Archive | Sunday Brunch

Sunday Brunch: Office Space

When we ask people to do studio tours, we do it for two reasons. One is that it gives us, and our readers, a sense of the person giving the tour. What you keep on your desk reveals more about you than you might be comfortable stating in a conversation. The other reason is that it gives us (and our readers) ideas for decorating/modifying/changing our own workspaces. It’s a great cycle of sharing and inspiration.

MAB-01I’ve long been the kind of person who likes to switch things around from time to time. Changing the position of a chair, or a table, or a couch can change the energy of an entire room. For years, every time my husband went away on a work trip, he would beg me not to move furniture while he was gone. Partly, he didn’t want me to hurt myself, but partly, he didn’t want to come home to a house that had a different layout from when he left.

A recent diagnosis of a torn ACL (surgery will be in early summer) means that I’ve been forbidden to climb stairs, so Fuzzy and I spent last weekend (with the help of a friend’s kid who was willing to work in exchange for being taken to lunch) turning our formal dining room into my office.

To be honest, I’ve had designs on this space since we originally looked at this house almost fourteen years ago. The original owners had been using the dining room as the headquarters for their home office, and I wanted to do the same. Instead, Fuzzy and I each claimed one of the four upstairs bedrooms (our bedroom is on the ground floor), eventually turning the other two into a dedicated guest room and a library. In the time we’ve lived here, I’ve moved offices several times. Originally, I was set up in the room across the hall from Fuzzy’s, so we were both in the same ‘wing’ of the house. When I quit the mortgage industry and started doing audio work, I moved to the big room (really a second living area with a token closet) on the far side of the house, which had room for my weight machine. I moved back to the smaller room when a friend moved in with us for a while and reclaimed the big room when I realized we’d made life here too cushy, and that he’d never leave (he’s since left).

So, change is something I embrace.

But I hadn’t expected our rearranging to click as well as it has.

Two years ago, we bought a library table and four chairs to use in the kitchen, and I joked that if we ever got tired of using it in that room, I’d want it as a desk. Well, now my parents’ old teak table is back in the kitchen, and the library table is positioned across the arched front window in the dining room. We brought down a desktop credenza (it’s full of envelopes and postage stamps, sealing wax and staples) and my collection of geeky toys to make the space feel like my space and not just a temporary change. After all, I’ll be avoiding stairs until almost the end of the year.MAB_02

A printer stand we’d been using as a coffee table (and which is full of board games) is now holding an actual printer, and my grandfather’s red leather chair is sharing space with an ancient denim wing chair we bought in 2002 so I have a special place to sip coffee or tea and read.

We couldn’t move the hutch, but since it holds my collection of Día De Los Muertos art, it feels appropriate. One of my pieces is even a mermaid!

Possibly the best part of this space is that, since there isn’t a coffee table occupying the center of the room as there is in my upstairs office, all the dogs can roam in and out or sack out on the carpet without ruining anything with the stray swipe of a happy tail.

I expected this switch to be convenient.

I didn’t expect the energy in the room to be so welcoming, so enlivening, that despite constant low-level pain, I’m more creative than I have been in months. (Okay, part of that is because I’ve finally recovered from writing twenty-eight plays in February, but still…)

And so, this latest revamping of our household, meant to accommodate my injury, has become an artistic and creative boon. I’m working surrounded by art pieces that we’ve collected and acquired over the years, and my own toys. I have a window that looks out to the front of our house, and the daily routine of our neighborhood. I’ve even found that the sunny yellow walls, rather than being too bright for every day, are warm and cheerful.

I told Fuzzy, and many other people, that I love this new space so much I might not relinquish it once I’m allowed to use stairs again.

Fuzzy’s okay with that, though, as long as he can have the room I vacated. It has a full-sized sofa in it, you see, which is perfect for those all-night maintenance calls he sometimes has to monitor.

Do you have a dedicated space for your work or creative endeavors? Do you ever want to change things around in your house, just to see how it feels?

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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, listen to her podcast, or connect with her on on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.

Sunday Brunch: 28 Plays Later

Last month, I wrote about the first few days of an intense writing challenge I was part of: writing twenty-eight plays in twenty-eight days. The project, sponsored by Theatre Delicatessen in London, involved a couple of hundred writers from around the world (mostly in the U.K., though) and one Evil Overlord (well, he’s not really evil) named Sebastian.

Every day at 4:00 PM (U.S. Central Time), we’d receive the daily brief from Sebastian, and then we’d have thirty-six hours to write a play using his brief for inspiration, although the last twelve hours of a given brief overlapped with the first twelve of the next.

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Very quickly, I began to question the wisdom of committing to the project. I’d never written a play before (not really, anyway) and I spent a good chunk of the first week fighting with formatting. WORD, my software of choice, has a downloadable screenplay template, but not one for stage plays, and even the screenplay one is kind of klunky. Eventually, with some encouragement from friends, I scrapped the template and did my own thing. Freeing myself from the constraints of someone else’s formatting did much for my mindset.

But I was still floundering.

The first few briefs had been relatively simple. The initial prompt, for example, was the phrase, “Brave Little Soldier,” with bonus points for setting it in your hometown. Well, my actual hometown (as opposed to the town where I live) had a significant number of losses when the towers fell on 9/11/01, so I made my characters the adult children of people who had died that day. Emotional, yes, but relatively easy.

As the challenge progressed, the briefs became more demanding. When I wrote about this in February, I mentioned the first weekend challenge, about nightmares, but once I got past my fear of the material (my nightmares are weird… and personal…) I ended up having fun with it. After all, the brief also said we had an unlimited budget to work with.

More than once, I was tempted to throw my laptop into the pool and never write again. Ever.

More than once I whined to friends, family, and the dogs – basically whomever would listen, or pretend to – that I was too stupid or too boring to respond to these things that expected you to come up with edgy, even avant garde ideas.

More than once my husband had to talk me down from the proverbial ledge.

My friend Clay, the Creativity Guru I mentioned in my previous post – the one I’d convinced to do this challenge with me – finally gave me the key to my frustration.

“Look,” he said. “You’re a level 40-something human.”

“Forty-seven,” I specified.

“Okay, but you’re only a level one playwright.”

“That’s fair,” I responded, “But I’m a level thirty-seven writer.” (The first ten years of your life don’t count.)

“Yes,” he said, “but you’re using that writing muscle in a new and different way. And really, this shouldn’t be called ’28 plays in 28 days.’ It should be ’28 shitty first drafts of plays.'”

That conversation became my guidepost, and parts of it morphed into a mantra, over the rest of the month.

And as things evolved, it turned out that the briefs I balked at the most, or felt like I had nothing to offer for, ended up resulting in my best work.

An instruction to “write shite” and “let yourself go” inspired me to pull a bunch of my notecards (sticky notes leftover from the 100 Days of Making challenge, each with a scene, sentence, or snippet of dialogue) off the fridge and order them into a play. A couple of weeks later, given a time-restriction exercise, I went back to the fridge for more notecards, and I really feel that the two plays that resulted from those  – “Scenes From a Marriage” and “Theories of Everything” – are the most cohesive of my creations.

But there are others I’m proud of. The math brief led me to a piece where the dialogue was all based on the Fibonacci sequence, and mentioned Phi and the nautilus shells. (“Nautilus”) A brief asking us to interview people and then write a monologue suitable for teens, making it seem as if it was one person speaking, gave me “Wo(Man)Hood” about a young woman who experiences anxiety but is also bi-gender, and a brief asking us to write about truth and art inspired me to write a monologue about body positivity – and the really cool thing about that one is that when my friend Nuchtchas read it, it inspired her to make art.

One brief, in particular, I have dubbed “Calvinball from Hell,” and when I read it, I told Clay that I was certain Sebastian had once been kicked out of an improv troupe. Here are the instructions we were given:

Let’s be super duper strict. Below are the rules for your play:

1. You must have 4 characters in the play – and the gender for 3 of them must be undefined! You can add two more – but only if they are not human.
2. One of the characters plays the banjo – really badly, and one character only speaks in rhyming couplets (can be the same if you like).
3. There must be a minimum of 3 pauses in the play, one of them must be a super long pause (think Pinter to the power of Pinter).
4. One of the characters has had relations with everybody else in the play (as well as characters that are mentioned but not seen).
5. Every line of dialogue must have one of the following: either 7 words, 12 words, 22 words, 29 words, 56 words or 99 words (you can punctuate as you like).
6. The play will contain three acts/scenes, but you can add one more if it’s a dream.
7. At some point, everybody on stage falls down to the ground.
8. Each scene/act must contain one person being told off for shouting (even though they didn’t shout), and another person revealing a big secret (even though it may not be true).
9. Each scene/act must have at least 10 lines of dialogue and 10 lines of actions.
10. Oh – and you must pick one letter of the alphabet (not Q, X or Z) for each character (each one can have a different one or the same) that they are not allowed to use in their dialogue at all.

If just reading that gave you pause, you’re not alone. And I admit, I whined about it  and railed against it for a good chunk of my available writing time. But in the end, I ended up with a play called “Frapping Pachelbel,” where all the characters were the instruments in a string quartet, except the Conductor, and Cello complained about their part, but in the end Viola was jealous over Conductor’s relationship with Cello, and started a duel (with bows used as swords, obviously) and everyone died.

Admittedly, it was kind of silly, but being outrageous felt like a breath of fresh air at the halfway point.

Others of the difficult challenges were less happy.

One of our challenges was to write something that would offend people. The obvious choice would have been using a lot of blue language – and honestly, that was one of Sebastian’s suggestions – but after nearly twenty hours with zero ideas, a meme posted in a feminist forum I belong to resulted in a play about the way men who commit domestic violence are not out of control, but so very in control that a group of them was able to come to a consensus about how long to wait, after starting a new relationship, before actually abusing their partners.

Chilling stuff.

Writing it made me squirm, and after I submitted it, I had to have my husband bring me a mug of cocoa and stay with me for cuddles.

The final week was my favorite. One challenge was to complete an unfinished piece of our own writing. Since I didn’t have any unfinished scripts, or any scripts from the challenge that I was ready to revisit, I adapted one of my own pieces of flash-fic into a play: “The Weather Man,” and for the penultimate challenge, which was to pick a previous challenge and go a different direction with it, I asked two of the people who’d read everything to pick for me.

My friend Fran asked me to revisit the challenge that required us to begin with this line: “Take of the girdle, Gertl, and tell me everything about Onun’s onions, or else little Dicklberg here will get it.” My first use of the line went in a science-fiction direction. My second use, for challenge 27, went to a more noir place, though, technically, there was a voiceover line before the first exchange of dialogue. Still “Up in Smoke,” is one of the pieces I’m really proud of.

So. What did I learn from this experience?

Well, I’m probably never going to be a playwright – and that’s okay, because I don’t really want to be a playwright. I much prefer to watch theatre or perform on stage. When it comes to writing, essays and narrative fiction are where I’m really comfortable, and I prefer to exercise those muscles.

Still, it’s good to stretch, from time to time. I accomplished something that scared me, and I learned a lot about myself, as a person and as a writer, in the process.

Will I participate again next year?

Ask me next January.

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, listen to her podcast, or connect with her on on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.  All 28 of the plays she wrote for 2018’s 28 Plays Later challenge can be found here: http://www.missmeliss.com/category/28-plays-later/

Sunday Brunch: The Play’s the Thing

I wrote a play yesterday.

Actually, I wrote plays on Thursday and Friday as well, and, with the exception of a couple of audio drama scripts for which an outline was provided, these are the first three plays I’ve ever written.

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I don’t have any plans to become a professional playwright or screenwriter. In fact, these last three days have taught me that I vastly prefer writing straight narratives to scripts, but I’ve committed to a challenge to write twenty-eight plays in twenty-eight days, and even though I want to quit about once an hour, my husband and the friends who are following this process with me won’t allow it.

Truthfully, I won’t allow it, either.

Even more truthfully, I don’t think I’ve felt as unprepared or afraid of a creative project since the night I walked into the West End Market in downtown Dallas to audition for ComedySportz.

While I’m not an organization queen, or even a basic list-maker, I do like to be somewhat ready for these undertakings. When I’m auditioning for (or have been cast in) an acting role, even if it’s just bit part in an unpaid audio drama, I make sure I’ve read the whole script (not just my part), listened to a few episodes to get a feel for the piece, and/or done research on the setting, theme, and creators.  I won’t interview authors unless I’ve had time to read their books, and when I used to interview celebrities for All Things Girl, I made sure I knew their work, but also what sorts of questions they’d responded to favorably in other interviews.

But this project, “28 Plays Later,” which is sponsored by Theatre Delicatessen in London, isn’t something I could really prepare for. I mean, I didn’t even know about it until sometime in January, and the first prompt was issued at 4:00 PM (U.S. Central Time) last Wednesday. I’ve been in plays and musicals, and I’ve read a lot of scripts, but I’ve never really tried to write one.

When I told some of my friends what I was doing, I was asked if I could pre-write anything.

 

Technically, I suppose, I could. After all, there’s no requirement that you accept the daily challenge prompts, only that you submit a play every day by the deadline. (Challenges are issued every 24 hours, but you have 36 hours to complete each one, so there’s a twelve-hour overlap. So far, I have finished each challenge before the next was assigned, but today, I went down to the wire.)

The prompts, however, are useful. They give you a jumping-off point. They also foster community, because we all discuss how we’re interpreting the instructions.

Yesterday’s assignment was to use our dreams and nightmares as fodder for a surreal piece of theatre. We had an unlimited imaginary budget and were encouraged to create ‘hallucinatory images’ and disrupt order.

Despite the fact that I’ve been dabbling in writing horror for almost the last six months and consider the original A Nightmare on Elm Street to be one of the best horror movies of all time, at least conceptually, I was in tears as I tried to figure out how to approach this challenge. I’m not proud of it, but I complained about having no ideas to everyone who would even pretend to listen. I asked my husband for ideas. I whined about the fact that I don’t know how to translate things into a visual medium.

I even asked a friend who is also participating if Day Three was too early to quit.

“Yes,” he said simply.

“If I asked the same question on Day Fifteen would your answer be the same?” I demanded.

It was.

And so, even though I’m typically nocturnal, and my husband had an online game event that was going to keep him awake until well after three in the morning, I went to bed at midnight, with a frustrated brain and a discouraged heart.

Three hours later, I was awake again, dragging my laptop into bed with me, doing research on the amygdalae – the two almond-shaped clusters in the human brain where emotions and memories live. Two hours after that, I had an outline of a three-act play that included nightmares, tangos, Dracula, Winnie-the-Pooh, and a finale that took place on roller skates.

By nine yesterday morning, I was awake again, and writing like a demon, until, finally, I had twenty pages of script that involved a Dreamer giving lessons in ‘dreamology’ and a Child going through her safe sleep ritual.

Is it next year’s Tony winner?

Not even close.

But writing it forced me to stretch beyond my creative comfort zone, to try new things, and think of new ways of expressing old concepts.

Eleanor Roosevelt never actually said that you should do one thing every day that scares you, but she did say, “You must do the things you think you cannot do.”

I wrote a play yesterday that scared me, just thinking about it. I was sure I would miss the deadline and fail the challenge.

Instead, exhausted and jumpy, I wrote – and shared – something I never thought I could start, let alone finish.

And now?

Now, I’m going to brew a pot of tea and maybe open one of the boxes of Girl Scout cookies that my husband bought for me, and then I’m going to do what I did yesterday.

I’m going to write a play.

Photo Copyright: icetray / 123RF Stock Photo

 

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, listen to her podcast, or connect with her on on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.

Sunday Brunch: On Silence

Silence. Most of us either love it or hate it, sometimes both depending on the circumstances.

From our earliest ages we’re taught that certain places are meant for silence. We are shushed in church, and reminded to be quiet when we visit libraries. We write poems about silence, repeat proverbs about it, and even sing songs lauding it, or, in the case of lullabies, we sing songs to coax it from others.

But those early types of silence, the enforced silences, are radically different from the kinds of quiet, of silence, that we embrace as adults. We might take our morning coffee out to the deck or patio to enjoy the quiet of an early morning. We make time in the middle of a busy day to meditate or pray. We seclude ourselves in the bathroom and soak in a scented bath in the evening.

And in all those moments, we think we’re experiencing silence, but really, we’re not. What we’re truly hearing is the lack of intentional sound. We may have turned off the radio, set our phones to do not disturb, or locked the bathroom door against chattery interlopers, but that isn’t really silence.

Fireplace

Last Wednesday evening, my husband and I sat in our darkened living room and listened to the crackle of the fireplace. We’d just finished eating tacos by candlelight. It wasn’t the meal I’d planned for us – I try to limit our ‘wrapper food’ to the occasional lunch – but the power had gone out late that afternoon, and our house has an all-electric kitchen.

It was late enough in the day that neither of us had fully-charged phones or laptops. We’d received an initial text that power would be restored at five pm, then seven, and finally midnight. It was supposed to dip below freezing that night – not as cold as the conditions our friends and family in the Midwest and Midlantic states were experiencing, but cold for Texas, where houses are built to shed heat, not retain it.

So we stoked the fire, and we lit all the candles and we brought blankets out to the living room and cuddled on the couch. We played games on our phones while we could, but eventually, we lapsed into quiet.

Into silence.

It’s a strange thing about modern life. We so rarely experience true silence. Even when snow blankets the world with its special, magical hush, we are still surrounded by electrical hum.

But when the power is out… when the fridge ceases cycling and the clocks stop blinking in digital blue or green… when light pollution is suddenly dimmed… that’s when silence truly falls.

As a rule, I’m not a fan of silence. I can’t sleep without white noise distracting me from the external house sounds that come with life in outer suburbia and muting the often too-loud thoughts inside my own head.

Last Wednesday, silence was an annoyance. I complained loudly to my husband. I even texted one of my friends that it was too quiet, that instead of being soothing, the silence felt oppressive and creepy.

But eventually, I relaxed into the softness, the cool darkness, and the almost perfect soundlessness. I went to the bedroom to curl up with my dogs and let the steady sound of their breathing – the only discernable noise – lull me into sleep.

My husband guarded the fire until it had burned low enough that it was safe to leave it, and then joined me in the bed. We lay together in the darkness, not speaking. Not really touching. Just breathing in the silence.

Shortly after midnight, the power returned, jarring us out of our quietude and into wakefulness. I wish I could say that we looked at each other, laughed, and turned the lights back off, but we’re tech addicts and habitual night owls.

We went back to bed around two in the morning, our usual hour, but something of our evening of enforced silence lingered. We were gentler with each other that night and the next day, more mindful.

I’m still not fond of silence.

But I like quiet.

And I love the peacefulness of snuggling on the couch with my husband, not talking, not watching television, just being together.

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, listen to her podcast, or connect with her on on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.

Sunday Brunch: Winter Flames

“The darkness of the whole world cannot swallow the glowing of a candle.”  ~Robert Altinger

Christmas. Hanukkah. Yule. Whether you come from a single faith tradition, or from a family like mine, that blends and merges traditions from several cultures, there is no shortage of winter holidays to choose from.

All are radically different. Christmas celebrates the birth of Christ. Hanukkah remembers the Maccabees and their defeat of the Seleucids as well as the rededication of their temple and the miracle of the oil, which was only enough for one night, but lasted for eight. Yule originated as Nordic and Germanic midwinter celebration that involved feasting and gift-giving (and in the oldest celebrations, sacrifices).

And yet, these winter holidays all have something in common as well – aside from the tendency to celebrate with incredibly delicious, albeit unhealthy foods. They all bring light to the longest nights of the year.

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True, in this age of technological wonders when we can have books in our hands at the touch of a button, and get antsy when we’re away from our smart-phones or tablets for more than a few minutes, and are limited in our ability to work late into the wee hours, not by waning daylight, but only by our stamina and the amount of caffeine we’re willing to ingest, we no longer rely on candles or firelight for physical illumination.

And yet…

And yet we light candles to mark the progress through Advent.

We light them, one at a time, to count the eight days of Hanukkah.

We build fires in our hearths as symbolic representations of the bonfires our ancestors might have danced around, or we build actual bonfires and invite our friends to dance with us.

We fill our homes with candles that represent nothing more than a cozy glow, and we gather ’round our gas logs or Franklin stoves even when our houses are fitted with central heating systems, because there’s something – some magical thing – about fire that seems to drive away the stress and darkness of winter in a way that electric light never can.

I think we forget, sometimes, that the holidays aren’t always merry and bright. They’re not always full of smiling faces and joyous laughter.

These winter holidays come to us at the end of the year, which means they’re both an ending, a sort of finish line we’re all racing toward, and a final hurdle we must overcome before we have the opportunity to start anew. We fill our homes with those colorful candles and crackling fires as much to keep the shadows at bay and drive away the darkness, as we do to celebrate the light.

Our flames aren’t some form of denial, though. Rather, they’re sort of a nightlight for our souls. They keep our hearts warm and our homes welcoming, and remind us that all winters end.

Hanukkah begins on Tuesday evening. Yule comes with the Winter Solstice on December 21st. Christmas follows a few days after that. Whether you’re celebrating one of those old holidays, or you’ve embraced something newer, like Kwanzaa or Chalica – or even Festivus – may the flames you ignite keep you warm in body and soul this winter.

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,  listen to her podcast, or connect with her on on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.

Sunday Brunch: The Coming of the Cardinals

Like the swallows that return to Capistrano every year, the heart of fall brings the cardinals back to my yard, and I return to my morning routine of coffee and writing at the kitchen table so I can watch as they flit from tree to tree, sometimes visiting the bird feeder outside my window, and sometimes avoiding it (likely because the smell of squirrel is too strong).

I’ve always loved watching birds. I don’t mean that I sling a pair of binoculars around my neck and go tromping through fields and forests on a avian hunt, though I understand the appeal of capturing a rare moment on film.

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Rather, I’m a backyard bird-watcher. I enjoy following the antics of the bully Blue Jay who drives the starlings and finches out of the trees, only for them to settle right back in. Winter comes with doves, one of whom insists that the birdfeeder is really her nest. She never stays in it for long, though. In spring and summer, we have robins and hummingbirds who buzz our windows and skim low over the puppy pool, stealing sips of water, or using it as a bath. (We don’t chlorinate the puppy pool.)

But November, always a dark for me because it’s the anniversary month of so many family deaths, is brightened by the arrival of the cardinals.

We have a whole family of those bright red birds, and they return every year. The females are feathered grey and rust and red, and arrive with the first signs of being egg-heavy. The males are brilliant crimson and scarlet, and when they cock their heads and stare at me from their bright eyes, I’m convinced they’re appraising me in the same way I’m assessing them.

At the beginning of the season, I watch them building nests, but as the fall deepens into what passes for winter in this part of Texas, they aren’t quite so visible. Instead of witnessing constant activity, a morning visit feels like a kind of gift from Mother Nature herself.

It’s not only live cardinals that come into my life each year, however. As I slowly turn the decorations in my house from fall and harvest, Halloween and Thanksgiving, to winter, Christmas, and even Valentine’s Day, these ruby-plumed birds have a presence inside my house.

First, there is the candle wreath. It’s not an Advent wreath, since it only has holders for four candles (though I sometimes place a pillar candle in the center and use it as such) but its theme is very much winter and not a specific holiday, with tiny pine trees and even tinier cardinals tucked in a wreath of greens. Since it isn’t specifically Christmas, it comes out in late November and stays until mid-February.

Then the napkin rings and guest towels come out. My grandmother taught her daughters and granddaughters to decorate all through the house for holidays, so I have cardinal-themed towels in the guest bath, and I try to find cardinal-themed paper napkins for parties and casual use, as well as a couple of candles – the kind that you never actually burn – to add punches of color to the guest room, the dining room, and even my office.

The last cardinals come at Christmas, in the form of stuffed birds that have wire clips so they can perch on the branches of our (plastic, pre-lit) tree. A couple of them are recent additions, but two of them are quite old, and much bedraggled. One of them bears tooth-marks – the scars from a barely-won battle against the curiosity of a puppy. Even though they’re faded and worn, however, I keep putting them on my tree, half-convinced that, in the words of the skin horse, they will Become Real.

My grandmother, I am told, loved cardinals. I never knew this until I found the napkin rings I mentioned earlier. It was on a trip to Tuesday Morning with my mother, and something about them spoke to me. We don’t actually use napkin rings (or cloth napkins, though we should) with any real frequency, but I had to buy them, even if it was just to have them.

More recently, I learned that my mother-in-law also loved the bright red birds. I imagine her looking out of the farmhouse window as a young bride, and seeing a streak of scarlet adding colorful cheer to a snow-blanketed prairie, and this image, whether it’s erroneous or not, makes me smile to myself.

They say that when you’re visited by cardinals you’re really being touched by the spirit of a loved one who has died. My grandmother died over a decade ago, but since there are times I swear I can smell her bath powder, or feel her cool hand soothing my brow in the middle of the night, I wouldn’t be surprised if she sent a bird or two to check up on me. My mother-in-law, on the other hand, died on the last day of August, just a couple of months ago, so maybe she’s the reason the avian family in my yard seems to have more members this year.

Of course, I’m a bit premature with some of this. Thanksgiving is weeks away, and Christmas doesn’t come until fall is truly over and winter has arrived. My wreath will remain in storage for a while longer, wrapped in a festive tablecloth, nestled in a box with dessert plates shaped like leaves and a ceramic turkey gravy boat.

In the meantime, I’m pouring another cup of coffee and returning to the library desk that serves as our kitchen table to write stories and watch the birds.

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, listen to her podcast, or connect with her on on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.

Sunday Brunch: Kitchen Table Writing

I have a confession to make: I like to write at the kitchen table.

Kitchen Table Writing

This may not seem like something worthy of embarrassment, or even the least a bit of sheepishness, but the harsh reality is that when I write at the kitchen table, it means that I’m cheating on the Word Lounge, the blue-walled, soft-carpeted room filled with books and mermaid art, and beachy things and far too many Lt. Commander Data action figures (among others) that is my own special space on the top floor of the house. Action figures on office desk

That room, with the weight machine I’ve nicknamed Marcy’s Playground because that’s the brand of the apparatus, has a television with a Roku stick attached, because I like to listen to familiar dialogue while I’m working. It also has a giant picture window that looks onto the cozy street where we live, and a glass coffee table that used to live downstairs, but moved upstairs when we changed the living room furniture.

I love being up there when I’m editing audio, or recording an episode of the podcast I swear is not going to only exist in August this year. I love curling up on the ancient faded-denim couch that used to be my mother’s, with a book and a mug of tea or coffee. I love lighting the candle that sits within a wreath of seashells collected from the beaches around La Paz, Baja California Sur, Mexico, where my parents have lived for nearly two decades.

I love it when one of my dogs comes into that space with me and sprawls on that one sun-soaked rectangle of carpet, content to just be near me while I’m puttering or (com)putering.

But for some reason, I end up doing my best writing at the kitchen table. Well, I do a lot of really good writing in bed, a la Mark Twain, as well, but it’s the kitchen table where I feel most like a writer.

At this time of year, especially, the kitchen is my favorite room in my house. It has sliding glass doors that open to the back yard, and in the cool of the morning and evening, I can leave the door open and let the dogs wander in and out. I can look outside and see birds coming to visit the feeder I only fill when I remember. (This is intentional. I read somewhere that keeping a feeder full all the time makes the local birds dependent.)

Microphone - waitingMost often, the birds I see are grackles, but I actually like those birds, which aren’t jet black, after all, but deep indigo, purple, charcoal grey, and even, sometimes, subtle maroon. Sometimes there are woodpeckers. Often the big obnoxious blue jay with the Batman mask over his eyes comes to visit. I’m no Disney princess. The birds don’t ever clean up my house or create dresses from flowers and twigs, but I like seeing them.

As what passes for fall in Texas deepens into October and November, kitchen table writing increases its appeal. I can’t count the number of words I’ve written while also baking cookies, creating stews, checking on a simmering soup or baking pot pie, or even just nibbling on carrots and hummus, or apples and cheese, or wedges of oranges and endless pots of tea.

Outside, I can see the light change, not just from hour to hour as dawn becomes full daylight, and then fades into nighttime, but season by season – the light starts to thin in August, and by October, there’s a sense of crispness to the afternoon sunlight, even when the thermometer insists it’s really eighty-two degrees outside.

While my kitchen table writing is often the work I’m most connected to, the specific table doesn’t seem to matter. For years I wrote at my mother’s hand-me-down teak dining table from the Copenhagen store in Fresno… or was it San Jose?

Currently, my kitchen table is actually a big old library-type ‘partner’s desk’ with a center drawer in either side. It’s perfect for the breakfast nook, and more than ample for two or four people. Or one person, her laptop, several notebooks, coffee, and a plate of food. I told my husband the other day that when we move (we’re planning to sell our huge house and move to something smaller and all on one floor after the first of the year) I want to replace the corner desk in my office and use this table as the desk in my office.

I can’t explain where it comes from, but I have a feeling that kitchen table writing can happen even if the table is no longer in the kitchen.

Sunflowers on Kitchen Table

The thing about writing for a living is that it’s an incredibly internal vocation. I know I’m not the only writer who spends a significant amount of time living in her own head. I suspect that part of the attraction of writing at the kitchen table is that the kitchen is the heart of any house.

Or at least, it’s been the heart of every house where I’ve ever spent any length of time.

I grew up spending the summers with my grandparents in New Jersey, and the dining table was party central all the time. Whether it was just the family having a simple meal of grilled hamburgers, tomatoes from my grandfather’s garden, and corn on the cob from the farm stand down the road, or a late-night thing where all the adults were playing canasta and drinking syrupy black coffee, that table was the place to be.

When I visit my mother in Mexico, I bring my laptop to her kitchen table and write while everyone else is watching television (I’m really bad at ‘just’ watching television; I have to be doing something.) Last year, when I found that my travel charger would no longer provide my laptop with any power, I usurped my stepfather’s barely-touched laptop and used that, saving everything I did to OneDrive and Dropbox, because I had to write. Living room writing

There are times, of course, when I don’t want to write at the kitchen table. I often (usually) bring my laptop into the living room, set it up on a snack tray, and write while Fuzzy (my husband) and I watch television. Over last month, recuperating from pneumonia, I’ve returned to writing in bed a lot more, typically with a dog or two sharing the space with me.

But for the most part, the kitchen is my happy place, and one of my favorite memories is from one of my parents’ early visits to my home, where not one, but all four of us had our laptops or tablets on the kitchen table, all of us tapping away between bits of conversation, nibbling on cookies and sipping coffee.

Apparently, kitchen table writing runs in the family.

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: Melancholy

The days may not be so bright and balmy—yet the quiet and melancholy that linger around them is fraught with glory. Over everything connected with autumn there lingers some golden spell—some unseen influence that penetrates the soul with its mysterious power. ~Northern Advocate

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

As much as I often protest that September is still summer, at least until the equinox occurs, the reality is that fall begins to displace summer sometime in August. Where I live, in north-central Texas, that displacement is a gradual one, and for me, it’s tied to the way the sunlight begins to seem thinner, and that a 90-degree day in late August has an underlying crispness to it that you never find in a similarly warm day in early June.

But it’s not just the light that heralds the change of seasons. For me, there’s also a combination of wistfulness and melancholy.

Most years, it’s the wistfulness that dominates my being. As my friends’ children return to school (many before Labor Day – that seems so wrong to me) and the rhythm of my neighborhood changes to accommodate earlier nights and earlier mornings, I find myself longing to be back in that dance of school days and work days. I imagine myself braiding the hair of the daughter I never had, or making sure my non-existent son has his shoes tied correctly.

Most years, the sense of melancholy is a subtle note among the harvest gold and darkening reds of changing leaves, and the soft blue-black of cool night air. That annual melancholy manifests itself in me as a sort of restlessness. My feet get itchy, and I feel a bit suffocated in my life, despite the fact that I’m living the live I chose, with a man who both adores and understands me.

This year, the melancholy is dominating, and it tastes like grief and loss and absence.

While the annual die-off of plants, the sloughing off of leaves, the shriveling and drying of grasses, represents change more than death, it is death that is prevalent in everything I see, this season.

Why? Because this year, death is close to me.

My mother-in-law died about a week ago. My husband has lost his mother, and I lost one of the many women who surround me with love and wisdom and stories.

We buried her on Tuesday. We spent the week in Sioux Falls, SD, surrounded by Fuzzy’s family.

This isn’t the first family death I’ve experienced. My grandfather died when I was twenty-one, and my grandmother died about a decade later, but somehow this death, this loss, struck me differently. Perhaps it’s because the funeral was two days before my husband’s birthday, or perhaps it’s because seasonal melancholy is making it worse, or perhaps it’s because I had my forty-seventh birthday a few weeks ago and am feeling my own mortality in a way I haven’t before.

Death is never convenient. Loss is never easy. No matter how prepared you are for an event like this, it stabs you in the gut, and rips a hole when the blade is pulled out.

For me, grief comes in random waves of tears. Sometimes they’re a quiet trickle, but sometimes they’re sobs that come as a roaring waterfall, like the falls on the Big Sioux river that runs through the town that may not be the family’s true hometown, but is certainly its adopted one.

For my husband, the same grief comes in a deepening sense of broodiness and his need to play hermit for a few hours, or days. Both of us balance the grief with humor and laughter and fond memories, and we seek physical contact with each other more than is typical.

Tuesday night, after all the relatives had dispersed, we left our hotel room, went for a quiet dinner, and then drove to look at the Falls that Sioux Falls, SD is named for. There was a full moon in the sky, and an autumnal bite to the air, and as I watched and listened to the rushing water, I had a moment of peace, and the sadness was temporarily eased.

Melancholy will remain with me for a few more weeks – it usually dissipates by the beginning of October, when fall is fully present – but grief doesn’t last forever, it fades like a soft, slow, late summer sunset.

And, at least for another couple of weeks, September is still summer.

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: Negative Space

In art, the term ‘negative space’ typically refers to the place where an image isn’t, and to the way the space around that image can produce an image of its own, an image that either enhances or serves as counterpoint to the original. Sometimes this is intentional. Sometimes it is not.

Copyright: <a href='https://www.123rf.com/profile_eugenesergeev'>eugenesergeev / 123RF Stock Photo</a>But there is another kind of negative space, the kind that has nothing to do with art, but a lot to do with stifling the creativity of the artist, the writer, the musician…

In my house, this latter kind of negative space is represented by a door.

As doors go, this one is outwardly innocuous. It’s a white, four paneled, interior door of the kind found hinged into the thresholds of many a suburban bedroom. This particular door, however, leads to my office, my studio, the room I refer to as the Word Lounge and my husband calls my Abode of Writeyness.

I love my writing haven. I’ve filled it with mermaid art and pop-culture figurines. There are decorative twinkle lights strung along the top of the picture window that looks out onto the street. I have my mother’s faded denim couch in there, and my weight machine, which because its brand logo reads “Marcy,” I refer to as Marcy Playground, after the band.

But in the past four years, I’ve crossed its threshold fewer than ten times.

I’ve told myself, and my friends, that I like to write at the kitchen table, with the door open and the dogs running in and out.

I’ve told myself I’m still recovering from a knee injury.

But if neither of those statements is entirely false, neither are entirely true.

You see, for four years, my studio, my writing lounge, has been enshrouded in a fog of negative space.

It began with an act of generosity. A good friend of ours had gone through a nasty divorce, gotten sick, lost his job, and was essentially squatting in his condo in a midwestern city with the power turned off and winter approaching.

We offered him a room, a fresh start and a plan: take a couple weeks to get healthy, get a job, get a new life.

It was never meant to be four years of him skulking in our house when he wasn’t working his overnight shift for a major delivery service.

And his depression (not officially diagnosed though it runs in his family, admitted as a likelihood, and untreated) was never meant to affect me.

It began as soon as he arrived. Thinking one tiny guest room was too small for one person, I’d moved my studio to our current guest room. It’s smaller, and my weight machine couldn’t be moved with the rest of my stuff. Nor could my couch.

For six months, our friend hung out in that room, tainting it, watching Netflix and claiming he was applying for jobs.

We talked to him. We made him demonstrate his attempts. We coached him.

And I began to resent that he was sitting on the floor in my space. I felt like I couldn’t use my weight machine. “Just send me out,” he said. But his energy had already pervaded the space.

When my parents announced an impending visit, I took the opportunity to reclaim that space for my office, and I also removed the guest furniture from the room he was using. He’d brought a futon on a frame. We moved that into his room.

But his energy continued to be a damper on my creativity. I felt like I couldn’t exist in my own space, because it might keep him, hiding in his room directly across the hall) from sleeping (his mood got blacker when he lacked sleep). I even stopped swimming – something we mermaids should never do – because his room overlooked my back yard.

I don’t think I was – or am – clinically depressed. Instead, I feel like I’ve spent four years in a sort of psycho-spiritual muzzle.

Last weekend, after weeks of will it/won’t it happen, our friend moved out of our house, and into a tiny apartment with a mutual friend, and from the first night he stopped sleeping here, even though he still has belongings to retrieve and a room to clean, I immediately felt lighter.

I’ve written before (elsewhere) about how I often face a creative slump in the first weeks of August, leading up to my birthday on the seventeenth, but this year, despite greeting the month with a nasty sinus infection, my brain is pinging with ideas in ways I haven’t experienced in years.

In art and design, negative space is meant to enhance and expand the central image. A flyer without a lot of whitespace (which, incidentally, does not have to actually be white) is too busy, and people have difficulty parsing the message.

For me, the negative space around my office door, and seeping into the rest of my house, has been more contrast and counterpoint than complement. I’ve reveled in every moment our friend was out, whether it was for work, or to socialize. I suspect some of my sleep issues were a reaction to knowing my house was mine during the overnight hours when he was at work.

I don’t wish anyone to believe it was all bad. There were moments when having a third person in the house was helpful, and even pleasant. Our friend shares my love of kitchen improv and ethnic foods, while I often joke that my husband has the palate of an eight-year-old. There were also many winter weekends that we all spent playing board games that Fuzzy and I couldn’t play with only the two of us.

But those moments were less and less restorative as the time ticked on. As I recently quipped to a friend, it took less time to successfully rehome a difficult-to-place foster pit bull than it has to rehome our friend.

I know I’m not the only one who has had to deal with such situations. Perhaps for others they are less extreme, but we all have ‘energy succubi’ in our lives – people who don’t just live under a personal black cloud, but unwittingly allow their clouds to metastasize into full-blown fog banks, or worse, thunderstorms.

Ultimately, this experience has taught me a lot about boundaries and margins. I’ve learned that while I’m not a true introvert, I do require the freedom to fill my own space as I need and want.

That I can – and do – quite happily share space with my husband says a lot about our relationship. I suspect that in his life, I’m the source of negative space, my creative personality leaving me prone to moodiness from time to time, but it’s not the same. His energy complements mine. My energy connects with his.

Two friends from completely separate circles in my life have suggested that once our friend clears all of his belongings from our house, we have the space smudged with sage, and I’m pretty sure we will be doing so.

In the meantime, the negative space in my house is slowly being filled with positive things. The sense of darkness creeping down the hallway, and preventing me from entering my studio has been pushed back and continues to retreat, to dissipate, to disappear.

Perhaps, in time, I will no longer think of negative space as the cloud of darkness that shrouded our friend’s sojourn in our home.

Perhaps, in time, I will be able to appreciate the counterpoint and the contrast once more.

For now, I’m taking a leaf from Eat, Pray, Love, wishing our friend love and light, and trying to let my resentment go.

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: 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.

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