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LETTERS FROM WAKE ROBIN FARM

Helping Good Things Grow

I like to start my day with a bit of aerobic  exercise on a stationary bike while reading something inspirational and informative on my Kindle.  Just finished up Go Wild by John Ratey and  Richard Manning, about the benefits of eating and exercising like our ancestors.   They point out that we humans love a view.  A wide open vista makes us feel safe because in primitive times, a favorable campsite was one enabling folks to spot the approach of danger in the form of lions or other wild beasts. 

 

This makes sense, and explains why some of the earliest pioneer women, led to the middle of a thick, dark forest of Douglas fir, were instantly prioritizing  a clearing….please, good husband, before I go completely crazy?

 

Well, I'm not afraid of wild beasts or anything else approaching through our surrounding forest, but this craving to see into the distance explains why, this year, I've had so much satisfaction from clearing the blackberries and underbrush from our woods, why I wanted to hack back the thirty-foot diameter  forsythia in the middle of which had grown up a lovely volunteer  black walnut.  I wanted to see farther!  I wanted to watch the rays of sunlight shooting through and lighting up the leaves.

 

The culminating  project  involved waiting for the tree services guys to show up with their chainsaws and  excavators and in one day of  loud work  take out a decades-old tangle of horizontally growing wild cherry trees in the ancient  front orchard.   We had discovered three or four small oaks fighting their way up to the light, and now they'll be freed to be our oak grove of the future.   This is the view from my kitchen sink, and suddenly I don't feel so smothered.   I was almost shocked at how much it thrilled me, the sight of my husband on his  tractor, tilling up that weed patch that had been  turning up a higher percentage of dandelions ever since we got married right on this spot 45 years ago.  I loved this fresh start.

 

I must back track here to say how completely distressed I've been over the news lately.   I was annoyed at myself for spending  one of the most golden Autumn days ever visited upon us, a day when my darling grandson Nolan was running around here, glued to my smart phone with earbuds, watching everyagonizing moment of the Kavanaugh hearings.  And it literally made me sick!  My blood pressure went nuts.   The rank injustice of it.  Anyone with half a brain and an ounce of intuition could see that Brett Kavanaugh had done this horrid thing Christine Blasey Ford described, and had been  conveniently  too drunk to remember it.  The fact that we have people in control of the country who think it's perfectly  fine for such a man to sit on the Supreme Court is intolerable. I have no sexual assault survivor story to tell, but if I didn't live three thousand miles away, I could have gladly joined one of those "mobs" wanting to beat down the doors of the  court. And I guess I'm not the only one across the country who feels this way.  I see articles discussing the anxiety the Kavanaugh hearings have triggered in women everywhere.

 

But now I think, for my own sanity, I'm going to have to stop checking my phone so often to hear whatever  disgusting , appalling new lies Donald Trump is spewing.  I want that despicable, odious man out of my brain, our of our lives, out of the White House.

 

Yesterday, after raking down the old orchard, Herb scattered the special grass seed.  It's supposed to be tough, drought resistant, ready to withstand whatever comes  along.  We'll have to be that way too.   Planting it seems like a positive thing to do, and now, whatever happens on November 6th when the ballots are counted, we will be right here at Wake Robin Farm, watching this new green grass sprout up, and that will be good.

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Now it Makes a Queasy Kind of Sense

So now Brett Kavanaugh says he was a virgin.  Never had sex for YEARS after his alleged sexual transgressions.  Wow.  Apparently he's admitting this because he thinks it gives him a pass.  Well, not with me.  For me, it just makes the details of the whole story click into sad, pathetic sense.

 

My degree is in journalism, and I've done a lot of research for my novels which are based on true events.  Particularly with Brides of Eden: a True Story Imagined, which is also the story of sexual transgressions, in this historical case, by a religious cult leader.  Who's telling the truth?  Who's lying?  Who has a motivation to lie?  Who would not want to admit to the truth?

 

When Christine Blasely Ford came out with her accusations, my mind immediately went to trying to put all this together.  I have believed her from the beginning, and understand completely how such an incident could have traumatized her all these years.  The puzzle for me was what on earth Kavanaugh was telling himself.  Probably something along the lines of how psychologists say people reassure themselves in these cases:  "I know I am a worthy person and a good, worthy person would not do such a thing.  Therefore, I didn't do it."

 

But now, with  the claim of virginity and the reminder that he went to something called Little Flower church every Sunday, I think I understand why this all seems so unfair to him.  Hey, folks, he wasn't even getting any!  No fair!  He knows so many guys who were doing much worse things as they actually DID have lots of sex!

 

Does he think this sounds reassuring to women?  It doesn't to me.  It sounds like he's a little off.  I don't want a guy on the court who couldn't fall in love and lose his  virginity like the good guys out there who didn't get drunk and scare women to death, not to mention apparently totally turning everybody off every step of the way.  And then baldly lying about his exploits or at the least, allowing innuendo at the expense of a girl--Renate--whom he now claims to have simply chastely admired.

 

Ruth Bader Ginsberg had the opposite sort of husband in her beloved Marty.  And there are many other good men out there; I'm married to one of them myself. Why can't we d have one of that sort up there on the bench making laws about what women can do with their own bodies?  Or just cut to the chase and get another woman like Ginsberg, who certainly had nobody coming up with disturbing stories of how she'd traumatized them?

 

I imagine they will plow through with confirming Kavanaugh as Mitch McConnell has vowed to do, just like they went ahead and confirmed Justice Thomas despite the testimony of Anita Hill.  (And I still haven't recovered from that.)   But if nothing else comes of this, I hope these recent revelations about Brett Kavanaugh will help Blasey Ford recover from the trauma she's suffered all these years over this.  I hope she knows how we're all behind her.

 

I can't wait to watch her speak up.

 

 

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Buddhism and Craftsmen Corbels

When I gave birth to our twins 32 years ago, my postpartum mental state involved a sudden obsession with acquiring a beach house.  My thinking went like this: If I were going to be spending the foreseeable future nursing two babies at the same time while gazing out the window, could I at least be gazing out a different window?  My husband greeted this brilliant idea with the insistence that this was the world's worst timing.

 

I agreed.  I couldn't argue.  But, weirdly, I kept right on scouring the ads. 

 

Well, it's said that you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink.  Fortunately, I have a pretty good record of getting this horse to drink if I can just lead him to the right water, so when we ended up at the little house in Neskowin and my husband stood on the deck and took in the amazing ocean view, he drank.

 

Nice that I didn't get my way in wanting a 1920s fixer cottage, though.  So many babies, so little time for projects.  The newly built house, in no need of maintenance for years, suited us much better.

 

In recent years, though, I've been slowly transforming it into the cottage I wanted all along, first with cottage-style windows and then a papering of the white sheetrock bedroom walls with lovely  Arts & Craft style reproduction wallpapers from Bradbury & Bradbury. This past winter I delighted in figuring out how to turn the exterior into a proper bungalow.  Shingles…check.  Wide board fascias and window trims…check.  And then….corbels!  Yes, corbels  would be just the thing. I painted these massive wooden braces on sawhorses in our gravel driveway at the farm and we hauled them to the beach for our contractor to install.

 

Let's call this amazing guy Steve. (You don't think I'm going to hand out his actual contact info, do you?  Maybe when I'm all done with him, ha ha!)  He shows up when he says he will, does fine work, and has a sense of how things ought to look, an eye for design.  And I love how he always says I have good ideas.

 

His one flaw turns out to be a tendency to forget whether I said to do a certain thing one way or the other. If he remembers I wrote it down, he's not sure where to find that note or email.  Couple this with a gambler's willingness to just go for it, and we had several incidents where things went wrong. Still, I  have never dealt with a guy more eager to cheerfully correct his errors.  Usually these guys are surly about it, right?  Not Steve! Wrong siding in this one band?  No problem!  The right stuff will go up tomorrow.

 

Well, I knew the corbels could be problematic.  They had an upside and a downside, but the difference was subtle.  Communicating these things from a distance wasn't always easy.   To make it clear to Steve which end was up, I emailed him about it.  I put blue tape marked "Top" on the corbels when I left them at the beach.  I emailed him the picture of the corbel, right side up, from the catalogue.  I repeatedly said, almost unnecessarily, I thought, "Be sure to put them right side up!"

 

When he texted that the corbels had been successfully installed, I couldn't wait to check them out.  Imagine my          shock. You guessed it: he'd bolted them on upside down.  And no, they couldn't simply be turned around; he'd had to shave them in places and make cut-outs in others.  When I told him, he was horrified.  "I really screwed up!"  He insisted he'd cover the cost of new ones because he wanted to get it right.  He said he feared every time I looked at them I'd be bothered and mad that he'd blown it and it wasn't how I wanted it.

 

Well, maybe not.  I've been reading a lot of Pema Chodron lately, discovering  some of the Buddhist ways of looking at things.  The idea of not forever insisting on total control really spoke to me, because I've always struggled with a certain crippling perfectionism.  I am working on learning to let certain things go.  Relax my grip. Because--duh--life's short.

 

I studied the corbels.  It seemed so unfair that after all my efforts to head off this very problem, I did not get to have them the way I wanted.  The RIGHT way.  On the other hand, they didn't look bad.  I mean, they were good solid corbels and they had the effect I'd been after. If they'd really screamed WRONG, Steve never would have chanced doing them this way.  He does have a good eye.

 

I decided that every time I look at the corbels, I will not think that I did not get my way.  I will not be the woman cracking the whip of perfection at everyone.  I'll be the one who said, "Good enough! What's next?"  What should make me think I'm in charge of the universe, anyway?

 

 

And why not stay on Steve's good side?  I have a lot more projects for him.  Maybe next time I'll just stand right there as he's making some crucial decision!

 

           

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Happy Father's Day

My father has been gone for over twenty years, but the longer I live, the more I feel  I understand him.  From my mother's side of the family I inherited a penchant for list making and trying to be organized, but from my father I got all my creativity.

 

Like his father, my grandfather Papa Bill, he was a talented artist.  In college, the story  goes, he was told his drawings were "too photographic," and so  he simply turned to photography as a career.   We have only a handful of his wonderful pen and ink drawings, just as we have only a few from his father, who earned his living as a drygoods salesman.

 

But my father, in his creativity, was irrepressible.  He loved to make things.  He carved Dutch wooden shoes for my Shirley Temple doll.  He built a clever kitchen camping cupboard which would each year be set up at the end of a lakeside picnic table on our vacations. He would add an extra fiberglass foot to a sailboat, just for the amusing challenge of it.

 

He was never neat or organized about any of this.  In all the instructions he gave me about painting, he never mentioned proper care of tools, and it was highly fitting that at his memorial service in 1996, my brother brought to the pulpit a glass jar containing, encased in hardened fiberglass, a paintbrush.  It looked like a trophy and brought a laugh of recognition.

 

So many times now, when I'm doing a project, excited and impatient to see how it will turn out, I find myself thinking, "Well, I'm doing this Dad-style."  Which is to say, we don't have time to wait for things to dry as long as it says on the paint can.  Those rules about testing something ahead?  Waiting 24 hours?  Forget it!  Those rules are for somebody else.  We're artists and we are just too excited to see  how the whole thing is going to turn out.

 

So here comes this great-grandson of his, Nolan Crew, now four-and-a-half.  Since both of Nolan's Chinese  grandparents are artists, it's no surprise he may have inherited a degree of talent along these lines.  But when we get going on a project, it's this fierce creativity from my father and from myself that I recognized in this child.

 

I had suggested the prosaic job of painting a little picnic table my husband Herb had built for him, just tossed this off as he was on his way to pre-school, his dad dropping off his little brother at the Wake Robin Farm Academy for Exceptional Grandchildren.  I knew he liked the idea of painting.  But without missing a beat that day he said, "I have an idea!  Let's paint it like there's a tablecloth already on it so I can paint designs on that."

 

And when he showed up after a fun, muddy day at the Avery Park Nature School, nothing else would do but we get going on that.  He'd obviously already been giving it a lot of thought and would brook no warnings about primer needing more time to dry.  We're artists!  We want to get in and do it!

 

I don't know that Nolan's paintings are so outstanding compared to other four-year-olds.  It's his narration of his creative process I enjoy.  "Nothing here is from imagination, Gramie.  Everything here is what's actually blooming today."  Like any good plein air artist, he was looking up and painting exactly what was in front of him. "This painting," he told me, "is called 'Today at Wake Robin Farm.'" 

 

I loved that.  And my father would have too.  It reminded me of a New Christy Minstrels song he always liked, the one sung at our own wedding, 44 years ago this month:

 

Today, while the blossoms still cling to the vines

I'll taste your strawberries, I'll drink your sweet wine

A million tomorrows shall all pass away

'Ere I forget all the joy that is mine…today.

 

Dad, Papa Bill, I wish you could see this little guy who clearly has some of your very special artistic genes.  You would love him as I do. 

 

Happy Father's Day.

 

 

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Watching History Unfold From Wake Robin Farm

Since our married life began right here on this exact piece of land, from the day we said our vows, we have been following the news of the world from this same, but ever-changing  setting, together.

 

We bought our first TV right after our 1974 June wedding specifically in order to follow the Watergate hearings,  and I  clearly remember sitting on the dusty sofa that had belonged to Herb's former girlfriend, taking all this in.  The livingroom was particularly disgusting, because I had started ripping the wallpaper off the ceiling (I know, how does wallpaper get on a ceiling?) without  bothering to move or tarp any of the furniture below.  We were so happy that hot August afternoon when Nixon resigned in order to avoid impeachment.  We had hated him for years as the villain of the Vietnam War.

 

But it's funny now, looking back, the Presidents we've disliked.   Thanks to Trump, even George Bush seems  like something of a teddy bear.  Many of them were men we disagreed with politically, but I now see I could have sat across a dinner table from any of them.  Donald Trump, in contrast, absolutely makes my skin crawl. Until him, we really had no idea what it would be like to have for a President a thoroughly despicable human being.  

 

The summer after Nixon, we sat on the front porch steps (still wooden, not yet brick) and speculated whether they'd ever find Patty Hearst, and had she actually joined with her radical kidnappers.

 

Fall of 1991 found us in the backyard, rolling out and reseeding the lawn while we listened to Anita Hill testifying in Clarence Thomas's hearings for confirmation to the Supreme Court.   It would have gone right over the heads of the five-year-old twins, and  Miles, at 11, was in school.  My memory of that project is entirely of the red hot anger that burned in my chest over this, especially when Thomas was confirmed.

 

Ten years later, on the sunny morning of  9/11, standing on that same, now thick lawn, we noted the eerie calm of the blue skies as all planes had been grounded.  Then, as no one suggested we do otherwise, we drove the twins to high school.

 

Today, we're repainting (for the third time) and re-installing the fancy, funky garden gate, and strengthening  the fences against  the overly  bold deer.  And what are we discussing?  Melania Trump.  As in, where is she?  Not sighted for 22 days.  This is not right, folks.  For the record, I think Herb's theory makes the most sense.  Maybe she's just fed up.  Maybe she's saying, "Hey, you want me to come out and act like a nice First Lady?  Tough!"

 

I sincerely hope for the sake of the entire world that we will be looking back at this day and noting that it was right before Mueller came out with indictments which will prove the beginning of the end for this so-called Presidency.  Donald Trump is bad for my mental health and that of everybody I know, and we want relief!

 

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So-called Cultural Appropriation

At  Wake Robin Farm, we were surprised and dismayed to see this girl in Utah, Keziah Daum, publicly taken to task for wearing a Chinese qipao to her prom the other day.  She was chided for the sin of "cultural appropriation."  Lighten up, everybody!  I really dislike the way the internet and social media has unleashed these various squads of flying monkeys to anonymously express all their basest, most negative feelings.

 

In particular, a story about a qipao  would jump out at me because my new memoir, Wedding in Yangshuo, begins with a scene  of me getting measured for just such a dress while in China for our son's wedding.  The Hong Kong tailor certainly did not deliver the beautifully tailored dress to me with any admonitions that I not wear it in America!  In my book,  I write about my awareness that the jewel tone colors and slim cut of these dresses look better on willowy, black-haired women than they do on slightly plump, freckly, brown-haired me, but I never thought I didn't have the right to give it a shot.  I was trying to honor the Chinese culture,  just as I was trying to honor the  Khmer culture—and indeed was invited to do so—by my friend Sam-ou, who gave  me a length of Cambodian silk and instructed me to wear it to the New Year Celebration in  Portland during the time I was researching Children of the River.

 

It's pretty simple, really.  People should be allowed to wear whatever they want.  When our daughter-in-law's father arrived from China last week wearing blue jeans and a big, Western-style belt buckle, were we supposed to chew him out for cultural appropriation?  Um, no?

 

Of course the same goes for who gets to write what in fiction.  The only sensible rule is that everybody should be allowed to try to write about anything and anybody they want.  I'm so glad I jumped in and innocently, passionately wrote Children of the River before the cultural sensitivity police showed up to take down anything written by somebody NOT the color or religion of the characters in question.  Silly me!  I just admired these people and wanted to share their story at a time when none of them were ready to do it in English themselves.  Although I much later read gripes about the way I had "perpetuated the myth of the model minority," I still stand by every word I wrote, and nothing that has happened with the families on whom I based the story over thirty years ago has changed my mind about their successes in adapting to life in the United States.

 

All this internet nastiness is the reason that what you are reading right here is my sole involvement in social media.   I don't have to worry about what Facebook knows about me because I never signed up.  If people write to me, I answer them, one on one.  What I have to say is mostly in my books, not blathered out on an hourly basis in tweets like a certain President, who has contributed greatly to the total coarsening of our culture.

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The Hopes and Energy of the Young

Forty-four years ago this spring, as we were preparing for our wedding right here at Wake Robin Farm, a friend of my mother’s gave us one of her own creations as a gift—a clay lion, I guess you’d call it. To be honest, I never liked it, and the “best wishes” this woman delivered with it didn’t further endear the poor creature to me. “You’d better not be hoping to have kids,” she said. “The way the world is going, they won’t have anything to eat.”

Wow, thanks for your thoughts.

I put this piece of "art" way below the dip outside the kitchen window, hoping the next high water of the Marys River would carry it away. Nope. So I took to tossing it farther out. No way. Flood after flood, like old song says, the cat came back, he just wouldn’t roll away.

Weirdly, though, by now I’ve developed for him a certain affection. Every time I pry him out of the mud and set him back on the log, I think, check it out, Irva—we’re still here. Our three kids never lacked for food, and now THEIR kids are eating their fill of the fruit from our own garden. Glad I never took your advice to heart.

So what is it that makes people want to stomp on the optimism and energy of the young? Such bad karma.

I love all the 18-year-olds of Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, who survived the recent shooting and are raising their voices against being made to live in daily fear of guns, finally trying to fix what their elders have let go on far too long.

Emma Gonzalez—you go, girl! You’re the hope of the future, and the sour, mean-spirited adults who fear your power and want to stomp on you for it should be ashamed.

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Vacation Story

If you have one precious annual week in Hawaii, a lot of Northwesterners will choose January or February, and in Maui last week, we saw a lot of Seattle Seahawks shirts. Everyone was appreciating the fact that we had lucked out on missing some of the nastiest of this winter’s weather here at home.

Completely by whim of chance--which direction to take a walk?--my husband and I stumbled onto the Maui Plein Air Painting Invitational, a "paint out" being held on the grounds of the resort next door to ours. Many of the artists were from the West Coast, all of them painting in a style we appreciate. It turned out they’d been capturing scenes all over the island, and the resulting art works would be exhibited and sold a few days hence in Lahaina, so we made plans to go.

At the exhibition, we circled the already beautifully framed paintings hung in the hotel ballroom, then I returned to the one that for some reason, I just kept wanting to look at. That’s MY super sophisticated way of judging art! When the artist walked up, it turned out she was Jennifer Diehl from Mt. Angel, Oregon. Delighted with this connection, we bought the painting.

Then into Old Lahaina to shop for aloha shirts for the little grandsons. Parking’s tough in this lovely place, and we ended up in an unfamiliar pay lot which meant we were taking a never-before-strolled side street up to the wharf front.

Just a block from Front Street, Herb said, “Hey, there it is!”—the little cottage depicted in the painting we’d just bought. We never would have seen it, parking in our usual place. I loved that it housed a shop called the Maui Vintage Clothing Company. I am a total sucker for the word vintage, so we had to go inside.

When I asked the shopkeeper if she’d noticed an artist painting the place, she got very excited because yes, she had, and insisted on posing us on the front bench, snapping our picture from the exact place across the street the artist had set up her easel.

Now, as a memento of the trip, we have the painting and the picture of us in that setting. The straw hat I bought inside Maui Vintage Clothing Company will always have attached to it this story.

The shopkeeper’s story was good, too—a tale of a young woman leaving Israel, working in the United States a few years, thinking to cool her heels in Hawaii while she waited for proper papers to go to Australia. She wanted no commitments. Ha! Promptly fell in love in Lahaina and here she is, a husband and two babies later, not at all sorry she had a change of plans. Paradise can have that effect on people!


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Bunny Bungalow


My own children had turned into cynical teenagers by the time award-winning and prolific author Cynthia Rylant published her picture book, Bunny Bungalow, so it was fresh to me when my husband brought it home from the library to share with our little grandson, Nolan.

Long term, Nolan bonded to this book more than any other. The charming illustrations by Nancy Hayashi depicting this cozy bunny family living their lovely, peaceful days and nights, seemed to enchant him.

Everything’s nice at the Bunny Bungalow, where top priority is enjoying pleasant pastimes such as frolicking in the grass, gardening, and listening to loving parents reading you books. The height of naughtiness presents in a double-page spread of the bunnies picking cherries off a tree and then, as Nolan gleefully interrupts each time, “Why squishing them with their toes?” We always stop and discuss how it probably feels good and, also, they are shown eating some. They’re not wasting them all.

It turns out, though, this cherry squishing was not the most questionable activity in the book. Maybe we should have paid more attention to Mama Bunny’s stern look at the bunny gaily jumping on the bed, because three days before Nolan’s 4th birthday, he tried this trick at home, fell off and broke his leg.

With a child hobbled by a cast and a new baby granddaughter arriving, I had a brilliant idea. I took down this new baby's mother's mainly unused dollhouse from a top shelf and began refurbishing it as our own Bunny Bungalow. Make no mistake, I did this for myself, and what a great time I had, finding vintage dollhouse furniture on line, painting it, applying tiny rose decals.

It all came from Etsy—a little bed from Denmark, a painted set from Germany, a lawn chair from Ontario, other pieces from Michigan, Florida and California. Each package arrived like evidence of kindness out there in the world—the tiny furniture careful packed, and always with a nice note of good wishes from the sender for the receiver’s project. That’s what I love most about Etsy, the real people out there, everybody sharing in these creative pursuits.

So far my strategy of calling this Gramie’s Bunny Bungalow is paying off. Grandchildren can sidle up with interest and feel privileged to join in the project. So much more enticing than being given the results of a lavish project made by an adult and be told, “Aren’t you impressed? Aren't you beside yourself with gratitude? Now get busy and play with this!”

So thanks, Cynthia Rylant and Nancy Hayashi, for this lovely book and the inspiration it provided. It’s my feeling that the authors, illustrators, and publishers of the finest of children’s books are not given enough credit for the absolute magic that’s required to make a child want to return to a particular book again and again.



























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Wedding in Yangshuo

Happy New Year! My computer crashed for good just before Christmas, so I have been unable to post updates until now.

Wedding in Yangshuo is now available in both paperback and ebook formats from all the various on-line platforms. A sale directly from BookBaby directs the portion of the price which would have gone to Amazon directly to me, which is nice, although, at the moment, Amazon is offering my title for a low sales price.

If you're lucky enough to live in Corvallis, Oregon, you can walk right into our wonderful independent, Grass Roots Books, and pick up a copy off the new paperbacks table. If you don't see it, please ask. Read More 
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