I am often asked to sign petitions to ban certain pesticides because of Colony Collapse Disorder. Neonicotinoids have been found to cause problems for the bees. Although I believe neonicotinoids should be banned, I don't think that will completely solve the problem with the bees or CCD. For one thing, the chemical companies will come up with another pesticide which will continue to cause problems and/or will cause other significant problems, and it'll take years to ban that pesticide. Chemical pesticides in general are the problem.
Pesticides are everywhere. Many beekeepers feed their bees high fructose corn syrup. Nearly all corn in the US is heavily treated with pesticides. HFCS has a high concentration of pesticides in it. When it's fed to bees, bees are getting a big dose of pesticides. (And yes, certain pesticides seem to cause more harm than others, but they can't always tell which pesticide it is.) One of the things they believe is happening with the bees is that their immune systems are getting suppressed. This may be caused by exposure to pesticides. The bees are then more susceptible to disease. (And this business of hauling hives all over the country is a problem, too: It's not healthy for the bees.)
I keep thinking of my little neighbor children. I know they're getting HFCS in their diets. Most of the people in our country are exposed to HFCS on a daily basis. That means they are getting concentrations of pesticides from HFCS. Unfortunately, we are also getting exposed to pesticides in many other ways. Last I investigated, 60% of the air in the US was contaminated with some type of pesticide. (This site says 80%!) So any way we can reduce our exposure is a good idea. We need to especially reduce the exposing children and animals. Their uptake of pesticides, unfortunately, is greater than adults because of their metabolisms. And they get it from the lawns they play on, the fields they run through, the food they eat, and the air they breathe.
By the way, one might think then that substituting honey for HFCS in our foods is one answer. It's not. Honey is highly contaminated with pesticides (as well as heavy metals). Honey that claims to be organic probably is not. Bees travel wide and far, so unless you've got a lot of land where no chemicals are used and you know there is no drift, the honey is contaminated with pesticides. AND even if you do have land like that (or your beekeeper does), where did you or the beekeeper get the starter wax? 98% of starter wax is contaminated with pesticides. Which means the hive and therefore the honey is contaminated with pesticides.
As I said, the problem is pesticides in general. It's not about coming up with a new chemical pesticide. It's about chemical pesticides in general. I don't think there's any coincidence in the skyrocketing rates of cancer and immune disorders since the nineteen forties—which is when the "pesticide era" began.
The chemical companies are legion. They have powerful lobbyists. They've got more money than God, as my mother used to say. In my mind, chemical companies like Bayer are the evil empire. They are Morgoth. So what do we do? We don't purchase those products, for one. We don't use any kind of chemical pesticide or chemical fertilizer. We grow organic gardens and organic lawns. We nag our families and friends about NOT using these products. We volunteer to weed schools and parks to keep them using pesticides. We learn and use permaculture methods. Permaculture will save the world, I believe. IF WE JUST DO IT. Permaculture works with nature.
People often tell me they do not use pesticides. But then when I ask them certain questions, I'll discover they actually do use pesticides. They just didn't realize it. Properly used, the word pesticide is an umbrella term. Cide means kill. A pesticide kills a pest. So the Department of Agriculture uses the term pesticide to mean: an herbicide (killing plants), insecticide (killing insects), fungicide (killing fungus), rodenticides (killing rodents), etc. So if you're using OFF, RAID, Round-up, or any variation of these, you are using a pesticide. If you're treating your animals with a flea bath or putting on a flea collar, you are using a pesticide. If you use a bug bomb, you are using a pesticide. If you use any of these products, you're exposing yourself, your family, your animals, and your planet to harmful chemicals.
There are natural alternatives to all of these products. What we hear the most from people—after working on this issue for 30 years—is this: “But when I pull the weeds, they just come back.” Yes, but when you use Round-up the weeds also come back. “When we use vinegar (or hot water or whatever), the weeds just come back.” Yes, the weeds will ALWAYS come back until you change what you're planting or how you feel about weeds. If you employ permaculture methods, there won't be room for "weeds." I live in a rented house, and our lawn can be full of dandelions and Queen Anne's Lace. I don't care. I love both of them. I don't consider them weeds. (And if I didn't have so many neighborhood animals dumping on my lawn, I would eat the dandelions.)
Etc. I've gone on too long. My point is that we do need to apply political pressure (via signing petitions, writing letters, fomenting revolution) to these issues. You don’t have to go after Bayer. But you can go to your children’s school and find out what pesticides they use and work on getting them to stop. (And most of the time, whoever answers the phone has no idea. They will tell you that they don’t use pesticides in the school. You have to ask the right questions. “You don’t use insecticides in the kitchen? You don’t use Round-UP or something like that on the lawns?” And on and on.) Most parents don’t realize that their children are getting exposed to pesticides every day via their schools and the grounds of their schools.
We need to change how we live our own lives, I believe. We need to stop using poisons ourselves. We need to be conscious of our actions: We need to consider what we buy and what we use. There are things we can do. And I believe every single one of us needs to be doing—or in the case of chemical pesticides, we need to stop doing.
Today I realized I had been blogging for more than ten years, first on Furious Spinner and then here (and at the Old Mermaids Journal). I’ve put up more than 2,300 posts during that time. It averages out to about 5 posts a week for ten years. And these were often very long essays. (This figure doesn’t include my Facebook posts.)
Anyway, today I saw that I hadn’t posted anything here for a long time. I barely wrote any nonfiction while in Arizona for our writing retreat this year. I didn’t write about our last month at the sanctuary. I didn’t write about my grief at leaving behind the sanctuary. Maybe after Under the Tucson Moon came out, I unconsciously figured I had said all there was to say about my time in Arizona.
And since I’ve been home I haven’t written much nonfiction. I lost my voice for a while after I got home (literally). It’s back now, but I still don’t feel like writing about my life or my opinions. (That might be a relief for many people.)
When I write nonfiction, it’s almost always deeply personal. It’s always a great leap of faith on my part when I post my essays. Faith or a leap of something. I’m not sure what to call it. One of my sisters once suggested it was narcissism. I told her, “No, it’s what writers do. We’re interested in the world, including our own world and our own lives.” But her criticism stung—probably because I’ve always felt vulnerable writing about my own life. It's natural to question whether one's opinions count. It's natural to wonder if what you've said is coherent. I did it because that’s what I do, and I believed my experiences might be helpful to others. (Judging from the letters I get, that’s exactly what has happened.)
But...for many reasons, I’m ready for a break. I need to be quiet for a bit and find my voice again. I’ve got lots going on this year. Several books are coming out, and I’m in the middle of editing and writing several books. So I’m not going anywhere. I’m just going to be a bit quieter here as I plot a revolution or my next novel. Maybe both. This might be a day or a week or a month. Who knows? I may still post on Facebook, and I will definitely post announcements about upcoming publications here.
And probably when I’m finished with this break, when I’m finished recreating, retreating, relaxing, revolutionizing, rejoicing—whatever it is I’ll be doing—I’ll write about it.
Nothing like the Sonoran Desert at dusk. Everything becomes so sharp and clear. So three-dimensional...or more. Feels like home with the hard red earth under my feet and the glow of sunset in the big, big sky.
Tonight the moon rose like a huge piece of butterscotch, just above that dip where the Rincons and Catalinas seem to come together to shake hands and say howdy. So delicious looking. The full moon, I mean. The mountains, too, I suppose. Later, clouds moved beneath the moon like a shaman's misty dress and the light rayed out of the moon, upward, on the dark sky, like one of those rayed pictographs and petroglyphs I've seen on rock paintings all over the NW and SW.
D.H. Lawrence said New Mexico was women's country. I'm not sure whose country this is: The desert is all, even when you can't see it. It thrums beneath the concrete and you know that one day it will out. I find reassurance in this fact when the sky is ruddy with pollution or the traffic goes on forever. When I know all that is wrong is temporary, too, suddenly I feel as if we are in this together, looking for adventure in all the wrong places, finding encouragement—isn't that what enlightenment is, essentially?—in all the right places.
No dream has come to me. No flash of insight or story yet. Just cleaning. Fixing. Nesting.
Things have already started shapeshifting. I looked over by the huge palo verde near the front of the house earlier today, and I saw a coyote watching me.
It was nearly the same spot where I had seen the bobcat seven(?) winters ago. When she turned toward me back then, I didn't know what she was, and in the setting sun, I remember seeing her ears and thinking she must be a fairy. Until she looked at me, with the sun as her pupils, and I knew what she was. She was the wild in a bobcat. When she got up to leave, I followed her into the wash to see what I could see.
Today I saw a coyote in that spot watching me. But then I realized it was too big for a coyote. It was a wolf. I blinked. It couldn't be a wolf. I shook my head. It wasn't a wolf or a coyote. It was the palo verde tree apparently having fun with me. Or preparing me. Maybe both.
We began as we always begin: holding hands and whispering to the earth, the sky, to all that is Visible and Invisible, and then we are away, crossing the Bridge of the Gods after a slight delay. A raven stands on the bridge railing—a raven! Rarely seen in these parts. Like a harbinger of what is to come: seeing into this world and that one?
We follow the Big River into Stumptown and beyond, hurtling down the road with the others until—boom!—we all run over a dead hawk, its feathers flipped up like some strange discarded headdress from an awful party. The first time we headed down to the Sanctuary—ten winters ago—just as we were coming up to the T-curves, we saw a car on fire. It was a conflagration, I tell ya. We watched the flames *engulf* the car. The automobile never had a chance. For a few moments, I felt like everything was going in slow motion, like a scene out of a movie. I said to Mario, “If I believed in signs…” Three hours later we were in a car accident, spinning out of control, me mewing like a frightened cat as the car spun around, as my hand went up to the window to hold myself in place, to save myself. I just wanted it to stop, to stop. Stop. To know if we would survive. Finally it stopped. We survived.
We got down to Arizona that year, eventually, sans car.
Now I watch for signs. I wonder what the raven and the dead hawk mean. I stay alert. At a rest stop, three young men throw snowballs at each other. They laugh. I wonder if they’ve ever seen snow before. A homeless man plays a flute and flies the sign near the restrooms. A modern day Kokopelli? I never hear the flute music, though Mario points the man out to me. I see the sign, I see him pull out a pack of cigarettes and sigh. I hurry away from him.
My three day (four?) day headache throbs, and I want to cry. Instead, I tell myself it is only temporary. It too shall pass. But I am tense. Grumpy.
We stop at a gas station near Ashland, just before we start up over the mountains. The sun is out, but it is cold. I look out the window, in a daze after driving for six hours, and I see a man hunched over, sitting on a stool or a milk box just beyond the gas station. He looks so miserable. What is he doing? I get out of the car, inexplicably drawn toward the man. He is older, wearing a black watch cap and a flannel jacket that doesn’t look warm enough over his t-shirt and jeans. An old green pickup with a small camper is parked directly behind him. As I get closer, I see he is surrounded by rocks: mostly crystal quartz. I grin. I put my hands in my pocket so that I don’t touch every single stone. The man looks cold and miserable.
“Are these from Arkansas?” I ask.
He nods. “Mostly.”
Some are big, some smaller. The prices are quite low. The man looks vaguely tortured.
“Did you pick them?” I ask.
“Some of them,” he says. “Others we got from people.”
“I like ‘pick’ better than ‘mine,’” I say. I don’t know why I say this. Maybe because I’m afraid he’ll think I’m ignorant: that I don’t know where crystal quartz comes from. Just one of those inane things we say.
He seems to understand because he nods. After a while, he says, “You do healing work?”
I look at him. Squint. Not something someone usually asks. Not something I usually answer.
“Yes,” I say, surprising myself by the answer. “But mostly I just love rocks. Have since I was a kid.” I pulled out the crystal I have in my coat pocket and holds it up. “I have rocks in the car, too. I just take them with me. Do you do healing work?”
He says, “She does.” He nods toward the truck, and I see a woman sleeping in the passenger seat. I don’t see her right away. I have to look and blink. Ahhh, there she is.
“I do some meditation, things like that,” he says.
Mario comes over then. The man says he can give me a price break if I buy two. His cellphone rings, and he stands up and winces. I see the cane next to his chair now, and when he walks, he limps. He’s in pain. That’s why he looks tortured. I glance at the sleeping woman. Can’t she fix him? He excuses himself and walks away, knocking on the truck first. The woman jerks awake. A moment later, she gets out. I give her money, and I take the two crystals I’ve chosen—or the two crystals who have chosen me—back to the car. I am almost giggly with glee.
And my headache is gone.
I put the rocks in the back of the car, and we start off again, heading toward the mountains. The headache comes back, just a bit. As we head toward the Siskiyou Pass, going up and up, I say, “This is where Emily and Mr. Em came. Only they were on horses.” (From The Monster’s Daughter.) I see it like a memory. Mario smiles at me. We reach the summit quickly, surprising us both, and I say, “And this is where Emily got off her horse and left an offering to the mountains.” Mario pulls over.
I get out of the car, step into the snow, and I sing as trucks roar past us. I thank the Mountains and I leave a shell and a pinch of tobacco in the snow. As I look at the rocks in front of me, I feel as though I am looking at a painting: like when I’m in New Mexico and suddenly I feel like I’m seeing the landscape as Georgia O’Keeffe saw it. I get back in the car and say, “This looks like a Bev Doolittle painting.” Mario nods.
We go up and over the pass.
My headache is gone.
I see Mount Shasta. She rises above the pollution that hangs over everything like a dirty fog. We stop, and I sing to the mountain. I sing to the dragon. I am giddy. I feel like I’ve stepped into The Monster’s Daughter again, just like last year. Emily and Mr. Em are all around me. It’s not surprising since I believe the mountain gave me the story in the first place. And I am so grateful.
Soon enough Mario and I make it to our lodgings. It is called a spa, but we stay here because it’s green: It was built sustainably, using sustainable materials, and they don’t use chemicals or pesticides. It costs the same as other hotels. The young woman at the desk greets us, takes my driver’s license and credit card, and says, “And how was your day today?” as she checks us in. I say, “Fine, and how was yours?” She keeps looking at the computer and doing something, and then she says in the same cheerful robotic voice, “And how was your day today?” I almost start to laugh. Instead I say, “Do you know you just asked me that?” This time she almost looks at me but doesn’t quite. “I’m sorry,” she says. Mario and I get our keycards and hurry away. Once we’re outside, we look at each other and laugh. Welcome to Stepford.
While Mario unpacks, I stand outside and whisper to the directions. It’s just polite to introduce oneself to a place. I leave a shell and tobacco, along with my song. We’ve been here many times, so I’m hoping we’ll be welcomed as friends. Of course last year, we got a flat tire, and I left my favorite coat here. Not exactly friendly.
Mario makes me dinner: a microwaved Amy’s frozen dinner with our veggies and rice. Yum. (While on vacation, we do occasionally use a microwave oven, it’s true.) Then we walk around the place and watch the swans. The first year we were here, Mario was so excited to see them. Then I told him, “They’ve probably clipped their wings so they *have* to stay here.” He looked crushed. “Poor things,” he said then.
So every year we watch the swans and feel a mixture of regret, pity, and awe.
When we get near the pool, I think I see a person by the fence, and then it looks like a mermaid. As I walk toward it, I start laughing. “Hah! I thought it was a mermaid, but it’s a life preserver!” Somehow, given who I am, that seems quite apropos. I snap a photo of my “mermaid” and then we head back.
This year, this journey feels different. And the same. Every year the trip is difficult, and it is wonderful. I am always exceedingly grateful, and I always—at some point—wonder what the hell I am doing. I was wondering that about three hours into the trip today. But still, I do feel different this year. More here. Or something.
To bed soon and then off to the City of Angels in the morning. First The Bridge of the Gods and then to the City of Angels. All on the road to the Old Mermaids Sanctuary.
(This post was one that people seemed to like quite a bit when I put it up on Facebook, so I’m posting it here, too. One of the neighbor children comes over fairly often, and we make fairy things or look at books or have tea parties. I enjoy her company, and we have fun in the imaginal worlds. I write about our doings quite a bit on my private Facebook, and people seem to enjoy these posts. I don’t put up any photos of her (unless she's unrecognizable in them) or use her real name—to protect her privacy and her family's privacy. Before I left for my annual writing retreat, I tried to make my departure easy for the little girl. But sometimes that road was a bit rocky. This Going Away Tea Party took place two days before we left.)
Welcome to the Old Mermaids Tea Shell. That’s what the sign read that I taped to the front door, low enough so Lissa could see it. I’d planned this tea party for weeks, and yesterday I spent the entire day preparing. I had a nasty ass headache, but I couldn’t cancel. I couldn’t do that to Lissa just before we were set to leave for a month. I decided next year if we still were friends and we still went away for the winter, I would not do this! Still, I had fun thinking about how she would react to everything as I got ready.
I set about to transform the kitchen into a fairyland. I figured we’d have our savory foods in the living room. That would be the first part of the tea party. Then we would go to fairyland for dessert. Mario hung a sheet over the entrance to the kitchen so that she’d have to make an entrance to fairyland and couldn’t see anything ahead of time.
The first layer of the fairyland was a blue and white quilt my dad had made for me. I found blue and white cloth, too. Plus Mario got tea lights. (I hope whoever invented tea lights is rich and happy. They’re so fun.) I looked around the house for anything related to Solstice/Christmas and Old Mermaids (that fit the color scheme). I put boxes under the cloth to have variety in height, like a landscape. I got big shells and blue, clear, and white marbles, along with amethyst and crystals. Then I covered the windows with more quilts.
It was getting late, so I hurriedly made a Tea Shell menu on homemade paper. I misspelled Mermaid Marble Eggs so that it was Hermaid Marble Eggs, but I never noticed it! We were serving Coyote Laughter Tea and Hummingbird Joy Tea and Fairy Cups of Magic. I’m afraid my imaginative powers were dulled by pain. Mario came took an early lunch and came home and did the dishes and helped everywhere he could.
So I was dressed and ready by 3:20, barely. Lissa should have been there by 3:30 at the latest—because she usually just runs over after she gets home, but she didn’t come. I called; no one answered. Finally I put on my winter stuff and went over to the house. The sitter said, “I told her but…” This was very odd. I went back home and Lissa soon came over. She didn’t seem particularly glad to see us. She had been coloring with the babysitter while we waited for her! This didn’t seem like her at all. She barely said a word to us as she ate and drank her “tea.” She didn’t say anything about the marble tea eggs. She ate them—well, she ate the white part. But that was eat. It was as if zombie child had come to our tea party!
Finally it was time to take her into the fairyland. I had her close her eyes, and I led her into the kitchen. Then she opened her eyes. She looked around like she was seeing blank cardboard. She had no expression of surprise or delight or anything. She looked around at the fairy cakes and said, “You said there’d be cheesecake.”
I was stunned. Lissa wasn’t usually like this. Mario had to leave, so Lissa and I sat at the fairyland table, alone, and I served her Old Mermaids tea. As I sat there, feeling like a dope for doing all this work, I thought, “Kim, you just shouldn’t do this kind of thing. Too much expectation.” Even though I was very hurt, I kept my mouth shut. I was not going to guilt her. Whatever was going on was perplexing, but I wasn’t going to guilt her.
She ate the fairy cakes, but she didn’t seem to enjoy them. She didn’t look around at anything. I tried to talk to her about what was wrong, but she kept saying all was well. (By this I mean when I asked, “Are you upset about something?” she said, “No.” “Are you mad at me?” “No.” Etc.)
Well, this was a bust for all concerned, I thought. I just wanted it over. I went and got her presents. She didn’t seem excited or anything. In fact, she opened one and said, “Is this a coloring book like you got me before?” With a tone that indicated she had not liked that book. (It was a fairy sticker book.) What????
By this time, I was ready to send the kid home and cry myself to pain-free land. She wanted to call her mom to come over for the tea party which was fine with me. Her mom came over, and she fed her mother and showed her her presents and completely ignored me. I hadn’t realized I could be so hurt by a 7-year-old—and I kept telling myself that’s what she was.
Her mom had to leave to get her hair cut. Lissa was so clingy with her mom that I suggested she go with her. I was surprised when she wanted to stay. I was ready to wrap it up. I had gotten her a magnet set of mermaids. There are 50 magnets, and you can dress the two mermaids in all kinds of tails, clothes, crowns, etc. We couldn’t see very well in the kitchen, so we took this in the living room. I sat next to her on the couch while she played with it. One mermaid was her and one was me.
At one point she got cold, so I put a quilt over her. She put her legs over mine, which was the cue for me to rub and tickle her feet, which I did. She put her head on the pillow and relaxed, and I rubbed her feet while we listened to Christmas music. We talked about some things.
Finally when she was relaxed, I said, “You know what I think? I think you’re kind of mad at me because I’m leaving.” She nodded. Finally! “Are you afraid you’ll be lonely?” She nodded. “What else is going on, darlin?”
She said, “Nana died. Mommy is always working. Daddy is always at meetings.” And my house was practically the only place she got to go. I said, “That’s just because it’s easy.”
I said, “So you feel like everyone is deserting you?” She nodded. I said, “You know I’m not leaving to get away from you. Do you know why I’m going?” She shook her head. I realized then I’d never explained why I was going. “Well, we go down and work. We just spent all day working and walking in the desert.” “But you can work here.” Ah, yes. “That’s true,” I said, “but I get a little sad in the winter, so I like being down where it’s warm and sunny. Plus I get to be with my family. I get to see my daddy. I don’t get to see him any other time. And my sisters.”
I started talking about the Christmases I remembered as a child. About going to midnight mass. Then afterward gathering at my grandma’s house, all 50(?) of us. I told her how beautiful our house looked with the lights off and the tree all lit up. We’d come down in the morning when it was still dark, and there’d be presents everywhere. As I was telling her this, I started to cry. Maybe it was the headache. Maybe it was the stress of the crash-and-burn tea party. Maybe it was because I miss those Christmases past. As I talked, tears streamed down my face.
I said, “I don’t know why I’m crying.”
“Is it because of your mom?”
I nodded. “Probably. And I miss my family. You know, when I was a kid I wanted all kinds of presents, but, darlin, I don’t remember a single present. What I remember is being with my family—and the Christmas tree lights!”
She seemed to be contemplating this. She was either thinking, “How profound, Kim,” or “Dude, that’s because you’re old and you forget everything.”
After a while, I said, “You know, sweetheart, I’ll miss you, too. Tell me how you’d like me to keep in touch with you.”
She sat up and said she wanted Facetime and cards. And presents. I just laughed when she said “presents.” I told her I would write; I’d send photos on email; I’d call, and we’d try to do Facetime or Skype.
She was her old self now, excited by the tea party, fairyland, and everything. She got the mermaid magnets out again, and we dressed the mermaids. She said excitedly, “I could play with these every day!”
It was nearly 7:00 by now, and it was time to go home. Past time. I asked her if she wanted me to show her on the calendar again when I would be gone. She did. I showed her, and then I pointed to the full moon on the calendar.
“The full moon is in a few days,” I said. “After that full moon, watch for the next one. We will be home not long after that.” Her face brightened at that prospect.
Then we looked at fairyland together one last time. I told her she could take something from it to keep until I got back. She picked a piece of amethyst and a white marble. I would take another white marble and another piece of amethyst with me, so we’d both have something to remind each other of each other. I packed up one bag for her and one bag full of presents for the other children. (She was happy that her bag was heavier!) Then I knelt next to her as she was zipping up her jacket. She had a brilliant smile on her face.
I said, “Remember, I love you.” She put her arms around me, and we held each other. I said, “I’m very glad we are friends.”
I walked her home. As we parted, I said, “See you later, gator.”
“After while, crocodile.”
Then we looked at each other and laughed. Neither one of us remembered what was next. “We’ll have to practice that,” I said.
“Bye, bye!” she said.
Then I turned around in the dark and walked back to fairyland.
I'm thrilled to be a part of A Fantastic Holiday Season, a new anthology of 18 magical, scary, and heart-warming stories for the holidays. A bunch of writers got together over several winter holidays to tell each other ghost stories. Now Kevin J. Anderson has gathered these stories together for the first time in this new anthology. And it's got a great cover by Myles Pinkney to go along with the fabulous stories. I hope you'll check it out.
Movement is my medicine. Rhythm is our universal mother tongue. It’s the language of the soul. —Gabrielle Roth
I am feeling snake energy today. Rattlesnake energy. It is very deep.
I'm remembering a time when I was a young girl running around our woods with two of my younger sisters. I heard that unmistakable sound—a sound we had been trained to recognize—that dry-grass sound of a rattler curled up and ready to strike.
I sent my sisters home. "Run!" I cried.
When they were safely gone, and I was alone in the deep dark woods except for the trees and other wild things—including this rattler—I stepped carefully toward the sound, parting the plants around me like I was opening a curtain to witness a great mystery. And there she was, wound up like a gorgeous plump spring, three coils deep at least, the end of her tail moving so fast I could barely see it, her tongue quickly flicking in and out as she watched me.
I was in awe.
I may have nodded to the snake. I may have just slowly backed away before turning and running home. I know my heart was beating in my throat from the thrill and fear of it. I can't remember if I told my father once I got home.
My father was a rattlesnake killer. He didn't like to kill, but he had five children. He felt he had to protect us from creatures who could kill us. I had seen him raise the shovel up and bring it down on a rattler more than once, severing the head from the rest of the body. He had told us to come get him if we ever saw a rattlesnake.
My mother was terrified of snakes. All snakes. She couldn’t even look at a photograph of a snake. When trucks graded our dirt road, the snakes would come up out of the ditches and into our big front yard. Many of these snakes were rattlers. We had to stay up on the porch until the snakes could find their way back to the ditches.
Everyone was glad when they finally paved the road.
I took on many of my mother’s fears and illnesses, but I’ve never been afraid of snakes. Of course I’m startled when one seems come out of nowhere and slither too close and too suddenly. But then I want to follow it, I want to emulate it, and I want to dance its Earthly dance.
Although snakes are living, breathing, amazing creatures on their own, for me, they are symbolic of the goddess or of women as divine. I remember the moment in my life when I suddenly realized that Eve had been thrown from paradise because she sought KNOWLEDGE from the serpent: the wisdom of the body. The snake was reconnecting Eve with her inherent bodily knowledge. Where was the sin in THAT? God preferred us stupid?
For a gal who was raised Catholic, this was quite a revelation.
Snakes are still near and dear to me. A few years ago, we traveled to the thousand year old Great Serpent Mound in Ohio, and I communed with the serpent and the surrounding lands. Years later, we named our publishing company Green Snake Publishing. And in The Salmon Mysteries: A guidebook to a reimagining of the Eleusinian Mysteries, the Snake is an important guide to the initiates and to the goddess Demeter. In The Salmon Mysteries, Demeter calls upon Snake for help when she doesn’t know the way. Snake dances the way. She embodies it: Snake is the embodiment of the female shaman.
That summer afternoon when I walked toward the sound of the deadly rattler, I was completely in my body. I understood the possible consequences of what I was doing. But it didn’t matter. I was hearing the call to the wild. I was hearing, “Let’s start this dance, sister.” And so I gazed at the serpent. I gazed at my own mortality. Maybe I understood on some level that by stepping forward, I was asking for it: for the secret, the knowledge, the mystery.
We are reading and performing the rituals and ceremonies of The Salmon Mysteries this year. We haven’t gotten to the Day of the Snake yet, but Snake came to me this morning in the form of memories. I spent the night sick, uncomfortable in my own skin, wanting to shed this part of me that just can’t seem to...heal or be healed. I wasn’t bereft or frightened like I often am when these episodes happen, but by dawn, I was pissed. Even though this has been my life for nearly thirty years, I refuse to see this as my life. Yes, it happened. Yes, it IS happening, but THIS is not who I am.
When I went to the Great Serpent Mound in 2001, I meditated while I sat next to the grass-covered snake effigy. I was exhausted and may have fallen asleep or into a kind of trance. I heard women laughing, although I didn’t see anyone else. By this time in my life, I had been chronically ill for many years, and I just wanted to be well. As I meditated (or slept), a giant snake rose up from the ground. The snake said to me, “You have the mark of the python.”
I remember thinking, “There are no pythons in North America. Sheesh.” (I can be very literal.)
“Accept your serpent qualities,” Snake said. “Snake healing is transformative—like what’s happening with your father.”
At that time, my father was having an allergic reaction to a medication, and he was shedding his skin. (They didn’t know it was the medication, although I had urged him to go back to the doctor and find out what the hell was wrong. He ended up in the hospital after he started to go into shock.) Everywhere he went, he left behind patches of his skin...
I didn’t know what the snake meant when it said I had the mark of the python on me (or how transformative snake medicine related to me), but I hoped it meant I would soon be transformed into a healthy person.
That did not happen.
When I finally went to sleep this morning, I dreamed I was dead. I was walking around as a ghost, haunting someone or someplace.
That is what it feels like when one is chronically ill. Or at least, that is what I often feel like, although I hadn’t thought of it that way until I had the dream. I can no longer remember who I was before I got sick. Trying to hold on tight, trying to survive, takes every ounce of my energy. When I look at what I am able to do beyond that, I think, “You are a fucking Amazon, woman.”
Despite hanging on by my fingernails, I create. I love. I am. Even if I’m not certain who that I am is.
I am that I am?
Ahhh, I started this essay hours ago. The day is almost done now. What does it all mean?
I’m not sure.
I started this essay feeling like I was going to strike out today. At someone. It felt necessary.
Between that time and this, I’ve written a little. I’ve danced a little. I’ve gone outside and stood barefoot on the Earth. I took some snake skin I have, and I wrapped it around my arms as I danced. (I became the Minoan Snake Goddess!)
I no longer feel like striking out.
But I do feel like shedding this skin of suffering.
Not sure about the way to do this. Thinking I need a map. Maybe I’ll do a little snake dance, and in the end, my feet will reveal the map to me.
As I promised I am posting more here and on the Church of the Old Mermaids website. Today I've written about the shapeshifting pink dolphins—the Botos or the Encantados of the Amazon. You can read that post here. (And remember, I'm posting regularly on the Facebook page The Monster's Daughter and Company where Mario Milosevic is the company, and we are sharing posting duties.) (Artwork: "The Encante," by Ray Troll. Used with permission; all right belong to Mr. Troll.)
Stories come to me. Characters knock on my imagination and tell me their tales. Sometimes the stories are sad and horrific as well as beautiful. Sometimes I don’t want to write the stories, so I pass on them, and they disappear into the ether. But sometimes, the characters and the stories refuse to go away. This is the case with my in progress novels Maternal Instincts and Killing Beauty. These novels have at their genesis two horrific crimes perpetrated in our rural county in Washington. They are crimes I didn’t (and don’t) want to think about, and I certainly didn’t want to write about them—I most certainly didn’t want to exploit these terrible tragedies for entertainment purposes.
And yet, these crimes not only affected the families, they affected our entire community. The violence, the horror of these crimes, reverberated through our collected lives, like a kind of family secret that no one will talk about. I didn’t want to write the true life stories of these crimes. I believe fiction is often better at unraveling the real truth of an event, at finding the heart or heartlessness of the matter. It’s better at meaning and context than any true life tale.
Still, how could I write these stories? I don’t like true life crime stories. I don’t watch true life murder shows or read books about true crime. When I was a girl, a girl I knew in my high school was brutally murdered. The crime was shocking and unbelievable. I lived in a small town in Michigan where things like that did not happen. It rocked me off my foundations and changed me forever. I didn’t think that murder was “entertaining” and certainly didn’t want to write about any murders in my novels—at least not in a Murder, She Wrote kind of way.
And yet two crimes happened in the small town where I live now, and the stories were linked in my imagination as the seeds for two novels. The books wouldn’t go away no matter how much time passed or how much I didn’t want to write them.
In 1991, a young man who went to school here raped and killed a young girl who also lived here. The details were chilling, horrific, and stunning. He had an urge to rape her, seemingly out of the blue, he said, and then he decided to murder her. In 2004, a mentally ill woman took her babies into the woods near here and killed them. I remember that particular day as though it were yesterday. I can see the clear blue summer sky in my mind’s eye, can hear the news helicopters overhead. Not long after this second horror happened, I started a novel with this particular crime as part of it. It begins like this:
On Sunday the woman took her two little girls into the forest. She drove a long way from her home, heading north, toward the mountain she had only seen once, in a dream. She stopped the car at a place which reminded her of a gravel pit, only different. It was like a hole in the forest that would soon disappear. She spread a peach-colored baby blanket over the wet gravel. Then she went back to the car for her daughters. She carried her two year old and held the hand of the four year old and led them to the blanket. They were dressed in their Sunday best. The girls sat dutifully as she whispered for them to stay put. Clouds covered the summer sky. A crow flew overhead, calling out, and the girls looked up to watch the bird as their mother raised the rifle to her shoulder and took aim.
Fog sank from the clouds, shrouding the dead children until the mother led the police to them.
But I couldn’t go very far with it. I cried every time I read it or thought about it. I had to put it away. This year, the characters again came knocking. This time they came with a plot that was more fictionalized—and the characters themselves were completely fictionalized. Tougher. The main character is Katie Kelly, a retired Portland police officer who spent summers in Beauty Falls, a small town in the Columbia River Gorge where she now lives. The novel begins when a young girl runs up to Katie on a trailhead and tells her she’s been kidnapped. The next book will be Killing Beauty (or Beauty Falls) and Katie will be involved in trying to save a child who ran into the forest to escape her mother after the mother killed her other daughter. The mother was a friend of Katie’s when they were teens and they both were out as a group with Amanda and Andy (and two other boys) the night Andy raped and killed Amanda.
I hope with these novels that I can give context to these kinds of crimes, give them some kind of meaning or reason (not justification). Such events can become mythic in a community—either to horrify or to inform. I still have difficulty even writing the scenes where Katie remembers just hearing about Amanda’s death (she was not a witness to the murder). Yet I write to better understand my world. I will try to do justice to these stories and therefore to the lives that were lost.