Living from the inside out: The story behind the cover of Seven Perfumes

October 29, 2012 | 0

Many people ask me about the cover of The Seven Perfumes of Sacrifice, which is very special to me. It comes from a painting called “The Messenger” done by my stepmother, Jackie Watson, in 1994. The image Jackie painted, while inspired by another event before my book was even conceived, reminds me so much of a painting I describe in my novel. One of the main characters, Leila, an artist, produced a painting about a pivotal (and real) ancient myth – how Frankincense, the most prized spiritual aromatic in the ancient world, came into creation as a result of an honor killing.

The legend holds that the sun seduced a king’s daughter. When the king discovered the relationship, he killed and buried the princess. The sun desperately tried to revive his beloved with his rays to no avail, so he found a way she could still come up to see him in the sky: He covered her body in a sweet-smelling nectar that melted away, filling the earth and sky with its spicy citrus fragrance. The spot where her body was buried was where the first Frankincense tree was believed to have grown.

In Seven Perfumes, Leila called her painting “The Resurrection”; it depicted a huge orange-red sun on the horizon behind a Frankincense tree with the face and hands of a beautiful girl in its twisty, low branches. As Prof. Binyamin, another character, explained, “The sun, as the giver of life, symbolizes our conscious mind. It’s our basic identity, our self-realization. [Through the painting], Leila was saying that women in her culture have lost their creative life force and their own purpose.”

Frankincense was one of the “seven perfumes of sacrifice” which were a real incense recipe in ancient times that, when burned in ceremony, were purported to get you a meeting with the gods. For me, this fictional painting reveals that, as women, our capacity to be free and have agency to make our own choices for our lives is inextricably linked to our spiritual connection to ourselves. Surveys have shown that a majority of women living in the Honor Killing Zone believe their husbands have the right to beat them for various reasons. If we don’t first believe in the inviolable integrity of ourselves, who else will? Even women outside the Honor Killing Zone struggle with holding their center to varying degrees. It starts with self-awareness and self-respect – two of our most sacred assets.

“The Messenger” arrived in my stepmom Jackie’s imagination through another means, but the message is uncannily related. She was gardening at her East Texas lake house, digging in the dirt, when a wasp stung her on the chest, right at her heart center. “It seems I had not really been paying attention rather than being in the here and now.  And so the universe sent me a little wake-up,” she recalls. “Never had my connection to the earth been so evident and I felt ‘stung’ to my very depth. That connection felt life-changing, as if my sacred space was infinite. I recognized it as if coming home after a long journey. The experience let me know that I had work to do if the connection to that deep spiritual center that is me, that is feminine, that is divine, could take the lead in my life.”

Painting “The Messenger” was “a way of finding a path, of opening the heart, of divine wisdom speaking directly to my heart and emerging through my hand. It felt like sacred magic,” she says. It became a gorgeous 40” x 30” watercolor and acrylic that remains in her own collection. “I don’t think I could ever sell it,” she says. It was the first of what became her “Roots” series. I had forgotten about it when I wrote of Leila’s painting “The Resurrection” years later and was delighted to rediscover it in Jackie’s gallery on-line when I was searching for cover art. She was generous enough to allow me to use it, and graphic artist and UCSB graduate history student Brian Griffith turned it into a book cover that still takes my breath away.

One of the most profound insights Jackie gained from this experience could become the refrain of women (and men) everywhere reclaiming themselves:

“When we begin to live from within outward, rather than the opposite, we come into contact with our own power, the deepest sense of ourselves. We refuse to be unconscious of what we are feeling at any time, not just when it’s convenient or won’t hurt someone’s feelings. We don’t deny pieces of our experience. This is what gives us energy, the courage to change.”

That is my hope, my prayer and what I am doing all of this for.                  

Prints of “The Messenger” and other paintings of Jackie’s can be ordered at

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