Guest Blog: The Bite of the Rattler: One Woman’s Path to Healing Through Snake Medicine By Smoky Zeidel

Smoky Zeidel:

Today I was the guest blogger on the fabulous Mare Cromwell’s For the Earth Blog. My topic? The Bite of the Rattler: One Woman’s Path to Healing Through Snake Medicine. Please stop by Mare’s blog and say hello!

Originally posted on For the Earth Blog:

[I am thrilled to post a guest blog by Smoky Zeidel, a rather gifted author (nominated for a Pushcart Prize) and dear friend and fellow Earth Mage*. Smoky and I met on Facebook, that universe of universes, and bonded even more as she helped me with some final edits of my "Messages from Mother.... Earth Mother" book last year. And I'm humbled to say that she invited me to guest blog for her some time back. Smoky is a remarkable person with incredibly inner strength and great Love of Earth Mother, also. She's been struck by lightning and let's just say that her life has been more of an adventure with health, publisher challenges, etc. I'm so excited that Smoky is re-emerging after a bit of a hiatus from writing and the world will be a far better place for this. I absolutely LOVE Smoky's writing. ps. if you…

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Being Demeter

It’s been three months since I posted a blog. Three months of living in hell.

I refuse to live in hell any longer. Time for Smoky to do a Demeter and return from the Underworld, to tell my story and get on with living, and breathing, and creating.

This hell began when I severed my relationship with my publisher in June. I discovered the publisher had not only lied to me on multiple occasions, they also had blatantly breached our contracts, and paid me only a tiny fraction of the royalties due me over the course of our relationship. I have the statements from Amazon and Smashwords to prove this; it isn’t just the statement of a disgruntled author who doesn’t think she’s earning what is due. I earned it. I just never received it from the publisher.

I wasn’t the only author to leave the company this summer. In fact, the majority of the publisher’s authors abandoned ship shortly after I did, realizing, at last, that they, too, had been cheated and scammed. One of them, S.R. Claridge, wrote a fabulous blog post about exactly what went on at the publisher. You can read that here, if you want to know more of the dirty details.

Many of these fine authors have set up their own publishing ventures and gotten their books back “out there” once again. I have not done so. I’m so exhausted from all that goes into writing and promoting books. I did this for seven years. I don’t know if I want to do it anymore.

Unfortunately, that means my beautiful novels, my book about writing, and my essay collections on nature are no longer available. That hurts. For so many years, my identity was tied into those books. Who was Smoky, if she wasn’t Smoky the Author?

As many of you know, I have rather fragile health as a result of being struck by lightning 24 years ago. The stress and trauma of breaking with my publisher over the summer made me physically ill, as stress and trauma do. (My body perceives any stress as a physical assault, like the lightning was a physical assault. Having been hurt so terribly, it’s an automatic reaction to stress, one I have had to learn to live with over the years.) It has taken me these three months to build my strength back up, to try to figure out what to do, where to go, from here.

Will I republish my books, maybe self-publish them? Heaven knows, I won’t ever trust another traditional publisher. But I don’t have the energy to self-publish, at least, not now. So let’s just say that perhaps, in the future, I’ll re-release the books. And perhaps I will not.

Will I write another book? I’ve got a work in progress, The Madam of Bodie. I know the story I want to tell. And, I have a sequel in mind to my last novel, The Storyteller’s Bracelet. Just a rough outline, but the idea is there and growing. So will I write them?

Again … perhaps, and perhaps not. I don’t know if I have the stomach for it anymore.

But that doesn’t mean I’m going to sit on my couch eating bonbons. I’ve got way too much creative energy pent up inside me to do nothing. So I’m using the time I once used to write to pursue other creative endeavors. I’ve started crocheting again, after having abandoned it nearly 30 years ago. I assumed I couldn’t crochet anymore because of the peripheral neuropathy I suffer as a result of the lightning. Turns out moving the hook doesn’t affect the neuropathy at all. As a result, I’ve turned out two beautiful lap afghans, a dozen hats, a slew of potholders, and several pairs of glovelettes to give as gifts to those near and dear to me.

I’ve collected bits and pieces on hikes and camping trips—beautiful, bark-stripped sticks, bones, and other odds and ends, which I’m turning into a wall sculpture. It will be beautiful.

And, I’m returning to my musical roots. Scott is a classical and baroque guitarist as well as a music professor; it was only a matter of time before he got a musical instrument back into my hands. I had 12 years of piano lessons and 10 of flute while I was growing up; music is in my blood as much as nature is in my blood. This past Sunday, Scott took me to the Folk Music Center in Claremont, CA, and bought me a gorgeous mountain dulcimer, made in my beloved Great Smoky Mountains—an instrument I have long yearned to learn how to play.

Working with the wool when I crochet, or the leather bits and bone and wood when I’m creating a piece of wall art, and now, playing music, has healed me. I feel healthy and strong once again. Something I taught back in the day, when I taught creativity workshops, and which I wrote about in my writing book, is that creativity is a living organism, like the human body is a living organism. Both require nourishment. Yes, you could feed your body only carrots, which are healthy. But you wouldn’t stay healthy very long if you ate only carrots! Your creative nature is the same as your body: it requires feeding. I fed mine only words for many years, and when the words hit the wall when I realized my publisher had cheated me, I got very sick. Now, I’m feeding it a more balanced diet of fiber work, sculpting, and music.

And, apparently, words as well. I wrote this, didn’t I?

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There’s No Diabetes in Kitty Heaven

He came to us as Phineas, a scrawny little 8-month-old tabby cat with a propensity for sucking his paw like a baby sucks his thumb. We promptly renamed him Beetlejuice, a big name into which he immediately expanded. A big name requires a big personality, a big heart. Beetlejuice never let us down in that department.

No matter what changes took place in my household—and there were many—Beetle took them all in stride. Daughter leaving home, an agonizing divorce, a cross-country move, the addition and subtraction of other cats, dogs, and guinea pigs, whatever the change, Beetlejuice weathered the storm with a remarkably good nature and a paw suck. When I met and married Scott, no one was happier than my Bee. He seemed to have an almost conspiratorial connection with Scott, a “we’ve got to stick together since we’re the only two men in a household of girls” type of attitude.

But even his sweet disposition and tasty paw couldn’t get him over his battle with diabetes. We never could quite get his blood sugar regulated, and while he seemed to do pretty well the first few weeks on insulin, it was a short-lived grace period. The past few days, he was vomiting several times a day, and had no energy at all. He slept, ate, and vomited, and little else. His hair began falling out in chunks.

Beetlejuice died this morning. He took with him a piece of my heart that I don’t think will ever belong to any other creature. The last words I spoke to him were, “Come back as a mountain lion, Bee.”

I want to thank all of you who have supported me, and Beetlejuice, over this past few months as we tried to cope, as we tried to give Beetlejuice some quality of life. We gave it our best shot, Bee and I. Sometimes, your best shot isn’t enough.

If a cat has nine lives, may Bee comes back as a mountain lion eight times over. And if a cat has but one life, I shall take comfort in the certainty there is no diabetes in kitty heaven.

Beetlejuice 2005-2013

Beetlejuice 2005-2013

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I am a Storyteller

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could …
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by…

                                                     ~ Robert Frost

With beauty before me I walk. With beauty above me I walk. With beauty around me I walk. It’s a lovely philosophy, isn’t it? And during my recent Beauty Way Guest Blogger Series, I’ve shared thought-provoking, heartfelt posts written by brilliant, gifted artists about how the Beauty Way affects their daily lives and their art.

You know what happened as I read these beautiful posts? I realized that, in the most important aspect of my creative life—my fiction writing—I haven’t been following my own version of the Beauty Way. I’ve not been true to myself and my gut instincts. And that’s been making me very depressed, unhappy, and, at times, physically ill.

A few days ago, as I read back through the series of Beauty Way posts, I made a decision. I am no longer going to let issues that were troubling me affect my art, my storytelling.  After several long talks with Scott, I took an enormous leap of faith (in myself) and severed my relationship with my publisher. This means my books are now temporarily out of print.

I love Robert Frost’s poem, quoted above. I think it’s a perfect illustration of the Beauty Way. The poet is faced with a problem of sorts—a fork in the road, the option of going one way or another. This is how I felt during the weeks leading up to my split with my publisher. Staying the course would have been the easy path, the comfortable path, because it would have been the familiar path. but there was also the promise of greater beauty (and more peace) in veering off the path I’d been on so many years and setting off on the road less traveled, the road where I control my own destiny. [Today I will walk out, today everything negative will leave me.]

A tremendous burden has been lifted from my shoulders. [I will have a light body, I will be happy forever, nothing will hinder me.]

Now, I’m looking forward to being able to write fiction again. [My words will be beautiful.] I can finish my Work in Progress without worrying about giving up control over what the final product looks like and how it is distributed. It’s been more than a year since I felt excited about writing fiction, and I’ve missed that passion, that excitement. I’m not back to that point yet, but I can feel a creative restlessness growing inside me.

One of these mornings, I’m going to awaken and my characters are going to be begging to come out and walk with me, and talk with me, to let their stories be known. [Through the returning seasons, may I walk. On the trail marked with pollen may I walk. With dew above my feet, may I walk.] I’m here, waiting for them, listening for signs they are ready to speak, for as an author, listening is an integral part of my job description. Listening, and then translating what I hear into words pleasing to the eye and ear and soothing to the soul. I give voice to my characters’ tales. I am my characters’ mouthpiece.

I am a storyteller. And I walk in beauty.

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My Dad, the Sea Hares, and Me

Father’s Day is a day I really miss my dad. He died on November 29, 2009, just a few days after I wrote the following, which was posted on my old blog at Xanga. Today, I woke up thinking about my father, his love for all things wild, his love for me and for my children. So Daddy, wherever you are, this is for you. 

My Dad, the Sea Hares, and Me

My father was a man of many passions. He was a minister for 65 years; he loved his God. He loved Lionel trains and always had elaborate train layouts wherever he and my mother lived. And he loved nature. It was he who every year loaded up our car with every bit of camping gear known to humankind and set off across the country to show his four children the world. It is he who gifted me with wanderlust and wonderlust, that compunction to answer questions like, “I wonder what’s over there/down that road/under that rock/what that is?

My father, who had a series of strokes last year, now spends his days in a wheelchair, sleeping. When he is awake, he rarely recognizes my sisters or mother when they visit him. Would he recognize me if I were there? He probably would not. He is in Indianapolis; I am in Los Angeles. I feel guilty, not being there, not trying to reach the father that once was, the man who loved to hike and camp and run Lionel trains in the basement on Saturday evenings.

When I miss my dad I head outdoors. The smell of mountain air or the salt breeze off the ocean is like a massage for my psyche, caressing my raw emotions, easing the tension, restoring a sense of balance.

This time, we headed south, to the beaches of Orange County and a state park called Crystal Cove. A picnic on the beach and a hike back through the chaparral, I hoped, would soothe my anxiety about my dad and quiet other demons pulling me six directions at once.

Crystal Cove’s ocean front sits high atop a bluff overlooking the Pacific. At high tide, the sea licks hungrily at the sheer rock face, devouring the beach in its entirety in places. I feel like that sometimes, like my responsibilities—both real and imagined—are eroding my emotional base and threatening to wash me away.

At low tide, however, the water blanketing the beaches recedes, revealing the hidden wonders of Crystal Cove: the tide pools.

SONY DSC

Shell litter at Crystal Cove
Photo by Smoky Zeidel

The first pool is littered with shells in a palette of colors Monet and Van Gogh would envy. Here we encounter tiny opaleye perch, darting in and out of clumps of pink coralline algae. These are the first fish I’ve seen in tidepools. Clumps of tiny diadumes cling to the rock edge. These tiny anemones live in colonies, unlike their larger green sea anemone cousins, which are solitary.

Diadumes Photo by Smoky Zeidel

Diadumes and Turban Snails
Photo by Smoky Zeidel

I spot the largest, most magnificent green anemone I’ve ever seen in a tide pool. This exquisite creature is nearly the breadth of my hand, Its tentacles sway easily in the water, hypnotizing me. I watch, entranced, until I hear Scott calling to me excitedly. He has found something we’ve not seen in tide pools before.

Green Anemone Photo by Smoky Zeidel

Green Anemone
Photo by Smoky Zeidel

Sea slugs! California black sea hares, to be more specific. They are beautiful. They’re not black at all, but more of an aubergine. In fact, that’s what they look like: small aubergines—eggplants—with spots on them. The first ones we see are small, only a couple inches long. But further down the beach we find sea hares that are seven or eight inches long. They move slowly through the pools, unrushed, unhurried, munching on algae, skirting anemones, flowing gently over black turban snails as if they weren’t even there.

California Sea Hare Photo by Smoky Zeidel

California Sea Hare
Photo by Smoky Zeidel

We come across two kelp snails, their shells wearing a sunset as brilliant as any the sky has ever boasted. One shell is empty; I examine it carefully before returning it to the water. It will make a fine home for a hermit crab. The second snail is very much alive, it’s flame orange foot clearly peeking from beneath its sunset shell.

Kelp Snail Photo by Smoky Zeidel

Kelp Snail
Photo by Smoky Zeidel

But it is the sea hares that keep calling to me. I am transfixed by their grace as they silently slide through the crystalline waters.

I think of my father, sitting in his wheelchair in the nursing home in Indianapolis, sleeping. How he would have loved exploring these tide pools, these beaches, with his family. Because of him my summers were filled with adventure as he drove us all over the country visiting our National Parks, the mountains, the deserts, the sea. When my mom lost her sight a decade or so ago, he became an avid armchair traveler, watching the nature videos I would bring him from my travels, reading brochures and magazines about distant places, both familiar and unknown, that he would never again lay eyes on, or see for the first time. I grieved then for my dad. I grieve more now.

Last week, my dad suddenly stopped using his right arm. He continues to have TIAs, or mini-strokes. There is nothing that can be done for him at this point. The man who was my father is gone.

But as I sit at the edge of the tide pool watching the sea hares, blocking my mind to all that is around me save the water and its explosion of life, I hope that somewhere in the recesses of my father’s mind, he is still there, hiking up a mountain trail, singing one of his silly hiking songs, content that his family is hiking right there beside him.

* * *

My father died November 29, 2009, just a few days after I wrote this piece. I feel him often, beside me, as I splash in the tide pools, or walk in the mountains or desert. And when I feel him there, walking beside me, I thank him  for instilling in me my deep reverence for nature, my appreciation for bears and hawks and wolves, and also for sea slugs and turban snails and anemones. I thank him for gifting me with wanderlust, and wonderlust, and the realization that a night spent sleeping under the stars high atop a mountain is a sacred experience. My dad was an amazing preacher, but his best lessons didn’t come from the pulpit. They came from those trips into places wild–the mountains, the desert, the sea.

My family, Christmas 1992 Bonnie, Me, John, Mary Ann, Mom, Dad Photo by James Houff

My family, Christmas 1962
Bonnie, Me, John, Mary Ann, Mom, Dad
Photo by James Houff

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The Beauty Way: Writer Chi Sherman

This is the final guest post in my series on the Navajo Beauty Way here on Smoky Talks …. I asked a handful of my friends, each an artist in their own way, to read the Navajo poem, The Beauty Way, and talk about how it applies to their work and their lives. (The series begins, and you can read the poem, here.) Today, writer Chi Sherman shares her thoughts:

Chi Sherman

Chi Sherman

Several years ago, I was a member of a spirituality group (let’s call it Spiral) that was rooted in Dianic Wicca. Each month, I would gather with friends and strangers who would become friends and spend the afternoon celebrating and welcoming the sabbats. Candlemas (also known as Imbolc) brought the chance to select a goddess for the year, the spirit who would guide me into spring, watch me celebrate the arrival of fall, and listen politely as I bemoaned winter’s inevitable return. Summer Solstice meant an outdoor ritual, my bare feet on the cool grass, and a breeze to combat the afternoon heat. Samhain was my chance to communicate with loved ones who had passed on. The time I spent in the company of those like-minded women was often wonderful, replete with good energy, healing conversation, and delicious food.

As one of the writers in the group, I was often given the opportunity to write something to share at each ritual. Generally it was a short message that complemented the opening and closing of the circle. I realize now how closely aligned many of my words were with The Beauty Way, long before I knew of the poem’s existence:

With beauty before me I walk.
As we move towards the harvest, may the seeds of our good be planted deep within the soil for protection.
With beauty behind me I walk.
Nature has reached the peak of her fertility and we are born anew in her joy.
With beauty above me I walk.
Pause now and breathe with the universe. Rededicate yourself to the air.
With beauty around me I walk.
Revel in the weightlessness of simply existing.

In some ways, I was the best version of myself when I was in the group. I had a captive audience who always complimented me on what I had written, I spent hours soaking up the goodness and the goddess of others, I laughed, sometimes I cried, I meditated, and I left with a full belly and a craft I had made. On each sabbat, I was the embodiment of Navajo wisdom. Today everything negative will leave me. I [will] walk with beauty around me. My words will be beautiful. I will have a cool breeze over my body. I will have a light body, I will be happy forever, nothing will hinder me.

Unfortunately, after a few years, a key relationship ended and the members of Spiral parted ways. It took a long time for me to properly grieve the group’s ending. In addition to trying to salvage friendships with group members on both sides of a complicated issue, I had lost one of my non-academic writing outlets. Similarly, I had lost my spiritual home. I had grown up in the Episcopal church, a place I had never felt I fit in. After graduating from acolyte service, I found my way to a couple gay-friendly churches but didn’t attend services long. Spiral had been the answer to prayers I was unconsciously reciting.

Thankfully, I eventually came to my senses and realized I could be a solo practitioner of Wicca. I hadn’t lost my writing; I’d simply lost some listeners. Though I never again wrote words dedicated to the changing seasons, I long acknowledged each sabbat’s arrival and passing and fondly remembered my friends and our get-togethers.

It’s been years since I attended any kind of ritual, even though plenty of opportunities exist throughout the city. I have become content in my personal relationship with the goddess, guardians, and spirits upon whom I used to call when Spiral met. It takes courage I don’t always have to admit I am scared to move forward, scared to lose friends again, to see an already-small group divide into cliques, to see my words disappear from the page as my throat closes around a sob I will not cry. Inertia has let the inkwell run dry and I have spent too many years thinking I can’t.

Thankfully, I know that I am wrong. I must take the first step towards finding a spiritual home once again.

With beauty before me may I walk.

Spiral is in the past. I have printout and memory to remind me of our sabbats and it is time to close the door on that which needs to be archived like so many dusty books and lovers’ letters.

With beauty behind me may I walk.

I am different now. So different. Older, better for having been in Spiral, whole in my identity as a Goddess-based woman who had discovered she also has Buddhist leanings.

With beauty below me may I walk.

My renewed spiritual life in a church, coven, or breezy backyard awaits. All that was good about Spiral and those afternoons of conversation, laughter, hearty soups, and the heat of candle fire will be no less beautiful just because I will be sharing them with new friends.

With beauty above me may I walk.

It’s time to shed this brittle cocoon which has ceased to provide adequate shelter. My heart aches for a blank page, new words, strong hugs, a place where breaking through darkness and sadness doesn’t have to happen alone. I will find my way back to myself, my faith, the lined page, the captive audience.

In old age wandering on a trail of beauty, lively, may I walk.

In rediscovery of the self, my voice, my craft, may I walk.

Chi Sherman is an Indianapolis-based writer whose preferred medium is creative nonfiction. She has produced four chapbooks of writing and a spoken-word CD and has more of the same in progress. Her dreams of creative writing success and stardom are a given. Find her online at http://zomart.weebly.com.

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The Beauty Way: Author Patricia Snodgrass

This is the sixth guest post in my series on the Navajo Beauty Way here on Smoky Talks …. I asked a handful of my friends, each an artist in their own way, to read the Navajo poem, The Beauty Way, and talk about how it applies to their work and their lives. (The series begins, and you can read the poem, here.) Here is what author Patricia Snodgrass had to say.

Kamama

-1-

I was concerned about the monarchs. Two years ago we experienced one of the worst droughts since the Great Depression, and by late August, the forests of North East Texas were drying up. The fires, large and frightening, gobbled up farmhouses and ranches at a terrifying rate. Frightened town folk worried about having to abandon their small outlying towns and flee west, toward Dallas.

Crops failed. The burned out fields of corn stalks jutted like blackened hands rising from the dust. Farmers who could not sell their cattle, nor were able to feed them, were herded down to the Sulfur River basin to feed, in vain hopes that in fall, if the monsoons arrived, ranch hands could drive the cattle back into their pastures. They could sort out the brands later.

-2-

A friend of mine from the Audubon Society asked me to make a count of the number of monarchs I saw each day. She, too, was deeply concerned and was afraid that the butterflies had either died out or had diverted their migration path to avoid the heat and aridness. By this time of year, the skies should be filled with butterflies. The day before, I counted eight. On this day, I counted two.

Monarch butterflies take to the air Photo courtesy of

Monarch butterflies take to the air
Photo courtesy of World Wildlife

-3-

It was too hot to meditate in my shrine room, so I took my scrungy old yoga mat outside and sat down in front of my scorched cannas. If there was one saving grace to the drought, it was that  the heat was too much for even the fire ants. I sat in Tara pose, closed my eyes, and drank in the evening air that smelled of scorched pine and hardwoods.

I stilled my mind, using the techniques taught to me by my lama to achieve spontaneous awareness. My mind wouldn’t keep still. It was restless, like the ocean, ebbing and flowing. I didn’t fight the current of my mind, but let myself go along with it. And when I did, I found myself once again at the age of five, wandering across a pasture that my mother had earlier forbidden me to travel. But the blue and black butterfly that floated by me had invited me to play, and that offer was much too tempting to resist.

-4-

It wasn’t long until the forest gave way to the most beautiful glade I had ever seen. The light shone golden down upon the green grass, and as I sat and watched the memory play over again in my mind, I recalled how still and utterly sacred this place was. And as if to prove it, a cloud of butterflies rose from the thick grasses and small yellow flowers. They swirled around me, flying higher and higher, and then, in a great rush, they were gone.

The feelings rushed back, and I savored them, and then made an offering of them to the Buddha of Compassion. I released the sensation of sacredness, sadness and joy. Then, I watched as my child-self tried to make her way back home.

-5-

What was I? Who was I? Was I Cherokee or was I white? The concept stumped me for many years, and although I tried to walk both paths, everything seemed to tangle up inside me.

You’re white. You’re red. You’re white. You’re red. It was a puzzle that needed a solution, yet there was none.

The Tibetan lamas say that we’ve taken rebirth so many times that at one point everyone had a turn at being our mother. I realized then that the conundrum of my ethnicity did not need a solution. It simply is. I had taken birth so many times, had been so many different people, and things … I might have been black in my last life. I might be Asian in the next. So what then, did it matter, if I was of mixed race in this life? The monarch doesn’t concern herself as to whether she is black or orange. She just is.

-7-

My five-year-old self was found sleeping underneath a pile of hunting dogs. I opened eyes and looked up at my father, and what appeared to be half of the Cherokee nation staring down at me. Their flashlights were bright, the woods, spooky dark, their faces a mixture of relief and concern.

My father bent down to pick me up and I scrambled up into his arms. I wailed as if the world had just ended and my father, my Edoda, my hero, was the only one who could bring it back.

“What were you doing out here in the woods?” he asked.

“Butterflies.” I sobbed.

The men laughed.

From that day until we moved to Dallas three years later, I was known as Kamama. The Cherokee word for butterfly.

-8-

Something tickled my nose. Heat prickled on my brow. Sweat drizzled down my neck and pooled between my breasts. My practice was over, but I wasn’t ready to let go, not just yet. There was a message in the memory for me. Something Kamama left behind long ago. Something that had just now come to the surface.

When the realization came, it was as sweet as the memory of my father carrying me home. Kamama knew where it was going all those years ago. Kamama was not lost then, nor were they lost on that day. They simply found a different path, a new way of going back to Mexico. They were following the Sulfur River, resting on the foliage along the tributaries, safe in their knowledge of home.

My nose tickled again. I opened my eyes. A monarch clung to the very tip of my nose. Her delicate wings gently opened and closed. Her large compound eyes regarded me closely. I held my breath, feeling in awe, feeling blessed by my namesake. Kamama had come to reassure me.

In one deep sweep of her wings, she took off, fluttering away into the deepening purple sky. Low clouds scuttled on the horizon. Impotent lightning flashed, and the cool breeze that promised an early autumn blew through me.

Do na do go huh,” I whispered to my departing friend. “We will meet again.”

Patricia Snodgrass is a freelance writer who resides in the wilds of East Texas. She is married and has one son. Her latest novel, A Private Little War, is currently available at www.mundania.com.

Patricia Snodgrass

Patricia Snodgrass

Posted in blogging, books, Buddhism, Cherokee, First Peoples, inspiration, memoir, Native Americans, Uncategorized, writers | Tagged , , , , , , | 8 Comments

The Beauty Way: A Different Approach, by Horst Jenkins

This is the fifth guest post in a series on the Navajo Beauty Way here on Smoky Talks …. I asked half a dozen friends of mine, each an artist in their own way, to read the Navajo poem, The Beauty Way, and talk about how it applies to their work and their lives. (The series begins here.) Today’s guest blogger is Horst Jenkins, a graphic artist, woodworker, and man of many talents–not the least of which is satire. Here again is the poem. Then, meet Horst Jenkins:

In beauty I walk.
With beauty before me I walk.
With beauty behind me I walk.
With beauty above me I walk.With beauty around me I walk.
Today I will walk out, today everything negative will leave me
I will be as I was before, I will have a cool breeze over my body.
I will have a light body, I will be happy forever, nothing will hinder me.
I walk with beauty before me. I walk with beauty behind me.
I walk with beauty below me. I walk with beauty above me.
I walk with beauty around me. My words will be beautiful.
In beauty all day long may I walk.
Through the returning seasons, may I walk.
On the trail marked with pollen may I walk.
With dew above my feet, may I walk.
With beauty before me may I walk.
With beauty behind me may I walk.
With beauty below me may I walk.
With beauty above me may I walk.
With beauty all around me may I walk.
In old age wandering on a trail of beauty, lively, may I walk.

When you hear these words of the Navajo people, how do you consider them? Are they simple poetry, or perhaps an ancient mantra first voiced by a sage and powerful shaman centuries ago? Maybe these words speak to you a philosophy, a guiding thought to carry you through what is generally known as life.

Not me.

I consider these words to be a battle hymn, a song of defiance to be loudly and boldly sung in the ongoing war against cynicism and despair. This song should not be loudly sung continuously though, as in some cases it would be entirely inappropriate, such as in the library, or a public restroom. Oddly, a funeral seems to be the perfect place to sing this song.

This is a weird and oftentimes fucked up world in which we live, and I suspect that all but the most balanced and enlightened among us (oh, and also the most simple), are endlessly engaged in this never ending war. When you look around you, ugliness abounds. It saturates our environment, leaving it dripping with some foul, gross dripping stuff. That stuff also smells bad. And don’t even think of touching that stuff. It’s very difficult to wash off.

Horst's like-minded soldiers AKA, friends Yosemite National Park

Horst and his like-minded soldiers
AKA, friends
Yosemite National Park

Cynicism is our natural response to the hate and ignorance and hypocrisy and greed that tries ever so eagerly to pollute our souls and pull us into the fold of sorrow and apathy. But fear not! Though the fight is draining, each victory energizes you more than you can envision, prepping you for bigger and more significant battles along they way, and drawing toward you a legion of like-minded soldiers who will fight beside you and always have your back. The soldiers will be known as a heavy-handed metaphor for friends. In the end, the rewards you reap for your refusal to surrender shall be beyond worth. “Will it be moksha?” you ask, “a release of the physical bounds of the universe and a oneness with all that brings eternal bliss?“ Well, that sounds like a bit much, don’t you think? But who knows, maybe. What am I, some kind of theologian? Just keep reading.

This Navajo song of defiance teaches you all the military strategy that is needed to combat the enemy. And that strategy is simple and straight forward … recognize that even though ugliness is everywhere, so is beauty. Evil works to destroy beauty, or at least hide it from our sight, but beauty exists always and everywhere. The secret is to know how to recognize it.

“But I don’t have the power to see the beauty through all the rottenness on this earth,” you say. Well, that sounds just a little bit cynical to me, now doesn’t it? And besides, you do have that power; it is innate. Let me prove it to you.

There exists on this planet a type of creature so vile and repulsive that on the surface, you would think it would never know love. Where it exists, it shrieks in tones so horrible that it causes one to curse their own ears. These screams sound out throughout the day and night without purpose or consideration. This beast slithers low to the ground, hairless and wretched, toting around a grossly oversized head that it can barely support. It defecates indiscriminately. It consumes untold amounts of resources and often latches on to human hosts to feed on their fluids. So horrible a thing is this demon that you would think all humans would run in terror from it, and yet, upon seeing this nightmarish vision, most people will say something like, “What an adorable little baby.”

Yes, it’s human babies of which I speak, little fleshy balls of torment. But rather than seeing all that is disgusting and smelly and quite often crusty, we see beauty. We see the promise of a new life; we see hope embodied. We see the potential that this weirdly shaped, way too tiny human offers. We completely forget the fact that all mass murderers were once babies. We ignore the statistic that 98 percent of all children born today will grow up to be assholes. We only see the good that this one can become.

So there you have it. You know that you have the power so see beauty through some really gross shit. The next step is to apply this power.

Is the glass half empty or half full? “I know this one!” you answer. “It’s half full!” Oh, the blessing it must be to be as simple as you. Being positive can be easy, but if you want to avoid being just a jolly moron, you must apply intellect to your perspective. If you’re thirsty, and that half full glass is your only source of liquid refreshment, then of course it’s half full. Now, what if it’s filled will caustic acid, or even worse, Bud Light? Now what’s your answer?

If you and your buddy were having a race to see whose glass of water evaporated the most quickly, and the winner gets a new pair of very comfortable socks and a free movie pass, then the answer would surely be, “Hooray! It’s half empty!”

What if your passion is weights and measures? Then the answer would be, “Let’s find out!”

If the glass were an integral part of a perfectly balanced still life, wouldn’t the correct answer simply be “yes”?

Be positive at all times, yes, but don’t be stupid about..

Chances are, if you are reading this, your life is already beautiful, and hopefully you recognize that and are thinking to yourself why am I wasting my time with this guy’s sophomoric ranting? Well good for you, and although I find your referencing of my words as “ranting” slightly hurtful, you are welcome to your opinion. What I was really trying to get at is, although we may not be as young or wealthy or healthy or as pretty as we would like, when we compare our worst problems to others in the world, we look pretty silly. I’m too heavy because I have access to inexpensive food and don’t have to work strenuously for eighteen hours a day. They were out of Coke and I had to drink a Pepsi. My DVR can only record four shows at a time. It took me ten minutes to get a parking space at the mall. See what I mean? How beautiful is your life if you have ever complained about something as trivial as this? And also, don’t you feel a little bit ashamed now?

Now let’s try a real life exercise.

How is four dollar a gallon gas beautiful? Go! If I’m worried about the price of gas, it probably means that I own a car. Awesome! If I’m not actually living in that car, it probably means that I have a place to live, in front of which I park my car. If I am living in my car, hey, I’m not living a cardboard box. As petrol prices go up, people drive less and more smartly and tend to buy more fuel-efficient vehicles. Expensive gas is good for my lungs! Hey, if I’m driving a car, then that means I’m not confined to an iron lung, and who could afford that kind of treatment these days, what with gas prices being so high. I’m not in prison! (Although I may have just escaped, and I’m fueling up my escape vehicle. In any case, I’m not in prison!) I’m pretty certain some of my 401K is invested in oil companies, it’s like I’m paying myself. Now see how many more you can come up with. Write them all down and bring the list to the nearest gas station. The attendant there has been authorized to give you a ten cent per gallon discount for every new reason you come up with that makes you happy that you can complain about four dollar a gallon gas.

You see, expensive gas is beautiful, just like a newborn baby. Think about how you can apply this concept of intellectual optimism to your everyday life as you are singing out the Navajo battle hymn during your drive to work tomorrow. Or better yet, take the bus so perfect strangers can enjoy. That’s another one! Four dollar a gallon gas puts me on the bus where I get to meet new people that I would never otherwise encounter, and there is something beautiful to be found in each of these people.

Stay strong in your fight brothers and sisters! Walk in beauty always, it is your shield and your sword. Like a guerilla lovechild, lunge out unexpectedly and declare beauty where you see it, without mercy, stab lovingly at the heart of evil, mercifully disembowel hate, and pleasantly dispatch cynicism to the depths of hell where it belongs! Beauty be with you.

Horst Jenkins

Horst Jenkins

Horst Jenkins is an alien deposited on Earth by an unknown race of beings, for reasons unknown to him. He observes humanity and is simultaneously entertained and frustrated by them, especially when it comes to their inability to solve problems for which relatively simple answers are readily available. He currently resides in Whittier, California, and earns money working in the packaging industry as an art whore. His talent festoons boxes in landfills, garbage cans and recycling bins around the nation. His other creative bents lie in writing, painting, sculpting and wood working, although by his own admission, he spends far too much time thinking about being creative and not actually being so. As such, he is quite grateful to Smoky for asking him to participate in this guest blogger program, thereby forcing him to actually do something.

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The Beauty Way: Classical Guitarist and Writer Scott Zeidel

This is the fourth guest post in a series on the Navajo Beauty Way here on Smoky Talks …. I asked half a dozen friends of mine, each an artist in their own way, to read the Navajo poem, The Beauty Way, and talk about how it applies to their work and their lives. (The series begins, and you can read the poem, here.) The fact today’s guest blogger and I share the same last name is no accident; for those of you new to my blog who do not know me yet, Scott is my husband. He’s also a gifted classical guitarist and writer himself, and co-author (with me) of the book, Trails. Scott lives the Beauty Way like no one I know. He inspires me, as he inspires others around him. Here are his thoughts on what it means to walk in beauty:

When I was a kid the world was unconditionally beautiful. Beauty was simple, natural. I didn’t analyze it, desire it, possess it. I didn’t ask anything of it. I didn’t think about it—a child would never contemplate a peach’s sweetness. They would, with a big grin, simply take a bite and let the sticky juice run down their chin. Thinking wasted time. Thinking got in the way. I breathed beauty like a newborn baby breaths fresh air for the first time, without deliberateness, or self consciousness, or awareness.

Beauty was alive, transitory, like a river. It was in the apple tree I once climbed on summer vacation; it was in the plump green caterpillar I encountered on the way; it was between my bare toes waving in the breeze as I sat on a branch; it was in the blanket of wild strawberries that cushioned my fall. Beauty was not a way of life. Beauty was life.

Photo by Scott Zeidel

Caterpillar Photo by Scott Zeidel

As a child, I walked with beauty, like the Navajo in “The Beauty Way,” quoted by Smoky in The Storyteller’s Bracelet:

With beauty before me I walk.
With beauty behind me I walk.
With beauty above me I walk.
With beauty around me I walk.

This was me. Everything was so vivid, so beautiful, that beauty itself was invisible, like staring at a lilac flower on a lilac background. The flower and the background were one. I was one with beauty.

But, alas, Goethe’s evil Erlkönig finally touched me, and the child in me died. Tot. I grew up. I didn’t want to, but I did.

Beauty became a mystery, a dream, a thought, a memory—something complicated, mystical, tenuous. It was now an adult concept, imprisoned in poetry, or paintings, or musical compositions … or looked at from afar, on a vacation, or something I brushed against on a walk.

Adults think about beauty and judge it, the same way they judge everything. This is beautiful. This isn’t. This is what beauty’s all about. This isn’t. Adults weigh beauty and measure it, convert it into something they can understand, relate to, a thought or an emotion. It’s no longer direct. It’s filtered, and consequently out of focus.

I can listen to the sublime slow movement of Beethoven’s Op. 132 string quartet and be deeply moved, get chills on my arms and back, sometimes even cry. But why? Is it Beethoven’s beauty that touches me? Or am I weeping over lost innocence, over a time when I experienced beauty directly, purely, as a child, as a Navaho?

Water lilies and koi Photo by Scott Zeidel

Water lilies and koi
Photo by Scott Zeidel

I was born in Northern Wisconsin, on the shore of Lake Superior. I was “from the land of sky blue waters,” as the old beer commercial once said. My paternal grandmother lived about thirty miles from town in a cabin on an idyllic lake in a dark forest. My family would visit her often. Once, when I was about seven years old, I crept into her rowboat and paddled into a cove of flowering lily pads. I was alone with perfect stillness. I pulled the dripping oars into the boat, lay on my back, and drifted on the glassy water like the clouds drifted above. The lake smelled ripe, alive, as it washed against the sides of the boat.

Clouds Photo by Scott Zeidel

Clouds
Photo by Scott Zeidel

Now, as a memory, I know this was pure beauty before me, behind me, above me, around me. I didn’t think about it then. I didn’t qualify it. I didn’t label it. I didn’t say to myself, this is beautiful. I didn’t say to myself, this is more beautiful than that is. I just floated in the rowboat like a cloud.

Everything was beautiful in my youth, long before my father died, my mother died, and my heart was broken.

But everything is not beautiful, not literally at least. As I wrote about in Trails, things change. In addition to all the wonderful things in life (beauty, joy, peace, kindness, love, and so much more), there’s also death, disappointment, cruelty, pain, loneliness, ugliness … all things we must experience, all things we must greet along our trail, and, one hopes, reconcile. We have no choice, good and bad, it all makes up the big (dare I say, beautiful) canvas of our life.

But there’s a time, when merrily skipping through life, one collides with ugliness. I’m sure it’s different for everyone. For some, it happens when they’re quite young (maybe at birth, or even before); for others, it’s not until they’re much older; others have one specific moment when the light goes on, when they admit, ah! this is reality. I will welcome this too into my life. There’s nothing sudden about it for others —experiences, emotions, and thoughts imperceptivity fade in and out of their awareness. Some people go through life avoiding ugliness all together, at least that’s their plan.

For me, it happen in an instant. I was walking home from elementary school when I stopped to talk with a bunch of kids on the sidewalk. One boy, a stranger, glared at me, and for no discernable reason, violently kneed me between the legs. I limped home in incredible pain; big tears baptized my face, washed in the blood of the lamb. I had experienced for the first time true cruelty, true violence, true pain, true ugliness.

I woke up from the dream I had while laying in the boat on my grandmother’s lake. And my childhood, my innocence, ended. That quickly. With a snap of the fingers. With a raised knee. My perception of life, of beauty, completely changed. Beauty and life were no longer the same thing—beauty was on one side of the boxing ring, ugliness on the other.

My adult life, and it’s by no means over, has been a journey back to unconditional beauty, to childhood. But this time around I’m more aware, more adult. It’s not easy. Every day, every moment is a challenge. I do a lot of meditation. That helps. A lot. But, even more important, I flood myself with beauty. I read beautiful, creative poetry. I read beautiful, creative books. I watch beautiful, creative movies. I insist on nonjudgmental kindness from the people I let into my life. I try to be kind to everything on the earth, animate and inanimate. I love my children, all that love means, in the purest sense, not expecting anything in return. I’m in mad crazy love, without resistance, with my wife.

Today I walk in nature and breathe the sweet fragrance of beauty.

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The Beauty Way Series: Kehinde Adeola Ayeni on Streaming from the Divine

This is the third in a series of guest posts on the Navajo Beauty Way here on Smoky Talks …. I asked half a dozen friends of mine, each an artist in their own way, to read the Navajo poem, The Beauty Way, and talk about how it applies to their work and their lives. (The series begins, and you can read the poem, here.) My guest today is Kehinde Adeola Ayeni, MD,  a public health physician, psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, who was born in Nigeria, and now lives in Farmington Hills, Michigan.  Here, she writes about how the Beauty Way is illustrated in the birth of a child.

Streaming from the Divine

Kehinde Ayeni

Kehinde Ayeni

Each time a child is born, the world is created for the first time is a thought that struck me a while ago, while looking at my newborn niece.  My brother had called at about 2:00 a.m. as he and his wife set off for the hospital; I had bundled my sleeping children into the car and gone to meet them there, arriving from opposite ends of town.  We were allowed to see the baby barely minutes after she was delivered, still covered with vernix caseosa and the umbilical cord clamped.  My sister-in-law had been shown the baby, of course, but she hadn’t had the chance to examine every part of her yet, counting her fingers and toes to make sure they were all there.  The doctor and nurses were still with her, but she anxiously shouted across to me, “Sister Kehinde, does she have lots of hair?”

Does she have lots of hair?  Why would that be the most important thing you want to know about your newborn baby? I wondered, but she had just pushed a big baby out of her, and she was entitled to her anxiety and what she did with it. I reassured her that the baby had lots of hair on her head, and she lay back down.

My children suggested that she looked like one parent or the other as we stared at this new arrival from heaven.

Each time a child is born, the world is created for the first time, and it is not only because the child will come to see the world in her own unique way, which would be hers and hers only though there are zillions of people in the world, and so she would be one in a zillion, and this unique way of hers will be based on the combination of her temperament and how it will react with her environment of her home and parents first and then of her larger world, depending on where that is. But also because she has brought to this world great treasures which have never before been seen on earth and which will never be seen again, and it is hers and hers alone, and I think that this is the question we are all called to answer.

Zenani is a name which, in Xhosa, means, What have your brought to the world? It is Nelson Mandela’s daughter’s name, and in his book, Long Walk to Freedom, he writes, “What have you brought to the world?—a poetic name that embodies a challenge, suggesting that one must contribute something to society.” It is a name one does not simply possess, but has to live up to.

The Xhosa do realize that a newborn child coming into the world did not come empty handed. That child has brought wonderful gifts from the divine to the inhabitants of the world.  The Yorubas (my ethnic group) have the same belief, and believe the way to bring these treasures out of the child and assist him in making his contribution to the world lies solely in the names you give the child. Naming a child is a very big deal that involves the oldest member of the extended family meditating for seven days, to confer with the ancestors in the spirit world about the names for the child and at the end of the seven days, the child is given as many as eight to ten names, and each is a metaphor to actualize the potentials in the child.

A patient, who is an artist, described to me how she felt when her husband, who had been away at a medical conference for a week, returned, and she said, “I looked at him and at that moment I truly felt what Rumi meant when he said, ‘Hundreds of thousands of impressions from the invisible are waiting to come through you.’  I looked at my husband, and it was as if a portion of eternity was expressed through this man, and tears came to my eyes.  He was so beautiful, and it was like I was seeing him for the first time and I said to myself, this is why I love him.”

I love people and I strive to practice Alex Haley’s injunction, “Find good and praise it.”  I am always looking for that which is streaming from the divine in each person, and I have found a lot of gold in most people.  Of course, some people work hard at hiding the beauty that is in them, but I had enjoyed the glint in my father’s eyes on seeing me, and his affect of dismissing what appeared to be impossible so that he could focus on what brings him joy.  It has been described as simple-mindedness, but to me it was gold.  I love the hugeness of my daughter’s bright eyes and how at her birth she had stared hopefully at me with them.  I love my son’s carefree smile that transforms his face into that of what I imagine and angel to look like.  I look at my friends, most of them middle aged as I am, and I feel warm all over when I see how maturity has enriched their beauty.  Originally from the tropics, I am now living in a landscape with four seasons, and each is as gorgeous as the next one.  I haven’t been able to get over the lushness and how green the foliage has been this spring, and it’s as if I am seeing spring for the first time.  I can go on and on about all that is beautiful around me, and they number into the infinity.

But there has to be balance. I have had my own challenges of deserts against the lushness of the foliage in my psyche, but the divine is so generous, and it gives you beauty even in that too.  A few months ago, I had a dream that I was visiting my mother’s village of origin, and though the dream informed me that was the landscape, it was different.  It was a beautiful island surrounded by calm and sweet water, and I felt at peace. On awaking, I told myself that I had visited Avalon (as in Mists of the Avalon). I meditated on this dream for days and concluded that it was an attempt to transform the mother that I have into a mother who appreciated me and welcomed what I had streamed from the divine, but it was alien to her and her people.

I didn’t transform her, because I cannot; she has the right to her ways of experiencing the world. But I transformed her origins—that which existed before her—and in that way, I went past and beyond her and got the beauty that should have been mine.

Kehinde Ayeni, MD, is the mother of two children.  She is the author of two novels:  Our Mothers’ Sore Expectations and Feasts of Phantoms.

* * *

In my novel, The Storyteller’s Bracelet, Sun Song recites The Beauty Way prayer when she is feeling lost, abused, and hopeless. It gives her the strength she needs to fight for her individuality, her cultural heritage, for life itself. It empowers her in a way that took even me, the author of her story, by surprise. I invite you to read the first four chapters of The Storyteller’s Bracelet free by clicking here. If you enjoy the read, I invite you to buy the book and learn what happens to Sun Song and Otter. Buy links can be found here. Thank you in advance.

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