While the pandemic continued to make travel abroad challenging, I continued working my way down the western coast of Florida. Along the way, I met some amazing women who have reinvented their lives in the Sunshine State which they now call home.
If you missed any of these posts, check them out for inspiration and info for making 2022 travel plans. If you have never traveled solo and want to try it …if you need to reconnect on a getaway with family or friends, here’s some ideas.
I brought in 2021 on the Art Ovation Hotel rooftop thanks to a solo trip hosted by Visit Sarasota County where I met new friends. In the video above, see clips of interviews with Luisella from Milan and Claudia from Boston at Pineapple Yoga and Cycling Studio which I featured here. Learn more on my Travel People podcast where I interviewed Owner Claudia Baeza about the inclusive community she has built and serves. At The Ringling Museum of Art, Virginia Harshman gave me a tour of The Cultural Coast’s Crown Jewel. She also inspired me with her story of adding to a MBA in Business Administration a Harvard Master’s Degree in Museology/Museum Studies.
In April, my adult daughter, Taylor, and I had a chance to reconnect when I was invited on a Media Tour on Captiva Island at South Seas Island Resort. There I met a fun group of journalists from across the US, including Sommeliers Elaine and Scott Harris ofCuisineist. From their Las Vegas home the share insider info on what to eat, drink, and see in New Orleans, California Wine Country, Switzerland, Ireland, and beyond. They also give tips for travel journalists (or anyone wanting to break into travel media) in Parts 1 and 2. As always on Travel People, they share how they have created a happy life.
In August, Morgan Henderson who hosted me in her Bradenton Beach condo in 2020 invited me back to Anna Maria Island to live the dream in her new property, Seaduction, on Holmes Beach. My empty nester friend, Alba Gonzalez-Nylander of AJ Media Services, joined me. I learned that Alba has also been scouting places to land on Florida’s West Coast. Thanks to Beach Bums, we biked and golf carted around the island, filmed some epic sunsets, and met two ladies who moved to AMI and say it’s now forever home. If you’re considering a relocation to Paradise, meet business owners on Pine Avenue — Rebecca Preston of Shiny fish Emporium and Cindy Tutterow of Hometown Desserts.
Captiva Island Writers Conference and Celebration
I was thrilled to be invited back in to Captiva Island in December as one of a dozen female writers invited by Francesca Dolan of Beaches of Fort Myers and Sanibel and Lee County Tourism. Francesca planned the Writing Retreat and Celebration of the 65th Anniversary of Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s Gift from the Sea which was for her (and all of us) a dream. A huge fan of the book, I’d placed writing on Captiva Island where the book was inspired on my Bucket List years ago. Doing so with the amazing women I met, one of whom was Kristina Lindbergh, Anne’s granddaughter, was an honor I never expected. Kristina was the guest speaker at the community celebration hosted by the Captiva Historical Society. She is a gifted writer herself and one of the most gentle and humble spirits I’ve eve met. I’ll be posting more on this incredible experience soon.
I love Florida palm trees. I miss waking up with palm fronds rustling outside my apartment windows in Morocco and Dominican Republic. Brandon Hall loves them, too, so he moved Florida north. Check out his Palm Spa here. His customers in Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Rhode Island and Massachusetts choose from many varieties of palms and tropical plants to rent or buy for homes, restaurants, weddings, and other events. Go here for a chance to win a palm tree, learn about the many varieties, and see how he brought the beach to the New York Jets.
Also on the podcast, I spent the summer virtually in Italy with three amazing travel guides. Meet Raffaele Romano and Riccardo Bilotto, Archeologists, Wine Experts, and Guides at GrandTourExperience.com. Learn why Naples should be on everyone’s travel list and hear their Must-Sees, Must-Dos in their Campania region. Full interview is on YouTube here and here.
After the rush of the holidays, winter is a time to slow down, to get still, to sit by a fire in a quiet place where we can listen to longings and hear our hearts speak. For many of us, this requires getting away. We need a respite to reflect, recharge, reset. And if there’s been a stirring in our souls, if we’re seeking something different, a place to consider new possibilities. A place to ask, “What if?”
In mid-December, I drove into a town that had inspired the book I was reading. It looked like the set of a Hallmark Christmas movie and the community described sounded Hallmark-close and friendly, too. I couldn’t wait to meet the author who has created a one-of-a-kind experience. I did. After the weekend I drove out of town feeling rested and inspired to take on whatever the new year brings.
In a new year when we try to focus on the positive,she inspires us to see problems as possibilities, to create something for our souls and others, to remember what matters most, and to embrace our roots and spread our wings.
We met in Stanford, Kentucky where she lives on a farm with her husband, Jess. The novels of her May Hollow trilogy – Grounded, Guarded, and Granted– are based largely on life in this small town with a big heart. She and Jess are the creators of the Wilderness Road Hospitality Group that has built a stronger sense of community here. In Part 1 of the interview she explains how they went from milking goats to saving and renovating historic homes. How they built two restaurants, an Inn, and are building another. Angela talks about the importance of close community not only in Kentucky but in a Tuscan village, Montefollonico, where she and Jess have a home and are renovating rentals for retreats and vacations.
Like Annie and Jake in her trilogy, Angela and Jess have quite the love story. Their travel experiences are the stuff of fairytales, and they enjoy the best of all worlds with homes in Kentucky and Tuscany. What I love most is that while she was still a single woman who lived in Lexington with good friends and a job that provided amazing travel experiences, she felt a pull toward another life. She wanted to live on a farm. She knew that nature feeds her soul. She says she knew God was turning her in a new direction, but had no idea how she’d get there. God fulfilled the desires of her heart in ways she didn’t expect.
Lisa, our mutual friend who is also a writer and Italophile, introduced us by email because she though we had a lot in common. Angela and I both went to The University of Kentucky, lived in Lexington, and lived on farms. Our grandfathers were farmers. We grew up in small Kentucky towns. For her, it was Danville. For me, Hopkinsville. She strives to write about the “good, true, and beautiful” for a mainstream audience. No matter how much we love travel and exploring other countries, we recognize our native language — SouthernSpeak.
Angela’s books have been adapted to the stage for sold-out performances at the Pioneer Playhouse, Kentucky’s oldest outdoor theater. Their themes — navigating family, romantic love, purpose and passion, our need for community— are universal. Like Thornton Wilder’s classic, Our Town or Jan Karon’s Mitford series, her books are timeless.
We’re not super easy to get to. We’re an hour south of Lexington’s small airport but we think that’s part of the charm. When you come you’re going to pull away from everything. You can let your blood pressure drop, be fully present, and receive peace. –Angela Correll
I finished Grounded while I was on her stomping ground. Spending time with her characters felt like Old Home Week (a southern church tradition of my childhood that meant dinner on the ground or potluck in the fellowship hall). I recognized some of Annie’s grandmother in both of mine – one that fried country ham, then simmered it in water to make it tender every Christmas morning. Another who watched Billy Graham specials and tucked me in under quilts. I recognized generational struggles over the need for dishwashers, cable, and the internet. Over expressions like “You can’t expect a man to buy the cow if he is getting the milk for free.”
Her grandmother’s farmhouse with its creaking floors took me back to the homes in the country of 3 great-aunts. They, too, gathered eggs from ornery hens and didn’t lock their doors. Stripping tobacco, guns and gardens, Blue Willow China, Bluegills and the Farmers’ Almanac. “Widow Women,” “young folk,” “up North,” “down South”… all reminders of my childhood. The comfort food sent me back to Nashville on a mission to make break green beans, cook them with new potatoes, fry up some crappie, bake a chess pie, and chase it all with sweet tea.
Her reference to Genuine Risk, the 1980 Derby winner the year I married, took me back to Lexington when I lived on a horse farm. So did this description of Wildcat Mania.
The restaurant walls were covered with black and white pictures of local celebrities. Featured prominently were the University of Kentucky basketball and football coaches, and some of the players, both past and present. Even Hollywood stars like Ashley Judd, George Clooney and Johnny Depp were proudly featured Kentuckians. The fare was fine Angus steak, grass-finished and locally grown, served in an atmosphere of dark paneled walls and white table linens.
A romantic, I cried and was satisfied at the end of her first book, but I appreciate that the story didn’t stop there. She wrote a trilogy as if to ask, “What if … a fairytale ending of boy gets girl isn’t the end of the story? Aren’t relationships more complicated?”
Career struggles, abandonment issues, financial troubles, gossips, family secrets, depression… it’s all here. But there’s something about this place that is so familiar and comforting that I listen to the Audible versions as bedtime stories. Maybe because I spent a weekend in the world of the novel where people care for each other, stop and talk on the street, remembered my name. Maybe because in a world of troubles and negativity, I need to stay grateful and focused on the positive this year.
The Stanford Inn includes the cottages but in the works are additional lodging spaces including more hotel rooms (larger than the current Inn rooms) on Main Street.
If you need to finish an artistic project– book, painting, documentary–on your own or want the direction/support of a group, listen to Part 2 of the interview where Angela discusses her writing journey and options for retreats and creative community in Stanford and Italy.
First and foremost, I pray for those fighting the Coronavirus around the world, families grieving loved ones, and all feeling global angst and loss. I pray for protection for those on the front lines, like my daughter and sister in patient care, first responders, and grocery store employees who are caring and kind. I pray for wisdom for researchers seeking a vaccine, leaders around the world, all of us facing something so frightening, evasive, new.
COVID-19 has stolen income. It has postponed or cancelled lifelong dreams. Instead of graduation and milestone birthday celebrations with families… honeymoon dinners in piazzas… spring break escapes overlooking azure seas, we are on lockdown–many in solitary seclusion– practicing social distancing. We never dreamed going to the grocery (for those of us able) would be our only “getaway” where we hold our breath, swerve to miss other shoppers, and shake our heads at empty shelves.
We need to cook and stay in. Meal planning needs to be strategic so when we brave the store we can get in and get out. But when we can’t find our default foods we’re too overwhelmed with all that is swirling around us to be creative. Sometimes we’re too distracted and tired to even think.
March 2020 proved a 19th century proverb wrong–the one that says if the month comes in like a lion it will go out like a lamb. Tornados ripped through Nashville March 3 and made global headline news. Since then COVID-19 has ravaged much of the US and the world.
I started the month trying three times to outrun the outbreak. When my travel blogging conference in Sicily was cancelled last minute (thankfully, given the crisis that hit full force a week later), I considered using my connecting flight to New York City and spending spring break there. When the Coronavirus was reported there, I booked a flight to Florida but canceled within 24 hours because they were being hit, too. For most of us, there’s nowhere else to run and home is the only place to hide.
But we’re also learning that being grounded can be grounding.
I’ve remembered teaching English in a small village in Italy one summer and my own childhood where families ate hot lunches together in the middle of the day. I’ve been cooking more and through food, music, and memories returning to some of my favorite places. It started when I cancelled birthday reservations at an Irish pub and made my first corned beef brisket at home.
Below are ways to make cooking an adventure, meal planning easier, and eating more fun. I’ve included links for delivery for those who can’t get out/ feel safer not doing so, such as moms with children in tow.
First, make a space to breathe, a nook for relaxing and enjoying what you cook.
For almost three weeks I’ve gone nowhere except to buy groceries and my birthday present– plants for my patio — knowing it would become my home office and world. Spring rains have made everything I see Ireland-green grass and pink blooming trees. As the bulbs push through soil in Italy-blue pots around me, and the natural world comes back to life again, I’m reminded daily to trust God who sees what I can’t… knows what I don’t.
But this I do know. Neighbors I’d never seen before have come out of their homes. They are walking and playing as families six-feet away. They smile, wave, and nod at Ella (my yellow lab mix) and me. The world–once a blur of motion– has slowed down for many and the value of health, relationships, connection has come sharper into focus.
These are some recipes I’ve made during lockdown. I’ve also included cooking playlists– links from Spotify and Amazon Prime Music members can stream for free.
Several of these ingredients are used in more than one dish. I shop multiple groceries–especially now when some shelves are bare–but have linked to Whole Foods and Amazon Fresh organic products for health and convenience. Those with Amazon Prime can get groceries delivered free–important to many during self-quarantine but also a reason why they may be out of some of these products periodically and locations/terms of delivery may change.
Disclosure: SouthernGirlGoneGlobal has an affiliate relationship with Amazon. If you make a purchase from an Amazon link in this post, I will receive a small commission which does not affect your cost but helps a bit to keep this blog going.
One more thing…I’m also a big believer in improvisation. While living in Morocco without a car and some ingredients I needed for recipes, I learned to substitute or do without. When I wanted to make clam chowder, one of my go-to comfort foods, I couldn’t find clams. No worries–I used shrimp which were plentiful and inexpensive. Thankfully my grandmother taught me that cooking isn’t an exact science. It’s “a little of this, a little of that.”
With the right music while cooking… a dance in the kitchen… and a pretty place setting (pun intended), we can exhale calm. We can taste escape… and hope.
My first trip to Europe was with my students in the early 90s, a Grand Tour of England, France, Austria, Germany, and Switzerland. Standing on my balcony in the Swiss Alps between snow-capped peaks and Lake Lucerne, I drew in a long breath of cool, clean air to the jingle of cowbells. I wondered later as I climbed under the crisp, white down duvet if I’d stay warm enough–it was so lightweight!–but I did and have slept under nothing since. I met the group in the regal dining room the next morning where sunlight streamed through large windows spotlighting a sumptuous spread. We’d been told we’d have only “continental breakfasts” on our tour so not to expect eggs, bacon and biscuits, staples in the southern US. In London we’d had dinner rolls every morning, in Paris croissants served with butter and jam. But in Switzerland at a hotel/hospitality training school, waiters in white served fresh fruit, marmalade, and plates of delicious cheeses and cold meats– sausages, salami, hams. It was the beginning of a love affair I still have with charcuterie served anytime of day.
Breakfast (Zmorge, Swiss German for “in the morning”)
Jam (pictured above is Homestyle Traffic Jam, a gift from a friend who bought in Gatlinburg, TN–available online here) other options are Organic Mixed Berry Conserve and I love the Dalmatia fig spread at Aldi’s, too.
If you have shifted to a later sleeping/waking schedule, you can imagine you are in Spain. There breakfast starts around 10 AM, lunch at 2 PM, tapas (appetizers) and drinks late afternoon/early evening, and dinner at 10 PM. I love the food culture, climate, people from Vigo to Madrid , across Andalusia and Catalonia … everything about Spain.
Cut brussel sprouts in half and place on a roasting pan. Sprinkle with minced garlic (3-4 cloves), salt, and paprika, then drizzle with olive oil. Back at 400 degrees about 20 minutes or until tender. Pair. with Spanish wine or sangria (recipe below).
Red Sangria (our family favorite for summer and Christmas, too)
Bottle of Red wine (Spanish wine recommended but I’ve used merlot or cabs, too)
In Morocco, I taught at the American School of Marrakesh which had no cafeteria. Students’ hot lunches were delivered by drivers or they packed cold ones as I did. All produce was organic and sold in the grocery markets, hanuts (Moroccan form of minute markets) and on fruit and vegetable carts. Fresh produce coupled with having no car and walking everywhere made me feel more fit than ever. Lunches were salads and clementines ( peeled and eaten like candy or sliced and sprinkled with cinnamon). Oranges, lemons, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, and mint for tea (or for expats, mojitos 🙂 were available year-round.
I no longer make coffee on the stovetop in an expresso maker, but I have still squeezed oranges for fresh juice since living in Marrakesh. I use an older model of this Juiceman (see photo below).
(Left) Strawberries in season, avocado, and balsamic vinegar
(Right) Sliced Tomatoes, Green Peppers, and Cucumbers with Vinegar and Olive Oil.
These guys are ubiquitous in Morocco, found in bowls on restaurant tables beside loaves of bread. At school, the elementary teachers loved the shade of the olive trees at recess but had to keep watch over students tempted to pelt each other with olives. I’ve thought a lot lately about a Thanksgiving spent at Peacock Pavillions when Maryam Montague decorated the table with olive branches, symbols of simplicity and peace. She spoke about another global crisis–that of refugees and displaced people groups.
A tagine is a traditional dish named for the the clay pot in which vegetables, fruits, and meats are cooked on a stovetop or open fire. It is loved for its savory-sweetness in modest homes, restaurants, and palaces throughout the country. I ate lamb, chicken, and vegetarian tagines with friends from Marrakesh (where our favorite waiter at Chez Joel and favorite manager at Riad Mur Akush uncovered the dish with ceremonious flair) to the Sahara desert gathered on the ground family-style in a Berber tent.
While living in Marrakesh I made only one tagine because my housekeeper, Sayida, made the dish for me often. I did enjoy the lesson at the La Maison Arabe Cooking School, and when a former student and friend visited me, they enjoyed learning from the ladies at the Amal Center. Last week I craved comfort, so I made my first tagine unsupervised. Sayida would probably roll her eyes at me with a grin, but I spiced it up and loved it.
1½ cup vegetable or chicken broth (liquid should be even with about ⅔ of contents of pot)
salt and pepper to taste
Add lamb, beef or chicken. I used 2 chicken breasts, skin removed cut into square pieces
Serve over Couscous –made on stovetop or in microwave
Spray or rub lightly the inside of the crockpot with olive oil. Layer vegetables in the bottom of the crockpot. Place meat (optional) and prunes on top. Mix seasonings with garlic, tomato paste, and broth, then pour over all.
The best couscous I’ve ever had was at Riad Hikaya. Making it like they do is on my Cooking Bucket List.
Boil the pasta. Saute the anchovy paste and garlic in hot, melted butter and oil in a saute pan. Cook for 2 minutes and add 2 Tablespoons of pasta water. Add tomatoes and cook until they pop. Drain pasta and mix with other ingredients in a saute pan. Add shrimp and red pepper flakes (if desired) and parsley until all is heated through.
*For another easy, super-fast pasta dish, mix a jar of pesto and 8 ounces of pasta. Eat hot or cold.
Tuscan White Bean Soup (for those last rainy spring days)
Pepper to taste (or ¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes if you want more heat)
Improv: add a cup of chopped baby spinach, 4 ounces of diced pancetta or bacon , splash of white wine
Heat 1 T olive oil over medium-high heat. Cook onion until soft for about 2 minutes. Add carrots and celery, then garlic. Add a splash of wine if desired. Cook until soft, about 5 minutes. Add beans, tomatoes, and stock. Simmer, covered, until vegetables are tender (about 10- 15 minutes).
4 bacon/pancetta sliced into thin strips (I dice.)
4 garlic cloves thinly sliced
8 chicken pieces on the bone (thighs or drumsticks)
8 ounces portabella mushrooms sliced
500 ml (⅔ of bottle) Riesling or dry white wine of your choice
8 ounces cream (heavy or half and half)
salt & pepper to taste
handful chopped parsley (I use rosemary and thyme instead.)
Melt the butter and oil together in a large pan.
Brown the chicken pieces all over and remove from the pan.
Add the onions and bacon and allow to fry until the onions are soft and translucent and the bacon has rendered its fat.
Add the garlic and allow to saute for another 30 seconds before removing the mixture from the pan (leaving the fat behind).
Add the mushrooms and allow to fry for 5 minutes.
Add the onion and bacon mixture along with the browned chicken back to the pan.
Pour in the wine and allow to come up to a boil. Turn down the heat and cover. Allow to simmer for 15-25 minutes or until the chicken is cooked through.
After 15 minutes, uncover, turn up the heat and add the cream. Allow to cook for another 10 minutes.
Add the chopped parsley and season to taste.
Serve with rice, pasta or crusty bread.
If the only recipe or ritual you take from this post is to peel an orange and let its juicy goodness run down your wrist while sitting in a spot of sunlight… mission accomplished. From Elizabeth Gilbert, a woman who inspired me to make the leap and live abroad… a word on the art of cooking and eating from her Eat, Pray, Love…
There’s another wonderful Italian expression: l’arte d’arrangiarsi—the art of making something out of nothing. The art of turning a few simple ingredients into a feast, or a few gathered friends into a festival. Anyone with a talent for happiness can do this, not only the rich…
I walked home to my apartment and soft-boiled a pair of fresh brown eggs for my lunch. I peeled the eggs and arranged them on a plate beside the seven stalks of the asparagus (which were so slim and snappy they didn’t need to be cooked at all). I put some olives on the plate, too, and the four knobs of goat cheese I’d picked up yesterday from the formaggeria down the street, and two slices of pink, oily salmon. For dessert—a lovely peach, which the woman at the market had given to me for free and which was still warm from the Roman sunlight. For the longest time I couldn’t even touch this food because it was such a masterpiece of lunch, a true expression of the art of making something out of nothing. Finally, when I had fully absorbed the prettiness of my meal, I went and sat in a patch of sunbeam on my clean wooden floor and ate every bite of it, with my fingers, while reading my daily newspaper article in Italian. Happiness inhabited my every molecule.
And as Easter, time of rebirth, nears, my prayer for us all is…
May the God of green hope fill you up with joy, fill you up with peace, so that your believing lives, filled with the life-giving energy of the Holy Spirit, will brim over with hope!–Romans 15:13
Summer travel season is here–my favorite time of the year! PLEASE JOIN ME FOR A WAY TO SAVOR TRAVEL EXPERIENCES AT HOME in a course I’m teaching in July at The Porch, Nashville’s Independent Writing Center. GO HERE FOR DETAILS: Travel Tales: Writing Our Journeys Near and Far is for anyone wanting to join a community of explorers with various writing goals. Whether you’re a blogger or journalist seeking ways to hone your craft of transporting readers through story, someone simply seeking to create a personal souvenir of a special time and place, or a writer ready to excavate treasures on excursions in your own backyard, this course is for you.
My Ireland- bound friend, Carol, sent me the poem below–a sendoff for sojourners– as I packed for Spain and Morocco.
Travel Lovers are everywhere. Recently I enjoyed another cooking class taught by Chef Paulette, I met a group of ladies who have grown close on her culinary tours of Italy. As we braided bread in her kitchen, we bonded over a common thread: travel. We were transported to Italy again by four pasta dishes and tales of soul food…the beauty, adventure, and relationship… travel has given us. In Chef Paulette’s classes you can create delicious dishes, meet kindred travel spirits, and enjoy Italy at home.
Another way to savor travel experiences at home is in a course I’m teaching in July at The Porch, Nashville’s Independent Writing Center. Travel Tales: Writing Our Journeys Near and Far is for anyone wanting to join a community of explorers with various writing goals. Whether you’re a blogger or journalist seeking ways to hone your craft of transporting readers through story, someone simply seeking to create a personal souvenir of a special time and place, or a writer ready to excavate treasures on excursions in your own backyard, this course is for you.
Please join me in July! And for now, here’s some Italian inspiration and a travel blessing…
Whether coming or going, enjoy the journey–what you experience while away and what you do with it when you return…
For the Traveler
–by John O’Donohue (Dec 05, 2016)
Every time you leave home,
Another road takes you
Into a world you were never in.
New strangers on other paths await.
New places that have never seen you
Will startle a little at your entry.
Old places that know you well
Will pretend nothing
Changed since your last visit.
When you travel, you find yourself
Alone in a different way,
More attentive now
To the self you bring along,
Your more subtle eye watching
You abroad; and how what meets you
Touches that part of the heart
That lies low at home:
How you unexpectedly attune
To the timbre in some voice,
Opening in conversation
You want to take in
To where your longing
Has pressed hard enough
Inward, on some unsaid dark,
To create a crystal of insight
You could not have known
When you travel,
A new silence
Goes with you,
And if you listen,
You will hear
What your heart would
Love to say.
A journey can become a sacred thing:
Make sure, before you go,
To take the time
To bless your going forth,
To free your heart of ballast
So that the compass of your soul
Might direct you toward
The territories of spirit
Where you will discover
More of your hidden life,
And the urgencies
That deserve to claim you.
May you travel in an awakened way,
Gathered wisely into your inner ground;
That you may not waste the invitations
Which wait along the way to transform you.
May you travel safely, arrive refreshed,
And live your time away to its fullest;
Return home more enriched, and free
To balance the gift of days which call you.
Nine trips to Italy and I’ve just planned the next one. This year I spent New Year’s Eve in Venice, my birthday in Tuscany (below), and Easter in Rome, but I’m asking Santa for an extended holiday in the land I love.
Thanks to Chef Paulette‘s just-released book, Italian Cooking Party, this tour will last for years to come with 100 of her recipes, tips on how to stock an Italian kitchen, and secrets to throwing Italian parties anywhere. Details of how to order her book are here; and if in Nashville, you can purchase copies for the cooks in your life in time for Christmas at Parnassus Books.
Many know Chef Paulette from Channel 4 WSMV’s More at Midday and Today in Nashville (see her making Walnut and Chocolate Biscotti below) and have traveled with her to Italy. Or they’ve seen her perform with Duane in Duette. Upcoming shows in Music City are January 1, 2017 at Brown’s Diner and January 6 at The Frist Center. I met Paulette many years ago in one of her cooking classes in her Bellevue home. As Diana Krall crooned, the chef who had migrated from New York City from the kitchens of Mario Batali and Micol Negrin and learned from cooks in six regions of Italy impressed me with her signature recipes and soulful teaching. I knew we were kindred spirits when she sat with strangers as if family, lingering over the meal the class prepared. Her home soothed, transporting me to summers spent with Italian friends in Piedmont. Students left warmed by the wine and conversation.
Multiple cooking classes and a friendship later, I’m still drawn, wherever we meet over dinner, to her heaping hospitality and wisdom cultivated at her parents’ table. She laughs: “I always want to sit at table longer than anyone else. I don’t want to clear the dishes but keep hanging. I grew up in that. Mom would do the dishes but I sat listening to my dad. Dad was a philosopher. I remember crying at his philosophical life stuff. Coffee and cake would come and we’d still be sitting there.”
Jack Canfield, author of Chicken Soup for the Soul, advises: “Make a conscious effort to surround yourself with positive, nourishing, and uplifting people–people who believe in you, encourage you to go after your dreams, and applaud your victories.” Paulette is what southerners call “good people.” I asked her once if she ‘s a romantic. She said she takes chances and is generally optimistic–good traits for a time when nothing globally or personally seems certain.
This year the decision to sell our family home of 21 years was one of the hardest of my life. Leaving Morocco was difficult, too, although I wanted to be nearer family. Last February I had no idea when the house would sell nor where I’d end up working or living. When I told her my concerns, she wrote: “Isn’t that great? All sounds great — even the leap into you-don’t-know-where back home. Sorry about your house but maybe that was the only way for you to move from it and into this newer part of your life. I’m so glad Morocco was wonderful for you — (how could it not I guess!)…but what a way to evolve and find more of yourself.”
That’s Paulette Licitra, the consummate Renaissance Woman. Her story is the Portrait of an Artist who never stops growing, learning and laughing. A lady who reminds me that challenge brings change… reinvention…and despite growing pains it’s a good thing.
The Brooklyn-born Italian-American wrote novels and plays produced in New York City. When she won the Phoenix Theater’s national playwriting contest, her hip my heart premiered in Indianapolis, receiving nods for its multicultural casting and a “haunting ballad” she wrote. She also boosted women’s literacy rates in Jordan, Egypt, and Morocco with an Arabic version of The Electric Company while writing and producing for Nickelodeon and Children’s Television Workshop.
By September 2001 Paulette was on top of the world…literally. Perpetually peaking, she had climbed through a Costa Rican cloud forest on an Earthwatch Expedition to study the mating dance of the long-tailed manakin. Bound for the Northern Cape on a Norwegian cargo ship, she’d crossed the Arctic Circle prowling for Atlantic puffins. Trusted with national treasures in over twenty states, she had researched and recorded audio scripts and podcasts for land, sea and air: the Sky Tour at the John Hancock Observatory, Royal Caribbean cruises, the New York Botanical Garden, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Pearl Harbor, and the CN Tower Observatory in Toronto. Her expertise earned her the job of writing the audio script for a tour atop Tower Two of the World Trade Center, what would be “the tallest rooftop terrace on the planet.” In her New York Times piece, “The Tour That Never Was,” she later lamented: “I spent a few weeks haunting the observation deck, looking out the windows, spacing out the tour stops and figuring out how to direct a visitor’s gaze… (they) were setting up the kiosks that would hold the headsets when the attacks came.”
After the tragedy of 9/11, tourism tanked so Paulette Licitra decided in her 50s to become a chef and worked in New York kitchens alongside Mario Batali, Micol Negrin, and with cooks from six regions of Italy. Re-charting her professional course, she became Editor-in-Chief of the award-winning Alimentumand moved to Nashville. She also reunited with a high school friend. After graduation they had gone to Woodstock together as purely platonic buddies. After years of living separate lives, they met again and something shifted. The intensity of this Duette is clear on and off stage. She showed me once the prophetic photos used by Joel Makower in his Woodstock: The Oral History of the soulmates’ teen faces peering at the camera from the crowd.
Juliette Child said, “Life is the proper binge.” A journalist, novelist, playwright and painter…chef, singer, tour guide and candlestick maker…. Paulette inspires me. I asked her about the courage it took to live the life of an artist–something I’ve always longed to do. To have the freedom to focus on creative projects–to make one’s own schedule–to give your first love first place until it’s time to return to an old love or try something new. She said:
“I was ALWAYS attracted to the road less traveled. The idea of a suburban life in a house with a husband and 2.5 children made me squirm a little. Somehow I think I was always afraid that my brain and spirit would be lulled to sleep and all my creativity would be silenced. Probably not true, but the idea pushed me in another direction.
From a little girl I wanted to be a dancer. In high school I wanted to an actor. In college I wanted to be a writer. All the things I’ve wanted to do—the things that compelled me forward– were always endeavours that didn’t make money unless you were a star and involved a big population that was trying to do the same. I really think an artistic life is like a calling. It comes from inside. You can try to ignore it but it is very insistent. And if you leave yourself open to listening and following its call then you’re always off the beaten path. Some people have to ignore it because of commitments. There’s a great book about women who have had to do this: Tillie Olsen’s Silences. I was always so afraid of being silenced, of not getting my visions made into something out there…and still…I feel like I really haven’t done it yet! SO many stories and ideas still jam my head constantly.”
She said career highlights were interviewing survivors for the Holocaust Museum tour in Houston. There was also the day Israeli and Jordanian producers were in the NY studios together. Paulette smiled and said, “It was fine. I remember thinking, ‘You see. It doesn’t have to be the way it is. Everyone is into creating great stuff for kids.'” She recalls making a video for choreographer Loretta Thomas: “We shot on the streets of NY for 24 hours straight. At 3 AM Martin Scorsese pulled up to his apartment in a limo in Tribeca. We made eye contact and he smiled!”
Christmas is a great time to thank those who call us to taste la dolce vita. The new year is a great time to host others at our table and celebrate the good together. Her book offers more than amazing Italian cuisine. It offers soul food meant to be shared.
*Chef Paulette’s winter cooking classes are sold out. However, you can buy friends gift certificates or contact her for information for the spring classes starting in March here.
There’s a power struggle going on across Europe these days. A few cities are competing against each other to see who shall emerge as the great 21st century European metropolis. Will it be London? Paris? Berlin? Zurich? Maybe Brussels, center of the young union? They all strive to outdo one another culturally, architecturally, politically, fiscally. But Rome, it should be said, has not bothered to join the race for status. Rome doesn’t compete. Rome just watches all the fussing and striving, completely unfazed. I am inspired by the regal self-assurance of this city, so grounded and rounded, so amused and monumental, knowing she is held securely in the palm of history. I would like to be like Rome when I am an old lady.
—Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love
‘I sometimes fancy,’ said Hilda, on whose susceptibility the scene always made a strong impression, ‘that Rome–mere Rome–will crowd everything else out of my heart.’
—Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Blithedale Romance
I first met her in the movies in the ’60s when my family spent Easter week watching Ben-Hur and The Robe. Later I sighed at her heroes in Gladiator and King Arthur, and still turn to Roman Holiday and Three Coins in the Fountain for escape, classic style, and fun frocks. And though recently I giggled at Brit wits, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon in The Trip to Italy based on their pilgrimage to places Shelley and Byron lived, I do love teaching literary legends–particularly The Romantics–who moved to Rome. Long before the Left Bank of Paris brimmed with expat genius, Rome was muse to so many who for centuries have transported readers to the The Eternal City via memoir, fiction, and poetry. Still, nothing is like being in Rome for real. I was there last week on a detour; but as with many of life’s detours, I realized Plan B was To Be.
Since moving to Morocco in 2014, I began planning my Dream Week for Spring Break 2016. I didn’t know if I’d stay abroad after my initial two-year work contract, so I saved the best for last. I’d fallen in love with Italy in 2000 and have since returned eight times; but in 2004 I was swept away by the Amalfi Coast and hoped this year to perch on a Positano terrace across from Capri, the island that enchanted me more than a decade ago. A Mermaid in Marrakesh, I felt I’d find my muse staying between the Path of the Gods and the ocean below. Nothing moves me like the sea, and I couldn’t wait to live like a local and go no farther than a boat ride to a restaurant I’d read about. I’d write in the sun. I’d breathe.
I had booked the perfect villa last August beside the iconic Le Sirenuse, the set for Only You, a 1994 film my sister and I love . The plan was to join friends from the US in Tuscany the first week of the break, then travel alone by train to the coast. Sadly, an unforeseen circumstance that has caused much stress forced me to cancel that second week, but a colleague offered a Plan B. She suggested I stay with her in Rome and catch the Ryan Air flight on Tuesday for $26. My flight and stay at a hotel inspired by my favorite painter, Modigliani, cost less than changing my original ticket.
Lately I’ve been faced with huge decisions and it seemed all roads were, indeed, leading to Rome. I’m passionate about several paths–family, travel, writing, education–and have been praying for a way they can all convene. Birthdays are when I pull over to reevaluate the map of my life journey. While in Tuscany I celebrated the one that was my father’s last. He died at work. So young. So missed.
Roaming, resting, relaxing in Rome in my favorite neighborhoods (near Piazzas of Spagna and Barberini) proved to be poignant. I loved seeing friends in Tuscany (many pictures to come), but I’d spent the week fighting the flu. Being in Rome on Easter and finally visiting The Keats-Shelley House—where Keats, too, came to Rome seeking a kinder climate for his health—moved me. I’d always loved Keats’ “When I Have Fears I Will Cease to Be” where he confesses concern that he’ll die before writing all he felt placed on earth to write or before marrying his beloved Fanny Brawne. I thought, too, about Lord Byron who said “If I don’t write to empty my mind I go mad” and Henry David Thoreau, an American Romantic, who said, “the mass of men live lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.” I’ve never wanted to be one of that mass. Keats died after just three months in Rome beside the Spanish Steps at twenty-five; Shelley was living in Tuscany when he drowned off the coast of Italy at twenty-nine. Byron died from exhaustion in Greece at thirty-six. All so young. So much more to write. To live. I returned to Marrakesh with a renewed gratitude for my health and the warm climate I enjoy daily. And I continue to seek the best way to live what’s left of my life.
Second generation Romantics Percy and Mary Shelley, Byron, and Keats followed fathers of the movement, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Blake, in philosophically opposing tenets of the previous period, The Enlightenment– institutions, tradition, conformity, science and reason. Romantics were (and are) the Carpe Diem Crowd, idealists who value individualism, democracy, experimentation, emotion, imagination, social reform, change, and nature. Other European Romantic artists were Pushkin, Hugo, Turner, Beethoven, Schubert and Berlioz–all influenced by the philosophies of Goethe (who lived in Rome for a time), Locke, and Rousseau whose tabula rasa (man is a blank slate made by society that writes his story) meant respecting the “noble savage” be he a Native American or Mary Shelley’s creature in Frankenstein who became a monster by the doctor who recklessly created and abandoned him and villagers who feared and abused him, and the social contract (fair play between the governing and governed which fueled the French and American Revolutions).
I thought about how the tension between Reason VS Emotion, Duty VS Passion, Fact VS Feeling VS Faith affects decisions. Just as I lived the questions while wandering Venice three months ago, I roamed Rome believing I’ll live into the answers. Meanwhile I’m learning to wait in passionate patience.
I brought back writing inspiration from the vibrant literary landscape that is Rome. I walked the streets off Via Condotti where writers gathered around wine at restaurants and coffee at Antico Caffè Greco. In the area around The Spanish Steps known in the 19th century as the “English Quarter” lived not only the Shelleys, Byron and Keats but also Sir Walter Scott, George Eliot, Charles Dickens, Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning and William Thackeray, Henry James, Mark Twain, Edith Wharton, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Hawthorne, the subject of my Master’s Thesis, wrote The Marble Faun based on the Faun of Praxitelesdisplayed in Capitoline Museum. I returned and read Wharton’s “Roman Fever” and plan to read Dickens’ Pictures from Italy and Henry James’ Italian Hours.
I loved studying filmmaker Federico Fellini in grad school who said:
Rome does not need to make culture. It is culture. Prehistoric, classical, Etruscan, Renaissance, Baroque, modern. Every corner of the city is a chapter in an imaginary universal history of culture. Culture in Rome is not an academic concept. It’s not even a museum culture, even though the city is one enormous museum. It is a human culture free from cultural faddishness, or neurotic trendiness.
One thing is for sure. From the bizarre to the sublime, Rome is human history. I’d enjoyed seeing the Forum, Pantheon, Colosseum, Catacombs, and Vatican City on two prevous trips, but this time it was nice to do what Romantics do best. Feel. Truly Rome is an Ode to Joy, a Sonnet called La Bella Vita.
Near here in Palazzo Barberini was the home of William Wetmore Story, an American sculptor, poet, and art critic, where expats gathered from 1819-1895.
I’m grateful for roaming Rome which confirmed two things. I’ve been missing my children since December and want to travel and do life with them again more than anything. In Positano a gorgeous villa awaits, but I hope to go when they or my sis can join me one day. And, like it or not, the only constant is change. The Romantics knew this and thus seized the day knowing too soon the day ceases. I’ve experienced adventure, beauty and new relationships aplenty. So much in my life has changed in the last two years. Places. People. Paths. My comfort is knowing the One who holds this gorgeous globe, my family, and me. He has already picked our next path. It’s good to be at peace with peace.
And now we welcome the new year. Full of things that have never been.–Rainer Maria Rilke
I preferred one waltz with a beauty to a lifetime with someone less rare.–Marlena de Blasi, author of A Thousand Days in Venice: An Unexpected Romance
I wondered if I’d feel the same after seven years, Venice. Were the times proof that you are my first love or just flings? And there have been so many others. Like Casanova, you have had throngs of lovers; for me, your rival was only St. Petersburg last year.
Each time you pulled me close with seductive strength but stayed guarded. Dignified, decadent, detached. Silently allured me to taste your beauty, to wander your world, to seek and find exactly what my soul craved. You led me down streets that ended, forcing me to retreat and start over. Or were you teaching me to find other paths? Promises, then departures; neither ever felt permanent. You’re the romance of unrequited love, the sighs of all that’s unfulfilled and ever longed for. The ecstasy in the moment and the promise that maybe one day…
And then I saw you, poignantly the night before New Year’s Eve–a time to look back and peer forward–as I stood on the deck of the water taxi. You appeared through the mist and cold. Luminous and lavish. Still standing. And I? Still feeling. Alive.
You are no Don Juan. Like Elizabeth who married England, you carry a great burden for all who love you. With grace buoyed by hope and faith, you beckon us to enjoy the time left on this earth before all goes under.
And yes, Venice. Though I fell in love with Saint Petersburg last March, you seem to be still The One.
An Italian friend once told me I’m simpatica—that I understand what it means to live The Life and that I’m a woman meant for a Grande Amore. I was definitely fashioned from birth a romantic, and the entire country of Italy has always felt like a soul mate. With many questions in 2016 looming, returning to a place that is meant to be wandered was, like the “fit” that is Morocco, a choice made for me, not by me.
Some call it serendipity, others destiny. I call it God. Marrakesh was exactly what I needed when I stepped off the plane sixteen months ago. Starting 2015 with the loves of my life, Taylor and Cole, in London was the best NYE ever– a blessed beginning of one of the most amazing years I’ve ever experienced. And likewise, watching fireworks from the Bridge of Sighs— choosing to exhale in trust and love rather than weariness and worry—I watched 2016 light up the sky. A sight I’ll remember the rest of my life.
I knew I’d love hearing church bells and Buon Anno spoken in the most beautiful language on earth. How do I love thee, Italy? Let me count the ways.
Paradoxically, Venice is unified by bridges and divided by dead ends. As with life, without warning a seemingly good road can suddenly plunge one into dark depths. Or maybe each halt teaches the art of retracing, rethinking, then rerouting a new course.
The Ponte dei Sospiri, or Bridge of Sighs named by Lord Byron in the 19th century, is a place of blissful beginnings and tragic ends. Prisoners who crossed the Rio di Palazzo to the Doge’s Palace prison were said by the poet to sigh as they looked upon Venice’s beauty a final time. Yet couples who kiss on a gondola under the same bridge at sunset as St. Mark’s bells toll are said to be blessed with eternal love.
Italy and life abroad continue to teach me. Here’s seven secrets Venice shared for 2016…
1) Wandering can do wonders for the soul.
“Not all those who wander are lost.”–J. R. R. Tolkien
‘It was one of those architectural wholes towards which, in any other town, the streets converge, lead you and point the way. Here it seemed to be deliberately concealed in a labyrinth of alleys, like those palaces in oriental tales to which mysterious agents convey by night a person who, taken home again before daybreak, can never again find his way back to the magic dwelling which he ends by supposing that he visited only in a dream.’–Marcel Proust
Like the Marrakech medina, Venice is constructed as a medieval maze of mystery and adventure. Jasna and I enjoy wandering both. I’ve learned since moving to Morocco that when I let go and relax, God always brings peace and sometimes the world brims with bliss. So when Jasna pointed at the Giudecca Canalrestaurant and said, “Let’s eat there, it’s pretty”– neither of us having any idea we had chosen for lunch a historical literary hub– I accept it not as a coincidence, but as a gift. Both English majors, we were thrilled to learn that Hotel La Calcina, (aka Ruskin’s House) was where creatives such as John Ruskin (who I studied in a Victorian prose graduate course) lived and Ranier Maria Rilke (one of my favorite writers), Marcel Proust, Bortolo Giannelli, Giuseppe Berto and Francesco Maria Piave gathered. A muse to many, Venice fed free spirited expats Lord Byron, Robert Browning, Truman Capote, Ezra Pound, Ernest Hemingway, Charles Dickens, and Thomas Mann and continues to inspire art today. A magical place to christen a new year of writing.
2) Trust the journey. Relax, wait, move, live passionately patient in faith and hope.
“I beg you, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”–Ranier Maria Rilke
3) “All great art is praise.” –John Ruskin
4) Be true to who you are and the One who designed you that way. We are colorful creatures all.
5) Con Dio tutto è possibile. (With God all things are possible.)
Dream lofty dreams, and as you dream, so shall you become. –John Ruskin
Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us.–Ephesians 3:20
In Venice everything seems possible. I’m grateful for Anu’s invitation. She’d made plans to be there a week in an affordable hostel she found 4 minutes from St. Mark’s Square. Jasna flew from England and I from Marrakesh to join her a couple of days. My round trip ticket was $125–and our triple room cost me 57 Euros per night. And though December hit me hard with new challenges and I questioned my decision to go, I knew I may never spend New Year’s Eve in Venice again– particularly at such a price. Thus, I moved forward with plans prayed over and made in good faith. I refused to let regret rob me of joy. I let go and received the gifts of the trip from the moment a kind Italian man grabbed my suitcase as I was running to find a train to the last night when Anu invited me to dinner with her Italian family–sweetest people ever.
I highly recommend Casa per Ferie La Pietà, more a hotel than a hostel, with a panoramic view from the terrace, a beautiful breakfast room, clean accommodations, and nice people. I’d never stayed on the island before–usually too expensive–but here there is no commute by water taxis. The three of us stayed in a huge room with restrooms/showers across and down the hall. It is quiet, family friendly, and a great place to escape alone or meet other travelers.
6) La Dolce Vita (The Sweet Life) is family, friends, food and fun.
Taste and see that the Lord is good.
Venice is like eating an entire box of chocolate liqueurs in one go.–Truman Capote
7) Dum Spiro Spero (While I breathe, I hope.)
Marta (pictured above and expecting her first child) told me her parents’ love story. Her mother, Carmen, met her father, Sandro, in Peru in 1981 when they were both students climbing Machu Picchu with friends. After three days together, each returned home–Carmen to Argentina and Sandro to Italy. Because she didn’t speak Italian and he didn’t speak Spanish, they wrote letters in French. In October Sandro returned to visit her family. After fifteen days with her (plus the three in January), he proposed. They married, she moved with him to the lake district of Italy near Como, and they’ve been happy since. Oh how I do love a good love story.
In Germany I let go of fear. In Venice I remembered again all is well and will be well. In 2015 God gave me the desires of my heart–beauty, adventure, and love of family and friends. And though His love is all I need, He gave me the confidence to dare to dream…to believe again… that somewhere in 2016 my Grande Amore, whoever he is, awaits.
“I don’t pretend to understand these feelings, but I’m willing to let the inexplicable sit sacred.” –Marlena de Blasi
Last Saturday was as good as it gets. A year ago my friend, April, invited me to Italian Lights, calling me back to my first love affair with a culture. Check it out here: http://southerngirlgoneglobal.com/2010/09/18/finding-an-old-love-in-new-venue-italian-lights/. This year, I invited a gang and I was back in Italy again. I spent hours at table exchanging stories, laughs and food with friends I’d met through my salsa world, Kim K, Dorothy, Jose, April, Jason, Emila, Tricia, and Mayuresh; my sister, Penny, and brother-in-law, Jeff (It was his birthday!); and Kim R.
I’m often asked how I became part of the salsa world in Nashville, a global community who loves Latin dance. My response in short: Italy where I first learned to just BE.
I’ve written other posts on why I love Italy…how it all began one summer when I taught English there. I’d gone with students-in-tow in 2000, 2004, and 2009, each time loving sharing with them places both ancient and beautiful—Venice, Rome, Florence, Capri, Naples, Sorrento, and Pisa. But it was 2005-2007 when I met, then stayed in homes of Italian friends, Antonio, Anna, Fabio, Antonio, Vilma, and Georgio, that I learned firsthand how to live La Dolce Vita. Still framed on my daughter’s wall is a picture of her dancing with Antonio at my surprise birthday party in Torino. She says in just one visit Antonio and Vilma were like grandparents to her.
Meanwhile, Kim Roberts was spending summers with friends in Spain, sometimes doing weekend trips to Italy. We met in an Italian class, sharing a love for travel, the romance languages, and the passionate people who speak them. I liked her instantly as she burst into the first lesson, swishing a bohemian skirt with stories of dancing till dawn with some girlfriends the night before.
Kim admitted that she’s a closet expatriate, that she ached the first time she left Spain. I understood and confessed I felt the same way the first time I flew out over the Italian alps. In Spain and Italy we love the way meals last hours over good wine and interesting conversation. We’d both said, “When I’m there, I finally feel more alive. In a strange way, I feel I’m home.”
Though we’ve never been to Italy together, our simultaneous travels bonded us. In the early fall of 2007 I was on the shores of Lake Como while she was on the coast of the Adriatic Sea. Like Elizabeth Gilbert in Eat, Pray, Love, we found through travel joy, serenity, adventure, and relationship. But in 2008 when our slim bank accounts prevented our escaping by the usual flight plan, we were forced to embrace what Gilbert says is the main point of her book—that to change our lives, we don’t have to go far. We just have to shift. So our gypsy souls resolved to refocus. Like Dorothy, we would stop chasing rainbows and find contentment and happiness in our own backyard. We had to find what Kim calls, our people…those who seek joy and find it in a celebratory culture right here in Music City.
And we did…first in folks like Patti Nelson of Italian for Fun and later in the Latin dance community. More on that later… Off to make potato salad for today’s Chilean Independence Day Celebration and a trifle for the Hicks’ Copacubana party. For some serendipity, check out my tribute to Latin culture and the Hicks’ house parties, just published on Italian chef, Paulette Licitra’s award-winning food journal, Alimentum. Ciao!
Playing Author- at -Starbucks would jumpstart my writing career! Not to mention it would prevent me from “going Edna.” Unlike the mom in The Awakening, I wouldn’t walk into the sea (or worse, jump off the dam at Percy Priest Lake.) To be less dramatic… if I gave writing my best shot, I’d at least avoid sinking in the proverbial pool of regret.
So it was settled. Wednesday mornings during June and July I’d write at the Belle Meade Starbucks. By immigrating to that side of town, I hoped the natives’ charmed lives would rub off on me. Some say getting published is a crap shoot. I wanted to increase my odds. All this and I’d be back home before my teenagers rolled out of bed!
That first Wednesday of Summer ’06, I gave my kids and pets the slip. Coasting out of the driveway, I was hopeful. I felt like a real writer at last. I would enjoy the thirty- minute drive, listening to NPR without Cole trying to crank up 107.5 The River. But before I was out of the subdivision, I heard rumblings in the back seat. Relentless as ever, my very own A Team– my entourage of Angst– had camped out in the car. Like the imaginary companions that followed the Russell Crowe character in A Beautiful Mind, they started their usual banter:
“Sooooo Miss WannaBe, you really think you can write something that hasn’t been said before? Something funny, smart, and… this is really rich…helpful. Your life is just so happy now, isn’t it? You who swing from spiritually hopeful to dazed and confused. You who say you love your life one minute, then wail, “I’m destined to be alone forever!” the next. I mean, come on…you are, after all, a little out there. Dreaming of moving your kids to the Cotswolds…then to Ireland…then to Italy?
And what happened to your Martha Stewart phase? The English teas on your front lawn? Reading your kids bedtime stories with a British accent as if you’re still doing Noel Coward plays? Dressing them in velvet capes and knickers so the Christmas cards would look like the perfect little family? What kind of mom leaves her kids in bed to run off to Starbucks? And what’s up with Belle Meade? Think you’re too good for your Donelson ranch, hey? Remember the Green Hills guy who said he’d pick you up for a date, then laughed: ‘Now where exactly is Egypt…I mean Donelson?’ They won’t even let you drive down West End if they check out your bank account. Stop pretending …”
“Yeah, well I’ve had enough of your crap!” I snapped. Stuffing them in the glove box, I drove on. Though they had bullied me since elementary school back in Kentucky, even they couldn’t ruin my morning.
The sun was shining and I was wearing something Starbuckish—a white eyelet skirt—a must- have for the season—a Lauren tank, and flip flops topped with grosgrain bows. I was toting my new vintage straw purse. I was driving my new car— sporting new tires. Things couldn’t be better.
That is …until I turned off of West End into the shopping center parking lot, cut the wheel too close, and ran up on the curb to the horror of Starbuckers who were reading The Tennessean at the outside tables. I prayed I hadn’t burst my new tires already. Not sure if I should apologize to the onlookers for the scare or depend on their goodwill that no harm was done, I hid behind my Jackie O glasses and sprinted by them.
Once inside, I was relieved to learn that no one could have heard my wheels squealing as I took the curb– not over the voice of Sinatra crooning in surround sound. He was smooth, sexy…LOUD. Despite my habit of denial—especially when I plan something, am on a mission, and refuse to be denied– I may have conceded to myself that writing amidst all the noise would be daunting. But rather than face this fact, I had to deal with a bigger dilemma. Only two tables were vacant and the line was long ahead of me. Should I save one of them with my laptop considering it wasn’t mine and I couldn’t afford to have it stolen? Especially since technically, I had hijacked it already? Maybe better to hope the people ahead of me were grabbing their coffee on the run.
Better keep the laptop with me. But then again, everyone there seemed so sure of the protocol… and of themselves. They ordered quickly, efficiently—no holding up the line by hunching over the counter, fumbling for money while a laptop swung off one shoulder and a purse swung off the other. Not to mention that even after I got my order I’d have to add half-and-half, then sweet-and-low to my coffee—possibly creating another clumsy scene with a bulky computer in tow.
To lay it down or not to lay it down—that was the question. Did I mention that one of my favorite books is The Hamlet Syndrome: Overthinkers who Underachieve? My mind was stuck spinning—like the wheel that spins on the computer when a new screen is loading, making you wonder if you should wait a minute longer or reboot and cut your losses.
But if my mind was bogging down, my feet were boogying. I got into line, then walked out of line, then took two steps back toward the line, then balked– causing the guy behind me to bump into my back. (Obviously he never learned the Driver’s Ed rule about the hazards of tailing someone too closely.) Though annoyed, I swung around quickly to apologize for cutting him off. Forgetting that my laptop extended almost a foot past my shoulder, I almost took out the guy’s Grande at the table beside me.
Enough already. I had to lay down my burden. (Mind you, Dells of yesteryear were not exactly lightweight.) And this was Belle Meade for goodness sake. Why would anyone there need to steal a laptop? Lucky for me, right beside the guy with the salvaged Grande was a vacant table. I wasn’t crazy about sitting so close to the counter and all, especially since I could only get to Starbucks once a week and I wanted a perfect experience, but it looked really roomy. I hung the laptop on the chair, waited in line, and stepped up to the counter: “I’d like your largest coffee with a shot of chocolate, please.”
While the young, hip guy (probably a doctoral candidate named Rufus) taking my order didn’t correct me, he edited my request as he shouted it to the girl behind the espresso machine: “A Venti with a shot of mocha.” Making a note to self to avoid future faux pas and learn the lingo, I grabbed my coffee and cinnamon scone and skulked toward my seat. Though I shot an apologetic smile to the guy whose Café Americana I had almost capsized earlier, he frowned, then looked down through his bifocals at his USA Today. I needed to get to work anyway.
When I reached my chair, my face reddened again. On the left corner of the table there was a handicapped sticker. I knew it looked extra wide (the table, not the sticker which was the size of a post-a-note), but who knew back in ’06 that coffee shops allowed extra space for wheelchairs? I thought that was just a bathroom thing. Oh well, that settled it. I moved to the table near the window. I love the sunshine anyway. Upon attracting the stares of people who wondered why I’d trade one handicapped table for another one, I reached the second table to see the same exasperating sign on it. I decided with no other tables available, I’d just have to use it anyway. Hadn’t two women been sitting there—both perfectly mobile—when I first came in? And wouldn’t the same unspoken rule apply here that says it’s ok to use a handicap stall in the absence of a handicapped person? I sat down, unpacked my laptop, and started her up, ready to begin this very piece and my virgin voyage of writing that summer.
I typed two paragraphs. Then I was flashed a warning I’d never seen: “Save all work before losing.” Apparently my battery was going down. I found the electrical cord the computer guy from work had showed me how to use but realized I had zoned out during his demonstration. Frankly, it didn’t register I’d ever need to plug it up. When I saw people working on laptops, they were always unplugged. Like songwriters on Austin City Limits, isn’t unplugged the best way to perform anyway? Not once did Carrie Bradshaw use an electrical outlet. How could her long legs in hot pants encircle her laptop as she wrote on her bed if there had been a cord to negotiate? Reality had struck again.
I plugged up and rebooted. Then I noticed the sun was now coming into the window so brightly that I couldn’t read the screen. I needed to move again—back to the only table left—the other handicapped one. Again, I attracted scrutiny. Even though I thought I had locked my insecurities in the car, somehow they were there waving at me from the table by the window I’d just vacated. Making sure that I felt like such an imposter…
The girl who sat at home watching Brady Bunch while all the popular kids were at the first big party in 8th grade.
The girl who paid her sorority dues by eating mac and cheese or sausage and biscuits every night in the dorm because she knew how hard her mom worked to send her money for college.
The girl who took her young kids to the Renaissance Fair to teach them how to shoot bows and arrows. She had learned the skill and joined the college archery team—all to please her dad who had no sons to take hunting. Maybe her dad couldn’t teach her kids archery because he died when they were babies—and maybe it would have been nice if their dad had been around more to teach them such skills. But surely she could do this. As a teenager, she had practiced on a target in her backyard. Because she was double jointed, the string would pop the inside of her left arm which steadied the bow every time she’d pull back and release, but she’d keep at it until her arm bled. Finally it would all be worth it when she impressed her kids by hitting a bull’s eye and then helped them do the same. Apparently shooting a bow wasn’t like riding a bike. She had forgotten how to hold the arrow tightly against the bow. Unable to get even one shot off, she grabbed the kids and headed for the car, ashamed and angry with herself.
The girl who forgot to show her daughter how to put the car lights on high beam the day of her driving test. Though Taylor passed anyway, she said she knew she should have brought her dad with her instead. And the girl knew it, too.
The girl who was so busy talking in the stands at her son’s middle school football game that she mistook a boy on the opposing team for Cole. Forgetting the home team wasn’t wearing white and only seeing a boy wearing her son’s #20, she thought it surreal that her son had intercepted the ball and was dashing through the defensive line as they dove at him but missed. For a confused moment, she thought, like Willie Loman, that her Biff’s time had finally come. Though she lunged forward, thank God she caught herself before screaming his name. As everyone around her asked why she looked so shaken, she realized her mistake and played it off: “I just wanted one of our players to stop that #20.”She wasn’t about to admit she was inwardly screaming wildly for the wrong boy on the wrong side.
She already felt stupid enough for asking the coach at the start of the season where she should buy pads and the rest of the “outfit.” Even worse, she had later slipped and, flashing back to her own ballet and tap days, had referred to his uniform as a “costume.” When it came to sports and “men things,” she’d always felt inept–knowing as much about tying a necktie as she did about buying a jock strap.
She’d had a 4.0 as an English major and held a Masters degree. She’d been Head of the Department for over twenty years, taught college courses, and was a reader for the national Advanced Placement English Literature Exam She had led school groups and traveled to a dozen countries numerous times. She stayed in touch with friends and former students scattered all over the US and abroad. She had raised her kids with the exceptions of every other weekend and Tuesday nights since they were two and five. She and her sister had been the executors of her dad’s and grandmother’s estates. They had planned their dad’s funeral, and while still in shock, each gave a speech about what he had meant to them. But despite all of this, when friends teased her with blond jokes, she sometimes took them seriously. Because while she always seemed to give others slack, she spent so many years trying to be perfect. The girl who even at four or five couldn’t wait to be grown up— because grownups were in control. They weren’t blind-sighted. They were in charge of their lives. They didn’t have to depend on anybody.
But for all her trying to be grown up, to “arrive,” to have it all together and live happily ever after, she could never completely shake feeling like a little girl inside. She might go months or even a year or two thinking she’d outgrown that powerless child and she’d outrun those childhood bullies, but sooner or later they always showed up. That girl had always shown up.
From Magical Thinking to Wretched Retreating
No matter how hard I had always tried, sooner or later a single embarrassing moment could send me into the corner, feeling that’s exactly where I belonged. The slightest mistake could inflate and then translate into a life of failure. Who was I to think I had anything to offer? I was an impostor on so many levels. It was 2006 and again, in that moment in Starbucks, the A Team reminded me I wasn’t good enough. I’d never been pretty enough. I’d never felt loved enough. At least not for long.
The monster I had always feared and hated most was the feeling of rejection. I’d always wanted the inner security and outer radiance of a woman who is loved. Not just desired, but cherished somewhere by one man. For ten years I’d tried dating services, set-ups by friends, even eharmony, but I couldn’t make myself attracted to someone I didn’t find attractive—even if he was a nice guy. Nor could I make someone I was attracted to be attracted to me—at least not for the long haul. In school I had studied hard, made good grades, and got a job. I had set goals and reached them. But getting the right guy wasn’t the same as getting the right job. I realized I couldn’t control when– or if– I’d find The One. Thus I started heeding the advice of those who claim that just when a person stops looking, her prince arrives. The advice that says God will provide what—or in this case, whom—we need just when we need him. The advice that says rather than sitting around waiting, I should use the time to work on developing the very qualities in myself that I desired in a mate.
So focusing on personal growth, I’d tried new things– traveling with total strangers, learning a new language, discovering a latent talent. I found I could paint and entered an art show. I learned I love ballroom dancing and “muddin’” (4-wheeling in the rain). I tailgated at Titans’ football games and joined the Nashville Film Circle. Some of my closest friends became people who seemed at first so different from me–like a group of guys and girls who were coaches at my school. We spent four summer vacations in Florida together—them reading Friday Night Lights, me reading An Italian Education. I was the world’s oldest bridesmaid in two weddings of twentysomething friends, where I danced all night long at both receptions—not to mention their bachelorette parties. I sang bad karaoke when my sister and friends surprised me with a limo on my fortieth birthday.
And I hired a limo for my daughter and her friends when she turned twelve. And I took her to Europe and back when she was sixteen–introducing her to beloved Italian friends–showing her the world from the top of the Eiffel Tower to the peaks of the Italian Alps. I stretched us both in new ways, and I carried on with familiar traditions. I continued hosting Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter dinners. I settled into the life of being a single parent—a rare breed at the conservative Christian school where I taught. Some days I thanked God for all the good stuff in my life. Other days I felt despair over the bad.
I looked around at the Starbucks crowd. Half-serious, I had called them “my people.” I was as educated as they were. For years I’d driven to their side of town for restaurants and movies my side of town couldn’t offer. In fact, I’d laughingly shot back at those who gave me a hard time about driving across town: “Money might determine where I live. It might determine where I teach. It might determine where my kids go to school. But it WILL NOT determine where I drink my coffee.” But that first Wednesday, it felt as if it did.
(to be continued in Part 6, the final chapter…Starbucks in Reality)
Since my first book was a call to a Classics Coup, exhorting readers to put away their fluff fiction and pick up their Shakespeare, I appealed to Oprah as a fellow lover of great works. Hailing her as the Most Powerful Woman in the World who loves to make wishes come true, I threw myself on the mercy of her court. I sent her a DVD, offering my masterpiece as a pick for her Book Club. I included precious pictures of my children reminding her that she could change our lives with a simple nod. Illustrating my ability to hold an audience spellbound with the likes of Hawthorne and Hemingway, I included footage from my English class, showing my students as a captive audience. (I hoped she wouldn’t realize that they were, in fact, captive.) Finally, I pointed out the fingernail scratches on the whiteboard where I was trying to hold on financially and mentally– teaching 80+ students all day and mothering two small children all night. Touting myself as profound and prolific, I knew she would respect my proactive approach. I would write my way to a better life rather than codependently wait for a knight-in-shining-armor for rescue. I assured her that if she read my book it would change my life and hers.
In retrospect… I may have looked needy, merely bypassing the prince on a white horse to lay prostrate before the Queen of the Harpo Dynasty.
Sadly I never heard from her—no doubt because the DVD never reached her desk. I believe a keeper of the gate, someone on her staff—probably a perky intern with hopes of publishing herself—spitefully threw my pitch on the slush pile.
So when two agents and one publisher nibbled at my book, then swam away in August of 2004, I stuffed the manuscript in a box, slid it under my bed, licked my wounds, and returned to the classroom. As recommended in The Artist’s Way, I mourned my artistic loss an appropriate amount of time, but still I wondered… what went wrong? Wasn’t I born to be a writer? Didn’t my 40+ journals attest to the fact? And don’t my friends say I’m never at a loss for words, analyzing everything to death? In fact can’t my writing style be compared to Virginia Woolf’s and my dialogue to a Tennessee Williams’ character? Wouldn’t this explain why more than one guy had in John Wayne fashion grabbed and kissed me mid-sentence just so I’d shut up?
Down the Rabbit Hole…or Chasing a Rabbit Trail
No, I definitely had something to say, and I knew I could write. Maybe I simply needed to change genres. The first book had been nonfiction—more an academic tome than a page-turner. This time I would try a novel!
My main character could be a hopelessly romantic Queen of Angst fraught with the Perils of Parenthood and traumatized by dating over 40. After disasters with blind dating, online dating, and even speed dating, she would fear she was destined to never find The One—certainly a universal conflict. Though slimed with the human condition, she’d overcome hand wringing and despair…and I was pretty sure how she’d do it.
Excited about my new idea and especially my fascinating protagonist, I started characterizing this complex woman in ways that would translate well into film, saving me time for when I’d inevitably be asked to adapt the book into a screenplay. The movie would begin as the camera zoomed and focused on books stacked beside her bed: The Hamlet Syndrome: Overthinkers who Underachieve; The ADHD Handbook and Parenting with Boundaries and Consequences; Teaching Lolita in Tehran; Intimate Kisses; The Bible; and A Thousand Days in Venice. These plus any title by four of her favorite writers, Jill McCorkle, C.S. Lewis, Donald Miller and Anne Lamott, should cover her character’s many layers. In fact, later in the novel when the protagonist wrote a New York Times best seller and an Academy Award winning screenplay, I knew exactly who she’d thank as she accepted her Oscar. First, she’d recognize her mentor, Jill, for answering her email regarding the first book. Then she’d thank Anne and Donald for being her muses–for showing her how to talk straight, to be real.
But then I stopped short. (And not because the most common mistake new authors make is to write too much about themselves.)
I needed to write about my own experiences. It’s what I know best. But I needed to come clean. To step out of the shadows. To stop hiding behind a fictional character. For me, writing a novel would be taking the easy way out—something I’ve seldom done. As usual, I liked the challenge. I blame my decision on Frost and his whole taking -the- road- less- traveled -shtick.
I would write a memoir, and I’d be gut honest though still raw.
Now I knew from watching my dad fillet fish, that guts are gross. I knew from seeing him empty his bag after bird hunting that when you shoot birds, feathers fly. I knew if I was totally honest with readers there might be enough feather fallout to tar and feather me. I might be disowned by friends and family who don’t share my candid sense of humor or who might judge me for my many mess-ups, mishaps, and sometimes, downright meanness. Having grown up in the South I knew the taboo against “acting ugly.”
I might be accused of rocking the boat if I asserted that it’s the huddling together at one end of the dinghy—at one end of the political spectrum—which really tips the boat over, drowning us all. Polar extremes seemed to alienate, making communication impossible. Running from the culture by isolating oneself or combating the culture with disdain– in the name of whichever political party—makes everyone miss the party…and the point… altogether. Being drawn closer to Christ and then modeling him means, like it or not, drawing closer to each other. His unconditional love for us despite our failure to love others well must be the only reason He hasn’t fired us on the spot and hired a whole new PR team.
But a few people have gotten it right—mostly because they confess to so often being wrong. Reading Donald Miller and Anne Lamott gave me the idea to forget the novel and do the “novel”– write the “naked truth” about my own life. I appreciate their courage to admit their humanity as they seek to do the divine–to love others as we love ourselves. I appreciate their humility, admitting they often fall short. Miller’s books are more popular in college frat houses than in many churches. He reaches so many people because he addresses where we really live–where we really struggle. Maybe because loving others well is one of the most radical things any of us can do—ironically the only way to Rage Against the Machine.
Before Miller and Lamott, my greatest fear was that I’d cause others to falter in their faith–especially when I had questions about mine. Since a sorority sister gave me my first “quiet time” journal and instructed me to write out my prayers to God, I’d offered Him all the drama in my life. I could clearly see how He had answered countless prayers, which had no doubt strengthened my faith. But it was the unchecked items on God’s “To Do List”–the one I’d given him– that bothered me. Those chronic unresolved problems that stood in the way of my writing sooner from my heart as well as my head. Shouldn’t I wait until the major kinks in my life were straightened out and I could write a feel-good romantic comedy? Then I could encourage others because everyone likes a happy ending. My story would prove to everyone that wishes do come true someplace other than the Magic Kingdom.
I decided it was time to begin writing my story even though I wasn’t sure how the loose ends would finally come together and be tied up in a nice big bow. Could I raise questions without offering hard, fast answers?
Then I remembered that I had always suspected writers, and for that matter, people who offered neatly numbered steps to anything. In fact, the most effective counselors, doctors, and even pastors I had known admitted that life is messy. Two of them immediately came to mind.
Every summer while I’m not teaching, I schedule yearly checkups. Right alongside an oil change for my car, immunizations for my pets, and teeth cleanings for my children, I see my OB-GYN. My gynecologist is a really nice man. He delivered my nieces and his former partner delivered my children. We go way back. He always asks how life is treating me. More than once I had wanted to reply, “So roughly I’d like to swear out a warrant.” But when I wasn’t feeling so dramatic, I’d just laugh flippantly:
“No news really– still single, still financially challenged, still hoping I’m a good parent, and sometimes still wanting to run away to Europe. Oh, and I’ve decided I’m too young to go through menopause…ever.”
Each year he listened and nodded, ignoring only my last comment. But that summer of 2004 he added seriously, “I know it must be lonely trying to raise your kids alone. And I’m certainly no expert on parenting, but I think all any of us can do is just be consistent. Let our kids know who we are and what we believe. And that we’ll always be there for them.”
Maybe it was the embarrassing position I was in each year— with the stirrups and all—that caused me to feel so vulnerable and emotional, but the forced humor I’d always lead with would turn to quiet tears. Somehow his honesty made me feel a little better—like I wasn’t the only one who found life disappointing and confusing much of the time but who still tried to press on in faith.
Likewise, a counselor I know had the same effect on me that summer. Rather than just whine that God had apparently lost the item on His To-Do-List that plainly stated I needed my very own Miracle Worker—the perfect husband and step- father to help me– I presented her a To-Do-List of her very own. I said that I wished there was a support group for single parents—something I could really use– considering I was a single mom and my son had just that week fashioned our dog a vest from a squirt bottle of mustard—then wrote the word “Dubs” (luckily in chalk) on the rims of my new tires. I suggested this new support group meet in her office so we’d need no secret handshake. We could all talk freely about our exhaustion without having to protect our kids or ourselves from people who would rather judge than help. Rather than take the ball and run with it, she passed it back to me:
“You should start that support group, Cindy,” she said brightly.
“But I’m a mess. You know that better than anyone,” I protested, thinking I was not only unqualified but much too depleted to take on one more thing. I thought that psychologists were supposed to tell us not to bite off more than we could chew.
“Exactly. That’s why God can really use you. He can ONLY use people who know they are a mess and in need of His help. Don’t think you have to have it all together to start a group, or for that matter, to be in a relationship with a man. If a good man comes along, date him. None of us are perfect or ‘fixed,’ so never let that fact hold you back. It’s why we all need to support each other, to be in community with others.”
While I didn’t start that local support group, I realized that even larger community could be created through writing. (What I didn’t know then was that writing would lead me to new friends in my community as well—like Julie, a newcomer to Nashville who I met just yesterday for coffee because she identified with the experiences I’ve written about on this blog.) I had finally realized that God wanted me to write– not despite but because of my inability to fix anything or anyone. All I could do would be to offer readers the comfort I’d been given by pointing them to the One who comforted me. The only wisdom I had was to know I knew nothing…except the Guy who knows everything. All I could do was to be gut honest—to speak the truth in love– about my own fears, my own issues as I struggled with many of my own unanswered prayers.
As a writer, I would offer no ten easy steps to anything. I could only offer honesty, admitting life is not about me, even though I often wish it were. And then to admit I’m glad deep down that it’s not…most of the time. A writing career was a way to contribute—to cry with others and to laugh at myself. It could free up more time for my kids, my family, and my friends. And yes, it would introduce me to new friends and adventures… a way to love God by enjoying Him forever. Writing would be my door to an ideal future. I just had to figure out how to lunge across its threshold.
But before I would start Book #2, my Carpe Diem self seized not just a day, but the whole summer of 2005. I took a detour in writing my way to the sweet life. Ironically—no, Providentially–I found life sweeter that summer—both while abroad and when I returned home. I went to Italy for ten days and taught English to Italians. They, in turn, taught me that the grass is not always greener on the other side of the fence—or in this case, of the ocean. They reminded me of blessings in the US which were very sweet. Yet they also taught me how to relax and how to enjoy friends and all- things- bella. Their friendship, something taken very seriously and valued very highly in the Italian culture, continues to give me a richer life. A clearer vision of what is important. And they’ve given me more joy to share. That summer, as well as the times I’ve been reunited with them since, left me renewed, hopeful, ready to write again. Perfect timing because I had the whole Summer of 2006 to begin a new project.
Preparing to Lunge
But something kept nagging me: Even if what I wrote this time was more appealing to readers than what I wrote before, maybe good material wasn’t enough. Maybe the first book didn’t sell because I had neglected some vital step in the writing process. Maybe I still needed to find that golden key to unlock the door that barred me from publication.
Then it dawned on me. There was no golden key—no key needed at all. The way was free and clear, open to the public practically 24/7. But of course! I had failed to observe the sacred rite to write: the ritual to be observed at the pinpointed spot on the map to the Holy Grail (a.k.a. writing success). According to the Arthurian legend, the Grail was found in a sanctuary—a sacred place. But of course! How could I have missed it?
The only logical reason my first book hadn’t been published was because I didn’t write it in Starbucks!
(To be continued in Pt 4: The Rite of Passage to the Rite of Passage)