Midnight in your imagination

Admit it. Don’t you wish you could escape reality, just for a moment?

I have. This weekend I faced returning to school, cleaning out my parents’ house, reorganizing my house, and making some other important decisions.

I felt as if my brain were spinning like a cage on one of the old Zipper rides at the carnival.

So I escaped…vicariously, of course, through a romantic comedy, my all-time favorite genre of movies.

I blame my movie adventure on one of my newspaper editors. We were planning the February issue of The Edge and found ourselves making a list of our top romantic movies. We both agreed on Leap Year, and I was determined to watch it this past weekend.

The luck of the Irish was not shining on me though. I couldn’t find Leap Year on any of my movie channels. But I serendipitously discovered another movie called Midnight in Paris that could possibly rank second in my all-time favorite movie list, falling close behind my top choice Serendipity, of course, and giving Leap Year a tight battle for the number two slot.

Midnight in Paris may be the most romantic movie I’ve ever seen. It’s as if someone tore a page out of my journal, tweaked a few details, and turned my thoughts into a motion picture.

Owen Wilson takes the lead role of Gil, a hopeless romantic writer, who pays the bills by turning out lucrative Hollywood screen plays. But he wants to write a novel. He’s written a manuscript, but he has shown it to no one, primarily because his finance Inez (Rachel McAdams) belittles him and doesn’t support his dream.

He wants to move to Paris and walk in the rain and reminisce about the past. Inez finds herself attracted to a pompous know-it-all pseudo expert in everything from wine tasting to art. As Gil grows closer to his dream city, he moves further away from Inez. Their ideas of romance don’t mesh. His imagination fuels his passion. She can’t see beyond dollar signs and prestige.

When Gil takes a midnight walk, his life changes forever. A strange car pulls up beside him, and the driver offers him a ride. He finds himself transported magically back to the Golden Age of the 1920s, where he meets a host of creative artists who re-ignite his own passion—F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Picasso, Dali, Gertrude Stein, Cole Porter, to name a few.

Gil must decide whether to live in the past, to stick with the status quo, or to change his present.

Admit it. If you had the chance, wouldn’t it be great to step back in time to meet the artists who fuel your passion for literature, music, or art? Wouldn’t it be great if that one moment breathed new life into your dreams?

I actually had the chance to do that once, well, kind of. I took a creative nonfiction class for my master’s degree in journalism education through the University of Missouri, and my professor asked us to incorporate all five of our senses as we wrote a piece about a specific place. Back then I hadn’t started my novel, and I was still doing quite a few celebrity interviews. My favorite band was the Eagles, and my chance of interviewing one of the original members was approximately one in a million. But what if I did interview one of them? Where would we meet? What would I say?

I threw caution to the wind and imagined myself in The Troubadour on Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood. Why? Because that’s where members of the Eagles band used to hang out when they first got their start in the music business.

I didn’t have the money to fly to California, and I certainly couldn’t go back in time. But that’s what I what I wanted to write about, and somehow I needed to get there. I researched the place and its surroundings, including the Italian restaurant next door, and somehow I found myself sitting next to Glenn Frey and Don Henley in The Troubadour, watching Steve Martin on stage, and drooling over the aroma of pasta dishes wafting in from next door.

It was one the best experiences in my life that never really happened, and I remember every little detail, despite none of them being true. That’s why I find it so ironic that a few years later Eagle guitarist Joe Walsh did call me, and we did have a real one-on-one conversation. This little incident just reaffirms my belief that ANYTHING can happen. Dreams do come true.

So if you had a chance to step back in time to meet someone who inspired you? Who would you meet? Where would you go? To what era would you travel?

I’ve occasionally written about creative escapes in my blogs. I’ve spent quite a few weekends in Franklin, perusing the Henpeck Market and eating at McCreary’s. As often as I can, I go to Memphis and hang out in Handy Park and the Memphis Music store.

But when I can’t travel very far away, I find myself in one of the quaint railroad towns like Normandy, Wartrace, or Bell Buckle—Bell Buckle, especially. There’s just something magical about that little town.

I have several readers from all across the nation. If you ever find yourself traveling down Interstate 24 toward Chattanooga, Tennessee, you MUST take a short detour to Bell Buckle. I’ve never had the pleasure of staying in one of the several bed and breakfast homes, but, hey, what a GREAT place for a writer’s retreat. Someone needs to organize it. It might just have to be me.

There’s one particular antique store in Bell Buckle that takes me back to the 30s and 40s every time I walk in. I can’t explain it, but I can feel it. I also like visiting the ice cream shop.

Now that I’m committed to a diet, I probably won’t see another ice cream soda until this spring, but every time I step foot in this parlor I feel as though I’m ready to order a strawberry phosphate or an ice cream soda with Emily and George from Our Town.

To me, Bell Buckle is enchanted. Of course, I’m a tourist, not a local. But you can find me there almost every week, strolling through the town, visiting the boutiques, or simply going for a ride through the country side. It is my escape.

So far I haven’t “met” any of my favorite writers in Bell Buckle although I wouldn’t be surprised in Edgar Allan Poe were to show up. I imagine he and I might speculate about the Victorian houses that appear to be haunted and the graveyard that sits in the middle of town.

Do you need an escape as badly as I do? Where would you go? Who would you meet? Why? When? Give me all the five w’s and throw in the h.

I really want to know.

Dream on

Note: If my children read this, I will be in some serious trouble. But as they say, forgiveness is easier to get than permission.

Last night I treated my sons to a delicious meal at the Hong Kong Buffet. When the waitress brought us the ticket and our fortune cookies, Josh grabbed one and looked at me in horror.

“I’m sorry, Mom. I didn’t open it. I’ll put it back.” And he pulled his hands away. It was too late. He had already touched it.

See, we have this “thing” in my family. I ALWAYS get to pick the first cookie. I choose my fortune. Michael ALWAYS gets the last cookie. His fortune chooses him. Whoever’s left gets what’s in the middle.

But since Josh had already touched it, I told him to take it. I chose another one, and Michael’s cookie chose him.

Michael’s cookie said he needed some relaxation time. My cookie told me to pursue my long-term goal, and Josh’s cookie predicted mystery and romance.

“Hey, these cookies went to the wrong people. I think Michael needs the mystery romance cookie.”

Michael balked at Josh’s words. He’s is in that “in-between world” of not knowing whether he should run to or from girls.

I don’t want you to get the wrong idea. We don’t put much stock into these “fortunes,” but we have a lot of fun with them—Michael, usually more than others. He likes to add the words “in the bathroom” to everyone’s fortune.

Try it. It’s fun—even though it’s obnoxiously juvenile. I always scold him when he says it at the restaurant, but on the inside I’m laughing.

I told Josh I believed his cookie was meant for him because the word romance didn’t necessarily mean “huggy, huggy, kissy, kissy.” And both of us proceeded to explain to Michael that romance also referred to adventure in a King Arthur kind of way.

I like to think both of my children are adventurous and romantic. When they were little, they became so caught up in their imaginations I had a hard time pulling them back to reality.

For eight years Josh was an only child, so he invented imaginary brothers and a sister—Kinder, Mark, and Folla. They road atop our van along with his imaginary uncle from England.

Josh went through a Batman phase. Even when it wasn’t Halloween, he used to dress like the superhero. I remember taking him into a Shoney’s in Knoxville. He signed autographs for the waiters and waitresses—as THE Batman.

He also created his own detective agency and made me print business cards for him.

Michael, on the other hand, has always been creative but in a different way. He’s always had Josh, so he didn’t need imaginary siblings. I could buy him expensive gifts at holidays, but there has always been one gift that enthralls him—pencil erasers, as long as they come in two colors so that he can create intricate battles between opposing teams or armies.

Isn’t that weird?

Michael also wants a golf cart more than anything else in the world. Who knows what he plans to do with it. For years he has pleaded with me. When Old Stone Fort shut down its golf course, Michael begged to go there so he could ask a park ranger for one of the golf carts.

Not going to happen.

Sometimes I wish I could go back to the days of my childhood. As only child, I spend nearly all of my waking moments in another world. It was okay back then. When you’re a kid, you can imagine all you want, and nobody thinks you’re weird.

I loved horses, so my mother’s brooms became my mighty steeds. My golden banana seat bike transformed into a palomino. I spent weekends at my grandparents’ hiding in the bathroom with my cousin Robin, my partner in crime, and we spent hours mixing Jergan’s lotion, Comet cleanser and other cleaning supplies into magical potions. Were we scientists or actresses in commercials? I don’t remember. We just had fun.

Sometimes I find myself drifting off into my imaginary world again, even as adult. When Josh read his fortune at the Hong Kong Buffet, I found myself drifting off again. I had a plan.

Josh is a journalism major and sometimes falls into media opportunities. There is a possibility he might work a major awards show in the near future. A possibility.

Sometimes these workers drive the celebrities to their appointments. If I recall correctly, one Steven Tyler showed up at last year’s event. Who’s to say he won’t come back this year?

So here’s the plan, man:

Josh finds a way to grab golf cart duty. He looks for Steven Tyler. He drives Steven Tyler in the golf cart, but he doesn’t stop at the awards show. He brings him to our house. (I don’t know what we’ll do with him once we get him—I don’t want to keep him. I just want to borrow him for autograph or a picture. Maybe a song.)

Mission accomplished.

If the plan works out, not only will I get to meet Steven Tyler, but Michael will get his golf cart. Josh will probably go to jail, but hey…he’s the one who grabbed the first cookie.

And it’s MY imagination.

Oh well. I guess I can just “dream on.”

Cinderella always gets the diamond

Cinderella always gets the diamond.

Monday we traveled to Memphis so that I could gather background information for what I hope will be the second of a series of books about teenage traceur and journalist TJ Westbrook. This time TJ is on a mission to resolve the mystery behind a gang-related drive-by shooting that resulted in the death of his childhood friend Tyreese.

My trip itinerary was simple. Go to Beale. Eat ribs. Listen to music. Walk wherever TJ might walk. Meet people. Talk to people. Gather details, lots of details.

And I did all that, but a serendipitous meeting with a colorful carriage driver opened a portal to a world of story I never knew existed.

I have a pretty wild imagination, so I’m always thinking what-if. But when I met this guy, my thought process went beyond, way beyond, what-if. Talking to him was almost like talking to a ghost. The experience was surreal.

I have been to Beale many, many times, and I’ve admired the carriages on numerous occasions, and I have ridden them more than once. But I had never seen a carriage decorated like this one. It was the gaudiest and the most beautiful carriage on all of Beale.

Picture lights and decorations from a Mardis Gras float. From the moment I stepped up and took my place on the velvet seat, the driver spun one yarn after another, taking me back to another time, leaving it up to me to discern truth from fiction.

I chose to believe it all.

Angels rested atop of the carriage. According to the oh-so-charming David, our driver, they dated back to World War II. They belonged to a relative, perhaps one of his grandparents. According to his story, when the Germans invaded Orleans, France, his kinfolk hid away in a church, taking with them a few of their belongings, including these whimsical angels decorating his carriage.

The war was hell upon the surrounding area and destroyed everything and everyone in its path, except the church and its inhabitants. His family hid there for days until the German soldiers found them and threatened to make examples of them.

But when a ray of sunshine shone through a hole in one of the broken stained-glass windows, it beat down upon the breast of the angel, creating a glimmer that caught the attention of one of the German leaders. He was so moved by the experience that he ordered his men to leave. The story and the angel decorations survived and rode with me today.

David told us one story after another. It was dark, and I couldn’t see to write in my little black notebook, but his tales mesmerized me. I was fixated on his every word. I only wish I had my digital voice recorder.

He took us to a little park and stopped by a fountain he described as the most beautiful thing in all of Memphis. It was a statue of Hebe, the mythical Greek goddess of youth, given to Memphis as a gift from France, as a symbol of hope and healing after the city suffered a a horrific yellow-fever outbreak.

He launched into another story, and then stopped. He turned around and looked at me and explained that his “Mardis Gras” carriage was good for only a few rides and that he had to work at keeping the pieces glued on.

David then held out his hand and presented to me what looked like an old, old piece of costume jewelry in the shape of a large jewel.

“When the angel cries, Cinderella always gets the diamond.”

It was a gift, totally unexpected, with a meaning I do not understand, but it was a gift that launched a thousand ideas that will find their way into my current WIP or the next.

Priceless.

The evening didn’t start out so great, but it was coming to a magical close.

For starters, earlier that night the police pulled us over and gave us a ticket the moment we arrived in town. We were driving on expired tags. We’re both teachers. We both work from sun up to sun down, and we both just forgot to make time to pick the new sticker. It was an honest mistake.

I have to take some of the blame for the second time we were pulled over that night—again for the expired tags. But this time we had just left a place called Voodoo Village, quite possibly the scariest place I’ve ever been in my life.

It was my idea to go there so late at night—stupid me, stupid idea.

Prior to our trip I did a little Internet research about “interesting” places around Memphis, places that TJ might travel as he searches for the person who killed his friend, and I talked Kenny into checking it out. (That’s kind of my MO, sad, but true.) Tonight’s rendezvous reminded me of Adam and Eve all over again—Eve tempting Adam to take a bite out of the a forbidden fruit, to go to a forbidden place. I learned my lesson.

So when the policeman pulled us over in the pitch black night, Kenny didn’t want to lie.

“Sir, why are you in Memphis? Who are you here to visit?”

But Kenny couldn’t tell him the whole truth. I was wearing black and carrying a little black book. By all appearances I could have been a Caucasian voodoo priestess. Just imagine how this answer might have sounded.

“Mr. Police Officer, we just left the Voodoo Village.”

Just how quickly do you think we would have been seated in the back of the officer’s patrol car? So Kenny went with the next best answer.

“Officer, I came to eat ribs.”

 The officer stared at him for a bit, fired a few more questions at him, eyeballed the ticket and then allowed us to pass with a salutation.

“Welcome to Memphis.”

We asked our carriage driver about Voodoo Village, but he was hesitant to answer. He suggested the place was originally occupied by gypsies, not voodoo priests, who hung shrunken heads on the gates and the limbs of animals from the trees to scare away intruders.

Internet accounts offered other explanations. The place is everything as described, but out of respect for other people who live in the neighborhood, I’ll offer no further details. Everyone deserves privacy. (I do not recommend anyone trying to find this place. It’s in a secluded area where intruders could disappear without warning.)

NO TRESPASSING

For all I know my carriage driver could have been a gypsy himself—if he were real at all. (Note the imagination kicking in here.)

All I know is handed me a treasure.

Don’t you just love a good story?

Please leave a comment if you have a good story about a serendipitous meeting! I would really like to hear your story. I have been trying to contact this carriage driver. If you happen to know how to get in touch with him, please contact me. God bless.

Time for romance and autumn reads

Wednesday is the big day. Fall arrives.

Ever since I was a little girl, autumn has been my favorite time of year. I think it’s because I am a romantic. When we discuss romance in my English classes, my male students squirm in their seats. But then when I explain what real romance is all about–from a literary standpoint anyway, my guys fess up to being romantics themselves. True romantics lean toward the idealized, the heroic, the adventurous.

I like autumn because I can feel the adventure in the air. There’s a random sprinkling of sinister deeds and mischievious pranks that keeps me looking around corners for what I’m not sure is really there.

The onset of twilight, the unexpected chill, a darting shadow and the glow of a blood-red moon create the perfect ambiance for a spooky tale around a campfire under the stars.

Autumn to me means cozy. Just mention of the season conjures up images of a fire, a blanket and a good book. Speaking of which, I have a whole list that I’ll share with you later–my Autumn Must-Read List! What’s really exciting is that I met several of these authors at ACFW! I bought their books! Now let’s read.

Autumn is a time just waiting for escape. I plan to start writing again. I have two books in mind. One, I’ve already started. It’s a stand-alone romance with a baseball theme. The other is a continuation of the TJ Westbrook series. That’s the one I can’t wait to develop. I’ll be heading back to Memphis. Nothing like a good road trip.

And speaking of road trips, it’s just about time for a retreat to the mountains of East Tennessee. Give me nature’s palette of color, a hide-away cabin, a hot tub, pumpkin spice candles and a book from my must-read list, and I’m all set.

The arrival of autumn also signals the arrival of the Southern Festival of Books. Mark your calendar for October 8-10. You can find a full schedule on the Humanities Tennessee Website:  http://www.humanitiestennessee.org/festival/index.php

I obviously can’t list them all here, but here’s a taste of whom you’ll see if you make it to Nashville. Again, you’ll find a full list on the website:

Rick Bragg — Pulitzer Prize winner for Feature Writing; author of All Over but the Shoutin’, Ava’s Man, The Prince of Frogtown and other best-selling books and memoirs

Susan Gregg Gilmore — Author of the novel Looking for Salvation at the Dairy Queen and others

J. M. Hochstetler — Author of the American Patriot Series as well as publisher and editorial director of Sheaf House Publishers

Sharyn McCrumb — Award-winning author of numerous bestselling novels including The Songcatcher and She Walks These Hills

Ramona Richards — Award-winning editor, speaker and author of Steeple Hill novels

Jen Stephens — Author of The Heart’s Journey Home

Share your thoughts. What does autumn mean to you? What book tops your list of Autumn Must Reads? Let’s celebrate this season of harvest, a time when God’s fingerprints and brilliance of design are all over his creation.