Body of Work

Years ago, while working in North India as a midwife with village people in the Ganges Plain, and studying North Indian flute, I learned something about Polarities: how suffering and sublimity went side by side; how life and death were part of the same thing. That became the theme of my first book. 

THE MUSICIANS AND THE SERVANTS: A Novel of India, (originally published as EARTH BELOW, HEAVEN ABOVE) is a story about a servant family in North India in which the young son dies in the heat of the summer, and his widow bears his child in the season of the Monsoon. The coda of the book is an all-night raga concert on the banks of the Ganges in which, through the music, I learn that reality transcends the dualities of earth and heaven, life and death, and it all goes ecstatically together.

from Initiation, THE MUSICIANS AND THE SERVANTS
"Into this stillness burst a cry of sound. Had it come from this old man? I was not sure. Again, a wail of indefinable sound and it hung there, firm against the background but elusive to the ear. The old man brought it up from his throat and into his mouth and out through his lips. And again, it was gone. Then it sprang up as if from nowhere, bursting from the center of his being and pouring itself out in half tones and microtones, notes that slid elusively about each other, some round as bubbles, some slithery as a whisper, pouring out from the fount of sound of this old man…First, he called upon the Lord Shiva, the source of all creation and destruction, whose sacred ground we were on; then he sang to Mother Ganga, the life-giving, ever-flowing river; and finally to Saraswati, the goddess of music through whom we would all, in the course of this all-night puja awaken the godhead in ourselves and become One with the flow of all things and with the stillness of the All.”

Since then I have written 10 books, each of which explores through personal story and commentary one of the universal laws of existence, from Love and Death to Change. The newest one, COURAGEOUS CHANGES IN EXCITING TIMES , will come out next year with Inner Traditions. Until writing this, I was not aware that my books all formed a body of work with the same message: that we live in a miraculous, multi-dimensional world in which Love is the constant that pervades all existence, and life is a recurring gift to be used well and cherished. So simple.

My next book, SEVEN MOVEMENTS, ONE SONG: Memoir as Metaphor, is 7 stories from my own life that follow the energy system of the body (sometimes called Chakras) from the lowest to the highest, starting with physical incarnation, then the law of attraction all the way to spiritual awareness. The stories are from my life, but they are universal stories. Who has not had experiences such as these: surviving great danger; falling in love; taking charge in a hard situation; bonding with others; communicating your truth; learning to be your own teacher; and opening to the light of Spirit?

from Air Upon the Ground, SEVEN MOVEMENTS, ONE SONG,
“A shrill yelp of pain roused me from a dream…The yelps persisted, more urgent now. Reuctantly I let the dream go, opening my eyes to the massed stars of the Southern Hemisphere sky and the muted shushes of surf against the shore. My cove was briny with guano and seaweed. Sealions snuffled and sneezed in their sleep and a pup bleated for food, mewling until its mother rolled over to give it her teat.

I rolled over too, jabbing my hip as I reached for my flashlight. A shooting star flared across the sky, sped and burned out in the night. The air was pungent with wet sand and sealion shit; the sea, in the darkness, was indistinguishable from sky. Yawning, I rubbed my eyes, awake now.

Another pained howl from the other side of the cover ended in a bubby whimper. Pushing my sleeping bag down I slid out, jammed my feet into sneakers and followed my flashlight beam through the sleeping sealions to the source of the racket – a female in labor…”

After that came my three Fringe Series books on Crop Circles, Synchronicity and Death, exploring in tiny, illustrated 37-page card-books that could be read over a cup of coffee, some on-the-fringe topics people were mostly ignoring. The books were designed to introduce people to these concepts gently, briefly and beautifully.

Then came the AIDS epidemic, and I was losing some of the best people I had ever known. Fraught with grief and exhaustion as I helped prepare one friend after another for their deaths, I wrote their stories and my own as I tried to understand, even with such terrible loss, that death was inevitable and not ultimately a tragedy. This was THE EXPERIENCE OF A LIFETIME: Living Fully, Dying Consciously. And the cardbook DEATH, written especially for the dying and their families.

from Introduction, THE EXPERIENCE OF A LIFETIME
“What I was interested in understanding was how facing death might define how we lived; how the way we lived might define how we died. In short, I wanted to know if it was possible to live well while preparing for death, and then to die well when it was time to die. The answer I have gradually gotten is that it is.

Gloriously so. Revelationally so. I have learned that when the process of dying is accepted, the growing awareness that emerges when soul and body actively prepare for this great transition, seems to corroborate all the wisdom traditions of the world.

The good news is that Death happens, and it is OK. The loss, for those left behind, is excruciating, but what we can learn from the process is a gift beyond compare if we can allow ourselves to see it that way.”

I thought that would be my last book. After all, where is there to go after Death? But surprisingly it turned out to be a springboard for five more books, the first of which was about Love and the Law of Attraction.

ECSTATIC RELATIONS: A Memoir of Love is about the many forms erotic love can take, as it has in my own life, from inter-species to inter-gender to inter-generational to marital. It’s my downright, full-out sex book, and is all about the built-in longing in the Universe to merge with the divine. I loved writing it!

from Danilo, ECSTATIC RELATIONS
“We came up the beach arm in arm, two innocents in Paradise with the towel full of mussels slung over Dani’s shoulder. Late clouds scudded shadows across the sand, and the sun, in a blaze of orange and blue-green light dipped towards the west. Just opposite, in the darkening part of the sky, the glow of the coming moon began to seep up from the other side of the world. Embracing, we stopped to watch the sunset, swaying in time to the waves pounding and spurting on the shore. Through skin and muscle and bone we felt each other’s blood pulsing, and hungry, we reached for it with nibbles and tender bites.

But it was time to build a fire before there would be no light to see by. Like green wood we resisted parting, our thirst unslaked, but like the hunters and gatherers we had become, we searched the beach for driftwood to burn.

Dani gathered five rounded stones for our firepit and placed them in a circle at the edge of the beach. Then we scoured the cove for driftwood; small sticks for kindling and bigger logs for burning. When two good piles of wood were stacked by the firepit, Dani taught me to construct a flimsy teepee to get the fire started and then to reinforce it with bigger sticks and branches.

“When this all gets hot,” he told me, “then we throw on the big hunks.” I tittered uncontrollably like a child, but so did he. He poked a playful finger at my bare midriff, and my belly lurched wildly. His eyes were smoky, and he grabbed a matchbook from his bag and took out the first match.

“Ready?” he asked with a sly grin, chuckles rumbling like effervescence in his throat. I could barely speak and nodded helplessly.

"Ready," I replied, as soon as I found my voice.

Our fire started as a wisp of smoke spiraling up the teepee but as it caught, became a lively blaze of heat. Piece by piece we added driftwood to the flames, piling them vertically on the stones to keep the fire going strong.

“How about Soupe de Moules a l’Orange et Feneuil?” I suggested from the invisible cookbook in my hand.

“C’est tres bien, ca,” he said, pulling the cork from the wine and taking a swig. He passed the bottle to me and I took a taste, pouring some into the cooking pot for the broth. Then we sliced all three oranges, dropping the slices into the pot, peel and all, and balanced the pot on top of the hot stones. When the broth set to boil we dropped in the mussels one at a time, adding feathery fronds of fennel when the mussels began gently to open their shells.

Salivating with appetite, Dani rubbed his hands together and watched intensely as the last mussel yielded and revealed its brown-orange flesh. Then he tore off a hunk of bread, dipped it into the spicy stew and offered me the first taste.

“Mmm-m.” I licked my lips and dipped the bread into the pot for him in turn. His eyes closed with pleasure as he chewed and swallowed. Then he took the pot off the fire with the sandy towel, spooning mussel soup into each of our cups, and handing me mine.

I lifted a hot mussel gingerly to my mouth, sliding my tongue beneath its plump body and sucked it out, licking the salty sweet shell for every last bit of flavor. Dani then did the same thing, mirroring me. As we ate we never took our eyes from each other, even when we scooped the broth from the pot, even when the stew juice dripped down my arm and Dani bent his head to lick it up, his lips and moustache and tongue spreading glory up my arm all the way to my belly. He handed me the wine for another swallow and it went down warm. We dipped each other’s last bit of bread in the spicy broth and fed each other, our arms linked.

The moon rose higher and the stars spun in their paths, and beneath them on the sand we were two pure flames burning.

“Now,” he whispered, placing both cups beside the fire where our moon-shadows swayed in firelight. We were ready.

The waves thundered on the shore and the moon embraced the world, and with a howling, shuddering force that broke through all the bounds of space we came together urgently, our bodies fusing with the energy of a thousand spiraling galaxies. On the trampled sand we matched the sounds of the universe as we took each other in ecstatically, singing and crying, and all the while the world whirled and whirled wildly into radiant vortices of Light.

Well, where do you go from there? I was ready to stop, but the artist Adrienne Robinson proposed we collaborate on a museum exhibit about Creation Myths. We spent the next 3 years immersed in these amazing stories and their art, probing their deeper meanings and re-telling and illustrating them for a contemporary audience. After touring the show for several years, we turned it into the book IN THE BEGINNING: Creation Myths from Around the World. It’s all about the ongoing creativity of the world and Adrienne and I had the best time in the world together!

from the Introduction, IN THE BEGINNING
“In these times of disruption and change, it seems that if we are to survive – both as a planet and as a species – we humans will have to be as flexible, innovative and creative as we can be. What may appear to be fearsome roadblocks in our individual and collective lives might have to be thought of as opportunities to do things differently. Instead of slogging yet again through old, unworkable situations, we might surprise ourselves by dreaming up new solutions to those old problems, re-thinking them from a larger, more experimental perspective. We can use our dilemmas as opportunities to create anew – every day in every way – the world in which we wish to live.

Adrienne and I discovered just how much fun that was! When we were dreaming up the artworks for these myths, we decided to use ordinary, commonly available materials in extraordinary ways, so that the medium would itself be the message. We wanted to show that the creative process was available to people of every age and place. We wished the artworks to demonstrate that everything in the world is potential material out of which art – or life – can be created.

The giant spiral for FIRST MOTHER, for example, was made entirely from natural objects picked up during walks, from grains in our kitchens, from the trees in our backyards: seeds, pods, nuts, shells, leaves, bone. Adrienne even included the remains of a wasps’ nest that we had, to our stinging misfortune, disturbed during one of our forays! What had been a pile of throwaways became a stunning work of art. As did the wire sculptures depicting the Egyptian god Ptah, and the pre-Celtic Miria, both of which began as an ordinary spool of utility wire from the hardware store. We had the best time! As Adrienne put it, “I’m having so much fun, I’m afraid I might get arrested!”

The Creation Myths here depict the world as beginning in a fathomless, timeless, Void - an ineffable darkness, a nothingness which contains the consciousness to yearn for more. This yearning is what shakes the motionless Void into motion, and that initial movement is what sets the whole thing out of its equilibrium into a shimmying dance of new possibilities. Beings are born from the darkness, and they beget Earth and Sky, mountains and forests. Into their creation emerge plants and animals who slither, crawl, walk, run, swim, fly; who live, laugh, fight, love and die, and beget the next generations of their species to people the Earth.

All these stories seem to be telling us that every one of us is a Creator, all the time, and anything we can imagine can be brought into existence by our having the courage and will to do so. 

It is time. By collaborating with each other and collaborating with the Earth, all of us can help create the next phase of this many-layered, multi-dimensioned and miraculous world we call ours.

Following that, another unexpected collaboration with Natasha Hoffman, a woman I’ve never actually met, resulted in a book about teachings from the standing stones in Brittany, VOICES OUT OF STONE: Magic and Mystery in Megalithic Brittany. How we discovered each other, and why is a whole story in itself and is magic altogether. The stones have guided us both in ways neither of us understands, and probably even brought us together to tell our stories. The messages are definitely wisdom teachings, and to know how it happened and what we learned, read the book!

From Carolyn’s Journal, VOICES OUT OF STONE
Breathe.

I breathed. Rising to my feet, I went looking for the cat. I wanted to tell someone what I had just learned, but she wasn’t in sight. Instead, I climbed up the mound and put my arms around the standing stone there in a scratchy hug, remembering how we had danced together by the full moon just a week earlier. Then I searched for a place to sit in the welter of thorny brambles growing out of her base.

“You’re a lot more prickly than the masculine stone below you,” I told her in a murmur.

We take turns.

It felt like we were sharing a joke. Me and a very old stone. I was losing my mind, for sure.

Take dictation.

I opened my journal to a clean page and, pen in hand, sat waiting. Crazy or not, this could hardly be more intriguing.

Love is the constant Wholeness.

Love is the Source.

Love is the unheard hum of the Universe.

This time I received the message in words. I wrote them down, word for word.

The megaliths tap into the love field and transmit energies for all the forms of the world.

Now my own mind took over. I wrote as quickly as my hand could get the words down on paper:

It’s transformation; that’s the key! In this whole process, the energy gets synthesized, changed in some way—just like food metabolism in the body: it is eaten in one form, released as energy in another form. In being used, it becomes something else.

There is a background of motion and change—that’s a given, that’s Nature. What we do is to lightly tap into it, placing specific intention and specific activity upon the natural state of things.

And what is this given state but Love, no matter where we are or when we live? So I find myself the woman I am, right here at Kercado, on this day in 1984, but I could be anyone, anywhere, any time, adoring this child, that man, that woman. The adoring is the constant—love is already there, no matter where the "there" is, no matter when.

As I read over what I had written, my hand continued writing—this time not my own words:

The most important question is, what is the ultimate Nature of Reality?

To understand the form and function of anything in the world—these stones included—you must ask the larger question, otherwise nothing makes any sense.

The ultimate Nature of what is real informs every single thing in the world.

The cat emerged from the trees and made her way unhesitatingly towards the mound. Lightly, she leapt up, trotted to where I sat, and draped herself on my lap, kneading my thigh with a velvet paw. I stroked and stroked her warm body, not sure whether she was in my imagination or actually on my lap.”

The next book that presented itself to me (yes, that is how it seemed to happen) was a How-To book called SERIOUS FUN: Ingenious Improvisations on Money, Food, Waste, Water and Home. It was a collaborative project with all the innovative people I know, who offered amusing, low-tech ideas about simplifying, preserving, slowing the ways we lived. The book took shape in a year. I had a blast writing it, and people laugh out loud reading it, even though it deals with some of the most dire issues of our time.

From Waste, SERIOUS FUN
When I was a student in France, one of my jobs as a nanny was to empty the children’s chamber pots in the morning. This was the 20th century, and the family could afford a servant to do the job – me – but less than one hundred years earlier I might have emptied those same chamber pots out the window, crying out Gardez-l’eau! Watch out for the water! Ever wonder where the word loo came from? Or why people, men and women, used to all wear high-heeled shoes?

In China, right after the Cultural Revolution, we shat into proper toilets, but their flushes went not to a sewage pipe and then into a sewer that took it all away, but right into a barrel beneath the apartment block where we lived. Every evening a ‘honey-bucket’ truck would come by and take our shit and piss away to the fields just past the houses, where much of our food was grown.

One day I took a walk out to the fields, wandering up and down rows of bok choys, all green and thriving, being hand watered by women with buckets balanced across their shoulders. With long-handled dippers they would patiently fill their dippers from the buckets, and water the roots of each individual plant, and when the buckets were empty, walk to the large cesspit at the bottom of each row for a re-fill. The cesspits were in various stages of fermentation, and of course the most fermented were used for the watering. Secretly, I wondered if any of the turds in the fresh pools might be mine.

If you have ever wondered why Chinese cuisine does not include salads, that is why; or why you have to heat the oil in the wok until it sizzles right out of the pan. But it is a system that has worked for four thousand years, and why their fields still have healthy soil even after four millennia of intensive agriculture. You just have to know how to do it safely. And Chinese food, as we all know, is superb.

China, I’ve been told, is fecal-filiac, or appreciative of excrement, while India is fecal-phobic, the opposite, and in China, the deity of the toilet is a beautiful lady. In India, the deity is the river itself, now deadly.

In the Arctic, there is a true story of an elderly man who, as a way of saving his life during a winter storm, defecated and when his shit froze, fashioned it into a blade with the help of some of his spit, with which he killed and flayed one of his dogs. From the dog’s ribcage he created a sled, and from its pelt he made a harness for the remaining dog and then, as ethnographer Wade Davis, who tells this story in The Wayfinders says, “he disappeared into the darkness.” Now that is fecal-phenomenal!

Of course, SERIOUS FUN had a sequel, and it started writing itself as soon as I put the last words to paper, and it is COURAGEOUS CHANGE, will be out next year. That’s the book that caps this lifetime of work and says straight out that we must shift our worldview in order to move on to the next stage of human evolution. It says it through personal story and metaphor, with humor and with urgency. The time is now, the turning point has been reached, the world is a wonder and our lives a gift. How lucky we are to be alive right now, doing the great work of the world and having the best time we can in the process!

I see now that all my work has been leading up to this moment in the world, and I am so happy that Red Room is here giving us all this platform to bring our particular gifts to the Turning. A sweet synchronicity was that Ivory Madison’s offer of this platform came, literally, the day I put the last words on my new manuscript, which told me that this was my next step and would lead to who knew what?

That book,
COURAGEOUS CHANGES IN EXCITING TIMES,
will be out with Inner Traditions in 2012. How perfect is that?
You can find an excerpted chapter on my website.

Go to “COMING SOON!” at www.carolynnorthbooks.com