A Love Letter to the USA

Dear United States of America,

In all the time that I’ve lived in this country, I’ve received a lot of praise about England, the country of my birth. From random strangers in grocery stores and gas stations telling me how much they love my accent, to customers in our little pottery shop remarking on how much they enjoy visiting England, you have lavished compliments on me that I believe (hope), have made me a better person. And yet your delivery has often been tinged with shyness, self-effacement almost, like you’re my little sister, telling me that I’m lovely without believing that she is lovely too. So I thought, with Valentine’s Day approaching, I would take a moment to repay those compliments, by telling you some of the things that I love about you.

First of all, you’re very refreshing. Coming from a country where classism was the norm, it’s been inspiring to live in a place where people don’t tell you certain things aren’t available to you because you weren’t born to them. Yes, I’m sure it’s easier for those who are born into privilege but that’s never stopped the USA from letting others climb up to that privilege if they have the moxy. And when they do climb up, no one seems inclined to crush them by saying they don’t really deserve it. If you don’t believe this to be true about yourself, then take this little anecdote from my life. After years of living here and growing accustomed to the fact that I was not judged for my background, I made the mistake of telling a young Englishwoman, with a posh accent (suggesting she was born to money), that I had grown up in a home without central heating. She turned to me, with such a look of disdain on her face, as if to say, “Oh, you come from that kind of background,” that I was shocked. It had been so long since anyone had looked at me like that. And for something I had no control over. But it made me that much more aware of what an incredible gift it has been to live in a place where I can I can reach up without feeling myself pulled down. As Desi Arnaz said, at a dinner honoring his achievements, “Only in America.” That’s a sentiment I completely get.

The second thing I love about you is your constant questing to find yourself. To be honest, this wasn’t something I understood at all when I first arrived here. Why were people always “looking for themselves?” Didn’t they know who they were? But then I had hundreds of years behind me, as an Englishwoman, telling me who I was, so I didn’t have any doubts. It wasn’t until I’d lived here for a while, and started writing in earnest, that I began to question some of those things I’d accepted about myself. I wondered if they really fit me? Is that who I was? Or was I just settling for a preconceived notion of myself? Before I knew it your questing had slipped under my skin, and I found myself on a journey of self-discovery that I may not have thought I needed, but which you supported. The person I found through this journey, I liked a lot more than the person I’d been willing to accept as a youth. And when I liked her, the family I’d created here in the US seemed to flourish more. Which made me think that if it’s good for the individual, and enough people do it, maybe it’s good for the community, the nation, maybe even the world. And so I grew to love, and respect, this particular aspect of life in the United States. As my husband is fond of saying, The United States of America is an idea, not a place. And ideas are worth revisiting as many times as necessary to get them to turn into something worthwhile.

And finally, for this letter anyway, the third thing I’ve grown very attached to in living here is just how willing you are to speak and practice love. It was hard for me, with my innate dose of British reserve, to even use that word, let alone share that feeling with anyone outside the immediate family. Talk about walls; I had a particularly striking one around my emotions when I arrived in this country. But so many people reached out to me in genuine affection that the wall developed a crack. And pretty soon that crack became a hole and the hole turned into, well, rubble really, as you disassembled all my defenses with your free-spirited ability to give and share love. I know some people think you’re the brash kid that wants it all, but I believe you’re also the kind mama, who whispers in our ears things like, “Don’t give up,” “Believe in yourself,” and “You can do it.”

Of course not everyone will agree with the things I’m writing about you but that’s okay because this is my love letter to you. One that I wanted to write in an attempt to build your self-confidence the way I think you’ve built mine. Especially since you’re going through such a tough time right now. A time of conflicting emotions, bruised egos, broken friendships….well, you know. But if there is one thing I’ve learned resoundingly since arriving on your shores, it’s that struggle is a big part of success. So don’t give up, do believe in yourself and remember you are loved.

Happy Valentine’s Day!


Waiting my turn for my certificate of citizenship. And look, there’s a rainbow over my head. I must be in the right place.

Who’s To Say What Love Is?

We often give people the tour when they come to visit our pottery shop, which includes seeing the studio where the pots are made and the kiln where the pots are fired. And often, if there are children with the adults (and sometimes just for the adults, because they ask) the tour ends at our chicken coop. Well, my chicken coop, my husband tells me, because he doesn’t consider the chickens community property. Although he built a lovely coop for them to live in. But still, apparently I have sole custody.

Which is fine because I think my chickens are wonderful. I wanted chickens because I’m partial to fresh eggs and when I found myself living on five acres with an existing coop, sans chickens, the connection was obvious. But aside from the incredible eggs my hens lay, they have also taught me a lot about love. Once I was down at the shop, about 150 feet from the coop, and heard the high pitched cheeping of a baby bird. One of my hens had recently hatched some eggs and the cheeping made me wonder if something was amiss. I strode up the graveled path, past the garden, to see the mama hen inside the coop, frantically running a groove into the dirt floor. I wondered what was making her so nutsy and then I spotted the chick, outside in the long grass between the coop and the garden fence. The chick must have pushed its way through the chicken wire to the great outdoors only to discover mama wasn’t coming too. Couldn’t come too, because she was of a size that wouldn’t fit between the holes in the wire. So the chick peeped its fear and mama hen sped back and forth on the inside of the wire like a bat out of hell. Or should I say, like a chicken with its head cut off (ooff!). I managed to capture the tiny chick (and trust me, that’s not easy to do because they’re so fast!) and when I deposited it on the ground, next to its mother, I was very impressed to see her immediately sit on it, as if to say – that’ll stop you from wandering off!

I used to think that being likened to a “mother hen” was an insult but since I’ve had chickens I’ve realized it is one of the highest compliments you can receive. Because chickens are excellent mothers. I remember going into the coop once with a group of visitors that included a friend, who also happened to be a prosecuting attorney. We looked at the chickens in the outer range, strutting and pecking and chasing each other, then my friend wanted to look in the inner sanctum, where one of my hens was sitting a clutch of eggs. “How many does she have under her?” my friend asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Let me see.”
I slipped my hand under the hen and she ‘bwauk, bwauk, bwauked’ softly at me as I felt around for the eggs. “Six,” I said, having touched at least that many.
“Can I try that?” this friend asked, fascinated.
I nodded – sure – but as she moved her hand towards the nest the hen ‘bwauk, bwauked’ much louder, fluffing out her wing feathers and reaching forward to stab her beak on the invading hand. My friend pulled back immediately but not because she was upset or hurt. She was impressed. “That hen definitely knows the difference between you and some stranger,” she said, as we moved back out towards the garden. “And I’m glad you showed me that.” Her face became more serious. “I’m prosecuting a case right now that involves some boys tying a chicken to a pick-up truck and dragging it down the street, then hanging it in a tree and setting fire to it and their lawyer keeps telling me – it’s just a chicken.”

Really? Because we sit higher on the food chain than these creatures that gives some people the right to think we can be cruel to them? Why? Why?! I hear that kind of thing and I think everybody should have a chicken coop, just so they can see reflections of love that might grow their hearts bigger. But of course, not everybody has five acres in the country or, for that matter, a spouse that is willing to build them a coop. So since this is the start of a new year and since last year was peppered with enough pain in the human world that too many of us found ourselves asking why – why? – I thought I’d share a moment of tenderness from my chicken coop that really made my heart sing.

One of my hens – the Chanticleer – hatched three chicks in late September and once she started moving around with them, I watched her dig a hole in the dirt floor and tuck the chicks back under her at night, to keep them warm, rather than roost on the perch with the other chickens. The main growing season was over in the garden so I let the chickens range outside the coop every day, to peck for bugs and run through the rototilled soil, and then in the evening, I’d go back up and close the door to keep them safe from potential predators. And of course, before I closed the door, I’d go inside and count that they were all back on the perch and then look down at the mother hen. Sometimes I’d talk to her, asking her if all the chicks were back inside with her, especially if I could only see two tiny beaks peeking out from under her. Invariably as I chatted the third one would squirt out from the other side of her and cheep at me as if to say, “Yeah, I’m here.”

The days got shorter as fall progressed and the chicks went from fluffy balls of yellow to more pint-size birds with sleek black feathers, not at all the coloring of the Chanticleer but more like the Black Orpingtons, who I noticed backstopped the Chanticleer every time she needed help in her mothering duties. As the chicks grew I kept expecting to find them on the perch at night, moving away from their mother, but still she dug a hole and tucked them underneath her. Then one night I went into the coop and they had moved up to the perch but instead of sitting independently from the mother hen, she was sitting over them, her wings stretched out to cover them all and keep them warm.
Chanticleer & chicks

Now if that’s not a moment of love, I don’t know what is. Happy New Year.

Men are from Venus

One of our friends reached out recently to let us know that after 63 years of living in a woman’s body and feeling like a guy, he’s decided the time has come for him to actually become that guy. Cancer robbed him of his female organs long since so the change won’t involve any surgeries; just a slight difference in his name and some hormone therapy. He was very open about the whole thing and encouraged us to ask any questions we might have since he’s comfortable talking about all aspects of the procedure. I thought about it for a while, pondering the physical, mental and emotional aspects of such a change, and realized the only thing I was truly curious about was how his wife of 33 years was going to feel when she realized she was now sharing a bed with someone who farts?

Because, come on, I don’t know about your husbands, but mine tosses and turns and grunts and groans and snorts and snores and emits all sorts of noises and aromas when he’s in bed. Of course, he tells me that I do the same thing, which I disagree with; but if it’s true, it may actually prove my point. Because just recently I read a fascinating article in Scientific American about a breakthrough study describing the discovery of new cells – some of which include the Y chromosome – in the brains of mothers after pregnancy. Not just cells from their child in their bloodstreams, which has been known for a while, but actually in their brains. Which would totally explain any male pattern behavior from me in bed, right? (Read the article here. It’s truly fascinating). But I don’t think I would have actually known this kind of sleep pattern was typical of guys without recently paying a visit to my mother, where I happened to share a bed with a female friend. I knew this was going to be the case before I got there and I’d been wondering how I was going to react when my friend was gassy or noisy or tumbled over onto my side of the bed or robbed me of the blankets – all the stuff that I was used to – so I was amazed to discover that she just lay down on her side of the bed every night and slept. Soundly. Not a peep out of her. All night long.

Which begs the question – how is someone who’s been used to such an unobtrusive slumber companion going to respond to the guy’s way of sleeping? Or, for that matter, respond to the disconnect that happens between a man’s mind and his tongue, leaving him to say whatever the hell he wants whenever the hell he wants to? Or the stuff with the remote – you know, that he can’t even let it be on one program for two seconds before he’s gotta, gotta, gotta see what else is on offer? I even remember my (new) guy friend telling me, back when he was a woman, that he got a chuckle out of watching the young granddaughters in his family coming to terms with the fact that boys could be irritating – like horseflies. And now he’s going to become one of them?! What about his wife?

Then I remembered one of my favorite moments on screen. It was in “Prelude to a Kiss,” based on the stage play of the same name by Craig Lucas, where a young bride (Meg Ryan) lets her spirit change places with that of an elderly man (Sydney Walker). The bride’s new husband (Alec Baldwin) spends a lot of the film trying to work out why his wife doesn’t seem like the young woman he fell in love with until finally, he tracks down her spirit in the body of this old man. Overcome with emotion at having found her, he takes the old man in his arms and kisses him. I found that beautiful. It was such a statement of love transcending the physical. Given how much our bodies change over time, that’s a lovely thing to contemplate. Especially as we creep towards old age, where health issues could transform us completely. To think that we might be with someone who can see beyond those changes, into the spirit of the person they’ve loved for so long, is pretty special.
Prelude to a kiss

So the truth is, I don’t really have to ask my friend this question about how his wife of 33 years is going to react to the man in bed next to her because inside that man is the woman she fell in love with. Plus she’ll probably love him all the more for finding a way to be completely at ease with his true identity.

That said, all bets are off if he starts in with the ‘pull my finger’ stuff.

The Happy Heart

After an evening of performance back in December, I came down from the stage and was greeted by Wizard, our local Peace Crier. He doesn’t ring a bell and call out, “Oyez! Oyez!” but he does walk up and down the highway around here, carrying a sign that reads, PEACE. “How are you, Wizard?” I asked after he told me how much he enjoyed the show. He graced me with his usual, beatific smile, and declared, “I’m happier than I’ve ever been.” And just like that, I suddenly felt happier too.

It was such an uplifting thing to hear that I immediately found myself wanting to share it with others, to give them the same kind of feel-good sense that Wizard had given me. But I couldn’t quite let go of the words, fearing that somehow, they implied that I haven’t been as happy at other times in my life. And yet I have. But I’m also very happy now. So which is greater – those past joys or today’s contentment? I couldn’t decide, so I let the words sit on my tongue while I reflected on them, as if Wizard had given me a piece of candy, a sugared almond, that I was rolling around in my mouth, sucking on its sweetness, waiting for the kernel of truth at the center to emerge.

As I did so, I happened upon an article entitled “Forty Portraits in Forty Years” in the New York Times Magazine. It’s a piece about a photographer who took a photograph of four sisters in Rhode Island back in 1975 and then went on to take their photograph in a similar pose every year for forty years. I find this kind of thing fascinating, not because I’m so interested in the physical changes in a person but I am interested in the changes I can see in their eyes, their smiles, their body language. Age takes from all of us physically but, if we’re lucky, while it’s taking from the strength of our outer core, it’s nourishing our hearts, growing a garden of colorful, sweet smelling memories deep inside us. And as time goes by, those memories begin to reveal themselves through our eyes, presenting us with flowers that we can share with the people around us. This is what I saw in the four sisters over time; bouquets of deep-rooted, well-tended flowers held out to be enjoyed by all.

Coincidentally, a friend came to dinner at our house just after I read this article and snapped a photograph of me in our kitchen. I looked at it and remembered a similar shot of me in a kitchen in NYC, 30 years ago. I dug that photo out and studied it, wondering if I could spy the same changes in myself that I saw in the four sisters. I was still savoring the sweetness of Wizard’s statement and looked for the telltale signs of past and present happiness in myself.

Nicola '85, NYC

NYC, 1985.


Sauk Mountain, 2015

Could I see, for example, in the older me, the sweet bliss I felt when I held my newborn babies in my arms? The sense of euphoria I got when I figured out how to restructure one of my plays to make it more compelling? And the big one – the huge one – the incredible, overwhelming contentment I experienced when I forgave my dad? I went around for months after that one, feeling warmth radiating through every ounce of my being, as if someone had planted a ray of sunshine in the pit of my stomach. I always thought that forgiveness had to do with letting the other person off the hook, but I was wrong. It had to do with me. And, dang, did it feel good! I wasn’t sure exactly why it felt so good. I thought, in my case, it had something to do with the fact that it was unexpected. I wasn’t looking to forgive my dad nor did I even know I had to – I just stumbled into it through my writing. And like the card says over my desk, given to me by a friend on my 25th wedding anniversary, “Often when we make an effort to find the bigger, grander things in life, we are wonderfully surprised by the discovery of other, equally significant things along the way.” But Wizard’s statement caused me reflect on the why all over again and I came to the conclusion that forgiving someone you think has wronged you, sets your soul free. You are you and nobody else. And like a mother feeling the quickening of her baby inside her, you feel your soul swimming unfettered and exultant inside you. And it feels incredible.

But then how could I ever beat that feeling by making a definitive statement about my level of happiness today? I pondered this as I looked at the photos of the sisters again, then the photos of me in the two kitchens, and the last of the sweetness coating Wizard’s statement dissolved, allowing me bite down on the truth. The flowers in my heart are perennials, not annuals. Which means that my happiness today is the accumulation of all the moments of happiness from my past and something that I should not be shy to share openly, freely with others.

So yes, I’m older, heavier, my hair is turning grey and my fingers don’t always work as easily in the mornings as they used to, but—I’m happier than I’ve ever been.