Tag Archives | Melissa A. Bartell

Welcome to Issue #8: Hope & Wonder

“God puts rainbows in the clouds so that each of us — in the dreariest and most dreaded moments — can see a possibility of hope.”
~Maya Angelou

You see a rainbow emerging from a cloudy sky, and you can’t help but smile.

You stop at the mailbox on your way home from work, and take a moment to consider what might be inside. A letter or card from a dear friend, maybe, or the latest issue of a favorite magazine.

You catch a glimpse of your dog or cat, nose pressed to the window, waiting for you to come home – even though you’ve only been out for ten minutes.

“A snow day literally and figuratively falls from the sky, unbidden, and seems a thing of wonder.”
~ Susan Orlean

You stand on the patio as a squall builds, and you let the mounting energy of the storm invigorate your heart, mind, and body.

You spend more time in the kitchen, cooking amazing foods, laughing with your best friend, your partner, your parents, as you slice and dice and saute and stir.

You wake in the middle of the night to silence, the magical hush of the season’s first snow.

“He who marvels at the beauty of the world in summer will find equal cause for wonder and admiration in winter.”
~John Burroughs

You try to capture these feelings – hope and wonder – that exist hand in hand, and are so close to the surface as the holidays approach.

Maybe something you overhear in a café or witness while shopping sparks a story. Perhaps there’s a poem waiting in the crackle of your fireplace or the pattering of rain on the roof. A child playing in the last of the autumn leaves might make a perfect photo, or inspire a memory of your own childhood, your cheeks rosy from playing in chilly air.

“Once you choose hope, anything’s possible.”
~Christopher Reeve

Welcome to Hope & Wonder, the 8th issue of Modern Creative Life, and the end-cap of our second year of publication.

While this issue is slightly abbreviated (the first issue of our third year will launch in mid-January), it’s also packed with content.

In Hope & Wonder, you’ll get a peek into the daily lives of other creative folk in our Studio Tours and Typical Tuesday series, and meet people walking fascinating creative pathways in Conversations Over Coffee. With photos and fiction, poetry and prompts, essays and enlightenment, you’ll find a deeper understanding into all the ways in which we all create.

As always, our mission at Modern Creative Life is to honor the pursuit and practice of joyful creativity. We believe that the creative arts enrich our everyday living, enhance our environment, create lasting connections, and sustain our souls. Please join us as we look to other creatives for ways in which they find peace in the shadows, or succor in the sunshine.

As we share the stories of other makers, we invite you to use their experiences as a guide on your quest for your own Modern Creative Life.

What do you hope for, or wonder about? What gives you hope, or makes that childlike bubble of delight and wonder surround you? We invite you to share your stories, poems, essays and photos with us as we celebrate the hope and wonder all around us, and the way each helps to nourish our creative selves. We are open to single contributions as well as new regular contributors. Email us at moderncreativelife@gmail.com.

About the author: Melissa A. Bartell

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

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Sunday Brunch: The Coming of the Cardinals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

About the author: Melissa A. Bartell

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

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Not Exactly Persephone by Melissa A. Bartell

Forest Hat via Flash PromptIn the end, it was his hat that clinched it.

She’d taken the short-cut through the forest for as long as she could remember, maybe even longer. As a child, she’d skipped down the path, heedless of what the brambles might be doing to the hem of her blue dress, or the ruffles on her white pinafore.

Who sent a child out to play dressed in such frippery anyway? Mary-Janes were great if you wanted to tap-dance down the circular stairway in the entrance hall, but they were next to useless on a dirt path, and even worse if it had rained the day before.

Black patent-leather and squelching mud puddles did not mix well.

As she grew older, and could dictate her own wardrobe, she chose more appropriate attire – hiking boots and jeans with duster-length cardigans were her unofficial uniform.

She still cut through the forest, though, breathing in the scents of earth and leaves and growing things on her way to work every morning. She carried her laptop in a messenger bag slung across her body, and tucked her hair up into one of her many berets, a different color almost every day.

It was her trademark, she said. A beret with a butterfly pin was how the world would know she was herself.

The first time she saw him, it was when she rounded the bend just this side of the creek. He was preternaturally still, focused on the winged creature perched on his fingertips (he had long, graceful fingers, she noticed) and she froze mid-step, afraid to disturb him, or spook the colorful insect he was studying.

But even one small-ish woman’s breathing is enough to change the melody of the forest, and when he glanced up, their eyes met.

It wasn’t a cosmic thing, not really. Just two people acknowledging each other’s presence, and moving along on separate paths.

The met in the forest several times after that, never speaking.

Sometimes, he would beckon her closer, and point to a small bird sipping from a puddle, and they would watch together in communal rapture.

Sometimes, she would offer him a piece of fruit leftover from her day – an apple, maybe, or a banana – once it was half a pomegranate and a plastic spork – and he’d grinned at her, and called her Persephone.

His voice was like the ripples of water flowing over stone.

That one word, the name that wasn’t hers, but should have been, opened the floodgates of conversation. He was an art teacher at the local magnet school, he said. He came to the woods for inspiration.

When he learned that she owned the local café and was also trying to write a novel, he asked to read her pages.

She finally relented when he came into her workplace with a sketch of her on a purple beret day, sitting on a rock, surrounded by dragonflies. (In reality there had only been one or two, but she liked his enhancement.) Looking at the sketch, she realized she’d never thought of herself as being pretty, but that she looked so, at least when depicted in pencil-strokes.

Let me take you to dinner, he asked.

She demurred. She didn’t have time to date, she said.

In truth, she knew that it wouldn’t be just a date, or even just dinner. There was something about this man whom butterflies trusted that made her heart flutter like papery wings.

When you’re ready, he told her, I’ll be here.

She avoided the forest for days, after. Embarrassed. Attracted. Confused. She took the longer route to work. She even drove there, on the day it rained.

She missed him, she realized.

She returned to her usual path the next morning, and when she stepped into a puddle, she laughed at the squelching sound her boot made.

He appeared, as if from nowhere, with a green top-hat covering his dark, curly hair. You’re back, he didn’t say. I’ve missed you, his lips did not utter. But his eyes were shining, and his smile was like a ray of sun cutting through fog.

His hat looked as though the forest had gifted it to him, as if it were made from leaves and branches. It wasn’t, of course. It was only felted wool. But the effect caught her attention.

Nice hat, she said.

A student’s project, he explained. They were supposed to capture nature in an ordinary object.

I hope they got an ‘A,’ she replied.

He assured her that they had.

When he appeared in her café the next day, she accepted his invitation to dinner.

She had to, you see.

She’d always been a sucker for men in hats.

About the author: Melissa A. Bartell

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

Sunday Brunch: Kitchen Table Writing

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

Kitchen Table Writing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunflowers on Kitchen Table

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

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

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

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

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

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

Apparently, kitchen table writing runs in the family.

About the author: Melissa A. Bartell

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

Sunday Brunch: Melancholy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

About the author: Melissa A. Bartell

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

Grocery Store Flowers: Crosswords and Sunflowers by Melissa A. Bartell

Photo by Alisa Anton on Unsplash

The old man’s eyes were growing dimmer with each passing year, but he still completed the crossword puzzle in the paper every day – and the big one in the Sunday Times – as if it was some kind of a ritual. He needed a magnifier, now, to see the grid, but he didn’t seem embarrassed to use it in public.

Daisy knew this because he often worked his puzzle sitting in the café at the front of the grocery store on Wednesdays, while his wife did the shopping. “Nita doesn’t like it when I help her shop,” he’d shared. “She says I do it wrong, just because I want to go up and down every aisle and see what’s new.” He’d tried to seem insulted, but she could tell he loved his wife, and didn’t really mind having an hour or so to sip a decaf coffee and ink in – he always used ink – the letters, fitting them into the correct boxes.

Daisy had gotten into the habit of taking her break at the same time the old man – Frank was his name – showed up. At least, she did so whenever she could. Some Wednesdays there was a rush at her kiosk, people needing flowers for birthdays or anniversaries, Secretary’s day or back-to-school. There were any number of reasons, and, she made a point of asking each customer who they were shopping for and what that person liked, doing her best to find the perfect blend of giver, receiver, and occasion.

Copyright: <a href='https://www.123rf.com/profile_stockbroker'>stockbroker / 123RF Stock Photo</a>She was surprised, therefore, when Frank beckoned her over one Wednesday morning, and said, “You’re the flower girl here, aren’t you?”

From anyone else, being called a ‘girl,’ would have caused Daisy to respond with a correction that she was over eighteen and was the floral manager, yes. But Frank was sort of a friend, and he was from the generation where ‘girl’ wasn’t meant offensively.  Context, she remembered a line from a favorite miniseries. It’s the difference between roadkill and a nice dinner.

She dropped into the other chair at Frank’s table. “I am,” she said. “What can I help you with?”

“Two things,” he answered. “First…what’s a five-letter word for ‘how daisies bloom?'”

Daisy grinned. She knew this one, being based on her name, and all. “Aster,” she said. “Daisies are asters. It means the flowers are star-shaped.”

Frank penned the letters into their blanks, and grinned. “Perfect. And second… Nita’s been a little blue lately. Our granddaughter was supposed to visit, but she got into a special music program for the summer, and won’t be able to come until later.”

“Aww, I’m sorry to hear that,” Daisy interjected. “I mean, you must be proud of her, but still…”

“We are proud of her,” Frank assured, “but Nita, she was really looking forward to some girl time. It’s hard for her – our daughters are all over the country, and don’t visit much, and most of the other grandkids don’t want to hang out with old folks anymore. But she and Katie have always had a special bond… I think because Katie’s the only one who went into music.”

“Was Nita a musician?” Daisy asked.

“She was. She still is. Plays piano for the church choir at St. Agnes. But when we met she was singing in her father’s restaurant. You’re probably too young to remember it – the opera café down on fifth?”

“I’ve heard of it,” Daisy said. “It closed before I ever had a chance to go. Tell me how you met?”

“Well, now… Nita was singing and I was there with my buddies. It was a counter serve place – you made your order at one end and took a tray and picked up your food at the other. Like that Frenchy place all the kids go to now… the one with the girl’s name?”

“La Madeleine?”

“That’s the place. Anyway, it was spaghetti night, and I took my order – spaghetti and meatballs, salad, and the best garlic bread that was ever on this earth, and I was walking to a table, when all of a sudden, this dark angel – black hair, eyes the color of cinnamon toast, warm olive skin – opened her mouth and started singing, and I was overcome… I stood stock-still right in front of her, just staring, and my buddy Jack came crashing into me.”

“That doesn’t sound good,” Daisy observed.

“No, it wasn’t. My tray went flying, and landed upside down all over her feet. Good thing it had cooled off some while I was dumbstruck or she would’ve been burnt.”

“But she wasn’t…?”

“Naah, she was fine. Madder than a wet hen, but fine. Her father came running, even replaced my meal, but she glared at me for the rest of the night.”

Daisy chuckled to herself. She could just imagine. “So, what did you do?”

“Well, after we finished eating, my buddies and I left, but I knew I wanted to see Copyright: <a href='https://www.123rf.com/profile_onepony'>onepony / 123RF Stock Photo</a>her again. So, I told them I’d catch up with them at the pool hall, and I picked a bunch of yellow sunflowers that were poking out of someone’s fence on the corner. Then I went back to the café and gave them to her. Asked if maybe I could take her to dinner somewhere to apologize.”

“And she said yes?”

“Actually, she said she’d think about it. So, I showed up there on spaghetti night every week for a month, bringing sunflowers every time. After a while she gave in. We’ve been together ever since. Had three daughters, seven grandchildren, and more dogs and cats and parakeets than I care to count up.”

“That’s so sweet,” Daisy gushed. “So, you want to get her flowers today?”

“If I could, yes. But not roses or anything. I get her roses for her birthday and our anniversary, but… I saw you had some sunflowers in a bucket?”

“I do,” Daisy said. “Do you want me to put together a bouquet with some baby’s breath or stock?”

“Well now, that’d be just perfect,” Frank responded, giving her a cheeky grin. “Let me just finish the puzzle and I’ll be over there to pay for them.”

Daisy grinned right back at the old man. Getting up, she leaned over to peer at his puzzle, and poke a finger at one of the clues. “That one – seventeen across – ‘still waters do this?’ The answer is ‘run deep.’

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.

Welcome to Issue #7: Light & Shadow

“I see only forms that are lit up and forms that are not. There is only light and shadow.”
~ Francisco Goya

You open your eyes to a sunny day, and notice that the light is changing along with the seasons.

You change the way you’re standing in front of the mirror, letting the changes in light and shadow change the way your see yourself.

You turn your back to the sun, and see the shadow you cast on the ground. You turn around, face into the glare, and your shadow disappears.

You wake in the middle of a moonlight night, see the shadows of tree branches on the blinds.

You unleash your imagination and let the branches become the limbs of strange beings from other worlds.

You grow and change and come to realize that both light and shadows come in many flavors. You learn that light isn’t always ‘good’ and shadows aren’t always ‘bad,’ but that each gives dimension to the other.

You snap a photo, paint or draw a picture, write a scene, compose a song, and you find beauty in the contrast.

“Our job is to record, each in his own way, this world of light and shadow and time that will never come again exactly as it is today.”
~ Edward Abbey

Welcome to the 7th issue of Modern Creative Life:
Light & Shadow

When we planned the calendar for this year’s themes, we had no idea we’d be launching this issue on the day when much of North America will be witnessing a solar eclipse. Still, it seems as though the universe was – is – in synch with us as we make the transition from summer toward fall (or from winter toward spring).

For me, light and shadow aren’t opposites, but companions. Without one the other has little meaning.

As makers, as creators, we explore both, we appreciate both. We use the shadows in our lives to give the light times more dimension, and we embrace the light when the shadows encroach too far, or seem too dark. Art, in all its forms, is full of, and formed by, this duality.

We invite you to explore it with us.

In this issue, you’ll get a peek into the daily lives of other creative folk in our Studio Tours and Typical Tuesday series, and meet people walking fascinating creative pathways in Conversations Over Coffee. With photos and fiction, poetry and prompts, essays and enlightenment, you’ll find a deeper understanding into all the ways in which we all create.

“Life is a mixture of light and shadow, calm and storm, and it’s all good.”
~ Susan W. Krebs

As always, our mission at Modern Creative Life is to honor the pursuit and practice of joyful creativity. We believe that the creative arts enrich our everyday living, enhance our environment, create lasting connections, and sustain our souls. Please join us as we look to other creatives for ways in which they find peace in the shadows, or succor in the sunshine.

As we share the stories of other makers, we invite you to use their experiences as a guide on your quest for your own Modern Creative Life.

What lessons might you have to share with the world? Share your stories with us, serving as the example for others to learn from, and inspire them to explore the light and shadows in their own lives. We are open to single contributions as well as new regular contributors. Email us at moderncreativelife@gmail.com.

About the author: Melissa A. Bartell

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

 

Sunday Brunch: Negative Space

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

About the author: Melissa A. Bartell

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

Sunday Brunch: Getting Sleepy

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

Happy Couple Sleeping by Antonio Guillem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And maybe, subconsciously, I did.

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

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

 

About the author: Melissa A. Bartell

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

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.

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