Total Transport from Now

These weeks leave us anxious, holding our breath, too worried to hope, but desperate to hope. A terrific book changes the subject.

     When they came to visit in the Before Times, friends of our younger son brought Caroline Van Hemert’s book, “The Sun Is A Compass: a 4,000 Mile Journey into The Alaskan Wild.” Van Hemert was their high school classmate, and her life took a turn – she made her life take a turn – that none of them expected.

     Van Hemert’s book is the tale of the trek she and her husband made in 2012, traveling those 4,000 miles under their own power – by foot, by ski, by canoe, raft, and rowboat from Bellingham in the Pacific Northwest to Kotzebue on the shore of the Bering Sea.  

     Trading time in front of a computer studying data for her real love – the outdoors and all it contains – Van Hemert describes the decision to attempt this epic journey. In one of my favorite passages (and there are so many), Van Hemert and her husband, as they leave the coast and head into the mountains, sit on a snack break and together identify birdsongs. She writes: “But today the graphs and calculations fall away as I inhale the scent of dirt and spruce needles. Out here I am half scientist, half disciple. I’ve left the laboratory far behind and, with it, the need to quantify and contain. In its place, I’ve reconnected with the simple act of observation.”     

Observation, yes, and treasuring every day. Toward the end Van Hemert writes: “In life we’re always closer to the edge than we like to admit, never guaranteed our next breath, never sure of what will follow this moment. We’re human. We’re vulnerable. With love comes the risk of loss. There are a million accidents waiting to happen, future illnesses too terrible to imagine, the potential for the ordinary to turn tragic. This is true in cities and towns as much as it is in the wilderness. But out here we face these facts more clearly, aware of the divide between today and tomorrow. And, for this reason, every day counts.”

Picturing her exhausted in the tent at day’s end, scribbling in her journal, I marveled at how she kept the saga’s rich detail in mind. She is the finest of writers, scientist and poet, with an ability to capture the landscape, the animal life, and the action. And her knowledge of and love of birds is thrilling.

But you can’t help reading it as a page-turner as they traverse this unthinkable distance, by sea and river, over glacier and mountain, and hummocks of tundra. Crossing shockingly cold Alaska rivers, frigid with glacier melt in tiny packable rafts, encountering bears and a caribou migration, and surviving hunger, a terrifying dunk in the Arctic Ocean, and discovering the kindness of strangers.

     I often identified with Van Hemert’s parents, supportive with love and logistics, but uneasy as the left behinds. It tickles me that now Van Hemert has children, she will learn what it’s like to be the one at home. Our younger son wrote to me, “I can’t imagine what her boys will do to one-up her, but I’m sure they’ll figure out something.”

     As children do. And same for Lord B – Professor Snape now – adventurer-to-be!

“Putting Up” and New Postcards

     Local squirrels worry not about the pandemic or the election, they scurry about, gathering and stockpiling their winter supplies. Following suit, I’ve given away and stored away all 27 pumpkins from our little patch. Pumpkins gone north to Alaska and south to LA, they decorate the porches of friends who may or may not make pies.

Pumpkins to my neighbor who recently gave me some of the big bag of onions she brought back from Eastern Washington, where the summers are hot and tasty onions grow. She recommended freezing them after chopping – something I’d never known to do. Handy!

     Pumpkins for our friend of the fine blueberry patch who said come to get apples and pears, and when I arrived, also offered tomatoes for sauce and a pepper, “off the scale hot!” I sent it on to the Sweet Bride, who says no pepper is too hot for Thai taste.

So far, I’ve baked a first pie, and made pear butter with most of the pears (and painted one), and a plan for applesauce. And also new to me, tomato sauce – if you briefly boil the tomatoes six or so at a time, the skins slide off, then cook down. Now to make pasta sauce with these cooked tomatoes.

     And for a winter scheme, this week Sweet Baby began our new alphabet postcard project. A friend accuses me of too many words, my return postcard proves her point.

Needs Must, Just Deserts

     This weekend those two phrases kept floating through my mind.

     Our old friends came to dinner on Friday night. That used to be such an ordinary event, but not since March. We ate in our friends’ beautiful garden in the summer – one night in spring the fireplace provided warmth, but it never seemed welcoming here – our patio too hot on a summer evening, our back deck so small.

     But on Friday it felt exciting to be welcoming friends after so long, and, though we’d be outdoors, I cleaned house. I made a pear dessert, totally simple and really good. (Halve and core pears, place in a baking dish cut side up, sprinkle with crushed walnuts and cinnamon, drizzle a teaspoon of honey over each, and bake 30 minutes at 350°.)

To figure out “outdoor dining,” I’d been inspired by Lady B’s mother’s tale of a little farmers’ market-like canopy and a gas firepit in their Alaska back yard – and my old friend’s plan to expand her covered porch or set up a table and chairs on the existing narrow one – and figure a way to add heat as the winter descends. It is going to be a long winter – needs must.

     On Friday, I separated the tiny patio tables, placed starters on each, and laid another little table with a cloth, a water jug, and glasses. The purple footstool from the front porch became a landing spot for pizza boxes (our dinner).

     The sky cleared of fog and smoke by late afternoon and the sun warmed the little patio, but the sun soon disappeared behind neighboring trees. I always forget how suddenly real darkness descends in October. The solar fairy lights came on, the moon rose (a lovely pale yellow instead of smoke-filtered orange), and by the end, most all our house candles, in various holders and unused all summer, glowed at our tables.

We ate and talked of our families, the difficulties of any plans for the upcoming holidays, and the week’s mind-boggling events. That other phrase “just deserts” comes to mind, along with hopes for survival, and the (probably useless) wish that this development might grow some empathy for those who have suffered and change minds toward universal mask wearing.

     We have probably seen our last 70° windless, rainless day, but even wearing down jackets, and sitting next to the car, it was a candlelit, bistro-someplace-else evening. With no hope of a repeat, the memory glows – a quartet of old friends, food and wine, in the midst of a pandemic.

Needs must can make magic.

St. Francis Leaves the Bluff

When we moved to Bainbridge two years ago, we wanted to make sure the move was right, so we didn’t sell our house, but leased it. Planning to visit often, we kept access to the guesthouse, the Buffalo. But the universe conspired to prevent visits, and time has come to put the property on the market. (I recognize this as a tale of privilege. Several times that’s stopped me from writing, but the blog began on the bluff, and now that part of the story ends.)

Only 900 square feet, the Buffalo is still a complete house with the utensils, bedding, linens, art, photos, books, and furniture of a house. And, because of a big closet, extraneous things got stored over the years – all our photo negatives packaged in labelled shoeboxes, beloved aged backpacking tent, sleeping bags, extra kid equipment. An empty file cabinet became the repository of my mother’s things when she died, her purse, her files and photos, and little stacks of expired passports and driver’s licenses.

In her book of essays, titled “Everywhere I Look,” Helen Garner quotes a clergyman’s wife on changing houses, “Every time you move you have to work through your whole life.”

Because we never really lived there, the Buffalo’s emotional weight blindsided me. In the first few of many trips to clear out, I thought it would be just sort, give away or toss, pack. But things speak of their provenance to a person packing up, voicing memories and original hopes.

A lot of the things I hoped for came to be. We built the bigger house and a garden and moved there, our sons came willingly to visit, and one married there in a beautiful ceremony. Eventually the Buffalo sheltered their growing families, and always it made it a pleasure to have guests.

In the drawing below, done early in the garden’s life, it’s orderly. But this spring, nature occupied every available space. Thuggish plants crowd and engulf plants once cosseted. Buttercups invade the beds, water suckers ruin the shape of the enormous Sambucus, the paths are clotted and choked by grass. I used to fantasize it was “contained abundance” – no longer.

My friend the wordsmith (who has been the most amazing help and support, making a sometimes hard thing cheerful) says it looks like the garden of an abandoned English estate. Kinda. The realtor will have it cleaned up for listing, and I’m hoping for a new gardener to love it.

The wordsmith’s husband muscled our statue of St. Francis (it stood for years in the center of the foursquare garden) into my car. I remember the first time Lady Baby spotted him and stood nearby, seemingly shocked he was taller than she. He looks contented now, in his tiny pretend Tuscan courtyard, surrounded by rosemary and welcoming hummingbirds who visit a nearby fountain.

 

Both Anguish and Action

It’s impossible to ignore what has happened this last week in America. And from a position of white privilege, but with no political power and no ability to influence unacceptable police behavior, hard to know what to do. I’ve already voted for people who support fairness and equity under the law and against the evil occupant of the White House.

And yet, just to post the blog intended for today, is inadequate. To say nothing at this moment seems completely head-in-the-sand unacceptable.

So, I offer the Obama Foundation’s suggestions for turning anguish into action, because, of course, these people have thought long and hard about what needs to happen. They make concrete recommendations for how to get informed and involved – for people like me – and hopefully you. Their statement of purpose:

We work to help leaders change their world—and the world needs changing. The killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and the loss of far too many Black lives to list, have left our nation anguished and outraged. While now is a time for grief and anger, it is also a time for resolve. Find resources below to learn what you can do to create a more just and equitable world.

https://www.obama.org/anguish-and-action/

 

Gardening in the Time of COVID-19

The other morning I read an inspiring and joyful article by Charlotte Mendelson titled, “It’s Time To Grow Your Own Beans.” Right away I forwarded it to the California gardener, and put a handful of heirloom cannellini beans (from a sealed bag I seem to have saved for the apocalypse and can now use to make soup) in the mail to California.

I kept thinking that the author’s name sounded familiar, and, to my chagrin, realized Mendelson’s gardening memoir, “Rhapsody in Green: A novelist, an obsession, a laughably small excuse for a vegetable garden,” has sat unopened on our coffee table since last year (it does have a wonderful cover, but still).

For this whole strange time when thinking about reading, I have assumed I would concentrate better on a page turner, some junker that could transport me to a different catastrophe, one with an ending. I would never have predicted a memoir about a “comically small town garden, a mere 6 square meters of urban soil and a few pots,” would be my escapist dream.

Mendelson’s writing really appeals – and her delicious sense of humor about gardening, gardening experts, and gardening desires – also slugs, failures, and small triumphs. In her prologue, she welcomes the reader, “Come into my garden. Try to keep a straight face.”

Gardening season begins now in Washington, but we are weeks behind California. Over these last years, Sweet B’s dad (with her help recently) transformed a barren urban plot into a green haven. Larger than Mendelson’s garden behind her terraced London house, the California garden has a tiny square of lawn (just big enough for a small bike rider to make circles), and a brick patio (just big enough to hold a large deep wading pool). A pergola, covered in grape vine and shade-cloth, provides shelter from the sun for an outdoor couch, chairs, and table.

A podocarpus hedge grown tall shields the garden from close next-door neighbors. A variety of fruit trees in garden beds surround the lawn: banana, pomegranate, lime, papaya, orange, plum, and an olive. Bougainvillea climbs the painted bright-blue cement wall at the end of the garden, and throughout the beds California drought-tolerant perennials crowd huge lavender and rosemary shrubs and smaller herbs. Seasonal color flashes from early sweet peas, California poppies, red hot pokers, and more.

In the past, family summer traveling limited vegetable growing, but this year, by using a graveled-with-pots, previously ignored space at the corner of the house in full sun, a vegetable plot took shape. The chief gardener and his assistant cleared out the gravel, constructed an L-shaped raised bed, and erected a sturdy trellis.

By ordering soil and starts online, the gardeners planted food – tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, strawberries, snap beans, carrots, chard, kale, lettuce, green onions, radish, and zucchini. Behind the garage by the compost (beside a volunteer pumpkin), corn, melons, and cucumbers found space. (I had to ask for this list. It ended with, “and a few things I may have forgotten about – we’ll see if they grow.”)

And now there’s a chance for Jack-in-the-beanstalk moments!

Blue bird, butterflies, and bees visit flowers in her garden, by Sweet B.

 

Olive tree with climbing ladder, spirit house on stilts, and gardeners watering, by Sweet B.

Sheltering with the Alaskans 

Lady B made the drawing below of her situation (that’s Baby Brother playing with trucks nearby). But I’m a little doubtful that her speech bubble contains a meaningful comment, because we hear tales and see photos and videos of a giant pile of snow in the back yard for snow caves, and of great cross-country skiing.

Lady B is learning to skate ski, but on the downhills, she gets her skis in the tracks, tucks, and hurtles around bends. Baby Brother rides in a trailer behind his dad (a handle on the back allows Lady B to also catch a ride). Luckily, good weather and plentiful snow fill these quarantine days!

She sees her class on Zoom – she tells us they each log in with something to share and the big screen fills with the classmate talking, the others appear in little boxes at the bottom. We are all pixels now.

But there must be moments like below.

Sweet Brother and Big Sister

Suffice it to say that Sweet Brother looms larger in real life, than in this drawing of him with his mother – made by his sister on his first day home. Now, nearly three weeks later, although nested with his mother most of the time, he’s an impactful presence.

I don’t remember the day my sister came home. Do any oldest children remember the day? Such a profound event – gaining a sibling – influencing us forever. The initial arrival brings sudden puzzling changes, distracted grownups, and most of all a very busy – with somebody else – mother.

And then there’s this long-awaited baby in person – after months of imagining a playmate, a partner, reality presents in this useless form. I remember Lady B telling me how she’d teach her brother about seat belts and helmets and how to keep safe (now – three years later – she does that). Her dad, when his brother came home, dashed to get his best friend next door. They came back with a cowboy hat and six shooter for the baby to wear. When that didn’t work, they lost interest.

Sweet Baby (who should really be Sweet B now, five years old in a month!) has more sustained attention – she falls in the camp of wanting desperately to participate in some way. A virus has stalked amongst us limiting her hands-on exposure, but she understands that in time she will be much help.

And on Valentine’s Day after she received a cobbled together “Best Big Sister” necklace to wear – she made valentines for all of us (she’d already made them for her class). She left out her brother, but told me how wonderful it would be when she could make him one – “in a few years or so!”

 

Sweet Brother

Yes! – the first post back for the new year introduces Sweet Baby’s sweet brother! He really is very dear and calm – the name fits. His mom did a great job of bringing him into the world on the 29th of January. He was six pounds, 11 ounces, and 19″ long, and he’s beautiful! He’s figuring out how things work in this night and day routine, and, with luck, his parents might soon get some sleep.

Sweet Baby, like her cousin, will be a terrific big sister, this baby already turns his head at the sound of her voice – he’ll soon learn how much fun she is!

December Days

Bustle – and I hope it is cheery bustle for you all – not just the stress of to-do lists!

Music and lights and evergreen garlands, flashes of red and green and gold interrupt the dark, wet gloom outdoors. I always love this season, and this year more than ever in my gratitude for life and mobility. But am I behind in all I’d like to do? Oh, yes!

In Hawaii, Lady B, her brother and Sweet Baby added their creative touches to our Christmas cards – between swimming in pool and ocean, they sat at a table outside the sliding door and used watercolors (including swell metallic ones), colored pencils, and rubber stamps to make every card unique and colorful.

So, before I begin to write them and mail, I’ll post a handful – though it’s hard to select just a few – I love them all!

One day on the trip, I found Sweet Baby and her parents at work – brushes in hand – so I can’t resist adding two of theirs.

 

Ann Patchett’s “The Dutch House”

A list of books for Christmas gifts occupies the front of my mind this time of year – they please in many forms (beautifully illustrated books, a graphic novel of the Mueller report!), but finding the right book is still challenging.

So, I enjoyed reading Ann Patchett’s piece in The Guardian books newsletter about her habit of giving books for all occasions (she owns a bookstore).

And her new book, The Dutch House, belongs on the list. It’s the stuff of fairy tales: a mother disappears leaving two children with a distracted father in a haunting, enormous house. The father remarries, then dies, and the wicked stepmother casts out the children. (It’s also a modern tale of real estate and sibling devotion.) I’d saved it for a concentrated time of reading, the book rewarded the wait, and made a long flight pass quickly!

One day on our trip after a library visit, Sweet Baby asked me how books are made, and I gave an overlong explanation of signatures, endpapers, binding, printing.

And then we just made a book – sketchbook paper cut and folded into pages sewn with dental floss – with a story dictated to her mom and illustrated admirably!

 

“Twenty-five Teacups”

Opening this Friday evening, November 1st, Bainbridge Arts and Crafts, the gallery where I show my work, will host “Tea Party” – a multi-media exhibition. I was invited to participate early last summer, and my “Twenty-Five Teacups” will be at the party.

Because I love everything about tea – the warmth, the lift, the comfort – and the cups – whether reaching for a favorite at home or choosing from a good grouping at a friend’s house, I was excited right away to be included.

All spring I’d been thinking about pattern and the Souleaido squares were still on my worktable, so I began there, settling on a grid of twenty-five squares, composed of two patterns (wallpaper and tablecloth) and a teacup (mug or cup and saucer, each has its time). I adapted some of the fabric squares and had fun searching for other inspiration to make up backgrounds (learning a lot about the little motifs used in patterns for centuries).

I rearranged repeatedly (my painter friend encouraged my keeping on through many photo texts). I enjoyed manipulating the color, shape, and stylized flowers in the patterns. Then, with all the backgrounds and cup silhouettes complete, I decorated the cups with more recognizable flower species – from this summer’s garden, from my morning walk, and from my old work.

The squares are small (5½” x 5½”), on heavy Fabriano paper. The gallery plans to hang them unframed in a grid (attached by tiny, powerful magnets), and price them at $65.00.

I will post all 25 teacups for a while here on “Her spirits rose…,” beginning with “Teacup Seventeen” (Helenium) – orange flowers for this Hallowe’en week!

 

Five Decades and Holding

50 Years! My good-natured (the explanation for this longevity) husband and I celebrated our fiftieth wedding anniversary in California last week. I still can’t grapple with that number, but it was fun to mark it with the SoCal branch of the family.

From their house we drove north to a rented house in Montecito, (right near Santa Barbara) for three days. Cars and people a plenty, but the beach is perfect – white sand, hard-packed by the water and fine for walking. We picnicked on the beach, watched Sweet Baby love holding on to her dad’s shoulders as he caught waves near shore on a boogie board, walked along Butterfly Beach and goggled at the mansion built by the emperor of Beanie Babies, visited Ganna Walska’s Lotusland (built over decades with an astounding collection of tropical and sub-tropical plants, some 20 different gardens filled with stories of horticulture and history, never just one of anything but mass plantings of giant trees), played a lot of UNO and JENGA, and ate a celebratory meal at a Montecito restaurant (featuring fantastic plant-based food) to mark the actual event.

We laughed a lot about that blustery day 50 years ago, when we married in a cabin on Kenai Lake in Alaska – and I thought about how lucky I’ve been and how grateful I am.

Most often these days Sweet Baby draws mermaids – complicated aquatic creatures with elaborate clothing, curls, and crowns crowded onto a page – but she took time out to draw us on our special day in 1969!

OPG

My Best Portrait Ever

In the midst of a week when governments fiddled while the Amazon burned, and continual bad and crazy presidential behavior bludgeoned us, I received a welcome letter from Sweet Baby in the mail. It contained a penline and crayon portrait of me (she says) with long curly hair, a rainbow-skirted dress (with a tiny bow), an apple in a green tree, and a heart for love. Spirits rose!