I love reading blog posts by authors I enjoy. Here’s a fun one from Beth Haslam who lives and writes about her life in rural France. Author of the Fat Dogs and French Estates book series. Enjoy!
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?
While living in Frankfurt, Germany in the late 70s-80s, this glass head was my magic mirror, reflecting the world around me. It was purchased in late 1971 before my first husband and I set sail on a cruise from Venice, Italy to our new home in Cyprus.
We hopped on a water taxi near St. Mark’s Square for a short ride to Murano, an island in the Venetian Lagoon where glass has been made for more than 700 years. We followed small groups of tourists in and out of several large factory showrooms where glassblowing demonstrations were short, but fascinating to watch. Ambling down a side street, we came across a smaller art gallery. We entered and looked around, eyeing the colorful art on display. Within a few moments, a salesman joined us and asked if he could be of assistance. Seeing our casual attire (we were dressed in jeans and sweatshirts), he directed us to the “affordable” section of the shop where glass goblets, clown statuettes, and other glass trinkets were displayed.
“We’re actually looking for something unique. One of a kind,” I said.
He looked at our casual attire again, tapping his chin.
“An original piece of art,” I said.
“We do have original works,” he said, “but they’re quite expensive.”
“How expensive?” I asked.
“Very,” he answered. “They’re one of a kind done by glass masters.”
“That’s what we’re looking for. Something unique for our new home in Cyprus.”
He hesitated, then motioned us to follow him.
As we entered a large, dark back room, we saw glass sculptures sitting in rows on deep wooden shelves. He excused himself then switched on lights.
“Oh my,” I exclaimed, seeing the brilliance of glass on display flooded by light.
He nodded. “These are the finest works of glass art anywhere,” he announced, inviting us to look around.
“I love this one,” I said, walking toward a smokey black solid, glass head sitting atop a amber colored solid glass pedestal. “Is it for sale?”
“Yes,” he answered, lifting the heavy piece off the shelf and placing it carefully on a table near a window. He took a cloth from his pocket and wiped it clean.
“Wow!” I said, watching the African shaped glass head reflect its surroundings. Like a magic mirror the image changed each time I shifted my angle of view. “It’s exquisite!”
“It is, but quite expensive,” he said, knowing I really wanted it.
“How expensive?” I asked, eyebrows arched.
The salesman scribbled some figures on a a piece of paper and showed us the final figure.
I looked at my husband. He nodded.
“We’ll take it,” I said smiling.
“You will?” he asked, looking surprised.
“I’ll get it boxed for you,” he said leaving the display room.
While my husband signed numerous travellers checks to pay, I turned the head to reflect different angles and stroked the smooth surface of the glass.
The salesman returned a few moments later with a box and packing material. Before placing the head in the box, he showed us the artist’s signature on the bottom of the pedestal.
Siguoretto Pino, 8-8-71
“Wow!” I sighed, rubbing my fingertips over the signature.
“Would you like to meet the artist?” he asked, smiling.
“The artist is here? Now?”
“Yes, he’s working on a new piece.”
“We’d love to,” I said.
“Follow me,” he said, inviting us into the hot furnace room. A smiling young man walked toward us.
“Venetian maestro, Siguoretto Pino,” the salesman proclaimed.
“Your work is beautiful! It will have a special place in our new home in Cyprus.” I said, beaming.
He bowed. “Grazie! Buon divertimento!”
Waiting on a water taxi to take us back to Venice, I asked my husband to guess the age of the artist.
“He’s quite young,” he answered.
“Looks too young to be an Italian master glass artist,” I said.
Years later I learned that Siguoretto Pino was born in 1944 in a small town near Venice. In 1954, at age 10, he began working in a chandelier factory. In 1959 he apprenticed for the great master Alfredo Barbini and others, and in 1960, at age 16, he became a master Italian glassblower. In 1978 he opened his own studio in Murano. Today, Venetian maestro Pino Signoretto is recognized as one of the preeminent glass sculptors in the world, universally recognized for his mastery in sculpting glass while hot.
Following the Cyprus War in 1974, the glass head was removed from our home by a neighbor for safekeeping (the same wonderful neighbor who looked after our cat Sam when we were evacuated from the island). The head was later packed and shipped to us by our Turkish friend, Sabri Tahir. Sabri (a main character in the book, Bitter Lemons by Lawrence Durrell) became the new mayor of Kyrenia/Girne when the Turks captured northern Cyprus.
The glass head continues to brighten my life and home. I feel a surge of creative energy each time I look into its magic mirror–reflecting light and life around me.
In October of 2008, my husband and I took a train from Vienna to Krakow, Poland. We wanted to see if trains were still a fun way to travel around Europe. We discovered that a lot had changed. I had visited Krakow in the early 70s when it was still behind the Iron Curtain. Seemed strange not to have a border guard come aboard every few minutes and demand to see passports when we exited one country and entered another. As we neared Krakow, a new and more visually charming town came into view. Was it because the sun was shining? My memory of Krakow was of a dark and dreary city where people shuffled from place to place as though sleep walking. Like an old photo—sepia tone without light.
We stayed in a newly renovated fourth floor, walk-up apartment in an old stone building, one block off the 13th-century Main Market Square. Our window views of historical houses and churches was awesome. Unlike other Polish cities reduced to rubble during World War II, Krakow’s skyline had survived unscathed.
By day we walked the cobblestone streets around the lively square (the largest medieval town square in Europe, covering 10 acres) and ogled and awed at ornate mansions and Krakow’s rich cultural heritage. We visited the elaborate St Mary’s Church with its two slender, spired towers reaching high above the city. Horse drawn carriages pulled by white horses pranced about, taking visitors on short city tours. We toured museums, saw the world famous painting, Lady with an Ermine, by Leonardo da Vinci at the Czartoryski Museum.
Krakow boasts of numerous world-class sculptures and magnificent monuments including the famous Florian Gatea—a medieval watchtower erected in the 13th and 14th centuries. Bronze statues and marble monuments are everywhere. and can be found on almost every city block. Standing on the Square of the Virgin Mary is a charming monument of a pensive student standing atop a fountain crying tears that flow into “The Fountain of the Student.” A tribute to Veit Stoss (in Polish: Wit Stwosz), it was presented as a gift to the city of Kraków. The legend says that if you throw a coin in the fountain, you will return to Kraków.
We sat for hours in small pubs and cafes discussing Krakow’s pleasures and treasures. On one street, we viewed unique examples of communist architecture. My artist husband Doug was impressed with the fabulous street graffiti. By evening we dined in both rustic and chic restaurants. Krakow was indeed lively.
One day we toured the famous Royal Wawel Castle and admired its picturesque Renaissance courtyard. We laughed at a fun monument to the Wawel Dragon by sculptor Bronisław Chromy. The sulfur eating dragon belched smoke out in fire-breathing bliss. On our walk back to the main square, we viewed a sculpture of a giant bronzed head, another of someone on a horse, and a copy of the weighty “Battle of Grunwald.” As one of the greatest battles ever to take place in medieval Europe, it was a defining moment in Polish history. We stopped to appreciate a gorgeous sculpture of an orphaned pup “Dżok (Jock)” had a touching inscription, “Most faithful canine friend ever, and symbol of a dog’s boundless devotion to his master.” This work was created by the same artist who designed the belching dragon. A collection box in the back of the pup sculpture encouraged visitors to help orphaned animals of Krakow. There were monuments commemorating poets, artists, musicians, homeland, science, patriotism and valor.
But the most impressive monument was in the “Ghetto Heroes’ Square” in Kazimierz (made famous by the film, “Shindler’s List” by Steven Spielberg). Founded by Casimir III the Great, Kazimierz was an independent city from the 14th to 19th century. A place where Jews and Christians lived side by side in harmony. Until the 20th century.
Entering the square, I saw the eerie display of empty over-sized bronze chairs honoring the murdered Jews of the Podgorze Ghetto. I noticed markings showing the former ghetto walls in the pavement, and a sacred place to burn memorial candles.
Overwhelmed with emotion, I took a deep breath and blessed all who had been forced from their homes and ordered to bring their earthly possessions (tables, beds, chairs, etc) to the square. They were then rounded up and taken away. Most of the 17,000 ghetto inhabitants perished in the Nazi concentration camps of World War II.
I sat on one of the chairs and watched clouds roll past overhead for some time. My mind slowed to a stop as I thought of all the horrors humans have had to endure because of wars. I reflected on those bright minds whose lives were snuffed out senselessly. I thought of the Cyprus War of 1974 and the lives that were lost there and my own personal crisis when I had to flee from my home and leave
everything behind, including my beloved cat. I felt so grateful to have escaped Cyprus alive.
I received a big “NO!” slap from life many years ago when my husband informed me he wanted a divorce on grounds that I didn’t produce a child for him. After many miscarriages and the loss of a baby in childbirth, I was shaken by his insensitivity, his drastic move to end our marriage of 13 years. I tried to convince him, and myself, that we could adopt a child if this was the problem. Of course it wasn’t.
I cried and cried, feeling pitifully sad and abandoned. Worthless! I had given him my heart. What did I get in return? Rejection. I looked at my fearful face in the bathroom mirror, and with a little bit of surprise, asked myself, “What are you afraid of?”
The unknown, being alone? A voice questioned.
I searched deep into my eyes and let the conversation flow.
You’re not alone. You have yourself.
Love yourself. Trust yourself.
The best is yet to come.
Hours later, as a calm settled over me and the city of Frankfurt (where I was living at the time), a piercing cry interrupted my serene thoughts. Through thin walls, from the apartment next door, came squeals of laughter and shrill erotic screams. My thoughts scattered while my heart skipped several uncomfortable beats. Damn. Two guys. Having sex. Loudly! Initially horrified, I reacted: cranked up Billy Joel’s album, The Stranger, to the max. Singing along and dancing wildly, I no longer heard the ruckus from my horny neighbors.
Long after the album had finished, I got ready for bed. Cleaning my teeth and face, I observed light and love in my eyes. I smiled. Getting to know you.
That night I dreamed …
My husband broke into my apartment, rushed into my bedroom and pulled me from the bed. I tried to scream, but my voice didn’t work. He reached for my heart and tried to tear it out of my chest. Frantic, I waved my hands motioning for him to stop. When I screamed “NO!” … his grip loosened and his image faded to black. He vanished.
The next morning sunshine splashed across my eyes, My heart thumped a steady beat. I took a deep breath and smiled. I still have my heart. No one can take that away from me.
Transformed while dreaming, I felt grateful to be alive and thankful for the gifts rejection brought me—forcing me to explore my fears and encouraging me to love and trust myself.
If someone laughed at me, I would think, wait ’til you hear me sing. I’ll show you talent. And sure enough when I opened my mouth and belted out a song, the person who had laughed was speechless because I knew how to hit the high notes, the low notes, and I could harmonize with anyone.
Or so I thought … until Germany. I often sang duets with my friend who owned a jazz club where she entertained guests most evenings. Another friend of mine helped behind the bar. One evening, the bartender friend shared that she would love to be able to sing, but couldn’t carry a tune. I assured her that everyone can sing something, with practice. She smiled and told me she could do other things well, but not sing.
Wanting to encourage her, I suggested we sing a song together—after the bar closed . A song of her choice. She said her singing would just make me laugh. I promised not to laugh.
“Okay.” she shrugged and giggled.
“What would you like to sing?” I asked.
“Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”
So I sang the opening verse and encouraged her to join in. “Come on,” I said, starting the song over.
“S-ome wher-er,” she tried to hit the notes, but ended up sounding like she was purposely singing off-key.
“Falsetto?” I asked.
She tried again. “See I told you,” she said laughing.
I stifled a grin and we tried one more time.
“S-ome wher-er,” she tried to sing it.
“You’re right,” I said, bursting out laughing.
She giggled, then laughed.
I howled laughing and laughed so hard, I had to excuse myself and go to the bathroom.
When I returned, she asked, “Now, do you believe me?”
I held my sides and laughed again. “I do. You could give Tiny Tim a run for his money singing Tiptoe Through the Tulips.”
“I told you so,” she said, putting wine glasses back on their shelves.
I had to reconsider. Everyone can sing something? Well, maybe not something well…
Year later, after she became a world class chef and owned a catering company in Washington, DC, I met her for dinner. one night and we reminisced about our attempt to harmonize on “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”
“Were you purposely trying to throw me off key?” I asked.
“No,” she said. “I knew then I needed to learn to cook since I obviously couldn’t sing for my supper.” We shared another good laugh.
A few weeks ago, I received a message from a friend I knew in Germany in the late 70s. He said he was thrilled to be reading my book and was having fun identifying characters in the book—characters he knew as well while living in Germany. I was delighted to be in touch with him again.
A few days later, he posted a photo of a batik painting that hangs in his living room. His message read: Susan, do you remember? What was the painting called?
It sure looked like one of mine, but I wasn’t absolutely sure because during my artist days I produced paintings and sculptures on a variety of subjects. I looked at the photo for some time, sorting through memories of my days into years as a working artist in Europe. I let my mind roam until it focused on my nature period where I was fascinated with the cyclical changes that occur with seasons.
Looking at the painting of the two oak trees—one with leaves changing colors and the other bare of leaves—I remembered exactly when I sketched the idea for the painting.
It was a brilliant sunset evening. I was sipping a glass of Chardonnay, listening to Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons,” and watching the evening light change in the garden below my living room window. Two tall oak trees stood side by side, growing close together. One had lost its leaves while the other had lustrous colored leaves of green, copper, red, and deep purple. As the moon ascended above the silhouette of buildings located on the main boulevard, I reflected on my personal cyclical changes and made a quick note on the sketch.
From green, the leaves turn gold, then gone.
Stripped bare, the bones stand all alone.
New buds in spring,
new life will bring. …
I answered my friend. It’s called, Growing Together.
Michael is one of the main characters in my memoir because he greatly influenced my life. I adored Michael. My first close gay friend, he was just stepping out of the closet within the confines of friends when we met in Frankfurt, Germany in 1976. He became my solace at a low tide in my life and introduced me to the vibrant world of opera and theatre. He had an obsession with theater and anything presented live on stage. He had performed in a few shows in small theaters and his dream was to finish a play he had started writing years before and see it published one day.
“Love Wagner’s. Great action and food.” Michael smiled, eyeing a young man across the room. “Everyone thinks I’m a movie star.”
“You’re the spitting image of a young Tony Randall,” I told him.
“And as fastidious and fussy, I trust.”
”You’re not fussy. Just choosy,” I assured him.
Michael of course then educated me on the origin of the phrase ‘spitting image’ and we both had a good chuckle. I fondly called him ‘Mister Walking Encyclopedia’ because he knew obscure facts and figures on any subject conceivable. Michael always knew the real scoop. He loved fancy words and loved to use them.
“Gaydar,” he explained eyeing an attractive waiter, “is how I know if someone’s straight or bent.”
I chuckled. “Did you just invent that word?”
“Probably,” he replied.
He invited me to a play I hadn’t seen before at the English Theatre. “It’s a trivial comedy for serious people by Oscar Wilde. The second most known and quoted play in English after Hamlet.“
“I’ve seen Hamlet performed,” I said.
“This one’s a farce,” Michael said smiling, “The Importance of Being Earnest, first performed on Valentine’s Day in1895. It’s nonsense that makes sense, if you get beyond the words.”
“Sounds like a must see,” I said, wondering what the hell I was getting myself into.
I found the play a bit silly, but great fun. When the final curtain closed, we stood and wildly applauded again and again.
“I just love Wilde’s British dandyisms.” Michael chortled.
“Some wild expressions,” I agreed.
“Classic Wilde,” Michael continued, “They speak volumes about the hypocrisies of society. Then and now. Reprobates always have more fun.”
As we discussed the play’s “real” meaning over wine later that evening, Michael educated me on the dark history of the play and the eventual exile of Oscar Wilde.
“Ernest was Wilde’s alter-ego,” Michael informed me. “Dishonesty and pretense about morals damage our souls.”
“Wilde was criticizing Victorian society,” I said.
Michael smiled and took another sip of wine. “His speaking out landed him in prison.”
“Indecency. Romping with a royal. Of the same sex.”
“Wow!” I said, letting it sink in. “His writing is harsh satire.”
“And still rings true today,” Michael said.
Michael taught me many different things—some shocking, some fun, some frivolous, some serious, but all inspirational. All encouraging. He taught me about striving and thriving, and being different, and accepting differences in others.
Years later when I searched for the word “gaydar” in a dictionary, I realized that Michael may well have invented the word since the first known use, according to the Merriam Webster Dictionary, was in 1982.
When the final curtain closed on Michael’s life in 1986, he left a trail of love, light, and divine information. Too bad he didn’t live long enough to witness the gay civil rights happening today. But knowing Michael, he’s aware and smiling.
I can still hear my 6th grade teacher clear her throat, then ask, “Susan, where are you? The rest of us are on page 26.”
My mind snapped into place as Mrs. Easley asked me to continue reading where the previous student had left off. I paused, giggled at the thought of students and teacher physically sitting on page 26, did a quick mental rewind of the last words I heard, then focused on the inked page, and started reading.
After class, my friend Shelley congratulated me on my quick come-back. “Day-dreaming again?” she asked, tapping me on my shoulder.
“Floating, but I was here.”
“How do you do that?” Shelley asked.
Today I’m reminded of how “being present while floating” has guided me through the maze of my amazing life. Paying close attention to details of each breathing, living moment, my gut instincts, clairvoyant thoughts, and telling dreams, I focus on the present and allow my senses to go with the flow and collect important information.
While living in Israel in 1968, I visited the zoo in Haifa. Noticing a sign outside the elephant house, I stopped and studied it. It looked like the head of an elephant with a big ear, an eye, and a trunk. Great image, I thought, drawing the pictograph in my travel journal. A student of Hebrew, I knew that the sign was in fact three Hebrew letters forming the word for elephant in Hebrew—-Peel. Marveling at the elephant house sign, I said to myself, “If I ever write a book about an elephant, I’m going to name him Peel.”
Living in Frankfurt, Germany in the late 70s, at a low point in my life, a singing elephant appeared at the foot of my bed singing a song of encouragement in a dream.
I sat up in bed, rubbed my sleepy eyes and listened.
An elephant won’t forget you when you’re happy.
An elephant won’t forget you when you’re sad.
‘Cause an elephant knows the secret is remembering it all—
Learning from the good times, and the bad.
Suffering from pneumonia and feeling drained emotionally, I was indeed sad. The next day, I couldn’t get the song out of my head. I sang it aloud often. And every time I sang it, I felt better and stronger. So I wrote it down, music and words,
A few weeks later, the singing elephant appeared again and we started conversing, always in rhyme, about learning from life adventures. I made notes in my dream journal and soon realized I had something important to share.
Years after the elephant appeared in my dreams, and after some wonderful synchronicities, “Peel, the Extraordinary Elephant,” my first children’s book, was published in 1985. It’s still in print today.
Being present is being in touch with ourselves, focusing on each moment (happy or sad), and going with the magical flow of life.