Tool Girl Again: Why Rescue Houses?

I was trying to explain to a friend why I would spend a year and a half plus a tidy chunk of money renovating my wonderful but very, very neglected mid-century modern house, and then decide to sell it when I finish. 

"It's the project," I said. "I can't resist a good renovation project."

That was a weak answer, and my friend knew it. She gave me one of those you-are-crazy-but-I'm-fond-of-you-anyway looks, and changed the subject. 

So what is it about building/renovation projects that has me hooked? As I've written recently, I've clearly got a "Jones" for this work: I've finished, built, or renovated three houses in the past six years. That despite basically never picking up a tool more complicated than a screwdriver or a spade until I was in my late 50s. And only then because the guy who could design and build anything died of brain cancer before he finished our house. 

That man, the one I loved with my whole heart, my late husband, Richard Cabe, was the quintessential tool guy. He owned hundreds of them, both power and hand. He could (and did) sculpt a firepit out of a one-ton granite boulder, design and build his own hand-operated crane, hoist the roof beam of our house using just ropes and pulleys, build anything with his own hands, and also out-fox an opposing lawyer as an economic expert witness. He was just that brilliant.

A boy and his tools: Richard adjusting the load-carrying beam on his gantry–hand-powered crane–after he set in place the 450-pound sandstone block that became the sculptural base for our mailbox. He had just had one brain surgery then, and would have another set of brain tumors removed in a few weeks. None of which deterred him from sculpting–or climbing ladders. 

I used to say Richard could design his way out of a paper bag–only he would build a better bag first. 

While he was alive, I never considered myself capable of conceiving, repairing, or restoring structures. I could design a landscape or restore a stream, yes. But build? No. Then Richard died, and out of sheer financial necessity, I had to finish both our house and his hundred-year-old studio building. Soon. Or lose them both in the morass of post-cancer bills. 

Thanks to patient friends (that's you, especially, Maggie and Tony Niemann!) and knowledgeable trades-folk, I learned to use tools, to hang doors and trim windows, to frame doorways and build counters, and to envision the way buildings work (or don't). In the doing, I learned that while I'm not a great carpenter like Richard was, much less a sculptor, I do enjoy and find satisfaction in the process of solving design challenges of light and space and color and form, of materials and tolerances, of construction and restoration.

What precisely do I love about that process? Something deeper than only design: "Here is this neglected space with badly-designed, old windows that leak. What can I do with it?" It's more the challenge of learning the place well enough to hear its voice, to ask, "What do you have to offer? How can I facilitate that?"

As with my office in the photos below. I saw the paint colors right away; adding bookshelves to the walls, and insulation to the attic were also a no-brainers. But it took me over a year to hear that what that window-bay needed was not just new windows, but windows in proportion to the ones in the rest of the house, with a built-in seat below.  

The north-facing "sunroom" opening off my bedroom-to-be as I first saw it. Yes, the floor was that filthy, and yes, the windows were so scarred it was like looking through fog.

Now that room just sings. It could be so many things for different people: an office, sure, but also a playroom, a craft room, an artist's studio, a kid's bedroom, a reading and movie room… Restoring it returned its beauty and its utility in the original sense, its ability to be a useful and comfortable space.

That same room almost two years later, brand-new window-seat, new windows, paint, insulation,and all. It's happy and inviting now. 

That I have sweat and skin in the game (not to mention money) just makes the work all the more satisfying, all the more meaningful. My body remembers. Restoring the house becomes part of my felt experience.

Friday I spent four hours scraping and painting the west-side house eaves to stay ahead of the guys putting up my new gutters. When I finished, I was both exhausted and exhilarated.

"Yes!" I said to myself. "I did that!" I'm not as good a painter as Shantel Durham, my contractor's daughter, is. But I can do some of the work, and get some of the satisfaction of a job done, and done well. That feels very good. 

Are those good-looking eaves and gutters, or what? The eaves on this side of the house were shabby and partly rotted when I first saw them. Now they shine. (Those are heritage tomato plants in the stock-tank planters, grown with seeds from Renee's Garden.)

As does relaxing on my deck as hot afternoon eases into cool evening. As robins chuckle and wrens fuss, a bright yellow tiger swallowtail flutters through the yard, and the twin fawns of the mama mule deer who haunts our block pick their way carefully, small hooves clicking, down the alley.

As this sixty-two-year-old, beautiful but long-neglected house settles in, ready to shelter, nurture, and inspire for another six decades–and beyond. 

What I love about this process of seeing buildings anew, is that "re-storing." Or as my friend, writer and ethnobotanist Gary Paul Nabhan puts it, "re-storying." In listening and tending to these places, I am giving them back their voices, their stories, the gifts they have to give us. 

That makes my heart sing.

New office windows (yes, those shingles need their color-coat of paint), new deck, which still needs steps, and new paths beginning to take shape. Old house and yard, new life. 

Plant Companions: The Story of Scarlet, Violet, and Arabella

I'm an unabashed plant geek, nerd, lover, whatever you want to call it. Plants are in many ways, more my "people" than humans.  

Despite my abiding affection for plants of all kinds, especially those native to the sagebrush sea of the intermountain West, I've never been much of a keeper of house plants. With one notable exception: Schlumbergera, the genus known in the horticultural trade as Christmas cactus, even though these plants are not cacti, and they bloom in May in their native range in Brazil, where they're called "Flor de Maio."

My relationship with these epiphytes native to the dry tropical forests along Brazil's southeastern coast goes back to 1985, when then-six-year-old Molly wanted to buy her daddy a plant to brighten up his office in Olympia, Washington. She and I visited a grocery store with a floral department where we both fell in love with Scarlet, a slip of a Schlumbergera with about three short stems and flowers as bright as the name Molly chose for her. 

Scarlet as a teenager, in full bloom

Scarlet lived happily on Richard's desk until we moved to Boulder a few years later, and there she preferred our sunny apartment living room. Where she was joined by Violet, who we found abandoned and squirrel-nibbled in the yard. (Schlumbergera are not outdoor plants in northern climates.)

Violet, named for the delicate color of the throat of her flowers

Scarlet and Violet moved with us from Boulder to Iowa to New Mexico to our eventual long-term home in Salida, Colorado. Scarlet thrived in Salida, and in fact, grew so large that we took to decorating her many branches with Christmas lights and ornaments as our holiday "tree." (Violet, always more delicate, never grew large, but she bloomed every year quite faithfully until Richard's brain cancer.)

When Richard began hospice care at home in September of 2011, Scarlet was living on a flagstone shelf in our bedroom, in view of his hospital bed. She began to bloom early that year, and he chuckled many times about the queer resemblance of her buds to parrot beaks, and smiled over the beauty of her scarlet flowers. (Violet didn't bloom that year at all.)

One of those parrot-beak-like flower buds

A few nights before Richard died in late November of 2011, I woke in the dark to the sound of a crash. I got up groggily and searched the house, but couldn't find the source of the noise.

In the morning, there was Scarlet on the concrete floor of our bedroom, her pot shattered and her stems broken. How she fell from her secure spot on the wide shelf six and a half feet above the floor, I do not know. But it surely felt like a leap of grief to me. She was always Richard's. 

I gave away cuttings from the undamaged stems to friends and family, and potted up a piece of Scarlet for me. She rooted and grew, but Scarlet never really recovered from the fall and Richard's death (nor did I, for that matter). Violet began to diminish that winter too. 

Fast-forward six years and my move home to Cody. I brought a few small cuttings from both Scarlet and Violet. They didn't look great, and I wasn't sure they'd make it. 

Late that winter, my Cody friend Jay's dad died, and Jay and his wife Connie asked if I would like the enormous Schlumbergera from his dad's house. After my experience with Scarlet and Violet, I was hesitant. But I finally agreed. Which is how Arabella, then just finishing her glorious long season of bloom, came to live in the corner of my dining room, between the two large sets of windows. 

Arabella basking in her light-filled corner spot.

Arabella, named for her abundance of hot-pink flowers that look like dancing girls caught in mid-twirl (those are her blossoms in the photo at the top of the post), settled right in. She thrived through the disruptions of electricians, plumbers, painters; and even through the shock of removal and replacement of the banks of windows on either side of her spot. And then around Halloween, I spotted the first of hundreds of buds appearing at the ends of her arching stems. 

When Arabella began to bloom in early December, I dug out a string of colored lights and some of my favorite Christmas ornaments, and carefully decorated her branches, happy to revive the Tweit-Cabe Christmas-cactus-as-Christmas-tree tradition. 

Arabella as a slightly psychedelic Christmas tree

When Connie and Jay came for dinner a few days later, Jay told me the story of Arabella's life. It seems that his mother was teaching at the Hardpan School, a one-room school that moved from ranch to ranch depending on the availability of space, up Southfork outside Cody in 1935. The school was at the Hardpan Ranch that year, and when his mom visited the McCulloughs, who owned the ranch, she admired the Christmas cactus in their log ranch house. 

Twenty-one years later in 1956, when Jay was in first grade in Meeteetse, 30 miles south of Cody, his teacher, Mrs. Smith, who with her husband had bought the Hardpan Ranch from the McCulloughs, brought her class slips from that very same Christmas cactus Jay's mom had admired. He gave one cutting to his mom (Jay and Connie still have that huge Schlumbergera plant) and one to his grandmother. 

The latter is Arabella, who now lives quite happily in the corner of my dining room. So my days are graced by the company of a plant special to my friends and two generations of their family, and with a heritage that goes back many decades in the place I call home.

There's an even deeper connection: Arabella and I, and this wonderful house I am bringing back to life, all share a birth-year. We all came to be (or root, in Arabella's case) in 1956, which makes us each 61 years old. I'm aiming for many more years together. 

Oh, and what of Scarlet and Violet? Over the summer, two of the slips I brought north rooted in their shared pot. One grew big enough to produce one flower just after Halloween: Violet. I think the other slip may be Scarlet…

Six Years: Remembering Richard Cabe

Richard Cabe (July 16, 1950 – November 27, 2011)

Tomorrow marks six years since the love of my life, my husband, partner, and companion in all things for nearly 29 years, and father of Molly Cabe, died of brain cancer. He was only 61 years old, and very much engaged in exploring his practice of abstract sculpture, the work that expressed his terraphlia, the word we coined for our species' innate love of this earth and all who share this planet with us. 

Richard proudly carrying the first basin he ever carved. (That's about 50 pounds of rock in his hands, and it is now the sink in the guest bathroom of the house he built for us.)

Losing Richard sucked. It always will. 

Yes, I've built myself a solo life that is fulfilling and makes me happy. Which proves that it is possible to live well with a hole in your heart. But it does not mean I don't miss him. Always. We walked hand in hand through our days from the night we first met when Molly was just three years old. 

Crazy in love from the start–our backyard wedding reception in Laramie, August, 1983

We weren't prefect–we argued and fought and wounded each other just like everyone else. But we always returned to holding hands, and in the end it was that enduring love for each other, that cell-deep connection, that mattered most. No matter what, we both loved AND liked each other. 

We were blessed to have the years we did, and to be able to nurture the rich love we shared with Molly. I know that. I also know we didn't have enough time together. But we had what we had.

Yet, I am thankful to be able to find happiness as Woman Alone. Life is nothing if not contradictory. 

Here, in Richard's memory, are some photos of the man I loved, Molly's dad, sculptor, brillilant economist, juggler, the guy with the beautiful smile who loved life. 

Mr. Raymond, his proud father, holding Richard at a year old, the first winter he lived in Salida, Colorado (1951-2).

With Molly and her grandparents, Mr. Raymond and Miss Alice, Arkansas, in about 1990. 

Building the interpretive sign kiosk he designed for Monarch Spur Park, Salida, November, 2008.

With another sink in the making, Salida, Colorado, 2006 

Carefully shaping the steel fire-bowl for a granite firepit, September 2008. 

The finished firepit, one of my favorite of his functional sculptures. 

With Molly on her birthday, February 2010 (after his first brain surgery, and radiation and chemo).
Juggling for his niece, Carolyn Myrick, and great-nephew, Oliver, June, 2010.

Celebrating his 60th birthday with family, July 2010. (Back row: Molly, my brother, Bill Tweit, me and Richard; middle row: great-nephew Connor Roland, niece Alice Tweit; front row/ my parents, Bob and Joan Tweit).

Relaxing on the deck during a working residency at Carpenter Ranch, northwestern Colorado, August 2010.

At Devil's Churn State Wayside, September, 2011, on The Big Trip, our belated honeymoon two months before Richard died. 

Cherishing a sunset at the end of our time together… 

May your spirit continue to soar, my love. My heart will always be with you. 

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. 

Renovation: Four Guys, a Forklift, and One Big Window

Thursday, the hottest day this past week, was replace-the-dining-room windows day. That's the last in this batch of new windows for my wonderful but long-neglected house.  

We didn't pick the hottest day of the week on purpose. Thursday just happened to be when the stars aligned for my wonderful contractor, Jeff Durham, to have three helpers, plus the big forklift needed to move the 500-pound window-unit in place. Through my backyard. 

(The photo at the top of the post is pre-window-removal. You can see why I wanted to replace those particular windows: the right-hand one, a 60-year-old double-paned window, is so cloudy from having leaked decades ago that it's like seeing through a scratched lens. The left-hand window, while clearer, has an inoperable awning window with a rotted frame.)

The windows were built as a single unit, which complicates removal. As does the mid-century modern drywall "return," a rounded metal curve that conceals the drywall edge next to the window, without the need for additional trim. I love that clean, simple look. And its hard to duplicate if damaged.

Jeff, who I am convinced can do anything related to house construction or destruction, carefully Sawzalled (Yes, that is a verb!) between the old window unit and that metal bullnose to preserve it. And then he and Bo, a former construction guy turned personal trainer at the local gym who has been helping Jeff with my window-replacement, cut the awning windows out, and carefully removed the upper picture windows. 

Each picture window itself weighed over 100 pounds, so just hauling them to the dump trailer was no small task. Now I had a big rectangular hole in my wall, and the real fun began.

I can see clearly now… But it's a bit open to weather and flies!

The new windows–same style, also built as a unit–were in my garage. Getting that window unit out of the garage and around to the back of the house involved all four guys and a four-wheel drive forklift. 

First the guys muscled that window-unit onto the forklift basket. 

And then off Jeff drove, with Matt and his brother Jake balancing the window unit! Down the street, around the corner, up the alley…

And through the backyard (if you wondered why I haven't gotten started landscaping the back yard, the need to drive heavy equipment across it for our various renovation projects is why). 

Over the spruce stump, under the house eaves… 

And into the big hole in the wall. It fits!

New dining room windows in place. 

The new windows are so clear, and so much more efficient than the old ones (on a hot day, I can feel the heat through the old panes) that now I want to replace the bank of three windows in the living room area. Which is a big gulp! for my renovation budget. 

That new dining room window unit cost almost $2,000 just for the windows, not including renting the forklift and the guys' time, plus exterior trim and painting. I figure the living-room unit will cost around $3,000 and need the same forklift but probably at least one more guy. But oh, my! are the new windows beautiful and a huge improvement… 

So I've asked Julie at the Cody branch of Wyoming Windows & Cabinets for a quote. And while we're at it, there's the single unit in the breakfast room, and five awing windows I'd like to replace too: one in my office, one in the powder room off the kitchen, and three downstairs. 

Renovating this long-neglected house is neither simple, nor cheap. But solving the challenges is so satisfying. And it is such a joy to see and feel a once-beautiful place come back to life. Restoring this house restores me too–it exercises muscles, mind, and creativity, and fills my soul. I feel very, very fortunate to be able to do this work. 

Richard Cabe (1950-2011), sculptor, economist, father, husband, brother, friend, and the love of my life

I only wish the guy in the photo above could see it. He would so enjoy having his hands and creative brain on this project! (He's hand-hammering a steel bowl there, for a firepit he sculpted from a ton of granite boulder. Thanks to Harry Hanson, half of the ridiculously talented duo of Sterling & Steel for teaching Richard how to work steel.)

I've had Richard even more on my mind than usual because today would be his 67th birthday.

Happy Birthday, my love! Thank you for introducing me to design and building–I learned so much from watching you. You'd be surprised, and I hope pleased too, if you could see me now, Tool Girl, happily engaged in house renovation. 

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… 

What Home Feels Like

Back when Molly was in middle school and high school, we lived in Las Cruces, New Mexico, in the Chihuahuan Desert just 35 miles north of the US-Mexico border. (There we are in the photo above in  grove of native Mexican elder trees in our backyard. My hair was still red and long then, Richard hadn't started shaving his head, and Molly had a cat named Hypoteneuse.)

Late-spring and early summer temperatures in Las Cruces can easily soar into the triple digits. Whenever I would turn woozy and white in the heat, Richard would tease me: "You're my favorite Norteña."  

The literal meaning of Norteña is a female from the North, which I am (I was born in northern Illinois at 42 degrees N latitude). In the Spanglish spoken in the border region, Norteña could also be a mild insult, meaning a foreigner, someone who doesn't belong.  

Which was true as well, though in the seven years we spent in Las Cruces, I tried to belong: I studied the history, natural history, and culture of our desert region. I wrote four books about the desert, including my favorite, Barren, Wild and Worthless, my first excursion into what I didn't know then was memoir; plus dozens of articles, and hundreds of weekly radio commentaries. I led nature walks, worked on restoration projects, and co-founded a book festival about the border region with my friend and co-honcha Denise Chávez, novelist and visionary extraordinaire. 

Still, I never quite acculturated to life at 32.32 degrees North. My body didn't love the heat; my immune system didn't love the wind-blown clouds of pollen from the non-native species, including the mulberry trees planted throughout town for welcome shade. My diurnal rhythms were confused when summer days weren't long and winter days were. 

When we moved north to Salida, Colorado, Richard's childhood home, in what he considered "that cold state way up north" (at 38.5 degrees N), I was relieved. Salida had, I thought, the best of the Southwest and enough of the Rockies to feel like home. And it did, while he was alive. 

After he died though, I grew more and more restless. I missed… something. I traveled more, trying to figure out what I was looking for. It wasn't until I spent two weeks volunteering on an ecological restoration project in Yellowstone National Park (digging out invasive weeds), that I realized what should have been obvious. 

Grubbing houndstongue, an invasive perennial, from around the base of big sagebrush in northern Yellowstone. 

I was homesick.

This Norteña missed summer evenings so long it feels like it will never get dark, until night suddenly swallows the twilight, and short winter days. The sweetly turpentine-like smell of sagebrush after warm rains. The sound of robins cheer-ee-o-ing at dawn in early spring.

The pell-mell rush as the days lengthen, and then suddenly the grass is green and all the birds sing a nearly operatic daily chorus. Until summer and they go silent in the exhausting work of feeding voracious young, when wildflowers bloom one after the other after the other in bee-mad meadows. And elk calves honk for their mothers. 

Silvery lupine and Wyoming indian paintbrush blooming among big sagebrush

The sound of male elk bugling that wheezy nasal challenge in fall, as bighorn sheep males duking it out with a loud cracking of colliding foreheads. (Such guys!) The sour-sweet smell of fallen aspen leaves wet in the first snow. 

The silence of winter nights; the howl of blizzard winds. The bite of sub-zero air on bare skin. The stars crackling bright against skies so dark they seem to swallow the earth. 

A gnarled old big sagebrush shrub hanging on through winter

After I moved home to Cody between blizzards in January, some part of me that had been tense and alert for decades relaxed. The slant of the light at this latitude (45.5 degrees N, the same as Portland, Oregon, Chicago, Illinois, and the Gulf of Maine), felt right.

The blue winter twilights, so soothing after the dazzle of sun on snow during the day. The wind whooshing in the spruce trees in my yard; the resiny smell of spruce sap as the days began to warm. The sagebrush on the hill behind my neighborhood, their small evergreen leaves gradually turning from winter's silver-gray to silver-green again.

And now that the robins are back from their southern winter homes, their cheerfully fluting voices wake me. I lie in bed in my snug spot among the big spruces and my heart fills with joy. Home for me is more than people and memories. It is the light, the rhythm of the seasons, the smells and sounds of life going about its business. 

It is something I feel in my cells, a kind of inner contentment at being in the place that is just right for me, inside and out.

Richard and I loved each other with our whole hearts. But born in Arkansas, raised in Salida, Haiti, and South Texas, my southern guy never understood the call of my particular North. Perhaps he would if he were here with me to get to know the place, but he isn't.

And in this bittersweet journey, I feel very fortunate to have found my way back home on my own. 

My bedroom (still unfinished, but quite snug)

Five Years as Woman Alone


Richard Cabe (1950-2011) ogling wildflowers


Five years ago today, at 11:07 am, Richard Cabe, the love of my life and the father of my beloved step-daughter, Molly, took his last gulping breaths. I still miss him acutely, though not every moment and not with the sharp pain of that initial parting.


After five years, the missing him is more like a dull, nagging ache, a bruise in the part of my heart our nearly 29 years together live. 


It’s not that I’m not happy as Woman Alone; I am, by and large, something that is a continuing surprise to me. That happiness is partly my temperament, and partly a stalwart determination to forge a good life with what is. Even if it’s not the life I imagined stretching out for many more years together, Richard and I walking hand in hand into the sunset of our years. 


That wasn’t what we got. I accept that, and I have consciously worked to not pine for what isn’t, and more so, to recognize doors opening that wouldn’t have opened–or I wouldn’t have recognized as opportunities–in that other life where we lived hip to hip, inseparable. Until death parted us.   


Five years… It’s a good time to evaluate the path I’m on, where I’ve been and where I’m going. 


I’ve taken several big leaps in that time, including finishing and selling Terraphilia, the house he built for us, along with his historic studio next door. 


Helping design and build Creek House and Treehouse, my snug little complex that occupies the last piece of our “decaying industrial empire,” as Richard liked to call our sprawling and once-ugly property.


And now, in perhaps the biggest leap of all, I’m moving on, leaving Salida and the place we shared, the property we spent our last 15 years together restoring. The buildings were Richard’s province, his studio and the big house, which he helped design and did much of the construction himself.  



Richard assembling “Matriculation,” his sculpture in the Steamplant Sculpture Garden, in front of his historic studio. (He designed and built the rolling crane for working with ton-size sculptures and rocks.)


The land was mine, the block of channelized, neglected urban creek, and the property itself, its river-bench-gravely soil scraped and “enriched” with industrial leavings, and then abandoned to invasive weeds. 


As his hands shaped and set brick and stone, steel and glass and wood; mine dug and weeded, planted and watered, nurturing soil and plants.


So while he is gone, his body and spirit cycling on to whatever is next, and I am moving away, there is a sense in which the twining of our lives with that physical place, our sweat and cells, the effort and lessons and dreams, the love we put into soil and stone, will remain. 


The we that was–a “we” that included Molly and her time in Salida–continues in the way that blighted chunk of land and creek now flourishes, green and healthy, home to songbirds and pollinators, browsing deer, mayflies and muskrats. In the buildings that rise from the soil, sturdy and cozy, designed to shelter many generations of families and stories. 


And the “I” that is, me, this Woman Alone at sixty, now moves on to the next chapter of her life in a new place, a landscape that has held my heart since I can remember first using the word home.


Northwest Wyoming calls. I feel the pull in my cells and synapses, in my heart. 


Five years today. As I sit in the sun in a cozy casita in Santa Fe near the end of an astonishingly productive writing fellowship at the Women’s International Study Center, I am grateful for the gift of this month-long time to simply relax and write. It is exactly what I needed right now. 



The sun-splashed window seat where I read and write…


Grateful for the five years it has taken me to absorb the wallop to the heart of losing Richard. For the 29 years we had to love each other before that. 


And now, I believe I truly am ready to move on. 


Wednesday, I drive back to Colorado; come late January, I’ll be home in Cody again after decades away. 


Richard and his beloved Salida, the valley and the peaks, our restored industrial property, will come along with me. Not in the physical sense of course. In the form of memories, of singing muscles and sweat, of frustration, inspiration and the joy of seeing the buildings, land and creek revive. As love. 


Those years are part of the person I know as me, imbuing my heart, mind and spirit, and also my muscles, synapses and bone. And–this shouldn’t surprise me, but I hadn’t expected it–urging me to look for new opportunities, to embrace the twists and turns in the path ahead. 


Five years, and I know it is time to go. To whatever’s around the next bend. 


Thanks for walking with me on this journey. Bless you all!



Photo by Santa Fe photographer Robert Muller, who understands light and shadow, and has more patience than I do! 

Looking Back, Finding Home

Near the end of my first book, Pieces of Light, a year's worth of journal-style essays about making a home and observing nature in Boulder, Colorado, I wrote a couple of paragraphs that at the time were simply poignant and now seem quite prophetic. The year in Boulder documented in that book came after we had moved from Laramie, Wyoming, where we met and married, to Morgantown, West Virginia, where Richard taught at West Virginia University, and then three years in Western Washington.

In Boulder, Molly finished third grade, and Richard finished his dissertation in Economics and then accepted a position at Iowa State University. I was, I think, in denial. All through that halcyon year of exploring Boulder and its environs, I had hoped that we would somehow be able to somehow stay in the region where sagebrush grows, the skies are intensely blue, and mountains line at least one horizon. The region where my heart is happy. 

It was not to be. So before we left for Iowa, I took a solo trip home to northwest Wyoming. I visited friends in Cody, did a little fieldwork with my geology mentor, the late, great David Love, in Jackson Hole, and then spent a few nights in Yellowstone National Park. Where I wrote these paragraphs:

Today I sit in the warm sun on a smooth-as-satin weathered lodgepole pine trunk washed up as winter flotsam on the shore of Yellowstone Lake. The lake stretches for miles, filling a collapsed volcanic dome like a piece of fallen sky, at this moment deep blue and ruffled like wrinkled velvet. The air, scrubbed clean by yesterday's rain, reveals a landscape etched with memories. Here I grew into an adult, pursued my field ecology career, lived the years of my first marriage. It is home to me still. Each valley, each undulating or craggy ridgeline, each meadow, each bit of pattern in the dark forest cover is familiar. …

How could I ever have been so naive as to think that this trip home would make leaving the landscape of the Rockies easier? … I ache at the thought of leaving again, knowing that the going will rip a part of me out, the me that is rooted in these huge, arid landscapes. I hug my arms around myself, anticipating the parting, trying to hold myself intact. It is futile. I must go; I want so badly to stay. …

Once I get up from this log and walk back to my rental car, I begin the leaving. The road away runs east along the lake shore across Pelican Valley, then up through the forests, past the sulphur yellow and ashy white earth of steaming hot springs… finally emerging in the Big Horn Basin at Cody. From there by plane to Denver, bus to Boulder, and thence, gathering my family and possessions around me, by rented truck to the cornfields of central Iowa. Once I leave this log, there is no looking back. 

Indeed, there was no looking back.

After two years in Iowa, where Molly finished Fourth and Fifth Grade, Richard began making his name in Economics, and I wrote my first book, we moved to Las Cruces, New Mexico. We lived there seven years, long enough for Richard to get tenure at New Mexico State University and establish a consulting practice as an expert witness in the economics of regulation. 

Richard and me at Three Rivers Petroglyphs, New Mexico

During those years, Molly graduated from high school and started college, and I wrote five books, most of them about the desert. I did my best to love where we lived, but I never quit missing the Rockies. So one spring Richard took a year off teaching and we moved north to Salida, his childhood home in south-central Colorado. 

We never returned to Las Cruces. Richard's expert-witness work kept him busy for nearly a decade, and when that waned, he tried real estate appraisal, but that didn't suit his thirst for intellectual stimulation. I urged him to explore the abstract sculpture he had considered a hobby his whole life, work with stone and steel and wood that expressed his innate love for this earth.

 

Richard at work on a boulder

Sculpture provided both the intellectual and creative challenge he needed. Richard's art was beginning to gain a following when one quiet summer Sunday morning, he saw thousands upon thousands of birds, transient hallucinations that were the only major sign of the brain cancer that would kill him two and a quarter years later.

Before he died, Richard asked me to stay in Salida where the community had held us so close through that terrible and beautiful journey toward his end. "Don't make any sudden decisions," he said. 

I didn't. I couldn't stay in the house he built for us, his largest sculpture with its soaring, light-filled great room, sinks carved from local boulders, and the flagstone shelves that issue from the walls like cliff ledges. The place was too big for me to maintain, and it was my largest asset: I needed the cash out of it to pay the bills. 

So I finished the house and built my own snug place, using the one basin from the big house he hadn't ever installed (because he never finished the master bath!) as the vanity sink in my bathroom, a way to take him with me.

 

That gorgeous basin, which reminds me of Richard and his saying that rocks are "ambassadors of the earth" every time I wash my hands.

And I settled in, loving the small space and the way it made my feel safe, cradled, in this new journey as Woman Alone.

Now, nearly five years after Richard's death, I realize that while Salida was the perfect place for us, it's not the perfect place for me

Which is why, 28 years after I sat on that satiny weathered pine log on the shores of Yellowstone Lake and grieved at leaving the home of my heart, I am finally looking back. I've just returned from a few days in northwest Wyoming, my third trip to Cody and Yellowstone in the past five months. 

It still feels like home, even after all these years. And I still have good friends there, some from decades ago, some new. Enough to form the beginnings of community. My heart is happy there, something I think Richard would understand. 

So, after talking to Molly and my family, I am planning a move. Not this month or even this year, but before my next birthday. It's time. Home calls. 

Cedar (also called Spirit) and Rattlesnake mountains, west of Cody

Like a Gift From the Air


In Thornyhold, one of Mary Stewart’s later novels, the heroine says that a message came to her “like a gift from the air.” 


That phrase perfectly describes how I feel about the beautiful ceramic vessel in the photo above, the work of Jim Kempes, husband of my friend Lesley Poling-Kempes. Lesley and Jim stayed with me last night on their way home from the Mountains & Plains Booksellers Association show in Denver, where Lesley’s newest book, Ladies of the Canyons, won the Reading the West Award



When Lesley and Jim arrived, Lesley handed me a gift bag decorated with a sky-blue ribbon holding a sprig of juniper and chamisa from their place outside Abiquiu, New Mexico. In the bag was a copy of Black River, a novel which also won the Reading the West Award, and, carefully wrapped in tissue paper, Jim’s vessel. 


I took the ceramic piece out and cradled it in my hands, feeling the glassy smooth glaze, the lines of bumps like the knobby layers of sandstone in northern New Mexico cliffs, and the four sides with their rounded corners reminding me of the four directions of the earth. The lid was taped shut, and I didn’t peel back the tape and open it then because I was eager to show Lesley and Jim around Salida. 


We walked down the trail that runs across the creek from my house, explored the Steamplant, the historic steam generating plant that is now our town theatre and convention center. I took them through the Sculpture Park and showed them “Matriculation,” Richard’s sculpture there. Lesley ran her hands over the chisled rhyolite top stone with its 128 embedded marbles; Jim admired the big steel gate hinges that join the lower two rocks, opened like an opportunity beckoning. 



Matriculation


We walked along the river and I told them about the transformation of the Arkansas from a drainage that periodically ran orange with toxic mining waste to Colorado’s newest and longest stretch of Gold Medal trout water. We strolled F Street and admired the historic brick buildings, and visited Cultureclash, one of my favorite Salida galleries (the other is Gallery 150).  


When we got hungry, we headed to The Fritz, my favorite downtown restaurant. It was hopping and there wasn’t a table, so we sat outside on the patio with our drinks and talked about art and writing and life. Then we went inside into the busy warmth and ate delicious food while talking more. 


By the time we walked the few blocks home, Lesley and Jim were tired from their long day, so I made sure they were comfortable in the studio. And then, back in the house, I remembered I hadn’t opened Jim’s vessel. I carefully peeled away the tape securing the lid, lifted it, and gasped.



The inside is glazed in a deep midnight blue with lighter speckles that shimmer like the stars in the night sky. Carefully holding the ceramic in my hands, I turned it round and round, watching the light illuminate that starry interior.


“It’s like holding the universe in my hands,” I said this morning when Lesley and Jim came over for breakfast. “Thank you.” 


Jim smiled his warm smile, “I call that glaze Milky Way Blue.”  


“That’s exactly right,” I said.


Before they hit the road for Abiquiu, we took a silly selfie of the three of us below. Then they packed up and headed south. 



As I settled on the couch later to finish the slides for the WILLA Awards banquet at the Women Writing the West Conference in Santa Fe this week (where I’ll see Lesley again, since Ladies of the Canyon also won a WILLA), I remembered the phrase from Mary Stewart’s novel. 


“A gift from the air” describes both Lesley and Jim’s visit, and Jim’s beautiful ceramic art. Before they arrived, I had been feeling harassed and overwhelmed by all I have to do before I leave on Tuesday; by the time they left, I just felt good–my spirits refueled by our conversation and their company. 


I also felt a wave of grief that Richard, who left this life too soon, never got to meet Jim and Lesley. They would have enjoyed each other, and Richard would have especially treasured talking art with Jim. Their work is in a similar vein, abstract and rooted in a love for this earth. 



Richard outside his studio with Matriculation suspended by the crane he built for moving sculptures. 


Richard appeared in my life 34 years ago with his then three-year-old daughter Molly. They were another gift from the air. I’m fortunate to still have Molly, I know. But that doesn’t keep me from wishing her daddy–the great love of my life–was with us too.