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A most-quotable writer calls Gabriola home

article and photo by Bruce Mason

Naomi Naomi Beth Wakan's series of seven books of quotes, which she has collected with her twin sister, are as eclectic as her remarkable life, a three score and ten, and counting, the like of which most people only get to read about. Each book is an adventure, a quest to the beating heart of a subject -- art, music, love, food, design, health, and books -- journeys with routes carefully selected by a well-seasoned, but insatiably curious guide, and some of the wisest and wittiest of history's best travel companions.

Wakan goes to many sources for her quotes and borrows books from the Gabriola Library, at a rate of at least 20 a week, (much to Susan's delight).

"I began collecting quotes seriously back when I fought cancer," she recalls. "After the diagnosis, I said, 'right, now how do I heal myself?"

"At that time I didn't think much of most Western medicine, so I began to read books on healing and to write down the most helpful quotes from them," adds Wakan. "By the time I had worked with the disease, I also had my first collection of quotes, Healing Bag, which was picked up and published by Lightsmith Publishers. I did two more gift books for that publisher, Memory Bag and Haiku Bag."

When her twin sister, Ruth Artmonsky, visited Gabriola from London, England, Naomi had a rough copy of a collection of quotes on Art. They had both collected quotes in childhood and her twin quickly agreed to publish a series of collections as a joint venture, which the very well-heeled Artmonsky would finance.

“We aren’t at all alike,” says Wakan. “She’s the eldest by two hours. I’m not certain if that's because I kicked her out or I didn’t want to enter the world because I could hear her crying outside of my mother’s womb.” Subsequently, among many other experiences, the younger sister had earned a degree from the University of Birmingham and taken up social work. By age 40, however, she decided that she really "wanted to dance like Ginger Rogers" and took up Flamenco dancing and the life of a gypsy.

It was in the Himalayas that she first spotted her husband, Elias Wakan. "He was on horseback, wearing Harris tweed and I thought, 'there's a good looking young man,'" she remembers. "Later I learned that he had borrowed both the horse and the jacket."

Over the course of the next 30 years, fuelled by a mutual interest in Buddhism and little else, especially finance, the couple experienced global adventures that would fill a book, or series of books, and indeed, most likely will, someday. Among other things, in the '80s, they got back to the land with characteristic complete abandon, by digging an underground earth shelter house in Ontario, in which they lived for several years on an annual income of $600. Selling the property to finance world travel, they settled in Japan, penniless new teachers of English who simultaneously pursued another career, photojournalism.

The pictures that they took and the knowledge acquired, would serve them well. Arriving on Canada's west coast, they overheard a conversation in UBC's famed Museum of Anthropology about the need for informative lectures on Japan.

Assembling their photographs and first-hand knowledge, they filled a void and found a niche in slide-show presentations. BC had developed a big appetite for Asia, where experts said a bright future was waiting, and the Wakans started Pacific-Rim Publishers to help feed themselves and the hunger for the ways of the East.

Expo 86 was on and so was the rush to establish Vancouver as a Pacific-Rim gateway. Their publishing house would produce books on Cultural and 'Green' Japan. Capitalizing on Elias' time in the Peace Corps they branched out into Peru, and books on the Incas, the Amazon jungle, social studies and food were added to their list.

After frequent visits to Gabriola -- getaways that the Wakan describe as "like being on day parole" from the tiny apartment, at the noisy corner of 15th and Main, in Vancouver, which they shared with Pacific-Rim Publisher's books -- Elias asked, "Why are we going back?"

Good question. A former math student at Stanford, he began a meticulous study of property for sale on the island, while Naomi, once again, divested them of suddenly, unnecessary possessions, in this case, a publishing business and the huge quantity of books it had produced.

Finding the house at the south end where they still live and create, which Elias first described only as “perfect and very white,” they struck a real estate `for-sale-by-owner' deal within five minutes.

At Drumbeg House, their studio and home, close to Drumbeg Park, Elias has become a world-class wood sculptor. Naomi writes, paints, quilts and collects quotes. The photos from Japan and the covers of her “Works” series grace the walls.

The book she is most proud of, Haiku -one breath poetry, was selected by the American Library Association, along with works by the likes of Allen Ginsburgh and Langston Hughes.

Her appreciation for, and practice of, the ancient Japanese poetic form, haiku (made up of three lines and 17 syllables), has informed her series of quote books. “Haiku is the expression of an intense experience of one moment in space and time, which expands, on reading it, to involve the whole universe,” she explains, pouring the Sounder more green tea after a Haiku-like conversation, more than two hours in duration.

She once wrote such a poem while watching her husband chatting with Eric Boulton, who had just delivered a fresh load of manure:

“Two men
In deep conversation
A pile of manure.”

Her favourite Haiku composition, which will resonate well with her fellow Gabriolans, is:

“the beachcomber
and his little dog jump
from log to log.”

A favourite quote? “After ecstasy, the laundry.” And something for the legion of island gardeners and other creative folks? "Gardening is the slowest of the performing arts." Finally, what’s next? “I’ve been working over the last few months editing and encouraging a budding poet, so I'm thinking about a new career as a poetry coach,” she says. Her books of quotes, Artworks, Gardenworks, Designworks, Bookworks, Foodworks, Loveworks and Musicworks make an ideal Mother’s Day gift and easily fit in the palm of a hand, pocketbook, or glove compartment. They are available at the gift shop in London’s Tate Gallery, where they regularly sell-out and several other locations in England. On Gabriola they can be found at Page’s Resort and Marina and at Artworks. Gardenworks is also sold at Wild Rose Garden Centre. You simply can’t miss them.

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