Radio Commentary: An Outlet for Dealing with Overwhelming Issues

Over the past few years I have occasionally written commentaries for Tri States Public Radio, but only when an issue bothered me so badly I was compelled to weigh in on it.

Apparently listeners appreciate the positive messages I try to convey as I was invited to contribute more commentaries, but this time I was given scheduled dates for them. One of those dates is today. (LISTEN HERE)

I’ve had weeks to come up with a topic, but there are so many issues bothering me that I didn’t know which one to pick.

  • Immigration
  • The separation of families
  • The nominee to the Supreme Court
  • Gun violence
  • Climate change
  • Trade wars
  • Russian election interference
  • The Mueller investigation
  • An unstable president who is one tweet away from starting World War III
  • Abortion
  • Voting rights
  • Gay rights
  • Civil rights
  • Women’s rights
  • Human rights
  • The right to safe drinking water
  • Education
  • Affordable health care
  • Taking a knee
  • Racial profiling
  • Catholic priests
  • The #MeToo movement

Oh, and, here’s one that really gets my blood boiling: Western Illinois University’s withdrawal of funding for this radio station.

I do my best thinking while out riding my bike. I live on a farm and have miles of traffic-free country roads where my mind can work out ideas while I’m working out my body. So to home in on a topic for this commentary, I headed out on my bike.

Each time I settled on a single issue, crafting the story in my head as I pedaled, my outrage only grew—outrage over injustice, incivility, oppression, deprivation, divisiveness, and more. As I thought about each issue it became so complex it would require a podcast series worth of airtime. Worse, my ruminations exploded into a mushroom cloud of emotion—my anger turned to rage, my vocabulary filled with profanity, and my heart ached so badly over my impotence to fix all our broken systems—that I had to scrap every one of my ideas.

This happened three days in a row. But each day, half way through my ride, lulled by being in motion, I stopped thinking and started observing the things around me. Soybean fields turning from green to yellow. Butterflies fluttering above the roadside clover. Pristine red barns. A farmer on his combine harvesting his corn in artistic rows. Horses grazing in a pasture. A hawk silhouetted against the sun. Maple leaves rustling in the breeze.

There was so much beauty right in front of me! As I continued to focus on this pastoral beauty, my anger and despair softened into a state of near bliss.

This is what near-bliss looks like.

According to science, my lightened mood was no accident.

A number of studies, as outlined by Jill Suttie in Greater Good magazine, prove that being in nature decreases stress, makes you happier and less brooding, relieves attention fatigue, increases creativity, may help you to be kind and generous, and makes you feel more alive. Research also shows that spending time in nature lowers your blood pressure and heart rate, relieves muscle tension, and decreases stress hormones.

An article on the CRC Health website states that nature leads to a sense of spirituality and an appreciation for powers larger than oneself, reminding us that individuals are part of the larger whole. “In a world bogged down by social pressures, standards of conduct, and the demands of others, nature gives people a chance to appreciate a grander sense that the world is…meaningful.”

These are not new revelations. The importance of being in nature has long been documented.

Albert Einstein said, “Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.” 

Naturalist John Burroughs, wrote, “I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order.”

I’m not alone in feeling overwhelmed by all the negativity out there.

There has been a huge uptick in anxiety and depression caused by the current state of political affairs. Recent statistics from the American Psychological Association show that 59% of Americans say that the United States is at the lowest point they can remember in its history, and 63% say the future of the nation is a significant source of stress.

It’s vital that we don’t allow ourselves to be consumed by this stress, so I would add to Burroughs’ message: We go to nature to restore our wellbeing, to have the ability, fortitude and clarity we need to put our country, our democracy, our whole messy world in order.

So take a break. Get outside. Exercise. Pay attention to the beauty around you. Spend time in nature. The benefits reaped are an important step toward tackling that long list of issues and finding the solutions we so desperately need.

Now if we can just find a solution to funding Tri States Public Radio.

TO DONATE TO TRI STATES PUBLIC RADIO, go to tspr.org or call 800-895-2912

Could Today Get Any Better?

Today has been surreal. I woke up to discover that the story I wrote for the New York Times about living in the American Gothic House was placed on the front page of the Arts section.

Early this morning, a friend sent me a picture of the print version of the newspaper —since we don’t get it delivered here on the farm. Taking up almost the entire page was a photo of me, dressed in overalls and braids, posing with a pitchfork in front of my beloved old house in Eldon, Iowa.

It was exciting enough to get a piece published at all in the mother of all newspapers, but to get a feature this big? Seriously, I am still in shock.

Read the article online here

The article is even bigger inside the section!

But the day just got stranger. In a good way.

I had been putting off a trip to the grocery store for days now, until—NYT excitement or not—buying groceries was imperative. I had been so busy, ahem, self-promoting my story on social media all morning, I forgot to eat, so I stopped at McDonald’s on my way to the store. (I was going to go to Cottage Cafe, but their parking lot was crowded and I figured I would be more anonymous at McD’s.  Besides, I like their pancakes, plus they have lattes.)

I waited for the three people in front of me to order and then it was my turn.

“Do you still serve pancakes?” It was just before noon.

“Yes,” the counter person said.

Phew! Adding an all-day breakfast is the best decision McD’s has ever made.

“Great. I’ll have the pancakes and a small latte, no flavor.”

A petite, redheaded woman was standing next to me quite close, and as I reached for my money to pay she moved in even closer.

“I’ll get that,” she said.

I didn’t know what she meant. She was holding a receipt so I knew she had paid and was waiting for her order. As I dug into my wallet, she pushed her hand in front of me, handing a ten-dollar bill to the cashier.

I was so confused. What was going on? Why was she paying–for me? 

“I’ve got this,” she repeated.

While she paid I just stood there, immobilized with disbelief for the second time today—and it wasn’t even noon!

We moved to the side to wait for our food. She looked straight ahead at the counter, not showing any further interest in me, nor in any desire for conversation.

“What made you buy my breakfast?” I finally asked.

“Just think of it as a random act of kindness,” she said. “Like paying it forward.”

I looked into her eyes for a moment, searching for the reason she had singled me out. There were other customers who looked like they needed a free meal more than I did. Surely, in Fort Madison, Iowa, she hadn’t read the New York Times, so I ruled that out. Did she recognize me as “the Pie Lady of Eldon?” Or had she read my recent blog posts about my despair with the world (as well as the recent loss of a friend to cancer) and bought me breakfast because she felt bad for me?

But she wasn’t going to say anymore or give me any specifics.

“I’m just so….” I started, choking back tears. “I’m so touched.”

She still didn’t say anything. She wasn’t asking anything of me. She just wanted to do something nice, and I needed to be nice in return by simply accepting her gesture without demanding an explanation. Making a bigger fuss was only going to make her–make both of us–uncomfortable.

“Thank you,” I said. “I will just accept your gift graciously.”

The lump in my throat was so big it took me another minute before I could speak again. “I write about kindness in my blog,” I said, wiping my tears. “I’m going to write about you.”

She smiled shyly, but didn’t say anything.

After another awkward pause, I added, “Funny enough, I was just thinking about that paying it forward idea on my way here. A friend of mine just did a huge favor for me and there is no way I can do enough to repay her. So I was going to tell her that I would pay it forward.”

I did not tell her that the friend is a staff writer at the New York Times who was responsible for connecting me with the Arts editor—not just connecting me, but pitching my story to her, the story that was on the front page of today’s Arts section!!!

“How are the pancakes here?” she asked, changing the subject. “I always get the Egg McMuffin.”

Man, she was not going to explain anything more!

“They’re good,” I said. “But I almost always get the Egg McMuffin.”

“I like the lattes, too” she continued, “but not with any flavoring. That makes them too sweet. No whipped cream either.” 

“Same here,” I said. “I drink the iced lattes in the summer. I like those a lot.”

“I’ll have to try one,” she said.

“Sometimes they’re too milky, so ask for extra espresso. That’s what I do.”

The counter person handed her a brown sack—presumably containing an Egg McMuffin.

“Have a nice day,” she said as she left.

 “You too. And thank you again.”

And that was it.

Breakfast with a view.
McDonald’s in Fort Madison, Iowa 

I took my tray and found a table by the window. I sat there looking down at my food — tears landing on the plastic lid that covered the pancakes — too emotional to eat.

This stuff isn’t supposed to happen to me. I’m the one who is always preaching about kindness, sharing, giving of yourself, building community, contributing something valuable to society, blah, blah, blah…you know how I go on about world peace (and world piece.) I expect to be the one to give, not to receive. And here, in the span of a few hours, I had received an overabundance of riches.

It was too much to handle.

I couldn’t stop crying. But the tears were not of grief or despair, or even tears of joy. They were tears of gratitude. Because today, surreal as it was, I was reminded —in newsprint and in pancakes— that I have so very much to be grateful for.

Never has a McDonald’s breakfast been so delicious.

All it Takes is a Few Words, a Few Bites, and a Willingness to Try

As you can see, I am really focused on promoting peace, love and understanding these days. It’s a reaction to all the political maneuvering going on, a lot of policies being changed that are resulting in putting lives at risk, all because some people (too many) live in fear of what they don’t know, what they don’t understand. Even sadder, they don’t even try to understand. They want to build walls around our country, because they have already built walls around themselves.

I keep searching for ways to break through those walls, and the solution I keep coming back to is simply this: connect with others outside of our own culture and language. Connection can mean something as simple as trying to communicate, even if just with a few words. Trying each other’s food, even if just a few bites. Visiting each other’s countries and homes and workplaces. To stop living exclusively in our own comfort zones and be open to seeing that our way isn’t the only way.

I once dated a guy who wasn’t interested in trying new things. For 25 years he has had the same job, lived in the same house, and has eaten at the same restaurants. One of those restaurants is Thai, which is the closest he’s come to visiting a foreign country. He’s a tea drinker so when he took me to the restaurant I asked if he had ever tried Thai iced tea—tea with sweetened condensed milk. No. He didn’t want to. “Come on, it’s only $2,” I insisted. No. No thanks. He’s progressive and caring and supports immigration rights, but he’s just not that open. But openness is what is needed from each of us, as individuals, to really understand each other, and understanding is what we need in order to make progress toward global harmony. A passport would be good too.

I always remember some friends returning from their vacation in Rome, Italy. They were complaining that the sidewalks weren’t straight. WHAT?! Those sidewalks are one of the main reasons you go to Rome, to walk in the steps of ancient Romans on the very cobblestones they laid centuries ago! They also complained about the food. “We got so tired of eating Italian food and all that pasta that we were thrilled to find a McDonald’s at the train station.” WHAT?! I gained at least 10 pounds in a week after eating my way through Italy—oh, the cannelloni! The calzone! The prosciutto! The cappuccino! The gelato! I couldn’t get enough of it. I wish my friends—along with another certain Big Mac-obsessed individual—could open up their worldview and have more appreciation—more acceptance—for life outside of America. To vivere la differenza.

One of the reasons this is on my mind is because I’m not in the USA right now. I’m in Mexico.

Parked at the grocery store.

Last night I was in a grocery store, standing in the coffee section, trying to read the labels and figure out what kind to buy. (I have a coffee pot in my casita.) A large man pushed his way into the section and I stepped back to make room for him. He was clearly on a mission. He was older, weathered from the sun, with gray hair and a jowled face and, from his skin tone, I figured he was Mexican. He was homing in on a brand called La Finca so I asked him in my bad Spanish if it was good. He answered me in broken English, with a French accent—so I started chatting with him in my bad French, and tried to help him find the La Finca espresso beans he was looking for.

Speaking of farms…

I made my coffee in the morning—Café La Finca’s Europeo blend, grown in Chiapas—and I thought of the man in the grocery store. (I also thought of Doug, because La Finca means The Farm. How perfect is that!)

In the afternoon, I finally left my casita for a break after a particularly productive day of writing (I’m making progress on my book!) and rode my rusty rented beach cruiser to the fruit stand a few blocks away.

As I looked around at the produce, not recognizing half the ripe and wrinkly-skinned stuff in there, I had a hard time figuring what to buy—and how to pay for it. (The conversion of dollars to pesos still confuses me.) Finally, when the woman at the cash register had a break in customers, I asked her some questions—in Spanish.

Do you have Oaxaca cheese? Can I buy a small amount, just enough for one person? I will buy it later—what time do you close? What are these juices? What is the white one? The green one? Which one is mango?

She had a slight but constant scowl on her face as I asked one pregunta after another. She was short and barrel chested with black hair that she had tried to dye orange (black hair isn’t easy to color!) and she was wearing a plaid apron or pinafore, I’m not sure which. But she was definitely someone whose bad side you didn’t want to be on.

When I finally paid for a bottle of fresh mango juice I thanked her for her patience with my terrible español. “I’m trying to learn,” I told her, “poquito a poquito.” Oh how I wish our American schools placed an importance on learning other languages, and starting from an early age like they do in Europe.

I smiled extra hard to emphasize my apology—and my embarrassment. And then—que milagro!—she smiled back and said, “Sí, poquito a poquito.”

Her smile melted my heart like butter left out in the Caribbean sun.

When I went outside to unlock my bike, a couple of gringos were walking in. In front was a white-haired woman with sunburnt cheeks as red and round as the tomatoes on display, and behind her was her husband. I recognized him! It was the man from the grocery store. I blurted out—in French—“La Finca café était très bon.” The coffee was very good. My français is as limited as my español, but it didn’t matter because his face lit up in happy surprise.

If I do come back for 2 months, I’ll be in the classroom!

He’s from Québec, he said, not France. And he comes to Mexico for two months every winter. (Which explains why his skin is as brown as a Mexican’s.) “I don’t want to go back to that cold weather,” he said.

“I know! Same here. Next year I want to come back for two months,” I replied.

I finished unlocking my bike and as I tucked my mango juice and bike lock into the bike basket, he pointed to the rusty chain, thick with corrosion from the salty moist air, and asked, “Is that working okay for you?”

Oui,” I said. “Ça va bien. And, anyway, I don’t mind, because I’m in Mexico, it’s sunny, and I’m wearing flip-flops!”

As I pedaled away I waved and said, “Hasta luego!” See you soon. And if it keeps going like this, I probably will.  (And, by the way, the fruit stand closes at 6:30 and I did go back for the cheese.)

My point is that all it takes is a little openness, a little courage and humility—okay, maybe more than a little. But who cares if you don’t know very many words and don’t even correctly pronounce the ones you do know? The fact that you even try is so appreciated. (Think of this the next time someone makes an effort to speak to you in English when it’s not their native language and commend them for their courage.) A few words can go a long way in making a connection and making someone smile. And a smile is the most basic, universal language of life, the first step across the bridge of understanding.

If we all just opened up a little to try to understand each other—to stumble over a few foreign words, to drink the Thai iced tea, to eat the fettuccine, to walk a mile in each other’s shoes—even if on crooked cobblestone sidewalks—the world could be a more peaceful, happier place.

“There is ALWAYS Hope, Bea.”

There is ALWAYS hope, Bea. 

He wrote this—with the word always in all caps—above a newspaper article he had circled in black ink.

He left the paper on the kitchen table knowing I would be down for my morning coffee well after he had left the house to feed hay to his cows, check on the pigs, and attend to his other daily chores.

I always like it when I see his circles of ink on the page. I like the anticipation of discovering what specific nugget of news he wants me to see—something about a new business in the next town, a profile on someone who is using their skills to help those less fortunate, a well-written obituary of someone who led an extraordinary life. I like that he is loyal to the newspaper, having it delivered, still reading it in print instead of online, even though the paper arrives a day late. I like that he is a thinking man, a feeling man, a caring man. He doesn’t outwardly express himself—stoicism is bred into his German genes—but this sharing of newspaper articles tells me he is thinking of me, that he cares for me, that he wants to help me even though he doesn’t know how.

The article he circled this time was in the opinion section, his favorite part of the paper, which he always reads first, before the front page, before the commodity trading prices and weather, before the sports scores. The article was about South and North Korea uniting for the Winter Olympics in Seoul, a rare olive branch extended after 50 years of fighting and a war that cleaved a manmade fault line between two halves of a whole peninsula. After all this time—and all the recent escalating threats of nuclear action—a previously unimaginable union is taking place with both sides walking and competing together under one flag. Even if just for the 16 days of this one event, it signals the possibility of peace, a sign of hope.

There is ALWAYS hope, Bea. 

He alone knows the depths of my sadness, the full picture of who I am and how much I struggle to stay balanced, to stay happy, to stay alive. The fun-loving girl in overalls and braids who basks in the country life of apple pies and goats and dog walks through green pastures—this is my curated life in colorful pictures on Facebook, the carefully edited version, the one that gives people a one-sided impression. The wrong impression. Fake news. Yes, I do smile and laugh and make people happy with my homemade pies, but many of my days—too many lately—are filled with despair, weighed down by a lead blanket of Weltschmerz (the German word for internalizing all the pain of the world.) Espresso and my dog’s insulin schedule are my only motivation to get out of bed in the morning, because I wake up tired after sleepless nights, my eyes wide open in the darkness as I pass the hours searching for answers, for meaning, for purpose, for hope. For solutions for how I can save the world.

He is the sole witness to both sides of my Yin and Yang, a black and white circle of life that has become lopsided and leaning too much on the black. He sees my grief—the cumulating losses of my husband, my dad, and even one of my goats—still as raw and festering as an infected stab wound. He listens as I unleash my rage over the state of the world, wailing about the injustices, the unending human rights violations, the suppression of women, the righteousness of the ultra-religious. He remains patient and quiet as I carry on, ranting about the increase of gun violence, the divisiveness of politics, the demolition of our democratic society, the proliferation of hate speech, the dismantling of health care, education and immigration, and the utter lack of respect for the environment and its finite resources. My list of wrongs I want to right is so very long. He leans against the counter, or the wall, or his pillow, biting the inside of his lip, as I cry and tell him yet again how I have lost my faith in humanity, how my heart—already so badly broken—cannot take anymore of this assault and battery. He is at a loss for words, or maybe he has nothing to say. He doesn’t know how to fix this. To fix me.

And then I come downstairs for coffee and see the newspaper splayed open on the table, his pen lying next to it, the familiar scribble of his handwriting.

There is ALWAYS hope, Bea. 

I saved the newspaper page. I’ve been carrying it with me for a week. I pull it out of my notebook several times a day and read his sentence, spelled out in his scratchy handwriting, even though I no longer have to read it as the sentence is ingrained in my head. I hear it, the words repeating so often they’ve become the refrain of my personal anthem. And still, each time the sentence forms— punctuated at the end with his nickname for me—my throat tightens. My heart seizes up so hard I feel a rush of hot blood. And my eyes fill up so quickly with tears that I can’t hold them back, the drops leaving water stains on my notebook.

There is ALWAYS hope, Bea. 

I am in Mexico this week for a writers’ retreat. I brought the article with me, folded neatly and tucked into my carry-on. I came with two goals: finish my American Gothic House memoir and get a break from the deep freeze of Iowa’s winter (and not necessarily in that order!) I have added one more thing to that list: find hope.

How does one find hope? How can I restore my faith in a humanity that keeps letting me down with its inability—its outright refusal—to get along? Is hope something you can hunt for? Something you can see? Is it tangible? And if you find it, how do you make it last?

My first day here I was walking on the beach, my bare feet splashing through the waves, the sun de-icing my body. I looked up from the sand toward the palm trees and houses and saw a boulder painted with graffiti. The art wasn’t that big, maybe not even noticeable to others, yet my eyes were drawn straight to it. On the rock was a white background with a child’s face outlined in black. Next to the child, painted in red ink, was one word: Hope.

There is ALWAYS hope, Bea. 

It had to be a message, a sign.

I didn’t start actively looking for signs of hope. The first days I was still consumed with the stresses of my life back home, of all that I had abandoned in the name of self-care, still carrying the excess baggage of guilt over leaving Doug to take on my responsibilities—of giving Jack his medicine and hauling warm water to the goats. But with each day I spend in Mexico, thoughts of home—along with my Doomsday Clock-watching worries—slough off like the layers of my dry skin, making room for me to take in my new surroundings. With each day my observations of the life around me become more vivid, more frequent, more obvious—observations I’ve begun translating with the same hunger I hunt for words in my Spanish dictionary.

What I am observing, experiencing, finding is esperanza. Hope.

Hope is the gruff fruit vendor who made me wait while he rigged up his grandson’s fishing pole, tying a plastic bag on the end of it and putting a piece of pineapple inside as bait, and the four-year-old, so adorable with his freckles, curly hair and round cheeks, saying, “Gracias, Abuelito.” And how the other customers cheered on the child’s efforts to catch something, his arm—still chubby with baby fat—not yet strong enough to cast the line. And how the grandfather prepared the coconut meat for me after I drank the water from the shell, taking pride in serving it the local way, with salt and pepper, lime, and chili sauce. And how he smiled so warmly when I said, “Gracias, Abuelito.”

Hope is hiking on the trail through the jungle to get to the quieter beach and just as you’re wondering if it’s safe to do this alone, and realizing you haven’t told anyone where you’re going, a Mexican man jogs up the path, dripping with sweat from his workout, and as he passes you he pauses for a second, hands you a tiny sea shell, and says, “For you,” and then keeps going.

Hope is walking to the local espresso bar in the mornings, passing the kids on their way to school, so young and innocent—and sleepy—at 7:30am, dressed in clean clothes, hauling backpacks full of schoolbooks. And reading the outer wall of their school that spans a full block, covered in a hand-painted mural with messages of tolerance, cooperation, honesty, solidarity, and yes, hope. And the satisfaction of understanding enough Spanish to know that “En esta escuela trabajamos con amor” means “In this school we work with love.”

Hope is the shopkeepers sweeping and scrubbing their sidewalks, splashing buckets of water on the steps to make their storefronts look cleaner and more inviting, even when the effect is short-lived in a town with dirt roads.

Hope is eavesdropping on a conversation where a gray-haired expat in an embroidered Mexican dress relays her wisdom to a friend about the value of making decisions with her heart and not her head. (I wanted to butt in and tell her she should run for congress!)

Hope is the regular exchange of smiles and greetings of “Buenos dias” when passing strangers on the streets, whether their skin is brown, white, leathery, or sunburned.

Hope is the bougainvillea blooming with vitality in shades of magenta and orange and purple. It’s the breakfast of fresh papaya picked right off the tree. The morning swim in the sea. The baptism of diving under the waves and tasting the salt on your lips.

Hope is the sun coming up again and again and again, bringing with it the promise that there is still goodness in this world.

Hope is taking a much-needed break from home knowing there is a thinking, feeling, caring man waiting for me back on the farm. And though I love his ink-circled articles and his notes that go with them, I have found that hope is a lot easier to have when you limit your intake of news.

The Book That Doesn’t Want to Be Born…Yet

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.

Writer, Interrupted.

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 (Snowy) Road to Taos

“Travel not to find yourself but to remember who you’ve been all along.”

                                                      — as seen on a plaque yesterday in a home decor store

In November, Hillary lost the election. In March, I lost my dad. A month later, in April, I lost my goat, Cinnamon. After all that I thought I was also going to lose my mind. Writing is my best form of therapy, and on his deathbed, my dad reminded me, “Words matter.” But my brain was such a muddled, grief-stricken mess I was stuck. I put my fingers to work typing “writers retreats” on Google and found one, one that I was sure could get me back on track. It was for smart, ambitious women suffering from writers block. It was in the spiritual Mecca of Taos, New Mexico. It was sold out.

I wrote to Jennifer Louden and pleaded my case. “I NEED THIS. DESPERATELY,” I implored, telling her how I had just lost my dad and my goat. “Please, please, PLEASE, can you get me in?”  I got a reply so quickly it was like a form letter. “We‘ve added you to the waiting list.” Period.

My friend Kee Kee assured me I would get in. Though she suggested I just go to Taos anyway, that a road trip might be as much as I need. But no. I wanted structure. I wanted community. I wanted someone to use their velvet whip on me to get me back in the chair.

I sent my plea on a Friday. On Monday afternoon I was told I had cleared the list but still needed to send in an application—which was a bunch of questions about why you want to write, what you’re working on, and what you hoped to get out of the weeklong workshop—a vetting process. Tuesday morning I was told I was in. Yes!

I packed my car (actually Doug’s car since his SUV was bigger and safer than my Mini Cooper) and left Iowa on Friday morning, April 28. The workshop started on Sunday, April 30. Google maps calculated the driving time at 16 hours. No problem.

When I left the farm it was raining. It kept raining all through Missouri, Kansas, and Oklahoma. Doug, who as a farmer is obsessed with his weather app, stayed in close touch, giving me regular updates about the latest developments on the radar. He told me it didn’t look so good. I didn’t need him to tell me that because I could see for myself—the clouds hung so low they touched the ground, the rain was turning to snow. I called him to discuss the conditions.

“There’s a storm system that is coming up along the eastern edge of the Rockies,” he said. That’s exactly where I was headed.

“Okay, then I’m going to make a detour and head south,” I told him. “I’ll just drive around it. It will add a few extra hours but at least I will be safe.” He agreed with me that it was a good plan.

As I pointed south, weaving my way through the Panhandle’s sea of wheat fields and oil rigs, I came to the town of Canadian, Texas. I was going to keep pushing on, but when I saw the Stumblin’ Goat Saloon I took it as an omen. The goat I had just lost, Cinnamon, was one of my favorites. She was the most beautiful out of the four, with her fluffy tan coat, white underside and a black stripe down her back. More striking was her humility. She was shy and polite, and unlike the others never pushed and shoved to get more carrots. As a tribute to her, I would stop and eat lunch. Big mistake.

Inside above the bar was a big stuffed white goat, not just a head and horns, but the entire front half of the goat’s body. It didn’t look like Cinnamon; it looked exactly like one of our other goats, Mr. Friendly. I should have walked out then. Instead, I stupidly ordered a $10 burger that looked—and tasted—worse than day-old McDonald’s. As I was leaving, I passed the mayonnaise-heavy salad bar and—wait for it—there was another stuffed goat. This time it was the full body of a small goat and it was being used as a—I kid you fucking not—a bottle opener. A sign above it said, “PETA Warning: This Goat may have been harmed in the making of this bottle opener.” I have never regretted a meal more.

But I digress. I was dodging a snowstorm in order to get to a writers retreat on time.

After 16 hours of driving I got as far as Amarillo, still 6 hours from Taos, where I chatted up a couple pumping gas at the Flying J. They had come from the west, from Albuquerque—the direction I was going. They looked pale and shaken. “It’s bad,” the husband said. “We had to pull off for three hours because of the snow.” If the weather had been okay, I would have already checked into my historic inn in Taos. Instead, I sought refuge at a Motel 6 in Amarillo.

Now it was me who was obsessively studying the weather app. I hit the refresh button every five minutes to see if the Winter Weather Advisory had been updated, and ideally canceled. Instead, it was extended. It was supposed to end at 10AM. Then midnight. Then 10AM Sunday. Then 1PM, 2PM, and eventually 7PM Sunday. The workshop started Sunday at 6. I barely slept.

I woke up to see Doug’s car buried under a few inches of snow and the trees blowing sideways from hurricane force winds. The weather radar showed the storm, which was supposed to move to the north, had shifted (or a new one had developed) and it was centered right over Amarillo.

I tried to wait it out. I stayed in my room until 11 until I became too restless. I checked out and went to Starbucks, drinking a triple latte as I stared out the window at the toppled tables and chairs, the canvas of the umbrellas billowing like parachutes after a botched landing. I could see the interstate from where I sat and there were cars and semis moving down the road. Slowly. But still, they were heading west.

I examined the radar again. If I could just blast through the storm cell I would pop out the other side where sunny skies and climbing temperatures were reported.

I hate driving in rain. I hate even more driving in snow. Driving on mountain roads in bad weather is one of my biggest nightmares (after tornadoes and snakes.) In the past I thought nothing of driving in adverse conditions. But with age comes fear. My vivid—and morbid—imagination takes over and I picture myself perishing in a fiery crash, my car flipping over and pummeled, with me bloody, mangled, perhaps lifeless, in the wreckage. I never thought I would become one of those fearful people, the little old lady hunched forward in the drivers seat, gripping the wheel in terror and driving way too slow, with other drivers giving her the stink eye when they finally pass. But when the weather is bad, the rain blinding, or the mountain roads too windy and narrow, I am that old-lady driver.

I may have become more fearful but I still possess enough determination, enough grit, enough impatience to talk myself into action. It took some serious self-talk to convince myself, but I reasoned that I would take it slow. If other drivers didn’t like my cautious pace they were welcome to go around me. As Marcus taught me how to relax when faced with drivers on the German Autobahn tailgating me at 120 mph, “If they don’t like your speed, it’s their problem.”

Holding my breath, I merged with the traffic on the I-40. The pavement was covered in extensive patches of snow and ice. No one could go fast even if they wanted to. In fact, once I pulled onto the interstate, no one was going more than 5 mph, because a snowplow was up ahead blocking everyone. My GPS showed a one and a half hour delay due to this traffic, and after that Grande Latte I had to pee, so I pulled off at a random exit. Bad choice. The only restaurant at the exit was closed—due to bad weather. Wishing I was wearing Depends, I had to stay on the frontage road for a few miles before there was another onramp. The frontage road was surprisingly clear of snow and as I drove west on it, parallel to the interstate, I passed the long snail line of cars, cars and more cars. And then, I passed the snowplow, and right after the snowplow was my onramp. Ha! I wanted to be happy about getting ahead of the traffic, but the unplowed freeway could have been covered in even thicker snow and ice. Fear kicked in again. But since there was no one behind I just whispered to myself over and over, “Go gently,” and drove ever so slowly. At least 30 mph was faster than 5. The road ahead, oddly, was clearer than the road behind. And soon, in a matter of a few miles—que milagro!—the road was altogether dry. Above, I could even see a distinct line marking the edge of the storm system. I was still making my way out from under the dark grey muck, but there was a cloudless blue sky dead ahead.

I explain all this because it matters. It matters because had I not taken that exit to pee, I would not have gotten in front of the traffic, and if I had not gotten in front of the traffic I would not have arrived in Taos at exactly 6:00PM, the minute the writers workshop started. It matters because that while I weighed out the safety factors and erred on the side of caution, I was still able to push past my fear, trust my snow tires, trust myself. It matters because bad luck eventually exhausts itself.

My losing streak has been followed by nothing but good. I went on to have one of the most outstanding experiences I’ve had in years. The workshop exceeded my expectations on every level. I made new friends. I wrote like a madwoman. I explored the beauty of the town, its earthy adobe buildings, and its surrounding mountains. Everything about the week went so incredibly right, like magic. Like a well-deserved winning streak.

I look back and realize that storm cell hovering over Amarillo was like a metaphor for my life. Grief had been hovering over me, keeping me stuck in a metaphorical Motel 6. I know grief. I know you can’t go around it. I’ve muscled through it before and I found that in spite of the brokenness of my heart, I still had the courage and determination—and driving skills—to blast through again. It doesn’t change the fact I lost what I loved, what was so important to me (most of all, my dad—and I will most certainly be writing more about him later), but it did remind me to have faith, that even when you’re in the worst of storms, there are always, always, always sunnier days ahead.

This post would not have been written if not for Jen Louden and her coaching. I wanted to go to bed early instead of writing, but I heard Jen’s voice, I felt the encouragement of the group, and thus I sat my butt in the chair and kept it glued there until this was finished. Thanks to Jen and the group for an “amazing” week. I intend to hang onto that encouragement and stay in the chair as I go forward, using my words to promote kindness.

The Women’s March on Washington: Just Go

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. 

I hope you will join me!


RESOURCES:
Women’s March on Washington website
Sister Marches in other cities
Knit or sew your own Pussy Hat
Buy your America Needs Nasty Women gear

Blogging in a Noisy World: Why it Matters

You may not have noticed my absence but I am fully aware of the neglect of my blog. Aware, I say, because I miss writing here. I miss the process of mulling over topics, asking questions of life and writing my way into the answers. That’s not to say I have not been mulling, asking and writing! I’ve been doing plenty of that by way of meditating, talking with friends and writing in my journal. It’s only that I haven’t been sharing my thoughts and words here.

Why?

Because it’s become such a crowded and noisy app-happy world out there. Besides Blogger (where you are now), there is Facebook and Twitter, Instagram and Snap Chat, Pinterest and LinkedIn, Tumblr and Google Plus, YouTube and WhatsApp. To name a few. There are so many ways of connecting it makes my head spin. It also makes me want to unplug and crawl back into an electricity-free cave.

It’s not just the plethora of social networking sites; it’s what’s on them. I believe everyone has a story to tell. I believe everyone should have a voice. But when I read some of the mean-spirited stuff out there it gives me pause. Worse, it makes me afraid to put my own words—myself—out there. Not only am I reluctant to heap more on the slush pile of chatter (and, god forbid, with the incoming administration end up on some watchlist), I am reticent to subject myself to the vicious comments of some who feed on ripping others apart—trolls, as they are called, who unleash an unbridled viciousness that is, unfortunately, on the rise. We’ve seen this kind of unseemly behavior growing in the past several years with politicians decimating each other like Barbarians in the Coliseum. We’ve heard the rhetoric sink so low it has been deemed hate speech, only to see it repeated and reprinted as headline news. That’s a lot of noise. Mean-spirited, negative noise.

I got a taste of this negativity, albeit a tiny morsel, a few months ago on Facebook when I posted a photo of President and Michelle Obama that included a caption (not mine) asking people to share if you wanted to thank the Obamas for their grace and dignity through these past eight years. Yes, I did want to thank them. I marveled (still marvel) at their strength and grace, diplomacy, class, and integrity as they’ve handled all the *&$%# that’s been flung their way, all the obstacles so obnoxiously placed in their path. (Which, I consider our path, the path to health, human rights and individual freedoms.) So I posted.

In response to this post I was greeted with comments negating my fond sentiments—and several people voiced some pretty harsh opinions. So I hastened to add, “In the spirit of what this post says about grace and dignity, I will delete any negative comments.” I deleted a disturbing number, including one from a high school classmate—from our Catholic high school. Upon noticing her comment had been removed, she shot back with claims to her right to free speech. In turn, others jumped in on her angry response, until there was a long thread of people arguing back and forth about free speech, about how a person’s Facebook page belongs to that person and therefore exempt from any constitutional rights, followed by more polarized opinions about the Obamas. On my post. A post that was supposed to be positive, an innocent means of saying thanks.

My parents. I appreciate
their old-fashioned values
more than ever

All through my childhood, my mother hammered us kids about minding our manners. I can still hear her voice: “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say it at all.” And her other frequent refrain: “That’s not charitable,” a reprimand in response to any of our unkind or selfish missteps.

Say something nice or don’t say anything. Be charitable. These are the simple rules I learned from my mom. The ones I learned from my dad are just as important: Surround yourself with positive people. And, above all, always remember to say thank you.

But it has become glaringly evident—from my fellow Catholic school classmates to our president-elect—that not everyone was raised with these rules.

I really do believe that each of us has a story to tell. But stories need to be told in a way we can all hear. Shouting doesn’t work. Negativity is unnecessary. And bullying is unacceptable. Without civility and good manners our society will topple faster than a tower of Jenga blocks.  And you shouldn’t need me—or my mother—to tell you that. It should be common sense!

I kept wondering about the high school classmate and why her reaction to my post was so strong, so angry. So I dug a little into her Facebook page and saw that she was divorced and a single mom. I am cautious about making assumptions, but I wondered if her anger had more to do with her and less about the Obamas or free speech. Maybe she was devastated by her divorce. Maybe she was struggling to raise her kids on her own. It made me think of another of those oft-reposted Facebook quotes:

“Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind. Always.” 

So I held her in my thoughts, sending her telepathic waves of love and compassion. And then, in a proactive move of self-protection, I unfriended her.

Forget your closet, apply this
method to your social media 

My sister would advise, “Garbage in, garbage out. What we take in affects us and we send it back out. So best to avoid the garbage.” I am not saying this in reference to the classmate; I’m referring to the bigger picture. I’ve needed to do a Marie Kondo on social media, my blog included, and tidy up. Sharing my innermost thoughts, my hopes and beliefs, was not sparking joy; it was invoking dread, even fear.

And yet, my profession is writing, communicating, networking. It’s my calling. I need connection the way Simone Biles needs backflips. Even if it means spending time on social media. (And when you live on a farm in rural Iowa, sometimes social media is the only practical means of having a social life.)

Even when I have vowed not to, I have continued to post on Facebook, and sometimes Twitter. I have also continued to break my personal rule about staying politically neutral. For years I have preached that pie was not about politics, that pie creates community, unifies and bridges some of the most disparate gaps. I’m confident that I have proven this principal over and over—all the way around the globe, in fact—by baking pie with people from some of the widest ranges of cultures, socioeconomic groups, religions, and political beliefs.

Making pie with kids in a South African township.

Pie, for me, has always been a metaphor for peace. (As if that wasn’t already obvious.) And because peace is eluding us in our current climate, it’s time for me to drop the “no politics” rule entirely. It is time for me to speak up. To add my voice to the noisy world. To contribute any constructive, positive, peace-making thoughts I can to help counter the dark forces of fear, greed, ignorance, and bullying.

My politics are not about party-based divisiveness. My goal going forward is to keep bringing the conversation back to basic values, like empathy and inclusiveness—you know, the foundations of Christianity—while keeping the conversation polite. My mission is to preserve decency and manners, and to promote respect—for each other, as well as for our environment. We all have to breathe the same oxygen from our atmosphere; we all depend on clean drinking water for our survival. Forget politics. Preserving earth’s limited resources and saving our species starts with remembering we share just one planet, and therefore we all have to get along.

Obviously “getting along” is a hard charge for us. But we can at least try. For example, even if it takes some effort, we can start by restraining ourselves before venting on social media. Instead of making negative, contrarian, inflammatory comments, how about not saying anything at all. The journey of a thousand miles starts with the first step. Even a baby step like this is a good start.

And lest I sound like a hypocrite, let me say this blog post is not meant to be a rant or negative commentary. I am simply trying to sort through the confusion of life and use my best means of solution seeking: writing an essay.

Mull over the topic. Ask the questions. Write my way into the answers. In this case, the answers are really very simple, so simple I could have conveyed them in five words instead of 1,500:

Have courage and practice kindness.

And write more. On my blog.

It may be a crowded, noisy world out there but everyone has a story, everyone has a voice. This is my story, my voice. And just like I would with a homemade pie, I’ve put my heart and my best intentions into my words before sharing them. Thank you for reading them.

Seven Years

“Seven Years in Tibet,” “The Seven Year Itch,” seven chakras, the seven-year Shemitah cycle, there is a lot tied to this particular number of years.  Today marks the seventh anniversary of Marcus’s death. That day. That phone call. That searing pain of a broken heart so shattered I wanted to crawl out of my skin. Or just die.  But I didn’t die. I am still here.

A lot has happened in the past seven years. I have had to rebuild my life. And then rebuild it again. In the process I have made a lot of pies, made a lot of friends, traveled to a lot of countries, adopted four goats, and finally found new love with a man named Doug. I have suffered more loss—the tragic death of my beloved terrier-mix Daisy, who Marcus and I rescued off the streets of Mexico, loss of a place I had called home for four years, loss of several close friendships that shifted, disconnecting to the point of no return.

And so here I am.  Seven years after that day the medical examiner delivered the news—“Your husband is deceased.”

The memory lives in my cells. I am not always conscious of it, of where that unsettled feeling in my heart is coming from, as the August date approaches. And then I realize, oh, yes, I remember. I know why I’m out of balance, melancholy, confused. It’s that anniversary. The day my husband’s life ended and my “new normal” began.

Two nights ago, Doug and I were out kayaking during the full moon and as we paddled through the dark water, drifting with the current under the night sky, I casually mentioned to him, “You know that Friday is the seventh anniversary of Marcus’ passing.” I was hesitant to bring it up. I didn’t want him to think that my heart was still so broken from Marcus that there wasn’t room to fully love him. But given that I am always stressing the importance of communication in our relationship, I thought it was right to say something, so that if he felt I was being quiet or distant he would know why.

His answer only made me love him more. Doug is a farmer. He is hard working, rugged, and possesses the brute strength of a bull. He is also gentle and kind and has a knack for saying exactly the right thing to put me at ease. His response was simply: “You’ve had a lot of experiences in seven years.”

I nodded, brushing a lone tear off my cheek, glad it was too dark for him to see me. And then, as I continued my rhythm, dipping each blade of my paddle in the river, left side, then right side, propelling myself forward with each stroke, I mused over what—and where—exactly I had been in these past seven years.

YEAR ONE  2009 – 2010
I left my little miner’s cabin in Terlingua, Texas and moved back to Portland, Oregon, living in the guest house next to the house where Marcus and I had previously lived. I went to grief counseling twice a week. I learned to drive the RV and took it down to California, where I went on a two-week pie-making film shoot with my friend Janice. A highlight of that trip was making 50 pies and handing them out by the slice in L.A. It was then when I really understood the magic of healing: If you want to feel better, do something nice for someone else. I created my website, The World Needs More Pie. I blogged a lot—about my grief and how I was coping with it.  I traveled to Iowa to be a pie judge at the Iowa State Fair, and in a surprising twist I discovered the American Gothic House was for rent (for $250 a month!).

YEAR TWO 2010- 2011
Instead of going back to the West Coast, I stayed in rural Iowa, making the American Gothic House my home. I opened the Pitchfork Pie Stand. Making pie felt good. It connected me to the community and brought new friends into my life. I stayed for the winter, writing my memoir “Making Piece” at my kitchen table, wearing Marcus’ fleece to stay warm. In spring, I discovered a 6-foot-snake in my bathroom. And in summer I signed up for Match.com. I spent the second anniversary of Marcus’ passing on a dinner date with a suitor who didn’t talk the entire meal.

YEAR THREE  2011- 2012
I fired up The Beast (the 24-foot C-class RV Marcus had bought, that I never wanted and vowed never to drive) and went on a six-week book tour for “Making Piece” across the country, including Seattle and Portland, places loaded with memories of my late husband. I ran the pie stand again that summer. In December, I drove the RV to Flanders, New Jersey, pulling together volunteers and ingredients to make pies to comfort the people in Newtown, Connecticut after the Sandy Hook shooting. We delivered 250 pies to Newtown, serving them by the slice to help the community heal.

YEAR FOUR 2012 – 2013
I suffered through a frigid Iowa winter until I couldn’t stand it any longer and by spring coughed up the cash to rent a place in Key West, Florida for a month — but not before discovering another six-foot-long snake in my house! Worse, we never caught it. I celebrated my 50th birthday alone (intentionally) by driving the RV to a campground. Away from my computer and with no cell phone reception, I hiked and swam with my two terriers, wrote in my journal, drank a glass (or two) of wine, and savored my solitude.  When I returned, some friends came over with a chocolate cake and an offer to help me with my pie stand, which had started growing to a point it was getting harder to manage. I had a short-but-fun relationship with a guy who liked biking, and had a house in Colorado ski town. He was a CEO who could still do handstands on his skateboard. He loaned me his snake-catching stick, which I had to put to use several times in my basement. Alas, that relationship didn’t work out, so I returned the snake stick and went to LA for the winter. In LA, I met an artist from Iowa and gave love yet another try.

YEAR FIVE 2013-2014
I gave a TEDx talk about how pie can change the world—and how it helped heal my grief. My “Ms. American Pie” cookbook was published. I did another cross-country book tour, using the trip to get the RV from Los Angeles back to Iowa. I left the artist behind. I spent the fifth anniversary of Marcus’ death having dinner on Doug’s farm. My friend Nancy from Texas came along. Doug and I weren’t officially dating, but we had been spending time together. He had taken me kayaking a few times, and picked me up for dinner on his BMW motorcycle. I hadn’t been on the back of motorcycle since Marcus’ (also a BMW). During that first ride with Doug, I scooted back on the seat so our bodies wouldn’t touch. I wouldn’t even hold onto his belt loops. The pie stand kept growing, along with my stress.

YEAR SIX 2014 – 2015
Year Six was a year of more devastating loss. First, I moved out of the American Gothic House. I had loved that house so much. But too many things were adding up (mean neighbors getting even meaner, a murder at the bait shop, people wanting more and more pie, and other growing pressures) and my gut feeling was telling me—screaming at me—it was time to go. (Ask anyone who helped with my pie stand and they will verify I had turned into tempestuous b*tch.) I put all my belongings in storage and stayed on Doug’s farm for a much-needed rest. I will never forget the (unfortunately fleeting) moment of Nirvana I felt one morning while sipping my coffee on his porch. My face pointed toward the sky, the velvet breeze off the fields acting like a salve on my bare skin, the puffy clouds sailing past the sun, the only sound being the rustling of corn leaves…After four years I could exhale and let my guard down. It was the discovery of something I didn’t realize I was so desperately in need of after living in a tourist attraction: privacy! My dogs loved “Camp Doug,” running free in the pasture and on the gravel roads with no neighbors calling the sheriff about them being at large. But winter was coming and I couldn’t take another bone-chilling season. So I left and headed south—straight into tragedy. I was staying at a friend’s house and let the dogs out the back door for their morning business. Jack came back ten minutes later, bleeding from the neck. Daisy never came back at all. That morning, I rushed Jack to the vet, where he spent several days on an IV. That afternoon, we found Daisy—what was left of my sweet curly-girly’s little body—and buried her in the forest. Doug—oh that sweet Doug— flew down to Texas and drove me and Jack in the RV to LA, where I spent the next six months living six miles from my parents. Unhappy to be back in a big, expensive, congested city—spoiled by the simplicity and ease of a pastoral life in Iowa—I made plans to leave. I mustered up the energy and courage to fly around the world. Using Marcus’ frequent flyer miles which were about to expire, I set off on my “World Piece” journey, making pie in nine countries. But only after driving to Iowa to drop off Jack at Doug’s farm where my terrier would spend the summer. After traveling to New Zealand, Australia, Thailand, India, Lebanon, Greece, Switzerland and Hungary, I spent the sixth anniversary of Marcus’ passing in the country where Marcus hailed from: Germany. Marcus’ cousin Claudia and her family graciously invited me to stay with them in their home in Aachen, Germany. Borrowing Claudia’s bike, I spent August 19 riding a bike trail that crisscrosses the Belgian-German border, stopping for an Italian lunch. Marcus would have loved that. That evening I walked over to the local spa and soaked in the outdoor hot spring pool, and sweated in the variety of aroma-therapy-scented saunas. Marcus would have loved that too. That anniversary ended with a bottle of champagne, where Marcus’s cousins Claudia and Martina, and Claudia’s husband Edgar all toasted to the life of the man we all miss.

YEAR SEVEN 2015- 2016
I returned from my round-the-world trip and went straight back to Iowa, to Doug’s farm, to pick up my dog. A year later, I am still here. I started my day—today, August 19—staring at the digital clock while still under the covers of the bed I share with Doug. Doug had left at 5AM, as he does every morning, to do his farm chores. I pulled Jack close to me, stroking his ears and his belly. Marcus and I got Jack as a puppy in Germany. He was the child we never had. Jack is 12 now, happy, healthy as hell, and blissing out on life on Doug’s farm (he especially loves our walks to the pond where he swims and fetches the stick.) This morning I watched the clock as the numbers ticked toward 8:36. Yes, I still remember the time stamped on Marcus’ death certificate. I will never forget the time because this same time, seven years ago, I had felt my heart struggle to beat. I was out walking my dogs and, feeling uncharacteristically weak, I had looked at my watch and saw that it read 8:36. Today, Jack jumped off the bed so I stopped my clock-watching and got up too. I stood in front of the window that looks east, out past the picnic table on the lawn and over the goat barn. The sun had risen just above the trees. I held my face toward it, closing my eyes and feeling its heat penetrate my heart, my bones, warming every bit of my connective tissue.
“Hi Marcus,” I whispered. “I’m thinking of you.”
In that spiritual, nature-connected, sunbeam-driven moment, he answered me back. “Hi, my love. Don’t worry about me. I’m fine. I’m happy you are in such a good and beautiful place and doing so well.” Then he added, “Doug is a better partner for you than I ever could have been.”
I took a deep breath, wiped a single tear from each cheek, and bowed my head in a little namaste prayer before heading downstairs for coffee.

Even if it wasn’t Marcus speaking to me, it’s true. Doug is a good partner for me. Iowa is a good place for me. And farm life is a surprisingly good fit for me.

I am still making pie, and still being reminded of the lesson I learned after Marcus’ death: If you want to feel better, do something nice for someone else. I was in a particularly foul mood last night partly due to the memory of Marcus’ passing, but mostly because our Windstream internet, which is already painfully slow, stopped working altogether. When I called the company they said they couldn’t fix it for at least five days. Five days?! Given I couldn’t get any more work done, I went into the kitchen to make pie from the fresh peaches my neighbor Cheryl had picked from her tree. I made a double crust peach pie for my 92-year-old friend who is in the hospital recovering from surgery. I used the leftover dough and peaches to make two mini pies, one for a man who was traveling cross-country and one for Doug. Instead of crying my eyes out today, I delivered the pies. And I felt good. Happy. Strong. Healed.

Seven years ago I wanted to die along with Marcus. But life goes on. Our spirit, along with our cells, goes through a renewal every seven years. It’s been a hell of a cycle, but I can look back now and say I’m grateful. Not grateful that Marcus died, but grateful for the lessons, the growth, the opportunity to keep living and, even more important, to keep giving. And now, as of today, another seven-year cycle begins. I can’t imagine what challenges and thrills are to come. But it’s sure to be, as Doug says, full of experiences. Check back in 2023 for an update.

Father’s Day 2016

I wrote this essay as a birthday card to my dad last year. When sitting down to write him a Father’s Day card this week, I kept thinking about this gift to him. On that birthday night, our whole family sat down to a celebratory meal at Ruth’s Chris Steak House in Marina del Rey, where I read my piece aloud. I tried to keep my composure as I read, which was a challenge when I could see out of my peripheral vision the tears welling up in my dad’s eyes. The waitress, a true professional, did not interrupt. She sensed the importance of the moment and waited until I was done to take our dinner order and I was always so grateful for her giving us that space. Later, my mom, who generally doesn’t approve of my habit of sharing my life so publicly, suggested I submit this piece for publication. But no, this was one story that was sacred. I wrote it for one person only: my dad. 

A few days ago my best friend from childhood, Nan, lost her dad. He was 94. He had a good, long, healthy life. Even on his last day on this planet he was well enough to go fishing with some friends from the nursing home. His passing was another reminder to cherish every moment and always say what you need to say–before you can’t any longer. My dad is still with us–he’s 81 now, still drinking martinis, still giving me advice and still reminding me to embrace the goodness in life. I can’t think of anything more I’d like to do to honor him on this Father’s Day than share my very personal, very heartfelt gift to him with you. I hope you are all honoring the fathers or father-figures in your life–not just this Father’s Day weekend but every day.

For Dad on his 80th Birthday, May 16, 2015

Dear Dad,

You always said, “The best birthday present I could ask for is a card telling me how much you love me.” This is a lucky break for me because (A) I don’t really have a lot of money to spend, (B) you can be a little hard to shop for since you are already the “man who has everything”—not to mention, I don’t really like shopping in the first place, and (C) I write for a living so writing you a card is like getting off easy. Not just because writing comes naturally to me, but because telling you how much I love you is one of the most effortless things in the world. Effortless, yes, but you are turning 80 and the list of reasons I love you and appreciate you has kept growing with the years, so this is going to be a long “birthday card.”

You have taught me so many important lessons that have carried me through my life. Your wisdom, your strength, your passion and your humor have shaped the person I have become. And I’d to think I’m speaking for the other four kids, your five grandkids, and even your two granddogs. While this is only a small sampling, I’ve come up with a list of 10 lessons I learned from you, lessons so valuable that I have made it my mission to share them with others.

1. Surround yourself with positive people

You have always told me to surround myself with positive people. This is one of the single most important pieces of advice I have ever had. It is so simple but so powerful. I might have inherited my “people radar” and healthy skepticism from mom, but it’s your voice I hear when I realize I need to move on from certain friends or situations that are too negative. It’s a formula that works. I have traveled far and wide, alone, and I have never had anything bad happen, because you taught to me stay away from the “ass-hoooooooles” (your favorite line from “Meet the Fockers”) and focus only on the good.

2. It’s OK to tune people out

I sat in the passenger seat of your car when I was 10. I had just gotten publicly reprimanded and humiliated by Mrs. Wonderlich in front of my whole fifth grade class. She told me I needed to come down off my pedestal. Which, looking back, is the same thing as saying, “I will not allow you to be your big, beautiful, confident self.” As I sat in your white Mustang—or maybe it was your brown Gremlin—you told me I did not need to listen to her, that I could just tune people out. To this day, I think of you propping me up that afternoon and I am so grateful for that advice—and for what may be considered your unconventional parenting style. You helped me to understand that people put others down only to make themselves feel better. And then you taught me that I didn’t have to listen to the naysayers, that I could just do my own thing, and that I could—and should—become the big, beautiful, confident self you raised me to be.

3. It takes 37 fewer muscles to smile than to frown

Long before the “positive mental attitude movement” came along, you were extolling the virtues of turning a frown upside down. Of course as a dentist you had to put it in dental terms by defining the number of muscles it takes to do this. And that alone, to this day, makes me smile.

4. Follow your passion

Unlike you and your early and unrelenting love for dentistry, I never knew what I wanted to be when I grew up. You might have had some suggestions for me along the way—like be a dental hygienist or an executive assistant—but because you told me it was okay to tune people out, I didn’t listen—even to you. Why? Because you also taught me to find my passion and follow it. The words I can still hear you saying—and on more than one occasion—were this: “As long as you can convince me why what you want to do is important to you, I will support you.” I convinced you. And you supported me. Just like you promised you would. Even when I did things that challenged you as a parent. Like graduating early from high school to do a NOLS semester. Going to Africa alone at 24. And more. How lucky can a kid get to have a dad who supports their passion, even when that passion turns out to be wanderlust?

5. Give to others

You spent your whole career as a healer. It was one thing to see how many people’s lives you improved by taking care of their teeth, but I also watched people come away transformed just from your touch. You made people’s health a priority. You made our family a priority. You always put others first. It would be hard to rank all the lessons you taught me in any given order, but this one has to be in the top three. You recently reiterated to me a phrase that I have been leaning on more than you know—one I will take with me as I go around the world. You said, “When times get hard, just remember what you are doing is helping others.” What kind of dad says that? I’ll tell you what kind. The best kind. The very best kind.

6. Always eat well — and remember to say thank you

You have always had a great enthusiasm for food. Good food. Our family dinners provided a
foundation for our lives, not just by having healthy home-cooked meals but by being encouraged to engage in open communication around the table. With that, we were nourished in both the body and the soul. Beyond the home, you expanded our appreciation of delicious food—and created a love for a wide range of dining experiences. It started back in the Ottumwa days with banana cream pie at The Canteen Lunch in the Alley and hot fudge sundaes at Dairy Queen. And then it progressed all the way to the top of the scale with filet mignon and Grand Marnier soufflés at Café Martinique in the Bahamas. The extremes may have balanced out with spaghetti and meatballs at “the garlic place” (Alejo’s), clam chowder at Blue Water Grill, and tostada salads at El Pollo Loco, but the appreciation for eating well remains strong. What you also taught us is that a dining experience isn’t just about the food; it’s about the importance of saying thank you. Beginning a meal with a heartfelt blessing of gratitude and remembrance of others less fortunate, and ending a meal with an acknowledgement of thanks to the cook, the host, or the person treating, this kind of mindfulness is the starting point for making the world a better place. This is one of the earliest and most valuable lessons I remember learning from you.

7. Cocktail Hour is sacred

You were there for me when Marcus died. You came to Portland and joined me at the hotel where I was staying with Nan. We were on our way out for dinner but you insisted on having a martini before we left. In my harried state I scolded you, saying, “That’s alcoholic behavior.” Your reply was quick and light and unabashed. “That’s not alcoholic behavior,” you said, “it’s cocktail hour behavior.” Nan thought that was the most brilliant philosophy ever. And now that the fog of grief has lifted, I can see you were right. It’s that simple. Life’s rituals are important. They keep us in balance. Cocktail hour is like a religion. And drinking a martini is a holy, spiritual experience that honors and celebrates the day. Not to mention, it’s way more fun than going to church. You taught me that. Along with the importance of putting three olives in the drink.

8. Silence is sacred

Cocktail hour isn’t the only sacred experience you taught me about. Silence is another. As you recall, I didn’t take well to Catholic indoctrination. But Tom Howard showed me another way to find God. It was called silence. This wasn’t about tuning other people out. This was about tuning yourself out and going deep within. And while meditation is one way to do this, I am not good at sitting still. But you showed me a way to access the stillness while moving. First you taught me how to ride a bike. Then you taught me to drive. Then you taught me to sail. You helped me discover that nature was my true religion, the place where I could feel closest to a higher power. And then you came with me on trips—motorcycling through Europe where we couldn’t talk and instead just focused on feeling the wind in our faces. That was magical. But there was nothing more divine—divine in the literal sense—than walking in silence in the Sahara Desert. I will always marvel at how we did not plan to be silent for those several days, but how the power of the endless red sand dunes and expansive blue sky seemed to require it. In that silence I’m not sure I ever felt closer to the Great Creator—or to you.

9. Solitaire is a competitive sport

While these past few months have been challenging for me, one of my favorite memories I will take away is the fun we had playing Solitaire—and how we turned it into a competition. It was silly and pointless in a way, but fun to put a new spin on a solo game. We weren’t really playing to beat each other; we were just bonding in the race to improve our game and beat our own best time. For a long time I poo-pooed people who played Solitaire, but now I appreciate it immensely, how putting the cards in order gives a sense of order to life. It’s better and cheaper and faster than Prozac! Out of curiosity the other day, I looked up the origins of Solitaire. In some countries it is actually called “Patience” and in others, “Success.” You possess these traits in spades. No wonder you love the game! Another name for it is “Kabala,” which means secret knowledge and it seems your favorite game has been used as a means of fortune telling. But you don’t need a game to see the future. You have psychic abilities. When you predict things for my life, I hang on to every word. And if I end up working for Hilary’s campaign when I get back from my travels—or fall in love with an Australian and move to his seaside ranch—it will be further proof that your psychic powers reach far beyond a deck of cards. As for our competition, we are both winners.

10. Have more fun by breaking the rules and teasing a little

If I learned nothing else from you, Dad, it is how to laugh. We have had such a fun time in our family teasing each other—and then spending the following decades reminiscing about how fun it was to pull that prank or tell that joke or light that fart. I still think of the times you took us out for hot fudge sundaes before dinner and made us promise not to tell mom. She always found out anyway. “Tooo-oooom,” she would say, drawing out your one-syllable name into two. We laughed when you got scolded, because we kids were complicit in the act. It was sweet and innocent fun that taught us it was okay to bend the rules, to not conform, and most of all, just to embrace life. Also on the subject of how we learned to be naughty, it amazes me to think that I still hold the record for the biggest—or one could say, worst—prank in the family. You know the one, that time I asked you to look at my tooth and then I burped as soon as you looked in my mouth. I officially apologize. But it’s your own fault for raising us to be the little pranksters that we became. Still, I learned that teasing is an expression of love, the relaxed kind of love that comes from being secure in a relationship. You brought the fun, you and mom added the security and the love, and the rest is history. And, PS, it’s not too late to retaliate for the burping incident.

So with all that, let me say Happy 80th Birthday, John Thomas Howard. I hope this card is the best present you could ask for. Because you are the best dad I—and all of us—could ask for.

ALL MY LOVE,
Boo

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