Wednesday, March 16, 2011

This post brings us to the end of the work we did for the 2009 Three-Day Novel Contest. But a lot has happened to Kristi and to me since then. Stay tuned...

2009 POST SCRIPT--Kristi

It is August of 2009, exactly 10 years and one month since Bill and I moved to our small valley. We are camping in the San Juan Islands with our youngest while my older girls spend the week in Seattle with their dad. My husband brings the 14-foot wooden rowboat he has built from a kit so he can fish and crab. It is a pretty little boat based on a Maine lobster boat design, and attracts a lot of attention where ever we go.

We decide to row out to visit Ti on her island about three miles away. We put in on a beautiful summer day; with bright blue water, calm seas, and warm air. Our daughter sits in the bow with my husband in the middle so he can row. I head to the stern where I wish for the 100th time that he would build a seat. Still, it’s a comfortable spot with its back-sloping curve and I pile up life vests to keep my butt dry.

It takes less than an hour for my husband to row us the three miles to Ti’s beach. Along the way we skirt small islands, cross open water, and go around a small point where Ti’s beach comes into view. It is a lovely little half-moon shaped cove. Gentle waves are hitting the rock and shell-covered beach that gently slopes up a shallow hill covered in grass and trees. Joey, Ti’s yellow lab, lopes down to the beach to greet us, and he and my daughter are instantly best friends. They spend hours playing fetch, exploring the beach and looking for shells and crab. Jannie builds a little statue of driftwood and rocks. Joey sneaks bites of her lunch when she’s not looking. They are two happy little animals playing in the sun.

Ti comes down to greet us. I have not seen her in years but she still looks the same: wide open face under long dark hair, with a little gray here and there, and a short, athletic build. We walk up to her home through a grove of old plum and apple trees that were planted decades ago. The plums are delicious! I snack my way up to her house which sits in a clearing of trees surrounded by water on three sides. Her home is a weathered two story shack; tidy and dark inside, but serviceable for sure. We tour the un-insulated building where she and her family lived for the first two years and the bright, cozy studio/shop where Ti does her art.

Ti’s stepdaughter is working at the local store that day. Her husband is not around. Again. Ti says he’s in town, but I tease her about her fantasy mate, whom I’ve never actually met. He used to work at KCTS, doing overnights in Master Control - or so she says. The only time I actually saw the two of them together, all saw was a head with a hat in a sleeping bag in the back of her truck. “That could have been any head,” I tease. “How do I know you don’t just drive a head in a sack around to convince everyone you have a husband?” She laughs and we continue our tour.

At the moment, she is making small toy sheep using local wool to sell at the farmers market. My daughter loves them! She immediately commissions a small black sheep with a purple scarf and an orange hat with a pink pom pom. We tour the rest of the property and beach. I see the line where she dries clothes and the cistern where they catch their water. The property is lovely with water meeting islands and mountains all around.

As I walk along the short, wooded path to Ti’s outhouse, I think about taking that path in the rain, snow and dark and what it must be like to wake up to the sound of the ocean surrounding you on three sides. I think about her trips in a small boat to take their daughter to school on a different island. They must be beautiful in the spring but terrifying in winter, much like my own travel with the girls.

I suddenly get Ti’s life; the beauty and the struggle of it, and know it’s not so very different from my own. I wonder what keeps her here – the thing that convinces her to stay when reason and doubt creep in and push her to leave. I wonder the same about myself.

We go back to the beach and talk about our lives while my daughter plays with the dog and my husband naps in the shade on the beach. Ti is thinking about getting her EdD in educational technology. I am just completing my M.P.A. We ponder the pros and cons of more education and more debt. The challenge is interesting but the payback unclear.

I tell Ti I’m reading a book about a woman who leaves her comfortable life in Toronto to teach and travel in Bhutan. It reminds me a lot of my Peace Corps experience teaching English in Zaire. Ti has read the book. I say it has made me interested in exploring Buddhism and how I think its teaching and meditation practices could help me center my thoughts and stay more positive in my life. She talks about her Taoist and Buddhist upbringing and what the two philosophies have in common – which is much. We laugh about our many “east/west” moments at work.

It is wonderful to finally see where Ti lives. I have missed her and my other colleagues at KCTS. Ti has stayed connected with many of them on Facebook and I vow to do the same. We both miss things from our old lives. Mostly what we miss is the collegiality and collaborations that so marked our mission oriented work at KCTS. It is a wonderful thing to work hard long hours on a common project with people who share your passion and goals. I have had some of that with my consulting work in the Methow, but not nearly enough. The same is true for Ti.

Finally, we say good-bye. We have a long row back and it is starting to get late. We pull on our jackets and life vests and get into the boat. My husband rows us off and we head away. I look back to see Ti and Joey heading up the trail to their home; a smart, capable woman and her dog. If anyone can make it here, it’s Ti. She has the skills and personality to survive, and occasionally thrive in all this beautiful isolation. My life, with its relative conveniences and somewhat denser population may be somewhat easier than hers – but not much. And she has this beautiful ocean embracing her life that I wish I had in mine. Still, I know I would miss the mountains and skiing if I lived here. Perhaps we are both where we should be.

The following day I pick up a cell phone message from Ti. “Kristi, thanks so much for coming to visit. I just found this 3-Day Novel writing contest online. I think we should enter and write a story together about moving to the sticks. In Buddhism there are no coincidences!” She signs me up before I can say yes. She knows I will. It is time to write these stories down.

2009 Postscript--Ti

It’s been years since I’ve seen Kristi, though we’ve traded emails. Her youngest daughter was an infant the last time I saw her. We’ve tried for years to have a rendezvous here or in the Methow. When we had the money, we didn’t have the time and when we had the time, we didn’t have the money and so it’s gone on for years.

I was thrilled when I found out that she could actually visit! And when I saw her, she hadn’t changed a bit—still outgoing, outspoken, funny -- and with a jar of homemade blackberry jam in hand. Her daughter was a freckled happy kid who did indeed look like her dad and speak out like her mom. Her husband settled down for a nap under the plum trees—a well-earned rest after rowing his family out to see me.

We had a great visit, though it was far too short. It was so good for me to see an old friend and I was bubbling over when my husband came back. He was disappointed that he didn’t get to play with Kristi’s daughter—as the father of a teenager, he misses the days when daddy was about the coolest guy around.

My friend Diane posted a link to the 3-Day Novel writing contest on Facebook. I pondered a few ideas I’d been tossing around and then thought about Kristi and our yin/yang, mountains/islands, east/west story and thought: “YES! Let’s do it, even though it’s not really a novel, let’s tell this story!”

Wednesday, March 9, 2011


Oh Goody, a Teenager

The biggest unknown for me had nothing to do with island life, living in the middle of nowhere, scratching out a living or even following my heart and getting married. I’ve done all those things before. I’ve taught hundreds of kids and taken in a few when life got rocky for them. But I never, ever wanted to be a parent, let alone a stepparent.

I dislike the term stepparent. The kid has two living sets of grandparents, a dad and a mom. I don’t think she needs any more parents. I’ve tried to be just Ti, who’s out here doing the best that she can, being some sort of adult role model.

The kid is now deep into being a teenager and her relationship with her dad is both persnickety and normal. I keep explaining to my husband that her behavior is perfectly OK, that I was every bit as snotty/nice when I was 16 and that we gals do move on (hopefully) to more balanced behavior. He admits abashedly that he was no angel as a teen himself.

They are yelling at each other downstairs right now. I am thinking of writing down every single word they say: recorded for all posterity. But I don’t dare. Who wants to be reminded of their teenage conversations?

One of my husband’s goals was to give the kid a more open and (warning -- teacher-ese!) student-centered educational experience and we have certainly done that. The island kids might complain about their tiny community and the crazy commute, but they certainly have unique experiences.

After eighth grade, it’s a toss-up as to what island kids do per school. Some kids are home-schooled, some do Running Start, some go to town, others go to the high school one island over, or fly to another high school three islands away.

We do a combination of home schooling and commuting by boat to one island over. It is only three miles by water, but in stormy conditions we might as well be going across the Bering Strait. We can’t wait for the fog to lift or the wind to subside: the school bus arrives at 8:05 AM and the school is a two-hour walk from the bus stop.

We just got a new elementary principal, a new middle-high school principal and a new Superintendent. The new high school schedule looks as complicated as a NASA launch sequence. But two more years and the kid graduates from high school—a big milestone, no matter how we get there.

2011 update: the new principal left, the new superintendant is leaving and high school one island over got too crazy. The kid—like Kristi’s kids Emily and Rose, opted for Running Start. She left just about a year ago to live in the city and pursue Running Start. I am still homeschooling from the island, though!

The Worst

While I’ve been here, a Baker’s Dozen—thirteen—of my friends have died. The first was Ellen, one of my closest confidantes, who inspired me to keep doing the computer giveaway and community work long after I would have quit in frustration.

I called her when I was in the throes of moving out of my apartment. She and her partner Pat dropped everything to help me out, just as they’d dropped everything the year before to be a witness at my wedding. She seemed a little “off”, a little cross with me, but I didn’t blame her.

Five months later she would be dead of a brain tumor.

I saw her the day before she slipped into a coma: brain-damaged, rambling, but still sounding like herself. I touched her shaved head, the stitches from the biopsy. She took both my hands in hers, looked into my eyes, concentrated hard and said, “Don’t worry,” then dropped my hands and wandered out to the patio.

Ellen and Pat had packed my computer and all its peripherals into boxes for transport to the island. After she died I noticed a note Ellen had scrawled in pencil on the inside of one of the boxes: “Tell Ti not to worry.”

I sat on this damn island and cried: ten minutes before I had learned that she’d left me enough money to make it through another few years. Thank you Ellen, for providing the means.

The last death was the first friend I’d made on the island. She was an artist, a master teacher, a woman with a goofy sense of humor and a knack for having fun. Her cabin was filled with her art and friends and laughter. She gently pushed me to be an artist: if I mentioned that I was having trouble with color theory, she brought information on color theory. When I wanted to take up encaustic work, she brought me a heat gun, a propane torch and her leftover beeswax. Above all, she encouraged me to keep taking pictures, hiring me to take photos of her friends, her time here on the island.

For months after her death, her cabin looked as it always had. How could someone so alive not be here anymore? Even now, though the cabin has been cleaned and cleared it’s hard to believe that she won’t be back next summer and the summer after that and on and on until we all go gently out on the ebbing tide. Thank you Lynne, for providing the way.

The Best

The Farmer’s Market is a new addition to our island life. It’s been very successful—beyond anything I imagined, both financially and socially. We are a talented group! There are usually a dozen or so vendors: quilters, bakers, potters, weavers, lithographers, and master gardeners. We have French fries, BBQ sandwiches, coffee, granola, strawberry lemonade, ice cream, jams, jellies, pickles, preserves and lavender syrup, a dozen kinds of chocolate treats and cinnamon rolls.

I sell garlic – boy, do I ever have garlic: fresh, pickled, in garlic butter and garlic sage salt. And I sell sheep. Those darn little felted sheep. And ugly carrots. When I first brought my dented, bent carrots to the Market, the other vendors teased me: “Got a little clay in your soil?” or “We call those horse carrots.” They were right. They had lovely, smooth, straight carrots. So I made up a sign that said:


(but sincere and tasty)


…and sold a few carrots every week. I started featuring the ugliest carrot of the week and the most obscene. I had some great conversations about carrots, especially with folks who asked if I had any beautiful but insincere and tasteless carrots.

I thought after five years on this island that I knew as much as I wanted to know about my neighbors. We saw each other often enough at potlucks and school events. But the Farmer’s Market brought us all together in a different way. Despite all the hard work getting ready for each market, I looked forward to seeing my neighbors and talking with customers. It’s the heart of my island life, my social life and my artist’s life and it’s just right.


After ten years living in this remote mountain community, I have learned a thing or two. I have learned that I talk too much and listen too little. I have learned that I am not perfect, nor is my spouse, nor will we ever be. I have learned that life goes up and down, but that over the course of time, progress is made.

I have learned to relax my standards: That I can live with a little dirt. And that today’s big gossip will become tomorrow’s old news. I have also learned to be more tolerant of people not like me, because, frankly, there is no one much like me out here. If I wanted friends at all I had to widen out my personal preferences considerably, which is what I’ve learned to do.

After ten years in this valley, I have acquired a few new skills. I have learned to garden. I have learned to can. I have learned to waste less and save more. I have learned how to skate ski well – maybe not in comparison to the locals, but definitely in comparison to the tourists. I have learned how to ice skate and drive on snow and pack for any emergency. I have also learned some patience. This is not a virtue I thought ever to acquire. WAIT was always a dirty four letter word. Now wait is a period of time I can live with. And I do.

I have learned that I like wolves more than deer because the deer eat my garden but the wolves eat the deer. I have learned that there are more good hunters than bad, and that they help control the deer population. We need them. I have also learned why farmers and ranchers resent the intrusion of environmentalists from the city telling them how to live. Not that I always agree with them, but this is a tough place to make a living and we all need to feed our kids. If we want people to change, we should help, not punish them into changing, and allow them the dignity to survive.

Mostly I have learned that my life, as odd as it is, is a pretty good life. Though there are problems a plenty, I doubt a different life would be much better. When measuring the things that really matter (health, love, family, a beautiful environment, peace in my home) against the things that really do not (my brilliant career that isn’t, the big income I don’t have, the travel I haven’t done, or the status I haven’t achieved), I would say the scale is pretty well balanced in my favor. At least on most days….

Wednesday, March 2, 2011


Kristi’s kids are in a small school district and we are in an even smaller one. No one here is punching the clock either and our community also turns out in the morning, afternoon or evening for school events. What’s more, most of the community does not have kids in school—they support the school because they feel it’s the appropriate thing to do. When our teacher retired after 30-plus years, dozens of people came out to interview and then greet the new teacher and her family. I wish the communities I taught in were like this one. I might still be in the classroom.

Field Trip

A year after we came to the island, the five school kids and seven adults packed up and went to England and Scotland for a jam-packed two weeks. We had been fund-raising like crazy and had even postponed the trip from spring to fall to make sure we had all our expenses covered. We needed at least $2000 per person to cover airfare, train tickets, lodgings, meals. $24,000 is a sizable sum of money for any community to raise, let alone an island with 30 or so full-time residents. Everyone gave and gave and gave some more. Everywhere I went on that trip I could feel the community walking along with me.

Moving Out, Moving In

While I was waiting in line to tour the Tower of London I finally decided to give up my city apartment. Though the rent was incredibly low, I was tired of maintaining two residences. It was time to move my stuff to the island. When I got back to town I started packing up. And suddenly, I just lost it. I had been packing for days and days and where was all this stuff going to GO? What was going to the island, what was going to the in-laws and what was going into storage? How do you pack up a life? You just keep packing.

With the arrival of my drawing table, computer, computer desk, and camera on the island, I felt that I had finally moved in.

I still have the mental image of my gear piled up on the frost-bound beach where the water taxi left it: the desk and drawing table taken apart and duct-taped together for transport, the computer, monitor, two printers and the scanner in their boxes. Inky green conifers soared in front of me and waves crashed behind me. A heron flapped by, croaking, “…barrrraaackkkkk...” I scrambled to move everything off the beach before the tide came in.

Joey the Dog

I had promised the family that we would get a dog. During our second summer on the island I asked the kid to go online to PAWS and see what kind of dogs were available. I have her notes on a yellow Post-it: “Joey…lab mix…4 years…well-behaved… trained… happy… play…” My husband and the kid came back with a big yellow smiley dog.

Joey is indeed well-trained, happy, and playful. We gave him a chair of his own to sleep in and walked him all over the property to show him his new home. He was overjoyed. I suspect he wasn’t allowed on the furniture in his former home and we knew from his file that he was kept on a zip line while his family was at work.

He immediately changed the dynamics of our family for the better. I’d say that dogs have a real Buddha nature: whatever they’re doing they are doing it 100% in the moment, whether it’s sleeping, playing or chasing eagles across the yard. Joey always reminds us to live in the moment, even when he’s snoring on the couch.

Joey is generally very gentle with kids. But if the kid acts aggressively toward her dad, Joey jumps up and pushes her away—something he does whenever there’s any aggressive behavior. I told the kid that she may not think she’s being aggressive, but the dog thinks she is.

My husband knocks golf balls all over the yard for Joey to chase: he’ll play golf ball for hours. He’s happy to accompany us wherever we want to go. He loves to ride in the car. He especially likes to go to the Farmer’s Market, where he begs shamelessly for treats.

He’s learned how to ride on the ATV and to avoid otters (who will drown a dog that swims out to them). He chases rabbits and deer, herds sheep, and trees turkeys. He can let himself out at night and let himself back in. He poops in the tall grass and I don’t have to pick it up in a plastic bag. He gets to bark as loud as he wants when the other dogs bark. He doesn’t have to be on a leash and wherever we go, Joey goes too.

All in all, he has a darn good dog life. And because of him, our life here is even better.

Being an Artist: Year of the Dog

Appropriately, the year after we got Joey was the Chinese Year of the Dog. Every year someone on the island creates a calendar with our birthdays and anniversaries included. (We have all-island birthday parties.) No one was interested in doing a calendar for the coming year.

I let folks know that I was doing a dog calendar and they loved the idea. I scooted all over the island, shooting photos with my old 35mm Nikon-with-a-motor-drive. Folks thought I was being artistic because I was shooting black-and-white film. The truth was that I didn’t have a digital camera.

I sent the film to be processed and went into the darkroom to do the initial prints—later to be retouched in Photoshop. I set up the calendar grid, did the graphic work and ftp’d the files out to be printed. And yay, I’d done my first creative project in years! I was good -- no, great—to remind myself that I did have some skills, darn it. The calendar became a fundraiser for the school. I proudly sent copies to all my friends, including Kristi.

A few months later I bought a digital 35mm Nikon and officially entered into the 21st century. That year I did a dog calendar for another client and put up four shows in coffee shops and for art walks. I was officially on my way to being an artist—again.

Being an Artist: Local Sheep Make Good

There’s a flock of Scottish Blackface sheep on the island. Their wool is coarse and the meat is just OK, but they are excellent lawnmowers. They stay put (mostly) where they were born and the ewes are excellent mothers who don’t require much help lambing.

In May the shepherds and dogs come and bring the sheep in to be shorn. Every year I grab a fleece or two and then – I make sheep out of the wool. They are little bitty sheep with wood and wire armatures, felted bodies and goofy expressions. It took me several tries to get a sheep that looked like a sheep, but as of this writing, I’ve made nearly five hundred (!) sheep and sold them at the tiny island store or the Farmer’s Market.

I’ve experimented with other projects using our local wool—deer and rabbits, a fainting goat and even a Joey-the-dog, but it’s sheep that everyone want. I never expected to make sheep as part of my living, but make sheep I do. White sheep, black sheep, lambs, ewes and rams. Custom sheep. Sheep in hats. Big sheep, itty-bitty sheep.

And furthermore…

The island community is close-knit and wildly independent at the same time, the family is surviving, maybe even thriving. I am making a living as an artist, though it’s not exactly how I envisioned it. The sun may not come out for us as often as it does for Kristi, but maybe 300 days of cool, cloudy weather will preserve my girlish complexion. Kristi can ski and I can slide down Sheep Hill on a piece of cardboard. The lack of brakes, sheep poop and rocks only add to the experience.

But here’s what’s really good: my yard is full of birds. Eagles, ravens, crows, cedar waxwings, woodpeckers, wrens, red-wing blackbirds, hummingbirds, flickers, towhees, goldfinches, swallows, sparrows and a zillion basic brown birds. There are frogs and herons in the trees. Every spring and fall enormous flights of snow geese, swans and Canadian geese pass overhead. Golden and ruby-crowned kinglets will land on our hands when they come through in the late winter.

There are oystercatchers, loons, scaups, mergansers, buffleheads, gulls, kingfishers, osprey, Virginia Rails, cormorants; merlins, red-tailed hawks, peregrines, owls, osprey and at least four breeding eagle pairs.

When the weather was calm I thought I saw a seal swimming between islands—but it had antlers. It was a black-tailed deer, swimming to Lopez Island.

There are bioluminescent critters in the water under the full moon. The ghost shrimp have copper-colored eyes that glow in a flashlight’s beam. Crabs paddlewheel in the water or glare at me from under the dinghy.

I stepped on a flounder yesterday. We both ran for cover.

We use a bulldozer to rototill the garden. The bulldozer doesn’t faze the gumbo clay or the thistles. The garden is growing nicely, even if the thistles mock me. On the other hand, the finches love thistle seeds.

I don’t build beach fires anymore. After a long winter chopping wood and trying to stay warm, the last thing I want to do is build a recreational fire.

Ditto for recreational boating.

THE UPSIDE of ISLAND and/or COUNTRY LIVING -- Kristi’s Story

So back to Ti’s original question: What happened to my wonderful life? And more importantly, why do I stay?

Probably the strongest anchor keeping me here on days when I might otherwise have gone screaming into the hills are the kids: Not only mine, but everyone else’s too. Though we had a bit of a rough start with some of the children in Emily’s class, I have learned to really love the local kids. Watching my children and their friends grow up in this beautiful place has been one of the highlights of my life. I would not trade it for diamonds or gold.

In a larger community, children and their friends frequently shuffle to other schools. In our small valley, the kids you start in preschool with are likely many of the same kids you will graduate with. Most of the grades only have two classes, and those kids and parents are together a long time. Emily’s graduating class of 2009 had 47 kids, including the alternative school kids and those who did Running Start. I knew pretty much every one, and was amazed to see that even the “spitters and nose pickers” had grown up to be nice young adults.

Rose is a freshman in high school this year, and most of her best friends she has known since Montessori. Their parents and I have logged in countless hours attending soccer games, school assemblies, science fairs, and field trips together. Though we may not all be the best of friends, we have formed a tight web of support around our children, and we are raising these kids together.

People out here are also pretty healthy. I was 41 when Jannie was born, and I knew at least three other women in the valley as old, or older than I, and having kids. Statistically, that’s pretty amazing. I also see very few overweight children or even adults out here. Most of us are involved in some sort of sport, and even those that aren’t can’t escape all the walking, hiking, skiing and biking that is a regular part of our lives.

The consumerism that plagues many kids in our nation is rarely a problem for us. The nearest mall is two hours away. Not that kids can’t access all that stuff on the internet, but somehow it’s less of an issue. We just don’t have the population base to support the advertising that drives consumer culture. Of course as a consequence, we can sometimes be a little out of it style-wise. City kids might sometimes think the local kids are “uncool” and I’m sure I thought a bit of that on occasion when we first arrived. But I am so thankful to have raised my children in a place where people worry more about four-legged predators then the two-legged variety. And if being “uncool” is the worst thing that can happen to them, I’ll take it.

Another thing I love about living in a small community is the ability to make a difference. I have never lived in a place where people are so empowered to create positive change. If there’s something happening that you don’t like, you can get in there and make it better. Many people do. Small community groups have successfully fought large corporate conglomerates and corrupt government agencies over the course of years, and even decades, and won. Individuals have envisioned wonderful ideas that they proceeded to make happen. We have an excellent ski trail system, an amazing land trust, a state of the art ice skating rink, and a large school garden project, just to name a few. They all started as dreams by a few, only to grow and benefit hundreds, if not thousands. Right now there is an art and community center in the development, which I have no doubt will be a success. If people want to make a difference here, they can absolutely do so.

The natural world is a big draw for many people here, me included. Coming from rainy Seattle to a place with over 300 days of sun a year has been paradise. I don’t care if it’s only five degrees outside. If it’s sunny out, I’m happy. I ride my bike and ski on beautiful mountain trails that take only minutes to get to. Sometimes I ski out my front door. And though I’ve mentioned how hard it can be to make a living in a rural environment, the upside is that we don’t punch a clock.

Lack of regular work means fewer time constraints. As a result, parents seem to have a lot more time to spend with their kids. You can barely get a seat at the afternoon spring and winter concerts in our local elementary school, so full are the bleachers with moms, dads, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, neighbors, and friends. They never held an afternoon concert at my daughter’s school in Seattle because few of the parents could come.

I have also enjoyed, more than I would have thought, having a variety of friends very different than me. One of our friends, who is the emergency contact for our children at school, has likely cancelled out every one of my votes since 1979. I have friends who vote the abortion issue (against), and those who have an arsenal large enough they could probably blow up the town. Strange bedfellows, for sure, but I have come to like these people very much. It has been a real learning experience to be able to discuss some of the most controversial problems in our nation with people who disagree with my views, but are interested in what they are. And visa versa. I wish more of that could happen everywhere.

Community in a small place is a hard thing to explain. It’s like a web of relationships that ties us all together, whether we’re good friends or not. Tragedies ripple through this valley and the pain they cause runs deep. We had three beloved men commit suicide last year, and I swear half the valley went on Prozac. Not so much because people were afraid of being next, but because the sadness these tragedies left in their wakes was so huge. You can’t escape other people’s troubles out here. And we all come to the rescue because we never know when we might be next.

Sometimes I wish for anonymity and to be able to walk down the street without everyone knowing my name. But, for the most part, the friendly nods, hand waves, and one finger salutes we all give each other on the road, validates that I’m alive and a member of a community that cares. I guess that’s why I stay.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011


Though we were doing OK on the island, I looked forward to the days when I could go to town. I left the kid and my husband at his parents’ house, ran to my apartment, and shut the door behind me with a sigh of relief. My cashmere blazers were still in the closet, my all-natural toothpaste by the sink, my herbal shampoo in the shower. I had DSL. I could walk to the coffee shop, people watch and window shop. I was within walking distance of three grocery stores filled with whatever I wanted to eat. I could go to dance class, work out at the club. It was great, but I started to miss the clean air and wide-open spaces on the island.

Susie Homemaker

Back on the island, I kept careful watch over how much food we had in the pantry and the frig, measuring against when we would have to go to town, watching the weather. Finances dictated that could get to town once a month in the winter, every couple of weeks in the summer. At least I wasn’t in Alaska, getting supplies in September that had to last until June.

I wasn’t unhappy in my role as Susie-frickin’-homemaker, but I wasn’t exactly jumping for joy either. I certainly had plenty to do. Cook, do the dishes, do the laundry, hang laundry over wood stove, haul wood, chop wood, stack wood, bring wood into the house, sleep: repeat.

My childhood friends took every opportunity to tease me about being back out in the sticks. I was fair game, having made such a big deal about getting out and to the city and never, ever coming back. I wasn’t going to get married again, I was never going to have kids, and heaven knows, I wasn’t going to be anyone’s stepmother.

But I got lucky. The kid was cool, we all worked hard at adapting and the hardest thing I had to do was grin when my friends kept teasing me.

Living in the Dancehall

Kristi and I had both moved to dark, 100-year-old buildings. She had a log cabin and I had a mess hall with a dancehall upstairs. It was meant to be a temporary structure, built quickly of local cedar. It’s long and skinny and a great mess hall, but a rather inefficient dwelling. While Kristi struggled with soot, and dingy walls. I had to deal with one layer of rough cedar planks between me and the outside. Snow blows in through the cracks in the walls but mice don’t bother with us. They’d rather live in the woodpile, where it’s probably warmer.

The dancehall has been repaired, re-roofed and shored up many times over the years, but is almost impossible to insulate. (Imagine building a house and waiting 80 years to insulate it.) When the wind is blowing hard from the wrong direction it blows the wood smoke right back down the chimney. The windows rattle and lace curtains flutter. The lace curtains look lovely, but are of no use in the winter.

A blazing fire in the woodstove will raise the temperature in the main room to 60 degrees—if we hang curtains in all the doorways—but the rest of the building will be whatever temperature it is outside. On the coldest days of the year the kid’s bedroom in the back of the house was impossible to heat and I had to make up a bed for her by the woodstove.

Still, in a world of cookie-cutter houses, it’s an original.

Garden in Bondage

A friend emailed me about the wonderful produce he was getting from a local CSA for just $25.00. What I wouldn’t give to have someone deliver fabulous produce to my door! I support the idea of CSAs and would happily subscribe to one. Ah, but once again, we’re just a little too far off the beaten path to make this idea work.

Most of us have gardens. There are community gardens, backyard gardens, container gardens. There are some lovely microclimates on the island—and ours happens to be more like southern Alaska than anything else. Everything I grow has to grow fast and be cold hardy.

At least I’m not trying to garden over permafrost although my “soil”, such as it is, is four inches of topsoil and sand over what feels like 100 miles of gumbo clay. Regular carrots grow straight down for 4 inches and then turn right or left when they hit the clay. (I’ve learned to grow short carrots.)

I no longer try to raise plants that can’t survive in snow and/or mud during the winter or dry soil during the summer. Over the years, my garden has filled with stubborn plants—the lettuce will grow when it’s snowing, the snow peas will sprout in January and I can’t kill the kale.

My garden is surrounded by a deer-and-rabbit-proof fence. The strawberries are under bird netting. The towhees, sparrows and robins will eat seeds and seedlings. Anything I try to grow (with the exception of plants in the Allium family) has to be under thermal plastic or floating row cover until its big enough to survive. Everything is tied up, tied down, on a trellis, or under netting or plastic: a garden in bondage.

One Room School

How many kids today can say that they went to a one-room school?

When we came to the island we brought a student for the one-room school. The school always seems to be on the verge of closing because there aren’t enough students, and bringing in a student to support the school was good for the community.

The K-8 school is among the last of the “small but necessary” schools in Washington State. There are seldom more two, three, four or five students and the school and the teacher serve as the social hub for the island community.

Lucky for us, the kid is adaptable and independent. She meshed with her new island life and the school quickly. And although the five girls in the school regularly formed different cliques (three against two, four against one, two against two with one standing out) they generally got along quite well. They slept over at each other’s houses almost weekly, rotating through our place every three weeks or so.

There are lots of adult eyes to watch the young kids on the island. Almost nothing they do goes unnoticed and the adults are quick to correct the kids if they step out of line. The “takes a village” stuff is true, but also frustrating if you’re a kid.

Staying Afloat

I was lucky enough to have several freelance projects to work on when we first came here–one with Kristi. I was able to keep going as a curriculum writer, sending in my work via a slow and cranky dial-up connection. (We have DSL now.) When the freelance work dried up, I cleaned houses. Between my little bit of income, a small but steady paycheck from my husband and our savings, we keep going. But barely. I think we fall somewhere far under “migrant worker” in annual income.

We have no health insurance. Sorry, eating comes first. Our healthcare plan is not to get sick.

One of us would have to leave the island in order to make a decent living. Most of the long-time residents have done just that: working on other islands, or in town, working four days on and three days off, keeping a motor home or apartment in town or commuting by boat and water taxi. Many who live on the island are retired, living on pensions. Others keep going by fishing in Alaska in the summer and crabbing in the fall and spring.

I never thought I’d dream about the days when I went to work, punched the clock and collected a paycheck. As Kristi says, it’s complicated to live a simple life.

Being an Artist

I signed up for a printing workshop. We were introducing ourselves when I blurted out: “Well, I moved to an island with no ferry service, so I guess I can spend the next few years being an artist.”

Well now.

I dug out my camera and decided to do something…anything to remind myself that I could still…still what? Be a photographer. An artist.


The reality of having a new baby was probably both the best and worst thing Bill and I could have done at the time. I am convinced it saved our marriage, but it also almost cost us it more than once. On the upside, Bill becoming a father completely transformed him from a cute, funny, happy-go-lucky, but sometimes irresponsible guy, to a full grown adult and partner in our marriage – while still being cute and funny! He is and has been a great step dad to my older girls, and an amazing father to Jannie.

On the downside, Rose was seven-years old when Jannie was born, and had become pretty self sufficient in her daily life. She could set her own alarm clock, get up for school, make her own breakfast and lunch, while I would stagger out to get a cup of coffee and head back to bed for a moment or two. Life was getting good!

Seven years is a long time between children, and the mind has a way of forgetting what it doesn’t want to remember. The new demand of diapers, feedings, and never enough sleep was a hard smack-back for me. On top of that, I was the primary wage earner for our family at the time, and had to go back to work when Jannie was a month old.

Trying to nurse while I was traveling for work was exhausting, and Jannie was not a great sleeper. She took a few naps but did not sleep much at night. Consequently, neither did we. This was less of a problem for Bill as he doesn’t need much sleep, but I am a nine-hour-a-night-gal. To make matters worse, our tiny cabin was so small we literally had no place to put our new kid. For the first year of her life (until we finally were able to get a new home) Jannie slept in a crib two inches from my head – or, should I say, she screamed two inches from my head. I was a zombie.

Once, when Jannie was three months old, I announced to my family that I needed a break. I made a reservation at the local four-star lodge where they offer cheap accommodations to locals during the off season. Leslye thought it was great! “Oh, it will be so fun! I’ll bring a bottle of wine and we can talk all night!” I think she was a little surprised when I said I was going to the lodge to sleep. But that’s what I did. I took a long bubble bath in the big hot tub with a wonderful view of the mountains. And then I slept for 15 hours straight. I had such a good time I went back the next week and did it all over again. To this day, it was the best money I’ve ever spent.

Fortunately for us, Jannie has grown to be a happy, sunny child who is self entertaining and loves the outdoors. She is remarkably like her dad in both temperament and looks, but with a flare for the dramatic and a penchant to talk too much that can only come from me. Sometimes the karma is just right.

So three years after coming to the valley, just as things were finally settling in, we threw this little monkey wrench into our lives just to make it interesting. And, it certainly did. For one thing, making a living all of a sudden got hard again, as one of us needed to stay home. Neither made enough money to justify infant day care costs, and we didn’t want to go that route anyhow. My job paid the most at the time, so I worked on outside consulting projects while Bill became a stay-at-home dad.

Working outside the valley was something that has served me well. People who work here often try to avoid controversy as it can cost them customers, money and maybe even their jobs. If you say or do something someone doesn’t like, they might stop shopping in your store or hiring you for work. Instinctively, after I arrived, I knew making my money outside the valley would allow me to maintain a voice on issues important to me. But that has occasionally meant I’m the only voice willing to speak up.

Asking why the school board ignored half a dozen letters from parents complaining about the high-school principal’s mistreatment of their kids, or why there were three free ski trails for people and their dogs, but no free ski trails for people and their kids, were questions that did not make me very popular in some circles. But I thought they needed to be asked. And as a consequence, I’ve developed a reputation as being either a troublemaker or “the conscience of the valley” depending on who you talk to. It makes for interesting contrast.

In a single day, for example, I might go to the grocery store and experience the “Valley Shun” where people refuse to look at you as they walk past. And then go to the gas station where someone hails me as their new hero. With my broadcasting background and fairly thick skin, I knew I had the skills for this job. But did I necessarily want it? Temperamentally, I had a hard time ignoring a problem that I thought I could resolve. But the cost was wearing me down.

Learning how to pick and chose my battles has been a learning curve. And then there was the issue of my “tone” or how I presented problems to people and to the press. “You sound so angry,” one woman complained, after I wrote a long editorial for the local paper on the documented abuses of our then high school Principal. “Well, yes, when adults with authority over children abuse them, it makes me a little pissed off. Go figure.”

On more than one occasion, I thanked my lucky stars for Bill, whose winning sense of humor could keep things light. Once, in the middle of a hard struggle with our local school district, Bill went to a school board meeting to present them with an award. After a little fanfare, he unwrapped a small statue of the three monkeys: See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil, much to the delight of the people present, and consternation of the board. That Bill was later elected as a member of our local school board was also a matter of consternation to them. But now most of these board members are gone and Bill is still there. We did a few things right.

This sort of struggle happens in small towns, where relatively small issues become huge, and everyone has an opinion about them. I don’t know what to say about that other than be who you are, while also thinking hard about whom you want to be. There are consequences to whatever you chose so you might as well be your best self.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

My parents (on the right) and friends at the Wah Mee Club, Seattle.


Main Entry: abyss

Pronunciation: \ə-ˈbis, a-alsoˈa-(ˌ)bis\

Function: noun

Etymology: Middle English abissus, from Late Latin abyssus, from Greek abyssos,from abyssos, adjective, bottomless, from a-+byssos depth; perhaps akin to Greek bathys deep

Date: 14th century

1. the bottomless gulf, pit, or chaos of the old cosmogonies
2 a. an immeasurably deep gulf or great space b. intellectual or moral depths

I knew what I was getting into when I agreed to come to this island. I didn’t expect to greeted by every islander with open arms (though many did), nor to be accepted at every social gathering (though I was grateful that people made an effort to include us in community events).

This was not the first -- nor will it be the last -- time that I have taken a wild leap off into space. I’ve had more jobs than I can count. I’ve met my relatives in Kwangtung Province and in Mongolia. I’ve sailed around the world at least twice. I’ve survived de-masting in the Tasman Sea and a sinking fishing boat in the Georgia Straits.

Even the “sports” I favor--sailing, paragliding--ask me to tack off the edge of the earth, or to literally run off a cliff and leap into the abyss. In my mind, I am taking risks, having adventures, making quantum leaps, moving forward by cutting all ties with the past. I love the abyss, the unknown.

But ask my oldest friends what I’m doing and they might raise an eyebrow and say that I run away just as I am about to be successful, that I do something different rather than actually succeeding.

Make my living as an artist, as a photographer? I’ve had every opportunity and I’ve taken very few of them. When I was fresh out of college I marched into the Seattle Post-Intelligencer with my portfolio and announced that I wanted to do a photo essay on Seattle’s rapidly changing Chinatown. I got photo releases on P-I letterhead and shot 10 rolls of film. I still have the proof sheets. The photos are good. There are lovely images of my Chinese elders, old storefronts, signage, and the community garden. The images capture a transitional time in the International District. But I never went back to the P-I with my work.

A big revelation came when I did an intervention with my mother. She had been a heavy drinker all her life and I finally truly wished to know—or so I thought—what she was like when wasn’t drunk. In retrospect, I was more interested in being in control than having my mother stop drinking.

My parents and their friends regularly tied one on when we came to Seattle—twice a year, to stock up on Chinese groceries. They’d leave me in the Milwaukee Hotel and go drinking and gambling at the Wah Mee Club. I was quite safe at the Milwaukee—the elders would check on me, leave peppermint Life Savers under my pillow. My parents would roll back to the hotel at dawn, giggling, smelling of cigarette smoke and booze. They’d check on me and have a nightcap.

Things changed after my dad died. I was fourteen when he chose suicide over losing his soul to brain cancer. My mother blamed herself for his decision—she never should have left the house to go Christmas shopping. After his death, she drank more and more until she was hardly ever completely sober.

But my mom wasn’t a drunky villain.

Her parents died when she was five years old and she and her sisters grew up in the Ming Quong Home for Chinese Girls—both what she called the “old home” on the campus of Mills College and the “new home” in Oakland.

Her oldest sister said that their mother would take them to be extras in various Hollywood productions—silent films. I’ve looked for them in old films. Sometimes I think I’ve seen them, but I’m not sure.

My mom had polio before I was born but taught me to ride a bike and to roller skate by giving me verbal instructions. She was constantly taking apart things that had broken (the toaster, the heater, the air purifier) and fixing them, as we didn’t have money to buy new stuff.

She had wanted to be a photographer and still had her Argus C3. Dad bought her a Brownie Starlight. I started taking photos with the Brownie when I was six years old. I got to use the Argus when I was twelve. My early graduation present was a 35mm Honeywell Pentax.

Mom stayed a couple of days in rehab and told a big lie so she could leave. I’m sure the rehab folks were used to hearing lies. I was so mad that I didn’t talk to her for six months. But it was also a big “ah-ha” moment for me. My mom had, consciously or unconsciously, taught me to get myself out uncomfortable situations by lying.

I decided to change—and once I changed one thing, I had to change—everything. I adopted my dad’s favorite catchphrase: “Tell the truth, walk your talk.” It took a long time to say “no” when I meant “no” and even longer not to come up with a string of lies (told mostly to myself) about why or why not I could or could not do something.

My mom did stop drinking, all on her own, and at the age of 65. I have the photo I took of her the summer before she died. She put everything she had into the look she gave me through the lens of my Nikon.

My mom and dad had succeeded in raising a physically fearless daughter, and gave me every skill they could to succeed.

Which brings me back to this island.

Moving here was another step off into the abyss for me. I had run into a brick wall at KCTS. My department had been eliminated and I’d just spent weeks sorting and filing 50 years’ worth of materials. I’d been at the station for ten years.

There were other jobs I could do at the station, but I was tired and frustrated and it was time to move on. I organized my list of clients, emailed everyone I’d worked with in the hopes that some freelance work would filter in, quit what had been my dream job and cashed out my 401(k).

Did I run away again? Maybe my friends thought so.

I ruefully realized that though I now had the time to work on being an artist, I was out in the middle of nowhere. But the art workshops were in town. My support group was in town. Hell, my camera, paints, drawing board and easel were all in town.

I’d kept my Seattle apartment.

Hedging my bets?