Author Archive | Melissa Bartell

Sunday Brunch: Getting Sleepy

“Sleep is still most perfect, in spite of hygienists, when it is shared with a beloved. The warmth, the security and peace of soul, the utter comfort from the touch of the other, knits the sleep, so that it takes the body and soul completely in its healing.” – D.H. Lawrence

Happy Couple Sleeping by Antonio Guillem

I wrote a short story a few months ago about a father and daughter at bedtime. It’s funny how much ritual and care we put into that winding-down part of the evening. It’s routine, right? Going to bed? But how do our bedtime rituals inform us, and how do they change over the course of our lives?

I should begin with a confession: I’ve never been a good sleeper.

In fact, to put it crudely, I kind of suck at sleep.

As a child bedtime initially involved my mother reading to me, but that ended when I was six or seven, and grew impatient to find out what happened with Jo and Laurie in Little Women. Even without being read to, however, my mother was still an important part of my bedtime routine.

She would ensure that I had a glass of water on my nightstand, and help me arrange all my stuffed animals and rag dolls (Winnie-the-Pooh, my favorite, was usually closest to my head, but the others had their own hierarchy depending on which was in favor. The two-foot-tall koala sat on the floor at night.)

But, as soon as my light had been turned off, as soon as my door had clicked shut, I was hiding under the covers with a flashlight, determined to get to the next part of whatever story had me hooked.

As I got older, and no longer needed to be ‘tucked into’ bed, my nocturnal life expanded. I set aside the flashlight for the boldness of the lamp on my nightstand, and even kept the radio turned on for company while I read. More than once, I fell asleep with my glasses crooked on my face, and a book folded open over my chest, only to wake up, disoriented and time-lagged, in the wee hours.

By the time I was a teenager, bedtime was no longer a fixed hour, though there was a time at which I was expected to be in my room on school nights. A life-long possessor of a vivid imagination and a tendency toward nightmares, late-night radio became my new bedtime ritual.

I’d set the sleep-timer on my ancient, white, clock radio – the one that was so old-school the numbers flipped like calendar pages instead of being liquid crystal or LED – to the maximum allowable period (fifty-nine minutes), keep the volume so low I had to strain to hear it, and let myself be pulled toward sleep.

At some point, I gave up listening to music at night, partly because I heard the Paul McCartney & Wings song “Let ‘Em In” one too many times, and it’s creeped me out every single time, and partly because any song that I liked would make me want to leave bed, and sing and dance in the middle of my (admittedly hazardously messy) room. I became addicted to Larry King’s radio show – the one from before he was on cable tv, and even before his heart attack – and even though I was rarely familiar with the guests, it worked, sending me into sweet oblivion until my alarm went off the next morning.

Some nights, when my imagination just would not let go, I had to hit that sleep timer multiple times, but most nights, the initial fifty-nine minutes were enough.

Adulthood brought new ingredients to my rituals for falling asleep, among them, white noise generators (which have since morphed into apps on my iPad) and a bedmate, in the form of my husband.

The former is the thing I now cannot sleep without, as it gives me a place for my imagination to reside, at least at the beginning of sleep, and distracts me from all those ‘house’ noises that would normally spark irrational fear.

As to my husband, while I can sleep without him, and sometimes prefer the luxury of having the entire bed to myself for an afternoon nap, I’ve determined that D.H. Lawrence was right on the nose. On my worst nights, I can nestle into his arms, and let his solid warmth form a sort of cocoon around me.

Science would insist that I’m either surfing on my husband’s delta waves or responding to increased levels of oxytocin created by physical contact, and I’m sure both are playing their parts. Nevertheless, I think there’s also something about simply not being alone to face the shadowy denizens of the darkness that soothes my wild mind more than any sleeping pill, herbal or otherwise, could ever do.

And of course, we have our own rituals… we usually find ourselves laughing right before we turn out the light, and sometimes for several minutes after. Even though we both work from home we use those starlit moments to reconnect, to talk about the little things that don’t get mentioned over dinner, and just to be.

If I wake him in the middle of the night with an affectionate (but still adamant) request to, “Roll onto your side; you’re snoring,” well, that’s just part of our routine, just as, half way through any given sleep period, I’ll wake up freezing and accuse him of stealing the covers.

“No, I didn’t,” he’ll say, waking up just enough to help rearrange the blankets and sheets. “You gave them to me.”

And maybe, subconsciously, I did.

Just has he’s given me endless, steadfast protection from my nightmares.

“And if tonight my soul may find her peace in sleep, and sink in good oblivion, and in the morning wake like a new-opened flower then I have been dipped again in God, and new-created.” – D.H. Lawrence

 

About the author: Melissa A. Bartell

Melissa is a writer, voice actor, podcaster, itinerant musician, voracious reader, and collector of hats and rescue dogs. She is the author of The Bathtub Mermaid: Tales from the Holiday Tub. You can learn more about her on her blog, or connect with her on on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.

Sunday Brunch: Scents of Summer

Sunday Brunch With Melissa Bartell

Soaking in the bath last Saturday, I opened a dwindling jar of Noxzema, and inhaled the sharp medicinal odor of eucalyptus. If it’s possible for a substance to smell clean, that white cream in the classic blue jar managed it perfectly well.

It also transported me back in time, to childhood summers at the Jersey shore.

Summer Scenes

I use Noxzema year-round, replacing the jar when necessary. They’re selling it in plastic now, and while I’ll concede that it’s probably safer for something I typically keep on the side of the tub, I miss the heavy glass.

I often wonder if all beach glass comes from Noxzema bottles.

Despite the fact that many of our childhood remedies have been proven not to work as promised, Noxzema really is one of the best things you can use to soothe a summer sunburn.

In the kitchen, I opened a jar of coconut oil – I’ve been experimenting with using it instead of butter in some baked goods – and immediately I was six, eight, ten, twelve, walking across hot sand with a rolled towel, a beach bag, and an insulated lunch bag – the square kind that looks like a small, zippered cooler and holds one sandwich, one napkin, one bag of chips or carrot sticks, and one cold Coca Cola, along with an ice pack to keep it cold – slung across my chest.

I wore heart-shaped sunglasses and a polka-dotted bikini with ruffles, and my hair was twisted into two tight braids.

As a girlfriend and I recently discussed, they don’t really make suntan lotion or suntan oil, anymore, but my childhood summers were filled with the salty-sweet aroma of Coppertone and Sea & Ski – the former more pungent than the latter – and my mother’s snarky comments about “sizzling meat” in reference to all the older teenagers and young adults basking under the summer sun, trying to get as dark as possible.

Modern sunscreen that goes up to level sixty SPF tends to have a floral scent, not a warm aquatic, and definitely not coconut.

Yesterday in the shower, I used the last of my favorite shampoo. It smells like orange creamsicle, and every time I catch a whiff I’m seven years old, standing with my grandfather at the edge of his driveway, waiting for the ice cream truck to stop.

Nutty Buddies were my early favorite, but there’s something so magical, so summery, about cold, creamy orange that it’s the “frozen novelty treat” that’s ingrained in my senses. I was this|close to sending my husband to the grocery store to track down a box of those tubes of citrus-flavored joy, but, ultimately decided against it.

Still, I know there will come a time in the next month or so, when the rain stops again and I’m spending afternoons in my backyard pool, when I’ll long for those smells: coconut, orange, and eucalyptus, the same way I long to swim in salt water and laugh at the fact that I now pay money for hair texturizer made of the same – after half a lifetime of doing everything possible to get salt crust out of my hair.

I will wake up with the remembered scent of line-dried clothes and the cheery sight of colorful bathing suits waving in the breeze, and I will lean back against the pillows and close my eyes, and return to the beach in memory and imagination.

And then after a bit, I’ll pad into the bathroom, enjoying the feeling of cool tile under my bare feet, and reach for my jar of Noxzema. Just because.

About the author: Melissa A. Bartell

Melissa is a writer, voice actor, podcaster, itinerant musician, voracious reader, and collector of hats and rescue dogs. She is the author of The Bathtub Mermaid: Tales from the Holiday Tub. You can learn more about her on her blog, or connect with her on on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.

Sunday Brunch: Holding Hands

Sunday Brunch With Melissa Bartell

When I imagine my mother, she’s always holding cup of coffee. Her hands are square-ish, sturdy, with the calloused fingers and tiny cuts to the palms that are inherent to women who often work with fabric. (She calls herself a ‘sewist’ these days, because a ‘sewer’ is something where dirty water goes, and a ‘seamstress’ implies that she works in a hot, noisy factory.)

Coffee is one of my mother’s touchpoints. I was practically weaned on the stuff, and I have more than one memory of choosing a mug for her as a gift, making sure to pick one with a handle large enough to comfortably fit three fingers.

Woman holding coffee cup

If you asked me, I would tell you that she prefers her hair short, that she likes tailored cuts the same way she likes tailored clothes, that her eyes are brown and that her brows are shaped in soft arcs, unlike mine, which are angled like flattened carats.

I can hear her voice in my head, but when I think of her, it’s her hands that I think of first. I remember (vaguely) the way her hands kept me upright when I was learning to walk, and the way her grip kept me close when we went out together.

I am familiar with the length of her fingers and the Dutch Tulip color of her nail polish and the blue tinge of the subcutaneous lump on one wrist, the remains of some childhood accident.

What I don’t remember, though, is when I became ‘too old’ to hold her hand in public, and when I finally became ‘old enough’ to reclaim the practice.

I remember holding hands with my grandmother no matter what my age was. Her hands were nothing like my mother’s. She had slender fingers, the tips slightly angled from age and arthritis, the nails incredibly strong, and ridged from base to tip.

“Your hands are so warm!” She would say, folding hers into mine, as if she could absorb all the warmth I had to offer.

“Cold hands – warm heart,” I would tease her.

(We never talked about the opposite. Did my warm hands make me somehow evil, or just mischievous?)

When we walked up and down her block, or on the beach, or wherever, my grandmother would never wrap her hands around my palm. Instead, she’d grip my fingers, mashing them together until they were crossed over each other, and circulation became impaired.

Last month, my husband I spent a few days visiting my aunt – my mother’s younger sister – and her husband in rural Connecticut, and reaching for her hand as we walked around her town, seemed like the most natural thing in the world. After years of not seeing each other, we still fit.

My aunt’s hands are a blend of my mother’s and my grandmother’s. She has long, elegant, fingers, but she also has the tell-tale signs of a person who (like me) does a lot more work with computer keys than fabric and notions (although, my mother also writes).

My hands, like my eyebrows, don’t look like any of theirs. They’re small and plump and no matter what fresh foods I eat or supplements I take, my nails are always breaking just when they’re at the ‘perfect’ length.

My grandmother died the year my parents moved to Mexico, but sometimes I’m certain that I feel her hands, so cool, so gentle, smoothing the hair away from my forehead when I’m sleeping.

My aunt lives half a continent away, but visiting her didn’t feel weird or awkward, and I would have liked more time.

And my mother. My mother is one of the two constants in my life (the other is my husband, who has musician’s hands, but this isn’t about him). Sometimes, when I visit her, and we’re walking along the malecón in La Paz, we’ll hold hands, and in those moments, I’m five years old with bouncing braids and sun-browned skin, and everything is innocent and safe.

Most of the time, when I think about my mother’s hands, they’re wrapped around a coffee cup.

Then again, most of the time, when I’m thinking about my mother’s hands… so are mine.

Woman with coffee and laptop

Image Copyright: amaviael / 123RF Stock Photo
Image Copyright: morganka / 123RF Stock Photo

 

About the author: Melissa A. Bartell

Melissa A. BartellMelissa is a writer, voice actor, podcaster, itinerant musician, voracious reader, and collector of hats and rescue dogs. She is the author of The Bathtub Mermaid: Tales from the Holiday Tub. You can learn more about her on her blog, or connect with her on on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.

Grocery Store Flowers: Jack by Melissa A. Bartell

Photo by Neirfy via 123RF.com

Daisy Morris ran a tired hand through her long red hair, grimacing when the ring on her left hand caught in her braid. The day before Mother’s Day was always crazy-busy, and her flower kiosk had been the epicenter of a steady buzz of traffic. She lowered her hand to glance at her wristwatch. It was four-thirty and the kiosk didn’t close until seven.

Taking advantage of the brief lull, she walked through the seasonal fruit and pastry display to the espresso bar in the grocery store lobby. “Our Daisy isn’t looking to fresh,” quipped Jolene, the wrinkled, gray-haired woman who claimed she could ‘still sling espresso shots with the best of them.’

“Not feeling so fresh, either,” the younger woman admitted. “Every year it’s the same thing… all these men and boys coming to buy cards and flowers as if Mother’s Day is some kind of surprise. Makes you wonder how they cope with the rest of their lives. Can I get a – ”

“Grande soy no-water chai,” Jolene finished with her. “Sure thing, honey. As to Mother’s Day… at least they’re getting something. My husband was a soldier… so many years holidays went by without any kind of acknowledgement because he was deployed. These days, these youngsters in the service have email and facetime and skype and sat-phones but in my day… ”

Daisy grinned, listening to Jolene’s mini-monologue as she watched the older woman expertly crafting her drink. “Oh, come on, Jo – you are not that old.”

“I’m older than you think,” she replied, handing over a cardboard-wrapped paper cup. “And this one’s on me. You have a customer waiting, and I think you’re going to need the fortification.”

Following the barista’s gaze, Daisy turned to her flower stand, and saw a boy who looked like he was about ten hovering around the carnations and daffodils. “I’ll be right there,” she called to him. “Thanks, Jo. Really.”

“Aw, it’s nothin’ but a thing,” Jolene said. “Now, scoot!”

Laughing around the rim of her cup, Daisy took a swig of her drink, savoring the spiciness of the chai and the comforting warmth of the steamed soymilk. It had been a wet spring, and a chilly one, at that, and she was constantly in and out of the refrigerators where the more delicate flowers shared space with prepared arrangements.

The boy was still hovering as she returned to her station. She tucked her cup behind a roll of ribbon on the work-desk below counter-height and smoothed her apron. Then she went to check on the kid. “Hi,” she said gently. “I’m Daisy. Are you looking for something special?”

They boy’s gray eyes betrayed the kind of hurt that was usually only evident in older faces, but he managed a faint smile. “I’m Jack,” he said. “I need to get flowers for my mom,” he said, with a hint of a quiver in his voice. “But I only have eight dollars.”

Daisy did some quick accounting. For that money, the boy could get a bunch of mini-carnations, or five irises or… “I think we can work with that. Do you know your mom’s favorite flowers?”

“Dad used to get her roses, when I was little.”

She swallowed her grin. She’d initially thought the boy was ten, but now, noticing the softness of his sandy-brown hair and the sprinkling of freckles across his cheeks, she thought he might be eight or nine. Definitely an age that still qualified as ‘little’ in her estimation. “Is your mom with you in the store?”

“She’s paying for groceries. I said I’d meet her at the door.”

“Okay,” Daisy said. “Well, for eight dollars we could do three roses and some baby’s breath and greens…” She could see the boy deflating in front of her. “You don’t want to do roses?”

“Sometimes when Mom sees roses, she gets sad,” the boy said.

Daisy couldn’t help it; she started inventing scenarios in her head. Maybe this boy’s father had been a soldier, like Jolene’s husband, and had died serving his country. Or maybe it was something much more prosaic: a separation or divorce. She shook her head, realizing that the kid was still talking.

“… and it’s been a year since he moved out, and I just want her to smile.”

Her smile was soft and wistful. “That’s very sweet. Well, okay, no roses. Do you know her favorite color?”

“Yellow.”

“Yellow,” she repeated thoughtfully. “Hmm. Yellow. Okay, Jack, how about we do a bunch of these…” She led him around the stand of fresh flowers to the bucket of daffodils. They were on special – only a dollar. “Or maybe two bunches. And then add an iris or two for a little punch of color.”  She went to the fridge and drew out two of the long-stemmed purple flowers, glanced at the boy, and then added a third. “Three would look better,” she explained. “Does your mom have a vase at home?”

He nodded. “She has lots of vases.”

“Good. Let’s wrap these in tissue then.” Daisy paused a moment. “Do you want a card to go with these?” Before the boy could answer, she tacked on. “The floral cards aren’t very big, but they’re free.”

The boy nodded, grinning. “Yes, please.”

Daisy took the flowers to her work-desk behind the counter, pausing to sip from her all-but-forgotten chai. Still warm, she thought. Good. Selecting a handful of small cards, she handed them to the boy.

He handed most of them back. “This one,” he said, holding up a card that had yellow tulips and the words Happy Mother’s Day printed on the front.

“Do you need a pen?”

“Yes, please.”

Jack was too small to reach the service counter. “Come around here to the opening and you can lean on the end of my workbench to write, okay?”

“Thanks.”

Daisy grinned, and resisted the urge to reach out and ruffle the boy’s hair. Softly, she said, “Jack, do you mind me asking… you said your dad used to bring roses to your mom?”

“They got divorced last August,” he said. “He has another family now.”

Oh, poor kid.

“I’m sure he still loves you,” she assured the boy.

The boy shrugged, the way young people sometimes do when a concept is just too big for them to truly understand. “I guess.” He put down the pen. “I’m done.”

Daisy took the card with its topsy-turvy lettering, and slotted it into a plastic card-holder which she tucked into the tissue wrapped flowers. She cut two lengths of ribbon – yellow and purple – and tied the bundle together.

“Alright, Jack, let’s ring you up.” Daisy punched buttons on the register, then looked up to see Jack’s stricken expression. The total had come to $8.64.

“Can we put one of the bunches of daffodils back?” he asked quietly.

Daisy hesitated. “We could, or… hey, Jack… do you think you could lift that empty bucket… the one near the sign that says, ‘Mother’s Day Bouquets?’ Because if you could bring it to me, you’d be helping out, and I could give you my employee discount.” In a conspiratorial tone, she added, “It would bring the total down to just under seven dollars.”

The boy didn’t answer. He just ran to get the bucket, and bring it back to the counter. “Here.”

“Well, thank you, Jack.” She punched another button on her register. “Six dollars and ninety-two cents, please,” she said.

Jack counted out seven wrinkled dollar bills. “I’ve been saving my allowance,” he said.

Daisy grinned. “I wasn’t very good about doing that, when I was your age. It’s nice that you’re getting flowers for your mom.” She handed him the nickel and three pennies that were his change, and then came around the counter to present him with the wrapped flowers.

“Tell your mother, she’s lucky to have you,” she told the boy.

Jack grinned. “Oh. She knows.”

She watched him turn and catch the eye of a woman standing near the door with a cart of bagged groceries, saw him place his tissue-wrapped bundle in the child-seat part of the cart, and smiled broadly when his mother, tired face suddenly suffused with delight, pulled her son into a rough embrace right there in the grocery story lobby.

Yeah, the day before Mother’s Day was always crazy-busy, and she was pretty sure there was going to be another rush between five-thirty and seven, but sometimes… sometimes she got to see love in action, and that made everything worth it.

Image Copyright: neirfy / 123RF Stock Photo

About the author: Melissa A. Bartell

Melissa A. BartellMelissa is a writer, voice actor, podcaster, itinerant musician, voracious reader, and collector of hats and rescue dogs. She is the author of The Bathtub Mermaid: Tales from the Holiday Tub. You can learn more about her on her blog, or connect with her on on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.

A Letter to Spring by Melissa A. Bartell

Little Flower Crocus

Dear Spring,

I have to confess, I’ve developed a sort of love/hate relationship with you over the years. It was inevitable, I guess. I mean, no one stays in love forever, right?

As a child, the coming of spring meant that I got to put away heavy winter coats and thick tights that were always too long for me. I could wrap my feet in sneakers instead of boots and sometimes, I could even wear sandals.

Even now, you bring with you some important rituals, like changing the wreath on my front door to one that celebrates flowers, birds, and butterflies. After a winter of wearing shoes and socks inside the house, your return sends me to the nail salon for a luxurious pedicure with time spent soaking my feet in hot wax and then getting pink polish on my toes. Sometimes, even with a flower.

And then there’s the first new pair of flip-flops of the year. I found mine at the grocery store this time – no, really! – but usually Target is my go-to source.

There are certain aspects of you, Spring, that I never want to miss: dancing on the deck in a warm rain-shower, the return of fresh, seasonal fruits to my store, the opening of the local farmers’ market.

But then there’s the flip-side.

The part of your arrival that beings out the hatred in me.

I mean, yes, I love spring rain, but I live in North-Central Texas, which means that we get days on end of weather that threatens – promises – rain, but never delivers. The gray light and thick skies go right to my head, and I’m forced to retreat to a cool, dark room until the tension breaks and the water cascades down.

And then there’s the mud. All those storms mean tons of it, and, you know, I have dogs who won’t go outside if there’s the merest hint of a drizzle, but if they realize there’s mud, all bets are off. Two of my dogs are mostly white, though if you look at them between March and June, you’d never know it.

The mud doesn’t just stay on the animals, either. They track it everywhere – the floors, the couch, my bed. Seriously, if our country ever goes to war again, they should just weaponize mud. It’s cheaper than nukes, and less harmful to the environment.

Of course, a letter to you, Spring, would have to include a word about tornadoes. I don’t know what you’re trying to prove with those twisting funnels of instant mayhem. None of us really believe that you can get to Oz that way, and frankly, they feel like a desperate grab for attention.

Seriously, Spring, must you be so needy?

It should be obvious, oh Season that transitions Winter into Summer, that my relationship with you is laced with ambivalence.

You bring so much destruction, but you also apologize for it with radiant blooms of colorful flowers – daffodils, tulips, daisies – all harbingers of happiness.

And so, Spring, I leave you with this thought: these mood swings of yours are not healthy. Do us all a favor: seek therapy. I know, I know,  you’re going to say that it’s we humans who have made you this way; that you’re only reacting to what we’ve done to your Planet.

And maybe that’s valid.

But couldn’t you at least meet us half way?

Image Copyright: ljubomirtrigubishyn / 123RF Stock Photo

About the author: Melissa A. Bartell

Melissa A. BartellMelissa is a writer, voice actor, podcaster, itinerant musician, voracious reader, and collector of hats and rescue dogs. She is the author of The Bathtub Mermaid: Tales from the Holiday Tub. You can learn more about her on her blog, or connect with her on on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.

 

Sunday Brunch: Carousel of Memories

Sunday Brunch With Melissa Bartell

Calliope music, tinny and over-loud coming from the speakers, doesn’t quite drown out the sounds of human voices: small children squealing in delight, parents warning them to hold on and be careful. The lights blur as I ride by, my painted pony leaping upwards and gently descending as it chases other ponies (and sleds) around and around in an endless circle.

Asbury Park Carousel

The music slows.

The lights resolve into individual incandescent bulbs.

The ponies stop.

With watery legs, I slide off my stalwart steed, jump from the platform and launch myself at the adult who has been watching me. My grandfather, most likely, or maybe my great-aunt Violet.

“Did you see? I caught the ring!” I ask, and their answer is a blend of weariness and positive reinforcement.

I am five, six, seven years old, and I’ve just ended a day at the Asbury Park boardwalk with a ride on the carousel.

* * *

Outside the carousel house, the twilight of evening is melting into full darkness. The scent of hot dogs and cotton candy mixes with the salty brine of sea and sand. The lights on the rollercoaster are reflected upon the glassy ocean.

The night feels made of magic.

I am twelve years old, and I have no idea that it will be the last time I see the boardwalk with its rides active, with children running back and forth, with indulgent parents and grandparents handing over money in exchange for pretzels with mustard, paper cones full of popcorn, or wax-coated bags of salt-water taffy.

On that night, surrounded by the teeming throngs of little kids racing for the teacups, kids my age who are at once too cool to be seen with their parents but not quite ready to be away from them, and older kids – teens, really – making out in the gondolas of the Ferris wheel, I cannot even fathom that such a thriving place – an icon of the Jersey Shore – will be a dead husk just a few years later.

* * *

It’s 2009 and my husband, my parents, and I are on the east coast because my aunt – my mother’s younger sister – got married a few days before, and we’ve extended our trip to visit family none of us have seen in years.

The October wind blows cold through the two layers of sweaters I’m wearing, but I turn my face into it, and let it push my hair back behind me. The ocean is deep blue and steel gray, primal and fierce, crashing its fists of white foam on the cold sand.

The boardwalk is empty, save for a few hard-core athletes, sheathed in thermal exercise gear and clutching their dogs’ leashes as they pound down the slanted, weathered boards.

We leave Asbury Park, and head to the next town over, Ocean Grove, where the cute shops are open for business, hoping a few errant tourists will wander in.

My mother and I lived there for part of a year when I was nine, and walking those so-familiar streets fills me with bittersweet nostalgia. I liked my life when I was there, when it was just Mom and me in our apartment on the second floor, where you could see the ocean from the bathtub.

Even so, thirty years later, I must acknowledge, that her life and mine are both happier with all the changes that have taken place since then.

* * *

It is last Wednesday of March, 2017, and I’m in Asbury Park again, with just my husband this time.

We woke early that morning to the total darkness of the power being out, and the insistent keening of tornado sirens, drove to the airport feeling a bit shell-shocked, then landed, several hours later, under sunny skies.

Our hotel room has a view of the beach and vintage photos of the Jersey Shore on the walls, and after we have dinner – truly sinful burgers made of ground beef mixed with ground bacon – at a local pub, we go to the boardwalk.

The sun is low in the early-spring sky, and the air is chilly, but I find a bench and enjoy the peace of the waves, and smile at all the people walking their dogs, or just enjoying the pre-tourist season calm.

The city has changed since I was last here.

What was once a dead town is alive again.

Many of the Beaux-Arts buildings have been lovingly restored. The old Arcade is now home to small boutiques and a coffee roasting company (with a brewery right next door). Restaurants line the waterfront, and the town hosts many trendy eateries and bars – ethnic, Vegan, brunch – including (as their sidewalk sign proudly proclaims) “The Best Gay Bar in New Jersey.” (I take their word for it.)

My husband walks off to explore the Arcade, to take pictures at my behest, and I stay on my bench.

It’s probably just my imagination, but I can hear – very faintly – the sound of calliope music.

Asbury Park Carousel House

 

About the author: Melissa A. Bartell

Melissa A. BartellMelissa is a writer, voice actor, podcaster, itinerant musician, voracious reader, and collector of hats and rescue dogs. She is the author of The Bathtub Mermaid: Tales from the Holiday Tub. You can learn more about her on her blog, or connect with her on on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.

Sunday Brunch: Sleeping with Giraffes

Sunday Brunch With Melissa Bartell

Her name is April. She’s fifteen years old, and nearing the end of her fourth pregnancy. Oh, and she’s a giraffe.

Giraffes have the lowest sleep requirement of any land mammal, averaging around two hours out of every twenty-four, usually in increments of just a few minutes.

Copyright: <a href='https://www.123rf.com/profile_bondsza'>bondsza / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

Like thousands of people around the world, I have become enamored with April’s story, to the point where checking in on her in the mornings and evenings have become part of my routine. Why? Because there’s something magical in watching this elegant animal as she readies herself for the birth of her calf.

Something Zen.

Giraffes are prey-animals. As such, they typically take their rest standing up, but if they are in a place they perceive to be safe, they will sometimes lie down, and even catch a nap with their heads resting on their hind-quarters. Such naps rarely last longer than five minutes, but research conducted at zoos says that REM sleep is achieved.

April and her calf’s sire, Oliver, live at Animal Adventure Park in upstate New York. It’s a family-owned petting zoo, and many of the animals are exotic pets that have been rescued by the facility.

In watching April, we are also able to see the relationship between the keepers and the animals. Clearly there is love and respect on both sides.

In the morning, as sunlight filters into the giraffe barn, their pacing increases in tempo, and the giraffes pay close attention to the inner gates of their pens. While it’s not safe for the keepers to be in Oliver’s pen with him (bull giraffes are both strong and playful, and a misplaced kick can be lethal for a human), April is docile and likes to play kissy-face with her caretakers.

Alyssa, the main giraffe keeper, returns April’s affection, and, in truly precious moments, has even been seen on camera, placing gentle kisses over the places where baby-kicks have been witnessed.

The gestational period of a giraffe is fifteen months. The mother giraffe gives birth standing up, and her calf will drop about seven feet to the ground. A newborn giraffe weighs about a hundred and fifty pounds and stands about six feet tall.

My favorite part of watching April comes around eight in my evening. That’s when the keepers come with dinner, and bed down the giraffes for the night. As much as I enjoy watching April’s eighteen-inch-long, bluish-purple tongue snake out to accept offerings of carrots and romaine lettuce (apparently these two things are like crack to giraffes), the moment when the lights are switched off, and the giraffes are left in quiet twilight is the one that truly touches me.

No two giraffes share the same pattern of spots. These patterns are as unique as human fingerprints.

Over the two weeks since the GiraffeCam went live, I’ve found myself watching it a lot at night. This past week, while my husband was away for work, I even left the YouTube app running on the Roku TV in our bedroom. I’ve never been great at sleeping, but there was something so reassuring about seeing those serene creatures, April clearly defined by the soft light in her pen, just as restless as I am (but with a much better reason) and Oliver, who ghosted past the pen’s divider every so often, sharing the night with me.

Giraffes are born with their “horns” (actually called ossicones), but they are flat against the skull, and only fuse with the skull as the animal matures.

Intellectually, I know, I’m only one of many who have made April a part of their – of our – routines, but at times it felt that I’d been granted the special privilege of sleeping with giraffes.

While captive breeding programs are reasonably successful, giraffes are extinct in at least seven countries in Africa, and all species of giraffe are rated as “Vulnerable” to extinction.

The image above is NOT April.
You, too, can watch the GiraffeCam if you visit ApriltheGiraffe.com

About the author: Melissa A. Bartell

Melissa A. BartellMelissa is a writer, voice actor, podcaster, itinerant musician, voracious reader, and collector of hats and rescue dogs. She is the author of The Bathtub Mermaid: Tales from the Holiday Tub. You can learn more about her on her blog, or connect with her on on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.

Stirring & Settling, by Melissa A. Bartell

https://unsplash.com/@ornellabinni(Part IV of the Tea series, follows Stewing)

“Where are you taking me?” Sarah asked. She was in the front passenger seat of David’s car, one of his neckties forming a blindfold. She could have peeked around the edges – the knot at the back of her head wasn’t that tight – but her boyfriend had really wanted to surprise her, and she hated to ruin his fun.

“You’ll see,” he said, laughter coloring his tone. “Just be patient a little longer.”

“Just promise wherever we’re going has food,” she responded. “I’m starving.”

David didn’t answer.

The car kept going, with David humming lightly as he drove. Sarah could tell they weren’t in town any more – there hadn’t been any stops for traffic lights in quite a while – but she wasn’t sure which direction they’d been going. She’d have to trust him.

Just as she was taking a breath, preparing to ask how much longer they’d be driving, David stopped humming. The car turned off the pavement and onto a gravelly surface, finally rolling to a stop. “Okay,” he said. “We’re here.”

Sarah removed her blindfold. “The Japanese gardens?” she queried, reading the sign in front of their car. “I thought we were going for a late lunch. As far as I know, they don’t serve lunch here.”

“Trust me,” David suggested his tone warm with affection. He turned off the car, removed the keys and got out, moving around to open her door. “Please, Sar?”

She slid out of the car, glad she’d listened to his wardrobe suggestion. Her nautical-stripe sweater, khaki crop pants and navy espadrilles weren’t the most fashionable of outfits, but they made her feel neat and crisp, and she’d be comfortable even in the cool breeze that always seemed to linger along the river walk.

“I do trust you,” she said.

“Good.” He offered his arm, and she took it. “This way.”

Together, Sarah and David walked down the wide ramp that twisted and turned through the blossoming cherry trees. They paused on the little bridge that crossed the koi pond, laughing at the hopeful fish crowding to the surface. “We should buy some food for them,” Sarah said.

David grinned. “Right, because clearly they’re emaciated.” But he fished a couple of quarters from his pocket – he’d also worn khaki pants, Sarah notice – a change from his more typical weekend choice of jeans – and waited for the cup of fish-food to drop from the vending machine affixed to the far end of the bridge.

“Here…”

He held the cup and she pinched up some of the food, casting it into the water, and the fish waiting in it. “They remind me a little of hungry puppies.”

“All animals are adorable when they’re begging for food,” David joked. “It’s a rule.”

Sarah laughed. “I think it must be.”

When the cup was empty, they continued their walk, down the stairs of the terraced hillside, to the lantern-lined sidewalk along the riverbank.

“You alright?” David asked, when Sarah paused for no apparent reason.

“Fine…” she said. “Except… do you hear music?”

He made a show of listening. “Sounds like pan-flutes,” he said. “I think they’re coming from over that way.” He pointed in the direction of the gazebo that sat on the water-side of the walk, at the top of a curve. “Let’s find out?”

Sarah decided she was never going to get the lunch she’d been promised, and simply agreed with him, “Sure. Why not?”

Hand in hand, they kept walking, following the curving path along the water until they reached the gazebo, where, instead of the empty space Sarah had been expecting, there were paper lanterns and a trio of people playing different wind instruments.

“I don’t remember anyone advertising a musical event here,” Sarah said.

“They didn’t,” David answered. “Come with me.”

Gently, he led her up the steps and into the octagonal building, where a single, set table and two chairs were waiting for them.

Against one wall was a man in a chef’s uniform working on a portable outdoor stove. “Ah, you’ve arrived,” the dapper man said, turning to greet them. “Please sit. Lunch is almost ready.”

Sarah dropped into the chair David had pulled out for her, taking in the bouquet of daisies in a glass vase, and the vaguely tea-pot shaped item sitting on a trivet and covered by a quilted cozy. “You arranged this? For me?”

“No,” David corrected. “I arranged this for us.” He lifted the cozy from the pot and set it aside. “Shall I pour?”

Over hot tea and plates of seared beef, salmon and yellowtail sashimi, steamed rice, and cucumber salad, the couple engaged in their usual banter.

“I’ve always thought these gardens would be the perfect setting for a wedding,” Sarah said as they finished their meal.

“They have an events coordinator for things like that,” David explained. “My friend Ryo and his wife were considering it, but then her parents insisted they do a church ceremony instead, and since they were paying…”

“I guess that makes a difference,” Sarah agreed. “But still…”

The chef interrupted them long enough to clear their dishes and deliver two glasses and an open bottle of champagne.

“Personally,” David said, after they’d been left alone once more, “I’ve always imagined this as the perfect location for a proposal.” He didn’t leave his chair to kneel in front of her, but he did remove a small, black box from his pocket and place it in front of her.

“David?” She could feel her lips curving into a goofy smile, could tell that her cheeks had gone hot and pink.

“Sarah, ever since we ran into each other at the café on that day, I’ve felt like there was something stirring inside me – ”

” – inside me too – ” she interrupted.

” – and ever since you moved in, I’ve been thinking, ‘this is what life is supposed to be. Two people sharing a home and a life… fighting over their favorite sections of the newspaper, taking turns cooking dinner or making tea…” Sarah heard his voice go choky as he trailed off.

“Oh… David…”

He swallowed reflexively, and opened the box. Inside was a tea-bag, but instead of the usual paper tab, the end of the string was affixed to a delicate gold ring with a diamond that was the perfect proportion for Sarah’s slender fingers.

“Will you marry me, Sarah?”

She lifted the ring from the box, and tugged slightly. The string fell away, and she turned the piece of jewelry in her hands, holding it up to the light to catch the reflections. “Put it on for me?” she requested offering it back.

David held the ring, poised over her left ring finger. “Is that a yes?” he asked, his tone equal measures of wry uncertainty and tenderness.

“It’s an ‘absolutely,'” Sarah said. “I love you. I love the live we’ve been building together. This just… this feels like everything’s settling into exactly the places they’re supposed to be.”

Each of them half-rising from their chairs, they leaned over the table to seal their engagement with a kiss that only ended when the chef and the wind players applauded.

Laughing, Sarah and David returned to their chairs, and David poured the champagne into their waiting glasses. “I love you too, Sar,” he said, lifting his glass to salute her. “You’re my best friend, and my muse.”

“And flattery will get you everywhere,” she teased.

They carried their glasses to the part of the gazebo that looked over the water, and as the sun set, and the lanterns began to glow softly in the darkening sky, they held each other, and exchanged whispered dreams for their future.

About the author: Melissa A. Bartell

Melissa A. BartellMelissa is a writer, voice actor, podcaster, itinerant musician, voracious reader, and collector of hats and rescue dogs. She is the author of The Bathtub Mermaid: Tales from the Holiday Tub. You can learn more about her on her blog, or connect with her on on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.

 

 

 

Welcome to Issue #5: Routines & Rituals

Copyright: <a href='http://www.123rf.com/profile_chinnna'>chinnna / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

“My ritual is cooking. I find it therapeutic. It comes naturally to me. I can read a recipe and won’t have to look at it again.”
–Iman

We rise each morning, pour a mug of coffee or tea, and spend half an hour checking personal email, catching up on social media, or reading a favorite blog post before we get ready to leap into the work day.

Is it routine or ritual?

We train our dogs to sit at doorways, or before we give them their meals. We make them give us their paw in a ‘high five,’ or wait for them to greet us before they’ll go out in the morning.

Is it routine or ritual?

We put the wedge of lemon in the glass first, add ice to the 1/3 full mark, and then add water on top.

It’s routine, right? Or maybe it’s ritual.

Every Saturday evening, we fill the tub with hot water and lavender-scented bubbles, light a row of candles, and listen to actors reading short stories on the radio while we soak.

That’s more than just routine, isn’t it? It must be ritual.

“The time I spend in the morning – praying, sipping coffee, and coming up with my list – is a ritual I relish. I have done it for so long now that I subconsciously measure whether or not the things I’m doing match with what I should be doing, what I want to be doing, and the life I want to live.”
–Kristin Armstrong

Where do we draw the proverbial line that separates the mundane routines that govern our days from the deeper rituals that truly enhance our lives? Can a daily practice be both routine and ritual?

What about when a writer must use a favorite pen, a specific kind of paper, or listen to only music without lyrics in order to truly focus? Does the act of preparing one’s writing space for the day transcend routine and become ritual?

How about cooking? The act of nourishing ourselves and others may seem like a routine, especially when it’s associated with that perennial question, “What’s for dinner?” But isn’t there also a sort of ritual to be found in peeling, chopping, roasting, broiling, serving, and, most importantly, sharing the product of our labor?

“When you’re writing, you’re conjuring. It’s a ritual, and you need to be brave and respectful and sometimes get out of the way of whatever it is that you’re inviting into the room.”
–Tom Waits
Welcome to the fifth issue of Modern Creative Life, Routines and Rituals.

Join us over the next few weeks, during which we will explore these questions, and also talk about the routines, rituals, preferences, and practices that make us tick and keep us going as artists and writers, as musicians and makers, and as creative people in general.

You’ll get to glimpse the daily lives of other creatives in our  Studio Tours and Typical Tuesday series, and meet other people walking fascinating creative pathways in Conversations Over Coffee. With photos and fictionpoetryessays and enlightenment, you’ll find enough ideas on how to structure time, make moments into memories, and turn the ordinary into the extraordinary.

 As always, our mission at Modern Creative Life is to honor the pursuit and practice of joyful creativity. We believe that the creative arts enrich our everyday living, enhance our environment, create lasting connections, and sustain our souls. Please join us as we bring to you the stories and suggestions of other people walking the creative path.

Whether you use routines simply to keep yourself on track, or embrace ritual as a way to transform yourself, we want to hear from you.

We are open to single contributions as well as new regular contributors. Email us at moderncreativelife@gmail.com.

About the author: Melissa A. Bartell

Melissa A. BartellMelissa is a writer, voice actor, podcaster, itinerant musician, voracious reader, and collector of hats and rescue dogs. She is the author of The Bathtub Mermaid: Tales from the Holiday Tub. You can learn more about her on her blog, or connect with her on on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.

 

 

 

Sunday Brunch: Wax, Wick, and Whispering Flame

Sunday Brunch With Melissa Bartell

There’s an iconic scene that occurs in almost every novel from a certain period: a (usually young) woman will light a candle (or remove an existing one from a table or candelabra). Then, carrying it with great caution so that the flame doesn’t sputter out and her hair doesn’t catch fire, she will tiptoe up a well-worn staircase to continue with quiet pursuits until the wax has pooled and the wick is spent.

I have never been this woman, but I share her love of candles.

There’s some magic in the combination of wax, wick, and whispering flame that doesn’t merely add a flicker of light. For me, at least, a lit candle is an infusion of warmth, joy, and creativity.

Copyright: <a href='http://www.123rf.com/profile_anaumenko'>anaumenko / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

I don’t remember when I first became enamored with candlelight.

I don’t remember a time when candles weren’t part of my life.

When I was a very young child, my mother and I made sand candles – where you pour melted wax into damp sand that’s been patterned – sort of like a reverse sand castle, or an inverse stencil. The merging of the salt-scented beach sand and the warm wax may have been more craft than art, and maybe I remember it so fondly because it involved time with my mother.

Since then, candles have made their expected appearances at birthdays and on the dinner table during special meals, but I’ve incorporated them into other aspects of my life, as well.

– I keep a row of candles on the shelf at the end of my bathtub. Most are votives but I always have one large jar-candle among them. I like combining scents to evoke a mood. Since I’m a beach baby and bathtub mermaid, I use scents that remind me of trips to the shore. Currently, I have “Seaside Memories” in a jar and several “Clean Cotton” votives. This “recipe” reminds me of being sprawled across a line-dried beach towCopyright: <a href='http://www.123rf.com/profile_ambrozinio'>ambrozinio / 123RF Stock Photo</a>el with my toes covered by warm sand.

– I have candles in my Word Lounge (the room in my house that is dedicated to writing, voice acting, and podcasting). I have a big blue denim couch in there, so when I’m not actively writing, I’ll sometimes light a candle, make a mug of tea or coffee,  and curl up with one (or more) of my dogs to read, or plan, or plot.

One of the candles in that room is nestled into a fish-shaped bowl full of shells and pine cones retrieved from beaches in Mexico, Connecticut, California, and New Jersey. Its scent is strong tea with a hint of citrus.  Another pair, in matching hot pink holders, are on the “altar to creativity” that lives on my desk. I light them when I’m working in there, but I also use them when I’m channeling my inner Scarlet Pimpernel – their flames light my sticks of sealing wax. A final set of mini-votives are set into a wooden sign that says BEACH and is adorned with tiny shells and grains of sand. Those are “Beach Walk,” obviously.

– I have a shell-wreath that sits on the coffee table in the living room. Sometimes I put a vase of flowers in the center, but most often, the vase that sits there holds a candle. The default color is a sort of deep coral/not quite orange, but I change to a red one during the winter holidays, and sometimes I put a white one (lightly scented with pear) inside during the summer.

– I fill all the votives and light special seasonal candles at almost every holiday. For Valentine’s Day, I have matching glass, square, flower holders (they’re not really vase-shaped) that each hold two votives. One’s red, the other is clear, and I love having them out. At Halloween I have holders shaped like haunted trees and a trio of ceramic ghosts, among other spooky shapes.

But, candles are more than just decorations.

– I celebrate every rainstorm by lighting a few candles here and there. I’m not sure they possess actual magic, but I’ve noticed Copyright: <a href='http://www.123rf.com/profile_mihalec'>mihalec / 123RF Stock Photo</a>that whenever I pre-emptively light candles, we don’t lose power, even during tornadoes. As well, even the gentlest storm is made into a special experience when you add a little candle-flame.

– I use candles as memorials. My grandparents had a set of monogrammed highball glasses, and when my grandmother died I sent one to each of my aunts and immediate cousins with some of their ashes, and a votive in the glass. It makes the ache of loss so much softer, knowing that we all have the essences of these beloved people mixed into the soil of our gardens, but I feel like they exist in the flickering light that dances atop each wax cylinder, as well.

Candles have been used in spiritual and creative magic – as well as the ordinary magic of every-day living since the first chandler figured out that tallow or beeswax could be fitted with a wick and turned into a source of light, and they will continue to be used in a similar fashion.

Still, no musing upon candles would be complete without my confession: Although I’ve lived my entire life in an age where technology has been advancing almost daily (don’t you love living in the future?), there exists an imaginary version of me who is, just like the girls in those nineteenth-century novels I love so much, wrapping her hand around the handle of a metal candle-holder, shielding the  flame with her other hand, and creeping up the creaky stairs of an old house, either to a sacred corner where I’ll write stories into the wee hours, or to a bed where my dreams will be sweet and free of care.

“If there is moonlight outside, don’t stay inside! If there is candle inside, don’t stay outside! Moments of romanticism are too valuable to be missed!” ~ Mehmet Murat Ildan

About the author: Melissa A. Bartell

Melissa A. BartellMelissa is a writer, voice actor, podcaster, itinerant musician, voracious reader, and collector of hats and rescue dogs. She is the author of The Bathtub Mermaid: Tales from the Holiday Tub. You can learn more about her on her blog, or connect with her on on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.

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