Author of Madam, Have You Ever Really Been Happy? An Intimate Journey through Africa and Asia

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THE FLOWERS THAT BLOOM IN THE SPRING TRA LA….

BRING NOTHING BUT GLADNESS TO ME…Tra La. Gilbert and Sullivan, can you top that? I cannot think of one word of complaint over these past few weeks since spring ushered in an abundance of flowering trees, rhododendron in rainbow colors and fresh produce spilling over the fertile lands where volunteers and avid gardeners fill our plates with glorious abundance. Oooh, that’s pretty flowery, as it should be! The smell of freshly mown grass–the color of green that only comes from delicate intermittent showers–the wind from the Sound, the hummingbirds whirring around my prayer flags (I don’t feed them so maybe they’re Buddhist), the moon that starts hovering around seven o’clock even before the sun finally descends at 9:30, fill my day, which culminates in a walk along the shore at sunset watching the tide go out. Whidbey Islanders have taken to the roads and byways, on bicycle and foot, many ending up at Ebey’s Landing, an Historical National Reserve that gives a vivid record of Pacific Northwest history, clearly visible in the landscape. My friend, Lee Compton and I hiked up the cliff in April. It was a beautiful, solitary walk, now taken over by dozens of avid hikers preparing for the summer season.

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Lee and I heading for the cliff….

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You may remember that Lee is the friend who saved my life in India three years ago when I fell headfirst, after hanging from my right knee on a strap on the third tier of an Indian train on the way from Ft. Cochin to Udupi. He caught me just as my head was preparing to go through the floor of the compartment. Needless to say, I owe him big time!

May Day was ushered in, joyously, at the Good Cheer Garden in Langley, organized by Camille Green, the garden manager. This was my first time around the maypole and it was hilarious as we wove in and out until the ribbons were so short that we had to stop. There was good food, good music, face painting, and an array of flowers and branches so we could make colorful headdresses. Larry Dobson wowed us all with his expertise on stilts. We had a blast! Brava, Camille.

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I just returned from an exciting afternoon at WICA (Whidbey Island Center for the Arts), attending the 17th annual Hedgebrook Women Playwrights Festival. Four playwrights and their dramaturges presented scenes from the plays they had been working on at Hedgebrook, the writer’s retreat near Langley. They had just finished an intensive two-week residency. The actors were incredible and the material powerful. At times I thought I was back on Broadway!

This was one of many programs I’ve attended at WICA over the past months. Luckily I’ve been able to volunteer for the shows, musical or dramatic, that appeal to me…and there are many. Being an usher means that you don’t have to pay! I like that. I’ve also enjoyed four operas that have been streamed live from the Metropolitan Opera in New York City on various Saturday mornings. Many of you have probably done the same. The programs are broadcast internationally. What a great service to us opera lovers. Because of the time change we had to be in our seats by 10 AM for the matinee. But it was worth it, even though it meant catching an early ferry. I’ve been attending with two friends, Jon Pollack and Christy Korrow.

An outstanding concert, the final one of the Saratoga Orchestra, featured Sara Davis Buechner playing Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. I have never heard it played with such power and finesse! She also gave a short program of the history of jazz and ragtime in the early 1920’s, illustrating her talk with excerpts. If you ever get a chance to hear this artist, grab it (http://saradavisbuechner.com). She’s sensational!

Next up, my birthday. Let’s see how the zip line goes this year!

 

“My Heart Leaps Up When I Behold A Rainbow in the Sky….”

“That best portion of a good man’s life, his little, nameless unremembered acts of kindness and love.”

These words of William Wordsworth give me comfort as I mourn the sudden death of my dear friend and colleague, Dr. Peter Beach, on April 18. He was a priest at  St. John’s Episcopal Church in Olney, Md. at the time of his death, work which he had returned to after his retirement from government service. It was as if he had come full circle, back to his roots, having begun his professional life as a missionary in Egypt and India in 1950. Peter was a firebrand during the early days of the Great Society, at the inception of Headstart and the Peace Corps, where he was Deputy Director in Tunisia for four years. When I met Peter he was head of Veterans Affairs in Washington where he was instrumental in advocating for our veterans during the Agent Orange travesty after the Vietnam War and the horrendous medical problems after the Gulf War. His fluency in both French and Arabic made him valuable not only in government service, but as a teacher and, shortly after he immigrated to the United States in 1961, the principal of the Barrie School in Tacoma Park, MD. Just hearing his adventures as he moved from England and settled his family in Maryland made me realize what an innovative, multi-faceted person he was–not afraid to take risks and walk into the unknown.

I met Peter right after co-founding Music Education for the Handicapped in 1979. He was working at the time with the President’s Committee on the Employment of the Handicapped. His enthusiastic advocacy of our work make him an invaluable member of the board for the ten years that I was the executive director. His qualifications were stellar, but above all he was a caring human being who brought light into the lives of all who crossed his path.

Yes, Peter was an idealist as well as an optimist. But he didn’t just talk, he acted. He saw the best in everybody and in so doing, we became just a little bit better.

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Peter loved nature. He loved to watch the sun set over the Atlantic from the breakwater at his summer home in Rehoboth Beach; he loved to walk on the beach and chat with the children playing in the sand at the end of a day; and he loved to hear the soft sound of the rain on the roof or anticipate the drama and excitement of a gathering thunderstorm. I often think of him when I read the beginning of this Robert Frost poem.

I have been one acquainted with the night.
I have walked out in rain—and back in rain.
I have outwalked the furthest city light.

Or the beginning of this recent poem by Ging Alburo

As I listen to the sound of the falling rain,
On the thin roof of our house they tumble in Rhythm.
Just like a mighty songs from heaven,
Sung by the angels or cherubim.

FOR PETE’S SAKE…A CELEBRATION OF PETE SEEGER’S LIFE AND WORK

And what a gala affair it was, organized and hosted by the inimitable Pushkara (Sally Ashford) and her daughter, Wendy Ashford. You can imagine the musicians it drew from Seattle, Port Townsend, and over the mountains far away. They brought their instruments and played the folk music that Pete, who died last January at the age of 94,  promoted, along with his original songs that have become part of America’s folk legacy…from Turn, Turn, Turn, to  Where Have All The Flowers Gone to If I Had A Hammer.

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The inimitable Pushkara

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Pushkara and her family were active in the peace movement in the Northwest from the time of Woody Guthrie (Goin’ down the Road Feelin’ Bad and This Land Is Your Land, to name a few of his hit songs), when Pete was just a young man. She recorded numerous interviews in her charming Gypsy Wagon, from people who played a part in Pete’s long life. The colorful wagon was built as a symbol of peace and harmony, and resides next to her lovely home overlooking the cliffs above Puget Sound. I was one of those lucky people who got to hear Pushkar’s tales and added a few of my own from knowing Pete.

You can imagine my surprise when I walked into my husband’s office one day in 1971 to see a tall, lanky man sitting there, gesticulating adamantly. It was Pete Seeger, trying to convince us to manufacture steel drums, which were becoming all the rage in the schools as well as at pop concerts. We were the makers of Oscar Schmidt Autoharps and had often consulted with Pete’s half brother, Mike Seeger. We were heavily into folk music, rock (i.e. John Sebastian and The Lovin’ Spoonful) and music education. My husband shuddered at the thought of tuning those very  loud Caribbean instruments and said it would be impossible to add this to his already overflowing compliment of folk instruments, including dulcimers, and a full range of Orff percussion. Pete was charming, but determined. He didn’t want to give up. The next time I saw him I was on 8th Avenue just coming out of a phone booth (anybody remember phone booths?) and he grabbed my arm and said, “Oh, Meg, I’ve just returned from Russia and do you know that those people love the steel drum. I even saw some musicians playing them in the snow.” Now I ask you…what are  your chances of bumping into  Pete Seeger on 8th Avenue on a cold winter day? His enthusiasm was, as always, infectious, and left me smiling and shaking my head at the sheer energy of the man.

Another story I related was my chance meeting with Pete’s mother at an AAUW meeting in Miami in 1959. I had just had my fourth child and was eager to speak to adults after tending four children 24/7. I sat down next to a lovely white-haired lady and somehow we started talking about camping and hiking, something we both enjoyed. She said that she and her husband had wanted to show their children the country and live a simple life while researching the music of various parts of America. He was a Harvard-educated musicologist. She a concert violinist. I listened with awe as she described this experiment in bare bones living. They were precursors of the people who live in RV’s and move from place to place. Each child had a fork, spoon, knife, cup, and plate, and was responsible for caring for them and their few possessions. They communed with the outdoors and loved nature and music. “We wanted our children to live close to nature and appreciate its beauty,” she said. “You may know of one of my sons. He’s a folk singer. Pete Seeger.” It was such a modest, offhand remark. If only she had lived to see the impact this son had had on the America she so loved. What surprised me after we had been talking for an hour is that she thanked me profusely for listening to her. “Most young people would not be interested in the stories of an old lady,” she said. I told her that I was fascinated and only hoped my life would be as eventful and useful as hers as I grew older.

Here is a smattering of the many musicians who came to the Deer Lagoon Grange in Langley on March 30th to honor Pete.

ASIA, HERE I COME!

The day has arrived, and I’m off to Nepal, stopping first in London, then Delhi, then Kathmandu. It will be two days before I come up for air! Packing is difficult not only because of security restrictions (put all your batteries in the checked bag and heaven help you if the nasal spray in your backpack exceeds 2 oz.), but because Heathrow Airport is notorious for eating luggage. So that means an extra carry-on for “can’t live without” items. I’ve been burned once too often. But here’s the way I look at it…all these calculations keep your brain agile without having to pay for a class in geriatric mental gymnastics.

I shall be updating you after I return from Bhutan, my first stop on a two-month trip. I will be staying, while in Kathmandu, at the Shechen Guest House in Boudhanath, a charming Buddhist enclave, where I stayed last year. Upon my return, I will be joined by my eldest daughter, Cary, with whom I’ll trek for two weeks in the Yolmo area of Nepal.

I couldn’t resist one more photo of the glorious view from my balcony on a brilliant Fall day just as the leaves were fading and Mt. Baker poked its head up to say, “See, I’m still here, fog or no fog.”

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One word about Langley before I leave. I was very touched by a traditional ceremony, begun by my daughter in 1996 as a way to honor loved ones past and present. The cemetery is a cherished local spot, which is cared for by volunteers and has become a place of great peace and tranquility over the years. All Soul’s Eve, as it is named, takes place from 5 to 8 PM every November 1st, rain or shine.  It’s a lot of work to set out 200 luminaries, and prepare another 150 bags with votives for those who come to honor their loved ones. But the results are worth it. There is a silent stream of residents, some taking one and others taking several votives and placing them on graves, under trees, and on various stone structures.  This year was especially beautiful and clear and it was with regret that we couldn’t let the candles burn all night. Thank you, Cary, and your volunteers for a memorable experience. (Hope you don’t mind, Mom, but your behind the scenes webmaster daughter is here with a link to the front page of the South Whidbey Record featuring the event, published after you left for Kathmandu…. click HERE to see Meg front and center!)

Last week I kidded about Elizabeth George living on this somewhat misty, rainy island, and who should I meet at All Soul’s Eve but the author, herself, fresh from having her latest Lynley mystery, Just One Evil Act, published. Needless to say I was thrilled! I mentioned taking it on my trip and she said, “It’s 700 pages.” I said, “Wow! Why so long?” She answered, “Because it took that long to tell a good story.” Good answer. I won’t miss this one!

GO WEST, YOUNG MAN, GO WEST, BUT DON’T FORGET YOUR MOTHER!

And that is exactly what my son, Tom, did. I was allowed to go along for the ride, as an alternate driver. He plotted the whole trip, knowing that I am directionally disabled. He said he didn’t want to end up in Saskatchewan. Fortunately, we decided to pack all the prized paintings, oriental rugs, and breakable treasures into the old Toyota Camry, instead of entrusting them to the movers. Considering what happened to my files, Queen Anne chairs, and half my boxes, it was the right decision. Beware of movers…especially those who are friends!

Here are the two weary travelers:

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We spent our first night near my old stomping ground in West Virginia, then moved on to LaGrange, Kentucky, near Louisville. This was the first time we had visited son Rob and his wife, Gwen, who have moved there from L.A. to start a whole new company related to the laser glow golf and glow gear business they created. You might also check out Rob’s recent YouTube video. The next night found us in St. Louis visiting good friends Lynn (of story teller fame) and Robert Rubright (of walking and breakfast book fame), and visiting the Grand Center Arts Academy, a free public charter school in downtown St. Louis, which was spearheaded by their son, Dan Rubright, Director of Arts and Community Partnerships.

We had planned to drop by relatives and friends in Denver and Boulder, Colorado, but the dire predictions of rain and flooding changed our minds, so we headed north, instead, to the wild country of Montana and Wyoming. This gave us the opportunity for a splendid two-day revisit of Yellowstone National Park. The Peterson family en masse had visited here in 1969, pulling a 17 ft. Yellowstone trailer and camping throughout the United States as we went along.

Here are a few of the highlights of our whirlwind exploration of this glorious park. We’re glad we hit it just days before the government shutdown.

Near the Yellowstone Grand Canyon the Yellowstone River plunges 308 ft. over the Lower Falls. You can see geysers spouting downstream. Half-a-mile upstream the Upper Falls formed at a junction of a lava flow and glacial lake sediments.

Just so you know that I haven’t abandoned my theater addiction completely, I did see Big Fish with the fabulous Norbert Leo Butz  just before I left New Jersey in early September. He was phenomenal, but the show was a bit over the top, exhausting audience members who were more interested in the rather poignant story than the pyrotechnics of Susan Stroman.   Last week, right here in Langley, I saw a terrific production of Blithe Spirit, and every day brings another musical or dramatic event from symphony to comedy to feed the soul. I’m going to love it here!

This trip from Jersey to Washington was a big adventure. I now have a new appreciation of the vastness and beauty of this country and the fun it is to explore its nooks and crannies. Sometimes we lose touch with this in our eagerness to fly to exotic foreign lands. I’m a great believer in getting to know your own land first! We think we’re homogeneous and cut out of the same cloth. We’re not. Just open your eyes and ears and you’ll be surprised at what you discover.

THE MIST IS ROLLING IN…IT MUST BE FALL IN LANGLEY!

I now know why Elizabeth George writes mystery novels…. or are they really mist…ery novels? Maybe that’s why she lives here. We’ve been socked in for a week, and I’m expecting any moment to hear a fog horn from a ferry that’s lost its way. I walk down to the South Whidbey Commons every afternoon to read one of her novels, while waiting for the young student interns to take 20 minutes to make my cappuccino. Bless their hearts. Now that I know this coffee shop/used book store features local writers, I’ll be bringing mine down. I now qualify. I really love this town!

It has taken several months of back and forth, a cross-country road trip, and many agonizing hours of wondering where all my 76 boxes were, as they also went back and forth across the country looking for movers that went out west. Oh my!

Here’s a little slideshow of when it all started, my birthday last June. Lee Compton, a dear friend with whom I traveled in India two years ago, took these and the previous blog shots.

NO SUMMER IS COMPLETE WITHOUT A VISIT TO THE SUBLIME NORTH CASCADES OF WASHINGTON STATE

Upon my return to Langley in July, my old climbing buddy, Jon Pollack, and I took off for a two week camping trip in the North Cascades. Were we lucky! Two weeks after returning to the East, while I was at my summer place on Lake Winnepesaukee in New Hampshire, mudslides covered the entrances to every place we’d been. Some of you may have read about it. Believe me, it was no exaggeration!

Here are a few slides from our final two days. The first was a magnificent climb up Winchester Mountain where we got off the trail and I was sure I was going to die. I had to scramble up an embankment in search of the trail, grasping for heather and whatever rocks I could find. Clawing my way up the steep hill on my belly, Jon kept saying, “Stand up for God’s sake! Stand up.”  How could I when it was so slippery and I could easily fall backwards! Jon assured me I would survive. He was right.

These days were marred by the worst influx of black flies that have plagued the Cascades in recent years. This was told me by a forest ranger whose arms were as red and bitten as mine. A snow-bound trail cut short our final hike at Artists Point. During the night, a torrential rain drenched us. The rain flaps valiantly stood their ground, but lost. We decided to bring water wings next year!

I HAVE A SOLUTION TO THE HEAT IN THE EAST…COME TO THE WEST!

So you thought I had disappeared? No, I just moved, and, as anyone will tell you, that’s right up there with a death in the family.  Some of my belongings are in storage in New Jersey; some of my most precious pieces of Jacobean furniture are at daughter Martha’s; and most of my “stuff” (those unable-to-live-without photos, paintings, journals, and memorabilia collected over sixty years), is in 50 boxes on a moving van wending its way through the heart of Continental America.

In the meantime I am living very simply in a two-bedroom apartment in Langley, WA on magnificent Whidbey Island, eating breakfast every morning on my front deck with this view of Puget Sound and Mt. Baker in the Cascade Mountains. It’s cool, it’s sunny, and it’s peaceful beyond description. Can a longtime New York City theater addict find happiness living an un-frantic lifestyle surrounded by the mountains and fir trees of the great Northwest? Tune in over the next few months.

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Puget Sound

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Mt. Baker in the Northern Cascade Mountains

How did this happen? When I last left you I had just sold my house while climbing in the Langtang area of the Nepalese Himalayas, and taken up temporary quarters at Martha’s in Maplewood, NJ.  My search for a new place of residence was getting nowhere, so I decided to head west. First, I visited my old friend, Bonnie Phipps, a top Autoharp Maven and the recent winner of the Mt. Laurel autoharp contest, in Boulder, Colorado. We took a glorious walk in the Rocky Mountain National Park….

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How great it is to be alive!

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Leaving the hills of Colorado on May 8, I flew to Seattle and was greeted by a stunning view of Mt. Rainier from the plane. I never tire of  that snow-covered volcano!

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My destination, as in every summer for twenty years, was Whidbey Island for a visit with my eldest daughter, Cary. At the same time I planned to celebrate yet another astronomical birthday on June 3rd with a gathering of all my children and numerous island friends.

My party was a gala celebration on the spacious center lawn at Talking Circle in Langley. As usual, it was potluck, which assures amazing creations, and there were a dozen young musicians (mostly interning or working on farms on the island) playing everything from the old Pete Seeger folks songs to modern rock and blues. I have a lot of videos of square dancing and swinging from the zip line, but few photos. Shame on me. I even had a blast riding the zipline a la these girls.

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Son Tom steam-cleaned the Commons House in preparation…

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The tables were prepared by Mully and friends…

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That’s a very high number, but it sure tasted good!

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Hey, a cake? What a surprise? I prefer looking at the letters from this direction!

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Everyone threw something into the fire…preferably wood. What a great evening!

Cary suggested that I try island living for a year and I lucked into a terrific apartment that overlooks the Sound, with a three-minute walk down the hill to the heart of Langley. And for one-third the price of a comparable living space in the NY Metropolitan area. There are a couple of outstanding espresso/designer coffee shops close by, along with numerous restaurants, galleries, and a thrift store to die for. South Whidbey is teeming with activity, albeit not crowded or noisy, and has a long list of cultural events, including a variety of music and drama venues. It’s close to Hedgebrook, a writer’s colony, and a ferry ride across the water from Seattle. I’ll admit the gas is about $4.00 a gallon, but everything you want is only about 15 minutes away. A movie is $5.00 if you’re super old, and the popcorn to go with it is only $1.00.

I was able to buy some stunning furniture at the Habitat for Humanity Thrift Store in Freeland, so jettisoned most of my old possessions in an effort to “let go” of the past. I haven’t lived in an apartment for sixty years, but it is definitely low-maintenance. I don’t have to push a lawnmower or worry about the basement flooding anymore.  What’s not to like?

Before I left Maplewood in early July, I was treated by theater buddies, Paul Sharar and Phyllis Bitow, respectively, to my last two shows of the season; the excellent Lucky Guy, starring Tom Hanks, and the uproarious Nance, with Nathan Lane. That should hold me until early September, when I make my final pass in NJ and head with my son, Tom, cross-country, with whatever we can stuff into the old Toyota. It will be nice to have my car, again, though I’m getting a bit attached to driving Cary’s 1987 Mazda pick up. How better to strengthen your arm muscles than driving a truck with no power steering?

Next week I head for the Northern Cascades and Mt. Baker with my climbing buddy from Annapurna, Jon Pollack. We’ll camp and hike for ten days before I return to the East for three weeks at the Noble family cottage on Lake Winnipesaukee. When I return to Whidbey I will face an apartment crammed to the gills with boxes. It will keep me out of trouble all winter!

Keep reading. There will be plenty of pictures coming

HURRICANE SANDY CAME TO MAPLEWOOD….

I was one of the lucky New Jerseyites who did NOT lose her home or have a tree fall on her house. It fell in the backyard, instead, but, since it came from my neighbor’s yard, and he is handy with a chain saw, it has now been spirited away. The only signs of its having visited me is a broken fence and smashed dogwood tree. There are those who feel that this is nature’s way of saying to our political candidates, “Hey, what about global warming and the environment? Nobody seems to be talking about that any more and it’s just getting worse. So pay attention for a change!”

My beautiful backyard

The root of the problem

And this is nothing! Giant trees were uprooted all over town, and there are those who still have no electricity. I was only in the dark for five days. Fortunately, I had the foresight to install a backup to my sump pump after Hurricane Irene flooded my basement, so was spared last year’s misery. It’s actually heartwarming to see how people pull together during these near-tragic experiences. Churches, libraries, stores, and restaurants all welcomed those who had no heat or light. Free meals were served, phones were charged, children were tended, all in a loving, helpful spirit. The streets of Maplewood Village were teeming with families just walking together and enjoying community interaction. For the first time I encountered a long line outside our movie theater. And the two pizza parlors were bursting at the seams. It was almost like New York City on a Friday night…crowds everywhere.

All of this came days before I was to put my house on the market and head into the great unknown (which means that I really don’t know what the future will bring, but who does?). I returned in September from my usual mountain climbing in the Olympic mountains of Washington state (I’ll tell you about that in another blog), and decided that it was time to unclutter my life. Just trying to walk through the piles of “stuff” in my attic made me sick to my stomach. I bet many of you have felt the same way and come to the same conclusion…and others have just been putting it off, because it’s such a monumental task. I can understand why. It’s a horror! So while uncluttering my files and filling the dump with years of unnecessary memorabilia, I suddenly decided that I didn’t need a house and a yard, either, and had never found that maintenance was my forte. I’ve owned houses of varying sizes since 1958. Enough, already. Time to sell.

What I didn’t know is that nobody just sells a house these days. They style or stage it so that not one semblance of the owner’s personality is betrayed. God forbid that a human being once inhabited this domain. The goal is to get as near to Pottery Barn or a movie set as you can. Remove all rugs, all stair carpeting, and all photographs of family gatherings. And definitely remove books from bookcases like the floor to ceiling display of all my favorite authors past and present, and replace them with Roseville pottery and classy knick-knacks.  Dig out the crystal goblets you received as wedding gifts a hundred years ago, and put out a half-filled decanter of Scotch surrounded by shot glasses, and you show a family that doesn’t read, doesn’t cook (all counters are bare), doesn’t wash, but finds plenty of time to drink and look at candlesticks. Within a week you’re frantically searching for your tax forms, your toothbrush, and your aspirin. They’re all secreted away in the attic, the cellar, or miscellaneous bureau drawers. Living like this is like playing a constant game of Concentration. It may be good for the brain, but it’s murder on the nerves. 

I’m relating this to you, dear reader, because I want you to be forewarned. If you have had a similar experience trying to sell in the modern real estate market, do tell me. We can laugh and cry together!

The only good aspect of this rush to sell is that I shall leave for Nepal on November 14, three days after my Open House, and be lost in the Langtang region of the Himalayas for a month. By then I will have recuperated, the house may be sold (I have a wonderful daughter who will fend for me in my absence, while I shall be trekking with the other daughter), or I may have fallen off a cliff. At any rate I shall NEVER EVER  buy or sell another house!

Next post will be from Kathmandu.

MT. MAJOR, ANYONE?

Here I am back in New Hampshire at the family cottage on Lake Winnipesaukee. The swimming is glorious and the weather perfect. This year the entire family descended, including married granddaughter, Cally, and husband, Zack. traveling from York, England. How about that? Together we are eleven!

Our first mountain expedition was the traditional Mt. Major near Alton, NH. It’s small but has trails that include sweet cliffs and ledges. A great starter. Tomorrow we head for the biggie…Mt. Washington. Will get back to you on that. This is great training for my return to the Himalayas in November. Nothing, except the increased altitude, is more challenging than Lion’s Head or Huntington Ravine on Washington.

Here is the Peterson gang, with Winnipesaukee and its islands in the distance.

Photo by Quinn Slayton, sculptor

Heading down….

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