Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Six Months of Sunrise: Joyous Feasts of Light

Six months ago come Christmas Day my husband and I moved from our house in the woods in the fold of a stream valley to High Valley. Because of the pond (affectionately known as Lake Almosta) there is much more sky, much more places from which to observes the comings and goings of great celestial bodies. It has become my practice to go outside and greet the sun every morning, veiled in clouds or not. It has been thrilling to track the sun’s journey to the southeastern sky and my own corresponding trek around the pond to catch the first light. 

Winter cold has not been a deterrent, and I have discovered that no matter how unpromising the dawn looks from inside, outside it is always an event. The birds agree, and I always look to see which ones are gathered in the bare top of the tallest spruce, which accommodates hawks, crows, and sparrows by turns.

 Many people see dawn because they have to commute. All three of my jobs are right here, so I get to see the sunrise only because I want to. Sometimes I think it matters, that greeting the sun is one of our tasks as humans. The practice has changed my life and gotten me through a major depression, which now seems to be lifting. When I can, I watch the sunset, too.

 If I ran for president (or perhaps ruler of the world) my platform would be simple. Everyone stop everything at sunrise and sunset. Just be still and remember where you are: riding through bright dark unfathomable immensity on a whirling, circling, beautiful bit of dust.

I close with some December poems in the form of tanka (5-7-5-7-7 syllables)
Wishing you all joyous feasts of light as the year dawns!

 outside my window
the intricacy of trees
by winter revealed
black sinuous branches bared
leaf-bereft, ablaze with stars


whatever weather
all mornings are beautiful
when you are outside
this one: grey, soft as my cat
warm wind swirling clouds and trees 

moon and sun

across the dance floor
bright dim dawn and evening skies
the two dancers gaze
moon and sun in earth’s dark wings
bathed in their love light I spin 


winter made a rough draft
a sketchy sheet of thin ice
erased by warm rain
now back to the blank wet pond
with a cold determined wind

triple sunrise

first clearing earth’s rim
then one cloud and another
thrice I greet the sun
each time the brightest of stars
a match struck to light the world

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Secrets Lives: Interview with Barbara Ardinger, Part Two

Welcome to the second half of my interview with Barbara Ardinger, Ph.D. We are talking about her newly released novel Secret Lives and its host of bodicious characters from the ages of thirteen to "pert near a hundred."

(Attention last minute shoppers. Here's the link to buy Secret Lives!)

Secret Lives has an interesting structure. There are themes and characters that thread through the whole book, but each chapter has a distinct focus on a distinct issue—new love for an older character, a rocky moment in the marriage for a younger one; her daughter’s coming of age; homelessness; medical malpractice; cancer, to name only a few. Then there are the less quotidian problems—some misplaced Norns from the Midwest wreaking havoc with the weather. Can you say a little about how you chose the novel’s structure? Were there elements in the story that took you by surprise?

The book comprises twenty-seven braided stories. I began by writing the story that became Ch. 1, then more characters appeared and I wrote more stories. Yes, some of the elements did surprise me—the inquisitor, Jacoba’s cancer. Madame Blavatsky was a very loud surprise. I did not expect a talking cat. Friends also made suggestions as I wrote. One friend said Bertha should have been a stripper when she was young; another friend suggested what happens to her as the book progresses. Another friend suggested karmic fleas as a result of Blavatsky’s mischief and the circle’s reversing spell. People said Millie was boring, so I gave her a mid-life crisis. I love to write revisionist fairy tales, so that’s where Celestia Wolfe came from, plus the letter she delivers (which still brings tears to my eyes when I read it) is the denoument of an earlier story. I met some older women who were active volunteers with senior citizens, and one of them mentioned that old women often get sold out of their homes, so that was the beginning of Sarah Baxter’s story. Hannah’s dream of the floors falling out of her mother’s house comes from nightmares I had after my beloved grandfather died. One day I saw a pile of rags under a bush in the city of Orange, and when I bent down to look closer, I saw eyes looking back at me; that tiny incident turned into Coyote’s story. There are “real life” elements in every story. But at the same time, the characters dictated and acted out the stories. It’s magical realism plus the craft of writing.

To this day, I have no idea quite where the weather war came from. I don’t know anyone who has been in and steered a cone of power. I needed to make the Wintergreens’ threat against the circle real enough to wound the women and lead to the final diaspora that ends the book. (Secret Lives is thus bookended by diasporas. We need to be outward bound, and the cliché that when a door closes another one opens is true.)

Writing the weather war was the hardest work in the whole book. I had to make it dramatic and scary without turning it into a cartoon or a really bad 3D movie. I chose to see the war through Brooke’s eyes because she’s young and strong, but also intellectual and highly unlikely to have any experience in magical warfare. I also had to tie Matthew more closely to her and the circle, so he became a warrior in service to the crones. I don’t know how many times I rewrote those three chapters. The Wintergreen sisters were also hard to write because I didn’t want them to be foolish, though I knew someone who spoke in malapropisms like Hazel, and I bet everyone has met a flirt like Myrtle. But the Norns are scary! Those three chapters had to show authentic destruction. As the women tell us, a life worshipping the Goddess is not necessarily an easy life. It’s not all pretty rituals and fancy jewelry.

Although I would never describe Secret Lives as didactic, you convey a lot of information about how people practice earth or goddess-centered religion. One poetic thread of the story traces the journey of a shaman from what you call Old Europe. There is also a marvelous send up of a metaphysical church and of a Gardnerian coven that takes itself a bit too seriously. Was giving accurate information on practices many people misunderstand or vilify a strong motivation for writing the novel? Would you tell us a little about your own practice?

There are fifteen rituals in Secret Lives that readers can adapt to their circles … though I’m pretty sure they won’t successfully create any dragons. (Readers—if you do get a dragon, please let me know!)

The prologue, set in Old Europe, is based very carefully on the works of Marija Gimbutas and was corrected by my friend Miriam Robbins Dexter, the protégée of Gimbutas. Old Europe is, basically, the Balkan nations near the Black Sea, plus early Greece. The invasion of the warriors from the Russian steppes is also historically accurate. It’s how the sky and storm gods (Zeus, Jehovah, et al.) came to us.

In my time, I have studied the Aramaic Bible with Dr. Rocco Errico, plus Theosophy and Rosicrucianism. I once belonged to the Edgar Cayce association (I got a nice kiss on the cheek from one of Cayce’s sons). I have taken refuge with Dagmola Jamyang Sakya, been initiated as a Dianic witch by the Circle of Aradia in Los Angeles, and created and facilitated numerous public and private rituals. Today, I’m pretty much solitary (Cairo explains that solitaries don’t belong to organized circles or covens), though I get around. I have friends who are Gardnerians and members of other traditions who shared what they could with me. To this day, a lot of people seem to think that witches are New Age practitioners. Pagans and New Agers have some things in common and borrow a lot (often from each other), but they’re not the same. Explaining the differences is one reason for the chapter about Rev. Debbee and the psychic fair that Bertha and the cat turn into a vaudeville show. (Another reason is that it’s just plain funny and was fun to write.) A friend in the UK who reviewed Secret Lives said she’d met Rev. Debbee (or someone very much like her) at Glastonbury. I think anyone who has ever been to a mainstream metaphysical church has met Rev. Debbee and Gwennie and maybe Donnathea. We see them every day.

One of my intentions in Secret Lives was indeed to teach readers to distinguish between witches (who worship only the Goddess) and neopagans (who worship gods and goddesses) and Gardnerians (who are in the lineage invented by Gerald Gardner) and the mainstream metaphysicians and New Agers. I explain more of this in the FREE READER’S GUIDE. A good friend who is a third-degree Gardnerian gave me information on Gardnerian rituals, but I got the invocations from a website, so there’s nothing oath-bound in the novel. I’m hoping that mainstream readers will enjoy the stories and learn something from them at the same time.

One conflict between the women in the circle is about how open to be, how much or little to reach out to other groups. Emma Clare, the matriarch of a lineage that goes back for generations, is particularly adamant about remaining hidden because her family has suffered persecution. I don’t want to give away plot, but I will say I very much appreciate that you do not sugarcoat the old ways. Did you ever know anyone like Emma Clare? Did you do research to create her character’s background?

No, I’ve never met anyone exactly like Emma Clare, but I went to college in southeast Missouri (the college I call Sagamore State is really Southeast Missouri State University, which was still a college when I was a freshman) and got to know people from the Ozarks. The people of those old mountains have a rich and honorable history. I also did a lot of real library research to get Emma Clare’s Ozark dialect correct and to get the customs in the flashbacks correct. There were “witch women” and conjurers, so Mammy Annis could be based on reality. (There’s also an obvious allusion to the movie The Wicker Man.)

Emma Clare’s obsession with “keeping shet” is real. Even today, Christian fundamentalists picket our rituals held in public parks. (When the Dalai Lama was in Long Beach early in 2011, two bearded men were picketing him, too.) I’ve been harassed myself. Emma Clare’s fear is real, and in 1989-90, neopagans were in real danger in some parts of the U.S. Maybe not so much today, but I listen to the news and hear people like Glenn Beck and the Republican candidates, and say to myself, “Emma Clare was right. Nothing has changed.” Emma Clare looks very much like my ex-husband’s great grandmother, who was 100 years old when I met her in Dexter, Missouri, in 1962. BTW, the story about the Volkswager is true; it happened to me in 1967.

There is a wealth of wonderful, memorable characters in this novel, who, as you note, are as real in their way as we are. Are there any you identity with especially? Were there some that were harder to write than others? Did you do a character study of each one first or did that emerge as the story unfolded? Please give us a little taste of what it might be like to be part of that circle.

One of my favorite characters is Bertha, the circle’s trickster and clown. She gets away with things I wish I could do. But I don’t know anyone who is as powerful as she is. Like Cairo and Brooke, I’m one of the Goddess’s thoughty devotees. (Brooke’s Ph.D. dissertation is my Ph.D. dissertation on Cleopatra.) I’ve known very practical women like Sophie, Verlea is very much like several black women I’ve known, and Herta has elements of my grandmother.

Some people ask how I kept track of so many characters. I made lists! I have lists of their birthdays, of their husbands, of their back stories. I made lists of who was present in any given scene so I didn’t assign dialogue to someone who wasn’t there. For the reader’s convenience, I put a list of characters in the front of the book so readers will know who’s who. Seventeen members of the circle, plus the cat and a ghost. Twenty-seven friends and relatives, including Emma Clare’s ancestors and the shaman. Twenty-four “others,” including Rev. Debbee, two residence managers, the doctor, and more dead people.

Some of the minor characters were harder to write because at first they were less real. I wanted to make Rosa, for example, as three-dimensional as anyone else. Likewise the nurses and Rita and Geneva, the two women who organize the residents of the Towers. It was easy to write Elsie’s asthma attacks (been there, done that), and the black goddess that appears in the prologue and who Jacoba sees in the hospital came to me in the hospital when I had a near-death experience after an asthma attack in 1992. The shaman surprised me when she came back and walked across Europe. I have no idea how she has lived to be 6 ½ thousand years old. But she turned out to be significant—she helps in the weather war and appears in the novel’s final climax when the senior citizens watch the villain get what he deserves. Oh—and that villain … he was suggested by an engineer I once met on a technical writing assignment. Nankhani talks just like him. And, yes, I totally share Cairo’s view of the Super Bowl.

The characters that were the most fun to write were the cat and Frances J. Swift, the residence manager who talks like every corporate memo we’ve ever read. She is redundancy incarnate. But ya gotta feel sorry for her when Madame Blavatsky embodies the Cheshire Cat and starts haunting her. Matthew, the Green Man, was also fun to write; he’s so sexy he almost took over the second half of the book. He has, I confess it, elements of my boy friend when I was writing Secret Lives.

Everything in Secret Lives is real, both real in the sense of older women coping with a society that doesn’t necessarily respect them and magically real. I have been honored to live with them.

Thank you, Dr. Ardinger, for giving us a glimpse into the rich world of Secret Lives. If there is a question haven’t asked that you would like to answer, please do! Also, please include any information you’d like to share about your work as an editor and urls for your website and blogsite!

My day job is editing for beginning authors who are smart people with good ideas but don’t know how to get their ideas down in readable form. They don’t want to embarrass themselves in print, and so they hire me to help them.  http://www.barbaraardinger.com/youreditor  

My hopes for Secret Lives are that (1) I’ll get a return on my investment in it and (2) lots of smart pagan women and smart mainstream women will buy and read it and love the women in the circle as much as I do.

My website: http://www.barbaraardinger.com

My Facebook Secret Lives page: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Secret-Lives/140993335978461

I write a blog every month about the time the sun sign turns. I post it on my home page. Just scroll down. http://www.barbaraardinger.com/

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Secret Lives: interview with Barbara Ardinger, Part One

Night after night I savored Barbara Ardinger’s newly-released novel Secret Lives as a comfort and a treat. The women of the circle welcomed me in as I shared their concerns, their joys, their friendships and their wild and practical magic. Full of wit and warmth, Secret Lives deftly explores a host of timeless and timely issues and in particular gives us an original and compassionate view of older women. I am pleased to offer this interview with my friend and fellow author Barbara Ardinger, Ph.D. Welcome, Barbara!

I’m so glad to “talk” to you. We can share with your readers that I’ve reviewed all of Maeve’s books and I interviewed you (again via email) when one of them came out. I think that was in The Beltane Papers.

You are a prolific writer and have published many works of nonfiction. Is there a difference in your writing process between fiction and nonfiction?

I have the covers of all eight of my books in plastic frames in a column on a wall in my office. Seeing Solutions is about six inches off the floor. Secret Lives is three inches below the ceiling. I’m gazing at this “ego wall” as I write this.

My first book was Seeing Solutions, published as a mass market paperback in 1989. It was a book on guided visualization and more mainstream metaphysical than Goddess spirituality. Next came A Woman’s Book of Rituals & Celebrations (hardcover, then paperback, 1992 and 1995). New World Library asked me to rewrite the Goddess movement history half of it in 2000 as Practicing the Presence of the Goddess. The title says what it’s about. It’s going to available in a Kindle edition pretty soon. Goddess Meditations (1999) was the first book devoted to meditations on various goddesses, including goddesses that I identified with the chakras (up the column from the root chakra—Baba Yaga, Hathor, Oya, Kuan Yin, Sarasvati, the Cumaean Sybil, and Sophia). The book was, alas, taken out of print, but I still get fan mail from readers! I’d love to rewrite it and get it published again.

Next came my first novel, Quicksilver Moon (2003), which is about a coven of witches in Orange Co., where I lived when I first moved to Southern California, that is under attack by an extremist preacher. It’s very realistic … except for the Goddess-worshipping vampire who teaches the women to defend themselves and ends up killing the preacher. I could drive you to the site of nearly everything in the book (well, except for the scene in hell), and most of the characters live in houses where my friends have lived. And the vampire drives a friend’s car. Quicksilver Moon is set in 1999, and Rev. Donnathea, a minor character in Secret Lives, is a major character.

My next two books were nonfiction. Finding New Goddesses (also 2003) is a pun-filled parody of goddess encyclopedias with goddesses I made up. Like Chi-Chi, the goddess of feng shui, and her evil twin, Sha-Na-Na. Verbena, the goddess of wordplay. Chocolata and Vibrata, the goddesses of ecstasy. Pagan Every Day (2006) is a daybook with an essay for every day, including leap year and a year and a day. It’s not just for pagan readers, however; I also wrote about Christian saints, Jewish holy days, the Prophet Mohammad (on the same page as Le Petit Prince), and holy days of the Buddhist, Hindu, and other calendars. It’s in this book that I also named Miss Piggy as The Goddess of Everything, and I wrote a little prayer to Barbie

Hail, Barbie, full of grace,
Mattel is with thee.
Blessed art thou among dolls
And blessed are thy multitudinous accessories.
Holy Barbie, girlfriend of Ken,
Play with us now
And as long as plastic and fabric will last, amen.

You can see that I like parody as well as puns.

When I’m writing nonfiction, I do a lot of research, some online but mostly in books that I own. I pile the books around me and use Post-Its with notes on them for bookmarks.

I think our process for writing fiction is similar. I watch and listen to the characters and act as their amanuensis. But I’m in charge of the craft of writing! I’m in charge of syntax, punctuation, spelling, etc. Like Maeve, the characters in Secret Lives are real women—in their own magical reality, which is not quite this reality. Madame Blavatsky really is the famous occultist transmigrated. (I explain this in the FREE READER’S GUIDE on my website.) At the same time, the characters share characteristics with people I have known in this life. This is not schizophrenia. It’s magical realism. It’s how authors like you and me live and work. I remember that we talked about our craft while we walked around Greenwich Village when I was in New York a few years ago. We work very hard and (not to brag) we’re both very good at what we do. That’s ’cause we’re both fussbudgets.

When you began writing Secret Lives twenty-plus years ago, what moved you to write about a circle of older women many of whom live in a residence for senior citizens? Though your age remains a mystery and indeed you may not have aged at all, do you feel that your vision was prescient? Did you do much rewriting for the newly-published version of Secret Lives?

Who can remember twenty years ago? I have two or three versions of the genesis of Secret Lives. That was about the time Barbara Walker’s The Crone came out, the first book on the subject, and Caroline Harrison (a professor at the Claremont colleges) had just invented the croning ceremony. Also Jessica Tandy had just won her Oscar (at age 80) for Driving Miss Daisy and The Golden Girls was popular on TV. (For more information, see the FREE READER’S GUIDE on my website.)

I took a class on crones taught by a member of Long Beach WomanSpirit (a real organization that is mentioned in Secret Lives). Some of the women in their twenties and thirties kept insisting that “crone is a state of mind.” (And just this year, women in a Yahoo group I belong to said the same thing.) This is nonsense! It devalues older women. I got so mad, I did research and learned that “crone” comes from a Dutch word meaning corpse. About the same time, my first literary agent suggested that I try fiction, so I wrote some short stories about older women. My agent sent the first version of the book to an acquisitions editor at Harper & Row. (This was before Rupert Murdoch bought the company.) The editor wrote back—I have the letter—that she loved the book, but that no one would ever want to read about old women. We still pretty much face that bias. Just look at almost any female on TV, even many of the anchorgirls. The ideal woman is age 19, size 1.

I was 50 then. I’m 70 now. But I’ve heard people say that 70 is the new 50. Maybe so. I’m about as old as Herta, Cairo, and Margaretta now, but even twenty years ago I was hearing that older women don’t feel old. That’s certainly true of the women in Secret Lives. After all, I even wrote an octogenarian sex scene! Was I prescient? I believe I was describing a little-known reality that is coming into greater popular awareness now that the boomers are aging and retiring. I think that today older women have permission—as if they need it!—to act any age they want to.

My second and third literary agents also tried to sell Secret Lives, but none of the big NYC publishers would touch it. Finally, in April 2011 Sherry Wachter said she wanted to typeset and design the book and help me take it to CreateSpace. Bless her! When I first wrote Secret Lives, I lived in Orange Co., but I moved to Long Beach in 1996, so when I decided to self-publish, I moved the women to the historic Rose Park neighborhood in Long Beach and rebuilt the Center Towers on the corner of Temple and 10th Street, a real corner. I also did another edit of the whole book, let my son (who holds an M.A. in English) go through it, and then asked another sharp-eyed friend to read it. She’s the one who found Ralph Lauren spelled Ralph Loren. Nobody had seen that before! Then I sent it to Sherry, who turned it into a beautiful book. My daughter-in-law made the little witch for me and took the cover photos of my real, actual bookshelves.

Thank you, Barbara! Readers, part two of this interview is coming soon with more information about the lively cast of characters is Secret Lives and the author's powerful motivation for revealing them. Meanwhile, do visit Barbara Ardinger at her website and check out her Facebook Secret Lives page.