When I told friends I was going to walk the Camino to Santiago, they would ask, “Is it like the AT?”
I swung my legs off the top bunk, but as soon as I put weight on my left foot to climb down the ladder, a pain shot up my heel into the back of my leg. Holy crap. What was that? I got down another rung and there is was again. Oh, this is not good.
“Are we doing a gift for Dad? Any idea what he needs?” my sister Jessica texted me. I’m not one to pre-plan for gifts. I just wait and eventually one of my four siblings will contact me and ask if I’ve gotten a gift yet. Upon hearing (and not being surprised) that I haven’t, they’ll say, “No? Well, I got him (fill in the blank), if you want to go in on it.” And thus I once again get out of doing something I hate: shopping.
In response to Jessica’s text, I called her. (I hate having conversations via text messaging.)
“He doesn’t need anything. And anything I get him will be one more thing we have to clean out of their house after they’re gone. I refuse to contribute to that.” She laughed and agreed.
“My gift is that I’m flying to New York on Thursday to see him,” I replied. Thursday starts the annual family vacation at Canoe Island Lodge. Think Dirty Dancing: the same families go to the same place the same week every year.
Thirty-four of my last thirty-six years on this planet have found me on the banks of Lake George the last week in June. This year will be no exception. Except this year is the first time I will hop a plane to get to our yearly pilgrimage site.
I will weigh my bag down with piano music so I can play the piano in the lodge for my father before the bell rings calling everyone into the dining room, where four courses of dinner will be served family style. When the dessert list arrives, we will ooh and aah over our choices, most of us marking down two or three options. (I assure you that was not allowed when we were children. Nor was getting up from the table without asking first to be excused.)
Those of you that know my father would not recognize him at Lake George. He often sits in one place for extended periods of time–either on a sailboat or in a lounge chair in the shade reading a book. I remember working at his Dairy Queen and relaying this scene to his other employees. “He sits still and reads?” They’d need proof–pictures–before they’d believe this Italian with more energy than a three-year-old ever rests.
But indeed he does. Until 4pm, when he and I and whoever’s willing to assist that day head up to my parent’s room to make frozen drinks. My father brings a blender, rum, daquiri and pina colada mixes to Canoe Island. Yes, there’s a bar in the Lodge and yes, they make frozen drinks. But the bar isn’t open at four, nor do they deliver to the beach, so my father (as per usual) takes matters into his own hands. Dad sends one of his minions off to the ice machines, while others of us prepare plates of cheese and crackers. Other families over the course of the week donate a bottle of rum, boxes of crackers, or blocks of cheese to keep the beach-side Happy Hour going.
At least once over the course of the week, I will join Dad on a sail.
No, neither of us knows how to sail. But remember my earlier comparison to Dirty Dancing? Well, instead of dance instructors, Canoe Island Lodge has Boat Boys: twenty-somethings whose summer job is to take guests out on the water–sailing, waterskiing, tubing. And during the last week in June, they know that my father expects to be on a sailboat each morning at ten and each afternoon shortly after we have descended from our lunch in the Lodge.
Dad will often bring a book on the sail, and will often fall asleep while reading it. A photo will be taken, and the next year we will see that picture when we sit in the Lodge to watch a DVD of pictures from the previous year, put together by on of “the regulars” from our group.
So this Thursday we’ll start the tradition all over again. My father will light up when each of his children arrives–and maybe a little moreso when his oldest grandchild literally shakes with excitement when she gets there.
No, my father doesn’t need any new toys for Father’s Day. Once again, we’ll give him his favorite gift: all of his children (and now grandchildren) together for one weekend at Canoe Island Lodge.
As a Resident Assistant at the University of Scranton, one of my jobs was to promote activities being held in our building. This usually involved making signs that were eye-catching and would get students interested.
One month the psychology graduate students were tasked with doing a program in our building and my fellow RA’s and I were tasked with getting students to attend. Our posters said things like, “You do it 600 times a day. Want to know what it is? Come to the lounge on Wednesday at 7″ and “You do it 50 times before you get to your first class. Sometimes you do it with other people, sometimes you do it all alone. Do you know what ‘it’ is? Come to lounge on Wednesday at 7 to find out.”
“Did you just step out of the shower?” my co-worker asked. I stood before her with my hair hanging in long wet strands.
“I don’t own a hair dryer,” I said by way of explanation. “And I don’t brush my hair after a shower either, so this is what you get.”
“I don’t brush mine either,” she confessed with a smile.
“We do live in Asheville, after all.” This is a phrase used to explain all sorts of things that just wouldn’t fly in other parts of the country–usually in the parts from whence we all came, since it’s pretty rare to meet someone who is actually from Asheville.
“And who can be bothered with styling?” I continued. “I was thinking of chopping my hair, but that would require some maintenance. So I’m debating. I kind of like getting it cut just twice a year.”
“Me too,” she said, turning her head to show me the ponytail she sports nearly every day. Ah, to be in a community of like-minded people. What a joy.
Even better, though, you don’t have to be like anyone here. You can be whomever you want. Should I want to walk around downtown in a beaded gown, no one would particularly care. When I first moved here I thought it was the end of dressing up as no one seems to. Not even for work. Well, unless you count those poor guys who work in places where people think suits are still required to get any work done. I got rid of my suits years ago declaring that if any job ever required me to wear one it wasn’t the job for me. I haven’t needed one since.
But it’s Asheville. So if a guy wants to wear a suit, so be it. And if a guy wants to ride a bicycle around town dressed as a nun, he can do it. And if people want to bang on their drums–or cans, or buckets–on a Friday night, they can join fifty other like-minded folks in Pritchard Park and do just that. If you want to watch the drumming, or dance to it, or hula to it, go for it. As for me? I’ve since learned that I can show up to the wine bar in jeans and T-shirt, or I can pretend I’m a tourist and actually get dressed up.
I, like many in this town, can wear jeans to work every day. But the other day I wore a dress as a client was coming in for a visit. At the end of the day the president of the company said to me, “I’ve been trying to figure out what was different about you today. I finally realized: I think you’re the first woman in this company to ever wear a dress to work.” I laughed.
“No one shows their legs around here?” I asked.
“Well, one guy did wear a kilt one day.” Of course he did. This is Asheville, after all.
I became a vegetarian just over a year ago and one unexpected benefit is a renewed interest in trying new recipes. A month ago I bought dried black beans. I had no idea what the difference was between the canned version I usually bought versus soaking and cooking them myself, but I thought it time to give it a try.
A few days ago I did an internet search to find out what the process was. As usual, there were hundreds of people who wanted to tell me how go from dried bean to deliciousness. Step 1: Sort the beans. The instructions acted like I knew what this meant. Sort them into what? Piles of ten? I closed out of that page and opened someone else’s instructions. “Remove any stones, twigs, malformed or discolored beans.” Stones? Twigs? How on earth does one harvest beans such that there are stones and twigs among them? I had no idea, but I knew if I used Google to find that answer I would never get to the task at hand. Back to the beans it was.
I dumped a half-cup of beans into a bowl and sifted through them. I pulled out maybe fifteen things I thought shouldn’t be in there. If I had poured my beans onto a tray I could have pushed to one side all the good ones, but I wasn’t interested in going to all that trouble. Besides, I wasn’t going to serve them to anyone else, so if a stone slipped in it was only my tooth that would be damaged.
Next I added an equal amount of water. It didn’t seem like enough. But I followed the instructions. “Let them soak for six hours.” Six hours?! It was six p.m. So much for having black beans and rice for dinner. “Overnight is fine.” Well, overnight it was going to be then, as I was not about to get up a midnight to care for my beans. I like to cook, but I like a good night’s sleep just as much, if not more.
I pushed the bowl of beans aside and opened my fridge to see what else I could have for dinner.
After dinner, I peeked into the bowl. Those beans were taking up more space and had soaked up most of the water. I made an executive decision to add more water.
The next day they were looking pretty good. If overnight was fine, I figured 24-hours wouldn’t hurt. I could eat them that night. But I forgot about them until the next morning when I padded into the kitchen and smelled something funny. It took me a minute to remember my beans. Thirty-six hours was a little too much for them apparently.
This time I only did 1/4 cup of beans. No need to waste anymore of them if this didn’t turn out well.
Who screws up soaking black beans? Me. Ha. Who knew how difficult I could make throwing beans and water into a bowl.
I pulled up a third set of instructions. I zoomed past sorting. After telling me to add water, this one mentioned that “in hot-weather kitchens, it is best to put the beans in the refrigerator to prevent fermentation.” Ah. I knew what fermentation was. It’s a stinky process that can happen when a woman leaves a bowl of black beans and water sitting on the counter in an un-air-conditioned cabin.
This time I started the process at 9 a.m. on a cool and cloudy Saturday. I could soak these guys and have them for dinner tonight.
By afternoon the clouds cleared and I was off to meet friends at the pool. Upon my return, I read my next steps. Note to self: read instructions fully before embarking on cooking adventures. I know this, but really how much could there be to soaking some beans? Well, there could be an additional 45 minutes of simmering. Really? I was hungry. So I put the beans on to simmer, and made myself a frittata for dinner.
Finally, after I was sufficiently satiated and the dinner dishes were done, I deemed my beans done as well. I drained the water, poured them into a Pyrex, and put them in the fridge. Tonight, my friend Courtney and I will eat them mixed with quinoa, salsa, and cilantro. I hope she doesn’t break a tooth.
I stood on the front porch of the Unwound yarn shop in Blowing Rock, NC, chatting with three women I’d met just a few minutes earlier inside the shop. They were on a day trip to the area. I was two weeks into my sabbatical year, taking my sweet old time driving down the Blue Ridge Parkway. As travelers are bound to do, we all got to chatting.
“Where are you from?” they asked.
“New York,” I said, already trying to figure out how to answer the inevitable next question.
“And what are you doing here?”
Where to start? “I’m on my way to Brasstown, North Carolina, and decided to drive for a spell along the Parkway.”
And that’s when we jumped down the rabbit hole. Each question they asked plunged them deeper and deeper into my story. They learned I’d just gotten rid of most of what I’d owned, that I was about to start a four-month stint at the John Campbell Folk School, that my sabbatical year would culminate in my walk along the Camino to Santiago.
“You’re a free spirit!” one of the women said.
“I am indeed.” I thought of my littlest sister Meg who introduces me to her friends saying, “This is my free-spirited sister,” usually followed by, “you know, the one who’s getting rid of all her stuff and going around the world.”
The woman on the porch of the yarn shop continued. “When you’re done with the free-spirit part, marry a good-looking man — and make sure he’s a democrat.”
I laughed. “I’m hoping I don’t have to end my free-spirit days in order to get married.”
She considered that and quickly agreed.
This idea–that travel is something to “get out of my system” before I “settle down”–is one I don’t know that I agree with. A few months before I started my sabbatical friends starting saying things like, “You’re going to meet someone the day before you leave. What would you do if that happened?”
“I’d still go,” I said, matter-of-factly. There were no other options in my book. I do some drastic things, but canceling a whole year of adventures because I meet someone who just may want to date me? Marry me even? “If he’s really that interested, it will work out regardless.”
“Good for you,” they would say.
Then there were those who thought, myself included, that I’d meet someone over the course of my travels. That sounded more plausible then meeting someone in my hometown the day before I left. “I’m sure he’s out there traveling the world, so I’m going to find him,” I told a couple people when pressed on the topic. Indeed, I met more than a few fascinating traveling souls, but our time together was that of two free-spirits who cross paths briefly and then go on our respective journeys elsewhere.
Sometimes I wonder if I’m not meant to simply live the life of a single woman. Not long after one of my sisters announced she was pregnant, I had visions of being the spinster aunt–the “crazy” one with the wild hair, a cottage in the woods. My niece would love coming to visit; my sister would dread sending her worried what fanciful ideas I’d put in her head.
I laugh at that thought as I sit here on the porch of my cozy cabin next to my babbling brook, the sun peeking through the clouds, my hair unbrushed.
“I called to say I love you,” I told my father.
“Have you been drinking?” he asked.
“Oh–you sound really happy.” I was, but his surprise at my happiness stopped me cold. Was it really that unusual that I sound happy?
Perhaps it was because calls to Dad always had a purpose, and–like him–I didn’t waste time on formalities like “How are you?” and “I love you.” “Goodbye” was even optional. Phoning my father was often for logistical reasons. “If I fly into Westchester at noon for Meg’s wedding, can you guys pick me up?” Or I called in search of someone else. “Where’s Mom? I called the house and her cell phone but she doesn’t answer.” Or I called for shock value. “So I walked into work after being away for a week, and they moved me into an office.”
“You’re own office?” he said incredulously. “They really like you over there.” He thinks this is a good thing. I just think it will make it harder for me to resign. Not that I’m going to resign anytime soon. But it is inevitable. I haven’t held a full-time job longer than eighteen months. By choice. And now that I think about it, I’ve only ever had four full-time jobs in the fourteen years since I graduated from college. You do the math.
Two of those jobs had definitive end dates: Americorps was a one-year program and my National Park Service job was just seasonal. The other two–like the one I have now–had no expiration. I still remember the utter fear I felt when I first made that realization as I sat in the cubicle in my first corporate job.
I’m going to pause here as some of you are thinking, “Whoa. Wait. Back up. Did you just say you took a full-time job?” Yes. Yes, I did. I’ll wait while those of you that know me pick yourselves up off the floor.
My explanation (or the story I tell myself) is this: It’s a means to an end. At first, the end was to save some money. Then I floated this idea of doing the Camino again next year sometime. Then I started thinking bigger and thought of buying an around-the-world plane ticket for my 40th birthday.
Then I reconsidered. Because I really like Asheville. And I’m not sure I want to leave for eight months. I remember a few years ago telling my youngest sister she should join me in an around-the-world trip. “For how long? How much time would I need to take off?”
“Take-off? Oh, no. You’d need to quit your job.” The look on her face told me she would not be joining me. Not for the whole trip, at least.
“Maybe one day you’ll be like other people, and just take your vacations a week at a time,” said my mother to me one day. “You know, instead of thinking you have to quit your job and do something big.” But we both know that’s not likely.
I’ve run some numbers. For those of you that don’t know, it’s cheaper to travel than it is to live in your home for a year. Part of that is because my trip is due to include visits to South America and Southeast Asia. Cost is also less for me because I don’t require that my place of rest be a hotel. Or even a room to myself. But those details can all be figured out later.
So yes, I have a full-time job. And as I search my mind to figure out why my father thought it was unusual that I sounded happy I thought it could be that he recalls how miserable I usually become when confined to the same space for forty hours of my week. My mother says I’m like a “caged animal” when I have a full time job: you look in the cage and think the animal has a pretty good life, but he’s pacing and really he’s thinking of how to get out. Then one day he snaps. He attacks a visitor or just disappears. I usually do the latter. In the form of a resignation.
But yes, I’m happy. I can’t say I absolutely love my job and look forward to going to it every day. But I love that it’s providing me what I need right now. It’s just another stepping stone. One day I’ll hop to another stone, or venture out into the water. But for now, today, in this moment, I am content.