Backpacking after 50.

The alarm went off at o-dark-thirty so we could get an early start and beat the heat, only the night had been so warm, following daytime temperatures in the eighties, that we’d slept with the fan on and I didn’t hear the alarm until my eyes popped open with the arrival of the sun behind the curtains. Well at least I was going to start this adventure feeling rested and refreshed, I thought to myself.

It had been a good fifteen years since I’d carried a heavy pack into the woods for an overnight with my husband and even though part of me really wanted to do this again, another part of me had been gripping the edge of the metaphorical roller coaster and looking away from the plunge ahead of me. Bracing myself against the “what ifs” of the situation. What if I’m so slow I drive my husband batty waiting for me? What if something happens to him and I have to find my way out when I didn’t actually pay attention on the way in? What if we encounter a bear? Or a cougar? And the big one, the one that kept sidling around from wherever it was lurking to plaster itself over the front of my eyes—what if I can’t heft a backpack anymore?

But I did want to do this. I honestly did want to do it. Especially given the excitement I could see in my husband’s eyes at the prospect. He’d got the packs out three days before our planned departure and carefully loaded them with everything we’d need for one night in the woods. I didn’t pay attention to what he put in mine nor did I try to pick it up; better that I not know and power through when the time came, I told myself. After all, if it had been fifteen years since I’d gone backpacking into the woods that meant, coincidentally, that I was also fifteen years older and, let’s be honest, probably fifteen pounds heavier than the last time. So I didn’t want to do anything that could talk me out of going before I was ready to talk myself into it.

When the time did come to lift my backpack we were at the end point of a logging road, at an elevation of 2800 feet, standing outside our vehicle opposite the trailhead.
2800ft up 2
I swung the pack onto my shoulders, clipped it over my hips and thought—not bad. Not bad at all. It was eight forty-five a.m. and the day was still teetering on tepid this far up the mountain. I nodded at my husband—I’m ready.

We stepped across the trickling tributaries of Otter Creek on the uphill side of the logging road and started up the moss-covered boulders that formed part of the trail.
Mossy boulders on creek
We were headed for Enjar Lake, above Slide Lake in the Glacier Peak Wilderness, and this first part of the trail was pretty easy. Not too steep, shaded from the elements by a magical old growth forest of Doug firs and cedar trees, and very much a known quantity for me. It was the first place my husband took me on a date thirty years ago, and I’d won his heart by jumping into the icy water of Slide Lake to retrieve one of his fishing lures. This much I could do with a backpack on, I was sure.

I glanced at my watch when Slide Lake came into view between the trees and realized we’d done this section of the hike fifteen minutes quicker than the last time we’d hiked it. Very encouraging. I knew we still had the tough part to come though. The hike from Slide Lake to Enjar is a fisherman’s trail, flagged periodically by blaze on a downed log or a length of ribbon in a tree, and it’s seriously uphill all the way.

I knew this because we’d day-hiked this trail once before, two summers ago, and it had taken us three and a half hours of slogging to get to the lake. Three and a half hours with lots of pauses for me to catch my breath even though I wasn’t carrying a pack that time, and one major interruption about five minutes from the lake, when I stopped altogether and whined like a two year old in need of a nap, “Are you sure you know where this lake is?” Now I was going to have to make that hike with a full backpack. Was I up for it? Apparently I was.

Fortunately I knew what was at the end of that uphill pull; a lake so clear, so clean, it’s a magical shade of jade green from the reflection of the trees around it on its pristine surface. Plus it has a picture perfect view of Snowking Mountain.
Jade Green Water Enjar
Enjar & view of Snowking
I wanted to see that water again, to be in that place of inspiration and serenity. We followed the start of the trail alongside Slide Lake to its far end, a gentle uphill gradient with a view to our right of the water peeking in and out of the trees.
Slide Lake
Then we started climbing. Hundreds of years ago boulders and trees slid down from the top of this mountain ridge forming a natural dam over Otter Creek to create Slide Lake, so in addition to the steepness of the hike into Enjar, the trail involves a lot of climbing over, around or under downed trees and rocks. With a pack on. And then there are what my husband calls “slide chutes”—long, sheer stretches where the ground is unstable, sometimes full of talus still sliding very slowly downhill, where trees cannot root long enough to grow. Instead salmonberry, blueberry and huckleberry bushes, as well as ferns and other low growing brush, take advantage of the available space, covering the dirt and rocks so it’s impossible to see where to put your feet.
Disappearing trail

I plowed ahead, sweat dripping off my forehead in tiny beads, using the expandable ski pole my husband bought me for this adventure to ensure that I didn’t lose my footing. Yes, my brain may tell me I can still hike with the agility of a twenty-five year old but my body, at more than twice that age, is not persuaded. The ski pole seemed like a wise idea. I was lagging but undeterred, buoyed by the trilling of the songbirds and the tinkling percussion of the creek somewhere to our right. And in the stretches of trail that were wide and mossy, still uphill but not as savagely, I reveled in nature’s aromatherapy; the wild, cilantro-like aroma emanating from the warm foliage and the cheerful reminder of Christmas in the resin from the silver fir trees.

I had promised myself that I would eat more snacks on the way up this time, to give myself longer breaks as well as sustenance, but the air around us was thick with the rising heat of the day and not conducive to appetite. The sweat beads coming down from my forehead quickly developed into a light shower and my hair began to stick to the back of my neck. At three hours in, after we’d just bulldozed our way up what my husband announced as chute two of the four chutes on the trail, “or maybe there are six,” he amended—something I would have been just as happy not knowing—I tried to eat a protein bar. One bite and I could feel it sticking like sand to the inside of my mouth. I pushed it back into my fanny pack and sluiced my mouth with water. Then pushed on.

The first half dozen water breaks I limited myself to a mouthful, rolling the cherished liquid around on my tongue, not wanting to get waterlogged. But after the third, grueling chute I chugged it down. The air was no longer just thick, it was sticky. Syrupy even. My hair was plastered to the back of my neck like a wet towel, and the only thing keeping me cool at times was the feel of my sweat saturated t-shirt against my ribs. I was at that place mentally where I kept reminding myself that the only alternative to going up was to have to go all the way back down again and I certainly didn’t want to do that. Not even when the trail turned into a steep slope of barren dirt with no footholds, no overhanging branches to grab a hold of, no rocks. Just up. My husband was already at the top of it and I remember looking up thinking that the only thing between me and him was will power. So up I went.

Steep slope

Not that my body was always in agreement with my mind. We were well into hour four of the uphill slog when I came to yet another downed log that I had to straddle to get over with my pack. The log was up to my chest in height and I propped my left arm on its smooth, barkless surface, laid my head down in the crook of my elbow and thought—take me now. A bear, a cougar, I don’t care. Just take me now while I’m still juicy and not some dried up prune of my former self. It was one of those “you can take the actress away from the stage but you can’t take the stage away from the actress” moments and after I’d got my fill of melodrama, I lifted my head, sucked in a big breath, and climbed up onto that fucking log.

It was almost one-thirty p.m. when I knew we should break for lunch. We’d left the house at seven-thirty in the morning, had been hiking since eight forty-five, it was time to replenish what little fuel I’d put into my stomach before we’d left. But I also knew how close we were to the lake. We thought we could see the top of the ridge (although we knew that could be deceptive) and we were approaching hour five of the hike in. We had to be close. On hindsight, I know it wasn’t a good idea to ignore our bodies’ food needs because, as our daughter’s pediatrician told me twenty three years ago, the first part of the body to get fed is the brain. And maybe if we’d fed our brains what ended up happening wouldn’t have happened.

But we were hearing the siren call of the lake, thinking how we could take off our packs, and our clothes, and slide down into the cool, jade-tinted water in blissful privacy. Plus we’d arrived at a place where the creek opened up into a much wider stream, the water frothing and gushing over boulders large enough to stand on. Another sign of how close we were to the lake. My husband filled our water bottle twice and we drank freely of the heavenly nectar. I poured some into my hand and splashed it across my face then cooled off by pouring it over the pulse points on my wrists. The dogs climbed into the creek and drank with alacrity.
Foaming and gushing

Even my Molly Moon, who will usually crane her neck forward to avoid getting her feet wet despite being part Lab, splashed out onto the rocks and let herself cool down. And she deserved it. For every step I took on the trail she must have taken a dozen, leading the way up through the chutes only to come back down to check on me, and fanning out regularly to secure the perimeter from squirrels. We lingered at that wide spot in the creek, never setting our packs down, and my belly got satiated with water and my spirit felt ready to tackle the last of our climb.

It was when we crossed the creek, following the ribbons from one side to the other, that our problems started. On the other side we met a wide scree of satiny white rocks devoid of any indication as to which way to go. Up yes; but straight up? at an angle up? across to the trees up? I heard the rocks knocking against each other as my husband clambered over them, his movements speeded up, his head turning this way and that in search of the trail. I perched against a downed log, staring uphill in the direction I knew intuitively we must go, and saw a very faded, pink ribbon hanging from a small fir tree. “It’s this way,” I called out, pointing. But when we both moved towards the ribbon, it disappeared. Did I imagine it or could I just not see it now that I’d changed angle? If I’d had my wits about me I would have walked right back to the place where I was perched and tried to see it again. But apparently my wits were on hiatus, a protest against lack of nourishment, so that’s not what happened. Instead, we crossed the scree at a ninety-degree angle to the creek, trying to find sign of the trail. “You wait here,” my husband said once we were on the other side of the talus and standing in a shady nook between two big cedar trees arching gravely out of the rocks like boomerangs that wanted to go back. I leaned my backpack into the curve of the downhill tree, folding my knee to prop one foot on the bowed base, and waited as he and the dogs disappeared out of sight and sound in the thicket of towering greens to my right.

At first I just appreciated the extra time to rest but as the minutes ticked by, stretched like toffee by the unbroken stillness of the wilderness around me, the fanfare of what ifs came back to visit me. This time I greeted them more calmly, my mind in that place of Zen peace that comes after extended exertion, and I told myself that we were geared up to spend the night anywhere and that’s what we’d do if it came down to it. At fifteen minutes of aloneness—I knew because I’d glanced at my watch—I told myself that I was pretty sure I could find the way out if I had to and besides, I’d texted the kids before we left. They’d come and find us if I got turned around.

About twenty minutes after my husband disappeared in search of the trail I heard something crash above me. The sound exploded out into the canyon below me and I wondered if a tree had fallen or if the vast emptiness of sound was just playing magnification tricks with a small branch? I waited, thinking if I stayed really still, whatever had caused it might just pass to my left without noticing me. Then I heard his whistle; that two-tone family call that he’s used to let me know where he is our entire married life. I stepped out from between the trees and saw Molly Moon rushing down the rocks to fetch me.
“I can’t find the trail,” he said when we were face to face again.
I looked at the wide patch of blood on his left sleeve. “What did you do?” I asked, concern evident in my tone.
He shrugged. “It’s nothing. Just a small scratch. It bled a lot is all. What should we do?”
“I think we should go over to the creek again and eat our lunch, then hike back down to Slide Lake and spend the night.”
He nodded. “I second that.”
Stephen and Molly & log

And so what I had been will-powering myself up the trail against, I ended up having to do. We went all the way back down the more arduous part of the trail, back through the chutes and over, under and around the downed logs until we emerged, somewhat battered and certainly tired at Slide Lake.
Slide Lake eveningNicola & dogs at Slide Lake

Amazingly though we were both still smiling and the reason for that, in my case at least, was the realization that I had hiked for seven and a half hours, with one fifteen minute pause for lunch, and my backpack hadn’t bothered me at all. Oh it had undoubtedly contributed to my fatigue and overheatedness, but it had never created that burn across my shoulder blades that I had been fearing, had never felt too heavy, or made my lower back plead for relief.

I wondered about this as I set the pack down against some rocks, in the spot next to the lake where we decided to camp for the night. Maybe the pack had never bothered me because the extra pounds on my figure helped shoulder the load. Or maybe the yoga stretches and push-ups that I did in the weeks leading up to the hike really did prep my body for this activity. I didn’t know for sure.

I thought about it again later, when I was sipping hot apple cider laced with rum that my husband gave me while he fried the two fish he’d caught to go with our freeze dried dinner of rice and veggies. Unless my backpack was really light, which given the contents I was pretty sure it wasn’t, I had no idea how I’d managed to carry it for so long. All I knew for sure was that I was ready to do it again. I was really ready. But maybe, I thought, the smell of the fish drifting towards me on the gentle breeze from the lake, maybe with a full break for lunch next time.
All 4 of us backpacking


On the Subject of School Safety.

Dear Senator Murray,

In an era when cell phones can be used to do everything from recognizing a fingerprint to detecting a location and providing the weather for that location, I believe it must be possible to come up with a device that can detect gunpowder and then set in motion the lock down of any door within a certain radius of that detected gunpowder.

I am thinking specifically of schools when I imagine this scenario. That anybody approaching a school armed with loaded guns would be identified by the device and have access into the building denied by the lock down of all doors.

I would like to further suggest that the people tasked with coming up with such a device be the gun manufacturers; a social responsibility on their part, if you will, to compensate for the horrific misuse of their products similar to Alfred Nobel’s atonement for the misuse of the dynamite he invented. In the short term the gun manufacturers might pay to make sure every door to every school has a dog, trained to sniff gunpowder, sitting beside it. The trained dog’s response to the detection would trigger an alarm to lock down every door to the school. We can clap our hands to turn lights on and off; surely a trained service dog’s growl can be used to protect our children at school.

This is not the ultimate solution to our increased number of school shootings but it does strike me as something that could be implemented swiftly, while the debate as to whether certain guns should be outlawed or sales be curtailed to certain individuals drones on. What is more I believe this is a solution that everyone can get behind; the pro and the anti gun.

If you think this idea has validity, please let me know how I can be of further assistance in promoting it. Like so many Americans, I just want to find a way to keep our children safe at school.

Yours sincerely,

Words, words, words.

Sun streamed in through the windows of my mother’s flat, up above The Broadway in Thorpe Bay, England. To the right, too far for us to see but close enough to be felt, was the sea, and to the left, the train station that took so many commuters on a route paralleling the Thames River, up to London. We make a habit of walking along the seafront, my husband and I, when we’re back visiting my mother, but the beauty of the day made me think I didn’t want to limit our time outside to just an hour along the seafront. It was the kind of day when it would be good to be in the trees. Catch the sunlight filtering through the branches in airy beams. And give my husband’s knees a break by letting him walk on soil instead of pavement.
“Do you want to go to Hockley Woods?” I asked him.
“Okay, let’s go.”

A bus ride later – a blue, double-decker no less, where we sat upstairs, at the front, with a little bit of a queasy view of all the harrowing squeeze-pasts this dieseling behemoth had to make on the narrow, curvy, two lane country roads – we were in the woods, away from the sounds of traffic, encountering only occasional walkers, like us, most of them out with their dogs.

We stretched out, the ground muddy in places under our feet, the sky a heavenly lavender blue where we could see it. Hockley Woods is what they call a “coppicing” woods, where the trees are felled in one area and the stumps left to encourage new growth. We took photos of the burly oaks, examined the seeds from the sweet chestnut trees and looked at piles of newly felled hornbeams, wondering if they’d get sold for wood.
Hockley Woods 3
Sweet chestnuts
Coppicing 1
At the end of our walk, while my husband chatted with an amiable Essex forester who started every sentence with “truth be told,” I stared at the sign detailing Hockley Woods. And lost myself in the language of it. Words like foxglove and broom, butchers broom and dog mercury made me want to stand there forever, reading them again and again, hoping to imprint their beauty on my mind. Cow wheat, willow herbs and Heath Fritillary butterfly; how could anyone not love such language?
Hockley Woods
Maybe this was just me being nostalgic for the words of my childhood but I think not. I think words are my thing, in the same way that fabric is my older sister’s thing. I remember being dragged into fabric shops by her as a teenager and standing, waiting for what seemed like endless amounts of time as she pondered the different materials, asking myself in that sullen, teenage way, why she had to touch every, single one. Now I get it. I think one of the best things about being a writer is having to go through the mental archives of vocabulary looking for just the right word. Or, even better, looking for different words to say the same thing.

I walked away from my husband and on to another sign, where I read words like pedunculate oak, paper birch, hazel, sessile oak. It didn’t matter that some of the words were unfamiliar to me; I could always look them up, I thought. Or could I? According to Landmarks by Robert MacFarlane, a fascinating book about the different words we have to describe our landscape, the following words are among those that have now been dropped from the Oxford Junior Dictionary:

acorn, adder, ash, beech, bluebell, buttercup, catkin, conker, cowslip, cygnet, dandelion, fern, hazel, heather, heron, ivy, kingfisher, lark, mistletoe, nectar, newt, otter, pasture and willow.” (Landmarks, Penguin Press, 2016, pg. 5).


They were dropped so they could be replaced with – are you ready? – words including:

attachment, block-graph, blog, broadband, bullet-point, celebrity, chatroom, committee, cut-and-paste, MP3 player and voice-mail.” (Landmarks, Penguin Press, 2016, pg. 5).

I’ve asked myself about this many times since I read it, thinking how sad that we’re moving so far from the natural world, that the Oxford Junior Dictionary doesn’t think children need to look those words up anymore. It’s true that the second group of words is more reflective of the things they run into contact with everyday but, as a friend mentioned to me at one of my book events, when I shared the above with the audience, the children she deals with in schools already know the meaning of words like broadband, voice-mail and chatroom. In fact, they probably already know the meaning of all the words in the replacement group. But what are they going to do when they’re introduced to Shakespeare and can’t look up the meaning of the word cygnet? Or lark, for goodness sake? What if they read The Wind in the Willows and wonder what is this creature called otter? Or are we to assume that the words in those texts will be replaced with more modern, more “relevant” terms.

“It was the nightingale, and not the MP3 player,
That pierced the fearful hollow of thine ear.”

My husband sidled over to me and interrupted my memorization of the sign. “You want to see what they have to eat at that pub we passed?” he said to me.
“Sure,” I answered, ready for some lunch.

We walked, single file, along the narrow band of pavement that curved up the hill from Hockley Woods, a steady stream of cars whizzing past inches from our shoulders and hips. I wondered, as we walked, whether I would linger in front of a sign that was littered with words like broadband and chatroom and bullet-point? Probably not, I thought. They’re just not as prosaic as nature words. Or do I have that the wrong way round? Is it that nature is more prosaic than technology so the words used to describe it are more evocative? Maybe if we gave our documents and devices prettier names, I’d find them more appealing. But, then again, a cell phone by any other name would still be a cell phone.

Unless, of course, we could come up with a way to replace it with the Heath Fritillary butterfly. Truth be told, I wouldn’t mind.
Heath fritillary

A Novel Approach to Marketing

My father-in-law, before he was even my father-in-law, shared a love of letter writing with me and when I replied to the long, newsy communications he wrote to his son with equally long, newsy responses I remember he told me, “You ought to write a book.” I hadn’t got serious about my writing then but when I did, I heard dialogue more easily than narrative, so I found myself writing plays.

A couple of decades later, when my father-in-law had long since passed, I wanted to write a series of one-act plays that were connected by theme and yet could stand independently of one another. The trouble was, I had no idea how to do this. While I was musing this, I suddenly heard a story in my head set in the little pottery shop where we sell my husband’s work. The story centered around a lovelight, one of the cut out candle lanterns that is part of my husband’s regular repertoire.
When I finished writing this story, I heard another one, about a teapot. Well, I thought, these might make good marketing tools if nothing else. I wrote a third one and realized I now knew how to write those one-act plays, so I put the pottery shop stories on one side and penned The Soul Plays.

But I also shared the stories with friends, who came back to me saying that yes, they liked them, but what they really liked was the relationship between the couple. How did they work that out? Why don’t you turn the stories into a book, they said. Oh and, by the way, can I buy a lovelight/teapot like the one you describe in the story?

The point being that they worked; people read about the pottery and wanted to buy it. I still had my father-in-law’s statement to me knocking around in my brain and I’d always wanted to write about my husband’s wood-firing, so I took these few pottery shop stories and used them as a starting place for my first novel, How to Make a Pot in 14 Easy Lessons. The title is a struggle for some people, because they think it’s a book just about pottery but, dichotomously, when they do read it they tell me they really like all the information about the pottery woven through the story. Oh and, by the way, can they buy a mug like the ones described in the story?

So when my friend, Ellen, said that she struggled to raise money for her non-profit organization, Courthouse Dogs Foundation, I immediately thought about writing her a book to sell. Not a novel, but a children’s picture book, in verse, that would depict the work of these specially trained facility dogs who assist witnesses, particularly children, testify in legal proceedings. That way I could work again with Maya Keegan, the young artist who did the illustrations for my first children’s book, The Lost Hour, (she readily agreed to volunteer her time towards the Courthouse Dogs’ project) and Jon-Paul Verfaillie, our multi-talented graphic designer, who also agreed to donate his time for this book.

Our collaboration resulted in A Dog in the Big Courthouse.
We released this book on September 29th 2017, at Courthouse Dogs Foundation’s 5th annual conference in Seattle. I really enjoy doing events with my various pieces of writing, since they feed the actress in me, but this particular event had a very special feel to it, as if the room were filled with love. I think that came from the facility dogs in attendance, one of whom, Barb, sat on stage with us while we presented the book.

Barb on stage with us

The love also came from all the people in the big conference room at the Bellevue Hyatt Hotel, who not only wanted to support us, but wanted to learn about these special dogs. That was the extra gift I received as the writer in this project, as if I’d been slipped a Doggone Good Dog Biskit by one of the participants; not only did A Dog in the Big Courthouse raise a sizable amount of money for Courthouse Dogs Foundation that evening but it also raised awareness of these dogs and their work. It was heartwarming to listen to the questions from the audience about breeding and training these dogs and I think I really saw the broader possibilities of this kind of writing when professionals, including one judge, had me sign copies of the book while telling me that they planned to put them in their offices, so adults and children coming in could learn about these dogs.

A Dog in the Big Courthouse is available here and all proceeds from your purchase of the book go directly to Courthouse Dogs Foundation. Under the book cover in the link, you will see a “continue shopping” button, which this will take you directly to Courthouse Dogs’ website, if you’re interested, so that you can read more about this non-profit organization.

Thank you to everyone who came on September 29th, to give A Dog in the Big Courthouse such a positive launch. And for those of you who are looking to promote your work or business or non-profit in a more creative format than a bulk e-mail or social media event, then in the words of my late father-in-law, “You ought to write a book.”

Eulogy for a Kiln.

“And just like that she’s gone,” my husband said, his sooty hands clutching both sides of the frame of the open French door as he leaned in to the living room to talk to me. “Are you gonna come take a photo?”
“I am! I am!” I exclaimed, twisting this way and that, looking for my phone. “I was on the landline when Sabrina’s message came in and couldn’t just…”
But he was already headed back up to the kiln shed, eager to have this part of the process documented.
I spied my phone on top of a kitchen table and snatched it up before trotting across the living room to catch up with him.

The kiln was gone, I thought, as I followed the path in the grass up towards the garden. I sighed; after all those pots she fired for us.

Empty kiln
Of course, I probably shouldn’t say “she” because this large, double chambered, norborigama was not a person and had no gender. But since it was productive, unpredictable, required a certain amount of learning to get it to peak temperature, and birthed countless pots on our behalf, it feels right for me to embrace it into the sisterhood. In fact, when I brought customers up to see the kiln, as part of the “tour” of the pottery, I would joke that the difference between firing pots in a wood-firing kiln and firing them in an electric kiln, was like the difference between natural childbirth and being knocked out for the experience. My husband would be out there, six times a year, sweating it out with the old gal, hoping that if he gave her what she needed, she’d give him the colors he preferred on his pottery.
Stoking the kiln
First firing

Sometimes she did. It’s always hard to go by the potter’s evaluation because he’s the harshest critic of his own work, but all the pots found homes over the years. Even if sometimes home was the ‘street of broken dreams’ outside the kiln shed, where shards get trodden back into the earth, maybe to be discovered by future archaeologists. Yes, there really was culture in the technocene era.

I went past the garden and rounded the corner towards the kiln shed to see my husband, our business associate, Reed, and our erstwhile studio assistant, Sabrina, looking like they’d just danced with Mary Poppins and Bert on the rooftops of London. They were all pretty sooty.
Stephen, Reed, Sabrina

I took their photograph and said, “so where…?”
My husband pointed to the chunks of castable refractory that used to be the arches of the kiln, sitting on a tarp under a roof close by. It looked like broken peppermint candy, except more gray than white. It was all there to be ground down and recycled into the new kiln. When we built the old kiln, 30 years ago, my husband hoped for 15 years out of her. She gave us 30. I’d say that’s good juju to put into the new one.

And the old kiln needed to come down. She had a serious sag in one side of the second chamber, which could have been disastrous had it collapsed at the height of a firing.
Second chamber
From a practical standpoint I didn’t have trouble letting go of the kiln. It was all the memories we’d accumulated around her which made me ache inside at the thought of her being gone.

How many times in all the years of that kiln had my husband let her cool down for two days before walking open those big doors, the sound of gentle tinkling accompanying his footsteps as the warm surfaces of the pots met the cold outside air? How many people had stood in front of those open doors, their eyes growing larger and larger as they realized just how much work went into making a piece of pottery?
Kiln opening
Mum, Reed & S at kiln
Our children grew up taking dinner up to their dad as he sat with the kiln, stoking it every 3-5 minutes.
Stephen & Esther
With Sean & Reed
Then they’d visit him 12 hours later, before they got on the morning school bus, and see the flame coming out of the chimney.
Kiln firing

And what about the friends that we loved and lost during the lifespan of that kiln. Robert, who designed and built the frames for the doors.
Donal, who helped fund the kiln.
With Don Butler
And Waldo, who isn’t in this photograph but who took this photograph and many more of our pottery business.
With Carole Schaefer
To name a few.

None of which references the legacy of pots that came out of that big, wood-fired furnace.
Molly & kiln
So many pots
Too many to show in photographs here but which you can find, in abundance, on our Facebook page. Once, when our son was a teenager, he sat with his dad during a firing and calculated how many pots this kiln had made over the years. I think the number at that time exceeded 30,000. That’s a lot of pots.

And we got to see the happy faces of the people who received those pots.
Juliana at kiln
Chris & Marissa at the kiln

And now the old kiln’s gone and my husband is hard at work building another one, which will give me more stories to tell. But before we forget the old kiln completely, I wanted to say farewell. And thanks for the memories.
Stephen and Nicola
Stephen, Reed, Nicola

It Takes a Knowledge Part II

When our children were little, a neighbor gave us a round, blue, hard plastic, watering trough for them to splash around in over the summer. The trough was about eight feet in diameter and maybe two and a half feet high and the only thing my husband didn’t like about it was that we would empty the water out of it to no avail. It held a considerable amount of water and since we didn’t use any additives, it needed emptying quite regularly. We would take the plug out of the valve on the side and the water would gush out onto the grass at the side of our house and then run down the driveway till it soaked in wherever it soaked in. Our water is free, coming as it does from the creek that crosses our land, but still; my husband felt that it should go to a nobler use than just watering the lawn and the driveway.

So the second summer we used this watering trough, he decided to set it up at the top of our garden instead of at the side of our house. That way, when it needed to be emptied, the run off could irrigate the plants growing there. But in order for this to be effective, little ditches needed to be dug between the raised beds, to direct the water coming out of the pool, so that all the vegetables got a taste of the wet stuff. My husband enlisted our five-year old son’s help with this project and I remember looking out the window and seeing them both bent over, assiduously making tidy grooves in the dirt with the points of their trowels. It seemed like they were out there for hours, never complaining, sometimes conferring on where the ditches should meet up and then, eventually, releasing the water and watching with pleasure as it ran in both directions the width of the garden and continued on down the rows, like marbles in a marble maze. And I remember we had the biggest squash that season, not only in the garden but growing over the fence so everyone walking by could see the magnificent orange and deep, dark green gourds that sprang from the swimming pool water.
Gardening 2

What impressed me most, however, about this homemade irrigation project was our son’s willingness to work on it. And it impressed me because I was never that kid. I remember hating to garden, although I can’t really remember why. But whatever the reason, it led me to tell my husband, early on in our relationship, not to expect me to help in the garden. He didn’t, and I remained steadfast in my lack of inclination until….he fed me some of the things he’d grown. Fresh lettuce, spinach, kale, tomatoes, potatoes, onions, carrots, beans… it was heaven on a plate, and lured me into wanting to protect the early stages of the produce from strangulation by weeds. Thus I relented and found myself bent over rows, allowing my fingers to get fully immersed in leafy greens and dirt.

Apparently I had to make that connection between gardening and eating in order to be part of the process. I grew up in the city in England and only remember my parents gardening for the first few years of my life so maybe that connection got lost in the time spent without a garden. My children, on the other hand, grew up picking fresh vegetables out of the garden every summer and if the way they browsed on the tomatoes (even the unripe ones) was anything to go by, they made that connection early and strong.

Fortunately there are now ways to make sure that all children can make that connection, even if they don’t have a garden at home. Farm-to-table programs are sprouting up in schools all over the country, and then there are some beautiful books on gardening that both children and adults can enjoy. One of my favorites is The Children’s Garden; Growing Food in the City by Carole Lexa Schaefer, a story about a community garden in Seattle that was originally published in 1994. Now, to celebrate its 25th anniversary, The Children’s Garden is being reissued (Little Bigfoot) with beautiful new illustrations by Pierr Morgan. Those of you who enjoyed reading my blog post It Takes a Knowledge, will really love savoring every page of The Children’s Garden with your favorite young person (people). Here’s a taste; a short description of the book from Secret Garden Books in Seattle, where the book will launch on May 2nd at 7pm, and two of the special illustrations by Pierr Morgan.

Down the road from Woodlawn Avenue, on a street called Sunnyside, there’s a garden patch grown by children who live in the neighborhood. A sign on the garden’s gate says: Children’s Garden, WELCOME That means: Come in, please. Listen, see, smell, touch–even taste.
“In rich prose and lush illustrations, this charming picture book shows children as urban farmers, exploring the sights, smells, sensations, and tastes of growing their own food in a community garden. The story invites young readers to enjoy summer’s bounty and the hands-on experience of tending and harvesting it, while the colorful illustrations depict a multicultural community of children learning about and enjoying a sustainable, local food system.”

A Love Letter to the USA

Dear United States of America,

In all the time that I’ve lived in this country, I’ve received a lot of praise about England, the country of my birth. From random strangers in grocery stores and gas stations telling me how much they love my accent, to customers in our little pottery shop remarking on how much they enjoy visiting England, you have lavished compliments on me that I believe (hope), have made me a better person. And yet your delivery has often been tinged with shyness, self-effacement almost, like you’re my little sister, telling me that I’m lovely without believing that she is lovely too. So I thought, with Valentine’s Day approaching, I would take a moment to repay those compliments, by telling you some of the things that I love about you.

First of all, you’re very refreshing. Coming from a country where classism was the norm, it’s been inspiring to live in a place where people don’t tell you certain things aren’t available to you because you weren’t born to them. Yes, I’m sure it’s easier for those who are born into privilege but that’s never stopped the USA from letting others climb up to that privilege if they have the moxy. And when they do climb up, no one seems inclined to crush them by saying they don’t really deserve it. If you don’t believe this to be true about yourself, then take this little anecdote from my life. After years of living here and growing accustomed to the fact that I was not judged for my background, I made the mistake of telling a young Englishwoman, with a posh accent (suggesting she was born to money), that I had grown up in a home without central heating. She turned to me, with such a look of disdain on her face, as if to say, “Oh, you come from that kind of background,” that I was shocked. It had been so long since anyone had looked at me like that. And for something I had no control over. But it made me that much more aware of what an incredible gift it has been to live in a place where I can I can reach up without feeling myself pulled down. As Desi Arnaz said, at a dinner honoring his achievements, “Only in America.” That’s a sentiment I completely get.

The second thing I love about you is your constant questing to find yourself. To be honest, this wasn’t something I understood at all when I first arrived here. Why were people always “looking for themselves?” Didn’t they know who they were? But then I had hundreds of years behind me, as an Englishwoman, telling me who I was, so I didn’t have any doubts. It wasn’t until I’d lived here for a while, and started writing in earnest, that I began to question some of those things I’d accepted about myself. I wondered if they really fit me? Is that who I was? Or was I just settling for a preconceived notion of myself? Before I knew it your questing had slipped under my skin, and I found myself on a journey of self-discovery that I may not have thought I needed, but which you supported. The person I found through this journey, I liked a lot more than the person I’d been willing to accept as a youth. And when I liked her, the family I’d created here in the US seemed to flourish more. Which made me think that if it’s good for the individual, and enough people do it, maybe it’s good for the community, the nation, maybe even the world. And so I grew to love, and respect, this particular aspect of life in the United States. As my husband is fond of saying, The United States of America is an idea, not a place. And ideas are worth revisiting as many times as necessary to get them to turn into something worthwhile.

And finally, for this letter anyway, the third thing I’ve grown very attached to in living here is just how willing you are to speak and practice love. It was hard for me, with my innate dose of British reserve, to even use that word, let alone share that feeling with anyone outside the immediate family. Talk about walls; I had a particularly striking one around my emotions when I arrived in this country. But so many people reached out to me in genuine affection that the wall developed a crack. And pretty soon that crack became a hole and the hole turned into, well, rubble really, as you disassembled all my defenses with your free-spirited ability to give and share love. I know some people think you’re the brash kid that wants it all, but I believe you’re also the kind mama, who whispers in our ears things like, “Don’t give up,” “Believe in yourself,” and “You can do it.”

Of course not everyone will agree with the things I’m writing about you but that’s okay because this is my love letter to you. One that I wanted to write in an attempt to build your self-confidence the way I think you’ve built mine. Especially since you’re going through such a tough time right now. A time of conflicting emotions, bruised egos, broken friendships….well, you know. But if there is one thing I’ve learned resoundingly since arriving on your shores, it’s that struggle is a big part of success. So don’t give up, do believe in yourself and remember you are loved.

Happy Valentine’s Day!


Waiting my turn for my certificate of citizenship. And look, there’s a rainbow over my head. I must be in the right place.