Inhaling the Essence

We had a big alder fall down over our creek a couple of days ago and my husband cut what he could on the vehicle accessible side of the creek and then scratched his head for a moment about how to get the rest out safely. He’s become accomplished at winching in the years he’s spent salvaging wood (his hobby) and he told me of an elaborate plan that involved his tractor, his pick-up truck, two standing trees and a long length of logging cable. This kind of 3D trigonometry is not my forte so I smiled and nodded as he told me the plan, let him head out the door and then thirty minutes later decided I ought to go and check on him. After all, as accomplished as he is at thinking up ways to make a log move—but not on top of him—all it would take is for the alder hung up across the creek to decide nope, it’s not going that way, and . . . well . . . I’m sure you can imagine the rest. I know I can.

Anyway, rather than find him later pinned under a tractor or something equally gory I stepped out into the gloriously sunny April afternoon and ambled up the path from the house to the creek. One of the advantages right now to not having our little shop open is I don’t have to worry about someone pulling in when I’m not close to the house, which gives me the time to amble rather than race up to the back of our property. The sunshine felt good on my face and my easy pace allowed me to notice the flowering plants coyly flirting with anyone that cared to notice them. The single, creamy yellow tulip standing proudly at the edge of our garden like a singer on a stage:
Single tulip
the purple vinca blossoms fluttering onto the path from the banks where they’d been planted as ground cover:
Vinca
the flowering quince that we keep threatening to cut down because it’s devilishly thorny but, but . . . look at those heavenly blossoms.
Flowering quince

I meandered my way up to our grassy playground and crossed it to get to where my husband was working. As I approached I saw big rounds of freshly cut alder in a jumbled heap alongside the creek Alder roundsand my husband in the bed of his truck, weaving the logging cable back around the headache rack. He turned and grinned at me. “You arrived just in time to miss all the work,” he teased. He gave me a detailed description of how easy it had all been and then, as he chugged back down the hill on his tractor, I cut through the area he’s been replanting behind his pottery studio and kiln.

There I was stopped in my tracks by the sight of the two flowering thundercloud plum trees. They looked like giant ice cream cones covered in pink hundreds and thousands held aloft as if to say, “Look what we’ve got!” If that weren’t treat enough, to the right of one there was an abundance of forget-me-nots, ornamenting a bank like tiny beads of turquoise on a bridal train. The little blue flowers are not big and showy and bold like the tulips I’m so used to seeing at this time of year, but as I stood staring at them I decided they are the stuff of which sighs are made.

I got out my phone and snapped some photos of both the trees and the forget-me-nots only to be disappointed that the pictures didn’t convey at all what I was seeing. Something about the color and light and perspective, especially with the forget-me-nots, which, from a distance, looked almost like a whisper of blue on the louder green background.
Thundercloud plums
Forget-me-nots 2
Forget-me-nots 3
It made me think of a blog I’ve been following (another advantage of our present situation: the time to read more blogs)—Martha Kelly’s (Almost) Daily Quarantine Journal. Martha is a visual artist and I could immediately picture her doing a quick, colorful sketch of what I was seeing and capturing the essence of it in a way my photographs could not.

I was about to start down for the house again when one of my dogs cocked his head, seeing something. I turned to see what and caught a blue heron lifting off into the sky from the trees to the left of us. I watched it flap away in that awkward, seemingly impossible way, and realized that I’d never seen a blue heron taking flight from our property before. And when I thought about it some more, I realized that if I’d been going at my usual pace I probably wouldn’t have noticed my dog pointing me toward such an incredible sight.

I ambled on, down past the hellebore that my husband planted last year Hellebore

and around to the magnolia tree behind his pottery studio. MagnoliaA friend gifted us that tree as a sapling about twenty years ago, to plant on the grave of our dog Magnolia, who spent 17 years as my husband’s faithful companion and about half that time sharing his affections with me. We buried her on a bank overlooking the studio so she could see him at work and now, every spring, the tree puts on a showy reminder of the dog that once played there. This spring I’ve had time enough to watch the entire show, from thick furry buds forming on the ends of her branches to the slow release of bright white stars.
Magnolia
As I stared at the tree’s floral offering I wondered if they looked brighter this year because I was seeing them in the afternoon sunshine rather than the usual, after work twilight, or if, as another blog I’ve been reading—Cambridge Imprintssuggests, the reduction in traffic, even in our rural area, has cleansed the air so nature can shine. Of course I don’t know the answer to that question. It’s just a lingering reflection I find myself having and writing about in one of my plays; that there’s a gift for all of us somewhere in our present situation.

I trotted the rest of the way down to the house to check on the only visitors in our shop right now—some new baby chicks.
Baby chicks
then ended my journey over at my little rose garden.
Rose garden
I always buy potted tulips at this time of year to set inside my husband’s big stoneware planters that I sell down at the Tulip Festival. After the Festival is over, I bring the potted tulips home and plant the bulbs somewhere on our property later in the year. Last year I added them to the rose garden. Looking down at the yellow ruffles made me miss being out in the fields. Not just for the lost income but for all the friends I usually see there and the colorful array of flowers I get to drive past on my commute to the fields. But if I had to miss it, I thought, I was glad it was so I could inhale the essence of our own springtime flower festival.

And don’t worry, I didn’t miss out on all the work with the downed alder. The next day my husband split those rounds and I stacked them in the truck to sell as cord wood. Because, as my sister would say, when times are tough—“a girl’s gotta do, what a girl’s gotta do.”
Truck loaded

Stay safe, everyone.

Eat Your Pickles

Like most everyone, I have been following the statistics for the coronavirus over the last few weeks. I’ve been following them on a website created by a high school student in Washington State ever since the first cases of COVID-19 were identified here, and the thing that has caught my eye again and again is how low the deaths rates are in Germany and South Korea given their contamination rates.
Statisics
And I haven’t been able to stop myself from wondering why. You’ve got to remember, I write mysteries, so anything that contains a puzzle intrigues me. Maybe both these countries have excellent health care systems, I told myself (in which case we need to pay attention to their models), or maybe, as a friend who is a scientist pointed out, it has to do with their reporting rates. That could be, I thought, but given their reporting of their contamination rates, I didn’t quite buy that they might be reporting their death rates differently. So I kept working the puzzle in my mind, wondering what these two countries have in common that is different than other countries? Then it came to me: they both like to eat fermented food.  Sauerkraut in Germany and kimchi in South Korea.

Now maybe there’s nothing to that but I’m going to be honest here: I’ll do whatever it takes to try to protect myself from this virus. So a couple of weeks back, when I first came to this conclusion, I decided to get out the pickles I have in my pantry and add some to my daily diet. That and about a tablespoon of apple cider vinegar with a tablespoon of honey in warm water.  “Just warm enough to drink it right down,” my mum would say. She used to make me that concoction when I was a little girl plagued with hay fever—and it worked. I still make it for myself now and again, usually when the cottonwood bud burst stirs up my allergies. Given my personal theory about the kinds of foods that might build my immune system in these precarious times, I thought I’d also add that beverage to my daily diet. And encourage my husband to do the same. Our children, too. And my mother, of course, who is in the very high-risk category given her age. And okay, all right, some of our family and friends—the ones I thought might take the recommendation without rolling their eyes too much.

Pickles

Now admittedly, this is all just supposition on my part. The musings of an unscientific mind staring at the statistics on the screen, muttering, “Hmmm, I wonder why . . . ?” Musings that then join me out on my daily walk with the dogs in the State Park where, when I least expect it, I get an answer which seems to fit as easily as the right piece in a jigsaw puzzle. And then I see this on Facebook

Vinegar
and think, “Ah Ha! Proof!”

Of course, it was on Facebook so I have no idea if the words written on the image have any basis in fact. This is the platform, after all, where famous actors are quoted on “memed” photos of themselves when they never actually said those words ever. So yes, I considered the source. But nevertheless it did make me a little chuffed that I’d thought to increase my vinegar intake.

And it led me to take the next step: researching how to make my own sauerkraut or kimchi. And you know what I found? That fermented foods and pickles are not the same thing.  Who knew!  Well apparently there is an overlap in that some pickles are made by being soaked in brine and fermented foods, like sauerkraut and kimchi, which are also soaked in brine so that the good bacteria—the lactobacilli—can convert the starches and sugars into lactic acid. Which makes sauerkraut and kimchi pickles too—fermented pickles—but I don’t think it works the other way around. Although isn’t vinegar just a fermented beverage, like wine or apple cider, that’s gone off?

I was heartened to learn that the sourdough bread I’m fond of making is considered a fermented food.
Sourdough
And yoghurt. And beer (another thing the German and South Korea cultures have in common). The trouble is the more I learned, the more I doubted my gut instinct (sorry for the pun) about the sauerkraut and the kimchi. But then I look at the statistics again and see that Germany’s death rate is holding steady at 0.47% and South Korea’s at 1.37%, which, compared to Italy’s 9.85% and China’s 4.03%, makes me think they’re doing something right. Fortunately my digestive tract has been pleased with the increased acidity in my diet so I’ve decided I’m going to stick with the pickles until I learn how to make other fermented foods. And be very grateful to my friends, Louise, Amanda and Nancy, for providing me with such tasty and beneficial treats.

Since some of you are probably not going out much right now because of the coronavirus, I thought I’d end this blog post by bringing the outside in to you. Here are a few photos taken on my daily walk and some of the first signs of spring around here.

Stay healthy, my friends. And, at least in the short term, eat your pickles.

Rockport State Park
Trail
Fern Creek
Skunk cabbage
Trillium
Sunset over the tulips

This Little Roof of Ours.

When I met my husband he had just put the upper floor on the house he was building and I didn’t have idea what it would look like. It was basically a box with half-walls, two floors and some smooth skinned, big diameter logs that were going to hold up a roof at some point.
House in progress

I was living in New York when he put the roof on and when I came out to visit the next summer I was immediately enchanted. The roof was all peaks and valleys, covered in naturally wavy, thick-bottomed cedar shakes as inviting and organic looking as shaved chocolate on an ice-cream cone. The angular lines made nooks and crannies of the skyline and upper floor windows, playing peekaboo with my imagination and transforming the structure from a shelter into something out of a fairytale.

House in the early days

Not only did my husband hand split those first roof shakes he also climbed up into the high heights of the house and nailed them onto the skip sheeting.Stephen roofing
He doesn’t prefer to be that far up in the air but he was too broke at the time to afford a roofer or even the shake felt that should have gone between the cedar and the skip sheeting so he had to rely on his own moxie and the grace of good friends to put that roof on. Yet it held and protected what was underneath it from the elements for 35 years.

Snow at our house

I’ve thought about that a lot since we replaced the roof earlier this summer. This time we hired Seth from Northwest Roofing and Siding to climb up there, rip off all the old shakes and replace them with new ones. This time the new ones were split by a band saw in a small, local shake mill and this time we were able to afford the shake felt to go under them. But even though it felt like we were getting an upgrade from that original shake roof I was impressed that the old, mossy, heavily weathered shakes still looked like new on the underside.Old mossy shakes
And they had done their job perfectly because despite the lack of shake felt, there was no rot in the skip sheeting under them. Just a few bats here and there who had been enjoying the dark, narrow, protected space for their slumber. It used to bother me to hear them scrabbling around up there, their wings softly thunking against the wood as they threaded their way to their preferred “hang outs” just before the sun made its entrance for the day. But time has mellowed me and before we had our roof replaced I remember hearing that sound above the dormer ceiling in my bedroom and shrugging at the thought that we shared our shelter with a little wildlife.

I was actually worried about the bats before Seth started re-roofing. I didn’t want them to come to any harm. But he tore the roof off in sections, starting with the left side of the gables, then the right and finally the center valley, and it seems that they rehomed themselves each time they were displaced, ending up back in the first section if the telltale thunking sounds (now muted by the shake felt) above my writing nook are any indication. I must admit I worried about Seth, too. Before he started our job I found myself lying awake at night, something I rarely do, hoping he wouldn’t lose his footing on our steeply pitched roof. But a couple of days before he was due to start he stopped by our house to double check he had everything he needed for the job and was sitting in his truck, gazing up at our roof, when he murmured, almost to himself, “Now I’m excited.” That’s all it took for me to be sure he was the one for the job. He wanted to be up there.

Ridge 2Ridge 3
Ridge 4

I listened to him above me as he worked, the creaking of nails being pry-barred out of tight holes reverberating in the peace of the mountain dell around us, and I thought about all the changes that have happened underneath that roof. How we took a simple framework and filled it slowly, determinedly, with finish trimmings, furniture and most-loved-mementoes until it had that kind of overstuffed but homey feel to it. How our family expanded and grew like yeasted pizza dough in the refrigerator except, unlike the dough, it didn’t pop the lid off the container holding it. That roof held. We squeezed more and more underneath it, more people, more love, more stuff, more celebrations of the kind that sometimes bubbled to the point that they could easily have blown the cork holding them in—but they didn’t. And yes, we had our share of pain and losses that made us hunker under that roof grateful for its comforting cloak of concealment.

About a dozen years ago I used a photo of our place for the profile picture on our pottery Facebook page and realized as I did so how much I’ve loved living in this little house. The roof is a big part of why. Now that I write about it I wonder whether this gingerbread style roof preceded the fairytale image it created or was it the other way around? Did someone back in history make a little house out of gingerbread with sloping gables simply because that’s how the cookies fit best together and everyone said—Yes! That’s where Hansel and Gretel lived. Or did that first baker look at the fantasy castles beginning to emerge in Europe and say, Hmmm. I like that roofline. I don’t know, I’m not an architect. But it is a curiosity to me. I asked my husband why he designed the roof the way he did and he said, “I don’t remember. I just know I wanted to build a house that looked like it grew out of the ground.”

Is that what makes people pull in off the highway to take photos of our house in all seasons? Because it looks like it belongs?

Sauk Mountain Pottery

 

Roofline in summer

Again, I don’t know the answer to that question. What I do know is my husband had a dream of building a little roadside attraction where he could sell his pottery and not be dependent on galleries and gift shops to do it for him and the design he came up with draws people in. They see the house from the highway as they drive by, circle back to take a picture of it and then come in to see what the pottery shop holds. Of course some of them stop because they’re pottery aficionados and they see the sign announcing our business, but the house design with its pinnacled roof definitely has its own allure. So when Seth nailed up the last of the new, coppery gold shakes I spotted numerous newcomers standing first in our driveway, their phones out in front of them taking a snapshot of the house, and then I got to meet them in the shop.

House & Sauk

And if I didn’t already know how the roof makes the house, a little art project I ordered as a gift for my husband confirmed it. It’s a clay house made by our new friend and sculptural potter, Aimee, to commemorate the “dome house” my husband built way back when as a pied-a-terre for his brother-from-another-mother, Patrick.

The dome house
Aimee sent me photos of the clay sculpture in progress and I couldn’t quite see the fairy quality of it the way I could the original structure  . . .

Little clay house
. . . until she put the roof on.

With a roof
Then the magic was complete.

I’m not a visual artist so I can’t explain the creative appeal of a roof but I can imagine it’s rather like a baker taking a simple shortbread cookie and turning it into a work of art with just the right touches of sugar piping. As my friend Carolyn Ann Hale did with these birthday cookies she made for me.

                        60th cookiesMtn Cookie

And even though I’m not a visual artist I did remember, as I was writing this post, that my preferred doodle at school when I was daydreaming in class (no, focusing, focusing!) was always a series of two-sided triangles – like this /\ – that sat in a line and had two-sided triangles on top of them narrowing to one single peak.                                              PyramidI probably shouldn’t admit that on a blog because I suspect it reveals something I’d rather not reveal about my psyche but it does make me think I ended up living in the right house. Wouldn’t you say?

The house again

 

Eggs, Butter and Cheese.

A couple of weeks ago I got my feelings hurt when I approached someone—a friend—about helping me set up one of the previews of my play that I’m doing with Women’s Work Productions. This friend didn’t say no, but he circled the subject in a way that made it obvious the answer was no. I let it go, telling the reasonable part of my brain that I had to allow people to say no while the emotional part of my brain was thinking, “He doesn’t believe in me.” Or, more accurately, “He doesn’t believe in me as a writer.”

The thought that you’re not being taken seriously can be crushing and I scuffed through the shards of my self-esteem for a couple of days, then found myself thinking—hold on a minute. How many people do believe in me as a writer? Not only do I get lovely letters, e-mails and text messages from people who enjoy reading my books but I have a fabulous group of actors who have been following me around with this play, Carried by the Current, for the last nine years. Some of those same actors were the ones who came to me last summer with the idea of putting together a preview to gather support for a Seattle production of this play. I owed it to them, I thought, to keep believing in myself no matter how many rejections I got along the way.

This thought happened to coincide with us doing one of the previews at Doyle Guffie’s Rallye Auto in Burlington, Washington. I’ve know the Guffies a long time and bought a number of used vehicles from them, but I could tell that it wasn’t exactly in their comfort zone to have a group of actors descend on their auto dealership to perform three scenes from a play. But they welcomed us warmly and the more we got into our thirty-minute presentation the more they sat forward in their seats. “This was great,” Doyle’s daughter, Tanya, who also works for the business, told me afterwards. “The actors did a really good job and I liked how the scenes they presented helped me know what the play was about.”

I’d been nervous before this preview in a way that I’m not usually. I think the briskQuill grilling my friend gave me in his non-specific rejection rattled my confidence, which surprised me because all I have to do is think of the actors and the time they give up to be a part of these previews to know that I’m well supported in this endeavor. Sarah and Dustin Moore left their brand new baby daughter with Grandma to come and perform in the preview: Carolyn Travis, who works two jobs as a vet tech and is a leading force in Shakespeare Northwest, dashed away from her obligations to act with us: and my daughter, Annie, who gave me a quill pendant when she was only 11, “because you’re a writer, mommy,” drove two hours up to our house from Seattle to help me prepare and then turned around and drove another hour back down to Rallye Auto to perform in the preview. Tanya’s comment filled my heart with pride for the recognition she gave these actors and I walked out of the preview my confidence restored.

But I have since asked myself why I let it get to me. I mean, as an actress turned writer if there is one thing I am used to, it’s rejection. I don’t usually let it get under my skin. Maybe it was because this person was a friend, I told myself. But it wasn’t that. I think what really did it was his recommendation that we do the previews at businesses and organizations who are interested in the subject. Carried by the Current is based on the true story of a group of women from Texas who opened the first safe house for battered women back in 1870: was my friend suggesting that we only try to get support from agencies interested in domestic violence? That’s what it sounded like to me. “But they’re the people we’re trying to help by getting this play out there,” I told him. Still, his comment took the wind out of my sails and left me in the doldrums. I don’t mind people criticizing my writing because I know I still have a lot to learn in that area but my story I’m passionate about. Consequently, I hope others will be passionate about it, too. All others. Yet if my friend couldn’t see that, what did it mean for people in general? Was I wasting my time here? Should I even be bothering?

As I was worrying these questions, I also happened to be reading The Library Book by Susan Orlean, and I was at the place where the author describes how she had made up her mind not to write another book before finding out about the 1986 fire at the Los Angeles public library. It was just too huge a commitment, she’d decided, too mammoth a task to write a book. Then she found herself losing her mother—the woman who had introduced her to libraries—to dementia. Orlean goes on to spin out the ramifications of lost memory and whether our time on this earth amounts to anything given the transitory nature of life, and says, “If you gaze into that bleakness even for a moment the sum of life becomes null and void, because if nothing lasts, nothing matters. It means that everything we experience unfolds without a pattern, and life is just a wild, baffling occurrence, a scattering of notes with no melody.” Then she turns a corner in her narrative and comes back to the value of writing. “But if something you learn or observe or imagine can be set down and saved, and if you can see your life reflected in previous lives, and can imagine it reflected in subsequent ones, you can begin to discover order and harmony. You know that you are part of a larger story that has shape and purpose—a tangible, familiar past and a constantly refreshed future.” (The Library Book, Simon and Schuster, October 2018, p93).

That was the refortification I had been looking for, right there before me on the page. I wrote a play about the Sanctified Sisters of Belton, Texas, because their story spoke to me. I found it buried in the overgrowth of men’s history and some muddying weeds that misidentified the story as one of a religious cult, but once I started to pull that away, I discovered a plant that I recognized immediately because of my childhood. And the more I cleared out around it, helped by the actors who wanted to see it grow, the more it revealed itself as a plant that others could identify with, too.

Because the truth of it is that this story of these ladies from Texas is not a story of domestic violence. For sure—staying with the plant analogy—it was domestic violence that caused these women to push up out of the soil but once they were out they grew and flourished, then grew some more. They grew partly because the leader of their group, Martha McWhirter, allowed the women to move into her house to protect them from abuse and from the town’s hostility, which rose in support of their wealthy, white husbands; but they also grew because of their no-turning-back decisiveness. From earning small amounts selling eggs, butter and cheese to pooling their resources into a common fund, they set examples for us on how to keep moving forward. And when the sun shone down on them through the windows of the hotel they built and ran amongst the townspeople who had ostracized them for so many years, they flowered magnificently, showing us that we don’t have to be defined by one part of our lives.

Rose

Photo by René Tribble

So to answer my own question, yes I need to be bothering. The women bothered to stand firm in the face of resistance; so should I.  As it turns out, my friend did start the ball rolling on setting up a preview of the play so I don’t know if the push back I was feeling from him was just oversensitivity on my part or an informational exercise in how to address a more corporate-minded individual. And since corporations are on the list of people we want to approach with our preview, a little test of my tenacity probably wasn’t a bad thing for me. “You’re like the ladies from your story,” my friend, Greta, told me in one of our morning walks in the park. “You’re at the eggs, butter and cheese phase of your production.”

Why yes we are.

To Disneyland and Beyond

If there’s one thing I never thought I’d do in my life it was go to Disneyland. Which is strange given that I grew up in a seaside resort town in England where one of my favorite things to do when I was a kid was go to Peter Pan’s Playground.
peter_pans
I don’t remember riding the roller coasters but I did enjoy the bumper cars, and I especially liked staring at all the scenery some creative mind had concocted to make visitors feel like they had stepped into a world where people could fly, and houses weren’t always exactly plumb and square.

And the best part was the lights that came on after dark, adding an element of wonder to this land of make-believe with the longest pier in the world stretching out into the sea behind it.
southend-on-sea

So you’d think that having been wooed by this kind of setting in my formative years, my imagination budding at the sight of flying Darlings and candy-colored trains, I would leap at the chance to go to Disneyland. But somehow it wasn’t in my comfort zone. Neither was writing a novel about the workings of a small animal vet, to be honest, but when our friendly veterinarian, Dr. Timothy O’Rourke asked me if I would take on this challenge, I didn’t hesitate. Partly because I owed him for two knee surgeries he’d performed on my dog, Molly Moon, but mostly because my inspiration for writing my first novel, How to Make a Pot in 14 Easy Lessons, had been the books by James Herriot about being a vet in Yorkshire, England. So when Tim proposed this idea, of a book about the facts of small animal care wrapped in whatever fictional storyline I cared to come up with, I saw a circle in my life spin to completion just as surely as if Tinkerbell had whisked it through the air with her sparkly fairy dust.

Yet still, when I handed the finished copy of The Gift to Tim and he offered to fly me and my husband down to Disneyland as a thank you I shrugged. Maybe not. “You just have to put aside your preconceived notions,” he told me, “and let loose your inner child.”
Hmmm. I pondered this. What were my preconceived notions? That Disneyland was mega-commercial, that it would be awash with people, that we’d have to wait for ages to get on rides? Yes. So? Those weren’t the things holding me back. It was the thought of the rides that was making me nervous. Wait, what? When did I become such a wuss? Specifically when I went to a fairground with a college girlfriend oh these many years ago and the greasy-haired youth operating the spinning circle seat ride decided he’d have some fun with the two blonde co-eds and spun us so fast I thought my neck was going to snap. Did I really want to put myself in that position again?

But Tim persisted. He told me that he was so pleased with what I’d come up with in The Gift he wanted the whole world to read it. But since he didn’t know how to make that happen, he could at least treat me to a moment in a place that he was sure I would find inspiring. My mind skittered to Topsy Turvy, the film by Mike Leigh about Gilbert and Sullivan, and how, when the operatic duo are in the pit of a creative slump, Gilbert’s wife tells him about a Japanese Exhibition going on in Knightsbridge.
“You need to go,” she insists after he flatly refuses to be distracted by such frippery.
“Do I,” he replies, so matter-of-factly that it’s obvious that he thinks he does not. “You know my mind better than I do, do you?”
“I know you better than you think I do,” she retorts.
Gilbert finishes by telling her she can go but that he will not accompany her “for all the tea in China.”
And then we see the two of them at the Japanese exhibition, with Gilbert captivated by the Japanese girls in their colorful kimonos, peeking out from behind flowery fans as they bow gracefully to the passing crowd and . . . well . . . the rest you know.
Might I get so inspired by something I saw at Disneyland? Well, of course I might, I realized. So I went.

And it didn’t take me long to get caught up in the make-believe. As soon as I walked through the entrance gate it was if I had stepped onto a movie set, which appealed to the actress in me. I made a beeline for the cart laden with Disney paraphernalia and picked out a headband of velvety Mickey Mouse ears fronted with a bright red bow covered in white polka dots. I needed to get in costume if I was going to be on set all day. Besides—and here’s the truth of it—I’d seen others wearing similar headbands coming in on the shuttle and I’d rather taken a fancy to the bright red bow.
Headband

We started around the set, stopping at all the “locations” that appealed to us: Pirates of the Caribbean, Haunted House, Indiana Jones, Buzz Lightyear. I went from feeling like I was on a gondola floating through the starlit canals of Venice, to reading headstones with clever wordplay names like I.L. Beback and Theo Later, to seeing puppets made to look like roosters at an auction or like skillet toting women chasing bawdy men out of alehouses.
Headstones

We drank mint juleps that were essentially iced water with a sprig of fresh mint in them and ate donuts dusted with candy cane sugar. Which you’d think wouldn’t taste that appealing but there was just enough candy cane in the sugary coating to make it reminiscent of a spice you couldn’t quite identify but which you knew was adding to the flavor sensations in your mouth. In fact it was so good I can still bring to mind the taste of the tiny, sweet, minty crumbles around the warm, airy dough of the donut.

And yes, there were waits to get on the rides. The longest was almost an hour, waiting to board “the happiest cruise that ever sailed.” But you know what? Nobody complained. Instead people chatted and played with their phones, signed up to fast track on other rides and watched themselves creep closer to the boats that were going to ferry us through a long, meandering tunnel where we would see Christmas around the world. And that’s when I got my favorite moment of the entire day. As our boat jostled into the darkened interior of the ride and the lights came up on sleighs stuffed with giant squares of cardboard painted to look like wrapped gift boxes tied with colorful ribbons, the little girl sitting behind me in the boat gasped a long, delighted “ohhhhh” and I felt my face break out into a smile. The wonder and enchantment in that gasp epitomized the best of Walt Disney; how he was able to use his artistic talent to bring cherished stories to life in ways that make us say, yes, yes, that’s what it looks like. I can only aspire to using words to create such glorious pictures in people’s minds but aspire I will, because who wouldn’t want to try to conjure an image that leads to a spontaneous, unselfconscious gasp that says the wait had been entirely worth it.

Our day continued with more indulgence in the mega-commercialism (I got a Goofy hat for my little friend, Leo, in addition to the Mickey Mouse ears, which I gave to his sister Lily, and a little Dumbo to sit on the dash of my car and remind me that apparently I like characters that can unexpectedly fly) and ended with the lights being lit on the Christmas tree.
Christmas Tree
And suddenly I was a little girl again, standing on the seafront in Southend looking at the lights of Peter Pan’s playground. My inner child had been set free and I found myself thinking about my Nan, and how she took me to the cinema when I was about five to see Mary Poppins. My Nan died before I turned ten and I don’t have any memories of time spent with her except that one, which should tell me something about why I was destined to go to Disneyland. Because Walt Disney provided for me the lasting image of two girls, separated by about sixty years, sitting next to each other in a darkened cinema, spell bound by the pictures on the screen in front of them. Somehow I think there might be a story in that.

So thank you, Tim.

For repairing my dog’s knees so she can run and dodge and leap with the agility of a pro-basketball player.

For asking me to write the book in the first place.

And for Disneyland.

And as far as the whole world reading our book is concerned, maybe you could try wishing upon that star.
Mickey Mouse

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.
Uphill

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,
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