Coming Home to the Garden

Richard and I left Marfa, Texas, last Thursday morning, bound for Las Cruces, New Mexico where I was scheduled to talk to a journalism class and teach an intensive writing workshop. As we drove across the grassy plains, we watched for aplomado falcons, boldly patterned, fast-flying hawks that once hunted birds and insects throughout the desert grasslands. Overgrazing and pesticide use nearly killed off these agile falcons in the American Southwest, but they’ve been reintroduced to the Chihuahuan Desert of West Texas where we were.

We saw loads of fall-tan grama grass, spine-ridged desert mountains, creosote bush with its sparse olive-green canopy, tall yuccas, some red-tailed hawks, one kestrel chasing a small bird very energetically but not very effectively, and a couple of roadrunners sunning. But no aplomado falcons.

Balloon
We did see this Border Patrol dirigible. Normally it floats high in the sky at
the end of its tether eying the U.S.-Mexico border. Only that day however, it was hauled close to the ground, looking
rather like some kind of enormous beached bathtub toy. (The building in front of the dirigible in the photo is the size of a mobile construction-site office to give you a sense of scale.) The dirigible is proof, if anyone needed it, that an armed border is a strange place.

We spent two days in Las Cruces, a city where we lived for seven years (or five books, as I measure time, since that’s how many I wrote there). Our brief visit included time enough for me to speak and teach, and for Richard to roam the campus of New Mexico State University and catch up with some of his former colleagues on the faculty. Also for us to eat some good green chile and see some of our friends. (Special thanks to Pam Porter, Ann Palormo and Las Cruces Press Women, and Barbara and Harold Harrison and their Scotty, Hallie.) Not time enough to see everyone we wanted, but we were on the homeward leg of our trip, and eager to be on our way.

Organs
Saturday morning we headed north on I-25, aiming to make it at least halfway home. As Richard drove, we called each other’s attention to familiar landmarks, including the narrow desert mountain ranges edging the wide Rio Grande Valley, beginning with the Organs, east of Las Cruces. (That’s the Organs above, from the Mesilla Valley Bosque State Park.) The Organs give way to the the San Andres, the Sierra Caballo, the Fra Cristobal range, and in the distance the Sierra Oscura and towering beyond that, Sierra Blanca, the highest peak in Southern New Mexico. There’s a poetic rhythm to these names, in part because they’re in Spanish, a language to which singing comes more easily.

Creosote 

(That’s creosote bush above, the shrub whose olive-green leaves tint this part of the Chihuahuan Desert. It’s not especially memorable until you look close and see those yellow flowers and the funny cotton-fuzz seeds, or you smell its spiced-tar and honey fragrance, which suffuses the desert after rains.)

South of Socorro, New Mexico, we dived off the interstate at the exit labeled San Marcial, which despite the name, is out in the open desert with no sign of town unless you look very hard. (The town, which once boasted a railroad roundhouse and a Fred Harvey hotel, was wiped out when the Rio Grande flooded in 1929 and never rebuilt.) It’s now the back road to the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, winter home to about 10,000 of the sandhill cranes that pass over our valley during their spring and fall migration, plus tens of thousands of snow geese and dozens of other species of birds and other wildlife.

Bosque
The Bosque itself was in full autumn color, painting the wide and winding band of gold and orange in the photo above. (By the way, the word is pronounced “BOHS-kay,” not “BAHS-key,” and it means woods, as in the tangle of native cottonwood and willow, plus invasive salt cedar and Russian olive that lines desert rivers and streams like the Rio Grande.) And there were sandhill cranes around, loafing near the refuge’s many ponds, feeding in nearby fields, flying past on wide wings, long necks outstretched and legs trailing, and calling in their resonant voices. (Those gray birds in the photo below, under the gorgeously golden cottonwood tree, are sandhill cranes.)

Cranes
After the stop at the Bosque, we sped north on I-25, stopping in Albuquerque to meet poet, writer, and botany junkie Sandra Lynn for a short and wonderful visit. We were too tired to drive all the way home, so we spent the night in Santa Fe. The next morning we stopped in Española to see Dale Doremus, a geologist who specializes in groundwater issues for the state of New Mexico. Dale and her partner, Bob, also cultivate an orchard of heritage fruit tree varieties, and she brought us a bag of their late apples, Arkansas Blacks. That’s Dale’s apples in the photo below, which does not do justice to black blush on their ruby-red coloring. These may be the most gorgeous apples I’ve ever seen, and they’re delicious too: spice and honey, like a winesap but crisper. (Thanks, Dale! We’ll be back for more….)

Apple
By the time we wound our way up the Rio Grande Gorge, through Taos, and north along the base of the Sangre de Cristos into the San Luis Valley, we were so tired, we were running on fumes. We had thought about stopping at Great Sand Dunes National Park, since our route took us right by the wave-like expanse of dunes. But we kept going, aimed for home. (We didn’t even stop to take a photo, as you can tell by the picture below, shot from on the road.)

Dunes

Today we woke in our own bed, with its view of the pinon-pine-and-juniper-studded ridges across the river. We snuggled and did yoga; we ate our usual breakfast and basked in the morning sun coming in the living room windows. We plowed through stacks of mail
and email, washed three loads of laundry, and Richard even started cleaning up the guest apartment after the latest batch of vacation renters. And when we pulled back the row covers from the kitchen garden we discovered that the fall planting of lettuce mix not only survived being buried under two feet of snow with nighttime temperatures dropping to 12 degrees while we were away, it was ready for thinning! Eating those crisp and tangy leaves for lunch was the best gift of coming home. (Thank you, Renee Shepherd of Renee’s Seeds, for the Monet’s Garden and Paris Market lettuce mixes!)

It’s not going to be a long stay: Wednesday afternoon we’ll drive over the mountains again for Richard’s appointment with Oncology. But we’re here now, and that feels good. We may not know what’s ahead–who really does?–but we know this: We’re lucky to live in a place we love, to have each other, and to feel the love and good wishes coming from our community of family and friends. Bless you all!

Traveling from Wildflowers to Shooting Stars

Richardoak
Richard and I are sitting in a tiny coffeehouse attached to what is surely the hippest laundromat in the world in Marfa, Texas, a small town that rises out of the West Texas plains like a mirage and disappears just as quickly if you drive through without stopping. Like most places though, there’s a lot to it if you stop and look. Marfa is a curious combination of dusty west Texas former ranching town built on a tidy rectangular street grid and bisected by a railroad that still carries trains, plus a former munitions depot from World War II since renovated to house minimalist sculpture by some famous names who were the darlings of the New York art world, plus the famous Marfa Lights, eerie lights that appear and disappear in the desert plains south of town on their own mysterious schedule.

This place is a world away from Austin, which we left in the rear-view mirror yesterday as the sun rose. No traffic, no spreading live oaks undergrown by a riot of greenery, no high-tech industry, no blue-green rivers coursing out of limestone hills. It does have sky, stars, open space, charming old houses, a cool old hotel, an elaborate courthouse visible from miles away, and some fabulous art. And great coffee, scones, and ice cream in Frama, the coffeehouse alcove attached to the Tumbleweed Laundromat.

Balcones
Our last few days in Austin included a drive out to the northern edge of the Hill Country to have brunch with mystery authors extraordinaire Susan and Bill Albert at Meadow Knoll, their lovingly restored patch of limestone ledge and oak savanna; a breakfast with Susan A and Theresa May, Editor-in-Chief at University of Texas Press, surely the smartest, funniest, and most creative editor I’ve ever worked with (that’s our trio below: Susan Albert, Theresa May, and me); and appearances at the Texas Book Festival with Susan A on Sunday followed by a wonderfully attentive audience for the final “Two Susans” conversation on writing about place, sponsored by Story Circle Network on Monday night.

Trio

Richard and I left Austin Tuesday morning as the sun was rising in order to get across the city before the rush hour traffic got crazy. As we drove south toward San Antonio and then west across the southern part of the Hill Country, I pondered travel and what I learn from seeing new landscapes and meeting new people. What came to mind was the quote Richard and I saw at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin:

My special cause, the one that alerts my interest and quickens the pace of my life is to preserve the wildflowers and native plants that define the regions of our land–to encourage and promote their use in appropriate areas, and thus help pass on to generations in waiting the quiet joys and satisfactions I have known since childhood.

That’s Lady Bird Johnson, talking about why she founded the Wildflower Center. The part that sticks in my mind is her fidelity to plants “that define the regions of our land”–she recognized that uniqueness of place is due in part to the uniqueness of the native inhabitants, human and more so. And she also recognized and wanted to pass on “the quiet joys and satisfactions” of knowing and celebrating one’s place through the native plants and wildflowers. Lady Bird’s rural Texas childhood gave her the joy of being rooted, and her years in the peripatetic world of politics taught her the value of being placed, of knowing the other species that shape the landscapes where we live, and the pain of being displaced. 

As we drove west on a two-lane highway through woodlands of spreading live oaks and bushy junipers, crossing the rivers colored blue-green by their limestone beds, I thought about how our tumbleweed culture can re-learn the joy and skill of being rooted, wherever we find ourselves. How many of us know even ten of the native species where we live, or can name the river that drains the spot we stand on, or the people who lived here before us; how many of us can pick out the constellations in the night sky over where we live? 

One person who can is the poet David Lee, and after years of gaining accolades and readers by writing poignantly wry and insightful narrative poetry in the voices of rural folk, poetry that had him compared to Mark Twain and brought him a nomination for the post of Poet Laureate of the US, he’s now writing closer his heart, penning elegies to the landscapes he loves, including his latest, So Quietly the Earth, on the slickrock landscapes of Utah.

Daveandjan

We stopped to visit Dave and his partner Jan at their place sheltered by oak trees above Bandera Creek. We talked about poetry and our kids and how to protect live oaks from oak wilt and how much rain they’ve received and Texas history and publishing and wildflowers before they took us to lunch at the OST Cafe, named for the Old Spanish Trail that once ran through the area, and yes, still full of Texas-style cowboys, spurs clinking and all. (That’s Dave and Jan above, and indeed, his t-shirt says “Living in Zin,” as in Zinfandel wine.) Dave and Jan may divide their time between Texas and the Oregon Coast, but they are rooted in the particulars of each place.

Heading on west across rolling limestone hills, I watched the live oaks gradually shrink until they were barely tall enough to be called trees, and the understory of grasses and wildflowers and shrubs change from those species that need moisture to those that know how to survive drought. The huge bald-cypress trees along the rivers changed to pecans at about Junction, where the flaming scarlet clumps of sumac we had been watching since west of San
Antonio were replaced by feathery mesquites.

In the Hill Country near Dave and Jan’s house, the butterflies were so numerous that we couldn’t avoid hitting them as we drove through their swarms,
resulting in a windshield smeared with opalescent streaks of iridescent scales over yellowish bodilyy fluids, surely some of the most gorgeous evidence of
roadkill ever. As we drove further west toward the massive buttes that tower over the Pecos River, the line between savanna and desert, those fluttering insects all but disappeared except for the occasional monarch taking its genes south for the winter. The live oaks vanished too, except along the washes, and the vegetation turned from savanna woodland to semi-desert shrubland, where trees retreat to the rare places boasting water.

The sun dived toward the horizon as we passed Fort Stockton. We exited the interstate headed for the blue-hazy peaks and buttes in the far distance. About half an hour later, the sun finally set, throwing rose and yellow rays across the whole western sky. The blaze of color persisted, becoming more intense and then contracting toward the horizon in a wide band of gold and then orange and finally bronze.

Sunset

Just past Alpine, as Jupiter and the first stars were appearing in the blue-black sky overhead and the western horizon was still colored by the last glow of sunset, a meteor streaked across right in front of us. It shone brilliant blue-white and passed right through that after-sunset glow, low to the horizon and trailing a sparkling orange and blue tail. Both meteor and tail seemed large and intimately close, probably due to the magnifying effect of atmospheric dust so close to the horizon.  

“Wow!” said Richard, his face stunned.

We held hands as we drove on and night descended, watching the black silhouettes of desert plants pass by out the car windows: the wand-like flower stalks of sotol, a tall lily with spiky leaves, the finely branched acacias, growing in the most contorted shapes, and the feathery bunches of Muhly grass. 

As we reached Marfa and our motel, the two-days-past full moon rose behind us, nearly round and butter yellow. The silhouette of the lunar hare was clearly visible, dancing with ears blown back by the cosmic winds.

I take that blazing conjunction of sunset, meteor, and then the rising full moon as a good omen, a reminder that no matter what happens in our personal lives and the world, we can always find beauty enough to feed our souls–if we take the time to look.

Seeing Spring in Autumn

There’s snow at home, an unexpected blanket nearly two feet thick dumped by an unusual fall storm. And here in the crazy autumn of central Texas, it feels to me like spring. The air is soft, moist, and warm, flowers bloom, and butterflies dance over prairies greened by rains that finally came last month after 20-some months of drought. In the face of these wild weather swings, “climate-boinga,” the term coined by writer, editor, blog-book-tour queen, and gardener Dani Greer to replace the somewhat-misleading term of “global warming” seems awfully apt.

Monarch

(That’s a migrating monarch butterfly tanking up on nectar at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Research Center in Austin.)

Since arriving in Austin on Tuesday, I’ve plunged into the world of book promotion, doing several appearances with my friend and fellow writer, Susan Albert, whose memoir, Together, Alone, came out from University of Texas Press this year, as did my own Walking Nature Home. Best known for her China Bayles mystery series, Susan is well-read, thoughtful, and just a pleasure to work with. Our programs take the form of public conversations: each of us reads a bit from our respective memoirs, and then we talk over that passage, teasing out what it says about our writing, our journeys, and our lives. We’re learning as much as our audience.

If you’re in the Austin area and want to catch our evolving dialog, Susan A and I will present one more conversation, Story Circle Network at the First United Methodist Church, 1201 Lavaca Street in Austin, on Monday, November 2nd at 7:00 p.m. (We’re also both signing books at the University of Texas Press tent at the Texas Book Festival on Sunday, Nov. 1 from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.) Join us if you can!

Littlesunflower

Richard and I made time one afternoon to go to one of my favorite Austin-area places, the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Research Center. Walking the trails through the native blackland prairie, we were amazed by the abundance of wildflowers: Maximillian sunflowers in tall clumps, tickseed in drifts of gold around islands of spreading oak and juniper, flecks of pink and blue marking tiny blossoms I couldn’t identify, a prostrate milkweed blooming in extravagant balls, the pointed buds of wild onion ready to burst into starry bloom. (That’s tickseed above, and milkweed, with one wild onion, below.)

Milkweed

Today, we strolled Austin’s West Sixth Arts District, poking into galleries to look at sculptural art, and sharing our delight in the details of the area’s lovingly tended historic houses, like this house named for its beautiful veranda (that’s a porch for we ignorant northerners!) and the tall windows with real shutters for use in real storms.

Verandahouse

Tomorrow is Samhain, the day in the Celtic calendar that marks the changing of the year between the
light months when all the world (at least here in the Northern Hemisphere) goes mad with growth and reproduction, and the dark months when life takes a break and slows down for winter. (Most of us know tomorrow as Halloween, a time to dress in costume and beg for treats, or the day before Dia del Muerto, when we tend to the spirits of our dead.) It seems odd to be celebrating this transitional time, the holidays that mark the end of summer, here where a spring of sorts has just blossomed.

Sumac
 
Or perhaps it’s not so odd. Life feels topsy-turvy in many ways, whether in the global sense as climate change causes wild swings in the planet’s weather, or the personal sense with perennially healthy Richard’s brain cancer diagnosis. So as we celebrate the turning of the year in the Celtic calendar, the change from the light time of year to the dark time, it occurs to me that the year is not so simple. It’s not just light and dark, summer and winter; nor is our existence as simple as life and death.

Life’s a cycle, and the part of the year when snow blankets the landscape and the days grow short is just as vital as the fertile time of longer days and wild growth. When the year goes quiet, life rests, recharges, and prepares for the next turning of the season. Once our lives were guided by that natural cycle of the year, and the rhythms of our days gave us a more generous kind of slowing down in winter. Now we press ourselves to go faster and do more, regardless of the season. It may be time to reclaim that hush, the unhurried pace, the breathing space that once came with the dark time of year. It may be that slowing down could yield the wisdom we need to walk forward into whatever lies ahead.

Snow to Desert: Beauty and Joy Along the Way

Yesterday we drove from winter to fall. It was snowing over the peaks when Richard and I left home, so our first stop was to soak in one of our favorite hot springs, Joyful Journey, over Poncha Pass in the northern end of the San Luis Valley. (One of the good things about living along one of North America’s two rift zones–fault lines that split the continent’s crust–is that those same faults provide a way for groundwater to penetrate deep in the crust, where it is heated naturally and rises to the surface as hot springs. Rift zones also bring the potential for major earthquakes–think the San Andres in California–but the faults that dropped our valley floor some 7,000 feet elevation below the neighboring peaks haven’t been active in eons.)

Sangres
As we left the hot springs, I shot the photo above of the mountains visible from the outdoor pools where we soaked in 107 degree F water: the peaks of the northern Sangre de Cristo Range. The one farthest left is Hunts Peak, a Fourteener, and part of the view from our house on the other side of those mountains.

Antonio
The snow showers continued on and off as we drove south down the valley. We spotted lots of hawks hunched on utility poles waiting for the weather to clear, not a single sandhill crane (no doubt they all migrated south before the latest storm), and one beautiful golden eagle that made all of the hawks look very small. As we passed Sierra San Antonio (St. Anthony’s Mountain), the volcanic dome that marks the southern edge of the San Luis Valley and our part of the Rockies, we could see sun off in the distance over the high desert in New Mexico. 

Cottonwood
And indeed, by the time we wound down the Rio Grande Gorge between Taos and Santa Fe, stopping to visit Richard’s friend, sculptor Mark Saxe, at his Rift Gallery in Rinconada, the snow was gone and we were back in fall. The cottonwoods that have already lost their leaves in our part of the world were just turning gold there. We missed much of the color season this year while Richard was in the hospital in Denver, so it was a treat to go south and see the season unfold again.

We stopped in Santa Fe to eat at the Plaza Cafe for dinner, as a nod to a trip Richard made on this same route 41 years ago as an 18-year-old heading back to Texas to go to college. On that long drive from Salida, he stopped for dinner late one night in Santa Fe and ate at the Plaza before driving on Clines Corners, New Mexico, where he pulled off the road to sleep in his 1950 Ford truck. 

Sunset
Last night as we drove south out of Santa Fe on the same route Richard took all those decades ago, we watched the sun set over Mt. Taylor, a hundred miles west on the distant horizon. It went down in a ball of golden fire, and the orange glow lingered in the west. Long enough to still be visible by the time we and the highway climbed up onto the high plains east of Albuquerque and into a hellacious east wind blowing sleet and wisps of fog across the pavement in the dark. Not pleasant weather for driving.

Pecos
This morning we woke to sun peeking through a curd-like layer of rain clouds. We followed a meandering two-lane road down the Pecos River (that’s the Pecos above, winding its way along below red bluffs) thinking to take a scenic route part of the way to Roswell. The route was indeed scenic, but this is New Mexico, so it exactly didn’t go where the map indicated.

Puertodeluna
It did take us to past this sweet old Catholic church in the tiny town of Puerto de Luna (Door of the Moon), but we had to retrace our route to Santa Rosa and get back on Highway 285, which took us south and east over the high plains under a dappled layer of mackeral clouds that played hide and seek with the light in the most entrancing ways.

Plains
By afternoon we had dropped off the grassy plains and into the Chihuahuan Desert, a land of shrubs, grasses, cacti, and wildflowers that display incredible creativity in the genre of “how to stay alive for months and months while waiting for rain.” It’s a subtle and outrageously expansive landscape, one best appreciated on a day like today after a good rain when the desert soil is dotted with rare puddles, the moss that is invisible for 350 days a year appears green and
lush in an ephemeral seemingly miraculous revival before the soil dries out again. On a day like today after a rare rain, desert wildflowers bloom, even in late October.

Wildflower
We stopped to enjoy it at Living Desert Zoo and Gardens State Park outside Carlsbad. (Don’t be put off by the name. It’s not a roadside zoo.) This lovely spot atop a steep butte showcases the different ecosystems of the Chihuahuan Desert on a trail through sandhills, gypsum buttes with gorgeous layers of glassy crystals, oak woodlands, and other desert habitats. And it provides a safe refuge for Chihuahuan desert fauna who cannot be returned to the wild, like the one-legged burrowing owl, the golden eagle with the broken wing, and the Mexican gray wolves. 

From Carlsbad, we hit the road in earnest and drove steadily southeast across the desert on Highway 285, through Loving, Pecos, and Fort Stockton, where we turned east again, passing by row after row of mesa-top wind turbines that comprise the world’s largest wind farm. (Those turbines don’t look big, but they’re each the height of a 15-story building, standing atop the lonely mesas of west Texas where no buildings rise at all.)

Turbines
We watched the sun set in a Dreamsicle orange glow in our rear view mirror over the limestone buttes of the Pecos River in west Texas several hundred miles south of where we crossed it at Puerto de Luna this morning, and made it to Sonora in the west edge of the Hill Country just before dark.

If you’re wondering what deep meaning I’m going to pull out of these highlights of nearly 900 miles and two days of road trip, from the southern Rocky Mountains in Colorado to the east edge of the Chihuahuan Desert in west Texas, it’s just this: Life is full of beauty and joy, even now when Richard and I live in the shadow of brain cancer. But you only see the beauty and joy if you look.

Richard
And there’s Richard, looking.

The Blessing of Snow and News

When Richard and I left home on Monday before dawn, the temperature was 48 degrees F, unusually warm for late October in southern Colorado’s high country. In Denver, the dress was shorts and sandals and the day’s high was 80 degrees. Two days later, we woke to snow and pulled on jackets and scarves before droving home in a storm that muffled the peaks in cloud and dusted the mountainsides with white.

Snowyforest
The landscape was still and muted, reduced almost to shades of gray. Even South Park (not the TV show, the real thing, a 50-mile-wide bowl of windy grasslands averaging nearly two miles above sea level and surrounded by higher peaks), was calm–hence the mirror-like reflection in this pond just outside Fairplay.

Fairplaypond
Unlike most storms this year, this one came out of the southwest, so our part of the state, which has been gripped by drought while the northern part of the state has nearly drowned, finally received some moisture. Snow was falling steadily when we got home, with several soggy inches of white stuff on the ground. Richard built a fire in the woodstove while I unpacked the car. The snow fell like white rain as we relaxed over tortilla chips and beer, as we ate leftover Indian food for dinner, and as we headed to bed. We fell asleep to the “whump!” of snow sliding in wet avalanches off the metal roof.

Chard
We woke this morning to fog and a wet, white blanket covering our garden and yard. (That’s a chard leaf above peaking out of the snow in the kitchen garden.) As the sun gradually broke the fog open, the mountainsides above town began to show through, the forest iced white. Soon, the gutters sang and chuckled with melt water.

Morningsnow
Moisture isn’t a permanent resident here in the high desert. It’s a rare and ephemeral event, a gift from wetter climates that sweeps in and doesn’t stay long. This storm brought us that blessing in the form of snow.

And this morning brought Richard’s pathology report, which doesn’t seem like a blessing at all: The tumor removed from his brain almost two weeks ago was a Grade 3 Astrocytoma, which in plain English means he has brain cancer. Brain tumors are given grades from 1 to 4. One is benign, 4 is seriously bad news. Grade 3 in this particular type of tumor, an abnormal growth of the star-shaped support cells that surround the neurons, means he’s likely to be treated with an intensive program of radiation and chemotherapy. We’ll know more about that after his November 12 appointment with Oncology.

Fog
On the plus side, he feels good. His quarterly cystoscopy on Wednesday was all clear, and this brain tumor isn’t related to that bladder cancer. His wonderful neurology doc (Thank you, Brooke Allen!) encouraged us to take a break and go on with our plans to head out for Texas this weekend. She also said the treatment shouldn’t prevent us from going to Baja California at the holidays, a trip we’ve dreamed of for a long time. (Which reminds me: I’ve still got a few spaces for Writing Adventure: Baja including five days on magical Isla Espirtu Santo off La Paz. Let me know if you want to go.)

As we digest this news, one thing is clear: We’re still blessed with each other, with the life we’ve built and we’re living right now, and with the love and support of family and friends. Thank you.

Taking a Break from the Kingdom of the Sick

There’s still no news on Richard’s pathology report. His slides are on the desk of a top neuropathologist, and she’s out of the country at a professional meeting until next week. Richard and I are pretty tired of living in what Susan Sontag called “the kingdom of the sick,” so after we get home from Denver, where we are now for three days of follow-up tests and consults, we’re taking off on a road trip to Texas and New Mexico.

SusanWittigAlbert
While we’re there, I’ll be doing several appearances with an author I admire: Susan Wittig Albert, creator of the China Bayles herbal mystery series, as well as the Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter mystery series, plus others co-authored with her husband, Bill Albert. Susan is also the founder of Story Circle Network, an organization devoted to nurturing the voices of women writing about their lives. She’s former English professor and university administrator, and a voracious researcher. She’s also the author of a new memoir, Together, Alone, published by University of Texas Press, hence our “two Susans tour,” where we’ll read from and talk about our memoirs, both of which look at place and our relationship to it, as well as at making space for ourselves in our lives. So here to break us out of the kingdom of the sick is Susan Albert, talking about her memoir and the decisions she made in telling the story.

Q: You open Together, Alone by describing the late April day when you and Bill parked Amazing Grace, the tiny RV you had spent the past seven months living in, on a hilltop at the edge-of-Texas-Hill-Country land you now call Meadow Knoll. After an afternoon of walking the creek and sitting by the lake, you write that the two of you return to Amazing Grace, where you heat a pot of soup on the propane stove and make sandwiches, and then take your food outdoors to eat while watching the sunset. Much later, still awake as Bill sleeps and watching the black sky through the camper window, you watch “a star fall like a blazing gift. We didn’t know it yet, but we had come home.” Why begin there, and not at some other point in the story?

Susan A: As you know, life stories often don’t have a “natural” beginning–it’s up to the memoirist to choose the opening that fits the story best. But stories can take so many different shapes, go in so many different directions, and it’s hard to decide just where to start.

In this case, the beginning (as did the ending) emerged after I had been writing for a bit and more of the focus of the story began to emerge. Then it became clear that Amazing Grace (nomad that she was) was an important aspect of myself (nomad that I had been, to that point in my life). So I went back to my journal, found my entries for the weekend that we decided to commit ourselves for the foreseeable future to Meadow Knoll, and used those as a starting point. Coming to a stop, as it were. Parking that RV and leaving our nomad, wandering ways to settle down, to root ourselves, to find a home, to come home.

Q: When you say, “We didn’t know it yet,” you (the narrator) switch from being immersed in the present of that day more than two decades ago, to the you now, a different person in many ways. Was it hard to call up what Zen Buddhists sometimes call “beginner’s mind,” and remember what you didn’t know then but you do now? It seems to me that being able to remember you as you once were is critical to writing memoir, and being able to switch back and forth fluidly  helps create the dramatic tension that memoir requires. Is that a switch you made consciously, or does it come without thought, polished by your practice of writing novels and switching from narrator to character and back again without tripping the reader in the process?

Susan A: Memoir is a wonderfully open form that allows us to move from points in the past into the present and back again–as well as from one voice (the naive narrator/storyteller, embedded in the story time) to another voice (the knowing commentator, the one who reflects on the story). This play with time and voice can lend memoir a richly ironic tension.

But it also imposes an especially difficult discipline on the writer: the responsibility to return as fully as possible to the remembered moment that she wants to write about, and report it faithfully, even though that moment is gone, buried by layers of subsequent experience, feeling, reinterpretation. How can the memoirist become that naïve narrator when she has already gone through the experience, forgotten so much–now, perhaps, knows too much?

I was incredibly fortunate, because those years of my life were so deeply documented. I was journaling like a madwoman, situating myself in a new life, in new commitments to marriage and place, unmoored from my nomadic, uncommitted past. And in those journal entries, my “beginner’s mind” was right there on the page, in front of me: myself, in all my clumsy naïveté, with so many lessons ahead of me. I don’t know whether it was my experience of novel form/practice that helped, or whether it was the availability of such rich primary material. But there it was. I loved working with it.

Together
Q: You’ve said before–on your blog as well as in other contexts–that you love research and immersing yourself in the details of a story. That comes across in Together, Alone especially in the early chapters telling the history of Meadow Knoll: you picture the geology of the area, where it fits in its bioregion, the inhabitants you know only as fossils, and you conjure up the people who have lived their before you and Bill. That ability to dig up beneath the surface and tell the story of a place also comes across in the chapters from Lebh Shomea, the retreat center where you go for time away. It seemed to me as if you are painting a portrait of yourself using what visual artists call the “negative space,” the area around you, or in this case the places you chose to live in and love. Were you thinking of it in those terms as you wrote? Is this a device you’ve used in your novels?

Susan A: “Negative space.” I like that! It’s a rich idea, and I’m pleased that it came to you as you read.

But what was in my mind was more basic than that. I am a creature of place, and the place that shapes me exists in a te
mporal continuum, within an evolving history. That’s why the idea of nomads–a motif that ties together the two places in the book–is so important to me. The residents of my place (plants, animals, people, from pre-history to the present) are all a part of my own story, whether I meet them as fossils or find their relics (an iron wagon wheel–that nomadic symbol of westward expansion) or meet them face to face. We are all (plants, animals, people) searching for a place to anchor ourselves within the flux of time and change. We can’t know who we are until we know the place where we are, whether we’ve chosen that place deliberately or simply find ourselves in it by accident.

And of course, setting (that’s what place is about, isn’t it?) is an important element in every novel. But I do try to foreground setting, and the books of mine that I like best include a great deal of setting material: the history novels I’ve written with Bill (as Robin Paige), and in some of the China Bayles novels: Bloodroot and Wormwood. These are books about people who are shaped by the places they live and the times they’ve lived through.

Q: Together, Alone is a book of two places, Meadow Knoll, where you live with Bill, and Lebh Shomea, where you retreat to be alone. That structure and that dichotomy are very much a reflection of your marriage, which you describe by saying that although you and Bill live and work in close quarters, you are still “alone, individual, not a both but an each.” It seems to me that dichotomy also describes you as an individual, and perhaps all of us, as we try to find a balance between the seemingly opposing desires to be part of a pair and at the same time to find space alone to maintain our individuality. In writing the book, was it hard to weave those two parts–the two places, the concept of marriage as a union of “eaches,” and the two Susans–into a coherent and compelling whole?

Susan A: Yes, it was blasted hard! At one point, I thought: this is really two books–why am I trying to pull all this together into one? But I finally recognized that this duality/dichotomy was the crux of the issue: that I want to be in a place with Bill and I also want to be in another place where he is not. This is the trick of our marriage, and the trick of the book. It’s not easy to live within this dichotomy, and it wasn’t easy to create a narrative structure that embraces both of the parts. Finally, I had to rely on the continuity of the voice as a bridge between the two places. I’m present in both places. I hope that’s a strong enough force to hold the two halves together.

Q: I’m struck by where you end the book: Back at home in Meadow Knoll, at the end of an extended retreat to Lebh Shomea. After a walk around the place, you describe a literal and metaphorical coming back to where you began the story, down to the details of the meal and your view of the night sky from the window over your bed (even though it’s a different window now): “And later, after soup and sandwiches and a quiet evening, lying in bed with the window open and the room flooded with the moon’s silver brightness, I hear a coyote singing, her coyote self filled with the infinity of night and stars, at home in the wholeness, loving the loveliness of the world, in place and free.” Did you plan the arc of the story this way, or did it just come around in a circle on its own?

Susan A: The ending came on its own, through the force of the story. (And I have to say this, as a writer: when this happens, I’m delighted. I love to sit there and let the story find itself.) There’s an earlier chapter that describes the ancient European tradition of “beating the bounds”–walking around the place where you live, marking its boundaries, re-placing the self in a changing and often conflicted world. The ending grew out of that chapter and is true to the many times that I have come home and felt compelled to walk around the place before I did anything else. But as I wrote it (or watched and listened as the last paragraphs wrote themselves) I remembered the place where I had opened the story: the walk to the lake, the simple meal, lying awake in Amazing Grace. As an arc of understanding, it felt right to me. It felt complete, a kind of peace.

*******

Homecover
If you’re in the Austin and San Marcos area, join Susan and me in our Women & Place: Two Voices, Two Perspectives tour next week. Here are dates:

  • 10/28  Texas State University-San Marcos, Allkek Library, 3:30 – 5:00 p.m. Reading and book signing
  • 11/01  Texas Book Festival, University of Texas Press booth, Austin, 11:30 – 12:30 p.m. Book signing
  • 11/02  Be Our Guest Event, Garrison Chapel, First United Methodist Church, 1201 Lavaca Street, Austin, 7:00 – 9:00 p.m., Reading and book signing sponsored by Story Circle Network

Waiting As Practice

We’re home, which is a good thing when you’re trying to absorb more life lessons than anyone can really assimilate over what seems like eternity but has really only been a bit over six weeks. Last Friday, Richard was in the operating room and then the ICU, today he’s in our living room. (That’s my beloved Frankenstein below–Doesn’t he look like a thoughtful and elegant version of Mary Shelley’s monster?) The journey home over three mountain passes, all over 10,000 feet in elevation was hard on his head and his energy. But being home is definitely good for his spirit, and today, he’s feeling stronger.

FrankenRich
And we’re waiting for news on his tumor. We still haven’t heard the pathology results, which of course, we hope will be summed up in one simple and powerful word: benign. Waiting is hard, especially for something like this. There’s also a grace to it. Waiting forces a sort of suspension of time and of the oh-so-determined purposefulness we often think life requires. It’s a pause in our drive and busyness, a hush in our chatter, a time in which we can listen within to the softer, quieter voice that often speaks for our true self, the self unencumbered by shoulds and woulds and what-ifs. When we engage in the waiting mindfully and don’t push it aside, waiting allows us the opportunity to just be. To breathe, literally and metaphorically. To practice life pared to the basics. To perceive what we hear and feel and are, without filters.

I’m also practicing another kind of waiting, along with all of the other lives inhabiting this unique sentient planet: We’re collectively waiting, whether we realize it or not, for the changes global climate change is bringing. I like to think of this as active waiting, a time when after stilling ourselves and honoring our fears and our feelings of being overwhelmed by a global trend of such magnitude and gravity, we take responsibility for our contribution to the problem. And then we do what we can to change the way we live. 

Gardenharvest
So in honor of Blog Action Day, where thousands of bloggers around the world are writing about global climate change, I offer this list in no particular order of the things Richard and I are doing to reduce our carbon footprint and to more generously share this beautiful blue planet with all of our fellow travelers in all sizes, shapes, colors, and species:

  • Walking more, driving less.
  • Washing our laundry in cold water and hanging it outside on a clothesline to dry (the bonus is that beautiful fresh smell).
  • Installing a solar power plant (photovoltaic modules) on our roof to generate electricity. (Does anyone have a “solar-powered blog” tag? I’m writing this post with solar power.)
  • Eating locally and organically as much as possible, including growing much of our food in our own kitchen garden. (That’s some of our garden produce above, harvested last week.) 
  • Darning the holes in our socks instead of throwing the socks “away,” as part of our aim to reuse as much as possible and recycle the rest.
  • Composting our garden waste (which then renews the soil that grows our food).
  • Heating our house primarily with the sun, supplementing with local wood burned in our woodstove.
  • Saving water: In some parts of the perennially water-starved American West, moving water from rivers and reservoirs to faucets (and treating and cleaning it after use) consumes as much as 40 percent of the electricity used in a particular area.
  • Restoring habitat for wild life in our own yard, in an effort to re-weave the frayed bonds forming the natural communities where we live. (Richard reminds me that we’ve seen unusual numbers of crows and grackles over the past few days–the grackles have been eating grasshoppers from the garden. I like that!)

Patience has never been one of my virtues. But as I practice waiting and listening and living a sustainable life, I’m amused to see that for some things, the things that matter, I can actually be patient. For a while, at least. Right now though, I’m going to do some active waiting and make lunch from the garden.

Purple Tumors and Marbles

Room 4, Surgery ICU, VA Hospital, Denver. It’s official: Richard is missing a marble. Or at least a marble-sized tumor. This afternoon, his neurosurgery team removed a purple tumor the size of a large marble from the right temporal lobe of his brain. (Thank you, Dr. Brega and Dr. Ho, for your skill and care.) Dr. Brega was very pleased that they were able to remove the whole thing, it stayed intact as they removed it, and that the tumor was small and well-defined. (“Marble-sized is small?” I asked. “It could have been much larger,” she replied. I’m glad I didn’t know that beforehand.)

Marble
“I feel like I’ve been run over by a truck,” he said when I arrived in his room. That’s not surprising. He’s got a sinuous incision shaped like a large question mark running along the upper right side of his skull and curving down in front of his right ear, held together with shiny stainless-steel staples. They cut through his skin, the temporal muscle (one of the ones you use when chewing), his skull (I’m alluded to my experience with the thickness of said bone structure in a previous post), the membrane covering his brain, and into his temporal lobe. He’s attached by a plethora of wires, cords, and tubes to various blinking and beeping monitors and bags. No wonder he doesn’t feel so hot.

But he’s with us. He can move all of his limbs, talk, and he passes the basic neurological tests. I have faith that he’ll recover—although it may take a while. His brain tissue is feeling a bit tortured, his membrane needs to seal up again, his skull has to grow a callus around the titanium plate and screws, his temporal muscle needs to knit together, and the red ridge of that question-mark-shaped incision needs time to subside to pink calligraphy decorating his elegantly shaped skull. But he will heal.

Install
My mind keeps getting stuck on the coincidence of a tumor that is purple and the size of a large marble. The last big–by which I mean landscape-size–sculpture Richard finished this year is studded with small, round colored globes of glass. Yes, marbles. (The sculpture, shown above as he was installing it in an outdoor show, uses three “repurposed” historic building stones. The lower two are attached by hinges that appear to open as if a book; the third is balanced atop those two at an angle. That’s the stone with the marbles. The sculpture, by the way, is called “Matriculation,” and it’s on display at Salida’s SteamPlant Sculpture Park. That’s a detail of Matriculation at the beginning of this post, plus another shot below.)

Purple tumors and marbles–what strange paths life takes us on!

Matriculation2
Blessings and many, many thanks to all of you for your support. Know that I’m thinking of you, even if I’m not responding individually. My focus right now is on the guy who now is missing a marble–one we won’t go looking for anytime soon.

Brains, Heart, and Tomatoes

I’m posting this from the Denver VA Hospital, Ward 4 South, where Richard is spending the next few days. He’s scheduled for brain surgery early Friday morning. His neurosurgery team plans to drill into his skull in order to remove some tissue from the area of his right frontal lobe where they suspect a tumor is growing. If the attending pathologist determines that the tissue sample is indeed tumor, they will remove as much of it as possible right then before patching him up. With luck, they’ll only find the scar from the infection that apparently caused the traumatic swelling in that lobe of his brain (hence the birds and other hallucinations, and his disorienting few days of not recognizing faces). Assuming all goes well and Richard recovers quickly–and there’s no reason to think he won’t, since he’s feeling strong and healthy and clearer than he has in weeks–they’ll spring him on Monday and send us home to resume our lives.

Fall

(Fall colors near home.)

We can’t know what will happen on Friday, but I have a feeling that we’re close to closing this scary chapter in our lives. And I want to thank the Denver VA Medical Center, Richard’s neurology docs and medical students, and his neurosurgery team, plus all of the other healthcare professionals who have been involved in his treatment. Without exception, everyone at the VA Medical Center has treated us with courtesy, kindness, and thoughtfulness. They have gone out of their way to provide skilled, knowledgeable, and compassionate care. This is real healthcare, with emphasis on the “care.” And yes, it is run by our government, without rationing or death panels, thank you very much. But enough of that.

Here’s the scene in Richard’s room: He is seated on his hospital bed, cross-legged, reading a scientific paper on the influence of nature on our behavior. (Turns out that time spent observing nature tends us toward being community-minded and generous. Why am I not surprised?) He’s wearing institutional green hospital pajamas, and with his beautifully shaved skull, wire-framed reading glasses, and crossed legs, he looks a bit like Ghandi. I’m in a chair next to the bed with my feet up on the mattress and my computer in my lap. The guy in the next bed has his TV tuned to some tele-evangelist, but we’ve woven a peaceful space around us, so we’re immune to the rant. The weather outside is fall-pretending-to-be-winter cold, with low clouds that can’t decide whether to spit rain or snow.

It’s positively cozy in our cocoon, something most of us don’t usually associate with time spent in a hospital surgical ward, and our ability to make a peaceful space supports my sense that no matter how challenging the situation, we can significantly impact on our experience of it by how we respond.

Tomatoes

(Tomatoes from our garden–Romas in the center)

The cozy feeling reminds me of last weekend, during our precious few days at home between trips to the VA. One evening I decided to cook up some of the summer’s crop of Roma tomatoes for the freezer. I also had some leftover red wine and some fresh basil leaves that needed using, so I combined them. The house filled with the smells of sauteing garlic and onion, sweetly simmering tomatoes, and basil, the best of comfort foods in a trying time. Here’s the recipe:

Tomatoes Get Stewed With Red Wine

6 pounds ripe Roma or other cooking tomatoes
2 T olive oil
5 cloves garlic
½ sweet onion
⅓ bottle leftover red wine
1 tsp salt
½ cup fresh basil leaves

Chop tomatoes into about one-inch chunks. (I slice Romas crosswise in thick rounds and then cut the rounds into wedges.) Mince garlic in a food processor and then add onion and pulse until finely chopped. Heat olive oil in a four-quart or larger pan, add garlic and onion and sauté until onion is clear. Add chopped tomatoes and heat gently until simmering. Add red wine and simmer half an hour, then add salt and snip basil leaves into long strips, dropping directly into simmering sauce (I use sharp kitchen scissors for this.) simmer for another five minutes, and then cool.

Use as a pasta sauce, as a base for oven-baking chicken, pork, or fish, or a base for soups–it’s especially good for making lentil soup. Keeps for a year or more if frozen in quart containers.  (Makes about 3 quarts, depending on how fleshy the tomatoes are.)

Tomorrow Richard goes in for brain surgery, something I never would have imagined for him. Today I’m weaving a cocoon of love and tenderness around him, and repeating the prayer that’s been in my mind these past five weeks:

May Richard be healthy.

May Richard be whole.
May Richard be happy.

As I write this out, my heart nudges me to expand that prayer. So here are two more lines:

May we all be healthy, whole, and happy.

May the wonder of this miraculous living Earth touch every single one of us–walking, crawling, flying, swimming, rooted; whatever color, creed, gender, race, culture.

May we all be blessed.

What’s With All These Lemons?

It was a classic Indian summer day when Richard and I headed into
the VA Medical Center in Denver this morning, cool air and warm sun,
with white streaks of snow marking the peaks of the Front Range
floating above the city skyline. We were feeling good, so we climbed
the stairs to the Sixth Floor instead of taking the elevators. After
Richard checked in, we took our seats in the crowded waiting room and
did our best to ignore the bleating television. (Why do healthcare
facilities have televisions in their waiting rooms? Surely everyone
knows daytime TV is bad for your blood pressure, if not your general
health!) We hadn’t been there even ten minutes when Dr. Allen, who
leads Richard’s neurology team, came out herself to get us. She gave us
each a hug and then led us past the crowded examination rooms to her
office. After going through the preliminaries and asking Richard about
his symptoms and how he’s feeling, she got down to brass tacks and
began showing us the images from yesterday morning’s MRI.

Lemons

It was like looking at abstract art dominated by elegant curvilinear shapes. Some
of the shots were vertical slices through his brain, showing his spine
and the lovely winding channels leading from his ears, others were
horizontal views with his eye sockets in front and the gorgeous arc of
his skull shaping the back of his head. To me, the architecture of the
human skull is beautiful, and the brain as well, with its complex,
symmetric in-folding creases which themselves branch into smaller
creases and those creases into ever-smaller creases, and so on in a
pinnately compound design that reminds me of plant veins. I look at the
images of his brain and it reminds me of his art: at once familiar and
mysterious, wordless forms that evoke the Earth he loves.

The news was not so beautiful. First, the better stuff: His symptoms
have mostly subsided. (I say “mostly” because he still has some visual
abnormalities including a fascinating tendency to be very sensitive to
reddish colors and shades.) All of the tests they’ve done on his spinal
fluid and blood have come back negative. (Except for the test for
antibodies to herpes virus, which was off-the-charts positive. Hence
the anti-viral drugs they’ve been and will continue treating him with.)
He’s outrageously healthy overall, and his kidneys are functioning
normally despite the heavy doses of anti-virals.

The less-good news: A vaguely circular shape has appeared in his
right temporal lobe (the site of the intense swelling his team has been
so concerned about, and the area that processes visual stimuli). In the
MRI images, it’s flat white against all that sparkly gray matter of
healthy brain tissue, and it suggests a tumor. Tumors in the brain are
not good news. The ghostly shape did not show up at all in the MRI of
three weeks ago. Richard’s neuro team is calling in various experts to
look at the images, including the authority on viruses of the brain,
plus a neurosurgeon and a neuro-oncologist.

In order to see what’s happening, they’ve  scheduled him for another
MRI in three weeks, followed by a neuro consult. They are also
scheduling him for a biopsy. (Right now my mind refuses to consider
what they have to do to remove a bit of his brain tissue to test, but I
do know you have to get through his skull, something that has proven
very difficult my decades of trying.) We’ll hear more news in the next
few days as more experts weigh in. 

Richardhappy

In the best case, this ghostly circular mass simply goes away. Next
best, it’s a tumor but it’s benign. Next not-so-best, it’s a very
slow-growing cancer that can be treated by chemotherapy, no picnic in
itself, but better than brain surgery or the other alternative, which I
am not even going to name.

So we’ve had a truckload-of-lemons day. We left Neurology almost two
hours after we arrived, and walked down all six flights of stairs, just
in case we needed any karmic points. When we came out of the Medical
Center, I was surprised to see it was still a gorgeous day: warm sun,
cool air, street trees beginning to turn lemon yellow and burnt orange and gold and even a few in scarlet here and there. We took a picnic lunch to a bench in Cheesman Park where
we could see the distant ridges of the Front Range and watched the
view, and the people out running and sunning and biking and walking
their dogs…. Life cycles on whatever the news, whatever the weather,
whatever you’re feeling.

This I know: I love this guy, ghostly circular form in his frontal
lobe or no. And he loves me. So I’m going to keep making him picnic
lunches, holding his hand, holding him in my heart, whatever comes.
It’s just that simple. Onward we walk, hand in hand, heart to heart,
mindful that life offers no guarantees. But it sure beats the
alternative.

Hands

******

Coming Attractions: Later this week I’m taking a break from this
particular personal drama to interview Wyoming writer Diana Allen
Kouris about her memoir, Riding the Edge of An Era.
Tune in for a talk with a writer who tells an engrossing, funny, and
ultimately tragic story of growing up cowboy and the home she can never
return to. In an era when so many of us are wanderers, Kouris’ life is
rooted in place and she does a memorable and moving job of evoking the
sounds, smells, and stories of that place.