The Bluegrass Pilgrimage


This is my last post before I leave on my journey, from Northern New Jersey through the Appalachians to Kentucky, to reside a few days among the holy men of Gethsemani Abbey, once home to one of my spiritual mentors, Thomas Merton. And there may not be any posts while I’m away–depending on my mood or wi-fi availability. But that doesn’t mean I’m not going to tell you everything about it!  I hope to lay out the tale of my all-American pilgrimage in installments throughout the rest of the month. And don’t prepare to be bored, because I intend to do a lot of other things on the way down and the way back that might be considered distinctly unspiritual—like some of those distillery tours, even though I’m more of a white-wine sort of girl. There is likely to be some sort of outdoor adventure, though I don’t know if I’m ready for a zipline ride down an Appalachian hillside. Being a history buff, there will likely be more of that then you’d care to know about.  And there will definitely be shopping, at some point, because I do love to hit the stores now and then. That, and my weakness for gossip and chatting, puts me in league, I believe, with the great saint of Avila, Teresa, who was not only a mystic and seeker of the spirit, but kind of a good ol’ gal herself, sometimes.  She  sums up my purpose succinctly with this, from her own writing:  “Contemplative prayer in my opinion is nothing more than a close sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with Him whom we know loves us.”

So, just takin’ a ride with my old pal, God. Teresa will be riding shotgun. Hope they both like bluegrass—my main soundtrack for this trip.

I’ve recently developed a strong fondness for bluegrass music, surprising since my roots are unrelentingly Northeastern and urban. But I love how it draws you right in with that irresistible beat and melody, honest vocals and unrestrained emotion. I can hear the history in it, its ancestral roots in Irish and Scottish folk music, in songs that might have been sung during the time of the American Revolution. And I just love to listen to the lyrics, which always tell some kind of human story. They can be artlessly simple or surprisingly sophisticated, sometimes: On Easter morning, I heard a haunting ballad about Mary Magdalene. One of the bands I will be following is the Clare Lynch Band—Clare has such a lovely, pretty voice, an utter joy to listen to. I can only hope to hear some great live bluegrass at some point in my trip.

And other than preparing my songlists and highlighting my paper maps (don’t need no stinkin’ GPS), I don’t really know how else to prepare for this journey.  I have the West Virginia address of a long-lost friend I might pop in on (see my post, Coming of Age) I have some books on spirituality and some on Merton, but I probably won’t get to them. Packing presents a challenge: It’s one thing to pack for a Caribbean cruise, or a family camping trip, but what does a woman wear for a week at a Trappist monastery? Definitely not Spanx or the push-up bra. I picked out a few of my drabber ‘teacher’ dresses, plus jeans and Ts for hiking, and that’s about it. I actually dithered over what to do for nightwear, since I don’t really have any—or anything decent enough to sleep in on hallowed ground. So, I had to go out and buy a boringly modest nightie, reminding myself there is little chance any other person out there is going to actually see me in it, except maybe other female retreatants.  I can thank decades of prudish wrong-headed Catholic-school indoctrination for all that nonsense.

So, on Saturday, I will teach three sessions of English grammar, then throw my bags into the car, and head on out west. My bluegrass version of Eat Pray Love—Appalachian style! Complete with spoonbread and an extra dose of contemplative silence. Though I’m a relentless planner by nature, I’m trying not to anticipate too much, but just drive and think and let stuff happen. And we’ll see what does…



Easter, believe it or not, has always been my favorite holiday of all. Halloween frightened me a little, as a child; and Christmas, despite food and presents, sometimes brings out the worst in a family for reasons I can’t identify. But Easter has always been a lovely, uncomplicated sort of occasion, even if marred by a freak snowstorm or blustery March winds. It’s just candy, baked ham, colored eggs and Christ is Risen, and family all more or less getting along. It’s the official start to Spring.

Since we bought our house, some 25 years ago, I’ve always marked the occasion with the ‘egg tree.’ Yes, it’s tacky and time-consuming, but my little daughter loved it, and took to the chore with gusto. She was the supervisor, instructing me which color egg to hang on which branch. It started out on one of the old azalea bushes, but when we added the front porch, I planted a dwarf pink dogwood beside it, for the express purpose of hanging the Easter eggs off its branches, which remain stark and seemingly lifeless until late April. For several years, we were able to fill the entire tree in glorious technicolor plastic. Until the inevitable day when the tree decided it didn’t want to be a dwarf anymore and sprouted far beyond our arms’ reach. And daughter, growing into her teens, lost interest in the tree entirely. Yet I continued to hang the eggs, doggedly, out of habit, falling prey to OCD compulsions to make sure the colors were perfectly balanced and the eggs evenly spaced out. I forgot why I was even doing it anymore.

This year, I thought I might skip the whole thing. Daughter is not coming home for Easter, and I was too busy to even look for the stored eggs in the attic. Then a longtime neighbor asked me, plaintively, “Aren’t you putting up the egg tree this year? I was looking forward to it.”   And so, yesterday—feeling a bit wan, recovering from a nasty stomach flu–I wandered outside with the egg basket, and feebly hung a few ornaments among the lowest branches. So the Easter tree has a melancholy sort of feel to it this year: That’s actually it, in the photograph above.  As you can see, spring comes slowly to the Rockaway River Valley. But don’t be fooled—Easter is still my favorite holiday.

On Loneliness

I may have mentioned this before, but in two weeks time I am going to be making a spiritual retreat, at the Trappists’ Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky. Over the weekend, I learned more about what it will entail, thanks to some Facebook friends and connections, but I still felt…and feel…a little worried about it. As if I’m almost dreading it, in a way. I finally figured out this morning what it was all about. I’m worried, that with all that silence and peace, I’ll feel lonely.

No one likes to feel lonely, to feel restless and cut off from others, and the world in general;  to feel, essentially, worthless, that you don’t matter to anyone. You could argue that it’s a kind of Hell on earth. And yet, sometimes we need to be alone. I’m still trying to figure out if loneliness is a positive thing for a creative person. Does it help propel us into the creative life, generating a yearning for humanity and connection that in turns kickstarts the creative forces?  Or is it a hindrance? In my last post, I noted how being busy and immersed in life seems to make me more creative. So will being alone and a little lonely have the opposite effect?

Guess I’ll find out!

Maybe all creative work–art, music, poetry, writing–is  just a desperate effort to fill that ever-present, ever-widening-and-contracting hole in our psyches and hearts and souls. Otherwise, why do we do this–especially when there’s no monetary reward or fame involved!

A  hermit must always feel lonely, and yet he/she needs to be able to channel that emotion into other things. Or, simply endure it, or learn how to dial it down enough to get anything worthwhile accomplished. I think what makes loneliness particularly dreadful is the concern that it won’t end. That we will always be alone, that no one will ever care about us, that we won’t matter to anyone, ever again. And hence, the profound difference between the loneliness of a retreat, and the loneliness of old age: One will end, eventually, but the other might stretch on, until death itself.

So if I dread the taste of loneliness I’ll get at Gethsemani, it’s probably because of my greater fears and concerns about my own future, at this late-middle-aged point in my life: When will the visitors stop coming to my door? When will the world and loved ones cease to care about me? When will I cease to matter? With any luck, not until well after I’m gone…

My creative ‘affair’

After all these years, I’m still trying to figure out how my creative drive works. Why is it, when I have a long, empty day ahead of me (rare, but it happens), a blank screen before me waiting for my unparalleled brilliance—my mind goes completely blank? Why is it, when I map out a day specifically for writing or editing, nothing but dreck emerges? And yet, when I’m at my busiest, when there’s a hundred things to be done, a roomful of students to teach, another person’s manuscript to be edited—all these ideas and plots and characters crowd their way into my head, demanding to be set down and made real?

Right now I’m at a critical juncture at ‘real’ work, with a lot of chores to be done in addition to my teaching (not the least of which is putting together six little autobiographies in time for the last day of writer’s workshop); I have Easter approaching, and extended family coming for dinner; a neglected garden sitting just outside my back door, crying for attention (was this the year to revive the herb garden and put in a pair of apple trees?); my daughter’s preparing for a big move to Boston, and I’m trying to prepare for a solo road trip out to Kentucky the first week of April. And this marketing agency in Florida I used to do editing for eons ago has suddenly remembered my existence, and has been sending brochures and ad pages that need to be read RIGHT NOW!

Oh, and did I mention the ultimate tragedy for any writer? My hard drive crashed and burned last weekend. Everything on it lost, but fortunately I had the most important things backed up on that mysterious ‘cloud’, which I somehow associate with Heaven. I went right out to the mall and picked out a shiny new bright-red laptop, as casually as you might pick the right apple or orange from the grocery bin. Perhaps by the time the credit-card bill comes in, I will have earned part of the cost of it back…

So all this ordinary drama in my life, and of course, the only thing I want to do is work on my new novel! I’ve already become infatuated with my characters—there’s four of them, the narrative slipping through each one’s point of view—and it’s them I’m thinking of, not loved ones or friends or students. So I’ve been allowing myself little breaks in my ordinary workaday life to work on the book, but I almost feel like I’m having a clandestine affair, sneaking off to be with my beloved book-in-progress, shutting out the rest of the world for a little while like careless and besotted lovers do. So being unfaithful, actually, to my own life. I think the hard-drive catastrophe may have addled my brain. But I won’t waste time yearning for unlimited time to write: Because I just know if I ever did have that luxury…my creative urge would probably just curl up and die.

Free Irish stuff

I’m only one-quarter Irish (and those ancestors actually emigrated from Yorkshire, England), but I always feel a little  more Irish on St. Patrick’s Day. I’ve written three young-adult historical novels, all set in Ireland, and today, two of them are free on Amazon! You can get the Kindle version of The Raven Girl and The Foreigner’s Stone (my lovely daughter posed for the front cover) for FREE! But only until midnight tonight PST, then my books turn back into $2.99 pumpkins. Enjoy!

About those reviews…

I’ve been trying to keep this blog rated PG, but folks reviewing my latest novel are to blame for this sizzling entry. I normally have a strict rule for myself, in regard to responding to reviews: Don’t. Just don’t. Some writers don’t even read theirs, but I do. Being a reviewer myself, I will never, ever, respond directly to a reviewer and especially those who have been kind enough to review The Novice Master. When a writer challenges a reviewer, that can have a depressing and dampening effect on future reviews. And the writer gets blackballed as a churlish or crazy person. I know that I am lucky enough to get reviews as it is, especially the long-form variety, and from complete strangers. And they have all been complimentary, although I would certainly take to heart any meaningful constructive criticism.

But there has been one criticism emerging that I just…don’t…get. A few reviewers have complained that they can’t understand how my 19-year-old protagonist, Evan, a college freshman, could be so dimly naïve about sex, or to be more explicit, how a man/boy that age could know so little about how a woman experiences pleasure. They argue that ‘in this age’ of Internet sex saturation, how could he know so little? It doesn’t seem real or authentic to them…based, I’m guessing, on their own experience and view of the world.

So, let’s put aside the fact that I addressed all this in the novel: Evan is an odd boy, a loner, overly coddled by his parents, intensely religious—he wanted to join a monastery–and shaped by a strong and slightly repressive Catholic upbringing…would this sort of fellow be relentlessly searching the Internet for porn and tips on you-know-what, and joking about it all with (non-existent) friends? But never mind all that. Evan is miserably in the dark about women: This is the truth of his character, as I saw him.  Who does not believe there are still sexually naïve people in the world, even adults?  That there are even middle-aged members of Congress who believe a woman’s body shuts down during the act of rape to prevent a pregnancy? That there are GROWN MEN who don’t know how to properly pleasure a woman?  The human sexual spectrum is wide and diverse, tied to a person’s intellect and emotional intelligence and experience of life…even in today’s ‘Internet age.’ And let me tell you that looking at a picture of a lady’s ruby-fruit does not necessarily instruct you on how to treat it properly.  There is a (sorry, but I have to say it) spiritual aspect to fantastic sex that can’t be gleaned from PornHub and raunchy magazines. And sorry to those of you who didn’t get that from my book. That is really the knowledge Evan was seeking from his mentor.

It used to be that I would be taken to task in reviews for even putting (small amounts) of explicit sex  in my books. I was told it was ‘jarring’ and ‘gratuitous.’ Now I’m getting criticized for the way I depict it.  A writer just can’t win sometimes…

If it has tires…

“If it has tires or testicles, it’s sure to be trouble.” Said the sign I saw in a women’s apparel shop down South. To which, I would add, “tires, testicles and a hard drive,” but that spoils the alliteration. But all three of those things will break your heart at one time or another, if you’re a heterosexual woman, and right now I’m singing the automobile blues. Why?—those of you who saw my sparkly new ride on Facebook last week may ask. Well, here’s the thing: The car’s a lease, not an outright purchase. To get the best payment rate, we are limited to only driving the thing 10,000 miles a year. Which would be fine if I only drove it the five miles and back to work, but I was planning on taking it on my ‘spiritual journey’ to Kentucky early next month, so I had to do a lot of un-spiritual calculating to see if I could pull it off. Moreover, I do a fair amount of driving—up to Connecticut to see family, down to the shore to see the beach, and sometimes out to Pennsylvania or upstate New York on a ‘Sunday’ drive. I try not to drive too much since I know it’s not good for the environment. But I have a weird sort of spiritual nature, and I find driving a quiet road amid beautiful scenery a soulful kind of experience. Combine it with some good music, it’s almost transcendent. It’s a tricky endeavor, to remain completely alert and ready to react in a moment’s notice to road conditions, yet fall into the kind of peaceful Zen a road trip can produce. Ten thousand miles a year doesn’t allow for a lot of Zen driving.

I thought I would have my old beat-up Chevy with 180,000 miles on it to fall back on—it’s practically worthless (we were offered $200 as trade-in value) but it still runs. At least I thought it did: The very  day after returning from the car dealership with the new car, I tried to start the old one, only to hear that sickening grinding sound, then silence. It was as if, in an act of spiteful jealously, the old car suddenly decided to give up the ghost in a most inconvenient way. Not good news for my grown daughter, who was set to inherit the old heap and drive it to her new home in Boston. But maybe we can resuscitate it.

And speaking of Facebook and cars…I’d like to know why my most heartfelt blog posts there are largely ignored (except by the few, most loyal of friends)yet when I post a picture of a new car, I’m deluged with ‘likes’. Forget writing; I’m just going to buy a new car every few months! That seems like the path to popularity…