Brain Recovery and Birthday Presents

It’s been a rocky week, but Richard and I are settling into a work and life routine that accommodates his thrice-daily infusions and my new role as she-who-administers-the-IV. I can’t say coming home was as easy as we’d hoped it would be, or that I’ve fully found my writing rhythm. I have managed to write two newspaper columns, and to think about the research I need to do for an article on home solar power systems I’ve been assigned by Audubon Magazine.

Richard’s almost back to his usual self–certainly more than 98 percent–but that last bit involves some subtle and complex brain functions that I’m not sure anyone but me would notice. The biggest change I see is in his equilibrium. He’s always been someone whose mental and emotional steadiness and balance I have leaned on and learned from. (In my experience, most people who are as smart and intellectual as he is aren’t usually so well grounded.) Now his metaphorical balance isn’t always so good.

Some days things go smoothly, some days they don’t. He has no problem walking, talking, recognizing faces, balancing a checkbook, or paddling a kayak (about which more in a moment). But sometimes it seems like too much information stalls him. It’s not like he sits there drooling, just like the little things going wrong accumulate until nothing goes right. That’s frustrating to him, and if I don’t stay mindful, frustrating to me too. So I’m working on my patience–never one of my strongest talents, but I love the guy, and that helps!


Yesterday was a good day, in part because it was my birthday and Richard was determined to celebrate. He was my main present–having him home and recovering is really all I need. But he had also bought me a beautiful bunch of fragrant oriental lilies several days before. (That’s a close-up above: for lily fans, that’s Stargazer on the lower left, with La Claridad above it.) And Molly, back home now in San Francisco, sent a beautiful fall bouquet including goldenrod, delphiniums and ruby-red miniature chrysanthemums. (Thank you, sweetie! You’re in our hearts–always.) First thing after breakfast, Richard put our spiffy new inflatable tandem kayak in the back of the Subaru, and reminded me that we were going to take it out for its inaugural paddle after work. That kayak, which isn’t actually new–we bought it last April at the REI sale–is part of our intention to find more time for what we most want to do, which for me includes quiet paddles on area lakes and rivers. The fact that it’s taken us until now to make that time says how much we need the practice.

The promise of kayaking gave me something to aim for as I whaled away at correspondence, researched and wrote a newspaper column on the health effects of everyday noise, and answered a query from my book packager/designer buddy for the sample page layouts she’s working on for our proposed new book. It was three-thirty in the afternoon by the time I finished, but we decided to set out for a quick paddle anyway.

We drove over to a spring-fed lake next to a state fish hatchery on the northwest edge of town. We carried the kayak in its huge duffel bag over to a bit of sandy bank, and then went back for paddles, PFDs (what we used to call life-jackets before they got so fancy and expensive), and pump. Then Richard wrestled the kayak out of its duffel and unfolded it. (It’s
a very cool design with an internal aluminum frame that makes it
a pleasure to paddle, unlike most inflatables, which tend to flex from end to end and thus waddle about in the water.)


There he is beginning to pump it into shape. I fitted the paddles together, put in the thwart and seats, and strapped a water bottle and my fanny pack on the bow deck. Then we put on our PFDs (if he’s looking confused below, it’s because I caught him about to zip up his PFD, with one hand in the air).


He slid into the stern seat, I pushed us off and plopped into the bow seat, and we were away, paddling across the lake. (That’s Mts Shavano and Antero in the Sawatch Range in the distance over my right paddle. I have my eye on the thunderstorm building over their 14,000-plus-foot summits.)


We kept an eye on the weather and didn’t stay out long. But we did paddle long enough to get our rhythm back, practice our turns, test how the kayak behaved in in a strong cross-wind with a bit of chop, and to get a feel for what it’s like to paddle this boat straight into the wind. The kayak handled beautifully–it’s a sweet boat! (For touring kayak geeks, it’s an Advanced Elements Advancedframe convertible.) We watched a grebe diving for fish, a flight of migrating swallows swooping to catch aerial insects, and that thundercloud building over the distant peaks. When the latter began to grumble, we turned around and paddled to the beach, deflated the kayak, and stowed it plus our paddles and PFDs back in the Subaru.

Total time on the water: less than an hour. Inflating and deflating the kayak: less than 15 minutes altogether. Joy gained in that short paddle: Immeasurable, as you can see by the happy paddler below.


Those are my real birthday gifts: the guy in the photo, looking healthy and happy and strong, and the reminder that life is really what you make of it. I intend to make more time for joy.

On a strictly personal note, a shout-out to all who have sent love and well-wishes, and gifted us with your company while Richard was in the hospital. The mail boxes–both virtual and real–are overflowing with cards and messages and sweet things, including the gorgeous wildflower bouquet that appeared in Richard’s hospital room (thank you Katherine and Don), a jar of peach jam to replace that box of peaches that molded while we were away (thank you, Laura and Sarah, and thank you to the kind folks in the VA Hospital mail room for forwarding Richard’s mail), thoughtfully offered books and magazines, and a quart of honey from Lisa’s wonderful bees. You’ve buoyed us up in this scary and challenging and fascinating paddle. Bless you all!

A Miracle Occurs: We’re Home

A miracle occurred over the weekend: Richard’s neurology team at the Denver VA Medical Center moved Heaven and Earth–or at least a lumbering but well-meaning bureaucracy–to get him released this afternoon. So instead of spending the next ten days in the hospital, he’ll continue his treatment via thrice-daily IV infusions at home. In our own house, which means we can sleep–together–in our own bed, eat our own simple meals; we can harvest the squash that got way too big in the garden while we were away, along with the strawberries and tomatoes and greens. We can recuperate in peace and quiet, breathe in fresh air, track the change from green to gold in the aspens splotching the mountainsides above town while the last few migrating hummingbirds zip around feeding in the yard, hold hands and talk about nothing in particular, do yoga and watch the dawn light color the peaks, and lie in bed tracing the nighttime patterns of the stars.


Home seemed much farther than 130 miles away last week as we did our best to keep afloat in the waves created by the storm in Richard’s brain. We might not have made it without the care and kindness of his neurology team at the Denver VA Medical Center. So here’s a shout out to Drs. Tyler, Filley, Anderson, Allen, and Kuykendall, plus med student Dave Otten, who acted as our patient rep (and yes, I mean both senses of the word “patient”–Dave was patient and caring even when things got scary, and he was my personal link to the neurology team). 

Thanks to their devotion to turning over every rock and figuring out what went wrong in Richard’s brain (no snickering out there!), he’s alive and has recovered. Mostly. The remaining recovery will take time and patience and rest. What happened? We may never know. The most likely cause? A viral infection in his right front temporal lobe that caused it to swell, resulting in his fascinating and disconcerting array of visual abnormalities.

The thing about viral infections, we learned, is that they can come up gradually, peak, and vanish fairly quickly, leaving precious little behind to track. So they’re tough to verify. And they can have some pretty grim consequences if not treated promptly: People die from them. Or end up with permanent brain damage. Hence his two-week treatment with heavy-duty anti-viral drugs, via IV, so that the drugs have the best chance of making it through the blood-brain barrier and controlling the viruses. 

Richard rebounded pretty quickly thanks to the attention of his neurology team, and to the caring nursing staff on the Fifth Floor of the VA Medical Center. His swift improvement is what made the miracle possible, along with the herculean efforts of Dr. Sarah Kuykendall, who carefully documented his recovery and tirelessly advocated for his release to home health care, even though we live way beyond immediate oversight. We’re so far away that we can’t even see Denver sky glow from here, much less get to the ER quickly. So home we (I) drove this afternoon, bearing a box of supplies for the thrice-daily infusions, which I’ll be administering under the supervision of a visiting nurse. On the drive we saw not one, but two rainbows. I take that for a very good sign.


Did we figure out how to have a residency in our six-day hospital experience? Sort of. Practicing mindfulness in the face of a health crisis didn’t always go smoothly but did bring us some unexpected gifts.

One was not allowing an incredibly stressful situation to interfere with thoroughly enjoying every moment of a visit from our daughter, Molly, who flew in Friday from San Francisco for the weekend. Her company turned the regime of spending twelve hours a day in the hospital into precious time to just be together. Her company lifted her daddy’s spirits enormously and helped me make it through the long days. (That’s a photo of the two of them on an outing to use the wireless internet at the hospital across the street.)


Another gift was the experience of receiving quality health care from a government-run system. No death panels, no rationing, no hint that anyone was considering anything other than figuring out what was wrong and treating it. I wish I qualified for the VA system. What a relief it would be to simply be cared for without argument or being drowned in a sea of paperwork.

Perhaps the best gift though was the experience of living through a crisis with eyes, mind, and heart wide open. It’s hard to be mindful when you’re scared, exhausted, and sick. But it does help. Being mindful in such a situation doesn’t make you less scared, exhausted, or sick; it allows you to be those things and not let them be you. It means you swim–or at least float–when you might otherwise sink.

For tonight though, it’s enough that Richard and I are home, that we can recognize each other, and we that get to sleep–together–in our own bed, under a skylight that lets us watch the turning of the stars.

An Unusual and Unexpected Writing Residency

It looks like I’m going to get plenty of practice living my life in a more mindful, deliberate, loving, and meditative way, just not in the setting I expected. Richard was admitted to the VA Hospital in Denver on Wednesday morning. We had hoped to go home today, but it’s not to be. His incredible medical team (thank you, Drs. Filly, Anderson, Allen, Kuykendall, and residents including Dave and the rest of the crew!) consulted with a top-ranked national expert on infections of the brain. At the expert’s recommendation, they’ve just and started him on a ten-day to two-week course of anti-viral medication administered every 8 hours by IV to out-wit what they judge is a persistent and potentially damaging viral infection that has caused swelling and a lesion in his right front temporal lobe, the part of your brain that processes visual stimuli.


(Richard with a sculptural basin in progress.)

It’s not like he seems really sick. In fact, Dr. Anderson, one of the head neurologists working on his case said yesterday that he “looks like a million bucks,” at least neurologically. He can walk, talk, juggle, solve the quadratic equation, answer the quizzes they give him, crack a bad joke, critique the news, solve sudoku puzzles, fold paper into abstract sculptures, remember the day of the week–and even our anniversary. He doesn’t always recognize faces, but he’ll figure out who people are from the context. Still, he’s going through some heavy-duty scary stuff. He’ll be lying in a hospital bed for the next ten days or two weeks with an IV attached to his arm with two drip tubes, one for the anti-viral and one for the saline solution to keep his kidneys flushed so the anti-viral drug doesn’t damage them. If all goes well, that treatment will get rid of the virus before it causes permanent damage to his brain, and we’ll be able to return home before the month is out.

In the meantime, I’m going to be there with him, except for a brief trip home once Molly arrives this morning from San Francisco. With her to keep Richard company, I’ll drive over the mountains to Salida to do some things I didn’t do when we left last Monday afternoon, thinking we’d be home on Tuesday (like putting the box of ripe peaches that I left out on the counter to make into jam when we returned, into the compost pile where the blue fuzz that has no doubt overtaken them can grow in peace!). I’ll pick some tomatoes from the garden to take to Richard along with other healthy food, plus some clean clothes for me, as the ones I’ve worn over and over for the last several days are more than due for a break. And I’ll take my work to Denver.

Visiting hours at the VA Hospital are 8 to 8, so I can spend all day with my feet up on his hospital bed and my laptop in my lap. It isn’t exactly like my couch at home, but Richard’s there, and that’s all I need really. The next two weeks could be seen as an odd sort of a residency: the VA Hospital doesn’t have internet access, so I can’t distract myself by compulsively checking my email and reading the news. I won’t be at home, so those ever-present to-dos can’t nag me. And there’s something very meditative about listening to the rhythmic sounds of a hospital going about its healing business as the pumps whoosh and the wheelchair wheels shoosh and the machines beep and the voices rise and fall around you. So I’ll be doing my best to ride the calm in the midst of the storm he’s in.


(That’s a juvenile calliope hummingbird having a mindful moment in our garden, with the bustle of downtown Salida in the background. Or maybe he’s just digesting–it’s hard to tell!)

Please keep us in your thoughts and your hearts. And please understand if I don’t respond promptly. I’m more than a little overwhelmed and my job right now is just to be there for Richard, keeping him company, acting as his advocate, and sending him love every single moment.

Oh, and doing my best to find a contemplative and restful rhythm in a busy hospital. I’ll report in later posts on how I do and what I learn….

Bless you all!

Receiving What We Really Need

Yesterday’s email brought one of those bolts from the blue, a wise remark that illuminated thoughts that had been lurking, half-seen, in the shadowy parts of my brain. “This occurrence,” wrote fellow writer Jane Kirkpatrick, referring to the strange electrical storm in Richard’s brain that sent us home two Sundays ago instead of off on a two-week residency, “took you from your lovely cabin… but sent you where you could receive what you need.”


Oh, yes. The events of ten days ago, scary and deeply unsettling as they were and are, have indeed sent us to where we could receive what we need. By that I don’t mean Richard “needed’ to experience days of hallucinations, benign as they were, or the inability to recognize faces, or that either of us “needed” to hear today’s news that the MRI of his brain reveals inflammation, and that his neurology team is going to check him in to the VA Hospital tomorrow for tests, beginning with a spinal tap. But right now, today, he clearly needed to be here in Denver being cared for by the wonderful crew at the Eastern Plains VA Medical Center–bless you all!–not at that heavenly sounding but remote cabin.

And I needed to stop and reflect, which I’ve been doing. Where these strange and frightening events have sent me (at least in the metaphorical sense) is to thinking about how to live my life in a “residential” or “retreatful” way. I’ve let my days become too cluttered with “shoulds,” too frenetic, too busy. I want to make every day more like I’m on a writing residency, except right at home, as part of how I live and work and love.

As a start on that, I wrote up a short list of words to remind me of what I’m aiming for:

I don’t mean I want to join a religious order (I am allergic to organized groups, like Groucho Marx, I don’t care to belong to any club that would have me as a member), but I do want my spirituality and my reverence and love for life to infuse my every day. So what I take from whatever has happened to Richard is that it’s a strong message to reconsider how I’m organizing my life and find ways to deepen my days and make them even more about doing what I love and believe in–being the change I want to see–in every moment. 

As for Richard, I believe, crazy as it may seem, that his bird hallucinations were about the Earth he loves–the birds he watches for all the time–trying to get his attention. Prominent among his other hallucinations were left-turn arrows, the curving white ones you see on highway pavement, but these were on every hillside, on gravel roads and pastures and road cuts. I take that as a strong suggestion that he needs to turn off the road he’s got himself on, wanting to press his art to generate money to contribute to our slender household income. I keep telling him that he should just focus on exploring that art, finding what he has to say, and the money will follow (eventually!). 

(The photo above is one of his sculptures, a gas firepit carved from a ton-worth of native granite boulder, with the flames enclosed in a hand-hammered steel bowl filled with gray glass. It’s a piece as warm and unique and inspired and beautiful as his life.)

That reminds me of one more word to add to my list of words to live by. Maybe it’s the most important:


Always loving.

This one is for you, Richard, and for all of the friends and fellow writers and family members who are out there sending us love in these trying times. Spread that love around. Pass it along to a stranger. Salute the community of the land where you live with love. Pat a rock. Live as if you’ve been given a precious gift, because you have: life. Use it thoughtfully, mindfully, reverently. With love.

Bless you all.

The Best Laid Plans…

Gang aft agley (go oft astray), as Scots poet Robert Burns wrote in 1785. In this case, very agley. We’re home tonight, not off on our two-week “time away” at Aspen Guard Station, the remote cabin high in the San Juan Mountains where Richard and I were awarded a coveted artist/writer residency.

(Aspen Guard Station  photo credit: San Juan National Forest)

Burns wrote “To a Mousie,” the poem that oft-paraphrased stanza comes from after seeing a mouse nest destroyed by a plow. The context seems apt to me because what sent Richard and I home on Sunday morning–instead of off to that tranquil cabin–felt like a cosmic plow destroying our carefully built nest: Richard, who is always steady and stable and strong–began seeing birds. Everywhere. Hundreds of them. The birds he saw crowded every fence post and utility wire, every tree and roadside cattail and chicory stem, everyplace a bird could conceivably perch–and some where real birds couldn’t. The birds were all dark silhouettes shaped like blackbirds, except ranging in size from those no larger than a house fly to the implausibly large ones on distant ridge tops. There’s an irony in his hallucinations: He loves birds and watches them all the time. These birds weren’t menacing, so he wasn’t particularly worried. Until he mentioned his surprise at seeing so many birds to me, and it was clear that I didn’t see them at all.

The birds followed us into Durango for breakfast, perching on every building ledge and sign and planter. They followed us to the parking lot outside the grocery store where we sat and talked, and finally made our decision. They followed us as we turned east and north, headed on the five-hour-drive home (I drove) instead of to the remote cabin an hour away with no phone, internet, or electricity. Home seemed the safer place to go. 

That was four days ago, and now the birds are gone. So are the other visual hallucinations, and the residue of the heat stress event the previous week that may be related to whatever storm has happened in Richard’s brain. He’s well, he’s lucid, he can juggle and derive the quadratic formula and navigate and tell a joke and do other things that demand complex brain interactions. He’s still the man I have lived with and loved for nearly 27 years–except that now he can’t recognize faces. Not including mine–well, not mine now, though there was one time…. And his own face, which was unfamiliar or at least seemed different somehow, is familiar again. But the faces of friends he’s known for years, people who he is fond of, don’t spark recognition. He parses their identity through contextual clues: gait, shape, voice, dress, surroundings.

Next up: a brain MRI and an appointment with a neurologist. For now through, we’re just laying low, doing our best to work on the writing and art we would have pursued in our time unplugged at the cabin in the aspen grove, and appreciating the sweet sharing of each moment, something we can still recognize and take joy from. 



On the good news front, I’ve been honored with not one, but two different blogging awards in the past two weeks: Morgan O’Donnell of the lovely and thoughtful Red Raven Circling blog named me one of her Kreativ Blogger awardees, and Matilda Butler of the lively blog-magazine Womens Memoirs tagged me for the Superior Scribbler Award. I’m honored. Thank you both!

I’m going to talk about the Superior Scribbler Award next post. Tonight’s for the Kreativ Blogger Award because it asks me to think about something very important to me right now: what I love.

After receiving the award, here’s what I must do:

1. List 7 things that I love
2. Link back to the blog that awarded it to me
3. Choose 7 blogs to award as ‘Kreativ Bloggers’
4. Comment at each blog to let them know they’ve been chosen

So, first of all, here’s my List of Seven Loves:

1. Richard
2. sagebrush, the fragrance of the region I call home
3. eating tomatoes still warm from the sun that nourishes my garden
4. paddling a kayak on quiet water
5. stories that inspire and teach me
6. my community, both humans and all the wilder lives with whom we share these landscapes
7. chocolate

Next, seven bloggers I want to recognize with the Kreativ Blogger Award because their work inspires and informs my days (in no particular order):

Sherrie York of Brush and Baren (you’ve got to see her art!)

Susan Tomlinson, she of several blogs, but especially for The Bicycle Garden (wry and wise)

Deb Robson’s The Independent Stitch (always worth a read)

Page Lambert (a recent post considers Deepak Chopra and vultures)

Susan Gallacher-Turner of Susan’s Art & Words (the title does NOT do this blog justice!)

Donna Druchunas (from travel as a political act to writing to knitting–in Lituania)

Sharman Apt Russell and friends’ Love of Place (you never know who you’ll read, but they’re always GOOD)

Thanks to you all for your words and work. We need every voice, every story, every bit of creative inspiration–now more than ever.


Richard just called me outside to watch the full moon rise over the Arkansas Hills, its form round and tinted pinkish-yellow with the smoke from distant forest fires.

BTW, he can still recognize the rabbit dancing in the face of the moon, ears flying. Can you?

Blessings to you and yours, from me and mine. Onward we go….

Using All But the Oink

Our recent road trip to Colorado’s fertile West Slope farming areas yielded more than the initial research for three of my current writing projects, a great hike, and time with friends: we came home with a thirty-pound box of Olathe sweet corn and an equal-weight box of organic peaches. That meant in midst of the rush to get ready for the next adventure, about which more later, we carved out an evening to feed the freezer.


Fresh sweet corn is ridiculously easy to preserve by freezing, and it still tastes sweet and fresh months later (unlike the waxy, flavorless frozen corn from the supermarket). Here’s my method: After shucking the corn without breaking off the stalks, I get out Richard’s largest stainless steel bread bowl and a sharp paring knife, and start shaving off the kernels. (That’s the bowl with knife for scale above–I didn’t think to shoot a photo of the actual shaving, perhaps because my hands were occupied with corn and knife.) I hold the corn by the stalk, pointed end firmly against the bottom of the bowl, place the paring knife parallel to the cob, and slice downward, separating swaths of kernels from the cob. After each swath, I rotate the corn cob and shave off another swath. It’s pretty easy to develop a feel for how deep to cut: slice too deeply and you feel the knife biting into the fibrous cob; too shallowly and there’s no resistance and you get shallow part-kernels. (But you can always shave that part again and get the rest of the kernels.)

Once I’ve accumulated a bowl full of milky kernels, I spoon them into ziploc freezer bags (label the bags first–it’s easier to write on a bag that’s not full of bumpy kernels) and store them flat in the freezer–they stack best that way. Here’s the scene in the freezer after the 8 quarts of corn went in (those are slender and tender pole beans above them, in ziploc bags re-used from last summer’s chile harvest). It took me about an hour to shave the corn while Richard shucked.


Not wanting to waste anything–I was born into the tradition of using all but the oink–the husks and silk will go into the compost pile, adding their mite to its nutrients for next year’s garden. I had gathered up the cobs and was about to throw them away somewhat regretfully (we gave up our trash service months ago in our continuing effort to abide by the reuse, recycle, reduce principles of lightening our footprint on the planet’s resources) when Richard stopped me. He remembered what we did with last summer’s cobs:


Yup, that’s shaved corn cobs, drying on our woodpile along with the split stove-lengths of pinon pine and juniper for this winter’s heat. Richard will burn the cobs in the woodstove that heats his shop-cum-sculpture studio. So that’s our box of corn, not a bit of it wasted. And I can’t wait to pull that corn out of the freezer this winter, a savory reminder of summer’s heat!

And the peaches? Well, I had plans to try a new recipe for simmered peach jam. But the peaches are so sweet and juicy and perfectly ripe that we’ve eaten almost all of them, and shared some with friends. So that’ll have to wait for another box of peaches. In the meantime, here’s a recipe for an easy but surprisingly elegant and sophisticated peach dessert.


Sweet and Goaty Broiled Peaches
2 whole, ripe peaches
4 T feta cheese
2 T brown sugar
2 T brandy (optional)

Carefully slice the peaches in half along their meridian line (from point to stem end). Gently twist the halves apart and remove the pits. Place in an oven-proof pan cut site up. Mound 1 T of feta cheese in the pit hollow of each peach, and sprinkle with 1/2 T brown sugar and 1/2 T brandy (optional). Broil for just a few minutes, until feta is soft and brown sugar has begun to caramelize. If you want to really gild the lily, serve with a dollop of creme fraiche or a scoop of vanilla ice cream on the side….

The next adventure? This weekend, Richard and I head out for a two-week artist/writer residency courtesy of the San Juan Public Lands Center (U.S. Forest Service & BLM) at Aspen Guard Station in the foothills of the Plata Mountains in southwestern Colorado. The cabin we’ll stay in sits at about 9,200 feet elevation in an aspen grove about 8 miles off the paved highway (there’s a gravel road in). It’s got all we need to focus on our work for two weeks: peace and quiet, the sound of aspen leaves rustling in the breeze, sunshine, and a sky-full of stars at night. It doesn’t have phone service, internet access–or electricity for that matter. (It’s got a propane cookstove and propane lights though.) So if I get to town during our two-week stay, I’ll put up a post from our creative adventure. If I don’t make it to town and it’s quiet on this blog front until mid-September, not to worry. Know that I’m happily writing away by hand on a legal pad, surrounded by milk-white aspen trunks, watching their leaves turn gold. No need to feel sorry for me.

Coming up after the residency: I have quite a pile of books to take with me for the lovely quiet evenings of reading I imagine with my only distractions coyote-song and dazzling stars. Almost all are new memoirs by authors who will appear on this blog in the coming months, including Diana Allen Kouris for her Brown’s Park ranching memoir, Riding the Edge of an Era; biologist Lyanda Lynn Haupt’s fascinating look at our relationship to wildness in urban places, Crow Planet; Julie Whitesel Weston’s The Good Times Are All Gone Now, a clear-eyed look  at the wrenching changes in her childhood home of Kellogg, Idaho, a poisoned mining town figuring out how to re-invent itself; and popular myst
ery writer Susan Wittig Albert’s beautiful Together, Alone, A Memoir of Marriage and Place.