2020: Remembering the good parts

Desert four-o-clock (Mirabilis multiflora) in full bloom.

As we come to the end of 2020, a year that has been tumultuous and difficult in ways we all know, my impulse is to kick the old year in the rear and unceremoniously slam the door behind it.  Instead, I want to remember the blessings that came my way, so that I can welcome 2021 with my heart open and my gratitude foremost.

Those blessings? What comes to mind first are the Guy and his dog and horses. I who was perfectly happy to live the rest of my life solo now have a loving partnership again with a man who shares my bond with these Rocky Mountain landscapes, with the literature that rises from them, and who also shares my need for time in the wild.

Me on Cookie, leading Silky into the wilderness on our pack trip.

For my birthday, he gifted me with four days in the remote Washakie Wilderness of northwest Wyoming, just southeast of Yellowstone, where I worked as a young field ecologist. It was pure heaven. Our long-distance relationship isn’t simple, but the rewards are beyond words. My heart is full, and my understanding of the world is enriched by his company, knowledge, and insights.

A lake in the Washakie wilderness where we stopped for lunch on our pack trip.

Another blessing has been time with friends and family, much of that virtual. But in these socially distanced COVID-19 times, the connection with the people I love and whose company nurtures me is so critical.

I treasure the in-person time so much more now that it’s rare. Visits like the walk I took yesterday (masked and socially distanced) with the memoirist Kati Standefer are what sustain me in these challenging days, mind, body, and spirit. (If you haven’t read her stunning debut memoir, Lightning Flowersdo. You’ll understand why Oprah picked it as one of the top 100  books for the year, and it was an Editor’s Choice book at the New York Times Book Review, plus landed Kati on NPR’s Fresh Air.)

A heart-shaped and face-sized chunk of native sandstone, sculpted by time and weathering, and transported by Galisteo Creek.

We trekked up a dry stream-bed near her house at the base of a red sandstone ridge, talking about life and writing and memoir, why we need solitude and the wild and what love is worth, anyway. We hung out with her chickens, and discovered a shared love for Stranahan’s whisky. I found the large heart rock in the stream-bed and lugged it back, knowing somehow it should come home with me.

I needed that high a few hours later when I learned that my friend and writing inspiration, Barry Lopez, had died the day before. It’s been that kind of high-slammed-by-lows year, and I am so fortunate to have a community who cheers me on. Thank you all.

Crossing the farm hayfields in early summer at sunset, after moving the irrigation water one last time.

Another blessing has been time on the land. I live in the rural West, outside Santa Fe in the winter, and in northwest Wyoming in the summer. In between, I spend time on the Guy’s farm, getting to know a whole new landscape in the broad swath of the sagebrush county I call home. Living where there are few people and lots of open space makes it easier to stay safe in COVID-times, and means I get abundant vitamin N, time in nature, to keep me healthy and reasonably sane amidst the tumult of the larger world.

Then there’s the gift of seeing my new memoir, Bless the Birds: Living with Love in a Time of Dying, come to life with a beautiful cover and an inviting page design. And the generosity of fellow authors writing advance praise for BtB. Best-selling novelist Jane Kirkpatrick wrote,

Bless the Birds is the book for our times. It’s a splendid blend of landscapes, relationships, creative work, and spirituality–finding meaning in life framed by an awareness of death. I have a dozen people I want to share this authentic, honest, hopeful memoir with. You will too. It’s a treasure. 

Bless the Birds, with a beautiful cover designed by Julie Metz of She Writes Press.

I am honored that this memoir, my thirteenth book, resonates with writers whose work I admire. (The book is due out in April, and if you are so moved you can pre-order it through Amazon, Bookshop–which supports independent bookstores–or your local bookstore.)

And in this year of so many endings, but also new beginnings, I am grateful for this beautiful new website, courtesy of my multi-talented and generous friends Tony and Maggie Niemann of Tracks Software. I’m not sure what I did to deserve Tony and Maggie, but I truly appreciate them!

One more gift of this difficult year: a new appreciation of simply being here. Alive, relatively healthy, and comfortable. I can take a walk in the near-wild every day. I can write, laugh, read, ride, cook, and love. I have faith that 2021 will bring positive changes. For all of these things, I am truly grateful.

May the new year bring us all chances to be kind, compassionate, and live with our hearts outstretched. Be well!

Sunset glow on Sierra Blanca in the Sacramento Mountains, on our Solstice camping trip.

Settling In

Before Badger, the Guy’s Vizsla, lies down on his heated mat on the couch to snooze away the time between walks and other outings, he always turns around two or three times, ruffles up his blanket, and then settles in with a big sigh. He’s customizing his spot to suit him.

(And that canine remodeling is why my beautiful blue leather couch wears a sturdy gray dog cover when Badger is in residence. As for the heated mat, Badger is almost thirteen–he’s earned his perks.)

The couch without the cover and Badger. Lovely, but pretty empty.

I’m not so different than Badger. With every move in the past nine years since Richard died, I’ve engaged in my equivalent of circling several times and rearranging the blankets in each living space: remodeling.

The first move was to Creek House, the little house I helped design and build for myself in Salida, so that was a bigger deal than remodeling. I made that space my own in spades–I guess you could say I circled quite a few times!

Creek House on the right, Treehouse (the garage/workshop and guest apartment) on the left

Then came Cody, and the seriously dilapidated mid-Century modern house that I rescued, renovating from basement to roof, bringing house and yard back to beautiful life. That circling and rearranging the blanket took nearly two years, but it was oh-so-satisfying. (The neighbors were thrilled that the neighborhood eyesore turned beautiful too.)

Who could resist restoring this vintage kitchen? Not me….

Followed by my move to Santa Fe, and into a small condo that really didn’t need work, but was pretty tired. I replaced worn carpet with vinyl plank floors, renovated the galley kitchen, replaced the aging metal windows with new and more efficient wood ones, and updated the furnace and water heater. And added color to the walls.

Compact, but elegant and welcoming.

When I bought Casa Alegría, my current house, my intention was only to fix what was actually wrong, including a faulty pellet stove with a pipe not up to code, leaky windows, and a mouse-infested attic over the garage and laundry room. And of course paint a few of the boring white walls more interesting colors.

I guess it should be no surprise that I haven’t limited myself to just those projects.

Casa Alegría now boasts a new, efficient and safe woodstove, new windows and screen doors, plus an exterior door replacing a small window, an attic that is properly sealed and insulated (and bio-cleaned so it doesn’t stink), photovoltaic panels on the roof that generate clean power for the house and excess for the power grid, new mini-splits delivering incredibly efficient heating and cooling, a new garage door that actually seals out cold and rodents, and of course, colorful walls.

The great room on a fall afternoon. The pink panels in the sunroom ceiling are a thermal efficiency experiment; they’ll be covered up by beadboard soon.

My latest project as I settle in? Replacing the small flagstone patio in the backyard that was so buried under dirt and debris that I didn’t discover it until I used a shovel to dig out some weeds and hit rock.

The old flagstone patio partly unburied (also before new windows and doors replaced the old, leaky ones).
Patio renovation in progress: The guys dug up and saved the old flagstones at my request, and then leveled the bed.
The renewed patio, with old, paler pink flagstones artistically mixed with the new. Now I need some patio furniture!

As I circle and settle, I am contemplating what else I need to do to make this place fit me, the way Badger makes his couch space comfy. But first, I think I’ll just drag a chair out onto the patio and admire my new outdoor room. Before fall changes to winter with tonight’s snowstorm….

Home Range: Finding Home in Unsettling Times

One of the first long phone conversations The Guy and I had last fall when we were getting to know each other centered around the question of what “home” meant for each of us. The exchange was sparked by something I said in the seminar I taught at Ring Lake Ranch, where we met: home for me is the Rocky Mountain region wherever big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata in the language of science) grows. The “seas” of this aromatic shrub that fill valleys and basins throughout the region, I explained, define the area I call home.

The idea that the geographic range of a particular plant could delineate “home” intrigued The Guy. He thought about that concept over the next few weeks while he hunted bighorn sheep on foot above treeline in the mountains of central Colorado. In his long and physically active days of climbing thousands of feet from the valley bottom where he was camped to the high ridges where he sat and glassed for sheep, he had plenty of time to ponder what home meant for him.

“No sheep died,” he said when he called to report on his wilderness hunt, “but I had an interesting realization.”

“What was that?” I asked from my Santa Fe condo, where I was packing for a move to the house I had just bought in the spaciousness of the high desert outside town.

He described hiking uphill through open ponderosa pine forest, the dappled light of aspen groves, into the high-elevation Douglas-fir and spruce forest, and then the widely spaced groves of bristlecone pine, before emerging above treeline in the windswept expanse of the alpine, with its turf of plants no more than a few inches tall.

“I realized that I’m not comfortable in the alpine,” he said. “It’s not my place. It’s too exposed.” Where he felt at home, he said, was the mountain forests and woodlands, the shrublands and meadows. “I realized that my home range could be described by the range of dusky grouse in the Rockies.”

Male dusky grouse displaying for a mate.

While he talked, I looked up dusky grouse. There was the range map: a wide swath of the Rockies from Canada to northern New Mexico, a near overlap of the region I call home. I remembered seeing a male dusky grouse displaying on a gravel road in a sagebrush-filled valley not far from his farm on Colorado’s West Slope.

We considered the way the part of the West we both call home overlapped, and discussed how we each felt drawn to the whole swath, rather than one particular place. “Maybe for people like us,” I said, “home is not a single location, but a whole area. ‘Home range,’ instead of home. A range we migrate through over the seasons, rather than a fixed spot. ”

He was quiet, thinking. “I like that idea,” he said. “The way people once moved in search of food and shelter, occupying a whole region instead of settling in one place.”

“Exactly!” I said. “For you and me, home range could extend from the high desert in northern New Mexico in winter to Wyoming in summer, with the the farm in spring and fall.”

Over the months since, as we have worked at the delicate process of interweaving two separate lives–sometimes easily and sometimes crashing headlong into each other’s tender spots–the idea of home range has given us a road map. We spent much of the winter at my house outside Santa Fe exploring the high desert on foot and horseback.

Riding on a day with bluebird skies….

In late March with the pandemic swelling, the herd headed north to the farm under safer-at-home orders. As The Guy pointed out, farm work is inherently socially distanced. It also does not wait: when spring comes, the hayfields must be prepped and the irrigation pipes laid out, or there will be no crop.

I stayed behind in New Mexico until it was safe to leave, and then followed them north. At the farm, I plunged into learning irrigation, starting invasive weed control, pruning shrubs and trees, and other chores. Out in the hayfields, it was just me and the mule deer and the swallows and magpies, plus several hundreds of thousands of brome and bluegrass plants.

Irrigating the hayfields… 

The pandemic seemed far away. Except on our occasional trips to town for food and farm supplies, when we wore face-masks and practiced social distancing. In this rural county, with fewer than 20,000 human residents, crowding is rarely an issue.

Farm work left us little time to fret about the radical changes to the larger world–our work-days ran from dawn to dusk. It was oddly soothing to be too worn out at the end of each day to obsess over the news.

Then came summer, when I would normally migrate to the northern end of my home range to Yellowstone National Park to hand-eradicate invasive weeds, and The Guy, the dog, and the horses would migrate to Ring Lake Ranch to work. Because of the pandemic though, Yellowstone stayed closed for longer than usual, and then opened for day-use only. Which meant my work was canceled, since I camp in the park to be near my research site.

When Ring Lake Ranch opened (later than usual and with half the guests), The Guy suggested I spend part of my summer with him, the dog, and the herd at Ring Lake. So when irrigation chores slowed down, I headed north following their migration route to the ranch. I spent several weeks there surveying and controlling invasive weeds, and writing up a management plan. And then returned to the farm to work on weeds in the hayfields.

Part of the Ring Lake Ranch horse herd

The idea of home as an annual migration between places has–somewhat paradoxically–kept me grounded through these tumultuous times. Wherever I am in this range of landscapes and communities, whether northwest Wyoming, western Colorado, or northern New Mexico, I am at home. And whether I am with The Guy, the dog, and the horses, or not, we are connected by the heart and by our shared bond with these places and people. The challenges we face are as much internal as external as we navigate the new world of belonging to each other.

Home is the earth beneath my feet, this growing relationship, the weeds I work with, the human community, this changing world. It is the territory I nurture with my whole heart, the life I seed, the world I belong to.

Home, however we define it, is where we belong, where we take refuge, who we love, what we stand for. In these times, home could be what saves us.

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…

Life: Practice in Revision and Adaptation

Noche, my Toyota Highlander hybrid, parked in the driveway of my brother’s house in Washington state.

For some years now, I’ve had this dream of a little camper with solar panels on top and a cozy bed, kitchen, and space to write–a super-tiny house on wheels–that I could live in while I do my weeding work in Yellowstone and other wild places. Over the winter, I got as far as putting down a deposit on the compact RV I had chosen. And then, the very same day the sale of my Cody house closed, the RV manufacturer went bankrupt.

So I revised that dream, and settled instead on a sweet trailer made by Colorado Teardrops in Boulder, a  custom shop producing amazingly efficient, beautifully designed trailers, and working on becoming a zero-waste manufacturer. Their designs and values are very appealing.

Only I found that plugging trailer brakes into the hybrid regenerative braking system in Noche, my beloved Toyota Highlander Hybrid, isn’t allowed. (Meaning Toyota can’t guarantee that the system would work with trailer brakes; further, adding the seven-pin hitch and brake socket would void my warranty.)

So I revised the dream again and fitted my basic camping set-up right into Noche, giving me a “micro-camper” with a cozy bed, storage for my clothes, weeding tools, camp-stove, a lap-desk for writing, and even a camp toilet. It’s an amazingly comfortable set-up, if quite basic and compact. (And Noche averages 29-30 miles per gallon of gas, not bad for a vehicle I can sleep in–or transport seven friends or family members at a pinch.)

My micro-camper set-up in Noche. 

It’s also a lot cheaper than the custom camper I started out dreaming. Too, this set-up is better than my old camping space in Red, my pickup, because I’m inside Noche, not in a pickup bed. In bad weather or if something goes wrong, I just climb into Noche’s front seat and head on my way without having to get outside.

I still imagine that the perfect small camper van is out there for me, something energy-efficient, simple, comfy, and well-built–without costing an arm and six legs. Since I haven’t found it yet, I’m quite comfortable with the simpler and smaller, revised version of that dream. Just being able to hit the road is a blessing. I get a lot of thinking done during windshield time, and I get to experience the landscapes I love in all sorts of moods and seasons.

Heart Mountain, north of Cody, from Dead Indian Hill, where the grasslands were unbelievably green this spring.

Revision and adaptation seems to be a major theme in my life right now.

For instance, I spent this spring revising Bless the Birds for what I hope is the final time. It’s since been accepted for publication by SheWrites Press for their Spring, 2021 list. Which brings up an ending: Bless the Birds will go off my desk (finally!) and that opens up space for working on the next book, Weeding Yellowstone.

Another revision and adaptation: I intended to spend a good part of my summer in Yellowstone digging weeds. Then I flunked my annual blood tests, so those plans got revised. Instead, I spent a long weekend in Cody helping my friends Jay and Connie Moody at TAC, a spiritual retreat center, and also got to hang out with Judy, another dear friend, who is recovering from a massive stroke.

The labyrinth at TAC at sunset, with Carter Mountain and the Absaroka Range in the background. 

In other words, I’ve been nurturing friendships instead of ecosystems. That’s fine: tending both brings rewards. I’ll resume my work in Yellowstone when I’m healthier again.

Revising my Yellowstone plans also gave me time to drive to Washington state for a gathering of my family. Our branch of the Tweit clan isn’t big, but we do love getting together. We’ve been having such a good time hanging out, playing Yellowstone National Park Monopoly, taking walks with the dogs, and eating great meals, that I haven’t taken any any pictures at all.

Instead of thinking and planning photo opportunities, I’m enjoying the moments as they arise, reveling in being here and taking part in life, laughter, and love.

That’s a healthy adaptation, I know.

Happy Summer to all!

Calochortus macrocarpus, sagebrush mariposa lily, in the coulee country of eastern Washington

Writing: Immersed in Revision

Talking about the ecology of “snow forests,” high elevation forests above Taos, New Mexico.

Friday afternoon I broke off from my current writing obsession–revising Bless the Birds yet one more time–to drive to Taos to meet with Professor Sara Beth Childers’ “Writing the New Mexico Landscape” workshop at Oklahoma State University’s Doel Reed Center for the Arts. After I read from some of my work, including Barren, Wild, and Worthless, which they studied in the workshop, we talked about writing over dinner at Old Martina’s Hall in Ranchos de Taos, across from the famous church painted by Georgia O’Keeffe and many others.

After the conversation with Sara Beth and her amazing students–all candidates for MFAs or PhDs in literature–I was so jazzed that I woke at around two-thirty thinking about the revisions I’m making to Bless the Birds. Normally when I wake in the night, my strategy is to let my thoughts spin out until I go back to sleep again. I do not get up, because then I’m awake and I often don’t go back to sleep.

But Friday night–actually early Saturday morning, the writing was speaking so loudly I just couldn’t ignore it. So I turned on the light, got my laptop, and wrote down the two haiku in my head. (Yes, there are haiku in this memoir.) And then I wrote about seeds as a metaphor, and what it means to embrace the end of life when you are the one who will live on. Finally, at about four-thirty, I went back to sleep.

Saturday morning, I re-read what I wrote and added a few more notes, and then headed off to Taos Ski Valley to meet Sara Beth and the group for a hike. (I got lost in the maze of non-named dirt roads and was late, but that’s another story.) We hiked uphill on snow for two miles to Williams Lake, a lovely little lake still buried under deep snow in a glacial cirque. It was a slithery trip going steeply uphill, but the group was determined to make it to the lake. (We gained 800 feet elevation, going from 10,200 feet at the trailhead to 11,020 feet at the lake; my pedometer recorded the hike as equivalent to going up 36 flights of stairs!)

Along the way, I talked about snow and forests and avalanches (we had to detour around debris fields of not one but two big avalanches), the “wood wide web” of fungal threads that connects trees, how to read the landscape, and other nature things. Oh, and we talked more about writing. (The photo at the top of the post is me talking with part of the group. Notice that the ground is white–we hiked on about two feet of old snow, the remnants of the first generous winter snowpack after many years of drought.)

The Taos Valley all spring green this weekend. We hiked up near the snowy bit at the top of the peaks in the distance. 

By the time we slithered our way back down to the trailhead and I said good bye to Sara Beth and the workshop participants, my head was full of more ideas about my revisions, and my eyes were gritty from lack of sleep. I drove home to Santa Fe and told myself to give revising and my brain a rest. Of course, I didn’t listen: I just had to slip those two new haiku into the chapters where I heard them, and that of course led to more revising.

Then yesterday, Sunday, a day I usually give myself a break from writing, I had another idea about the story, so I worked my way through more revisions. And while today might have been a National Holiday, you wouldn’t have known that from my schedule, which included four more hours of revising this morning and early afternoon. (I don’t think the veterans in my life–Richard and my dad–would mind. They know I think of them every day.)

I finished Chapter 23, which leaves me four more chapters and the Epilogue to revise. The closer I get to the end–of the story and of that chapter of my life–the more urgency and intensity I feel to keep going, the drumbeat of narrative pushing me onward.

That’s what happens when a piece of writing takes on its own life, gaining strength and power: it sucks you in, and it’s hard to step away from working with it. This story has been a tough one for me, going through many revisions as I struggled to find the heart of it. It’s one thing to write about your life in a way that friends and family who know you or the story are moved.

It’s a whole other thing to write the story in a way that anyone will be gripped and compelled to read on. As I revise and go deeper, I mine my personal experience for those universal themes and threads that will draw all readers in. I want Bless the Birds to grip them by the throat and not let them go, so that when they reach the end, the way they see life and its ending is forever changed.

My aim with this revision is to walk a story about death right back into life and how we live it, with prose that shimmers as bright as the blooming yucca I photographed this morning on my ridge walk above my neighborhood, and dazzles like the claret cup cactus blossoms nearby.

I’m not obsessed, am I? Maybe, but there are worse things to be obsessed about than writing…

Banana yucca (Yucca baccata) in full bloom
Claret cup cactus (Echinocereus trigolochidatus) nearby

Fifty-eight Boxes, 3,200 pounds, and 775 miles later…

After packing, numbering, and inventorying 58 boxes and half-a-dozen un-numbered metal crates, hauling them to the garage, bubble-wrapping and loading 37 pieces of wall-art into Red along with other belongings not suitable for mover-transport, and then driving 775 scenic but very long miles from my Cody house to my Santa Fe condo with the movers several days behind me, I am finally settling in.

(Big thank-yous to my Cody neighbor, Kate, who supervised the loading after I left; to my Salida friend, Denise, for the much-needed massage on the way; and to my Santa Fe neighbor and friend, Liz, who welcomed me with a place to stay before the condo was ready.)

Sierra San Antonio, a volcanic dome marking where the Taos Plateau of northern New Mexico becomes the San Luis Valley of southern Colorado. 

The photo at the top of the post is my new living room, and yes, it's missing some furniture, which will arrive in about a week. Still, it's already inviting! The photo below is my Cody garage, all staged for the movers to load up. (That's what 3,200 pounds of my household looks like, if you were wondering.)

When I got to Santa Fe, my kitchen looked like… well, like it was in mid-remodel. The photos below give an idea of the destruction. Believe it or not, what you see there is a big improvement over the 1984-vintage kitchen of before. 

New counters are in, old appliances are out, and the cabinets are stripped and ready for a face-lift. 

New sink too, but not hooked up yet. 

Oh, the difference a week, a lot of scrubbing, a diligent carpenter (thank you, Alan Baca!), and a tidy plumber can make! The kitchen still lacks back-splashes, but the counter guys will return for that. It also lacks a microwave-range hood, which will be installed tomorrow if the weather allows. I've already filled the cabinets and am happily enjoying cooking in the galley-sized space. 

It's been a bit of a challenge figuring out where everything goes, not just in the much-smaller kitchen, but in the whole condo. I downsized from 2,483 square feet on two levels into 848 on one. I still have two bedrooms and two baths, but no garage. (Red is surviving outside–it's not generally as cold in Santa Fe as it gets in Cody!) 

I've hung almost all of the art, set up my desk in the office area of the master bedroom, organized linens and closets and bathrooms, arranged the furniture I have in the living and dining areas, and in the guest bedroom. I also assembled two new bar-stools for the curved breakfast-bar counter between the kitchen and dining area, and assembled the mid-century modern bar cart for the dining area. (Go, Tool Girl!)

The breakfast bar with new barstools and bar cart

Next comes unpacking several dozen boxes of books, but that has to wait until my bookshelves arrive. One set comes tomorrow, along with my dining table, and my bed. (I am sleeping perfectly comfortably on a mattress on the floor, but it will be nice to have an actual bed.) 

The sunny master bedroom with my office in the corner, awaiting bookshelves.

I love every cubic inch of the condo, especially with the warm sun streaming in on these cold and snowy winter days. My absolutely favorite space is the living room (photo at the top of the post), with the patio outside, and the tall cottonwood tree shading it in summer. The light and colors make me smile. Come spring, I'll grow a garden in pots on the patio, adding wildflowers and native plants to provide beauty, and food and shelter for native bees and hummingbirds. 

This small space already feels like a refuge to me, a place I can hide away and write without interruption. I have always been drawn to small spaces, whether the little writing hut in a yard, the tiny houses on wheels, or this cozy condo.

Which I know raises the question of why I bought my gorgeous but terribly run-down mid-Century modern house and yard in Cody. Because the project it was then called to me. Restoration–whether of land or houses–is my passion, and that house definitely deserved to be brought back to life. Now that it's ready for its next 60 years, I look forward to finding someone to love and care for the place.

For the next phase of my life though, I want a nest, and that's what I'm creating here. As the old year ends, I say, "Welcome Home!" to the new one.

My wish for all? May 2019 bring more kindness and compassion to everyone, everywhere, and less turbulence and pain. And may we all be welcomed home, wherever  and whoever we are. 

Navigating in the Fog

Sometimes life is like the drive I took recently on my way home from Santa Fe to Cody. It's 775 miles from place to place, and no, I don't make the whole drive in one day. I left Santa Fe on one of those glorious late fall days in the high desert of northern New Mexico, with warm sun melting the night's frost off the silvered leaves of the rabbitbrush and big sagebrush, and the piñon pine and juniper needles crisp against blue sky. 

Dawn warms up the arroyo I often walk near where I stay in Santa Fe. 

The weather gods were kind as Red carried me north through northern New Mexico, up the wide expanse of the San Luis Valley in Southern Colorado (Colorado's wildest and most magical desert region, and one I wrote a book about with photographer Glenn Oakley), and then on north up the Arkansas River Valley where Richard and I lived for so long.

Even 11,000+ foot high Fremont Pass wasn't bad, considering the time of year. (Okay, it was snowing, but the pavement was partly clear.) From there on, we had smooth sailing until Rawlins, Wyoming, where the wind began to howl from the west in great walloping gusts.

Still, the roads were clear, so I got cocky, thinking I'd get all the way home without hitting really bad conditions. Red and I tacked sideways to the wind across the Great Divide Basin, where the Continental Divide splits in two, following the ridges that surround this in-draining bowl of salt-crusted desert. If the gusts were a mite strong, I thought nothing of it, even when we turned west directly into those galloping waves of air.

The sun was shining, I told myself, and the roads were clear. And we were four hours from home. What could go wrong?

When Red and I dropped over Beaver Rim into the Wind River Basin, the wind quit just as abruptly as if switched up. The air was still as glass. As we headed downhill into Riverton, the temperature dropped too, from the low 40s into the teens. Hoarfrost coated every surface, sparkling in the sunshine.

I'd like to say I had the first uh-oh thought then, but I didn't. I was tired and eager to make it home before dark, so I kept Red going, her tires humming as the miles sped past. I didn't read the weather-signs until we crossed the frozen, snow-covered expanse of Boysen Reservoir, about two and a half hours from home. I looked north toward the low ridge of the Owl Creek Mountains and the v-shaped gap of the Wind River Canyon, where we were headed. 

Boysen Reservoir

A gray layer of cloud hung along the lower edge of the Owl Creeks, muffling the canyon itself. Uh oh. 

Red and I turned north at Shoshoni, and soon drove under that cloud. Within a few minutes, the sun's warmth vanished, ice crystals formed on Red's antenna, and even with the heater blasting, cold seeped into the cab. 

High desert landscape with hoarfrost on snow

A few miles later, the cloud–which I now realized was ice fog–closed in around us and visibility dropped to half a mile (the photo at the top of the post), and then only a few car lengths. (I quit shooting photos then.)

I slowed Red and crept on, hoping no one came up suddenly behind us, or wandered into our lane from the other direction. Ten slow and icy but mercifully accident-free miles later, the fog began to lift, and we approached the winding canyon. 

The winding canyon lies ahead, but at least I can see…

The black ice lessened, and I began to think things might improve. Through two dark and icicle-hung tunnels carved in the ancient rock at the core of the range, Red and I emerged. And voilá!

 

I could see blue sky ahead. Around the next bend, the fog and ice cleared away entirely. 

By the time Red and I wound our way out of the canyon and crossed the Bighorn River, the sun had warmed the truck cab and we were whizzing along again. 

Exiting the canyon, the snow and ice behind us… 

From there on in, it really was smooth sailing, and I pulled Red into the driveway just as dusk deepened to darkness, having avoided hitting several hundred mule deer and a larger number of pronghorn on the last segment of the drive. 

My life right now feels very much like I'm still creeping along in that ice fog, hoping it lifts soon and I will see sun and blue sky ahead. (And be able to see the road I'm on!) The fog is partly the events in our country (although the mid-term elections brought a glimmer of smoother sailing ahead) and around the world, where climate change is now enough of an in-your-face catastrophe for humans and other species alike that perhaps we'll take it seriously. 

The fog is also personal. Back in late summer when I finally finished the house and put it on the market, I got cocky and felt like the road ahead was clear: the house would sell quickly, I would pack up and hit the road in my tiny, energy-efficient motorhome, and winter in a warmer climate. Then Dad was diagnosed with lymphoma, and my path turned to helping care for him, sorting out his legal and financial affairs, and serving as his personal representative to implement his will after he died.

My time at The Mesa Refuge earlier this month came as a real blessing. Those days with no charge but to write reminded me that no matter what is swirling around me, I have things to say that need to be said now. (Special thanks to my Mesa suite-mate, Syrian-American writer and human rights lawyer Alia Malek, for her thoughts and questions clarifying my thoughts.)

And now, here I am back in Cody and in the fog again. It snowed today. My house hasn't sold, and I am still working on implementing Dad's will. I am also writing. 

I think I can see a blue cast to my personal ice fog, as if it will clear. Or at least lift a bit. What is clear is that I am moving south to Santa Fe in a few weeks to get out of Wyoming's winter before it impacts my health again. I'll return this glorious sagebrush country come spring, and in the meantime, I hope someone buys this beautiful house. It's ready for someone new to love it, and I'm ready to let it go.

And I by then I will have a new book well under way, one about plants and gardens and climate change. So each day I write my way onward into the fog, in the faith that I am going where I need to go, clear roads or not. 

New Year: Begin as you intend to continue

"Begin as you intend to continue," my Scots grandmother, Christine Faquharson Tweit used to say. (She was a Highland Scot by birth–that's the Faquharson part, who married a Norwegian, hence the Tweit.) 

It's an old-fashioned piece of advice that seems almost self-evident, but it's easy to forget how powerful setting the tone and intentions at the beginning of any endeavor can be, whether a New Year, a new task, or a new path in life. Start on your best foot, and you'll give yourself the best chance for success.

So this morning when I woke an hour late after being out at a New Year's Eve party last night, I thought, I'll just be lazy, skip yoga, and go right to breakfast. 

Then I heard my grandmother's voice in my head, and I decided to start this first day of 2018 by remembering my intentions, which are:

To live with my heart outstretched as if it were my hand, as a way to further my mission: 

To heal and restore this Earth and the Life and lives who share our glorious blue planet. 

To nurture and celebrate diversity, that all may thrive.

And after a moment of internal grumbling, I unrolled my yoga mat and began my practice.

What does yoga have to do with those high-toned intentions? The yoga I practice is about physical and spiritual well-being, which are essential both to living with love, and having the strength and courage to work at mending and nurturing this battered world and we who share it. 

Yoga is my morning tune-up, my time to check in with my body, and stretch and strengthen muscle, ligament, bone, and being. It's also my time to stretch and strengthen my spirit through prayer, not the I-ask-the-surpreme-being-for-something kind. Prayers that invoke my connection to the earth and all that is sacred in this world, and my intentions for living with love and compassion, as I say at the end, "To everyone everywhere." By which I mean, all beings, and all forms of life. 

And wouldn't you know, when I finished, I remembered that yoga is worth the time and energy, even when, perhaps especially when I don't want to make the time and to put in the effort. It never fails: that half-hour of exercise and prayer always sets the tone of my day in a positive way. It helps me see the beauty around me, even when that's difficult.

(Beauty like the full moon, huge and butter-yellow, and peeking over Beacon Hill tonight in the photo at the top of the post. Or like the hoarfrost on the spruce needles out my bedroom window when it was minus two this morning.)

That exhortation to begin as I intend to continue is also why I dove into writing today, instead of spending this Monday holiday lazing around. All of my spare writing time for the past nine months has gone into a radical rewrite of my memoir, Bless the Birds, a story I thought finished last year, and which turned out to need a new perspective and its own new beginning. 

In starting over, I took a risk familiar to every writer beginning any project: your idea about how to proceed may seem great at the outset, but it may not pan out. Creative writing–any creative work–is at least partly a gamble that you can make your inner vision come real, and that it's a compelling vision that will speak to others. 

The gamble is that you won't necessarily know if your idea is working right away. You might spent hours, days, weeks, months, or even years on a project that simply doesn't ever cohere and sing. 

That's where I've been with this re-envisioning of Bless the Birds. I felt intuitively that the new narrative framework was worth a try, but I didn't know if it would carry the story all the way through to the end in a way that was compelling, relatable, and believable. 

These past few weeks, I've been writing in kind of a fever, pushed along by the work itself, as if it was racing toward that ending. On Saturday afternoon, I wrote the very last page, printed it out, and took the stack of 270 pages to my dining room. I set the manuscript on the table, fixed my lunch, and ate it with a stinking big grin on my face. I was and am proud of myself. 

I finished. And the story works. In fact, I think this new version of Bless the Birds is the best writing I have ever done. I am a bit stunned that I pulled these words, sentences, paragraphs, and pages out of me. 

I gave myself a day to bask in having completed a great draft. And then this morning, I dove back in and began revising. I read the first five chapters (45 pages) aloud as if narrating the audio version of the book. As I read, I listened to the story and I took out a bit here and there, added in other bits, adjusted words and sentences and paragraphs. Polishing the whole. 

At the end of those five chapters, at quarter to four this afternoon as the light was going gold toward sunset, I had the same grin on my face. I like this story. A lot. It sings, it howls, it flows, it laughs, it sobs, it savors. It's full of love and humor, silliness, pain, beauty, wisdom, and heartbreak. Life. 

I'm going to give myself this week to read all 77,000 words (27 chapters plus the Epilogue) out loud, revising as I go. Then, if I still feel good about the story, off it goes to my agent to see what she thinks. And I will get back to the deadlines I've been ignoring as I poured my heart and mind and all my writing skill into Bless the Birds. 

So as I sit here tonight, grinning like a lunatic at the stack of manuscript pages that will be my 13th book, I wish you all the most blessed of New Year's. May you begin this year as you intend to continue. 

May 2018 bring you joy and all sorts of unexpected gifts. And may you live with love, kindness, and courage, bringing your light to the darkness of this world, every day. 

Fall Reckoning

The verb reckon, says my dictionary, means to calculate, be of the opinion of, or be sure of. It comes from the Old English (ge)recenian, meaning "to count up."

At this time of year, when summer has given way to autumn, I like to spend a little time reckoning with where I am in life. In that, I am using reckon in the old sense: to count up. As in, count up what I have achieved in the year as fall slides toward winter, toward shorter days and longer nights, my time to be more contemplative.

I am in a reckoning mood because I have spent the day preparing my yard for the end of gardening season. Cody's municipal irrigation water ceases running tomorrow, so I did the last watering today. And then emptied, rolled up, and stored my hoses for the winter. 

I also cut down my tomato "jungle," the heritage tomato plants I grew from six varieties of seeds from Renee's Garden Seeds, and took the last tomatoes still clinging to those exuberant vines into the kitchen to ripen in bowls. 

That's only part of the harvest! I grew Tangerine, Stupice, Pompeii Roma, Pandorino Grape, and Black Cherry tomatoes. All delicious and heavy-producers, despite the deer, who persist in "trimming" the vines. 

Now it's time to stop and take stock the year so far, to reckon what I've accomplished. 

The biggest thing is that with a lot of help from friends and family, I moved back to Cody, Wyoming, the home of my heart. In January. In the midst of the snowiest, most blizzardy winter in decades.

January 18th: Almost home!

Next biggest is that I've run a full-scale renovation project to bring this house back to life since then, starting with replacing house guts, those essentials that no one sees but which we depend on (boiler, hot water heater, wiring, plumbing, insulation). 

Pancho (in blue) and Lefty (the round online hot-water heater tank) moving in to replace Igor, the antique and failing boiler.

I sometimes forget how much we (my trades-folk and I) have gotten done in nine months. Here are a few before and after photos show the scope of the project. 

The living/dining room in January, looking less awful after I finished hand-scraping and refinishing floors that had suffered thirty years of neglect. 

The living/dining room now, with new windows, new light fixtures and ceiling fan, paint, new blinds, furniture, and so on… 

My bedroom the first night (a week before the moving van arrived)… 

My bedroom now, after new windows, new floor, paint, new light fixtures, etc… 

And looking in the other direction, at what was empty space, the new en-suite bathroom with soaking tub, and the new laundry center

I have hundreds of photos documenting the restoration, peeling away layers of neglect and unfortunate changes to bring this lovely mid-century modern ranch house back to life. When I look at them, I am amazed to realize the transformation we've effected.

There's more to do. There are more windows to replace, and there's one more bathroom to restore, a deck to build out back, and a new roof, along with repairing damaged soffits and fascia.

But wow! The house and I have come along way since January.

A detail of my restored kitchen, including the original beach blue oven and copper range hood, both brought back to their original look, still working after 61 years.

Next biggest thing in this reckoning is Bless the Birds, my memoir-in-progress. I started over in March, writing the story anew from the beginning. I thought I'd be finished by now. I'm not (surprise, surprise!), mostly because I keep having to put it aside to earn a living. But I am more than halfway through and eager to pick it up when I get back from a work trip to Colorado next weekend. 

The other thing that's surprised me about Bless the Birds is that this experiment in telling the story in a radical new way actually seems to be working. Stay tuned… 

Another huge thing in this reckoning is personal. I am happier than I've been since Richard, the love of my life and my husband for nearly 29 years, saw the birds that were the only major symptom of the brain tumor that eventually killed him

That happiness comes in part from being home in a place that has always lifted my spirits and made my heart sing, and in part from the community of friends here who have welcomed me so warmly. It also stems from being able to spend almost four weeks this summer in Yellowstone doing my "radical weeding" work to restore a small part of our planet, as well as from the project to restore this house and its equally neglected yard, and from my writing. 

My happiness comes despite the turmoil in the world, the hatred and division that dominate our nation's politics and public discourse. 

I am determined to shine the re-kindled light in my heart and spirit beyond my own skin. My mission in life is to restore this beautiful blue planet and nurture all who share it. Every one of us. 

That means restoring kindness and generosity of spirit. Day by day, word by word, action by action, person by person, species by species. 

We all carry our own light inside. Like love, that light increases when shared. Together, our ocean of light and love will spread. Together, we can turn the tide. 

I send the light and warmth of the flames in my restored hearth to you all. Blessings!