mentors: Tasha Tudor



It’s been hot here lately.  Every day I watch brave floral optimism blossom then shrivel with the arc of the sun.  At night, we drag out the hoses and give our flower beds courage to face the next day. I have dreams of a Tasha Tudor-style garden, but it is early stages yet.  I baby along a single poppy, four or five zinnias, a handful of sweet peas, short and unfragrant.  In the books I have of Tasha’s garden, everything is lush and cool and lovely and Tasha is never flustered, never sweating through her improbable dresses trying to unkink a length of pale green rubber hose, never standing over empty beds wondering where the seeds went or why those plants all died so quickly.  It doesn’t discourage me.  I pour over her books anyway.  Over the years, I've come to welcome her as a mentor.

Lately, with so much of my life shifting, I've been thinking about these teachers we come across, the ones who unknowingly shape us into the people we are becoming.  Tasha comes to mind first because she was a gifted commercial artist and illustrator, but she proudly defended her life as a homemaker:

“Whenever I get one of those questionnaires and they ask what is your profession, I always put down housewife. It’s an admirable profession, why apologize for it?”

So often I find myself torn between vocations, but Tasha didn’t seem burdened by that dichotomy at all.  As beloved as her art became, she didn’t see herself lessened by her commitment to homemaking;  she admitted she illustrated so she could afford flower bulbs and corgis and her 1850’s-homage house.  I find it a pleasure to keep a tidy house, to keep the cookie jar stocked, to crochet a blanket or sew a pair of pants, to have a meal ready when others come home.  Whenever I’ve ignored these things for the sake of more “important” work, I feel untrue to myself.  But Tasha reminds me it is possible to go this way, to craft a life that holds both my work as a writer and my work as a homemaker in equal value.

“I’m perfectly content,” she says. “I have no other desires than to live right here with my dogs and my goats and my birds. I think I’ve done a good job of life, but I have no message to give anyone. If I do have a philosophy, it is one best expressed by Henry David Thoreau: “If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.” That is my credo. It is absolutely true. It is my whole life summed up.”


I can't imagine Tasha rushing through her life, wringing her hands over her busyness (like nearly everyone I meet these days).  I imagine her purposeful and committed, showing up each day for the narrow band of things she wanted her life to encompass: her garden, her family, her books and art.  There's no sense of drama about Tasha.  She wasn't trying to save the world, to fix every injustice.  She created.  She nurtured.  She lived.  And so many of us have found her a refuge, a point of light.  If for no other reason, she's a worthy mentor because she shows us that we change each other by being unapologetically true to who we are as individuals.

So inspiring, isn't she?

I'll write more about other mentors later, but I'd love to hear about any you have.

january at fernwood


January 6, 2018

I believe I look forward to the New Year more than I do Christmas.  Christmas, no matter how simple you keep it, has a gaudy element, a bit of the overdone, while January is remarkably fresh and spare.  Even our property has a stripped down look, the unleafed views revealing a neighbor’s house, a new view of the creek across the road.  In the late fall this feels a bit distressing.  Curtains I ignore for half the year are pulled tight as soon as the dark rises, lest anyone catch a glimpse through freshly bare branches into the privacy of the house.  But by January I’ve nearly forgotten this seasonal modesty and I leave the curtains as they are until we’re headed to bed.  Anyone looking in from the outside on a January evening might catch a glimpse of lit candles, lamps on the mantle, the electric glow of our tiny fake fireplace (a placeholder until we order a real woodstove) and a smattering of people in couch corners, knees tented and noses in books.

“What do other people do at night?” I ask my family repeatedly in these months, for all I can ever think to do when the day is over is curl up with a good story, but other people seem to live such interesting lives. At least they do in my social media feeds.  All I ever receive back from such a question is a couple of absentminded shrugs.  Apparently no one else feels they’re left out of any big life secrets.

On Fridays we watch movies.  Lately, I’ve become serious about limiting the violence I watch, so the dreaded movie selection process has become even more fraught.  Now we not only have to find something everyone wants to watch but it also can’t have bloody murders, vigilante justice, beatings, rapes, predatory abuse, police brutality, war, or gun violence.  In short, there’s not much left to watch, and that in itself has been revealing for everyone.  How far, I wonder to myself, have I sunk along the fault line of desensitization?  I remember when one of our sons saw an old Western for the first time and became hysterical when a cowboy, one foot caught in a stirrup, was dragged along the desert by a runaway horse.  He couldn’t understand why a movie would show something like that, why it was entertaining to watch a man get hurt.  I wonder how many times I have begun a recommendation with, “There’s some violence, but the story is so good!”  and I wonder when the violence stopped mattering?

There’s too much to fear in the world as it is.  For example, I keep reading about the Big One, the expected Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake that could destroy everything west of Interstate 5.  It will happen soon, experts say, anytime between today and the next 1,000 years.  Seeing as we live in a 100-year old farmhouse perched on a tree-covered hillside somewhere between the coast and I-5, I worry about this a lot.  There are so many things you can control through discretion, hard work, and prudence.  And so many, many things you cannot.

But I can't do anything about the Big One and this is January, so Fernwood is in that stripped down, drizzly state she gets into every year, like an old woman just come from the shower, her hair pulled back, the bones of her face startling, her shoulders rounded to clutch the robe to her sagging chest.  Everywhere I look her age is showing.  This is the time of year we take note, jot down the spring and summer projects.  The duck house doors have to be rehung, there’s a leak in the roof where Ginger (the 10 year old chicken) likes to sleep, there are more branches down along the roadside and up in the woods.  This is in addition to the dilemma about the new geese.  Westley and Buttercup have turned into a gorgeous, funny pair who have done a splendid job of keeping the ducks safe from predators.  But they are huge birds and while I find it ever-so-charming that they are exclusively vegetarian, they have laid waste to my flower beds, decimating everything green that isn’t behind a deer-proof fence.  Not to mention, they love to hang out around the house and they poop.  A lot.   Add to the to-do list: solve goose problem.

Sometimes I look around at this place and think what it might be like in the hands of someone who loved to garden, someone who naturally gravitated outdoors to pull weeds and grow things, instead of me, whose natural habitat is the indoor landscape, book and tea in hand.  Fernwood, in her rambly, slightly neglected state, reveals that my daily priorities do not involve yard work and that makes me cringe a little. How I’d love to be Gladys Taber or Tasha Tudor or Virginia Woolf who managed both their art and glorious gardens.  But I can only be myself after all.   If nothing else, Fernwood’s appearance also reveals my feelings about Nature as a wise caretaker on her own and it gives me a lot of pleasure to see how Mama Earth nurtures herself, how she provides for the creatures that make their homes here with us.  When I do go outside (and I do, frequently), it is often not to subdue and tame, but to listen, watch, and learn.   In January, she seems to be asking us to strip down to the bone, see what’s been hidden, what needs to be realigned.  This is the time she invites us to breathe deep, see ourselves and our homes for what they are, no flinching.  I’m taking note.