Archive | Sunday Brunch

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.

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.

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.

Sunday Brunch: Practice

Sunday Brunch With Melissa Bartell

“We learn by practice. Whether it means to learn to dance by practicing dancing or to learn to live by practicing living, the principles are the same. One becomes in some area an athlete of God.” ~ Martha Graham

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

I think I was five when I took my first ballet class. I don’t have any clear memories of my fellow students. I don’t recall the name of the teacher.

What I remember, when I think about those first classes, was the barre. I remember stretching out my arm so my hand could rest against the wood. My muscles still retain the echos of all those early pliés and tendus. Ballet class was my first experience with practice, and I loved it.

I craved it.

At home, lacking both floor space and proper equipment, I would make the back of a chair my partner as I bent my knees, positioned my feet, and kicked my legs.

But then I got older, and my focus switched from ballet to music.

I fell into cello quite accidentally at the age of nine (old for a string player), after becoming enamoured with my then-best-friend’s violin. I was lucky: Colorado schools had excellent music programs, and we didn’t even have to pay for a cello, because my teacher loaned me the one his daughter had learned on. Copyright: <a href='http://www.123rf.com/profile_monoliza'>monoliza / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

I learned about scales and arpeggios, some of which I’d already encountered as a singer, but this was different. I memorized the feeling of my fingers on the strings, and mastered enharmonic tuning, crucial for me, since we didn’t have a piano with with to check my pitch.

Practice became something new. It was just as physical as ballet, but it was physical in a different way. I was stretching my arms down instead of out. It was my fingers that danced instead of my toes.

But every time my mother commented about how the low strings sounded when I was first learning, making croaking noises, or pretending to be a foghorn, my love of practice was diminished. By the time I finished high school, bad teachers, lack of confidence, and my inability to commit to any one art form forced me to set music aside for a while.

(I fell back in love with cello in my late twenties.)

“Don’t only practice your art, but force your way into its secrets; art deserves that, for it and knowledge can raise man to the Divine.” ~ Ludwig van Beethoven

If this were a novel, it would be in college that I found my Ultimate Muse choosing writing as my One True Pairing of the arts, but the reality is that I’ve loved the written word for as long as I can remember. I’ve dabbled in poetry. I’ve written essays and fiction, compose all original short pieces for my podcast, and have even published a book.

Copyright: <a href='http://www.123rf.com/profile_dedivan1923'>dedivan1923 / 123RF Stock Photo</a>It wasn’t until I was married and living in the first home my husband and I actually owned that I truly developed a writing practice.

Oh, sure, I’d tried, unsuccessfully, to keep diaries over the years, but writing words no one would ever read seemed pointless to me. I’d read Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones when I was nineteen. I had stacks of college-ruled spiral notebooks with my scribblings in them, but writing was mostly a random activity unless I had to do something for a reason.

When I learned about blogging, everything changed. Not only did I accept that I would never succeed as a writer without discipline – without a daily practice – but I’d also found a system that gave me just enough external accountability to keep me going, and just enough feedback that I could learn what worked and what didn’t.

Some writers, I know, are dutiful enough to complete their requisite three “morning pages” every day. In my daily blogging, I found that writing posts of precisely one hundred words helped me more than anything else. I call these tiny entries “distilled moments,” and there are times when I do the just because they feel right, and other times when I create them, daily, for an entire month.

“Practice is everything. This is often misquoted as Practice makes perfect.”

~Periander

Life ebbs and flows, and my devotion to practice tends to do so as well. I actually do write every day, but I go long stretches without blogging, until I realize I miss it, and then I go back to it. In fact, it is this tendency to return to my first “public” forum that allowed to assure one of my best girlfriends, a couple of weeks ago, that no, it was not wrong that she would rather write in her blog than create new content for her work.

For us, I told her, our blogs have always been our practice spaces.

In ballet, when you need to rehab after an injury, or just find your focus again, you return to the basics. Barre work. Warmups. In music, you go back to etudes. You go over scales and arpeggios. In writing, we have journals and we have blogs. These are our virtual studios where we reconnect with the fundamentals.

We say practice makes perfect, but practice itself is imperfect. This is why the act of meditation is called practice. Yes, it’s because it’s meant to be a regular exercise, but it’s also because but it’s also because we are giving ourselves permission to be imperfect.

Because blogging is where I honed my writing voice, it’s my sacred space for my own writing practice. It’s the place where I’m more candid than I would otherwise be, because I’m not being a model for others; I’m being just me.

My blog is also the place where I experiment with different styles and structures, where I play with themes and challenge myself to stretch.

It is the place where I practice.

And – just like the dancer, the musician, the artist – practice is the way I keep my muscles warm and in working order.

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“Someone who wants to write should make an effort to write a little something every day. Writing in this sense is the same as athletes who practice a sport every day to keep their skills honed.” ~ Anita Desai

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: Senses of Snow

Sunday Brunch With Melissa Bartell

Yesterday morning, I sat in my sunny kitchen and read an email from my aunt, sent from her 19th-centry farmhouse in Connecticut. She had included pictures of her land, blanketed in the first snow of the season, and her cozy living room with her real pine Christmas tree (ours is plastic) with the snowy outdoors in the background.

Instantly, I was nostalgic for snow.

If you asked, I would tell you that I don’t do winter, that I’ve ‘done my time’ with snow. It’s true, I never want to live in a place with Serious Winter again, but there are times – usually around the winter solstice – that I find myself longing for a snowed-in weekend.

Photo by E.P. Klindienst

Partly, it’s because of that special snow hush, that preternatural silence. It’s the opposite of rain which is so much static. I mean, I love rain, but the sound of it can be overwhelming.

(Did you know that the reason dogs dislike rain is that it confuses their ability to track the direction of sound? On the other hand, even my dainty Chihuahua who will ‘hold it’ all day, refusing to go outside if the ground is wet, loves to whuffle in fresh snow.)

But snow… snow fills the space between words and music. It quiets the incessant electrical hum that is such a part of contemporary life. It stuffs itself into our unnoticed negative spaces, leaving only a clean, white background.

We don’t often get snow in the part of Texas where I live, so I have to rely on memory when I want to capture the experience of a snow day.

– I’m six and we live in Golden, CO, and my friends and I risk certain death careening down the snow-packed hill that forms the street we live on. Thankfully we never make it to the busy thoroughfare that is the first cross-street.

– I’m a seven-year-old in Colorado, coming home from walking my dog. Her poodle-paws are matted with ice and we’re both shivering, but my mother greets us with a warm towel for her, and a bowl of tuna with hard-boiled egg mixed into it for me.

– I’m seven or eight and I’m standing on the back porch, looking at the snow falling across the beam from the amber porch-light. Years later, I’ll be watching an episode of Star Trek: the Next Generation, and the image of the star field will cause me to utter, “That’s what falling snow looks like.”

– I am ten years old, and even though it was sixty degrees earlier in the day, a soft, slow snow has started outside. My mother and I are curled up on the couch, watching the Winter Olympics from Lake Placid. It’s a perfect weekend.

– I am twenty-four, and Fuzzy (my husband) and I are driving my belongings from California to South Dakota, where we’re about to start our life together. We get iced in, as well as snowed in, in Kearney, NE. My mother covers an extra night at the Best Western, and we spend the day watching cheesy movies, cuddling, reading, and just talking.

– I’m thirty-four, and it’s our first Christmas in Texas. My parents are visiting from Mexico, and we decide to hold an open house and meet the neighbors. A few days before the party, a light snowfall coats the neighborhood in frozen glitter, and Fuzzy and I walk through our snow-dusted neighborhood delivering invitations.

Photo by E.P. Klindienst

– It’s the year I will turn forty, and February brings a “snowpocalypse.” We have eighteen inches of snow, black ice, rolling blackouts, and a frozen pipe (miraculously, it thaws without bursting). We are also (apparently) the only people on our block who own a snow shovel (a remnant of that time in South Dakota).

It is that last snowfall in my list, the one in 2010, that stands out in my mind, because that’s the year I learned that snow has a sound I never expected.

For the first time, I heard the soft hiss that occurs when snowflakes meet the water in my (unheated, but still running) swimming pool. That sound, always reminds me of the way granulated sugar also hisses as it falls into a mug of steaming-hot black tea, but with an element of cold.

We’ve had some snow since then, of course, but most years it’s ‘technical snow’ – a few flurries whip around for an hour or two and then they harden into freezing rain or fade into a brittle gray sky. I’ve learned to appreciate those days for themselves, though. I put a log (DuraFlame, not real wood) on the fire, and enjoy the flickering heat for a few hours.

Some years, I re-read childhood books that have winter scenes, so that at least the landscape in my head looks like winter. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe with its opening scenes that take place in Deep Winter is a perennial favorite (always winter and never Christmas is a concept that lingers), but the book I always go back to is Laura Ingalls Wilder’s The Long Winter. It’s in that book that we see Ma create a ‘button lamp,’ and Pa come up with the idea of twisting hay into sticks to use as fuel in the wood stove. It involves some of the bleakest moments of all the Little House books, but it also includes some of the warmest and happiest.

Yesterday morning, I sat in my kitchen looking at the pictures of my auntie’s snow-covered environment.

Yesterday afternoon, as Fuzzy and I crossed a parking lot to enter a restaurant for lunch, it was a sunny, if blustery, day, with a temperature of roughly seventy-three degrees. When we left an hour later, the temperature had dropped to fifty and the sky had thickened. By midnight the thermometer read twenty-two.

We won’t get snow – the sky may be gray and heavy, but there really isn’t enough moisture, but the cold has its own magic. Snow hushes sounds, but wind sings mournful songs in the trees and whispers stories into the chimney. Gray weather lends itself to lamplight and endless mugs of hot tea whether it comes with powder or pouring.

I fell for snow when I was a child, and I fall for it over and over again when I see pictures or read books, but despite the special memories, I’m glad I no longer have to deal with slush footprints, soggy feet, or being so cold my chin-muscles go numb.

Well… mostly.

 

Photos by E. P. Klindienst. Used with permission.

 

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: On Advent

Sunday Brunch With Melissa Bartell

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do
With your one wild and precious life?”
~ Mary Oliver

Today is the first Sunday of Advent, but I’m not attending church. Instead, I will drink my morning coffee in the pre-dawn light of my empty kitchen, at the new-to-me library table that we just moved into the space. I’m not typically a morning person, but something about this time of year has me waking early with the urge to write, to sing, to bake, to create.

I think it’s because Advent is a time of preparation, expectation, and anticipation that my creative urges, already in a highly active state from the moment of my birthday in August, hits its annual peak. Not all that energy is directed toward the coming of Christmas (though I confess, I have an unabashed love of that holiday).

Instead, I’m diving into seasonal projects – MusicAdvent which involves posting a song a day for twenty-five days (this year’s theme involves making a chain, so that one song is somehow connected to the next) and Holidailies, which requires daily blog posts during the month of December. (Holiday themes are encouraged but not required. This year I plan to do flash fiction about contemporary magic.)

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I’m also looking ahead to the new year, and beyond. I’m not ready to divulge my plans beyond an incredibly small circle of friends, but over the last few years, I’ve learned that if I know what I want my year to be like, I can hit the ground running on January 1st.

At the same time, Advent is also a period of reflection.

Maybe it’s because I turned forty-six this year, but I feel like two things are happening: one is that I find myself measuring my life a lot more – not comparing it to other people’s lives, but against the dreams and goals I had as a kid – and the other is that the tape measure I’m using is no longer marked in even increments, but in a mix of wide bands and narrow, in a myriad of colors and fonts.

This past month has been full of turmoil, in the world at large and in my own head (November is always a difficult month for me) but, as I texted a friend on Friday morning, I’ve woken up for the last few days with new lightness in my heart.

I don’t mean that I’m brushing aside things that bother me, things I must speak about or act upon, only that I’m choosing to change my focus.

Advent does that for me.

It forces me to change my focus, and make new plans, and embrace preparation, expectation, and anticipation.

It requires that I activate that sense of possibility, and that openness to the unknown.

Something is coming.

I want to meet it with open arms.

 

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: The Ghosts We Choose

Sunday Brunch With Melissa Bartell

 

Do you believe in ghosts?

On the surface it’s a simple question, answered with a definitive yes or no. But before you respond, take a moment to consider: what is a ghost, exactly?

Are we talking about the literal spirits of our dearly departed?

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Well, if those are real it would explain why I smell my grandmother’s perfume when I’m longing for the sound of her unselfconscious singing to her African violets every morning, or feel her cool hand stroking my forehead when I’m feeling hot and sick and feverish.

(She had such elegant fingers. Mine are short and chubby.)

That kind of ghost – the gentle spirit that guides and soothes, in the form of sense memories and inner voices, that’s the kind I want to believe in.

But, if we believe in helpful, loving ghosts, aren’t we then obligated to believe in the other kind, the malicious entities that seep into the walls with every argument, and linger in the backs of our minds even when we say that we’ve given and accepted forgiveness?

Can we pick and choose which ghosts we invite into our lives, and which we banish forever, doomed to the land of unresolved issues, empty CD cases, and unmated socks?

Maybe it’s just that it’s October, and my neighborhood is slowly being decorated for harvest and for Halloween, or maybe my mind is on the spiritual and supernatural because I’m involved in an autumn/horror project, but I’ve been consideCopyright: <a href='http://www.123rf.com/profile_design56'>design56 / 123RF Stock Photo</a>ring ghosts a lot lately.

Specifically, I’ve been considering the ghosts we choose.

For me, those ghosts come in the form of memories.

A bottle of Clinique make-up, left in the medicine cabinet in my guest bathroom, smells like clay, but it also smells like Halloween, 1976, when my mother costumed me as Pocahontas and used her normal color to darken my fairer skin. (Cultural appropriation wasn’t a hot topic, back then, but even if it had been, my costume was an homage, not a mockery.)

Forty years later, that scent is so closely associated with my mother that when I see her and she no longer carries that aroma (because she’s long since changed her make-up routine), I have to stop and remind myself that she’s the same woman who bore me, raised me, and whose opinion is still, always, vitally important.

I catch a many-times-rerun episode of an old television show, one where the children in the fictional family are playing with a slinky, and I’m thrown back to my high school chemistry class, and the teacher who used the helical spring toy to illustrate wave forms.

The remembered sound of the whispering of the metal coils sends me deeper into memory, to my grandfather’s basement, filled with cobwebs, clutter, and a vintage oscilloscope. I loved to talk into it and watch my recorded words become a wavy line on the tiny screen, decades before we could use our Copyright: <a href='http://www.123rf.com/profile_waynerd'>waynerd / 123RF Stock Photo</a>smartphones or tablets to produce entire audio productions.

I see an antique hand mirror in a garage sale, or catch a whiff of homemade raisin bread, and welcomed ghosts use those overtures to visit me for a while, reminding me of special moments, and beloved people, some of whom are still with me – if separated by geography – and some who have moved on, beyond this world’s constraints of linear time.

Intellectually, of course, I know the other ghosts, the less welcome ones, still exist. Those are the ghosts that creep into our thoughts, our senses, in the bleakest moments of our lives.

I suppose, we must all, at some point, learn to vanquish them forever, but until we do, calling in the friendlier spirits, the positive memories – the ghosts we choose – keeps the darkness at bay.

Do you believe in ghosts?

I do.

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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