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:
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.
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.


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.


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.
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.

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.

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.

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

Words, words, words.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Novel Approach to Marketing

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

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

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

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

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

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

Barb on stage with us

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

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

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

It Takes a Knowledge Part II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 even.

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 we write is not just for ourselves but for those who might read what we write. 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.”


The second piece is a short poem.


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 knew the tree had survived, because I see it everyday in my front yard, but until this question I hadn’t really considered exactly how well it had survived. So I went outside and really looked at it. As you can see from these photos I took, it’s not as tall as the two other silver firs planted at the same time, but it is nevertheless lush, darkly verdant and very healthy-looking. It’s thriving.


My Brain Has More GB Than Your Cloud.

Just recently I read a very troubling blog post about how Apple had stolen the writer’s music collection. The veracity of the writer’s statements are apparently under review but nevertheless, much of what he said, struck a chord with me. Particular coming on the heels, as it did, of my own conversation with a sales associate at one on the Apple stores, in which I divulged that I don’t want to back my iPhone up to the Cloud. “Why not?” she asked, and gave me that look. You know, the one that says you just dropped a bad smell in the room. Or killed their favorite cat. It’s the same look I’ve received any number of times from sales associates in various stores when I present them with cash to make a purchase and they ask if they can have my phone number or my zip code – and I say no. It’s the look that says there’s something wrong with me because I don’t trust people I don’t know (or in the case of the Cloud, an intangible cyber construct) that wants my personal information. Since the sales associate at Apple seemed to be about the same age as me, I tried being honest with her about my distrust of the Cloud, by using my age as my defense. I’ve lived long enough to see what cyberspace can do to people, their finances, their children, their lives, and long enough to remember a time when people didn’t trust others with their personal information, sometimes simply because they didn’t want the barrage of unsolicited phone calls that would undoubtedly come if they did give out their number.

My argument held no weight with the sales associate who looked at me and said, “You wanna talk about age? Look at me.” I thought to myself, then why doesn’t that make you sensitive to what I’m saying? Why can’t you tailor your responses to me as an individual, rather than just another one of the masses who must fall in line with the latest way of doing things? Why, when there are actually other ways to back up electronics, including flash drives, CDs and, oh yes, our brains. Again, I’m old enough to remember a time when I had all the important phone numbers at my finger tips because they were stored in my head. I like the convenience of having contacts stored in my phone, don’t get me wrong, but I do think it’s disabled our ability to do the remembering for ourselves. And we have allowed it to do so on the unstated promise that if something goes wrong, the techno-gurus will help us out. So why is it that the default response seems to be, “Er, no.” Or, if I’m to be honest, and excuse me, my more genteel readers, for the language – “Fuck, no!”

I’m not that old but I have passed the golden anniversary of my birth and I find the older I get, the more I like things the way I like them. Or, to use a more hip-term, I have my comfort zone. So while I like my electronics for the things they can do for me, once I get them set up for usage, I don’t like them to change that much. So one of the things that bugs me is the constant need to upgrade my computer and phone and software. Apart from anything else, my writing time at my computer is limited and already I find myself jealous of it because it gets interrupted all too frequently. So when I sit down to write, the last thing I want to spend my time doing is upgrading software – particularly when it turns out to be something I don’t even use in my system. In the TED radio hour The Source of Creativity, the writer Elizabeth Gilbert talks about an American poet she admires called Ruth Stone. She says this poet would be working the fields in Virginia when she was a young woman and would hear a poem thundering towards her, like a massive earthquake, and Ms. Stone knew that the only thing she could do was run. Run like crazy for her desk, to write this poem down once it got to her otherwise she knew it would keep moving through, until it found another poet to take its inspiration. Imagine what would have happened to Ruth Stone’s poetry if she ran like the wind to write it down only to discover she had updates that were CRITICAL to take care of before she could write. It’s like being in the throes of passion and having a kid walk into the room saying, “Mummy, I wet the bed.” You don’t have to deal with it now but, boy, it sure killed the mood. And to have it kill the mood only to find out that’s not enough – you need to back it up to the Cloud too and risk hackers seeing it before you’re ready to share – well, that just makes me bristle.

“Oh, our Cloud has never been hacked,” the sales associate boasted and I’m sure that’s true. But I’m equally sure that other big companies (remember Target? and Sony?) as well as government agencies (remember the IRS?) thought they couldn’t be hacked – until they were. What I want to tell my young friends, some of whom encourage me to just do it – use the Cloud, take the latest upgrade, download the latest software, sign up for every possible social media and then use it as an app – I want to say that my little frisson of distrust that I carry around – that comes from somewhere. That comes from my brain having enough storage capacity to remember that this has happened and can happen again. Because my brain, as small as it may be compared to some other people’s brains, my brain I’m pretty sure has way more gigabytes than any company’s Cloud. And unlike our electronics, when my brain freezes, all it usually takes is the act of sitting down a comfy chair to reboot it. No trip to The Genius Bar required.
Brain 3
Plus, here’s an interesting dichotomy. We’re made to feel like we must keep up with technology and we must give up readily our personal information and yet, if you try calling one of these hardware or software companies – even e-mailing them – for help, you’re going to find you have to sift through an overwhelming number of FAQs or scripted responses that actually have nothing to do with your problem because, you know why? They don’t want you bugging them! And that happens no matter what your age or what operating system you’ve upgraded to or how many passwords you have judiciously memorized to make sure your life information is protected. In fact, I think I’d respect these big techno-companies more if their products came with a warning label. Something along these lines: TRUSTING TECHNOLOGICAL ADVANCES TO BEAT HUMAN ERROR MAY BE DANGEROUS TO YOUR BLOOD PRESSURE. That way, those who give up everything to be in step with the latest advances won’t be surprised when they drop their phone off the side of a mountain and say, yes, they backed up to the Cloud, but no, they can’t remember their password because they stored it in that phone since their memory has been compromised by never having to use it, only to hear the unflattering reply, “Oh. Sucks to be you.”

But okay, I get that these big companies have had way too many people yelling at them for not being able to restore their contacts or photos after they drop their phones in the toilet that they’ve come up with what they think are idiot-safe ways to protect that information. But then I tell myself, if they’re capable of that, why aren’t they capable of designing items that take into account the comfort zone of the biggest sector of the population – the baby boomers? And why can’t they train their staff to talk to said baby boomers like there might actually be some validity to the way they see the universe? Because – and herein lie’s the rub – we may be old and crusty in our ways, but even the lowly like me, tends to have more disposable income than our younger, techno-hipster counterparts.

Something to think about.

A Walk in the Woods

Pumping up the hill in the State Park this morning, my dog, Molly Moon, gamboling easily, happily, ahead of me, I think about a monologue I wrote some time ago – I was an Illegal Alien – and how I haven’t recited it in a while. It’s quiet in the park, morning moist and aromatic with the gentle scents of the abundant foliage. I’m not someone who likes to listen to music as I walk but rather hear the sounds of nature as I run dialogue or envision plot twists in my head for things I’m working on. Or sometimes, I choose to do a monologue for an imaginary audience. Today that audience is in New York, in a small space, maybe a reading room at the Dramatists’ Guild.

“For a short while, after I first came to this country,” I start, seeing the straight up and down of the bark on the tall cedar trees that stand sentinel, on both sides of the grassy path I’m climbing. It’s amazing how different the bark is on a cedar tree from a Douglas fir, both of which are prolific in the Pacific Northwest. Firs trees have chunky, swirly, pitted bark, like a walnut shell, that will put you out of your house with the heat it can create in a fire, whereas cedars have long strips of paper thin bark, reminiscent of tobacco in cigars.

Somehow my mind captures this information without me really thinking it because I’m well into my recitation by now and enjoying the response of the imaginary audience. “Not that I intended to break the law,” I tell them and I can see them vacillating, wondering whether they should believe me or not. Peter Brook says all you need is am empty space to create theatre but I think all I need is an imaginary audience in my head. Of course, maybe my head is an empty space…

I watch Molly stop to sniff a frond of a sword fern and my eye is drawn to a series of tiny magenta blossoms strung like Christmas lights on a Salmonberry vine. I push on getting to the part in my monologue where I describe being offered a job making fundraising calls in the development department of Metropolitan Opera, and I hear the audience chuckle as I say, “I think she thought my British accent would be just the ticket for talking people out of their hard-earned cash.” Ahead of me, sunlight filters through the trees and I wish, as always, that I had a way to describe the many shades of green I see in these woods. Somebody told me once that Norwegians have many different words for snow and I think we should have an equal number of words for green. Maybe, if I were like Shakespeare, I would invent these words and people would sit behind the actors on the stages of my plays because they want to “hear” the play rather than see it.

But I’m not like Shakespeare. I don’t invent language, I just enjoy it. I wrote this monologue for an artistic director who was at the end of her life and wanted her last hoorah to be an evening with playwrights she had nurtured in her career. She overheard me once telling the story of my student days in NYC, and she said, “You outta write that down.” So for her last hoorah, I wrote I was an Illegal Alien, and shared it first that evening. Now I find myself slipping parts of it into my new novel and feeling ahead of the game that I already have this sticky note of material.

I reach the top of the hill and turn left, starting down the trail that runs alongside the creek. Coincidentally my monologue also makes a turn, away from illegal work activities and onto what it took to become legal. “Did you know, for example, that in order to become a permanent resident I had to swear that I was not a sexual deviant?” The audience laughs out loud, and I add the line, “Who gets to decide what that means?” although I think it might be too much. They get it. To my left I see a dogwood tree in full bloom, its wide, white petals laid flat around its yellow stamen. To my right the creek water clatters uninhibitedly downstream but it’s a sound that blends rather than distracts because it belongs in this environment.

We’re in the final stretch of our walk now and I’m at the place where my husband looks at the Immigration Officer and says, “What if she’s lying?” Audiences love that line and the one in my head is no exception.
“I look at him dumbfounded. Doesn’t he know these people don’t appreciate jokes?!” I complain. But it’s the character’s blatant honesty that they love. Don’t hide your past, is my husband’s mantra; that way people can’t hurt you with it later. I enjoyed writing this piece because it demonstrates that even someone who looks like me can have been an illegal at one time.

Molly skitters into the brush after something – maybe a squirrel – and I pause my monologue to click in my cheek and bring her back. She emerges, tail high in the air, front shoulders kicked back, as if to say, “Perimeter’s secure now, Ma’am.” Ma’am like ham, not like farm. Hey, if I can have my internal dialogue, she can have hers.

We ride home in the car next to each other, our lungs flush with new oxygen.
“What do you think about when you’re on your walk,” my husband asks me as I take off my sneakers.
“Well today I performed a monologue for an audience in New York,” I tell him.
He laughs and says, “You’re such a little girl!”
I think about that for a moment. A little girl, or a consummate performer? I shrug; who cares? I’ll take it.

The author as a little girl

The author as a little girl

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.