The Hidden Life of “Vanished,” a novel by Mark Bierman

Who knows what inspires someone to write a novel? Even authors don’t always truly until much later. My own literary-novel-in-progress, “Flamenco & the Sitting Cat,” seemed merely an experiment, a dive into fiction. Only as it progressed did I see it’s really a love letter to all who believe they’re too old, young, broken, lost, too whatever for love…

So when it comes to producing a novel, there’s deciding to write, then comes writing, and then it’s published. At that point, the author releases their words into the world for book lovers to make of them what they will. Every reader brings themself into the act of sitting with a story.

Here blogger/author Mark Bierman (click here for his site, to get his book, and to contact him) reveals what he’s learned about him writing process and his readers. Born and raised on a farm in Ontario, he merges country life with his adult experiences as a correctional officer and a story teller. You can find more of his guest posts for Happiness Between Tails here and here.

Vanished by Mark Bierman cover.

The Hidden Life of “Vanished,” a novel by Mark Bierman

A few weeks ago, I was reading over some of the newer reviews and comments of my novel Vanished. I noticed some understandable trepidation among a few of those who hadn’t read the book. In response, I’ve decided to write this post, explaining the origins of the book, and why I wrote it.

First, though, I wish to thank all of those who took a chance on me, readers who cracked the pages, in spite of the subject matter. I really appreciate you, and I know it couldn’t have been easy to start.

Here’s a quick synopsis

Driven to despair by a shared loss, Americans John Webster and Tyler Montgomery try to self-medicate by embarking on a mission of goodwill to earthquake-ravaged Haiti. The reconstruction of an orphanage transforms into a nightmarish hunt after a young girl is kidnapped.

 Unequipped, culturally illiterate, and alone, the pair are forced into alliances with shifty characters, as they delve deeper into the treacherous underbelly of the human trafficking world. Can they survive long enough to keep their promise to the child’s mother?

I want to clarify what is NOT in this book; rape, gore, excessive violence (yes, there is violence, but no more than any other action/thriller), injury or death to animals, pedophilia. You only need to ask someone who’s read the book, I’m confident they will attest to this.

If you asked me, ten years ago, to write a book about human trafficking, I would have declared you insane. Times, and people, change.

The truth is, initially, there was no intention of broaching the subject. I wanted to write about Haiti.

You see, my father, upon whom one of the main characters, John Webster, is loosely based, would volunteer to help build homes, churches, and other projects. I remember well, the photos showing the difficult living conditions. There were also the stories, none of which included human trafficking. There are bits and pieces in the novel that were gleaned from his experiences.

The second main character, Tyler Montgomery, is loosely based on my brother-in-law. The pair actually did make a trip to post-earthquake Haiti, back in October of 2010. I asked if they’d be willing to make a journal of their experiences.

So, here we come to the reasons behind Vanished. Over the years, I’ve been understandably and justifiably questioned as to my choice of topic. In the early days, I always delivered a simple and pat answer about a desire to promote awareness. If a problem is ignored, what hope is there to solve it? At the time, I truly believed my answer to be complete. Cut and dried, no further explanation needed.

I often mention that 50% of the proceeds are donated to help victims of human trafficking, which they are, and I hope I don’t sound like I’m touting my own horn. That is not my intent.

Yes, all of this is true. However, and this may sound strange, I’ve only recently come to realize it’s not the whole truth. Please let me explain.

Those who are familiar with me, know that I’ve spent the last twenty-plus years working as a Correctional Officer in maximum and medium security prisons.

Novelist/blogger Mark Bierman.
Novelist/blogger Mark Bierman.

The last max. was Kingston Penitentiary, which opened in 1835 and closed in 2013. It’s now a tourist attraction. I was one of the last to work there. Shortly afterwards, I was transferred to a medium level prison.

This blog is not evolving into a prison tale. My career was mentioned because I want to help you understand where I’m coming from. I also want to emphasize that Hollywood and the news are entities that thrive on sensationalism, because it sells.

I’ve encountered many traumatic experiences and looked into the midnight eyes of those who looked through, rather than at you. We called them dead eyes.

Fortunately, these are not the majority of inmates. There are some who’ve led normal lives until something triggered them to act in uncharacteristic ways. What you also had were many cases of psychological and drug addiction issues. Oh, and yes, plenty of the inhabitants had committed unspeakable acts of evil. I’ll spare you the details.

Of course, it wasn’t all bad. I’ve worked with some great staff and have had my share of laughs. I appreciated the strong bonds that developed between my peers. It’s inevitable when you place your life in someone’s hands, and they put theirs in yours.

I apologize if I’m rambling, but it was necessary to give some background into what made my brain tick when I wrote this book.

It took a diagnosis of PTSD, months of treatment, support, and deep reflection, to unravel the ‘other’ reasons for the birth of Vanished.

I have come to grasp the fact that it was also a product of a mind that sought to survive and heal. To find a state of homeostasis and make sense of the tragic and unfathomable.

The famous line from the movie, Saving Private Ryan, often comes to mind. Captain Millar and the Sergeant are discussing the personal cost of getting Ryan home. One of them says: “Someday, we might look back on this, and decide that saving Private Ryan was the once decent thing we were able to pull out of this whole Godawful, shitty mess.”

I’m not comparing myself to these brave warriors, but these are my sentiments, exactly.

The brain is extremely powerful, and I believe that it sensed something was wrong all those years ago, though my conscious mind was oblivious. It’s the frog in a boiling pot analogy. I was being cooked alive, and I didn’t even realize.        

The characters do represent, superficially, my family members. At a deeper level, they are avatars of my hope. Hope for something better, for this world, myself, and my loved ones.

Spoiler alert, Tyler struggles with mental health issues. The issue was approached from a Stephen King angle because I grew up reading his work.

At the time, I thought it was just a nod to the famous writer, but it’s become clear that my subconscious had put out a 911 call for help. In some ways, I’m Tyler.

Right now, more than ever, the world is hurting. I don’t know your personal stories, but I can sense from many of the comments, that anxiety and a sense of hopelessness rule the day.

Let me tell, there is always hope. I want to assure you that you are not alone. I, along with many others, have been where you are. I’m on the mend, and my family is getting there, too. I cannot reiterate this enough: there is always hope.

Whenever a crisis arises, there are always those who step up and perform selfless acts. I refer to those as helpers. Look around, you’ll find them everywhere. You know what? Look in the mirror and you’ll see one up close.

Don’t believe me? Listen, if you’ve ever retweeted a post, shared a kind word on a blog, shared a blog, hosted, bought a book, read, and reviewed, made someone laugh or provided information, beta read… you get the picture, then you are a helper.

Yes, those dedicated people who work in the healthcare industry certainly fall into this category. There are so many others, unsung, and unnoticed. They go about the business of helping.

John and Tyler are much more than characters in a book, and the plot is deeper and broader than human trafficking. There is an ugly side to it, just as there is in life, but there is also a positive message. It’s about becoming a helper, doing whatever is within your capacity to make a positive impact, even if it’s just one person.

This is the true spirit of Vanished.

Here’s how one woman works to help victims of human trafficking.

Do you believe a book can evolve beyond the author’s dream for it?

Make Transgender Visibility daily and Valeska Réon’s great news!

Rachel Crandall started Transgender Day of Visibility as a day of hope, back in 2009. Indeed it is this year! For the first time, a U.S. President, Joe Biden, issued a proclamation on it!

Here Rachel talks about the annual event…

Now is also a good excuse for an update on what Valeska Réon’s been up to since I wrote of her a while ago.

Valeska Réon has wonderful news!
Valeska Réon has wonderful news!

Her book, “Der Bibelkiller/The Bible Killer,” has a favorable opportunity to become a Netflix film. Here’s an interview with Valeska and director/actor/screen writer Nicolai Tegeler who will film it in Maastricht, Netherlands. If you, like me, don’t understand German, Google Translate does a terrific job.

Valeska Réon with director/actor/screen writer Nicolai Tegeler.
Valeska Réon with director/actor/screen writer Nicolai Tegeler.

In addition, her next book is set to published in less than a year. Already, Valeska is working to make it a Netflix miniseries. The historic novel features Anne of Brittany (1477-1514), the only woman who served twice as France’s queen consort (the most powerful sort of queen). Not just that, Anne was queen consort of Naples, and a duchess consort of Milan. All that and she died when she was only 34!

“Der Bibelkiller/The Bible Killer” by Valeska Réon.
“Der Bibelkiller/The Bible Killer” by Valeska Réon.

“The Multiple Lives of Author Valeska Réon” in her own words

When I started writing back in 1997, the world of literature was not like it is today. Self-publishing wasn’t yet invented, so you first had to find a publisher before the book could see the light of day. The Internet was still in its infancy in Germany, so you had to resort to traditional marketing strategies.

In 2012, after three non-fiction books on health and beauty, I took all my courage and wrote my autobiography, “Flowers for a Chameleon.” What happened next — I hadn’t expected that! Perhaps I should tell you that I was not born a woman, but had already worked as a model in Paris before the sex reassignment surgery. Always I was careful that nobody learned of my secret. 1985 was another time, and models like Andrej(a) Pejic and Lea T. did not exist. The reactions to my book were overwhelming, it sold very well, and a filmmaker contacted me to film it.

But above all, I became aware of one thing – as an author, you market yourself best when you are authentic. Due to my life story, I was suddenly in the focus of the German LBGT community, which I first had to deal with. Countless letters from my readers all had the same core message: “Thank you for giving us such courage with your book!”

Today #beyoubetrue is my favorite hashtag, and I use it not only on Instagram but also on my author portraits.

Valeska Réon wears her favorite hashtag.
Valeska Réon wears her favorite hashtag.

After that, I changed my genre to now writing thrillers –- and that’s when I had a new marketing idea. In my book, “Double Sacrifice,” the song, “J’aime tellement,” plays such an essential role that once I wrote the lyrics, I then found a singer/composer to set them to music. Finally, it was remixed and is now available for download –- a great compliment to the book.

My new thriller, “Walking on Sand,” is was rewritten into a stage play that premiered in Düsseldorf, December 2019. Another autobiographical story, this one is about the transsexual children’s book author Lea. After many years, she returns to her hometown to avenge the terrible things her classmates did to her. The children’s book mentioned within it, “Charlotte Inside,” is taken out of the crime plot and made into a book of its own. It is the first children‘s book ever to tell young readers about therapy with the inner child.

Valeska Réon lays on the sand, a watchtower in the background, with her dog.
What new creative adventure is Valeska Réon conjuring?

My greatest wish is for “Charlotte Inside” to appear internationally so it can bring joy and courage to children everywhere.

How many lives have you lived?

Sci-fi Icon, Octavia E. Butler (and we’re over Covid)

Book-lover/library-lover Octavia at home. (c) Patti Perret/The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens.

Please note: From the bottom of my heart, thank you everyone for your kind wishes for my husband and me while we were sick with Covid. Fortunately we’re well now and hope you and yours are staying safe. For anyone who thinks Covid is a simple flu, this is absolutely not the case. While it may start off mildly, it can quickly take a terrible turn. Please get vaccinated if you have the opportunity. Our doctor advises us to be as careful as ever as no conclusive evidence confirms that having been ill with it has gives us one iota of immunity, especially against the newer versions arising.

Savaged by self-doubt? Dry spells getting between you and your goals, including ones for writing your novel? You and I have brilliant company!

A first edition of Kindred, by Octavia E. Butler, 1979. Huntington Library, (c) Estate of Octavia E. Butler.
A first edition of Kindred, by Octavia E. Butler, 1979. Huntington Library, (c) Estate of Octavia E. Butler.

Octavia E. Butler, the first African-American woman sci-fi writer, wrote herself many pep talks. She suffered through crummy jobs (potato chip quality control, anyone?) and years of crappy pay to attain her writing aspirations.

Octavia cemented her goals inside a notebook cover in 1988. Octavia E. Butler papers. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. Copyright Estate of Octavia E. Butler.
Octavia cemented her goals inside a notebook cover in 1988. Octavia E. Butler papers. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. Copyright Estate of Octavia E. Butler.

Talk about paying off! She was the first science fiction author to receive the MacArthur Fellowship’s “Genius Grant”! And she was a multiple Hugo Award and Nebula Award winner!

One of Octavia's many self-reminders, this note regards forging credible characters and worlds. (c) Estate of Octavia E. Butler/The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens.
One of Octavia’s many self-reminders, this note regards forging credible characters and worlds. (c) Estate of Octavia E. Butler/The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens.

All that and still she continued to work hard at bolstering herself. Proof is within her donation to The Huntington Library’s Art Collections in Los Angeles, a collection ranging from extensive drafts, notes, and research materials to more than a dozen novels, numerous short stories, essays, correspondence, ephemera, and assorted books.

Detail from Octavia’s notes for the Oankali, characters from the Xenogenesis trilogy. (c) Estate of Octavia E. Butler/The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens.
Detail from Octavia’s notes for the Oankali, characters from the Xenogenesis trilogy. (c) Estate of Octavia E. Butler/The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens.

Born in Pasadena, CA, on June 22, 1947, she grew up poor. She watched her single mom endure racism and classism while cleaning homes to raise her daughter. Octavia towered over her classmates and grappled with dyslexia.

Octavia at around 15. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. © Estate of Octavia E. Butler.
Octavia at around 15. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. © Estate of Octavia E. Butler.

Her peers bullied her for not being more like them. As an only child most comfortable among adults, she spent her time at the public library, reading, and writing. Later she attended writing classes and workshops. Check out this cool interactive link the Los Angeles Times created regarding her stomping grounds.

In a 2000 interview for the New York Times, she said, “When I began writing science fiction, when I began reading, heck, I wasn’t in any of this stuff I read. The only black people you found were occasional characters or characters who were so feeble-witted that they couldn’t manage anything, anyway. I wrote myself in, since I’m me and I’m here and I’m writing.”

In 1979, with the publishing of Kindred, she chartered fresh territory for how to relay history. The protagonist is an African American woman who vaporizes from the Los Angeles apartment she shares with her Anglo boyfriend. She careens between the pre-Civil War slave era and back, a harrowing ride to put it mildly. Did Octavia dream of the present, when these days mixed couples are common and now high school teachers assign Kindred to their students?

Photo of Science Fiction novel writer Octavia E. Butler near Mt. Shuksan, in Washington state, 2001. Photographer unknown.
Octavia near Mt. Shuksan, in Washington state, 2001. Photographer unknown.

Octavia was taken from us in 2006, at a far too young 58. She was staving off depression and writer’s block to finish a trilogy that remains incomplete. Her fans continue to grow.

Her advice to writers: Keep writing, no matter how you feel about your work.

Three months before she passed away, here she chatted with investigative journalist Amy Goodman, who heads Democracy Now (a fantastic video and radio news show, by the way) and co-host Juan González.

This fellow blogger’s post features 15 anecdotes about Octavia. Within it, a video link includes an interview with another stellar African-American woman sci-fi and fantasy writer, N. K. Jemisin.

How do you reckon with self-doubt?

COVID, Friendship, Writing, and Books: We’re better

It’s official — as of yesterday, I can smell the cinnamon in my oatmeal and taste hot chocolate — hurrah! Smelling flowers is uplifting — but no longer worrying that I could be snuffed out by toxic air or spoiled food? — mega-hallelujah!

Senses, mwah and mwah! Please don’t ever leave me again! Here’s to hoping that a benefit of COVID will be more research spent to help all who have limited abilities to smell or taste…

Illness is dreadful, but now that I’m securely on the other end of it, I see it provided me some upsides. For one thing, it’s reminded me how beyond-lottery-winner-fortunate I’ve always been in regards to wonderful friends — and that includes you, dear reader. Most strangers are merely people we haven’t yet had the opportunity to become friends with, no?

Besides appreciating the kindness of pals and soon-pals, I wish I could say I completed extensive writing on my “Flamenco & the Sitting Cat” and “Tango & the Sitting Cat” novels, but my writing energy was nowhere to be found.

However, sitting and lying about  enabled me to do some reading. Without revealing plot points, here are my reviews of four books I’ve just finished. When I review books I appreciate, I notify the authors. Occasionally they email me back 🙂

Cover of "Earthlings" by Sayaka Murata

Earthlings: A Novel by Sayaka Murata

Pardon the gray matter, but my brain just exploded. This book is like nothing I’ve ever read before — and I read a lot of books and genres.

Picture Sayaka Murata’s earlier book, “Convenience Store Woman,” as a string of firecrackers that cleverly illuminates how soul-sucking capitalism can be. “Earthlings” is akin to the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, when 80,000 people vanished in the blink of an eye and 200,000 mostly civilians perished.

Equal parts sci-fi, reality, magical realism, comedy, horror, satire, and gore, she says this is her other-worldly response to a Japanese health minister’s announcement. In 2007, he said, “The number of women aged between 15 and 50 is fixed. Because the number of birth-giving machines and devices is fixed, all we can do is ask them to do their best per head … although it may not be so appropriate to call them machines.”

Granted, there are beaucoup reasons “Earthlings” isn’t for everyone — but I have no time for those who’re simply offended that the story isn’t as cutesy as the iconically Japanese cover. The same goes for reviewers who lament the dearth of “likable” characters. For Murata, no one is all-good or all-bad, and no gender or age has it easy. Surely when Murata named an essential character “Yuu,” she knew the meaning of “you” in English.

Cover of "Friendshipping: The Art of Finding Friends, Being Friends, and Keeping Friends" by Jenn Bane and Trin Garritano

Friendshipping: The Art of Finding Friends, Being Friends, and Keeping Friends by Jenn Bane and Trin Garritano

This is a wise and chatty culmination of what the authors learned as co-hosts of their “Friendshipping” podcast. Their mantra: “Friendship is a skill.” Indeed, it’s one that merits continual honing, for which they offer great suggestions.

Cover of "The Listening Path: the Creative Art of Attention" by Julia Cameron

The Listening Path: the Creative Art of Attention by Julia Cameron

Julia Cameron’s 12-week manual, “The Artist’s Way: a Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity,” is ultra groundbreaking to creatives of any ilk. Each non-fiction book Cameron has published since then reiterates much of her original teachings — but for me, the repetition often works. This newest text is a 6-week DIY course that emphasizes the value of listening to each other, our environment, and ourselves.

Cover of "The 90-Day Novel" by Alan Watt

The 90-Day Novel: Unlock the Story Within by Alan Watt

Good chance Julia Cameron fans will enjoy this, given that there are a few similarities. If Cameron doesn’t resonate, you still may find this bread-crumbs/inside-to-out writing approach useful.

Are you reading or writing lately?

Me and COVID plus Imagining a New Place by novelist Chris Hall

‘Sunset over the Berg River ©River Tides Guesthouse’ – where author Chris Hall stayed when she began writing her book, "Song of the Sea Goddess." Owner Mike Harvey is a good friend of hers and the photo is from his website.
‘Sunset over the Berg River ©River Tides Guesthouse’ – where author Chris Hall stayed when she began writing her book, “Song of the Sea Goddess.” Owner Mike Harvey is a good friend of hers and the photo is from his website.

Writers get to build whatever world they please — sometimes our novels bend the truth only somewhat — other times they invent entire new gallaxies.

My works in progress, “Flamenco & the Sitting Cat,” and “Tango & the Sitting Cat,” are set in fictitious towns within Los Angeles during 2002 and 2003. Back then, COVID-19 didn’t exist…

Note: Earlier this week, my husband became feverish and unwell. Turns out he has COVID-19. He’s doing his best to get well while I feel healthy and am awaiting my test results. Throughout the pandemic, we’ve been super careful. I’m letting you know this as a reminder that one can never be too conscientious about avoiding this severe illness and about working civically to help contain it. (Here’s the follow-up, and here’s after that. and here’s the latest.)

Deciding on setting and histories and all that goes into storytelling is chancy no matter what an author chooses to create. There will always be fans and foes. To be a novelist requires enough passion to outrun the discouraging thoughts that can torment us.

Chris Hall has been wonderfully prolific over the last few years. She’s published three novels and a short story collection! Originally from the UK, she describes herself as “a compulsive story-teller, cat slave and hen keeper.” To sample her short fiction, fan fiction, mini-series, and poetry, as well as to follow her on her various social media, check out her website.

“Song of the Sea Goddess,” her most recent novel, is set where she lives now, the Western Cape of South Africa. Here she describes why she decided to depict a South Africa different from how it is in real life…

Author Chris Hall.
Author Chris Hall.

“From the Writer’s desk” by Chris Hall

Writing a novel is not just about telling the story. There are other considerations that come into play. I’d like to share with you why I was motivated to write a book set in South Africa. In particular, why I chose to paint an idealised portrait of the place and why I drew on the overarching theme of environmental destruction, rather than dealing with the gritty issues of race and poverty in my latest novel, Song of the Sea Goddess.

The Setting

When it came to writing this, my fourth novel, I was determined to set it in my adopted country, South Africa. I’d been living near Cape Town for almost ten years and the time had come to give voice to the people around me. I’d also decided it was time to transition from historical fiction. It was time to write in the moment, but at the same time include elements borrowed from the ancient lore of the African continent, which are written on cave walls and embedded in the landscape.

I knew I needed a setting to match the story I was about to tell, although the story hadn’t really even begun. Then, at the beginning of 2019, while staying in a small town on our very beautiful west coast, while I sat by the banks of the Berg River and watched the little boats going past on their way out to sea, I was moved to write a story about a fisherman with a little boat.

Every writer needs a helper as inspiring as Chris Hall's kitty, Luna.
Every writer needs a helper as inspiring as Chris Hall’s kitty, Luna.

The Characters

I’m a lazy novelist. I let my characters emerge and develop and play around in my mind. Even before they are fully formed, they are always desperate to run to centre stage and act out their parts.

But there has to be a starting point.

A few of my key characters are based on people I met when I first came to live in South Africa. People whose backgrounds were unfamiliar to me; people who come from what are euphemistically called ‘formerly disadvantaged communities’ (as if their communities are not still disadvantaged in this country, which has the most polarized society on the planet).

I could have written about some of their struggles, about the conditions in which they live, about the poverty and lack of opportunity that characterizes their communities, of how they’d suffered under apartheid, but as I got to them better, I realised that none of them wants to dwell on any of that.

So I decided I could give them better lives, locate them in a much more pleasant place and put a positive spin on this beautiful country.

I mixed them up a bit, taking a little bit of one and blending it with another, but their voices are true and their characteristics mirror real life in many respects. There’s a nod to some of the darker side of people’s lives with Sam’s flight from the Cape Flats’ gangland and in the history behind Jannie’s tattoos from the notorious ‘28s’ gang.

On the lighter side, several of the comical incidents, like when Auntie Rose loses her false teeth down her pants’ leg, are little events that actually happened. The food that the Aunties make and sell in the novel is based on recipes that I tasted and talked about with people. The love of food and the common ground we found over cookery has cemented several friendships in my new town.

The Theme

Concern for the environment is a theme I continue to return to in the short fiction and poetry, which I write on my blogsite, and while watching a TV documentary about water pollution, an idea began to form in my mind for the backdrop to my novel’s narrative. Water is in short supply in our country anyway, but what if the rivers were threatened? And what would happen if the forces of nature were moved to fight back? Soon my emerging novel would take a new and interesting turn.

My love of the landscape and ancient lore of the country that I now call home will continue to feature in my work. I’m already embroiled in a sequel to Song of the Sea Goddess, where myth and magic will once again be awakened in the little coastal town where the great river flows from the purple mountains into the southern ocean.

Visit Chris' site to order her books, and to find out more about her and the rest of her writings.
Visit Chris’ site to order her books, and to find out more about her and the rest of her writings.

Have you ever created a new world?

The Henna Artist’s bighearted Alka Joshi on saris, plus my wedding henna

“When’s the last time you read something unapologetically pro-choice — & that’s as empowering as it is romantic? Me? Never. Can’t wait for Joshi’s next book! Wish there were more novels that discuss pro-choice issues head-on. Enchanting story set in 1950s India from women’s point of view about the choices we’re given and how much we can make with them. Audiobook narrator Sneha Mathan is marvelous!”

~ My review of The Henna Artist by Alka Joshi for Amazon and Goodreads

I absolutely adore books (after all, I’m writing two)! Whenever I finish reading an exceptional novel, I review it on Goodreads and Amazon. Sure, not all stories resonate with me. As a tender-hearted author, I know too well the blood/sweat/tears that even a crappy book demands, so I don’t review those.

Then I email the novelist to thank them for making my life more thoughtful and maybe even fun. Ditto for any audiobook performer involved. Some thank me back, and on the days my stars are truly aligned, they agree to contribute to Happiness Between Tails.

Anyone who doesn’t read The Henna Artist is missing out. Clearly it’s written by a generous spirit. Just glance through Alka’s website and Youtube channel, where she lauds other authors to the extent that poses with their books! Here she is, holding Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic as she says how grateful she is for it. Btw, I love that book too, so she’s got good taste to her credit as well lol 🙂

Bighearted author Alka Joshi lauds Bighearted author Alka Joshi lauds “Big Magic” by Elizabeth Gilbert in a video.

Allow me to digress a moment: Henna, oh, henna, you magical green powder! You enhance my hair, and you make lovely tattoos!…

Photo of da-AL's henna-tattooed hands. The day before I got married, I went to Los Angeles’ Little India for these gorgeous henna tattoos.

They’re far more forgiving than the permanent ink ones, and brides aren’t allowed to do housework until they’ve worn off…

Photo of my henna tattooed hands and feet. I needed just the right sandals to show off my enhanced tootsies!

Dusting off my photos to show you these provided an excuse to reconnect with Chris Miller, the super-talented photographer (check out her Instagram too) who was beyond kind to gift them to my sweetie and me. Back when she shot them, we both worked for the Beach Reporter, a Manhattan Beach community weekly. I reported on Hermosa Beach and, In addition to her work as an event fotog, at the time she was the publication’s photojournalist.

Wedding party photo of Khashayar and da-AL. It seems like yesterday when you’re having fun…

Back to our esteemed guest: Alka was born in Jodhpur, Rajasthan, India. At the age of nine, she moved to the U.S. As a Stanford University grad, she’s worked in advertising and PR, and owned a marketing consultancy. On top of all that, she has a Creative Writing MFA from Cal Arts San Francisco. The Henna Artist is her first book. In way less than a year, it’s a huge success! The sequel, The Secret Keeper of Jaipur, is set for July, plus the third book in the trilogy for 2022. And — she’s an executive producer for the novel’s upcoming Miramax TV series!

Read on for her thoughts on women in India. Note that it’s not just India — unfortunately, I’ve met women architects in the U.S. who encounter discrimination here too…

Alka Joshi, author of Alka Joshi, author of “The Henna Artist” and more!…

“The Sari vs. Modern India” by Alka Joshi

In January 2019, the Architecture faculty at Ansal University in Gurgaon, just outside New Delhi, received an email from the registrar to attend a convocation.

Architecture faculty at Ansal University in Gurgaon's news bulletin board. Architecture faculty at Ansal University in Gurgaon’s news bulletin board.

It requested formal dress: “trouser, coat and tie for men” and “saris for women.”

Students wear western clothes. Students wear western clothes.

This sparked a lively, funny, albeit very polite, conversation on WhatsApp among the female faculty, who normally wear trousers, Western blouses/tops, or salwar kameez (long tunics with legging-like bottoms) most days.

“I may not wear a sari…I don’t even own one!”

“I do not even know how to wear a sari.”

“[I’m] not against saris. But at 7:30 in the morning, especially when I’m not used to it is definitely a challenge.”

“Can’t tie one at 7am and drive…and get through the day!”

“No sari. Impossible to wear and report at 7:30 in the morning.”

“Why a sari at all?”

“If the women must wear a sari, wouldn’t a *dhoti be more in sync for the men?”

*(Now mostly worn by village men, a dhoti is a white cloth from five to seven yards in length, wrapped loosely around the legs and tied in a knot at the waist. While dhotis have gone out of fashion, saris are still a mainstay of female couture for weddings, special occasions and family gatherings.)

This Adjunct Prof of Architecture chose to leave her sari (if she has one) at home. This Adjunct Prof of Architecture chose to leave her sari (if she has one) at home.

“We are all sensible enough to know what to wear. Most of us might even have worn saris to the event without being asked. But when you tell us exactly what to wear, we are going to have something to say,” laughs Monisha Sharma, associate professor. “Our Dean, who is female, told us to just look as smart as we do every day, so that’s what we’ll do.”

Associate Professor Monisha Sharma prefers a salwar kameez over a sari when she’s teaching. Associate Professor Monisha Sharma prefers a salwar kameez over a sari when she’s teaching.

In addition to teaching in the Architecture school, these women are working architects. At construction sites they are often greeted with curious expressions: Can women really be architects? Are these women here to tell us what to do?

One professor told me that she had organized a site visit to a factory for her students. When they got to the site, the founder only responded to the junior male faculty who had accompanied her, choosing not to acknowledge her at all. 

Similarly, a female architect who was managing a project for her father’s structural engineering firm was not being consulted by the construction team until her father ordered them to talk only to her. She was, after all, the project manager and the only one who could answer their questions.

Architecture Professor in India. “At 7:30 in the morning, I don’t have time to gather and pleat a sari. It’s a lot of work!”

To someone like me, who’s been raised in the West since the age of nine, it’s surprising that the women’s reaction is not anger (that would have been my response, along with bewilderment and confusion). 

Instead, the Indian women laugh it off. “We have already made our mark in our profession,” they say. “We don’t need to hit them over the head with it.”

At the convocation, the female faculty wore Western trouser suits. Not a sari in sight.

There’s more than one way to make a statement.

Are dress codes unbiased where you work?…

Mythical Greek Inspo for Writers (Made Easy) by Dionysius

Victory of Samothrace ready for liftoff at the top of the Louvre’s entrance. By Lyokoï88 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=39152792
Victory of Samothrace ready for liftoff at the top of the Louvre’s entrance. By Lyokoï88 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=39152792

Melodrama, romance, intrigue, mystery, mysticism, pragmatism — oh, wait, not the last one… If you’re looking for inspiration for writing or for reading excitement, check out Greek mythology!

Goddesses and gods, mortals, the blending of both — doesn’t that sound like Stan Lee comicbook territory? Surely he sorted through ancient myths to fashion superheroines and superheroes. Star Trek and Star Wars makers must’ve too.

Admittedly the Greek tales of olden times can be challenging. Every poetically written story is jam-packed with enough intrigue to rival a binge-watch of Days of Lives, a still-running daily soap opera that first aired in 1965 and I once upon a time worked as an extra for… but that’s another story.

South Carolina blogger Dionysius has the same monicker as the multi-cultural god/superhero who oversees everything from wine to fertility and ecstasy to madness. Some argue that Dionysus the god is really Jesus. Our guest, Dionysius, created his New Classical blog “to create a new contemporary literature deeply rooted in classic literary traditions… not to repeat old and dead literary traditions, but to rediscover what is living and vibrant in them today.”

Read on for a peek into how Dionysius sees classic literature… 

Bacchus by Charles Lucy (English, 1692 - 1767). Courtesy of Wikipedia. Bacchus by Charles Lucy (English, 1692 – 1767). Courtesy of Wikipedia.

A brief summary and analysis of Euripedes’s “The Bacchae” by Dionysius

Summary

Prior to the events of The Bacchae, Dionysus is born from the love affair of Zeus and the mortal Semele. When he is born, his mortal family denies that he is the son of Zeus and refuses to give him worship. Dionysus then leaves Thebes and journeys to the east, where he gathers his cult of female worshippers, the maenads. The Bacchae opens when he returns to Thebes with his maenads to take vengeance on his family. He starts by luring the Theban women, including his aunts, into the forest around Mt. Cithaeron, where they join the maenads. This angers Pentheus, the king and Agave’s (Semele’s sister) son. After Pentheus fails to arrest and subdue Dionysus and the maenads, he is lured into the forest by Dionysus’s offer to look at them. In order to watch the maenads without being noticed, Dionysus tells him that he must dress as a woman. Pentheus complies and imitates the image and mannerisms of the maenads. When he arrives, his body is torn apart by them and by his own mother. Under the spell of Dionysus, she carries his head through Thebes, parading it, thinking that it is the head of a lion she caught during a hunt. When she is made aware of what she has done and whose head she’s been carrying, she falls into grief. The drama ends with Dionysus casting her and the royal family out of Thebes.

Maenads – The Mystery of Woman

Pentheus being torn by maenads. Roman fresco from the northern wall of the triclinium in the Casa dei Vettii (VI 15,1) in Pompeii. Courtesy of Wiki: Marisa Ranieri Panetta (ed.): Pompeji. Geschichte, Kunst und Leben in der versunkenen Stadt. Belser, Stuttgart 2005, ISBN 3-7630-2266-X, p. 366 Pentheus being torn by maenads. Roman fresco from the northern wall of the triclinium in the Casa dei Vettii (VI 15,1) in Pompeii. Courtesy of Wiki: Marisa Ranieri Panetta (ed.): Pompeji. Geschichte, Kunst und Leben in der versunkenen Stadt. Belser, Stuttgart 2005, ISBN 3-7630-2266-X, p. 366

The Bacchae revolves around the mystery of difference. Particularly sexual difference and cultural difference. This is seen clearly by the depiction of Dionysus’s maenads. That they are a cult of women and that Dionysus gathered them in the east is of significance here. In The Bacchae, the feminine, or the idea of Woman, takes on the form of the unknown. Like a woman behind a veil, there is mystery, temptation, and fear associated with the maenads. This is portrayed most clearly by the way Pentheus relates to them. At first, it is with fear, responding to the maenads with force and violence. Then, when it proves that the feminine is impossible to control or subdue, when the captured maenads escape his prison and most definingly when Dionysus(posing as a young mortal priest) himself escapes, Pentheus gives in to temptation at Dionysus’s first request to take him to look at the maenads. He goes as far as to dress as a woman and imitate their dances and appearances.

The temptation that is displayed here is twofold. It is the temptation not only to satiate his desires by seeing the bodies of the women, but also and more fundamentally, to be one of the maenads and experience their enjoyment. While the first temptation fits into a traditional male standpoint of desire, what is significant about the second temptation is that he is not merely taking the maenads as an object of desire, rather his desire is to assume the subjective position of the maenads, of “Woman” and their feminine enjoyment. What is revealed here is that his anger at the maenads was all along based in his own envy of their enjoyment.

Pentheus never understood what the condition for this enjoyment was.

The very condition for the sublime bliss that Pentheus sought after is a primordial unity of being. An overflow of life and nature. It is because the maenads abandon their individual identities and place in the Theban social order, that they can participate in this primordial unity. Their individuality is suspended for the tribal enjoyment of dance, ritual, hunt, and fertility. They participate seamlessly with nature and become a part of the overflowing development of life. Beyond the enjoyment that Pentheus sought, the “[…] Sweet streams of honey dripping,” this condition, is also at the same time the condition for an inhuman terror. This is displayed most clearly when he is torn apart by his own mother and the other maenads.

Unseen Essence

Four Caryatids at Erechtheum Acropolis, Athens: Wikimedia Commons Four Caryatids at Erechtheum Acropolis, Athens: Wikimedia Commons

What must be remembered is that what appears as purely negative in tragedy also has a positive dimension. This is the pinnacle of Greek tragic wisdom. Why does Woman present itself as the apocalypse of man in this tragedy? It is because of an original betrayal of the feminine reality committed by the mortal family of Dionysus. By his entire family when they initially rejected him, and by Pentheus when he returned. This is what causes the breakdown of the Theban social order and the revenge of Woman.

In the same way that Woman is a constitutive element of the reality of sex, including the reality of man. The Dionysian rituals that the maenads take part in, that return to a primordial being and oneness, are constitutive of the Theban social order. It is even the root of the Theban social order. The unconscious reality of Thebes exists as the basis for its conscious and institutional realities.

It is precisely because the rituals of Dionysus exist outside of Thebes, in the rituals of the maenads on Mt. Cithaeron, that it is the base of Theban society. It is precisely because the maenads are all women whose rituals are constitutive of the male Theban social order. And it is precisely because the maenads come from the east that they constitute the western social order of Thebes. Dionysus and his cult are the external essences of Theban society. Essence, unlike appearance, is always unseen.

Dionysus of the Night

Bacchus and Ariadne by Carlo Maratta: Wikimedia Commons Bacchus and Ariadne by Carlo Maratta: Wikimedia Commons

The place that Dionysus dwells in is the contradiction between appearance and essence.

Dionysus embodies this contradiction. He is returning from the east, and yet he was born in the west. He leads a cult of women, and yet he is a man. He is divine, and yet his mother is mortal. This contradiction is like the black of night, where one thousand stars shine. The failure of his mortal family to respect it, and to respect their own essence, is what leads to the breakdown of Thebes.

Visit Dionysius at his New Classical blog, his Twitter page, and his Facebook page.

I’ve always wanted to put on a cape, stretch out my arms, take a running jump, and whoosh! — feel the wind in my face, inhale the fragrance of treetops as I soar high into the clouds. Picture me Super-da-AL or Winged Victory of Samothrace ready for liftoff at the top of the Louver’s entrance.

What superpower would you want?

Got Inner Critic(s)? Meet Annie’s and mine

Charles Schultz, the creator of “Peanuts,” did other stuff besides that comic strip. It’s said he battled his own gang of gremlins. Lucy, the psychiatrist from hell, for one…
Charles Schultz, the creator of “Peanuts,” made other work besides that comic strip. It’s said he battled his own gang of gremlins. Lucy, the psychiatrist from hell, for one. (Peanuts image courtesy of pixy.org)

My inner jerks specialize in novel writing. Inner criticizing is just the beginning — they’re outer and everywhere.

A tongue-twisting ditty to be sung to whatever tune strikes your fancy:

“Here a critic… There a critic… Everywhere a crit, critty, critical critic…”

Moreover, mine barge in with droves of friends.

Have you got any? If not, how the heck do you pull that off?

I could list mine for days and days: Why you takin’ so long with them books you keep talkin’ ‘bout? Ya really gotta do that instead of this or those things or them stuff right now? Lookie here, there’s this to do that’s way more pressing and tons more fun! You’re wasting your time, so scrap that durned project already, just quit it. What in tarnation gave you the notion you could write anything of interest to anyone but you? People are just being polite when they compliment your work, don’t you know that? Who in their right mind will want to read your novels, much less spend hard-earned cash-ola on them? Seriously, if they do, they won’t finish them. And if they finish them, they won’t talk about them. For sure, if they talk about them, they won’t say anything nice. And promotion — you gotta be kidding me! — what do you know about that?

Some days, those are the nicer things I tell myself.

Read on, and you’ll see how Annie, a blogger from the United States east coast, makes perfect sense when she encourages us to name our inner critics.

Like my own name of da-AL, mine has a hyphenated moniker. “Them” goes by “A-Holes.”

How about you? What’s your inner demon(s) named? Maybe yours and mine could meet for drinks, get really plastered together, and meantime leave us alone for a spell?

More about today’s guest: Annie is a writer of many things, including poetry. In the past, she has even earned some real money from her writing! Here’s her advice — and a question for which I have no answer but send her lots of good wishes in solving it — for all of us. She blogs about whatever she pleases, including stuff that makes her and maybe us laugh…

Annie, a blogger and professional writer, gives her inner critic the one-two punch!
Annie, a blogger and professional writer, knows how to give her inner critic the one-two punch!

“My Attempts to Play Nice With My Inner Critic” by Annie

Whether or not you practice mindfulness meditation, as I have for several years, you are probably familiar with the voice known as the Inner Critic. It’s that part of us that says: “I’m such a dope!” “I’ll never be what I hope to be.” “How could I have done that?” “I just don’t measure up!” “My father/mother was right/wrong about me.” “Sure, I’m doing fine, but that’s because people really don’t know that I’m winging it.” “I’m not bright enough, attractive enough, witty enough, kind enough, tall enough, thin enough, tough enough, strong enough, sensitive enough, thoughtful enough…”

You get the picture. That negative voice has long been with us, often from childhood, from societal messages, maybe from a single cruel teacher, and on and on. I was raised by two loving parents. My mother felt I could do no wrong, but I still recall my father casting a questioning eye on my report card and asking: “What’s this A-minus?” 

The origins of the Inner Critic form a complex topic that I’m barely touching on here. But I know that I’m still the A student who goes nuts when autocorrect incorrectly changes “well” to “we’ll”—and I fail to catch it! Is that worth an iota of energy or distress? Of course not.

The Inner Critic certainly interferes with the goal of mindfulness coined by Jon Kabat-Zinn: “the awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally.” Nonjudgmentally, indeed!

Several years ago, I wrote an article about mindfulness for an online women’s magazine. One of my interviewees was Sharon Salzberg, a renowned mindfulness educator and author who cofounded the highly regarded Insight Meditation Society at Barre, Massachusetts with two other giants in the field.

Salzberg’s special area of interest is lovingkindness, which begins with one’s self and then extends outward in ever larger circles to loved ones, friends, acquaintances, and the entire world.

Salzberg, who has written that her childhood troubles started her on a path that led to Buddhism in India decades ago, said she is constantly aware of her Inner Critic. How to deal with this negativity? She suggests giving your Inner Critic a name.

She named hers Lucy, after the famous Charles Schulz comic character who tells her hapless friend: “The problem with you, Charlie Brown, is that you’re you.” I asked her if I could adopt Lucy, and she agreed.

But I soon realized that borrowing someone else’s inner critic doesn’t work. I needed my own. I named her “Flibberty,” which is short for “flibbertigibbet.” That’s a Middle English term for a flighty, excessively talkative person, a gossip.

One of the reasons I’m happy with Flibberty is that although she’s a pain in the gut (that’s where I experience stress), her name includes the word “liberty.” I know I must free myself from the heavy burdens that Flibberty sometimes bestows upon me. 

Mindfulness practitioners learn that you never try to fight with these negative forces; doing so simply enlarges their impact. Rather, you seek peaceful coexistence. When Flibberty rears her officious head, I say, “Oh, there you are, Flibberty. How ya doing?” That’s generally enough to move my mind into a better place.

Lately, however, perhaps because I’m essentially housebound due to COVID-19, Flibberty has been flitting about in my vicinity quite a bit. I’d call her a “FlitBit” who’s gauging my absence of activity, rather than the reverse, but then I’d be exposing my propensity for bad puns. I’d never want to do that!

Flibberty covets my desk. She tells me I’m being ridiculous, working in such a messy space. She laughs knowingly when my TV remote won’t work because the old New Yorker magazines are piled so high on the table in front of my couch that they block the signal.

Now here’s the tricky part, and I welcome your suggestions. I often write blog posts that require research, and I type them on my computer before cutting and pasting them into my blog. I then add the printouts of my collected newspaper and magazine articles—and my printed out computer entries—to the piles of previous papers that surround me.

The piles are increasing in both numbers and height. Some are approaching the tottering stage. 

Have you heard of the Collyer brothers, who hoarded books, newspapers, and other items to such an extent that when their bodies were found, they were surrounded by 140 tons of stuff? 

I haven’t reached that level, but I do wonder whether my Inner Critic’s reminders about what I’m failing to do with my papers might actually be positive after all. So I say, “OK, Flibberty, let’s attack this pile.”

I pick up a bunch of papers, look through them, wonder what to do with them, and set them aside. And then I tell Flibberty that I appreciate her concern, I really do, and I will get to them in good time.

I feel so much better. Flibberty is quiet.

But the piles are flourishing—testimony to my diligent work. And still…

If we weren’t in the middle of a pandemic, I might hire an organizer to help me through this mini-crisis. If I were bolder, I could just throw all the papers into the shredder and move on. (Never mind, Flibberty; forget what I said about being bolder.) 

And thereby hangs my dilemma. Can you, kind readers, presumably some of whom are better organized than I, provide some common-sense suggestions concerning what I do and do not need to keep for posterity? I want to ensure that the contents of my blog are intact as a legacy for my family.

Or will you encourage me to just say, “Screw it, Flibberty. We’re doing fine. We can both relax.”

In other words, am I using Flibberty as a balm—or an excuse?

Flibberty and disorder notwithstanding, my wish is that you, we, and the entire world be filled with lovingkindness…

Annie

How about you? Got an inner critic to comment on below?…

Gandhi, Hitler, a Book, & Dog/God by da-AL plus Cheryl Batavia’s poem

“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” — supposedly Mahatma Gandhi said that. (Isn’t this picture of him great? He’s drafting a document at Birla House, Mumbai, August 1942. My novel-writer side can’t help but wonder if he knew that writing longhand enhances creativity — and I bet intelligence!) First off, he didn’t….

Gandhi drafting a document at Birla House, Mumbai, August 1942.
By Kanu Gandhi – gandhiserve.org, Public Domain.

Second off, if anyone said it, is it true? I love animals and have followed a vegetarian diet for years. All the same, I’m definitely nowhere near a saint, particularly given my now-and-again deviations into the hypocracy of eating fish. My father was wicked to his family, yet tears rolled down his cheeks when he heard that local geese were slaughtered. Hitler and was a vegetarian for the last part of his life. And he adored his dog, Blondi

Photo of Hitler with a dog.
Hitler & dog. Photo by Bundesarchiv, B 145 Bild-F051673-0059 / CC-BY-SA, CC BY-SA 3.0 de

What I know for sure is that when I see someone acting kindly toward an animal, it makes me feel like there’s a soul somewhere within their despicableness…

Scratch the last paragraph — that was just my lazy brain leaning on clichés to please you with niceties, gentle reader. It was my typing falling into well-worn grooves of platitudes. Really, if someone is mean and shows neither remorse nor interest in reforming themselves, if people around them erect the scaffolding to sustain their meanness… well… Delving into morality is too lengthy to weave into this post.Cover of "Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey," by Kathleen Rooney

Here, look! My fingers have switched gears to copy this for you: a paragraph from wise and poetic Kathleen Rooney’s latest novel. She was a Happiness Between Tails guest to tell about her amazing Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk, and then to tell us about her newest tale, Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey. Her Cher Ami book is written in the style of first-person characterizations of various humans and Cher Ami, a true-life heroic pigeon who saved many World War I soldiers’ lives.

The most dazzling chapters are those through Cher Ami’s eyes. I’m about halfway through the book and am most recently awed by this bit of feathered philosophizing. Cher Ami thinks this about the soldiers:

“Sometimes they renamed animals as different animals. They called the canned corned beef in their rations “monkey meat” and referred to their body lice as “shirt rabbis.” They’d pick the insects off one another, comparing themselves to apes grooming in some great gray zoo. I could tell that many of the men felt terribly lonely, helpless and estranged from their fellow soldiers, but they were never alone and never powerless thanks to all the life that depended on them, the lice and the rats and the mice. Each man was the miserable monarch of a kingdom that squirmed with vermin, one that consisted of the dirt and the bit of sky each one could see from the dirt of their feet in their boots, of their boots in the mud — a kingdom all but indistinguishable from a grave.” An excerpt from Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey, by Kathleen Rooney, who also wrote marvelous Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk.

About dogs…

So okay, I’m not one to dwell on whether ”God,” the kind with a capital “G,” exists. But the fact that Dog spells God backwards in English — isn’t that an interesting metaphor for how even the worst dirtbags among us can experience the love of a dog? (Here’s a post where I dip another toe into that conversation.)

Dogs… their lives are far far too short!!!! They get better and better with age, more perceptive of our needs, more adoring of us, and ready to kiss us for our slightest kindness. Just the other night, my husband mistakenly called our current dear doggie by the name of one of our two dogs who passed away — when? yesterday? two years ago? — either feels not much different at times (a bit about that here and more on it here). My heart goes out to a good friend who sweet Bambi-faced furry girl passed away recently… In these times of the COVID pandemic especially, our pets do so much for us. It’s no wonder that more folks are adopting furry family lately.

Now here’s Cheryl Batavia, a.k.a. The Gulf Coast Poet, to put smiles on our faces. A nature-lover, she blogs from Florida and has published books for all ages. She can also be reached via email.

Photo of Cheryl Batavia at Manasota Beach, FL, Gulf of Mexico, by Stephanie Snow Photography.
Photo of Cheryl Batavia at Manasota Beach, FL, Gulf of Mexico, by Stephanie Snow Photography.

Tribute to a Family Dog; In loving memory of Clifford, 2001-2015

Copyright© 2020 by Cheryl Batavia, a.k.a. The Gulf Coast Poet

Enthusiasm

Your spirit is enthusiasm!

When you wag your tail,

your entire body shimmies.

You leap high into the air

to catch popcorn in your mouth,

drool at the dairy drive-thru,

anticipating your ice cream cone.

You swim far out into the lake,

to fetch a stick…

and swim back to fetch again.

You run alongside a wheelchair

that travels eight miles an hour,

keep pace with kids

on rollerblades and bicycles.

When I come home from work,

you greet me at the door,

all four feet in the air!

Clifford at age fourteen. Photo by Cheryl Batavia.
Clifford at age fourteen. Photo by Cheryl Batavia.

Friendliness

Friendliness is your persona!

You show open-hearted affection

for family, friends, neighbors…

and kindly strangers.

Grandmothers are your favorites…

The feeling is mutual!

The vet, when you are boarded,

locates you in a run where you can

greet all those who come and go…

You are overjoyed!

Katey Batavia and Clifford at Miami Beach, FL. Photo by Cheryl Batavia.
Katey Batavia and Clifford at Miami Beach, FL. Photo by Cheryl Batavia.

Love

Your aura is love!

Love radiates from your eyes,

shimmers from your wagging tail.

Love is you resting near us,

ignoring the sassy new cat,

not snatching the Thanksgiving

turkey cooling on the countertop.

Somehow, you know we’ll share.

Love is barking at things

that go “bump” in the night.

Love is wet kisses, warm cuddles,

and sharing group hugs.

Joe and Katey Batavia joined Clifford in his crate. Photo by Cheryl Batavia.
Joe and Katey Batavia joined Clifford in his crate. Photo by Cheryl Batavia.

Empathy

Empathy is in your soul!

You have a silly smile,

know family members by name,

understand most of what we say.

You talk to us with

unintelligible vocalizations…

We try really hard to understand!

You are happy when we are happy.

You comfort us when we are sad.

When we are injured,

you lick our wounds.

Petted and praised,

you know you are loved!

Tell us — what are your thoughts about the bonds between humans and the rest of the creature world? Or about anything else you want to discuss?…

Astrology in Novels: Nina Romano’s Inspo

In high school, a classmate who was as passionate about reading as I was sat near me. Best friendship was in our stars!

The carvings with Chinese Zodiac on the ceiling of the gate to Kushida Shrine in Fukuoka (mirror image, to have animals in the correct order). Photo By Jakub Hałun - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=64844306 The carvings with Chinese Zodiac on the ceiling of the gate to Kushida Shrine in Fukuoka (mirror image, to have animals in the correct order). Photo By Jakub Hałun – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

Her preferred reading was historical fiction, the ancient sort with mythology and astrology mixed in. Thanks to her, I read a bunch by Mary Renault, an English author who lived much of her life in South Africa. Those books depicted lots of buff gay guys from olden days. Ironically, a) in South Africa Renault could live more peacefully than in the U.K. with her life partner who was also a woman, b) she often portrayed women harshly, and c) she criticized the gay rights movement.

My friend also introduced me to “Linda Goodman’s Sun Signs.” (Here’s a rare video interview with Goodman.) For me, Goodman was worthy of extra esteem as she was Aries, the same as me. When it came to Aries, all compliments were correct and unflattering attributes were incorrect. Until, that is, at some point in my so-called maturity when I tossed astrology into the same bundle as my Catholic upbringing. Both harbored too many confounding and disturbing aspects, so best not to fret about either.

Not so much later, though, a new friend entered who was into astrology. Charts, she explained, are how astrology becomes scientific. She introduced me to Angela Louise Gallo, a master at charting the stars. Gallo read and taught from her home in Van Nuys, which is just above Hollywood, hence she garnered a sizable entertainment biz crowd of followers.

Gallo’s monthly talks culminated with “hororary” readings, as in “hour-related” since those forecasts tied her psychic powers to the time of night when she would take questions. From slips of paper handed to her, she’d give quickie predictions. I’d parted ways with my parents as soon as I graduated high school with no plan other than survival. By the time I met Gallo those few years later, I’d collected myself enough to realize that I needed to do better. I asked Gallo whether I should sign up for college. She answered, “Wait a couple of semesters. Soon you’ll be taking a long trip.”

That month my grandmother sent me an airplane-paid invitation to visit her in Argentina! During childhood, my grandmothers and I exchanged many letters. They were fantastic in all the ways that mattered to me: they didn’t sugar-coat life, they wanted the best for me, and they helped foster the writer in me who will eventually publish Flamenco & the Sitting Cat and Tango & the Sitting Cat. I loved them dearly, sight unseen. The one in Spain I first met when I was nine. It wasn’t until my early twenties that I got to hug my Abuela in Buenos Aires.

After that trip, I hired Gallo to do a detailed chart, yet I can’t remember anything about it, including what happened to it. These days, I’d rather not presuppose anyone based on their birthday, and I prefer to bumble along as best I can when it comes to my future.

Yet I still adore stories about astrology!

In this admittedly roundabout way, I present to you, dear reader, today’s poet/novelist guest, Nina Romano, who writes from Florida and Utah. Originally from New York, she’s a world traveler who’s earned degrees and writing awards galore, plus she’s published a slew of books.

Here she generously recounts the way that Chinese astrology figured into her The Secret Language of Women, the first of her Wayfarer Trilogy. Read to the end for an excerpt from it in addition to links for Nina and her writings.

Writer Nina Romano. Writer Nina Romano.

How Chinese Horoscopes Helped Me Develop a Realistic Protagonist by Nina Romano

For The Secret Language of Women, the first book of my Wayfarer Trilogy, I decided my main character Lian’s horoscope would be the Year of the Dog. Knowing her horoscope facilitated my understanding of the protagonist’s psyche for this novel. Since the book is set in China, I used Lian’s Chinese Zodiac sign to learn about her qualities and personality traits intimately so that she appeared genuine yet flawed. She is a warm and caring being, a healer, courageous and intelligent. When a person born under this sign falls in love, they do not ever change.

Loyalty and honesty are two of this horoscope sign’s characteristics. Lian falls in love with Giacomo, an Italian sailor, and remains faithful to that love, despite the fact that she is forced into a loveless marriage. Her quest is a difficult one, but she chooses to follow her path despite menaces, oppositions, troubles, risks, and dangers. She is fierce in her love and faithful to everything she believes concerning it.

Having visited China several times afforded me unique experiences that enabled me to see in person Hong Kong, Beijing, and its fabulous Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square, and Lian’s enchanting city of Guilin. I was able to envision Lian’s travels and travails in war-torn China, an era suffused in superstition, intrigue, culture, and history. I incorporated the themes and things I care about, such as love, family, food and recipes, art, dragons and horses. Why? Simply because it’s straightforward to write what I know and have feelings for, and all of these ideas translated well even to a novel set in China during the Boxer Rebellion. My own horoscope is the Year of the Horse, so I made sure I had an important role for a horse in this novel, and I’m positive that my horoscope had an incredible influence on my stars being aligned because I signed a contract for a three-book deal for my Wayfarer Trilogy with Turner Publishing during the Year of the Horse.

While writing this novel, I pictured what happens during the Chinese New Year: careful cleaning of the house, the distributing of red envelopes, Lian cooking on a wok, and serving rice to her beloved.

Since this story takes place in China where live fish, most especially carp, are good Fengshui, which according to Wikipedia, is a “philosophical system of harmonizing everyone with the surrounding environment.” For this reason, I describe a pool with carp in the Summer Palace in Chapter 1, where Lian meets the love of her life. Do I believe in the influence of horoscopes and how they can help round out a character? Of that, there is little doubt.

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Excerpt from The Secret Language of Women by Nina Romano

The things that test you and are vanquished bring everlasting joy. The differences between traditional written Chinese and Nüshu, the secret language of women, made it difficult for me to learn it. My mother and grandmother could not write Chinese and learned Nüshu when they were young and wanted me to grasp it too. I cannot say they harped on me or were tyrannical, but I will say they were insistent, and for this I am eternally indebted.

My mother said it challenged me because I wrote like a man and didn’t have to rely solely on Nüshu, the way they did to communicate with other women. The ideograms of Chinese correspond to a word or part of one, whereas each of the seven hundred characters of Nüshu represent a syllable— women’s language is phonetic, in Chéngguān dialect 城关土话, adaptable and pliant for singing, poetry and writing with such delicate strokes they appear as lines of feathers.

Though learning was problematical, I mastered it, like I do all things I set my mind to

conquer. At the time, I resented the study of it, yet I knew innately one day I would be grateful to possess the knowledge and skill of this secret language, which would offer me strength and solace for a lifetime. And although I was writing in Nüshu, for some reason, I signed with flourish in Chinese: Wǒ Lián. I am Lian. 

Amazon Author — hardcover, softcover print, and Kindle: The Secret Language of Women & Lemon Blossoms & In America — softcover print and Kindle: The Girl Who Loved Cayo Bradley.

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Has astrology helped you with storytelling and anything else?