Oregon, Oregon

Passages on the Oregon Coast

I followed the soft, sandy path through a tunnel of bushes, thankful for shelter from the off-shore breeze. My homemade mask warmed my lips and nose. The crash of waves drowned out my footsteps. The path ahead led out of sight, but wherever it was going, I was deeply grateful to be upright, outside and in nature.

Looking for light at the end of the tunnel? Follow a path on the Oregon coast.

The same way I remember the alarm of 9/11, I’m going to remember this past March. The rising toll of the dying, the rapid shutdowns – schools, my parents’ senior residence, the entire country of Italy- plus, the sudden cancellations of conferences, travel, events, visitors, weddings – where was this going? Then one morning, while one daughter was being evacuated by the Peace Corps from Africa, and another daughter was cancelling her move to France, my manager told me to pack up my laptop and go home. For now.

“Now” lasted longer than we thought. Five months later, Oregon is slowly re-opening and hotels and restaurants are cautiously welcoming visitors back. After months of heartbreaking reports of loss and the isolation of telecommuting, I needed to get out. See something new. I needed the benign embrace of nature – forests, ocean, wildlife – to remind me of the world’s beauty and give me hope again.

With that in mind, my husband and I picked places we could safely visit nearby. We live within a few hours of dozens of state parks and wildlife refuges. There had to be some that were open and in Phase 2 counties. It would still be a gamble to find food, cell service and bathrooms, so we brought what we needed: maps of each county, a packed cooler and picnic gear, lots of water, Kleenex, extra masks, and the now ubiquitous hand sanitizer. With a loose itinerary in hand, we took off.

Our first stop was Jewell Meadows National Wildlife Area where tree swallows swooped and soared over the meadows. No Roosevelt elk in sight but I heard later that you can sign up to go on hay rides to feed the wildlife.

In Astoria, I was excited to finally learn more about the famous Corps of Discovery, the explorers headed by Lewis and Clark who set off in 1804 to find a navigable route to the Pacific Ocean. The Lewis and Clark National Historical Park includes the fort they built to winter over in. The museum was closed – as were other park museums we went to – but living history volunteers recounted hairaising tales outside by the fort.  As with entry to any museum, wearing a mask was required.

From here, we drove to the Clatsop Spit, a sliver of beach formed by receding glaciers 8500 years ago. Next time I’m going to stop at the viewing platform to catch a glimpse of the roiling waters of the Columbia River bar, where the Columbia crashes into the Pacific. 

We ate the best fish and chips ever at Hurricane Ron’s (1335 Marine Drive, Astoria), in an isolated table by the open crab tank then drove up the hill to watch the sunset from the Astoria Column.  (Restrooms open, but the Column itself is closed for now.)

Day two, we strolled along beautiful Cannon Beach, then went to Cape Meares which was closed. On the map, my husband spotted a spit of land that stuck out into the bay. We crossed some grassy dunes, nearly collided with an actual Roosevelt elk, and found a hidden beach full of – I’m guessing – locals. That night we stayed at the Looking Glass Inn and ate a delicious, dinner in Depoe Bay at Tidal Raves.

Day three started with a birding stroll at Siletz Bay Natinal Wildlife Refuge. Summer isn’t the best time for birding in riparian areas, but we enjoyed the walk.

We picnicked in Gleneden at a community park overlooking the sea, then headed to Yachats, where we stayed and ate dinner at the Adobe Inn. Again, tables were far apart and diners were scarce. Super friendly staff and a stellar spot on the ocean. 

Day four and five in Yachats, we explored Cape Perpetua – Thor’s Well, the Devil’s Churn – plus, an achingly beautiful Western Hemlock forest of 150-200 year old trees. We also admired the Hecata Head lighthouse, and watched sandpipers fishing for lunch in the tide pools. If you go, don’t miss the gorgeous view at Cape Perpetua’s hilltop lookout. All our activities were outside and people wore masks pretty much everywhere.

Lastly, on our way home, we stopped at two lovely spots –both nearly empty of people: Fern Ridge Lake, and William L. Finley National Wildlife Refuge.

Before the final hike of our vacation, we encountered a couple with a baby and a trucker changing out the portable restroom. That was it. Then we strapped on our binoculars and and followed the path.

If you go…click here for updated coronavirus information on counties in Oregon.

Oregon, Read This Book

Out of School, but Not Out of Stories: Reading Resources for Kids at Home

Reading daily to children builds skills that lead to literacy.

Reading a book to my small daughters was part of their naptime ritual. They chose two picture books, but I usually mumbled my way through the second story with one eye closed. “Mama!” Eliza would elbow me. “You’re not done!” 

This was before the words COVID or pandemic ever entered our household vocabulary. 

Today, with schools and libraries closed and summer stretching before us, parents and caregivers can help children practice their reading every day at home: 

  • Shauna Tominey, an assistant professor at Oregon State University’s College of Public Health and Human Sciences and a parenting education specialist, lists these resources and tips for parents at home with children now.
  • The Ford Family Foundation provides books at no charge to residents of Oregon and Siskiyou County, Calif. Sign up, choose a book, and review the book you choose after you receive it. Extra kudos to this generous foundation for providing instructions in English and Spanish.
  • SMART READING in Oregon normally matches volunteer reader with kindergartners and first graders in school to read a book together weekly. For right now, they’ve provided this update with reading and literacy links.  
  • Little Free Libraries are taking pains to provide books – and even food and masks! – that are free and sanitized. Check out this video and find a library near you that’s open 24/7.


Kidlit Illustrators, Italian-style

Want a fresh take on children’s book Illustration? You’ll will love the current exhibit at Portland Art Museum – “Italian Excellence” – featuring art created for books by Gianni Rodari. Rodari, whose 99th birthday would be today, was Italy’s most beloved children’s author. Though few of his books are available in English, the artwork speaks for the exuberance and imagination of his tales.

Art by Simona Mulazzani, for The Blue Arrow (2000)

This exhibit runs through November 10 and coincides with the Portland Book Festival on November 9.

Vittoria Facchini, for One and Seven (2004)

The Drama of Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument

Breathtaking Mount St. Helens, smothered in clouds
Elle’s gorgeous close-up of vibrant Indian Paintbrush.

When friends Mark and Elle passed through McMinnville on their way to Washington, I jumped at the chance to drive north with them. I was eager to see Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument again. The 8,366-foot volcano had erupted in 1980 at the end of my first year in college and the consequences of that explosion – and others that followed – dominated the news all that summer. I’d been there on a family trip but it was too hot to hike. There was a vertiginous ridge top hike still etched in my memory and I wanted another chance to walk it.

The volcanic blast snapped trees at their base and flattened forests.

We started at Johnston Ridge Observatory and wound up the hill opposite the volcano, past telltale tree stumps, alder shrubs and steep banks of wildflowers, then struck out on the ridge line with a sheer drop to the valley floor hundreds of feet below and a yawning space between us and the quiet volcano. Elle snapped pix of indian paintbrush flowers while Mark and I watched clouds roil, gather, and thin out in places, allowing bursts of sunlight that l brightened the valley’s green pastures and darkened its crevices.

That giant’s terrifying power made itself known on May 18, 1980. Pressure had collected inside the mountain until it bulged out the side. A 5.1 earthquake nudged the bulge until it gave way, creating the biggest landslide in US history. This in turn upset volatile gasses that exploded with molten lava and rock, obliterating everything in an eight mile radius, with a power of about 24 megatons. No volcanic explosion like it had ever happened in recorded history in this country.

Surveying the scoured valley, changed forever by the explosion. We were so high above the valley that the resident elk looked like tiny dots.

Fifty-seven people were killed, including the volcanologist David A. Johnston for whom the ridge and observatory are named. Their names are carved in stone on the trail. Inside the Johnston Observatory, panels tell the stories of harrowing escapes, near death, and lost companions and loved ones. Two movies explain what happened leading up to the explosion and show footage captured by one of the intrepid survivors.

Learning about the geology of the Northwest and places like Mount St. Helens helps me understand my new surroundings better, from the mundane – like, why my backyard is full of clay, argh! – to the spectacular, like the snow-covered mountains visible from the Willamette Valley. Revisiting Mount St. Helens deepened my appreciation of the powerful forces working underfoot every moment of every day.

When was the last time you visited a National Monument? Check out this map of all the National Monuments and start planning your trip today.

On Writing, Oregon, Poetry

On Writing: Invite Your Friends Into Your Journal

I offered a pen to my friend Tommy. “I’ll draw you, you draw me. It’ll take five minutes, tops. Maybe less.”

“Okay,” he said, shaking his head. “But all I can draw is stick figures.” 

Doodling with Tommy in Amherst, MA led to discussions about music and life.
Friends had different responses to drawing. Debbie drew this intricate drawing in minutes while eating a sandwich, talking about writing and Georgia O’Keefe at the New York Botanic Garden.

For a week, I’d been driving around New England visiting old friends. It was mid-October. The curtain of green maples along the Merritt Parkway showed tinges of orange and yellow. Sometimes the sky was the inert, steely gray from my childhood. Sometimes the humidity dulled the edges of things. Everywhere the sound of crickets rose and fell.

I had traveled home to see childhood friends and places to reorient me in a way before I started a new life in Oregon. Along the way, I kept a record of these moments by drawing my friends into my journal – literally – and asking them to draw me, too.

The idea came from a lull during a birthday dinner with friends before I left on my trip. We were new to the area and the restaurant, and I suddenly missed my old life acutely. I picked up a pen and doodled on the white paper covering the tablecloth, trying to draw a likeness of the people at my table. The mental shift was immediate. You can’t feel sorry for yourself and pay attention to the shape of somebody’s nose or curve of their smile at the same time. The fresh energy put me right back into the moment and all the promise that moment held. If doodling could make one dinner so much more fun, what could it do for three and a half weeks of dinners and coffees with old friends?

Contour drawing by Deana and a picture and haiku about her, at her beautiful tree-filled bed-and-breakfast in New Hampshire

Back in Amherst with Tommy, he drew his stick figure of me and I drew his square glasses, van dyke beard and mustache, and noticed how the edge of his hat sat above worry wrinkles in his brow. Meanwhile our conversation moved from kids and baseball to his music students and his all-time favorite records and his concern about the changing music scene. Would we have gotten there without the drawings? Maybe. But it was fun to fill the journal page with notes on Kate Bush and Jethro Tull.

A few times, friends and I wrote haikus to go with our pictures, like poet John Paul Lederach who composes haikus while he walks, tapping out the 5-7-5 syllable lines on his leg. He called it haiku-tagging. His talk on On Being gave words to what I was trying to do with my drawing: “[Be] awake enough that you can hear when your haiku compass needle has stopped, and you notice where you are, who you are with, and the meaning of the moment. This will have something to do with your journey.”

My journey with drawing is far from over. A good friend is staying with us now whose picture is long overdue. I wonder where our conversation will go as we draw. Or perhaps we’ll stay quiet. No matter what, we will be stopping the compass needle, as the poet says, and grounding the moment by seeing each other a little better.

Below are more examples. Who will you draw?

After being my dogwalking/Scrabble-playing/knitting/good listener friend and neighbor for many years in California, Rochelle does all that and climbs granite mountains in New England now.
Irene and I found Maine’s best lobster roll food truck on tiny Vinylhaven Island. We ate our way through Rockland and Portland, enjoying Maine’s foodie scene, until I couldn’t taste another thing, not even the spudnut I hankered for. The above was drawn on the ferry back to Rockland.
My brother Chris and I drew each other at his kitchen table in Wisconsin. The squiggles around his eyes and nose fit with the zillion things we talked about before poring over family history on Ancestry.com.


Adventuring on the Oregon Coast

Cannon Beach seen from Ecola State Park

My friend Carol inspired me to go adventuring. For Carol, that meant trundling her husband and their lab Happy into her car, throwing sleeping bags in the trunk and taking off for – wherever! Whatever!  In this manner, she found a deserted island on a Montana lake that became a sanctuary for many weekends. This was around the same time she bought and sold a few houses, knitbombed a lamppost in Bozeman for fun, guerrilla-gardened the empty lot next door, and started a business selling Irish clothes-drying racks.  Because Carol strikes out into new territory in the spirit of adventure, she treasures what she finds – and finds some treasures that are real and metaphorical. 

Now this sounds very confidence-building, but, me, I tend to overthink things and P doesn’t love surprises, and we both need lunch at lunchtime otherwise WATCH OUT! Food is not only the domain of the French, I can assure you. 

So, in our own semi-adventurous way, we threw camping gear in the back of the car, filled six (okay, seven) water bottles, dug out the Oregon gazateer and picked a semi-specific direction [*cough* Ecola State Park, precisely], packed a decent lunch, packed snacks for the dog, and THEN took off. Woohoo! 8:59 am and we were out of the house on our adventure.

The treasures for me on that Saturday were taking a gravel cut-thru past rolling back country of acres of red clover, vineyards and tidy farms. All of this exists a few miles north of our house and I loved taking the road not traveled. A bigger find was fabulous Ecola State Park with its post-card perfect coast scenes and pristine coastal forest. The nap on a sloping field facing aforementioned awesome views was also appreciated. We hiked through the woods and studied Sitka spruce up close. Another sweet sight was two bald eagles sitting side by side on a snag over Highway 101 and the beautiful drive home along the coast.

Major takeaways: 

  • Ecola State Park is national-park gorgeous. A perfect curve of beach backed by lush green hills brushed by low clouds. Several enormous rocks on the beach looked like something out of a Japanese anime movie. They are otherworldly, looming straight up from the beach shiny with the receding tide.
  • Cannon Beach: When people told me Cannon Beach was “nice!” they meant a wide beach like SoCal, a main street like swanky Carmel, and grey shingled houses reminiscent of Nantucket and Maine, a winning combination of classy and relaxed.
  • When offered a “Viewpoint” on Hwy 101 on the Oregon Coast, pull over! They are NOT kidding about the view.
Lovely wide beach at low-tide, Cannon Beach, OR

One of the biggest treasures that day was that we didn’t need to go far. All the beauty of our day existed within a two-hour drive of home. That gives this semi-adventurous writer a lot more confidence to return.

Oregon, Poetry

Partly Sunny: Portland Rose Garden

partly sunny: portland rose garden 

Double Delight – a name that captures their beauty and the happiness of seeing them again
we lay stretched out on a 
perfected lawn, tidy
rows of experimental roses
across the brick path.
one of us slept on his side,
mouth open, legs pulled up and
an arm flung to one side,
the one I would have fit in
if we'd been in bed.
marigolds in an egg carton
were as far as I had gotten;
damned them from the start
when i lettered VULGUS
on both sides of their cradle.
the rose-smellers were ignoring us,
heavy and human on our side,
so i stood and faced the sun,
turned to see me
grounded, briefly
sketched across the grass.
  • jrcox (Sphere Magazine, 1984)

Thirty-five years after I wrote this, we set out again to revisit Portland Experimental Rose Garden. The one whose arm was flung out in the poem strode along beside me, a step ahead. We’d come from a cafe on swanky 23rd Street in northwest Portland, fueled by coffee late in the day, and turned up steep streets of prosperous-looking homes. It was odd to step off a street full of hipster home goods, cafes of expensive coffee drinks, and bars already full of twenty-somethings and climb a hill into wilderness. Odd and deeply refreshing, which is sort of what this poem was all about.

Thousands of roses were in bloom, their heady scent perfumed the air on this warm June day. I couldn’t find the place where we had lain on the grass all those years ago. Couldn’t remember how we’d even got to the garden back in 1984, all the way from my brother’s house on the other side of town. That summer was P’s first look at the United States, and Portland, our first stop on the west coast trip. 

“Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose,” Gertrude Stein wrote. Somethings are what they are, and remain what they are. But now, I suppose, P. is more awake and I am more grounded. Or getting there.


Why Is Oregon So SMART?

Why is Oregon so SMART? Because Oregon wants to help every child in the state become a reader.

Which is why today I signed up as a volunteer reader.

SMART – Start Making a Reader Today – matches volunteers with young school children whose teachers recommend them for an extra hour of reading a week. Volunteer readers commit to working at school with a student for the whole school year, either reading a book together, or listening while the child sounds out letters and words.  

We’re all voracious readers in our house.

Here’s a cause I wholeheartedly support. I read to my children every single day – not because I wanted them to hurry up and read to themselves but because I understood how literacy would benefit them.

For example, stories provide rich material to help children develop their inner and outer life.

A story can be a window into an experience they don’t already know, like sailing the sea or going up in a rocket or standing up to a bully. Sometimes, a story is a mirror that reflects the child’s own life, like visiting grandma or growing a garden or being a good friend or having two dads. 

A few of the picture books and middle grade readers we brought when we moved.

My own children benefitted from both kinds of stories and more. We read stories that made them laugh, fired up their imaginations, and soothed them before bed. They heard poetry and history and myths and folktales. Through the hundreds of books and stories we read, they absorbed a rich vocabulary of words, some of which we did not necessarily use at home – specific words about sciencey things I didn’t know, or silly, made-up words like vermicious knids and oompa-loompa. They also heard stories in French, the second language in our home. Each child had favorite books that tied them to tales from their Papa’s country.

As I said, I wasn’t in a hurry for my children to read for themselves, but I understood that reading to them early on would prepare them to learn. Research on literacy shows that children who are prepared to read have more self-confidence, do better in school, take more advanced courses, graduate high school, and go to college. Literacy contributes to their emotional well-being, and their eventual economic prosperity. 

The SMART program aims to improve reading outcomes in Oregon by increasing the chances for all children to become literate. Now that’s a cause I can get behind.

On Writing, Oregon

Building a Writing Community: Fairy Godmothers, Lifelines and Schmoozing

Children’s book writers listen to one another’s work at an SCBWI Critique Cafe in Napa. (2014)

I read two picture books every night for years. Eventually, my daughters began reading to themselves, but I missed the magical world of their children’s books. I’d gone to journalism school and figured, hey, I can write a kid’s book, no problem.  It turned out writing novels is a practiced art.

My first effort was a chapter book about a narwhal and a unicorn. I trucked off to share it with a writers’ group that met at the local library. I brought some pages, read them aloud, and listened while they discussed my fledgling efforts. It wasn’t easy to stay quiet which was the rule. When the first critiquer stated how much she loathed talking animals, I wanted to leap to the defense of my characters. Yet, if I had done that, I would have missed the entire point of the meeting: listen to feedback and improve the story, so even the snarkiest critic finds merit in it.

Sherry and Hillary (pictured) ventured up to Willamette Valley to winetaste and write (2019)

The writers’ group whittled down to four steady members – Leslie, Hillary, Sherry and I. We met monthly for the next 14 years, sometimes around my creaky dining room table, or in Leslie’s cozy living room, or in Hillary’s home office. Every July, we trekked to Sherry’s for a homemade meal and one of her signature desserts. 

We settled into the “sandwich method” of critiquing. The critiquer says what she likes about the story or chapter, then defines problems with voice, character, plot, setting, etc., and, finally, finishes on a positive note. 

Leslie and I at the SCBWI Conference in Los Angeles ( 2014)

Over time, we become familiar with one another’s strengths and difficulties, commiserated over rejections, and celebrated every gain. My critique group  transformed a very solitary vocation into a shared journey. They are the fairy godmothers who help me turn a pumpkin of a story into a chariot every time, as I hope I do for them. Even after I moved, we continue to sprinkle fairy dust on each other’s work though semi-magical Facetime. 

Another writer I met along the way became a daily lifeline. In 2015, I met Debbie through the SCBWI Nevada Mentor Program (more on SCBWI in a sec). A bestselling author picked both our manuscripts and helped us revise them over six months. A couple coincidences become obvious right away. We lived 3000 miles from each other, in each other’s home states and close to each other’s hometowns. With the clock ticking, we emailed each other five days a week about our revision progress.  It was like riding in a bike race as a team and tossing the water bottle back and forth. Last fall, we spent a few days together on the East Coast. What a pleasure it was to pull out our laptops in a coffee shop in person and read each other’s work. Four years later, we still check with each other several times a week. 

Debbie and I dashed to New York City for writing inspiration. Here on the High Line.(2018)

I met all the writers above – and many more – through the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). SCBWI is a professional organization for writers and artists who create stories for children and youth. This largely volunteer-run nonprofit hosts conferences and workshops across the U.S. (including my new home state of Oregon) and in over 20 other countries. In 2015, I started the Napa County arm of SCBWI’s San Francisco North and East Bay Region, and ran it for the first four years. Now I’m happy to grow my writing community in Oregon, and schmooze with local writers here.

These are just a few ways to find support as a writer – critique group, productivity partner, professional associations. What supports your writing life? (Other than coffee.)


The Work of Writing: BIC, or Getting to Your Desk

My current writing space is the desk I was given as as a child.
My Napa space looked into the branches of a fig tree.

In Napa, we built a 5 x 11 studio for me out of a garden shed attached to the garage. Though tiny, the door closed and the window faced the spreading branches of a fig tree. The leaves unfurled day by day, sometimes outpacing the progress of my own work.

For the last few years, that project was a 90,000-word young adult novel that I was rewriting with a mentor, the wonderful Veronica Rossi. When the process stalled, I questioned myself, literally, like in this journal note:

November 10, 2015

Wow, really hard to focus. Nothing’s in the way except my own lazy a$$ self. 

Me: Hey, lazy a$$ self. What’s the problem?

LAS: Momentum. Dragging our feet.

ME: Why? 

LAS: Afraid of failure. 

Me: Oh. That. 

LAS: Also fear of success. How it changes things. 

Me:  Let’s just be in the process and not think about outcome. The fun is in the process, and the flow. I’m going to do my best, one step at a time. If I get ahead of myself, it’s stultifying. Just get BIC.

LAS [melting like Wicked Witch in Wizard of Oz]: AAAaaaaaa….

If you’re a writer, you know that “BIC” – getting “butt-in-chair” – is one of the hardest parts of the process. If you approach it in fear, like my imagined self above, you may wake up out of a fog and finding yourself doing dishes instead. Or picking the brown leaves off the strawberry plants. In winter. Several months from any actual fruit appearing. Or endlessly scrolling through Instagram. If you’re ambivalent about writing, your mind is going to march you in the opposite direction of your desk.

One thing that helps is following an established routine.

I often start at the same time every day. When I worked fulltime, my alarm clock went off at 5 am. I made tea, ignored my cat and dog’s excitement about getting fed, walked past the dirty dishes, and went straight to the studio. 

After that, I take steps to get inspired. For a couple of years, before I wrote anything, I’d read one page a day from a book that inspired me. One year I read one passage a day from The Bhagavad Gita, in a tiny version with illustrations from ancient paintings. Another year, I pulled a card a day from Affirmators!, wacky affirmation cards that don’t take themselves too seriously. My favorite year, though, I read a page a day from 365 Days of Wonder, by R.J. Palacio. Each page’s quotation sparked hope and something to think about. Like this one: “If opportunity doesn’t knock, build a door.”(Milton Berle). Or this one: “What you do every day matters more than what you do every once in a while.” (Unknown).

Lastly, I open a digital notebook devoted to my work-in-progress. I read where I was yesterday and type in what I intend to accomplish today. When I need to noodle out overarching things – like character motivation or the ten things my YA character likes about so-and-so – then I write it all out. It’s like clearing a cluttered shelf in my head. Then I’m ready to pick up where I left off. My digital journal also contains separate tabs for plot points, character sketches, setting descriptions, drafts for query letters, and pitches. 

The last and most supportive part of my regular practice is writing partners. But these fairy godmothers deserve a post of their own. More on that next week.