Sandalwood and Sanity

An excerpt from my next book about crossing the Indian Ocean in monsoon season in 1975.

Agra, India 1975

TajMahal

We thanked our tour guide and left the magic of the magnificent Taj Mahal behind, and took a rickety cycle rickshaw back into town along a crowded street filled with potholes, constant clatter, markets, bazaars, peddlers, and the usual, always skinny, sacred cows. Traffic along the narrow road came to a halt as a small team of men surrounded wandering cows and attempted to gently coax them out of the way. One cow refused to budge and another knelt down in the middle of the road for a rest and to finish munching vegetables thrown out by street vendors. Our driver explained that the cow was a holy animal and could not be harmed, and feeding them was like receiving a blessing.

I sighed. Charles nodded.

Since we were only a short distance from our hotel, Charles suggested we pay the driver and walk the rest of the way. We ascended into the chaos of blaring taxi horns and shouting rickshaw drivers. I gasped at the sordid sight of starving beggars with limbs missing, slumped amidst haggling housewives in the market stalls. And the sad sight of skinny cows pulling carts behind bullock drivers. Walking along the crowded street, I felt out of sync with the rhythm of poor Indians. India clobbered me with its scenes of despair. Seeing poverty this close up overwhelmed my senses with despair for the doomed of humanity. These disturbing images made me want to stop the world and get off. The heat and the repugnant smells of dung and decay didn’t help.

Why is the cow sacred when humans aren’t?

I thought of all the gold-threaded saris I had seen in the airports and on planes worn by the wealthy and contrasted this to the miserable plight of the lower castes; India’s system of segregation. My thoughts and emotions overpowered me. I called to Charles,“I feel like I’m going to faint.” He assured me the hotel was just around the corner.

And just in time, we entered the pristine clean of our hotel lobby. Taking a deep breath of sweet, sandalwood incense, I paused and felt refreshed by the fragrant air.

I told the hotel receptionist about the cows roadblock earlier and asked her why the cow was sacred.

“For many reasons,” she said. “The cow gives us milk and ghee. It represents life and the sustenance of life. And, it takes nothing but grass, water and a few grains.”

“I’ve always liked cows,” I said. “They’re gentle creatures.”

“They’re vital to life in India,” she answered.

India rope trick?

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I’ve been busy writing my next book about crossing the Indian Ocean in 1975 during an extreme monsoon season. For several days now, I’ve gone back in time to Bombay, India where I played tourist before flying onto Sri Lanka and boarding a yacht I would help crew from Trincomalle, Sri Lanka to the Seychelles. Fortunately, notes from my travel journal about this exciting adventure have stirred vivid images.

As a writer, I delve into making descriptions in my story come alive for readers. Yesterday as I wrote about the highlights of Bombay, I remembered my shock at seeing not one but two snake charmers sitting on street corners of Bombay in June 1975. Even though this practice had been banned since 1972, it was for me mind boggling and very strange that people wanted to see sedated cobras and vipers dance in a basket to the vibrations of their master playing flute music. When I had researched the practice before visiting India, it had seemed cruel to keep snakes captive, de-fanged, sedated, and starved in order to entertain tourists.

I didn’t join the crowd around the snake charmers in Bombay; so didn’t see the scene up close. The hotel clerk had warned us of pickpockets who pushed and preyed on curious tourists who were busy watching this inhuman practice.

Happy to report that the snake charming business is prohibited by Indian Wildlife laws; both the python and cobra are now listed under endangered species of wildlife,  thus discouraging this practice.

I was however hoping to see a magician perform an Indian rope trick. Unfortunately,  I didn’t see any baskets filled with levitating ropes ascending skyward. Have you ever seen the Indian rope trick?

Life Mask

 

Masks

I love my life mask! It’s the middle one in the above photo. The mask to the left is one I made while living in Mexico. The one on the right was done by an unknown Mexican mask artist.

My life mask was done by an artist friend when I lived in Frankfurt, Germany in the 70s. She was preparing for a mask art show and had asked me to model several different masks. As I tried on different ones, I was amazed at the freedom I felt when I hid my own identity and allowed myself to become something I wasn’t. Or was I?

She suggested she do a life mask of me to display at the show. We met one afternoon at a craft studio for the casting. She said that President Abraham Lincoln had two life masks made – one in 1860 and another shortly before his death in 1865. She went on to describe the ancient tradition of death masks, always done shortly after a person’s death, and how many cultures believe that death masks breathe life into the dead. Comforting, I thought.

She detailed the procedure of making a negative cast of my face, which would be a mold for the positive image. She warned me that it might feel weird and get warm, but that she would be right there the entire time to make certain all went well. She established a set of signals I could use if I felt uncomfortable in any way. I assured her, “I’ll be fine.”

She greased my face liberally up through the eyebrows and hairline, and explained the importance of covering all hair so the cast could be easily removed. She told me to just relax (easier said than done) and covered my eyebrows and hairline with thin tissue, then began stretching strips of wet gauze around and across my face. When she covered my lips and slightly opened mouth, I wanted to scream, “Stop! Let me out of here.” But I didn’t, and she continued spreading the wet gauze across and around my nose. “I’m leaving holes so you can breathe, she said.” Oh that!, I thought, gasping for air.

Slathering more and more layers of the wet mixture, I wanted to give her a signal that I desperately needed to leave the scene, but instead figured if others had done it throughout history and survived, I could as well. Besides it was a great way to preserve my image at age 30. I also knew, as an artist, how important this exercise was to her. So I tried to calm the uncomfortable feelings of anxiety as she continued to patted my face and assured me it was becoming smoother and smoother. “No rough spots allowed. Perfect,” she said, finally, and left to clean up while the mask dried and set.

After about 20 minutes), it started to itch. I held up my hand to signal the discomfort. She told me to start gently moving facial muscles to loosen it while she slid her fingers under and along the edges, to lift it up and away.

“Whew,” I said, taking a deep breath.

“Wow,” said her assistant, another artist, “I want to have mine done.”

“Only problem,” my friend said, “is your bushy beard.”

“It’s fine,” he said, “I’ll lather it with Vaseline.

“I’m not so sure it will work,” she said.

“Of course it will,” he assured her and insisted on having his life mask done.

One hour later, no matter how hard we tried, the mask would not come off. He was starting to panic. I could see it in the wild of his eyes. I kept telling him it would be fine, that we would call for help.

We got a hose and sprayed water around his face. The mask didn’t budge.

Three hours later, the fire department arrived to help cut the mask off his face; beard and all. Ouch!

He laughed when said he would wait and have another done after his death … or at least wait until he was clean shaven.

I’m curious to know your thoughts on a life mask. Would you consider having one done?

Think! Different!

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“Think left and think right and think low and think high. Oh, the thinks you can think up if only you try” – Dr. Seuss

As a kid I loved things that were different, out of the ordinary; unpredictable rhyme, unpredictable reason, things that flowed by chance, and anything that stirred my wild imagination.

I remember the day at the Tucson Public Library when I first discovered a book called “And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street.” Published in 1937, the story turned 77 this year. It’s about a boy who wants to impress his father with an interesting account of what happens on his way home from school. So instead of seeing the same boring old horse and wagon on Mulberry Street, the boy imagines a zebra pulling the wagon. Then as his imagination kicks in and runs wild, the zebra morphs into a reindeer, the wagon becomes a golden chariot, and then magically changes into a fancy sleigh.

From that day forward, the different rhythmic lines in Dr Seuss’ children’s books stirred my imagination again and again. I enjoyed making up songs and stories; but I had dyslexia and my language skills needed help. When I tried to speak, my words got all mixed up and people laughed at me. My dad nicknamed me ‘Dutch’ because it sounded like I was trying to speak a foreign language.

My mother worked long hours teaching me how to read and write by putting the letters and sounds together in word puzzle games. By the time I was in the fourth grade, I was reading, writing, and telling stories that others understood. I wrote a short story about my dog Brownie and his bad liver breath, and how I loved him in spite of his bad breath. The story won first place in a competition, giving me confidence to keep writing.

I recently received a fun note from a book reviewer, and it got me thinking about thinking … left and right, low and high. Rhonda, the reviewer wrote, “It was a different reading experience, but then I love different.”

I smiled at the thought. My writing style is different. It is unique.

Check out her review of “The Lullaby Illusion” on her unique blog site.

 

Happy in Uruguay!

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I am delighted to see photos of these smiling men and to know they have finally been freed from Guantanamo prison in Cuba. All were arrested following the 9/11 attacks of 2001. Although they were never charged with any crimes, they sat for years in black holes in Cuba.

Muchas gracias to Uruguayan President Jose Mujica who offered them freedom, education, and a home in Uruguay. He also demanded that they arrive in Uruguay free of shackles and take their first steps on Uruguayan soil as free men.

Bravo, Mujica!

Miami is Fun!

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The Miami International Book Fair 2014 was great fun! Even in the rain. Not only did I receive a gold medal, BEST Non-Fiction — Travel, for The Lullaby Illusion; I also met other authors and readers, and made several new friends at the Readers Favorite 2014 Awards ceremony in Miami on 22 Nov 2014.

Susan Joyce receives a Gold medal for The Lullaby Illusion.

Susan Joyce receives a Gold medal for The Lullaby Illusion.

My husband, Doug DuBosque, traveled with me. We normally explore new cities aboard a sightseeing tour bus but with no time to spare we instead examined the cosmopolitan city loop by Tri-Rail and rode the Metro to and from our hotel. Riding high above the city streets, we saw iconic buildings and monuments. Quite impressive!

We enjoyed two delightful days visiting with Doug’s sister and her daughter (Joanne and Amanda). From their hotel room, we had an awesome view of the river and bay. Through fits of laughter, we ordered an Uber to take us to South Beach for lunch. This cool new concept of a ride sharing service in a private car was nice to experience.

As we strolled alongside the palm trees and beach, we saw the whackiest and best characters that South Beach has to offer and a variety of colored buildings; reflecting the rich history of American, European, and Caribbean influences.
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Awaiting our bus back to the hotel, we took a selfie of the four of us in the pouring rain to remind that Miami is fun; rain or shine.

4Ds

Touch the Sky

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Swinging is pure joy! As a kid, I loved to swing. If I saw a swing, I’d run for it, sit on it, kick off with my feet, and get the momentum going until I knew I was touching the sky. The higher I’d go, the better it felt. Swinging higher, I could feel the breeze pat my face and the wind whip my long braids about as I soared skyward. I would try to swing so high that I would fly over the top. Never did; but I loved that exhilarating feeling of taking off, leaving the ground behind, and flying high. Swinging while standing up was a whole other over the rainbow, flying high adventure. That’s when I would burst into song, singing my favorite, “Would you like to swing on a star?” Felt like I was doing just that. Whee! Pure glee!

To this day, I can’t resist having a good swing to relax and loose myself to that feeling of joy–letting go of everything that holds me back. Unfortunately, the old swing set (shown above) had a broken seat so I wasn’t able to swing on it when we visited our friend Jerry on his farm for a typical Uruguan asado last weekend. So I sat on a chair nearby instead and imagined swinging to my heart’s content. I swung so high, I touched the sky.

Over the years, I’ve been interviewed about my writing, my books, and life in general. A couple of my favorite questions remind me of why I like to swing and imagine.

Who were you as a child? (Were you the shy, demure child, or did you always have that adventurous spirit)?

Shy? Never. More of a tomboy type. Always adventurous, I had a wild imagination. I was the second child born into a family of eight children. My father became a Pentecostal preacher months after I was born (was I to blame?) and my family moved from Los Angeles, California to Oklahoma, Texas, Colorado, and then to Arizona.

Most of my childhood was spent in Tucson, Arizona. I used to sit out on a hot rock in the desert with my dog and wait for the space ship to pick us up. I was convinced they had left me with the wrong family.

If you were an animal in a zoo, what would you be and why?

An orangutan. They’re gentle and quiet, and swing when they get bored. It would be a good way to study people and observe their strange behaviors.

If you were an animal in a zoo, what would you be and why?

Bookcases Speak Volumes …

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Centuries ago, books were written by hand on parchment paper. The earliest literary works (preserved in a manuscript tradition) date from the early Iron Age. Ancient writings were kept in small boxes which owners of the works often carried with them.

As volumes accumulated in homes and places of work, the flat books were stacked, back side down, on shelves in cabinets. In large libraries, doors were often installed to protect the fragile, original manuscript.

With the invention of the printing press, more and more people could afford to own copies of printed books and the modern bookcase idea evolved. Bookcase doors were discarded, books were printed with the title of the book on a spine. The spine made it easy for the book to sit upright and allowed the reader to view a particular book title from the shelf before removing it.

Modern bookcases are now used to store books in an orderly fashion, or not. My husband and I once visited a new-age bookstore on the Oregon coast where he recommended they find a better way to organize their books. He then suggested placing them on shelves by the color of the book cover since “new agers” were looking for answers without knowing the question first. The owner wasn’t keen on that suggestion. I remember thinking the “color system” wouldn’t work well for color blind readers. But it was fun to imagine an all green section without any books about money or gardening. Years later, I read about an independent bookstore in San Francisco where a local artist arranged every single one of the 20,000 books by color. Readers loved it. Makes perfect sense to me.

As you can see from my photo, our living room bookcase holds books plus a few little extras things. My favorite cookbooks sit together on the top shelf, to the left. Our language and travel books occupy the bottom shelf. Literary works fill the spaces in between. There’s no rhyme or reason, but there is a good explanation for the extras. Rescue Remedy? It’s in a convenient location when I need to calm an over-excited dog on his way to the groomer. Mosquito repellent? Yes, the bookcase is just inside our front entrance and is easy to grab and spray before taking a walk during mosquito season. A nail file? Easier to find than in my purse. A bookmark? Always handy to have near a bookshelf.

Can you spot a slim black book-looking device, without writing on the spine? I store another entire bookshelf filled with dozens of books on this unit. I’m curious to know what treasures your bookshelf holds. How do you organize your books? Do you keep non-book items there?