Today we’re thrilled to host author Mari Gayatri Stein and feature her debut novel, Out of the Blue Valise. Imagine an encounter between Alice in Wonderland and Winnie the Pooh at a twelve-step meeting and you may approximate the tone and flavor of this category-defying work of fiction. Both Mari and her book are very interesting, so let’s get started:
Her Mentor Center: One line from Out of the Blue Valise jumps out at me: “If not silly, what?” The book is both whimsical and deals with life and death issues. Would you expound on that?
Mari Gayatri Stein: Distraction works until tragedy strikes. Denial commands its own corner, but is a strategy that robs us of our humanity, compassion and life’s richness. Ideally, we can live life to our capacity. Take risks, be kind, patient, loving, forgiving and play full throttle at the same time. All of my books and drawings are threaded with gravitas, and in the corner, an animal character comments, teases and lifts us back to balance, diluting doom with whimsy. Thank Dog for that.
HMC: You talk about hippomorphosize, which means to change size with the use of a mantra or magical password to the universe that alters molecular structure. How did this idea occur to you? Is there a real Blue Valise?
MGS: Anyone can hippomorphosize – it’s all a matter of perception.
My Muse gives me all my inspiration. She does cause me anguish at times. But again, balance in all things. In one of my cartoons, the mistress says to her dog companion, “You are everything to me.” The canine replies, “How can I be everything? What about food?” That sizes it up. What about food?
There is a real blue valise, and it is chocoblock with photos of family, friends, animals and my past as an actress and model.
HMC: Describe the ups and downs of writing Blue Valise, as compared to your other ten plus books.
MGS: This is my first novel. Words were the stars, and drawings took the supporting role. In my other books the artwork appeared side by side with text.
The love affair with my new fiction Muse is demanding: trying to find the right path of expression, make adjustments to the plot line, throwing away whole chapters that drain the story of its integrity. A wonderful torture, and the rewards are indescribably glorious. I feel truly fulfilled when my pen flows, or my fingers fly over the keys and the story writes itself and at the same time rights itself.
The discipline of working every day and facing the blank slice of paper gives me a sense of purpose and self respect. When the characters refuse to do what I want, I take to pacing in the garden. As soon as I let go of my plan, my Higher Hippo comes to the rescue, inventing ideas better than I ever imagined—like the book within the book. In a blink, the obscure became obvious: Mila was writing Petal and Po’s adventures.
My work is one way I can honor the preciousness of my human birth and the gifts bestowed by Mother Nature. Writing Out of the Blue Valise brought meaning, focus, reciprocity and moments of contentment. It was my lifeline during two bouts with cancer. Without a raison d’ être, daily existence amounts to no more than gathering stuff and moving it from point A to B. To offer one’s soul to another is truly to be intimate with aliveness. My words are the vehicle.
HMC: Have you always loved animals and wanted to rescue them? What about homo sapiens? Petal and Mila are mentors. How does this role apply to your life?
MGS: Yes, and animals in need are my tender spot. Have you ever noticed that when we grieve the loss of our animal friends, it is uncomplicated—no guilt, no should haves, just the purity of the love we shared? They are innocents, rare examples of untarnished lives.
When we moved to Oregon, we lived on a ranch. I taught yoga and meditation, held retreats, wrote and drew and was host to a barnyard full of furry love: goats, horses, llamas, angora bunnies, cows, cats, Romney sheep, Military Macaws, a miniature horse and donkey, a pot-bellied pig, two emus and over a dozen dogs.
I am not built hearty and have had many physical challenges from girlhood, but there is a thrill working with animals that overcomes physical obstacles: delivering a lamb at two in the morning, grooming a horse, being a midwife to whelping border collie puppies, bottle rearing an agora goat and even being chased across a field by an irate ram.
Regarding mentoring, I work with young women in recovery from substance abuse. It is a life-affirming honor to watch them transform their worlds—find careers, raise children and contribute to society. I see their hearts open and their lives blossom and mature. As a result, mine does too.
HMC: Kisses and smiles play a big part in the book. What is the magic kiss that presses the veil? Have you experienced such bliss?
MGS: It is that moment when the see-er and the seen merge. There is no you or me, no I at all. No craving or aversion. Time is suspended. All is love.
I experienced this once, when my husband and I were in India. We had met with Mother Teresa in Calcutta. On the way back to our hotel, I was bitten by some critter; my lower leg swelled up, red and burning with pain. We attended a meditation that night and chanted for about an hour after sitting in silence.
When we returned to our room, I had an out of body experience, which is to say, I was so much in my body that there was no me to feel it. The suffering evaporated and the pain was an energy—it still hurt the same, but I didn’t mind. We ate dinner, played cards, ordinary things and yet life was extraordinary. I was lit from within and time had no end.
As far as smiles go, they make you feel good. Try it when you are downhearted. Engage your smile muscles even if you are spewing expletives. Take a full breath, smile and it changes you.
HMC: Tell us how the story and its characters cross over into your real life?
Mila is my alter ego, Petal is her alter ego and Po is Petal’s. They all have characteristics borrowed from my life. Charles and Ian have the exemplary and eccentric traits of my husband and Mumbles and Snowflake are our real-life in-house rescue dogs. I continue to live with the haunting specter of cancer. The unknown and the unresolvable must be tamed or who can get out of bed each morning? Well, tea is the first motivator, but after that, my work and my play are the same: my bridge to simple happiness.
HMC: Mila says, “Dreams are for doing.” What dreams do you have?
MGS: I still hope to travel to Africa and help rescue endangered species. I would love to spend a year in France. Travel to every tropical beach I can find and wander the world’s museums. Health prevents me now, but I continue to dream.
I would love to make Out of the Blue Valise into a movie. And I am soon to begin on my next book, also fiction.
My altruistic dream is to have unflappable equanimity in the face of all that arises and passes away. And I dare to imagine a peaceful world, free of conflict and full of forgiveness, generosity and abundant love. And lots and lots of animals living safely by my side.
HMC: Thanks so much, Mari, for sharing your thoughts and feelings. Dear Readers, you can learn more about the enchanting blue valise by visiting Mari’s website, www.gypsydogpress.com. And now it’s your turn to weigh in. Leave a question or comment by following the prompts at the end of this post.