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
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.
RootToes-pierrmorgan-2017

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.”
SeedPackets-pierrmorgan-2017

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The View from the Sauna Porch

I’ve been thinking a lot about trees recently, specifically all the trees in the little mountain dell where I’m lucky enough to live. And when I say all the trees, I mean I can’t look out of any window in my house without seeing a tree or two. Or three. Or more. Douglas fir trees, cedars, maples, alders, hemlocks, silver firs, cherry, apple, two types of walnut, a Japanese white pine, a few sequoias – these are just some of the species that grow on our five acres. And as I’ve watched them grow, I’ve found myself reflecting on them as a metaphor for life.

I was extremely skittish when I first met my husband, and had no intention of setting roots. But one of the things he offered me was stability. My mind shied away from that offer, encouraging me to keep running from my past, something I made central to my first novel, but apparently my heart found it appealing. So I stayed. And discovered that setting roots actually suited me. Helped me grow. Thrive.

So of course, every time I look out my kitchen window, and see these majestic life forms manifesting the power of stability, I can’t help but want to put them in my writing. But at the same time, I feel like the natural world around me touches me on so many sensory levels, I’m not sure I can squeeze all that into just a few sentences. I love trying, because it makes me feel like I’m out in the woods, with the trees, but I hesitate to share because what if I’m not getting it right? I was discussing this dilemma with my friend, Lisa, in Seattle last weekend. She looked at me, with her big, beautiful eyes, and said, “Oh but please keep trying. Because some of us don’t live with trees around us, and the closest we can come is to read about them.”

It was a wonderful, gentle reminder that the reason I write is not just for me, but for those who might read what I write. And it encouraged me to want to share a couple of short pieces inspired by the trees around me. For Lisa, or for anyone who doesn’t get to live in the woods.

The first is a short passage from my new novel, describing the view from our sauna porch after a big rain.

“The storm was over and Joe and Lucy sat wrapped in towels, on the porch of the sauna, zoning on the moisture-laden trees in front of them. It was cold, and steam from their bodies wafted up past the flickering lights of the candle lanterns hanging from the log beam above their heads. The dogs sat on either side of them, their noses occasionally bumping the air above them in the interminable quest for passing scents. Lucy was lost in the drip, drip, dripping of accumulated rainwater coming from a thick patch of spongy moss on the trunk of a burly maple tree, while Joe was focused on the sporadic splashes from saturated lichen on a leaning length of vine maple. It wasn’t that they were seeing what they were staring at in the candlelit dusk of the evening, so much as hearing it. And in their post sauna, meditative states, it sounded like a rainforest rhapsody, with the creek to their right creating a constant bass, and the pop of firewood burning in the sauna stove adding occasional percussion.”

sauna-porch-2

Moss on the big burly maple tree

sauna-porch-1

A leaning length of vine maple

stock-tank

The creek

The second piece is a short poem.

Co-Dependency
Nicola Pearson

Her arms twine tight around you
Like the blackb’ries on my tree
‘Sinuating, thorny vines
That latch tenaciously

I want to snip and yank and tear
To rid you of her brambles
Knowing you will flourish more
When thus you’re unentangled

But when I freed the silver fir
From that which stole its luster
It drooped and paled and fought for life
With all that it could muster

And so I learned relationships
Like berries on my tree
Are not always ‘bout strength and love
But co-dependency


I shared this with my writers’ group and some of them wanted to know what happened to the tree? I’ve only recently gone back to playing with poetry so I can’t profess to know if this is finished or not, but it was an interesting question. I knew the tree had survived, because I see it everyday in my front yard. But until this question I hadn’t really considered that while it’s not as tall as the two other silver firs planted at the same time, it is nevertheless lush, darkly verdant and very healthy-looking. It’s thriving.

silver-firs

A trio of silver fir trees

silver-fir

The littlest tree

It Takes a Knowledge

It’s early when I turn into the well-rutted driveway that should lead me to the hoop house where Anne grows her tomatoes, but the sun is already fully involved in all the lush greens around the property. I can’t see her old, red and black pick-up truck to tell me I’m in the right place, but I can see the trailer that my husband helped Lois, who owns this property, acquire from one of our neighbors. And Anne grows her tomatoes on Lois’s property so I’m pretty certain I’m in the right place. For all the traveling I’ve done over the years, I remain directionally challenged so I often second-guess myself on things that seem familiar.

The dirt driveway leads past a field on my left, sheltered by a row of short trees, and straight on towards Lois’s house and the trailer. As I get closer to the end I notice I can follow the ruts around to the left and when I do, the large hoop house appears. I bump along, energized by being in the right place, and come to a stop directly in front of the hoop house. Outside the entrance there is a knee-high stack of produce boxes, labeled Organic Tomatoes, Grown by Blue Heron Farm; the morning pick. Anne told me she and her crew would be here, but I don’t see anyone around as I climb out of my vehicle and step toward the boxes. The tomatoes inside them are orbs of perfection; smooth skinned, baseball-sized spheres of cherry red with that dip at the top making them somewhat heart-like. Love apples. Pommes d’amour.

Glorious orbs

Orbs of perfection

Love apple

Pomme d’amour

I wonder if I can take a box and pay Anne for it later but these might be for her CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) customers or for the Food Co-ops she supplies. So I step inside the hoop house, in search of a human being. What I find instead is an exquisite land of warm vines that intimates years of knowledge to me. Row upon tidy row of vines, both sides of a central walkway, painstakingly trained upright on orange twine between homegrown bamboo poles, so the tomatoes are exposed in heavy clusters to ripen naturally. I’m enchanted as I move down the center, my eyes widening at the number of tomatoes blushing to perfection. I tread gently, not wanting to disturb the tranquility of this long plastic dome, where the only noise comes from the fans whirring up by the peak, and I marvel at the experience that has gone into growing tomatoes to this degree of success. Especially in the sun deprived, rain rich, Upper Skagit Valley. We need the passion and bullheadedness of youth, I think to myself, because it encourages innovation and drives us forward; but we also need the perspective of our elders, who have tried and failed – then tried again. I’m sure Anne Schwartz has had her share of disappointments over the years as an organic farmer, but boy, she’s certainly proven that persistence pays off. She and her crew of women, who bring such uncomplicated, chemical-free – not the mention delicious – sustenance to our table.

Tomatoes ripening

Tomatoes ripening

Slicing tomatoes

In clusters

Row Upon Tidy Row

Row upon tidy row

I’m still lost in that gentle musky smell that comes from tomatoes on the vine when I step forward and get an incredible hit of tangy fresh peppers. I look down to see long, curly green fingers hiding in the leaves throughout the rest of the hoop house. The smell is so mouth-watering I want to stand there and browse, like a deer at an apple tree, but I know if I start, I might not stop. So instead I linger a moment, torturing my salivary glands, then head back out of the hoop house before my growling stomach interferes with the peaceful growing that’s going on here.

Green peppers

Long, curly, green peppers

I get back into my car and decide I’ll catch Anne later to buy tomatoes and maybe some of those yummy smelling peppers. I do a three-point turn in the dirt and head back down the driveway, this time glimpsing a gap in the windbreak of green growth alongside the field I passed. Again my eyes widen at the sight of onions, planted in such a way that suggests someone really knew what they were doing. Why can’t I get my onions to look like that, I think. I can’t resist pulling over to snap a photo, and I’m glad I do because I get treated not only to the orderly onions, but also to the sight of crew members picking green beans and kale under the backdrop of Sauk Mountain. It takes a knowledge, I think.

Teri picking beans

Teri picking beans

Rows of Onions

Rows of Onions

Onions

Such tidy planting

Anne Schwartz 2

Anne Schwartz

Under Sauk

Under the backdrop of Sauk Mountain

And in case you didn’t catch the links in the text, here they are again for more information about Anne Schwartz and Blue Heron Farm:
http://tilthproducers.org/author/BlueHeron/

The Happy Heart

After an evening of performance back in December, I came down from the stage and was greeted by Wizard, our local Peace Crier. He doesn’t ring a bell and call out, “Oyez! Oyez!” but he does walk up and down the highway around here, carrying a sign that reads, PEACE. “How are you, Wizard?” I asked after he told me how much he enjoyed the show. He graced me with his usual, beatific smile, and declared, “I’m happier than I’ve ever been.” And just like that, I suddenly felt happier too.

It was such an uplifting thing to hear that I immediately found myself wanting to share it with others, to give them the same kind of feel-good sense that Wizard had given me. But I couldn’t quite let go of the words, fearing that somehow, they implied that I haven’t been as happy at other times in my life. And yet I have. But I’m also very happy now. So which is greater – those past joys or today’s contentment? I couldn’t decide, so I let the words sit on my tongue while I reflected on them, as if Wizard had given me a piece of candy, a sugared almond, that I was rolling around in my mouth, sucking on its sweetness, waiting for the kernel of truth at the center to emerge.

As I did so, I happened upon an article entitled “Forty Portraits in Forty Years” in the New York Times Magazine. It’s a piece about a photographer who took a photograph of four sisters in Rhode Island back in 1975 and then went on to take their photograph in a similar pose every year for forty years. I find this kind of thing fascinating, not because I’m so interested in the physical changes in a person but I am interested in the changes I can see in their eyes, their smiles, their body language. Age takes from all of us physically but, if we’re lucky, while it’s taking from the strength of our outer core, it’s nourishing our hearts, growing a garden of colorful, sweet smelling memories deep inside us. And as time goes by, those memories begin to reveal themselves through our eyes, presenting us with flowers that we can share with the people around us. This is what I saw in the four sisters over time; bouquets of deep-rooted, well-tended flowers held out to be enjoyed by all.

Coincidentally, a friend came to dinner at our house just after I read this article and snapped a photograph of me in our kitchen. I looked at it and remembered a similar shot of me in a kitchen in NYC, 30 years ago. I dug that photo out and studied it, wondering if I could spy the same changes in myself that I saw in the four sisters. I was still savoring the sweetness of Wizard’s statement and looked for the telltale signs of past and present happiness in myself.

Nicola '85, NYC

NYC, 1985.

Nicola

Sauk Mountain, 2015

Could I see, for example, in the older me, the sweet bliss I felt when I held my newborn babies in my arms? The sense of euphoria I got when I figured out how to restructure one of my plays to make it more compelling? And the big one – the huge one – the incredible, overwhelming contentment I experienced when I forgave my dad? I went around for months after that one, feeling warmth radiating through every ounce of my being, as if someone had planted a ray of sunshine in the pit of my stomach. I always thought that forgiveness had to do with letting the other person off the hook, but I was wrong. It had to do with me. And, dang, did it feel good! I wasn’t sure exactly why it felt so good. I thought, in my case, it had something to do with the fact that it was unexpected. I wasn’t looking to forgive my dad nor did I even know I had to – I just stumbled into it through my writing. And like the card says over my desk, given to me by a friend on my 25th wedding anniversary, “Often when we make an effort to find the bigger, grander things in life, we are wonderfully surprised by the discovery of other, equally significant things along the way.” But Wizard’s statement caused me reflect on the why all over again and I came to the conclusion that forgiving someone you think has wronged you, sets your soul free. You are you and nobody else. And like a mother feeling the quickening of her baby inside her, you feel your soul swimming unfettered and exultant inside you. And it feels incredible.

But then how could I ever beat that feeling by making a definitive statement about my level of happiness today? I pondered this as I looked at the photos of the sisters again, then the photos of me in the two kitchens, and the last of the sweetness coating Wizard’s statement dissolved, allowing me bite down on the truth. The flowers in my heart are perennials, not annuals. Which means that my happiness today is the accumulation of all the moments of happiness from my past and something that I should not be shy to share openly, freely with others.

So yes, I’m older, heavier, my hair is turning grey and my fingers don’t always work as easily in the mornings as they used to, but…..I’m happier than I’ve ever been.

Wizard

Wizard

Four Funerals and a Wedding.

I’m a happy ending kind of person. I can’t help it, that’s just who I am. So it was fitting that after having to don my black dress for no fewer than four funerals in the last six months, I got to slip on my dance shoes and attend a wedding. And in the space of a car journey (actually in our case, multiple plane journeys and then a car journey), the revolving door of life transported me from the solemnity of letting go to the promise of a future. And it did it in Downton Abbey!

Down Hall Country Hotel

Down Hall Country Hotel

Okay so it wasn’t really Downton Abbey, of course, but it certainly looked like it. Long, wide, carpeted corridors,
Corridors
chandeliered reception areas,
Reception
family portraiture and tapestries adorning the walls
Family portraiture
Tapestries
and hotel staff dressed to look like footmen.
Footmen
Even the name was similar – Down Hall – but instead of being the residence of a peer of the realm, it was a country hotel and plebs like me could stay there without having to cook puff pastry or help someone get dressed for our keep.

I roamed the corridors, amazed that I could actually be in such a place, while imagining all the changes this country manor had witnessed since it was built in 1550. And it wasn’t just the writer in me, picturing scenarios, that made me think about these things; it was the family member who had just come away from a funeral and couldn’t help but wonder what would happen to our lives now that this participant in our story was gone.

Because the Buddhists believe our karma is connected to that of our family. Or families if we tie the knot. Which is mind boggling when you consider that we don’t all share the same interest in improving our karmic standing. Or just improving ourselves. Add to that the fact that most of us seem to stumble into personal growth rather than being able to will it, and family turns into something akin to a Broadway dance number before the choreographer gets a hold of it. People moving in every which direction, tapping the wrong rhythm, spinning the wrong way. And just when we’re beginning to get a sense of how to move together, someone goes and dies leaving us with the possibility that we may never get it right.

But maybe the beauty in life is in our not getting it right and our job, instead of trying to correct imperfections, is to embrace them. One of my favorite stories is from The Unknown Craftsman by Sóetsu Yanagi. The author is talking about Japanese tea bowls and how they’re not supposed to be perfect because that teaches us we have something to learn. He goes on to tell the story of a visit he made to a Korean wood turning studio, where he watched an artisan make a bowl out of a block of wet pine. “The pine block was so fresh that turning made a wet spray, which gave off a scent of resin.” Yanagi was shocked that the wood turner would use such wood, knowing the bowl would crack as it dried. But, when asked, the artisan just smiled and said he would “mend the crack.” And when he did, the mended bowl was even more beautiful than the original.

The hole left in a family by death may not be so easily mended of course but the way certain family members step into the place vacated by the deceased and fill it with their own special gifts can be quite beautiful. What worried me, however, as I wandered up and down the corridors of Down Hall was how do we mend the cracks in a family left around that hole? Because cracks in families tend to linger, and settle, unless they’re filled with forgiveness and not everybody is into forgiveness. So to come back to the question of karma, if we’re all connected and we don’t help each other understand how to fill those cracks, then where does that leave us?

Fortunately the wedding started before I could get lost in this interminable loop and as I watched the bride and groom look tenderly on one another I realized that the happy part of our family dance was the introduction of new partners. New partners with moves that might soften even the crustiest of hearts among us and set us on a path to filling those cracks. But then, like I said before, I’m a sucker for a happy ending.
James and Samantha