Breathing by Melissa A. Bartell


“When I breathe in, I’ll breathe in peace.
When I breathe out, I’ll breathe out love.”
~ Sarah Dan Jones

I’ve been thinking a lot about breathing lately. Maybe it’s the images from the wildfires in California, or maybe it’s that I’ve spent a good chunk of the last week fighting, and finally succumbing to, a cold/sinus/thing that left me feeling like I couldn’t breathe.

Or maybe it’s more basic.

At the salon on November 3rd I climbed a flight of stairs for the first time since having ACL/ALL/Meniscus surgery on my left knee in July. I’ve always had this issue where I “forget” to breathe when climbing stairs or running – yes, I know it’s supposed to be an autonomic function – but for the first time – probably because I was so focused on whether FrankenKnee would function correctly – I wasn’t winded at the top. The distraction of focusing on my recovering joint meant that I wasn’t hyperaware of my breathing to the point where I stopped doing it.

The next day, I had my first private Tai Chi session. I’ve finally finished formal PT, but I have no stamina, and I’m still a bit off balance. I’m using a stationary recumbent bike and weights at home, but I need an external something to be accountable to, or I won’t continue.

The teacher I’ve chosen is a woman who is likely about fifteen years older than I am, slightly younger than my mother. She’s funny and warm, and very real. She’s also a physical therapist and is happy to modify the beginning exercises so we’re using chairs for some of my sessions.

Of course, any practice that involves energy – QiGong, Tai Chi, Yoga – involves breath work. Right now, breathing in through my nose while exercising is a conscious effort, but I know that eventually it won’t be.

As a singer, a lot of the breathing meditation that I was introduced to in that first class was reminiscent of what I learned in my first voice classes – breathing down into the diaphragm, so your belly expands with each inhalation, rather than your lungs – just like a lot of the Tai Chi moves feel similar to beginning ballet.

Movement, it seems, is pretty much movement, no matter how you dress it up.

(One of my other take-aways from my first class was that I seriously need to learn to slow down. But that’s an essay for another place, and another time.)

And breathing… breathing isn’t all the same. There’s meditative breathing, and contemplative sighing. There’s the sharp intake of breath when something surprises you (for good or ill) and the abrupt outflow of air when you express yourself with a hearty “Huh.” There’s the way we choke on breath when we experience sudden cold – that knife to the chest feeling – and the way overheated air makes us feel like there is no air to take in.

But whatever type, whatever kind, whatever alters it, for however long, it’s all breathing.

* * *

Levar Burton & Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam by Melissa A Bartell

“Reading is like breathing in.
Writing is like breathing out.”
~ Pam Allyn

On Monday night, my husband I went to see LeVar Burton on tour with his podcast LeVar Burton Reads.

As he does in every studio-recorded episode, after he introduced the story, the author, and the accompanying live musician, Burton then said, “Take a deep breath… and begin.”

Of course, because this was a live show, he then interrupted himself to ask if those of us who are regular listeners take that breath with him when we’re alone at home, as we did in his presence, in the theater. And most of us admitted that we did.

Burton then went on to explain that he perceives that breath to be a sort of portal, and I must admit I’m enchanted by that image. To me, it’s always felt like a sort of mental reset button, but I guess the outcome is the same. It’s a change of tone, an alteration of mental place, and a step from the world of the mundane into the world of Story.  As Burton also reminded us, the word to inhale is, in Latin, inspire – which, for anyone creative, means more than merely breathing.

After this brief divertissement, he repeated his ritual breath (and yes, we all did it, too) and began to read. The story, by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam, was a fascinating tale of lost relatives, missing children, and the way we treat memory and loss as a culture, couched in a blend of fantasy and science fiction.

After the reading, there was a question and answer period. As a fan of the podcast, I was aware that Burton typically has conversations with the authors who appear on his show, but I hadn’t expected an audience participation moment.

Breathing suddenly became much more of a focus for me, for two reasons.

First, there was the decision that I wanted to ask a question.

While I’ve been out and about since surgery – Comic Con a few weeks ago, and the afore-mentioned trip to the salon – this was my first time doing sustained walking (three blocks from the parking garage – we parked in the wrong one, but it ended up costing only $5 instead of $10, so, bonus!) and then down the ramped aisle to our seats in the sixth row. I had my walker, of course, but once I was seated, my husband had to bring it to the back of the theater where it could sit out of the way during the show. To ask a question I had to walk further down the ramp, without a mobility device, and wait in line. Okay, I was the second in my line, and the fourth overall, but it was a major achievement for me, and I was shaky from the effort. (Remember, I’ve also been ill.)

Second, my question led to a return question.

The Pam Allyn quote above has been circling my brain for a few weeks, and the combination of illness, finishing formal physical therapy and turning to Tai Chi, and LeVar Burton’s own words at the beginning of the show had me feeling like it was relevant.

So, I asked both him and Ms. Stufflebeam to comment on it, and he, countering, asked me if I was a reader or a writer.

I answered that I was a voracious reader, a writer, and a podcaster.

“If reading is breathing out,” he asked, “and writing is breathing in, what’s podcasting?”

I am sorry to admit, I went for the easy answer, the cheap laugh. Flippantly, I responded, “Self-indulgence.” There’s nothing wrong with that answer. For someone like me, whose show isn’t slick and professionally produced, who isn’t anyone with name recognition, it’s actually pretty true. And because this was a timed Q&A and there were people behind me, it was also the most effective way to end my turn.


But as soon as I got back to my seat, I realized that there was a better answer I could have given: Respiration.

If to read is to draw in breath, and to write is to let it back out, then podcasting, which incorporates both, is the recurring act of respiration. It’s breathing.

And breathing is one of the fundamental necessities of life.

I’ve been thinking a lot about breathing lately, but it’s mostly been about the mechanics.

On Monday night, I was reminded that there’s another aspect to breathing, that we as creatives must embrace. We must take in everything that inspires us and put out into the world the fruits of that inspiration.




“Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”
~ Arundhati Roy


 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: Button, Button, Who’s Got the Button?


One of the wonderful things about social media is that a random conversation with a friend can send you down a path of memories, a veritable rabbit hole full of fragmented images and bits of conversations. Recently, someone I know mentioned something about buttons (I’ve lost the link to the original thread) and it triggered a visceral memory of my mother’s button box.


My mother is a self-described “sewist,” and has been for as long as I can remember. For much of my early childhood, my clothes were handmade originals, often, when I was very young, produced from scraps of the outfits she made for herself. As a teen, I was spoiled by her ability to see something I liked in a magazine and reproduce it for me, often in the space of a busy weekend.

Sewing is, to my mother, like writing and music are to me.

I do not share her affinity for fiber arts. I resented every moment of standing in line at JoAnn’s or Hancock’s because there was a fabric sale and I was a warm body who could use a second coupon and increase her stash. When she visits, I dread the day she designates for fabric shopping, because the lights and the colors and the sizing on the fabrics literally make me sick. As it has been since I was a kid, my job, on these days, is to push the cart, and hunt down the patterns she wants in the great big drawers.

ButtonBox-02But there is one thing about my mother’s sewing habit that has always intrigued me: buttons.

My mother’s sewing desk, when I was young, was a lovely wooden piece, with a central opening that hid her black, metal, Singer sewing machine from view when not in use. It was often in a window, sun-warmed, it’s French-inspired claw feet darkened from age, but still beautiful. When the sewing machine was stowed, it was a writing desk, but somehow the wood had absorbed the special scent of pins (really machine oil, I’m told). Being near it was like breathing in the essence of my mother’s soul.

My mother was most interested in what lived inside the desk – her machine. I, on the other hand, was completely captivated by the old, red, tea-tin that resided atop it: my mother’s button box.

The tin has been ancient for at least as long as I’ve been alive. Bleecker and Simmons, it said on the front, those names seeming somehow mystical to me. Or at least mythical. And within its brass-colored depths? Oh, the treasures that I found!

It wasn’t all buttons of course.

And it wasn’t buttons that would be used in every-day projects.

For making blouses or pants or jackets or… whatever… my mother would buy new buttons. A sailor-themed outfit might have plastic anchors as fasteners. A jungle print shirt would have tiny lion heads holding it closed. ButtonBox-03

The buttons (and other tiny trinkets) inside the box, were one-offs. An extra button from a new dress, a lost button from a favorite jacket. A metal button that was leftover after a project. An ancient clip-on earring that might one day be turned into an ornament for a hat or lapel. A jingle bell that had probably been part of one of my ballet or Halloween costumes at one point.

That tiny red tin seemed to hold endless wonders, each with its own history, its own future, its own magic.

My mother’s button box lives in my house now. I keep it on the dresser in the guest room, so she can see it when she comes to visit. It didn’t make the cut when she was packing to move to Mexico nearly twenty years ago, but neither of us could bear to just toss it away.

Sometimes, I think about discarding the buttons that are in it now and starting my own collection of tiny objects. But mostly, I just like that it’s there. It’s a lesson in object permanence – we may not have pictures of many of those garments, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t exist – but it’s also a glimpse into my mother’s soul, and a reminder that while our creative outlets are different, the need to create connects us both.

Postscript: As this is my final “Sunday Brunch” piece, I just wanted to take a moment to thank all of you who have read my stuff both here, and in All Things Girl over the years. Your support has meant so much. And for my fellow editors and contributors, I look forwarding to reading your work in other places, and enjoying it as much as I’ve enjoyed all the words and images you’ve shared here.

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: A Dish of Dreams

It’s four AM on Monday morning, but it’s not the storm outside that wakes me. Rather, I’ve been pulled from sleep because the end of a dream came at the same time as my smallest dog, a twelve-year-old chihuahua, is informing me that he needs to go out.

My husband deals with the dog.

I try to make sense of the dream.

It involved a wedding – not mine – and a white tennis dress that an older woman asked me to wear. Roses were a frequent image, and pearls, and items of clothing that were offered in pink paper-wrapped boxes. Oh, and I was twenty. (In my waking life, I haven’t been twenty in over a decade.)

At one point, I saw the name Margaret, and I realized that some of the clothing being gifted to me had been meant for her, for this mysterious girl who never appeared. I think she was the deceased daughter of the old woman, a woman who felt like family, but whom I couldn’t identify.

As dreams go, it’s not scary or stressful, but it sticks with me, and I wonder where it came from.

I pick up the phone and leave a message for a friend asking her to ask me about the images from the dream. My husband returns with the dog. I go back to sleep and have a deliciously smutty dream about characters from Star Trek: The Next Generation (don’t judge), but the other images linger into the next day, and stay with me all week.

It’s when I enter the kitchen two days later that a connection is finally made.  Dishes. Dishes sparked this dream.


On the previous Friday, I’d received a box of old china from one of my cousins in California. Back in May, her mother had asked if I wanted the remaining pieces from my great-great uncle’s set of dishes, which were likely owned by his mother in the first place. She was asking because her daughter inherited her grandmother’s dishes, and I’m one of the only cousins in my generation who knew this uncle. “My generation,” she said, “is downsizing. So, I’m offering these things to yours.”

I move into the kitchen and pick up one of the platters. It’s worn with age and manages to be both sturdy and delicate at once. Nothing dramatic happens. I’m not zapped back into my dreamscape. No ethereal beings appear in my house to tell me their story.

And yet, I feel a sense of history and connection.

I don’t believe in ghosts in the traditional sense. I don’t believe there are actual spirits trying to speak with us or attempting to resolve unfinished business. I know there’s nothing supernatural about Ouija boards: the planchette moves because of something called the ideomotor effect  – unconscious, involuntary actions in response to prior suggestions, expectations, and preconceptions.

But I do believe that objects and places retain the essences of people who owned or inhabit them. Houses take on the tones of those who dwelt within. And maybe dishes retain something of the people who chose them, and loved them, and passed them down to their children’s children.

My dream remains with me, still, a week later, and I’m no closer to picking it apart than I was when I first woke up, but I now know that the china I received is from an English company called Johnson Bros, and is likely one of the first patterns they sold.

Perhaps this china is connected to the nocturnal imagery created within my mind. Perhaps my dream is merely a combination of receiving the china and watching the Stephen King miniseries Rose Red. Perhaps it’s just my vivid imagination at work, providing me with story-fodder for my annual Horror Dailies writing project.

If there is, or was, an actual Margaret, I wish her well.

And if there isn’t… may whatever story I eventually write honor the memory of her fictional self.

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: A Stout-hearted Man

Give me some men who are stout-hearted men,
Who will fight, for the right they adore,
Start me with ten who are stout-hearted men,
And I’ll soon give you ten thousand more.
Shoulder to shoulder and bolder and bolder,
They grow as they go to the fore.
Then there’s nothing in the world can halt or mar a plan,
When stout-hearted men can stick together man to man.

There are people who enter your lives as visitors, stay a while, and then move on, and there are others who come to stay.

For most of the first twelve years of my life, my immediate family was just my mother and me. Sure, she was married for some of that time, but it wasn’t a happy or healthy relationship, and a lot of our time was spent in a mother-daughter bubble that must have seemed impenetrable from outside.

And then there was Ira.

Ira Decades have erased the clear memories of my first time meeting him, but I think it was largely unplanned. My mother had met him some weeks before at a singles dinner, maybe through the UU church, maybe through Parents Without Partners, but that night – that night – he called asking if Mom wanted to join him to see the famous mime Marcel Marceau. He was bringing his son, and I was invited as well.

I only have vague recollections of the performance. A pity, really, because Marceau was brilliant at what he did. What I remember is that I was bored a lot – a lot of the performance was a bit esoteric for a grumpy, recently eleven-year-old girl. The son had fallen asleep mid-way through the performance, and I had no one to talk to. I was also hungry. I think at some point a bagel manifested, but, for the most part, it was a seriously unimpressive evening that was capped off when we were pulled over by the police on the way home. Ira wasn’t drunk. He’d weaving because he couldn’t stay awake.

Did I mention: this was their first date?

I expected my mother to blow him off.

I expected her to date other people.

I never expected her to marry him, but that’s what happened.

She would tell you, if you asked her, that it was the most unromantic proposal in the history of such things. There was laundry involved. There was no exchange of jewelry. It was almost an afterthought.

I boycotted the wedding.

I was eleven, and it was an act of rebellion. I felt unincluded and unimportant. I’m not sure what I thought would result from my action, but I knew I had to make a statement.

I made a lot of statements in the early days of their marriage. What I didn’t have the self-awareness or vocabulary to express then was that I felt betrayed – my mother, who had kept her birth name for all the years of my life so far – took his name when they married. I felt like I’d been brushed aside. I felt like I was the only one making compromises.

At the same time, I wasn’t ready to trust that this person, this man, would treat my mother well, would treat me well, would stay in our lives.

There was a lot of adjustment.

Ira wasn’t used to people who yelled, or worse, yelled back at him. I wasn’t willing to accept him as a parent. There were times I begged to go live with my aunt, or my grandparents, or be sent to boarding school.

There were times when I’m sure Ira wanted to walk away from the prickly little girl who was caught in the worst part of the transition from childhood to womanhood.

But gradually, things changed.

Every once in a while, Ira would buy a present – nothing big – an album, a book, a set of awesome colored markers – just for me. And every once in a while, I’d engage him in conversation.

By the time I got to high school, we had begun to form a solid friendship, partly out of convenience. I liked to spend weekend nights reading into the wee hours of the morning, and he liked to spend the same late nights doing recreational math. Once, he knocked on my bedroom door and said, “It’s two AM, shouldn’t you be sleeping?”

My response was to ask, “Shouldn’t you?

Eventually, those late-night encounters turned into something else. He’d knock on my door and say, “Melissa, I have to tell you about this new thing I learned about the number eleven!”

Or I’d knock on his office door and say, “I’m in between books and I’m making some tea. Do you want some?” IRA-02

Over the years, those midnight cups of tea turned into midnight chats about time travel and history and why mild cheddar should be eradicated from the face of the earth, and how Jeremy Brett was the best Sherlock Holmes ever.

At some point we started a tradition of going to museums together – just the two of us – on Father’s Day. We’d go to breakfast first or lunch after, and we’d get ice cream cones and not tell Mom. We went to the California Academy of Sciences and speculated about spending the night in the African Watering Hole exhibit, and we went to the Rosicrucian Museum and saw the mummy in the replica tomb.

And in all that time, Ira never pushed me to hug him if I didn’t want to. He never pushed me to call him “Dad.” He laughed at my snark and helped with my math homework, and I mocked his love of cheap kitchen gadgets bought from the discount store, and his penchant for weird food combinations (peanut butter and jelly and CHEESE?) but there was real affection underneath it all.

From the time Ira entered our lives, birthday and Christmas gifts were presented from him and my mother as a unit, with a few notable exceptions. When I turned twenty-one, my mother gave me the then-current edition of Our Bodies, Ourselves, and that was just from her. And one year, after one of our museum trips, Ira gave me a pin – a brooch – that had all the animals from the safari exhibit attached as charms. He said it reminded him of our trip to the museum, and he thought I’d like it.

I did. I still do.

Later, when I was planning my wedding to Fuzzy, Ira said that he’d give me away, and be honored to do it, if I asked him to, but that I should consider that it was a tradition that dated back to when women were chattel, and was that something any of us believed in?

Fuzzy and I eventually eloped, and my parents threw us a party with a commitment ceremony several months later, and  even though I was already technically married, I caught Ira crying when Fuzzy put the wedding band on my finger.

But through all of that, I still bristled whenever someone assumed he was my father, and I would correct them, adding the word STEP.

It should be noted that the events described from here to the end of this piece may not match the timeline of reality. I was pretty drugged on Norco for the first two or three weeks…

On July 11th  of this year, mere hours after I came home from having the ACL, ALL, and meniscus in my left knee reconstructed, my mother told me that Ira had an infected gall bladder and they were considering surgery, but because of advanced kidney disease, his odds weren’t good.

He’d been sick for a while, with different diagnoses. It was cancer. Then it wasn’t. Then it was, again – multiple myeloma. He’d been vacillating about his kidney disease – it was a sudden diagnosis and he didn’t want treatment until he was told how much time he didn’t have left.

Ultimately, he had the surgery a few days later when the risk of his gall bladder bursting was too great to ignore. There were complications. There was a second surgery. Exhausted and diminished he asked for treatment to end.

And so, we waited.

I waited here in Texas, because I couldn’t go to the bathroom without help, let alone travel to Mexico, where my parents retired almost twenty years ago. I waited wracked with guilt over not being able to be there to support my mother, and to say goodbye. Ira’s son was with her. And there was a near-constant flow of texts and calls. But it’s not the same as being there.

So, I asked if I could write a letter – an email – and have my mother read it to him.

Ira used to sing this song, one he obviously learned in school. “Stout-hearted Men.” When he was singing it, you could see the ghost of his eight-year-old self overlaying his present-day self. And I mentioned that in my letter, adding that for years I thought it was the only song he knew.

I also explained why I was so stubborn about the term ‘stepfather.”

Anyone can be a father, I said, because that’s an act of biology. But stepfathers – good stepfathers – they choose it. They choose to deal with the adjustments, and the fighting and then prickly little girls who don’t know how to trust men.

Every day, over and over, they choose to stay.

Ira chose to stay.

And then he chose to leave.


Ira died on July 27th.  Just over a month ago. He was my mother’s partner and lover and best friend and husband. He was a good father to his son, and he bent over backwards to be a good stepfather to me.

He was a scientist and a scholar, but he’d happily watch hours and hours of stupid action movies just to see the explosions.

He was sometimes silly and sometimes serious. He’d insist that raw veggies and leafy greens had to be part of every meal, but then he’d meet you in the kitchen in the middle of the night to sneak a piece of pie.

He coddled his dogs, made napping into an Olympic-level event, and gave generally useful advice.

He was in the army once, when he was young, though he never saw combat.

And he was the epitome of a modern, enlightened (mostly), loving, stout-hearted man.

You who have dreams, if you act they will come true.
To turn your dreams to a fact, it’s up to you.
If you have the soul and the spirit,
Never fear it, you’ll see it thru,
Hearts can inspire, other hearts with their fire,
For the strong obey when a strong man shows them the way.

The song, “Stout-hearted Men” was written for the musical New Moon
by Sigmund Romberg, Frank Mandel, Laurence Schwab & Oscar Hammerstein II.

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: CD, Baby?

It’s not a new story, really, even though my local news station posted it on their Facebook page on Friday evening: as of today, Best Buy will no longer sell CDs (though you can still buy vinyl records in their stores) and other retailers, like Target, will be reducing their stock, selling discs on a consignment basis.

This was initially announced back in February, so it’s not really a surprise, but with most media time going to sports, politics and the occasional celebrity wedding or death (not necessarily in that order) it’s no wonder that many of us missed it.

Still, when my local news station asked, “Do you still buy CDs; when did you last buy one, and what was it?” I was struck by the question.

Copyright: <a href=''>tatabrada / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

The reality is, I’ve gone from a kid who grew up on vinyl (and I’m sure you can imagine how many times I’ve cursed the day I gave away my collection of Disney books & records, original pressing of “Free to Be, You and Me,” and the black cardboard case that contained the original cast recording of My Fair Lady on multiple 78s) to a teenager who recorded songs off the radio, made mix-tapes to share with her friends, and was embarrassed by her off-brand Walkman-clone.

CDs didn’t really become the default medium for music until I was approaching my twenties, and I was twenty-one before I bought my own CD player, and I still remember – and own – the first CD I ever bought: a collaboration between Yo-Yo Ma and Bobby McFerrin called “HUSH.” 1806.29 - HUSH

I suspect that just as I was part of the first generation to own CDs I am part of the last generation to have held a membership in the Columbia Records & Tapes clubs, which, of course, I didn’t join until it became a CD club, and which, to my ultimate shame, I still have a few CDs from sitting in the rack upstairs still in their original shrink-wrapping… this despite the fact it’s been at last a decade, and possibly two, since I was a member.

Honestly though, most of my music has been digital since at least 2010, and even the CDs I own are typically ripped to my computer and added to iTunes for access from anywhere. My iPhone has become my primary listening device, especially since my desktop computer was chosen for it’s quietness. It makes it fantastic to record on, but I never bothered to put external speakers on it.

Still, there are times when I really want a physical CD, and it’s not solely because of my addiction to liner notes (though, I am as big a fan of those as I am the audio commentaries on Blu-Ray and DVD movies).

I buy a lot of soundtracks on CD because they usually have cast lists and lyrics inside, and both of those things appeal to me, but they’re also something tangible for favorite performers to sign on the rare occasions that I want autographs. (I do not, as a rule, collect autographs on photos, but signing the liner notes on a CD, or signing a book, is a whole different thing. Those are tangible representations of the act of creation. Yes, I am a snob.)

1776SIGNED1776, for example, has long been one of my favorite musicals, so I was really excited when Brent Spiner (you know him from Star Trek: The Next Generation, Night Court, and Outcast) starred in a revival in the mid-90s. We were living in South Dakota, then, and couldn’t get to New York, but the CD kept me happy for years, and when I asked him to sign the liner notes for me at Dallas Comic-Con two years ago it led to a lovely conversation about the artwork, his time in the role, working at the Public Theatre, and how there’s a line in Hamilton: an American Musical that directly references the score of 1776. It’s the conversation that sparked our trip, a year later, to finally see Hamilton, but I didn’t buy that soundtrack on CD.

Then there are the CDs I buy, or keep, because there’s something meaningful about the artist. I have a CD that my parents gave me for Christmas one year, Tiempo de Amar by Myrna Trasviña. She was the singer at a favorite restaurant in La Paz, BCS, Mexico, and we all loved the simplicity of her performances as she strolled with her guitar. Her rendition of the classics “Quizas, Quizas, Quizas” is a favorite of mine.

Having Myrna’s CD, the one she printed and distributed herself, doesn’t just represent access to music I love; it’s also a memory of a balmy night, a lovely meal, and a time when my parents’ time in Mexico was new and the romance of being there hadn’t yet worn off.

MYRNATRASVINAFinally, there are CDs I buy to support an artist whose work I love. Most recently (two years ago), I bought Leslie Odom, Jr.’s second solo effort, Simply Christmas. Like 1776, it’s autographed (on the actual disc, this time) because I requested it that way, but it’s become one of my favorite Christmas albums. It’s gentle and mellow, professionally produced but not slick or commercial, and his jazz interpretations of classic holiday tunes are the perfect backdrop for a seasonal brunch or a moody, rainy, drive to meet friends for an annual yuletide breakfast

Sure, I’d heard of Leslie because of his Tony-winning performance as Aaron Burr in the afore-mentioned Hamilton, but I bought his CD because I wanted something I could play in the car, in my office, and over the good speakers in the living room, on the sound system that is just old enough that it can’t connect to an iPhone/iPod with a lightning port.

We who have embraced digital media have done so trusting that it will be there, but digital rights management comes with the ever-present risk that the Cloud might dissipate, or companies may remove favorite content. And that’s certainly something in the back of my head when I buy a physical CD, but as much as it should be a major factor in my purchasing decision, the real reasons I want an actual disc of certain music are far more ephemeral: nostalgia, meaning, and, superficial as it may be, the knowledge that I’m in possession of something a favorite artist has touched.

Are CD’s a dead medium? Who knows? I understand that retailers must make decisions based on numbers and trends, rather than the less-than-definitive considerations I listed above, but I suspect that consumers who want tangible media will find their sources.

After all, who could have anticipated that vinyl would make a resurgence?

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.

Snapshots from the Shore by Melissa A. Bartell

She stands at the edge of the sea, her messy sun-gold braids hanging down her back, her tanned face and hands sticky with watermelon juice.

59743115 - portrait of a happy charming little girl on the beach“Rinse off,” her grandmother urges from beneath her enormous straw sunhat, the one that offsets the prominence of the equally large bosom sheathed in a practically bulletproof bathing suit.

(She remembers once on a family trip that it ended up on the floor, and she fell on it and hurt herself. But she’d been little then – two or three – and maybe the memory isn’t really hers. Maybe she’s just heard the story so many times that she’s absorbed it into her psyche, the same way she’s absorbed the foghorns that wake her and put her to sleep every night.)

Bending over, a little, a lot, a lot more, her tiny hands can’t quite meet the water. She takes another step forward, and then another. She’s not afraid of the gentle, rolling waves. This water has been her second mother almost since the day of her birth.

Here, in this water, she learned to swim before she could even walk.

A few more steps and she’s waist-deep, and now her grandmother’s encouraging tone has become one of caution: “Not too far! Stay where I can see you!”

But when the next wave comes, she ducks under it, even though the knows that the older woman on the beach will clutch at her chest in melodramatic worry.

She surfaces, laughing. The melon juice is gone, she is no longer sticky from sugar, and her braids are soaked through. She’ll be itchy from the salt when they finally dry, but it’s worth it. It’s always worth it, the freedom she feels in the sea.

* * *

“Just put your feet in,” she coaxes the man who has come to drive her to the flatlands in the middle of the country. The flyover states, they call them. Except now they’ll be the land-in states. She wonders if the wind on the prairie can ever come close to the soothing sound of her beloved waves.


“Come on,” she urges. “Seriously, it’s not that cold. At least take your shoes off. You will not actually melt into goo if your bare feet touch the sand.

But he refuses. And she wonders if maybe she’s making a mistake in choosing someone who doesn’t love the beach the way she does. Still, she splashes in the choppy surf, dodging sharp white-crested waves and body surfing the gentler blue ones until she’s tired and sated.

Swimming in the sea, she thinks, is the only thing that even comes close to being as good as sex with the man she loves.4483503 - blond girl sitting on the rock at the seaside

Two weeks later, in their new townhouse, where there are no foghorns, but she can hear the mournful sound of a train whistle at night and in the morning, he locks himself into the downstairs half-bath and makes her promise not to open the door until he says it’s okay.

She assumes he’s settling in for a reading session – doesn’t everyone read in the bathroom? But she’s never been more delighted to be wrong, because he opens the door a couple of hours later, and she sees that he’s hung a string across the room. A string to which he’s clipped a collection of black and white photos of her last day at the beach.

She hadn’t even realized he’d had the camera out.

She smiles and kisses him, and they end up making love on the living room couch because it’s just too much effort to climb the stairs to their bedroom.

They finish the evening with a shower for him, and a bath for her, and then they share a carton of Ben and Jerry’s Cherries Garcia ice cream while watching a science fiction movie in bed.

* * *

They are back on the coast after three years on the prairie, and he learns to navigate cloverleaves and to say highway and freeway instead of interstate. The beach is half an hour away, and they don’t go as often as she might want, but it’s enough, most of the time, to know they can.

Still, they do go.

They drive to the beach in the funky town that was used in that movie about the vampires where they ride the wooden roller coaster and walk on the sand (he still insists on wearing shoes) and drive out to the end of the municipal pier and have clam chowder and beer and feed bits of sourdough to the seagulls that buzz the windows.

They buy calamari and feed it to the pelicans, the bold-as-brass birds that have no fear of humans and are nearly as tall as she is. He snaps a picture, one grey day, of her with her golden braids streaming behind her as she’s nose to beak with one of the birds, and there’s a kinship in the way the two are standing: human and avian. Woman and Bird.

The photo is accepted by an ezine that specializes in digital photographs, and people print it for greeting cards, and wonder who the woman is.

They will always wonder.

* * *

They never make love at the beach, though they’ve come close more than once. Their favorite spot is further up the coast, and to get there you must park across the road, dash across the highway, cross a field of artichokes, and climb down a flight of rickety stairs 43804508 - back view of a couple taking a walk holding hands on the beachthat are just enough too tall that he must help her.

She secretly likes having him help her. Or rather, she likes that he cares enough for her that she never has to ask for his help.

They spread a blanket on the warm sand and in between her trips into the surf, they read novels aloud to each other, a page at a time.

It’s at that beach that she nearly drowns.

A rare combination of undertow and rip-tide. A moment when she has her back to the waves because he’s got the camera out and pointed at her, and just this once, she wants to be an active participant in his art.

The wave knocks her over and drags her backwards before she can surface. She is rolling in white-water and cannot track the bubbles to find which way is up. She does the one thing she has never done at the beach: she panics.

And then there are sure hands clutching at hers, strong arms pulling her back toward shore. Blindly, she lets him guide her back to the blanket, wrap her in towels, whisper soothing words into her ears.

“I’m sorry,” she says when she can breathe – when she can speak. “I was stupid.”

“Not stupid,” he says, “just not paying attention.” He smooths her wet hair away from her tan face. “You lost a braid.” The observation comes in a soft and tender voice.

They hold each other, touching forehead to forehead, until she laughs, “I finally got you into the water.”

He registers his wet sneakers and soaked khakis, and he chuckles ruefully before he swallows her laughter with his kiss.

* * *

The next time they go to the beach, he takes off his shoes and socks, rolls up his pant-legs, and lets the water tease his toes while he snaps photo after photo. She, of course, has her hair in braids.

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: At the Movies

As I write this, it’s 8:30 on Saturday evening, and the temperature outside is still over ninety degrees (that’s a bit over thirty-three to people outside the USA). Even in the Dallas suburbs, where I live, this is unusually hot for the beginning of June. It’s the kind of heat that makes me too lazy to write, the kind of heat where I end up spending more hours in the pool than out of it, the kind of heat where my favorite non-aquatic activity is escaping to the movies.


The great thing about summer – not meteorological summer, but fiscal summer – the weeks from Memorial Day to Labor Day, is that in addition to being conducive to curling up in my air-conditioned living room and getting lost in a book, or spending entire days devoted to perfecting my butterfly stroke, it’s also the season of summer blockbusters at the local movie theaters.

Escaping to the movies, whether to beat the heat by spending a few hours in someone else’s air conditioning or just to break out of the doldrums that even the most creative of us find ourselves in from time to time, has been something I’ve done since childhood.

At five, six, and seven my friends and I were obsessed with Grease (we used deflated balloons to make leather pants for our Barbie dolls) and Jaws (we played “shark attack” in the pool, and actually listened to the life guards at the beach).

At ten, my friends and I were deemed old enough to ride our bikes to the local movie theater. In groups of three or four or six, we’d meet outside the tan, cement building, and head inside where we’d watch kid-friendly fare like Escape to Witch Mountain or The Last Flight of Noah’s Ark. At twelve, in a different city and state, my friends and I saw Annie at least a dozen times (we’d grown up with the soundtrack to the musical), but that summer also gave us a few movies I saw with my mother and the new members of our family, my stepfather, stepbrother, and step-grandmother (Bubbie): E.T. and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Those movie trips made an impression on Bubbie, too. Until the day she died, any time she visited she wanted to know if there was another Star Trek film to see.

As I grew older, my movie tastes changed somewhat, but sitting in a dark theater with popcorn, junior mints, and a soda so big it was practically a tanker was still the activity in between music camp and drama camp and taking original credit classes in summer school. The year I was fourteen, we had Ghostbusters, Gremlins, The Karate Kid, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and, yes, another Star Trek entry (number three, The Search for Spock), but we also had Sixteen Candles, Hard to Hold (which, I’m not above admitting, my girlfriends and I saw multiple times mostly because of Rick Springfield’s naked butt), Streets of Fire, and Firestarter, which is what caused me to become enamored with Stephen King’s writing, thus starting another summer tradition of reading his novels and avoiding cellars and sewer grates.

Later movie experiences often involved more than just the movie.

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home caused a sort of cognitive dissonance every time I saw it, because I expected sunny, hot, Fresno to be drenched in rain, as the end of the film was. A Fish Called Wanda was part of a weekend of adventures during my first year at the University of San Francisco – one that involved ghost hunting at the Lone Mountain campus, and a city-wide blackout.

landmark-s-magnolia-theatreA controversial art film, The Lover, about a French schoolgirl’s affair with a much older Chinese man in 1920’s Saigon, was also the first movie I saw in the middle of a rare, rainy summer afternoon, in a theater empty except for me and my then-lover, who was ten years older than my twenty-one-year-old self.

Star Trek: Generations was the first movie I saw with my now-husband, and the scene of our first kiss. (We met online, and he rode a bus for three days to meet me in person. Let me tell you – that is real love.)

Apollo 13 saved us from an evening in an apartment with a broken air conditioner. A summer classics series that included Casablanca came with gelato. We walked hand in hand through downtown Dallas after seeing Midnight in Paris, and we danced in the parking lot after seeing Mama Mia (admit it: you did, too).

While I love old movie houses and art films, my husband is much more into summer blockbusters full of space battles and explosions. We compromise, of course, trading who gets to choose the movie. Most often, these days, we go to the local Studio Movie Grill, about eight miles from our house – this despite the fact that there are two movie theaters in our neighborhood – because it eliminates the need to decide if we’re eating before or after the film, and where.

I love the old movie theaters in San Francisco, and the modern IMAX theaters in San Jose and Dallas that I’ve been to, but my favorite theaters ever were the Century theaters across the street from the Winchester Mystery House – yes, that one. They’re all closed now, but they were giant dome theaters with only one or two screens in each. The biggest one had seating for a thousand, and if you were among the first four hundred people in the door, you’d get an awesome seat, though, truly, none were bad.

Going to a movie there came with a sense of grandeur that I don’t remember ever feeling at the movies anywhere else, but it was also seasoned with a great deal of fun. When we went there for big opening night showings, after waiting in line in the parking lot for three hours or longer, it was like a party. People would be bouncing beach balls from the balcony to the main floor and back, and one time a gentleman in full Klingon regalia (I think it was for First Contact) garnered applause from the entire house by standing up on his chair and announcing: “I have a cell phone and I am turning it OFF. You should, too.”

Unlike many of my friends, I don’t like empty theaters. Part of the thrill, for me, is grooving on the energy of the crowd.

We haven’t yet been to the movies this weekend, but both Deadpool II and Solo: A Star Wars Story are awaiting our attention. Still, the heat index is supposed to be just as high next weekend, and I’m always up for spending a few hours in cool, dark escapism.

If I’m not in the pool, you’ll find me at the movies.


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.


Melpomene at the Gates

Photo by Milan Surbatovic on Unsplash


Melpomene stood with her sisters at the Gates of Imagination, and waited for the Call.

Unlike the others, who could provide artistic or scientific inspiration on a whim, her gifts were reactionary. They had to be triggered. Terpsichore could tickle a baby’s foot and that child would grow up with the gift of dance. She’d done it so many times: Isadora Duncan was a favorite example. And Euterpe – she was always name-dropping. Everyone from Bach to Billy Joel had felt that sister’s Touch.

But Melpomene was the darker Muse. Her lot was to Whisper into the ears of those who had experienced tragedy, suffering, pain, and loss, and help them find the tiny spark of creativity that always managed to survive.

Her sisters worked alone. They were of the light, and their strength was found in sun and warmth, laughter and joy.

Mel (she thought of herself as ‘Mel’ – more approachable, right?) had a team. Trolls and imps and leather-winged nameless beings. They were her agents, ugly on the surface, with grotesque faces and twisted frames.

And yet, they were gentle beings, who only wished to help.

There! A photographer contemplating the way we look when we die is Visited by the imp who guides her camera. Use the light THIS way. Change the focus like THAT.

And there: a woman grieves for her miscarried fetus. The Troll she sends helps turn that tragedy into a brilliant career as a grief counselor.

But over there – Mel shuddered and Summoned her agents to her side. For this disaster, they would be her escorts. Maybe it’s a hurricane, and she would help the suddenly homeless replace places and things with fond memories, or inspire a nurse to volunteer as an aid worker. Maybe it’s a great fire, and her winged Helpers could Whisper to those who would help save animals, provide shelter, build firebreaks for their neighbors.

The Muse of tragedy Walked among the lost and the hurting, identified a need, and helped spark a solution.



Sometimes Mel got to act a little more like her sisters.

The boy who feared a neighbor’s dog and was almost hit by a car was urged to turn his fears into stories and novels.

The young woman who loved to read classic poetry became the adult who set them to music, and went farther, eventually composing haunting tunes about mummers and midnight train rides.

And the child who had the image of a strange man’s face, looking up at him from the street below, engraved upon his memory, turned that fear into an idea, a pitch, a script, and eventually a franchise about a monster who haunts your dreams.

Erato, Clio and the others were lauded for the way they Pushed their charges into music, poetry, dance, and drama.

Mel was often overlooked: The smallest sister. The one with murky moods and a quiet Otherness about her. She could be cryptic sometimes. She meant well, but her power came from the dark.

Still, tragedy struck randomly and far more often than most knew – or cared to – and when it did, Melpomene and her Darklings would be there, ready to help in their own way.

And until then?

Melpomene and her imps and trolls waited at the Gates of Imagination, watching as the other Muses came and went in light pursuits, as they remained, waiting, straining their ears to hear their Call.

Photo by Milan Surbatovic on Unsplash

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: Run for the Roses

Yesterday evening, in a steady rainstorm, twenty-three colts made a run for the roses in the 144th Kentucky Derby. (Spoiler alert: Justify won.)

I have always loved horses. When I was little I fell in love with Marguerite Henry’s books about Misty and Phantom. (To this day, I fantasize about seeing the wild ponies in their annual swim from Assateague to Chincoteague. ) When I was nine, my mother gave me a summer at riding camp. My two favorite ponies were Taffy and Blitzen, both retired from working on NBC television shows and living out their lives as school ponies in New Jersey.


These days, I get my horse “fix” by watching thoroughbred racing and the occasional cheesy-but-relevant Hallmark movie on television, but in my head, the scent of sweet hay, the soft whickering of the ponies and the feeling of a leather saddle underneath me are as vivid as if they were real.

As much as I have always loved horses, I’ve always hated roses.

Well, not all roses.

I don’t like the roses that come in commercial bouquets. The one’s with thorns that are genetically modified to be smaller and less “sticky,” with long stems, and vivid colors, but no aroma.

But I love backyard roses.

Specifically, I love my grandmother’s backyard rose bushes.luke-barnard-111493-unsplash

I don’t know if they had specific names. I don’t know if she grew them from cuttings or my grandfather bought them for her.

I just remember that they were big – big as those ‘blooming onion’ appetizers – and no two were alike. Oh, I’m pretty sure one of the bushes started out red and one started out yellow, but in my memories, they were always combinations of the two, the colors swirled together as if someone had stirred two colors of paint in a bucket and dipped the blossoms into it.

My childhood summers were filled with those roses.

Outside, on hot summer days when we weren’t at the beach or visiting someone with a swimming pool, we’d run through the sprinklers, careful not to step too close to the rose bushes. BareCopyright: <a href=''>kellyvandellen / 123RF Stock Photo</a> feet and huge thorns do not mix well.

Inside, roses were everywhere. If a blossom broke off the bush without enough stem, she’d float it in a bowl of water. Otherwise, any vase or vase-like container was pressed into service. Old juice bottles, proper crystal vases, a tall glass that no longer had any mates, even a chipped milk pitcher might be found on a side table, a window sill, a nightstand, a bathroom counter with a rose or three.

And the petals! When the flowers dried naturally my grandmother saved the petals, creating her own delicate potpourri, pots of petals in every room of the house. Somehow, though, the scent was never cloying, only a gentle, wafting presence, sweetening the air.

Less frequently, my grandmother would decide to press the flowers, and dry them that way. For years, if you pulled a thick book – the dictionary, a big red book of fairy tales (two volumes of those, actually), even the Bible – you might have a pressed flower land in your lap. After she died, I even found one in her ancient address book, at the bottom of her knitting bag, which had been unused for years!

Sometimes, on rainy Sundays, my husband and I will pass one of those street-corner tents where they sell roses for $10 or $20 a bunch, and I almost – almost – want to stop and buy some, but we never do, because hothouse roses never have any perfume. They’re like illusions of roses: all form, no substance.

And sometimes, when I’m sad or not feeling well, I’ll lie in bed in that state halfway between dreaming and waking, and I’ll feel my grandmother’s cool hand stroke my brow, and I’ll breathe in the scent of roses – the scent I’ve associated with her for as long as I can remember.

Yesterday evening, in a steady rainstorm, twenty-three colts made a run for the roses in the 144th Kentucky Derby. But me? I’ve been running away from commercial roses for as long as I can remember. I’ve also been running for the backyard roses of my childhood for half my life, and they remain elusive as ever.

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.



Horse Photo by Jerry Kiesewetter on Unsplash  | Rose Photo by Luke Barnard on Unsplash  | Churchill Downs Photo By kellyvandellen / 123RF Stock Photo

Welcome to Issue #10: Cultivate

Among the many definitions of “cultivate” offered by Webster’s Dictionary are, “to develop or improve by education or training; train; refine,” “to promote the growth or development of (an art, science, etc.),” “to devote oneself to (an art, science, etc.),” and “to seek to promote or foster (friendship, love, etc.).”

Clearly, cultivation is a versatile concept, one that goes far beyond getting our hands dirty by planting seeds in soil and caring for the resultant sprouts, watching as they grow into flowers, trees, fruit, or vegetables.

And yet, that first, most basic association is no less valid than the abstract uses of the word. We cultivate our arts and sciences in much the same way that we cultivate soil. We foster the growth of our friendships (or, we should) with every bit as much care as we give to plants. We constantly reach, grow, hone, refine, perfect, and protect every aspect of our lives and ourselves.

Welcome to Issue #10 of Modern Creative Life: “Cultivate”

“Solitude is the soil in which genius is planted, creativity grows, and legends bloom; faith in oneself is the rain that cultivates a hero to endure the storm, and bare the genesis of a new world, a new forest.” ― Mike Norton, White Mountain

When we were discussing this year’s themes, we all got excited about the choice of “cultivate” for our spring quarter. After all, most of us do some gardening, and all of us try to keep our artistic selves in a state of growth and tender care.

What could be more perfect, we thought, then to celebrate the many ways we cultivate the various aspects of our lives?

“By looking for the unexpected and discerning the surreptitious features in the scenery within us, we apprehend our personality, find out our identity and learn how to cultivate it. Taking care of our fingerprints will be an enduring endeavor. ( “Looking for the unexpected” )”  ― Erik Pevernagie

What does “cultivate” mean to each of us? What does it mean to you? Can we apply the work we do in backyard gardens or front porch flower pots to art, writing, and music? Can we foster spiritual growth and nurture our bodies the same way we cultivate friendships and enhance our romantic relationships?

Is it possible that a life which is too carefully cultivated can end up being as soggy as an over-watered garden or as parched as desert sands?

Don’t we need to find balance in our cultivation, as we do in all things?

These are the concepts we are exploring in this issue, and we invite you to join us in the experience.

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 essays, as well as all kind of enlightenment, help each of us find a deeper understanding into all the ways in which you 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 nurture and tend their own creative life so that they regularly find their process – and lives – feeling nourished instead of parched.

As we share the stories of other makers, use their experiences to illuminate your path into your own Modern Creative Life.

“Cultivate your craft. Water it daily, pour some tender loving care into it, and watch it grow. Remember that a plant doesn’t sprout immediately. Be patient, and know that in life you will reap what you sow.” ― J.B. McGee

What stories might you have to share with the world? Share the results of your cultivation with us! Don’t be afraid to dig deeply into the fertile soil of experience, memory, and imagination as way, not only to tell your story, but to help others learn from your mental, spiritual, and physical adventures.

We are open to single contributions as well as new regular contributors. Email us at

—Melissa A. Bartell, Editor at Large