The Three Legs of Sicily

I love traveling with my kids. They see the world differently; there is always something to wonder about. It reminds me to keep wondering. There are things I don’t notice anymore because I’ve seen them before. And then there are things I don’t notice because I wasn’t paying attention.

During our travels this summer, we spent two wonderful days in Sicily, Italy, a place I’d never been to before. Two days are not enough. It’s a fascinating island—the references to Sicily in Greek Mythology are numerous, there is a lot of history, good food and of course, the Mediterranean Sea. Besides that, when in Sicily, you can’t fail to notice a few things. One, the number of churches. Two, the references to The Godfather. And three, their flag. The depiction on it is everywhere—T-shirts, bibs, you name it.

The Sicilian flag is not your usual stripe/triangle/star equivalent—instead it has three, dare I say, rather shapely legs, and a winged head in the middle. Which begs the question; why three legs? And who’s the head? I was asked these questions many times by my inquisitive ones, but I had no good answer. And I couldn’t call a friend, as I was overseas and did not have cell service. Google was painfully out of reach.

Curious, I looked it up when we were back in the USA. The three legs are a triskelion, which is an ancient symbol. I am not sure why there are human legs involved in the shape, but it definitely catches the eye. There are Greek coins from Sicily dating back as far as 300 B.C. with this three-legged symbol. The triskelion apparently represents the three “points,” or the triangular shape, of Sicily.

The head—shockingly—is Medusa. I can honestly say it would never have occurred to me. I remember reading about Medusa, and she wasn’t that friendly. Adorned with snakes for hair, a set of boar tusks and wings, she was not considered very “pleasing”. So unpleasing in fact, that beholding her appearance would turn anyone into stone.

I was surprised to find that her image was actually used frequently throughout ancient history. It was used to keep evil away or plainly served as a warning, implying the Goddess Athena’s protection. In Sicily’s case, Athena was the patron goddess of the island.

Even in modern times Medusa continues to fascinate us. For instance, she is displayed on the symbol of Versace, but instead the image shows her from before when she was turned into a snake-haired, evil monster and is still a beautiful young maiden: a symbol of beauty, that everyone falls in love with.

Of course, now the cat was out of the bag, and my kids wanted to know who Medusa was. Good grief. Greek mythology is a bit brutal, meaning, I always have to tweak stories here and there (a lot). The challenge is censoring enough but not too much—and shielding my iPhone from my son who desperately tries to read over my shoulder as I go along.

I admit I censored—heavily. Apart from the brutality, the last message I want to convey to my (young) kids is how a woman gets molested (by Poseidon), and then gets punished for it by an angry Athena, who turns her into a hideous monster. So much for justice, female solidarity, or just speaking out in general.

Anyway, that’s just the beginning of the story. Perseus (one of Zeus’ sons) is ordered by King Polydectes, who’s a jerk, to cut off Medusa’s head and bring it to him. The Gods help Perseus by giving him a helmet of invisibility (Hades), winged sandals (Hermes), a sword from Hephaestus and a mirrored shield from Athena. The reflection of his shield allows him not to look at Medusa directly, which is how he gets the job done. After Medusa is defeated, the winged horse Pegasus springs from her body—her child with Poseidon.

Medusa’s head, as it turns out, comes in handy. Persues uses it on his travels to change Atlas into a mountain (the Atlas Mountains in northwest Africa) and, when he finally returns home, King Polydectes into a statue. He then gives the head to back-stabbing Athena, who puts it on her shield, so she can turn her own enemies into stone. Which is why the image of Medusa is probably more of a reflection of Athena’s protection than of Medusa herself.

There are different versions of the myth apparently, but this was the one I came across. It’s hard not to feel for the poor woman.

My daughter asked me if Medusa ever lived in Sicily. Good question. I told her I didn’t think so and anyways, I reassured her, she’s dead. I explained that she most likely never existed in the first place, but my daughter believes in fairies and magic (she really liked the Pegasus part, after all, it’s almost like My Little Pony), so I’m not sure I convinced her. I promised her nothing in Sicily would turn her into stone.

My daughter wasn’t so sure. She pointed out how we’d seen Sicily’s volcano, Mt. Etna, and the scars of lava covering the landscape, as evidence of the most recent eruptions.

True enough.

But lava is not all bad. It brings fertile soil. And on the flag, Medusa’s head is surrounded by three ears of wheat—signifying the fertility of the land.

Isn’t it amazing, the stories one flag can tell…

Slaying the Dragon

It’s been a while since I wrote a post. Stuff happened. More accurately: Shingles happened.

Shingles gets its own capital S. Why? Because Shingles sucks. Big time. Are there worse things than getting Shingles? Absolutely. But still, it was a miserable affair.

For those of you who haven’t made their acquaintance with Shingles, let me introduce you. It’s a reactivation of the same virus that causes chickenpox. After one recovers from the chickenpox, usually sometime during childhood, the virus does not die as one would expect. Instead, it takes a long, nice, quiet vacation somewhere within nerve tissue near the spinal cord, while we continue life, blissfully unaware of its presence.

That is, until it decides the holidays are over. Pox, apparently, is an old medieval term for curse. Ha! Well put. During a period of poor resilience the lurking virus pops up like an evil jack-in-the box, travels along a nerve to the skin and produces a localized, nasty rash, as well as a tremendous amount of pain.

I never thought about Shingles before it slithered its way in—or rather—out. Why would I? I haven’t reached the age when they start offering vaccination for it. Surely young people don’t get it, right? Wrong, unfortunately.

The chickenpox virus is a member of the Herpes family—the medical term for Shingles is Herpes Zoster.
Zoster is derived from Greek, meaning “girdle” or “belt”. Shingles’ rash looks like a belt when it’s located on the torso, as it wraps around one side. The English word “Shingles” most likely comes from the Latin word  for “girdle,” which is “cingulus.” It has nothing to do with the roof of your house. Even though my six-year old kept asking me why the roof was making me sick.

Yes, why indeed? Not the roof, but why did I get Shingles? I did not feel like I was overly stressed. Yes, I was possibly chronically sleep deprived and I had just recovered from a cold, but that was not anything I hadn’t handled before. Be that as it may, the Shingles hit me hard. Sitting in the doctor’s office, my rash solicited the empathetic “Oh my, I haven’t seen it this bad in quite some time!” which no patient wants to hear ever, although I appreciated the frankness of it. It sure validated my intense discomfort. Shingles, as I discovered, can be extremely painful.

I had some time on my hands to think about this pain—that is, after I slept for a week. It’s quite amazing how many different qualities pain can have. As it turns out, Shingles is an absolute treasure trove for descriptive writing. It felt like a dragon had lodged itself in my liver, where it strangled me with its tail, while simultaneously breathing fire and stabbing me with its nails.

Shingles’ pain is relentless and exhausting, even after the skin has healed, and because it’s nerve pain, it doesn’t respond well to normal pain medication. There is something about chronic pain and having to grit your teeth the whole day. Let’s just say I was not easy to be around with. At some point the healed skin started to itch terribly as well, and upon scratching it would erupt in flames, so it was either pain, itch, or burn, or all of the above. Next time I am contemplating killing off an unlikable character in one of my books, I may just consider giving him/her Shingles instead.

So, what did I do? There’s not much you can do unfortunately. I took my anti-virals. I rested and wallowed in my misery. And I hoped it would go away—which is not a given. For some people the post-herpetic nerve pain can last a long time. I was reluctant to take any medication other than Tylenol or Ibuprofen, so I finally opted for some acupuncture. Whether it was this or just the natural course of the illness, I’ll never know, but after weeks, the pain did slowly improve. Now, three moths later, it’s more like background noise: annoying at times, but ignorable.

During all this, my website languished, as did my Facebook page. I worked on my work-in-progress, but only when I felt up to it. In the summer we took a long vacation and I focused mainly on family time, resting and maintaining a healthy life-style.

I cannot tell you how grateful I am the dragon is on its way out.  Slowly withering away, it still softly claws at me every now and then, but hopefully soon it will take its last breath.  And I pray it has not created any offspring to come back and find me; one visit was more than enough.

Think Spring

Think Spring

That’s what I told myself as my kids had a snow day earlier this week. But it’s not easy when you look outside, and everything is white.

“Think spring,” I said, when I took the trash can down the driveway two nights ago and had to lug it through inches of icy slush. And why not? Obviously, my plowing service is thinking it’s spring as well.

“Think spring,” I tell my children, when they complain of still having to bring their snow pants to school mid-April. They are sick of winter. And frankly, so am I.

I have relatives in the Netherlands raving about their beautiful tulips and their magnolia trees bursting with blossom. Instead, my daffodils still have to find their way up. I don’t blame the poor flowers; if I didn’t have to, I wouldn’t want to come out either.

The birds in my yard have been out of sorts. Most have now returned for—yes, spring—but building a nest in this weather must be an uncomfortable task. My dog is miserable. She freezes her paws off, as well as her you-know-what, every time she has to go pee. We are all done with winter, yet it keeps lingering, like that unwanted guest you so desperately want to leave your house but can’t get rid of.

But yesterday, the most amazing thing happened. The sun came out, the temperature hit a balmy 50 degrees Fahrenheit, snow started melting, and despite the unfortunate hailstorm shortly after that, I am pretty certain that finally, spring is starting. Why? Because I looked at the calendar (it is mid-April…) and at the weather forecast. It’s coming. And those few sunny hours reminded me that soon, my children will want to go outside again.

There’s only one problem; I am writing the next book in The Dunnhill Series, and it’s set in…right, winter. And even though I am so done with the cold and snow, I still have to write about it.

I’m not sure what I was thinking when I decided that winter would be the right season for book 3. Maybe because when I started writing, it was winter, and I wasn’t yet sick of it. Besides, Dunnhill is in the mountains, and winter in the mountains is much better than winter in Michigan. And maybe I imagined I would write faster and be done by now, but with three antsy children—let’s just say it’s not going as fast as I hoped.

You could argue that as a writer the season within a book shouldn’t pose too much of a problem. Just “think winter” right? Normally I would agree, but here in Michigan, when spring finally arrives, something strange happens. Suddenly there’s flowers everywhere, as spring rushes like mad into summer—lush, green and warm—it truly is glorious. And during that time, the idea of winter becomes like a whiff of smoke, elusive and fleeting. The moment the weather warms up, most of us Michiganders seem to get hit with collective amnesia and forget about winter. If we’d remembered, we’d all leave this state for good.

This is why I need winter. You know—to hold on to what winter really feels like. My lawn is turning green and I am already starting to forget. The truth is, I have no desire to remember. I am ready for spring. Book or not.

Over the next few months, I’ll try my best to think winter while sitting on my deck, enjoying the sun and the only thing cold will be my drink. But if spring in my book happens to arrive a little early, I hope you will understand.

Asmat Bis Poles and Rituals of the Dead

This time, a guest blog from my good friend and AWESOME writer Jennifer S. Alderson, who has a new book coming out! Read all about Zelda Richardson’s new adventure in Rituals of the Dead, a book filled with mystery, art and anthropology. This time Jennifer takes us back to historic Papua New Guinea, where headhunters once roamed…

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I am so excited to announce the impending release of my third novel, Rituals of the Dead: An Artifact Mystery. Set in Amsterdam and Papua New Guinea, it combines anthropology, art, and history into one thrilling adventure. It’s been a joy to write because the subject matter is near and dear to my heart.

The exhibition central to my artifact mystery is based on an actual exhibition of bis poles entitled Bis poles: Sculptures of the Rainforest. They are ancestor objects akin to Native American totem poles. They were created to honor dead ancestors during a six-week long ‘bis’ or headhunting ceremony.

Those featured in this exhibition were primarily collected from Asmat, a region of Papua New Guinea whose villagers (also called ‘Asmat’) are famous for their exquisite wood carvings. Bis poles are considered to be the highpoint of Asmat art. Since Westerners discovered them in the 1930s, they have been a much desired cultural artifact, purchased by private collectors and museums. Though most were acquired through barter and long negotiations, too many of the Asmat objects in public museum collections worldwide were stolen by opportunistic Westerners.

 

 

I worked on this exhibition in 2008, as a collection researcher for the Tropenmuseum, Amsterdam’s anthropological museum. I was tasked with conducting archival and photographic research into the poles, as well as a number of legendary Dutch missionaries and anthropologists active in Papua New Guinea in the 1930s through the 1960s. During my research, I came across so many bizarre stories about headhunting raids, brave missionaries, crazy explorers and daring anthropologists. It felt like I had the basis for a great mystery in my hands.

My hope in writing this book is not only to entertain readers, but also inspire them to learn more about the Asmat and their fascinating culture. I can’t wait to share Rituals of the Dead with mystery and thriller fans!

Thanks Jennifer! I can’t wait to read it. Learn more about Rituals of the Dead below, and find out how to order it!

RitualsoftheDead_500wRituals of the Dead: An Artifact Mystery

Art, religion, and anthropology collide in Alderson’s upcoming art mystery thriller, Rituals of the Dead, Book Three of the Adventures of Zelda Richardson series.

This time she’s working at the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam on an exhibition of bis poles from the Asmat region of Papua New Guinea – the same area where a famous American anthropologist disappeared in 1962. When his journals are found inside one of the bis poles, Zelda is tasked with finding out about the man’s last days and his connection to these ritual objects.

Zelda is pulled into a world of shady anthropologists, missionaries, art collectors, gallery owners, and smugglers, where the only certainty is that sins of the past are never fully erased.

Join Zelda on her next quest as she grapples with the anthropologist’s mysterious disappearance fifty years earlier, and a present-day murderer who will do everything to prevent her from discovering the truth.

Expected release date March 2018.

Pre-order Rituals of the Dead now via Amazon, iBooks, Kobo, Barnes & Noble NOOK and Smashwords. 

Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Rituals-Dead-Artifact-Adventures-Richardson-ebook/dp/B0795Z3HRX/

iBooks: https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/rituals-of-the-dead-an-artifact-mystery/id1332496345?mt=11

Kobo: https://www.kobo.com/nl/en/ebook/rituals-of-the-dead-an-artifact-mystery

NOOK: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/rituals-of-the-dead-jennifer-s-alderson/1127732017?ean=2940155064152

Smashwords: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/771033

About the Author: Jennifer S. Alderson worked as a journalist and website developer in Seattle, Washington before trading her financial security for a backpack. After traveling extensively around Asia and Central America, she moved to Darwin, Australia, before finally settling in the Netherlands. There she earned degrees in art history and museum studies. Home is now Amsterdam, where she lives with her Dutch husband and young son.

You can find Jennifer on Goodreads, Facebook, Twitter, or her website.

Quills and Pencils

First, let me wish you a happy 2018! It should prove an interesting year. I am working on book 3 and 4 of the Dunnhill series, and hopefully they will both be ready before the year is through.

I love writing. Modern technology, and specifically the DELETE-key are good friends of mine. My writing process involves a lot of delete-rewrite-delete-rewrite. Can you imagine writing four hundred years ago—without that DELETE-key? So, no complaining here, we have it easy.

I assume Shakespeare used a quill. Quills were often made from the wing feathers of a big bird, like a goose. I suppose you didn’t have to wrestle one for it, but still. Then you had to prepare the quill, after which you could write with it after dipping it in ink. The metal dip pen, which replaced the quill, made an entrance in the nineteenth century. It didn’t require sharpening, or chasing a goose, but you still had to dip.

So, which ink would you use? The most popular one was something called “iron gall ink”, which, to me, sounds quite unappealing, since it reminds me of a gall bladder.  It actually has nothing to do with that. The oak gall, or oak apple, is an 1-2 inch “apple” on an oak leaf that arises from the secretions of the tree reacting to the gall wasp larva, after the wasp lays an egg in the leaf bud. Apparently, the gall contains tannic acid, which you can extract by crushing and soaking the dried galls. After you strain the extract, you add some ferrous sulfate and voilá, you have ink. Quite honestly, I am still baffled someone thought this one up—making ink from oak galls?

Roald Dahl, whose books I am extremely fond of, wrote (and rewrote) many of them with a pencil. I can feel my hand cramping up just at the thought of it.

Speaking of pencils, for the past two years I had to buy pencil lead for my son’s school supplies, which always left me a little confused as to why it’s called “lead.” It never made sense to me, since it’s obviously made out of graphite.

Perhaps I’m a bit of a nerd, but I like to know where words come from. Apparently, after discovering a large graphite deposit in England around 1500 AD, people first thought it was a form of lead. They noticed the lead, or “black lead” as they called it, was excellent material to write with. The wooden holder was invented, because graphite is rather soft and brittle. The name “graphite” wasn’t given until 1879, and comes from the Greek “graphein” — to write.

The pencil, if you are dying to know, comes from the Latin word “penis” (which means tail) or more precisely, the diminutive “peniculus,” which referred to the artist’s fine brush of camel hair. I don’t think I will ever look at a pencil the same way. Or a tail for that matter.

Obviously, being a writer in current times is great. I think I will return to my laptop and delete-rewrite some more words…

Keep checking in for more upcoming book news, or follow me on Facebook!

Giveaway Alert! A chance to win both my books!

Help me out, and you will have more to read!

This Giveaway is hosted by TravelByBook. Click the link, and you could win a copy of The Baby on the Back Porch and The Charm of Lost Chances (ebook only). All you have to do is come up with a name for a character in my next book…easy enough right?

Go check it out!

(Unfortunately, you can’t leave names in a comment here, since it it hosted through Travel by Book.)

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Changing The World—A Book at a Time

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”
Harper Lee – To Kill a Mockingbird

Recently, it was Banned Books Week. Books get banned for many reasons: religious concerns, too much sex, the wrong kind of sex, too much violence, or just the language the writer uses.

As a parent, I don’t let my children read every book that is out there for them. They are still young, so I can control what they read—for now. Some books may be age appropriate, but just not “my child appropriate.” If I deem a story too scary, or think they may not fully grasp the content, I will put it aside for another time. Obviously, this is not the same as “banning,” where I would make the decision for my child that a certain book is not appropriate, ever.

I believe that fictional stories will help children to better understand the world we live in. Our (global) society, has a broad variety of people, with many differences in backgrounds, lifestyles, and convictions. But without exposure, how are we to understand one another and find common ground?

Books can do so much more than just take the reader along to faraway place, a beautiful romance or heartbreaking tale. Books can increase knowledge, stimulate the imagination, and transport the reader into another person’s mind. Reading can force us to walk in the protagonist’s—or for that matter, the antagonist’s—shoes, albeit for a limited time. This can make us love the book, or resent it, but whatever the outcome, it will hopefully stimulate some understanding or empathy, and perhaps help us form more nuanced opinions. A book can unveil and challenge our prejudices, and make us reconsider them.

Obviously, books can have the opposite message as well, like one of hatred, or intolerance. History has shown us the power of propaganda. Nevertheless, I believe reading stimulates the ability of critical thinking—that is, if we dare to reach outside our own bubble.

As a writer, I must confess I write mostly to entertain. That by itself is hard enough, without having to aspire to more lofty goals. But the notion that books can change the world is a powerful one.

Writing can be difficult—even frustrating— demanding a lot of effort, and sometimes offering little in return. But, despite all this, keep on writing. Your story can do so much more than you realize. It can break down barriers.

Our Basque Experience (with kids)

I have a great passion for traveling. Nothing is as fun and exciting as discovering new places, food, people and, yes, stories. Every place has its own stories, some from the past, some from current events, and some from imagination. I love going places, seeing places, and reading or hearing about them.

A while ago, I visited Basque Country, in Northern Spain (and Southern France). With vistas that are beyond stunningly beautiful, friendly people, wonderful food, it was a fantastic experience, both for us and the kids. And the stories, ah, the stories, were plentiful!

Basque Country has a turbulent history, and I do not presume to know the place well, or to fully understand its struggles or know its people. The Basques have their own language and culture, despite being part of Spain (and France). And in case you forgot while being there, the Basque flag is visible in so many places it will quickly remind you that first and foremost, you are in their territory.

Basque Country has so many things to offer—too many for this blog post.  The Camino de Santiago, of course, is famous, and something that is still high on my list of things to do. But for now, my children are too young, so we had to find different entertainment. A beach is always a great place to start. And Basque Country has plenty.

Its northern Atlantic coastline is breathtaking, with sandy beaches, steep rocky cliffs, lush vegetation and scattered old villages and towns waiting to be discovered. One of my favorite trips was to the chapel of San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, and old chapel on a small peninsula connected to the mainland by a walkway with ~240 steps. The site goes back many centuries, but the chapel has been demolished few times. According to tradition,  when you get to the chapel and ring the bell three times, you can make a wish and it will ward off evil spirits. Let’s face it, we can all use some of that while traveling.

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Fun fact on the walkway: if you are a Game of Thrones fan, you may recognize the walkway to Dragonstone, where Daenerys Targaryen walked up to the mighty castle. Even though there is no castle, and no dragons either, the walkway is very real!

While exploring some of the villages in the rolling foothills of the Pyrenees, we came across Zugarramurdi, a pretty village tucked in between the hills, where time appears to slow down to a snail’s pace as you wander through the streets. It’s very peaceful now, but has a tragic history. The village was the site of the ruthless persecution of witches, during the time of the Inquisition. There is a small museum dedicated to the women who were taken away, some of them never returning. My kids thought the museum was a little scary, but they did like the witch cave, which is also near the village—presumably the site where the women came together to do whatever it is that witches do. There was a short but appealing hike to the cave itself (many steps, wet slippery rocks and a bridge over a stream), with the cave having plenty of opportunity for them to explore and let their imagination run wild.

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Zugarramurdi

More inland we visited the charming town of Oñati, which means “place with many hills.” The city sports many frog images as logos, and one of the stories in our guide book explaining this referred back to a count from long-ago, who apparently had a black and white checkered tile floor in the entrance of his estate. Annoyed at the villagers, who were muddying up his white tiles when visiting his castle, he ordered them to only stand on the black tiles. Thus, the villagers hopped from black tile to black tile, after which he mocked them and called them frogs. Even so, the town has adopted the frog with pride.

Oñati also has an ancient, extensive and beautiful cave system (the Arrikrutz caves), albeit a very chilly one. An English-speaking guide took us on a tour deep down in the earth, escaping the sweltering heat outside. The caves with all its stalagmites and stalactites, as well as the prehistoric finds, were telling their own fascinating story. Nothing makes a vacation as precious like a good reminder of your own short life-span.

For me, when I travel, it’s the stories that make a place come alive, give it that little extra, and paint my memories more vividly. When I think back of Basque Country, I think of all these places, and many more. But mostly, I think of sitting at the sea-side with my family, eating an unidentified fish-dish with a name I can’t pronounce, drinking a bottle of txacoli, and telling stories to my children. And I hope they will remember.

The Lost Ones (Part 3)

This is the final post on The Lost Ones: Writers we lost in 2016. After all, we are about half-way through 2017.

I had not heard of Helen Bailey before, but if you live in the UK you may have. She was a YA writer (the Electra Brown series), but wrote one book for adults: When Bad Things Happen in Good Bikinis.

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In 2011, she and her husband went on vacation to Barbados, where her husband drowned while swimming in the ocean. She witnessed his death. “A wife at breakfast, a widow before lunch.”

Trying to deal with the loss of her husband, she started up a blog, Planet Grief, in which she reached out to other people who had lost loved ones. The book When Bad Things Happen in Good Bikinis is a memoir of her journey through the process of grief, based on that blog. She tells about life without her husband, of the simple things that would make her break down in tears, and of her dog, Boris, her loyal companion.

Her stories are filled with raw emotion—especially in the first half of the book—her writing poignant, and sometimes funny. Reading about her experience of loss, of which she writes in a very honest and open way, is heart wrenching.

Her tone gradually changes in the second half of the book. Maybe, there is a way through the hurt, a way toward accepting. Eventually, she meets another man with whom she starts a new relationship.

The book probably had a different effect on me than on people who have experienced a similar loss. For me, it was humbling. The devastation of the loss of a partner, her grief and pain, are almost palpable. She talks about friends being there for her, friends not being there for her, and people being awkward, or even inappropriate. In our society, I feel as if we often try to ignore death. Like many, I have been afraid to say the wrong thing to people who have gone through loss, or I just don’t know what to say or how to be there for them. This book may not have solved that, but at least it has given me plenty to think about.

In her last entry, she has sold her old house and bought a new one with her new partner. She closes the book with “It will all be OK in the end. We promise you.” She, and many of the widows and widowers she had been in touch with, had found new purpose, new joy in life, and some, new love.

We all like happy endings. But for Helen things turned out differently. She disappeared in April 2016. Three months later, her body, and that of her dog Boris, were found hidden in her house. She was 51. In February 2017, her partner was convicted of her murder.

Reading the book made me sad, but reading the book knowing how it all ended for her made it infinitely sadder. Her voice was so personal, almost like you are getting to know her while reading.

One story in the book especially stuck with me. Helen’s best friend gave Helen and her husband a bottle of champagne, which Helen wanted to save for a special occasion. All of a sudden, the best friend dies. The champagne is now symbolic, and no occasion is ever special enough. But then Helen’s husband drowns, and the opportunity for sharing the champagne was gone forever. She writes:

Why couldn’t I have seen that just being alive and with [my husband] was the only reason I ever needed to open it? I had been waiting for some big flashy occasion to come along, when in fact life with him was the big occasion.”

Finally, Helen takes the champagne to a party. But, as irony has it, when they open the bottle, the champagne has gone bad.

There are many things I will take away from the book, but most of all it will be that. Cherish the times you have with your loved-ones. Make every moment special. And when life offers you champagne, drink it.

Don’t Wake the Bear

It’s that time of year again. Schools are out and summer has started. I am all for long holidays—since I love traveling—I just wish adults would get the same amount of time off as the kids…

Summer holidays are a great time to get away, but here I find myself in a bit of a dilemma. You see, Michigan is so pretty in summer that I don’t want to go anywhere. This time of year, the weather is finally gorgeous, everything is green, flowers are blooming and Lake Michigan and its beaches are beckoning. Why leave?

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One of my favorite spots in Michigan is Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. We have been there a number of times, because, well, it is beautiful. Lakes, nature, small towns, islands…and of course, the dunes. The dunes are an impressive sight, sitting on top of glacial moraines, they tower 400 feet over Lake Michigan. A sign on top of one of the dunes warns you that, if you feel bold enough to bound, roll or slide down to the lake, you had better be able to make it back up.

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Down, down, down…Those tiny specks on the far left near the water, those are people…

I love to tell my kids the origin of the name “Sleeping Bear Dune”—after all, I do like a good story with a bear in it. Sleeping Bear Dune is named after a legend from the Ojibwe (Chippewa), a Native American tribe that lived in this area. “Michigan” comes from the Chippewa word Mishigamaa—which means “large water.”

The legend goes as follows:

Across Lake Michigan, on the Wisconsin shore, a raging wildfire broke out, trapping a mother bear and her two cubs. To escape, they plunged into the water and started swimming east. They swam and swam, until finally, they could see the Michigan shore. The cubs were getting tired and started lagging behind. The mother bear made it to the beach and walked up a high bluff to look out for her cubs. In sight of the shoreline, the exhaustion on the cubs took its toll. One cub drowned, and soon after, the other as well. Grieving, the mother bear lay down, refusing to leave, waiting for her cubs to return. The Great Spirit Manitou, who witnessed the cubs’ courage, commemorated them by raising an island on the location where each one went under. Then, he placed a slumber over the waiting mother bear and covered her with sand.

The islands from the legend are North and South Manitou Island, which you can see from the shore. Apparently, Sleeping Bear Dune used to have a vegetation-covered knoll on top, that resembled a sleeping bear. It has much eroded since. A beautiful version of the legend, with wonderful illustrations, has been published by Kathy-jo Wargin. It’s called The Legend of Sleeping Bear Dune and was named The Official Children’s Book of Michigan.

This legend has been retold over many generations, preserving the story and the landmarks, even though the actual “bear” may not be recognizable anymore. Hopefully, parks like these will endure as well, and continue to amaze our future generations.

If you find yourself in Michigan this summer, do visit this beautiful area. It’s worth it.