Underneath It All

* Last updated April 28, 2022

I have sensitive skin. Always have. It’s been prone to redness, dryness, itching, rashes, eczema, even wrinkling. Products that were labeled “hypoallergenic” or marketed toward “sensitive skin” didn’t seem to help (newsflash: those are just labels that get slapped on products; they’re essentially meaningless as what is a sensitivity for one person may not be for another). I’ve done tons of research on skin care products and their ingredients—the benefits, cons, hype, and total b.s.—and tried tons of them too. I don’t even want to guess at the amount of money I’ve wasted in this quest to just stop the skin problems. It’s taken years to finally solve the mystery and most of the detective work was done by me. What I’ve learned from this journey is that, underneath it all, it really does matter what you put on your skin (not to mention into your body in general).

Several years ago, I had a very bad reaction after eating dinner at a Mexican restaurant where I’d consumed way more guacamole than usual. My entire body swelled up and broke out in hives. Still, because I’d had guacamole before, I didn’t realize right away that avocado might be the culprit. It wasn’t until I had a less severe reaction twice in a row after eating my own guacamole that I figured avocado could be the cause. After that, I omitted everything containing avocado and avocado oil, including some hair products that contained it. My scalp eczema cleared up some but my problems persisted.

As has seemed to be the theme with most of my health issues, I had to be my own advocate in order to break the endless cycle of useless “treatments” that weren’t actually addressing the real cause or solving my problems. I found that dermatologists and other doctors weren’t really interested in figuring out the underlying causes of my skin problems; they just gave me various creams or ointments to treat the symptoms (some of which only exacerbated the problem). Unfortunately, I’ve found this to be a common theme among medical professionals. If I wanted to know once and for all what I was allergic to so that I could finally, actually treat my allergies or, at the very least, avoid the things causing them, then I was going to have to take matters into my own hands. So, this past year, I asked my primary care doctor to recommend an allergist so that I could get tested.

I had a prick test for environmental allergens that was enlightening (I’m primarily allergic to indoor allergies like dust mites and molds but also have minor allergies to a host of other outdoor trees and plants). The patch test for contact allergies was what I was most interested in, though, given that contact allergies were the cause of all of my skin problems. The results were a surprise as they didn’t turn up anything that had been a suspected cause (no fragrances or oils). I was already aware of my nickel allergy since every time I wore jewelry that wasn’t sterling silver or pure gold, I ended up with a really bad rash (my ears used to get really itchy, red, and swollen from certain earrings).

It did, however, show a common cleansing agent as one of the things I was sensitive to. That ingredient was decyl glucoside, which just happened to be in all of our soaps, my body wash, and my facial cleanser. Incidentally, decyl glucoside is a known allergen (quite a common one), yet it’s used in a tremendous number of personal care products marketed toward “sensitive” skin as well as products that are supposedly “hypoallergenic” (again, those labels are basically meaningless and the use of those terms isn’t regulated). I eliminated products that contained this ingredient from my routine, but my skin problems still persisted, so I played detective again and researched the ingredients in that specific cleanser. What I discovered is that decyl glucoside and similar related ingredients are made from coconut, which led me to wonder if coconut might be the real underlying problem. I did a little experiment; I began to remove items from my personal care regimen that I knew contained coconut to see if my skin improved. Lo and behold, it did. I mentioned this to my allergist and asked if I could be tested for a coconut allergy. They had a prick test for coconut and when I took it, we saw an allergic reaction almost immediately. The doctor marveled at how I’d come to suspect that coconut was the culprit, but I didn’t see anything awe-inspiring about my sleuthing. There was a mystery to be solved and I was determined to solve it. Period.

Once we identified the coconut contact allergy, then I began the arduous task of removing everything I was putting on my body that contained coconut, coconut oil, or ingredients that were derived from coconut. Well, guess what—that’s almost everything that goes into personal care products. Practically all cleansing agents/surfactants in soaps, shampoos, body washes, and even toothpastes come from coconut. A large portion of ingredients in lotions, creams, and serums do as well. An ingredient doesn’t have to literally have “coconut” or “coconut oil,” or even “coco” in the name to originate with coconut; things like vegetable glycerin, glycerides, and stearic acid are made from coconuts.

I’ve been going through a process of trial and error to find coconut-free products that work for me. Switching to olive oil hand soap has made a huge difference for me (no more chapped hands or itchy, red, flaky skin under my rings!). So far, I have found only one toothpaste that doesn’t have a coconut-derived cleanser or coconut oil in it (Weleda ratahnia); unfortunately, it also doesn’t have fluoride, so I’ve been using ACT mouthwash as well. I’ve listed below the products that are now in my regimen in case others like me have this rare allergy and are also seeking relief.

Homemade body butter and sea salt spray

I’ve been making a couple of homemade products for myself as they’re pretty easy to create, help me to save a little money, and I haven’t been able to find anything that I like better. I used to make my own flax seed hair gel, but it required refrigeration, meaning it wasn’t portable, and a batch only lasted about a week, which seemed such a waste since I’d barely get halfway through a bottle/jar in that time. I recently switched over to making my own sea salt spray for my hair and have been making my own body butter ever since I suspected the coconut allergy. Recipes for both of those products are below.

Sea Salt Spray for Hair

Makes 8 oz.


  • 1 cup water
  • 2 Tbsp sea salt
  • 2 Tbsp organic aloe vera gel
  • 1 tsp almond oil (you can use whatever oil you like or any combination you choose: sunflower, castor, marula, argan, etc. based on your own preferences, hair types, and allergies)
  • Optional: 20 drops of essential oil for fragrance


  1. Boil the water in a pot on the stove
  2. Once boiling, remove from heat
  3. Add the salt, stirring until dissolved
  4. Allow to cool, then add the aloe and oil(s)
  5. Pour into a spray bottle

For best results, shake your bottle of sea salt spray well before applying, so as to mix up the ingredients and avoid getting oily patches in your hair.

Body Butter

Makes 16 oz.


  • 1/2 cup beeswax
  • 1/2 cup cocoa butter
  • 1/2 cup sunflower oil
  • 1/2 cup almond oil
  • 2 tsp arrowroot powder
  • Optional: essential oil/fragrance oil


  1. Combine the beeswax and cocoa butter in a large bowl
  2. Melt them on the stove using a double boiler or in the microwave
  3. Remove from heat and whisk in your other ingredients
  4. Allow mixture to cool and then refrigerate for at least 1-2 hours
  5. Remove from fridge and whip the mixture using a hand mixer until it becomes creamy (it will look similar to whipped cream)
  6. Spoon into an airtight container and avoid adding water

Note that coconut is not a tree nut, despite being grouped with tree nuts in terms of allergens, and I do not have any known allergies to tree nuts, hence the inclusion of them in my body butter. However, if you do have allergies to tree nuts, then please do not make this recipe. Instead, substitute other ingredients that will work for you and your specific skin needs. If you’re not a fan of cocoa butter, the smell does dissipate once applied, but you can easily disguise it by adding fragrance or substituting a different ingredient. The body butter should be stored in a cool, dry place away from heat or it will melt (this happened to me on a trip over the summer).

In addition to the two products that I make for myself, there are also several products that I buy because, frankly, I don’t have the time, energy, or inclination to make them myself. That list follows and I will continue to update it as I find my “Holy Grail” products.

OOlivia has become one of my favorite indie shops because they have a convenient “coconut-free” option. Gabriel Cosmetics also offers an extensive ingredient list on their site including a catalog of all coconut-free products.


  • HAIR. Aside from my sea salt spray, I’ve been using True Love Soap Company’s shampoo and conditioner bars which are made for people with coconut allergies. Jayne’s honey, calendula, & meadowfoam shampoo bar and honey & silk conditioner bar are a match made in heaven for my curly hair. Her products and my sea salt spray are the only three things I put in my hair.
  • FACE. I’m currently using Gabriel Cosmetics hydrating cleanser and Desert Essence moringa, jojoba, and rose hip oil (unfortunately, I still seem to have some texture issues and occasional dryness or breakouts but this is the best I can find for now). The best lip balm I could find is Badger cocoa butter lip balm. I also really like their sunscreen, which doesn’t leave a white cast on skin and moisturizes without feeling too sticky or mask-like. Once a week, I use Oolivia’s matcha facial polish.
  • BODY. I have been cleansing with Clean Kids Naturally watermelon bubble bath from Gabriel Cosmetics. It’s coconut-free and works fabulously as a body wash. For SPF/sun protection, I’ve tried a Kiss My Face coconut-free sunscreen, but I wish Badger made theirs in a larger size because it’s much more moisturizing and doesn’t have a weird smell. My absolute favorite body product apart from my homemade body butter is now OOliva’s coconut-oil-free deodorant. It is hands-down the best! It’s unscented but keeps BO at bay even through interval workouts and the lack of fragrance means it doesn’t interfere with the perfume that I wear.

You’ll note that all of the products listed here are organic and/or cruelty-free, and many are made by small business owners because, yes, that matters to me almost as much as what I put onto and into my body. I am SO glad that I did my research and advocated for myself and my health, but most importantly, I’m delighted to be getting closer to living in happy skin because of it!


Here Comes the Sun

Here comes the sun
And I say it's all right
— George Harrison

Today is the first day of spring where I live. Phoenix that I am, I cannot help loving the symbolism of renewal and rebirth inherent in spring. This morning, however, I was feeling decidedly un-rejuvenated. I was thinking about the story I’m currently writing and how my guides have been signaling to me for months now that I should be writing about empathy and love, but I was saying, “That’s boring; I don’t want to write that shit and nobody wants to read that either.” Well clearly I’m full of shit because last week in a freewriting session, I ended up writing several pages all about one character’s love for another and it moved me to tears. I thought that this piece was backstory, but my guides told me outright in yesterday’s meditation to “write love” and I realized that what I’d come up with is actually the very heart of my story. Despite this, today when I was thinking again about this character, I was annoyed with myself for giving him a huge piece of myself, namely empathy and his capacity to feel things so intensely and to love so strongly.

When I sat down to meditate this afternoon, I felt Isis’s presence (a warmth that envelops me like being wrapped lovingly in an invisible blanket) and the message that I came away with in this session was essentially that what I have always deemed to be a curse—my intense empathy, the ability to feel others’ emotions—could actually be my greatest strength if I learn how to manage it and use it to help others instead of running from it or trying to shut it off. I will certainly need to develop a stronger “emotional armor,” so to speak, to protect myself from that onslaught of emotional energy and to be ever cognizant that others’ emotions are not mine even though I feel them as if they are.

How fitting that this realization comes today with the onset of spring. This is the next phase of my spiritual journey, I think—to embrace that empathy in myself and in my writing as well. No more hiding in the shadows; I have to let my true self shine. It’s a scary thought, I admit, but I have to trust that my guides will help me through it.


The Rising

Yesterday, I spent some time revamping my yoga routines and associated playlists. In a previous post, I wrote about how I was inspired by Anodea Judith’s Chakra Yoga to create custom routines focused on each of the seven major chakras based on her suggested sequences. I expanded my routines by adding Judith’s kundalini chakra breathing exercises to the beginning of each one and increasing the times holding poses so that each one is now roughly 40 minutes. This morning was the first that I practiced one of the revised routines (anahata, heart chakra) and I was pleased with the result. It feels more wholistic to me—an exercise for mind, body, and spirit—which is exactly what I was going for. If you’re curious about the routines themselves, I highly recommend investing in Judith’s book as well as the precursor, Wheels of Life, a guide to the chakra system in general. My custom playlists for each chakra are listed below in case anyone is curious about those. The idea to create them came to me when I wrote that the yoga instructor character in my book played pop music during her classes instead of “traditional” yoga/meditation music. So, essentially, her classes are based off of Chakra Yoga and the music she plays during those are these playlists that I made.

Muladhara, Root Chakra: The Ground Beneath Her Feet

  1. “The Ground Beneath Her Feet” by U2
  2. “Stand” by R.E.M.
  3. “Dig Down” (Acoustic Gospel Version) by Muse
  4. “And She Was” by Talking Heads
  5. “I’m a Mother” by the Pretenders
  6. “Gimme Shelter” by the Rolling Stones
  7. “Body Electric” by Lana Del Rey
  8. “Shelter From the Storm” by Bob Dylan
  9. “A Letter to Fear” by Fantastic Negrito
  10. “Stand by Me” by Ben E. King

Svadhistahana, Sacral Chakra: Hooked On a Feeling

  1. “Hooked On a Feeling” by Blue Swede
  2. “Feeling Good” by Nina Simone
  3. “I’ve Got a Feeling” by the Beatles
  4. “Turn Me On” by Norah Jones
  5. “Undisclosed Desires” by Muse
  6. “Desire” by U2
  7. “Because the Night” by Patti Smith Group
  8. “Night in My Veins” by the Pretenders
  9. “Faith” by George Michael
  10. “Burning Desire” by Lana Del Rey
  11. “Sweet Emotion” by Aerosmith
  12. “Crimson and Clover” by Joan Jett & the Blackhearts

Manipura, Solar Plexus Chakra: Light My Fire

  1. “Light My Fire” by the Doors
  2. “Here I Go Again” by Whitesnake
  3. “Beast of Burden” by the Rolling Stones
  4. “Into the Fire” by Sarah McLachlan
  5. “Don’t Stop Me Now” by Queen
  6. “Army of Me” by Björk
  7. “Mirror Master” by Young the Giant
  8. “(You Will) Set the World On Fire” by David Bowie
  9. “Uprising” by Muse

Anahata, Heart Chakra: Open Your Heart

  1. “Open Your Heart” by Madonna
  2. “What Is Life” by George Harrison
  3. “Between Two Lungs” by Florence + the Machine
  4. “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding” by Elvis Costello & the Attractions
  5. “Tenderness” by General Public
  6. “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher & Higher” by Jackie Wilson
  7. “Breathe (In the Air)” by Pink Floyd
  8. “True Colors” by Cyndi Lauper
  9. “Somebody to Love” by Queen
  10. “Love Is What You Need” by the Clarks

Visuddha, Throat Chakra: Good Vibrations

  1. “Good Vibrations” by the Beach Boys
  2. “If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out” by Cat Stevens
  3. “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” by R.E.M.
  4. “High Fidelity” by Elvis Costello & the Attractions
  5. “Silence Is Golden” by Garbage
  6. “Cosmic Dancer” by T. Rex
  7. “Silent All These Years” by Tori Amos
  8. “Stop Whispering” by Radiohead
  9. “Drawn to the Rhythm” by Sarah McLachlan
  10. “Enjoy the Silence” by Depeche Mode

Ajña, Third-Eye Chakra: Beginning to See the Light

  1. “Beginning to See the Light” by the Velvet Underground
  2. “Digital Witness” by St. Vincent
  3. “I Can See Clearly Now” by Johnny Nash
  4. “Cosmic Love” by Florence + the Machine
  5. “Disillusioned” by A Perfect Circle
  6. “Light My Way” by Audioslave
  7. “Let It Be” by the Beatles
  8. “So Tonight That I Might See” by Mazzy Star

Sahasrara, Crown Chakra: Higher Love

  1. “Higher Love” by Steve Winwood
  2. “Kyrie” by Mister Mister
  3. “Like a Prayer” by Madonna
  4. “Say Hello 2 Heaven” by Temple of the Dog
  5. “My Sweet Lord” by George Harrison
  6. “One” by U2
  7. “Higher” by Creed


It’s been a while since I’ve taken a walk in the nature preserve near my neighborhood, so today, I did just that. There was no one along the length of the paved path when I arrived and the rays of sunlight shone through the trees like a beacon.

I decided to take the pond trail loop this time, wondering if there’d actually be a pond now. There was no one else on that path either, at least, no human, and as I strolled along, the only sound apart from my footfalls and the crunch of dead leaves beneath my shoes was the occasional gust of chill wind rustling through the trees. Less often, I heard the chirp or call of birds.

I’d been walking for maybe ten minutes when off to my right, a little ways off the trail, I noticed a sign that warned: Danger! You are no longer on the path. Turn back! Part of me was tempted to venture into that forbidden territory, but today didn’t seem like a good day to get lost, so I smiled to myself and kept to the path. Some water had collected in the depression among the leaf-covered ground, after all, I saw, when I neared the pond site, though not much; its depth was surely no more than a few feet at most.

I walked on, past fallen trunks, a tree whose twisted branches looked as though they were clawing at the earth, and a tangle of leaves and vines that had grown into a beautiful natural arch. The leaves of the arch had a bluish tinge to them in the light that I found quite lovely and I thought of Alice stumbling through that archway into her magical world.

A bit father along, some logs had formed what were almost small steps and as I neared them, I heard a rabbit whom I’d apparently frightened scurry away through the brush. When I left the trail, the sight of the leaves fluttering slowly down to the ground so captivated me that I stopped to film them.

As I emerged from the tree-lined path, I saw that the sky was a brilliant, clear blue with only a few wisps of cloud. A lone woolly worm crawled across the asphalt in front of me and a bronze-colored object caught my eye. I’m not sure what the sparkly copper-colored object was, but I decided to leave it where I’d found it; it wasn’t mine to keep.

On my way back to my car, I passed other nature-lovers now who smiled or nodded, some exchanging a greeting or wave with me. Kindred souls, I knew, who also took solace in the wild beauty of this magical place. I spied another, smaller arch, this one a single vine, before I heard the shouts of children come to ride their bikes teasing their mother who balanced on the curb. I could feel the spell breaking.

As I neared the parking lot, I glanced down to see that some leaves had left star-shaped imprints on the sidewalk—shooting stars, I thought, smiling. I walked to my car and noticed the crude words my son had written in the condensation on the dirty windows a day earlier showing clearly and sighed. I should probably wash my car.

On Writing, Ranée


I love to write when it’s dark out; the quiet, the solitude have always been inspiring. Some of my best writing has come in those moments very late at night or early in the morning when everyone else is asleep, the house is quiet, and it’s just me and my thoughts, some candlelight and music. I also find dreary, rainy or stormy days to be perfect for writing. Today happened to be one of those days. Just me and the dog, so the house is relatively quiet. I sat down at my desk with my notebook and a pen, lit some candles, put on my Stormbringer playlist, and began filling in some blanks in my work in progress. I tend not to write linearly, instead just scribbling down whatever scenes come into my head during any given session, but it gets me in trouble because I end up with lots of gaps. In the past, those gaps have felt more like chasms and kept me from finishing stories. Not this time.

I can’t tell you just how much I needed today. I haven’t had many days like this one since the pandemic began. By that, I mean days where the house is quiet and I’m the only one here aside from the dog—perfect writing days. And, honestly, I’m not likely to get many of them in the future either, so my goal is to make the most of those that I do get to have, but also, to create that atmosphere whenever I don’t have perfect writing days, my calm inside the storm so to speak.

How will I do that? Well, low light, candles, and music go a long way toward creating that environment of inspiration for me. And I always have music, even when I haven’t got the others. I’ve previously written about just how influential music has been in my life, how it never fails to inspire me (see Cosmic Dancer). It transports me to another world, the one of my imagination, where I see and hear only the movie reel of my characters’ story playing out in my head to an ever-present soundtrack. So I don’t need the dark or the silence or a rainy day as long as I’ve got music.

For those who are interested, my stormy/rainy-day playlist includes the following songs:

  • “Lightning Crashes” by Live
  • “Riders On the Storm” by The Doors
  • “Only Happy When It Rains” by Garbage
  • “Cloud Riders” by Tori Amos
  • “Stormy Blues” and “Gloomy Sunday” by Billie Holiday
  • “Mood Indigo” by Nina Simone
  • “Prayers for Rain” by The Cure
  • “Rain” by The Cult
  • “Wind of Change” by Scorpions
  • “Fool In the Rain” and “The Rain Song” by Led Zeppelin
  • “Purple Rain” by Prince
  • “Stormy Weather” by Etta James
  • “Calm Inside the Storm” by Cyndi Lauper
  • “Fire and Rain” by James Taylor
  • “Africa” by Toto
  • “Atmosphere” and “Disorder” by Joy Division
  • “Elegia” by New Order
  • “Building a Mystery” by Sarah McLachlan
  • “Five String Serenade” by Mazzy Star
  • “All Along the Watchtower” and “The Wind Cries Mary” by Jimi Hendrix
  • “Cloudbusting” by Kate Bush
  • “How Soon Is Now?” by The Smiths
  • “Shelter From the Storm” by Bob Dylan
  • “Shadows and Tall Trees” by U2
  • “I of the Storm” by Of Monsters and Men


Birth names, given names, first names, middle names, last names, surnames, nicknames, pet names, found names, dead names, pen names, code names. How many names do we have over the course of our lifetimes? I’ve thought a lot about this, not just with regard to my writing and my career in terms of which of my names to publish under but also with reference to my personal life. I’ve had internal debates with myself over what my true name is, why that’s so, and why and just how much it matters to me, so needless to say, I don’t subscribe to that notion that one’s name or what one chooses to call oneself holds no meaning. Quite the opposite.

I have been called many names, but there’s a short list of ones that I’ll answer to these days. I was born with the name Jamie Ranee Kunkle. That’s one on the list considering that a lot of people knew me by that name. I also published an interview with mystery writer Jan Burke (Clues: A Journal of Detection, Volume 25, no. 4) under my former name. My current legal name is Jamie Ranee Aughenbaugh (not Mrs. Scott Aughenbaugh) and that one’s also on the list of names I associate with myself since it appears on all legal documents. I also publish this site under the name Jamie Aughenbaugh, it’s the one that appears on my business cards, and it’s the name in which my LLC is registered. All posts on the blog portion of this site are attributed to Jamie Ranée, my WordPress ID, and that’s another name on the acceptable list. Given that my first name is only two syllables, you’d think that I wouldn’t have a nickname, but a few people have still tried to shorten Jamie to something else. The only nickname that I’m OK with is J.R., but my dad’s the only one who calls me that; that’s also the reason why I like it.

Of all of my names, my middle name, Ranée, is the one that I now know will always be with me. It comes from the French word rené (masculine form) or renée (feminine form), the English equivalent of which is “reborn” or “born again.” The name and its meaning are inextricably linked with my totem, the phoenix, a mythical bird of fire that dies, consumed by flame, only to be born again from its own ashes. During a meditation session, I heard the name in my mind and saw a very powerful vision of myself and the creature. Ever since, both bird and name have signified hope, faith, courage, perseverance, and strength to me. They are a reminder of my own metaphorical rebirth and I know now that whatever befalls me, I will always come back.

She rises from the ashes, her soul aflame

Rainbow Connection

Site of the momentous occasion

Today marks a major milestone for me—I did an unassisted handstand! A couple of months ago, I set a goal for myself that I would do a handstand for real, by which I meant nothing supporting me but my hands. I’d been practicing against the wall during my third-eye and crown chakra yoga routines. I started by balancing on my hands, with my feet braced against the wall, my body in an L shape. I gradually started inching my feet farther up the wall. My husband eventually cleared the PERFECT space for me to practice right next to the Army of Darkness poster in our basement. I say perfect because (a) it’s Army of Darkness and Bruce Campbell and my goal was to kick fear’s ass just like Ash kicked those demons’ asses, and (b) when I fully stretched out, my feet just managed to touch that area of dropped ceiling. Well, today, I braced myself with my hands like I always do, then stretched my legs up toward the ceiling. As the toes of one foot brushed the lower ceiling, I thought to myself, I don’t need to brace my feet. In that moment, I let go, and I did it! I did a handstand! Then I got so excited about the fact that I was doing it that I fell, but that’s OK. The important thing was I did it and now I know that I can do it again.

Today’s milestone is pretty significant for me in terms of both my personal healing process and my growth as a practitioner of both yoga and meditation. I am so incredibly grateful for the progress I’ve made. A few years ago, when I decided to rehaul my lifestyle in the name of self-care, I vowed that exercise would be a part of my daily regimen. Although it took me a while to settle on specific cardio exercises that I liked and could stick with, there was never any question that yoga would be a part of my daily fitness routine.

I’ve been practicing yoga in general for several years now and I like using the Yoga Studio app for iPhone. A few years ago, before the rehaul, I felt drawn to practice their series of chakra yoga classes. Right around the same time, I began doing some guided meditation and read Mindfulness In Plain English. Although neither yoga nor meditation became a daily thing for me until post-awakening or rebirth or whatever you want to call it, my intro to meditation and chakras was the start of something pretty major—a step in my path toward achieving balance in my life. Since I’ve begun to practice both daily, they’ve made a HUGE difference in my life and healing journey.

Although I’ve been practicing chakra yoga for a couple of years now, I only recently read Anodea Judith’s Chakra Yoga. That book was a game-changer. Judith includes overviews of each of the seven major chakras and discusses specific yoga poses that target each one. She also includes a whole sequence of poses designed for each of the chakras. A sequence focused on the root chakra (muladhara), which is all about connection to the ground/earth, involves standing poses such as tree and mountain that stress a strong foundation. The second chakra, svadhistana, or sacral chakra, is stimulated by hip-opening poses like happy baby, lizard, monkey, and mermaid, one of my favorites (see a pic of my rendition below). Manipura, the solar plexus chakra, is all about ab work. The fourth chakra, anahata, is (literally) the heart of it all. Heart-opening poses include the aptly named melting heart pose, bow, camel, cobra, and wheel. Visuddha, the throat chakra, is stimulated by poses involving the neck and shoulders. Ajna, the third-eye chakra, is best activated by balancing poses and inversions such as headstands and handstands, which require exceptional focus to maintain. The seventh chakra, sahasrara, is the crown chakra. Judith admits that this chakra is much better served by meditation and says that there are not many poses devoted specifically to sahasrara. Her recommended sahasrara sequence follows the path of the kundalini, moving through each of the other chakras in turn, and is designed to open up all of the chakras, activating the crown chakra in the process. I have to admit, it’s one of my favorites. Today’s focus for me happened to be the third-eye and crown chakras, hence the handstand I did as part of this morning’s routine.

After reading Judith’s book, I wanted to put her suggested routines into practice. I used the Seconds App to create custom classes based on the routines in Judith’s book. Because I’m a huge dork who’s totally obsessed with music—I also created custom playlists to accompany each one. I’ve been practicing one or more of these routines every day since. I noticed a profound difference. Since day 1, my practice has become much more wholistic—an integrated mind-body-soul experience. Each day, both my yoga practice and my daily meditation are dedicated to whatever chakras are in need of focus or out of balance. I’ve become quite passionate about yoga this past year in particular; it’s right up there with writing and music for me now. I’ve contemplated getting an instructor certification, but that for now, I continue to develop my personal practice and I look forward to where it takes me next.


Welcome to My Nightmare

We sweat and laugh and scream here
'Cause life is just a dream here
— Alice Cooper 

When I was a kid, I was terrified of clowns. And when I say terrified, I’m not exaggerating. Whenever I saw a clown, my heart would start beating rapidly, I’d feel my throat constrict and my body start to sweat in a panic, and I wanted to either scream or run away. I remember being so frightened of them that I felt safe marching in parades as a majorette because if I was in the parade, then the clowns who were also in the parade couldn’t approach me to try to talk to me or give me candy.

If there’s one incident from my childhood that illustrates just how frightened I was of clowns, it’s the time that my dad’s cousin-in-law, Bob, came to our house wearing clown makeup. The instant I saw him at our back door, I screamed in terror, raced back the hall to my room, crawled under my bed, and hid there. I scared the shit out of my little brother so badly that he ran with me to my room and crawled under the bed too. Bob, still in clown makeup, came back to my room, knelt down on the floor, peered under the bed and tried to tell two screaming, frightened children who he was and get us to come out, but all I saw was a creepy clown reaching under the bed to try to grab me. It was my worst nightmare come to life. I didn’t stop screaming or come out of hiding until that man had washed all the makeup off his face and it took me a long while to calm down after that scare.

I’m no longer scared of clowns and haven’t been for some time, but I still find them creepy; the same goes for ventriloquist dummies and puppets and, to a lesser extent, mannequins and even some dolls. The episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer titled “The Puppet Show,” gave me the wiggins (to use the Scooby Gang’s lingo) and to this day, I have refused to read or watch Stephen King’s It because I was afraid that it would resurrect my childhood fear and give me horrible nightmares.

Over the years, I’ve pondered just what it was about clowns, dummies, and the like that scared me so much as a kid and I think it was the fact that they’re a grotesque mockery of the human. Dummies, puppets, mannequins, and dolls are meant to resemble humans but they’re not. Clowns, although they’re actual people, wear exaggerated face makeup that makes their features look unnaturally large and phony. To my child self, these things weren’t interesting or cute or amusing but downright monstrous.

Recently, I had a dream about conquering my childhood fear of clowns. I facetiously said to myself, “Well, I guess it’s time for me to finally read It,” but that dream actually meant something quite different and a great deal more to me. I despise lying and deception, dislike phony people, and get particularly disgusted with those who deliberately try to fool, deceive, or manipulate others (really, who are they trying to kid?). To the adult me, clowns, dummies, puppets, and such are a metaphor for the masks that people wear and the very nature of reality, the phoniness and lies that pervade society. It’s a sick sort of reminder that the face that others choose to show to you often isn’t real, that we can’t trust how things might appear on the surface. The message is clear: I need to see the puppet show for what it is—don’t watch the little figure performing who’s trying to distract me, but keep my eye fixed on the one behind the scenes pulling the strings (the true self). I must look closer, deeper, to truly see. If I do, then the truth can never be hidden.

There is another part to this, though. I think my subconscious is also telling me that I need to start outright letting people know that they’re not fooling me. I don’t mean just calling people on their bullshit (the ones who are pretending for meanness sake), but those who show a different face to the world because they’re hurting or afraid or in pain, those for whom the mask is a form of self-protection. Telling people that I see who they really are, that I care, and letting them know that they don’t have to pretend with me or hide from me is even more important.

On Writing, Ranée

Cosmic Dancer

I danced myself right out the womb
Is it strange to dance so soon?
— Marc Bolan

Ever since I can remember, there was music in my life—Mom singing me nursery rhyme songs or dancing around the house to one of her favorite tunes, Dad making up silly (sometimes dirty) little ditties or playing his records, the Pittsburgh Oldies station, 3WS, playing every time we went somewhere in the car. That exceptional early exposure to and shared passion for music left an indelible impact on me. I grew to love music just as much as I loved stories and, just like stories, music has ever been my muse, my outlet, and my savior.

You know that scene in Guardians of the Galaxy where Starlord presses play on his Walkman and dances and lip syncs to “Come and Get Your Love” by Redbone? Yeah, that’s me. When I was a kid, I used to dress up, pop a cassette tape into my purple boombox, grab a brush to serve as my makeshift microphone, and lip sync to Jem and the Holograms songs. As a teenager, I performed in choral groups and a musical, knew all the words to pop songs on the radio (even the ones I couldn’t stand and, yes, I always sang along), and made dozens of mix tapes and CDs. Even now, I have songs that resonate with me so much that I consider them theme songs, everything that I write has its own soundtrack, I have something of an obsession with vinyl records, and I have loads of playlists on my phone for everything from workouts to my quasi-pyromania. It was music that brought my husband and I together. I met him at a bar in Kent, Ohio the summer after I completed my master’s degree. He drove me back to my car and we sang along with the radio and in that moment, I felt more comfortable with him than I had with anyone I’d met in the entire two years I’d spent in my program. This is all to say that I truly think my musically obsessed nerdom might be at the Rob Fleming level.

At one point in High Fidelity, a depressed Rob wonders “Which came first, the music or the misery?” It’s a chicken and egg question really and I totally get what Hornby (through Rob) was saying about the power of music. It affects my emotions like nothing else, amplifying or altering my mood far more than any drug ever has. That power was never more evident to me than when I began to heal.

I became depressed back in high school and it stayed with me for decades, festering. Music, like writing, became my solace; it helped me to both embrace my bad feelings (acknowledge them) and escape them. I would write about what I felt, what I experienced, because I didn’t believe that I could or should talk about it. It was a lot of very dark, moody, material, reminiscent of E. A. Poe’s gory, weird tales of horror. I would also write what I wished that I felt, what I hoped that my life might be like, creating characters who talked with each other about what they were feeling, tried to help one another heal, and showed each other love. At some point, the music, like my writing, began to fade. If depression hadn’t made me such an utter zombie, I would’ve seen that as a clear sign that things had gone way too far.

Then one day, I walked into this little record store at the mall where my husband had shopped a few times before, intending only to buy him a record or two as a birthday gift, but as I strolled around the store, browsing the racks, something strange happened. I saw albums and artists that I’d grown up listening to and it began to rekindle my lost love. I hadn’t owned or even really listened to a record since I was a kid, but when my fingers flipped through the “R”s in the Rock/Pop section and found that rather worn copy of Lou Reed’s Transformer, I felt compelled to buy it because it was mine, it belonged to me. When I brought that record home, put it on the turntable, pressed play, and heard the opening guitar riff of “Vicious” issue from the speakers, I was transformed. From that moment on, music, followed closely by writing, re-entered my life again in earnest, turning up the volume on my emotional and psychological healing. It was no accident that I found that record that day. Music and writing are a vital part of my self, my soul; without them, I withered and when I found them again, I began to bloom. They were my voice when I had none and they helped me to finally find my own.


Shelter From the Storm

Change is chaotic. Comes with the territory. But I’m a firm believer that change is also positive and necessary for growth. I’m in the midst of what I feel in my heart is a very crucial transition in my life on more than one level. One chapter is ending for me, yes, but another is just beginning.

My professional life is in a bit of an upheaval at present. I just passed the five-year milestone in my current position, which is typically a cause for celebration. However, that role also ends on December 1 of this year due to outsourcing and although the work is winding down for me, I’ve still got plenty to do plus home projects and an eight-year-old in virtual school while both my husband and I are working from home. I’ll admit that it’s been discouraging trying to find other jobs; there aren’t a whole lot of prospects yet the pool of job seekers is growing ever larger. On top of all that, I feel as if I’ve had no time for business development.

Contemplating a career change when you’re in your forties or older can be scary enough. Oddly though, when I learned earlier this year that my position was being made redundant, my initial reaction wasn’t one of fear or even sadness or shock, but rather a strange mix of curiosity and excitement. Something awesome is coming, I thought. Well, that initial optimism has waned over the past several months and I’m now looking for a way to revive it, to remain steadfast in that faith.

In the past, when I felt anxious or depressed, I employed some very poor coping mechanisms such as impulsive spending and drinking alcohol. I’m a bit ashamed to admit that the former resurfaced as I transitioned off my prescription medication over the past month. Fear got me; fear that I couldn’t manage without it. Well, guess what? That’s bullshit. I can cultivate my own calm amidst the chaos because I’ve developed a number of helpful strategies over the past couple of years. I still take a small dose of CBD oil daily, but I made a list of my “will dos.”

  • Meditate/pray
  • Practice yoga/exercise
  • Listen to music
  • Write
  • Spend time in nature/stargaze
  • Spend time/talk with loved ones
  • Do breathing exercises
  • Burn candles/make a fire
  • Engage in other creative projects

All of these things are proven ways for me to face any fear, anxiety, and depressed mood that arises. They keep me grounded and focused, remind me that I’m a strong, capable person with much to be grateful for, afford me outlets for expressing my thoughts and feelings, and help me to combat any contributing negative forces. These are the foundations on which I will build my shelter from the storm.