What Did You Decide About the Pie Stand?

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

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

I’ve decided not to rent the retail space. 95% of the responses were an enthusiastic “GO FOR IT!” including the one from my mom. But there was one friend, who knows me maybe even better than my mom, who said, “ARE YOU CRAZY? You don’t want to be tied down.” Her words snapped me out of my fantasy, though it was an exciting one while it lasted. I miss people. I miss the community that pie creates. So a newly renovated space where I could sell pies, teach pie classes, sell pie-baking supplies, and provide a space where people could gather seemed like a good solution. 
It sounded so good on paper…  
But the reality check was this: I’m a terrible businessperson; I suck at bookkeeping. I want (and need) to travel; a year-round retail space would require me to stay put. The rent was very high for a rural town; I’m not prepared to take out loans or drain my savings. While my shop would bring people to town, the tourist season is short; it would be hard to sustain business (and pay rent) in the winter. And then there’s winter itself. I suffer from S.A.D. and the ONLY solution that works for me (and I’ve tried them all) is go south like a snowbird. 

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

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

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

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

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

💟
Some previous blog posts you might like: 




World Piece: A Humble, Homemade Film About Making Pie Around the World





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!”

So that’s what you get here:

*  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!

Oh, the Things You Can Do When You Take a Break from Social Media!

In late March I began what became an extended break from Facebook. I use Twitter and Instagram too, but Facebook is my go-to social platform. It’s a place where I get to hang out with my friends and keep up with their news, which is especially valuable to me because I live on a farm where I’m surrounded by goats, dogs and cows. I need people! But I don’t need all the news….and all the noise. And Facebook was becoming too noisy and too loud for my sensitive soul. 


The cure for loneliness.

Envy was part of the problem. I found I was getting jealous of my friends (many of them people I have never met in person) and I was feeling bad about myself. It seemed everyone else was doing cool stuff and that I had been put out to pasture. Literally! But that’s the danger of social media. We selectively choose our posts, presenting only the highlights, showing ourselves in our best light, and giving others a very limited, very curated view of our otherwise messy, imperfect, difficult lives. I’m guilty of it too. But I’m an adult with the tools to recognize this. I have the capability to step back, assess my feelings, identify the cause of them and, even more importantly, to act. In this case, the solution was to get off — and stay off — Facebook. At least for a while.


I feel for those in our younger generations who don’t yet have the defenses or life experience necessary to ward off the dark forces of social media and all its anxiety-producing pressures. The bullying. The bragging. The negativity. The competition. It can get ugly and, as we’ve seen, even dangerous out there. Yes, there are so many, many good things that social media can do. I have made lifelong friends through it. My pie business grew because of it. My books got read thanks to it. And my World Piece pie-making trip around the world would have never been as rich and rewarding without the support I got from it. 


But a break was necessary. And I am here to say the break has been hugely productive.


Taking this time away from social media has helped me stop comparing my accomplishments or goals to everyone else’s. It has helped me focus on my dreams, to ask myself what do I want? What more can I do with my life? Because I have to and want to do more! What can I do given my circumstances, living in rural Iowa and needing to stay close to home to care for my aging animals? (My terrier, Jack, is still with us. He is diabetic and blind but hanging in there, and I’m sticking by him to the end. He will be 15 on May 17, which if you know his story is a miracle!) 

That’s Jack in the backpack. And me in my pjs.
Just another day on the farm. 

Because I wasn’t filling my days — and my loneliness — reading endless posts and articles online, I freed up a lot of time and I used it — privately and quietly — to ask myself those life-probing questions. In that sacred, protected, sometimes uncomfortable space, I found my answers. 


And then I got busy. 


I realized that I didn’t want to travel or play or socialize. I wanted to work! I wanted to contribute something helpful to our troubled world. So I immersed myself in a new project. I spent hours alone at my farmhouse desk to produce something creative and meaningful. And in the process, guess what? I no longer felt lonely! Nor did I feel like I was missing out on anything. (Though I did miss a few birthdays and birth announcements. My apologies to those of you I’ve neglected!) 


My new project was actually revisiting an old one: World Piece, my round-the-world pie-making trip I took the summer of 2015. I had previously only told snippets of it on Facebook and my blog, and finally, four years later, I sat down to document the whole story in its entirety.

I have a need to create, but also one to stretch and grow. Expanding my horizons and learning new things gives me the oxygen I require to feel alive — fully, actively alive! So instead of doing what I would normally do as a project — writing the book/memoir (which I still plan to do) — I ventured into a different medium. I taught myself how to use iMovie to tell my story visually. And while it is not perfect (because there is no such thing as perfection!) I want to share with you what came out of my Facebook break.

I humbly present you with my short film…

World Piece: A Global Pie-Making Journey

It is 23 minutes long. I know our online attention spans are three minutes max, but I hope you will watch the whole thing. And I hope it will inspire you to spend time away from your screens, to go make a pie, and then share that pie to connect with old friends – and make new ones – in real life. I know from experience, it will do your soul good.

Don’t worry, I’m not totally disconnecting! I still post updates on my Facebook pie page, so please like and follow me there for news.

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.

Thoughts After the Women’s March on Washington

Many of you had been asking for a recap of the Women’s March, but, honestly, I am so depressed this week it is hard to write one.

It’s been a week of political (and insane) assault on our democracy and freedom. Our role as an egalitarian, inclusive nation is being completely undermined. It’s the Orwellian stuff of “1984.” (Amazon sold out of its copies this week as customers seek a refresher on George Orwell’s dystopian novel.) The new administration has abandoned all aspects of diplomacy and become blatantly blind and insensitive to the world we live in—a global one, an intricately connected, interdependent and symbiotic one. Instead of striving to be a peaceful and welcoming country, the new executive orders being handed down will only create more—and more determined—enemies. Immigrants who have been thoroughly vetted are already being turned away at our borders. Are you fucking kidding me? Unless you are a Native American, we are ALL immigrants here.

Don’t even get me started on all the other hair-pulling, primal scream-inducing madness coming out of Washington—the war on education, on the environment, on healthcare, on the media, on science, on immigration, on the basic human rights we have worked so hard for over the decades. Not the least of which is abortion. The conservative-minded righteousness about protecting an unborn fetus is ridiculous when you consider the utter lack of support for the mother and child after an unwanted or unplanned baby is born. Take a look at the foster care system in this country and you will see exactly what I mean. (If you don’t believe in abortion, don’t have one. But what others choose to do with what’s in their own uterus is their business.)

My brain is so overloaded with all the alarming news this week my head feels as if it will explode. My soul is feeling so crushed I can barely cope.

But for that one day, Saturday, January 21, I felt so empowered, so supported, so encouraged by the huge numbers of people who showed up to protest. Organizers were hoping for at least 100,000 in Washington, D.C., but estimates state it was closer to 500,000. We packed the streets so tightly we could barely move our feet. We listened to intelligent, caring people speak as they took their turns on the stage. We chanted and held up our protest signs and wore our pink pussy hats. (Those pink, cat-eared hats filled airplanes, buses and sidewalks leading up to the march, and on the day of the march they created a sea of pink lighting up a cloudy day with vibrant color.) We made friends. We made headlines. We made it known that we are not going to accept this new (and dangerous) administration.

Even babies marched.
In their pussy hats.

Even more encouraging was that people marched on ALL SEVEN CONTINTENTS—proof that American policy affects the whole planet. And there are a whole lot of people on the planet who don’t want the world to end. Women, men, and various combinations thereof, showed up in person to stand for equality, democracy, and, above all, for world peace. Even in places with temperatures well below zero, people marched. In the hallways of hospital cancer wards, people marched. On board ships, people marched. On rural highways, people marched. All the way around the globe, people protested the new president and his policies. More than 3 million took to the streets. And not one single arrest was made.

As for me personally, marching was never on my bucket list. Normally if I had anything to protest I would simply write about it. But nothing feels normal anymore. So I joined the masses in Washington.

Shoulder to shoulder with like-minded strangers, I joined my fellow marchers in shouts and cheers and warrior-like cries. “Women’s rights are human rights.” “Hey, hey, ho, ho, [you know who] has got to go.” And the one that still runs through my head after saying it so many times—answering the call of “Tell me what democracy looks like”—“THIS is what democracy looks like.”

I felt so proud to be there, saying those words. I felt like I was no longer just me, not caught up in myself or my own needs. For the first time in my life I was part of something so much bigger. I was one tiny speck of a larger organism, a force of life called Humanity.

“This is what democracy looks like.”

I felt so proud of the other people who showed up to say those words. Proud of the solidarity, the camaraderie, and the politeness displayed by all. Proud of the diversity, the vast range of ages, shapes, sizes, colors and costumes.

“This is what democracy looks like.”

During that day, pressed so tightly against the bodies of others, I felt so hopeful that not all of humanity has lost their sense of compassion or care for others’ well being. I felt hopeful that with this huge show of concerned citizens that we can preserve our freedoms, uphold our Constitution, and reestablish our reputation as a country that is united with the Free World and not with New World Order.

“This is what democracy looks like.”

This is what democracy looks like.

Like I said, that was last week. The challenge now—and it’s a big one—is to maintain that positive feeling, to not lose hope, to not let my brain explode or my soul get extinguished. I know I’m not alone in my despair. I know the 3 million people who marched share my sentiments. And I know there are millions more, as not everyone who wanted to march could be out there.

We marched. We turned up in impressive, unprecedented numbers. But now what? What can we do? How can we help? And how can we maintain any sense of optimism going forward?

Keep calling your representatives. Send them letters. Run for office yourself, even your local school board. Donate money to and/or volunteer for the organizations whose causes you care about, especially the ones threatened with de-funding. Organize in your own communities. Sign up for “10 Actions, 100 Days.” Write letters to the editor. Take time for self-care. Keep marching. (To stand up for science. And to demand someone’s tax returns.)

Yes, yes. Got it. That’s a list of what I’ve heard and read so far. But what else? I’m sorry for not offering any solutions or salves here. Instead, I am asking YOU for them.

Please write to me and tell me what keeps you going. Tell me what you are doing, what action you are taking, what seems to be working, and especially how you are staying optimistic in this new—and hopefully short-lived—era. Seriously. Please write to me. My email is beth [at] theworldneedsmorepie [dot] com. I promise to compile all the answers and share them with you.

Pink flowers awaited me back on the farm.
It’s so nice to have the support of my partner.

In the meantime, I am still doing laundry and catching up on my sleep. There are more marches ahead—and more blog posts to write—and I need to be ready.

——————————————————

Read this article in the Huffington Post: 10 Things The Women’s March On Washington Accomplished

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.

Is World Peace Possible?

This past summer I left my home in Donnellson, Iowa and traveled all the way around the world, baking American pie in 10 countries as a way to promote cultural tolerance. I returned with the intention of writing a book about my experience. I already had the title: World Piece, spelled p-i-e-c-e.  But it is hard to write about world peace when you’ve lost your faith in it.

My trip went well enough. I toured apple orchards in New Zealand. I did a pie demo for the Women’s International Club in Sydney. I baked 75 pies for the American Embassy’s 4th of July reception in Thailand. I learned how to make pie-like pastries in India. I delivered a dozen pies to a Syrian refugee camp in Lebanon. I picked wild blueberries in the Black Forest to make pie with 10-year-olds, and then with a gay couple in Budapest’s bombed out Jewish quarter. I interacted with people all around the globe, weaving my way through a lattice crust of nationalities, religions and races. I made 211 pies and almost as many new friends. I returned safely.

Baking pie in the Black Forest.
We all wore our hair in braids.

But since I’ve been back, I’ve been listening to a lot of news. Bad news from the places where I had just been. A bombing at the Erawan Shrine in Bangkok, the exact spot where I had made my pies. A growing garbage crisis in Lebanon. The Syrian refugee crisis worsening. Trains halted from Hungary to reject the migrants. Terrorist attacks in Paris, and then Brussels. Instead of spreading world peace, it was as if I had left only violence in my wake. Add to that the vitriol of the presidential campaign with threats to build walls and ban certain religions from entering the U.S., to divide instead of unite people, and any remaining optimism I had for healing the world evaporated.

Lugging that rolling pin for 30,000 miles was all for nothing. Or was it?

In the Bekaa Valley Refugee Camp.
These Syrian kids are the happy
recipients of homemade pie.

In my state of disillusionment, I reached out to my Facebook friends, the ones who had cheered me on during my 3-month journey. I asked them, “Do you believe world peace is possible? How do you define peace and what examples do you see of it? What do you do to try to make the world a better place?”

The responses were plentiful and thoughtful.

Limit exposure to news. Meditate or pray. Spread joy. Practice kindness and tolerance. Teach children to be good citizens. Invest in the education of the next generation. Focus on the good. Live with a soft heart. Dig deeper for awareness and understanding of yourself. Choose to think positively. Help others. Talk to your neighbors. Share a smile. Cooperate with those you don’t agree with. Believe in the ripple effect. (Like pay the bridge toll for the car behind you and see it continue for hours.)

One woman in Des Moines said, “Each Sunday at the end of our service we sing words of John Wesley: Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as you ever can.” She believes an individual’s inner peace created by these words will lead to collective world peace.

A bike shop owner in Ottumwa said, “Peace is yin and yang because energy is in constant flow. There is goodness and there is anger. Anger has its place, because oftentimes it is what pushes a change for more goodness.”

Some of the comments included links to videos—of the Dalai Lama, a CNN story on the peaceful kingdom of Bhutan, a TED talk. There were also links to organizations, a Dutch one called World Peace is Possible, whose website states, “There was peace for 1 percent of the 3,500 years of civilization, so we know it’s possible.” There is the “I Declare World Peace” hashtag movement on Twitter. There’s “A Peace of my Mind” —p-e-a-c-e— book of photography and interviews. And in LA, there is a man whose Global Vision for Peace non-profit is organizing a LiveAid-type concert to be held on September 21, the annual date the United Nations has established as International Day of Peace.

Humans share 99.9 percent of the same genetic makeup. So why can’t we get along? Why is there not 99.9 percent peace in the world? We may try to be good and do good, hardwired for survival, but we are tribal. We are opinionated, power hungry, fearful and hotheaded, with some more prone than others to strap on an explosive vest and detonate it in the middle of a crowd. Still, I want to believe mankind is basically good. I want to have hope.

One commenter suggested that wanting global piece is too daunting. “You should scale it back,” he said, “and just think about your own world, your own piece of the pie. Each piece put together in harmony can add up to the whole.”

These beauties (Margaret, left, age 94 and
Rosalie, right, age 92) know a thing or two
about life. Sharing stories pie with them
 over pie is the definition of peace.

With this in mind, I’ve reimagined my own view of world peace. It is sleeping soundly under my down comforter, next to the man I love, in a country we are blessed to live in. It is doing yoga as the sun rises over the barn. It is walking through the hay field over to the creek to look for wildflowers. It is watching the baby calves nurse on their mothers. It is dropping by my old neighbor’s house after his heart surgery and seeing his face light up at my arrival. It is listening to the stories of two 90-something-year-old sisters in my town, made even sweeter over pie. And it is about community, people connecting with each other, even if just on Facebook, who lend each other a helping hand, restoring their faith in humanity and, in my case, to push them past their writer’s block.

That last commenter was right. It is not about world peace as a whole. It’s about having one little slice of it. And that I have found. Right where I started. On a farm in Iowa.

World Piece: The Homecoming…But Where is Home?

Goodbye, Frankfurt!

My very last stop on my World Piece itinerary was Frankfurt, Germany. This was where my flight would take off for Los Angeles.

LA was the place where I started, the place where three months earlier I said a tearful goodbye to my parents as they waved to me from the other side of the airport security checkpoint. I sobbed for a solid hour—all through the TSA scan, through removing and putting back on my boots, through the entire length of the concourse as I passed all the fast-food and Starbucks outlets on my way to my gate. Through getting onto the airplane and into my seat, the tears wouldn’t stop flowing. Instead of being excited about my journey, I was scared. I was terrified, mostly, over the idea I might never see my parents again, that something would happen to them while I was gone—or that something might happen to me.

I made myself get on the plane anyway. I had committed to doing this.

You would cry too if you had to say goodbye to these people.

And then, finally, after three months, 30,000 miles, 10 countries, and 211 pies, the day arrived. I was going home. Except I didn’t really know where home was.

Exactly one year earlier I had moved out of the American Gothic House in Eldon, Iowa, where I had lived for four years. (It had been a surprise to everyone, especially to me, that I stayed so long, as I left my native Iowa at 17, vowing never to return.) I was sad about moving out—I would have liked to have stayed—but the pressures that came from living in a tourist attraction had worn me down. So I went back to LA, which is where I was planning to move before I detoured to that irresistibly cute house in Iowa. I thought I would stay in LA indefinitely. I stayed for six months.

LA had been my home for many years. No matter where I flitted off to, trying on a new town or country for size, LA was and is always the place I go back to. It’s where my parents moved 15 years ago, leaving Iowa to live closer to three out of five of us kids. And given that my parents are 80 now, it’s important to me to live closer to them.

But when I returned to LA this last time, living in a furnished studio guesthouse 6 miles from my mom and dad, and 2 miles from the beach, I struggled throughout the entire six-month stint. Why? Because I discovered something I had not realized: Iowa had changed me.

My parents’ ocean view

I was different and needed different things. Instead of trendy wine bars and power yoga—and traffic jams—I needed space, quiet, solitude. In rural Iowa, I was just as happy—no, happier—sitting at my kitchen table sharing a $10 bottle of wine with a friend and doing yoga guided by a 20-year-old Shiva Rea CD, rarely ever needing to get in my car. When I did drive, the only traffic was the occasional lumbering combine or Amish horse-drawn buggy.

My LA lease was month-to-month so I was free to leave anytime. But I’m not a quitter. All through the winter, I tried to readjust and find my old California self—the free-spirited and social surfer girl I was before I morphed into “the Iowa pie lady.” By spring, seeing how my life had been reduced to daily dog walks and nightly dinners with my parents, and how the one time I went surfing I got seasick, I accepted that there is no going back in time, only forward. I began itching to find a new home. I didn’t know where I wanted to go, or live, so instead of forcing a decision, I bought myself some time. I would finally make my World Piece dream come true.

Still, I had hesitated. The enormity of a round-the-world trip was so daunting. I had a million excuses not to do it. But my inner-taskmaster barked—and barked—“What the hell are you waiting for?” until I actually called the airline and booked the ticket. Admittedly, I was also spurred on by the looming expiration date of the frequent flyer miles. Either way, I was sick of talking about it. It was time to stop feeling stuck and Just. Do. It.

But there was one catch. I needed someone to take care of my dog Jack for three months. I knew just the person—and the place. So before setting off on my big international trip, I took a big domestic one. I packed up my dog and all of my belongings into my RV (aka The Beast—yes, it’s still running!), drove cross-country, and delivered dog and all to my friend Doug’s farm. In Iowa. It was the best decision I had made all year, one that I couldn’t have guessed would lead to another, bigger decision upon my return.

50 pounds is the weight limit. This
beast weighed in at 50 exactly.

After all those months that it took to make World Piece happen—two to plan it and three to execute it—I was dragging my tired body and overweight luggage through the Frankfurt, Germany Flughafen. I wandered around the duty-free shop, sniffing bottles of perfume and buying chocolate bars to kill time. Having nearly completed a full circle around the globe, I was counting the hours and minutes until my flight departed for the Great Homecoming.

But where was home?

I missed my parents. Every time we Skyped—from Auckland, from Sydney, from Bangkok, Mumbai, Beirut, Athens, Bern, Aachen and Budapest—a wave of solace filled me when seeing their beaming faces, but this was always followed by a riptide of longing whenever we hung up.

I also stayed in touch with Doug during my travels. And every time Doug sent a video of my dog Jack fetching the stick, swimming in the pond, or trotting down a trail—and he sent at least a picture or a text almost daily—my heart ached not just for my dog, but for the peace and simplicity of Iowa. And maybe something else, something I didn’t yet grasp.

One day in July, during my trip, while staying at a friend’s apartment in Bangkok and bogged down with a head cold, I sat outside by the pool and tried to meditate. I say “tried” because I’m not very good at keeping my brain quiet.

I was trying to do that “clear mind” thing, but I kept thinking about the American Gothic House and how much I missed it, how much I missed living in the little historic cottage—a whole house big enough for dogs and house guests and pie classes. I missed having all my stuff so perfectly placed in it—my overstuffed daisy chair, my railroad freight cart coffee table, my flannel sheets, my down pillows, my grandmother’s china—and having what felt like a real home, an anchor, and a community.

Inhale. Exhale. I took more deep breaths—through my mouth, because my nose was so stuffed up (which is what happens when you fly in an enclosed airplane and sit directly in front of a kid who is coughing without covering their mouth the entire eight-hour flight)—and tried to push the American Gothic House—and everything else—out of my mind.

Daisy, my sweet little angel

But then I started thinking about Daisy, and how much I missed her, my sweet little terrier-mix who had been killed by a coyote eight months earlier. (Jack, also a terrier-mix, had been wounded in the same attack, but he survived.) I missed her sparkling brown eyes, her Winnie-the-Pooh-like calm, her unconditional love. She asked for nothing and yet gave so much.

I tried not to let the sadness over Daisy interfere with my meditation. I was going to really relax, damn it! But grief is a tangled vine that wraps itself around the heart until it chokes and suffocates it. I gasped for breath, acknowledged the feelings and the subsequent tightness in my chest, and after a long exhale, I returned to my mantra, which was something akin to BE QUIET IN THERE!

The next thought that popped into my mind was Marcus. This wasn’t a surprise because he is always there, living on the surface of the cerebrum’s folds. But in my congested, sinus-clogged state I didn’t have just thoughts of him, I actually heard him. He was talking to me, gently and lovingly. “It’s time to let go, my love,” he said in his British-German lilt. “I’m sorry I wasn’t a better husband. You should find another man.”

Marcus was reiterating something I had read in one of my grief books, something an Indian philosopher said whose advice was seemingly heartless yet so practical: “Your husband died? Go find another one.”

Marcus was offering the same practical advice. I had tried to be practical, but I was still holding on. I needed to let go—and not just of Marcus, but of the American Gothic House and Daisy and whatever other ghosts and grievances of my past that were holding me back.

The voice of my late husband opened a gate and led me through it. All my other thoughts were preempted and my synapses started firing right past my post-nasal drip. Suddenly, I had a clear idea of where I wanted my life to go after my World Piece trip was over. God knows, I had been asking myself the question and had been asked by others almost daily during my travels: “What are you going to do when you get back?” Each time I tensed up, unable to answer. But right there, in the tropical sun, jet-lagged and sick with my feet dangling in the 100-meter-long swimming pool, I had an epiphany. (Proof that meditation really can work, even when you suck at it.)

I had an answer, better yet, direction. I was going to find a new house, another cottage in Iowa where I could recreate the country lifestyle I had come to love. And once I got settled, I would adopt another dog. Daisy had been a rescue, one who had been badly in need of care. There were many, many other needy, even desperate, dogs out there I could adopt. I would do it to honor Daisy. I would also stay open to letting another man in my life. Yes, I had dated in the past six years, but there was never room for a real relationship, because Marcus was taking up most of the space.

That epiphany was in early July. I still had two months and six countries to go in my round-the-world trip, so I couldn’t put my plan into immediate action, but the clarity gave me peace and helped me to stay more focused on the present. (Traveling solo, by the way, with a packed itinerary is a good exercise in staying in the present. There is no time to focus on anything beyond the logistics of making your next flight or finding your next bed.)

At last, it was August 27, the date I had been eyeing on the calendar since I flew away on June 2nd. When they announced my Lufthansa flight to LA was ready for boarding, I tried not to run down the jetway. I was heading back to the USA. I could finally get going on my plan.

I landed at LAX on a Thursday afternoon. My parents had dropped me off three months earlier, and now they would be there to pick me up three months later. My heart pounder harder as we taxied toward the gate, my iPhone already buzzing with messages from my mom saying they were waiting in baggage claim. I zipped through immigration and rolled my 50-pound beast of a suitcase past customs one last time. God, I would not miss dragging that bloody bag around!

I scanned the hundreds of faces lined up along the barricade and spotted my mom. She looked so petite among the mass of tightly packed bodies and tall chauffeurs holding name signs. It was her, her short dark hair in a spunky new cut, her matching yellow top, pants and flats, her flowered shoulder bag coordinated to complete the outfit.

Like animal instinct, the recognition of a mother and her offspring was more than visual; it was visceral. Once we found each other we locked on. Her brown eyes, which had been hunting for me like a lioness looking for her cub, turned from expectant to shining to misty. We both teared up in an unspoken moment of relief, a release of that underlying anxiety we had apparently both been holding onto for the past 15 weeks.

Hooray, she said without words. You are home safely.
Hooray, I said with my tears. You are here and you are okay.

And then our silent-film moment dissolved suddenly, replaced by the full volume of airport noise that nearly drowned out my mom’s voice when she said, “Come on. Dad is over here.”

My dad pushed through the crowd as he saw us approach, and without regard to the people trying to pass with their bags, grabbed me in a bear hug. “Welcome back, Boo.” His blue eyes twinkled from beneath his seaman’s cap. He fixed his eyes on my face, his smile lighting up the Tom Bradley terminal so brightly he could have brought down 747s with it.

The moment I had been waiting for. The “Victory Shot.”

Whatever stress, sadness and sickness I endured throughout my journey, the magic of this reunion made every bit of it worthwhile. We took a few “victory shots” before leaving the airport, recreating our parting shot with a return one.

This is what love looks like, surrounded by luggage.

I studied the photos later. My parents looked the same: healthy, happy, and vibrant. Which was a tremendous relief given they had both had skin cancer surgeries during my absence. Their scars were already healing, their prognoses positive, and neither looked worse for the wear. In fact, they looked better than I remembered.

Did I look the same? My hair was a little longer. I had lost maybe a pound or two, though that could be wishful thinking. Surely my face looked tired, if nothing else from the dehydration of the transcontinental flight.

The bigger question was, was I the same person I was when I left? A young woman I met during my travels insisted that this must be a life-changing trip. I paid lip service to her and nodded in agreement, but inside shook my head at her naiveté. No, this trip wasn’t the stuff that changes lives. It is not life changing to get on and off airplanes and make pie for three months. Life changing is when your husband drops dead at 43. Life changing is when your angelic terrier’s body is ripped open and eaten by a coyote. Life changing is having to move out of your tourist attraction house after four years upon realizing you have inadvertently become the attraction. (Perhaps this last one isn’t so traumatic when you remind yourself that six-foot-long snakes lived there too.)

I can think of many adjectives for my World Piece mission: interesting, informative, enlightening, educational, exhausting. But did it really change me?

The best answer to that, I think, is summed up in a comment left on my last blog post about Budapest. “The reward for effort is sometimes not realized until long after the work is done,” this person wrote. “Like a farmer, you’ve sown a seed and somewhere it’s growing.”

I stayed with my parents in Redondo Beach for three days, basking in their love and their hot tub, and their homemade meals of creamed tuna on biscuits. I was in LA. With my parents. I was home. Sort of. But not really.

My dog Jack was still back in Iowa, with Doug on his farm. My trip wouldn’t be complete until I was reunited with my “Little Man.” Restlessness and anticipation—and jet lag—nagged at me until I was once again airborne—headed for the Midwest.

Doug gave Jack a bath before my arrival.
This picture always makes me laugh.

Doug picked me up at the Quad City Airport and didn’t bring Jack with him. He wanted to video tape our reunion and for that he wanted us to have room outdoors on his farm. Doug may not have had Jack in the car, but he had a bouquet of wildflowers. And a card. With a gift certificate for a massage for me. We stopped for milkshakes at Whitey’s and talked the entire two-hour drive back to his house.

Iowa (aka Home)

The reunion with Jack was all that I had envisioned—the face licking, the tail wagging, the racing around in circles to shed the energy that couldn’t be contained in his 15-pound body, me crying tears of joy while smothering him with kisses. Doug got it all on tape.

But reuniting with my dog after my round-the-world journey is not where the story ends. It is just the beginning.

Sowing seeds for the future.
One of the pictures Doug sent me during my trip.

My meditation by that poolside in early July proved prescient. I’ve only been back two months and I have already ticked everything off my list of goals. The reality, however, isn’t exactly what I had imagined. No, it is far better and came with some added bonuses.

I found an Iowa farmhouse to live in. I moved into Doug’s. The place, with its original wallpaper and crown molding, is every bit as quirky and charming—and old—as the American Gothic House. But it is not a tourist attraction. It sits on 1,200 acres surrounded by crops and cows (instead of mean neighbors!), and offers a luxury I had been missing: privacy. Doug and I worked together to rearrange two of the upstairs bedrooms in his four-bedroom house—a big one for my office and a small one for my dressing room—so I have my own space.

“Country roads, take me home to the place I belong.”

I have not adopted another dog—yet. Instead—or, should I say, in the meantime—Doug graciously sacrificed some of his pasture and barn space to give a home to four goats whose owner could no longer care for them. I used to go on long road bike rides from the American Gothic House and one of my favorite routes took me past these goats. I would stuff carrots in the back pockets of my bike jersey to feed them. I loved them so much they often became my destination rather than just to pass by. I cried the last time I visited these cute shaggy creatures last year, thinking I would never see them again. And now they live at my house!

Meet our four goats.

Except that it isn’t my house—it’s our house, Doug’s and mine. The big, seemingly elusive and hardest to accomplish goal on that list was to make room for love again.

When I returned to Iowa, I saw something—someone—that seemed new but had been there all along. Doug and I had been friends for a while, and we had had a brief romance a year earlier, but after moving out of the American Gothic House, I was sure I was destined to move back to California, so I never really gave him a chance. But Doug, who has the patience and faith of a farmer (because, well, he is a farmer), never gave up. He had not only texted me photos and videos of Jack during my trip, he took the time to write me long, newsy emails with stories of his farm, his outings to the city, his arrowhead-hunting creek explorations, his kayak trips. He offered me words of encouragement when he could tell I was tired, cheering me on every step of the way. His letters were an especially noble effort considering he doesn’t like to type.

The happy couple, Doug and me.

When I came back to pick up my dog, I felt a seismic shift in my heart; that resistant muscle in my chest cracked open like the San Andreas Fault. Not in a broken way but in a way that a dam bursts and a rush of water flows in to fill the empty space. Doug was that flood, that tsumani.

Doug had not only shown the utmost love and care for my dog, he had shown it to me. I just hadn’t been willing to accept it. Until Marcus showed up in Bangkok and whispered in my ear. Until I visited Marcus’s homeland of Germany and said my final goodbyes to him. Until I made it back to LA and made sure my parents were in “good order,” as my dad likes to say. Only then was I ready and able to open up to a new life.

So yes, maybe my trip was life-changing after all. Just not in the way I expected. It took traveling all the way around the world to learn the meaning of home. And now that I know what home is, I have learned there is no place like it.

And they lived happily ever after. 

World Piece: Budapest (And a few other thoughts)

It is ironic that I was traveling around the world with the goal of spreading peace, love, comfort and community building through pie, yet in my wake so many troubling events unfolded.

 A month after I was in Bangkok, Thailand, a bomb exploded at the Erawan Shrine, killing 20 people and injuring 125. It detonated at exactly the spot and time I walked past each evening after making pies at the Grand Hyatt Erawan Hotel.

 Then, in Lebanon, I watched as the little cabana that held the neighborhood’s handful of garbage cans filled. It filled some more, and then more, and as the days ticked by the garbage eventually began spilling out in a heap onto the street. And that was just the garbage for one building. Beirut was facing a new war—a battle with garbage and where to put it as the old landfill had reached capacity and was closed before a new one was designated. It didn’t take long for this to turn into a crisis. The garbage piled up so high around the city center that restaurants closed. The country has been without a president for over a year and the parliament members couldn’t—or wouldn’t—make a decision to create a solution. So citizens took to Beirut’s stench-filled streets protesting the situation. Several months on, the temporary solution was to reopen the old overflowing landfill.

I was in Athens, Greece during the height of their financial crisis. The fear-mongering media reported that tourists shouldn’t go there or they might get robbed, that cash-needy Greeks might see tourists as their personal bank tellers and mug them. (I went anyway. I did not get mugged. And I found the people—cash-needy Greeks and all—to be some of the nicest of my entire trip.)

And then, Hungary. I spent four days in Budapest—eating, making and sharing pie—and just two days after I left they closed the train stations, halting transportation to Germany so as to keep the migrants from, well, migrating. Luckily I had booked a flight instead of the train. After I left, the news was—and still is—dominated with the growing refugee crisis and Hungary’s refusal to let them pass or even enter the country.

So much for pie and world peace. Sigh.

Ah, but this post is supposed to be about Budapest and my time there. And the point—not just of my blog but of life—is to focus on the positive, to be the change you want to see in the world, even in the face of disappointments and discouraging events.

Keep calm and bake on, I say!

Budapest was a good surprise. It is an impressive city with its old architecture, grand and stoic buildings. Although Hungary is a landscape of rolling green beauty, Budapest isn’t known for ample parks or green space. The apartments and hotels are towering blocks, creating a claustrophobic dark alley feeling, made darker still when you see how much of the still city bears the pockmarks of war and the neglect of its communist years. But to walk along the banks of the Danube River is to find relief, open space along with Old World European postcard views.

With Ryan (L) and Ron (R) enjoying
some breathing space along the Danube

My hosts were Ron and Ryan. Ron is an old family friend from Southeast Iowa. Ron used to be a priest. He left the priesthood to get married. To a woman. He eventually left that marriage and got remarried. To a man.

When Ron learned I was setting off on this round-the-world trip he extended an invitation to Budapest where he and his husband run a bed and breakfast, called Budabab, out of their charming apartment. I could stay there, he said, and teach a pie class in their kitchen.

I had never been to Hungary and I admit it wasn’t high on my priority list of places I wanted to go, but I had said from the beginning: World Piece is about the people, not the places. I liked that Ron and Ryan’s story fit with my cultural tolerance mission, particularly as in late June the US Supreme Court had just approved gay marriage as a civil right. I also liked the thread of Ron being connected to Iowa, to my family and to my childhood, as this rooting into my past seemed to emerge as a secondary theme to my journey. That Budapest was an effing cool place was a bonus.

The days there were a blur—we packed in sight seeing, always taking public transportation around the thousand-year-old city. I loved hearing the female voice over the intercom as she announced each tram stop, coating the hard Hungarian words with flannel sheets and making the “sh” endings sound softer and more slurred than what one hears on the streets.

I arrived when the country was celebrating its biggest, most important holiday: Saint Stephen’s Day. There were festivals taking place all over the city, including a food festival where we grazed on local fare like potato pancakes fried in a pool of oil then covered in sour cream. Take note, health-conscious travelers: Hungary is not good for your cholesterol!

A pig roast! Just like Iowa. Only this is on the banks of the Danube in Budapest.
Potato pancakes. With a little grease on the side.

We walked across the Chain Bridge, a Budapest landmark connecting the towns of Buda and Pest. It was the first permanent bridge across the Danube, opened in 1849. The bridge is flanked by lions, two on each end. Every sign and symbol of courage I could get was appreciated. And anyway, I was glad I was seeing lions instead of my previous animal token of snakes—live ones, as some of you will recall from my days in the American Gothic House.

We popped into the Four Seasons Hotel, the old Gresham Palace of Art Nouveau design. Ron insisted we walk through the lobby and I was so glad we did. It is restored to perfection, with polished marble floors, wrought iron gates, velvet sofas, and as a somewhat incongruous touchstone to Seattle, a Dale Chihuly glass chandelier, which is one of his most beautiful works I’ve seen. I stayed at the Four Seasons in Mumbai, getting a room in exchange for teaching pie classes. Had I known about the elegance of the Four Seasons Budapest, I would have volunteered to teach classes there. Ah, next time!

The Four Seasons lobby with the Chihuly chandelier. A dreamy place.

Ron took me to the healing waters of the Szechenyi Thermal Baths, another must-see landmark in Budapest. We spent several hours soaking in the outdoor pool and, wow, talk about a veritable melting pot. I floated around trying to count how many different languages I heard spoken and came up with more than 10—French, German, English, Hungarian, Hebrew, Korean, Japanese, Spanish, and a few I couldn’t identify.

World peace in a pool—it seems warm medicinal water is the answer to cultural tolerance!

The thermal baths of Budapest. Healing the world one dip at a time.

Because I was teaching a pie class at Budabab, Ron took me to the Great Market Hall to shop for ingredients. This is the place to come for souvenirs, especially if paprika is on your wish list.

We bought apples, peaches, and a few slices of strudel—called rétes in Hungarian and pronounced “ray-tesh.” It was “WTC,” as my friend Jane would say. Worth the calories.

Hungary isn’t just known for its strudel (er, rétes). The streets of Budapest are lined with pastry shops, the fancy, cream-filled kind of cakes. We sampled some on a Saturday afternoon, sharing bites of Dobos, Eszterhazy, and some other delicious poppy seed, almond-paste filled things, while sipping coffee at an elegant outdoor cafe. Talk about the quintessential European experience.

European grandeur. Felt like a step back in time.

Too many good choices.

Yes, there was pie! A fancy kind.
Come on, you know you want some….

Another outing took us through the streets of the Jewish quarter, taking in memorial sites and artistically rendered reminders of the atrocities of WWII. “People used to live here,” a plaque on a building declares in a tone just short of shouting a reprimand. Plaques embedded in the sidewalks spell it out more specifically with the names of individuals killed by Nazis. These are for people who had no relatives to keep their memories alive, but were later immortalized by the donations of these name tags.

Behind the peepholes in this wall are old photos of people who used to live here.

There is a heaviness about this city. And if the Jewish district memorials are not enough to make your your chest seize up with a chokehold on your heart, just go down to the river to see “The Shoes of the Danube,” a “sculpture” of cast iron shoes—60 pair of them in styles of the war period—lined up on the bank depicting where Jews were shot and pushed into the river. H-e-a-r-t-b-r-e-a-k-i-n-g. I only got a glimpse of this from the window of the tram as we passed by and I was fighting back tears for the rest of the day. I still cannot think of it without a lump growing in my throat.

We explored the Jewish district further and dipped in and out of some hipster cafes called “ruins bars.” As the name suggests, these are bars built out of ruins.

We strolled through Szimpla Kert, the first ruin bar in Budapest (where ruin bars have become a big trend), and my mood was buoyed by the eclectic and whimsical art. The mosaic mermaid on the bathroom door. The shell of an old car outfitted with seats and a table. The gnome statues and colorful flags hanging overhead.

One piece in Szimpla Kert that caught my eye was a potted plant—a skinny young tree with little white paper tags tied to its delicate branches. At the base of the tree was a sign that read “Wish Tree for Peace.” Given I was on my World Piece (yes, peace) journey, I stopped for a closer look.

It was an idea that came from Yoko Ono, to “create a peace trail to explore various aspects of peace.” You make a wish, tie it to the branch, tell your friends to make a wish too, and keep on wishing. The hope is for the collective consciousness to work its magic. Put the positive energy out there and you will manifest it. If only everyone would wish for the same thing—say, no more war, no more killing, let’s all just get along—wouldn’t that be a grand thing?

Budapest may have exceeded my expectations but my round-the-world trip did not. My goals were too grandiose. Any happiness and hope I may have spread—in Bangkok, in Beirut, in Budapest—felt diminished, swept away in the flash flood of negative news on CNN. My ambition to save the world was way out of line. On top of that, I was still affected, subdued, from visiting Gandhi’s house in Mumbai in July, seeing the photos of him dead, assassinated, dark blood seeping out from his bullet wounds. If Gandhi couldn’t save the world, who the fuck was I to think that I could?

Not long after I posted a photo of that Budapest Wish Tree on Instagram, I got a message from an acquaintance in Wisconsin: Deb Nies of Waunakee. She had seen my photo and asked me for more information. It had sparked an idea for her, she said. There was a damaged pear tree in her yard that had been struck by lightning. She was considering cutting it down, but instead she found a new purpose for it: as a wishing tree.

She put up a sign and set out a bucket of tags and markers for passers by, and the next thing you know the tree was not only filling up with wishes—meaningful ones, like “I wish for my mom to get cured of cancer” and “I wish for my husband to come home safe from the Middle East” and “I wish to never get bullied again”—it was quickly becoming a beckon of hope for Deb’s small town. The tree (and Deb’s effort) has grown so beloved it has been featured in the news and now even has its own Facebook page.

Deb has been sending me updates about the tree and the wishes on it ever since. And every time I see one of those wishes, especially those heartfelt ones, I am reminded that my trip was not in vain, that there is still so much goodness in this world, and that in my own small way I helped add to that goodness.

It makes me think about that poem by Bessie Stanley which defines success, or some modified version:

To give of one’s self; to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition—or a Wish Tree!—to have played and laughed with enthusiasm and sung with exultation; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived—this is to have succeeded. 

My wish is for world peace. And in spite of being inundated with troubling news, I will keep wishing for it. I hope you will too.

Pie class in Budapest, the last one of my World Piece journey.
Leaving the world a better place, one pie and one smile–and one messy oven–at a time.