Zen and the Art of a White Picket Fence

by Donald Wilson on April 12, 2011


Ojai Pixie Tangerine Olive Oil Cake with Walnuts and Lavender

Back in 1990 I was sitting in my apartment with a close friend listening to her plaintive lament about life in Los Angeles.  She decried the fast pace, the traffic, and the unrealistic expectations that life in tinsel town put on the average person.  What she wanted, she bemoaned, was an authentic and real life.  She painted a picture of how wonderful her life would be if only she could move to a little small town somewhere where magnolias bloom and church bells ring.  She told me that she wanted a home with a white picket fence and a windowsill that held homemade pies as they cooled.   As I silently listened to her weave a visionary tapestry of some future life she longed for, I sat at my chopping board cutting herbs for our dinner that I had clipped from my potted garden.  I wiped my hands on my apron, grabbed her arm and led her into my dining room to show her the two pies (well, French tarts anyway) that I had sitting on a makeshift cooling rack that I had rigged on my window sill.

We sat down again and I told her, “Laura, if you want to have pies cooling in your windowsill, then bake pies.  If you want a little garden for fresh produce, then plant seeds.  If you want to be a stay-at-home mom, then learn to be a stay-at-home person.  You don’t need a white picket fence to live a soulful life.  You need to be soulful.”

Happiness is an elusive emotion for many people and I don’t claim to have all the answers, but I think I stumbled onto a key component of it early on as I laid out my first pies on a rickety makeshift windowsill so many years ago.

I guess you might call it my “Zen and the Art of the White Picket Fence” philosophy.

My friend eventually left Los Angeles for greener pastures and whiter fences, but with the exception of a few detours along the way I have stayed the course in Los Angeles.  My home is bigger now and my garden yields a bit more produce these days, but I still measure distance by time spent in the car (as in, Q: How far to the beach from your house?  A: Depends on what day and what time you leave, but anywhere from 10 to 40 minutes).   I also continue to confront daily all the other evils of life in the big city: traffic, pollution, crime, play dates….  But the truth is that I’m happy.

Andrew is happy too.  Well, he’s happy until he gets a bit of money in his pocket.  Money starts to stir in him a grand desire for acquisition.  It gets even worse if he sets his heart on something he can’t afford.   The disparity between desire and acquiring eats away at his happiness like spray paint on Styrofoam; I can actually watch him melt into a lumpy pool of envy and greed right before my eyes.   There’s nothing I can say to pull him out of these momentary lapses into consumer despair.  I can only offer advice on how waiting can be a virtue.  Yeah, yeah, I know.  He’s 14. But I’m 48 and I’m not immune.

I have to admit that on any given day I do yearn for a more pastoral setting for my life.  I often imagine how it would be to walk out of my tastefully restored turn-of- the-century farm house and scatter seeds for my free-range chickens in exchange for fresh eggs.  I can picture perfectly the exuberance I would feel making cheese from the goats grazing upon the green hill just beyond my organic fruit orchard.   Of course, I would drive into town in my Range Rover to pick up some wine from the local vineyard.

We all have our dreams and fantasies.

The trick is to not allow our dreams to overshadow the beauty and potential of our day-to-day lives.  It’s even trickier teaching our children how to do the same.

But it’s not impossible.

I can’t afford a beach house, but I can spend the weekend at the beach with Andrew and friends.  I can’t afford a cabin, but we can backpack 10 miles into the Sierras and enjoy a timeshare that comes without maintenance fees.  I don’t have an orchard, but I can go to a farmers’ market and experience produce that was plucked the day before.

I know I won’t be able to explain it to my son in words, but I hope the Zen of the white picket fence sinks in.  I hope he looks back on his life and remembers the nights I had him crack 10 pounds of olives for curing or how we used a brick to weigh down the curds as we pressed them into a cheese.  Perhaps he’ll be nostalgic for shucking hundreds of fresh favas or deboning a myriad of sardines.  I know he won’t forget turning wine into vinegar and holding his first oak barrel or brilliantly stopping the fire I caused when heating up vodka for homemade vanilla extract!    These are not exciting activities and they can’t compete with the Xbox for an adrenalin rush, but I have to believe that soulfulness comes from soulful experiences and happiness comes from being at peace with where and who you are right here and right now.  And, perhaps a little bit of faith that tomorrow will be as good or better than today.


New Oak Ranch Olive Oil Cake with Walnuts and Ojai Pixie Tangerines


Fresh out of the oven

If ever there was a cake that takes advantage of the here and now, it’s this mesmerizing farmhouse cake from New Oak Ranch in Ojai, California.  I start asking for the Ojai Pixie tangerines at the first sight of anything orange at the farmers’ markets and always have to wait at least a month or two longer for these intensely sweet beauties to arrive.  Of course, if I just waited for the first lavender to bloom, I wouldn’t have to ask.  They come into their own at the same time and the alchemy of the two will paint your inner picket fence a bit whiter.   Of course, Pixies are a fleeting pleasure and you can easily substitute any sweet tangerine or orange with equally great results.



Bottom Layer:

2 tablespoons flour

1 tablespoon butter

1/3 cup sugar

½ cup walnuts


2 cups flour

½ teaspoon baking powder

½ teaspoon baking soda

¾ teaspoon salt

1 ½ tablespoons tangerine zest

½ cup chopped walnuts

3 eggs, beaten

2 cups sugar

1 ¼ cups olive oil

1 cup milk

½ cup fresh tangerine juice


1 cup whipping cream

3 tablespoons powder sugar

12 springs of lavender and about 1 tablespoon of lavender buds, roughly chopped


Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  Generously butter the bottom and sides of a 10 –inch spring form pan.  (You can use a 9-inch pan, but the cooking time will be a bit longer.)  In a food processor fitted with a metal blade, combine the ingredients for the bottom layer and pulse until the ingredients are combined and the walnuts are chopped to the size of very small peas.  Spread the mixture in the bottom of the pan and gently pat to form an even layer.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, soda, and salt.  Stir in the tangerine zest and walnuts and set aside.  In a large bowl, whisk together the eggs, sugar, olive oil, milk, and tangerine juice until smooth and fully combined.  Add the dry ingredients and stir with a wooden spoon until well blended.  Pour the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top.  Bake for 50 to 70 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean.  Remove from the oven and place on a rack to cool.  When cool, run a knife along the edge of the pan and release the sides of the pan.  Slice into wedges and serve.

To make the whip cream, whip the cream until soft peaks begin to form.  Add the sugar and continue to beat just until the sugar is incorporated.  Place a dollop of cream on top or next to each slice and garnish with lavender sprigs and sprinkle with a few lavender buds.

Serves 12

Note:  The cake is good without the lavender and amazing with it.   If you don’t have lavender in your backyard, then take a walk with the dog and “borrow” a few snips from your neighbors!









Kim April 13, 2011 at 2:06 pm

I just loved this entry!
It reminded me that I need to bloom where I am planted!
I, too, would love to tend ten acres – say in San Luis Obisipo County – to raise chickens and goats. To watch my kids and dogs play with out boundaries….. but I realize that Orange County is where we are holding roots at the moment and that if I am happy for what I have, I shall have a lot to happy for!
Thank you for your poetic words of wisdom.
Please keep sharing your urban Zen practices!
Namaste, Kim

Donald Wilson April 13, 2011 at 4:44 pm


Funny thing about my post is that I had San Luis Obispo County clearly pictured in my mind as I described my fantasy life. Glad you enjoyed the post. The struggle between reality and fantasy is always present. I guess it’s part of what makes vacations so great. You get to experience a fantasy before it turns into a daily reality. I often wonder how I would feel about milking goats after 5 years without a vacation from them! Thanks for reading.

Kergan Edwards-Stout April 13, 2011 at 4:02 pm

Great post, Don! Reminds me of a terrific song by Mary Chapin Carpenter (my fave) called “Late for Your Life”:

You’ve been saying for the longest time that the time has come
You’ve been talking like you’re of a mind to get some changing done
Maybe move out of the city, find some quiet little town
Where you can sit out on your back porch step
And watch the sun go down
No one knows where they belong
The search just goes on and on and on
For every choice that ends up wrong
Another one’s right
A change of scene would sure be great
The thought is nice to contemplate
But the question begs why would you wait
And be late for your life

Now you might never find that perfect town
But the sun still sets on a rooftop where the city
Sounds like a Gershwin clarinet
And you might still be searching every face for one you can’t forget
Love is out there in a stranger’s clothes
You just haven’t met him yet
No one knows where they belong
The search just goes on and on and on
For every day that ends up wrong
Another one’s right
Call it chance or call it fate
Either one is cause to celebrate
Still the question begs why would you wait
And be late for your life

Call it chance baby, call it fate
Either one is cause to celebrate
And the question now is why would you wait
Don’t be late for your life

Donald Wilson April 13, 2011 at 4:40 pm

Thank you for that. I’m going to download it right now!

Ken April 29, 2011 at 7:16 pm

Hi Don !

I think a little light inside my head just got turned on ! Thank you for writing this wonderful entry.

BTW, love the little note at the end. Yes, I will have to take Kaiah out for a walk… but, if only she didn’t bark so much. LOL.

Pauline May 26, 2011 at 5:33 pm


I was introduced to this delicious cake by a wonderful friend. As we shared the cake your interesting story unfolded and made the experience even more amazing. Thank you for opening your heart, and soul to those of us whom you haven’t met, but are just as eager to reach out.

Sharon December 31, 2011 at 5:02 pm

I just discovered this as I did a search for “elusive white fence.” It was this mornings lament that all I ever wanted was a white picket fence lifestyle. In truth I really have created it for myself. I love my flower beds, my small little herb garden and building fires in my fire place. I love sharing my home with others. It is a peaceful life. All I need to do is let go of the idea that not everyone wants that same thing. I can only bring myself here. Most of the time that’s enough. Thank you for this post. I was led to exactly what I needed to read this morning. Peace to you and Andrew.

Don December 31, 2011 at 5:50 pm

It’s amazing how things come to you when you need them. I think I needed your response as much as you needed to read the post. I’m currently in Utah with family over the holidays and stayed up late looking at real estate that was snuggled up in the hills and next to the forest service land. I was imagining a life where I could leave the back door and hike with Andrew and the dogs in the hills… Then I remembered the horid state of the fresh herbs that I found in the markets and suddenly my little year round garden in Southern California was pulling me back. Being content with where you find yourself at any point in life is a life long pursuite that we may never completely master, but in the moments when we do, you are reminded once again… it’s a wonderful life.

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