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. 


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. 

Road Report: Yellowstone at 60

The US National Park Service turned 100 this year, celebrating its centennial in various ways at different parks throughout the country. I turned 60 last Sunday, and I decided to celebrate that personal milestone in Yellowstone National Park, our nation’s first park, established in 1872, forty-four years before the park service was established. (The photo above is the Gardiner River near the north edge of Yellowstone.)

Yellowstone is my favorite park and the place I began the work that still inspires me today, researching and restoring ecosystems. Back then, plant ecology was my career and my living; now I’m a writer, teacher and speaker. Ecological restoration is still my passion, but I mostly work as a volunteer.

Working along the Old Gardiner Road in Yellowstone…

I spent two weeks on a working vacation in Yellowstone in June, doing just that: digging out invasive weeds by hand to help heal degraded areas around Mammoth Hot Springs, my “home” in the park. It was a rewarding time in terms of how much I accomplished, and how good it felt to be giving back to a place I love. 

So when Rocky Mountain Gardening Magazine invited me to speak as part of their annual “Live!” garden inspiration event at Chico Hot Springs Resort, just north of Yellowstone, on the day after my birthday (thank you, Dan and Andra!), I decided to make that an excuse to return to the park, and celebrate my birthday by continuing my weed-eradication work there. 

Why spend my birthday doing hard labor grubbing out knapweed and houndstongue, two species of persistent and seriously disruptive perennial weeds? 

For the same reasons I cited in my Why Garden? talk at the “Live!” event:

  • To preserve biodiversity by improving habitat for wild species
  • Help counteract climate change by promoting ecosystem health
  • To get a serious dose of Vitamin N–nature–and its physical, physiological, and mental-health benefits
  • And not least, to provide succor for my soul. 

Sixty is a major milestone for me for a number of reasons, most importantly because it’s the age my love, Richard Cabe, was when we learned his brain cancer had returned with a vengeance. He had just celebrated his 60th birthday by attending a sculpture conference and swimming in the Arkansas River, and was feeling great. Then came the news of the new tumors, and the realization that he might not survive.

He died five years ago come November, a few months after he turned 61, leaving me a widow at 55. 

Richard after brain surgery number three, stapled scalp and all… 

So I’m now reaching the fifth anniversary of the ending of his life, and am thinking seriously about what I will do with whatever remains of my life. 

We truly don’t know what’s ahead–a lesson I know only too well after helping my rudely healthy husband live as well as possible through chemo and radiation, four brain surgeries, chemo again, and finally having to learn to let go of life after the glioblastoma commandeered his entire right brain. 

I had assumed I would just continue on as I have been without Richard, but now I am rethinking the form and shape of my days as “Woman Alone.” I’ve decided to throw the possibilities wide open and re-evaluate all of my assumptions: where I will live, what work I want to do in my 60s and beyond, how my life will look. 

I don’t have any answers yet, but I have some ideas.

The North Fork of the Shoshone River, as Red and I headed upstream into Yellowstone on Saturday. 

Which I’m going to consider in the next few days, as I start the long drive home from Montana tomorrow with my friend and fellow passionate plantswoman and speaker, Lauren Springer Ogden. I’ll continue to let those possibilities “compost” in the back of my mind over the coming weeks as I catch up on writing and teaching work, including preparing for a memoir-writing workshop I’m teaching Colorado Springs, and then the Women Writing the West Conference in Santa Fe in mid-October. 

And I’ll continue to live with my heart outstretched as if it was my hand, because I believe that living with love and compassion is the best we gift we humans can give each other, especially now.

Bless you all for being who you are, and giving this life your best each day. 



Road Report: Coming “home” to Carpenter Ranch

We arrived at Carpenter Ranch, our first stop on The Big Trip, the day after Labor Day. Betsy greeted us warmly. “The Bunkhouse is occupied, but you can take any room in the main house,” she said. “You can manage the stairs, can’t you?” she asked Richard.

“Of course.” His voice was confident. The narrow flight of steps leading to the second floor of the ranch house wouldn’t have been a problem for Richard a month before. Perhaps not even a week before. But they challenged that evening’s Richard. He froze at the bottom, unable to go upward. Finally the guy who had always led the pack took the steps slowly, one at a time like an old man, gripping the handrail tightly. 

After dinner, we strolled out the ranch driveway—Richard’s stride confident again on level ground—and stood arm-in-arm listening to sandhill cranes’ bugling as sunset lit the sky. Richard smiled as he surveyed the view. “I am a lucky guy,” he said. 

I swiped at tears and gripped his warm hand. We were still together. “I love you.”

(From my new memoir, Bless the Birds)

Last Friday, five years and three days after that final visit to The Nature Conservancy’s Carpenter Ranch in Northwest Colorado, I drove the gravel road through hayfields to the ranch buildings, swarmed by memories of our visits in the two years before Richard, the love of my life and my husband for almost 29 years, died of brain cancer. Our final collaborative project was at Carpenter and involved re-imagining a half-acre of unused lawn behind the historic ranch house into a public teaching/interpretive garden that, as I wrote at the time, aimed to “re-story” the place’s rich human and natural history.

The ranch buildings at Carpenter across the hayfields

(Thanks to Connie Holsinger and the Terra Foundation, Grant Pound and the former Colorado Art Ranch for support of our working residency; and to Steamboat Springs landscape architect Erin Dickerson for handling the engineering and layout.)

Richard was involved in the initial construction of the garden but died before it was fully realized. (I would say “finished,” but a garden is never complete, and this one has certainly taken its own sweet time.)

I thought–ridiculously optimistically, as it turns out–I would be back the next summer to help continue work. For various reasons, including the fact that I was still sorting out my life and my finances, I didn’t get back to Carpenter that year. Or the next–by then I was working part-time and learning carpentry to do the finish work on the big house in preparation for putting it up for sale, which happened the following summer, when I didn’t return to the Ranch either. Or the next summer, when I was helping finish my little house and garage/studio, or the next. 

Eventually, I realized that it wasn’t my busyness that was keeping me from returning to the site of the last project Richard and I worked on, it was my heart. So when I saw Betsy Blakeslee, Facilities Manager for the Ranch, at the Landscaping with Colorado Native Plants conference last spring and she invited me to return this fall for the Yampa Valley Crane Festival, I decided it was time. 

Deciding and being ready are of course not the same thing (one comes from the head, the other from my still-wounded heart). So when I parked Red under the spruce tree by the bunkhouse where Richard and I always stayed on Friday afternoon, I felt tender and very vulnerable. 

The bunkhouse

As soon as I walked into the ranch house though, and Betsy greeted me with a warm hug and delight, “You’re here! I am so glad!” I knew that my head was right. Bruised heart or not, it was time for me to return to a place where Richard and I found such joy in the restoring/re-storying work. 

“Do you want to see the garden?” Betsy asked. 

Did I ever. When we walked through the interpretive center and onto the new deck, and I saw the flagstone patio just as we had envisioned that gathering spot, and the wide beds of heritage perennials lining the back of the ranch house and then the meadow with its waving grasses, the cliff gardens with their strata-like lines of local limestone that Richard helped the crew of interns lay out, the sagebrush growing thick and the woodland garden still in bloom, my heart swelled. I think one of its cracks healed a little.


The garden from the deck of the interpretive center, with the meadow in the distance

“It’s not finished,” Betsy said. “And it’s not exactly the way you drew the plan.”

“But it’s beautiful!” I said. “Our idea was for it to evolve naturally.”

We walked the paths curving through the natural gardens and I admired the rock “creek” channel with its sculptural cairns, and the round pollinator garden beds with their river-channel-like cobble designs. Betsy showed me the wild yampah, the plants honoring the Ute Indians, the first people of the valley, whose lives revolved around harvesting the starchy and nutritious root of the staple plant for whom the river and the valley are named. 

The cliff garden with native shrubs including sagebrush; in the background is the edible garden

We looked at the edible gardens and talked about what plants to add to the medicinal herb garden…. As we were walking back to the house, Geoff, Betsy’s husband and the ranch manager, saw us and came over with a huge smile on his face. “You’re here!” He gave me a hug. “We’ve missed you.”

Then my friend Connie Holsinger, also staying at the ranch for Crane Days, came out, a smile on her face. She introduced me to her friend Joyce, visiting from Boston, and later to two other friends from Boulder. That evening, Betsy and I took her grandson to the family crane activities at a nearby ranch and watched flocks of sandhill cranes fly overhead at sunset, calling in their throaty, unforgettable voices. 

The next day, while the other guests went to other Festival activities, I stayed in the garden, giving tours and digging out invasive weeds. That evening, after the barbecue and talk by prominent birder and author Ted Floyd, I sat on the stoop of the bunkhouse and listened to the distant murmur of cranes and geese, and watched thousands of stars appear in the black night sky. 

Part of the heritage garden, with medicinal and ornamental plants from historic ranch gardens

And knew I had truly come home to Carpenter Ranch and the project that Richard and I began seven years ago. There is still work to be done–including designing and installing interpretive signs telling the stories of the plants and the land, and I’m now ready to continue with that. 

It feels right to be back, and to carry on the work that gave us such joy and satisfaction during the last years of Richard’s life. I would say it’s like completing a circle, but really, it’s continuing the larger circle of life itself, one that never ends as the molecules that make up our individual lives are recycled into new beginnings, over and over. 

Thanks to Betsy and Geoff and The Nature Conservancy for welcoming me home, and to Connie for making the whole project possible. On we go, cranes and yampah and sagebrush and cows and Richard’s spirit–all of us together in this continuing wheel of existence…

Road Report: Red, the “micro-RV”

Red and I left home almost a week ago, headed some 1,500 miles to our eventual destination, my brother and sister-in-law's house in Olympia, Washington. I gave myself four days for the trip, including two nights with friends Julie Weston and Garry Morrison in Hailey. 

Our first night out was an experiment in free camping: at Price, I pulled Red into the parking lot of the Walmart, and headed for a small collection of motorhomes and trailers at the far corner of the lot. Actually, I parked near the smallest, and then called to the couple sitting in folding chairs by the trailer, "I figured the small motorhome section was the right place for my micro-RV." They laughed and waved. 

I stretched my legs by walking across the lot to the store and buying some chocolate chip cookies milk for dessert with my dinner-on-the-road. When I finished eating, my neighbors were still sitting out and watching the last of the colors in the sunset, so I walked over and offered to share my cookies.

They happily accepted and as we chatted, I learned they were headed by slow stages from Wenatchee, Washington, to Alabama, to visit family. They asked where I was headed, and about Red, my "micro-RV." 

My "nest" in Red

After our cookie course, I headed for my cozy nest in Red, and they headed into their trailer. I slept well, woke early, and spent time writing in my journal while snuggled in my sleeping bag before climbing out to cook my tailgate breakfast (oatmeal) on my little JetBoil stove.

I ate as the sun crept its way across the valley toward Price, and was on the road, aimed for Spanish Fork, Utah, followed by the congested I-15 corridor through Salt Lake City and then on north to where I-84 takes off northwest into southern Idaho. 

My destination that night: Hailey, Idaho, and the home of friends Julie Weston and Gerry Morrison, where I would spend the next two nights. My time there was a lovely respite: we talked writing (Julie) and photography (Gerry), and they took me up Mt. Baldy at the Sun Valley ski area, where they are both fearless black-diamond-run skiers in winter. 

Gerry shooting a photo of Julie atop Mt. Baldy

We ate lunch halfway down the mountain and explored the historic Sun Valley lodge and surroundings. Back at their house, I spent some time removing in invasive musk thistle and mullein from the draw below their house in thanks for their hospitality. 

That evening, Gerry and Julie treated me to an excellent local-food dinner at CK's in Hailey, which lived up to its reputation as the best restaurant in the valley. After dinner, I read to them from the latest revision of Bless the Birds, explaining my editing decisions to give Julie some ideas for her own memoir. 

Dawn over the Indian Creek Valley outside Hailey, Idaho

The next morning, I said goodbye to Julie and Gerry, and Red and I hit the road again, bound for Hermiston, Oregon, and another WalMart parking lot. As Red hummed west on US 20, aimed for I-84 and on northwest, I realized that it was five years ago, almost to the day, when Richard and I headed for the West Coast on The Big Trip, our last long road-trip together. 

Five years. And here I was, driving almost the identical route. In Red, the truck that Richard never knew, in the life I never imagined–without him.  

As I drove down the Boise River Valley, across the wide and powerful Snake River at the Idaho-Oregon border, climbed the steep, sagebrush- and grass-clothed hills of far eastern Oregon, continued up and up into the wide intermountain valleys, and then wound over the Blue Mountains with their summer-green larch trees spearing through the darker coniferous forest, and thought down into the high plateaus above the Columbia River, I thought about those decades with the love of my life, and the path I've taken now that I'm solo. 

Saturday morning I woke early in Hermiston, and hit the road for the end of this leg of my journey. I headed first to Lakewood, south of Tacoma in western Washington, to meet Molly's bus from the airport, and then south on traffic-clogged I-5 to Olympia, where we've spent the weekend with my family. 

Molly Cabe, Alice Tweit, me

Sunday morning, Molly and I went for a run with Alice, my youngest niece. I kept up with the two of them for 4.2 miles, and our reward was my sister-in-law's fresh-baked popovers when we got back–thank you, Lucy!

And as Molly, who just walked by and put a kiss on the top of my head, said, "and then we ate for 24 hours straight." That's about it. The Tweit clan in gathered yesterday evening for dinner (we're missing Sienna and Matt Bryant, my middle niece and her husband, and their two kids, Fiona and Porter, who are living in Germany now).

Cousins: Molly; my eldest niece, Heather Roland; and her youngest sister, Alice (we miss you, Sienna!)

We ate, we laughed, we talked politics and travel and birds and kids; then this morning we hung out and ate some more (Bill's blueberry coffeecake this morning, followed by Lucy and Alice's gazpacho for lunch with Alice's fabulous kohlrabi-apple-mint coleslaw). 

I helped Bill weed the garden and pick tomatoes and green beans for dinner, and harvest rhubarb for tonight's crisp. Tomorrow morning, Red and I hit the road again, first to take Molly to the airport bus, and then on the long drive east for the next leg of the road trip. 

But for now, I'm sitting at the dining table in the midst of family. The house smells like pizza crust as Lucy prepares dinner; Alice is on the couch resting and Molly just came downstairs to toss crust. Bill is off fetching Dad to join us for dinner, and life is very sweet. 

Windshield Time: Hitting the Road Again

This Tuesday afternoon, Red and I will head west on US Highway 50, bound for Olympia, Washington, for a family gathering over Labor Day weekend. It’s a 1,450-mile-drive on the route I’m taking, and I don’t like to drive more than 6 hours in a day, so it’ll take me a few days. 

Along the way, I’m stopping to visit a former writing student, Julie Weston, and her photographer husband Gerry Morrison in Hailey, Idaho. (If you’ve not read Julie’s absorbing new mystery series, here’s my review of the first book, Moonshadows. The second book, Basque Moon, was just published and got great pre-reviews.)

Saturday noon, I’ll pick Molly up after she flies into SeaTac airport from San Francisco and we’ll share the drive to Olympia together, always a treat. I’m fortunate: she likes to hang out with me, and I her; and like me, she loves a good road-trip.

Me and Molly on a road-trip in southern New Mexico in February

After the extended weekend with the extended Tweit clan, I’ll take Molly back to the airport and then set off to my next stop, The Nature Conservancy’s Carpenter Ranch in northwest Colorado, where I’ll spend time working in the interpretive garden Richard and I designed  during our residency at Carpenter in 2010 and 2011.

(Carpenter Ranch was also our first stop on The Big Trip, our last real road-trip together, two months before Richard died.)

And then I’ll head home for three days, long enough to do my laundry, give Red a rest, and meet a couple of writing deadlines, before loading up and hitting the road for Chico Hot Springs, Montana, where I’m speaking with Lauren Springer Ogden in Rocky Mountain Gardening’s annual Live! event.

By the time Red and I make it home late on September 21st, I figure I’ll have driven about 4,700 miles in a bit over three weeks.

Why drive thousands of miles cris-crossing the West? I could fly to Washington, for instance, and still meet Molly. It would be a lot more efficient use of my time in one sense, and would keep me from being so crunched on writing deadlines, and on preparing my talk and digital presentation for the Rocky Mountain Gardening event. I could also fly to Montana, saving myself about 1,700 miles of driving on that leg. 

Partly it’s the time versus money equation. Flying means spending a lot more cash than driving, because when I’m not staying with friends on the road, I’m sleeping in my cozy mini-camper in Red, often in some very discrete parking spot that costs nothing. 

Partly it’s that the timing of these various events allows me to make a two-branched road-trip through some of my favorite parts of the West. And of course, visit friends along the way, which I couldn’t do if I flew. (Thanks to Julie and Gerry, and Jay and Connie Moody, who I’ll stay with when I pass through Cody on my way to Chico Hot Spring.)

I’ve always loved a good road trip. When I drive, I get to follow my own schedule (within certain constraints). 

There’s the element of serendipity: I never know what I’ll discover. What junction might lure me off the main route; what wildflowers will be blooming, which hawks soaring in lazy circles overhead. Who I might meet, what cafe or vista or trail I might discover. 

Heading west on US 50 between Gunnison and Montrose, Colorado. How could you not stop and take a hike among those pinnacles?

Road-trips through the West’s open spaces are great “windshield time” for me, time for my mind to wander, for connections to surface and ideas to grow out of the spaciousness around me. 

I can happily drive for hours and miles in silence, watching the landscape go by, my imagniation wandering, or listen to my iPhone playlist, which ranges from Sting to Dar Williams, and from the haunting a capella of Anonymous 4 to Bonnie Raitt’s hard-rocking blues. 

And partly it’s the time of year, which has me itchy and restless, wanting to hit the road. Richard’s 66th birthday would have been in mid-July. August 8th and 9th (yup, there’s a story there!) were our 33rd wedding anniversary. And my 60th birthday is coming up soon. 

Just after Richard’s 60th birthday, when he was feeling great and we were hoping brain cancer was behind us, we learned his tumors had returned; he went under the knife for his second brain surgery that August. A year and three months later, he died. 

Richard Cabe, swimming in the ice-cold, swift waters of the Arkansas River on his 60th birthday. 

So as I head west on US 50 Tuesday afternoon, I’ll have all of those things in mind. And then I’ll let the rhythm of the road and the hum of Red’s tires carry me along. And see what the miles bring… 

Summer-time Lessons from Adventuring

Molly drove home from San Francisco last week for her annual summer visit. She and her Heeler/Pit Bull, Roxy, loaded up “Little Red,” Molly’s new used car, a fire-engine-red 2003 Honda Civic, on Saturday noon and drove 1,300 miles, arriving in Salida on Sunday evening. 

Little Red proved quite road-worthy except for one thing: About 90 miles west of Grand Junction, Colorado, crossing the Utah Desert in hundred-plus-degree temperatures, the air-conditioning stopped working. Molly soaked some towels with water and wrapped she and Roxy in them as evaporative coolers, and drove on. 

“The weird thing was,” she said over dinner, a pasta salad with fresh pesto I had made that day, “it came back on again when we got up higher and the air cooled down.”

Some of you may already know what happened from that particular detail, but I didn’t until I called Mike’s Garage, my wonderful neighborhood shop, the next day. Dallas listened to the story, asked one question (“Did the fan cut out, or the cold?” “Just the cold,” I said.) She checked with a mechanic and then explained:

Relatively new cars like Little Red have a computer that senses engine function and condition, and when the engine gets too hot–as in driving for hours across the desert in a heat wave–the computer makes the decision to save the engine’s power for cooling itself and shuts down non-essential functions, including the compressor that makes cold air. 

“In the old days before car computers,” Dallas said, “the engine would just cut out.” 

I should have known that, because I can remember family summer road-trips when we’d drive at night to keep the engine from overheating when we crossed the desert. 

Molly and I have a tradition of adventuring whenever she’s home, whether exploring a new trail, visiting a new place, or learning some new skill. 

This summer, we decided to learn stand-up paddle-boarding, something I’ve wanted to try for a while. I set up a half-day lesson from Rocky Mountain Outdoor Center, a local outfitter. On the appointed morning, Josh, our guide, outfitted us with boards, helmets, wetsuits, and the other gear you can see in the photo at the beginning of the post. 

After orientation on land, we got on the water and began to learn balance and paddle-strokes, starting on our knees, and then working up to standing on the boards. Which took me longer than Molly.

I am a firmly terrestrial creature, so anything involving water, whether swimming in it or floating on it, takes some courage. As it turned out, I mastered the starfish (falling backwards off the paddle-board with an impressive splash), and learned that the water was indeed c-c-cold.

Still, I began to get my balance and had a lot of fun practicing. I grew up canoeing and have kayaked on and off for 30 years, so the paddle strokes were familiar. But the feel of gliding across the water while standing on the board was deliciously different.

After we felt like we were proficient enough, Molly got Roxy, and we worked on her paddle-board skills, first with our two boards rafted together, and then with her swimming between the boards. After which Molly bravely stood up and paddled around the pond, with Roxy standing like a pro in front of her. 

Until Roxy decided the trout she could see in the water were more interesting than standing on the board, and jumped in. I laughed so hard I did a perfect starfish, and surfaced still laughing. I swam back to my board and Roxy decided to “rescue” me, which meant it took me twice as long to get back on my board as it would have otherwise. But we had a great time. 

At the end of our lesson, Molly and I helped Josh load up the boards and stow the other equipment, and thanked him for patiently teaching us. As we drove off in Big Red (my Tacoma pickup) with Roxy snoozing the back, we talked about getting paddle-boards of our own. And wetsuits. 

Of course, none of that equipment is in either of our budgets right now, but maybe next year. 

And Molly and I have some wonderful new shared memories. I feel very grateful that she loves Salida, and me. I’m lucky to have her in my life. If only her daddy were still here to join us on summer adventures… .

Richard Cabe (1950-2011) paddling our double kayak

Memoir: The Craft of Revision

Richard and me–in shadows–at Carpenter Ranch on The Big Trip, our last trip together

Back in May, I started on one last revision of my new memoir, Bless the Birds, after receiving comments from editors at good publishing houses that they loved the story, but… But it was just too personal, but it was just too intense, but it just wasn't quite right for them. 

I realized on reflection that I needed to shift the balance of voices and detail in the book. Keep enough of the personal, the intimate details, while at the same time strengthening and giving more space to the objective voice, the voice that explains what the story means, not just to me and Richard and Molly, but to us all. 

Simple, no? 

No. But I was so jazzed by that realization that I set to work immediately, and found to my surprise that as I read the manuscript with my intuitive "ears" tuned, listening for places where that objective voice was missing or weak, I "heard" them, like a click in my mind that said, "Stop here. This needs work." 

And once I focused, I could also hear what I needed to say.

As I worked my way through the manuscript, taking a few chapters each day, I could sometimes even sense in that intuitive way when there was extraneous detail that cluttered up the story, and left readers no space to engage in the narrative. So I did some cutting as well. 

Still, by the time I finished that first pass of strengthening the objective voice, the manuscript was much too long for a standard memoir.

(Memoir generally runs 75,000 to 95,000 words; Bless the Birds came in at 103,350 words. In pages, that's 20 to 25 pages too long. Length matters because more pages means a higher cost to produce the book, which means a higher cover price, and often lower sales. That makes a manuscript harder to sell to a publisher.)

I knew I was going to need another intensive editing pass to slim the manuscript. And I also knew I would bring a fresher eye if I could let it sit for a while. 

As it happened, I finished that first revising pass just before I left for Wyoming in early June to teach and then spend two weeks working in Yellowstone where I would camp without modern conveniences like electricity, much less internet access. A good time to let Bless the Birds "season."

When I returned home at the end of June, I picked it up again, determined to unclutter the story and bring closer to normal memoir range. Back in May, when my agent had asked when I thought I'd be done with the revision–she's eager to send it out to a select few editors for a re-read–I said blithely, "I'll have it back to you by July 15th." 

So that gave me a deadline. I worked with focus and intensity, and was surprised that as I read through the manuscript again, taking my time, I could "hear" passages that felt like they weren't necessary.

What isn't necessary to a story like this? That's hard to define: it's both contextual and intuitive. One thing I listened for was the kind of detail about the medical parts of the story that a scientist like me thrives on, but which can get in the way of readers' engagement. Another was excessive information about the major characters, or the places we were.

Detail makes a story authentic; too much detail clogs it up like a gut full of donuts. 

A sample page of the mss with my trusty editing pencil, one Richard used for sketching sculptures. The blue type is the new objective voice. 

There's no magic formula for how much detail is the right amount; what works for me at this stage is to read the story out loud to myself, listening carefully. When I feel myself disengaging, I stop, and read that part again, listening for what's not working. 

Over the past three weeks I worked steadily, and each day, the total word count dropped. As it did, the story strengthened, its muscles toning, its voice growing clearer.

On Friday morning, the 15th of July, when I read the very last section and finished, the word count had dropped to just over 97,000 words, slimmer by 6,000 words and nearly 20 pages. 

I knew when I read the end that the manuscript was ready to go out. The story had touched me again, and now it was done (again).

Here are the final two paragraphs, plus the haiku coda:

Death will touch all of us, expected or not, ready or not. It is simply part of life on this planet. How we deal with the losses and with our own mortality is up to each of us. One thing is sure: Facing what Rilke called life’s “other half” with an open, generous heart makes letting go easier. 

I think of the grief I feel at times like this as a tribute to the love Richard and I shared. I am grateful to be reminded of that love, even when my heart throbs with loss. We lived wholly and well, and that love, as the reader’s email reminds me, lives on—heart open, wings spread. 

_____ you/ and that tiny glinting hummingbird/ arrow straight to my heart

I wrote an email to my agent, attached the revised manuscript and hit "send"–only I had no internet connection. I checked my system, and then called my provider. Which is when I found out that someone had accidently severed a fiber-optic cable, downing phone and internet service for the whole area. "We expect service to be restored again tomorrow," the chirpy support person said. Great. 

It felt urgent to get Bless the Birds emailed to my agent. So I considered who might have a live connection, and ended up asking my local financial institution if they could use their dedicated backup line to send my email with the manuscript. They took pity on the crazed writer and did. 

That's the benefit of living in a small town where everyone knows you. (The drawback of course, is that everyone knows you, so anonymity is nonexistent.)

Yesterday, July 16th, I realized belatedly why I had picked the previous day as my revision deadline, and why I went to extraordinary measures to finish and send out the manuscript.

July 16th was Richard's birthday. I wanted the manuscript off my mind and my desk before then. It was a gesture of celebration and gratitude to the man who inspired the memoir. 

So here's to you, my sweetheart–Happy 66th! Your story is on its way again; this time I believe it will find a publisher who loves it. And I've learned more about the craft of shaping a narrative that is both intimate and universal, one that grabs both head and heart, and doesn't let go.

Thank you for the gift of you in my life, and the gift of inspiring my growth as a writer and a person. 

Richard Cabe in San Francisco, September 2011, two months before he died

Memorial Day: Thank You for Your Service

It’s Memorial Day, which reminds me especially to appreciate the two veterans in my life, one being the smiling 18-year-old in the photo above, Richard Cabe, fresh out of Coast Guard boot camp in 1968 during the war in Viet Nam. Like so many young men then, he didn’t have much of a choice about his service. 

His draft number was low, so Richard enlisted in the Coast Guard with dreams of saving drowning people from the surf, or doing something useful that didn’t involve killing. Instead his intellectual brilliance sent him into electronics school and from there into maintaining the LORAN stations that guided nuclear subs and bombers to Viet Nam. 

Even though he was never “in country,” serving in a support role for a war he believed to his core was wrong injured something in that sensitive young Richard, something that never really recovered. He felt complicit in the death and destruction. 

Also like so many veterans of that incredibly polarizing war, he wouldn’t talk about that part of his service. Because so many others lost their lives or were seriously impaired, I think he felt awkward claiming his role. 

Ironically, it wasn’t until the Veterans Administration became a part of our daily lives as we journeyed through Richard’s brain cancer and four brain surgeries, one course of radiation, two courses of chemo, and innumerable MRIs and other tests, that Richard began to bring up his feelings about being involved in the war. 

It was partly that we spent time around other veterans of “his” war in the Denver VA Medical Center. But I think what spurred him to talk was more the simple phrase that everyone greeted him with, from receptionists to aides and ICU nurses, from physical therapists and pharmacists to oncologists and neurosurgeons: “Thank you for your service.”

Richard, AWOL from the VA Hospital (he’s sitting on a bench across the street where there was wifi access) with Molly in September, 2009. 

At the end of our first full day at the Medical Center where he had an appointment with neurology to figure out what had caused him to see thousands of birds that did not exist outside his brain, we learned that his right hemisphere was so traumatically swollen that his team was surprised he was not in a coma on a breathing machine. 

“It’s weird,” he said as we sat in the car after discussing the bird hallucinations and the MRI images, and the fact that instead of driving home over the mountains that night, we would be staying in a Denver motel so that he could be admitted to the hospital in the morning. 

“What’s weird?” I asked. His answer had nothing to do with bird hallucinations, traumatic brain swelling or the reason we were sitting in the car on the side of a residential street near the medical center.

“Being thanked for my service,” he said. “I didn’t do anything worth being thanked for.”

“You spent your late teens and early 20s involved in a war you didn’t believe in,” I said, “doing the best you could with a situation you didn’t choose. That’s a form of service. Maybe being thanked for it will help you make peace with those years.”

Richard nodded, and then started the car.

That conversation came up now and again as our lives began to revolve around brain cancer treatment and VA healthcare. He began to talk about the war years without as much anguish. I think that being thanked helped him let go of some of what troubled him about those years, and I am grateful for that. 

Dad in the middle between his two Norwegian cousins, Halvard (right) and Ingvar Tveit, on their visit to the US in 2014.

The other veteran who is on my mind today is my dad, Bob Tweit, who was drafted into the US Army Chemical Corps at the end of the Korean War. Like Richard, he served without ever being in country. He didn’t take to the Army, but it was a different war, and serving was what he did. 

Like Richard, Dad is treated by the VA healthcare system. And like my late love, Dad’s care has been by and large excellent. We hear so much negative news about the VA, but as I’ve said in print before, in our experience, the people who deliver the care are professional, knowledgeable, thorough, and deeply caring. They take seriously the agency’s mission to tend our veterans. 

So to my own particular veterans and all of the others, and to the thousands of healthcare staffers in the VA healthcare system, from receptionists and clerks to nurses, residents and doctors, I say on this Memorial Day: Thank you for your service. 

Normal Grief

It was a rare slow night at Amicas, the wood-fired pizza restaurant in my neighborhood, which meant John, my favorite manager, had time to chat after I ordered my pizza to go. 

“How have you been?” he asked. I haven’t been in for quite a while. Either I’m on the road, or home and feeling too vulnerable to be social–my loss, I know.

“Pretty good,” I waggled my hand to indicate the ups and downs. 

He waited for more, a warm smile on his face. John taught kindergartners and he has a background in counseling, specifically, he reminded me, in grieving and death, so he can be very patient.

“It’ll be five years this November,” I said. “You’d think that would be long enough.” (Richard, the love of my life and the guy with his arm around me in the snapshot at the beginning of the post, died of brain cancer in November of 2011.)

John bent his tall form toward me. “It takes three to six years.” His voice was kind. “So you’re quite normal.” 

“Which is funny, since I’m not normal about anything else in my life.”

John smiled again, and we talked about the layers of grief, and anniversary dates, and then the conversation turned to other things. Before I left, he looked me in the eye and said, “You have support.”

I swallowed sudden tears. “Thank you. It means a lot.”

As I walked home carrying the deliciously fragrant pizza, I thought about John’s words, and the idea that it’s normal for grieving to take three to six years. 

Amicas’ Thai chicken pizza, with peanut sauce, green chiles, thinly sliced cabbage, cheese, and avocado chunks–yum!

I’m 59 now, the age Richard was when he saw the bird hallucinations that led us to discover the brain tumor that would kill him two-and-a-quarter years later. By April of that first year of brain cancer, he had already had his first of four brain surgeries, gone through a course of radiation, and was adjusting to his first round of oral chemo.

Richard was seriously, lay-on-the-floor-and-refuse-food-and-drink miserable each month for his five days of intensive chemo–his “comma” he called it, alluding to women’s monthly menstrual cycles–until I coaxed him into taking the anti-nausea medications his oncologist had prescribed. Those drugs, which Richard resisted because he didn’t want to take any unnecessary medications, made the monthly cycle almost bearable.

That and his oncoologist’s “prescription” for eating his favorite Ben & Jerry’s ice cream every day, even for breakfast if he wanted. And he did want. (Thank you, Dr. Klein!)

I’m sure that even when I’m not conscious of remembering that spring five years ago, my body remembers the fear I fought to keep at bay so that Richard wouldn’t know I felt it, the nights I lay awake trying to reconcile the image of my brilliant, robustly healthy husband with the reality that he had brain cancer. The times when my all-too-vivid imagination persisted in exploring the ending my heart refused to believe we were heading toward. 

So on the days when I find myself staring at nothing instead of writing, my mind suddenly blank and tears filling my eyes; the evenings on the couch when I know I should just drum up the energy to do something besides read an escapist novel with a happy ending, because happy endings are all I can bear these days…

On those days, I will try not to be too hard on myself and remember what John said: It takes three to six years to journey through grief after losing someone we love. In my case, someone who was my other half, someone who I lived with for just a few weeks shy of 29 years, someone who I loved so deeply I never imagined living without him. 

Our shadows at sunset at Carpenter Ranch, on our last road trip, two months before Richard died.

It’s normal, this going along perfectly fine, happy most of the time, until some small thing trips me up and grief smacks me again. Normal.

I understand that intellectually. Emotionally though, I forget. I forget that losing the great love we were so fortunate to share means weathering the pain of loss as the small and large threads that bound us gradually unspool. Memories fade, habits fall away, the little rituals we so enjoyed are no longer. I miss the sound of his deep laugh, the feel of his heart beating under my head when I lay on his warm chest. The lovemaking, the sitting together in silence, each deep in our own thoughts, but still together; the road-trips, the walks hand-in-hand. Even the fights. 

All of that is normal. Which does not ameliorate the pain when grief sneaks in unawares. But it is reassuring. 

As is John’s reminder that I have support–from all around. 

Thank you, John. (Not just for the great pizza.)

And thanks to you all for walking this journey with me. Your company is both comfort and gift. 

Love Endures

For almost 29 years, I had the great gift of sharing this life with the man I loved almost more than life itself. Richard and I were as close as two humans could be–we held hands wherever we went, and we often completed each other's sentences, or knew what the other was going to say before the words came out. Our bodies knew each other as if we had been born twins, not six years and three states apart, on opposite sides of the North-South cultural/political divide and to very different family cultures as well. 

No matter. Once we found each other–and that itself took some doing and a previous marriage for each of us–we came together as if we had been designed for each other. As if we were soul-siblings. With Richard came Molly, his daughter, just three years old when I met her, and at home in my heart from almost that first moment. 

A friend once said about the three of us, "The air between you shimmers. It's love made visible." 

Richard and I didn't always use the gift well, though I believe we always did the best we could at any moment. We fought, we hurt each other, we sulked. (Okay, Richard sulked–I'm a redhead. I go off like fireworks, loud and blazing bright; but when my temper is over, it's over.). But always, the love won out over whatever we had allowed to get in the way. 

The better part of three decades is a long time in any life. Molly grew up, went to college, found a career, friends, and a place she loved to live.

Richard and Molly, February 2010

Richard and I grew too, changing as we did, and found our way home to the Rockies to the town where he had lived as a child. We settled, fell in love with a junky, all-but-abandoned piece of industrial property, which we bought and spent years bringing back life, along with the historic building that became Richard's sculpture studio and the block of frontage on channelized and abused urban creek that still makes my heart sing with its gurgling voice. 

Richard evolved from an academic into an expert witness and then an abstract sculptor who worked with native rocks as "ambassadors of the earth," bringing them into our daily lives as a way of reconnecting us to the beauty and wonder of the planet that is our home.

"Paula's Find," a sculptural firepit Richard created for an architect and interior designer.

My writing grew, stretched, deepened, and reached new audiences. 

And then one hot August morning, Richard–who had always loved and watched birds–saw thousands of birds that did not exist except in his mind. Those seemingly benign avian hallucinations portended the brain cancer that would kill him two and a quarter years later. 

I am 59 now, the age he was when he saw birds. Two months after my birthday last fall came the fourth anniversary of his death. 

And I still have the gift of our love, albeit in a different form. Whenever I notice something particularly beautiful–the colors of a vivid sunset, the sheen of a river-wet boulder, a bluebird with feathers as bright as these Colorado skies–I see again Richard's face-splitting smile. I sometimes hear his voice as if at the very edge of my range of perception, the words not quite close enough to distinguish, but the cadence and tone a comfort. 

I live with some of his work, and it never fails to give me both a jolt of recognition, a stab of grief, and a smile of pure joy when I run my fingers across the polished edge of a basin he carved, or explore the precise joint between curving steel and rock in a sculpture. His hands stroked here, I think to myself, just like this, as I wipe my eyes. 

"Prosthesis," steel and basalt

When I rest my head on my pillow at night, just as I drift off to sleep I can sometimes feel the cadence of Richard's heartbeat, as if my ear were on his chest once more. 

And his love lives on in Molly, who will turn 37 this Thursday. (Happy Birthday, Sweetie!)

Whenever I am feeling sorry for myself, I remember that I had the gift of Richard's love for the almost 29 years we were together in this life. And I have it still.

Life gives and life takes away; what endures is love. It asks only courage, honesty, and patience to live with our hearts open.

It's worth the risk. Every bloody bit.