2020: Remembering the good parts

Desert four-o-clock (Mirabilis multiflora) in full bloom.

As we come to the end of 2020, a year that has been tumultuous and difficult in ways we all know, my impulse is to kick the old year in the rear and unceremoniously slam the door behind it.  Instead, I want to remember the blessings that came my way, so that I can welcome 2021 with my heart open and my gratitude foremost.

Those blessings? What comes to mind first are the Guy and his dog and horses. I who was perfectly happy to live the rest of my life solo now have a loving partnership again with a man who shares my bond with these Rocky Mountain landscapes, with the literature that rises from them, and who also shares my need for time in the wild.

Me on Cookie, leading Silky into the wilderness on our pack trip.

For my birthday, he gifted me with four days in the remote Washakie Wilderness of northwest Wyoming, just southeast of Yellowstone, where I worked as a young field ecologist. It was pure heaven. Our long-distance relationship isn’t simple, but the rewards are beyond words. My heart is full, and my understanding of the world is enriched by his company, knowledge, and insights.

A lake in the Washakie wilderness where we stopped for lunch on our pack trip.

Another blessing has been time with friends and family, much of that virtual. But in these socially distanced COVID-19 times, the connection with the people I love and whose company nurtures me is so critical.

I treasure the in-person time so much more now that it’s rare. Visits like the walk I took yesterday (masked and socially distanced) with the memoirist Kati Standefer are what sustain me in these challenging days, mind, body, and spirit. (If you haven’t read her stunning debut memoir, Lightning Flowersdo. You’ll understand why Oprah picked it as one of the top 100  books for the year, and it was an Editor’s Choice book at the New York Times Book Review, plus landed Kati on NPR’s Fresh Air.)

A heart-shaped and face-sized chunk of native sandstone, sculpted by time and weathering, and transported by Galisteo Creek.

We trekked up a dry stream-bed near her house at the base of a red sandstone ridge, talking about life and writing and memoir, why we need solitude and the wild and what love is worth, anyway. We hung out with her chickens, and discovered a shared love for Stranahan’s whisky. I found the large heart rock in the stream-bed and lugged it back, knowing somehow it should come home with me.

I needed that high a few hours later when I learned that my friend and writing inspiration, Barry Lopez, had died the day before. It’s been that kind of high-slammed-by-lows year, and I am so fortunate to have a community who cheers me on. Thank you all.

Crossing the farm hayfields in early summer at sunset, after moving the irrigation water one last time.

Another blessing has been time on the land. I live in the rural West, outside Santa Fe in the winter, and in northwest Wyoming in the summer. In between, I spend time on the Guy’s farm, getting to know a whole new landscape in the broad swath of the sagebrush county I call home. Living where there are few people and lots of open space makes it easier to stay safe in COVID-times, and means I get abundant vitamin N, time in nature, to keep me healthy and reasonably sane amidst the tumult of the larger world.

Then there’s the gift of seeing my new memoir, Bless the Birds: Living with Love in a Time of Dying, come to life with a beautiful cover and an inviting page design. And the generosity of fellow authors writing advance praise for BtB. Best-selling novelist Jane Kirkpatrick wrote,

Bless the Birds is the book for our times. It’s a splendid blend of landscapes, relationships, creative work, and spirituality–finding meaning in life framed by an awareness of death. I have a dozen people I want to share this authentic, honest, hopeful memoir with. You will too. It’s a treasure. 

Bless the Birds, with a beautiful cover designed by Julie Metz of She Writes Press.

I am honored that this memoir, my thirteenth book, resonates with writers whose work I admire. (The book is due out in April, and if you are so moved you can pre-order it through Amazon, Bookshop–which supports independent bookstores–or your local bookstore.)

And in this year of so many endings, but also new beginnings, I am grateful for this beautiful new website, courtesy of my multi-talented and generous friends Tony and Maggie Niemann of Tracks Software. I’m not sure what I did to deserve Tony and Maggie, but I truly appreciate them!

One more gift of this difficult year: a new appreciation of simply being here. Alive, relatively healthy, and comfortable. I can take a walk in the near-wild every day. I can write, laugh, read, ride, cook, and love. I have faith that 2021 will bring positive changes. For all of these things, I am truly grateful.

May the new year bring us all chances to be kind, compassionate, and live with our hearts outstretched. Be well!

Sunset glow on Sierra Blanca in the Sacramento Mountains, on our Solstice camping trip.

Living with Love in a Time of Dying

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.

A coyote from my neighborhood pack hunting the open space below my house at sunset…

Life: Practice in Revision and Adaptation

Noche, my Toyota Highlander hybrid, parked in the driveway of my brother’s house in Washington state.

For some years now, I’ve had this dream of a little camper with solar panels on top and a cozy bed, kitchen, and space to write–a super-tiny house on wheels–that I could live in while I do my weeding work in Yellowstone and other wild places. Over the winter, I got as far as putting down a deposit on the compact RV I had chosen. And then, the very same day the sale of my Cody house closed, the RV manufacturer went bankrupt.

So I revised that dream, and settled instead on a sweet trailer made by Colorado Teardrops in Boulder, a  custom shop producing amazingly efficient, beautifully designed trailers, and working on becoming a zero-waste manufacturer. Their designs and values are very appealing.

Only I found that plugging trailer brakes into the hybrid regenerative braking system in Noche, my beloved Toyota Highlander Hybrid, isn’t allowed. (Meaning Toyota can’t guarantee that the system would work with trailer brakes; further, adding the seven-pin hitch and brake socket would void my warranty.)

So I revised the dream again and fitted my basic camping set-up right into Noche, giving me a “micro-camper” with a cozy bed, storage for my clothes, weeding tools, camp-stove, a lap-desk for writing, and even a camp toilet. It’s an amazingly comfortable set-up, if quite basic and compact. (And Noche averages 29-30 miles per gallon of gas, not bad for a vehicle I can sleep in–or transport seven friends or family members at a pinch.)

My micro-camper set-up in Noche. 

It’s also a lot cheaper than the custom camper I started out dreaming. Too, this set-up is better than my old camping space in Red, my pickup, because I’m inside Noche, not in a pickup bed. In bad weather or if something goes wrong, I just climb into Noche’s front seat and head on my way without having to get outside.

I still imagine that the perfect small camper van is out there for me, something energy-efficient, simple, comfy, and well-built–without costing an arm and six legs. Since I haven’t found it yet, I’m quite comfortable with the simpler and smaller, revised version of that dream. Just being able to hit the road is a blessing. I get a lot of thinking done during windshield time, and I get to experience the landscapes I love in all sorts of moods and seasons.

Heart Mountain, north of Cody, from Dead Indian Hill, where the grasslands were unbelievably green this spring.

Revision and adaptation seems to be a major theme in my life right now.

For instance, I spent this spring revising Bless the Birds for what I hope is the final time. It’s since been accepted for publication by SheWrites Press for their Spring, 2021 list. Which brings up an ending: Bless the Birds will go off my desk (finally!) and that opens up space for working on the next book, Weeding Yellowstone.

Another revision and adaptation: I intended to spend a good part of my summer in Yellowstone digging weeds. Then I flunked my annual blood tests, so those plans got revised. Instead, I spent a long weekend in Cody helping my friends Jay and Connie Moody at TAC, a spiritual retreat center, and also got to hang out with Judy, another dear friend, who is recovering from a massive stroke.

The labyrinth at TAC at sunset, with Carter Mountain and the Absaroka Range in the background. 

In other words, I’ve been nurturing friendships instead of ecosystems. That’s fine: tending both brings rewards. I’ll resume my work in Yellowstone when I’m healthier again.

Revising my Yellowstone plans also gave me time to drive to Washington state for a gathering of my family. Our branch of the Tweit clan isn’t big, but we do love getting together. We’ve been having such a good time hanging out, playing Yellowstone National Park Monopoly, taking walks with the dogs, and eating great meals, that I haven’t taken any any pictures at all.

Instead of thinking and planning photo opportunities, I’m enjoying the moments as they arise, reveling in being here and taking part in life, laughter, and love.

That’s a healthy adaptation, I know.

Happy Summer to all!

Calochortus macrocarpus, sagebrush mariposa lily, in the coulee country of eastern Washington

Memoir Revision: Starting Over With a New Perspective

Back in March, I started two new projects: my running practice, and a total rewrite of Bless the Birds, the memoir I've been working on sporadically for the last, well, six years. 

The running's going well. I've settled into a routine of running two mornings a week, and I'm up to 3.7 miles now. I'm not fast, but I am running regularly, and that's what counts. 

I love running for the righteous feeling when I've finished. And for the excuse to be outside in sagebrush country, the landscapes of my heart. It's a joy to see the occasional coyote (they are much faster than I am!), listen to sparrows call, watch swallows dip and swoop after insects, and see the sagebrush and bunchgrasses and wildflowers go through the cycle of the seasons. 

(The photo at the top of the post is from my running route last week, with an forest-fire-smoke orange dawn lighting Rattlesnake–on the right–and Spirit–on the left–mountains, and the Shoshone River flowing in its shallow canyon below me.)

In May, that same view was greener and dotted with spring wildflowers.

The memoir work is going well too, if much more slowly than I had hoped. Which isn't surprising, really, since I am starting over from the beginning, writing the story anew from a completely different narrative framework.

The original versions (all eight or so of them!) were much more chronological, and that meant it was too easy for me to get mired in the details of brain cancer and not focus on the point of the story. Which is living the end of your life with love. Heck, living your whole life with love, whatever comes. 

Bless the Birds is about being mindful in choosing how to live. Not just letting life roll you over, no matter how hard things become.

For Richard and me, that meant deliberately choosing to live with love and kindness and compassion and wonder and joy. Even as brain cancer took over our days.

Richard Cabe (1950-2011) on the way home from his monthly check-in with his oncologist; by then, he had survived two brain surgeries and a course of radiation, plus a course of chemo. 

Even as Richard's tumor- and surgery-impaired brain challenged his ability to do the things he had always done so easily. Even when we know he wouldn't survive. Especially then. 

This new version of the story begins with "then," when we knew he was terminal, knew he was headed for hospice care when we got home. It opens with the first night of The Big Trip, our belated honeymoon trip, a 4,000-mile drive to and down the Pacific Coast from Washington to southern California. A trip we took because we wanted to enjoy our time while we could. 

Those three weeks on the road were more of an adventure than we bargained for, and two months from the day we got home, he died. But the trip speaks for the way we lived the journey with his brain cancer: we lived.

Richard savoring a meal at Redfish Restaurant in Port Orford, Oregon. (Thank you Ann Vileisis and Tim Palmer, for the visit and the recommendation to eat at Redfish!)

We didn't waste our time regretting. Or not much time anyway. We did our best to savor as many of the moments as we could. Laughed, loved, fought, ate, drank, celebrated, and grieved. And walked hand-in-hand right up to the day he "woke up dead," as he liked to phrase what he imagined happening. 

This entirely new version of Bless the Birds is a story within a story, framed by the days of that Big Trip, with flashbacks to show who we were and how we got to that journey with Richard's right brain deteriorating to the point that he ws losing his vision and his balance; to the point that his bladder (as he put it) didn't always talk to his brain, and his ability read a map or dial a cellphone was gone. His sense of humor was intact, as was his ability to think and reason. He was as incisive and insightful as ever, even if he had to sleep a lot of the time. 

Writing the story this way reminds me of E.L. Doctorow's quote about writing fiction (from the Paris Review, "Writers at Work: Interviews"):

Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.

When I have time to work on the story, that's exactly how it feels: like driving at night in the fog. I'm in Chapter 11, not quite halfway through with the first draft of this new version, and I can't see very far ahead, but I trust I can make the whole trip groping along by the light of my intuition's headlights. I trust that the story will work.

It's slow, and it's painful to relive that time, but it feels right. And as with any good writing, I'm learning new things along the way about myself, about Richard, and about our journey together.

Here's how the new story begins:

Day One, Odometer Reading 182 miles:

Richard opened his eyes as I slowed the car for the turn to the gravel ranch road. I rolled down the windows, letting in the rich smell of new-mown hay along with a distinctive, throbbing call: “Khrrr, khrrrr, khrrr!” 

“Sandhill cranes!” A smile creased Richard’s tanned face. He reached for my hand as the cranes called again. “I’m a lucky guy.” 

Except for the terminal brain cancer, I thought. 

I swiped at tears with the hand that should have been holding the steering wheel, and then drove on toward the ranch headquarters, a cluster of white-painted buildings. I parked in our usual spot the shade of the spruce tree by the bunkhouse and turned to Richard. “I’m going to haul our stuff upstairs.” 

“I can help.” He pulled his six-foot length slowly out of the car, and then reached behind the seat for his briefcase. I grabbed our duffel, the box with his medications, my briefcase, and his pillow. We walked across the lawn and into the ranch house. As I turned to go up the stairs to the bedrooms, Richard stopped. “You go first,” he said. Uh oh.

“Richard can manage the stairs, can’t he?” Betsy, the facilities manager at Carpenter Ranch had asked when I called about our stay. I relayed the question.

“Of course.” His voice carried the confidence of 61 years of inhabiting a strong and appealingly male form. The voice of a man who could free-climb a cliff, sculpt a one-ton boulder, or juggle three balls while balancing on one leg. A man who once would have bounded up the narrow flight of steps at the ranch house, carrying our mound of gear because he could. 

This Richard froze at the bottom, his right leg lifted, unable to move upward. I stopped at the top of the stairs, arms loaded, watching with a stomach-churning mix of horror and fascination, compelled to witness the debilitating effects of the brain-tumor I could not stop. Finally, he took the steps slowly, one at a time like an old man, gripping the handrail.

I showed him the bathroom down the hall, and then he stretched out on the bed and fell asleep.

On I go, feeling my way. I guess that's pretty much how we live life. We can't really see ahead (although we think we can). We do our best with what we can discern, and trust that our best will take us to where we need to go, safely and without harm to anyone. And that the trip is worthwhile. 

Writing: The (Draft) Pitch

Normally, I reserve my weekends for work around the house, or for creek and landscape restoration projects. This weekend, writing called me instead.

(The photo above shows Ditch Creek, my restoration project, right below my house. The shrub with the scarlet stems in the foreground was a seedling when Richard and I planted it 18 years ago. Now it shades the creek, nurturing aquatic insects and providing food for songbirds.)

So I spent yesterday afternoon and much of today at my laptop, working on parts of the submission package for my memoir, Bless the Birds, which I hope will go out to prospective publishers next month. 

The hardest part of the package for me is the "pitch," the teaser that will–if I get it right–hook an editor so that they are eager to read the manuscript. A pitch isn't a summary, but it does need to give a sense of the writing and the story. It also needs to explain why the book matters. 

Did I mention it should be short? Several paragraphs is best, certainly less than a page. (Not Faulknerian paragraphs either!)

What works for me is to step back–way back–and focus on the essentials about the book: why it matters and what makes it unique. Those two form the heart of the elevator speech, the one or two sentences you would use to explain the project to an editor you happened to meet in an elevator, in the moment it takes to go between floors. 

Here's my elevator speech, which you'll notice draws on the second sentence of the pitch and the last:

My memoir, Bless the Birds, illuminates a conversation that hasn’t been given sufficient national attention—how we die is part of how we live. At heart, Bless the Birds is a love story, an intimate, sometimes funny and unflinching tale of the choice to love life—every moment, no matter how painful—through the end.

Here's the draft pitch itself. Let me know what you think!

For a memoir to be successful in today's competitive environment, it needs to either contribute to an existing national conversation or initiate a new conversation. I believe Bless the Birds illuminates a conversation that hasn’t been given sufficient national attention—how we die is part of how we live. That conversation applies at the personal level—we will all lose someone close to us, and we will all wrestle with how we choose to live out the end of our own lives. It applies to our culture and customs, and even to our national economy and the enormous cost in time and dollars of end-of-life care. 

We shy away from even talking about death, using various euphemisms: We "pass away," "meet our end," "lose our life," or even "cross the great divide." We spend a great deal of energy and billions of dollars denying that it will happen to us—but we’re all going there. Death and dying is the next big issue for nearly 40 percent of our nation’s population, the 76 million Americans who are Baby Boomers. Will they be the generation that reshapes how we die as they have reshaped how we work, love and live? I hope so, because all of us certainly need practice learning to accept and integrate what the poet Rainer Maria Rilke called “life’s other half.”

In late summer of 2009, my husband Richard, an economics professor just finding success in a second career as an abstract sculptor, woke one Sunday morning and saw thousands of birds. Birds lining every barbwire fence, birds perched cheek-to-wing on powerlines; tiny birds on each blade of grass, huge birds on the rim of distant mesas. Birds that existed only in his brilliant mind. Those bird hallucinations lasted just 24 hours and were the only significant sign of something growing in his brain. That “something,” we eventually learned, was a glioblastoma, the most deadly form of brain cancer. 

Bless the Birds follows our journey through the two-plus years Richard lived with brain cancer, a journey we were determined to live well, mindful of our choices and with a great deal of love. We weren’t perfect—if we humans were perfect, we couldn’t stumble and fail and thus learn and grow. Which Richard and I did a lot of. What carried us through four brain surgeries, a course of radiation, two courses of chemo and innumerable MRIs and other tests and procedures, through the shock and anger and grief, the insights and grace, the pain and laughter and ultimately, through our parting, was love. Love for each other and our family, for the village of friends who sheltered us, and for the earth and its whole extended community of lives, the miracle that quickens our existence on this blue planet. At heart, Bless the Birds is a love story, an intimate and unflinching tale of the choice to love life—every moment, no matter how painful—through the end.

The story's dedicated to this guy, Richard Cabe, smiling at the camera in November of 2009 after his first brain surgery, smiling even though he knew he had brain cancer, smiling because he loved life wholly and thoroughly. Always.