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



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

The Serendipity of it All.

My late father-in-law wrote beautiful, rambling letters to us on yellow legal paper about twice a week when he was alive. He would get up at 4:00 am, come down to the kitchen in his Upstate NY home, make himself a cup of coffee, light a cigarette and sit down to share the family news with whichever of his children was in line for the daily epistle. Having four children, each with a spouse and most with children of their own, he had plenty of colds and exam results, weather, hockey/football/softball and work news to fill a couple of pages in forward sloping cursive that was both elegant and easy to read. And in one of these letters, he dropped a gift in my lap. He wrote that our ten-year old niece, Jessica, had asked, “What happens to the hour we lose to Daylight-Savings time?” I was already writing creatively by then and that question inspired a children’s story – The Lost Hour – in which Six O’Clock gets booted from a grandfather clock and travels east, to find other employment. After jobs in music, mathematics and one as a price sticker on a vegetable stand, he finds he’s traveled full circle, back to the grandfather clock, where he becomes the hour gained at the other end of Daylight-Savings time.

I sent the story out to small presses after I shared it with my niece and my own children and received lovely letters, often with handwritten notes on them, encouraging me to send it to bigger presses, where it would surely be welcomed. It wasn’t. And I didn’t have the time or the inclination to keep trying. So I slipped The Lost Hour in a drawer and went back to raising children, running a business, seeing my plays in production and writing more stories.

But apparently not before I shared a copy of the story with my friend, Deborah, a gifted, elementary school teacher, recipient of the Christa McAuliffe Award and three times included in the Who’s Who of American Teachers. Deborah was teaching 3rd grade at the time and I gave her the story to share with her class, something that I completely forgot about until she reminded me a couple of days ago. We were discussing the upcoming launch of the published version of The Lost Hour when she told me about reading it to her classes every spring, as the clocks went forward. Then she told me that she used the story as a jumping off place for the children to write their own creative versions of what happened to Six O’Clock, and she heard tales of him riding on a magic carpet, floating on clouds, backpacking across America, and sailing on cruise ships around the globe.

I was tickled that my little story had inspired such creativity but more than that; I felt the kind of goose bumps you get when something makes sense and you have no logical explanation for why it makes sense. Like the serendipity of ideas coming together that Elizabeth Gilbert talks about in her wonderful new book, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear. You see, when I got The Lost Hour out of my drawer and decided to publish it, I knew I needed an illustrator and the universe brought me ten-year old Maya Keegan. I loved Maya’s artwork as soon as her grandpa shared it with me and, fortunately, she loved The Lost Hour. But I knew she was predestined to illustrate The Lost Hour when one of the first drawings she took on was that of Elizabeth, in England, who puts Six O’Clock in her mathematics notebook. When I looked at the finished drawing I was struck by how much Elizabeth looked like my niece, Jessica; but Maya had never met Jessica. Never even seen a picture of Jessica. Yet somehow she sealed the connection to the person who inspired this story by drawing her.

UK Elizabeth

Elizabeth in England



When Deborah told me about all the children writing new adventures for Six O’Clock I realized that while he was in my drawer, they kept him traveling around the globe until he found the perfect person to illustrate him. Like a man once told me, when I was sitting across a kitchen table from him, marveling at how I had become a wife and mother six thousand miles from where I grew up, when it was the last thing I had planned to do with my life.
“He was a good guide, wasn’t he?” the man said, pointing to the baby in my arms.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“He led you to his father.”

All those student storytellers must have led Six O’Clock to his illustrator because otherwise why would I have been so lucky to have found Maya and ended up with a book as beautiful as The Lost Hour.

It’s magic. Big magic. And I’ll take it.

P.S. For those who follow my blog, please note that later this month it’s getting a make-over, and a new title – Musings from the Mountain. So when you get an e-mail saying musingsfromthemountain has a new post, it’s just me.

All the World’s a Stage

Sitting in Le Pain Quotidien at St Pancras Station, drinking coffee and eating croissants, I mention to my husband that the flat serving tray, a ceramic cutting board of sorts, with a small hole at one end to hang the item between uses, and slight, inward curvature like a fish tail at the other, might be an interesting new object for him to make in the pottery. People race by on the main platform of the station, the to and fro from England to destinations European, and a man raises his voice to one of the serveuses, accusing her of being rude instead of responding to a simple question.

“I could make these,” my husband says, turning what he thinks is a handmade object over and around in his hands. “But I’d ask the waiter if he likes using them.”

“Ah no,” the waiter tells us in English laced with just enough of an accent – maybe French, maybe Italian – that it’s charming. “They don’t break or chip but for eating, is not so good. Messy,” he adds and flaps his free hand in the air over my plate, to indicate crumbs falling off the sides.

Behind him the belligerent customer opts not to eat in the café and as he storms out, a young man enters and immediately apologizes to the now smiling waitress for something he wasn’t even part of but senses was not her fault.

“I think he’s right,” my husband says to me, meaning the waiter’s opinion of the ceramic object. “They need a return on the sides.”

“But we wouldn’t sell them as plates,” I explain, “I’m thinking cheese boards. Or vegetable trays.” The rectangular flatware has a small bread motif stamped into one corner. I point at it and add, “You could put your tulip stamp here.” Three tables down from us, two men in elegant, silver-grey suits keep up a lively discussion in French about the percentage decline of the stock market. I lean into our table, so my husband can hear me over the background noise. “I really prefer cutting cheese on a flat board.”

“Uh huh,” he says, inspecting the tray again. “But I’m sure there’s a compromise in here somewhere.” He runs his index finger around the perimeter of the clay. “I could make a simple groove just inside the edge.”

I nod; that makes sense. I tear a section off my croissant and look beyond him, to the small Marks and Spencers food shop on the other side of the main platform. We went in there before coming to the café, to buy a green smoothie for me, and I was very impressed to see that they sold pairs of peeled, organic, hard-boiled eggs on fresh spinach in plastic cups to go. I should tell my friend, John Scott, about those, I think, remembering that I owe him a reply to the beautiful missive he sent me about morning time on the beach in Costa Rica. I dip the piece of croissant in my coffee, noticing the remnants of flaky pastry now on the table around my plate. Maybe he could suggest they sell something similar at the Co-op, I continue in my head. I bite down on the coffee softened croissant and nix the idea, realizing that John Scott probably doesn’t want me reaching across the miles with a business suggestion while he’s got his toes on a sandy beach in paradise. Although, I think with a certain amusement, here we are on our way to Paris and I’m talking plate design with my husband. How curious.

After we finish our petit repas (the time wasn’t right to call if breakfast or lunch, just a little snack) the waiter clears up our plates and cups and I hear myself saying, “Shoot! I should have taken a picture.”

“If I were a journaling kind of person I’d draw it,” my husband says and immediately my mind buzzes to the red writing journal I have in my backpack and the drawing he could make in it. I want to get it out and let him do just that but the backpack is behind him, the table is fairly cramped and now it’s covered in croissant crumbs, so I resist.

But not before thinking how strange (yet appealing) this idea is, a journal with sketches of pottery in it. Not birds or wildflowers, things we’ve come to expect in journals, but cups and bowls and plates and cheese trays.

Quick sketch cheese tray

Quick sketch cheese tray

And then I wonder how my life went from thinking almost exclusively about acting to discussing serving ware over café au lait on the way to Paris? And if I didn’t know that businessperson was just another role for me, I could let that bother me. Fortunately all the world’s a stage in my head and I love the range of roles I get to play.

Now about those flat, ceramic trays; how about a Mishima drawing of trees in the corner?

Art and your Destiny

Do you have a piece of art in your life that has stayed with you, inhabited you, maybe even guided you towards your destiny? So when you see it, or even a variation of it, you get a sense of coming home? It turns out that I do, although I can’t say that I truly knew it until I read a few pages towards the end of Donna Tartt’s novel, The Goldfinch. In these pages, she has the character of Hobie discussing art as a beacon for our destiny. “And the painting, above his head, was still the point where it all hinged: dreams and signs, past and future, luck and fate.” I ate those pages up, feasting on their foresight, because the truth of what was being said was so intrinsic to me. It was as if the author were writing my story.

To backtrack a little I grew up in England and, as a young woman, three things were true about me; I wanted to be an actress, I wanted no part of marriage and I knew nothing about pottery. In fact, at that time, I found myself drawn to fine china when I went to the fancy department stores in London and even though fine china falls under the same ceramic’s umbrella as pottery, it’s about as far removed from it as an RV is from a tent. So then how did I end up married to a wood-firing potter, 100 miles from the closest, professional theatrical hub and 6,000 miles from where I grew up? And more importantly, how did this life, which appeared nowhere in my young adult daydreams, end up being my bliss? So much so that I even made it the basis for my first novel, How to Make a Pot in 14 Easy Lessons.

Well apparently it was there all along, as Hobie suggests, secreted in art that captivated my interest. Even though I didn’t know pottery when I met my husband I do remember going to David Greig’s Grocery Shop as a little girl with my mother, and while she was looking at the cuts of meat at the butcher’s counter I was staring at the tiles on the wall. There was something eminently fascinating to me about art in this earthy format. I was drawn to the symmetry of the lines, the lines within the lines, the fact that the colored squares could make a pattern within the white background that would form a word. Words.

David Greig mosaic

And I remember thinking how clever it was that they could use tiles of a different color to frame patterns, making them look like paintings hanging on the wall. Tiles 3

So when my husband and I made a tile sign to hang outside our pottery shop something stirred deep inside me but I don’t think I made the connection back to David Greig’s at that time.

Sign tiles 2

And then there were the decorative pieces at the grocer’s shop. A sheep, a bull and David Greig’s signature piece – the thistle – which would have me standing, staring, completely lost in the image until I felt my mother tugging at the shoulder of my coat, telling me it was time to leave.

Tiles 4

Tiles 5

David Greig's thistle

When I installed my husband’s own decorative tile pieces in our home and shop, the fish he loves to draw, the wildflowers indicative of the area in which we live, I did become that little girl again, staring in fascination at the art that could be created out of tiles.

Flower tiles Stove tiles

And when we decided to use glaze test tiles on the floor, interspersed with production tiles, I could see the patterning again on the walls and counters of David Greig’s (which you may not be able to see clearly in this black and white photograph but if you look at the front of the display case it’s covered in white tiles with a repetitive, blue, thistle pattern in them).

Floor tiles

Our shop floor tiles

David Greig's inside

Inside David Greig’s

But it wasn’t until we made the sign for our business that stands out by the highway that it all fell into place. As soon as my husband laid the finished tiles out on the floor of his studio I was captivated. The dark blue of the letters, the lines of the tiles dissecting but not distracting, the webbing of the glaze on the surface of some of the tiles, and the delectable spread of color. I didn’t even care that a migration of red (from atmospheric conditions inside the kiln) had splashed across the top of the sign, making it a little hard to read. It was art. My kind of art

.Sign laid out

I took great pleasure handling each of the tiles and gluing them on the wood frame for the sign. And when I finished and stood back, I knew I was home.Sign

Of course it never occurred to me that these tiles were an indicator of my destiny. Not until I read the words that made the different parts of my life slot perfectly into place, like a dovetail joint in carpentry. “And isn’t that the whole point of things – beautiful things – that they connect you to some larger beauty? Those first images that crack your heart wide open and you spend the rest of your life chasing, or trying to recapture, in one way or another?” (from The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt, p.757)

Maybe your destiny lies in a piece of music, a plot of land, a photograph – maybe even in something you created. A friend of mine told me she was asked to draw her ideal place to live in an art class once and, years later, she found her drawing, looked out the window and realized she was living in the place she had drawn. But that’s the monumental magic trick of destiny; it’s happening while you don’t know it. Unless you have a fondness for art.