Category Archives: Uncategorized

So Long as There is Light

Photo by Frank James

By Kimberly Mayer

Never one to underestimate the power of books, I recently gave it a good test. “This will be the strongest storm in Northwest history,” they said. “A record-breaking monster storm,” “A bomb cyclone!” was heading our way. It was all we heard about. Winds roared day and night, limbs cracked, and branches flew like arrows. Trees were uprooted, power lines downed. And where was I? Immersed in The Great American Dust Bowl with a hardcover copy of The Worst Hard Time, by Timothy Egan.

“What is it?” Melt White asked his daddy.

“It’s the earth itself,” Bam said. “The earth is on the move.”


“Look what they done to the grass,” he said. “Look at the land: wrong side up.”

For the longest time I didn’t know the difference between prairie and plains. Now I know that plains are flat and treeless. And although “The Great Plains” is often used as an umbrella term to encompass plains, prairies, and steppes, prairies are flat or rolling grasslands of tall grasses, sedges and rush, shrubs, and sometimes trees.

When Native people lived on the prairies and high plains they moved across the land with the seasons. White men drove off the Indians, hunted the bison to the brink of extinction, brought in cattle to over-graze, tractors to over-plow, and gambled on grain with the over-production of wheat. Stripped of native grasses, a good perennial, and replaced with wheat, a weak annual, the topsoil peeled off in the winds. “The great unraveling,” Egan called it.

On top of that, a drought—for years. “And what came from that transformed land… the whole experiment of trying to trick a part of the country into being something it was never meant to be was a colossal failure,” writes Egan.

On Black Sunday, April 14, 1935, birds, animals and insects migrated ahead of the biggest duster yet, nearly two miles high and two hundred miles wide, carrying “twice as much dirt as was dug out of the earth to create the Panama Canal,” according to Egan. Some described it as “a black blizzard, with an edge like steel wool.” Farms were abandoned or blown away, the land looked lunar, folks who were still there were forced to eat tumbleweed—and I barely came up for air in reading The Worst Hard Time.

There was no comparison, of course, between “The strongest storm in Northwest history” and The Great American Dust Bowl. Our storm blazed through quickly like a hurricane—and onward to the Midwest, powering tornados in Missouri, and becoming a nor’easter in New York and New England. And I never lost my reading light.

Now come what may, whatever’s next, I’ve a mind to read Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet: A Novel of the Plague.


Filed under Uncategorized

Walk on the Wild Side

By Kimberly Mayer

We were trailing Jenny Harris of Catkin Horticultural Arts around the garden she created at the Family Resource Center on San Juan Island, beginning in the back and slowly winding our way around to the front, for this is a garden on all sides. I’d watched it come into being from the Master Gardener Demonstration Garden next door. I don’t know that any of us had ever seen anything like this, a garden planted in sand. 

“Marilyn,” I mentioned to my friend. “You could garden like this in Tucson.” Marilyn would be leaving the island soon as she and her husband wintered in Arizona every year.

Why sand? Jenny anticipates everyone’s question, “Sand is permeable, it is weed free, it is warm. It holds moisture without being waterlogged. It is low fertility but can still host good soil elements. It is nice looking, clean, and will not go away or be digested like organic matter. Most plants love to germinate and grow in sand and gravel.” A layer of gravel was placed over the sand after planting to prevent erosion from rain. The only mulch being sand and gravel. 

“This is the final stage of mineral mulching,” adds Jenny. And there you have it. A self-described “grower of plants, teacher of gardening,” Jenny had something to teach her neighbors peering over the fence, the Master Gardeners. But that wasn’t her intention then, and it isn’t mine now in writing this piece. What Jenny sought to do in her garden at the Family Resource Center was more along the lines of creating a healing place. 

“The people who seek the services (of the Family Resource Center) are struggling in one way or another,” notes Jenny, “quite possibly without a lot of joy, hope or beauty in that moment and it was our goal to create something lovely, colorful and immersive…”  

I don’t know how long we were there that day. And if our little tour of her garden is any indication, four mature women, spellbound, looking at bees’ behinds—their bottoms bright yellow as they clambered upon blossoms feeding on nectar. And watching solitary sand wasps burrow to their nests in the sand. It had been a long time since I had watched the comings and goings of insects close-up like that. As another island treasure, Thor Hanson, wrote in Buzz: The Nature and Necessity of Bees, “Much depends on us—taking notice, taking heed, and taking action.” 

Bembix sand waspsI don’t believe we’d ever been introduced before. I now know a little more about you.

Summer bowed out and color is fading fast on island. It was one of those days, a prelude to the gray season. Yet I thought there more color in this garden than anywhere. Goldenrod in all its brilliance, bright orange poppies, the lavender of Douglas Asters, and soft pink Yarrow to name a few. But that too could be the charm and the magic of observing closely. I think that’s it. Children have this relationship with nature, and as we grow older we tend to lose it. 

Camas, allium, narcissus and fritillaria bulbs, native bare root perennials, native wildflowers and grasses–like a meadow planting, wrapping around the Center. Jenny had in mind “a self-sustaining kind of garden design that is supportive of all the natural processes and biological organisms involved, such as insects, birds, mammals, and pollinators as well as the plants themselves.” 

Here and there are tidy log piles, much like firewood stacks, in shady spots. I assumed they’d been placed about as environmental art, but they’re there for biodiversity. “Log pile waves,” Jenny calls them. The deadwood logs simulate fallen trees on a forest floor growing moss, fungi, and lichen, as well as hosting frogs, birds, beetles, and bees. The Wildlife Trusts considers log piles “a minibeast village.” Jenny turns a log over and smiles knowingly.

Thistle may be the emblem of Encyclopedia Britannica, but it was always an outliar in my book. So why should I be surprised to see the native Indian Thistle (Cirsium brevistylum) growing proudly, standing as stately chocolate brown stalks this time of year? Jenny tells me “It is not so common here but maybe once was… The stems are eaten by humans and the flowers and seeds beloved by birds and insects… This one is very soft and not aggressive. Lovely.” 

I have everything to learn in gardening. 

For more on Jenny Harris of Catkin Horticultural Arts visit her website.

Photos by Jenny Harris


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Who’s Watching the Kids?

Washington National Guard’s mobile vaccination team in the San Juan Islands


On a bustling street in Hanoi’s Old Quarter two tall American men met each other for the first time in an unassuming noodle shop. Sitting at a small table on low plastic stools, their long legs folded out a mile to compensate for the height, they enjoyed a simple meal of bun cha (pork noodles), fried spring rolls, and a bottle of cold Hanoi beer each. Both their sleeves were rolled up and their conversation, easy and amiable. 

One would think they had known each other for some time: Anthony Bourdain and President Barack Obama. They were filming an episode of “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown” which aired on CNN September 25, 2016. President Obama was in the final year of his two term presidency, and Trump’s rallying cry was loose upon the land. Bourdain feared for what lay ahead. His question to the president, “As the father of a young girl, is it all going to be OK? Is it all going to work out?”

Obama’s reply is one I still draw on today. 

“Progress is not a straight line,” he said. “There are going to be moments in any given part of the world where things are terrible. But having said that, I think things are going to be fine.” 

Now here we are, nearly five years later. A global pandemic and, in our country, chaos in how we are all handling it. I am mostly concerned with how this chaos affects children. The initial outbreak of Coronavirus, however devastating, was relatively benign in children and seemed to spare them. This is no longer true. The virus changed. That’s what viruses do.

Patients are getting younger, babies included. In the last month, the Delta variant caused an alarming rise in pediatric cases. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, children now account for more than 20% of new cases. And by the CDC’s count, there was at least a 22% increase in hospitalizations of kids under 17 years of age in the last month. Covid manifests itself in children with cold-like symptoms, chest pain, and difficulty breathing. If there is any good news it is that children are still not as likely to get as seriously ill as adults, but the Delta variant is hyper-transmissible and its contagiousness includes children.

“It’s the eighth month of 2021, and I can’t believe we’re having these conversations,” notes Jessica Malaty Rivera, epidemiologist at Boston Children’s Hospital. We’re having it because only about half the people eligible are vaccinated in this country. And anyone who catches Delta has most likely created clusters of infection, particularly in unvaccinated populations.

“The science is there. The clinical trials are in abundance, and we must stop denying the data. The vaccine remains the most effective and reliable way to stop this madness,” states Leslie Diaz, Infectious Disease Specialist at Jupiter Medical Center, FL. We need to vaccinate ourselves for the fifty million children under twelve years of age in the U.S. not yet eligible for vaccines. We must protect them in every way possible, and that includes immunization, social distancing, hand sanitizing, and the wearing of masks indoors.

Instead, this is what we’re doing. This is the mess we’ve made as a nation. It’s not pretty. It may be that we’ve never seen anything like this. People are playing scrimmage, political football, with our children’s safety. And it’s the reason why, again and again, I need to recall Obama’s words to Anthony Bourdain in a noodle shop in Hanoi that day. You have to remember, he said, “Progress is not a straight line.”

*Governors of nine states have banned mask mandates *After one week of school, in one district in Florida 8,400 students had to be placed in quarantine *Many pro-mask parents are having to pull their children out of schools *In a small town in west Texas the school district recently shut down due to Covid *Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida prohibits school districts from mask mandates insisting it’s a parent’s right to choose *Some parents in mask mandated schools are signing mask waivers, opting out *Parents are crying, “We will not comply!” *People are yelling “child abuser!” at parents of masked children *Mayor Bill de Blasio, NYC, requires vaccination of public school teachers in the city *In Alabama, four times more children are testing positive than last year, according to the Alabama Political Reporter *Abdallah Dalabih, a pediatric critical care physician at Arkansas Children’s Hospital recently stated, “We are not able to discharge them as fast as they are coming in.” *Unvaccinated teenagers are making up the bulk of pediatric Covid cases, and according to Dr. Dannielle Zerr at Seattle Children’s Hospital they seem to be more ill than last year’s patients *Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington requires vaccination for all employees working K-12, childcare, and early learning *Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis threatens to withhold salaries of district superintendents who require their students wear masks *Texas Gov. Greg Abbott issues an executive order banning mask mandates and declares Texas “the freedom capital of America.” *President Biden orders Education Secretary Miguel Cordona to take action against governors who have banned masking in public schools.

That’s all in the last week alone. Enough said.


Filed under children in the pandemic, Uncategorized

A Walk in the Park

By Kimberly Mayer

As many years now as I have lived out west, I’ve never visited the National Parks like I did as a child from Connecticut. My father would round us all up in the summers and set out on road trips with the goal of camping in the National Parks out west. All my memories of Grand Teton National Park, Yosemite, Yellowstone, The Grand Canyon, Mesa Verde, Bryce Canyon and Zion, were seared then. On some level I’m sure I thought all the great National Parks were over the Rocky Mountains.

When a thought like that gets planted, it’s no wonder I moved west. 

Looking back, the mileage he covered was remarkable–first in a station wagon of four and later six—back in the day when men did all the driving, and drove at night through deserts, back in the day when car radiators “boiled over.” My father believed these National Parks were something we had to see. That our lives would not be complete without having known them. 

Only now I realize how much my father’s philosophy resembled that of nineteenth century visionary, Frederick Law Olmsted, and how large Olmsted’s handprint was in our lives. Before he had any inkling he was going to be a landscape architect, and before “landscape architecture” was even a field, Olmsted was appointed as a correspondent to tour the South for the New-York Daily Times, later to become The New York Times. Our nation at the time was even more divisive than today, with the South holding fast to slaveholding, and Civil War about to break. As a reporter, what Olmsted sought was a dialogue, some understanding with Southerners—but what we can also find in his writings, which became published as a trilogy, A Journey in the Back Country, are observations on nature so keen, they led him to his remarkable career and legacy in landscape architecture.  

“Infused with the writings of transcendentalists and European Romantics, he believed scenery touched our ‘unconscious’ selves, stirring a sense of ‘mystery and infinity,’” writes Tony Horwitz in Spying on the South: An Odyssey Across the American Divide. “Olmsted likened this to the action of music on our minds and souls, a sensation that ‘cannot be fully given the form of words.’”  

My dad knew this in every fiber of his being. I remember him standing with us at one of our remarkable destinations when we were small, and with a large sweeping gesture of his arm he exclaimed to us, “This is all yours.” This is what he wanted us to feel. Of course, this turns out not to be entirely true. It wasn’t all ours. Yellowstone alone, the first National Park in 1872, was seasonal home to Blackfeet, Bannock, Shoshone, and Crow Nations. 

But I am getting ahead of myself. When Olmsted started his career, National Parks had not yet been established. No doubt he foresaw it, however. Tony Horwitz writes, “After seeing the very remote Yosemite in California Olmsted stated that it would someday attract “millions,” and should be “held, guarded and managed for the free use of the whole body of the people forever.””

In his reverence for nature and by placing his belief in parks as public spaces, Olmsted envisioned parks as places where the masses would have access, where they would “assimilate” and be uplifted. In this spirit, Olmsted created parks and campuses, too many to mention, from Central Park, NYC to The University of Washington in Seattle, throughout the United States and Canada. 

Olmsted put the natural in his parks. He “… paints with lakes and wooded slopes; with lawns and banks and forest-covered hills; with mountainsides and ocean views…” noted his colleague Daniel Hudson Burnham. In this way a rocky tract of inhospitable land became Central Park in New York City. Untamed and pastoral.

And as for Frederick Olmsted’s farsightedness at Yosemite in 1863 of the need for National Parks, his idea was revived when one of his sons participated in drafting the legislation to create the Nation Park Service in 1916. Thirteen years after his father’s passing.

In 1958 while we were still a family of four, my father moved us to New York City where he completed his doctorate in psychology at Columbia University. There we lived for two years in student/teacher housing on the Upper West Side, going from backyard apple trees to hopscotch on asphalt, and where would we—or anyone–have been without Central Park in our lives? In Olmsted’s own words, “A sense of enlarged freedom is to all, at all times, the most certain and the most valuable gratification afforded by a park.”  


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Plant Daddy

By Kimberly Mayer

In “Head to Toe”( I wrote on discovering Birkenstocks in my sixties, while everyone around me had discovered them in The 60’s. I was in Encinitas, California with my daughter and son-in-law, so it’s only fitting that they circle back in this piece. Apparently I’m not done with Encinitas yet.

Just a couple blocks down the Pacific Coast Highway from the Birkenstock store sits the campus of Self-Realization Fellowship in Encinitas. What is that? you might ask. Tunisian-like white structures punctuated in azure blue, topped with lotus blossom domes in gold leaf, it’s weirdly beautiful in an easterly way. Twenty-seven acres include an Ashram Center and Retreat, The Hermitage, and Meditation Gardens, overlooking and stretching down to Swami’s Beach. 

The Fellowship was founded in 1920 by Paramahansa Yogananda to spread understanding of the spiritual wisdom of India in the West. It was in the bookstore of the fellowship that I began going through Paramahansa Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi and noticed a chapter devoted to Luther Burbank. Why, I know of that man, I thought. A renowned plant breeder and horticulturist, a pioneer in agricultural science. 

Paramahansa Yogananda’s autobiography, it turns out, is dedicated to Burbank. They were dear friends, the Yogi and the plant breeder. In his day, Luther Burbank practiced Kriya Yoga devoutly, and Paramahansa Yogananda called Burbank “my American saint.”

This is when one thing leads to another. I purchased the Autobiograpy of a Yogi and when home, dusted off my copy of A Gardener Touched with Genius: The Life of Luther Burbank, by Peter Dreyer. Indeed, the two men figure in each other’s book. In his autobiography Paramahansa Yogananda tells the story of walking alongside Luther Burbank through his garden in Santa Rosa, California when Burbank informed him, “The secret of plant breeding, apart from scientific knowledge, is love.” 

We halted near a bed of edible cacti.

“While I was conducting experiments to make ‘spineless cacti,’ I often talked to the plants to create a vibration of love. ‘You have nothing to fear,’ I would tell them.’ You don’t need your defensive thorns. I will protect you. Gradually the useful plant of the desert emerged in a thornless variety.”

I was charmed at this miracle. “Please, dear Luther, give me a few cactus leaves to plant in my garden…”

I too received a cactus arm, a descendent of Luther Burbank’s cacti, while visiting the Self-Realization Fellowship in Encinitas. It may have been silly for me to accept, residing as I do in the San Juan Islands—where only Brittle Prickly Pear Cactus makes a rare appearance on dry rocky banks. No, I had another idea for the arm. 

Living alongside Balboa Park in San Diego are my daughter and son-in-law. Having landscaped their Spanish contemporary home primarily with cactus, agave, and roses, they’ve demonstrated how well the cactus grows there. Furthermore, on my visit I counted forty-two robust houseplants in their home, many of whom are succulents. And that wasn’t counting all the potted and hanging plants in a large courtyard. 

Add to that now, the cactus arm I left with my son in law. 

My daughter is the first to say that her husband is the plant genius. The Augmented and Virtual Reality Capability Lead at the largest consulting company in the world, but better known as “plant daddy” to his wife and family. The cactus arm is in good hands.


Filed under horticulture, plant breeding, yoga, Uncategorized

Head to Toe

By Kimberly Mayer

When I told my book group in Seattle that we were thinking of moving to the San Juan Islands, their first reaction was “Oh no. Next time we see you you’ll be in Birkenstock sandals and socks.”

I’ve been on island seven years now and have made every effort to avoid this, until I caved, this spring, in Encinitas California. I caved with the sandals, not the socks.

It was a week that felt like summer, after a long winter and a longer still quarantine on island. The first day of summer wasn’t even upon us yet, and we had it, each in our own way.

In a cliffside cottage, remarkably sunny and most likely unstable, I experienced a summer that could be summarized in Brixton hats and Birkenstocks. That’s my take-away, anyway.

What kind of hippie was I, anyway, not to have worn Birkenstocks when they were first introduced into the US market in the 60’s?

“Why, ten-year-olds are coming in now asking for them, as well as all the aging boomers,” exclaimed the gentleman who helped me at Birkenstock of Encinitas. Clearly this brand is living a second life, much like I hope to be doing.

I don’t need to inform you of the shock absorption and arch support inherent in each shoe, because you already knew that. The first sandal ever with a deep and flexible footbed. And hats off to Birkenstock in 1988 for the use of environmentally friendly adhesives in production, thereby setting a new global standard.

Did someone mention hats? 

“It started with a hat,” noted David Stoddard. In 2004 out of a garage in Oceanside, CA, Stoddard and two partners founded Brixton, named after an English punk band. What they had found was that no one was doing hats at the time. Inspired by vintage newsboy caps, The Hooligan became the cap by musicians, for musicians. One year later the company was launched.

The old adage in business, “Find a need and fill it,” worked. Now Brixton has become street wear, and their first brick and mortar shop is in Encinitas across the Coast Highway from Birkenstock. Now people like me who can’t carry a tune can wander in and get fitted to a Brixton hat in a variety of styles, from rancher hats to fedoras, sun hats, snap caps, tiller hats, fiddler caps, and beanies. Tucked in the inner band of my straw Fender Paycheck Cowboy Hat I found two guitar picks which I cherish.

If there is no more to my summer than this, I’ve already had it. And if there is to be more, I’m all set. You could dress me like a paper doll with the hat and shoes permanently on, and just change the outfits. Whatever I’m doing, wherever I’m going, I’ll be sure to have my Brixton hat and Birkenstock sandals on this summer.


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Three Bitches and a Pandemic

Tawny living her best life


“Put on your hard pants and your travel jacket: Life is coming for you,” Susan Orlean submits in her post “Will Normal Feel Normal Again?”. “I didn’t believe that a year of living differently would suddenly reset my sense of normal,” she writes. “I imagined I would see it as an anomaly, and that as soon as it was safe to return to normal, I would do so, lickety split, and it would feel regular and ordinary. But it doesn’t.” 

Nor should it. This is a story of how quarantining for a year affected our dogs too. We were the lucky ones if we weren’t in it alone, and our dogs benefitted too. Any good owner can tell you how much more attached their dog is now, something we may not have thought possible.

This is a tale of three dogs: Charlie, Tawny, and Fiona. The only reason my own dog, Coco, didn’t make this list is that I cut it off at three. One day Coco will have a post to herself if she hasn’t already.

Charlie, a yellow Labrador Retriever, has been with my daughter since university in Seattle. With her family now in San Diego, Charlie is considered the “first born” even though a child has come along since. Thirteen years old and arthritically challenged in the back hips, fortunately for Charlie, my daughter and her husband were already working remotely at home well before the pandemic hit. Living on one level across from a park has been ideal for both baby and dog. Charlie has good company and assistance whenever she needs it, getting up, getting out, and going for a ride. Golden years.

My other daughter’s life was turned upside down by the pandemic and a landlord who decided to move back into his family home. After leaving Brooklyn in the summer, she and her husband worked remotely from San Juan Island, Washington and then embarked on a slow trek of locations first down the west coast, then across the country, eventually circling back to New York City this spring.

Nomads of the Pandemic, we call them. And in all this time and over all this distance, their Brittany Spaniel has only been left alone a handful of times. “Everywhere we go, Tawny creates a new little routine,” they tell me.

The couple planned their drive time around a chain of truck stops that my daughter assures me frequently have dog parks. I find it hysterical that for years I looked askance at LOVES, thinking them adult/erotic bookstores. Instead, LOVES truck stops, privately owned and headquartered in Oklahoma, host convenience or “country stores” in 41 states. And unbeknownst to me, my daughter and son-in-law and Tawny were regular customers all year.

Fiona was adopted in July of last summer by friends in Laguna Beach who had resisted owning a dog because “we worked too much and traveled a lot.” Prior to the pandemic they added a residence, a 500+ year old home made of stone in the medieval village of Flivigny sur Ozerain, France. The two of them were at the top of their game balancing careers in California and, flying back and forth, overseeing a restoration in France, when the pandemic changed everything. Suddenly they were working at home in Laguna. 

Meanwhile, Fiona, a hound mix in The Carolinas, was having one misadventure after another. Abandoned as a puppy after her owner was arrested in a crack house and another dog tore her ear, “Fiona was almost put down that night,” my friends tell me. A woman rescued her and Fiona rebounded. Then rebounded again after that woman left The Carolinas to care for her mother in Laguna Beach, bringing Fiona with her, only to find she couldn’t keep her dog. That’s when my friends stepped in, and Fiona fell right into their lives. “… we were in love and she came to our house. That was it. She had those big brown eyes…” 

Like so many dogs in the pandemic, Fiona is “… rarely out of our sight, sleeping next to me in the mornings near my desk while I work and next to Bill in an overstuffed chair in the afternoons while he works.” When he goes back to the office, “Bill plans to take her to work with him. Now we can’t imagine going to France… without her.”

Over and over we hear what Fiona’s owners say, “… because of COVID she has literally been with one or both of us constantly since July.” Charlie, Tawny, Fiona, they’ve all been living their best lives this past year. Pack animals, with everyone under one roof.

So as we “put on our hard pants and travel jacket” and start to go out in the world, remember to bring them with us. And the world we’ll find is more welcoming to them than it was before. Restaurants, shops, hotels, nearly everything is dog friendly now. May it stay this way. Insist on it. 

We owe it to our dogs.


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Time to Get Real


All year in lockdown I’d been thinking that it will do me wonders when I can see my young grandson again. Then, just when you think that nothing is ever going to happen, trees start to bud, bulbs push up, and one by one, day by day, daffodil burst into laughter. It took winter to make me see spring. 

Oh yes, I note, things are moving. I’ll get there. 

Now he only knows me as that gray haired lady on the screen, waving and blowing kisses on Facetime and Zoom through various mealtimes, playtimes, and baths. My husband has a Nanit app and we’ve been known to watch him nap by day and sleep at night. Will he recognize us when we walk in the door, in the flesh and three-dimensional? 

My grandmother loved us with every ounce of her ninety pound being. When we were very young my sister and I made mudpies upon the back stoop of her house, just steps from the kitchen where she twirled about, a calico apron over her dress, making our favorite dishes for dinner: Goulash, and a checkerboard cake. 

We thought she was magic.

At another age we had a singular talent it seemed, of weaving potholders, and apparently couldn’t stop. Potholders in all their bright color palette. Having gifted them to everyone we knew and still toting a stockpile, we had the good idea of stitching them together to make a blanket or a throw for our grandmother. Which she displayed over the back of the sofa, or “divan” as she called it, in her apartment. Whenever I visited thereafter, I knew it was the ugliest thing. 

Yet there it was, for years.

Every summer we piled into our grandmother’s log cabin on a small lake in Connecticut—for the entire summer. Idyllic, free-range childhood memories that have come to mean more to me with each passing year.  Later, when going off to camp, or when boarding schools took us away, she became our pen pal. Drawing on her former teaching experience in the 1920’s—before she was married and became pregnant and had to quit teaching–my grandmother took out her red pen, corrected our letters to her, and sent them back. And no, we didn’t mind, not at all. That was love. 

Little lady. Big shoes to fill. 

I have to wonder, what kind of grandmother will I be? When I get real, I mean.


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When Stories Become Legends

A story about water, time, and knowing when the time is right,” by Maria Michaelson


“You’re going to get a truck,” people said when we moved onto the island. Not us, we thought, as I stood solidly by my Volvo wagon of nearly twenty years, and Paul, his Porsche. Two years later a 1989 Toyota pickup rolled into our drive, and this old truck has been my husband’s second mid-life crisis, if you will.

We also heard legend that “women on San Juan Island grow strong.” I now know this to be true. Again and again, I meet remarkable women, often rolling into their eighties or nineties, sharp as a shark’s tooth, with no sign of slowing down. This island is teeming with strong women. 

I’m not suggesting it’s a matriarchy, but perhaps the most egalitarian place I’ve ever known.

So I asked some local women for their stories, and I didn’t have to go far. Chairing the Master Gardener Demonstration Garden, an 82 year old woman has been in charge for more years than she can remember. As volunteers, we strive to keep up with her. Supplying fresh produce to The Food Bank, The Demo Garden is open year-round and throughout the pandemic. Recent wind advisories topped 50mph, and there was our chairwoman, bundled in more layers than Nanook of the North, harvesting kale. 

Historically several large farms on island were run by single women. In researching old barns for an art installation, one woman–who went on to become president of the San Juan Islands Museum of Art–informed me that “Lizzie Lawson (1879-1968) took the seat out of her car, a Liberty, loaded it with sheep and took off for the fairground.” Back in the day, farms on island primarily raised cattle and sheep as well as growing orchards and vegetable gardens. Little has changed. Life is pastoral here and farm or no farm, growing food, a religious experience.

“In the garden one is moving with rather than against the inhalations and the exhalations of greater wild nature,” notes Jungian analyst Clarissa Pinkola Estes in Women Who Run With the Wolves. “Whatever happens in the garden can happen to soul and psyche—too much water, too little water, bugs, heat, storm, flood, invasion, miracles, dying back, coming back, boon, healing.” On islands we live by the seasons and the seasons live in us. We share this of course with all the islands in The Salish Sea. Perhaps with most islands everywhere.

When contractors were remodeling our home—young men who had grown up on island—I always heard in their conversations an awareness of what was running: the halibut, the salmon, the season for prawn, crab, and I-hate-to-say-it, the deer. I thought, I want to become like that. Knowing the seasons by what’s in season, as in the garden. 

“Living here I carry a battery-powered chainsaw in my vehicle in case I have to remove a tree branch from the road,” a friend tells me. She splits and stacks wood for heat in her home in the winter, and with her husband owns a tractor for clearing the road after snowstorms on Mt. Dallas, where they live. Although my friend lived most of her life in a city, she has found her place here. “The wildness and the beauty. The people. The independent shops and businesses. The theatre and museums. The post office and the grocery store. The ferry. And so much more.”

Farming, fishing, kayaking, boating, piloting, filmmaking, acting, establishing a documentary film festival, a community art center, and taming wild mustangs. And behind closed doors, consulting, researching, writing, and making art. Women conducting tireless public service or running businesses, all of it making an illustrious impact on a sparsely populated island. That auto shop you frequented for years on island? The woman who owned it at one time soloed on a sailboat in hurricane force winds in the Pacific for 41 days. Both a book and a film were made of her ordeal at sea.

Many women brought a wealth of political experience and activism to the island. “I have always felt it is important to give back to whatever community I have lived in,” notes one. “From that, I have made friendships that will endure long after I leave boards and indulge in the pleasures of book, garden and sloth.” 

My neighbor moved onto the island from what we like to call “the other Washington.” Professor Emerita of International Migration at Georgetown University, she educates us all on global migration and refugee issues at every turn. Do women on San Juan Island grow strong, or has the island attracted strong women to its shores? Perhaps that’s it. The old pioneer spirit in women, still pushing west and toward Alaska. 

I’ll ask my neighbor.


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Back to the Hut: Oh, the Places You’ll Go!

Photo by Paul Mayer


The commute is short, but the shoes to fill are enormous. My writing hut, a cedar-shingled shed, is but twenty paces from the house, and everything is intact—just as I left it. Actually I haven’t gone anywhere. In June our daughter and her husband came out to the San Juan Islands “for a few weeks” and stayed for a few months. They lived in Brooklyn at the time but after a long stretch of New York City’s lockdown, they packed up their dog and everything they would need to work remotely. 

As Head of Communications for a beauty startup, our daughter dressed chic—at least the upper half—and worked Zoom seamlessly from room to room and often out on the deck. Our son-in-law is the founder and owner of a technology news aggregator, and as he’s encumbered with larger screens and monitors, I gave him the hut. There he worked from 8 am to 11 pm, seven days a week, if we let him.

Summer turned to fall, and fall to winter, before the two of them headed south like seasoned snowbirds. With everything in storage now back in Brooklyn, they are that free. My hope is that they left plenty of their good juju here. 

“You are our eyes and ears and ambassadors,” I mentioned as they were leaving. Indeed, their calls inform us on the state of the country as well as the precautions they are taking in navigating it at this time. 

The more knowledgeable one is, the more dystopian it seems out in the world.

And here we are, relatively safe on an island. Soon it will be a year. But my job is to a. stop counting, and b. move back into the hut with my writing. And that’s where I am now on this dark day in winter, at my pine table looking at a bay that appears like a void before me. Across the water, a dark gray ribbon of trees and a few blurry lights. And ever encroaching fog and clouds like an enormous erasure. 

Winter: when our skies are capable of outweighing the landscape. It’s almost mythic. Anyway, here I am.

I am still the small child on the sailfish before I could swim. Holding hands and wading into the water with a grandmother who wore rubber swim shoes into the lake. And later, fishing and jumping off the dock. These are the small square black & white photographs I have in a frame on my writing table. So that I may never forget my good beginnings. And so long as I’m not going anywhere, I can’t help but wonder whether my beginnings and end days might fold into one.

“We look at the world once, in childhood. The rest is memory.” Louise Gluck


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