The Story Of My Grandfather Who Immigrated to America with a Mangled Hand

One of my favorite family stories involves one of my great grandfathers who immigrated from Sweden with a mangled hand and landed on Ellis island in the early 1900s. People with deformities had a hard time passing inspection at Ellis Island. They were usually detained for extra scrutiny when they arrived but often they were also sent back to their countries of origin.

Although my great-grandfather had lost most of his fingers on his dominant hand in a farming accident in Sweden, he still had most of his thumb and a large pinky stump that consisted of what remained of his other fingers sewn together. He got by fairly well because he could still grab and hold on to things on account of still having his thumb and another finger (of sorts) to make a clasping motion.

And that is how he also managed to hold his hat the day he went through inspection on Ellis Island. So no one noticed his deformity—his hat covered it. He passed inspection without a hitch. After he was through and outside waiting for the boat that would help him travel onward into America where he'd become a hard-working farmer, he sat next to another Swede and they got to talking. The other Swede was surprised my grandfather had made it through with his hand (by this time his hat was back on his head since he was outside). My grandfather hadn't understood about the inspections.

And he was mortified. He could not accept that he might have tricked his way into America. So can you guess what he did?

The Great Hall on Ellis Island as it looks now.

The Great Hall on Ellis Island as it looks now.

He went back into inspection. He wanted to be legit. He was honest to a fault. At least that's how the story goes.

The officials who'd already processed him waved him away like a pesky fly. And so he became an American.

I thought of this story as I read all the history and walked the great hall of Ellis Island last month when I was in NYC for an SCBWI conference. And also as I walked under Lady Liberty and her torch the same day I visited Ellis Island. Mine isn't the only family with immigrant tales of honesty and a will to do hard work for a better life.

I also thought of modern-day immigrants and how they likely share similar stories to my own with different details from a newer time. I'd be willing to bet there are a lot of common threads at heart.

NOTE: I originally posted this story on facebook, this is mostly a repeat of that post. Also I've since learned from my aunt that my Grandfather did end up having to pay a fine. I wonder if I'm missing any more of the story?

Adventures, not even in Asia

My blog has been a bit quiet the past few months as I'm (still) settling into home after living in Asia for two years, shaving my dear old studio down (from using two rooms to using just one), introverting as I deal and...

Taking adventures in my own backyard.

 It's normal for an expat to have some trouble getting his or her head on straight after re-entry into one's homeland.

 Things can be a bit strange and overwhelming, even while they are also familiar and lovely. Sometimes there are cringe moments, confusion, and grumpy faces as mommy forces everyone to deal as she re-organizes EVERYTHING in EVERY room because this is a new time and everything should be new and clean and fresh and organized (dream on)! But memory has it that it took forever when we got to Malaysia too... Anyhow...

In our case, for re-entry at least, there's also the fact that we love, love, love the northwest. And that can just obliterate all the meddlesome tedious details of how long it takes to move back home.

I mean, how could you not love this place?

View of Bellingham-ish area from Mt. Constitution on Orcas Island

 And we've traveled a lot. We knew re-entry would take forever. 

And now we also have a new perspective on travel in our own backyard.

I loved all the magic and adventure we found and experienced while living in Asia. It was fantastic. It was life-changing.

Even in small ways. Like when we got home, noticing the magic in our own backyard a little more acutely than we maybe did before.

No kidding, this is what I saw just a little over a week ago:


 Right after my reminiscing here on seeing them in Australia. Here's my smile after watching the whales for an hour or so:

It was magic in my own backyard that I'd never experienced before I'd left. Kind of a concrete version of what I've been bringing on home from my travels.

A Few Awesome Picture Books that deal with the joy of adventure and maybe even the joy of coming home:

Toot and Puddle

by Holly Hobbie

Snail and The Whale

by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler

A Penguin Story

by Antoinette Portis

Flyaway Katie

by Polly Dunbar

Four of my favorite books. If you like adventures you will probably like these books too.

Please note:

I'm still here. I'm still squeezing in time to make art here and there and enjoying these two goofy guys:

My blogging habit will squeeze back in too. It will.

Weavers in Laos

In our last months living in Malaysia, my family and I squeezed in every second of travel we could possibly squeeze in. It all went by so fast and everything was so busy that sometimes I'd visit some amazing new place or country and not even make a peep about it here on my blog, or on facebook, or even to best friends. 

Now that I'm home and things are *starting* to feel a little more normal in life (what's normal? I'm kind of glad it escapes me), all our travels can seem like some sort of crazy dream. Like, wait, was I really in Laos just a few months ago?


And maybe it's not too late to share some neglected cool stuff from there and elsewhere in my last few months of living abroad.

I wanted to go to Vientiane, Laos, because I had read about Laotian weaving...
I have a thing for weaving.
Maybe because my aunt is a textile designer and as a kid I always looked up to her (she was a real artist! Wow! Could I be like her someday?).
Or maybe because of the texture. Or the implicit warmth in the medium. Or maybe it's because textiles are just so beautiful.
Anyway, my work-in-progress novel has a grandmother character who is a weaver and who also spins thread so it was lucky serendipity that I got to watch some weavers in action while I was working on writing a book that included their craft.
The weaving studio I visited in Laos is owned by an American woman, Carol Cassidy, who hires local weavers and designs pieces for selling abroad and in her gallery. She is working to keep some of the more traditional methods of weaving and ikat alive.
Woman weaving an ikat piece.
What's ikat? AWESOME is what it is! It's a kind of weaving where the threads are tied in tight bunches before they are dyed. The dye doesn't color the parts of the threads that are tied so that after you remove the threads, whatever color was underneath remains the color it was. A beautiful pattern reveals itself when the threads are later woven into cloth.
Ikat thread bundles, tied and ready for dying
Ms. Cassidy, the owner of the studio, was there when we visited.
Ikat thread getting ready to go on a loom
She showed us around and said it was fine to take pictures and watch.
It was one of my favorite craft experiences I had while living in SE Asia.
Ms. Cassidy was a delightful host and her enthusiasm and passion for her studio and work brought a smile to my face.
Oh my gosh, COLOR!
Also, as a side note, if you ever get the chance to eat Laotian food, do! It's delicious.
Lucky for me, while I wanted to go to Laos to check out some weaving, my husband wanted to go for the food. He took a cooking class. Yum!
And our son? Well, there was good stuff for Oscar in Vientiane too.

Magic in the air

My life is in complete flux right now. Change is afoot. Things will soon never be the same.
I feel magic in the air.
Firefly art: a collage I made in the last few weeks of living in Malaysia
Today is my last full day in Malaysia.

There are so many words I could write about it all, about the changes, about the experience, about what's to come, even about just the last few weeks or last few adventures. Heck, I never even mentioned on my blog that I went to Laos!

But for now, I'm just enjoying the last few moments here in this city I've grown to love. Saying good-bye to a few lovely people. Oh, and taking care of all the stuff that one takes care of when one moves (uffda).

What a strange, surprising, turn of life this whole experience has been.

I'll miss this place. But I look forward to going home.
But first...
 *she smiles*
....I have two weeks of adventures that await during the in-between time.

Yay for adventure.

I'm off for Hong Kong tomorrow.

Some moments should come with eject buttons. Oh wait! They do!

It didn't take even a full five minutes to realize I had stepped onto planet crazy by entering that particular taxi cab. I sighed, looked out the window and wondered how long the journey would take. I felt thankful, for once, that I'm a little deaf and can't always understand strangers' accents. Then, all in a flash, I realized I could do something about that unwanted moment.

I suddenly interrupted my crazy taxi driver's unwarranted tirade. "I guess I'm done with this experience," I said. And in the same heartbeat I threw five bucks at the guy and jumped out of his cab into the jammed traffic around us.

I put my hand out in front of approaching cars and wove my way through them, smaller then they — but more agile, to the side of the road. I took a deep breath of the humid tropical air and relished my freedom to be a little bit of my own kind of crazy.

I'm here to say that yes, do-overs are occasionally possible. Other taxi drivers do come along, eventually (especially when you huff it out, despite the heat, and seek another taxi stand). And sometimes it feels very satisfying to stand up for one's peace in small, but meaningful ways.

Here's to anyone who finds him or her self in a crazy chaotic space this week and chooses to say no to it. You have choices. I hope in just such a moment you are able to find yourself a little breathing space and a quiet moment of nice.
I love relishing moments of peace in the midst of a busy city. Here's such a moment: the Petronas towers with morning light, a morning moon, and morning birds.

At least the Taj Mahal was worth the distraction

Don't let these pictures fool you.
I am spending nearly every waking minute that I possibly can on writing, drawing, and making collages this month.
Because I am in a zone. And I'm trying to "finish" (are things ever finished?) the mid-grade novel I'm working on, as well as some new accompanying illustrations, all before I leave for home... in Bellingham, WA, USA...
And yes, I'm squeezing in some distracting (but wonderful) last minute crazy 4-day travel/adventure weekends while I'm still in Asia. 

Traveling tip: 4 days is not enough time for a trip to India.

But at least it's a nice taste.

Meanwhile, cheers to being in the zone.

Redefining a year

Last January, when I wrote in my journal about my year to come, 2011, I envisioned it as a year of “persistence.” That was the word I used to frame my goals and dreams for 2011.

And here’s what I think about that now, having just lived through and experienced 2011 for real:

Wow, lame. That vision for my year was about as shortsighted as I’ve ever gotten in the history of my dreaming life. It’s kind of pathetic just how shortsighted that was, actually.

Does a year that looked kind of like the photo below, seem to you like a year well-defined by the word "persistence?"
Christmas in Ha Long Bay, Vietnam

Okay, I live an ocean away from home. This has had many challenges associated with it that I suppose are what narrowly led me to think last year on the word “persistence.” After all, persistence isn’t a bad thing. It’s a good thing. Right?

And when I look back on the last year, I’d probably be glossing over stuff if I didn’t acknowledge aspects of my year that were at least somewhat suited towards a goal of “persistence,” even if any of my hardships abroad were roses and daisies in comparison to real heart-break or tragedy in life.

Like, I did miss my friends, family, community and support networks back home; I missed them a lot. Or, I've hated filling out customs or visa paperwork that asks for my “occupation,” and for logistical reasons I sometimes feel I can’t write “artist,” as I wish to, but instead write “housewife,” which makes me kind of cringe — and more to the point, this action kind of sums up insecurities that I can be prone towards when I'm not at my best, that I've definitely persisted through at times this year. Also I suppose there's more petty things, like the tireless traffic here, the sweltering heat here, the barely-usable sidewalks here and other various whiny issues that sometimes make me sigh. Or there's also always rejections. Those suck. So, yes, I can acknowledge these sorts of things and note that I did “persist” through them. 
Hmm, next time I whine about traffic in KL, remind me about Ha Noi, Vietnam...
And, yes. I can and probably should acknowledge the more positive side of my original goals of “persistence” too, the parts that I wrote and dreamed about at the beginning of the year. In other words, I can and probably should acknowledge that I met goals and kept promises to myself that I made for last year:

I persisted with my biggest dream of writing and illustrating for children. I overcame some submission and perfectionism issues (or at least faced them and handled them admirably, I think). I kept up habits and practices that generally make my life happy and good (yoga, gratitude, blogging, drawing and writing regularly). I persisted with my art even when I felt worlds away from home and community and assurances of success.

All well and good, yes, and I’m happy to reflect that I did do all of those things. I met some specific benchmarks, exceeded others and I did “persist.”


Kayaking in Ha Long Bay, Vietnam with my son, Oscar.
 What about all the crazy huge momentous fantastic adventures I took this past year?
Both in travel and in my work? 
And what about the huge potential for all the amazing wow that I started the year with? Did I just not see it? Was I only focusing on what I could improve, and not how I could thrive? 

 Amid reviewing whether I met my goals or not this past year, those adventures sat like the elephant (the friendly one that you’ve always wanted to ride who is just waiting for you to hop on) in the room. How could I have barely touched upon dreaming of the wow that real life would deliver when I visioned for myself a year of simple persistence last year?
Riding an elephant in Chang Mai, Thailand.
This past year I went to Sri Lanka, Bangkok, The Perhentian Islands, Melacca, Krabi, Penang, Sarawak, Los Angeles, Western Australia, Chang Mai, Cameron Highlands, Cambodia, Hong Kong and Vietnam. And I went to all of these places with a super adventurous fun husband and kid in tow. And I LOVED LOVED LOVED the experiences we had. I also explored favorite places all around KL and ate tons of interesting and delicious food here and saw amazing things within my own city and fell in love with so many aspects of Malaysia.

I played with my child and showed him the world from a unique viewpoint. I fostered his learning and growing and own budding wanderlust. I listened to my husband and took many dates with him and explored lots of interesting topics of conversation that several years ago I would have never imagined I would have time to discuss (or read about) with a kid around the house.

Enjoying the view in Hong Kong
 And, huge pat-on-the-back-for me, I read 101 books in 2011! (And no, that does not include picture books).

And, on the art front: I submitted my art the amount of times I had hoped to, I made many, many, new art samples I’m very proud of, I kicked butt with some collage challenges I decided to face, I explored new ideas and methods for drawing, I explored new ideas in writing, I wrote several new picture books that definitely broke me out of a previous mould I had been working in, and perhaps, most stunningly to myself… I began and nearly finished writing an entire mid-grade fiction novel in the course of the last two months of the year… (hey, that’s the first I’ve admitted that here! Ta-da! Still working on finishing it ­– hopefully before I move home two months from now, wish me luck!)

Does the word “persist” describe a year of prolific and fantastic adventures? Does the word “persist” describe a year traveling the world with my family? Does the word “persist" describe a year of dancing with my muse and creating some of my favorite art I’ve ever made? Does the word “persist” describe the exciting and thrilling risks I took with my own work, especially with writing, this past year?

My husband, "flying" in Nha Trang, Vietnam

“Persist,” is a small part of last year, sure. But I think it might be useful to come up with a better, more-encompassing word (or words). A new name for my last year.

2011 was not the year of persistence for me, even if I did persist. It’s been a year of wow with my family and my muse. I want to acknowledge and have gratitude for this fantastic unforgettable, incredibly wonderful year by finding a good new name for it. So how about two words:

Christmas, Ha Long Bay, Vietnam
 2011 was the year of HUMONGOUS EXPLORE.


Happy New Year! Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

So what about 2012?
What kind of vision do you have for the coming year?
Maybe you can make room, at least a little, for some humongous explore? I dare you.

Or maybe fate has something else in mind, just perfect for you, waiting behind a spot where you too, are selling yourself short.

Anyway, here’s what I’m aiming for this coming year:
I’m thinking and hoping that 2012 will be the year of 

From a descent into Vancouver International Airport, near my home in Bellingham, Washington.
Cheers to manifesting!
Cheers to the possibilities!

Gratitude Labyrinth Walk in Hong Kong

We stumbled across this labyrinth outside a church along a park path in downtown Hong Kong over Thanksgiving Weekend. I love Labyrinths, and have traveled far and wide to walk various labyrinths in the world; so it was fun to stumble across one in the heart of a city that was already busy enchanting me.
My son Oscar and I walked it together. I have to say, I'd never walked a labyrinth with train crossings before, so that was fun.
When we reached the center we both listed things we were grateful for, in the spirit of Thanksgiving. We took turns. "I'm grateful for being in Hong Kong with you Mommy."
"I'm grateful for being in Hong Kong with you, Oscar!"
After we walked out of our grateful centers, I taught Oscar how to hopscotch skip-walk the Labyrinth.
So we skipped in and out of our grateful centers a few times together and then went on our way.

Elephants on my mind

Sometimes I marvel at what experiences leave their mark enough in my mind so that ideas, or even art or story, are born from them. Many times it's small, seemingly insignificant parts of an experience that nag me to be turned into something or other in my art.

Other times it's big, obviously awesome, predictably crazy adventures that do indeed lead to big, awesome and crazy adventures in my art. 

And so it is this last week with elephants for me.

I've been obsessed with a new idea (one from my picture-book-idea-a-day journey) that all stemmed from my son and I taking elephant rides several times over the past year.

So I've dived into the idea, answered the muse and am LOVING the adventure. It's totally out of my comfort zone, but in just the right way. The way that makes me feel like I'm stretching my art muscles and pushing myself to my limits. All of which makes me feel totally alive and invigorated.

But at the same time. Gulp. If I think about it too much (as opposed to just going for it) makes me feel nervous.

When you leave the unknown and dive into adventure, you never know what you'll come up with. You may try a new restaurant that ends up being your absolute favorite noodle place in the entire hemisphere. Or you may wonder why you wasted your calorie intake on such slop. That's the way adventures go, you just don't know if you'll end up with shiny awesome experiences or if you'll end up with a whole lot of ugh. 

But you don't find anything new and exciting if you don't try new things. And even if you get the ughs instead of the ahas you still usually know how to better aim your trials next time. So, I'm in my creative realm. Letting go of my land legs. Riding Elephants, if you will.

What about you? Is there an idea that is just a bit more than you think you are capable of, but you really love it? Why not splurge and take an hour to give it a try. You may end up with a bunch of stuff to delete or crumple up, never to be shared with anyone. Or you might find a new way to stretch your muscles. Or! You might end up on a wild and crazy artistic adventure that fills you with delight, thrill, and a bunch of, "Ya, why not?" feelings.

I suppose, as you can tell, I root for the adventure.

Superhero Photo class, and pictures in Cambodia

From an assignment in Andrea's Superhero Photo Class.

One of my favorite bloggers, Andrea Scher, recently decided to offer a playful online photo course.

I couldn't resist.

It just sounded so fun. And so low-key. And there was no concrete reason to take it other than fun.

 I have this habit of taking a crazy amount of pictures. I look for color, shape, light. But it's all just playful.

Sort of an extension of my excessive journaling habit I guess.

Red-shirted girl in the distance

Anyway, the class exceeded my expectations.  It was fun. Super fun. Superhero fun! 
 There were no goals to make serious art, just an opportunity to play and share (and do photo treasure hunts!) with other like-minded playful (mostly) amateur photographers.
My mother and my son holding hands

The class also happened to overlap with my family's trip to Cambodia last week.

For once on a trip, I wasn't feeling guilty about how many stupid pictures I was taking, and worrying over looking like some sort of camera-happy Hawaiian-shirted stereo-type of an American abroad.

Instead I embraced my practice as a way of appreciating the moment. I was no more obtrusive with my pictures than I've ever been (Let's just say the overly shy girl isn't one to walk around with a camera dangling from her neck, She leaves that to the real pros, like my uncle, or to the bolder amateurs, or to the tourists riding big buses).

Anyway, If anyone out there likes to take pictures, especially in a playful way, I highly recommend Andrea's course.

One of the surprising highlights for me was the group flickr pool, where we shared photos and commented on each others pieces. It was so fun to participate in the exchange!
Plus it hardly took anytime. Maybe 10 minutes any day I felt like checking in. Yet I still gained a lot. 

Andrea will be offering another class soon, I believe. I hope, if you like to play with pictures, you'll join her.
And um... Cambodia?
Blue umbrellas at Angkor Wat
Ya, well, WOW!
Trees draping over mossy textured ruins,

 bicycles, bicycles, bicycles,

And some of the most amazing sites in the world.

Some dreams fall in your lap like an apple dropping from a tree. Other dreams you yank and yank and yank at the door, but it just won't open. Both have their place in my life. And I'm happy to say that while I keep yanking at the door of my biggest dream (and dang that door can frustrate me), I'm at least eating my apples. 

In the Tree Tops, walking with trust

The above picture was taken in Australia and the picture below was taken last week in Kuala Lumpur.

What do these pictures have in common (besides both having my son in them)?

They marked the beginning of two different canopy walks.

In Malaysia it was at the Forest Research Institute, where they reclaimed an old industrial wasteland and made it jungle again (above). 

In Australia we walked among the giant tingle treetops (above).

But at both I found myself walking on tiny, looooong bridges, high, high up in the trees.

Amazing. Fantastic. I loved it.

But... these walks were not exactly for the faint of heart.

They felt like small practices in bravery (not to mention yoga breathing).

They were exercises in trust.

They felt a bit like what it feels like when you put your art out in the world, actually.

You trust that the journey will be a bit thrilling, you'll be glad you did it, you probably won't crash to the ground, but things will feel a little shaky and uncertain, even if exciting.

And your view on the world will be different, at least for a bit.

 There may even be anchors along the way, to help calm your nerves, even while keeping the view.

You probably won't fly, but it might feel a bit like you are.

You might even decide to go for it again...

What a cheesy post.

 But a bit of truth is there somewhere, I'm sure.

If not for being an artist, then at least for being an adventur-ess.

Now, back to the ground.

Shearing Sheep

Sometimes, when I return to my blog after a good travel adventure, I feel overwhelmed. Too much I could share. What the heck do I choose? How do I put anything at all into a blog-sized bite. Other times I feel raring to go with lots of posts and only the question of how many is too many?
 My trip to Western Australia left me wondering how many posts are too many. So at the risk of over-sharing, here's another highlight from my trip: I visited a sheep shearing farm!
One of my favorite books as a kid was Tomie dePaola's Charlie Needs A Cloak, and I felt a bit like I was stepping into a small part of that book at the farm. After all, I saw sheep getting sheared! Just like in the story! (No weavers though).
Another cool part of the sheep shearing farm were the dogs.

 I had never heard of the sort of dog that runs on top of sheep! I think it's called a Kelpie.
 We even got to feed a baby lamb.



Fifteen minutes into our boat ride we saw...


 Two of them!


 They were young whales, or so our guide told us.

So they were curious.

Which could explain why they hung out with our boat for 40-50 minutes,

popping their noses up,

 swimming back and forth under and around the boat,

and sometimes even waving their noses at us when we waved at them (it's true! the guide told us to try it, and it worked! Curious whales sometimes play with people like that, he said).

It was one of the most magical moments of my life.

My son loved it too.

 We also saw two Southern Right Whales involved in, ahem, courting.

They were a bit less interested in our boat though.

We even saw sea lions.

 It was a day I'm certain I'll never forget.

P.S. This was all while still in Western Australia, for those who didn't read my last couple of posts.

Drawing Kangaroos

 My family and I just got back from a trip to Western Australia!
 It's a relatively remote area of the world where there are possibly more kangaroos than people.
 We had a wonderful time there.
And speaking of kangaroos, we saw lots and lots of them.
Some in dusk-lit golden fields.
Some hopping across or next to the road at night like a deer would back home (scary!).
 Some at a wildlife park.
 And even a few joeys who were being raised by a good-natured farm couple who had taken the orphans from their road-killed-mothers' pouches.
Of course I drew quite a few.
 But my favorite was watching them jump.
 Boing, boing!

A moment of zen in the clouds

 Today is my birthday!
 I'm off to Western Australia this week to celebrate.
 Meanwhile I thought I'd give a little reverse birthday cheers to anyone out there reading this.
 Here's a few photos, a little moment of zen, from the flight I took last month from L.A. to Seattle.
 When the weather cooperates on that journey, you see mountain, after mountain, after mountain. And it's absolutely beautiful.
I wish for you a mountain-top moment or a head-in-the-clouds good-version-of-dreaminess today.
Cheers to a great day!

More color in Penang, this time using the Hipstamatic

 I took these pictures in Penang, Malaysia, using the Hipstamatic photo app on my Iphone.
 Pretty cool for phone pictures.

 My sister's been using an app called Instamatic. Supposedly it lets you change your pictures retroactively for similar results. I'm very curious if I'll be able to use any texture photos taken this way for my illustrations.
Time will tell...

Dragon Boat Races

 Last month my family traveled to Penang, Malaysia for a weekend trip to watch some Dragon Boat races.
 It's such an interesting practice. If you are interested in it at all, click here to learn more about the tradition.
 My favorite part of the experience was listening to the drummers beating out the pace of the strokes.
 We couldn't get too close to the boats in the race, but I did manage to see a few docked boats.
The boats have dragon heads and tails. So neat!