The Radical Act of Hope

In the final Saturday panel at the Geography of Hope conference last weekend in Point Reyes Station, California, one speaker said something to the effect that “hope” was worthless in the face of the catastrophe of global climate change. That we couldn’t sit around and simply hope things would get better, we needed to act in bold ways, to make radical changes, and we needed to act now. I agree that we need to act in bold ways and now.

River of Hope created at the end of the conference. Graphics by Laurie Durnell & Kathy Evans of The Grove Consultants, Intl.; Sirima Sataman of Ink.Paper.Plate Studio River of Hope Declaration. Graphics by Laurie Durnell & Kathy Evans of The Grove Consultants, Intl.; Sirima Sataman of Ink.Paper.Plate Studio

Global climate change is happening faster than we figured, and it urgently asks us to re-imagine our relationship to each other and to this earth. It asks, as did the “River of Hope” declaration created from words and phrases supplied by attendees, what/who we love too much to lose (a feeling), and what we will do to defend what/who we love (an action).

I do not agree that “hope” is necessarily a worthless concept, one that gives us permission to be complacent in the midst of the need for action. I couldn’t articulate why at that point though.

I thought about hope and why I believe it is relevant to our response to global climate change on my long trek home from western Marin County, first back to San Francisco to spend time with Molly and Mark, who are part of the family I love too much to lose, even as I am vividly aware from personal experience that their lives could end at any moment.

Louella, chalking ephemeral words….

I continued thinking about that rejection of hope as a useful response to global climate change as I drove south to meet my friend Louella at a park on the shores of an estuary near Redwood City.

Louella brought a box of sidewalk chalk with her so we could write haiku. We picked a prominent stretch of walking/biking path, composed our haiku, and proceeded to “write large.”

We ran the words of one haiku down a hill the way a stream of water would run.

winter that was not
rain comes late–dissolving
ephemeral words

Dissolving.... Haiku writ large….

Our scribing a haiku on the path in a public park was an expression of desire, an incantation for rain in the face of California’s catastrophic drought. On the surface, it’s hopeful in the sense the speakers at the Geography of Hope conference vocally disdained.

But if that haiku becomes a way to interpret the urgency of the drought and climate change, the urgency of our making changes in our individual and collective lives, then the haiku is a beginning, a catalyst. It becomes “hope” in the active sense.

I believe in hope as an active practice. A practice that allows us to create positive change in our lives through our actions, small and large. I believe in the enduring power of the kind of hope Emily Dickinson wrote about in “Hope is the Thing With Feathers (314)“:

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –

Mojave Desert annual wildflower, another 'ki I love to much to lose. Mojave Desert annual wildflower, another ‘ki I love to much to lose.

I believe in that never stopping, that persistence. That through the active practice of continuing to love this world and ‘ki community of lives, human and so many more, we can make the kinds of difficult shifts we need to respond to global climate change and other crises.

Love, as I wrote in The San Luis Valley: Sand Dunes & Sandhill Cranes, my little book with photographer Glenn Oakley, is our species’ best gift:

What we do best comes not from our heads but our hearts, from an ineffable impulse that resists logic and definitions and calculation: love. Love is what connects us to the rest of the living world, the divine urging from within that guides our best steps in the dance of life.

The new moon and Venus tonight--and I love this world too much to lose any of these kin.... The new moon and Venus tonight–and I love this world too much to lose any of these kin….

If acting in a hopeful way unleashes the fierce and radical power of that deep, never-stopping terraphilic love for this battered planet and the lives we share ‘ki with, let’s make use of it. Hope as a spur for action–bring it on!

Candles for grief and remembering

#JeSuisCharlie, Ahmed and All Other Humans

Candles for grief and remembering Candles for grief and remembering

When I heard the news of the horrific attack on the French newspaper Charlie Hebdo on January 7th, when gunmen burst into the offices during the weekly editorial meeting and killed nine staffers and contributors, plus one policeman guarding the offices, one out on the street (Ahmed Merabet, whose name and Muslim faith inspired the Twitter hastag #JeSuisAhmed, “I am Ahmed”), and a maintenance man who was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, I grieved for their lives and for how violence diminishes all of us. A world in which we massacre others for whatever reason is a world where all humanity is stained.

#JeSuisCharlie. In reality, I am not Charlie (the name of the satirical paper comes from the cartoon character Charlie Brown). Nor am I Ahmed. I am not French, I do not draw what we here in the United States call editorial cartoons, but in France are a beloved and revered form of art and political commentary.

Nor am I the young Muslim man who reportedly hid hostages at the Jewish grocery store in the freezer yesterday in the second chapter of that terrorist saga. I am not those shoppers who were held hostage for five hours, or the four who died. Nor am I the police who rescued the remaining hostages, or shot the gunmen in separate incidents in separate parts of Paris.

I am a middle-aged, middle-class white American woman who has never been threatened by terrorists, never had to worry about whether the color of my skin, my political beliefs, or the sound of my voice would inspire others to shoot me.

I do know something of the terror of random violence. Late one snowy night decades ago in Laramie, Wyoming, I chanced to walk by an alley where a man wearing a ski mask and a dark coat exposed himself. I ran, terrified, aiming for the porch of my friends’ house two blocks away. I can still hear the pounding of his feet on the creaking snow, and the ragged gasping of my breath and his as his longer legs gradually closed the distance between us. He didn’t catch me. The door opened, my friends pulled me safely in, and he faded into the night.

Matriculation with luminarias, lighting the way for Richard's spirit Luminarias lighting the literal and metaphorical darkness.

So while I am truly not the victims of the horrible attacks in France, or in Nigeria, where the Boko Haram killed hundreds more people last week, or Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, or anywhere else in the world where people are massacred simply because they are who they are, and someone else who believes they have the right to kill because of it, I am human. And that connects me. It connects all of us.

As the Sixteenth-Century English poet, lawyer and cleric John Donne so famously wrote in his essay “XVII Meditation”:

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

To paraphrase Donne’s gorgeous language, Every person is a piece of the continent, a part of the whole. … Anyone’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind…. The [funeral] bell tolls for me and thee, for all of us.

#JeSuisAhmed. #IamMichaelBrown. We are all connected. Any violence diminishes our shared humanity.

The tea bag tag says it all: Sing from your heart. For me that is my writing, and in particular, the books I envision ahead. (That's sagebrush next to the tag, and a pebble Richard carried in his pocket--one of his special rocks. Practice kindness and generosity….

How do we respond? For me, it’s important to remember is that there are about 7.2 billion people on this planet. And most of them aren’t shooting or terrorizing each other.

So while the terrorists and haters may shout/shoot the loudest and get the most attention, they’re not by any means the majority of human beings. Most of us are still, well, human. Which to my mind means capable of understanding that we are different. That we won’t always agree. Which in fact is a good thing, because diversity is healthy for humans and all other species.

My response is to redouble my resolve to practice kindness and generosity. Especially toward those who don’t look like me, speak like me, or behave like me. Because they are part of the main, the species, my people, too.

No, I am not Charlie or Ahmed, or Michael Brown or the Nigerian schoolgirls. But I am human, and I will behave like the best we humans are capable of, not the worst.

My beeswax intentions candle, burning with lavender and sagebrush from my garden My beeswax intentions candle, burning with lavender and sagebrush from my garden

Calliope hummingbird perched in my own "hometown habitat."

Hometown Habitat

Calliope hummingbird perched in my own "hometown habitat." Calliope hummingbird perched in my own “hometown habitat.”

I spent the weekend working with Catherine Zimmerman and Rick Patterson, the visionary filmmakers behind the Hometown Habitat film project.

Hometown Habitat aims to tell the story of people all around the country who are using native plants to reweave the community of nature, healing the places where we live, work, and play by restoring habitat for wildlife, especially pollinators and songbirds, those little guys who run the world, to paraphrase EO Wilson.

Why care about native plants and landscaping?

Native pollinators from my wildscape (no, the daffodil isn't a native plant, but the others are). Native pollinators from my wildscape (no, the daffodil isn’t a native plant, but the others are).

Because as Doug Tallamy, entomologist and author of Bringing Nature Home points out, native plants are the ones that sustain native insects (monarch butterflies, for instance, have vanished from huge swaths of the Midwest because industrial agriculture has eliminated their food source, native milkweeds).

Without native insects, we will have many fewer pollinators and drastically fewer songbirds, since songbirds need insects to feed their young. Fewer pollinators means less food for us to eat; fewer songbirds means a true silent spring, no morning chorus of birdsong at all.

A world without birdsong and butterflies is not a world I want to pass on.

The mission of the Habitat Hero project. The mission of the Habitat Hero project.

Restoring habitat at home is also the message of Be A Habitat Hero, the project I’ve been working with. So last week, the Hometown Habitat crew drove to Colorado to film Habitat Hero gardens and their passionate gardeners along the Front Range from Fort Collins to the Pueblo area, and even to Salida.

Me in my film studio living room. Me on film in my living room. Photo: Catherine Zimmerman

Hence my weekend in film, which included having my living room turned into a studio complete with lights and cables snaking every which where to connect with the camera and sound equipment. (I was so mesmerized by the hour-long setup process that I didn’t even think to take a picture.)

The Habitat Hero sign on Ditch Creek. The Habitat Hero sign on Ditch Creek.

Yesterday morning, Catherine and Rick followed me along “my” block of Salida’s Ditch Creek while I spent a sweaty hour yanking out invasive weeds and talking about the native plants Richard and I nurtured along the creek, plants that have restored a vibrant natural community in the midst of busy streets and asphalt parking lots.

In the afternoon, they set up at Salida High School to film the Wildscape workshop I taught, co-sponsored by GARNA, the Greater Arkansas River Nature Association and the Habitat Hero project. Catherine and Rick even followed us back to the creek for the field trip.

I felt like a film star when it was all over, assuming film stars end their days hot, sweaty and exhausted, with no voice left!

Tiptoeing through the trailside wildflowers on the field trip. Photo: Catherine Zimmerman Tiptoeing through the trailside wildflowers on the field trip. Photo: Catherine Zimmerman

I don’t expect a big part in the final film: I know that to find the story, you shoot hours of film from which you extract maybe two minutes. I am simply honored to participate in an inspiring chronicle of a grassroots native plant movement (pun intended) that is contributing to the beauty and health of our landscapes, urban and wild, and to our own wellness.

Which brings me back to the why we should care question. As I was writing this post, I thought about Ferguson, Missouri, and the death of a young Black man who was just beginning to find his way in life.

In view of Michael Brown’s death and our collective responsibility to all young Black men and in fact to young ones everywhere, why care about native plants and nature?

Because the health of our environment is inseparable from our individual and collective health–physical, mental and spiritual. Because to create a just and generous society takes each of us working in our own way.

Monarch butterfly on showy milkweed along Ditch Creek. Monarch butterfly on showy milkweed along Ditch Creek.

My way is to heal nature in my own neighborhood, with the aim that its beauty and wellness will ripple outward to make this whole world a nurturing and welcoming place. For all.

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.

Mom posing on her honeymoon at Mt. Lassen, 1952

The Dangerous Power of Thin

Last week, when 24-year-old Rachel Fredrickson walked on stage as the winner of season 15 of “The Biggest Loser,” many viewers gasped. Fredrickson started the show at 260 pounds; she ended up 105, losing 155 pounds, more than half her body weight. She looked anorexic.

Mom posing on her honeymoon at Mt. Lassen, 1952 Mom posing on her honeymoon at Mt. Lassen, June 1952.

I thought immediately of my mom, who died three years ago at age 79. Her death certificate lists “severe rheumatoid arthritis” as the cause, and it’s clear that her RA contributed, as did early Alzheimer’s.

But what sent my bright, quick, funny, and intensely loving mother on her final slide was an obsession with thin.

Joan Cannon (later Tweit) in the Sierras in her teens Mom in the Sierras in her teens

Mom, a California girl who grew up hiking and camping in the Sierra Nevadas, and who was always happiest outside with mountains in sight, was a healthy weight until one summer in her late 50s when a combination of rheumatoid arthritis drugs robbed her of her appetite. In three months, she lost 20 pounds from her 135-pound, 5″6″ frame.

Mom and Dad in Tucson, Arizona, in about 1990 Mom and Dad in Tucson, Arizona, in about 1990

She never regained that weight. By her sixtieth birthday, I realized with a shock that Mom was no longer taller than I. I commented and she denied it–until we measured each of us. She had lost 3/4 of an inch in height.

“How much do you weigh?” I asked, suddenly worried.

“I’m healthy; I don’t weigh myself.” Her tone was both lofty and evasive.

Perhaps I should have clued in, but I didn’t. She and Dad continued hiking, birdwatching, and traveling the world.

Mom and Dad with my brother Bill in Norway, August 2008. Mom and Dad with my brother Bill in Norway

And Mom continued to shrink. By the time they took their last trip overseas, she stood 5’2″ and weighed (she claimed), “around 100 pounds.”

By then, I was on a campaign to help her gain weight. Only it was already too late. Mom understood intellectually that she needed to stop losing, but she simply couldn’t.

Mom in the Never Summer Mountains on her last camping trip. Mom in the Never Summer Mountains on her last camping trip.

Her weight continued to slip, her bones continued to thin and her health deteriorated until one January morning in 2011, when she stepped out of bed and one hip shattered. It was unrepairable.

We brought Mom home. She lived another three weeks, long enough for all of us to be able to spend time with her, and to say goodbye.

Months later, I asked Dad if he knew where things went wrong.

“Thinking back, I guess when some boys called her ‘piano legs’ in high school. It stung so much that she never forgot.”

As he said the words, a childhood memory surfaced: My blue-eyed, curvy mom with the English-rose complexion and wavy brown hair eyed herself in the mirror and vowed to fit into a size 8 dress again. I had forgotten that part of Mom.

“That summer when she lost those 20 pounds must have triggered it. Losing weight was something she could control when she couldn’t control the arthritis. It was power.”

Dad nodded. “Something like that.”

I shivered. I know precisely the power of numbers on the scale dropping.

I inherited Dad’s slender build (and his Scots-Norwegian freckles and reddish hair too), and, I realize now, I learned Mom’s unhealthy fixation with weight.

Hiking with Mom and Dad. Yes, I'm too thin. Hiking with Mom and Dad.

No matter how thin my reflection in the mirror, it always looks just a little fat to me. When times are tough, it is comforting in a way I can’t explain logically to watch the numbers on the scale drop, pound by pound. I’ll stop when I get to this number, I say to myself, meaning it.

Except at that number, the idea of going lower is awfully appealing. Only the memory of caring for Mom as her body consumed itself, skin eroding from within, bones poking through, keeps me from sliding farther.

Which is why the photos of Rachel Fredrickson made me sad. Losing weight, she said, helped her find herself again. I hope so, and I hope she can find a healthy weight too.

The power of being thin is dangerously addictive. I know. So did my smart, funny and beautiful Mom.

O, the rose 'er blooming....

Guns & Dragons

O, the rose 'er blooming.... A rose for remembrance….

On Friday a student carried a shotgun into Arapahoe High School in Centennial, Colorado, a suburb south of Denver, along with what news reports described as “a bandolier” of ammunition and three Molotov cocktails.

He asked where a teacher was, and then shot another student in the face, point-blank.

Teachers and students followed the drills and locked classroom doors and dived for cover, and the sheriff’s deputy assigned to the school immediately pursued the shooter. The boy, a senior, was found dead a few minutes later, having shot himself.

Friday’s shooting happened on the eve of the one-year anniversary of the shootings at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, where a young man with automatic weapons killed 20 students, and six teachers and staff.

The two young men were different people from different backgrounds. Their common thread: they apparently saw killing as a viable solution.

Last night as I watched the animated movie How to Train Your Dragon, I thought about how violence itself begets violence, until it becomes the right–or only thing to do.

If you’ve not seen How to Train Your Dragon or read the book by British author Cressida Cowell, here’s a synopsis:

Toothless, the Night Fury dragon, allows Hiccup to touch him. Toothless, the Night Fury dragon, allows Hiccup to touch him.

Hiccup, a nerdy young Viking whose father is the village chief and a dragon-slayer of heroic proportions (in all ways), gets his longed-for chance to prove himself when he is accepted into dragon-slaying school.

Only he tracks an injured Night Fury dragon and ends up befriending the creature–in secret, since he is betraying all his village holds true. As Hiccup gets to know the dragon, Toothless, he learns that dragons are not the mortal enemies he has been raised to believe.

His new understanding allows Hiccup to defeat dragon after dragon in school, and become the head of his class.

Until the day he is chosen for the honor of killing his first dragon–and cannot. The village and his father turn on him. In the end, Hiccup and his motley crew of schoolmates and the dragons they train save the Viking armada from death, and dragons become part of village life.

It’s a well-told fairy-tale (the special effects of dragon-flight alone are worth the price) with a happy ending when Hiccup and his macho father reconcile, and Toothless saves with the young boy/man who befriended him. (Hiccup also gets a smooch from the girl, his sassy fellow-classmate Astrid.)

My new mascot The decidedly friendly dragon who inspires my work

What stuck in my mind was the basic premise: stripped of Vikings and dragons (which, as a half-Norwegian, half-Scot, I happen to appreciate), it’s a tale of a culture locked in warfare with the “other.”

The Vikings must kill the dragons, who have pillaged and burned their village for generations; the dragons must pillage (and kill in self-defense) in order to serve to the uber-evil giant who has enslaved them.

Neither dragons nor Vikings understand the other. They are locked in generations of warfare, kill or be killed.

Until Hiccup tracks Toothless, and realizes the dragon is just as afraid of him as he is of it. Toothless is no more a killer than Hiccup is.

“Everything we thought we knew about them is wrong,” Hiccup realizes.

That “aha!” moment begins the boy’s journey to a re-framing of knowledge and culture that ultimately saves both his people and the dragons.

“We become the stories we tell ourselves,” writes psychologist and author Mary Pipher in The Shelter of Each Other.

A lily for peace... A lily too…

If the stories we tell ourselves glorify violence and blind hatred, is it any wonder that troubled youngsters walk into schools with guns and the intent to kill?

I’m not suggesting the solution is simple. But I continue to be struck by the lesson in Hiccup’s aha moment: “Everything we thought we knew about them was wrong.”

Seems to me our kids need more stories that glorify tolerance and understanding. And more heroes like the scrawny nerd who refused to kill dragons because he dared to know the fearsome “other” as a fellow creature.

Hiccup and Toothless point the way to the kind of healthier stories we can become–with humor, rousing action and dazzling special-effects.

Altars and ofrendas: honoring our loved ones

Family photos and special objects in an everyday altar-grouping in my bedroom.

Today is Halloween, the Eve of All Hallows Day, a day with roots in the Celtic Samhain (SAW-in), the holiday marking the end of summer and harvest-time, a time when the connection between the world of the living and that of the dead was seen as especially strong. The souls of the dead returned to visit, and food and drink were set out for them. Spirits of all sorts, including fairies not yet sanitized and rendered benign by Disney, were especially active.

The skeleton theme that survives into today’s candy-laden holiday on the eve of All Hallows comes from that connection to the dead; the tradition of jack-o-lanterns with fearsome grins and dressing in costume may originate in protection from those clever and not-always-friendly fairies and other spirits.

Having grown up with the sound of my Grandmother Chris reciting Celtic tales in her Scots burr, I’ve always felt more connected to All Hallow’s Day than to modern Halloween. The idea of a time to remember and honor those who have come before appeals to me. It’s not something I do just once a year, but I appreciate a reminder to be especially thoughtful and thankful for the gifts of those beloveds.

Then when we lived in New Mexico, my dear friend Denise Chavez, novelist extraordinaire and director of the Border Book Festival, taught me about the Mejicano celebration of el Dia de los Muertos with its ofrendas, offerings and altares to honor our dead, and my understanding of these universal traditions deepened.

The sandstone shelf in my office holding objects related to those who inspire my writing

I’ve always been a collector and arranger of objects that have significance to me, whether photographs or pebbles, pressed leaves or my great-grandmother’s antique button hook (visible on the porcelain tray in the photo at the top of this post). Thinking of my arrangements as a creative way to honor my own loved ones–living and dead, gives these groupings special meaning.

All of which explains why I spent part of this week not carving pumpkins into grinning jack-o-lanterns or selecting bags of candy to dispense to sugar-fueled trick-or-treaters (thought I did some of both!) but gathering objects related to my sweetheart, the late Richard Cabe, and placing them on an antique tile-topped table he particularly loved that came from my grandparents’ house in Berkeley.

One of my altars honoring Richard.

A photo of “Collateral Damage,” one of Richard’s sculptures, taken by Molly’s sweetie, Mark Allen; an article about his sculpture from a magazine, the program from his memorial service, a bowl full of pebbles, marbles, and pieces of rusted iron he kept; a paper crane he folded, a piece of sheet metal seamed for a sculpture, his portfolio, a fiber vessel he was fond of by artist and woodsman Rod Porco; a series of haiku I wrote about one of Richard’s sculptures, a candle…. (Later I added some of his favorite food and drink: a Belgian-style Trippel Ale from Fort Collins’-based New Belgium Brewery, an orange peel Chocolove chocolate bar, and a green chile breakfast burrito from Ploughboy Local Market.)

I ran out of space on the table, so I put a few objects on the cube next to his chair. (The paper and styrofoam pieces are maquettes for large sculptures.) Collecting and arranging these pieces felt good to me, not morbid or obsessive. I cried a little, but mostly I enjoyed remembering and honoring the love of my life, reminding his spirit that my home is always his, that his work, his gifts, his life will always be a part of mine.

Another few objects to remember Richard by.

Tomorrow is All Hallows Day, the day with its roots in the Celtic Samhain, and el Dia de los Muertos, a day in many traditions to honor the souls of departed loved ones. It’s also November first; Richard died on November 27th, nearly a year ago.

For me, this is a time of remembering and being thankful for the gift of Richard in my life. And continuing to walk on this new path with as generous and loving steps as I can.


Speaking of generosity, please be generous in helping out all those affected by Hurricane Sandy. We are each other’s community, near and far….

Brain cancer journey: Finding comfort in the cycle of the seasons

Richard and I just rolled in from our latest trip over the mountains from Denver, and as the designated driver until Richard recovers, I have to say I don’t even want to see the car for a few days, much less spend any more time in the driver’s seat. The six-hour-round-trip commute, plus dealing with city traffic, wring me out. It’s good to be home where I can walk everywhere, saving my own energy and the planet’s fossil fuel.


The news from this latest peek into Richard’s brain is mixed.

The good: Last night’s CT scan shows no sign of bleeding, which means the cranial cleansing surgery of 15 days ago was successful. And the backwards-question-mark-shaped suture running across the right side of his scalp from front to back and down along his ear has healed so nicely, so his head bling (the 28 stainless-steel staples) was removed. 

The not-so-good: There’s still a lot of cerebro-spinal fluid filling the space between his right brain and his skull. Enough, in fact, that his right hemisphere continues to push against his left. His neurosurgery team is concerned enough to want to see him again in three weeks.

So, we didn’t get the “all clear” from neurosurgery we were hoping for, the “looks great, see you in three months.” But we did get “Well, it’s not worse,” a distinct improvement over how things have been recently, with two crisis trips in one month to the VA Hospital, plus the most recent craniotomy.

As I drove us home, it occurred to me that three weeks before the next trip is longer than we’ve been home at any time since mid-December. Huh. I bet that’ll feel more like a reprieve when I’m not so exhausted.


After spending three hours at the VA Hospital, we spent the next three touring Denver Botanic Gardens with my Dad. There’s nothing like wandering among gardens to restore my spirit. All that life bent on the riotous business of growth and reproduction, just bursting with energy. Although it was an unusually warm afternoon with temperatures in the ’70s, most of the garden was still in winter dress–which is not shabby, as in the beautiful contrast of little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), Willa Cather’s “wine-colored grass” native to the American prairies, and Mexican feathergrass (Nasella tenuissima) in the photo above.

We wandered the whole gardens, from the formal borders in the front to the woodland areas and the prairie, and then past lily ponds still drained for the winter, rose gardens neatly pruned, and into the orangery and conservatories.

(Hence the photo of Richard finishing the last of his lunch in the orangery at the beginning of the post, the air around him suffused with the sweet scent of citrus blossoms, and the tulips and amaryllis bursting out of the flower boxes.)


Crocus and dwarf iris blossoms popped up everywhere outside. Like the vivid blue clumps of dwarf iris naturalizing in a grass and sedum “lawn” in the photo above. That’s my 82-year-old, legally-blind Dad admiring them, first with one eye and then with the other, since each eye has so little visual field left that the two no longer combine. Still, having to struggle to see something doesn’t dim his enjoyment of it in the least.


Like these starry crocus receiving the energetic pollination attentions of a fly.


Or the snowdrops that reminded Dad and I of the year we spent with Mom in England.

Or the outrageous contrast of these chrome yellow Danford-type dwarf iris with rust and green Sedums.

I wish the news on Richard’s brain was better. I want to see him healed and back to work on his sculpture. I wish the earthquake and tsunami hadn’t devastated northern Japan, sending the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant into toxin-spewing death spiral. I wish the world were at peace–everywhere.

That’s not how things are going right now. So I’ll soothe my spirit wherever I can, for instance, spending part of an afternoon with two of my favorite guys searching for splashes of beauty as winter’s spare architecture gives way to the riotous blooms of spring. There is immense comfort in the cycle of the seasons–life continues, despite all.

Brain cancer journey: The gift of not much

I’m exhausted tonight, so instead of the post I imagined writing on the nuclear power plant crises in Japan, here’s an update on what’s happening on our journey with Richard’s brain cancer.

The answer? Not much. Which is a real gift. We’ve had plenty of drama and trauma over the past year and a half, some of the most difficult coming in the last several weeks. Ordinary is a good thing right now. Richard’s working on building a daily routine that incorporates time for recovery, including meditation, yoga, juggling and other activities designed to heal and exercise his much-tortured right brain. He is also working toward a return to his shop to take up his practice of sculpture again–working with rocks as “ambassadors of the earth.”


His recovery so far is astonishing. (And he has a truly sculptural “crest” of shiny stainless steel staples closing the incision from the latest surgery, as you can see in the photo above.) Fortunately, his good-natured personality lives in his untouched frontal lobes, and his intellect and formidable ability to analyze anything that comes his way, from art theory and mathematical models, to building a new deer gate between the kitchen garden and the compost pile–his current project–live in his undisturbed left brain. 

Yesterday was such a lovely day that he worked on that gate, and on helping me get the spring seeds planted in the kitchen garden. It was a treat to work together, something we haven’t been home long enough between medical crises to do much of in a very long time.


Today began with a tiny but welcome dose of moisture in the form of about an inch of wet snow. (The photo above is a corner of the snow-etched garden this morning at dawn.) As is normal in the high desert, both snow and any sign of moisture were gone by mid-morning. Ah well.

We started on our much-neglected household accounts, and that’s when we were reminded that after three craniotomies in 18 months, even the most brilliant of brains needs recovery time. Richard was trying to balance our charge card statement. It wasn’t working. After some gentle suggestion, he let me take a look, and I figured out what had happened. He was chagrined. I reminded him that he’s less than two weeks out from a craniotomy, and before that the fluid pressure on his brain nearly killed him–twice.

“So cut yourself some slack, okay?”

“Okay,” he said.

Tonight we’re sitting side by side in our cozy and quiet living room with the day going dark. Soon we’ll get ready for bed, stopping to look overhead out the skylight in our bedroom ceiling for constellation Orion, who appears to stride westward on his nightly journey, followed by his faithful dogs, Canis Major and Canis Minor.

In a world where the sudden wrenching of an earthquake can cause tsunami waves that take thousands of lives and wreak havoc that may last for generations, a life where a build-up of fluid pressure on the brain can cause an existence to nearly wink out, Richard and I are very that right now, our big excitement is tracking Orion across the dark sky, night after night.

The gift of not much happening is what he and I need most for recovery.

Our hearts go out to the people of Japan, where far too much has happened in the past few days. We hope that reovery is on its way there. May we all get whatever we need to restore our lives!

Books: Fantastic, Elastic Brain

As my husband Richard and I have walked this wild journey with his brain cancer over the past year and some, I’ve learned a lot about brains and how they work, beginning when the lead neurology resident showed us his first brain MRI and patiently explained what the multiple views indicated. Then came the diagrams drawn by the neurosurgeons before his most recent and extensive brain surgery, showing what’s where, what each part does, and exactly what they planned to cut out and what they hoped to avoid.

I’ve also learned through direct experience, living with a guy who gets along without much of his right temporal lobe–it was removed, along with several glioblastomas (the worst you can have) in that surgery. Our reading material, as you might imagine, is heavy on all things brain: neurology, brain and immune system function, and brain health and healing.


So I was tickled to read Your Fantastic, Elastic Brain, the latest offering from kid’s book publisher Little Pickle Press. It’s a picture book, complete with artlessly silly humor appropriate for ages 4 to 7, but the material is sophisticated and informative enough to engage adults too. (At least it engaged me; you can draw your own conclusions from that.)

Did you know, for instance, that your brain weighs about 3 pounds? Or that it’s 85 percent water? (So when people talk accuse you of having water on the brain—they’re right.)

Or that your amygdala, a tiny region at the center of your brain is named for its size and shape? Amygdala means “almond.” This minute region manages the synthesis and release of many of the so-called molecules of emotions, the chemical compounds that carry your feelings to individual cells throughout your body.

Your Fantastic, Elastic Brain is a lot more than a collection of fun facts; it aims to inspire and empower young minds, hearts–and brains. Psychologist and author JoAnn Deak and illustrator Sarah Ackerley take their topic beyond funny and captivating to show kids how to make full use of their brain’s abilities to stretch and grow. (Note: adult brains can also stretch and grow.)

I chuckled at the humor in the pages that explain the brain’s basic structures; I appreciated the book’s simple lessons in stretching and training your brain by practicing new skills, making mistakes, and facing your fears.


I’ll confess another personal reason I like this book: It respects the journey Richard’s taken in recovering from brain cancer and two brain surgeries. In fact, Deak could be writing about my beloved sculptor husband in the part on “neurosculptors”: Each time you learn something new–whether an intellectual concept, an emotional experience, or a physical skill, she writes, your brain grows more connections among the neurons, resulting in a brain that’s more elastic, “so it can hold more information and ideas.”

This post kicks off the blog book tour for Your Fantastic, Elastic Brain, and Little Pickle Press is offering a special deal: 25% off the price of the book ordered through their web site. (Use the coupon code HOME.) Follow the rest of the blog book tour via the Little Pickle Press blog.

One final thought: Paging through this lucid and inviting book, I couldn’t help but think of U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords, shot through the left hemisphere in an apparent assassination attempt in Tucson, Arizona on Saturday. May her brain indeed prove to be fantastic and elastic, and may her recovery–however long it takes–be complete.