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

Memoir Revision: Starting Over With a New Perspective

Back in March, I started two new projects: my running practice, and a total rewrite of Bless the Birds, the memoir I've been working on sporadically for the last, well, six years. 

The running's going well. I've settled into a routine of running two mornings a week, and I'm up to 3.7 miles now. I'm not fast, but I am running regularly, and that's what counts. 

I love running for the righteous feeling when I've finished. And for the excuse to be outside in sagebrush country, the landscapes of my heart. It's a joy to see the occasional coyote (they are much faster than I am!), listen to sparrows call, watch swallows dip and swoop after insects, and see the sagebrush and bunchgrasses and wildflowers go through the cycle of the seasons. 

(The photo at the top of the post is from my running route last week, with an forest-fire-smoke orange dawn lighting Rattlesnake–on the right–and Spirit–on the left–mountains, and the Shoshone River flowing in its shallow canyon below me.)

In May, that same view was greener and dotted with spring wildflowers.

The memoir work is going well too, if much more slowly than I had hoped. Which isn't surprising, really, since I am starting over from the beginning, writing the story anew from a completely different narrative framework.

The original versions (all eight or so of them!) were much more chronological, and that meant it was too easy for me to get mired in the details of brain cancer and not focus on the point of the story. Which is living the end of your life with love. Heck, living your whole life with love, whatever comes. 

Bless the Birds is about being mindful in choosing how to live. Not just letting life roll you over, no matter how hard things become.

For Richard and me, that meant deliberately choosing to live with love and kindness and compassion and wonder and joy. Even as brain cancer took over our days.

Richard Cabe (1950-2011) on the way home from his monthly check-in with his oncologist; by then, he had survived two brain surgeries and a course of radiation, plus a course of chemo. 

Even as Richard's tumor- and surgery-impaired brain challenged his ability to do the things he had always done so easily. Even when we know he wouldn't survive. Especially then. 

This new version of the story begins with "then," when we knew he was terminal, knew he was headed for hospice care when we got home. It opens with the first night of The Big Trip, our belated honeymoon trip, a 4,000-mile drive to and down the Pacific Coast from Washington to southern California. A trip we took because we wanted to enjoy our time while we could. 

Those three weeks on the road were more of an adventure than we bargained for, and two months from the day we got home, he died. But the trip speaks for the way we lived the journey with his brain cancer: we lived.

Richard savoring a meal at Redfish Restaurant in Port Orford, Oregon. (Thank you Ann Vileisis and Tim Palmer, for the visit and the recommendation to eat at Redfish!)

We didn't waste our time regretting. Or not much time anyway. We did our best to savor as many of the moments as we could. Laughed, loved, fought, ate, drank, celebrated, and grieved. And walked hand-in-hand right up to the day he "woke up dead," as he liked to phrase what he imagined happening. 

This entirely new version of Bless the Birds is a story within a story, framed by the days of that Big Trip, with flashbacks to show who we were and how we got to that journey with Richard's right brain deteriorating to the point that he ws losing his vision and his balance; to the point that his bladder (as he put it) didn't always talk to his brain, and his ability read a map or dial a cellphone was gone. His sense of humor was intact, as was his ability to think and reason. He was as incisive and insightful as ever, even if he had to sleep a lot of the time. 

Writing the story this way reminds me of E.L. Doctorow's quote about writing fiction (from the Paris Review, "Writers at Work: Interviews"):

Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.

When I have time to work on the story, that's exactly how it feels: like driving at night in the fog. I'm in Chapter 11, not quite halfway through with the first draft of this new version, and I can't see very far ahead, but I trust I can make the whole trip groping along by the light of my intuition's headlights. I trust that the story will work.

It's slow, and it's painful to relive that time, but it feels right. And as with any good writing, I'm learning new things along the way about myself, about Richard, and about our journey together.

Here's how the new story begins:

Day One, Odometer Reading 182 miles:

Richard opened his eyes as I slowed the car for the turn to the gravel ranch road. I rolled down the windows, letting in the rich smell of new-mown hay along with a distinctive, throbbing call: “Khrrr, khrrrr, khrrr!” 

“Sandhill cranes!” A smile creased Richard’s tanned face. He reached for my hand as the cranes called again. “I’m a lucky guy.” 

Except for the terminal brain cancer, I thought. 

I swiped at tears with the hand that should have been holding the steering wheel, and then drove on toward the ranch headquarters, a cluster of white-painted buildings. I parked in our usual spot the shade of the spruce tree by the bunkhouse and turned to Richard. “I’m going to haul our stuff upstairs.” 

“I can help.” He pulled his six-foot length slowly out of the car, and then reached behind the seat for his briefcase. I grabbed our duffel, the box with his medications, my briefcase, and his pillow. We walked across the lawn and into the ranch house. As I turned to go up the stairs to the bedrooms, Richard stopped. “You go first,” he said. Uh oh.

“Richard can manage the stairs, can’t he?” Betsy, the facilities manager at Carpenter Ranch had asked when I called about our stay. I relayed the question.

“Of course.” His voice carried the confidence of 61 years of inhabiting a strong and appealingly male form. The voice of a man who could free-climb a cliff, sculpt a one-ton boulder, or juggle three balls while balancing on one leg. A man who once would have bounded up the narrow flight of steps at the ranch house, carrying our mound of gear because he could. 

This Richard froze at the bottom, his right leg lifted, unable to move upward. I stopped at the top of the stairs, arms loaded, watching with a stomach-churning mix of horror and fascination, compelled to witness the debilitating effects of the brain-tumor I could not stop. Finally, he took the steps slowly, one at a time like an old man, gripping the handrail.

I showed him the bathroom down the hall, and then he stretched out on the bed and fell asleep.

On I go, feeling my way. I guess that's pretty much how we live life. We can't really see ahead (although we think we can). We do our best with what we can discern, and trust that our best will take us to where we need to go, safely and without harm to anyone. And that the trip is worthwhile. 

Weeding Out Hatred and Darkness


Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.

Martin Luther King Jr., A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches


When hate and greed seem to dominate our world, as with yesterday’s ugly and tragic events in Charlottesville, Virginia, it’s natural to feel despair and grief, along with anger and hopelessness. What can we do, each of us, to combat what seems like an overwhelming descent into the darkness of violence and hatred? 


How can we heal this polarized nation, stem the tide of hate splitting what used to be “us” into tribes fearful of “them”? For that matter, how can we heal this earth, its climate changing so fast that whole ecosystems are breaking down, and we are losing species, in some cases before we even know them? 


I don’t think there is any one answer to those questions, any one “right” way to proceed. It’s up to each of us, working in our own way, to stand up for what we believe in.


To speak up and speak out. To act up, reach out, to write or march or preach or protest. To dance, sing, paint; to craft legislation, investigate crimes, argue points in legislatures, hearings, or courts. To fight fires, heal the wounded, pick up the pieces, comfort those who are scared or sick. To raise great kids, tend our elders and parents and partners. To do whatever we are called to do with love and compassion.


For all. Everyone. All lives, human and also those myriad of other lives with whom we share this extraordinary blue planet. 



Like these bees feeding on a thistle flower. 


The quote from Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. at the top of the post guides my response: I aim to spread love and light in my every day actions. Because I believe that what we do speaks at least as loudly as what we say. So I treat others with kindness and respect; I extend my love to those who are difficult to love; I stand up for those who are being mistreated, speak for those who have no voice; I act with the love and light that have the power to drive out darkness and hatred.


I’m no saint. I get cranky and tired and impatient and angry. But I try to notice how I am feeling and choose to not take out my moods on others. I choose love. And kindness, a smile rather than a curse or a kick. I would rather be the one who opens a door than slams it shut in someone else’s face. 



I’m not a push-over. If you think because I approach the world with a smile and kindness you can take advantage of me, think again. I stand up for myself and for others. Like the velvet-ant in the photo above (actually not an ant at all but a flightless female wasp), I have a stinger, and I will use it!


What I won’t be is intentionally mean or hateful or hurtful or divisive. As I say in my morning prayer,


Make me strong. Not to overcome my brothers and sisters; to live in the Light and spread it to all I touch.


I believe that goodness has more staying power than hatred and violence. I believe that our everyday actions set a tone that others respond to. I believe in King’s words: light can drive away the metaphorical darkness of racism and violence and greed; love can drive out hatred. 


Which is why I spent this past week in Yellowstone National Park, continuing my ecological restoration project, AKA digging out invasive weeds.


“Wait,” you say, “I thought you were extending light and love to all. Now you are calling some lives ‘weeds?’ How is that consistent with living with compassion and love?” 


To me, “living in the Light” means standing up to bullies, and if need be, removing them to restore health to the community. To an ecologist, a weed is an introduced species who hasn’t evolved healthy relationships, a species who doesn’t contribute to the community and doesn’t play well with others. A weed is a bully who, like the plants with the lovely purple flowers in the photo below, poisons other plants in order to gain a competitive advantage for itself. 



Spotted knapweed (Centaurea maculosa), a native of Eastern Europe which exudes poisons through its roots to kill the plants around it. 


I spent the week digging spotted knapweed by hand from areas around Mammoth Hot Springs. I dug up nine 30-gallon trash bags full of mature knapweed plants (some with tap roots a foot long!), about 200 plants and 15-20 pounds per bag. That’s a lot of bullies.


There’s a lot more knapweed to remove, but when I go back and look at an area that I and my fellow weed-warrior volunteers have worked on, I am heartened to see the native plants recovering, to see seedlings of bluebunch wheatgrass (Pseudoregneria spicata), oval-leafed buckwheat (Eriogonum ovalifolium), and basin big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata var. tridentata) moving in to re-weave a healthy community.


As I stoop or kneel to dig and yank and bag weeds, I speak to both the weeds and the surrounding native plants, explaining what I am doing, telling them that I do this work with love and respect for their existence. That my calling is to restore this earth and celebrate its extraordinary diversity of lives. I don’t know whether my words reach them, but I know that they can sense my mood. And that matters. 


I also speak to park visitors passing by, letting them know why I am crouched near the ground, dusty and sweaty, wielding a seven-inch-long plant knife. Often they thank me for the work I’m doing, which is nice, but not my point. I want them to know that we humans can be a positive force in the world, a healing force, that we can use our power for love and light. That we can each make a difference.


I want to leave this world, or at least my small corner of it, in better shape than I found it. That is my way of pushing back the darkness and hatred. 



Hundreds-of-years-old big sagebrush shrubs, the old-growth “canopy” of the lower elevations of Yellowstone, and what I work to protect.