Saturday, November 10, 2018

Writer at a Monastery Slips Up

The Traveling Writer Slips Up In Search of the American Dream

By Norma Jaeger Hopcraft

Ha! I know what you were thinking: she crept into forbidden territory, the monk’s residence wing…
The story is that I went for a walk on the Saturday morning, after breakfast and before the writing workshop. Not content to stay on the asphalt switch-back driveway, which was not enough walking in my opinion, I sought to lengthen my time outdoors by following a few paths. 

Traveling writer in search of the American Dream
This monastery overlooks the Hudson River. More pics below.

The paths were just mown grass. The grass was wet and the ground soggy. I was so determined to get exercise and fresh air, however, so I stuck with it. My sneakers got damp, then soaked. But a good walk would set me up for the day, I reasoned. I had another pair of shoes with me. All would be well.
But the path didn’t lead all that far before a sign appeared: "Private: Monastic Enclosure". I was hungry for exercise. I decided I’d try to go down to the riverfront. It had been to soggy the previous day. I felt thwarted from my river fix.
I left the mown path and walked back to the driveway and down its slope to the monastery. My feet were cold and wet, and so were the bottoms of my pants, but if there’s anything I do well in life, it’s persevere.

I stepped onto the mown path that led down the slope toward the river. So far so good.
I came to a tree. The mown path looked pretty muddy, not too good. Down the hill from the tree, however, a woman was walking up the slope from the river. If she had made it, so could I.
I started down the muddy slope next to the tree, using tufts of grass to gain traction. So far so good.
And all of a sudden, things weren’t so good. My feet started slipping – I guess those tufts were muddy and slick themselves. There was so little traction. My arms started windmilling. I tried to hold the hand with my cell phone up high. Maybe I could make it. 

Then my legs started windmilling.
Splat! Flat on my back, watery mud soaking the back of me from head to heels.
I sat up. I noticed the woman walking up the slope on the opposite side of the tree. She hadn't seen me make a fool of myself apparently.
Feeling foolish, in sight of anybody looking out the monastery's windows at the beautiful river view, I clambered carefully to my feet and made it onto safer ground.
My cold, wet clothes clung to me. Black mud had spattered even the front of my white linen blouse.
But by golly, I was this much closer to the river. There was no point in going back to the monastery before I’d seen the water’s edge.
I have a little ritual I do at the edges of bodies of water. It’s a mini-baptism I give myself. I’ve done it in the Pacific, Caribbean, Atlantic (from the French side), and Mediterranean, at Barcelona and Positano. I would do it at the Hudson River too.
I walked through the monastery's woods. The path switched back and forth, down to a little beach covered with stones.
Usually when I do my mini-baptism, I take at least one shoe off and get at least a few toes of one foot into the water. This time I couldn’t stand the thought of bending over, cold wet clothes touching new places, to untie a shoe. Both shoes were squishing-wet anyway. I just stuck the toe of one shoe into the river and committed, again, to excellent writing and to following Jesus. Then I trudged up the hill praying I’d get help in the monastery.

Getting Help While In Search of the American Dream 

Well, thank God, the receptionist was at her desk, even on a Saturday morning.
“I heard someone slipped in the mud,” she said when she saw me. The woman walking up the hill maybe told her – though she hadn’t asked me if I was okay. Or someone looking out the window shared the embarrassing news.
“What can I do to help you?” she asked.
“Would you run the clothes through the washing machine – twice?”
She said yes.
Upstairs in the communal bathroom, I got the mud out of my hair and off my body. I dressed in the only other outfit I had brought with me. I made a bundle – including my sneakers -- and took it back to the receptionist. I told her I’d carry the bundle to the machine for her, but she said she would do it.
“Is there anything you don’t want to go in the dryer?” she asked.
“The white blouse,” I said. It looked horrible – black mud all over the back, black splatters on the front, dirt ground into the elbows. It was a great blouse. I hoped my perseverance hadn’t ruined it.
Then I went to the kitchen and asked for a bag of rice. My poor phone was smeared with mud too, and plenty of it had seeped inside the case and maybe inside the phone.
Ten minutes later my phone was snugged into a generous nest of rice and I was sitting amongst fellow writers in dry clothes.
Later, the walking clothes appeared on my bed. The blouse was wet, the rest of the clothes almost completely dry.
At home I soaked the blouse for hours in stain-removing solutions.
Today, only I can tell what that blouse went through.

Traveling writer in search of the American Dream
The chapel. 

Traveling writer in search of the American Dream
A labyrinth.

Traveling writer in search of the American Dream
The path beckons, but the sign says "go no further."

Traveling writer in search of the American Dream
The chapel's bell tower.

Traveling writer in search of the American Dream
The garden shed.

Traveling writer in search of the American Dream
The guesthouse. The monk's residence is beyond the bell tower.

Traveling writer in search of the American Dream
I made it to the riverfront for my mini-baptism!

Traveling writer in search of the American Dream
A small shrine near the river.

Traveling writer in search of the American Dream
The scene of the crime.

Traveling writer in search of the American Dream
An ancient oak outside the chapel.

Traveling writer in search of the American Dream
Close-up of moss-covered branches. How about you? Got a funny mud story? Comment below!

Saturday, October 27, 2018

The Traveling Writer Visits a Monastery Overlooking the Hudson

Recently I went to a monastery overlooking the Hudson River. I was attending a memoir writing workshop there.
I left work at noon Friday so I'd have time to go for a walk on the monastery grounds before dinner and the first workshop that evening. I was curious to see what happened with my writing – if I would find new enthusiasm for it, or bag it. Not that that would be a decision I’d take lightly, after a 30-year apprenticeship in the craft. But I have to admit, now that I have two novels published, writing feels different.
I think I used to think that “being published” would be a huge satisfaction, a confirmation of my artistic gifts. I thought it would give me a feeling of being “enough.” I think it’s helped my self-confidence some. What I find, though, is I feel less urgency to write, and that bothers me. Without my prior strong sense of urgency, I'm concerned I'll slack off. Writing has taken me on great adventures, and I don't want to lose out on future ones.
On this particular Friday in September, to get to the monastery, for the first time in my life I took the Hudson River branch of Metro-North. It leaves from Grand Central in New York City, goes due north for two hours, and stops in Poughkeepsie, end of that line. If you want to continue north, you can switch to Amtrak, which will take you further up the Hudson to Albany, then north to Rutland, Vermont, last stop Montreal.
My train careened past towns of huge name recognition, like Scarsdale and Sleepy Hollow.
It also hugged the edge of the Hudson River. The trees weren’t turning yet, but still it was beautiful. The clouds were reflected on the steel gray water, and the reflection of trees and mountains on the far side made a dark gray-green border.
The tracks were only a few feet away from, and only slightly higher in elevation than, the river. In 2012, Hurricane Sandy pushed so much water into New York Harbor and up the Hudson River, that cars parked at these riverside train stations were swamped with water and ruined. This happened, I know for a fact, at least as far north as Rhinebeck, which is further north than Poughkeepsie. And like I said, Poughkeepsie is two hours north of Manhattan by train. That gives you an idea of the volume of water pushed miles up the river. What tremendous force that storm had.
I enjoyed looking out the window at the now-calm river. In Poughkeepsie I took a taxi to the monastery, which is on the opposite side of the river, on the west side, which is the side where New York State apples and grapes for wine are grown.
The monastery’s driveway exits onto Route 9, a busy highway. The taxi took two switchbacks down the hill toward the river and deposited me at the visitor’s door.
I was the first person to report for the weekend, so I asked for and got a room that overlooked the river. I was given a tour. The chapel is plain but beautiful, the entranceway to the monks’ residence intriguing: stained glass panels throw colored light. Visitors are encouraged not to trespass on their space.
On the ground floor there’s a place where anybody who wants to can live longer-term. It has four bedrooms with single beds, kitchen, common area, and its own entrance. It overlooks the river too. It would make a nice place for a writing sabbatical. That is, if you enjoy the other people who turn up willy nilly. If you can uproot yourself from your life and live exceedingly quietly for months.
After uprooting myself from my life in the U.S. and moving to Paris for a year, I know what it takes. Banking, mail, a thousand things have to be managed before you leave. I started over in a place where I knew no one and not a word of the language. It’s a huge effort. I think I only have one or two such uprootings left in me in this life. I’m saving one for a return to Paris, and the other will probably be moving back to the U.S. in my very old age.
That’s my impression of my plan for the next (and last) 25 years of my life. And it doesn’t quite jive with the fact that I now have a grandchild whose life I want to be a part of. Maybe he would spend summers with me in Paris? Learn French as a child and speak fluently?
I can’t figure that part out. Well, you know me and my Higher Power – something great will work out. I have FAITH, an acronym for Fabulous Adventure In Trusting Him. He’s taken me on great adventures: the circumnavigation of America on a bus (pics here), a creative writing sabbatical for a year in Paris (pics scattered in this blog from 2016 on), living three months in Barcelona (pics here), and now an adventure living and writing in Brooklyn (pics here).

Writing in a Monastery, in Search of the American Dream.

Let me take you on a quick tour of the monastery. Next time, more pics of this a just a brief description of a writing workshop--in case you're curious as to what the heck we get up to at one of these.

in search of the American Dream
One of the monks loves to garden. September asters make a big statement here.

in search of the American Dream
The refrectory (dining hall) is the octagon extending from the back.

in search of the American Dream
A fireplace in one of the common rooms.

in search of the American Dream
Cozy seating in a common room.

in search of the American Dream
A lovely, moss-ridden old oak just off the cloister.

in search of the American Dream
The cloister.

in search of the American Dream
Another view of the imposing oak.

in search of the American Dream
Icons in the chapel.

in search of the American Dream

in search of the American Dream
Simple and true.

in search of the American Dream
View of the entrance to the monk's wing.

in search of the American Dream
A walking path.
How about you? Ever sought refuge in a monastery? Comment below!

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Robbed in Barcelona, while in Search of the American Dream

What the Traveling Writer Endures while in Search of the American Dream

By Norma Jaeger Hopcraft

This week, we're back to Barcelona, where I lived for 3 months as a nanny in order to extend my one-year creative writing sabbatical.

Today I tell you the story of how I was robbed on the stairs you see directly below. I was sitting on the stairs leading up to the right--a mistake, since it was out of view of people in the courtyard. But that's where I was able to tap into the library's wifi, because the library was closed.

When the police came, I experienced a huge cultural disparity that made the situation worse.

the traveling writer in search of the American Dream
The stairs lead up to the Biblioteca de Catalunya. It was built in the 1300s as a hospital. 

When I worked on my novel, Paris Writers Circle, here, I had all the atmosphere that a high vaulted ceiling could give me. Plus I would think of how grateful I was not to be a patient there in the 1300s, the recipient of medieval medical knowledge. More Barcelona pictures below.

I sat on the stairs one Saturday needing Wifi to find an English-speaking 12-Step meeting--I was bruised by the Catalan boys' disrespect (that story is two below this one, or here), feeling low, and knew a meeting would bless me. The library was closed, but I wondered if its wifi would reach outside the thick stone walls so I could Google the location of a meeting starting soon. 

So I sat on the stairs in view of people in the courtyard, but there was no Wifi. So I moved up the stairs, turned a corner, and was all alone, out of sight of everyone. But the Wifi worked there. I quickly logged in and started Googling.

Suddenly a slight young dark-haired man was in front of me holding out his business card. I was uneasy, but then again he didn't look dangerous. 

"Why are you here?" he said in accented English.

"I'm looking for wifi."

"Wifi?" he said, waving the card in front of me. "Wifi!"

I had the library's wifi, I didn't need his, so I said no, thank you. He moved up the stairs to stand next to me and I turned me head, away from my backpack (where my wallet rested on top, since I'd needed the library card inside it to log into Wifi). 

"Wifi? he said, waving the card again. Then he leaned in close, holding the card near my eyes. I looked at the words, in Catalunyan, and waved him away.

"No, thanks."

He said okay and went down the steps.

I went back to Google for a second, then felt like something was wrong. I saw my wallet was gone. I slipped my laptop as fast as possible into my backpack--it had all my work in it, I couldn't leave it on the steps unguarded--and raced down the steps.

"Thief!" I shouted.

A man in a yellow shirt came up to me and blocked my path. "You were robbed?" he said in accented English. I kept looking for the young dark-haired man, and Yellow Shirt kept bobbing in front of me. "Robbed?" I was looking around wild-eyed for my wallet, for someone who spoke English to help me.

Then a man with a red plaid shirt that hung outside his pants came up to me holding my wallet. "You?" he said. 

I was so relieved to see my wallet, and I didn't know what this man's intentions were either, so I snatched it out of his hand. 

"You come with," he said.

I stared at him, my heart pounding, clutching my wallet to my chest.

"Who are you?"


Yellow Shirt was still bobbing around me, giving me a threatened feeling, and I had just been robbed. I didn't know who to trust.

"Identificacion," I said. 

Red shirt dug a wallet out of his pants pocket and showed me a card through the wallet's plastic window. It was completely unconvincing--I had expected to see a shiny badge.

"You come," he said.

I pushed his wallet back at him and said, "Identificacion!" again.

He lifted his red plaid shirt, and there was something black tucked into the waistband of his pants. What was that? He had another wallet?

"Identificacion!" I said.

He pulled the black thing up a bit and I saw it was a small handgun.

Well, I wasn't going anywhere with an unknown man who had had my wallet in his hand and who I now saw had a gun tucked into his waistband. 

"Senora," an old toothless man said, sitting by the courtyard fountain. "La." and he pointed to a restaurant on the other side of the courtyard. I ran to it, confused, overwhelmed with men trying to steal from me when all I'd wanted to do was Google a meeting.

I sat on a bench of people waiting to be seated at the restaurant. A nice, American young man said, "Are you okay?"

"I think I'm in great danger," I said -- but I was half-smiling, maybe as a nervous reaction. The young man didn't offer to help.

Just then two uniformed policemen came through the restaurant's wrought iron gate and came up to me slowly. To my immense relief, the handsomest one spoke excellent English.

"There are all kinds of people trying to steal from me in the courtyard," I said. "I can't believe how many."

"You are safe with the man with the handgun. He's a police officer."

"But when I asked for identification, he didn't show me a badge."

"He showed you his revolver. Only police in Spain carry revolvers."


"Well, in America, where I come from, every crazy person carries a gun," I said. "There was no way I was going with him to some unknown place."

"We want you to come to the police station to file a complaint," he said. "We caught the two thieves. In court someday we'll need you to identify them."

"Was one of them the man in a yellow shirt?"

"No, he was just some guy. He was trying to add to the confusion to block the police."

What a nightmare.

So I walked through Barcelona's ancient streets to the police station on La Rambla, the biggest tourist street in the city.

"Thieves are a huge problem here," the handsome policeman said. "That police officer was undercover to try to protect tourists and control the problem. But the law is lenient, and so are the judges. That thief will be back on the streets sooner than you will be today."

In the police station, I filled out forms. The officer in the red plaid shirt walked by. I felt bad that I'd been so uncooperative.

"Lo siento," I'm sorry, I said. He smiled and went back out the door to the streets.

I thought about writing a letter to someone in Barcelona to tell them that a man in plainclothes showing a revolver to American tourists would not reassure them. It was important that it not keep happening. But was my Spanish up to the task? Was Google Translate? And who would I send it to? No, it would be a waste of time.

Putting it all on the line for my art, in search of the American Dream

What was I doing, living with impossible boys, far from home and family? I felt very desolate that afternoon.

While I filled out forms and gave my Catalan family's address and agreed to testify when the case came up in a few months, I saw what could have happened to me.

Two young girls from Sweden were also filing a complaint. The police officer explained that their handbags had been stolen with all their money, credit cards, passports and plane tickets home.

Yikes! I'd been spared so much grief when the undercover policeman recovered my wallet. And let me snatch it from his hand. 

I thanked my Higher Power that, even though I hadn't gotten to a meeting, he had been taking care of me.

St. Josep's market on La Rambla. Enjoy! But watch your wallet!

A meat counter in St. Josep's.

The candy counter.

Fruit and fruit juices!

More hams, bacons. It's a great market. How about you? Ever had your wallet lifted? Comment below!

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

American Dream: Find a B&B and Make Some Discoveries

The Traveling Writer Sees Quirky Things in Rhode Island

By Norma Jaeger Hopcraft

Last week I shared my Louisiana music festival with you. I want to recommend Zydeco again! A week ago I invested in a C.J. Chenier live recording made at the New Orleans Jazz Festival.  I’m glad I did. His showmanship is obvious even when he’s not making music on a stage. And his Red Hot Louisiana band doesn’t play a single note that isn’t red hot.

While attending the Rhythm and Roots music festival (the largest gathering of Louisiana musicians outside of Louisiana) in Charlestown, RI, I stayed with my sister in a bed & breakfast in Kingston, RI.

We went for a walk one morning and found out it’s a college town, the University of RI at Kingston. We drifted onto campus and found an arboretum with a fantastic assortment of exotic trees. They were all labeled with their English name, Latin name, and area of origin.

Everyone in my family is a plant nerd, so we really appreciated that somebody, at some time, planned this place, took care to ship in trees that were likely to survive Rhode Island winters, and took the time to make sure each tree had a label.

This arboretum is a great, humane legacy that some person or persons created and shared. I admire that legacy-building instinct, and I’m grateful for it.

Let me share some quirky pictures of the weird trees. I have pictures of the labels for some, not all. Then we'll get into the bed & breakfast.
The Traveling Writer in Search of the American Dream
Look! A tree in camo!

The Traveling Writer in Search of the American Dream

The Traveling Writer in Search of the American Dream
This tree has beautiful bark in flowing lines.

The Traveling Writer in Search of the American Dream
This blue beauty is a Korean fir.

The Traveling Writer in Search of the American Dream
Here it is in close-up.

The Traveling Writer in Search of the American Dream
Not sure of the name, but it sure looks like green fireworks.

The Traveling Writer in Search of the American Dream
This is a larch, from Central Europe. A bit quirky-looking.

The Traveling Writer in Search of the American Dream
There were neat gates and structures throughout the arboretum.

The Traveling Writer in Search of the American Dream
Not sure what this is, but it sure does have strange roots.

The Traveling Writer Recommends the Sheppard B&Bs

We stayed at Sheppard’s Campus B&B, run by the Sheppard family. It was in an appropriately Victorian house and decorated with antiques. I always enjoy looking at this type of house and furniture, and I enjoy even more thinking how glad I am not to have to take care of any of it.

We had two terrific breakfasts and enjoyed the company of our fellow guests. We also enjoyed exploring the grounds.

The Traveling Writer in Search of the American Dream
A splendid house, both inside and out.

The Traveling Writer in Search of the American Dream
I love the weathered brick.

The Traveling Writer in Search of the American Dream
A compass rose built into the porch floor.

The Traveling Writer in Search of the American Dream
Tons of antiques and healthy potted plants.

The Traveling Writer in Search of the American Dream
A bird cage from India. Felt quirky to find it in Kingston, RI.

The Traveling Writer in Search of the American Dream
Close up of the front door.

The Traveling Writer in Search of the American Dream
Splendid hydrangeas, and all kinds of other beautiful plants, in the gardens.

One of the Sheppards had created a lovely garden around the house. Since I used to be a passionate gardener, and my sister developed one worthy of a House and Garden spread, we made a point of exploring the garden’s paths and noting the different foliage combinations that this gardener had fostered.

I sat in one of the seating areas to make a phone call and to just soak up the sight of sunlight on leaves. This is something I starve for in my life bouncing between Brooklyn and Manhattan. It’s one of the most gorgeous sights on earth, and this peaceful garden filled my soul up to the brim. Then a groundhog came out from under the porch and sat in the sun, to top it all off.

How about you? Been to a good B&B lately? Comment below!

Saturday, September 15, 2018

The Traveling Writer Spends Proceeds of Her American Dream

The Traveling Writer Goes to a Music Festival -- Her First Ever!

By Norma Jaeger Hopcraft

I’d like to divert your attention momentarily from Barcelona to Rhode Island, where I attended a music festival over the Labor Day weekend. It was the biggest gathering of Louisiana musicians outside of Louisiana. It was my first music festival ever--that's if you don't count the concert I went to in the Bronx when I was 14. When the first act came on stage, people on every blanket around me and my friend Rich lit up or downed some pills with alcohol, or all of the above--but you know what I'm talking about : )

This RI music festival was so much fun!

At the ticket counter, I could see that nobody was going to take him- or herself too seriously this weekend. 

The Traveling Writer in Search of the American Dream
The black-and-white checkered sunglasses make the look.

The Traveling Writer in Search of the American Dream
Or maybe it's the Mary Janes...

When I walked across the field to the dance tent and heard Zydeco music kick in, my heart—no kidding—leapt for joy. Zydeco is THE most infectious dance music in the world. I took a Zydeco dance lesson with the accompaniment of the Zydeco Hogs. I highly recommend their recordings. Your feet will begin to bop in spite of yourself. It won't stop there. Knees, hips, shoulders are quick to bop.

The Traveling Writer in Search of the American Dream
The washboard player herself can't resist dancing to the Zydeco.

The Traveling Writer in Search of the American Dream

I also danced to Steve Riley’s music. This is him as a child.

 I particularly enjoyed CJ Chernier & the Red Hot Louisiana Band, who is carrying on his father’s tradition. What a fantastic showman CJ is! And honey, he and his band are red hot. He loves people, loves to give his audience a good time, and gets the musicians and the crowd all riled up : )

Blues, Zydeco, country, Western, bluegrass, Cajun: the Rhythm and Roots festival in RI has it all. Sign up for it as soon as you can!
One show had some musicians that you could look at and tell: they had traveled the back roads of the bayous to play at dance halls for the last 50 years. They were goooood!

A group called Faux Paws was extraordinary. Young musicians on their way to being legendary, in search of their American Dream

I truly enjoyed the show on Sunday called “Sunday School with Christine Ohlman, Rebel Montez and the Sin Sisters.” I wondered if this was an ironic title, whether a coven of witches would show up.
The Traveling Writer in Search of the American Dream
The Sin Sisters, back-up vocals for Christine Ohlman.

The Traveling Writer in Search of the American Dream
 Christine Ohlman and Rebel Montez

Turns out Christine is my kind of Christian. With back-up singers called the Sin Sisters, how could she not be? She defies any pigeon hole of Christianity anybody, including church ladies, could try to wedge her into. She’s singing truth according to her artistic insights, free in God's great artistic freedom to not try to meet expectations of what she should look, act, or sing like. She’s a singer, songwriter, guitarist, recording artist, and music scholar. Her nickname is "The Beehive Queen.” I also approve of her shades.
She treated us to one bluesy, gutsy, beautifully rendered song after another. And she started me on a trail of other artists. She referred to Aretha Franklin, Percy Sledge, Ben E. King and Curtis Mayfield. All treats to be enjoyed because Christine played some of their songs and credited them with enthusiasm.

The Traveling Writer Searches

I love to be not only on a music trail but a reading trail as well. A writing friend recommended George Orwell's "All Art is Propaganda" and that led me to his "Homage to Catalonia" and "Down and Out in Paris and London." I heard of Tracy K. Smith because she was a recent Poet Laureate of the U.S., and that led me to her memoir. I recently enjoyed Doris Kearn Goodwin's "Lincoln," and soon that will lead me to her book on Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and World War II.

I love these avenues of exploration. How about you? You following any trails lately? Comment below!