Book Review: Running on Empty (Brand Spanking New Release)

Running on Empty: The Irreverent Guru’s Guide to Filling up with Mindfulness

by Shelley Pernot

Most of us have heard the sentiment expressed in the title of Shelley Pernot’s debut published work, Running on Empty. We have so much going on in our busy workdays and schedules that even when our go-go juice runs dry, we somehow must soldier on: make it out the front door finishing breakfast on the run, prepare for a business meeting as we navigate through the commute, barely make it into the office, where we shall spend the day multi-tasking, keeping up on e-mails and continually transitioning from one duty to the next and the next and the next … you get the idea. The typical result is a lifestyle consisting of a pattern that we repeat day after day, with little fulfilment as the years go by. This is much like the dogs Pernot uses to illustrate this cycle, dogs who chase a mechanical rabbit around the track every day, never, ever catching it.

[W]e all have … [a] part of ourselves that we’ve never really expressed. Perhaps something that we’ve disallowed because it was different, silly, or how the heck are we ever going to make money with that. And slowly, over time, we lose touch with these parts of ourselves. We drift along unconsciously, busy chasing that mechanical rabbit, caught up in the game of life. And then we wake up one day and wonder … “How the hell did I get here?”

runningEnter mindfulness. Rather than a new-wave, New Age-y sort of philosophy, mindfulness entails a focus on the now in an accepting manner. It seeks to avoid judgmental thoughts—about ourselves and others—and focus more on what we are doing in the present moment. The benefits are many, but some idea how one might gain from its practice is the stress reduction resulting from a decrease in the amount of critical commentary that actually slows work down, hinders creativity and inhibits confidence. Once we are better able to see past the negativity, we come to understand what we really can do.

For example: Suppose I decide I want to make a few illustrations for a work in progress. My brother and father were the artists in the family and I can really only make stick figures. I can’t draw faces. My hand smudges the page as I travel across it. I could continue on in this manner, which more than likely won’t result in anything productive, beneficial or even fun.

Suppose, however, I choose to push all that out of my mind and sit down with a pencil and sketch pad, just for the heck of it? I plan it for a school day so there are no distractions at home and decide I’ll give it an hour. Or even thirty minutes. I make a focused decision to try my hand, paying attention to what I’m doing, refer to a manual about drawing, experiment a little, see what I can come up with. At the end of my allotted time, even if without a finished product, I have more than likely made at least one discovery, perhaps conjured up ideas I could try next time, even been a little excited about what I was doing. That positive experience was enabled when I tossed away the judgements and focused on the project, accepting whatever small benefit I may have gotten from it.

One of my favorite ways Pernot illustrates acceptance links to the next phase in all of this, that is to say: OK, so how do we do this? I gave an example above from my own experience. The author presents a variety of techniques for practicing mindfulness, stressing that even small gains matter and that practitioners are “striving for excellence, not perfection.” After all, if we judge ourselves harshly because we didn’t focus on our present as much as we could have, it isn’t just a “violation” of a main tenet of mindfulness practice; it does—even more importantly—break down what we did achieve. Considering that mindfulness can be practiced in countless ways on tasks large and small, in just about any setting, there’s a lot to gain.

Pernot’s casual but informed writing style and continuum of life experiences assure us that the methods she posits are effective growth mechanisms, designed not only to engage greater thoughtfulness, but also to enable our awareness of why they work. Throughout the book she uses humor—often of the corny sort that draws us in because we can relate to so much of it. It’s sometimes silly, but it’s also a gift to us because it provides us with a lighter feel to it all as we gain greater confidence that this isn’t all about, as she says, “zenning out” or being all spiritual and complicated.

Each chapter focuses on one angle of learning to practice mindfulness, with exercises at the end of every one. Simple and straightforward, they nevertheless give readers some practice in the adaptation of mindfulness to their own lives and developing discernment and awareness. Moreover, each subsequent chapter builds on what we learned in the previous, sometimes surprising in its depth of information, especially considering the lightness of the read.

Along the way, Pernot also travels with Ed, the Mystical Mindfulness Monk, a character whose own curiously successful adaptation to our modern world (he likes Cheetos) lends consideration to the novelty of monks in a context not often perceived. His levity pairs with Pernot’s titular irreverence, transforming the journey from mere discovery to one with lightness, speed bumps, and equanimity, providing the concept of mindfulness with the same light re-evaluation that perhaps there is a side to this we are pleasantly surprised by.

The book is so well laid out and, as mentioned, so easy to read that one may encounter the temptation to speed through it, given its accessible and conversational tone. It should be, however, savored, much like delicious food (incidentally, another angle of mindfulness found to have contributed to healthy weight loss). It is fun enough to be easily read again, especially owing to its deceptive depth of understanding.

Though the book’s blurb promotes Running on Empty as “[w]ritten for the professional struggling with work/life balance,” I would slightly disagree, as in today’s age, and especially what I call the “culture of rush,” not to mention the push of a favorite buzzword (that I personally loathe), multi tasking, nearly any job can lead to a pattern of thoughtless living. Nearly everyone in every socioeconomic level has a smartphone, computer or variety of apps, and falling into an unintentional life is a danger few of us can afford to ignore.

What’s extra lovely about Running on Empty is that while it can function as a tool, and can be referred back to countless times, it also tells a story—several, in fact—and is filled with laughter and feel-good. Pernot’s passion for mindfulness, her open admissions regarding her shortcomings and wonderful writing style don’t only give her credibility. We also see she is a lot like us—she sings karaoke, for crying out loud—and the desire to digest more of her contagious good nature leads to great hope that there is much more to come from this teacher, this irreverent guru of laughter and learning.

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The blogger was provided with an advance review copy of Running on Empty in order to write an honest review. 

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About the author …

A small town girl from east Texas, Shelley Pernot earned her MBA from a top European school and then proceeded to a well-paid job in risk management in London. In 2009 she moved back to the U.S. and discovered yoga by accident. After a few months of practicing, she went on sabbatical to become a yoga teacher and then traveled to Africa.

Upon returning to her FTSE 100 energy firm employer, she assumed a new role in Leadership Development devising teaching programs like Courageous Conversations, aimed at establishing a corporate culture that welcomes honest discussion.

Having dreamed of starting her own coaching and training business for years, she launched True North Development as a safe space for people to explore what’s holding them back from reaching their potential. Running on Empty is her first book.

To learn more about Shelley Pernot and mindfulness, click here.

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Book Review (Updated): A Rip in the Veil

A Rip in the Veil (Book I in The Graham Saga series) by Anna Belfrage

This novel’s review in its original form appears here.

A Rip in the Veil is an indieB.R.A.G. Medallion recipient.

Previously having read and enjoyed The Prodigal Son, third in The Graham Saga series, I approached this first book with assurance and excitement. It is, after all, where the adventures begin, where the rip in the veil dividing time(s) occurs, at least in the case of Alex Lind. From my reading of that third in the series I knew she’d gone tail spinning through time back to the 17th century following a freak thunderstorm, though further details, of course, remained unknown to me. Reading the opening sentences of the first in the series, I was very aware of my transition into the beginning, and that enticingly soon these details would be revealed. I am quite sure anyone who has ever read Belfrage’s Saga out of order—which can be done—will understand.

ripHaving now read A Rip in the Veil for a second time it should be noted I didn’t like the book as I did before. I have grown since that reading, come to new awareness and made changes in my own life. I am different to that person who read the book last time. Through all that, I came out at the end of my second go-round with this result: I love it at least ten times more. Some of this could be attributed to a greater understanding I have toward the foreshadowing I hadn’t noticed the first time. It could also be said that having gone on to read—since The Prodigal Son—the rest of the series save its final installation, my affection for the characters has grown. All this would be accurate and surely contributes to my ongoing admiration for Anna Belfrage’s first in her timeslip series.

However, her strength as a novelist carries through more than in the ability to create strong characters with enduring appeal—an accomplishment in of itself not to be to sniffed at. Her words flow off the pages with the sort of enchantment that allows readers to recognize their beauty and rhythm, but also veils the utilitarian duties they pull on the side.

Further, true to the nature of a splendidly written book, one finds something else to adore they might not have taken in at first. In this instance one example would be phrases that capture our attention from where we stand now, not unlike the sun hitting stained glass at just the right angle or time of day. “The bright turmoil of oils,” for example, engages the imagination as it interweaves contemplation of an artist and her emotions; they unify in the moment and stir the sensations. There also is the author’s subtle sense of invitation into the story. We may share an understanding with a select character, or the author might slightly pierce the boundary between events as they occur and the observer holding the book, by acknowledging the observation.

“Jeans; everyone wears them where I come from.”

“Djeens,” he repeated, “well, you must be from very far away.”

“You could say that again,” she mumbled, hunching together.

and

[F]or an instant Alex thought she could see shame in his eyes. For an instant, mind you, and then his face hardened.

As Belfrage gets her tale going, readers also recognize what Alex herself does not, and her responses artfully contribute to the flow and continuity of the story as the author inserts detail clues for readers’ benefit; we learn ancillary information without being instructed, and the technique is used throughout the book, sparingly and subtly, also economically lending insight into players’ personalities.

The most apparent location these hints appear would be in dialogue, which also informs readers of how much each character knows about various events. In this way and others, Belfrage weaves a complex story, pleasurable and fascinating to follow—and I do mean fascinating: there were a number of occasions that gave me pause as I stopped to consider implications, how something could work, what might it mean in reality, and so on. The author’s prose lends credence to such a possibility, too: described with verbiage so on target and believable, responses and consequences so plausible, not an extra or out-of-place word, it becomes real as readers as well are drawn into the vortex with Alex, mysteriously and frighteningly into another time and, really, another place.

“Are you alright?” Matthew asked Alex.

“Yes,” she said shakily.

“Do you know him?” He cocked his head at the groaning shape.

“No.”

“Yes you do!” Two penetrating eyes fixed on her.

Alex shook her head, taking in a battered face, a dirty flannel shirt and jeans that seemed to have burnt off at calf length. He looked awful. The skin on what she could see of his legs was blistered and raw, made even worse by a large flesh wound. But he was here, an undoubtedly modern man. . . One person dropping through a time hole she could, with a gigantic stretch of mind, contemplate. Two doing it at the same time was so improbable as to be risable[. . . .]

[The man’s] eyes stuck on Matthew. . . His eyes widened, his mouth fell open, he cleared his throat and gawked some more, his Adam’s apple bobbing like a cork.

“Where the hell am I?” he said. “Where have I ended up?”

Indeed, sense of place is a strong element in Alex’s story and we see some overlap in time, eliciting more questions that contribute to an urgent sense of need-to-know. I also longed to learn how those Alex leaves behind react; here, Belfrage does not disappoint. Initially alternating with some frequency between her new/old world and the time she has left behind, gradually the narrative settles into Alex’s story within her current surroundings, only periodically bringing readers back to those seeking answers as to her whereabouts. This reflects Alex’s perspective of the experience, as she begins to make a life, her life, in this strange place she has landed. Like Alex, we acclimate to life without frequent news and knowing of her family.

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The Prodigal Son is also a B.R.A.G. Medallion winner (click image for more details)

Perhaps the most significant element Belfrage employs throughout the book, this literary reflection of a character’s reality does extra duty as it is simultaneously employed with temporal distortion—texting her father from 1658, muttered comments Alex has to explain away—and a spot of pastiche, whereby her 21st century words, ways, songs, clothing names (e.g. djeens) are imported backward in time. Alex herself often brings this distortion to readers’ attention with her questioning of her new world (which is actually old) and how she could be there, given that at this time, she has not yet been born. Nor have any of her family, so how could they be searching for her? What may be the most satisfying yet, and perhaps a little surprising, is Belfrage’s manner of writing about timeslip—writing mostly in the destination era being the largest contributor to the sense of surprise—utilizing postmodern technique to do it. Moreover, her interweaving of the various strategies is absolutely seamless.

Through the book, we get hints of Alex’s history awareness as she periodically betrays, to readers only, her knowledge of what is to come in this historical era. The temptation for an author to lean on this type of understanding must be great; fortunately for readers and characters alike, Belfrage does not rely on it. In fact, she shies away from it in most instances, as Alex determinedly seeks to make her way in this era with more natural supports—and, of course, to avoid accusations of witchcraft. When readers may expect some historical event to be referenced, Alex moves on; she has learned quickly.

As Alex learns what she needs to in order to survive—including about Matthew’s vengeful younger brother Luke, and the wife once paired with Matthew himself—she also begins to see much in Matthew, joining forces with him to live a life of integrity in the face of religious persecution and inconceivable human cruelty. Alex sees this very quickly after they meet each other, during their journey back to his home, and through their time living there. She also captures the attention of someone who believes there is more to her than she tells, bonding with her and others as she makes her way through newcomer status and the daunting awareness of not knowing what she is doing, including in the presence of those who wish her ill.

Matthew has an ally in Simon, his brother-in-law and attorney, who protects his interests and indeed, his life, counseling the newlyweds in ways small and large. In a sense, as Matthew and Alex get to know each other, their story is timeless—two people with a bond who must learn to integrate their beings into a cohesive and workable whole. On top of their own challenges, ordinary and unique, the pair must also deal with the threats that remain, for despite Matthew having made it home, Luke’s anger has not subsided, and it menaces Matthew and those he loves at every turn. The Grahams do not claim victory over every challenge, and sometimes must learn to compensate, including with each other.

“I didn’t like the ‘obey’ part,” Alex grumbled as they walked back to Simon’s office [following their wedding]. “I mean the love and to hold and all that, fine. But to obey? It makes me feel like a dog. . . . Why should I obey you?”

“Because I’m your husband,” Matthew explained with exaggerated patience. “And you’re but a mindless wife.”

Will they always be so lucky? How do they keep Luke’s hatred at bay and can they continue? What of Alex’s strange circumstances? She was brought here against her will; what if the forces that carried her here reverse themselves? Can she ever go back? How can she stay under the conditions she will be required to live? These are just a few of the top questions that will arise from readers, who certainly will reach eagerly for the next book for answers as well as more of the Grahams, for while the book’s technical brilliance impresses the intellect, its soul captures the heart and imagination.

It is understood that certain factors affect any given reading, including order of books read. Did my awareness of Alex’s future, so to speak, with Matthew affect my perspective of the first in the series? Undoubtedly. Would I have enjoyed it as much had I not read the third book first? The only truthful answer I can give is that I do not know, though I am certain I still would be clamoring for the rest, as I had been. It has not escaped me, however, that like Alex, I myself have done a bit of time travelling by learning of a future portion of her life in the 17th century before being brought to the first part of her time there. While many of my questions arising from the third are answered in the first, the readings of both remain magnificent. When first I published this review in its original form, I had added, “and I will not be satisfied until I have read them all—and even then I may still want more.”

I assure you, even after having now read them all (except the most recent), I very much still want more. I will be reading this book again and again with the knowledge that Belfrage has created the Grahams and a tale vigorous enough to journey with us through time and all of our own changes.

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Update: I have read them all by now, and I want more. 

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Anna Belfrage can be found on Amazon, Twitter, on her website and at her fantabulous blog, where you can learn more about the author, the Grahams, her sew series, The King’s Greatest Enemy, other projects and her world.

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Links to previous Anna Belfrage-related reviews and interviews can be found here.

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Lisl is a contributor to Naming the Goddess and her poetry has appeared at Bewildering Stories and in Alaska Women Speak. She is currently editing her volume of poetry, Four Seasons, and scribbling away at a collection of novellas, tentatively titled Border Dwellers. She likes to color, cook, practices calligraphy and is learning to sew.

Browsing Books: Frozen Fingers Edition

Several weeks ago I was in the midst of one of the harshest upper respiratory infections I have ever experienced–bronchitis-like symptoms that worsened after months of me trying to tell myself “it’s viral anyway” paired with wheezing and burning, wrapped into that asthmatic cough that if not controlled, makes you … sick. I mean, really sick.

The smoothies in Clean Green Eats attracted my attention, snd a further skim shows realistic looking recipes with ingredients I like to eat.
The smoothies in Clean Green Eats attracted my attention, and a further skim showed realistic looking recipes with ingredients I like to eat.

Having finally gone to the doctor ready to plead for something, anything, just not to be told, “You merely have to let it play itself out.” Well, the doctor still didn’t think it was bacterial, but sent me home with a boatload of instructions, a couple of prescriptions and a decent amount of sympathy. (I’m not normally a sympathy monger, but it was nice to know she didn’t seem to view me as yet another Petri dish on legs and then push me out once she scrawled her signature.)

I actually crawled back to work after collecting my medicine, because it was bloody cold outside and the office was closer. We’d been under the thumb of a cold snap where temperatures went down to minus 15 or so–not the coldest in the Great Land, but enough to make me feel even more sluggish and slow, icy and longing for home.

Fast forward to the end of the day when my son begged me to make a pit stop at the library to pick up his holds. “But it’s freezing out … I can’t curl my fingers!”

“I have a great idea,” he began, and I knew there was no way out.

“When you get to the library, run into the building as fast as your little legs will take you.” (Where have I heard that before?) “Go to the restroom and run your fingers under warm water, then go sit down. And then,” he said with a dramatic pause, “you can relax there for a few minutes or maybe even get a couple of books for you.”

How could I say no? This child often goes to the library and brings a backpack full of books home for me–and he’s found some treasures. He makes me tea and sets me up on the sofa with DVDs. He draws pictures to cheer me up, leaves sweet little notes around the house. Really, he’s a prince and seriously, was it really that big of a deal to make one quick stop?

It’s as if the library  had been expecting me. I didn’t find a ton of books that day–thankfully, as too many at one time can be a bit overwhelming–but did pick out a few that seemed as if they were waiting just for me.

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The chapter “Using Food as Medicine Recipes” rounds out a section that helps readers personalize a nutrition plan. I see this as crucial because it helps avoid the all-at-once approach many take to dieting, whether to lose weight or improve their health, and that often sets us up for failure.

Example: I like cookbooks, though I rarely buy them anymore because they’re a tad on the expensive side and everything seems to be on the Internet anyway. The thing is, that path works better when you know what you’re looking for. And now here I was, wanting just to be home and curl up with a book (and some easy-to-make comfort food wouldn’t hurt), when I saw The Immune System Recovery Plan, touting on its cover, “Identify and cure the causes of illness, personalize your treatment, see immediate results: With 40 recipes.” Hey, curing illness and making food, I liked that!

The book is mainly directed at those suffering from autoimmune diseases, and though I’m often tired, sick and stressed, there are other elements to consider: habitually sleeping poorly and being around children a lot last year often made me vulnerable to picking up the germies these critters tend to carry around with them. Last year had also been a super stressful one for me, and although I made some changes, such as to slow down and work mindfulness into my life, I’d slipped up and lost some control on how I respond to stress. I also think I carried the previous year’s bug into the new one, because even in the summer I was sick and the pattern of feeling better and symptoms soon returning repeated itself over and over.

So I may not be part of the target audience, but the book still seemed to have something to offer for improvement of my circumstances. In particular, the author speaks of inflammation, a problem I’d had in the past pertaining to a previous auto accident-related back injury. I’m sure you can already see that looking into all this isn’t a one-read deal, and not for the faint of heart or lazy. Because I can indeed be very lazy at times, the mindfulness program I hinted at earlier will–I hope–come in nicely as I aim also to improve my ability to focus and perform tasks with greater deliberation and patience.

A side note here: mindfulness isn’t a New Age-y kind of philosophy, and actually, as far as I know, has its roots in the Slow Movement, which itself was actually born in Italy and initially focused on food, later expanding to be applied to many or even all activities of daily life with an underlying aim of improving mental, emotional and physical health. As I wrote in one of my first blog entries here, I personally believe our culture of speed is one of the worst developments we picked up on, and has adversely affected our food, finances, attitudes, health and constructive abilities–and that’s not an exhaustive list, not by a long shot. Don’t get me wrong; elements of life such as high-speed Internet and direct deposit are fantastic and not necessarily destructive. But others, such as microwavable food and the unwillingness to work for something has helped to produce a society of people largely lacking the appreciation of a good meal–which doesn’t only include food that causes fireworks in our mouths and a joyous surprise as how delicious and tender the food is, but also the sharing aspect of it.

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Don’t be fooled by the title–the author is, simply, a hungry girl! These recipes, food descriptions and shopping tips are for the benefit of everyone. There is also a section of vegetarian recipes, some of which meat eaters might find quite yummy. I enjoy food preparation, and trying out new meals and snacks, even if developed for those with allergies or certain food preferences, is a fun way to expand my repertoire.

Mind you, I’m not unaware of the benefits of doing some things quickly, and another cookbook I was led to contains a guide with “Recipes in 15 Minutes or Less,” “No Cook Recipes” and, for a twist on how to save time while still maintaining a high standard of production, a section with slow cooker recipes. Hungry Girl Clean and Hungry: Easy All Natural Recipes for Healthy Eating in the Real World seems to me like a useful resource for that transitional phase in which one wants to begin looking into all this slow-down business, but also needs to retain a sense of reality regarding the world in which we live. Small changes, a few at a time, create positive habits and the encouragement of progress can also strengthen one’s dedication toward these new goals.

The Secrets of People Who Never Get Sick brought my awareness back to other ways of treating illness, and to be sure, food is included in the book (chicken soup, detoxification, garlic, to name a few secrets). Not unlike the dental practices I researched a few years back, some of today’s health secrets, as I read in Gene Stone’s introduction, actually originated quite a long time ago. Not all are included in the work, the tips of which Stone received from ordinary people who either never get sick or are able to solidly chase away illnesses, unlike many of us who repeatedly nurse these conditions. As within the books discussed above, the author advocates reading about what other people have done to maintain their good health, and working out for ourselves what makes sense for us.

I commented earlier that engaging in the research involved in all these recipes, elimination or introduction of foods, new ways of shopping and so on isn’t for the lazy. I say that in good fun, because I know that it isn’t always laziness that prevents us from really looking into new ideas–sometimes, but not always. It can be overwhelming or intimidating. However, it does come down to a choice that we make, even if we temper or slow it to suit our abilities, needs, and understandings.

This is reflected in the title  of Raymond Francis’s Never Be Sick Again: Health Is a Choice, Learn How to Choose It. Not having read the book, I’m not entirely convinced we can choose to defeat such diseases as cancer, though the idea lingers in my mind as a strong possibility. Of course, no one wants cancer, and few wish to die from it. But some do. Why? I am hopeful I will find more answers to this and other questions, but equally hopeful that “give[ing] you the power to control your own health” will nevertheless supply a number of benefits for optimum well being. Here too, nutrition comes into play, including a sentence that included words quite similar to those I’d read in one of the other books: giving your cells the nutrients they need. In other words, going to bed hungry, the author writes, is not a problem for most Americans. But in many cases their bodies are “starved” of proper nutrients.

Since the day I went to the doctor I have been feeling better, but one thing I had to do was seriously. Slow. Down. A few weekend days I spent entirely in bed, and even reading, one of my favorite things to do in all the world, took a sharp nosedive. (It’s now mid February and so far this year I’ve read only two books.) I quit a part-time evening job I had and continued on with only my day employment. Some things simply didn’t get done and others I took on with a one-at-a-time approach. I took the time to perform some “preventative maintenance” (e.g. Neti pot, which can be time consuming and feels really weird), telling myself I don’t want in three weeks again to be feeling the way I did that day at the medical office.

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“Getting sick is harder than staying well.”–Raymond Francis

“Pick [a secret] that appeals to your strength.”–Gene Stone

 

There’s still more to do and it’s a learning process. I probably will end up having to return and check those books out from the library again, or simply buy them, but to examine them deliberately and resist the temptation to allow myself to stick them on a table and forget. I will surely be starting again to cook and freeze food, as I have in the past been in the habit of doing–even, by the way, “frozen fingers” of a different kind. Fortunately, I also already habitually use certain foods (e.g. garlic and onion) or have helpful rituals (e.g. stretching and water when I wake up), but there is always room for improvement and new knowledge, or expansion on that one already possesses.

If the way I feel today is any indicator–a vibrant sort of happy surprise that on a Saturday I’ve been to the cinema, run an errand and now am getting some writing and editing done, instead of moving about the house in a malaise, half-heartedly typing something or engaging in distracted conversation–then I’m looking forward to this. I’m not flipping through books in a frenzied research run, and that’s okay. We’re in for another cold snap, meaning more indoors time, but I’m feeling again like I can enjoy cooking with my young teenage son and the way the house smells, doing things for him without making it larger than it really is, which is a far cry from how I felt even in the days during the back and forth when I felt better. I think it is more real this time, and it’s like a lighter feeling in my mind that elicits the emotion of how good it feels to feel good.

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An upcoming blog will discuss the practice of mindfulness and some fun resources for learning more, including an absolutely gorgeous magazine I’ve discovered, and that I think you will also enjoy. 

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950: 1066 Remembered, Guest Post: A Dynasty Denied (Rob Bayliss)

Now 1066 has passed, as has its 950th anniversary, and we look back upon the year, in some ways not unlike how its inhabitants might have. The Christmas coronation of William, who they later called the Conquerer, has occurred, and the old year passed into a new … January becomes February, and time marches forward. 

Before, we marked our memories in a structured sort of fashion, when the new order was still getting its grips, with remarks such as, ” A week ago today …” or “One month ago.” Now the memories and longing wrap themselves around us as they strike our inner minds randomly, as the required daily tasks remind us that life plunges forward; some events remain as ordinary as before, and yet we aren’t completely sure what to expect. Promises have been made, but the outcomes are troubling. Transitional, perhaps, difficult only in this phase. Or is the foreign conquerer as fearsome as our imaginations lead us to believe? Our anxieties and uncertainties seek consolation in familiarity and affection, and it is difficult not to remember our old king, how awful it is to refer to Harold Godwinson as belonging to the past. Were his deeds all we thought they were? How all these others now talk of him with distrust, admiration, of betrayal and foolhardy leaps into the unknown? Did we really know him? What did we know? He is gone now, and we struggle to make sense of exactly who he was, this king of ours ….

“A Dynasty Denied” by Rob Bayliss

Harold Godwinsson is somewhat of an enigma. He is a hero to some and a usurper to others. He marks the last page of the Anglo-Saxon period in English history, when England truly ceased to be a nation in the Scandinavian world and was drawn deeper into the power play of continental politics. But who was this grandson of a minor thegn who rose to be King Harold II? To find out we must fully explore the world he lived in and the roots from which he grew.

Harold was born in 1022, the second child of Godwin, the Earl of Wessex, and Gytha Thorkelsdottir. It is thought that Godwin himself was the son of Wulfnoth Cild, a thegn with large estates in Sussex. During the ill-starred reign of Aethelred the Unraed (ill-counsel) Wulfnoth was outlawed and his lands confiscated. The reasons for this banishment are unclear, but it occurred during a muster of 300 ships in 1008AD to counter the Viking threat. Unknown charges were brought against Wulfnoth by Brihtric, brother of the infamous Eadric Steona.

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Coronation of King Harold Godwinson By Anonymus (The Life of King Edward the Confessor) (http://www.lib.cam.ac.uk/cgi-bin/Ee.3.59/zoomer) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Wulfnoth fled with his twenty ships; obviously he had been a man of power and influence to command such a number. Brihtric gave chase with 80 vessels but he was obviously not the sailor that Wulfnoth was. A storm drove Brihtric’s fleet ashore whereupon Wulfnoth fell upon his hunters and burnt the 80 ships. With a third of his fleet lost the king was unable to stop the Viking invasion of Kent; Aethelred the Unread indeed.

What subsequently happened to Wulfnoth is unknown, but he died in 1014. His son Godwin served under Aethelred’s son, Aethelstan and was bequeathed a Sussex estate on the prince’s death, also in 1014.

This was time of chaos. The Dane, Sweyn Forkbeard, had invaded England after years of raiding, and driven Aethelred into exile, to be declared king. However, a mere two months into his reign, Sweyn died and Aethelred and his family returned to England. The Danes still in England declared for Cnut, Sweyn’s youngest son and a bitter time of conflict, unseen since when Alfred had fought the Great Army, fell across England. Aethelred’s eldest surviving son by his first wife, Edmund Ironside fought Cnut to a near standstill. Eventually the two made a form of peace; Cnut became king of the old Danelaw and Mercia, while Edmund retained Wessex and London.

Within weeks of the peace treaty Edmund died in November 1016, ushering in the reign of Cnut the Great, now ruler of a vast North Sea empire. Cnut married Emma of Normandy (Aethelred’s second wife and widow) and cemented his position. He had Edmund’s family sent into exile to Sweden – presumably intending them to be killed there; instead, however, they found their way to Hungary and safety.

Among Cnut’s new English followers was a certain Godwin. It seems that Godwin had followed the Ironside after Aethelstan’s demise. One thing Cnut prized above all others was loyalty and, keen to have a smooth transition of power, accepted the Sussex thegn’s oaths given to him.

Godwin’s rise under King Cnut’s patronage was rapid. By 1018 he was Earl of East Wessex but by 1020 he was Earl of all of Wessex. He accompanied Cnut on an expedition to Denmark and obviously gained Cnut’s trust and affection.

Godwin married Gytha, Cnut’s sister in law; they would go on to have 11 children, including Harold, Swegn and Tostig. Godwin also took under his wing Cnut’s nephew, Beorn Estrithson, who grew up alongside his cousins Swegn and Harold.

Cnut the Great died in 1036 and the Witan – the council of earls, bishops and chief thegns – was duly held in Oxford to decide upon the succession. There were two sons from the union of Cnut and Emma: Harold Harefoot, the eldest son and locally based in England, and Hardecnut, based in Denmark. Harefoot had his base in the Midlands and his claim was supported by Earl Leofic of Mercia and Cnut’s Danish fleet. Harefoot certainly appeared as the easier option and yet Emma and Godwin, and through him Wessex, backed Hardecnut. It would appear that the realm would be split between the two but Magnus of Norway was threatening Hardecnut in Denmark and so the promised king never came. Godwin increasingly felt threatened as Harefoot stamped his authority on the north. He had too much to lose to react to Harefoot seizing the treasury at Winchester, within Wessex itself. Real politics of the time forced Godwin towards Harefoot’s claim.

Queen Emma, now isolated, sent for her sons by Aethelred in exile in Normandy. So it was that the exiled aethlings Edward and Alfred landed in England attempting to rally support. Edward landed at Southampton, attempted to move inland to Winchester and his mother, but was driven off back to his ships. It would appear that the population, now resigned to accepting Harold Harefoot as king, had no wish to have the issue of the succession muddied further. Alfred landed at Dover with the intention of moving towards London but at Guildford Godwin apprehended Alfred and his followers.

What happened next would blight the reputation of Godwin and his family, especially in Edward’s eyes. Perhaps wishing to prove his loyalty and trustworthiness to Harold, Godwin yielded Alfred and his followers to Harefoot’s men. Alfred’s men were disposed of and the unfortunate aethling was taken to Ely where he was blinded and died of his wounds soon after. Godwin was therefore implicated in the murder and when Harefoot died and Hardecnut eventually claimed the throne in 1040, Godwin was forced to assist in the desecration of the dead king’s grave. As punishment for the support that Harefoot received, all England was subjected to a harsh taxation from Hardecnut. Godwin had to answer the charges ranged against him and swore an oath that Alfred’s cruel fate was by orders of the Harefoot alone. He gave the new king a magnificent ship, built at great expense and tried to keep his head down.

Continue reading “950: 1066 Remembered, Guest Post: A Dynasty Denied (Rob Bayliss)”

New Genre Library: True Crime (Murder in Greenwich)

This new series explores genres new or newish to me as part of my 2017 reading challenge, to be discussed in an upcoming post.

Murder in Greenwich: Who Killed Martha Moxley?

by Mark Fuhrman

I don’t typically include true crime on my list of preferred genres, though a couple of memories lingering in the back of my mind may have opened me up to it. In 2012 Samantha Koenig was abducted from a coffee hut close to our house and later murdered, and it was my young son’s most in-your-face introduction to the realities that life can dish out. More recently I read a beautifully-written true crime memoir, Finding Bethany, authored by an Anchorage detective whose own sister had also been murdered when he was a boy. He weaves in her story as well as that of his search for Bethany and, later, her killer.

I didn’t know either of these young women, though I recall Bethany’s case from when my son was a new baby, and Samantha’s killer was arrested when my boy had just turned nine. While our personal timeline is insignificant to the cases, the two events stood in my awareness then, like bookends. A strange coincidence occurred in Detective Klinkhart’s own timeline: Bethany Correira disappeared on his sister’s birthday, May 3.

As I type I recall another book I read years before, that of a London detective investigating the murder of a baby. His suspicions were later found to be correct but Victorian England was obsessed with the new profession of detecting, and the investigator who lends his name to the title of The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher saw his career destroyed. Perhaps it set the stage for the affection and admiration I have for homicide detectives in particular, whose work takes them to the dark side, sets them amongst people who block them at every turn, whose passion for restoring some sort of justice to people they (mostly) never knew taps into a deep sense of integrity and demand that murderers pay for their crimes, no matter who they are.

Before a year or two ago, I never heard of Martha Moxley or Michael Skakel, though I vaguely recall reading about the case, perhaps when Skakel was in and out of prison on appeal for the 1975 murder of fifteen-year-old Martha Moxley of Greenwich, Connecticut. More recently his case came to national attention once more when it was determined he had indeed received a fair trial with competent counsel, and his conviction for the murder was reinstated. I saw the news piece at iOTWreport, where blogger Big Fur Hat notes retired Los Angeles detective Mark Fuhrman’s instrumental role in re-opening the case and the resultant conviction. Something struck a chord and I decided immediately to read the book.

murder_in_greenwich-1The late Dominick Dunne opens Detective Fuhrman’s Murder in Greenwich account with a foreword that straight away acknowledges the Moxley murder case never really became a national story. This struck me as odd, given its circumstance: a fabulously wealthy neighborhood, closely guarded and protected from outsiders by its own security force, a beautiful teenage girl who died right in front of her own house. That a “Kennedy cousin” lived next door and might have been involved seems like it would contribute to its national story status, though as Fuhrman discovers and relates as his investigation proceeds, Michael Skakel’s family wealth and connections actually play a role in the cover up and shielding of the suspect, even years after the crime.

Fuhrman leads us through sections in the book that outline background, his taking on of the case, evidence examination, individual profiles of participants, and a breakdown of his investigation. Each section contains attention to detail that he writes in narrative and linear form, inviting readers in as he points out and connects details, drawing conclusions or asking questions. For instance, on the night of the murder Martha was out with friends and her mother, Dorthy, was painting a room upstairs. The cold drove her to close the window despite the fumes, and at one point

she heard a commotion on the side of the house—the sound of voices so loud that she could hear them through the closed windows. She clearly heard the voices of male youths, or at least one male youth. She was accustomed to hearing kids on the property, since they often cut through her yard. But these voices didn’t sound friendly or innocent[.]

Fuhrman also reports that several neighbors noted a cacophony of dogs barking, and some even went outside to investigate. Later, in “Hypothesis of a Murder,” he utilizes forensic clues to determine that Moxley was not killed where she was found, and notes a streetlight near where she was initially struck with a golf club before being dragged to a spot under a tree and left. How could it be that when he pursued his investigation, despite advantageous views from some areas to the spot, the noises Mrs. Moxley heard and the amount of blood the crime produced, nobody saw or heard any part of the commotion outside?

Perhaps most awe inspiring is how meticulously Fuhrman traces details, follows leads, digs through years and records redacted and aged, runs up against Greenwich detectives who absolutely refuse to cooperate with him, or at least answer his questions as to why they didn’t follow certain procedures, why they allowed a dog, for example, sniffing and licking around on the ground, to literally eat evidence. The author traces the Skakel family’s earlier history and Michael’s movements through the years as he was shielded by his family from authorities who eventually began to focus on him.

As a writer Fuhrman is to the point, revealing his compassion and detecting talent as he moves forward, each step noting in layman’s terms what even seemingly insignificant details might mean to someone “reading” a crime scene. His periodic illustrations and accompanying notes lend greater understanding not just to the details of a murder and what a detective might be looking for—including what is there as well as what is not—but also what sort of procedures investigators follow, such as note taking, order of who they talk to, keeping people separated and even simple first steps, such as blocking off the crime scene. It is unfortunate, exceedingly sad even, that the Greenwich police had so little experience investigating murders that they didn’t even know to do this.

Is this the largest part of the reason why local authorities refused to help Fuhrman? Did pride get in the way as they bitterly considered the consequences of an outsider solving a case they couldn’t? Did they later come to understand the horrific series of mistakes and careless acts of their force? Or were they afraid of the Skakels and stalling on an investigation in order to protect a well-connected member of their community? Fuhrman touches upon all of this and more, at times expressing his anger at how, with so much evidence, someone could be allowed to get away with this crime, and nobody seemed interested in changing that. This he does with great feeling, though without falling into any over-emotive passages that crash and burn by the time readers finish the book.

On the contrary, this account has stayed with me, and as an outsider I saw Fuhrman’s investigation in a way he doesn’t, as someone not typically exposed to the anatomy of a murder, as he calls it, and as it includes the murder as well as its subsequent investigations. In the case of Murder in Greenwich, this entails also how one copes with an unsolved case and the incredulousness that comes with the awareness that, as Fuhrman frequently declares, someone out there knows something.

As readers and consumers of current news, we now know what the Mark Fuhrman of 1998 didn’t: Skakel faces justice in the end. Given his family’s possible appeal yet to come, the anatomy may still be forming itself, perhaps never to end, not so long as anyone remembers that a lovely, vivacious girl once lived, that despite those in-your-face realities of life that haunt our memories and bookmark our timelines, someone cared enough to stand for her and demand answers to the questions left behind.

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Thanks to BFH at iOTWreport for linking!