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LETTERS FROM WAKE ROBIN FARM

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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Kind words for Accidental Addict

Because it's just about impossible to secure reviews for a self-published book, I entered my memoir, Accidental Addict,in the Writer's Digest Contest for Self-Published books, hoping to get some attention. When I didn't win, I figured I'd been ripped off for the hundred dollar entry fee just like everyone else who entered.
What a nice surprise, then, to now receive this short "critique." Somebody actually read the book after all. I've posted its entirety on my Accidental Addict web page, but these are the lines that pleased me most as a writer. We so want people to "get" our books. Also, as a human being healing from this trauma, nothing feels better than kindness, and knowing that my story has been heard:

"Her witty depictions of the depths she is forced to wallow in, over and over, will warm the heart of every other smart baby boomer woman who feels alone while surrounded by family and marks of alleged success. I dare anyone in that reader category not to consider Crew a personal friend by the end of this memoir." Read More 
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Wedding in Yangshuo

Once upon a time at Wake Robin Farm in Oregon, I was miraculously pregnant with our first child.

That same summer, on the Li River in Southern China, a pretty woman exactly my age was also expecting. She and her husband were both artists.

Our child, born in August, was a son. Theirs, born in October, a daughter.

Twenty-two years later these children, now grown, would meet in Beijing.

The girl from Yangshuo had been studying English.

Our son, traveling with a university program, was rapidly become proficient in both Mandarin and Cantonese.

These two could talk to each other.

They could fall in love.

And did.

This is their story.

And ours.

Everything in this book actually happened, even the lovely, fateful coincidences.

Especially those........


So begins my new memoir, which is just out as an ebook and will be available as a paperback shortly. For readers of Children of the River, now in print almost twenty-nine years, Wedding in Yangshuo can be read almost as a companion book, as it explains the inspiration for the YA novel, and shows how deeply impacted the future of my life was by its research, writing, and publication.

For everybody else, my memoir is simply the story of my writing life, my marriage, and the life-changing trip my husband and I took to Yangshuo, trying to carry the family flag as our son married a girl from this most scenic corner of China.  Read More 
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BRIDES OF EDEN: a True Story Imagined

Finally....a reprint edition of Brides of Eden, which was originally published by HarperCollins in 2001. The new edition, in paperback and ebook, contains all the original historic photos of the original.

So much has been written over the years about the scandal that erupted in sleepy little Corvallis when charismatic Franz Edmund Creffield came to Corvallis, dubbed himself Joshua, and gathered around him the wives and daughters of several prominent families.

When my book came out, I ended up meeting some of the descendants of these folks. One older man was still terribly upset about the whole affair, although why he traveled a hundred miles to confront me in a bookstore to say he wished people would stop writing about this and embarrassing him in public I cannot say.

Other descendants of a younger generation seemed to understand that, unlike everything else written about this episode, I was telling the story from the point of view of the young women involved. I had sympathy for them as the victims they were.

One man called me and said he had only just learned that he was descended from the followers of Creffield. He had been advised not to read about it, but was told that if he did, he should read the one called Brides of Eden, because that's the only one that explained how it really happened. I took this as the best compliment, especially as my book is the only one written as a novel.

The story of a powerful man bending women to his will just keeps playing out, doesn't it? Check out the link to my newly posted book trailer to see how it happened in Corvallis, Oregon, in 1903.  Read More 
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