Book of personal essays, creative nonfiction:
A motherless daughter's passage through a sea of persistent adversity overcomes a life unimaginable by crossing into the world of the ethereal mermaid.
Author, Speaker and Entrepreneur
Valerie Anne Burns
Monday, November 19, 2018
"Gulf Stream Awakening" out-loud
Instead of a written blog this month, below you'll find a literary reading with Out Loud Santa Barbara (sponsored by Arts Fund) where I read an excerpt to the opening of my book, “Caution: Mermaid Crossing" titled, “Gulf Stream Awakening”--Always an honor to be selected when I submit writing.
Sometimes the mighty do fall. It doesn't mean we've fallen forever.
A friend said to me, "You're so strong, you'll get on the other side of this too." I replied, "Maybe, but I think I've reached a tipping point." So exhausted, I was seeing stars when this conversation came about. My long-awaited move came up suddenly the Friday of Labor Day weekend and I had less than 20-minutes to make a decision. I needed to get back to working on the revision of my book and leaving in three weeks for Hilton Head to spend time with friends and celebrate our birthdays.
I'd have to organize, plan, pack and move beforehand. It would be the 8th move in 8-years. I knew it'd be on a budget and I'd have to do much of the physical work. Then I started hearing the stories about the unstable neighbor at the new place, which I decided was the ideal choice if it opened up. The threats and paranoia are a burden to her neighbors and I'd be directly next door. I was so enthusiastic to get the great apartment I wanted in a complex of 105. Why couldn't the Universe provide this desired blessing and leave it at that; no caveat? Do I stay where the insane traffic noise never ends or take a chance on crazy encounters?
This is my life. This is the reality of the situation I've gotten myself into. After losing work during the long journey with breast cancer and health challenges, I took a unit under public housing. Scrambling for every morsel, keeping a roof over my head, and juggling many balls like a pro juggler, I had to pull out all the stops to protect myself and survive with the intention of eventually thriving.
I looked around the place I was in, and all the work and decorating style it took to create a space that feels like me only to undo the creation once again - I was rendered to a paralyzed state. A culmination of the last decade hitting me straight in the face, I found myself in a puddle with little interest to get out of bed unless it was to move to the couch. I didn't do one thing to begin the process of a move and now I was unsure about subjecting myself to a difficult neighbor. The all-too-familiar anxiety took over. It dawned on me that I'd been triggered and that part of the brain that holds trauma began to open its lock. Adding to anxiety for many of us, is the daily disgrace of Trumpism - The wannabe fascist in our face. I'm horrified and madly signing petitions and calling representatives on a daily basis. I watch everything I believe in and have stood strong for slipping away - A barrage of destruction. There comes a point when it's all too damn much! I could feel myself falling into depression. So weary am I. So tired of carrying the world on my shoulders, I wondered if I cared to get through another all-consuming feat. Am I allowed to feel I've reached my tipping point and teetering on the cliff? Do I live up to all the expectations of being fierce and strong into eternity? Fuck that. I knew the overwhelm wouldn't last. I've gotten through worse. But whenever these seemingly insurmountable challenges hit me head-on, I wonder how much more I can take. I go to that place of hopeless romantic and contemplate loneliness. Where's my partner? - the lover that gives me the chance to lean on someone, rest my weary head on a shoulder, be the grounded strength and problem solver, even the muscle to accomplish a move. My shoulders are the only ones to hold straight and forge ahead.
A friend of mine, aware of the move, called me about packing. I asked her to come by and help me with a dilemma first, knowing she'd gone to school to become an ordained minister and counsels people. I was in a flare-up and symptoms of fatigue and pain were intense. I couldn't make a decision. She arrived, closing my door within three minutes to shut out the chaotic traffic remarking she couldn't stand it. Well, that said a lot. She came armed with essential oils and a natural anti-inflammatory cream. I felt calmer from support. We all do and need loving support in times of crisis. After rubbing my shoulders and neck with magic cream and hands, I felt like I could put a sentence together to explain the predicament. Both scenarios - stay with the crazy noise, which included a constant stream of muffler-less motorcycles or go with the possibly troublesome neighbor? I walked her over to the new unit and she immediately said, "Yes, this is it." The grassy lawn, big trees, and still possessing a glimpse of the ocean surpassed the challenge of a difficult direct neighbor. I was relieved to be in the presence of someone who could make a decision for me. I took a deep breath and slowly wrapped my head around organizing, strategizing, packing and physically moving to the new spot. It put me to bed again but I knew I'd have to rally and take small bites. The consistent help in packing I received from the friend that assisted me in making a big decision, my home-town 'island' friend driving up from LA to schlep everything that wasn't too big or heavy (she with a dolly and me with a wagon making the 5-block round trip at least 45 times) was critical to reaching the goal, and help from a couple other friends offering a couple hours got me over the hump to moving through the move. I absolutely couldn't have done it without them. Being able to get assistance when I humbly sent out an SOS filled me with an electrifying gratitude that kept my puttering engine going. It's been one hell of a decade I've gotten through. Thanks, Universe for keeping me alive through cancer, and all the challenges that have been put before me. Thanks to the Gods who rule the stars, for my fierceness and for loving friends who stay by my side and remind me of my strength and humor. Maybe reaching a tipping point where a human spirit feels at the end of their rope and staring into the abyss can prove to be an authentic survival tool. Perhaps it propels us to another layer of our soul in order to gain the inspiration we need to take a step forward; even baby steps to conquer challenge and succeed in overcoming anything from a big wave to a tsunami like challenge. When we swim through it, we are encouraged and amazed by the strength of the human spirit. This is where inspiration and creativity can blossom to start fresh and dream again. Keep on swimming through life, Valerie Anne Burns
Mermaid in Mexico Written in honor and in gratitude for Send Me On Vacation
During my 'runaway retreat' in the redwoods of northern California the end of June, which I wrote about in a recent blog, provided not only an actual retreat, but acceptance that what I had intended took a U-turn. My sincere intention was to land at a quiet place to write... a sanctuary to get on a roll of conquering the revision of my book. But, I realized within the first few hours of the Ayurvedic-Yoga retreat (fondly referred to as Hindu-Hippie retreat) that there wasn't a quiet space to sequester myself and write. It was an active community with three nourishing vegetarian meals a day where intros and conversing flowed. It set me up for a particular awakening.
The first part of my awakening was to open-up to what a retreat is actually for: rejuvenation, restoration to body and soul. A light bulb went off in my head for me to wake up to the fact that being in fight-or-flight so long gave little space for respite. I opened to restorative spa treatments, an ayurvedic doctor consultation, human souls around me and sharing meals in conversation, making new friends and realizing just how lonely a path I've been on. Not just because I'm single and without family, or my closest friend posse all living out-of-state, but because a long journey with breast cancer is staggeringly isolating... but even my artistic outlet of writing is isolating.
While going with whatever was presented at the
retreat, I received an unusual email in my inbox. My inbox is normally filled
with petitions... tripled since the country, our environment, and wildlife are
in serious peril. Since I was put on one list for writers, it opened the way to
be included on other sites to do with anything and everything about writing.
Alas, there was a unique email hitting my inbox spontaneously from Cathy
Backus, founder and director of, 'Send Me on Vacation' - www.sendmeonvacation.org (an organization that takes breast cancer survivors on a vacation retreat) to
announce that I'd been awarded a complimentary trip to Playa del Carmen
for a Mermaid Retreat. I was especially intrigued by the fact that 'mermaid' is
part of the title of my book and blog--Serendipity.
Many emails were passed back and forth to make
the arrangements. Cathy couldn't have been more kind and accommodating; never
giving up on what would be a complicated airline arrangement. How blessed was
I? How interesting that this gift came while in acceptance of a restorative
retreat amongst the northern California redwoods without a word of writing
accomplished. I allowed for each moment to come as it wished. Because I was out
of my environment, it deeply dawned on me just how many balls I was juggling
continuously… an unconscious loop of survival routine. The idea of
intentionally giving myself healing time never entered my mind. I didn't have
the luxury on disability and whatever money I’ve recently had (beyond
disability) was generously given by a benefactor specifically to support
finishing my book revision. Turns out, restorative time to my worn-out body and
mind is the exact prep needed for creative juices to flow.
Just a few weeks later, I landed in
Cancun where a shuttle carted me to the Vidanta resort. Cathy met me at
the desk with a ready-smile and spirited nature. I liked her immediately. It
was hot and humid, reminding me of my Miami and island of Key Biscayne days;
the place I was born and raised. After settling into my suite (larger than my
apartment) wondering, what would I do in that large living
room, I took myself to a restaurant gazing at the sea. I drank a cold, dark
beer. While there were mounds of seaweed at the shore prohibiting a swim, the
salt water pool in a private area cooled me off in the balmy early
I was back in the womb of the tropics.
I fell asleep in the ease of air conditioning
and a king size bed. The next day presented a 'rough' day at the spa for a foot
massage. I stayed at the spa for a couple hours more enjoying the saunas and
cold cucumber on my eyes with a cold wash cloth atop easing my international
flight journey the day before-Heaven. The spa employees were
sweet, Mayan beauties in red lipstick so willing to make the spa experience
even more comfortable and luxurious. I began to breathe deeper just as I did in
The retreat involved healing and evolved
workshops. There were fifteen women from different parts of the country
attending SMOV. When you hear the expression, "walk a mile in someone's shoes"
to indicate the only way to understand what an individual goes through is wise
when it comes to breast cancer survivors. You'd have to journey much longer
than a mile though, to feel all the raw feelings we have
stamped on our souls. Every story is unique, but the pain, trauma... even
humbling humiliation is similar.
I had no idea what to expect at the retreat. I
waltzed in open to what would unfold. The mermaid shoot surprised me. It was a
production. Not only was there someone to do hair and makeup, but jewelry selection,
mermaid ensemble in a variety of colors, and an escort down to the beach
where the cute professional photographer waited for you. It took a village...
and what a beautiful group of women as crew to organize our daily activities
(see photo of support crew below); as well as to support and transform all of us attendees into
a mermaid. It turned out to be a revitalizing and a majestically feminine
I've been to many spiritual workshops and
teachings over the course of decades The last day of my mermaid retreat, as
vision boards were held in our laps, we took turns in the circle to talk about
our vision board image. I was the last, and unexpectedly, lost it. Arriving
late due to fatigue, I had little time with the leftover magazines to put
something together, but it turned out perfect. At the top was the word 'love'
with a double platinum ring entwined and blossoming images to display desires
of love, beauty and romantic destinations. When it came my turn, I spoke of the
expectations of me to be strong (exhaustively strong) and that since a toddler,
expectations have been so high that most think I can take absolutely anything
thrown at me. But, I'm also fragile and weary from an arduous, and even brutal
journey I've been swimming through mostly alone... and for what feels like a
lifetime. I put my broken heart in the middle of the circle and let the tears
flow. Crying is not something I did much (other than when in immense physical
pain) because there wasn't anyone but me to pick up the pieces. It felt good to
let go in a room of women (I'd never met but shared common ground with) where I
felt safe to fall apart just a little.
Outside the workshops, mermaid on the beach
adventure, and dinner gatherings, I went on two catamaran sails to the coral
reef in the gorgeous Caribbean water that inspires any mermaid. I snorkeled atop warm, dazzling turquoise water to gaze at the
intimacy of another life where brilliantly colorful fish and coral going about
their own daily routine. It's a glorious experience where I find myself feeling
that 'alive’ sensation running through my veins. After snorkeling, I'd float on
my back and look up at the abundant clouds so thankful to be in my bliss again.
I'm a natural in the ocean---a fish---a mermaid.
I ended a couple of days during the week I was
there in a beautifully lit curving and large saltwater pool nearly emptied by
the time twilight came around. I swam laps and then leisurely floated on my
back while I looked up at the moon and stars deciding to grace me with their
I feel so enormously grateful for SMOV and
my mermaid retreat. I'm blessed to have been in the presence of amazingly
fierce women. All that participated will hold fond memories dear. I will
never forget the incredible women, circle gatherings, Mexican Caribbean, mermaid
transformation, and healing of the heart in the presence of such love and
light. You’ll find a few photos (below) highlighting the exceptional
Since my manuscript was taunting me and I couldn't seem to get a footing to launch into the daunting revision notes from my editor, I decided to seek a quiet space to write. After a few hours of research, I came across a retreat that appeared to be the answer. It was all about where I could sequester myself and get to work with focused concentration. Over the Internet, I concluded that it would be the perfect solution since my living space is continually over run with traffic noise.
What's the expression - "Life is what happens when you're making other plans."
My first experience on this adventure was getting lost after driving 4 1/2 hours. Once I started up the mountain, my cell reception dropped and along with it, google maps. I went old school and stopped at a stranger's home for verbal directions. I was so grateful for friendly help because I would never have found my destination up a curving redwood canopied road to the top of a mountain.
I arrived at Mount Madonna near Watsonville in Northern California among the majestic redwoods - a rather rustic site with basic accommodations. It's an Ayurveda and yoga retreat with all vegetarian meals included. It was a mix of Hippie and Hindu. Everyone was nice and deeply laid back, and most of the staff lived there full-time for free in trade for working at the retreat. As a newbie to retreat life, it was a stunning thought to think of being so cut off from the real world.
It dawned on me that the day I checked in on June 30th, marked exactly one-year since my eighth surgery. I was immediately struck by the serendipity. I never fully grasped that I'd not taken any time to heal and nurture myself in any type of retreat - spa or otherwise. It was due to a combination of no money for luxuries and in a state of continual fight-or-flight. I feel as if fight-or-flight state-of-being has been second nature since early childhood--a necessary tool for racing over high hurdles, keeping a roof over my head, fighting for my life and surviving. It's not a matter of avoiding the dark and difficult, but the way I found to get through... that, and noticing the exquisite beauty in nature on a daily basis.
I went to the retreat with an intention to write but it blossomed into something else. I knew it would at least get me in the zone... or so I hoped. I was distracted by interesting conversations that spontaneously came about. I couldn't find a writing spot since it was an active retreat, and my cabin room consisted of two twin beds only. I allowed for the unexpected, which I discovered was far easier to do away from home and routine.
It was like closing my eyes, taking my hands off the steering wheel and allowing myself to trust without the expectation of what I thought it would be.
I booked a massage and spa treatment that followed Ayurveda practice. It was life-changing. I felt myself melt and booked a second treatment meant to be healing, grounding and good for the nervous system. Because of a last minute cancellation, I slipped into a consultation with the best Ayurvedic doctor on the property - her last appointment before returning to Nepal. I attended the hour 1/2 Asana yoga class twice, which is complimentary to guests. I met a woman from Manhattan who, like me, wanted to hike in the redwoods but a mountain lion had recently been seen on a trail. We decided to buddy up and and brave the woods. We were talking so much and commenting on the beauty that the mountain lion nervousness stayed behind. It was a near two-hour hike in a towering redwood forest where we appeared miniature in its centuries old magnificence.
There were three tasty and nourishing meals a day where connections and conversations flowed in the most natural way. Time flew by from one meal to the next. I was hit with an awareness that unfolded without a moment's thought. I didn't resit, I opened to it being what it was - a restorative retreat. A first for me! The twists and turns that changed my sincere efforts in an intended plan became a blessing in disguise.
Other interesting and revealing things took place: A new friendship, meeting a potential romantic partner who lived up that way flat-lined, connected with an old crush, and a random email came in to announce that I was awarded a free healing retreat in Cancun for breast cancer survivors--I had applied for it a few months ago and forgot about it. Total surprise and a gift.
The second retreat I was going to (where I really thought I'd really get writing done) since I couldn't get enough consecutive days in one place called to tell me that their construction would not end at the planned date. I had to cancel. Construction noise defeated the purpose of being enveloped by quiet in a Buddhist retreat that's known to be a place where sounds of nature and bells are the only sounds you hear. What I thought would be a 10-15 day trip to get a good start on the book revision and possibly a romantic adventure, didn't happen.
But, what did happen is that I became aware, as different things unfolded without my doing or control, that it was easy to accept and even embrace the experience. It may have been a runaway retreat, but I didn't mind being a runaway from my routine. As much as I steer clear from cliches and guru-type quotes, all of it was truly 'meant to be'. It was, in fact, a restorative and healing getaway where I felt pampered, connected, and safe enough to let go of a familiar fight-or-flight state-of-mind. Writing will come and possibly flow better than I expected.
There it sits. After years of work and literally blood sweat and tears, (including gallons of fluid post-surgeries) I have a draft. A couple months ago, I was connected to a smart and capable editor through an old friend, and knew immediately she was the perfect one. There was no long Google search for fabulous non-fiction editors and asking other writers for a referral. My experienced editor magically came into my life. I was 3/4 of the way through my second pass when we made the decision to work together.
Truly motivated, I worked day and night to finish. I felt this great sense of relief to hand it over for a fresh pair of eyes to hopefully ground me in some brilliant way. I was both terrified and excited to see what would come back. Six weeks later, I received my manuscript with smart and daunting notes to create a polished draft. My editor, enthusiastic about my writing and the potential of my book creating a new form of creative non-fiction, decided it was her calling to shepherd me through to a finished draft. Needless to say, I was deeply grateful. There is nothing simple about the next step though... more like 10 steps to accomplish this re-write fete.
I printed out the 200 plus pages. It's the first time I've seen my book in hard copy. I was struck by its weighty content. For several days, it sat on the table taunting me. I simply stared at it. So many thoughts ran through my head: I can't do this. The editor has such astute notes and I don't want to let her down. I'm not a good enough writer to pull off the vision my editor has in mind. I was the one who supported writers for film by working story ideas and editing, but never the writer. I can't survive another failure...on and on the thoughts flowed. All my insecurities ran amok forcing me to face the dragon.
Several years ago, when I took the one and only writing class through Adult Ed, my beloved teacher, Anne, told me to apply for a full scholarship to the Santa Barbara Writers Conference. I asked her to repeat what she'd just said. I was a rookie. For the next few weeks, Anne continued to ask, and I trusted her so I relented and applied. I won a full scholarship. I was surprised--Anne wasn't. It was no different when I applied to the prestigious Prague Summer Writing Program. I was in the middle of a difficult recovery from a 6th surgery, and I was seeking something to occupy my mind...something to dream about. It was also an exercise to gain experience in putting together a writing submission.
When I received not only the acceptance, but a $1000 scholarship, I sobbed. It was the most exciting and stunning news I'd received in a very long time. Every talented writer (my co-students where 95% of them were younger than me) in the program possessed a B.A., M.A., PhD or even a Doctorate. Not me. It was both flattering and intimidating to be attending. One thing's for sure, it kept me on my toes! And I basked in the stimulating beauty of Prague while gaining a learning experience that will never leave me.
By now, I should be use to being the fish-out-of-water. It seems as though I've flown by the seat of my pants my entire life. Jump in and do it. No formal training. I talked my way into the film business and proved myself from there. I have fashion and design background, but having a good eye is an instinctual talent. I started my business as a makeover specialist for wardrobe and home with a business card only. I knew no one in town and built it brick-by-brick. Writing the book is my latest venture and it's been a long winding road to get to this moment
But, I've never fully tasted success. Certainly not financially.
Like I said, I get by by the seat of my pants. I rise to the occasion as best I can. And, as the manuscript weighs down my little drop-leaf table, I must meet the challenge. I feel exhausted knowing the concentrated focus it will require to succeed. I vacillate from renewed faith to a feeling that the book is drifting out to sea while I remain isolated and frozen in contemplation of a lifetime of insecurities and setbacks.
Personally, I find it fascinating that faith in myself is buoyed by a person I highly respect having immense faith in me. Why do many of us do this? Why do artists continually doubt themselves? I envy those who possess strong foundations and go boldly in the night. There's a part of me that believes that kind of brazen faith in oneself comes first, from a parent's unconditional love, support, and pride. Perhaps this is naive, but I have a nagging sense that it's the missing link for me.
When I attended a reading recently, the director of the event asked if there was any news from the audience. I raised my hand to acknowledge the friend I'd shown up to support who was doing a reading from her book of short stories--A friend and co-student, I hadn't seen since our Prague writing program and great adventure. I quickly added: "And, I just finished a draft of my book". Everyone acknowledged my statement. It was an impressive reading by seasoned writers. Later, when I gave kudos to one of the writers who read poems, he said, "hey, congrats on completing your draft... that is a big accomplishment". Yes, I must give myself credit for getting this far. I've yet to celebrate a giant step toward the finish line, but I plan to.
Maybe when I clink cocktail glasses with a friend for my accomplishment, I'll take a deep breath and muster the confidence and energy to take on the task at hand. The task and worthy adventure millions of writers have taken on before me.
Written for Daughters Against Breast Cancer - www.daughtersagainstbc.org
blessed with a steady rain storm on our parched terrain, the only thing I
wanted to do was stare out the window and listen to the persistent drops. But
it was time to put a rain jacket on and embrace the wet outdoors. As I got back
into my car from running a crucial errand, I made perfect timing to hear one of
the most beautiful violin pieces I know of, The Lark Ascending by Vaughan
Williams. It transports me and brings chills to my body. I had no choice but to
stay still, close my eyes and take it in while the rain flowed over the
The music carries me away to a place of
grace and a cocoon of safety encircles me. My spirit ascends along with the
Lark. There are moments in this piece that are so astoundingly quiet, but deeply
moving beyond description. I’m not a classical music aficionado, but like any
of the arts, I know instantly what I’m drawn to. I’d felt off kilter concerned
with finances, more tests and doctor appointments, lingering trauma, and a pervasive
loneliness and depression I can’t seem to shake when this hauntingly beautiful
piece ignited my soulful spirit.
There’s nothing typical in healing. It’s
been nine months since my eighth surgery, but life is still off kilter. My
intention is to resurrect my life on all levels, but I’m often in a state of
treading water. There are many who say that I ought to feel springtime renewal
and launch right back into things. Going through four-years of a health crisis
is traumatic and impossible for someone outside my shoes to fully grasp. I’d
like to rejuvenate by escaping to a tropical resort and receive pampering, swim
in pristine aqua blue water and have a cocktail or two while strong balmy
breezes attempt to blow away painful memories. It’s not possible though, as the
coffers are empty from a long breast cancer journey.
There are many of us women who go through
difficult, even what feels like insurmountable challenges on our own. I remain
in a strict healthy lifestyle and routine while trying to find my footing again.
I’ve kept my daydreams going and envision light-hearted adventures ahead. We
are forever told to have hope, but much of the time I find it exhausting to
meet expectations. My friends believe me to be the strongest person they’ve
ever known, but I don’t always feel that way. I’m scrambling to put the broken
pieces back together with only myself to rely or lean on.
After multiple frightening hurdles and
surprising complications, I learned to brace myself for the next blow as the
reptilian part of my brain gained dominance. It’s the necessary part of our
brain that keeps us safe. The masterful tool of auto-pilot kicks in and it’s
essential during crises. I believe I’m highly skilled at survival mode, which
assisted me in obliterating paralyzing fear and raw emotions to keep moving
forward and stay alive. I’m patiently waiting for my body to feel secure enough
to allow auto pilot to shut down. It’s fascinating to ponder the intricacies of
the human mind that includes innate survival skills, which I mastered beginning
as a toddler.
Thriving is what I yearn for now where the
all-consuming fight becomes a distant memory – a story about a warrior of
The journey I’ve been on has given me
pause to think about the mother I never knew. If she were still alive, I’d have
the benefit of her support and nurturing. I’ve longed for her presence my whole
life. She had breast cancer in a time when it wasn’t spoken of out loud. There
was so little known and even less care - Often a death sentence when diagnosed.
How alone my mother must’ve felt keeping her illness so private she didn’t even
tell her best friend. Shame surrounded breast cancer in the late fifties. My
mother was so young with two small children, and not blessed with the chance to
get life back on track. She was from the south, and southern shame seeped into
her since she was a child. Because I have a new understanding as a kindred
spirit daughter, my heart aches for her. When I was a little girl my
grandmother tried instilling fear and shame in me as she cruelly did with my
mother, but she never won that battle. I believe my mother would be proud of my
I admit that I find myself feeling ashamed
of my reconstructed breasts and miss my ample, sensitive breasts discarded in a
medical waste bin long ago. Every woman reacts differently. I’m embarrassed of
my shame, and the erotic loss of sensitivity in my breasts because I know I’m
supposed to be focused on being grateful that I’m alive. I wish it were that
easy, but complex layers developed and I’m not the same woman. I wish my mother
were here, so I could talk to her about the emotions I have running as deep as
the sea, where to go from here, and will someone love me with all my scars.
It’s so childlike to have these feelings, but necessary to bring them all into
the light, and seek support where I can.
Cancer patients have access to so many
avenues of support through social workers, therapy, Cancer Centers, and Breast
Cancer Resource Centers. I’ve utilized these resources and we are fortunate to
live in a time where breast cancer is out in the open and incredible advances
have been made that weren’t available to my mother. We carry the torch for the
women before us.
Vacillating between days of feeling on
track and then without a moment’s notice, feeling off kilter again is only
human. Being courageous enough to work through the trauma and find the path to
life in full technicolor again is where I hold hope. In the end, it’s up to me
to find my way to a goal of being healed in mind, body, and spirit. There’s no
time limit on grief or loss. I accept going in and out of being on track and
thrown off kilter again as I set intentions to live a healthy and fulfilled
To find my footing again and feel an
empowered life force, I utilize secret weapons of beauty such as: “The Lark
Ascending”; “Casablanca”; the blue walls in my bedroom that provides a sensation
of waking up on the bottom of the ocean; dazzling colors of hummingbirds and
the way they stare into my eyes; powerful singing voices; four-legged friends;
Renoir and Van Gogh; a friend’s unrelenting love and support; witty repartee; splendid
literary prose, the scent of jasmine and orange blossoms; or the first sip of
rich, dark espresso.
Everyone has their own discovery of secret
weapons of beauty that cause the spirit to soar. The key is to be sensitive and
aware of the world around you and become open to connecting to the moments of
grace that move you deeply and inspire chills running through your body from
head-to-toe. It’s a wonderful reminder of being alive.
"This is a story of a warrior, a survivor, and an outstanding community member. Valerie Burns has written an unflinching book about her life as a cancer survivor. Her story is not only powerful, it is honest and incredibly important for anyone who faces the many challenges of healing." Nathaniel Gray, Santa Barbara Project:
"It was several years ago when I wrote my first personal essay about the one memory I have of my mother when I was a three-year-old seeing her in a casket. Little did I know that a few years later, in July 2013, I would be diagnosed with breast cancer myself. While in the midst of the harrowing journey that followed, and after my fifth of eight surgeries, I was accepted and received a scholarship to The Prague Summer Writing Program in 2016. When I began the writing venture in 2010, I received a full scholarship to the Santa Barbara Writing Conference, both of which inspired me to pursue writing with more devotion.
I continued to write and juggled many balls to stay alive, heal, and keep a roof over my head. A cancer survivor in my twenties when diagnosed with cervical cancer, I’d been on a holistic and healthy lifestyle path for more than thirty years. A breast cancer diagnosis was the last thing I expected, but life has a way of throwing us those curves. I lost business, moved seven times, and put myself on auto-pilot to make it through. I feel as if I’ve come full circle from my mother’s passing to my survival.
With a background in the movie business, I have always loved story. And, since I was a young girl growing up on an island off Miami, I have always found ways to escape into the ethereal world of the mermaid imagination. As a seeker of beauty, and with a background in fashion and interior design, I am a makeover specialist for home and wardrobe. I’m at my best when I’m creating something beautiful.
All of this has inspired me to turn my essays into a book, “Caution: Mermaid Crossing”. To create purpose and a new positive chapter on the other side of healing, it’s my intention to share my raw and truthful words with the hope that they may resonate with others on their own challenging path. Because I believe that even if it’s a few moments of grace that takes your breath away, like pausing to observe all the brilliant colors bestowed upon a hummingbird, finding exquisite beauty in nature, the arts, or deep connection is life’s greatest gifts." ~Valerie Burns
Read Valerie’s full story in the Santa Barbara Project this Winter. She and hundreds of other community members are telling their story all in the hopes of uniting us. Tell your story. www.santabarbaraproject.com/submission
My last name of
Burns passed from dad, his father before him and so on is of Scottish heritage.
I carry the Scottish name and history. The Scots withstood a great
deal of fighting for independence from the English forces and survived savage wars.
While I’m a mix of Scottish, Danish, and British blood, it’s clear that the Scottish
name I’ve inherited runs deep in my blood and identifies me the most. Lately, I've been pondering this fighting spirit
handed down to me and wonder if in receiving it means being presented with an abundance
of challenges to fight – a woman warrior fighting battles. Women are fierce warriors capable of succeeding in extraordinary feats. In Scottish terms, it's called Laoch, which means warrior; person of great bravery. I've appreciated being told I'm brave, but no longer want to
carry the pervasive fighter spirit my father was so proud to see shine in my true nature; except that I was thrown into circumstances early on that required a feisty fighter and not sure I had another choice. Had my mother lived, maybe the Christopher traits would've been more predominant. Do men think about their DNA in a last name more than women? They automatically carry the name through sons. Do women who marry and take their husband’s last name think less of the mysteries deep in the DNA of their maiden name? Since I haven’t had family for a long while, I acknowledge my last name to give myself a stake in the world; making sure I exist. There’s no one to carry the name any longer so I think about it. All of us have fighting spirits and a resilient built-in strength, and some of us find ourselves in fight or flight
more than others. If I’m not a fighter, then who would I be? How would I have
not held that machete and fought my way many times through the jungle of challenge to an
opening where the path cleared, if not for being a Burns Laoch? I’ve burned with anger as I’ve made my way over the hurdles time and time again searching for a breathing spot on top of a moor with my hand shading blue eyes looking out to sea.
Considering the female warriors before me riding the stars somewhere in the twilight blue sky, I ask for the gift of shedding the armor for good because I burn with the desire to soar not simply survive. I want to live a life of ease sitting outdoors at the tables of European cafes watching the world go by, and swimming in the aquamarine Tahitian sea staring at fluffy clouds above.
. . . . . . . .
Burns represents fiery hot in our minds, a
fire that continues to burn. The passionate fire has been turned down to a
very low flame that one more hit could possibly extinguish forever. I’m aware of
a familiar flame, but it feels nearly outside of me; hovering somewhere in
perpetual pause. All I can do is tuck away the emotions and anxiety when out in public. I'm experienced at putting on my actress hat to appear strong and together when need be, and I’m also an expert at turning on auto-pilot when necessary to protect myself; auto pilot
in a coastal resort town where things appear to be perfect. Perhaps there will
be this clear moment when the flame within me will be ignited brighter than ever before. Maybe this is what we’re programmed to do. Have hope. Keep going. Continue
marching on auto-pilot during heart wrenching times when it provides a way to
put one foot in front of the other. It's the wisdom of ebb and flow; yin and yang of life that you can't escape hearing or reading about. The river keeps flowing and ocean waves pound the shore when a storm strikes without notice. Showing compassion for all those in their
own personal struggles provides a sunlit sparkle to the river of life.
I recall my flaming red breast burning with
the first infection that struck with no mercy, and it was swollen to the size
of a water balloon that no amount of antibiotics or harrowing radiology fluid drainings involving needles, tubes and glass jars could squash. So, me and my
angry red breast were rolled into an emergency surgery. I survived. But it came
back even more infected and inflamed a year later. In my high fever state, I
didn’t think I’d make it through surgery. I was put out so fast that I didn't have time to call on my fighter spirit or contemplate death, and if I could come up with last words. I had felt a searing anger as it overtook me
and my hopes of recovering sooner. Once again, Cottage hospital that became a
second home, took me in for emergency surgery. I was dressed and prepped for
battle with the name of Burns on my hospital wrist band.
I woke hours later not on the other side seeing the light, but in a hospital room for a sixth ride with nurturing nurses. I was a weakened warrior feeling no end in sight. Compassion I received from nurses, friends, and strangers cushioned my ride in raging waters encouraging my mermaid spirit to keep from drowning.
Even though I'm conscious of detecting the flame of
passion that use to burn bright is low, I can sense it trying to get my
attention. My focus isn’t there yet and not sure it will ever be the same. I
use to have my passion flame turned on high, but years of valiant efforts
toward manifesting desires and dreams that failed; often going unnoticed or unexpressed proved
to be less fruitful and more painful. It tended to set me up for longing,
disappointment and being misunderstood. Passion for causes and hopes will burst
through my soul at inopportune times – As much as it can be a gift to care so damn much, it scares
some people. I ache with this intensity for many worthy causes I feel are so crucial for the planet, or for beauty I witness in the world that I must find a way to
describe. There are those moments, even seconds when I connect with someone who
sees me immediately, (the Laoch and so much more in the deeper truth of me) that
I have this sensation of breathing free for the first time. My heart opens to possibility of love.
I burn with a desire to be the woman and
lover that I am or once was before diagnosis. My romantic spirit burns with the
need to be realized and utilized.For now, it stays with me wrapped in classic movies, rich and colorful novels, nineteenth century poetry in a time where horse drawn carriages delivered envelopes with hand written prose of love. I’m
no longer young where romance seems possible on a daily basis. I’ve been on the
battle field where I’ve had to fight for my life more than a few times. What
now? It’s as if I must introduce myself to myself. It has been said, “know
I don’t know that I can blame this lost
feeling solely on anesthesia, trauma, loss, and pain, or even the DNA of my last name. But I know that even
though compartmentalized somewhere within are the familiar desires, blossoming
in them feels out of reach right now. The warrior spirit is dormant, and I hope to be the caterpillar transforming into a new me with wings; a fresh chapter where I gain a renewed fervor for life and sparkle again. The brilliant glow of star light that is within
us all can dim and then surprise us by twinkling bright again. We are made from the same atoms
as stars - What an exceptional scientific fact to embrace! We human beings are literally star
dust, which connects us to an infinite Universe. What burns more vibrantly than
From my book of personal essays, "Caution: Mermaid Crossing"
Valentine's Day Event 2018 published on Lit Up/Medium
I wanted to slide into that Restoration
Hardware bedding in your dark wood four poster bed and never get out. My head
would sink into that big pillow and I’d close my eyes waiting for you to crawl
in next to me. I want you to hold me for twenty-four hours or forever. I’m
broken in many nooks and crannies of my being, but when you wrap your long arms
and legs around me holding me with your head nuzzled in my neck, as if you
won’t let go - I’ll melt, and wounds will heal. You will seal up the gaping
wounds of trauma in your masculine style and I will feel safe; maybe safer than
I’ve ever felt.
The smooth duvet in a perfectly made bed
would be disrupted by our bodies. I hope the high thread count will never be
the same, as I hope you and I will never be the same. I’ll gaze at the manly
dark wood spiral of the four posters in all its New England coziness. It adds a
layer of protectiveness I yearn for. Alone and isolated during unimaginable
assault to my body, I’ve needed you. You don’t know because you did not see. I
wanted to enjoy time being something other than a patient. I’m good at
presenting myself as pretty and polished. But you saw that I was pale a time or
two. I want to be the desirable woman, not a sickly one. I learned long ago to
present well. Vanity has its virtues.
I hid my mangled non-reconstructed left
breast made ugly by the ravages of multiple surgeries and multiple staph
infections. I wore the bra that had a slit to slide in a manufactured filler
for women like me. I hated it, and never looked at myself. I resented the
pillow filler I wore. That’s me. Not every woman would hold vanity, but I care
and I’m single; a passionate romantic. I probably care too much. You never noticed
or understood it. You never saw me, really saw me; certainly not un-clothed. I
was always dressed nice with makeup perfectly applied on our outings.
Eventually, I told you while you put your hand over mine to console me. I knew
I had to take off the mask, but it was a lovely distraction. It surprised and
concerned you. You felt you could’ve been a support to me. I would’ve been too embarrassed.
I prefered showing up concealed and attractive.
But now I’m nearly physically healed, and I’m
reconstructed. They’re not perfect, and they’re not my beautiful breasts
discarded long ago in some hazardous waste bin. Will I ever feel whole again? My
natural breasts were full, sensual and sexual. Now, without any feeling, they
are just there to fill out a bra, having the superficial appearance of pretty
breasts. I’m far more prepared to be intimate, but unprepared for how different
it will be. Although older and past a
grueling ordeal, there’s that part of me that is the same attractive, sexual
woman. I know that love, and lying in your inviting bed with you next to me
could mend broken parts of my feminine being more than meditation or yoga ever
could. It’s my mermaid essence that still desires to be desired, deeply connect
with a lover; and believe that I’ll swim through the rest of my days with a
handsome kindred spirit.
It's entirely possible that I'm a little crazy; perhaps even driven to that place. This should not be confused with being referred to as, eccentric. I'm a complicated and annoying mix of dreamy optimism with unrealistic desires; and a dog with a bone for things I believe in or have to fight for. I wish it wasn't so. It would be far easier to be light and breezy. I care to the point of stress and worry. I can't turn away from harm to what's precious, not even when it might protect me from anxiety. My father, who had little patience in the role of parent, taught and expected me to be independent, strong, and fierce. He wanted me to begin this path by the time I was the age of three when my mother passed. He encouraged me to be a fighter and stand up for what's right. I don't know how to be any other way.
The 1st photo of the 101 freeway shows a small glimpse into the mass destruction caused by a flood and mudslide on January 9th in Montecito soon after an intense, drought-driven fire. The devoted first-responders, search & rescue team, police, firemen, and Caltrans worked 24/7 for two weeks to clean up the freeway and re-open it. The 2nd photo is the startling difference when opened again on January 22nd. The community is working to get back on its feet and go through a healing, but there's so much more to this.
The Thomas fire that began in Santa Paula December 4th and raced south from there where it grew to a frightening blaze. It's now documented as the worse fire in California history. The blaze spanned for sixty miles and it felt as if it would never go out. A long drought, and not a drop of rain prior to the fire since last spring challenged 8,500 firefighters. Terrifying. Holiday festivities were cancelled in Santa Barbara and the other towns effected. There was a pervasive eeriness. The empty streets were left to the braver ghosts to wander. At one point, we thought the entire town would burn down. Between mandatory evacuations and most of us needing to escape the ash and smoke, when the only way to be outside was with a mask secured to our faces, left town or the state. It cleared the way for service workers to save our town.
I've been a passionate and crazed activist for the environment and wildlife for more than thirty years. When I lived in LA and worked in Hollywood, I use to go to documentaries in the 80's made by a small, but special group of environmental filmmakers showing that, unless drastic measures were taken, global warming would wreak havoc. Here we are. Sooner than predicted. I have enormous respect for dedicated documentarians, activists, and organizations working for our good. Just in the last year, we've witnessed severe hurricanes, fires, blizzards, and floods giving us red flashing signs of climate change!
Barely a breath, and the next disaster hit with a vengeance. Just two weeks past the fires and weary from the fear and stress, the first winter rain storm came. The hills were bare with fire holes from all the vegetation wiped out so evacuations were put into effect again. Residents got back into their homes just in time for Christmas. The holidays were surreal though. Everyone was thrown off balance. In the early morning hours on that fateful morning, I heard the rain outside my window from the safety of my bed. Just several miles away in Montecito, the water and mud rushed down the hills with a power surge taking everything in its path. Within minutes, four feet of mud poured down in a rage destroying or severely damaging 500 homes. A house at the top was upended setting off a fire from a gas line. Some of the residents stepped out of their homes to investigate, and were brutally taken with the surge - some taken as far as the freeway and beach.
The death toll in now twenty-one with two people still missing. There are/were others hospitalized from critical and more minor injuries. The mudslide took anything it could in its path, including animals, vehicles, large amounts of debris, and countless broken hearts. I ache for the loss and the despair for the families who've lost so much. My community has been shaken to its core, and will take an indeterminable time to recover. While I feel sadness, I also feel angry. We are the stewards of this fascinatingly and intricately divinely designed planet! I don't know why everyone isn't shouting from the mountains in protest. It will take much more than minimizing use of water/electricity, driving fuel efficient, recycling and getting off plastic. While we still have the right in this country to stand-up and speak out, and truth in media isn't shut down, dissent is the only answer.
We are living in unprecedented times with the disgrace in the White House and seeing all that's valued in our country, the world, and our environment on a runaway train to no good. Many feel that praying, and meditating on love will heal all. While I think that's a wonderful practice (meditating myself on my own spiritual path), we're in for the fight of our lives. The scientists predicted a future of crisis on our planet with a plan of action in the 70's, but greed and selfish agendas continue to win over compassion and care for mother earth - the planet that nourishes us; provides the air we breathe and water we drink. I weep for our magnificent wildlife in extinction from pollution, lack of water, and disrupting eco-systems or poached by monsters. Life of all species are killed in these multiplying 'unnaturally' severe disasters we're now witnessing . January should be California's heaviest rain month. We've had one rain that created mass damage. Not a drop since.
Thankfully, many of our spirits were lifted in hope by the women's rally and march. I saw an aerial video in a lovely shade of pink showing hundreds of thousands of women, men, and children all over the country marching in protest against Trump and his policies. I attended our rally in Santa Barbara. Many of the protest signs were in defense of our beloved planet. It was such a relief and a joy to see people gathering and connecting to stand up against injustice. Since I was a kid I, fought against what didn't feel right (including my older brother being bullied) and have always felt the need to be fiercely protective. In reflection, I think it comes from not being protected myself. I'm willing to stand in front of a car to protect an animal; I will do anything for a friend, especially if they're hurting, in trouble or in danger of harming themselves or others. I can't turn away when someone is suffering; I'd never sleep. There are millions of fellow-humans that feel the same way.
I'm aware that my journey has put me on the outside. Dad couldn't have known how his determined expectation of me to be a strong survivor who can take anything thrown at her may have created more than an outsider. No one knows how fragile any of us are deep within. I'm no exception. Maybe he intuitively understood he'd die young from alcohol and his own demons, and could foresee that I'd have to fend for myself. It's tiring, and a very isolating path. I've felt covered in mud and debris countless times, and often unsure how to move forward.
Am I crazy to care so damn much, and at this chapter in life, not give up and pass the torch? Am I crazy to be focused on justice when all my doctors advise me to focus on healing from 4-years of breast cancer and harsh symptoms of an immune challenge? Am I crazy to stay sober and off anti-depressants to get through the daily 'Trumpisms' as I observe everything I believe in rushing like a mudslide and crashing hard? Am I crazy to encourage others to get on board? Am I crazy to feel so worried for where this country and planet are headed when most of my life I've been in survival mode; or fighting for my own life? Am I crazy to not save myself and move to a deserted island (without Internet) surrounded by aqua blue water nourishing my mermaid spirit? I probably am a little crazy - a complex mix of believing in fairy tales and a sliver of hope to see my passion-filled dreams miraculously manifest, and fierce determination to fight injustice and protect what's sacred and beautiful.