let go

There are times when we feel the overwhelming need to break out of our current circumstance.  It's not about our circumstance; it's about ourselves and our place at the time. This leads to complications.  If we are unhappy, we can change our circumstance.  But more often than not, it won't make us any happier.  The thing we have to change is ourselves, and to do that, we have to come to grips with who we really are. People ask me all the time about starting over and change.  It's a topic that seems to capture everyone, as though change, in and of itself, was the means to an end. As though a goal that sits at the end of a long series of circumstantial changes will result in a burst of happiness and fulfillment.

I'm somewhat of an expert at circumstantial change, as I've lived in three countries and have moved thirteen times in thirty years.  I used to say I was something of a nomad, but I think it goes further than that.  The human energy required to reroot thirteen times explains a lot to me about who I am. There's been a great deal of searching going on. It wasn't, though, until I moved to Italy that I had the time to really process the whirlwind of my life. I've actually lived in this place longer than I've lived anywhere in my adult life.  In December, we will be here nine years.

We came here with almost a maniacal need to put down roots, and to build something meaningful and somewhat permanent that we could lean on to let us breathe.   We were willing to do whatever it took to make this project work.  But what it would really take, in retrospect, to succeed at this lifestyle, was something that I wasn't ready to reckon with.  I was willing to change my circumstance, my income level, the square footage of my residence, my car, my wardrobe, my diet.  I was flexible to the point of being self-defeating. Whatever it takes, I thought, through the blurred tears and aching bones.

People who knew me couldn't really understand why I was so fragile, scared and defeated.  After all I wanted all of this change.  We  brought it on ourselves.  What was the problem?

The problem was that I hadn't yet reckoned with the greatest change to be made of all. I was ready to change this place with the goal of making it the most beautiful little inn on a hill ever, no matter what it took for me to get there. But I was blinded to the fact that even if that grand goal were to happen, I would still be fragile and hurt and unhappy with all that I had accomplished. Because the real problem was that I could not see, through all of this, my own goodness.  I could not embrace the fact that everything I did, every day, was enough.  Everything was good. In fact, everything was better than good. If you would have heard the guests speak of our place, you would say, Diana, what on earth are you talking about?  The guests love your B&B.  But all I could see, all I ever could see, was what wasn't done. And I viewed each and every one of those undone things as a momentous personal failure.

This was nothing new. Being satisfied with accomplishments has always escaped me.  As I would tick off the things that I had managed to do or learn, I would immediately keep those things in check with the list of what I had left to learn, left to accomplish - a list that was always so much longer and more difficult.  On the days of my biggest accomplishments - landing the best job ever, getting a raise,  learning how to conjugate the past perfect in German, making the prettiest bowl I had ever made - I would crawl under the covers and cry because I would have to raise the stakes again.  Nothing was ever enough.

 

Looking back, all the need for circumstantial change was just my pushing my aching self further. I created new yardsticks with which to judge my accomplishments.  New languages, new professions, new creative ventures.  When I'd master one thing, I'd move on to the next, and then the one after that.  It's just now, now at this very critical time in my life, that I am becoming aware of something very important.

It's enough.

Whatever we put forth, however we do it, it's enough and it's good on its own.  We don't have to take what we've done and pulverize it by creating another new goal out of it. we can just let the good be there. There is no need, none whatsoever, to take all the good we do and  minimizing it by looking beyond it as soon as it's in the past.  We can expand into ourselves and take in the goodness of all we do.  We can enjoy and revel in our own amazingness.  We can relax.

We can let go.  Nothing bad is going to happen if we let go and allow ourselves the pleasure of just being.

 

*

I have had the most amazing week.

I communicated Amy Oscar about what's going on and just touching in the same vibration with her made me feel calmer. If you don't know who Amy is, then I urge you not only to visit her site, but to join Twitter on Sunday mornings at 10 am Eastern time under the hash tag #soulcall .  It has become a regular stop of spiritual awareness for me.  Also, you might want to download her book about angels. 

I caught up with simplicity expert Courtney Carver about what's happening and about the wonderful new project she is working on with the amazing  Tammy Strobel  called Your Lovely Life , a chapter by chapter course for finding the beauty in our lives. I'll be talking more about this in the next weeks.

Through my friend Cristina Colli, author of the clean, lovely, and soothing lifestyle blog Positively Beauty, I learned of  Anita Moorjani, an amazing woman who has written a book called Dying to be Me, a beautiful account of her near death experience at the final phase of Stage 4B Hodgkins Lymphoma and her choice to come back and live the life she was about to leave forever.

I went back and forth with my friend Gina DePalma, executive pastry chef at Mario Batali's Babbo Restaurant in Manhattan.  She's in the throes of writing her next amazing cookbook after Dolce Italiano, and I am trying to see if I can possibly create a special plate in my kiln that can even begin to do her beautiful desserts justice.  It's a real challenge, but one that I love, because creating plates for special people and events is a labor of love.

I feel blessed and reassured that everything is exactly as it should be as I go into myself, let go of the doing and embrace the being.

I wish you, my trusted readers, a week full of promise and light.  Thank you for being there.

 

gifts

So many gifts have been extolled on me in the past year.  I don't have to look very far to see blessings all around me, in so many shapes and sizes. A fun, interesting, and very busy season.  We had so many great guests this year, and spent so much time laughing and talking.  I thank each and every one of you from the bottom of my heart for adding another dimension to this adventure we started seven years ago.  The conversations, the philosophizing, the copious bottles of wine poured at sunset...it was a pleasure to have the privilege to host you during your days in this indescribably beautiful country.

Lots of pots.   I made and sold more pots this year than ever before.  They flew out as soon as they came out of the kiln, making me feel very good about the direction of my work. Thank you for making me feel that my work is worth owning and having in your homes.  I'll be getting busy shortly, stocking the coffers for the new season and to re-stock my on-line shop, which went down to empty as a result of guests buying up my inventory.

The gift of writing.  I am so happy I had the chance, in 2012, to complete the first, second and twentith draft of my first novel.  It's now out to a few choice readers for some direct critique before I dedicate myself to getting it published.  I've been soaking up all kind of information about publishing, such as listening to this conversation between Leo Babauta and Seth Godin, reading everything I can by Noah Lukeman, and in general making sure that by the last day of 2012, this book is solid, print worthy and something that people will enjoy reading.  Disciplining myself to write a novel from start to finish was one of the best things I've ever done for so many reasons.  Now I really look forward to getting it out there.

You, you, and you.  My beloved blog followers and readers.  It is with both arms that I hug each and every one of you.  I am sorry that I am inconsistent at responding to comments, because each one means so much to me.  You've given me so much more than I could ever give you.  All I can say is thank you for taking time and for being exactly who you are, a diverse, warm, open-hearted group of people with dreams and desires and creativity at such a deep level.  It's my firm desire to take this blog to a new level in 2012, to make it shine and shimmer and give each of you more inspiration every single time it lands in your inbox.

The health of my family and friends.  My mother and my brother-in-law have remained cancer free this year.  My friend Gina DePalma fought back ovarian cancer once again and has been declared cancer free. Micha walked away uninjured from a serious head-on collision in June.  All in all, not a bad record.  I stopped eating gluten in July, lost weight and picked up some much needed energy.  Life, indeed, is good.

To my circle of friends: thank you for listening, caring, and being my strength, for your endless empathy, understanding and love.

Und Micha, ohne Dich geht es überhaupt nicht. Du bist mein ein und alles.

I join, a little too late, a group of wonderful bloggers in Italy in expressing gratitude for the gifts we've received:Letizia from   Madonna del Piatto, Rebecca at Brigolante, Gloria from At Home in Tuscany, Melanie of Italophile and Jessica from Why Go Italy.  These bloggers make up a group called the Italy Blogging Roundtable. Sorry that I'm so late with this, ladies, but better late than never when it comes to gifts!

For this, my last post of 2011, I want to wish each of you a beautiful holiday, celebrated just the way you want to, quiet days with friends and loved ones, and joy, joy, joy.  I'll see you back here in the first week of 2012 with more inspiration, more simplicity, and more creativity! Be well.

Love,

Diana

december's simple glow

Whether it's snowy or simply chilly, December is a welcome arrival.  With its hearty foods and layered sweaters, it's a chance for us to experience nature in a way that we simply can't any other time. It's the month of the solstice, the short days of the year, when the flickers of candles glow against walls and we allow ourselves to indulge in a bit more food than we actually should. We welcome visitors with cinnamon and nutmeg laced teas and cookies.

December days are not days to be muddled through, although if you turn on the TV and allow your brain to get wracked with manic advertising about all the things you're lacking, you might very well think so. The commercialism will do nothing but exhaust you and make you feel like you need to buy more to be "ready".

But the fact is, you're ready already. Giving comes from a completely different place than Target. Make some cookies for your neighbor. Stop at a local artisan shop and pick up some hand-rolled beeswax candles for your best friend.  Give your mom a special family photo framed in something pretty.  A special roll of yarn in a shade you know your cousin would love to crochet a scarf from would bring her great joy.

Honor the Winter Solstice.  Open you heart to friends and family.  Let bygones be bygones and pledge to love and not to judge one another.  Shut off, as my mother would say, the idiot box and go out for a walk and look at the beauty available to you simply by stepping outside.

Sing.  Play the piano, if you can.  Light candles.  Wrap yourself in a blanket and write your cards. Remember, with great clarity, the nice things people did for you this year and be grateful for their love. Don't complain how early the darkness comes.  Light your life with a glow from inside.  Invite friends in for a cocktail.  Stock the freezer for the first snow.

Here is my December gift to you.  The amazing George Winston and his rendition of Johann Pachelbel's Canon and Variations.

the sacredness of the everyday

 

Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication. -Leonardo da Vinci

There is nothing more graceful than simplicity.  Elegance stems from our ability to appreciate the essential nature of things.  A table, simply set. A garden exploding with goodness.  A glass of wine shared with a friend on a breezy, warm summer evening.  None of these require anything more than an appreciation for what many would consider the everyday.

It's in the everyday that the sacred lives.

Sometimes I have a hard time getting a grip on all the things I want to do.  I get frustrated with chores.  I end up muddling through and not doing anything particularly well.  My creativity gets the best of me when I know that it's simplicity that needs to have the upper hand. Mindfulness. Focus.  The fact is that if I can organize my thoughts and day and do one thing at a time, the likelihood of doing that one thing well increases exponentially.  And the other fact is that if I get my chores done, one after the other, in a way that does not deplete my energy, then my creative time is so much more valuable.

By focusing on the task at hand, we honor the sacredness of the everyday.  I can never understand when people consider the everyday to be boring, when it is in the everyday that the essence of life is contained.

To get into a rhythm of creativity, we need to find a rhythm of simplicity in the everyday.   Being creative doesn't happen in isolation - it happens as an extension of our habits.  If we have good habits in keeping our lives simple, then creativity has a chance to flow.  If we choose to make our lives complicated with unnecessary distractions, there simply will be no time, no energy and no real desire to allow creativity to blossom.  There won't be room.  It's just that simple.

In keeping our routines straight forward, in practicing mindfulness with every day chores, in being aware that complications are only two or three anxious thoughts away, we go a long way to mastering our own time and making space for our own creative muse.

We certainly need room to try things out and to give ourselves the freedom to fail. It's the easiest thing in the world to limit ourselves to a tiny amount of time during which our creativity is supposed to bubble out of us like a can of shaken Mountain Dew.  We put so much pressure on ourselves to create something meaningful, beautiful, orginal, expressive and the result is frustration, disappointment and the false notion that we're just not that talented.

But it just doesn't work that way.  Creativity comes to us, pours into us, through how we live our lives. How much we are willing to give up and simplify and clarify.  It's not like artists wake up one morning and paint masterpieces.  Their lives are the food for their creativity.  I'v noticed something in myself:  the more I choose not to allow fear and anxiety and complications and being overwhelmed to dictate my time and my behavior, the more room I have emotionally to create.  And the more room I have emotionally, the more room I am capable of dedicating physically.

It's not that it's always easy, or even always possible.  That's why it's called the practice of mindfulness, as Michelle Fabio tells us.  It's in the practice that we notice small differences that can drastically improve the quality of our everyday lives.  Simplicity and mindfulness are ways of showing respect to the sacredness of the everyday by giving the everyday meaning and purpose.

An eggplant plant, carefully tended to, will produce big, beautiful nutritious eggplants, with one being enough for a whole dinner. A cake batter carefully and purposefully mixed will yield a better cake.  A kitchen carefully cleaned will be a pleasurable place to make a simple and lovely dinner.  A sheet carefully hung will not have to be ironed (my personal favorite!).  I like good cakes, simple dinners and time to spend making pots or writing instead of ironing. And I really love eggplants sauteed in olive oil.  A little too much, in fact.

I urge you to read this wonderful post by Courtney Carverfor more inspiration concerning simplicity and creativity. Reading Courtney's blog is like drinking a tall glass of fresh water with lemon on a hot summer's day.  Nothing more simple or beautiful than that.

I wish you a simply beautiful day. Here's my eggplant still in its flower stage.  I saw it this morning while walking around my house. Goodness abounds and waits to be noticed - mindfully.

your life: simplicity, harmony, opportunity

The clutter, the discord and the difficulty are what produce the fertile ground of creativity.

On the day you decide to follow a creative path, you will have lesson after lesson handed to you.  You will feel beaten, humbled, and alive.  You will be aware of large churnings under the surface that no one can see or feel but you.  You might smile at friends and family, talking to them about things you have always talked about, but inside you will be  jumping hurdles, slaying dragons, praying for answers.

You will feel like you are running as hard as you can  - in a bowl of mashed potatoes.

Your advances will be small, your badges earned.  You will be a student for a very, very long time.  You will wonder whether it was worth it. If you should not have just stayed where you were, in the land of mediocrity and perpetual indecision.

After having made more mistakes than you care admit to, things start to make sense.

You know something about your own path.  You know something about where you are headed and you start to see the puzzle fall into place.  You are astounded just to realize that it really did take all that just to get here.  And how it was worth every moment of utter confusion and sheer fright that the Universe presented to you along the way.

You are awake.

You  realize that you still have work to do. You are kinder.  You are more empathic to peoples' struggles, because you yourself had to struggle to get here.  You respect the wisdom of others, gathered along parallel paths, and you allow others their say.   You know you don't have all the answers.  But you have learned to ask the right questions. Welcome to your beautiful, creative, inspired, individual life.

Savor the slowness of the days before Christmas and enjoy the company of your friends and family.  Light a candle.  Count your blessings.  Hug your kids, your dog, your mate.  Be grateful.

living in italy: its simple lessons (1)

People ask me all the time about living in Italy. The questions range from how do I get a visa to how can I support myself to how hard is it to be an English teacher to are the vegetables really cheap? My answer is usually to look down at my hands and purse my lips like the Church Lady. I know it's not very helpful.  It's just that Italy is a different place for each person.

My answers will not be the same ones you will hear from Michele Fabio or Eleonora Baldwin or Sara Rosso or Megan McCaffrey Guererra or Arlene Gibbs or Rebecca Winke or the other excellent expat bloggers who have made a life here. We've all come here through different circumstances and for different reasons.  And that's as it should be, I think.

If you ask me why I moved to Italy, my knee-jerk response would be to say to learn to make a killer vitello tonnato and to remember how to dream. And that would be true. Because all good philosophy in Italy is intrinsically connected to food.   But on a deeper level, I came to Italy to face myself, large pores and all.  Italy, it turns out, is the perfect country to do just that.  

It's why I love Italy.  And it's why I hate it.  Italy has forced a lot of reality on me.  And it's done it in the most backhanded of ways. Kind of like when your sweet grandmother gives you a piece of candy and then drops you off at the dentist for a root canal.  Yeah, Italy can be kind of like that.

Because that's how you learn.  Through tough love:

Don't waste.

Waste is a sin.  And it's crazy.  It costs too much.  So don't throw so much away, and don't buy so much in the first place, for God's sake. What do you need all that junk for anyway?  Buy what you need and leave the rest.  We don't need more trash, that's for sure. We can't even deal with the trash we have in this country.  So stop buying so much.

Eat well.  At home.  Restaurants are for special times, not for every day.

Eating too often in restaurants takes away everything special about it.  And you will never really internalize the importance of food if you don't prepare it just about every day.  Eating well at home is a privilege that many can't afford.  So enjoy it. Dio. Is that so complicated?

Organize yourself.

Because if you don't, both the grocery store and the post office will be closed for a three hour break by the time you get there. And you will get so frustrated that you  will start yanking out each of your hairs individually by the root while almost driving into the person in front of you who is on HIS way home to have pasta at mama's for lunch.  Don't make him late.

Wear a sweater.

Because heat costs a lot of money and it's unnecessary to use too much of it.  Cut the fingers off your gloves if you need to.  Really.

God didn't give you sunshine to get just a tan, but also to get your laundry dry.

In case you were wondering - there are no local gated community laws banning hanging laundry in Italy.  Laundry flapping in the wind is considered a fine art form. As it should be EVERYWHERE.

Turn off the TV and go for a walk.

What do you need TV for, to catch the next exciting episode of Grande Fratello (Grande=big, Fratello=brother) or to hear the Prime Minster tell you how his helping a young prostitute was the humane thing to do?  Shut the idiot box.  Go for a walk.

More simple lessons from Italy on another day.  Now get back to work.  Or napping.  Or eating.  Or whatever it was you were doing.

a simply beautiful italian encounter

In Italy, you can turn a corner in a small town and a miracle can happen.  It's just that kind of country.

This past weekend, my expat friends and fellow bloggers Sara Rosso and Michelle Fabio came to Acqui Terme to visit.  To celebrate the first time of being together physically instead of virtually, we decided to take a Saturday morning walk around the city.

We walked through the centro storico, the historic center of town, upwards from Piazza Bollente - the square where steaming hot sulphur water has literally been boiling to the surface for over 8 centuries - into the tiny alley ways of the Pisterna, where  twelfth century palazzi are built side by side into the steep hillside, cut by cobblestone walkways so narrow in places that two people holding hands with their arms stretched out can touch facing facades.  Minty green, ochre, tea-brown.  Russet. The buildings are at once beautiful and faded, beckoning and discreet.  Under azure skies and in the chilly breeze, I wanted to give my friends the real feel of this most ancient neighborhood.

And this is when, as happens so often in this country, a change in direction led us to an encounter that left each of us moved, stunned, speechless.  Walking along the back part of the Pisterna, towards the Duomo,  we crossed over  Piazza Conciliazione to Via Capra (a street name not lost on Michelle's keen eyes) .  As we approached the corner of the appropriately named Via Bella, a couple were stacking a couple of cords of newly received firewood. They greeted us warmly and we shared a few words.  I could not help noticing that behind the wood, inside the entry to what looked like an enclosed cortile was a grand stairway in the softest alabaster white imaginable, leading to the upper part of the palazzo.  Sara and Michelle were looking too.  We glanced at each other, what is this, really?  What have we stumbled on here?

Introductions were made.  Eleonora Ricci Misheff and  Alzek Misheff.  Eleonora is an architect who specializes in historic restoration using recuperated and environmentally friendly materials. Alzek an internationally known fine and performance artist, who escaped communist Bulgaria in 1971 and whose work has been exhibited throughout Europe and the United States. They split their time between Milan and Acqui Terme.  They bought Palazzo Thea in the mid nineties, when decaying, derelict properties in the Pisterna could be picked up for a song. Before Acqui Terme was the restored gem that it is today.

Eleonora and Alzek kindly asked us if we wanted to see the rest of the palazzo, which they lovingly restored into their private residence and studios. What we experienced in the next hour amazed us.  This couple, with their own hands, had created a masterpiece out of a ruin.

The building, seriously damaged by water over the centuries, was taken apart, piece by piece, and restored using traditional limestone plasters and pigment washes on both the vertical and horizontal surfaces. Detailed fresco ceilings were completely recreated.  Alzek's remarkable and stirring art graced the walls of this home, which is comprised of room after room with 18 foot ceilings -more than ten thousand square feet of the most beautiful residential space I have ever had the privilege of visiting. The grand hall had three concert grand pianos - for special performances.

But there's more.  The owners were so kind, so happy, so excited that we loved the space so much.  They explained many of the details involved with the restoration.  They treated us like friends.  The heart and soul and blood that they had poured into this home was evident to me.  It's a feeling I recognized in my self. These were not nonchalant bystanders in the restoration process.  These people had spent months pushing and rubbing the leathery surfaces of the lime-pigmented walls and attending to the mosaic beading in the floors.  I could tell.

Their passion was contagious.  What impressed me the most about the spaces - every single one of them - was the simplicity.  I felt a sense of peace in each room.  The furnishings were the correct scale and style.  There was respect for the past in this structure, and an eye for the future.  But don't believe me.

Take a look for yourself.

I think that Eleonora and Alzek have a sense of genius.  They have, out of a space that could be overwhelming and intimidating, created an elegant and inviting home - filled with beauty and light, art and a sense of intimacy that took my breath away.

This residence is, in the most unexpected way, the essence of  uncomplicated creative living.

This experience of turning a corner and finding people so gentle, a creation so remarkable, and a passion so honest and pure, is quintessentially Italian.  To say I feel grateful and blessed to live in a precious place that holds such secrets would be understating the facts.  I myself am only left shaking my head, again and again, at how this country pulls at my heart.

A new look at old habits

There are so many things I'm bad at.  Sometimes I can, with varying degrees of success, push them into the background and allow my virtues to shine.  But it's a short lived panacea, because the spiders in the tangled webs of my bad habits come and bite me where it hurts.

And there's something else.  Living in a small space is a revelation.  All the things that you are really horrible at will come and shove a triple magnifying mirror in your face and will say,"SEE?  You do indeed really suck at (choose your poison). Just like you always thought."

Great.  Thanks.

For me, it's organization and paperwork. Without going into any unnecessary detail, let's just say the efforts I have made in fifty two years to improve myself in either of these areas have usually ended up in anxiety, tears, and more clutter and confusion.

But  maybe it's just a matter of perspective. Because by facing the things I am not great at, my small living space is actually doing me a huge favor.  And as I have continued to write this blog, to simplify it and to straighten out my thoughts enough that I can present them logically to you, there have been some other changes going on.

My closets are getting more organized.  I've gone through the Tammy Strobel inspired eliminate-what-you-don't need process.  My personal book shelf has  twelve books on it- all reference.  Fiction and anything else without pictures are relegated to my new Kindl.  I have no clothes I have not worn in the last year, save one black dress.  I don't own any magazines anymore.  I got rid of my Martha Stewart Living 1992-2003 collection once and for all - I cut out the pictures and recipes I liked and put those items into two scrap books.  I use strictly on line resources for creative inspiration. No more trees sacrificing their lives so that I can see yet another well-laid out kitchen.

As for that other elephant in my emotional room, paperwork, I have started taking it on in a way that will not make my heart race.  If I start some kind of paperwork task but feel anxiety coming on, I stop.  Period.  And go back to it later.  But I make sure I do go back to it.  One day I will organize the paper pile and separate out the things that need attention.  The next day I will make holes to be able to file things in binders.  And the next day I will put them in the binders.  I have found that if I try to do all those tasks at once, I get so frazzled that things get misfiled.  So I break it up over a few days.  What's the harm in that, really?

All of this has led to me being able to take on more and more simplification.  I am stunned to find out how much better I feel whenever I simplify and bring fresh light into a tangled corner of my life.  My perspective has changed.  I know I never want it to go back to how it was.  No more piles of stuff I don't need - ever.  Living a frugal lifestyle has shown me the true value of the things we have in our possession.

As I eliminate things that are not essential from my life, I am becoming more sure of not only my personal style, but of what kind of art and ceramics I want to put out into the world:  art and ceramics that bring joy, not confusion.  Clean, beautiful pieces that speak of elegance and clarity.

It's extending to other areas as well.  While I have always been very conscious of eating well (a prerequisite for teaching culinary classes here at my B&B), I am making dietary changes.  Simpler foods.  Loads of fresh vegetables.  Less meat.  Less gluten.  I don't want a million things in my cupboard - that eventually get picked through and thrown away because the dates expired.  I want a few choice good things.  Delicious things. Healthy things.  Katie Tallo is helping me on this part of my journey, keeping me motivated to be as healthy as I can through choice.

So you see, having your weakness pointed out to you by circumstance is really the Universe giving you a huge chance to change your perspective.  And your life.

giving things up to get the gifts

the entry to our small, cozy, wood heated apartment

We live on a beautiful hill in a property that consists of approximately 3500 square feet of renovated space, with  about 900 more to renovate somtime in the future.  There is a large B&B kitchen, a pottery studio, a wine cellar, three large, luxurious guest rooms with ensuite.  When you subtract all those spaces from the total, it leaves about 700 square feet.

That would be our apartment.

Now, had you told me eight years ago, when we bought this property, that in 2010 we would still be living in four not-very-easy-to-heat rooms, none of which is larger than a small bedroom in any suburban house - while running a business out of one of them - I would have sniggered.  Grinned.  No way.  Ok, well, maybe for the first year, but we would get our real space done.  By 2004 at the latest.

Well, 2004 came and went, as did 2005, 2006 and the rest of the years in between.   And we are still here.  Chopping wood for three stoves, keeping the propane heat turned down low, as the guests enjoy the best of what this property has to offer.  We've done it because up to this point, this is what was required of us to make this project a success.

In my mind, when people want to become financially independent, the most failures occur because people are simply not willing, or don't see the absolute necessity, of making sacrifices.  I mean really big cuts in lifestyle. Instead, often they get themselves more in the hole, as if that big nut every month will be motivation to get their business idea off the ground.  As if chasing just to keep up will bring some degree of feeling good about being independent.

Nothing can be further from the truth.

People just fool themselves into believing that they need the things they think they need. They don't need the half of it all. And with the savings they could create their dreams.  I know this to be true.  I know because I have done it.

I often joke that one of the saddest days of my life was handing over the keys of my BMW to its new and rightful owner on the day before we moved to Italy.  It's not really true, but that day does remain with me today because it was the day I really said goodbye to a traditional lifestyle based upon what I thought was living big.  As I watched the lights of my beloved black car with its black leather heated seats and Bluetooth-before-it-was-called-Bluetooth electronics and sassy exhaust pipes drive away on that rainy German night, I felt the spiral of downward social mobility yank inside my gut.

There would be more sacrifices that would dwarf the loss of my beautiful 330D.  Many of them.

But the interesting part of it all was that as things like regularly shopping for clothes and bi-weekly dinners out and comfortable heat out of a gas line got scratched from life's plan, other things clearly came into being.  All of the life's energy that we saved was put into creating a nest. A haven.  A beautiful little spot in the middle of a beautiful big spot.  A place for people to come and find, I don't know, peace?  Themselves?  Joy?

Boy, that sure beats a new pair of jeans every couple of months, don't you think?

So I sit here tonight, dog and husband on the sofa, wood burning stove blazing, warm pot of veal stew bubbling on top of it, thinking, and there was a time that I saw this as a sacrifice.  Living small.

I've changed.  A lot.  Because I really have no desire, none whatsoever, to live big ever again.

Funny how that happened.

the quiet time

A very busy time it's been.

Having a B&B in the wine country in Italy means that September and October are always bustling.  People come, wanting to experience first-hand the process of grapes being harvested and going to the primary crush.  The smell of mosto is everywhere this time of year, as the vineyards turn from green to olive to gold to red.  Slowly, the tractors have rounded up all of the grapes and a quiet is settling in as late October brings cool weather, misty mornings, and the smell of wood burning stoves.

In two weeks, my maniacally busy season comes to an end, and I can dedicate myself to the things I love most - ceramics, writing and cooking.  When the last sheet is ironed and the last herb frittata is made, my peaceful time starts.  I am looking forward to it.  It has been five years since we have had an off-season without a huge, property altering, expensive renovation project.  Five years have passed since we have had a complete break from either major construction or innkeeping.  It's been so many years of building and growing, but also of stress, worry, mishaps and tears.  I reckon I am at the most tired I have ever been. Innately I know that it's time for me to stop and take pause.  It's time for me to do what the guests do when they come here. To relax.  To sleep. To recharge.

In my conversations with guests, one theme repeats itself over and over.  As we get older, we have to take care of ourselves.  Pushing forward, regardless of the costs, is the stuff of fools.  There really is a time for every matter under heaven.

My goals for the following five months?

To simplify my life in as many ways as possible.

To get strong again after a very exhausting season, one that followed a very exhausting winter, full of construction and dirt and ice cold weather.

To become a better writer and potter.

To savor the quiet.

To heal.

live in the moment

Years ago I dreamed of a much simpler life.  And it's funny.  When I got it, I didn't recognize it at first.  Because I had not yet mastered the art of being able to enjoy things. A frenetic life can make things like enjoyment get pushed to the back burner.  If we are busy focusing on dozens of things at once, it's hard to enjoy any of them.  We get hit from all sides with subliminal messages about what we should be doing versus what we are doing: Remember to breathe!  Take Yoga and Pilates!

Live in the Moment!

I was on the phone with my girlfriend in the States.  "If one more person tells me again that I should be living in the moment, I'm gonna smack 'em," she said through her labored breathing (she was spinning on her stationary bike as we talked). " I'm so much in the damn moment that I almost tripped over it and broke my toe."

No, you're not, honey, I gently reminded her.  What I neglected to say, supreme harmony freak slash confrontation wimp that I am, is that if she really cared about the conversation time with me, she'd get off the damn bike and stop panting.

But she was right about one thing.  We are not going to start enjoying things if we just add them to our to do list and stress about them because everyone says we should.   Learning to live in the moment comes from within.  It's learned - through having fritted away plenty of moments that we can't get back.

Years ago, I was in an executive sales training workshop sponsored by one of my numerous ex-employers.  As part of the training, we had to answer the question:  What would you like to see yourself doing in ten years?  My answer did not endear me to the trainer, or to my peers, or to my boss, with whom the answers were shared.  My first answer was that I would like to be walking my dog in the woods.

Take it from me.   If you are in a sales training session and they ask this question, say something like "making ten times what I'm making today" or " I want my boss' job".  It will make your life easier.  Because saying "walking my dog" when in fact I did not even yet have a dog made my boss question my overall dedication to my chosen profession of sales.  Which he was, in retrospect, right to do.  Because the truth is,  when I think about the fact  I used to be in sales, I can only justify it by saying that I had an out-of-body experience that lasted 13 years.  Not that I find anything wrong with sales, mind you.  But since I am not motivated by money, don't like to dress up, hate to drive in traffic,  meetings give me an immediate headache, and I felt depressed when I would close a deal, I had no right being in the profession.  Period.

Anyway, back to walking the dog. Yesterday, it was just a gorgeous day.  Sun shimmering through an azure blue sky, temperatures in the mid 70's, the grapes heavy on the vines.  I took Max and we went for a long ramble through the Barbera and Dolcetto vines, me tasting grapes, him zig-zagging through.  My mind was elsewhere - on my cooking class this week, on mentally reviewing my staff coverage for October, on the ceramics I need to quickly finish up for an order.

When I stopped.  And looked. And thought.

In ten years, I want to be walking my dog in the woods.

Here it is, twenty one years after that sales training session.  Ok, better late than never.

And I'm walking my beautiful dog through vineyards.  In Italy. My home.  Where I have a bed and breakfast. I accomplished a life long goal!  Dog walking! How incredibly fantastic is that, really?  No meetings, no dressing up, no high heels, no schlepping samples,  just a simple, quiet existence with beautiful food and the person I love and my dog and my guests.  Oh, I can still make it complicated if I let my mind work too hard and wander too much.  But I prefer, much prefer in fact, to simply do what everyone has been telling me to do all along.

Live in the moment.  My moment.  And what a lovely moment it is.

a case for mindfulness

mindfully made breakfast for our guests

I never have been a good multi-tasker.  Even if I had been, I think it's pretty much over-rated.

Life, it seems, has always been centered on getting as much stuff done as possible, and fretting about the rest.  This, my friends, is known as a catch-22 of the highest order.  No sooner have you deposited your annual bonus check that your sales quota goes up by thirty percent for next year.  In bed and breakfast terminology, the pile of sheets to be ironed is directly proportionate to the number of dishes to be washed.

There is always, always something to do.

Which is why, at a very young age, I felt compelled to learn how  to drive a car,  catch up with the boss on the phone and drink coffee at the same time.  I thought that was what it took to be, well, successful. Scary thing is, instead of doing all three of those things, I wasn't doing any of them.  I wasn't really listening to my boss, couldn't remember ten minutes later how the coffee tasted and, most alarmingly, was not highly focused on any of the cars around me as I barreled down the 5 freeway towards Los Angeles.

Multi tasking means doing things blindly. You can't focus on your writing on the computer and on your food at the same time.  Your proofreading might be ok, but the sandwich will land in an un-chewed clump in your stomach.   You cannot focus on the car in front of you and get your mascara on correctly.  Please stop trying.  It's not worth it.

I have learned, through trial and error, that if I do things one at a time and stay focused,  great things happen.

My writing improves. My breads are more beautiful when they come out of the oven. My mosaics are more balanced in their color. My hair looks better. I feel more awake and less frazzled.

I'm nicer to be around.

Mindfulness is simply the practice of paying close attention to what we are doing, while we are doing it.  The practice of being in the moment.  Of savoring and respecting the things that your hands and your mind are doing right now.  It's the practice of not allowing other things to barge in and pull us away.  It's the practice of finishing what you start.

Most importantly, mindfulness is the practice of not missing out on your life because you were too fragmented to really notice.  If there is no other case to be made for mindfulness, it would be this fact alone.

By doing things one at a time, there is a much greater likelihood that your to-do list will actually get shorter.  Because you won't have unfinished projects going on all around you - half cleaned out drawers, half wrapped cheese in the fridge, half done tax returns- you will undoubtedly feel calmer.  Better.  More relaxed.

So here's wishing you a one-thought-one-task at a time day.  Enjoy and savor each moment.

there's no good time for change

I get into the most interesting conversations here at my bed and breakfast. People come here at all different points of life's journey, savor the beauty and become philosophical. They often talk of change, of the desire to try something new- a new business, a new location, a new start.  And a question we often get asked is,

"How did you know it was the right time?"

And the answer always surprises.  There is no right time.

We can plan.  Make analyses, lists.  Come up with our concept.  Run it by a few experts or mentors.  Dream.  We can save our money.  We can cut our expenses.

All of those are very necessary parts of executing a lifestyle change.

But if you wait until your parents are in a retirement home, the dollar's value has increased, the property market has come back, your stocks are finally paying a dividend, you get that raise at the job you're not crazy about but are sticking with at least for now, and there is enough money in that bank account to cover every risk you can come up with on paper, guess what?

You're probably never going to do it. Because you can not effect a huge life change and be completely risk averse.  The two are mutually exclusive.

This is not to say that planning and staying very realistic about your means are not important. They're critical.  But you have to determine whether or not you are the type of person who can live with the risk associated with lifestyle change.

Are you the kind of person who can stop talking about massive downsizing and actually do it? Like maybe going car-free or car-lite. Or possibly living in a quarter of the space you do now. Forgetting about shopping as a pastime and viewing it as a necessary evil only.  Getting rid of the majority of your possessions. Losing status in your social group. Because it takes a huge, serious commitment to effect massive lifestyle change.

Changing lifestyles and becoming independent means rethinking your wants and needs. Said more directly, it means taking about 90% of your needs and dumping them into the wants column. How much money you need will depend how well you did separating your needs from your wants.

You will be amazed, if you change your life to become more independent, how luxurious heat feels.  Warm water.  New socks.  Good quality food.  Appreciation becomes much more of a heightened sense.  The every day becomes special.

Are you the kind of person who can live without a lot of security? Neighbors you know, a steady income, a familiar environment - just a few of the things you will need to be able to give up temporarily when making a complete lifestyle change. Can you depend completely on yourself to maintain your centered attitude? Will you be on Skype to your friends everyday complaining about how hard it is?  Or will you be able to get on with it and accept all the consequences of your decisions?

What is your skill set? Does your plan involve buying a house and renovating it? Have you never held a power tool in your hand before?  That means you will have to buy services, a lot of them.  If your skill set lends itself to the task at hand, say, a writer wanting to become a free-lance magazine contributor or a book author, then you will need less money and have less expenses.

The bottom line:  the more you can limit your needs, scale back your expenses and choose an initial business plan that utilizes your skill set, the more able you will be to effect massive personal change regardless if the timing is ideal or not.

And Nike was right all along.  There comes a point where you just have to do it.

Olive Oil Soap

At the beginning of this season, I realized that I had just about run out of those little pre-packaged hotel soaps. My pack of them had lasted five years. To be honest, I was never happy with them. They looked, well, like pre-packaged hotel soaps. I have other bath items, like shampoo and shower gel, which are spa products that I love (although I hate all the packaging - too much plastic). But the soaps were nothing special. So I decided to take a different tack.
I bought bulk olive oil soap, made in Marsailles of 72% olive oil. I am breaking the blocks down into small pieces and wrapping them in unbleached paper and raffia. A solution that fits our concept. A beautiful product, and a lovely, pure touch.

The Big Joy of the Small Garden

Beauty is abundant.
After caring for some small gardening beds here for six years now, something new is emerging for me -- the feel of a grown - in garden. For years, the front strip that runs along the veranda was full of plantings - things that came together and things that did not - until this year when it all started to work. The palms are getting larger. The rose bushes are filling in. The pergola is finished and covered. It's taken on a life, a feel of its own, and I love it. Roses next to chive flowers; ivy growing every which way. The fig is arching over to the pergola; soon the grape vines we planted will be scrambling up the rusty iron posts.



There are few things more satisfying than a lovely small garden. A place where a person can sit, drink a cup of tea, read a book, enjoy some shade. It's lovely to have this here, in finished fashion, after six years. Another dimension to our home.