Life Preserver

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sailboatLady Sylvia Ashley, Italy 1930s

It’s no secret that I’ve been floundering of late. Amid set backs and false starts, I’ve lost enthusiasm for Silky. I simply haven’t been able to muster the drive to carry on. So imagine my surprise at receiving a lifeline out of the blue!

A published writer who specializes in “aristo ladies” sent me the most lovely, encouraging email a couple of weeks ago after reading my blog. She complimented me on my posts and commiserated on the difficulty of getting our kinds of stories into the hands of our readers. She even shared tips and leads on British publishers. Oh the kindness of strangers!

It was exhilarating to find someone familiar with Silky’s fabulous story and also thrilling to learn about one of Silky’s peers, Doris Delevingne, Viscountess of Castlerosse. Lyndsy Spence’s book on the notorious British socialite is coming out next month and she tells me that Doris and Sylvia were friends. After ten years of research, I’d never heard of Doris so it was a pleasure to become acquainted.

And if that isn’t enough, Lyndsy’s part of The Mitford Society! Two of my favorite stories of all time are The Pursuit Of Love & Love In A Cold Climate. Our connection couldn’t be more perfect if Silky introduced us herself. Maybe she did.

Lyndsy’s graciousness and generosity was like a life preserver for this drowning writer. I was just barely treading water and now I feel that perhaps I could reach shore soon. She’s gotten me kicking again and renewed my hope. A very fine gift indeed. And just in the nick of time!

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Sweet Sorrow

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Gam & me, 2011

I recently went up to the central coast to take care of my cousin’s cat while she was on vacation. As I left for home after my visit, I was overwhelmed by sadness.

Now I adore the Cecil cat. He’s extremely affectionate & demonstrative. But there was something else going on. Something I couldn’t name. My sorrow was so deep and huge for simply saying goodbye to a cat I love.

I remembered something the comedian Louis C. K. said about letting oneself feel all feelings. He points out that life is filled with sadness as well as joy—how they both exist—but that we shy away from sorrow. He recommends embracing it instead. He talked about running into sadness frequently while driving. He noticed that his mind was more free to wander in the car and that feelings of profound misery would overtake him. He suggests pulling over to the side of the road and letting the feelings come. So I did.

As the tears flowed, I remembered a conversation with a friend just the day before about emotional discomfort. She was talking about when scary or hard things happen to us, we distract ourselves instead of feeling the fear or worry or sorrow. But if we could just sit with the hard feelings long enough, answers and solutions eventually appear.

I finally understood that my sorrow was place related. When my grandmother was still alive, I used to drive that same route home after visiting her and cry in the car. When the dementia began and Gam was no longer the woman she had been, I missed her before she left her body. I began grieving when she lost her mind. And every time I left her, I wondered how much more time we had together before I lost her completely.

Realizing this on the side of the road somehow gave me comfort. The sadness was there. Then eventually it passed. Just like Louis C. K. said it would. But it had a beginning and I was able to finally trace the source because I didn’t resist the feelings or stuff them down. I just sat with them. It’s not easy, but it’s where the answers are to be found.

The basis of Buddhism is a doctrine known as the Four Noble Truths. The First Truth is that all life is suffering, pain, and misery. I used to view this notion as a downer, but now I get it. If you’re paying attention and living a compassionate, sensitive life, your heart will break a thousand times a day. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t beauty around every corner. There are treasures to be found in the rubble. After all, a diamond started out as a lump of coal under pressure.

Anniversary of Loss

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my Gammy, 1940s

A friend recently commented on the anniversary of the loss of her beloved mother by stating that she’d lost her “northern star.” That really hit me. Especially so close to the anniversary of my grandmother’s death. And it’s a perfect comparison. How does one navigate without them?

You think it will get easier. And eventually it does. But not for a very very very long time. And you never really stop missing them, you just miss them a fraction less as life callously marches on.

I’ve saved a recording of Gam on my answering machine. It was back when she wasn’t yet confusing the T.V. remote with the cordless phone (a perfectly understandable mistake for a 95 year old woman who was middle aged when television was invented!). She was waiting for my arrival and growing impatient.

No matter what time I told her I’d get there, she’d start watching for me on the front porch. Sometimes she’d be waiting for hours. In the voice message she sounds forlorn and lonely, disappointed and worried. It’s not the best representation of her voice, but it’s the only one I’ve got. I listen to it about once a week.

I lost her two years ago today, two days after my birthday. Somehow I know she waited to crossover so as not to spoil my special day. But still, my birthday celebrations have a melancholy element to them. And probably always will. My deepest regret is that she’ll never get to see Silky published after how much a part of it she was…and is.

Looking for a photograph of her, I ran onto my post from last year at this time. It sums up exactly how I’m still feeling…

“As it turns out, my Gammy was the love of my life. No one will ever love me as deeply, as constantly and with as much sheer unconditional force as she did. No one will ever think I’m as smart, as charming or as beautiful as she did. No one will light up like a hundred birthday candles when I walk into the room. And that hurts my heart to know. Like realizing you’re no longer the ingénue or the star quarterback or just the apple of someone’s eye. To become irrelevant is untethering.”

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Kathleen Curtis Stratton, 1950s

Elder Flower

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When I was visiting East Sussex last fall, a friend took me to a local pub and turned me on to a lovely sparkling lemonade beverage made with elderflowers & rose. Since then, I have discovered a market that sells it here in California. It’s my new alternative to champagne when I’m not wanting alcohol. Of course when I am imbibing, it goes smashingly with vodka and a little fresh lime juice. I’ve christened my new cocktail the Lady Sylvia.

I haven’t yet researched how the elder flower was named, but it brings Silky to my mind. When I knew her as a child, she was a grand dame in her seventies, but she hadn’t lost her impeccable sense of style and was still a great beauty. A perfect English rose, as the saying goes.

Silky captured the attention and heart of a Georgian prince in her fifties. Their gala wedding was the talk of midcentury Manhattan.

I wonder where this idea came from of women no longer being considered attractive simply because they’re no longer young? Like that’s a natural progression. It’s outdated and just not true. I believe our wisdom alone makes us rather lethally gorgeous.

I like to think of the term “elderflower” to describe a lovely woman of a certain age. It sure beats the hell out of Old Lady, Old Maid, Elderly or Senior.

Cheers to the elderflowers!

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London’s Calling

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Lord Anthony Ashley-Cooper weds Sylvia Hawkes, London 1927

Imagine my surprise leafing through this month’s issue of Vanity Fair magazine & discovering an article on the current Earl of Shaftsbury and the Ashley-Cooper estate, St. Giles in Dorset, with a mention of Silky!

“In 1927, Lord Ashley shocked London society by marrying the chorus girl Sylvia Hawkes. He died of a heart attack in 1947 at the age of 46. Sylvia, from whom he was divorced in 1935, went on to wed Douglas Fairbanks Sr. and Clark Gable as well as the sixth Baron Sheffield and Prince Djordjadze, a Georgian nobleman.”

And just that simply, there she is again refusing to let me quit.

Recently, I’ve been feeling aimless. Things seem flat and mundane and I realized just today that it’s not only because I’m missing Silky’s fabulous influence from my life, but also because I’ve halted my creative flow. I haven’t been writing and a kind of flatline has set in. At the very least, I ought to be querying agents again.

It’s high time to soldier on and get back to what makes my heart sing. Apparently, London’s calling and it’s time to answer.

Wake Up Call

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Can it really have been four months since my last post? How time flies when you’re not having fun. This year of the monkey hasn’t started out well for me. Without going into the dull details, let it suffice to say that I’ve been having a crisis of faith.

I’ve expereinced a lot of loss in the last few months–grief, disappointment, illness–and I’ve been hunkered down, trying to wade through it. Part of my sadness has been the lack of progress I’ve made with Silky. It’s challenging to keep pursuing your dream in the face of rejection (and trying to make a living). And the thing about taking a break is that the next thing you know, months have passed.

Cleaning up my desk today, I found this poem I wrote about ten years ago, when I first started Silky. I’m considering it a gentle prod from the great beyond…

 

Hats & gloves, cigarette cases & steamer trunks, opera capes with fur trim–

The end of an era.

I follow you to a place I miss

though it was never mine.

I tread your path, not in high heels

but with an outmoded sense of style.

Your gift to me: time travel.

My promise: strangers will speak your name.

 

Heros

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“Find the good. It’s all around you. Find it, showcase it and you’ll start believing in it.”

– Jesse Owens

I’ve been in a mad frenzy to catch up on all the Oscar nominations before the 88th Academy Awards show on February 28th. One of my guilty pleasures are the previews of upcoming films.

I’m happy to report that it’s finally happening! There is a biopic on the Olympian track star, Jesse Owens, aptly titled Race opening next month and I couldn’t be more thrilled. I fell in love with the lovely–inside and out–athlete when I was researching Silky. Fifteen years ago it amazed me that a film on this American legend and hero had not yet been made. And it’s baffled me ever since.

In 1936 Lady Sylvia Ashley attended the Berlin Olympics–hosted by Adolf Hitler–with Douglas Fairbanks Sr., a Jew. An avid lover of beauty, she was captivated by Jesse Owens’ grace and agility, his talent and his bravery. He won four gold medals and basically made a mockery of Hitler’s notion of Aryan supremacy. And to think of the racism he endured his whole life–in his own country–to do it!

There are some enlightened souls put on this earth to speed up the spiritual evolution of humanity. Jesse Owens was one such soul. You’ll find me weeping into my popcorn with joy and sorrow on February 19th. Come join me!

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Let’s Dance

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I heard of David Bowie’s death this morning and the concept has been reverberating with me all day. Not that I knew him personally. I didn’t. It’s a strange thing when you grow up alongside someone that you’re never truly intimate with. They’re always there like an estranged family member. The fact that Bowie’s music was the soundtrack to my life (and most everyone else’s) for decades gives the illusion of a kind of intimacy.

The first record I bought on my own–that wasn’t one of the folk or pop records that my mother and I shared–was Changes One Bowie. As an outcast and miserable teenager transplanted from Los Angeles to a small rural town in the south, music was my escape and my lifeline. I remember finding the shrink-wrapped album in a stack at the local IGA supermarket while grocery shopping with my mom. I knew some of the songs from the radio. He looked weird. It spoke to me. Gee my life’s a funny thing, am I still too young?

Most of my friends at that time were into rock-n-roll so I hadn’t been exposed to his music yet, other than his hits that were played on the radio. The cashier with big hair and small town attitude eyed the album with disgust. I knew I was going to like it. Is it any wonder I reject you first?

In high school back in Los Angeles, his androgyny had been a balm to many of my gay boyfriends. By this time we devoured his edgy arthouse movies and fashion, as well as his music. So the days float through my eyes, but still the days seem the same.

My first job as a bartender was at my uncle’s restaurant, Stratton’s. It was located in the building that also housed the Westwood Playhouse (now the Geffen Playhouse). In 1988 a much anticipated play called Hurly Burly came to the playhouse with a cast that included Danny Aiello and Sean Penn. Opening weekend was a star-studded event with Robert De Niro, Bruce Willis and Demi Moore, Barbara Streisand, Bruce Springsteen, Mikhail Baryshnikov–I waited on Madonna. But it was the couple on the patio that I wanted to see. 

I got one of the waiters to cover me for a “bathroom break.” Then I walked slowly through the crowd to get a good long look at Iman and David Bowie sitting quietly at a table in the corner. I’m not one to bother celebrities–the only autograph I’ve ever asked for was Ray Bolger’s–and I respect their privacy. But I needed to see this beautiful freak whose music and art had nearly saved my sad teenaged life. Look at that sky, life’s begun. Nights are warm and the days are young.

In 2004 Bowie’s Reality tour brought him to the Santa Barbara Bowl. My friend and I marveled at his high energy, his self-effacing humor and his charm. He bounced all over the stage like a teenager the entire show. He looked like he was having a blast, performing songs he’d been doing for decades but clearly enjoying it. He was a true original. And the loss is cataclysmic. Ground Control to Major Tom: Your circuit’s dead, there’s something wrong. Can you hear me, Major Tom?

Japanese Adventure

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Sensoji Temple with geisha

Crikey! Has it really been two whole months since I last posted? That’s a record, even for me.

When I returned from my three week tour of Japan, it was Thanksgiving. And then I blinked and it was Christmas. I barely caught my breath and it had become a new year! Know what I mean?

I’ve been receiving requests for photos from my trip. What a treat to sift through them and recount the lovely people we met; the art, architecture and culture; the unique and mind-blowing experiences of a foreign country. One more foreign than I could have ever imagined–it was my first foray out of the western world and into the ancient eastern civilization. What an inspiration.

We visited galleries and museums, temples and shrines, toured castles and royal residents, experienced both pottery and paper-making studios. We were treated like rock stars in our sister city of Toba, hiked five miles on the Nakasendo Trail, slept on futons on tatami mats in both a traditional ryokan and a small inn called a minshuku. My best friend John ate fried crickets.

We viewed Lake Suwa and Mt. Fuji, hiked through a bamboo forest, experienced an onsen (traditional baths) and ate an amazing vegetarian Zen Buddhist temple meal in Kyoto amid fall foliage. We watched Ama Divers off Mikimoto Pearl Island, shopped at a temple sale and rode the high speed Shinkansen bullet train from Kyoto to Tokyo. We even spent a perplexing evening at DisneySea and one at the Robot Restaurant in Shinjuku as well as witnessed the frenetic energy of Shibuya Crossing.

We made new friends, marveled at the heated toilet seats and were even treated to the famous Japanese honor when a complete stranger stopped us on the way to the Kabuki Theater in Tokyo, to return a wad of cash that had fallen from John’s pocket.

And so, here are a few of my faves for your touring pleasure…

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Sensoji Pagoda, Tokyo

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Matsumoto Castle & warrior

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Nagoya Tower & fountain

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Sensoji Buddha, Tokyo

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Sensoji Temple

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Tree-hugging on the Nakasendo Trail

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Fall flowers in Tsumago

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Teahouse & volunteer, Nakasendo Trail

 

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Kongoshoji Temple God, Toba

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Kongoshoji grave with keepsake, Toba

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Our Toba host family dressed us in kimono

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Oharaimachi souvenirs

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Oharaimachi cat

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Tenruji Temple

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Arashyama bamboo forest

 

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Fushimi Inari tori gates

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Evening falls on our hike of the 1,000 tori gates of Fushimi Inari mountain shrine

The Long Way Home

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Lady Sylvia Ashley & Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. with a Kabuki actor in Japan, 1930s

In an effort to remove some of the frantic hecticness from my life, I’ve been making fewer plans. It’s amazing how much more time and space one has when every minute isn’t accounted for! As a result, I’ve been flying solo more often. And taking the scenic routes.

I’ve always felt this time of year–summer fading into autumn–has a particular circumspect flavor to it. A natural turning inward as the weather cools and the days shorten, like some sort of weird inherent hibernation drive left over form our Paleo days.

This combination of introversion and slowing my pace have conspired to give me a new perspective: savoring. I’m no longer a worker bee flitting from flower to flower, never tasting the nectar. I have time to notice things and be more present. I have the chance to ruminate and feel my feelings and make selections from a more centered place. And I find I’m making different decisions on how to spend my precious time and with whom. Now it’s not out of obligation but by authentic choice.

I get Sylvia on a new level. I better understand her desire for a leisure-class lifestyle rather than endless toiling just to make a living. We all strive for better lives, but I think she was really onto something. If all your basic needs are met (and then some, in her case) you have real riches: the gift of time.

By the time you read this, blog followers, I will have embarked on the journey of a lifetime: a three-week tour of Japan with my best friend. It’s the longest trip I’ve taken since backpacking through Europe in the 1980s. It is certain to be adventuresome, altering and enlightening. And it is lavish in it’s generous length of time.