Elie Axelroth sat down with SLO New Times Arts Editor Ryah Cooley to talk about her novel, Thin Places, her recent National Indie Excellence Award, her writing process, and what she’s working on now.
It’s Sunday night and Gertrude is glued to the presidential debates. She refuses to cede control of the remote, captivated by all that mean-spirited, third grade bathroom talk and name calling. “It’s turning your mind into a cesspool,” I tell her. Gertrude nods, acknowledging a certain truth to my anguish. But still, she’s adamant. She’s studying grandiosity, she tells me, schooling herself on narcissism. She’s even got her notebook out, making a list. “Listen up,” she says. “You’ll learn a lot about how to be successful.”
This current state of affairs keeps me up at night, agonizing over the lessons we’re absorbing through the airwaves about success and how to get along in the world.
Like many, I’m drawn to the news—whether it’s the primary campaign or other so-called newsworthy items. The drama is compelling, often entertaining, capable of instantly subverting our attention from anything else that might be worthy of our consideration.
It reminds me of a Zen story I heard some years ago. Two monks are walking along the road. It is raining and the path is muddy. The monks come upon a watery crossing and a young woman who is unable to continue on her way without getting her long cloak muddy. The older monk offers to carry the woman across the channel. On the other side of the rivulet, the woman and the monks go their separate ways and the monks walk on in silence. Some miles down the road, the younger monk erupts in anger. “How could you have lifted her up? You know that touching women is forbidden.” The older monk turns to him and says, “Yes, but I put her down on the other side of the river.”
Like the young monk, it seems decidedly easier to cling to the past, and point out others’ imperfections, expending futile energy turning those thoughts over and over in our minds, basking in a false claim to superiority. I, too, find myself committing the same pointless exercise. Deep hurts from long ago, perceived slights reenacted. Often with a misplaced sense of satisfaction.
Kindness, on the other hand, requires an inward gaze, and the willingness to evaluate our missteps, the moments we were thoughtless or arrogant or insensitive. It means leaving ourselves open and vulnerable, admitting our faults, letting go of a facade of correctness. Kindness requires vigilance and never-ending practice.
Maya Angelou once said, “It takes courage to be kind.”
If only Ms. Angelou had run for office. Think of the lessons we could have learned.
Please join me at the
Shell Beach Friends of the Library Open House
Saturday, April 16 at 1:00 PM
The day’s activities begin at 10:00 AM. There will also be a succulent craft demonstration, a repurposed book crafts display, children’s activity corner, refreshments, a raffle, and a fabulous book sale! Truly an event for the whole family to enjoy!
I’ll be reading from my novel Thin Places
and discussing how my career as a psychologist informs my writing.
Shell Beach Library and Vet’s Hall
230 Leeward Avenue
Shell Beach, CA
For more information: Friends of Shell Beach Library Open House or call 805-773-2263
Also, Thin Places Goes to Cuesta College! I’ll also be joining a panel discussion on Foster Youth and College Success. Monday, April 11, 2:00-3:15 pm. It’s free and open to the public.
Did you know that only 10% of foster youth go to college?
And of that, only 3% graduate?
Join us for a lively discussion about the challenges of foster youth in college
and what our community can do to support their success.
Monday, April 11, 2016
2:00 – 3:15 pm
Room 5401 and NC Polycom
Elie Axelroth, Author of Thin Places*
Janaan Miles, Foster Family Development Supervisor, Family Care Network
A Cuesta College student, with personal experience in foster care
This event is free and open to the community. For more information, see: Foster Youth and the College Experience
*Attendees are encouraged, but not required to read Thin Places prior to our discussion. Copies are available for loan at the Cuesta College library or for sale on Amazon in paperback and Kindle, Barnes & Noble (Nook) and iTunes (iBook).
It’s easy to be taken with Cuba. The vintage American cars. Cuban jazz on every street corner. Art fashioned from repurposed detritus—hubcaps, scrap metal, broken glass. Beautiful colonial, art deco, and baroque architecture graces the cities, along cobblestone streets, tiled floors, walls painted in pastel shades of green and pink and baby blue. Elegant ceiba trees and stately royal palms. Aquamarine water and white sand. Visitors sip coffee at sidewalk cafés. We stayed in lovely renovated hotels. Every meal came with a mojito or Cuba libre “welcome” drink.
Cuba is a country of near one hundred percent literacy. Free health care and education. The ubiquitous image of Che Guevara on t-shirts and hats and murals as if every one of us has a revolution bubbling up inside.
Against all odds—including a fifty year US embargo—Cuba is the little engine that could.
It’s easy to be captivated by the spirit of a people who have suffered extreme poverty, tyranny, fear, the wrenching apart of families. One million Cubans—nearly a tenth of the population—fled the country in the years immediately following the revolution in 1959. Everyone has an anti-Castro relative living in Miami. But every Cuban has a roof over their head. We saw almost no begging on the streets. No homeless men sleeping on park benches. The streets of Havana are clean but for the rubble of renovations and repair.
Cubans are master mechanics, cobbling together a stove or a washing machine from recycled or welded parts. We saw a TV jerry-rigged using a Russian CRT computer monitor; it took five minutes to warm up, but the picture was clear enough to watch Cuba’s national sport—baseball.
While the government sets salaries, those Cubans able to capitalize on the tourist trade are faring much better. A fisherman we met makes more than his daughter who’s a doctor. Engineers drive taxis after hours. Women working in a state-run cooperative weave baskets eight hours a day. At night, they go home and continue their work, weaving for the tourist trade.
Every Cuban is provided with a ration booklet to buy their allotted five eggs a month, four ounces of coffee, sugar, oil, rice. When the food runs out, maybe they have a chicken in the yard or a small garden. And yet, the paladares—privately owned restaurants for the tourists—serve overflowing plates of shrimp and lobster and steak on delicately flowered china, with hand-woven tablecloths and napkins, and crystal stemware. The privilege of being a tourist is striking.
Back in my comfortable home in the US, I’m inspired by the Cubans—a proud people determined to overcome adversity. This is Cuba on the verge of success and I wish them well. But I’m troubled by the inequities and the tyranny of a not-so-distant past. There’s a tendency to overlook the years of torture, a reign of terror presided over by Fidel Castro. The same Castro who promised days after the revolution, “Cuban mothers let me assure you that I will solve all Cuba’s problems without spilling a drop of blood.”
A tyrant is keenly aware of what the people want to hear, and he’ll offer it to them, no matter the truth–something we should take to heart back home.
I recently moved from one side of town to the other. The students had invaded with their enthusiasm and red cups. Lounge chairs on the roof. The week before I sold my house, I heard sawing and hammering coming from the other side of the fence. Entrepreneurial, visionary, resourceful—my next door neighbors were building a beer pong table in their backyard.
Whew. I made it out of there in the nick of time.
For months, I’d anticipated missing my house with all the remodeling I’d done. I’d tiled the bathroom myself, put in wood flooring, a gas fireplace, raised beds in the garden, new windows. Twice I painted the outside of the house. It was a labor of love, but still, there’s a reason it’s called sweat equity.
Change is inevitable and what we can’t imagine at one point in our lives gradually becomes the new norm. Yes, I miss that house, but it was time to move on.
At a recent book group discussing my novel Thin Places, one woman asked: “Do you identify as a writer?”
“I have a hard time thinking about myself as an adult,” I said. It’s an amusing rejoinder I’ve used on numerous occasions, but entirely sidesteps the question.
It reminded me of years ago as a fledging psychology intern musing with my classmates about our new role as therapists. My clients, with little prompting, readily revealed the most intimate details about their lives—childhood trauma, family secrets, their kinky–and pedestrian–sex lives.
“You take off your clothes in the doctor’s office, don’t you?” This from one of my fellow classmates.
“It’s not the same,” I said. But it is.
We step into roles: A new job. A marriage. A spouse dies and we’re suddenly a widow. The first time I uttered the phrase, my son, I stumbled over the words and looked behind me. As if those words belonged to someone else.
I used to be a psychologist. Now I’m a writer.
Am I a writer because I’ve published a book? Does it have to be a best-seller before I think of myself as a writer? Do I have to write a second book before I’m really a writer?
Obviously, the performing of the role plays only a small part in our identity as adults or parents or doctors. Or writers.
Time helps us feel more comfortable in a new role. If I was initially surprised as a psychology intern that my clients were eager to reveal their deepest darkest secrets, in time, I became accustomed to their desire to be vulnerable with someone who was listening with deep intention.
Practice helps even more. Early on, I lacked anything but the most basic of skills—and confidence. My questions were awkward, poorly timed, sometimes insensitive. In clinical work—and writing—there’s a steep learning curve and then continual improvements along the way. I still remember my first client, a single parent struggling with children, a job, not enough money. Even Picasso had a first painting, but still, I wish I could tell her I’m sorry.
Time and practice, however, are not enough. Change can be tricky. Don’t delay taking on that new passion as your own. I say: Be bold. Be daring. Be yourself.
Do I feel entitled to claim I’m a writer?
Sure. I guess. Absolutely.
I’m running errands downtown, standing on the corner waiting for the light to change. You know how long it takes for the light to change when you’re a pedestrian in a hurry. I’d parked in a thirty-minute meter hoping I wouldn’t spend all thirty minutes standing on the corner. That’s when a guy, fiftyish-looking, gray hair, clean-cut comes up to me.
“I can’t find my car,” he says.
I’m immediately pulled in.
“It’s in the historic district, next to a one-story red brick building,” he says, with a hint of panic in his voice. “Not the kind of red brick over there.” He’s wearing a local bike shop t-shirt, pointing to a new three-story parking structure. Not what you’d call historic.
It’s a lot of blocks to wander if you’re lost, so I point him in the direction of the Mission. That’s about as old as you get in California where historic is anytime before the 1950’s.
For some unknown reason, he’s not walking toward the Mission, and now we’re part of a burgeoning crowd huddled at the corner, anxious for the light to change. He asks if I work at the college. Before I can answer, he starts in about his daughter. “She graduated summa cum laude. That’s number one. She’s a really good student. Isn’t that what summa cum laude means? I’m not sure where she got her smarts—not from me anyway. She’s overweight, but I don’t care about that. Do you know there’s three times the saturated fat in French fries than bacon?”
That’s when it clicks. Life imitating fiction. I’ve started my second novel. The working title is Alone in a Crowd, and I’m writing about a character who’s struggling with mental illness. Or he’s a stalker, I’m not sure yet.
The light still hasn’t changed–which is suddenly a fortuitous turn of events because now I’m focused on the character I’m trying to write. This guy’s not a stalker, but I have the same creepy feeling. Please don’t follow me. Please. Please. We cross the street en masse and I slip inside the surf shop trying to evade him, but I watch as he starts a conversation with a couple of guys standing near the curb. “I can’t find my car,” he says. His new friends seem eager to help, and I can see how quickly it’s possible to get hooked.
In my previous life, I was a psychologist, so I feel for this guy and I hope he finds his way to a psychiatrist. But as a writer, I’m more interested in the twitch above his right eye, the way he rolls his hand back and forth as he points down the street. How his words flow in a steady stream of consciousness.
There’s a tightness in my chest as I finesse my getaway. That’s worth noticing too.
I had no idea how much fun it would be to meet with book groups to talk about my novel, Thin Places. The themes in the book seem to have touched many of my readers making the discussions thought-provoking, revealing, even inspiring. I’ve compiled a list of my favorite questions from these groups. Thank you for your contributions and for the stimulating discussion!
For a printable Reader’s Guide to Thin Places
- Thin Places begins with the Rumi epigraph: Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it. Why did the author choose this quote and how does it relate to the various characters in the book?
- How did you react to Alix’s struggle to cope with her own loss? Is it realistic to assume that mental health professionals will maintain their composure regardless of their own personal struggles?
- Alix asks Betsy to see Skye, but Betsy refuses. Was she right to tell Alix, “Whether you like it or not, sometimes clients give us what we need.”
- In Skye’s philosophy class, Dr. Morris suggests, “Either I have free will. Or my actions are pre-determined. Both cannot be true,” What role does personal responsibility and choice vs. destiny have in the trajectory of our lives?
- Matt tells Skye, “I know it’s selfish, but honestly I don’t care if my parents are happy. I just don’t want them to split up.” Do you think most children feel this way?
- Why might Grace and Mrs. McNulty have been reluctant to tell Skye about her mother’s whereabouts? Was Grace protecting herself? Skye? If Grace wasn’t going to share what she knew, should Jackson have been more forthcoming?
- Was Eva’s confession to Skye believable? What might have motivated Eva to keep a photo of Skye’s father?
- Do you believe some people are stronger and some weaker? In her “research,” Alix found a handful of characteristics that fostered resilience, one being persistence or grit. Does the notion of grit explain anything? Do you know anyone personally who suffered a trauma they were able to overcome?
- At the end of the book, Alix’s gift to Skye represents more than just a gift. What life changing events might it represent for each of them?
- The author worked as a psychologist in a university counseling center for many years. Does knowing this influence your reading of the novel?
- The title Thin Places refers to “sacred moments when the distance between heaven and earth narrows and anything is possible.” Does the term “thin places” resonant for you? What thin moments or places have you experienced?
Do you have a question about the book or my writing process? I’d love to hear from you.
Thank you to everyone who has invited me to join their book group to discuss Thin Places. Please contact me if you’d like me to come to your book group. If you’re located outside of California, I’d be happy to “Skype” as a way to connect with your group. Happy reading!
I’m in the backyard with Gertrude pulling weeds out of the ground cover when I trip in a small cleft in the ground left from a dead strawberry bush I’d taken out a couple of years ago. As if surprised, I mutter ripe words to myself, and promise to fill in the hole as soon as I’m finished with the weeding. It wouldn’t have taken much to level out the hole at the time—a couple shovels full of dirt. But instead of filling in the hole, I insist on tripping in it every time I’m working out in the yard. Risking a twisted ankle. Or worse.
Gertrude’s the same way, which makes me think I’m not alone—stepping into the same familiar deep, dark hole, more than once. Realizing I’ve been here numerous times before.
I blurt out hurtful words, cry at the most awkward moments, act as if the world revolves around me. These aren’t colossal blunders, but I wonder why I keep repeating the same missteps. Like a huge sinkhole. Peering over the edge into the depths and then blithely plunging in.
Speaking of sinkholes, during a four-year drought in the late 1980’s, in my own town of San Luis Obispo, the city began pumping groundwater. Nearby Bear Valley Shopping Center and the Honda dealership sank 12- to 24-inches in a V-shape, doors and windows cracked, grass inveigled its way through the broken concrete. The city eventually paid $3.5 million for leveling and rebuilding the dealership and the shopping center.
But we obviously haven’t learned from our mistakes. The entire central valley of California is pumping record levels of ground water for agriculture. The center of the state is sinking.
In the ultimate disconnect, we accuse adolescents of acting as if their behavior has no consequences. Putting their bodies in harm’s way. Riding their bicycles without a helmet. Drinking to oblivion. Driving too fast around a curve in the road. Engaging in unprotected sex.
Why, we wonder, would they put themselves at risk like that? It’s because their frontal lobes aren’t fully developed. They’re rebelling. It’s hormonal. It’s peer pressure.
Frankly, it sounds a lot like the rest of us, imagining the problems we’ve caused will solve themselves. We take our most precious, intimate relationships for granted. Blurt out unkind words. Prefer to remain unconscious in the face of overwhelming evidence that our behavior is unsustainable.
Something like tripping in a hole again and again. I wonder what it will take—to peer into the sinkhole. And then walk a different path.
For my Sierra Sisters
Gertrude’s afraid of heights, so hiking up a mountain at 7000 feet wasn’t her idea of fun—no matter we were in Sequoia National Park among the giant redwoods, and chocolate lilies, and still-flowing waterfalls in our otherwise drought-stricken California. Eagle Lake is 3.4 miles out of Mineral King, steep and straight up the mountainside. Honestly, I didn’t blame her. Grayish-blue thunder clouds were lifting up out of the horizon; the wind was scattering pine needles and bark in swirls outside our cabin. But there was a sinkhole we wanted to see, and we’d come a long way just to hang out in the cabin all day.
Across the bridge, we stopped long enough for a group photo, then up the damp trail, with a fine view of a cascading waterfall across the meadow. It started to rain, but not to be deterred by a little weather, we trooped on. At the fork in the road, we turned toward Eagle Lake, a steep open-faced climb. That’s when the wind picked up and the sky rumbled. It started to hail, the size of large spitballs, wet and sticky and cold. The wind whipped at my hat, and the rumbling turned to claps of thunder over our heads. I wondered how well my raincoat was going to hold up. I’m certain I wasn’t the only one of my hiking Sierra Sisters thinking about lightning spreading across the bare granite rock. Is it better to stand in a grove of soaring redwoods? Or out in the open?
But the sinkhole beckoned.
A number of years ago I’d read a story about a house in San Francisco, swallowed up by a sinkhole. The homeowner, a middle-aged man looking weak and forlorn, had been photographed standing amidst the rubble of broken furniture and dashed hopes. Was he thinking about grandmother’s china? His slides of Machu Picchu? The call he’d have to make to his insurance agent? There’s something fascinating—and horrifying—about sinkholes, large chunks of earth that unexpectedly vanish.
What about those eight vintage Corvettes swallowed up in a Kentucky museum last year?
As I understand it, there are essentially two kinds of sinkholes: the ones that form naturally due to erosion of softer, more porous rock underneath the surface rock. These sinkholes are caused by floods, earthquakes, a dissolving salt bed, an underground stream. And then there are sinkholes caused by human activity: mining, a water main break, over-use of ground water. I can’t help but worry about the diminishing water table in California. Will we all be swallowed up by our lack of foresight?
The sinkhole on the trail to Eagle Lake is the former, a naturally occurring stream headed downward from the steep side of the mountain. When we reached the lip of the sinkhole, we peered over gingerly, aware of the slippery, loose rocks and the tiny pellets of hail now covering the ground. A pool of water, that should have been quite sizable given the flow from the stream, was hardly enough to bathe in. Where does all that water go? No one knows for sure. After taking a couple of pictures and looking up at the sky one more time, we headed back to our cabin to sit by the fire and play Charades.
Despite knowledge to the contrary, we count on repetition in our quotidian lives. Oatmeal for breakfast at 7 a.m. Maple blossoms in the spring. The sun rising, the waxing and waning of the moon. Our steady heartbeat. And the ground beneath our feet, perhaps rumbling, but disappearing altogether?
It’s not anything I ever considered. Until now.
Have any stories about sinkholes? I’d love to know. And see Thin Places for my debut novel available in paperback on Amazon and your favorite e-readers.