Living in the Light During the Coronavirus Disease Pandemic

When I first read the CDC guidelines about who is at highest risk for severe illness with Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19), I admit to feeling both scared and pissed off. In fact, I am pretty sure I uttered a short and pithy phrase I won’t repeat on this blog. (Suffice to say that it contained several four-letter words, and none of them were “love.”)

I’m one of those most at risk for serious complications from COVID-19: I’m over 60 (that factor has now been raised to over 65, but I’m so close it makes no difference). I live with the chronic illness Lupus plus a small alphabet-soup array of other autoimmune conditions. I have lung issues from back when I was seriously ill in my 20s. I also have some heart-muscle damage and an arrhythmia that causes my heart to occasionally decide to do some jazzy improvising like, “Bada-bada-bada-bada-Bing Boom! Boom! Boom!”. And I have a “compromised” immune system. (I prefer to say my immune system is “sensitive,” but that’s probably splitting hairs.)

I’ve lived well for decades with my own particular and challenging health, and truly, as I wrote in my memoir, Walking Nature Home, I’ve learned thrive. I’m generally healthy: I don’t get sick often; I’ve never been hospitalized; I don’t take any medications. I walk or hike or ride at least five miles a day; I eat well; and I’m strong enough to heave a full bucket of wet horse manure into the dumpster, and to generally be stubborn about doing things myself that I might be wise to let others do for me (which sometimes annoys The Guy!).

Still… the CDC is right: I am at higher risk of serious illness from COVID-19. So I am following the guidelines: I wash my hands so often they are cracked and soak up lots of lotion, I practice social distancing and avoid crowded places; I am sheltering in place and staying home except for essential trips to town (for groceries) or to nearby open-space preserves (for Vitamin N, time in nature, which is as important to me as food). I keep my surroundings clean. And now that The Guy and his dog, and the horse-herd have all headed back to their spring home, I live alone.

I won’t let the COVID-19 pandemic degrade the quality of my days. I refuse to succumb to fear, or turn my back on the world. I read the news, but I don’t obsess. I’m not hoarding toilet paper or anything else. (If I was going to hoard, it would be chocolate, green chile sauce, and Stranahan’s whiskey!) Despite my concerns about the virus and finances and what will happen with book publishing and whether my friends and family will all weather this–my brother has asthma, one niece was exposed and fortunately tested negative… Despite all that, I refuse to panic.

I don’t mean to minimize the seriousness of this. People are dying; scores upon scores are ill. Heroic first-responders, medical providers, and other healthcare and spiritual-care folks are stepping up and into the metaphorical line of fire every day. Grocery store cashiers and stockers, delivery folks, and all manner of others are going about their work so the rest of us can shelter safely in place. I am heart-broken about the deaths and illnesses, the displacement of lives and jobs and education for so many. And I am grateful for all of those who are working and volunteering, who are living in the Light of courage and compassion and simple kindness.

We can all do that, especially the simple kindness part. We can smile, say hello (from a proper distance or virtually); we can check on each other and really listen through the fear and anxiety and outright paranoia. We can support local businesses, sew masks, donate supplies; we can offer to help those who are stuck being homebound. We can go about our days with generosity and goodness no matter what.

Because we need to live in the Light as much as we can. Panic and hoarding will not help; acting as a community and helping each other will.

As President Franklin D. Roosevelt said in his inaugural address in 1933, the depths of The Great Depression,

This great nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper.  So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself–nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. 

The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.

And the only way to work through that fear is to unfreeze ourselves from our collective panic and reach for each other’s hands (keeping our proscribed social distance!) and offer support. Listen, sympathize, offer help, sew masks, wash our hands, don’t go out if we’re sick, smile, get outside, buy groceries or books or whatever is needed, shovel a driveway, walk a dog…

And say “thank you.” Thank you for your service, for being my neighbor, for delivering my mail, for stocking the shelves and staffing the clinics. Thank you for comforting my friend, testing my niece, transporting sick people to the hospital, for burying the dead…

Remember too, to nurture yourself. Do what soothes you, eat good food, get enough sleep, look for beauty and moments of joy. Notice and take heart from the coming of spring: the birdsong, flowers blooming, the first bees and butterflies; life continuing despite all.

Thank you all for being who you are, and for whatever you do to live in the Light in these frightening times. Blessings from me to each of you…

A Love Story in Troubled Times

With the world seeming to be heading into chaos once again, I find myself searching for anything positive or cheering. Any good news, any happy ending, any ray of light in what feels like gathering darkness. I’m offering this love story in that vein, as a sign that goodness still exists, and miracles still happen. I’m not going to identify the lovers out of respect for one’s desire for privacy. You’ll probably guess the identity of the other; that’s okay.

Once upon a time, a writer quite reluctantly left her cozy home in the Southwest to travel north to Wyoming and teach at a retreat center. She grumbled as she drove, not because going to Wyoming wasn’t a joy, but because she was close to finishing a book project, and she didn’t want to leave the writing just then. But she had promised to lead a seminar for another friend who had to bow out, so our writer honored that commitment, if grumpily.

At sunset on her first day on the road, as she crossed the state line into Wyoming, the writer’s mood lifted. Looking at the wild valley around her, she realized that she needed to throw open the walls she had carefully built since her husband had died nearly eight years before. In particular, she needed to find a place to live with more open landscapes around her, and fewer people nearby, unlike the condo where she had lived for the past year.

When she curled up in her sleeping bag in her car that night, our writer surfed a real estate site on the internet, checking what was for sale in the area she was thinking of. Within minutes, she saw a house that looked just perfect for her–clearly in need of some love, but she wasn’t bothered by that. The asking price was over her budget, but she noticed the house had been on the market for months, so she figured she might be able to get it for less. Before she drifted off to sleep, she sent an email to her friend, a real estate agent, asking her opinion of the house and suggesting an appointment to view it when writer returned home the next month.

The next morning, our writer was feeling buoyant. As she drove through southern Wyoming’s sagebrush country with its long views and immense blue skies, she said out loud to the universe, “If I’m buying a house, it’s time to bring a dog back into my life. I’ll take the next one that comes along.”

She hadn’t had a dog since her Great Dane had died in 2007. Just over a year after the big grief of losing that beloved Big Dog came the brain cancer and caregiving years that had eventually set the writer on a solo path in life. For years after midwifing both her mother and her husband through their deaths she was simply too drained to be able to commit to any relationship, even the easy companionship of a dog.

“It’s finally time,” she said to herself as she drove toward distant mountain ranges, counting grazing pronghorn antelope and soaring golden eagles. And she felt good.

Pronghorn in sagebrush country.

Late that afternoon she parked at the ranch where she was teaching. When she got out of her car and stretched her stiff back, a distinguished older dog, his red muzzle gone white, ambled across the dusty lot, sniffed her ankles, and presented himself for attention. She scratched his back at the base of his wagging stub tail, and then moved on to rub his ears. He groaned, sat on her feet, and looked up at her with big brown eyes.

“You’re a sweetie!” our writer said to the dog. “But you belong to someone already. You’re not mine.” He lifted his lips in a doggy grin, wagged his stub-tail harder, and ambled off.

A few hours later in the dining hall, the writer was chatting with some of the participants in her seminar when the dog’s person walked up and introduced himself: “I’m [we’ll call him “the guy”] and we almost met 30 years ago.” She turned to answer, and her heart stopped. The man wore his wildly curling dark-turned-silver hair in a stubby pony tail, his nicely muscled body in a plaid shirt and jeans. He tilted his head to look at her through the close-up lenses in his bifocals when she spoke, his brown eyes magnified and his body attentive, as if he was listening with his very cells. Plop! Her heart fell right at the toes of his dusty cowboy boots. She doesn’t remember now what she said, but she remembers the distinctive mixture of terror, annoyance–this is not my life plan!–and excitement she felt.

She went to sleep in her cozy cabin that night arguing with herself. She was quite happy with her solo existence, had no interest in a relationship, and had her life arranged comfortably, thank you very much. As she said the last out loud, our writer was quite sure she could hear the universe laughing.

The week went by, the writer spent her days writing, hiking, paddle-boarding, and riding the ranch’s horses. (The guy was involved with the horse program, which she told herself firmly had nothing to do with her choosing to ride–she simply missed the long-ago days when she had ridden often, both for her botany fieldwork and for pleasure on her own horses.) In the evenings, she taught her seminars, with the guy and his gentlemanly dog perched on a couch front and center in the room.

Trail ride in the mountains.

By the end of the week, our writer and the guy had managed to sit together at a few meals, but since they were both working, time for conversation was almost non-existent. Still, she had learned their lives had nearly intersected many times over the decades, they shared many mutual friends in the writing world, and many interests. He had a varied and intriguing background, including science fieldwork, publishing, horse-tending, and a new interest in the spiritual side of palliative care and hospice. Their conversations showed her that the guy was a wide reader and a deep thinker, with an interest in reconnecting humans with the wild, which they both thought was the source of sacredness and spirituality. He was just four months older than she was, with deep roots in the landscapes she called home too.

When they parted at the end of the week, she learned that he hugged as thoroughly as he listened. She drove off to spend several weeks working in a nearby national park, torn between excitement and terror. He spent the next month hunting in the high country of Colorado. They talked on the phone when they could, their long conversations ranging from what “home” meant to methods of dealing with invasive weeds, and from favorite musicians to what they had learned from other loves in their lives, to the age-old question of whether red chile is better than green chile. (That last is the only thing they disagreed on.)

That fall, the guy came to visit for a weekend so they could hear a writer they both knew read from her new book. They hiked, cooked, took walks, and talked. A lot.

Two nights stretched to four, and when the guy left, our writer surprised herself and him by saying, “I love you.” The words were a gift, she explained; he wasn’t required to respond at all. She just wanted him to know he was loved, whether or not he felt the same. He nodded. After he called her that night to say he had made it home safely, he called back. “I forgot to say something,” he said. “What?” “I love you.” Tears formed in her eyes. “It’s been hard for me to say my whole life,” he added. “But I’ll try to remember to say it every day.” She swiped at drops running down her cheeks. “Thank you,” she said. “I love you too.”

The writer and the guy are figuring out how to interweave their respective lives and to use this gift of unexpected love for good in the world. If we only listen to the news, these difficult times seem so short of goodness and love. But those qualities are all around us, and we all spread them every day. The truth is: love–not necessarily romantic love, but the genuine attachment we feel for each other, for other species, and for this living world as a whole–is what sustains us in and through hard times. Hence this story, which I offer as a ray of light and a reminder that love lives, thrives, and even surprises us even in or perhaps specially in, hard times.

Sometimes when she is falling asleep at night, snuggled close to the guy and the dog, our writer thinks she hears the universe laughing softly. And she reminds herself to be grateful for the miracle of love returning to her life. Also to be very specific in future when she asks the universe for anything. She only asked for a dog. She got the dog all right–plus his guy, and the guy’s horses. She wants to you know that while she is still surprised, even a bit stunned by the suddenness of the change in her carefully ordered life, she is not complaining. At all.

New moon, new beginnings…

Lighting the Darkness (again)


For many years, Richard and I celebrated Winter Solstice by inviting friends and family to help us “light the darkness” by filling and lighting dozens of luminarias to glow through the year’s longest night. The little candles on a scoop of sand in a fragile paper bag lined our half-block of reclaimed industrial property, and their light shone until dawn. 


After lighting the luminarias (not easy in the cold and wind!), the crowd trooped inside to sample my Sinfully Delicious Eggnog, which I made by the gallon for the occasion (literally, using four dozen eggs, two pounds of confectioner’s sugar, many cups of dark rum, and a dairy-cow’s worth of cream), and other goodies. The sound of laughter and happy voices filled our house into the night as the luminarias glimmered outside. The warmth and love were palpable for days afterwards. 


Solstice and the Light the Darkness party were a highlight of the year for Richard, and when we had to move to Denver for his radiation treatments during the first year of his brain cancer, he was low about missing the celebration until I decided to throw the party via the internet. Our community of friends, family, and readers of my blog sent in images from around the world, and in Salida, a small crowd gathered to light luminarias and continue the tradition at our house. (Thank you all!)


We told ourselves that we would revive the Light the Darkness party the next Winter Solsice, but it was not to be. My mother was dying that winter, and we commuted back and forth to Denver so I could manage her hospice care and be with my folks through her end.



Luminarias ltght “Matriculation,” Richard’s sculpture in the Salida Steamplant Sculpture Garden. (It’s the slanting stone atop two stones that open like a book on the far left side of the photo.)


The following Winter Solstice, we did light the darkness again, but Richard was only with us in spirit: Molly and I revived the tradition for Richard’s Celebration of Life, a moving and racous remembrance in the ballroom of Salida’s Steamplant Theatre and Conference Center. The luminarias, with messages to Richard written on the bags, circled his sculpture, “Matriculation,” in the Strawn/Grether Sculpture Garden outside. 


I revived the Light the Darkness party the following Winter Solstice, partly because our friends and family loved the celebration and partly in Richard’s memory. But the next year I had just moved into the little house, and it didn’t have the space for the kind of big sprawling party that Richard had loved, and I didn’t have the heart. I did light luminarias on Solstice, and I made a batch of eggnog and gifted it in jars. 


This year, my first Winter Solstice at home in Wyoming, I was determined to light the darkness again. Both for the symbolism of illuminating the year’s longest night as a promise that warmth and life will return, as well as the act of spreading light and love to brighten a dark time in our country and the world.


I also wanted to avoid the divisiveness of today’s discourse and celebrate the winter holidays by being inclusive. It’s no coincidence that winter holidays in the Northern Hemisphere, including Channukah, Kwanzaa, Christmas, and Yule revolve around light. They all fall around Winter Solstice, that “hinge-pin” where the year turns from the darkness of those long nights back toward longer and brighter days and the warmth of spring. Celebrating Solstice itself honors all of those traditions in a spiritual way without choosing just one.



So last Thursday, on a still and cold evening, a couple of dozen friends and I lit the darkness: That afternoon, I poured sand into paper bags, put a candle in each, and set out 50 luminarias. At dusk, friends arrived to help light them. Afterwards, we went inside and drank homemade eggnog and other festive beverages, nibbled on holiday goodies, and enjoyed each other’s company. Just as with the parties in Richard’s day, laughter and love filled my house, blessing it with the joy of the season. The luminarias glowed through the night, casting their light on darkness literal and metaphorical. 


That’s my wish for each of you, our country, and for the world: that the light and love of this holiday season fills your hearts, and that you remember and nurture our shared humanity. That we all make the turn toward the warmth and life of spring, and resolve to share the best of who we are, to behave with kindness and compassion for everyone. No exceptions. 


Blessings to you all!



I saved some of the luminaria bags from Richard’s Celebration of Life. This inscription and sketch is from painter Charles Frizzell

Loving this World in Difficult Times

I sometimes feel guilty because I don't comment more on politics and current affairs. Politics and current affairs are not, I remind myself, my beat, my area of expertise. The truth is, I shy away from that kind of commentary because it seems to me that the tone and tenor of public discourse leave no space for my voice.

It is all so shrill and angry and fear-mongering, all extremes and labels and I-hate-you-because-you-disagree-with-me. All sides, no middle. No time or place for thoughtfulness, for pondering and reflecting and trying to see, much less respect, other points of view. 

Thoughtfulness and respecting other points of view are critically important values for me. I am an INFJ personality type in the Myers-Briggs spectrum of understanding human personalities. The "I" is for introverted and intuitive (yes, I like people; I just need a lot of time alone to process and reflect). "F" stands is for feeling in the empathetic sense because I am sensitive to the non-verbal signals we humans give off with such abundance, and "J" because I value concrete data and the ability to think over the patterns it creates to explain the world.

(If you're curious about where you land in the personality spectrum, check out the test at 16 Personalities. It's thorough without taking too much time, and surprisingly and sometimes a bit uncomfortably informative.)

Put more succinctly, sound bites and labels and divisions are not my thing; fairness and consideration and justice are. Love is.

Look up photos of me and I'm the one smiling with my arm around someone else, or on hands and knees admiring some detail of leaf or flower or rock. I'm the one in love with this world and life, hard as that may be. 

That's me expressing two kinds of love, love for the Chihuahuan Desert  in southern New Mexico, and big "L" love for the man who has his arm around me, the late Richard Cabe. (Photo by Susan Kask. Thanks, Sue!)

My mission is loving and restoring the world, not tearing it to bits by reducing its human and wild communities to warring factions. 

I believe that our species' greatest attribute is not our big brains–those are wonderful, but can also get us in serious trouble. Nor our intellect, strength, or even our creativity. What we humans do best, I think, is love. As I wrote in one of my books:

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.

–From The San Luis Valley: Sand Dunes and Sandhill Cranes

Loving Molly Cabe at the Fine Arts Museum in San Francisco

I've been pondering lately how to best live that love in these times. Not so much in my writing, because my love for this troubled world threads through everything I write, from the haiku and photo I post each morning on social media to the columns I write for Houzz and Rocky Mountain Gardening Magazine, to my work re-imagining Bless the Birds, my memoir-in-progress. And of course my podcasts on end-of-life choices for The Conversation Project, a national effort begun by writer Ellen Goodman to encourage dialog on how we want our lives to go at the end. 

In the being. How can I, how can we keep that love flowing, and encourage it in others when the world seems to value love so little, when fear and anger seem to have so much power? 

To express love is a conscious choice that comes from within. Which means that we have to have love to express. We have to nurture our own supply by taking time every day to restore both heart and spirit. 

Here are some suggestions adapted from a list I posted on social media in the wake of the Las Vegas shooting:

* TAKE A BREAK from the news–watching violence over and over triggers more stress and grief, exhausting our ability to love. 
* BREATHE: Take a deep breath, hold it for a few seconds, then exhale slowly and completely. Repeat a few times. 
* GO OUTSIDE. Find a quiet space, as natural as possible. Nature nurtures our empathy and ability to love.
* SIT. Let your mind empty. Listen for the wind, bird sounds, the flutter of leaves. Look for the beauty of flowers or form. Feel the sun on your skin. Let the pulse of life soothe your pulse, refill your capacity for feeling beauty, awe, and gratitude.
* CRY, SCREAM, RANT if necessary. Then find quiet again. 
* CONSCIOUSLY SPREAD LOVE and light, not fear and anger: Smile at strangers; be kind in a difficult situation; offer help to someone who is struggling; act with generosity and compassion. 

How can we practice love in a world as troubled and frightening as ours seems right now? By remembering that love is not about being perfect, either us or the world. It is about actively looking for and nurturing beauty, diversity, kindness, courage, compassion, empathy, creativity–the basic goodness of life, all lives, in the community of this planet. It is about seeking and nurturing the heart in every living being, in every moment. 

Remembering that love is always stronger than hatred. 

And deliberately adding our mite of love to the world. Every day. 

Thank you. 

It's not perfect by any means, but I love this community, this place, this life.

Restoration as a Calling

I've been home a month as of yesterday, a span of time that seems both impossibly short and un-countably long. Short when I think about everything we've gotten done on this house-project, and forever when I realize how familiar it is to be back. 

(Yesterday was also Molly's birthday. Happy Birthday, Sweetie!)

I walk almost the same route to the Post Office every afternoon that I took daily when I lived in Cody thirty-plus years ago, climbing the steep sidewalk up the sagebrush-clothed hillside above my neighborhood, and passing houses whose occupants I can name. (The photo at the top of the post is the view from the top of the hill.) In fact, I live in the same neighborhood I did back then. 

Of course, much has changed in my life and in the town. I am sixty, now, widowed with a "kid" who is an adult; when I left Cody for Laramie and grad school, I was newly divorced and hadn't met either Richard or Molly. Much less moved with them to West Virginia, Washington State, Colorado, Iowa, New Mexico, and then back to Colorado.

I've lived a whole life away from this place: I step-mothered Molly, wrote twelve books and hundreds of articles, essays and stories for magazines and newspapers around the country; I nursed my mother and the love of my life through their deaths in the same year. I finished and sold the house Richard built for us and his studio too, and built a snug house and guest studio of my own.

All of that away from the place that has called me home for as long as I remember. Which may explain why I am so happy here in the midst of a house-project I never imagined taking on, with a yard that needs even more work than the house. 

My bedroom, still in progress… That green spot on the wall is a sample of the color it will be eventually; the floors are in such bad shape they can't be refinished, so they'll be covered with reproduction plank flooring.  

I wake every morning in my bedroom with the unfinished floors and walls that need painting, and am ridiculously happy. I am home, I think. I have found my refuge, one I needed more than I realized. I also have found my calling. 

I need the place itself, the landscape that smells like sagebrush, the views bounded by mountains I know intimately because I have walked their slopes and ridges in the days I did fieldwork here. 

And I need this house, both because its beautiful bones speak to me of care, craftsmanship, and comfort; and because it has been so neglected. The house needs me and my vision (and savings!). The restoration project it represents is something positive I can do when the world is so full of negativity, a way to work forward in a time seemingly stalled by divisiveness and fear. 

Restoration as I am practicing it here is both hard physical work and metaphor. It is also my calling in life, especially now. 

Ripping the horrible and filthy carpet off the basement stairs yesterday morning, for instance, not only satisfied my inner Tool Girl–using that little pry bar to remove that which I cannot restore is amazingly satisfying!–it also gave me the kind of workout that makes my muscles sing and sends me to bed early, to sleep well and long. 

Having my hands on tools and the work of bringing this beautiful but badly treated house back to life satisfies my need to heal, to reweave the fabric of the human community, if just in this small way, in a time when we have split along bitter political/religious/tribal lines.

The work I am doing along with my contractor and his trades-colleagues isn't about red or blue or who voted which way (or didn't vote at all); it's not some kind of litmus test for who is good or who is evil.

It is simply positive work. We find common ground in tools and design, and in working hard and smart, in teasing each other, in sympathizing about kids making bad choices or aging parents slipping away. We ask each other's advice, appreciate the craft we practice, and the drive to do it well.

We talk about mundane stuff and also about more esoteric things, like what it means to be a good, caring person, and how "community" comes from "common" and means remembering that we share our humanity, that we are stronger together.  

I am reminded of the deeper meanings of restoration each time we make the decision about whether some aspect of the house is in good enough shape that it can be fixed up, or it is too far gone and must go, like that truly nasty carpet on the basement stairs.

When I finished removing that carpet and its accumulated grime. I set to pulling out the staples, tacks, and even three-penny nails (who nails down carpet?) that had held it and at least one previous iteration in place.

My trusty nail-pulling pliers, which in a previous life trimmed the hooves on my horses, and served to pry out loose horseshoe nails too…

What I found underneath was a set of well-built if battered wood stairs, which when patched and re-painted, will look inviting (instead of scary) and be sturdy and comfortable underfoot. Not art, but good workmanship. 

Imagine these stairs with the holes filled and a fresh coat of paint that brightens up the space.

To restore is to rebuild (literally as well as figuratively: restore comes from the Latin word that means "to rebuild"); in that rebuilding, we evaluate what we have, save what we can, and start over on what we can't. We work with the now, knowing it's not perfect. 

Sometimes restoration brings welcome surprises, uncovering beauty hidden beneath the surface. As with the handles on the original sunshine-yellow metal cabinets in my vintage kitchen. They are gray, and I assumed until I recently took a closer look that they were metal dulled by 60 years of use. 

Not so: The gray chipped off under my fingernail, revealing bright copper beneath. Oh my!

Last night I surfed the internet, looking for non-toxic ways to remove paint from metal door hardware. On This Old House, I found this one: "Simmer" the hardware overnight in hot, not boiling water, with a tablespoon or two of dish soap.

A handle in the process of simmering away the gray paint… 

Then simply scrape off the paint with a stiff plastic bristle brush (I didn't have a brush, so I used my fingernails), and polish. It worked! 

Two handles cleaned, polished, and reattached. Forty-one more to go… 

It seems to me that what we need right now is a lot more energy aimed at restoration–restoring our lives and communities, and a lot less polarization, anger and fear. What we have is what we have. We can't go back. 

But we can go forward with an aim to restore, to thoughtfully evaluate what we find, and then work hard and smart–together–to save and shine up what we can, and rebuild what we can't. 

We may find beauty we didn't imagine in the doing. We'll surely rediscover our commonality, what unites us as caring human beings, and that is a gift we truly need. 

Can you spot those three copper handles? They match the original copper-clad range hood. 

Exploring Creativity: Musings Journal


When I took Sherrie York’s field journal workshop at Rocky Mountain Land Library‘s Buffalo Peaks campus in August, I came home inspired and vowed to make sketching a part of my creative routine. “I’ll do a few sketches every week,” I told myself. 


And… I didn’t. Of course I have good excuses: writing and workshop deadlines got crazy. In September, I was on the road most of the month, driving almost 5,000 miles in just over three weeks. And so on. 


Still, I could have made the time and I didn’t. Clearly, I needed a nudge. 


So when my neighbor, Lisa DeYoung of Mountain Mermaid Studios, mentioned the other day that she had finished the new edition of her Musings Journal, I bought one on the spot. 


Today I took time to play with it. (Lisa offers two versions of this hand-designed tool for creative play: a daily one dated with the months of the the year, and an undated one. I bought the latter so I wouldn’t feel guilty about missing a few weeks now and again.)



Pages in the undated journal, just waiting for me to fill those rectangles with something…


I took my journal and my trusty mechanical pencil out to the front steps to think about where to start. A comma butterfly fluttered in and landed on the rabbitbrush near me and began to feed. It sipped nectar from one flower cluster, crawled to the next, and sipped more. 


I picked up my pencil and began a simple gesture drawing, sketching the general form with quick shapes, and then beginning to fill in the details. The comma was so cooperative that I had gotten the ragged outline of the wings and had begun on the somewhat complicated wing pattern when I looked up and… 


The butterfly was gone. 


Since the rabbitbrush hadn’t flown away, I sketched one of the small, compound flowers, and then took my journal inside. I dug out my favorite colored pencils and added color. 



Derwent “inktense” colored pencils, which I love for the tin they come in as well as their great feel and handling.


I even colored in the shapes Lisa had drawn as a playful border for the page, and thought wryly as I did that my kindergarten report card probably said something like, “Very enthusiastic, but cannot stay in the lines.” 


Which is quite true about my approach to life as well: show me a line or a wall or a boundary of any kind, and I’ll be the one quietly figuring out how to stray beyond it. 


When I finished coloring, I made some notes (ever the scientist, observing and recording those observations), and looked at my first “creative play” page. My butterfly sketch isn’t finished–the comma flew away mid-pattern–but it pleased me, which is important. 



The butterfly was actually perched upside down as it fed, so I drew it that way… 


I learned something about myself in the doing. I’m not a doodler; doodles are abstractions, and I’ve never been particularly good at the abstract, whether in philosophy or art. I’m rooted in what I can touch, smell, taste; what I can measure and observe, describe and record. (There’s that scientist again!)


Nor am I am artist. I have friends who are wonderfully talented at interpreting life through visual and sculptural forms, who practice art in their daily life. My late love was one such. 


I’m an observer of details, one who notices the everyday marvels around me, one who wonders constantly about how it all works: how all of the beings involved in creating this animate world fit together, the why and who and how and where of life. I’m happy practicing sketching as a way to notice and record, to witness life going about its business.  


This moment, this now. 


This comma butterfly who flitted before I could puzzle out the pattern on those dusky orange wings. 


For now, I’m just happy to be able to translate a moment onto a journal page as a way to focus, to learn, and to express my gratitude in being alive on this glorious autumn day. 


Thank you Lisa for the nudge, Sherrie for reminding me that I do love to sketch, and comma butterfly for fluttering into my day… 

Bat Flight: Restoring Awe and Wonder

Last night I had the gift of one of those experiences that reminded me that the word "awesome" once meant to be filled with awe, a feeling my dictionary describes as "reverential respect."

I led a field trip to the Orient Mine in the northern San Luis Valley to see the evening out-flight of Brazilian Free-tailed Bats (Tadarida brasilensis). Some 230,000 to 250,000 male Brazilian Free-tails spend their summers roosting in the cool and safe confines of that partly collapsed underground mine, emerging each evening around sunset and flying 100 or more miles to catch tons of flying beedles and moths. 

The batchelor colony in the Orient Mine is unusual because it's all males, and it's the farthest-north and highest-elevation summer roost of this subtropical species (at least that we know now).

Brazilian Free-tailed Bats migrate north from the tropical forests of Mexico and Central America in spring, and congregate by the millions in maternity  roosts in caves in the southern Southwest. They are the bats of Carlsbad Caverns National Park in southern New Mexico, and of Bracken Cave in the Texas Hill Country. 

Our only large Colorado roost is small by comparison to those, but it's also hundreds of miles north and far higher, located in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains at about 9,000 feet elevation.

The view from the Orient Mine toward the distant San Juan Mountains across the San Luis Valley. 

The bats usually fly out for their night's feeding at about sunset, so when I planned the trip, I calculated that the group would need an hour to drive the 40+ miles to the trailhead–the last four miles on a steep two-track that is fairly rocky in spots, so it's slow, and another hour to do the mile and 700 feet of elevation gain to the viewing area for the bat flight at the mouth of the collapsed mine. 

I checked the time when the sun would set, and called the land trust that owns the mine to find out what time the bats were flying out. "Sunset," I was told. "Be there 15 minutes early to get settled in before the first scouts fly out." 

Okay. Subtracting the two-hour travel and hiking time and adding 15 minutes for good measure, I knew when we needed to hit the road. All seemed set. Until I got a frantic email on Thursday letting me know that the bats had changed their schedule and were flying out an hour earlier. I recaculated the departure time and sent out emails to the participants. 

Our caravan set off last night at ten to five; the first part of the drive went quickly. The two-track road turned out to be a bit more of a challenge, but we still made it to the trailhead only about ten minutes behind my target time. 

I gave a short talk on geology, the bats, and the mines, and then off we set up the old narrow-gauge railroad right of way, the gentlest part of the trail. I talked about plants and wildlife along the way, and then as we turned up through the town site of Orient, which sprang up in the late 1800s in the narrow mountain valley next to the mines and vanished as quickly as it had sprouted when they closed in 1940, we slowed as the grade steepened. 

By the time we reached the viewing area next to the collapse hole, it was very close to the time the bats had emerged the night before. We could smell the guano on the air coming out of the mine tunnels, and we gathered in hushed anticipation, along with a couple of dozen other visitors, and waited. 

And waited. Finally at just past seven-thirty, I spotted a bat fluttering overhead. And then another, and in moments a stream of bats began to pass overhead in a twisting current of flapping wings. 

Bats beginning to emerge from the "Glory Hole," as the collapsed portion of the mine is called. 

For the next twenty minutes, bats spiraled out of the mine and flew past in a noisesome current. They were so close that we could feel the wind of their passage and hear the sound of wings cupping the air with each beat. 

We stood spellbound, awestruck by the swirling vortex emerging from the cave, by the way the sun's rays struck and glittered on bare-skin wings as the bats flew downhill from the mine, by the precision of the swirling river of furred bodies, their writing column seeming never-ending. 

It was, as I told the trip participants later, far and away the best view I had ever experienced, because it was in daylight and we could see the dance of the bats' flight so clearly; usually by the time they emerge, the mine tunnels are in shadow and they vanish quickly into twilight.

 

We watched, silent, awed, until as suddenly as if someone had turned off a tap, the bat flight ceased. 

As we hiked back downhill to the trailhead at a more leisurely pace, we stopped often to admire the sunset, to talk about plants along the trail, to read and discuss the interpretive signs at the townsite of Orient, and, as darkness snuffed the day, to admire Jupiter, shining above the western horizon. 

A stunning sunset on the hike back

All the way back to Salida, down the trail and the old railroad grade to the trailhead, bumping down the rough road to the gravel county road and then speeding in a cloud of dust to the highway, then driving over the pass and dropping down into our own valley, pricked with clusters of lights in the darkness, I saw again that stream of bats spiraling out of the cave and flying in a twisting current over the valley, the air filled with the clapping sound of beating wings.

When I finally reached home, exhausted, at quarter past ten, I was still smiling, still awed by the wonder of seeing, hearing, and feeling the passage of hundreds of thousands of bats exiting an old mine on a Colorado mountainside to fly into the twilight in search of food.   

The root word for "awe" comes from a Middle English word that also meant "terror" or "dread," a recognition of the close relationship between opposing pairs of powerful feelings: awe and dread, love and hate, fear and joy. Last night's bat-flight provoked my awe, and restored my sense of wonder and gratitude at being part of this living world. 

Writing Transformation


Last weekend at the time I would normally write a blog post, I was in Silver City, New Mexico, with my co-teacher Dawn Wink, preparing for the final days of an intense and incredible Write & Retreat workshop. We had reached that exhilarating point where everyone was on a creative high, and feeling so good about the writing, our discussions, and the new perspectives we had gain on our work that we didn’t want it the workshop to end.


We had spent three days writing–creating mission statements for our work, crafting scenes from works in progress, and delving into sensory descriptions of place. We had sketched physical maps of the actual or imaginary places where our writing is based, and then written about what we learned from those maps.


We read bits of our writing out loud, talked about them in pairs and as a group (always constructively). We shared our excitement at each now insight, and our fears about the writing as well. We talked about writing and how it fits or doesn’t fit into our lives–our day jobs, our relationships, our families.


We took walks around Silver City and talked about nature and place and history and how they impact our work. We shared meals and listened to readings while eating great food. Dawn and I held individual consultations with each writer to talk about their hopes and dreams and the practicalities of their work. 



Dawn and Will talking writing over dessert at Cafe 1zero6


We lived, breathed and discussed writing, and played with words and rhythm and writing for the better part of four days. 


In the doing, the magic I always aim for when working with a group of writers came to pass: we were all–even Dawn and I–transformed by our time together. We understood our writing in new ways, we found new depth and inspiration for our current work, we gained insight in how to integrate our writing into our daily lives.


Like the peach tree in the photo at the top of the post, shot on one of our walks around Silver City, our buds burst into fragrant bloom. 


Don’t take my word for it though. Here are some comments from participants:


Thank you for providing such a safe, supportive, and thought-provoking atmosphere at the retreat. The group energy and sense of kinship was very encouraging. The experience inspired me and broadened my vision of what writing can be. –memoir writer Melanie Budd


Loved being there. It inspired me to set aside all the talk of  “word count too long, wrong genre for us, etc, etc” and write what my heart and head say.   –fiction writer Bonnie Hobbs


Thank you for the wonderful and stimulating retreat. You have a way of bringing out depths of thought which one didn’t know were there! –fiction writer Linda Jacobs


We talk so often as writers about the ways in which writing can transform our lives, and I know I totally depend on my writing practice each day, just to stay sane.  But at the workshop I realized it isn’t just the daily practice of crafting and making.  It’s like the answers are actually in there!  There is something really magic about this.  In that strange vortex of inspiration and creation, if we can follow it, and trust our imagination and instinct, the pathway will become clear, the words tell us what to do. … So the real work is about listening and about trust. — poet Will Barnes 


We ended on such a high that Dawn and I immediately began planning next year’s workshop, also in Silver City and at the Murray Hotel, February 17 – 20, 2017. The focus will change, but we’ll aim for the same magic: a transformation that gives us all new energy and insight into our writing and our lives. We’d love to have you join us.