Category Archives: Berkshires

All Diets Fail

Last year sometime between Christmas and New Year’s Day—that week of excess and reflection—I vowed in a half-assed but hopeful way to go on a travel diet for 2014. It was time to save more, spend less, do all the things that the financial commercials advise you to do. The first item on any financial adviser’s chopping block: the family vacation.

But as anyone who attempts to stop eating bacon and doughnuts every weekend because of a New Year’s resolution can tell you—all diets fail.


“The Year of Austerity” also known as “Travel Diet 2014” never really had a fighting chance. We kicked off the new year flying home after visiting friends in Arizona (on this day last year we were traveling from Phoenix to Flagstaff and then on to the Grand Canyon). By April, we were on a plane to Iceland. Two months later, we were smothered in sunscreen and hiking Colorado. A few weeks later, our July trip to California was cancelled last-minute when Mike’s mom passed away, but later this year, he was back out on the Left Coast—twice in three weeks. In fact, my husband’s travel surpassed my own this year: he white water rafted in Idaho, mingled with Jedis and heroes in Atlanta for DragonCon, spent two days sequestered in a hotel conference room in Orlando, Florida, then flew to Pasadena, and came back for two-and-a-half weeks before heading back to California for stops in San Francisco and Los Angeles. He arrived home less than three weeks ago with some winter respiratory virus that’s left us all hacking and begging for NyQuil. In between all this we scored a gorgeous late September weekend in Cape Cod, and I escaped to a magnificent week in the Berkshires. Not traveling is just not who we are.

Science has shown that vacation planning boosts happiness. This certainly feels true for us; the anticipation of any trip brings a bounce to our daily routine. A 2010 study suggested that the excitement of any upcoming vacation was all that was needed, for apparently after a family holiday, folks became grumpy again. Not us. We’re buzzing before the trip, during the trip, after the trip. Travel is a geographical adventure, not an emotional escape for us; we’re happy at home or on the road, but not having a trip on the calendar would certainly darken my mood. Travel is my Prozac.

So for 2015, I’ve reframed the resolution so that I don’t set myself up for immediate failure because clearly I need some amount of travel in my life so I don’t become depressed. I hate to use that buzzword “balance” but for a lack of a better word, I’m aiming for balance in 2015. And I think I already accomplished some balance this past fall. For example, a small inheritance from my mother-in-law allowed me to pay off my student loans earlier than expected, a balance that hit “zero” right before Thanksgiving (the best kind of loan balance of all!). I suppose we could’ve blown that money on a trip, but that never entered into the equation. Getting rid of that loan was the smart, prudent thing to do, and not once did I feel tempted by ads of dreamy, sandy beaches. Student loans suck—especially at a rolling 7 percent interest rate, which is what I had been paying since 1996. Class of 2013 graduates have an average of $28,400 in student loan debt; mine was significantly more than that, and we squirrel away money every month so our daughter won’t carry such a financial burden. Not every dime earned disappears on vacation. See? Balance. And it’s not even January 1!

Other expenses need to be paid off as well and our old house always needs some TLC. Our dishwasher sounds like NASCAR and our lawn mower can barely chew a blade of grass, but that’s middle class life in America. Appliances will get replaced, cracks in the ceiling and walls will get fixed. Unlike middle class America, I don’t spend weekends dumping a few hundred dollars here and there at Target or Home Depot, something I hear my neighbor talk about. We’d rather put that money towards trips, which is what we’re doing in about seven weeks. We’ll be heading to the Caribbean spending February break soaking up some much-needed vitamin D in the Bahamas, specifically Exuma. We skipped the all-inclusive scene to do something a bit quieter, though not necessarily cheaper, and we’re looking forward to swimming with pigs and feeling the sun on our skin. January and February in the Northeastern United States are my two worst months; I struggle with darkness, go fetal on our couch and beg for Persephone’s return. In my opinion, the Caribbean is cheaper than eight weeks of cognitive behavioral therapy, especially given the hourly rates New York City shrinks charge.

Bahamas will be it for international trips in 2015. We’ll putter around the continental US, fix some things around the house, pay some stuff off, ease into the new year with essentially more of the same, which works for us. If this time next year I’m blogging again about the cool places we visited and the sites we hope to see in the coming year, well, then I couldn’t be happier.

I’m Happy Not Being Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton had one thing I’d love to have (but that likely won’t happen) and many things that I’m happy not to have. I’d love a Pulitzer or some literary recognition, and I’m grateful to not have any other part of her sad life. Last week, I toured The Mount, Wharton’s home between 1901 and 1911, where she had her most prolific writing period. The weather during the tour can only be described as Bronte sister gray: rainy, cold, ominous. Outside fit the mood inside. Entering the halls of The Mount, I was initially excited: classic Italian architecture, literary history, the ghost of a giant lingering in her own halls. But as we walked from room to room, I felt increasingly sorry for Edith Wharton, and that’s when the interior of the house started to feel like the weather.

(The view at The Mount.)

(One of the offices at The Mount.)

Sure, she was born into money; I’m first-generation middle class. She was the first woman to win a Pulitzer in 1921 at age 59; I’m still trying to write my first novel at age 41. She preferred dogs; we have cats. But for all her financial comfort and literary success, she had a lonely, very interior life, or a life I found exceptionally lonely and too interior for me. An empty marriage. No children. Affairs with wealthy men who liked to keep their options open. Ornate dog bowls in every single room of the house because the dogs were her children, her constant companions always in her arms or on her lap, appearing in far too many photos. I got the sense Mrs. Wharton spent way too much time indoors, lost inside her head. She was a player in the Gilded Age, a pioneer in a field dominated by men, but I left the tour with a reduced opinion of her and thankful I wasn’t trapped in that era of corsets and expectation.

There’s a lot of old money in the Berkshires. You see it; the old estates sit like proud lions on hills. You smell it; the food is thoughtful, not rushed. You hear it; people talk about books, business, travel, not reality TV shows or sports. You touch it; hotel linens are crisp yet soft, sofas and settees are velvety. Down the road, while Mrs. Wharton’s servants were unpacking her belongings, Blantyre was being built. It was 1901, a new century and new beginnings at these two estates designed to echo what America still loved about Europe. Blantyre is where I spent last week, hiding out from moody skies, eating too much bacon and drinking too much wine. For six days, I wandered around Blantyre with a side trip to The Mount, thinking about old-money families with their big, airy houses, their little dogs, their multi-course meals, feeling thankful for my more scrappy upbringing, my happy marriage, my small 1926 colonial with its clawfoot bathtubs and erratic power circuits, my healthy, quirky tween-age daughter. While at Blantyre, I paid off my student loan, nearly $50,000 in debt that had been trailing me since 1996. No one paved my way, and when I was in my 20s that annoyed me. But after walking around Edith Wharton’s house the day after that final payment, I felt grateful. Living small, I thought, feels good.

The problem with the Berkshires is that I keep enjoying it through windows, usually the windows of very beautiful places like Blantyre and The Mount. I was there in January visiting Kripalu; I returned in November and spent most of the week indoors at Wishing Stone Writers Workshop, which is worth every penny, and that’s coming from a gal who didn’t start out with a lot of pennies.

(The main entrance at Blantyre and then below, elsewhere around the estate.)




(The music room that served as our class room at Blantyre, a dreamy place to discuss words.)

As wonderful as Wishing Stone was, for the most part I again experienced the Berkshires from the inside looking out. I didn’t hike the mountains; I looked at them from a window. I didn’t walk through the leaves; I watched them fall while sitting in an ornate music room critiquing stories. The branches were bare after my week there, as if fall had finished falling while I was inside reading and writing. Twice when I walked back from the main house to my room at the carriage house by the end of the road, I stood outside looking at the gibbous moon until I was too cold, grateful to have the long walk back just to walk about. Did Edith Wharton ever feel that way? Did she ever look out her window and worry the seasons were passing too quickly and she was missing out? I love burrowing into a good book on a cold day, but the Berkshires makes me want to stay outside longer even when the temperatures suggest otherwise.

So I will go back to Western Massachusetts. Again. And again. And again. Spring. Summer. Another autumn there and definitely more of winter. While visiting The Mount, I wondered, did Edith Wharton enjoy the seasons as I do? Did she find beauty in small things? She struck me as a woman so consumed by her wealthy lifestyle, her books, her dogs. She didn’t come across as someone I would enjoy talking to or want to know. But that’s the problem with history; you’re not there to tell your own story. Maybe she’s a peach.

Seeking Enlightenment in the Berkshires

To me, and perhaps to other New Yorkers, the Berkshires look like the Catskills; those same soft blue ripples of rock rising and falling to the north. Yet the Berkshires have a very different narrative than the Catskills. Today, the Catskills feature some of the Rust Belt deterioration that dominates so much of upstate New York, peppered with farms, ski resorts, struggling businesses and some of the hippie fervor that took root there decades ago and just kept growing. The Berkshires is more matronly, posh, stately, pastoral and charming like Vermont, more connected to New England with its white spire churches reaching toward the sky.

While the hippies were farming in the Catskills, across the border, the healing arts crowd were setting up camp and eventually gathered enough resources to hang up a shingle and offer yoga classes and workshops on positive energy. This place is called Kripalu and it’s located in the Berkshires in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. The building was once a Jesuit seminary that sat vacant for over a decade, but you’d never know that by the full parking lot, the constant soundtrack of wheeled luggage, the buzz from the cafeteria and the heavy silences coming from the very full yoga and meditation classrooms.


Everyone comes to Kripalu seeking something. There’s a spa, dancing, yoga, meditation, music–almost anything that will help you achieve happiness and calm is offered at Kripalu. Unfortunately for me, this act of seeking kept me indoors the whole time, so I missed out on the beauty that is the Berkshires. This was my first time to the Berkshires and Kripalu, yet what I got over the weekend was just a sampler plate of what’s there. I signed up for a weekend meditation workshop with David Nichtern, who deftly uses humor to teach newbies who can’t sit still how to chill out. On a cold winter weekend, my meditation class was packed. There were men, women, young people, old people, psychologists, entrepreneurs, military wives, empty-nesters, people coping with chronic conditions and people coping with losing loved ones. We all sat on our cushions, eager to let go of what had brought us there.

Berkshires 2

Getaways at Kripalu tend to focus on interiors, *your* interior. It’s not a typical hotel getaway filled with distractions. Amenities at Kripalu are a little different; there may be beds, but this is a nonprofit institution that depends on donations, so while there is spa, this isn’t fancy-pants stuff. Weekend workshops include food, but when you hear the word “cafeteria” you brace for the worst. The exact opposite happened at Kripalu. The food was delicious and inspiring. I ate kitchari every day and looked up recipes on how I could cook it at home. I was a regular at the “Buddha Bar,” which was where the vegans hung out. There was a gluten-free bread basket area. I ate dahl and saag, butternut squash and quinoa, chick peas and kale. The tabletops offered pink Himalayan salt and the beverage counter offered organic white tea. There’s even a silent breakfast–you are required to enjoy breakfast in contemplative silence (I recommend it). Coffee addicts were out of luck; Kripalu’s cafeteria doesn’t serve coffee so the line at the small cafe across from the gift shop was always long in the morning. But I’m fine without coffee. I’d return to Kripalu just to eat.

And that’s what I think of when I think of the Berkshires; a serene winter weekend cocooned in a facility perched on a hilltop, where the views were amazing, the building felt like a mental institution, and the food was worth second helpings. Kripalu’s accommodations are very spartan so if you’re the type of traveler who requires a certain level of comfort and privacy, dorm-style vacationing may not be for you. I’m not even sure it’s for me. Sharing a bathroom with a hallway full of middle-aged women and a few twenty-somethings gave me recurrent flashbacks of college freshman dorm life. I’m fine without a TV in the room, but I prefer a private bathroom instead of the corner sink I had in my dorm-like room. Kripalu does offer more adorned rooms at higher prices, and next time, I might just pay a little extra to not have to remember my room key should I have to run to the bathroom in the middle of the night.

But I also need to go back to see the Berkshires, for all I experienced of the region either came from looking out the window while in meditation class at Kripalu or looking out the window during the drive there and back. I missed out on some fantastic hiking, pastoral New Englandness and town square boutique-y charm. There’s a writing workshop held at Blantyre in the Berkshires I might look into, but that event will likely also keep me indoors writing (and probably doing some yoga and meditation). I believe the Berkshires are more than a pretty view through a window, but it may be a while before I get to find out.