If you ever want to attend a writer’s conference on Bald Head Island please call me first, not to scare you, but there are things you should know prior to departure. Think of how the tide, the moon, and footprints shape the character of an island, there is this constant washing away, and bringing forth. This will happen to you, it’s inescapable, and although impermanence is the nature of our world, this experience is indelible. Oh yeah, and bring a life preserver, an inflatable heart will do.
I admit, I am completely out of my league, and unwittingly left my comfort zone behind, but I suppose this is required if a journey is to qualify as an adventure. The fear of walking into a room of full of writers is debilitating to say the least. I’m a blogger, I felt as if I was bringing bologna to the picnic, while the rest were serving up roast beef, not the first time I asked myself, “what the hell was I thinkin?”
I persevered because my friend Bonny (with a y, not an ie) not only invited me, but she was willing to dress my bologna with some fancy condiments, what else could I do, I accepted.
I met Bonny at the On-Being Gathering hosted by Krista Tippett, it was invitational (except for Larry, who snuck into my room one night, bearing red wine and chocolate, so I let him stay), 300 writers were selected from more than 3,000 applications. It was one of the most unexpected graces ever bestowed on the likes of me. There was Bonny, front of the pack, statuesque brunette, gutsy, gregarious, and gorgeous. She allowed me to buy her a glass of wine at the end of the second day, and with the boldness of God, I claimed her as good.
Without much deliberation, I paid the conference fee, to hell with the details. A total Cherylism, until I got on the plane, headed to Las Vegas to meet up with my long lost love, Donny (Osmond), and my husband, Larry. On the flight I thought to open the email confirming my place at the conference and for the first time noticed the small print that clearly states the conference will be held on Bald Head Island in NORTH CAROLINA. Yes, the North Carolina located on the other side of the continent, not the fantasy island I imagined somewhere off the coast of California. What the f*ck?
I landed in Las Vegas, shared the ‘good news’ with Larry, and right away regretted my decision not to marry Donny, sell Jenny Craig with my sister-in-law Marie, have a bushel of kids who could sing, and monogramed stationery with the initials CLO. Wait, I had a bushel of kids, I sold crap with my sister-in-law Marta, all my children have glorious voices (in the shower), and the monogram on my stationery remains CLO. If nothing else, I’m predictable, and that my friends is about to change.
I hung onto that ticket as if a life preserver, hoping it would keep me afloat, because baby I’m treading in deep water. When Hurricane Florence ripped through North Carolina in August, she flattened little Bald Head Island, and the conference had to be rescheduled, Larry thought it was an act of God. I totally agreed, as if God were parting the red sea, inviting me through, all I had to do was walk (with a broken foot) into the promised land. I rebooked my passage.
The day finally arrived, boarding the plane in San Jose, wearing my big, black, kick ass boot, which allows me to pre-board, store my bags at leisure, and best of all inspires empathy. Please don’t judge me. Not a frequent flyer, I settle into the narrow window seat, nervously shifting in my pew, as I make disparaging compromises with a noticeably absent God.
My answer to prayer? An unexpected delay, by the time I arrive in Dallas I’m eligible for membership in AARP, I hobble to the posted gate 20 miles away, and with the luck of the Swedish, a quaint little bar appears not 50 feet from where I am to board. I order a Sauvignon Blanc with my avocado toast, and fail to notice the last minute gate change, the trials of travel, it’s a real thing.
Lady luck is keeping her eye on me, our arrival into Wilmington is twenty minutes early, my transport is waiting at the curb, as if Cinderella I’m whisked off to South Port in an orange mini van with Ray as my driver. From there I jump a ferry to Bald Head, and without a glitch Bonny picks me up in a golf cart (no cars allowed on the island). It may have taken carriers, carriages, and carts to get me here, but come hell or high water, I’ve arrived.
Early morning a quartet of voices drifts into my room just as I’m interrogating the universe, “Where the hell am I?” “Who thought this was a good idea?” “What did I do with that ferry schedule?”
Wondering upstairs in search of coffee I find several women of various ages and sizes lounging around the kitchen in pajamas, sipping coffee, munching bagels, catching up on life. I note the easy camaraderie, it fills the room, the words that come to mind are affectionate, exquisite, gracious.
Kicking my introverted tendencies to the curb, I don the most convenient armor available, and become an overnight ambivert, with balanced social skills, charming witticisms, and a Cinderella complex, “I can be whatever I want to be…” Yeah, they saw right through that.
This particular murder of women is not only warm and welcoming, but talented, smart, and entertaining as shit. They introduced themselves as Nicole, with the beautiful spirit, perfect words, and killer eyelashes, Lynn, who is all love, a touch of sweet, and cascade of tears, Sarah, the stealthy one with uncanny bouts of wisdom, Susan, is quietly generous and ever so noble, Kathyann’s a swirl of creativity sucking you into her vortex, where Amy is earth, wind, and fire, her courage informing our own, but it’s Bonny, dear Bonny, front and center, who gathers, gives, and garnishes the rest.
As if a debutant waiting to be presented, I longed to be part of this posh society of women, the one who fits the glass slipper, and lives happily ever after. I didn’t even have to mention I was a first class girl scout, we bonded over outrageous narratives, a shot of honesty, and no bullshit as most of us are post menopausal. Who has time for that?
After an impromptu day of lounging about the island, we prepare to attend the first portion of the conference, this ladies is where the rubber meets the road, the boots hit the ground, and our talent is put to the test. Cloaked in fear, nerves jolting my innards, dragging a broken foot, I show up. What else can you do? [Note to self, extra strength deodorant, we’re in the south, it’s a neighborly gesture.]
Nancy Slonim Aronie is tall, lanky, with a killer smile, and oh my does she have a way with words. After her first story, I was laughing through tears, by the end of the evening she turned the word f*ck into a classy verb. I love this woman. Her husband sat in the corner beaming, the rest of us sat in awe, and than she broke the spell with our first assignment. She called it “homework.” I’m not kidding. I immediately revert to Cheryl with a lower case c. The problem with islands is you’re sort of captive, I start scanning the shore for rescue, “so this is the tale of castaways, they’re here for a long long time, they’ll have to make the best of things, it’s an uphill climb…” Yes, that is where my mind goes when stressed, deal with it.
Our first prompt: A childhood dinner I remember….
The assignment came with strict instructions and of course I cheated. We were told to write for fifteen minutes, no more, no less. I stretched it to thirty, and abridged in the morning. I edit more than I write, if only we could do that with life?
We arrived at the conservatory in the morning with our coffee, computers, and angst. I actually attempted to hide behind Lynn, until Nancy said, “California, you’re up.”
Which meant I had to walk to the front of the room and read my story out loud with no qualifying remarks (I’m jet lagged, braindead, I have a broken foot). Even though my hands were shaking, sweat dripping down the center of my back, mouth as dry as the desert, I read with false bravado. No one could tell I’m sure. And then it happens. They applaud, Nancy turns to me and says, “you’re a writer,” with no disparaging remarks, participants randomly compliment my piece, I’m stunned, than stupefied, beholden, and enormously humbled.
The story posted below if interested or skip the italicized portion.
It was picture day. My mom used a piece of masking tape to mark where she planned to trim my bangs, she grabbed a worn pair of scissors from the kitchen drawer, and sat me on a stool by the window, the floor covered with an old plastic tablecloth, the one with faded red checks.
This procedure always ended in catastrophe.
She couldn’t achieve a straight line if her life depended on it, and after several failed attempts to even out the bangs, I ended up with this horrible one inch jagged fringe, barely long enough to cover my forehead.
It was some time around my seventh year and I was highly self-conscious. This particular week I fell on the asphalt playing dodge ball at school and chipped my front tooth. We scheduled a repair to coincide with dad’s bonus which meant I would remain chipped until the end of the month.
Mom bought the pictures anyway, it was tradition, and she needed it for the matted frames displayed in the hall, documenting every year of school since kindergarten. Those pictures would remain in the hall until her death.
That night I came to the dinner rather grumpy after a day of merciless teasing from my classmates. I felt ridiculed, so I stayed in at lunch, and sat with the teacher, humiliating yes, but less painful.
Mom called us to dinner, I slid into my kelley green upholstered chair, just as my sister Nancy sprayed milk across the table, mocking not only the botched haircut, but what was left of my pride.
Dad used all his skill to subdue a smirk, including covering his mouth with his hand, and then promptly excusing himself from the table.
Mother acted as if nothing was amiss, when she got up to refill her water glass, I glared at her as if my scorn were an arrow that could pierce her back.
I remember she served dried beef on toast that night, clearly this was not my day, I sat there pouting, flicking pieces of milk soaked beef to the cat. Mom scolded me as dad was returning to the table, properly sobered.
That was the moment, you know, when the bangs no longer mattered, even the dried beef was not as repulsive, my Dad stalled for a moment behind my chair, reaching out to give my shoulders a gentle squeeze.
This is what I know…outside is difficult, inside is safe, especially evident in the uneven bangs, splattered milk, and the weight of love resting on my shoulders.
Nancy, the instructor, warned us, we must write from a place of pain or joy, if we didn’t feel it, neither would the reader. No flowery words, or hijacked writing styles, use your own voice. That is were the story originates and that is what resonates with your audience.
The next prompt: The hardest thing I’ve ever had to deal with, we had twelve minutes to get our thoughts down on paper, and share them with our small group? Did you hear me? I can’t even use the restroom in twelve minutes, my fingers hit the keyboard as if a surgeon, and let me just say, it got a little bloody.
I wrote the passage below, but there wasn’t enough time for me to read in our small group, Nancy said, “California, you can read your story to the entire group.” I begged for them to let me get in a quick read, but they threw me on the barbecue as if St. Lawrence, “this side’s done, turn her over.”
I should have read…
“The hardest thing about death is the finality of it all, the residue of memories, the sweet surrender of truth.
I remember the day as if it were yesterday. I admit I wanted to leave it all behind, the schedules, the chemo, the doctors, the fear, the cancer, but especially the eminency of death. It was taking our mother, as if a game of red rover, my sister and I held tight, but we could not hold back death for long.
It was a Wednesday when I drove over to Mom’s house in the dark, the rain coming down in sheets, I parked the car in the back, racing up the path as I fumbled with my keys. I watched her through the window. A few tuffs of hair remained, as thin as a reed, she was still in her pajamas, shuffling to the door, the ties of her pink robe dragging on the hardwood floor.
She greeted me with a kiss on the lips and a warm cup of coffee. We moved down the hall towards her room at a snails pace, to strip off the pajamas, and drape her in her favorite clothes, garments that now hung on her like hand-me-downs from an older sibling.
She stopped me as I attempted to wrestle a second shirt over her head and said, “honey, I need to tell you something.”
We don’t have time to stop, if we just keep moving, we can outrun the pain. I say, “Mom, we have to hurry, your labs are in 20 minutes.”
She places a thin hand on mine and says, “I saw your Dad in a dream last night,” that was just about the only thing she could say that would stop me in my tracks.
She said, “your father.”
I respond in the barely audible voice, “my daddy?”
She said, “he made me a better person.”
I bowed my head, silently thanking her for this gift, and gently pulled a warm sweatshirt over her bald head.
But I didn’t trust my twelve minute voice, instead I pulled up an old post from my blog, one that was shined and spit polished. Acting like a chicken when I want to be a crow. The only one who knew was Bonny, so I avoid eye contact, and she held my secret as a trusted friend.
|Where the hell are my lips?|
The days pass, as we wrestle with difficult prompts, not only finding our voice, but learning to trust it. Nancy keeps pushing us, demanding more than we thought we had to give, but always with validation, and a boosterish eulogy. I am at once emptied, then refilled, as if someone poured new wine into old wineskins, and suddenly you burst. This is the treasure, the favor, the trinket I pack in my bag, “I’m a better writer because of these women, our words, and a little wine.”
I’m Living in the Gap, drop by anytime, I’m always up for a splashy narrative.
|Last morning, in my pajamas, watching the sun rise. It doesn’t get better than this!|