What a Pain in the Neck!

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... I started developing the same symptoms I encountered earlier this year while working on the farmhouse in France ... intense pain in my neck, shoulder, and tingling down my right arm (on top of the normal aches and pains of becoming a farmer at 56!). After a series of fascial manipulation treatments resulting in no improvement, the doctor ordered an MRI which revealed pinched nerves from herniated discs in my neck, once again.

One would think that all this physical work after too much desk-sitting would be the culprit, but in fact I experienced similar symptoms a year ago while working at my computer running my photo camp. That's three episodes in one year from computer work and physical work. Apparently I have a weak spot in my neck which is a real pain in the neck.

Doctor's orders were to stop work and let my body rest ... my neck will heal again ... and then to strengthen my neck, gently. 

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Leaving my internship was not easy. I loved the work, the community, and many new friends there. But I have not given up on my dream to live in the countryside and create a charming farm stay where people can learn about farming, make crafts, and enjoy simpler living. I just need to work at my own pace.

Now I just need to decide where in the world to have my farm! Oregon, North Carolina, Northern California, Southern France, the Azores ... And since my house is rented out for a year, I may spend the rest of my grown up gap year visiting and traveling to find my *place.* Suggestions welcome! Here are my criteria:

- Not too hot, not too cold, not too humid (Goldilocks-style)
- Ample rainfall or underground water sources
- Community of like-minded people who care about organic food and the health of the planet

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For now I'm resting and recuperating on the island of Nevis in the Caribbean, staying with my dear friend Danielle who works at the medical school here. Not too shabby for some serious R&R. 

Becoming a Farmer

When I was a child, I imagined my adult self living on a farm ...

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At 19 during my college overseas program, I spent two weeks picking olives on Crete with my Greek host family -- olive groves mingled with orange grove and a creek trickling by -- one of my absolute favorite memories. In my late 20s, I met a remarkable couple who left the city and lived an intentional life in the French countryside who inspired me. I was also inspired by the PBS series Frontier House and the modern families who lived for six months in Montana as if it were 1883, working to grow their own food in preparation for winter. One would think I would have followed these signs pointing me to some kind of life in the countryside. Life had other plans ...

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I fell in love with photography in high school. That, coupled with my vow to never again work in an office after my high school summer job working in my dad's San Francisco office (in the Actuarial and Research Department, ugh), led me to carefully choose my career as a photojournalist -- definitely NOT in an office! 

Photojournalism gave me much of what I craved -- being active and outdoors much of the day doing something that mattered. Returning to the newspaper photo department at day's end, we developed our film and printed our photos in the darkroom. In the late 80s, Photoshop was born, and as amazing as Photoshop (and now Lightroom) is, we started sitting at computers to complete our work. Over the 20+ years since I left the newspaper world, I ran a few photography-related businesses and computers became ubiquitous. I once again found myself sitting at my desk, fantasizing about living in the countryside while working all day in my home office. The office. THE OFFICE! 

At 56, I had finally had enough. Decided to take a grown up gap year. Quit my job. Rented out my house. Went to France. Then moved across the country and started a biodynamic (BD) farming internship. 

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Whaaaaaa??!!

Yep, I did it. Finally, finally, finally I am living the life I've been dreaming of, pining for, and whining about for such a long time!

Here at the Pfeiffer Center -- the only educational biodynamic farm in the US -- I'm outside all day long, in nature, moving my body, feeding people, healing the soil, and helping the planet. The program here is super organized and well-rounded. We -- the four interns and our two teachers -- have a weekly Farm Meeting and Biodynamics Study (studying Rudolf Steiner's Agriculture Course, the basis for biodynamics), harvest weekly for our Farm Stand and CSA, and monthly (along with 40+ people who attend) participate in the One-Year Training which covers all the key BD components, taught by leaders in the BD movement. 

I'm learning so many things! In the six weeks I've been here, I've learned how to plant, seed, spot, transplant, water, and harvest all the different veggies and herbs, prepare raised beds for planting, prepare beds for cover crops using a rototiller (backbreaking work!), tend to the greenhouse, make compost (super gross, stinky food scraps teeming with maggots transform in to healthy, vibrant soil), make/stir/apply/spray the BD preps, work with bees, and groom horses including picking their hooves (terrifying at first), move the electric fence, and more ... and then there's the interminable weeding! 

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My wise, gentle, funny, kind teachers Mac Mead and Megan Durney somehow manage to field all our questions while still leading us to get all our work done. And my fellow interns Jeff, Christian, and Dylan supply the heavy lifting, and songs and jokes while we work. 

This farming life is busy! And also balanced, and healthy. At the end of the summer, we hosted a two-week Farm and Garden Camp for 60 children, teaching them how to do *all the things* culminating with a salad and pizza party using veggies the children harvested and our garden bread oven.

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We interns attended the Northeast Organic Farming Association Summer Conference in Amherst, MA, where we heard Dr. Don Huber speak on the health issues stemming from glyphosate (the active ingredient used in Monsanto's herbicide Roundup) used in GMO and non-organic agriculture. And we have toured farms in the area to see how and why others do what they do. 

We're up and at 'em at 7am (6am on Thursday -- Farm Stand day) for a quick planning session, then out to the garden and fields we go. Working with the plants, surrounded by forest, listening to the birdsong and the neighbor's rooster crow, watching the sun rise, seeing the bees as it warms ... Many mornings I have been moved to tears taking in the beauty of it all. I am finally becoming a farmer.

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Ahhhh, Provence

After my farmhouse renovation time was cut short by doctor's orders, fortunately I had a plan B: to stay in Provence with my "French brother" from my exchange student days in high school.

Soft dawn from my room with a view, 5:30am 

Soft dawn from my room with a view, 5:30am 

Thierry and I have been friends since I was 16. He lives in St.-Remy-de-Provence and is a bread baker in the next village over. 

St.-Remy-de-Provence feels like a French version of my hometown Mill Valley, that is, if Mill Valley smoked cigarettes. Population ~10,000, chock-full of charming alleyways, shady squares, stylish restaurants and boutiques, art galleries, farmers markets, fancy cars and tourists. (I have a similar love-hate relationship with St. Remy as I do with Mill Valley, for the above-mentioned reasons.)

St. Remy boasts a loooooong history. In 600BC, Gallic tribes settled nearby at the base of the beautiful Alpilles mountain range around an important spring. The Salyens built a prosperous city here in 200BC imbued with Greek influences, and then the Romans took it over, renamed it Glanum, and built temples, baths, theaters and a forum. But it primarily remained a religious sanctuary around the sacred spring. In 260AD, Glanum succumbed to barbarian invasions and the remaining population moved 1km down the road to what is now St. Remy. Old town St. Remy is surrounded by 14thC walls, Nostradamus was born here in 1503, and Van Gogh stayed in a psychiatric hospital here in 1889, painting some of his most beautiful paintings including "Starry Night." The surrounding countryside has long been agricultural, filled with fields of veggies, sunflowers, lavender, and olive trees. 

Every year on June 21st, all of France celebrates la Fête de la Musique and amateur musicians perform in every city, town and village. Everyone comes out to enjoy all kinds of music!

 

Early mornings here are sublime ... 

... especially with this little guy, Nougat (pronounced noo-gah), Thierry's charming and often rambunctious puppy!

Nougat is bilingual. Fais pipi! Sit! Allez! Down!

Nougat is bilingual. Fais pipi! Sit! Allez! Down!

My favorite thing to do here is walk Thierry's puppy Nougat in the early morning before it gets HOT. 

Nougat likes to eat our shoes when we're not looking ...

Then comes LUNCH, the biggest meal of the day ... Bon appétit! 

... then the obligatory siesta.

Fortunately there's still a lot of water here in the form of fountains, canals, aqueducts, and pools. It is so hot, usually in the 90s (not at all like cool Mill Valley), so pool time in the backyard is also obligatory! 
There's also a magnificent municipal pool in Maussane-les-Alpilles, the next village over on the other side of Les Alpilles, where I swim laps daily.

Backyard pool 

Backyard pool 

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Maussane pool

After so much work these past few months and years, this time in Provence has been a blessing. To rest, relax, and rejuvenate before embarking on my farming internship in August. Merci Thierry and merci Provence! 

Under the Ardèche Sun

Renovating a farmhouse in France is not at all like Under the Tuscan Sun. It IS an idealistic and creative endeavor of the largest proportions! It is also dirty, dusty, sweaty, cobwebby, batshitty, and VERY hard work! 

Photo by Joe Atkins

Photo by Joe Atkins

Joe Atkins had a dream, to someday renovate or build a home. Joe's career as a lighting designer for theater, film, concerts, exhibitions and conferences gave him the myriad necessary skills to build a house. What he doesn't know, he researches, often on YouTube! 

I also shared this dream, yet I have few skills. When my dear English friends Joe and his wife Manny said they bought an old farmhouse in the Ardèche in central France, a frisson surged through my system and I knew I'd volunteer on the project. 

L to R: Beth, Me, Arty, Manny, Joe, Luke, Marie (Luke's fiancée), Harry, Cloé (Arty's girlfriend) Photo by Beth Atkins

L to R: Beth, Me, Arty, Manny, Joe, Luke, Marie (Luke's fiancée), Harry, Cloé (Arty's girlfriend)

Photo by Beth Atkins

A bit of background: Joe, Manny and their four children have lived in France since 2008. The year before, they sold their house in England, retrofitted a bus into a mobile home, and travelled around Europe for a year. I discovered their blog Welcome to the World -- written mostly by their children Luke, Harry, Beth and Arty as home-schooling homework -- after they had already started living in France. As is the magic of the interwebs, I was researching Thailand for a friend and came across their blog, read the entire year-long saga into the wee-hours of the night for months, and finally dropped them a line (the first time I ever reached out to strangers on the web!). Lo and behold Manny wrote me back, and very much in character with their openness to people, invited me to visit them in France! Serendipitously, I already had a trip planned to France, to walk the Chemin de St. Jacques with my little dog Daisey. Before my departure, I learned the Atkins were making a movie that summer as a family along with their actor friends, their first feature film. Before even meeting them, I volunteered to work on their film (that's how well I felt I knew them from their lovely blog!). In the summer of 2009 in France and Spain, I crewed on If You Ever Get to Heaven, a charming road movie taking place along the Camino de Santiago. What I love about the Atkins: they are warm, fun-loving, game-playing (often playing games they make up themselves), creative (music, film, photography, art, dance), honest, open ... and they LOVE a good project. (Me, too!)
Photo by Manny Atkins

Photo by Manny Atkins

Fast forward to April 2017. The Atkins assisted with my visa paperwork, then welcomed me into their home, setting up a room for me in the house they rent in Bas-en-Basset (also a converted farmhouse) and helping me buy a car. I settled in to life in the French countryside. Most impactful to my system were the sounds ... Waking to the song of warblers, swallows, and roosters, counting time by the chimes of church bells, doves cooing and sheep bleating in the afternoons, and the absence of traffic noise. I found myself weirdly drawn to lying in the grass, in the backyard or in the field at the farmhouse ... something I never do at home but which I let myself do those first weeks in France, a sign that my body needed rest and my soul needed grounding. I also enjoyed living with this very special family. 

Most days, some configuration of the family and I -- whomever was available -- set out on the 45 minute drive to the little hamlet of Solignac outside of Tence to work. For me, the roads all looked a bit the same with green fields all around, pine trees at higher elevations, stone farmhouses. My landmarks were the cows, sheep, horses, donkeys, and chickens along the way ... penultimate picturesque countryside, the kind in fairy tales. 

The work was rewarding, progressing each day. My main job had me up on the scaffolding (échafaudage, or "the tower" as Joe calls it), working my way along the ceiling of the barn (grange), cleaning the wood beams (poutres) with wire brush (brosse métallique), airgun (pistolet à air), and sandblaster (sableuse). The work was also physically exhausting for my body which was more used to spending much of my day sitting at a computer. A handful of Advil became part of my daily regimen.

After two months of working and several visits to an ostéopathe (and one to a sorcière!), I decided to see a docteur ($25 for a 45 minute visit, thanks to the comprehensive French medical care system!) for the unremitting pain in my neck, shoulder, arm, and uncomfortable tingling in my fingers. He diagnosed me with NCB (nevro-cervical brachialgie) or CBN in English, otherwise known as sciatica of the arm, otherwise known as a pinched nerve. I had x-rays to confirm the diagnosis. Three prescriptions later (at a mere $3 a pop), I had to stop work, doctor's orders. 

I salute the Atkins family who are working diligently to achieve their dream. They are a team that works and plays together with such joy, enthusiasm, positivity, and gusto. So grateful to have been a part of the project! Bon boulot et bon courage, mes amis! 

PS - As part 2 of phase 1 of my gap year, I'm recuperating in Provence at the home of my French exchange student family whom I've known since I was 16, in preparation for the start of my farming internship in August. Not a bad spot for rest and rejuvenation! 

Life Now

Since my last blog post in 2013, my life filled with such good things: teaching photography at the San Francisco Waldorf High School and starting Firefly Institute

Teaching photography seemed a natural progression of my photography career, a way to give back. All my photography teachers whispered in my ear during those four years, especially Hal Wells and Don Winslow. And of course, so did my Waldorf training teacher Dorit Winter. Teaching is a very humbling experience -- so much can and does go wrong, or not quite as planned -- and it is also one of the most exquisite feelings when things go right: seeing students have aha moments as they start to see light or first grok how their cameras work, or witnessing their last day of class comparing their first photos with their last and seeing them realize how much they learned. And to be able to teach at a Waldorf school? So grateful. My school is an exciting place humming with creativity, projects, performances, teaching and learning. Creating the photography curriculum was especially challenging and rewarding, distilling my 40 years of photography practice into an eight-week course of observation of light, exploration and discovery.

And starting Firefly Institute was a long held dream come true. After having attended Squam Art Workshops six years prior, I imagined a similar workshop with all photography classes. Such a workshop didn't exist, so I created it! Such joy in designing a three-dimensional experience for 50 women that they/we absolutely loved, filled with classes taught by amazing teachers, at the charming Westerbeke Ranch in Sonoma, with lots of laughter, song and dance in the mix. 

While both of these endeavors were successful and soul satisfying, they also required hours and hours, too many hours, sitting at the computer, foregoing exercise and social engagements ... a life out of balance. I knew something had to change. 

For as long as I can remember, I've wanted to live in the countryside -- the green, rolling hills, pastoral kind of countryside, preferably dotted with old stone buildings. When I was 27, I met a remarkable couple who had left their urban lives to buy 100 acres in the mountains of southern France including an abandoned 15th century peasant village called Bardou. Jean and Klaus Erhardt spent their years fixing up the village, inviting travelers to come stay for free in return for work, and renting out the houses for a nominal fee for those who preferred to relax. Although in a remote place, they insisted on having art be a part of their lives, and when I was there we read Macbeth on their terrace one Sunday after herding their flock of sheep. They restored a performance hall and started a classical music summer series in nearby villages. And they were the ones who introduced me to Waldorf, the educational model based on the teachings of Austrian visionary Rudolf Steiner. 

All along my magnificent photojournalism and photography career, I'd remember Bardou and Waldorf. After leaving photojournalism (after being held up at gunpoint by a group of teenage gang members who surrounded me in my convertible on a dark street in Long Beach), I eventually completed the Waldorf teacher training course and started teaching photography at the San Francisco Waldorf High School. While studying Steiner, I learned that he also inspired Biodynamic farming.

So, what is my life now? I left my teaching job and sold Firefly Institute to take a grown up gap year! I'm currently in France staying with my dear English friends the Atkins (with whom I made the movie If You Ever Get To Heaven in 2009) helping them renovate an old stone farmhouse in the green pastoral countryside in the Haute-Loire. I'm up on scaffolding most days cleaning the wood beams and stone walls with a wire brush and a sandblaster, very meditative and satisfying work. 

Next week I'm returning for a week in Bardou where I'll work preparing the village houses for the season. And then I'm going to visit a Waldorf school in the French Pyrénées mountains to see their Biodynamic farm and school. 

And in August, I start a one-year Biodynamic farming internship at The Pfeiffer Center, the educational farm in upstate New York!

How's that for life change? 

 

2012. 365. two photos. every day.

I did it! Did what, exactly?

Believe me, it might not sound like a big deal to take photographs daily. But it is not easy, especially at first, to find new photos every day. I had attempted another 365 project a few years back, which lasted a couple to three months before I gave up. 

This time, my inspiration came directly from Corinna Robbins whom I met at Camp Shutter Sisters in 2011. She was just completing her 365 project, and I could see her pride beaming because of it. NOT the boasting kind of pride, but the real inner-strength-I-believe-in-myself-when-I-didn't-before kind of pride. Hard-won pride. Her images are gorgeous. I can tell she really worked to find great images and learn photography through doing so ... As an aside, don't even get me started on her writing. This girl oozes talent.

At the same Camp, I took a Self-Portraiture class taught by Shutter Sister Meredith Winn. I had not understood the first thing about the mighty Selfie until learning from Meredith. I thought it was about how good I can look, or a look-at-me-look-at-me narcissism ... I didn't get it at all. Meredith taught me about the power of looking at myself, of expressing my range of emotions, of really seeing myself and letting myself be seen.

My idea came to me in October, then brewed and stewed. I was terrified to actually try it. The new year came and went. Then on January 4, 2012, I committed to doing a diptych-a-day: one photo of what I see out in the world, and one self-portrait. Why did I want to make my 365 double hard on myself?

I am so glad I did!

Here's what I learned:

At first, I struggled to find a photo every day, let alone two. Slowly over the months, my seeing gained momentum and strength. Now, I see objects and scenes all day long that catch my eye. I also thank Tracey Clark and the Shutter Sisters community for helping me to see and validate my entire world, the Beautiful and Real. Every day.

Turns out, I am not unphotogenic, I just did not know my better angles. I am willing to see myself now and accept more parts of myself, including the darker, more complicated parts that previously I kept hidden from the outside world, and often from myself as well. Over the course of the year, I see myself open more and more to the camera, and thus to being seen, when I look in my eyes in the images I took of myself. This simple act of opening up, each day a little more, and seeing myself has been incredibly healing!!!!

To sum it up, in 2012: I fell in love. With myself. With photography (again). With a (shy) man. With the world. With Love. With Life. Daily Life.