The Gifts Of Friends And Time

Janet opening uncorking wine.

Janet opening uncorking wine.

Just a week ago this past Sunday, I found myself on Chincoteague Island. The day time temperature was about 60 degrees and the sun was sparkling away on the water. I was with four other women, who I’d first met on the internet as I began my journey as a memoirist.

Known for the book, Misty of Chincoteague, written by Marguerite Henry, and illustrated by Wesley Dennis, Chincoteague is where every summer the wild ponies of Assateague Island are sent swimming across a narrow inlet to Chincoteague, where many go up for adoption to families looking to make a child’s dream of owning a pony, come true. It’s a way of managing the ever growing herd, leaving space for the next year’s babies.

Shirley preparing Waldorf Salad.

Shirley preparing Waldorf Salad.

There was Shirley, who I’d met first a couple of years ago. I’d been following her blog and knew she lived about an hour away over in the Shenandoah Valley. I was considering taking a class about book marketing and knowing that she had taken the same class earlier, I called her hoping she would give me an honest opinionn of her experience. She was just finishing work on her memoir, Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World. I invited her to come and stay with me during the Virginia Festival of the Book, held here in Charlottesville, every March.

She came and spent several nights with me. We enjoyed the book festival and spent lots of time talking about our writing projects. Shirley’s generosity in sharing what she knew about publishing and writing memoir was beyond anything I’d dreamed of. A few months later, I visited her for several nights in her home. She read the first couple of chapters of my book, made extremely helpful suggestions, and provided encouragement. I will be forever grateful for her views and her friendship. On this trip she was a awesome roommate and my chauffeur extraordinaire.

Janet was the second of these women I’d met in person. We’d been following each other’s blogs and chatted by email about dealing with aging mothers. I discovered that she lived in a town in Vermont where I had lived for thirteen years, and had recently written a memoir about her Peace Corps years, At Home on the Kazakh Steppe. I knew I had to meet her. On a trip to up north last fall, I gave Janet a call and we met for lunch. I read her book, and loved her story about her experiences living and working in Kazakhstan for two years. I hoped we’d get a chance to get together again. Finding out that she had a home on Virginia’s, Chincoteague Island, about 5 hours away, I invited her to come and visit anytime she was in the area. We talked briefly about how much fun it would be to get together with Shirley, and several other memoirists we both knew on the internet.

Magnificent Chef Kathy!

Magnificent Chef Kathy!

One of those other writers was Kathy, whose blog, over at, Memior Writers Journey, is one of best places to learn about blogging and writing in general. Her interviews with other memoir writers have been invaluable for me as I continue to work on my own book. She invited me to write a guest blog for her, which I did, and I cheered her on as she published her memoir, Ever Faithful to his Lead, a story about her experience finding her way our of two abusive marriages. When I asked her to be a beta reader for me I found her generosity and willingness to help me  far beyond any expectations I had. I knew I had to meet her someday.

Marian, the charming and entertaining writer over at Plain and Fancy, a blog I’ve been following for over a year, was the one I knew the least about. But her stories connecting her childhood to present day happenings is delightful, as is her use of old memorabilia, from photos to recipes, as the basis for her enchanting writings. She has just begun writing her own memoir about growing up Mennonite and her move away from being plain to a fancy member of the world. Captivated by Marian’s sense of humor and openness, I’m happy to have been able to spend time with her, and get to know her better. Despite our different backgrounds, we have a lot in common.

Marian, Kathy, and Me.

Marian, Kathy, and Me.

I know the moon and the tides played a part in sweeping us all ashore together for an unforgettable week of writing, eating healthy, home cooked meals and sharing unending laughter. Janet’s log cabin was a perfect place for such a retreat and her hospitality was unending.

Just over a week later, as snow is falling and accumulating outside my window, I’m remembering those seven days I spent on Janet’s warm sunporch, where I set up my computer and revised seven chapters of my upcoming book. Inspire by Shirley and Kathy taking a hiatus from social media for Lent, this will be my last post until April. I will not be present on Facebook or Twitter, two places that take too much of my writing time. I plan on continuing the revisions of my book, shoveling snow, and watching the crocuses and daffodils reach for the sun when all the snow is gone.

For information about renting Janet’s cabin for your own retreat go here.

Giving Thanks

IMG_1251“As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.”

– John F. Kennedy

This is what it looked like Saturday on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Bill and I were there for a three day retreat. I wrote for two days without interruption, visited a few family members, walked on the beach, and enjoyed the quiet peace of the shore when only a few other people are around. It was blissful and I am grateful to have had the opportunity to be there.

I hope you all have a wonderful holiday and that your lives will be filled with simplicity and the grace of gratitude.

Around The World In Fifteen Days With Only One Stop

IMG_0787I’ve been home for just over two weeks since we returned from London.  The first week was great.  The second week I had a nasty cold. I’m over it and the jet lag, though last Saturday’s time change is setting me back a bit. I’m very happy to be home. It’s no fun being sick when you’re away from your own space and without the usual comforts I keep stashed away for just such an occasion. Like my  “Sure-to-Cure” Elderberry syrup and sweat inducing chicken soup, filled with big chunks of carrots, parsnips, shredded chicken, and brown rice. I frequently clicked the heels of my ruby red slippers together while sniffling away, and repeated “There is no place like home.”  But I didn’t wake up like Dorothy did, to find myself in my own bed with Auntie Em and Toto welcoming me home.

But really, it wasn’t all that bad. The Organic Planet grocery shop right around the corner from the flat we rented was a huge help. They had dynamic smoothies and carrot/apple/ginger juice which I enjoyed several times a day at the peek of feeling aweful.  And I wasn’t alone.  Bill got it too. But it wasn’t like the time we both got the flu with severe body aches and fevers while visiting New York City.  We were staying in a not so great hotel in Chinatown, that didn’t have room service. It was in the middle of winter with snow on the ground and freezing cold winds whipping through the canyons between skyscrapers.

We arrived in England to temps in the 70’s with clear skies and sun, though it turned into typical London weather a few days later with on and off rain and a bit of a chill.  Our second day out, we walked four miles through Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens, enjoying the glorious day, the swans adrift on the pond, and lots of dogs running free, playing frisbee or ball with their people.  We ate a lovely lunch right in Hyde Park and in the evening went to St. Martin in the Fields to hear the music of Beethoven and a host of other composers. How sweet it was. The following night we met a friend and went to see the play, “The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-time.”  It was a “WOW” show. Bill has written up a brief review of it and the other shows we saw, on his blog if you’re interested.

The first week ended perfectly with an overnight to Canterbury where we caught up with friends we haven’t seen in years, their gorgeous daughter, and amazing grandchildren. Back in the city we returned from dinner and a movie to find a terrorist arrest happening just around the block from our flat. There were dozens of police, guns, roads roped off, and gawkers standing about.

Then the “Cold” hit the fan. During “Much Ado About Nothing,” with Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones, my throat was sore and my nose started running a marathon. I had no tissues with me. Despite the big names, we were both unimpressed with the show. At intermission we hightailed it out of there and went home to bed. I pushed myself to go out a few nights later for dinner and another show, (Ibsen’s, “Ghosts,”) with friends. The meal, the show, and seeing our friends were great, but I was feeling worse and by then Bill was sick as well.

We spent the next few days, like two caged birds, lying about and shlepping out to the Organic Planet for juice, lozenges, and vitamin C, while mountains of yucky tissues were building around us.  Happily I read a lot and finished up Part II of my memoir.

Bored and pretending he felt better, Bill took in two more plays while I languished at home. Stubborn as mules, we took to walking again, saw a few movies and made a visit to the fabulous, Chelsea Physic Gardens, where I was in seventh heaven.  It is a small (3 1/2 acre) garden with plants that are used for food, medicine, and cosmetics.  Before we went, I envisioned shelves of the gift shop filled with plant tinctures and bottles of elderberry syrup to help me get through our upcoming return journey across the Atlantic.  No such luck, but I did enjoy a delicious salad made from plants grown right there.  Then there was the arduous seven and three-quarter hour flight back to Washington which made things even worse. I was weak, impatient to get home and very grouchy.

IMG_0885Would I do it again? You betcha!

Getting out of town and our own country to see what is happening in the rest of world is one of the most valuable things you can do for yourself and your kids. It is a learning experience that brings new perspectives on how we view ourselves and the world around us. I haven’t been out the country for a long time and while I was busy here at home, I found out that we are becoming one big global village. In some ways it’s frightening, but it’s also very exciting.  If the creek don’t rise and I continue to have the stamina to spend all those miserable hours just getting there and back, I’ll go again and hopefully to other places on my bucket list as well.

The last time I was in London was well over ten years ago. Things have changed. This time, walking down the streets, I heard languages from every corner of the planet. I heard much less English.  While the U.S.A. is mostly attracting people from South and Central America, England and the rest of Europe are attracting people from the Middle-East, the Balkans, Asia, and North Africa. Food from all over the world is served in an amazing variety of restaurants. In some areas of the city, women with head covering or full face coverings are a common sight, as well men sitting at outside cafe’s smoking hooka pipes.  When I left on this journey I didn’t realize I was going to have a mind-bending cultural tour around the world.

I came to realize that we as human beings are doing what we have always done: migrating from our homelands to find a place where we imagine work is easier to find and we’ll feel safer. But we’re doing it on a much grander scale than ever. Many of us are uncomfortable and threatened by the many problems it brings. I see us needing to begin adapting to an era of change, in which the entire world becomes the melting pot. Hopefully we will tolerate and celebrate each other’s cultures with love, not war.

If anybody out there wants to know what is really happening beyond your back yard, buy a plane ticket. Go visiting instead of relying on American media to show and tell. In a country that is as close culturally as we can get to our own, I found the whole world just waiting for me to step into it.

IMG_0848Yes, at heart I’m a homebody. Yes, it was hard. Yes, I was sick. Yes, I came home exhausted and I was at times unnerved by the numbers of people I had to navigate through. But I had a look into what the future is perhaps going to look like. I came home a much more tolerant person and hopefully wiser. All in all, it was simply a lovely time.

Being Left Behind

DSCF1059Just two days ago I was feeling envious and abandoned. Bill went off to music camp to learn more about playing his uke in the mountains of North Carolina, very close to where our daughter and grandkids live. He’ll be gone for two weeks with one or two other adventures added on to his agenda.

Besides that, my next door neighbor, who always keeps me laughing, is away for the summer. And special friend, Sharon, with whom I talk on a weekly basis is in Taos, New Mexico, on a writing retreat led by Jennifer Louden. That is where this whole crazy writing project began in 2010, and where I met Sharon and a whole bunch of other great women. I kind of wish I was there right now.

“So why didn’t you go to Taos or go along with Bill and spend time with the grandkids?” you ask. A few months ago when I felt my memoir beginning to take shape, I decided I would dare myself to have my first draft done by September first. It was a test of sorts to get myself to either put up or shut up.

I knew that if I really wanted to write my memoir, and get the first draft done on deadline, I’d have to stay home and do the work. I wouldn’t be able to do any traveling. I figured that if I gave in and said yes to a few friends who wanted me to join them in Taos, and/or go off on some other adventure with Bill, I would know I wasn’t serious about my writing project. Conversely, if I stayed home and did what I promised myself I would do, I’d feel very proud of myself and believe in myself a whole lot more than I used to.

So here I am at my computer and writing up a storm. I’ve written two chapters over the last few days and the words keep coming.  I took a break Sunday afternoon and went to a movie.  It took a good twenty minutes into the film for me to shut off my writer’s mind and begin  enjoying “The Way Way Back.” Later, I spent another couple of hours writing. The dogs were asleep at my feet and I was flying in a world of winged words. Oh how good it felt.

For now my envy and abandonment issues are gone. I suppose they could return, but I know I’m where I’m supposed to be, doing what I want to do, and being true to myself without regret. I’m happy that I held myself to my word. What could be better?

I’ll get to play later on. I’ve added another month on to my deadline. I’m shooting for October 1st.  After that, I’m off on an adventure in London. When I return, the editing and rewriting begins. Great thing to do during a long, cold winter.

By the way, if your looking for a fun movie to see on a hazy, hot and humid afternoon go see, “The Way Way Back.” It’s full of good laughs and made me feel very happy.

Unplugging Blocks With Insight Dialogue Practice

IMG_1135There’s a lot going on at the Rough House these days.  Along with trying to keep some sort of social life in tact and weeding the garden, the launch of my new website took much of my time. I felt anxious about getting it up, feeling I’d never understand the technological stuff behind it.  Thank goodness I had lots of help.

I’ve also been cranking away on my memoir. Most of the time I have a clear view of the road ahead but occasionally I get lost, winding down picturesque side streets, looking for the perfect beginning or ending for a story I’m particularly keen on. And when I write about the tough stuff, like my Mother’s last years of life, sometimes a thunderstorm is set off in my brain and I need to take a break.

In the past when that’s happened, I sat around bemoaning the fact that I didn’t feel like writing or revisiting the past. I’m a very happy person right now, living a tranquil life, and though I’ve dealt with most of my s%#t, I can sometimes find it uncomfortable to go back to a time that was particularly hard for me. But you can bet that I’ve always learned something new about myself in the process of visiting those dark days.

That’s what happened last week when I was trying to complete a chapter on the dynamics of my family of origin. I sat in front of the screen, rereading what I had already written. I couldn’t find a place to jump into a new thought or paragraph. And I was unable to find words to describe how I felt when I thought my world was falling apart, bit by tiny bit. All I wanted to do was take a nap, read a book or see a movie that would make me laugh or inspire me to go off on some new adventure to a place I’ve never been before.

So instead of sitting around fighting my lack of written words, I took action.  I went to see the movie, Francis Ha, about a young woman trying to figure out where in the world she belonged and with whom.  It was funny, and occasionally a bit depressing. But it was also about the serendipity of life and provided me with something I needed to be reminded of … that Francis would just have to trust that she would eventually find her path, by being open to whatever came her way. And so it is with me. This is a lesson that I often forget, as I try to control everything around me.

This past weekend, I did what felt like a spa weekend to me.  No, I didn’t get a facial or a massage or a pedicure.  I went to a one day Insight Dialogue Retreat taught by one of my favorite teachers who lives right here in Central Virginia, Sharon Beckman Brindley.

Insight Dialogue is a practice developed by Gregory Kramer, co-founder and president of the Metta Foundation, and author of INSIGHT DIALOGUE, The Interpersonal Path to Freedom. Sharon has studied with him. And this was my fourth one-day retreat with her.

If you go to the Foundation website you’ll read that, “Insight Dialogue is an interpersonal meditation practice. It brings the mindfulness and tranquility of silent meditation directly into our experience with other people. As humans, we are relational beings; as we begin to wake up, clarity and freedom can illuminate our relationships with others.”

And though it draws upon traditional Buddhist wisdom, it is not necessarily a Buddhist practice. People of any faith and belief system would find it useful in building more meaningful relationships with the people in their lives.

During Saturday’s retreat I partnered with another participant; someone I didn’t know well or at all. We sat facing each other, and with eyes closed, were led in a guided meditation, concentrating on our breath, the way our bodies felt, relaxing, pausing, and opening to the process. We were then given five or so minutes to silently contemplate our own generosity, something some of us rarely speak about because we’ve been taught that publicly showing that we are generous is bragging.

When the bell rang announcing the end of the contemplation, we opened our eyes. One of us became the speaker and the other became the listener. The speaker’s job was to tell the listener about his/or her generosity or lack thereof, pausing, relaxing and regrouping when the body felt a sudden tightness or discomfort.  The listener was to listen deeply without judgment to what was being said, noticing how her body was reacting. The roles would then be reversed. Further discussion can follow with the partners telling each other how it felt to talk about themselves and their kindness.

In the second half of the day we partnered with new people, this time working in groups of three. We continued our contemplation, this time about our virtues, another topic most of us rarely speak of. It was a freeing experience, especially for those of us who haven’t believed we have much goodness within us.

At the end of the day, we spoke to the entire group about what we had learned about ourselves and what new thoughts came our way. I can’t speak for everyone, but I left feeling relaxed and pampered.  What could possibly be better than being listened to deeply, without judgment.

During the retreat I came to the conclusion that this tweaking this practice would be helpful in my writing process, especially when I feel blocked and unable to forge ahead.  In taking a few minutes to relax and have an inner dialogue with myself instead of another person, concerning the difficulty of the situation I’m writing about, I’m now finding words, where  none existed before.

The weekend was topped off on Sunday by an hour and a half of Restorative Yoga, taught by another gifted instructor, Christine Davis. For me it was a perfect weekend and one I hope I’ll be able to participate in again sometime soon.

What about you? How would you spend a perfect weekend?