Athena just wanted to be loved

Some dogs want attention. Others need to feel safe. Some need a job. Athena needed love.

Athena and her brother were surrendered to the local animal shelter at just a few months old. She was an anxious pup so the staff took to having her spend days in the office with them. I didn’t even notice her until I was ready to leave and then she quickly stole my heart. I named her Athena believing that names have power and hoping this one would give her strength and overcome her timidity. I wanted to embolden her, to help her feel strong. To make her wise and help her feel worthy. I’m not sure it ever worked.

The first few months were challenging. She was still a puppy and some form of abuse must have occurred before me – even if it was passive. Her broken tail was a tell-tale sign, as well as her eyes. My former dog was very independent. Athena was not. Athena needed reassurance. Her anxiety soared if she couldn’t see you. On our first Thanksgiving together, she was crated in another room while the rest of us ate dinner. We could hear a ruckus but thought it best to ignore – kinda like allowing a child to cry themself to sleep. We would never do that again. She literally broke the crate.

So it wasn’t long before I realized she needed a companion and I had a plan. I would take a week off work and we would drive to Omaha, where there was a small dog rescue of mostly females bred in puppy mills. This time around, I wanted a small dog. An older, female dog. Motherly. Athena could pick her out. It was a perfect plan. But then the local shelter called and said they had a dog for me. No, it was not female and, no, it was not older. But it was small and cute and cream-colored. We visited and that was that. They were instantly best friends.

From that point forward, Athena’s life was all about protecting Leo. Not that he really needed protecting, but nonetheless, Athena assumed the role. 

Leo is an adorable small dog. The kind that always looks like a puppy, no matter how old he gets. And Athena is a Boxer-Heeler mix. The Boxer in her resembles an  American Staffordshire Terrier, which often gets an unfair rap. So it was always Leo that got compliments from friends and strangers, while Athena was largely ignored. In public, that’s one thing, but at home, when Leo was squirming his way into your lap, Athena would look on with her brows furrowed. Athena would never ask for attention, she would allow Leo his spotlight, but she often looked forlorn. Athena just wanted to be loved.

My firstborn. I would whisper this to her, close to her face, as I cuddled her best as she would allow. She wasn’t my first dog, but in a house with Leo, I gave her this honor. She was special. They might be the same age, but she had seniority. Even if she did prefer to squeeze into Leo’s bed.

But even with Leo around, she still always wanted to know where you were. On a hike, she would stay close and turn her head back to make sure you were there. Leo could run off and be lost for hours but never Athena. Out they would run through the doggy door and even on a beautiful day, Athena would come back in every few minutes to make sure you hadn’t left.

Then in late 2018, I did leave. Sometimes I think maybe I am a terrible mom. It’s hard to believe that I moved to Oklahoma without them. But the truth is, I allowed them to stay. They were both 10 ½ years old by then. Tom generously offered to drive the U-Haul but when I mentioned the dogs, he was silent. He wanted them in Idaho, with him, in the landscape they had always known. It would have been selfish for me to insist.

But our separation took a toll on me. I missed them terribly. That first year I was so sad without them and, combined with a job that was awful, I cried regularly. I returned for visits but it wasn’t the same. Now they were bonded to Tom in a way they had once been to me. Without them, I felt alone, listless, incomplete. Folks would tell me to adopt another dog and I would bristle. I didn’t need another dog – I already had two. You can’t just replace your kids.

Tom sent photos regularly and my visits continued. The pandemic happened and after four months in Italy, I returned and adopted Mazie within a week. So okay, I finally had another kid. And undoubtedly, Mazie has become my constant companion. Still, Athena and Leo would always be like grown children living away far away from me. Returning to Idaho meant returning home to see them. And in my last few visits, I noticed Athena had become a grand old lady. She limped and moved slowly, but she would still get up to receive attention. She was such a calm and sweet old girl.

We knew her days were numbered but could never expect she would pass while we were away. The news hit us hard. And if I’m honest, the trip was over for me that day. All I wanted was to return home immediately. To fly back to Idaho and comfort Leo. But of course, that wasn’t practical.

It feels like Athena died alone, but that’s not true. Renee, the woman taking care of her and Leo was exceptional. And when she got her to the vet, the vet who had known Athena her entire life – even prior to her adoption with me – I’m told she looked relieved. Dr. Laurie knew we wouldn’t want her to be in pain. The tumor on her liver, which we never knew was there, had burst. Renee held her, stroking her head, and cradling her as she went to sleep.

Athena just wanted to be loved. And even though I wasn’t there to give it to her as she took her last breath, she was very loved indeed.

What Feels Like Home

“Because I was fifteen and generally an idiot, I thought that the feeling of home I was experiencing had to do with the car and where it was parked, instead of attributing it wholly and gratefully to my sister.” 

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

Home is not always a place. Sometimes home is not a house, a neighborhood, a town, or a landscape. Sometimes home is another person.

A friend once told me that she was going home to Florida for vacation. “But wait – you didn’t grow up in Florida, did you?” I asked. “In fact, you’ve never lived in Florida.” She paused. No, she hadn’t. Had she really said she was going home? Yes, I confirmed, still curious. Well, that’s where her mother lives now. She was going to visit her mother. While she hadn’t realized it before, wherever her mother was, was home.

Other times, our life partner is home. Wherever that person is, no matter the chaos, discomfort, or even danger that surrounds you, as long as you’re with that person, you feel safe and grounded. That person is home. This always makes me think of Carole King’s song, Where You Lead, I Will Follow. Or the story of Ruth in the Bible, who tells her mother-in-law, Naomi, that the only home she has now is with her.

“Entreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God. Where thou diest, will I die; and there will I be buried.”

Ruth 1:16-17 King James Version

Is there someone in your life that feels like home?

One of my favorite family photos. (Not for public use! Please respect my family's privacy.)
One of my favorite family photos. (Not for public use!)

I turned off my phone for Christmas. Actually, for forty hours. And it was bliss. This was my present to myself—the very best present I could ask for—a time-out, a day without interruption. I wrote a long letter (by hand) and I read a book. An entire book. I have stacks of books waiting to be read, yet, what I read that day was an impulse from the library: The Dutch House by Ann Patchett. I enjoyed the book. And I really enjoyed my time alone that day. Did it feel like Christmas? No. But it did feel like home.

Whatever you did to celebrate Christmas – did that feel like home? 

Sometimes home isn’t a place or traditions or people. Sometimes home is a circumstance, an energy, a feeling.

This year I didn’t do any of the holiday traditions I grew up with. But I did grow up with a lot of quiet. Quiet feels like home.

When I think of home in my early years, I see empty rooms, I feel stillness, I hear nothing. Of course, it wasn’t always quiet or empty or still. Music was a staple in our home. The classical station played softly in the background throughout the day. My mother played piano in the evenings,  my sister played guitar, my brother and I practiced our various instruments. There were times our mother would wake us up on Saturdays singing or serenade me at night when I was sick. There was laughter and conversation and games of Monopoly and eventually pinochle. The plop plop of ping pong, and the swish and clatter of air hockey. And my mother’s hair dryer while she watched TV.

Our living room when I was a baby.

But mostly, there was quiet. Quiet punctuated everything. Looking back, I lived in a sea of stillness. I’m not sure I appreciated it when I was young, but I do now. Quiet is comforting. Quiet feels like home.

What feels like home to you? 

I really hope you’ll comment and share. I’m sincerely interested in what feels like home to you.

The Magic and Mystery

The other day on NPR, I heard a Norwegian scientist explain “the physics behind Santa Claus.” He had some pretty interesting answers to the questions children have been asking since St. Nicholas turned into Santa in the early 1800s. You can listen to this fun 5-minute interview or read the transcript here. The explanation for how Santa knows which children are naughty and which children are nice is let’s say… California-worthy.

The naughty and nice thing is a bummer though, if you ask me. Let’s face it, every kid gets presents. Even the bratty ones and the bullies. The only kids that don’t get presents are those from poor families and then it doesn’t matter how good you are: if there’s no money, there’s no presents.

Of course, a long time ago this didn’t matter so much. Before we lost gratitude for the basic necessities of life and began to take these things for granted—shelter and food and clothing—we were tickled to get oranges in our stockings.  A moment to rest and enjoy our families was enough. Faith wasn’t about believing as much as it was an overwhelming mystery, and the mystery filled us with awe. Whether that was how a human baby boy could save the world or how a man in a red suit could deliver presents down chimneys all around the world in one night, these winter days were sacred and special. Anything was possible.

This is why we are so enamored with holiday lights. They elicit awe. They twinkle in the darkest time of the year and their sparkling glow touches something primal in our souls: a longing and belief in hope and possibility. Have you ever fallen asleep in front of the Christmas tree, when all the other lights in the house are off? Or sat in stillness surrounded by candles, maybe listening to your favorite holiday music? It’s hard to watch a fire and not be mesmerized. Holiday lights are the same. I have many times immersed myself in tree lights and wept. The connection to something profound, something big and mysterious, essential and amazing, is almost more than I can contain.

In the midst of holiday activities, do you make time for this? Are you able to sit in the stillness and fall into the mystery?

It’s easier for kids. Anything is possible in the mind of a child.  With the exception of Susan in Miracle on 34th Street, who has to be taught how to use her imagination, most kids find this easy. Grass can be blue and reindeer can fly. And unicorns can be kept in your backyard.

Did you hear how a young girl asked for permission to keep a unicorn and Animal Care and Control responded? It’s priceless.

Today is the Solstice. My favorite holiday of the year. I wish I wasn’t working. But tonight, I will be still. In my best life, everything stops today. Around the world there is a collective sigh, a pause from the secular insanity, and daily life is suspended until the yule log burns out*. I want to live in a place where this moment is quiet and still, where time is suspended, where trees remain decorated until January 6th and presents are opened on Epiphany.

This year, I’m turning off my phone by 4pm on Christmas Eve. I’m closing my computer and shutting down my modem. Two days of no TV, no internet, no cheerful texts from family and friends. Just books and music and Mazie. Peach pecan crepes for breakfast and a home lit by candles in the evening. This is how I plan to experience the magic and mystery.

All I want for Christmas is peace.

I wish you the same during these holy winter days.

May you have a Happy Hannukah, a Blessed Solstice, a Joyous Soyal, a Merry Christmas, a Fun Boxing Day, a Meaningful Kwanzaa, and a Joyous Epiphany.

* traditionally, the yule log would burn for 12 nights

Sick. At Home.

Home is the place where when you’re sick, you’re cared for and you’re comfortable. Well, as comfortable as one can be when sick.

I’m currently in Idaho and I’m wretchedly sick. But I’m home, and I’m with Tom, so being sick is about as good as it can be.

Thanksgiving is Tom’s favorite holiday. And Thanksgiving dinners at his mother’s house are some of my best Thanksgiving memories. This year, the plan was for dinner at his sister’s in Boise, and I couldn’t wait to have a Tom and Jerry again. I even planned to film the delicate process of preparing the Tom and Jerry batter, just to share with y’all. I’m pretty sure most of you have never had a Tom and Jerry, and the first thing that comes to mind are the antics of a mouse and cat. This, however, is a yummy holiday tradition, that dates back to the 1800s. Alas, my long explanation of this favorite winter treat will have to wait for another time.

Mazie and I arrived on Tuesday. On Wednesday, Tom tested positive for Covid. I mean like, drop the fluid in the testing strip and within seconds, both lines are lit up. If strobe lights were an option, they would have been swirling. I, however, tested negative. Twice. Ah, but the third time…

I have had four Covid vaccinations, the most recent booster about five weeks ago, just a few days after my flu shot. In the past, I would rarely get a flu shot. But that changed with the pandemic. I have not been sick in any fashion for three years. No colds, no flu, no Covid. It has been glorious. Three years of health! More than simply a relief, this has felt like a game-changer for me. Far from the reality I’ve known through five decades.

As a kid, I was always sick. Bronchitis, asthma, serious bouts with staph (staphylococcus aureus), and then the common and always frequent flu. In high school, my best friend nicknamed me Sickly, short for Sickly Worm, neither of which caught on, for which I remain grateful.

My memories of being sick could fill a thick volume of parchment. I can tell you about the Swine Flu the year my grandparents died. Or the three-week flu over Christmas and New Year’s when I was in grad school. Or the migraines I would get monthly in my 40’s. Then there was the time I had dysentery in Mexico. Chinese medicine doctors have always told me I have low chi – the life force energy that keeps us healthy and alive. You wouldn’t expect that if you knew me: I appear to have lots of life energy. Only, I don’t. Staying healthy has been a life-long struggle.

Which is why I haven’t minded the isolation imposed since the pandemic began. I would rather be alone (with a dog, of course) than with people and end up sick.

Everything we do is always a calculated risk. I still wear a mask when out shopping or in enclosed places, but I don’t when I’m visiting with friends. My pandemic pod still consists of the same good friends from two years ago. So if I had gotten Covid from one of them, well, it would be worth it. But honestly, I’d be extremely annoyed if I got it somewhere else.

While I’m not happy that Tom got sick, and yes, it’s a bummer to have missed Thanksgiving with the family, and I really hate being sick myself, I have to say all in all I’m grateful. Grateful that we are together and grateful we were at his mom’s. (His mother passed in 2019 but the home is still kept as a short-term rental when not being used by family.) Grateful that I made a huge pot of homemade chicken soup and was able to take care of him before I succumbed myself. Grateful that he was feeling better by the time I felt wretched, when my eyeballs hurt, my toes ached, and everything between ached as well.

The TV isn’t working but we’ve had each other to talk to and amuse. And we have our dogs: Athena and Leo, both 14 and ½ years old and still sweet as ever, and little Mazie who never leaves my side. I’m grateful for big beds in adjoining rooms and warm down comforters. I’m grateful for Claudia who delivered our groceries.

Hopefully, I will be well enough to travel back to Tulsa next week. Although I am 1400 miles from where I currently live, I am home. And being home when you’re sick, is the best place to be.

Please friends, get your boosters and wear your masks. Covid is not gone and this winter could be brutal. Stay well.

If you have the means and feel so inclined, buy me a pot of warm tea as I nurse myself back to health. Just a one-time $5 gift. Click here:

Where Do You Go When You Can’t Go Home

When I was young and living 2200 miles away from my family, I always thought that if worse came to worse, I could go home.

My father, in fact, told me as much. “If it doesn’t work out,” he said, “I’ll send you a bus ticket.” A bus ticket? “Yes,” he said. “It will give you time to think. And plane fare is too expensive.”

But it did work out. I moved to San Francisco at age 18, alone, with only two suitcases. I attended City College and worked three jobs to pay rent while living with one or two or more roommates. Then I moved again. And again. I moved for relationships, I moved for school. I moved to escape and I moved to create. I moved to discover.

Friends said I was courageous. It didn’t feel that way to me. I merely felt compelled. Something kept calling me forward. Perhaps it was more emotional than rational. But it was always with the conviction that if worse came to worse, if it didn’t work out, if I failed miserably, I could always go home. To my father. And after he died, to my mother. Even in the last years of her life when she lived in senior housing, when there was clearly no place for me to crash, I still clung to this belief. And then, she, too, was gone. But I have a sister and a brother and even a stepmom. If the very worse happened, surely one of them would take me in, give me shelter, and feed me. Just until I could regroup, get a new job, and start over.

Home is the place where, when you have to go there,

They have to take you in.

– Robert Frost, The Death of the Hired Man

This no longer feels true. Home, as I had always thought of it, no longer exists. My parents are gone and the three family members who remain have no room for me. They love me, certainly, and I love them, and we talk on the phone. But visits are hard to come by, we each have our lives.

Let’s be honest: many marry for this very reason. And it’s a good reason. We all want a home to go back to. A people and place that are waiting for us.

The only thing that pulled me out of a terrible depression a few years ago was recognizing that while I no longer have a home to return to—the home I thought I once had, the home we all dream of, the home of feel-good movies—I do have a few very dear friends who would take me in. If worse came to worse. No questions asked. And that has made all the difference.

But some of us don’t have that.

So what do we do when we can’t go home?

If worse came to worse, where would you go?

Who are the people who would take you in? Who are your homies?

Next week is Thanksgiving. I tend to struggle with this holiday a bit. (If you’re interested, you can read last year’s post here.) This year, Mazie and I will be in Idaho with my adopted family. And this year, I’m thinking about the day a bit differently. I’m not sure how to articulate these thoughts yet, so I leave it at this:

Thank you. I am grateful for you. For each and every one of you reading. And for so many who are not. For everyone whose life I have touched, even when I didn’t realize it, when I was too self-absorbed in thinking I didn’t matter, thank you. You give my life meaning.

BACK HOME by Louis Jenkins

The place I lived as a child, the sharecropper’s farmhouse with its wind-bent mulberry trees and rusted farm machinery has completely vanished. Now there’s nothing but plowed fields for miles in any direction. When I asked around in town no one remembered the family. No way to verify my story. In fact, there’s no evidence that any of what I remember actually happened, or that the people I knew ever existed. There was my uncle Axel, for instance, who spent most of his life moving from one job to another, trying to “find himself.” He should have saved himself the trouble. I moved away from there a long time ago, when I was a young man, and came to the cold spruce forests of the north. The place I thought I was going is imaginary, yet I have lived here most of my life.

If you like this post, consider buying me a cup of coffee! I’d be extremely grateful if you did. And if not, that’s okay too. Thanks for reading!

My Home May Not Be Your Home

“La mia casa ė la tua casa.”  I’ve been saying this quite a bit in the last week. I’m sure you know this phrase in Spanish, mi casa es tu casa: my home is your home. This is the ultimate offer of hospitality, yes? Please, regard my home as your own. Be comfortable here. Come and go as you please. Eat from the fridge. Use whatever you like.

We purchased the old train stop home in Sicily. Yes (YAY!) That’s a bigger story and I have lots to tell you but if you have no idea what I’m talking about, see Purchasing Property in Italy, Part 6. I promise to show you photos and videos soon—this has been a whirlwind two weeks—but first, I need to tell you about Vincenzo, my neighbor, whom everyone calls Enzo.

Enzo lives just down the road, about two hundred meters, what we might call a half block. He can see our house better than we can see his. What everyone can see from the road is his large “Agritourismo” sign. His home, it turns out, is Masseria Anni Trenta – a bed and breakfast that once had a variety of animals on the premises, including a camel, a llama, and an alpaca! His property is lovely, filled with olive and fruit trees, including persimmon, and what can only be described as art: the placement of beautiful things. The room I stayed in this weekend was very comfortable, complete with its own little porch. And bonus: he has a big fluffy white dog named Talco.  (Note: In an extremely kind gesture, Enzo has offered me to stay there as much as I like for no cost while I am working on the house. I am also staying gratis at a friend’s home in Balestrate, which is 45 minutes away. Not a long drive but when I’m filthy and sweaty from working, staying with Enzo is truly a gift.)

Enzo has lived in Selinunte his whole life and oversaw every aspect of the renovation on the train stop property. He personally chipped away the plaster to reveal the bricks over each window. He stained each door and window. He put in each window screen. He picked out the toilets, bidets, and sinks. He even hand-painted the words “ANTICA FERMATA LATOMIE” on the front, just as they appeared originally. He made sure that every bit of the restoration twenty-one years ago mimics the original property. Over the years, he has cared for our new home, driven by it several times daily, and attended to its every need. This place is his baby.

So, on the same day I received the keys, I asked him to make another set for himself. Please, I said, “La mia casa ė la tua casa.”  This made him happy and he assured me he would continue to keep an eye on the property. And, if anything needed to be done, if I gave him the authority, he would do it. Also, he would make sure that we would always pay the Sicilian price, not the American price. That promise became real just the very next day when we realized there was no water, even with the electricity on. The water pump must not be working, someone would have to be called. Of course, I said, please call whomever you think best. And he did. Two days later, a man arrived and determined that the pump needs to be cleaned. Replaced? No, he didn’t think so – just cleaned. And the tank cleaned as well. How much will this cost? One hundred twenty euros, maybe 150. This, my friends, is a relief.

Someday when my Italian is better, I look forward to hearing what Enzo thought of us when we came to view the property before making an offer. I do know I made a good impression when I spoke a little Italian and told him that, while I could learn Italian in the States, I could only learn Sicilian in Sicily. He responded with gusto, “She understands that Sicilian is a language, not a dialect!” But he had no way of knowing for certain if we would love the property as much as he does and if we would strive to maintain its historic look.

Now he has no doubts. Yes, we will keep the yellow exterior. Yes, we will keep the wood stained green. No, we will not replace the floor tiles. But the real test came with the placement of air conditioning units. (In Italy, the a/c unit both cools and heats.) For every inside unit, there is the engine outside. When we were trying to decide where to place the ones in the upstairs rooms, it became obvious that there was no way we could do this without destroying the historic look. And so, before I could even consult with Tom, I said no. We could not put a/c upstairs because it was more important that the house continue to look as it does. And with this one quick and firm decision, Enzo knew we were the right new owners of the home.

“La mia casa ė la tua casa.”

I asked Enzo if he could find someone to replace the screens on the windows, as the current ones had been chewed through by critters. Yes, he said, he would pick up the supplies. Did I want green plastic again or aluminum? While I like the green color, aluminum, I think, is better to keep out the mice and small lizards. Yes, he agreed. When I arrived at the house on Saturday, already two window screens had been replaced. I understood he would buy the supplies, but I did not realize that he, himself, would do the work. Then a window fell apart when I opened it. By the end of the day, he had made it all better.

The men who installed the a/c units on Saturday left a rather large hole on the exterior where the tubing comes through. This is not good, I told the man who sold us the units. This must be fixed. Yes, yes, he said, Enzo will do this. But that’s not fair, I said. Enzo did not make the hole. I was told, “It’s okay, don’t worry.” Indeed, the very next day, Enzo fixed the hole.

When we decided we wanted the property[i], we had no way of knowing that it came with Enzo. Time after time we worried about how we would care for it when we are not there. Whom would we call when things needed to be done? It is too far away from anyone I knew. If there were problems, which of course there would be, what would we do? I fretted over this quite a bit and still, I trusted. This, I was sure—we were both sure—was the right property for us and so we proceeded. Now to discover that Enzo and the home are a package deal, I cannot tell you the depth of my gratitude. Be still and know. It will all work out. It has all worked out. And it will, I believe, continue to work out.

I tell Enzo, “Ora siama una famiglia” (we are family now). “La mia casa ė la tua casa.” He smiles. For a moment, we touch. His arm over my shoulder, my hand on his waist. Together we admire the home we are creating, the home we will share. Okay, not completely, but you know what I mean.

With such good news, why do I title this post, “My Home May Not Be Your Home”?

What feels like home to me may not feel like home to you. And what feels like home to you, may not to me. But, to be at home and to feel at home is a sensation we all understand. Home is universal. The feeling transcends specifics.

– Jan Peppler, PhD

This basic premise is the foundation of my writing and research.

Throughout this months-long process, I have posted six times about the properties we saw, each time asking for your opinion. Your responses have been good and I hope you will continue to share your thoughts. Some comments are clearly concerns based on personal preference.

Regarding this property, the most common concern expressed is the location. It is not inside a town, not walkable to restaurants and stores, and seems quite isolating to many of you. Others worry that because it is historic, the renovations that can be done are limited. Perhaps the windows are too small and I will miss having a view. I appreciate each of these thoughts and have considered them all.

What feels like home to me may not feel like home to you.

My favorite home, the home I loved most in all my years, was the one I owned in Picabo, Idaho. This home reminded me in many ways of the childhood summers I spent on my godmother’s farm in Michigan. I loved being far from town, surrounded by open space, agriculture, and stock animals. In the ten years I lived there, only a handful of times did I consider the distance from town a bummer. Probably three of those times was after a concert in Ketchum (35 miles away), when it was late and I was tired. Maybe another three times when a snowstorm made the roads dangerous, and maybe twice when I had forgotten something important and needed to go back.

The old train stop house is five minutes from Selinunte, which has groceries, restaurants, all necessities, and several beaches. It is twelve minutes from Castelvetrano, a town of maybe 30,000 and the nearest hospital, and one hour from the Palermo airport. From my Picabo home the nearest groceries were twenty-some minutes away (and seventy minutes to Costco and Lowe’s), forty-five minutes from the nearest hospital, and just over two hours to the Boise airport.

Walkability to restaurants and stores is not an issue for me. Yes, it would be charming to shop daily, strolling to the vegetable stand, bakery, and such. But only once in my adult life have I lived within walking distance to groceries.  And the truth is, I rarely eat at restaurants. It is an expense I allow only when I’m socializing with friends. Cooking at home is cheaper, which is okay because I like cooking and I’m a pretty good cook. And so far in Italy, I find friends prefer to eat at home as well. Cooking for friends and family is part of the culture.

The primary reason for not living in town is that I don’t like noise and I don’t like crowds. Living in an Italian village means sharing walls with other homes. It means noise from the street and noise from neighbors. It means tourists, and way too many tourists during the best times of the year. Whereas, living at the train stop house, like in Picabo, means quiet, peace, tranquility. The cars that pass on the road remind me of those that would lull me to sleep in Michigan. The whizzing sound is almost comforting and eventually, I suspect, I won’t even hear it. My nearest neighbor is a three-minute walk away. Close enough when I need him, but not too close.

As for the view, while it might not be what I could have in a hilltop town, I do see olive groves. Dear friends, I’m in Sicily – everywhere I go there is a view!

And finally, the renovation constraints. The historic value, the fact that it was once a train station built during Mussolini’s time and has been restored to look as it did ninety years ago, oh my goodness, this is extraordinary! For us, nothing could be cooler. Fundamental to my love of Italy is how ancient much of it still is: the buildings, the traditions, the people, the history. I gravitate to places, people, and things with stories: that which is weathered and old and repurposed. This, too, goes back to my godmother and other childhood imprints.

The only renovations we want to do are ones that are already allowed with no special approval needed. We can create a stone patio and add a pergola, no problem. We can even put solar panels on the roof, which is amazing to me. As a conservationist, this is something I absolutely want—except that they will cover the gorgeous roof tiles and in general, look ugly. We don’t have to worry about this at the moment, however, because they cost more than we can afford. (Our realtor misled us.)

Finally, the windows: While those on the sides look small, combined with the others, they allow a great deal of light. The kitchen has three, the living room and bedrooms each have two. Additionally, each bathroom has a window and the two small storage closets also each have one, and there is a window at the top of the stairs. So pretty much any time of day, there are windows where the light comes directly through. No other place we saw had this feature. In most Italian homes, at least those in towns, there are windows only on one side, two sides if you’re lucky. Here, there are 13 windows total: six on ground floor and seven upstairs.

Truly, the only thing that weighs on me is whether my little dog Mazie will like it. She, I think, will feel the isolation with no street to view from her sofa perch. But at least there is a large yard. And, perhaps, I will get her a companion. A daily drive to the beach for a stroll in the sand will be good for us both. But remember, it will be quite some time before I can actually live here (more on that later).

In half the time that it has taken us to purchase this house, my brother decided to sell his, have it painted, listed, and sold, bought another and moved in. And this is quite common. A thirty-to-forty-day closing is the norm, whereas ours took over five months.

Am I sure about this? Yes. Absolutely yes. I am ecstatic. The future is always a mystery and I’m not foolish enough to think it will be smooth sailing. But I’m happy. Very, very happy. My home may not be your home but I have no doubt that when I’m done fixing it up, it will feel homey – even to you.

[i] We made the offer back in April – sorry friends, I was keeping you in suspense as we did not know if the sale would go through, and it only just did at the end of September.

Thank you for reading! I’d love to hear what you think. Have you ever lived somewhere that friends and family thought was maybe not such a great place, but you loved it?

There’s a Spirit in Your House

“Please, just let someone else sleep with you.”

I was sitting on my bed and talking to my house. Begging her, actually. A few months earlier, I had put all my personal belongings in storage and moved only some clothes, books, and essentials to Santa Barbara. What I left in my home was furniture and just enough of everything needed to be a functional and livable space. Livable, at least, for anyone who might rent her.

I had done my best to hook her up, to not leave her empty and alone. I created a website to promote her charms and availability. I posted her photos and profile on Airbnb and VRBO. I advertised her in the local paper and in Fly Fishing Magazine. None of it worked. Despite all the publicity, my house remained empty and alone. So I came home to have a talk.

I sat on my bed and begged, “Please, just let someone else sleep with you.” I felt sure that if another wandered through her rooms and stayed with her for a length of time, we might break the spell between us. But during the fifteen months I was away, she rented for only ten and a half weeks. She refused to move on, she was waiting for me. Maybe that’s an odd thing to say, but it felt absolutely true.

Personifying is a term for attributing human characteristics to something that is, well, not human. Personifying our homes is pretty common. When we do this, our dwelling becomes more than a house: it develops a personality. The bond between human and home may be as intimate as a lover, a spouse, or a child. My own home became my significant other, missing me, and waiting for me when I went away.

I named my house and I named every tree that I planted in her yard. She was built as a spec and I was the first and only owner. And she was my first too. The first and only home I’ve owned.

She and I lived alone together for ten years, even longer than I was married. She listened to my tears and my fears, my screams and my laughter. She stood by me through the death of my mom, my dog, and several other heartbreaks. She silently understood when I was sick, sad, and lazy, as well as energized, determined, and unstoppable. She knew all my insecurities. She sheltered me with grace. In return, I was good to her: I preened and primped her and took care of her every need. I threw her a party, christened her with a blessing, and gave her a name.

But we both knew I had to leave. First, for school, and then, quite possibly, for good.

When I finished grad school and returned home, I thought I could just slide back in, say hello, and get back to the way things had been. But no, my absence had taken its toll. She hovered over me, watching me in my sleep, silently brooding and waiting. No longer my significant other, she had become my mother. I, like a child returning from college, had dropped my bags and barely gave her a hello. I plopped down on the couch with my dogs, settled into a quick meal and a movie, and left a mess strewn about on the counters and floors. By the third day she could not be ignored: the silence was too loud, she was fuming with anxiety. She had missed me. She wanted my attention and needed me to sit with her. She needed assurance I was going to stay.

Finally, I sat on my couch and told her everything. Eventually, I heard her say, “What about me? What’s to become of me?” I didn’t have an answer. Not any answer I was willing to admit. And so, after sitting in silence for a long afternoon, I heard her say, “I love you and I am here for you. But you want more. I can’t give that to you. I want more for you too.” And that’s when I knew the inevitable: I would have to sell my home. I would have to leave.

Maybe you’ve felt something similar. Maybe you, too, have felt a familiarity with a home that goes beyond a structure: rather, a home that feels like a friend or a member of the family.

This was certainly true of Mark Twain and his family. Twain’s wife, Livy, had a great deal to do with the construction and design of their dream home in Hartford, CT, drawing her own sketches and consulting with the builders. Livy seemed to birth their home into being, much like one of her own children, and it was here that they raised three daughters. Mark Twain considered the seventeen years they lived there to be his happiest and most productive.

But then finances forced him on a European lecture tour, bringing along the whole family except for their eldest daughter Susy. And then the unthinkable happened: Suzy died. She died in their home before any of the family could return. Afterward, Twain wrote to their pastor about how he was grateful that, by dying in their home, she was not completely alone:

“To us, our house was not unsentient matter—it had a heart, and a soul, and eyes to see us with; and approvals, and solicitudes, and deep sympathies; it was of us, and we were in its confidence, and lived in its grace and in the peace of its benediction. We never came home from an absence that its face did not light up and speak out its eloquent welcome—and we could not enter it unmoved.”

(Mark Twain’s Letters 1886-1900, 83)

Suzy’s death was heartbreaking. Unable to be with her at the end, the Twains never returned to their precious home. The house was sold in 1903 and Livy died one year later.

The Twain family home in Hartford, CT

The psychologist James Hillman considered personification as a way of loving and knowing. As we mature, we appreciate objects and people for what they are, independent of us. The more we care for an object, the more likely we are to imagine beyond what can be seen; we perceive objects and personify them. Hillman writes, “Loving is a way of knowing, and for loving to know, it must personify. Personification is thus a way of knowing” (Blue Fire, 46-47).  This seems very important to emphasize: personification is a way of knowing as it identifies what we sense and what we feel with our hearts. Personifying provides another language for our experience.

It’s easy to say the Twains and I personified our homes because we did. The Twains felt their house had a soul, which was comforting not only when they lived there but also when they weren’t there for their daughter’s passing. Returning to the place where she died was too painful but then it might also be said that not returning was a double heartbreak for Livy, one she couldn’t survive.

As for me, I wouldn’t say my home had a soul but it certainly felt like it was alive. When the sun weathered her wood siding and she was desperately in need of a new coat of stain, I couldn’t help thinking she needed a good moisturizer for her face. She felt very separate from me and yet connected to me. The truth is that she was an embodiment of my own psychic energy.

Personification is, at its core, a projection of the Self.

Toni Morrison’s novel, Beloved, can be a tough book to read. If you finished it, you know that while it is shocking, it is also nuanced and complicated. I never saw the film. The subject matter is so sensitive, however, that I suspect the story is reduced to horror. If read or viewed this way, a true understanding of the house is completely missed.

The house in Beloved has a personality and a name:124. Each of the three sections of this story begins by telling us about the house: “124 was spiteful,” “124 was loud,“ and “124 was quiet.” When Morrison describes the house in these ways, we understand, almost viscerally, that the house is more than a structure of wood and nails: it acts, it feels, it is a force in the family’s life.

Psychologically, the house is a projection of Sethe. The house is not haunted by the dead baby’s spirit (as it appears) but is rather a personification: it is psychic matter appearing as a sentient being.

Morrison writes that 124 is “full of baby’s venom.” The spirit of the infant that Sethe killed to keep it from becoming a slave appears to live in the house, to have actually become the house, even when she returns in an adult physical form. And when she leaves, when she is exercised from 124 by the wailing and praying of women, the house appears to be empty of this spirit. “Paul D shuts the door. He looks toward the house, and, surprisingly, it does not look back at him. Unloaded, 124 is just another weathered house needing repair.”

Yet this is not merely an exorcism: 124 is a representation of Sethe’s psychic life. All those years when she was angry and scared, confused and unforgiving, the house was the same: the house embodied the emotions of Sethe and the nonfulfillment of her baby, Beloved. As the story unfolds, Sethe gives herself over to this psychic energy, giving it her primary focus, allowing it to feed and grow, until it has exhausted itself and dissipates. In the end, the house with its “riot of lake-summer flowers where vegetables should be growing,” and its “odd placement of cans jammed with the rotting stems of things, the blossoms shriveled like sores,” resembles Sethe herself, lying under a quilt of colors with her hair spread out like the “dark delicate roots of good plants,” her eyes expressionless and looking out the window, devoid of plans, barely animated, yet not dead. Sethe and her house are both deeply weathered, listless, and in need of repair.

The house is Sethe. It has always been a projection of Sethe – the part of herself she could not face.

I never read Stephen King’s novel, The Shining, nor have I seen the movie, yet I suspect the same would be true here as well. The house, with its gruesome past, embodies an aspect of Jack: the demons he has tried to ignore that made him violent and an alcoholic. Now sober, he has never truly faced these demons. So the house brings them to life, embodies them in their worst form and takes over Jack. Only Jack’s son, Danny, as a child still pure and full of potential, can see and understand this. Only he can see past the trauma and pain and remember what his father has forgotten. And for one brief moment, Danny’s ability to see and accept his father brings his father back to sanity before he, along with the house, is destroyed.

On a lighter note, there’s the 2006 animated film, Monster House. I think this is a pretty good film as it explores the cost of bullying and the benefits of compassion and companionship. Though I suspect most folks just consider it a Halloween movie.

The house of the title appears to be fully alive and embodied with the spirit of the owner’s dead wife. Old Mr. Nebbercracker has lived in the house as long as anyone can remember. He is cranky, keeps to himself, and scares away anyone that comes near. More than that, the lawn actually absorbs anything that lands on it: a ball, a kite, even a person!

Some kids decide that the house must be a Domus Mactabilis (“deadly home” in Latin), a supernatural being created when a human soul merges with a structure. The kids enter the home when the owner is gone and discover a cage containing the body of his wife encased in cement. When Mr. Nebbercracker returns home, he tells them the sad story. He met his wife when he was young and she was an unwilling member of a circus sideshow. He fell in love with her despite her obesity. He helped her escape, they ran off, and together they began building their home.

But she was tormented by children teasing her about her weight. One Halloween, when she has had enough and intends to reciprocate, she slips and falls to her death in the foundation of the house, and the wet cement buries her body. Mr. Nebbercracker is devastated but unable to leave his love, so he finishes building the house around her. Once finished, it becomes his wife, taking on her frightened, frightening, and jealous spirit and terrorizing the neighborhood children as retaliation for the cruelties and jeers she received when alive.

Only when Mr. Nebbercracker makes a connection with the young boy across the street—which is also symbolic of connecting to his young and innocent self before the tragedy—does he realize it is time to move on and let his wife go. Then the house can be destroyed.

So was the house really inhabited by his d

ead wife’s soul? No, but that makes for a good story. Psychologically, the house was a manifestation of Mr. Nebbercracker’s grief for a wife he had loved dearly and for his dream of them living happily ever after. Letting go of his grief would eventually mean letting go of the house.

Which is the same thing that happens in the 2009 animated film, Up. (You remember this, I’m sure: when the old man ties balloons to the home he shared with his deceased wife and is carried away to Venezuela.) But in that film, the house never takes on the psychic energy of the old man, so I’ll leave that story for another time.

What do you think? Do you have a relationship with your house? Does your house have a personality?

My Picabo home

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?

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