Feature Friday Interviews spotlight rare and wonderful individuals who embody characteristics of The Liberation Artist: living outside the status quo, while writing their own rules and carving a unique path to self-defined success. This week I am thrilled to feature the vastly talented author, pie-baker to the stars, adventure journalist, host of “This American Pie Reality Show,” and American Gothic House resident, Beth Howard.
I have been a tremendous fan of Beth’s work for some time now, intrigued by her jaunt as an “Adventure Journalist,” her life residing in the “American Gothic House” (Yes, the one from the famous painting), and her writing, especially her heartfelt Making Piece: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Pie. I’m also utterly moved by how she has brought hope and inspiration to others through pie, such as when she traveled to Newton shortly after the shootings, bringing comfort through collective pie-baking and distribution. This one woman has wrought an extraordinary impact on communities near and far, whether it be at her Pitchfork Pie Stand at the American Gothic House, or while making her way around the country in her RV, weaving connection and community, spreading peace through a piece (of pie) wherever she goes.
If you ever doubt that you can turn your world into any life you want, no matter how wildly outside the status quo, all you need to do is look at the life of someone like Beth, who has combined her many interests and gifts to weave together a fascinating life that genuinely works for her, while allowing her to bring joy and positivity to others when she crosses their path. It is with great pleasure that I introduce you to this extraordinary woman. Without further ado, allow me to serve up this interview with the remarkable Beth Howard. Enjoy!
Laura: You live a rather unconventional life for our times, residing in the American Gothic house, running a pie stand, and traveling in your RV spreading peace, love, and pie wherever you go. Would you say you always lived unconventionally? If not, when and how did things change for you?
Beth: Apart from an idyllic “Brady Bunch-esque” childhood, I have never lived a conventional life. My mom recognized my free spirit early on. She sat me down when I was 19 and said, “Your life is not going to be like your other friends. It’s going to be different, and harder, but it will be so interesting.” My mother was right. My life has taken many turns, I’ve tried many careers, lived all over the world, and have had incredible adventures. And yes, it has been very hard at times. I have lost my way at times, had angst about what’s next, and even wished for a more conventional life – even if it meant a 9-to-5 job in a cubicle! But those moments of doubt pass and pretty soon I conjure up and set off on some new fabulous journey.
Laura: In your ‘former life,’ your work as a journalist required you to take on all kinds of adventures: Sky-diving, dog-sledding, eco-challenges, etc. All of these things are outside the scope of a so-called traditional job. What was it like living this life, and how did you carve out such a non-traditional path for yourself? Was it intentional, or all just a happy (or unhappy) accident?
Beth: My childhood dream was to be an adventure journalist. I didn’t pursue that career straight out of college, but eventually worked my way into it. My first big national assignment was for Shape magazine, participating in Eco-Challenge, a 10-day, 300-mile multi-sport adventure race across southern Utah. Our team did really well in the race. After that, I got sent on the “tough” assignments, which was a dream come true for me. I was traveling all over – Australia, Alaska, Europe, Bali — and having adventures I wouldn’t have been able to afford otherwise, sometimes staying in five-star wilderness resorts. The challenge was that freelance journalism isn’t all that lucrative, so when I was offered a full-time web producing job with an adventure sports website, I took it.
Laura: Following work that included such adventures as a mountaineering expedition to China and a round-the-world sailing race, you decided to say goodbye to eating takeout and sleeping with a cellphone, to say “Hello pie!” What was the defining moment? Had this been a long time dream finally come true?
Beth: The money I made working for the dot com was very good and a steady paycheck was a nice, helpful change. Not to mention, the work was exciting and cutting edge since it was during the height of the Internet boom. But the hours were very long, and I was spending way too much time sitting in my Herman Miller Aeron chair in front of a computer, eating Chinese take-out too many nights at my desk. After almost two years of this, I began feeling an instinctive need to do something more tangible. Instead of creating virtual worlds on the web, I had a growing desire to use my hands, to create something real. In my exit interview with my bosses, I blurted out, “I just want to go make pie.” And I did.
Laura: I understand there is an interesting story about your first pie-making endeavor, involving petty larceny and fruit? Can you tell us about this? Was it love at first bite?
Beth: I was 17 and on a bicycle trip down the West Coast, traveling with a fellow camp counselor friend. We were somewhere on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State and came upon an apple orchard. We didn’t see anyone around so we stopped and helped ourselves to a few apples. An old man came storming out of his house and yelled at us, but once we explained we were just hungry kids from Iowa, he softened. It turns out he was a retired pastry chef from the Merchant Marines, and he invited us into his house and taught us how to make apple pie – from our stolen apples. I fell in love with the process of making dough and peeling apples, and loved seeing – and eating – the finished work of art. I have been passionate about pie making ever since.
Laura: At any point did you question the sanity and sustainability of the choices you were making? If so, how did you push past self-doubt? Where did you find the courage to take great leaps?
Beth: Of course I question my choices. I would be crazy not to! But I have a very strong support system of friends and family who know me well and give me the encouragement I need at the times it’s lacking in myself. I am very good at listening to and following my own gut feeling – even when it defies logic! – and have a long and successful track record of things turning out very well. Both my history and my loving supporters give me the courage to keep pushing my limits and trying new things.
Laura: You’ve experienced tremendous variety in your life. Something our readers sometimes struggle with is identifying the right adventure for them. How did you discern which things were best-fit for you – how did you recognize your personal super-powers?
Beth: I like change. That’s number one. I am also a free spirit who likes to move around and meet new people, experience new things, try new foods, see new places, expand my life with new experiences. Discerning what feels right to me is not a science, it’s a gut feeling. I remember meeting a man years ago when I was searching for a new place to settle. He sensed my angst over trying to find that place and said to me, “Let it find you.” I still think about that. A perfect example of that is when I stumbled upon the American Gothic House in Iowa three years ago. My plan was to move from Portland, Oregon back to Los Angeles. But Iowa “found me.” My advice is to stay open to the opportunities life presents to you, be willing to change your plan. I also tell myself, “There are no wrong decisions” and “It’s okay to change your mind.” That takes the pressure off. I can give something a try and if it doesn’t feel right I can always switch gears and do something different. It’s the “trying,” taking the risk, that’s the important step. One experience leads to another, whether it’s a job, a new home, a road trip, and connecting those dots and having them lead to something unexpected and wonderful is inevitable when you get out of your comfort zone and open yourself up to new things. That’s how we grow and discover what makes us happy.
Laura: Wow, what great advice he gave you. I think this is such an important key to living as a Liberation Artist. Now, to take a different turn, is it true that you considered your marriage the greatest adventure?
Beth: Ah, my marriage. I didn’t get married until I was 40. I had already lived all over the world so when I moved to Germany to marry Marcus I thought, “How hard can it be?” I had already lived in France and Switzerland. But Germany was different and I struggled to learn the language. I also struggled giving up so much of my independence, especially when my husband expected me be home with dinner waiting for him while he worked late at his corporate job. Our domestic life definitely didn’t go as well I had imagined. But our adventures together made up for it. We traveled all over Europe, mostly by motorcycle. We spent a lot of time in Italy and France, we toured all over Germany, and we traveled a lot back and forth to the US. We spent three weeks in Costa Rica, camping. We moved from Germany to Portland, Oregon, then to Saltillo, Mexico. Still, we had a lot of challenges in our cultural differences and our career paths. Marcus was very committed to his job; I was committed to my – “our” – freedom. We worked hard at our marriage, but in the end it was, as Marcus put it, “the logistics” that we could never quite get right. Marcus died suddenly and unexpectedly at the age of 43 of a ruptured aorta, on the eve of signing our divorce papers. So was marriage my greatest adventure ever? It was an incredible life experience, which taught me so much. I still love Marcus deeply and wish I could go back and do it over, get it right. But regrets don’t serve us well. We can only learn from our relationships, our experiences, and keep moving forward. And make room for new adventures and new relationships.
Laura: Wow, that’s some story – I’m so sorry about your loss. It was the loss of Marcus, that brought you back to pie, as so wonderfully documented in your fantastic memoir, “Making Piece: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Pie.” You found comfort and healing through pie, then went on to spread that comfort to others, such as when you went to Newton, CT after the shootings and led groups in baking hundreds of pies. What do you feel it is about pie, and baking itself, that helps create comfort and community?
Beth: Pie brings people together. There is something so fulfilling and fun about gathering a group of people to make pie – the rolling of the dough, the peeling of the apples, the crimping of the crusts. When baking in a group, people exchange stories and laughter. They talk about their early pie experiences (usually something to do with a grandmother, which produces a wistful, happy expression.) They work together as a team, bonding and forming deeper friendships in the process. In our fast-paced world today, with all the technology that keeps us from physical connection, making – and sharing – pie is a way to make that connection with others in a meaningful way. Even more meaningful when making those pies is for a cause. People were desperate to help after the Newtown shooting, but didn’t know where to direct their energy and good intentions. That’s why people drove for hours to join us in our two days of baking in New Jersey in order to deliver pies to Newtown. Those who couldn’t make it there sent money – just $10 or $20 – specifically designated for pie ingredients. It was a powerful experience and shows how pie really can unite people. A simple act of kindness and comfort food can go a long way toward expressing love.
Laura: What a beautiful sense of connection. That’s so true, I do think people hunger for more than the busyness and social media driven connections of these times. So it seems that pie is really just a metaphor for healing, and perhaps more importantly, a tool to bridge the gap so many experience when struggling with managing loss and disappointment. When I read your book I got the sense that while you were demonstrating to others how to help heal the world one piece at a time, in many ways you’re also showing folks that it’s really the gift of oneself, of one’s time, energy, and love, poured into the baking and sharing, that contains the real magic. It’s not really the pie, not the final product, but the journey, and all it represents. Is a part of the message that with a piece of pie, we are also giving a piece of our Selves, of our heart?
Beth: When I lived in Los Angeles, I used to bring homemade pies to dinner parties and each time my beautiful but imperfect-looking dessert stole the attention away from the host. I’m sure it wasn’t the actual pie that had everyone ogling; it was the fact that I had taken the time to make something by hand, something that was (at that time) seemingly rare and yet so nostalgic, something that represented that I cared enough about these people to give something of myself versus buying something from the local bakery. That was the magic. Too often non-bakers have the impression that pie is very difficult to make. That’s why in my classes I preach how pie is not about perfection, how it should look homemade, and – an important point to me – it should be made by hand (no food processors!) because I believe there is some invisible energy – call it love or heart, if you will – that gets transferred into the pie.
Laura: That makes so much sense. There’s such heart in all you do. Beth, by what bar do you measure success, as you are living outside the status quo? Not just in terms of work, but in terms of life in general?
I definitely don’t measure my success by money, that’s for sure. I live very simply. When friends visit my house they are shocked at the small size of my closet and how few clothes I own. It may sound strange to say this, but I measure my success by my lack of angst. At the moment I have a good sense of inner peace, confident that I am in the right place at the right time, and that my life is moving forward on a steady and strong course. I have a list of firm goals and projects I’m working toward and having this sense of purpose and direction really helps me stay centered. I never would have guessed that I would find such a sense of home in the American Gothic House, let alone rural Iowa. And I don’t know how long this chapter will last. But I will continue following my gut and making changes and trying new things as I forge ahead. Like I wrote in my conclusion in “Making Piece,” I still have a sense of hope. Perhaps that is the best measure of success. It’s about having optimism and I place a high value on that.
Laura: That’s beautiful, Beth. what an inspiration you are. Thank you so much for sharing with our readers today – and for the wonderful work you are doing in the world.
To learn more about Beth, please check out her book at amazon, “Making Piece: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Pie,” as well as her website, The World Needs More Pie. You can also visit her youtube channel here, for some great clips. There’s also a short video showing life inside the American Gothic House. Finally, do check out Beth’s facebook page, by clicking here. Explore Beth’s work – and world – today – you won’t regret it! Oh, and next time you’re in Iowa, make sure you stop by the Pitchfork Pie stand for some pie, or to take one of Beth’s popular pie-making classes.
Now wasn’t this a delicious post? Hope you enjoyed!
For those of you racking your brain trying to recall where you heard of the “American Gothic” house before, let me jog your memory. It is the house in this famous painting by Grant Wood, here below.