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I caught the travel bug when I was a kid. Not during family vacations, those were always filled with tension and fighting and I could never wait to get home. The first time I realized how beautiful travel could be was during my 7th grade trip to Washington D.C. As part of the National Junior Honor Society, we were given small freedoms and allowed to reasonably explore things on our own. The next year, it was Disney World and my first trip to Florida and my first time on an airplane. I was hooked.

When I was sixteen, I earned a place on the Michigan Lions All-State Band’s trip to the international conference in Brisbane, Australia. I convinced my mother to let me go and spent months fundraising. Enduring the world’s longest plane ride, we visited not only Brisbane, but also Sydney, and spent a lovely three days in Hawaii, all the while performing in parades and concerts over a two-and-a-half week period. Even after dealing with a vicious stomach bug shortly after arrival, staying in a dorm with mice and giant cockroaches, a haunted hotel room in the red-light district section of Sydney (complete with gunshots in the walls), and getting lost in the not-so-great section of Honolulu, I was in love with travel and learning about the world outside my own country. This is also when I learned that I don’t like Vegemite, but that’s an different story.

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In the years since, I’ve been fortunate enough to visit Ireland, England, Scotland, Wales, and Italy. (My layovers in New Zealand and Amsterdam technically do not count, but they did stamp my passport, so there’s that.) I don’t count Canada because it is literally (and I’m using that correctly) about twenty minutes away and I’ve been there frequently throughout my life, especially after I turned nineteen, which is the legal drinking age there. Don’t judge.

All of these places taught me lovely, wonderful things, not only about the places and people, but also about myself. I learned how to make myself understood in another language, not perfectly, not even remotely close, but enough to order at restaurants, find the restroom, and ask for towels at the hotel. I learned that I am perfectly capable of navigating through unfamiliar places and can sort out the London Tube map on my own. I’ve made amazing, life-long friends in other places, even though we keep in touch only online. (Sabrina, I SWEAR I will get back to Italy, no worries!)

One of the most important things I’ve learned, though, is the importance of other perspectives. The American viewpoint is not the only one, people see things differently in other places. There are different norms, different customs. Travel has made me much less arrogant and more tolerant of others, more open to listening and understanding, even if I don’t agree. Granted, the places I’ve visited aren’t as far removed from me as a remote village in Kenya might be, (another place I’d like to visit), but they’re definitely not the same as where I’m from. Different cultures, different histories, different mindsets. I find it all fascinating, learning that will never end.

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The point of all of this is to motivate. Don’t have a passport? Get one! Plan, save, do whatever you can to enable to you to get out and see the world, not just your own backyard. While there are many universal truths, seeing the world through someone else’s eyes will open your own. My own list keeps getting longer, to the point of I’m considering becoming a flight attendant when I’m done teaching just so I can travel the world over. Of course, if my Mega Millions ticket ever hits, I’ll be able to do it a lot sooner.

Even with all of its problems, our world is a beautiful place. Go see it.

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In order to increase my author base and to attract the attention of agents, I opened up a new Twitter account. I’ve had Twitter for a few years now, but didn’t really do much with it, as evidenced by a whopping 16 followers. (@23italiana, if you’re interested, but there isn’t a lot there except for these blog posts.) But today is a new day, and with it, a new commitment to actually tweeting not only author-y type stuff, but things that are. hopefully, somewhat entertaining.

This is my shameless plug to follow me @BrownBallantyne and meet some new blogging/tweeting folks, whether you’re a writer or not. I can promise that I will retweet a lot of British stuff, Italian stuff, Lin Manuel Miranda stuff, animal stuff… you get the idea.

So, see you there?

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Today, on Facebook, I saw a picture from a wedding. The two who got married are wonderful people and they work for The Henry Ford, one couple of many who met their spouse there. The picture was lovely; it was of all of the people at the wedding who had worked on Firestone Farm, a place near and dear to my heart. It got me thinking about my own wedding, and all of the Firestone Farm people who were there to celebrate that day with us.

When Marty and I got married, twenty-two years ago, I was still a “chicken” on the farm, one of the younger girls. The older ladies adopted us, many of us had “mamas”, and they taught us all that they knew. I hardly knew anything about cooking at all back then, much less cooking on a coal stove, and I definitely made some mistakes. (Helpful tip: Just frying a piece of chicken doesn’t cook it all the way through. You have to put it in the oven, too, or you end up with lovely, crispy skin and raw chicken on the inside.) But I did learn, enough to be a competent cook not only at work, but at home.

For our wedding, one of the gifts we got was a journal, pictured above. The farm folk, both women and men, had passed it around and everyone contributed their favorite recipes.

002.jpgMost of them were favorite recipes that we used on the farm, since we used a variety of cookbooks that were period to the year 1885. Some examples are baking powder biscuits, lemon tarts, and pumpkin jumbles. There were also more modern recipes, too, such as Italian macaroni, sausage and egg brunch, and carrot curry soup. There’s even one page with the phone number to Little Caesar’s!

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I love looking through this book, I always have. Some of the people who contributed have passed away, some I’ve lost contact with, and some I still “see” on social media quite regularly. This cookbook, though, brings those farm days back. It was such a special, happy time in my life. There was a lot of work, a lot of coal smoke, a lot of, well, manure and mud, but we were a family. We danced at each other’s weddings, celebrated new babies, and attended funerals together. For several, wonderful years, it felt like it would always be so. We even joked about making the farm our own country. Of course, it couldn’t last forever, and we could never recreate that time if we tried.

But I have this book, this wonderful, precious book. It’s worn out from use, the spine is gone, I’ve scribbled my own subsequent recipes into it, and it will eventually begin to fall apart, but I love it. One day, I’ll pass it on to whoever shows the most interest in it. Until then, I’ll continue to add more to it, taping it together if necessary, when the cover begins to fall off.

And, of course, I can’t just look through it without making something. A loaf of farm bread is baking in my oven right now, just in time for dinner. I may just use the leftovers to make cheese toast (a Firestone staple) in the morning.

May you remember your own happy times tonight.10398512_1104025886075_7984395_n

 

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I’m becoming jaded by the news and I don’t like it. I detest the ugliness, racism, misogyny, lies, and disregard for the environment in our country today and it makes me feel hopeless. I don’t understand why people intentionally ignore facts, excuse blatant wrongs, hurt each other, and don’t take responsibility for their actions. I don’t understand why adults ridicule traumatized children. This country needs a big dose of Dr. Phil and/or God right now, but I have to focus on something else for a minute. I have to, or else the anxiety becomes my whole world. I have to focus on good, beautiful things that I love. Here are some of them.

  • My husband, for so many things, but his hand on my hip as we sleep is something that makes me love him all the more. I’m a light sleeper and I have a lot of bad dreams. Most of the time, when I wake up, Marty is there, a reassuring presence who makes everything alright. (Even if he is snoring loudly.)
  • My boys, individually and all together. They’re so unique, I love talking with each of them alone. And then, when they’re together, it’s like having a heap of puppies romping through the house, except the puppies shoot dart guns, play baseball, and creatively insult each other.
  • Fuzzy kittens. Enough said.
  • My neighborhood party store. Brothers Steve and Randy know me and sell me my weekly MegaMillions ticket on my runs. It’s like Cheers, but not a bar.
  • My theatre. Well, not my theatre. My niece thought I owned it, but no, lol. It’s a place where I’m accepted and I can be myself. I can express myself. A nice place to be.
  • My penpal/dear friend, Sabrina. She lives an ocean away, but is such a kindred spirit. And she puts up with my crappy Italian.
  • Music. It gives so much meaning to life. Hamilton, Pentatonix, and Lindsey Stirling are my current obsessions.
  • Writing. I have an outlet. I’m sort of good at it, but still have a lot to learn. This week, I completed a novel on Bessie Blount, the real one, not the sleazy HBO version. Accomplishment.
  • Babies. Babies are my heart, my joy. Incredible innocence. They’re a promise that life goes on.
  • My church. My church is progressive, including people of all races and sexual identities. I love that.
  • London. London is my dream, my hope, my destiny. I’ve never felt more at home anywhere in the world. Six years now… it’s been too long.
  • Italy. Italy is life to the tenth power. I can’t wait to get back.
  • Cadbury Mini-Eggs. Can’t help it, I adore them.
  • History
  • My therapist, Renee. She’s listened to me for seven years now and I adore her. Most of the time. Not when she’s telling me something that I don’t want to hear, but I know it’s for my own good, but, yeah, she’s awesome.
  • Ireland. Such fond memories of an impossibly beautiful place where I went with some amazing people.
  • Genealogy. I’m a sucker for historic records and long-ago grandparents.
  • Easter candy. Right now, this is an essential part of my diet.
  • God. I saved the best for last. Prayer is essential in these times of confusion/craziness and God remains my rock, every day. My spirituality keeps me centered, grounded, and keeps me sane.

Take some some time and reflect on what makes you happy. Leave it as a comment if you like. I’d love to hear what you love.

Until next time, a presto.

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My baby turns Thirteen tomorrow. He was almost two weeks late and beat the East Coast/Midwest Blackout by two hours. He was born purple, his umbilical cord tied in a knot and wrapped around his neck twice, but recovering immediately. He wanted his mama from the first moment and stays close to this day, but not too close. That would be completely uncool. I’m really not ready for this next stage, but it’s not my rodeo. Well, it kind of is. He is my son, after all, but the experience of becoming a teenager is his and his alone.

Thirteen has been seen as a rite of passage for a long time in many cultures, marked with parties, bar and bay mitzvahs, a step toward young adulthood, but also a time of confusion. Body changes, pressure to do well, and the desire to prove oneself can make turning thirteen more difficult than it needs to be.

I remember Thirteen and it wasn’t that great of a year, but then it was also a year where some exciting things happened. I remember being really jazzed to become a teenager. I have a late birthday and was always one of the youngest ones in my class, so turning thirteen and catching up with my friends was something that couldn’t come soon enough for me. I wish that I had had the gift of hindsight back then, to see that Thirteen was not all it’s cracked up to be. I still wasn’t an adult, much to my dismay, and I still had a LOT to learn.

It was during that year that I made the colossal mistake of calling one of my friends a bitch, and not even to her face, but in a note to a mutual friend. I wasn’t quite that brave and it was my first stab at speaking my mind. I didn’t even write out the whole word. If I remember correctly, I wrote, “B_T_H.”. In fairness, as I look back, she kind of deserved it, but that was not the best decision I ever made. Of course, I was ratted out by the mutual friend and popular opinion rained down on me for the rest of 8th grade, only letting up when we went to different high schools the next year. I learned a hard, valuable, lesson on social niceties and never wrote anything like that ever again.

Thirteen was also the year when I fell in love with the discipline and opportunities in marching band. I am a proud band geek, through and through. Thirteen was my first year of Band Camp, and it will be for Youngest Child, too, next summer. Band Camp was definitely a rite of passage. I had always loved music, I still do, but the late nights, early mornings, sweat, aches, heat, and sky-high diving platforms into the lake made me confident in my abilities. I met new, life-long friends (“Hi, I’m George.” “I’m Ringo.” “I’m Paul.” “I’m John. I’m dead.”) who knew nothing about the “bitch” incident and when they did find out, didn’t care. I found people who didn’t think I was weird, people who I fit in with. I was lucky that way. I loved everything about Band Camp and marching band and still do, even all these years later. I’m so glad that my boys have been through band and it makes me smile to see those friendships continue to grow.

Thirteen saw my first “real” boyfriend, whom I took to my first Homecoming Dance, and I am still friends with him to this day. I won’t elaborate too much, but it was an exciting time for me and that experience began teaching me how to gauge and handle future relationships in a good way. I always expected the respect that I was given with that first dating experience. I don’t like to think of Youngest Child dating at the moment, but the Italian mama in me does want him to find a nice girl someday.

Thirteen allows you to start forming the person that you will eventually be. That wonderful new ability to think abstractly makes you question ideas and beliefs that you’ve always had, in both good and bad ways. Boundaries are pushed, limits are tested, and while it drives parents crazy, it’s actually a good thing. It’s good practice for making adult decisions one day. As for parents, Thirteen means we can’t be with them every second, we shouldn’t be, and that we have to trust that they will make the good choices. Sometimes they won’t, and that part really sucks because we think we failed, but it helps to breathe deeply and to keep going. (A nice glass of wine at the end of the day doesn’t hurt, either.) Every day is a new day, a fresh day, and they need to know that. They need to know that they are loved, mistakes and all, and that we are the people they can count on, even if we overreact at first. We’re both going to screw up, parents and Thirteen, and if we understand that from the get-go, it’ll be easier to forgive ourselves and each other when it happens.

I hope that Thirteen is kind to my boy. He’s been through some storms this past year and I think we’re on the right track, but Thirteen can be tricky. I want him to be happy, but I want him to choose wisely. There’s  a reason why Thirteen was celebrated as a rite of passage; you’re not a little kid anymore and people really start to hold you responsible for your actions. People can eye teenagers with distaste and suspicion, myself included, and sometimes with good reason. Teenagers can be horribly obnoxious and even threatening. There’s something about the infusion of hormones, I think, that entices you to do stupid things sometimes. (Getting kicked out of JC Penney in Southland for jumping on the elevator rings a bell. Group mentality.) It isn’t fair, to be sure, especially to the kids who are amazing, like Oldest and Middle Children’s friends, but it remains and that’s something that Youngest Child will encounter as he turns Thirteen.

What do I wish for Youngest Child this year? I wish him wisdom. I wish him grace. I wish him some of the best memories he’ll ever make, and the friends to make them with. I wish him the fortitude to withstand peer pressure and to remember what we’ve taught him. I wish him love and acceptance. I wish him love. I wish him love. I wish him love.

In the meantime, I now have three teenagers and will appreciate all prayers and good thoughts.

Happy Birthday, Youngest Child. It’s gonna be great.

 

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I am blessed. Unequivocally, undoubtedly, blessed. It’s easy to forget, sometimes. It’s easy to let the problems of the universe sink in, to let the daily annoyances pile up and inspire resentment, but that’s when we have to take a few steps back and get a new perspective. We need to let those unimportant things go and either make a new plan or let it be. Here are some of my blessings:

  1. My husband. I am married to a man (for almost twenty years!) who has seen me at my best and most definitely at my worst. He has loved me through four pregnancies, three kids, job loss, financial crises, a depression/anxiety diagnosis, and my frustration with keeping up an older house and no money to do it. Oh, and did I mention that he has to put up with me trying to convince him to move to London?
  2. My kids. My boyos: Oldest Child, Middle Child, and Youngest Child. All different, all amazingly wonderful. I never imagined being the mother of all boys, but God works in wonderful ways and even with all of the ways they are different from me, they are my heart.
  3. My family. My family is huge, mixed-up, made up of many components, a wee bit dysfunctional, but most important, loving. I wouldn’t trade my family for anything in the world.
  4. My friends. Like everyone, I have different groups of friends in different places and from different times in my life. I am deeply thankful for each one of them.
  5. I live in a country where I’m free, not only as a person, but as a woman. In many places in the world, even today, I would have no rights to anything. The U.S. isn’t perfect by any means, but I can wear what I want, marry who I want, drive, go anywhere I like without a chaperone, and criticize the government without worrying about being thrown in prison, or worse. There’s much work to do, but things are moving in the right direction.
  6. My hedgie. She’s amazing, cranky and cuddly at the same time and I love her.
  7. I’ve been fortunate enough to travel to several countries. I have the wanderlust. Bad. I believe that seeing how other people live in other parts of the world is essential. How can we work together if we live in ignorance and all we know of others is what fear mongers tell us? Granted, I haven’t visited any war-torn nations, but the places that I have been have given me a greater appreciation for the world as a whole. Now, I just have to figure out how to travel more frequently. (Rick Steves, have you looked at my résumé yet?)
  8. I’m a published author. Not a New York Times bestselling author, but I was able to get published by a company. Let’s see if it can happen again. (Slightly greedy, I know.)
  9. Facebook. This was a toughie, because Facebook is most definitely a colossal time-waster. But it has also allowed me to keep in touch with people who I may have otherwise lost contact with. In most cases, that is a blessing.
  10. Creature comforts. There’s an old hymn that says, “There’s a roof up above me, I’ve a good place to sleep. There’s food on my table and shoes on my feet. You gave me your love, Lord, and a fine family. Thank you, Lord, for you blessings on me.” It’s one of the truest songs I know. I don’t need, or want, a huge house, expensive cars, or designer clothes. Most of the world doesn’t have what I have: Enough.

Reminding myself of how much I actually have when I want something may not stop the desire, but it does make me appreciate my blessings. I wish the same for you.

A presto.

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Oldest Child leaves for college tomorrow. It’s sort of surreal at this point. We’ve been preparing for this well over a year now: college campus visits, approximately 10,000 pounds of college mail, discussions, decisions, scholarship applications, letters of recommendation, buying room supplies, money discussions, rule discussions (no burning couches!), the list goes on. The boy himself is just about ready. He’s been packing up his room all week long and will vacate today to allow Middle Child to move in so that tomorrow, we’ll only have to load the second car in the morning, the first car being loaded up tonight. It just doesn’t quite seem real, yet.

When a child is born, most parents, us included, immediately decide that the tiny little newborn will be going to college one day in the distant future. It won’t even be a discussion, since in this world, a college degree will soon be required to work at McDonald’s. (Not really. I made that up. But, it does seem like it.) And not even just a bachelor’s degree, for more and more jobs these days, it seems like a master’s degree is “preferred” and since I’ll be paying off my student loans until I retire (at 83), scholarships are not only a good idea, they’re necessary. Oldest Child has acquired a few of those, enough to make his debt load significantly lighter than mine with some really cool research opportunities to boot. Did I mention he gets to go to London for five weeks next summer for school? My favorite city in the whole entire world? Where there is amazing architecture and history and the TUBE… but I digress… The point is that college is expensive and I am so proud of him for taking the initiative so that he could follow his dream without sinking into deep debt.

I really haven’t processed this yet. I don’t know if I will tomorrow when I bring up the second car load or when I get home and it’s all over with or the first time I forget that he’s not home anymore. He has left to go on trips and to Band Camp every year, but this is new territory. I know he’ll be home, but really, it’s just to visit. This marks the beginning of his true independence, the chance for him to put everything he’s learned about life to the test: how to behave, how to make choices, how to get along with new people when he has to. In truth, I wouldn’t care if he got a degree in underwater basket weaving as long as he stays a good person and can support himself. Have you ever watched those What Would You Do? episodes where John Quinones watches to see if anyone will say something when a drink is spiked or a girl is harassed? It’s kind of like that. I hope he’s the kind of man who steps in and does the right thing, even when no one is watching, through college and beyond. I hope he doesn’t make stupid choices. I hope he misses me.

This is an amazing opportunity for him. I didn’t get to go away to college. My college career happened in spurts over several years until I finally got my bachelor’s degree and I feel like I missed out on the whole college experience. It was so difficult to do it that way, but I really didn’t have a lot of choices and although I have the satisfaction of finally accomplishing it, I didn’t want my kids to go through the same thing. So far, we’re 33% successful.

The cars are mostly loaded now. Oldest Child is out with friends, saying goodbye. We already had our family pizza dinner with a trip out for ice cream together. He’s not going very far, I can be there in less than two hours, but it will feel a million miles away. His brothers profess relief that he’s going, but I suspect that’s just bravado talking. They will have their own rooms for the first time since Youngest Child was two and Middle Child was, well, he’s never had his own room, so that part is genuine happiness. Still, Oldest Child has always been there, throughout their whole lives, so this will be new territory for them, too. They’ll only have each other to fight with. Hours-long games of Monopoly will be few and far between because it’s not as much fun with only two.

It’s hard to say goodbye, but it’s not a sad goodbye. I’m eager to see him fly, to make his own way in the big world. I will rejoice in his triumphs, cringe at his mistakes, (We all make them, especially when we’re young.), comfort during his heartbreaks. I’ll try not to ask too many questions, try to refrain from giving my opinion unless I’m asked, but let him know that I’m always there for him and his friends. It’s good practice for the rest of his life, with the safety net of Marty Man and me to support him. Even as he leaves the nest, however, I still remember that sweet baby from long ago. They grow up, you know, and it really is a beautiful thing.

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