What I want to do every morning just before I open my eyes is write — to go someplace (a cabin in the woods, preferably) and get lost in storytelling until my body cries out for bread and tea and exercise. I lie in bed a few more minutes, wrapped in this fantasy. And then, I rise to the realities of getting my son up for school, cooking a protein-rich breakfast and readying myself for work and daily duties. This grind is nothing new for working parents, but adding the role of “artist” to the elusive work-life balance obliterates the scale.
As all writers and artists can attest: carving out time to create can feel impossible. There is absolutely no way to attain balance when you’re juggling multiple balls in the air. To attempt to create anyway, I believe, is a revolutionary act.
From my newspaper reporter days to now, I’m lucky that I’ve been able to weave my love of writing into a profession. As editor in chief of L.A. Parent, I’m honored to work with a galaxy of rotating freelance writers who bring their unique voices to our print and digital pages and, every now and then, I find time to squeeze some of my own writing into these pages. And so, during a recent opportunity to do a “writer’s den” (or writing retreat) at Pasadena Hotel and Pool, I jumped at the chance.
Being a mom, though, I almost balked at the last minute. My check-in day was slated for March 20, which is when it was confirmed that my son’s school — as part of a planned three-day strike by the Los Angeles School District’s workers and teachers — would shut down March 21. Was driving across town to indulge in a beautiful hotel and uninterrupted time to myself the right thing to do in the middle of LAUSD workers’ demands for higher pay? And what about the remote schoolwork my son would need to do during those three days?
“Don’t worry about it,” my husband said. “Go to Pasadena. I’ll work out my schedule to be here with him the first part of that first day, then you’ll be back.”
He was right, of course, but it is not lost on me that if I were a single parent I would likely have had to cancel my mini writing retreat. We moms have been conditioned to don the mantle of guilt. Just two weeks before, I had traveled to Seattle for a four-day writing conference, and here I was “leaving” again.
Just before my son’s school dismissal bell rang on March 20 — the first day of spring — I grabbed two reusable bags and stuffed them with a few items of clothing, two laptops (personal and work), books, pencils and pens, a yellow legal pad, the gemstone-studded journal my son gifted me my last birthday and a vision board I’d created during the same time last year. As I drove from South L.A. to Pasadena, crossing a part of the 110 that cuts over my son’s school, I sent my kid a voice text: “I’m passing through Downtown on my way to Pasadena. Mommy loves you, and I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Journeying into Old Town
When it comes to crafting a literary life in Los Angeles, Pasadena holds a special place in my heart. Twenty-two years ago, I migrated from New Orleans to the Los Angeles area, my first apartment a small Spanish-style stucco in Glendale. While pursuing a master’s degree in creative writing from 2001-2003, I worked part-time at Book Alley bookstore, back when it was housed inside one of the more quaint storefronts lining Colorado Boulevard in Old Town Pasadena. A lover of old architecture and an old soul at heart, I adore this part of L.A. County that appears dedicated to historic preservation.
Filled to the brim with used and antiquarian books, Book Alley was an oasis for me as I studied and wrote. Browsing nearby Vroman’s Bookstore, catching great indie films at the former Laemmle Theater and eating Indian and Thai food were other favorite pastimes during that time. These memories flooded my senses as I pulled into the parking garage at Pasadena Hotel and Pool, which is located at 928 East Colorado Blvd., walking distance to dozens of restaurants, shops and Playhouse Village and Pasadena Central Library.
A friend who lives in Pasadena told me she once stayed at the hotel when it was still called by its former name: Hotel Constance. I love that it was built by a local businesswoman, Constance G.L. Perry, in 1926, during the height of the Roaring Twenties. Since my friend’s stay some years ago, the hotel, located along the Rose Parade route, has undergone major renovations. Bonus: your pets are welcome here.
The Art Deco building holds 161 rooms and stands on the corner of Colorado Boulevard and Lake Avenue. A Chantilly cream-colored and stately stucco with sharp corners and toffee-colored trim, it is simultaneously subdued and glamorous, calling to mind a double strand of antique pearls lining Dorothy Dandridge’s neck. Or, a multi-tiered wedding cake — tall and stately. Imagine a pair of finely gloved hands holding a knife and cutting perfect slices of such a cake, slices as precise as this building’s crisp corners.
A walk — no, waltz — through the newly restored lobby made me wish I were wearing a beaded flapper dress, cloche hat and strappy Mary Jane pumps that clacked against the roasted-coffee-bean colored tiles. I was just 24 miles from home, but luxuriating in the lobby’s hues of chocolate, champagne, tobacco, merlot and even a deep turquoise chaise lounge brushed with gold-painted leaves was intoxicating. I imagined my grandmother, who once told my mother that she was “crazy about dancing back then,” doing the Charleston or the black bottom. I spied a baby grand piano in the corner. My untrained fingers itched.
Oh to have half the talent of the pianist Earl Hines, who would tap dance his fingers across the piano as Louis Armstrong blew his trumpet in “West End Blues,” a number that Joe “King” Oliver wrote but that came alive in groundbreaking ways under the skill of Armstrong when he performed and recorded it in 1928.
In her autobiography, NPR reports, Billie Holiday wrote of the song, “Sometimes the record would make me so sad, I’d cry up a storm. Other times, the same damn record would make me so happy.” She called it the first song she’d heard without anyone using words. Listening to the song later in my room, I will wish was a way to write, to convey all that I feel and think, without the necessity of words — which can be a nebulous thing to wrestle onto the page in just the right way. In “West End Blues,” Armstrong and Hines shine in singular and collaborative ways, their sounds tunneling over and under each other with an understanding that exists beyond the boundary of words. Still, Armstrong does open his throat to let out some scatting, a glorious and joyous sound impossible to put into written-out vowels and consonants.
Speaking of sound, I did pick up the receiver of one of the antique rotary dials in a chandelier-lit phone booth. I simply could not resist. Rounding a corner, I came upon a seating section of the lobby that reminds me of a long Southern porch or veranda (though it is enclosed) with its wicker furniture and brightly colored cushions. Gilded mirrors and framed paraphernalia from Pasadena of yesteryear (including a 1920s map and a 1920 Tournament of Roses advertisement poster).
Perfect for a tea with friends or a reading hour, this area looks out onto a lush, Mediterranean-style courtyard.
A surprise modern oasis
Before heading to my room, I checked out the pool. Surrounded by palms and the backdrop of mountains, it’s a beautiful place to swim and lounge.
When I unlocked the door to my room, I gasped at a contrast as sharp as any I’ve seen in architecture and design that merge the old and the new. If the lobby area and building’s facade call to mind Old Hollywood, my room seemed a picture from the future with its sleek, modern lines, artsy-shaped canary-yellow chaise lounge, crisp lines and massive in-room jacuzzi tub. A bidet with multiple settings and heated seats was icing on the cake.
After unwinding, I walked to my desk, where a notepad and silver cup of sharpened pencils were waiting for me. I had not come with an agenda on what to write. Rather, I wanted to spend some time reflecting on the last year, specifically, spring to spring — a time of new beginnings. I pulled out last year’s vision board, plastered with magazine photos and words — a greenhouse, a country kitchen, a woman lounging on a plush orange sofa, brown hands cupping a wooden cup of tea, freshly picked vegetables and cutout phrases that continue to speak to me: “Free to be bold,” “family friendly,” “Elevate your craft. Elevate your art. Inspire the world.”
I took a picture of the board and wrote: “Reflecting and moving into a new season. And yet, so many of these images and visions remain because they make up my core.” I did not need to make a new vision board for 2023; I just need to keep pressing toward what my long-term goals are. And, to acknowledge how many of them have come to pass, how many of them I’m living out in my daily life, even when it might not feel apparent. As I work to hone my own craft, for instance, as an editor and writing colleague, I also assist other writers in honing their stories. And it brings me great pleasure when my teen son will allow me to read one of his essays for English class and offer feedback.
At some point, every writer has to ask herself: Why? Why are you committed to spending your life doing this often-difficult thing? For me, an intense desire to communicate, investigate, understand (myself and others) and inspire are driving forces.
Before dinner, I headed down to the lobby bar, carrying a notebook and a beloved book about one of Pasadena’s stars, the late novelist Octavia Butler. That book, “A Handful of Earth, a Handful of Sky,” was written by the brilliant author and journalist Lynell George, who once wrote a lovely article for us about Butler’s favorite haunts in Pasadena and Los Angeles.
The bartender, Ralph, was chatting it up with a woman who lives in the neighborhood and had stopped by for a glass of wine after work. “Not to get all in your business, but how do you like Pasadena?” she asked me. “Oh,” I said, laughing. “I’m not a tourist. I live here. In L.A.”
But as she carried on, regaling us with stories about Motown musicians she knew during her early years growing up in Detroit, I felt like a tourist — the kind of tourist a writer must always be: listening, jotting down notes, tasting…
To stay on theme, I ordered a drink called “Turn Back Time,” and watched Ralph pour and mix bourbon, bitters and simple syrup in a crystal glass before topping it with an orange slice and cherry. I raised my glass to Octavia Butler, sipped slowly and watched the amber hues of the room swirl around us as conversation traveled from Detroit to my home state (Louisiana) to Pasadena and South L.A.
After my drink, I wrapped my green wool scarf around my neck and walked to a nearby Argentinean restaurant called Malbec. Back at the hotel, I changed into workout clothes and headed to the 24-hour gym, hoping the workout would help me stay alert enough to write. But when I made it to my room, the jacuzzi tub called, and there’s nothing else you can do after a soak like that but fall into a deep, deep sleep.
A morning of writing
At 6:30 the next morning, I grabbed a coffee from the hotel bar (which serves some small plates in the evenings and small bites, tea and Starbucks coffee in the mornings), then went back to my plush, quiet room, sat down at the desk unencumbered by all my home office work and wrote.
Really, one’s “writer’s den” exists within the mind first. But crafting a space for it in the physical doesn’t hurt one bit.
I wrote through what I thought would be another gym visit. I wrote through what I had hoped would be one more soak in the jacuzzi. I wrote through breakfast.
Five minutes before check-out time, I gathered my writing and overnight bags and sauntered up to the desk. “Did you enjoy your staycation?” a staff member asked.
“It was beautiful,” I said, smiling as I watched another guest playing the piano I’d been too shy to play around with the night before. But I had used my fingers in the way I know how to use them, wrapped around a pencil or pen or pressed against another kind of keys.
How to end a retreat
We expend copious amounts of time and energy planning our vacations and retreats, but I think learning how to end a getaway would help soften the sting of leaving. At lunch time, I left my car parked at the hotel and walked east on Colorado Boulevard to CAR Artisan Chocolate, where patrons can indulge in bean-to-bar goodness sourced from Peru, Columbia, Ecuador and more, plus grab coffee and pastries.
After leaving this chocolate haven, I walked west to have dim sum at a local favorite: Lunasia Dim Sum House. On the way there, I snapped a photo of a board bearing a quote from civil rights activist and labor leader Cesar Chavez: “We must understand the highest form of freedom carries with it the greatest form of discipline.” On social media that morning, I had glimpsed videos and photos of teachers and other LAUSD workers striking on this first day of their organized protest — a beautiful representation of Chavez’s words.
After lunch, I retrieved my car, but had one more stop to seal the deal on my retreat: a visit to the new Octavia’s Bookshelf, a gorgeously curated and designed bookstore owned and operated by Nikki High. It is named in honor of Octavia Butler and features books written by BIPOC authors. The shop is bursting with personality — from wall art to gift cards that High designed herself. It was refreshing to meet High and witness her enthusiasm for literature and the people who create it.
As I left, rain was falling. And though we were all a little sick of rain by March, I welcomed every drop of it on March 21. My retreat was over, but something had been planted. I’m eager to see what grows.
In a recent Instagram post, Tembi Locke, author of the Netflix-adapted memoir “From Scratch,” wrote: “We create every day, formally and informally. Women stand at the creative center of humanity and bring forth magic in the form of invention, culture, art, social change and an everyday connection to what matters.”
Cassandra Lane is editor in chief of L.A. Parent.