It's been an eventful couple of weeks. We've enjoyed Christmas and New Year's Eve and all of the joyful mayhem that these holidays entail. In addition, my family managed to squeeze in our sons' birthday. That's right, eighteen years ago, three days after Christmas and three before New Year's Eve, we were blessed with a set of beautiful baby boys, weighing in at over six pounds each and putting their mama into intensive care for three days. Not that I hold that against them. Most of the time at least… And you know how everyone tells us how freaking fast it goes? Well, they were right. And while many of the days seemed endless, the years have flown by and our babies are now adult males who had to register for the draft.
I just finished Cold Reign by Faith Hunter, the latest in the Jane Yellowrock series. The plot thickens. Lots going on here, a bit difficult to follow, but excellent nonetheless. In this outing, Jane goes head-to-head with her old beau, Rick. He left her for another woman. In a brutally public way. Sure, he was being magically coerced, but that's no excuse. Even if it is, it didn’t lessen Jane’s humiliation. In this book, Jane examines her heart and realizes she's over Rick. Hooray! But she also understands that while she's moved on with Bruiser, there is a place in her heart where Rick resided. That place is now empty – because each and every person who claims a piece of our hearts makes an impression. Like a meteor hitting the Earth. And while they are in our lives, that crater is filled. And when they leave, either by choice or by death, their custom built home in our chest lays empty forever. I've experienced this with boyfriends, but also with friends and family who stay for a time and then move on, whether by design or mortality’s limits. The effects on the heart are substantial.
I'm enjoying the latest Jane Yellowrock novel, Cold Reign, by Faith Hunter. Ms. Hunter writes about a Native American Skinwalker as if she had firsthand experience -- the mark of a great writer. Over the course of the series’ many books Jane has evolved and been forced to compromise her moral convictions—occasionally. But Jane has never wavered in her moral compass, and that steadfastness is one of her defining characteristics. So, it is no surprise that Jane is deeply disturbed when she is forced to psychically bind a vampire to herself—forcing another being into virtual slavery. In a previous book, the Master of the City had tried, unsuccessfully, to enslave Jane who remains outraged at the attempt to bind her. What does it mean to be bound to another? There are many ties that bind. Ties of love and affection. Ties of duty and responsibility. Ties of dependence and subordination. Ties of weakness and ties of strength. And there are strong and weak ties within each type of connection. There is much variation in the realm of binds and bondage.
I recently finished the second novel in Faith Hunter's new Soulwood series, Curse on the Land. I loved it. Nell Ingram is a complex character full of strength and vulnerability and I'm thrilled to be riding along with her as she heals from multiple wounds, both physical and emotional. And, as she evolves, Nell comes to learn that healing changes a person, which seems intuitive. Less intuitive, and more interesting, however, is the second part of her observation, that the agent of healing is also transformed through helping another to come back from trauma. Given that this is paranormal fantasy, Nell is healed by a tree, not a person. And the changes wrought on her body include roots growing in her stomach, and the tree becoming attached to her in a magical way. So perhaps we in the real world don't have much in common with Nell in a literal way, but as in so many of my beloved books, the metaphorical truths are strong and deep. In the real world, we are scarred by life and wounded by the people we encounter—sometimes less, sometimes more. And these scars are the physical and emotional reminders of the lives we’ve led. But instead of focusing on those and that which wounds us, I want to consider those who help us. What happens to the healers? What is the relationship between two people, one of whom is the recipient seeking wholeness and the healer trying to provide it, or at least encourage it?
I've been on both sides of this particular exchange and I vastly prefer to heal than to be healed. Go figure. And as someone who goes out of my way to help others for the purely selfish reason that it makes me feel incredibly good—and contributory and generous and worthwhile—I know that helping others to heal has profoundly transformed my psyche and my soul.
Now, I'm not claiming to be Dr. Kildare (although I definitely had a major thing for Richard Chamberlain way back in the day). Nor am I a medical professional or lawyer or research scientist. I'm just a human living among others, many, if not most of whom are in pain. Including me. And there is a lot we can do to heal each other—which is certainly apropos, given the current situation in our world.
I understand that doctors are taught to maintain emotional distance from their patients. And I get why that is necessary. But I don't totally buy it (repeat disclaimer here: I'm not a doctor). I don't see how any human in the healing arts can become so inured to both human suffering and recovery as to be unmoved—one way or the other—from those they heal, or try to heal. I also understand how being a doctor is currently more about paperwork and CYA than making like Hippocrates. But still. It's gotta get to them.
And what about the rest of us? There is no feeling like a heartfelt "Thank you!" coming from someone whose day got better because we effected positive change. Maybe we held an elevator for someone rushing to make it, or we were serenely patient while the new check out woman at Whole Foods struggled to find the right number to input for our Honey Crisp apples. Or maybe we helped a friend's son write a better resume, or brought a colleague coffee just because. Or we consciously found something to nice to say to everyone we encountered in our day. It may not be brain surgery, but it’s good.
What we don't know, perhaps, is how profoundly healing these small acts of kindness can be. For me, receiving positive comments when I was younger was my first inkling that maybe, just maybe, I wasn't the total loser my mother taught me I was. It's possible that someone else who has become so distrustful of humanity because of damaging early experiences can be healed even a millimeter by the small positivity that we can offer up to them.
Because it turns out that it truly is better to give than to receive, to heal than to be healed. It's almost addictive. And if we do enough healing of others, we end up healing ourselves. We become transformed by giving. We create a connection with those we've healed and those who heal us. Just like Nell and her tree.
I challenge you to close your eyes and think of three people whose help healed you in some way. If you're lucky, it was a parent, or a sibling or a mate. Perhaps it is your own children, although it is more about the fact of their existence and our own actions with them that is the most transformative about the kids in our lives. Don't we always feel a true bond with those that helped to heal us? Don't we feel bonded to those whose lives we've touched in a positive way? I do. I think you do too.
In, Curse on the Land, we learn the extent of the mutual transformation that occurred as a result of Nell’s healing in the first book. It's a metaphor for reality, another in a long list of truths in fantasy that it has been my pleasure and my privilege to identify and promote. In fact, the reading and the writing heals something in my own soul. It is my hope that my insights might, in turn, transform the stories that I write about for others who read them. Then the circle will be closed and the mutual transformation complete.
Note: This is a shamelessly partisan post. I am viscerally, deeply opposed to Donald Trump and an enthusiastic supporter of Hillary Clinton. So if that offends you, stop reading now. I'm reading the new Anita Blake book by Laurell K. Hamilton, Crimson Death. I want to be Anita Blake. I also want to be Mac Lane, Jane Yellowrock, Mercy Thompson, and Meredith Gentry. These are nasty, nasty women in the very best ways possible. And they hook up with some pretty bad hombres, which works for me.
This election has provided endless fodder for Saturday Night Live, and I’ve laughed along with everyone else (except for Donald, of course, who has no sense of humor, but I digress). But there are real issues here and it is deeply disturbing that the American populace is becoming inured to each fresh revelation of the revolting actions and attitudes of a presidential candidate who commands almost 40% of the vote. But beyond all of that anxiety-producing reality, there are some truly ugly truths about attitudes toward women that have emerged. And while these truths need to see the light of day so the shadows can be banished, it is a painful process for those of us who remember and know what men—not all, of course, but many—think of us and do to us with impunity.
For almost 30 years I worked in the male-dominated field of national security studies, analysis and policy. I worked at the Pentagon for almost 20 years. Within the macho world of Warcraft, aka the American military industrial complex, many men are pigs on the order of Donald Trump. Men don't have to be famous to think they can get away with ogling, touching, grabbing, propositioning and speaking offensively to women. They just have to have a modicum of power.
If I had a dollar for every time I was the subject of inappropriate, vulgar discussions and/or questions, I'd be rich. If I had ten dollars for every time a male colleague came to my hotel room, or put his hands on me (if you wouldn't put your hands on the small of a male colleague's back to "guide" him toward the door, why is it okay to touch a woman in that manner? Or, if you wouldn't put your hands on a man's shoulders for an unsolicited shoulder massage, why do you think you can do it to me?), I'd be Trump rich. And my bad experiences are probably mild compared to many. Sad.
I have been subjected to sexual harassment and sexual assault. No one was ever punished or even reprimanded for these actions against me. And the worst part—the absolutely worst part—is that I never expected the perpetrators to be rebuked. This is the true tragedy. I figured what millions of girls and women just like me figured: 1) there was nothing I could do; it was the price of doing business in a male-dominated world; 2) to complain or make waves would only serve to punish me, because if I didn't lose my job, I would be the bitch who got good old Jimmy in trouble (but not too much trouble, of course—he would still have a job and the respect of his fellows; I would be forever labeled a troublemaker who couldn't be trusted to do the right thing; and 3) nothing would change, so why bother?
And all of that is only part of the problem. The other part is that young women were and are raised to believe (or taught by the entertainment and advertising industries) that their greatest worth resides in how they look and how sexually appealing they are to men. As a result, we dress to show off our wares and cultivate our feminine "wiles" to trick, trap and torture poor, unsuspecting men. We believe our value resides in our looks and we have to conform to societal (patriarchal) standards of beauty. Even an older, massively accomplished woman like Hillary Clinton is not immune. I'd like to meet her plastic surgeon, her hairdresser, her stylist and her makeup artist. Because as an aging, accomplished woman in the US, I’m going to need them if I want to succeed.
And then there is the tyranny of standards for female presentation, and the extreme disadvantage it creates. Panty hose, makeup, coiffure, complicated outfits, these are all time sucks. Not to mention keeping our hair colored and our wrinkles relatively smooth. Ridiculously time consuming compared to the male need to "shit, shower and shave" (as an ex-boyfriend of mine described his morning routine) before throwing on a suit and comfortable shoes and facing the day. I would have loved to wear comfortable shoes for the average of five miles a day of walking I did to, from and inside the Pentagon on a daily basis. But that wasn’t an option. Even Anita Blake is not immune from this form of male oppression. She speaks eloquently about the calculation that she and all women must make with respect to calibrating our appearances to a level of precision not seen outside of measurements used to make sure bridges don’t fall. Is my outfit too flirty? Am I showing too much skin? Not enough skin? Are the heels the right height? Am I projecting an image of sufficient power to make sure no one fucks with me, but not so much that men will feel emasculated? If that isn’t a rigged system, I don’t know what is.
And what about the culture of rape on our college campuses? I've heard no fewer than five men tell me—with an understanding that it is horrifying (so many things to be horrified about these days)—that for college boys, "No means yes and yes means anal." Really? In 2016? I thought things were better than when I was in college and was raped by a date. At which time I told myself that it was my own fault for putting myself into a bad situation. And I didn't tell anyone else because I felt ashamed for being so stupid. I'm not sure things have improved since the 1980s, except that we are more aware.
This is where my beautiful, inspirational, amazing fictional heroines come in. These women would most certainly be considered "nasty" by The Donald and all the white, Christian, heterosexual men who fear the end of their reign of world domination (which is long overdue to be overthrown). They are nasty because they are smart, and accomplished, and fierce. They own their sexuality, their power, their bad-assness. They are each she-who-shall-not-be-fucked-with and they are the kinds of women so many of us want to be. They've got skills and strength and if some asshole tries to touch them without invitation or permission they might lose a hand. I want to be them. I want all of us to be them.
I'm behind in my blogging for a worthy cause; I've read so many good books lately and had so many ideas for blog posts that I'm writing faster than I can post. Which is a wonderful problem to have. Today's post features the amazing new offering by Faith Hunter, Blood of the Earth. This is a spin-off series that takes place in the world of Jane Yellowrock, but focuses on a new heroine, Nell Ingram. Nell is a complex character with paranormal powers. We learn about Nell’s evolving abilities right along with her. In addition to all of that, she is a survivor of a cult that married her off to an older man at 15, and now she's a 23-year old widow. There is a lot to this book. I can't recommend it enough. But I digress. As the book progresses, Nell discovers a talent for speaking truth to power. This is a heady ability, and its importance is highlighted when Nell is recruited by the Feds to gather information from her former cult cohorts, who are suspected of collaboration with a militant racist group call Human Speakers of Truth. Needless to say, these asshats aren't speaking much truth at all. But Nell most certainly is. Faith Hunter uses this clever play on words to illuminate the path she wants her readers to follow.
Speaking truth to power—and even to regular folks who might not want to hear it—is a rare and valuable skill. In fact, I built my entire national security career on just that ability. Speaking truth involves courage, resolve, strength, sensitivity and a willingness to sacrifice oneself for the greater good. It is not for the faint-hearted. Nell is far from faint-hearted. She is a wonderful character, full of fear and vulnerability, but with a spine of steel and a will of iron. She is admirable and inspirational.
Most of us don't want to hear unpleasant facts or negative opinions. We eschew criticism, even when it's constructive. When someone tells us things we don't want to hear, we tend to edge away from that someone. This tendency is not necessarily good, but we do it anyway, like so many other things that constitute poor choices. And our unwillingness to hear unpleasantries is reinforced by the equally strong desire in most of us to please people or avoid confrontation. Taken together, these traits mean that many of us live in a bubble with others who perpetuate our delusions of grandeur and competence.
This unfortunate situation is even more pronounced in professional organizations and in the corridors of government and corporate power. Many of those at the top (and I've found men to be more susceptible to this than women as a gross generalization), prefer that their positive self perceptions be reflected by those who serve and support them. So what ends up happening is the Fox News syndrome —where only supportive opinions are expressed. Truth? Truth becomes what we want it to be, rather than a reflection of reality. Denial? Nope. Don't even know I am lying if everyone around me is doing it as well.
Penetrating that defensive wall of denial is difficult and daunting. I've been thrown out of many an office for pointing out that the emperor is buck ass naked. But I'm happy to say that I've also been escorted to some of the highest offices in the land because over the years my reputation for brutal honesty and objectivity has been valued. Turns out there are some powerful people who realize that surrounding ourselves with bobble-headed yes-men (and women) is the best way to fail.
But it takes courage to say things others won't. It's scary and the consequences can be quite negative, as both Nell and I can tell you. Speaking truth, especially to power, means risking rejection and ridicule. It means being disliked and being relegated to the unpopular kids' lunch table. For those of us who spent way too much time at that table in grade school, it's particularly unpleasant.
But it's important. Someone has to tell the emperor his new clothes are non-existent. Someone needs to point out the obvious and the not-so-obvious. It's possible no one will listen to us. And it's possible we might get pink-slipped as a result of our willingness to say what no one wants to hear. It's possible we'll be like Cassandra, accurately predicting doom and gloom without anyone believing us. And then becoming the object of revulsion because we were right. Speaking truth to power often sucks.
So why do we do it? Why does Nell take on the establishment and defy her cult to highlight that they’re going down an ill-advised path? Sometimes we do it because we can no longer stay silent or agreeable. Sometimes, the truth is so powerful that we cannot deny it. For me, it felt like a calling; I was able to see the writing on the wall and withstand the negative consequences of speaking truth to power, so I felt a responsibility to do so. Much of these kinds of truths relate to improving areas where things are deteriorating, or urging repairs when things are broken. Sometimes, the truth involves pushing others to be and do more when they are content to rest on their laurels or don't want to be bothered to do the right thing because it's hard, or costly, or just inconvenient.
Reading about Nell inspired me to remember why it's important to speak truth to power and all the good that it can do. I've found a kindred spirit in Nell, and I've found more truth in fantasy than can often be found in reality.
I've just read the latest installment of the Jane Yellowrock series, Broken Soul, by Faith Hunter. And I'm delighted to report that this series is getting better with age, which isn't always true, so I'm quite happy when it is. And I love Jane. Just like I love Anita Blake, Meredith Gentry, Pia Cuelebre, Mac Lane and Catherine Russell (Cat). These are powerful women who make me swell with pride that I share their chromosomal makeup. I am woman, hear me roar. In Jane's case, that is a literal statement.
There are so many things I enjoy and relate to in these strong, fierce women, and I know I'll have more to say along the way as we journey together with these blogs. But the subject at hand today is the amazingly realistic way Jane (like Anita, Merry, Cat, and the others before her) assume the mantle of power and authority to take up leadership roles and guide their people away from danger and toward safety, redemption, connection, and fulfillment. What I find particularly poignant and authentic is the relatively reluctant way Jane steps into her role, but how, once she decides to go there, she picks up the scepter of leadership with strength and purpose. It's a beautiful thing to witness. And it's inspiring to experience the journey with her.
Why wouldn't someone want to assume the position? It comes with power, authority, respect and deference. People in leadership positions have all sorts of folks sucking up to them and telling them all sorts of things I, for one, want to hear. Like how fabulous I am, how smart, beautiful, clever, witty, funny, strong, real, whatever it is I want people to think about me. And leaders have followers--individuals who live to fulfill our every wish. What's not to like? Sure, that all comes with a lot of responsibility and accountability and an obligation to meet certain minimum standards. And the reality is that the higher the position, the more burden you get with all the perks.
We could take a page from some of my old government contacts and accept all the fun parts of leadership and sort of forget about the rest of it. You know, take what you like and leave the rest? What's so terrible about that? Sounds pretty good on the surface to me.
Except, like the price Jane Yellowrock must pay to bend time to her purposes in Broken Soul, there is a price for taking without giving back and exercising power without compassion or compunction. But the reality also is that lots and lots of toxic leaders are placed in positions of power and authority who then abuse that power, sometimes in incredibly egregious ways. I left a job in the Pentagon once because I couldn't stomach the miscarriages of justice that occurred in the name of kissing some jerk's ass. And there are so many terrible examples of toxic leaders in the world today both in American politics and corporations as well as in the rest of the world.
But I'm digressing fairly far afield, so back to the topic at hand, which involves women in power positions. And the women who inhabit my beloved fantasy books are decidedly not toxic. I think that a healthy dose of reluctance in accepting positions of authority and power speaks to someone who understands the difficulties of leadership and is therefore probably qualified to exercise it. Like Jane. She is no power-hungry megalomaniac. But she is a predator, and she never wants to put herself in a position of being prey. Which, in her case, means taking charge and living large. Which Jane does with aplomb. And grace. And compassion. But what I also enjoyed reading in Jane's evolution from a lone hunter to a responsible and effective leader was her uncertainty and incredulity that anyone would ever take her seriously in such a role. That felt so authentic to me. Because if we aren't questioning ourselves and our qualifications to be doing the things we do, especially when our actions impact other people, then we are probably on a slippery slope to egomania. So Jane's introspection and moments of self doubt are probably indicative of someone well qualified to lead.
And the doubt and introspection are well founded. Lonely is the head that wears the crown and all of that. Lonely and scared and angry and guilty, in fact. Comes with the territory as leaders like Jane make life and death decisions with less than perfect information. Jane experiences first hand the unfortunate results of actions she had taken thinking she understood the situation and finding out belatedly that she was missing crucial facts. Which resulted in good people dying. No wonder Jane is reluctant to assume the position. It's a painful and difficult thing to do. Kind of like a bad game of Twister.
And maybe women think more about all of the consequences of power and authority more than men do. Or maybe I am extrapolating from a pathetically small sampling of me and Jane and Anita and Cat. But, as I always do, I figure if someone is writing about this, and millions of people are reading about it and voting with their wallets and their reading time, there must be a horse in there somewhere. As in, where there is smoke there is fire. Most of the time.
So, for me, women in positions of authority are not only hot as hell (just ask Bruiser), but also smarter than the average bear. Or Beast. What do you think?