Before Badger, the Guy’s Vizsla, lies down on his heated mat on the couch to snooze away the time between walks and other outings, he always turns around two or three times, ruffles up his blanket, and then settles in with a big sigh. He’s customizing his spot to suit him.
(And that canine remodeling is why my beautiful blue leather couch wears a sturdy gray dog cover when Badger is in residence. As for the heated mat, Badger is almost thirteen–he’s earned his perks.)
I’m not so different than Badger. With every move in the past nine years since Richard died, I’ve engaged in my equivalent of circling several times and rearranging the blankets in each living space: remodeling.
The first move was to Creek House, the little house I helped design and build for myself in Salida, so that was a bigger deal than remodeling. I made that space my own in spades–I guess you could say I circled quite a few times!
Then came Cody, and the seriously dilapidated mid-Century modern house that I rescued, renovating from basement to roof, bringing house and yard back to beautiful life. That circling and rearranging the blanket took nearly two years, but it was oh-so-satisfying. (The neighbors were thrilled that the neighborhood eyesore turned beautiful too.)
Followed by my move to Santa Fe, and into a small condo that really didn’t need work, but was pretty tired. I replaced worn carpet with vinyl plank floors, renovated the galley kitchen, replaced the aging metal windows with new and more efficient wood ones, and updated the furnace and water heater. And added color to the walls.
When I bought Casa Alegría, my current house, my intention was only to fix what was actually wrong, including a faulty pellet stove with a pipe not up to code, leaky windows, and a mouse-infested attic over the garage and laundry room. And of course paint a few of the boring white walls more interesting colors.
I guess it should be no surprise that I haven’t limited myself to just those projects.
Casa Alegría now boasts a new, efficient and safe woodstove, new windows and screen doors, plus an exterior door replacing a small window, an attic that is properly sealed and insulated (and bio-cleaned so it doesn’t stink), photovoltaic panels on the roof that generate clean power for the house and excess for the power grid, new mini-splits delivering incredibly efficient heating and cooling, a new garage door that actually seals out cold and rodents, and of course, colorful walls.
My latest project as I settle in? Replacing the small flagstone patio in the backyard that was so buried under dirt and debris that I didn’t discover it until I used a shovel to dig out some weeds and hit rock.
As I circle and settle, I am contemplating what else I need to do to make this place fit me, the way Badger makes his couch space comfy. But first, I think I’ll just drag a chair out onto the patio and admire my new outdoor room. Before fall changes to winter with tonight’s snowstorm….
At the end of our summer work in Wyoming, the Guy gave me what may rank as the best birthday present ever: a pack trip into the Washakie Wilderness, part of my old fieldwork area in the Absaroka Range southeast of Yellowstone National Park. Just the two of us, his four horses (two for riding, two for packing), and a stretch of glorious days away from cell phones, internet, news, and other humans. (We did see three other people on our last night as they rode by our camp.)
I haven’t been on a backcountry pack trip in decades, since the years when I traversed these mountains in my work for the Shoshone National Forest, before graduate school and meeting Richard and Molly. Who–bless their hearts–did not have the same need for time away in wild places as I do. As I write in Bless the Birds: Living With Love in a Time of Dying, my forthcoming memoir:
We managed just one family backpacking trip, a weekend outing to the Dolly Sods Wilderness Area, for my birthday that fall in West Virginia. Richard and four-year-old Molly were so miserable that I took pity on them after the first night, and we packed out. On the way home, we stopped for “real food,” in Molly’s words, and Richard’s favorite dark-roast coffee. I never tried backpacking with them again.
For me, this trip into the South Absarokas, home to more grizzly bears, wolves, and elk than people, was a dream–and another step in reclaiming the part of myself that I had set aside during my nearly three decades with Richard and Molly. I never expected to get back into the wild country I learned so well over the miles of hiking and riding for my work back then, and came to love so deeply that it has been the home of my heart ever since.
When the Guy and I first started talking about taking a backcountry trip last winter, we imagined something more ambitious, a through-ride that would trace the route of a solo backpack trip I took in my mid-twenties, cutting through the Thorofare Valley in Yellowstone. But as the time for the trip got closer, we scaled back those plans, deciding that for our first pack trip together, it would be wise to plan a shorter and less rigorous route.
So we did some day-rides into the mountains to hone our skills and to get the horses in shape. Then we picked a drainage were we could ride in, establish a base camp, and explore from there. We scouted the area first, riding the trail we would take, and found a meadow that looked perfect for our basecamp: big enough that it offered abundant native forage for the horses, a creek tumbling through, and several good sites for our tent and cooking areas (which needed to be far apart so that we were not sleeping next to anything that smelled like food).
Once we knew where we were headed, we went into trip-preparation mode: pulling together maps, food, emergency supplies, and pack gear; we checked the tent, and pulled together our sleeping bags and pads, and personal gear. The Guy inspected the pack saddles and supplies, and did a test-pack of the panniers and bags, and weighed everything to make sure we weren’t giving the horses too much to carry. The night before we were to leave, we loaded the gear into big horse trailer.
The next morning, we fed the horses early so they would have time to finish their hay before we left, and then finished preparing. We were on our way by the time the sun began to warm the late-summer air, and reached the trailhead at mid-morning. It took about an hour to get the horses saddled, the packs on and lashed down, and then we were off, riding up the valley toward the distant peaks and high plateaus, and away from people and wifi and cell phone reception.
At first, the horses were jumpy, starting at deadfall, and hopping sideways when some ducks took off from a nearby pond in a rush of feet slapping the water’s surface. But pretty soon we all settled into a good trail rhythm. The sun was warm, the breeze cool, and the forest smelled of pine sap interspersed with musky threads of other animals.
We stopped for a snack near a lake with a marsh full of birds, and lupines, pussy-toes, and other wildflowers blooming in the forest. The horses grazed the lush grass hungrily, and when we rode on, they were all still munching. I led our small string on the way to the lake, and the Guy took the lead from there on.
We reached the meadow where we planned to camp by mid-afternoon, unsaddled the horses, arranged the tack on a log where it could air out, and then set up the highline for the horses, the overhead line where they would be secured at night.
Once the horses were settled, we ate a late lunch, pitched the tent, set up our camp kitchen area, and relaxed in our camp chairs in the shade of a big lodgepole pine tree. I wrote and the Guy meditated, and then studied the maps. We both absorbed the quiet.
Around dinnertime, we unhooked the horses, put hobbles on their front legs, and let them graze the meadow, keeping an eye out to make sure none hopped far enough to get to the trail. The Guy got out the stove, boiled water from the creek, and I “cooked” dinner, pouring boiling water into a pouch of freeze-dried Thai-style chicken dinner, and adding some fresh vegetables. Ten minutes later, we shared a surprisingly delicious hot meal as the pink light from sunset faded from the peaks and then the clouds, and the moon sailed across the evening sky.
Before dark, we hooked the horses on the highline, and then we each brushed our teeth, took one last foray into the woods to pee, and headed for the tent and our cozy sleeping bags.
And so our days went: Up with the sun, set the hobbled horses to grazing, make breakfast, decide on the day’s ride, catch the horses, saddle up with lunch in our pommel bags, and hit the trail. Back by late afternoon, set the horses to grazing, relax in our camp chairs, make dinner, hook up the horses, and crawl into the tent and curl up together.
One morning we woke to rain pattering on the tent, so we didn’t start our ride until ten, but we still had time to explore the big meadow at the head of the valley (the photo at the top of the post) and the smaller meadows above it, green and boggy and filled with elk sign–wallows, scat, and tree-bark scars where the bulls scrape the velvet from their antlers. We rode past the end of the trail, forded the creek multiple times, ducked under branches and worked our way around deadfall timber as far as we could go, just seeing what was there, and then headed back to camp.
Another morning we got an early start and took a steep trail that zigzagged up a side valley, climbing up and up and up and up through the forest, and then traversing a narrow ledge of trail high above the cascading creek. “That’s real mountain riding,” commented the Guy when we were safely past a particularly vertiginous stretch.
We stopped to let the horses graze in a sedge and hairgrass meadow surrounded by dead whitebark pine trees (killed by white pine blister rust, an invasive pathogen). I commented that this was prime grizzly bear habitat despite the dead forest. Just above the meadow, I spotted one of the largest piles of grizz scat I’ve ever seen smack in the middle of the trail. We stopped to look, and reassured ourselves that it wasn’t that fresh–only later did we admit to each other that it had probably been no more than an hour or two old.
We rode on, listening and looking for bears, and saw none. Just more piles of scat, berry bushes everywhere–raspberries, elderberries, gooseberries, and currants; and a several-month-old kill of an elk calf, with not much left but some pelt and scattered bones with tendons attached. I’m pretty sure that big boar grizzly who left the poop knew exactly where we were. We rode with all senses alert, in the knowledge that we could be lunch if we weren’t careful.
That trail took us high into an alpine basin above tree-line, where we stopped for lunch and let the horses nibble alpine turf while we ate. A golden eagle soared above the high ridges, and a peregrine falcon whizzed by on the hunt. Far in the distance we could see the next mountain range to the south. The wind whistled among the rocks, and storm clouds began to built overhead, our signal to head downhill.
That evening it rained and then hailed, pea-sized pellets hurled on chill winds. The next morning, we woke to frost on the meadow. We ate breakfast as the horses grazed, and our tent dried in the sun. Then we packed up and headed out, the horses frisky because they knew we were on our way back to the trailhead.
By the time we reached the truck and trailer, the weather had shifted and the wind was gusting hard, and we were ready for a shower and a good dinner. The next morning, snow dusted the peaks above where we had camped, a foretaste of fall.
I call that trip my birthday present because the Guy provided everything: his horses, the packing gear, even the food. All I had to do was show up with my personal gear, ride well, and be good company.
And because it brought me something I had forgotten how much I needed: time away from the hustle of the human world, the bad news that deluges us every day, and the pressure to respond to every signal in our culture of instant communication. For those days in the wild, my system returned to solar time, and my senses tuned to the weather and the shape of the landscape, the sound of elk bugling and the smell of bears.
(On my actual birthday last week, the Guy gave me another perfect present: an increment core for sampling trees, but that’s another story.)
I came away from our wilderness time tired but happy, feeling competent and alive. The trip reminded me of what matters most: living with love and kindness, and practicing stewardship of this Earth and we who share it. I needed that time to refresh my spirit and strengthen my heart for whatever comes.
One of the first long phone conversations The Guy and I had last fall when we were getting to know each other centered around the question of what “home” meant for each of us. The exchange was sparked by something I said in the seminar I taught at Ring Lake Ranch, where we met: home for me is the Rocky Mountain region wherever big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata in the language of science) grows. The “seas” of this aromatic shrub that fill valleys and basins throughout the region, I explained, define the area I call home.
The idea that the geographic range of a particular plant could delineate “home” intrigued The Guy. He thought about that concept over the next few weeks while he hunted bighorn sheep on foot above treeline in the mountains of central Colorado. In his long and physically active days of climbing thousands of feet from the valley bottom where he was camped to the high ridges where he sat and glassed for sheep, he had plenty of time to ponder what home meant for him.
“No sheep died,” he said when he called to report on his wilderness hunt, “but I had an interesting realization.”
“What was that?” I asked from my Santa Fe condo, where I was packing for a move to the house I had just bought in the spaciousness of the high desert outside town.
He described hiking uphill through open ponderosa pine forest, the dappled light of aspen groves, into the high-elevation Douglas-fir and spruce forest, and then the widely spaced groves of bristlecone pine, before emerging above treeline in the windswept expanse of the alpine, with its turf of plants no more than a few inches tall.
“I realized that I’m not comfortable in the alpine,” he said. “It’s not my place. It’s too exposed.” Where he felt at home, he said, was the mountain forests and woodlands, the shrublands and meadows. “I realized that my home range could be described by the range of dusky grouse in the Rockies.”
While he talked, I looked up dusky grouse. There was the range map: a wide swath of the Rockies from Canada to northern New Mexico, a near overlap of the region I call home. I remembered seeing a male dusky grouse displaying on a gravel road in a sagebrush-filled valley not far from his farm on Colorado’s West Slope.
We considered the way the part of the West we both call home overlapped, and discussed how we each felt drawn to the whole swath, rather than one particular place. “Maybe for people like us,” I said, “home is not a single location, but a whole area. ‘Home range,’ instead of home. A range we migrate through over the seasons, rather than a fixed spot. ”
He was quiet, thinking. “I like that idea,” he said. “The way people once moved in search of food and shelter, occupying a whole region instead of settling in one place.”
“Exactly!” I said. “For you and me, home range could extend from the high desert in northern New Mexico in winter to Wyoming in summer, with the the farm in spring and fall.”
Over the months since, as we have worked at the delicate process of interweaving two separate lives–sometimes easily and sometimes crashing headlong into each other’s tender spots–the idea of home range has given us a road map. We spent much of the winter at my house outside Santa Fe exploring the high desert on foot and horseback.
In late March with the pandemic swelling, the herd headed north to the farm under safer-at-home orders. As The Guy pointed out, farm work is inherently socially distanced. It also does not wait: when spring comes, the hayfields must be prepped and the irrigation pipes laid out, or there will be no crop.
I stayed behind in New Mexico until it was safe to leave, and then followed them north. At the farm, I plunged into learning irrigation, starting invasive weed control, pruning shrubs and trees, and other chores. Out in the hayfields, it was just me and the mule deer and the swallows and magpies, plus several hundreds of thousands of brome and bluegrass plants.
The pandemic seemed far away. Except on our occasional trips to town for food and farm supplies, when we wore face-masks and practiced social distancing. In this rural county, with fewer than 20,000 human residents, crowding is rarely an issue.
Farm work left us little time to fret about the radical changes to the larger world–our work-days ran from dawn to dusk. It was oddly soothing to be too worn out at the end of each day to obsess over the news.
Then came summer, when I would normally migrate to the northern end of my home range to Yellowstone National Park to hand-eradicate invasive weeds, and The Guy, the dog, and the horses would migrate to Ring Lake Ranch to work. Because of the pandemic though, Yellowstone stayed closed for longer than usual, and then opened for day-use only. Which meant my work was canceled, since I camp in the park to be near my research site.
When Ring Lake Ranch opened (later than usual and with half the guests), The Guy suggested I spend part of my summer with him, the dog, and the herd at Ring Lake. So when irrigation chores slowed down, I headed north following their migration route to the ranch. I spent several weeks there surveying and controlling invasive weeds, and writing up a management plan. And then returned to the farm to work on weeds in the hayfields.
The idea of home as an annual migration between places has–somewhat paradoxically–kept me grounded through these tumultuous times. Wherever I am in this range of landscapes and communities, whether northwest Wyoming, western Colorado, or northern New Mexico, I am at home. And whether I am with The Guy, the dog, and the horses, or not, we are connected by the heart and by our shared bond with these places and people. The challenges we face are as much internal as external as we navigate the new world of belonging to each other.
Home is the earth beneath my feet, this growing relationship, the weeds I work with, the human community, this changing world. It is the territory I nurture with my whole heart, the life I seed, the world I belong to.
Home, however we define it, is where we belong, where we take refuge, who we love, what we stand for. In these times, home could be what saves us.
When I was a young child, perhaps four or five years old, I spent hours playing with the water from the hose that soaked my mother’s flower beds, using a trowel to draw channels in the soil to direct the water to particular plants, and shaping earthen dams to capture the flow. Once when my grandparents came for a visit from their faraway home in Florida, my engineer granddad watched me play, and then bent his tall form to my level.
Using a stick, he drew various channel designs in the dirt, and gave me a short lesson in fluvial hydrology, showing me how a curve could slow the water down, a deeper channel would hold more flow, and how “stacking” a series of curves would create meanders to reshape my miniature river. Before my grandmother called him into the house, he also demonstrated how to use pebbles to strengthen the downstream face of my dams, and how to curve the dam to better cup the flow. (My proper Scots grandmother did not approve of her only granddaughter playing in the dirt. She wanted a girly-girl, dressed in ruffles and patent-leather shoes, with flyaway strawberry blond hair neatly confined by the bunny-shaped hair clips she brought me.)
I was fascinated by Granddad’s lesson, and practiced it assiduously after he and grandmother left. I learned how to sculpt a channel so it would keep itself clean and flowing at just the right volume and speed to not flood the plant. And to shape a dam to spread the water out, as well as retain it.
I had forgotten that part of my childhood until I found myself walking the main hayfield at the farm the other day, using the toe of my rubber irrigation boots to clear debris from the shallow channels that carry water from the irrigation pipes across the field. I heard my mother’s voice in my head calling me “Farmer Susie,” and saw her shaking her head with a loving smile as she and my dad wondered where my passion for channeling water, tending plants, and digging weeds came from.
Back then, with a child’s naivete, I thought I would grow up and live on a farm or a ranch, and work with water and plants and horses. How that was going to happen, when I grew up in the suburbs, and neither of my parents had ever worked in agriculture, I never considered. I just knew I would. In my teens and twenties, I worked in a stable, taught riding, helped out with friends’ farms and ranches, and even for a brief time, had my own little acreage and a few horses. Until I went to graduate school, and fell in love with Richard and Molly.
My life turned in the direction of step-motherhood and writing, and tending our little household as we followed Richard’s academic career through nine moves in 14 years, eventually settling in Salida, Colorado, where we bought and revived a half-block of blighted industrial property. Not exactly my dream farm, but it afforded space to replant a swath of native mountain prairie, cultivate an enormous organic kitchen garden (my friends called it my mini-farm), and restore a block of urban creek, reviving its green ribbon of native shrubs and trees and returning its healthy sinuosity, thus applying my granddad’s lessons in fluvial hydrology.
And now, 60 years later, here I am spending spring and part of the summer on the Guy’s small grass-hay farm. My forgotten farm-girl is thriving, happily learning the irrigation system and managing water, digging out and controlling invasive weeds, censusing frogs in the pond, planning pollinator and songbird plantings in the woodlot, and even mucking the dry lot. (Four thousand-pound horses times a bale of hay each day equals more horse manure than you would think!)
“Why do you care about this place?” the Guy asked one night a few weeks ago as we were walking back across the hayfields in the evening after moving a whole slew of irrigation pipe. He was tired, and feeling a bit cranky. I considered as we walked through fragrant grasses, listening to the “pee-nt!” calls of invisible nighthawks as swallows fluttered overhead. I watched the sunset fade over the distant line of Grand Mesa.
“First,” I said, picking my words, “I admire what you’ve done with the place. You took a chunk of played-out land with tumbledown buildings, and turned it into a healthy farm, with a lovely and well-built house and barns, productive hayfields, and habitat for songbirds and other wildlife.” He nodded and I went on, trying and failing to keep the emotion out of my voice, “Second, the place speaks powerfully about who you are, someone who not only nurtures the fields, but who also tends the rest of the community, human and wild. I love that about you. I want to help.”
He switched on his headlamp and was silent as we walked in the cone of its the light. Finally he said, “Thank you for showing me how you see it.”
There is more I want to say, but he’s not ready to hear it. He’s cautious, slow to trust. So I’m being as patient as I can be. Someday, I’ll add this: “I love the place because it’s yours. I want to belong here, with you–for as long as we have.”
For now, I’m content to irrigate, work with weeds, and plan native plantings to expand the existing wildlife habitat. The orioles are chattering in the towering elms, the catbirds foraging in the garden, and the robins are singing. He and the herd have gone to Wyoming to work, and he trusts me to tend the farm while he’s away.
One of the ways I’m staying sane through the coronavirus pandemic is focusing on house renovation, chipping away at my punch list of what needs to be done to make Casa Alegria sustainable and ready for its next three decades of life.
Perhaps engaging in renovation seems frivolous in these times, but it’s part of my calling to heal my community, wild and human. That includes tending land, buildings, and those species with whom I share this Earth. Right now, it especially means putting money back into the human community by buying my supplies locally, supporting local businesses, and employing local tradespeople. It’s my way of giving back in a time when so many are struggling.
House renovation isn’t something I was born to. I didn’t grow up using tools or understanding how buildings work. My interest born of necessity. When Richard, my late husband, died of brain cancer in 2011, I was left with a staggering amount of medical debt. Most of our assets were tied up in a beautiful but unfinished house that he had built and the adjacent historic studio he had partly fixed up. I needed to sell the whole place and I couldn’t afford to hire out the finish work. So with the help of generous friends, I learned how to use tools, materials, and design; and to hang doors, install baseboard, fabricate counters, put up drywall and other wall coverings, shape copper and sandstone, and mill trim. It was grueling but empowering work.
By the time that property sold and I paid my debts, I was deep into my next project, overseeing construction of my first-ever solo abode, a small passive-solar house plus a garage topped with a guest apartment. I loved that little house, and had a hand in every last detail, from the re-purposed gym flooring in the apartment to the hand-carved bathroom sink in the main house.
Then Wyoming called me home to be nearer to my aging dad, and my brother and family. I found what I thought would be my forever home, a gorgeous and incredibly dilapidated mid-century modern house built the year I was born. I spent two years renovating it from the scary boiler in the basement and the eccentric wiring, to the non-functioning bathrooms and the roof, with the help of my hard-working and easy-going contractor, Jeff. I redid the yard too.
As I was finishing that project, Dad, who we all thought would live at least another decade, died of an aggressive cancer. I considered my options, put the house up for sale, and decamped to the warmer climate of Santa Fe, where I already had a circle of friends, plus a little rental condo. I bought another condo in the same complex, and dove into another renovation project: replacing the carpet with plank floors, re-doing the galley kitchen, and painting the all-white walls lively colors. After I moved in, I also replaced the dying furnace and the old, leaky windows and sliding glass doors, and added a French door from the second bedroom to the patio. While I was at it, I renovated the rental condo too. (I may be certifiable, but I really enjoy bringing new life to neglected living spaces.)
Last fall, I realized that I am not a condo person. I need more space and fewer people nearby. So I found Casa Alegria, sold both condos, and moved. When I broke the news to my brother, he said, “If you move again, or buy another place to renovate, we’re going to stage a family intervention.” He was kidding. I think.
I reassured him that my new house only needed “a little work,” and I wasn’t planning on moving. The latter is true, and the former is subject to interpretation. My definition of “a little work” may be generous.
Here’s what I’ve had done since moving in November: removing all of the insulation in the attic over the garage and laundry room in order to evict the resident rodents and their leavings, blowing in new insulation, installing gutters, plus installing a new garage door that actually seals (to keep out said rodents). Then came replacing the old, marginally functional pellet stove replace with a new, efficient woodstove. During all that, Carlos, my wonderful handyman, replaced all of the clunky light fixtures with more graceful ones that use energy-saving LED bulbs, and also painted some of the walls to offset the pervasive whiteness.
The next big renovation project was replacing most of the open-able windows in the house, and a few exterior doors too. The old ones were leaky metal, the new ones are tight, and the same style with divided lights, but they are wood on the inside, and power-coated steel on the outside.
We were in the middle of the permit process for the next project, a roof-mounted photovoltaic system, when the coronavirus pandemic shut down New Mexico. After a few weeks, the crew came out with masks and gloves and installed my system. Last week, Public Service of New Mexico connected it to the grid, so my electric meter now runs backwards! (Those solar panels produce about twice as much power as we use.)
What’s next? A little yard work, some mechanical work (adding super-efficient heating and cooling units to replace the old and very inefficient electric baseboard heat), and down the line, replacing the leaky windows in the sunroom with more efficient ones. But for now, I’m going to head for my guy’s farm. His gardens need renovation, and I know just the person to take on that project.
Stay safe and well. Blessings from me to you and yours!
I’ve been a widow for eight-and-a-half years. I midwifed the deaths of my husband and my mom in the same year, so I have experience living with loneliness and grief. But I can say honestly that I’ve never experienced the kind of lows of the past week. I felt the darkness coming beforehand—I’m intuitive and often, I get some sense of what’s coming my way. Sometimes I can use that wordless warning to prepare myself. Sometimes not. This time, I wasn’t successful.
After The Guy, his dog, and the horses pulled out a week ago, headed north, I found myself in tears all the time. Normally, I’m resilient and able to maintain a positive attitude. Not last week. Reading the news, responding to emails and texts from friends and family, learning of people I knew infected with COVID-19, an elderly friend dead from the virus—everything set me off.
It’s not that I was alone. I’m an introvert, so solo time is actually soothing for me. As I wrote in my forthcoming memoir, Bless the Birds: Living With Love in a Time of Dying:
As an introvert living in a body studded with what feels like hundreds of tiny antennae, I am easily overwhelmed by the stimuli of my fellow humans: our voices and words, the noise of our devices, our volatile emotions, and the electricity of our metabolic energy.
No, what had me in tears was simply the overload. I feel the world so strongly: emotions and other sensory information come to me as physical sensations. My body feels battered. That way of sensing the world is very much a gift, leading to rich understanding of humans and our ways, sometimes difficult premonitions, and other kinds of learning.
But it comes at a heavy cost. If the emotional and sensory stimuli build up within me, they’re literally toxic, causing what might be diagnosed as anxiety, but what I experience as acceleration of my heart-rate, erratic nervous system and electrical pulses, and general disruptions to my inner stability. Those symptoms overload my immune system, causing the potentially deadly organ impairment of my Lupus and other autoimmune conditions.
Trying to listen and be empathetic without allowing each day’s swirling whirlwind of stimuli to become toxic has always been a challenge. It’s even more so now–not just for me, for all of us.
Normally, I manage by writing, spending a lot time by myself or in the company of a very few others, and being physically active outside: walking, hiking, digging invasive weeds, renovating houses, or riding. And also—and this last is critical—by touch. I am a “touchy-feely” person: I hug others; I hold hands, kiss cheeks.
I depend on the balm of that physical contact. When I am frazzled and struggling to keep my emotional and mental balance, the warmth of another’s hand, the press of a dog’s muzzle on my leg, or the soothing rhythm of a horse’s muscles invariably help me settle. Touch with other mammals is grounding. I can feel my systems stabilizing and harmonizing with theirs.
We talk about “gentling” horses or dogs—and even people—with touch. Research supports the soothing and calming effect of physical touch on our emotions, our metabolisms, and our overall health, body, mind, and spirit.
Before The Guy, his dog, and the horses came into my life last fall, I met my need for that sort of “therapeutic touch” by interacting with my close circle of friends, my family, and their four-legged companions. Plus regular massages and monthly sessions from my Doctor of Oriental Medicine, Ehrland Truitt, who can feel how my body’s systems are working simply by “listening” with his intuitive and sensitive touch.
Now, in this era of adhering to social-distancing and shelter-in-place as critical ways to control the spread of Coronavirus, I am truly alone. I cannot hug my friends, or even shake hands with the tire guys who dealt with my flat tire yesterday. I have no dog to snuggle with when I’m blue. I am profoundly alone, and after only one week, starved for physical touch. I’ve struggled to maintain my emotional and mental balance.
I realize that I am fortunate to be healthy (in my own slightly impaired way!) and not isolated or dying in a hospital or nursing home, and to have a safe and comfortable place to live. I am grateful for the daily contact-at-a-distance with friends, family, and The Guy. I’m grateful, too, for all of those who are working every day to make sure the rest of us are safe, meeting our essential needs for food and other services, and heroically tending to the sick and dying.
I will survive this time of profound loneliness, this cell-deep grief about what is happening with us humans and this Earth, the blue planet we call home. And I can’t wait until I can hug someone in gratitude for the gift of simply being here, now.
When I first read the CDC guidelines about who is at highest risk for severe illness with Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19), I admit to feeling both scared and pissed off. In fact, I am pretty sure I uttered a short and pithy phrase I won’t repeat on this blog. (Suffice to say that it contained several four-letter words, and none of them were “love.”)
I’m one of those most at risk for serious complications from COVID-19: I’m over 60 (that factor has now been raised to over 65, but I’m so close it makes no difference). I live with the chronic illness Lupus plus a small alphabet-soup array of other autoimmune conditions. I have lung issues from back when I was seriously ill in my 20s. I also have some heart-muscle damage and an arrhythmia that causes my heart to occasionally decide to do some jazzy improvising like, “Bada-bada-bada-bada-Bing Boom! Boom! Boom!”. And I have a “compromised” immune system. (I prefer to say my immune system is “sensitive,” but that’s probably splitting hairs.)
I’ve lived well for decades with my own particular and challenging health, and truly, as I wrote in my memoir, Walking Nature Home, I’ve learned thrive. I’m generally healthy: I don’t get sick often; I’ve never been hospitalized; I don’t take any medications. I walk or hike or ride at least five miles a day; I eat well; and I’m strong enough to heave a full bucket of wet horse manure into the dumpster, and to generally be stubborn about doing things myself that I might be wise to let others do for me (which sometimes annoys The Guy!).
Still… the CDC is right: I am at higher risk of serious illness from COVID-19. So I am following the guidelines: I wash my hands so often they are cracked and soak up lots of lotion, I practice social distancing and avoid crowded places; I am sheltering in place and staying home except for essential trips to town (for groceries) or to nearby open-space preserves (for Vitamin N, time in nature, which is as important to me as food). I keep my surroundings clean. And now that The Guy and his dog, and the horse-herd have all headed back to their spring home, I live alone.
I won’t let the COVID-19 pandemic degrade the quality of my days. I refuse to succumb to fear, or turn my back on the world. I read the news, but I don’t obsess. I’m not hoarding toilet paper or anything else. (If I was going to hoard, it would be chocolate, green chile sauce, and Stranahan’s whiskey!) Despite my concerns about the virus and finances and what will happen with book publishing and whether my friends and family will all weather this–my brother has asthma, one niece was exposed and fortunately tested negative… Despite all that, I refuse to panic.
I don’t mean to minimize the seriousness of this. People are dying; scores upon scores are ill. Heroic first-responders, medical providers, and other healthcare and spiritual-care folks are stepping up and into the metaphorical line of fire every day. Grocery store cashiers and stockers, delivery folks, and all manner of others are going about their work so the rest of us can shelter safely in place. I am heart-broken about the deaths and illnesses, the displacement of lives and jobs and education for so many. And I am grateful for all of those who are working and volunteering, who are living in the Light of courage and compassion and simple kindness.
We can all do that, especially the simple kindness part. We can smile, say hello (from a proper distance or virtually); we can check on each other and really listen through the fear and anxiety and outright paranoia. We can support local businesses, sew masks, donate supplies; we can offer to help those who are stuck being homebound. We can go about our days with generosity and goodness no matter what.
Because we need to live in the Light as much as we can. Panic and hoarding will not help; acting as a community and helping each other will.
This great nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself–nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.
The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.
And the only way to work through that fear is to unfreeze ourselves from our collective panic and reach for each other’s hands (keeping our proscribed social distance!) and offer support. Listen, sympathize, offer help, sew masks, wash our hands, don’t go out if we’re sick, smile, get outside, buy groceries or books or whatever is needed, shovel a driveway, walk a dog…
And say “thank you.” Thank you for your service, for being my neighbor, for delivering my mail, for stocking the shelves and staffing the clinics. Thank you for comforting my friend, testing my niece, transporting sick people to the hospital, for burying the dead…
Remember too, to nurture yourself. Do what soothes you, eat good food, get enough sleep, look for beauty and moments of joy. Notice and take heart from the coming of spring: the birdsong, flowers blooming, the first bees and butterflies; life continuing despite all.
Thank you all for being who you are, and for whatever you do to live in the Light in these frightening times. Blessings from me to each of you…
That’s the new subtitle of my forthcoming memoir, Bless the Birds*, a phrase that came to me this winter when I realized, as I write in the Preface, “The personal is the political.” Meaning my story of living with heart open through times more difficult than I had ever imagined is directly applicable to all of us now, as we do our best to live with hope rather than despair through what seems the death of civility, the death of our planet, and the death of our democracy. Not to mention the threat of a Coronavirus pandemic.
How do we avoid being paralyzed by grief and fear in these times?
It’s not easy, but it is possible:
This story is about living in a time of dying. It is both prayer and love song, an invitation to walk in the light of what we love, especially when times are hard or heartbreaking. To open our hearts and go forward with as much grace as we can through life’s changes. To honor our cell-deep connection to all of the other lives with whom we share this planet. To celebrate the miracle of simply being, our capacity for love that is both gift and salvation.
How can we rise above and be our best?
Walk in light of what we love, rather than what we fear. That means reminding ourselves—often—what it is that we love. We we care about, what we appreciate and can celebrate about ourselves and our lives, and about life on this amazing animate planet.
As is opening our hearts and living our days with as much grace as is possible. Consciously looking for the beauty inherent in each day, whether that is a flower blooming inside in winter, a coyote glimpsed trotting through a grassland, a fragment of bird song, a painting, piece of music, or dance; an unexpected smile or the touch of a warm hand…
And staying connected to our community, near and far. Not just the people who are most like us and easiest to love, but all of humanity, and all of the species who together make Earth the green and living exception to the vast silence of space.
You’ll notice the repetition of the word love, the quality which I think is the greatest gift our species has to offer Life. Not just romantic love or intense physical desire, the genuine attachment we humans feel for each other, for other species, and for this living world as a whole.
How can we thrive, despite the convulsive changes happening to the world we love?
I offer this personal story as an example of something positive we can do: live with love, and “lean in” to nature, the community that birthed our species. I see love as humans’ greatest gift to this Earth, and one we need to cultivate—especially now. I bless the birds because the sudden and profoundly unnerving appearance of Richard’s avian hallucinations afforded us time to learn how to walk his journey to its end with love. To be reminded of the kindness and generosity intrinsic in our fellow humans. To take heart and sustenance from the miracle of life on this glorious planet, challenges and all. To live fully in a time when life seems especially hard and heart-breaking.
When we find ourselves curling inward in grief and fear, we need to remember our species’ best gift: love.
Living in light of what we love can carry us through. That takes practice, conscious cultivation of being present with compassion and an open heart. Simply being here, hearts open to the flow of life.
Blessings to you all!
*Bless the Birds: Living With Love in a Time of Dying, is due out from She Writes Press in a little over a year, April of 2021. It’s been a long journey, and I am excited to have this, my 13th book, on a path to publication at last.
With the world seeming to be heading into chaos once again, I find myself searching for anything positive or cheering. Any good news, any happy ending, any ray of light in what feels like gathering darkness. I’m offering this love story in that vein, as a sign that goodness still exists, and miracles still happen. I’m not going to identify the lovers out of respect for one’s desire for privacy. You’ll probably guess the identity of the other; that’s okay.
Once upon a time, a writer quite reluctantly left her cozy home in the Southwest to travel north to Wyoming and teach at a retreat center. She grumbled as she drove, not because going to Wyoming wasn’t a joy, but because she was close to finishing a book project, and she didn’t want to leave the writing just then. But she had promised to lead a seminar for another friend who had to bow out, so our writer honored that commitment, if grumpily.
At sunset on her first day on the road, as she crossed the state line into Wyoming, the writer’s mood lifted. Looking at the wild valley around her, she realized that she needed to throw open the walls she had carefully built since her husband had died nearly eight years before. In particular, she needed to find a place to live with more open landscapes around her, and fewer people nearby, unlike the condo where she had lived for the past year.
When she curled up in her sleeping bag in her car that night, our writer surfed a real estate site on the internet, checking what was for sale in the area she was thinking of. Within minutes, she saw a house that looked just perfect for her–clearly in need of some love, but she wasn’t bothered by that. The asking price was over her budget, but she noticed the house had been on the market for months, so she figured she might be able to get it for less. Before she drifted off to sleep, she sent an email to her friend, a real estate agent, asking her opinion of the house and suggesting an appointment to view it when writer returned home the next month.
The next morning, our writer was feeling buoyant. As she drove through southern Wyoming’s sagebrush country with its long views and immense blue skies, she said out loud to the universe, “If I’m buying a house, it’s time to bring a dog back into my life. I’ll take the next one that comes along.”
She hadn’t had a dog since her Great Dane had died in 2007. Just over a year after the big grief of losing that beloved Big Dog came the brain cancer and caregiving years that had eventually set the writer on a solo path in life. For years after midwifing both her mother and her husband through their deaths she was simply too drained to be able to commit to any relationship, even the easy companionship of a dog.
“It’s finally time,” she said to herself as she drove toward distant mountain ranges, counting grazing pronghorn antelope and soaring golden eagles. And she felt good.
Late that afternoon she parked at the ranch where she was teaching. When she got out of her car and stretched her stiff back, a distinguished older dog, his red muzzle gone white, ambled across the dusty lot, sniffed her ankles, and presented himself for attention. She scratched his back at the base of his wagging stub tail, and then moved on to rub his ears. He groaned, sat on her feet, and looked up at her with big brown eyes.
“You’re a sweetie!” our writer said to the dog. “But you belong to someone already. You’re not mine.” He lifted his lips in a doggy grin, wagged his stub-tail harder, and ambled off.
A few hours later in the dining hall, the writer was chatting with some of the participants in her seminar when the dog’s person walked up and introduced himself: “I’m [we’ll call him “the guy”] and we almost met 30 years ago.” She turned to answer, and her heart stopped. The man wore his wildly curling dark-turned-silver hair in a stubby pony tail, his nicely muscled body in a plaid shirt and jeans. He tilted his head to look at her through the close-up lenses in his bifocals when she spoke, his brown eyes magnified and his body attentive, as if he was listening with his very cells. Plop! Her heart fell right at the toes of his dusty cowboy boots. She doesn’t remember now what she said, but she remembers the distinctive mixture of terror, annoyance–this is not my life plan!–and excitement she felt.
She went to sleep in her cozy cabin that night arguing with herself. She was quite happy with her solo existence, had no interest in a relationship, and had her life arranged comfortably, thank you very much. As she said the last out loud, our writer was quite sure she could hear the universe laughing.
The week went by, the writer spent her days writing, hiking, paddle-boarding, and riding the ranch’s horses. (The guy was involved with the horse program, which she told herself firmly had nothing to do with her choosing to ride–she simply missed the long-ago days when she had ridden often, both for her botany fieldwork and for pleasure on her own horses.) In the evenings, she taught her seminars, with the guy and his gentlemanly dog perched on a couch front and center in the room.
By the end of the week, our writer and the guy had managed to sit together at a few meals, but since they were both working, time for conversation was almost non-existent. Still, she had learned their lives had nearly intersected many times over the decades, they shared many mutual friends in the writing world, and many interests. He had a varied and intriguing background, including science fieldwork, publishing, horse-tending, and a new interest in the spiritual side of palliative care and hospice. Their conversations showed her that the guy was a wide reader and a deep thinker, with an interest in reconnecting humans with the wild, which they both thought was the source of sacredness and spirituality. He was just four months older than she was, with deep roots in the landscapes she called home too.
When they parted at the end of the week, she learned that he hugged as thoroughly as he listened. She drove off to spend several weeks working in a nearby national park, torn between excitement and terror. He spent the next month hunting in the high country of Colorado. They talked on the phone when they could, their long conversations ranging from what “home” meant to methods of dealing with invasive weeds, and from favorite musicians to what they had learned from other loves in their lives, to the age-old question of whether red chile is better than green chile. (That last is the only thing they disagreed on.)
That fall, the guy came to visit for a weekend so they could hear a writer they both knew read from her new book. They hiked, cooked, took walks, and talked. A lot.
Two nights stretched to four, and when the guy left, our writer surprised herself and him by saying, “I love you.” The words were a gift, she explained; he wasn’t required to respond at all. She just wanted him to know he was loved, whether or not he felt the same. He nodded. After he called her that night to say he had made it home safely, he called back. “I forgot to say something,” he said. “What?” “I love you.” Tears formed in her eyes. “It’s been hard for me to say my whole life,” he added. “But I’ll try to remember to say it every day.” She swiped at drops running down her cheeks. “Thank you,” she said. “I love you too.”
The writer and the guy are figuring out how to interweave their respective lives and to use this gift of unexpected love for good in the world. If we only listen to the news, these difficult times seem so short of goodness and love. But those qualities are all around us, and we all spread them every day. The truth is: love–not necessarily romantic love, but the genuine attachment we feel for each other, for other species, and for this living world as a whole–is what sustains us in and through hard times. Hence this story, which I offer as a ray of light and a reminder that love lives, thrives, and even surprises us even in or perhaps specially in, hard times.
Sometimes when she is falling asleep at night, snuggled close to the guy and the dog, our writer thinks she hears the universe laughing softly. And she reminds herself to be grateful for the miracle of love returning to her life. Also to be very specific in future when she asks the universe for anything. She only asked for a dog. She got the dog all right–plus his guy, and the guy’s horses. She wants to you know that while she is still surprised, even a bit stunned by the suddenness of the change in her carefully ordered life, she is not complaining. At all.
Gratitude is good for us. Brain research shows that simply being grateful releases neurotransmitters that act like dopamine in our brains, making us feel good, and boosting our overall health.
New findings show that practicing gratitude actually rewires our brains to be more altruistic, activating areas of the brain that reward our generosity by increasing the neurotransmitters that signal pleasure and also goal attainment. In other words, the more we find ways to be grateful, the more generous we are and the more we give others a reason to be grateful. That feedback loop gives us more happiness and satisfaction.
The hook is that we can’t just be grateful over one meal, one day a year. We have to make it a habit to remember specific things we are grateful for on a regular basis. And consciously act in generous ways, too.
Those who have read this blog for a while know that Thanksgiving marks a difficult time of year for me because my husband, Richard Cabe, died of brain cancer a few days after Thanksgiving in 2011, when he was just 61. His death followed that of my mom, who died in February of that year. I midwifed both deaths at home, as each wished, with the help of family, friends, and hospice care.
It’s been eight years. Still, I tend to fold inward in late November, not so much from grief, but from anticipatory anxiety. Those two deaths catapulted me into a few very difficult years as I dug myself out of what seemed like an impossible amount of debt, and invented a life that was happy, sustainable, and satisfying.
As an antidote to the trauma of those events and the blues that stem from my muscle memories, I consciously practice gratitude and generosity at this time of year (not only now–I’m just more aware of it at this season). Here’s what I’m most grateful for right now, in no particular order:
My new house, which I call Casa Alegría, “House of Joy” in Spanish. It’s been through foreclosure and needs some serious love, but it’s such a beautiful space with great light and open spaces inside and out, plus it feels sheltered in its little hollow. It offers both refuge and expansive views, a nest that gives me a wider perspective on the world, both literally and figuratively.
I’ve just gotten started on the work Casa Alegría needs to feel like a healthy home, beginning with painting a few of the all-white walls in shades of sage green, pale terracotta, dawn yellow, and a soft sky blue. And replacing aged light fixtures with new, energy-efficient ones. The more substantive work will begin this winter, when the uninsulated garage door that no longer shuts completely is replaced with a new, insulated one. (That door not sealing explains the money I spent sterilizing the mouse-infected attic above the garage.) Then I’ll have insulation blown into the attic, which has none after I disposed of the old mouse-pee-crusted fiberglass batts. Plus gutters added to the front portal and the north- and east-facing roofs.
Then comes replacing all of the openable windows and a few of the exterior doors with more efficient ones that will actually seal as well as letting in more light. Followed by stabilizing an exterior post or two, a tricky process that involves putting jacks under overhanging roofs and carefully removing a post, digging a foundation and pouring a concrete base, and then replacing the post using plates and bolts instead of simply nails.
All of which sounds like a lot of work, but is nothing compared to the two years of starting in the basement and working my way upwards re-building the Cody house!
Another thing I’m particularly grateful for is the company of a charming canine caballero (gentleman), Badger, the 11-year-old Vizsla in the photo above. Badger has been visiting for the last two weeks while his guy was away on a road trip. In his own polite way, Badger insists on two long walks a day–we usually do three miles or more–on the roads and trails around the house. He also insists on playtime when I’ve worked too long, usually by sitting up on the couch and howling until I come downstairs from the loft!
Badger and his person, DeWitt, wandered into my life when I was teaching at Ring Lake Ranch in September. That deepening friendship is another thing I’m grateful for. DeWitt generously spent a week here helping me move. He insisted on playtime too, so we spent a night relaxing at the hot springs at Ojo Caliente, and then played hooky for a whole afternoon exploring part of the old Camino Real with DeWitt’s sister, Lori, and her friend Allison, and their horses. It’s been so long since I had horses in my life that I had entirely forgotten the joy of simply riding a trail for a few hours without any agenda or schedule.
And that’s another thing I’m grateful for: I’m relearning joy and play. I have been pushing myself so hard for so long that I have neglected the practice of stepping back from relentless do-ing into a more loving and trusting be-ing. It’s time for me to re-learn be-ing and letting my heart guide me.
I’m also grateful for all of you, and the love and compassion you offer the world.