This post originally aired as a commentary on Tri States Public Radio. To listen, go here.
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.
I want to get back to being a writer, to writing the book I started in early December, or to scrapping that and starting a new one, even just to blogging, but I’m too restless. Like most people, I am sitting in a prickly pear cactus field of fear and anxiety. With the world as we know it ending and the constant onslaught of news and noise, it feels as if there’s no room for my voice. And not just that, but knowing the kind of online mob mentality that exists, how people too often gang up on you in a dog pile of mean-spirited criticism, I feel too thin-skinned and too vulnerable to put myself out there, to share my personal stories and my heart.
I have people who write to me, not just friends but also people who have read my books and blog posts, who encourage me to keep going. They tell me they appreciate my openness and honesty, and that they like my writing. (Phew! Thank you!) They also say they want to know more about my life. About what happened after I moved out of the American Gothic House. About where I’m living now. If I am still on the farm (aka Camp Doug, and Camp Dough.) If I am still with Doug. If I still teach pie classes. What my next book is going to be about.
But here I sit, in the face of a global pandemic, facing a blank page on a Word doc and asking myself What is the point of writing? What the hell even matters anymore?
Staying healthy. Staying sane. Staying alive. These are the first things that come to mind. But the one thought that keeps pushing its way past the others to the surface of the survival pool is this: Helping others.
My dad taught me to be of service to others. My husband Marcus’s death taught me that doing nice things for others (like sharing pie) eases the heartbreak of grief. And now, as we teeter on the brink of economic—and possibly societal—collapse, my conscience is telling me to stop worrying about writing and just get out there and help the world in physical ways. Be of service to others.
I’ve reached out to people to ask what I can do. Social media and newsletters have also been a good source of ideas.
Here are few things of the suggestions—some I’ve already done—and things you can do too:
I stumbled upon the American Red Cross bus on Saturday afternoon parked outside a coffeehouse and saw a signboard outside it that said “Emergency Blood Drive.” I hadn’t given blood in 18 years (since I’m prone to anemia) but I went in, my iron count passed the test, and I donated a pint. They are having a shortage due to the virus forcing blood drives to be canceled. Doug, my boyfriend, has been a longtime donor and has given a total of 24 gallons over the years! Got blood? Trust me, if I can spare a little so can you. Go here to find out where to give.
I saw a post somewhere, maybe on my Nextdoor app, that said our local shelter was in need of fostering for dogs and cats. I lost my terrier, Jack, in September and I’m not ready to get another dog, but why not foster? My apartment building allows pets and because of the circumstances the landlord agreed to waive the monthly pet fee. So I stopped at the shelter—only to check it out—and came home with Peanut, a six-pound Chihuahua recovering from a prolapsed uterus. She requires medication, which I am an expert at administering after two years of Jack’s insulin shots and heart pills, which is why the shelter asked if I would take a dog with medical needs. Peanut is quiet, cuddly, and very appreciative of the down comforter and heating pad I’ve provided for her bed. And she is excellent company during this time of social distancing. If there was ever a win-win, this is it. This need is not only in Tucson, but everywhere right now. Check with your local animal shelter.
Feed the needy.
Schools are closed for classes, but their kitchens are being put to good use preparing food for kids and others who might otherwise go hungry. I sent an email today to offer help preparing, handing out, and/or delivering meals. I haven’t gotten an assignment yet, but I have my rubber gloves ready and my car tank filled with gas. Schools are doing this nationwide, if not internationally, so check what’s happening in your area.
Restock grocery store shelves.
One thing we all need to do no matter what is eat. But if you’ve been in a grocery story lately you’ll see that the shelves are bare. This highly unusual sight of scarcity is enough to send anyone into a full-blown panic. Honestly, it could turn any rational person into a toilet paper hoarder. Just today I got an email from Safeway (they had my email because I joined their club card program last week) which said they need people to work in their stores. Someone needs to unload those delivery trucks, unpack those boxes, and replenish those shelves. Sign me up! I clicked on the application form, but apparently so did everyone else who got the email, because the site was down. I’d be happy to do the work and the heavy lifting, but I know there are people in more urgent need of the income and I hope they get hired.
Buy groceries for those who can’t afford them. (If there are still groceries to buy.)
It’s been fun (is “fun” the right word at a time like this?) to spend time on Twitter. I find the clever quips to be a source of intelligent and informed humor. But it’s not all snarkiness over there. Someone (and given the quick-paced, fleeting nature of the Twitterverse, I’ll never be able to track down who it was) posted something about paying for groceries for the person in line behind them, or giving money to the person in front of them who didn’t have enough to pay for theirs. And then someone commented that their Aldi Nerds Facebook group…
Wait, what?? There’s are Aldi FB groups?? How did I not know this given my super fan status for all things Aldi (especially their low prices compared to Safeway)?
…The commenter said her Aldi Nerds FB group was buying gift cards to give to people who needed food. It’s gestures like this that restore my faith in humanity and, yes, I am going to join that FB group immediately.
Make pie. And share it.
Of course I have to include this one. But given that I’m always preaching that “pie is meant to be shared,” well, how does one safely share pies during a “shelter in place” mandate? Do you leave a pie outside of someone’s door, ring the doorbell, and run? Or are you limited to sharing pie in your own house? Then again, some people are confined to separate rooms in their own homes. I don’t know all the safety aspects of sharing pie right now, but I do know two things: One, people need to eat. And two, people need comfort and love more than ever. Pie is comfort. Pie is love. Pie is baked in a hot oven and surely 425 degrees Fahrenheit is enough to kill that motherfucker of a virus. Even if you can’t share your pie, the act of baking one is good therapy for calming the nerves.
Make music. And share it.
A new friend of mine in Tucson has kids in their twenties who are musicians. One lives in San Diego, the other lives in Nashville, but both are currently taking refuge in their parents’ home in Oro Valley. They aren’t “hunkering down” watching Netflix and scrolling through Instagram though, they are rehearsing for a Cul de Sac Concert! Like the Italians singing on their balconies, or the two kids playing cello for their housebound elderly neighbor, my friend’s kids are going to share the gift of their musical talents (and, boy, are they talented!) with the neighborhood, because sound waves don’t spread diseases.
Write letters to say “Thank you” and “I love you” and “I’m sorry.”
Yes, we are asked to maintain our physical distance for who knows how long. When will we get to see our parents and siblings and closest friends again? This uncertainty is what is driving so much of the anxiety. Thank goodness we can still communicate. I’ve been almost constantly on my phone or computer, texting, sending emails, sending photos, staying in touch with my people. But post offices are still open. We have stamps. And we can write letters in longhand, which has an added value. Dragging your pen across the page in curlicue lines or straight upright blocks slows you down causing you to be more thoughtful, which by the way, seems to be an overall theme, if not perhaps a “benefit,” of this virus. I wrote a few birthday cards yesterday. I wrote to my dad, who has been living on “the other side” for the past three years. (I’m convinced he can read my words.) I wrote a note of encouragement to a writer friend who was asking the same “why bother” questions as me (see first paragraph). And you know what? I felt so much better after writing all this on paper. Not to mention, my eyes felt so much better being away from the screen. Handwriting is like pie in that it’s an endangered art form. Let’s keep it alive. Next on the recipient list: letters to people I want to thank, just for being in my life, and a few to whom I want to say “I’m sorry.” More importantly, letters of thanks and encouragement to healthcare workers who are putting their lives on the line to help us through this crisis.
Be a pioneer.
Also over on Twitter (I have never spent so much time on Twitter!) I saw a tweet from author Celeste Ng. The same Celeste Ng who wrote “Little Fires Everywhere” which is now streaming as a hot new series on Hulu. She listed the things she was doing during the lockdown, shutdown, slowdown, meltdown, whatever you want to call it.
“I am cooking from scratch, schooling my child at home, knitting and baking and making stock. This pandemic is turning me into a pioneer.”
Pioneers got shit done. They did manual labor outdoors in the fresh air (which was so much cleaner before the industrial age came along). Their hard work gave them a sense of purpose and accomplishment and toned muscles. And skin far rougher than our 20-second hand-washing sessions are causing us. Be it pie baking, music making, hand writing letters, planting a garden, making soup, or canning jam, now is a good opportunity to spend quality time at home, to work with your hands, and reacquaint yourself with an era before Alexa could do everything for you without having to get up off the couch. (Don’t get me started on that subject.)
Speaking of getting off the couch… Do not underestimate the toll that the stress we are currently under takes! I’m lucky to be in Tucson where there are hiking trails through wilderness areas that make it easy to be outdoors and maintain social distance. I’ve been taking regular soul-soothing, stress-reducing walks in the mountains. (Not just good for the lungs, legs, and buns, but for burning the extra calories from all that stress-eating!) I want so badly to be of service to others, but you know that thing about putting on your own oxygen mask first is true. You have to take care of yourself in order to take care of others. If you can’t get to a trail or a deserted beach to restock your inner grocery store shelves, maybe just step into the backyard and breathe in some of this rare, newly clean air. Seriously. Have you seen the articles going viral about how China’s sky is blue again, and dolphins are returning to the Venice canals? That should tell you just how badly we’ve been treating this planet! So turn off the TV, silence your phone, and pay your respects to nature. Which reminds me: my list of letters to write includes an apology note to Mother Earth!
This is only a short list of ways to be of service. There is always more we could be doing. The point is to just do it. Don’t overthink it. Like bringing home a chihuahua when you have a preference for terriers, this is not the time for perfection. This is the time for taking action. So just jump in.
Of course, this is advice I could also apply to writing. Yes, I’m restless and anxious. But writing about that anxiety helps me feel less anxious. Yes, I am vulnerable, and not just to criticism and trolls but to the coronavirus. But I’m not going to let that stop me from living, from sharing my experiences, or from adding my voice to the crowded mix.
Because words do matter. Stories matter. And there can never be too many stories (or blog posts) because it’s our collective voice that tells the bigger tale. We don’t know where this current saga is going or how all it ends, but we are all part of it. We are in this together. We have to keep doing our best and help each through the confusion and struggle as it comes. Because when you strip everything else away, isn’t helping each other the true meaning of life?
As for all those questions about what I’m doing now, where I’m living, who I’m with or what pie classes I’m teaching, I’ll save that for another post.
During the summer of 2015, I traveled around the world making pie in 9 countries. At long last, I have gotten the story down, but not on paper as you would expect. Instead, I taught myself how to edit a film using iMovie.
Forgive my amateur skills, but like I always say about making pie: It’s not about perfection! I also tell my pie students, “It should look homemade!”
* a heartfelt story
* in the form of a homemade film
* that’s as humble as pie.
I hope you like it.
More so, I hope it inspires you to connect with your friends, family, neighbors, foreigners, and strangers alike. Because now more than ever, we need to unite our world, to heal the wounds and bridge the divides, and what better way to do that than to sit down and talk over pie!
|Mr. Friendly, Mamacita & Chaps asking, “Yo! Where’s our breakfast?”|
Three weeks ago, on a Sunday morning, I went out to the barn, as I do every morning, to feed the goats. The three of them—Mamacita, Mr. Friendly and Chaps—are normally waiting at the gate, having already been staring at the house with anticipation upon waking, as if they could will me to come out sooner with their breakfast.
When the two males, Mr. Friendly and Chaps, see me coming they rear up on their hind legs and head butt each other, slamming their horns so hard the smacking sound echoes off the barn. I first thought this was an act of aggression, but after observing it repeatedly, always in this context of me bearing breakfast bowls of grain, I realized it was the goat version of a high five.
But on this particular morning—Sunday, November 11—there was only one goat waiting at the gate.
Our goats are old. They were already at least 12 when we adopted them from an elderly couple in Selma, Iowa, the tiny village just down the road from Eldon. I had fallen in love with the goats during the four years I lived in the American Gothic House; I would bring them carrots while out on my road bike rides, I would feed them through the chain-link fence, and we developed a bond. They got to know me over time, always running to greet me when I pulled up on my bicycle. Given they were already at the top end of their lifespan when we adopted them, and we’ve had them for three years, they are now well into a very advanced age. Camp Doug is their retirement home, and as with any senior citizens, I know I need to be prepared for their departure.
Prepared? When you love someone—whether man or animal—who is ever prepared for a goodbye that is so final?
We lost one of the four goats a year and a half ago, in April of 2017. After spending a month at my dad’s bedside in California, caring for him through his aggressive cancer and doing the unthinkable: saying goodbye to him, I returned home only to find myself right back in hospice.
Cinnamon, our tan-colored fainting goat, had stopped eating while I was away. So for two weeks following my return, I alternated between sitting with her in the barn and driving to the vet with her stool samples or to get medicine, desperate for a cure to whatever was ailing her.
The vet prescribed a homemade “goat drench,” a concoction of corn oil, molasses and Gatorade, which I was to squirt into her mouth with a turkey baster. I squirted. She pursed her lips tight and jerked her head away. I pushed the baster into her mouth again. “Come on, beautiful. You have to eat something.” The sight of the drench running out of the side of her mouth, leaving a sticky trail of brown and sugary oil on her beautiful fluffy coat, was as upsetting to me as her failing health. I went back to the vet again and again, pleading for something, anything to help.
Finally, the vet held my shoulders and stared straight into my eyes. “She’s 15,” the vet said.
“But…” I started to say.
The vet interrupted me, repeating more sternly, “She’s 15.”
And then one morning, after Doug left to do his farm chores, he came back inside to find me. “She’s gone,” he said tenderly. I went outside to find her in the far corner of the barn, the life drained from her body after her drawn-out struggle. We buried her on the west side of the farmhouse, between the garden and the soybean field. Doug shoveled out the grave and I bought flowers to put on top. When we had pushed the last of the black soil over her, Doug went back to work and I went on antidepressants.
My dad died in March. Cinnamon died in April. And in June of that same year, 2017, Jack, my dog and surviving member of “Team Terrier,” developed both diabetes and congestive heart failure. He has nearly died at least four times during the past 18 months. Miraculously, after thousands of dollars in vet bills and countless tears, he is still alive—14 and ½ years old, blind, his strong spirit still intact. Every morning when I wake up, I hold my breath as I check to see that he is still breathing. When I see his chest rise and fall, I exhale with relief.
|Jack is blind, but he still likes to go for walks —
even when I have to carry him in the backpack.
It’s the same with the goats. Every morning when I go out to feed them, I scan the goat pen to make sure the three of them are accounted for.
But on that Sunday, three weeks ago, only Mr. Friendly was at the gate.
Occasionally the others hang out in the barn until breakfast is ready, but they always come running at the clanking metal sound of the gate opening. That Sunday, no one came running.
I pushed past Mr. Friendly, who is a big, white, lovable lug, and walked further into the pen where I saw Chaps, who looks like a miniature wildebeest. He was lingering in the doorway of the barn. But I didn’t see Mamacita.
Mamacita, who is a pygmy goat, is Chaps’ mom. She’s a feisty little thing with one horn (the other broke off years ago) who Doug so accurately describes as Granny from “The Beverly Hillbillies.” She may be the smallest of the herd but she’s in charge. She’s the adventurous one who leads the others to the far reaches of the yard, discovering the parts meant to be off limits, like the garden when everything is ripe or the hay barn when the door has been left open. If there is a feast to be had, she is the one who will find it.
She is also the one who pushes through the gate if I leave any bit of space to squeeze through. Lately I had been encouraging her to escape so I could feed her outside the pen, allowing her the extra time she needed to eat so the boys didn’t steal her food. She could go back into the pen when she was done eating by pushing the gate in, but the boys could not push it out. She didn’t always go back in though. She would take advantage of her freedom and graze in the yard while the boys watched with envy from behind the fence. I had been allowing this, giving her special privileges, though I give the boys equal time to roam freely too—much to Doug’s disapproval. But Doug knows how much I love the goats, and he loves me, so without saying anything he simply puts up fences around the mock orange bushes, flower beds and other areas he doesn’t want them devouring.
With Mr. Friendly and Chaps accounted for, I went looking for Mamacita. “Maybe she’s just around the corner, warming up in the sun,” I thought, hopefully. But she wasn’t, so my next option was the barn.
The barn is cavernous and dark inside. I walked in, pausing to let my eyes adjust to the darkness, and headed toward the back. And then I saw her, Mamacita, lying on her side in the straw.
Was she was sick? Was she going to be okay?
As I got closer, I felt the energy shift around me, the molecules of air rearranging themselves. I was filled with a simultaneous sense of dread and hope and knowing—that moment of teetering on the precipice right before falling, that last precious nanosecond of time before discovering that life as you have known it has just permanently, irreversibly changed.
She was dead.
I knelt down in the straw to feel her body, rubbing my hands on her white and brown hair, long and coarse. Given she was cold to the touch, she must have died during the night.
The guilt came hard and fast. “Did she freeze to death? Did I not feed her enough to keep her warm?” I asked myself. Iowa has had an early winter. It had snowed two days earlier and temperatures plummeted to a record cold of nine degrees. Nine degrees! In early-November! “Should I have gotten her a coat?”
Doug came out to the barn and held me in his arms as I sobbed on his shoulder. In his soothing way, he said, “Bea, she just ran out of gas. She didn’t suffer. Her heart probably just stopped. What a peaceful way to go.” Then he left me to sit with her a while longer while he got his shovel and went to dig her grave next to Cinnamon’s.
|Our funeral for Mamacita|
We held a little graveside service, lighting a candle, reading poems to her from John O’Donohue’s “To Bless the Space Between Us” and sprinkled baby carrots into the pit. We said our thank yous and our final goodbyes to her, then Doug picked up his shovel, while I picked up a handful of dirt to toss into the grave in the symbolic way they do at human burials. But I didn’t stop there. I dropped to my knees and started pushing the icy soil on top of her, at first gently, then shoving it in faster with my bare hands, until she was completely covered.
We worked in silence as the dirt piled up into a mound, the physical effort and connection to the earth serving as therapy for my sadness. Yet my tears—and my remorse—continued. “Did she freeze to death? Did I not feed her enough? Did I not keep her warm enough?” I asked myself again and again. “Could I have prevented this? Surely there is something I could have done.”
“She was 15!” the vet’s voice from a year and a half earlier bellowed in my head. “15!”
In reality, she was older than that, maybe closer to 16 or 17, living well beyond a pygmy goat’s 10- to 12-year average life expectancy.
For as much as I want to keep my animals alive forever, there comes a day—not just for the animals but for all of us—when our bodies expire, when no amount of medicine or molasses-based goat drench can keep us going.
“It’s sad,” my mom said when I told her about Mamacita’s passing, “but you have prolonged all of their lives by taking them in and providing such a good life at Camp Doug.”
Her words provided some consolation, but they didn’t erase the added heartache of watching our two surviving goats grieve. Yes, goats grieve. For about three days, Chaps stood off on his own, his head pushed up against the barn as if he didn’t want anyone to see him cry, while Mr. Friendly paced around the pen, the barn and the pasture, as if looking for Mamacita, determined to find her, willing her to return. But she would not be back. At least not in the same form.
|Tiger, our barn cat who hangs out with the goats,
consoled Chaps after Mamacita died.
It was a beautiful thing to see animals
showing compassion for one another.
“Every day is a bonus” is an expression we utter daily in our house full of elderly animals. Doug’s dog Mali, an athletic but incontinent spaniel/beagle mix, is 14, maybe older. His cats, Tiger and Maybelline, while still strong and healthy, are at least 15.
Every day Doug reminds me to stop worrying so much, to stop anticipating the losses, and start seeing the days as half full.
|Chaps in his new coat|
“Every day is a bonus, Bea,” Doug reminds me.
Every day I have been spending a lot of extra time in the goat pen with Chaps and Friendly. I have been bringing them warm water with molasses, and increased their feed. I have been petting and petting and petting them, like some massage therapist for goats. And I bought a new sewing machine to make coats for them out of fleece blankets and an old nylon tarp. (Making the coats was so easy I wished I had made them three years ago.)
Every day I give Jack his insulin shots, his heart pills, his liver pills, his skin pills. I kiss him every time I walk past him, snuggle with him and tell him how much I love him.
Every day I brace myself, holding my own breath until I’ve made sure everyone is still breathing—the dogs, the cats, the goats, and yes, Doug (who is 63). And every day I say my prayers of gratitude as I confirm each one is still with us.
All I want to do is keep everyone alive. Given that I do not possess the power to do so, all I can do is shower them with love for as long as they are still here—and, sadly, grieve them when they are gone. I have lived through too many losses already, and the cumulative grief chips away at my enthusiasm for life. But as Queen Elizabeth said, “Grief is the price we pay for love.” And I cannot and will not stop loving. Fully. Deeply. Courageously.
|Mamacita. Forever loved.|
Thank you, Mamacita, for your sweetness, your feistiness, your girl power, for the four years I visited you in Selma, and for the three happy years we had together at Camp Doug. You are so very missed, and forever very loved.
My friend Ann is dying. She had breast cancer about 10 years ago but it came back. In her spine. Containable but not curable, the drugs held it back for about a year or two. I hadn’t talked to her for a while and last fall I had a very strong sense that I needed to get in touch—and not just by email. Something told me I needed to pick up the phone and call her. She was happy to hear from me, but had some not so happy news: The cancer was growing.
In early December, I started getting emails from Ann’s brother. I was on a mailing list, one I’m sure is a very big list because of the number of Ann’s friends. In the past several months the chemo was affecting Ann’s nerves to the point she could no longer use her hands or feet. She couldn’t write or walk. But there was the possibility, the hope, that the neuropathy could depart in the same quick way it began.
The updates kept coming.
Ann is being moved from the hospital to the rehabilitation center for physical therapy.
Ann is making progress and determined to get home.
Ann is going home, but will need 24-hour care. A nurse will be there during the day but we’ll have friends stay with her overnight, so let me know if you would like to come for a few days or a week.
I volunteered to spend a week with her in March. (She lives in San Francisco.) Given her loving friends I’m sure she has enough caregiving volunteers to get her through the next five years. But I will not be going to San Francisco to help because Ann won’t make it five years, or even five months.
I woke up to an email update from her brother.
Ann received news yesterday that her battle with cancer is quickly coming to an end. Ann has in mind to say her goodbyes in the coming days and weeks. Then it seems she will be ready to depart on her next adventure. She seems to have no regrets and accepts that this is her time. She has great care and love of those around her. And wishes you and us all great happiness, love and peace.
And so the grief begins.
Ann is just three years older than me. She has been a mentor, a role model, a big sister, a grief counselor after Marcus died, and a true and loving friend.
Like me, she lost someone she loved who died suddenly and unexpectedly, so she already knew the ropes of this kind of grief. (The cliché is intentional; her love was a rock climber.) She was there for me—to listen, to coach, to refill my wine glass, to just be. She was there for me a few years later when Daisy was killed by a coyote. Ann, a dog lover herself, was once again a step ahead of me as she had lost her dog Shayla (an Airedale terrier) not long before Daisy died.
Ann’s dog, Shayla, was one of the most remarkable dogs I’ve ever met. I tell the story of her often, how, when Ann worked from home, Shayla would come to Ann’s desk to remind her to get off the phone and take her for a walk. After a few minutes, if Ann was still talking, Shayla would go get her leash and present it to Ann, standing there with it dangling from her mouth which, with her tall size, was level with the desktop. And when that still didn’t work, she would go get Ann’s fleece jacket off the hook by the door and drop it onto Ann’s lap, signaling that, “Excuse me, you really need to hang up now. It’s time to go out.” If that cuteness couldn’t make you end a call, no matter how important the business discussion, nothing could!
|Ann and Shayla|
Shayla was only 7 when she died. She got sick and Ann did everything she could to keep her dog healthy, happy, alive. She even stayed with Shayla at the animal hospital, because she believed—she knew—her presence would help the dog recover. And, with Ann’s affection, Shayla did recover (from an illness of leptospirosis.) Shayla’s recovery, which even her vet attributed to Ann’s love, was so remarkable that a magazine did a story featuring Ann on how spending time at the vet with your sick pet helps it heal.
I have followed Ann’s example of animal bedside care—many times now—whenever Jack is at the vet for his various health issues. (I did with Daisy, too.) Each time I sit on the cold cement floor of the vet’s office, gently stroking my dog’s fur for hours, I always think of Ann and Shayla and it keeps me going.
Ann talked with a pet psychic after Shayla died and the psychic told her Shayla was doing okay. When Daisy died, Ann gifted me a session with the psychic who told me Daisy was doing okay. (When your heart is THAT broken, any little bit of reassurance or affirmation is helpful.) It is one of the most heartfelt gifts I have ever received.
Lately I have been experiencing a period of turmoil—depression and despair over a combination of things: the current battlefield of politics, climate change, gun violence in schools and, more personally, what it means to be 55 and all the upheaval that goes with it: menopause; muffin top; loss of libido, bone density, and muscle tone; the seemingly limited future of my career; how to manage my finances; how to balance the solitude of the farm with my need for city; and the sobering reality that I now qualify for senior housing. But all of my worries seem so trivial now, my whiny first-world problems thrust into perspective by the news that Ann, who is just 60, is preparing to take leave.
Now I am asking:
What really matters?
What do we leave behind?
What are we most proud of?
What did we accomplish?
Ann hasn’t squandered away her time in the existential wasteland of turmoil and despair. She has been too busy, spending her life helping others as well as the environment. She has been:
- Advocating for women in the outdoor industry
- Serving on boards of environmental non-profits
- Mentoring teams of young people to help them grow in their careers
- Overseeing a foundation’s endowment allocating grants to wilderness conservation and outdoor education
- Building public speaking careers for adventurers, enabling them to share their risk management lessons learned from Mt. Everest, El Capitan, Antarctica and beyond
- Building an outdoor clothing brand into an internationally recognized and highly respected name
- Organizing a film festival featuring the feats of extreme athletes who have triumphed over tragedy
- And, in her earlier career, producing music events
She has traveled the world, spending a lot of time in the mountains—in the Himalayas, in Yosemite, in Muir Woods.
She has nurtured friendships that span the globe, often hosting those friends in her home, their sleeping bags and backpacks turning her living room—an otherwise cozy and elegant sanctuary filled with Buddhist art and Tibetan prayer flags—into a climbers’ base camp. I have been one of those lucky friends, sleeping bag in tow, treated to her home cooked meals (my favorite being grilled tilapia with sautéed mushrooms and puréed cauliflower, and a bottle of Malbec) and waking up on her couch to a view of the Redwood forest, talking with Ann for hours over coffee.
And yet, when the time comes—and, sadly, it is coming too soon—what will Ann be remembered for most? Not for her grilled tilapia and comfy couch. Not for her career and for her many, many accomplishments. Not even for her recent, wholly deserved Outdoor Industry Lifetime Achievement Award. All of that is impressive and important, yes. But what she will be remembered for most is her kindness. Her generosity. Her humility. Her love. Her spirit, a spirit so bright and beautiful its light will keep shining long after her physical form can no longer contain it.
May we all be so lucky to be remembered that way.
May Ann’s legacy serve as a guide for those of us still here, and for others yet to come. May we model her values and her examples of honesty and integrity, to make the world a better place for as long as we are here.
We will miss you, Ann, but know you will be there with all of that kindness, generosity, humility, and love when we see you on the other side. And we will all get there eventually. Thank you for being in my life and for all the goodness you have contributed—to me and to so many others. Wishing you peace on your new journey, my friend. I look forward to meeting up with you in the next one.
With all my love and deepest gratitude,
The photo to the left (it’s a Bitmoji) is me. It’s me and it sums up everything I am feeling right now about writing my American Gothic House memoir.
I am trying to get my story down — my whole story — about my four years of misadventures living in a rural Iowa tourist attraction. I made pie (god, did I make pie!) I fended off snakes and tourists and mean neighbors (who could forget The Binoculars!) I wrangled the flow of houseguests, pie customers, and media (I never should have said yes to Larry “Git ‘er Done” the Cable Guy). I made new friends–of all ages and backgrounds (think bib overalls, pickup trucks, and Bingo). I learned about Midwestern cuisine and was treated to an eye-opening array of cultural experiences. I wrote two books — and even went on two national book tours. I looked for new love and — after several ill-fated attempts (remember the guy with the guinea pig and the big-screen TV who moved in?) — I finally found it.
That’s a lot of good material. But the words are just not flowing.
I’ve been working on this book for nine months and four years. Nine months since I came back all pumped up and bursting with mojo from my writers’ retreat in Taos. And four years since I first determined — while still living in the famous house — that this was a book I had to write and that I would — and could — commit to it.
Do I have the interest and drive to finish a book-length work on this subject? This is the first question to answer before starting the long journey. (In my case, really long. Painfully, crookedly, stuck in stop-start traffic long.) And my answer, of course, was yes.
Approaching my memoir like a novel, I had also already cross-examined myself on the questions agents and publishers will ask:
What is this book about? How would you sum it up in two sentences? Who is this book for? Who is your audience? What is the protagonist’s struggle? What are the obstacles she needs to overcome? Who are the other characters in your story? What are the elements of suspense that will keep the reader turning the pages?
In other words, Why the fuck would anyone want to buy my book, let alone read it?!
Why? “Because you write it in a way that makes it interesting,” writing coach Jen Louden told me tenderly when I went to her in tears during the Taos retreat last April/May.
My experiences living in the American Gothic House — and in Eldon, Iowa, in general — were definitely interesting. But how to corral all those snapshots into a narrative album that that gels into a cohesive story, flows with emotional resonance, that shows not tells, that doesn’t drone on for 412 frickin’ pages (like it does in its current draft form)? How to weave all those outlandish (and outrageous) tales into a tapestry of well-crafted prose and make it sound more “literary” with clever metaphors, fresh new insights, and philosophical revelations? How to write it in a way that ensures reviewers will praise my book instead of ripping it apart? How to make it so goddamn brilliant it lands on the New York Times bestseller list?!
|This is what to say to all that self-doubt and inner chatter.|
How? How about just not worrying about it? How about writing and not stopping until you reach the end? I’ve heard more than one writing instructor say, “Don’t think about editing until you have a complete draft.” (Otherwise known as the Shitty First Draft.) “Then you can go back and deepen and thicken it. We are storytellers. Just tell your story.”
Besides, as Jen has said, “It’s the attitude you bring to your writing that’s far more important than your inborn talent.”
Attitude? Oh yeah, I copped an attitude. After Taos, my attitude was Git. Er. Done. (You know things are bad when you start quoting Larry the Cable Guy.)
When I got back from Taos in early May I set up a new office in the farmhouse. I put on my big girl overalls. And I got to work. I had the momentum. I really had it going. My start — after four or five previous attempts — was not a false one this time. I was cranking out the chapters (38 of them!) and making steady progress toward those golden words: “And she lived happily ever after.” (Or maybe just “The End.” But most likely “To be continued.”)
I was feeling good about the majority of my work. I had even shared pages with a few of my most critical friends and got positive feedback. There was humor and heartache and honesty and detailed descriptions to put the reader in the scene. My words were flowing like warm honey on toast, baby. I was staying disciplined and keeping my butt in the chair. And, most important, the muzzle I put on my Inner Critic was holding tight. I was almost done with my first draft. Almost. Until I was derailed by a trifecta of interruptions. The Holidays. My dog Jack getting sick. (He almost died!) And the hard drive on my 4-month-old MacBook crashing (It died! Luckily I didn’t lose my data.) Fun times.
My writing came to a standstill for more than a month.
Last week I got my butt back in the chair and opened up the Word doc for my neglected manuscript. In order to get started again I read back a few chapters.
And that’s where the exasperated, book-throwing bitmoji comes in.
I texted this bitmoji to my sister (she is the one who introduced me to this amusing app) with the message, “My writing totally sucks.”
She replied with her usual quick wisdom: “You are exactly where you are supposed to be in the book-writing process.”
She then suggested a few books for me to read, starting with Reasons to Stay Alive (by Matt Haig.) Geez, did I sound that despondent?! She also recommended watching a recent 60 Minutes interview with John le Carré (aka David Cornwell.) I checked out both.
Matt Haig writes, “Beware of the gap. The gap between where you are and where you want to be. Simply thinking of the gap widens it. And you end up falling through.”
Funny, I had just heard Jen Louden say this very thing in an online class last week. She reassured the audience that everyone has a gap. Even the most successful authors. “Post a note above your desk and write this on it,” she suggested. “Everybody has a gap.”
Haig also wrote in his book (that I always mistakenly call Reasons Not To Kill Yourself,) “Don’t worry about the time you lose to despair. The time you will have afterward has just doubled its value.”
Again, this struck me, as I had just watched an interview on YouTube of memoirist Dani Shapiro talking about her writing process. She had stepped away from a manuscript for a few months and when she came back to it she wanted to take a pickaxe to it!
|That moment when you realize you need to restructure.|
She despaired, but she called it “productive despair,” claiming that the time away was necessary and useful because it gave her perspective. Only after coming back could she see with clarity that her book needed restructuring. She said it’s the second to last stage of the book writing when you have to move through the murky waters before touching the bottom, and that the bottom is what it takes to propel yourself back “up, up, up” to the surface. “There’s light up there,” she said, “but first we have to live in the depths.”
I’ve been living in the murky depths longer than my short attention span allows. Three months is a comfortable length of time for me to immerse myself in a project. Three months, not nine months and four years. (I finished my other two books in well under a year.) Worse, my stalled-out period is pushing the finish line even farther out. How much longer is this going to take?!
Enter John le Carré. I watched the “60 Minutes” interview my sister recommended.
Le Carré said of his first book, the bestseller The Spy Who Came in from The Cold, “I wrote it very fast, the story. But I had no idea where I was going at first. And it just flowed.”
That’s how I felt about writing Making Piece. It flowed so easily I felt like someone else was writing it and I was just there to type. So why has my American Gothic House memoir been such hard work? Why does it feel like it’s a baby that doesn’t want to be born?
Le Carré answered the questions for me as he continued, “I think you get a break like that once in your writing life. I really believe — nothing else came to me so naturally, so fast.”
There you have it. Le Carré had his gaps. He had his productive despair. He had to work at his writing — really work. And look where it got him. He’s made enough money to buy a private jet. (Though he is so humble he would never think of it.)
As I continued to listen, I exhaled (as one must do when Scuba diving in the murky depths of productive despair.) I could feel the air leave my lungs, percolating out in a stream of little bubbles. The fact that I was still breathing was as encouraging as John le Carré’s admission that writing is hard even for him.
I take in all of this as encouragement, a new inventory of helpful wisdom from those who have dredged the sea bottom before me. But I’m still underwater, still struggling. Especially with the overall theme of the book. Because the most important question of all to me is What will the reader take away from my story? Will they be inspired to choose their own fork in the road and follow the path that beckons to a new and unknowable adventure? Or will the reader wonder, “Girl, why the hell didn’t you just move out when you saw that first snake?” and then dismiss the rest of the story.
So while I wait to hit bottom (Seriously?! It’s going to get worse before it gets better?!) I will accept that this is my gap.
I will do the breast stroke through the dark waters and trust that I will eventually swim back to the surface.
I will look for new methods of silencing my Inner Critic.
I will stop putting time pressure on myself. (Who cares how long it takes? Some authors take five, ten years to write their books. And they end up being classics. Hello? Ever heard of Gone With the Wind, Harry Potter, The Hobbit?)
I will clean off my mask and snorkel, and grab my surfboard. Because that flow is coming back and I’m going to be ready to ride that wave when it does.
I will finish (and publish) this book. And once I’m done I will text my sister. I already have the perfect bitmoji for it.
|“Never, never, never give up.” – Winston Churchill|
|The Pie Lady goes to bread school.|
On Saturday I took an artisanal bread making class. I have been teaching baking classes for the past 11 years, not the student of them. But I believe in continuing education, in stretching, growing and expanding. I hunger for new information, crave new ideas and skills, and I’m always up for a new challenge.
Bread is that new challenge.
I’ve made bread before, but I could never get it to rise and, after it baked, it bore a texture and weight—and taste—closer to that of a cinder block than a loaf of edible leavened ground wheat. I may not live in the culinary capital of the world—Southeast Iowa fare (like pork tenderloin sandwiches the size of a dinner plate, Jell-o salad topped with mini marshmallows, and white dinner rolls slathered in margarine) is not exactly refined and sophisticated cuisine—but what SE Iowa does have is The Villages Folk School.
|The Magic Chef oven, built in 1935, really is magic.|
Villages Folk School, according to its website, specializes in providing learning experiences in traditional arts and skills, while drawing upon the uniqueness of each of the 11 historic Villages of Van Buren County Iowa. Classes are held in peaceful rural settings so students can return to a simpler time and witness the importance of the artisan in village life.
Try finding that in New York or L.A.! Sign me up!
The bread class was held in the village of Bentonsport, the definition of a peaceful and rural setting. In fact, to wind down the road into this sleepy hollow nestled on the banks of the Des Moines River is an exercise in time travel—back to the “simpler time” of the 1800s. The well-preserved village (with a population of 40) consists of the haunted Mason House Inn, a blacksmith and pottery shop called Iron and Lace, a Native American artifact museum (with an impressive arrowhead collection collected and curated by an eccentric resident who travels by bike), a fudge shop, a kayak rental concession, and a campground. Of note is its bridge that spans the river—built in 1883 for wagons to cross (that’s before the invention of cars!) It’s now a footbridge. The nearest stoplight might be at least 30 miles away.
|This is what peaceful and rural looks like.|
Bentonsport resident Betty Printy—also a potter, weaver, and gardener—was our bread instructor who hosted the class in her home, an historic two-story brick and beam house built in 1869. Stepping through her doorway was to enter another world, indeed a simpler one—and safer one. Surrounded by Betty’s antiques—from her 1935 Magic Chef white enamel gas range to her ceramic butter churns and rooster figures to her cuckoo clock—and enveloped in the sweet fumes of her scented candles, I wanted to spend more time here than the four hours allotted for the class. I wanted to move in! Except that I knew from having met Betty before that she had bull snakes living in her basement, in her laundry room, just like I did when I lived in the American Gothic House. Uh, no thanks. Been there, done that.
I didn’t bring up the subject of snakes during class. But we did discuss her numerous aquariums that lined her living room walls. The tanks were packed with fish, inhabitants that far outnumbered the people in Bentonsport. The aquariums, she told us, were the winter home to the convict fish, black sharks, eels, and goldfish that spent the rest of the year living in the ponds situated in the village rose garden. She was caretaker to all. She tried to pawn off some of the guppies on us—they were reproducing by the hundreds—but got no takers.
|Mixing ingredients in a variety of vessels.|
Betty is tall and slender with strong cheekbones and waist-length hair twisted up into a knot at the nape of her neck. Dressed in a baggy white blouse and even baggier khakis, her demeanor was as easy and relaxed as her clothes. She greeted us with her warmth and her smile. “Us” was five participants, all women, all eager to learn this new (ancient) skill.
I always talk about how pie originated in Roman times, how the crust was used to preserve and transport meat. But bread has been around even longer than pie—a lot longer, like even before the invention of language or electricity, before civilization. Prehistoric mankind started eating bread 30,000 years ago! (You think it’s hard imagining a 135-year-old iron bridge made for covered wagon river crossings, try wrapping your head around that number!) And now, here we were, in the Dark Year of 2018, the era of divisive politics, tribalism and social media trolls, questionable news sources and reality TV and talk of building 20 billion dollar border walls: five women (of indeterminate and undisclosed political leanings) gathered together to make— and—break bread.
Like I said, I am used to teaching baking classes. But I was a good little student, a well-behaved participant, inquisitive without being too disruptive, curious and interested. I was there to learn.
|This razorblade is a lame,
to score the top of the bread.
And I had a lot to learn.
– About the basic ingredients. (flour, water, sourdough starter, salt, yeast, molasses, olive oil, egg, wheat berries)
– About parchment paper and bread whisks and lames and other necessary tools.
– About sourdough starters — and the care and feeding of them. (Still confounding to me!)
– About the various ways and vessels to use for mixing dough. (Kitchen Aid mixers, bread machines, pots, bowls, stirring by hand.)
– About the numerous steps of preparation. (Let’s just say bread seems more complex and temperamental than pie.)
|My friend Lisa adds
jalapeños & cheese to hers.
– About the patience required in waiting for the dough to rise—several times. (Patience is not my strong suit.)
– About extra ingredients added to create varieties of breads. (This is where it gets fun—olives, raisins, cinnamon, sundried tomatoes, cheese, garlic, rosemary, the possibilities are endless. Kind of like how you can put “just about anything” in a pie crust, so it goes with bread, though I have yet to test the limitations of this.)
– About scoring the top of the loaf before baking. (Like vent holes in a pie, the gashes relieve the pressure from steam building up as it bakes.)
|Shaping the loaf.|
– About Dutch ovens and clay cloches and baking stones and how they create the steam necessary to get a crusty outer edge. (You can drop some big cash on this stuff, or you can just remember that the pioneers—hell, the cavemen—made bread without any accoutrements. Even today, the Tuareg nomads in the Sahara Desert still bake their bread right in the sand.)
– About baking times and using thermometers to test oven temps and doneness. (As I always tell my pie students, “Never trust your oven. You have to stay vigilant during baking process.” Betty told us the same thing.)
|Homework. Get cozy on the couch and curl up with a good book.|
Like I do for my pie classes, Betty had a long table set up for us to use as a workspace. She had all her equipment and baking tools at the ready. And she walked us through the process, step by step, each of us making our own dough, forming our own loaves, creating our own personal signatures through the addition of extra ingredients and the scoring patterns on top. She had loaves of fresh baked bread for us to sample as we waited for the dough to rise the first time. She had a library of bread cookbooks to look through as we waited for the dough to rise the second time. She served glasses of super-antioxidant berry juice (homemade from her backyard blackberry, raspberry, aronia berry patches) as we waited for the bread to bake.
Her hospitality made the class so comfortable, but it was her baking methods that especially put me at ease as they echoed my own philosophy. Namely, she didn’t measure precisely.
“Go by feel,” she said as she dug her measuring cup into the flour jar and didn’t level it off or poured molasses out of the bottle letting it flow over the edges of the spoon, or showed us how to feed our sourdough starter adding “some” water as an approximation.
“Your ingredients will vary,” she said, “and sometimes you will need more flour, sometimes less. You have to touch the dough and feel it. If it’s sticky, add more flour.”
Yes! That is how I roll. Maybe I would be able to finally make an edible batard or baguette, ciabatta or pizza crust.
|The Victory Shot.|
The four-hour class ended with a victory shot. Instead of taking pictures of my pie students, capturing their beaming smiles of pride as they stood behind their freshly baked beauties, it was me in the shot this time standing behind my spectacular (if I may say so myself) golden brown boule of wheatberry sourdough, smiling with pride. I was even saying the very thing I loved hearing my own students say, the thing that makes the teaching so fulfilling, the thing that must have made Betty feel good about her efforts. I said—we all said, “I can’t believe I made this!”
Steaming and fragrant, the yeasty scent wafted up in my nostrils. I was tormented with desire, desperate to rip off a hunk and shove it right into my salivating mouth. I managed to maintain my manners and waited until I got home to indulge. (Anyway, I had eaten several slices of Betty’s bread during the class so I wasn’t exactly starving.)
|Ta da! Mine is the one bottom right.|
|Betty checks with her thermometer
to see if the bread is done (at 208 degrees.)
My bread….Oh. My. God. My bread was so fucking excellent, so moist and tender and chewy and perfect I decided to make more the next morning. Betty had given us each our own jar of sourdough starter to take home and I wanted to practice while the steps were still fresh in my head. I wanted the process to take hold, to imprint in my brain and live in my muscle memory the way pie has, to the point where if I lost my vision and my hearing I would still be able to make a damn fine pie. I was determined to achieve the same comfort/skill level with this newfound passion for bread.
I was not so lucky at home, unsupervised without Betty’s gentle guidance and instant answers to my questions, like, “Is it okay to use a packet of yeast that’s six months past its expiration date?” I stepped through each stage—setting and resetting the timer on my iPhone, running downstairs every 30 minutes to “stretch and fold” the dough, transfer the dough to another bowl to rise some more, preheat the oven to 430 degrees, and finally tuck my baby into a cast iron Dutch oven for baking. My dough did not double in size. Was the room too cold? Was it because of the expired yeast? I did not have parchment paper so I used the “other” method of lining my Dutch oven with cornmeal. The oven smoked so much while the bread baked that the smoke alarm went off and sent the dogs into a panic. I had to open the doors to air out the house, and because it was a 25-degree winter day, the smoke was replaced with a stinging icy breeze.
My first solo-run bread, while half the size of the loaf I produced in class, wasn’t a total disaster. It was edible and, given I had stuffed it with cinnamon, raisins and brown sugar, it was still pretty delicious.
I always preach to my pie students, “Pie is not about perfection! It should look homemade!” As I scrutinized my loaf, I had to preach to myself that bread is not about perfection either. This misshapen lump, a little too dark on top, the scoring lines ripped apart like broken skin, was definitely not perfect. But it qualified as looking homemade and I’d take homemade any day.
I am not deterred. I will keep practicing. I will keep experimenting with ingredients, techniques and tools. I will buy some fresh yeast. And I will remember that if the cavemen could make bread, so can I. And who knows, maybe someday I will get good enough at this I will be able to teach bread making. Regardless, I never want to stop learning, stretching and growing, and am already wondering what other classes I can take. Luckily the Villages Folk School has a long list to choose from.
During my recent weeklong Taos Writers Retreat I skipped the scheduled morning dance sessions. Free-form dancing in a group is waaaay too far out of my comfort zone, even though Jen insisted everyone keeps their eyes closed so no one is watching you. Instead, I walked a few blocks from the Mabel Dodge Luhan House to a local coffee house.
Possessing an instinctive homing device for caffeine, I found my way there by taking a trail that led off the property, slipped through an opening in the bushes that led to Kit Carson Park, and cut a diagonal line across the park toward the center of town. I passed the Taos Little League field, the graveyard where Mabel Dodge and Kit Carson rest in peace, and popped out the other side onto Paseo Del Pueblo Norte. I hung a left on the main drag, passed a restaurant and a few art galleries before finding my destination recommended by one of the staff at the inn: World Cup.
World Cup is a tiny espresso bar, one of the smallest spaces in which I’ve ever had a latte. About the size of a bedroom, it feels as cozy as one too. There’s a cash register, an industrial size espresso machine, and along two walls runs a counter with metal bar stools underneath. The place is so small, so intimate you automatically become part of any conversation.
Every day I saw the same people, the “regulars,” people who lived in Taos.
There was Jack, the barista. Reserved and intelligent looking, his clean cut-ness offset by his hint of a beard, he always dressed neatly in a collared shirt, vest, and bandana tied around his neck. I wondered if he was a folk musician by night.
There was Simon, the English mystery novelist who looked more like a rancher. He was tall with blazing blue eyes, and his booming voice with the British accent dominated the coffee house whenever he spoke.
There was Pat, the ex-hippie from Haight-Ashbury, a short, kind-eyed man who wore Hawaiian shirts and a baseball cap that hid his grey hair. When he smiled it showed the hint of gold rimming his teeth.
There was Marianna, another barista, with dark hair and bangs and an ever-present warm smile made brighter by her signature swath of power-red lipstick.
There was Lloyd, slightly soft and rumpled, always sitting at the bar, always ready to join in the conversation. He was a dead ringer for Norm from “Cheers.”
There was the man (whose name I never learned) who looked like an aging rock star turned mountain man, his hair long and shaggy, his jeans faded, his boots worn, his icy blue eyes weary.
And every single morning there was Joseph and Augustine, two men from the Red Willow tribe. Weathered and bronzed, with high cheek bones and black hair in long braids tied back into ponytails, they walked the three miles daily from the Taos Pueblo, where their tribe has dwelled for over 1000 years, to get coffee and wait for their ride from Joseph’s brother, Blue, to whatever work site they were headed to that day.
|Joseph (left) and Augustine (right) making a point not to smile for the camera|
It wasn’t just people who were regulars, but also their dogs. Pat with his ultra-shy black lab-mix puppy named Digger, whom he was attempting to socialize. Steve with a different dog each day (he had five), including a red chow, a black chow, and a brindled Mastiff-mix. A lab here, a scruffy white terrier there, a cattle dog, a Golden retriever, the dogs nearly outnumbered the customers. Because World Cup was so small, the combination of dogs and coffee patrons made for the Taos equivalent of an L.A. traffic jam. Without the road rage.
Often the conversations revolved around the dogs. Many of the dogs’ owners had made it their mission to rescue animals abandoned at the animal shelter, or capture feral dogs found on construction sites, and rehabilitate them until they could be adopted.
This was a reminder: There is still goodness in this world.
I heard one woman say she was on her way to a daylong chainsaw carving class. I heard a man say he was applying for a visa to move to Australia. I heard someone say he just signed a lease for the art gallery he had been working so hard to open. I heard another one say his New York agent had just given him feedback on his screenplay. I heard a four-year-old girl insist to her mother that she wanted the chocolate croissant not the plain one she was already eating.
This was a reminder too: There is still so much to strive for, so many dreams to pursue. (And a reminder that when in doubt, always go for the chocolate one.)
Given my affinity for café culture (especially the dog-friendly kind), my curiosity about people, and my chatty personality, I was more than happy to insert myself in these conversations. (And pet every dog that came through the door.) I was eager to be part of the group, not only because of my outgoing nature, but because I live a little too isolated for my disposition on a farm, 25 miles from the nearest espresso bar. I was starving for conversation, for community. Forget free-form dance; this was a week I could take advantage of being a 10-minute walk from the crossroads of an eclectic bunch of townspeople. And drink really good coffee.
On my second morning at World Cup, I was pulled into a dialog with Augustine and Joseph, the two Native Americans. Augustine asked me where I was from.
“Iowa,” I told him.
In reply he asked me, “Do you know Jim Leahy?”
Outwardly my face showed that I was trying to determine if, in fact, I did know a Jim Leahy. Inside, though, I was laughing at the notion that out of an entire state, nearly 500 miles wide, I would know this one person.
But then Augustine added, “He founded Overland Sheepskin Company.” He spoke so shyly, so quietly, I had to lean in to hear him. The background noise of the bean grinder and milk steamer and other customers ordering coffee made it even harder to hear. I got so close I could smell the cigarette smoke on his clothes. “I worked for him for 13 years,” he continued.
My eyes shot open at the recognition. “Oh my god, yes. I mean, I know his wife, Jennifer. She runs Blue Fish Clothing. They live in Fairfield. I spend a lot of time there.”
This is why I love life. These seemingly random connections are what I live for. Stumbling upon common links always tells me I am exactly where I need to be at exactly that moment. The world is a lot smaller and a lot more connected that we realize. With this realization comes a feeling of wellbeing. We are not as lost or as disconnected as we think.
As if reading my thoughts, Joseph chimed in. “Small world,” he said, flashing a grin at me, unselfconscious that his two front teeth were missing. Teeth or not, he was handsome, with his chiseled features, crisply dressed in his jeans and cowboy boots, and athletically fit. “We live up at the Pueblo. Have you been there?”
“No,” I said. “I just got here. I’m in Taos for a week, for a writers retreat. It’s a group of 23 women trying to get past their writers block. Coming here for coffee is my secret little morning ritual.”
“Come to the Pueblo. I’ll be your tour guide, “Joseph said. “There’s an adobe structure that’s an original five-story building. We grew up there.”
I looked into his eyes, brown and slightly slanted. What I saw in his eyes was a deep, bubbling hot spring of American history so dark and tragic I felt like I was going to drown. My heart splintered a little more at that moment, the broken pieces shattering into even smaller pieces—as if after all my recent grief I could afford any more cardiac damage. Talking with these Native American men stirred up something far down and unknowable inside me. I don’t believe in past lives, and I absolutely cannot comprehend the quantum physics of gravity, space and time, where life might exist simultaneously in different dimensions, but damn if I didn’t feel like there was something more going on between the three of us. Was this force of energy and this intensity of eye contact—also with Augustine, his brown irises surrounded by more red than white—because we were connected on a different plane? Or was it my nostalgia for simpler, more environmentally sensitive times? Times before smart phones and paved roads. Before combustion engines and Dakota Access Pipelines. Before the White Man obliterated the peoples who lived in harmony with nature, those who understood and respected the balance of ecology.
Who knew that a 7:30AM stop at the local coffee house would evoke such profound thoughts?
I had to remind myself to breathe. After a pause to shake off the mind-bending sensation, I answered him. “I would love a tour. How about Saturday afternoon, right after my workshop ends?”
For the rest of the week I continued my daily jaunts to the coffee house. One morning I met a woman while cutting across the park. She was older, with hair dyed scarlet red, taking her morning power walk. I walked next to her, asking her for directions which led to asking her about her life. In clipped British English she said she spends half the year in Taos and the other half—the winter—in San Miguel de Allende. Like Augustine asking me if I knew his friend in Iowa, I asked her if she knew my friend Angela in Mexico. “She’s a writer,” I said. “She’s also British.”
And then, in the way I answered Augustine, this woman stopped walking and turned to look at me. “Yes. I think I do know her. I’m sure I’ve heard her name. Yes, I’m certain I’ve met her.”
Once again, right place, right time. The world is so bloody small, people are so connected to each other—connected to me—it feels like I do belong in it after all.
On the last night of the writers’ workshop, our group of 23 formed a circle. Each woman took a turn professing what she got out of the week. In my allotted one minute, I said, “I got exactly what I needed: a sense of community, a sense of belonging. But not just from all of you.” Then I revealed where I had been disappearing to each morning. “I got a bonus community by going to the espresso bar, where I made friends with the locals.” The entire circle nodded in approval, and with, I dare say, a hint of admiration.
At the designated time on Saturday, I met Joseph at the Pueblo. As promised, he gave me a tour of his primary community. (World Cup, like it did for me, clearly served as his “bonus community.”) He explained how these earthy red adobe buildings have been continuously inhabited for over 1000 years, making this place the longest continually inhabited community in the U.S. These mud and straw structures, still standing so solidly, were built between the years 1000 and 1050 AD. Its buildings are so impressive in how they’ve withstood the test of time (and weather and myriad attacks) that the Pueblo is now listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, ranking right up there with the Pyramids and Taj Mahal. “It’s not a reservation,” he said, “because we have never left. Reservations are places tribes were moved to.”
I nodded, acknowledging this important distinction.
He pointed out the kivas, underground caves marked by a bundle of tall poles protruding above, where the men (no women allowed!) partake in rituals, initiations, and learn the unwritten wisdom and teachings of the tribe shared orally. “I’ve spent 40 days and 40 nights inside the kiva,” he said. Joseph is 55 and is an elder serving on the Tribal Council. “I’m young for an elder. They are normally in their 80s. But as they die off I continue to move up, taking their place.”
His revelation that he was an elder didn’t surprise me, given how articulate and knowledgeable he was. Maybe there was something about his elder wisdom that had moved me so much the day I met him. Maybe he was channeling the Great Spirit.
We walked along the front side of the largest structure, passing vendors selling carvings, beads, drums and art, and I spotted—what the…?!—a pie shop. “We have to go in,” I insisted. “I have to try the pie.”
Joseph knew the baker, the grandson of Crucita, the woman who opened the bakery almost 100 years ago. The two immediately started chatting in their native Tiwa language.
The Pueblo is off the grid—there are no power lines, no running water. They collect their water by dipping buckets into the river that runs through the middle of the village. The lights are run by propane, and the ovens—adobe beehive-shaped things called “hornos”— are fueled by wood fire.
|Try running a pie stand baking in this|
For a moment I imagined what it would have been like to run the Pitchfork Pie Stand using only an horno. I bristled at the thought.
I bought a slice of blueberry pie, a flat triangle that resembled a quesadilla, and shared it with Joseph. It was too sweet, and the filling was probably canned, but who cares? I was eating pie at the Pueblo. Pie made in the oldest inhabited structure in the land. Pie made by a Red Willow man.
Pie notwithstanding, after such a long and sad period, life was looking up.
I stayed in Taos a few extra days, renting a ridiculously cute one-room log cabin I found on Airbnb. It was too far to walk to World Cup, but that didn’t stop me from driving the five miles there to get my latte. But two days in a row I arrived too late to see my regular crowd. Determined to see my “friends” one last time, I gave Augustine a call in advance (Joseph doesn’t have a phone) to make sure the guys would be there on my final morning. I set my alarm for 6:30AM to be there by 7.
When I arrived at World Cup, they were there, along with a few other regulars who trickled in and out. I said hi to my Red Willow friends but told them I wanted to get my coffee before chatting. I went up to the counter and the barista, Marianna, said, “Large latte, three shots?” I nodded and smiled. You know you’ve become a local when they know your drink order. I reached for my wallet and she added, “The guys already paid for it. It’s on them.”
My hands reached for my heart to keep it from bursting out of my chest. I couldn’t stop the tears welling up in my eyes. “I wasn’t expecting that,” I said to Marianna, still holding my chest. I didn’t need to say anything as my reaction already told her. “It’s my last day here,” I said, wiping my wet cheeks. “I don’t want to leave.”
“Taos is a great place to live,” Marianna said. “There’s community here.”
Community. Yes. That is exactly what I kept experiencing during the 10 days I had been in town. I wanted more of this—needed more. I longed to stay. I had even looked on Craigslist for short-term sublets. But as the owner of my rented cabin said when I asked if I could book it for an entire month, maybe two, “You have people who love you waiting for you back home.” He couldn’t have known this, yet he was right. It wasn’t just people waiting (Doug) but dogs and cats and goats too.
I finally composed myself enough to return to Augustine and Joseph, and Blue. “Oh, you guys, thank you so much. I am so touched. But I’m the one who should be treating you to coffee.” They shrugged off my thanks, as if they were embarrassed by my gushing gratitude.
They couldn’t possibly have known—and I wasn’t about to tell them—just how down I had been before I came to Taos, how much I was grieving not just my dad and my goat, but the whole state of the world. Likewise, they couldn’t possibly know just how much their kindness had restored my faith in humanity. (Though I must add, taking a 10-day break from the news and social media also helped.)
Overcome by shyness all around, we sat on barstools, not really sure what to talk about, not sure how to say goodbye. Other regulars showed up, filling up the space between our awkward small talk. Pat with his dog Digger. Steve with yet another dog. And the guy opening the art gallery with his cattle dog. I bent down to pet each of the animals.
“We have to go to work,” Augustine finally said. “I have something for you.” He handed me a small bundle, a zip-lock bag wrapped in paper towel. “Don’t open it until you get home,” he said.
“You mean when I get back to Iowa, or do you just mean don’t open it until later?”
“You can open it after I leave,” he said.
Once I was in the car, I unwrapped his gift. I assumed it was one of his rock carvings he had shown me photos of—bears on all fours. “I like doing the detail,” he said as I studied his pictures, faded and dog-eared. But it was not a stone carving. It was a necklace made of chunky turquoise beads. I immediately fastened it around my neck and held the beads in my fist as I drove down highway 68.
As much as it made my heart ache to leave Taos, I reminded myself that life is about moving forward. Unless you know how to move in a space-time continuum, forward is the only direction we can go.
Eventually I pointed my car East, toward my life back in Iowa, toward my goal of finishing my next book, toward my pathetic little $39 Mr. Coffee Espresso Maker and my community of farm animals.
|Back in Iowa, this is what community looks like.|
I had a long talk with Doug on Saturday, while we were out canoeing on Big Cedar Creek. Immersed in nature is an ideal setting to discuss important issues. I told him about my desire to remain in Taos, to rent a place there, about my morning coffee house routine, and how I felt like I really belonged there.
“I need to live in a place that smells of sagebrush,” I said.
He understood. “You can go back, Bea. If that’s what it takes for you to write, you should go.”
His support came from a place of such unconditional love I realized the Taos cabin owner was right. This is home. The people here do love me—Doug loves me. And I can—and I will—readjust to a place that smells of fresh-cut hay instead of sage.
Instead of returning to Taos, I rearranged one of the rooms in our farmhouse and turned it into my own office. No more desk in the bedroom.
The first thing I did after setting up my desk was to create a shrine to my time in Taos—my journal filled with inspiration and motivation from the workshop, the “Write True” charm from Jen reminding me to write my heart out honestly, the postcard of Georgia O’Keeffe on the back of a motorcycle (she too was smitten with Taos, so much so she left NYC and moved there permanently), a sprig of New Mexico sage, and last but not least Augustine’s turquoise beads.
I have claimed a room of my own where I will write— with courage and confidence—my next book, my blog posts, magazine articles, and thank you letters to certain Red Willow Indians.
Thank god I skipped those dance sessions.
|Ready for Washington.
“I am woman, hear me roar.”
I hate crowds. I avoid rock concerts and rallies. I shy away from situations or gatherings that might put me in harm’s way. Especially now, in today’s increasingly violent, gun-toting, backpack-bombing atmosphere, previously safe situations like going to an airport or a nightclub or a marathon have become tenuous and slightly terrifying. But when the Women’s March on Washington was announced I ran straight to my computer and booked my flight to DC. I didn’t think twice about potential danger (or the possibility of getting arrested). Nor did I even stop to think about needing a concrete reason to go. It was like a calling from a higher power. My gut feeling took over and grabbed my credit card from my purse. And before I even thought about what I was doing–or why–I had already printed out my airline itinerary.
Many of my closest friends are also flying or driving to Washington. Others are marching in other corners of the country, in LA, Austin, New York, Chicago, Portland, Park City and Des Moines. Many of them had the same instinct. “Just go.”
But I’ve heard rumblings from other women—and from a handful of critics voicing their negativity in the media—about how there is no real mission for the march, no specific agenda. Who are the speakers? What is the unified message? What will we do once we get there? What is the purpose, the take-away? What action will come of this? This kind of response, which I deemed a little too nitpicky, made me feel sad, as if people’s need for control overrides their ability to take a chance on life.
Overthinking creates limitations. Why would you want to know all the answers before you set out on the journey? As Helen Keller said, “Life is either a great adventure or it is nothing.” If you had all kinds of pre-set expectations and objectives, what kind of adventure would it be then? Besides, expectations can lead to disappointment.
Ten years ago I heard Alice Brock from Alice’s Restaurant (yes, the one in the Arlo Guthrie song) interviewed on NPR. She was asked about the loose style of running her business and she said, “Not being locked into a ‘plan’ or a prescribed way of doing something leaves room for all kinds of wonderful stuff to happen.”
What I had remembered her saying in that interview (though oddly I couldn’t find it in the transcript) is: “If I had known what I was getting into I never would have started it.”
I can think of so many times that “I never would have started” has applied to me: Moving to Germany to marry Marcus, for one. Starting a pie business in the American Gothic House, another. Traveling around the world making pie. Moving onto a farm in rural Iowa—with a farmer. And soon, marching with hundreds of thousands of women and men in Washington. The pattern is clear, the results, obvious: When you step into the unknown magnificent things can happen. I have never regretted taking a risk. Ever.
I’m all for being responsible. And careful. I don’t live entirely on the edge. I exercise. I eat my vegetables. I sleep eight hours a night. I floss (though not as often as I should.) I have health insurance (for now.) I look both ways before crossing the street (both literally and figuratively.) But above and beyond anything else, I honor and follow my guiding forces: my heart, my gut, trust and faith.
In “My Life on the Road,” Gloria Steinem writes, “If you find yourself drawn to an event against all logic, go. The universe is telling you something.”
But someone else—someone I have great respect for—put it in even more succinct terms. (No, not Oprah.) It was Barack Obama who, in his eloquent farewell speech, said, “Show up. Dive in. Stay at it. Believe that you can make a difference. Hitch your wagon to something bigger than yourselves.”
To my mind that “something bigger” is community. Community is the foundation for the even bigger stuff: Democracy. Equality. Women’s rights. Human rights. And if showing up in the nation’s capitol to create a community, to demonstrate just how much those values mean to me–to so many of us– then, agenda specifics or not, I’m there.
The journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step. So on January 21st at 10:00 a.m., bundled up in my down jacket and my hand-knit pussyhat, I will lace up my marching boots and add my body—and my voice—to a sea of humanity as it moves along Independence Avenue. I will go with the belief that just showing up is the first step to making a difference. I will stay positive that it will be a peaceful, safe event. And more than anything, I will stay open to the adventure and all the great new friendships, ideas, power, unity and community that is sure to come from the experience.