Friday, August 19, 2016

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 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.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Summer Fun: Pop-Up Pie Stand and Pie Classes

Big news! I'm doing a Pitchfork Pie Stand Pop-Up on August 27.

It's at Sip Coffee and Wine Bar, located at 120 South Main Street, in Mount Pleasant, Iowa, on Saturday, August 27, from 12 to 4PM.

Sip is right on the town square of this quaint and tidy little town at the intersection of Highway 34 and Highway 218 (Avenue of the Saints), about 40 minutes east of the American Gothic House where I ran my original Pitchfork Pie Stand.

We'll have large pies, mini pies, and pie by the slice. And because we're at a coffee house we will have coffee!  The best espresso for miles around. Please come!

We recommend reserving a pie in advance, so please go to my CONTACT PAGE to reach me.

And in more big news, I am offering pie classes again!


We have finally finished renovating the kitchen (and bathroom) at Camp Doug -- AKA Camp Dough -- and we are ready to break in that big, beautiful new oven.  Classes on the schedule so far are Saturday, August 20 and Saturday, September 17.

For more details and to register, please go to my PIE CLASS page on my website.

PS: You can read about our Camp Doug renovation in my article on Country Living magazine's website. "10 Things I Learned From Renovating a Farmhouse (Without Destroying my Relationship."
Another happy bunch of pie bakers!

I'm looking forward to getting back to work -- and
to getting my arms back in shape!

Friday, June 17, 2016

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.


You might also like this post: Happy 75th Birthday to the Hippest, Coolest Mom

Friday, April 29, 2016

Time Capsule: A Letter to the Future Owners of Camp Doug

Dear Future Owners of Camp Doug,
If you are reading this it means you are either remodeling the kitchen (and thus gutting it to the studs) or you are tearing down the house (or a tornado finally took it out) and you found this letter in the pile of rubble. Either way, a warm hello from the year 2016.

The red-roofed four-square house in autumn.
This house, which we fondly call "Camp Doug," was built around 1900. It is (or was) what they call a Four Square, a common farmhouse design back then. Practical, functional, simple, solid, and a little plain, the architecture personified Midwest values. The house’s white siding with the red roof was also the common color combo in the region. A front porch, however, was not a standard feature on these houses, and the three-sided porch on this one was added much later.

We don’t know who built the house. It is said a log cabin sat on the site first. A rock foundation remains from some other original structure and there is another foundation built around that. Here’s what we do know: Milton and Ardis Sander lived in it for about 50 years, until 1970. They raised their kids here, including a son who moved to the West coast and became a big executive at Apple computers. (Do they still make MacBook laptops and iPads and iPhones in whatever year it is when you are reading this?) When the house was built it did not have a kitchen or a bathroom. I don't think it had indoor plumbing at all. The section of the house where you found this “time capsule” was built later, a one-story, flat-roofed rectangle addition that included a small bathroom and a kitchen in an uncommon reverse L-shape layout. Before getting a real kitchen the cooking was done on a wood-fired stove in the dining room; evidence of the chimney and stovepipe connection is still visible. We don’t know what the first kitchen looked like, but Milton and Ardis remodeled it in what appears to have been the 1950s. They painted the walls mint green, the color of young caterpillars. They chose a tortoise-shell-pattern of green and yellow linoleum for their floor. Not the most appetizing of hues for a room that is meant for cooking. Fortunately trends and tastes and flooring choices evolve—even improve—with the years.

The kitchen right before its demolition
Our "retro" kitchen, prepared for take down.

Milton and Ardis eventually grew too old to maintain the farmhouse so they moved into town, then into a nursing home until they eventually moved on to the next life. They kept the farmhouse, renting it out for several years, but as soon as young Doug Seyb graduated from college in 1977, he bought the house and moved in. Doug grew up next door (the definition of next door being a quarter mile down the gravel road), where his grandfather, then father, and then Doug and his brother, and then his nephew, all farmed the land. When I met Doug, the Seybs had owned and farmed these 1,000 acres of corn, soybeans and cattle for over 100 years, thus being granted Century Farm status. Maybe, as you read this, it is still owned by Seyb descendants. I wonder if there could be a Two Century Farm status designated in the future.

Doug sitting among the shooting stars.
April 2016.
Because he grew up next door, Doug knew Milton and Ardis very well. It was Ardis who planted the shooting star wildflowers on the hillside located just a short walk across the pasture, and it was Ardis who introduced Doug to the appreciation of these delicate-yet-hardy perennials, their leaves appearing first, then a stem shooting toward the sky, and finally a whole meadow lit up with light pink petals. When Doug moved in, he continued to protect the flowers and their habitat, and always took his guests on springtime wildflower walks to see the shooting stars in bloom.

By the time you discover this letter, Doug and I will have passed on. Doug wants to be cremated and have his ashes spread on this “Shooting Star Hill,” as he calls it. So if you follow the fencerow to the north and turn west at the row of cedar trees (farmers don’t say right or left, they give you compass points), you will eventually come to that wildflower patch. Surely those shooting stars will no longer be so delicate with Doug’s DNA thrown into the soil mix. He was a fit and lean man, a rock climber, kayaker and marathon runner. With all that muscle transferred into the ground as fertilizer, those flowers might be as strong and tall as the trees by now.

When I met Doug he had already lived in the house for 40 years. I don’t think I ever knew anyone else who lived in one place that long. He had lived here at least 20 years before updating the kitchen. He put on a new roof over it (one can only resurface with tar paper so many times.) He raised and angled the roofline as high as the second-floor windows would allow. He then painted the kitchen walls white, the cabinets bright yellow, the door trim burgundy and created a chili pepper theme. Even the light switch was painted with peppers. Alas, Ardis’s tortoise shell linoleum floor remained.

This is what a pork tenderloin
looks like. Pounded & fried and
as big as dinner plate.
When I met him, in 2014, nothing, including the decorative chili pepper cluster hanging next to the door, looked like it had been dusted for a year. Doug was a bachelor. He was a redheaded, freckled farmer and outdoor adventurer whose attention was devoted to all things exterior. The inside was only for showering, sleeping, making toast, and laundering his Carhartts. Even dinners were outdoors, as he grilled meat (beef or pork from his own livestock or venison from his annual hunt on the farm) on his charcoal grill. Unless it was the height of harvest when he drove his tractor until after dark, and the late night meant ordering pizza from the local gas station or wolfing down a pork tenderloin at the local tavern.

This kitchen got a much-needed renovation in April of 2016, which is why we were able to place this letter in the wall.

The current state of the kitchen as
I write this letter to you, when there is still
time to place the time capsule in the wall.
I moved in with Doug last September (2015) and discussions of home improvements soon followed. I always joked to him that the impetus for this kitchen renovation was his beer bottle collection. A numerous but not exactly impressive assortment had been prominently displayed on a shelf close to the ceiling. This shelf was meant to be a plate rail. You’ve probably never seen one as even now in 2016 they are considered old-fashioned, but a plate rail is for displaying decorative dinner plates. Instead of just dusting his bottles, he let me get rid of them. That’s how much he loved me and wanted me to feel like his home was my home too. But it didn’t stop there. Poor old bachelor, he didn’t know what he was in for when he let me move in. No sooner were the beer bottles deposited in the recycling bin, I took the skis off the opposite wall. Yes, skis. He had his cross-country ski gear, including the boots, adorning the door transom, right above the table where we ate. And then there was the triangular beer box. Sure it was clever in its shape, but that box was better suited for a dorm room.

Still, the house—the way he had it set up, dust and all—was charming, warm and inviting. You could feel the good energy, the solid bones, the happy spirits permeating the layers of wallpaper and plaster.

Our kitchen table has a temporary home in the dining room during construction.
As we began our life together, we started having dinner parties. And house guests. And soon the round oak kitchen table didn’t feel big enough. No matter how beautiful or inviting the other rooms in the house may be, everyone loves to gather in the kitchen. It’s the heartbeat of a home, where nourishment of both stomach and spirit originates.

This is me in my old house, where I
could open my oven all the way.
“Wouldn’t it be great to have a bench seat?” I said over wine and candles one night. “We could fit more people around the table.” Doug agreed so I threw out my next line. “And you know what would be really great? To be able to open the oven door all the way.” I don’t know who was responsible for the earlier construction—surely Ardis couldn’t have lived with an oven door that opened only half way, blocked by the door frame—but this was the one thing I was really hoping to change. I was a pie maker (not a pastry chef, but you could say a semi-professional one given I had run a pie stand and written a pie cookbook.) But I couldn’t get my pies in and out of Doug’s oven without burning my arms. “It’s so much easier to be happy when you eliminate life’s little irritations,” I prodded him.

Doug's key lime pie
Doug had learned how to make pie too—I taught him a year earlier—and he made plenty of them (Key Lime Pie was his specialty), so he understood the issue. So when we talked about what started us on the renovation project and I say “beer bottles,” he says “No, it started with pie.” He’s right. That’s why I’m leaving you a pie recipe in this letter. Because assuming you are renovating this kitchen and not tearing down the whole place, my hope is that you will keep our memory alive and bake lots of pies here.

I wonder what your lives will be like in this kitchen—in your new kitchen. Will you find this note twenty years from now or 50? Or more? Will you be able to read my cursive handwriting? Do they still teach that in schools or has it been relegated to history like hieroglyphics? What will your world be like? Will there still be fighting in the Middle East? Will terrorist attacks have become an everyday thing? Will everyone be armed? With nuclear weapons? Will there still be 4-H and county fairs? How will farming be done? Will tractors be high-speed hovercrafts? Will GMOs and fertilizers and pesticides have caused genes to mutate beyond repair? Will water still be drinkable? Surely there won’t be newspapers in print, but will there still be Facebook and Twitter? Or will you laugh at what we call social media and call it obsolete? Maybe you won’t even have internet, rather something more advanced, something solar powered, maybe telepathically connected with other planets. Whatever it is will surely be an improvement over the painfully slow information pipeline we have today. (One thing I guarantee, Windstream Communications will have ceased to exist. God willing.) The way the world is going we aren’t doing the best job for you and for future generations. I wish we could do better, be more mindful of those who will follow us when we are gone. Still, we manage. In spite of ourselves, our oddities and our imperfections at being human, we are doing our part to keep the species going.

It was a bittersweet day when we said goodbye to the old cabinets.
As I write you this letter we have only just started our renovation—the cabinets carved out, the walls peeled away, the beams exposed. Hopefully we will be lucky enough to enjoy many years in our new and improved kitchen. I say “our” kitchen, because even though we are not married and don’t plan to get married (Doug is 61 and I’m 53), renovating the kitchen has become symbolic of our commitment to each other. We picked out the quarter sawn oak Mission-style cabinets because their wood is a little rough, and will fit well with Doug’s collection of Arts and Crafts antique furniture in the rest of the house. I wonder if there are any pieces of it left behind for you to use. We are building extra counter space into our new design to make it easier to roll pie dough. We are building in the bench seats below the east window to be comfortable when we linger long hours at the dinner table. And since we had to move the stereo, on which Doug’s cat Maybellene liked to sleep to keep warm, we are still trying to configure a heated perch for her out of my dog’s reach. (My terrier, Jack, likes to chase the cat, while Doug’s dog, Mali, a springer spaniel/beagle mix is better at coexisting.)

Maybellene in her favorite sleeping place.
We still need to find a new warm spot for her.
We finally tore up the tortoise shell flooring—someone had suggested they didn’t even want to walk on it because it looked like something that should be wiped up! But we did save a few sections of it. We took our carpenter’s joke seriously when he suggested using it to make picture frames. We’re going to frame some old house photos with this green and yellow stuff (even though it’s probably toxic) and send them to Milton and Ardis’s grandkids. Their nostalgia was ignited when they learned we were renovating. They remember visiting their grandparents in this house and have fond memories of this kitchen. They should have a piece of it as a keepsake.

Doug and I don’t have grandkids to become nostalgic over our kitchen when you gut it. It is your kitchen now. You have to make room for your own houseguests, your own meals and memories, your own choice of flooring. But you have to admit, our neutral-toned, linen-pattern flooring is (or was) very tasteful. I hope it doesn’t look too dated, too “period,” by the time you decide to rip it out. It will have served us well, worn down from the traffic and mud of farm boots and dog paws. I will have spent many days, hopefully years, scrubbing it, cleaning up everything from coffee to ketchup to the colostrum replacement Doug mixes up to bottle feed baby calves, and surely plenty of pie crumbs.

Beth and Doug at Camp Doug
I just hope you love this house as much as we did. And that you love and honor this land—as well as each other, your friends, your families, your neighbors—as much as we did. And that you try your best to leave not just this kitchen, but this world, a better place, like we did.

Now, please, go make some pie!

With love and gratitude,
Beth and Doug

One of the many apple pies made in our old kitchen.
We look forward to baking many more
in the new and improved kitchen!

CRUST (Basic Pie Dough for double-crust pie) 
2-1/2 cups flour (white all-purpose)  (Plus extra flour for rolling dough)                                      
1/2 cup butter, chilled
1/2 cup vegetable shortening  (or skip this and use all butter)
1/2 teaspoon salt
Ice water (fill one cup but use only enough to moisten dough)

In a deep bowl, work the butter and shortening into the flour with your hands until you have a lumpy consistency (you want to leave mixed nut-size chunks of butter which will give you a flaky crust.) Add ice water a little at a time, sort of “fluffing” the flour. Keep your movements light, as if you are tossing dressing into a salad with your hands. When the dough feels moistened enough, do a “squeeze test” and when it holds together you’re done. Do not overwork the dough! You are not kneading it like bread. It takes very little time and you’ll be tempted to keep touching it, but don’t! Now divide the dough in two, form each half into a disk shape and roll flat and thin (thin enough to where you could start to see the table through the dough) then fit your pie dish. Sprinkle flour under and on top of your dough, and keep rolling surface and pin free from gunk to keep dough from sticking. Trim excess dough to about 1 inch from the dish edge with a scissors, leaving enough extra hanging over the edge for crimping later.

7 to 10 large Granny Smith apples, peeled (see tip below) 
1/2 tsp salt (you’ll sprinkle this on so don’t worry about precise amount)
1 to 2 tsp cinnamon (use however much you like, but remember it’s a powerful spice)
3/4 cup sugar (more or less, depending on your taste, tartness of apples, and number of apples)
4 tbsp flour (to thicken the filling)

1 tbsp butter, to pat on top of filling
1 beaten egg, to brush on top crust

The pie is “assembled” in two layers, which is not only a nice shortcut, it saves you from having to wash an extra bowl! 

1. Prepare the Basic Pie Dough for a double-crust pie. 
2. Prepare the Filling: Slice half of the peeled apples directly into the pie, arranging and pressing down gently to remove extra space between slices. Fill the dish enough so you don’t see through the first layer to the bottom crust. 
3. Cover with half of salt, cinnamon, sugar, and flour. 
4. Slice the remaining apples into the pie, arranging and pressing down gently on top of first layer, and cover with second half of ingredients. 
5. Add a pat of butter on top, then cover with the top crust. 
6. Trim the edges with a scissors, leaving about 1 to 2 inches overhang, and then roll the top and bottom crust together underhand so that it’s sealed and sits on the rim of your pie plate. 
7. Crimp the edge with your fingers or a fork, then brush with a beaten egg. (The egg gives the pie a nice golden-brown shine. Do be careful not to let egg pool in crevices. You will use about half an egg per pie.) 
8. Use a knife to poke vent holes in the top (get creative here with a pattern), then bake at 425 degrees for 15 to 20 minutes to set and brown the crust.
9. Turn oven down to 375 degrees and bake for another 30 to 40 minutes, until juice bubbles. Keep an eye on it as it bakes. If it gets too dark, turn down the temperature. 
10. To be sure it’s done, poke with a knife through the vent holes to make sure apples have softened. Do not overbake or apples will turn mushy.

VARIETY IS THE SPICE OF LIFE…AND PIE: It’s okay to use a variety of apples. Try Braeburn and Royal Gala. I don’t use Fuji (they are too juicy) or Red Delicious (they have no taste). Tart apples work best for pie. The number of apples you use will depend on the size of apple and the size of pie dish, but the general amount is about 3 pounds per 10-inch pie.

BETH’S TIP: Slicing your apples too thick will mean your pie takes longer to bake. But slicing them too thin will translate in filling that’s like applesauce. I don’t like to suggest numbers, but think 1/4 inch thick. Also, keeping your slices a consistent size will help the pie bake more evenly.

Don’t worry about your apples turning brown. I mean, think about it: what color is cinnamon? Exactly! No one will ever know.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

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.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

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.