For Better or Better

So much has happened since my last post. There is nowhere to begin except at the heart of the story. When I met my husband, Booth Buckley in January of 1989 in a bar in Atlanta, Georgia I never could have predicted that we would be married and living in the Northwest almost twenty-four years later, yet here we are. We have been through so much together both good and incredibly bad, and we have only grown stronger and more in love. When we eloped in September of 1994 we did so for two reasons: Booth was previously married in a Baptist Church in Alabama, and he did not want a church ceremony; I wanted a small ceremony but the only person who I truly wanted to be there was my mom and she was dead. I had spread my mom's ashes on Martha's Vineyard, her favorite place, so that was where we eloped to. The ceremony was very quick and the justice of the peace forgot to do "the vows" so we never said the "for better or worse, in sickness and in health, richer or poorer" part. We did say "I do."

We have embraced those vows, however, and we are tested again and again. Right now I am facing one of the scariest moments of my marriage. If I thought getting through the loss of my mom, my husband's diagnosis of celiac disease, the discovery and recovery of two of my stepsons addicted to heroin (now clean), the bipolar psychosis of my very egomaniacal father, were turbulent waters to navigate, I have just been hit by a rogue wave.

Booth has not been feeling good for some time. In September, around the time of the photo of him holding those roses, he started experiencing chest pain while riding his bicycle up hills. A long story short: On November 20th we went in for an angiogram after trying just beta blockers and statin drugs, and we thought maybe the cardiologist would put in a stent or two, and we were hit by the wave. Booth has "left main disease" (which is genetic in his case) and he has 70% to 90% blockage in two dangerous places. This Thursday he goes in for open-heart triple bypass surgery.

We are very lucky. We did catch this in time. We have a great surgeon and one of the best hospitals for cardiac care in the world, here in Seattle. We have insurance; we are not fully insured being both self-employed, but we have always maintained our individual healthcare and now it has proven itself worthy. We have the love of so many friends and almost all of our family. The sad truth is that my very own father wishes us dead. This is mental illness speaking, and in this time of our stress I have let him go. It is the only choice I have. I did what I could to help, and now all I care about is my beautiful husband.

Thursday will be a very difficult day for me. I just want the 4-6 hours of surgery to be behind us, and the long recovery to begin. Booth so looks forward to a new lease on life, and so do I. I have book projects piled up and waiting for me to work on- three new toddler books for Chronicle Books, and I'm very excited about my 2013 release from Little, Brown & Company Books for Young Readers, "Once Upon A Memory," written by me and illustrated by Renata Liwska. I want my books to be back fully in my life and my heart, but first and foremost, I want Booth's heart to be better- better than ever.

All of this that we are going through has shown me the tenuous fragility of life and has highlighted only what is important. The Beatles really did get it right when they sang, "All You Need is Love." I have love. I give love. I hope for love. I don't need anything more- except for the man I love to get through this next week and onward.

With Love,


A Recipe for Disaster...and Fruit Roll

If you googled "fruit roll recipe" and found this post, you may be disappointed. It's not a recipe in the traditional sense, so I apologize to you and hope you come back and visit some other time. Those of you who like non-traditional recipes, read on.

This is a recipe. It is a recipe for how to turn your life into a living hell.

Recipe for Disaster:

One Bipolar Father, age 80
One Altruistic Daughter and Son-in-law, ages 50 and 57

Place one Bipolar Father, in a depressed state, in the home of One Altruistic Daughter and Son-in-law. Provide love, warmth, security, untangle all financial, personal, and physical messes for one year. Move Bipolar Father, still in a depressed state, into an upscale retirement community one mile from One Altruistic Daughter and Son-in-law's home. Add some summer sunshine and stimulation and agitate.

Remove Bipolar Father, now in a manic state, and let him loose in the Ballard Community where he will start drinking, smoking illegal substances, spending money with reckless abandon, becoming delusional and try to give massive sums of money away to complete strangers, while believing that he is more creative and talented than Leonardo Da Vinci and that he will sell t-shirts he has scribbled on for $1500 each.

Bipolar Father will then stir up clouds of resentment, hostility, verbal and written threats towards Altruistic Daughter and Son-in-law because they try to cool down overheated Bipolar Father and prevent him from making irreversible errors of judgement.

Let Bipolar Father boil over, and step back. Be aware of burning sensations as Bipolar Father takes a flame thrower and turns it on Altruistic Daughter and Son-in-law attempting to turn them into Creme Brulée as he spits and slobbers foaming remarks of utter hatred and vicious epithets.

At this point in the recipe, the Altruistic Daughter may crumble, but if the timing is right, the Son-in-law will drive her to their cottage on Lummi Island, where she will soak in the hot tub, pick apples and blackberries and make fruit roll in her kitchen.

The kitchen view will revive her. Friends will support her and show her love. The fruit roll will come out perfect and delicious. 

The Bipolar Father will continue to shoot flames and will attempt to destroy the Altruistic Daughter and Son-in-law who saved his life. He will stew in his mental illness. One day in the future he will be cremated, (as was his wish, when the Altruistic Daughter helped him create a Will, that he will now leave her out of) and only then will the recipe be done.

Note: It is my recommendation that you do not attempt this recipe. It will only lead to a terrifying and upsetting life. However the fruit roll is highly recommended. 

About 18 smallish apples (Spartan is what I have)
1 32 oz yogurt container of blackberries
1/2 inch cinnamon stick
2 or 3 TBS sugar
A little water

You will need a food mill for this recipe. In a large heavy-bottomed saucepan, place the apples- quartered (leave the peels and cores in)- add the cinnamon stick, sugar and the water. Cover and cook over medium-low heat, checking and stirring so the apples don't stick to the bottom. You are making applesauce. You may need to add a little more water if the mixture is too thick. Keep cooking for about 20 to 30 minutes until the apples are all softened. 

Over a large bowl, put the blackberries through the food mill with the finest mesh screen. Clean the food mill, and then put the applesauce through it into the same bowl. (Keep cleaning out the peels and seeds into your compost bucket as you go.) Then whisk the applesauce-blackberry mixture into a cohesive whole. 

Lightly oil your food dehydrator plastic sheets, and using a spatula, evenly spread the blackberry-applesauce mixture on the sheets. I got 6 sheets worth out of the recipe. Run the dehydrator 15 hours- or until the fruit roll is completely dry. Pull off the dried roll, cut into 8 slices for each sheet and wrap individually in saran wrap. Store in airtight container or Ziploc gallon bag. Will keep for a long time. 

Enjoy the little things in life, especially when your own father hates you for all the good things you did
with love,



Getting Grounded

You may have noticed that I haven't posted for a while. Maybe you think that I've been off traveling the world, or perhaps writing that middle grade novel, YA memoir, stack of picture books that have been sitting in my journal on my ever-lit-back-burner-eternal-flame of creative wonders-waiting-to-be-manifested. I wish I could say that was so. It's summer. Time of long languid days, frivolity, friends, outdoor grilling, right? What did you do with your summer vacation? Remember that first essay you had to write when you came back to school? This year my essay would have probably sent me to the school psychologist. No one would believe that it happened. I must have made it up. 

Not wanting to bore you with the details, I will condense it for you as best I can: 

Since I last posted:

I had the flu. I had lovely company from Austin, Texas visiting about a week after the flu started. I lost my voice. My brother moved in with us in the city. My brother was supposed to find a place to live. He wound up in our home for a month. He didn't like the bed. (My father took my good bed to his new apartment a half mile away when he moved out in June.) I had to buy a new bed and put it together with Ikea instructions and the flu. I had to buy bedding for the bed. My father's mania escalated. He called me every day, sometimes up to six times per day. I started letting it all go to voice mail and tried calling back every other day, but wound up having to just walk over to his place as he continued covering every square inch of wall space with photos, captions written on tape, drawings on t-shirts... and he started planning an exhibit in a store on his block. My father also decided to attend a Presbyterian church, to produce two films: one written by a Mexican waiter in his retirement community, the other by another resident- which needs to be filmed in Israel in the year 1AD, and he- my father- thinks he will get an arts channel show on himself, a lifetime achievement Oscar®; he wants to sue a number of people, and he wants a kitten, a woman, and... he wants to buy my house, which is not for sale, by the way. Plus he will get me on his arts show, and he has told me that I will be a producer of all sorts of things. 

That's just about my immediate family.

Then there has been my husband's health. We are now on a new diet adventure and trying to cut out high cholesterol food, so I have been trying to figure out how to bake gluten-free and fat-free... and at the same time my brother-in-law, a sweet, smart, respected judge, was viciously attacked at his home by a stranger wielding a glass container of sulphuric acid, (there is just too much of a horror story to go into here) and my dear mother-in-law lost her "boyfriend"Dale, a sweetheart of a man, to cancer... 

Yes. All this since the last post. 

Needless to say I've been wrung out and torn to shreds. I can't seem to figure out where I left my life, or who ran off with it. Thankfully there is our cottage on Lummi Island, where for the past month each weekend I've been doing almost nothing but processing all the fruit and vegetables we grew. Canning, dehydrating and decanting things like a homesteader on steroids. Use it or lose it. But after this weekend when I pickled and canned beets, made fig jam, blackberry-Gravenstein apple fruit leather, froze blackberries, picked sugar snap peas and plums, and made a plum tart- I snapped. The weather had been picture perfect, just like that photo of my neighbor Michael's sailboat: clear, calm, sunny, warm and crisp. On Sunday night I told my husband that we weren't leaving. One more day... I just needed one more day to try to "not do anything."

So I did. But I didn't do nothing. I went for a long walk on the beach. I looked at Michael's sailboat. I marveled at a single piece of eel grass glistening and glowing in the morning light, slithering across wet stones. I hunted for agates and found one that looked like a belly button... and I found this:

A tiny snail, impossibly orange-red, somehow surviving in a tidal zone where large rocks routinely roll and tumble and crash into each other. And then, just before I saw one of my island friends- who is a much better photographer than me- I saw that the beach had sent me a message:
Kisses and hugs. Hugs from friend, Cheryl. A tail wag from dog, Max. A short, but reassuring conversation. Some grounding. The sense that there is balance out there and it can be restored.
Back at the house, I looked at my truck. It's twenty-two years old now. It lives on the island and it's growing moss and lichen, but it still runs. Some day, I'd like that to be me. Grounded on the island. Sitting still in one place long enough to grow moss, but to still run... 
For now, I'll take a day like this when I can get it and then I'll run back to the city. Back to my crazy life. I hope that there will be time for more posts more often. I hope that my father will find his own grounding and not keep sucking the energy out of me like a hypomanic vampire. 

Maybe then I'll be able to get back to my real bliss. 

They're waiting for me.
And thank you for waiting for me, too.

With Love,


Off His Rocker: Two Sides of One Man

This is the Ikea love seat I bought and assembled for my father. Maybe I should say this "was" the Ikea love seat. The one I bought looked like this:
In June I moved my father into his lovely new apartment in an upscale retirement community in our neighborhood. I had moved him out of his decaying house in upstate New York a year before that, saving him from certain death. He had been in depression for almost seven years and remained that way even as I fed him and brought him back to life in my own house. He did nothing. He sat in silence and read books, magazines, listened to the radio, and wouldn't change his clothing or shower. For a year he did not even look at the flat files full of his art or the boxes of photos that I packed moved and unpacked and moved from house to moving pod and moving pod to my house. 

The inertia was unnerving, as was his permanent pose, arms folded, legs extended, slouched down, a vacant stare as my husband and I did everything without one single sign of gratitude from him. We were drained and exhausted, but relieved when he agreed, albeit begrudgingly to allow us to move him into this new community.

We became sherpas again, packing and moving, giving him our furniture - because he said he "wanted it," running all over Puget Sound buying things he would need, setting up his new home, gently telling him that being around people his own age would be better for him. (And there was free cable, wifi, a swimming pool, a movie theater, and wonderful shops within walking distance.) 

For the first month he remained silent, but slowly started to show appreciation for our efforts. He started to make friends. He called me on the phone, which in of itself was a small clue. He never called when he was in depression. I had to call him. But then, around the 4th of July, there was a small spark that I knew was about to ignite. He made a pun.

One pun? What's to worry, you might ask. That one play on words (that I can no longer recall) was a blazing flashing red light that went on in my head, displaying this word: "mania." He's going into mania. My father has untreated bipolar disorder; he has had it his entire life, but I finally figured out what it was about fifteen years ago when I fell into a clinical depression and started reading about mental illness and mood disorders. I finally understood why my father turned everything I said into a pun. I also realized that he was two completely different people and that he didn't remember what he did or said from one swing to the other.

This time I got to witness the change with my own eyes and ears and it was shocking.

In a matter of days, my father went from not changing his clothing, not shaving, to being all about hygiene. He started talking incessantly, making constant jokes and puns, and picked up things that he was doing in his last round of mania seven years ago. He started taping things all over the walls and writing captions on everything... and he painted the love seat.

That was the beginning of him calling me up to a half dozen times each day and/or night. He told me before that he didn't want a television, and now the one I did buy him was too small and he kept doing things to the remote that "crashed the TV," and he needed us to fix it.

He started calling everyone from his past, and he started pulling out "pie in the sky" projects that he created in previous manias, wanting to know if I thought he could sell them now. (One of them was an Elvis Presley coloring book. I told him that he'd need permission from the Presley estate and he dropped that idea.)

The list of changes are mind-boggling... being around someone in mania is also mind-strangling. Each sentence he spews might contain about twenty different subjects. And try to get a word in edgewise...forget about it! We kept telling him how to work the TV remote. He hears, but he won't listen.

If I thought caring for him in depression was bad, this is ten times ten-thousand times worse. I have to screen his calls, and maybe for once it was a blessing that I got the flu, which gave me laryngitis... I so need to attend to my own life and my writing and illustrating. He doesn't see that. But I've taken in another wayward sailor: my brother is now temporarily living with us while he looks for a place to live near his new job at Boeing. He's having to help with our father at the moment while I'm recovering.

But this is just the beginning of the wild manic ride. My father has attached himself to a whole new world of folks who live in his community. He has stories for days. He is no longer my father- he's my fodder.

He's off his rocker, and all I can do is take notes.

With Love,


Gesture Writing

I've been starting the arduous process to organize and move my studio from the city to the island. This has taken me on so many memory trips as I've leafed through my past, going through the layers of sediment and sentiment and discovering treasures long forgotten. As I've dug through my art school journals, I've rediscovered some of my old gesture drawings from figure drawing classes. These are very quickly sketched, usually thirty seconds or at most a minute. They make you see the very essence of things.

All of this processing of old imagery and experiences apparently seeped its way into my subconscious and was reborn in a vivid dream that combined old elements from art school in a new way. In my dream one of the models we used to draw in freshman figure drawing class became a real person to me- in a way he never was before. He began to tell me his story, even though I am fairly certain he is long deceased. It was so compelling that I had to write it down. Quickly.

There are so many reasons why we write. Most of the time we build on things little by little, combining pieces, forming a whole that gradually takes shape. The pieces can be paragraphs, poems, descriptions, or short essays.

I consider this to be "gesture writing" akin to gesture drawing. It is the essence of something. A warm up. An exercise in the durability and staying power of an idea.

I'm not sure where this will lead. Perhaps there will be a collection of these "gestures." But I am going to share this short piece here. I have changed the names, of course. But if you attended Syracuse University's College of Art in the late 70's, early 80's, this will bring back memories, no doubt.

If you feel so inclined, let me know what you think...

With Love,


He had climbed the stairs, all one hundred and nine of them, in a trance, as he made his way from Upstate Med down Irving to Crouse Hall. He didn’t feel the biting wind, nor did he pay any attention to the bloody red carpet in Crouse which created a womb-like interior. Art and music students swam by, flowing like storm run-off, holding portfolios and instrument cases like flotation devices as they made their way past Winged Victory who guarded the staircase leading to the upper floors.

He felt invisible and numb as he ascended the stairs to the fourth floor. The red carpet ended at the threshold to an open door, exposing the well-worn and stained wooden tongue-in-groove flooring littered with the odd-shaped benches which looked like a lower-case letter “h” that seemed to make no sense as furniture until they were straddled by unruly and unripe freshmen resting huge Masonite boards on the high side. He ignored the arriving students and paid less attention to the enormous drafty windows showing dark clouds gathering over the dingy expanse of Syracuse which had been in decline pretty much since the closing of the Erie Canal. It made no impression on him that he was standing in what used to be the tallest building around, an imposing and impressive Romanesque-Gothic revival style castle of a building designed and completed by a man named Archimedes Russell in 1889. It was under-heated and uncomfortable. That he noticed.

He barely looked up and nodded his head in gruff acknowledgment of the instructor standing next to the desk as he made his way into the closet in the corner. He didn’t know the instructor’s name. They were all the same: Steven, Karen, Roger, Carl… they didn’t care about him. He was just a body. Practically a cadaver. He overheard one of the freshmen say, “Dick Wicket? Do we have Dick Wicket today?” He waited for the snickering, which always followed, then he quietly removed his clothing, taking everything off except for his expandable metal wristwatch, folded the vestments carefully, and exchanged them with the polyester floral short kimono-style bathrobe he had in a bag, wrapping it around himself, looking like he had escaped from a spa for deranged women.

For three hours he exposed himself: every wrinkle, every crease, every line and bony protrusion, along with his sullen complexion and general flaccidity. He wore his skin like a suit of armor, deflecting intense stares as freshmen eyes probed his every orifice, attempting to transfer it in charcoal to large sheets of paper. He had suffered worse indignities in Vietnam. This was nothing. He shifted his weight, changing positions every minute as the freshman warmed up drawing gestures; lines that were not meant to be him, but to suggest him in an abstract way.

The poses became longer. Ten minutes. Thirty minutes. He could hear his watch ticking, the sound of charcoal and conté crayon scratching, the instructor Steven, or was it Roger, saying “nice,” or “that foreshortening doesn’t work.” He could feel his leg going to sleep, numbness and tingling traveling upwards as he tried to not think about how hard the chair was that he was sitting on, draped only with a flimsy piece of cloth- so that they could draw the folds. He didn’t move, except for his eyes, as he cast them downward, trying to view his watch, waiting for the exact moment when he could break the pose. Relief washed over him as a fifteen minute break was announced. The freshman ran to the basement of Hendrick’s Chapel or The Blinker to buy hot coffee and honey buns. He put on his robe and went into the closet to smoke. The next pose would be an hour. He craved warmth- more of what was slowly dissipating from his nervous system, and a space heater, too. Why didn’t they provide at least the latter? Perhaps it was considered a fire hazard in such an old historic building, or were they that cheap or insensitive to the very nakedness his job required? He tried to feel the heat of the jungle, tried to remember the sweat rolling down his back. He didn’t want to go back there. Cold was preferable.

The one hour pose was not as torturous for him as it seemed to be for some of the others. He didn’t know them very well, the others. There was George. George was all energy and muscle. George would slap him on the back, “Yo, Dick, whassup?” He didn’t know what to say. George was a dancer- a modern dancer. He was black. He was the only one who refused to pose naked. He wore his leotard and often, tights, sometimes striped basketball socks pulled up to his knees. “Shits too cold in there. They don’t pay me enough to strip,” he’d say, “you gotta stand up to them, Dick. Say something.” He didn’t say anything. Not to George, not to the instructors, not to himself. George was from another planet- he brought his own music. He talked to the students, ran around and looked at what they drew, engaged them. He practically taught the class, taught the instructor. “See where my weight is,” he’d say, pointing to his quadriceps, “the weight is on this leg- show that weight with your lines.”

He didn’t care what they drew. He didn’t want to see it. He was there but not there. Frozen in the pose drifting in and out of consciousness while they sketched away, dreaming of the time being up, the darkness of night, and the line the next morning as he waited to get his dose. Unlike the freshmen being taught to use their kneaded erasers to remove areas of the charcoal to create depth and mood, he was working on erasing everything. Everything except the image of him, Dick Wicket, on their papers. He couldn’t erase that. Somewhere in the small recesses of his anesthetized ego, he knew that those drawings were the only proof that he existed.

 ©Nina Laden 2012 
Do not copy or share without written permission.


The "O" Word: An Obsession With Organization

I have a confession to make: I am obsessed with the "O" word. Not the one you are thinking of, although that is not a bad thing to think about sometimes, just not when you are trying to work. I am talking about Organization. That "O" word. I know I'm not the Only One Out there. (Lots of "O's" in that sentence... I must be channeling James Thurber's "The Wonderful O.")

No matter how hard I try to ignore it and tell myself that I really should be facing the blank page, a little devil with a dust mop and a bottle of 409 starts poking me in the face and says, "don't work on that manuscript or dummy, isn't it time to organize your flat files... or clean off the desk? How can you work with all that stuff just sitting there in random piles with stray cat hairs creating a fleece-like texture?"

Truthfully, the piles aren't random. They are specific. But who ever calls them "specific piles?"

Over time I have trained myself to import these piles into drawers. This drawer- the "top drawer" of my beloved old oak flat file (I think it's oak. It used to belong to my mom.) is full of decades of my journals. On days when I am not feeling like organizing and not feeling particularly inspired I open this drawer, open old journals, and the "magic falls out." (A girl in a Beaverton, OR elementary once told me that every time she opened a book "a little magic fell out.") But this drawer is now full and it barely closes. (Maybe the magic is leaking. Is that good or bad?)

The truth is that the whole flat file is full.

There are piles of my original illustrations and dummies from my books. I know that I need to frame some of them and maybe even sell some of them. I just have not been up to the task of:

a) spending piles of money on framing
b) figuring out how to make perfect digital copies
c) deciding which pieces to part with
d) choosing what to donate to the Kerlan Collection
e) putting time and effort into this when I should be working on new books...

So the drawers are a good home for now.

And the drawers are organized. When I create a book, I create a large folder that contains all sketches, correspondence, reference materials, texts... The over-sized originals (the pastels) which don't fit in the flat file are piled up to the ceiling in boxes.

This is all related to the eighteen plus years of me creating books. But there is also my past as a freelance graphic designer and illustrator...
More piles. Specific piles of illustrations and designs in various media from so many years of creating "something" from "nothing." (A weird expression. As if your imagination was nothing? It's not. It's something, but that's a post for another day.)

I need to have a yard sale. An art yard sale. But that brings me back to the list I made above.

However I am currently looking down the barrel of a gun. It's a good gun, though. I am facing the  upcoming conundrum of moving my studio and home office from the small bedroom and backyard shed of my city house to the almost 1000 square feet spacious, well-lit studio and office we built on the property of our island cottage. I even designed the new space to have an "art storage loft."

This means tons of the "O" word. I have to Organize the things that are moving. I have to Organize the actual move and Obtain a rental truck for a One-way rental. Then I will have to Oganize the new studio and decide what satellite studio and office to create in the city so that I can still work in both places.

This should bring on feelings of joy and excitement, but for the moment, it's more like fear and dread. I just moved my father a little over two weeks ago. I also moved him one year ago. I organized all of his things.

It's been a time of "Multiple Organizations" and I'm not calling out for "more, more, more!"

Yet I know it will feel so good. "O" so good...when it's done and I'm settled.

Then I can get organized to start illustrating the first of three board books that I have under contract. And there are picture books to dummy up so that they can be sold. And a middle grade novel to get a second draft going... and hopefully a novel to polish if it finds a home... and journals to fill... and well, you know... Other Opportunities to pursue...

This is the life of this writer and illustrator. I'm not really complaining.
I feel privileged to be able to be so Obsessed and Organized, because if I wasn't, I'd be living a life way more Ordinary. And as James Thurber might have said, "that would feel a little Opeless."

With Love,


Father From the Truth

This is my father. Or should I say, this was my father? This was taken before I was born. I wanted to do a post about Father's Day, but first: a disclaimer: this is my version of Father's Day. If yours is/was idyllic, Hallmark-worthy or like a Norman Rockwell painting you may want to leave my blog. Now.

Are you still there? Good. Some of us may not have had perfect fathers. Some of us may have had fathers from... let's say "father from the truth," okay? (and some of us may have not even known our fathers- or wish we hadn't. I didn't create this holiday. I'm just writing about it.)

This is me and my father. I was 14 or 15 in this photo. This was about five years after my father left my mother and my brother and me... and ran off with my brother's first grade teacher.

There is a long story there. A story full of pain and suffering. A lot of pain on my mom's part, but she can't tell the story. She died of multiple myeloma- a blood cancer- a few days after I turned 24.

There is pain for me, too. Was. And still is.

I wanted and needed a father to be there for me.

But he wasn't. And isn't.

This photo was taken at my grandparent's house.

There was never a "room" for me at my father's house. There was a folding cot. Or there was a dinner at a diner. There was not a sense of being part of a family.

But I grew up, and I grew independent. I took care of myself. I took care of things when my mother died. I knew that my mother was mentally ill- she had bipolar disorder, but it wasn't until I went through my own spiral through depression when I was 35 that I realized that my father was mentally ill. He, like my mother, had bipolar disorder. He was climbing into the heights of mania when I put all the pieces of the puzzle together.

My father was an artist, but he could never make a living as one. He was lucky back in the early 1960's when his therapist introduced him to another client- a man named Dick Smith- who took my father under his wing and taught him how to be a special effects make-up artist. Dick and my dad ran the NBC make-up department. I grew up hanging out there as a child. Then they went "freelance." Dick brought dad with him to do "The Exorcist" movie- dad did the priest and helped Dick with Linda Blair.

Dad was very successful. He was nominated for two Oscars. But by then, my mother, my brother and I were living on a near poverty level... we couldn't pay our taxes or heating bills... and he... well... he had another life.

For years, I avoided him as much as possible. He barely sent me a card or called... when he went into the absolute heights of untreated mania in 2005 he left his second wife and moved into a loft in Brooklyn. This photo above documents that period.

I could see the crash coming. I tried to warn him but why would he listen to me? He once told me that he was "not a pillar of strength" when I wanted him to be there for me. So he made a lot of mistakes. He wound up in upstate New York upside-down in a house that he was ripped off by an unscrupulous neighbor.

This is where he was when I realized that I had to help him. Save him. Stop him from sitting there and dying. He even said he was "waiting for the Grim Reaper."

He couldn't take care of the house. He couldn't take care of himself. He had slid into the pits of depression and he didn't see any way out.

I tried to help from far away. From Seattle. I told him about a senior center a few miles away where he could get hot meals on weekdays. My brother, who lived 70 miles away- my brother who he had belittled and verbally abused not only when we were kids, but into adulthood, drove over almost weekly and tried to fix what he could, but the situation was dire.

I realized that even though this man was not a father to me in the way that I wanted him to be- he was my kith and kin. He was also a human being and he deserved to live (and die) with dignity.

So my husband- who told me "you took care of my boys for twenty years, I can help with your dad"- signed up for the mission.

We took my father out of that house, and off that sofa where he had been sitting for over six years- buried in mail, surrounded by peeling paint, filth, and a nasty pellet stove that he used to keep warm. He was malnourished and he hadn't showered for years- nor had he done laundry. I tried to use the washer and it wouldn't work...

We had no choice but to stay there for a week while we packed what we could salvage, sleeping on an air mattress my brother lent us. I got sick the third day from all the mold and who knows what else.

Then one year ago on Father's Day we put my father in our rental car and drove to Newark airport and we flew him home. To our home in Seattle.

It was a long flight.

It's been a long year.

One year later I have to report that my father is no longer malnourished. He is healthy. As healthy as an 80 year old can be.

We just moved him into a lovely retirement community less than a mile from our house. He seems happier than I've seen him in years.

He has never really thanked us in the way that you would expect a grateful member of your immediate family to do- especially considering the scope of what we did- and we did it all by ourselves. No moving companies. No cleaning services. No help whatsoever. The sacrifices we both made to our personal lives and to our professional lives are immeasurable.

I have to believe that my father is proud of me, but he will never say it. Nor will he do anything so simple as offer to buy us a dinner or a drink... but here it is, Father's Day and I can celebrate because I know that even if he is not a good father, I have done what I can to be a good daughter.

I can rest well knowing that he will be comfortable for the rest of his life- and all of us, no matter how we treat others, deserve that on some level. That is the truth.

So my Father's Day is not full of barbecues and bad ties... and maybe I should be grateful.
But it is full of hope- hope that now I can put my life back in order and go back to being the creative person I have been. I can thank my father for some of those genes. I do carry the talents of both of my artist parents with me. I learned how to play with words from my father. I didn't realize that it was a sign of mania at the time...

Sometimes we learn from our parents and sometimes we learn what we don't want to do/be from our parents.

No matter what, I will always think of my father on Father's Day- because he did give me a gift- this life- and I'll always appreciate that.

And someday, maybe someday soon I'm going to write that book about all this because there is another thing my father had given me, albeit inadvertently; he has given me material. Conflict. Characters. Story. Thank you, Dad.

With Love,


The $5 Mushroom and Other Distractions

I should have known it was too early. We had a very long and late winter. The ski areas were celebrating and the snow level was still low, but I was invited to be the visiting author/illustrator at the Methow Valley Elementary School Young Author's Conference on May 17 & 18. My friends Stew and Phil's daughters Corinne and Julia go to that school. Fellow author/illustrator Erik Brooks' daughter Keeley goes there, too. And Phil let us stay in this house that he built for his dad in Mazama.
Ponderosa pines and warm dry breezes beckoned and I started dreaming of spring morels waking up from their long winters' nap, popping up like, well mushrooms after a rainfall. The plan was to leave very early and stop in our usual spots in the Cascades and forage on the way to school... unfortunately the forest service road was closed because of snow... and we spent hours scouring lower level areas only to come up empty-handed. 

However, the drive was beautiful. The mountains are spectacular. A beaver crossed right in front of my car as I drove up the Twisp River valley. My husband and I marveled over the incredible home Phil built as we got settled, and then we went to school for an evening event. 

The Methow Valley Elementary School charmed us on all levels: the kids, the parents, the staff, the principal, Dr. Patrick, who seems to be like a cat- a tall, thin, very hip cat, who has had at least nine lives and tells funny stories. This was a school of engaged and empowered students- and talented way beyond their years. They were flying high on their celebration of their accomplishments, and I was merely there to smile, applaud, and sign some books... and in the parking lot afterwards, an osprey flew right over my head, slowly circled and landed in a tree. 
On Friday I drove to school early, spotting a marmot and laughing at an irrigated field that had frozen in a perfect crystalized circle due to the freezing temperatures and a still-spraying watering system. The sky was impossibly cerulean. School was buzzing with activity and parent and community speakers all getting ready for the big day. I spoke to all of the students in three separate assemblies and facilitated a sharing circle, too. All students received a journal and I had them all create characters, which they totally enjoyed. 

We broke for lunch and I went for broke. I was still on my mushroom mission and I told my story of "woe is me and no morels" to see if I could find anyone local who foraged. The news was good. I was told that there were some morels in the market. I tried to find more info and was delighted to find a "Methow Mama" who was not only a mushroom lover, but she was also a food writer. She writes this lovely blog called Caramelize Life and her name is Georgina. 

At first Georgina was reluctant to reveal her mysterious morel location... but then when she learned that I knew of one in another part of the Cascades we decided to "trade" locations. We had the weekend to forage and my husband and I were hoping for success since we didn't find anything on Thursday.

I know I am obsessed with mushrooms. They are a delicious distraction for me- even more so than agate hunting. For one, I love spending hours walking in the forest in the mountains near cold, cascading creeks. For two, I get to eat what I find... and I love to find morels, king boletes, chanterelles, oyster mushrooms, shaggy manes- and I feel blessed that prince mushrooms actually grow in our lawn under our hemlock tree on Lummi Island. Morels are particularly tricky because they look so much like little pine cones sticking up in the duff.
We couldn't find Georgina's location. She was not sure of the road names. She said this happens when you live somewhere for a long time. You don't know the names, but you know where you are going. That could be a metaphor for many things. So Booth (my husband) and I improvised. We headed up another forest service road and struck out on our own. In my head I knew it was still too early and it was way too dry... but then I heard Booth yell, "It's a Bingo!" He had been waiting to shout out that hilarious line from one of our favorite movies, "Inglourious Basterds"and there it was- a lovely little morel growing out of the sandy soil next to a root ball from a felled tree. Then I found my "Bingo" in the photo above. 

Our mushroom basket had two morels in it, and we were stoked. We spent about five hours walking in the woods... and when we were done we had five mushrooms. Five. That is one, two, three, four, five. Not pounds. Mushrooms. Too early. Too dry. Too bad. 

The next morning we left Mazama to drive over the recently opened North Cascades Highway on our way back home. There were still tunnels of snow on the sides of the roads near Liberty Bell and Washington Pass, but as we hit the "wet side" and as we descended below the snow line, I started to get a feeling. "Wet side. Below the snow... Let's pull over at a trail," I told my husband. We parked the car and took a preliminary walk down the trail and lo and behold... I saw the morel that I put at the top of this post.

Elated, we ran back to the car, grabbed our basket and knives, and paid the $5 forest service fee.

We hiked for over an hour and that was the only morel we ever saw.

My father refuses to pronounce morels properly. He calls them "morals." There weren't many morels to this story. Yet there were so many beautiful hours out in nature. 

There are so many things that distract me, like mushrooms and agates, flat water days when I can paddle my kayak and scan for whales. I can spend countless hours picking blackberries and making jam. Sometimes I worry that I should be spending more time writing or illustrating, but I know that these "distractions" are what fuels my work. Maybe if I wrote and drew all the time I'd be richer in the bank, but not richer in life. I'd rather have a rich life- and mushrooms on my plate.

I'm not-so-patiently waiting for the snow to melt and the ground to warm... and then I'll head back to the woods. You'll hear me if you listen. I'll be yelling, "it's a Bingo!"

With Love,


Dealing With Stage Fright: Fighting my Brain

I seem to have developed a strange case of stage fright. It wasn't always so, and it seems to be very specific. When I was a child, aside from wanting to write and illustrate children's books, I also wanted to be an actress and a singer-songwriter. I started playing guitar when I was eight and I kept going. I made a demo tape when I was thirteen, and I took a songwriters class at ASCAP in New York City when I was fifteen. (I was the youngest person in the class, by the way.) This is a photo of me performing at my high school talent show in 1978. I was singing Joni Mitchell's "Circle Game," and they had a quasi-Beatle-mania slide show of current news going on behind me on the stage.

For years I wanted to be "the next Joni Mitchell," which rang true because she was also an artist and painter. But as I got closer to college my brain took over the reins and kicked my heart out of the stage coach. My brain said, "being a singer-songwriter is not a safe career. You don't belong on a stage. You don't look good enough. You don't sing well enough, and you don't play well enough." My brain basically scared the shit out of me. My brain said, "be an illustrator and a writer. That is safe. You can do that, and put the work out there, not "you" personally." I said, "okay brain, you win."

But over the years, my quiet heart kept beating and hoping. I still picked up my guitars and wrote songs. I still sang to myself. I watched friends do well and not-so-well in musical careers, but either way, they had great stage presence. They were comfortable on that stage performing.

I am comfortable on a stage speaking about my books and about the craft of writing and illustrating. I've done keynotes to up to 1,200 people at the annual SCBWI conference in Los Angeles in the past. I give workshops and teach in a relaxed way. But there seems to be two things I'm having trouble doing on a stage, albeit a small one: and that is singing and playing a song I wrote and telling the true story behind the adult novel I wrote that is currently out for submissions.

I'm going to be doing just that this coming Tuesday in my Ballard neighborhood, and it scares me to death. My brain keeps telling me, "you suck," and I'm trying really hard to shut it up. It's making me feel like I'm a fumbling idiot playing the instrument I can play beautifully when I'm not nervous... and it's making me mess up my own words. Words I know.

Somehow I have to put my brain in a straitjacket by next week so I can give my heart the confidence to say what it needs to say so I can tell the story that I need to tell; one that is so painful that maybe my brain is trying to stop me from sharing it. Yet in my heart there is a small voice that says, "you need to do this, and you need to get past this fear."

If you live in Seattle and you want to bear witness, the particulars are on the poster I added above. There are also five other confident folks plus an amazing MC who will entertain you with their prowess on that small platform with a microphone and a spotlight. We all have to deal with our challenges and as we do, we only grow from the experience. 

With Love, 


A Random Act of Kindness- A Good Tsunami

Yesterday was my friend Christine's birthday. We've been friends since junior high, but we haven't seen each other since we graduated from high school in 1979. Christine now lives in New Orleans and I live in Seattle and Lummi Island, Washington, but thanks to the internet and the oft-dissed evil empire of Facebook, we are in touch. 

I don't want to say too much about Christine, but I will say that she is smart, funny, snarky, very cool- and she is a Pirate Wench. She is one of those people who love life despite difficulties. She tells great stories and can make people smile. She isn't financially well-off, but she is rich in spirit and spunk. 

For her birthday Christine asked not for presents, but for "random acts of kindness." It was a selfless request, and an inspiring one. I thought about the "paying it forward" concept. One time, a few years back I paid the ferry fares for an entire ferry full of cars and drivers. The county had decided that our ferry punchcards were expiring because they were raising the rates and they wouldn't accept the old ones after a certain date. So instead of turning my barely used card in for credit, I decided to have Richie, the ferry guy, take my card and punch it for each car and person on the boat. It felt good... but it was just one trip across the passage.

This time I decided I would do something that had more impact. 

It seemed to be the easiest and most appropriate thing to do. I took copies of almost all of my books. (Two were out of print and I was out of one other in my personal stock...) I made a sign for Christine's birthday. Then I went online to decide where I was going to donate them. Originally I wanted to donate to a local women and children's shelter, but I found it impossible to find locations. They are kept secret for obvious reasons. But then it came to me- almost every day that I am in my city neighborhood, Ballard, I walk past this place:
The Ballard Boys and Girls Club. I called their main number and after two strange cell disconnections I talked with Mark. I asked him if the club accepted donations of books. At first he hedged a bit. "We have a good supply of books," he said, probably thinking I wanted to dump old encyclopedias or dog-earred and masticated ancient titles. Then I told him that I was a children's book author and illustrator who lived in the neighborhood and his voice went up an octave. "Oh, sure, you are more than welcome, of course, we'd love to connect with a local famous author/illustrator..." 

So then I signed all of the books- in honor of Christine's birthday. I'll share a few:
I put the books, the sign, and my camera in a bag and walked over in the spring blossom-filled sunshine. Mark was on the phone when I arrived at the Boys and Girls club. It was early afternoon and the building was quiet because most of the K-8 kids were in regular school... but there was a Pre-K class there and after he hung up I asked if I could make the presentation of the books in the class.

The teacher, Sarah, and the kids were quite excited. They didn't care that I had interrupted their snack time. They all dutifully lined up and washed their hands and then came over to the front of the room where Mark helped distribute the books and Sarah helped line up the kids. Mark held up Christine's birthday sign and we all wished her a Happy Birthday as I took the photo at the top of this post.

As soon as we were done, a boy in the front row said, "can we read these now?" Sarah, the teacher, told me she was verklempt. (a wonderful Yiddish expression meaning "choked up with emotion" if you aren't familiar.) I felt a bit sheepish, but very happy and proud. 

Then Mark told me that in the summertime the Boys and Girls Club has around 250 kids each weekday and in the mornings they do "stop, drop and read." He said, "you should come by one day and read to the kids." 

Yes I will. This will be the Random Act of Kindness that keeps paying forward. For Christine, and for the amazing feelings that it brings- to me- and to so many others. All said and done, it was maybe an hour of my time... but it will make waves- like a good tsunami- for a long time to come.

I hope you can find some time to start your own tidal wave of goodness. 
Our world needs more of this. I'm just so glad I can share the gift of books.

With Love,


A Shout-out to the Alphabet

I thought it was time to thank one of the most unappreciated and often ignored tools in the writer's belt- heck- in everyones' belt. We use it, abuse it, profit from it, create ideas with it, visions, stories, worlds... We hurt others with it, help, excite, entice, flirt, flaunt, fight, elaborate, extoll... (okay, you get the picture) I'm not talking about the thesaurus or the dictionary. I'm getting down to basics. 

It's time to thank the alphabet. You know, good ol' abcdefghijklmnopqrstuvwxyz.

Have you ever stopped to consider just how many amazing things happen when you combine those 26 letters? (and obviously if English is not your language, then you need to thank your particular alphabet, be it criyllic or hieroglyphic.) 

Writers and artists have always been fascinated by other writers and artists' tools. "What kind of pen do you use? What paper is that? Which program do you write in?" But how many times do you stop and say, "wow, I love the alphabet! It's so versatile, so expressive, so je ne sais quoi!" 

Since I love typewriters, fonts and all things alphanumeric, I have often wondered about the loss of creativity now that we have computers. Maybe a stuck key caused some scribe to create an entirely "h-less" tome. There is an obscure book by James Thurber that I own (my mother gave it to me when I was a child) called "The Wonderful O." When the letter "o" is purged from the land many things change. My favorite was poor Ophelia Oliver who became "Phelia Liver."

Missing letters notwithstanding, I plead my case that the alphabet is taken for granted. Aside from enabling us to communicate and to keep people from walking into traffic or taking the wrong train, the alphabet performs many thankless tasks like keeping things in order. Numbers may also be lacking in gratitude from their users, but they just seem cold and distant to me, so I mostly ignore them. Except at tax time, and then I curse them often.

So you may find this to be nonsense, but I hope you will take a moment to thank this wonderful invention, and you can give a bow to punctuation, too.*

*I personally will thank my lucky asterisk that I get to play with these great characters for a living.

However, I do want to point out that I'm not always happy about all of the so-called "rules" of the alphabet. I am not sure who made them. Did the alphabet itself? My sweet brother suffers from dyslexia and I occasionally have what seems like "bouts" of it when my brain mixes things up. Sometimes I also like to make up my own "recipes with the alphabet" and create new words. I find this to be fun. I even wrote a poem about it that I will share:

"Dis Lexia"

The alphabet out of order
Letters that don't belong
Long to be together
Out of place
Yet never better.
Dyslexic juxtapositions
Rebellious glee
E before I
Not I before E.
And sometimes why not
Put a Y anywhere?
Missing a consonant?
No one will care.
Spelling can be magical
Meanings obscured
When your brain misfires
Inventing new words.

With love and gratitude for the "abc-ness" of all things.


A Feather in My Cap

Finally I can say something. My new picture book, "Does A Feather Remember?" was just announced the other day in Publishers Weekly. I am really excited about this book for many reasons. For one, it is a poem I wrote that is very different from what I have done in my other books. I have written poems as long as I have written sentences. My poetry tends to be more evocative. It's a completely different side of my soul.

Little Brown Books for Young Readers will be publishing "Does A Feather Remember?" A new publisher and a new editor. Another reason to be excited. My editor asked me to write a little piece about writing "Does A Feather Remember?" and I wrote this:

Nina’s Notes on writing “DOES A FEATHER REMEMBER?”

I was walking on our neighborhood beach on Lummi Island in the San Juan islands in Washington state. It was June 15th in 2009. I spied a beautiful feather on the beach and picked it up. I had been saving feathers for years and had a vase where I kept them- a bouquet of feathers instead of flowers. I held that feather- it had belonged to a bald eagle, and I thought about the native American legend that eagle feathers are to be left where they are found so that they can return to the heavens, and the thought crossed my mind, “does a feather remember it once was a bird?” Does that feather “fly” back to heaven like the bird it once was? As I walked on the beach- a favorite meditation method for me- I started to write a poem in my head which became “Does A Feather Remember?” The original poem contained eight couplets and they reflected memories of “origins” like, “does a chair remember it once was a tree?” “Does an ocean remember it once was rain?” These were deep and soulful questions, and they came at a particularly difficult time in my life when I was dealing with a major family crisis with two of my stepsons, both in their early twenties. I continued working on the poem and submitted it to Connie Hsu at Little, Brown. We had met at an SCBWI conference and we bonded over the coincidence that we share the same birthday. Connie helped me build on the poem I started to find the flow to take the “origins and remembrances” and make them build on each other, ultimately bringing the bigger and bigger thoughts back around to the child reading the book, “will you remember you once were a child?”

The decision to not illustrate my own book was an interesting one. I am both an illustrator and a writer, but we felt that my style was just not right for the text. I was actually very happy to let someone else illustrate one of my “babies” for the first time in my career. Connie suggested Renata Liwska and I went to my local bookstore, Secret Garden in Seattle, and picked up “The Quiet Book” and “The Loud Book,” and found her work very sweet and endearing. (I have never been accused of being warm and fuzzy in my illustrations!) I checked out Renata’s work online as well and felt good that she would add the right look and feel to my poem. I was also happy to see that Renata was originally from Poland. My heritage is mostly Polish and Russian; my last name used to be Ladinski, but it was changed by my grandfather to Laden. Maybe our DNA remembers we once were related?

I am very excited to see “Does A Feather Remember?” coming to life. This will show that I do have a poetic side, and a deep one at that. There is more of this in me and I hope it will help children see the beautiful and reflective nature of not only the world around us, but how we remember it.

Nina Laden
February 2, 2012

And yes, I am NOT illustrating this book. This will be the first time that someone else will illustrate my words. I am very excited to see what Renata Liwska will bring to the table. Her work is soft and sublime. My work is edgier. Her style will add layers of comfort to my words that they need. It feels good to let go and let this happen. I did try a few different styles and techniques which I'll show here.

I tried a retro look, a dry brush approach and the collage that I put at the top of this post. They all were interesting, but ultimately they did not work for my editor and publisher. Creating a book is a team effort and I was happy to let the team choose another big player. I am so looking forward to seeing Renata's sketches and then her final illustrations. This is a new place for me to be- a different perspective. 

It is also letting me work on other books, which I am doing in earnest, and I hope to have some other new announcements soon. In the meantime, I'm so happy that this "Feather" is flying. The book will hopefully publish in Fall of 2013, which can't come soon enough.

With Love,


Torn Between Two Loves

When I told my husband that this was going to be the title of my new blog post he said, "who is he?" I laughed and replied, "don't worry, you are the only man for me. I'm talking about writing and illustrating." He sighed with relief. 

Here it is, Valentine's Day, and I thought that to be the perfect timing for ruminating on one of the most strange relationships in my life: the seeming "love triangle" I have with both words and pictures.

When I speak in schools I am often asked, "which do you like better, writing or illustrating?" I have used a somewhat pat response, "when I'm writing I wish I was illustrating, and when I'm illustrating I wish I was writing." There is a smattering of truth in that statement, but it's not really the honest answer.

Since I was a child I have always created "the whole book." That meant everything from the cover design to the marketing blurbs on the back. I majored in illustration in art school, and I'm also trained as a graphic designer with some art direction under my belt as well. I even did off-set printing and letterpress as a teen. My writing has been a part of my life like the very blood that courses through my veins- and like that blood, sometimes it has left me a bit bruised... more so than the strength of my artists' bones. 

I have always been a storyteller, a poet, a songwriter... but I never majored in it. Why do we seem to place such importance on degrees? I have a BFA in illustration and for years after I graduated I thought of myself as an illustrator and made a living as one. However, I kept writing in my journals, creating stories, writing poems, making notes for concepts of future books. 

I love illustrating. I am at peace. Listening to music (another love that sometimes demands my attention) and playing with technique and style, lost in my thoughts, and yes, coming up with new ideas for stories while I draw, or paint, or create collage. I just write them down and then get back to illustrating.

But somewhere along the line I stopped loving being a freelance illustrator, a wrist for hire. I didn't want to do art for advertisements or corporate brochures anymore. The main reason was because the work didn't have any soul. I need soul in order to thrive. The money was not worth the loss of the depth of meaning I craved. That was around the time that I had finally gotten my first book, "The Night I Followed the Dog" published.

There was a time when I dreamt of winning a Caldecott award. I wanted the recognition of my souls' creations. But that turned out to be a very disappointing desire and I taught myself to not wish for it anymore. I also started falling a little out of love with illustration and I started pursuing writing in the heat of lust.

Delving deeper into my writing was the product of a personal epiphany that I will share with you. I came to the realization that what drew children, or people to my books were not my illustrations, although they did love them. What captivated them were my stories. Story, I discovered is the most important element. Story is what brings you back again and again. Story is what lives in your heart. I love story.

Loving story is not as simple as loving illustration. Story is writing, and it is far more fickle and complicated and moody and sometimes brutal. For me, illustration is generally a walk on a beautiful beach, finding treasures at every step. Writing is almost drowning in an angry ocean, treading water at all times, desperately wanting to feel the ocean bottom under your feet, keeping your head above breathing air. I have a tempestuous relationship with writing. I love it and it tortures me ofttimes. Yet when it flows, it is sublime and soul-satisfying on an even higher level than my art.

I wrote my first novel, "Jacked" over a period of years and it is currently being shopped. It was scary, almost death-defying experience to write this first huge hunk of story. There is a lot of my soul in those words, and there is truth behind the fiction. I have no idea if it will see the light of day yet... but I am now working on a middle-grade novel and other ideas are auditioning themselves in my head, too.

However, I have not forgotten my first love, illustration. I still love to dance with her, and I have a line-up of picture books and board books that we'll be reunited in wedded bliss as soon as I get permission from designers to start sketching and then painting. 

But again- it was my stories/poems/ideas that let me paint those pictures- so I know I will always need both in my life. It can get complicated, but this is the path I am on, and all I hope for is that I can be the best lover to both of them. 

Here's wishing you a Happy Valentine's Day.
Celebrate all of your loves.

With love,