Honored to be selected and published (essay, “Venice Vision” from my book, “Caution: Mermaid Crossing”) in Prague Summer Writing Program’s 25th anniversary commemorative site:
Sylvia Sukop, 2018 PSP participant, Mark Slouka/Jaimy Gordon/Patricia Hampl/Stu Dybek workshop Sylvia Sukop has an MFA…
Valerie Anne Burns, 2016 PSP participant
Valerie Anne Burns is a writer, style consultant for home and wardrobe, and a graduate from the Hollywood school of hard knocks. She’s passionate about deep connection, the arts, mother earth, all animals, and rich espresso. Writing has become a more inspired focus after winning a full scholarship to the Santa Barbara Writing Conference and an acceptance and scholarship to The Prague Summer Writing Program. Valerie’s a recent breast cancer survivor, and has completed a first draft of her book, “Caution: Mermaid Crossing” — An indomitable spirit overcomes a life unimaginable by capturing moments of beauty. She’s also blogging about her warrior ride and so much more at www.cautionmermaidcrossing.com.
My experience at PSP 2016 was spectacular. It was an amazing combination of priceless learning, inspiration, and cultural bliss. Personally, it was also a welcomed reprieve in the middle of a breast cancer ordeal. I had the privilege of being in the presence of Richard Katrovas, Justin Quinn, Jaimy Gordon, Stuart Dybek, and Patricia Hampl for immeasurable education in the art of writing. I was particularly influenced by Stuart Dybek’s smart guidance and inspiring support. I workshopped a personal essay titled, “Venice Vision” in Stuart’s class. Not only did the exquisite beauty of Prague and PSP lift my spirit but strengthened my confidence to move forward as a writer.
All the colors I most cherish drifted by as I floated down the Grand Canal. Rich but worn shades of orange, pink, golden yellow and blues meandered by one-by-one. The water I floated on was a Caribbean aqua that wrapped me in a balmy warmth. It was not the dirty waterway one would expect in the canals of Venice. I viewed beauty in architecture while swimming beneath a vivid sapphire Italian sky. I felt released from struggle, free to spread far and wide, filling all my senses with wonder.
Admiring the city suspended atop the Laguna Veneta, swimming in its resplendency, I reached my arms out wide in front of me, graceful as a sleek mermaid. Unaware of my body being ravaged, I was shapely and confident in my swim attire. I could feel the ripples of the sea swirling as I pushed forward in a breast stroke.
I turned, looking back to my right, and discovered a man swimming in the same style. Just behind him was a sweet boy gliding along like a young swan. I gazed directly at the man as we exchanged a smile, sharing a knowing secret of being in a lovely dream together. It was euphoric, and I wondered in that split second, by the intimacy of the smile that passed between us, if this man and his boy would be the family I longed for. Refocused on my liberating swim with hands scooping turquoise liquid down to my sides, I tilted my head to the left to study the perfectly aged sunburst orange and terracotta pink grand structures of Venice once again.
And then, in that instant I woke, only wishing to fall into the dream over and over. It has stayed with me for a long time now, just as clear as the morning I woke from this Venice vision. I hold on to the idea that the colorful dream’s purpose was to ignite a blossom of hope in my heart. The visceral memory stays close to me since enduring a harsh assault and lasting scars to my body with a spirit left frayed. I’ve replayed the vision prior to surgeries, and at night, when I would lie in bed with surgical drains pushing through my skin and spread out on my bed like the wings of a bird.
This vision was the contrast I often needed to rely on when lying on a gurney waiting to be rolled into the freezing cold, efficiently run operating room. Through all of it, I had to carry something so beautifully alluring to avoid the possibility of spiraling into a black hole of nothing but earthly survival. I described the dream to a close friend, so easy to recall as if it were a film running in my head. She responded by saying, “You want it all, don’t you?”, acknowledging my dream of swimming in tropical water in the canals of Venice as an idealistic fantasy in alignment with my nature. Without a hint of modesty, I simply replied, “Yes!”
I aspire to being surrounded by beauty in art and architecture while feeding my bliss in a turquoise ocean fit for the finest mermaid. Yearning for a partner and family, there is a man close enough to direct a dazzling smile just for me. Although I’m at an age where a little boy would be a grandson, it speaks to a subconscious truth. Enjoying the same watery dream, I consciously decide that this man capable of emitting a magnetic force toward my being must possess shared desires and longings. Like all humans that inhabit this planet, it’s connection we crave — Love in all its forms. The dream, although fantasy in its most exquisite state, continues to fill me with desire, love and appreciation.
So many of us are walking through life alone and daydreaming our way through the day. We are fulfilled by the little things; a kind smile, a welcomed compliment, or coffee with a friend that keeps us connected and grounded. We have different ways of coping with challenges and the overwhelming reality of facing them on our own. I find it easier to escape the harsher realities by concentrating on a pretty view, listening to a daily orchestra by a variety of birds, and feeling the vibration of hummingbirds over my head.
The ritual of tea with my hummingbirds provided an unexpected healing. They would fly right up to me and stare into my eyes while wings became translucent in their speed. I would hand-feed my richly colored hummies organic sugar water and they would sit on my hand for a long nectar drink. The tender trust that grew between us gave me strength to trust myself and feel worthy of healing and recovery; where I could find my way to believing in a flourishing life and the Venice canal opening wide just for me.
I wonder, though, how to remain optimistic when struggle and survival appear as daily companions. I marvel at the fortitude of people fighting a life-threatening illness. What do they do to get up every day, continuing life with a determination to carry long-held goals in their hearts? My experience led me to question how my mother, dying of breast cancer at such a young age in a hospital bed, dealt with her own dreams slipping away moment-by-moment. I work at ways to push away the trauma thrust upon me to make sacred space for imagining myself living out my loftiest aspirations.
No matter what some perceive is a challenge, you can always rise above; it is a cruel and all-consuming path few can relate to unless they have traveled it themselves. Many of us find medical environments to be an assault to the senses. There is a need for immediate attention and action you simply cannot avoid or wish away. It changes you, rearranging your world and all who orbit around it. It’s altered me and I’m sure I will forever discover ways it’s left an impact; good and not so good.
Perhaps it’s time to marvel at my own strength and fierceness. The four years of being in the harsh medical spotlight have illuminated my fear, vulnerability, and loneliness. It has forced me over the median to a road of caution I did not anticipate. On days when I felt an urgency to close my eyes and take a deep breath to empty myself of jarring lights, cold instruments, and endless needles, I recall a precious Venice vision — Light reflected in an apricot glow on patina-colored buildings, swimming to freedom in warm turquoise water, and receiving a remarkable smile that lights up the blackest of nights.
Keep on swimming through life,
Valerie Anne Burns