If you’ve been following me for a while, you know I often comment on how Mom is our first home. We are created inside our mothers and she houses us for many months while we grow.
I don’t want to be cliché today. You’re going to see a LOT of stuff, I’m sure, about today in the news. But since my topic is home, I need to at least say something in honor of Earth Day.
Many religions believe humans were formed from the earth. We are born of the earth. Earth is our first Mother.
Like a good Mother, she nourishes us, soothes us, and protects us. From Her, we are fed. In Her fields and waters, trees and forests, mountains and sands, we are comforted, we find peace. In those same places, we can be protected from harm—if we access them wisely. She gives us herbs and medicine to heal ourselves. She provides materials to build shelter. Without Earth, we have no home.
And, like children everywhere, we are rebellious. We think we know better than She does. We try to manipulate Her according to our whims and desires. Sometimes, She allows us to get away with it. Other times, Her reaction is swift.
Today, I hope you will do what She wants more than anything: pay attention to Her. Spend the day with Her, if you can. And if you can’t, at least give Her a gift. Donate to an organization that is dedicated to protecting Her. Plant some flowers, plant a tree, start a compost pile. Walk instead of drive. Consider today a holy day.
I’m sure you know the ubiquitous Reduce*Reuse*Recycle directive. And hopefully, you are already doing this.
Turns out, however, that recycling is in jeopardy. For decades, we were shipping our recyclables to China and India. (That alone seems ridiculous, don’t you think? We really haven’t figured out the technology to turn old plastic into something new here in the good old U.S.A.??)
Well, China and India won’t take our plastics anymore. And U.S. recycling plants are closing due to minimal profits and huge hassles. Meanwhile, landfills are raking in the money. In America, sadly, money always wins. Learn more here: the recycling crisis
Recycle Across America is a nonprofit committed to solving this crisis and you can help. Their website has LOTS of great information. I’ve been recycling since the late 1980s and it turns out there are still some things I’ve been doing wrong. Here are two things I learned from Recycle Across America:
Yes, I realize that I can be annoying. I move plastic out of public trash and into recycle bins, like in the airport or at festivals or even people’s homes. At restaurants, I always ask what their containers for leftovers are made of. If it’s styrofoam or plastic, forget it. I won’t take home the rest of my meal. And this is a sacrifice my friends because I’m frugal as heck and I always love leftovers.
Do my actions help? I want to believe they do. If we all do something, that’s a whole lot better than nothing.
This year and moving forward, what are you doing to show your Mother that you love her?
By the way, if you love trees or are even nominally interested in trees and the old-growth crisis here in the U.S., read The Overstory by Richard Powers. I found the interlocking stories haunting and the depth of tree information as thick as humus in the forest and dizzyingly fascinating. The story is rich, timely, achingly painful, and glorious.
Thank you for reading. And thank you for all that you do to help our shared home. Leave a comment and share what inspires you to do whatever it is you do to protect and conserve our precious natural resources.
Two years ago, I celebrated Easter in Sicily, in a country-wide Covid lockdown in an apartment looking out at the Tyrrhenian Sea, listening to Handel’s Messiah and hearing it differently than I had in all my years.
The trumpet shall sound… and we shall be changed.
Over and over again during those first months of the pandemic, it was said that things will never be the same. In every article and every posting was a claim of a new normal – a release from the insanity of over-working capitalism and the destruction of our Earth. In this imposed period of rest, it was said, we were being renewed and the earth was too. Wisdom would prevail. We would return to what was truly important: family, community, nature, peace. The fundamental necessities.
Two years later and mass genocide is happening live on TV. War is raining down destroying cities. The rich have gotten richer and corporations—those for-profit machines with more rights than people—are hijacking our economy.
Have we learned anything? Has anything truly changed?
Except that maybe perhaps we are hurting in new ways. More insidious is the ache, the numbing pain, the precipice of despair.
In all this, I offer you the wisdom of Wendell Berry. Mr. Berry is a literary savant. More than that, he would tell you, he is a farmer, having farmed his entire life in Port Royal, Kentucky. His connection to the land informs everything: his faith, his relationships, his activism, and his writing.
The following poem was first published in the 1970s and I only discovered it around 2006. Since then, it has been my annual Easter poem, to be read at every Easter gathering I have hosted and attended. The message is more salient now than ever.
Be joyful even though you have considered the facts.
I was going to wait until Sunday morning to publish this post, but I can’t shake the feeling that now, in these last days of Holy Week, is when we need this reminder. Not to be glossed over in the joy of Easter but instead pondered in the weight of death – to foster the understanding of our interconnectedness. Spring is all the more sweet because we have endured Winter. And sweeter still when we participate in it and not simply observe it.
Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front by Wendell Berry
Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion — put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
So long as women do not go cheap
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep
of a woman near to giving birth?
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie down in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap. Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go.
Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Buona Pasqua. A blessed and contemplative Easter, dear friends.
And two more by Mr. Berry, because I love the symbolism of three:
The Peace of Wild Things by Wendell Berry
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
I met someone the other day who owns farmland in Northern California. About 80 acres with a small home, guest house, and room to build other compact dwellings. He told me it was remote, down a long quiet road, an hour from the nearest gas station.
I always get excited when I hear this kind of thing. I’ve dreamed of living on land in community with friends for a very long time. In the 1980s, I imagined owning a bed and breakfast – a real bed and breakfast back when that was still a thing. By the early 1990s, the vision was bigger: at least 75 acres where we could build small cabins or tiny strawbale homes and a larger creative space that we would share for music, massage, dance, and more. In the middle of the property would be a huge garden where we would grow our own food.
This guy nodded his head and said, “Yup, my place has plenty of room for all of that.”
Of course, now I dream of such a community in Italy. But Northern California is beautiful. I’m open to all possibilities.
Then he told me that while his property was an hour to the nearest gas station, it was actually about two and a half hours to the nearest town. Oh. Full stop. Even for me, that’s too remote.
Italian towns first started advertising 1-euro houses for sale in early 2019. Sambuca di Sicilia was one of the first and others quickly followed. The only catch was that a minimum of 17,000 euros needed to be spent in renovations and the renovations needed to be completed in three years.
Then, the region of Molise (southeast of Rome) announced it would pay $27,000 to relocate to one of its villages. There were, however, a few caveats:
I have a friend who’s been an ex-pat for 22 years. We met in San Francisco in 1989 when I was living in a community house in Haight Ashbury, (which is a whole other story). Anyway, she and I got excited about these possibilities. Really excited. We did our research and brainstormed about how we would renovate and what we could create that would bring a steady stream of visitors.
The most obvious idea is a retreat space. Individual rooms with a shared common space and an outdoor setting. Perhaps writers retreats or yoga retreats or artists in residence. I could even fall back on my 20+ years as a massage therapist and offer massage.
One week of my planned trip to Italy in 2020 was dedicated to us driving around and visiting villages where we might make this dream come true.
Then the pandemic happened. All plans came to a halt as the world stood still. I’m not sure if the Molise offer still exists. But the number of Italian towns offering 1-euro homes has grown to twenty-six. If that seems like a lot, remember that Italy is primarily a country of small towns and villages. Around 5,800 of them have less than 5,000 residents and half of those have been partially or completely abandoned.
There are several reasons for this. Earthquakes and other natural disasters severely damaged many towns. Residents who didn’t have the funds for repairs simply left. And of course, the 20th Century brought more opportunities in cities like Rome and Milan. But the first major exodus happened shortly after the unification of the country in 1861. By WWI (1914), sixteen million Italians emigrated, with most landing in North and South America. Low-income laborers accounted for at least half of these numbers. Which is to say, the homes they left were nothing great to start with.
1-euro homes are basically shells. Empty for decades and some even for over a century, these are not simple fixer-uppers. Everything needs to be done in these places: roofs and walls, plumbing, electricity… bedrooms, kitchens, and bathrooms all need to be built from scratch.
There are a lot of YouTube videos featuring the purchase of 1-euro homes. Enough to make me reconsider. The amount of work that needs to be done seems staggering, particularly for someone with extremely limited funds.
Lorraine Bracco’s My Big Italian Adventure is worth watching. In just a few months, shown over three episodes, her 1-euro home in Sambuca di Sicilia is completely transformed. She’s an actress and it’s a TV show, so it’s filled with drama, but it’s also pretty honest. She started with a $145,000 budget. After it was all said and done, she admits the project cost more like $250,000.
That’s money I don’t have. But… she did something that gave me an idea. Something that seems more reasonable and even practical. Something that maybe I could do. Something I explored during my visit in February.
Check out this video that features 1-euro homes in Sicily:
In it, you’ll meet Giuseppe Cacioppo, deputy mayor of Sambuca di Sicilia, whom I met in 2020. Giuseppe has become a friend and was a guest at the dinner I detailed in my post, “Food, Family, Friends.”
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Naples is the last place I would expect to see something related to the struggle for Civil Rights in America. But there I was in the San Ferdinando district, admiring The Royal Palace from the 17th Century when inside the Courtyard of Honour was this:
The home of Rosa Parks. The home in which she lived after she fled death threats following her dramatic refusal to give up her seat on a bus. The Detroit, Michigan home where she lived with her brother and sister-in-law and their thirteen children after she left Montgomery, Alabama. The home where she hoped to find a better life than in the South. Instead, while riding the bus was no problem, she found housing segregation to be just as bad in Detroit as it was in Alabama and, as she said, more obvious.
She was with family which meant she was certainly home, yet she still found herself on the outskirts of home with her country.
It was in this house, in the Virginia Park neighborhood of Detroit, that she focused most of her activism on housing issues. By 1962, urban renewal policies had destroyed 10,000 structures in Detroit, displacing over 30,000 African-Americans (70% of all those who were affected).
As Ms. Park’s health began to decline, she moved from this house to several senior housing facilities, first to care for her ailing mother and then by herself. The rest of her family left this house in 1982 and the home stood empty for decades. Her niece, Rhea McCauley purchased the home but lacked the finances needed to restore it and could not secure funding for that purpose. Consequently, in 2016, the house was scheduled to be demolished.
And that’s when American artist Ryan Mendoza decided to save it. He took it to his home in Berlin and had it reassembled in his garden. And now, as he lives in Naples, Italy, he has brought the Rosa Parks home to Naples.
Each time the home is taken apart, moved, and rebuilt, or re-membered, Mendoza says we are given the opportunity to re-member how we think about American history.
Rosa Parks was not a meek and tired woman who participated in activism for just one day in 1955. Instead, she was a life-long activist for equal rights, civil rights, human rights.
As the United States continues to grapple with who is remembered as a hero and what memorials we will keep and those we will take down, it behooves us to consider the Rosa Park home as a place worth conserving.
This is not the grand home of a general, a president, or a philanthropist. This is not a large home. It is small and decaying. And yet, this home speaks volumes. This home has stories. This is the home of a woman and her family who lived their lives trying to keep their home and trying to make their home country a better place for all.
Almost Home. To be home but not quite fully at home. To be free but not completely free. To be a home not in the home of its origin.
Maybe one day.
What do you think? Can you imagine living in this tiny home with fifteen other people? Do you think this home is worth saving? What do you think of the juxtaposition of this small humble home in the courtyard of the Royal Palace in Naples?
Almost 3.5 MILLION refugees have fled Ukraine since Putin began his war on this sovereign country three and a half weeks ago. The vast majority have entered Poland and the rest have sought shelter in Romania and neighboring countries.
Many Americans want to help. Kudos to Avi Schiffmann and Marco Burstein for creating Ukraine Take Shelter, an online platform that connects Ukrainian refugees with potential hosts and housing. It’s heartening to see so many folks across the United States, even here in Tulsa, who wish to welcome Ukrainians and are posting lodging on this site. Hopefully, these people will help persuade our elected officials and other Americans to reconsider our policies on migrants entering the United States.
The reality is that very few Ukrainian refugees will come to the States. Our government is working on fast-tracking Ukrainians who already have family here, but that’s it. An operation to transport refugees to the States is not likely to happen. Even those with family in the States don’t necessarily have the resources to travel.
Those that make it to the U.S./Mexico border have encountered strict policies under Title 42 (enacted during the last administration) that make crossing extraordinarily difficult. The story of a Ukrainian family (a mother with her three children) seeking asylum is frustrating. But then, the plight of asylum seekers in the U.S. has been heartbreaking for years now. Restrictions were loosened last week for Ukrainians but still remain in place for all others coming from Central America, Haiti, Brazil, and Mexico.
People don’t want to leave their homes. Our human nature is to stay put. We leave only when we feel there is no other choice. Migrants, refugees, asylum-seekers all come to America when they fear for their lives, when they believe life in their home place is unbearable or impossible. Sure, some still come for better jobs, like those who work in the tech industry or those with significant wealth who want to enjoy the American lifestyle. But they are the minority. The endless opportunities of a new world-better life dream which built our country with immigrants from Europe are now merely a hope for children of immigrants, while the immigrants themselves face discrimination and are forced into minimum wage jobs that Americans don’t want.
I met an Armenian man last week who is a medical doctor in his home country. Here, in the States, he is an Uber driver. I didn’t ask why he chose to come to the U.S. in 2015, especially when his medical license would not be recognized, but I can imagine that the genocide which happened in Armenia in 1915 may have something to do with it. Epigenetics now shows that trauma is transmitted across generations, inherited by children, grandchildren, and even great-grandchildren. And the effects of this inter-generational trauma can be devastating.
Leaving one’s home of origin can feel like a plant ripped from the ground without its roots. On top of the discrimination that refugees face in the U.S., those who leave their home countries must also wrestle with the pain and heart-sickness of being separated from their loved ones. Sadness, fear, and doubts plague those who have left family behind. Sofia Sukach, in her recently published essay, says, “I felt ashamed to run away” while her home in Kyiv is being bombed, even when that meant joining her parents in Warsaw. She continues:
If you want to do more to support the people of Ukraine, consider these 28 Meaningful Ways You Can Help Ukraine, published by Global Citizen.
May we—individually and as a country—reconsider our prejudices and policies regarding refugees and asylum-seekers seeking shelter in the U.S.A. We are fortunate to call this land our home, a country built on diversity and immigrants. May we find room in our hearts to welcome others to our hearth and table, regardless of their skin color or faith.
The National Flag of Ukraine is so simple and yet infinitely beautiful and symbolic. The blue color of the flag represents the sky, streams, and mountains of Ukraine. The yellow color symbolizes Ukraine’s golden wheat fields and the richness of the earth. I can’t help thinking of the lyrics to America the Beautiful. We are all patriots of our countries, rejoicing in the beauty and bounty of our lands.
On top of the flag is the trident from the Ukrainian coat of arms. There are many theories on the symbolism of this trident but all agree it was adopted to emphasize the antiquity of the country.
Some say that this image is not a Falcon flying down, but a swan that flies up. In Ukrainian, the Swan is a symbol of regeneration, purity, chastity, proud loneliness, nobility, wisdom, and courage. Another thing that Americans relate to.
I miss my mom. Today she would be 88 years old. Honestly, I’ve missed her for eleven and a half years – more than I ever would have thought was possible.
I didn’t appreciate my mother in life as much as I have since she died. That’s a harsh thing to admit. I loved her, absolutely, I loved her. And I admired her too. Yet, I struggled with her. I struggled with what I perceived were her weaknesses and her needs for attention, and I struggled with what I now understand are reflections of my own self.
My mom was a Pisces, just like me. While I don’t subscribe to astrology as the sole determinate of human behavior, I do believe there are certain characteristics that we share according to the zodiac.
My mother and I both feel things deeply. Emotional, you might say, but I don’t like that term, and neither would she. In our culture, emotion is a negative. It’s attributed to women as a handicap. My mother’s emotions made her a poet. She understood things on a gut level, as do I.
As a Pisces, my mother’s birthday is on the heels of mine. I know this sounds petty and I’m not proud of this, but I always felt like her day encroached a bit on mine, even if it was two weeks away.
Maybe that’s why I spent a bunch of years as a young adult downplaying my birthday. When I finally embraced it at age 28, I did so with gusto. But that’s also when I started sending my mother flowers on my birthday. Always with a card that said, “Thanks for not having me circumcised.” (The story was often told how my father, probably a bit delirious from being awake about 36 hours, came into the maternity ward and shouted, “Alice, we forgot to talk about the circumcision!” The other mothers snickered as my mother gently reminded him the baby was a girl.)
I thought acknowledging my mother with flowers was a nice way to thank her for bringing me into the world. Now I wonder… maybe I was just trying to bring the focus back to me and also give her a gift in advance of when she expected something. Maybe the gesture was both altruistic and selfish, I’m not sure.
More than this, the overriding truth of our relationship is that I was much closer to my father. She would often say, “You’re so much like your dad,” and after they divorced, that wasn’t a good thing. I was well into adulthood before she would celebrate the ways she and I were similar, particularly as it came to writing and the positive aspect of our emotions.
The truth is, I didn’t want to be like my mother, though I wasn’t consciously aware of this until she was gone. I heard too many times growing up that I got my looks from her and my brains from my father. When my dad would say this, my mom would respond, “Jerry, my IQ is 140 – higher than yours!” And still, people other than my father would say it. It’s true – I did look like my mom, and thank goodness for that. But when it comes to respect, we prize intelligence over looks. And our culture assigns intelligence to men.
Growing up in the 1970s and ‘80s, I was profoundly aware of my mother as a working mom and a single mom. I also knew and vaguely understood the sins of my father, the reasons for their divorce. But the prevailing mindset at that time still blamed the wife for a divorce. Especially in Christian circles.
It didn’t matter that my mom had written two books, Divorced and Christian and Single Again, This Time With Children. Or that she led workshops on these topics and was featured twice on The 700 Club with Pat Robertson. (Admittedly, the latter did impress me. But mind you, this was well before Robertson went completely off his rocker.)
In our culture, men are associated with success. We live in a patriarchal society. Even today, women are expected to find fulfillment in being wives, being pretty, being mothers, hosting gatherings, and keeping a nice house. If a girl aspires to more, she will often identify with her father and not her mother. She’ll consider her mother weak or less admirable than her dad. She will distance herself from her mom as much as possible. Maureen Murdock writes about this phenomenon in her book, The Heroine’s Journey – Woman’s Quest for Wholeness. I didn’t read this book until I was in graduate school, a few years after my mom’s death, and wow – it was both an eye-opener and a punch in the gut. This isn’t every woman’s experience, but Murdock certainly describes mine. And the truth is, it was my mother’s experience as well.
I wish I could talk to my mom about these things. About how I emotionally abandoned her in some ways, despite staying close to her. How I blamed her for things that weren’t her fault. How I didn’t fully respect her wisdom. She had so much she wanted to share and, while I largely went through the motions, I fell so short of really listening to her, hearing her, and engaging with her mind.
Age brings wisdom. I understand my behavior now and I can forgive myself for not being a better daughter, but that doesn’t make me miss her any less. In fact, I miss her more.
My mother was truly a role model of strength and grace and an incredible blend of beauty and brains. Every day I see more and more how she influenced the woman I have become. For all of this, I am deeply grateful.
Happy birthday, Mom. I wish you were here.
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Inshallah, this newsletter will post on February 12, 2022. Inshallah, when it does, I will be in Rome.
First, inshallah. Or more precisely, Insh’Allah. I forgot about this expression. Thanks to Abdullah Shihipar’s recent piece in The New York Times Magazine, it is back in my vocabulary.
Shihipar writes, “For Muslims, the term — which translates to “If God wills” — is auspicious: If you want something to happen, you should say inshallah before you say anything else about it. The Quran says as much in its 18th chapter, Surah Al-Kahf. “And never say of anything, ‘Indeed, I will do that tomorrow,’ except [when adding], ‘If Allah wills.’”
It is, I think, very helpful to keep such language in our daily speech. Using it may help minimize our disappointment, or, at the very least, our outrage and sense of entitlement when things do not go as hoped.
Like when I woke last Sunday to discover our reserved lodging in Syracuse—which was already paid for—would not be available due to renovations. Or the next day when I discovered I had a sinus infection. Or the day before departure when I was diagnosed with an ear infection.
All things, Insh’Allah. The antibiotics and ear drops seem to be working and, inshallah, our refund will come through soon.
So, while you are reading this, I am in Italy.
It’s been almost two years exactly since I was in the land of la dolce vita. In 2020, I arrived in Rome on March 4th for a once-in-a-lifetime six-week trip. Instead, five days later, the entire country was in Covid-19 lockdown. By then, and by the grace of God, I had made it to Sicily, where, as it turned out, I stayed in the same apartment for three months. Once-in-a-lifetime indeed. Altogether, I was in Italy for four months. And that, my friends, was a game changer. I’ve been waiting to return ever since.
(If you’re interested in reading about my time in Italy in 2020, you can subscribe here to read my unfinished memoir on Substack at Finding Home or check out An American in Italy During Coronavirus on this blog, JanPepplerHOME.)
Last spring, when it seemed somewhat safe to travel again (before the Delta variant, remember that?) I decided to return ‘home’ to Idaho, where I had lived for 14 years and where two of my dogs still remain. Only, the costs of commercial fights had risen so high that a ticket to Italy cost about the same as a ticket to Boise. And that’s when I convinced Tom we should go to Italy instead. Hah!
That was not Insh’Allah. Our plans were scrapped when Italy dragged its feet about travel restrictions and the airlines canceled part of our itinerary. But we still had credit, so it was only a matter of time before we attempted the trip again.
February is my birthday month, so I like to say that this is Tom’s birthday present to me. Yes, it’s a very generous present. Tom, who has never been to Italy, repeatedly thanks me for all the planning and organizing I’ve done and honestly, it has been a ton of work making arrangements. Plus, I know a littleItalian now, as well as a few friends there, so in a sense, I am partially playing the role of tour guide. Okay, maybe that’s not exactly an equal trade. The point is, I’m extremely grateful to Tom for helping me return to this beautiful country and he is grateful to me for taking him.
Tom and I met in 2005 on a five-night river rafting trip on the Salmon River in Idaho. By Thanksgiving of that year, we were a couple. We never lived together and we never married, but we did share custody of two great dogs even after we broke up. Without this arrangement and his emotional support, I could never have made it through graduate school. And Tom is the one who moved me to Oklahoma, driving the U-Haul the entire four days while I read Killers of the Flower Moon out loud like an audio book. The only thing he asked in return was to allow our two elderly dogs to remain with him, which, let’s face it, was in the best interest of our dogs. They have a good life in Idaho, though that was a hard separation for me. It’s not like they can send me a text. And you can’t scratch a pup behind the ears or rub a belly from a distance. But Tom is pretty good about regularly sending photos, so that’s something.
So, while my dogs and Tom are in Idaho, Idaho is still home. Because home is always where your family is. And, while they say dogs are your best friends, the truth is, they’re family. And Tom is family. Like my pups, Tom loves me unconditionally. He accepts me completely as I am. He is always happy to see me. His friendship provides me both comfort and joy. And, at sixteen years, his companionship has outlasted most four-legged friends.
Now we are in Italy. Inshallah, we will travel to Naples and then Sicily. We will stay in Syracuse, in Sambuca di Sicilia, and Balestrate (where I spent 11 weeks during 2020’s quarantine, staring out at the sea), before returning to Rome and then returning home. To Tulsa, that is.
Inshallah, we will reconnect with old friends and meet new ones. We will indulge with daily gelato and start each morning at a bar. (A coffee bar, silly.) We will explore, we will celebrate, we will learn, and we will laugh. (We always laugh.) We will eat and then eat more. We will make memories.
Of course, I wouldn’t mind if something happened that caused our trip to be extended. But Tom is a Gonzaga alum, and he has tickets for the Vegas preliminary March madness tournament, so…
Inshallah, we will be back in the States for him to watch the Zags win and I will soon be snuggling my dear little dog, Mazie.
Stay posted. Inshallah, I will write to you from Sicily.
One year ago, I decided I needed to give my ‘career’ one more shot. Do something of value. Something I could be proud of. Something I could throw myself into for the next five years and then move to Italy. Something where I made decent money and could save for that dream while also using my decades of experience in nonprofit management and development.
My career in nonprofits began when I was twenty-four and my father was dying of AIDS. I didn’t know that was the beginning. I started as a volunteer. I was required to do community service after being arrested for blockading the Pacific Stock Exchange while protesting corporate greed after the Exxon Valdez crashed in Prince William Sound. Sadly, those kinds of disasters are all too common now. But then, well, the world seemed different then.
I moved back to Chicago to take care of my father and was introduced to Angelika, who founded a nonprofit to provide services to people with AIDS. That meeting changed my life.
One of the first things Angelika asked me to do was balance the checkbook. When I brought it back and admitted it was balanced with the exception of four cents, she said, “Find the four cents.” That was powerful. It was, after all, only four cents. But she was right. On so many levels, she was right. I found the four cents and I have never forgotten that lesson.
In time I went from answering phones to helping produce events and then training volunteers. Eventually, I grew the volunteer program to a force of approximately 250 people. Next, I managed all our support services including transportation, meal delivery, and even a food pantry. I did outreach, I asked for contributions, I made alliances, I ran support groups, and I sat with clients and their families- as they lived, as they died, as they mourned. My years at Community Response were profound. My work was a calling, a vocation. So much more than a job. That work was my life.
Everything I’ve done since then has been an attempt to fill that same sense of purpose. And while I have truly believed in the other nonprofit work I’ve done, nothing has come close to my time at Community Response. Still, over the years I gained a lot of experience, I raised a lot of money for great causes, and, I believe, I made an impact.
I was really good in nonprofits. I know my stuff. But like the mandarin slice in the garlic bulb, just because I can still fit in that job doesn’t mean I belong there.
I went back to school with the dream of becoming a Humanities professor. But after earning my PhD and several years of teaching adjunct, I couldn’t land a full-time college gig. And I couldn’t live off an adjunct’s wages and still pay my college loans. When I was heavily pursued for another high-level fundraising position, I relinquished my conviction of a new career and accepted the offer.
Sometimes the universe tests you to see if you’ve learned your lesson. It tempts you with something that looks familiar but better. Underneath it is the same hole you’ve fallen into time and time again. If you’ve learned your lesson, you acknowledge the opportunity and walk away. If you haven’t learned, you embrace the “opportunity” and fall back into the hole.
I fell back into the hole.
Two fundraising jobs later, I was determined never to do that again. Instead, I went to Italy. I pursued a different dream. That dream led to another life-changing event: three months in Sicily during Covid lockdown. While there, every sign seemed to tell me to write.
So I started a blog: this blog. In those first months, almost 4,500 visitors in 41 countries read my work. Then I came back to the States and my readership fell. I adopted a new website combining the blog with my consulting and it was a disaster. I had no income. I questioned my purpose.
This time last year I bucked up. I threw myself into looking for that one last meaningful career job. And the positions looked promising. Recruiters started calling. I only pursued those that were philosophically and emotionally a good fit. But the universe was teasing, testing me again. One by one the doors closed.
It hasn’t been quite a year since I decided to give writing a real chance. I doubt my abilities all the time. I’m barely paying my bills with a low-stress side job. But when I think of where I was a year ago—throwing myself into the job hunt, ready to plunge back into nonprofit leadership—I recoil. That is no longer my life. I’m amazed, relieved, and deeply grateful.
People think I’m courageous. It doesn’t feel that way to me. Instead, I think it’s just that I can’t stand the pain of slamming into a wall or pounding my head against a door that doesn’t open. My personality is not one to bust through barriers but rather to walk around them. And that’s when I discover a new path. A path that carries me home, even if that home is temporary.
I am a writer. I’m still struggling with this, though. Still trying to silence the voice that says it is pretentious to claim such a thing, the voice that says writing is not as noble or selfless as working in nonprofits. And I’m still learning the craft. Like a volunteer before my responsibilities ramp up, my confidence is hampered by the limited time I’ve been at it. But here I am. Doing my best and striving to do better.
Thank you for joining me on my writing journey. My journey to finding home. You make me better.
Sometimes we don’t choose home, home chooses us. We fall in love not with a place but with a person, and if that person lives elsewhere, we find ourselves far from our original home. Home becomes the place where our beloved is. And even when our beloved is gone, this place is still home.
The following post touches me deeply. It’s about chance meetings that change our lives in both big and small ways. About love and loss. About tea and travel and baking pies. And ultimately, it’s about finding home in the heart of another.
I’m grateful to Kate McDermott for allowing me to share her story with you. You can read more of her work at Kate McDermott’s Newsletter.
This is the code word my friend Cindy and I use on a journey we take together to Ireland in 2019, the last international trip that either of us take BC1. When either one or both of us become weary of walking or driving, Tea? is the cue to set the compass for a refreshing pause in our travels to the local tea room in whatever village or town we are near. On one day, The Butter Market Cafe (now closed) in Kilrush, County Clare provides just what we need.
We walk through the door and see that all the tables are taken but as Ireland is known for its gracious hospitality, a woman beckons us over to share the empty seats at her table and we gratefully accept.
I’m just off to the WC. Can you watch my stuff?
She has a husky voice with an American accent and a wee bit of a lilt.
Absolutely! Happy, too.
And off she goes.
While Cindy watches her stuff, I head over to the counter and place an order for refreshments…tea for her, a latté for me, plus several baked sweets to share. I carry everything back to the table and our new friend returns. Introductions and a few pleasantries are next.
Where have you traveled from today? Where are you going to next?
We share that we are in week one of three wonderful weeks of meandering along Ireland’s west coast.
How about you? What brought you here?
And with that she begins a story that has us riveted in moments.
In her 20s, she travels from America to Ireland and meets an artist-musician Irishman along the way. They fall in love and together travel around his beautiful country. As the time comes closer for her to return to America, she contemplates a permanent move to Ireland to be with her soulmate. When she returns home she tells her mom of her feelings for this man, stronger than any she has ever had before, and also of the deep fear she has of making such a big move. Her mother hears her daughter’s words and then tells her a story which she has never known before.
When her mother was young, she too traveled to Ireland, met an Irishman, fell in love, and became pregnant. That man was our friend’s father—a father she had never known until her mother told her at that moment. I can only imagine the surprise and shock she was feeling when she heard this but our friend continues.
Her mother asks…
Do you love him?
Then you must go and be with him.
…and so she does. Our friend makes the move to Ireland and marries her love. On trips back to see her mom he comes as well. All is well…perfect she says and there is happiness in her face, but as she continues her story we see it replaced by sadness. He is diagnosed with cancer…terminal cancer and on a last trip to America his condition becomes so dire that…
All he longed for was to go home, to die in Ireland the land of his birth.
They go to the airport to make this final trip but he has forgotten his passport. She pleads with TSA and Customs to let him go home please because…
Can’t you see how sick he is? He just wants to go home…to die.
And somehow…somehow he is allowed on to the plane to make that last Atlantic crossing. He dies soon after. She tells us of her heartbreak, feeling so alone, and how difficult it has been to go on without him.
There is a piece of land with a cottage in his family and with every cent of money she receives after the death of her own mom she buys the small portion that has the cottage on it. She lives there now. It is far from town and as she has no car she relies on friends to give her rides into town for supplies and visits to the tea room. She tells us of the small garden she is starting and how she feels his spirit so strongly in the cottage. This all she needs, she says. It is enough. It is home.
She turns, looks at me, and asks…
What about you? What do you do?
After hearing her story, my own seems very pale in comparison, but she seems honestly captivated when I tell her I teach pie making, write books, and share with her three life lessons I have learned from pie…
This is why our paths crossed…so I could hear these three things.
When we get ready to leave there are hugs all around. She tells us where we can find her on social media and later I send a message hoping to hear back, but I never do.
The memory of our lives intersecting in this one shared moment will be enough.
James Beard Award Finalist Author, Kate McDermott is the author of Art of the Pie: A Practical Guide to Homemade Fillings, Crusts, and Life, Home Cooking with Kate McDermott, and Pie Camp: The Skills You Need to Make Any Pie You Want. She lives at Pie Cottage, her home on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington State, where she gardens, tends her wood stove, walks, and writes. She invites you to visit her Substack at Kate McDermott’s Newsletter.
I have a good friend who becomes Midge, an alter ego, when she cleans. Midge is a coffee-swilling, gum chewing, wise cracking, no nonsense Italian with a razor-sharp focus for cleaning down to the cracks and crevices.
I’m no Midge. I like an organized home and a clean home, which, having a dog means vacuuming every few days. I don’t want to admit this but I probably would not have made a good mom. Okay maybe one kid but not more. Too much mess. I wouldn’t want to curb a child’s creativity but honestly, I would not have dealt well with the chaos. Even living with another adult has its challenges. Dishes in the sink, food left out, clothes on the floor… these things make me crazy. I’m not proud of this but there it is. I make my bed every morning. I have very low tolerance for living with others who don’t. Which means dogs are about the only level of chaos and dirt I can deal with on a daily basis
Being allergic to dogs means my house has to be clean, even beyond my own compulsion. Or maybe my dog is a good reason to mask my compulsion.
I tend to clean at the oddest times. Like first thing in the morning, before I even have a cup of tea or change out of my PJs. That’s typically when I tackle something big – before I have a chance to settle into the day, get distracted, and change my mind.
Which is what I did last week when I cleaned out the fireplace nook and had to dry all my DVDs. And this week when I decided it was time to get rid of more books. I was lying in bed scrolling through emails as I typically do while my little Mazie continues to snooze under the covers until the sun comes up.
Then a prayer by Rob Brezney caught my eye. A powerful radical juicy prayer. A prayer that may shock some of you but I’m going to share a part of it anyway because it has everything to do with my current headspace.
DEAR GODDESS, you who always answer our very best questions, even if we ignore you: Please be here with us right now. Come inside us with your sly slippery slaphappy mojo.
DEAR GODDESS, you who never kill but only change: I pray that my exuberant, suave, and accidental words will move you to shower ferocious blessings down on everyone who reads or hears this benediction.
I pray that you will give us what we don’t even know we need—not just the boons we think we want, but everything we’ve always been afraid to even imagine or ask for.
Many of us don’t even know who we really are. We’ve forgotten that our souls live forever. We’re blind to the fact that every little move we make sends ripples through eternity. Some of us are even ignorant of how extravagant, relentless, and practical your love for us is.
Please wake us up to the shocking truths. Use your brash magic to help us see that we are completely different from we’ve been led to believe, and more exciting than we can possibly imagine.
Provoke us to throw away or give away everything we own that encourages us to believe we’re better than anyone else.
There I stopped. I caught my breath. I read that again.
Provoke us to throw away or give away everything we own that encourages us to believe we’re better than anyone else.
As if I needed another sign or more encouragement, here it was. First there was the mold and I cleaned my house. I let go of some things. A lot of things, I thought. Things that had once defined me, like my camera. And then, so quickly, I became complacent again. Now there is this. There is still more to clean, more to release.
And that’s what got me out of bed and into the living room to start clearing off my bookshelves at 7 am.
My library has always been a point of pride for me. As it was for my father too. And I inherited a lot of his books, particularly his leather-bound classics. They look good on my shelves, mixed in with all the old and antique books I’ve collected over the years. Granted, the old books are fun. I love reading the language of 100 years ago. But the leather-bound, if I’m being truthful, are pure ego. Those books are for show. Those books are meant to impress, to say a smart person lives here. Those books have been my shield and a façade. It’s time to let those books go.
So I filled my trunk with books. Some I sold, others I gave to a church, and others I slipped into a few little free libraries around town. And I still have more to go, more to give away. But for the first time ever, I have blank spaces on my shelves. I am decluttering my life (again). Releasing what I no longer need, what only makes me heavy, and which deceives me into believing I’m something other than what I am.
Cleaning house is more than vacuuming and tidying up. More than putting things neatly in places so they can’t be seen.
I’m no Midge. But I am definitely getting better at cleaning.
Meanwhile, I’m still tackling the piles of paper on my writing table and a few other surfaces. I’m saving more things digitally these days but the truth is, I always forget the things I’ve saved on my computer. When they are printed, I find them again. And finding them again is priceless.
Here is something I rediscovered this week, another perfect reminder for me and quite timely as we remember Thich Nhat Hanh, the wonderful Buddhist teacher who transcended his mortal body a few days ago:
When Thich Nhat Hanh was invited to the San Francisco Zen Center years ago, the students asked him what they could do to improve their practice. He had entered a monastery at age sixteen, was an ordained monk, and had endured the horrors of the war in Vietnam. The expectation was that he would offer them some rigorous prescription for deepening their spiritual life.
Here’s what he said: ‘You guys get up too early for one thing; you should get up a little later. And your practice is too grim. I have just two instructions for you. One is to breathe, and one is to smile.'”
Sometimes it really isn’t complicated. Breath is cleansing. Inhale the good stuff, exhale the old and unneeded.
Breathe. And smile. This is how we clean house.
These are just some of the books I gave away this week
I met a man this week who told me he lost everything in a house fire. When he and his wife came back from shopping, all that they owned was gone, save for the car they were driving and the clothes on their backs. Twenty years later, they still search for something only to remember they no longer have it.
Starting over, he said, wasn’t easy. They still feel the pain of it. At the same time, he said, it was liberating.
My sister used to accuse me of never letting go: not of people nor of things. For every one thing you bring into your house, give one thing away, she would say. I couldn’t do it. Not until I sold my home in 2018. Then I let go of almost everything. Or so it seemed. A three-bedroom house down to a 10’x10’ storage space not entirely full as there was room to sit in a chair and read. Not that I ever did, but I liked the idea that I could.
Since then, I’ve been living in an 800 square foot flat with four rooms. A tiny house, essentially, with absolutely no storage space.
“You will find that it is necessary to let things go; simply for the reason that they are heavy. So let them go, let go of them. I tie no weights to my ankles.”C. Joybell C.
Sure, I noticed condensation on my windows but didn’t think about it. The moist heat feels good. Moist is, in part, at least, superficially, why I left the elevated desert in Idaho.
But then I pulled a pair of cowboy boots out of my closet and gasped: on the wooden heels there was mold. And on the next pair, and the next pair too. When I saw my oldest pair of boots, purchased in 1985 and resoled four times, I almost dropped them in repulsion. Mold was everywhere. These boots, I realized, would have to be tossed.
I need to let go.
Surprisingly, tossing these boots wasn’t a big deal. The others, I cleaned with vinegar and water and set them out to dry. And that was that. I gave it no more consideration.
Until, l a few days later, I discovered mold on the floor under my couch, which, for the record, I had just cleaned on Christmas Day.
There was more fuzzy mold on the box in the corner which held the audio and video recordings of the documentary I had worked on twenty years ago and never finished. Crap. Now what? Do I need to let go of these as well? These are more than boots, more than things, more than an uncompleted project. These are people’s lives. The records of women no longer living.
As if to answer this question, I look up. Above where the box was stored is a cloth banner that reads:
In the end what matters most is:
How well did you live
How well did you love
How well did you learn to let go.
This is not the end.
I’m still learning to let go.
Later, I discover mold on the canvas yoga mat carrier that was stuffed in a corner between a bookcase and the wall. And on a silk robe hanging too low to the ground. And on the back of a mirror leaning up against the wall. And on a box holding my sewing materials. And on my photo boxes. And that’s when I stopped looking. At least the photos inside are mostly okay, some only moist. I spent the next five hours sorting through photos and tossing a third, maybe half, of them.
This is when I began to feel the discomfort. What to keep and what to let go? If they had all been destroyed, well then, I’d live with that. But having the choice of what to keep and what to toss is difficult.
Choice is hard.
The tears finally come the next day when I consider my camera bag that stored my old Canon Rebel with an external flash, additional zoom lens, and extra filters. Now one of the zippers on the bag is so jammed up by moisture that it won’t budge. This camera served me well. It provided me with another career in Los Angeles shooting “b-roll” footage for PSAs, documentaries, and special events. I shot a LOT of great photos with that camera. I was holding that camera when I met Sir Elton John.
I call a friend. She says if it gives you joy, keep it. But it’s not that easy, I say. I hang up and tears pool in my eyes. I will likely never use this camera again. No one uses film cameras anymore, unless you’re an artist in that field. I will never have that kind of dedication to that art alone.
That was another life, another time, another career. And this, I think, is the source of my tears. As much as I love my current life and where I’m headed, it’s always hard to let go of the past. Even for me. Even after I’ve done it so many times.
And maybe that, too, is part of it. I have let go over and over and over again. While clearing out another damp box, I found a letter to volunteers and supporters of Community Response, the AIDS service organization I worked for early in my career, dated May 1994. It begins: “Give in. Let go. Have faith.”
How many signs do I need? Apparently, many.
How many more times must I do this?
Spirit responds: Until you do it easily, until you learn how to let go.
How much more do I need to strip away?
Everything that is no longer necessary, all this must go.
“The greatest step towards a life of simplicity is to learn to let go.”Steve Maraboli, Life, the Truth, and Being Free
Human nature is to avoid discomfort, at least ifwe can and for as long as we can. Denial, right? More than a river in Egypt.
I’ve been staring at my DVDs in the fireplace nook ever since I first discovered mold. And I did nothing. I reasoned that, while it was against an outside wall, it wasn’t near a window. Oh sweet river, I held out as long as I could. This morning I finally looked. Sure enough, the moisture was thick.
I also have bookshelves against outside walls. I keep thinking that when I move from this place, I will let more of them go. But now? Do I have to now? Already there are too many times I reach for a book only to find it gone. I have let go of so many of my books. I know I will let go of more – but do I really have to do that now? Yes. At least, enough to fit my DVDs after I’ve culled my collection.
A guy from Mold Busters came today and measured for mold. We’ll have the results back next week. Meanwhile, I continued cleaning with a KN95 mask and vinegar water.
Everyone seems to agree that the 80-year-old windows are the problem. Fingers crossed that they will be replaced in the next few weeks.
So the question isn’t whether the mold will be remedied. Of course it will. The question isn’t if I can repackage these things in new, clean, dry boxes. Of course, I could do that as well. The question is… do I really need this stuff anymore?
I have an idea of what I want my new life to be. But nothing is a guarantee. What if I can’t do it? There is security in holding on to old things. But it’s a false security.
“We can’t be afraid of change. You may feel very secure in the pond that you are in, but if you never venture out of it, you will never know that there is such a thing as an ocean, a sea. Holding onto something that is good for you now, may be the very reason why you don’t have something better.”C. Joybell C.
I took a carload of things to Goodwill. Including the camera, a record player, my grandfather’s portable typewriter, and boots. A value of almost $1,000. I have three boxes of books to give away. One to the Unitarian church. The others? Probably out of laziness, to Goodwill.
But the audio and video recordings of women from the documentary I never finished? I still don’t know. It’s so hard to let go.
I am still learning.