I had bold plans for 2019. I am self-employed and can work from anywhere, so I decided to embark on a Year of Living Nomadically. I invited friends and family to suggest places I should visit and songs I should listen to while on the road. Not a soul suggested I spend a week in a Northern Virginia hospital owing to the discovery of a brain tumor. No one thought to recommend the Patty Griffin song, “Don’t Let Me Die in Florida.” The discovery of the large meningioma and emergency surgery four days later forced me to come up with another plan.
Before I knew I had a tumor pushing the right side of my brain across the midline of my face, I made plans to visit family and friends in Colorado, California, and North Carolina. I spent time with clients in Maritime Canada and started working on a merger integration for a client in Florida. I was going where I wanted to go, doing what I wanted to do, spending time with people I loved, and working on interesting projects, but I felt an encroaching sense of malaise, a free-floating discontent that I didn’t understand.
On a flight from Denver to D.C., I typed out instructions for my son, Sean, on where to find my financial information in the event of my death. I created a screen saver on my mobile phone that identified my daughter-in-law, Christina, as my contact in case of emergency. Once home, I hired an organizer to help me clear out the rooms in my house. Never much of a pack rat, I wanted to get rid of as much stuff as I could and neatly arrange the rest. Without realizing it, I was putting my affairs in order.
By mid-December, I had gone through three rounds of antibiotics for debilitating headaches that I assumed were caused by a persistent sinus infection. As the headaches intensified, my mood darkened, and I withdrew deeper into myself. Meanwhile, my son and siblings had been calling one another to discuss what to do about the problem that was me. My personality had gone flatline. I had less to say and took longer to say it. I listed to one side; I was unsteady on my feet. Over the Christmas holidays, I played a board game with my granddaughters, ages five and three. After they went upstairs to bed, my son and daughter-in-law observed me alone in the room, still pushing the playing pieces around the board.
“You were fading away,” said Sean. “We thought we were losing you.”
On New Year’s Eve, I flew to Florida for what was to be a two-week visit to my client’s site. I felt overwhelmed and fatigued, oppressed by constant headaches, unable to focus or think clearly. The morning after I arrived, when I emerged from my hotel for the half-mile walk to the client’s office, I couldn’t figure out how to get there. I pulled up a map on my phone but couldn’t follow the directions. Finally understanding that something was very wrong, I took a cab to the office and told my client I needed to get home. I flew out later that day.
The next morning, my sister Monica drove me to the hospital. I don’t remember arriving, or going through registration, or being taken for a CT scan. I do remember hearing a doctor say, “You have a large tumor on your brain.” I didn’t notice how my sister turned away so I couldn’t see the look on her face.
I do remember thinking, “Well that’s unexpected.”
I was admitted to the critical care unit on a Thursday. The surgeon scheduled a craniotomy for Monday. Meanwhile, I was pumped full of intravenous steroids to shrink the tumor. Within hours, I felt flooded with energy and optimism.
“You’re back!” said Sean.
A few years earlier, in graduate school, I studied positive organizational change, which has some powerful neuroscience behind it, and I used what I learned to face the diagnosis and surgery with optimism. My family and friends made it easy, rallying around me and arranging for someone to be with me at critical moments around the clock. Sean took charge of my care, stepping away from his practice as a trial lawyer to support me and confer with my medical team. My brother Al, sister-in-law/BFF Karen, and nieces Rachel and Kelly flew in from Colorado. Famous for her comfy beds, Karen replaced the horrid itchy hospital sheets and blankets with soft bedding.
The neurosurgeon warned my family that the operation could take several hours, and I might need rehabilitation or physical therapy as part of my recovery. In fact he finished in less than four hours, and I came through with no impairment and no pain—just the sensation of a mild toothache. Two days later, the bandage was removed from around my head, revealing a shiny set of staples that ran from above my right temple to behind my right ear, and I was released from the hospital.
I am one of the lucky ones.
My Year of Living Nomadically is an idea I cooked up a few months ago. Since I can work from anywhere so long as I have access to wi-fi, I decided to take full advantage of my independence to travel and explore. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do. Why wait?
I briefly considered renting out my little house, but I quickly rejected the idea. My granddaughter, Eleanor, wouldn’t hear of it, and I need a home base. Plus, fairies live in the hollow of one of my four grand oak trees, and it’s bad luck to disrupt an enchanted environment.
I will be working, and my work will require traveling occasionally to my clients’ sites, which—happily—means spending a lot of time in a certain province in the Canadian Maritimes. There, I am blessed with great friends, friends who are always ready to share an adventure, a canoe, a tent by the river, a bottle of wine, and a story. While I'm there, I’ll look for opportunities to learn about my Acadian and Mi’kmaq heritage and chase the Northern Lights—maybe on a dog sled. I’ve done stranger things.
Yeah, New Brunswick feels like home to me, so I’ll spend time there. There are two other places in my Top Three: Roanoke Island, North Carolina, and parts of Douglas County, Colorado. Those three places are where I’ll start my year. I’ll figure the rest out as I go, following my son’s advice: “Don’t overthink it, Mom.” That’s the only advice I need. It goes well with the playlist I assembled with a lot of help from my friends. Here are the songs I’ll be playing when I hit the road next week.
Life Is A Highway – Rascal Flatts
Drive - Joe Bonamassa
Secret O’ Life – Richie Havens
Travelin’ Thru – Dolly Parton
Gypsy Epilogue -Tony Joe White
Highway Song – Aztec Two Step
Rocky Mountain Way – Joe Walsh
Colorado – Linda Ronstadt
Fast Car – Tracy Chapman
Can’t Find My Way Home – Christine Day
Carry On – Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young
On Every Street – Dire Straits
Boulder to Birmingham – Emmy Lou Harris
Midnight Train to Georgia – Gladys Knight and the Pips
Closer to Home – Grand Funk Railroad
She Lay Her Whip Down – Jeff Bridges and the Abiders
Someday Soon – Judy Collins
Life in a Northern Town – Little Big Town
Take Me With You When You Go – Lori McKenna
If I Had a Boat – Lyle Lovett
All the Roadrunning – Mark Knopfler and Emmy Lou Harris
Ride My SeeSaw – Moody Blues
The Next Best Western – Richard Shindell
Urge for Going – Tom Rush
Long Time Traveler – The Wailin Jennys
Free – Zac Brown Band
Fionnghuala – Nightnoise
We did it! With the support of 122 generous backers, we managed to raise a little more than enough to fund the first printing of Backstage at The Lost Colony, and bring a dream to life.
The idea for Backstage at The Lost Colony evolved through a series of conversations I had in early 2017 with Elizabeth Evans, who was a dancer in the show and worked with me in The Lost Colony's public relations office in the early 1990s. We first imagined publishing a compilation of stories from the actors, singers, dancers, and technicians who have been a part of The Lost Colony through the years.
That vision changed when, after several months of encouraging people to submit their stories, we had only a fraction of what we needed to make a proper book. I was getting worried, when one day there came in the mail an essay by Dwayne Walls, Jr., who had joined the show as a 19-year-old actor technician in the late 1980s. Entitled, "Sand," it had grace and power and heart. Several weeks and several more essays later, I asked Dwayne if he would be interested in writing the book. We agreed he would follow the cast and crew through The Lost Colony's 80th anniversary season and write the narrative.
Dwayne is uniquely suited to tell the Backstage story. A self-described “space puppy” when he first came to The Lost Colony, he was too preoccupied with the itch of his colonist’s beard and the paucity of his paycheck to enjoy his first summer with the show. But he returned a few years later with a different outlook and, even though his beard still itched, he grew both professionally and personally. After leaving The Lost Colony, Dwayne went on to New York City to build sets for theater, film, and television—including NBC’s Saturday Night Live, before returning to North Carolina with his wife, Elizabeth. Dwayne's love of the show and the people who have kept it going for 80 years is evident in the story he tells.
By the time we put up a Kickstarter campaign to fund the print run, the book had evolved into a 170-page coffee table book, with more than 100 photos, mostly color, by Outer Banks photographers Delena Gray Ostrander, Eden Saunders, and Duane Cochran, and actor Jamil Zraikat. Dwayne's narrative is supplemented by first-person stories from Colony alumni.
My first Kickstarter attempt failed, but I learned from it and solicited advice from friends like Elizabeth Evans and Gail Hutchison, who know the Colony community (and me) so well, and my daughter-in-law, Christina Sherlock, who has a keen mind for business. I can't wait to put the printed copies in the hands of everyone who believes in us! We'll have the book ready for the start of the 81st season.
Today I won the First Annual Chili Smackdown for our office, making me two for two in chili championships.
My Facebook friends from Lexington, Kentucky, may recall my first “Gold Cup” victory nearly 10 years ago. And my son’s friends will recognize the truth in the narrative of The Chili:
This chili was first concocted on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, but this is no skinny barefoot surfin’ chili. No, no, no. This chili was perfected in Steel City, where it laced up its storm trooper boots, nodded politely at the vegetarians, and muscled its way onto the palates and into the loyal affections of the mighty Hampton Talbots football team, nourishing the squad through an undefeated season in 2002, nursing its star defensive lineman through two knee surgeries, and mending at least one broken heart, whereupon the team (in reverent tones) dubbed it “The Chili.”
A strong-willed and impatient chili, it believes fiercely in diversity, as evidenced by the variety of meats and beans and complex spices that give The Chili its deep flavor. Full-bodied and opulent in the mouth, it yields rich notes of cumin, sandalwood, and brown sugar, with hints of dusty road and blues guitar that will have your taste buds partying like a freshman Congressman on Bourbon Street. Even though The Chili is aggressive and suffers no fools, all it wants is world peace, a Steelers victory—and for you to hug your grandma.
Just say the word, and I’ll cook it for you.
Spring has finally come to Four Oaks, even if it is having an identity crisis. Snow in April, late-August heat in May, 20-degree temperature swings in 24 hours. But that’s okay, because I love the changes it brings. Having moved here in September, they’re all new to me.
No sooner did the snow (finally) melt away when things started to bloom. Who knew I had a riot of daffodils along the fence line, or lilac trees, or forsythia? The mud pit on the south side of the house has been replaced by a patchy lawn that I’m sure will turn lush in a year or three. The birds that sing me awake early in the morning sound happier now. The rooster down the road starts in with the birds but seems to crow all day long. And one night, as I turned into my driveway, my headlights revealed three deer in the grass, which was much taller than my neighbors’ grass because that was before I bought the John Deere tractor.
Okay, so it’s a riding mower, but it’s still that particular shade of green that marks me as one of the cool kids. And, besides, Nancy and Phil, my neighbors to the east, say I’m allowed to call it a tractor, and they should know because they have two of them, much bigger than mine, with many exotic attachments, one of which Nancy used this winter to dig my car out of 12 inches of snow.
I am foolishly proud of my John Deere. Out here on my little gravel road, I felt like a dilettante having lawn service when everyone else had tractors. Glorious green John Deere tractors.
So now I no longer have to rely on the lawn service guy. But getting the John Deere and figuring out how to use it to actually mow my lawn took a village. Thank God there is a village.
I had no idea how to get a tractor in the first place, even though there is a John Deere dealer five miles away. Fortunately, I am related to chivalrous men. My nephew-in-law, Danny, the Craig’s List King, heard I was looking for a tractor and went on the hunt; in mere days he found the perfect model and negotiated the price. My brother-in-law, Jeff, trucked it over from Occoquan, which took the better part of a day. Then he taught me how to use it to actually mow my lawn. Then Jeff and Therese and I celebrated by drinking wine around the fire pit and toasting to how good my lawn would look when I actually mowed it.
The next day I set out to actually mow my lawn, unsupervised. I was more nervous than I’d been on my last blind date. I approached the John Deere with great respect. I tried to show no fear. I walked around it determined to comprehend its mystery, climbed into the seat and tried to remember what Jeff had told me about the controls. Gear in neutral, lock on, foot on the brake, mowing deck raised. A sense of exhilaration when I realized, I got this. Then: Oh, yeah, the key. Went inside for the key.
And then this pampered city girl mowed her .89 acres. Except for the hills, okay, slopes, which Jeff later weed-whacked for me. And I only conked out once, but Rick, my neighbor to the west, got me started up again and reminded me I couldn’t go in reverse with the mowing deck down. Nancy, my neighbor to the east, later told me that nearly falling out of the seat meant I was mowing too fast. I’m pretty sure they were both keeping an eye out, prepared to dial 9-1-1 in case I ran over my foot.
The second time I used the John Deere to actually mow my lawn, there was a little incident with the oil, but it’s okay because I learned two new things: (1) ALWAYS check the oil because you can really mess up your tractor if you don’t, and (2) STOP filling the oil at that little line on the end of the stick because if you don’t your tractor will billow white smoke and then your brother-in-law Jeff will have to come back out and drain something-or-other.
It’s all good. I get to actually mow my lawn for the third time this weekend. If you’re out this way, punch out 9-1-1 on your phone and stand by.
I’ve moved 22 times since leaving my parents’ home at the age of 19. More than one friend has remarked on my restlessness, but I never thought of it that way. It just took me a long time to find a place that felt like home. But I’m here now, in a tiny jewel box of a renovated farmhouse called Four Oaks, freezing my ass off on the front porch so I can look at the outlines of the Blue Ridge Mountains while I write about moving to the country.
I might be the most unlikely person to move to the country. Of my 22 homes, 21 were in suburbs or towns or—most recently—in the heart of Washington, D.C. I like knowing people are within screaming distance if something goes horribly wrong. I’ve stopped at enough tiny towns off the interstates in West Virginia and Eastern Kentucky to know that some country people can be scary as shit. I’m terrified of mountain lions, which, in case you don’t know, are freakin’ everywhere, people. And I am afraid of the dark.
But I’d had enough of living in the city and I couldn’t face another suburb. Then one Sunday afternoon, heading to an open house suggested by my real estate agent, I drove down a gravel road thinking yeah right, and happened upon Four Oaks. Walked through the front door and felt it as viscerally as I’d ever felt anything: this place was home, and I had to have it.
A month later, Four Oaks was mine: the hundred year-old heart pine floors, the big front porch with the tongue-in-groove ceiling, the metal roof, the tight trim work, the finishes that make the home’s modern comforts feel rustic and authentic. Also mine: the scary cellar, the itty-bitty closets, a half acre of dust where a lawn needed to be, and a plethora of snakes, spiders and stink bugs. Shrieks in the dark I can’t identify—maybe a birdlike thing, maybe a catlike thing. Maybe a ghost. Who knows?
Who cares? Not me. I’m cozy here. Neighbors go by on horses, on bikes, and in cars; they stop and introduce themselves and welcome me to the neighborhood. I go to the spaghetti dinner hosted by the local volunteer fire department. One morning, as I stepped onto my front porch with my first cup of coffee, I found four fat turkeys in my yard. “They were on your porch earlier,” my neighbor called to me across the gravel road.
The other day, her youngest daughter, 10 year-old McKenzie, saw me out on the porch and came over for a talk. She asked my permission to ride her bike on my long driveway. She told me about a scary movie she’d seen. She said her favorite subject in school was geography, because it was interesting to learn about people in different lands. “People have different minds inside their heads,” she informed me.
After 22 moves, I guess I must like geography the best, too. And I’m learning that sometimes a different mind finds its way inside the same old head you’ve always had. Who knew?
In place of that old restlessness, I’m content here at Four Oaks. That might seem bland to you, but it’s a thrill to me. Because I think this might be how it feels when you’ve finally found your way home.