When Good Friends Leave Us

November 27, 2012 - One Response

Recently, we had sad news: our very own Zona Rosan Ray Harrison, whose first novel, Blood on the Orchid, we recently posted on this page, and who had just finished his second, National Poison – had suddenly and unexpectedly died.

I first met Ray when his wife Barbara, who is a light in her own right, and whom I had known for years, called to say she wanted to give Ray the gift of a session at Zona Rosa, the writing workshops I lead here in Savannah and elsewhere. Ray soon became a regular member, and each month we heard a new chapter of  his mystery in progress, starring its cool protagonist, Wolfgang Fenstemier.

Over time, we began to realize that the lean, silver-haired Ray was a lot like Wolfgang; Wolfgang flew airplanes, and so did Ray. Wolfgang loved fast cars and so did Ray. Wolfgang had a dry wit and loved good food, and so did Ray. Soon Ray had become our very own resident James Bond.

At the same time, as he patiently revised and rewrote, his writing got better and better.  And before we knew it, he was publishing his first book, Blood on the Orchid  under the name R. Harris Harrison (www.Amazon.com). And after his death, Barbara reported to me that he had recently completely his second Wolfgang Fenstemier novel, National Poison. We had marveled at another chapter of the book only weeks before when we got the news.

And our next Zona Rosa meeting, we were all sad, knowing that Ray wouldn’t be there to share his insights and his wit with us. As I prepared refreshments in my kitchen just before the meeting, I kept thinking how he liked a cup of coffee during the evening, and a glass of red wine as we socialized afterwards – I readied them anyway, in his honor. As the group began that evening, everyone was thinking of Ray, and the hole he had left in our hearts.

Two days later, I attended his memorial service at a beautiful nature preserve on the water on the outskirts of Savannah, and Ray seemed to be there as friends described how much they loved him (there I also learned that like Wolfgang, Ray always carried a gun). Barbara wrote me afterwards of the sightings of wild things during the service – dolphins that came up to the deck, a hawk – Ray’s favorite bird – that flew overhead.

She wrote of a private aircraft and a helicopter that flew over, as though in affirmation of Ray’s love of flight, as he flew off to join Glynn, Dick, Sharon, Angela, Maggie and other beloved Zona Rosans who’ve left us over the years –

Who in your creative life has left you behind, and what do you remember of them?

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SECRETS OF THE ZONA ROSA Part II

October 14, 2012 - Leave a Response

I AM AN ARTIST. WHAT ABOUT YOU?

 

Recently, Julie, of our Savannah Zona Rosa group, wrote me a glowing email: “I may be real wryter – I’ve just had four wonderful days of total immersion.” I liked her little faux-Shakespearian twist on the word “writer.”  But what I loved most was that the oh-so-busy Julie (she runs a swimming school for kids) had found the time to dip down deeply into her moving memoir in progress – indeed, deeply enough to get that special glow that comes from total immersion. 

         A couple of weeks later, Kathleen, of our sister Savannah Zona Rosa group, appeared looking changed. She, too, radiated a glow that I saw the moment she walked into my living room.  Then she produced the folder that contained the whole manuscript for the riveting memoir she’s been writing for over eight years: she had just spent the past three weeks working day and night on final revisions for the book, and she looked like a creature who had just come up from underground and into the light again (indeed, if her obsession could be bottled, it could be sold as a beauty treatment such as the ones in those ads in Vogue that promise to suffuse light into one’s complexion.)

         I, too, love nothing more than total commitment to my current writing project. Right now, its a third memoir, tentatively titled My Anarchist Heart, and nothing is more delicious to me than those periods when time disappears and, because I’ve worked so long and hard on it, I can almost remember every word, image, sentence of what I’ve written. (By the time, I finished my first memoir, Fatal Flowers, I could hear the book’s words replaying, as though from a cassette embedded into my brain, as I did errands, drove my Fiat down the streets of Savannah).

         In my study, I keep a special shelf for books by authors whose books inspire me. Just picking one up and reading a paragraph or two can put me in writing mode for the entire day, even if that author writes very differently from me. In my kitchen, I keep postcards of great works by Monet, Courbet, O’Keefe and other artists that I buy at museums and sometimes laminate to remind myself of what it means to be an artist. As most of us know, Van Gogh, whose paintings are now worth millions, sold only one painting during his lifetime, and that was to his brother, Theo. But day after day, he did the work.

         As artists – and I include writers when I use this word — throughout the ages (and long before McArthur or Guggenheim fellowships, and stints at writers’ colonies were even imagined) have discovered, the real joy comes in the doing, in being able to lay claim to this and give ourselves credit — to say yes, I am an artist and this is what I value. For many of us, our first awareness of the power of this statement is when we write the words “writer” on a form that asks who we are and what we do. In fact, this reminder may be especially important in a time when the ephemeral – read, world of social media and self promotion, as well as e-publishing and self-publishing – have been pushed to the foreground and can so easily dominate our thinking.

         Yes, like Julie and Kathleen and so many others, I am an artist. What about you?

 

SECRETS OF THE ZONA ROSA: PART 1

August 30, 2012 - One Response

Hi, everyone – Walking Through Clouds comes from my belief that writing can be made just that easy. My new blog, Secrets of the Zona Rosa, will specifically address writing issues. Please read it & enjoy!

SECRETS OF THE ZONA ROSA: PART 1

DIRT, & HOW I LEARNED TO LOVE IT

August 30, 2012 - Leave a Response

If you’re a writer and your house is too clean, something is wrong. – novelist and playwright, Jim Grimsley

“What you’ve done is amazing!” Bebe says, who has phoned after looking at my web site. I know what she means – the books, magazine articles and reviews I’ve published, the countless manuscripts I’ve read and critiqued and the 31 years I’ve led Zona Rosa (missing only one group due to illness). Implied in her comment is how? And as I hang up after giving her the details on visiting our Savannah Zona Rosa group, the answer springs to mind: dirt! I suddenly realize that I’ve been able to do it all because of dirt, and my ability to ignore it. This morning, as I walked through the hall I’d let my finger trail through the thick dust on the manual typewriter on which I wrote my first two books, and which I keep enshrined there on a table. But did I stop to clean it? No. Instead, I thumb tacked a little note in my brain to possibly dust it – someday. But I went on with my notebooks to the front porch, where I sat down to work. I had long since learned to compartmentalize and focus, and I also believed, as some smart woman wrote long ago, “Dirt is only matter out of place.” And I had embraced her attitude learned early on, indeed, as soon as I became enamored of writing, and realized it was my destiny. Had I been thrown decades before when my 9-year-old daughter Darcy announced that Harold – one of our many cats – had shit on the mantle just moments before my poetry group was due to arrive? No. Quickly getting rid of the shit – even if it meant sweeping dust balls under the rugs, permitted me to do, I quickly learned, what was most important to me: write, read books, and talk about reading and writing. Today I’m grateful to dirt for giving me the chance to hone these skills. And as a result, in Zona Rosa, we have two essential credos: Use the F word – Focus, and Use the C word – Compartmentalize. Which leaves to the question: Where do you stand on the choices you make everyday as you live – as poet Mary Oliver put it – your one beautiful life?

WALKING THROUGH CLOUDS: Another Dreamy Sojourn in France

July 10, 2012 - 2 Responses

I recently returned from our divine 2012 Zona Rosa retreat in Aix-en-Provence in the South of France, and then three perfect, enchanted days (and evenings) in Paris. Needless to say, I’m still resonating — indeed, glowing — with all things French and the beautiful times, food, friendship, inspiration and good talk about writing I enjoyed there.

         First, we convened in Aix – Pat, from Atlanta and Madison, Georgia; Debbie, from the Florida keys; Sandra, also a Floridian; Connie, from San Francisco; Stephanie, an American who lives in Brussels; Nancy, from upper state New York, and Suzan, Zona Rosa emeritus of our Atlanta Alpha Babes group who now lives in Aix and makes all this possible – a diverse, intelligent and talented group of women.

         For the next six days, we did nothing but read from our writing, talk about writing, and eat oh-so-yummy food – all in beautiful settings, from sidewalk cafes and book shops (our favorite is Book in Bar, where Pat, Debbie, Sandra, Stephanie and I read poems) – to the exquisitely appointed flat Debbie had rented, to expat Barbara’s gorgeous chateau, full of art by such famous artists as Jean-Michel Basquiat (I was stunned, never having been in the presence of one of his works before), and expat and old friend Liz’s homey, inviting villa. For several of our meetings, as well as a gala party, we were joined by English-speaking literati – among them, Greg, from Great Britain, Sheighle and Sandy from Ireland, Shelley, a London fashionista now living in Aix with her charming husband, Michael: Nancy, originally from Washington, D.C., and Barbara and Jules, who now live in that beautiful chateau, via New York and Amsterdam.

         And I mustn’t leave out Marcus of London, along with his wife, Cora; eyes sparkling, he regaled me with stories of his spiritual quests in India, and handed me a copy of The Battersea Road Path to Enlightenment by his friend the British writer Isabel Losada about her own inner journeys – a witty book which would come to mean much to me over the coming days, especially during my train trip to Paris the day after our reluctant goodbyes. I had bought a baguette filled with chicken, cheese and tomato and a luscious lemon tart in Aix for my journey, and with Isabel’s book in tow, I looked forward to the perfect train trip. (Also, this was a book I might never have heard of in the U.S.: as always, in France I learn about new British authors who are only published there, though they are available to us through Amazon and other sources).

         Once in Paris, I checked into the Hotel St Paul near the Odeon and Boulevard Saint-Germain. This was the hotel where I had stayed years before, when I first traveled alone to Paris, and it was as sweet – complete with cat lounging on the reception desk – as I remembered it.

         I had an adventure planned for that evening and I was looking forward to it. A couple of months before, in the travel section of the NYT, I read of Jim Haynes (www.Jim-Haynes.com) from Arkansas who hosts supper parties for all who apply in time every Sunday evening in his atelier in the 14th arrondissement, one of the 20 sections into which Paris is divided. I wrote to Jim immediately, and while I didn’t’ know where the 14th was, but I knew I could get a cab. When I arrived, buzzing myself in with the code Jim had given me, I came upon over 50 people from all over the world, talking to one another at top speed, while standing in Jim’s garden and kitchen amid his great photography collection (why had I hesitated about putting my own beautiful nude photos by a famous artist of my daughter and me up in my dining room?) and where Jim stood, a burly guy in an apron, directing the serving of the food and wine. Within moments, I was deep in conversation with a woman who, after her divorce, her children grown, had moved to Prague, and then Victoria, formerly of New York, where she’d been in TV and who had now been ten years in Paris, and Pamela, from London, a poet who had worked in publishing there. Our conversation was scintillating and I immediately knew I wanted to stay in touch with these two unusual women who spoke so frankly about their lives and adventures. When then it was time to go, I mentioned to Pamela that I didn’t know where I was, nor how to get back to my hotel, and she walked with me to a main street, where we found a cab and shared it back to the Odeon, all the while having more great conversation. And though the next day, I realized, had I known the area better, I could have found the metro – learning to negotiate it was one of my goals – I was happy that Pamela and I had had the chance to get to know one another further.

         Once back near my hotel, I was still hungry – I had been too excited to eat much of Jim’s excellent food – I magically found the little café where, for reasonable prices, I would enjoy three meals over the next two days, each time sitting at a little round table at facing the street – preferred seating in France, for there one can watch the passersby – each dish more exquisite than the last. And better yet, the café was called Les Editeurs, and the waiter handed me a charming bookmark with my check after each lip-smacking repast. Also, as the finishing touch, I loved looking up into the tree on an island in the street before me: open books and their pages hung from its limbs.

         The next day, I sat in the beautiful garden before the Musée du Moyen Age, or Museum of the Middle Ages, the perfect spot for reading or meditation – doing what some would call nothing is apparently popular there – and watching the French, from white haired grandmothers to tattooed young men with cigarettes hanging from the corners of their mouths to chicly dressed women bicycling fearlessly in and out of city traffic.

         Then I walked up the Boulevard Saint-Germain to my favorite English-language bookstore in all of Paris, the Village Voice Book Shop on the Rue de Princesse. As I walked I came upon two homeless people within a block, one a woman, the other a man, sitting on the sidewalk with their dogs; the woman had a cardboard box of frisky puppies not more than four inches long that made me laugh. Even without speaking French, I was able to let them know that I admired their pets, and I gave them the euros I’d set aside for that purpose.

         And who should I see, leaving as I walked into the book shop but Jim Haynes — which gave me a chance to thank him for the party at his house the night before, and to give him a kiss on the cheek. There I happily perused the books, some not yet available in the U.S., and made the hard decisions about which ones I could fit into my luggage. Among the ones I bought – two copies in fact — one for myself, and another for Zona Rosan Connie, who I knew would love it – was a limited edition of Anais Nin’s Paris Revisited, with insightful text by Karl Orend, and full of rare photos of authors I loved, such as Lawrence Durrell and Henry Miller (including one of the two naked – Miller was tres skinny!) Only 150 copies had been printed of this edition and the book shop was the only place where they were available. The proprietor, Michael, who I had met on previous visits, and who seemed to sense my taste, took down a copy of Henry Miller’s original manuscript of Tropic Of Capricorn, typed on a manual typewriter and complete with Miller’s corrections. Needless to say, I was thrilled. But then I was saddened when Michael also told me that the famous shop would be closing in July due to financial pressures, but that I should email him in Oct and that he would send me “a special surprise.”

         That night, I took a cab to the 20th arrondissement to meet Caroline, my almost-80 friend who lives in the area, and who was  both going through chemo for lung cancer and moving her studio that week. Caroline, an American who has lived in Paris since 1955, is a sculptor who is famous in both France and the U.S. (www.carolineleescupture.com), and an evening spent with her is always filled with wit and wisdom. I was also delighted to see that, despite all, she was filled with her usual exuberance and joie de vivre, and as she told me about her treatment via the French medical system, I saw why so many consider better it than ours.

         The next day – my last day in Paris — I rode the bus to the Musée de Orsay. The bus was a new experience and I wasn’t sure where to get off, despite having the name of the stop. When I spoke to my seat mate, first apologizing for not being able to speak in French, then asking her if she would kindly tell me when my stop came up, I had yet another serendipitous experience: Kleo it turned out, was a Greek who had been in Paris for ten years, and an architect turned writer. Indeed, Kleo not only insisted on getting off at my stop with me but that we sit down together at the bus stop so we talk about writing and we could exchange addresses. We said goodbye, promising to be in touch. Then, when I had walked in the direction in which I thought Kleo had pointed me, she suddenly appeared at my side again, having gotten off her bus once more: “I saw that you had missed the turn to the Musée, so I got off to show you.” As she walked with me the block and a half toward the Musée, I – not for the first time — marveled at how anyone could possibly call the French unfriendly.

        At the Museé, after first scoping out the cafes and restrooms for future reference, I found myself in the trance – almost a state of ecstasy – I often find myself in when wandering among works of art. Surrounded by people speaking many different languages, I felt almost as though I was in a dream – especially as I perused the show Caroline had recommended – a retrospective of hundreds of studies and paintings Edgar Degas had done of the female body during the 19th and early 20th century. As I perused his work, I noted the pieces  — as I had in looking at Manet’s and Courbet’s works — in which fully clothed men were often portrayed along with almost always nude women; the book I later purchased in the gallery shop explained how at the time, women had come to delegated to this position – a woman who was not married or under the protection of a man had few choices but to become a servant, actress, dancer, prostitute, or artist’s model.

         There I also bought a coffee cup featuring a Monet painting and several beautiful cards and prints, which I planned to laminate to put in my Savannah kitchen to remind myself of the day when I got home. One of the cards was of Courbet’s L’Origine du Monde, or Origin of Man, a bold painting – controversial in its day – of a nude woman’s pubic area, a painting I’d become especially interested in while wandering the rooms featuring his work. And I once again I was enchanted when I saw tired museum visitors reclining, some even sleeping, on a vast round Turkish ottoman apparently put there for that purpose; lying back in its comfy arms, I joined them there for a few minutes.

         That evening I went once more – this time a little sadly — to the Café Les Editeurs, and then to bed, anticipating my flight home, and to reading Wild, by Cheryl Strayed, the hard cover memoir of her 1000-mile trek of the rugged Pacific Crest Trail, undertaken to heal herself after her mother’s death, a divorce and a bout with heroin. I had brought it all this way, inspired by Nina Sankovitch’s Tolstoy and the Purple Chair, in which she read a book a day, and it was a treat I was looking forward to, as in Savannah, between my own writing and reading for others I often must read the books I yearn to get to in smaller hunks of time.

         The next morning when I went downstairs – trying once more to pet the elusive hotel cat which, until now, had evaded my camera and my fingertips – I asked for the reception desk to call a cab, only to learn that the drive to the airport was not a half hour, as I’d supposed, but a full hour. Would I make it? The British couple awaiting their own cab insisted I take theirs, which was already on the way, and a little more than an hour later, I was ensconced, Wild in my lap. And that day, for the first time. I had the delicious satisfaction over the Atlantic of succeeding in my goal of reading a book in one day. 

         In Cincinnati, awaiting my connecting flight to Atlanta, I got out my marbled green journal to jot down in more detail the images that were still flooding me, as well as a list of the things I planned to do when I arrived home. Soon, back in the US, still having to stop myself from saying merci instead of thank you, I was happy to be back in beautiful Savannah, in my husband Zane’s arms, and then in our favorite Italian restaurant, where over more great food, and still glowing, I regaled him with my journey.

         The next morning, as, the sun streamed through my bedroom windows, and I searched in my luggage for my journal to take it out to the front porch to write in it as I listened to the birds sing, I discovered that, for the first time in 50 years, I had lost a journal. But I wasn’t even upset. I simply sat down with a new, identical one – this time putting my name and contact info on the first page – and for the next two hours – wondering what the person who found it may have thought about my weird musings, the remnants of my unconscious – I recapitulated everything I could remember of the old journal, entering it into the new one.

         For the next few days, I continued to walk around as if in a dream, feeling as though I was still in two places at once, and floating in that delicious sense of dislocation good travel can give. All that, before my journey, had been familiar to me, seemed strange and new, even the super market. I kept wanting to say merci to everyone for at least a week – and to hold on as long as possible to the memories I had created during my dreamy sojourn in France.

         

WALKING THROUGH CLOUDS An Exciting Fall

November 16, 2011 - One Response
I’ve had a heady last couple of weeks – first, reading from and discussing my essay, “The One Who Breaks My Heart,” from Erica Jong’s new anthology SUGAR IN MY BOWL: REAL WOMEN WRITE ABOUT REAL SEX, at the Flannery O’Connor House in Savannah. Many thanks to writer Lisa Solod, who immediately added her thoughtful response to our discussion to her blog, “There’s Beauty in Truth,” the next day. To read Lisa’s inspiring piece, go to http://middleagedfeminist.com/

Then last weekend, I participated in the Louisiana Book Festival in Baton Rouge, where I led an all-day Zona Rosa workshop on Writing Your Memoir for a wonderful, receptive group (some of whom are now forming a Baton Rouge Sub Rosa group, based on the principles we use in Zona Rosa!), and spoke on “What Is Zona Rosa?” and what makes it work.

David Madden, old friend and Pulitzer nominee, who reviewed my first memoir, Fatal Flowers, way back when, and who was a support and inspiration to me from the first was there with his new novel, Adbucted by Circumstance, it was exciting to see him again, rehash old times, and have him introduce my presentation.

Next, I moderated a panel with three outstanding memoirists, Minrose Gwin, author of the exquisite WISHING FOR SNOW, Mark Richard, author of  the oh-so-moving HOUSE OF PRAYER Number 2, and Andre Dubus ll, author of the NYT best selling memoir, TOWNIE.  The latter event especially thrilled my heart, since I had read Mark’s book last summer and recommended it as a model of second-person writing at our annual Zona Rosa retreat at Tybee Island, near Savannah, and had already – at the first possible moment – stayed up late to read Andre’s book, which was just as riveting as I expected it to be, even before I knew that I was to moderate the panel and actually meet them! (Yes, I’m as star-struck at meeting writers I admire as anyone else! And meeting Andre was especially meaningful, as I had met his famous father, the famous writer Andre Dubus II when I taught in Bradford, Mass, and lived in the same area in which Andre grew up.)

For information on this wonderful festival (and in case you’d like to attend next year), go to www.louisianabookfestival.org

And next week, I’m off to New Orleans for one of my most beloved literary festivals, Words and Music, a Literary Feast, to read and speak and lead, along with my friend, Michael Murphy, a workshop on writing the essay. I was also the judge for the essay competition this year, and had the pleasure of selecting the winner and runners-up in the blind competition, one of whom, it turned out to my delight, was Zona Rosan Ellen Ann Fentress! I’m also especially pleased that talented Atlanta Zona Rosan Parul Hinzen will be attending. To learn more about this wonderful Festival, and the William Wisdom-William Faulkner awards in the novel, novel-in-progress, essay, poetry and short story, go to www.wordsandmusic.org

This year a theme will be global influences, and if you haven’t read, THE PARIS WIFE, by Paula McLain, the novel about Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, please do. (I’m also currently rereading Ernest Hemingway’s A MOVEABLE FEAST, about his early years in Paris, and LA SEDUCTION: HOW THE FRENCH PLAY THE GAME OF LIFE, by Elaine Sciolino — though I haven’t yet made much headway as I promised earlier this year, on FRENCH FOR DUMMIES.)

Because of all this, I’m feeling especially blessed – I only wish you all could be there!

© Rosemary Daniell 2011

WALKING THROUGH CLOUDS France, Part III: The Hotel Le Mozart – a Little Piece of Heaven. And Our Retreat and What We Learned There.

July 26, 2011 - 3 Responses

After our poetry reading at the Book ‘n Bar that first evening, my pink roll-on, with all my special things inside, appears at the Hotel Le Mozart, courtesy of Air France. The small hotel, with its spacious hallways and broad marble stairs, its gardens and patio, its charming staff, is familiar now, almost like a second home. Inside my little room, I happily dump my stuff on the extra bed, open the louvers on the French door onto the balcony with its wrought iron rail and view of the rooftops of Aix. This is where, the next morning, and every morning for the rest of the week, I’ll be served a yummy breakfast of café with hot milk, a fat, buttery croissant with jam, and if I can eat that much, yoghurt and a fruit compote. It’s also where I’ll meet with the Zona Rosans for private conferences, and along with my bed, will soon to be strewn with books and their manuscripts, where I’ll continue to read their pages.

The next six days, as I knew they would be, are a blur of excitement of working with the women.  I know all of them except Deborah, from the Florida Keys, and we’ve just meet for the first time the night before. There is always something thrilling to me about getting to know a person through his or her writing, and this is the way I feel about Deborah — or Debbie, as she suggests we call her. An attractive, 50-ish blonde, I knew I’d love her when I Googled her web page and saw a photo of her nose to nose with the dolphin she’d adopted.

Indeed, Debbie’s story — which I won’t share here; you’ll have to wait for her memoir — knocked me out, as it does everyone else the next afternoon at our first workshop. It’s highly personal, like much of our best work, and Debbie is – understandably – both excited and a little shaky about having it read aloud. And afterwards, she fills us in on the rest of the story, which is even more riveting than what we’ve just heard. Like many beginning writers, she’s left out some of the most dramatic parts of what happened, and I explain that beginning writers often do this. Often, we become carried away, especially when we’re writing our own story, and, in our haste, write in a kind of shorthand, assuming the reader knows what we know, omitting the little details that will might it alive for the reader.And that, thank the Goddess, is why we have revision – and, as I recommend, notebooks to remind ourselves of all the things we forgot to say.

Also, as for many of us, the shocking events chronicled in Debbie’s story were what opened the door — many believe the Chinese word for crisis means danger plus opportunity – for her to make major changes in her life, including her decision to devote the next part of it to writing. One of our most profound “exorcises” in Zona Rosa is to write about the thing you most don’t want to write about. And if you can’t do that, to write about why you can’t write about the thing you most don’t want to write about. I’ve seen people transformed – seemingly, almost overnight – by this exorcise, as though some great boulder has rolled away, leaving their creativity soaring, and this never ceases to amaze me. As one of our Zona Rosa credos states, “Revision revises us.” Writing is as much about revising ourselves, our lives, as our pages, and this happens along the away as we hone our truths – almost like suddenly getting that difficult Zumba step right without a feeling of great effort.

I’m still reading the first 189 pages of Suzan’s delicious, impeccably researched novel set in 12th century England. She’s been working on it for years, patiently revising each time she’s come upon new information that might change the story, and also adding detail to enhance its emotional intensity. I’m happy to hear that this year, she plans to get the novel out there – as we call sending a book out into the world – as I’m equally eager to read her next two novels, which are already in the works.

Then there’s vivacious Pat, a psychotherapist from our Atlanta Alpha Babes Zona Rosa group –despite a heavy work schedule and caring for her mother with Alzheimer’s, her long-lashed blue eyes always seem to be sparkling – and Stephanie, a tall, beautiful American poet who lives in Brussels with her Belgian husband and son. At last year’s retreat, they bonded, along with Sherry, from California, to form the “the Three Museketeers,” giving one another long distance support for their writing via e-mail each week for their projects – Pat’s book on the innovative therapy she has developed to help clients help themselves through trauma, Stephanie’s pithy, biting poetry (the title of one of which has become the title of Pat’s book in progress), and Sherry’s moving stories of people who’ve gone “Beyond Forgiveness,” as her book is tentatively titled.

Also with us is my sister Anne, a masterful and prolific poet who’s already published her first collection, A History of Nursing, long-listed – and for good reason! – for the National Book Award in 2009. Another of our poets is Claudia, whose pieces are always like a sock to the solar plexus to me — partly because of her craft, and partly because we’ve shared life experiences, such as grief for an adult child’s difficult life and for the loss of a loved one.

At one point, Claudia – a hospice nurse widowed two years from her beloved Clint — jumps up and down with excitement in Suzan’s living room after her iPhone rings and it’s her college boyfriend from Texas, whom she hasn’t heard from in decades and who doesn’t even know she’s in France. (For more about this , see Claudia’s wonderful, oh-so-honest blog about dating again after widowhood at http://mysortofboyfriend.wordpress.com)

A couple of days later, 30-something, long-time Zona Rosan Connie – a purple streak in her pale blonde hair, turquoise tattoos on her shoulder and back, joins us from San Francisco. Connie’s had a complicated last few months, but she’s also a born traveler and wasn’t about to let having to get a last minute flight interfere with her plans to be with us. During the week, she’ll shares more of her edgy, ongoing series of stories about women’s experiences with the men in their lives – and again “it’s complicated.” (Connie’s other interest is animal welfare – while in Aix, and the next week, in Paris, she visits their version of ASPC, in order to write about it back in the States. But more about that later.)

And then, there’s expat Liz, who’s lived here in Aix for many years. She hasn’t done much work on her wonderful rags-to-riches memoir during the past year, she admits, as she entertains and feeds us in her glorious garden. But she tells a story that we all love: after a divorce in Washington, D.C., she went to a retreat in which she was asked to write down her dream. “To move to France and marry a Frenchman,” she wrote, though she couldn’t speak French, and had no idea how this would come about. “Why such a far-fetched goal?” the retreat leader asked. But within a year, Liz had moved to Aix and gotten an apartment– a difficult move at first, as she had her not-to-happy teenage daughter with her – and before long, had met Pierre, the love of her life to whom she’s been married for 38 years (and this part of her story is so French — despite that he had a wife and five children, plus a mistress with a baby, at the time that they met.). But for Liz, whom I loved seeing riding a motorcycle behind the handsome Pierre, her chic gray bob flying, still dressed in her oh-so-French outfit, obviously isn’t one to be deterred by obstacles!

And then there’s their amazing energy:  On our last workshop day, Pat, who has not wasted a minute of her time in Aix, tells us she stayed up until three a.m., working on a new poem, which she shares in our workshop, and which turns out to a be moving account of how her father gave up his dreams – something Pat definitely isn’t willing to do. She knew she had to write it, she says, when, the day before, as she talked about her father, Claudia looked at her to say “There’s a poem in there!” Indeed, the best part of the week may be the way the women spark off one another. As I’ve long since learned in Zona Rosa, just as in reading a good novel, we don’t have to share another’s experiences exactly in order to identify with them.

The week passes quickly – too quickly – as we meet in Suzan charming condo, Liz’s garden and a book store/café. Leading the workshops is never, for a moment, a static activity – one in which I impart what I’ve learned – but rather a dynamic and exciting event in which my own creative juices are stirred. I’m bombarded with ideas – both for my own writing and for theirs, as well as for means to facilitate them. One night, remembering Paul Bowles’ novel, The Sheltering Sky — one of my all-time favorites — I dream of a traveling to a wild, desert landscape, where I choose to stay, leaving my old home in America behind forever, like the woman in Bowles’ powerful story. The next day, I tell the women that we must willingly travel to the wild places in our psyches if we are to find the images that raise our writing above the ordinary– those reaches that at first might not even occur to us, but which lift our writing, giving it the frisson, the thrilling difference that will make it unique from all that has gone before.

By the end of the week, I’m so obsessed with their work that I’m waking in the middle of the night, thinking about them. Is Anne – who has a gift for metaphor – actually using too many of them in her wonderful poems? How can Claudia translate her various, emotionally devastating blogs into memoir? Should Connie use the relationship she’s now writing about as a minor subplot to a larger story that she’s already begun?  And should Debbie – who turns out to be multi-talented – finish her memoir first, or embark on the commercial fiction for which we’ve just learned she has a gift?

As the week goes on, I also meet with them individually, and this is one of the most rewarding parts of the retreat for me, the time when we are able to really get down to where they are with their writing and lives, where they’d like to be a year from now, and what they need to do to get there.  To have the chance to discuss someone’s work in depth is a joy, and it’s also a bit like figuring out the solution to a mystery story or a puzzle: what is this writer’s work truly about, and how can I best help her bring it to the best possible fruition – a fruition that may push her beyond her original dreams?

Every night, we troop together to another charming sidewalk café charming outdoor cafe where we sit outdoors, laughing, talking, eating and drinking wine – red or the pink that is famous here the only question — and having so much fun that back at home that I’ll remember these meals like a dream. The last day we talk about reentry, and how we’ll integrate the insights we’ve had here once we’re back in our everyday lives. Caught up in the euphoria of our week together, it’s hard to imagine that will be hard. I know that doing so will take conscious effort our parts, and I want to help them help them with that in any way I can.

But the moment, to paraphrase of Oscar Wilde: “I’m in a state of continuous excitement and I hope that it lasts forever.” My main feeling – besides an exhilarating burnout – as the week ends is gratitude to these women for sharing so much of themselves. Back home, I will still find myself dreaming about them, waking with new ideas for their projects, and the feeling I must e-mail them immediately. One night, as the glow from the trip spreads and softens, I dream of having a delicious meal out of doors with loving women friends, after which I go out to sea in small vessel. The rippling water is dense, deep cerulean – it’s the Aegean, I realize. And when I return to land, my one desire is to convey to the other women that they, too, must step off the dock and experience immerse themselves in this beautiful blue.

What of my favorite quotes is “This is happiness: to be dissolved into something great,” as said by feminist and eclectic doyenne of British literature, Rebecca West.

When have you felt totally caught up, dissolved in a happy experience?

© Rosemary Daniell 2011

WALKING THROUGH CLOUDS France, Part II: An Aside (as Well as An Attempt – Futile, as It Turns Out — at Writing a Shorter Blog!)

June 30, 2011 - 2 Responses

                                         

Twenty years ago, Zona Rosan Ann D. and I created what’s known today as a dream (or vision) board – only ours were in looseleaf notebooks. In them, we pasted pictures from magazines that depicted our lives as we wished them to be. In mine, my favorite photo was an ad in which a chic woman, a fur jacket over her arm, a sleek purse and a brief case in hand, is getting off a plane. It was a picture I selected long before I knew – though I had journeyed several delicious times to Guatemala, Costa Rica and Mexico — of the travel that was to come in my life.

It’s 5:40 a.m. when I arrive at Charles de Gaulle airport, a.k.a., known as the airport out of hell, though I don’t feel that way because it’s the doorway to – well, Paris! Except for those few hours when I managed to eat or sleep, I read manuscripts for the whole eight hours plus of my flight from Atlanta, because, as usual – given my other commitments, plus my shopping and packing — I hadn’t had time to read them at home. Thus my emotions are still on that rollercoaster that follows on reading one person’s poem or story after another – and, this time, doing so with very little sleep.

Aware that I have a flight from Paris to Marseille from Orly at 12:30 p.m., and having no idea how long it will take to get there, I opt, after going through immigration, to go to Paris’s other airport by taxi. Even at that early hour, as I stand in the taxi line, I’m exhilarated by actually being there. But what follows is a two-hour taxi ride out of hell: rush hour through the unpretty — read, industrial! — parts of Paris (yes, it exists!), plus two wrecks en route. I have plenty of time, but the driver is anxious and as I hop out at Orly at what he says is the right terminal, I hand him a hundred Euros for the 87 Euro fare – more than a hundred dollars.

Inside, a pretty woman at the information desk tells me that I’m at the wrong terminal – “go down to Gate K, up to the train and take it to the other one.” Once on the elevated train with my purple purse and black carryon with it’s pink ribbon, I see a sign and realize: as well as going to the other terminal, this train apparently runs back and forth between CDG airport – for free!

Once in the other terminal and at my gate, I have plenty of time for first, a café crème, and then a delicious seafood salad, as well as to look around at my fellow travelers. I nap all the way to Marseille, and once there, I discover that we are to deplane via  – my nemesis, given the vertigo I’ve been prone to practically forever – a steep little stairway down to the tarmac. But by now, long accustomed to depending on the kindness of strangers, I know that a Prince Charming will appear, happy to flex his biceps, if only I look helpless enough. And lo, a handsome Frenchman swiftly swoops up my heavy carryon, lifting it effortlessly down the stairs for me.

Inside, Air France, it turns out, had once again “misplaced” my luggage. Another charming Frenchman, a representative for the airline, hands me with a packet containing a white T-shirt, toothbrush, tooth paste and shampoo (what, no condom this time?)

But all around me, people are speaking that beautiful liquid language that I still hope to learn. And nothing — even wasting over a hundred USD on cab fare, or the unknown whereabouts of my oh-so-carefully packed pink bag, can tamp my happiness at arriving in the South of France at last!

Many writers have written about Bad Trips. When has a travel glitch only added to your appreciation of being able to be there in the first place?

© Rosemary Daniell 2011

WALKING THROUGH CLOUDS France, Part 1: Anticipation: For Suzan, Who Changed My Life — and How Triviality Makes me Happy!

June 14, 2011 - 2 Responses

WALKING THROUGH CLOUDS

France, Part I:  Anticipation

For Suzan, Who Changed My Life — and How Triviality Makes Me Happy!

Suzan, of our Atlanta Zona Rosa group, sits on my lemon yellow thrift shop couch in Savannah, and says, in her quiet, ladylike voice, “You need to hold writing retreats – and I’ll plan them.” Petite and blonde, she is nothing if not persevering (she researched her impeccably accurate historical novel, Rosamond, for elevenyears before we met); soon we are gathering beside a lake in Kentucky, then at a bed and breakfast in Savannah, an annual event that becomes our famous beach retreats near Savannah. And when Suzan achieves her lifelong goal of moving to France permanently, she also puts her skills as an international travel agent – her job back in Atlanta – to work, planning divine writing retreats for us in Tuscany, the South of France, and one special year, Killarney, Ireland. (Also, because of Suzan, I end up that year at an international writing festival in Listowel, where I meet Irish poets and writers and, reading from my poems at the Last Kingdom Bar, learn first-hand how much the Irish adore poetry!)

Flash forward a dozen years: Before I leave my home in Savannah for our retreat the South of France in 2011 — first, seven days in Aix-en-Provence, where we will hold workshops, then the treat of three days in Paris – I itch. For seven days, I itch all over my body for reasons unknown to me or my doctor. At the same time, I’m seeking to catch up with e-mail, and get packed in plenty of time. I also somehow know that the moment I arrive in France, the itching will disappear, and it does. A Sagittarius, I’m a born traveler, and it’s life at home, with its complications — not being on airplanes, in hotel rooms and foreign places – that brings on the psychosomatic.

I also know that during the week in Aix-en-Provence, the darling, ancient town where Suzan now lives, and which we have visited twice, I’ll be caught up in a excitement of reading manuscripts, leading workshops and meeting with the participants to talk about their writing. But this trip, I vow, will not be like others in which I arrived in Tuscany or the South of France exhausted, even ill, after last minute preparations to be sure that everyone for whom I was responsible at home were taken care of (when you read my memoir in progress, tentatively titled My Anarchist Heart, you’ll know what I mean.)

But now, with my life on a more even keel — and after reading Gretchen Rubin’s book The Happiness Project, I determine that this time I’ll be ready in plenty of time, and that I’ll even give myself time to anticipate, which Gretchen pointed outis a major part of the pleasure of anything.  I contemplate at length what clothes to take (after all, I’ll be in France!) and check out T.J.Maxx for inexpensive little extras and a new, just-right-size pink roll on.

One of my other goals this year is to travel lighter, though as my sister Anne points out, packing light means to me at least five pairs of shoes. “Don’t go to France with the wrong shoes,” a woman in Talbot’s counsels, suggesting shoes by Meryl. But when I check the Meryl’s out at Macy’s I see that they’re ugly, ugly, ugly — not even jolie laide, or so ugly they’re pretty, as the French say.

I also get out my copy of French For Dummies, read it a bit, as well as from my friend and Francophile Jamie Cat Callan’s new book, Bonjour, Happiness! about what we can learn about that state from French women. It’s frothy and light – like the café crème I’ll soon be sipping, and it goes into the suitcase, though in order to keep to the weight limit, as I’ve determined to do, I jettison French for Dummies, telling myself that by next year I’ll have studied it and will be fluent, a promise I’ve made for years (check with me in a few months to see if I’m really doing this!).

I don’t let myself think about the recent New York Times Magazine article about the strange crash into the ocean of an Air France jet a while back – or even to get too irritated when my husband Zane deposits me at the Savannah airport with barely a moment to spare – and certainly no time for a Starbuck’s – before boarding my first flight.

The week of the retreat is book ended by readings. On the Friday evening of our arrival, my sister Anne and I pull ourselves out of jet lag long enough to read poetry to a group of expats at the adorable English language bookshop, Book‘N Bar. Since I’ve been here before, I’m beginning to think of some of the ex-pats as friends, especially red-haired Sheighle (pronounced “Sheila”), who’s Irish and tells me she was just in Listowel at the Last Kingdom Bar, where she read poetry as well, and Shelley, a fashion writer from New York and London, whose great chunky necklaces and trendy dresses I admire.

On the last Fri evening of our retreat, again at the bookshop, Anne reads poetry again, and I read from My Anarchist Heart to an even larger crowd. As I stand before our audience, I’m wearing the new navy ballet flats strewn with sparkly blue flowers along with my new navy cotton sheaf dress, both bought for pennies at T.J.’s. Because of my busy-ness here, I knew I wouldn’t have time to shop as the others are doing. And after reading Jamie’s book, Bonjour, Happiness!, I know I’m on the right track. Thank the goddess that I bought them, I think, as I see Shelley’s eyes light up at – even amid my book’s scenes of despair – at my references to my obsession with color coordination, and having packed the right clothes!

And I’m grateful once again when two French women compliment me on my choices – one on my lipstick (bought in a drugstore in the U.S. for five dollars, I tell her) and another on my red, fake alligator purse with the bow on the side, another el cheapo item I’ve brought from the States.

Unbelievably, because of my love of the trivial — and thanks to my relentless, if penny pinching, shopping —  I’ve been able to pass, even in super chic France!

When have you made anticipation work for you?

And when has something trivial, like a cute new pair of shoes bought at bargain price, made you happy?

© Rosemary Daniell 2011


WALKING THROUGH CLOUDS – Of the Intrepid Angela, Whom We Loved

May 11, 2011 - 2 Responses

When Angela Lain appeared at our Savannah Zona Rosa group, sporting short , curly hair, no makeup, or pretense at fashion, I liked her, her blonde boyishness, right away.

And as we read from a strong if rough first draft from her projected memoir, I was moved: the piece was about how much she both loved and hated her Savannah heritage, and her Savannah family with their incredible eccentricity, but also their propensity for drink, neither of which are unusual in my chosen city.

But more importantly, the story was about how she stepped in to save her teenage nephew when he was sinking, totally out of control and in danger of losing himself in drugs.

That Angela, his single, childless aunt, went to court to gain custody of him , and thereafter willingly and gracefully shouldered this enormous responsibility, amazed me – especially as I knew firsthand what such responsibility could cost in terms of stress, time and money: I had just spent two decades pulling two of my adult children away of the fire of addiction and mental illness.

Yes even though Angela willingly took on the care of others – there were, it turned out, others besides her nephew who depended on her love – she also seemed, more than most women, to be a free spirit – free of the baggage of husband, kids or grandkids, or slowing herself to the beat of the corporate world, and also one who readily and easily followed her dreams.

In Zona Rosa, we shared a taste for certain, edgy authors, Nick Flynn and Patti Smith among them, who not everyone in the group embraced. She also – as well as copying out whole passages from authors she loved, such as Robert Goolrick — sent me e-mails about subjects as diverse as Coco Chanel and who among her family were buried in which Savannah cemeteries, as well as the news that she planned to bring slavery into her memoir, tracing some slaves back all the way to Liberia.

I loved the way she would – instead of planning ahead for months – jump into her car, drive all the way to, say, Oxford, Mississippi, to a conference to meet a favorite author or two – something I had known her to do on more than one occasion. Another time, she brought in a piece about sitting in silence at a Zen retreat, and what it was like to become acquainted with her fellow meditators at the end of their two weeks together.

I was also learning that Angela, a Buddhist and a vegetarian, regularly sought out experiences that she felt would enhance her spirituality. Indeed, it was Angela who – after I came back from San Francisco with a Buddhist text I had ripped off from the Japanese hotel where I had stayed – explained to me the difference in Tibetan and Japanese Buddhism: “Tibetan Buddhism is more joyous, light-hearted,” she said, and as she spoke, I knew I wanted some of  that, and also what she had.

I soon learned, too, that she was also a world traveler, at home where ever she went; “I try to go to Paris every year,” she said casually at our Atlanta Alpha Babes Zona Rosa group. I also loved it when, on another occasion, she brought in an essay about going to Timbuku by herself, a challenge to any traveler, much less a woman alone (looking at the atlas, I saw it spelled by its French name, Tombouctou, in the middle of Africa in the middle of virtually nowhere – truly, as Wikipedia describes it, “a metaphor for a distant or outlandish place.”). It was a piece that inspired me to be more fearless in my own life and which I wanted immediately for our projected Zona Rosa essay collection, Women on the Verge. Indeed, Angela typified what I meant by that phrase, reminding me as she did of my older daughter, Laura, also a world traveler who scoffed at my need to have hotel reservations in place before traveling abroad: “I just go to the Traveler’s Aid desk wherever I am and ask for a room in my price range.”

And when Angela told us how easy it is to get on the metro and find a hotel room in Paris at the last minute, I nodded. But while I liked to think of myself as a risk taker, an adventurer, I knew that Angela was way ahead of me; also that she traveled light, while I didn’t, in more ways that one.

The next month, which was to be our March meeting, I was eager to continue our conversation about how she might push a little harder with her now-wonderful memoir. She had written me saying she didn’t want to do what she had seen many writers do – send her story out before it was ready, and before she had learned her craft. Now I felt that she had achieved the latter goal, and was ready to go forward.

But just before our meeting, Angela called to tell my sister Anne that she couldn’t be with us that night – that she had pneumonia. She was laughing, Anne said. Back home, I received the manuscript she had mailed me, and I emailed her, asking how she was and whether she’d like me to send her the critiqued pages before our next meeting. When I didn’t hear back, I felt uneasy – the week before I had read in the New York Times about a favorite woman author’s death at age 59 of a sudden infection. And I recalled how the vivacious Savannah Zona Rosan Sharon – around the same age – had just as suddenly disappeared from our lives, dead of an aneurysm.

Still, the following Saturday morning, when I learn that Angela has died of a blood clot to her brain the Thursday before, I walked around as though in shock, feeling the absence that we’re all still experiencing. It was – and is – impossible to imagine the vibrant, almost phosphorescent, spirit – that sprite, that constantly-on-the-move spirit —  that was Angela not being in this world with us. Immediately, there was flurry of e-mails among us, mourning our lost friend. Pat had written a poem for her, she wrote, and would read it at our next meeting. Gwen said Angela’s death had made her realize how short our time herw is and how we must make the best use of it. While Emily wrote, asking the quintessential question: “Where is she now?”

A couple of weeks later, as I again prepared for our Alpha Babes Zona Rosa group at Anne’s house in Atlanta, Anne came into the kitchen wondering how she could get a last minute ticket to Marseille so she could join us at our Zona Rosa retreat in the South of France this month.

And almost without thinking, I found myself saying, “Let’s ask Angela – she’ll know!”

When have you been affected by the unexpected death of a friend or acquaintance?

© Rosemary Daniell 2011