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7 posts from August 2009

Monday, August 24, 2009

Visits with Vermeer


I've had one of those weeks.  I enjoyed being able to shut down my brain for the week and not have to think about getting a story out or pulling out my camera, although I love doing those things, I had other things that were pressing - like laundry, cleaning and organizing a home office, laundry, getting my mother settled back home in her own bed, laundry, and getting my daughter ready for school that starts tomorrow.  I'm still trying to reconcile in my head that my girl is learning to drive and has her learner's permit now.  I even let her drive my Beamer while I promptly dug my nails into the leather seats.

I napped.  I did a lot of napping this week ... and, I painted.  I did a few little paintings.  I continued to read this great book called "Amazing Grays" and I'll be writing a review about the book with a giveaway in the coming week.  It's a great book.  


I pounded my head against my easel in realization that my reference images never fail to give me bad information which might explain why I think portraiture is painful and trust that I JUST CAN'T DO THIS!  I called on my friend and mentor Karin Wells and poured my sorrows on her shoulders.  She tells me not to fret and to walk away from the painting for a year and do some master copy paintings from Vermeer.  That sounds real encouraging don't you think?  I will tell you this, Karin Wells, in my humble opinion, is the greatest living portrait artist in the world.  She is incredible - no - better than that.  Her precision, eye for detail and color and everything she does is remarkable.  Even her brushstrokes leave me speechless.  So, I've been communicating a lot with her this week for help.  She's a good dooby - and patient.  

Then there's my Big Bear who has been looking for work - still - and paying the bills with pennies, working miracles along the way.  He even drove to Florida and picked up my mother who had been visiting my brother Mike and his wife Marcella in West Palm Beach.  He drove her home taking a detour by Cape Canaveral so that the boys could see the rockets and take a tour of the Space Shuttle only to pull up to the entrance and discover that they now want 60 bucks a head to get in.  Matthew was in tears.  Devastated.  And, Bob was pissed.  I mean, our tax dollars pay for this place, the least they can do is let us in to see the dang thing!  But, nope, Big Bear had to turn around and head home with 2 very disappointed little boys in the back seat.  


I've been trying to get some paintings done for this Festival coming up this weekend and think that maybe I ought to just bag the whole thing.  I don't have enough paintings for sale, really, and while every other artist is selling copies of their paintings, I'm trying to sell my originals.  Unfortunately, all the people cruising through these festivals want copies - cheap copies.  


So, maybe I'll start looking through some of Vermeer's paintings and find one to copy, then another. 

By the way, please pray that my Big Bear finds a job soon.  Can you believe it has been a year already?  I can't either. 

Monday, August 10, 2009

I'm a Brazilian Nut

As you all may know, Beth and I have been friends, uh, forever, and since she hates to type (and glad she isn't a blogger), she has been making 30 second videos and sending them to me daily. They are so funny. So, Beth told me how to use Photobooth on my Mac (we both have Macs) to make these silly video emails. Well, I gotta tell ya, our videos are getting crazier every day. Our conversation this week ... (Oh, and I think you have to double-click on the image to get the videos to play if you don't see the controls. If you do see the controls, well, then you know what to do, right?)

As you can see, Beth spent a LOTTA money on that beautiful mane of HOT RED hair with a sexy haircut to boot. But I've gotta tell ya that Beth would look hot in a potato sack with a raccoon on her head. I thought it was an appropriate time to write the story about a conversation we have had a number of times about hair color and cancer. Then I tried to send her the stupid video of me and Alison, but that failed so I had to do things the hard way and post our 5 minute video on Vimeo and then on my blog because I didn't know how else to do it. After she saw that video, she sent me this ...

After she read my story she sent me this...

Of course, I had to send her this (unfortunately I forgot to turn off the fan hovering over my laptop making all the noise ...

Then Sarah wanted to get in on the action (and again I forgot to turn off the stinkin' fan, although I did hit my finger into it and it made a funny noise ...

But hold on...

Of course, Beth is right. I am a nut. A Brazil nut. My daughter Kimberly once said I was "f-ing nuts" to which I replied "Thank you, and I'm a happy nut too." I think I'll keep it that way. I'm enjoying myself too much. I hope TypePad doesn't explode from all these videos in one post.

And "no" I haven't been drinking. As a matter of fact I've never been a drinker. I think alcohol tastes like Nyquil. I'm just naturally nutty like this. I think it must be a genetic defect.

2 Crazy Gals and a Photobooth

Well, Beth has been sending me video emails and I still can't figure it all out, but I did make this video today (a collection of 3 bad videos with bad mouth and all, and this is the only way I could get the dang thing to Beth - why?  Because my stinkin' email wouldn't send it.  So Beth (and anyone else who is interested) here is a crazy, stupid, video made by 2 50-something ladies that had nothing better to do - well, that isn't entirely true because we were trying to finish the video so we could paint.  We finally got to the studio and I live streamed from my studio but forgot to record it.  I told you I stink at this.  Anyway, here's the stupid video - for Beth...

I hope my mother doesn't disown me for saying the "f" word. Sorry Mom. I'll try to keep the trash talk under wraps for all future videos.

Oh my, did I really say that?  God help me.  Alternative words.  I need alternative words.

The Color of Cancer


As most of you may know, I stopped coloring my hair years ago.  As difficult as it was for me to accept the gray and whiteness of my natural hair, something innately told me that this was the right thing to do.  I do not regret my decision one bit and I am going to tell you why.  I am certain that hair color causes cancer.  Every time I colored my hair the thought went through my brain "What the hell am I doing!!!"  And I would sit there feeling the color and chemicals penetrate my scalp and the back of my neck with such a fury that all I wanted to do was get the crap off of my hair and off of my skin.

It doesn't take rocket science to understand that anything and everything that touches your skin - such as lotions and creams and liquids - ultimately find their way into your bloodstream.  Everything we breath also finds its way into our bloodstream.  We can eat something prepared by a person with the flu or a disease and catch that flu or disease.  Just breathing the chemical compound of hair dye will get the stuff in your bloodstream!  Yet, we are not afraid of these unnatural chemicals entering our bodies.  I think we better take a second look at this because it is killing us.


As an artist, I have to be careful with the chemicals and leads that may come in contact with my skin if I am not careful.  They are highly toxic and I wear gloves (most of the time) when I paint.  Actually, I took them off for some UStream videos I was making and now that I think about it that was really stupid.  I should know that if I have to wash the oil paint off my hands, it is getting into my blood. 

Degas went blind after years and years of painting in pastels.  He was breathing the dust and it was surely getting in his eyes.  Van Gogh went a little nuts, cut off his ear and ultimately suicide, and the theory is that he suffered from lead poisoning.  It is a possibility and a strong probability.

First let me say that my mother was diagnosed in 2005 with non-Hodgkins Lymphoma.  One morning, while sitting at our kitchen table, I leaned over to rub my hand on the back of my mother's neck - a compassionate gesture to let her know that I love her.  Imagine my shock when I found a huge lump, larger than a golf ball, on the back of her neck at her hair line.  Her response was "Oh that's nothing, Susan, it doesn't hurt."  Doesn't hurt!  "I'm taking you to the doctor immediately to have it checked."  And I did.  She had the lump removed and discovered that she had non-Hodgkins Lymphoma.  My mother has since been through regular treatments of radiation and chemo therapy to treat her cancer.  I wouldn't wish this on anyone.

I will tell you this - my mother colored her hair for years beginning in her 30s.  She was well into her 60s before she stopped coloring her hair. 

I have a dear friend, Alberto, who also colored his hair for years.  I call him an Italian Stallion (he once was my Italian Stallion, but that's another story).  A wonderful and talented man, Alberto hated the aging process as much as any of us, and so he attempted to hold back those years by coloring his hair.  It wasn't until after he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins Lymphoma that he stopped coloring his hair and he looks better today than ever before (or at least I think so).  Alberto discovered a lump on his forehead at his hairline that kept getting larger until he finally had it removed and tested.  Like my mother, he got the horrible news that he had cancer.

Although I had not been coloring my own hair for a number of years by the time my mother and my friend, Alberto, discovered they had cancer, it was then that I had a light bulb moment and promised myself that I would not be influenced by unnatural beauty anymore and I would take care of myself and what God gave me.  I would be thankful for the color of my skin, the color of my hair, and would value the state of my mind and my heart more than my body.  That doesn't mean I would stop taking care of myself, on the contrary - what I mean is that I would strive to live a healthier and cleaner life and place more value on the development of my brain, my pathological drive for academia, and love and compassion for others over silly things like the color of my hair. 


What prompted me to write this now?  Well, I'll tell you.  The wife of a fellow blogger (FatCyclist) passed away last week from cancer.  Her name was Susan and she fought a heroic battle with metastatic breast cancer to the end.  My deepest sorrow and prayers go out to her 4 beautiful children and her husband, Elden, aka "Fatty."  Today they are laying her to rest.  It was something in his story about how he met his wife Susan, and their courtship that raised that red flag for me once again and I felt as if I had been hit in the stomach.  I laid down and took a nap and had a nightmare of sorts.  Suddenly cancer was all around me while I was playing a game on a Pinball machine.  Lights were going on and off, bells were blaring.  I had to stop the game.  I woke up and thought about this the remainder of the day.

This is what he wrote:

We Meet and (Very Soon After) Marry

The best place for me to really start telling Susan’s story, though, is when we met. Specifically, we met April 27, 1988. My college roommate was engaged to one of Susan’s roommates, and I was along for the ride when he stopped by her apartment.

When I saw Susan, I was immediately stricken. In addition to her general hotness, she had eyes that conveyed her smile so perfectly.

Plus, I really liked her dark red hair.

I was not the kind of person to ask girls out on dates without spending time getting courage up, but in this case I made an exception.

When I went to pick Susan up the next day, I did a double take — her hair color was now blaze-orange. Which I also liked, but was confused.

As it turns out, Susan was in cosmetology school at the time — she wanted to learn hair as a skill to put in her quiver for her love of stage makeup — and her hair would change style and color roughly twice a week through our courtship.

Our courtship, by the way, didn’t take long. We married on August 13, 1988 in the LDS Los Angeles Temple — about 3.5 months after we met.

After twenty one years (this Thursday) of a truly happy marriage, I can’t help but be amazed that I made such a good choice so quickly.

You know where I'm going with this don't you?  Nobody can be certain that chemicals such as hair color had anything to do with causing Susan's cancer, but the possibility is there that if anything, it may have contributed to it in some way.  I am certain that when Fatty was writing this, that he didn't think twice about hair color. I am not a scientist and I'll be the first to admit I don't have proof, but it seems to me that it is staring us right in the face.  When these chemicals enter our body they have to go somewhere, they have to do something inside of us, and whatever it is it can't be good.

Now for a little science experiment of my own and a bit of information for you:

Hair is made up mostly of keratin. Keratin is a protein and is the same substance found in your skin and your fingernails.  Your natural hair color is determined by a ratio of proteins.  The natural color of your hair depends on the ratio and quantities of two additional proteins, eumelanin and phaeomelanin. Eumelanin is responsible for brown to black hair shades while phaeomelanin is responsible for golden blond, ginger, and red colors. The absence of either type of melanin produces white/gray hair, and in my case I'd have to say that one or the other is totally gone.

Darker hair has a higher percentage of melanin. We all know that hair color is inherited. Melanin and phenomelanin are responsible for giving hair strands their color.  Also, how early or how late you go gray is also written in your gene pool. 

Aniline dyes are chemicals that were developed from coal tar and are used in semi-permanent hair colors. For permanent hair color, products will contain paraphenylenediamine or PPD. It is the only known permanent chemical for hair coloring at this time. There are many different names for this product but they are similar enough that you should be able to spot them on your hair coloring product. Most allergic reactions are a result of using PPD.


In order for semi-permanent and permanent hair colors to be effective, the hair shaft must first be opened. Note that when you open the hair shaft, you are also permitting the chemical to get into your bloodstream.  You might as well inject yourself with it, because that's where it is going to end up anyway.  The most common agent used in opening the hair shaft is ammonia. After the hair shaft is opened, the hair color can then go into the shaft and change your color.  Hydrogen peroxide is also a chemical compound used in permanent hair coloring. These dye products that use dye ingredients such as PPD and hydrogen peroxide are called oxidation dyes. A higher amount of peroxide in the dye will give a faster and lighter result. 

A bit about PPD:

p-Phenylenediamine (PPD) is an aromatic amine with many industrial and cosmetic applications.  It is used as a component of engineering polymers and composites, aramid fibers, hair dyes, rubber, chemicals, textile dyes, and pigments.  It is also used in printing and photocopying inks, photo and lithograph developing chemicals, Kevlar, oil, gasoline, and grease products.  Let's think about that a minute ... after doing a bit of research I discovered that low molecular weight aromatic amines are toxic and some are easily absorbed through the skin. Many higher molecular weight amines are highly active biologically.  

PPD is a preferred chemical because of its ability to withstand high temperatures and retain its stability. It is good for hair dyes because it produces a natural color which doesn’t fade as readily with washing and drying. PPD itself is colorless — it gains its color once it’s exposed to oxygen.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) cites PPD as a contact allergen, and should not be directly applied to the skin.  Well, forgive me for asking, but if it should not be applied to the skin, then why is it in hair dye?

People who regularly work with PPD, like your hairdresser, can develop allergies to it, and should take precautions to avoid coming in contact with it.  Now, despite the fact that your hairdresser is wearing gloves while applying the hair dye to your head, and taking precautions to protect themselves, what is being done to protect you? (I'm really trying here to give you food for thought).  Although the most common absorption of PPD into the body is through the skin, it can also cause allergic reactions when it is inhaled, absorbed by the eyes, or ingested.

Now, how many of you have ever applied hair dye and have felt "something" going on on your skin?  Or, how many of you have walked into a salon or colored your hair at home and turned up your nose at the stink?  You are obviously breathing the stuff in addition to coming in contact with it.  I always thought it was a bit of an oxymoron that they give you gloves to protect your hands yet the chemicals are coming in direct contact with your scalp about 1/2 inch from your brain.

One of the most dangerous applications of PPD is when it is added to henna a natural dye. When used for temporary tattoos, henna laced with PPD is known as “Black Henna.” Although this is not an approved use for PPD in the United States, some tattoo artists will illegally add the chemical to henna for darker temporary tattoos that dry faster than pure henna tattoos.  I just thought you should know that in the event you were planning to go out and get a "safe" henna tattoo.  Because the dye is applied while the PPD is in its oxidation process, its potential as an allergen is increased. (Remember, it is all going head long into your bloodstream to mingle with all your red and white blood cells.  Black Henna tattoos often result in a skin reaction similar to a chemical burn, which in turn results in a scar where the skin was tattooed.

Also, once a person who has been exposed to PPD has an allergic reacition, they may suffer a lifelong sensitivity to the chemical. I suggest we all stay away from the chemical during the oxidation process and we'll be healthier for it, what do ya think?

There is ongoing debate regarding more serious health consequences that may result from use of hair coloring.

Recent publications regarding the dangers of hair tints include:

        * A FDA study that found lead acetate (the active ingredient in gradual darkening products such as Grecian formula) to be potentially toxic. 

        * Articles that link the development of some forms of cancer (including leukemia, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, bladder cancer, blood cancer, and multiple myeloma) with the use of hair color. 

        * Specifically, prolonged use of permanent dark hair dyes have been found to double a person's risk of getting various types of blood cancer.

        * 4-ABP, a known human carcinogen, was discovered in some hair dyes that you can purchase right off the shelf.

There have been 31 published investigative articles regarding the causal association between PPD and cancer between the years 1992-2005.  These articles have discussed the possible association between hair dye use and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, (which is what my mother and friend were diagnosed with), multiple myeloma, acute leukemia, and bladder cancer.  Bladder cancer was observed in at least one well-designed study with a detailed exposure assessment, but it was apparently not observed consistently across all of the studies.  Still, if we weigh the possibilities, I think you can be certain of the association between PPD and cancer.

I thought you should know, however, that the EPA has not classified PPD as a carcinogen. Therefore, no warnings of toxicity have been printed on boxes of hair dye.  I think it is time they start, don't you?

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) list PPD as being a contact allergen only.  Exposure can be through inhalation, skin absorption, ingestion, and skin and/or eye contact; symptoms of exposure include throat irritation (pharynx and larynx), brochial asthma, and dermatitis.  If you become sensitive to PPD, it can be a lifelong problem leading to sensitivities to:

  • Black clothing
  • Printer ink
  • Facsimile ink
  • Hair dye
  • Fur dye
  • Leather dye
  • Photographic products.

One maker of this product states explicitly that PPD should not be used directly on the skin. 

Now I know that I am writing a long-winded article here on the perils of hair dye, but I honestly believe, with every ounce of my being, that hair color is responsible for many a cancer in this world.  I believe that just like smoking was discovered to cause lung and throat cancer, that PPD and other chemicals in hair dye will be discovered to cause cancer. 

Have you ever wondered why your Obstetrician (if you are a woman and have been pregnant) ever told you to stop coloring your hair while you were pregnant?  If it is safe, why would it not be safe if you are pregnant?  Again, remember that all of these chemicals go directly into your blood stream.

I am sure that I am going to cause a bit of a backlash with someone from the hair color companies, but have it.  I am so happy to see a greater appreciation for women who embrace their natural beauty and their God-given gray hair.  Personally, I think gray haired women are beautiful.  Now, I know my friend Beth is going to have a hayday with this post because she has been coloring her hair for say - 30+ years?  Beth, my dear friend, and Alison, and Liz, and Lisa, and everybody out there who is coloring your hair or thinking of coloring your hair - DON'T.  It's not worth it.  Your life is more than the color of your hair, the size of your breasts, the roundness of your backside, or the number on your scale.  It is a quilt of your experiences, the value you place on your family, the beauty you find in God's creation, the time with friends, the good deeds we do for others, what positive we give back to this world.  Life is much more than the physical appearances we put forward. 

Now for some positive roll models:


"A lot of times, Mother Nature knows what she's doing," says country queen Emmylou Harris, 52. A decade ago, after a run-in with red henna, the eight-time Grammy winner "bit the bullet," as she puts it, and reverted to the prematurely gray hair that she had acquired in her early 20s. "It's the best thing I ever did."

Amen, says Willie Nelson, who calls her "a natural beauty who knows there is no need to cover up." Agrees singer-songwriter Rodney Crowell: "She's forever young." 


Model Cindy Joseph went prematurely gray and didn't start a successful modeling career until she was 48.  You go girl!

Helen Mirren

Helen Mirren looks beautiful at 62 el-naturel

GrayHairmodel Carmen del Orifice

Beautiful Model Carmen Del Orifice


Actress Jamie Lee Curtis, and now for ...

More beautiful gray ladies ...








Regina Mumme, 48, Homemaker - Gorgeous!


Yamuna Zake, 52, Body work Instructor.

And of course, there is me:


My Big Bear took these pictures this morning...


This is what "50" looks like ladies...I'm not a young chicken anymore, but I think I'll keep my silver locks.  I've worked diligently to care for my skin by staying out of the sun and wearing sunblock when outside.


I kinda like the haircut too.  I think gray hair and a great haircut is sexy and beautiful.  And, if you must know, I receive far more compliments on my hair now than I ever did when I was coloring it.  Honestly, there is no color in the world that is an natural and beautiful and "safe" as your own God-given color.  Accept it.  Love it.  Embrace it.  You'll be glad you did.

Just remember:

It is not the color of our hair that matters in life, it is the colors of our heart.

Personally, I think women who embrace their gray hair and make the most of their natural beauty show strength of character.  I hope that others feel the same of me.

(This article took me 2 days of research and a hell of a lot of reading but I think it was well worth it).


Friday, August 07, 2009

The Secret Life of Bees - A Conversation


I am an avid reader - if you haven't figured that out yet.  I love to read.  It takes me away to faraway places, to another time and place, to a place in my brain where I feel like I've curled up with a blanket in the comfiest chair I can find.  Well, I found the perfect book to take me away this summer - The Secret Life of Bees. 

Yes, I saw the movie with Dakota Fanning, but the book - oh, the book - it is gripping and will keep you hooked from the first page to the last.  It is the story of a little girl, Lily Owens, who breaks her black "stand in mother" out of jail (for insulting 3 of the most racist men in in town) and runs away from home.  She lost her mother when she was four and thought that she was responsible for her death.  Her father was abusive, yet I was led to believe that he was afraid and alone and just didn't know how to raise a daughter, so he took his frustrations out on Lily.


Lily is strong and free-spirited, full of spunk and vinegar, and she is growing up in 1964 South Carolina when racism is rampant, violence is everywhere among blacks and whites, and blacks are trying desperately to carve a life free of judgment, ridicule, and separation from the same freedoms that should be afforded every man and woman.

Lily and Rosaleen head for Tiburon, South Carolina where they meet a trio of eccentric black women who live together in a large pink house and package honey - the best honey in town.  They are beekeepers, yet together, they change the life of one little girl, Lily, and her dear friend and nanny, Rosaleen.


It is an unforgettable story and written with the same powerful prose as any John Steinbeck book I've ever read.  It is a mastery of fiction and if you like curling up with a book, I can't think of any book you would enjoy more than this one. 

This novel is not only Sue Monk Kidd's first novel, it is a remarkable story of divine female power, and one that I have now shared with my daughter.  It's a story that you will want to share with your daughters too.

I do want to share with you 2 of my favorite passages in the book -  Page 147:

"You know, some things don't matter that much, Lily.  Like the color of a house.  How big is that in the overall scheme of life?  But lifting a person's heart--now, that matters.  The whole problem with people is ...

they know what matters, but they don't choose it.  ... The hardest thing on earth is choosing what matters."

Page 255-256:

"Knowing can be a curse on a person's life.  I'd traded in a pack of lies for a pack of truth, and I didn't know which one was heavier.  Which one took the most strength to carry around?  It was a ridiculous question, though, because once you know the truth, you can't ever go back and pick up your suitcase of lies.  Heavier or not, the truth is yours now."

(Conversation with Sue Monk Kidd courtesy of Penguin books)


Sue Monk KiddSue Monk Kidd is the author of two widely acclaimed nonfiction books, The Dance of the Dissident Daughter and When the Heart Waits. She has won a Poets and Writers Award for the story that began this novel, as well as a Katherine Anne Porter Award. Two of her short stories, including an excerpt from The Secret Life of Bees, were selected as notable stories in Best American Short Stories. The Secret Life of Bees, her first novel, was nominated for the prestigious Orange Prize in England.


The novel is set in South Carolina in 1964. Did you experience the South in the 1960s?

In 1964 I was an adolescent growing up in a tiny town tucked in the pinelands and red fields of South Georgia, a place my family has lived for at least two hundred years, residing on the same plot of land my great-great-grandparents settled. The South I knew in the early sixties was a world of paradoxes. There was segregation and the worst injustices, and at the same time I was surrounded by an endearing, Mayberryesque life. I could wander into the drugstore and charge a cherry Coca-Cola to my father, or into the Empire Mercantile and charge a pair of cheerleader socks to my mother, and before I got home my mother would know what size Coke I'd drunk and what color socks I'd bought. It was an idyllic, cloistered, small-town world of church socials, high school football games, and private "manners lessons" at my grandmother's. Yet despite the African-American women who prominently populated the world of my childhood, there were enormous racial divides. I vividly remember the summer of 1964 with its voter registration drives, boiling racial tensions, and the erupting awareness of the cruelty of racism. I was never the same after that summer. I was left littered with memories I could not digest. I think I knew even back then that one day I would have to find a kind of redemption for them through writing. When I began writing The Secret Life of Bees, I set it during the summer of 1964 against a civil rights backdrop. It would have been impossible for me to do otherwise.


What parts of The Secret Life of Bees were drawn from your own life experience?

Once, after I gave a reading of the scene where T. Ray makes Lily kneel on grits, someone in the audience asked if my father had ever made me kneel on grits. She couldn't imagine, she said, anyone making that up! I explained that not only had I never knelt on grits, or even heard of kneeling on grits before it popped into my head while writing the novel, but that T. Ray is the exact opposite of my father. I conjured most of the novel straight out of my imagination, inventing from scratch, yet bits and pieces of my life inevitably found their way into the story. Like charm school. Lily wanted to go, believing it was her ticket to popularity. As an adolescent, I went to charm school, where I learned to pour tea and relate to boys, which, as I recall, meant giving them the pickle jar to unscrew, whether it was too hard for me or not. And there is the fact that Lily and I both wanted to be writers, rolled our hair on grape juice cans, refused to eat grits, and created model fallout shelters for our seventh-grade science projects. We also both had nannies, but otherwise Lily and I are more different than alike.

My favorite piece of personal history that turned up in the novel is the honeybees that lived in a wall of our house when I was growing up. We lived in a big country house in Georgia, where bees lived for many years inside the wall of a guest bedroom, squeezing through the cracks to fly about the house. I remember my mother cleaning up puddles of honey that seeped out, and the unearthly sound of bee hum vibrating through the house. The whole idea for the novel began one evening when my husband reminded me that the first time he'd visited my home to meet my parents, he'd awakened in amazement to find bees flying about the room. After he told that story, I began to imagine a girl lying in bed while bees poured through cracks in her bedroom walls and flew around the room.

I couldn't get the image out of my head. I began asking myself: Who is this girl? What is the desire of her heart? That anonymous girl became Lily Melissa Owens, lying there, yearning for her mother.


Are any of the characters modeled on people you know?

I'm inclined to say that no character in the novel is modeled on a real person, but nothing is ever that simple, is it? As I wrote about Rosaleen, I could hear my own nanny's voice in my head. She had a colorful way with words, and some of her sayings found their way into Rosaleen's mouth. For instance my nanny used to say that if you put her husband's brain into a bird, the bird would fly backward. You may recall that Rosaleen said exactly the same thing about her husband. Like Rosaleen, my nanny was also a connoisseur of snuff. She carried around a snuff cup and had a distinct manner of spitting it that Rosaleen inherited. Other than a few borrowed traits and sayings, however, the two of them weren't that much alike.

While I borrowed some trivial details from my own adolescence and gave them to Lily, she was essentially her own unique creation, just as T. Ray, Deborah, Zach, Clayton, and Neil were. All of them sprang to life the same wayconjured from anonymity. As for August, May, June, and the Daughters of Mary, I'm sure I drew on amorphous memories of growing up around a lot of wonderful Southern, African-American women. As a child, I loved to listen to their stories. But I wasn't thinking of any particular one of them as I wrote. The inspiration for August came mostly from a vision I carry inside, of feminine wisdom, compassion, and strength. I just kept trying to imagine the woman I would've wanted to find if I'd been in Lily's complicated situation.


In the past you have written books of memoir. Would you describe the transition you made from writing nonfiction to fiction? Will you write another nonfiction book in the future?

When I began writing at the age of thirty, my dream was to write fiction, but I was diverted from that almost before I started.

I became enticed by the notion of writing memoir. For over a decade I was compelled by the idea of turning my own life into narratives. My books The Dance of the Dissident Daughter and When the Heart Waits were narratives of my spiritual experience.

I think many people need, even require, a narrative version of their life. I seem to be one of them. Writing memoir is, in some ways, a work of wholeness.

I thought I would go on writing only nonfiction the rest of my life. Ah, but never underestimate the power of a dismissed dream.

I think there must be a place inside of us where dreams go and wait their turn. In the early nineties, my old dream of writing fiction resurfaced. To be honest, initially I was both compelled and repelled by its unexpected return. Compelled because it was a genuine impulse from deep within and had a lot of passion attached to it. Repelled because I was, to put it bluntly, afraid I couldn't do it. The dilemma forced me to come to terms with my fear.

I took on the role of apprentice fiction writer. I read voluminous amounts of literary fiction and set about studying the craft of fiction writing. More important, I practicedwriting short stories and rewriting them. Now, of course, I can't imagine my life apart from writing fiction. Will I, then, write another book of memoir? Oh, undoubtedly. I still have a need to create a narrative of my life. To keep writing it until I see how it turns out.


What was the process of writing the novel? How long did it take to complete it?

The novel began as a short story in 1993. At the time I wrote it, I wanted to develop the story into a novel, but I'd only just begun to write fiction, and felt I needed more time as an apprentice before taking on a novel. I put the story aside. Years later I was invited to read my fiction at the National Arts Club in New York. I dug out my short story, "The Secret Life of Bees." After the reading, I was again filled with the desire to turn it into a novel. I still didn't feel ready, but I figured I might never feel ready, and meanwhile I wasn't getting any younger.

It took me a little over three years to complete the novel. The process of writing it was a constant balancing act between what writing teacher Leon Surmelian referred to as "measure and madness." He suggested that writing fiction should be a blend of these two things. That struck me as exactly true. On one hand, I relied on some very meticulous "measures," such as character studies, scene diagrams, layouts of the pink house and the honey house. I had a big notebook where I worked out the underlying structure of the book. I relied more heavily, however, on trying to conjure "madness," which I think of as an inexplicable and infectious magic that somehow flows into the work. Before I started the novel, I created a collage of images that vividly caught my attention. They included a pink house, a trio of African-American women, and a wailing wall. I propped the collage on my desk with no idea how, or even whether, these things would turn up in the novel. Inducing "madness" also meant that I often left my desk to sit on the dock overlooking the tidal creek behind our house and engage in a stream of reverie about the story. I considered this earnest work.


How does having a sisterhood of women make a difference? Have you experienced such a community?

Isak Dinesen, who wrote Out of Africa, once said, "All sorrows can be borne if we put them in a story or tell a story about them." Ever since I first read that line, I've carried it with me. When women bond together in a community in such a way that "sisterhood" is created, it gives them an accepting and intimate forum to tell their stories and have them heard and validated by others. The community not only helps to heal their circumstance, but encourages them to grow into their larger destiny. This is what happened to Lily. She found a sanctuary of women where she could tell her story, and have it heard and validated—an act that allowed her not only to bear her sorrow but transform it.

I have been part of several communities of women over the years. Each of them was created simply because we wanted a place to tell our deepest stories. In every case we found that there is a way of being together that sustains us, and now and then, if we are lucky, returns us to ourselves.


Where did your interest in Black Madonnas come from? Are there actual Black Madonnas in the world? If so, what is the story behind them? How did a Black Madonna end up in your novel?

For a number years I studied archetypal feminine images of the divine and grew fascinated with how the Virgin Mary has functioned as a Divine Mother for millions of people across the centuries. It was during this period that I inadvertently stumbled upon an array of mysterious black-skinned Madonnas. They captivated me immediately, and I began to explore their history, mythology, and spiritual significance.

Approximately four hundred to five hundred of these ancient Madonnas still exist, most in Europe. They are among the oldest Madonna images in the world, and their blackness is purportedly not related to race or ethnic origins, but has to do with obscure symbolic meanings and connections to earlier goddesses. I traveled to Europe to see some of the Black Madonnas and found them to be images of startling strength and authority. Their stories reveal rebellious, even defiant sides. Black Madonnas in Poland and Central America have been the rallying images for oppressed peoples struggling against persecution.

I decided the Black Madonna had to make an appearance in my novel. I had no idea, though, what a starring role she would end up with. I thought she would be a small statue, sitting quietly in the background of the story. Then I visited a Trappist monastery, where I came upon a statue of a woman that had once been the masthead of a ship. It was deeply scarred and didn't look particularly religious. I asked a young monk about it. He told me she'd washed up on the shores on a Caribbean island and wound up in an antique shop. She wasn't really the Virgin Mary but was purchased and consecrated as Mary. I fell in love with the masthead Mary. I imagined a masthead Black Madonna in the pink house. I pictured fabulous black women in grand hats dancing around her, coming to touch their hands to her heart. I understood in that moment that here was Lily's mother, a powerful symbolic essence that could take up residence inside of her and become catalytic in her transformation. Just like that, the Black Madonna became a full-blown character in the novel.


Did you know anything about bees and beekeeping before you wrote the novel? How did you learn so much about bees?

I knew that bees could live inside the wall of a bedroom in your house. Other than that, I didn't know much at all. I began my bee education by reading lots of books. There's a mystique about bees, a kind of spell they weave over you, and I fell completely under it. I read bee lore and legend that went back to ancient times. I discovered bees were considered a symbol of the soul, of death and rebirth. I will never forget coming upon medieval references which associated the Virgin Mary with the queen bee. I'd been thinking of her as the queen bee of my little hive of women in the pink house, thinking that was very original, and they'd already come up with that five hundred years ago!

Books couldn't tell me everything I needed to know, so I visited an apiary in South Carolina. Inside the honey house, I sketched all the honey-making equipment, trying to get a handle on how they worked. There seemed to be thin veneer of honey everywhere, and my shoes stuck slightly to the floor when I walked, something I could never have learned from a book. When the beekeepers took me out to the hives, I was unprepared for the rush of fear and relish I experienced when the lid on the hive was lifted. I became lost in a whirling cloud of bees. So many, I could hardly see. The scent of honey drifted up, bee hum swelled, and the smoke meant to calm the bees rose in plumes all around us. Beekeeping, I discovered, is a thoroughly sensual and courageous business. I got through my bee education without a single sting. The first time August took Lily to the hives, she told her, "Don't be afraid, as no life-loving bee wants to sting you. Still, don't be an idiot; wear long sleeves and long pants."


Did you know how the novel would end when you began it? Did you consider having T. Ray change his ways by the end, beg for Lily's forgiveness, and admit that he shot Deborah?

When I began the novel, not only did I have no idea of the ending, but I was clueless about the middle. My idea extended only as far as Lily springing Rosaleen free and the two of them running away to Tiburon. I didn't know where they would end up once they got there. At that point the beekeeping Boatwright sisters had not materialized. After I wrote the scene where Lily and Rosaleen walk into Tiburon, I was stuck. I happened to flip through a book where I came upon a quote by Eudora Welty: "People give pain, are callous and insensitive, empty and cruel...but place heals the hurt, soothes the outrage, fills the terrible vacuum that these human beings make." It struck me clearly that I needed to create a place that would do that for Lily. I glanced over at my collage, at the trio of African-American women, and it simply dropped into my headLily would find sanctuary in the home of three black beekeeping sisters. As I neared the conclusion, I knew some aspects of the ending but not all of them. I knew that it would not be in T. Ray's character to change his ways, beg Lily's forgiveness, and admit shooting Deborah. There was never a possibility in my mind of that happening. I knew from the beginning that Lily was actually the one responsible for her mother's death. It was a tragic thing, but it made her situation, her emotional life, more complex and layered. And it made her journey of healing so much more essential and powerful. No, the part I hadn't figured out was where Lily would end up. Would she go back to the peach farm with T. Ray? Would she stay at the pink house? Initially, I couldn't grasp how to work it out so that she would get to stay. I was influenced, too, by my impression (right or wrong) that "happy endings" in literary novels were often sneered at. I decided she would have to go back to the peach farm with T. Ray. Then one night I had a dream in which August came to me, complaining about my idea for an ending. "You must let Lily stay with her 'mothers,'" she told me. I woke a little awed and a lot relieved. I knew immediately that I would take August's advice. It was what I'd really wanted all along.


Do you have plans to follow this novel with a sequel? What are you working on now?

This might sound peculiar, but after I finished the novel, I actually felt homesick for the pink house. I missed being with Lily, August, May, June, Rosaleen, and the Daughters of Mary. I moped around for a couple of weeks as if all my friends had moved away.

I was sure that I would never revisit the story. I didn't want to risk tampering with the world I'd created. I wanted to freeze Lily at this moment of her life, fourteen forever, living in the pink house. Then I went on book tour, and the most frequently asked question that I got from readers was: Will you write a sequel? I was surprised by how strongly readers wanted to know what would happen to the characters. I started off saying that a sequel was really not a possibility. Still the question kept coming, along with disappointed looks when I gave my answer. I began saying, well okay, it's not likely, but I'll think about it. And that's as far as I've gotten. I'm thinking.

Right now I'm working on a second novel set in the Low Country of South Carolina. All I can say is that I'm immersed once again with characters, in a place apart, one that I will undoubtedly miss one day the way I missed the pink house.

Just click on any of the book images above and get this book.  You won't be able to put it down. 


Thursday, August 06, 2009

A Daughter and a Driver's License


This was the summer that my baby girl took driver's education.  Every day for several weeks we drove her back and forth from her school to classes.  My fears have started to set in.


Fears that she won't always use good judgment and will be in an accident. 


Fears that she will ride with friends who are not responsible and will get in an accident.


Fears that if something did happen to her I won't see that glorious smile or that cute little peace sign again. But all of these fears are normal for a mother I think.  We have to let our children leave the nest sometime.  But can't we keep them young and little for a little while longer?


I mean, if she wants to learn to drive, let her drive the tractor.  We always need help in the yard and she's good at driving the tractor.


She doesn't always look happy driving the tractor, but she gets the job done and that's what matters - I think.


Maybe if I'm lucky she won't like driving.  Or - she'll like driving about as much as she likes driving this tractor.


I gotta admit though, she handles the tractor like a pro.


And what is a mother to do if her daughter is as crazy as her mother and wants a Harley of her own?  Or wants to drive Dad's Harley?  I really had no idea how my harley riding affected my own mother until now.  Sorry Mom - we're all a bit crazy and free ridin' in this family.  Fortunately, we all still have all of our limbs.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

1990 Was A Crazy Year


You all know my friend Beth, right?  Singingirl?  The cooking queen contributor here on Raisin Toast?  Well, yesterday she sent me some of the craziest pictures of both of us from 1990, and we both had a good laugh.  This one is of Beth standing behind my Harley Sportster.  "You really wanted to ride it didn't you Beth?"


When I look back on these pictures, I remember some things that I'd rather forget - like how insecure I was, despite what you see here of this motorcycle mama, I was terribly insecure.  I wasn't comfortable living alone or being alone.  As a matter of fact, I was miserable.  I was confused.  I was running scared on a Harley Davidson.  


I did, however, decide to go back to school and get my degree, and that is exactly what I did.  In 1990 I went back to college at the age of 31 to Nova Southeastern University.  I traveled over 50 miles up and down Interstate 95 5 days a week on my Harley to classes (talk about a death wish)!


I would stop by and visit Beth every chance I got as she was right in between my home in Boynton Beach and hers in North Lauderdale.  It was always great seeing Beth.

I met a motorcycle deputy from the Sheriff's office and would ride around town with him.  We dated for a while but then I started listening to my red flags and dumped him.  He wasn't good for me - at all.  Good looking - yes, Good for me - never.  Chalk that one up to stupidity.


I did take a course on motorcycle riding with the deputies at the Sheriff department.  They let me test out the course right along with them.  Most of them were a good bunch of guys.  Told you I was crazy back then.

Now though, when I look back on these pictures, as fun as it all was, I remember how wound up around the axle I was all the time.  I remember how scared I was about life.  I remember the confusion and the racing heart in my chest.  It is amazing how life does finally come together for all of us eventually. Sometimes it takes a little longer than most (as in my case).  However, I wouldn't trade a day of those crazy days for calmer ones because all in all they taught me a lot about life and love.  I am who I am today because of those crazy days and I believe I am a better person for it.  


I'm not scared anymore, although I still harbor fears that I think are deep set in my psyche.  But, that is just the way it is going to have to be.  I look over at the love of my life, my Big Bear, and thank the Lord everyday for this man who loves and adores me and our children.  I look at this man who takes care of us all and never complains.  I thank God for blessing me with a wonderful family, a beautiful home, and dear, dear, dear lifelong friends like Beth.

How lucky can one girl be anyway?


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