Nils, Norway, the Chicken House and a Life Lesson or Two

In the spring of 1975 when I was 22, my boyfriend Nick and I decided we would go to Europe after I graduated from college in June. (He was already finished with school and up for an adventure). The goal was to go for a year and the original plan (or at least the one I remember) was that we would go to Scandinavia, then down to Italy, where my brother John owned a language school outside of Milan, on to Greece for a few months, and then to Israel (I had a desire to work on a kibbutz). So, out came the Whole World Catalogue and we started looking for places where we could work and maybe get a little pocket money. It wasn’t long before we saw that there was a farm in Norway right on a fjord that needed two student workers for six weeks. The town was called Lauvstad and it was definitely off the beaten path. Nick and I were excited. I had wanted to see a fjord since I was a kid looking at National Geographic and there was room and board and a tiny bit of pocket money to boot. So I finished up school, sold my car, and we packed up and headed first to Texas to see my mother (I was at University of Utah in Salt Lake City) and then cross country in Nick’s car to see his parents in Rockville, Maryland. Then after a surprise wisdom tooth extraction for me, we grabbed our backpacks and headed off to the airport for a flight over to Luxembourg, the bargain basement trip to Europe.  We took the train to Oslo, which I remember as a pretty city in a sedate sort of way. I was happy many people spoke English. Then it was time to head for Lauvstad, which required a train, bus, ferry and feet.

Lauvstad was a tiny village literally on the edge of a fjord. I vaguely recall a store or two and the dock and almost nothing else. I also remember donning my backpack, which was heavy, and heading off down a road to the farm. We walked I believe the whole way though memory fades on that detail. Finally, we reached the farm: a big two-story white house for the family, a big barn, a large chicken house, and a smaller two-story house that was for us.

The son Lars and his wife and their six children were going off on holiday for the six weeks we were working. Nils, the grandfather, and his sister, Berta, were the only two on the farm besides us. The son and his family were a mass of blue-eyed blonds with big smiles and pretty white teeth. The kids looked as if they had come right out of the Norwegian version of The Sound of Music with their healthy complexions and natural shyness. The girls had long braids down their backs and the boys had bowl haircuts. They were adorable. Nils and Berta were both in their 70’s, slim, with white hair instead of blond, but the same bright blue eyes. Berta was bent over as I recall and a bit more reticent. Nils, on the other hand, was bright-eyed and lively and greeted us with an open smile.

Our job on the farm was to weed the cabbage patch, which was large, and to take care of the chickens, which were many. We worked five and a half days a week, getting half of Saturday and all day Sunday off. On Sundays, Nils would often take us on hikes up the mountain trail. I remember on every one of these hikes, Nils left me straggling far behind as he scampered up those trails like a mountain goat. Sometimes he’d double back just to check on me, then head back up again. He was definitely in better shape than I was, even though I was a good fifty years younger than he, and his smooth face told me that he was at peace with the world. I remember thinking at the time, “Oh, if only I could be like Nils when I’m his age. That could be my goal.”

All went well until the morning that Nils told us we had an extra special job for the next few days: cleaning out the chicken house. Of course, neither Nick nor I had ever cleaned out a chicken house before so we didn’t quite catch Nils’s thinly veiled glee at the prospect of letting two American kids experience the joys of that task. Instead, we dutifully awaited our instructions.

The job was simple Nils assured us. Just take those shovels and that wheelbarrow and go in and start shoveling. “Okay,” we both said, and picked up the shovels.

Well, Nils failed to mention that this chicken house hadn’t been cleaned out in at least a decade. Or that there was not a small bit of chicken sh-t on the floor, no, there was mounds of it. He also forgot to tell us that chicken excrement might be the foulest odor on the planet, I mean, so bad that I literally began to gag when shoveling up that lovely green and yellow slimy stuff. There was another component that wasn’t brought up at the time – the size of the chicken house. This wasn’t a small lean-to with five chickens. No, this was a very large place with LOTS of chicken in cages (hence the piles of poop underneath each one spreading onto the rest of the floor. The chicken house was also dark – a few bare bulbs burning – and closed up tight so that noxious odor was almost overpowering.

To this day, cleaning out that chicken house was the worst job I have ever had. It was hot, smelly, disgusting work that went on and on and on. Nils would poke his head in every once in a while to check on our progress and would always leave chuckling. I’m sure he got a kick for years to come just thinking of us American kids getting a taste (maybe literally) of what Norwegian farm life was all about.

Still, when I think of Norway, I think fondly of Nils and that six weeks on the farm. The nights were never dark, only dusk-like, and one time I woke up at 3 am to the rhythmic sound of swish-swish-swish down in the field near my bedroom window. I looked out and there was Nils, scything down the grass. He told us the next morning at breakfast that he often went out in the early hours and worked if he couldn’t sleep.

Despite the chicken house – or because of it – I felt as if I had met someone very special in Nils. He had health, happiness, a wonderful sense of humor, and contentment. What a goal to shoot for in life. Plus, he knew how to have a little bit of fun with two American kids, and get his chicken house cleaned, to boot.

Norway

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Quick-Write Musings

I am sitting with fifteen-year-old Michael and we are both doing our quick writes.  I have been working all day with students on college essays that are due either today or November 30th so this is a nice respite from that very concentrated work. Cordelia, our corgi, just jumped up on the couch next to Michael; Frankie, our terrier, is in a nearby chair. Luckily, Michael is dog-friendly so he seems fine with these sometimes obnoxious creatures.  Also, because he is fine, they often get much calmer and sometimes even a bit less obnoxious.

Ray and daughter Liz returned from Texas this morning. I was up by 6:30 am and out of the door by 7:15 to meet their 8:10 flight from Dallas. They had gotten up at 3:30 in the morning and were on the road by 4:15 to drive the hour to Love Field in Dallas. They arrived looking pretty sleepy, but also happy to be back. They made a quick trip to Texas to do some work there related to our rental properties and our antique sales.  I couldn’t go because this is my busiest time of year, work-wise. 

As it is, Ray and I are leaving the first week in December for several days to stop off in Texas, then head on to Nashville to see my brother Sam and his partner, Jaime. We made the hard choice to miss Sam’s birthday celebration in October because that event was coupled with an album-release party and a whole crowd of folks was coming to support Sam’s efforts. It was hard to miss all that fun, but Sam and I agreed we wanted/needed some time when the four of us could just hang out together for a few days. Needless to say, I’m looking forward to that trip.

What else?  I don’t have a lot else to report.  My days right now are centered on college essays and I will say that some truly wonderful ones are being generated here in my den. I am very pleased with the work my students are producing and I feel confident that these essays will bolster these kids’ applications in a very real way.  Too, I get to know these students very well with these tough questions they are required to write on, which also adds an extra positive aspect to my day-to-day life.

Okay, the timer is ringing.  I will close for now. I will check back in tomorrow.

Until then, I wish you well.

masthead_02_musings

Michael’s PGA Award-Winning Short Film: Please Watch!

Michael Bina, my former writing student and current writing friend (we meet weekly to write together for two hours on our separate projects), recently won 2nd place for his entry in the Producers Guild of America’s “Make Your Mark” weekend shorts competition.  Michael and his collaborator, Shawn Shekarchian, produced, wrote and directed this unbelievably poignant film in only 51 hours. Please take five minutes (literally) and watch the product of Michael and Shawn’s hard work. I was moved to tears.

Congratulations, Michael and Shawn.  You have a bright future ahead, my dears.  This is a wonderful piece of filmmaking.  Keep at it! The world needs you two to keep telling these important stories.

Here is their film:

 

5-Star Asparagus Soup Recipe

I made this soup for lunch and it was easy and delicious.  This is one of those foolproof recipes that doesn’t require much work and has lots of flavor.  I highly recommend it.  My picture isn’t very pretty, but it’s the best I could do.  Still, the soup was wonderful.  I felt as if I was getting an infusion of pure Vitamin C from the fresh asparagus as well as the Meyer lemon I picked right off the tree.  Try it, you’ll love it!

Here’s the recipe:

Asparagus Soup with Lemon and Parmesan

Servings: 4-6

Ingredients

  • 2 bunches asparagus (about 2-1/4 pounds)
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • medium yellow onions, chopped
  • cloves garlic, peeled and smashed
  • 6 cups low sodium chicken broth
  • Salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice, from one lemon
  • 1/4 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
  • Handful fresh herbs, such as thyme, dill or basil (optional, for garnish)

Instructions

  1. Melt the butter in a large pot over medium heat. Add the onions and garlic and cook until soft and translucent, about 10 minutes.
  2. In the meantime, cut the tips off of the asparagus spears and set aside. Cut the remaining spears into 1/2-inch pieces.
  3. Add the chopped asparagus (except for the tips) to the pot, along with the chicken broth, 1 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper. Bring to a boil, then cover and turn heat down to low. Simmer for about 30 minutes until vegetables are very tender.
  4. Meanwhile, bring a small pot of salted water to a boil. Cook the reserved asparagus tips for a few minutes until tender-crisp. Drain and refresh under cold water or in an ice bath. Set aside.
  5. Purée the soup with an immersion blender until completely smooth. (Alternatively, use a standard blender to purée the soup in batches, then return the soup to the pot.) If necessary, pass the soup through a fine sieve to remove the fibers (the best way is to place the sieve over a large bowl, then use a ladle to push the soup through in circular motions). Return the soup to the pot and bring back to a simmer. Stir in the lemon juice and grated Parmigiano-Reggiano. Taste and adjust seasoning with salt, pepper and more lemon juice if desired (you may need up to a teaspoon more salt).
  6. Ladle the soup into bowls, then top each bowl with asparagus tips, fresh chopped herbs, more grated Parmigiano-Reggiano and freshly ground black pepper if desired.

Nutrition Information

Powered by Edamam

  • Per serving (6 servings)
  • Calories:162
  • Fat:9g
  • Saturated fat:5g
  • Carbohydrates:14g
  • Sugar:5g
  • Fiber:4g
  • Protein:11g
  • Sodium:541mg
  • Cholesterol:18mg
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My First Quick Write With a New Student

I am sitting with Elliot. He is a new student who needs help with his freshman writing.  He goes to Beverly Hills High.  His mom is here with him and she is reading a book while we write.  We are going to write for five minutes as our first quick write. 

The dogs have been banished upstairs with my husband.  They are a corgi and a terrier who are very sweet but can be very noisy.  Elliot, you will get a chance to meet them either at the end of our session or next time.

Let me see, what can I tell you about myself?  I am the mother of three grown daughters who all live in LA. Their names are Sarah, Elizabeth and Rachael.  Sarah is married and I have two grandkids named Luna and Nico. They are 4 1/2 and 2. The good news is that I will get to see them tomorrow.  My grandkids are two of my favorite little people in the world.

What else? I like your name.  I might suggest Elliot as the name of a future boy grandchild.  That is a short list so far. Aidan is on the list and now Elliot. You can see I don’t have many. Consider this a major compliment.

This quick-write gives you a tiny window into who I am.  We will get to know each other much better as we spend time together. The most important thing for you to know about me is that I will not be super critical of your writing. I believe in supporting the creative flame, not snuffing it out.

Quick Writes TItle

My Students and A Bit of “Light” Reading

I am sitting with my student Michael.  We are doing a quick write.  I am tired. This is my usual mantra these days.  I have lots of students, back to back, right now, which is not, by the way, how I usually work. During other times of the year, I mix up my day with a variety of activities and then usually only see students in a block of three hours.  That way I am not too tired when I am working with them and also I have other things I accomplish during the day.  But right now with deadlines looming for college entrance essays, term papers, and thesis chapters, I am a bit more stretched or, more aptly said, glued to my big overstuffed chair here in the den. I literally have been sitting here since 7:30 this morning and it is now 6:15 pm.  I will remain here tonight until after my last student, who will finish at 9:30 pm.

I don’t recommend this type of approach to work as a routine way to live. In fact, I would be the first to say this is not a particularly healthy way to live. One walk around the block at 10:30 at night with my dogs does not constitute enough exercise for a day and peanut butter sandwiches gobbled down in-between students is not the best diet. Alas, I am very aware this is a temporary condition and then my life will right itself. I would venture to say that the week of Thanksgiving will bring much of this craziness to a close since my goal for all my students is to have all essays due by November 30th completed by the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, November 21st. Since today is the 8th, the end is in sight. So, here’s to a few more long days and nights before I get to enjoy a big family holiday at the orange grove.

Our Thanksgiving will be a four-day campout in Ojai with a big Thanksgiving dinner cooked on Friday. We have been doing this for the past several years so that friends and family who have other places to go on the “real” Thanksgiving can still come celebrate with us. With family coming from Utah for the occasion, this is one of those special events that ends up being a highlight of the year for me.  So, that’s what I’m thinking about when I feel my rear-end getting wider from all this sitting. There is a bright light at the end of the tunnel.

We are now writing for ten more minutes (Michael’s suggestion since he’s not finished with his thoughts from the first quick write!).  I have to think about what else I have to say.  Hmmm.  I did mention I was tired, right?  Yes, well, let’s see.  What else…

I have been reading segments of a book that one of my college students recommended entitled, Healing Developmental Trauma: How Early Trauma Affects Self-Regulation, Self-Image, and the Capacity for Relationship by Laurence Heller Ph.D. and Aline Lapierre, Psy.D.  This book focuses on the NeuroAffective Relationship Model (NARM), which uses mindfulness as a healing process.  I haven’t read a lot so far but what I have read discusses the residual effects of early trauma in our lives and how we carry these experiences with us into our adult lives. This book presents strategies for dealing with knee-jerk behavior patterns that are a result of this early trauma, which we may have outgrown as our lives, circumstances and psyches have changed.  I am intrigued and will share more as I get deeper into the book. Here is the blurb on the book jacket that describes its purpose:

Written for those working to heal developmental trauma and seeking new tools for self-awareness and growth, this book focuses on conflicts surrounding the capacity for connection. Explaining that an impaired capacity for connection to self and to others and the ensuing diminished aliveness are the hidden dimensions that underlie most psychological and many physiological problems, clinicians Laurence Heller and Aline LaPierre introduce the NeuroAffective Relational Model® (NARM), a unified approach to developmental, attachment, and shock trauma that, while not ignoring a person’s past, emphasizes working in the present moment. NARM is a somatically based psychotherapy that helps bring into awareness the parts of self that are disorganized and dysfunctional without making the regressed, dysfunctional elements the primary theme of the therapy. It emphasizes a person’s strengths, capacities, resources, and resiliency and is a powerful tool for working with both nervous system regulation and distortions of identity such as low self-esteem, shame, and chronic self-judgment.

I will write more about this when I know more.

I hope you’re having a lovely, relaxed and restful evening.

I’ll be checking back in with you again tomorrow.

trauma book

 

Students, Students, Students

I am in the middle of my big push.  November 1 deadlines have been met and now we’re on to November 15th.  Then, we head right into December 1 deadlines before getting all the January 1 goals met before the holidays.  Also, there are term papers due.  I am working on Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert as well as The Plague by Albert Camus with students from Brown and UCLA.  Then there’s the Master’s thesis I’m helping with in Clinical Psychology.  That’s fun, as well.

The best part of my job is how much I get to learn in the process of helping others.  I always wanted an English degree along with my Psychology Master’s so this work allows me to read and analyze pieces of literature that I have always wanted to learn more about anyway. Also, the Master’s thesis I am helping with is all about the challenges women face in midlife so I am benefitting from all that research.  I am learning about what is now being called the “Third Age” for all of us baby boomers who feel too young to hang it up and too old to bother with many of the frustrations of our earlier lives. I am pleased to learn that with the help of modern medicine many of us will live well into our 80s, making the “Third Age” extend to twenty or so years.  That is plenty of time to come up with more of life to live before hitting the “Fourth Age” of decline.

The other wonderful part of my job is my relationship with my students.  I become good friends with these folks over the time we work together.  One of my college essay students said to me last week, “Okay, I went home and cried over what I’d written here. I feel much better now.”  He had been writing on one of the biggest challenges he’d face in his life (one of the Common App prompts) and the writing had triggered some feelings he had buried.  This happens a lot when working on these essays.  Our goal is to go deep and mine some of those tough times. After all, what good is a personal essay if it doesn’t evoke emotion in the reader?  The only way to evoke emotion is to actually feel emotion.  Authenticity reaches out from the page and grabs you. As I say to my students, “If your essay doesn’t make me at least tear up at the end, then it’s not good enough.” As Robert Frost so aptly said, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.”  Many of my students say they feel as if they have been through therapy after they finish their college essays.  We are talking genuine tears, after all, never insincere ones. That would never suit.

On that note, I believe I’ll gather up my two dogs and head off for a walk around the block. They are ready and so am I.  I have been sitting a tad too long today.

I hope you are having a good night.

I’ll be checking back in again tomorrow.

deadline inspiration

 

 

Flash Fiction, Memoir and Essay

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