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Gayle Brandeis

Converse-Station, Guest Posts

The Converse-Station: Alma Luz Villaneuva Interviews Gayle Brandeis

February 3, 2020

A note from Angela: Gayle Brandeis is a person I cherish, not only because she is an amazing and brilliant and generous human, but also because she and I share a bond I would not wish on anyone. I had the opportunity to talk with Gayle about The Art of Misdiagnosis, surviving my mother’s suicide at the Coachella Review and that important book remains on my list of books I would read again. Gayle has just released a book of poetry and Manifest-Station alum Alma Luz Villaneuva took time to speak to her about it. This is their conversation. Enjoy.


Alma Luz Villanueva and Gayle Brandeis first met in 1999 when Gayle entered the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Antioch University, Los Angeles. Alma became her mentor, and later, when Gayle returned to Antioch as faculty, they became colleagues; through all of it, they have formed a deep, nourishing, forever friendship. When Alma’s novel  Song of The Golden Scorpion, came out in 2014, the two of them discussed it here; now they have come together here again to discuss Gayle’s new novel-in-poems, Many Restless Concerns: The Victims of Countess Bathory Speak in Chorus (A Testimony), in which Gayle gives voice to the hundreds of girls and women killed by Countess Erzsébet Báthory of Hungary between 1585 and 1609. The ghosts of these girls and women speak in chorus, compelling us to bear witness to the violence enacted against them, and to share their quest for justice—not only for themselves, but for all girls and women to come. A lyrical, polyphonic protest against silence, Many Restless Concerns speaks to today’s upswell of voices claiming their own worth.

Alma Luz Villaneuva: I was very moved by your testimonies, these so alive voices, these murdered/tortured girls women, centuries later, within your book, Gayle. First of all, what inspired you to hear these voices? How did they come to you? I often receive a dream from a character, announcing their arrival. And these voices arrive four centuries later, so alive, each one. Also, how did Countess Bathory come to your attention?

Gayle Brandeis: Thank you so much! When I was pregnant with my youngest son, my daughter, who was almost 16 at the time, was fascinated by notorious women of history, and asked me to buy several books about women pirates and other outlaws. I was idly thumbing through one of these when I found a chapter about Countess Bathory, who I somehow had never heard of before. I was chilled by the fact that she had killed hundreds of girls and women–stories say up to 650–and I found myself haunted by this. Who were all these silenced girls and women? I started to dig deeper, and found there was much written about Bathory, herself, but I couldn’t find anything that put her victims at the center of the narrative. Eventually I started to be haunted by their voices, a ghostly chorus of them–they visited me in a sort of waking dream–and knew I’d have to try to capture them on the page, maybe even bring them some much belated justice in the process.

What voices have you been dreaming lately?

ALV: My current novel in progress which has become a ‘magical realism’ journey, which includes Quetzalcoatl, a Mexican deity that’s both God/Goddess, female/male- I love that. I love her/his voice, I’m listening. In our email exchange you mentioned that writing these voices, these women and girls, came to you when you were pregnant, but the violence you would have to undertake and enter was too much while pregnant. I understand completely, as a once pregnant poet/writer. Our body, mind, spirit, is tuned to creation, not torture and murder. And so, when you finally were able to write these voices what was your experience of being inside their bodies, listening to their voices. As my Yaqui Mamacita used to say to me, “Tienes coraje, niña…You have courage, child.” Tienes coraje, Gayle- these voices coming through you, their spirit bodies.

GB: I am so excited to read your book in progress! *You* have so much courage, dear Alma–you inspire me unendingly.  Thank you for all of your kind words.

And yes, I realized this was definitely not a healthy book for me to be writing while pregnant–I didn’t want the baby to absorb the agony of all the torture and murder I was reading and writing about, although sometimes I do wonder if my early foray into this book helped prepare me emotionally for my mom’s suicide one week after I gave birth. My creative energies shifted after her death–I needed to write about her, about our relationship; I needed to try to make sense of our past together and the brutal way she ended her life. The memoir that came out of this, The Art of Misdiagnosis, was the most necessary and difficult book I’d ever written, and when I was done with it, I felt so lost as a writer. I didn’t think it was possible to write anything that could ever feel as meaningful as the memoir had. Then these ghosts started to whisper to me again, so I decided to look at the early pages I had written, and got sucked right back into the project. It ultimately felt like the right book to throw myself into after my memoir–I was ready to step out of my own story into a grief bigger than my own (for somehow it felt right to continue to write about grief. And to continue to break silences. I had broken so many within me for my memoir, and this project was a chance to break historical silences).

Entering the experience of these girls and women was excruciating–it broke my heart and took my breath away again and again to not only learn what they endured, but to try to enter into their pain on the page (knowing what they endured is beyond anything I can comprehend with my own body, something I acknowledge within the book, when the ghosts tell the reader they won’t be able to comprehend the pain these girls and women experienced). These ghosts no longer have bodies, of course, but I imagined them still being able to access echoes of their physical trauma, as I write here:

“Your body remembers even when you no longer have a body
(some tender part of you still flinches)
(some immaterial nerves still flare)”

I should mention that Bathory’s story has been written about in a titillating way, and I didn’t want to do that, not in the least; I wanted to show the true human cost of the suffering she inflicted. I wanted to force us to confront the horror these girls and women faced, because I believe it’s important to look at inhumanity head on; If we don’t face it, it’s harder to stop it, to prevent it. And I want to use the book as a way to raise awareness of current horror–the devastating number of missing and murdered indigenous women–and to raise funds for organizations working to stop this present-day genocide.

ALV: I love the above quote, “Your body remembers even when you no longer have a body”…I think of the science based fact that our DNA memory/trauma is passed onto the family line, future human beings. These voices had that kind of alive echo for me; that their memories, traumas were being passed onto me, the reader, via their channel, you. Silenced no more; their spirits can now rest, move on to current lives, as in reincarnation, with joy (I hope). Writing these voices, their horrific experiences in the body, must have been a passing through the fire ritual for you as the channel, the writer. And after your mother’s suicide, the birth of your baby, the ritual of fire, that cleansing, so wise, and so hard. Yes, The Art of Misdiagnosis, your memoir, the relationship with your mother, an immense fire ritual, that cleansing.

In Santa Fe, New Mexico, there’s a yearly fire ritual, Zozobra, where a huge man figure is burned, wailing all the while. People bring divorce papers, painful letters, their own letters to pain and grief, and who knows what, to add to this fire. I imagined this man figure as The Patriarchy burning to dark ashes, all the pain from that centuries old false power structure. And in the Southwest the pain of native genocide is still felt strongly, and as you write the ongoing missing, murders, rapes of indigenous women. Those thousands of silent voices, their in the body experiences. The genocidal Femicide that continues globally; the millions of girls, women, boys trafficked globally. For those who are receptive, they come to us in dreams. I just included some in my novel in progress, and have a feeling they’re not done with me. As I also believe they aren’t done with you, amiga, gracias a la Diosa…the Goddess in all her guises.

And so, with the ritual of fire, that cleansing, in mind- what gifts did you receive in return as channel, writer and woman? *Again, I love your coraje, courage…

GB: Oh, thank you so much for sharing all of this–I loved hearing about the Zozobra ritual; your imagining of burning the Patriarchy to ash really hits home. May it be so! I’ve used fire to burn things that no longer serve me (and water to do the same, the Tashlich ritual of casting bread during the Jewish High Holy Days) and it’s always such a freeing ritual. This book definitely felt like a trial by fire, and did have a cleansing effect. It showed me I am stronger than I know, that I can face the world’s pain, give voice to the world’s pain, and still find joy on this beautiful, broken Earth. It helped me expand my creative envelope, which makes me want to keep stretching it, to keep finding new ways to approach my work. I agree–these silenced voices aren’t done with me yet, and I’m eager to see where they’ll take me. I envision this book being adapted into a theater piece–I love the idea of a real chorus giving voice to these ghosts–and have a few irons in the fire toward that end. We’ll see what happens! I would love to know more about the silenced voices entering your novel (and to reading them some day!)

ALV: A theatre piece of a chorus giving voice to these Spirits, wonderful. This makes me imagine them all in red (fire) costumes, speaking, witnessing their very brief lives- mostly girls from ten to fourteen, from what I’ve read. Which makes me wonder what Countess Bathory’s voice would sound like, say. Supposedly she had epilepsy as a young girl, with blood swiped on her lips, a cure. And she witnessed cruel punishments as a girl, the royal household. It makes me wonder what her girl voice would sound like, say. However, given the acutely alive voices of her victims, their horrific experiences flesh out the Countess vividly. And so, even briefly, to see/hear her voice as a girl here, for a moment. Briefly. I love that these voices expanded your creative envelope, to find new ways to approach your writing- exciting!

As I journey with my characters, this novel in progress, we keep listening to the silenced voices, as well as to the joyful, singing voices. That balance keeps me going- this is my first all out ‘magical realism’ journey, novel, so I’m constantly surprised.

GB: Surprise is one of my very favorite parts of the writing journey–I love that your novel in progress is offering up so much surprise for you!

Your question about Countess Bathory’s girl voice is such a profound one, and one I’m not sure how to answer. I knew I had to include her in this narrative to some extent, since her actions led to the current state of these ghosts, but of course I wanted to center the narrative on the lives she impacted, the lives she ended, not her (just as some journalists are trying to do in this era of mass shootings, focusing on stories of the victims of gun violence instead of their killers, to avoid giving notoriety to perpetrators of these horrific acts.) That said, she is certainly a compelling and complicated figure, and her childhood does fascinate me. I’m not sure I can access her voice at this point, though. It reminds me of when I started writing my memoir–I was so angry at my mom, it was hard to see her with compassion (and a large part of the journey of my memoir was coming to that place of compassion.) I think I’m still too angry at Countess Bathory to be able to see her clearly, and I think that comes through when the ghosts say “The Lady knew what it was like to leave home at a young age, sent to live with the Nádasdys at twelve so she could learn the ways of the estate before her wedding two years hence.//Does that give you sympathy for her? Have it if you must, have sympathy for poor, poor, Erzsébet Báthory (who had sympathy for none but herself).” I do have some glimmerings of compassion for her, though, and when I think of her girl voice, I really only hear two words: “Help me.” No one did.

ALV: “Help me.” Bathory’s girl voice. “No one did.” Your response says it all, Gayle- punched me in the gut, where truth often lands. And I can hear her small girl voice whisper, “Help me.” As so many girls whisper, shout if they have the chance- the millions of trafficked girls, and boys- who hears them. The voice, your answer, chillingly true. The hundreds of girls she passed her pain onto- the chorus of voices in your book. At last they are heard, and of course I love the idea of a real chorus of voices speaking for them. I imagine their spirits joining those throats, voices. What that space will feel like as they speak their truths. Powerful stuff.

You speak of being angry with your mother; her suicide, your loss, your sorrow. As you felt anger with Countess Bathory; I felt waves of anger, and sorrow, reading the spirit’s alive voices. I’m wondering- do you imagine your mother taking part in the chorus of voices if she was still with us, now. I loved that photo of her in that stand in opera dress/costume, so magnificent. I can almost hear her- her body, her stance. I sense her intelligence, courage, strength in that stance. I also sense how proud of you she is, perhaps cheering you on page by page. I feel my Mamacita’s presence as I write- my joy, sorrow, rage, how it all transforms on the page. My body, every cell. Transformation. Your book, the voices, leads to this, transformation. Healing.

GB: So deeply grateful for your insight, your vision, dear Alma. I’ve had to sit with this question for a while, as you know. After my sister in law mentioned that the book cover reminded her of one of my mom’s opera photos, and I found the photo in question, I was blindsided by how similar the two are, how the red (a skirt in the cover, a cape in the photo of my mom) drapes in the exact same way to the lower right corner of each image. My breath stopped for a moment. I am still puzzling out the connection–both are powerful women who caused harm, although my mom did so on a much, much smaller scale; it’s likely I’ve made other subconscious connections between them, our stories, that I’ll need some time to excavate. But even so, yes, I do feel my mom’s pride in me–she was always so proud of me, even though I could feel her frustration with the fact that I was never as “successful” as she had wanted me to be–and I’m realizing in some ways, I’m carrying on the work she started. She wanted to give women voice, too. She started her organization, The National Organization for Financially Abused Women, to create a chorus of women’s voices to change divorce legislation (and even though the founding of it was based on the delusional belief that my father was hiding millions of dollars from her, the organization did real and important work in the world.) I think she would love to be part of the chorus of this book. I can hear and see her, too, dressed in red, lifting her voice with all her heart.

ALV: I simply love the final sentence of your response, “…lifting her voice with all her heart.” If you’ve made subconscious choices between your mother and Countess Bathory- the pain in your relationship, the pain of the voices you heard, brought to life on the page, what a strange gift of healing. And it seems all healing comes to us as a strange gift- nothing planned, nothing tidy. Healing comes to us with its own life force if/when we’re ready for transformation, to be healed, again. I imagine your mother’s presence in your imagination, body, memories, will always bring you strange gifts; as Mamacita’s presence has for me for sixty-three years.

I am so honored to have this exchange with you, amiga- our first exchange as student-teacher twenty years ago. I immediately saw your brilliance as I read your first novel, The Book of Dead Birds, which has since, of course, been published with so many deserved awards. Then we became friends, and then colleagues as you began teaching in the same MFA in creative writing program. How I loved seeing your shining face of light at our opening faculty meeting- how I loved our deep talks at our traditional Thursday night dinners, with piña coladas. And our humor together- graduation day, so many amazing writers, poets graduating. As we stood in line in our faculty graduation robes, we began to feel a bit wacky, threatening to do The Worm. Right there in our robes. I was crying with laughter, as you were. I love the ecstatic energy you carry and share, from your own being, to your writing. And so, to say it publicly, how grateful I am to know you, and always to read your work, all genres.

Okay, one more question- a brief answer will do. In Bali I walked into a courtyard with an immense eagle perched on steel, tethered by its leg/talon. A woman shaman, healer, walked out to greet me- I asked why the eagle wasn’t free. She asked me, “What is freedom, madam?” Over the years I’ve answered this question in many ways; there’s so many answers, of course. I would love to hear yours, even a sentence.

Mucho amor, amiga, milagros y piña coladas. And The Worm, always.

GB: I’m so honored and grateful to know you, too, my dear Alma, to have this conversation with you. What a gift. Whenever I see an eagle, I think of this question that was posed to you in Bali–in fact, it pops into my head quite often. And yes, there are so many answers, but what speaks to me right now is the very first poem I ever wrote when I was four years old, a poem called “Little Wind” that went “Blow, little wind/blow the trees, little wind/blow the seas, little wind/blow me until I am free, little wind.” I think I somehow knew even then that creativity can be like a wind that blows through us, that makes us free, and to this day, I never feel more free than when I allow that wind to blow through me, when I get out of my own way and allow the poem or story or essay or dance to barrel through, not worrying about how it will be received in the world, just giving it the space to roar.

Thank you again, amazing Alma. You have helped me be more free through your mentorship, your example, and I’m forever grateful for your presence in my life, your presence in the world. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

Order Alma Luz Villaneuva’s work here.

Order Gayle Brandeis’ work here, including her latest Many Restless Concerns, The Victims of Countess Bathory Speak in Chorus.




Upcoming events with Jen



Guest Posts, Current Events

Stewarding Liberty

July 22, 2018

By Gayle Brandeis

On the 4th of July, I watched in awe and admiration as Therese Patricia Okoumou scaled the base of the Statue of Liberty. I love how she was taking such visible, breathtaking action to protest the Trump administration’s cruel immigration policies, how she was using her body to take a literal stand—not just a stand, but a climb, elevating herself the way Lady Liberty elevates her torch, turning herself into a beacon. The fact that she is an immigrant from the Democratic Republic of Congo makes the action all the more moving, all the more meaningful.

I have a special connection to Lady Liberty, myself, albeit a less spectacular one. In 1986, when I was 18, my essay on the meaning of liberty was installed in the Centennial time capsule of the Statue. I was one of six teenagers—three American, three French—to receive this honor via an essay contest sponsored by the United States Information Agency, the propaganda arm of the US government. The six of us were flown to Washington, DC, where we met famous journalists and a former Supreme Court Justice, and got to tour the White House. Ronald Reagan wasn’t there, but we did get to meet his press secretary and have our pictures taken at the podium in the White House Press Room. I was pretty naive at 18—I remember asking the secretary “Do you ever keep anything from the American people?” and he laughed and said “Of course”; I remember the chills that traveled through me when I realized, for the first time in my life, that our government is not as transparent as I had assumed. Continue Reading…

Books I Will Read Again, Guest Posts

Books I Will Read Again: The Art of Misdiagnosis by Gayle Brandeis

November 15, 2017

When I finish a book, I do one of three things with it: donate it to a local book drive, pass it along to a friend, or keep it on my bookshelf to reference and read again. This space is filled with the books I keep. I hope you like this feature, and I hope you like Gayle’s book. -Angela

The Art of Misdiagnosis is out this week, buy it here, or at your favorite independent bookseller. 

By Angela M Giles

Gayle Brandeis is an amazing writer of poetry and prose and I have been waiting for this book from the moment she announced the project. Although I truly enjoy her writing and look forward to whatever she publishes, Gayle and I share a strange commonality that made me especially keen to read this- we both lost a parent to suicide. Our losses occurred under very circumstances to be sure, but she and I experience a type of grief that is still a bit shadowy in our culture, and it is a grief that is wildly complex. I was curious to see how she was approaching the subject and what she would make of the story of her mother’s suicide and of her own survival in the face of it. It’s a complicated emotional space to be sure, and in this book Gayle navigates it with grace and clarity and honesty. This is an important work, and not just in terms of grief literature. You can also read it for a discussion of family dynamics, or a discussion of mental illness…just read it.

I asked Gayle about her mother and what she would say to her if she could give her a copy of the book. What would she want her mother to understand about why she felt the need to write their story? This is her response: Continue Reading…

Binders, Guest Posts

Dendrochronology (The Study of Rings.)

February 28, 2015


By Gayle Brandeis.

The first boy to give me a ring, at least part of one, was Timmy Murakami. He left an “I like you and I hope you like me” note in my third grade locker, a note that suggested we go for a walk by Lake Michigan together. Along with drawing little YES and NO squares for me to mark, he had folded the bottom left corner of the wide ruled notebook paper into a sharp triangle, and had tucked a little yellow plastic heart inside, clear and pale, like lemon candy. It looked like it had fallen off a ring, prismatic like a diamond, a bit of adhesive still on its back. I never replied to the note—too shy—but sometimes I would set the gem on top of my ring finger and feel a rush through my body I couldn’t quite name, an admixture of quease and thrill.


The first thing I ever stole was a Chicago Bears ring. I didn’t mean to steal it. I had tried it on in the gift shop at the Hyatt Regency O’Hare, where my family often went for Sunday brunch, a lavish spread of ice sculptures and lox and tiny fussy desserts, live piano music accompanying the hiss of butter from the omelet station. My sister and I loved to go to the gift shop and look at the snow globes holding the Chicago skyline, the activity books that came with invisible ink pens, the bins of candy and playing cards, the Buckingham Fountain keychains. I forgot the ring was on my finger when we left the store to get another plate of tiny, fussy desserts, didn’t notice it until we were back at home and my shirt snagged on it as I changed into my pajamas. My heart started to hammer. It was an ugly ring, the Chicago Bears logo huge and garish. I hated football. It was not a ring I ever would have asked my parents to buy for me. I had no idea why I had even chosen to try it on. But here it was. I was a criminal. There must be some badness in me I hadn’t known I possessed. I felt guilty, but also slightly excited, maybe even a little proud—a good girl like me getting away with theft. I yanked the ring off my finger and hid it deep inside my underwear drawer, where only I could feel its shameful glow. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, healing

Scars, Revisited.

January 26, 2015


By Carly Courtney.

March 2014

“Is this a good time?” she asked, my dying phone clamped between my cheek and shoulder, both hands on the wheel, on a highway I didn’t know the name of, passing a town I didn’t recognize.

It wasn’t. The woman on the phone was calling about my biopsy the day before.

“Some of your results are back, and pathology recommends immediate excision.”

She continued babbling about the tests, but the only phrases I caught were “color strain” and multiple science-y words that start with “m.”

I hung up with the sensation in my stomach you get when you see police lights in your rear-view. My phone had 2% battery left, and I desperately needed GPS, so I sat awkwardly in the doorway of a McDonalds charging my phone and ordering iced coffee after iced coffee. Eventually I made my way along a windy road through the foothills that led me to Auburn where I found I-80, and my way home from visiting my mom and the hospital over spring break.

I had never been so happy to see the dorms when I pulled into princess parking (one of the five parking spots right outside the dorms) and texted my roommate to come help me unload my stuff. The medical assistant told me I wasn’t allowed to lift anything over five pounds with my left arm for five days after the biopsy. “No five for five!” she said, trying to be cheery and helpful. It’s hard to be cheery with a brick-sized ice pack shoved down your bra.

“What did they say?”

I focused on meticulously folding a pair of socks. “They, uh, recommend immediate excision.”

Jen Pastiloff is the founder of The Manifest-Station. Join her in Tuscany for her annual Manifestation Retreat. Click the Tuscan hills above. No yoga experience required. Only requirement: Just be a human being.

Jen Pastiloff is the founder of The Manifest-Station. Join her in Tuscany for her annual Manifestation Retreat. Click the Tuscan hills above. No yoga experience required. Only requirement: Just be a human being.

Continue Reading…

The Converse-Station, writing

The Converse-Station: Gayle Brandeis Interviews Alma Luz Villanueva.

June 2, 2014

Hey there, Jen Pastiloff here. I’m the founder of The Manifest-Station! Welcome to the newest installment- The Converse-Station: A place where writers interview writers. (Thanks to author Elissa Wald for coming up with that name.) I am so excited by the idea of this series, I can hardly stand it. The readership on the site is so high that I figured it was time for something like this. Today’s interview is between two of my friends, two women I look up to tremendously. Both have appeared on the site already. Gayle Brandeis (her two pieces on the site went viral) and Alma Luz Villanueva. Both of these women are fierce. THis is an honor. Smooches, Jen.

“A Continuous Dream”: An Interview with Alma Luz Villanueva by Gayle Brandeis.

Alma Luz Villanueva is a visionary. She dreams her own world into being, as both a writer and a woman, and empowers others to pay deep attention to their own dreams.

I’ve known Alma for 15 years–she was my mentor in the MFA program at Antioch University, Los Angeles, where we are now colleagues and, more importantly, friends. When I was her student, Alma would have me write questions for my characters and put them under my pillow, sure I’d have more clarity in the morning (she was right!); unlike many writing professors, she encourages her students to write our characters’ dreams, a practice which often breaks our stories wide open. I love how dreams have guided the most profound decisions in her life, including her move to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico several years ago. A few months ago, she dreamed of me in a white gown and said she knew it signaled a powerful transformation. I ended up needing major surgery not long afterwards; I told her later that I thought of her dream often while I was in the hospital–I was worried it meant I was going to die, and I kept telling myself to be open to whatever transformation might be waiting for me, even if it was the greatest one. Alma told me that she had sensed I would be close to that edge, but she didn’t want to interpret the dream for me–she just wanted to give it to me whole, to let it reveal its own truth. That is the great beauty of Alma as a teacher–she opens important doors within her students and gives them the courage and freedom to explore what’s on the other side. This woman is brimming with, glowing with, hard-won wisdom.

I have the great pleasure of seeing Alma every June and December at the Antioch MFA residencies, and always look forward to the shamanic rattle she brings to the faculty meetings, her eye-opening, heart-opening seminars, and our traditional Thursday night dinners together, full of the most nourishing conversation. This June, we’re planning on pina coladas, and maybe dancing, to celebrate dreams and transformation and friendship.

Alma has been a literary force for decades. She began publishing poetry in the late 1970s, when she won the University of California at Irvine’s Chicano Literary Prize. She has since released eight books of poetry, including Planet, which won the Latin American Writers Poetry Prize, and the forthcoming Gracias. Her four novels include The Ultraviolet Sky, which won an American Book Award and is listed in 500 Great Books by Women, and Naked Ladies, which received the PEN Oakland Fiction Award. Her latest novel, Song of the Golden Scorpion, was published by Wings Press October, 2013.

Song of the Golden Scorpion tells the story of Xochiquetzal, a 58 year old woman whose dreams lead her to San Miguel de Allende, and her passionate connection with Javier, a 34 year old doctor. Their 12 year affair is deeply erotic but also reaches beyond the body, and the book is ultimately a story of healing on both a personal and cultural level.

I asked Alma a few questions about the novel over email.


GB: You mentioned to me that male reviewers have issues with Xochiquetzal’s sexuality. Could you speak about this a bit? Was your decision to write about a 58 year old woman’s sexuality a political one in any way? Also, I know that sometimes you require your students to write about sex. Could you talk about why you feel exploring a character’s sexuality is important for a writer?

ALV: In a sense it was ‘political,’ as in it’s normal for a 58 year old man to be with a 34 year old woman- 24 year difference, as it was with Javier and Xochiquetzal. I recently read an interview with Joan Collins who’s 80 years old…her husband is 48, so a 32 year difference. She was asked the secret of her marriage and she responded, “Sex, sex, sex.” Then about the age difference, “Well, if he dies, he dies.” I laughed so hard, that spirit. And so, although there was a ‘political’ slant to these lovers, it ultimately was simply human. To be human is to be sexual/sensual/alive…I encourage my students to explore their character’s full humanity (as you know haha). And so, I think men, as in all cultures, still don’t want women to claim their full humanity/sexuality- yet they want us to continue to have babies, replenish the next generation. I say, GROW UP. And I say this as a mother of three grown sons, all feminist men. Male writers are expected and encouraged to express, write within their full humanity, their sexuality. Think of Junot Diaz, for example, and he’s a Latino who won a Pulitzer Prize for his novel, ‘THE BRIEF WONDROUS LIFE OF OSCAR WAO.’  A woman, and a Latina woman, would not be celebrated for her full humanity, her sexuality with no censors, on the page. But this is true for all women, no matter their ethnic/cultural group- that ‘mother/whore’ curse we must continue to challenge as whole human beings. We became mothers from our own desires, hungers, ecstasy. And if we choose not to be mothers, our desires, hungers, ecstasy remain intact. Our own.

GB: Because I’ve known you for so long, I recognize parts of your own story, your own life, within this novel. I’m curious to hear your thoughts about autobiographical fiction. How does fiction and life flow together for you? Did you set out to braid your own story into this novel, or did it slip in unexpectedly?

ALV: Fiction as life is a continuous dream, with a lot of work involved (haha), as well as much pleasure/joy. This novel isn’t ‘autobiographical fiction,’ as my characters, as in ALL of them and there are many, took over. I didn’t consciously choose to include some of my experiences in Bali, for example, but at the moment of la fictive dream, my dream and Xochiquetzal’s dream merged, and I liked it. So did she, so it stayed. The characters have to agree or forget it. I know many novelists include their own experiences, so I’m certainly not the first, or the last. I think of two of my favorite novelists I loved before I ever wrote- Colette and Herman Hesse, who wove in their own life experiences with their characters. And so, I have never been an Israeli Commando, Ari…or a Mexican drug lord, Pompeii…or a Japanese woman roaming the world planting peace crystals to honor Hiroshima/Nagasaki, Ai… or a Hopi-Taos flute playing man, Hank, and more. All characters in this novel, whom I had to dream with to know who they truly are.

GB: You weave a lot of poetry into the novel–Neruda, Rumi, your own/Xociquetzal’s–and the prose itself is deeply informed by poetic conventions: repetition, rhythm, etc. I know you also have a new book of poetry, Gracias, which you’ve called the novel’s twin, about to be released. How does the process of writing poetry differ for you from writing fiction, and how do the two crafts feed one another?

ALV: I was brought up by my full blood Yaqui grandmother Jesus Villanueva, who came to the USA from Sonora, Mexico, in her early 30s. She never spoke English so I was her translator at clinics, welfare offices, banks etc- she taught me ‘dreaming’ from the time I could speak. And then she taught me poetry, told me wonderful/terrible stories. As a writer, I was a poet first (I’ve published eight books of poetry), although I always loved to tell stories…I think of the traveling Native story tellers, perhaps in a past life with beautiful tattoos. Their tattoos symbolizing dreams, stories. I have some but probably not as many as I should to keep up with my dreams, stories. And so, I always begin with the Dream…I’ve kept Dream Journals for over forty years and return to them often to re-member. The gift. The map. The Dream guides my life first, then I’m led to poetry, and poetry finally guides me to stories, the written version, fiction. The fictive dream. Poetry is my mother tongue, and although I write in English mostly, it’s always sung/echoed in Spanish, my grandmother’s chanting Yaqui language. Her morning prayer/poetry to the Child Sun, her rattle…the first sound I heard when I woke up. Then we shared our dreams over hot chocolate, pan dulce.

GB: Your book is full of scrumptious sounding food, which helps amplify the earthy sensuality of the novel (I love the mango “surgery”, and all of the other delicious feasts that Xochiquetzal and Javier share.) Could you talk a bit about writing about food? Also, I remember reading a review of The Ultraviolet Sky that said something like “What’s with all the omelets?”, and there are quite a few omelets in this novel, as well. As an omelet fan, myself, I have to ask–are omelets a specialty of yours, and what’s your favorite kind?

ALV: As with sex/sensuality, the pleasure, and necessity, of food are to me hand in hand, mouth to mouth. They naturally come together when I write those moments- sense-uality. One of my favorite omelets is the ‘chorizo omelet’: Saute some chorizo, to taste, in a pan a few minutes, add red bell pepper, onion, garlic, simmer a bit more, covered. Then I add two eggs for one human, 4 eggs for two… break the eggs in a bowl, add some milk/almond milk, sprinkle basil, beat, and pour on top of chorizo/vege mix. Then add slices of Oaxaca cheese, my fave, or any cheese you like…over that some spinach, chili flakes, a bit more basil, and simmer until omelet is done with lid on. Keep lifting the omelet to see if it’s browned/cooked, and cheese melted, spinach cooked, YUMMY. I top it with fresh mango salsa, or store bought is fine. A glass of chilled chardonay, or champagne- at the end cafe con Kahlua, cinnamon on top. Here in Mexico, before you eat, you’re blessed with ‘BUEN PROVECHO!’ When I first moved here, total strangers would pause, lean in and yell this, making me jump. Now I wait for the blessing.

GB: Your book is also deeply spiritual, exploring Buddhism, Hopi ritual, Mayan mythology, the creation of the Energy Child, etc. It’s rare for novelists to tackle matters of the spirit the way that you do–are there any novelists you’ve been inspired by who explore spirituality?

Any words of advice for writers who wish to bring matters of the spirit into their own work?

ALV: I love Herman Hesse for his spiritual quests within his novels- I think of ‘SIDDHARTHA,’ but all of his novels include the spirit quest. Again, I read him before I wrote any fiction and he gave me ‘permission’ to think/write with spirit in mind (I fully realize now). Alice Walker’s fiction has that hallmark of spiritual writing- her ‘THE TEMPLE OF MY FAMILIAR’ a spirit journey to the very beginning, stirrings of humankind on our planet. Louise Erdrich’s ‘THE PAINTED DRUM,’ a spirit journey of ancestors, dreams, within Ojibwe, Native reality. I always return to the truth of Spirit- that all true spiritual paths/journeys are one journey. Which is what ‘SONG OF THE GOLDEN SCORPION’ brought me to, this truth. “We wed ourselves to the Mystery, not to conquer it or be conquered by it, but to greet it.” Inuit wisdom  If we, as poets/writers, approach spirituality in this Spirit, we’re always welcomed home.

GB: In the novel, you write “The tendency of her spirit wasn’t strange here, it was daily life. It wasn’t ‘magical realism’ (she hated that literary gringo term, as though the reality of millions was simply a fairy tale, a ‘myth’); no, it was just the reality, the human spirit. Unedited.”  Do you feel that your work is often fighting against gringo literary convention? Could you talk about what it means to you to write as a woman of color?

ALV: The first time I heard the term pathetic fallacy in regards to one of my poems in my MFA workshop (years ago), I almost punched someone. ‘Pathetic fallacy’ to whom…if you’re raised within a culture, a way of being, that honors the Dream, the spirit alive in all living things, even stone, water, stars, the center of our Earth, and that they speak to us (even if we can’t hear, cease to hear); the so-called Western Canon does NOT speak for those who can still hear this on-going song, music, poetry, voice of wild wisdom that surrounds us daily, nightly. Blessing our lives and our dreams. As a woman of color, I can only write from my own truth, voice, vision, while listening to the voice of wild wisdom as deeply as I possibly can.

GB: I know dreams play a vital role in your life and in your fiction. Could you talk about how dreams inform your process as a writer, and how they influenced this novel in particular?

ALV: Since I’ve already answered this in previous questions…and I love your deep questions, Gayle. From the beginning dreams (literally) hauled me into the fictive dream of this novel, as I was trying NOT to start/write this novel. I was dreading the long journey of the novel, that long pregnancy to ‘the end.’ Javier and Xochiquetzal came together in a dream…a ‘wide screen’ dream, taking up all the space…and they just stared at me, into me, through me. No words, but their eyes fiercely, yet lovingly, said, “Surrender,” and I did. Surrender. Wrote the first scene, which I tried to place further on in the novel numerous times…a very erotic scene, their first time together sexually. Every time I did this, they refused to appear within the fictive dream, the novel, and I could hear them laughing, very loudly. The scene remained the opening scene, and we…all of my characters…continued on to the end, six years later. Scene by scene. Dream by dream. I got ‘lost’ a few times in the 454 pages- not ‘logically’ as I could refer to my notebooks, but emotionally/spiritually. I simply couldn’t find IT, how to continue. Then one of my characters would appear in a dream. This happened most crucially toward page 300, and Javier appeared on the ‘wide screen’ of my dream, those eyes, and said, “I don’t need a map, only blood.” I continued to the end. Something released. That surrender.

GB: Xochiquetzal tells a story about a Balinese healer she met who keeps an eagle chained. When Xochiquetzal asked the woman why she didn’t set the eagle free, the woman asked “What is freedom, Madam?” (an encounter that I know you experienced in Bali, yourself.) In one scene, many of the characters answer that question for themselves, so now I must ask you: what do *you* think is freedom, Madam?

ALV: That healer’s question lives in my DNA, my dreams, and sometimes my answer is, “To see a hummingbird in flight….To see an eagle spiraling toward the sun…To hold my great-grandchild for the first time, that sweet human weight…To dive into my sacred glacier lake in the Sierras…To sleep on the Mother Rock there, no fear…To wake up to the stars singing so loudly and the lake singing in harmony…To see endless branches dripping with dreaming monarchs…To hear the young boys sing monarch songs as they laugh with such joy, here in Mexico…To see the vulnerable wonder in their parents’ eyes as they offer me food, these caretakers of the miracle of monarchs, these trees…To witness Madre Mar, her great heaving dance… To hear the laughter of my grown children and grandchildren…To dream the ancestors…To dance just cause I feel like it and as weirdly as I wish to…To cook wonderful food and share it, and to be fed juicy mangos…” And I see all of this is rooted in love/loving…”What is freedom, madam?” To exist within the rainbow, the spectrum, always changing…storm, sun, rain, snow, tears, laughter, pain, joy…always love. Listen.





Gayle Brandeis is the author of Fruitflesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write (HarperOne), the novels The Book of Dead Birds (HarperCollins), which won Barbara Kingsolver’s Bellwether Prize for Fiction of Social Engagement, Self Storage (Ballantine), and Delta Girls (Ballantine), and her first novel for young people, My Life with the Lincolns (Henry Holt), which won a Silver Nautilus Book Award. Gayle teaches in the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Antioch University and lives in Riverside, CA, where she is mom to two adult kids and a toddler, and is winding up her two year appointment as Inlandia Literary Laureate. Connect with Gayle here.


Jennifer Pastiloff is a writer living on an airplane. Her work has been featured on The Rumpus, The Nervous Breakdown, Jezebel, Salon, among others. Jen’s leading a long weekend retreat to Ojai, Calif over Labor Day in Ojai, Calif. She and bestselling author Emily Rapp will be leading another writing retreat to Vermont in October. Check out her site for all retreat listings and workshops to attend one in a city near you. Next up:  Los Angeles, SeattleLondon, Atlanta, South Dakota, Dallas. She tweets/instagrams at @jenpastiloff. Join a retreat by emailing


Beating Fear with a Stick, Dear Life., Guest Posts

Dear Life: I’m Tired Of Being Afraid.

February 28, 2014

Welcome to Dear Life: An Unconventional Advice Column. Your questions get sent to various authors from around the world to answer. Different writers offer their input when it comes to navigating through life’s messiness. Today’s question is answered by author Gayle Brandeis.  Have a question for us? Need some guidance? Send an email to dearlife at or use the tab at the top of the site to post. Please address it as if you are speaking to a person rather than life or the universe. Need help navigating through life’s messiness? Write to us!


Dear Life, I’m tired of being afraid. 

And I mean afraid in every sense of the word.  I’m afraid of everything. I’m afraid of being robbed.  I’m afraid of being raped.  I’m afraid of being murdered.  I’m afraid to walk to my car alone at night.

I’m afraid of being alone.  I’m afraid of dying.  I’m afraid that when I die I’ll be all alone in that moment.  I’m afraid of history erasing me and no one will know that I lived or who I was.

I’m afraid that Heaven might not exist.  Or that God might not exist.  Or at least in the way that I think He does.  I’m afraid I won’t be good enough to be with Him.  I’m afraid I won’t make it into Heaven if it is there.  I’m afraid there’s nothing after this life.

Oh, how I want to cling to this life just like I’ve wanted to cling onto anyone who has ever loved me.  I want to hold it firmly in my hands and never sleep because it might leave me.

I’m afraid to take a chance.  I’m afraid.  Do you hear me?


I am afraid that I am wasting my life and I don’t know how to change it.

I work two retail jobs.  I’m a full-time assistant manager at an electronics store and a part-time sales consultant at a jewelry store.  I have one day off a week where I’m either cleaning house and running errands or I sleep in and then watch Netflix all day.  Either way I don’t feel rested.  I don’t feel happy.  The sucky thing is I barely make enough to pay my bills.  I don’t know how people can live alone.  Or travel or live unconventional lives.  I am draining away.  I am stuck in this hamster wheel of a meaningless life.  And I see other people on their hamster wheels next to mine.  We never touch or talk or get off of it.  I JUST WANT OFF!

In small moments I feel magic.  When I sit in my kitchen in the quiet sunshine or when I lie down next to my dog on the floor.  When I look up at the stars or see my breath in the winter air.  When I hear a really good song on the radio or cry really hard that snot runs down my face.  I sigh and think this is life.  But those moments are so fleeting.  I don’t feel real except in those moments.

I want to feel real all the time.  I want to LIVE life and not merely exist.  Why do I have to work 2 jobs?  Why can’t I travel?  Why can’t I do lunch with my girlfriends whenever I want?  Why can’t I go to Italy and eat pizza and gelato like Elizabeth Gilbert?  Just… Why can’t I!?

I hate that an unconventional life is unconventional.  I hate that my dad said quitting my job to go on a month long road trip with my best friend was irresponsible.  I hate that he says I have to wait until I retire to do things like that.  I hate that after I did it and it took me 9 months to find another full-time job and went into quick spiraling debt that he thinks he was right.  I hate that I need money.

I hate that I’m afraid to quit again.  That I’m afraid to not pay my bills on time.  That I want to be an entrepreneur but I don’t know what I’d do and I’m afraid.

I am so afraid.

I don’t know what to do.  But I’m sick of being afraid.  How do I stop?  How do I start?  What do I do?


I just don’t want to be afraid anymore.


Dear I just don’t want to be afraid anymore,

I hear you.

I’m afraid, too. As I write this to you, I am in a lull between pain. The pain comes and goes like labor, like something’s squeezing me with sharp, hot talons. This is a chronic issue–it flares up every few months; I am lucky that it’s not more frequent, that it’s not something I have to live with daily. When the pain does come, my first response tends to be fear. I am scared I am going to feel the pain forever. I am scared I am not going to survive it. I am scared of the vomiting that usually accompanies it. I am scared the pain will thwart any attempt to function in the world. But sometimes I am able to get beyond this fear, to get to a calmer, clearer place inside myself, where I can ride the pain with detachment, where I know it will pass and I will be okay. This time, I have been calling upon a handy tip I learned in childbirth class: to stop labeling pain pain. To think of it, instead, as an “interesting sensation.” This helps quite a bit. When the pain comes, I don’t clench my body in fear (which, of course, only makes the pain worse.) I try to breathe–breathing is important, in pain, in labor, in life–and chant “Interesting sensation; interesting sensation” inside myself. This allows me to reframe the pain, to look at it with some measure of curiosity, even with a sense of wonder. It keeps me from getting too attached to it. It helps me remember that the pain is not me, that I don’t need to give it so much power.

I suggest you do something similar when you are beset by fear. As the fear starts to clutch your ribs, take a deep breath and try to label it an interesting sensation. Gaze upon your fear with the eyes of a researcher and a bodhisattva all at once; dissect it with curiosity, but also with compassion. What is this fear–does it have a color, a texture, a scent? Why have you given it so much currency in your life? When you start to look at it in a more detached way, you will start to gain power over it rather than let it hold power over you. You will be able to let it go more easily. Fear creates a buzz in the brain, a clatter in the heart; when you find a way past that, you can reach the deep, quiet well inside yourself, the place that knows what you need, what you need to do. The place that’s beyond convention. The place that’s simply true.

Today, I was thinking about what I could share with you that might be of help and three perfect Facebook status updates appeared in my feed, all in a row. These updates felt like getting a cherry cherry cherry in a slot machine, like I had hit the jackpot just for you. The first was from our own Jennifer Pastiloff–it was a sign, white with plain red letters and a red border, like a street sign (or, in this case, like a sign you’d see at a campsite); it said “PLEASE DO NOT FEED THE FEARS”. Remember this; heed it–think of your fears as bears; if you keep feeding them, they’ll keep hanging around, growing bigger and more vicious with each scrap you throw their way. If you stop feeding those fears, they’ll eventually slink off into the woods and leave you alone. You are giving these fears so much of yourself right now; you are feeding them with the energy and time you could be using to build a life more in line with your deepest desires (and it really feels as if one of your deepest desires is to be free–free from convention, from expectation, from the daily grind. Freeing yourself from fear is the first step toward all of that.)

The next update was a quote from Jack Canfield, shared by Elizabeth Gilbert. Canfield said “Everything you want is on the other side of fear.” Over the image, Elizabeth Gilbert wrote “Forza, forza, forza!”, which in Italian means “Power” but can also mean “Go! You can do it!” Even if you can’t eat gelato and pizza in Italy like her (and–who knows?–maybe you’ll find a way someday!) you can take this from her right now. Forza. When you break through your fear, everything you want will be waiting for on the other side.

The third was this wonderful quote from Anais Nin, on what would have been her 111th birthday: “Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.” You are letting fear shrink your life–remember that you have the power to make your world expand again. You’ve done it before. You did a brave thing, quitting your job and taking your road trip. I hope you have some fabulous memories from that trip that can help cancel out your father’s voice, at least some of the time; cherish those memories, and the courage it took to take that journey. Try not to let your father’s disapproval blunt you or make you cower from your own sense of adventure–instead of worrying about your parents’ expectations and being beholden to the generation before you, think about being beholden to the generation that comes after you. Even if you never have children yourself, ask yourself how you want to be remembered by future generations. Do you want girls growing up today to see a woman governed by fear, or do you want to show those girls that it is possible to live a fearless life even when one is inside the hamster wheel? And it *is* possible, you know. There are ways to be unconventional even within a conventional life. You can bring more meaning and fun and wildness into your day even if you keep your current jobs. It’s all about paying attention and finding moments of hilarity and connection and grace. It’s all about cultivating more of those moments of magic you already own, even if fleetingly, when you look up at the stars. Letting go of fear will help you tap into more of those moments. Fear contracts you, makes it hard for you to see the world around you with open eyes and an open heart; when you get beyond the fear, beauty rushes in. Be a beauty seeker. Take Jennifer Pastiloff’s advice and write down five things you find beautiful every day. This in itself can save you. The more moments of beauty and humor you find, the more fear will loosen its grip on your heart.

And it wouldn’t hurt to take some practical steps toward making real changes in your life: you say you want to be an entrepreneur, but you don’t know what you’d do. Do what you can to figure that out. Write lists of things you love, things that get your heart pumping, and imagine what sorts of jobs could spring from them. Do research. Take classes. Spend time in nature. Make things with your hands. See what speaks to you most clearly, what calls you most deeply. See what you can do to make it work. And take a self-defense class–it may help alleviate your fears of being attacked if you know how to attack back.

As for your grappling with your faith, I can only begin to imagine the deep fear that comes from questioning one’s long-held beliefs. I’ve never believed in God or Heaven, myself, at least not in the traditional Judeo-Christian conception, and I feel for you as you struggle with this profound dilemma. But I also ask you to ask yourself that if this is all there is, is that really so bad? In a way, doesn’t it make this time that we have here on this beautiful, complicated planet all the more precious? History may erase us, but at least we have this moment, and if this is all we have, why not put everything into making the very best of the time we are given? Sure, we have to face pain and fear and crappy jobs and the scourge of money, but we also get to face the sunrise and the feel of the dog’s fur under our fingers, and great music and art and life’s glorious absurdities. Let’s relish those things, those moments. Start with this very moment. Take a deep breath. Take a few more–let yourself settle into your own skin. Let fear evaporate; let it rise from your shoulders like steam. What do you notice? What is around and inside you right now that is gorgeous and surprising? If you take time to notice these things, you’ll feel your innate sense of wonder grow instead of your fear. You’ll find yourself smiling more. You won’t worry so much about being alone because you’ll find that you’re great company, yourself. You’ll find yourself ready to take more chances, to step into a more expansive and courageous life. Fear is just an interesting sensation. You don’t need to give it more power than that. I am taking my own advice right now as another pain comes on–breathing, breathing, breathing through it, seeing it with detachment, knowing it will pass. Knowing beauty surrounds me even in the grip of the attack.

You have the power to change, and your desire for change–desire I can feel thrumming right off the page–will help fuel that transformation. To start, all you need to do is take a deep breath, find that clear, quiet well inside yourself and move from that place, not the skittish, frantic place of fear. I have all faith in you. You wouldn’t have written to “Dear Life” if somewhere inside of you, you didn’t have faith in your own ability to change. You can reach beyond your own fear, and when you do, a more spacious, joyful life awaits, even if none of the external realities of your life change. You can do it. I know you can. Forza!

With love and solidarity, Gayle Brandeis

Gayle Brandeis grew up in the Chicago area and has been writing poems and stories since she was four years old. She is the author of Fruitflesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write (HarperOne), Dictionary Poems (Pudding House Publications), the novels The Book of Dead Birds(HarperCollins), which won Barbara Kingsolver’s Bellwether Prize for Fiction in Support of a Literature of Social Change, Self Storage (Ballantine) and Delta Girls (Ballantine), and her first novel for young readers, My Life with the Lincolns (Holt). She released The Book of Live Wires, the sequel to The Book of Dead Birds, as an e-book in 2011.

Gayle’s poetry, fiction and essays have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies (such as, The Nation, and The Mississippi Review) and have received several awards, including the QPB/Story Magazine Short Story Award, a Barbara Mandigo Kelley Peace Poetry Award, and a grant from the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund. Her essay on the meaning of liberty was one of three included in the Statue of Liberty’s Centennial time capsule in 1986, when she was 18. In 2004, the Writer Magazine honored Gayle with a Writer Who Makes a Difference Award.

Gayle teaches in the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Antioch University and lives in Riverside, CA, where she is mom to two adult kids and a toddler.


Please note: Advice given in Dear Life is not meant to take the place of therapy or any other professional advice. The opinions or views offered by columnists are not intended to treat or diagnose; nor are they meant to replace the treatment and care that you may be receiving from a licensed physician or mental health professional. Columnists acting on behalf of Dear Life are not responsible for the outcome or results of following their advice in any given situation.

Mother's Day Retreat! Join Jen Pastiloff in Ojai, Calif this May for a life-changing weekend retreat. May 8-10th. No yoga experience required. Just be a human being. Click photo to book. "Here’s the thing about Jen Pastiloff, folks. Here’s the revolutionary thing. She listens. She listens with an intent focus, a focus that follows your words inside you. Because she has hearing problems, she watches your lips as you speak, and she plucks the ash of your words from the air and takes it inside herself and lays it beside her heart, where before too long your words start beating as if they were strong, capable, living mammals. And then she gives them back to you. Boiled down, this is the secret to Jen’s popularity. She can call what she does Beauty Hunting–she is for sure out there helping people find beauty. She can start a campaign called “Don’t be an asshole” and remind us all to stop a second and please, please, please be our better selves. She can use words like attention, space, time, connection, intimacy. She can ask participants to answer questions like What gets in your way? What stories are you carrying around in your body? What makes you come alive? Who would you be if nobody told you who you were? All of that is what it is. But why it works is because of her kind of listening. And what her kind of listening does is simple: It saves lives." ~ Jane Eaton Hamilton.

Mothers Day Weekend 2016, May 6-8! Join Jen Pastiloff in Ojai, Calif this New Years  for a life-changing 3 day retreat.  No yoga experience required. Just be a human being. Click photo to book.
“Here’s the thing about Jen Pastiloff, folks. Here’s the revolutionary thing.
She listens.
She listens with an intent focus, a focus that follows your words inside you. Because she has hearing problems, she watches your lips as you speak, and she plucks the ash of your words from the air and takes it inside herself and lays it beside her heart, where before too long your words start beating as if they were strong, capable, living mammals. And then she gives them back to you.
Boiled down, this is the secret to Jen’s popularity. She can call what she does Beauty Hunting–she is for sure out there helping people find beauty. She can start a campaign called “Don’t be an asshole” and remind us all to stop a second and please, please, please be our better selves. She can use words like attention, space, time, connection, intimacy. She can ask participants to answer questions like What gets in your way? What stories are you carrying around in your body? What makes you come alive? Who would you be if nobody told you who you were? All of that is what it is. But why it works is because of her kind of listening.
And what her kind of listening does is simple:
It saves lives.” ~ Jane Eaton Hamilton.


The 12 Day Detox is here. Sign up now for the next cleanse on November 30th. Space is limited. This detox comes at just the perfect time. Reprogram your body and mind as we move into the holiday season. This is your time of rejuvenation and renewal.This is not a juice fast, or a detox based on deprivation.

The 12 Day Detox is here. Sign up now for the next cleanse in May. Space is limited. This detox comes at just the perfect time. Reprogram your body and mind as we move into the holiday season. This is your time of rejuvenation and renewal.This is not a juice fast, or a detox based on deprivation.


Grief, Guest Posts, healing, Letting Go

How Dare You?

January 15, 2014


By Gayle Brandeis


Bali Belly is kicking my ass.

I blame the fruit ices. They had been so refreshing, those glittering mounds of mango and passionfruit and papaya snow. They had been so artfully arranged in their large glass bowl, decorated with spears of pineapple and sprigs of mint. I had just neglected to ask whether the water for the ice had been boiled. I don’t know why I overlooked it; I love the word for boiled—rebus. I love the word for water–air. I am paying the price for being so remiss with my words. Now my language training is expanding to include words like sakit perut (stomach ache), kentut (fart), and bau (bad smell).

I am in Bali to study the local dance and music; my eyes and wrists have grown more flexible while learning the graceful, twitchy pendet, my ears have acclimated themselves to the jangly gamelan instruments. I’ve fallen in love with the green terraced rice fields and the cheeky monkeys and the women holding three foot tall offerings on their heads and the tempeh satay with peanut sauce. It is my final semester at the University of Redlands; I chose to travel to the island for my study abroad with a group from the Naropa Institute, a Tibetan Buddhist college out of Boulder, CO. For about a week, while most of the group begins their day with sitting meditation, I begin (and fill and end) my day squatting over the pit toilet in my outdoor bathroom.

I share a stone bungalow with three women—my roommate Celia is a healer, with a specialty in releasing trauma from the body; next door are Rebecca, an herbalist and former midwife, and Angela, a nurse. If I have to be sick in Bali, at least I am surrounded by the right people.

The Naropa folks leave to attend a cremation ceremony, but Angela stays behind to act as my guardian angel. Every time I stumble out of the bathroom, or drift out of sleep, I find a small gift on my bed stand—a fresh bottle of Sprite, a sprig of flowers, a bendy straw, a mini Paddington bear clipped to the handle of a mug.  Rebecca—who, to my continual amazement, has one brown eye, and one half-brown, half-blue, split down the center–introduces me to the pleasures and healthful properties of ginger root tea. And Celia–well, Celia saves me.

She climbs inside the mosquito netting around my bed one day when I am feeling feverish and fretful, and kneels beside me. Light pours through the window cut into the stone wall, filling her curly hair with fire. The air is humid as a mouth. She puts one hand flat on my stomach. I flinch.

“You’re carrying a lot of pain in there,” she says, her British accent an instant balm.

“I was sick as a teenager,” I tell her, blinking back tears. I watch a lizard climb through the window, skitter across the wall. “I spent a lot of time in the hospital.”

“For what?” she asks. I can feel heat pour from her hand, through my shirt, through my skin.

“They thought it was Crohn’s disease, but that turned out to be a misdiagnosis. I found out I have porphyria a couple of years ago.”

I don’t tell her that after I started getting better when I was 15, I pretended to be sick for almost an entire year more. Being sick had become a safe thing for me, a way to stave off the real world. I haven’t told anyone about my deception, not the boyfriend I’ve been living with for two years; not my sister, who had had her own teenage health issues and is the person I am closest to in the world. Certainly not my parents–especially not my mom, who had turned being the mother of  a sick child into a vocation, a calling. My year of fake illness is my deepest, darkest secret.

“You have a lot to release,” Celia says. I really start crying then, but she continues, her voice as calm as ever.  “I know you’ll probably want to have a baby some day, and you won’t want to have so much negative energy stored up in your belly. The baby wouldn’t like that.”

I nod, sniffling. My period is a week late, but I haven’t said anything, haven’t been ready to confront my own suspicions. I will find out a week later that I am pregnant with my first child.

“I’m going to lift my hand,” she says, “And I want all the bad stuff in your belly to lift up with it. You don’t need it anymore. Let it go and trust in your body’s ability to heal itself.”

I close my eyes. I feel her hand rise from my stomach. My diaphragm bounces like a trampoline. I feel a space open near my solar plexus. I feel the pain and shame of those earlier years begin to dribble out, then stream, then shoot into the monsoonal air like a sprinkler, a geyser, a fine gray spray.


Celia’s name appears in my inbox and my heart does a happy flip. Other than a brief visit in New York about 10 years ago, I haven’t seen Celia since Bali, haven’t heard from her in ages.  Crazy how time has passed; my eldest son, the one in my belly in Bali, is now 23, my daughter almost 20. and my baby from my second marriage is just about to turn 4. Celia is going to be in Southern California visiting friends, she writes. She saw my essay in The Rumpus about my mom’s suicide and is wondering if we might get together.

I desperately want to see Celia, but life has me off kilter and overwhelmed. My house was recently burglarized, and I’m dealing with the clean up and insurance and police reports, along with some medical issues and other general chaos, and I am unable to write back right away. By the time I finally do, she’s almost ready to leave for the Bay Area.

“I’d love to give you a healing session as a wedding present if you have time,” she writes; she had read about my new marriage in my essay.

“My husband and I are actually separated now,” I tell her. I could use that healing more than ever.

The last few years have been deeply disorienting–within a two year period, I  divorced my first husband, moved two times, was laid off, got pregnant in a new live-in relationship, got married, moved again, gave birth, lost my mom to suicide one week later, lost my mother in law to a sudden heart attack less than four months after that, moved for a fourth time when we bought and renovated a house, and started to quietly loathe my new husband. I slowly and subtly fell apart during this time, so subtly that no one realized it was happening, not even, maybe especially not, me. I only started to feel like myself again when I began to correspond with a man who lived across the country, a writer who dazzled me, who ignited a deep and ardent longing in me, a man who professed to be mad about me, as well, although he cautioned that he had nothing to offer, that he was not in a place where he could disrupt his solitary life. I heard this, but I didn’t. I asked my husband for a separation; I told myself it wasn’t because of this other man, that there were plenty of reasons for the separation, and there were, but I was a creature driven by desire–it was my engine, my headlights, my GPS system. I was practically levitating with it. I arranged to meet this man in another city, where we spent five sweet and intense days together. I shouldn’t have been surprised when he grew distant afterwards–he had all but predicted it–but I was. I flailed around like a wounded animal, dredging up all of the grief I had pushed underground–grief for my mom, for my aging dad, for both marriages, for shattered illusions (sometimes the hardest things to let go). I’m still flailing a couple of months later.

I juggle some things on my calendar so I can drive out to San Diego to see Celia before she leaves town. As soon as I find her friend’s house and she walks toward me, time folds in upon itself. Her soft British accent brings me right back to Bali, to black rice pudding for breakfast and the jangle of gamelan music and funeral processions running zig zag through the streets to outfox the demons who can’t turn corners.

Celia’s hair is now a pale coral orange–”I have help”, she smiles when I remark upon it; my hair is threaded with white. Both of our faces show signs of the two decades that have passed, but I would never guess she is almost 70, 25 years older than me. We are still ourselves, still the same women who whispered to each other through mosquito netting so many years ago.

Celia heats up some mung bean soup she had prepared the night before, an ayurvedic soup golden with turmeric. She slices up radishes and tomatoes and celery for a simple salad, douses them with olive oil and lemon. She toasts some bread in the oven, fries up some daikon, grabs a little pot of roasted garlic. We eat our lunch, delicious, outside in the lovely backyard garden and catch up, laundry draped over the backs of our chairs to dry in the sun. I tell her about my recent diagnosis of Crohn’s disease, how strange it is to have that disorder pinned to me 30 years after the first diagnosis and subsequent fake illness (which I finally reveal to her) and talk of misdiagnosis, especially since my symptoms are wildly different now. My mom had painted a large canvas titled “It Was Not Crohn’s Disease” as part of a triptych in the mid 90s. When the porphyria I was diagnosed with at 18 also turned out to be a misdiagnosis a few years ago, my mom didn’t believe me–she even called my doctor to make sure the tests had really been negative. She had her own narrative about my illness, about the family’s illnesses, the rare disorders she thought we all suffered from–porphyria, Ehlers-Danlos. Around the time of her suicide, she had been working frantically to finish producing a documentary she called “The Art of Misdiagnosis”, centered around her paintings about her family’s supposed maladies.

“You’ve had so much to deal with,” Celia says, and the concern on her face makes me realize that yes, yes I have. Maybe I shouldn’t feel so guilty about being so upset lately–feeling weak, feeling like I don’t know anything about life or love; feeling like I don’t know anything at all. I think back to when I graduated from the University of Redlands in 1990, five months pregnant. My dad had asked me what I had learned in college, and I imagine he was expecting me to say something about literary theory or the like, but I told him “I’ve learned three things: stay in the moment, keep my senses open, and don’t take myself too seriously.” I had been so sure at the time that I had learned everything I ever needed to know, that if I could only remember those three things, I’d be happy the rest of my life.

We drive out to the park her friend recommends by the harbor. As we pull into the lot, my mind takes me up the coast to the harbor in Oceanside where we released my mom’s ashes, where they had plumed underwater like mushroom clouds. We find a stretch of grass that seems fairly quiet, and Celia lays out a shawl for me to lie down upon, my purse as a pillow. I settle onto the fabric, the grass crackling beneath it.

I imagine we’re going to focus on my belly, the way we did in Bali, the site of so much illness and stress, but her hands keep being pulled like magnets over my chest.

“What’s going on here?” she asks, and I find myself aware of a constriction I hadn’t noticed before, or maybe have grown so used to, I don’t notice any more. I inhale and my ribs contract, as if they don’t want me to take a deep breath.

“Wow,” I say. “I had no idea my chest was so tight.”

“How would you describe it as an image?” she asks, and a board surfaces in my head, in my chest, a heavy gray board set firmly over my heart, weathered like driftwood but solid as slate. The board I had erected against my husband, against my own grief. Somehow I had been able to open my heart recklessly, lavishly, to this other man, but I had kept it closed off to myself. Her hand stays there, sending light and heat, and I can feel that board start to soften, can feel the pain and love I’ve trapped beneath it start to pulse and breathe as tears start to stream.

We don’t have much time–I have to race back to Riverside soon to pick up Asher at preschool–but Celia packs our hour with one profound revelation after another, saying things like ”Your mother claimed ownership over your body; it’s time to take it back” and “You had a contract with your mom–you need to identify it so you can break it”. She tells me that part of this contract was colluding with my mom over my illness as a teenager, that pretending to be sick is how I was able to survive.

“Your mother is still hovering around you,” she tells me, and part of me is skeptical about this, about such things being possible, but the trees above us are full of crows–I’ve associated crows with my mom ever since her death, ever since my sister and I pulled into her driveway for the first time after she hanged herself and a crow swooped right over the windshield, as if in welcome or in warning. I remember the time a week or two after she died when I was lying on my side, nursing my new baby, and I felt a hand press upon my left shoulder. There was no one else in the room, and I knew it was my mom, that she was asking for forgiveness. I wasn’t ready to give it to her. I shrugged my shoulder to knock her away.

Celia puts her hand on my left shoulder just as I am thinking about this. “She’s right here,” she says, sending shivers through my whole body. “You’ve been carrying her on this shoulder all your life.” That shoulder has always been lower than the other one; my shirts tend to slip off on that side, Flashdance style. “It was part of your contract with her.”

My hands and feet start to tingle.

“I think I’m hyperventilating,” I tell her, remembering a time shortly before I left my first marriage when I was curled on our bed, crying so hard, I hyperventilated; crying so hard, I couldn’t move my tingling hands.

“I think you know what you want to do and you’re just scared to tell me,” my husband had said, and he was right, he was so right–I knew I wanted to leave, but I couldn’t admit it out loud to him yet; all I could do was sob my body into uselessness.

“People often experience tingling during a healing,” Celia tells me. “It’s energy being activated.”

Breathe into it, I tell myself. Don’t be so afraid. Don’t knock her away this time. Celia’s hand is still on my shoulder, sending warmth that radiates all the way down to my hips.

“What is it you want to say to your mom?” she asks, and I want to say something loving and forgiving, but the words that come barreling out of me, straight from my gut, words I had never thought to say before, are “How dare you.”

“Yes,” says Celia, and the tears pour and the same words keep coming out of me, louder and stronger each time. People are walking by now–I can hear them on the grass–but I don’t care. I keep saying, over and over again, “How dare you. How Dare You. HOW DARE YOU!” and Celia keeps saying “Yes”, encouraging, the way the man I fell for said “Yes, baby, yes, baby, yes” when I started to come.

The words finally stop. I lie on the shawl breathing heavily, my entire body tingling now.

“It’s time to let her go,” Celia says quietly. “It’s time to return to your true nature.” She asks me to imagine I’m holding a knife, that I should use it to cut the invisible umbilical cord that still ties me to my mom. I start to plunge the knife toward my own belly–a hari kari of sorts–but then she clarifies that I should sweep it over the front of my body, slicing the knife above all the chakras. I feel an especially deep tug as my hand travels over my pelvis, severing my mother from places she never should have been.

When I am ready, Celia helps me up and hugs me back into the world.

“Thank you,” I tell her, but the words don’t feel strong enough. How can you thank someone for softening the board over your heart? For helping release a burden you’ve carried all your life? For resurfacing just when you need her? For saving you again, almost 24 years after she saved you the first time?

I don’t have the same youthful hubris I did when I thought three aphorisms would spare me from sadness. I know I am not healed forever, absolved from pain for the rest of my life; I know I will still grieve for my mom, that my heart will still try to protect itself. Still, I feel both lighter and more grounded than I have in a very long time, more clear inside my body. And when I turn my head, I am stunned by the ocean; it looks more beautiful than ever, specks of my mom glinting in the waves.


Gayle and Celia, the day of the healing.

Gayle and Celia, the day of the healing.


Gayle Brandeis grew up in the Chicago area and has been writing poems and stories since she was four years old. She is the author of Fruitflesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write (HarperOne), Dictionary Poems (Pudding House Publications), the novels The Book of Dead Birds(HarperCollins), which won Barbara Kingsolver’s Bellwether Prize for Fiction in Support of a Literature of Social Change, Self Storage (Ballantine) and Delta Girls (Ballantine), and her first novel for young readers, My Life with the Lincolns (Holt). She released The Book of Live Wires, the sequel to The Book of Dead Birds, as an e-book in 2011.

Gayle’s poetry, fiction and essays have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies (such as, The Nation, and The Mississippi Review) and have received several awards, including the QPB/Story Magazine Short Story Award, a Barbara Mandigo Kelley Peace Poetry Award, and a grant from the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund. Her essay on the meaning of liberty was one of three included in the Statue of Liberty’s Centennial time capsule in 1986, when she was 18. In 2004, the Writer Magazine honored Gayle with a Writer Who Makes a Difference Award.

Gayle teaches in the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Antioch University and lives in Riverside, CA, where she is mom to two adult kids and a toddler.

Jen Pastiloff will be up next in Vancouver (Jan 17th) and London (Feb 14th) with her Manifestation Workshop: On Being Human. Click here to book any workshop. 
Jen Pastiloff is the founder of The Manifest-Station. Join her in Tuscany for her annual Manifestation Retreat. Click the Tuscan hills above. No yoga experience required. Only requirement: Just be a human being.

Jen Pastiloff is the founder of The Manifest-Station. Join her in Tuscany for her annual Manifestation Retreat. Click the Tuscan hills above. No yoga experience required. Only requirement: Just be a human being.

Join Jen Pastiloff, the founder of The Manifest-Station, in The Berkshires of Western Massachusetts in Feb of 2015 for a weekend on being human. It involves writing and some yoga. In a word: it's magical.

Join Jen Pastiloff, the founder of The Manifest-Station, in The Berkshires of Western Massachusetts in Feb of 2015 for a weekend on being human. It involves writing and some yoga. In a word: it’s magical.

Contact Rachel for health coaching, weight loss, strategies, recipes, detoxes, cleanses or help getting off sugar. Click here.

Contact Rachel for health coaching, weight loss, strategies, recipes, detoxes, cleanses or help getting off sugar. Click here.