An Update and a Thank You

“I thought maybe I got off your e-mail list somehow,” my former piano teacher told me today. “But then I went on your blog and saw you just haven’t written anything in a while. ”

This is true. I’m not sure why I haven’t written. Not for lack of adventures–that’s for sure. So here’s a little taste of what we’ve been up to:


Bastille Day in Vannes

Since leaving our respective homes back in May, Michael and I have shared five apartments, two houses, one cruise ship cabin, and three hotel rooms–in six countries, three US states, and on one body of water:


Our Saturday view in Ceret

  • We hung our underwear out to dry over the streets of Aix-en-Provence (that’s where the drying rack was).
  • Michael stuck his trumpet out our window to play for the tourists in Vannes (but as we were on the third floor, no one saw where it was coming from, which suited him just fine).
  • We peered down from our windows in Ceret every Saturday to see the market being set up (and of course ventured out into it).
  • We learned to keep a closer eye on our bags in Barcelona (you read about that one).
  • We hosted a dinner party in Asheville (in a lovely house bigger than any I ever hope to own).
  • And just last weekend we watched my brother (finally) marry the wonderful woman he’s been dating for a very long time.

My niece and my new sister-in-law.


The view from the porch at my writing retreat

For those of you thinking that my days of solo travel are over, I beg to differ. Over the last four months, Michael and I have spent six weeks apart. To the aforementioned tallies, I can personally add ten different hostels, one hotel, one house, and one farm–and an additional two countries.


On the Camino . . . Again

  • Just two weeks after we arrived in France, I flew to Portugal to spend ten days on the Portuguese Camino to Santiago.
  • I spent a couple days in Paris to meet a friend from NY whose travels happened to coincide with mine.
  • I left Michael in Vannes and hopped a boat to a goat farm on an island for a week of volunteer work.
  • Less than twenty-four hours after returning to the US, I drove up to New York for some family time. Four days in New York turned into ten. Because I was enjoying it. And because I can.
  • I spent a few days with Michael before leaving him again for two weeks on my twice-yearly writing retreat.

Michael and I on Schroon Lake

So what’s next? This month, Michael will be in Asheville and California. I’ll be in New York and Montreal. And we’ll meet again in a house that stands just thirty seconds away from the shores of Schroon Lake–whose waters will be frozen over by the time we leave there in December.

Summing it all up like this, I’m a bit speechless–and I’m a writer, so that’s saying a lot.

During these times–when I look in awe at the wonderful life I am blessed with–all I can think to do is give thanks.

I’d like to thank you all, dear readers. You who have said, “Go!”. You who have read this blog–some for many years. Thank you for subscribing. For telling your friends about this blog, or about me, in hopes of inspiring someone else. Thank you to those who have posted a comment or contacted me personally. Thank you for asking me to speak to you, your friends, your students. Thank you to those of you who have made a change in your life and shared your fears and excitement with me. If you’re one of those people, stop right now and be damn proud of yourself. I’m sure proud of you.

My first public reading–John C. Campbell Folk School, March, 2008

I don’t know if or how my life would be different if I didn’t start this blog. But I can tell you this: my life is so much better for having done so. And for that I thank my first writing class: our teacher, Glenda Beall, who gently coaxed our stories out of us, my classmates who listened to those stories and laughed or cried and told me to keep writing, the classmate who showed me what a blog was when I had no intention of ever starting one, the classmates who started the on-line writing group and eventually our twice-yearly retreats, and to all my successive writing teachers and classmates.

And to all of you. I now know I like to write for an audience, and I thank you for showing up to my performance.

Free-Spirited Spinster?

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.

My back porch

My back porch

Scenes from a Writing Retreat

It started in 2008 when four of us met in a writing class at the John C. Campbell Folk School. An on-line critique group was formed. Two years later we reunited at JCCFS, added another person to our ranks, and then decided to hold our own writing retreats. They were yearly at first. Now they’re every six months. The first time it was just for a week. Now, the retired folk of the group stay for two weeks.

We alternate between mountains and sea, renting a house and holing ourselves up for the week to do what first brought us together: write.

“Is that really a vacation?” a co-worker asked before I left.

Time to Read

Time to Read

“For me it is,” I said. I know it’s not everyone’s dream. But for the five of us, a chance to be free of the distractions of our lives, to write without interruption, to spend hours talking about all the books we’ve read since last we saw each other, to gather at 4 every day for wine and conversation — it is a perfect vacation.

Time to Ponder...

Time to Ponder…

Lois brings a printer and we hold at least one critique session, gathered around the kitchen table, pens poised over each other’s work, wine glasses filled. 

Time to Raise a Glass

Time to Raise a Glass

Food is plentiful – we all bring food to share, each of us cooking a night or two. (Lucky for us, Lois’ idea of cooking includes having someone else do it — and the dishes — for you, so one night we actually get in a car and leave the premises). Sometimes we escape from behind our notebooks and computers and head out for a walk. Or an artist date.

That’s where I took off to this morning — to find some art to feed my soul. As usual, that meant conversation with artists (today, a sweet-grass basket weaver) and the business owners who show their work (today, the owner of a pottery gallery). As I wandered around, I came upon these frogs — doing everything I enjoy most about these writing retreats (besides the actual writing). 



The Things I Never Dreamed Of

When I took my first writing class at the John C. Campbell Folk School, I never had the intention of becoming a published writer.  I just wanted to write down some of my family stories.  And take a week doing so at a beautiful place in the mountains of Western North Carolina.

Four years later I find myself accomplishing something I would have never predicted.  I have not only been published, but will actually get paid for things I’ve written.  I’d heard the stories of all the rejection letters one receives prior to first publication.  In February, my first writing teacher Glenda Beall helped me to get up the courage to submit my first piece. A few months letter, I got my first rejection letter.

“While you’re waiting to hear back, submit something else,” Glenda had told me.  “That way you’re always hopeful that maybe the next one will be accepted.” That was great advice.  So I submitted another piece.  That was accepted “space permitting” so I’m not sure yet if it will be published.

In the meantime, I wrote to a web site about an article I read on their site.  In the response I received, I was asked my writing background and if I’d be interested in writing something for the site.  Could this be happening?  Was I actually being solicted to write something? Indeed I was.  And today you can read that article by clicking here.

In the meantime a friend put me in touch with a web site she had written for.  “I think they’d be interested in having you blog from the Camino.”  Indeed they were.  You can find my posts for them here.

I’ve often said I think it silly to ask me where I expect to be in five years.  I always say I have no idea – because there are so many experiences out there, I’ll probably be doing something I never dreamed of.  And so it is with writing.  Five years ago I never would have predicted I’d have a blog and be a published writer.  But here I am.  Isn’t life grand?

10,000 Steps

“You’re doing the Camino?” he asked.  “Did you start practicing yet?”

“No,” I replied sheepishly.  “But it’s not until May, so I’ve got time.”

He looked at me with wide eyes.  “You should be out there – at least an hour every day.”

It was August, 2011.  I was not planning on starting my preparations until January, 2012, but this guy scared me a little.  Gerald Murphy had hiked most of the Appalachian trail.  He’d biked coast to coast. He was here at the Folk School leading paying students on ten mile hikes every day that week.  He knew what he was talking about.  But I knew that people can only do so much at one time, and my focus for the next four months was on two things: my job at the Folk School and my classes at the Folk School.

I listened to his advice, thanked him, and stuck to my plan.

On January 10th, it was time to take action.  I finally bought a new battery for my pedometer.  I put it in only to discover that my pedometer didn’t need a new battery – it just didn’t work at all.  I lamented to Glenda, my hostess, and she said, “Oh – I have one that you could use.”  It will never cease to amaze me how things turn up when I need them to.

Since that day, I’ve had my Step Into Health pedometer on my hip every waking moment.

The first week I just wanted to get a baseline reading.  I was disappointed to learn that my morning walk around Chatuge Lane only garnered me 2100 steps, so I started exploring new roads to increase my numbers.  Out onto Highway 64, left onto Ledford Chapel Road, right onto…is this a road?  Hmm…I don’t think so.  Turn around.

My inability to sit still for too long (thanks, Dad) earned me about 4000 steps each day just “puttering” around the house, cooking, and running errands.  I jotted down each days count: 6471, 8972,8935, 13172.  That last one is what happens when you spend two and a half hours at a Saturday night Contra Dance at the Folk School🙂

So what does any of this mean?  How many steps in a mile?  My pedometer only records steps, so I had no idea how far I was really walking.  A Google search tells me 2000 steps is about one mile.  Some time ago the popular view was that 10,000 steps per day was ideal.  Most people can’t get to 10,000 steps without adding in a half-hour walk, so it makes sense that this recommendation might get people out exercising.

Ten thousand steps is about five miles.  I must admit, I was pretty proud of myself.  I wasn’t too far from that number.  And if I could do five miles per day, it wouldn’t be long before I could feel confident that I could do twelve miles per day for forty days on the Camino.

On Monday I decided to set my sights for 10,000 steps.  I realized this would require not just a morning walk, but an evening walk as well.  (Or a longer morning walk, but I get bored easily, so didn’t know if that would work.)  Thankfully, I was in Florida on Monday.  And it was 70 degrees.  I met my friend Sarah for a walk around Sawgrass Lake Park in the morning, had gelato at Mazarro’s Italian Market with Stephanie, sat out by the pool in the afternoon, and then called a friend as I started on my evening walk.  I like the quiet of my morning walks, but the evening one might require a phone call for distraction.  It worked: 10,928 steps.

Tuesday we left St. Petersburg.  Six trips between the condo and the car (with three flights of stairs in between) helped rack up some steps in the morning.  After lunch, I walked a few times around the restaurant before we got back on the road.   A couple rounds around Dairy Queen while eating a chocolate cone with rainbow sprinkles helped, too.  That night, I headed to the treadmill at the hotel.  (Jessica, my marathon-runner sister would be proud, and stunned.)  But treadmills are boring.  And the TV in the gym wasn’t offering any good viewing options.  So I left with a couple thousand steps left to take, only to go back after dinner and have Jon Stewart on the TV to help me get through those last steps: 10,525 read my pedometer.

Today we drove back to North Carolina.  I walked a few laps around the Olive Garden in Canton, Georgia where we stopped for lunch.  The sign on the back door said they didn’t take deliveries between 11 and 2.  Their dumpsters are hidden behind some very nice looking gates.  After two laps, I joined my travel partners and we got back on the road.

We arrived home at 4:30.  As soon as I unpacked the car, I took off for a walk before the sun went down.  It was a balmy 60 degrees and I wanted to take advantage.  I opened my pedometer.  I was at 2400 steps.  Chatuge Lane, across Highway 64 to the lake shore, left on Ledford Chapel, up the hill, Willow Pond Lane – let’s see where that goes.  Some of these houses are obviously only used seasonally.  No one’s home – shades drawn, boats and jet skis covered.  There was no sign indicating this was a dead end, but it was.  I’m at 5000 steps when I turn around.  8700 by the time I get home.

“Were you walking all this time?” Glenda asks when I arrive home.  “Yup – three miles,” I say.  Only 1300 steps to go to reach 10,000 today.  I’m on my way.  A little later than Gerald would have recommended, but according to my timeline, I’m right on time:)


“I’ll just go call Grandma,” I said to my instructor.  I was in my Genealogy class at the John C. Campbell Folk School where I had one major advantage over all my classmates: I was the only student who had a grandmother still living.  This is probably because I was the youngest student in the class by at least thirty years.  When my classmates had questions they needed answers to, they had to do a bit more searching.  I could just call Grandma.

I’d heard a lot of her stories before, but now I was going to get them straight and get them down.  Like the story of the great-grandmother who, ill after the death of her young child was told she was going to die and she should leave Brooklyn for the country (aka Poughkeepsie).  She lived to be 92.    Then there was the great-grandfather who died in an explosion leaving his wife with three children under four years old – the oldest of whom was my Grandpa Gallo.  I had another great-grandfather who took his family to one church in town until the day they walked in and were told all the Italians had to now go to a different church. And that’s just my father’s side of the family.

“I wish my grandchildren took an interest in the genealogy work I’m doing,” a classmate lamented.  “Me, too,” another agreed.  “I sometimes wonder what they’re going to do with my research after I’m gone – I hope they don’t just throw it all out.”  Our teacher, Ann Osisek, had answers to a lot of our questions – and had an answer for this dilemma as well.  She told us that libraries in the town in which our relatives lived will usually take our family history research, and have it available if anyone in the future wants to continue the search.  I, though, had something to add, which I gave in a little speech on our last day that went something like this:

“My grandmother is 87, and I just started doing our genealogy.  So don’t give up hope.  You’re all much younger than that – so wait at least til your 87 before you think your grandkids aren’t interested.”

They, in turn, told me to get my grandmother’s story down.  So that’s what I’ve started to do.  But I’ve also found I’m telling her parts of her story she didn’t know.  Just today, on my regular Sunday visit to Grandma’s for meatballs, I let her know I found the Ellis Island records of her father’s arrival in the US (see document below – line 13).  She knew he came over with his mother when he was seventeen.  But she didn’t know that they were initially detained because they had no money upon their arrival.  My great-great-grandmother (see document below – line 12) arrived in this country with two children, by two different husbands, neither of whom was still alive.  Another child – by yet another husband – was already in the US and paid for her passage.  Yes, this woman had lost three husbands by the time she arrived – and she was only 50.  I’d heard she was tough – no wonder!  Could you imagine that life?  All that for a woman whose name – Abbondanza –  means abundance, plenty, richness, and wealth.  Her abundance was not material the day she stepped foot on Ellis Island.  But she did have plenty – of hope, courage, and faith.

In March, I’m embarking on a journey, too.  I’m reversing Abbondanza’s trip – leaving from New York and heading to Avellino, Italy.  My trip will be a lot easier than hers in many ways.  But with me I’ll take a dose of her hope, courage, and faith as I try to find out more about her.

Cretic – Arrival of Gaetano Urciuoli – Line 13


A Day In The Life: Sunday

Some time ago, I shared what life was like as a host at the John C. Campbell Folk School.  To do that, I picked one day (Tuesday) and wrote what our job entails.  Today I’m going to tell you about Sundays.

The nice thing about Sunday is that our lives are not dictated by the ringing of the bell for meals – well, until dinner at least.  Students don’t arrive until 3pm, so the campus is mostly empty.  We can sleep in as long as we want.  But we’re usually up by 10am because a local gentleman cooks brunch for us every Sunday.  Show up at 9 if you want to help cook, 10 if you want to eat.  He makes a small feast – biscuits and gravy, sausage, bacon, potatoes, eggs mixed with cheese and whatever else he has.  He is a generous man who lives in a house filled with books – and he has a sense of humor that keeps us laughing all morning.

Sunday is the day week-long classes start.  Though students don’t register until 3pm, instructors can come in earlier to pick up the keys to their studios.  So when we return to the Folk School, we may get a knock on our door or a call on the Host cell phone from an instructor looking for us.  We’ll open up the office and give them their keys and information packet.

As I said last time, Eve and I do some duties together.  Others we alternate each week.  So I’ll go by how it worked yesterday.

2pm: Eve and I meet to do Studio Rounds.  We have a sheet that lists each studio that’s holding a class that week, and any extra supplies they need.  The Assistant Program Manager goes over this sheet with us the Thursday prior.  Depending on what’s on this sheet, we may meet earlier than two pm.  Sometimes we can polish off rounds in an hour.  Once it took two and a half hours.

Eve goes to get the Folk School vehicle from the parking lot and drives it to Keith House for us to load it.  Keith House is the center of it all – it’s where we live, where the office is, where the Student Orientation and other events take place, and where our supplies are.  So while Eve gets the Suburban, I go to the Housekeeping room on the lower level to get us a large box of paper towels which we’ll dish out to all the studios.  I realize I just took the last box, so I stop in the office to leave a note for housekeeping letting them know.

Next, we head to the Programming Closet to get any extra things instructors have requested.  This week that includes a digital projector, a screen, and flip chart paper.

Then, we’re off.  First, we head down to the Wet Room.  There’s a Felted Rug class in there this week.  They requested table risers, so we grab those out of the back closet of the studio and put them out for the instructor to see.  There are four spinning wheels in that studio that need to be brought to the Weaving Studio.  Eve loads them into the Suburban while I head next door to the cooking studio to replenish their supply of flip chart paper.

I won’t go through every studio, but basically we stock them all with paper towels, take the chairs off the tables (housekeeping was there before us doing the floors), and make sure the studio looks presentable to new students walking in.

Sometimes instructors are already in their studios getting ready.  We introduce ourselves, ask if they need anything, then tell them we’ll see them at 4:30 for the Instructor Meeting.

Once we finish going to all the studios, we head back to Keith House.  We unload anything we picked up in the studios that needs to go back into the Programming closet, grab a cookie from the platter sitting in the office for the incoming students, then relax for a wee bit of time.

4:30: Instructor Meeting in the Dining Hall.  The Assistant Program Manager conducts this meeting.  We’re there so the instructors know who we are (since there’s a new host rotating in every two months) and to hear if there’s anything additional that instructors need in their studios.

After the meeting is finished, we load the Suburban with anything else they requested.  We’ll bring it by their studios tonight when we do rounds again.

5:30 Student Orientation.  Again, we’re there mainly so the students know who we are.  My standard line, after I introduce myself, is to say, “We’re your after-hours on call people, so if you could keep your emergencies between 8 and 5 when the office is here, we’d greatly appreciate it.”  Thankfully, this always gets a laugh.

5:45: I leave Orientation to head down to the Dining Hall to help set up for dinner.  On my way, I grab the tray of cookies and the cooler of lemonade to bring back down there.  Eve stays at Orientation to jot down where each class is meeting after dinner because, invariably, we’ll see people wandering around after dinner wondering where to go.

6:00: I ring the bell, then help dining hall staff plate dinner as students are getting their drinks.  Students then stand behind their chairs and wait for the blessing.

6:05: Eve gets on the microphone and tells the vegetarians where their food is, as well as any one else with special diets.  I’ve seen the dining hall accommodate twenty different diets (no salt, gluten-free, diabetic, no spices, no peppers – you name it, they’ve seen it).  Then, she sings the blessing.  I wheel out a cart of food to the far room.  Eve and I serve it (we eat family style) while the dining hall staff serves the other room.  Then, we sit down to eat.

6:35 or so: I do announcements.  Since it’s their first meal this week, I tell the students how to clear their tables.  Other days I’ll tell them what the afternoon or evening activities are.

6:45: Students set off to meet their instructors and classmates.  Though Eve and I are in a class every week, we don’t meet our class at this point as we have to do evening rounds.

6:55: Eve and I get in the Suburban and drive around to each studio checking in to make sure they have everything they need.

7:15: Rounds are finished, Eve drops me off at my class and drives down to hers.

9:00: Classes let out for the night.

10:00: I close up Keith House.  It’s never locked.  “Closing” means dumping out the coffee pots, turning out some lights, recycling the newspaper, putting anything back that is out of place.

10:30: I go to bed.

11:30: I get a phone call on the host phone that someone needs to switch rooms.  Her roommate is snoring and she can’t sleep.  I get out of bed and head to the office.  I check the housing list to see where I can put her, then call her back.  She moves, I leave a note for the housing coordinator then go back to bed.

12:30: I’m still up.  Harder to go to bed for the second time.

7:23: I get a call from the office wondering which host is leading Morning Walk this morning.  I note that we haven’t done Morning Walk for at least three weeks now.  It’s been pitch black at 7:15am.  Daylight savings happened over the weekend, but I was told once we stop the walk, it doesn’t happen again until spring.  Apparently the office staff don’t know that.  I guess I’m up now.


Students and Teachers

“So what did you think of blacksmithing?” friends ask.

“I loved it,” I say.  “Though it was one of those classes I could have loved or hated based solely on the teacher.  Thankfully, I had a really good teacher.”

In my ten weeks here at the Folk School, I haven’t just been studying blacksmithing, or cooking, or writing.  I have also been studying teachers, and myself as a student.

During my years of “traditional” schooling, I excelled.  Not because I was necessarily smart, but because I was good at doing what was asked of me: namely memorizing information and spitting in back out.  I was also one of those kids who wanted to please the adults in my life – namely my parents and teachers – and so I did what it took.

Thankfully, I’m mostly over my need to please other people.  But not completely.  Holding the beginnings of what would hopefully become a hook, I asked my blacksmith instructor what he thought of my work so far.  “Well, do you like it?” he asked.  “Yeah,” I said, wondering what that had to do with anything.  “If you like it, it’s good,” he said.  Wait – I determine what’s good here? At first it was a little alarming.  I don’t know what I’m doing.  How do I know if it’s any good? But then the idea started to grow on me.  After all, I was the one that was going to take this hook home and use it.

Later I told another student what my instructor said.  “That’s what so great about this place,” she said.  “You’re not trying to please a teacher – just yourself.”

Tending the Forge

Making a Bottle Opener

A New Use for our Garden Shed

Last month, I took Tom Dahaney’s Building a Garden Shed class.  In five days, we accomplished quite a bit.  What was left undone, we were told, would be completed by the Work Study students with the help of the maintenance department.

By Thursday afternoon, our shed was looking pretty good.

On Saturday night, I had the pleasure of attending a wedding here on the campus of the Folk School.  Our garden shed had never looked so good.  For it’s inaugural use, it served not as a garden shed, but as a bar.


Drink anyone?

Rocking Chairs

Beth and I went to sit down on the porch, overlooking the mountains.  She took one rocking chair, I took another.  “Oh – this is the one I don’t like,” I said as I got up and moved to another chair.   Beth looked at the chair I had vacated and said, “Yeah, I don’t like that one either.”  We conferred for a few minutes about what made one rocking chair better than another.  Then we both paused for a moment, stared at the view, and Beth said, “I love that I’m living at a place where we actually rate rocking chairs.”  I couldn’t have said it better myself.