Valerie Anne Burns

As an emerging author, Valerie Anne Burns has a final draft of a collection of essays titled, "Caution: Mermaid Crossing—Voyages of a Motherless Daughter". The opening starts with one of the experiences she had growing up on a pristine island off Miami. Valerie Anne is excited to have one of the essays from her book chosen for publication in "Chicken Soup for the Soul: Tough Times Won't Last but Tough People Will" titled "Flying Nighties" coming out in print November 2nd, 2021. She's also had two other essays from "Caution: Mermaid Crossing" published in HerStry Literary Magazine: “Venice Vision” in September 2020 and “Your Bed” May 2021. Libretto Magazine published “He’s on Top of the World and I’m Not” June 2021. Valerie Anne has been awarded scholarships to the 2019 Santa Barbara Writers Conference and the 2016 Prague Summer Writing Program. In addition, Valerie Anne was sponsored on a trip to Italy for a breast cancer survivor retreat, where an essay from her book became a launching point for the workshop she presented, “Living and Healing Through Color”. Valerie Anne previously worked in Hollywood as a story editor and in production, as well as, running her own business as a makeover specialist for home decor and wardrobe image. Santa Barbara is home, where Valerie Anne has survived breast cancer. Being near the ocean brings out her “inner mermaid” and gives her the peace and clarity she requires to write, along with the strength and grace she needs to mother herself through the stormiest weather.

Award Type
In her essay collection, Valerie Anne navigates her motherless foundation through loss, abuse, love, health crises, Hollywood, affairs and #metoo incidents by relying on her affinity for the sea to help discover her own indominable spirit and sail through adversity into a world of ethereal beauty.
Caution: Mermaid Crossing, Voyages of a Motherless Daughter
Logline
In her essay collection, Valerie Anne navigates her motherless foundation through loss, abuse, love, health crises, Hollywood, affairs and #metoo incidents by relying on her affinity for the sea to help discover her own indominable spirit and sail through adversity into a world of ethereal beauty.
My Submission

Gulf Stream Awakening

     It was in green salty water where I sought to fill large holes of emptiness and fulfill a desire to immerse my young spirit in the magic of a mermaid. That’s where I wanted to be—not in the concrete world of hurt and hurdles.

     Mermaids fascinate me. They live in the grace of the ethereal and swim free. As a young girl, I had no fear of the ocean. It was my magical place to escape the things I did fear. Swimming with confidence like someone who was half-fish and half-girl, I could be a mermaid.

     Key Biscayne, in Florida where I grew up, is a small, quiet island near the big city of Miami. Balmy beauty was a daily gift there. All those years ago, my small island paradise provided pristine beaches and clear green water where my toes were visible in the white sandy bottom.

     Eventually I’d have to walk out of the ocean, to places of shifting sands, where I lived in caution. I envied mermaids and the secrets they held while swimming through the oceans of the world without having to stay exceptionally long on any concrete landscapes—the places where wounds form.

     Swimming, or walking, I’ve experienced fascinating mysteries and interesting questions of life.

     One Sunday, during a teenaged year of first love, I traveled over the Florida Gulf Stream to embark on an adventure that became a turning point in my young life. My boyfriend and I took the Boston Whaler, a boat we usually used for skiing and lobstering in the calm flats nearby, from our local yacht club. We launched it, and the shore I was familiar with grew distant.

     After a few hours, the ocean turned a blackish blue…and it looked to be very deep in an eerie way. We’d passed into a dark ocean but beneath the waterline I felt creatures being free in their element. Tuna and swordfish jumped out of the water in marvelous displays of life force. I’d only seen these fish before in a kitchen…on a plate…for dinner.

     Further from any shore than I’d ever been, I was mesmerized as we moved into the Gulf Stream. The sky deepened to a violet color. Cottony clouds transformed into a big threatening one that enfolded us into another world, and my electrified breath quickened. The safety of Key Biscayne was far from sight.

     A new kind of thrill overtook me, and I liked the feeling.

     And then, a stillness fell over me—a certain peace. Hypnotized by these thoughts and the mystical surroundings, I had a strong desire to dive into the waters and drift forever in its daytime, yet midnight blue, mystery…to become a mermaid at last.

     With the thought of swimming, I felt a new spiritual mood shift into my consciousness. It was being alive. I united with the sea, air, and ocean life. Everything else slipped away as my body and spirit were pierced with a good, and a sharp, sensory awakening.

     The two of us, and the boat, slowly moved further into that mysterious ocean. I was sure the floor below us was full of ancient stories and shipwreck treasures. Thoughts of times past, the lives of other seafarers and wandering mermaids on these waters through history, stormy dangers, and other natural disasters, filled my head until my body spoke. In a skimpy bikini, my golden tanned skin now prickled from a chill.

     A swordfish larger than our boat jumped from beneath the waves to show off by touching the sky. That magnificent fish exhibited colors of gleaming purple before returning to the water with a splash that created spectacular waves.

     The modest boat rocked hard in the ripple effect. I willed my hands, grasping the sides of the boat, to stay safe. In such a vulnerable place, yet in a precious moment where all my senses were signifying, I was aware of my need to be open, adventurous, passionate, and free—no matter how huge my fear.

     I turned my attention back to my boyfriend. He was the spitting image of Romeo in that film by Franco Zeferelli. I caught his excitement and love for me in green eyes God surely created to torment women. My first love held my gaze as his eyes turned emerald from the hue of the deep-sea water. His thick, wavy, dark brown hair blew back against the horizon. And his muscled, tanned body held a strong command of our shared vessel as we navigated the unpredictable waters. He gave me a smile that was sly.

     “This is where the Bermuda Triangle is supposed to be,” he said.

     That moment was the beginning of my journey as a restless soul. It was a beautifully intense experience. Even though I was only seventeen at the time, I was already damaged by loss and other hardships. I yearned to discover that life could be exquisitely dramatic and inspiring, but I also saw that it would be far easier to be less acutely aware of everything and everyone around me.

     Since childhood, I’ve been able to sense and take on the suffering of others. It is difficult for me to be content with “what is” because I know there is always more beneath the surface. Longing for reality to be as I imagine it could be is a nagging ache that runs from my soul into my bones. As the decades of my life continue to pass, my quantity of hope swings from being vast as the sea to as small as a grain of sand. This longing, this hope—each come from a place in me that seems infinite.

     Crossing over the Gulf Stream became my metaphor for life. The boat—my body. The ocean—my heart and soul. The sea creatures—life itself. When I find myself in the middle of a “Bermuda Triangle,” curiosity rises to beat harsh challenges and overcome the unimaginable.

     In this book of personal essays, I contemplate the idea of a divine plan, and how all the pieces of the puzzle I’ve seen floating in the Universe may come together to deliver a single message of simple clarity.

     Come swim through these waters with me.

Cornflower Blue

     While my mother was still alive, we’d moved to a brand-new home in one of those strangely uniformed suburbs in South Miami. Because blue was her favorite color, the walls inside were mostly shades of blue, and the exterior was painted in a soft shade of sky blue. The builders of the houses in that neighborhood swept away every natural thing in sight as they put up blocks and blocks of new homes leaving one lonely palm tree to sway in the breeze.

     I have two early memories of my mother: white sheets and climbing into the window of a hospital. Neither are vivid.

     In the first one, I’m not sure if it’s a real memory or a dream. I was a toddler, sitting on our back patio, watching her hang laundry. Sheets were billowing all around her in a familiar, strong, warm Florida breeze—one that could dry anything in fifteen minutes. She wore a sleeveless blouse. In her hands were wooden clothespins.

     One of the clean bed sheets, whipped by the wind, fishtailed around the lower half of her body. Looking very much like a mermaid, she unfolded out of it. Then she became my mother again, and continued the task of hanging other sheets, towels, and pajamas. Between hangings, she’d look at me and smile.

     Whether this is a dream or a memory, I can still visualize that look from her—pure sweetness and love. My mother must have loved me because it was what I felt in my baby bones.

     A bit later in my young life, I went with my dad and brother to the hospital. We kids were not allowed to visit, but our father believed that rules were meant to be broken, and I remember how we climbed the stairs meant for emergencies on the side of the building. Then we climbed inside a window to our mother’s room.

     My brother and I sat on the floor and watched TV while dad spoke with mother. They were behind a white curtain, and their voices were barely whispering. At some point, a nurse came into the room. We did our best to appear invisible. She glanced at us, smiled, and didn’t say a word. Apparently, she didn’t follow all hospital rules either. 

     Days passed, and then there was bad news.

     Now my mother was sleeping in a long box and wearing a chiffon nightgown in cornflower blue. I stood staring at her instead of reaching out with my small hand to open her eyes so she would wake up. Her dark brown hair was splayed out smooth on a white satin pillow. She was so still, but somehow still alive to me.

     The most vivid memory I have of my mother is when she was dead.

     All I wanted was to crawl into the box and lie down beside her. My face would be next to hers on the soft pillow. It was the same feeling I’d had when wanting to sleep curled up next to our cat’s newly discovered baby kittens. 

     I am sure I had been told that heaven was this beautiful place, and my mother had gone there. Staying close and holding on to her wherever she might go was where I needed to be. I wanted to open her eyes but remained frozen in my dress-up shoes. If I had reached over to wake her, would I have been haunted for so many years afterwards? The last memory of that scene is one where I was guided away by dad.

     I left my mother behind when I was only three.

     In many family photos, I am the little girl hugging a cat, sporting a boy’s haircut, looking into a camera; eyes filled with wonder and a haunting sadness. After my mother left me, my greatest source of comfort, entertainment, and joy came from my cats. Seeking somewhere to give and receive affection, I turned to a pet cat, burying my face in its silky fur. Cats have their own way of doing things and will take off in a flash before their person is ready to let them go. With the sash of a doll’s dress or a ribbon trailing behind them, my cats would grow tired of me dressing them up and placing them on the sofa like people, so they’d flee and take refuge.

     But I understood them. 

     The death of my mother caused a silent grief so piercing that everyone, in their own way, stepped around it like broken glass. When our cats died, disappeared, or were taken away, I grieved all over again.

      It was just after my mother died when our adopted stray cat, one that didn’t stay long enough to be named, presented us with a litter of kittens. I remember when we discovered the litter of four helpless, sweet kittens in our outdoor laundry room.

     A short time later, their mother went missing. We suspected a male cat that had been hanging around. He’d probably chased off the mother because he’d killed the kittens by breaking their necks. Those newborn kittens had not yet opened their eyes, and now they were dead. This shock and first exposure to violence entered every part of my body and spirit. As little as I was then, I still can see in my memory those lifeless kittens.

     My mother did not live long in our sky-blue house. Both she and the kittens were swept away with the rest of that original landscape. Our blue house never had a chance to put down roots.

     Across the street was a vacant lot with that lonesome palm tree. My dad, my gangly older brother and I went there with a shovel to bury four dead kittens. I remember standing there and feeling as empty as that lot. I looked across the street at the house my mother no longer occupied and then looked up at my father and brother, searching their faces for answers and comfort.

     I wanted dad to create magic and repair our kittens, saving them from being buried in this lonely place. He wasn’t superhuman like I wanted him to be; he couldn’t save the kittens or our mother no matter how tall, strong, and handsome he was. My brother, always eager to please, did not wear his usual sunny smile to go with his halo of white-blonde hair. What a sight the three of us must have been standing there, wordless, in our Bermuda shorts and flip-flops, with a shovel.

     Now, I stared at the kittens being buried as dirt flew into the hole and around me, swirling in the warm wind, as all sight of fur was going away…lost…just as the sight of my mother was lost in layers of her favorite blue. Instead of crossing the street to go back to our empty home where we were meant to survive, I wanted to crawl into the hole and cuddle the kittens.

     The silence was broken when dad said, “That’s it. Let’s go.”

     My feet moved to follow, but a part of me drifted back to this little hole covered with dirt, to another long box covered by dirt holding my mother. I was so stunned by death and fearful of what could come next that I moved into a blank space, an out-of-body shelter, that I remained in for many years. I’d created a functioning state where I learned to be self-sufficient and strong while my interior world was fragile and restless from nagging pain that only the ocean could ease.

     After the kittens’ burial, I kept wondering why they weren’t alive. There they lay in a little hole, blending fur into one another so that I could no longer see four kittens, but a mix of colors all becoming one. I wondered if they’d gone to heaven like my mother. How would the kittens find her? How could they get out of that hole and fly?

     They’d put a cover over the box my mother was in and she disappeared. I didn’t know how she could get out, and I tried to imagine her flying high in a sky wrapped in waves of cornflower blue chiffon to arrive in heaven…and to be happy there. Why would that make her happy instead of being here with us?

     The only words I can recall dad saying about my mother dying was on the day he came home from the hospital for the last time. The three of us were standing in the hallway when he said, “Your mother is gone. We will survive this.” I didn’t understand what “survive” meant, but I did sense it meant staying quiet.

     My dad never again spoke about her death, and neither did I.

     I was, and remain, as fragile as baby seahorses, yet I’m restless as a caged jaguar. Seeking heaven anywhere I stood became a saving grace. The loss of my mother and those innocent baby kittens began a pattern of anxiousness and sleeplessness—and yet—a great visual imagination that launched me into nights and days of dreaming in all shades of cornflower and mermaid blue.

Blue Falcon

     After my mother died, I kept a close eye on dad. I wondered if he would disappear, too.

     My insides would make flip flops as I’d watch him coming down the hallway with his briefcase in hand, clothed in a crisp white shirt, navy suit, and a colorful tie hanging narrow across his broad chest. One of his ties had a picture of a rooster—I liked that one. He’d walk out the door, take off his jacket, lay it over the passenger seat and say, “I better get on the road. Long drive today.” There was no air conditioning in the Falcon, and he’d talk about how hot the drive would be.

     His baby blue Ford Falcon would disappear all too soon as I’d stand in the driveway barefoot, shading my eyes from the harsh, hot sunlight. I stood long past seeing the back tail- lights make their way around the corner. Dread would build and linger in the pit of my stomach until dad returned.  

     His business trips seemed to go on forever and I held my breath until the Falcon showed up again. The best part of dad coming home were the first few minutes when he’d scoop me up in his arms, enfolding me in one of his bear hugs. A bear hug works best when your dad is tall and strong. His return from a trip was a moment of joy, security, and feeling seen…before going back to being invisible. Truth is, as a small girl, I had more control over a cat’s love, constancy, and presence than I could ever achieve with my dad.

     For the next couple of years, dad traveled for work and my brother and I had a caretaker dad hired after our mother died. I think it was easier for dad to keep moving. When he’d be back home, he’d go out again as a single good-looking man, not content to be on his own with two kids. I remained in a state of loneliness not knowing where I stood with dad. Fearful of losing him, I moved into a place of wanting to shine just for him.

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