Answering the Question: Where Is Home?

Travel Writing homeTravel writer Pico Iyer’s Ted Talk is one of my absolute favorites. Presently, my students in feature writing are embarking on writing a travel feature. We’ve talked about travel writing and what it takes to construct a meaningful piece, the elements to include, and the amount of yourself you must put into it to engage readers. Today, we discussed Taras Grescoe’s piece from National Geographic Traveler called “Roman Holiday,” titled after the 1953 film starring Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn, in which he documents his trip to Rome in search of his own Audrey Hepburn, and allows the plot of the film to guide his trip. It’s a fun read, with his perspective on Rome included within it.

After that discussion, I had the students watch Iyer’s presentation, which asks us to take a different approach. He’s a world traveler, and writes travel pieces by trade; he is constantly in motion, moving from this spot to the next in order to write about his main subject: places and his experiences in these places. In his talk, he asks us to consider where our “home” is—is it the place you were born, where you lived most of your life, where you currently live now, or where you visit periodically and perhaps have a secondary house? Is the home of a grandmother or grandfather, or the place where you spent summers as a child? The word “home” means different things to people.

I thought about what he said about this notion, and I have a couple of answers I’d offer for myself. “Home” obviously means your house…where you live…where you go and turn the key to the door where you eat, sleep, and relax. But to me, it also means the people I am with…those I share the key with on a daily basis. In this sense, home is my immediate family: my husband and children.

I know this to be true, because when we were recently in New York City and were tired after a long day, I turned to my daughter, and I said, “Let’s head home now.”

“Do you mean to the hotel?” she asked.

“Yes,” I said. “That’s where home is for tonight.”

In that sense, home is wherever I was with my family.

In another sense, home is the town where I currently live. Last year, my family and I moved back to the area where I spent all of my teenage years through college, the place where I lived with my parents and brother. My son now goes to the high school I went to all those many years ago. We have made & built new friendships and, after having lived there for only a few short days, it already felt like home, and now I can’t imagine being anywhere else. While I have some fond memories of our previous house in a nearby city where we lived for fourteen years, I feel much more at home where we are now. The kids are happy, and so are we.

Iyer isn’t done asking us to consider things, and continues down the path of requiring us to do some soul searching. Because we are perpetually in motion, he says, running from this task to the next, returning emails, making phone calls, working at our desks, driving to pick up children from activities, and attending to our own daily chores, he suggests that we can learn a lot from “just standing still.” What he means is that sometimes we just need to power down, turn off our devices, and sit in stillness to appreciate the beauty of the places that are around us. Ultimately, this will help us identify with the world and be able to say just what it might mean to be home. Could it be something that just simply resides within us?

For each of us, there will be a different answer. But there’s something inherent about it: we can “feel” when we are at home.

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Overworked? Overweary? Overstressed? Take A Day Trip. It Does Wonders.

St. Michael's HarborThere are a plethora of reasons why we need to get away from it all, if only for a few hours. We are overworked, overstressed, overweary, overextended, overtaxed, overstimulated—just plain over it. And thus, the good “doctor,” whomever that may be—a friend, a spouse, a mother, a father, a child, a healthcare provider—tells us to step away from the demanding rigors of our lives and take a day for ourselves. Coincidentally, it also happens that I showed my feature writing class the film “Roman Holiday,” a film in which Audrey Hepburn, playing a princess from a nameless country, decides she’s had enough, and takes her chances as she goes incognito for a play day in Rome. Luckily for her, Gregory Peck is there to help her secure her wishes of being a “regular person” for one 24-hour period. Ah…love and romance in Rome. The problem is, I couldn’t get to Rome. Not for a day over the weekend.

But there are nearby places to go where you can get away. St. Michael’s may not be Rome, but it is the perfect spot to let go of your cares for a few hours. Nestled on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, it is approximately one hour from Annapolis. On a weekend in the fall or spring when Marylanders are typically not heading to the Ocean City, Bethany, Rehoboth, or Lewes beaches, it’s a delightful ride on a pretty stretch of Rt. 50, especially in the fall as the leaves are turning. I could feel my worries and cares lift as soon as we crossed the Bay Bridge. Seeing the mainland of Maryland become more and more distant as the journey continued, I knew I was going to spend an enjoyable afternoon with my family as we shopped, ate, walked the streets, and talked to locals. I am never disappointed in my day trips to St. Michael’s: the town somehow has the power to welcome you with open arms and make you not want to leave.

WickershamThe drive in is absolutely darling. The store-lined streets reflect a sense of care that the people of St. Michael’s feel for their town, replete with merchants and townspeople decorated for the Halloween season. There were witches on brooms hung high in the air propped up into telephone poles, hay bails with pumpkin displays outside the stores, mums and other seasonal flowers adding color and personality to the town, and doors opened wide insisting that patrons come in and peruse the goods.Witch

My daughter and I had a great time going in and out of eclectic shops that boasted jewelry, handbags, scarves, towels, and household goods, while my son and husband shopped in some of the apparel and poster stores. There is something for everyone, including antiques, home goods, artistic boutiques, and candy shops.

Restaurants are in and about the main area, with many receiving four and five-star reviews. From classic American cuisine like that featured at Town Dock restaurant located on the water in the harbor (where we ate on the deck), to Simpatico, an Italian restaurant across from the community center, to the Crab Claw for seafood, there is something for every palate. Justine’s Ice Cream was voted best in town, and St. Michael’s Candy and Gifts is sure to satisfy every sweet tooth.Gazebo

The St. Michael’s Harbor area boasts the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum, which charges an entrance fee, but is a working museum that kids will love exploring. Additionally, Patriot Cruises, which launches from the dock adjacent to the museum, takes guests on hourly cruises from the Harbor to the Miles River. These are all great suggestions you can do with your significant other or your family.

BeeHiveJackOLanternHowever, the highlight of our trip yesterday wasn’t anything nautical or historic: it was attending the Pumpkin Carving Contest at the St. Michael’s Community Center. Merchants sponsored enormous pumpkins (and I mean ENORMOUS), and talented individuals showed up between the hours of 8:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. to carve their pumpkins, each one numbered and then presented for voting. Selected judges awarded prizes, and then it was up to the people to vote. My husband, children and I scoured the place trying to pick the best one, but it was not an easy decision. The magnitude of the talent we witnessed was tremendous—and for someone who preaches to her students about the importance of creativity—I was overwhelmed by the innovation that took place in that room. In the end, I voted for the two women who carved “The Bee Hive,” and we all chatted with them about the event.leaves

It was the first time my children had stepped foot on St. Michael’s soil, and they both enjoyed their day there. My daughter wants to know when we can go back and do some “serious shopping.” My husband and I strolled the streets and recalled sentimental times when we had been there before. I’ve already marked my calendar for “Christmas in St. Michael’s,” an event I’ve wanted to attend for over 20 years.

JohnSmithPart of the fun of St. Michael’s is just strolling the back streets and sneaking peeks at some of the historic homes, the white picket fences, the flowers and landscaping, and the people who reside in picturesque homes that sit on streets lined with brick sidewalks. As someone who loves the water and being near it, the notion of living in a town like St. Michael’s has a great deal of appeal to me. In fact, in my novel, “Beneath the Mimosa Tree,” the grandmother, named Vivi, resides in St. Michael’s and is an active member of the town. I put her in that location because she exuded as much warmth as the town itself does.town

Perhaps when I wrote my novel I was projecting a possible future for myself down the road, imagining that I might someday be a sweet grandmother who would welcome her children and grandchildren for visits. I could certainly see St. Michael’s as a place to live in my retirement; it pretty much has everything I would need. It’s an enchantingly genial community that seems to smile at you and alleviate your over-extended self as soon as you get out of your car.

You Are What You Read

TeddyRI’ve experienced World War II. After my plane went down in the Pacific, I floated on a raft for 47 days, with only rain water to sustain me along with an occasional albatross I’ve killed and eaten and then used as bait to snag fish to skin and eat. I’ve been captured by the Japanese, taken to a POW camp, and been repeatedly abused and demoralized. I felt starvation, and had lice and maggots crawling on me; my foot has been broken, and I think about my family back in California, as I long for the war to end so that I can see their faces—faces that sustain me—again.

I am Louie Zamperini, the main subject of the book “Unbroken.” Angelina Jolie is directing the film by the same name, and it’s scheduled to be released on Christmas Day.

I have also been Stella Bain and Elizabeth Bennet and Mitch Albom and Jane Eyre and Ebenezer Scrooge.

Books do this for us. They allow us to momentarily escape reality and become involved in the lives of others, living vicariously through them as we flip the pages. The results from this type of immersion can vary. Sometimes, we will gain a clearer understanding of the world. Perhaps we’ll transform via an eye-opening revelation. Maybe we’ll have compassion for something we never dreamed we’d have compassion for. Or, maybe, just maybe, we will laugh at the characters, and ourselves, as we realize how ridiculous life can be at times.

I can’t image my life being as full as it is if I didn’t read stories. You are what you read.

“Unbroken” is not a book I would typically pick up. I tend to lean toward romance, relationship stories, contemporary women’s fiction, and an occasional suspense novel. However, at the recommendation of my mother, husband, and members of my book club, I took a leap and read Louie’s story. I have recommended it now on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, to friends I know, and to my students who have heard me tell parts of the story because it’s so remarkable. Now, I am recommending it to those of you who have not yet read this incredible piece of work.

Louis Zamperini
Louis Zamperini

I do my best as a professor to get my students reading outside of classwork. Some of them are excellent readers, with quite a wide variety of interests and genres. Others need a push. But when we read something as amazing as “Unbroken,” we can’t imagine hearing the story in any other way. Laura Hillenbrand, the author, goes about her craft so meticulously and elegantly, revealing the story at a melodic, somewhat haunting pace, that we cannot tear ourselves away from Louie’s predicaments. We are swept up in his story, and at the end, are left marveling at both his incredible journey and Hillenbrand’s grace as a storyteller.Reading

Reading allows us to immerse ourselves into place, culture, dialogue, people, and conflict. It allows us to see things from a new perspective. Having read “Unbroken,” I will never be able to look at a World War II veteran in the same way. I always knew they risked their lives and fought for freedom, but never before did I realize the magnitude in which these men sacrificed themselves. In order make our world a safer place to live, they put themselves in harm’s way; they did it to free people who should not have been enslaved and murdered, and to guarantee the freedom of so many who suffered at the hand of evil and cruelty.

I intend to continue to immerse myself in other places and characters. Right now, I’m in Scotland as Claire Barclay. I’ve been relocated from England; my mother has just remarried after my father’s death several years ago, and we are starting anew. It may be “The Long Way Home” by Robin Pilcher, but it’s home to me already after what I endured in Japan.

I can’t wait to see where the next book takes me after Scotland.

 

Baseball, Baltimore & Boisterous Real Fans: Well Worth the Wait

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Energized Camden Yards.

As I sat in the Club Level at Camden Yards on Thursday night, excited for Game One of the ALDS to begin between the hometown Baltimore Orioles and the visiting Detroit Tigers, I basked in the atmosphere. The ballpark hummed. Why, it was only a few years ago when it was devoid of Orioles fans while intruders, fans of the successful Red Sox and Yankees, took over the seats during non-glorious seasons. Thursday night was a different story; Camden Yards was cradling 48,000+ energetic fans donned in orange and white and black. The ballpark was smiling.

Two gentlemen in their 20s sat down in front of me. They were both wearing Orioles shirts, and each carried his orange and black rally towel replete with the Angry Bird on it. At the first sign that the team was about to take the field, the two young men stood, ready for the first pitch. As the National Anthem played, they respectfully removed their caps as we listed to an operatic tenor sing in splendid fashion. After Manny Machado threw out the first pitch, it was game time, and they were ready.Rally

All throughout the game, I couldn’t help but notice the two gentlemen, mostly because they involved me in their contagious enthusiasm for the night, the team, and what would be the Orioles first win of the series. At each electric moment, whether there was a hit or a solid fielding play or a run scored, the two of them were on their feet. They were jumping up and down like schoolgirls, not caring about what anyone thought of them. They high-fived each other, and then turned and high-fived all of us: my husband, my son, my daughter, and me. We all danced to the music that blared through the O’s PA system; we chanted “Let’s Go O’s” and “Cruuuuuzzzz”; and we sang “O’Day…O’Day…” together. They never stopped smiling.

Those two guys represented all of us who are real fans—Orioles fans—especially those who have waited years for our team to have a shot at the World Series. Their glee was infectious, as was that of the rest of the folks cheering unrelentlessly in the ballpark.

Real Orioles fans were experiencing a real treat.

Many of us have cheered on our team faithfully during the losses, endured the rebuilding of the team, and continued to attend games at the ballpark proudly wearing our Orioles gear despite the years of half-filled seats and mediocrity.

It doesn’t matter when you are a real fan. It is well worth the wait.

The gentlemen in front of me.
The gentlemen in front of me.

If You Want to Cry, Give These A Try

I’ve found myself in a somewhat melancholy mood over the last week. I learned that a friend of mine—more of an acquaintance, really—passed away unexpectedly. She was close in age to me, but still, news like this has that power to rock your world. It is an all-too vivid reminder that none of us will live forever. When I begin to feel sad about things, I tend to want to pay attention to sad movies or sad books. So, if you need a good cry (which sometimes helps bring us out of the realm of murkiness), I would suggest immersing yourself in some or all of the following:

The Fault in Our Stars
The Fault in Our Stars

1: The Fault in Our Stars. Either grab the book or the film, but either way, grab a box of tissues. While unbelievably depressing, the story does remind us of why we need love in our lives, no matter how many years of life we have to live. Hazel, Isaac, and Gus come to life as we bear witness to their daily dilemmas and struggles as cancer patients. I guarantee that it will be tough for you not to cry your eyes out.

The Painted Veil
The Painted Veil

2. The Painted Veil. On the rare occasions that I actually watch television, let alone hold the remote in my hand, if I come across the film The Painted Veil (based on the novel by W. Somerset Maugham), I stop everything. This film, featuring Edward Norton (who hails from Columbia, Maryland, and is a big fan of Cal Ripken) and Naomi Watts, is so deeply beautiful, yet hauntingly devastating, that you can’t help but to become riveted, and saddened. At the heart of the story is the theme of forgiveness, and how holding on to anger or a grudge can taint the way you see people. This husband and wife must learn the hard way about finding forgiveness, and when they do, their few moments of joy are cut short. I adore this film, the acting, the scenery, and the message. If it teaches you anything, it would be not to live with regret.

Unbroken
Unbroken

3. Unbroken. Former Olympic athlete and WWII veteran, Louis “Louie” Zamperini, is the subject of Laura Hillenbrand’s extraordinary non-fiction book. Tracing Louie’s early days as a runner who competes in the Olympics in Germany and who was summoned to meet Adolf Hitler after a stunning race (Hitler is quoted as saying to him: “Ah, you were the boy with the fast finish”), to his time in WWII and as a POW, this mind-blowing story is absolutely riveting. The book is a sweeping, epic tale of one man’s survival—against all odds—and the notion that perseverance, resilience, and faith can guide you. You will feel a tremor of unease and absolute disbelief as you hear Louie’s tale. Read it now before Angelina Jolie releases it in December on the big screen.

Once Upon A Time, There Was Stevie Wonder and 8-Track Tapes

StevieWonderIn my room as a teen, I had a stereo. It consisted of a receiver with a turntable, two speakers, and an 8-Track tape player. I’ve always loved music, and my weekends were often spent writing down each of the songs Casey Kasem played during the American Top 40 Countdown. And when that was over, I loved listening to my 8-Track tapes.

I didn’t have a ton, but I had a handful of them. Soundtracks to some of my favorite movies were in my player, including those from “My Fair Lady,” “Camelot,” and “The Sound of Music.” For funk and rock, Stevie Wonder’s “Songs in the Key of Life” and The Rolling Stones live album recorded in Canada entitled “Love You Live” rocked my room on Pointer Ridge Drive.loveyoulive

In today’s world of techno-music and bland, unimaginative songs that all sound the same, we stand to be blessed with a blast from the past; Stevie Wonder is coming to the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C. on November 9, and tickets go on sale tomorrow morning. When I heard this news, I immediately floated back to my apple green room, pink shag wallpaper, large Snoopy stuffed animal on my striped bedspread, and John Travolta’s poster on my wall. I can hear my friends knocking on my door, ready to play air guitar and act out scenes from one of the musicals as we’d put on shows or just dance in my room. Just hearing Wonder’s songs will bring me back to that innocent time when I was younger, carefree, and the sound of my 8-Track player filled the room with songs in the key of my life.

 

Seriously. What Have I Been Missing?

AudioBooksI don’t know why I didn’t think of it sooner.

As a reader and writer of stories, as one who loves live theatre and movies on screen, as one who enjoys hearing a compelling story…what the heck has taken me so long to “read” in the car?

Seriously, audiobooks are making my life even more enjoyable than it already is.

Because of my commute to work, which extended by about 10-15 minutes when my family and I moved last year (by our choice), I spend a bit more time in the car. At a gathering of our Book Club, someone asked when I find time to read.

“I don’t,” I said. “During the semester, it’s very hard for me. I’m grading papers, preparing lectures, writing a textbook and a novel, in addition to trying to be a good mom to two great kids and a loving wife.”

It’s then that the light bulb went off. Why didn’t I listen to the books on audio CD?

I’ve discovered audiobooks are quite lovely, and they actually makes me want to get back in the car, so I can “hear” what happens next. I have been swept away to locations with people who come to life as a narrator tells me the story. I love to read—read the printed word—but this audiobook thing is sweeping me off to places when all I’m doing is driving on the Beltway.

At this rate, I will finish a lot of books over the course of the semester. I just finished “Stella Bain” and I’m about to tackle “Unbroken” and “The Goldfinch.” In my CD player in my car right now is Elizabeth Berg’s book from 2013 entitled “Tapestry of Fortunes.” I may listen to “The End of the Affair” just to hear Colin Firth tell me the story.ADBLECRE_2290_ColinFirthZing_v2._V383757663_

I’m quite enjoying them all, and my local library has a vast collection from which you can pick.

For those who try to tell you that listening to audiobooks is not really reading, remember this: it’s not a copout. It’s a way of processing stories. It requires concentration and focus, and it still requires you to paint a picture in your mind. In fact, in research I conducted during my MFA on Charles Dickens, it appears that Dickens not only liked to engage in live readings of his works, but he also wrote his stories for the ear. He wrote them to be read aloud. He gleaned great satisfaction from performing his stories on the stage. He would act out the three ghosts from “A Christmas Carol,” playing all the parts, yet interpreting and reading his own words.

Listening to audiobooks reminds me of the days (before I was born) when folks would gather around the radio and “listen” to fictional stories being broadcast. The stories were narrated, often in a series, and they brought people together. I like that notion a lot better than sitting around a table while everyone stares at their iPhones.

In a piece written by Sharon Grover and Lizette D. Hannegan in 2004 for Book Links about “Integrating Audiobooks into the Classroom,” they write the following:

Children’s and young-adult literature in audiobook format is being produced in record numbers. Outstanding performances by recognized actors, concurrent publication with hardcover releases, and variety and availability all contribute to the growing presence of audiobooks in school and public libraries. Educators, however, know that one of the most important reasons for the increasing interest in audiobooks for young people is the research demonstrating that listening to audiobooks fosters reading comprehension, fluency, language acquisition, vocabulary development, and improved achievement.

For these very reasons, if it works for students, it can work for those of us who just love learning.

I’ve got to go now. Time for my pleasant commute home.