Saturday, May 31, 2014


This collection has been a journey, and not always an easy one.  Delayed painfully and repeatedly by "life happening" it is now ready to release in the coming weeks.  How fitting that my very first book trailer should be associated with this particular journey.

I'm sure I'll look back in a few years at this first produced trailer and cringe a bit, but right now it is the first and I am incredibly proud of it (and grateful to Shandon Loring for his assistance).

Belief is essential to life.  If there is a through-line to most of my work, it is the essential need for all of us to believe in something beyond ourselves.  It does not matter what.  Simply believe.  By believing in something beyond yourself, you learn to better understand your world: to believe in yourself.

Belief is woven into all three stories in Miracles: A Trio of Island Tales.  These stories are fictionalizations of family stories shared by my collaborator, Ilaisaane Filikitonga Tome.  She is a native born Tongan and devout Christian. The power of her stories is moving and undeniable.  You may or may not share her belief system, and that does not really matter.  It is hard to hear her stories and not recognize the essential power of them.

Meet King Tupou I of Tonga.  He was the first in a line of Tongan Kings that has remained unbroken to the present day - through nine generations!  He is  part of Miracles: A Trio of Island Tales.

During his near century-long life he transformed Tonga from a collection of bickering, war lords to a unified Kingdom.  He is the King Arthur of the South Pacific.  He was smart, ambitious, and he saw that the only way to combat foreign colonialism in the 19th Century was with one Tonga, under one ruler.  He knew that otherwise, the atoll and the people would be picked apart by outside interests.

King Tupou I of Tonga outside his Palace
In the 1830's he was baptized as a Christian, and he used his faith and beliefs as a tool in building the sovereign kingdom of Tonga.  He was a formidable man, and one of the few Polynesian rulers that was dealt with as an equal by other world leaders.  The Tonga he passed on at his death in 1893 was radically different from the one he was born into. Not only did he build a sovereign nation and develop a constitution, but he made serfdom illegal, secured the land of Tonga for Tongans forever by making it illegal for anyone other than native Tongans to own land, and he built a Christian Church that took its roots from the Wesleyan Church, but was essentially Tongan.

Learn more about this remarkable man and the paradise he dreamed of in Miracles: A Trio of Island Tales.

Friday, May 30, 2014

COFFEE FRIDAY: Coffee Shop Talk

Coffee Shop Talk
by Judith Cullen
(c) 2014

Coffee shops predate the proliferation we think of as the Starbucks explosion.  Coffee shop culture goes back well into the 19th century and, like cafe culture, has existed seemingly forever in Europe.  Like pubs and taverns, even the most corporate places strive for a certain “local watering hole” quality.  The best of them seem to have the same successful ambience: clean, friendly places where the really good baristas know the customers by name and favorite beverage.  It’s a mix of the familiar, the intimate, and the anonymous.

Restaurants are not the same.  In a restaurant a bubble of privacy forms around your table, intruded upon only by the wait staff.  Depending on the class of the restaurant, conversation is uttered in lowered voices, even leaning in to one another.  It is outrĂ©, a gross violation of manners, to have a boisterous conversation that bursts into other diner’s bubbles. While acceptable volume levels vary by establishment, it is most assuredly not good form to be a bubble breaker.  Pay attention!

In many coffee shops, especially in locally owned stores, there is a unique blend that comes from more than the roaster.  It can be both treacherous and invigorating. Like the public house, communities of acquaintance spring up.  Customers not only are known, but come to know one another: greeting each other with warmth, asking after family, inquiring about projects.  Voices are raised in greeting, much like the mythical bar of 1980s television fame, “Norm!”

Yet, at the same time, intimacy exists like subtext: an undercurrent skimming beneath the more public surface.  People lean together, having very personal, very private conversations.  The coffee shop is neutral territory where the public-private combination allows for revelation in a controlled, somewhat calm environment.  I am sure that it happens, but when was the last time you saw someone toss a cup of coffee at someone and storm out the door?  In the coffee shop, when the dial skews to “private,” we invoke our “restaurant manners.” 

Coffee shops become ad hoc conference rooms.  Recently, I observed two leggy blondes walk in with a tall, impeccably suited gentlemen.  They’d arrived in separate vehicle. After the pleasantries of beverage purchasing, the meeting was called to order with all the decorum of a corporate convocation.  Websites, branding, and strategy being pointedly and rapidly reviewed, discussed, and recorded before moving on.  The shop had been fairly empty at the time.  Had it been busier, the meeting would have been absorbed by the public-private anonymity of the shop.  I don’t believe that Roberts’ Rules were being observed, but if they had, Mr. Roberts would have been blowing on his low-fat cappuccino before sipping it, along with the others.

Listening in is rude, I admit it.  But sometimes, when one “goes for coffee” and works solo, it is hard not to hear snippets of the life teaming all around you, breathing in and out, repressing and expressing - mostly expressing.  The coffee shop is safe. 

“Man, I lived here in the 90s.  I’m not afraid of guns.”

“I don’t know how to manage her negativity.”

“You know, we’ll be sending out invites and I’d love for you to come.”

“Oh yeah, I worked on your house!”

“Hey!  World of War Craft!  That was you!”

“She was so cute this morning, she almost cried.”

There are unspoken rules in the coffee shop.  If you come to work, or use the Wifi, it’s polite to buy something – a cup of coffee, a bagel.  It’s also considered polite to clean up your mess.  Pick up your newspaper, bus your debris.  The staff is rarely in a position to wipe up after the volume of lives, known and unknown, coming in and out. 

Above all, observe and learn.  Open yourself to understanding the diversity of intent surrounding you, the differences between the public and private moments in a coffee shop.  Learn to discern the distinction between something that could include you, where you chime in as a member of a joyous community of stimulant drinkers, and a moment between individuals which is not inclusive. If it feels it might be an intrusion, it probably is. Mistakes are inevitable.  Smiling in polite acknowledgement is always in the best taste.  People will forget a blundering comment, but a smile enriches their day long after they’ve moved on.

Above all, respect the life around you: loud, soft, communal, intimate, sensitive, and completely clueless. It’s not a substitute for living your own life, but it is a marvelous sampling.  It is a great opportunity to gain perspective. 

“Mocha no whipped cream, please.”

By Judith Cullen © 2014

Friday, May 2, 2014

COFFEE FRIDAY: An Essay in Favor of Joyous Celebration


Yes, I celebrate my own birthday.  Being alive is still better than the alternative. Remarkably, I have garnered criticism for it over the years. “It’s all about you!” as if being glad to have been born, to be alive, is some kind of ego trip.  Well YEAH!  It’s my birthday!  

The older I get, the less I care about those critics, a true sign of “aging,” though my consciousness of those censures still lingers. If individuals have a problem with my birthday - the fact that I openly, unabashedly celebrate it - I think the issues of ego are theirs own, not mine.

We are all products of our childhood, and the subsequent paths we travel. I had a pretty good childhood, despite what many would consider obstacles. When I was elementary age, my father was laid-off.  My Mom had to go back to work, two kids in public school, and my Father went back to school for retraining at the age of 40.  That does not sound so bad in the context of 2014, but this was 1971 and it was a whole different world then. Having lived through similar times in my adult life, I have a keen appreciation for what my parents must have gone through.  I doubt they would have seen themselves on the cutting edge of a revolution in modern family living.  They were too preoccupied with paying the mortgage, keeping the lights on, feeding and clothing themselves and their children. 

The one thing my folks did an outstanding job of was celebrating.  They were children of The Great Depression.  They had “gone without” before.  That lack did not stop them from celebrating.  They taught my sister and I that you didn’t need a lot of trappings and things to be festive.  They taught us that being joyous was a gift: a gift to one’s self, a gift worth sharing.  

This morning, I walked into the kitchen, kissed my Mom on the forehead and said, "Thank you." 

"What for?" was her early morning reply.

"For having me," was my smiling response.

So, yes: Happy Birthday!  I am alive!  I am not going to sit somewhere meekly and just hope someone notices.  I am going to share my joy with whoever wants to join me.  If you are not among those people, great!  Have a good day.  As for the rest of you emotionally unencumbered, generous souls, “wanna piece of my cake?”

(c) 2014 by Judith Cullen