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Monthly Archives: November 2007

Writing pursuits

I don’t talk much about my writing on this blog. I guess it is because blogging is a form of writing, and to talk about the subject further feels redundant. But I am still plugging away at my literary interests, albeit slowly. One thing is for sure, getting my MFA was like strapping a huge ball and chain onto my literary leg. I am no longer as prolific as I once was, because everything I write (other than the blog) is now subject to criticism and endless attempts at improvement.

The good news is I have become a much, much better writer. I can look over my work and instantly know what is not working. I am familiar with my writing idiosyncrasies and I can buckle down and fix most of my reoccurring flaws. The bad news is I am never satisfied with my work and I’m convinced everything I produce now is crap. So I can’t stop revising. Takes the thrill out of writing, if you know what I mean. 

But I’ve always felt that if you are going to do something, you might as well do it to the best of your ability, so I am grateful I took the time to get an MFA to force my development. In some ways, I wish I wrote with the fluid abandonment I once had, and yet, there isn’t a day I don’t thank the writing gods that I my work wasn’t published previously. I would be darned embarrassed by it now had it been released in it’s raw, unfinished state. When I do get my books published (and now I have confidence that it is only a matter of time,  . . not to mention a matter of my actually sending something out) it will be work I’ll be proud of.

I am currently re-writing my first novel, Sisters of Fate  (titled Crossing Hearts for a while due to advice from an agent). I still adore the characters and the story. Besides which, I have three other books planned in this saga –the second in the series more than half written. I actually have five books in different stages of completion. Obviously I have some kind of author attention span disorder. But I know me, and in time, I will attend to them all.

For now, I feel most drawn to my historical fiction. The problem is, I wrote the first draft of this novel like a romance writer. Looking at it through different eyes now, I wince every time I crack the pages of the manuscript.

Rewriting is a very slow process for me. It took me a month to change the prologue from 12 melodramatic pages to 6 concise intriguing pages that do the job. I not only keep tweaking and tweaking, but I actually start to fall asleep every time I begin rewriting, as if my brain goes into a lethargic state by the second sentence. I am better with passion and creativity at the helm– but without serious revision, nothing I write will ever be presentable. So, like it or not, I have to sit my butt in that chair and work. Fighting sleep all the way.

Dance taught me that the best way to be very good at something is to teach. So, I am looking forward to trying my hand at personal growth through sharing what I know as well.

I’ve been asked to teach a few classes at Appalachian Tech (a community college) for their adult continuing education department. I begin these classes in late January, which gives me time to plan lessons and think about how I want to present the material.
Here are my class descriptions (in case you all want to move to Georgia and sign up):

Memoir Writing:
Instructor: Ginny Hendry
8 week session – Tuesdays 6:00-7:30

Everyone has a story to tell. A narrative account of our life experiences not only allows us to share our unique history with family and friends, but serves to clarify our understanding of the world at large. This course teaches the principals and theory of creative non-fiction while developing writing skills to support self-expression, the creative process and the writer’s individual voice.

Fiction Writing
Instructor: Ginny Hendry
8 week session – Thursdays 6:00-7:30

Stories do more than entertain. They reach out to others, showcasing life’s complexity, humor, pathos and curiosities. A good story leaves behind a resonance that changes a reader forevermore, because reading takes an audience someplace they’ve never been before, introducing new personalities, and/or an opportunity to witness a unique event unfolding.  This course will introduce the basics of fiction writing; characterization, scene, dialog, and plot, applicable to any genre. Students will tap into their creativity and craft stories of their own. 
This morning I had to turn in my biography. Eek. I do feel qualified to teach, yet a part of me keeps thinking, “What the hell have I ever done to justify my teaching these subjects?”  Years of experiences made me rather significant in the dance world. In the literary world, I’m just a newbie. But you have to start somewhere, right? And considering my experience as a teacher, combined with my recent academic pursuits, I believe I’m capable of structuring a good class for people interested in the craft of writing. The important thing to remember is, I’ll get better as I go. Considering I have some ambition in the field, I might as well get the ball rolling.

Here is what I came up with as a bio.


Ginny Hendry has a BA from Eckerd College and an MFA in fiction from Lesley University. In 2003 she won the Royal Palm Literary Award for a historical novel, Sisters of Fate.  Interested in genre writing as well as literary fiction, she’s also won several competitions sponsored by Romance Writers of America for Historical and Chick Lit fiction. Ginny has had numerous articles on the field of art and dance published in magazines and periodicals, including Dance Teacher Now, Dance Pages, and Dancer Magazine. She’s also written for the Pelican Press. She is author of Kiddance, a creative dance syllabus used world wide and the accompanying international newsletter and has lectured and toured with many of America’s leading dance education organizations.

Mark made me put the dance stuff in there – partially because he insists so much of the Kiddance endeavors were successful because of the writing, and also because he thinks I must at least gesture towards my vast teaching experience. Subject is irrelevant, he says. Good communication skills, lesson organization and being able to relay information is applicable to any seminar.

I have also been asked to speak for an hour at the Blue Ridge Writer’s Conference in March. They want a lecture on the pros and cons of getting an MFA. Now, I have plenty to say about this subject.  I have strong feelings about the value of a writing degree. I went into the program totally naive. Had I a better understanding of what an MFA involved, I might have made other choices. That is not to say I am sorry I went to Lesley. It changed me in the best of ways. But, I might have gotten even more out if it had I known what to expect. I also stumbled through the submission process, and frankly, I’m surprised I ever got accepted considering the work I sent in. Anyway, here is my seminar description. I really look forward to helping potential students gain insight and prepare them for what lies ahead should they seek higher education in the field.


Seminar Title:  The MFA Question

    An MFA is considered the professional degree for literary writers, yet many successful writers developed their skill and published powerful works without a traditional literary education. Each writer has their own agenda in regards to what they want to accomplish putting pen to paper. The question is, is an MFA right for you?
    This seminar will explore the pros and cons of pursuing an MFA.  We will discuss how the process impacts a writer’s life long quest to develop and refine their skills, changing both how they read and write, compared to alternate avenues of expanding literary awareness. We will then review the various types of MFA programs available today, consider what kind of writers an MFA best serves, and discuss the competitive submission process.

I changed my bio for this brochure to explain why I feel qualified to teach this particular course.


Ginny Hendry won the Royal Palm Literary Award for a historical novel, Sisters of Fate before attending Lesley University to earn an MFA in fiction. Interested in genre writing as well as literary fiction, she also won several competitions sponsored by Romance Writers of America for Historical and Chick Lit fiction. Ginny has had numerous articles on the field of art and dance published in magazines and periodicals, including Dance Teacher Now, Dance Pages, and Dancer Magazine. She’s written for the Pelican Press. Impacted by her MFA, she is now enthusiastically rewriting Sisters of Fate and completing her thesis book, a literary novel.

Anyway, as you can see, I mostly blog about my barn and animals and cooking, but my brain hasn’t turned to mush here in the country and I haven’t withdrawn from society so much that I am not still trying to accomplish something of merit .  I might surprise you all yet with something more impressive than canned goods and tomato wine. That is . . . if I can stay awake long enough to polish something and put a stamp on the envelop. 





My best friend, Jody Smith, came to visit for a few days before Thanksgiving. Jody comes up several times a year to visit her oldest soon, Lee, who moved up here around the same time we did. Lee has a one year old baby, which guarantees Jody will keep coming up. Can’t miss stages of your grandchild’s development, ya know.

Her son, Kyle, has been Kent’s best buddy since birth and he was on her for this trip. It is always a hoot to see the boys together, because they regress to little trouble makers again. They are both driving now, talking about college, their voices have dropped and they have the appearance of men in the making – yet, a few hours after they were together they were outside building a boat out of junk to see if they could float it on the lake. I suggested they take my two man kayak out (I know that floats) but I guess that isn’t nearly as much fun as yelling as they sink into the freezing water on a pile of old wood and air filled gallon jugs they made with humor and innovation. Unfortunately, the boys didn’t get to spend too much time together this visit because Kent has a job as a cashier at the supermarket and they gave him a heavy schedule, it being thanksgiving week. Being responsible certainly can put a crimp on your social life.

Anyway, when Jody and Kyle visit, they stay with Lee a few days and always stay with us a few.

It is always nice when people come to visit, but it does throw a crimp in the routine of your life. This is just never the case with Jody, because our relationship is casual and comfortable and we have such a long history together. She doesn’t need to be entertained and her interests are so comparable to mine that she actually enjoys hanging out as I continue with my daily routine. I spent the two days she was here in the kitchen. It doesn’t matter that we were not having guests for Thanksgiving. I still cook up a storm. And in this case I made double of lots of dishes; sausage and sage stuffing, sweet potato soufflé, pumpkin pie, cheesecake with cherries soaked in cordial, cranberry sauce with oranges, so Jody could take it all to her sons where they were celebrating Thanksgiving with Lee’s girlfriend’s family.  Jody has never made a turkey, so I even packaged up seasoning to rub on the skin as I gave her a quick lesson in turkey preparation and tested her on how long to cook each item.

She was like, “Don’t bother, I can just buy stovetop stuffing. No one expects me to cook much.” 

I looked aghast and said, “The Thanksgiving gods will strike you down if you dare!”  Meanwhile, I thrust homemade wine into her hands for the feast.
I did trust her to handle her own green bean casserole herself.  Everyone lived to tell the tale.

It is funny how you can know someone for years, yet discover things about them you never knew.  When I moved up here and bought horses, Jody was surprised. She didn’t know I grew up riding and loving horses. I guess it was a subject that never came up.  It happens that she grew up riding – even more intently than I. Her sister was a competitive rider and one of thirteen women qualifying to go to the Olympics! Jody is the one friend I have (from Florida) that actually knows more about horses than I. It didn’t matter that she hadn’t been on a horse for 20 years. The first time she came here, she hopped up, handled my horse a pro, and said, “Let’s go exploring.” When visiting, she is quick to follow me to the barn to help feed or groom the horses. It is nice.

Jody is also a very effective social worker, and as such she is wonderful to talk to about my work with Kathy and literacy. We always spend a chunk of time discussing local social issues and her work. I appreciate her empathy for humanity and how she actively makes a difference. She is friendly to all, never jealous or petty, doesn’t put her own interests before others, and does not obsess about money or material things. She is remarkable, really.

She told me that when Kyle graduates in a year, she is seriously contemplating moving up here. The cost of living is so much better here than in Sarasota and my old home town has gotten so congested and commercial that it no longer has the pleasant overtones it once had. So we talked about how desperately this area could use someone like Jody. I told her all about my visit to Drug court and how they had 95 people and only one trained counselor and their solution to every problem is to pray.

Jody listened and then said, “I’d have to learn a lot more about the bible to be effective here. In order to combat some abuse issues, I’d need to learn the lingo of the land, and while I go to church, I can not quote scripture. Bet you’d have to know the bible forward and backwards to gain the confidence and get through to people who view the world the way they do here.”

I admire that she not only recognizes the unique specifics of a culture, but would be willing to adapt and do research to do her job well considering them. She is probably the most open minded and accepting person I know.

She also is my one friend who appreciates a glass of wine with every meal. We broke open several bottles of my original recipes each night, to do comparison tests.  Mark and Jody agreed my strawberry wine is a bit strong, the scent of strawberry is powerful, yet the taste is rather alcoholic (I should have sweetened it more and turned it into a dessert wine, I guess). The Pinot Grigio is their favorite. Mark likes the tomato wine, but I think it is the principal of the matter and he likes that I can make wine out of something so cheap. Dianne was with us for dinner too, and she remained impartial. Guess she wants to be supportive and not dampen my enthuasiasm for trying anything new. I was sorry my blackberry still has 6 months before it can be bottled, and my merlot, reisling, and tomato apple wine are still fermenting. For an impatient person like me, winemaking is torture.

After dinner, I pulled out all my cordials for a grand taste test. I gave everyone cordial glasses, even Kyle. (Kent was at work, sadly.)

He said, “You are going to invite me to drink?”

I pointed out that if I made something, it had to be good for him. Besides which, his mother and I know at 17, kids drink. Rather they do so in a controlled environment with moms at the helm than in the back seat of a car at some party. And cordials are so sweet, I seriously doubt he’s going to develop a taste for them and start slugging them back with friends later because of me.  Besides, I wanted enough people involved in my control group to give me a good idea of how I was doing at my new endeavor.
So we began pouring my 8 flavors ready for consumption . Blackberry, Hypocris, and Prunelle were everyone’s favorite. The very top of the list by all was my homemade Amaretto. (I’m going to need to start a second batch of that one today) Pineapple was considered too sweet, and I was told to save it to pour over ice-cream for desserts. The Cherry cordial reminded everyone of cough syrup – so I started cooking with it the next day and it was very good as a topping over cheesecake. Strawberry and Peach were both given the stamp of approval.  We had such fun, screaming with laughter, making faces, refilling our glasses with those we loved and those we didn’t (to give them a second chance.) I pulled out the black walnut and almond liquors currently fermenting in a big jar in my cupboard so everyone could see how these liquor start. I then showed off my cookbook and we discussed those flavors I’m headed towards – coffee flavors, cranberry (got to work in season don’t ya know) and spice liquors. Denver whined that I should make double batches so I can give bottles to her. I pointed out that she could make cordials herself. Don’t need to wait until you are in your forties to unleash the chemist within. 

Later, Mark said, “I’ve been wondering what we were ever going to do with all these colorful bottles of liquor you keep making, and now I know. That was fun. We have to do that again when other friends come to dinner.”
Considering there is not much to do in Blue Ridge, he’s on to something. Besides, taste testing will only get better as my stock expands. By next month I’ll have 15 flavors ready to go.

“Then, you have to make some friends that are not preachers.” I pointed out. Up here, everyone is a preacher.
“I’ll endeavor to do that,” he said.
Good luck, pal.

Anyway, we had a good time.

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. I love the meaning behind it, the fact that it is all about family and food and pausing to appreciate all you are grateful for.

I have a lot to be thankful for. It is nice to have a holiday that pushes you to dwell on that. 

Now, I must go. We are taking the family to Atlanta to see a Kelly Clarkson concert tonight. I bought tickets for everyone, Denver and Dianne included, but everyone is telling me this event won’t be appropriate for Neva. We’ll see. I tend to think it will be more vocalist-y, not so rock concert. Everyone else begs to differ. Ah well, my intentions were good, and time will tell. If the smell of pot lingers in the air, I’ll insist it is my perfume. Heck, I just wanted something special for all of us to do together, and Neva counts too.

Mark and I are stealing off early to go to the High Museum to see the second chapter of the Louve exhibit – meeting everyone else after they are done with school and work etc.. I am in need of my culture fix. And a little time alone with my other half is something to be grateful for too.

Winter introdues so many endings.

One reality of living in tune with nature and experimenting with hobby farming and ranching is that death and sad endings is inevitable. Call it “natural selection” or “the balance of nature” – anyway you put it, death is a part of life here.

For all that the life cycle is natural, it is still sad -especially for someone who lived so long in the neat, pre-packaged world of suburbia. Before embarking on this new life adventure, I barely knew where our food sources come from, other than the academic understanding that food grows on plants or in the ground, and bacon comes from pigs  hamburger from cows. Dealing with animal death in suburbia usually involves putting a beloved dog down because he’s grown old, or maybe wincing when you see a cat’s been clipped by a car. In cases such as this, city folk allow themselves to revel in personal grief. In the country, people are sorry when an animal passes, but it isn’t nearly so dramatic an occasion.  It is just a part of life.   

And it isn’t just animals. Living close to the earth, you can’t help but notice everything has a season and a purpose when you are intimately involved with the process. I witness the lifecycle of a bean from when the first seed is planted to when the robust plant withers and dies and is turned under to nourish the earth over the winter for next year’s planting. It brings a certain reverence and appreciation to your meal when you lift a fork full of beans to your mouth. I actually feel melancholy when I look out at the huge, empty patch of dirt that was a garden full of life only a few weeks ago. But I like to imagine my garden is only sleeping, gaining strength for another big party come spring.

Because I feel connected in this way, I won’t consider raising livestock to eat. I know I should, because the animals we eat from the grocery store live horrible, pitiful existences. The methods we have developed to feed ourselves cheaply, not to mention the unnatural methods used to make the animals grow faster than is natural, or how we force them to develop to our palate preferences, only to be slaughtered before they ever witness the light of day, is truly inhumane. (That is another argument, and not one I want to get into on a blog). But even though I know this and feel passionate about it, I can’t bring myself to consider eating one of my chickens or buying a turkey for Christmas consumption. I have too much empathy for any creature I look right in the eye to be the instrument of its death.

I have found a compromise however, because we bought ½ cow and a whole pig from a friend who raised the animals naturally on grass. These creatures lived full term (two years rather than six months) with dignity before coming to their useful end. I have a freezer full of packaged meat now, hormone free. When I prepare this, I don’t feel guilty. But once again, I never had to look into the eyes of the creature knowing their end was approaching. We had a rule. Mark agreed to buy the animals as long as I was never allowed to see them. I guess he was afraid I’d change my mind and lead them home on a rope or something. Actually, one day I did go to Ronnie’s house because we were going to the flea market to buy guineas. I accidentally wandered down to his pasture and began admiring his cows. Ronnie shrugged guiltily and said, “Glad you like them. That black and white one is yours, you know… well, at least half of him.”

For an instant I felt my stomach drop. Then, I began to feel differently. It didn’t bother me as much as I thought, because later, when we received the bounty of this cow, I prepared the meat with respect, remembering the gentle creature standing in the warm sun on a lush pasture. I felt OK about how it lived and died.  It may be easier to eat food from the supermarket when you remove yourself from the reality of what you are eating and how it arrived packaged up on those neat, foam trays – but ignorance and being unaware doesn’t make it right. And I can’t turn away from what I now know.

Anyway, I’ve been a bit sad this week over animal deaths – not of animals born and raised for food, because I accept their place in the grander scheme, but over those animals that are with us for other reasons.
First, Neva’s most beloved rooster, Yang, (our oldest, fuzzy silkie) went missing. This chicken was my daughter’s number one buddy. He was a funny little fellow that came when called. He always did this silly chicken dance at Neva’s feet because he was so excited to see her. You almost never saw Neva around the barn without this little black rooster in her arms. Anyway, he was around in the morning, but never showed up in the evening. This is always a bad sign where chickens are concerned. Neva searched for days, crying and calling for her favored pet, but there wasn’t a sign of him (not even feathers) anywhere. We can pretty much assume a hawk swooped him up. Neva fell into deep despair. She even said she would rather we had lost a horse than the rooster, but I think she was out of her mind with grief to suggest such a thing. Just as we got over this drama, something else occurred.

It has been raining and my barn area is a mud pit. I started worrying about my peacocks being wet and cool, so I rigged a cover over their cage. The next day, we had an overnight cold snap. In the morning, two of my young peacocks were dead. I quickly brought the other one inside the barn and set up heat lamps on him, but moments later he died as well. I was very upset. I have a barn and the facility to keep animals sheltered and warm all winter if necessary. I believed the peacocks, at almost 5 months old, didn’t need heat lamps anymore. I haven’t read anything about 40 degree weather being a threat for peacocks under 6 months of age in my books and the breeders didn’t mention it. Nevertheless, I felt responsible. For two days, I couldn’t stop thinking about my sweet peafowl, cold and wet, their systems slowing as they succumbed to the cold. Heck, it wasn’t even that cold. I wish I had handled them differently – kept them inside. I just didn’t know. 

Then, to add a third blow to my bird tragedies, I looked outside yesterday morning to see four happy ducks swimming in the lake and one white lump on the bank. Uh oh. I asked Mark if he could see what that was far across the lake. He got out his gun to look through the site. (Remind me to put binoculars on my Christmas list – like we need to pull out a GUN to see things?) Sure enough, he described the feathers on the bank as a “deflated duck”. Something had eaten Costello (one of my black and white Abbot and Costello team).  Dang it.        

This gets worse.

My friend Amanda called to say her horse was sick. She called the vet, but before he arrived, wouldn’t ya know the horse had delivered a colt. She didn’t even know this mare was pregnant! Now, she had a newborn colt to care for at the worst time of year because it is wet and cold out (which is why most horses are bred to foal in spring) and she didn’t know what to do. She doesn’t have a barn to give her animals warmth or shelter. Of course, I invited her to use my barn. So a few hours later, a sweet grey mare and her baby came to be our guests for what we guessed would be a few weeks. But the baby had complications and wasn’t nursing. Because they didn’t know the horse was pregnant, they didn’t give her a pre-delivery tetanus shot or supplements or even proper nutrition. She ate fescue grass, which they say is not good for pregnant mares (but my pregnant mare did fine on it). A few hours later, the baby’s umbilical cord burst. Amanda called the vet, and he notified her that the colt was unlikely to live. Amanda stayed most of the night to keep her mare company.

I went to the barn at 2:30 with cocoa and a sleeping bag, but Amanda had left. Standing there alone, I watched that poor little colt lying on the soft shavings of the barn, his breath shallow. I pet the nose of the mother, feeling helpless to do anything. The colt was making a raspy noise like a person dying. I’ve never heard a horse make a noise like that.

Sure enough, he passed away an hour later.

Mark took his tractor out and dug a hole so Shane could bury his baby horse. Then, he and his wife took the mare home again. I fed my two horses in the barn an hour later, and it was hard to wipe the image of that poor baby from my mind.

I am left with a melancholy feeling. I know these things happen, but I am unaccustomed to witnessing them. I keep thinking about how excited we were when our baby colt was born, and how difficult it would be to lose a much expected baby horse. Of course, this colt was not expected, but still, despite his being weak, he was darn cute with his dusty brown coat, two white socks, and white star on his forehead. 

Oddly enough, Neva pet that baby horse and said her good-byes last night as if it was sad, yet death is something she understands just happens at times. She is more accepting than I of these kinds of things, but I guess that can be attributed to her age. She is growing up a farmer’s child, a far cry from the dancer’s kid she once was. I am not as adaptable to a new view of life I guess.

When I bought Joy, my new pinto, I was told she had been bred to another high end saddle bred stallion and so, she was likely pregnant. Then, Shane told me he saw her in heat so I could pretty much assume that the pregnancy didn’t take. I was glad, actually. I want my horse lean and rideable in spring. But today, I am looking at her differently. She may very well BE pregnant, and if so, you can bet I want to give her all the care and attention she needs to assure a successful birth. Shane and Amanda had a vet check their horse, and he told them she wasn’t pregnant, which was why they were so shocked yesterday to have an unexpected baby horse to deal with. I guess there are no guarantees. But even if mistakes are made, I’ve decided to get a vet check, just in case. And I’m going to watch Joy like a hawk and give her supplements no matter what the vet says. No reason to believe other people’s hunches when something precarious is at stake.

The point is, death is a part of nature’s grand scheme, and I accept that. But in cases where I can make a difference and head it off at the pass, you can bet I want to do all I can. I will never lose another peacock to cold now that I’ve experienced this loss, but the country learning curve is painful to someone like me who considers every creature in her care a precious thing. My friends around here shrug and say, “Ah well, you can get you some new peacocks in spring and they’ll do fine.” But it doesn’t make me feel better.  I can’t bare others suffering my stupidity.

I am on my way downstairs to do my hour on the treadmill (it is rainy and cold outside, so my workout is going to stay indoors today.) And I’m going to watch my “Breeding, Birthing, and Newborn Care for Llamas” DVD. I don’t plan to ever see another big animal’s baby’s soft eyes closed prematurely again. Not on my watch. 

Honest to God, sometimes I can’t help but laugh and say, “Is this me?” The rest of the world is watching “Dancing with the Stars” and discussing costume choices and dishing stars because they look fat or are going bald (compared to when they were young).  I’m watching ranching videos as if this kind of documentary has the answer to life’s true, most pertinent questions.

I just wish I had the confidence here in the quiet, wide open spaces that I once had in my world of dance, malls and starbucks.    



Found Treasures

In August, my husband showed me an active hornet nest hidden in the trees by our cabin. He said, “When fall comes, we can come get this. Hopefully, it will still be here.”

These big, papery nests are often used as decoration in rustic homes and businesses. You even see them for sale in stores for upwards of 100.00 because people love putting a small piece of nature in their cabins, but few want to brave hornet attacks to acquire a conversation piece. It isn’t easy collecting them, because you must wait until they are fully formed, yet dormant, but while waiting, the wind and storms of winter often destroy or batter the nest. Sometimes, they are hanging so high in the trees, you can’t get to them, or if you can, cutting the branch means a long fall that can break the treasure apart. Nothing is easy.

I always admire the hornet nests I see in cabins or stores and I’ve always wanted one, so it was exciting to see this perfect nest hanging within reach in the brush right along the road. These gray masses are hard to discover because they blend so well with the environment. Actually, I went right past this one a zillion times and didn’t even notice it. Mark is forever looking into the trees to seek twisted branches for broom handles or for pieces to use when making interesting furniture, so he sees things other people just wouldn’t notice. Each time, when he points something like this out, I wonder how it is some of us can be so oblivious, while others go through the day so aware and in the moment.
Mark’s mentioned the nest a few times since discovering it, usually after a trip to the cabin for maintenance or something, but I doubted we’d really get around to harvesting it. We have since sold the cabin, so now, with no reason to go over there, I put the nest out of my mind. I figured someone who lives nearby would snag it long before we got around to it.

Yesterday, we went to lunch at a small restaurant in an apple orchard near our house that just so happens to have two big hornet nests hanging from rafters as decoration. As you can imagine, this brought up the subject of “our nest”.

Mark said, “That nest should be dormant this time of year. Let’s go get it.”

I asked if I should get my bee bonnet or gloves, but he only laughed as if I was a big weenie and told me to bring a huge trash bag. He’d get the clippers. 

I suggested we bring the truck so we could transport the nest in the back, outside of the vehicle. I guess I had visions of transportation waking the hornets, thinking  they would suddenly start creeping out, angry and out for vengeance. (I like bees, but wasps are soldiers of the devil.) Mark said that was ridiculous. They are asleep. We’d just put them in the backseat of my car.

We drove over and sure enough the nest was where we’d seen it last. We discussed the best way to get it off the tree without damaging it, and decided Mark would do the clipping, and I’d hold the bag underneath. Mission accomplished. It was easy and uneventful, which doesn’t make for a very exciting story, but I can’t say I was dissapointed. 

Then, as we were preparing to go home, Mark looks over and says, “Hey, there is another one.”

Sure enough, he’d spotted an even bigger nest high in a tree across the way. We go to inspect it. This one would be a bit harder to get, but we would try. The problem was, I’d only brought one trash bag. So, we drove to a nearby gas station, bought some bags and returned. I should mention here that this nest was in the backyard of our former neighbor’s cabin. They only use the place for vacations, and they were not visiting at this time, so we took the liberty of walking through their yard to retrieve the nest anyway. If nothing else, we’ve saved them from being inundated with pesky hornets come spring when they return.

It was a successful hunt. Both nests are encased in plastic bags in the upper area of my barn now. We will spray them with hornet spray and wait for a few months until we are sure that whatever is inside had died off.

The owner of the Apple Orchard restaurant warned us that when they found their nests, the thing seemed so quiet they figured it was unoccupied. After all, no bugs came out when it was moved. So, they hung the nests right away, then, come spring, all the eggs hatched and the store was overrun with angry hornets. Was a huge ordeal. Now that would make for a good story, but not one I want to be telling about our new coffee shop.

Today, I will read about these nests on the internet, just because now that we have a few, I’m darn curious to learn about them. Hopefully I will discover the best way to preserve these delicate clumps of papery mud while I’m at it.

By summer, we’ll have a cool nest to hang in an office or the game room, and one for the coffee shop. I’m keeping my eyes peeled now; looking into the trees everywhere we go hoping to discover more of nature’s treasures.

Amazing how little it takes to amuse me nowadays.


six rough riders and one pansy

Saturday, I went on an eleven hour horseback ride with friends.
Yes, my butt hurts.

These friends often trailer the horses out to areas of national park or local mountain regions to go trail riding through the forest. Fall is prime time for riding because the horses love the crisp weather and the foliage is breathtaking. So far, I’ve been unavailable to go with them because of other family commitments, but this weekend all we had on the agenda was Kent marching in the Veteran’s day parade. The only thing worse than dance on Mark’s arthritic hips is riding- he can’t even sit astride a horse now, but he understands my love for such things, so he promised he would cheer loud enough for us both, and he urged me to go. Didn’t take much for me to say, “OK!”

Its deer season, so I was told I had to wear an orange vest. I complained that considering I’d be on a white horse, I shouldn’t need a vest. They said that with my deer colored hair poking through the brush as I emerge over a hill, I’d probably be a prime target for some beer drinking, over-excited, under experienced, weekend hunter from Atlanta. OK, give me a vest.

They said we’d be going out on Saturday morning, so I figured I should be ready at about 9. Usually they go on Sundays after church. But since this was a Saturday, I figured they’d go earlier. Little did I know they’d show up at 6am to load my horse! I was standing at the door in my jammies thinking, are you kidding me? But I quickly dressed and went to make coffee while they loaded my two horses. I have my priorities straight, ya know.

The friends going on this trip included Mark’s best friend, Ronnie (the preacher fellow who built our house and likes to play tricks on unsuspecting country-girl wannabes), his two young adult sons, the seventeen year old wife of one of those boys, Shane ( 30 – the fellow who sold me my new Pinto and is currently training her) and his wife, Amanda. Then, there was me, the oldest of the bunch (although Ronnie is coming up the rear in that category).

We decided to take both my horses. Pepe came as my mount and Shane would ride Joy to give her more trail riding experience. Off we head for Aska Mountain. I figured we’d be out for a few hours. I never dreamed we’d be astride these animals, charging through the forest, for some 8 hours straight. Ouch.

I have never ridden like this before. I grew up with horses, but I rode over well established trails and along farm land. I went to horseback riding camps and took lessons too, but in those cases I was working in a ring, going over baby jumps in a controlled environment. Nowadays, I ride on our land, but only along the roads and in the pasture or around the ring. This ride was entirely different. They took me along barely cut paths through the forest, along rocky roads, on pavement, and through thick underbrush. It was everything except a controlled environment.

They would say, “Wonder what is over that mountain . . . let’s check it out.” Then, grinning, they’d charge straight up the hill without a path to speak of, weaving through trees and underbrush, dodging killer tree branches, hoping up snake wouldn’t land in anyone’s laps or that we wouldn’t disturb a wild boar. The horses would slip and slide, snorting and sweating from the effort. I just held on for dear life.

I said, “Do you think horses are allowed in this area of a national forest?”
“Don’t’ rightly know,” “Shane would say. An hour later we would pass a sign that had a big X through a picture of a four wheeler, a truck, and a motorcycle.
“Doesn’t have horses blocked out so we must be A-OK,” Shane would say.
“Doesn’t say you can bring a boat in here either, but I doubt they are allowed.” Then, I’d hear myself, and cringe because I sound so much like my mother.
“Ye-haw,” I’d say, urging Pepe to dance because I rather not be that careful, goodie two shoes sort of person that age seems pushing me towards becoming.

At the top of the steep mountain, we would come to an open trail. Every time they came upon unfettered spaces they would open the horses up wide and go charging along at a full speed run. You see, I trot and gallop, but honestly, I haven’t opened up my horse like that since I was a kid. I confess, I’m a tentative, middle aged rider now. But I’m not about to be the person holding a group of friends back, (nor would my horses let me) so in the end, I just thought, whatchagonnado?, and so I played “cowgirl on a mighty steed” for the day. I have to admit, once I re-familiarized myself with speed and daring, I had a blast.

I was grateful, because without these friends pushing me along, I seriously doubt I’d ever get down, rough and wild, to ride like that. Furthermore, I could never go exploring in such wilderness alone or even with a friend, because I’d get lost. I kept saying, how do you all know where we are?” And they’d explain that they’ve hunted this mountain for years. They grew up playing in these woods, coon hunting, exploring, look for their lost dogs. They know every path and trail, or if they don’t, they just have to go a few minutes until the recognize something and they figure out where they are.  Remarkable.

I learned not only a great deal about my friends, thanks to quiet conversation as we weaved slowly through some of the more difficult paths – but I learned a different side of my horses too. Pepe (my white horse – well, technically he is considered grey, but only because he has a light shadow of freckles along his neck in the summer) is a very well trained, ex-show horse. I love this animal with the passion of a fifteen year old with a crush. There is something in his eyes and character I just took to from the very beginning. Funny,  I have a drop dead, gorgeous, expensive, top of the line pinto, (Joy) and she is fantastic, but in the end, it’s the little quarter horse gelding I’m most devoted to. What can I say, I’ve always been drawn to character and personality before looks or an impressive résumé. Why should it be any different with horses?

Anyway, I’m used to Pepe being calm, sweet, and easy to control. But then, I’ve never taken him out to the wilderness in frisky weather with other horses before.. He was out of his mind with excitement. While the other horses moseyed along, he’d prance, picking his feet up high like he was in the show ring. He simply wanted to dance or run the entire time, and if I held him back, he did this strange thing – sort of like galloping in place. We used to teach kids how to cartwheel in place by undercutting their feet and this horse’s movement reminded me of that. He could gallop, yet not go anywhere. It was like some funky dance step designed to give the illusion of moving, yet not actually propelling you forward .

The horse trainers stared and said, “What the heck is that horse doing? I think we’ve seen some really strong competition horses do that in the ring, but Lord, we can’t imagine how you could teach an animal to do that. Where did you get this horse, the circus?” They all started kidding me, stating that only a dancer would end up with a horse that dances too. He was doing the watoosee all day long. And like it or not, I had to dance along with him.

“I retired from dance. Your turn to do the same,” I’d nag at the horse. It didn’t help. His soul was filled with rhythm and spunk all day.

I didn’t really mind his antics because I trust and adore this animal, and actually, it was sort of funny. Well, it was funny for the first three hours. Then, I got tired of bouncing up and down, having to remain attentive to control him so I wouldn’t get knocked off. I was getting really annoyed, but nothing I did would stop him. Everyone else was walking along calmly, and there I was on Pepe, bouncing along on this tireless, moon walking horse. I wanted to kill him. My butt hurt.

He also insisted on being at the head of the pack. It didn’t help that Shane and the seventeen year old were constantly taking off to explore non-established riding areas. They kept riding ahead full speed to do wild, boyish things on their horses. After trying and not succeeding to keep my horse back with the mature adults, I gave up and let Pepe charge ahead with the wild ones. Ee-gad. What else could I do? One good thing was that it allowed me to watch Joy in action under the control of a fearless rider. Man, she is pretty. And this gave me a quick refresher course in carefree riding. After a few hours, I switched horses with Shane and had my first experience riding my new horse. You can feel the power underneath you when astride a horse like that. Previously, I’d been somewhat intimidated by her, but she is magnificent. It didn’t take long to be assured I’d picked the perfect horse.

I groom my horses regularly and I bath them occasionally, as is common. But Pepe is a really dirty horse. He is forever upside down. Figures– the light colored horse would be the one who likes to roll. Anyway, as he started sweating, layers and layers of dirt embedded next to his skin started oozing out. And before you know it, my white horse was caked in mud. It was dripping off of him in huge fistful clumps. I was mortified! I had no idea he was that dirty.

Everyone was kidding me, saying, “When did you say you bathe that horse last – ahem, might that be never? Gee Ginny, we thought you liked that horse.”

(After I wiped him down with leaves for ten minutes and pulled off clumps of dirt. Eesh.)

Meanwhile, their mud colored, copper horses looked fresh as a daisy. A so did they. My horse happens to love me so much he has to rub up against me at every opportunity, and it wasn’t long until my yellow jacket was as muddy as he was. I looked like Pig Pen shuffling along with the clean crew of Charlie Brown. It was as if I’d gone on a different ride than everyone else, one that involved a mud pit. Good thing I love that horse so much, because for a while, I almost considered shooting him. I don’t think I’ve been that dirty since I was ten. But hey, a little dirt never hurt anyone.

(Shane on my Joy, and his wife, Amanda on a kicking, biting, horse named Rebel. Guess the name fits.)

The day truly lifted my soul. I saw miles of fall leaves coloring the landscape like an artist’s palate. I listened to the rustle of hooves shuffling through a foot-deep trench of crackling leaves followed by the clip clop of hooves on hard dirt, with birds singing from above and the constant hot breath of a hard working animal below.  I felt cool breezes and the hot muscle of my mount at the same time, sparking thoughts of how diverse and remarkable life can be. I couldn’t help but think of how I spent my Saturdays only a few short years ago, holed up in a studio without seeing the Florida sun for entire weekends, people complaining and questioning every decision despite how hard we worked to please them or how successful the dancers or dances we continually produced were. As I rode along, at peace and filled with gratitude for my life, I marveled that I could be in this place, doing this wonderful thing with people who knew me better in one afternoon than my previous friends bothered to get to know me after years of acquaintance. No one is single dimensional. I’m glad I rediscovered that about myself as well.

I waved to a few walkers on the Appalachian Trail (who actually shouted that the Pinto was the prettiest horse they’ve ever seen … ah, that’s my girl.) And I had funny conversations with my no-frills friends – they are the best kind of people who gather together in a casual way just to enjoy the sweet, simple pleasures of nature and camaraderie. No one in this group cares who makes more money than the other, or what you do for a living, or your level of education or whether or not you are ambitious or talented or came from the “right” kind of family. They don’t steer the conversation to work or dance or their kids, or even horses just because it is something they already know we have in common. Conversation just rolls along naturally, touching upon interesting subjects as we discover what makes each other tick.  There is simply lots of laughter, respect, and good natured curiosity and acceptance about each other’s past, future hopes, and interests. Amazing how, when people don’t want anything from you, you grow comfortable in your own skin.

Anyway, it was a perfect day filled with inspirational sights, sounds and thoughts.

We came upon a huge water tower and the boys asked me if I wanted to go up to the top to see the view.  Of course, I said yes. Then, they got off the horses and started shimmying up the metal grids. I was like, “Um… where are the stairs?” They explained that it was a service tower to check for fires, so people are not supposed to come up. I just have to climb up the first three flights, then there are stairs so the next eighteen floors are gravy. I was like, “Have you forgotten how old I am?’

“Only as old as you feel,” they called over their shoulders as I watched their butts head for the sky. “Don’t be a pooper.”

I shouted that Mark would forgive me for falling off a horse, or even a mountain, but I’d get in big trouble if I killed myself by falling off a tower when I didn’t have to be up there. Considering I was already so sore I could barely walk, I decided to be the old fart and skip the view (yet deep down I wished I was 18 again). I stayed below with Ronnie. This gave my horse further opportunity to get me even dirtier, an equine’s idea of a good time. I opened my thermos of coffee, wondering if these people ever eat anything other than beef jerky and candy. I guess food isn’t important when you are having fun. Ronnie and I ate a sandwich we had slipped into the saddle bags this morning, and while smiling and waving the young ones upward, we talked about how sore we would be the next day.

The days are growing short this time of year, so by the time we returned at 6:00 it was pitch dark out. I hobbled around the barn, putting my tack away, dreaming of the steaming tub calling to me from the house.

Mark took one look at me and chuckled. I guess I looked as beat as I felt.

“Did you have fun?” he asked, wondering if my dirty exterior meant I’d fallen or something. “You OK?”  

“I had time of my life,” I said.

I didn’t have to tell him I was OK. Some things go without saying.




Clean legacy

My clothes washer died. A few months back it needed a new belt. That cost me a whopping 125.00. This time it was a new drum seal (for 150.00). I figure it is only a matter of time until this clunker will need a new motor or something. Not that I’m complaining; any washer adopted by this family is in for industrial use.  It is only natural the poor thing will rebel against the abuse or kick up its heels and die from exhaustion. Anyway, we decided that it was time to buy a new washer.

Washing is the bane of my existence. We are a dirty family – between my working with the animals twice a day and/or working out, Mark getting grimy on the tractor or in the workshop, and the kids just being kids . . . not to mention that I am constantly washing sheets and towels and what have you, and then we have Denver coming over to do her clothes too. I must spend a minimum of an hour a day, every day, trying to keep up on our endless laundry pile. I don’t know how those people who wash once or twice a week don’t drown in soiled undies. I would.

Anyway, I picked out the washer that could handle the biggest load – three loads in one, like the big monsters at the laundry mat. It has a fancy-smancy electronic panel that assures many cycle choices. It also uses 4 times less water, conserving both energy and water. (Must consider the environment with every new purchase, ya know.) Best of all, there is no agitator in the middle, just some kind of new science that cleans the clothes with spray force and water distribution – water which happens to be recycled throughout the process, to boot. Imagine that! And no agitator means I won’t have to wrestle with all those strings on sweatshirts, spaghetti straps on nightgowns, etc…which constantly get tangled up in middle pole of my traditional washer. Yeah, laundry is gonna be a piece of cake from here on with my new scientifically advanced whirlpool.

They delivered this ultra cool washer today. I had them put the old washer in the garage. We are still going to have it fixed to give to Denver – thus lessening the laundry gridlock around here even more. Yippee.

When the two fellows came to deliver the machine, they stood outside, admiring the house. They commented that they see lots of houses, but in most cases, they all look the same. Ours is truly unique. We hear that a lot, but still it is nice when someone takes the time to compliment your home. So we talked about rustic house design and building in the casual way that is common to country folk. People are never too busy to pause and chat with a stranger around here. In fact, it’s only when you are too busy to exchange pleasantry’s that they know you are not from around here – and they don’t think much of those self-serving, superficial city folk that won’t give you the time of day or look into your eyes when talking to you, ya know.

Having gotten to know the woman of the house a bit, they came inside, looked in my pantry where the new washer will go and said, “Well, what day ya know. Looks like we got a liquor runner here. Whatcha got in those huge tanks? Wine or whiskey?”

I explained that I was making wine. They thought this was marvelous and wanted to hear just how I turned sugar into alcohol and what fruit I used to make the different flavors, so we spent some time talking recipes and techniques. They marveled at the different degrees of clarity of my wines in various stages and asked lots of good questions. Then, they shared a story of homemade wine they’d had before – especially the mighty kick of a particular blackberry wine they were served by friends around a campfire on a starry night. This lead to questions about how I control the “proof” of my wine’s alcohol content, and I explained that when making homemade wine, people sometimes top off the fermenting liquid with brandy instead of water. It’s an option because you must add something so you won’t have air in the jug, yet sometimes you don’t want to water down the taste. Then again, sometimes the alcohol content can be higher for other reasons. Anyway, homemade wine can pack a punch. It’s true.

I enjoyed the conversation as I always do when I meet new people. Up here, people are friendly and curious, but the talk never feels as if they are judging you or setting you up because they want to sell you something or get something from you. Down to earth conversation is just common courtesy in these parts. You take the time to know people, whether they are picking up your mail, delivering your washer, or asking for directions.

Anyway, as they hooked up the washer, we had a lovely conversation about wine making, new fangled clothes washers, and house building. After they were done setting up the washer, they pretended to wrap their arms around a big 6 gallon jug of wine and said, “We’ll just be taking our tip with us now.”

They were kidding, of course.

But the truth was, I was already thinking these fellows deserved a treat. Just this morning, I was labeling my tomato wine  (because I am getting too many bottles to keep the different batches straight so I have to start labeling and sorting.) A case of my tomato and strawberry wine was right by the door. So I pulled out two bottles of tomato and said, “This may not be the tip you are used to getting, but I want you to take this home and try it . . . and the best part of sending you away with a  bottle is that if you don’t like it, I won’t ever know.”

They assured me they wouldn’t be picky about any free bottle of wine, but they were just kidding about taking home wine as a tip, and they didn’t expect me to give any of my precious wine away. But I told them I have more bottles than friends to give them to, and anyone as interested in the subject of winemaking as they’d been deserved to have some honest to goodness homemade wine to sample for a true understanding of the pleasure of homemade wine. They had displayed true delight to learn a person could make wine out of tomatos, so I figured that was the flavor they’d most appreciate trying. 

I really wanted them each to take a bottle home, because frankly, I loved their sincere interest and I’d enjoyed the conversation. So, they thanked me and lumbered back into their delivery truck, smiling and waving, with two bottles of Hendry Valley 2007 Tasty Tomato Wine under their arms.    

This is why I love being a wine maker. A hobby like this not only provides you with a good conversation ice breaker when meeting new people, but makes for small, memorable moments. I suspect these guys will later tell the story of the lady who bought a washer and sent the delivery boys home with a homemade wine tip. And someday, when next they are drinking strong blackberry wine around a campfire with friends, they will talk about the tomato wine they sampled, thanks to a nice woman in a “cool” house with a funky new fangled washer.  Gee, I hope my wine gets as good reviews as my house did.

Country people do love to talk. They share stories casually with anyone who will listen – and plenty do. It’s the small talk woven together that creates a distinct flavor and builds community pride in small towns like this. The residents of Blue Ridge honor and respect the local heritage and maintain a deep appreciation for the traditions and individuals who help make the place unique. They don’t think much of conformity or generic commercial products, and as such, they applaud old fashion innovation. Homemade wine smacks of down home, vintage ways of doing things. As such, my rot gut wine is not only acceptable, but truly admired, and taste has nothing to do with it.

There was a time I might have strived to impress people with my winemaking finesse, but living here, I’ve learned the joy of doing things without regard to high achievement or meeting standards set by others. You just don’t encounter censorship or critique in these parts (except in matters of religion,  but that is another subject entirely). Such acceptance keeps fun at the forefront of your interests, as it should be .

Anyway, I like knowing I’m going to be a small part of the wine folklore in our community. I’ve just added a two minute tale to the millions of stories swapped in daily conversation by people going about the business of living. The subject of my tomato wine will no doubt come up in the most casual and unassuming way. Which makes me a part of this community now. It is always nice to feel a part of something wholesome and good.

Since I’m a gal with the five gallon jug salute for anything worth saluting, tonight I’ll drink to tomato wine, clean clothes and good conversation.  And the marvel of slowly being absorbed into a community legacy. 


You say “tomato”, I say “tomapple”

A month or so ago, I sent a friend a bottle of wine. She was appreciative, but also commented that she was glad I didn’t try to give her any of my tomato wine. She couldn’t imagine drinking that.

Now, if that isn’t the gauntlet thrown at my feet, I don’t know what is. 

I would have given her tomato wine, had it been ready. I like the idea tomato as a base for wine – sort of pokes fun at my country sophistication regression, and it certainly isn’t a wine a friend already has I their cupboard. I sincerely doubt my tomato wine will be compared to famous tomato wines from Europe or California. No, I think I am safe in regards to my wine concoction living up to high tomato wine standards.

Today, my first batch of country tomato was ready to be bottled. It just so happens this is one of my best wines – in fact, Mark insists it IS the best wine I’ve made. At every stage of its fermentation, we’ve been tasting it, shocked at just how nice this wine is. Just goes to show – if you haven’t tried something, don’t knock it.  It doesn’t taste tomatoey at all – sort of like a nice chardonnay. The end product didn’t even come out a blush color – just a sparkling white. Remarkable.  If I didn’t tell you what this wine was made of, you’d never guess.

Now, because I was determined to make the dreaded tomato wine good (because I WILL be sending a bottle to my friend) I took time and effort to pamper this batch. I re-racked the 5 gallons several times to clear sediment, then added a wine clarifier (which also sweetens and smoothes the flavor a bit). Then, I ran the finished, fermented liquid through my new handi-dandi wine filter machine with a number two filter, then again with the finer, number 3 filter to polish. By the time I was done, this wine was sparkling clear and full of body. Smooth. (It will be even better with a few months to rest in the bottle) Yummy. Perhaps I should mention that I’ve been drinking wine all day as I played in my kitchen, so it is entirely possible that my judgment is slightly skewed. Ahem.

I also filtered and bottled a big batch of strawberry wine today, messed around with a batch of Riesling and a batch of Merlot, then decided to go back to the drawing board with tomato experimentation. I don’t want to just keep making the same stuff, so this time, I am making wine from Apple cider combined with several dozen beefsteak tomatoes I purchased from a roadside vendor this week. I figure this month is probably my last chance to get homegrown, local tomatoes, so I couldn’t’ resist buying all the fellow had in the back of his truck. My next tomato wine will be an apple/tomato blend. Interesting, hopefully.

This meant I had to be inventive with a recipe, because the amount of sugar and several additives is different for apple wine than for tomato. I split the difference, figuring I will learn what works as I go. I even threw in two pounds of raisins into the cheesecloth holding the tomatoes to add depth to the flavor. By Christmas (because tomato is a quick fermenting wine with a shorter shelf life), I’ll know if this combination has any merit. Can’t wait.

I am being overrun with wine now, so I figure I need some kind of a wine cellar. While I’d like to pretend I’ve got a la-ti-da place to store my rot gut wine, actually, I am stacking it sideways in wine boxes on shelves in a closet downstairs that hosts our water heater. (It is dark and cool in there, despite the water heater, so this works well). This is also where I kept my incubating eggs and raised my baby peacock. Yea – I’ve had good times in this closet.

I figure I can put a few hundred bottles in this space, then they will spill out into other areas, and Mark will get all annoyed and then we can discuss putting huge wine racks along the downstairs game room or something. Of course, my other alternative is to just drink more wine, faster. Yes, that might be the better solution.

Anyway, today was devoted to wine making. I didn’t plan to spend the entire day on this project, but one thing lead to another and before you knew it, I was starting a new batch, and bottling and experimenting with my new wine filter.  You know how that goes.

Anyway, I think the best things in life often start off as mistakes.  
I’ll prove that when we toast the New Year with my original Tomapple wine! 


Tutor Training

There are a lot of things you can do to make a difference in the world. You can write a check to a cause you believe in, sponsor a child in a third world country or volunteer to help out at the yearly church or school fundraiser. I’ve done all these things and felt good about them. Like most good people, I want to do my part to make the world a better place.

There is a comfortable distance in this kind of giving because the face and situation of the needy people on the other end is something you are aware of in a removed, academic way. Furthermore, you are only involved for a limited amount of time, which makes it easy to commit and then put the issue behind you. Your efforts are just a small part of one bigger whole. You feel good knowing you did your part, but you have to trust that the organization or foundation follows through and indeed does something wonderful along the line. Unfortunately, it also means you never really know how significant the impact of your particular contribution is.  You know you made a difference . . . but how much?

When you teach someone to read, the act of volunteering is a very intimate experience. You are paired with one person with a drastic need, and their success or failure is in your hands. You can’t be sure how involved teaching any particular individual will be, so your commitment is “as long as it takes. But one thing is sure, as you continue to show up week after week, there is no question of whether your efforts are making a difference. The results are right there in front of you. You are changing a life. And because every person’s life touches so many more, your efforts create a chain reaction of positive cause and effect. For example, the individuals you teach to read usually have children and spouses. Learning to read alters how they care and provide for them. Breaking the pattern of illiteracy in a family means not only the person you are teaching today, but future generations, will have better opportunities and happier lives too. And because a non reader often can not work and doesn’t vote or function normally in our community, turning them into readers means they become contributing members of society rather than a drain –  and that effects all of us. For all you know, a student who has learned to read will now be able to understand a warning sign on the highway, which will prevent them from slamming their car into an oncoming one, so now you’ve impacted the lives a another family as well.

You see, the ongoing effect of changing the world one reader at a time is huge. But you don’t need to wonder if you are making a difference, because there is no denying the individual sitting right before you is going through a life altering experience. It is all because of you – because you care enough to sit down, get intimately involved and make right something that went wrong along the way. You are evening the imbalance of opportunity and understanding for one lucky individual.
What I’m saying is, if you really want to make a difference in the world; if you want to put a face on your cause and experience first hand what it is like to change a life forever, then teach someone to read. They will never be the same.  And guess what . . . you won’t be either.     


The other day, I trained nine new volunteers to be reading tutors. I guess I don’t need to mention how passionate I am regarding the importance of literacy. I thought long and hard about how I wanted to introduce the subject, so I started with the above lecture. I then moved on to describe my experiences with Kathy and all I’ve learned as her tutor, both about her as an individual and about the lifestyle and culture of non-readers.

I’ve been working with Kathy for two years now, so I can paint a pretty clear picture of the realities of teaching someone to read. I talked about what worked, what didn’t work; what was positive about the experience and what was a drag. Mostly, I hammered home the fact that this experience not only changed Kathy’s life forever, but my own. 

After lecturing one and a half hours, I turned the floor over to our trained educational supervisor and director head, and she discussed resources for 45 minutes. By then, we had some very excited, committed new volunteers. (I must admit, I was jealous. I never got an orientation or training or a list of resources. I was just given a student and thrown to the wolves. Luckily, I was resourceful and I stumbled through. What I learned the hard way makes me a good tutor trainer now.)

After the session, I was told I was very inspirational. One woman stopped me in the bathroom and said, “I’m so moved. I just hope I can be as good a reading teacher as you.” I didn’t have the heart to tell her that I was probably an average reading teacher, but just a good speaker. They told me others called the office the next day to rave about the training. I was pleased, because frankly, this first time, I didn’t know what to expect so I was winging it.

The fact is, I felt very comfortable in my role as teacher’s teacher, because this has been my forte for years in dance. It is all the same. Teaching others to be good teachers isn’t about drilling facts regarding the subject at hand nearly as much as it is about teaching the leaders to be good communicators and to be sensitive to the student’s mindset. To really teach well, you must be able to understand and respect a student’s needs and not confuse those needs with their short term wants or a person’s natural inclination to seek a quick fix rather than building a solid foundation. You must first and foremost teach your charge to love the subject at hand, showing them how mastering it will help them achieve their goals. Teaching is about enhanced communication and really knowing and caring about an individual on a personal level.

I walked the new tutors through a day in the life of a non-reader to widen their perspective. We discussed how and why these people have negative associations to school and how important it is to change that now. We discussed the difference between being “stupid” and “uneducated”, and how important it is to remind the student that you recognize that difference. I explained that giving tests is never testing the student, but testing the teacher, because when a student does not know something, it signifies that the information has to be re-explained or explained in another way so it can be grasped. This points out the responsibility of the teacher to do the job well, which helps the intimidated student no longer fear tests. You are acknowledging that even a teacher isn’t perfect, and success involves trial and error for everyone involved, both of you must work and learn together to achieve the goal.

I spent a great deal of time discussing that the teacher/student relationship should never become “us” against “them”, but people working together for a common goal. Students often forget you have their best interest at heart when they are being corrected all the time, so you must occasionally pause to remind them that even though it sometimes doesn’t feel that way, everything you do is in an effort to help them find success. And frankly, you need to remind yourself of that occasionally when progress is slow and you get frustrated.

Anyway, the training was a success.

What I loved best about working with dance teachers at the dance school was the feeling that I could touch the lives of more students than just the ones I had time to work with first hand. It wasn’t just because I wanted a really great school. The truth is, I loved dance, and I wanted to do whatever I could to assure others loved it too. Making dance classes a positive experience and making the introduction to dance education inspirational was my means to that end.

This project is no different. I am hoping my insight and the extra effort I put into tutor training will result in better experiences for many other new readers and their teachers. It is a way of serving the cause I believe in.     

Anyway, it felt right.


After the fiber festival last week, we went to see Denver’s school for the first time. She is at Penland, a fine arts and craftsmen school, studying silver smithing (primarily silver jewelry design). She is learning all kinds of techniques, including how to make hollow rings, set stones, fuse metals, etc…  The eight week session features a very talented teacher, along with guest artists, such as one renowned artist who paints images into silver using human hair. Interesting. (So far, I’ve not noticed Denver with any silver tipped hair. If I was in that school, people would be saying, “Gee, that woman must do her hair painting with her roots – how do you think she manages that . . . Humm……..  Best I stick to writing where no one can see the gal behind the art getting older.)

It was a delight witnessing Denver’s new environment – her tiny cubby in the wall that is considered a room, the big dining hall where she washes dishes (because she’s a work study student), and especially, her craftsmen studio and work station. She showed us some of the pieces she’s been working on. They are all different, for she is trying to attempt a bit of everything she’s been introduced to. Denver is wise enough to understand that it isn’t important to leave the program with lots of jewelry to show off, but with the skills required to create pieces long beyond the course. Dance taught her to push beyond what you are good at, because artistic growth comes from tackling those things that don’t come easy or naturally to you.  Anyway, she is learning loads and enjoying the process.

This is where she works and some of her pieces.  


The school was remarkable. They have a large art gallery near the office, but it wasn’t filled with “crafty” regional art, such as the Campbell Folk School. Penland features high end art, with things like intricately blown glass sculpture, avante garde photography, and multimedia woven pieces. Everything is a “do not touch” item; it feels as if you are in a museum rather than a craft school gallery. We enjoyed browsing the various displays, marveling at Denver’s teacher’s work, and tilting our head over those “way out” pieces.

Most of the students at Penland are young compared to the Campbell school. Many are art majors wanting to expand their mediums – some are college students at an impasse (like Denver). Then you have the “free spirits” – students who sit around at dinner in mismatched vintage clothes and hair dyed pitch black with bangs, who say things like, “Well, I just lived in Alaska for a few months to work with dog sleds, and I’m thinking of hitting Hawaii to be a kayak guide, or maybe moving to Guam to build straw houses for orphans, but thought it would be cool to learn to weave first, so I’ve been collecting these old used tea bags thinking I might use them for something . I might even move to New York to study vegetarian cooking next. I’ll decide the day before this program is over.”

Denver was intimidated at first, because this is her first exposure to the carefree, bohemian artist attitude and she felt very “white bread” and uninteresting. She thought she’d been around artist types all her life, but the privileged dancers in sequins qualify hardly. This time, she is hob knobbing with the real deal. Denver isn’t uninteresting or naive in the ways of art, of course, but that didn’t change her feeling like some Pollyanna straight out of suburbia. But after a few weeks she considered Penland “home”. She now says things like, “Maybe I should pack up and just move someplace exotic, just to see life from a different angle. Or maybe I’ll go back to college to study jewelry design, only I really feel I’m not ready for that yet. I want to do something though. Something real.”

Mark and I say, “Do it now, while you don’t have a mortgage or kids or spouse to anchor your feet to the practical world. Go! Find what is “real” to you. Find what makes your heart sing.”

Then, we watch her struggle with her natural inclination to be a homebody with security and comfort, and her latent desire to live a less traditional life filled with wonder and discovery. We are guessing she is someone who will land in the middle somewhere – like us.

As far as we are concerned, it is all about what makes each individual happy, and no one can guide someone else in that area. Each of us must learn to recognize what we need to fulfill our deepest desires if we ever want to capture true happiness. Comfort and security is all well and good, but not if it leaves you with a hole inside that casts a melancholy or dissatisfied pallor over your existence for years to come. Life is short, and joy is not something reserved for the “lucky people”. It is available for anyone with the resolve to recognize and embrace what inner contentment involves for them – which is harder to do than people understand.  We get so wrapped up in knots trying to be responsible to others and meet expectation, and we pick up all this baggage along the way until our lives are not our own anymore –  we’ve become someone at the helm of a complicated network of people we must serve, protect and consider. The window of opportunity to truly know (and serve) yourself is very short. I worry about that with my kids.   

Anyway, as parents all we can do is encourage her to follow her heart and support her in whatever ways we can. And we try not influence her decisions too much or set standards for her that we set for ourselves. We want her safe and we try to give advice born of life experience and adult wisdom to help her achieve what she wants, of course, but we recognize that her happiness and personal success is up to her. And everyone must learn the painful life lessons that influence their personal growth on their own.  I think this is the hardest part of parenting of all.

Oops. That was a tangent. Where was I? Oh yea. The school grounds are beautiful. Penland is nestled in the mountains with rolling hills,  long range views with fall foliage, and free range llamas wandering about. The buildings are rustic and old (well, one new painting studio is made of glass and steel – like it was dropped deep into nature from outer space.) Denver stays in a huge log cabin building, where all the iron railings etc. have been hand crafted – a very authentic and inspirational building. It features a tiny coffee shop downstairs that is always bustling with students and visitors. It has a library filled with craft books, a community computer, and tables and couches for gathering and encouraging conversation. I enjoyed the overrun bulletin board with eclectic ads and fliers for yoga classes, readings, and other holistic or artistic endeavors.

There are the tell tale details that reflect this is an artist community, such as the wall students decorated with tiles and embedded objects and carvings by the garden, or the big water tower that is often used as a art palate (one fellow is currently making a 14 foot tie to hang from the water tower . . guess he thought it looked like it needed dressing up.) 

In the studios, you can see work in progress. One girl is making a huge woven wall hanging using hundreds of used tea bags along with other fibers. The only area off limits to visitors was the glass blowing studio. I suppose it’s a dangerous area, and the student’s work is too fragile to allow strangers to poke through. I was sorry, because I bet that would be fun to see.

The school even features performance art – they had a puppet show the other day. This site showcases the pictures. Check it out.  Remarkable fun for your average Saturday night entertainment.

It was nice stepping into Denver’s world for a day. We admire our daughter for having the independence to load up her car to go on this adventure all by herself. She is not by nature, a remarkably bold person, nor one who likes to face the unknown. But she is expanding her horizons despite how difficult this is for her personality type.   We suppose she has a long, interesting journey ahead of her, should she continue learning about jewelry design. The hardest part of anything is beginning, so we are very happy for her.

I remember looking at my children on the day they were born, fascinated that through me, a unique, independent creature had been introduced to the world. I remember wondering, “Who are you, really?”
I had no idea that 21 years later, I’d look at my children and still be wondering the same thing.



Happy Halloween

Here we are – the Halloween couple gone country.  Mark is showcasing his usual cheery self… by the way, he actually put some of Neva’s white spray onto his temples announcing that  this meant he was in costume. Ha, like that would fool anybody into thinking his hair wasn’t turning white on it’s own! Sorry pal, but the beard gives it away.

It’s that time of year again. Mark has the Halloween music cranking through the house. We have over 8 hours of continuous Halloween music (without repeats) to play, thanks to years of collecting and organizing theme music for the dance school. Mark has put all our music onto his computer, so we have continuous play all the time now. Technology is amazing. This season, he omitted the Halloween techno, because it really isn’t all that nice an addition to easy listening, considering we are not using the music to teach jazz classes. What is left is the best of the best, all filled with mood and memories for us.

Of course, the music has him dancing through the house.

I was in the kitchen making pumpkin muffins and suddenly my husband spun by. A little kick. A Twirl. A Pas de bourree.

“What are you doing?”  I ask. You see, he was breaking the unspoken “no dancing allowed” rule. I gave him the lifted eyebrow (a look women perfect after years of marriage).

He said, “Aw. I can’t help it. It’s the music. I miss our friends this time of year.”

I let him keep dancing. Heck. I feel the same. I miss making my huge pumpkin buffet and making fun of our employees. (We demanded they dress up – then kidded them about it. May not have been fair, but it was fun.)

If we were having an open house like the old days, I’d be dang sure to make pumpkin wine somehow. At Halloween, I could force anyone to try anything. That time of year is like fear factor cooking for me, because I discovered my friends are daring enough to try things they wouldn’t normally consider tasting just because it’s Hollow’s eve

Mark is always in charge of the Halloween costumes. The kids announce what they want to be, then he get’s creative. I get to sip a cup of coffee and relax, waiting to see what comes out of the bathroom. I then get to clean the bathroom, but that is another (gross) story. This year, Neva wanted to be the bride of Frankenstein. Kent opted to go as baloney again (typecasting.) He is too old to put an effort into dressing up, but there is enough Hendry in him that he has to wear something.

Here in Georgia, we go downtown to historic Blue Ridge for the festivities. A thousand people walk the street while the businesses in town set up tables and give away candy. They have a costume contest, music playing and entertainment. We walk along greeting friends and laughing at the costumes as Neva fills her bag. Next, we stand in line for an hour to go to the haunted house in the fire station (5.00 a person goes to a fundraiser, so while the haunted house is somewhat lame, it is, nevertheless, worth the trouble.) We walk through a silly bunch of rooms lit with strobe lights and see our firemen and their families dressed like monsters and slashers. We dodge a fellow with the chainsaw and marvel at the little kids who stand there screaming all night long for effect. Certainly they won’t be able to talk in the morning. I got slammed in the face with water from a balloon that was supposed to be someone’s liver – the mad scientist threw it against a cage right at me. Yes, the humble sweet environment of the country has a new face on Halloween.

I must say, the family that won the Halloween costume contest made me jealous. Here they are. I saw them with their real donkey and hit Mark in the arm and said, “Now, why didn’t we think of that?”

I then announced that next year I would come as Lady Godiva on my new horse. Naked – but I have to grow my hair some first. Mark suggested I go the llama route and dress like a desert Sheppard or dress as weather vain and plunk one of my roosters on my head. I’m guessing he doesn’t think a girl my age can pull off the Lady Godiva thing without people wincing. Ah, I hate getting old.

We have friends from Florida visiting this week. They don’t have kids (yet) so I don’t think they fully appreciated the Halloween festivities, but I figure one day, when they have children, they will understand what compels parents to devote time and energy to such silliness. I’m just hoping that by the time my kids outgrow all this, we have grandkids – a perfect excuse to keep at it. I, for one, think Halloween is fun. Not a sophisticated or intellectual bone in the holiday’s body – and sometimes, the best things in life are just down to earth, purposeless nonsense that makes people smile.

Mark announced that next year, we should have a Halloween party. Break out the scads of decorations, cook up a storm, and show this town how to do Halloween right. It would be nice to build some Halloween memories here and maybe begin a new tradition. Of course, once we open the coffee house, we may be doing the halloween thing there, but I hope we do something somewhere. In the meantime, our house, situated as it is all alone at the far corner of 50 acres, still has music . . . and a weird looking lumberjack guy twirling through the rooms.