Author’s Roundtable: Erynn Rowan Laurie

How long have you been writing? Has writing always been something you wanted to do?

I’ve been writing all my life, and getting published since I was in junior high school during the 1970s, in various venues from the school paper to the regional Mensa newsletter. I think the first time I got published in national circulation was a short piece I contributed in the late 1980s for a Pagan newsletter, Circle Network News. My first professional publication was an article in Sage Woman, in 1994, another Pagan publication. I framed a copy of that first check and kept it on the wall for several years to remind myself that I was a “real” writer. It was a very exciting moment. Several of my articles and essays, and some of my poetry, have been translated into at least half a dozen different languages over the years. My first book, “A Circle of Stones,” was published in 1995 and has been reprinted in a second edition, which was released in May.

Writing is definitely something I always wanted to do, ever since I realized that every word in the books, stories and poems I had ever read had been written by another person. I was very young when I started reading – about three, according to my mom – and to me it seemed like magic. The ability to create worlds, to make music with language, to convey emotion, information and mystery, has always impressed me very deeply. There’s something holy about creating like that; I think that to write well is to share in that power, to touch the heart of what it is to be human. Words well-used have the ability to change the world, and to change the hearts and minds of those who read or hear them.

What books or stories have you written?

I have a fair list of publications out these days from various small publishers and three more projects that came out in 2012, with a few more anthology pieces waiting for the editing process to finish. I enjoy working with small presses because it feels so much more personal, and because I think I have considerably more control over what the finished work looks and feels like. Small presses are, in my experience, much more willing to work with an author rather than dictating content. They don’t pay as much, but I don’t have to worry about making a living with my writing, so I’m content with what comes.

My work is mostly nonfiction. I deal with disability issues and veterans issues in my writing, as well as Celtic Pagan spirituality and poetry, so my work covers a pretty broad spectrum of interests. My biggest project so far has been my book on the early Irish ogam alphabet, “Ogam: Weaving Word Wisdom.” People use it for divination and magic, and I spent about 18 years researching and writing for it before it was finally released in 2007. Part of what took so long was the fact that I’d had to throw everything out and start over entirely, four times. It was very frustrating, but I think the end result was much better for having done all that.

My approach is very much based on history and research, but the applications are as much influenced by practical modern use as by the historical context. I’m always very clear about what’s history, what’s conjecture, and what constitutes my own interpretations of the material, so that people can decide for themselves how they want to handle the material and what they want to do with it. I’m all about the footnotes; I tend to be a little obsessive about them, but it’s largely because when I read, I want to know where things come from, so I’m giving my readers that same ability to chase down sources themselves if they want to.

My first fiction piece was published in 2011 in a short story anthology. I was very excited about that. I enjoy writing fiction but don’t particularly pursue publishing it at the moment because I feel like my non-fiction work is more important, both to me and to the community for whom I write. I write fiction largely as a way to relax and clear out the cobwebs between longer and more serious projects. It’s possible I’ll try writing a novel someday, but I’m not terribly motivated to do so right now. When it comes to writing outside of nonfiction and research-based work, I’m much more inclined toward poetry, and my first poetry collection, “Fireflies at Absolute Zero,” came out in October 2012 from Hiraeth Press.

Fireflies-at-Absolute-Zero-199x300One of the works I’m proudest of is a piece in the academic anthology “Disability and Religious Diversity: Cross-Cultural and Interreligious Perspectives.” This was particularly significant for me because I don’t have a degree. I’ve only taken a couple of spare college classes and have never had the money or the focus to attempt to earn a degree. I live with post-traumatic stress disorder, fibromyalgia, anxiety disorders and a variety of other issues that mean it’s hard for me to keep to a consistent schedule, or to deal reliably with other people on a daily basis. Far too often, I have days when the idea of leaving the apartment is just overwhelming. I work very hard on having something like a normal life, but chronic pain and the effects of my other problems make it difficult.

My article for the anthology is about PTSD and the geilta, or sacred mad figures in early Irish, Scottish, and Welsh literature and myth. These figures are usually presented as “going mad” after great trauma, either in battle or as the result of violence or the death of someone close to them. The ways in which they act out that madness reads as being very like the symptoms of PTSD. Yet most of these individuals are strongly associated with poetry, music or prophecy, and I find the concept of seeking healing through poetry, art and interaction with the sacred a very inspiring one. It has served me as a very useful model in my own personal work in dealing with PTSD and other issues in the context of my Celtic Pagan spirituality.

Can you talk more about writing about disability issues. What made you decide to discuss disabilities in your writing?

A lot of it is because the disabilities I deal with are invisible. It’s so easy for people to dismiss them and assume there’s nothing at all “wrong” with me. The fact that I look “normal” doesn’t mean that I’m not in pain, or that I don’t have certain limitations other folks don’t have to deal with. Always hearing “but you don’t look disabled” gets frustrating. It’s not that I particularly want to complain about my life, but I do try to be up front with people and let them know that my health is unpredictable at best, and I’d prefer if they understood a little of why. I dislike not being able to do what I’ve committed to do, but sometimes I don’t have a choice. Blinding migraines tend to take precedence over going to a meeting I’ve promised to attend, for instance. When I have a migraine that bad, it’s just not safe for me to drive, and I’m barely able to see anyway, so there’s no sense in my even trying to leave the house. My friends understand a lot better, but strangers just assume that I can do everything they can, and when I can’t there’s a certain amount of disbelief and a good bit of anger or resentment if I have to back out of something because my health has failed me.

I don’t know what it would be like to be visibly disabled. I know folks who are, and I know that there are a lot of other issues that they deal with that I don’t have to, so I really can’t see one option being any “better” than another. I would love it if nobody had to struggle with these things, but human beings are just flesh and bone, and physical systems fail. One of my friends talks about how everyone is really only “temporarily able” — age gets everyone who lives long enough. Everyone’s bodies eventually begin to fail them. Some of us just have to start dealing with systemic failures of one sort or another much earlier in life than other people.

The other issue that pushes me to write about it is the stigma surrounding mental illnesses like clinical depression, PTSD, anxiety disorders and the like. People think that depression just means you’re a little sad and that you should be able to “just get over” things like severe traumas or panic attacks. If you have to take psych meds, people think you’re weak, but they don’t think people with a broken arm should “just get over it.” I write about these things because every person who speaks out about the issue helps chip away at those poisonous assumptions. People should be treated like human beings, regardless of the state of their bodily or mental health. I get so frustrated with how many ways people discriminate against one another on the basis of so very little — the color of someone’s skin, their gender, their religion, whom they love, whether or not they have children or are married, the state of their health, how they dress. If anything I write does even a tiny bit to help change things for the better, to make it easier for someone else to live their life happily and to be understood a little more, I would be so very happy with that.

I’ve had to take psych meds for years and will probably have to continue to take them for the rest of my life. They didn’t “fix” me, but they have given me a stable place to work on the things that I need to deal with. And they really did make so much of a difference once they started working that I felt like I was living on an entirely different planet. Being suicidally depressed nearly my entire life until that point was awful. Even with the good they’ve done me, they also have damaging side effects — I have hand tremors, and I’m not sure how much of that is because of the fibromyalgia and how much is because of nerve damage from the antidepressants and other meds I’ve taken over the years. At this point, there’s really no way to tell.

Being able to function, though, to be able to leave the house without someone with me, to actually enjoy food, movies, music, reading, writing and friends — to me it’s worth the physical damage that has been done by the medications. Some people choose otherwise, and that’s their right but, for me, being able to have a life where I can function in society even if I can’t work for a living has been an incredible blessing and worth the price I’ve paid. I want people to understand that there are choices, there are sometimes options that can help. Medications don’t fix everything, and they work differently for each person, but I wish that our society allowed people to make those decisions for themselves without stigmatizing it and making it seem like a failure.

That is kind of a nutshell of why I write some of the things that I do and why I speak about these things publicly. I’m at least in a place where I’m able to do that, and I have enough skill with words that I can generally make my point reasonably clearly, so I might as well use those skills where I’m able.

What are some of the hardest things you’ve had to overcome as a writer, in order to be published?

Dealing with my body and the mental issues caused by the PTSD, the fibromyalgia and my other problems is the hardest part. I’ve been in chronic pain for so long that I no longer remember what it feels like to not hurt. One of the symptoms of fibromyalgia is a sort of brain fog that makes it very hard to focus, and this can cause memory problems as well. When I have a migraine or when I’m having brain fog, I can’t focus enough to even read, much less write a sentence. I’ve found myself sitting on the couch for hours, reading the same paragraph or sentence over and over again because I’ve forgotten that I read it just a moment ago, and that’s incredibly frustrating. Some days just opening my eyes is agonizing because light hurts. It’s hard to feel like I can accomplish anything at all when I hurt that much.

As you might imagine, this can make it very hard to put together a coherent sentence when I’m writing, as well. I have to try to take advantage of the days when things are a little clearer, or when I have enough energy to do anything at all, and sit at the keyboard with a lot of discipline and determination. I write even when I don’t feel well, because sometimes just getting a hundred words in a file means I’ve done something that day. So often, I have to make a choice between writing and making something to eat, or writing and doing the laundry. Taking care of the basics of my daily life can be very challenging. I’ve had to let go of my expectations over the years and realize that this is what’s normal for me and that I’m all right with the choices I make in order to research and write and finish up a project to send off to a publisher.

Not every day is like this. I have really good days where I don’t hurt that much and the words flow and I feel inspired, but I take them as the blessing they are and don’t imagine that every day will be a good one. I’ve also had to come to the understanding that I’m going to hurt whether I do anything or not, so I might as well do things I enjoy when I’m able to, and writing is one of the things I enjoy most in my life. It gives me an incredible sense of pleasure and accomplishment to finish a project, and to finally hold a book or a magazine in my hands that has my work in it. This feeling makes all the struggles and the pain worth the effort I’ve put into it. On days when I can’t write, I feel restless and incomplete. All those writers who say that we write because we’ll die otherwise, they’re right. I can’t refrain from writing. Something precious and irreplaceable in me would be extinguished.

Is there any advice you have been given that you could give to a young up-and-coming writer?

Sit down every day and write something. It doesn’t matter what – an email, a blog post, a poem, a paragraph in your diary – but write. It doesn’t matter where or when, or whether anyone else ever sees a word of it. Every word you write is another word that makes you a writer.

Learn to accept constructive criticism and editing, because not every word you write is going to be a good one, or appropriate to the work. We all have an ego attachment to our work, because that’s what writers do, but it’s important to detach as much as you can and learn to be a better writer by working with an editor or a writing group, or even just a friend whose honesty you can count on and whose work you respect. Always hearing how wonderful you are is never going to improve your work. You need to hear where you’ve got weaknesses and where you misstep, then make an effort to work on those weaknesses, in order to grow and learn.

If you want to write nonfiction, learn to do research. Learn where to look for information, how to keep track of it, and how to share it effectively with others. Be in love with learning new things, and be willing to throw out or modify old theories when something comes along to change what you know. Write about things that spark your passion, because that passion will come through in your words. Flexibility and openness are so important to the process of writing.

Even when writing nonfiction – or perhaps especially when writing nonfiction – be awake to the music of language. Read your work out loud and listen to what it sounds like. Think about how it will sound to someone else’s ears, and how it sounds to your own. Is your language clear? Does it really say what you intend to communicate to others? Does it flow and have beauty to it? Do the words bring you up short or take your breath away? If they do, you’re on the right track.

Do you think writing has any benefits, and if so what would they be?

Writing expands us. Every time we sit down to write, we learn something new about ourselves and about the world around us. Writing opens our souls to something larger than ourselves and allows us to share what we hold within. I’ve learned so much about life, people and the world through my writing, no matter what the genre.

It can be a healing art as well as a path of learning. Sometimes there are things in our lives that are difficult or impossible to talk about, to say out loud, or even to whisper in the presence of others, but the ability to write those words can crack us open and let that pain out and turn it into something manageable.

To sit silently with a keyboard, or a pen and paper, teaches us to quiet ourselves and listen, both to the world and to ourselves. I think, properly done, writing can be a deep and valuable spiritual practice, no matter what your religion or spirituality.

Through my writing, I’ve met so many absolutely incredible people. I’ve been given opportunities to travel, and to teach some of the things that I know, because of the things I’ve published. Every year I drive down to California to one of the major Pagan gatherings, PantheaCon, and speak there; I have a wonderful opportunity to talk with my readers, to offer new information that I haven’t yet had a chance to write about and to learn from other people who are involved in our communities. Last summer I was given the amazing gift of being able to lead a pilgrimage to Ireland to teach poetry and writing as we explored sacred sites associated with Brigid, the goddess and saint, as the patron of poetry, smithcraft and healing.

None of this would have happened if I had not taken a chance and submitted my writing to publishers and to magazines. I’m never going to be wealthy because of my writing, but my life has been so vastly enriched because of it. It has been the most amazing blessing imaginable.

Has writing made you a better person? Was there a point in your life where writing helped you deal with something, a death or a problem relationship perhaps?

I like to think that it has. Writing has shown me how the process of growth is a slow one that happens a little at a time. It’s shown me that it’s okay to make mistakes because we can go back and edit if we need to, we can change ourselves just as we change our words. It offers me a way to look back at where I was five, 10 or 20 years ago and understand where I’ve moved forward and where I still have work to do and things to learn. Writing offers incredibly valuable perspective.

Poetry has been a deeply healing practice for me, and it was particularly useful for me when I was an inpatient in the PTSD ward at the veteran’s hospital back in the late 1990s. Poetry allowed me, for the first time, to talk about things that I had never before dared to say out loud, and showed me that there was a path through the horror and the confusion. Ordering my words helped me to order the chaos of my mind and my emotions, and it gave me a handle with which to grasp the enormity of some of the things that had happened to me, and that are still happening in the world. It has allowed me to fight to right some of the things that are wrong in the world.

Writing allows me a constructive way to express rage, sorrow and fear so that it will not destroy me. It’s given me strength to continue when I thought I had no path forward. And it’s allowed me to express my deep gratitude and joy to friends and family and to the other powers at work in my life for all the great gifts I have received over the years as my life has improved.

I do think our challenges can help us become better people, if we’re willing to embrace that and work toward it.

What’s a typical day or week like living with PTSD or fybromyalgia?

I’ll try to give you kind of a nutshell of what my life is like. I do talk about things on my LiveJournal, though not necessarily in great detail when it comes to the more personal aspects of it.

Mornings are always rough. I wake up in pain, and a lot of days pain is what wakes me. Other days the dog wakes me up, unless I have an alarm set for something, which only happens once a week or so.

I’m allergic to almost every pain medication available. They make me break out in hives, so the only thing I can really take are a couple of Tylenol a few times a day. If things are really bad or if I wake up with a migraine, I take a tramadol (I also have very bad side effects from all the migraine-specific medications out there). I have a handful of pills I have to take for various reasons – antidepressant, something for acid reflux, Tylenol, vitamin D and a B-complex, which do somewhat help with my energy level. I have meds available if I have a severe anxiety reaction to something, but I try not to take those very often, because I find it hard to function if I’ve had one; like the tramadol, which tends to make me a little groggy and dizzy. Migraines tend to happen when my hormones shift with my period – I also get cramps from my waist all the way down to my toes during that time, so it’s no fun at all. I usually stay home those days. I’m 51, and I really ought to be getting past that, but it’s showing no signs of actually stopping.

Anyway, I’ll get up, take the dog out the door to let him go to the bathroom, then come back in, make myself a cup of tea and check my e-mail until I feel awake enough to have a shower and get dressed. It might be several hours before I feel up to it. I always know a hot shower will help me feel better, but it can be hard to get myself together enough to actually do it. I don’t usually eat breakfast because that early in my day I’m not hungry, and the idea of food can get a little nauseating. Occasionally I’ll have some toast or a little yogurt or something. Most days it’s just tea.

Once I’m actually up, get dressed and check my e-mail, I’ll take the dog out for a proper walk around the condo grounds. Some days he’s the only reason I manage to get out of the house, or (on a really bad day) out of bed at all.

If I don’t have to go down to Seattle for an appointment at the veteran’s hospital (weekly group sessions, monthly visit with the psychologist, occasional other stuff), I’ll maybe fix myself some food and sit down at the computer to work on my writing. I do this most of the day, interspersed with e-mail, chatting with folks on Twitter and visiting various websites where I catch up with things. If I can’t focus enough to write, I’ll try to read. If I can’t read, I might put a DVD in and try to watch that. I don’t actually get TV, but I haven’t really been interested in anything on TV in years, so I’m perfectly happy with the occasional movie or series on DVD, and even that tends to be a last resort, when I’m unable to focus on words. I usually have a little music on during my day. If I’m feeling really awful, I’ll just take a nap, but I have to feel half dead to resort to that. Housework like doing the dishes or the laundry has to fit in here from time to time, but I may only do the dishes every couple of days and clothes when I’m pretty much out of things to wear.

Part of the reason I don’t watch TV is because so much of it (especially the news, or crime shows) tends to trigger the PTSD and anxiety problems in me. Sometimes, by the time I can change the channel or turn the power off, it’s too late, because that image or that scene has already buried itself in the back of my mind and caused a response in me that’s very hard to derail once it’s started. Flashbacks are not fun. It’s not like I’m seeing things in full sensurround or anything, but I do feel some of it physically in my body, and it’s hard to remind myself that I am not BACK THEN and BACK THERE, even with the evidence of my eyes in front of me. At night it’s worse because in the dark it can take a few minutes to get reoriented to time and place. I’ve been doing a lot better with my psych stuff since I stopped watching TV, though in election years the stress about politics tends to get into everything. It can be hard not to get worked up about people trying to take away yet more of my privacy, my rights and my freedoms, or to kill funding for my pensions and medical benefits. Anyway, I do my best to avoid the worst of the triggery stuff. Listening to the music I’ve collected rather than the radio also helps control this – I don’t need to listen to ads or news breaks, I just get music that I like. I keep reminding myself I’m one of the lucky ones; I survived the things that happened to me, and I have a materially good life.

Early last year, I tried to walk around the lake across the street from my house a few times a week in order to get into better shape for my trip to Ireland and Europe last summer, but I often got back home from that 45-minute walk with my knee or one of my hips barely functional. I get pains in my hip joints like being stabbed with knives. Sometimes my knees don’t work right. I used to walk with a cane for several years until my arms got so painful that I can’t put my weight on them. Hiking poles are a little better, and I used those when I went to Europe, but for a walk in an urban environment, I don’t really feel comfortable using them. Days when I hurt too much to walk, I just don’t leave the house. Days when my arms hurt too much to hold a fork, I can’t really do anything at all. The docs at the VA will ask about pain on a scale of 1-10, but it’s hard to calibrate when your average daily pain level probably qualifies as a five or six in most people’s experience.

I try to function even if I have a migraine or my body hurts badly because these things happen so often that if I simply gave up, I would never do anything at all. Back in the 90s I finally went on full, permanent disability, so I can choose what I want to do, and what I need to do can be prioritized or the schedule shifted to a day when I feel better able to cope. Yet I know that I will always hurt, there is nothing that I can do about it, and that if I want to do anything at all, I have to do it while coping with the pain. I’m going to hurt whether I do anything or not, so I might as well hurt because I’m doing something I enjoy. It’s better than hurting while trying to do things I don’t like, for people who don’t give a rip, all for minimum wage. Between my VA disability and Social Security disability, I’m able to have my own home, own a car and get to do things I like with my time. I have enough, as well, to help friends of mine who are less fortunate than I am. I enjoy taking people to dinner or going to a movie with them sometimes. I often go out on Tuesday evenings to hang out with my steampunk friends, for instance. I have sometimes gone out to movies while I have a blazing migraine because it was something that got planned for/with a group. It’s hard, but I try to have at least a little bit of a good time anyway. It’s nice to be with people, even when I can’t focus very well. I stay busy because I hate being bored.

This said, I tend to be really introverted and need a lot of time and space to myself. Being a writer means that I have a ready excuse for not being terribly social sometimes, but my friends and the folks who know me are aware that my health is unpredictable at best, and that I genuinely do have to cancel on plans sometimes – particularly if they involve my having to drive somewhere. If my hips hurt too much, they might cramp up, and that’s a really bad idea when I’m driving, as I might not be able to deal with the gas pedal and the brake, and that’s just not safe. Too much of a migraine also means it’s not safe for me to drive, though sometimes I’m up to having someone else take me somewhere, so long as I can just be quiet and in the background to enjoy what’s going on without being too involved. The anxiety issues I have mean that I hate talking on the phone, so I rarely do that unless I absolutely have to. Most of the time I either text people or email them. I do teach and do public speaking, but I almost always have huge anxiety attacks beforehand, even if it’s in front of people I know or dealing with topics I’m familiar with. I know that the things I can share are important, so I do these speaking engagements anyway and generally do well with them. People say I’m an interesting and engaging speaker, so that’s always nice to hear.

If I think about it when I’m hurting, sometimes I’ll take more Tylenol or some tramadol during the day, but I tend to opt for less medication when possible and just try to take it easy rather than pushing too hard. If I’m feeling really achy and exhausted, I may forget to eat. It’s not that uncommon for me to only eat once, maybe twice a day. I love to cook, but often I don’t have the energy for it. I have a category of stuff I call “food now damn it” that usually involves a freezer and the microwave, but I prefer to have real food that doesn’t come out of a box. I have a couple of shelves full of cookbooks and they do get a workout when I’m feeling well enough to do anything with them. I like cooking for other people, because sharing food is a lot more fun than eating alone.

There’s a grocery store within walking distance of my house. I usually walk down there unless the weather is really nasty out, but I tend to go late at night when I’m unlikely to run into a lot of people. I prefer not to deal with crowds, as they can trigger my anxiety. If I’m going to a big event like a music festival, I can prepare myself ahead of time to be able to deal with huge crowds of people, but on a day-to-day basis I prefer quiet. I walk because I need the exercise and because except for the one big monthly grocery run I do at a further away grocery store, I usually only need one or two bags of things.

I have always been a night person, but I also suffer from insomnia and nightmares, so I often don’t go to bed until sometime between 3 a.m. and 5 a.m., and even then it’s hard to sleep. Going to bed at 1 a.m. is early for me. I take more pills when I go to bed, pretty much the same thing as in the morning except I don’t take the acid reflux meds or vitamins, but I do take an antihistamine so that I can breathe better at night. I remember having night terrors even when I was very young. I still clearly remember one particular incident when I was three or four years old – my brother was still sleeping in a crib in the same room with me at the time and we lived in Rhode Island, so that was very early on, and I woke the whole house with my screaming. Not getting enough uninterrupted sleep aggravates the fibromyalgia and contributes to chronic fatigue, but all the sleeping meds I’ve ever taken either don’t work, or they leave me too groggy the next day to function at all, so I don’t really have anything to resort to except reading in bed until I can’t keep my eyes open.

When I travel, it’s hard to cope with some of this, but I usually manage to keep moving until I get home again. At that point I’ll just collapse for a few days or a couple of weeks, depending on how long I’ve been away. I love traveling but, as you might imagine, it’s kind of rough on me. I drive when I can so that I have control over when and where I stop, and for how long. If I need to pull over to a rest area and stretch, I can. If I just want to keep going until I have to stop for gas, I can do that. I travel to California a couple of times a year to teach, and it’s a day and a half trip for me. Driving for that long makes my arms ache worse than usual, but I’d rather do that than fly because I can take what I want and I don’t have to worry about dealing with the TSA.

So that’s what my life looks like. I don’t “look disabled” but I certainly have to cope with all the downsides of having a disability. I write all the time and I work hard at it, but I’m doing it through a haze of pain and exhaustion on all but the absolute best days. Even on the best of days, I still hurt somewhere. The thing is, if I’m going to do anything at all, I don’t have a choice. I have to keep moving. I don’t want to waste the life I’ve been given.

If there’s anything you could say to someone with these conditions, what would it be and why?

You get used to it. If you don’t want to let it defeat you, eventually you have to figure out ways to do things you enjoy, along with all the stuff that’s required in your life. Taking the time to do fun things is hard, but it’s okay to do it, so don’t feel guilty about having a good time. If people think you shouldn’t be enjoying yourself because you’re disabled or you live with depression, screw them. They’re not the ones inside your head or living in your body, so they have no way of actually knowing what your life is like. Do what you can to give yourself the best life you can possibly manage, because everyone deserves to have some happiness and some fun, no matter what their body is doing to them.

You mentioned you were in the military? What was that like? Are any of your writings based on your experiences?

Each person’s experience is going to be different, obviously, but the military was absolutely awful for me. It quite literally nearly killed me. The following are an essay that I wrote and an article, both of which touch on PTSD and my military experience.

The first one is published in the anthology “Datura: An Anthology of Esoteric Poesis” edited by Ruby Sara, published by Scarlet Imprint. It is called “Becoming Poetry.”

This talks a little about living and working with chronic pain and trauma, about poetry as a way of healing, and about the historical context of the poetic tradition I strive to practice within.

The second article is the one from the academic anthology “Disability and Religious Diversity: Cross-Cultural and Interreligious Perspectives“, called “Since Feathers Have Grown On My Body: Madness, Art, and Healing in Celtic Reconstructionist Spirituality.”

This deals specifically with the parallels between PTSD and the phenomenon of “geilt” or “madness” in the Celtic literary tradition. The second half of the article is a more personal exploration of what that means to me, and how I have found that model useful as a healing metaphor.

The latter, being an academic book, is fairly expensive, but should be available through interlibrary loan, or at a university library if they have a disability studies department or a decent research library.

I was wondering if you had a minute to discuss your experiences in the military a bit more? Were you treated well? Abused? Harrassed? How did men react when they saw you in the military?

I’ve had some crappy experiences at the VA hospital before because I’m female, but I’ve had fewer of them in the years since they opened an actual Women’s Clinic and counseling at the Women’s Trauma & Recovery Center. Seattle has a pretty reasonable hospital, considering the VA system (most places are much worse), but there are still issues, and I’ve had to go to the Patient Ombudsman and complain about things like not being able to schedule anything in clinics I need to go to. Bureaucracy being what it is, a lot of the problems are not gender-specific, they’re just the way things work, and everyone gets screwed.

You also said you speak on military sexual trauma? Does this come from personal experiences? What kinds of things would people do to each other?

Any kind of horrific thing you can imagine, people will do to one another. As you might imagine, it’s an intensely emotional topic and one that’s very difficult to talk about for most people. It’s hard for me, too, but I feel compelled to bear witness to what has happened and hope that in some way my words can help other people dealing with similar situations.

While we’re discussing the sexual trauma you might have experienced or witnessed while in the military, what kinds of things were done to soldiers, particularly women soldiers? How did this impact your job performance or the job performance of those who were subjected to sexual trauma?

There’s really too much to talk about comfortably. This kind of thing is never easy to speak of, and society tends to make it harder by blaming the person who was assaulted. I have seen/experienced or heard from people I know about everything from inappropriate sexual comments to gang rape.

I was reading “Becoming Poetry” and loved the line, “The tattoos and piercings I have endured are poetry marked out on my body…..” What are the tattoos symbols of?

The images are of a salmon and a raven. Their basic design is Northwest Native art, with elements of Celtic knotwork and designs incorporated. There is also something of an Asian art influence to the ornamentation around the main images.

Both of these animals are significant in the mythologies of the Pacific Northwest, of Ireland and Scotland, and in Siberia. The reason this is important to me is because it represents the mix of spiritual influences that affect my experience with them. I live near Seattle and have been living in the Northwest since 1981, so I feel very connected to the land and the waters here. The deities I worship and the primary spirituality I practice is Celtic, largely influenced by the Gaelic cultures of Ireland and Scotland. I also for a few years studied Siberian shamanism with a woman from the Ulchi tribe of southern Siberia.

What do they represent?

The raven in the Northwest is the creator spirit who stole the sun from his grandfather and brought the gift of light to the world, though in both Celtic and Siberian cultures, the raven has associations with death as well. The raven is clever and powerful and very much associated with the otherworlds. In Ireland, the raven is the bird of the Morrigan and other battle-related goddesses, and is a bird of prophecy. The circle in the raven’s beak is representative both of the life provided by the sun, and of the death-associations of the ravens who eat the corpses on the battlefield. It is a transformative image of life and death as one, for they are always deeply intertwined. The dead feed the living earth, and the earth feeds us all, until we return to her and are transformed into what feeds the next generations.

The salmon here in the Northwest is associated with plenty and prosperity, and is a profoundly important spirit for the preservation of the life of the people, who live very much on the salmon. The bones of the first salmon of each season is returned to the river where it is caught, to go back to the sea and ensure the continuation of the salmon people. In Siberia, it is the progenitor of one of the clans of the Ulchi tribe, some of whom are the ancestors of the woman I studied with. In Gaelic mythology, the salmon is the source of poetic and prophetic wisdom, and is supposed to be the oldest creature in the world. It eats the hazelnuts that fall from the trees over the well of wisdom, where the salmon lives, and then it is in turn eaten by the druids and poets who are seeking poetic inspiration.

Both of these animals are often seen as shape-shifters, or as divine figures in disguise.

Where are the tattoos on your body?

At the moment, I only have the two on my chest, but I intend to have more as time goes by and I can afford them, representing other animals or deities who are important in my spiritual world. They will likely eventually also be on my arms, shoulders, and possibly my legs as well. The next one I get may well be a stylized hazel branch with hazel nuts, arcing above the salmon and the raven and essentially joining the images with a Celtic knotwork design.

Note: The tattoos on Erynn’s chest are not shown to protect privacy.

About Erynn Rowan Laurie

Erynn Rowan Laurie is a professional madwoman living near the shores of the Salish Sea. Originally from New England, she has been living in the Pacific Northwest since 1981. As a disabled Navy veteran, she is concerned with veterans’ and women’s issues and has spoken on topics such as post traumatic stress disorder and military sexual trauma on Seattle’s NPR station, and at the American Mensa Annual General Meeting.

Her current publications include two books, one co-authored book, and contributions to more than a dozen anthologies and other projects. For more information on Erynn’s writing, click here.

Erynn blogs on spirituality from time to time at Searching for Imbas and keeps a more personal daily blog at the Book of Leaves. She can be found rambling about film, writing, politics, food, and posting random comments to friends on Twitter.


One thought on “Author’s Roundtable: Erynn Rowan Laurie

  1. Pingback: Author’s Roundtable: Erynn Rowan Laurie | Hiraeth Press

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