About My Monthlong Writing Residency in Fairhope, Alabama, August 2018
Lisa was awarded a one monthlong Writer-in-Residency at Fairhope Center for the Writing Arts Inc. (FCWA) The Wolff Cottage based on the merit of her published work and work-in-progress in Fairhope, Alabama in August 2018.
Here’s the talk she gave to the Community of Fairhope in the Wolff Cottage 3 weeks into my stay:
Welcome to “Wine, Words and Welcome” and I love that Wine comes first in that phrase!
I’m Lisa Mae DeMasi and before I talk about the catharsis I’ve found in writing for the past 9 years, I’m going to tell you a bit about my background. I’ll be reading from a script for I am grossly inarticulate when it comes to addressing more than a crowd of three; one of the reasons why you’ll never see me give a TedX, become a TV commercial actress, or head a rally supporting an injustice in which I feel incredibly passionate about.
I hail from the Northeast. Growing up, I lived in Connecticut, Vermont, New York State and Massachusetts. As an adult I’ve lived on two other planets called Wyoming and Arizona. I had blended in pretty good in the Northeast, albeit with some trouble with principals, deans and female H.R. Directors, but didn’t fare well with the blending in in Cody and Tucson.
My full time day job is working as a technical blog editor and writer for Dell Technologies, a family of technology companies that specialize in combining leading infrastructure, data storage, hybrid cloud and data protection solutions for small and large businesses. A mouthful, I know. But my job has revitalized my professional career and I do enjoy my work immensely.
My career path had been going in the right direction in my twenties. I was ambitious and emulating the boys in higher ranked positions, I applied and got into a topnotch graduate school, seeking the know-how to lead my own company one day.
In the early summer of ’95, however, I found myself behind the wheel of a large automobile gunning it for the California coastline. I was 30, and the culmination of being newly divorced, ending an affair with an executive twenty-three years my senior, losing my job due to a merger, and flunking a graduate-level accounting exam had put me in a heightened state of F-E-A-R.
Forget Everything And Run.
And here’s where the favorite chapter of my life began.
I drove cross-country free as a bird. Highway median strips fired by lengthening the distance between debits and credits, a fizzled-out job, a disintegrated marriage. My destination was Manhattan Beach, a village in southwestern Los Angeles County. I figured sun and surf were the ingredients I needed to turn things around. Over the next few days, I pulled long stints of driving until I found myself standing before the Rockies in Cody, Wyoming. The Bighorn Basin was surrounded by mountain ranges on three sides, the Absarokas to the west, the Owl Creek Mountains to the south, and the Bighorn Mountains to the east. The big sky went on forever before me and beyond the mountains, in summer’s green and brown hues, sage and scrub sprawled and dotted the foothills. This landscape filled my brain, pushed everything else out. There was something for me to find here, or rediscover.
In late afternoon, fifty miles short of Yellowstone National Park’s east entrance, I ventured into Cody’s rustic center and checked into a Holiday Inn. Then, ravenous, I walked along the main drag until coming to The Irma Hotel and assumed a seat at the cherry wood bar.
Country music flooded the room, photos of gun slinging outlaws decorated the walls. At the opposing side of the bar, a rugged old barkeep with a handlebar mustache disengaged from a local and ventured my way.
“Hey, City Gal,” he said with a nod and touch of his hat. “Welcome to The Irma. What can I do ya for?”
Cracking up over his greeting I asked, “May I see a menu, please?”
“Sumthin’ funny?” he asked, jerking his head back obviously offended.
“No. Well, kind of,” I answered.
He studied my face. I backpedaled. “Your greeting’s a bit different than what I’m used to.”
“And how do barkeeps approach ya’ll back home?” He folded his arms and grounded himself in a stance.
“Actually,” I said, matter-of-factly, “the same way.”
“City folk,” he scowled, and slid a laminated menu in front of me before walking his boots back down to the local.
“Do you happen to know if any horses ’round here need tendin’ to?”
The barkeep leaned over, rested an elbow on his knee and looked at me long and hard before answering. “You’re not just passing through?”
“Why would you assume that I’m just passing through?”
“You’re alone—can’t be on vacation,” he said. “And you’ve got a look about ya that suggests you’re either after sumthin’ or missing sumthin’.”
“I was intending to pass through,” I answered. “But when I drove into Cody, something came over me.”
“Catching a cold? Wal-Mart’s right down the street,” he said with a nod towards the door. “You should get some aspirin or sumthin’.”
“No, no,” I said. “I’m not sick.
He looked at me blankly.
I tried again, “I’m overcome by the mountains.”
He shook his head and changed the subject. “Where ya from?”
“So ya bin to school?”
Catching onto where he was going, I answered, “Yeah, I finished high school.”
“I think you probably made it further than that,” he scowled.
“I have a diploma.”
“Yes, I have a little one.”
“Then, why would you want to stay and work in these parts?” he asked, twisting the end of his mustache. “There ain’t no college graduates around here. They wouldn’t know what to make of ya.”
“Are you saying that Cody is averse to diversity?”
He glared at the local.
“You see,” I said, interrupting the weighty silence, “I’m on my way to California to be compassionate, but I’ve experienced some lousy circumstances lately and it would be nice to work in a place like this, just for the summer.”
The barkeep knitted his brow together. After some hard figuring, he ran a forefinger across the top of his mustache and reasoned, “You mean, you’re unhappy then.”
“No, I’m not unhappy,” I hissed. “I just want to air out my soul a bit.”
When the words hung there for several moments unaddressed, I conceded, “Does that fall into your “after something” or “missing something” category?”
“You got that right,” he smirked.
I rested my chin in my hand and regarded my warped reflection in a bottle of booze. Who ain’t after sumthin’ or missing sumthin’?
“If you find yourself in a hole,” the barkeep offered in my direction, “the first thing to do is stop digging.”
When I continued to stare into the bottle unaffected, he added, “Seems like you’re diggin.’”
While he and the local burned a hole into me, I traced the edges of the menu until I first became aware, and then overwrought, by the uncanny lyrics that were aching into the airspace.
Every fool has a rainbow
But he never seems to find
The reward that should be waiting
At the end of the line
But he`ll give up a bed of roses
For a hammock filled with thorns
And go chasing after rainbows
Every time a dream is born
“Oh, for God’s sake,” I huffed coming out of a stupor, “who is this singing?”
“Merle Haggard,” the barkeep boasted.
“It’s damn depressing,” I said.
The room fell strangely quiet again and in that particular span of time, for some reason, the barkeep grew sympathetic to my apparent after or missing sumthin’-related frustration and relented to my question.
“There’s not much out here for a gal outside of working in a bar and tendin’ to housekeeping,” he said.
I again showed no sign of a response because my frustration/nonsense reactor had vaporized 85 percent of its coolant and was dangerously close to melting down.
“Do you do that sort of thing?” my barkeep asked.
The local piped in, “Behind every successful rancher is a wife who works in town. Right, Skeeter?”
I regarded “Skeeter” and ventured, “There’s gotta be a ton of horses out here.”
“That’s a man’s work,” he scoffed.
“Well, then,” I said squinting, “I can pour beer into a glass and I’ve been making my bed for quite a few years now.”
“Working in a bar can be pretty tough on a gal,” he said, shooting a quick glance at his buddy, “if she don’t know how to handle the locals.”
I shrugged, rested my elbow on the bar and mashed the weight of my face into my hand.
Skeeter reached inside his back pocket and withdrew a can of tobacco. He twisted off the top, extracted a generous pinch and neatly inserted it between his lip and lower gum line. Then, as if he had a big idea, he waved the can in my direction.
Wrestling around the wad, he said, “The Grin-N-Barrett Ranch out on the South Fork is always looking for housekeepin’ help.”
I perked up and my fuel rods cooled down. “Do they have horses?”
He scowled, “Plenty.”
“How far is it from here?”
“It’s down the road a piece,” he teased with a nod towards the door. When several moments passed and no other information aired through his bristly upper lip, I barked, “Well, what’s ‘the south fork’ and how does one come by it?”
Skeeter glanced down his nose at the local. He grumbled, “Well, it ain’t the north fork.”
Meltdown. My forehead crashed on the bar.
As my head began to throb against the hard surface, it dawned on me why people felt entitled to just shoot people in the Old West if they stole your horse, stepped on your land or just plain pissed you off. I could easily take this guy out for withholding information and for being a real pain in the ass.
I drew myself upright. The menu disengaged from my forehead and plummeted to the floor. “Do you have a gun back behind this here bar?”
I tried again, “So, what are these forks?”
“Roads,” the local answered since Skeeter continued to keep his trap shut.
Openly addressing the room, I asked, “How would I get to this South Fork?”
“North Fork goes to Yellowstone,” the local said.
“Grin-N-Barrett Ranch is out on the South Fork,” Skeeter offered wanting to put an end to the discussion. “Head west out of town until you see Route 291, that’s the South Fork—it’s splits left of the North Fork. Follow it for about an hour and thirty minutes. It’s slow drivin’ ‘cause the road snakes around the river. You’ll know you’re gettin’ close when the black top ends. Last ranch on the right before you run straight into a mountain.”
Skeeter waved the can of tobacco in my direction, this time as if he just provided me with the opportunity of a lifetime. “You can tell ‘em Skeeter sent ya.”
I debated blowing out of there to save myself anymore trouble, but I was hungry and couldn’t bear the thought of risking another round of banter to obtain a meal elsewhere. I called, “Before I head out there, how about serving up a dish of those Rocky Mountain Oysters?”
Skeeter’s face lit up for the first time. “Sure thing, comin’ right up.”
I learned “the oysters” were actually bull testicles, but Skeeter told me if I planned on working on a ranch, not to be a sissy and eat ’em up. Which I did. With a belly full of balls, I returned to the car and set out for the Grin-N-Barrett Ranch.
# # # # # #
Well, I made it out to the ranch and was hired on as housekeeper. In between doing laundry and making beds, I took on responsibility mowing the lawn and feeding the pigs scraps from the kitchen; weed-wacking the mile-high grass in the staff’s parking lot. Watering and feeding the cows and horses came by way of initiation in Week 3. The boys dared me to chew Copenhagen. “You think you’re tough stuff, don’t you, Daisy Mae?” The can of snuff was presented to me and I pinched out some and put it in between my gum and lip, and let me tell you, a Five-Alarm fire ensued in my mouth and spit welled up.
“She ain’t even turnin’ green.”
Yeah, I passed. And started chewing cherry-flavored Skoal a day later.
# # # # # #
I’ve written many words and chapters about that summer in Cody, but here’s a summary of my experiences, the good and the bad.
Wide Open Country
I’m standing on a flatbed and tossing flakes of hay into a paddock not far from Yellowstone on a hot and sticky August afternoon. It’s 1995 and the longhorns are meandering over. They’re magnificent beasts, donning horns that extend to seven feet from tip to tip, and hides that are ruddy and white and dirty-speckled. Their surroundings are too much to take in all at once. The sky and foothills and mountains and clouds and sage and brush. I reach for a steer’s horn and playfully give it a tug. He doesn’t like it and tries to jab me. These steers, and the horses too, teach me to live in the moment, take only what I need to nourish myself, keep me sane, hold me here far from home or where I was heading.
I know in my heart I’ll never want to leave.
My former husband is on a flight from Salt Lake City to visit me. His heart hangs onto mine, but knows in his heart of hearts, I have crippled him in hurt and needs to find another. Our meeting is a manifestation, an outcome produced by my own volition: Karma derived in Guilt. Our evening visit will end in catastrophe, my severe debilitation, which will grant him Freedom to find Another and have the babies he wanted with me with her. Blessings.
Still ahead, I will go on, amputated from my Old World, to a frontier that will bequeath more trials, not Injustice, but Justice for my Transgressions. I’ll soon find myself on crutches before a window in a rented condo at Lake Chelan, gazing at the pristine blue water, vineyards and apple orchards with a pitchfork in my heart, wallowing in the outcome of Karma derived in Guilt, my mind, body and soul trampled on by a thousand horses and a thousand steers. I will write pages and pages by hand and type prolific streams of consciousness, mourning the loss of my charges, giving birth to this writer, three thousand miles from the familiarities of home. What a tangled web we weave when we regret our former practice to deceive.
But I don’t know all this yet. All I know is what’s present: the taste of dust, the beauty and serenity of the mountains, the earthy smells of the steer, hay and sage.
The flatbed bumps through the ruts to the horses’ corral. I loved horses as a kid. I read Margherite Henry’s horsey stories until the pages were dog-eared, studied them—from Eohippus [EE] + [OH] + [HIP] + [UHS] to Assateague Island’s feral ponies—sketched them and rode wildly upon them. The horse is a universal symbol of freedom without restraint and as a spirit animal, exemplifies personal drive, passion and appetite for freedom. I’m thirty, all summer long here in Cody, a woman sprung from corporate America, grad school, and marriage, with an appetite for freedom and can’t resist the opportunity to horse around in this rugged setting. I have no fear, but F.E.A.R. got me here: Forget Everything And Run. The days unfold seamlessly one after the other; I embrace the newness of each one as if it were my first, comb the mane from Applejack’s eyes, unknot the tangles in Cutter’s tail. In my pocket, they know I keep carrots for them absconded from the kitchen fridge.
# # # # # #
The catharsis of writing. From the time I bought the memory typewriter heading out of Cody in September of ’95 to twenty plus years later, the catalyst for written expression finally made itself known to me. It lies herein:
The impact of loss scars your heart and go on living my life ’cause you’re young, and have to conform, and can’t fall apart, and you don’t realize those wounds are still there, throbbing raw, the fibers of tissue meshing over that open gap of mess. You don’t realize you mask that pain with the alcohol thirty years later, that there’s a reason why you drink until the TV and the stand it rests on becomes unhinged.
You write and write and write. For seven years, straight, you do nothing but write and you’re told your writing has no depth or meaning. You keep writing because you’re still madly and blindly driven to it despite having lost all your assets and pockets are filled with nothing but dust and lint. You’re there writing, looking up the definition of a word online, fact checking, and you read, alcoholism is a well-documented pathological reaction to unresolved grief and glance down at the billionth line you just put in black and white and Jesus, the whole goddamn story comes clear.
# # # # # #
In a recent essay that got picked up by WOW! Women on Writing’s website, I wrote:
Don’t stop writing. Write for pleasure, your own self-entertainment; write for catharsis. The mind and the act of getting down the words reveal truths. Hidden truths.
To see all of Lisa’s published work, click here.
Lisa can be reached at lisa dot demasi at gmail dot com.