Me Too: Why #metoo matters

When I first saw "Me too" and the #metoo hashtag appearing on Facebook and Twitter, I had mixed feelings. I was sad to see how many women I know  have experienced sexual harassment or sexual abuse in their lives. Too many of us, but then, even one would be too many. 

I was proud of us for being willing to speak out and speak up. And proud of so many men speaking up in support too. 

I wondered if it would do any good. Because it feels like we're going backwards as a society and culture.  

The more I saw though, the more I thought, this is right. We have to be willing to talk before anything will change. We have to admit what we have tried to ignore or suppress because we are ashamed or embarrassed or threatened or we think it's all in the past, so why bother… 

We have to bring sexual harassment and abuse into the open before it matters. And that's what both the hastag, and the original Me Too movement begun by Tarana Burke, are about. Empowerment.

For Burke, a strong and saavy African-American activist, who began the original Me Too movement in 2006 as a way to help survivors of sexual abuse from marginalized communities, "Me Too" is not just about speaking up and gaining empathy from others. It's about what comes next: the effort needed to heal, to bring opportunity to those who feel rejected, broken. That will take more than a hashtag. There is real work to be done. 

So yes, Me too. I've been sexually harassed many times in my life. I've been sexually abused too, by a man who believed he had the legal right, even when I said, "No." And fought. And said "No" again and again. He won, but he lost me. I left him. And more recently by another man who was a good friend of my late husband and tried to take advantage of the grieving widow he assured himself who needed his "comfort." 

The most enduring episodes, I've recently realized, came when I was a young field scientist working for the US Forest Service. The subtle harassment like making sure I knew I was just a token, hired only because I was a "girl" and the Forest Service had a quota of "girls" to fill so they would meet "diversity targets." (When a young middle-class white woman is hired to add "diversity," it's a pretty sad situation.)

Me as a Forest Service plant ecologist, out in the field, in about 1981. 

The less-than-subtle stuff like one of my colleagues letting me know during a long drive in a Forest Service pickup where it was just the two of us, he at the wheel, of course, on the way to a conference that he could show me "some good times." "And mentor you on your way up in the ranks." (He was married, with several kids, and I was still a seasonal employee, working toward a permanent job.) I rode back with a different colleague.

The time another colleague, also male, because all of my fieldwork colleagues were male then, took me aside for some career advice, which included "blending in more in terms of your looks" and "not socializing with 'the girls'," the highly trained Personnel and Purchasing officers for the Forest, plus the rest of the office staff. 

I did get my permanent job without the help of my married-with-children colleague, and I didn't quit socializing with "the girls." But I did blend in. I wore my waist length red hair up in a bun, or hid it under a ball-cap, as in the photo above. I wore baggy jeans and chamois shirts in winter, long-sleeved tee-shirts and baggy chinos in summer. I deliberately downplayed my femininity, which wasn't all that hard for skinny, freckled me.

And when I got divorced from my first husband, also a colleague, and the Forest Supervisor, a very nice man, but not exactly enlightened, told me that he was sorry, but he couldn't keep both of us. "You'll marry again," he said, his face kind, "and your husband will support you. But [my ex] has to support himself." 

I was speechless for a moment (something that will surprise anyone who knows me well). And then I resigned. It was the early 1980s, and I didn't know what sexual harassment was. I also knew I was broke from the divorce and had no power. 

In the end, I didn't just leave the Forest Service, I left science, too. I went back to graduate school, turned to writing as a way to heal the world, and fell in love. I married, raised a step-daughter, moved around the country with her daddy's career. Wrote 12 published books, hundreds of newspaper columns and magazine articles. Wrote and narrated a popular nature commentary on public radio in the Southwest. Won awards. Settled in southern Colorado with my love and weathered his journey through brain cancer and my mother's death the same year. 

With Molly and Richard Cabe, the focus of my life for many years, in Boulder, Colorado in about 1988 when I was writing my first book, Pieces of Light

What the #metoo hashtag showed me is not just that I'm not alone. I see now that those experiences so long ago shaped me in ways I didn't realize. Only now as a widow, "Woman Alone," as I prefer to put it, do I recognize that I used my marriage as my shield against the world. Yes, I wrote; yes, I spoke about issues that concerned me; yes, I reached readers and listeners, changed hearts and minds. 

I also hid when I chose, taking shelter behind the larger, more gregarious figure of my husband, Richard, who was a muscled 6-foot-tall and 180 pounds. We went everywhere hand in hand, so it was easy to slip into the background of his larger personality. 

It's not that I can't take care of myself alone. I may not be tall or large, but I have muscles and I am proud of them. In the course of finishing, building, and restoring three houses since he died, I have learned to use tools and design knowledge, to work with construction guys and trades-folk of all sorts. I run 3.5 miles twice a week. I work alone digging weeds in Yellowstone, my ears cocked for grizzly bears or simply amorous elk. 

Yet somehow I internalized the lesson of that long-ago sexual harassment: I was only hired to fill a quota. Because I was a "girl." That my work has no worth. I have struggled to earn a living from my writing and speaking since Richard died. 

Because, I see now, I don't speak up for myself. I take what I'm offered, which is all-too-often close to nothing. I don't believe I am worth more. 

So yes. Me too. And it is still affecting me. I can see the ways it is holding me back more clearly now. I can work on that. 

It seems to me that's what we need to do to carry #metoo onward. It's good to speak up–if we can. It's good to empathize. It's good to see that we're not alone. 

Now each us needs to find a way to take that onward. Work with an organization that helps survivors, that empowers women (and men and others who define their gender differently). Work on your own healing. Speak up and out, and help those who aren't empowered or able to speak. 

Because #metoo is really about all of us. Empowering and healing each other, and this troubled world. 


Family and Windshield Time

I didn't blog last weekend because I was in western Washington with my family. It's so rare that the whole Tweit clan can gather (only Molly was missing) that I wanted to soak up every moment. Even my middle niece, Sienna, and her husband and kids were there from Germany, where Matt is on detail with the Army Corps of Engineers. I haven't seen them in three years! 

I left on Friday morning and intended to be leisurely about the 14-hour drive, stopping in Coeur D'Alene, in Idaho's Panhandle, for the night. Only when I got to Coeur D'Alene, it was only five o'clock and the temperature was 97 degrees. Not ideal weather for sleeping in my truck. I pressed on to Spokane (98 degrees) and continued west across eastern Washington in heat that just didn't let up. So I just kept driving. 

By the time bug-splattered Red and I crossed the Columbia River upstream of Yakima it was nine o'clock, 95 degrees, and the sun was close to setting. I calculated through a gritty brain (I had been driving for 12 hours by then) that I had about two and a half hours to go if the traffic in the Seattle-Tacoma corridor wasn't too horrible. 

I texted my brother and Lucy, his wife, that I was aiming for a late arrival. "So if you see Red in the driveway tomorrow morning, don't wake me up!"

They texted back that they couldn't wait to see me. "But drive carefully!"

I made it to their house on Tumwater Hill at a few minutes after eleven. They were still up, so I got to sleep inside in a real bed, always a plus. 

The next day was a mellow morning, and then we all–Bill, Lucy, their youngest, Alice, and I–headed out to Ocean Shores for the weekend, where most of the rest of the clan joined us. (Dad and my eldest niece's husband, Duane, couldn't join us there.) We feasted on fresh Dungeness crab that night (I was too busy cracking legs and eating the succulent meat to shoot a photo), and ate at a seafood shack that Heather and Duane had discovered on an earlier trip. (Great choice, Heath!)

Some of the clan around the big table at the seafood shack (I couldn't fit everyone in the photo!). Left to right, my youngest niece Alice, who is channeling her uncle Richard and studying economics; my brother Bill; my sister-in-law Lucy; Sienna and Matt; Colin, middle son of Heather (who is sitting next to me and not in the photo); and Fiona, Sienna and Matt's eldest. (Not in the photo: Porter, Sienna and Matt's youngest; Liam, Heather's youngest; and Heather.)

In between meals there was beach-time (Porter and Colin even braved the cold waves, agile and fearless as seals), explore-the-nearby-playground time, put-together-ridiculously-hard-puzzle time (my great-niece, Fiona is the artistic one and a puzzle champ), and just hang-out time. 

On the Fourth, half of us went to a lunchtime picnic at Panorama Dad's retirement village, and then we all gathered at Heather and Duane's gorgeous new house on Lake Tapps, outside Sumner, for a barbecue and fireworks. (Where I had such a great time I also forgot to shoot any photos.)

At the Panorama picnic: Sienna on the left, Matt next to her with Fiona in front, Bill with Porter in front of him, Lucy peeking over Dad's shoulder, and Dad showing off the walker he is using at 88 to help straighten up his spine (he's pretty stooped, but he'll be 89 in two weeks, so he's not doing badly). 

By the time I set out for the long drive home the next morning, I was feeling full of family and love, and ready for some quiet windshield time.

I'm an INFJ-A if you know the Myers-Briggs system of personality types. (If you don't, you might find the test and descriptions of personality types at Sixteen Personalities illuminating.) The 'I' stands for introvert. I'm not an extreme introvert, but I do need a lot of quiet thinking and digesting time. 

So instead of retracing the 14-hour route on Interstate 90 I took on the way to Washington, I took a longer route home. I dropped south to Portland, Oregon, on I-5, and then east through the Columbia River Gorge on I-84, over the Blue Mountains, and south and east through Boise, across southern Idaho, and then north along the back side of the Teton Range, and home through "The Park," as we refer to Yellowstone here where the nation's first national park is our backyard. 

Mt. Hood in the distance over the Columbia River as I headed south to I-84 and the Gorge. 

That's a drive of about 1,300 miles, instead of the just-under a thousand miles on the westward leg. Not a distance I could do in a day. 

Going the longer route gave me more windshield time for thinking, and also meant I got to travel a loop, rather than out and back. I like seeing the West's open landscapes, the more variety the better. 

It took me two full days of driving, and I spent the hottest night I've camped in Red's topper in a Walmart parking lot in Mountain View, Idaho, where the temperature at sunset was 97 degrees F, down from 100. (I was just too tired to drive on, and once the air cooled down, I slept pretty well.)

Still, it was a lovely time. I'm a reader of landscapes, parsing geology and landform, asking myself why these particular plants grow here but not there, or these plants are absent, pondering the human pattern of occupation, both historic and present day. I observe and think about what my observations mean, what the landscape and its patterns have to say to us. There is a lot to look at between Tumwater and Cody, and thinking about all I saw kept me pretty occupied. 

Driving into the Columbia River Gorge on the west end… 

And driving out on the east end. What's different about these two ends of the Gorge? And what explains that difference? Those are the kinds of questions I ask myself in reading landscapes. (Leave a comment at the bottom of the post if you guess the answer!)

I also spent time on my daily gratitudes, which include being grateful for these mostly wild and open landscapes and the many ways they inspire me. And being grateful for the time with my family, as well as for being able to come home to the place that is the home of my heart: Northwest Wyoming.

I thought about Richard, because he was always up for a road trip, and because he would have loved this family gathering (we talked about him over the weekend–my family misses him the way I do, like an ache in a limb you no longer have). And because part of my route home was on our Big Trip, the 29-year-late honeymoon drive we took two months before he died. 

Richard greets the redwood forest on The Big Trip (September, 2011)

And I thought about the question that preoccupies me this year more than other because I will turn 61 this fall, the age Richard was when he died: Who am I in this post-Richard life? 

It's a question that's been on my mind ever since November 27th, 2011, when I looked out at the slender silver sliver of new moon cupping Venus in the western sky and he was no longer there to share that sight. 

For the first three years after he died, I focused on digging myself out of the financial hole that brain cancer and losing him left me in. With the help of family and friends (special thanks to Andrew Cabe, Grand Pound, and Maggie and Tony Niemann), I finished and sold Terraphilia, the big house he built for us but never quite got around to finishing, and his historic studio building, which he began renovating but didn't finish either. (There was always an interesting sculpture challenge to solve first…)

Then I was focused getting my little house built, and on returning to freelance writing, along with writing the first half-dozen drafts of Bless the Birds, the memoir about learning to love the end of life that I still haven't finished. (I has taken a lot longer to get the story right than I imagined.)

And now, I'm home in Cody and realizing again how much of who I became over those almost 29 years together was because I was half of "us," "Richard 'n Susan," a pair so close we often finished each other's sentences, a pair mated for life. 

Richard 'n Susan, in the landscape he loved so much, and I loved because it was a home we could agree on, the Upper Arkansas River Valley in southern Colorado.

Without the other half of that pair, who am I? 

That is what I am working on finding out.

I know that I am most at home here in the sagebrush country on the east edge of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. That plants are my "people." That my mission in life is restoring and celebrating this earth and its vibrant web of lives, plant by plant and word by word. And that love is perhaps my greatest strength. (Earning a living clearly is not! Still haven't figured that one out.)

That's a lot, don't you think? 

But it's not everything. I'm still discovering parts of me I had forgotten for decades. This figuring out who I am as Woman Alone, the "just me" me, is a fascinating and sometimes disconcerting quest. 

I am very grateful to be home to do it. And to have such a warm and welcoming home to return to. Seeing this house come back to life is so heart-filling. Maybe that's what I'm doing too: Coming back to life. As just me. Whoever she is. 

My bedroom with new windows (same style as the old, just tight, thermally efficient, and the glass is so clear!), a new floor, and new paint. It's the first room in the house to be finished… 


I’ve been cranky around the edges for the past several weeks, less patient than usual, easily irritated and sometimes outright bitchy. I’ve embarrassed myself with my moods, and wondered more than once where the good-natured me went and who is this out-of-sorts woman currently inhabiting my skin.

Yesterday afternoon was a particular low point. I got up feeling good and blazed through my Saturday household to-do list. I cleaned the guest studio after a recent visitor, vacuumed the house, painted the formerly boring gray mailbox poppy red to match the exterior window and door trim (that’s my quite eye-catching mailbox in the photo above), and pruned the tomato plants attempting to grow into a jungle in the stock tank on my side deck. 

By two-thirty though, I was edgy and restless. I could feel a mood coming on.

(Just in case Donald Trump happens to be reading this, I’d like to point out that a woman is entitled to have a ‘tude without any blood issuing from her body whatsoever.) 

I thought about going for a hike in the hills across the river, but I didn’t feel like going alone. And I also didn’t want to impose my potentially whining, grumpy self on any of my hiking buddies either. 

After some dithering–which only made me more annoyed with myself–I headed downtown to visit my two favorite galleries, thinking that looking at art and chatting with the friends who own each place would cheer me up. 

I was right. I also indulged in some retail therapy, something normally off-limits in the service of sticking to my budget. But I couldn’t resist the ice cream scoop with the beautiful hand-carved wood handle at Gallery 150.

The wood felt so smooth and comfortable in my hand, and the scoop reminded me of something Richard would make–a “functional sculpture,” as he called the household objects he created, lending a connection with the earth to things we use everyday. 

And then down the street at Cultureclash, I indulged myself again and bought a pair of mini-carpenter’s level earrings I’ve eyed for quite some time. The symbolism (harking to tool girl) made me smile, and when I read the artist’s card that accompanied the earrings, I knew I needed them: 

These levels are a wonderful reminder to keep your life in balance.

Oh yeah. 

From Cultureclash I strolled across the street to YOLO Clothing, and found exactly the swing cardigan I’ve been looking for. It was in my budget, so I bought that too.  

As I walked home, I gave myself a lecture. “You can’t just indulge in buying things whenever your mood needs a lift,” I told myself firmly.

And then I thought idly about the date and a light went on in my brain. I knew immediately why I was restless and out-of-sorts: It was Richard’s and my 32nd wedding anniversary.

I had spent the day doing just the sorts of things we would have done: putzing around the house and yard, perhaps taking a hike in the hills, strolling Richard’s favorite galleries downtown, buying something special for each other (the ice cream scoop for him, the earrings for me), and then treating each other to dinner out. (Which I did not do, in part because of the budget, in part because celebrating alone is still too painful.)

As I walked on, I also realized why the extended period of crankiness around the edges. Richard’s 65th birthday fell almost exactly three weeks ago yesterday, on July 16th. 

We had plans for the year: Richard would retire and be free to sculpt without worrying about money; we’d celebrate his significant birthday and our anniversary by taking one of the dream trips on the list on our refrigerator, to Ireland and Scotland, exploring the Celtic cultures we both were born to. 

Only that didn’t happen. Richard, my partner in love, laughter and life, died of brain cancer four years ago this coming November, at age 61.

I weathered the shock, the grief, and the wrenching apart of my life. I charted a new path, one that acknowledges and celebrates the decades we spent together and the way we shaped each other into the people we were and are, and also one that allows me to be happy in this unasked-for solo life. I am happy–mostly.

Only these particular two anniversaries brought another chunk of grief to the surface.

I didn’t recognize that until yesterday evening as I walked home, my purchases in hand, Richard clearly still in my heart.

As he will always be.

There’s the laughter part: Richard posing with the giant artichoke in Castroville, California. 

Road Trip: Going Away to Come Home

Today was road trip day: I drove to Colorado Springs to do city errands, including buying cartridges for my computer printer necessary to finishing my memoir. I’ve been putting this trip off for weeks; I didn’t want to spend a day and the energy required to make the four-hour, 230-mile round-trip drive.

Heading down the canyon on US 50 this morning, into the bend called "rincon" where the Arkansas River curves around an uptilted ridge of red Sangre de Cristo sandstone. Heading down the canyon on US 50 this morning, into the bend called “rincon” (corner) where the Arkansas River makes a tight u-bend around a ridge of tilting red Sangre de Cristo sandstone.

That drive is one of the trade-offs of living in this spectacularly scenic part of rural Colorado, hours away from cities, malls, interstate highways, and crowds. Still, I’ll take being able to see Jupiter rise, bright as a headlight, over a horizon unpolluted by sky glow and living a short walk from the trail head and the local-food grocery store, over being nearer to Office Max, Whole Foods and Home Depot.

Jupiter rising over the black silhouette of the Arkansas Hills to the east. (When I turned around, Venus was almost opposite Jupiter in the western sky, and equally bright. Wow!) Jupiter rising over the black silhouette of the Arkansas Hills to the east. (When I turned around, Venus was almost opposite Jupiter in the western sky, and equally bright.)

The going-to-the-city decision was made for me Friday afternoon when my printer rejected the brand-new, genuine HP cartridge I installed. “Defective cartridge,” said the read-out, and the machine refused to print. I had no other cartridge, and I need to print the manuscript pages as I finish them.

I could have ordered new cartridges from that huge internet retailer I won’t name, but since the last two cartridges the printer rejected as defective came from that very retailer (two out of six in a package, a one-third failure rate), that option wasn’t appealing.

US 50 winding downhill toward the Plains alongside the Arkansas River. Not a bad commute to the city.... Winding downhill toward the Plains on US 50 alongside the Arkansas River this morning. Not a bad commute to the city….

So I looked at my “city list” and picked today for the trip, based on the weather (which has been so balmy and dry that our snow pack, our water savings-bank for summer, is looking poor indeed) and on the lack of rush-hour. I left at quarter past ten this morning and was home at quarter past five tonight.

Pikes Peak rising in the distance over city traffic. Pikes Peak rising in the distance over Colorado Springs traffic. (By comparison, there are six traffic lights in my entire county and a dozen peaks as tall or taller than Pikes Peak. That’s the right ratio of 14,000-plus-foot-high peaks to traffic lights, to my way of thinking.)

Not bad, except that the four-hour drive, the city traffic and the shopping sucked me dry. I’m exhausted.

I’m also reminded of how fortunate I am to live in a quiet valley just east of the highest portion of the Rocky Mountains. A place where my “commute” to the nearest city takes me 60 miles down a wild and winding river canyon, and then another 55 miles across the very western edge of the ocean-like expanse of the Great Plains.

Heading home again. Those high peaks in the very far (and blurry--sorry!) distance are just downstream of where I live, about 50 miles by air, 80 by road. Heading home across the high plains. Those high peaks in the very far  distance are where I live.

It’s a spectacular drive, even when the weather and roads aren’t as favorable as they were today.

US 50 at a wide spot in Bighorn Sheep Canyon in the blue shadows of this February afternoon. Pure joy. US 50 at a wide spot in Bighorn Sheep Canyon in the blue shadows of this afternoon with Lyle Lovett singing “Truck Song” as Red and I wind our way home. Pure joy.

So as exhausted and grumpy as I am, I’m grateful too. The trip to the city reminded me. Without the good fortune of knowing and loving Richard, I would never have come to know this small town where he lived as a child, a place we finally figured out how to return to seventeen years ago.

The valley and town, seen from the trail I run twice a week. The valley and town, seen from the trail I run twice a week.

And even though brain cancer truncated our time together, I can still hear the sound of his laughter and feel his delight in these rocks and trees, hills and peaks, and the community of humans and wild species who weave the living tapestry of this particular landscape.

The place we shared longest in all our years together. And the only one we called home. The place I still do.

Tired, yes, but very happy to be here.... Tired, yes, but very happy to be here….

Streetside view of the blank wall in a hailstorm last July

Small House Living: Tool Girl Redux

I live in a small house by choice. I like compact spaces and I like living simply. I also want to be comfortable, efficient with energy and materials, and happy in my space. And after living for almost 29 years with a sculptor who could and did design and build anything, I’m picky about details.

So even though my little house and its companion garage/studio were finished last year, I’m still completing a few projects. Today’s was a combination of design and whimsy.

Streetside view of the blank wall in a hailstorm last July Streetside view of the blank wall in a hailstorm last July

My house faces south to harvest the sun’s heat in winter, so it’s sideways to the street with a tall blank wall on that side. Tom Pokorny, my inspired designer, specified a window in that wall. That window got nixed because of noise issues. Instead, we added a Craftsman-stye porch roof over a sandstone bench.

Only there was still too much blank wall. I decided it needed a faux window–my little joke, the window that’s not a window–and asked my glass guy, Steve Duhaime, another amazing designer, if he had any junky wood window frames lying around.

The faux window before painting. The faux window last August before painting

He did. I hauled home a shabby frame about six feet wide by three feet high, divided into three lights. I sanded it down, added brackets to reinforce joints long since warped in our dry climate, and screwed it to the wall above the bench. Then I painted it red to match the existing doors and windows.

Still, it needed something more. While I was inventing back-splashes of galvanized sheet steel for the galley kitchen in Treehouse, my studio, I realized what that something was: window boxes.

Not just any window boxes, mind you—ones that honored the industrial history of the place. I measured and thought, and then drew up plans for three simple galvanized sheet-steel window boxes.

Last September, I took the plans to Janet at Johnny Berndt & Sons, a local fabrication shop. “No rush,” I said. “Just ask Ken to make them when he has time.”

Window box interior with drain hole, and at top, the lip that they hang from on the frame. Window box interior with drain hole, and at top, the lip that they hang from.

She called last week to say they were ready. All they needed were drain holes. I drilled those this morning, and then fitted my glorious new window boxes on their faux window frame.

The window boxes, partly filled with wreath greens The window boxes, partly filled with wreath greens

It’s too early to plant, so I took apart the big wreath I had hung up for the winter holidays, and filled the boxes with its fragrant juniper and fir greenery.

I was so pleased with myself, and it was so warm in the sun against that wall that I took my lunch outside and ate on the sandstone bench under my new window boxes.

Window boxes in place and full of fragrant wreath greens Window boxes in place and full of fragrant wreath greens

I’ve thought a lot since having to learn power tools and carpentry in order to finish the big house about what it is that is so satisfying about acquiring this basic competence with building and designing. Every time I finish a project, no matter how simple, I am ridiculously pleased with myself, as if it’s a huge achievement.

The truth is, it is a huge achievement. I never so much as picked up a power tool before Richard died. He was so completely and elegantly competent at using tools, designing with wood, stone and steel, and building anything from a hand-operated crane to heft boulders to a whole house, that I never tried to learn. My efforts would have been painfully slow and clumsy by comparison.

Richard with "Matriculation," ready to load it on a trailer to install in the Steamplant Sculpture Garden Richard with “Matriculation,” a sculpture, and the hand-crane he invented and built

Nor did I grow up with that competence. My Norwegian granddad Olav, a mechanical engineer and the only one in my small family who could design and build, never considered teaching me to use his tools. And I, the good girl, never asked.

Now it’s just me, and while my efforts may be slow and clumsy, they work. That I can cut and mill lumber, work with steel, and design things like custom window boxes that actually look and function as I imagined is a huge source of pride for me. I didn’t know I could.

This “tool girl” work has expanded my sense of me, of possibilities. (Thank you, Susan Tomlinson, for the phrase and for your example!)

That sense of possibilities is what is so satisfying: there is more to me than I realized. I like knowing that.

Those window boxes and the red faux window make the wall friendly and make me smile.... Those window boxes and the red faux window make the wall a human scale and make me smile….

What’s Cooking: One Dish Winter Dinner Recipe

It’s Wednesday and DIY night on this blog, so here’s a recipe!

Weather Report: 22 degrees F, wind howling out of the southeast, no snow yet. Perfect weather for a simple, quick and healthy dinner featuring local winter vegetables and soft cheese. (You can add meat if you want, more on that later.)

Your one-bowl dinner ready to eat--ummm! Your one-bowl dinner ready to eat–yum!

Yams Nested in Kale With Corn and Cheese

1 yam (actually, it’s an orange sweet potato, but we won’t get technical!)
5 or 6 leaves kale (I happen to like Lacinato kale for its rich and smooth flavor)
1/3 cup frozen corn (I shave kernels from summer corn and freeze them)
1 oz or so farmer’s cheese (I use Rocking W cheese from western Colorado)
splash olive oil
fresh-ground pepper

This part takes some planning: Prick the yam with a fork and bake for an hour or so at 375 degrees. Basically, you bake it until it smells great and is soft when you touch it. (You can bake the yam the day before, or in the morning if you want.)

Lacinato or dinosaur kale, a heritage Italian variety Lacinato or dinosaur kale, a heritage Italian variety

While the yam is cooling enough so you can slice it, chop the kale roughly into bite-sized pieces.

Chopped kale piled in a bowl with corn on top Chopped kale piled in a bowl with corn on top

Drizzle a little olive oil into a microwave safe bowl (or into a saute´ pan on the stove), pile in the kale, add the frozen corn and microwave covered for two minutes. (Or sauté, also covered, on medium heat on the stove until kale is thoroughly wilted, for about 4 or 5 minutes.)

Yam, baked and chopped, cheese in chunks Yam, baked and chopped, cheese in chunks

While the kale and corn are cooking, slice the yam thickly, and cut the cheese into chunks. When the kale/corn is done, layer the chunks of cheese atop the corn, and then place the yam slices on top. Grate some pepper on top, return to the microwave for 30 seconds (covered) or put back on the stove for long enough for the cheese to melt.

Serve with crusty bread, and enjoy!

Locavore Rating: The yam and the pepper aren’t local at all, but the olive oil I use comes from California, which is more local (and more reliable) than that from Italy. The kale, corn and cheese are quite local (from Ploughboy Local Market).

Meat-Eaters: Add some sausage, preferably chicken or turkey with a lighter flavor that won’t overwhelm the vegetables. Simply brown the sausage while you’re chopping and cooking the kale and corn, and layer the sausage in atop the veggies, but below the cheese and yams.

What’s playing while I cook: Roseanne Cash’s new CD, The River & The Thread.

Cottonwoods showing autumn's final colors along the Rio Chama.

Trickster Grief

Cottonwoods showing autumn's final colors along the Rio Chama. Cottonwoods showing bronzey-gold fire along the Rio Chama.

On my drive home today after teaching at the Tony Hillerman Writing Conference in Santa Fe, I stopped in the cottonwood bosque (“woods” in Spanish) along the Rio Chama and was surprised by grief. As I stepped out of Red, my ears filled with the “Chur-ee!” calls of red-winged blackbirds, my noise filled with the tannic smell of decaying cottonwood leaves, and my eyes filled with tears.

The sharp pain in my heart and the wrenching sense of loss shouldn’t have hit me unawares. The drive between Santa Fe and Salida on US 285 was one of Richard’s and my favorite “threads,” or shared road-trips. We first took it together in the fall of 1984, thirty years ago, and retraced the route many times over the decades.

Big Sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata or Seriphidium tridentatum, depending on your taxonomy) on the Taos Plateau. Big Sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata or Seriphidium tridentatum, depending on your taxonomy) on the Taos Plateau.

My memory is layered with snapshots of those trips: The first shocking flush of chartreuse leaves in the cottonwood bosque in spring, when the rivers are running full, their water hissing with red and ochre sediment. The sweetly resinous smell of big sagebrush after a warm summer thundershower.

The sound of a flock of piñon jays whinnying as they forage for nuts from the tree’s cones; the sight of sandhill cranes, wide wings spread and long necks outstretched, flying down the valley in long strings in late fall.

The dazzle of stars in the black night sky one winter night, starlight so bright that the snow along the roadsides glowed even with no moon.

Over the years, we got in the habit of stopping in particular places. The bosque by the bridge where the highway crosses the Rio Chama, the river draining Georgia O’Keeffe’s beloved badland and mesa landscapes, was one of those stops, especially in autumn.

The last cottonwood trees still bright gold along the wash above the Rio Chama A few bright gold cottonwood trees along the wash above the Rio Chama.

So I should have known I’d miss Richard when I stopped out of my truck. But it’s been almost three years since he died. (Actually, it’s been two years, eleven months and 18 days, not that I’m counting obsessively or anything.)

In that time, I’ve deliberately built a good life for myself, one both radically different (new tiny house/studio complex, new truck, new writing projects) and very much the same (same block, same town, my life and work inspired by the same terraphilia we shared, a mindful love for the earth and its living communities).

I’m happy in this new life. Sometimes so much that I feel guilty about it.

Richard 'n Susan, twenty years ago.... Richard ‘n Susan, twenty years ago….

Richard and I were together—so together that we finished the other’s sentences and held hands wherever we went—for just shy of 29 years, much of our adult lives. Our bond shaped us—for good mostly, but not always, I must admit.

That kind of deep connection does not go away at death. Richard is still part of who I am, and the love we shared profoundly affects my understanding of myself and my approach to life.

I should have known that when I stepped out of Red and heard the blackbird voices over the rush of the river, and smelled the spice of the decaying cottonwood leaves, I would feel Richard and the sharp pain of our parting.

The Richard-sculpted blue granite basin in my bathroom The Richard-sculpted blue granite basin in my bathroom

I didn’t know, because that acute grief is not something I feel every day. I feel his love; I often smile and think of something we shared. I live with his sculpture around me. I feel the loss, but it’s more like a chronic ache than a piercing shaft to the heart.

Grief is a bit of a trickster, surprising us when we least expect it. Today’s encounter was no doubt triggered by the sensory memories attached to the sound of the blackbirds’ calls, the quality of the light coming through the cottonwood trees, and the spicy resin of the cottonwood leaves.

I don’t flinch from the visits of Trickster Grief. I’d rather be reminded of the love I had, even when it hurts like… heck, than never have known that love at all.

Sierra San Antonio, another memory-place on the drive.... Sierra San Antonio, another memory-place on the drive

Deck railings dripping before dawn....

What’s Cooking: Savory Rosemary-Lavender Scones

Deck railings dripping before dawn.... Deck railings dripping before dawn….

I woke this morning in the darkness before dawn and, as I always do, I first checked the view of the constellations—Orion, my favorite, was barely visible, glittering through a veil of high cloud. Next I checked the outside temperature: 49 degrees F, very warm for dawn at this time of year.

I grabbed my laptop and returned to bed, piling pillows behind me so I could sit up and write in my journal. Half an hour later, I heard a sound I don’t usually hear as night is yielding to day: thunder. I looked out and saw showers sweeping down the mountainsides.

Soon, rain was splattering the windows. With no sun to warm the house, I decided it was the perfect time to revive a Sunday tradition from the years BBC (before Richard’s brain cancer), when I baked scones almost every Sunday morning.

Fire at the push of a button on a remote, a luxury after years of splitting and burning wood. Fire at the push of a button on a remote, a luxury after years of splitting and burning wood.

I could of course have simply turned on the charming and efficient gas fireplace tucked in the corner of my living-dining-kitchen “great” room as my supplemental heat source.

But if I’m going to pay for natural gas—and by “pay” I mean both shell out cash and also pay in terms of the effect of the CO2 added to the atmosphere when I burn it—I might as well use that gas to feed myself as well. Hence baking.

I don’t remember the last time I baked scones. I pretty much gave up baking when Richard entered hospice care three years ago. After he died, it was just me, and I was scrambling to finish the big house and build this small one.

I hunted through my recipe books and looked online for a savory scone recipe, and didn’t find one I really liked. I wanted something without much gluten, since lately I seem to be a little sensitive to it, and I had in mind using the herbs growing in pots on my deck, specifically the lavender, which is blooming again—crazy plants!—and the rosemary.

Food processor, ingredients, Mom's favorite green glass mixing bowl--I'm all set! Food processor, ingredients, Mom’s favorite green glass mixing bowl–I’m set!

I wasn’t entirely sure I’d still remember how to get just the right texture to the dough and bake them so they’re crisp outside and crumbly within. But once I got out my ingredients and began to measure and mix and chop and whisk, my hands remembered.

Chopping freshly harvested lavender buds and rosemary leaves—oh, the fragrance! Chopping freshly harvested lavender buds and rosemary leaves—oh, the fragrance!

And the results? I took some scones over to Ploughboy Local Market, and was gratified by the speed at which the scones were devoured, and the expressions of delight. But don’t take my word for it, make ’em yourself!

Susan’s Savory Rosemary-Lavender Scones

1-1/4 cups spelt flour (this recipe was developed for high-altitude; below 5,000 feet, use 1 cup spelt flour)
1/2 cup unbleached flour (could just use all spelt flour)
1/2 cup blue cornmeal
1-1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1 T finely chopped mixed rosemary leaves and lavender buds
5 T butter, cubed
1 egg, room temperature
1/2 cup buttermilk or half-n-half soured with 1 tsp vinegar
3 T maple syrup

Pre-heat oven to 400 degrees. Mix dry ingredients plus chopped lavender and rosemary. (I do this in a food processor.) Cut in butter until flour/butter mix is crumbly. (In a food processor, pulse slowly just until crumbly.) Beat egg in small bowl, add buttermilk/soured cream and maple syrup and beat until combined. Reserve about a T for a wash for scones. Pour the rest into food processor, pulse just until the mix begins to gather into a mass. Put about a T flour each onto two cookie sheets. Scoop out half of the scone dough and dredge in flour on cookie sheet until it doesn’t stick. Flatten the ball gently and if it’s still sticky, gently knead in enough flour to make it workable. Carefully pat out into a half-inch thick round. Brush with reserved egg/cream/syrup wash. Cut into 8 wedges, separating wedges so they don’t stick while baking. Bake 15 minutes or until top is lightly browned. Repeat with the other half of the dough. Enjoy!

The finished scones cooling. The finished scones cooling.

Coda: Getting back to my Sunday-morning baking feels like coming home again. I miss Richard and I always will, but I like this simple life I’m building on my own.

The aspens were turning gold on the slopes of Buffalo Peaks in South Park on Saturday, something I saw only because I tore myself away from work to take Red for a drive.

Financial Sustainability: Tools for Awareness

The aspens were turning gold on the slopes of Buffalo Peaks in South Park on Saturday, something I saw only because I tore myself away from work to take Red for a drive. Aspens turning gold on the slopes of Buffalo Peaks in South Park–definitely worth the time and gas for a drive in Red.

I turned 58 last week, so I’ve begun thinking about financial sustainability in terms of retirement. My idea of retirement isn’t quitting working, it’s having the flexibility to do what I love most–writing, and restoring nature in the places where we live and work–at a pace that feels less like work and more like play.

As I’ve written here before, I’m practicing being aware of how I use my money, in part because I’ve had to make some serious and difficult trade-offs after Richard, the love of my life and my husband for nearly three decades, died of brain cancer.

I’m lucky: my parents, my terminally cheap dad and my generous but goal-oriented mom, taught me how to be intentional about my money, aware of how I use my dollars and what that means for the future.

Dad and Mom at our house in Salida on a Christmas visit Dad and Mom in matching turtlenecks (bought on sale) one Christmas

Any of us, whatever our background, culture and current situation, can take steps toward financial stability by practicing thinking before we spend.

Like yoga, meditation or sobriety, working toward financial sustainability is a practice. It takes daily work. Some days go better than others. On the bad days, you pick yourself up, learn from what when wrong and start again, resolved to resume with enlightened mind and heart.

On the good days, you understand that whatever you have can indeed be enough, and in fact, more than enough. That’s a wonderful and liberating feeling.

What are some tools I use to practice financial sustainability? One is awareness.

Eating outside at Ploughboy on a nice day. Eating outside at Ploughboy on a nice day.

Before I spend any money, whether it’s putting a dollar in the tip jar for the employees at Ploughboy Local Market, my neighborhood grocery store, or buying a new pair of glasses (not a trivial expense since I wear progressive trifocals), I stop and think: Is this really how I want to use this money?

In the doing, I acknowledge that money is a finite resource: what I spend in one place isn’t available to spend somewhere else. (Which does not keep me from being generous whenever possible. I just think about it first.)

Another tool is paying by cash or check when I can, rather than using my charge card. Yes, credit cards “pay” rewards—as a way to suck you into spending more money. It works; you do. But is that what you really want?

Red in Big Horn Sheep Canyon on the Arkansas River Red, my truck and topper, which I own outright and paid for by check. (Writing that number made me think!)

When I have to stop and pull out cash or write a check, I think about what I’m spending. It’s harder to be impulsive that way. Which is the point.

That little plastic card (whether credit or debit) makes the transaction too automatic, too far removed from actual money. With credit cards, that can have catastrophic consequences: You are borrowing the money you spend. If you can’t pay it off at the end of the monthly cycle, you pay, and pay, and pay.

Richard and Molly on a bench outside the VA Medical Center after he first saw the birds that presaged his tumor. Richard and Molly on a bench outside the VA Medical Center at the beginning of our journey with his brain cancer.

Sometimes we have no choice; a big expense comes up unexpectedly, and we have to borrow the money, whether from the credit card company or the bank. That’s life.

But it doesn’t have to be a daily habit.

Financial sustainability isn’t something you achieve and then don’t have to think about anymore. It grows from the seemingly small decisions we make every day, like buying the fancy drink at the coffeehouse on the way to work.

cocoa heart Chocolate art by a barrista

Five days a week for fifty weeks (assuming two weeks for vacation) and that $4 per drink adds up to $1,000 a year. That’s not small change.

Maybe that thousand dollars is worth it. And maybe not. Learning to be conscious and decide is part of the everyday practice that leads to financial sustainability.

That daily practice is a key part of my retirement plan: What I don’t spend buys me more time to stop and admire the aspens, and just enjoy life.

Aspens on Trout Creek Pass Aspens on Trout Creek Pass

Molly, Richard and me in Boulder (we had an old Volvo station wagon then)

Going Red (pickup truck, that is)

Molly, Richard and me in Boulder (we had an old Volvo station wagon then) Molly, Richard and me in Boulder (we had an old Volvo station wagon then)

For the past several decades, with the exception of a refurbished VW camper van and the Isuzu Trooper that became Richard’s boulder-hauling vehicle, I have driven a series of sensible, family hauling, gas-sipping station wagons and vans.

Before I met Richard though, I drove pickup trucks (I was probably the only Birkenstock-wearing pickup-truck driver in Wyoming then).

On our first and only date, my dark blue Datsun long-bed with a five-speed manual transmission carried us safely over the Medicine Bow Mountains in January to the hot springs at Saratoga, Wyoming.

It’s interesting that I remember not only what color that Datsun pickup was, and the length of the bed–long-beds were long enough to sleep in, which I did, many times–but also the fact that it was a five-speed manual tranny.

Ask me what color the Subaru hatchback we traded it for when we moved with Molly to West Virgina for Richard’s first teaching job. Yellow? White? Tan? Something like that.

Isis, our Great Dane, Richard and Molly in the mountains. Isis, our Great Dane, Richard and Molly in the mountains.

There was one brief and glorious year when we became empty-nesters and I convinced Richard, who really didn’t care what he drove as long as the driver’s seat was comfortable, that we should go camping again.

So we bought a Toyota Tundra with a topper on the back which we did actually camp in on its only road trip, a swing through Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks.

A few months after we got home, Mom had a hip replacement and it was hard for her to climb into the cab, so we traded the Tundra for a van. And then several years later, we traded that for a Subaru Forester, which sipped gas and was perfect for hauling elderly parents. And commuting to Denver for brain-cancer treatments.

The Forester at the petroglyphs in Irish Canyon, Colorado. The Forester at the petroglyphs in Irish Canyon, Colorado.

After Richard died, I figured I’d drive a Forester forever. I even took it camping, but I had some creepy experiences, so I quit that.

Last winter sometime, I began fantasizing about a pickup. Something small with four-wheel drive for traction and a topper that I could sleep in without being obvious about it.

It seemed like such a frivolous thing to do. I’d be trading down in terms of gas mileage (but I only drive when I’m headed out-of-town; otherwise I walk or ride my bike), and it would require me to spend some of my savings. (I do not go into debt.)

I figured the idea would go away eventually, like the flu. Only it didn’t.

A truck? In my tiny garage? A truck? In my tiny garage?

I knew what I wanted: a Toyota Tacoma with a cab and a half, a six-foot-bed, four-wheel drive and a topper.

Last month I talked to Brian at AAA AutoSource (a service for AAA members that is considerably cheaper and easier than going to a car dealer). When he quoted me the difference between the trade-in for my Forester and the new Tacoma, I realized I could actually do it.

I thought for about twenty seconds, gulped, and then told him to go ahead. Two weeks ago I drove to Colorado Springs to pick up my truck.

Brian showed me how everything worked and we did paperwork. And then I climbed in and off I drove in my new pickup (the topper was on backorder).

Red in Big Horn Sheep Canyon on the Arkansas River Red in Big Horn Sheep Canyon on the Arkansas River

Pretty soon I was singing along with Lyle Lovett’s “Truck Song.” And I had a name for my new truck: Red. Because she is. Very.

I smiled all the way home. I honestly had forgotten how much I love driving a pickup.

Saturday, Red and I drove to Colorado Springs to get the topper, and then on to Denver for meetings. Now Red is ready for our first camping trip. I know just where I’ll go too.

If you see a bright red truck with a matching topper headed for the hills and the driver is smiling, it’s probably me.

Me and Red Me and Red