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.

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