Category Archives: Blog

Who Actually Makes These Rules Up, Anyway?

Avto was a postman from Georgia.

“Zee country, not zee state,” he explained—immediately upon meeting my nephew Dave and me, one winter morning in Estonia—just in case the thick accent wasn’t clarification enough.

Avto spoke many languages, presumably, all with a similar poetic license that left his English understandable, although not necessarily in any rational way.

Since Avto pronounced my name Holy, the nickname he gave me was Hole. I intended—from his first mention of my new nickname—to nudge him away from it. But he said it with such endearment, like he’d bestowed me with something heartfelt and personal … So I postponed voicing my opposition.

“Your need is fresh air, exercise and light, every day. But present you have no zis,” Avto announced, shortly after our first meeting. He then added, clapping his hands, as though this thought had just surfaced from nowhere, ”Oh my God! I can solve you zis only problem you has, Hole.”

“Um … about that name … never-mind, we’ll talk later;  just how will you solve this problem, I didn’t know I had?” I asked.

“I vill let you walk wis me on my mail route when I deliver every day post and pension money one time in month. And sometimes I help zese old people wis life. You vill see inside of houses and pet cats and maybe have tea wis us … .”

Looking back, there was an uncharacteristic heave-ho to caution, followed by a gigantic leap of faith, that led me to even consider this proposal. But Avto’s simple approach to life and complete lack of malice were apparent in every gesture and intonation.

So I surrendered, almost immediately to his plan, after all I had no real plans of my own: I had no roadmap in this strange new life I was creating after my husband’s death; no role models …  My life in Estonia was, at times, confusing and frightening, but it was also supremely exhilarating. I was writing a new book—as opposed to a new chapter—in my life. What better vehicle to begin a new journey, than my feet? And what better co-traveller in those early years, than The Postman?

Estonian sunrise, in late November, is said to occur between 8:00 and 8:30 AM. My experience was, however, while there may have been a glimmer of daylight at that hour, to call it sunrise was wishful thinking.


Getting out from under my woollen blankets, at 6 AM, in -30 degree Celsius (-22 F) temperatures, so that I could meander through the streets of Souptown, helping deliver Avto’s post, in the dark, pretty much shattered my middle class American comfort zone. In spite of the discomfort, however, I donned as many layers of clothing as would fit beneath my bulky arctic jacket, pulled on my warm LL Bean boots, and a hat my mother gave me, ignored my frequently frozen eyelashes and numb appendages, and silently made my way up and down the streets of Souptown almost every morning the winter of ’97.

Avto was born and spent his youth in Georgia. He’d come to Estonia to attend university. During his time in University, the Soviet Union collapsed and he was now, more or less stuck in Estonia. He longed to go back to his motherland, it’s sweet wine, warm weather and gregarious culture; his emotional life was a mixed bag. While he frequently referred to Estonia as “Zis cold, fucking Soviet country,” it was very much a love/hate relationship. He loved the  all night sun of summer, the saunas, and the calm, peaceful nature of the Estonian people. He did however, complain almost daily in the winter; “One day, zese balls in my pants vill freeze off! People vill say, ‘Oh look! Vhat that is lying in ze snow over zere? Oh never-mind; zey is just zee balls of zat underpaid postman.”

Avto and I began our mornings on a specified corner, after he had collected his post, organised his pouch and begun his route.

We had followed this same routine for about a month when, one morning, Avto failed to show up on our designated corner. I went from annoyed to worried after ½ hour or so of waiting in the cold. I walked through Souptown on my way home but there was no sign of my missing postman. I waited to hear from him; or perhaps the police …

On one of my future visits to the States, an elderly fundamentalist pastor would ask me if the Estonian people were religious. Not knowing one Estonian who professed a belief in God, let alone one who had probably ever seen the inside of a church, I would say, “No, they aren’t,” But then feel compelled to add: “But I’ve never lived in a more spiritually attuned society.”

Later that evening, Avto showed up at my flat, looking exhausted and 10 years older.

“I’m apologising and sad for my late self …” he began.

“I can only assume there was a reason that I stood on that corner alone and froze,” I interrupted.

Avto began his explanation slowly, as though the energy it took to speak was being borrowed, from somewhere outside of himself, a word at a time. “When I was early walking street zis morning, wisout you, a grandmother came running to me wis tears. She say her husband he died in zis night. She was alone and crying all night …  alone wis zee body of her man. All night …” he repeated.

“What did you do?” I asked, my tone transformed.

“I say, ‘Babushka, vhat  I can do for you?’ and I hold her cold hands. When such terrible sings happen, hands are wery cold,” he explained, in case I didn’t know what shock was. Then, “Also it vas -25 degrees in zis cold, fucking Soviet country,” he added, in case I hadn’t noticed.

“So what did she ask for?” I could barely speak.

Avto then explained that the old woman had tried to clean her husband’s body, herself, but had “wery old hurting bones” and lacked the strength …  So he, The Postman, had gone into her home, made tea, and spent the next several hours helping the grieving widow clean and prepare her husband’s body for his funeral.

When he’d earlier claimed  “I sometimes I help zese old people wis life,” I’d not understood what that meant. How could I have understood, when my life had never included most of the day to day experiences that lived in my new world?

I looked at My Postman, in fact my world, differently after that day.

“Hole, I is so sorry you poor little feet froze off, waiting for me.”

“My feet are not little and you have no need to apologise. I admire you so much,” I said.

Avto looked at me inquisitively. “Huh?”

“What you did today, was so beautiful and so loving … so sacred. What you did was what religion tries to instil in people … .” I stopped; words failed me.

He continued looking at me with his compassionate, exhausted, still puzzled, face.

Suddenly I wanted to offer something useful. And expensive. The best I could do, when someone was in crisis, was offer something of material value; it was how I supported people; the more expensive the better. “Hey, I think I’ll give you my LL Bean Boots. Your boots are shot and I have another pair I can wear.”

I instantly felt better for having offered.

“Um, zose boots are wery not cool …” he said sheepishly. “I did not tell you but you embarrassing me in zose boots.”

Huh! I thought. So my do-gooder self is out-a-luck, today,  since My Postman has a fashion sense that doesn’t allow for pricey LL Bean boots because they’re uncool. Interesting!

“It doesn’t matter, Avi,” I said. “I made soup; do you want some?”

“Oh Hole, you know I do! You is zee soup master!”

It was about this time that I realised: I was in the process of a rebirth. And, so, actually a new name was called for; even if it was Hole.

One Summer in The-Middle-of-Nowhere

Victor had five fingers. All told.

On both hands.

He surrendered the other five to a half bottle of vodka and a nap on an icy walk home from the post office cum liquor store, one exceptionally cold winter evening. Or so the story went, according to the post office ladies (about a mile from our cabin). He also had one mean reputation in the nearby village …



I Vant To Be Alone … Oh Wait, No I Don’t

In 1996, in the throes of an existential crisis—convinced that, as a single mother, once my two young daughters were grown, I would enjoy a life with no electricity, no running water and no heat source—I bought a log cabin on 10 acres of land, in The-middle-of-nowhere, Estonia. At the time of my purchase, I was living, in the quaint university town of Tartu, Estonia, which I loved. But I envisioned, spending my post child-rearing life in absolute seclusion in my rural homestead: lighting a lot of candles, firing up a wood stove and writing, longhand, until the cows came home …

In 1998, I met a Latvian man who took my breath away.

In fairly short order, my daughters and I moved down to Riga, Latvia, and bought the upper half of a Tsar Russian mansion, as a restoration project. Goodbye solitary life in The-middle-of-nowhere, Estonia; hello exciting new relationship in the hopping metropolis of Riga, Latvia! It was a far cry from the changes I’d envisioned for myself, but I was over the moon with discovering a new city and a new love, at this stage of my life.

A year later, in the midst of gutting our kitchen, in Riga—which coincided with the beginning of the Baltic region’s very short summer—I remembered my log house nostalgically and decided that it would be a great summer retreat for the girls and me, with my partner visiting when his work schedule allowed. We could live free of noise, dust, navigating-debris-on-our-way-to-the-bathroom, and all of the other inconveniences of construction. Besides, we wouldn’t need heat in the summer, just some sleeping bags; the white nights of summer would furnish more than enough light; and all we needed was a decent bucket and rope, for the well, to have water. We were set for our log cabin adventure.

Well, I was anyway.

Ignoring the moans and groans from my tween and teenage daughters, Jessica and Erin, I packed our minimal earthly needs, for an entire summer, into our 15 year-old BMW: clothing, towels, wash cloths, sleeping bags, a tent (just in case the mosquitoes got too bad inside the house), silverware, dishes and some limited personal items, most of which were packed into a large Rubbermaid tub which I planned to use for bathing. We hoped for an adventure that would not include snakes, venomous spiders or criminals roving around the countryside (as an American I had deep-rooted fears of bad guys with guns behind trees and in bushes).

So with a prayer, for our old car, on my lips, we headed north to our tiny log cabin, the all-night sun and—unbeknownst to us at the time—some gentle shifts in perception.

What we were not expecting this adventure to include was Old Victor.



Life In the Grass Lane

The narrow, mile long, meandering dirt lane that led to our cabin, began just past the village post office, and was barely distinguishable from the wild land that it slightly interrupted. Completely impassable, by car, from late autumn through spring, it took all of my driving experience to negotiate, even in summer. A few ruts and some barely visible rocks were the only reminders that there may have once been a road to our house.

Several meters past our cabin, on the opposite side of the lane, was a dilapidated shack that had been almost entirely reclaimed by nature.

Initially I’d thought this neighbouring shack was abandoned and asked the sellers of my property if I might buy it; more for the property than the building. I was informed that it wasn’t for sale and that a fiercely private hermit lived in the shack. I was further told not to bother him and he’d show me the same courtesy; he was unfriendly and pretty much lived in a bottle of vodka. I was assured that I probably wouldn’t hear from him. Ever. And certainly shouldn’t count on him for anything. I remembered, however, at the settlement table, almost as a footnote, the seller had said, with a chuckle: “Your well is the only access Victor has to clean water, so you might see him occasionally scurrying across your property.”

So the hermit had a name: Victor.

A Side Note

When my parents visited me in Estonia in 1996, my mother’s most shocking observation, on day one of her visit, was the complete absence of laughter and smiles on the streets of Tartu. I attempted to explain to her that this was a cultural norm; it was not indicative of unhappiness with their lack of material possessions or depression and she had no need to feel sorry for them. I told her that if she watched carefully, she’d see subtle smiles and expressions of enjoyment everywhere in Estonia. My mother, however, ignoring me and determined to let her little American light shine walked through the streets smiling broadly at everyone, for the remainder of her stay. She said she was giving them permission to smile and be happy as they worked their way out of their poverty. She was letting them know that the USSR was gone and they could leave their depression behind because life would improve … When I told my Estonian friend, Peeter, what my mother was doing, he replied, quite seriously: “Did you explain, to her, that they only think that she’s mentally unstable?”

I had not.

It was challenging for Americans to understand the facial expressions of Estonian culture, as well as, how a country in the midst of reinventing itself and living in relative poverty, could actually be happy. I was not prepared to spend hours attempting to enlighten my seventy-three year-old mother on her two-week holiday. I understood the belief that her worldview was correct: people need lots of material things to be happy and a broad smile is a universally accepted sign of happiness. With an underlying belief being: Once they see the light all people eventually come around to experiencing and expressing joy in the way that my mother expected them to.



Life in The Grass Lane



Image 16-08-2018 at 16.09

Erin And a Visiting Friend Playing in Our Rhubarb Patch.

My daughters and I moved into our log cabin, for the summer, in late spring.

We cooked over a camp stove and bathed in our Rubbermaid tub beneath blue skies and the midnight sun, on the side of our hill. We didn’t need a bucket or rope for our well; Victor had that covered, although the knot needed an occasional tug to keep it tight. I imagined this was a difficult task to undertake with so few fingers …

The mosquitoes were delighted with the infusion of new human blood in the neighbourhood; so much so that we quickly assembled our tent in the cabin’s main room and slept tucked safely inside our sleeping bags, behind our tent’s mosquito netting. We played Uno, harvested and cooked down rhubarb, told stories and drove to a nearby town to check email from time to time. Life was quiet, slow and good.

Then one summer evening, as the three of us sat outside singing (was it Amazing Grace?), Victor came around the corner of our cabin and sat down.

My first inclination was to approach him as I would a feral cat; slowly and with caution, or maybe not at all. But almost immediately I noticed, to my astonishment, how presentable he was—his hair carefully combed and clothes wrinkled but clean. I even sensed a slight twinkle in his eye, much like my Grandpa Joe …

Grandpa Joe

My precious grandfather, with that twinkle in his eyes.

My oldest daughter, Jessica, forever the extrovert of the family, has yet to meet a stranger who’s not a friend just waiting to happen. “May I speak with you in Russian language?” she asked, in Russian. We knew Victor was Estonian, but none of us had been able to master the extremely difficult Estonian language. These language barriers—speaking Russian, the language of their oppressors, with Estonians—were frequently awkward.

“Yes, certainly you can,” he replied, And then continued in somewhat broken Russian, “But I’m afraid my Russian language is rusty.” And, suddenly, there it was, most definitely: Grandpa Joe’s twinkle in the eye along with that Estonian smile … so sweet yet so subtle, that a few years back I would have missed it.

Victor spent the better part of that evening with us, chatting and chuckling softly. Jessica and Erin interpreted for Victor and me (my Russian language skills were even worse than his) as we asked and responded to each other’s questions. He seemed amused much of the time; but completely at ease and happy to be with us. I was impressed by his soft gentle manner and acceptance of life.

Victor joined us for evening chats or sometimes just sharing space. At times there were great gaps of silence between us but, oddly, they were never awkward.

I didn’t ask about his missing fingers. I’d already heard the story. He didn’t ask me how an American woman ended up in The-middle-of-nowhere, Estonia, in a beat up BMW and two daughters. It was a silent understanding.

One evening, as the chill of autumn was clearly moving in, Victor said, “I pick mushrooms and preserve them. I’ll bring you a jar.”

“That’s such a generous offer; but I can’t possibly accept,” I said, meaning it from the bottom of my heart.

I’d watched, from afar, as Victor navigated through his life: struggling through the woods and fields with his old bones; slowly pulling the water bucket up from the deep well with so few fingers; mushroom hunting … I’ve always had reservations about the safety of eating wild mushrooms but I couldn’t imagine any canning process, in the absence of a pressure cooker, let alone running water, that wouldn’t kill me within days (yep, one more of those American sensibilities rearing its head). Most importantly, however, I couldn’t bear the thought of those painstakingly collected mushrooms going to anyone but Old Victor.

“But thank you so much for the offer!” I said.

Victor smiled, very slightly, nodded and walked off towards his home.

The following morning there was a jar of mushrooms on our doorstep. I imagined a twinkle in his eye, as he slipped over, in the early morning hours, and left us his gift.

Summer was nearing its end as we packed up our old car, prayed it would get us back to Riga, and headed south for the winter. I wanted to say goodbye to Old Victor but he’d, once again, disappeared behind the thicket, trees, shrubs and miscellaneous weeds. His home was just like his life: almost invisible, insulated from all things that interrupted his almost imperceptible smile.

Initially I’d hoped that Old Victor would cut back on the vodka and find a companion: a woman? Maybe a dog? Or cat?  Over the summer I decided his life was precisely as he’d designed it and within that life he was happy. I also knew that making my way through the brush to his door, even to say goodbye, would have been intrusive.

I locked up my cabin, but before leaving, I walked down the dirt path to the well. I pulled up a full bucket of water, gave an extra tug to the knot (maybe it would hold all winter?) and left it sitting on the side of the well, for Victor. One last bucketful of water and a tight knot was my goodbye. I knew it would bring one of those imperceptible smiles to his lips.

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Jessica Lifting Water From Our Well … Not An Easy Task, for Victor with His 5 Fingers!


Upon Our Return …

Baltic winters are long and cold; frequently hitting -30 or lower. I looked forward to a spring thaw in April; I continued looking forward in May. When winter finally lost its grip in early June, I packed up my daughters, and car, and we headed north.

At the end of the three and a half hour drive, our old BMW chugged and meandered down the narrow lane towards our cabin. Every icy spot I slipped on was a reminder that, although the winters in Riga were hard, they were even more severe in The-middle-of-nowhere, Estonia.

As we pulled up to the cabin, I noticed that the pathway to the well looked almost unused.

My heart sank.

Jessica shared my observation: “Huh, I wonder if Old Victor got his own well?” she asked.

“Let’s go back to the post office and ask,” I said, trying to sound casual, as I turned the car around and headed back down the road to the post office.

“Oh he finally died! He froze to death, outside in an ice storm last winter; they say that’s a painless way to go once you get past the first bit…” the woman behind the counter said matter-of-factly. “It wasn’t much of a life he had anyway: waiting for his next pension money, walking here to collect it and buy supplies … particularly vodka. Poor old soul (she flicked her throat with her middle finger and thumb: an Estonian indication of a drunk person). Then he’d go back to that wreck he called a home, all by himself … He had a family once, you know: a daughter, a wife… an actual proper house, he did.” She shook her head in disapproval.

If I’d had the courage I’d have defended Old Victor. I’d have said, “Hey, he was at peace with his simple life; he was actually happy. Did you know that he could collect mushrooms with only five fingers? He could also fill and lift a bucket full of water up a 30 foot well without spilling more than a drop.

“Oh yeah! And he wasn’t totally alone: for at least one summer he was … Old Victor was my friend.” If I’d only had the courage, I’d have done just that …

Instead, I silently got in my car and with my eyes full of tears, and drove back down the dirt lane, remembering Old Victor, as I knew him, with his almost imperceptible smile and twinkle in his eye.

The Day Shit Got Real …

If there were ever a competition for a natural born bully, Kenny would have won the blue ribbon. Hands down.

In the mid 1950’s Kenny was about eight years old. He was already the puppet master of our neighbourhood; terror being his only strings. This was when my family moved into his small Hatboro neighbourhood, near Philadelphia.

I was five, my brother Timmy was two-and-a-half and our older sister, Jeannine was eleven. Heather—who would later become the baby of our family—had a few years left to hang out in the ethers.

At two-and-a-half Timmy had a limited vocabulary and even more limited ability to pronounce the few words he knew. When he slipped and knocked his two front teeth out, just shy of his third birthday, what were slowly becoming coherent language skills, instantly slipped back into Timmy’s own language.

“Ah na peeny peeny pelly pelly thitch, ” Timmy said sweetly, to our next-door neighbour, Marlene, one day.

After politely asking him to repeat himself, several times, Marlene looked at me blankly and whispered, “What is he trying to say?”

To this day I recall wondering why Marlene couldn’t understand him. “He’d like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, “ I repeated. “But he forgot to say please.”

“Say please,” I said, looking sternly at my brother.

“Peath,” he said. Marlene chuckled as she made him a PB&J and, from then on, she always referred to them as peeny peeny pelly pellies when Timmy and I were around.

For the most part I loved our Hatboro neighbourhood.

Fortunately, I had completely mastered my brother’s language and so, I became his interpreter within the family and the community. This, and the fact that I was not yet in school, made me an extension of my brother—or him of me …

Timmy had one other constant companion: A small stuffed doll with a plastic freckled face, called Johnny Appleseed. Johnny had a shock of red hair peeking from beneath his green cap that matched the rest of his attire. After losing his front teeth, Timmy called his stuffed companion Chonny Appletheed. Although pretty much lacking compassion at that age, even I thought that was slightly pathetic …

Generally, however, I simply considered my brother to be an unavoidable nuisance. Timmy was my duty and responsibility; I don’t recall any warm fuzzy feelings for him … until the day Kenny stole Johnny Appleseed from my brother’s arms and beat the doll mercilessly while yelling things like, “What kinda sissy boy carries around a doll? Oh yeah, that’s right: The kind of sissy who lets his sister talk for him!” Kenny laughed maniacally.

I stood there helplessly, holding my sobbing, snotty-nosed baby brother, while Kenny brutally beat Johnny Appleseed to within an inch of his little cotton stuffed life; crushing his plastic face into the sidewalk while scraping it back and forth. There was nothing to be done. It was Kenny’s neighbourhood. We played by Kenny’s rules.

When the bully had tired of this latest cruelty, and walked away, I picked Johnny Appleseed up from the sidewalk and turned him over. “Look!” I exclaimed to my quietly sobbing brother, “Johnny is still smiling. He’s not hurt one bit … Wow! I guess he showed Kenny a thing or two.”

There was something strangely comforting about Johnny’s face—scratched and dirty—still smiling up at us. I’m not sure if, perhaps, I believed, just a little, that Johnny had shown Kenny up for what he really was, or not. I’m actually not even sure Timmy bought it. But we both (at least) pretended to believe Johnny Appleseed was the victor in that encounter, as we trudged up the street, with our heads hung low, to the safety of our home.

I learned something valuable that day: I actually loved that little nuisance of a brother, who prior to that event, had been more like a Vestigial organ: something that you just accept because, useless as it is, you have no choice. On that day, however, my little lisping appendix of a brother became a caring, feeling, tiny human being—sobbing and terrified. And I’d have done almost anything to see that he never experienced anything like that again.

Timmy (right), Heather (middle) and me (left), several years later.

Slight Digression:My father was a bible-thumping Christian. He was also a pacifist. He taught us to turn the other cheek and use words instead of weapons. We were to lead by Christian example; we were to let our little lights shine … Ironically, my father was also a stern, believer in spare the rod and spoil the child and I feared him nearly as much as I feared Kenny. My father, however, was easier to live with: Do as you were told and as the bible taught and you were pretty much okay. Otherwise say hello to Mr Switch.

Yep, there were a lot of mixed messages living in our house …

Now back to Kenny …

Kenny taught me a lot in that first year. He taught me that when my knees were kicked out from beneath me from behind, and I was suddenly thrown down on the pavement, slamming my head onto its hard surface, I could actually see real live, brilliantly flashing stars, just like in cartoons. He also taught me how quickly a wagon full of little kids could be capsized, by one sharp turn of the wagon handle and a hard kick.

But, It was a beautiful Sunday in the autumn of 1957—the year I would turn 6 in October—that some real learning was about to happen. Shit was about to get real for Kenny. As a matter of fact, there was about to be a paradigm shift for me, as well.

A small group of children—including myself—were playing on my best friend, Kathy’s, swing set, when Kenny unexpectedly rounded the corner of her house.

“Give me a swing!” he shouted, as he approached us.

Immediately the other children leapt from their swings. I wish I could say it was bravery that kept me swinging; that I’d had just about enough of Kenny … But factually, I was simply swinging too high to disembark swiftly. I did, however, (much to my terror) instantly realize that swinging was not high on Kenny’s list of priorities and my failure to promptly offer my swing did not bode for a happy ending to this story.

“But I wanted that swing,” Kenny predictably barked, pointing at my swing. And before I could even apologize for having been born, Kenny grabbed my feet and yanked me to the ground; almost instantly the swing seat slammed into the back of my head with a terrible thud.

And then something quite unexplainable—some might say miraculous— happened. I suddenly found myself sitting on Kenny’s chest, with his arms pinned beneath my knees, pummelling the living daylights out of him, without ever having had a conscious thought of doing it.

A few slugs in and I happened to glance across the street where my dad had been washing the car in our driveway, but was now staring at his normally quiet, compliant little girl, as she appeared possessed. My first thought was, “Oh man, hello Mr Switch!”

My second thought was, “There is no way of backing out of this, and seeings as I have Kenny all pinned down and he’s probably going to kill me first chance he gets, I’ve got a job to finish.”

And so I punched away. I punched for every little kid dumped out of a wagon that year and for every star that flashed before my semi-conscious eyes. I punched for every dog and cat that had met Kenny’s big black boots and I punched for Johnny Appleseed’s silly little smile. I punched for my brother Timmy’s muffled sobs and snotty baby nose. I punched for the collective dignity  of every kid in our neighbourhood.

Kenny was bleeding and sobbing, by the time I completed my task and let him up. To my surprise he didn’t even turn around and make an attempt on my life; he just ambled off in the direction of his house.

I walked towards my waiting father; his arms crossed over his chest and wearing his stern lips.

“Go inside and get cleaned up,” he said, very quietly. I looked down at myself and for the first time, realized that I was grass stained, covered in dirt and wearing a fair share of Kenny’s bodily fluids.

I silently walked into the house and up to the bath.

I’m not sure if I knew the expression Waiting for the other shoe to drop, but I certainly knew the sensation, in the pit of my stomach, associated with that expression. I felt it all afternoon and into the evening as I waited for the switch.

The hours ticked by without even a mention of my unforgiveable behaviour and by dinnertime, I fleetingly thought perhaps I was only going to get a lecture.

As I climbed the stairs to go to bed, my father called out to me.

“Holly, come here,” he said.

I walked back down the stairs and stood next to my father, waiting, almost afraid to breathe.

“When you were punching Kenny today,” Oh man, here we go I thought …

“How were you making your fist?” he asked.

What? I wondered; had my father lost his marbles?

I said nothing, but clenched my fists, holding my thumbs tightly against my palms.

“Right,” my father said. He then opened my fingers and before closing them again he placed my thumb on the outside of my fist.

“I hope you never, in your life, need to make another fist, but if you do, remember: Don’t ever clench your thumb inside of your hand. You can easily break a thumb that way.”

Huh? No whooping … Not even a lecture … Just a tutorial on how to make a proper fist, a hug and goodnight and we were sorted?

My father had been a brick wall of harsh unyielding ideologies and inflexible rules, in my eyes, prior to that evening. He had been someone to avoid and fear for the most part. But a veil lifted that night and he was suddenly a father who wanted, in his own way, to say that he understood how confusing and fluid life could be. He was giving me permission to step beyond iron-clad rules when it was absolutely necessary. But he still taught, above all, The Golden Rule: Do unto others, as you would have them do to you. He still firmly believed it was supremely important to let your little light shine, set a loving and compassionate example, whenever possible … and never value violence over negotiation.

Oh yeah, but, if all else fails, don’t clench your thumbs …


Grandpa Joe and the Little Brown Bike That Flew

Grandpa Joe was a country boy long before it was cool—many years before John Denver sang about it… Truth be told, being country was more a part of his bones than it was an identity.

Joe tapped maple trees, collecting their sap and furnishing our family with a continuous supply of maple syrup and sugar; he also made knives, carving the handles out of old bones and antlers that he’d collected. I think he loved the peace and tranquillity that his hobbies afforded him.

My parents said that Grandpa Joe was shortening his life with his cigarettes and alcohol. More importantly, however, he would surely never get into heaven with his behaviour.

I always felt that my parents’ harsh judgment of Joe was probably more than matched by his disregard for their opinion—in fact anyone’s opinion— of him.

Joe could roll a cigarette with one hand; a feat that mesmerized me. And although I never saw him drink or even smelled alcohol on him, he had quite a reputation … I wonder, now, if his drinking was mostly confined to his youth and if those days were accurately portrayed or grossly exaggerated when those observations and memories were filtered through the eyes of prohibition children. Either way, my grandfather didn’t seem to give a lick about anyone’s opinion; as an approval-seeking child, I loved that. Although Joe never rubbed anyone’s nose in his own opinions, that I recall, or even outwardly disrespected them: He simply didn’t give one shit what people thought or said about anything.

He was a man of very few words. But he had eyes that twinkled whenever he looked at me and I always felt that I had a special place in his heart.

I suspect all of his grandchildren felt exactly the same way.

When conversations got too grim for him, Joe would mumble, “I’m going down the grove and check on the maple taps,” or, “I’m going out ta the porch for air.”

Joe had a crooked smile that looked like he was either constantly amused or housing a pinch of chaw behind his lower lip. Probably both.

He called me Old Crow; sometimes shortened to Crow. When I asked him why he called me that, he said it was because I had the blackest hair he’d ever seen. “And I have a fondness for crows,” he smiled and added. That was as close as my grandfather ever got to expressing his love for me, in words.

It was autumn in Potter County—probably 1956 or ‘57—and we were spending Thanksgiving with my grandparents. As I recall, it was out of the blue that Grandpa decided it was time I learned how to ride a two-wheeler, although it’s entirely possible that he thought the conversation in the house was just too grim for both of us.

“Absolutely not!” my mother insisted. “She’s too little and a driveway like yours is no place for a child to learn to ride a bike.” I’m pretty sure my mother thought the conversation was over, as her father headed off quietly to the barn.

When he returned, he was wheeling the most beautiful small brown bicycle I’d ever seen, by his side. Closer inspection proved that the bike had once been blue before rust devoured almost all of its paint … I didn’t care. I still thought it was gorgeous and I had that distinct feeling, in the pit of my stomach, that this was going to be a red-letter day! “I cleaned her all up and oiled her for you, down the barn,” he said quietly.

Looking back I can’t imagine what she looked like prior to being all cleaned up.

As I mounted the bike, Joe explained that he would hold onto the seat, thus not allowing me to fall, until I could balance on my own.

“But how do I do that?” I asked.

“You don’t do anything; just let it happen,” he replied. “It’s like a bird learning to fly; you’ll just do it after a bunch of tries.” I nodded knowingly, silently wondering what in the world he meant.

My mother wrung her hands in despair, saying things like, “Daddy, this is the worst idea you’ve ever had and I absolutely forbid it,” as Grandpa Joe walked with me, perched proudly on the little brown bike, through the yard and down to the long rough, dirt and gravel driveway.

For what seemed like hours, we went up and down the drive, from the house to the road, and then back again… . To this day I can remember the joy I felt as I silently relished that beautiful day spent with my grandfather.

Since our staunch Christian home—and 1950’s society in general— seemed to house an overabundance of rules, attention was generally given with words: Either explaining a rule, or reprimanding us for not following one. As an extremely shy middle child, I lived quite contentedly receiving little attention.

That day, however, I felt warm and whole, bathed in the golden autumn sunlight while receiving the full—yet silent—attention of my grandfather, as we wordlessly accompanied one another up and down the driveway: My grandfather, huffing and puffing, and me grinning and pretending like I was doing whatever was expected of me—having no idea what that actually was.

I’m not certain that this is an accurate recollection, but when I remember that autumn afternoon in Potter County, it feels like one of my first meditations: Although it seemed like hours, it also seemed timeless … So was it our 10th time or our 30th time travelling that bumpy dirt driveway? I have no idea and never will. But on that final run from the road back to the house, I turned—as I had almost every other minute since we began this project—to ensure that Grandpa Joe had a firm grip on my seat. And suddenly something magical happened: as I fell heavily to the ground, skidding across the dirt, stones and grass, scraping my left leg and arm raw, I simultaneously saw my grandfather—grinning from ear to ear—with his arms raised joyously towards the heavens, 20 or more feet behind me in the driveway.

I had done it. I had balanced on the bike without ever knowing how and without a word of explanation. There were no rules or  restrictions and no conscious learning … I had simply flown, on my own!

My precious grandfather many years after he taught me to ride a bike, but still with that twinkle in his eyes.

My precious grandfather many years after he taught me to ride a bike, but still with that twinkle in his eyes. And note the hand-rolled cigarette he’s holding.

It was quite possibly the beginning of my understanding that sometimes, just the desire to do something and the will to stick with it, are all we need to accomplish the impossible: like building a house from the ground up with almost no skills, or moving to unknown parts of the world with children and no support system, or reinventing oneself almost entirely in those golden years… .

My grandfather and I walked silently back to the house, me trickling blood down my arm and leg, and both of us smiling like victorious generals returning from war.

I sat on the side of the bathtub as my mother and grandmother cleaned me up.

Angry statements like, “That Joe is such a stubborn mule,” and, “Daddy is the most infuriating man I know,” were muttered by the women as they dramatically bandaged my scrapes and cuts. Oddly I don’t remember any pain or even discomfort. I do, however, remember Grandpa Joe sticking his head in the bathroom doorway and saying, “Crows need to fly, don’t they?” It was more of a statement than question. He looked at me with his eyes twinkling and I’m pretty sure it was not tobacco tucked beneath his lip that gave him his amused expression.

Flash Forward Many Years

It was a warm autumn day that a middle-aged woman sat down next to me on a park bench here in London. I was resting from my bicycling route, which I do several times a week.

My Beautiful Park

My Beautiful Park Where I Fly Several Times A Week.

“I want to learn to bicycle but my husband says I’m too old,” she said.

“Well you’re never too old,” I replied. “But I think everyone takes a spill of two when learning and those spills are more painful as we get older.”

“I watch you here in the park and you always have a smile. You look like you’re flying!” she said, “This makes me want to learn to fly, too.”

In that moment I remembered my Grandfather. In a childhood filled with duck and cover drills and religious rules and regulations, my grandfather gave me his love of tranquillity as well as the gift of not only his silent attention, but also the gift of flight.

My Blue Bike

To This Day My Blue Bike is One of My Most Prized Possessions.

With the cool breezes and sun in my face I have always been able to pedal myself above almost all earthly stresses and horrors; and I’ve known a few. Bicycling has always been so much more than transportation or relaxation; it’s been a magical key to my inner freedom; it’s my meditation.

I’ve come to think that heaven is a place in our minds and souls. But I’m sure of one thing: If there actually is such a place as heaven, in spite of his smoking and drinking and not giving one shit about what people thought of him, my Grandpa Joe—just a simple country boy—will be there with bells on, if for no other reason, than his love of tranquillity. Oh yeah … and that entire afternoon of his life that he spent silently teaching a little Crow to fly …

Land of the Free

Human beings are prone to rhetoric. We all are, no matter our culture, language, age, or sexual orientation (I just thought I’d throw that last one in there to make my blog hip and current)…

Rhetoric probably makes life feel easier. We can have a few things that we hammer into our psyches, simply by saying them repeatedly, and we don’t really need to think about them. They simply exist unquestionably; kind of like gravity.

One of my all-time favourite rhetorical clichés is, “We’re the best country in the world.” I love this one because virtually every country I’ve ever lived in, or spent appreciable time in, has a version of this one. They also have certain inner stories, based on vague cultural perceptions, which support their beliefs.


Americans think they live in the “Best country in the world” because they are powerful in terms of military. They also think they pretty much single-handedly won WWII and Europe is forever beholden to them. They believe that everyone in the world can’t wait to live in America because it’s … well as previously stated: It’s the best country in the world. Americans think the only reason they have enemies is because A. People are jealous of them or B. People are insane terrorists. Americans believe that all other countries either hold American democracy up as their ultimate goal, or they would do so, if their oppressive governments allowed them to. We cannot imagine that our own government possibly set any of these oppressive governments up in power … that would simply be unthinkable of any Christian nation. And first and foremost America believes it is a Christian nation. Land of the free … home of the brave …


The English believe they are the Best country in the world because they have, at various times, dominated some part of almost every continent. They have an ancient culture with a powerful history of assisting less developed nations in ways that will help them to be more English (although some would say: assist them in ways to serve England). And of course these nations should have eventually thank England for this assistance in becoming more English because … well, England is the Best country in the world. That nasty word Imperialism is so open to interpretation, isn’t it? The English also have high tea and fox hunts; wonderful words like cheerio (which has nothing to do with breakfast), bonnet and boot (both found on your car, not your body), and cute terms like balls-up and Bob’s your uncle. Google these terms for more information or just for entertainment. These amazing English people have also developed a way of living fairly long, healthy, and productive lives with almost no help from sunshine or vegetables.


The Scots believe that they are, by far, the Best country in the world because they fended off the Imperialist English army starting as far back as 596 AD in the Battle of Raith (fought near what is now Kirkcaldy) and successfully beat this superpower back until 1707. Not bad for a bunch of poorly armed, passionate warriors dressed in kilts. The Scots also have gorgeous accents, haggis and, as previously mentioned, men in kilts. I could go on and on about what makes Scotland the best country in the world but I’ll leave it at that; I will add, however, that, the kilts, alone, won my vote.


The Latvians believe that they are the Best country in the world because they have survived invasion after invasion but still speak in their mother tongue and miraculously, have kept their heritage— via ancient stories, fairy-tales, legends and songs—intact. Every year Latvians join together in a magnificent song festival and present their oral history to the world— with more than 10, 000 voices braided together—in song. In a country with a population of just over 2 million, this probably proves the Latvian love of country—and pride in history—more than anything else I can write.


Ah … And now to Estonia. Estonians actually don’t think they are the Best country in the world; they know they are. Estonians are free thinkers who don’t join groups of any kind. The Mormons as well as the Boy Scouts—and probably Tupperware— have all but given up on the Estonians. The story is, after early missionaries came and converted as many Estonians as they could, and then left, there were mass migrations to the rivers, where the converted Estonians unbaptized themselves. Estonians are courteous and polite (hence pretending to become Christians prior to returning to their pagan ways) and they are impeccably honest, with a work ethic to die for: Thank you, Estonia, for Skype, TransferWise and the Minox camera—although technically Walter Zapp, the inventor of the Minox spy camera, was born in Latvia, but who really cares, right? Then Walter went on and produced his invention in Germany. Big deal; hardly worth mentioning … Walter did, however, patent his subminiature camera in Estonia. So there you go. It’s yet another claim to fame for Estonia.

Here’s the oddest part of all of this, though: Each country thinks that behind closed doors, everyone else has only the highest regard for them and down deep inside everyone wants to be them.

My daughter Jessica dated a young Estonian man while we were living in Latvia. He came for a visit one weekend and met the family. After a lovely visit he shared this with Jessica as though it was hard for him to admit: “Estonians make fun of Latvians all the time; but I actually really like your stepfather.” To which Jessica laughed and casually replied, “Yeah Latvians make fun of Estonians, all the time, too.”

The young man looked at Jessie, in wide-eyed bewilderment and muttered, “Wow, really? Seriously?” He then sat silently dumbfounded for some time.

For several months after this event our family laughed when we discussed this naïve young man’s reaction to having his world-view shifted. He believed his We’re the best country in the world rhetoric so strongly that he couldn’t imagine anyone making fun of his peeps. He was equally sure that the superior Estonians were making fun of others because these non-Estonians actually were inferior. He was surprised to meet a highly educated, friendly, well travelled Latvian among the dim-witted, poorly groomed, unfriendly folks that he was certain inhabited the rest of the country.

It was with a smile and over many years that I came to understand: There is no Best country in the world. It simply doesn’t exist. It can’t objectively exist.

There are different countries and cultures with different histories— all of them rich, wonderful, sad and tragic. None of them deserve to be demeaned or the punch lines to anyone’s jokes. We all have our strong points and we all need to move forward together—especially now—with open hearts, into this new frontier …

When I arrived in Estonia in 1995, I was certain that I was going to love my adventures but that I would probably be called upon to give up some of my freedoms. I didn’t even know that I thought this until I was speaking to my late mother-in-law, Julie, who asked, “Why on earth would anyone want to leave the freest country in the world to move to a Soviet one?” And my liberal, broadminded, well-intentioned reply was, “It’s just the price one pays to travel and have new experiences.” (Insert shudder) It didn’t cross my mind to ask, “What exactly does freedom mean,” or, “What makes America the freest or best country in the world?” America simply was the freest and best country in the world. It was like gravity; it was beyond question.

After several months in Estonia I came to a shocking conclusion: Estonia was actually the freest country in the world. Hands down. Maybe it was even the best …

We were permitted to drink a beer on the streets or while sitting in the park, any time we wanted to do so. We could sunbathe without clothes—by the riverbank that ran through the middle of town, or sitting in our tall windows—shamelessly facing the sun, and the whole neighbourhood. No one batted an eye; no one even noticed. We could smoke cigarettes in restaurants and train stations. We had good national healthcare. Although we were in a university town, there were no curfews or bans on noise after certain hours. Fireworks were legal and—it turned out—smashing Champaign bottles all over the town on New Year’s Eve was perfectly acceptable.

Initially my new life—sans almost all restrictions, rules and regulations—was spectacular. I loved sipping a cold beer in the park on a warm afternoon. I enjoyed an occasional cigarette, when I wanted one, not when I was in a legal or designated area. I loved feeling the hot sun on my entire body, watching myself turn brown as a berry. Everywhere. This was living! This was freedom.

I was extremely uneasy, however, when I walked across the snow covered Town Square on New Years day, 1996, after having spent New Years Eve celebrating there with hundred’s of others, including more than a fair share of students from the university. The snow was splattered with blood in many places and more than one large spot was actually melted by what must have been a puddle of blood. What had seemed, the night before, like an organized smashing of bottles—which I’d assumed was some customary ritual managed and carefully carried out by some responsible folks (yeah, what was I thinking?)—had actually been a chaotic attempt, by a bunch of drunks, to make a lot of noise. And there had been injuries. Some serious injuries.

After careful thought and consideration I decided to avoid gatherings of students because … well … students were notoriously irresponsible.

I still, however, didn’t see this as a societal problem.

Then one beautiful autumn day, as I sat in the park reading a book, a man walked by me. He was drinking from a bottle—which was perfectly legal—and seemed to be weaving a bit. Suddenly he stopped directly next to me and vomited, splashing the park bench, my book, and me.

And that’s when I formulated the question: What exactly is freedom?

Is allowing everyone the right to drink in public places freedom, when some of us can’t relax in the park without fear of being vomited on? I was responsible. I never drank more than one beer and most definitely didn’t puke on people. But that was me; the man in the park lived by different beliefs and standards than I did. He needed restrictions and rules to keep him in line. I needed those rules to keep me safe from his bodily fluids.

Societies need rules, laws and regulations to guide—and protect the majority of us from—the lowest common denominator. That’s how societies have always worked.

When we say: We have the freest country in the world, that’s meaningless rhetoric. And it’s also literally impossible to do. We don’t want a completely free country: A society where anything goes; where people can vomit on you or smash bottles into your head … I’m pretty certain that this was actually never anyone’s goal.

Estonian laws began changing quickly. Within that year, all smoking was banned; even in the parks. Alcohol was not allowed in public places and various other laws restricted behaviour.

I think most of us were glad to watch the changes happen.

Rather than seeing new legislation and policies as restrictive and stealing our freedom, we saw Estonia as growing and expanding. The government was keeping us safe and allowing us to live in harmony. Although I don’t hold Estonia up as the Best country in the world—since no such country exists—they have my respect and admiration for a job very well done.

America is at a crossroads right now—as is the rest of the world—with some of our issues being exclusively ours, while others we share with our planet. We have some major questions to answer: How important is climate change, gun control, women’s rights to govern their own healthcare and bodies, a cohesive national healthcare system, equal pay for equal jobs, ending corporate control of our government and thereby us, ending racism and all discrimination? How do we see our future? Who are we as a nation?

Is being a Christian nation quite possibly just more of our meaningless rhetoric?

Sadly the most prominent Christian belief of many Americans isn’t “Do unto others.” Nor is it, “Helping the least of these, my brethren…” and most definitely it isn’t “Judge not lest ye be judged.” The predominate Christian belief of many seems to be this: The world is coming to an end. So arm up, batten down the hatches and let it all go to hell in a hand basket … oh yeah, and hope that you personally, cut the mustard and wake up on the right side of the pearly gates. Screw everyone who doesn’t buy your brand of religion because … hey … they’re all goners anyway and (and this one saddens me the most) to hell with this sinful planet—our beautiful home with all of its wonder, abundance, promise and bliss has been diminished to a waiting room for someplace that quite possibly exists only in ancient myths and the human mind … but, regardless, to hell with it all.

Question the rhetoric! We have time to turn this train around but not by following the old models. We must question everything and move forward in a new direction.

Let’s do it. Let’s move out of the box and make a pact to become the best plant in the galaxy! Let’s become the land of the responsible and the loving home to all life and humanity regardless of religion, colour or culture.

We can do it. In fact, it’s way more possible than becoming the freest country in the world… And look how long we’ve been trying to nail that one.

Signing off from my little corner of Planet Earth here in UK.

Return Of An Early Inhabitant of Jaunpils Castle (Circa 1301) Or Just A Glitch In The Matrix?

HPIM1644 2

In the autumn of 2004, more than just the leaves were changing in Latvia. We were in the midst of immense cultural, financial and political shifts: We had been members of the EU (European Union) for precisely one year; within which time, change had consumed every level of Latvian life. Politicians now had the EU overlooking their shenanigans and had become somewhat less overt with their corruption.  The economy was—by Eastern European standards—robust and showing remarkable improvements. After some bouncing around, we’d reduced inflation from 958.6% in 1992 to 2.5% by 2004. People were renovating old properties and tourists were flooding the capital city of Riga. Life was finally stable and, as an American, I felt hopeful.

There was, however, a shadow side to all of this good news: With the tremendous  social and economic changes came a collective identity crisis shared by many local people. My dictionary defines Identity Crisis: A period of uncertainty and confusion in which a person’s sense of identity becomes insecure, typically due to a change in their expected aims or role in society.

I leave it up to you to imagine what happens when an entire society experiences abrupt unexpected change in their aims and roles. When you compound this with the fact that what Latvian society had been and what it was transitioning into were almost diametrically opposed (regimented socialism/communism to a relatively freewheeling capitalism) … Let’s just say it was disorienting for many people.

The watchful, parental eye of the Soviet Union was in force for 50 years: People were told where they would work and live and had no worries about future security; all necessities were guaranteed. Music and art were defined and dictated by the state; even personal fashions, including the length of men’s hair, were mandated. The sudden collapse of such an austere political system left many people wondering what was normal within this brave new world into which they’d been launched. This lack of a clear identity created some rather inexplicable behavior—in the search for normal—that frequently offended my American sensibilities. More on that later …

2004 was also the year I bought my first digital camera. I was immediately in love with my new acquisition and we quickly became inseparable. The cost of film had been high in Europe, but the cost of developing pictures, particularly in Eastern Europe, had been extremely high and often had a 10-day to 2-week turnaround. Overnight I was able to take hundreds of pictures, download them onto my computer, delete them from the memory card, and start all over again. I was off and running with this new technology.

It was a warm, Saturday morning—with an azure sky as far as the eye could see, interrupted by only a handful of white fleecy clouds—that Egil and I headed to Jaunpils Parrish, about an hour south west of Riga, to visit the beautiful Jaunpils Castle. I knew nothing about this early 14th century castle, but Egil assured me that, although it had been rebuilt and restored many times over the past 7+ centuries, parts of it remained impressive examples of ancient architecture.

Factually, we were both longing to escape the noise and stress of the city, for the day—as much as we loved Riga—to commune with nature and hopefully experience a few Kodak Moments with my new digital companion.

We took our time driving to the castle—Enjoy The Journey as Much as The Destination is generally our motto—meandering through the bucolic Latvian countryside…

The journey was beautiful on that clear October day.

The journey was beautiful on that clear October day.

Consequently, we arrived at our destination in mid afternoon.

The castle gardens and grounds were spectacular. In every direction the scenes were surreal, in a Monet painting sort of way: soft, pastel gardens, grassy fields, meadows and ponds bathed in golden autumn sunlight… and all of this with a medieval castle as a backdrop.

A small pond, alive with wildlife, and illuminated by the soft golden sunlight of autumn ...

A small pond, alive with wildlife, and illuminated by the soft golden sunlight of autumn.

Jaunpils Castle in late afternoon sunlight.

Jaunpils Castle in afternoon sunlight, upon our arrival.

We wandered around silently for over an hour before realizing that we were ready for afternoon tea. As if on cue, a café appeared—stage right—just off the main cobblestoned square.

Just off of the cobblestone courtyard was the small cafe.

Just off of the cobblestone courtyard was the small cafe.

As we left the brightly sunlit courtyard and entered the softly candle lit café we found ourselves almost completely blind.

Standing in the arched doorway our eyes slowly adjusted and the lovely room came into focus: Three tables stood along a back wall—with the table to the far left being occupied; the two other tables awaited us. We moved towards the far right, leaving an empty table between us and the other patrons.

The candlelight danced magically around the room, bouncing off of the stone walls, leaving crevices and crannies hidden in deep shadows. I loved the absence of harsh electrical lighting as well as the lack of blaring techno music—which so many establishments in the former USSR seemed to consider an integral part of their ambience.

I was aware of a man, woman, and child sitting at the table on the far left wall and initially thought they were simply a family out enjoying the beautiful autumn day. Gradually, however, I became aware that the child—a boy of 9 or 10—was extremely agitated about something: Initially whispering—albeit very emphatically— that he wanted to go home. His whispering became louder until he was announcing to his father that, with or without him, he was leaving. The father was replying with soft, distracted responses like, “Oh lighten up, son. We are here to enjoy ourselves.” I wasn’t sure what “We” he was referring to because the boy was obviously not enjoying himself at all.

As my eyes further adjusted to the low light I could see a middle-aged man—let’s call him Clueless —groping a very young woman in a most inappropriate manner. I was thankful for the table that somewhat obscured our view, at least below the waist. The young woman—let’s call her Giggles—was laughing pretentiously, although not the least bit embarrassedly.

At one point Clueless put food in his teeth and then leaned in towards Giggles who obligingly nibbled it out of his grimacing mouth, while he fondled her. I was thankful I hadn’t ordered anything solid to eat, or I’d have possibly lost it.

I understood that without an internal appropriate behavior barometer these were difficult times, but this man had a child acting as his own built in barometer—and he was ignoring him! The scene was appalling on so many levels with the primary one being: The poor child, obviously saner than his hormonally imbalanced father, was feeling completely humiliated by the adults’ (chronologically speaking) behavior. And this fact haunts me to this day: How does a child have more inborn integrity than his parent?

[Okay, so this is a great example of the kind of behavior I was talking about Re. the collective identity crisis creating some really bizarre conduct. As an observer there was almost nothing one could do—in the absence of laws or even standards of acceptable behavior—but watch and cringe. Frequently it seemed like the person performing such acts had seen a movie and thought, “Oh! So that’s normal! Okay I’m good to go here …” and then went out and reenacted some ludicrous Hollywood performance on the street—or in a café, as it were.]

I cleared my throat loudly, several times—thinking perhaps Clueless and Giggles hadn’t realized they had company—in a tone that clearly stated that their fellow diners were not enjoying the show.

If anything our announced presence seemed to encourage the adults (I cringe at the use of this word) and further outrage the boy.

We’d ordered our tea upon entering the establishment—and not being the kind of people to waste money—we decided to drink and run, as the drama across the room unfolded.

“I’m going to turn my flash off and try to capture the beautiful candlelight in this room,” I announced, as I neared the end of my tea. Egil looked at me with his, “Um… Seriously? Alrighty, then…” facial conversation that ended with “I’d rather cut and run immediately, but … yeah okay, just be quick…”  (unlike me, Egil frequently speaks without words.) I can’t imagine what it would take for me to pass up a potentially nice picture; but Clueless and Giggles were not it.

With all patrons seated and the only waiter present hanging out in the backroom (good call in my opinion), I held my camera tightly in both hands; elbows propped firmly on the table, to avoid any movement and began clicking away. The room was absolutely still as I took several pictures, trying with each shot to hold my breath and steady my hands.

In our haste to miss the final act at the table across the room—and reconnect with nature and silence—we quickly left the café after I felt I’d taken an adequate number of pictures. We did not preview any of them.

Giggles and Clueless had so disrupted our peace that we called it a day almost immediately and returned home.

That night, I downloaded the pictures I’d taken throughout the day onto my computer. Initially, when I looked at the pictures I’d taken in the café, I failed to see the ghostly figure that appeared in one of the pictures. What I saw instead were a group of blurry pictures, one of which included a distorted image where light had refracted in some weird way … Then as I looked closer and my eyes focused, I gasped, as a human image materialized in front of my eyes. To me this looked like a woman—perhaps a servant, but not one living entirely in the material plane.

This is one of the several pictures I snapped, in quick succession. You can see the empty room, as we saw it.

This is one of the several pictures I snapped, in quick succession. You can see the empty room, as we saw it.

This photo was taken in the same "empty" room. This image (that looks female to me) is looking directly towards the table of unfolding drama.

This photo was taken in the same “empty” room. This image (that looks female to me) is looking directly towards the table of unfolding drama.

I came to learn that the Ghost of Jaunpils Castle is a well-accepted personality among the employees. When I sent my picture to the management, the response was simple: “Thank you for these photos. They are some of the best photos where [we can easily see] our ghost. This is our Good Ghost, who always takes care of Jaunpils Castle.”  There were no attempts to deny or explain what appeared in my picture; no apologies or excuses seemed necessary. This was a Good Ghost who assisted in taking care of the castle. The end.

This might be a good time to say that I don’t know what I believe ghosts are. A part of me thinks that if time isn’t linear—as some scientists and minds more brilliant than mine, hypothesize—then perhaps all souls are living simultaneously, separated by a thin veil, that is occasionally breached; when this happens perhaps we can see (or photograph) people living in other eras. My mind cannot entirely wrap around that concept but I can feel it. Sort of. The other possibility is that the energetic bodies, of those who have lived before, but not yet moved on, hang out and work with energies in our current time. On occasion, perhaps when they become excited or disturbed, we can see or photograph them. Or perhaps these are angels, or fairies…  Honestly, I have no idea; in fact, I don’t even have a favorite theory.

I just have feelings about these things.

Prior to receiving the email—informing me that I had photographed the Good Ghost—I’d felt in my bones, that the appearance of this ghostly image was somehow related to the drama and emotional state of the child. The image seemed soothing; she was also looking or moving towards the table where the drama was unfolding.

Was she the Good Ghost who considers it her responsibility to take care of the castle? Had she come to lend support and comfort to the young boy at this time of intense anger and humiliation? Or perhaps she materialized (almost entirely) in an attempt to knock Clueless and Giggles into next week: This being my favorite theory although it’s probably projection.

Once again: I have no idea.

For anyone wanting to know more about me (the author) and my journey, here’s a short video:


Disappearing Object Phenomenon: Valid Paranormal Occurrence or An Excuse For Boomers’ Failing Memories?

In the early 1980’s I took a Ghost Tour of Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, conducted by Shirley Ann Dougherty. In researching for this blog post, I learned that this particular tour was one of the first of such tours, in America. I further learned that Shirley made quite a name for herself within the ghost hunting community. I can personally say: She was certainly a character!

[I want to say a bit about my impressions of Shirley before I continue: Shirley Dougherty seemed to me to be a woman of integrity who did what she did because she was an entertainer but more importantly, because she believed in what she was doing. Shirley was careful to tell our group what she felt was legitimate and what she felt could possibly have been a figment of someone’s active imagination. With that said, however, some of her stories were told to her by people who had actually witnessed events but most were passed down by word of mouth. How distorted these stories had become (or not), by the time they reached Shirley’s ears, is impossible to tell and even she acknowledged this. Another factor that must be considered is this: When something out of the ordinary occurs, it takes the human mind several seconds—sometimes even days—to wrap around what its own eyes have actually seen. During that time, the mind can inadvertently bend the facts as well as forget details. It’s the nature of the mind. What I believe is that Shirley took the stories that she was given and accepted them as truth and presented them as such. I do not believe that she lied or even exaggerate intentionally, regardless of the theatrical nature of her presentation.]

We arrived for the evening ghost tour, from our home in Loudoun County, Virginia, about 45 minutes away, ready to be entertained; we were not disappointed.

Shirley—dressed in mid 19th century clothing and carrying a gas lantern—met a small group of us at Lori’s Cafe on Potomac St. just as dusk was creeping up the quaint streets and alleyways of Harpers Ferry. I was in my early 30’s and saw her as a jolly old woman. She was in her early to mid 50’s; nearly a decade younger than I am today. Time is a funny factor of life.

Shirley regaled us with stories of unexplainable sights, sounds and events—said to have happened in Harpers Ferry—as we followed her through the streets, up hills and then back down, leading us ultimately into the darkness of night. Surprisingly most of her stories were quite well documented—in a paranormal experience kind of way—in that most were experienced by more than one person and in some cases were even caught on film—or not caught on film as it were—as in the following account: Reports of an actor—apparently dressed for a reenactment of the civil war era and appearing to resemble John Brownhave made their way to the park management over the years. These reports generally reflect appreciation for the authenticity and quiet manner (no one has ever heard him speak) of the gentleman; never as complaints. Numerous park employees have even seen the costumed gentleman in question, who shows up every so often and then disappears as suddenly as he appears. Several tourists—after returning home and developing their film discover that the “actor dressed up as John Brown” who had kindly agreed to be in their photo-shoot was completely missing from their film. Confused by this strange event, people have sent these bizarre photos to The US State Department and National Park Service, over the years; some demanding to know how this trick was accomplished. The State Department, along with The Parks Service, are at a complete loss of any explanation concerning the pictures since no actor has ever been hired by them nor any trick knowingly played.

But the following story, told on that warm summer night in the early 1980’s, which I later realized was my introduction to Disappearing Object Phenomenon, or DOP, baffled me at the time and continues to do so. Shirley associated DOP’s with ghosts that night because … well… it was a ghost tour. But I’m not sure they are related at all.

This following story, which Shirley received from carpenters who had been present at the occurrence, is an excellent example of a DOP, in that it was witnessed by several ordinary people—none of them expecting a paranormal experience—who just happened to be in the right place at the right time or the wrong place … depending on how you view it.

I’ve googled this story in the hope of relating it verbatim but cannot find it anywhere, so I will tell you how I remember it; admittedly I do not recall every detail.

  Story Number One

My Introduction To DOP’s 

Considered an important historical town, Harpers Ferry, is forever experiencing renovations and reconstruction. One such project was (I believe) a pub and hotel built pre-civil war that had not been renovated for a very long time. I apologize here for not having all of my dates and facts precise—pertaining to this particular project—but they are not really essential to the story.  The renovation project was fraught with problems and the foreman was struggling to meet his deadlines. The problems all stemmed from a singular root: Tools were mysteriously going missing on a regular basis.

[When we heard the beginning of this story, my husband and I chuckled. We’d been involved in building and we both knew how tools went missing even when we were the only ones on site.]

The loss of tools continued in spite of the men’s increased vigilance, which included wearing tool belts, constantly. This loss of tools impaired the men’s ability to stay on schedule because frequently the job came to a screeching halt as they searched for a tool that then ended with someone leaving the jobsite to replace the missing tool. In time they began suspecting one another of theft, which led to accusations and bickering, dragging morale into the gutter. The situation went from bad to worse.

Near the end of the renovation a windowsill needed to be removed. I can’t recall precisely why that was, but it was probably related to the installation of a new window. Because maintaining the authenticity of the old building was a high priority, the foreman needed to remove the windowsill with as little damage as possible, so it could be reinstalled at the end. The problem was, the sill had been painted so many times that it seemed impossible to find the best place to begin prying it up in such a way that would cause the least damage to the sill and wall. During this process of attempting to find the best place to begin the process of removal, several men inspected the old windowsill and wall and reported that it appeared to have been untouched for possibly up to a century.

After great deliberation and head scratching they began prying the old wood up and quickly realized, to their surprise, that beneath the windowsill was a hidden chamber. This was amazing enough but the next discovery nearly brought the men to their knees: inside of the chamber, all lined up neatly, were their missing tools—hammers, chisels, screw drivers … carefully organized in this chamber that appeared to have been sealed up for many decades if not a century or more.

Shirley ended her story with a question like: “So were the spirits playing games with the workmen? Did they object to having their space inundated with noise while being torn apart?” We all laughed and clapped in amusement.

The End

That was another lifetime for me. In that life I was married to a hot-blooded Italian-American man—an engineer by day and musician by night. My time was spent birthing, breast-feeding and raising a brood of four children in rural Virginia—baking bread, signing local petitions and writing children’s books. My life was good but often more fluid than I liked. Primarily because Fluid amounted to chaotic, at that time in my life, and that didn’t always suit me …

Anyone who has raised or lived within a large family knows that disappearing objects are part of life—combs, hairbrushes, pens, and car keys… Quite honestly, it’s more phenomenal when nothing goes missing for any extended period of time. If we experienced any DOP’s during those wonderful years where life was dominated by rambunctious children, misbehaving pets and various other forms of pandemonium, there would be no way of knowing. So while this story perplexed me, I pretty much chalked it off to … well, I’m not sure exactly. But I decided that there could have been a few flaws in the men’s observations that could have changed this story dramatically.

Flash forward 20 years: I am now in my next life. I was widowed many years ago and am now living with a chill, levelheaded Baltic man called Egil—a graphic designer, a traveler, and a committed long-distance bicycler. We live a quiet life with my two youngest daughters, Jessica and Erin—who are now both in their teens—in the capital city of Riga, Latvia, in Northeastern Europe. I spend my time doing photography, bicycling, home-schooling my daughters, and writing a book of the adult variety. Life is good but still fluid. I’ve come to realize that I thrive on change and create lives that feed me—lives that constantly swirl, morph and change. I’ve also learned, however, that fluid doesn’t necessarily equate to chaos and I now create less drama in my life. I accept the waves of change; I even enjoy them for the most part.

Story Number Two


In 2002, Egil and I have some vacation time coming up and decide to take a road-trip. We do this frequently since our home in Riga is central to a variety of wonderful places. A few hours of driving and a ferry crossing can have us in Stockholm, Sweden, Rostock, Germany or Helsinki, Finland in less than a day. Warsaw, Poland is a mere 8-½ hour drive away… Oh yeah, a sweet little B&B—with kiełbasa and sauerkraut for supper!

Several days prior to our planned mini holiday, we begin packing and preparing for our journey. Oddly, our atlas of Europe is missing when we go to the bookshelf where it always resides. When asked if they’ve seen it, both girls, ages 14 and 18, reply with answers like, “Yeah, like you guys’ atlas is my all-time favorite reading material. Duh, no I haven’t seen it.”

Here is the atlas. Obviously this large, brightly colored book was easy to see.

Here is the atlas. Obviously this large, brightly colored book was easy to see.

We search our entire flat, then the car and finally the garage—but no atlas. We’ve had this particular book for several years and it contains notes about our travels: cool places to see and stay, fuel consumption during various trips; it’s our personal journal, detailing chunks of our life together. So it’s a personal loss, as well as an expensive purchase, that’s also frequently difficult to find. By that evening, however, after thoroughly searching our home, car and garage with no sign of our precious atlas, we resign ourselves to buying a new one and hope that one of the bookstores in Riga will carry it.

The following morning, I wake before Egil and look down over the railing in our bedroom loft at our living room. Sitting front and center on the coffee table—with absolutely nothing else on the table (that might have obscured it)—is the atlas. I can’t believe my eyes. I run down the stairs to confirm that I’m not seeing things. It is indeed the atlas in question. I yell back up to Egil to get out of bed and look down at me. He looks over the railing and his expression turns slightly confused; then calmly he says, “Great! Where did you find it?”

Looking down at the coffee table from our loft, the coffee table is in clear sight.

Looking down at the coffee table from our loft I almost fell over the railing when seeing the atlas.

“I’ve not touched it,” I reply. “It was precisely where you see it when I woke up a few minutes ago.”

Egil doesn’t do well with the unexplainable. In fact he needs to find an explanation for everything. After several seconds he yawns and says, “One of the girls must have lent it out and didn’t want to admit it and they got it back during the night and…”

I cut him off, “That’s insane,” I say, “but we’ll ask them, even though you know that didn’t happen.”

I almost hate shooting down his absurd solution because I despise seeing his dazed and confused look. It’s heartbreaking since Egil is a Mr. Everything’s-under-control-at-all-times, kind of guy. He thrives on methodical scientific reasoning; all things rational; a place for everything and everything in its place. He wilts in the absence of logical explanations.

“Perhaps someone broke into our flat and left this here as a token of their esteem for us?” I offer, my tongue firmly planted in my cheek. And for a split second I honestly think he’s going to choose that explanation over the obvious one—which is: There is no logical explanation.

At this point, I was certain that something very strange and unexplainable had just happened. But what it was, I had no clue. So I was quite willing to file this experience away in a WTF? file and move forward in life.

I didn’t share this story with too many people because I fully realized how insane it sounded. I did, however, recall the Harpers Ferry story and felt there was a common thread.

The End

It would be seven years later that Egil would finally say, “Okay, this has absolutely no logical explanation.” We’ll get there in a minute …

In April of 2009, the crumbling Latvian economy, appeared to be gasping its final breaths. Neither Egil nor I had received a full paycheck for months and the promise of a lump sum to be paid as soon as things turn around was sounding less promising with every passing payday.

We formulated a plan that we called Plan A: We would head west. Egil took a week off work (which was essentially a volunteer job at this point) and flew to London with the extremely naïve expectation of finding a position. After several days of doors slamming in his face, he turned tail and ran up to Scotland to continue his search. Since we had limited funds, I sat at my desk in Riga, Latvia, Skyping advertising agencies in Glasgow, Edinburgh and everywhere in between, attempting to set up appointments for Egil to interview, thus saving him the high cost of using his mobile phone in Scotland. After several days of this routine, and no job in sight, he returned to Riga.

Exhausted and discouraged upon his arrival home, we had dinner and went to bed, leaving the unpacking, organizing and discussions of a plan B, for the following morning.

I want to acknowledge, right here, that this was a very stressful time for us and I’m certain that a cynic would argue that our absent-mindedness and preoccupation with our dilemma was behind our perception of what happened next.

I can tell you: They were not!

Here is where the story about Egil becoming a believer in DOP, and my discovery that we were not alone in experiencing this phenomenon truly begins.

Story Number Three:

Becoming a Believer And Learning The Name 

The morning following Egil’s return from UK, he gets up and goes off to work and I begin unpacking his suitcase, throwing laundry in the washer and generally organizing. When we travel, Egil—possibly one of the most pedantically organized people I know—wraps up our many chargers and their cables, tapes them, and packs them in a burlap bag with long handles that he slings over his shoulder. He also counts them to be certain that he’s not left one plugged in somewhere in a hotel or hostel. He has phone, camera, computer and various other cables and chargers so the bag is quite packed.

Around noon, I decide to use the laptop and seeing that it’s low on charge, I suddenly realize that I’ve not seen the charger bag in my organizing. I call Egil; he says he knows it’s there and he’ll find it when he comes home. I go to my desk and use the desktop computer, instead.

Later that evening, Egil and I search together for the missing charger and cable bag, well into the night. Nada. The following day I search again but to now avail. It seems to have disappeared. I call, on Skype, the hostel where Egil stayed in Scotland since he knows that he had it in Scotland… I begin doubting that he actually brought it home, in spite of his insistence that he recalls carrying it up the stairs to our flat.

After calling the hostel and getting the response that I dreaded—“No we’ve not seen anything like that here”—I go back to work, once again using the desktop computer. Later that evening, Egil needs to finish a side job so I relinquish the desktop computer to him.

Our bedroom is a loft area that also houses our office area. On the third morning, I awaken and, still in bed, look towards our desk. I see something draped over the computer chair as it sits in front of the desk and computer. I decide that wishful thinking has gotten the better of me. I get out of bed and gasp loud enough to awaken Egil. There, dangling off of the chair that we’ve both been sitting in and working from for many hours over the past two days is the missing charger and cable bag. The truth is no one could have sat in that chair without feeling the coarse burlap handles of that bag in their back, even if we were both somehow blinded to the sight of it.

And that was the morning that Egil said, “This is completely impossible and defies any logical explanation.”

I was shocked when I googled Things disappearing and reappearing and found a name for what we’d experienced, at least twice that I could swear to. And we were not—by a long shot—the only people to have had this experience.

The End (Sort Of)

What I’m telling you is exactly the way this happened. I smile when people say “How can anyone believe in the paranormal when there is absolutely no evidence?”

My dictionary defines evidence as: A. an outward sign: indication B: something that furnishes proof.

I saw and experienced this phenomenon with my eyes and mind on two separate occasions that I feel truly qualify as examples of DOP. Many other people have had this experience, as well. I consider this evidence. It may not, as of yet, be something that can be replicated in a lab, but if we as humans had stopped searching for answers to that which presented itself to us, but we didn’t understand—500, 100, 50 or even 5 years ago—science would have stopped progressing in its tracks. I believe, to question that which we do not understand and is not yet scientifically provable, is far more indicative of a curious mind, then it is to blindly deny the existence of that which many experience and document but have yet to prove.

I am writing these 4 blogs, knowing full well that I will be criticized and judged by some people. But I think it’s time to come out of the closet with our experiences and declare that we are investigators; we are open to experiencing life to its fullest!

Please feel free to share your stories!

My Quest To Find The Magical, Mystical And Truly Unexplainable

I had a column in City Paper EE, an English language magazine in the Baltic region of Northeastern Europe, a few years back. This particular gig was quite literally my dream job. My editor was a young Australian woman who asked little from me other than once a month handing her a 2,500-word article with pictures. The content requirements were loosely defined: Make it fun, fascinating, and (preferably) grammatically correct, about The Unseen (that’s a link to one of my articles) that lives within the Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Any and everything that existed beyond the sense of sight was up for grabs: Ancient as well as urban myths, mystical forests, haunted homes and castles, UFO’s, orbs … This was a job tailor made for me, by the editor, because she’d learned that I was working on a book with the working title The Unseen.

I had several experiences, during the writing of my column, that I never wrote about, but have now decided to share with you: those of you who follow, or just popped into, my blog. There will be four posts of this sort in my blog unless you, the readers, want more; in which case I am thinking about pursuing my interest in these topics, here in UK, and continuing to blog along these lines on occasion.

But for now I am planning my next four blog entries with the following titles—more or less. #1. A Journey Into The Unseen (the one you’re currently reading). #2. DOP Disappearing Object Phenomenon: Valid Or An Excuse For Failing Memories? #3. An Unexpected Image in a Photograph in Jaunpils Castle Built Circa 1301 (obviously that title needs some streamlining, but you get the idea). #4. Be Careful What You Ask For (or an alternate title) An Enchanted Church In The Forest.

Those who know me, know that I am fascinated with The Unseen, perhaps because I love playing detective and the vast majority of paranormal experiences, mysterious photographs and unidentifiable sounds as well as objects are—if you delve deeply enough and keep an open mind—quite explainable within the physical plane. I’m not speaking of intentionally constructed hoaxes; I’m referring to cases where people witnessing these events are baffled and often frightened.

When working on my column I was contacted by my Latvian friend, Dace, who told me of a Russian man—we shall call Igor—living in the countryside, who believed he’d found The Holy Grail hidden deep in a cave in Latvia. Igor was in hiding—communicating only via prepaid mobile phone cards—because he had apparently received some (extremely unwanted) publicity in several Russian yellow newspapers and now, he claimed, Big Money Men, who wanted to know what he knew, were hunting him. At first I was amused that anyone actually believed The Holy Grail was more than part of King Arthur’s myth, that it was an actual object, and that it was still floating around somewhere, waiting to be discovered. After some research, however, I learned this belief was not exclusively Igor’s; in fact many people believe that The Holy Grail is the Arc of The Covenant, or the chalice from which Jesus drank at the Last Supper, and that it does indeed still exist; even more surprisingly, some believe it is hidden in Latvia.

Igor was moving to a new location every few days in an attempt to hide from his would-be captors and swapping out his phone card even more frequently. To me creating such a challenging lifestyle around his own personal Quest for The Holy Grail was reason enough to meet with him and hear his story. I began laying the groundwork, for an upcoming interview with Igor, in my next article for City Paper, by presenting a loosely woven theory: Perhaps the handful of Knights Templar who were known to have escaped France, slipped into Latvia between 1307-1314 while King Phillip The Fair—a nickname, most certainly referring to his hair and complexion; not his character—systematically annihilated the rest of the knights. The most widely accepted belief is that these few Templar escapees were in possession of the vast Templar treasures, one of which may have been The Holy Grail … and since these treasures have yet to be recoveredIf one were to accept the possibility that, rather than UK or western Europe, the Knights Templar, slipped instead into a backwater territory of northeastern Europe, now known as the Baltic region, and that The Holy Grail was among their treasures, it would not be unreasonable to launch on a quest similar to Igor’s. Not completely unreasonable, I mean …

The same possibilities that sent Igor on his search could also serve as a launching pad for my investigation, or at the very least for an extremely entertaining, semi well documented, article.

Igor changed our meeting place twice on the afternoon prior to the evening we were to meet, demanding each time that I not share the location with anyone other than my interpreter, Dace, who was also taking his calls and whom he’d already met and trusted.  We had no phone number on which to reach him, since he replaced his phone cards several times a day, so we waited patiently by our phones prior to our meeting at a secret location in Riga—which he changed for a third time at the last minute. Just for good measure.

Arriving an hour late, at the designated place, Igor cautiously scans the room before entering. I wonder what he considers suspicious since the most dubious looking person in the place, by a long shot, is him: half-hiding behind a partition, his eyes dart from table to table beneath a furrowed brow; he has a large bundle of papers tucked securely beneath his arm. His appearance makes me sit up and feel something … Fear? Compassion? A good story?

Dace nods, tilting her head towards the door, and then between clenched teeth, with a slight smile—ventriloquist style—she whispers, “That’s him… and he is totally freaking out!” To which I reply, “No shit, he’s freaking out! But do you think he has a legitimate story?” and then on closer inspection I add,  “Or did he—did he derail a few stops back?”

Dace grins impishly and then says something that will become my touchstone during the remainder of my paranormal investigations: “Who knows? Maybe both: he’s derailed and holds an interesting story…. Which means we’ll have to follow him down the rabbit hole and try not to get derailed ourselves.”

In order to investigate and verify, or dismantle, claims that exist concerning The Unseen, the investigator—that would be me as well as you the reader—must be willing to move into unorthodox places, if only in our minds. We must entertain thoughts that frequently defy conventional wisdom; but we must also stay grounded and as objective as possible. Woo-woo lies just inside the rabbit hole and once you enter—which you must—you can quickly become disoriented, leaving you vulnerable to all sorts of craziness—which is fine if all you want is an entertaining story and you can find you’re way back to reality after you’ve gotten it. If, however, one wants to honestly determine whether or not something is unexplainable within current understandings of how the world works, one must remain grounded and objective but with an open mind. It hurts our credibility as an investigator if we detach from reality because A.) It impairs our ability to investigate. And B.) We are not sane according to standards set by the rest of the world and they happen to be our audience; so better not to alienate them.

Whether we have the ability to rejoin reality (as we know it) when we’ve completed the project, is yet another story …

Dace gave Igor a warm smile of acknowledgment and motioned for him to join us at our table when it appeared he had finished his room assessment.

Many beers and several hours later, I was feeling more awkward and with more unanswered questions than when I’d been sober and less informed.

Igor could not tell me what The Holy Grail looked like, because he had not yet retrieved it from its hiding place since, touching it, unless you were completely pure of heart, would mean certain and instant death. He would not tell me where it was, for my own protection. Apparently my purity of heart was not even worth discussing. He told me that several people who had been working with him to find this treasure had now been murdered, although their deaths were made to appear as though they came about from natural causes. I can’t recall the exact scenarios in which the two gentlemen had died but one was made to look like heart disease or something and the other guy was 98 years old. Okay I am improvising here but, after hearing how they died, had I been the coroner I would have called both deaths in question naturally caused.

Igor had years of documentation within his folders and files of papers. He showed me copies he had made from ancient writings, that gave clues to what the Holy Grail was and where it was hidden. He showed me page after page of documentation and data—some of which I understood and some of which was so far over my head that I asked for copies to study. Igor respectfully declined giving me copies of even a shred of his documentation—which, in all fairness was understandable—but not having any access whatsoever to Igor’s documentation brought my ability to investigate to a grinding halt.

Igor’s belief in his documentation was as unfaltering as was his belief that his protégés had been murdered. Challenges to his beliefs fell on deaf ears. He had been working too diligently and way to many years on his research to allow any cynical American journalist to rain on his parade.

And herein lies the trap. If we go into an investigation with a preconceived idea of what we will find, we probably will find exactly what we believe we’ll find—or believe that we have.

The more focused we are, the more the evidence—whether it actually does or not—appears to support our beliefs. If we are also closed to any opinions or even questions of others, our beliefs become more concrete and our findings less scientific and more anecdotal because we know we are right.

This is why double blind scientific studies—whenever possible—are so important. Generally when investigating a paranormal or mystical experience—or in this case finding a hidden treasure—a double blind approach isn’t possible, however.

Initially Igor had my attention with objectively collected and well-researched documentation; it was compelling and believable. But as he moved forward through his years of research, his evidence began relying more and more on dowsing, premonitions, mediums AKA channels  and synchronicities. While I don’t completely discredit any of these things, I also don’t use practices or techniques that live inside the rabbit hole, when attempting to substantiate, mystical, magical or paranormal events, to those believing exclusively in the physical world.

In the end Dace and I agreed that Igor might very well have discovered something of value—both ancient and mystical. But his unorthodox modes of research and inability to share any pertinent data as well as his failure to even see, let alone extricate, this treasure from its hiding place, led us to abandon any further investigation.

To this day, I wonder how Igor is faring. Has he followed in the path of his peers who are now living in the spirit world? Is he still hoping to become “pure of heart” to the extent he needs to be in order to retrieve his treasure? Is he in a padded cell somewhere?

I’m not making light or demeaning Igor or his quest. Not at all. I believe that, at some point, he was probably on his way to discovering something extraordinary. Perhaps he even found it. But I also believe that he didn’t stay grounded enough to bring his treasure back to the real world—perhaps he was even unable to return to reality himself. In the end Igor was a frightened man, unable to explain or share enough of his quest or his findings to give him any credibility. And he was living alone, moving from place to place, discarding telephone cards and leaving people with a lot of questions.

Which brings me to my reason for this first entry into The Unseen: I tried (and continue trying) when researching and sharing my findings with others, to rely on physical evidence when drawing my conclusions and whenever possible I have objective witnesses.

If you are interested in my paranormal experiences I’d love to get a comment below. I’d also like to hear any thoughts you may have concerning Igor. If you think I should have pursued him and his story more aggressively bear these facts in mind: If Igor was correct about the murders, I would be next in line. If Igor was wrong about the murders, he had become paranoid and possibly derailed. Either way, I would have been in for a strange and challenging ride. But I do sometimes wish I’d gone further with him … What are your thoughts?

That’s Me Signing Off~


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…And Then I Found My Dance

I stood in my open doorway last night, face immersed in the cool, damp, autumn air, smiling for no real reason, waiting for Egils’ bike light to pierce through the darkness. Our residential street has sparse lighting, so the intense halogen light on the front of his bike announces his arrival several seconds prior to his tired body—clothed in a bright reflective yellow jacket—breaks through the night. Egils bicycles eleven miles to his office and eleven miles home… Twenty-two miles a day, one hundred and ten miles a week… By Friday, he is bone tired and ready for a hot meal, glass of wine and a weekend. Luckily for him it was all standing right behind me in the open doorway; well, the weekend would unfold, but the rest was imminent.

I never stand in the door and wait for anyone; I have no idea why I did last night. Maybe it was the cool night air which, defying the laws of physics, carried the aroma of my smoked haddock chowder, simmering on the stove—along with the comforting smells of old wood and wax that live in our house—down the hallway and out the front door at nose-level; or perhaps it was the sliver of a moon beckoning to my romantic side… then again maybe it just seemed like the perfect way to end a really good day.

As I stood in the doorway I surprised myself by suddenly whispering—like a prayer in church—I live in London! And then, as though saying this once, wasn’t weird enough, I repeated it, louder and slower: This time with a silent wow underscoring it: I… live… in… London…!

And then…

Well, here it gets even more odd, so I’m going to go sideways before I go forward…

The block where we live.

The block where we live. “Our House is a Very, Very, Very Fine House…”

Our Front Door.

Our Front Door With Black and Whilte Tiled Walkway.

Going Sideways

 Our house is a two-story turn-of-the-century English row house in which 7 people reside: On the top floor there’s me, an American, WAS (minus the P which I deleted years ago). I’m the oldest in the house, the only person who currently works from home, the one who continuously turns the thermostat back, grieves for the mice in the wall who are about to be exterminated (they’re just trying to lead a normal life!) and uses more words than necessary to say what needs to be said—at least according to one editor and my Baltic man. Which brings me to Egils, my silent, serious, Latvian man, who speaks 5 to 10 languages (the irony of a silent person speaking multiple languages is not lost on me) and who is probably the most pragmatic of our lot. Egils spends very little time and very few words in jest. He is a master of solutions; generally finding them split seconds after recognizing a problem and then, without invitation or complaint, fixes the problem. Upon moving into this house Egils began tightening loose screws on pots, pans, and hinges, balancing wobbly legs on every piece of furniture and appliance in the house, and oiling anything that squeaked or threatened to do so. In other words: When I hug my man and say “Wow, Babe, are you happy to see me?” and he says, “No that’s a screwdriver in my pocket,” he’s serious.

Egils Coming Down The Stairs After Fixing God-Knows-What…

Egils Coming Down The Stairs After Fixing God-Knows-What…

Shiva—a tall, young immigrant from India who appears completely contented with every aspect of his life, says he will one day return to his homeland and marry (not necessarily in that order)—also lives on our top floor. Although Shiva claims to be a less than excellent cook, the aromas that come from his meals create a Pavlovian response in me, when he even approaches the kitchen.

Also sharing our floor is Chanel: A beautiful, young, dark-skinned English woman whose ancestors came here from The Commonwealth of Dominica, and who reminds me so much of my middle daughter, that I have inadvertently referred to her as Jessie, more than once. Chanel possibly rivals me in wordiness, but unlike me, she mostly uses her mobile phone to do so. Yep, that’s my Jessie… Erm…  (that’s British for “Um”) I mean, Chanel…

Downstairs, Hungarian Anita lives with her Bangladeshi partner Quamrul. Anita has a degree in teaching but works the night shift at MacDonald’s—a typical immigrant’s tale. Quamrul is an entrepreneur who works incredibly long hours but perpetually smiles—even when he looks completely exhausted, which is most of the time. Quamrul is also a fabulous cook but unfortunately I seldom smell his cooking because he and Anita eat close to midnight due to her schedule.

The final downstairs inhabitant is Tommy from Glasgow…  Amazingly, with all of the English as a second language flying around our house, Tommy is the person I find the most difficult to understand. With his first language being Glaswegian (and despite this being closely related to English) I understand roughly 60 percent of what Tommy says. When I asked him, recently, if he had as much trouble understanding me, he looked puzzled, cocked his head dramatically and said, “Huh? What?” Then straightened his head and said, seriously, “Holly, you ken better than ta set yerself up like that, wi’ me, aye?”

I love Tommy’s humor—made even better when delivered in his accent—especially when I understand him.

Our space is a mishmash of cultures, languages and belief systems but we share certain essential qualities: We are all quiet, clean and respectful and these traits have created a safe, comfortable home. I’ve already blogged about home and how I’ve come to define it. And yes, I am now at home here in this late 19th century house in the area called Seven Kings in London.

Our house is quaint with a huge back garden (a yard in USA is called a garden here in UK; I try to do as the Romans do when in Rome) and small front garden with a black and white tiled walkway—that appears to have been born at the same time as the old brick house—leading from the public walkway to our beautifully ornate front door and all of this is located only one (extremely-long) city block from The High Street.

[Informational: In UK, The High Streets are generally happening places, allegedly the site of everything from cool upscale shops to great bargain basements. It was clear to me at first glance, however, that The High Street here in Seven Kings, was going to be a cornucopia of disappointments for me.]

On Friday morning—after spending the last three weeks mastering every appliance and device in our new house, when not organizing the stacks of brown boxes and plastic bags full of stuff that had to be unpacked and then repacked into pretty fabric boxes, burlap bags and newly assembled Ikea flat-pack shelves—I spent over an hour wrestling with writer’s block extraordinaire, before deciding to investigate The High Street, however disappointing it promised to be.

The first block of The High Street, after turning right from my street, consists of several used car lots.

To me, used car lots house collections of abandoned dreams, broken promises, and financial devastation, from which disreputable souls are now attempting to make a profit. There was a time when I could counterbalance those miserable images with passionate backseat encounters and drive-in-movies (AKA the excuse given to parents when the actual goal was passionate backseat encounters). But the Drive-in’s have mostly been bulldozed over and it’s been many years since kids tolerated such inconveniences as climbing over a stick shift or worrying about cops with nightsticks investigating steamy windows… Today young people have sexting, cyber-sex, and their own bedrooms, since most parents are far too busy with Facebook, Twitter and their finances, to actually supervise them …  Anyway, due to changing times and cultures, used cars have lost their charm, in my book, which leaves used car lots looking like cemeteries without enchanting old stones, interesting epitaphs, or trees.

Our Ugly High Street

By No Stretch of Even My Imagination is This a Cool Street, Right?

So browsing the rows of used cars was hardly an uplifting way to begin my High Street investigation … no great surprises there.

I was, however, slightly surprised by one aspect of the used car lots: There were no obvious salespeople poised to ambush anyone pausing long enough to scratch his nose. In fact, between three huge car lots I saw only one woman who appeared to be affiliated with the businesses. She had on a shorter than recommended red dress (given her years and girth) and looked like she was smiling in spite of wet burps. Even if I’d needed a used car I’d have avoided her on principle.

In the absence of aggressive salespeople, however, each lot had a website displayed overhead; implying to me that either customers actually come to them (oh yeah, as if) or they were simply attempting to give the appearance of a marketing infrastructure while actually being money Laundromats. I imagined dodgy web addresses—since they apparently had replaced disingenuous car salesmen—saying things like: or Factually I didn’t stop to read any of them.

Just past the used car lots were shops selling automotive parts and used tyres (UK for tires; when in Rome, remember?). My favorite shop was called Part Worn Tyres. Personally, I’d have gone with Nearly New Tyres, but far be it from me to impose my cup-half-full version of capitalism on anyone. The abundance of parts and cheap tyres, just past the car lots, seemed to scream—to me anyway—when that best car of your life doesn’t hold up, once you’ve left the parking lot, you have readily available options.

Okay so you get it: this was a bleak and boring walk whose only redemption was not so fresh air and minimal exercise.

There was not a cool, cutting-edge boutique, fancy hair-stylist or even a vintage clothing shop in sight as I continued down The High Street… but it was a glorious autumn day so I walked forward, albeit not in the best mood.

When biking this route earlier, I’d noticed heaps of fruits and vegetables on a long table beneath an awning; overhead a sign—seeming more like a demand than shop name—read: Eat More Fruits and Vegetables. What I hadn’t seen was the actual shop itself—and I use this term loosely. Below the awning was essentially a lean-to—which looked like a slight breeze would be its waterloo—with old wooden planked flooring that wobbled beneath the weight of the shoppers—leading into a gutted, turn-of-the-century English row house that had once looked very much like the one I live in. Realizing that this once grand home had been violated in this way turned my stomach. The beautiful door was long gone as was the old brick and plaster façade. I wanted to cry. The massive space created by the gutted house, however, contained the most amazing produce—many items of which I’d never seen before—and I couldn’t help but explore further.

The Small Cupboard Beneath the Stairs (I Love This Cupboard in Our House) is Now Gone in the Gutted House. How Harry Potterish, Huh?

The Small Cupboard Beneath the Stairs (I Love This Cupboard in Our House) is Now Gone in the Gutted House. How Harry Potterish, Huh?

[Backstory: Frequently when I check out of the local grocery store, a young cashier will hold up a fruit or vegetable and say, “I’m sorry ma’am but what exactly is this?” To which I look at his (or her) pasty white—I’ll have a large coke with that Big-Mac—complexion and reply condescendingly with something like: “That’s an artichoke, Dear; you might try one sometime.”]

I avoided asking what the mysterious fruits and veggies were yesterday, because I don’t like being judged, although—or perhaps because—I’m incredibly skilled at judging.

I walked deeper into what was probably once the living room of the house—Middle-Eastern music growing louder as I pushed through people. And then suddenly I saw her: A tiny, beautiful, bronze-skinned child wearing billowing pants beneath a flowing dress—perhaps 3 or 4 years old—dancing through the crowd as though she were the only person in Seven Kings—or London—or on earth—occasionally lifting a tiny hand upwards towards the heavens and kicking up a small foot behind her.

She was utterly and completely engaged in her dance. In fact she was living in her dance.

Everyone, including me, carefully walked around the small girl, not wanting to interject our consumer energy into her sacred space …

Had Spielberg been directing my day, the little girl would have been in color and the rest of us sepia; she would have danced in slow motion while we quickly filled our shopping bags, talked on mobile phones, worried and judged…

… She had no idea that this shop had once been a grand home. This was, now, simply where her mother bought fruits and vegetables; it was the place that played beautiful music and where she danced… and this place would live in her memory for a lifetime—a safe, warm, welcoming shop with lots of noise and rough planked floors that bounced beneath small feet.

Her innocence made my heart ache for a time in childhood—back before expectations and rampant opinions took over—before I cultivated peculiar adult priorities that kept me looking at my watch and checking my bank accounts. In that moment I suddenly felt naïve and childish as joy poured over me like warm chocolate; and within that awareness of joy, I smiled as I clearly saw myself: in bare feet and a bathing suit, twirling a baton, dancing around the kitchen of my childhood with my sister Jeannine while we sang High HopesAnyone knows an ant can’t—move a rubber tree plant… my legs, feet and soul tingled with the memory.

And I wondered: Why would anyone give a child the message, “You cannot experience bliss anytime you please and you can’t just dance anywhere!” But more importantly: once that child reached an age of reason, why would they continue to believe it?

I skirted the little girl and filled my canvas bag with fresh produce—all mostly identifiable to me—before leaving, with my smile, and walking further down The High Street.

My next stop was a Polish deli where I bought pickles because Egils loves all things Polish, so much so that he studied the language; unfortunately he later informed me that the Polish label on the jar said Swedish Style Pickles. I also bought butter that turned out to be margarine (which we don’t eat) and sauerkraut. It’s hard to go wrong with sauerkraut, although technically it’s German… I said, “dziękuję,” (which means thank you in Polish) to the cashier, as she tallied up my goods. She snapped to attention and smiling, began speaking Polish to me (God I never learn), which left me no choice, but to interrupt her and admit that I’d already used ½ of my Polish vocabulary and the other word was probably inappropriate. She said that I did a fine job delivering my dziękuję before I left. Although I noticed that I’d put the accent on the wrong syllable when she repeated it back to me, which caused me to wonder: How had a poorly pronounced dziękuję led her to believe I was fluent in Polish? But I smiled back at her as I silently blessed her for attempting to connect with me in her mother tongue. Then I walked out the door and rejoined The High Street.

On my glorious yet arduous walk home—lugging several kilos of fresh veggies and fruits, a huge jar of Swedish pickles and a massive jar of sauerkraut—for some reason I began reflecting on my early days in Estonia and a particular cultural misunderstanding that had occurred early on: I’d had several conversations with friends—both Russian and Estonian—where my friends had referred to living in various foreign locations. “When I lived in France, I was almost hit by a car!” or “When we lived in Spain the heat was unbearable.” For months I thought that people residing in Estonia must have suddenly become nomadic and moved all over Europe after the fall of the Iron Curtain. Then one day, after a close friend had related one such story, I asked: “Exactly when did you live in Czech Republic?”

“Oh for two weeks in 1994,” she replied.

I instantly understood: Northern European people use words very sparingly, as I’ve mentioned; in fact they are virtually incapable of indulging in lingual superfluity, like some of us… So their logic prior to putting their story into words would have been: I was in said location for more than a day. I was alive. Ergo: I lived there.

I liked the idea, in theory, of referring to any place I’d ever visited as a place I’d lived. Like seriously, how pretentious and verbose could I get with that one?

“Well, when we lived in Croatia on Krk. “(roll R aggressively, then chuckle) “Ah… yes, those Croatians do keep a tight grip on their vowels, don’t they? So as I was saying, when we lived on Krk—that’s an island, don’t cha know—we so loved the nightlife!” (Smile with faraway look in eye; puff on electronic cigarette protruding from faux silver holder; appear deep in thought)… “But, alas, it couldn’t touch the music scene we enjoyed when living in Prague!”

Okay, so I never actually did it; although I gave it some thought. Clearly… But it was obviously duplicitous for an American with English as a first language to do what comes naturally for Baltic folks; besides it would have cheapened the places in which I actually have lived.

Defining where I live has always been somewhat complicated for me—and more than slightly spiritual; it has become even more so in recent years. I don’t live where I pitch my tent or check into a hotel. I don’t even necessarily live where I pay rent, put my sheets on the bed and cook in the kitchen. I did all of those things in the bedsit from hell, but never did I say, or feel, that I lived there. I spent over a year staying with my dear friend Bette, in the States, but didn’t feel that I lived in her lovely home or neighborhood… This is because I have some rather strict criteria that need to be met before I consider myself living somewhere. Where I live is where I share space with my life mate. It’s also where I find joy and intimate connections with others. Where I live is where I can grow, learn and change because I feel safe … safe to browse through fruits and veggies I can’t name, or try out language skills I don’t have … or stand in a crowd smiling, as every cell in my body remembers a dance I once did in my childhood kitchen … Where I live must also include a home that’s safe enough for me to stand facing an autumn night and smell the air as I smile for no obvious reason and talk out loud to myself …

 Back To Where I Started

 Our house was quiet and clean, with soup simmering on the stove, as I stood in my open doorway last night, and surprised myself by whispering—like a prayer in church—I live in London! And then, as though saying this once, wasn’t weird enough, I repeated it, louder and slower: This time with a silent wow underscoring it: I… live… in… London…! And then, right there on the black and white tiled walkway that runs from my door to the sidewalk—beneath a sliver of a moon—I danced.

Signing off from London with a wee dance!

A Houseless Adventurer Defines Home

The following is a blog I wrote last April, just prior to receiving my UK visa and returning to my Principal Home where I reunited with my Safe Man. At the time I wrote this I decided it was too personal and possibly too rambling to post. After returning to Scotland, relocating to London, spending a month in a rented room—which, while it housed my body, was never my home—and a short Face Book chat with Taylor Keitt about giving ourselves permission to rejoice in our inner life experiences in spite of clearly not meeting societal expectations … I was drawn back to this blog and decided to slightly rework and post it:

A Houseless Adventurer Defines Home

(Written in April 2013)

I‘m blogging on the road, so to speak. Essentially I’ve been on the road for 3 and 1/2 years.

As we made our final departure from our home in Riga our cat, Bianca, promised to wait for our return.

As we made our final departure from our home in Riga our cat, Bianca, promised to wait for our return.

Within my better moments I see myself as an adventurer and explorer of countries and lifestyles; a questioner of the status quo, a non-conforming free spirit … In my occasional pathetic, self-indulgent moments, I perceive myself as someone who’s made some really whacky choices and, although had an incredible life, has currently, landed, face first in the thicket: bruised, battered and homeless

Wait a minute; I’ll be right back. I’d no sooner written the word homeless than I felt compelled to look up the word home.

I’m back … Home: Residence. Birthplace. Place of origin of something. Headquarters. Safe place. These are Microsoft Word definitions. There were others, but I liked Safe Place so I stopped there.

Okay; clearly I have never been homeless; I have actually been blessed with many homes or Safe Places in spite of the fact that I don’t actually have my own house to live in, at the moment.

I’m in Philadelphia, today, with my precious daughter Jessica, after staying with my dear son, Jonathan, and his wife, Emily, for several days; followed by time spent with my wonderful daughter Morgan, her husband Dave and their beautiful, precocious, four-year-old daughter, Ava, all in Virginia.

Ava spent the better part of one afternoon, during my stay, planning how she would celebrate my life after I’d died; this after watching a Lavar Burton video, which I assumed, was created to help kids grieve for loved ones who had already passed on. Ava, however, interpreted it as a toolkit for kids to explore how they’re going to feel when this event occurs. She needed to focus on a specific relative that might be heading in that direction and I was her first choice—she said my proximity (sitting on the bed next to her) and gray hair were the criteria. In spite of my exhaustive effort to point out that her other grandma was my senior by 20 years and still going strong, Ava insisted on mourning my passing: “And I’ll remember how you cooked that oatmeal with berries and nuts in the mornings…” She said, her eyes welling up—neglecting to mention that she actually doesn’t like my oatmeal … I was touched that she chose to share how much she would miss me when my time came although slightly disturbed with the sharing of her vivid imaginings of my demise, including a run down of the guest list for my memorial service—this after some rather disconcerting questions about the alternatives to funerals and burials … But she did seem better mannered and a bit more considerate towards me after her faux-grieving and paying tribute to me …

I spent the better part of 20 years, living and raising my family in Loudoun County, Virginia; so spending time with my children and grandchild in Virginia is always like returning home.

My son Jon and his wife, Emily's home on the mountain.

My son Jon and his wife, Emily’s home on the mountain.

I lived most of my childhood in the suburbs of Philadelphia, so in many ways it feels like I’m home here in Philly, too.

I went to boarding school outside of Reading, Pennsylvania, where my brother, Tim and his wife, Mia, now live; so enjoying a Safe Place with them, for many months over the past 3 years, was like being home on many levels.

I have two major homes in Silver Spring, Maryland and Sleepy Creek West Virginia with my long(est)-term friend, Bette [*note the skillful—although clunky—way I avoided using the term oldest friend].  Bette and I are heading to a Safe Place in Coco Beach, Florida, in a few weeks to spend time in the home of another dear friend, Brenda …

Relaxing by the fire at Sleepy Creek WV.

Relaxing by the fire at Sleepy Creek WV.

Hot-tubbing in Cocoa Beach, at Brenda's; feeling quite at home, I must say...

Hot-tubbing in Cocoa Beach, at Brenda’s; feeling quite at home, I must say…

Last year Brenda and I shared a Safe Place onboard a ship that sailed along the Alaskan border for 2 weeks … What an amazing and blessed adventure that was!

A dining hall on the ship that Brenda and I cruised on.

A dining hall on the ship that Brenda and I cruised on.

For years I lived in a tiny Safe Place in Tartu, Estonia. I still maintain a home in Riga, Latvia—albeit with renters currently living in it. I have yet another home in Stirling, Scotland. This particular Safe Place includes the warm body and smile of my Safe Man, most of my clothes and my bicycle. Quite honestly the Stirling, Scotland Place, with The Safe Man, my clothes and bike, trumps all other homes; I consider this my Principal Safe Place at this moment.

Looking down the stairs in our Safe Place in Riga, Latvia. I can still smell my plants.

Looking down the stairs in our Safe Place in Riga, Latvia. I can still smell my plants.

My Safe Man coming through the garden gate in our Safe Place in Scotland.

My Safe Man coming through the garden gate in our Safe Place in Scotland.

I’ve spent the last 18 years of my life falling in love with places, moving there, settling in, creating a home for myself and remaining there until something or someone disrupted my Safe Place; then I moved on. But there was always one location—one Safe Place, one residence—that I called my home.

This is my family home in upstate Pennsylvania. This has always been both a house and a home to me … It’s where my dear father grew up and where he passed away. It’s hard to think of this as only a structure because of the years of love and history that live within it.

The past 3 years—of splitting my life between the USA and UK—however, have caused me to redefine the meaning of home because I haven’t had one actual place of my own.

My first step, in redefining home—was to differentiate between a house, which is a stationary, material structure, and home, which I’ve decided, is a Safe Place and in my case, needs to be an inner condition.  So, in dire need of a home, I set out to find my inner Safe Place: That inner place of well-being where I could rest, relax and experience joy and peace of mind despite waking up in different beds— frequently not knowing know where I am for several seconds after opening my eyes—as well as living out of other people’s dresser drawers and my suitcase…  I needed to live in a state of joy and gratitude even when my primary connection with my man was hearing his voice through speakers and touching his face on a computer screen …

Whoops! I came dangerously close to a pathetic self-indulgent moment there; did you feel it?

That’s because I constantly struggle with the downright humiliation of not having my own house, in spite of having a home—albeit within myself; because one of the most powerful cultural messages our society has whispered in our ear since the day we were born is: Your personal worth as a human being lies within your having possessions; needless to say a home is pretty much at the top of that list—and our society is most definitely not referring to a warm Safe Place in our soul.

I found the home that lived within me but needed to consciously connect with it while detaching from the importance of having a house; it had to be this way given where my life choices had taken me. I’ve frequently wondered, What was I thinking?  when looking back on my life. But within the process of redefining Home, I clearly saw that I needed to do whatever it took to bring me face to face with this realization: A home simply can’t be a specific building or location because those things are destructible: Places can collapse economically or politically, houses can burn down, or be lost during natural disasters. But the Safe Place that lives within me—where I embrace all of humanity, and all that exists on this planet; that place where I feel joy simply because I’m alive—travels with me and is indestructible.

I have recently been reflecting on an extended camping trip that Egils and I took in 2008, traveling throughout South Eastern Europe.  We happily drove from country to country in our tiny car and made our home in a small tent for over a month, peeking out through our tent flaps and through our car windows into the lives and cultures of others.

We lived in this small tent when not biking or driving, for 5 weeks. It was wonderful, exhilarating, and challenging. Moving back into the other world of  stone walls and glass windows was very difficult.

We lived in this small tent when not biking or driving, for 5 weeks. It was wonderful, exhilarating, and challenging. Moving back into the other world of stone walls and glass windows was very difficult.

As we traveled through the various countries we were amazed at the resilience of humanity; how, when faced with enormous challenges—like the recently war-torn former Yugoslavia or the once economically devastated Romania—people survived, and even flourished… But what surprised me the most was that people appeared to be genuinely celebrating life—in spite of having only their very basic material needs met. It seemed that societies recovering from devastation, have different expectations regarding what their lives should look like, leaving people free to live as best they can without pressure to reach a higher standard. I looked on in amazement at people who seemed genuinely happy to be alive in spite of—by western standards—extremely harsh living conditions. And a part of me felt sad for them, because at that time I believed that having, at least some material wealth was necessary to sustain joy.

A man enjoys a smoke out of his window. When I asked if I could take his picture he belly laughed and shook his head wildly. This was in a war-torn area of Croatia.

A man enjoys a smoke out of his window. When I asked if I could take his picture he belly laughed and shook his head wildly. This was in a war-torn area of Croatia.

People dancing and celebrating in what appeared to be a wedding. We could hear the music and laughter even after we drove away.

People dancing and celebrating in what appeared to be a wedding. We could hear the music and laughter even after we drove away.

My postman friend Avto once said to me: “Life is just a series of habits. If something disrupts those habits our life feels difficult at first. But that’s only because we have to change our habits…  Once you’ve done that you can get back to enjoying life.” This was in response to my incessant complaining about having to heat water for our baths during the 3 summer months that Estonia turned off the hot water supply. Avto’s words turned out to be true. Within a month, we had an accepted routine that allowed us to bathe without a second thought and we quickly returned to enjoying life.

If our quality of life is measured by joy, satisfaction and feeling safe and connected to our world and one another, could it be that those who reside in their inner Safe Place—living simpler, materially minimal lives—might actually be having a better time than those of us who value the house above the home?

Addendum to my April blog

It would be hypocritical of me not to state: I thoroughly intend to have a house again. I am not implying, for one second that a material place to call home has no value to me. But one of my greatest wishes is that I might grasp, on a cellular level, the difference between a house and a home. I wish to bask in the joy of my inner Safe Place as I sip fine wine in my house …

But I have another wish in life—are you reading this one day in the future Ava?—at my memorial service, someday far down the road, I hope someone will say: Holly carried her home inside of her and she left a little of her home—a Safe Place—everywhere she went.

Signing off—with love—from my beautiful new home in London!