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

Full moon rises over the Big Horn Basin outside Cody.

“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.

The spruce tree visible from my yoga spot.

(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.

The manuscript for Bless the Birds

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.

Oh yeah, I’m gonna shine!

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!

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. 

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… 

Books: Turning Homeward, and Knocking On Heaven’s Door


Today, in typical spring-in-the-Rockies fashion, the weather pivoted 180 degrees from yesterday’s sixty-five and sunny, into freezing rain, mist, sleet, snow, and then steady rain again. When I walked to the Post Office just a few minutes ago, the temperature was hovering just above freezing, and the cloud-blanket was beginning to clear, revealing new snow on the hillsides just above town. 


This kind of weather that makes me want to curl up on the couch and read. With that in mind, here are capsule reviews of two books that crossed my desk recently. The two are very different: one is memoir/nature writing of the best sort, thoughtful and insightful, and the other is crackling good fiction. What they share is that both books stretch boundaries, shift perspectives, and teach us things we didn’t know we needed to know. Which is what makes each a great read. 



Turning Homeward, Restoring Hope and Nature in the Urban Wild, by Adrienne Ross Scanlan


As a girl growing up in the suburbs of New York City, Adrienne Ross Scanlan watched her father with the other men at Temple Zion, white prayer shawls over dark suits, “swaying and chanting their prayers.” At home, she watched a different kind of movement as the tremors and other neuro-motor impacts of Parkinson’s disease robbed her father of the ability to “rise from his Naugahyde recliner, walk into a room, hug his daughters, talk and laugh with friends…”


After her father died, Scanlan, by then an adult, sold her belongings, quit her job and moved West for a new start. She wound up in Seattle and began searching for her own form of healing in volunteer work to help restore the region’s iconic salmon runs. She understood it as a way to practice the Jewish tradition of tikkum olam, a term that translates as ”repair of the world.”


Turning Homeward chronicles what Scanlan learns about the complexities of both mending the world and living as a thoughtful and conscious human being. Her meditations on the meaning of tikkum olam, and the meaning of restoration in nature and in daily life apply to all of us. How can we as fallible human beings live with our flaws and the hurts we intentionally or not inflict on each other and the world? How do we live with the knowledge that even at our best, we cause pain and suffering, simply by being? We all eat, for example, and in the doing, we consume other lives. Even if we eat a purely plant-based diet, we eat plant embryos as we consume grain and beans, and plant flesh in roots like carrots or leaves like spinach. How do we atone for those impacts, unwitting or not?


For Scanlan, the answer is in practicing tikkum olam, consciously working to repair the world in whatever form we are called to:


The call to repair is genuine, arising from our best selves, I like to think, the part of all of us capable of acknowledging the harms we’ve crated without shrinking away in guilt or fear. There’s no end to the damage we caused, just as there’s no end to our curiosity, our capacity for good work, our intelligence, and our compassion. The reasons for despair are everywhere and profound. What’s lost does matter. So does what’s still here and what’s still possible. … Tikkun, I’ve come to learn, isn’t identified by intentions but by the impact of what we hope are reparative actions.


Turning Homeward is a work of thoughtful atonement. Scanlan writes honestly and tenderly about what has not worked in mending her life, and the lives of salmon and urban streams, as well as what has. And out of despair at the havoc we have wreaked on this earth and each other, a quiet sense of hope grows in her words, the kind of active expectation of the results of conscious work that can in fact, lead to mending the wounds of the world and we humans.



Knocking On Heaven’s Door, by Sharman Apt Russell


Clare breathed in the smell of blood. Sharp, metallic, in the air, on her skin. She slipped her knife into the space between the joint and bone of the mare’s hip—a small young female but still too much meat, more than enough for their next few days of hunting. Tonight she and Jon would feast on the rump with garlic and onion, some saltbush leaves, perhaps a mint paste… Clare felt happy thinking about her dinner. She felt…lust. A fervent yearning. Her mouth filled with saliva. A violent tenderness. Her heart expanded, blossomed, pressed against her ribcage so that she mewled without sound, kittenish. She slunk forward, barely in control, through the grass…

No, no, these were not her thoughts. 


“Cat! Cat!” Clare yelled and stood, dropping the knife, picking up her spear from the bloodied ground.


It is the 23rd Century, about 150 years after a supervirus has wiped out almost every human being on Earth. The few survivors have recreated a “utopian” paleolithic hunter-gatherer lifestyle imbued with animism, informed by New Physics, and linked by solar-powered laptops (solarcomps) via the worldwide web.


Clare and her tribe live in New Mexico, moving with the seasons, feasting on abundant plants and wild game, and celebrating the cycles of nature. The only animals they do not hunt are the “paleos,” once-extinct Paleolithic species reintroduced before the virus, creatures like the saber-toothed cat who intruded into Clare’s thoughts and nearly killed her and her hunting companion at the beginning of the book. Many paleos are telepathic; as Clare says, “How could you hunt someone you could talk to?”


A widow whose young daughter died six years before, Clare has found comfort and meaning in teaching creative writing to students from around the world via the worldwide web. Now, one of her students, a younger man from her own tribe, has become her lover. Clare’s life seems settled, until she is assigned to serve as quest-guide to Brad, a “lab rat” and theoretical physicist who lives in the relative comfort of what remains of the Los Alamos National Laboratory complex.


Brad, who discovered The Theory of Everything and whose mathematics describes how life could exist in “quantum non-locality,” as holographic projections of actual cells. Brad, who has put off the required quest as long as possible, who prefers to think math in his office rather than hunt and sleep outdoors. Brad, who initially becomes interested in Clare simply a woman who might bear his children.


The quest the two set off on becomes so much more than a simple journey, bringing up classic conflicts: a life close to the earth versus a life of the mind, technology versus nature, organized society versus loners who live outside the culture, intuitive and sensory knowledge versus intellect, man versus woman. The story twists and turns through the landscape, through lives, through physics and Brad’s risky experiment to win Clare as his own. The choices the two humans make in the aftermath of that experiment will shape their future and that of their people.


Science fiction generally doesn’t interest me, but Knocking on Heaven’s Door sucked me in and kept me hooked, immersed in a culture and characters I hadn’t imagined I wanted to know. Sharman Apt Russell’s imagined future manages to be both utopian and also startlingly contemporary, relevant and illuminating to our lives and choices today.


___ 


Two excellent reads, thanks to two authors unafraid to reach deep, think way beyond the norms, and explore the world, in very different ways. Happy reading!

The Three Rs: Running, Renovation, Revision


I went for a run today, my first since I moved home to Cody two months and two days ago. I would say it felt great to be running again, but my relationship with running is much more complicated than that.


I need to run, something I know intellectually. But it takes a lot of emotional energy to talk myself into it, each time. I have an amazing ability to find excuses and wimp out. And then I feel bad because I didn’t run. 


Once I get going though and find my pace, I feel pretty good, except when I run out of breath and don’t. Still, the fact that I’m out and running keeps me going, both because I am competitive and hate to quit, and because I feel pretty darned saintly to be exercising. 


The best part is after I finish, when I feel simply and unambiguously great, my body tired, but loose and limber, my mind righteous, and my spirits high because running takes me outside, and as my artist-friend Sherrie York says on her website, “outside fuels our insides.” Time in nature is the best medicine for body, mind, and spirit. 



Today’s run wasn’t long–I did about 2.5 miles through quiet streets and down the hill to the upper bench above the Shoshone River where it winds in its shallow canyon past town. I ran through fragrant sagebrush, looking for signs of spring in the still-winter-brown high desert landscape, like the mat of dwarf phlox in the photo above, the living parts of the aged mat greening up.


I followed the city-maintained river trail with its great views of the surrounding Bighorn Basin landscape until its end, and then I headed back, slowing to a walk for the switchbacks up the steep hill, and then running through city streets to home. 



(The photo at the top of the post is from that river trail, looking southwest to Spirit and Rattlesnake mountains on the way to Yellowstone; the photo above is looking down-river in the opposite direction toward McCullough Peaks, a badlands wilderness northeast of Cody.)


On the renovation front, the biggest progress this week has been in the attic, where my contractor, Jeff, has been adding vents so the attic can breathe, which is important for all sorts of reasons, including letting the roof cool down in summer, and keeping mold from growing up there.  


The other big change is the small bathroom taking shape in my bedroom, with a washer-dryer closet next to it, and a narrow linen closet between. When it’s all finished, I’ll have my own little suite–bedroom, bath, laundry, and my office opening off the bedroom. 



The unused end of my bedroom before, with my office on the right. 



And now, with the walls of the bathroom and laundry center taking shape, the plumbing and wiring roughed in. 



Looking the other direction at my bed and its corner of windows that makes me feel like I’m sleeping in a treehouse…


On the writing front, I finished a feature article for Wildflower Magazine, and when I turned it in, my editor wrote back to say she loved it, “and thanks for making my job easier.” That’s music to any writer’s ears! 


The more difficult part of my writing week was yet another rejection for my memoir, Bless the Birds, with a lovely note from the editor who said the writing was beautiful, the story touching and engrossing, and the characters and sense of place powerful. But she didn’t want it. 


After listening to a webinar with Brooke Warner, publisher of SheWrites Press, I think I know what’s wrong and why despite all of the praise for this memoir of my heart, no editor has snatched it up: it’s the economics of publishing today. Memoirs normally run between 70,000 and 80,000 words, and Bless the Birds is 97,000 words, albeit downsized significantly from 125,000 in last summer’s intense revision


Brooke explained the money end in a way I hadn’t heard it before. Sure, she said, a memoir or novel can be longer, but when an editor is making the calculations to sell a manuscript to the publication committee, she or he has to justify additional length in terms of some kind of great platform to drive sales, because the longer a book is, the more it costs, “and margins in publishing are already thin.” 


A manuscript of more than 80,000 words, Brooke said, simply costs too much to produce. And then she added for me what was the kicker, “and people are reading shorter and shorter these days,” in part, she explained, because they’re reading in snatches of time between other commitments, or on a mobile device. 


So I’ve made the difficult decision to clear time in my schedule and dive back into a manuscript I thought I was done with. My aim: shrink the word count by more than 20 percent and make the story stronger and more compelling, more universal, as I do so.


And not shred my heart along the way; this is a love story, but it’s a painful one. I owe it to the guy in the photo below, and the life we made even as brain cancer ended his, to get the story right so it can help us all live our days well and with grace, whatever our path.



Richard Cabe, 1950-2011


PS: My apologies about the issues with the comment function on this blog. It’s always been annoying, and now it doesn’t work at all. Sigh. Another thing to deal with in time, and thanks for your patience! 

Renewal Inside and Out


Spring is coming to my long-neglected house and yard. The photo above is my amazing arborist, Aaron Danforth, de-limbing one of two green ash trees in my front yard. Neither has had an arborist’s attention in a long time–perhaps never, and this one has a split in its main trunk so deep that it groans when the wind blows, and spits out fist-sized chunks of rotten wood. 


Despite some windy days and a toddler with croup, Aaron, a rock-climber who became an arborist because he loves trees and loves climbing, has managed to de-limb three of the eight huge spruces in my front and back-yard, fell one entirely, and take that ash tree down to its fat trunk. Which is why I have some sizable piles of mulch to deal with (the front-yard one is to the right of the ash tree in the photo above). 



While Aaron was climbing and sawing and chipping, my contractor, Jeff Durham, installed eighteen insulated roman shades throughout the house, a job that involved quite some finagling. Retrofitting anything in a 60-year-old house is not simple. 



The shades have already made a difference in the nighttime temperatures inside, and since this house was not even slightly energy efficient when it came to me, that’s a big deal.


They also look elegant. The fabric is a pewter gray color with the slubbed look of raw silk and a slight sheen. I think it’s the same fabric as the roman shades I loved in the casita where I stayed for my Women’s International Study Center fellowship in Santa Fe last fall with playwright DS Magid, and scholar Stanlie James



(DS and Stanlie, do you recognize that fabric?)


Jeff also replaced the non-working light and ugly pole at the end of my driveway with a new post and working solar-powered light, and framed in the en-suite bath in the unused end of my bedroom so that it’s ready for wiring and plumbing rough-in. 



When the bath is finished, we’ll replace the floor, which was in such bad shape we couldn’t save it, and paint my bedroom. (The bookshelves in the opening on the right are in my office–I have a short commute!)


Jeff’s daughter Shantel, ace painter, finished applying the soft yellow color inspired by my vintage kitchen cabinets to three walls of the living/dining room (it’s a long room, so that’s a lot of wall!), and then painted the end wall of the dining room in the more sagey of the two green shades that I’m using as accent colors throughout the house. 



The color is less minty in person than in this photo


Then she painted another wall in the breakfast nook in that same soft yellow, brightening the space considerably.


 


While Aaron sawed, chipped, and felled, Jeff built, and Shantel painted, what was I doing? When I wasn’t coordinating the restoration work and ordering supplies, I was at my desk writing. I finished a feature article for WILDFLOWER Magazine, and my monthly column for Houzz, which you can read here



Best office ever…


This weekend I took a break from writing to join the restoration work. I rolled my wheelbarrow out of the garage, grabbed my leaf rake and scoop shovel, and went to work spreading fragrant spruce-bough mulch on the eroded and bare soil in my yard resulting from my too many trees. 



Mulch will not only shade the soil from both hot summer sun and winter cold, it’ll help retain moisture and allow rain and snow-melt to sink in rather than running off. Its sheltering qualities will make the community of micro- and macro-organisms living below the surface happier, and they thus will work their own brand of renewal magic, making the soil healthier for my remaining trees and all else rooted there. 


As I spread mulch in my east-side yard, I discovered neon-green daylily sprouts along the house foundation, plus daffodils poking up darker green leaves. Both are emerging in response to sunlight, which hasn’t reached that area in decades. 



By the time I had reduced the front-yard mulch pile to almost nothing late this afternoon, my back and shoulders were protesting. So I stowed my tools, came inside and cleaned up, and made myself dinner. And then headed for that long teal couch in the living room, where I sit now with my feet up, writing this post and admiring the stars in the night sky out the window. 


I feel very grateful to have the work of writing and helping bring this house and yard back to life. There is much hard work ahead, but I am heartened by how far we have come. Spring is coming, and with it the promise of renewal. We can all take heart from that. 



Arabella the Christmas cactus thinks it’s spring already!