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Under the Belhaven Sun



It wasn’t how I had envisioned it. In the original script, my husband and I arrive in Alessandria, Italy. Unexpected, we ask directions to Luca’s farm in amazingly practiced Italian. Lenny, Luca’s Labrador retriever, greets us on the dusty road. Signaled by his dog, Luca shields his eyes with his hand and squints into the sunlight. A smile slowly comes to his face as he recognizes us. “Luca!” we yell, waving. The sky bursts into the thousand colors of Belhaven. “We’re here!” We kept our promise.

In the revised version – how it really happened – we are in Milan, Italy’s second largest city. It’s raining. Holding a map in one hand, an umbrella in the other, Alan and I are struggling to find our pre-arranged meeting point. The streets are crowded, and everyone is moving fast to get out of the rain. We are lost, and late. We stop to get our bearings. Someone nudges us from behind. It’s Luca! Our smiles radiate the thousand colors of Belhaven.

We settle into a neighborhood pizzeria, where we meet Luca’s girlfriend, Giulia, and catch up on life. She shares photos of the beautiful stucco farmhouse they are renovating, their creative display at last year’s farmer’s market, and a recent trip to Thailand. Luca talks about the difficulties of converting from traditional to organic farming, the bad weather that has delayed planting season and his latest venture — egg-laying chickens.

“It’s so weird seeing you in Milan,” Luca said. “When I think of you, we are in North Carolina.” Intuitively, I understood. Before Milan, our relationship existed in fixed space: a single Google Maps pin for the five weeks Luca spent as a Workaway volunteer at our bed and breakfast.  Fast-forward two-and-a-half years. Here we are, gathered around a new pin 4,341 miles away, eating pizza and gelato.

We recalled how difficult it was to say goodbye in North Carolina. At the time, we didn’t have a plan to re-connect, only a promise. Parting in Milan, we had neither plan nor promise. We had possibilities. And all things are possible under the Belhaven sun.



March Madness

Several years ago, on Panama’s Pacific coast, a small hotel owner told me he no longer lived in one of the exquisite bungalows he had built on top of the cliffs. He moved to town because he had forgotten what quiet was.

For him, the sound of crashing waves, loud and persistent, was like suffering with tinnitus. I remember thinking how odd it was to seek quiet in town, with its own set of predictable disturbances.

For me, the ocean is a sedative; it puts my monkey brain to rest. And there’s science behind it. The sounds of the ocean activate the parasympathetic nervous system, signaling us to slow down and be present.

After being stranded on Hatteras Island, North Carolina, for nearly a week during winter storm Riley, then returning in time for Quinn, followed by Skylar, and now Toby, in rapid succession, I am beginning to understand what that hotel owner was feeling.

The weather madness that will be remembered as March 2018 left an earworm burrowed in my head, and it is not the calming CD of crashing waves. It’s a Halloween soundtrack of the wind. Howling. Groaning. Whining. Wailing. Caterwauling. Whirring. Revving. Whistling. Booming. Buzzing. Moaning. I had never considered so many descriptors for the wind before this month. Constant. Insistent. Shrill. Punishing. House-shaking. And there’s that un unearthly drone that sets the dog to inconsolable barking. I have to investigate, despite the voice inside my head that warns me, “Do not go down the stairs!”

Somewhere deep inside, blanket pulled over my head, I long to hear a car alarm, a dog (other than my own) barking in the distance, an idling truck, human laughter. The quiet of town.








Just Another Day in Paradise

Wrench. The tool. The one she needs to turn on the shower because the handle is missing. It’s late, and she has to wait for the maintenance manager to make his way back to the property – not an easy trek when the Pacific licks your doorstep; streets are streams. It’s rainy season in Costa Rica, which translates to mud. Tourist season is still a few weeks away.

Her fluent Spanish does not include the word for “wrench.” She doesn’t need the faucet fixed; she already knows that isn’t possible. She just needs to borrow a wrench; she will manage the rest.

Pantomime works. The experience has now inscribed “llave ingelsa” into her mental dictionary. English key. Wrench.

This is Sarah, nearly three years after she helped us open our cozy Belhaven, NC, bed and breakfast. This is Sarah at her best – the person you want in your boat if you are shipwrecked on a deserted island.

She tells me of the day a mischievous troop of capuchin monkeys made a mess of her kitchen and the night a bat slid into her 100-square foot casita and bounced around for hours before it found its way out. And the time her only pair of flip-flops got caught in a rogue wave, and she had to chase them down or suffer the consequences of walking barefoot to town on gravel roads – after work – to replace them. As challenging as some days have been, the only unkind thing Sarah says about living in Costa Rica is, “It can be frustrating.”

I name the marketable skills Sarah has stuffed into her backpack: Flexible to withstand constant change; comfortable with approximations; undaunted by visitors who don’t respect closed doors. Her physical strength is obvious. The terrain is challenging, and many places worth going are not accessible by car. Less obvious is her inventiveness. Things break splendidly where heat, humidity and salt air form a trifecta for atmospheric corrosion. Technology works intermittently. She lists the workarounds she has improvised to coax more life out of dying appliances. There is no Amazon delivery service, and the nearest Walmart is a day away.

Welcome to paradise, where luxury is a dry towel untouched by mildew.

The Happiest Place on Earth is Not Disney World

The Happy Planet Index has ranked Costa Rica  — a Third World economy – in its top spot, based on a harmonious equation: wellbeing, life expectancy, inequality of outcomes and ecological footprint. The upshot? Using natural resources efficiently, people live long and happy lives.

In Costa Rica, nature is Commander-in -Chief. Without human interference and management, the jungle will tear down concrete and conceal evidence of human existence. Just this year, archeologists uncovered one of the largest-ever ancient Mayan cities – a huge network of plazas and pyramids – hidden under the lush canopy of Guatemala.

With only .03 percent of the world’s land mass, Costa Rica has managed to preserve 25 percent of its country. It is one of the most biologically diverse places on earth, and within Costa Rica, the remote Osa Peninsula has the largest portion of preserved land – 60 percent. This is where Sarah lives and works at the Hotel Jinetes De Osa, a rustic beachside retreat on Drake Bay.

Her commute is a 185-step climb up and down a steep incline, surrounded by flora and fauna. Her schedule is dictated by the tides and the sun. Her diet is dictated by what is locally produced, raised or caught in the sea. “This is what it’s like to live in balance with nature,” Sarah tells me.

Family is everything here. Even those unrelated by blood or patriotism work together like family, celebrate like family. There is no sense of “not my job.” Everyone leans on everyone else. This is a place where getting even small things accomplished takes relay-race trust – a value far greater than precision.

It’s hard to live here, but it’s harder to leave. Imagine Adam and Eve willingly vacating the Garden of Eden, where everything is perfect, almost perfect, at the top of the Happy Planet Index.

You can’t possibly know the wealth of knowledge you will gain the instant you step off the water taxi into the warm surf, baggage over your head. Timing your debarkation with the waves, the captain yells, “Now!” Hesitate, and you risk being hit by the boat.

This is the price of paradise. This is Sarah three years later.






Blue Willow Special

Blue Willow. They are common, everyday dishes. The pattern has been around since the 18th Century, massed produced in various countries, and widely used in diners and restaurants in the 1920s to serve up a hardy, inexpensive meal, commonly called “Blue Plate Special.” The plates are so familiar that unless you’re a collector, you probably wouldn’t give them a second glance at a second-hand shop.

Common in ubiquity. Common in color – blue image on white background. Common with an unvarying arrangement of objects. Common in terms of everyday functionality. Now, close your eyes. Can you recall the detail?

The Blue Willow pattern is actually complicated. It depicts a traditional Chinese waterside garden with images that tell a traditional folk tale of wealth, arranged marriage, forbidden love, honor killing and transformation. The lovers turn into the pair of doves prominently featured at the top center. The pattern is a feast for an imaginative mind.

IMG_1870The single place setting now in my possession could have been purchased almost anywhere in the early 20th Century. Maybe even today. But it wasn’t purchased. It was a gift from the Pungo River, nudged along with dozens of similar pieces, amazingly intact, to the water’s edge. It solidly served as the everyday tableware for the good folks who owned our house and inn about 100 years ago. Their descendants recently gave me this five-piece set. Yes, it’s complicated.

Not just any common Blue Willow plates, these particular Blue Willow plates, are among the things Linda Shavender Sluck remembers about her grandmother Ruth Wilkinson:

“She never used anything else. I remember standing at the sink and helping to wash them after a meal. Especially remember all of the delicious food that was prepared and served on them like her famous fried chicken.”

Linda was a little girl then, and her memories are more feeling than detail. “One thing I remember about staying on the street you live on was the predawn sounds of people coming to work at the crab house across the street,” she wrote to me. “Sometimes they would be singing.”

There are condos where the crab house once stood. The workers are long gone, but the river – the same one that delivered the special Blue Willow plates –  still carries their tune. When it’s quiet. Before dawn.

These oh-so-common plates are neatly stacked in our living room — not a typical place for a set of dishes. They are there to remind me that the most familiar things deserve a second look and that an uncommon story can turn an everyday dish into a family  heirloom.

Two birds flying high

A Chinese vessel, sailing by

A bridge with three men, sometimes four

A willow tree, hanging o’er

A Chinese temple, there it stands,

Built upon the river sands

An apple tree, with apples on

A crooked fence to end my song.

–A variation of a short Willow Pattern poem

My Long Journey to Andra Watkins


Written in gratitude to Anne Becker and in memory of Ruth Wilkinson, whose invisible hand has nudged together another generation of kindred spirits under the roof of her home-sweet-home in the tiny town of Belhaven, NC.

The river takes, the river gives. Which is exactly how the Wilkinsons, who lived at 367 East Water Street in Belhaven when the road was known as Front Street, long before their house became an inn, ended up with a collection of Blue Willow plates. Ruth Wilkinson, the family matriarch, arrived at the collection one plate at a time as they washed up on the shore of the Pungo, a bounty claimed by some Victorian-era hurricane, decades before hurricanes had names. Floatsam or jetsam, who knew? Who cared? The river practically delivered them to the Wilkinson’s doorstep.

The plates, I’m told, have graced the Wilkinson’s Thanksgiving dinner table, accommodating family recipes inspired by Ruth, for four generations. I know this from Anne Becker — Ruth’s great-granddaughter, author of the “Wilkinson Plates.

Although she now lives in Washington State, which might as well be a different country if not for social media, Anne’s connection to the river is strong. Eastern Carolina calls her home just about every year.

Aside from owning the same house in different lifetimes, my connection to the Wilkinsons starts with Anne’s Aunt Becky. Becky and her husband showed up at the inn one sunny afternoon. They were taking a drive down Memory Lane and wanted a look around the old homestead. They didn’t have much time; they wanted to get back to their home in southern Virginia before dark. Becky promised to return, and she did — always unexpected — gifting me with her memories, a copy of the “Wilkinson Plates,” and finally, before she died, connecting me with Anne. The river takes, the river gives.

While researching another book inspired by her Belhaven family, Anne spent a few days with us last summer, sleeping in the bedroom once occupied by her Aunt Iris. We became fast friends, bonding over our early political careers, writing, reading, gardening, baking, old houses and the spirits among us.

A few months ago, Anne surprised me with a package that contained a beautiful cowl she knitted while channeling the cold Pungo River breezes, and two novels written by author Andra Watkins. Without giving away any secrets, Anne knew I would love Andra’s novels, based on our shared fascination with Theodosia Burr Alston, Vice President Aaron Burr’s less-infamous daughter, whose death remains a North Carolina legend, as unsettled as the fate of the Lost Colony.

I had just started reading Andra’s second book when out of the blue, I received an email from Andra Watkins herself.  Anne Becker had suggested she contact me about hosting an author’s night at our bed and breakfast.

At first, I was like – What? We can’t afford to host a New York Times best-selling author! I almost responded, politely of course, without opening her proposal. But I loved Andra’s books, so I couldn’t resist.  I opened the document, and my concerns amplified — What? We can’t accommodate 100 people! But then I thought about the flotsam-or-jetsam Wilkinson plates and how that one book connected me to Anne, and how one book connected Anne to Andra, and Andra to me. The river takes, the river gives. It’s my turn to keep it flowing.

Sponsored by Between Water & Main Bed & Breakfast, Andra Watkins will be coming to Belhaven’s Wilkinson Center, 144 W. Main St., Sun., Feb. 11, 2018, 3-4 p.m., to present “I Walked 444 Miles to Make a Memory,” a hilarious, motivational program about her New York Times best-selling memoir “Not Without My Father.” Book sales and signing to follow. Tickets are $10 and can be reserved by calling 252-943-0367.


Love, Mom


Today he turns 30. The child who made me a mother.

4:50 a.m. was the defining moment. Just like that, I went from Gail to Kyle’s mom. Later I would be Alex’s mom and Drew’s mom. But this date, hour and minute was my crowning. No matter the titles I earned during my professional career, this is the only one that makes my heart sing.

262,800 hours of on-the-job training, yet I am no expert. It’s impossible. Just when I thought I had it down, the game changed. And it hasn’t stopped changing.

Happy Birthday to the child who proved that McDonald’s food really can bring on labor. Gave new meaning to Labor Day weekend and made Sept. 3 my official Mother’s Day.

A thirtieth birthday warrants a trip to the attic to sort through the baby books and memory box. Among the letters to Santa, report cards, early art projects, achievement ribbons and class photos, there are pages of stories. A journal of things I didn’t want to forget. Minutiae, mostly.

I wanted to remember how you always began sentences with, “I have a good idea.” And “probably” was your favorite response to questions. You were the ultimate polite kid, always saying “thank you” when your friends followed your commands in Simon Says.  One night I had told you that I was going out for the evening and that I would give you a goodnight kiss when I came back. “Okay,” said your three-year-old self to his very pregnant mother. “When I fall sleep, I’ll be turned the right way so you won’t have to bend.” And you were.

Happy Birthday to the child who was born to serve. Who looked after your brothers beyond all rationale expectation, earning the not-always-complimentary moniker of “third parent.” There was the time you went to the New Jersey Shore with a friend’s family and selflessly spent your allowance on souvenirs for your brothers, who weren’t lucky enough to spend the day at the beach. And the time we took the train from New Jersey to Chicago, and you patiently spent hours teaching your youngest brother how to tie his shoe laces.  And the time …

Neighborhood baby-sitter, life guard, volunteer firefighter and Emergency Medical Technician. Your roles and responsibilities changed as you grew beyond the world of family and friends and into the community, but your sense of purpose never wavered.

“Would you be upset if I didn’t go to my college graduation ceremony?” asked your teenaged self, who had already passed up senior year of high school for a bridging year at college. You went to Europe instead. Then in your 20s, after a few years of corporate life, you announced you were enrolling in police academy. You didn’t skip that graduation.

Happy Birthday to the man, soon to be a husband, who kick-started my motherhood clock, knocking me head-over-heels into the boundary-less infinity that is love.

May all your dreams come true.


Be a Local Tourist


The winter before she took off for college, my sister decided that she and I should hike the Appalachian Trail. Never mind that we weren’t hikers. Or campers. Or prepared in any way. We were just teenagers ready to test the limits of our independence — in no small way.

I can’t believe our parents didn’t balk when we announced our daring plan or when the glossy brochures, maps and trail guides arrived in thick envelopes via postal mail. In retrospect, I’m sure they knew it would never happen, so they let our notion run its course – which it did, before we ever broke in our sneakers. (Yeah. Sneakers.) Wasn’t it fun just planning, imagining, bonding?

It was an idea destined to fall apart. We relied on summer job money to pay college tuition. We couldn’t afford an off-the-family-grid adventure. As the plan began to unravel, Linda and I considered driving south, anywhere along the trail “away from home,” “not New Jersey,” and sleeping in her car – a well-worn Ford Maverick we lovingly, laughingly called the Mav-er-wreck. The green machine wouldn’t have gotten us safely to Virginia, let alone Georgia.

We never did hike the trail that summer or at any other time, together. When I read Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods some 25 years later, I laughed out loud. Linda and I were spared the roles of the clueless Bill and his hapless friend Stephen Katz, who carried a stash of Little Debbie snacks to fuel his way.

At 2,192 miles, the Appalachian Trail (AT) is the longest blazed trail in the U.S., stretching from Georgia to Maine.  Three out of four people who start the AT fail to cross the finish line, including casualties Bryson and Katz.  Bryson does go back to hike sections of the trail he missed and highlights a 27-mile stretch along the Delaware Water Gap as one of the most scenic. The water gap, which divides the states of Pennsylvania and New Jersey, edged by the Blue Mountains to the west and the Kittatinny Ridge to east, was less than an hour from our family home and even closer to where my sister and I eventually put down roots. We drove through the Delaware Water Gap almost every winter weekend to ski in the Poconos or to visit my brother. “We need to do this,” I would say looking out the car window at the frozen water cascades clinging to the rock face. “We need to do this,” I would say as the ice turned into streams. “We need to do this.”

Like New Yorkers who have never visited the Statue of Liberty or the iconic Empire State Building, we could go any time, I reasoned. But we didn’t, until we were packing to move to North Carolina. Linda, who complained that kayaking across the Cape May Harbor was forced labor, passed on the opportunity.

On a beautiful August day, Alan and I, a couple of our then college-aged kids and their friends, made a day of it. The hike was a bit strenuous, over streams, through the woods and up rocky inclines, as difficult to climb as they are to descend. After several starts and stops — pointing out a a wildflower there, a patch of blue sky, a suspicious hole in the ground (all covers for catching our breath) —  Alan and I found our way to a rocky outcrop with a spectacular view of the Delaware Water Gap. The young ones were waiting for us with the expected, “What took you so long?”

Why, indeed, did it take us so long?

The hike was an edited version of a much bigger, storybook plan, with a different cast of characters, but it was still awesome.

I marvel at the adventurers who stay at our bed and breakfast. Newlyweds “working their way” around the world. A young couple biking from Tennessee to Virginia. A retired couple who sailed around the world, only to end up in Belhaven, N.C. The Hokulea crew, who traveled the world in a replica of a Polynesian double-hulled voyaging canoe, with no auxiliary power, navigating by the stars. Their stories remind me that there are plenty of brave people in the world and, although I have the heart of a traveler, I am not one of them.

The fact that they are here, in little Belhaven, prevents me from dismissing my own backyard as ordinary. As an innkeeper, it’s my job to see the community through the eyes of our guests, or as a tourist “just passing through.” You never know if “the best part,” the keepsake of their trip, will be something they discovered in eastern Carolina: A bear sighted eating corn on the side of the road. A rave-worthy meal. A surprise encounter with an old friend. Or the most scenic part of the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway.