A natural arc of red stone in front of a sprawling vista.

Passover Reflections on Moab

I’ve been back to BostoA vista of the red rocks of Moab.n for a couple weeks but there are images from Utah that I’m carrying close through this cold and grey New England spring.  Not really images, more like colors: white snow, blue sky, and green trees…. And then there’s the red.

We took a couple of days while two of our children visited Park City and made the drive to Southeastern Utah to visit Moab and its famous geologic wonders and national parks. Its red earth reflected the sun, mesmerizing us as canyon walls turned orange at times and at others,  maroon under a passing shower. We drove past geology that twisted into spires, spun arches, and bore canyons. We hiked and scampered and climbed like little children,  the silty red dust rising on our calves and sneaking into our shoes, caking even, under my fingernails.  We shed layers of clothing in the warm sun and when it set we luxuriated under the full moon. Moab was magnificent and if we could have stayed longer, we would have.  There was so much to see, to do. And even as I felt the pull to stay, there was satisfaction in just having made the trip.  It had been a crazy idea thrown out during dinner early in the week, heralding the type of enthusiasm on a Monday I expected to fizzle very easily by Thursday.

We drove back to Park City and then Salt Lake where people boarded planes, returning to school or on business trips. When my month in Utah was complete, I returned to Boston for a writing conference and getting back in the swing of real life.  Looking forward to Passover and in preparation for our Seder, I considered the significance of Moab in the Exodus story.  I should mention giving sites biblical names is common in Utah, as Mormons see themselves akin to Jews.  Not just because they believe themselves to be descendants of Ephraim (a son of Joseph), but in that their history of persecution and long search for a promised land mirrored the Jews’ wandering in the desert for forty years. And not only is there a Great Salt Lake in Utah similar to the Dead Sea, there’s an Eden and Zion National Park, a Jordan River and a Mt Carmel, …. So what was it about Moab that was nagging at me?

Interestingly, the word “Moab” is defined as either “of the father” or a “beautiful place.” BeFamily walking through the red rocks of Moab.sides being the birthplace of Ruth (one of my biblical heroines), it is also the last bit of wilderness where the Israelites stayed before entering the Promised Land. It is where Moses’ Exodus story ended, where he died and was buried, never able to enter Canaan himself.

Our touring party of four hadn’t recalled much of Moab, Utah’s namesake before making the trip from Park City. Thinking about it in light of our Passover tradition, however, I can’t help search for meaning.  Moab was the last place we would be together before going in four separate directions. It was a place we would observe a yarzheit, a place we would experience the super moon on the vernal equinox.  We all felt the pull to drive down there, I won’t go as far as calling it magnetic, but we were certainly on a mission. And I can’t forget that red, primitive earth, harkening the name Edom, evoking the birthplace of man.

For us, it was a moment when we united and regrouped before moving on. It was a place where we were allowed to act like children before entering the adult world again. It was a place to wonder and dream and remember, and also to recognize how small we are and how short life is.  It was a place of awe.

my mother's old leather mittens

Skiing With My Mother’s Mittens

My mother’s mittens are soft and worn, of black leather and insulated with red nylon and down fill. I wore these fifty-year-old mittens every day this past March and wondered what she would have thought of my extravagances: an EPIC pass in my pocket and accommodations just a short walk to the mountain. She was a frugal Yankee who insisted we be first on the lift and not stop until at least 3:30 pm to get our money’s worth. I’d never even set foot in a lodge before spending a ski weekend with a friend’s family because my mom laced up (yes I’m dating us) in the parking lot to save precious time and she carried our lunch in her pockets.

It was the early 1970’s when my mother introduced me to the rope tow at West Mountain in Queensbury, NY. A short distance from her hometown, she’d always make sure we got in plenty of runs during weekend visits to her family. Growing up I’d heard plenty of stories about her love for speed, how she donned a motorcycle helmet and challenged all comers in races to the bottom from the top of the single chair at Mad River Glen.

By the time she skied with me, her knees were done, but she had the prettiest form I’d ever see. She’d offer commentary on the skiers below as we ate smashed tuna fish sandwiches on the chairlift at Gore Mountain, or, if I was lucky, out of the wind on the gondola. When we lived in California during my teen years, ski trips were less frequent but more majestic. It was with my mother I first discovered the beauty of the Sierra Nevadas, the Sangre de Cristo, and the Rockies. And it was during that turbulent time, our rides on the chairlift were some of our only moments of quiet, patient communication.

Unlike me, my three children were introduced to the sport during times of prosperity. My husband was a hockey player and didn’t grow up skiing, and I made him jump through hoops, proving some proficiency on the slopes before I was willing to get serious. To his credit, he went all on the skiing lifestyle, although he refused to schlep through parking lots and demanded a hot lunch. He even invented something called the ’10am chocolate break.’

But he also devised the best-ever family skiing tradition: collecting lapel pins from every mountain we “conquered.” It’s almost turned into a challenge, resulting in several spontaneous exits from the highway to hit small mountains, squeezing in the requisite number of runs to merit a pin (at one point I remember that number being seven or your age whichever was lower). Spurred on by the spirit of wanting to ski more terrain, we skied the east, indulged in trips out west, and reached heights I’d never dreamed of during a three-year stint for his job in Zurich, Switzerland.

Almost fifty years and ninety pins after my first turns on West Mountain, I returned to the beautiful Wasatch this past March to ski and finish revisions on my novel.

Utah was one of our first western destinations with the kids due to the proximity and plentitude of resorts (and pins!). I remember traversing from Alta to Snowbird in a whiteout for the sake of a pin when our youngest was six and acknowledging that we were irresponsible parents and had probably taken it all a bit too far.

Another early destination for our young family was Whistler Mountain, BC. It was toward the top of 7,000 vertical feet, and after a warm lunch in the lodge, that I learned of my mother’s passing. Stepping out into the cold, the clouds were within arms reach and I thought I might try to climb through them to be with her. If not that, maybe she would reach down and place her hand on my back. Blinded by tears, I traversed to the bottom behind our kids before sitting them down and breaking the devastating news.

This March, as the calendar crept toward the anniversary of my mother’s death, I debated how I might spend the day. Ski Utah Interconnect offered the perfect homage: a full day up and over backcountry, getting in runs at six resorts with like-minded souls. (Bonus: there’s a special pin awarded upon completion.) We had spring conditions and my hands were plenty warm inside her mittens. I even enjoyed a fun and festive lunch at Collins Grill in her honor.

The Camino de Santiago- A Modern Pilgrimage

In theory, the medieval pilgrimage routes of Europe shouldn’t have held any special allure for me. “It’s such a Christian thing,” several people commented when I told them about our travel plans. I am a 53-year-old Jew, but I am also a lover of the outdoors, of physical challenge, and of meditation. John and I wanted a taste, so we chose a relatively short section, 210km, 10 days, on the Camino de Santiago, a thousand mile and thousand year old migratory path that culminates in Santiago de Compostela, Spain with an emotional mass held in its ornate cathedral.

After attending the high mass (yes, the mass…) with Catholic rites and flair galore, my husband and I found ourselves roaming city streets in search of Jerusalem street, the center of the Jewish quarter that existed before the Inquisition. Where did our people fit in? We were migratory, we were spiritual, where were the monuments to Jews along this meditative way? All we found on the crooked alleyway was a bookstore with Judaica in its window (closed for midafternoon siesta). Still it was something, albeit small, but in a prominent location only a stone’s throw from the Cathedral.

The next morning, we flew to Marrakech, arriving at our riad in the Medina as the call to prayer was sounding. Traveling from the height of Christendom to a Muslim land was jarring. Still yearning for something of the Jewish diaspora, we visited the Synagogue of Marrakech, dating from 1492 – a year ingrained in any American schoolgirl’s head as the year when Columbus sailed the ocean blue… but it was also fourteen years after Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand began extinguishing Jews during the Spanish Inquisition.

Spanish and Portuguese Jews fled to North Africa, the synagogue opening in Marrakech marked that Sephardic migration. I flashed back to my 7th grade French teacher, a Jew from Morocco – meeting her as a privileged, white, suburban kid in the 1970’s made an impact that has lasted to this day. Back then there was nothing more exotic to me than a French-speaking female Jew from Africa of all places. Who knew?

Over forty years later I was traveling to her homeland to hike into the High Atlas mountains. Our local guide pointed out the remains of various synagogues tucked away in small villages. Many of North Africa’s Jews were Berbers, living in these remote places. Morocco has always prided itself on being a pluralistic country, but when it achieved its independence from France in 1956, many of its Jews fled to Israel and elsewhere fearing inhospitable rule.

It wasn’t until I was sitting on the plane, writing down thoughts on the way back to North America, that I mused on our walk along the Camino followed by a journey to Morocco mirroring the migratory pattern of Jews over hundreds of years…. Walking, not toward a religious ceremony, but because they were chased out, first from Spain and Portugal and later from various North African countries.

Similar to Christianity, Islam places pilgrimage as one of its central pillars. Every year, 2-3 million Muslims make a Hajj (a word interestingly sharing the same root as the Hebrew word “chagag” meaning to make a pilgrimage) to Mecca, Saudi Arabia. This happens during a five-day period, starting on 8 and ending on 12 Dhu al-Hijjah, the twelfth and last month of the Islamic calendar. It is required that Muslims make this journey once in a lifetime. Their pilgrimage is a demonstration of Muslim solidarity as well as an opportunity to shed material trappings, to focus on self over outward appearance. Shedding material trappings, and self-introspection was also what John and I had endeavored on the Camino.

While we walked, John and I wondered what the Jewish version of a pilgrimage would be. Before the destruction of the Temple, the Hebrew Bible commanded Jews to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem three times per year: in the spring during Passover, in the summer during Shavuot, and in the fall during Sukkot. There is not a specific trail prescribed, just a returning. Next year in Jerusalem!

We googled and researched in the evening after walking. We discovered the ancient road of Abraham, called the Abraham Path, thinking it might represent the Jewish equivalent of the Camino – but such a journey seemed unrealistic in today’s political climate. It stretches from Urfa in Turkey to Hebron in the West Bank, spreading over thousands of kilometers through Syria, Jordan, Israel, and Palestine.

Abraham Joshua Heschel describes the Jews sanctifying time over place. We worship in our homes, not in ornate churches. Shabbat is our cathedral – it exists anywhere – and is marked by time and the lighting of candles, not architecture. It is the Jew’s responsibility to treat time as sacred as opposed to places. Maybe he would have told us that our most important pilgrimage isn’t through tangible geography with a large building our stadium as the end-point, but through time. Below I have copied one of my favorite poems from the Jewish liturgy which is of the same spirit:

Birth is a beginning
And death a destination.
And life is a journey:
From childhood to maturity
And youth to age;
From innocence to awareness
And ignorance to knowing;
From foolishness to discretion
And then, perhaps to wisdom;
From weakness to strength
Or strength to weakness –
And often back again;
From health to sickness
And back, we pray, to health again;
From offense to forgiveness,
From loneliness to love,
From joy to gratitude
From pain to compassion,
And grief to understanding –
From fear to faith;
From defeat to defeat to defeat –
Until, looking backward or ahead,
We see that victory lies
Not at some high place along the way,
But in having made the journey.
Birth is a beginning
And death a destination;
And life is a journey, a sacred pilgrimage to life everlasting.

I found a poem called “Pilgrim’s Prayer” on a postcard in one of the churches along the Camino. It asks the question: what good is a pilgrimage if you don’t bring its teachings home? It reminded me of the Jewish text in Isaiah that we read each year during Yom Kippur, “Is this the fast I desire?” asking (and I paraphrase): What is the point of a fast if you are only going to take your discomfort out on other people? A proper fast should unlock the fetters of wickedness, untie the cords of the yoke, and let the oppressed go free. During a proper fast, one should share one’s bread with the hungry, and take the wretched poor into one’s home; upon seeing the naked, clothe them, and not ignore one’s own kin.

Pilgrim’s Prayer
By Fraydino
Although I may have travelled all the roads
Crossed mountains and valleys from East to West,
If I have not discovered the freedom to be myself,
I have arrived nowhere.
Although I may have shared all my possessions
With people of other languages and cultures;
Made friends with pilgrims of a thousand paths,
Or shared albergue with saints and princes,
If I am not capable of forgiving my neighbor tomorrow,
I have arrived nowhere.
Although I may have carried my pack from beginning to end
And waited for every Pilgrim in need of encouragement,
Or given my bed to one who arrived later than I,
Given my bottle of water in exchange for nothing;
If upon returning to my home and work,
I am not able to create brotherhood
Or to make happiness, peace and unity,
I have arrived nowhere.
Although I may have had food and water each day,
And enjoyed a roof and shower every night;
Or may have had my injuries well attended,
If I have not discovered in all that, the love of God,
I have arrived nowhere.
Although I may have seen all the monuments
And contemplated the best sunsets;
Although I may have learned a greeting in every language
Or tasted the clean water from every fountain;
If I have not discovered who is the author
Of so much free beauty and so much peace,
I have arrived nowhere.
If from today I do not continue walking on your path,
Searching and living according to what I have learned;
If from today I do not see in every person, friend or foe
A companion on the Camino;
If from today I cannot recognize God,
As the one God of my life,
I have arrived nowhere.

I have learned that whether through foreign lands or through my time on earth, I am always on a pilgrimage. I might not be lacing up the hiking boots every morning, but all I can do is put one foot in front of the other, be my strongest, and help fellow souls along the way.

Time Travel

Starting our walk on the Camino each morning, we were smug setting off under a pre-dawn, pale blue and pink sky, the only sound being the chirp of waking birds. But in the northwestern corner of Spain, the sun didn’t rise until 9am. My brain had a hard time reconciling the position of the sun with the time on my watch. No wonder the Spanish sleep late and eat dinner at 10pm, their internal clocks are synced with their natural world. What would happen if we all cashed it in at 4pm during the long New England winters?

After 210KM on the Camino, we went to Morocco to continue being tourists, however, we were Red Sox fans first and foremost. Having downloaded the post season MLB package for international viewing on his tablet, my husband and I were trying to participate in the fun even though we were 9 hours east of the LA start. Before game 5 of the World Series, I set my alarm for 4am, a pattern that worked on previous nights in order to take in the game’s final innings. But on that particular night, all we saw was the last pitch being thrown. The announcer exclaimed the Red Sox had clinched in three hours and fifty-eight minutes. John and I looked at each other, confused. Sure we were groggy, but then I remembered the damned King. The king of Morocco had ruled 24 hours before the clocks were supposed to change that he wished to abandon daylight savings time. Problem was our phones, watches, and alarms didn’t get the message. Note to self: old-fashioned, battery-operated travel clocks are still a good thing. Missing game 5 of the World Series paled in comparison to all the people who missed flights, trains, and business appointments. The King could do what he wanted but Apple products had minds of their own.

Timetables were in disarray and flight times had to be adjusted by an hour so that connections could be made. The citizens were up in arms about the autocratic decision and so in that confusing, passive-aggressive manner of a local protest, still three days later, waiting in line at Passport control, chaos unfolded. Screens had times that conflicted with boarding passes. Dozens of people pushed to the front and cut under ropes, worrying they were going to miss their flights. Not a pleasant ending to our wonderful journey.

When we landed in Boston, I had just enough time to lay my head on the pillow before heading to Scottsdale for an author retreat. It was one week post the Moroccan King’s decision and now it was the US’s turn to put its clocks back. Fine, except I learned Arizona is the exception. Why was I experiencing two local governments in the span of one week that felt the need to be different? Crossing multiple time zones and jet lag, caused an insecurity that I was late and never really knew what time it was. You’ve all heard of FOMO, I was experiencing FONKWTIS: Fear Of Not Knowing What Time It Is. Was this some sort of sign from the universe? Who knew traveling in October could be fraught with such complications.

Forget the world’s clocks and time zones, my body’s clock is what was really thrown off. Fatigue had caught up – being in another continent and attempting to watch the play offs and the World Series was probably a bad decision…. But all the travel west meant I had to wake up in the wee hours of the morning and fight off collapsing at the end of the day. For a weekend trip to AZ I wouldn’t bother to conform. I wrote long essays (like this weird one) in the middle of the night and was waiting for the hotel gym to open in the morning. I had lived a full day before breakfast.

I soaked in every bit of desert sun before leaving for the airport. The sun’s rays and rise and fall provided the energy and charge my brain required. Flying east, I’ll soon be home for the first time in three weeks and hopefully prepared for four months of darkness.

camino packing blog

On Minimalism: Packing or Unpacking

It is always easier to pack more than less. Just like it is easier to spew out a burgeoning overwrought draft than refine a work of poetry. Sitting on the floor of my bedroom with a suggested packing list, luggage weight limitations, and the need to only carry-on, the journey has begun – or at least the mindset – I will be in Boston for about 30 more hours but I am already letting things go.

I won’t bring my laptop, too heavy and tempting for thieves, for example. Might not sound like a big deal, but to a writer, it’s like dropping an appendage. In order to leave it behind, I needed to complete a lot of work this week. I would not allow myself that old procrastination, “I’ll just do it on the plane.” Down to the wire, I submitted THE NINE for copyediting yesterday – whoop whoop! While walking in Spain and Morocco, I plan to write some travel pieces as well as journal and start drafting scenes for a new novel with the working title “In Question,” and get a little jump on NaNoWriMo. I will do it all with pen and paper.

I have decided which paperback to carry with me – the advanced copy of Leading Men by my friend, Chris Castellani.

What else? Passport, credit cards, good shoes, rain gear, Advil, clean underwear, sunglasses, water bottles.

We will be having meals in a few nice restaurants and the weather will be much warmer in Marrakech than in Spain or in the Atlas mountains… So maybe, 2 dresses? A fleece? One of our travel buddies brings only old clothes on these trips and after something is too dirty to wear again, she leaves it in the hotel room. Her goal is to go home with nothing. Others bring very little, maybe with an extra bag folded into the bottom of a suitcase with the philosophy that it’s fun to buy souvenirs and necessary items at your destination.

During the Passover Seder we often discuss the journey and what are the basics – i.e. if you had to distill everything down to just the metaphorical flour and water (Matzah)… What would you carry? With my competitive mindset, I take that as almost a challenge – how little can I live with? With the answer being: A lot less than I think.

This is one of the wonderful lessons of wandering or adventure travel. You are forced to bring less and realize at some point along the way, you didn’t even need half of that. We took a river rafting trip in the Grand Canyon a while back where I wore only a bathing suit morning, noon, and night for 7 days. Even to sleep in and I never looked in a mirror or put on make up. Granted, that was warm Arizona, but I have never forgotten the lesson of that trip.

Shed, shed, shed…

friendship tour

A Friendship Tour, Thanks to a Book

Promoting a book is almost as hard as writing one. Especially the first time, especially for an indie author without access to the big marketing machines behind books published by the big five.

In anticipation of my May 2 pub date, sometime last winter, I began scheduling a book tour that would stretch throughout the summer months and touch a variety of New England summer communities. EDEN has universal themes and a storyline that stretches well beyond the typical “summer read” genre, but because it is set in a New England summer enclave and the meat of the drama occurs over the Fourth of July weekend, my promotion strategy was to hit the New England coastline during the summer months.

Now, this might have seemed logical and obvious during the dreary months of March and April, but now that I am in the midst of summer, and my tour, I have had many personal realizations. Never before would I have imagined being happy about not being in Watch Hill 100% of the time. Like some of the characters in EDEN, I’ve been loathe in summers past to ever leave my bubble. My children came home and filled the house with activity and I nurtured and nested and enjoyed our routine, our “special place.”  In summers past, in fact, I have declined many invitations to visit friends because of all the engagements at home.

I’m reminded of the years I spent converting to Judaism. One of the steps in the process that my rabbi prescribed was making a trip to Israel. I was fine with the other dozen requirements, but how could he expect me to go to Israel?  It’s far, it would be expensive, and in reality I thought it seemed a little bit scary. Fast forward to the weekend of my final conversion step – on Friday afternoon I immersed at the mikvah, and on Saturday morning I made my first aliyah. Then on Sunday evening I received a call from the captain of the US Maccabiah squash team asking if I would represent the US at the games in Tel Aviv that summer. Needless to say, I jumped at the chance, brought my family and enjoyed my time in Israel immensely.

Similarly,  the unintended benefit of promoting EDEN is that it’s gotten me out of town. I’m visiting  beautiful places and friends in their beautiful places, their “Edens.” Between 2009 and 2012 our family lived in Switzerland where we traveled extensively. Not only to other countries, but we’d often get in the car and just drive to small towns in Germany or France. We would wander, maybe following a map, maybe inspired by an article or suggestion, but we’d usually get lost or totally miss the place suggested in the guide book and end up finding our own destination. I loved it. And I vowed to continue that spirit of wanderlust when I returned to the states. There were, I reasoned, so many beautiful places in my own country, even in New England, that I’d never seen. Well, easier said than done.

For example, I have skied a lot in Maine, but had never visited its beautiful coastline during the summer. I had spent the early summers of my marriage on the Cape, but in recent years had written it off as too crowded. There was always something, some reason I couldn’t leave Watch Hill in the summer – Martha’s Vineyard? Nantucket? The Hamptons?  New Jersey? Good for you, but not for me….

So this summer, I’m leaving my comfort zone and seeing more of our beautiful coastline, and islands! But more importantly,  I’m seeing friends and making new friends, sharing stories and laughing. I’m receiving the wonderful generosity and support of the people in my life. They are attending my readings and hosting events for me in their homes. It’s beyond anything I could have imagined during the planning stages. People have been asking me if  it’s exhausting, and the answer is “no”: this trip is just the charge I needed.

greenhouse

That Man in the Greenhouse, Iceland

Iceland is a pretty popular travel destination these days – primarily due to a trend toward adventure and outdoor recreation, but also thanks to great airline promotions sponsored by Icelandair.

I was in Iceland for ten days in early April to attend the Iceland Writer’s Retreat. The conference, which was held in Reykjavik and co-chaired by the First Lady, was fabulous. But April is better suited for writing than all those outdoor activities. It was rainy and cold in that way that seeps into your bones. During the four days that John and I went sightseeing before the conference began, we saw rain and snow blowing in every direction as well as waterfalls defying gravity and blowing up into the sky – more like fountains than waterfalls. (Iceland is notoriously windy.)

Nonetheless, Iceland inspired wonder and awe. First off, the geological activity is incredible. From the Mid-Atlantic ridge, the rift between the American and European tectonic plates which is basically a volcanic seam between the continents and moves about an inch per year, to the geyser (the one after which all others were named) which spews its hot water like a whale exuding water through its blow-hole like clockwork,  to all the geothermal activity creating hot soaking lagoons as well as the country’s primary energy source, to its many active volcanoes, the earth in Iceland is definitively unstable, a sense of mayhem lurking just beneath the surface.

Yet the people are the epitome of stability in a land that bubbles, steams, and foments… A guide who took us up to a glacier in his red monster truck for a day of hiking (named Thorer) was telling us about the farming his family did, describing facts in detail that went back a few generations. He even drove us past the well that marked the original family farmland (they had to move because of volcanic activity). I asked him when his family came to Iceland (such a north American concept) and he looked at me confused. Like when was his family not in Iceland..? Just look at him, tall and strong and broad chested, Thorer was basically a direct descendant of the Vikings – I mean he can literally trace his genealogy back hundreds and hundred of years. And that is not uncommon in Iceland – the government set up a database that all Icelandic people can log into to see how closely they are related to each other (helpful when deciding whom to date). Because the national population of 330,000 has been the stability in the country – never really leaving or interbreeding. And in that way the people are much like the sheep – touted for being as pure as they come, never having interbred, producing some of the silkiest, fine wool in the world.

What will this new industry of tourism bring (now almost outranking fishing as Iceland’s economic engine) besides people in awe over the glaciers and waterfalls and bubbling hot springs? Tourists visiting from other parts of the world, from places that more resemble melting pots, might unfortunately look at  Icelandic people as a curiosity… The sense of permanence in their dna even extends to the fact that Icelandic people have been valuable in medical studies because of the dependability of a control population.  I just found the mindset that must go along with these deep roots fascinating.

The other thing that was of great interest was the desolation of much of the country. Once you leave greater Reykjavik, where at least two thirds of the population resides, the landscape is expansive and unfettered. Homes and small towns (really small) are spread very far apart. That’s why I’ve been fascinated by the proprietor of Fridheimar, seemingly a modern European businessman. We spotted him dining with colleagues in the restaurant inside one of his greenhouses.

He was an attractive, middle-aged man (no doubt a descendant of the Vikings) and fashionably dressed (thanks to the Internet? Or possibly his ability to travel abroad). He operates greenhouses in Reykholt (a 2 hour drive from Reykjavik). Because there is no sunlight in Iceland for a good deal of the winter, and because of the cold climate, vegetables are grown in greenhouses, where, thanks to all the geothermal activity, the interior lights burn brightly all year long. (BTW Iceland burns minimal fossil fuels) We visited Fridheimar where 20% of Iceland’s tomato consumption is produced.

Turns out that nice looking guy was an agronomist married to a beautiful horticulturist. The poster in the restaurant said they move to Reykholt (I would call it the middle of nowhere), had five kids and have been growing tomatoes and their business for fifteen years or so (they’ve even latched onto tourism opportunities). I can’t stop thinking about that family in the greenhouse. Maybe there’s a story in there wanting to be written, or maybe it’s the vision of five kids running around the long rows of tomatoes in the dead of winter that’s got my mind working, the glow from the greenhouses the only light for miles and miles and miles.

The restaurant inside serves –you got it – a short menu of tomato related dishes including tomato soup, pasta with tomato sauce, and a flatbread pizza covered with tomatoes. They also have about half a dozen variations of the classic Bloody Mary on the menu. All delicious, delicate, refined, and sophisticated. The food in Iceland surprised me most of all – I was sort of expecting something rugged like the landscape, similar to Ireland or England where they batter and fry the fish and eat a lot of potatoes. But the food in Iceland was one of the greatest surprises of all. Delicious, pure and healthy. John and I had one of the best meals of our lives at the seaside restaurant called Fjorubordid where their simple menu revolves around langoustine (Iceland’s tiny, incredibly sweet lobsters.) Worth a trip to Iceland for that meal alone.

So despite the rain, sleet, and snow, the rainbows were spectacular, and the people and the food were terrific. But note to self: if  it weren’t for the incredible congregation of writers in April, I might prefer visiting in June…

spreading her love

Spreading Her Love: The Ritual of Letting Go

My Mother’s Yarzheit…. Sedona, AZ March 21, 2017

Some people can barely suppress their shock when I tell them I am still spreading my mother’s ashes, 13 years after her passing. Most people don’t have such authority when it comes to these types of things… there are typically other opinionated relatives to contend with. And there is typically one favorite place or a family homestead, an obvious choice for a person’s eternal resting place. Parceling out my mother’s ashes might seem sacrilegious. But we didn’t share much religion. I don’t have siblings, my parents divorced, and at the time of her death, she had no real home. When special delivery rang my bell in Boston with a box from the crematorium in Florida, my insides ached all over again with the stabbing pain I felt upon first learning of her death. Only a couple of weeks had passed, but this box, so heavy and tangible, its ordinary card board covered with packing labels and stickers, offended whatever equilibrium I’d gained.

I had no idea what to do with it.  She hadn’t left instructions, there was no right answer. So I came up with something that felt right to me. My mother’s cremains have become the vehicle for my honoring her over and over again. Instead of performing one ritual, I’ve carried out many private rituals over the years. Her ashes have been judiciously spread all over the globe. My mother rests in places she would have liked to visit, from the southern tip of Chile to as far north as Iceland.  The weekend before she died she spoke of taking a trip around the world. My reaction back then, given her health, had been skeptical.  So now, it seems only right that I bring her along with me.  Her first journey with me was to the great barrier reef in Australia.  My mother loved to snorkel and talked about wanting to visit there for as long as I can remember.

The bulk of her ashes sit with me in Boston. She is in a beautiful green-glazed, ceramic, ginger jar from China, sitting on a shelf close to where I write. But whenever I pack for an exotic destination, I spoon a little bit of my mom into a Ziploc bag. Scooping up the white granules with a kitchen spoon is strange enough, and I imagine many wouldn’t have the stomach for it, but it’s allowed her to join me in Australia, Africa, Bhutan, Peru, Patagonia, the Alps, and the Rockies. She even summited Mt Kilimanjaro. She’s been sprinkled off the top of many spectacular mountains. Honoring my mother in this way has kept us closer than pure memories could have.  I carry my mom in my heart and mind, but there’s also a little bit of her tucked inside my luggage. I’ve recited a prayer of love to her as she scatters into the wind, often with friends by my side, or with my husband and children.  I sometimes take traveling companions by surprise when announcing, “this is the place.”  Then performing yet another letting-go ceremony.

On the thirteenth anniversary of my mom’s death, my daughter, who happens to be named after my mother, and I spent some time during her spring break hiking and having a healthy vacation in Sedona, AZ. The scenery was spectacular. We were getting up early, doing yoga, and eating well. We even had a spa day, something my mother would have had a hard time indulging in.  But she was definitely with us.

I sense her pride in our relationship, always nearby rooting us on. She is proud of the women we are, and that we have become those women partly to honor her. To honor all the things she was unable to do. After climbing a beautiful path up a red rock formation, we stopped to take a break and I knew it was the right place.  How I wish she was still with us in person. But she was with us in spirit, she always is.