Embrace your Aha Moment

Have you had an “Aha” moment? Oprah talks about them all the time. A moment in time – or an experience – when insight or realization hits. It might be about a career or a relationship, but if you are really lucky it’s a moment of self-realization.

Learning something about yourself that changes your path may take strength of character. Often these moments of clarity lead to change – and people fear change. I have friends who have had aha moments about religion, sexual identity, gender identity, adoption – even keeping a vegan lifestyle. And a true AHA moment will give you the courage to maintain that sense of self even in the face of adversity.

I enjoy stories and shows with coming-of-age aha moments, when youngsters or tweenagers realize what they stand for and why. There’s a show at the “Straz Center” in Tampa, Florida, this week that I have been waiting to see called “Fun Home.” It the first Broadway musical with a lesbian protagonist – Alison Bechdel.

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Alison Bechdel is a real person. She is a cartoonist who had popular graphic novels and comics in the mid-80s and early 90s. In 2006, she published a graphic memoir of her life called “Fun Home”, which was subsequently adapted as a musical and won a Tony Award for Best Musical (among others) in 2015.

I first learned of Alison Bechdel when some college friends were talking about the Bechdel-Wallace Test. This tongue-in-cheek “test” analyzes portrayal of females in film and other popular media. A movie passes the Bechdel test if it has at least two female characters in it who both have names and who carry on a conversation about something other than a man.

I have been following the musical about her life, “Fun Home,” since its inception and I am thrilled that since its Broadway run has ended it will now be right next door to me in Tampa. I know too much already about the show and music, and I don’t want to spoil it for anyone, but it deals with a lot of sensitive family situations – some of which will make me cry a lot from my seat in the audience – and which have also been a part of my family’s recent narrative.

I’m curious to see how the show will be readapted for the Straz Center’s gorgeous stage, because it was performed in the round in NYC. I’m also excited to see the 3 Alisons – three different actresses portray Alison Bechdel at different ages during the show.

If you want a bit of a spoiler, here is an Alison Aha Moment; Small Alison performing Ring of Keys at the 2015 Tony Awards.

For you teenage thespian geeks, check out the “Teens Take Broadway” feature on Thurs., Nov. 30 and receive a deeply discounted ticket plus a free pre-show event with live entertainment, games, raffles, refreshments and a free post-show talk-back with the cast.

Fun Home runs at the Straz Nov 28 – Dec 3, 2017Regular seats start at $31. I hope you go and your sense of self grows, or your sense of the world grows. I hope it helps you sift through your own clutter and find clarity. And I hope tomorrow night when I see it, I do the same.

I was asked to post about Fun Home in exchange for 2 free tickets due to my relationship with the Tampa Bay Bloggers.

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Fantastic Ekphrastic – Art in St Pete

Last night I attended the last of four showings of Fantastic Ekphrastic, which ran February 19 and 20, 2016, at 5:30pm and 8pm. All proceeds from the event benefitted Keep St. Pete Lit.

(That’s Lit as in literature, not lit as in joints…)12734279_110751565923346004476956133_n

When I got invited to attend the event, I did 2 things before RSVPing. First I looked up the definition of Ekphrastic: a literary description of or a commentary on a visual work of art… Then I looked up a description of the event so I knew what I was getting myself into. I had heard of it when it was up for a Best of the Bay art event award, and knew it had sold out last year and was BELOVED – But I did not know what it WAS.

  • Audiences walk into a space with 16 visual artists’ pieces set up around the perimeter and chairs in the center.
  • Each art piece is interpreted by a local writer who has just seen the artwork for the first time and is compelled to write an accompanying piece – poem, play, short story, etc.
  • These writings are then presented in dramatic readings by captivating local performers.

Brian and I decided we hadn’t had an artsy night out for a while, so put our names down for the final show – Saturday night at 8pm. We started with dinner at Red Mesa Cantina (duck taco, empanada and grilled chicken quesadilla shared), dessert at Swah-Rey, and then headed to Soft Water Studios for Fantastic Ekphrastic. I was already enjoying looking at art just walking to our car and down the street to these local hangouts!

IMG_5916IMG_5920Although guests certainly arrived after us, I probably would have liked to have been there about 15 minutes earlier to view the art up close a bit longer before the readings began. (Which basically means we should have split one of the massive pieces of cake at Swah-Rey instead of ordering one for each of us. Brian’s tummy regretted that later. And to continue this aside, they do offer $1 tasters of the cake in mini-cupcake form and two of those are probably what I could have ordered for myself, but I had been avoiding artificial sugar for a while and wanted to treat myself to a real piece of cake.)

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We peeked at the art, then we took our seats and the real fun began. Pre-written pieces about the art were read aloud by local performers. Everyone also had a ballot, and we were asked to vote on our favorite collaboration.

12747439_10153362180849109_444692525208414989_o“I am in awe of the creative collaboration that makes St. Pete such a wonderful city,” said my friend Maureen McDole in her open remarks. The event is her brainchild. In the past it has been referred to as “a literary moshpit of creativity.”

One thing that was particularly interesting to me was that my favorite painting in the room did not get my vote because it was not my favorite collaboration. It was this painting of the moon:

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It’s “First Moon” by Carol Mickett and Robert Stackhouse. The writer of the corresponding piece was Matt Jackson. A bit from his piece that I jotted down was, “I tell it of its greatness, but it has no such thoughts of itself.”

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The striking image above, and on all of this year’s marketing for the event, is Saori Murphy’s “Identifiability,” one of the pieces featured in the show. Glòria Muñoz wrote about this piece, and a quote I scribbled down was, “We’re all on the verge of inventing something, aren’t we?”

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Artist Carrie Jadus wrote about her piece above, Doppelganger, (which she also photographed), “This painting is about my own worst enemy. One whom I have (hopefully) engaged in a friendly battle with this time. A beautiful ekphrastic piece was written about this by St Petersburg’s Literary Muse, Maureen McDole.” The quote I scribbled down from her piece was, “Nothing but light.”

12418924_10153362181394109_8200291652924444413_oBrian voted for Bikini Atoll Bombshell: Lance Rodgers, artist / Becca McCoy, actor (pictured) / Sheila Cowley, playwright. My little quip from this was, “I made $250 last week.” She was referencing the military men being so bored they were betting on lizards catching moths. It was the People’s Choice winner of best creative collaboration for the event.

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This piece got my ballot. The painting is “Daddy Wouldn’t Let Me Dance” by Judy Dazzio. The piece read was written by David Warner and performed by 4 people: Eugenie Bondurant, Paul Wilborn, Kylin Brady and Peyton Jones. Kylin Brady performed a few of the pieces throughout the evening, and I just adored her. She had a great presence and incorporated so many senses into her acting, actually moving me to tears. Poking through her Facebook later I see she’s actually a dancer and has tons of funky style. WCW for days…

Another piece she read was written by Sheree Greer and accompanied the painting “Beautiful” by Carolina Cleere (below.)

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That piece played off the premise of “The Best Advice We’d Give Our Younger Selves — In 3 Words.” The girl in the painting would go to yard sales and find ‘treasures’. Among them were a silver mirror with pearl-like handle and a blue-eyed, yellow haired, one-armed doll that smelled like strawberries. What would she tell her younger self? Fuck that doll… no, use the mirror. No. You are beautiful.

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This piece is “Sall & Son” by Cora Marshall. John Pendygraft wrote about it, and nailed the description of the mothers expression, calling her “tired, steadfast, worried, resolute, uncertain and determined.” I see all of that!

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This is “Unfamiliar Landscape” by Sharon Norwood. R. MonaLeza, famous locally for her open mic poetry, wrote of an African-American little girl starting a new, mostly-white school and getting bullied. The note I wrote down does not hold the emotion of the piece, but I liked the alliteration of it. She described the boys on the slide during recess as “shimmying down the shiny metal chute.” Say it out loud. Doesn’t that sound pretty?

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And the quote that I think wrapped up the whole night the best accompanied the piece of art I admired the least. “Miracle Down the Way,” a diptych by Carol Dameron, had a piece written about it by Barbara Riddle. I wrote down the emphatic,

“We live in the lives of others who have seen our work.”

Which is kind of the whole point of having actors read from writers written from visual art. B-I-N-G-O!

Brian and I are on the left

Brian and I are on the left

12771877_10153362180034109_934410147000006888_o 12771622_10153362181364109_6661142112674993412_o 12742638_10153892254362567_7879345507635605342_n 12734279_1107515659260225_3743346004476956133_n The artwork and writing from Fantastic Ekphrastic will be on display at Soft Water Studios until Sunday, March 13th, so you can drop by and check it out!

The event was Directed by Bob Devin Jones with Music and Sound by Matt Cowley. Sponsors included: Beth Morean, Soft Water Studios, Russell Property Group, Sylvia Rusche Insurance Agency, Inc, Creative Loafing Tampa, photoxo, Fisher & Sauls PA, Keep Saint Petersburg Local, The Studio@620, Kathleen McDole, The Hubbard Family, Doyle Wealth Management, The Amsterdam, and Many Happy Return$, Inc.

Keep St. Pete Lit has programs throughout St. Pete including free LitSpace writing classes at Morean Art Center for adults, the curated used book store called Bookspace inside Bloom Art Center and the LitSpace Writer’s Residency at Craftsman House Gallery. They also deliver books to children through the Bluebird Book Bus and host an adult book club at the MFA.

*Disclaimer: I didn’t take any of these photos. I stole them from Facebook. I have no intentions of discrediting someone’s work, rather I hoped to give my readers a sense of the evening the best way possible. Also, my tickets to the event were free because of friends involved with the show, but all opinions are my own and I was not asked to write this post.

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Take a Stab at a Romance Novel with Romance Writing Bingo

Need a New Girls-night-in idea? 

There are very few things in this world that are as dangerous as becoming complacent – settling into a lifestyle that no longer challenges us, that sees us shuffling from one day to the next with no opportunities for growth. Whether it’s because we’re afraid of trying new things, or just don’t know where to start, we seldom challenge ourselves and leave some of our dreams to “What if”s.” But “What if” you actually went out there and tried to do something you never thought you could? Have you ever found yourself wishing you could just write a book, thinking that you might actually be good at it? With self-publishing at an all-time high, this just might be your chance, and a game of Romance Writing Bingo could help you get started.

young-791849_640Every writer has his or her own forte, whether that is creative or technical writing, but coming up with a romantic storyline is a whole different ball game. A number of today’s bestselling romance authors have undergone rejection after rejection, and those experiences probably pushed them to be better writers. I even have a friend who has worked for years on a young adult novel, and somehow managed to used times she struggled with cleaning up the plot to have a romance novel published. So if you learn from your mistakes, and follow Roger “Gill” Sanderson’s tips on getting published, you too can be as successful as E.L. James and other big names in the genre today. To give you that boost you need, here’s how to play Romance Writing Bingo.

Bingo is probably the least sexiest way to inspire that fiery passion inside (it makes me think of great-Grandma playing for quarters at the kitchen table with my kids…), but many have made their attempts to appeal to people’s softer, more romantic side without being overly cheesy with bingo (including eHarmony, which created a set of free rom-com movie bingo cards as props for a fun and flirty evening). Even gaming portal Gala Bingo released its own love-themed titles, like Dr. Lovemore, that provided additional bonuses available to its users on Valentine’s Day. Bingo is also often used in classrooms for writing prompts, so there’s really no reason why you can’t use the lottery-style game as a way to brainstorm your first penned love story.

medium_romance_bingoAlthough some people don’t really like to generalize the facets of the genre, you’ll see that there are several stereotypes that manifest in plenty of today’s novels (except maybe for Alice Clayton’s Screwdrivered, which is more of a comedy rather than a tale of an all-consuming forbidden love). Some examples of common repeated themes in the category are “marriage of convenience” or “mistaken identity,” which can be found on Book Riot’s Romance Bingo card.

The game’s more fun when you play with others, so if you’ve got a group of friends who would like to experiment with a little romance writing, you can also make more cards using the same ideas and some of your own. Decide on a deadline, and then play the game so that each of you has completely different plots to start with. Then it’s just a matter of sitting down and making time to write, slowly refining your craft and getting comfortable with seeing your words on paper. Sure, you may find yourself embarrassed, and the first draft probably won’t be as great as you’d hoped, but as Louis E. Boone said, “Don’t fear failure so much that you refuse to try new things. The saddest summary of a life contains three descriptions: could have, might have, and should have.” Just have fun with it!

 

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Meeting Author Ashley Rhodes-Courter

booksAshley Rhodes-Courter is the author of two books on the New York Times bestseller list, “Three Little Words” and “Three More Words”. The books tell the story of her childhood in Tampa’s foster care system, her ultimate adoption, and her efforts to make peace with her past. Ashley was invited to speak at Shorecrest Preparatory School, where my DD2 is a senior, about child welfare issues and court appointed child advocates.

“No kid should have to spend ten years in foster care,” a video clip of a teenage Ashley Rhodes-Courter proclaimed to an audience in the Janet Root Theatre at Shorecrest Preparatory School on November 30, 2015.

Why would a school bring in a speaker to talk about foster care issues? Two reasons…

  1. For over 25 years, Shorecrest has sponsored a holiday gift drive for children in the foster care system. Most recently, the children have been part of the Guardian ad Litem program. This is a system of volunteers who represent children in court – in some states they are called “CASAs” Court Appointed Special Advocate. Basically, when a ruling is made on the case of a child in foster care, everyone in the room has their own agenda, but no one is hired to speak for the child. These volunteers see the child regularly, be sure their needs are being met, listen to them talk about where they are living, how school is going, etc. and then stand up for them in court. This year, Shorecrest will gather gifts for about 220 children, and for some of these kids it will be the only gifts they get all year. In addition to making wish lists before the season, these kids also send thank you notes that always bring tears to my eyes. Sometimes they ask for diapers for their baby sibling instead of toys for themselves. Some kids want a dream gift, like a new bike or video gaming system. Some want basic necessities, like gloves and socks. (The girl we’re shopping for this year wanted a baby doll and roller skates.)
  2. Another reason Ashley Rhodes-Courter came to Shorecrest has to do with their new Guardian ad Litem club started by two high schoolers. Some of the parents at school volunteer with Guardian ad Litem, and students hearing about the program during the gift drive and from the parents wanted to help the children beyond the two weeks of the gift drive. One of their first initiatives of the 2015-2016 school year was sitting down with Ashley to interview her (video here) – and later to ask her to host a discussion and book signing at school.

Her first book is linked with Reese Witherspoon in movie talks… which has been going on for a couple years. That, coupled with Ashley’s busy national speaking circuit schedule, made us a lucky group to hear her story first hand for about an hour, teamed with a question/answer session, book signing, and Guardian ad Litem reps available to answer questions or sign up new volunteers.

Many people in the audience of over 300 were somehow involved in child welfare – through work, volunteering, or their personal experiences. One of my friends who attended works as a high school guidance counselor for Pinellas County students in the foster care system. One is a Guardian ad Litem who has asked me to donate time and clothes to foster care teens in need who she knew. Many had already read Ashley’s book and had hot button questions waiting for her at the end of her talk.

ashleyrcraffiAshley was funny, down to earth, off the cuff and complemented my earrings (which I told her were just $3 on clearance at Charming Charlie). We spoke about being a mom and cat allergies. We talked about how much I love Shorecrest, and how it takes a village of caring people to raise kids the way we would hope to raise them. Now we follow each other on Instagram.

After years being shuffled from foster home to group home, Ashley was lucky enough to obtain a Guardian ad Litem (GAL). This one volunteer, Mary Miller, changed the course of Ashley’s life. “Mary Miller was the one person not paid to take care of me, yet she was the only one who believed me when I said I was being abused… and ultimately helped find me the adoptive family that transformed my life. That is the power of one person.” Mary remains a constant in Ashley’s life, and was present at her college graduation, wedding and baby shower. Ashley is both a foster and adoptive parent. Her boys are 1, 2 and 3 years old! Her husband was there too and seemed very sweet and quiet.

IMG_8462GALs do so much for children in the foster care system. They follow up on case plans, represent children in court, make sure they are safe and their needs are being met – and all because they have a little extra time and a big heart.

Guardian ad Litem Foundation’s executive director, Amy Foster, was also on hand to recruit volunteers and mentors. I’ve since poked around online and read more about her recent life. She’s a very inspiring woman! You may know her name as a City Council member in St Pete. Just last summer she adopted a girl who had recently graduated high school. This teen girl and adult woman are filling holes in each others’ lives. (If you need a heartwarming cry, check the story & video out here.) “Today there are more children in care than ever, and every one of us can make a difference in the life of a child, whether we do it with our time, talents or treasure.” Amy Foster told the group at Shorecrest. “Being a Guardian ad Litem volunteer… is really one of the most rewarding roles that I’ve ever served in.”

Find out how you can be a voice for a child here: http://www.guardianadlitem6.org/menus/become-a-guardian-ad-litem.html

or give back by strengthening families in need with the Foundation for Sustainable Families here

Watch clips from the special night at Shorecrest here:

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Amnesty

(This post assumes you know some background history about Nelson Mandela and South African apartheid. Nelson Mandela is remembered for his legacy in fighting apartheid and helping South Africa seek healing and forgiveness. A primer on Mandela is here and you can learn about apartheid in this quick video.)

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Meeting Christo Brand

When Nelson Mandela was imprisoned at Robben Island, Christo Brand was his prison guard. On November 17, Mr. Brand spoke at Shorecrest Preparatory School, where I work as web master. I was able to hear his stories for a few hours, watch as he autographed books and shook hands, and captured the day on camera.

Mr. Brand grew up in a rural area where he played alongside black children despite apartheid and the laws governing South Africa. His father taught him from a young age to treat all people equally, regardless of skin color – so he had a hard time understanding why black and white people had separate public toilets to use and parks in which to play.

After high school, Mr. Brand had required national service. A friend died in the military and relatives his age were incarcerated for trying to dodge their requirement, so Christo started training as a prison warden to fulfill his requirement. After about 4 years with dangerous criminals, Brand was told he would be moved to an area with the most miserable, threatening, life-imprisoned men. Here he found he was warden for men who led political uprising – but he was told they were national terrorists, the worst of the worst. (Among them were Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu.)

Brand was about 20 years old, Mandela was about 60 years old, and more often than not they spent time talking about their studies. Mandela found it important that everyone was furthering their education. He snuck letters off the island to lawyers and churches who might be able to help with furthering education of prisoners. It was even important to him that young Brand was finding ways to better himself. Brand shared the message of furthering education with the students at Shorecrest emphatically.

23161910262_713b8eb7fb_kBrand shared lots of other anecdotes. He said he once asked Mandela how his prison uniform always looked freshly pressed when his wife came to visit. Mandela said he would take his hot coffee mug each morning and use it to “iron” his extra uniform. Then he would lay it flat and sleep with it under the 2 mats he had on the floor of his cell. (They didn’t have beds or flush toilets.) It would take him 4 days of pressing one uniform while only wearing the other so he could look nice for his wife. If possible, he would put a daisy or some weed he found in his buttonhole on the days they met as well so she could see there was some color in his life.

Brand said at one point the prisoners were all working in a limestone quarry. The bright sunlight would bounce off the white stone and it was hard for him as a prison guard to watch the prisoners. In addition, the work to gather the stone created white dust that caused his eyes to get red and puffy. Brand asked for sunglasses after spending time with medics for eye irritation. He was told they were not part of his uniform. But he was up on a precipice above the prisoners, and can’t imagine how the men down in the dust did their work without choking to death or becoming blind. He said this sunlight bouncing off the rock walls was what caused Nelson Mandella to not want his photo taken with a flash.

He also retold one of his most noted stories, of sneaking Mandella’s grandchild in for a quick visit. Prisoners were not allowed to see anyone under the age of 16, and his family was off growing up without him. Christo Brand risked his job and his own life by helping someone who was his prisoner, and slowly becoming his friend.

When Mandela was President, he gave Brand a political career, and urged him to write a book about their time together. He even sent a ghostwriter to his house to help get the process started. The result is “Mandela: My Prisoner, My Friend“. Mandela even helped select cover photos for the books.

One of the hour-long lectures he gave to the high school students at Shorecrest was recorded. You can view these stories of amnesty and brotherhood yourself here. (It starts at the 8:30 mark.)

I was honored and thrilled to spend the morning with Mr. Brand, tailing him like paparazzi but also capturing his message for the families at Shorecrest and anyone else who would like to view the video.

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