Books, Writers and Lavender Lovers

Surrounded by the pleasant and healing aroma of lavender, over a hundred book and lavender lovers, many who are writers, sat outside and enjoyed a beautiful Saturday afternoon at the Yule Love it Lavender Farm to celebrate the publication of Iris Lee Underwood’s first novel, The Mantle, which took over 20 years to write. We drank lavender lemonade and ice tea and were close enough to the hen house to pay them occasional visits.

“The past twenty years, people have asked, ‘What’s your book about?'” Iris said. “If you approached a member in my Monday night critique group, you’d most likely hear various replies. Forgiveness. Fidelity. Redemption. Love. Faith. Resilience. Home.”

A woman of letters and a graduate of Oakland University, Iris writes an award-winning weekly column titled “Honest Living” for the Tri City Times in Imlay City, Michigan. She is a contributor to the Detroit Institute of Arts Art & Sole Newsletter. As a freelancer she has written profiles and feature stories for major publications and is a past president of the Detroit Working Writers (currently Historian and New Membership Chair). She serves as a volunteer at the Detroit Institute of Arts, and as a docent for the “Discover the Wonders” tour at the Detroit Public Library. She also volunteers for Seven Ponds of Nature Center in Dryden with fellow Friends of Herbs. As if that doesn’t keep Iris’ schedule busy enough, she is also a lavender farmer. She lives in a rural community with her husband, Mel, cat Mo, and five hens. They have two surviving daughters and a grandson.

After a short talk, Iris introduced the day’s lunch menu – “You’re going to have lavender in everything,” she said.

We were then served currant lemon lavender scones with Yule Love It cream and strawberry preserves; mixed greens with cantaloupe, pumpkin seeds, red onions, and ginger sesame dressing; lavender brownies with lavender lemon zest honey ice cream. The organic meal was delicious and it certainly made us mellow for the rest of the day.

Later in the day, before the book signing, Iris gave a speech where she quoted Madelleine L’Engle, author of Walking on Water, Reflections on Faith & Art, “We are to be in this world as healers, as listeners, and as servants. In art we are once again able to do all the things we have forgotten; we are able to walk on water; we speak to the angels who call us; we move, unfettered, among the stars. We write, we make music, we draw pictures, because we are listening for meaning, feeling for healing. And during the writing of the story, or the painting, we are returned to that open creativity which was ours when we were children. We cannot be mature artists if we have lost the ability to believe which we had as children. An artist at work is in a condition of complete and total faith.”

How did Iris stay true to her story for over two decades and made sure to manifest it?

“It was by faith and frugality I traveled to Ireland, traversed a sea cave in search of verisimilitude, to test the believability of the Mahari’s legend of the Weeping Wind. “There I heard Prince Rahabem’s voice. It was by faith I sat in my writing chair and did just that, in Ireland and home in my study. An Irish-Scot-German Appalachian, word by word, I trusted my inheritance to foster the way of the storyteller within me, the patient process that proclaims, ‘life is a miracle.'”

Lavender Farm

The Mantle is Iris’ third book. In it are color illustrations by Joyce Harlukowicz who gave an inspiring talk about how, as an artist, she serves the work, which led her to the creation of the paintings.

“In the creative process, the artist is the servant, a giver of visual life,” said Joyce.

“We can’t be artists if we lost the belief we once had as children. We are all storytellers, and we must risk revealing what matters to us.” said Iris. “To be whole and live in peace we must risk revealing what matters to us. We must listen to one another, seek understanding. So, I thank you for listening to words from my heart, the greatest gift you can give.”

This was one of the loveliest book launch parties I’ve been to, not only because it served a delicious lavender lunch and I ran into a wonderful woman I hadn’t seen for over 18 years, but because it was personalized and authentic. In today’s busy world where talent and creativity sometimes gets diminished by hype and competition, it was refreshing to enjoy a wholesome down-to-earth literary celebration.

Iris' Book

To learn more about Iris’ work, visit


The Beauty of Farming

My grandparents, from both my parents’ side, were farmers in Telkaif, a town in northern Iraq where, not long ago, Chaldeans [Christian Iraqis] lived a fairly peaceful life. My maternal-grandfather woke up every morning before the break of dawn, attended church, came home to eat a fresh breakfast he’d grown on his land, and worked in his farm until evening. Then he was off to church once again before having supper and calling it a day. They enjoyed good clean air, exercise, and a quiet time with nature. 

In 2012, I went to the home of a 111-year-old Chaldean woman, Warina Zaya Bashou, who lived in my neighborhood, to interview her for an article. She had just become the second oldest person to be granted citizenship to the United States. I asked her what was the secret to her longevity and she said:

  1. work
  2. don’t go to the doctors
  3. drink lots of tea

She too was from the village of Telkaif and, like my grandparents, had worked a great deal on the farm. Over the years, we’ve lost that relationship with the land and with eating foods grown on local farms rather than delivered in trucks from far away. But we’re trying to bring this relationship back. 

One person who’s helping do that is Diane Dovico, who I interviewed on my show. Diane spent 21 years as the Executive Director of the Royal Oak Community Coalition, a 501(c)3 non-profit and currently, she serves Oakland County working as a Wellness Program Administer at the Alliance of Coalitions for Healthy Communities by designing and facilitating original programs, initiatives, and campaigns. She started So You Want to be a Farmer?  which is a free event she had for kids at the Royal Oak Farmers Market. 

My niece and I took our children to the event yesterday where kids had the chance to play games and do activities such as animal yoga poses, planting vegetable seeds to take home, designing your own farm, story book time, making a healthy snack, and pretending to grocery shop and to learn how to make health food choices. 

I try, whenever possible – meaning when there’s the least resistance from my children – to get them involved in the meal’s preparation or to take them grocer shopping with me. Sometimes the easiest way to get them to eat healthier is by being an example, biting your tongue (kids love to rebel) and limit the types of snacks that enter your home. 

It’s also important to support local farmers. Small farms renew a connection between the food people eat and the land they live on. They help create jobs, improve the health of the land and the people, and they provide a foundation for a more resilient local food system. As people become more conscientious, they understand the beauty and necessity of farming. They want to know where their food comes from, how it is produced, and that it is produced in a way that isn’t damaging the environment. It is this consciousness that will shift the economic attitude to “what’s good for the world is what’s right for the company” for the rewards of brand loyalty and profits.

What’s your relationship to food and the land?