Monday, October 26, 2009

Question of the Week: Who is YOUR worst enemy?

A wise possum once said, "We have met the enemy and he is us." (Pogo, by Walt Kelly, 1970)

What do doors have to do with enemies? Do they protect? They can be locked, they can be propped open, they can swing back and forth with no recoil. Are they barriers? Often. From what? Ourselves.

I'm talking again about the metaphorical door. In this case, the gateway or barrier to your dreams, to my dreams. Some may recall this post from October 16, where I copied a Facebook exchange opening with this question:

Carolyn Burns Bass

Carolyn Burns Bass Now that I have a door on my studio, dare I close it?
October 13 at 10:39am

Here’s what one friend replied:

Sharon Kae Reamer
Sharon Kae Reamer
Are you asking for permission? The answer is YES.

This is what my sister replied:

Robin Richardson
Robin Richardson
I double-dog-dare YOU!!!

My door is closed as I write this post. With a busy day ahead, I knew I needed the solitude from my DH in order to accomplish my goals. Before I closed the door, I let him know he was loved, that he could interrupt if necessary, and that he’d see me again today. (One of his fears is that I will disappear behind the closed door.)

A cup of coffee sits next to my computer, my dogs are curled in their places (Tank, always near my feet; Buck curled on the sofa). The window blinds are open, giving me a peek at the street outside. We had Santa Ana winds yesterday and the lawn is scattered with the debris from other people’s lives.

The debris of other people’s lives. Even as I typed that line, I realized this is what we writers crave. It’s the stuff of story. Sometimes fictionists base their tales on the debris of real people’s lives, but most of the time we draw from our imagination. Something we see takes root in our mind, it takes root and grows, and if tended, flourishes on a written page.

My mind is an unkempt garden of untended stories. That’s the truth. Story ideas have blown into my mind, rooted and dried up for lack of care. Left behind is a wretched tangle of aging stumps and shrubs choked by brittle vines. I let this happen by neglect.

Neglect happens in a writer’s life when they allow things to get in the way of their success. Every writer dreams of being published, of having his/her stories read and appreciated by the public. Success seems so far off—a place outside the door that they can glimpse out the window. Success, I’ve learned, isn’t an ultimate goal, but a process in achieving a dream. A dream must be broken down into goals. Achievable, realistic goals. For the beginning writer, or like me, the jaded writer, success is finishing something you’ve started.

In his book The War of Art, Steven Pressfield talks about the enemy of creativity. He calls it Resistance with a capital R. Resistance is a shapeshifter. It morphs into that thing that is most likely to detour your journey. Some of the most pernicious shapes of Resistance I’ve encountered include the following:

FAMILY. I allowed my children’s lives to distract me from finishing many writing ideas that rooted in my mind. I was a doting mom, but not a smothering one. I read to my kids, wrote stories about them in scrapbooks, went to concerts and sporting events, piano lessons, orthodontist appointments, all things I used to keep me from making a ritual for my own self-improvement through creative expression.

INSPIRATION may be the most fickle of the Resistances. Writing happens by sitting down and doing it, not by waiting for some metaphysical feeling to overwhelm and channel golden words through your fingers. I’ve experienced the discovery, the thrill, the passion that occurs when I’m in a productive writing zone and for years I thought it came before I sat down to write, as if the feeling of the zone was inspiration itself. Many wasted years later I realized the feeling of the zone comes from doing it. It’s like a surfer waiting for the sensation of the ride to happen while they sit on the sand watching the waves.

MONEY. Lack of it or excess of it. Lack of it often forces one into professions that suck out the creativity, while excess of it can numb the imagination. I’ve been hungry enough to hustle words for pay, but not so hungry that I’ve tended the most nutritious ideas that rooted in my brain. One of my friends has three autistic daughters and still manages to write an impressive blog and website for Autism, in addition to a memoir and a novel. (Kudos to Kim Stagliano.)

ROOM. Not having a place to write is another shape of Resistance. Virginia Woolf in her essay, “A Room of One’s Own,” claimed it took a room of one’s own (and money) to write fiction seriously. I had a room, but no door on my room, thereby giving me another excuse for Resistance to defeat me. See this post from October 15.

WORK. Professions other than fulltime writer are another face of Resistance. When one is busy making bread for the family, it’s hard to tend the garden of creativity. Although my DH provides well for our family, my workaholic nature has drawn me into a business that is enjoyable enough that I’m not pining to quit, yet demanding enough time that I can’t devote myself to fulltime writing.

The list goes on. Sharon’s response to my query about closing my door pushed a button that revealed the Generalissimo of Resistance in my life: Permission. All of the excuses named above are minor troops in the war against my art. I can give my excuses names, like those listed above, but it all boils down to this: I am my own worst enemy. The writers I know who have been published, who continue to be published, don’t let the above list of enemies trample through their creative garden. Like Pressfield says in The War of Art, the professional sits down to write. Every day. It’s a ritual. It’s a practice. It’s becomes a way of life.

Reflecting back on the words of Pogo the wise, I’ve met the enemy, and she is me. I could go on about reasons why I don’t give myself permission to succeed. I have enough self-sludge to fill a tanker. I took Robin’s dare; gave myself permission to close the door. I wrote this. Now I’m moving on to another writing project near to the center of my purpose. More about that another time.

Who is YOUR worst enemy?

Monday, October 19, 2009

Question of the Week: What doors have opened or closed in your life?

Drawing from the Facebook Exchange in last week's post:

Carolyn Burns Bass

Carolyn Burns BassNow that I have a door on my studio, dare I close it?
October 13 at 10:39am

Paula Hughes
Paula Hughes
that depends on whether you're on the inside or the outside.
October 13 at 11:59am

If you’re on the outside of the door, does that make you an outsider? I’ve learned through the years that most people feel like an outsider at some time in his or her life. It begins early, this feeling of alienation. It’s rare that a person can point to a single incident that closed the door to a place of desire or belonging. Some people block—whether practiced or unconsciously—disturbing or hurtful experiences. Not me. Although I have difficulty remembering what happened yesterday, I can remember events from the past with vivid detail.

I’m standing in a circle of girls. Denise Messenger (not her real name) is holding court during lunch break at De Anza Junior High. Denise is tall and shapely, with none of the awkward angles and stuttered gestures so prevalent among girls of this age. She has long, straight hair; smooth, creamy skin, and perfect teeth. Beside me is Rena Floyd, my best friend and savior from obscurity. Even though Rena is one of the most popular girls of the seventh grade, we wouldn’t be standing in this circle of perfection if she were not going out with Denise’s brother, Dickie.

The conversation is about clothes and what looks good on whom. Typical feline gossip. These were the early 1970s, when girls were required to wear dresses to school. Those who remember the 1970s will also recall the era of the micro-mini skirt. Even though we were required to wear dresses or skirts, there was no skirt length measurement in the policy.

Rena’s wearing one of the adorable dresses she made herself. Her mother works in the fabric department at White Front department store and gets cut-rate prices on all of the hip patterns and cool fabrics. She has a terrific eye for color and texture harmony and her creations could pass for designer knock-offs. Her peasant dress with its cinched waist and blousy top accentuates her budding figure in all the right places.

Denise is wearing a body-hugging knit top that enhances her shapely bosom, along with a hip-hugging mini-skirt cut half-way between her knee and hip. Both Rena and Denise, in fact all of the other girls in the circle, are wearing panty hose in the color “cinnamon,” and nearly identical Thom McAnn shoes with high, flared heels.

Everyone except for me. I am a 4'9" gnome next to willowy Denise Messenger. I’m wearing one of my sister’s old hand-me-downs, which was a hand-me-down from my cousin Pam. It’s been washed so many times the color resembles nothing red, run with everything gray. I call the color “dreg.” It hangs just over my knee in what my stepfather calls a “respectable” length. My shoes are black, low-heeled slip-ons from the children’s department at Kmart, not Thom McAnn at the Montclair Plaza. Even though I could wear a size four in women’s, my mother wouldn’t buy me higher heels because she said I was too small for them. And in these shoes are not legs frosted with cinnamon pantyhose, but cable knit knee-high socks. My mother’s rule was no pantyhose until the age of 14.

Back to the circle of girls. Denise is pontificating about what she calls “feminine” and points to Rena as an example of seventh grade fashion divinity. “Like her.” Then her eyes narrow on me. “Not her.” My cheeks begin burning and I drop my gaze to the ground. “Where did you get those glasses, anyway?” she asks, pointing to my cat’s eye glasses that went out of style about five years ago.

A door closed, but another door began to open that day. Denise was right in the exterior assessment of my physical appearance. I was bumbley, bland and blind. The heels wouldn’t have anointed me with grace, the cinnamon pantyhose wouldn’t have spiced up my personality, and a sparkling pair of wire-framed glasses wouldn’t have improved my vision. The door that began creaking open that day took several years to widen enough for me to walk through.

The first thing I glimpsed in the crack of that door was freedom to develop my own style despite the trends and fads. In high school I was making some babysitting money and could buy my own clothes. I sewed dozens of cute little tops and wore them with Levi 501s, flip-flops, moccasins, or “earth shoes.” By college, I was back into dresses, mostly sundresses I made with bright, light-weight fabrics and platform sandals. Career days found me back in high heels, stilettos paired with skirts and blazers. Eventually I understood and was able to share with my daughter that it’s not what you wear that defines you, it’s what you project from the inside. I tried to teach my daughter to stand up to queen bees like Denise, and applauded when she did. These days I lounge around in my PJs while I write each morning, then transition into comfy clothes that serve the task at hand.

It wasn’t until I’d walked completely through that door and looked back that I realized the most important truth from that day. No one is dealt a perfect hand in the game of life. Not Denise Messenger, not Rena Floyd. Some people may begin with better hands leading to more choices, while others begin with a great hand and make disastrous choices. I was dealt a crappy hand, but I had all five cards and the freedom to play them well. I’ve won a few and lost a few, but it’s my game. I have no idea how Denise Messenger played her cards, but I know Rena Floyd Hutchins has a lively hand. She’s still stitching lovely designs in her own embroidery business, has been married for 29 years to the same man, has four grown and married (or nearly so) kids and several grandchildren.

A final glimpse back to that awkward moment in junior high shows me how some people become who they are because of where they’ve been, while others, like me, become who they are in spite of where they’ve been.

What events or experiences have opened or closed doors in your life and how did they contribute to who you are today?

Friday, October 16, 2009

A Short Exchange About Doors

Facebook may be passé in ten years (maybe less), but for now it's a virtual pub for the global village. While contemplating my recent fixation on doors, I posted a question in my Facebook status and received this lively exchange:
Catherine DiCairano
Tue at 10:51am
Ej Knapp
Ej Knapp
Better not, you might get trapped in there.
Tue at 11:04am
Sharon Kae Reamer
Sharon Kae Reamer
Are you asking for permission? The answer is YES.
Tue at 11:17am
Audrey Cole
Audrey Cole
I have found that a bad attitude works just as well as a closed door. :-)
Tue at 11:31am ·
Paula Hughes
Paula Hughes
that depends on whether you're on the inside or the outside.
Tue at 11:59am ·
Robin Richardson
Robin Richardson
I double-dog-dare YOU!!!
Tue at 12:02pm
Carolyn Burns Bass
Carolyn Burns Bass
I'm working on a blog post about my door. You know Virginia Woolf's famous essay, A Room of One's Own? I've had the room, but it didn't have a door. It was a thoroughfare from one side of the house to the other. The door is so tempting.
Tue at 12:16pm
Mary Compo Cabral
Mary Compo Cabral
Close it now! Close if fast before you lose your resolve.
Tue at 5:37pm
Pamela Marshall
Pamela Marshall
But is it really about closing it or having the choice to .... if you so chose?
Tue at 9:00pm
Richard Cooper
Richard Cooper
Don't open it until you've had a satisfactory number of words produced each day.
Tue at 10:02pm

Each person contributed a valid point to this little exchange about doors. We'll explore these points and others here in Ovations over the next few weeks.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

A Door of My Own

I’ve observed a fly trapped inside the open-slat mini-blinds of my window now for hours. It flies up and down, walks across, buzzes crazily, flies forward and smacks into a blind, returns to the window pane. How like us, trapped between two worlds, not perceiving the doors open to us. The world outside the glass, the world on the other side of the door. We see out the glass to another world, yet the world to which we have access is a route to the other world. We must go through the route available to get to the place we see outside the window. The world is there. It’s available for us to enjoy. Getting there is the adventure.

Doors have been on my mind for the last few months. It began when my firstborn and only daughter accepted an offer to attend a five-year Master’s to PhD program at George Washington University. Elisabeth lived on campus during the four years of her undergrad studies at a university only a half-hour from our home. We saw her frequently and she slept in the bedroom she’d decorated and redecorated since she was six years old. When she packed up her belongings for the move to D.C., she pulled every poster, photo, sticker and cartoon from the walls and stripped the shelves of books, knickknacks, and picture frames. What she didn’t want to take to her new life, she donated to a local thrift shop. The only things she left in the room were bare furniture and a few stains on the carpet.

My preoccupation with doors actually began in 1993 when we moved into this house. We fell in love with the huge room addition that the original owners used as a family room and a game room, plus the house had a bonus room that had been a third-car garage option. My studio would be in the bonus room, a spacious retreat with a large picture window facing the street. The room had a lovely, natural wood, French-paned door.

Many people have real estate horror stories and here’s ours. During the time we made the offer on the house to when the escrow closed for final sale, the original owners took weekends away at the Colorado River and left their male Rottweiler closed in the bonus room with water and food. It doesn’t take a lot to imagine what a Rottweiler trapped in a room for two days can do to the walls and carpet. The stench was unbelievable. After dragging out the carpet, we bleached and deodorized the cement slab. The cedar wainscoting, stained and reeking from the male dog leg-lift, came down to reveal even the drywall had seeped up the stinking slime and had to be replaced. The room would simply not be ready for human occupancy by the time we moved in. Hence, my studio—computer, drafting table, bookshelves and cabinets—was set-up in the game room that faced the family room.

This turned out to be the ideal setting for a work at home mom. With a four-year-old boy and six-year-old girl that needed watched and guided, I found the situation contributed to my productivity and kept them occupied. They had their play area and craft table just over the oak railing from my studio, and the TV was right there. That’s right. The TV. The one-eyed babysitter and great distractor of multiple generations.

In all fairness, my studio really did have doors. A set of French doors separated it from the dining room. It was a large area where the original owners had a pool table and juke box. Yet, my studio was separated from the family room by a low, oak railing. A sliding glass door led to the backyard from the family room and a door on the opposite wall of the family room led to the garage. Even if I closed the French doors, someone would inevitably need something from the family room or access to the garage. My studio was open to a thoroughfare from one side of the house to the other.

In those days BassMan had regular work hours. He left the house at 6:30 a.m., returned around 5 p.m. When both of the children were in school fulltime, I worked without interruption most of the day. Summers were a bit of a challenge, but we set schedules around my work and the kids’ activities and playtime. I had several graphic design clients during this time, one of which drew me into the travel industry. Most of my writing then was for regional publications; food and family topics generated from my center of purpose. I had started and stopped several novels during this time, allowing the busyness of the house around me to distract from my concentration.

BassMan’s schedule changed in 2000. He moved to the evening crime-time shift: 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. I no longer had the seclusion of time during the day. My adaptation came by putting the kids on the school bus at 7:15 a.m., then writing like a woman afraid she’d run out of words until BassMan awoke around 9:30. Two hours of silence every morning were enough for me to write my first novel in nine months.

Now that Elisabeth has her own apartment across the continent, we’ve shuffled rooms. The object was to put me and all of my mess in the bonus room as originally planned. After it was thoroughly cleansed, BassMan had set-up camp in the bonus room. He refreshed Elisabeth’s former bedroom and moved over his desk and Marine Corps memorabilia. I began a renovation of the bonus room that was only supposed to be a coat of paint, but you know how redecorating often turns into a story of its own. Last weekend I moved into my studio and for a day it was spotless. The desk and credenza gleamed, the bookshelves didn’t sag. Life comes with stuff. Stuff needs a place. Places fill up with the stuff of life. It’s already happening in my new studio.

So you see, I really have nothing to complain about. I’ve had the room which Virginia Woolf said was so necessary for a woman who wanted to write fiction. BassMan pulls in a good salary and my side work has evolved into a profitable meeting and travel consultancy. What I’ve craved is a door to close for creative privacy. As I write this, it occurs to me: What purpose will the door serve? To shield me from household distractions, or a barrier that traps me inside?

Friday, September 11, 2009

Remembering the Fallen: 9/11

Verse (c) 2006 by Carolyn Burns Bass

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Literary Digs in South Beach at The Betsy

I just spent two wonderful days at the Betsy Hotel in South Beach. The Betsy sits on Ocean Drive across from Lummus Park in the Art Deco district. Recently renovated from the ground up, the Betsy is a historic property listed in the Florida’s State Registry of Historic Places. The pure white colonial facade of the Betsy shimmers among the crowd of art deco designs along Ocean Drive. Awnings and sidewalk umbrellas shade the street-side dining of celebrity chef Laurent Tourondel’s BLT Steak, where locals and guests dine on Angus beef and other culinary confections.

Ordinarily, I wouldn't gush about a hotel in this blog, I'd save it for my travel blog. But the Betsy is more than a hotel. It's a community in the making.

My room wasn't quite ready when I checked-in early at the Betsy. While I waited, account manager Livingston Alexander took me around the hotel and shared a bit about the philosophy of the hotel. The Betsy hopes to be more than just another place on the strip with rooms, beds and showers. Drawing from the legacy of historic hospitality, the Betsy aims to be a true public house, where locals mingle with guests for conversation, celebration, and cultural exchange.

This philosophy shows in the art that lines the interior walls. Currently on exhibit are photographs by renowned photographers Bobby Sager, Richard Bluestein, and a collection of prints from the Rockarchive. Large and luminous, the photos reflect the commitment the Betsy has with arts and literature. The Betsy welcomes non-guests to stroll through the hotel’s public areas to view the photographs.

Livingston walked me to my room on the second floor and showed me around. Most hotels of this class come with a mini-bar stocked with beverages and priced for profit. But how many hotels stock the bookshelves in the guest rooms with first-edition bestsellers? I went ga-ga when I saw this. He hinted at a writer in residence program under development.

Tingling with the thrill of a writer in residence program at this beautiful place, the next day I met with Deborah Briggs, whose title of VP Marketing and Philanthropy says it all. The EdD at the end of her signature reveals even more about her and alludes to the amazing legacy taking root in South Beach. Deborah is the daughter of the late Hyam Plutzik, a poet nominated for the Pulitzer shortly before his untimely death in 1962. She is a diva of ideas and is as passionate about education as she is about the arts and sees the Betsy as a place where ideas prosper with practice, life embraces art, and hospitality extends beyond the check-out date.

Deborah and I dined on Lincoln Avenue, at Da Leo Trattoria, the oldest Italian Restaurant in South Beach, where we talked about writing, art, music, our families, and our dogs. In between these topics, Deborah shared more about the philanthropic plans for the Betsy, which include the creation of a writer’s room at the Betsy and a writer in residence program to help writers birth literary projects. To commemorate Veteran's Day in November, the Betsy is bringing the Lennon Bus to South Beach for a school and community-wide tribute and educational outreach.

I promised to keep in touch with Deborah and herald news of the Betsy’s innovative ideas and philanthropic endeavors. The writer in residence program may not be fully operational as yet, but that didn’t keep me from writing while residing at the Betsy.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Clar de Lune, Susan Boyle and My Mother

My novel, THE SWORD SWALLOWER'S DAUGHTER, yes, the one I'm still revising, draws much from my childhood. My father really was a sword swallower and my mother was a closet chanteuse who played piano and sang with a voice that rivaled the divas of her day. In fact, when I hear Susan Boyle, I think of my mother. She had that kind of voice, but zero confidence.

The photo at right is my mother playing and singing with my younger sister, Angie, who inherited Mom's voice and musical abilities. Sadly, Angie passed away from melanoma in 1990 at the age of 29. My mother has been gone since 2003.

Some of my fondest memories of my mother are when she played piano and sang. My Mother's Day tribute this year is a short excerpt from THE SWORD SWALLOWER'S DAUGHTER, all of which is true to the point of memoir, rather than fiction.


We returned from school that day to the sound of Mama pounding out “Clar de
Lune” on the piano. Mama’s piano playing was a barometer to her moods. When she
played and sang sad love songs, she was irritable. When she played upbeat show
tunes, we pretended we were the Lennon Sisters and joined in for fun rounds of
musical togetherness. Sometimes she played hymns, especially for Uncle Teddy,
who insisted she sing “How Great Thou Art” every time he saw her. But when she
played from her big, brown classical music book, she channeled the tension of
her life into the music, because when she closed the piano lid and stepped away,
her face was always relaxed and her voice as soft as a kitten.

After dinner that night, Aunt Cissy’s boyfriend, Ernest, pointed to the piano in the parlor adjacent to the living room. “Anyone play piano?”

My little sister jumped up, ran to the piano and began plunking out the right hand side of “Heart and Soul.” She turned and asked me to play the two-handed left side. I was not about to play this kiddy song in front of Ernest, so I declined, saying I couldn’t sit on the piano bench with a broken leg.

Aunt Cissy stuck her head into the room and said, “Ask Edie. She plays and sings just like Rosemary Clooney.”

Mama rolled her eyes, but I could tell she liked the remark. She had a repertoire of songs she would sing and play in the evenings when Daddy was gone out to wherever it was that he liked more than home.

“Really?” said Ernest, looking to Mama with more than a little interest. “Oh, please play something.”

“Play ‘Moon River,’” said Aunt Cissy. “That’s one of my favorites.”

Mama groaned and then opened up the piano bench and dug through a bunch of sheet music. With an “ah ha,” she pulled out a warn folio and spread it across the piano.

I loved it when Mama played and sang. When she put her hands to the piano keys her face changed. The harsh lines around her eyes softened and her shoulders relaxed enough to let her arms flow up and down the keyboard.

She could imitate the sound of just about any singer I’d ever heard. Sometimes Daddy would hang around after supper and ask her to sing for him. Her music soothed whatever it was that drove him away.

“Play Unforgettable,’” he’d say, standing behind her, close enough to touch, but never touching.

Other times Daddy would recline in his chair and smoke, blowing smoke rings inside smoke rings while we ran around trying to catch them. Mama would play through her repertoire of pop songs while Daddy let us crawl over him. Those were memories I cherished. That was the Daddy I remembered, the Mama I wanted.

Seeing Mama unwind at the piano now lit a flicker of something I couldn’t wrap my heart and mind across.

From THE SWORD SWALLOWER'S DAUGHTER, copyright 2009 by Carolyn Burns Bass

Saturday, April 11, 2009

In honor of National Poetry Month: A Poem

Labor Pains
By Carolyn Burns Bass

I was silenced too long by the sound of my own
Joy in living and grief in the passing of love.
Stories grew in my waking dreams,
but I dwelt
in the glow of a thirty-year literary pregnancy.
Labor came without warning.
Stories grown through those years of gestation
now speak through
that heartbeat
of fear, of failure, of success.
I wish sometimes for the old stillness,
but labor,
once started must finish.

--began 9/22/06, finished (for now) 4/11/09

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Everyone Has a Story to Tell

Several years ago I wrote and self-published a guidebook to help ordinary people write their lifestories. I used this guidebook, WRITE FROM THE HEART, in the classes I taught in memoir writing through our city adult education program. For the last month I've used my morning writing time to revise that guidebook and am publishing it once again.

WRITE FROM THE HEART is not a book on how to write a bestselling memoir, it’s not intended for people who want to be the next Augusten Burroughs or David Sedaris. It’s for people like my mother, comfortable with words and writing, but unsure of where to begin, how to organize, and how far to go. My mother loved telling family stories and when she died, those stories went with her. This book is for people like her.

I have another plan for this book. For several years I’ve wanted to help seniors connect through the global village, which means putting them behind web-connected computers. My master plan begins here. I’m working on a plan to teach computer skills to seniors and then move them into writing their lifestories.

I’ll be talking a bit more about WRITE FROM THE HEART and my master plan to connect seniors to the world wide web next Monday on Black Authors Network (BAN) blogtalk radio, hosted by Ella Curry.

Your next thought if you know me is, but Carolyn is not black. True. I have no African heritage, but I have connections to the African-American community. Even if I didn’t, the message of WRITE FROM THE HEART is colorblind. There is no racial twist, no gender or sexuality preference, and no religious slant. It's all about storytelling and the self-discovery that happens when a person sits down to compose one's thoughts in writing.

If you’d like to stop by and listen in, here’s when and where to go:
Show time: promptly at 7pm-9pm EST

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

On childhood faith: Remembering Ash Wednesday

It’s Fat Tuesday. A day of worldwide gluttony and pursuit of pleasure before Ash Wednesday and the season of lent. Growing up in a very diverse neighborhood in SoCal, many of my friends at school were of Mexican heritage, which also meant Catholic. They went to catechism. They came to school every year on Ash Wednesday with a smudge on their forehead, a secret symbol for an exclusive club. Until my mother went through her revival of religion when I was in high school, my family worshipped the TV and observed nothing but commercialism at Christmas and Easter.

In those days we were simply protestant. Shortly after my parents split up, my mother dragged us to a church within walking distance of our apartment in Pomona. A small, A-shaped sanctuary housed the Gospel Tabernacle. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was a Pentecostal church of roof-raising proportions. Prior to attending the Gospel Tabernacle, I’d only been to church once. I was about five and all I remember was a man standing in front talking, talking, talking, my mother trying to listen, my two sisters and I fidgeting on the hard wooden pews. My Daddy picked us up afterward and I asked him why he didn’t come with us. He said, “Oh, I don’t believe in that Mickey Mouse stuff.”

That church certainly wasn’t Disneyland, not that I’d ever been, even though we could see the Disneyland fireworks every summer night from the front yard of our house in Santa Ana. Still, I wondered what Mickey Mouse had to do with church. So when the music and the singing began at the Gospel Tabernacle, the voices would cry out across the room like animated voices from a Saturday afternoon cartoon. Rounds of “hal=le-luuuuuuuu-jahs” lifted over the singing, while “Praise you, Jeeeee-sus” filled the space in between songs. Gospel Tabernacle wasn’t a placid Mickey Mouse church like the one in Santa Ana, it was a wild ride through the jungles of joy where Tarzan was expected to show at any time.

Yes. Tarzan. I really didn’t know what Tarzan had to do with church, but surely as my name was Carolyn, I heard it loud and clear over the top of the praise fest, “The king is coming! Tar-zaaaaaan is coming!” I looked around, expecting to see a wild man in a leopard loincloth swing before the faces of the faithful. When Tarzan never appeared, I chalked it up to another cartoon fantasy, as if the lady who called out for Tarzan preferred a wild human god to a talking mouse.

Years later, at a roof-rocking church in Laguna Beach, I heard about the swinging king coming again. It wasn’t Tarzan. It was Hosanna: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”

So anyway. We stopped going to the Gospel Tabernacle after only a few weeks and didn’t go to church again for years afterwards. I listened to my Catholic friends talk about catechism as if it were a secret club and I wished for an invitation that never came. They bragged about the fancy white dresses they wore for their first communion and primped up the fanciness when they made their confirmation. On Fat Tuesday they feasted on ham sandwiches and Hostess chocolate cupcakes, because they knew there’d be no meat for 40 days and they were giving up chocolate for lent. They would go to mass on Wednesday morning before school to receive the secret mark of the sacred.

When I was nine, I asked my mom if we could go to mass in the morning before school to get ashed. Her eyes shot forth in horror like I’d just asked if I could go to school naked.

“We are not Catholic,” she said. “That’s all hocus pocus stuff.”

I took my faith into my own hands that year, showing up in Mrs. Vargas’s fourth grade class with a great big smudge across my forehead. Several of my friends remarked that they didn’t know I was Catholic and they didn’t see me at mass that morning. I told them I went to a different parish with my dad—a boldfaced lie. In truth, I had my own private mass on the way to school. I reached into the barbeque grill beside our front door for a fingertip of ash and smeared it on my forehead.

I spent the day feeling like an insider, one of the Smudged for Jesus crowd. Knowing I couldn’t give up chocolate, I gave up TV for lent and expected to observe it. As the day wore on, I became oblivious to the smudge on my forehead. Upon returning home, my mom looked at me with wary eyes and asked what was on my face.

“Oh this?” I said, running my finger across the smudge on my forehead. “It’s my ashes.”

My mom's face went hard. “I told you we are not Catholic. Where did you get that?”

“Not in church. It’s from the barbeque. I put it on myself.”

My mom threw her pointing finger toward the bathroom. “Get in there and wash your face this minute.”

I slumped off to the bathroom and stared at myself, just as I had in the bathroom mirror at school. I licked my finger and wiped the smudge around until it faded into my skin. It was no longer visible, but I knew it was still there. My ash Wednesday was a rebellious act of faith and it was mine alone.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Okay then, the 25 random things

Back in early January, the "25 Random Things About Me" was "16 Random Things." Like a game of virtual telephone tag, the list grew from 16 to 25. I've been tagged a few more times since the meme morphed to 25, so rather than rehash more random things, I will add 9 more to my previous list of 16.

Nine new random things:

1. I am an expert secret keeper. For some reason people confide things in me; things I would rather not know, but often it's just because they need to talk about it. Athough I am not always the best listener--I frequently interrupt with questions and comments--I never let it past my lips again.

2. In stressful settings, I tend to blurt out my opinions with emphatic pitch that is often misconstrued as harsh. If I've done this to you, it's not about you. It's about me and a fault I'm working to overcome.

3. We have a pet cemetary in the wayback of our property. Graves include one bunny, three dogs, three cats, a rooster, a hen, and a lizard. I love animals and would have a pet rescue if I could afford it.

4. In third grade I swiped some matches from our babysitter and took off with my best friend Stewart Crump to see if it fires were really *that* easy to start. We holed up in the babysitter's garage and flicked match after match, but couldn't get the place to burn. I got called home and dang, wouldn't you know that while I was home, Stewart got the garage to burn.

5. More about fire. When I was young we were so poor we used to drive up to the baseline of the mountains to watch the annual forest fires in the nearby mountains. Cheap entertainment.

6. More cheap entertainment. Back in the days when we were poor, gas was cheap. When there was nothing else to do we would hop in the car and go for a ride. Oh yeah. Loved it when we parked in a motel parking lot outside Disneyland to watch the fireworks.

7. I am fiercely protective of my mornings. I get up early to write for the first three hours. This is typically my fiction writing time and my family knows to give me a wide berth. I love them for it. After writing time is over, I'll all about my work in the travel and motivation business.

8. My father died in 1989, my mother died in 2003, my younger sister died in 1990. I miss each one of them more than ever. Time changes grief, but it never goes away.

9. I love people. As a journalist and travel consultant, I meet amazing people all over the world. I am tagging a zillion people in this note from other countries. We are a global village.

The original list of 16 Random Things

1. I was born in East LA and have lived within a 50 mile radius of my birthplace for all but three years of my life, when I lived in Iwakuni, Japan during 1987-1990.

2. I ate my first oyster from a half-shell only a month ago, at a restaurant in Ventura, California called The Watermark.

3. My first grade teacher tied me to my chair because I wiggled, squirmed, and "visited with my neighbor" too much. I think I had A.D.D. before it was an official disorder. Despite this awkward incident, she was my favorite teacher for many years.

4. I hated math growing up because of the repetition. I mean, I got it the first time (1+1=2, 2+2=4), so why did we have to do pages and pages of silly math problems? I eventually turned off my brain when the teach said to pull out the math books.

5. I wanted to marry a Beatle when I was a little girl--Paul, the cute one, of course. I still get tingly when I see pictures of him with his peg-legged pants and that funny shaped guitar he used to play. Now that I'm older, I get tingly when I listen to John's lyrics.

6. I fell in love with Shakespeare because my English teacher, Mr. Mann, taught the bard with literary romance and passion. I can hear him introduce our first play, "MacBeth," saying how he envied us that we would be hearing Shakespeare for the first time.

7. I wanted to be a stewardess back in the day when it was still a politically correct term. Back in that day, however, there were height requirements. I was too short.

8. Also back in the day, I was editor of my HS yearbook. My travel careers advisor read a poem I'd written and told me, "Why do you want to be a stewardess? You should be a writer." Wish I could find him and say thank you.

9. Pertinent to numbers 7 and 8, I did become a writer and now travel the world writing about beautiful places, friendly faces, and lasting traces.

10. The pinnacle of my life was the birth of my first child. Then the birth of my second. My children are now old enough to teach me things.

11. I've loved every era of my kids' lives, from breastfeeding to packing them up and dropping them off at university.

12. My daughty is scary smart, headed for a PhD in English Lit, and my son has a photographic memory and is looking to be a Naval officer.

13. Both of my kids friended me on Facebook of their own choice. Many of their friends have as well. This pleases me.

14. I wrote my first novel when I was 43. It's still not published and I hit the mid-century mark last year with a second yet-unpublished novel behind me.

15. My husby helps with housework, thinks I'm a great cook, keeps my car washed, and generally indulges my whims. He looks really good in a flight suit, too. I think I'll keep him.

16. Did I say I love animals? In addition to my two doglets, Tank (a Jack Russell) and Buck (a beagador), I have a pet chicken named Rosie who roams my backyard and pecks on the backdoor windows, plus three more hens in a coop in the wayback of our property.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Here's to a Fine 2009

I don’t make New Year’s resolutions. Even as a young girl I remember thinking that New Year’s resolutions were silly, that if there was something you wanted or needed to do, why wait for the new year to make it happen.

So this year I will continue doing what I’ve been doing pretty much all of my life: Getting up in the morning and going to bed at night.

Boring, huh?

It’s the in between things that define the quality of a person’s life. He’s a glimpse at what I do in between the rising and setting of my days.

I wake early without an alarm clock—thanks to all of the years I had to get up at 6 to get my kids ready for the school bus by 7. My husby works nights and sleeps until about 10 am, my daughty is away at university and my son exercises his post-high-school-afternoon-college habit to sleep until noon. This gives me blissful silence every morning to court the muse.

Make coffee—I used to prep it to automatically brew so it was ready when I got up, but I found the new coffeemakers hold too much moisture in the system and it gives the coffee a musky flavor. Fresh brewed is best.

Yoga, or not—I do yoga to the rhythm of the coffee brewing. I usually have two dogs vying for my attention while I’m reaching and stretching.

Lie on the sofa with laptop and dogs—I’ve written both of my novels in jammies, laying on my sofa with dogs curled at my feet and laptop where it belongs: in my lap. Just like now.

Morning pages—My friend MJ Chapman gave me a copy of THE ARTIST’S WAY last year for Christmas and one of the practices is called “Morning Pages.” I left behind hardbound journals a long time ago, so my morning writing is in a Word doc, formatted into a table with date and comment fields. I don’t journal my feelings/emotions and such, but list things I have to accomplish that day. This helps me clear the clutter from my mind so that I can move on to my next morning activity.

Personal writing—This is my favorite time of day. Personal writing is whatever I’m working on that doesn’t yet have a paycheck or deadline attached. If I’m writing an article for the newspaper or a magazine, that’s not personal writing and I do it during my working hours. My blog and fiction fall into this writing cycle.

Socialize—I absolutely love working from home, but it can be very lonely for a chatterbox like me. Facebook and my online writer’s groups are like watering holes that offer camaraderie and comedy. After I’ve finished my personal writing, I open Facebook and email and the work day begins.

Get dressed—Sometime after I’ve yakked at my virtual watering holes and am on my third cup of coffee, I meander back to the bedroom where BassMan has finally awaken. He’s often grumbly in the morning, so I slink around him without my usual prattle. My career attire begins with jeans and a sweater in the winter and a skort and t-shirt in the spring, summer and fall.

Commute to the desktop—I love my work. My commute is from my bedroom to my office. I have one main client that keeps me busy with interesting projects, professional education opportunities, events to coordinate, correspondence with uber-professional people, and opportunities to visit beautiful places. I keep my virtual watering holes open most of the day when I’m working, unless I’m utterly slammed with a deadline.

Travel—Last year I stayed in 29 hotels for a total of 64 nights, 11 of those hotels were in Mexico. My favorite? Hacienda Puerta Campeche, a blissfully beautiful boutique hotel in the colonial city of Campeche on the Gulf of Mexico. If I’m not traveling or writing about travel, I am planning my next trip. Next Monday I’m off to Palm Springs to review the recently reopened and restored legend, The Riviera Hotel and Spa.

Eat, pray, love and read—All things in moderation. Favorite food continues to be pizza in various mutations of the traditional stuff. I pray for peace, for safety to my friends and loved ones, for understanding, and I am not afraid to pray for patience. My husby, kids and dogs are the center of my love life, yet I love my virtual friends as much as my in-the-skin friends. Read? I love books as much as I love food. My favorite book this year wasn’t Ann Patchett’s RUN (as much as I had hoped), but a quiet book SALVATION by Lucia Nevai, published by Tin House Books, a terrific indie press.

After all the other stuff-I take my dogs Tank and Buck to the off-leash park where they frisk and frolic with their buddies when they’re not chasing balls or Frisbees. Then I cook dinner, read, maybe watch some TV, and I'm in bed by 10.

Reading all of this makes me tired. Maybe I’ll add a nap to the routine.

So anyway. Do you make New Year’s resolutions? Do you keep them? What are the highlights of your days?