Caring for a parent, Self-care

My Trip to Italy—Radical Hospitality

I doubt if I will ever go to Europe, and mostly I’m okay with that. But Italy has long topped my bucket list. But here I am on Whidbey Island, spending my hypothetical Italy money on six and a half days less than three hours from home. Being radically cared for.

Fir Cottage, all mine
Yes, I would say that’s a Bittersweet Orange front door; and rabbits by the Pike Place Market pig sculptor.
Just room for me.

It’s been raining almost non-stop and I am in heaven: ensconced in a tiny cottage with a wee wood stove and all the wood I need, a large desk, a sleeping loft. The efficiency kitchen holds one set of flatware, one small plate and one large, one mug, one water glass, one wine glass. Because I am just one here, with no one to care for other than myself.



We have two and a half hours of writing instruction most days, with our master teacher, Theo Nestor. And I have hours alone to read, write, sleep in my tiny Fir Cottage. Seven sister writers and our teacher eat sumptuous dinners prepared by one of three chefs.IMG_1191IMG_1193

The Snacks

I return to my cottage after dinner, in the circle of light from my flashlight, seeing just what is two steps ahead. I carry a basket of just what I need for two meals the next day: an egg and a tablespoon of olive oil, ground coffee for the French press, a quarter cup of milk, two pieces of Dave’s Killer Bread—one for breakfast toast, one to go with delicious homemade soup for lunch—two pats of butter. When I finish my two meals, the refrigerator will be empty.

This is how I want to live. With just enough, no more, no less. Just enough to eat, just enough room to live. Satisfied with what is right in front of me.

IMG_1188The sun returns, and I finally walk through the woods, past the marsh, to the meadow, with the bay beyond.



Useless Bay


I hear of the attacks in Paris, and I am horrified. And concerned that the world rallies around the first worlders, as we ignore the terror of daily attacks on the innocents in Beirut, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Iraq, and so many other places, whose terrible lives we accept as the way things are. But I can’t dwell there this week. I’m in Italy.


I go to bed and wake up to the patter of rain on the roof a few feet above my head. I don’t sleep well until the last night. I could stay in bed as long as I want, no cat walking on me, no clomping foot falls over my head; but I’m up at 5:30 the first morning—after that it’s my favorite time. I build a fire and wait for it to warm the cottage, not turning on the space heater to hurry it up. I am in a slow down space here.


I make tea, and sit under the afghan in the window bench and watch the day come, reading the 11 journals of those who stayed in Fir Cottage before me. After a stormy day on Tuesday, the power on the island is out for nearly 24 hours. Adventure.

IMG_1170I know things didn’t go well at home the day I left, or the next or the next—unfortunately I am getting  cell service. Mama is confused and anxious. I’m afraid this might be my last get-away—it’s just too hard for her. But I can’t dwell there this week. I’m in Italy.

The Garden

The farmhouse library is filled with more than a thousand books by writers who have followed the muse at Hedgebrook. I find more than a dozen authors I have read.


I take the fifth bath I have had in three and a half years—three of them on this island—in an immense claw foot tub. In the candlelight I sink slowly under the water. I’m drowning. How will I survive this? I will. It’s temporary for me. Does my mother feel like she’s drowning? She will not survive. What is it like to be stripped bare? To not know when you go to bed at night if you will surface again? To not know if you will remember the previous day?  She is not afraid of dying; she is afraid of not dying. And so she resists assistance. Maybe it makes her feel less whole, and feeling diminished feels like living death. It is maddening to those of us who care for her. Why is it so hard to be compassionate? Because I am afraid of dying.


I have not been productive here. I have only a little more idea what I am doing with this memoir. I had hoped for huge insight and renewed excitement for the project and to learn more than it feels I have. After all, it was my Italy. But I trust it will come. What I have learned is inside me and will come out in its time. An owl in the woods speaks before dawn the day the power is out. “All will be well,” she calls. All will be well.


Gloria Steinem, a Hedgebrook board member, stayed in Fir Cottage her first time here. She wrote in 1997 in the Fir Cottage journal, “This is my process—accept it—it works; all fears to the contrary.”


Unlike many of those who write in the journals, I have no trouble building a fire, thanks to extensive fireplace and campfire experience. But it takes a couple of days to remember to stoke it frequently—when the door is closed, I don’t notice it’s burning low—and I often nearly lose the fire. Life takes fuel to keep it burning bright, and not just now and then. That is my lesson for the week—to keep feeding my fire.

In February, 2005, another Fir Cottage resident wrote, “Leave your expectations behind. We have enough put upon us in our regular lives. The time here is not for that. Relax. Don’t worry so much. Whatever work you do here is the work you were supposed to do.”

I relaxed. I reveled. My fire is stoked. Thank you, Hedgebrook. Thank you for radically caring.


24 thoughts on “My Trip to Italy—Radical Hospitality”

  1. Dear Gretchen – Your words, your photos, the emotions that radiate from your post are so lovely. My heart and support go out to you and your mother. And to the sad, frustrating, exhausting, yet profoundly beautiful walk that you are both on. While I haven’t had the joy of meeting you, I wanted to reach out… My own mother and I travelled a similar path, so I understand what a blessing it must have been for you to escape to glorious Hedgebrook (my own haven there was Waterfall cottage). Please remember to be kind and patient with yourself, Gretchen. What a priceless gift you are giving your mother. Keep feeding your fire!


    1. Thank you so much, Kay, for reading and for writing back. It’s been a rough few days since my return (more on that in my Wednesday post), so messages of support—especially from one who has walked this way, too—are everything to me. I hope to hear from you again.


    1. You are lovely, Karen. And I wish you lived next door. But I’m glad you live here on my screen at least. Parenting teens is hard. What I’m doing is hard, but there is no investment in the outcome like there is with teens. It’s a terrible age to be. And a beautiful age. (I said that because it’s sounds Zen; I’m not sure about it.)


  2. Oh, Gretchen. Beautiful. And I wish for you a future possibility of six months or more in Italy! You so deserve it. Blessings and strength as you continue to walk this most holy (and yes, hard!) of roads with your mama and family. Sending love, hugs and much strength. Xo.


    1. Wow! Six months. I’d have to learn the language for that long, yes? Sounds divine. Hugs to you, too. How are you doing? Its so hard to lose a parent. Much as I wish for my mother to go, for her sake more than mine, I know it will be so strange when she does. I feel it in my bones from time to time.


  3. What a wonderful way you have of thinking, writing, being! I love to see your postings. I know I will savor and even relate in a different way to your words each time I read. Praying for you and your Mama. Strength to live and strength to leave.


  4. I am struck by how happy you look in the final picture. This week was good or you. Did you sit in the dark during the power outage putting physical pen to paper by stove and candle light?

    Finally, that comfy chair in front of the stove looks so tempting for a fire lit evening nap.


    1. It was good for me. Back in the thick of it now though. We are getting deeper into dementia. I think of you.

      I did do some with a pen and paper and my book light. I had a full charge on my computer, but my battery is on it’s last leg, so that meant I had only about three hours at most. I used it some, but I had stuff to do without it, too.


  5. Beautiful….Thank you for sharing. So very grateful to hear of this time of nourishment. May the ember burning within you keep you grounded, tethered to what you know of the strength of your bones and soul. May you continue to know beauty and wonder each day, even when it’s hard. Hug!


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