Sovereignty and Submission: Mary's Story

Abrus precatorius
Folk names: rosary pea, cock's eyes, Indian licorice

"There was no such thing as 'raping' Mary Raedwolfe."

Photo by  Loic Djim  on  Unsplash

Photo by Loic Djim on Unsplash

This is one of the most chilling passages of The Poison Box, in my opinion. When I wrote it, I had in mind the talks I’d overheard from my teenage years. Fathers saying to their daughters things like:

“Don’t expect to be respected if you wear revealing clothing.”

“Be careful how you act around boys. If you give them certain signals, like wearing certain types of clothing or using provocative language, they will expect sex from you and if you aren’t ready for that, but you’ve given the signal that you are, they won’t respond well to that and you might earn a reputation at school as a tease.”

“If you dress like that, you’re asking for trouble.”

“How do you think the boys at school are going to respond to your behavior/clothing/language? What do you think it says about you and what you want from boys?”

“Is that the kind of girl you want to be?”

My friends and I learned to think about everything we did through the filter of how the boys would interpret it, and whether or not we were being “good girls.” It wasn’t until years later that I realized what pure poison such a mindset is - a powerful, deadly poison much like the rosary pea.

After much examination, I started to question why I had to live my life and examine my actions based on how a man would interpret them (not even taking into account the fact that every man would have a slightly different take on my actions and choices).

In fact, it wasn’t until I was in my mid-twenties that I began to realize that men didn’t have the right to do whatever they wanted to me just because I “might” have sent the wrong signal.

Mary Raedwolfe is a product of this same man-centric culture. Her lesson, learned in childhood, was far more damaging than mine. She vacillates wildly between violent sovereignty and total submission. She doesn’t really know where her power is or if she has any, at all. And as such, her actions and behaviors become a deadly poison that she inflicts upon herself.

Rosary pea, a frighteningly toxic tropical plant, has a history of being harvested for its beautiful seeds, which are often made into jewelry. This process, however, is said to be very dangerous. According to unsubstantiated rumors, if the jewelry maker pierces a seed, releasing the rosary pea's toxins, they run the risk of sickness or even death. Is this plant virtuous because of its beauty…or evil because of its danger?

With Mary, I wanted to explore a similar concept - the idea of the good girl vs. the bad girl – the virgin vs. the whore. Do we only get one or the other? Are women that one-dimensional?

Mary’s name, of course, is an allusion to the most well-known virgin/whore of all time: Mother Mary and Mary Magdalene. Even the name of the town she lives in, Salome, emphasizes this juxtaposition (Salome, the mother of Peter, and Salome, the princess who demanded John the Baptist’s head on a platter).

In our culture, there’s no room for a woman to exist outside these boxes of good and bad, of virgin and whore. If a woman dares to lean out of the “good” box – to not make decisions based on how a man might interpret them, to wear what she wants to wear, to enjoy her sexuality however she sees fit – our culture feels the need to push her right into the “bad” box. Because they can’t be good if they’re doing stuff like that…right?

We only get to choose one or the other.

What I find most fascinating is that I, myself, as a woman, am tempted to judge Mary. I wonder if she takes things too far, if she is being self-destructive, if she is crossing some kind of line. But then I imagine her if she were a man…and suddenly, I realize I wouldn’t feel the same. That would be considered acceptable behavior in a man.

So while I don’t know everything about who she is, I know her why. But I don’t know if the way she lives her life is an expression of power or of weakness. And honestly, I’m not sure she knows the answer to that question, either. She is searching for herself, for her place in this world as a woman, as much as I am.

Photo by  Ryan Moreno  on  Unsplash

Photo by Ryan Moreno on Unsplash

In the novel, the people of Salome try to tell Mary’s story. Each person only knows a small piece of it, but they use that piece to construct whatever tale suits them – whatever story proves to them that Mary is that one-dimensional bad girl. The poison berry that is all danger, no virtue.

There is something inexplicably scary about a woman who does whatever she wants, who only pleases herself. That’s not how we were taught to live. And there’s something about it that feels almost threatening to our way of life – as if a self-contained woman might walk away from her children, her husband, her home, and my god, all hell would break loose.

So until we figure out where we belong, until we find a way to destroy these limiting boxes that give women only two ways to express themselves, Mary will continue to wander from town to town, man to man, lost in the underworld that we have created. Maybe one day, people will see her beauty, her virtue, but until then, the Marys of this world will be ruthlessly, fatally poisonous.

You can buy The Poison Box here. (And stay tuned for the release of the audiobook!) 

If you've read the book, a review (on Amazon or social media - don't forget to hashtag it!) would be greatly appreciated. <3

Bittersweet: Ema's Story

Solanum Dulcamara
Folk names: bittersweet nightshade, fellenwort, woody nightshade, poisonberry, violet bloom

"In high school, she worked hard to make a new image for herself, teaching herself how to do the laundry when her mother was napping in the locked master bedroom, making her own lunches, using her short-lived allowance to pay friends to buy her curling irons, hair dryers, blush and lip gloss while she was cooped up at home. The boys in school had been surprised by how beautiful she turned out, the girls shocked by her pleasant manner, her intelligence. But all that was forgotten after she began taking the pills, after her drive to be like everyone else, to be happy and pretty and admired, dwindled like the last vines of summer in an autumn freeze."

Photo by  Jordan Whitt &nbsp;on  Unsplash

Photo by Jordan Whitt on Unsplash

Though there is no one in the Raedwolfe story that I love more than Mary, Ema is very close to my heart - and the character in The Poison Box who is most like me. As with all the characters, her greatest weakness is that she thinks she has no power.

For Ema, I chose my favorite plant to represent her: bittersweet nightshade. This plant is prolific and usually considered an invasive, destructive weed. It's so common, no one would think of it as being a plant of any kind of significance. And perhaps the most interesting aspect of it is that it's not that poisonous, unlike its sister, deadly nightshade.

I think Ema - and bittersweet nightshade - share these qualities with women going through their "average" years. This is the time in our lives when we strive to meet the cultural standard of feminine beauty. When we trim and press ourselves into what we think we should be. When we learn to speak the language that would be attractive to authority figures, friends, and potential lovers.

We become a common weed. It doesn't seem like it at the time - it seems like an exciting journey toward becoming the woman we were meant to be. But in reality, we are, like Cinderella's stepsisters in the original version of the story, dismembering ourselves in order to be the prettiest, the most admired, the chosen. We are cutting away everything about ourselves that is beautiful, unique, and magical.

Ema attracted the handsome football player in the midst of her average years. She made herself into an assembly line woman, letting the world around her define who she was supposed to be. She literally became catatonic for a time, falling into the trap of being common - and part of the trick of that trap is that even when you think you've thrown off the silence, thrown off the oppression…you're really just getting in all the deeper.

Like so many women, Ema's distorted sense of who she was supposed to be got her the man she was supposed to want, the one that made her an object of envy, but in the end, she found that she was still at the mercy of this particular type of poison. Scratchy throat, dizziness, headaches, trouble speaking, slowed circulation, retching… This is the price we pay when we convince ourselves that to be loved, to be accepted, to be powerful, we must become common.

As common as bittersweet nightshade might be - and as much of a nuisance as it is considered to be - I happen to find it one of the most beautiful, sensuous, mysterious plants I have ever seen. The woody vines reach in longing for contact with nearby trees, fences, and bushes with elegant, delicate fingers. The early flowers are a dark lavender color with pointed petals and thick, protruding, bright yellow stamens. The summer berries begin green and display a riot of color as they mature to ripeness - yellow, orange, then red. And as the plant succumbs to autumn, its leaves go from green to dark green to inky purple, to black, before its winter nap.

Photo by  Vadim L &nbsp;on  Unsplash

Photo by Vadim L on Unsplash

We can call this plant common all we want, but in reality, it's a stunning organism when we appreciate it for what it truly is - just like women are.

Like bittersweet nightshade, Ema Killian longs to entangle herself with those near her. She is constantly reaching out to touch others, hoping to find a connection. In the dark, isolated world she grew up in, this desire to find union with others, in friendship or love, is what gets her out of bed in the mornings.

Though ordinary in some ways, she has a certain type of exotic beauty that only one who truly appreciates her can see. There are two men in the story who find themselves wanting to get entangled in those woody brambles of hers, but both find themselves infected by her mild toxicity.

In our struggles to find our own power, to right ourselves and find our way out of "averaging," out of commonality, we can become ever so slightly toxic, just like bittersweet nightshade. It's not quite lethal, but our low self-confidence, unenforced boundaries, and lack of self-respect can make ourselves and others mildly ill.

Despite all of its flaws, despite its reputation as an unwanted member of the garden, this beautiful plant is tenacious and strong. It keeps coming back year after year, even when ravaged by winter, even when torn from the ground by frustrated gardeners, even when left to its own devices when the places it rested - nearby trees, fenceposts, or bushes - are removed.

Bittersweet nightshade has the strength and fortitude of a woman. It doesn't matter if our carefully cultivated strengths cause others to label us as unwanted nuisances. It doesn't matter if we lose what we were holding on to. It doesn't matter if people don't see our value.

We will carry on, reaching out with our brambly fingers, just like Ema. We will learn to appreciate the beauty and perfection of what we are, instead of turning ourselves into the "common woman." We will learn to manage our own toxins, infecting ourselves and others less and less often.

This is one of the lifelong journeys we must take, as women. Ema never gets there, and likewise, we will never make it all the way, either. But it doesn't matter. It only matters that we remain tenacious and keep growing.

Our leaves may turn a brilliant deep purple and even black, but we will never lose our woody vines, our curiosity, our desire, our power. No one can take that away from us.

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You can buy The Poison Box here. (And stay tuned for the release of the audiobook!) 

If you've read the book, a review (on Amazon or social media - don't forget to hashtag it!) would be greatly appreciated. <3

The Denial of Passion: Dan's Story

Folk names: wolf's bane, monkshood, blue rocket, devil's helmet

"When he tried to tag along with the other boys playing soccer after school, or to sit next to them in class, they would laugh, calling him Frankenstein or Scarface. In middle school, they taped signs to his back that read: Kick me, I'm ugly, or I'm lost, have you seen my circus? Until Dan reached high school, the Matthews house was egged or strewn with toilet paper each and every Halloween night, a plate of dead worms or dog feces left on the porch with a note that read: For the monster."

Photo by  Ben White &nbsp;on  Unsplash

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

While the majority of the female characters in The Poison Box are different versions of Dark Maidens (or Dark Mothers), the three male leads represent a study in masculine power. There's Crue, who is the quintessential male, strong and dominant on the outside, yet often powerless on the inside. Simon's story portrays what happens to masculine energy when it has no rootedness and no focus.

Then there's Dan Raedwolfe, arguably the hero of the book - or at least the male character with whom we spend the most time. It might surprise readers to know that his character was my way of exploring the traditional expression of masculinity in our culture. I imagine most people would assume that was Crue's role, since he was, outwardly at least, the most masculine character, but to me, Dan is the one who possesses the most genuine masculine energy.

He grows up in the shadow of his father's domineering personality and of the two women in his life who fall victim to this dominance. Both his mother and sister try to take back their power through secretive acts of revenge - something Dan keenly observes. Though he takes the women's sides, he struggles with the obvious fact that their passive-aggression is focused on a man and as such, he cannot help but struggle with his own masculine identity. He wants to express it, but often feels like he must hide it, in order to avoid conflict.

What happens to us when we struggle with our innate energy - needing to express it, but feeling unable to do so? We become split, guilt-ridden, and ultimately powerless, like Dan.

Dan's first attempt to find his power was essentially to colonize his sister. Once he and Mary moved to Catherine's home, and Mary's muteness drew everyone's attention and concern, Dan stepped in and attempted to be her voice. It wasn't altruism that drove him to this act, but simple desperation - wanting someone to hear his voice even if he had to pretend he was speaking for Mary.

Dan's attempt to get his power through Mary was thwarted, early on, leaving him to try another attempt at expressing masculine energy - trying to control everything. A very special type of poisonous behavior that many of us try at some point in our lives, whether we are male or female. We channel our masculine energy into all the parts of our lives over which we need to feel control. It might manifest in different ways, but all of it is an expression of shadow masculine energy - using power to dominate our physical surroundings and experiences.

Photo by  Clark Young &nbsp;on  Unsplash

Photo by Clark Young on Unsplash

Ultimately, when we try to control everything, we lose sight of the one thing that drives us, the one thing that makes us human - our passion. Dan gave in to his passions only occasionally, and every time he was so riddled with guilt and frustration that he quickly suppressed his feelings again and again and again. But without our sense of passion, without our ability to allow ourselves to lose control and surrender to the world, to our circumstances, to another person, to a force of emotion…who are we? What is life worth without all that?

When we allow ourselves to touch the passion that we have be suppressing, we become tingly and if we manage to remain in control and "course correct," numbness eventually creeps in, the same way that aconite creates numbness in those who are foolish enough to touch its beautiful, star-like leaves.

And after a long abstinence, when we take a big gulp of passion, a gluttonous bite, it's bound to make us sick. We both long for and live in terror of the loss of control, the surrender to our passions. For those who live suppressing that energy, it becomes a poison.

Eventually, Dan must learn, like all of us, that the world cannot be controlled, that masculine energy without any kind of balance will only destroy. Wild, riotous feminine energy arrives on his doorstep twice in the book, dismantling his illusions of control and power, forcing him to give up his false sense of dominance over the world around him.

There is literally nothing he can do but surrender.

And so it is with the rest of us. We cannot exert control over the world and survive. We cannot suppress our passions and thrive. We must learn to surrender to both masculine and feminine energy, and most importantly, to our passion.



You can buy The Poison Box here. (And stay tuned for the release of the audiobook!) 

If you've read the book, a review (on Amazon or social media - don't forget to hashtag it!) would be greatly appreciated. <3

The Threat of the Untamed Woman: Hannah's Story

Conium maculatum
Folk names: poison hemlock, snake weed, wode whistle, poison parsley

“I can hardly bear it,” she whispered, her face a chalky white. “Everything was so lovely before she came back. And now…the things I have to endure…”

Photo by  Craig Whitehead &nbsp;on  Unsplash

In every woman, there is a well of wildness. At the heart of her, she is untamed and umtameable. No one can domesticate, entrap, or smother the true spirit of a woman, no matter how hard they try.

And they do try.

Our culture, like many others, is built on mythologies, mores, and traditions that ever so subtley (and sometimes not so subtley), seek to tame the wild woman within. We are told how a "proper" woman should behave. We are buttoned up. Cinched in. Belted. Restrained. Silenced.

And for those who succumb to this poison, it's much like being intoxicated by hemlock: a paralysis of our muscles, and eventually the respiratory system. One day, we just suffocate, and our wild soul can finally fly free.

The character of Hannah Prowl is an exploration of these oppressive cultural expectations that we put on women. There was no question in my mind that she would have to be female. It would be easy to write about the patriarchal society's attempts to tame women through the voice of a male character. But real life is much more pervasive, much darker than that. We have to remember that women are participating in this system. Women are oppressing other women. And that's the most dangerous poison of all.

Why do we tear one another down? Why do we create factions amongst those of our gender? Why do we force the damaging, oppressive patriarchal system upon one another?

There are no easy answers to these questions, but like hemlock, this kind of poison runs rampant in damp places, and spreads quickly, invading neighboring territory.

One of the most pervasive ways this poison takes root is through the judgment and shaming of women who exhibit sexually open behavior. I feel that this response is born from being fed the belief that men will behave appropriately so long as they are not tempted. In other words - that women are at fault when men misbehave.

I find it fascinating that we often seem incapable of placing blame where blame belongs. Blaming rape victims for their assault because they were wearing revealing clothing or because they were intoxicated. Blaming broken marriages on mistresses because it is supposedly the women who tempted the men into the dalliance.

Are we so afraid to demand that men take responsibility for their own choices?

As I have explored these themes and the questions that go along with them, I have come to believe that this is an easy way for us to make sense of the world. We grew up in the mythological culture of the Garden of Eden. We grew up in a society that taught us that it was a woman who got us kicked out of paradise. A woman who caused mankind to fall from grace. A woman who stood between God and His greatest creation.

Even if we don't believe in these myths, it still gives us an easy way to manage our external world - something I believe we all long to do. Life can be so random, so scary, so chaotic. We all want to impose our own sense of order onto things and create systems in which our logic can prevail. Doesn't it seem so much easier to believe that our marriages are rock solid because our man would never willfully stray or - heaven forbid - leave us? That if he did, it would only be because he was at the mercy of another woman's charms?

It is so much easier to make one another the enemy, rather than face up to the fact that nothing is secure, nothing is forever, nothing is guaranteed. It is easier to blame Eve than to blame Adam.

Accepting the chaos, the randomness, the terror requires a woman's wild soul to be released. Only the untamed can love the untamed. It's terrifying to take that leap, but I think even more terrifying to witness others doing it.

One of the most famous stories of poison hemlock involves the persecution and execution of Socrates. Accused of impiety - the same accusation borne by the wild woman - he was sentenced to death after his trial. To question the status quo, the gods, the government, is to question the logical world we have built and acknowledge the chaos that actually exists beyond our illusion of control.

And we can't have that. Especially not in women.

Hannah Prowl is a figurehead representing the town of Salome. It was her husband's family - notice not her own, but the family of the man in her life - who developed the town, and much the way women afraid of their own wildness tend to do, she has taken on the mantle of responsibility for upholding the patriarchal establishment.

The Five Seed Apple Orchard is a modern-day Eden, sheltering one blissfully happy Prowl couple after another until finally - inevitably - the chaos that is life shatters the illusion of control and perfection. That chaos is what expels the people of Salome from their paradise - not the eschewing of tradition and propriety as Hannah comes to believe.

From her living room window, Hannah watches as chaos swirls ever deeper amongst the people of her town, culminating in the return of the young woman who had disappeared so long ago. To Hannah, Mary is the serpent that has come to ruin her perfect, pristine garden. Like so many of us, Hannah has been afraid to accept that the garden wasn't ever perfect or pristine to begin with. It was messy, unpredictable, and just a little bit dangerous.

It's the serpent we fear, but in truth, the serpent is just an illusion. It's the garden - life, itself - that is so scary. We cannot control it by trying to oppress one another, by judging one another, by perpetuating the damaging patriarchy. That is the poison that we inflict on others, and on ourselves.

We women are as wild and dangerous and chaotic as life, itself. Even the Hannah Prowls of this world. It is only when we embrace this untamed spirit within us that we will be able to heal ourselves and one another.

You can buy The Poison Box here. (And stay tuned for the release of the audiobook!) 

If you've read the book, a review (on Amazon or social media - don't forget to hashtag it!) would be greatly appreciated. <3

Fools and Fairy Rings: Simon's Story

Amanita verna
Folk name: fool's mushroom

"He pulled out of the parking spot, drove alongside her and called her name out the window, not sure whether or not that would be less startling than honking the horn. Perhaps the horn would have been the better choice, he wondered, when she stumbled in her haste to back away."

Photo by  Ian Keefe &nbsp;on  Unsplash

Photo by Ian Keefe on Unsplash

Tragedy is sometimes like a slow-moving poison. We don't always realize that something is wrong right away. It might take several hours to discover the problem and even longer to see how far the toxins crept, how much collateral damage there is.

We meet Simon Ash about a year after his life has been decimated by an event that started out as just one random, tragic circumstance and that led to a chain of horrific events that left him standing completely alone at ground zero. He has no anchor, no future, nothing but an overriding determination that he can salvage just a little of what he lost.

Unfortunately, when we only look backwards, we end up losing our way, getting caught up in the trickery and black magic of the world.

A type of this trickery is described in British folklore, where it is said that a ring of mushrooms represents a wild and magical place where fairies gather to dance and sing. However, shadow energies exist in these rings, as well. The old tales warn people from getting too close to - or heaven forbid, from entering - these rings because sometimes, those who do get spirited away into the fairy realm, never to be seen again.

I have a fascination with places and circumstances that possess both a light-hearted magic and a perilous mystery. All too often, life presents us with choices that seem harmless - a moment in time where nothing could possibly go wrong. And suddenly, things do go wrong. Suddenly, something (a relationship, a living situation, a livelihood) or someone disappears.

It is part of our nature to impose logic on the world, to find answers to our questions, to make sense out of the senseless. Unfortunately, the world does not share our sense of logic or justice. Sometimes, there are no answers. Sometimes, what is lost will never be found. Sometimes, we won't get the chance to discover why something happened.

There is a certain malevolent fairy-like energy that has passed through Simon's life, stealing away someone very dear to him. What has actually happened to her? Simon makes up his own story to help him make sense of the events. The outside world becomes the fairy ring and in his story, his daughter willfully and foolishly stepped into the magic circle and was spirited away. When Simon meets someone else who fell into that metaphorical fairy world and who, one day, returned, he becomes obsessed, believing it is a sign that his daughter will also return.

Photo by  David Di Veroli &nbsp;on  Unsplash

He is not ready to accept that dark magic doesn't work that way.

I also wanted to explore the dark magic of obsession and the way it (like some types of mushrooms) can literally alter our state of mind. As a feminist, one of my favorite explorations of obsession is that of a sexual nature - a man obsessed with a woman, specifically - and how that affects both parties, and interestingly, how women are so often saddled with taking the blame for a man's obsessive behavior.

Mary is the object of many male characters' obsession in this story, and the one who is blamed for their feelings and behaviors, simply because she is beautiful, because she is openly sexual, because she is an independent woman. In some interpretations of Christian tradition, these qualities are not to be trusted in a woman. These are indemnifications, not strengths.

When Simon meets Mary, we already have an inkling that he is still in the hallucinogenic phase of grief, seeing things that aren't there, making decisions that the average, healthy person would not make. The obsession he develops for Mary is different, however, than what she has experienced in the past. Simon's state of mind is so altered that he believes if he can solve the mystery of Mary's past - to metaphorically find out how she disappeared into the fairy ring and then made her way back to the human world - then his daughter will be returned to him.

This slight shift of focus reminds us that obsessive behavior is not the fault of the woman at the receiving end. Simon - and later, the men in Salome who threw their lives away for Mary - must take responsibility for their own choices, for their own actions.

Obsession often makes fools of us, turning the seemingly harmless person into a liability. One of the scariest qualities of poisonous mushrooms is that the average person can't distinguish them from a harmless fungi. Many look just like their wholesome counterparts, and when you get right down to it, mushrooms, in general, don't tend to look harmful, no matter what their level of toxicity.

Like these mushrooms, Simon seems innocuous, innocent, incapable of causing harm. But under the effects of his poisonous grief and obsessive behavior, he spreads toxins into the lives of those around him, just like fungi spores.

The symptoms of poisoning by fool's mushroom begin several hours after ingestion and include a cycle or two of severe illness. Many people assume the cycles that follow indicate that healing is underway. Tragically, it is death that follows, unless treatment is obtained immediately.

Simon's encounter with Mary is his second cycle into his poison. He believed things were improving. He believed he was slowly rebuilding his life. He had no idea he was still at the mercy of the poison.

Will he survive?

Will the rest of us recognize our own second cycles and pull out in time?

You can buy The Poison Box here. (And stay tuned for the release of the audiobook!) 

If you've read the book, a review (on Amazon or social media - don't forget to hashtag it!) would be greatly appreciated. <3

The Caged Woman: Olivia's Story

Mentha pulegium
Folk names: pudding grass, pennyroyal

Olivia often took the trash out early in the morning, when she knew Dan would be leaving for work, and would call out to him, waving, pretending that nothing was wrong, that she hadn’t just been hanging out her own window with a cigarette in her mouth, or imagining slipping arsenic into her grandmother’s morning cup of tea. When his hands were full, papers and a briefcase in one, a mug of coffee in the other, he would merely nod his head, but on the days when the sun was especially bright, burning off the morning fog earlier than usual, he would pretend, too, waving back, yelling, “Mornin’, Liv,” having no idea that those were the days she measured as tolerable, instead of unbearable. Those were the days when she could get by with one less cigarette, one less fantasy about stealing a vial of atropine from the hospital supply.

Photo by  Gaelle Marcel &nbsp;on  Unsplash

Photo by Gaelle Marcel on Unsplash

All of the characters in The Poison Box struggle to find self-empowerment - a journey I believe is common to all human beings. One of the most difficult inner journeys we take is the one in which we start from a place of no power, at all.

Olivia Prowl was born into this place of powerlessness. Her existence went largely unnoticed by her parents, and her grandmother took it upon herself to mold Olivia into the person her own son could never be, exerting an oppressive control over the young girl.

Many women have this experience of being caged when the slightest hint of their inner wildness comes through. This wildness can be so threatening to others that some parents instinctively try to shut it down. Sometimes, this is done out of a misguided attempt to protect the wild soul of a young woman, and other times it's done with the intention of deliberately clipping the young woman's wings. Because we just cannot have wild women running around doing whatever they want. We just cannot.

Like Olivia, many women succumb to this imprisonment. So many of us don't realize that we have the choice, the power, the right to be free. So many of us don't realize that we've swallowed a sleeping potion and have made the choice to just be content where we are. To never stretch our wings and fly free.

In the story, Olivia has a secret hobby: collecting information about poisons. Poison, it is often said, is much more likely to be chosen as a murder weapon by a woman than by a man. There are many reasons for this, but one of the most popular theories is that poison allows women to kill a dangerous person in their life (an abusive lover, perhaps) from a safe distance. This juxtaposition between gathering the power to take someone's life yet being too afraid - and sometimes too weak - to do so eye-to-eye fascinates me.

By the time we meet Olivia, she is at this stage of vacillating between violent strength and a weakness that threatens to make her disappear. She is as transparent and insubstantial as a piece of rice paper. The man she loves has never noticed her as anything but a neighbor, her grandmother doesn't recognize her autonomy, her lovers ignore her, and her friends have merely absorbed her into their circle without really seeing her, at all.

Even as she begins to evaporate like fog at sunrise, even as she is swallowed by her own passivity, the wild woman within her rallies, stands up with a battle cry, demands to be heard, seen, noticed. She is ready for a fight, to the death.

Photo by  Caleb George &nbsp;on  Unsplash

Photo by Caleb George on Unsplash

So many of us find ourselves at this point in life. Too many times laying down our own preferences, our own wants, our own needs, in order to please and pacify others. We think we are slowly dying inside, suffocating, and sometimes, we go willingly into this place. Like an overdose of pennyroyal, we go into multi-organ failure and teeter on the brink of death.

Yet, we often find ourselves surprised by the warrior within that springs forth from the ashes. She may still be too weak to fight hand-to-hand. She may still be too frightened to face her enemy. So the path of poison she takes. Skirting through the grass like a snake. Hiding in the brambles like a shifty fox. Waiting, waiting, waiting to strike.

Desperate times may call for desperate measures. And perhaps it is better for a woman to fight back in subterfuge rather than not at all. Yet this underhanded foul play poisons both the victim and the perpetrator.

Vomiting, abdominal pain, dizziness…all side effects of mild pennyroyal poisoning. All side effects of sneaking around conflict, rather than facing our enemies head on.

Why is this so? Because too often, when we finally face the enemy, we realize that the real enemy, the real person who is holding us back is ourselves. It is one of the great challenges of a woman's spiritual journey to realize just how much she is responsible for failing to give birth to her own creative and spiritual freedom.

Pennyroyal is most famous, perhaps, for its reputation as an herb that women once used to induce abortions. While choosing not to bring life into the world at one time or another may be the most empowering choice a woman can make in some circumstances, the metaphorical abortions a woman often subjects herself to can debilitate her soul.

We were not meant to chase after men who do not want us. We were not meant to pursue domestic bliss if we're only doing it to be the "right" kind of woman. We were not meant to dress in ways that displease us just because it pleases others. We were not meant to devote decades of our lives to a certain type of job if we're only doing it because we feel it's what a woman should do.

Making choices like these is to subject ourselves to one energetic abortion after another. We refuse to give birth to the true essence of our soul and to let that essence live and thrive in this world. We are afraid, so we keep it shut up in a box until that horrible day that our inner warrior screams to get out, targets other people in our life who look like the oppressors, and finally, we realize that it is us, ourselves, who have clipped our own wings.

We won't heal from the poisoning until we look past the others and into ourselves. We won't heal until we learn how to set ourselves free.

You can buy The Poison Box here. (And stay tuned for the release of the audiobook!) 

If you've read the book, a review (on Amazon or social media - don't forget to hashtag it!) would be greatly appreciated. <3

The Perception of Masculinity: Crue's Story

Folk name: devil's trumpets, jimsonweed

"If you tell anyone about this, I swear to God, I'll kill you."

Photo by  Dustin Scarpitti &nbsp;on  Unsplash

Much like Mary's story explores the good girl/bad girl dichotomy, Crue Martin gave me a chance to explore similar themes in a man's journey. Crue is the quintessential bad boy, the one all the girls fall for but none want to keep. With his wide shoulders and big hands, he is the stereotype of masculinity on the outside.

But on the inside, things are very different.

Throughout my life, I have seen men criticized and belittled for being feminine or doing feminine things. If they wore a pink shirt, took too long to answer a question, enjoyed dancing, or spent too much time deciding what to wear, they were ridiculed. I recognized at an early age that it was an attempt to emasculate men for not being manly enough, or to remind them - cruelly - that they had better man up, and fast.

What does it mean to be a man, anyway? Twenty years ago, the answer to that question was pretty simple. And men who didn't answer that question correctly were punished, maligned, even attacked.

Today, the answer is much more complicated, thankfully. But I still see those old stereotypes alive and well in our culture. I still see young boys call other males "gay" if they aren't masculine enough. When I visit my 10-year-old nephew at his school, I notice he shies away from me, skipping out on a hug and asking me not to be affectionate with him because his friends are watching. I still see the way men experience shaming for not behaving in ways that are acceptably manly.

Manly means big. Manly means sexually confident. Manly means powerful. Manly means domination.

Just like Datura's sensual, raucous trumpets, stereotypical masculinity has a certain seductiveness to it. There's no denying that. But also like Datura, there's a danger lurking under that surface.

In one of my favorite books, Practical Magic, by Alice Hoffman, protagonist Gillian Owens falls for stereotypical bad boy Jimmy because of his strength, his hyper-masculinity. He takes what he wants when he wants it, does what he wants without thinking about the consequences, and generally just plows through whatever obstacle is in his way. And ironically, one of the ways he gets into trouble is by selling jimsonweed (Datura) that he claims is marijuana. His complete lack of care about the consequences of his actions leaves a trail of dead bodies in his wake.

Jimmy is also a metaphorical poison for Gillian, and in her attempt to neutralize the harm he inflicts on her and others, she tries to keep him calm by regularly (and secretly) adding small doses of deadly nightshade to his food or drinks. Poison for poison.

On the other side of the spectrum of masculinity is Gary Hallett, Gillian's sister's love interest. Outwardly, he also has all the stereotypical indications of masculinity with his cowboy boots and rugged jeans. But in our first encounter with him (in the book), he cries over a memory of his late grandfather.

He cries.

I can remember reading that and how uncomfortable it made me feel. It was as if I was questioning his viability as a mate for Sally. He's crying, for god's sake, just over a memory!

That was a moment in which I realized how deeply indoctrinated by my culture I've become. We women say we want a man who can talk about and express his feelings, and then we judge one who does as being not masculine enough.

Photo by  jesse orrico &nbsp;on  Unsplash

Photo by jesse orrico on Unsplash

As I wrote The Poison Box over the course of 15 years, I had several experiences with men on both ends of the spectrum. I, like many other women, fell pretty hard for a couple of "pretty poison" men - men like Jimmy from Practical Magic. They didn't always look or act the same, but they all had the same type of energy.

Those were the kind of men who prized being, looking, and feeling masculine. They wanted - or owned - motorcycles and fancy cars. They regularly broke the speed limit, weaving in and out of traffic to show their dominance. When pretty young women walked by, they would nod their heads, hands in pockets, and the girls would giggle and wave. They wore black leather jackets. They avoided commitment at all costs. They liked dominant sexual positions. They criticized or made fun of women who wanted to get married and raise children.

Trying to build a relationship with these dark princes, trying to tame these bad wolves, leaves women affected in a way much like being poisoned by Datura. We become delirious, thinking that things will change, that he will take the masculinity down a few notches (and that we'll still feel the same about him if he does). We begin behaving strangely, sometimes becoming suspicious and a little crazy, sometimes becoming too trusting and a little crazy. We might even turn violent, throwing a plate of food against the wall, or our cell phone into the street. We develop amnesia, forgetting every offense, because surely, things will change and get better if we keep forgiving. And at some point, we develop photophobia and we are no longer able to see the light. We don't remember what the light is like and as such, we stop missing it. We become content to live in the darkness of the poisoned perceptions of masculinity, power, and love.

I know what it's like to go through this as a woman, to be drawn to this seductive and destructive version of masculinity. But what is it like, I wondered, to experience this from the man's point of view? To be Jimmy? Or Crue?

I can't say that I know for sure - I am a woman, after all. But as I investigated this through friends' relationships, through observation, through my own relationships, and by just asking male friends, I noticed one challenge that seemed to face every man: other people's perception of their masculinity. To put it bluntly: Were they manly enough? And did the right people think so?

The question, however, seemed to fail for one simple reason: the lack of ownership of what is masculine. Who gets to define that? And in a culture with radically shifting gender norms, how does a man saddled with expectations of masculinity navigate his way through that?

To me, this was the challenge that Crue faced. He was largely ignored at home, surrounded by women who did not, ironically, value traditional masculinity. Noel Martin was the head of her household, not James. So Crue took what he had - his bigness, his strength, his dominance - into the world where he knew it would be valued, where he knew he could gain power from it.

But he wavered, again and again, unable to trust that strength. He questioned its authenticity more than once. Underneath it all, he didn't feel strong or powerful or even attractive.

I think one of Crue's worst fears was that people saw him as a clumsy bull who was more amusing than powerful. His life became a series of concessions and acts of vengeance. Pulling back, then pushing forward. Letting in a moment of feminine consideration, a pause, then throwing it away for action, destruction.

And I don't think he had any other choice than that. That's all he could do, living in this culture.

But what is our responsibility in this toxic perception of masculinity? What are we, as a whole, doing to create and perpetuate it? What are we, as women, doing to play into it?

And most importantly, what would it be like for a man to feel that he can express himself however he chooses? (And women, for that matter?) Is it possible to let go of this poison and for all of us to just be?

You can buy The Poison Box here. (And stay tuned for the release of the audiobook!) 

If you've read the book, a review (on Amazon or social media - don't forget to hashtag it!) would be greatly appreciated. <3

Welcome to Salome

Malus pumila
Folk name: Apple tree, domesticated apple

Thirty-three years ago, the street upon which she now walked had been but a dirt road, unnamed, unmarked, cutting its way through the orchard from north to south… Houses were built on barren fields where once the land had been striped with rows of apple trees.

Though not an actual character, the setting of The Poison Box plays a critical role in the story. The book opens with the introduction of Mary Raedwolfe (without yet revealing her identity) who has returned home after a 7 year absence. Immediately, the reader is pulled into the history of the neighborhood in which Mary walks.

The town’s name alludes to the Biblical characters of Salome – both the mother of apostles James and John…and the young woman who performed the Dance of the Seven Veils and demanded the head of John the Baptist on a platter. A statue of the “good” Salome stands in the town square, right in front of the church, though most people don’t remember the “good” Salome from the stories they heard in church. (The one with the dancing veils and beheading is so much more interesting.)

This town, named after two women on opposite ends of the moral spectrum, is a modern-day Garden of Eden. It was built around a once-thriving apple orchard that was tended lovingly by the women who married into the family that owned it. In this version of the tale, however, it is a man who spoils the beauty of the garden and gets himself expelled from its warmth and protection.

But the characters in the story don’t seem to notice this twist in the tale. They are too focused on Mary, the one they expect to play the part of Eve.

As readers dive deeper into the book, they discover that this garden is, indeed, filled with serpents. But just who – or what – those serpents are is not always as clear as the residents of Salome think it is.

Nestled in redwood country, the town is aching in its beauty, seducing even those that live there with its swaying aspens, the deep gorge passionately cut into the earth by hundreds of years of the Two Thieves River’s insistent caress, and the fog that so greedily tries to press itself against everything and everyone with its formless gray fingers. There are still wild places hidden at every turn, the land refusing to submit to domestication even when part of it was overtaken by the orchard. The houses on Five Seed Street sit on unusually large parcels of land, mostly unfenced by neighbors who were instinctively drawn to those wide open acres and the views of the forested land at the edge of the neighborhood.

It is in those wild, untamed places where Ema met her boyfriend after dark, where the boys from the high school sucked hungrily on hand-rolled joints, where Dan took his daily runs to escape his grief, and where something unspeakable happened to Mary.

Over the years, the cool stony face of Salome watched over these events from her perch in the town square. Until one day, when this "good" Salome gave up her post and the residents of the town descended into rage, turning all their attention to the ones they felt were to blame. The outsiders. The two who didn't belong.

They were out for revenge. Blood. A head on a platter. And no one in Salome would stop until they got what they wanted. 

They saw these outsiders as the poison apples in their garden. The symbol of sin, of their fall from grace. They knew better, after all, than to eat the forbidden fruit.

You can buy The Poison Box here. (And stay tuned for the release of the audiobook!) 

If you've read the book, a review (on Amazon or social media - don't forget to hashtag it!) would be greatly appreciated. <3