Summer silliness (photo by Scott Calhoun)

Taking Stock

Summer silliness (photo by Scott Calhoun) Summer silliness (photo by Scott Calhoun)

Last Wednesday, the second anniversary of Richard’s death, I thought about what I’ve accomplished over the past 104 weeks.

I’m not being obsessive (I hope). I’m attempting to be mindful about adapting to the wrenching and unwanted change of losing my robustly healthy heart’s partner to brain cancer at age 61.

For almost 29 years, Richard and I were a pair, “two halves of the same brain,” as my friend Kerry put it this afternoon, describing she and her husband Dave, proprietor/owners of Salida’s Ploughboy Local Market.

“That was Richard and me,” I said.

It’s not only my life which changed when Richard died. I’m not just the remaining half of Richard-and-Susan. I’m different now that I’m on my own.

Taking stock is one way to check in with my inner self about how this complex process of working through grief and building a new life is going.

Terraphilia buffed up and ready to for its next owners. Terraphilia buffed up and ready to for its next owners.

Here’s what I’ve done (not necessarily in chronological order):

  • completed a lot of paperwork (death initiates a proliferation of forms)
  • subdivided our reclaimed former industrial property
  • learned finish carpentry and other skills to complete Terraphilia, the sculptural, earth-embracing house Richard built for us (thank you, Maggie and Tony, for teaching and working with me, and buoying my flagging spirits)
  • finished the renovation of Richard’s historic studio building (thanks to Grant Pound, Colorado Art Ranch volunteers, and Bob Spencer, among others)
  • founded a small artist/writer residency program
  • given a few really good keynote talks, including one for TEDx Homer
  • moved Dad from Colorado to a senior community in Washington near my brother and family (where he’s very, very happy)
  • sold Terraphilia and the studio (thank you, Kathleen Nelson and Judy Shuford!)
  • My new place after winter arrived a mite prematurely before Thanksgiving. My new place after winter arrived a mite prematurely before Thanksgiving.

    downsized (thank you, Free the Monkey)

  • moved my stuff box-by-box with the help of amazingly patient friends, and Eric of Artful Moving
  • mentored incredibly talented young writers through the national program YoungArts
  • invented an inspiring and rewarding “Write & Retreat” workshop
  • wrote the first draft of a new memoir
  • began reading the manuscript aloud to shape it into a compelling story
  • helped develop Be a Habitat Hero, a project that aims to inspire us all to save songbirds and pollinators–and water–by replacing lawns with healthy habitat
  • wrote 734 daily haiku (they’re not all especially good) and posted each with one of my photos on Facebook (and Twitter and Pinterest–I’m experimenting with social media)
  • redesigned my website and blog
  • rediscovered my inner redhead

Then I thought about what I haven’t done. One thing is probably obvious from the list above:

  • just be
cocoa heart cocoa heart

I’ve been a bit like a particle of cocoa in the hot chocolate I make myself every morning. I steam the milk, exciting the molecules with heat energy, and then stir in cocoa. The energized milk molecules collide with the cocoa particles, setting the cocoa into random Brownian motion.

(I would argue here that unlike the cocoa particles I haven’t been bouncing around randomly. Although my life does sometimes feel as if I’ve been colliding with much-too-energized events….)

As the milk cools, the movement of its molecules slows. The cocoa particles, no longer held in suspension by random collisions, drift to the bottom of the cup.

After two years, the momentum that sustained me through the changes I needed to make (before I ran out of energy, gumption and/or money) is waning, like that milk cooling.

I’m ready to slow. In fact, I’m ready to curl inward and see if I can’t do some deep healing. Or perhaps deep howling. (Whichever works.)

I’m ready to just hang with this solo me and see who she is, and what that means for this life I didn’t imagine I’d be building.

I know this about her already: she’s a redhead who isn’t inclined to take much… guff. I like that.

Richard and Susan in the Tularosa Basin of Southern New Mexico, around 1992.

Life Changes in an Instant

Richard and Susan in the Tularosa Basin of Southern New Mexico, around 1992. Richard and Susan (I’m standing on a boulder in a rare moment of tallness) in the Tularosa Basin of Southern New Mexico, around 1992.

“What’s with all the birds?”

I scanned the surrounding landscape in response to Richard’s puzzled question.

It was seven-thirty on a late-summer Sunday morning, and we were driving a dusty, gravel road in rural southwestern Colorado, Richard at the wheel as always, headed for Durango and breakfast. The sky was cloudless, the air still and already hinting at the day’s heat.

“What birds?” I asked cautiously.

“On the wires,” he said, lifting a hand off the steering wheel to point at the utility wires dipping low over the valley, “on the branches of the willows by the pond, on the stems of the rabbitbrush.”

He half-turned in the driver’s seat, “Don’t you see them?”

A chill skittered down my bare arms. I looked again, carefully, searching with eyes trained by growing up in a birdwatching family.

“No.”

That exchange took place four years ago yesterday. Although I didn’t know it then, those birds shattered the future I imagined, the years of work and travel with the man I loved, retirement, growing old together…. The pattern shifted like shards of glass in a kaleidoscope when the ring is twisted, reforming into a new pattern I would never have dreamed.

Richard holding a bathroom sink carved from a pink and black gneiss boulder. Richard holding a bathroom sink carved from a pink and black gneiss boulder.

Whatever was wrong with Richard’s brain became the focus of our days (and my nighttime fears) from the moment the words left his mouth.

Life changes fast.

Life changes in the instant.

You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.

–Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking

“Life as you know it ends.”

I understand the truth of those words now at the cellular level, in a searing way I did not when I first read them, before the birds appeared.

For Richard and me, the ending was not instant the way it was for Didion when her husband, John Dunne, died of a heart attack. Nor was our daughter gravely ill.

We had the (relative) luxury of two and a quarter years together before the brain cancer that caused massive swelling in his right brain, disturbing his visual processing center enough to cause a visitation of the birds that did not exist, ended Richard’s life.

Two and a quarter years that we lived as well as possible, loved much and regretted little, two and a quarter years to get used the fact that life changes in an instant. That life as we knew it would end.

Holding hands, even at the end.... Holding hands, even at the end….

Four years and a day after that moment, I am still assimilating that wrenching change, the biggest to shake my life since I married he and then four-year-old Molly 30 years ago. The love of my life is gone, moved on to whatever’s next, and I’m building a life alone.

“Life changes in an instant.”

I know his spirit’s still with me and always will be, and ditto for the love we nurtured so carefully over the years and which we shared not just with each other, but with every being around us and this numinous planet itself.

All that’s comforting and sweet, but I’m the one alone tonight, the one who spent the week from h***ll dealing with buyers who acted in what certainly seems like bad faith. A contract we had all spent a good bit of time and no small amount of money on fell apart at what is essentially the last minute in a rather ugly way.

I’ve lost a lot of sleep worrying about it for the past week, and it’s not over yet. I’ve done my best to take things in a positive way, and to sort out my end.

Richard Cabe at Carpenter Ranch, August 2010, just before his second surgery to remove a brain tumor. Richard at Carpenter Ranch, August 2010

I think it’s all going to work out in the end, but still…

I miss the guy whose thoughtful wisdom and thorough analysis, whose boundless creativity and bone-deep love would have made this all more bearable. I miss the rumble of his laugh, the warmth of his hand, the way his muscular body fit mine one as if we’d been made for each other.

Life changes in an instant.

We pick ourselves up, perhaps slowly, perhaps painfully. And then walk on.

With love.

Richard with his mom at her apartment, Fayetteville

Peonies and Passages

I usually post on this blog once a week, often on Sunday night. Last weekend though, I was involved in negotiations related to the sale contract on Terraphilia. I also said goodbye to rare sheep breed and wool expert/ writer/ fiber artist Deborah Robson, this year’s third Terraphilia Resident, welcomed artist/writer friends from out-of-town for brunch, and worked a couple of mornings at Ploughboy Local Market to help out Kerry and Dave Nelson, the owners, who have helped me many times over the past few years.

Richard with his mom at her apartment, Fayetteville Richard with his mother at home, 2010

Monday, I had settled in to catch up when the news came that my mother-in-law, Miss Alice (Richard’s mom) had a massive heart attack and was in the coronary care unit in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

I called my sister-in-law, Tish, to see if I should get in the car and begin the 800-mile-drive across the Plains.

“Let’s see how she does. She’s lucid and asking me to cancel her bridge games for the next few days.”

I chuckled. To say my mother-in-law is a passionate card player is an understatement.

Tish promised to keep me posted.

Tuesday morning, Miss Alice’s condition seemed better. That afternoon, friends from out-of-town arrived for a several-day stay. By evening, the procedure planned to stabilize Miss Alice’s heart rhythms was cancelled because it was deemed too risky for her weakened heart. Her lungs had begun filling up with fluid, and her heart doc  authorized morphine to keep her comfortable.

I talked to my sister-in-law. “Mother was just talking about how much she enjoyed the visit with you and Molly in June.”

“Should I come?”

“It’s probably too late.” Oh.

Wednesday–was that really just yesterday?–the eldest sibling, Ron, who lives across town outside Salida, booked a last-minute fight to Arkansas. I talked to Mike, Richard’s youngest brother.

“Mother seems comfortable, but she’s getting weaker,” he said. “She knows you’re thinking of her. Ron will be here this evening.”

Miss Alice with Richard on her last trip to Colorado (she was 91 then!) Miss Alice with Richard on her last trip to Colorado, when she was 91 years old

They had been talking about her preferences. “A small graveside service at the cemetery where Dad is buried. Maybe a service at the church here. Most of her friends are gone already.”

He was thinking of arranging a memorial service later at a time the whole family could gather, “like you did for Richard. She’s been talking about that.” Maybe even here in Salida, he said, “All the grand-kids seem to like to gather there.”

“Let me know how I can help. I could be there anytime.”

“We know that and it means a lot.”

This morning I woke in the darkness at quarter to four, groggy, unsure of what had thrust me out of sound sleep.

Until I heard Miss Alice’s voice in my head, her soft Arkansas twang distinctive.

“Honey, you won’t forget to move those peonies [she always pronounced it “pee-OH-knees”] I gave you to your new garden, will you? I want to think of them blooming where you can see them. I don’t want you to forget me.”

Years ago she gave me a brown paper bag containing plump peony tubers, sprouts of the plants that grew at the doorstep of her childhood home in Possum Valley.

"Old Home Place" peony in bud “Old Home Place” peony in bud

They’ve thrived in the raised bed just outside the kitchen garden, every year producing lovely white blossoms blushed with pink. Richard and I called the plant “Old Home Place” for its history. Peonies, I’ve learned since, were once the flower of Decoration Day, placed on graves in remembrance of our dead.

“Of course,” I said aloud. “I’ll plant your peonies at the new house, along with the irises you loved so. It’ll be your garden.”

I was too unsettled to find sleep again.

Finally, I got up and checked my email. There was the news that Miss Alice had died at five am Arkansas time that morning with Tish, Ron and Mike, all of her remaining kids, around her.

Five am in Arkansas is four here, just after when I woke. Huh.

I looked at the calendar. Today, August 8th, is Richard’s and my 30th wedding anniversary.

“May you find beautiful flowers and great card games in the great beyond,” I said.

And laid my head on my desk and cried.

Alice Verlee Cabe: January 17, 1917-August 8, 2013

 

Sandra D. Lynn and granddaughter Skye

Passages: Poet Sandra Lynn

Sandra D. Lynn and granddaughter Skye Sandra D. Lynn and granddaughter Skye

Last Wednesday morning, on my long drive to Western Washington, I stopped to check email in Spanish Fork on Utah’s Wasatch Front, between spearing peaks and sprawling suburbs.

Among the raft of real-estate-contract legalities in my inbox was a message with the return address of Sandra Lynn, poet, teacher and fellow lover of native plants. I opened it without looking at the subject line, delighted to hear from her. And then realized the email was from her son, DeLesley Hutchins, with the news that his mother was gone.

Hell.

Sandra wasn’t old, although she was very happily a grandmother. She had retired just a few years back after a career teaching Creative Writing and English at University of New Mexico and New Mexico State University-Carlsbad, and then serving as administrator for the New Mexico Native Plant Society.

And now she’s gone, died on the morning of July 16th–Richard’s birthday.

Just a few days before I left on the road-trip, I was sorting through our extensive collection of coffee table books, thinking about which ones I would take to the smaller space at Creek House. I picked up Where Rainbows Wait for Rain: The Big Bend Country, a gorgeous collaboration drawing on Sandra’s poems and Richard Fenker Jr.’s photographs.

Where Rainbows Wait for Rain, Tanagram Press Where Rainbows Wait for Rain, Tanagram Press

This one’s going with me, I thought.

The book fell open to one of my favorite of Sandra’s poems, “Ernst Tinaja.” (In the language of the Chihuahuan Desert, a tinaja is a waterhole in the rock, a pocket dissolved in solid limestone that holds precious runoff from the infrequent but thunderous summer rains.)

As if the earth had strained
to hold up its jug
in the hope of rain,
the layers of limestone and shale
around the tinaja tilt skyward
a V, open arms.
Snug in the V
a triangular crock
filled up with green water
grown dark with long reflection.
All around, the rock chips and flakes
into a litter of color —
buff, yellow, mauve, rose, grey —
a box of broken pastels.
Or is this shattered spectrum
the petrified, weathered shards
of rainbows, with a remnant of archaic
rain preserved in a somehow unbroken jar?
This canyon must be a midden
of rainbows,
the place they go in the end,
like the dying ground of elephants.
Comely as ivory,
this chromatic refuse,
tossed out of the sky,
salvaged in these strangely fragile
arms of stone.

Sandra and I weren’t best friends. We were writers who appreciated each other and who shared a love of words and native plants, and especially, of the sprawling expanses of the Chihuahuan Desert, North America’s largest and least-loved desert. We met when I was promoting Barren, Wild and Worthless, my love song to the desert landscapes and communities I never entirely became comfortable living in.

Windows on the Past: Historic Lodgings of New Mexico Windows on the Past: Historic Lodgings of New Mexico, University of New Mexico Press

I remember talking to her classes at University of New Mexico and admiring the warmth and passion she brought to teaching. We read together when her book on historic hotels of New Mexico was published, and stayed in touch as life took her from Albuquerque to Carlsbad and then back again, and took me and Richard from Las Cruces to Salida, and then through his brain cancer.

I hear Sandra’s voice still, softened by a childhood in East Texas,

Territory of lipstick, candlestick,
pines’ dark gossip about collapsed
shacks, and red roads that wander
off into the trees like bloodlines
into their dotage. East Texas.
Where the South stains the edge
of the Southwest.
(From “Geographies”)

Some people have a way of showing us places and lives we thought we knew, a way of conjuring wonder out of desolate, sun-burnt rock, the way water conjures life out of the dusty expanses of desert with heart-stopping suddenness that fills our spirits. Sandra Lynn was one such.

May your spirit always find rainbows and tinajas, my friend. You are missed.

Carpentry and grief

My 7-pound pneumatic nailer

Last fall, I decided to finish this house that Richard helped design and build with such skill, sculptural flair, and love (but never got around to actually completing the final pesky details of door and window trim, baseboard, interior doors, or finishing the master bathroom). Given my limited finances, I decided I’d do much of the work myself. Given my limited skills and energy, I figured I’d putter away a bit at a time.

Once I began working though, I recognized several problems with that approach. First, I had no idea what I was doing. I didn’t know power tools, much less large woodworking machines. Nor had I ever done any carpentry.

Fortunately I know patient teachers. Thanks to Bob Spencer, aka “Mr. Door,” my neighbor Beverly Gray, tireless painter and varnisher, and friends Maggie and Tony Niemann, who are fearless about tackling any project, I am making progress and becoming competent at finish carpentry.

Maggie and Tony working on baseboard in the living room.

Second, I don’t seem to have a “putter” speed. It’s basically all or nothing with me. Since I got home from Young Arts in mid-January, I’ve been spending a couple of hours on finish-work almost every day. A couple of hours that used to be my down time. No wonder I’m always exhausted.

I’m doing this the hard way, of course, and milling my own trim: I buy 1X6 pine boards, paint-grade, either 12 or 16 feet long, and rip them in half the long way on Richard’s big cabinetmaker’s table saw. Then I chop the 2-11/16″-width trim to length, run the ripped edge through the bench sander and planer too if necessary, and apply either two coats of paint or two coats of clear wipe-on poly, depending on where the trim is going.

I bring the finished pieces into the house, plug in the air compressor, attach the 20-foot-long hose and the big pneumatic nailer, and begin nailing. Of course, it’s rarely that simple. The drywall’s not straight, the door frame’s not level, or the framers left nails sticking out, or…. Each piece is a lesson.

My bedroom, with doors and trim around those doors.

Third, it’s a huge project. As of tonight, I have trimmed 18 of 21 windows, installed or helped install six of the seven interior doors needed, built jambs for 5 door openings, and put up framing around the inside of six exterior doors and both sides of six interior doors. By my rough count, I’ve milled several hundred running board feet of lumber in the doing. I haven’t gotten to the master bath yet.

When it all seems overwhelming, I remember Richard saying he had always wanted to build a house with his own hands. And now that he had, he would add, he wondered why. And then he would throw his head back and laugh his rich laugh.

He was a healthy six-foot-tall guy who had serious muscles and who never met a design problem he couldn’t solve–elegantly. I am not. Any of that. Although my five-six, 110-pound frame does now boast muscles in places I didn’t know I could have them (bruises, too).

Doing this work is a sweet connection to my Love, who died of brain cancer a year and three months ago tomorrow. It also keeps my grief awfully close to the surface.

Sunday afternoon, I stopped ripping trim to dash down to the Steamplant Theatre for a benefit talk by Salida novelist Kent Haruf. Kent read from his brand-new book, Benediction, a sparely beautiful and elegiac story of a man dying of cancer in the web of family and friends of Holt, Colorado, a fictional small town on Colorado’s eastern Plains.

Kent Haruf’s new novel

Afterwards, waiting near the front of a long line to have Kent sign my book, I felt edgy, cranky, trapped. The event was a celebration, both of Benediction’s release and of Kent and his wife Cathy’s dedication to Sunset Home, Salida’s hospice house. (Random House donated the books; sales benefited Sunset Home.) I was so impatient, I embarrassed myself. I just wanted out of there.

I practically raced home. Back out in the shop, ready to finish ripping trim, it dawned on me: Cancer. Hospice. Death. Kent and Cathy helped with Richard’s hospice care. Do you suppose the celebration and Benediction hit too close to my heart?

I turned on the table saw, put on my gloves and safety glasses, and ran a board through with a satisfying snarl (from the saw, not me). And felt better. Apparently my grief, and the inner asshole it sometimes triggers, is assuaged by this noisy, exhausting carpentry work. That’s a blessing I hadn’t expected.

A House Built With Love

The view out the kitchen window, looking over the roofs of downtown to the Sangre de Cristo Range in the distance.

As I gear up for another weekend of trim carpentry, I’ve been thinking about leaving this home Richard helped design and build for us. After moving ten times (and living in six different states) in our first 17 years together, this was to be our last house, the place where we would  live out our days.

We did that. We spent six years building the house, working on it whenever we had money and time and then moved in, never imagining that the “our” part would end so quickly. We had lived here for just three years when Richard saw the legions of birds that were the only indication of his brain tumor and the cancer that would kill him two years later.

The living/dining room on a winter day when the sun pouring in the bank of south-facing windows heats the concrete floor, keeping the house toasty.

In the year-plus since his death, I’ve realized that the house/guest cottage/shop complex that was perfect for the two of us is much too large for the one of me. Being the practical sort, and not having an abundance of money, I decided to “right-size” and build myself a much smaller place that would incorporate this house’s green features–the passive solar design that keeps the house warm in winter and cool in summer (for free), a photovoltaic system to generate clean electricity from the sun, and the feeling of an intimate connection to the out-of-doors.

Of course, to build that new, small house, I have to sell this place. (There’s always a catch.) And before selling it, I have to finish the major projects that my love, who could design and build anything with his natural sculptural aesthetic never got around to. (“Simple” projects like installing trim, baseboard or interior doors were not interesting enough to him.)

The “cliff” Richard designed for our bedroom, a cement-block wall for heat storage with a sandstone shelf like a sheltering overhang. (He built the simple bed platform too.)

Which is why I find myself ripping, milling, sanding, painting, and nailing trim in my spare time. Part-time Queen of the Pneumatic Nailer, that’s me!

As I work, I often find myself smiling, feeling connected to Richard as I learn the machines and tools that he used with such facility that they seemed extensions of his skilled hands and brilliant mind. And sometimes I find myself in tears, wondering what life will be like when I am no longer sheltered within the walls he built for us.

This house is full of his work, from the bathroom sinks he carved out of local boulders to that cliff in the bedroom, with its sandstone ledge-shelves, and the arching doorways, the cabinets with mortise-and-tenon face frames held together with mesquite pegs, the drawers in my office with pulls carved from beach cobbles we collected together….

I’ll take some of his free-standing work with me, but the house–which I realize now is his largest sculpture–will remain as he built it, “with love,” as he used to say.

Richard holding a bathroom sink carved from a pink and black gneiss boulder.

I take comfort from the idea that the beautiful and sustainable house we created together, and all the love that went into it, will be a nurturing and inspiring home for someone else.

It’s deeply satisfying to learn the skills that came so easily to him, and to complete some of the things he started.

It’s also painful, a reminder that our paths have diverged, and the “us” we imagined continuing for years to come is no longer. His death changed me in ways I am still only beginning to understand.

I’m still me, but being me without Richard is different. Sometimes I feel like this little folk art dragon I found at Books and Books last week at YoungArts, looking eagerly at life with ears and head up, stubby wings not quite big enough to fly. I hope by the time I finish this house and pass it on to others, my new wings will have grown enough to carry me onward….

My new mascot

Giving Thanks for Hospice

Molly Cabe and Carol Ley, harpist for Angel of Shavano Hospice, play a duet in our living room, November, 2011

A year ago, this house was filled with people. Molly and her sweetie Mark were staying in the guest cottage, Richard was ensconced in the hospital bed in our bedroom; friends and family came and went along with nurses, home health care aides and others from his hospice team. Even while I appreciated their support and love, the parade of people often overwhelmed me. I craved peace and quiet.

Today, it’s just me. I have peace and quiet in spades, and of course, I would trade it to bring Richard back, his smile beaming like sunshine. (Ttechnically it’s not just me here: Buffy Noble, an English poet, is staying in the guest cottage with the Terraphilia Residency Program. She’s very quiet though.)

My late love and his incandescent smile….

The approach of Thanksgiving has me thinking about what I’m thankful for. The list is long, beginning with the love and support of my wonderful family, the generous community of this small town, and the rich fellowship of friends and readers and colleagues.

Right up near the top of that list is hospice. Last year I got to know two hospice organizations: Visiting Nurses Association of Denver cared for my mom until her death in early February. Seven months later to the day, Richard’s oncologist told us it was time to refer him for hospice care. So the day after we returned from The Big Trip, our three-week, nearly 4,000-mile-long drive across the interior West and down the Pacific Coast from Washington state to southern California, his team from Angel of Shavano Hospice made their first visit.

What is hospice? Simply put, it is team-oriented, compassionate care for people with a terminal illness or injury, and their families. Hospice care focuses on combining therapeutic medical care, pain management, and emotional and spiritual support to allow people to live the end of their lives in dignity and comfort, whether in a hospice facility or at home. The word originated with shelters for travelers on pilgrimages in the Middle Ages; the first modern facility to employ hospice principles in caring for the terminally ill was established 1967 by Dame Cicely Saunders, a British physician.

None of us want to think about death. But if we do, most of us would prefer to die at home or in a comfortable facility with expert care. Why wouldn’t we?

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

That’s where hospice comes in. When my bright and tenacious 79-year-old mother’s body began to fail, stressed by decades of living with what her doctor said was the most severe case of rheumatoid arthritis she had ever seen, and aggravated by the early stages of Alzheimer’s Disease, Mom was sure she would be “fine” soon. But after she stepped out of bed one night (having forgotten she could no longer walk) and her brittle right hip shattered, she was sent to a rehab center. All she wanted was to go home with Dad, and the Denver Visiting Nurses Association made that possible. By the time Mom drew her last breath, holding Dad’s hand as she had for more than 58 years, she had come to look forward to visits from her hospice team, and her sparkling smile bloomed.

Then in September, it was my love’s turn. The two months between when we got home from The Big Trip and his death on November 27th could have been dominated by fear and grief. Instead, thanks to the warm and skilled support of his team from Angel of Shavano Hospice, especially his nurse, Will Archuletta, and the presence of Molly, who spent the last five weeks of his life with us, love and laughter and sweetness prevailed. We were blessed, and hospice was a big part of that.

Thanksgiving 2009: Richard, Dad, Mom, and my sister-in-law, Lucy Winter

So in this time of giving thanks, I am thankful for Dame Cicely Saunders for her vision and courage, for the Veteran’s Administration for embracing hospice and palliative care, and for hospice caregivers and organizations everywhere.

I encourage you to learn about and support your local hospice organization. Because much as we hate to think about it, they’ll likely support you or those you love one of these days.

(Two other outstanding hospice organizations in Colorado are Pikes Peak Hospice and Palliative Care in Colorado Springs, and The Denver Hospice.)

News: Love Every Moment & Young Arts

I’ll be on the road for much of the next few weeks, teaching, speaking, and visiting Richard’s family, so forgive me if blog posts are less frequent. But I wanted to share some good news before I head over the horizon.

First, my TEDxHomer talk from July is finally up on YouTube. My presentation received a wonderfully warm reception from the audience at the Homer, Alaska, event and from those who watched it on the LiveStream. It’s the deepest and most difficult talk I’ve ever given, coming straight from my heart. (Please bear with the microphone buzz at the beginning. If you turn down the sound, it helps.)

I am honored to have taken part in TEDxHomer, “Let’s Play,” and I am grateful to those who made my talk possible, especially Kathryn Haber, Adi Davis, McKenzy Haber, Janine Oros Amon, and Bill Tweit and Lucy Winter. (And of course, my friend and excellent traveling companion, Roberta Smith.) Please share the video link if you feel so moved.

The next news involves an organization I’m proud to teach for, YoungArts, the Miami-based national program that rewards excellence in young visual, literary and performing artists aged 15-18. Twice a year, I head for Miami for YoungArts: In November our writing panel gathers to read some 200 creative writing submissions from around the country (a preliminary panel winnows those from several thousand). Our job is to select the 25 or so top writers who will join us in Miami in January for a week of workshops, talks, and performances, where they’ll meet their peers in the visual artists, dance, theater, and music. The very best of “our” young artists are nominated for President’s Scholars Medals in the Arts, awarded at the White House each spring. (Five young writers won President’s Scholars Medals in 2012.)

The blue-tiled tower of the Bacardi campus with the Jewel Box in the background.

The exciting news is that YoungArts has just purchased a campus overlooking Biscayne Bay, just north of the arts district where the Arts Week performances are held. Not just any set of buildings either: the Bacardi Tower and “Jewel Box” Museum, an architectural landmark in tropical modernism style. Architect Frank Gehry has agreed to develop a master plan for a new arts campus, which will include performance spaces and year-round programing. It’s a huge and visionary leap for an already excellent program, and I’m honored to be involved in a small way as chair of the writing panel.

One more piece of teaching news: Lynda Hoggan, one of my coaching students, is featured on the front page of RedRoom this week. Lynda’s story, “Jungle of the Heart,” is a courageous and insightful coming-out of sorts for this talented writer who is also a professor of health and human sexuality. It’s the first in a collection of memoir-based essays about love, sex, and intimate relationships. Congratulations, Lynda!

The new moon setting over Mt. Ouray, a crescent note in a musical score drawn by utility wires.

Tonight I watched the new moon set over the Sawatch Range of the Rockies from my porch; tomorrow I’ll load my Subaru and hit the road for Santa Fe and then Albuquerque, where I’m a keynote speaker at the Women Writing the West conference.

On I go into this new phase–new moon, new path–loving my moments as best I know how.

Blessings to you all!

The contemplative season again

Richard talking about his sculpture work, Salida Artposium, Colorado Art Ranch. (Photo by Grant Pound, courtesy of Colorado Art Ranch)

Nine months ago, after Richard’s death, I promised myself that when I got through the crazyness of after-death business, I would take the first quarter of the new year for some much-needed contemplative time to begin processing the drastic changes in my life.

After a work trip to Miami in early January to teach in the YoungArts program, I came home eager to settle in and have that inward time. My spirit was weary from two years of caregiving for my parents before my mom’s death, and then walking Richard through his journey with brain cancer.

I imagined quiet time to write and read, to catch up on my sleep and dream, to envision a new path as Woman Alone. And I managed some. But life kept intruding. My dad needed increasing amounts of time, sorting out post-Richard financial and other affairs dragged on, deferred house and shop projects demanded my attention….

Late winter flashed past, then spring in a flurry of work travel and preparing for the Terraphilia Residency Program, and then summer whizzed by as well. Now it’s September, my birth-month; fall is just around the corner. And I never really got that uninterrupted time to contemplate the wrenching changes of last year.

Richard with my parents, Joan and Bob Tweit, at the Betty Ford Alpine Garden, Vail

As the days grow shorter once again and our summer of record heat and drought limps to an end, I am once again thinking of finding contemplative time, of slowing down to absorb the shocks of the last year and some. That time won’t come this month: my dad is planning on being in his new apartment at Panorama City in Lacey, Washington, halfway across the continent on October 1st. He flies home from Washington this Wednesday, where he has spent the past two months in an intensive training program for veterans with vision challenges.

After picking him up at the airport, my task will be to help him sort through what he wants to move back to Washington with him, and to get bids on packing and transporting his small household. Then there’s the transfer of his banking and other services, plus moving his medical records from Colorado to the Southern Puget Sound VA system, and a plethora of other details.

And making sure that Dad, who is eagerly anticipating this move, takes time to say his goodbyes after a decade here in Colorado, to friends at the Westland Meridian, where he has lived for the past four years, at the church he attends, and in the Highlands Garden Village garden group, a community he and Mom treasured. (Thank you, Erica, for making them so welcome!)

The next few weeks bring a crush of writing deadlines too, so I’ll really be scrambling to meet my work commitments and help Dad. Which means my birth-month will rush by without time for quiet, much less contemplation. That’s okay; I’m determined to make that time happen once Dad’s safely off to begin the next chapter of his life in Washington, where my brother and family are as excited about his arrival as Dad is. (Bill, Lucy, Alice, Heather, and Sienna and families–you are simply wonderful.)

Succor for the spirit: a moment of beauty at dawn.

The pull of quiet time to tend heart and spirit has felt particularly strong these past few days, in part because the nights are lengthening and the weather is beginning to hint at winter, in part because of the sudden loss of my sister-in-law Lucy’s dad, Bill Winter, who died in his sleep at home on Wednesday night. He was 90-something and we knew he wouldn’t last forever, but still…. It’s a shock to think of the world without Big Bill’s dry wit and questing mind.

So many changes.

I yearn for quiet time to let those changes “season” as Quakers say, referring to the time necessary for experiences and issues to become less tender and touchy, making thoughtful responses possible.

Fall and winter have always been my contemplative season; I intend to give my spirit that restful, rejuvenating gift this time.

Blessings to you all for walking this journey with me.

Road Report: Revisiting a “thread”

Our trusty Subaru Forester on a gravel road in northwestern Colorado, laying down another “thread” across the landscapes we loved to explore.

Richard and I loved to take road trips. He drove, and I watched the landscape and speculated about the whys of it all: Why a ridge was shaped the way it was, why the lichens on one rock were orange and the other green, why that slope grew forest and that prairie….

Sometimes we talked, sometimes we were silent. Sometimes we drove for hours without stopping; sometimes we stopped to watch birds, look at wildflowers, gawk at a sky-full of stars, or pick up a rock (Richard preferred large rocks the size you could sculpt into basins, tables, sinks, or firepits). Often we wrote and edited haiku in our heads. Always we held hands.

When we moved home to Colorado 15 years ago, we were talking about the trips we had made across the state, and I said, “We’ve laid a lot of threads across this landscape.” Richard loved that metaphor; ever after, anytime we set out on a route we had taken before, he would say, “We’re following familiar threads.”

The West Elk Mountains across Blue Mesa Lake, a reservoir  much shrunken by our long drought. (Note the telltale bare “bathtub ring” usually covered by the reservoir.)

Over the weekend I followed one of those threads west on US 50 over Monarch Pass, down Tomichi Creek and through Gunnison, along the Gunnison River and then around Blue Mesa Lake with its wide bathtub ring from the drought, and then up and over Blue Mesa Divide, down to follow the Cimarron River, up Cerro Summit and finally down into Montrose, a bustling town on Colorado’s West Slope.

I admired the landscape, silently pondered some “why?” questions, but didn’t stop.

I was eager to get to Montrose in time for a massage with my friend Ginny Anthony, followed by dinner with Ginny and her husband Mark. I made it, the massage was heavenly, and their dog Tyler was delighted to play tug-the-hedgehog. I admired Ginny and Mark’s garden, was treated to a yummy dinner of Nepalese food at Guru’s, and was back in my Subaru before dark, headed for a place to spend the night under the waxing moon.

Chokecherry turning scarlet and serviceberry dull gold, a drought-induced early fall display of color.

As I drifted off to sleep I told Richard that I loved him, and that I had traveled one of our threads. I felt good; I slept well.

The next morning’s drive, back over Cerro Summit and Blue Mesa Divide, along shrunken Blue Mesa Lake, and up the Gunnison River Canyon, was lovely. I stopped to shoot photos here and there, amazed at the color in the chokecherry, currant, and serviceberry, a beautiful but eerie drought-induced display a month early.

As I passed through Gunnison, an ambulance screamed past from behind me. I said a quick blessing and hoped all was well. A few miles later, I topped a hill and found a line of vehicles stopped in the highway from both directions. At the bottom of the hill, lights flashed: the ambulance plus a sprinkling of patrol cars. A motorcycle lay on the shoulder near a small car.

I turned off the engine, got out, and joined a small knot of people from the other vehicles. One guy had his binoculars out and said it looked like a head-on between the bike and the car. Just then the ambulance screamed up the hill, headed back to Gunnison. We voiced our hopes that whoever was hurt would be okay, and watched the officers at the bottom of the hill measuring and photographing. The talk turned to distracted drivers and the perils of motorcycles versus cars–several of the stopped vehicles were pulling trailers with dirt bikes or road hogs. Eventually the official vehicles dispersed, we wished each other well, and headed back to our vehicles and drove on.

I saw the landscape through tears the rest of the way home, grieving at it all: Richard gone and me here without him; the motorcyclist in the ambulance, the driver of the car with the bashed in front-end and the responsibility for someone’s life.

None of it made sense, and it likely never will. Life is what life is, and we do our best to live it with love and compassion, thoughtfulness and generosity.

Sacred datura blossom unfurls slowing as day deepens to evening.

At home I unpacked the car and went outside to water the kitchen garden. And saw that the sacred datura I had planted right outside the bedroom door in Richard’s memory–those huge white trumpets were a favorite of his–was opening its first-ever blossom.

Beauty & death, grief & blooming time…. Emerson had it right:

Our lives are an apprenticeship to the truth that around every circle another can be drawn. That there is no end in nature; every end is a beginning.

Onward.