Archive | Sunday Brunch

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.

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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

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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.)

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

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.

Sunday Brunch: Hope Springs Trek-ternal

Sunday Brunch With Melissa Bartell

Live long and prosper.

Star Trek may have first beamed onto our televisions in September, 1966, but those four words weren’t actually spoken by Mr. Spock until roughly a year later, on September 15th 1967*.

Like “Beam me up, Scotty,” and “I’m a doctor not a whatever,” it’s a phrase that has passed into the cultural vernacular of, not just the United States, but the entire world, and you don’t have to be a sci-fi geek or even a particular Star Trek fan to have heard them.

On the surface those words were just a ritual greeting used by a fictional culture, but in reality they embody the overall message of Star Trek as a whole. They are a message of hope.

It’s a message that has been part of my being almost since I was born.

LLAP-MelysseI wasn’t an OT (Original Trekkie) having being born the year after the original series ended, but my mother is the one who introduced me to it, and I was among the first generation of kids to be raised on its reruns. As the child of a single mother, I found father figures in Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, Dr. McCoy and Scotty. (Especially Scotty, but I don’t know why. Maybe it was the accent.) At the same time, Lt. Uhura’s warmth and grace made her feel like a sort of auntie to me, and when she was the one who solved a problem or got to be in charge, it gave me a glimpse of what girl-power could grow up to be.

More than that, though, Star Trek showed me – showed all of us – a future where all people were equal, regardless of gender or nationality.

Star Trek: The Next Generation was my coming-of-age Star Trek, launching as I was starting my senior year of high school, and ending around the time I first met my husband.

If the messages of hope and unity had been strong in the original series, in the first of its live-action sequels it was even stronger, extending beyond social and cultural equality to include more representation of women in STEM fields.

True, most of them were still in ‘caring’ professions, and also true, I had no interest in focusing on a STEM-related career myself (though I’d later find work in computer tech support), but just the presence of so many women in leadership roles, combined with the fact that Captain Picard was even more committed than Captain Kirk to the peaceful resolution of disputes, resorting to violence only when necessary, had a real impact on me, and on the world.

The later incarnations of televised Star Trek came at times when I wasn’t able to watch them week by week, as their stories unfolded. I caught a lot of Star Trek: Voyager when it was being run two episodes at a time on Spike several years ago, and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine was a relatively recent binge-watch (thank you, Netflix), but the enduring theme of hope is still present in both.

In DS9, that message is often sublimated by the hard truths of war and conflict, as it is so often in our real lives, but it persists even though the series represents Star Trek at its darkest. Conversely, in Voyager which is, at its core, a seven-year quest to get back home, it’s possibly at its strongest.

But it is always, always there.

In fact, DS9 cast member Armin Shimerman (Quark), in a panel at the Mission: New York Star Trek convention a couple of weeks ago, answered a question about that show’s starbase setting by stating unequivocally: “Starships do not make Star Trek. Hope makes Star Trek.

And now it’s 2016, and every social, every cultural step we’ve moved forward seems, at times, to be counter-balanced by a step back. Darkness encroaches upon our lives through politics, through economics, and through civil unrest. Our media – especially our fiction – is filled with heroes and villains who seem to be locked in never-ending battles or filled with zombies, vampires and demons.

Don’t get me wrong; I love fictional horror as much as anyone, but when the darkness, both real and fictional, gets too intense, Star Trek is my safe space (and I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in this). Sure, I’ve seen every episode at least twice at this point, but every time, I find some new nuance in a performance, some new detail in the script, that adds depth.

If macaroni and cheese is comfort food, Star Trek is comfort-viewing, as much because of the familiarity I have with it as because of that message of hope.

Jonathan Frakes, William Riker on Star Trek: The Next Generation, has often referred to a conversation he had with franchise creator Gene Roddenberry, early in the production of the first season of TNG. “In the 24th century,” Frakes quotes Roddenberry, “there will be no hunger, and no greed, and all the children will know how to read.”

If we have the power to choose our future – and I believe that we do – how can we not want the future where no one has to be cold, hungry, tired, dirty, or lacking in toilet paper?

How can we not choose the future where education is revered, and art and science are given equal merit?

How can we not choose the future that represents hope for ourselves as individuals, and for our species as a whole?

“Live long and prosper,” Spock utters on our television and movie screens, and in so doing he is wishing us hope. Hope for long, fulfilled lives in which we achieve success in whatever way each of us chooses to define it.

“Live long and prosper,” the words say, and in my head I have two replies.

The first is the ritual response, the one any fan would likely respond with automatically: “Peace and long life.”

The other is a line from Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. Commander Uhura says it as she beams her crewmates – her chosen family – to their starship to undertake a mission she will only join much later in the story. I used to think of it as a throw-away goodbye, but lately, I’ve found it to be more meaningful:

All my hopes.

llap-uhura

*The episode was Amok Time, and it aired in the second season.

 

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: August Nocturne

Sunday Brunch With Melissa Bartell

 

With the flip of a calendar page (or a swipe of finger on a smartphone) July is gone for another year, and it is August, my month. The first summer month when, even though the sun is still reluctant to set, the days are discernably shorter, and the nights incrementally longer.

I’ve always been attuned to the night. While some people are morning people, happy and chirpy at first light, the only time I typically see dawn is when I haven’t yet been to bed. I have never been afraid of darkness; rather I crave it.

I come by it naturally.

The night before I was born, there was a full moon and an eclipse. If that doesn’t lock you into a special relationship with nighttime, I don’t know what does. (Recently, I asked my mother if she remembered any of that, and she reminded me that she’d been a little preoccupied with being in labor.)

Eclipse

In any case, just as foghorns sang my first lullabies, the night was my first muse. Every night, after we spend a couple of post-dinner hours together, my husband and I retreat to our separate spaces, he to his man-cave (it’s his office during work-hours) and me to either the Word Lounge (my office/recording studio) or the bedroom (I like to write in bed). Around midnight, I text him the same question: “Bed at three?”

Most nights, my question isn’t meant to nudge him toward bedtime, so much as it is to gauge how much writing time I have left, because the wee hours, the ones between midnight and three in the morning are when I’m most creative. (Even this piece, that you are reading, most likely, while sipping coffee or tea on a sunny summer Sunday, was written long after dark, long after the time my neighborhood – and probably yours – had gone to sleep.)

(I’m fortunate that I married a man as nocturnal as I am. We don’t have a relationship that involves one of us cajoling the other into changing their habits, and we’re lucky enough to have schedules that mesh with our mutual nocturnal proclivities.)

While I don’t love the daytime heat, I do enjoy my afternoons in my pool, swimming laps or even just idly floating under the canopy of trees. I even enjoy sitting in the morning sun with a mug of coffee, or reclining on a chaise lounge with a magazine and a tall glass of iced tea.

But the nights – those soft, sultry, August nights – those are my favorite parts of summer. After spending June and July at my creative low, I emerge into the moonlight and starlight with renewed energy, and renewed inspiration.

During my childhood, the nights of August were filled with anticipation: my birthday, returning home from my grandparents’ house where I spent most summers until I was a teenager, returning from music or drama camp as a teenager, and the eventual preparation for school. They were also filled with magic: going to the beach at twilight, catching fireflies with my cousins, having late-night coffee ice cream and scrabble tournaments, enjoying the thrill of a thunderstorm, or even the occasional hurricane.

As an adult, I have to make my own magic, but over the next few weeks there will be time spent trying to catch the Perseid meteor shower (NASA says it’s going to be extra-intense this year, and the best date for viewing is August 12th), and yes, my birthday, because you are never too old to celebrate yourself.

More importantly, there will be time spent communing with the night, when the starlight will sprinkle my soul with glitter, the moon will illuminate new ideas and help me find new perspective on old ones, and the darkness itself will soothe my soul.

Vincent Van Gogh once said, “I often think that the night is more alive and more richly colored than the day.”

I say:  I’m a mermaid child, born on the night of a full moon and an eclipse, raised sand on my toes and salt-spray in my hair, and sung to sleep by seagulls and foghorns. The sea can never harm me, for it knows me as its own, and the night can never scare me, because I speak its language in my soul.

Image copyright: solerf / 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: Processing the Unimaginable

Sunday Brunch With Melissa Bartell

There are moments that the words don’t reach
There is suffering too terrible to name
You hold your child as tight as you can
And push away the unimaginable

My adopted city, Dallas, is mourning, and hot tears leak from my eyes at random moments. My heart is still sore from the mass shooting at Pulse in Orlando last month. My friends – gay, straight, cis, trans, black, brown, white, male, female, liberal, conservative, and those who fall into their own positions on a multitude of spectra – are all facing their own bouts of heartsickness, reacting either to events that hurt our communities, or other, more personal losses.

The moments when you’re in so deep
It feels easier to just swim down

We turn to social media for information, for solace, for the sense that even if we are geographically separate from the people we most love, the digital world keeps us together.

And learn to live with the unimaginable

And we are overwhelmed.

Or at least, I am.

It’s easy enough to switch the channel away from CNN or the local news, to turn off cable entirely, and step into the reality-free bubble of endless streaming episodes of “comfort television.” (For me, that involves Gilmore Girls, Star Trek: The Next Generation, and even, though some might think it odd, The West Wing.) Lone Sad Guitarist

Much more difficult is disconnecting from the internet. I live so much of my life online that ignoring email is like ignoring a ringing phone, and taking a step back from Twitter or Facebook is tantamount to taking up residence in a cave in the wilderness.

But there are times when taking a break is the best thing, the only thing, I can do if I want to retain any semblance of sanity (and believe me, I use that term loosely).

And it’s then that I turn to music.

If my life was a movie, it would be a musical. I was singing before I could talk, and I often tell people that I think in music. More accurately, I think in songs.

My tastes are many, even eclectic, and my inner soundtrack varies often. Sometimes I blast classic rock, and other times, I find the greatest release in classical music.

Several years ago, when my nephew was dying, I listened to Melissa Etheridge’s cover of “Hallelujah,” Bette Midler’s version of “I Think It’s Gonna Rain Today,” and the gospel choir rendition of the Beatles’ “Let it Be.” A couple of decades before that, I got through the days after my grandfather’s funeral with endless repeats of Barbara Streisand singing “Papa, Can You Hear Me?”

I don’t pretend to know
The challenges we’re facing
I know there’s no replacing what we’ve lost

I turn to folk music and showtunes more than any other kind of music. I like them because they have the strongest stories, because they have accessible melodies and (usually) discernible lyrics, and because when it hurts too much to be myself, they give me characters to play, even if it’s only for three minutes and fourteen seconds.

I fill my head with music. I stand in the living room and sing. I dance with my dogs (Teddy is tall enough to be a partner, but he’s not good at leading).

I remember random snippets of things that matter – like Noel Paul Stookey (the ‘Paul’ in Peter, Paul & Mary) suggesting to a concert audience that all candidates for public office should be required to sing for their constituents, because while all adults are adept at lying when we speak, it’s almost impossible to lie while singing.

I watch as celebrity after celebrity releases a tribute song.

There are moments that the words don’t reach
There is a grace too powerful to name
We push away what we can never understand
We push away the unimaginable

I used to mock those celebrity tribute songs.

Now, I listen to them, and if I really like them, I buy them. Why? Because celebrities are just people. They’re ordinary people with extraordinary jobs, and writing a song, or joining a chorus of other celebrity singers is really no different than what I do in my living room, except on a grander scale with the potential to also earn money for a designated charity.

Forgiveness. Can you imagine?

The tears continue to flow as I listen to the song that’s helping me most right now. “It’s Quiet Uptown,” from the soundtrack of Hamilton. While it’s technically about Alexander and Eliza reeling from the death of their son, there’s a universality in the emotions of the song, and in the concept of pushing through the worst grief, accepting that the unimaginable happens, and coming, finally to a place of forgiveness and understanding.

Forgiveness. Can you imagine?

I’m not quite ready to interact with the world yet. I haven’t sorted out all of my own feelings about the last few days, and my emotions are raw and too close to the surface.

I do know, though, that we have to – all of us – as Americans, as humans – find a way to come together and move forward and make positive change.

Maybe we’ll do that with laws and policies, but maybe, just maybe, we’ll do that with art, and writing, and music.

Peter, Paul & Mary sang that music was “… better than words. It’s the only thing that the whole world listens to.”  I believe they were right.

Forgiveness. Can you imagine?

Whether it’s angry-girl rock that helps us find our inner strength, a lullaby sung to a fretful or fearful child, or a silly pop number that helps us rediscover joy, even in the midst of sorrow, music is the language that lives in our deepest hearts.

Plug in those ear-buds or turn up that stereo. Choose vintage vinyl or stick with the modern technology that lets us hold entire catalogues of albums in the palms of our hands. Find the song that works for you, and play it on auto-repeat or pick it out on a piano or guitar. Sing in the streets or sing in the shower.

That’s what I’m doing.

At least for now.

If I’m quiet, if I don’t write strings of words about what’s going on in the world, but re-post the writings of a few other voices I resonate with, please understand that I’m still processing the unimaginable events that have hurt my community, my friends, and me.

Most likely, everyone else around me is doing the same.

Have pity
They are going through the unimaginable

 

Italicized song lyrics are from “It’s Quiet Uptown,” from Hamilton: An American Musicalmusic and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Image Copyright: joseasreyes / 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.

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