Road-Trip Realizations: Life as a Pilgrimage

As Red's tires hummed a steady road-song on the long drive home yesterday afternoon, I found myself thinking about life as a pilgrimage, a journey undertaken for inspiration or enrichment. As a deliberate spiritual practice. 

I am not particularly inclined toward organized religion, but I am deeply spiritual, and my daily life reflects that. Beginning with my 30-minute morning yoga routine, which is designed partly to relieve the muscle and joint stiffness and pain that settle in when I sleep, "gifts" of my autoimmune disease. And partly to reconnect my restless mind with my body, with the rhythm of heart and lung, the moving dialog of muscle and synapse, tendon and bone.

And perhaps most importantly to reconnect this complex organism I call "me" with the earth and the moment-by-moment passing of life itself.

Yoga is part of my meditation, my practice of inner and outer awareness. I follow it with a short spoken prayer of gratitude for this landscape and my patch of it, and intentions for the day and my part in the dance of life. 

That deliberate ritual of yoga and prayer is one of the daily spiritual habits I practice to remind myself to pay attention and cultivate awareness of the moments that make up my hours and days, so that life doesn't whiz by without me fully participating in it. To notice and cultivate compassion for the lives around me, microscopic to gargantuan, in all forms. And to practice joy and gratitude for the gift of this earth and the community of life that animates our planet, as well as the gift of taking part in that community. 

A pair of mergansers, diving ducks who eat fish, I saw on my run along the Arkansas River today. 

Those daily rituals are my attempt to find the spiritual in the every day, see the miracles imbued in the ordinary, to not take this existence for granted. Of course I'm not always successful.

We all have times when we zone out or get busy or simply to forget to stop and pay attention to ourselves and our part in the wondrous stream of life. And the days rush on whether we're aware or not, whether we care or not.  

Why bother? Why put the effort into living life with mindful gratitude?

Because life is a gift, not a given. There is no warranty on our term of years. After losing Richard and my mother in the same year, I am keenly aware of the truth of the saying that only moment we know we have is now.   

I want to live this unasked-for solo life fully. To not let any of it–no matter how joyous or painful, tedious or thrilling, hard or harsh or gloriously abundant–pass by unnoticed or unappreciated. 

This is the life I have. I am determined to live it with my heart outstretched as if it were my hand, engaging in the pilgrimage of experience for however many hours, days, months, and years I am given. Until the rush slows, and I cycle on to whatever is next. 

For now, I am here, and grateful for that gift. 

A rodent skull I found in my garden this morning.

59: A Certain Age

Since sometime last fall, I’ve been struggling to not succumb to a kind of low-level, background malaise that is uncharacteristic for me. I’m usually sunny, or at least resilient and optimistic.

But lately, I find myself close to tears at odd moments, or wrestling with a formless anxiety that seems to come from nowhere. I worry more. I feel insecure about my future. Where I have always been firmly decisive, now I second-guess decisions even after I've made them. Should I really have done that? Would it have been better to… 

Yet when people ask how I’m doing, I say “Fine.” I’m not. I just don’t know how to explain what’s wrong. 

Life’s not always sunny. It’s natural to worry, to feel anxious and out-of-balance at times. But I’m sick of this. I want the old me back. And I can’t seem to will that to happen. 


Yesterday, as I was walking along Cherry Creek, headed back to my hotel after helping host a workshop at Denver Botanic Gardens, I suddenly realized what’s wrong.

It’s not me. It’s my age: I’m 59, the same age Richard was when he saw those legions of birds on a hot August morning in 2009. The bird hallucinations that were the only major symptom of something drastically wrong in his brain, the tumor that would eventually kill him.

Richard shoots an "us" selfie, 2009

His 59th year was the beginning of the end of us, though we didn’t understand (or allow ourselves to admit) that reality for a long while. 

So it’s no wonder that beneath the surface of my conscious mind, my subconscious is watchful, looping in a whirl of unease and anxiety. Waiting for the other shoe to drop. Waiting for some unimaginably horrible thing to carve another hole in my heart. 

The January when Richard was 59, we had our first hint of the parting to come when he stayed in Colorado for his “radiation residency” while I led a writing workshop on Isla Espíritu Santo off Baja in subtropical Mexico. 

I had planned the workshop a year before as a decades-belated honeymoon that would allow us to explore one of our dream destinations, that wild desert island surrounded by the azure blue waters of the Gulf of California. 

And then came the bird hallucinations, the cancerous tumor, and the radiation treatment that couldn’t be delayed. I wanted to cancel the workshop; Richard was adamant that I needed to go. (When he made up his mind, nothing could move that man!)

So I left him in Aurora with Molly the day after Christmas. Going to Mexico without my love was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. We had always traveled hand in hand.


HIking the shore near camp, Isla Espíritu Santo, Baja California. (Photo: Chris Bradley)

Until that week when he was undergoing radiation treatment in snowy Colorado and I was camped on a beach in balmy Mexico, kayaking with sea turtles, snorkeling with sea lions, seeing the place we had dreamed about—without him. It was a foretaste of a solo existence I never wished for.

The dread of what Richard’s 59th year brought to us has apparently been lurking in my subconscious ever since, awakened once I reached that same age. 

Now that I recognize the cause of my malaise, will it dissipate and lose its power? I don’t know. I do know why I am feeling so out of balance, so alert for the disaster my subconscious is sure is about to happen. 

It’s comforting to remember that magical time on Isla Espíritu Santo, being lulled to sleep by the shushing of the sea and waking to pelican bellies thwacking the water as they stunned fish to eat; a week of canyon wren trills echoing off rocky cliffs above our camp and Pedro, our guide, laughing as he showed us the secret waterfall, the sea lion colony, the petroglyphs in a cave. 

Clamming, "our" bay on Isla Espiritu Santo, Baja California

To remember how Richard’s smile beamed bright as the Baja sunshine when he and Molly spotted me in the crowd at the airport, his joy in hearing my stories of that wondrous place. 

Most of all, it is deeply reassuring to remember the strong and sweet love that flowed between us even as his life headed around that bend to whatever’s next. When I feel the warmth of that love and his smile, I know it is possible to live happily and well, despite the hole his leaving carved in my heart. 

Before… (Photo by Scott Calhoun)

Mindfulness: The Gift of “Away” Time Every Day

For the New Year, I gave myself the gift of ten days away on a personal writing retreat. I holed up in a comfy motel in a town far enough from home that I was out of reach, but not so far that getting there required a lot of time or money. 

It was great.

At the end of my solo retreat, I didn't want to go home. Or, to be more precise, I missed my sun-warmed, cozy house with its view of the peaks over the roofs of downtown. And the sound of the creek burbling under ice; my daily walks through nearby streets to do errands. My kitchen, my friends, and my bed. I even missed hearing the deer sneak past before dawn, hoofs clicking on ice.

I wanted to be at home, only with the same freedom, focus and lack of interruption I had while I was away. The same ability to ignore to-do lists and the ordinary details that require tending (laundry, paying bills, answering phone calls, going to the grocery store, responding to requests for my time, feeding the juncos…). 

With that sense that every day was a blank slate and I simply needed to dive into whatever called to me, without having to worry about deadlines and commitments. 

So I've decided to bring some of my "away time" home into my everyday routine. To open the metaphorical windows and doors wide, and let more creativity and flexibility in. To give myself more time for what I love. And to do what I need to do with more graciousness and appreciation. Washing the dishes or doing the laundry–even paying the bills can be restful and restorative, if I'm mindful and present as I do each task. 

Being mindful means stopping to smell the hyacinths blooming in a forcing vase next to a bunch of daffodils… 


To start, I'm reviving a simple word that has languished in the dark recesses of my everyday vocabulary: "No."

(The word is also no in Spanish, by the way. In the Gaelic of my Scots ancestors, it's usually expressed by changing the form of the verb to be negative, but there is an actual word for no: níl, pronounced like "kneel." In Norwegian, my other major language, it's com, pronounced just as you'd think, but with a hard 'c' at the beginning: "kum.")

My new resolve is not to say yes to any request. Instead, I'll give myself time to think by saying, "Let me get back to you tomorrow." And then once I've thought about it, my default answer will no longer be "yes." It'll be no or níl or com. No is an important tool in practicing a more realistic and sustainable pace for my work and life.

But doesn't "no" contradict my word of the year, "abundance"? 

In a word, No. (Sorry, I couldn't resist that.)

When I think of abundance, I think of it as plenty. As in plenty of time, plenty of energy, plenty of kindness and compassion, plenty of thoughtfulness and wisdom; plenty of verve and drive to do what I do best with my whole heart, mind, and spirit. 

If I say "yes" to everything, I feel harassed, exhausted, stretched too thin, cranky. None of which are conducive to living with abundance. 

So I'll practice saying "no" to those things that don't feed me. Those requests that aren't part of my core mission of healing this battered earth and our life-sustaining relationship with it. To those things that don't set my spirit to singing or at least shouting out loud. 

No. No. NílCom. Yes to opening new possibilities by not cluttering my time, sapping my energy and my mood, and by bringing more "away time" to my everyday life. Yes, said wholeheartedly when it feels right. 

Last night I said "no" to a social engagement and instead bundled up and walked down to the river after dinner and simply sat on a rock exhaling frosty breaths and watching the water go by, listening to its murmuring voice.

As I walked home, I identified the constellations, including my favorite, Orion, striding across the winter night sky with his dogs at his heels. And I slept well afterwards, soothed by that bit of away time, that practice in saying "yes" to my inner abundance. 

The Arkansas River flowing through Salida a few blocks from my house…

Solstice Eggnog: Slow Down, Pay Attention

This afternoon, I called my 87-year-old dad to check in, something I do every Sunday. While he told me about the morning's church service, which seems to have featured as much Christmas music as the two pastors could fit in, complete with choir, organ, classical accompaniment, soloists, and the whole shebang, I busied myself with starting my annual batch of Solstice eggnog.

While Dad described the service, and from there segued to the pastors, both new and both female (he approves–they each give a good sermon), I broke and separated 36 local eggs into two large bowls. When Dad went on to politics, I turned on my big Kitchenaid stand mixer and slowly beat 2-1/2 pounds of powdered sugar into the gorgeous orange yolks (chickens that get outside to eat bugs have the most beautiful yolks, not those pale ones like factory-farm eggs).

As I carefully began mixing the first of eight cups of dark rum into the yolk-sugar mixture, I realized I had lost the thread of Dad's conversation (he's smart, reads a lot and has a lot of time to think, so he can pretty much carry the conversationby himself). I tuned back in with just a touch of guilt and paid more attention for the rest of our talk. 

Later, as I whisked four quarts of heavy whipping cream, plus two quarts of half-n-half and a quart of skim milk into the yolk-sugar-rum mixture, I thought that I've been doing that a lot: Whizzing through my days, doing at least two things at once, and not paying my entire attention to any one. It's an old habit, that going full-tilt boogie until I drop, and one I thought I had unlearned. Or at least learned to be aware of. 

Apparently not. Since I didn't notice until after I had spent the better part of an hour on the phone with Dad without giving him my full attention. 

Huh. I guess I get points for noticing, even if belatedly.

And is it so bad to multi-task if I can do two (or three) things at once? I get more done that way. (That's the voice of my ego, who hates to admit I'm wrong.)

As I hefted the heavy bowl of rich and fragrant nog, all three gallons of it, into the fridge to mellow for the night, it hit me: Splitting your attention means missing part of life. Moments you'll never know again.

Dad is 87. Mom died nearly five years ago in 2011, the same year that Richard died. She was exactly two months shy of 80; Richard was just 61, vigorous intellectually and physically, engaged in abstract sculpture–until the cancerous tumor nuked his right brain. 

Did I really need a reminder to be present in this moment, right now, because what's next is a total crapshoot?


So tomorrow on Winter Solstice, the day when I begin my annual tradition of reviewing and considering my writing and life, and coming up with my intentions for the new year, I'm going to start (again) practicing slowing down and paying attention.

Being where I am and inhabiting this solo life. I never imagined I would be a widow at 59, navigating by myself. But this is the life I have, and it's better than the alternative. After helping two of the people I love most in the world die well, I know that much. 

For now, I'm going to finish making a huge batch of delicious homemade eggnog, pour it into dozens of small jars, and spend part of my day tomorrow delivering my annual gift of love to my friends. 

And enjoying the being on this earth. Alive. Present. Savoring my moments, however they come. 

Solstice blessings to you all!