click is a new activity. I like chatting with Facebook friends, but the process is fractured, like conversation at a noisy party. It creates connections, but not flow. Books create flow, either a flow of focused ideas in nonfiction or the flow of a story in fiction. According to Csikszentmihalyi, reading is one of the most reliable sources of optimal experience, aka flow. Unlike more passive entertainment, it requires effort, skill, and imagination. Writers and other creative people know flow when we play our part in this exchange of vital energy. When we’re wrapped up in our work, we lose our sense of self, our sense of time, and become one with the creative process itself. Athletes, scientists, and mathematicians know it, too. What gives you flow?

 

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.