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Transitions and Transformations

Me and Richard out in the hills above Salida, Colorado.

Twelve years ago next month, on a sunny and chill Sunday morning at just past eleven o’clock, Richard Cabe, the man I had lived with and loved for nearly 30 years, the man I had shaped my adult life around, died of brain cancer. To say that my life changed in that moment is a massive understatement.

The drastic revision of my life story had begun more than two years before, when Richard saw the thousands of birds–avian hallucinations–that were the only significant symptom of the brain tumors that eventually killed him. He would undergo five brain surgeries, and with each one, our roles would gradually shift from life-partners of equal responsibility, to caregiver (me) and cared-for (him). But even when Richard was bed-ridden, no longer walking except metaphorically toward death, we were still partners.

And then we were not, and he was gone. Leaving me wondering who this new solo “me” really was.

For the first few years, I didn’t have the leisure to wonder that much. I had a small mountain of medical-related debt to dig myself out of, a property to finish and sell, my legally blind and stubbornly independent dad to take care of, and other details to sort out.

I turned into Tool Girl with the help of Tony and Maggie Niemann, who taught me a lot of what I know about house re-storying.

Once I had worked my way through those immediate obligations, I decided to allow myself to wander the part of the West I call home, supporting myself by “re-storying” unloved real estate, and in the doing, figure out who I was and where I wanted to plant roots.

I moved from Salida, where Richard and I had lived together for 15 years, and I for another five alone, to Cody, in Wyoming’s sagebrush sea, forever the landscape of my heart. After two years, one basement-to-roof house renovation, and my dad’s death, I headed south to Santa Fe, where I renovated two condos and one house. (And in summers, returned to Wyoming to work at controlling invasive weeds in Yellowstone. Read my essay about that work here.)

The sagebrush sea in northern Yellowstone, the navel of my universe.

And then I returned to Cody again, and another house that needed re-storying. When that sold out from under me before I had even finished, I wandered to western Colorado for a while, and rescued a 1930s cottage with a partly collapsed foundation, followed by a 1902 house.

After realizing that western Colorado was not my place, I headed back south to Santa Fe and found my sunny and light-filled condo in the piñon pine – juniper woodlands at the north edge of town, with its view of the Sangre de Cristo range to the east and the glorious desert sunsets to the west.

Over those wanderings, I learned a lot about tools and house guts and being self-reliant. I fell in love again–a completely unlooked for development which has enriched my life in countless ways, although we will never live together. I re-discovered my inner truck-girl and horsewoman and trail-rider. I remembered how much I need wildness for joy and spiritual nourishment, and a daily off-pavement walk to immerse myself in the community of the land.

Me in my happy place.

When I bought this condo, I thought I would stay. It had good access to trails in the nearby wild, an arroyo where I could practice ecological restoration by removing invasive plants and seeding in natives, and it didn’t need any major renovation. It’s a beautiful space, and my things fit the place well.

But…. Over the months I’ve lived here, I’ve come to realize that while it is a lovely space with wonderful light and views, this is not home in the longer term. There are too many people nearby, for one thing. And too much asphalt and pavement between me and the nearby wild, for another. I need more space and more solitude. And I miss having a house to tend.

So next month, I will move again, to a house outside town in a planned development with no lawns, sidewalks, street trees or even streetlights. I found a small and very charming Santa Fe style house there with a walled courtyard–just big enough for a small garden–nestled into the prairie with juniper trees around it for shelter.

I call the place Casa Contenta. It is my nido, nest in Spanish, my hidey-hole, my refuge. And yes, it needs some work–a new roof, a new boiler for the hot-water radiant-floor heat, and eventually new stucco, plus a host of smaller fixes.

The 90-some-year old lady who has lived there for almost thirty years–since the house was built–is an artist. She has hand-tinted the walls, and even painted a few small trompe l’oeil murals. The house is well-loved, and I look forward to tending it for another few decades. And growing roots. To this transformed me being home. At last.

The front gate at Casa Contenta

Simple Life: Writing, Tools and Peaches

My weekdays since the first of August have been completely absorbed by working on a new book, a narrative nonfiction story I have tried to write half a dozen times over the past six or so years, and for which I have never successfully found the voice or narrative arc. I finally gave up and let the story grow in my subconscious until it found its own voice and thread, and demanded my attention; it’s been running hot ever since.

In fact, the narrative is coming along so fast that I can barely keep up with it. Since August first, I have written 36k words or 150 double-spaced pages, an astonishing amount in five weeks, for me or anyone else.

Mind you, this is a rough draft, meaning it’s not something I would want anyone else to read. Usually, I am a plodding writer, writing a few pages a day, laying down the narrative carefully, attentive to individual words and sentences, to rhythm and repetition and nuance and structure.

But with this narrative, I am just listening to the story in my head, sometimes getting up to pace and speak it out as a voice memo on my phone, then sitting back down at the keyboard to chase the words as they tumble out. This story has me by the throat; it wants me to listen and transcribe. Editing can come later.

By the time the weekend rolls around, I am worn out, mentally and emotionally exhausted. So I turn to tools–of course!–and using my creativity in other ways.

My “tool girl” project for the past five weekends has been refinishing the very weathered wood sash and trim on the five of the casement windows in my condo.

A casement window partly open. The gray patches on the wall outside are from stucco repair, which I am happy to not have to do!

(If you’re not familiar with the terminology, “sash” is the wood that frames the actual window pane, “trim” is the wood framing the opening in the wall. Casements open with a crank handle, swinging out horizontally, not up and down like awning windows.)

These are high-quality windows, with powder-coated steel exteriors and painted wood interiors, but the previous owner apparently was apparently in the habit of leaving the windows open all summer long, rain or shine, and the painted wood interiors as well as the sills took a beating.

I started with the casement window in my bedroom, which with its sill was badly water-damaged.

Midway through scraping the weathered paint down to the wood and removing damaged caulk from around the window and the sill.

After about four hours of scraping off loose paint, cutting out damaged caulk, sanding to smooth the surfaces, carefully re-caulking, and then applying two coats of paint, the window looked new again. And best of all, the wood is now protected for another couple of decades if it’s treated well.

Detail of refinished window and sill–it looks new again!

That project was so successful that I tackled the other casement windows in the condo, one or two per weekend. And then I refinished the interior wood sash and trim on the eight-foot-tall sliding glass doors that lead out onto both decks. And re-caulked the sills of the four 5-foot-by-5-foot picture windows throughout the condo.

About the time my inner tool girl needed a break, a friend gave me a box of beautiful western Colorado peaches. I love peaches, but I knew I would never be able to eat all of these before they rotted. So I blanched them, peeled off the fuzzy skin, and then sliced and froze them for winter, when they will be a treat.

If you’ve never frozen ripe peaches, it’s ridiculously easy: Start by checking for any bruises or dings and set those peaches aside for fresh eating.

Then fill a stock pot with water and bring it to a gentle boil. Drop the peaches in one by one (I use a large strainer to handle them) and let them simmer for one to two minutes but no longer. You don’t want to cook them, just loosen the skin.

Peaches in gently boiling water

Take the peaches out and place on a cutting board to cool to the touch. Then, using your fingers, slip the skin off–it should peel easily.

Slip the skin off once the peaches are cool enough to touch.

Then slice the peaches and put them into a bowl. Squeeze a lemon over the slices to keep them from browning and sprinkle with a small amount of sugar to bring out their juice. Stir and pack into a freezer container or a freezer bag (I use resealable gallon-sized bags).

Fruits of summer sunshine in the freezer for winter!

I also freeze some peach halves for easy winter desserts. Here’s my simplest version:

Turn a thawed peach half cut side up, put a small dab of butter in the hole where the pit was, add a heaping teaspoon of brown sugar atop the butter and sprinkle cinnamon over the cut half of the peach. Put the half (halves, because you’ll want more than one!) on a baking sheet and slide under the broiler.

Broil until the sugar has melted into the butter and the tops of the peaches are beginning to brown. Remove, plate, and serve with a dollop of whipped cream or a scoop of vanilla ice cream. And enjoy!

That’s my life right now–write all day on weekdays, work on the condo and put up fruit for winter. It’s a simple existence, and I’m happy with it. What makes you happy these days?

Life Lessons: I Can’t Do Everything Myself?

I had a plan for this summer (I know: Life is what happens while we’re making plans): I would devote myself to narrating the audiobook version of Bless the Birds, my latest memoir and my 13th book.

I’ve procrastinated narrating the audiobook for the entire two and a half years since Bless the Birds was published, partly because I wanted to do the narration myself. It’s my story. (Also, I narrated the audiobook for my first memoir, Walking Nature Home.)

My excuses were good ones: since the book came out, I’ve moved four times, to three different states, and renovated three houses. And until this condo, which has a walk-in closet in the main bedroom, I haven’t had a place I could turn into a home recording studio.

The real reason? I wasn’t ready. Bless the Birds is an intense story. I needed time and distance, and perhaps every one of those four moves, to prepare myself.

This spring, I blocked out June through late July, the weeks between my two weed-management trips to the ranch, for audiobook narration. First, I had figure out the technical end. I watched some videos about audiobook narration and ordered a new microphone and headphones. I experimented with GarageBand, the recording and editing software, which I last used in 2010. Pretty soon, I thought I had it down.

By mid-June, I had set up my studio in my closet, and begun audio work. I recorded and edited the first few files (the front matter, introduction, and chapters one and two) and after listening to them carefully, decided there was too much background noise.

My recording microphone, a Blue Yeti Nano.

So I ordered a boom to hang the mic, with a vibration-dampening mount. When they arrived, I reconfigured my “recording desk”–a bookshelf I use as a dresser.

And started recording again. I would record a chapter, listen to the audio track and edit out any flubs–word mistakes, bad pronunciation, etc–and correct pacing issues, and then record another chapter and edit it. I could do two chapters a day before my voice tired.

About two-thirds of the way through the narration, I decided to make some small changes to the read and show the shift in Richard’s physical voice through the story.

My closet recording studio, set up between my winter coats and my hats!

That meant re-recording some sections and splicing them in. No problem; I’m good at that. I finished the final audio-edit a few days before I was to leave for Wyoming for my second weed-management stint at the ranch.

Before I left, I talked to an engineer highly recommended for audiobook mastering. When I got home, I uploaded some sample files for him.

A few days later, he called. There was good news, and bad news. The good: “You read well, and your voice is compelling.” The bad: My recording levels were too low; when he boosted the levels, the background noise was too high. “You wouldn’t be happy with the final product,” he said. “I suggest you re-record the whole thing.”

Oh.

Honestly, I said, I didn’t have the heart to start over right then. “Give it some time,” he advised.

I realized that I had just learned a life lesson I managed to avoid for more than 66 years: I can’t do everything myself. Sometimes it’s best to ask for help–before I jump in.

Me and my brother in about 1958, when I would have been two years old, and he four. That’s my “I can do anything you can do!” face. 

Growing up, I was the small, often sickly kid who struggled to keep up with her adored older brother. My first sentence, my mother said once, was “Do it myself!”

I have always believed I could. And here I am at 66, still trying to prove myself. It seems that it’s time for a change.

I called The Guy and poured out my disappointment, and added my realization about not always being able to do everything myself. As I said those words, I remembered one of the few real arguments we had. “You never ask for help!” The Guy said back then, clearly frustrated. “I need to know I bring something to the relationship!”

Now, I reminded The Guy of his words and said, “You were right.” He didn’t gloat. “Yes,” he simply said. “That’s an important realization.” He asked what I planned to do.

“I’m going to look for a recording studio nearby,” I said, “and in the meantime, the new book is taking all of my attention.” I could hear his affirmative nod over the miles between us. “Patience is good,” he said, voice dry.

“Another thing I’m not good at,” I said, and we both laughed.

Learning sometimes comes hard and takes time to digest. Still, I’m grateful to continue to grow.

What have you learned about yourself lately?

Embracing My Crazy Life

“How does life get this crazy?” my friend Lori asked this morning, as we were trying to find a time to meet and plan a pollinator garden.

I knew her question was rhetorical, but I wanted to answer anyway, to remind both of us that we’re choosing to spend our time in positive ways. “Life gets so crazy because we’re both active and involved people,” I texted back, “which is a good thing.”

Lori recently retired from a career in healthcare, and her days are filled with family, tending her horse community, and projects to benefit the community, like the pollinator garden.

I am retirement age, and although I have retired from the work of re-storying houses because it was time to settle, I am not likely to ever retire from writing or ecological restoration. I still have things to say, books and ideas circling in my mind, and I am still engaged in removing invasive weeds and helping heal and restore my patch of this earth.

Which means my life will continue to be a bit crazy. I’m finally embracing that, because I have realized that I love what I do and I’m not going to change.

Here’s a brief summary of my crazy life since I last posted on this blog, two and a half months ago:

• I researched and wrote the story of a photographer’s life and work for what will be a truly gorgeous (and fascinating) photo coffee table book to be published this fall by Portfolio Publications. That work involved dozens of phone interviews and weeks of organizing the material into a coherent narrative, as well as writing and fact-checking photo captions, plus writing the jacket copy, pull quotes, and front- and back-matter. Over 20k words in total, in less than three months. Whew!

Book jacket for the photographer’s book. Book and jacket design by Jenny Barry of Jennifer Barry Design.

• I drove six and a half hours to Colorado to guest-teach restoration ecology for a class in environmental ethics taught by my friend Evonne Ellis at Western State University in Gunnison. While I was there, I visited my house in Paonia, did some yard work, and gave the house some love. (And said hello to some bighorn sheep.)

Bighorn sheep licking road salt from the eastbound lane of US 50 by Blue Mesa Reservoir.

• I dreamed up and started filming “Weekly Wildflower,” my new series of one-minute-plus videos that profile local native plants and their relationships. I shoot each live on my morning walks, and they run on Wednesdays.

Click the link below to watch a sample “Weekly Wildflower.”

IMG_8584

You can follow me on FB, Instagram, or Twitter to see the videos. Eventually they will migrate to Substack and come out as weekly newsletters. Once I figure out how Substack works, that is!

Sunrise from the porch of my cabin at Ring Lake Ranch. It’s a glorious place!

• I spent two weeks in Wyoming, mostly at Ring Lake Ranch, the spiritual retreat center/guest ranch were I worked the past two summers. At the ranch, I worked on eradicating invasive weeds, either by pulling them up outright or spraying them. And then I headed home to Cody to hang out with friends (thank you, Connie and Jay!) and soak up the sagebrush country in spring, resplendent with Indian paintbrush in bloom.

Northwestern indian paintbrush blooming in the McCullough Peaks east of Cody.

• I was barely back from that 2,000-mile roadtrip when I learned that the latest offer on my Paonia house (there had been several, but none had made it to closing) was actually going to close the following Friday. So on Thursday afternoon, I set off on yet another road trip to western Colorado, spent one last night in my Paonia house, attended closing, and drove the seven hours back to Santa Fe Friday night tired and very relieved to be home for good!

My sweet Paonia house this spring

• Last week, I set up my recording studio in my closet, and began narrating the audiobook version of my memoir, Bless the Birds. This project has been nagging at me since before the book’s publication two years ago, but I wasn’t ready until now. I had forgotten how much I love narration, and the seductive lure of telling stories to an invisible audience. So you can think of me in my closet, headphones on, reading away.

The recording studio in the corner of my closet….

These are not easy times, to say the least. But I am happy. I embrace my crazy life because I am doing useful and positive work, and I have wonderfully supportive friends and family. As I wrote in Bless the Birds, I am old,

I have lived through loss, fear, and pain. I am still walking forward, still finding joy in the lives around me, human and moreso. Still loving.

That’s the key: Still loving.

My hope for you, dear friends, is that you are also still loving this life and this planet. And that you are still working on positive contributions to our communities, each other, and our Earth, no matter the difficult times. Thank you!

Rooting and Springing

Yesterday I planted a big sagebrush shrub (Artemisia tridentata) from a local nursery next to my glass prayer flag sculpture. Despite its common name, the shrub isn’t big, and they* looked a bit lonely, so this morning on my dawn walk, I collected some seed from the abundant native wildflower Palmer penstemon (Penstemon palmeri), also called wild snapdragon, and sprinkled the seeds around the big sagebrush.

*I’ve started using “they/them” pronouns for other species, instead of the objective “it.” Objectifying other beings denies their lives and personhood, and “she/he” doesn’t always fit, especially with plants, so I’m taking a leaf (pun intended!) from gender activists and using “they/them.” The big sagebrush shrub I planted is not a static “thing”–they are alive, breathing out the oxygen I breathe in, communicating, growing, adapting to their environment. By using “they/them,” I am honoring their presence and their life.

Tomorrow, I’ll go back to the nursery and buy another big sagebrush shrub to plant with the first. Eventually, I will surround them with the native wildflowers and grasses they have been in relationship with for thousands of years, their home community.

Big sagebrush is my totem plant, my closest “family” in the world of green and photosynthesizing beings. I first recognized these shrubs with the gray-green, three-tipped leaves (hence “tridentata” in the language of science) as kin when I was a child, on a June day as my family drove across southern Wyoming, headed for Yellowstone National Park.

An aromatic “sea” of Wyoming big sagebrush, green with spring

It had rained the night before, and the glass vanes of the jalousie windows in our homemade camper-van were wide open, allowing the morning air to pour in, cool and redolent with a distinctive combination of camphor and sweet orange–the airborne fragrance of big sagebrush. I looked up from the mystery novel I was reading, took a deep breath of the sagebrush-scented air, and said to myself, “Home.” Then I went back to reading.

That fragrance has said “home” to me ever since. For the past decade since my husband, Richard Cabe, died of brain cancer, I have wandered the skirt of the Rocky Mountains where big sagebrush grows, searching for who I am in this phase of my life and where I belong. In every place I have landed, I have sought out big sagebrush nearby to visit.

In some of those places–in particular, Cody in northwest Wyoming, where I have lived twice in the past decade and re-storyed two different houses–a sea of big sagebrush surrounds the town, its fragrance part of the air after spring and summer rains. In others, big sagebrush had been mostly plowed up for orchards and farms, or was only an occasional presence.

Hand-digging invasive weeds from a stand of big sagebrush in Yellowstone.

Sometimes I planted a few shrubs near my house to bring the plant home; sometimes I simply visited big sagebrush nearby. But always, I settled only where big sagebrush was a part of the landscape.

Now I live in a piñon pine-juniper woodland outside Santa Fe, New Mexico. Big sagebrush was once scattered along the edges of the arroyo near my condo, mixed with rubber rabbitbrush–chamisa in local parlance–and spiny-stemmed saltbush. But 20 years of drought killed the big sagebrush around this arroyo.

So when the maintenance guys for my condo took out a dying pine tree planted in a too-small space between my garage and a retaining wall for the slope above, I saw my opportunity to return big sagebrush. And in the doing, to root myself here in this chosen home. So I asked the guys if I could plant some sagebrush where the tree had been removed, got their blessing, and headed to the nursery.

My new little big sagebrush on the left, a wild-grown but trimmed rubber rabbitbrush on the right. Greg Reiche prayer flag sculpture in the middle.

As I patted the red soil around the roots of the big sagebrush shrub yesterday, and shaped a circular dam to capture water, I promised the plant that I would be here to watch it grow tall and strong, the trunk thickening and twisting, the spring leaves sprouting green and fragrant, the evergreen winter leaves turning slowly each day to capture winter sunlight to make food.

“This is our home,” I said. “We will flourish here.”

And we will. I write this from my sunny living room as the day draws toward sunset on Easter, the holiday that has its roots in Eostre, the ancient goddess of spring and renewal. I am grateful to be in this beautiful place, to have sunk roots here both literally and metaphorically, and to draw on the community of this blessed land and of my human friends.

My living/dining room now complete, with ceiling fan and the hand-forged chandelier that has graced my last five houses.

I am grateful that spring has come, despite the climate whiplash we have created, despite wars and racism and troubles the world around. I am grateful to wake up breathing each day.

I do my best to live with my heart outstretched as if it were my hand. Love is our species’ best gift; the practice of living with love can save us and this numinous earth. May we all embrace the promise of this season and walk onward with renewed hearts and spirits!

Blessings of spring to you all.

Plum tree blooming against a stucco wall in my neighborhood.

Home, Finally

 

“Wherever I hang my hat is home.” That’s not exactly true for me–I’m a very place-centric person tied to the natural range of big sagebrush at the foot of the Rocky Mountains–but today I hung my hat rack in my bedroom here in Santa Fe. So I guess it’s official: I am home.

As I said in my last post, Wanderings, I’ve wandered a lot in the past decade, in search of where home is in this final turn of my life. I’m 66 years old, closer to 70 now than 60, and I feel the pull to root and stay.

I thought I had found that place when I bought my Paonia house, but I reckoned without considering my age, which means I no longer want or need a house or yard to tend. Also, without considering my need for good healthcare, part of which is a need for nearby wild that I can easily walk to every day. Walking is my medicine, the therapy that helps me live well with Lupus and its associated conditions, Raynaud’s Syndrome and Sjogrens (often called dry eye).

All of that plus some other personal factors brought me to Santa Fe, to this beautiful and light-filled condo with views of the mountains in the neighborhood where I used to live.

The Sangre de Cristo Range after the last snowstorm.

This space makes me happy. I’m a story above the ground, overlooking a bit of wild piñon-juniper woods. The sun streams in the large windows during the day, supplying free heat in winter. The architecture is spacious, yet cozy enough to feel welcoming.

Come take a tour:

To the right of the garage door (yes, Rojita, my red Toyota Tacoma, has a garage to live in!) where I can admire it is the double column of glass prayer flags I’ve moved to five homes in the past, um, four years. We’re both settling here.

My Greg Reiche glass prayer flag sculpture, back in Santa Fe at last.

At the top of the stairs, my front door is graced by a Northern New Mexico chile wreath with dried garden flowers, made by a lovely Hispanic lady from Alcalde. I bought it at the Santa Fe Farmer’s Market.

Chile pequin arranged around died yarrow and baby roses.

Inside is a small foyer. Turn right, and you enter the front bedroom, aka my office, where I am writing this blog post right now as sunset flames the western sky. (The photo at the top of the post is the sunset from the west deck, off my office.)

My office with the west deck beyond. (Note my saddle in the left-hand corner of the room!)

Turn left from the foyer and you pass the kitchen and breakfast bar, and enter the “great room,” the high-ceilinged dining/living area with its huge south-facing windows, and tall sliding doors leading to the east deck.

The great room with evening light and its east-facing deck. Welcoming, comfy, and totally me.

The kitchen is off the great room as you first come in, an easy connection with the dining area.

The kitchen is compact, but the design makes it comfortable to use. And I do eat breakfast at the breakfast bar.

Turn around to look back at the foyer from the living area.

Did I mention that Arabella has her own south-facing window? She’s a happy Christmas cactus.

The east deck has a view of the Sangre de Cristo range in the distance, over the ridge that hides Highway 285 from view. The main bedroom, also facing east, shares that mountain view.

Nothing to see here–just the mountains rosy with sunset.

I really did just hang the hat rack. I’m home.

Hats on the rack and all.

I am fortunate, and grateful to have found this place that feels just right for the “home stretch” of my life, as the Guy calls this time.

And what of my Paonia house?

That sweet place with its shady yard is still seeking someone to buy it and love it! Please help spread the word by sharing this link to a restored 1920s house in an artsy and progressive town surrounded by organic farms and orchards, at the foot of the West Elk Mountains in western Colorado.

This flyer is just a teaser; the full details are online at the link above.

Thank you, and many blessings to you and yours!

Wanderings

Eleven years and a few months ago, Richard Cabe, the man I had loved for almost three decades, died of brain cancer. We met in graduate school in Laramie, Wyoming, when I was in my 20s, went on one date, and a few months later, I married him and his four-year-old daughter, Molly.

And then promptly packed Molly and as many of our belongings as we could fit into a Subaru hatchback and left for West Virgina, where Richard had a faculty position at West Virginia University.

Two semesters later, we packed ourselves back into that same Subaru and headed west again, landing in Olympia, Washington, where we both worked in state government, and Molly discovered the joys of digging for geoducks, a treehouse in the back yard, and licking slugs (yes, they do numb your tongue!).

Until three years later, when we moved back to the Rockies, to Boulder, Colorado, so that Richard could finish his PhD. In our year there, I wrote my first book, Pieces of LightA Year on Colorado’s Front Range, a year’s journal of nature and humans in Boulder.

Molly, Richard, and me in front of our apartment in Boulder. (I was still a redhead then, with waist-length hair.)

From Boulder, we headed east to Ames, Iowa, for Richard’s post-doc at Iowa State University, in a rental truck with Molly riding between us in the front seat, and our old Volvo station wagon in tow. After two years, Richard scored a professorship at New Mexico State University, so off we headed to Las Cruces in our new (old) Volkswagen camper bus.

Seven years later, after I wrote five books about the North American deserts and Molly graduated from high school, we packed our household and our Sharpei, Perdida, into another rental truck, and set off to return to the Rockies and the small town of Salida, Colorado, where Richard had lived in his childhood. Molly drove our Isuzu SUV, towing a trailer loaded with overflow from the rental truck.

After fifteen years in Salida, I had written six more books and Richard had fulfilled two life dreams–building us a house mostly with his own hands and pursuing abstract sculpture. And then brain cancer altered our paths. (I chronicled that journey in Bless the Birds: Living with Love in a Time of Dying, my 13th book.)

The house Richard built for us, with his historic studio behind.

In the aftermath of Richard’s death, I realized two things: I was deeply in debt and I needed to figure out how to earn a living in a hurry after taking two years off to care for him and my mom, who died in the same year. At least as important, after spending nearly three decades adapting to the people I loved and their needs, I didn’t know who I was as a solo adult.

Because of the debt, I had to sell the house Richard built for us, but never finished, and the adjacent historic studio, also not finished. (As a sculptor, mundane stuff like trimming windows, installing baseboard and interior doors, or building cabinet doors and drawers, and finishing bathrooms was not interesting.)

The front door at Terraphilia after the house was finished.

Friends patiently taught me how to use tools and materials to finish both the studio and the house over two years (you know who you are, and you have my sincerest thanks forever!). In the doing, I discovered that I loved learning how buildings worked, and envisioning what they needed.

So once I sold Terraphilia, the big house and the studio, I helped design and build a small house and detached garage with guest studio above. I had never designed a space just for me, and in the process, I learned as much about myself as I did about construction.

The front deck and door of Creek House, with Treehouse beyond.

Once Creek House and its companion, Treehouse, were finished though, I realized that Salida no longer felt like home. In fact, I was no longer was sure where home was–other than somewhere in the Rocky Mountain region where sagebrush grows.

My mid-century modern house in Cody, after re-storying both the house and yard.

So I headed back to northwest Wyoming, the last place I had felt at home before going to grad school and meeting Richard and Molly. I bought a once-beautiful mid-century modern house in Cody that, after three decades of neglect, needed a lot of love. My contractor and I spent the next two years bringing it back to life, and then, during the hard winter after my dad died, I sold it and headed south to Santa Fe, where the winters are milder and I have a circle of close writing friends.

The front entry of my Santa Fe condo (the one I lived in, not the rental), after re-storying. Sculptural basin by Richard Cabe, glass prayer flag sculpture by Greg Reiche.

In Santa Fe, I bought and re-storyed two condos, one to live in and one to rent, and then sold both and moved out of town to a house with good bones but in need of a lot of love. (The Guy, who I had met in Wyoming that August, drove to Santa Fe to help me move.)

Casa Alegría, my house in Eldorado, outside Santa Fe.

A year later, after finishing Casa Alegría, my real estate sense said it was time to cash out, and my heart wanted to make one more try at Wyoming, so I sold the Casa and headed back to Cody. (Are you dizzy yet?)

Where I bought an ordinary ranch house in desperate need of updating, overlooking the Shoshone River in Cody. I was partly through re-storying that house when, on Thanksgiving weekend, a couple knocked on my door and asked if I would consider selling.

The front porch of my River View Drive house in Cody.

Which I took as a sign from the universe, so I put the house on the market, and ten days later, it sold.

Which is why a year ago, I moved again, this time to the little cottage I had bought as a winter writing escape in Montrose, Colorado, about an hour from the Guy’s farm. The cottage had a partially collapsed foundation and other serious needs, so I spent the rest of the winter and spring giving it a new lease on life, and then left to work at Ring Lake Ranch for the summer.

When I returned to the cottage after Labor Day, I had to admit it was too small for me at 672 square feet. So I finished re-storying it, and sold it to a single-mom teacher looking for a cozy and affordable place to raise her daughter.

The new front door at the cottage, plus one of the new windows.

And I bought a hundred-year-old bungalow in Paonia, a smaller and quieter town than Montrose. Twice the size of the Montrose cottage, with a two-car garage and a shady yard, it seemed like a place I could settle. Of course, it needed a little work.

I happily thinned trees and shrubs in the overgrown yard, oversaw the installation of photovoltaic panels on the roof, dug out under the floors so my contractor could crawl under and shore up sagging floor beams, and generally gave the place the love it needed. (Including the beautiful new front door in the photo at the top of the post.)

Only, and we’re getting to the end of the long story here, I realized that while I enjoy this house and yard, and the charming town of Paonia in this green valley of orchards and small farms, it is not home.

I’m a desert rat: I need sun and sagebrush and wildness nearby to walk. And at 66 years old, I no longer need (or want) the responsibility for a house and a yard. I need more time to write.

So I’m going to put my newly re-storyed Paonia bungalow up for sale and settle into a sunny condo at the north edge of Santa Fe, with coyotes singing from the nearby ridges, and a view of the Sangre de Cristo Range from my back deck. And someone else doing the maintenance!

My Santa Fe condo, a light-filled eyrie with views of the nearby wild all around. The Guy gave it an “A-plus” rating.

I’ll visit the farm and Paonia in summers, and the Guy and the horses will come south in winter to a barn outside Santa Fe, a seasonal migration of sorts within our mutual home range, where sagebrush grows wild and mountains line at least one horizon. For me, now, that all feels just right.

 

Re-Storying: It’s the Little Things

One of the major lessons I learned when I began “re-storying” houses a decade ago was to start with the structure: assess the bones of the place from foundation to roof, and repair or rebuild as necessary. And then look at the infrastructure, the mechanical systems like heating and cooling, the wiring and plumbing; plus insulation and windows and doors. Fix or update those that are failing or simply not functional–before you think about paint colors or floor coverings or hardware.

Because until the structure is sturdy and the systems work, spending time and money on aesthetics is like putting lipstick on a pig–it may look better, but that’s still a pig under the makeup.

Which is a good metaphor for most endeavors in life, whether creative work or career, friendships and relationships, hobbies and recreation, or parenting. Start with the structure, make sure the systems are working, and then pretty things up.

There’s no point agonizing over every word in a 75,000-word novel, for instance, if the narrative arc doesn’t make sense, or the characters aren’t fully-fleshed and believable.

So I checked out this house’s structure to make sure it was sound. Almost, but for an area of floor that was sagging badly from the weight of a quartzite kitchen that the century-old floor beams had not been designed for.

After my contractor and I installed new support beams in the claustrophobic crawl space, I had the plumbing and wiring assessed. Both are what might be charitably described as eccentric, as is common in old houses added on to or modified over the years, but neither is dangerous.

There’s too much going on here….

That freed me to get creative with the aesthetics, the little things (compared to structure and infrastructure). I started with the bathroom, which was busy-bordering-on-frenetic, with too many textures and patterns fighting for attention: brushed stainless fixtures, bright chrome handles on the blinding white lacquered vanity, patterned matte-finish tile on the floor, shiny white and black subway tile halfway up the walls…. I had to shut my eyes to relax in the clawfoot bathtub!

First I replaced the angular chrome handles on the vanity with curving, dark bronze ones to echo the floor tiles. Then I painted the end wall a soft sage green, and put a leaf-patterned film on the window add to the natural feel (and offer privacy).

Those seemingly small details created a much calmer and more soothing space.

Next came trading out the heavy gray drapes that pooled on the floor by each window throughout the house for fitted Roman shades with insulating backing. The difference was startling, making my small house seem lighter and brighter, and also keeping it warmer as the nights dropped below freezing.

My library/writing room with drapes….

… and with Roman shades.

Lighter, more spacious and more energy efficient

Next, a project to make my kitchen food-prep area larger: adding an under-counter light to the dark corner opposite the fridge. That added four more running feet of usable counter, a big deal in my small kitchen. And the light is touchless: I can turn it on or adjust the brightness by waving my hand under the sensor end.

Adding an under-counter light was a simple and inexpensive way to add usable counter space.

Next, I decided the all-white bedrooms could use a little color. After a good deal of playing with sample colors, I settled on painting the window wall in each a soft blue-gray called English hollyhock. (No hollyhock I know of has ever bloomed in this shade, but it’s a lovely color regardless.)

The guest bedroom looks much better! (See the photo at the top of the post for my bedroom.)

Then I tackled interior doors. The two bedroom doors and the bathroom door had been painted a vivid teal on the outside, and a sort of battleship gray on the inside. Plus, the painters had splashed teal and gray paint over the trim, the floors, and the door hardware.

I took each door off, carried it out to the library where I had space to paint, set it on sawhorses, and carefully painted each side. I went for neutral–the same off-white as the walls–but added new door hardware, dark bronze levers in a style that seemed appropriate for my 1920 house.

Creamy off-white replacing vivid teal. Much calmer!

I also touched up the trim and cleaned the old paint off the hinges and floors as best I could.

The new door hardware in a design that is timeless and accessible.

Re-hanging each door by myself was a little bit of an adventure (there’s a door-jack contractors use, but I don’t have one), but I figured out that I could wedge the door in place with a  moving blanket while I screwed the hinge screws back in.

Solo door-hanging involves inventing props….

For the final touch, I found charming door-signs on Etsy to identify which room is which. I can’t wait to put them up! (They’re coming from Slovakia, so it may be a while.)

Bedroom sign….
Bathroom sign–pretty cute, I think!

As I wind down the calendar year of 2022, I remind myself of this lesson: tend the structure and infrastructure first, before diving into the aesthetics. I also remind myself that the little things are a lot of fun, and they can make an outsize difference.

May your year-end be full of joy, and your new year the best yet! Blessings to you all.

Home Again

I left home the Tuesday before last on an autumn day so glorious that as I wound my way along the North Rim of the Black Canyon National Park, the aspens and Gambel oak glowed gold and copper in the sun, and I drove with the windows open, singing along with Emmy Lou Harris. It was so beautiful that I didn’t want to leave.

But I had promised to teach a workshop on landscape and language with my dear comadre, Dr. Dawn Wink, at the 28th annual Women Writing the West Conference in Oklahoma City, and also to help her run the conference, which involved wrangling nearly 100 writers, plus spouses and companions, and ensuring that a dozen workshops went off successfully, along with three keynote speeches, three awards ceremonies, banquets, a conference bookstore, museum tours, and the other events of a packed conference. So off I went in Rojita, headed 775 miles to Oklahoma City.

Dawn and I at the end of our three-hour pre-conference workshop. At that point, we just wanted lunch!

It was an intense four days, with a lot of last-minute glitches, and a few personal conflicts to defuse. But our mission of “lifting all voices” was superbly successful. Conference attendees left high and inspired, their perspectives on the women’s west enlarged, excited for new ideas, new friends, and new writing. Post-conference comments came in enthusiastic, like this one from fiction writer Sue Boggio:

This year’s conference was at the top of all I have attended! It impacted every sphere: intellectual, emotional, spiritual. So much gratitude!

Even the weather in Oklahoma City cooperated, with beautifully warm days. Until we packed up the event and set out for the long trek home, into a forecast of ferocious winds from the southwest, followed by the season’s first big snowstorm. Ugh.

I tacked cross-wind, Rojita steady despite 60 mile-per-hour gusts, as far as New Mexico, and stopped for the night. The next day, I drove cautiously over two mountain passes and along the winding North Rim in a world turned white with fresh snow. Quite a change from six days earlier.

Remember that view of golden aspen and copper Gambel oak at the top of the post? What a difference!

To say I was relieved to back Rojita into my garage is an understatement. I was so exhausted that I didn’t notice until the next day that I had left the charger and cord for my laptop in the motel in New Mexico, seven hours drive away. (No, I did not drive back to get it.)

I’m still catching up on sleep, emails and messages, paying bills, and the other minutia of life. But I have already settled back into writing. I’m 1,500 words into the new book, and that’s a lot for me. If you’re one of those who participates in NaNoMo (National Novel-Writing Month) where you aim to lay down 50,000 words in 30 days, good on ya! I’m a plodding writer, laying down words and sentences the way a good bricklayer builds a wall, leveling each brick before placing the next, troweling away the excess mortar, checking the whole to make sure it is plumb before moving deliberately on.

My writing desk on my sunny enclosed porch.

And I’m working away on house projects too. Doing something physical every day is crucial to my creativity, preferably something outside now that the weather is nice again. So yesterday and today, I climbed up on my roof to clear off debris from the valleys and gutters before it snows again.

I set up my eight-foot stepladder, climbed up to the very top step (you know, the one that says “Don’t sit or stand on”) and clambered up onto the roof with my rake and trowel. Once I found my balance, I headed past the solar panels to the long valley between the front section of the house, with a ridge running north-south, and the back section, with a ridge running east to west.

My new rooftop power plant generating clean electricity from the sun.

The valley between those two sections clearly hadn’t been cleaned in decades, because under the tangle of cottonwood leaves and branches was good black humus sprouting a few baby ash trees! Accumulating a soil layer that holds water is very bad for a roof, even a sturdy metal one. It’s a wonder the roof isn’t leaking.

Soil forming in the valley of my house roof. Not a good thing for a roof!

I cleaned out a wheelbarrow load of leaves and humus, and then crept over the ridge to the steeper front roof, raked it off, cleaned the gutter over the front door, and then raked and swept the leaves and compost from the valley on the north side of the roof. After which I carefully stepped back onto the stepladder, retrieved my tools, and climbed safely down. Whew!

I get a lot of satisfaction from tending this house and yard, and preparing both to go healthfully into their second century–the house is 102 years old this year, and I respect its history and look forward to its future.

The shady backyard in full fall glory–my colorful refuge.

Re-storying houses that need love is a sustainable thing to do, requiring much less energy and many fewer materials than building new, and is thus much lighter on this Earth. And it’s healing, giving existing houses another life, a new story, another chance to provide a nurturing home for someone.

It’s one way I practice terraphilia, living with love for this planet and its vibrant–if challenged–web of life. That’s my mission in life and writing, and it’s one reason I took the time to help plan and put on the Women Writing the West Conference with its theme of lifting all voices. As I say every night before bed, “My intention is to heal and restore this glorious living Earth and we who share the planet. That all may thrive.”

The subtitle of Bless the Birds, my newest book, is “Living With Love in a Time of Dying.” By that I mean, anytime of crisis, whether personal, political, or global. I wish for all of us a chance to practice our terraphilia, live with love, and thrive. Blessings!

Settling Into Home

Driving home the other evening, I stopped in the middle of the road to shoot this photo, because it captures what I love about this place I’ve landed after a decade of wandering. The valley, greened by water harvested from the surrounding peaks and mesas, is a patchwork of orchards, organic farms, and vineyards. The small town of Paonia nestled along the North Fork of the Gunnison River. And above, the still-mostly-wild landscapes of Grand Mesa and the West Elk Mountains.

It is that mix of healthy cultivated land and wild land that draws me, the lively small town, and the Guy nearby. And the sweet 1920s bungalow I bought, with its forest-glade backyard and cozy interior.

The yard and house need some work, but not a major re-storying project. Just polishing what is here, and shoring up some of the sagging bits. Nothing huge or scary.

Today, for instance, the Guy brought a chainsaw over, and we cut down and removed some of the sickly and spindly trees in the backyard forest that has become too crowded, and took out a few limbs that needed pruning, including the large crabapple branch weighing down the electric line.

The backyard after some thinning to give the existing trees more room to breathe and harvest sunlight.

I started the backyard tree removal project yesterday with my trusty hand-saw by removing the ash tree that had been allowed to grow horizontally right across the alley entrance to the garage. I think that snake-like tree was seeking light, but honestly, it wasn’t a healthy growth habit. (Also, I want to use that driveway!)

The light-seeking, horizontal-trunked ash tree before…

Removing it left me with a big pile of ash limbs to turn into chippings, ie, mulch for the yard.

And after removal, opening up the driveway and the alley entrance to my two-car, offset-door garage. 

In the front yard, I hand-sawed a whole thicket of root sprouts–some as tall as 12 feet–from base of the big cottonwood trees. Now you can actually see the front of the house from the street.

Big trees, tiny front yard, and a lot of gravel, which I’ll slowly replace with drought-tolerant natives for more of a cottage garden look.

I also planted several clusters of peony tubers and daffodil bulbs, which meant digging through six inches of gravel mulch and three layers of landscape cloth to make planting spots. And I planted two pots of native pollinator flowers to brighten up and add instant habitat to the gravel yard.

Front-yard seating area with a pot of native appleblossom grass, which the little native bees love.

Last week, the wonderful crew at Empowered Energy Systems installed solar panels on my south-facing roof.  They’re now hooked up to the power grid, so I’m generating my own clean electricity.

It makes me happy to have a solar power plant on my roof!

Inside, I’ve already gotten started on my part of the most difficult renovation project: digging out a passage under the floor to access the aptly named crawl space under the floor beams. Last weekend I spent a sweaty morning digging construction debris and loose dirt out of a small hatch in the dining-area floor, and carefully wheeling four loads of debris and dirt out of the house.

Yup, that’s the crawl space access, with the wheelbarrow positioned for me today out and lift up the debris and dirt. Fun stuff.

Sometime next month, my intrepid contractor, Jerry Fritts, will slide in, crawl over, and jack up the floor beams sagging under the weight of a quartzite-topped breakfast bar installed by the previous owner. In 1920, when the house was built, floor beams were not engineered to support the weight of rock-slab counters. Carefully jacking up the beams and putting support columns under them will give that old wood floor another 80 years of life!

In the midst of all of this, I’ve settled in, making the house my home. Here’s a quick tour, with before and after photos:

The former owner used the front porch as a dining room.

Very formal, and so not me!

I chose a different use.

For me, it’s the ideal library and writing room, and it has a south-facing window for Arabella, my venerable Christmas cactus.

The living room/kitchen area used to be HGTV metro modern.

Nice, but not my style, especially the light fixtures over the breakfast bar and the kitchen sink.

I’m more a southwest-style cottage person myself. I placed my dining area between the living room and the kitchen.

Oh yeah, that’s more me–colorful, comfy and eclectic.

What’s next?

Running a writing conference, and then turning to my own writing.

Next week, I drive to Oklahoma City for Women Writing the West’s 28th Annual Conference: Red Earth Voices–We All Have a Story to Tell. I’m teaching a landscape and language pre-conference workshop with my writing comadre, Dr. Dawn Wink, and helping to run the show. It’s going to be an inspiring and amazing three days, with keynote speakers Jeanetta Calhoun Mish, novelist Laura Pritchett, and memoirist Amy Irvine, plus tours of the new First Americans Museum and National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum, craft workshops, agent and editor pitches, roundtable critiques, the annual WILLA and LAURA awards, and much more.

It’s not too late to sign up for the conference, if you or someone you know wants to join a vibrant and welcoming community of women writers!

After the conference, I am home for the winter, and will finally be able to truly settle in and write. I can’t wait. Blessings to you all!