Tabula Rasa

Fact: I have too much stuff. I’ve known this since well before Marie Kondo and tidying up became a cultural phenomenon. Since before “edit” became an activity no longer reserved simply for manuscripts or films, but now has haute connotations applied to everything from cosmetics to jewelry to home furnishings.

My stuff, on the whole, is neither fashionable nor glamourous. Much of it I’ve been boxing up and carrying around with me for years. Decades, even. Handwritten letters from overseas penpals and junior high classmates. Theater tickets, bookmarks, notebooks from college courses long since completed. 

All of it marking an intersection of memory and material object that – somehow – I can’t yet bear to part with.

Urban art. South Side Flats, Pittsburgh PA. July 2021.

Even if these things no longer serve a practical purpose in my day-to-day, they are proof of who I was. All the selves I’ve been, every milestone or throwaway moment of my life marked. The bright orange t-shirt from a 5K race on a crisp October morning. Yes, a relatively short distance, but for me, momentous. It was the first race I completed after tearing my MCL and spending the better part of a year with orthopedists and physical therapists, fearing I’d never be able to run again.

The postcards from France showing colorful vintage illustrations of the Cote d’Azur. Invoices from dental treatments to reconstruct bone and tissue in my jaw. Family albums. The eulogy I wrote for my marriage, and then burned (but not before snapping a photo of the text).

If these things go, what evidence do I have – save memory, which is surely fallible – that I ever was that girl, that woman?

But I can’t take it with me, as the line from the Pulitzer Prize-winning play goes. At the end of the month, I am leaving this house forever. What better time for tidying up and cutting loose? What more apt juncture to consciously release what is no longer needed? When better to intentionally choose what comes with me?

These past weeks, I’ve been setting myself to brush off the dust and survey the goods. There are the documents and papers and clutter that will go. Ill-fitting shoes that I never liked. Superfluous kitchenware. And my beloved motorcycle. Perhaps not for forever. But I’ve taken what I needed from the Harley and I carry a scar and story to prove it. For now, I’m at peace with parting. There’s the hope of meeting again. 

Earlier this spring, I was determined to erase everything. Job, lifestyle, relationships. Then shred the remains and throw them into a dustbin. I looked at houses in the rural environs of Western Pennsylvania where I spent my childhood. I dreamed of acreage and horses. I wanted nothing more than to be away, away from the city and the feints and deflections inherent in many of my daily interactions. I wanted, I think, to disappear into some chrysalis of my own making. And to re-emerge in some other place, as some other self.

But following through on creating my blank slate includes letting go of even the belief that such extreme measures were necessary for preservation, for authenticity.

I am moving, but the distance isn’t far. I don’t need it to be; what I want next is closer than I thought. As for what I’m letting go of, there may be empty spaces, but not a void. And in those spaces, the promise of things hoped for, but not yet seen.

P.S. I played Essie Carmichael in my high school’s production of You Can’t Take it With You. I’m sure I have a few playbills inside a drawer somewhere around here.

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The Year of Maybe

This is the way the world ends

This is the way the world ends

This is the way the world ends

Not with a bang, but a whimper

T.S. Eliot

These lines from “The Hollow Men” (first published 1925) are as fitting a sentiment to mark the end of the year 2020 as any other . Since 2020 often required more effort from me than I wanted to give and included many days where my primary emotion was exhaustion, I indulged in a small act of rebellion at its passing. That is to say, I ignored it. I refused to stay up until midnight, but went to bed early, and slept soundly.

It seemed to me that what was most needed was not forced gaiety, more stuff, or more obligations. I wanted my holidays to be a period of rest. I kept them small and quiet. My introvert self enjoyed the solitude; I wish more of the world could understand that being alone is not always lonely.

For many of us, 2020 was a year of great loss.

It is the reckoning of who and what I parted with, and what remains within my universe at the outset of 2021, that prompts me to write now. 

Downton Pittsburgh. Summer 2020.

I suppose that in hindsight, the signs that 2020 would be a dumpster fire were there from the start. I began the year with health issues that placed me on temporary medical leave  from work. In February, my long-cherished hopes of building a family through adoption were dashed when I received a phone call with devastating news: the child’s relatives had inexplicably withdrawn their consent. The information came just hours after a video call in which I’d seen and spoken to the dark-haired little girl who I dreamed would someday be my daughter. (We later learned that a social worker had given the family false information, but by that point, it was too late to resurrect the international adoption process.)

March 2020 brought alarming harbingers of global pandemic. The vast majority of my colleagues within my department at a Fortune 500 retailer were furloughed; I did the job of three people on a reduced salary. My husband and I agreed to divorce.

Over the summer, America seemingly ruptured into its worst self. Violent, hateful, deadly. The COVID-19 pandemic did not meaningfully abate, and those sworn to protect the public were filmed choking the life from an unarmed man while bystanders pleaded with them to stop.

Then came autumn, and with it a surreal presidential election – and aftermath –  where American democracy felt more fragile and vulnerable than at any point in my lifetime.

I could say more. I could write about the loss of my grandmother, who passed only days ago after succumbing to COVID. Had she lived until April, she would have celebrated her 100th birthday.

But you read the headlines. You’ve heard the news reports. You know that the pandemic is not contained, despite vaccines at last making their way to the public. You recognize that our country is far from healed.

And yet. And yet, I cannot tally 2020 as a total loss. In many ways, it was a successful and even joyful year for me. I spent hours rambling through the beautiful hills and paddling the waters of rural Pennsylvania. I earned a certificate in game design; I mucked around with PlayStation and started to learn guitar. I stayed out until midnight on a hilltop looking at stars. I published articles in my professional realm which drew pleasing and humbling bits of attention. There were Zoom calls with Dr. Anthony Fauci, Giselle Fetterman, and women in my district running for state office. I attended a virtual cocktail party hosted by Lord and Lady Carnarvon of Highclere Castle (known to millions around the world as the setting of Downton Abbey).

I even baked homemade bread.

All told, it wasn’t all bad. Therein lies the rub.

2020 was a tremendously complicated year for me. I could start the day with my favorite coffee, read headlines that made me wish I hadn’t picked up the news, have Zoom meetings and conference calls and appointments with varying degrees of value, take my dog to the vet for the umpteenth time, wipe the kitchen countertops with disinfectant (again), and somehow end with a glass of wine and a chapter or two from a novel. Small wonder that the challenge of holding multiple and often conflicting feelings tested my endurance. It was a life of many realities converging together. 

I had intended to experiment by making 2020 the Year of No. It often seemed the universe was saying no to me instead, and I had little choice in the matter.

But I did say no. No to an unsalvageable marriage. No to a job with a company whose values did not reflect my own. No to dating guys who were good-looking and intriguingly tattoed, but flaky. No to excusing others’ bad behavior.

I don’t know yet if 2021 will be the year of yes. I hesitate to say anything so absolute. But it may be the year of maybe.

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Beyond Binary: The Aftermath

Photo by Vlada Karpovich from Pexels

2020, the year of disruption. It took a global pandemic, the most bitter social and political fragmentation I’ve ever witnessed in American culture, and a painful end to my marriage, but I’m at last shaking free of the pursuit of something that just maybe, I should not have been chasing in the first place. I’ve given up looking for normal.

“Normal” is a loaded word these days. Some of us want to “get back to normal” or “adjust to the new normal.” Others believe that the establishment, in any form, is not to be trusted and that we’d be a lot better off crying foul on the status quo. In the days and weeks following the 2020 presidential election, I’ve been thinking a lot about normal. Is it what is comfortable? Familiar? Routine?

And if, but its very definition, normal is so unexceptional, why do we yearn for it so badly?

I’m beginning to think that in 2020, it wasn’t normality that was shattered. Instead, our habits and our complacency and our worldview were threatened at an existential level. There is no longer a common set of undisputed facts on which to base a shared understanding of reality. The world is tilted and off-center.  We’re in a space that we can’t predict, and with a set of unknowns we can’t control. 

And as a species, when the necessity to adapt forces itself upon us, we tend to resent it. Any behavioral economist will tell you that human beings are creatures of emotion, not logic. Just because we know better doesn’t mean we do better.

But we should. Maybe it’s not logical to expect “normal,” if normal means a return to what was before. How could it be? These are strange and often frightening times. 

Much of life as we remember it is past. Perhaps, ultimately, we may find parts of it are not worth going back for. Yet things remain that are worth holding on to, and those have little to do with whether or not our local gym is open, or if we’re required to wear a mask, or if a curfew has gone into effect.

Human behavior is often highly contextual. But there is almost always a choice. And I will not give up on the big picture. I will not give up on decency, civility, or kindness. I will not give up on the expectation that my elected leaders will follow established precedents for conduct befitting their office. And I won’t give up on America, or on my fellow Americans, although I’ve felt more grief and anger and disappointment in these past 12 months than I believed possible. 

For as Winston Churchill is alleged, but not proven, to have remarked, “Americans can always be trusted to do the right thing, once all other possibilities have been exhausted.”

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Playing Johnny Cash in Quarantine

Confession: I’m not really in quarantine. I used the term because it was shorter and easier to write than “statewide stay-at-home order,” which is technically what I’m living under. Second confession: “quarantine” sounds way more provocative and interesting than “stay-at-home-order.” So I took a writer’s liberty to be interesting rather than strictly accurate.

Johnny Cash.

But it’s true that I am playing Johnny Cash songs. I laboriously pick them out, chord-by-chord, on an out-of-tune guitar that I found in the basement. Because one thing I have, in a life where many things have been taken away and disrupted by COVID-19, is the gift of time. Freed from commuting, or post-work social obligations, or visiting the gym, I suddenly have more hours in each day. Hours which I can choose to use in unprecedented ways.

I bought my first – and only –  set of guitar picks in Austin, TX. Learning how to play guitar had been one of those things, like running another 10K race or understanding how to drive a vehicle with manual transmission, that I always meant to get around to doing. But after I came back from Texas, guitar-less, the picks literally sat in my desk drawer for almost a decade. Not forgotten, exactly. I prefer to think they were waiting. 

Fast forward to the spring of 2020. Much of the world suddenly found itself at home. On a whim, I rifled through my desk drawer. And I found my guitar picks, the shiny plastic packaging unopened, just as I had placed them there on a long-ago summer afternoon. 

Take your pick.

The six picks all have a stained glass motif, reminiscent of church windows, in each of their designs. Since it is Holy Week, I chose the pick showing Christ crucified. I don’t know if that decision was religious or irreverent, but I went with it.  

I start with the basics. The last time I’d attempted to learn an instrument was under duress. I was five or six years old and my mother dragged me to a neighbor’s house so I could take piano lessons. I dutifully stuck at it and squeaked through a couple recitals over the years, but it never became a passion. Now, however, things were different. The quest for musical proficiency was a voluntary undertaking. And with the help of YouTube, I intended to teach myself.

I sat down to attempt my first lesson. By way of internet browsing I discovered a tutorial on a three-chord foundation that will lend itself to a wide variety of songs . I propped my laptop up on the coffee table, watched the videos, and tried to strum along. Feeling the need for a visual reference, I printed out a diagram with the foundational chords: G major. C major. D major. I glanced back and forth from the diagram to my hand placement. My fingers strained to reach across the fretboard. The guitar strings cut into the soft flesh at my fingertips; my skin had not yet grown calloused and inured to the pressure. 

If my hands seemed too short, my fingernails were too long. I’d never been one for manicures or even particularly long nails, but nevertheless, the length prevented me from fully pressing down each string. Even to my untrained ear, my chords sounded wonky. I ran upstairs to the bathroom and trimmed the nails on my left hand nearly to the quick. Then, for symmetry, I cut the nails on my right hand. Thus I made my first sacrifice: vanity. 

I futzed with playing the chords a little more. The sounds I produced edged closer to resembling something musical. But I hadn’t made a song, yet. I hadn’t even made notes. For inspiration, I decided to take a break and watch footage of Jimi Hendrix’s legendary performance at the Monterey Pop Festival. You know, the one where he sets his red Stratocaster on fire and then smashes it onstage. The Strat which he had painted himself. And the performance during which one of the most legendary images in rock n’roll history is captured, when Jimi kneels in offering, his beautiful guitar in flames. (Side note: that picture was taken by a 17-year-old who cut school to go to the festival. True story.)

Anyway, watching that footage on the first night I picked up a guitar was a mistake. I could practice for 100 years and never come close to touching Hendrix’s talent. Thus my second sacrifice: pride. 

I had no choice but to begin at the beginning. Reflecting that plucking at chords at random may not be the best way to make progress, I decided to try a song. Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” can be played with three basic chords. It’s a song I’m familiar with, lyrics and all. And thanks to the deliberate, steady chord progression that Cash is known for, I know I won’t have to play particularly quickly. 

I get out the first chord. G major. It’s a fairly forgiving finger position, and the sound comes out warm and mellow. Then there’s C major, a bit brighter, sharper, that requires more stretching of my fingers as I struggle to get them into place. And finally D major, my favorite of the three, which produces a sound that seems at once familiar and little funky. 

And I’m playing. And singing. Slowly. Painfully. But its recognizable as pieces of a song. 

These are my beginning steps. My first chords. My first music in which I both play and sing. And with the uncertainty and with the discovery there is a wobbling feeling of joy. 

I’m a long way from having the chops to jam with Jimi Hendrix. But in time, I might be able to play along with Bob Dylan on “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” And Eddie Vedder doesn’t know it, but he and I are doing duets on Tuesday when I start to tackle “Release.” (I dare you to read the lyrics, close your eyes and listen to Vedder’s vocals, stick around for the psychedelic vibes of the song’s second half, and not feel something.)

Life is not always a line. Sometimes we circle back, pick up what was left behind, and find ourselves at the beginning again. And when so much of life as we’ve known it has ended, the beginning is not a bad place to be. 

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Fiction, Fast and Loose

Anyone who has had the misfortune of watching a historical anything with me will probably tell you that I’m nearly insufferable when it comes to period detail. I grouse about language, clothing, the construction of the buildings, the kinds of food that appear on the table. I nearly barfed while watching Outlaw King, and actor Chris Pine pats a child on the back while saying something that sounds suspiciously like “It’s going to be ok.”

Whaaatt? “OK” was not common parlance in medieval Scotland.  “OK” wasn’t common parlance anywhere in the English-speaking world for at least another 400 years. 

Television hasn’t proved much more satisfying. There was BBC America’s Copper, which featured a revolver-wielding detective navigating the gritty slums of New York in the years just following the American Civil War. Interesting concept. Except that the New York City Police Department didn’t have any detectives at the time. And policemen weren’t issued guns.

Reign was another show that caught my fancy. (And I watched it to the bitter end, mainly due to the captivating performances of Megan Follows as Catherine de Medici and Craig Parker as slippery nobleman Stephane Narcisse.) But among the many anachronisms that proved persistently distracting were characters drinking tea (which wouldn’t have been imported into Europe for another century). The clothing, too, was a mishmash of styles and periods that made it appear as if the series’ costume designer had raided a community theater wardrobe room and appropriated what was left from productions of PippinHair, and Our Town

Of course, there are exceptions. DeadwoodBoardwalk Empire. And even A Knight’s Tale, which makes a delicious nod to Geoffrey Chaucer while playfully winking at history; it’s a world where a medieval-sounding melody is used as a prelude to David Bowie’s “Golden Years,” and characters are dressed in pants and tunics that carry more than a whiff of the Rolling Stones’ swagger. 

I realize that we watch movies and television to be entertained. But I believe that in order to tell a good story, we need to understand the world that the story is born in. 

And in the case of history, that does mean checking a few facts.

Or a lot of them. As I wrote The Admiral’s Wife, inspired by the amazing – and true – adventures of Katherine Cochrane, I wrote it very carefully. I read. I researched. I visited archives to examine centuries-old documents firsthand and took a bus to sleepy Scottish villages. Since Kate also spent a good part of her life in South America, I gave myself a crash course in the politics of early 19th-century revolutions, made a Chilean stew called charquiquan, and drank wines from the region where she lived. I listened to recordings of native songbirds and learned what flowers grew and where. I sent a letter to the 15th Earl of Dundonald to give him a heads up that I was writing a book about his formidable ancestress. (I even started a mood board for the Cochrane’s world via Pinterest.)

It was a lot to take on. But I didn’t see a way to get around it. Since I was dealing with actual historical figures who left a sizable paper trail, I felt it was incumbent upon me to be as informed about their real lives as humanly possible. Secondly, since Kate has living relatives, I also believe I have a duty to represent her fairly, with all the understanding and authenticity that is her due.

Of course, the pressure was terrible. I often felt that I was writing while walking across a tightrope in a straightjacket. Because I didn’t just want a novel that was well-researched and thorough. I wanted a story that was good.

The best thing to do, I realized, was to put it aside. And I started writing a book that was completely different. Historical, yes. Requiring a bit of research, yes. But with characters and plot entirely made up. And completely lacking in literary pretensions.

It was the most liberating thing I could have done. My characters don’t hew to any prescribed code of behavior, and in writing it, neither did I. If I wanted to put in racy bits, I put in racy bits. If a character was in a scene where it made sense for them to throw a punch, they threw a punch. They smoke and place bets and make secret ferry crossings over the Irish Sea. There are assumed identities and well-meaning liars. There’s a clever housemaid with a taste for intrigue. And a dog. And a barfight.

Best of all, there was no unseen judge looking over my shoulder. I wrote what I wanted. That’s not to say that I was careless about things. But I was certainly much more carefree. 

In fact, it was so much fun that I’ve started writing another one. A Western, set in Montana during the waning years of the frontier, where a grieving widow is called upon to serve as her town’s justice of the peace. Writing the meet-cute between my protagonist and the man destined to become her partner (and love interest, naturally) made my toes curl. In a good way. So did a scene where the heroine interrogates a suspect using a variation of the Reid technique and all of the good cop/bad cop shenanigans that go along with it. 

I’ve no doubt that I’ll go back to The Admiral’s Wife. It’s a tale that needs telling. And when I do, I have the feeling that both Kate, and myself, will move through it a little more freely. 

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The Year of No

Since my earliest memories, I’ve been afraid of being passive. Staying still = being powerless. I suspect this is shared by many kids whose ambition outstripped their resources. To this day, I hold a deep belief that achievement and safety are somehow correlated, that if I become successful I’ll also be safe.  

This obsession began well before I entered professional life. Immediately after high school, I left for college. Not the perfectly adequate university situated literally across the street. Instead I accepted a scholarship to attend a highly selective liberal arts college five states away. While there I landed on the dean’s list every semester, served as editor-in-chief of the student newspaper, played intramural sports, and made appearances at parties thrown by the brothers of Chi Phi. I also had an off-campus job at a Starbucks two miles away, which I walked to unless I was lucky enough to bum a ride from a friend.

Following my summa cum laude graduation I took out loans to attend graduate school in England. (At the time, international fees cost significantly less than schools in the U.S., thanks to the way the British government set tuition rates.) I hustled a series of part-time jobs to keep myself fed. 

Upon returning to the U.S., I knew it was time to get to work. For real. Rather than heading back to my small Pennsylvania hometown, I moved to Washington, D.C.  I spent my first months in one of the world’s most powerful cities living off an $10/hour (pre-tax) temp gig. I had no car, and I ate whatever I could buy at CVS. I lived in a cold basement apartment in a dodgy part of the city. Over a series of weeks, during my walks back and forth from the subway, I monitored the progress of a discarded condom’s slow decay as it withered on the sidewalk. I worried about getting mugged. One of my coworkers at my temp job gave me a pair of socks for Christmas. I wore them until they developed a hole near the toes; then I found some thread and a needle and darned the hole. 

A serendipitous conversation at an alumni event resulted in an office job with a tiny salary – but a salary nevertheless – and benefits. I started freelance writing at about the same time. Not only was the extra income welcome, but it led to making vital connections, one of which resulted in a position within the PR office of a world-renowned research library. 

Things were looking up. But as I discovered over the next several years, working in the non-profit realm is not very profitable. At least not in a place with a cost of living like Washington, D.C. At a downtown conference I stopped by a booth for a consulting firm located just north of the city. I struck up a conversation with a pair of recruiters. Business cards exchanged hands, I sent over my resume, and at the conclusion of the interview process I had a new job that put me in a new industry. And for the first time in my life, I was earning a salary that let me buy whatever I wanted at the grocery store.

The point is, it all underscored my sense that opportunities are not given. They are made. 

And opportunities cannot be waited for; they must be pursued. The moment I stop striving towards the next thing is the moment I fail.

Saying yes has gotten me far.

It has also become unsustainable. Which is why I’ve decided on a radical experiment: I will make 2020 the year of saying no. 

No to believing that I still need to “prove myself.”

No to taking responsibility for making everyone around me feel comfortable, regardless of what it costs. 

No to anything that requires me to be at a gym at 5:30am.

No to anxiety-provoking family expectations.

No to devoting myself to professional pursuits that require exceptional commitments of time and energy, yet yield diminishing returns.

And finally, no to green tea and butternut squash – I never liked ‘em. Never will. 

The hope, of course, is that in time no will lead to yes. Yes to new pursuits. Yes to what makes me excited. Yes to cherished relationships. Yes to solidarity, and pilates classes, and passion. 

And yes, naturally, to myself. To the woman I was, to the woman I am, and to the woman that I will become. 

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Doorways to Gratitude

It seems that more than ever, the world is in need of optimism. There are many things to worry about. Conflict. Our warming planet. Politics. The economy. Enemies, foreign and domestic. Not to mention, our own health, our commutes, our families, our bank accounts, the headaches with the utility company or the Internet service provider or the grocery store that just stopped carrying our favorite brand of coffee.

Stress is endemic. It’s serious enough that it has been recognized as a public health issue by the former U.S. Surgeon General. But this post isn’t about stress. Nor is about forced optimism, an insistence on finding the good in every situation, in calling the glass half full when all evidence points to the contrary.

But I am going to write about gratitude. And I’m going to write about the strangers, friends, and little moments of grace that allow me to feel this. Many of these people changed my life. Sometimes for an afternoon. Sometimes for years.

For example, my kindergarten teacher Mrs. Beason who taught me to read. My college English professor who, upon my graduation, presented me with a book inscribed “Remember to be yourself” – advice which I am still trying to follow.  

There is my former co-worker Charlotte who first talked me into running. With her prompting, I completed my first 5K, and went on to run longer, harder, more challenging races for the next several years. There are the wonderful and witty writers I crossed paths with two summers ago, one of whom collected a couple of us into her red convertible one afternoon to tool around the Hamptons. (Like I was going to say no.) And the women whose names I cannot recall, but under whose tutelage I learned how to ride a motorcycle. 

And sometimes, it is being ourselves, by ourselves, that opens this doorway. The moments we encounter accidentally, but are somehow just the right place, just the right time. Getting up early, resentful of the dark and cold, and then looking up to see the sky cast in a lavender dawn. Walking in the woods and catching sight of two kestrels circling each other, the white feathers of their bellies catching the sunlight. Hearing the wind as it pushes through brown leaves and dry grass.

Because life is improv. We never get the same day twice. Sometimes – maybe most days – we may feel like imposters. But when we find those with whom we may be our authentic selves – and the moments where our authentic selves feel closest –  it is cause for gratitude indeed.

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American Abroad, Part 2

40 on the French Riviera

Postcard showing the La Reserve and Le Plongeur restaurants, early 1900s.

“On Thursday I’m going to the French Riviera.”

There was only one time in my life when I could speak those words. It was last month, when my husband and I were in Paris and about to begin part deux of our French adventure.

I’d booked us tickets on the TGV from Paris all the way to France’s Mediterranean coast. It was a rail journey of about six hours. And at the end of it would be Nice, gateway city to the famous French Riviera. 

The objective in going? Simply to say that we, too, could trod in the same footsteps as 90% of the world’s superyacht fleet.

I had a free hotel night I could use in nearby St-Laurent-du-Var. With a quick internet search I found a seafront hotel with a private beach that happened to have availability. And voila! We were on our way.

But it wasn’t quite that simple. I was going to be turning 40. Along with that was the acknowledgement that, in all probability, I would never have biological children of my own. Would never be pregnant. Would never watch a life I’d created live and grow and learn. (And before you say, there are doctors and treatments and therapies…been there. Done that.) So I was on the French Riviera to let go of a dream.

Even saying the words “French Riviera” felt a little surreal. Stumbling off the train and into blinding sunlight and temperatures near 90 degrees F only added to the sense of having left Paris and landed in a strange, parallel universe.

Our first order of business was to get to the hotel. My husband found an Uber and as the driver sped us along the Promenade des Anglais, she spoke to me in indulgent French as we chatted about Nice’s remarkable climate and history. She even offered a few restaurant suggestions for our stay. 

As soon as we’d checked in, I changed and made for the beach. No matter that it was nearly suppertime and the sand was nearly deserted. I’d come to experience the Cote d’Azur, and something as trivial as being hungry wasn’t going to stop me. I bobbed in the blue waves, momentarily sated, as the warm waters of the Mediterranean wrapped and held me. 

The following day was Friday, September 13. My 40th birthday. I was up early enough to watch pink rays of light illuminate the sky above the ocean. We had breakfast on the balcony. Always terrible at loafing, even while on vacation, I set out soon after to explore the neighboring area. In short order I found a sprawling shopping complex, where I purchased gold hoop earrings, a colorful headscarf, white sleeveless blouse, and aviator-style sunglasses. I figured it was time to have a little fun. 

Ensemble a la Nice. The whole lot cost less than a DC happy hour.

Newly accessorized, I cajoled my husband into biking along Le Promenade. It was midday, which meant that it was blistering hot as well as beautiful. We grabbed lunch in town (a 3 euro slice of pizza for me, Chinese takeout for him) and biked back. That afternoon I returned to the beach in a swimsuit I’d snagged off a Target clearance rack prior to the trip. I may not have arrived on a superyacht, but dammit, I was doing it. I was in character. 

Our idyll continued that evening for drinks at Le Plongeur, a beautiful multi-level seaside restaurant with views like something out of a James Bond film. We had dinner at the neighboring La Reserve – an exquisite meal of broiled fish served alongside bread, pasta, and olives, accompanied by excellent wine. For dessert the waiter presented a towering chocolate creation nearly too lovely to eat.

There was the tour via electric bicycles to a local vineyward. Vince cracked jokes with friendly Irish couples as we ate our sandwiches at tables beneath the olive trees. It was the first day of the grape harvest. Later we shopped at a local market where I found a pair of yellow earrings as bright as the sun. 

All in all, I was able to live in a kind of magic for which I will be forever grateful.

Part of me – the part that dreamed of creating a child – was empty. It is a painful goodbye which is still ongoing. But another part, the writer and adventurer, came home very full.

Not every day can bring a trip to France, of course. But every day is a chance to give a gift to yourself. What will yours be? A shared laugh with a friend? A visit to somewhere new? A cup of your favorite coffee?

On one of my last days in France I purchased a small postcard that read, in gold letters, “Tout commence par un reve.” Everything begins with a dream. Many dreams don’t come true. But sometimes, we may embrace others that come to take their place.

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American Abroad, Part 1

Arc de Triomphe, Paris.

For years, Paris has lived on my bucket list. Decades, actually – ever since my first high school French class, when the very first French sentence I spoke was Paris est la capital de la France. Uttering those words felt very foreign. Very exciting. Very adventurous. And at last, two university degrees, nine job changes, a marriage, and three relocations later, I was going to go to Paris.

My husband and I touched down at Charles de Gaul airport on a sunny September morning. Despite our jetlag, with the help of Google and my high school French we navigated the local train service and then the subway, suitcases in tow, to emerge triumphantly from the Tour-Maubourg metro station in the 7th arrondisement. My first sight of Paris was a beautiful building facade, its windows shining in the midday sun. To my left was a bubbling fountain, and beyond that, a small shaded park. And in that moment, instantly and totally, I was in love.

Before we go further, to avoid disappointment if the following aren’t mentioned, let me disclose what I didn’t do:

  • Tour the Louvre
  • Shop the Champs-Elysees
  • Visit the Moulin Rouge (or anywhere else in Montmartre)
  • Wear a beret

Hardly anyone wears a beret in Paris. And of those who did, I suspect they were mainly tourists.

Having lived in Washington DC, a city that attracts its own fair share of visitors, I know that sightseeing often creates photo opportunities but not a true sense of place. I did concede to taking an open-top Big Bus tour, and happily grabbed shots of Notre Dame, the Paris Opera, and various monuments. But I also insisted that we hop off to walk in the Tuileries Gardens, and to visit the art and booksellers with their stalls along the Left Bank of the Seine. And we did join the crowds who flock to Versailles.

From its golden gates to the sprawling palace with its famed Hall of Mirrors to acres of artificial lakes, fountains, and formal gardens, Versailles is built to astound. And it does. But not even that power and splendor could prevent Louis XVI, and his Austrian-born wife Marie Antoinette, from meeting the blade of the guillotine. 

I could not see Versailles without thinking of the bloodshed of French Revolution. I could not look at Notre Dame without remembering the terrible acts of religious violence that have marked Paris. Even the Eiffel Tower is not immune – today its lights sparkle in the Paris night, but during the German occupation of Paris in World War II, daring residents cut the elevator cables so that Adolf Hitler would be unable to get to the top of the monument unless he climbed it. (So far as we know, he never did.) 

For Paris is a city that shows the magnificence of humanity, but also our cruelty. I did not want to be a careless visitor, one who saw only Paris’ beauty and forgot what suffering had occurred among its boulevards and parks.

So what did I do in Paris? I walked. I ate in bistros and cafes – lots of them. My husband and I strolled along the banks of the Seine at night and watched as the city lights reflected in its dark waters. We sought out the spot where medieval pilgrims left Paris to begin the long journey to the shrine of Santiago de Compostela. I indulged in all sorts of carbs: crepes, croissants, wine. I visited a bookstore and purchased the Paris Snob Guide, 1967 edition. 

Basement of the Libraire Gai Rossignol, 9 rue saint martin, Paris.

I even spoke a little French. It was uncanny to be able to understand much more of a a language than I could express. I listened to waiters or department store staff or radio DJs, and I had a sense of the conversation. But I didn’t have the spoken fluency to be able to answer. Sometimes the Parisians defaulted to English. Sometimes there was pantomime. Sometimes we had a hybrid conversation that switched between languages. My best French moment was probably a request to the concierge for a new hairdryer. We did it entirely in French, even the bit where he explained to me that the room key needed to be inserted in the slot for the light switch. And I responded, in French, that yes, we did that, and no, the hairdryer didn’t work and hadn’t worked since we checked in. He kindly found me another one. 

And I watched Parisians. The daring motorcyclists and scooter riders zipping through traffic. A dad and his toddler son at the cafe opposite ours one evening. The man calmly smoked with the baby in his stroller beside the table. When the child grew restless, dad lifted him out and set him on a chair, and continued with his cigarette. The businessman in a park who, having finished his lunch, took off his suit jacket and laid it on the grass. He then lay back and rested for the remainder of his lunch hour. At its conclusion, he picked up his jacket, shook it off, and returned to work.

One of my favorite things about travel is the chance to see people in other parts of the world living their lives. And, perhaps, to step into an alternate version of my own.

The version where I wake to new foods, new sounds, new things to see. 

And perhaps, just perhaps, I stepped closer not only to the person I aspire to be, but to a more authentic version of myself. The self that watches. The self that writes. On the morning of our last day there, I was up early. I opened the windows so that I could sit on the bed and gaze out at the cathedral opposite. It holds the tomb of Napoleon Bonaparte. Six stories below, Parisians moved toward the city center on their morning commute. I opened my journal, picked up a pen, and knew that I was exactly where I was supposed to be. 

Next Month: American Abroad, Part 2, with adventures on the French Riviera.

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Roll Like Thunder, Gone Like Smoke

Accidents happen. Specifically, motorcycles accidents. And I knew, as a rider, that sooner or later one would happen to me.

The day started out beautifully.  Bright sunshine, clear skies, temperatures cool enough to make wearing jeans, gloves, a helmet, and a padded jacket pleasurable. My husband Vince and I headed north from Pittsburgh, me on my sporty 883 SuperLow and Vince on his Indian Scout. 

Long shadows stretched over the asphalt as we rode up the interstate. Fog rose in white clouds among the treetops when we crossed the Ohio River. I revved into 5th gear and felt the wind rush over my hands, arms, and chest. And it felt good. 

Miles 1 through 46 of the journey passed without incident. After a hearty pancake breakfast at our destination, we decided to continue our ride along the shores of a nearby lake. As we made our way along the two-lane road that would take us there, I attempted to make a turn over some gravel. The motorcycle lost traction and went down, carrying me with it. In less than a second I found myself on the ground with my left leg pinned underneath 500-plus pounds of angry metal. 

I tried to pull free and couldn’t. The bike was too heavy, and my injured leg didn’t have the strength for me to drag it out. For a few scary moments I was pinned and helpless, cars passing me by on the road, until my husband lifted the bike so that I could get clear.

I knew I was hurt. I didn’t think anything was broken. Still, my knee was thobbing and once I was able to take a look I discovered a deep gash that had bled through my jeans. Tiny bits of yellow adipose tissue poked through the cut. My left arm and shoulder – the side I’d landed on – were sore. But thanks my helmet and leather gloves, my hands and face remained unscathed.

My first priority was treating the cut. We didn’t have a first aid kit with us, so Vince went into town to get supplies. Meanwhile, I made my way to a spot under some trees and rolled up the leg of my jeans. I wanted to allow the cut to bleed freely until I could properly clean it; doing so would help dislodge any dirt or debris that might have gotten into the puncture.

My impromptu wound triage was interrupted by the arrival of an employee of the small business whose parking lot I was loitering in, albeit under duress. He took a look at me and then my motorcycle, and quickly invited me in to use the sink and first aid kit. By the time Vince returned, all that remained was for him to ACE-wrap my knee. A couple Good Samaritans in the shop helped get my cracked windshield back into place. 

My options were now to either leave the damaged Harley behind and ride two-up behind my husband. Or I could climb back on for a 50-mile return trip to Pittsburgh.

Vince and I had never ridden with me as a passenger, and the highway didn’t seem an ideal place to learn. My motorcycle, despite its damage, appeared operable. So like the Chris Ledoux song, I decided to cowboy up. 

Thanks to the bandages, the bleeding on my leg was slowed. Still, it would likely need stitches. And since it was the leg I used to shift gears, the ride back wasn’t going to be exactly comfortable.

But I made it. There were challenges, and not just physical and mental ones. We had to make another stop to get my left mirror back into place after I found it was dangling dangerously askew (and preventing me from seeing any traffic on my left side.)  Seconds before I was about to merge back into the freeway I realized that my clutch was sticking.  A clutch lever that didn’t release meant that the engine wasn’t able to engage the transmission. No transmission engagement = no changing gears. Luckily, I was able to pop the lever outward and get myself into a gear that allowed me to travel at highway speed.

Troubleshooting mechanical issues while riding a motorcycle is never something I imagined myself doing. But I did.

Back in Pittsburgh and after my stitches from urgent care,  I immediately thought of what I could have done differently. Of what I would do better next time. Of how I could be safer. 

I took some comfort in the fact that I dressed for the occasion. Riding around in a t-shirt and without a helmet looks cool, but it’s not so awesome if your bare skin hits asphalt at 70 mph.  Motorcyclists have enough disadvantages when it come to safety to begin with – no airbags, no seat belts, no rearview mirror, no standard ABS – that any step to reduce risk is, in my mind, worth doing. If anything, I’m more convinced now than ever of the necessity of proper gear. (Kevlar-lined jeans, anyone?). 

Of course, protective apparel can only do so much. Skills and technique are also key. I’ve been reading up a lot on how to ride safely on gravel. Not surprisingly, there are an abundance of blog posts and even videos with tips on how to do this. 

As I look back and as the episode replays in my mind, I ricochet back and forth between thinking of it in two ways. The first comes from fear. What if. What if next time, I’m seriously hurt. What if my bike is totaled. What if it’s an accident that I can’t get up and walk away from.

The other is pride. Something scary happened. But I didn’t cry or panic or fall apart. I got back up, and I met the challenge. I’ll be better next time, and smarter, and hopefully safer. 

I still fight my fear. My first ride after the accident was me against my “what ifs.” I have to learn to trust myself again. And the only way to get better is to keep going.

Yesterday, for the first time, I went out on a road that has intimidated me for months. Stopping and starting on hills. Intersections. Merges. Curves. Highway. And I didn’t do it on my sporty. I did it on a burly 1700cc Harley-Davidson Softail Slim. I felt like I was punching a bit out of my weight class, but I came back smiling.   

As Kurt Vonnegut wrote, “Watch out for life.” Life on the highway threw me a few challenges. But something tells me I’ll be back for more.

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