Purchasing Property in Italy, Part 6

As I mentioned in my last post, just when we were about to give up our search — during this visit, at least – we spotted this decommissioned train stop.

An old train stop building. Antiqua Fermata Latomie #9  = Old Latomie Stop. Still have some history to dig up but best as we can tell, this stretch of the railroad was ripped up about thirty years ago and later was sold and renovated as housing.

Okay, I’m going to admit straight away: I was pretty smitten. I love the color yellow. Never in my wildest dreams would I ever have considered purchasing a yellow house but then, this is Italy. The yellow just works. I’ve also been told repeatedly that my aura is yellow. Does that have any bearing on this house? No, but it’s a nice bit of trivia.

I also love the shape and size of it. Not big, not small, not narrow. Four rooms total. Really don’t need anything more than that. There’s a nice-sized yard and what looks like an outdoor pizza oven. Come on! Even if it’s a faux pizza oven, you’ve got to admit it’s pretty darn cute.

Something is wrong with the stucco (actually, I have no idea what one calls the outside of this house) and, as you can see on one side and on the front, they tried covering it with a bamboo swath. But, there’s enough room to create a  stone patio that wraps around the front and side and then a pergola over the south end where we could maybe even put a dining table. Yeah, I went there that fast. I can picture that addition and it would be pretty sweet.

But right away I also knew there were two big drawbacks: 1) There is no real view of the countryside. A bit from the second story, yes, but not the kind of rolling hills view that is so beautiful when the home is higher up. But okay, there are always trade-offs. And 2) The house is historical, which means the outside cannot be altered. Apparently, a patio and pergola are fine. But you can’t widen the windows. Sure, the windows look cute as they are. Except that I like a LOT of windows. And wider windows would allow for a better view of the landscape from the second floor.

The truth is, though, that I was getting ahead of myself. We had seen photos online that looked really good but nowhere was it indicated that the house hadn’t been used in two years, since at least the beginning of the pandemic. And honestly, we didn’t even consider that. Until we saw inside.

But there was even one more surprise. Our realtor didn’t have the key. (In case this isn’t obvious, Italy does not use lock boxes like we do in the states. At least not anywhere that we saw.) So when the realtor arrived, so did an older gentleman who turned out to be the cousin of the seller. Apparently, he is a neighbor who lives nearby, so it was not an inconvenience for him to open the house. But it did mean he would be sizing us up as we were sizing up the property. But I’ll get back to that.

The yard was overgrown and a bit of a mess. Not bad, all things considered.

And then we entered the house.  Again, there are only four rooms: two on the ground floor and two above. To the right is what we expected to be the kitchen. This is what it looked like in the listing: 

And this is what we saw:

Uh-oh. This is going to be a problem. There was no way to get through that mess. Okay, fine. Let’s move on. The room on the other side was much better. But pretty quickly Tom and I noticed this:

The photo doesn’t capture it well. More than a peeling of paint, it was… what? The realtor wasn’t sure. A white mold, perhaps? Damn. Not more mold. Ugh! Sure, let’s go upstairs to what would be the bedrooms.  By the way, this is probably a good time to tell you that each room has its own bathroom.  Pretty basic but at least not disgusting.

The first bedroom looked like this:

I didn’t get a good photo of the second bedroom, but it looked like the listing photo:

The purchase price also comes with all the furniture, which is antique. Not a selling point for folks who want something modern but I actually like old furniture.

Our realtor kept referring to this property as “isolated.”  True, it sits on a road surrounded by olive groves. No next-door neighbors. But honestly, I consider that a bonus. On the flip side, however, you do have to drive to get to the house and you have to drive to get to town. Town, however, is only four kilometers away on one side and another town is twelve kilometers away. And, it’s right on the road. But as far as we could tell, there isn’t a lot of traffic on that road.

Hmmm… what do you think?

Surprisingly, the asking price is just a little more than the Baglio we saw, which you may remember had a ton of mold and that awful wall mural: Purchasing Property in Italy, Part 4. There is virtually nothing in this low price range in Italy – nothing that I’ve seen on realtor sites, at least.

Maybe you’ve already guessed this but, we liked it enough to see it a second time, on the morning we were leaving Sicily. Our realtor even brought a contractor with to assess what work needed to be done. To our amazement, he said not much. Honestly, you’d think he might exaggerate for the sake of more money, but no.

Alrighty then, now what? As much as I can be spontaneous about some things, buying property in Italy is not one of those things. So we headed back to the States with a lot to consider.

To be continued…

A Bit of Chaos is Home

My sweet girl Mazie had to visit the vet again this week. For no reason that I could think of, she had thrown up her breakfast five hours after eating and then immediately pooped what looked like tomato paste. Forgive me if that’s a bit too graphic, but for anyone who has pets or kids, I’m sure you’ve seen worse.

I swear Mazie has seen the vet more times in the last two years than any of my other dogs did in triple that time. Sure, there were episodes of chili pepper chocolate consumption (earning her the moniker “Coco”) but there have been plenty of other milder reasons for visits too.

The point is, I would be devastated if something happened to her. She’s only 3.5 years old and I’m looking forward to another decade or more with her. I have really loved all my dogs (two of which are still kicking it at 14 years old in Idaho!) – and – there’s something about Mazie that takes my adoration to another level. I suspect some of this attachment has to do with her size. At twelve pounds, she is essentially the weight of an infant. And I tend to hold and cuddle her like one too.

Years before I shared my life with a dog, my sister had cats. She still does. And I’ve never forgotten how she once told me that a cat is a perpetual three-year-old. That’s it. They never grow up. Not actually three years old but in essence, a three-year-old child. I’m allergic to cats so I tend to keep my distance. But I do know dogs and dogs are very much like little kids.

Dogs have no concept of time. They exist in the present. Five minutes is the same as five hours. When you return, they greet you with exuberance, gratitude, and joy. When you play fetch, they can always keep on playing. You just rubbed their belly? Here, rub it again!

Dogs can make a mess of a home. At least twice a week, I gather up all of Mazie’s toys and dump them in a basket in order to vacuum, because even for a small dog, her hair is everywhere. Within hours, the toys are once again strewn across the floor. One of Mazie’s pups, Rupert, is her best friend and he stays with us frequently. Ru has a habit of taking a toy with him into every room. Into the kitchen, the bedroom, the hallway, the yard. It totally cracks me up. Somehow, I trained my other dogs to leave the kitchen when I say, “Out!” but not Rupert.

Kids can make a mess of home too. It doesn’t matter what age they are. Babies and toddlers turn our worlds upside down. No matter how many locks you have on cabinets, new humans are pretty darn creative, like puppies with thumbs. Toilet paper unrolled down the hall, crayon drawings on walls, and toothpaste or peanut butter… well, every parent has a good story. Then at elementary school age, everything ramps up. Play dates, clubs, nonstop activities, and more – all which include different clothing and accessories, in the wash and throughout the house. “Order” and organization are unnatural to children. Chaos isn’t chaos when we’re young. Only when we get older do we learn structure – for better or worse. And we fight like heck against it for as long as we can. Almost universally, “Clean up your room!” is regularly heard in homes with children. A home with kids is chaotic.

And yet, somehow it works. Too much order is death. Consistent calm is essentially a flat line on an EKG. Chaos enlivens us. Emotions that run the gamut, up and down, deep like tree roots and passing like sun showers, are what fix us firmly to life, and to home.

Home is the realm of the child. When we think of home, or going home, we tend to be nostalgic without even realizing it. Providing, of course, that home as a child was a good and safe place. And this is because four of the five basic levels of human needs – as defined by Maslow – are met in our homes as children. At least in the archetypal home – what home is supposed to be – what we all expect home to be: a place of shelter, safety, love and belonging, where we develop a sense of worth and value.

And it’s the role of the parent to provide these things to us when we are young. Whether or not we actually did receive these things from our parents – or from home – we will always long for them as adults. Only, when we grow older, we become responsible for providing these things. Not just to our own children (if we have them), but to ourselves.

I started providing these things for myself at age eighteen when I moved away from Chicago and refused any financial assistance from my parents. Financial gifts were always welcomed, of course, but I felt acutely responsible for my own survival and needs. That led to me becoming very organized and keeping a clean and functional home.

I’ve always loved my home. I’ve been proud of how I create my surroundings: the beauty, the books, the art, the comfort, and curiosities – all the things that make it welcoming to me and to others. But the truth is, I lacked a bit of chaos that is beneficial, the kind of disorder that brings life to a place. I never had children (a much longer conversation for another time) but finally, when I was thirty-nine, I started sharing my life with dogs. And that, my friends, has made all the difference.

Me and Mazie on my birthday last year

Each furry four-paw has progressively made me a better person. More attentive and less uptight. More playful, less compulsive. Until Mazie, however, my dogs were my dogs. They didn’t sleep in my bed. I didn’t like it when Athena licked me. I was furious when Leo would run off chasing something and be gone for hours. I expected them to behave.

Something changed with Mazie. I accept her interruptions as invitations instead of aggravations. I take a break, reframe, step outside, and snuggle. Just a minute or two while crunching at work is healthy for both of us. I accept her licks as affection instead of annoyance. I still keep my lips away from her, but sure, go ahead and lick my hand, even my cheek. I think it’s her favorite way of showing affection. I’ve arranged my work life around her and, honestly, I arrange my social life around her too. I prefer to be with friends that let her tag along. When allowed, she is always my plus one.

Dogs make me laugh. They are pretty predictable and yet very spontaneous. And of course, they are incredibly loyal and loving. Maybe the same is true of ferrets and cats. Aw heck, maybe you’ve even heard of WallyGator, the emotional support alligator.

Bottom line: we all need a bit of chaos in our lives. Not too much, but just enough to keep us spontaneous, laughing, alive, and not overly uptight. Children and pets can do this for us. They are, in so many ways, what truly makes a house a home.

Best of All He Loved the Fall

Suddenly, it’s September and soon it will be autumn.

You may be thrilled. The humidity and heat of the summer have been brutal. You probably can’t wait for cooler days and the chance to wear your jeans again or even a sweater.

Fall can be lovely. The cooling temperatures and changing colors. Even as adults, it’s back-to-school season: new shoes, new clothes, new backpacks, and new books.

For many years, I had a recurring dream where it was the end of the school year and I had never attended my classes. I couldn’t find the rooms; I hadn’t done my assignments. An entire year went by and I had missed it. This is a classic stress dream. A nightmare, really. That’s what September feels like to me. If I’m not prepared, not on top of it from the beginning, I will miss it. I will fail. 

Ah, but the autumn leaves: the deep reds and golds of maples and oaks, newly fallen and soft, still malleable. Once, when I was living in L.A. and missing these jewels, a friend sent me a box filled with some from his home in Vermont. It was a wonderful surprise and I gleefully scattered them around me. Those leaves made me happy.  Most especially because I enjoyed them in the Southern California weather.

Maybe you love this season but for me, September is the beginning of the end. The end of summer, of relaxing days and sunshine. The countdown to Christmas begins. But first, Thanksgiving, and Halloween. So much to do. Too little time. So many deadlines.

The arrival of September puts me on edge. I’m reminded of all the things I didn’t do when the days lasted well through the evening and the things I will need to do as the evening creeps into the day. Just thinking about it makes me exhausted. Nothing about September is passive. September means work.

Our enjoyment of the seasons has a lot to do with our relationship to home. Our best relationships — with home as with people — are rooted in good times, times when we played, when laughter was spontaneous, and life felt easy and good.

What was the best season for you as a kid? Is it still your favorite season today? Is your favorite season connected to a place?

My favorite season is summer. I associate summer with Grama’s farm and my memories there are everything I still long for home to be: a small community and a big family, friends that drop by unexpectedly, big meals and a big kitchen, plenty of blue sky, green trees, and long sunsets, adventures on a whim, and an uncomplicated ease of being.

Some of these things you may associate with the fall and winter holidays: family, friends, big meals, and community…  But not me. Thanksgiving wasn’t a thing in my family. And Halloween? My parents ignored it.

If you jumped in piles of leaves as a kid or horsed around in the yard with a football and friends, or if dressing up for Halloween makes you happy, you probably love autumn. And I bet you love winter too. Skiing, sledding, and snowball fights, big sweaters and fires burning, decorating for the holidays, and a ton of extra baking.

Now I’m old enough to understand why my mom always let me and my sister bake the holiday cookies. I also relate to the year she boycotted a tree and declared she wasn’t decorating. My brother and I hung ornaments from the ficus plant instead.

I’m just not fond of winter. The agony of adolescence created an aversion that can’t be undone. For me, winter isn’t fun.

As the smallest in the family, I was the only one who could fit through the upstairs window to shovel the roof. The snow looked so fluffy that I decided to jump when I was done. Instead, it was hard and I was stuck up to my neck, unable to move. My brother had to shovel me out. This is funny in retrospect but at the time, not so much.

As a kid, winter meant trudging through snow carrying my saxophone, waiting at the bus stop as the sky turned dark, and stomping my feet unable to feel my toes. It was buses running late, filled like sardines, and smelling of damp clothes. And then still more blocks to walk before I got home.

Winter is heavy with sweaters and coats, the endless layers that come on and go off.  It’s the wet gloves, sodden shoes, and damp boots that haven’t quite dried before you have to put them on again. Winter takes stamina as well as too much space. It makes my house cluttered and dirty: the overcoats and accouterments, the shovels and scrapers and salt, as well as extra rugs by each door.

I really only have three fun memories of winter as a kid. Four if you count the time I was with my brother and he took us into a candy shop in the Loop as we waited for our next city bus. But even that memory contains cold winds, a darkening night, and some anxiety. I associate it fondly with my brother but not with the season. That leaves only three good snow times for an entire childhood. The rest is drudgery.

I wish Christmas was every two years instead of every twelve months. And please, don’t call me a scrooge. What I love is the peacefulness of the nights, the candles and lights, the soft and sacred music, even the quiet stillness of freshly fallen snow. These things are magical. But everything else takes so much energy and so much time to prepare. Wouldn’t it be lovely if Christmas was every two years? Maybe then I could get more excited. Maybe then I wouldn’t dread September so much.

But here we are. My favorite season is over. Now I look forward to spring, the season of promise: when the cold days taper off and warm days begin to linger. New life, budding flowers, and green grass. Rivers flowing, lakes thawing. Longer days.

I know that work needs to be done in order to enjoy my favorite seasons when they come. Now is the time of preparation and planning; planting the seeds that will pop through the ground in another six months and then, eventually, blossom. Autumn is necessary. I pray for the clarity and energy that will make this cool and blustery season a good one.

Photo credit: Jan Peppler

Fall, Leaves, Fall by Emily Brontë

Fall, leaves, fall; die, flowers, away;
Lengthen night and shorten day;
Every leaf speaks bliss to me
Fluttering from the autumn tree.
I shall smile when wreaths of snow
Blossom where the rose should grow;
I shall sing when night’s decay
Ushers in a drearier day.

Purchasing Property in Italy, Part 5

We only had a few days left in Sicily and there were still places we wanted to explore. Buying a house was just a dream. The point of the trip was to get Tom familiar with the country and, hopefully, have him love it as much as I do.

Still, as I mentioned in my last post about purchasing property in Italy, if we were going to be serious about the possibility, we needed to engage a realtor. Rosalia Lentini came highly recommended. Nino (whom you may remember is the owner of Le Luminarie in Balestrate, where I stayed during the 11-week Covid lockdown in 2020), even gave me the name and number of a friend who had used Rosalia. This friend, April, and I connected on WhatsApp and she couldn’t say enough good things.

So we called Rosalia. It was a Sunday afternoon and we didn’t expect to hear back until the next day. Much to our surprise, she agreed to meet us that evening. In Alcamo.

Alcamo is a town of about 45,000 residents and a sixteen-minute drive from Balestrate. The town sits at 850 ft above sea level yet drops all the way down to the water. The area is most well known in Sicily as a center of wine production. Somehow, I didn’t know about this town. Even though my favorite Sicilian wine is produced there (a label owned by Nino’s brother-in-law), the town itself hadn’t registered in my brain. Yeah, well, there was a pandemic and I had only been to Sicily one other time. I can’t be faulted for not seeing everything.

Now was the time. This was the third week in February, on a Sunday evening, and the town center was packed.  I mean, packed! We met at Bar 900, close to the town square and there was barely any room to walk. Finally, we sent Rosalia a selfie of us with our masks on so she could find us in the crowd.  Once together, we settled in with Aperol Spritzers upstairs.

Tom and I are an anomaly in Italy. Hell, we are everywhere but, in a country where gender roles and relationships are still very traditional, it’s hard to explain our connection. Rosalia was no different. “So, you’re buying this together but you’re not married and only Jan is going to live here?” Yes.

Once you get past that, the assumption is that I will want to live in town. Of course a single woman would want to be near other people, as well as resources like stores. But I don’t.  Rosalia wasn’t convinced. She insisted on showing us a fantastic flat that isn’t for sale but is a great example of what might be available. This flat turned out to be none other than April’s, the friend I had just spoken to on WhatsApp.

April, by the way, is from the States. But after completing her PhD in English Literature at Oxford, she decided to stay in the UK and currently teaches in London. Based on that alone, I was intrigued.

April’s flat is attached to a church that is no longer open (due to needed repairs) and she purchased it at a reasonable price, the kind of price we had been hoping for ourselves. Then she spent equally that much renovating it.  Here are a few before and after photos:

When we saw April’s flat, it looked somewhere between the before and after. Certainly, it was livable before but… WOW! She has done an amazing job with the renovation, including so many charming touches like whimsical light fixtures, like the one above this post.

Also what you can’t see are the two bedrooms plus office/spare room, and a small outside terrace in the center of the flat. Now that the renovation is complete and she is back in London teaching, she is offering it for long-term rentals of one to six months. If you’re interested, let me know.

After seeing April’s place, Rosalia took us to the Baglio which is the focus of my last post. Since, as you now know, that place was a disappointment (love the idea of a Baglio but any place with mold is not a place we want), Rosalia was a bit stumped. She showed us a villa in Trapetto but it was a concrete square with no personality. There are neighbors on each side, reminding me a bit of single-family bungalows. In this case, I may as well live in town. We were both so underwhelmed that the only photo I took is this:

It seemed we had run out of options. There was nothing on the market that was of interest. That’s okay, we thought, we’ll be back and look again. But just for the heck of it, we scoured realtor websites one last time. We debated more fixer-uppers on the north coast of Sicily, places that weren’t terrible but would definitely need work and, again, shared walls with other homes. But they were places that had great views of the countryside so we made some inquiries and waited to hear back. Then, as we were shutting down the computer, we saw this: an old railroad house in Castelvetrano.

Castelvetrano is on the other side of the island, meaning, directly south of  Balestrate and Alcamo. Nearby, along the water is Selinunte, a small town and home to the largest archeological park in all of Europe, the remains of a city from 600 BCE.

Selinunte was something I absolutely wanted to see. We had already visited Valley of the Temples in Agrigento, which is more well known and quite amazing. You can see photos of my first visit there in 2020, when there were only a handful of visitors, here. Valley of the Temples is phenomenal but Selinunte blew my mind.  It was a huge highlight of our trip and I promise to tell you more later. Which is to say, obviously, we decided to drive down, explore the park, and see if we could find this railroad house. We were pretty sure it wouldn’t look as good in person as it did in the photos, so we didn’t even ask our realtor to meet us.

But much to our surprise, the place is cute!

We walked around the property, saw a “ruin” – who knows who this belongs to? – and, in the distance, sheep grazing!

Hmmm…. Was it worth asking Rosalia to drive forty minutes and show us the place? As far as Sicilians are concerned, forty minutes is a long way away. Plus, it is neither in Castelvetrano nor Selinunte, but somewhere between. It’s actually an odd place for a railroad stop, smack in the middle of olive groves. We finally decided yes, why not? So we called and Rosalia said she’d be there in a few hours.

What happened next, I’ll tell you in Part 6.

If you like this post, I hope you’ll let me know. You can also leave me a reply. I’d love to hear from you!

A New Lease

Four years ago, I moved to Oklahoma. I had sold my home in Idaho a few months earlier and spent two months on the road touring the south, looking for my next place to live. Oklahoma was not even a remote possibility.

That spring, a friend had been in contact with a college president in Muskogee, and I had tried to convince her that yes, she could, leave Northern California for Oklahoma, even if only for a year or two. She is half Native American and Oklahoma is home to more tribes than any other state. After grueling years of graduate school and earning a PhD, I knew she could endure anything – even Muskogee – for the sake of her career and besides, it would provide great fodder for her writing. (She’s a terrific humorist writer.) But she wasn’t convinced and instead, recommended me for the position.

So you know how every hero’s journey begins with a call? Well, I ignored the call. Literally. The president pursued me and I refused to answer. I had fallen in love with Kentucky. Not Lexington, where I had the best job prospect –turns out I hated Lexington –but I loved Louisville and even Bowling Green, both of which had plenty of colleges. My top choice, however, was Berea. I really wanted to move to Berea.[i]

Finally, out of annoyance, I answered the phone. I pulled off the road and tried to convince the president I was not the right person for the job. Instead, he convinced me to at least come look. To visit the campus and talk with him. Out of curiosity – I mean, after all, I had tried to convince my friend to move there and neither of us had any idea what Oklahoma was like – I conceded. On my way back to Idaho, fully convinced I would move to Kentucky, I stopped in Muskogee. The rest is, as they say, history. I accepted the position and two weeks later, I arrived with a U-Haul and settled into campus housing.

Turns out, I really like this state. I even like Muskogee. My position was good but the school is in disastrous shape (financially and physically) and the president, well, I’ll bite my tongue. Let’s just leave it at: he assumed I was Native (and I’m not) and working with him was unbearable. By November, I was gone. I moved up to Tulsa.

Tulsa is a perfect little city for me with approximately 400,000 people but it feels like less, a lot less, like half that many. It is filled with plenty of parks, trees, and a river, and is geographically close to the kinds of outdoor activities that I love. It’s a landscape that is familiar: very much like the Midwest where I grew up. Plus, there’s great art, lots of music, good food, minimal traffic, and a low cost of living. I’m happy here.

And none of this is news, unless you’re new to me.

What is news is that I’m renewing my lease. If you’ve been reading me for a while, you may be surprised to hear this. I’m just as surprised as you are.

This year began with a sudden onset of mold: on the walls, on the floors, and on my belongings. So I purged. I figured it was a sign. I purged a lot. Then the landlord installed new windows and I purged again. I got rid of books, clothes, videos, cameras, and more. I felt pretty darn certain that I wouldn’t be here by the end of the year. And now I will be.

See all those books? More than half are gone and that was only half of my library

Of course, I still dream of moving to Italy. Fingers crossed and Inshallah, someday it will happen. Only, in the meantime, there’s the meantime. The now time. the days and nights and weeks and seasons that make up now.

I don’t know if signing a year lease is the right decision. Sometimes we don’t know. But not making a decision prolongs a sense of limbo.  At some point, we need to stop dribbling the ball and either shoot or pass. Because if we don’t, the ball will be taken from us. I’d rather shoot and miss than lose the ball altogether.

I’ve been extremely fortunate to have many times in my life when I felt absolutely certain. So incredibly certain that the answer felt preordained, meant to be, my destiny. Even moving to Muskogee felt like this. And I was right – those decisions were always the right decision, even if the outcome wasn’t what I had hoped for. Even when those decisions brought unexpected trials and pain, they were still always – I believe – exactly what I needed and to this day I remain grateful for every one of them.

But signing a lease for another year? This one I’m not sure about.

There are plenty of things that I don’t like about my current home. The kitchen sink backs up several times a week. This spring I had mice and this summer I had ants. The bathroom vanity is from the ‘70s and the sink has two cracks in it. I was going to replace it when I moved in, back when I had money, but decided against it when the landlord wouldn’t let me paint the walls. I figured I would move in a year because there was no way I could live with gray walls. But here I am and the walls are still gray (albeit plastered with art everywhere), the vanity is still old, the kitchen sink still backs up, and the heat doesn’t work too well when it drops below fifty degrees.

This photo is 3 years old. There’s even more art now.

But on the good side, there are windows in every room and the floors are hardwood and the backyard is fenced and never used by my duplex mate so Mazie and I get it all to ourselves. I like my neighbors and I like my neighborhood. And the rent is affordable. Even with a rent increase this last year, it’s still a bargain.

My current place is, as Goldilocks might say, just right. It fits. It’s the perfect size. A bedroom large enough for a queen bed, dresser, bookshelf, and space to practice yoga. Sure the kitchen isn’t what I would like but it’s not awful either and I have a washer and dryer. The dining room is basically my office now. The front room is still a great place to relax with Mazie, read a book or watch a movie.

We learn to live with trade-offs. I certainly have. Living with less—fewer belongings and reduced expenses—has equaled less stress. And I still have a cozy home that fits my needs and is uniquely me.  A home that, after any time away, I return to and always think,  “Oh yeah, I like this place.”

So I’m making the decision to stay. Because making decisions helps me be present in the now. Because I have an aversion to passivity. And because making this decision seems like a responsible thing to do, rather than having to scramble if my rent goes up again or if the property is sold (a real possibility). Sure, I could change my mind halfway through the year. I could find another place or finally decide I can no longer live with two bad sinks. And if that happens, I’ll readjust. I’ll figure it out.

The point is –I think—to make a decision. At least, for me, this is what works. In the game of life, I want to be on the court, not in the stands. I want to have a say in how my life unfolds instead of simply watching as it happens.

A new lease keeps me on the court and in the game. Life isn’t a spectator sport. You get bruised, you foul, you may even strike out –and yes, I’m mixing sports metaphors here but you know what I mean. Make a plan, have a strategy, play your heart out and take your best shots.

For me, at this moment, that means signing a new lease.

And hey, Mazie is happy here!

What about you?  When is the last time you made a decision that you weren’t fully sure about? What happened? Did it work out?

[i] Berea is a quintessential college town with a population of approximately 15,000. The college was founded by an abolitionist in 1855 and was the first integrated college in the South with black and white students living and learning side by side. Tuition is free – yes, free – in exchange for students working on campus. The motto of Berea College, wrapped around the school’s name in its official logo, is “God has made of one blood all peoples of the earth.” And the eminent scholar and activist bell hooks taught here until her death last December. Can you see why I wanted to live and work here?

Creatures of Comfort

“I don’t like change,” a friend said to me this week.  I laughed. Who does? No one. Anyone who tells you they do is lying. That’s a dramatic statement and I could be wrong but hear me out.

Firstly, I’ve never heard anyone say, “Oh, I LOVE change!” Never. But if someone was to say that, I’m pretty sure they’d mean they love certain change. Like the change of seasons. Or new technology, or the thrill of moving into a new home. But a change in their relationships or a change in their health or a change in their financial situation—unless these changes are good—no, no one likes that kind of change.

Saying you like change is like saying, “I love food” when what you really mean is you like to eat. You like certain foods. Or you like the idea of food because, after all, without it, you would die.

Which brings me to: secondly, the only time you hear people say that change is good is when they’re trying to help us get through our discomfort and disappointment. And this is valid because the undeniable truth is that change happens. All the time. In fact, the only thing constant is change.

Humans are creatures of comfort. Humans hate change.

George Carlin has a funny bit about this. On the surface, it’s about material things. How we like our things and are always buying more things. But look a little deeper and it’s about change. We don’t let go of stuff because we don’t like change. Even on vacations, we bring familiar things with us because these things help us feel comfortable in the midst of change – change of scenery, change of bed, change of climate, change of foods, change of people… Even if we like visiting new places and meeting new people, we remain creatures of comfort. We carry familiar things with us to minimize our discomfort.

Change challenges every illusion we have about being in control. The very nature of change is uncertainty. A period when everything we know is in question. Change is a momentary freefall.

But, my friend said, some folks are better at it than others.  Maybe, but that doesn’t mean they like it.  “But you’ve done it so many times!” he insists. Ah yes, people always assume this. Experience presumably should increase skill. But it doesn’t necessarily increase affinity.

I have moved many times. I am a master mover. Every box is labeled and recorded into an Excel spreadsheet. I know exactly where to find almost anything once I arrive at my new destination. This only means that I’m organized and I’m a planner. This does not mean that I like moving. Not at all.

In fact, having moved so many times is an argument for why I never want to do it again. I want to stay still, to be grounded in place, comfortable, and content. I want to wake up and say this is enough, this is good, and believe this is the last place I’ll live. I want to feel that I love this place above all others.

I have felt this. Repeatedly. And, much to my dismay, there has always come a time when departure was imminent. When change was already happening. The clues were in my dreams or in everyday things but I reasoned them away. I rolled with it, I adjusted. Which is what change requires of us. A daily adjustment. So when big changes happen, we are often surprised. We say we didn’t see it coming. We were adapting in a million mini ways, hoping to keep the big change at bay. But deep in our gut or in the recesses of our psyche, we knew.

I suppose it’s a bit like riding a skateboard. Innumerable adjustments are continuously made in microseconds to stay upright. And if you’re a seasoned skateboarder, you maneuver turns and jumps pretty easily. And then the crash happens.

Change can feel like that. Real change always feels like that at some point. Leaving home—whatever home may be to you (a place, a person, a job, even how you know yourself to be)—will always be painful. A momentary darkness. A crash. A freefall. The complete unknown. There’s no way around it. And no way through it but through.

The key, I think, is accepting the discomfort. Resign yourself to it. This is just how it’s going to be for a while so stop resisting, stop struggling, stop trying to make it better. Let go. Lean into the pain, if you can. At the very least, float. Be a leaf on a stream instead of a salmon trying to spawn. Let go of the idea of control.

Change can be terrifying, which is exactly how I’ve felt over the last few months. I’m not ready to tell you yet what change is triggering this, only that it is the first time in my life –in my entire fifty-some years – that I’ve felt this way. Absolutely terrified. In all the location moves I’ve made, all the career changes, the heartbreaks, and life shifts, I’ve felt extreme discomfort, pain, and even depression, but I’ve never been terrified. A friend reminds me that terror is the same sensation in the body as excitement. She may be right, but the feeling doesn’t go away. Only when I accepted that the change was already happening, the train had left the station so to speak, have I been able to let go or lean in, I’m not sure which. But the terror has largely dissipated. There are still moments of panic. The change is still happening and various emotions will inevitably return, but for the moment, I’m good.

This reminds me of an auto accident a few years back. Driving in wet snow on the highway, with a car trying to pass me going way too fast for the conditions. I eased off the gas to change lanes, only, I was in a rut of snow and when I attempted to move over, I lost control of the car. Careening across four lanes and spinning, time slowed down. Did I have my seatbelt on? Yes. And as soon as I realized that, I also realized there was nothing more I could do but give into the inevitable, whatever that was to be. As a former massage therapist, I knew that relaxing was the only thing I could do that might minimize potential harm. So I let go of control – while still keeping my hands loosely on the wheel – and waited for the car to come to a stop, which it did, in a ditch lodged between the hillside and a pole. And wouldn’t you know it – I was okay. My car was nearly totaled but I didn’t even have whiplash. I simply opened the door and walked away.

Maybe I was lucky. But I was also experienced. Not that I’ve ever had that happen before, but I did know from twenty-plus years of bodywork that if I stayed tense trying to brace myself, I’d be pretty banged up. Knowing what to do actually helped me. But that doesn’t mean I enjoyed it.

The same is true for major life moves and the changes you don’t want or you’re not sure about and are happening regardless. It helps to know not to resist. And yes, it does progressively get a bit easier to accept the discomfort, the pain, the loss, and the heartbreak. But that doesn’t mean you’ll like it. You don’t have to. Just grab some token comfort from your huge variety of stuff and settle in. Ride it out. Let go. Float.

This too shall pass. Take comfort in that.

If this post resonates with you, I hope you will like it and comment. Thank you!

Purchasing Property in Italy – Part 4

After striking out in Sambuca, it was time to regroup and really consider what I wanted in a home. And how that might differ from what I needed.

I love a view of the rolling green landscape. That’s the view that makes me feel at home in Sicily, the view that combines the farmland of my childhood summers and the rolling hills of the Bay Area, where I became an adult. But alas, that kind of view typically only happens inside towns, because the towns are built high up. Only, I’m not thrilled about sharing walls with neighbors and I don’t like noise. I don’t like to hear what’s happening in the unit next to me and I don’t like commotion coming from the street. (What can I say? My days of city living are long over. Ok, I currently live in a city, but Tulsa is pretty quiet.)

As I thought back on my stay in Sambuca two years prior, I remembered my first night as I was trying to fall asleep. Teenagers were in the walkways somewhere below my balcony, laughing and talking and revving their motorbikes. By 11pm, I had enough and finally yelled out the window “Silenzia!!” like an old ill-tempered woman. Everything stopped for a second and then they mimicked “Silenzia! Sienzia!” with rounds of laughter. Thank goodness they couldn’t see me. I suddenly worried about retribution. But within ten minutes or so, they moved on. 

So, while I would love that view, I will sacrifice it to have a place that stands alone, if need be. And the only thing that stands alone is a villa.

A villa seems like a pretty grand idea. More importantly, villas are expensive. Remember, in Under a Tuscan Sun, Diane Lane’s character was a successful writer. She may have had a marriage that recently fell apart but she still had money. I don’t.

The first step was to formally engage a realtor. In the next installment, I’ll show you photos of an apartment in Alcamo and a villa above the fishing village of Trappeto. But today, I’m going to jump ahead to a property that got us excited. It stood alone, but not completely alone, and it had a great view of the countryside without being in town. Even more interesting, it was part of a baglio.

The baglio is considered an architectural emblem of Sicilian feudalism, located in the countryside. It is a fortified farm building with a large internal courtyard. In American terms, think “fort.” Popularized between 1500 and 1700, it was the heartbeat of farm living. The lower floors were filled with equipment and harvests, as well as by the peasants who worked on the farm. The owner (and family) lived on the top floors. Because it acted as a defense against raiders and enemy assaults, there is only one large entrance – a passage that allowed wagons, horses, and carriages to enter. Since these were essentially small communities, there was typically a chapel within the baglio as well. And, while they weren’t as high up as the towns, they were built on higher points in the countryside, providing a view of the crops and farmland.

These structures have been largely abandoned across the island, but many are being restored as agritourism farms, wineries, upscale lodging, and some even as estate homes.

This is Baglio Coriolano. Built in the early 1900s near the train station. Part of this baglio has been renovated into a restaurant which was, unfortunately, closed when we were there because it looks amazing.

Also renovated is the home for sale with a listing price of EUR 100,000.  That felt a bit steep, particularly back before the euro fell to equal the dollar.  It consists of 5 rooms (but Italians include the 2 bathrooms in that count) for a total of 108 meters (345 square feet-pretty small), in excellent condition and entirely renovated in 2020, with a view of the unobstructed countryside.

Hmmm… turns out that was only partially true.  For being “entirely renovated,” the two bathrooms had no toilets or sinks or showers. The ground floor bedroom was actually still fitted for beer kegs in the center of the room. Ah yes, it seems this “home” was a pet project of the owners, who intended to turn it into a pub. Yes, a pub. Which, honestly, isn’t such a bad idea considering there is a restaurant next door.

See those pipes in the middle of the floor? That’s where a bed would go. The door to the right leads to the unfinished bathroom and closet.

Okay, but I’ve gotten ahead of myself. In theory, this place is lovely. The ruins are pretty cool, it’s close to the train, there’s a great view, and a restaurant on the premises would mean I didn’t have to cook every night, right?

The first bad sign was when the realtor couldn’t get the door open. It was a chilly and gray day and all we could do was wait for the owner to arrive. Meanwhile, we walked around the perimeter.

You’ve already seen the ground floor. The stairs to the first floor were nice – wood, as we could tell. But the door at the top of the stairs cracks me up. The apartment is actually to the left at the top of the stairs. This door is to…?? On the other side of it is nothing but sky. So of course, it doesn’t open, but there it is – a door to a house or a room that no longer exists.

The upstairs space is a bit odd. The first room is divided by a wall that doesn’t make sense. Then another room that opens to the balcony. Despite the odd configuration, I was imagining where I would put my desk and a dining table. Downstairs would be my living and sleeping space, with upstairs for writing and eating.

The most striking feature of this space is the mural. It might be a cool feature in a pub or coffee house. But in my home? No, not for me. What do you think?

I was trying to warm to the mural since the view from the balcony was so fantastic. You can even see the ruins of the chapel that stood next door.

But the space was small. And renovations still needed to be done (bathrooms, kitchen) at an already hefty purchase price. More than that, there was another problem:

Yes, moisture. Mold. The owner insisted it hadn’t been there at Christmas, which was even more unnerving since it was now only February 21st.  So there you go.  By now, we knew that a mold problem could be impossible to remedy. It would have to be tackled from the other side of the building, which legally is still a home even though it is completely in ruin and rubble. Interesting that we could “fix” the problem without needing permission from the owners of the rubble but we could not—under any circumstances—put in a window on these walls because that would be modifying someone else’s property. Crazy. Which brings me back to: I really don’t want to share any walls with other homeowners.

Alas, another property scratched off our list. Would we ever find a property that didn’t have moisture problems?? Stay with me. There are still two more installments in this series that you don’t want to miss.

In the meantime, leave me a comment. I’d love to know what you think of this place.

Anyone want to renovate a baglio with me?


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Chosen Family and 9 Words for Love

I was thinking about chosen families as I was preparing breakfast for Mazie and Rupert this morning. Mazie is my 3 ½-year-old rescue dog and Rupert is one of her five pups. They are the best of buds and they are, well, family. At some point, I basically said the same thing to Rupert’s folks. “We’re family. You never have to thank me for watching him. This is what we do. Let’s just always assume that we will take care of each other’s when needed.”

Because that’s what families do, right?

Except that’s not always true.  Even if you live near family, some families aren’t close. Or even if they are, individual lives may take precedence. We all know what we want family to be, but that doesn’t mean our family is that.  And even if you do have an emotionally close family, they’re probably not your whole world.

Family, I think, is not the definition we find in dictionaries. It has less to do with relationships than it does with feelings. Ultimately, family is the feeling of belonging, family is the feeling of home.

Best friends, old friends, ride-or-die friends, recovery friends, BFFs… all = family.

About two weeks ago, a friend sent me this brief post from The New York Times.  This friend, by the way, is someone who exclaims “separated at birth” every time we discover yet another way in which are similar, revealing another hard-core preference that is not common. It makes me laugh each time. It also makes me relieved that I don’t have to explain myself.

For my friend Claudia’s birthday this year, I sent her a card that says, “There are two kinds of families: biological and logical.” And inside, “You make sense to me.”

There are the families we are born with and the families we create through marriage and offspring. And then there are the families we choose.

I married a woman before that was legal but we did have a wedding. The officiant was a gay Episcopalian priest, the dear friend with whom we would have a baby, we said. I remember his mother, whom I had not previously met, asking me that day, “So when can I expect a grandchild?” I beamed. We were family.

The baby never happened and after seven years (for other reasons), I left our marriage. That was one of the hardest things I’ve ever gone through. But our bond remains. When we had a gathering for my mother’s 75th birthday, when aunts and uncles and cousins all converged in one place, the only folks who weren’t connected by blood or marriage were PJ and her new wife. Of course they were there. We’re still family.

Patty wasn’t my best friend in high school, but she was always my friend. I confided in her the biggest secret of my life when I was eighteen. And through all the years since, we have consistently stayed in touch and visited when we can. Her daughters call me Aunt Jan and I like to believe I’m their favorite aunt. So yeah, we’re family.

I love my family of origin and I know they love me. That has never not been true. They want and do their best to support me, as I do for them. We know each other so well. And, there is nothing we’ve ever encountered together where we shared a similar response or felt the same way. When my father died, and twenty years later, our mother – we each experienced these deaths differently. And those are the big things. We have good memories, yes, great memories of laughing and enjoying each other’s company. And, what has consistently bound us together is circumstance – being from the same family – more than anything else. And that, in itself, is of great value. But that doesn’t guarantee comfort or intimacy or a sense of belonging.      

Nat was my Latin teacher in high school. Now, he’s… I’m never sure how to describe him. A friend, yes, but more than that. We share so much history. Our lives intersect beyond the two of us. Every week I visit and we eat, lament on politics, share poetry, explore religion, listen to music, sometimes watch a movie, and sometimes just play with Mazie.

Two weeks ago, I canceled. I wasn’t in a good mood. When I called and said, “I prefer to be my best with you” he replied, “Well it wouldn’t be the first time.” And I laughed, spontaneously and with relief. He knows me. No judgment. We are both authentically ourselves. That’s family.

Traditional families often expect us to conform to the family’s norms, if not also to the culture’s. These families aren’t always the places where we’re seen and celebrated for our unique individuality. But with chosen families, it’s different. Our chosen families accept us just as we are.

The critically acclaimed drama, POSE, (now streaming on Hulu) illustrates one way – perhaps the most significant way – that chosen families came into being. Focusing on New York City’s LGBTQ drag scene popular in the African-American and Latin communities during the 1980s and ‘90s, it highlights how “family houses” were born out of marginalized people with a designated “mother” who provided for her “children.” The backdrop to this, of course, is the advent of AIDS.

In the third and final season, I can’t get through an episode without a pile of snotty wet tissues piling up beside me. It hits so close to home. I was there – not in New York but in Chicago, not in drag balls but definitely in the community. I lost more friends than I can count. The people who worked beside me – the founders, directors, and volunteers – are still my family. We will always be bonded through the shared experience of tragedy and loss, tenacity and time, and love.

Which is probably why the idea of chosen families seems to get a good amount of print since 2020 and Covid-19. Bonds are naturally formed between people who share life-changing experiences. Soldiers. Caregivers. Survivors. Covid pods.  

A few years ago, I fell into a deep depression. I hated my job and was crying every day. I missed my dogs in Idaho. I kept thinking that I wanted to be in a committed, romantic relationship again, perhaps even married. I spent many months in anguish before finally realizing I was under the spell of a cultural myth. A spouse doesn’t guarantee that you won’t be alone, or that you’ll be understood, or that you’ll be fulfilled emotionally, or financially stable. Spouses die. Marriages end. People drift apart.

What I wanted was someone who loves me just as I am. Who appreciates me, celebrates me, and still expects me to strive for my best and holds me accountable. Someone who shares my pain when I hurt and who “gets it” without a detailed explanation. A person who understands the bravado that covers my vulnerability and celebrates my persistence and achievements, regardless of my insecurities. Someone I can confide in and turn to in emergencies. Someone who will grow with me and continue to expand. Someone who will always be there. I wanted someone who chooses me, for all the same reasons, knowing I will provide this for them too.

And then, one day, it suddenly occurred to me: I already have this. I have this – times ten. Not just in one person but in many. I have my friends. These friends are my family. And since that day, I’ve been deeply content. I am grateful. I’m secure.

Most of my family lives far away. With some, I talk regularly. Others, a year could go by. Time and distance don’t matter. More than friends or lovers or comrades, more than peeps or tribe or community – these people are my world.

The Ancient Greeks had 8 words for love: Mania – obsessive; Eros – romantic, passionate, and sexual;  Ludus – playful, young, flirtatious, and euphoric; Storge – familial, affectionate, and platonic; Pragma – longstanding and enduring, deepened with time; Philia – deep friendship; Philautia – love of the self; and Agape – unconditional and all-encompassing, Divine.

To these I would add: Maternal – a mother’s love, though not restricted to women. A love that protects creation – their own and others.

What then, is the love of chosen families? Nine words are not enough.

In a world where we now embrace the spectrum of sexuality and question gender norms, it seems appropriate that our definition of family would expand. It needs to be larger. More inclusive. Not defined by blood, sanctioned by law, or qualified with words such as “like” or “chosen.”

I’m done comparing my friends to family. My friends are my family. My family is large.

If you like this post, please click the like button, that would mean a lot to me. And if it resonates, please leave a comment.

Do you have family beyond blood, marriage, and adoption? What makes them family?


We can probably all agree that home has a lot to do with family and friends and *if you’re lucky* your home includes both. But then there are neighbors. And neighbors can make or break a good home.

A few years back, Maran and David bought a home they absolutely loved. They were excited. They moved in. And quickly, very quickly, in just a few months, they moved out.

The neighborhood was great. It had everything they wanted. But the neighbors were a problem. There was no way they could live with them. I won’t even bother to tell you why because it doesn’t matter. They knew if they stayed, they’d be miserable.

When I was a kid, the only neighbors I knew were the Puffers. I’m pretty sure they lived above the grocery store but I can’t be positive because I only visited them once, when I was selling Christmas cards as a fundraiser for my school. Mrs. Puffer was very nice and flipped through the catalog as I stared around their living room. I was maybe seven or eight years old and there by myself. In the 1970s, kids were often without parental supervision. Even on the south side of Chicago. No adult accompanied us Trick-or-Treating or to collect money for the local paper we delivered or when we sold candy bars, cookies, or Christmas cards. It was a time when folks still knew and trusted their neighbors.

Except that I really didn’t know anybody.

I remember the summer afternoon on our front porch when my mom squatted in front of me and said, “Go make friends.” Motioning to my sister on the porch, she continued, “Your sister has friends. You can too!” But where? I said. How? “Just walk down the sidewalk. Go all the way around the block. You’re bound to run into some kids and when you do, introduce yourself.”

I didn’t want to go. But my mother and sister were adamant, so I went. Down the concrete stairs, across the alley, and down the street. I was a whopping five years old. And this, dear reader, explains a lot about me to this day.

That outing didn’t yield the success my mother had hoped for. By the time I got home, the only neighbors I knew were still the Puffers.

At age eleven, I moved to the other side of the city with my mom and siblings. Instead of three-story brownstone flats, this neighborhood had row upon row of single-family brick bungalows with grass patches in front and sidewalks. In the back were larger grass squares and single-car garages. Chain link fences separated the yards so you could see other families clear down the street.

Considering how close we all lived to each other, you’d think we would know our neighbors. But we didn’t. Except for the old man to the west of us. I only met him once, when he stopped by to tell my mom that he had painful hemorrhoids and would be going to the hospital soon to have them removed. Too much information? Yes. Especially for the first time you meet.

My home from age 11 to 18. On the right is the house of our neighbor with hemorrhoids. Seriously.

The way we build homes today is partially to blame for not knowing our neighbors. Newer neighborhoods often have garages out front that are attached to the house. This allows us to drive in and out without ever encountering another person. In these homes, the front door is often obscured – set back and rarely used. Long gone are the days of big front porches where one would sit and watch the street, greeting passers-by.

My father lived in a Chicago neighborhood where folks sat on their porches. His home was broken into twice but each time it was the neighbors who called the police. This reminds me of the old boozers who lived in their cars on the corner by my apartment in San Francisco back in 1986. One night, a friend tried to wake me by jumping on the garage roof next door and throwing rocks at my window. The guys who lived in their cars chased her away. Honestly, I appreciated that. I bought them a bottle of wine as a thank you. It was good to know they were looking out for me.

Part of my moving to Idaho was a romantic idea of what small-town living might mean – in particular, knowing your neighbors. Sure enough, it was small enough that you were likely to run into someone you knew at the grocery store and almost always when you were in a hurry or looking your worst. But as for knowing my neighbors, not really. I knew a lot of folks, but not those that lived on my street.

Then I moved to Picabo, with a population of 150 or 65, depending on if you believe the U.S. Census or the ranchers who gathered every morning for coffee at the gas station/convenience store/post office/fly shop/diner off the two-lane highway that runs through town. Picabo is so small that everyone knows everyone. So yeah, I knew my neighbors. But as a single woman, Democrat, and conservationist, I never quite fit in.

There are only six streets in Picabo. To the left and right of my home were empty lots. The empty lot to the south of me was the end of the street. On the other side was ranchland where cows grazed in the springtime with their calves.

Across the street was the neighbor who built and sold me my house. She didn’t like me. After eight years of living across from her, she started leaving her three black labs outside when she went to work, and those dogs barked incessantly. I called her and left concerned messages. I wrote her nice notes. She ignored me. Finally, I called animal control. She stopped leaving the dogs out and continued to not speak to me. That sucked but it could have been worse.

Now I live in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I’ve been in the same rental for three and a half years. And for the first time, I know my neighbors. Like, a LOT of my neighbors. More than a dozen that I know by name, know their dogs’ names, and willingly stand around and talk to, catch up.

We look out for each other. We send each other funny texts. Two of my neighbors will drop in on Mazie if I’m gone all day. Another family will sometimes bring their dog over to stay. A few of us get together for burgers once in a while. Another has young children that sometimes visit to show me treasures they’ve found or sell me something they’ve created. (Young entrepreneurs)

I live in a town of 400,000 people and, for the first time in my life, I finally have neighbors that make me feel at home.

What about you? Do you know your neighbors? Do you know them by name and have their phone numbers in case of emergency? Do you know one? Maybe Two? Four or more?

Are you an introvert who prefers to stay anonymous, an extrovert who says hello to everyone, or somewhere between? Do you have neighbors you’d like to avoid?

I would love to hear your stories and hope you will leave a comment. Your responses actually help with my research. Thank you!

4th of July & Blueberry Pie

Baseball, the 4th of July, and warm apple pie. Quintessentially American. The essence of home. Except that I’m not very fond of apples. And, while fireworks are pretty for a few seconds, twenty minutes max, they are also insanely loud and terrible for the environment.

You stopped reading, didn’t you? Seriously, I’m not a scrooge.

I propose a different kind of holiday: Barbeques, baseball, and fireflies. And blueberry pie.

Fourth of July Blueberry Pie, click here for recipe by Kate McDermott

I went blueberry picking this week. I went last year as well but before that, it had been maybe fifteen years since I stood in the sun and my fingers took on a cobalt hue as I filled up buckets of plump blue pearls. I can’t believe it had been that long. Now, more than ever, I remember what I was missing.

Picking blueberries feels like home. Which, on the surface, is odd because I never picked blueberries as a kid. Instead, I picked raspberries.

In Michigan, where we would often spend the 4th of July, Grama had raspberries. One year she even gave me a bush – the scraggly one out beside the old corn crib. At least she said it was mine, which I suppose only meant that I could eat as much as I liked from that bush. All the other raspberries were used for a few summer desserts (featuring Cool Whip, of course) and then for jam. Grama made the best raspberry jam.

As for blueberries though, I have no memories. Not until I was married and we honeymooned in Saugatuck, Michigan. Next door, in Douglas, we discovered the Plummer Farm. Chuck and Lucy were a sweet old couple. They were alone, their kids were grown and had moved away. We liked them so much that they invited us back to play cards in the evening. And we did, right there at the kitchen table, drinking coffee and eating blueberry pie as night fell and moths buzzed around the overhead light.

They insisted we come back and stay on the farm. There was a one-room shack with full-size bunk beds on the back of the property. They took us to see it, driving out there on Chuck’s golf cart, and it looked okay. Sure, we said, we’ll stay here. With hundreds of mice scurrying out of our beds and across the ceiling overhead. Traumatizing and hysterically funny, it’s still a great memory.

For a few years then, we came back every summer to pick. They got older and Chuck’s health failed. My marriage ended and I moved away.

I can’t find a photo of blueberry picking but this was taken on the Plummer Farm while harvesting asparagus (1996?)

When I purchased my home in Idaho and created a garden, I wanted so very much to grow blueberries. My mother-in-love, native to Idaho, told me I was crazy. It was the only time she ever scoffed at me, twisting her face when I told her my idea. Her raspberry bushes were huge and prolific. Her raspberry jam was the only one I’ve ever tasted that was just as good as Grama’s.

Still, I tried. I purchased two bushes and packed the soil with coffee grounds. I measured the acidity regularly. And, I failed. The bushes never produced. Heck, they never even grew. As much as I imagined my Picabo home as my own private Michigan, the blueberries wouldn’t cooperate. But at least my raspberry bushes thrived.

So why do blueberries feel like home?

Home isn’t just our favorite childhood experiences, it’s the best times we create as adults.  

Watching the countryside whiz by from the passenger window reminds me of the annual drive so many years ago. Standing alone in an aisle of bushes picking and plucking is comforting and calming. A meditation of sorts. I whisper to the plants and thank them for their abundance. Sorting the harvest into small bags in my kitchen and delivering them to friends makes me happy. All these things together are reminiscent of a particularly pleasant time in my life, when my home was what I had created, not what I had inherited. My memories are good. Every time I pick blueberries, those feelings return. Life is simple again.

Blueberries bring me home.

Did you know that the U.S. produces about 40% of the world’s supply of blueberries? Only Canada produces more than the United States. Oregon leads in the U.S. cultivation, with Washington, Georgia, Michigan, New Jersey, California, and North Carolina making up most of the rest.

Hammonton, New Jersey, calls itself the “Blueberry Capital of the World,” which is, of course, hyperbole, but it does produce over 80% of all cultivated blueberries in New Jersey.

Maine is known for its wild blueberries, which are lowbrush berries, different from the highbush berries that are larger and those I mention in the statistics above.

Blueberries are also good for you. They have one of the highest antioxidant levels of all common fruits and vegetables and are among the most nutrient-dense berries. A 1-cup (148-gram) serving of blueberries contains:

  • Fiber: 4 grams
  • Vitamin C: 24% of the RDI
  • Vitamin K: 36% of the RDI
  • Manganese: 25% of the RDI
  • Small amounts of various other nutrients

Studies suggest blueberries may lower blood pressure and prevent heart disease as well as improve brain function and memory. They may also help heal urinary tract infections and reduce muscle soreness after exercise. All that goodness packed into one cup equals only 84 calories and just 15 grams of carbohydrates.

If you get a chance to pick blueberries this summer, do it. Each berry is a gift. But if you’re nowhere near a blueberry farm, pick up some organic ones at your local store. (Conventional blueberries have a high level of pesticides.) Make a blueberry pie, like Kate’s above. A blueberry cherry like the one below. Or, if you’re lazy like me, make muffins or scones. 🙂

Purchasing Property in Italy – Part 3

In my last post about 1-Euro homes in Italy, I shared how I found a place I absolutely loved but knew I couldn’t purchase. And you agreed with me. The moisture problem was too great and I needed to listen to my friend, Giuseppe, who is not only an architect and deputy mayor of Sambuca di Sicilia but he started the 1-euro home auction there and knows those homes better than anyone.  Okay. Bummer, but that house is off the table.

But there are other properties in Sambuca. My friends showed me two that had previously been occupied by their mothers. Fully furnished. In both cases, you would think the mothers had only just stepped out – the homes were filled with photos and personal items. They were both standard homes, nice in their own way, but not really what I want.

The same guys who showed us the first place showed us two others. Both were larger than the first one that I loved. The first of the two was listed at 100,000 euros. One Hundred Thousand? Whoa! That’s a huge jump from thirty thousand! But okay, let’s see what a 100,000-euro house looks like.

It’s the upstairs property. The ground level is a different home. So far, this looks okay. Pretty typical.

 This is the first floor. Pretty cool, good light, and lots of room! I’m not so sure about the split-level steps and this kind of tile but again, so far, so good.

Up the steps and this is the next room:

Nice tile! It always amazes me though how random things are left. Whatever the owners don’t want, they leave for the next owners to discard. Again, so far this looks good.

Not my ideal bathroom, but I’ve seen a lot worse. I could work with this. But then, on the top floor, this is what we saw:

Really? For 100,000 euros? The entire top floor needs major renovations. But wait, there is still the rooftop.

Ok, now we’re talking! This view is great. And with a little work, the rooftop deck could be amazing. But again, for 100,000 euros, we would still need to spend a lot of money to make the home livable. Not just cosmetic renovations and installing a kitchen. As you can see from the photos, the ceiling needs major repairs.

The third and final place we saw was only 30,000 euros but a whole lot bigger than the first place I had fallen in love with and in far better condition. In fact, it looked a lot like the second place, but for 70,000 euros less. Hmmm….

It’s a corner house, which is good, and it has a garage, which is great. Street parking can be a challenge!

Lots of small rooms like this, with the furniture included.
Ok, the bathroom needs work. Why would you have the bidet by the door and the toilet at the other end, past the sink??

Uh-oh. What is that black stuff on the hallway walls? Oh damn, it’s in the kitchen too.

But then there is the rooftop deck and here are the views!

Aww, man! For the view and the garage alone, it’s worth 30,000 euros! But, the mold. The moisture. The same problem as in the house I love. The house I really love (still) and know I cannot buy.  I can’t do it. It’s tempting as heck but I refuse to take on the problem of mold.

So, we saw five houses in Sambuca in one day and none of them fit the bill. Disappointing.

But the experience did clarify two things:

  1. I’m not up for a huge restoration project. A 1-euro home is out of the question. And so are 30,000-euro homes that have moisture problems.
  2. Finding a livable place for 40,000 euros or less is probably not realistic. Yes, there are a few out there. Lorraine Bracco found one next to her 1-euro home but for someone like me, it’s probably a pipe dream.

Time to regroup and rethink my budget. Which we did, and the house hunt continued. Stay tuned.

Meanwhile, what do you think? Do you think either of these places is worth the price of 100,000 or 30,000 euros? Do you think I can still find an inhabitable place for 40,000 euros or less? And, of course, the obvious: do you think I’m crazy for even considering a home purchase in Italy?

Be honest and leave a comment below!

The same guys who showed us the first place showed us two others. Both were larger than the first one that I loved. The first of the two was listed at 100,000 euros. One Hundred Thousand? Whoa! That’s a huge jump from thirty thousand! But okay, let’s see what a 100,000-euro house looks like.

Be Gentle, Be Honest, Be Kind

This newsletter is a certain kind of home for me. It is a safe place for us to communicate, to feel, to share ideas. It is more than I ever expected; a place where I am comfortable, and even encouraged, to be my authentic self. Thanks to you, my readers and friends.

Never has this been more true than this last week. Thank you to everyone who responded to my last post, I Am Not Okay. Some of you entered comments, others emailed me, a few texted or called. That post was shared more than anything else I’ve written to date. You confirmed on every level that I am not alone; we are each carrying this pain and doing our best to work through it and keep moving towards a better future.

You are my hope.

With some trepidation, I also posted this piece on LinkedIn. Doing so meant my pain would be visible to others outside of this Finding Home community. But there are many people that read my work there and maybe my words would help them know they’re not alone either. It was desperation that made me share with you. It was courage that made me share on LinkedIn.

A few responses made me question my courage.

Now, to be clear, I am incredibly fortunate that I have not yet experienced trolling. Nonetheless, two comments were unsettling.

The first was a woman in Amsterdam who said she wanted to kill herself. How does one respond to such a statement from someone they don’t know who is half the world away? As best as I could. Simply, as best as I could.

The second was from someone I know in London. I don’t really know her, we have only connected on LinkedIn over a shared love for nature. I’ve responded to some of her posts and she has responded to some of mine. Only this time, the response wasn’t positive.

I’m pretty sure she read only to the first real paragraph and then stopped. This is the paragraph where I say (a bit abruptly) that I’m okay with bows for hunting. That bows require strength and skill and bow hunters are not hunting for sport but for meat, meat they will eat.

Perhaps I didn’t adequately connect these comments to how easy it is to purchase a rifle, leading to a lot of lazy unskilled fools who hunt and wound animals. A bow hunter would never shoot from their car or a four-wheeler. None of this is to say I’m a fan of hunting but just that I understand it better from knowing those who do.

And I didn’t say that I was a vegetarian before I moved to Idaho. A real vegetarian. For twelve years I ate nothing that was a sentient being (and yes, that includes no seafood and no poultry). I wasn’t a vegan – I’m not sure I could ever give up eggs and cheese – but I was most certainly a vegetarian.

But none of this matters. It doesn’t matter that in our response and replies I became confused about the real issue she was objecting to. Was it hunting? Bows in particular? Animal cruelty? Eating animals? It didn’t matter that she most certainly hadn’t read my entire piece or that, as a Londoner, she may not have any context for what was happening in the U.S.

In the end, all that mattered was that she had been triggered, and her response was due to her caring. So the best reply I could offer was to recognize this. I told her I respected her, her feelings, and her commitment to a better world. And, finally, I repeated that I was hurting. I told her I was fragile at the moment and hoped she would understand that I couldn’t rationally continue the conversation. 

She neither liked my reply nor responded to it. Only silence. And that’s okay.

I wish I could have stepped outside of my own pain to better understand hers. But at least I recognized that I couldn’t. At least I could see that she wasn’t intentionally trying to hurt me; what she cares about is essentially the same thing I care about, even if we are, at the moment, approaching it from different entries. We both want the world to be kinder. We both want less suffering and less violence for people, for animals, for the earth.

I wish I could say I always respond this way but of course, I don’t.

I work with someone who is very upfront about her mental health. She will tell you even if you don’t ask. Her struggle is intense: hearing voices, severe depression, changing medications, and trying to stay out of the hospital. I admit that sometimes her honesty feels like emotional hijacking since it can affect work decisions and our workplace dynamic. A therapist friend has even coached me on how to respond.

And – I also admire this coworker. Most notably because she continues to fight. On most days, she gets herself to work and does the work. She is pleasant and kind and sweet. And that’s admirable AF because if I were in her shoes, I might just surrender and not get out of bed.

Equally important is that she is honest about her condition. It takes courage to admit your mental state and even more courage to share it with others. Quite possibly it is this honesty that makes it possible for her to continue fighting. After all, when I shared with you, you heard me and that gave me hope.

The world would be a much better place if we were all more honest about our emotional and mental states.

If only we could just stop pretending that we’re okay. Stop ignoring our pain, our confusion, our anxiety, our fears, our doubts. Stop keeping up appearances. If we could just be more honest about our fragility… perhaps then we would become more compassionate – towards ourselves first, and then towards others.

This is still a difficult lesson for me. I hide behind the façade that I am capable and strong – which, for the most part, I am. Except that when I’m not, I hesitate to admit it. I’m afraid other’s opinion of me will change. The problem with this is that then I’m irritated when folks don’t acknowledge when I’m hurting or understand when I’m struggling.  Hah! That’s entirely on me. How can others know if I don’t tell them?

The interesting thing is that when I do admit my true mental and emotional state, folks typically respond in positive ways.

Maybe someday we’ll evolve enough to always be gentle and kind, without having to know the particular struggle another person is enduring. But it’s also possible we’ll never get there unless we begin by being honest with ourselves first.  Then we can be honest with each other.

Honesty is the highest form of intimacy. Intimacy is necessary to truly connect. And connection is the most essential element of home.

Thank you for being part of home for me.

The world would be a better place if we were kinder, gentler, and more honest with ourselves, as well as with each other.

This is my own photo. The one above is not and regrettably, I do not know the source.

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