Finding Joy in a Swing

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My new swing sparks joy. Even on the hottest summer days, I can find peace there, shaded under the magnolia, catching a salty southwest breeze, reading a book, enjoying a glass of wine with my husband, or just looking beyond the Belhaven harbor breakwater, thinking. Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about what sparks joy.

When it comes to clutter, I’m fairly liberated. I recognized a long time ago that I don’t function well in a disorganized environment. But several of my friends have referred to the book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: A Simple, Effective Way to Banish Clutter Forever by Japanese cleaning consultant Marie Kondo. Since I fancy myself living on a boat someday, I thought I might learn a trick or two from the KonMari method.

Not necessarily easy to follow, a lot of the de-cluttering advice is obvious – discard items that are broken, clothes that are out-of-style. Here’s where I got stuck: Beyond the functional, keep only that which sparks joy.

Maybe I’m interpreting this too deeply, but I don’t derive joy from things. I derive joy from relationships, nature, the arts, experiences and accomplishments. So how did I end up with enough stuff to fill a bed-and-breakfast and a small apartment? Aside from a couple of display cases of decorative items, much of what I own is functional: clothes, furniture and cookware. My closest and attic aren’t bulging. Mostly, they are holding out-of-season clothes and seasonal decor. Useful stuff, right? I needed to challenge myself further, so I imagined that I was moving out of the country and that I’d have to pay an exorbitant price for shipping. What would I take with me?

Here’s the short list:

Three vintage red wood canisters decorated with a fanciful black poodle. These always make me smile because they remind me of Maya, our fur child, who brings me great joy.

The South American santos on my yoga studio mantel are the closest I come to having a collection of anything. They also fall into the category of folk art, and most of the original art I have collected brings me joy. It wouldn’t take up a lot of room, and I know I could make some tough choices to lighten the load.

The pew that came from the 200-year-old church where my husband and I were married is a treasured keepsake, as is the 1800s tavern-style dining room table that has been the center of generations of conversations. I recently traded a rustic corner cupboard and mission-style child’s desk for an old wooden baker’s cupboard. If I could, these are the pieces I would put in that fantasy shipping container, along with two matching oak secretary tables, perfect bedside stands.

Two quilts made by a great-great grandparent, the life-ring from my grandfather’s boat, an antique gun from my husband’s family. These are things we have been entrusted with and will keep close. Personal items like scrapbooks, old family videos (now on DVD) and pre-digital photographs, already neatly organized, are not negotiable; they always bring me joy.

What about the swing? Although its sturdy, weather-resistant components make it seaworthy, the swing that now brings me great joy didn’t make the cut in my head-game. After all, it is easy enough to replace.

Last weekend, one of our guests asked me where we bought our swing. I happily directed her to A&W Sales on Seed Tick Neck Road, just outside of Belhaven. When she and her husband returned to the inn, guess what they had in the back of their pick-up? Joy, multiplied!

The swing sparked a deep conversation about the things we value in life. And while Barbara might have been able to find a similar swing closer to home in Virginia, this purchase is a souvenir of her trip to Belhaven. I envision her enjoying her new swing as much as I do mine, sharing the story of how she got it, looking out over the Chesapeake Bay, reading, relaxing, or thinking about a perplexing question.

Swing on, sweet chariot. With your lifetime guarantee, you will be swaying in the breeze long after I’m gone. Long after the magnolia is gone. Ungrounded and safe. An object of joy, if not a keepsake, in a messy world.

 

 

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Loco Locavore

IMG_0387 I wanted to jump over the moon when the Simply Natural Creamery delivery truck, with its Jersey cow painted on the side, pulled up to our bed-and-breakfast yesterday morning.

When we opened our inn, one of my goals was to be a “locavore” bed-and-breakfast. Not necessarily organic, locavores are committed to buying a significant amount of locally produced food and other consumables. I had no idea just how difficult and time-consuming it would be.

Whispering Willow in Lincolnton, NC, while not quite local, supplies our all-natural soap, shampoo and body oil. We found local sources for eggs, pecans, breakfast meat, preserves and some fruit. We joined the CSA (Community-supported Agriculture) at Petals and Produce in Pinetown, where we also purchase homemade wheat bread every week. This year, we planted a vegetable garden, growing spinach, squash, tomatoes and herbs that often appear in our breakfast frittatas. We’re growing melon, too. We accomplished a lot in Year 1, but there was something missing in our locavore chain. Dairy. Breakfast ingredient staples like milk, cream, buttermilk and butter. Before I would confidently wave the locavore flag, I wanted to find a reliable local source for these perishables.

About 10 months ago, Jane Lassiter Boahn at Raised in a Barn Farm in Chocowinity, introduced me to Michael Fulcher of Simply Natural Creamery in Ayden, about 55 miles west of Belhaven. We emailed. We spoke by phone. We met at the dairy. Michael told me that he had to rustle up some customers before he could add a new delivery route. In rural, eastern Carolina, I understood it could take a while – until the cow’s come home. I imagined that it would be equivalent to herding cows – described as part art, part science and part psychology – three elements that, coincidentally, make the Simply Natural cream rise to the top.

Originally from the Channel Island of the same name, Jersey cows produce what is called the “Cadillac” of all milk. Here’s why: A glass of Jersey milk has greater nutritional value than milk from other breeds, specifically 13% more protein and 16% more calcium. Jersey milk also contains A2 beta-casein proteins that allegedly have more health benefits than A1 varieties, making it easier to digest. It also contains 20 percent more butterfat than other bovine milk, which quite simply tastes better. The cows at the family-owned creamery are pasture-raised, with plenty of room to roam. They are not treated with rBST or artificial growth hormones to increase milk production. They produce a lesser quantity, but higher-caliber milk. They also command a premium price, but it is so worth it.

Simply Natural Creamery welcomes visitors, often by the busload, to learn about their operation and to try out what is arguably their very best product: ice cream. They serve up about two-dozen flavors (including an assortment of toppings and homemade waffle cones) at their on-site ice cream parlor. If you haven’t tried this simply delicious brand of ice cream, you haven’t really screamed.

Lucky for Belhaven-area residents and visitors, entrepreneur Lindsay Clark just opened a Simply Natural Creamery ice cream shop at Attic Life at the Landing on Main Street. Attic Life carries about 18 flavors, and I am on a mission to try them all.

IMG_0389Now you know why I am jumping (and screaming) at 8:15 a.m. when Tim and Michael walk up to my doorstep with a small crate of dairy items. Not exactly like winning the Publisher’s Clearing House Sweepstake, but a significant milestone in this locavore’s journey.

In the U.S., food travels an average of 1,500 miles from farm to consumer. Buying local equates to lower emissions. Most states have adopted policies and programs to promote local agriculture. North Carolina’s 10% campaign is helping to build the state’s local food economy by encouraging consumers to spend 10% of their existing food dollars with local producers. It’s fresher. It’s healthier. It’s sustainable.

It’s a challenge, but you can do it. One crate, one basket or one scoop at a time.

 

My Year of Conjugal Visits

The headline is racy, but the reality is not nearly as fun.

My husband and I had the brilliant idea that I would move to North Carolina a year ahead of him to start our bed and breakfast/yoga studio. That year will be 62 weeks, almost one year and a quarter, but who’s counting? After commuting from New Jersey to North Carolina almost every weekend, and I mean arriving in the wee hours of a Saturday and heading back most Sundays, Alan finally turned in his resignation letter. After 23 years with the same company, he drew a line in the sand: No more conjugal visits.

I sometimes worked with executives who lived apart from a spouse who simply did not want to relocate. I was sure I could never do that. I would never want to live that way.

Never say never. God just laughs.

Today I ran into Ed Wall, a Belhaven resident who, on his own dime, was airlifted into Alaska’s Northwest Passage. Looking back, he said, “I don’t know why I thought that would be such a great challenge. It wasn’t even that beautiful. I have all the wilderness I need right across the river.” As he lamented about the cost of his great Alaska adventure, my friend and I encouraged him to think of something worthwhile he gained from the experience. What did he learn? “To survive, I couldn’t sleep for more than 15 minutes at a time,” he recalled. “Sleep deprivation is hell. I also realized that I like people too much to be isolated for so long.”

IMG_0028Ed’s revelation prompted my own self-examination. What did this year teach me?

I learned to rely on my instincts to assess situations more quickly and call-in lifelines as needed. I learned that I could rely on others, especially my new girlfriends. I could write an entire blog about them – women who keep confidences, who aren’t afraid to share a different perspective, who are there when you get in over your head or when you lose it. I learned to share living space with a revolving door of “volunteers” (courtesy of the Workaway program) who brought with them not only helping hands, but also new ideas. They have added so much joy to my life and the inn, making a lasting impression on our guests, our business, our community and us.

I wish I could say, “Looking back, I wouldn’t change a thing,” but that would be a big fat lie. One night recently I called Alan at 1:30 a.m. I did it in my sleep. I don’t even like talking on the phone, but it’s the best way for us to communicate during the week. I wonder what I would have said had I been coherent? Maybe I whispered it in my dream: “I miss you.” This year of going it alone, I learned just how much those words mean.

 

 

 

The Law of Attraction in Action

 

 

IMG_0197Even before he met her, my husband would break out into a chorus of the Kinks’ Lola whenever he heard her name: L-O-L-A Lola, lo lo lo lo Lola. Her name wasn’t Lola, but it was close enough for him. And while the song lyrics don’t reflect her person, Yola herself did inspire a chorus. Or a musical. The way she came into our lives was more like a young and stylish Mary Poppins, bringing a touch of magic to everything she did during her month at Between Water & Main.

Yola came to us as a Workaway volunteer, making her way from Florida to New York. She arrived at the inn, nearly unexpected, at the end of tundra swan season and just in time for spring cleaning. She approached chores with an organized business-like approach augmented with a joyful spirit. Happy “coincidences” seemed to pop up around her, like the waffle she made with leftover batter that turned out to be a perfectly shaped anchor, a “sign” for one of our guests. A couple with no reservations were pleasantly surprised to find cotton bolls decorating the breakfast table; it was their second (cotton) anniversary. No need for gift shopping.

When Yola wasn’t working, she was meditating, cycling, painting in a community class, taking photographs and helping a local artist design a website. She was busy, stirring up adventure wherever she went, and she didn’t even go very far. Coincidentally (or not), her favorite place was the Outer Banks. Get it? Banks.

There were no tea parties on the ceiling or dances with chimney sweeps, but we did accomplish the goal of getting the inn all shined up and ready for boating season. Just in time for the west wind to come calling Yola home to Poland after a long absence.

Yola left Belhaven with happiness and daffodils blooming all around her. I am sure she is bringing springtime to New York, and that the wings of love will carry her safely home.

Where Have All the Hippies Gone?

When I walked into the open-air lobby of our eco-chic hotel, I couldn’t help but notice the inviting conversation pits of comfy sofas and chairs, filled with beautiful young people sitting side-by-side — Apple computers propped on lap pillows, earbuds connected to iPhones.

IMG_0014I used to say that Tulum, Mexico, was where hippies went in the 1960s and, discovering paradise on the beach, never left. Raising their sun-browned, bleached-haired children in palm-thatched beach huts or VW campers along remote stretches of sand. Naked and Alone, with kids.

Tulum evolved into a destination for eco-tourism. Electricity, and I use that term loosely, was generated to what I would call a “brown out” level from dusk to 10 p.m. After that, candles. When we first traveled to Tulum, there were no flashlights on cell phones. Even if there were, there was no place to charge up.   It wasn’t that long ago that we had to call home from a pay phone.

We relished the romantic, unplugged lifestyle — waking to the sound of the ocean, dining with our toes in the sand, watching the chef grill the catch of the day. We played Scrabble by candelight. Being disconnected from work and our young family, however, was enough of an inconvenience that we decided to try out a new destination, but that never happened. Three months later, we longed for Tulum.

It was too good to last. Tulum Beach and the once undisturbed jungle side of the road areIMG_0104 almost fully developed from the famous Mayan ruins to the north, south to the Biosphere – the end of the pavement. More accommodations, more restaurants and now, upscale boutiques – “tienda deluxe” – with so few items for sale I wonder how they pay the rent. There’s even a restaurant where getting reservations is like getting tickets to a Bob Dylan concert. Get on line at 1:30 p.m. When the restaurant opens at 3, you might be able to get a reservation. Don’t be late or your table will quickly be assigned to one of the hopeful people waiting on the “walk-in” line. That’s just how I want to spend my vacation. Of course, we didn’t follow protocol and showed up after 3 p.m. We were greeted by a staffer who pulled the fence closed in our faces. “Is there a waiting list?” I inquired. “Already full,” she said, turning her back on us. Better luck never.

Paradise Found. It was inevitable. The price of accommodations has tripled, and the hippies have been replaced by hipsters. You can’t walk the beach without seeing signs for “yoga” and “massage” every hundred yards or so. There are classes for kite surfing. There are probably classes for yoga kite surfing, and there’s probably a Sanskrit name for it.

The worst part was the music. I had to ask one hotel guest to please turn down her music. It was so loud that I do believe she was signaling her tribe; and it worked. “What?” she yelled at me. She couldn’t hear me. “I can’t hear the waves,” I said. Since Tulum is on the second largest barrier reef in the world, it’s hard to compete with the surf. She turned it down a smidge, so we decided to go for a swim. When we came back, techno-girl and her friends had taken over the beach chairs, draped with our hotel towels. Our personal items were relocated to the table next to the chairs. At first they ignored us as we practically dripped over them. “Oh, is this yours?” She looked surprised, and I honestly believe she didn’t recognize us – that would have required her to make eye contact with us in the first place. We were foreigners – not part of the tribe.

What happened to Tulum? Blame it on the New York Times travel section. First the celebrities came. Then fashionistas. Now New York hipsters. A shabby chic $300 per night cabana now gets you hot water, all-day electricity and 12-hour air conditioning. It almost made me want to ignore all the signs that begged for conservation.

IMG_0028Breathe. Just breathe. I inquired about yoga classes at the front desk. “You practice yoga!” It was more like an exclamation than a question. “Yes, in fact, I teach yoga.” “Really?” “Yes, what style of yoga classes do you offer?” “Vinyasa Flow. The kind where you move a lot.” “And?” “Just Vinyasa Flow.” No Hatha? No Yin? The kind where you don’t “move a lot.” “No. Just Vinyasa Flow.” Of course, because that’s the style that appeals to the new demographic they serve – a culture that is wired to move. “I’ll just check out the studio across the street.” My favorite jungle-side yoga palapa now had a boutique and a sparkling-like-diamonds new sign in front. I felt like Charlie Brown encountering Snoopy’s over-adorned doghouse at Christmas. At least, the studio offered a variety of classes, but not regular Hatha – just Hatha Flow. It made me laugh out loud.  I asked about one class with a custom-name. “Oh, that one. This particular instructor holds asanas longer. She’s older,” they felt compelled to add. No worries, I was going to meet up with my yoga teacher trainer and guru Stephanie Pappas, who probably trained an entire generation of “older” teachers on the beach.

Stephanie is one of the bravest women I know. She built a casita (Casa Pastel) on the jungle sideIMG_0090 of Tulum pueblo (the business district), before there was any electricity at all in Tulum. Walking downtown with Stephanie is like walking with a local celebrity. Lots of people know her, both Mexican and ex-patriots. When I asked her how she felt about all the changes, she shrugged. “It was bound to happen. “ It’s good for her rental business, but not so good that she has to spend 100 pesos on food she doesn’t need or want to gain access to her favorite section of the beach. Clearly, it bothered me more than it did her that beach businesses are now beyond the budget of the people who first brought yoga and massage to Tulum, the people who helped build the infrastructure that now attracts those who want-to-be-seen and young New Yorkers, sporting hair-buns, sarongs and body ink. Men and women.

We met up with our Tulum friends at one of our favorite restaurants, El Tabano, on the jungle side of the beach. The food is typically good, and they happened to have a cool jazz trio that night. The table next to us started to fill up with New York hipsters. “It looks like the Last Supper,” my husband said, pointing out Jesus- with-a-man-bun who presided at the center of it all. They strung more and more tables together as new acolytes wandered in. They all knew each other from some New York neighborhood. Their conversation revolved around subway travails and, well, New York. Weren’t they here to escape? Maybe not.

IMG_0132On our last night in Tulum, we ate at Zamas. We probably go there at least once every trip. We sat at a painted wooden table with a single wax candle, as close to the water’s edge as you can get, watching the full moon rise and pelicans fly home. A Spanish guitar player took the stage, sending sweet arpeggios into the breeze. Ah, Tulum. At that moment, we were home again.

When it came time to check out, a young same-sex couple in front of us were complaining about Paradise Lost to the desk clerk. They shared our disenchantment. I wanted to tell them about TanKah, a decidedly more serene residential section of north Tulum where we hadIMG_0064 spent the first part of our trip at Casa Jacqueline . But I held back. I needed to keep it to myself for a little longer. It’s where the hippies are retiring. It will be discovered soon enough. It’s inevitable.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Heart of a Farmer, Eye of an Artist

 

One evening Luca said, “I know why you live in Belhaven. It’s the sunset.”

IMG_0004Luca, a young farmer in Italy, spent his winter vacation as a volunteer for Workaway, an organization that links volunteer workers with hosts in exchange for room and board and some time off for travel. Alan and I were so fortunate to have him choose five weeks at our bed and breakfast in little old Belhaven, NC — far from city lights, mass transportation and just about everything. Lucky for us, he lives in a image copysmall village and had already spent time in Miami, Orlando, Philadelphia and New York City.

We loved our hosting experience, and our dog Maya gave Luca her four-paw stamp of approval. Our guests were charmed by his accent, his smile and the artistry he added to their breakfast plates, shaping fruit into butterflies, flowers, happy faces and abstract

arrangements. It made everyone smile (even before the first cup of coffee was poured).

 

image copy 4Before he left to return home, he sent me a series of sunset photos that he called Thousand Colours in Belhaven. A thousand colors is a fitting gift for Belhaven to give, as Luca fills his backpack of cultural and other experiences he gained on his first trip to the United States. But the gifts he leaves behind are just as enduring.

He helped us see our own world differently, sharing his vision for a healthier, more organic world, filled with natural artistry, like spectacular sunsets. He showed us how to tread lightly through the world by carrying everything he needed on his back.  Simply, a thousand colors of imageLuca.

I envision wandering into Luca’s village of Alessandria one day, unexpected. As in any truly small American town, I can ask the first person I meet to direct me to Luca’s farm. “Puoi indirizzarmi a Luca’s farm?” And that is where I find him, farming his own way, smiling like the thousand colors of Belhaven.
image copy 2Be well, Luca. The world needs you.

 

 

 

 

 

Swans and Songs

IMG_2087There are some places that change so much in a season that they are worth a return visit. Lake Mattamuskeet is one of them. Most of the crabbers are gone, replaced by birders. And the beautiful iridescent blue crabs of the summer have been replaced by the vibrant tundra swans.   These are snowbirds, and Eastern Carolina is where they “summer.” They are tourists of the waterfowl variety, and they attract thousands of other tourists, the human kind.

When I visited on an unseasonably warm day in early December, the first thing I noticed was the noise. Mattamuskeet was no longer the quiet sanctuary of summer. Tundra swans – unlike their mute European cousins that glide across the lake’s surface – bugle, bark and hiss. Their wings whistle, and their feet slap the surface of the water. They pose and they posture. They are a spectacle.

Every year, the tundra swans attract birders, naturalists, photographers and, well, people like me, who just want to see these magnificent creatures in their summer quarters.

To be fair, I could have gone to see the tundra swans a bit closer to home – in Pungo Lake, which I understand is just as spectacular. But I had another motive for going back to Mattamuskeet. Like a crab lured to the surface with a chicken bone, I’m thinking that a day at Mattamuskeet would be better with fried chicken from Outta Da Box. I was also thinking that maybe Miss Hilda would share her secret ingredient this visit.

IMG_2093I got lucky. I told Miss Hilda that I had brought a guest all the way from Italy to sample her soul food and hear her sing. Mostly true. She was flattered enough, or ready enough, to come out of the kitchen. She surprised her patrons, who put down their forks to show respect. Her voice is a local legend. Without introduction or accompaniment, Miss Hilda brought us into her magical sphere — alternating between soft, feathery tones and raise-the-rafters gospel, punctuated with occasional hand clapping. She was the great equalizer, balancing out the cacophony of the day. The black swan event, stunningly unexpected and transformative.

She thanked us for coming back and showed me a letter she received from my friend Tyler Beasley, who introduced us. She said that Tyler told her she should do more to let people know about Outta Da Box. “I know he means well, but I’m doing just fine,” she said. “I’ve got enough here, just making people happy.”

By all means, go see the tundra swans, but add another 10 miles to your trip for home cooking worth the extra distance. Food with a dose of spirit. Food that makes people happy. Food with an attraction as strong as the Tundra Swans.