Crossing Over

The last week of the residency was intense.  There was a sense of the clock ticking.  Just as we were coming together as a group, forming close friendships and connections, we became aware we’d soon be going our separate ways. 

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During the first week people worked away in their studios and houses, settling into the work they would do.  At our house, Le Capanne, writing time was spaced out with afternoon sunbathing on the lawn (with a glass of wine and some great Italian cheese) and walks down to the village café.   By the second week, as we had one-on-one sessions with the writers and artists in residence, the pace intensified.  This was where the rubber hit the road creatively, and people began working late into the night and missing meals once the muse struck. 

 Each night we’d walk up the road to the hamlet to join the group in the Courthouse for our craft talks.  In our second week talks Michael Salu challenged us to find intersections between image and words. He shared examples of his innovative work and inspired me to integrate image into text. Cheryl Tan talked about the business of writing, and how to create a social media presence. She generously shared her experiences, inviting us to join the brazen “cupcake brigade” schmoozing with booksellers to promote ourselves and our work.

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After the craft talks we’d visit some of the artists’ studios, and later writers would share readings with the group.  Then it was cocktail hour with fabulous spreads of cheese, fruit, and Katie’s (hot out of the oven, melt in your mouth) focaccia bread before we headed down to dinner.

The range of work being done at the residency was incredibly diverse.  Writers were working on memoir, fiction, non-fiction, poetry and essays and artists worked in large and small scale, in a range of mediums. In the short time we were together we began to see our work evolving. I was working on a novel as well as fine-tuning a picture book manuscript. My one-on-one sessions with Cheryl, Rosa and Erinn were more than I could have hoped for.  They were incredibly generous with their time and provided insights, ideas and questions that will move my writing forward.  I am tremendously grateful for the inspiration I’ve taken away from these sessions.

 

Our last day together was bitter-sweet. It was hard not to feel sad that this magical time was coming to an end.  From the day I arrived I enjoyed support, generosity, inspiration and wild fun in this amazing community of artists, and I didn’t want it to end. None of us did. There were many tears shed at dinner and we were all deeply grateful to Erinn, Julie, Cheryl, Michael, and all the artists-in-residence and staff who made our residency such an extraordinary experience.

Groggy-eyed, I left Camporsevoli early Saturday morning and headed off to Rome with Lydia and Fizza.  We left Fizza at the airport and I felt a heaviness in my heart as she headed back to Pakistan, knowing that it was unlikely we would meet again.  I am grateful to have met such an amazing person and talented artist.  On one of our last nights the group visited Fizza’s studio to view images and an installation which had been inspired by the violent death of the daughter of her close friend just weeks before she arrived at Lemon Tree House. The work was powerful, and emotional and a beautiful tribute to lives lost too soon. 

Fizza gave me a parting gift of an image, a mother and child sharing the joy of reading, that I will always treasure.

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When I first landed in Rome, at the beginning of this journey, I was met by U.S. artist Lydia Dollar, and together we made our way to Lemon Tree House.  It seemed fitting that we were together at the end for a last dinner at the Rome airport.  We tried to put into words what the experience had meant to us, but there simply were no words.

On October fifth, I packed my bags and set off on a journey that I somehow felt would not be a round trip so much as a crossing over.  I am in a time of transition, the beginning of the third act of my life.   After working full-time since I was 18, I’m ready to step away from what I have to do to what I want to do.

 Last night I landed back in Halifax and was met at the airport by my beautiful son Sean.  Feet back on home soil and embraced by my family.  But, I am changed.  I’m not the same Carol who left October fifth.  During my time at Lemon Tree House I felt seen and valued, supported and embraced by an amazing community of writers and artists.  I felt safe to explore and challenge myself to express the world in a way that feels authentic.  I saw a way of life that I can choose – a way to spend my days, in this third act of my life, that will feel right for me. 

 I remember how scared I was before I set off on this journey.  How my knees were shaking as I walked out the door into the airport limo.  But I faced the fear – and I crossed over.

  

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Week Two at Lemon Tree House


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It is early morning as I write this and the sun is throwing soft yellow light on the hills.  Soon I will walk up to the next house to join fellow Lemon Tree House resident Jennie Lee (https://jennieleeyogatherapy.com)  in  her morning meditation. Jennie is the author of Breathing Love: Meditation in Action and True Yoga: Practicing With the Yoga Sutras for Happiness and Spiritual Fulfillment.

 

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This is the beginning of my second week at the residency and there is still so much I want to do and experience.  At the end of our very full first week people headed off for weekend adventures.  I joined a group for a day trip to Florence. I decided the best way to find Florence was to get lost, so I wandered the narrow streets exploring and discovering things around every corner – a carousel, a gelato stand, a narrow alleyway that led to a cathedral.

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When my feet got tired I sat outside the Uffizi Gallery and watched a Japanese painter who used small bits of salt in his watercolours to create a beautiful texture in his work. I purchased a small painting then moved along on my adventures, soaking in the art, sculpture and history. 

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The shopping was amazing – shoes, purses, belts. Bellissimo! I found a pumpkin orange mohair sweater which has decided to come home with me.  After pizza and wine in a lovely little trattoria it was time to crawl back onto the bus for the ride back up into the Tuscan Hills. As wonderful as Florence was I was so happy to be back in the woods again. Florence was loud and hot and full of crowds of people and it is so quiet and peaceful in Camporsevoli  

 

 morning meditation overlooking the hills

morning meditation overlooking the hills

 I have just returned from my morning meditation with Jennie Lee.  We were joined by Fizza, an artist from Pakistan.  We sat outside in the morning sun together for a twenty-minute meditation. I felt completely present in the moment, feeling the sun on my back and listening to the birds and being so grateful to be here in this place.

So now it is time to go to my writing spot, at the table on the outside terrace, and see what words the day brings forth.

Settling In

Settling in

 

After the magic of arriving in Tuscany Saturday night, the days have unfolded into a pattern of writing, walking, eating, drinking, talking, laughing, sleeping – and repeat!

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 On my second day I woke at 6:30 and headed up the road to watch the sun rise.  I climbed high in the olive grove and watched a red orb rise out of the mist in the hills.  There should have been music – a Puccini opera aria. But the soundtrack was a chorus of song birds in the olive trees.

 I’ve found my writing place in the house – the long table on the terrace outside our kitchen.  It is covered by a reed roof that shelters me from the sun but filters through just enough light to warm me in the early morning. 

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 At 7:30 my thermos of coffee is delivered to my door and I take my manuscript, computer, coffee and a plate of fruit and cheese out to the terrace to begin my day.

The house is big, with enough room for all of us to work, undisturbed, in our own spaces. Ann, a writer from New Hampshire is working on a book about her experience with a life-threatening open-brain surgery 9 years ago.  Elaine, the baby of the house, is an actress and poet currently living in Los Angeles, and as I write this she is yelling for help to deal with a centipede that is crawling across her bed. Jane is sitting on the lawn across from me.  She is a painter and art instructor from the U.S. who has a studio on the top floor of our house and is doing plein air watercolour work, capturing the glorious hills of Tuscany.  Jennifer, who is busily typing away in her room, is a writer from New Glasgow who is working on a memoir.

 Late in the afternoon we head up the hill, a one kilometer hike, for craft talks, drinks and dinner at the Courthouse.

Our first craft talk was from Cheryl Tan, https://cheryllulientan.com  author of Tiger in the Kitchen, a memoir of returning home to Singapore to reconnect with the food of her childhood.  Cheryl also read from her novel Sarong Party Girls which is written in English and Singlish (a combination of English, Chinese and Malay) it was wonderful to hear it read in Cheryl’s voice. Last night was the Canadian artist Sarah Cale https://sarahcale.com/home.html   Sarah did her MFA at NSCAD and is now living and working in Belgium.  Sarah talked about the evolution of her work which is a combination of painting and collage.  In some of her work paint strokes are applied to a plastic surface and when dry are transferred and collaged onto wood, canvas or linen.  Tonight’s craft talk will be with Michael Salu http://www.michaelsalu.com/art/   Michael was born in Britain of Nigerian heritage and now lives in Berlin.  He was creative director of Granta magazine, is an artist, critic and writer.  His talk tonight will look at the intersection of art and writing.

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The food, oh my god the food.  I understand now what people mean when they talk about the food of Italy.  It touches all the senses. The cheese, mushrooms, olive oil, wine are all local and fresh – the cooking is simple but each ingredient is perfect - gorgonzola with whipped mascarpone served on thin crackers with slices of pear, fresh mozzarella with lemon zest and roast chicken cooked with rosemary from the garden. Ahhhhh. I have decided that before I start my new life as a cheesemaker I need to come back to Tuscany and learn from the masters. 

 We start our evenings with a cocktail du jour served by writer and bartender Rosa Rankin-Gee  https://rosarankingee.wordpress.com    We have sampled the Campari Spritz – Campari and Prosecco with a splash of soda and a twist of orange, a Lemon Tree cocktail of gin, lime soda, cucumber and lavender, and last night was pineapple, rum and mint.

 The walk up the hill for dinner is refreshing, the walk down in the dark of night, after a glass (or two) of wine, with just small flashlights to light our way, is challenging.  Back at the house at night I like to lie out by the pool and gaze up at the night sky.  The second night I saw three shooting stars!  Last night there was a new moon. Sophie from Holland tells me a new moon is a good omen for new beginnings. This new moon marks a special new beginning for me – a crossing over.  A commitment to myself to step away from work for pay that does not feed my soul. Time to leave the daily grind and grab more of the good things in life.

Cheers! Bella Sera! 

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Day 1 - Arriving in Camporsevoli

 

Day 1

I have arrived! ! After a smooth flight to Rome I met up with fellow Lemon Tree resident Lydia, an artist from Georgia, at the Rome airport and together we navigated the hectic train station and managed to get ourselves on the right train to Chiusi.  In Chiusi we were met by our hosts and whisked off with the others for our first stop – the grocery store.  Dinners are provided by our private chef, but we do breakfast and lunch in our individual houses, so we needed to stock up.  Grocery shopping in a strange country, when you don’t speak the language and are jet lagged and sleep deprived is an adventure!  I managed to grab some amazing local cheese, olives, bread, grapes, eggs and bread – and of course…chocolate!

 We then drove out of Chiusi for about half an hour and as we ascended into the hills the scenery became more and more magical.  It had been raining all day and ribbons of mist were lying in the hills.  We arrived at our house, La Capanne, just before sunset.  Our house is a three-story villa set on a hill.

 the view from our terrace

the view from our terrace

There are five of us in La Capanne and we were all sent off to discover our rooms.  The week before I arrived we’d been told what house we were in, and I had gone on the website to look at photos of all the rooms. When I came to the yellow room with a beautiful writing desk and wicker chair I thought, oh I can see myself there.  On the night we arrived in La Capanne I walked down the hall till I came to a room with my name on it. I slowly opened the door and walked into… the Tuscan yellow room with the beautiful writing desk.

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 We just had time to settle into our house before we were whisked up to the top of the hill where we made our way along cobblestone lanes past the chapel to the courthouse.  The restored 18th century courthouse is the building where we gather each night for cocktails, craft talks from the writer and artist in residence and dinner. 

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 We walked into a magnificent room with wood fire blazing and were welcomed with glasses of Prosecco.  After drinks we went down into the dining area where 24 of us gathered around a large table lit with three elegant candelabras.  Dinner our first night was pasta with fresh arugula and lemon – simple and perfect!  Dessert was almond cake with poached cherries.

 We are a very diverse group with a mix of writers and artists from all across the globe.  Surprisingly this year the east coast of Canada is well represented with Wendy MacIssac a Cape Breton poet living in P.E.I., Angela Antle a CBC producer living in Newfoundland, Jennifer Hatt from New Glasgow and myself.  Our residency hosts made a special Thanksgiving toast for all the Canadians.

 As I looked around the dining room on my first night, the room alive with great conversations, food and wine, I raised my glass to my dear friend Sheree Fitch, whose dream had brought me here. 


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The Dream - Lemon Tree House

It started by dreaming out loud.

 Sheree and I having lunch in New York - 2016

Sheree and I having lunch in New York - 2016

I was spending a few days with my dear friend Sheree Fitch at her home in River John, Nova Scotia. Sheree is an award-winning writer, bookseller, teacher, and literacy activist.

In our 30 years of friendship we had often talked about going on an adventure together. One we often dreamed of was walking the Camino - it became our mantra, but every time we’d start to make plans, life got in the way and we would say, “When this is over…we’ll walk the Camino.” Until one day we realized that this life journey we’d been walking for so many years - this WAS the Camino - and we were walking it - every day. Through joy and pain and grief and wonder…we kept walking.

On this one day Sheree grabbed me by the hand and took me to up to her office - a book-lined room with cathedral windows that overlooked River John. She pulled up a website on her computer - Lemon Tree House. Tuscany. A two week writing residency with writers and artists from around the globe. Sheree knew that going to Tuscany had been a life-long dream of mine. We went through the website together ooohhhing and aaahhhing and imagining ourselves together at Lemon Tree House, high in the hills, in the company of writers and artists and surrounded by the beauty of Tuscany. I remember the excitement that day, almost two years ago, when we stood together dreaming.

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Like most dreams it did not unfold as we had imagined. For Sheree life brought unexpected change and unimaginable loss. Walking the Camino of life is not easy. So we won’t be sharing this adventure together - not this time at least. But, in two days’ time I will be getting on a plane and flying across the ocean. I will land in Rome and make my way by train to the Lemon Tree House in Camporsevoli. I will settle into my house and meet my housemates and head up the hill to the main house with all the others for cocktails and dinner. And that night I will raise a glass to my friend Sheree, who dreamed a wonderful dream.

I am working on a new novel and have my manuscript packed along with good walking shoes, and a warm sweater for cool evenings. I am excited. I am scared. Very scared. I have to remind myself to keep breathing. I have to remind myself that it is not a dream.

So, deep breath…off I go…

 Lemon Tree House

Lemon Tree House