Interview with Iraqi Australian writer Hajer Al Awsi

A bundle of joy and contradictions, Hajer is an Iraqi-Australian writer that is trying to figure it all out. From screenplays to short stories to essays, she explores themes of womanhood, dysfunctional families and every now and then she’ll tell you how she feels about that trending topic on twitter. She has a Medium blog where she shares her many opinions about the world.

Hajer has exhibited ‘Loss and Freedom’, an audio installation featuring Zainab and her parents accounts of the night Zainab runs away from home. Most recently, Hajer’s first folklore piece, ‘The Tigrisian Women’ set in an imagined ancient matriarchal Mesopotamian society featured in a Sydney Writers Festival project being rescheduled to 2021 but currently available online now: https://www.finishingschoolcollective.com/hajer-and-faith.

WN: Tell us about your writing journey – when did you start writing and then decide to pursue it as a career?  

HA: I started writing at the typical coming of age period—17 – as a way of dealing with the many existential crises I was having. As soon as I left school I volunteered at the local arts center where I met other young people my age.

WN: What are the themes in your writing and why have you chosen these themes?

HA: Naturally, I find myself writing a lot about womanhood as a Muslim Arab woman but also a lot about dysfunctional families. I try and find the humor in the migrant experience along with all the struggles. In particular, I tend to focus on the experience of the second generation immigrant. It’s an experience that hasn’t been explored a lot with a Middle Eastern perspective but is so important. Being raised either predominantly or entirely outside of your parents’ homelands means you and your parents have entirely different cultural understandings, perspectives which often times means very different values. I find that space really interesting and comforting to explore in my writing.

WN: What has been your experience as an Iraqi-Australian writer?

HA: Initially, I shied away from writing specifically Iraqi characters or from an Iraqi perspective and instead chose to write from Levantine perspectives especially Palestinian and Lebanese. I was raised in part by Palestinians and in Australia the predominant Arab population is Lebanese so these neighboring cultures felt familiar but also distant enough to explore. As I grew into myself and dealt with my internalized discomforts of Iraqi culture I’ve become more and more fascinated and driven to write about my specific identity. There is immense richness of culture in Iraq and stories from the diaspora especially are quite scarce. So I finally came to my senses and realized that there was this whole gap in the literary world that I could take advantage. It’s exciting but also important.

WN: You founded a Facebook group called Iraqi Diaspora Creatives. What is the idea behind forming this group and how has been the response?

HA: Yes, it was born of my frustration with finding diasporas Iraqi voices in the arts both globally and in Australia. I was looking for someone to mentor me through a play that relied a lot on understanding Iraqi diaspora culture and found it immensely difficult to find anyone overseas and in Australia. I knew that there were people out there and was determined to find them. I had thought about forming some kind of network for a while and so finally did it and called it the Iraqi Diaspora Creatives Network. I was lucky to have another online Iraqi focused page, ‘Shakomakodotnet’ to cross promote the network on their page and had a rush of a few hundred people follow the instagram page and join the Facebook group. It’s going much better than I anticipated and I’m really happy about that.

WN: You recently helped organize a letter to the creators of the series Baghdad Central. What was letter about and the purpose behind this campaign?

HA: Yes. I noticed very quickly while watching it that the Iraqi dialect sounded very forced or just wrong altogether. While the actors were Arab, admittedly a step in the right direction, there was only two actual Iraqis in the whole cast. I began to research the show and who was behind it and it quickly emerged that it was not written by Iraqis, but by middle aged white men, though it framed itself as being from an Iraqi perspective. The production company, Euston Films is alarmingly entirely made up of white people which inevitably means the profits of a supposed Iraqi story is going to non-Iraqis. This made me feel really uncomfortable. I opened up the conversation to the members of the Iraqi Diaspora Creatives Network and an overwhelming amount of them felt the same way. We were all felling fed up of being dismissed by the system and felt an urgency to speak out.

WN: Can you share the most rewarding aspects of being a writer?

HA: When someone feels moved or seen by something I’ve written. It’s always so heartwarming and motivates me to keep putting work out there.

WN: What advice would you give writers who are starting out?

HA: Write as much as possible and consume as many stories as possible in as any and all mediums. Allow yourself to respond emotionally to what you are consuming. Then sit back later and make an assessment of what you liked and didn’t like about the story, the techniques used or you wish they used. This way you exercise the muscle of analysis that is so precious to the process of writing and any kind of storytelling.

Sponsored by Chaldean Cultural Center http://www.ChaldeanCulturalCenter.org Unique Voices in Films http://www.UniqueVoicesinFilms.org University of Michigan [Detroit Chapter]

Interview with Author & Coach Dr. Deborah Al Najjar

Dr. Deborah Al Najjar is a writing and career coach for creatives and academics. She is co-editor if we are Iraqis with Professor Nadje Al-Ali and has taught writing, literature, and American studies at Wayne State, Oakland University, Henry Ford College, and The University of Southern California. She currently has her own coaching business at desirecompass coaching. You can learn more about her services by visiting her website https://www.deborahalnajjar.com/

When did you decide to be a writer?

I decided at fourteen in ninth grade when I took a writing course with Mr Shusterbauer at Mercy High school. I was focused on fiction through my twenties. I am feeling a desire to return to fiction writing more recently.

What is your book We Are Iraqis: Aesthetics and Politics in a Time of War about?

The co-edited anthology with my friend and colleague Dr. Nadje Al-Ali is an anthology featuring artists, academics, activists who are of Iraqi descent. It is a chronicle of essays, poetry, painting, fiction, academic interviews. It is first and foremost a creative endeavor and an expression of people’s lives and beliefs.

How has your 30 years teaching and working in academia influenced your life?

Teaching has had me hone in on my purpose which is to be a public servant and to serve students in particular. We are all students of life and have a strong craving to keep transforming our lives for the better.

When and why did you decide to provide coaching for writers?

As I was finishing my PHD in 2017, I did a coaching program to help me get more focused on completing my dissertation. I did some coaching myself and launched my business. It felt very organic and in flow at the time. I have been working in the self-development field as career and academic coach for over three years now. I shifted away from the high pressure career path I was on (academia) to one on one coaching and some group coaching. Coaching is in alignment with my training as an educator. It is also in alignment with my disposition and character as a motivator and public speaker.

What is your upcoming program about? The one that takes place from September to December.

My upcoming program is a group coaching container where someone can start and complete a book project by the end of this year. We will have different levels of accountability. The clients will be working one on one with me and within the group to have a great deal of support and attention. I have a writing zoom bootcamp that they can join for additional writing timing and structure.

You mentioned that although your program is open to people of all backgrounds, you want to pay specific attention to the Arab American community. What is the reason for that?

I have worked with all kinds of people my whole life. My education is in American studies and ethnic studies. I care about racial, sexual, cultural justice, integrity, and being conscious about one’s identity in the world. We are here to help one another. We are here to transform the world into a more just world for one another. Our own group and other groups. There are way more Arab/ Iraqi writers out in the world but not as many as there could be. There certainly are not that many Chaldean Iraqi writers, painters, artists have visibility. I would love to be of service to my communities of writers and artists. If someone needs help, I am happy to work with them. We need a diversity of points of view out in the public.

What has been the biggest challenge for you as a writer?

My biggest personal challenge has been grief blocks and maybe my own insecurities about being true to myself. What is that I really want to write about? I have a lot of stories to tell and maybe I have feared judgment or condemnation. I have done a lot of work to release those stories/ misperceptions. Writing a book is not only about talent, commitment and time management. It is about releasing all your old stories that you have inherited and that you have chosen to invest in (whether it was a conscious choice or not).

What has been the most rewarding aspects of being a writer?

The most rewarding reality of being a writer is honoring myself. Showing up to the practice and the excitement of discoverring a fresh perspective or new crisp sentence that surprises me.

What do you advice writers who are starting out? What about established writers?

The advice I give new writers. Keep it simple. Established writers? Let go of perfectionism and what you think you know. Let go of the work you already did or the writer you believe you are. Keep the stakes low. Stay focused on your passion not on the outcome. Essentially, all the advice is the same. Show up to the practice and the writing and get out your head. This is advice I need first and foremost, I can be my own worst enemy.

What other services does Desire Compass Coaching Provide?

I have one on one coaching on career changes, completing degrees, starting or returning to school. What is your purpose? How can you get focused on creating more flow in your life, your business? Do you have grief or wounds from the past that you have not processed? I do Emotional Freedom Technique (tapping), a somatic approach to releasing stress. I have both a spiritual and pragmatic approach to coaching. Lets not get stuck in the past or in the stories we have about our lives.

What are Dr. Al Najjar’s future work plans? Where do you envision your writing and coaching business in 5 to 10 years?

I hope to do more writing and publishing myself. I envision myself working and teaching groups and maybe back at a University as a motivator, public speaker, educator. I hope to continue having clients whom I serve one on one. I would love to coach grad student groups or professors on lowering stress, getting more of the dream writing completed, and finding joy in work/life.

This interview was hosted by the Chaldean Cultural Center, in collaboration with University of Michigan [Detroit Chapter] and Unique Voices in Films.

Bridging Cultures with Music

Luti Erbeznik began his music career as a 15-year old by playing drums and singing in a band. A few years later, he was the lead singer and drummer in Angled Projectile, a regionally acclaimed rock band. He taught himself to play acoustic guitar and began writing songs. In college, Luti left the band and focused on his college education, eventually earning a Fulbright Scholarship for graduate studies in the United States. After earning a Ph.D. in molecular biology, Luti spent a decade in postdoctoral research and teaching at liberal arts colleges. All the while, he kept playing guitar, mostly for himself, and mostly for solace … an aspiring immigrant trying to live the American Dream.

Luti bridges cultures with music. His mixed ethnicity (Slovene/Macedonian/Greek), his childhood immersion in folk music from the many ethnic groups coexisting in the former Yugoslavia, combined with exposure to melodic rock (Wishbone Ash, Styx, Queen) and classical music, helped forge his eclectic songwriting style.

Watch Luti’s half-hour interview, read his interview, and visit his website to enjoy more of his music http://www.lutimusic.com/

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When and how did you begin your music career?

I began my music career when I was about 15 years old. My buddies and I began picking up songs of our favorite rock bands, and practicing them on the instruments we had. I was raised by a single mom, and we were quite poor. At the time, she could not afford to buy me a drum kit (I was the drummer in the band), so I was borrowing drum kits from other older boys who had their own. We would perform at school venues for our peers, and we were very well received. I was the lead vocalist as well. Within a year or so, my mom took a loan and bought me a drum kit, so I was able to practice and perform on my own drums.

As time went on, we started writing our own original music, which was also very well received by the audience at our performances.

How has your background, where and how you were raised, affect your music?

In our country which used to be called Yugoslavia we were exposed to all sorts of music! Ours was a multi-ethnic society with more than 20 different nationalities living together, and so we enjoyed a variety of music from different heritage lines. The republic in which we lived ( Serbia) had its own rock and pop bands, which drew the inspiration for their opus mostly from the Western counterparts. That is to say, under our leader Josip Broz Tito, we were an independent multi-ethnic nation, not oppressed by the Soviet Union (like our neighboring countries Romania, Hungary, etc), and, as such we had open access to Western (American and Western European movies, music and other cultural aspects). So, our music was largely influenced by the music of the American and British rock and pop scene.

How did your career in music develop?

As our musicianship developed further, our songwriting became more sophisticated, and our songs became more complex. Ours was a five-piece band: a lead guitarist, a rhythm guitarist, a bass player, a keyboardist and me on the drums. Everyone but the keyboard player (who at the time was a 12-year old prodigious sister of our lead guitarist) sang, and, as I mentioned before, I was the lead vocalist. At one point, we went to a studio, and had three of our songs professionally recorded. Unfortunately, the people on the radio were not too keen on playing our music. Our songs required close listening, and were not simple three-chord ditties which one could hear on radio stations at the time. We were not too discouraged, though, and we kept playing for the fun of it. Those were some of the very best times of my youth.

What’s your daytime job, or the job that supports you, and how did you get involved in it?

While in my rock band, I, of course, continued my education, which involved completion of the undergraduate degree in Biology and a Master’s Degree in Taxonomy (a special discipline within biology). Simultaneously, I was doing research at my university in

the Microbiology lab starting as a sophomore. After coauthoring several articles in peer-reviewed science journals and having presented research results at multiple national and international conferences, and having earned a high GPA in my coursework, I received Fulbright Scholarship in 1987 to pursue graduate studies in the USA. So, I came here and earned my PhD from the University of Illinois at Chicago. After three productive postdoctoral stints and several adjunct teaching engagements, I landed a permanent teaching career in higher education. For the past 15 years I have been teaching as a full time faculty member Microbiology and Human Anatomy and Physiology at Oakland Community College in Waterford, MI. That’s my day job.

How would you describe the music that you normally create?

Musically, I would say it is a bit of a blend of rock, pop and folk, with some influence from the music of the Balkan Peninsula where I grew up. Lyrically, I am interested in delving into the social issues and bringing the elements of human condition that corrupt the possibilities of understanding, harmony, acceptance and mutualism in a society. Some of the themes evident in my songs include greed, racism, police brutality, abuse of women, homelessness and destruction of the environment. I am not shy to sing about these and, by doing so, implicitly ask my audience to think about these issues and contemplate how each of them can make this world a better place.

What is your creative process like?

Usually, I come up with a melody first. To me, a song is not a song unless it has a melody that is catchy and pleasant to the listening ear. Then, I decide what the song ought to be about. Next, I write any thoughts, lines, ideas, images that may come to my head – uncensored by my internal editor. Then, I begin to figure out how these writings — that are seemingly random, but all connected in some way—can be converted into the lines of the song. It helps if the lines rhyme, so I use a rhyming dictionary and also a thesaurus.

Which famous musicians do you admire and why?

There are too many to count. I’ve always loved music by ABBA as their songs are so beautiful and memorable. Of course, there are the timeless Beatles, Joni Mitchell, Peter Gabriel and hundreds of others such as the late Paco de Lucia, and a living legend of the Macedonian rock scene, an amazing guitarist Vlatko Stefanovski. Every one of them is a hard worker, passionate about their music, immensely creative and dedicated. I am also a huge fan of Jethro Tull and their leader Ian Anderson, and also of the British band Wishbone Ash. Both of those bands have had remarkably strong influence on my music writing.

What has been the biggest struggle you experienced in your music career?

I guess just finding enough time to pursue music, when at the same time I want to give the best of myself to my students and my family.

What is the best advice you’ve been given?

Just keep doing what you’re doing.

What advice would you give someone starting out as a musician or struggling as an established one?

Enjoy every moment of music and try to find enough time for songwriting, as songwriting takes time.

What’s next for you?

I currently play in three different bands — The Whistleblowers, Eastward Bound and The Byrds Tribute Band. I also perform in a duo form with my friends Bobby Pennock and Dan Hazlett. Once Covid-19 pandemic is fully brought to control, I will resume performing with those people as it gives me immense joy and happiness. I will also continue to give my students the best education I can to help prepare the for their further endeavors in health care.

Paul Manoian Photography

Dreaming into Reality Your Own Path

 

Over the years, Sharon Lee Samyn attended various speaking engagements where I talked about writing, healing, and transformation. She would approach me after the talk and share her desire to publish her first children’s book. Last year, she attended The Path of Consciousness, our yearly spiritual and writing retreat, and shortly after that, she set out to publish her first book, Thinker’s Dream: Dream to Find Your Path for Life. As I guided her through the process, I admired her tenacity, her confidence in herself, her belief that she can and will reach her goal. Her ability to dream into reality her own path and in the process inspire others to do the same. 

Sharon Lee Samyn2

I interviewed Sharon after her book was published. You can watch the video and read about her experience in this blogpost.

As a child, what did you want to do when you grew up? 
I dreamed of being an artist, clothing designer, seamstress, teacher, had so many different jobs that eventually led into a self-taught career as an interior designer with hands-on skills to create products for clients. Actually making window treatments, recovering furniture and more to personalize a unique look for each client.
When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer? 
Well, actually I wanted to write about my life about 15 years ago with the help of my husband for I thought he could help me to edit with his skill of writing in college. I really never thought that I could put all the right words together. I was always encouraging others to write.
How long did it take you to write your book? 
The writing took about a bit over a year and a half. My husband fell into a deep depression and I was trying to find ways to get him inspired to help me write this book. I began looking at all the paintings that I had painted for causes that were donated while ill with side effects from scoliosis surgery about 8 years prior. A story started coming to me with a positive message while looking deep into my art. Then the mission started and I knew that I had to write this book.
What is your book about and why did you choose this topic?
This book is about what I have done to control my fears and keep me focusing on ways to keep positive in difficult times. Also how I always motivated myself to keep the child in me alive throughout my entire life. I was always a dreamer and was curious asking questions to learn new things. I challenge myself to create new projects all the time to prevent depression. The message was clear I knew the time was now to write to show a way to inspire children and adults more than ever with the world as it is now. This book is about learning to love and care for all life including yourself. Caring for our water, air, trees, and so much more. To explore, learn, grow in life with having fun along the way to meet and connect with all to share kindness together for the hope of a better world.
What was your biggest challenge in writing this book? 
Finding a way to self publish to keep the cost low enough so many could afford to read and get this important message out.
What advice would you give the first-time author?
Find out about different writing groups to join, meeting other writers to learn what they have done. Go and research information at the libraries, online, and bookstores. Read a lot of books about writing. Visit bookstores to check out about the kind of book topic you want to write. Set a list of goals to keep motivated to write. Ask questions when you need advise. Set time to journal each day. Remember to have fun along the way by networking with people, sharing ideas to help others. But most of all never give up for when you complete any goal in life it will give you the greatest gift of all and that is the joy of accomplishment. Try going to writer retreats, get involved in storytelling, find a toastmaster group.
What do you do for a living and how do you find the time to write? 
Being self-employed since 1992 and semi-retired, I have been doing a bit of teaching in areas of upholstering, sewing. I create natural holistic products, networking to promote my current book, painting, research work also trying to reach out to help others find their light.
What does your family think of your writing?
At first, my husband showed a bit of interest and he helped me a lot to blend the right words together but he did not think it would get out there. I did a lot of work editing it on Shutterfly that was how I first published this book. I found that it was too costly. He lost interest but he did not know how determined I was to find a way to self publish on Amazon and IngramSpark to get the cost down to reach the children. My greatest gift was when I had seen my husband come back to a positive outlook right at the time my book was finally published on Amazon. That was a great day for me. The rest of my family have enjoyed seeing my 1st book out there and are excited for me to create my next book!
What was one of the most surprising things you learned in creating your book?
That I really have a voice and my writings have helped me to inspire others to keep moving forward to the positive light of love and how they can learn to care for their self as I have. I am so excited about how this creation came about and that I really opened up to challenge myself to open up to the world!
Are you working on a second book, and if so, what will that one be about?
I am working on another series of art to get another book started. I am seeing signs that are coming to me but the message is not yet there. Spring is on its way and that will bring a lot of inspiration when nature starts a new cycle I am excited!

Keeping up with the Chaldeans

Keeping Up with the Chaldeans is a podcast and vlog created and hosted by Junior Binno and Anthony Toma that highlights entrepreneurs within the Chaldean community. KUWTC was created to help strengthen the Chaldean community by showcasing the diversity of businesses, bringing recognition to those in our community who are unknown and driving support to one another. Each episode highlights a member of the community who shares their story, knowledge and expertise while showcasing their business ventures.

So you ask, who are the Chaldeans? They are an indigenous people from ancient Mesopotamia, otherwise known as the cradle of civilization and modern-day Iraq.  The history of Mesopotamia is measured in millennia rather than centuries. The first cities developed in the south around 3500 B.C. For the next 3,000 years, kingdoms rose and fell, empires expanded and contracted, outsiders conquered and were repelled. During this time, three dominant civilizations held center stage: the Sumerians (3500 – 2600 B.C.), the Babylonians/Chaldeans (1792-539 B.C.) and the Assyrians (1115-612 B.C.).

ziggurat

The city of Babylon inherited the culture of Sumer and under Hammurabi (1792-1750 B.C.) became the seat of a strong central government and a great cultural and religious center as well. In 612 B.C., Babylon was dominated by the Chaldeans (Neo-Babylonian Empire). The Chaldean king Nebuchadnezzar II rebuilt Babylon into the greatest city in the world. His most noted contribution is believed to be the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Mesopotamia is home of Enheduanna, the first recorded writer in history, the goddess Inanna and Ishtar.

Ishtar Gate
Original Ishtar Gate

Mesopotamians are known for a number of achievements, including inventing the wheel, the first to use writing, to establish a calendar which included 12 lunar months, observe and describe complex patterns in the motions of the heavens (astronomy), and to develop an irrigation system for agricultural purposes.

cuneiform

Chaldeans are among the many ethnic groups that have been immigrating to the United States since the early 1900s. They are Eastern Rite Catholics, Aramaic speaking, and originating primarily from Iraq. They have come to America for the same reasons as other immigrant groups – in search of better economic opportunities , as well as for religious and political freedoms. Over the years, due to wars and violence, their numbers in Iraq has dwindled and today, the largest concentration of Chaldeans live in Michigan.

By watching “Keeping up with the Chaldeans” viewers will get an inside, candid look into each entrepreneur and their journey to success, learn valuable information, gain knowledge about starting their own business and advice on overcoming obstacles others have faced.

Since its inception in May of 2019, KUWTC has shot nearly 100 episodes highlighting various industries from restaurant entrepreneurs, attorneys, musicians and performers, medical, skincare, nutrition, fashion and clothing, photography, auto sales, insurance, mortgage and more.

You can find Keeping Up with the Chaldeans on Youtube, Itunes, Spotify, Facebook and Instagram. Kuwtchaldeans.com

Keeping up with the Chaldeans3

Sacred Medicine for Body, Mind & Soul

Deborah Epstein is a visionary artist, shamanic practitioner, and body worker. She recently created a project called “Life is Art: Conscious Creativity Summit” which launched last month. We’d met on Facebook and were connected through shamanic teachings. She’d studied at the Heart of the Healer organization with don Oscar Miro-Quesada, an internationally acclaimed shamanic mentor, ceremonialist, healer, and author. He’s a kamasqa curandero and altomisayog adept from Peru and originator of Pachukuti Mesa Tradition cross-cultural shamanism.

Deborah created this free online summit by inviting 21 artists and healers whose focus is fostering creativity and imagination to be the impetus for folks to heal, find courage and purpose to create change in the world and ream a new planet into being. She felt this summit was in alignment with my message so she invited me to be one of the 21 panel of experts to add my expertise to this project. I was happy to say “Yes” because this was obviously a meaningful and life-changing project.

Deborah

After learning more about Deborah’s work, particularly her art, I decided to interview her on my show so others can discover it as well. Deborah has been making unique bodies of work inspired by her journey as a healer and a client of many varied alternative healing modalities. Her passion for healing and creative expression are the basis of the work found here at Deborah Epstein Studio. Using a variety of media, Deborah explores topics such as:  healing physical and emotional pain, the nature of the fascial system which is a weblike structure connecting all other structures and systems in the body, and the fractal nature of the universe.  As a shamanic practitioner,  her recent work explores non-ordinary states of reality that have a dream-like quality to them and also have initiatory “light codes” within them. Light codes are symbols that are a language of light from the heart that are channeled from source for healing the relationship between humans and the Earth Mother.

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EMBODY WORK

WHAT is it?

Embody work is a blend of modalities that addresses body, self, soul, and spirit. Barnes’ Myofascial Release, Craniosacral Therapy, Core Belief Work,  Reiki, Expressive Art, and Peruvian Shamanism are used in combination to achieve embodiment, healing, and deep connection to one self and all that is.

HOW

The client and practitioner understand that they are in partnership with one another and work together to bring the body, self, and soul into harmony and balance with one another. Utilizing the container of the Mesa and employing energy work, Cranioscacral, MFR, and creative expressive practices and exercises, a safe space is created for expressing, imagining, and creating health in the body.

WHY

There are many reasons for a disconnection or disassociation from the  body. We can also be connected to the body and disconnected at the same time. Pain or trauma, whether it is emotional or physical is a major factor and “being out of our body” becomes a subconscious pattern. 

As our world is changing and evolving, our soul grows and the body needs to “catch-up”. Embody work helps to integrate the changes that occur as our soul grows and evolves. Our body is our connection to the earth and we need to be in it in a functional, healthy way. Embody work helps to build connection to the body, self, soul, and all that is.

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Deborah offers the sacred medicine Journey, a 30 hour experiential program that combines hands-on bodywork, creative expression and shamanic ceremonial practices to  clarify intention, open channels of creation, release pain and dysfunction, and create easy to adopt rituals to sustain peace, quiet the mind, increase creativity and flow in life.

For more information about Deborah’s work, visit https://deborahepsteinstudio.com/

The Blessings of Taking Care of Our Elderly

The most rewarding and precious work I’ve ever done was taking care of my mom. I was sad when last year this time, I no longer had that work. She went to rest in God’s hands, to enjoy all that heaven has to offer, and I’ve thanked her daily for the blessings she brought to our home since she moved in with us.

My mother spent the last five years of her life living in my home. She had dementia and was bound to a wheelchair and taking care of her was challenging, but it was also a huge blessing. The memories and teachings she left behind helped me understand why Chaldean family and friends always said to me in our native Aramaic tongue, “Ittagh edjal” which translates to something close to “You have points in heaven.”

I brought my mom into our home for numerous reason, the major one being that I wanted her to be surrounded by the thing that was most dear to her – her family. I wanted her to leave this earth feeling loved and wanted. I also wanted my children to get to better know their grandmother and for them to learn compassion – not through books and other intellectual ways that have no real substance, but through experience. 

Mom with angels

That’s why after I learned about Manish Patel’s book, I invited him on my show. He wrote Second Childhood, which talks about the importance of taking care of the elderly, especially our parents. Manish was driving from his home to his office on one of the most beautiful sunny days. At the time, he was so busy with his work and family life that he didn’t make time to write, even though his mind was full of thoughts about Second Childhood. Instead of trying to find time to write, he decided to record his thoughts while driving.

While driving that day, Manish discovered the true meaning of the word “Parent.” He heard a whisper from, and was thankful to, God to learn that the word symbolized our duty to “pay rent.” He writes in his book, “We never forget to pay rent for our house, office or other services, so how can we forget to pay the most important rent to our parents? Like other collection agencies, God is the highest special collection agency. Rent can be paid in the form of respect and love.” 

Chapter after chapter, Manish shows the importance of us looking at what really matters and not getting lost in our busy daily lives. He reminds us that if we fall short of interaction within a circle, we no longer are part of a circle. At some point, without attention, our circles and cycles are broken and compromised. He warns, “Let’s not reach a point where we have to say, If only I gave a little more effort, if only I tried harder, things would have been better. If only I paid more attention when I needed to…”

Taking my mother into our home was one of the best decisions I made. She and I learned so much from each other those last five years. We served one another, each in our own special ways. My conscious is at rest. I am at peace as I continue my relationship with her in Spirit and as I enjoy those “points in heaven” here on earth. 

The Art of Living on Purpose

Satori is a Buddhist term that references Sudden Enlightenment. It’s a term that Detroit-based artist Nina Caruso uses in her coaching platform SatoriShift: the art of living on purpose. Nina’s work spans many mediums but her primary focus has been abstract encaustic and oil painting as well as mixed medium sculpture.

Nina has 20 years of teaching experience working with students from Pre-K to senior citizens. She currently shares her love of art while teaching senior adults and adults with disabilities and other challenges. She believes that all forms of art are a response to our existence and are best expressed through exploration, play and curiosity.

As a Whole Life Healing Coach, she uses art as a means to help others to explore, express and expand. Through her SatoriShift platform, Nina facilitates a variety of holistic modalities including art, yoga, diet, self-care, and mediation to infuse and unfold conscious purpose into the lives of individuals, communities, and organizations.

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Q: What type of healing work do you do?

I work with individuals or groups to bring to light and expand upon their specific or united purpose.

Q: How do you incorporate holistic healing into your artwork?

I consider each person holistically. I look for instability and offer methods to restore balance through a variety of holistic modalities including art, yoga, nutrition, brain health, self care, mindfulness, intuition and meditation.

Q: What makes your work different from other healing work?

I believe that we all have purposeful work to accomplish while we are here. Our mission is innate within us whether we know it or not. Often anxiety and discomfort may arise within us if we are not in tune and true to ourselves. I serve as a guide to assist in bringing clarity and tools in support of manifesting one’s purpose. Satori is a Buddhist term that references Sudden Enlightenment. Making the shift to sudden enlightenment is truly living with purpose. It is through this platform that I provide creative coaching through process based art experiences and conscious healthy living choices.

Q: On your website, you address five healing aspects. Can you describe each one:

These are suggested offerings of the creative coaching that I offer. One may choose from this menu or I can create a unique recipe in support of my individual clients needs. These menu items can be expanded upon or combined for a greater impact.

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* Shining in to Shine Out

Sankalpa painting is a meditation on canvas. Where one can explore the pathway to self through this meditative painting approach. Through this process you will find yourself in the space where your head and your heart are in agreement while helping to restore focus and harmony in your world. Group or individual offerings are available.

* Celebrating Identity

This is an opportunity to explore and celebrate group or individual identity and purpose through artful means. Through this practice you will unleash your authentic self in order to live your passion. You will explore, express, and expand while inspiring others to do the same.

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* Take Good Care

This is all about self care. Clearing any obstacles that are in the way from being healthy in body, mind and spirit is key to living on purpose. I work together with my client to position them in a place where their head and heart are aligned with the direction that they are taking. This can be acquired through having awareness of self care and what that means personally for an individual or organization. Together we will explore creative options to support individual or group well being.

* The Power of Story

Because our stories are so powerful it is important to be aware of them and make sure that they are servicing us along our path and not sabatoshing us. In this practice we will explore, create and manifest your story through artistic modalities. Your story is exactly that; yours to edit and rewrite according to your purpose. Let’s explore your story together making sure that your head and heart are aligned, we will omit any fear or lack and colorfully illustrate the pages with love and abundance.

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* Be the Change

This is a practice in social justice. Art is and has always been a visual language. It has the ability to deliver messages on a soul level. What shift would you like to see in this world? Here we will join together in bringing your message to light.

* Creating Community

Art unites communities. We can work together as individuals, families, organizations, or whole communities to create personalized artful offerings to foster unity. Allow SatroiShift to assist you in creating unity within your community

* Placemaking

Placemaking is a powerful way to explore how art and artful practice can enliven your world. Through Placemaking we create a sense of place within a community or personal space through artful expression. Arts based placemaking manifests in many forms. It may be site specific permanent or temporary art in public and private spaces or present as site specific events all fostering artistic movement creating culture within our lives.

For more information, visit www.ninacaruso.com

Mastering the Craft of Writing

I interviewed Barbara J. Rebbeck on my show and for this article about her novel, teaching, and mastering the craft of writing. She has quite a bit of wisdom to share!

Barbara J. Rebbeck  is a teacher, consultant and author who holds degrees from Eastern Michigan University and Oakland University in English, French, and the teaching of gifted and talented students. She has published poetry, essay and professional articles. She is currently a writer-in-residence for the Beverly Hills Academy and a member of Detroit Working Writers (DWW).

Barbara’s father was born in England so she loves to visit there to see lots of theater and her British relatives. The WWII romance of her mom and dad is the basis for her second novel, The Girl from the USO.  Her first novel is Nola Gals, a tale of Hurricane Katrina, which was a semi-finalist for the Kindle Book Award and a finalist for the IAN Award. It also won bronze medals from Readers Favorites and Moonbeam and has been adopted in several school districts.

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When did you decide to be a writer?

I never really decided, it just happened. I was fortunate enough to have a fourth-grade teacher, Miss Lillian Downes who was a drama teacher placed back in the classroom due to budget cuts. She picked up on my early scribblings and gave me free reign to write and produce little plays all year long. I expanded my audience to the neighborhood and worked on plays there, too, using my family and neighbor kids as cast and set designers.

When I moved on to junior high, I had the legendary, Mrs. Vestal Hartwig, a gentile southern lady for English, American History, and Homeroom for grades 7-9. Every week on Friday she would give us a topic for our composition due Monday. That Friday she would read what she considered to be the best of show, so to speak. I was honored to have many pieces read. For those three years, I was also editor of the “Lincoln Leader.” I still get a kick out of the blast from the past I feel when I read these newsletters.  She also had us do a term paper each semester. Our last year with her we wrote career books on our future professions.

By the time I left her classroom, I knew I wanted to be an English teacher. I still have that career book. The front and back cover are two real slates. My dad painted the title, School Daze which sat above the lush red apple he added. Vestal Hartwig was a superb teacher. In fact, when I wrote my master thesis years later, I sent her a copy, saying I had all the skills I needed to write it before I moved to the high school.

What inspired you to write NOLA Gals?

Like many Americans, I was stunned with the vehemence that Hurricane Katrina drowned the city of New Orleans. Even worse was the incompetence on all levels as city, state and federal resources all failed. I wanted to write the fictionalized story for teens to read so it was not forgotten. As I wrote, I felt the novel deepen as I wove in the importance of reading by having my two teens, Essence and Grace read To Kill a Mockingbird. From the classic, they learned powerful lessons of survival.

What influence does your British background have on your writing?

My father came to this country as an RAF cadet in 1943. Not many people know that pilots were sent here and to Canada for flight training to avoid the German bombardments during the war. He met my mother, a USO hostess, and they married six months later in 1943. So, I grew up leading a double life. One of my earliest memories was getting up at dawn to watch the film of the coronation of Elizabeth II. Another memory was having my poor petite friend who lived down the street, pull me in the stake wagon around the neighborhood. I was the Queen, waving to the crowds. The biggest influence on me has been the rich heritage of British literature, including their enthralling theatre.

When I began to visit my British relatives in the UK, I discovered that nothing could beat an evening in the stalls in a London theatre. The warm welcome I always received from my dad’s brother, Ron and my aunt Jean on my visits added to my British heritage. I was able to experience family life and hear all sorts of accents and expressions on frequent visits. I loved every minute of my time in London, but also the trips outside to the beautiful countryside. A few years back I visited Highclere Castle where Downton Abbey was filmed. My record for seeing plays on a trip was 9 plays in 10 days, by the way.

When I wrote a play adaptation of NOLA Gals called Turbulence, I knew exactly how I wanted it to look to teens. I also write fiction as a play in my head. I visualize all my characters waking about, talking. Sometimes I act out the scenes to see if the actions make sense with just my cat as the audience. My British background and WII play a huge part in my new literary suspense novel, The Girl from the USO. My parents’ meeting and whirlwind courtship in Detroit form the basis for the beginnings of the novel. Then it veers away as the plot thickens like clotted cream in Cornwall, England. Fingers crossed as I have a couple publishers interested in the novel. My mother’s heritage was French which set up a triple allegiance for me and resulted in my undergrad degree in French and English and my advanced degree in French.

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What has been your experience teaching at Beverly Hills Academy?

I began their several years ago as a volunteer writer-in residence working in the middle school with teacher, Sara Coyle. The first year I worked just with her 8th graders when they read both To Kill a Mockingbird and then NOLA Gals. We worked on the writing technique of extended metaphor which I use in my novel to describe Hurricane Katrina as an angry teen. From that year I began to extend my work to the 7th grade working with memoir writing and then the 6th grade working with poetry. Along the way we began to produce an annual collection of student work. Mrs. Coyle and I always included pieces of our own writing. We dove deeply for family tales and heroes, making these anthologies powerful works of art. This year I cut back on my visits to give me more time to work on finding a publisher for my new novel. I will be back in March to work with this year’s 8th Hopefully, they’ll be able to read aloud Turbulence just as the 4th graders back in the 50s read my childhood plays. It has been a rewarding experience to work with students at the Beverly Hills Academy as well as Waterford, Hazel Park, and the Academy of the Sacred Heart. There can be no better review of a book than a 6th grade boy telling the class, he had never had a book make him feel so deeply.

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What other authors are you friends with, and how do they help you become a better writer?

Writers are a strange bunch. Myself, I’ve always been a solitary writer during the process. In the last few years I have joined two groups, the Detroit Working Writers and Sisters in Crime. In education, I was respected and held some important post including such as President of the Michigan Council of Teachers of English and Director of the Oakland Writing Project. I was also the language arts consultant for all the districts in Oakland County. The transition to author was a rough one. I published with a small press and definitely found a bias against my poor NOLA Gals. Things are getting better though. Among my author friends are Anne Marie Oomen who I’ve known for years as my teacher. She was kind enough to write a review for NPR for my novel. Terry Blackhawk is a goddess as a poet and a rare teacher and human being. Reading her books is always an inspiration. New friends are Cindy Harrison who unselfishly pointed me to her own publisher and the other Sisters in Crime, and Roberta Brown who has let me write a program for three nights of DWW authors reading their works next spring. And Weam Namou is a gem of a new friend. Thank you for this opportunity, Weam. 

If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?

Watch for the scam artists or unethical publishers out there. Don’t be so desperate to publish. You will lose friends and make friends on your journey. Learning whom to trust is tricky. There is more than one way to skin a literary cat. It took me five years to find a publisher for my first novel. I regret that choice. Study the market, and go to lots of conferences. It’s a business.

How did publishing your first book change your process of writing?

I don’t think it changed it much. What changed it was working with so many kids in schools and sharing my writing with them along the way. As models for their own writing. I found a freedom in that process.

What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?

I have to return to that dimly-lit living room when I was an entranced 5-year old watching the coronation of Elizabeth II on TV. The film had been developed on the plane bringing it to the states for broadcast, my dad told us. Although never a royalist, he made sure we were up impossibly early that June morning. The regal clothes and jewels, the Latin words, the hymns. I was ready to swear allegiance as Prince Philip did that day. “Vivat, Vivat, Regina.” Yes, indeed, I was hooked on pomp and circumstance. Words had power.

What’s the best way to market your book?

“No reason to market a book. If it’s good, it’ll sell itself.” Thus spake my first publisher. Wrong, wrong, wrong. You have to have a strong social media platform and so should your publisher. Join writing groups and get advice. Rochester Writers did an entire conference on self-publishing last spring. Explore what fits your work. One thing I did for my YA novel was to set up a website (with my nephew’s help) that offered all sorts of ideas for the writing teacher and classroom based on writing samples and photos of my work in classes. (Thanks, Sara.) I wrote an article in a local magazine that got me into Hazel Park schools. (Thanks, Toby.) I reached back to teachers I knew from the Oakland Writing Project to see if I could work with them. (Thanks, Sandy.) For my next book, the number one thing I’m looking for in a publisher is a solid marketing plan. Oh, and someone who will communicate with me, too.

What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?

I love research. For NOLA Gals I did about a year’s research. I handwrite notes in a large notebook, I share with kids. I had two crates of books, articles, CDs, and DVDs by the time I was done. I also kept a journal with sketches of “sets” from the scenes in my heads, the ones I acted out for my cat. I reread To Kill a Mockingbird My copy is covered with post-its I used to decide what quotes or scenes to refer to. For my second novel set in WII, The Girl from the USO, I ended up with two journals of notes on my research, and again two crates of media and novels. The classic literary suspense novel, Rebecca forms the basis for this novel. The heroine loves that novel and yearns for that passion in her life. I had to coordinate all the dates to decide on the year of their novel. I opted for 1941, the year Rebecca won the Oscar. I found a classic DVD of the film that also included a Lux Radio Theatre play that aired in February, 1941. It is a marvelous piece of quaint history, including the original ads for Lux soap and a Gone with the Wind brooch. A bargain at 35 cents. This research took about 6 months. I had a great deal of family history to write from. For instance, I knew my parents’ first date had been a concert by Evelyn and her Violins. Okay, so now I had to figure out which theatre in Detroit that concert might have occurred and what music they had played. It’s like a cat and mouse chase. One step leads to another. A big help for the second half of the book were my trips to Cornwall over the years, too.

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What are common traps for aspiring writers?

Early on when I first started writing poetry, I submitted my pages for a critique from poet, Naomi Long Madgett at an Oakland University Conference. I was brave, and she was kind. She gave me advise I will repeat and have done so often. She wrote on my pages that I did have talent, but I needed to learn my craft. Got that? Learn your craft. The best way to do this is read everything you can get your hands on in your genres. In the last year while writing suspense, I reread Rebecca, sticking it up with post-its. My novel begins with a poem from that novel. In question #5 above you asked about authors as friends. In the past year, I have been in touch on twitter with my new well-known suspense authors, Ruth Ware, Clare MacKintosh, and AJ Finn. Just casual, but reassuring tweets. Finn’s The Woman in the Window that I read half way through writing my novel, gave me confidence I was headed in the right direction.  Suspense needs twists that the author won’t see coming. You have to stay ahead of the reader. Teachers are everywhere.

What is the most difficult part of your artistic process?

Deciding when the book is finished. I think it’s all wrapped up. After all, I’m submitting it. But then I’ll be watching a British TV show and suddenly a character comes out with an expression such as “getting a leg over,” a euphemism for having sex, and my author mind kicks in. I have got to include that in my book. It’s a perfect phrase for my pilot to use. So I’m off, taking hours to skim the ms. and find the exact position for him to sling that phrase. I wasn’t finished after all.

Do you believe in Writer’s Block?

I believe that the “writing process” has become so entrenched in schools and in writers’ minds that it has become a dogma. Everyone writes in their own style. I’m sitting here on my couch, still in my robe at 1:20 pm on a snowy day. Did I write anything yesterday? Or the day before? No. But I do have a draft of a memoir piece to type. I’ll get to it. I’ll never have Writer’s Block. It doesn’t exist for me. Go easy on yourself. And teachers, if you have a student who doesn’t need to do pre-writing activities, let it go. Start the story.

If you are interested in student work and Ideas for the Classroom, Barbara Rebbeck’s website is http://www.nolagals.com

#BRebbeck and Facebook.

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The True Path of Consciousness

Sometimes Spirit gives us a little nudge and sometimes spirit gives us a big nudge when we are not following the true path of consciousness. I moved through my blocks in an unusual way for me. Along the way I found something that could lead me into living a more fulfilling life on all levels, especially helping me with my writing career. I found the four-year Mystery School, led by New York Times bestselling author and mystic Lynn V. Andrews. Eight years later, I’m still closely involved with Lynn’s teachings.

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Teri Williams interviewed me recently on her show Soulful Living about my experience in Lynn’s school.  Some clients describe Teri as a “Shaman for business.” She also works as a Reiki Master and Shamanic Practitioner assisting others to release and shift that which no longer serves their highest good. That’s why she invited me on her show. She realizes the importance of these teachings which have transformed my life so much that I’ve created an opportunity where others can do the same through the Path of Consciousness, a spiritual and writing conference and retreat which takes place during the first week of October.

The Path of Consciousness is an idea born from a little spiritual hideaway in the Riviera Maya, Mexico where shamans perform a Mayan ceremony using a Temazcal steam bath. This relaxing mystical old-age rite is good for the soul and mixes a spiritual journey with an encounter with the basic elements of our planet: water, fire, earth, and wind.

Similarly to the Temazcal steam bath in the Riviera Maya, this community is about reconnecting to our inner power, healing and transforming ourselves, and creating a better world for our families and communities.

A number of medical schools such as Columbia University now have Narrative Medicine master’s program, recognizing the power that practices such as the art of storytelling provides for people to heal and grow.

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https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/the-path-of-consciousness-with-weam-namou/id648639542?i=1000450909380

To learn more about the retreat, visit http://www.ThePathofConsciousness.com