An Unsung Hero of my Own

This post originally aired as a commentary on Tri States Public Radio. To listen, go here.

NPR has started airing a new series called My Unsung Hero. Produced by Hidden Brain Media, its mission is to provide an antidote to the despair brought on by the daily news, with the goal of renewing faith in humanity. According to the HiddenBrain.org website, each episode reveals everyday acts of kindness and courage that have transformed someone’s life.

I know first-hand how daily news can cause despair—the issues are too many and too depressing to bother listing them—but after listening to a few episodes of My Unsung Hero I’ve started focus not on what’s wrong with the world, but what is good about it—not just what is good but who—because I have an unsung hero of my own: my partner, Doug Seyb.

A third-generation farmer, Doug grew up on his family’s farm in Donnellson, Iowa. While many others have traded rural life for an urban one, Doug chose to stay and nurture the land of his ancestors. He grows corn and soybeans to feed the nation. He also raises cows, who may be the most well-cared-for in America, given their access to fresh grass. Doug works hard, building his own fences and baling hay, and never complains, even when his body aches from the physical labor.

He serves on an education foundation board for the local high school, offering financial support to kids who want to go to college or trade school. He donates a large portion of his income to causes like Doctors Without Borders and Camp Courageous, a summer camp for the disabled, and also to public radio stations like this one. He contributes more than just money. He’s given 25 gallons of blood—so far—to the Red Cross, he recently delivered a year’s supply of firewood to widow on a nearby farm, and he subscribes to the Storm Lake Times to support the survival of local journalism, even though we live 500 miles away from the region the newspaper covers.

For 13 years, he hosted a music series, renting out Donnellson’s American Legion Hall and booking bands from all over the country to provide entertainment to our otherwise quiet community. He’s in the process of creating a new music series to raise money for the Democratic party and for Ukrainians, demonstrating just how much—whether in his hometown or on the other side of the globe—he cares about people.

He also cares about me. He has supported me during the many hardships I’ve faced in the seven years we’ve been together. He provided his muscular shoulder to cry on when my dad died, and when my 15-year-old dog died soon after. He has driven me to the airport every winter, braving icy roads, to save me from my Seasonal Affective Disorder. He has listened for hours as I’ve voiced my struggles over my career as a writer. He has also been there to celebrate every special occasion—birthdays, anniversaries, and sometimes just an ordinary day—quick to show up with a bouquet of flowers, a good bottle of wine, and a card that says “I love you.”

He finds joy in the simple things, like walking the creek after a rainstorm to hunt for arrowheads. He pays attention to minute details that most of us miss, like the patterns in the clouds, the sun shining through a spider web, and the way snow melts in stripes on the barn roof. He notices the butterfly on the fencepost and points out the trumpeter swans in the distance. He feeds the hummingbirds religiously and protects the meadow of wildflowers remembering how much it meant to the previous landowners. He cares about nature and the planet. To Doug every day is Earth Day.

He’s a man of few words, but when he does offer advice, his counsel is wise, and for someone who doesn’t travel often, his world view is expansive and all-inclusive. When I spin like a cyclone with worry or fear, he grounds me. As a farmer who plants seeds and waits for them to grow, he has taught me to be more patient. As a big tipper at restaurants, explaining, “That waitress needs that extra dollar more than me,” he has taught me to be more compassionate and generous. His practical way of wearing T-shirts and jeans until the threads disintegrate, and gluing the soles of his shoes together before even thinking about getting new ones, has taught me to be more conscious of waste and to buy less, which is better for the environment. And in his reticence to seek attention or praise—qualities of a true hero—he has taught me about humility. The world needs more unsung heroes like Doug—and like the others featured in Hidden Brain’s radio series.

The news will continue to cause anxiety and despair, which is why I encourage you to think about the unsung heroes in your own life. They’re out there, whether they’re strangers, coworkers, friends, or family. They may be old or young, have opposing beliefs, or speak a different language; Kindness does not discriminate. There is still so much goodness right in front of us. We just have to change our focus to see it.

*****

Beth Howard is an author and essayist. She blogs at www.theworldneedsmorepie.com. The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of Western Illinois University or Tri States Public Radio. Diverse viewpoints are welcomed and encouraged.

*****

Past posts you might also like:

Need Hope? Jane Goodall Will Give You Some

Forget First or Second, I Am Third

Need Hope? Jane Goodall Will Give You Some

This post originally aired as a commentary on Tri States Public Radio. To listen, go here.

Author E.B. White once said, “I get up every morning determined to both change the world and have one hell of a good time. Sometimes this makes planning my day difficult.”

For me, planning my day is never the problem. I get up every morning determined to change the world – but only after I’ve had my coffee and listened to the news.

For the past two weeks, the top story has been Russia’s looming threat to invade the Ukraine, adding “the possibility of World War III” to the mountain of anxieties I already have. With the pandemic, the climate crisis, gun violence, greed, racism, and more, it’s a Mount Everest of despair. It feels so impossible to change anything, let alone have any influence at all, that I swing the opposite direction, figuring if we’re all gonna die, I might as well have “one hell of a good time.” And so, I help myself to the second slice of chocolate pie. I take the spontaneous trip to Cancun. I buy the $25 bottle of Cabernet instead of the $6 one and drink a glass too many. But all that’s done is pack on nine extra pounds and deplete my bank account.

Indulgence is not the answer.

I know I’m not alone in this feeling of futility to change the world. But I also know there are optimists among us who can inspire us to keep trying. Jane Goodall is one of them.

After hearing about her latest book, “The Book of Hope: A Survival Guide for Trying Times,” I ran out to buy it. Given that Jane Goodall is a naturalist, I was surprised to find it in the self-help section of the bookstore. But help is what I needed to ward off heart palpitations and further weight gain.

The book is coauthored by Douglas Abrams, who, in a series of interviews with Jane, presses the 87-year-old to answer the question: How can you still be hopeful when everything seems so dire?

She lists four reasons:

• the amazing human intellect
• the resilience of nature
• the power of young people
• the indomitable human spirit

We may have created the problems, but she believes with our intellect, we are smart enough to solve them. And that with our instinct for survival, our human spirit will drive us to not give up, even when there’s a chance we won’t succeed. Jane acknowledges that things are indeed dire, but she insists we can turn things around if we get together and act now. Every small action helps. Each of us must do our bit.

“Hope is contagious,” she says. “Your actions inspire others.”

This snowball effect makes sense, but where do we start? “It’s in nature where we can find the answers and the hope,” she explains.

The only time Jane has lost hope was when her husband died, but turning to nature helped restore it, claiming, “It was the forest that helped me most of all.” The natural world is also where she feels most connected with a Great Spiritual Power. She says it’s that power that gives her the courage and strength to keep going, to keep sharing her message and continue fighting for justice, environmental and otherwise.

I was surprised to learn that the grief we feel over climate crisis has a name – eco-grief. Jane suggests that our survival depends on confronting that grief and getting over our feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. We can find healing in nature, she reminds us, as well as wisdom, cautioning that when we lose the connection with the natural world, we lose our wisdom.

“The Book of Hope” is packed with many more of Jane’s insights and is absolutely worth reading. Equally inspiring, listen to Jane’s interview, titled “What it Means to Be Human,” on Krista Tippett’s “On Being” podcast.

This past weekend, I channeled my inner Jane Goodall, and went for a hike with three girlfriends. While walking through the forest and fields, we determined that in addition to picking up empty beer cans and other litter, which we do on all our hikes, we could plant more trees to replace the ones a local farmer recently cut down. These are the small but impactful actions we can take that add up to bigger change.

Energized by the sun, the wind in our faces, and the beauty of the landscape, we walked four miles, talking and laughing the whole way. Between the camaraderie of friends and the immersion in nature, our spirits were restored. And as a bonus, the exercise was a step toward dropping those extra nine pounds. In the words of E.B. White, our hike was “a hell of a good time.” And, best of all, it left me feeling hopeful.

My Pie Cookbook, Now in Paperback

Finally! It’s back! Now in paperback, and as an ebook.

If you just want to buy the book, you can get in on Amazon, IndieBound, or ask your local bookseller. If you want to hear the story of how the book came back into print, read on.

My cookbook, MS. AMERICAN PIE, originally published in hardcover in 2014, sold well at first, so well that the publisher did a second print run. But the book’s trajectory was shorter lived than anticipated, because several months after its release, I closed the Pitchfork Pie Stand and moved out of the American Gothic House.

Suicidal business move? Maybe. Good for my mental health? Definitely. Do I regret it? Sometimes. There’s so much I miss about the house, the pie stand, and the community that sprung up around it.

Anyway, the publisher was not too happy about my departure, and when the inventory sold out they wouldn’t print any more copies. “PLEASE,” I begged them, “people are still asking to buy it.” “No,” they said.

Welcome to the life of an author. Unless you are a legend like Julia Child, or your pie shop is still in business to guarantee ongoing sales, your cookbook will likely be left behind in the flour dust.

I had worked too hard on this book to let it die. So I got my text rights back from the publisher, and bought the design files from them, which included the layout, photos, illustrations, all of it. I paid way more than I will ever recoup in future book sales — I could have bought a car for less — but at least my book is back in print and once again available for purchase.

I had talked with other publishers about printing the second edition, but there were downsides to this. One, I’d give up my text rights again. Two, the book wouldn’t be out until 2022. And three, it would be printed in China, and the shipment may get stranded on a ship with all the supply-chain delays. This is why I opted tp self-publish it.

I’ve written about self-publishing before on my blog, about its advantages, about print-on-demand being better for the environment, about the satisfaction of having creative control. Yes, distribution to bookstores is a challenge, but the biggest challenge to self-publishing a full-color cookbook with a lot of photos is the cost. A self-published hardcover edition would have required me to raise the cover price from $28 to $40 — only to make 50 cents per copy. As it is, the price of the paperback is the same as the original hardcover — $28 — the lowest price allowed by the self-publishing platforms due to the sizable cut they take. My take on that is around a dollar per copy.

Clearly, I’m not in this for the money.

The feedback on the paperback version has been good. It’s got everything the hardcover has — it’s packed full with the same recipes (plus 2 new ones) — and because it’s lighter weight it’s easier to use. Also, you won’t have to wait for it — it’s available now! One customer got her copy the very next day. This means you can get my cookbook in time for Thanksgiving — and for Christmas presents. HINT!!

Thank you for encouraging me to get my book back out there. I really appreciate your support!

*****   To order go to Amazon, IndieBound, or ask your local bookseller.  *****

A Glimmer of Light to Keep Going

You can also listen to this story on Tri States Public Radio: https://www.tspr.org/post/commentary-glimmer-light

A stray dog showed up on our farm a few weeks ago. At first, he only came around at night, lurking in the shadows as we sat around the fire pit after supper. He was tricolored and as tall and lanky as a colt. I did an internet search and discovered he was a Treeing Walker Coonhound. He was young and puppy-like, probably about a year old, and judging by his aversion to being touched, he had likely been living on his own for a long time. Was he lost? Or was he dumped in a field by some heartless person who couldn’t be bothered with him?

I called several local vets and posted a notice on social media. People as far as five miles away had seen him, but no one claimed him. When we learned he had been making the rounds, we began referring to him as Rounder.

He continued to show up at our place, so I left food out for him. Soon he enough, instead of slinking away under the cover of darkness, he stuck around for breakfast. He joined us on our walks with our other dogs, napped on our porch, and stayed for supper. This went on for about five days. Having fostered animals before, I knew what was happening: Dogs adopt you and not the other way around. It’s how we came to have our other two dogs, a chihuahua from Arizona and a Spaniel mix, who turned up in Doug’s barn one January morning 17 years ago. They show up, you show them kindness, they stay. But just as we had gotten used to the idea that the coonhound was joining our family, he got spooked when our neighbor’s dog came through our yard and ran away.

I couldn’t call for him, because he didn’t know his name. And I couldn’t drive around looking for him, because he had taken off across a cornfield. When night fell, there was no point looking for him anyway. Distraught, my friends assured me he would be back by morning, but he wasn’t.

The world is already such a dark place these days, filled with unprecedented trauma and loss—the loss of almost five million lives due to the global pandemic, the decimation of everything from whole cities to whole species due to the climate crisis, and the dismantling of our American democracy due to a self-serving, uncompromising, win-at-all-costs mentality. And that’s just the big stuff. It doesn’t include all the personal grief, like the loss of parents, loss of income, and, ultimately, loss of hope for the future. All of this combined is so overwhelming, so unfixable, and so depressing, that we rely on little glimmers of light to keep us going. I can’t save the world, but if I could just save this one dog, it would give me that welcome glimmer of light, that helpful spark to restore some faith in life.

Rounder had seemed so happy with us, so eager to be part of our pack. And though we didn’t need another pet, I was happy with him, too. After less than a week, I had already formed a strong attachment. But he was gone, on the run again. My mind spun with all the bad things that could happen to him in rural Iowa. We live a mile from the four-lane highway; he could get hit by a car or a semi. Hunting season is starting; he could be mistaken for a deer and get shot by a hunter. Or, as it happens too often in rural areas, he could get shot or poisoned by a farmer who doesn’t want him on his land. Equally concerning, he was already so skinny and underfed, with winter coming, he could starve or freeze to death.

The second night he was gone I lit another fire in the fire pit. It’s what had attracted him to us in the first place, so maybe the smoke signal would lure him back. I held vigil for six hours, adding more logs and constantly looking in the direction where he had first appeared, but he never showed up.

When I finally stopped crying long enough, I reminded myself to take solace in the fact that we had gotten a few good meals in him, along with de-wormer and a flea and tick treatment. There was nothing more I could do but pray for the thing I wish for every stray animal—that he would find some other compassionate person to give him the safe home he deserved.

The next morning, when it was still dark, I heard a loud howl beneath my window. I’m used to be woken up by animal sounds on the farm—cows bawling, coyotes yipping, owls hooting, raccoons cussing. I would normally put a pillow over my ears and go back to sleep. But I knew this sound, this voice.

I smiled, jumped out of bed, and ran downstairs. I passed through the kitchen, where the Sunday paper was spread out on the table, every headline indicating the world was still a mess—another mass shooting, another GOP member downplaying the January 6 insurrection, another unvaccinated person infecting others with COVID-19. But for the moment, none of that could bring me down, because right outside the door was a long-legged coonhound waiting for breakfast. A glimmer of light brighter than the sun, Rounder was back.

 

What Did You Decide About the Pie Stand?

A few weeks ago, I posted a couple of polls on my Facebook business page, The World Needs More Pie, about reprising my Pitchfork Pie Stand. Bring it back for the summer at the American Gothic House, or rent a retail space within walking distance of the house on Eldon, Iowa’s main street? I stirred up expectations along with an outpouring of support, and now some of you are asking what I decided to do.

I wanted to give you an update about my decision, my activities, and my plans.

I’ve decided not to rent the retail space. 95% of the responses were an enthusiastic “GO FOR IT!” including the one from my mom. But there was one friend, who knows me maybe even better than my mom, who said, “ARE YOU CRAZY? You don’t want to be tied down.” Her words snapped me out of my fantasy, though it was an exciting one while it lasted. I miss people. I miss the community that pie creates. So a newly renovated space where I could sell pies, teach pie classes, sell pie-baking supplies, and provide a space where people could gather seemed like a good solution.
It sounded so good on paper…

But the reality check was this: I’m a terrible businessperson; I suck at bookkeeping. I want (and need) to travel; a year-round retail space would require me to stay put. The rent was very high for a rural town; I’m not prepared to take out loans or drain my savings. While my shop would bring people to town, the tourist season is short; it would be hard to sustain business (and pay rent) in the winter. And then there’s winter itself. I suffer from S.A.D. and the ONLY solution that works for me (and I’ve tried them all) is go south like a snowbird.

Which brings me back to my original idea: reprising the Pitchfork Pie Stand inside the American Gothic House for the summer months.
Sadly, the pie stand will not be returning to the American Gothic House. The AGH is owned by the State Historical Society of Iowa and the state employee who manages it, along with six other historical sites, has a blanket policy for all: No Baking Inside. No matter that I baked THOUSANDS of pies in the house during the four years I lived there. No matter that bringing the pie stand back for the summer would draw more tourists, create community, and contribute to the local economy. Policy is policy.
Not one to take no for an answer, I considered going above his pay grade and asking for permission from his boss, his boss’s boss, hell, I’d have gone all the way to the governor. Or I might have organized a public campaign with my supporters to lobby for the pie stand. But I have too many other things to do with my time than battle bureaucracy. (For the record, I did consider baking elsewhere and transporting the pies to the AGH, but there’s a long list of reasons why that’s not a viable solution.)
I’m sorry that Eldon’s visitors will miss out on pie. I’m sorry that I won’t get to bake with you. But I’m especially sorry that the AGH is not getting utilized. (The historical society won’t even allow you to plug in a Crockpot!) The AGH has a soul—I felt it the first time I saw I stepped inside—and I know it’s happier when it’s filled with life. And I don’t mean snakes! The pie stand would have been a win-win for everyone. It’s a shame the rule-makers in Des Moines don’t see it that way.
So what’s next then?

 

I’ve been working on edits for the second edition of my cookbook, “MS. AMERICAN PIE.” My original publisher took it out of print—such are the disappointments an author faces. I was planning on self-publishing it just so I could get it back out there in the world, but at the last minute, I signed on with Interlink Books. They will release the book next March (2022), and possibly with a new cover. Ten months seems like a long time, but given the high quality of Interlink’s printing, along with its sales, marketing, and distribution abilities, it will be worth the wait. It’s—hashtag—somethingtolookforwardto.

I’m also working on my next book, “WORLD PIECE: One Woman, One Rolling Pin, Nine Countries, and the Desire to Make a Difference.” I completed my three-month round-the-world pie-making journey in 2015 (watch the 23-min film here), and did not expect writing the memoir would take far more time and effort than the trip itself. But that’s partly because I’ve only been working on it intermittently since my return. I dedicate myself to it in spurts, but I keep getting sidetracked. I’m finally ready—I swear—to get it to the finish line by the end of the summer. Which is another reason for not doing the pie stand.

One of the projects that sidetracked me from “World Piece” was television—not watching it; writing for it. After a friend encouraged me to enter, I won a contest for a TV Pitch Workshop with Marta Kauffman. You may not recognize her name but you know her TV shows, “Friends” and “Grace and Frankie.” I was always terrified of the script format, but after downloading the software and giving it a try, I discovered that I actually LIKE writing scripts! I wrote my first TV pilot, have a good start on the second episode, and have outlined five seasons of the story arc. I even made a video pitch:
What’s my scripted TV show about? What is anything in my life about? PIE, of course! I had tried—and failed—to sell my memoir about the four years I lived in the American Gothic House, but winning the TV Pitch contest prompted me to repurpose it as a TV series. It works MUCH better as a dramedy than a memoir, because by fictionalizing it I can tell the real story about what happened and no one will know the difference! Marta likes my idea, but said she’s got too much on her plate to take it on. But now that the “Friends Reunion” is finally done, maybe she’ll reconsider.
That’s the long answer to “What did you decide about the pie stand or pie shop?” Yes, it’s disappointing—for me, too—but I’ve got plenty of other pie-related projects to keep me busy. And I have not discounted the possibility of doing a pop-up pie stand, maybe this summer, maybe at the American Gothic House Center (the museum and gift shop next door to the AGH), maybe somewhere else. Thank you for your continued support and enthusiasm. Life as a writer can get lonely; it helps to know you’re out there, just a Facebook comment or text message away.
One last thing before you go…

If you’ve read my books would you mind writing a review on Amazon? It would help so much. It’s a sad new reality in publishing that agents and publishers look at the reviews on that giant (some would say evil) website when considering representing authors. This goes for all authors, not just me. Those book reviews matter.

💟
Some previous blog posts you might like: 
 
 
 
 

Forget First or Second, I Am Third

(You can also listen to this on Tri States Public Radio)  

I hear myself saying a little too often these days that I’m glad I grew up when I did, before cell phones and selfies. Before the internet became a runaway train of disinformation. Before being famous was valued more than being a good person. Before this current era of entitlement where the prevailing attitude is “It’s all about me.” Me first. America first. Look at me. Like me. Follow me. Me. Me. Me. Me. Me. 

https://happyhooligans.ca/gods-eye-craft-weaving-for-kids/

I’m starting to feel like my grandparents, when they expressed their disapproval of modern ways by starting sentences with, “In my day…” I get it now. It troubles me to see the Christian values I was taught when I was young devolve into the so-called Christian values demonstrated today.  

I grew up in Iowa in the 70s and spent my summers at Camp Abe Lincoln, a YMCA camp on the Mississippi River, just south of the Quad Cities. “The YMCA is a non-profit organization whose mission is to put Christian values into practice through programs that build healthy spirit, mind, and body for all.” This mission was incorporated into every camp activity. As we sat around the nightly campfire, the counselors told stories of peace and love, and led us in songs like “Kumbaya” and “Michael Row the Boat Ashore.” When we rode and groomed horses, we learned about respect and care for animals. Archery and riflery were a means to teach focus and hand-eye coordination, with an emphasis on safety and non-violence. And when we did crafts, braiding lanyards and weaving colorful yarn around popsicle sticks to create a “God’s Eye,” counselors artfully worked in messages of morality.

More than 40 years later, one of those messages still sticks with me. It was about humility and selflessness delivered in the form of a quote by Gayle Sayers, a Hall of Fame football player for the Chicago Bears. The quote was, “The lord is first, my friends are second, and I am third,” though I didn’t remember it in those exact words. I thought it was “God is first, others are second, and I am third.” I like to think my version is more all-encompassing, as every religion, not just Christianity, worships God, even if they call it by a different name. And by declaring “others are second,” it can include making an outsider feel welcome, helping people less fortunate than you, or simply being nice to strangers, like letting the person with only one item go ahead of you in the grocery line when you have a full cart. All of which leaves you open to making more friends. 

God is first, others are second, 

and I am third.”

Sayers lived his life by this credo, which you can learn more about in his autobiography titled “I Am Third: The Inspiration for Brian’s Song.” He passed away at the age of 77 this past September. If he were still alive, I would reach out to him to ask what he thought about the world today. 

What do you think about people hacking pipeline computers causing others to hoard gas in plastic bags? What about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, how instead of sitting down to talk things through, they’re firing missiles at each other? How about antivaxxers refusing to wear a mask during a global public health crisis, claiming it infringes on their personal rights? What about mobs storming the Capitol because their candidate didn’t win? What do you think about the suppression of voting rights, the bullying on social media, and the proliferation of guns, as if we need to arm ourselves against our own neighbors? How about people—church-going, God-fearing Christians at that—closing borders in an outright refusal to aid poor and hungry immigrants, ignoring the fact that not only are these our brothers and our sisters but that we are all immigrants ourselves?

What happened to “I am third?” And how can we bring that message back? 

We can’t all go to a YMCA summer camp, and Gayle Sayers is no longer here to lead the charge, but ironically there is another football player, a coach actually, who is trying to help. His name is Ted Lasso. He’s not a real person; he’s the main character in the charming Apple TV series of the same name. Ted, played by Jason Sudeikis, is hired to coach a soccer team in England. But to everyone’s astonishment he doesn’t care about winning. What’s more important, he insists, is to be a unified team. The problem is, the star player is egocentric and refuses to pass the ball to his teammates; he makes all the goals himself so he can reap all the glory. His selfishness erodes the morale of the team, until Ted finally gets through to him, teaching him, like my camp counselors taught me, the most valuable lesson in the game of life: I am third. 

There is no “I” in team. For a safe and healthy planet, we need to work together. For a more unified world, we have to put others first. Life is better and less lonely when it’s not all about me, me, me. The solution is easy. All you have to do is pass the ball.

How to Help the World

Taking a walk on the wild side

Yesterday morning I wrote in my journal that I want to do more to help the world, but that I don’t know where to start. The world is so desperately in need of help just thinking about it made me feel bad that I’m not doing more. The feeling only became worse as the buffalo herd of “shoulds” charged at me in a stampede of shame. I should be involved with a cause. I should be volunteering for a homeless shelter, an immigration center, a women’s crisis hotline. I should be working with World Central Kitchen. No, I should have started World Central Kitchen. I should join the Peace Corps. I should be giving my time, my money, my plasma, my groceries, my winter coats, my life, to help others in need. It’s my civic duty as a human being to help others in need.

All this to say I made myself feel so overwhelmed, so unworthy of taking up space on this planet, I wanted to go back to bed. 

My casita (before I moved in)

Instead, I spent an hour cleaning the tiny house I’m renting for the winter on an Arizona horse ranch. My landlord is selling the property and informed me a photographer was coming at 5:30 to take photos for the real estate listing. All she requested is that I make my place tidy. Having spent a better part of the week looking at rentals and Airbnb listings in Los Angeles, where I’m heading next, I know what “sells” a place and that means no wet towels or sponges in the kitchen, no shampoo bottles in the shower, no pile of clutter on the desk, no ratty dog bed in the living room, no rumpled sheets on the bed. Luckily this place has ample storage space, so I hid my personal items in the cabinets and closets, down to the dwindling roll of paper towel, dish soap, reading glasses, and space heaters. I fluffed the pillows and smoothed out the duvet cover. I didn’t have to. But I know how important it is to her to find a buyer so I wanted do my small part to make it look enticing. By the time I was done it looked so immaculate and adorable even I would have wanted to buy the place!

Needing to be out of the house at 5:30 gave me a good excuse to take my niece, a sophomore at University of Arizona, out for an early dinner. We met at “our spot” in Tucson, Time Market, for pizza and kale salad. We talked about boys and school and careers, about family and dogs and dreams. It did both of us good to spend time together. 

On my way home I got a text from my landlord. “You get an A+ on the casita.” I wanted to text her back and tell her that I had been happy to do it, but I was driving, so I just smiled, glad that she appreciated my effort.

Later that evening, having just settled in on the couch to read, I heard yelling outside, not a normal occurrence on a ranch where approximately six people live within a six-mile radius. The only nighttime noise you hear is the coyotes howling and an occasional rooster crowing. I peeked past the curtains and saw the beam of a flashlight sweeping across the black desert landscape. There are a few RV parking spots about fifty yards away from my casita, one is occupied by a couple with a large motorhome and two dogs. It was the wife calling for one of their dogs, Buddy, a Jack Russell terrier. A small dog on the loose at night in this remote area is a death sentence. Even in daylight it can be dangerous as I know from losing my own Jack Russell mix, Daisy, six years ago. Predators don’t discriminate. 

I threw on my coat and boots, found my glasses, turned on my flashlight app, and went outside to see if I could help, grabbing a bag of dog treats on my way out the door. 

The ranch is surrounded by national forest and open range; it’s as wild as the Wild West gets. The only thing separating us from the wilderness is a saggy barbwire fence, and the woman (let’s call her Susan), as well as her wayward dog, were on the wild side of it. I crawled through the fence to join Susan, who was not wearing a coat, even though the temp was 40 degrees and dropping. 

“The more I call him, the more he runs away,” she said. “The only one he listens to is my husband.”

“Where is he?” I asked.

“He’s asleep in the camper.”

“Well, let’s go wake him up.”

“No,” she said. “He’s been drinking. You know how that is.”

The way she said it broke my heart a little. 

We stood in silence for a moment, listening for a clue as to Buddy’s whereabouts. I dreaded the sound of coyotes yipping, the way they do when circling in for a kill, but the only sound was the wind blowing over the mountains, across the rolling grasslands, and through the dried scrub. And then . . . a faint bark. I rattled the bag of dog treats and instantly, appearing in the beam of the flashlight, was Buddy. White and brown, macho and all attitude, he looked up at me with his big brown eyes as if to ask, “What’s the problem?” As if he hadn’t caused the heart rates of not one, but two people to spike.

Susan grabbed hold of his collar while I doled out treats.

“I ran after him in such a hurry I’m just in my slippers,” she said as we walked back to her motorhome. I pointed my flashlight at her feet. These weren’t slippers; they were nylon footies no more protective than if she’d had bare feet!

“I’m sure the adrenaline is keeping you from feeling any thorns,” I said.

“I haven’t stepped on any,” she replied, “but I just got poked in the face by a branch.” 

“Be careful. These mesquite trees are evil and can take an eye out.”

We reached the RV, but between Buddy and her flashlight she didn’t have a free hand to unlatch the door. I opened it for her, careful not to let her other dog out—part black lab, part antelope, a sprinter who would have traveled farther and faster than Buddy, and not one to be bribed back by a measly little dog treat. Susan wedged her body inside, while I blocked the door to prevent the other dog’s escape.

“Thank you so much,” she said. “Now I know how to get him to come.”

“Here, keep the dog treats,” I said.

On my way back to my casita, I thought about what I had written in my journal that morning: “I want to help the world.” I had been thinking on a grand scale, too grand. Because what I realized is that helping the world starts with small acts close to home. Be it supporting my landlord’s efforts to sell her property, treating my niece to a meal while listening to her concerns about becoming an adult, and saving a reckless dog from becoming a coyote snack, helping the world is about making the effort—better yet, the extra effort. To hide all your clutter in your cupboards for the photoshoot when you were basically asked to just make your bed. To drive an hour each way, down the mountain and back up again, for a conversation and a slice of pizza with a family member. To head out into the dark and dangerous wilderness to find a neighbor’s dog when you could have just stayed in your warm house reading on the couch.

Small acts of kindness. Every day. That’s how we help the world. That’s where we begin.

*****

You might also like to read my other blog posts:

Finding Solace in Solitaire 

What to Do With All That Privilege

There is ALWAYS Hope, Bea

Tis the Season . . . for Finding Solutions

This essay originally aired on TriStates Public Radio. Go here to listen.

Bah humbug. I don’t know about you but I’m really struggling with the holidays this year. It’s a perfect storm, a trifecta of winter weather, the pandemic, and climate crisis. I mean, geez, why bother even getting out of bed? But I only allow myself to take refuge under the covers for so long until I remind myself to focus not on the problems, but on the solutions. 

The solution to cold weather. 

Like 20 percent of the population, I suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder. The shorter days, the gray skies, and the overall lack of light all conspire to bring me down faster than the plummeting temperatures. Over the years I’ve tried everything: vitamin D, light box therapy, antidepressants, and exercise. Exercise worked well. Too well. Two winters ago, I swam in the tropical waters of our local rec center pool and it was so helpful to my mood that I kept swimming – until I injured my shoulders. Shoulder pain or not, I’m too worried about the virus to go to a rec center this winter. The only other thing that gives me relief from sunlight deprivation is the sun itself. So I followed the migration of the monarchs who flee to the south and am spending the winter in Arizona. The sun fuels my soul. Though, unfortunately, the weather is not as warm as my body requires. The better solution would have been to go with the monarchs all the way to Mexico. But . . . the pandemic.

The solution to the pandemic. 

The New York Times just ran an article titled, “The Double Whammy of Seasonal Affective Disorder in a Season of COVID.” God help me — and the millions of others who suffer from even just a mild version of SAD. If not for my fear of ending up on a ventilator, I would be spending time with my family, but I had to decline my brother’s invitation to celebrate Thanksgiving with him and his college-age kids, as that would have been like stepping into a COVID petri dish. I would be in Los Angeles right now visiting my mom to bring us both some holiday cheer, but LA is under lock-down for three weeks. Instead, I am — along with just about everyone in the world – grieving not only the loss of lives, but the loss of connection that the pandemic has bestowed. There is no gathering in groups for holiday parties for some much-needed face-to-uncovered face conversation, or even more important, hugging. There is no taking my laptop to a coffeehouse, lingering over a good meal at a restaurant, or browsing for hours in a bookstore. As humans, we require physical and social contact for our wellbeing. But life as we’ve known it is over, and this is causing tremendous grief. 

But I know grief. I know what helps heal it – and that is doing nice things for others. Like making a pie for a friend who is even more depressed than you. Or buying groceries for someone who lost their job. Or donating winter coats to a coat drive. And now that the holidays are upon us, we can get an added dopamine hit by giving gifts to others. That was the case for me as I got lured into the frenzy of Black Friday and Cyber Monday deals. But then I was like, “Wait. Consumerism is bad for the environment. By buying non-essential, made-in-China things, with all the plastic and all the fossil fuels required from manufacturing all the way to delivery, I’m only contributing to the climate crisis.” 

The solution to the climate crisis. 

This is the ultimate source of my grief. Seasonal Affective Disorder is only seasonal so there is always an end in sight. And we are so close to getting people vaccinated against the virus, which will enable us to get control over the pandemic. But the climate? The media keeps reporting that it’s too late to fix it, making every other crisis – like racism, poverty, immigration, and political divisiveness – a moot point. Talk about depressing! My brother, who shares my current Grinch mindset, came to my rescue by recommending a book called “Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming,” edited by Paul Hawken. Instead of dwelling on the apocalypse, it offers guidance on practical things we can do to help save the planet. Too late or not, it’s a dose of hope. Another book, one for the holiday season, is “Have Yourself a Minimalist Christmas” by Meg Nordmann. She writes about ways we can give without adding to the stress on our mental state, our wallets, and, ultimately, our landfills, by finding value in “experiences over objects” and giving comestible gifts instead of material ones. I, for one, would prefer receiving a box of chocolates over anything that adds to the clutter in my house. 

Meanwhile, I keep telling myself – and anyone else who’s struggling — to hang on a little longer. This is a hard patch, but it’s ultimately a blip in time. I’m going to keep getting out of bed, taking walks in the sun, wearing my mask, and recycling – while holding tight to the knowledge that this, too, shall pass.

You might also like reading these previous posts:

How I’m Dealing with the Pandemic and Other Anxieties

An Outlet for Dealing with Overwhelming Issues

What to Do with All That Privilege

For pie-making help, check out my YouTube series, Stay Calm and Bake Pie

Ode to the Farm Pond

It’s my baptismal font, my hole in the ground that gets me a few feet closer to the earth’s core. It’s in these waters, the color of meat broth, where I immerse myself to calm my anxieties, soothe my aches—of the heart and otherwise—and to make me feel closer to nature, which to me is the same thing as god. No matter that these waters are filled with blue gills and bass, their silver bodies shimmering below the surface as they swim, their scales scraping my skin, their sharp little teeth nibbling on my legs, stomach, and buttocks that make me cry out in surprise. They are harmless, really. They’re not piranhas. And if not for the fish, algae would cover the pond in wall-to-wall green carpet. 

Frogs line the perimeter, hidden in the willows, burrowed in the mud, sheltered by the fortress of tall grass bending in the wind. They croak their guttural chirps in unison, until some disturbance – like a ripple in the water made by my hand as I swim – makes them to go silent in an instant, as if the multitude of them were a singular voice. 

The pond’s original purpose was not to be my private swimming hole, but for erosion control. A bulldozer dug out a ditch, the displaced earth was used to build up a berm to keep Iowa’s valuable black soil from traveling downhill into the growing gully below, and in turn an aquatic catch basin was created.

With no other options—given the six other ponds on the thousand-acre farm have resident snakes and snapping turtles and occasional algae blooms—I’ve claimed this pond, the newest of them, as my sacred space. But only after making an agreement with the frogs and fish to share it, respecting our coexistence in the ecosystem. 

It’s the church I go to meditate, where I can sit in solitary silence on the end of the dock the farmer built for me, and put my face toward the sun, and talk to whatever higher power exists “up there” as the wind swirling around my body reminds me of my physical being. 

It’s the chapel/the funeral home/the psych ward I ran to when my dog died, sprinting from the house and taking a shortcut across the field, flinging myself fully clothed into the cooling pool, not to drown myself, but to douse the searing pain of grief that coursed through me like fire. I stayed in the water for an hour that day, clinging to a rubber innertube as my body heaved with sobs, though it was the pond itself that was the life preserver. 

Sometimes the pond is a place to spend time with friends, to have intimate conversations with the farmer, to drink cocktails as the sun sets. Sometimes the pond is simply a place to swim, to float, to drift, to dream, to just be.

 * * * * *

I wrote this piece for a writers workshop I’m taking. The assignment was “Getting Closer,” asking us to take a more intimate look at a place and describing it in more depth. When our group meets on Saturday they will likely pick the piece apart, telling me the structure is all wrong, that the descriptions aren’t fleshed out enough, yada yada yada. But none of that will matter to me, because nothing — no word order or word choice — will change the magic of this place for me. 
Also, I chose this subject for the exercise because winter is approaching and the water will soon turn to a solid sheet of ice, and the frogs and fish will lie dormant in the mud. I will miss it until next year, when the spring thaw comes, summer heats it up to a tepid degree, and I can bathe in its healing balm again. 
So this little story is my ode to the pond’s spiritual powers, a prayer of gratitude, and a reminder to all of us to revere (and preserve) nature. No matter how muddy it is.

The Right Books at the Right Time

Sometimes you come across exactly the right book at exactly the right time. A year ago, when I was in a funk and had lost my way, along with my sense of purpose, I read Elizabeth Gilbert’s book “Big Magic.” In it, she poses the question: “What is it you love doing so much that you would do it even if you didn’t get paid for it?” I could answer that without hesitation: I would write. The thing is, I hadn’t been writing; I had been moping. But her words prompted me to set her book down and pick up my phone, and within ten minutes I had enrolled in a writers workshop. The workshop ended up being a bust, but it had served as a catalyst by reminding me not to look for a crutch. I just needed to sit my butt in the chair and write. 

Two days ago, I was in a state of despair over the world. The corrupt, greedy, misogynistic men in office, the ones who lie, cheat, steal, and bend our American constitution to their will to hang onto their power . . .  These bastards dominating the headlines were breaking my heart so badly I was questioning my emotional capacity to endure. I cried so hard I worried I might give myself a brain aneurysm. But that evening, I arrived at my friend Kathleen’s to dog sit for a week. As Kathleen tried to console me, I happened to see she had Glennon Doyle’s new bestselling book, “Untamed,” on her shelf.  

I hadn’t read the book, in part because I am reluctant to pledge allegiance to any kind of guru (or clergy of any kind), including writers who have been placed on pedestals as spiritual leaders or healers. Even so, I was on Glennon Doyle’s mailing list and stayed on it only because her newsletters were short, mostly news announcements, and so infrequent they didn’t clog my inbox.   

Glennon’s latest email contained a sweet, well-designed, animated video. It told the story of a cheetah in a zoo kept in a cage: Tabitha. Glennon was disturbed to see how the zookeepers had tried to tame Tabitha, and was certain that, deep inside, Tabitha remembered her “wild,” remembered “she was a goddamn cheetah.”

The video, which I had seen the day before my episode of The Great Despair, was a story from “Untamed,” and when I got to Kathleen’s and saw the book, I wondered if there was some cosmic intervention going on, that my bat signal had been picked up by the universe and was sending help. I began reading it that night. And I didn’t put it down until I ran out of pages to turn. 

In “Untamed,” like in Liz Gilbert’s “Big Magic,” Glennon poses a question: “What breaks your heart?” She writes, “Heartbreak is not something to be avoided; it’s something to pursue. Heartbreak is one of the greatest clues of our lives. The thing that breaks your heart is the very thing you were born to help heal.”

Boom! 

But wait, how can I heal a whole world? How can I take on racism, sexism, environmentalism, and the infinite number of other “isms”? The list is way too long!

Ah, but Ms. Doyle knows this is what you’re thinking—what I’m thinking—and is right there with a response in the next paragraph.

“Despair says, ‘The heartbreak is too overwhelming. I am too sad and too small, and the world is too big. I cannot do it all, so I will do nothing.’ Courage says, ‘I will not let the fact that I cannot do everything keep me from doing what I can.’”

This was my despair described so accurately. My sense of powerlessness to change anything, to fix anything, to make the world better—and by better, I mean less racist, less violent, more equal, more just.

“Every world-changer’s work begins with a broken heart,” she says.

As much as I was inspired by “Untamed,” I didn’t, like I did with “Big Magic,” grab my phone and sign up to volunteer for a cause. I was still feeling too overwhelmed, too sad, and too small. And there are so many things breaking my heart that it’s impossible to narrow it down. Yes, I use pie as a form of humanitarian aid and contribution to society—to build community, spread kindness, and promote healing—but there has to be more I can do. I want to do more. But it’s just so hard to know where to start.

Author and Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön (another spiritual leader/healer/author) answers this conundrum with a book title: “Start Where You Are.” 

Where am I? 

I am at my friend Kathleen’s, in Des Moines, Iowa, dog sitting. I have pen and paper here. I have a computer. I have a voice. And I have the ability to express my voice through my writing. This is a good place to start. 

And I have already started. I am writing my “World Piece” memoir, about my trip around the world during the summer of 2015, when I made pie in nine countries to promote goodwill and cultural acceptance. In the process of writing it, I am putting the pieces of my heart back together. And who knows? Maybe one day, when it’s published, someone will pick up my book and it will be exactly the right book at exactly the right time for them. 

And maybe, just maybe—GOD WILLING—things will turn around after November 3 and we can fill the headlines with stories of honest, empathetic people who want to help others instead of only themselves.