Monday, March 19, 2018

Could Today Get Any Better?

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

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

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

The article is even bigger inside the section!
But the day just got stranger. In a good way.

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

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

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

“Yes,” the counter person said.

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

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

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

“I’ll get that,” she said.

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

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

“I’ve got this,” she repeated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She smiled shyly, but didn't say anything.

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

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

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

Man, she was not going to explain anything more!

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

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

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

“I’ll have to try one,” she said.

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

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

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

 “You too. And thank you again.”

And that was it.


Breakfast with a view.
McDonald's in Fort Madison, Iowa 
I took my tray and found a table by the window. I sat there looking down at my food -- tears landing on the plastic lid that covered the pancakes -- too emotional to eat.

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

It was too much to handle.

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

Never has a McDonald’s breakfast been so delicious.

Friday, February 23, 2018

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.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

The World Needs More People Like Ann

My friend Ann is dying. She had breast cancer about 10 years ago but it came back. In her spine. Containable but not curable, the drugs held it back for about a year or two. I hadn’t talked to her for a while and last fall I had a very strong sense that I needed to get in touch—and not just by email. Something told me I needed to pick up the phone and call her. She was happy to hear from me, but had some not so happy news: The cancer was growing.

In early December, I started getting emails from Ann’s brother. I was on a mailing list, one I’m sure is a very big list because of the number of Ann’s friends. In the past several months the chemo was affecting Ann’s nerves to the point she could no longer use her hands or feet. She couldn’t write or walk. But there was the possibility, the hope, that the neuropathy could depart in the same quick way it began.

The updates kept coming.

Ann is being moved from the hospital to the rehabilitation center for physical therapy.
Ann is making progress and determined to get home.

Ann is going home, but will need 24-hour care. A nurse will be there during the day but we’ll have friends stay with her overnight, so let me know if you would like to come for a few days or a week.

I volunteered to spend a week with her in March. (She lives in San Francisco.) Given her loving friends I’m sure she has enough caregiving volunteers to get her through the next five years. But I will not be going to San Francisco to help because Ann won’t make it five years, or even five months.

I woke up to an email update from her brother.

Ann received news yesterday that her battle with cancer is quickly coming to an end. Ann has in mind to say her goodbyes in the coming days and weeks. Then it seems she will be ready to depart on her next adventure. She seems to have no regrets and accepts that this is her time. She has great care and love of those around her. And wishes you and us all great happiness, love and peace.

And so the grief begins.

Ann is just three years older than me. She has been a mentor, a role model, a big sister, a grief counselor after Marcus died, and a true and loving friend.

Like me, she lost someone she loved who died suddenly and unexpectedly, so she already knew the ropes of this kind of grief. (The cliché is intentional; her love was a rock climber.) She was there for me—to listen, to coach, to refill my wine glass, to just be. She was there for me a few years later when Daisy was killed by a coyote. Ann, a dog lover herself, was once again a step ahead of me as she had lost her dog Shayla (an Airedale terrier) not long before Daisy died.

Ann’s dog, Shayla, was one of the most remarkable dogs I’ve ever met. I tell the story of her often, how, when Ann worked from home, Shayla would come to Ann’s desk to remind her to get off the phone and take her for a walk. After a few minutes, if Ann was still talking, Shayla would go get her leash and present it to Ann, standing there with it dangling from her mouth which, with her tall size, was level with the desktop. And when that still didn’t work, she would go get Ann’s fleece jacket off the hook by the door and drop it onto Ann’s lap, signaling that, “Excuse me, you really need to hang up now. It’s time to go out.” If that cuteness couldn’t make you end a call, no matter how important the business discussion, nothing could!

Ann and Shayla
Shayla was only 7 when she died. She got sick and Ann did everything she could to keep her dog healthy, happy, alive. She even stayed with Shayla at the animal hospital, because she believed—she knew—her presence would help the dog recover. And, with Ann's affection, Shayla did recover (from an illness of leptospirosis.) Shayla's recovery, which even her vet attributed to Ann's love, was so remarkable that a magazine did a story featuring Ann on how spending time at the vet with your sick pet helps it heal.

I have followed Ann’s example of animal bedside care—many times now—whenever Jack is at the vet for his various health issues. (I did with Daisy, too.) Each time I sit on the cold cement floor of the vet's office, gently stroking my dog's fur for hours, I always think of Ann and Shayla and it keeps me going.

Ann talked with a pet psychic after Shayla died and the psychic told her Shayla was doing okay. When Daisy died, Ann gifted me a session with the psychic who told me Daisy was doing okay. (When your heart is THAT broken, any little bit of reassurance or affirmation is helpful.) It is one of the most heartfelt gifts I have ever received.

Lately I have been experiencing a period of turmoil—depression and despair over a combination of things: the current battlefield of politics, climate change, gun violence in schools and, more personally, what it means to be 55 and all the upheaval that goes with it: menopause; muffin top; loss of libido, bone density, and muscle tone; the seemingly limited future of my career; how to manage my finances; how to balance the solitude of the farm with my need for city; and the sobering reality that I now qualify for senior housing. But all of my worries seem so trivial now, my whiny first-world problems thrust into perspective by the news that Ann, who is just 60, is preparing to take leave.

Now I am asking:

    What really matters?
    What do we leave behind?
    What are we most proud of?
    What did we accomplish?

Ann hasn't squandered away her time in the existential wasteland of turmoil and despair. She has been too busy, spending her life helping others as well as the environment. She has been:

  • Advocating for women in the outdoor industry
  • Serving on boards of environmental non-profits
  • Mentoring teams of young people to help them grow in their careers
  • Overseeing a foundation’s endowment allocating grants to wilderness conservation and outdoor education
  • Building public speaking careers for adventurers, enabling them to share their risk management lessons learned from Mt. Everest, El Capitan, Antarctica and beyond 
  • Building an outdoor clothing brand into an internationally recognized and highly respected name
  • Organizing a film festival featuring the feats of extreme athletes who have triumphed over tragedy
  • And, in her earlier career, producing music events

She has traveled the world, spending a lot of time in the mountains—in the Himalayas, in Yosemite, in Muir Woods.

She has nurtured friendships that span the globe, often hosting those friends in her home, their sleeping bags and backpacks turning her living room—an otherwise cozy and elegant sanctuary filled with Buddhist art and Tibetan prayer flags—into a climbers’ base camp. I have been one of those lucky friends, sleeping bag in tow, treated to her home cooked meals (my favorite being grilled tilapia with sautéed mushrooms and puréed cauliflower, and a bottle of Malbec) and waking up on her couch to a view of the Redwood forest, talking with Ann for hours over coffee.

And yet, when the time comes—and, sadly, it is coming too soon—what will Ann be remembered for most? Not for her grilled tilapia and comfy couch. Not for her career and for her many, many accomplishments. Not even for her recent, wholly deserved Outdoor Industry Lifetime Achievement Award. All of that is impressive and important, yes. But what she will be remembered for most is her kindness. Her generosity. Her humility. Her love. Her spirit, a spirit so bright and beautiful its light will keep shining long after her physical form can no longer contain it.

May we all be so lucky to be remembered that way.

May Ann's legacy serve as a guide for those of us still here, and for others yet to come. May we model her values and her examples of honesty and integrity, to make the world a better place for as long as we are here.


We will miss you, Ann, but know you will be there with all of that kindness, generosity, humility, and love when we see you on the other side. And we will all get there eventually. Thank you for being in my life and for all the goodness you have contributed—to me and to so many others. Wishing you peace on your new journey, my friend. I look forward to meeting up with you in the next one.

With all my love and deepest gratitude,
Beth




UPDATE:  Ann Krcik passed away on February 28, 2018. She told her family the day before her departure, "I feel so happy and free." I imagine her now, soaring in the winds, her soul so light, her joy boundless. Fly high, my friend. Fly high.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

"There is ALWAYS Hope, Bea."

There is ALWAYS hope, Bea. 

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

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

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

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

There is ALWAYS hope, Bea. 

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

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

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

There is ALWAYS hope, Bea. 

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

There is ALWAYS hope, Bea. 

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

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

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

There is ALWAYS hope, Bea. 

It had to be a message, a sign.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Introducing Farm Week at Camp Doug(h) - Sign up now!

Iowa is considered the Heartland of America. Zoom in a little closer, to the southeast corner where the Iowa, Illinois and Missouri borders meet, and you will find Camp Doug(h). Previously known to Doug’s friends as Camp Doug, the (h) was added when Beth moved in as a nod to her baking.

Photo credit: RAYGUN. Check out their site for more cool stuff!

Camp Doug(h) is part of a 1,000-acre Century Farm, owned and operated by the Seyb Family for over 100 years. It is a fully operational working farm with corn, soybeans, wheat, alfalfa, cattle, and pigs. Here, they still do many things the old-fashioned way, like baling hay into square bales and stacking them in the barn loft. 

There are planted fields of crops that grow taller than your head in rich, black soil. There are forests of cedar, maple, oak, hedge, and birch. There are ponds and creeks noisy with croaking frogs, pastures filled with cows peacefully grazing, and skies, free from light pollution, so black at night it’s easy to see shooting stars—and so quiet you can hear hooting owls. Iowa is understatedly picturesque and it’s not all flat! This is the landscape, with its gently rolling hills, that inspired Grant Wood’s famous works of art.

Come see for yourself during a weeklong farm immersion hosted by farmer Doug Seyb and author Beth Howard.


There are two farmhouses on the property with accommodations, including 2 guest rooms in Doug and Beth’s house and a bunkhouse-style set up in what was Doug’s parents’ house. To give you the best, most immersive experience, we are starting out with only 4 participants per session, though we can host up to 8 in the future.


All meals are provided—including wine, whisky, coffee and espresso drinks—except for the 2 nights we go out for dinner. (Our local spots are cheap and casual. You’d be amazed at how far $10 will go!) While our growing season is too short to do 100% farm to table, the food we prepare will include as many ingredients from the farm as possible.

Spots are extremely limited, so reserve yours now. We will be adding more summer and fall dates. 

We can offer shorter stays and custom dates for your group or family. Let us know what works for you and we will try to accommodate.

The week starts with Sunday night dinner and ends after breakfast on Saturday. 

MAY DATES:  May 20 – 26, 2018

JUNE DATES:  June 10 – 16, 2018

Contact us for more details and pricing.


CLASSES   A one-week session will include a combination of the following:
·      Pie (Beth will teach 2 classes: fruit and cream pies)
·      Quilting (make your own pillow cover)
·      Artisan bread making (make rustic-style crusty wholegrain bread)
·      Rug weaving (make your own hand-woven rug)


EXERCISE and ACTIVITIES  (depending on the season and special requests)
·      Hiking in Shimek Forest and other nearby reserves
·      Kayaking and canoeing on Des Moines River and Skunk River (weather permitting)
·      Yoga (Here’s your chance to try goat yoga! Or piglet yoga!)
·      Biking (mountain bikes and beach cruisers available)
·      Swimming in the ponds (summer)
·      Walks around the farm fields and trails
o   Wildflower walk (April—June)
o   Mushroom picking (April)
o   Arrowhead and artifact hunting (year-round)
·      Fishing
·      Writing/Journaling

FARM EXPERIENCES
·      Cuddle with baby pigs
·      Tour the farm on a side-by-side (think 4WD golf cart)
·      Feed the cows (in March during calving season, you might get to bottle feed a calf)
·      Ride on a tractor or combine (ride along during spring planting, summer baling, or fall harvest)
·      Feed the goats

FARM TO TABLE MEALS (*must love meat!)
·      Pork chops
·      T-bone steaks
·      Hamburgers
·      Sausage
·      Bacon
·      Farm fresh eggs (from our neighbors)
·      Fish (blue gill from our ponds)
·      Garden produce (when in season)
·      Homemade bread
·      Homemade pie
·      S’mores around the bonfire


SHOPPING and SITESEEING
·      Visit to the American Gothic House (have your photo taken in costumes in front of the house featured in Grant Wood’s iconic painting)
·      Drive through the Villages of Van Buren County (bucolic scenery in authentic, non-touristy Amish country)
·      Shop at the Dutchman’s Store (an old-fashioned general store run by Mennonites)
·      Taste cheese at Milton Creamery (a small cheese factory run by Mennonites)
·      Eat at a rural tavern and eat a plate-size pork tenderloin sandwich (an Iowa specialty)
·      Watch the barges go through the locks on the Mississippi River (in winter, watch bald eagles fishing)
·      Listen to live Americana folk music (we have a variety of rural venues)

FURTHER AFIELD    (potential add-ons to extend your week)
·      Hannibal, Missouri (visit Mark Twain’s childhood home)
·      Saint Louis, Missouri (The Arch, good BBQ, and major league baseball)
·      Fairfield, Iowa (Home of Transcendental Meditation/Maharishi University)
·      Iowa City, Iowa (UNESCO City of Literature)

*** To reserve your spot, contact Beth. ***

Thursday, February 1, 2018

The Book That Doesn't Want to Be Born...Yet

The photo to the left (it's a Bitmoji) is me. It's me and it sums up everything I am feeling right now about writing my American Gothic House memoir.

I am trying to get my story down -- my whole story -- about my four years of misadventures living in a rural Iowa tourist attraction. I made pie (god, did I make pie!)  I fended off snakes and tourists and mean neighbors (who could forget The Binoculars!)  I wrangled the flow of houseguests, pie customers, and media (I never should have said yes to Larry "Git 'er Done" the Cable Guy).  I made new friends--of all ages and backgrounds (think bib overalls, pickup trucks, and Bingo).  I learned about Midwestern cuisine and was treated to an eye-opening array of cultural experiences.  I wrote two books -- and even went on two national book tours.  I looked for new love and -- after several ill-fated attempts (remember the guy with the guinea pig and the big-screen TV who moved in?) -- I finally found it.

That's a lot of good material. But the words are just not flowing.

I've been working on this book for nine months and four years. Nine months since I came back all pumped up and bursting with mojo from my writers' retreat in Taos. And four years since I first determined -- while still living in the famous house -- that this was a book I had to write and that I would -- and could -- commit to it.

Do I have the interest and drive to finish a book-length work on this subject? This is the first question to answer before starting the long journey. (In my case, really long. Painfully, crookedly, stuck in stop-start traffic long.) And my answer, of course, was yes.

Approaching my memoir like a novel, I had also already cross-examined myself on the questions agents and publishers will ask:
What is this book about? How would you sum it up in two sentences? Who is this book for? Who is your audience? What is the protagonist's struggle? What are the obstacles she needs to overcome? Who are the other characters in your story? What are the elements of suspense that will keep the reader turning the pages?
In other words, Why the fuck would anyone want to buy my book, let alone read it?!

Why? "Because you write it in a way that makes it interesting," writing coach Jen Louden told me tenderly when I went to her in tears during the Taos retreat last April/May.

My experiences living in the American Gothic House -- and in Eldon, Iowa, in general -- were definitely interesting. But how to corral all those snapshots into a narrative album that that gels into a cohesive story, flows with emotional resonance, that shows not tells, that doesn't drone on for 412 frickin' pages (like it does in its current draft form)? How to weave all those outlandish (and outrageous) tales into a tapestry of well-crafted prose and make it sound more "literary" with clever metaphors, fresh new insights, and philosophical revelations? How to write it in a way that ensures reviewers will praise my book instead of ripping it apart? How to make it so goddamn brilliant it lands on the New York Times bestseller list?!
This is what to say to all that self-doubt and inner chatter.

How? How about just not worrying about it? How about writing and not stopping until you reach the end? I've heard more than one writing instructor say, "Don't think about editing until you have a complete draft." (Otherwise known as the Shitty First Draft.) "Then you can go back and deepen and thicken it. We are storytellers. Just tell your story."

Besides, as Jen has said, "It's the attitude you bring to your writing that's far more important than your inborn talent."

Attitude? Oh yeah, I copped an attitude. After Taos, my attitude was Git. Er. Done. (You know things are bad when you start quoting Larry the Cable Guy.)



When I got back from Taos in early May I set up a new office in the farmhouse. I put on my big girl overalls. And I got to work. I had the momentum. I really had it going. My start -- after four or five previous attempts -- was not a false one this time. I was cranking out the chapters (38 of them!) and making steady progress toward those golden words: "And she lived happily ever after." (Or maybe just "The End." But most likely "To be continued.")

I was feeling good about the majority of my work. I had even shared pages with a few of my most critical friends and got positive feedback. There was humor and heartache and honesty and detailed descriptions to put the reader in the scene. My words were flowing like warm honey on toast, baby. I was staying disciplined and keeping my butt in the chair. And, most important, the muzzle I put on my Inner Critic was holding tight. I was almost done with my first draft. Almost. Until I was derailed by a trifecta of interruptions. The Holidays. My dog Jack getting sick. (He almost died!) And the hard drive on my 4-month-old MacBook crashing (It died! Luckily I didn't lose my data.) Fun times.

My writing came to a standstill for more than a month.
Writer, Interrupted.

Last week I got my butt back in the chair and opened up the Word doc for my neglected manuscript. In order to get started again I read back a few chapters.

And that's where the exasperated, book-throwing bitmoji comes in.

I texted this bitmoji to my sister (she is the one who introduced me to this amusing app) with the message, "My writing totally sucks."

She replied with her usual quick wisdom: "You are exactly where you are supposed to be in the book-writing process."



She then suggested a few books for me to read, starting with Reasons to Stay Alive (by Matt Haig.) Geez, did I sound that despondent?! She also recommended watching a recent 60 Minutes interview with John le Carré (aka David Cornwell.) I checked out both.

Matt Haig writes, "Beware of the gap. The gap between where you are and where you want to be. Simply thinking of the gap widens it. And you end up falling through."

Funny, I had just heard Jen Louden say this very thing in an online class last week. She reassured the audience that everyone has a gap. Even the most successful authors. "Post a note above your desk and write this on it," she suggested. "Everybody has a gap."

Haig also wrote in his book (that I always mistakenly call Reasons Not To Kill Yourself,) "Don't worry about the time you lose to despair. The time you will have afterward has just doubled its value."

Again, this struck me, as I had just watched an interview on YouTube of memoirist Dani Shapiro talking about her writing process. She had stepped away from a manuscript for a few months and when she came back to it she wanted to take a pickaxe to it!
That moment when you realize you need to restructure.

She despaired, but she called it "productive despair," claiming that the time away was necessary and useful because it gave her perspective. Only after coming back could she see with clarity that her book needed restructuring. She said it's the second to last stage of the book writing when you have to move through the murky waters before touching the bottom, and that the bottom is what it takes to propel yourself back "up, up, up" to the surface. "There's light up there," she said, "but first we have to live in the depths."
I've been living in the murky depths longer than my short attention span allows. Three months is a comfortable length of time for me to immerse myself in a project. Three months, not nine months and four years. (I finished my other two books in well under a year.) Worse, my stalled-out period is pushing the finish line even farther out. How much longer is this going to take?!
Enter John le Carré. I watched the "60 Minutes" interview my sister recommended.

Le Carré said of his first book, the bestseller The Spy Who Came in from The Cold, "I wrote it very fast, the story. But I had no idea where I was going at first. And it just flowed."

That's how I felt about writing Making Piece. It flowed so easily I felt like someone else was writing it and I was just there to type. So why has my American Gothic House memoir been such hard work? Why does it feel like it's a baby that doesn't want to be born?

Le Carré  answered the questions for me as he continued, "I think you get a break like that once in your writing life. I really believe -- nothing else came to me so naturally, so fast."

There you have it. Le Carré had his gaps. He had his productive despair. He had to work at his writing -- really work. And look where it got him. He's made enough money to buy a private jet. (Though he is so humble he would never think of it.)

As I continued to listen, I exhaled (as one must do when Scuba diving in the murky depths of productive despair.) I could feel the air leave my lungs, percolating out in a stream of little bubbles. The fact that I was still breathing was as encouraging as John le Carré's admission that writing is hard even for him.




I take in all of this as encouragement, a new inventory of helpful wisdom from those who have dredged the sea bottom before me. But I'm still underwater, still struggling. Especially with the overall theme of the book. Because the most important question of all to me is What will the reader take away from my story? Will they be inspired to choose their own fork in the road and follow the path that beckons to a new and unknowable adventure? Or will the reader wonder, "Girl, why the hell didn't you just move out when you saw that first snake?" and then dismiss the rest of the story.

So while I wait to hit bottom (Seriously?! It's going to get worse before it gets better?!) I will accept that this is my gap.



I will do the breast stroke through the dark waters and trust that I will eventually swim back to the surface.

I will look for new methods of silencing my Inner Critic.

I will stop putting time pressure on myself. (Who cares how long it takes? Some authors take five, ten years to write their books. And they end up being classics. Hello? Ever heard of Gone With the Wind, Harry Potter, The Hobbit?)

I will clean off my mask and snorkel, and grab my surfboard. Because that flow is coming back and I'm going to be ready to ride that wave when it does.

I will finish (and publish) this book. And once I'm done I will text my sister. I already have the perfect bitmoji for it.
"Never, never, never give up." - Winston Churchill