Noted Rogue Valley artist and author Mari Gayatri Stein says writing her 11th book was a therapeutic journey as she battled two bouts of breast cancer, open-heart surgery and a hip replacement over the last five years.
In the "Out of the Blue Valise," Stein's first novel, fictional author Mila has just been told she has cancer. She uses a magical hippopotamus as her friend and guide on an insightful journey to save her life.
A yoga teacher, fine artist and organic farmer in the region for three decades, Stein, 68, now of Central Point, says the ailments spurred her to pen the long-postponed book.
“It was a lifeline, a place for me to be happy, to enjoy my characters,” she says — especially Po, the hippo, “my mentor, savior and friend. I’m so sad I finished the book and I’m not writing with him anymore.”
In her youth, Stein was a TV actress in “Hogan’s Heroes,” “That Girl” and other shows. For a decade, she owned and ran Enchanted Rabbit Mountain on the Greensprings, with llamas, horses, angora rabbits, sheep, sleigh rides and yoga retreats in tepees and cabins.
She and her husband, London native Robert McWilliams, then moved to Ashland, where McWilliams offered horse-and-carriage rides in Lithia Park and Stein taught yoga in her blue-painted Bundini Building at Fourth and B streets. Stein also has been active in sponsoring scores of women in recovery over the decades, and her book includes the principles of Alcoholics Anonymous, which she finds rich in spiritual teachings.
Her penchant for witty humor is seen in her book titles: “Puddle Moon,” “Unleashing Your Inner Dog,” “The Buddha Smiles” and “The Love Epidemic.”
Stein’s story owes much to the teachings of Buddha: Live an exemplary life, don’t cause harm, engage in selfless service, live in the present, honor the ephemeral nature of life, live in balance with “no praise, no blame” and err on the side of love.
In "Out of the Blue Valise," Mila is Stein's alter ego. The creatures Po and Petal are her closest allies. Mila writes to save herself from cancer. The journey, Stein says, is “to find your concept of God. It’s the kiss that presses the veil. You have your boots on the earth, but you can cross over to the ephemeral world.
“You have right intention. You see the unity,” says Stein. “You stay human and humble. It’s OK to have stuff but you remember that all stuff crumbles. You have loving kindness and faith in an accessible way. You can always be silly, whimsical, playful. It’s part of her perspective. You’ve always had it. It helps you counter this crazy world and fend off the reality of death.”
Stein's book also addresses suffering among humans and threatened animals.
“If there’s suffering anywhere, it belongs to all of us," she says. "The endangered species, they bring out the tender spot (in the book). They are so innocent. It’s heartbreaking, what’s happening to them and to the environment. Finding your tender spot (as Mila does), is what brings out our humanity. We rise above our pettiness and think about the common ground we all share."
The book is published by Fuze Publishing ($14.99). It’s also available as an e-book at $5.99. Stein will do a book reading and signing from noon to 1:30 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 20, at the Medford library, 205 S. Central Ave.
Reach Ashland freelance writer John Darling at firstname.lastname@example.org.