Road Report: Yellowstone at 60


The US National Park Service turned 100 this year, celebrating its centennial in various ways at different parks throughout the country. I turned 60 last Sunday, and I decided to celebrate that personal milestone in Yellowstone National Park, our nation’s first park, established in 1872, forty-four years before the park service was established. (The photo above is the Gardiner River near the north edge of Yellowstone.)


Yellowstone is my favorite park and the place I began the work that still inspires me today, researching and restoring ecosystems. Back then, plant ecology was my career and my living; now I’m a writer, teacher and speaker. Ecological restoration is still my passion, but I mostly work as a volunteer.



Working along the Old Gardiner Road in Yellowstone…


I spent two weeks on a working vacation in Yellowstone in June, doing just that: digging out invasive weeds by hand to help heal degraded areas around Mammoth Hot Springs, my “home” in the park. It was a rewarding time in terms of how much I accomplished, and how good it felt to be giving back to a place I love. 


So when Rocky Mountain Gardening Magazine invited me to speak as part of their annual “Live!” garden inspiration event at Chico Hot Springs Resort, just north of Yellowstone, on the day after my birthday (thank you, Dan and Andra!), I decided to make that an excuse to return to the park, and celebrate my birthday by continuing my weed-eradication work there. 


Why spend my birthday doing hard labor grubbing out knapweed and houndstongue, two species of persistent and seriously disruptive perennial weeds? 



For the same reasons I cited in my Why Garden? talk at the “Live!” event:


  • To preserve biodiversity by improving habitat for wild species
  • Help counteract climate change by promoting ecosystem health
  • To get a serious dose of Vitamin N–nature–and its physical, physiological, and mental-health benefits
  • And not least, to provide succor for my soul. 

Sixty is a major milestone for me for a number of reasons, most importantly because it’s the age my love, Richard Cabe, was when we learned his brain cancer had returned with a vengeance. He had just celebrated his 60th birthday by attending a sculpture conference and swimming in the Arkansas River, and was feeling great. Then came the news of the new tumors, and the realization that he might not survive.


He died five years ago come November, a few months after he turned 61, leaving me a widow at 55. 



Richard after brain surgery number three, stapled scalp and all… 


So I’m now reaching the fifth anniversary of the ending of his life, and am thinking seriously about what I will do with whatever remains of my life. 


We truly don’t know what’s ahead–a lesson I know only too well after helping my rudely healthy husband live as well as possible through chemo and radiation, four brain surgeries, chemo again, and finally having to learn to let go of life after the glioblastoma commandeered his entire right brain. 


I had assumed I would just continue on as I have been without Richard, but now I am rethinking the form and shape of my days as “Woman Alone.” I’ve decided to throw the possibilities wide open and re-evaluate all of my assumptions: where I will live, what work I want to do in my 60s and beyond, how my life will look. 


I don’t have any answers yet, but I have some ideas.



The North Fork of the Shoshone River, as Red and I headed upstream into Yellowstone on Saturday. 


Which I’m going to consider in the next few days, as I start the long drive home from Montana tomorrow with my friend and fellow passionate plantswoman and speaker, Lauren Springer Ogden. I’ll continue to let those possibilities “compost” in the back of my mind over the coming weeks as I catch up on writing and teaching work, including preparing for a memoir-writing workshop I’m teaching Colorado Springs, and then the Women Writing the West Conference in Santa Fe in mid-October. 


And I’ll continue to live with my heart outstretched as if it was my hand, because I believe that living with love and compassion is the best we gift we humans can give each other, especially now.


Bless you all for being who you are, and giving this life your best each day. 



 


 

Memoir: The Craft of Revision

Richard and me–in shadows–at Carpenter Ranch on The Big Trip, our last trip together

Back in May, I started on one last revision of my new memoir, Bless the Birds, after receiving comments from editors at good publishing houses that they loved the story, but… But it was just too personal, but it was just too intense, but it just wasn't quite right for them. 

I realized on reflection that I needed to shift the balance of voices and detail in the book. Keep enough of the personal, the intimate details, while at the same time strengthening and giving more space to the objective voice, the voice that explains what the story means, not just to me and Richard and Molly, but to us all. 

Simple, no? 

No. But I was so jazzed by that realization that I set to work immediately, and found to my surprise that as I read the manuscript with my intuitive "ears" tuned, listening for places where that objective voice was missing or weak, I "heard" them, like a click in my mind that said, "Stop here. This needs work." 

And once I focused, I could also hear what I needed to say.

As I worked my way through the manuscript, taking a few chapters each day, I could sometimes even sense in that intuitive way when there was extraneous detail that cluttered up the story, and left readers no space to engage in the narrative. So I did some cutting as well. 

Still, by the time I finished that first pass of strengthening the objective voice, the manuscript was much too long for a standard memoir.

(Memoir generally runs 75,000 to 95,000 words; Bless the Birds came in at 103,350 words. In pages, that's 20 to 25 pages too long. Length matters because more pages means a higher cost to produce the book, which means a higher cover price, and often lower sales. That makes a manuscript harder to sell to a publisher.)

I knew I was going to need another intensive editing pass to slim the manuscript. And I also knew I would bring a fresher eye if I could let it sit for a while. 

As it happened, I finished that first revising pass just before I left for Wyoming in early June to teach and then spend two weeks working in Yellowstone where I would camp without modern conveniences like electricity, much less internet access. A good time to let Bless the Birds "season."

When I returned home at the end of June, I picked it up again, determined to unclutter the story and bring closer to normal memoir range. Back in May, when my agent had asked when I thought I'd be done with the revision–she's eager to send it out to a select few editors for a re-read–I said blithely, "I'll have it back to you by July 15th." 

So that gave me a deadline. I worked with focus and intensity, and was surprised that as I read through the manuscript again, taking my time, I could "hear" passages that felt like they weren't necessary.

What isn't necessary to a story like this? That's hard to define: it's both contextual and intuitive. One thing I listened for was the kind of detail about the medical parts of the story that a scientist like me thrives on, but which can get in the way of readers' engagement. Another was excessive information about the major characters, or the places we were.

Detail makes a story authentic; too much detail clogs it up like a gut full of donuts. 

A sample page of the mss with my trusty editing pencil, one Richard used for sketching sculptures. The blue type is the new objective voice. 

There's no magic formula for how much detail is the right amount; what works for me at this stage is to read the story out loud to myself, listening carefully. When I feel myself disengaging, I stop, and read that part again, listening for what's not working. 

Over the past three weeks I worked steadily, and each day, the total word count dropped. As it did, the story strengthened, its muscles toning, its voice growing clearer.

On Friday morning, the 15th of July, when I read the very last section and finished, the word count had dropped to just over 97,000 words, slimmer by 6,000 words and nearly 20 pages. 

I knew when I read the end that the manuscript was ready to go out. The story had touched me again, and now it was done (again).

Here are the final two paragraphs, plus the haiku coda:

Death will touch all of us, expected or not, ready or not. It is simply part of life on this planet. How we deal with the losses and with our own mortality is up to each of us. One thing is sure: Facing what Rilke called life’s “other half” with an open, generous heart makes letting go easier. 

I think of the grief I feel at times like this as a tribute to the love Richard and I shared. I am grateful to be reminded of that love, even when my heart throbs with loss. We lived wholly and well, and that love, as the reader’s email reminds me, lives on—heart open, wings spread. 

_____ you/ and that tiny glinting hummingbird/ arrow straight to my heart

I wrote an email to my agent, attached the revised manuscript and hit "send"–only I had no internet connection. I checked my system, and then called my provider. Which is when I found out that someone had accidently severed a fiber-optic cable, downing phone and internet service for the whole area. "We expect service to be restored again tomorrow," the chirpy support person said. Great. 

It felt urgent to get Bless the Birds emailed to my agent. So I considered who might have a live connection, and ended up asking my local financial institution if they could use their dedicated backup line to send my email with the manuscript. They took pity on the crazed writer and did. 

That's the benefit of living in a small town where everyone knows you. (The drawback of course, is that everyone knows you, so anonymity is nonexistent.)

Yesterday, July 16th, I realized belatedly why I had picked the previous day as my revision deadline, and why I went to extraordinary measures to finish and send out the manuscript.

July 16th was Richard's birthday. I wanted the manuscript off my mind and my desk before then. It was a gesture of celebration and gratitude to the man who inspired the memoir. 

So here's to you, my sweetheart–Happy 66th! Your story is on its way again; this time I believe it will find a publisher who loves it. And I've learned more about the craft of shaping a narrative that is both intimate and universal, one that grabs both head and heart, and doesn't let go.

Thank you for the gift of you in my life, and the gift of inspiring my growth as a writer and a person. 

Richard Cabe in San Francisco, September 2011, two months before he died

Memorial Day: Thank You for Your Service


It’s Memorial Day, which reminds me especially to appreciate the two veterans in my life, one being the smiling 18-year-old in the photo above, Richard Cabe, fresh out of Coast Guard boot camp in 1968 during the war in Viet Nam. Like so many young men then, he didn’t have much of a choice about his service. 


His draft number was low, so Richard enlisted in the Coast Guard with dreams of saving drowning people from the surf, or doing something useful that didn’t involve killing. Instead his intellectual brilliance sent him into electronics school and from there into maintaining the LORAN stations that guided nuclear subs and bombers to Viet Nam. 


Even though he was never “in country,” serving in a support role for a war he believed to his core was wrong injured something in that sensitive young Richard, something that never really recovered. He felt complicit in the death and destruction. 


Also like so many veterans of that incredibly polarizing war, he wouldn’t talk about that part of his service. Because so many others lost their lives or were seriously impaired, I think he felt awkward claiming his role. 


Ironically, it wasn’t until the Veterans Administration became a part of our daily lives as we journeyed through Richard’s brain cancer and four brain surgeries, one course of radiation, two courses of chemo, and innumerable MRIs and other tests, that Richard began to bring up his feelings about being involved in the war. 


It was partly that we spent time around other veterans of “his” war in the Denver VA Medical Center. But I think what spurred him to talk was more the simple phrase that everyone greeted him with, from receptionists to aides and ICU nurses, from physical therapists and pharmacists to oncologists and neurosurgeons: “Thank you for your service.”



Richard, AWOL from the VA Hospital (he’s sitting on a bench across the street where there was wifi access) with Molly in September, 2009. 


At the end of our first full day at the Medical Center where he had an appointment with neurology to figure out what had caused him to see thousands of birds that did not exist outside his brain, we learned that his right hemisphere was so traumatically swollen that his team was surprised he was not in a coma on a breathing machine. 


“It’s weird,” he said as we sat in the car after discussing the bird hallucinations and the MRI images, and the fact that instead of driving home over the mountains that night, we would be staying in a Denver motel so that he could be admitted to the hospital in the morning. 


“What’s weird?” I asked. His answer had nothing to do with bird hallucinations, traumatic brain swelling or the reason we were sitting in the car on the side of a residential street near the medical center.


“Being thanked for my service,” he said. “I didn’t do anything worth being thanked for.”


“You spent your late teens and early 20s involved in a war you didn’t believe in,” I said, “doing the best you could with a situation you didn’t choose. That’s a form of service. Maybe being thanked for it will help you make peace with those years.”


Richard nodded, and then started the car.


That conversation came up now and again as our lives began to revolve around brain cancer treatment and VA healthcare. He began to talk about the war years without as much anguish. I think that being thanked helped him let go of some of what troubled him about those years, and I am grateful for that. 



Dad in the middle between his two Norwegian cousins, Halvard (right) and Ingvar Tveit, on their visit to the US in 2014.


The other veteran who is on my mind today is my dad, Bob Tweit, who was drafted into the US Army Chemical Corps at the end of the Korean War. Like Richard, he served without ever being in country. He didn’t take to the Army, but it was a different war, and serving was what he did. 


Like Richard, Dad is treated by the VA healthcare system. And like my late love, Dad’s care has been by and large excellent. We hear so much negative news about the VA, but as I’ve said in print before, in our experience, the people who deliver the care are professional, knowledgeable, thorough, and deeply caring. They take seriously the agency’s mission to tend our veterans. 


So to my own particular veterans and all of the others, and to the thousands of healthcare staffers in the VA healthcare system, from receptionists and clerks to nurses, residents and doctors, I say on this Memorial Day: Thank you for your service. 

Diary of a Citizen Scientist, by Sharman Apt Russell, OSU Press

Reading List: Books on Nature, Cancer & Caregiving

Welcome to my every-so-often mid-week posts highlighting books on my reading stack. Some are books I’ve sought out, some come to me for review, and others are gifts.

The first one straddles the zone between science writing, nature journal, and memoir. That reach makes for a fascinating read.

Diary of a Citizen Scientist, by Sharman Apt Russell, OSU Press Diary of a Citizen Scientist, by Sharman Apt Russell, OSU Press

Diary of a Citizen Scientist: Chasing Tiger Beetles and Other New Ways of Engaging the World, by Sharman Apt Russell

Russell has always been a thoughtful writer, able to examine issues as diverse as ranching (Kill the Cowboy) and hunger (Hunger: An Unnatural History) with balance and clarity. Diary of a Citizen Scientist is her immersion into the world of those passionate amateurs who, by volunteering for research projects from astrophysics to molecular biology, are reshaping both science and how we know the world. In this, her most personal book, Russell’s writing ranges from thoughtful examination to luminous revelation that reads like William Wordsworth or Annie Dillard, the soul shivering with ecstasy:

“…I feel a joy here. I feel that brightness in the veins, in the chest,” Russell writes, describing her first collecting trip searching for tiger beetles, third-of-an-inch-long carnivores that feed as ferociously as lion packs. “I have a purpose here, surrounded by water, by light. I put down my pack with its bear spray and collecting boxes and sandwich, and I feel light and easy, and I swing my collector’s net just a little, like a flag.”

Diary of a Citizen Scientist is a journey narrative, a chronicle of a search that changes the author along the way. It’s not quite memoir, but it is that compelling. (Read the full review at Story Circle Book Reviews.)

The next two books relate to Bless the Birds, the memoir I’m deep in revising.

The first book simply appeared out of the blue in my mailbox; the second has been on my shelf for years.

Waking Up Dying, by Robert A. Duke (Good Enough Publishing) Waking Up Dying, by Robert A. Duke (Good Enough Publishing)

Waking Up Dying: Caregiving When There is No Tomorrow, by Robert A. Duke

Waking Up Dying is a candid exploration of what happens to two lives when a diagnosis of a frightening and terminal condition–in this case, brain cancer–comes out of the blue. Duke is a retired communications professional, his wife is a journalist; they’ve traveled the world together, they’re not helpless or stupid. Still, they have to fight for appropriate treatment for Sharleen, wrangle with insurance companies to have that treatment covered, and somehow take care of each other in the grueling unwinding of Sharleen’s life. The account of their journey is packed with useful information for anyone navigating our country’s often-byzantine health care system.

The Caregiver's Choice, by Elaine Long (iUniverse) The Caregiver’s Choice, by Elaine Long (iUniverse)

The Caregiver’s Choice: Find Strength and Serenity By Changing Your Mind, by Elaine Long

The fourteen chapters in this slim book by award-winning novelist Elaine Long offer advice, comfort and wisdom to those of us who unwittingly become caregivers for the people we love. The Caregiver’s Choice is a personal look at what Long learned in the decades she cared for her mother, who had Alzheimer’s Disease, and also Long’s husband, who had a heart attack in 1996, and died of lung cancer in 2003. During those years, Long realized that the choice in caregiving is deciding accept the role in a way that doesn’t make us crazy or break us, but allows us to learn and even find the joy our work. I dip into The Caregiver’s Choice whenever I want to remind myself of how to survive the caregiving journey with my sense of humor and my sanity intact.

Driving Richard Home

Richard Cabe, 1950-2011, with one of his beloved "ambassadors of the earth." Richard Cabe, 1950-2011, with one of his beloved “ambassadors of the earth.”

Friday morning, I headed over the mountains in Red on an errand that was a long time in coming: driving Richard home.

Back in 2011, when it became clear that he was in the final stages of life with brain cancer, Richard decided to donate his body to the CU Medical School.

“I’d like to teach one last time,” he said as we snuggled in bed one morning. “Do you mind?”

Richard and Susan in the restored riparian area along Ditch Creek Richard and Susan in summer of 2010. Photo courtesy Jim Steinberg

“No.” I gulped tears. “A body’s just a body. Our love is what will last.”

On November 28, 2011, the day after Richard died, his body was “transported” to Denver to the Medical School’s Anatomy Lab.

The administrator there told me he had been placed in the “long program,” so it could be two or three years before I would get his cremated remains back. That seemed appropriate since Richard didn’t rush about anything. Ever.

Two years ticked toward three. I began to wonder. I called in September. Nothing. Last Wednesday, I called again. The nice administrator said he had “completed the program” and was ready for me to pick up.

She offered to mail him. But I realized I needed the ritual of driving him home.

Richard (box on the right) in the passenger seat of Red. Richard (box on the right) in the passenger seat of Red.

Friday afternoon, three years and fourteen days after his death, I chatted with the administrator, signed the papers and then hefted the box containing the ten pounds of Richard’s cremated remains.

On impulse, I mentioned that I planned to take photos on the drive, as a way to document his journey home.

“There’s a new memorial garden right outside the building,” the administrator said. “You could take one there.”

Richard in the memorial garden at the CU Medical School. Richard in the memorial garden.

As I posed the box, I realized that in far background was “Corpus Callosum,” his favorite of the outdoor sculptures on that campus where we lived in the winter of ’09/’10 during his radiation treatment.

Richard on the concrete barrier at the wave rock. Richard on the concrete barrier below the wave rock.

The next stop was the “wave” rock, a boulder along US 285 in Turkey Creek Canyon. Richard really wanted to use that rock in a sculpture. But he never figured out how to discretely retrieve the ton or so of boulder from beside a busy highway.

Perched on Red (no, I did not pour coffee into the box!) Perched on Red (no, I did not pour coffee into the box!)

After that, it was the Starbucks in Conifer, his coffee-for-the-drive stop.

Yes, that's ice along the edges of the North Fork. Yes, that’s ice along the edges of the North Fork.

And then a quiet stretch of the North Fork of the South Platte.

It's not easy to balance a 10-pound box of remains on a cliff.... It’s not easy to balance a 10-pound box of remains on a cliff….

The cliff going up Kenosha Pass where he found the boulder that became the sink in the guest cottage at Terraphilia, the big house.

"Let's go there," he'd say, pointing at "our mountains" in the distance. “Let’s go there,” Richard would say, pointing at “our mountains” in the distance.

And the viewpoint atop Kenosha Pass (10,000 feet elevation), where he loved to look over South Park, toward the distant mountains above Salida.

The Sawatch Range in the distance after sunset The Sawatch Range in the distance after sunset

Another favorite rock outcrop, coming down Trout Creek Pass into our home valley.

It was almost dark by the time we got home to the little house he never knew, the one I helped design and build after his death, when I realized I couldn’t keep up half a block of property, our 2,400-square-foot house, and his 1,600 square feet of hundred-year-old studio.

I lifted Richard up on the flagstone shelf in the living room, the one that echoes the “cliff” he built for me at the big house.

Yesterday I walked to Gallery 150, the gallery that showed his work in Salida, and with goldsmith/gallery owner Jerry Scavezze’s help (and consultation from goldsmith Toni Tischer and fiber-artist Jane Carpenter–thanks all!) selected a porcelain urn with a lid by a potter whose work Richard had admired.

Richard and the urn Richard and the urn

I brought it home, poured Richard’s remains into it (which is not as easy as you’d think). They fit, exactly.

Richard, home at last (above the stove) Richard, home at last (above the stove)

This afternoon was Kent Haruf’s memorial service. The program included this poem from Rumi, a favorite of he and his wife, Cathy:

The minute I heard my first love story
I started looking for you, not knowing
how blind that was.

Lovers don’t finally meet somewhere.
They’re in each other all along.

—Jelaluddin Rumi, 1207-1273

Richard and now, Kent. In my heart still.

Writing out of my comfort zone

My last book, a memoir My last book, a memoir

I think of myself as a reflective writer, someone who is at her best in the overlap between personal essay and memoir. I am not a journalist, as I learned decades ago during an internship at High Country News. My temperament leans more toward listening and sympathizing than asking hard-nosed questions.

I usually eschew political subjects because I detest our current mode of “discourse.” It so rarely involves thoughtful articulation, reflection or careful listening.

Richard Cabe sitting outside the VA Hospital in Denver with Molly, after being treated for catastropic brain-swelling. Richard Cabe sitting outside the VA Hospital in Denver with Molly, after being treated for life-threatening brain-swelling.

When the scandal broke about the secret wait lists at the Veteran’s Administration hospital in Phoenix, I read the first few articles. I happen to have quite a bit of experience with VA healthcare because of the guy in the photo above. After reading, I went back to work revising my new memoir.

Not my issue, I said firmly to myself.

As the reporting took on a more sensational tone and the comments grew more vitriolic, I became more uncomfortable.

I recognize that the bureaucracy administering the VA healthcare system needs fixing.

Richard in the surgical ICU at the VA the day after brain surgery number three. Richard in the surgical ICU at the VA the day after brain surgery number three.

But the VA I know from Richard’s two-plus-year journey with brain cancer is not the bureaucracy; it’s the dozens of skilled, compassionate, and dedicated care-givers who worked with my love through four brain surgeries, one emergency brain-drain procedure, six hospitalizations, a course of radiation and adjuvant chemo, and two courses of chemo by itself, one requiring monthly half-day infusions, and finally, palliative care.

In all the appointments, procedures, hospitalizations, consults and other interactions, the people at the VA were invariably respectful and knowledgeable. They listened, asked questions, and checked to see how we were at each step along the way. In short, they cared.

I thought about how hard the VA-bashing must be for all who gave the man I love such outstanding care. These people–the real VA–don’t deserve to be vilified. They deserve our thanks for caring for 8 million veterans in hundreds of hospitals and clinics nationwide on a budget that is too small for the job.

Richard the week before brain surgery number four, six months before he died. Richard the week before brain surgery number four, six months before he died.

So last Monday, I wrote a commentary about the issue. I read the first version out loud, blew my nose and mopped my eyes, rewrote, blew my nose again, read aloud through tears again, cut out another hundred words, and finally ended up with about 550 words of what I hoped was concise, clear, and thoughtful essay.

Then my doubts returned: Do I really want to wade into this ugliness?

I went outside and watered the pots of flowers and edibles on my front deck. I looked at the peaks rising over town, the view Richard admired every day, even when admiring it meant I had to power up his hospital bed to raise his head and rotate the bed to face the sliding glass door.

I really do. I came inside and wrote a careful email to Barb Ellis, the editor I had worked with when I was a Colorado Voices columnist at the Denver Post. I read the email, edited it, attached the file with the commentary and hit “send.”

Then I worried about what I’d gotten myself into.

On Tuesday afternoon, Barb wrote back to say she loved the commentary and would try to find a place for it.

Wednesday she emailed with a couple of questions. I clarified one fact and added a sentence to another place.

“Do you have a photo of Richard we could use with the commentary if we have space?” she asked later. I picked one of my favorites and emailed it.

“Okay. I’ll see what I can do.”

Richard Cabe, 1950-2011, with one of his beloved "ambassadors of the earth." Richard Cabe, 1950-2011, with one of his beloved “ambassadors of the earth.”

This morning over breakfast when I opened the Sunday Denver Post, there was my commentary on the front page of the Opinion section, with Richard’s face smiling out at me. I read my own words through tears.

Thank you, Barb Ellis. And thanks to all those who have responded with appreciation. You remind me that compassion and thoughtfulness matter.

I’ll write out of my comfort zone more often.

Richard and me (and our Great Dane, Isis) by the Arkansas River in earlier years.

Love: Baggage Worth Carrying

Richard and me (and our Great Dane, Isis) by the Arkansas River in earlier years. Richard and me (and our Great Dane, Isis) by the Arkansas River in 2003.

I never want to be a person who can’t let go, who carries the tragedies and disappointments of her life as so much baggage. I also don’t want to ignore the past and how it has shaped my life.

I try to walk a path between those two poles, staying mindful of the passage of time and the “anniversary dates” that mark significant personal events. I do my best to honor each, and my feelings.

Still, sometimes those dates blindside me.

Friday, March 27th, was one such. Richard died on the 27th of November; each 27th, I am reminded that another month has passed in this life alone. March marks 2- 1/4 years since his death.

Buffalo Peaks through the car windshield, on the approach to Trout Creek Pass, the first mountain pass on my commute to Denver. Buffalo Peaks through the car windshield, on the approach to Trout Creek Pass, the first on my commute to Denver.

I remembered earlier in the week and thought, Oh yeah. I’ll be driving to Denver that afternoon to prepare for the next Wildscape 101 workshop. The route is familiar, one we took many times between home and the VA Medical Center.

I’d shed a few tears, I suspected, and think about how much we loved that drive, no matter the weather and the inconvenience of being three hours from the city, and how lucky we both felt to live in this spacious landscape.

A herd of about 200 elk gathered in South Park in winter, one of the benefits of the drive over the high country. A herd of about 200 elk in South Park in fall, one of the benefits of the sometimes difficult drive over the high country.

I’d remind myself of how our journey with his brain cancer was eased by the relative quiet and slow pace of our small town, its dark night skies and the river two blocks away, the peaks spearing up on the western horizon, and the community that surrounded us with such love.

I couldn’t know that Friday would end up bringing nasty mountain weather and that I would need to leave early in order to make it safely over the three mountain passes, all above 10,000 feet elevation.

Driving straight into a snowstorm whipping in on howling winds on Friday while crossing South Park. Driving straight into a snowstorm whipping in on howling winds on Friday.

Or that the organization sponsoring the workshop would schedule a last-minute conference call during which logistical issues would arise, requiring me to be on the phone while navigating howling wind, icy roads and blowing snow.

Or that the stress would distract me from honoring the date as I had planned.

It wasn’t until I was driving across Denver that evening and passed near the VA Medical Center that I realized why my shoulders and neck had set like concrete.

Richard and Molly on a bench outside the VA Medical Center after he first saw the birds that presaged his tumor. Richard and Molly outside the Medical Center after he saw the birds that presaged his tumor.

Right. It’s the 27th and I’m in the neighborhood where Richard learned he had a cancerous brain tumor, where he survived four brain surgeries, radiation and a course of chemo infusions, and I don’t remember how many brain MRIs and other procedures.

So before I went to bed that night, after I prepared for the next day’s workshop, I had a little conversation with the man I will always love, just catching up.

And then I slept soundly.

Saturday morning’s workshop was a success, with some 200 people in the audience, and knots of attendees surrounding Lauren Springer Ogden and me afterward to tell us how inspired they were by our talks and to ask eager questions.

By the time I drove back over the mountains that afternoon, the weather had turned balmy, but I was so exhausted I navigated on auto-pilot.

I was aimed for home. Not home to the house Richard and I shared. Home to the little house at the other end of the block I built for my solo self after his death.

Home to this harsh and glorious high desert landscape and the community where Richard’s spirit lives on in his art and in everyone he touched in his brilliant, incisive and generous way.

Home where I walk on alone, grateful to be here and to have had his company for almost 29 years. Yeah, I still miss him; yeah, I grieve. I smile and laugh too. It’s all part of carrying on the love we shared, baggage I never want to forget.

Photograph of love, couple, Carpenter Ranch, The Nature Conservancy Sunset at Carpenter Ranch on our last trip together….

Playing around--a selfie (only taken with a camera, not a smartphone) after Richard's fourth brain surgery....

Paring Story into Memoir….

Last spring, I finished the initial draft of Bless the Birds, the memoir I’ve been working on about Richard’s and my journey with his brain cancer. A journey I hope will show us all how to live with love even in–especially in–the most difficult times.

Playing around--a selfie (only taken with a camera, not a smartphone) after Richard's fourth brain surgery.... Playing around–a selfie (only taken with a camera, not a smart phone) after Richard’s fourth brain surgery.

The point of memoir is not just to write our own lives. (Not that there’s anything wrong with telling our life-stories for ourselves and family and friends–in fact, that can be a wonderful gift.)

But if we’re going to call the writing memoir, we’ve got to work to find the universal in our particulars, to tell our story in a way that compels readers to see their own lives in new light. Memoir is the meaning we draw from our lives, the essential “truth” that offers some wisdom about life in general.

When I finished that first draft, it tallied 142,000 words and 420+ pages. It needed some work. Not just because it was almost twice as long as the lower end of the range of most memoirs (75,000 to 90,000 words).

Because when I read the draft over, it was too much like a report (this happened, after which this happened, and then this…). What I wanted was a narrative, where the tension of the events and the characters’ actions carry the story like a swelling wave.

Richard at Lucia Lodge on California's Big Sur Coast. Richard at Lucia Lodge on California’s Big Sur Coast.

I had written our life-story, but it wasn’t memoir yet. It was buried in detail, and the tone was too… detached. Not engaged and immediate.

The truth is, I was too comfortable with the story. It had grown too familiar, too practiced. So I set the manuscript aside.

In July, I picked it up, saved the original file as a new version and began reading aloud from the beginning.

I needed to be in the story, under its skin, immersed. Not outside, looking at it from a distance. I needed to speak it.

My aim was to pare out anything that while it might be well-written, wasn’t essential to advancing the narrative and defining characters.

How can we tell what is essential from what is not? There’s no rule or formula; every writer and piece of writing are different.

What works for me is to listen, and hone my sense of what moves the story forward and what doesn’t, what contributes to my understanding of the characters and their motivations.

Still holding hands near the end.... Still holding hands near the end….

I read aloud and listen for scenes and actions that illuminate, like a flash lightning in the night.

By the end of that read-through, I had a much better understanding of what mattered. And the manuscript was 102,000 words, a little over 400 pages.

Good, but not quite there yet.

So I started reading out loud from the beginning again. This time I lived the story. I was not comfortable. Most days I felt exposed, vulnerable and bruised.

I finished the day after Christmas, the manuscript a relatively svelte 93,000 words and 372 pages.

I could have quit there, but something–perhaps intuition, perhaps obsessiveness–nagged me into just one more read.

"Stop looking so serious, Sus! It's a selfie, not art." “Stop looking so serious, Sus! It’s a selfie, not art.”

Molly came to visit for a few days between Christmas and New Year’s, so I put the manuscript aside and simply enjoyed hanging out with her.

On New Year’s Day, I opened the file for one last read-through. I finished yesterday afternoon, having worked straight through the previous weekend.

This edit was even more intense. It felt, I told a friend, “like my skin was being peeled off with a dull knife.”

Not pleasant. But the results were worth it. The story emerged taut and muscly, honest and surprisingly beautiful.

The word count as of yesterday: 91,481, and 360 pages.

The first line is dialog, a question. The last is a declarative statement, one word long. In between, a memoir unfurls.

Tomorrow, I’ll send Bless the Birds to the agent I’ve been talking with. Wish it–and me–good luck!

We’re ready.

Richard 'n Susan

This One Does Not Equal Half of Two

Richard 'n Susan Richard ‘n Susan

For almost 29 years, I was half of two, the Susan in “Richard-‘n-Susan.” We fell in love at first sight at the birthday dinner of a mutual friend, after which my housemates invited him over to grill him (they didn’t trust my instincts).

They approved. We went on a date, an all-day affair involving a long drive in the snow and a leisurely soak in a steaming hot springs. After that, as I wrote in Walking Nature Home,

We were an item. We held hands wherever we walked. We talked about the future in terms of “we” instead of “I.”

We didn’t know each other well enough to make that kind of commitment, but our hearts didn’t care. We were crazy in love, and lucky too: that love grew and lasted longer than anyone would have guessed–Richard and me included.

Richard, Susan, Molly and Hypotenuse the cat (really!) Richard, Susan, Molly and Hypotenuse the cat

The chemistry of love carried us through some pretty blinking difficult times, many of those of our own making. Learning to parent together to raise Molly, bouncing around the country for his career, dealing with family tragedies–the usual challenges of life, any of which could have peeled us apart.

My inner redhead was never shy. When I get mad, I am MAD. I don’t stay mad very long though. And when it’s over, it’s over.

Richard considered himself even-tempered, which I learned meant he didn’t let his anger show easily. But when he did, he didn’t get over it–I know because I got pretty good at finding that boiling point. He sulked, he stewed, he brooded. For weeks.

"Paula's Find," a one-ton granite and steel firepit Richard sculpted. “Paula’s Find,” a one-ton granite and steel firepit

Richard was brilliant, both left-brain and right. He was the deepest thinker and best analyst I have ever known. He spoke mathematics like a language.

His ability to understand stone, steel and wood and what they have to say to us was extraordinary. His sculptures and basins still elicit that in-drawn breath that says, “Wow!” People reach for his work, wanting to touch, to connect with that surprising and beautiful other.

After so many years together, Richard and I finished each others’ sentences and thoughts. We seemed indelibly paired. We certainly thought we were.

Until, thanks to brain cancer we weren’t.

We always held hands.... We always held hands….

Now, two years after his death, I’m coming to realize just how much one by itself does not equal half of two.

I am not the person I was as part of a couple. I don’t want to be. There is no Richard anymore (except in my heart, in memories and stories, and through his art). I have to figure out my life on my own.

Turns out I like the “on my own” part much more than I would have ever imagined. I am not social and I no longer have the patience to compromise.

I like having quiet if I want quiet, or playing Emily Lou Harris loud if I don’t.

I like deciding what I want to eat when I want to eat it (or not eating at all if I don’t feel like it). I like writing in bed before dawn, working straight through when I’m on a roll, and making my own choices every part of every day.

Creek house living room Creek house living room

I like–no, I love–having my own space, designed just for me, and arranging it exactly the way I want it.

I loved living with Richard. He was the heart of my heart, my other soul, and all that mushy stuff. Sometimes he annoyed me, sometimes he made me mad, but we really belonged together. We were each others’ other half.

Then how can I love living alone? I don’t know.

But I am discovering just how much this me does, the me who is one by herself–no longer half of two. I didn’t know I still had so much to learn about being me. I didn’t even know there was a me who could be so happy as one–solo, solitary, alone. That’s me now.

Working Through Grief

Richard on the Big Sur Coast, California Richard on the Big Sur Coast, California

You’re working too much.

I was headed home after spending the morning in a contentious three-hour planning meeting for a local land management agency.

I was tired and hungry, never the best time to receive advice graciously. Even from a dear friend.

(Of course I work too much: I’m a freelance writer, a career that suits my stubbornly independent nature but doesn’t offer much financial security.)

He continued, “Life’s what happens now. Not after you finish work.”

I could feel my inner redhead’s temper rise.

No sh_t, I thought. You think I don’t know that? In one single year, I managed my mother’s hospice care through her death in February, and then walked with my beloved Richard through his death from brain cancer in November. If I hadn’t known to appreciate my moments before 2011, I certainly do now. 

Mom, celebrating her 79th birthday with high tea at Denver's Brown Palace Hotel Mom, celebrating her 79th birthday with high tea at Denver’s Brown Palace Hotel

I said as mildly as I could, “We all grieve differently. I’m working through mine the best I can.”

He looked at me with surprise. “It’s been two years.”

I took a deep breath. It didn’t help.

“Actually, it’s been one year, eleven months and 14 days. We were married almost 29 years; I’d been by his side more than half my life when he died.”

I took another breath. “Excuse me.” I turned away.

The walk home wasn’t nearly long enough to work off my mad.

Which probably explains why it took me less than an hour that afternoon to wrestle two 8-foot-tall crabapple trees from their pots, dig holes for each and plant them in my new front yard. (My neighbor Bev and her friend Jack drove all the way to Cañon City to fetch those two trees–thank you!)

And why even though I was still sore from tree-planting, I threw myself with perhaps more enthusiasm than was advisable into a session of front-yard boulder-work yesterday morning with my trail-building buddy Tony Boone.

My street-side yard with two new trees planted. My street-side yard with two new trees planted.

Hefting rocks that weigh half of what I do (which admittedly, isn’t that impressive), raking cobbles out of the stony soil, wedging them into dry-laid “pavement” to hold the slope, and planting 70 or so daffodil bulbs in each tree-well was very satisfying.

Hard work is soothing and cleansing, whether wrestling trees and boulders or wrestling words. If I immerse myself in my work, it’s because that’s what I need right now.

Yes, I’m grieving.

No, there’s nothing wrong with that.

In a span of nine months, I lost two of the people I loved most in this world. I served as primary caregiver for each of them, feeding, cleaning, changing diapers and sheets, and administering medications; I was there with each one until they left this life for whatever’s next.

My front steps taking shape, aiming for the deck that isn't there yet.... My front steps taking shape, aiming for the deck that isn’t there yet….

That’s intense and grueling work on all levels. There’s also a grace to “midwifing” that difficult and inevitable passage. It’s just not something you get over quickly.

Nor should you.

Grief takes its own time. It’s life’s way of honoring loss and love. How can we predict how long that process will take?

How we each deal with grief is dependent all manner of unpredictable factors: gender and age, finances and daily life, physical and mental health, our ability to be present with emotions, the vagaries of any given moment in any given day….

So if someone you care for is grieving, respect that while it’s not comfortable for you, that’s okay. Be with the discomfort–yours and theirs.

Listen to them.

Photograph of love, couple, Carpenter Ranch, The Nature Conservancy Sunset at Carpenter Ranch on our last trip together….

Sympathize.

Don’t offer advice. No matter how well-meaning, you actually don’t know what they’re going through. The path is different for each of us.

Don’t try to cure or rush their grief.

If you think they’re hurting themselves, say so directly. “I’m worried about you because of [insert specific here]. I care about you.”

Don’t try to fix it (unless they actually ask you to).

Offer a hand, a tissue, a shoulder to cry on, a piece of really rich dark chocolate.

Don’t vanish. Stay in touch without intruding and without judgment.

And if it’s me, please don’t tell me I work too much.