Highway 285 across South Park in blowing snow.

Habitat Hero Road-Trip

Highway 285 across South Park in blowing snow. Highway 285 across South Park in blowing snow.

In the past four days, I’ve logged 900 road-miles (about half driving myself, half carpooling) in conditions including high wind and blowing snow, drizzle, pouring rain, wet snow so heavy it impaired visibility, and balmy springlike temperatures.

That’s spring–or almost spring–in the Rockies.

March snow makes for interesting driving.... March snow makes for interesting driving….

This particular road-trip took me to Casper, Wyoming, an 8.5 hour drive each way for me, and a 4-plus-hour drive for my traveling companions, renowned plantswoman and garden author Lauren Springer Ogden and passionate wildscaper Connie Holsinger, whose Terra Foundation funds the Be a Habitat Hero project.

At Habitat Hero, we say we’re a small staff with a big dream: restoring a network of habitat in yards and neighborhoods throughout the Rocky Mountain region to sustain songbirds and pollinators.

Our mission this trip: teach a two-hour Wildscape 101 workshop to an audience brought together by the Natrona County Office of the University of Wyoming Extension, and Audubon Rockies.

Lauren speaking at the Wildscape 101 workshop in Casper Lauren speaking at the Wildscape 101 workshop in Casper

The workshop attracted some 85 attendees, including a whole class of trainees for the Master Gardener program. The group was attentive and interested, had great questions, and lined up to buy books and chat afterwards.

We shared lunch with Natrona County Extension Horticulturist (and Habitat Hero Awardee) Donna Cuin and the Master Gardener trainees before hitting the long road home.

And was it a long road–both ways. I had imagined a two-day trip: Leave Salida on Friday morning, drive 3.5 hours to Connie’s house east of Boulder and ride with Connie to pick up Lauren in Fort Collins. From there, the three of us would carpool north to Casper. We’d teach the workshop Saturday morning and then do the drive in reverse, with me arriving home that night.

Only my solo leg of the drive goes over three mountain passes, all higher than 10,000 feet elevation, and across the windswept expanses of South Park. On Wednesday night, the Weather Service predicted high winds and blizzard conditions for South Park on Friday.

Wind plus snow makes for black ice in South Park. Wind plus snow makes for black ice in South Park.

So I left Thursday afternoon, figuring I’d reach Denver ahead of the storm. I didn’t quite make it across South Park before the wind and snow, but I did make it to Denver that night.

Friday morning dawned drizzly, turned to showers and then to heavy, wet snow. When Connie and I reached Fort Collins, we switched to Lauren’s 4-wd Honda.

On the long drive north through eastern Wyoming’s wide-open shortgrass prairie and breaks with their fringes of juniper and ponderosa forest, the snow gradually lessened and the temperature rose (go figure!). By the time we reached Casper Friday evening, the clouds were receding.

Saturday dawned sunny and calm. When we left the Natrona County Fairgrounds that afternoon, it felt like spring–in Wyoming (the snow was melting into puddles).

Crocus blooming in Lauren's south-facing succulent and cactus garden Crocus blooming in Lauren’s south-facing succulent and cactus garden.

By the time we reached Fort Collins and Lauren’s house late in the afternoon, it was so balmy that she gave us a quick tour of her gardens.

My plan to head on home that night lasted until I checked the road report: high wind and blowing snow in South Park. It would be dark by the time I got to that stretch or road. Not good.

South Park this morning, a white expanse of new snow. South Park this morning, a white expanse of new snow.

So I stayed the night. By the time I topped Kenosha Pass and dropped into South Park this morning, the wind had quit and the sun had mostly dried the pavement. A foot of new snow blanketed the high country; my car thermometer read 8 degrees F.

At home though (3,000 feet elevation lower), it was 55 degrees and sunny. After I unpacked the car, I put in a few hours on own habitat restoration project: spreading more wildflower and native grass seed in my dirt yard, newly watered by yesterday’s wet snow.

Roadbase yard between the house and the studio/garage. Dirt yard between the house and the studio/garage.

I’m eager to return this last piece of the abandoned industrial property Richard and I bought almost 17 years ago to health. It’s a symbol of my life in a way. The process takes time, patience and faith, but eventually, we’ll both bloom again.

Words that arrowed straight to my heart....

Everyday Courage

Words that arrowed straight to my heart.... Just a few words… of such great power.

On the bookshelf to the right of my desk sits a simple hand-lettered card bearing birthday wishes  and this quote:

Happiness is a form of courage. –George Holbrook Jackson

When I read it, those six words arrowed straight to my heart. I wanted to ponder them.

But my birthday fell in the midst of the final crazy weeks of organizing, downsizing, packing and clearing out of Terraphilia, the beautiful, sculptural house built by my late love (and finished by me, with the help of friends) and Richard’s tool-filled historic studio.

I had just weathered the last-minute termination of one sale contract and was watching the second with heart in hand, and working with my builder and his crew to make sure Creek House would be finished enough that I could move in before I had to be out of Terraphilia. (Living in my car did not appeal.)

Time to think about happiness and courage will come after I get moved and settled, I told myself. Only moving happened in a whoosh just before the sale closed on October 9th, after which I got into my car and headed for Kansas City to present at the 2013 Women Writing the West Conference.

It’s 702 miles from Salida to the Embassy Suites in Kansas City (Missouri) where the conference was held. I imagined that long transit across the Plains would give me plenty of time to think.

Mountains to plains to prairie... Mountains to plains to prairie…

Only I was so exhausted that I just watched the landscape change from mountains to foothills to high plains to prairie mixed with fields irrigated by huge center-pivot sprinklers to farms with only occasional patches of prairie to woods, and finally to the two cities split by the wide Missouri River.

And then I was in the whirl of the conference, which didn’t pause for the next two and a half days as I listened and learned and talked, laughed and cheered and hugged, and generally helped tend an inspiring round of workshops and celebrations with a warm and supportive community of writers whose work centers on the women’s West–past, present and future. (Watch the Women Writing the West blog for photos and news.)

Before I knew it, it was time to climb into my car and head back west again.

On the drive home I’ll have time to think, I assured myself.

Through-the-windshield view of the Arkansas River Canyon Through-the-windshield view of the Arkansas River Canyon

I did. But nothing particularly coherent came of the electrical activity in my brain until about an hour from home when I swung into the familiar curves where the highway follows the Arkansas River Canyon into the mountains.

“Home,” I realized with something of a shock, was no longer Terraphilia, the house where Richard and I had planned to spend the rest of our days. I would never again drive up Third Street, round the corner, punch the garage-door opener and back into the garage next to Richard’s studio.

Oh.

Home now lay on a different street. At Creek House, where I would form the new pattern for the rest of my life. Without the man I lived with and loved for almost 29 years.

That’s when the quote came back to mind: Happiness is another form of courage.

Richard memories and sculpture models on my bookshelf Richard memories and sculpture models on my bookshelf

I often say that I chose to be happy, regardless. I love life and long ago vowed to not take it for granted.

The shock of accompanying my rudely healthy, vital husband through his death from brain cancer at age 61 is an indelible reminder that life is a gift, not a given.

Courage comes from the heart. Literally as well as metaphorically, since the word stems from the Latin cor, for heart.

It takes courage to choose happiness in the face of the hard stuff life brings. Just as it takes courage to live fully through that same hard stuff.

But what other choice is there, really? Living without happiness, just like living without being present, is not really living. It’s merely existing.

I choose life. Even with the grief that hit me on arriving home. To my new house, alone.

I’d rather feel–and thus be able to choose happiness–than not feel at all. If that’s courage, I’ll take it.

****

I was tired last night when I wrote this post, and forgot to mention my blogging/writing friend Susan Tomlinson’s recent post on Joy and Courage. It’s worth the read. Everything Susan writes is.

Foothills of the San Juan Mountains along US 50 east of Montrose, Colorado

Adventures in Negotiating Real Estate Contracts

Foothills of the San Juan Mountains along US 50 east of Montrose, Colorado Foothills of the San Juan Mountains along US 50 east of Montrose, Colorado

I hit the road for Western Washington last Tuesday. Only my adventures started the afternoon before when my real estate agent, Kathleen Nelson of Keller Williams, called to say that her broker was preparing an offer on Terraphilia.

“Cool!” The place been listed for less than three weeks. But I wasn’t entirely surprised: On Sunday afternoon, a woman had knocked on the door.

“We were driving by and saw the for-sale sign. We’ve admired the house, and we called your agent but didn’t get an answer. Do you have a brochure?”

I ended up giving them a quick tour. Afterwards, they apparently went straight to see Kathleen’s broker, their former neighbor, at home.

Kathleen chuckled. “Yes. Mark’s working on their offer now. I should be able to email it to you soon.”

Price River Canyon, above Price, Utah, along US 6. Price River Canyon, above Price, Utah, along US 6.

Keller Williams’ e-document system had hiccups, so it was 4:30 p.m. by the time I got the offer. I skimmed it and called Greg Powell, the lawyer I rely on for real estate issues. He was out of the office. No problem, except I was leaving on my 1,500-mile, three-day drive, the next afternoon.

Greg called back at six-thirty that evening. “I could go over it with you now.” I walked over to his office and we spent 45 minutes reviewing the offer.

I was too excited to get much sleep that night.

The next morning when I should have been doing last-minute prep for my road-trip, I was discussing a counter-offer with Kathleen.

I finally hit the road one o’clock (I only had a seven-hour drive to my night’s destination). Before I left, I made sure Deborah Robson, the newly arrived Terraphilia Writer Resident, had what she needed. I didn’t even forget anything particularly important.

Snake River at Farewell Bend, just before it heads into Hell's Canyon in Oregon Snake River at Farewell Bend, just before it heads into Hell’s Canyon on the Oregon-Idaho border

At three-thirty, I was driving through Montrose, Colorado, when Kathleen called.

“Another offer just came in.”

“No kidding?”

“I’ll email it.”

“I can look over it when I get to Price, Utah, tonight, but that won’t be until after nine o’clock tonight.”

“They know they’re second in line and that you’re traveling, so they gave you until Thursday morning to respond.”

“Good.”

That night, I read through the e-document with offer number two, and forwarded it to Greg with a note that I needed to talk to Kathleen before he read it.

My first stop to check email on the road the next morning was at a Starbucks in Spanish Fork. I found a counter-offer to my counter-offer on the first offer. I read it through and left a phone message for Kathleen.

Columbia River Gorge east of Hood River, Oregon Columbia River Gorge east of Hood River, Oregon

She called just as I stopped at a rest stop in northern Utah. We discussed my counter to their counter to my counter on their original offer. (Got that?) She relayed the information to Mark and called back to say he thought they’d go for it.

Which meant I would need to sign an e-document before close of business that day (Wednesday). No problem, except that I’d have to locate wifi before I left Utah and headed into a very scenic hundred-mile stretch of southern Idaho that is off the digital-service map.

At the last town, I found wifi, read and signed the countered-countered-countered offer, and also forwarded the second offer to Greg, who called with his comments before I headed into the no-cell-phone zone.

Moonrise over the Columbia Plateau Moonrise over the Columbia Plateau

So I negotiated my way west. When I arrived at the comfy Tweit/Winter farmhouse atop Tumwater Hill outside Olympia, Washington Thursday night, I had news:

“I have a contract on my place.”

“That’s great!” said my sister-in-law, Lucy.

“And another in the works.”

“Two? Wow!”

After a weekend spent enjoying family–including Molly, who flew in Saturday morning–and celebrating the birthday of the second-youngest of the Tweits (my great-nephew Colin Roland), and the eldest (my dad), I hit the road for home yesterday afternoon.

When I checked email before leaving Pendleton, Oregon, this morning, Kathleen wrote that the second buyers had accepted my counter-offer. So now I have two signed contracts to buy Terraphilia. Closing on the first contract is scheduled for September 13th, a mere eight weeks from now. Yikes!

(The photos give a sense of the country I drove through while negotiating two real estate contracts. Scenic and very restful, unless you really need wifi or cell-phone service.)

Dad with Colin and his little brother Liam

Road Trip!

Dad with Colin and his little brother Liam Dad with Colin and his little brother Liam last summer

This Tuesday noon, the little Subaru Forester and I will aim west on US 50, headed for my brother’s house in Olympia, Washington, 1,444 miles away, to spend the weekend with the extended Tweit clan. I’m going to celebrate two birthdays: Colin Roland, one of my great-nephews, who will be 4 years old, and Bob Tweit, my dad, who turns 85.

Before I head off what will be seven days of driving (three and a half days each way) and two days of family (and probably no blogging), here’s a bit of an update on the projects that fill my days.

Bless the Birds: The rough draft totaled 135,000 words at the beginning of last week; now it’s just over 126,000. I have to cut out at least 35,000 more words. It’s a memoir in two voices (the other one being the smiling guy in the photo below), and that makes editing tricky since he’s not around anymore to comment. (Dammit.)

Richard Cabe, my late love, 1950-2011 Richard Cabe, my late love, 1950-2011

I know the story will emerge from my careful work leaner and stronger, more compelling. Too much detail in a story is like food that’s too rich. It may taste good for a while, but it slows everything down until the story, like a digestive system, becomes tapada. (Tapada translates literally as “covered,” but in southern New Mexico, where I learned the word, it also means “stopped-up.”)

Be a Habitat Hero: What started out as a modest pilot project to inspire gardeners and birders in Colorado and Wyoming to landscape in a way that offers a habitat life-line for songbirds and other pollinators is quickly morphing into something bigger.

The project is a partnership between Audubon Rockies and the Terra Foundation, along with Colorado State University’s Plant Select program. High Country Gardens, the major online retailer of regionally adapted plants for the western and plains states, has just signed on. Check out the project’s blog and website, written by yours truly. Let me know what you think!

Creek House and Treehouse (the studio, named for its vantage point) with siding going up. Creek House and Treehouse (the studio, named for its lofty vantage point) with house wrap on and siding going up.

Creek House: The siding is going up on the exterior of the house and the drywall is textured. While I’m away, the roof will go on and the interior of the house will be painted. The garage and second-story studio are several weeks behind the house, but the wiring and plumbing are in. Both spaces feel good already.

Terraphilia Complex: Tony and Maggie came over tonight and helped me cut and bend a long strip of copper to flash the cap on the half-wall between the shower/tub enclosure in the master bath. I worried about doing the cutting and shaping myself because the copper sheet I’m using is one Richard bought. I don’t want to mess up his materials.

The half-wall dividing the custom tub/shower enclosure from the rest of the master bath. (In the right background is the door leading out to the master suite's private patio.) The half-wall dividing the custom tub/shower enclosure from the rest of the master bath.

There are still more details to be worked out in this most complex  part of the project I’ve tackled in finishing this house, but it’s inching along toward completion.

You can see that long piece of copper flashing where it catches the light in the photo to the right, just below the ash sill that tops the half-wall. In the right background is the door leading out to the master suite’s private patio.

And one last note: After weeks and weeks of hot and frustratingly dry weather, we had our first real summer rain tonight. We’ve had whiffs of rain since late June, but never enough to actually moisten more than the surface of the soil.

This evening, a thunderstorm rumbled its way down the valley, bringing a gentle rain that began falling at 5:42 pm and lasted almost three hours. It’s tough to read my rain gauge in the dark, but it looks like we may have gotten almost half an inch. That may not sound impressive, but here where our total precipitation so far this year just barely topped 3.5 inches (in over seven months), it’s huge. And welcome.

I’ll check back in next week after I return home, 11 days and 3,000 miles from now….

Evening-primrose "snow" on a flat above the Arkansas River, Colorado

Road Report: Going too fast

Evening-primrose "snow" on a flat above the Arkansas River, Colorado Pallid evening-primrose “snow” on a flat along the Arkansas River, Bighorn Sheep Canyon, Colorado

Thursday morning, I set out for Northwest Arkansas, 800 miles across the Southern Great Plains from Salida, a two-day drive, to visit my  Arkansas in-laws. I planned to drive nine hours the first day to Woodward, just east of the Oklahoma Panhandle, more than halfway.

That gave me a shorter drive the second day, so I would arrive at my sister-in-law’s house in Springdale a little more relaxed.

Peaks of the Sangre de Cristo Range above Texas Creek, Colorado Sangre de Cristo Range above Colorado’s Wet Mountain Valley

I meant to leave at ten that morning, but I wasn’t on the road until eleven. So when I saw the white evening-primroses blooming on the flats in Bighorn Sheep Canyon just downriver from home, I didn’t stop. Even though there were so many the high-desert looked dotted with snow.

Until I came around a curve and spotted thousands across the river. I had to shoot a photo. I parked, dashed across the highway and clambered atop a guardrail post for a better view. I snapped a couple of photos, and then stepped down. Only I fell. Backwards. Onto the pavement.

I lay there, saying, “Oh sh___!” for a moment. Then I hauled myself up. My left leg didn’t work, so I stood on my right, holding the guardrail for balance. After a few seconds, my left leg responded and I limped across the highway to my car.

Missouri evening-primrose blooming in the highway margins right outside my motel in Woodward, Oklahoma. Missouri evening-primrose blooming in the highway margins right outside my motel in Woodward, Oklahoma.

I debated about turning around and driving the 40 minutes home to the closest hospital. My knee was wrenched, my hip aching, and my ankle was weighing in with pain signals too. But they all still worked. Pretty much.

Further, Molly and I planned the Arkansas trip weeks ago. She and her partner Mark were flying in to meet me. (M&M live in San Francisco.)

So I drove on until I found a deserted side road where I could stop and slather arnica ointment on the offended hip, knee, and ankle. The stop also offered the view of the snowy peaks of the Sangre de Cristo Range in the second photo above.

Then I drove on. And on, and on, and on until I reached my motel in Woodward at nine that night. It was 88 degrees out. I applied more arnica ointment, plus ice. And fell into bed thinking I had been stupid and lucky and that I should slow the frenetic pace of my life.

Indian paintbrush, coreopsis, and yarrow blooming along the highway east of Tulsa. Indian paintbrush, coreopsis, and yarrow blooming along the highway east of Tulsa.

I woke the next morning very stiff and very sore, but the hip, knee and ankle worked, and weren’t too swollen. I applied the arnica and ice again, and then hit the road. (Not literally this time.)

As I exited the driveway of my motel, located on an ugly industrial strip, I spotted clumps of glorious yellow Missouri evening-primroses blooming along the highway margins. I stopped to photograph them, limping considerably. But I didn’t fall.

Molly Cabe and her partner, Mark Allen Molly Cabe and her partner, Mark Allen

And then I drove on. The roadside wildflowers all across Oklahoma were lovely, which cheered me considerably.

I reached my sister-in-law Letitia’s house late that afternoon, and limped inside to warm greetings from Molly and Mark and Tish, all of whom were sympathetic and impressed by my story. (Impressed, that is, by my stupidity.)

Still, it was a great weekend of visiting with Molly and Mark, Miss Alice, Tish, and her daughter Carolyn, spouse Doug, and their son Oliver, who at four is quite excited about becoming a big brother this fall. (I am very lucky in all my family.)

My niece, Carolyn Myrick and her grandmother, Miss Alice Cabe (Richard's mom). My niece, Carolyn Myrick and her grandmother, Miss Alice Cabe (Richard’s mom).

We ate well, had time to catch up on each others’ lives, look over family photos, plant Miss Alice’s windowboxes, and visit the spectacular Crystal Bridges Museum of America Art, an outing organized by Tish.

(If you’re anywhere near northwest Arkansas, it’s worth a visit to Crystal Bridges just to see the woods-and-wildflowers setting and the gorgeously curved building tucked into that landscape. The art collection is superb too.)

This morning I headed out on the long drive home. The weather maps showed a gap between fronts (including the one that spawned the tornado that devastated Moore, near Oklahoma City).

Magenta locoweed and yellow evening-primrose along the highway in the Oklahoma Panhandle Magenta locoweed and yellow evening-primrose along the highway in the Oklahoma Panhandle

After I passed through Tulsa, the rain abated and the wind dropped. The driving was pretty smooth and the roadsides were abloom with wildflowers. I was tired but eager to get home. I have things to do.

I drove almost nine hours to Guymon on the Oklahoma Panhandle. As I unloaded my car at the motel, I congratulated myself on  weathering the grueling drive pretty well despite my fall at the beginning. And promptly smacked myself in the face opening the car door. By the time I got upstairs to my room just moments later and went to get ice, there was a lump below my eye socket the size of a jumbo green olive.

Good thing I have that arnica ointment. And the ice machine is just across the hall.

Okay. I get the message. Tomorrow, while I carefully drive the rest of the way home, I will make concrete plans to slow the pace of my life.

First, though, I’m going to bed. As I do, I will send Light and love out to the people of Moore, Oklahoma. What a terrible, terrible tragedy. Bless us all.

Installing the top row of the blue styrofoam footer forms on a windy afternoon.

Wind, Hope and New Workshops

Installing the top row of the blue styrofoam footer forms on a windy afternoon. Installing the blue styrofoam footer forms on a windy afternoon. (We’re still “below ground.” The tops mark the floor level of the new house.)

The wind is howling outside, roaring by in gusts that feel like they must be going 80 mph, although my wind gauge hasn’t recorded any higher than 30. There’s another spring storm blowing in, our third in a little more than a week. As one of my concrete crew said late this afternoon as they were struggling to anchor the footer forms for my new tiny house, “Springtime in the Rockies.”

Yup. And I can’t complain (much), since the last two storms brought us a little more than an inch of moisture, more than we’ve had so far the whole dust-dry winter. If whatever’s blowing in brings us more snow, especially the wet kind, even the wind will be a gift. Of a sort.

Sea kayaking at La Partida, where the sea turtles feed, Isla Espiritu Santo Sea kayaking at La Partida, where the sea turtles feed, Isla Espiritu Santo

This kind of weather has me thinking about running away to warmer climes. Which is what I’ll be doing when I gather a group of writers and companions next February for the second Write & Retreat workshop on Isla Espiritu Santo in the Sea of Cortez off Baja California del Sur. We’ll leave La Paz on Feburary 9th, headed for Espiritu Santo, an island so incredibly rich in biological and cultural features that it is a protected area. Our outfitter, Baja Expeditions, the founding ecotourism outfitter on Baja, spearheaded the movement to preserve this extraordinary place and operates the only permanent camp on the island.

Baja Expeditions' comfortable "eco-camp" on Espiritu Santo. Baja Expeditions’ comfortable “eco-camp” on Espiritu Santo.

We’ll stay on Espiritu Santo for six days, ensconced in safari-style canvas tents on the beach of a quiet cove, waking to the sound of brown pelicans “thwacking” the water to stun their breakfast of sardines. We’ll paddle sea kayaks in turquoise bays, snorkel with sea lions, watch flying fish leap out of the water like falling stars, hear canyon wrens trill and great horned owls hoot. We’ll fish and hike and lie in the sun on the beach–and we’ll write, read our work, talk craft and art, and recharge our creative wells. We’ll also eat great food prepared by our camp staff.

If this sounds good, download the flyer on from my workshops page. Spaces are limited, so sign up soon.

Sunset on the Sangre de Cristo Range from the pools at Joyful Journey. Sunset on the Sangre de Cristo Range from the pools at Joyful Journey.

The original Write & Retreat workshop, held last month at Joyful Journey Lodge & Spa in Colorado’s San Luis Valley was so successful that I’ve decided to make it an annual event. (“Do not change a thing,” wrote one participant. “Reserve me a space for next year.”) I’ve already reserved the lodge at Joyful Journey for March 20-23rd, 2014. Mark your calendars….

****

I have to confess that my malaise and restlessness are not just from the weather. Yesterday’s bombings at the finish of the Boston Marathon weigh on my heart and spirit. I cannot understand such cruelty. I believe we will recover from the shock and pain and fear given time, just as I believe offering each other compassion and love is the only way to live, whatever happens. Words have great power to heal, and to restore our hope, our faith in the basic goodness of our fellow travelers on this numinous planet.

I am reminded of the first stanza of Emily Dickinson’s poem, “Hope” is the thing with feathers:

“Hope” is the thing with feathers
That perches on the soul
And sings the song without the words
And never stops–at all

Bless you all.

Beginnings and endings

The courtyard between the lodge and the hot springs at Joyful Journey as winter sunset colors the Sangre de Cristo Range in the background.

“Begin as you intend to continue,” my Scots grandmother used to say. Which to me means,

Be thoughtful about how you enter into something, whether a project or a new year. Don’t rush into it; take care with your intentions and dreams, what you hope to achieve and how you imagine getting there.

I heard Grandmother Chris’ lilting voice in my head last Friday during a trip with girlfriends to soak in the hot springs at Joyful Journey Spa. A chance encounter with the conference coordinator  led to my learning that the lodge and events center had an opening for a group the first weekend of spring.

Begin as you intend to continue. 

I’ve been considering beginning a series of writing workshops that nurture both spirit and creativity, based in comfortable surroundings in places that inspire awe and deep thinking. Joyful Journey fits that bill: the small lodge and spa encompass a rural hot springs with a panoramic view of snow-capped peaks, star-studded skies at night, and the peace and quiet of Colorado’s “forgotten” San Luis Valley. Especially in spring when the entire Rocky Mountain Flyway population of sandhill cranes, 20,000 or so statuesque, long-legged and long-necked birds, arrive to dance their spring courting rituals and call in their percussive voices.

So I’m taking a leap and beginning a “Write & Retreat” workshop series offering time out for creative renewal and writing practice, time to let the community of nature work its magic on heart, spirit and inspiration. The first workshop, “Write & Retreat: Cranes & Hot Springs” will take place–appropriately for the renewal theme–on the first weekend of spring, March 21-24, 2013, at Joyful Journey Hot Springs Spa, about 3.5 hours southwest of Denver and an equal distance north of Albuquerque.

Sandhill cranes in the San Luis Valley in spring.

The agenda for this four-day retreatful writing workshop is simple: soak, write, read and talk writing in a small-group workshop setting, retreat into contemplative time, take a drive to watch and listen to the spectacle of the cranes’ dawn flight and dancing, write, read, soak, contemplative time….

Imagine these four days as time to nourish your inner self, to take your writing to new, richer places with an intuitive and experienced teacher, and to practice retreatful habits to bring home to your daily life.

Begin as you intend to continue.

If you’re interested, let me know. I’m still working out the details. Spaces are limited by my preferred workshop size (10-15 writers; there’s also room for companions who come along to soak and see cranes, but won’t attend the workshop).

*****

Trimming the window over the kitchen sink. One down, 36 more to go….

The endings of the title? My new sideline as a trim and finish carpenter is something of a gentle transition (gentle emotionally, if not physically!) to a rather huge ending. Once I’ve finished trimming all 37 openings, put up what seems like miles of baseboard, and invent a shower and tub surround plus a counter for the master bath, this whole half-block property will go up for sale: the house with its custom sculptural sinks, cabinets and sandstone shelves, the cozy guest cottage, and the historic shop (plus the pentanque court, organic kitchen garden and wildflower “lawn”).

I’ll move around the corner to a tiny house built just for me, plus a studio over the garage to house guests and Terraphilia residents.

Endings and beginnings

None of this will happen overnight, which is what I mean by a “gentle” transition. Regardless, I’m ending my time in the house my love helped design and build for us, the place we imagined living out our lives together. We did that, only the end of “together” came sooner than either of us could ever have imagined.

I’m beginning this new year as I intend to continue, walking a mindful and loving path as writer, teacher, and–this I would never have guessed a year ago–finish carpenter. Building a new life with care, and a great appreciation for the community of lives with whom we share this green and blue planet, sparkling with life.

Road Report: Miami and home again

Biscayne Bay and the Venetian Causeway from my hotel room balcony (that’s Miami Beach in the distance).

Last week I was in Miami, staying in a hotel on the shore of Biscayne Bay. All I saw of South Florida was the view of the bay from my 28th-floor balcony, and the choppy water itself on the five-minute walk between the hotel and the Young Arts campus.

That twice-daily walk was a welcome break before and after the hours in a conference room reading and evaluating 140+ writing submissions in four days with my fellow writing panel members, poet David Lee and novelist Dianne Oberhansley and our coordinator, Mary Lee Adler. Each panelist read every submission, an average of 35 manuscripts read, digested, and scored each day. No wonder my brain still feels numb!

Former Utah poet laureate David Lee engrossed in reading a digital manuscript for Young Arts

Our task was made much easier by the preliminary panel, which met the week before to read and score nearly 1,200 submissions from talented young writers across the country, whittling that enormous virtual pile down. (“Virtual pile” because this year for the first time we read digital manuscripts on individual iPads instead of literal piles of paper stored in files in stacks of banker’s boxes. Even the Luddite among us declared the iPad “pretty useful” by the end of the week. And many trees were saved.)

Our task was also made much easier by the work of the Young Arts staff, especially Letty Bassart, Joe NeSmith, Ty Taylor, and Neidra Ward in Programs, and the IT folks.

Young Arts’ new home in the Bacardi Tower, an iconic example of Cuban Modernist architecture..

These creative and resourceful people managed the transition to Young Arts’ new digital submissions system at the same time as they moved the organization into its new campus, the iconic Bacardi Complex, just days before the panelists in nine artistic disciplines arrived from as far away as Los Angeles to begin screening submissions.

While the Young Arts staff was doing the moving and adjusting to the new computer systems, they also planned a gala Open House for the new complex, including bringing in Young Arts alums to read and perform their work on a balmy Miami evening, plus fabulous food and drink (including, yes, Bacardi rum, donated by the corporation whose buildings Young Arts now owns), films of the program projected onto the tower, cinema folks filming the performances, and a glittering crowd enjoying all of the above. Y’all have my admiration!

This new-to Young Arts campus, built for the Bacardi Company as their US headquarters in the 1960s, is located between two of Miami’s arts districts, and includes enough land for the organization to build a performing arts center, which will be designed by architect Frank Gehry, and a park landscaped to provide outdoor spaces for young artists to work.

The Jewel Box building, lit up for the Young Arts Open House last week.

A smaller building behind the iconic tower, The Jewel Box, named for the stained glass walls that are positively luminous from the inside during the day and at night with the lights on, will be renovated into indoor studio and workshop spaces. The complex offers incredible opportunities for Young Arts to grow its year-round programming, and I’m honored to be part of that.

And of course, there are the young writers, whose work was the focus of our week. As we sat around the conference table reading from our iPads, the quiet was punctuated with “uh huhs!,” chuckles, and the occasional phrase or sentence read aloud, just for the delight of hearing the right words in the right order. We read “blind,” which means we didn’t know anything about each young writer–except their words. And sometimes those words really sing.

The Jewel Box and the famous Bacardi bat from the top floor of the Bacardi Tower, with the blue and white tiles that define the tower in the foreground.

Discovering young writers whose words sing is what carried me though a week of very long days, and then the 12 hours of cab, airport, plane, and driving over the mountains in a snowy night on my journey from sub-tropical Miami home to Colorado.

Yesterday, Veteran’s Day, I woke groggy in the pre-dawn darkness to the sight of the thinnest possible sliver of the waning moon rising next to Saturn over the night-black Arkansas Hills.

“That’s the moon we share,” I murmured out loud, thinking of my love. This time last year he was still with me, entering into that ending that is also a beginning, as Ralph Waldo Emerson writes:

Our lives are an apprenticeship to the truth that around every circle another can be drawn. That there is no end in nature but every end is a beginning.

That’s why I do this work. The right words not only sing, they shine, illuminating the truth at the heart of our lives.

On the Road Again….

US Highway 285 across South Park

I’ll be hitting the road in a few minutes, headed to Denver tonight and flying to Miami tomorrow for a week of reading submissions to the annual Young Arts program. Over the coming week, my fellow writing panelists, poet David Lee and novelist Dianne Nelson-Oberhansly, plus our terrific Coordinator, sculptor Mary Lee Adler, will evaluate 200 or so 20-page manuscripts from outstanding 17- and 18-year-old writers all around the country. (The other writing panelist, poet Gailmarie Pahmeier, can’t join us this week.)

Our task: select the top 25 young writers to attend Arts Week in January, where they’ll take workshops and master classes (last year master class teachers included Robert Redford; this year, Bobby McFerrin is on tap, plus novelists Rob Van Waggoner and Beth Kephart). They’ll see performances and shows by other young artists in dance, music, theater and visual arts, and prepare for a gala public reading of their work.

U.S. Presidential Scholars in the Arts medal (Photo courtesy of Young Arts)

Arts Week is an intense and inspiring gathering; these talented kids take home a renewed passion for their work, lasting friendships and mentors, plus scholarships for college. And a handful–the best of the best–are honored as Presidential Scholars in the Arts in a ceremony at the White House. Heady stuff at any age, stratospheric for 17- and 18-year-olds.

I’m excited about discovering this year’s crop of submissions, even though I know it’ll be serious work. I’m excited about simply going to Miami, even though the most I’ll see of it will be the twice-daily walk between our hotel on the shores of Biscayne Bay and the new Young Arts campus. Still, South Florida in November is not a shabby place to be holed up inside reading!

*****

Cottonwoods line a stream in the Oklahoma prairie along Highway 412.

Before I hit the road, I want to share a story from my long New Mexico-Texas-Oklahoma-Arkansas road trip.

I stopped at the Starbucks in Enid, Oklahoma, a regular stop for Richard and me on the drive between south-central Colorado and northwest Arkansas. (It offers free wifi and great hot drinks, both of which are in short supply on that 800-mile trip.)

The last time I stopped there was a year ago, on the way home from that rushed trip to take Richard to see his Arkansas family while his failing body (barely) allowed him to travel with dignity.

Richard had gone back to the car to get something, then had wandered into the home healthcare office next door, thinking it connected to the Starbucks. The staff, he told me later, very kindly redirected him next door and turned his confusion into a gentle joke. (Later, a staffer came to the Starbucks to check on him. She took me aside and asked if he was okay. “No,” I said. I told her he had brain cancer and was in hospice care. “I’m a hospice nurse,” she said. “Just come next door if you need help.”)

This trip, I remembered that small incident of kindness and on impulse, stepped into the Carter Healthcare office to thank them for being so kind to my love. I said that a year ago my husband had gotten confused thinking he could get to the Starbucks through their office and I wanted to say thank you for how kind they had been to him.

“I was there!” said the woman sitting at the desk. “That was me!” I thanked her and explained that he had brain cancer and his tumor had given him spatial confusion. She asked how he was. My eyes filled. I told her that he had died a month later, and that hospice had been a huge gift for us.

“I am so sorry for your loss,” she said. “That’s why I do this work. It’s an honor to help people at the end of their lives.”

Kindness in a cup of cocoa….

I thanked her and left without even getting her name, tears in my eyes, focused on the long drive ahead. That brief encounter warms me still as an example of the power of simple, everyday kindness.

Kindness is basic to being human. As I walk this path I never imagined, my intention is to spread the kindness I’ve received, sending it rippling outward across a world that needs it more than ever.

Road Report: New Mexico, Arkansas and then home

Cottonwoods along Ojo Caliente Wash, New Mexico.

It’s been a traveling week: I’ve been to New Mexico, and then driven the Texas Panhandle and Oklahoma to northwest Arkansas. Tomorrow I hit the road for home, a two-day, 800-mile drive across the Southern Plains.

Last Thursday, I drove to Albuquerque with a stop Santa Fe, where I visited a writing class taught by writer and teacher Dawn Wink at Santa Fe Community College. I was on time until the gorgeous ribbon of golden cottonwoods in Ojo Caliente enticed me to stop and shoot “just a few” photos…. (Oops!) If it hadn’t been for the patience of Dawn’s husband, Noé Villareal, who waited for me at the main entrance quad of the college, I might never have found Dawn and her class.

With writer and teacher Dawn Wink at the Women Writing the West Conference in Albuquerque. (Photo: Noé Villareal)

Which would have been a shame. The week before, the students had used my word-ring creativity exercise, which helped these aspiring writers representing three languages and cultures and a couple of decades span in ages, find their writing voices and confidence. Seeing their eyes light up as I talked about how and why I write reminded me. I wrestle with the terror of the blank page, I write with my heart outstretched as it were my hand because I want to open minds. I want to change the world, one heart at a time.

And meeting Dawn and Noé… You know when you meet people who feel as if you’ve known them always? It was like that.

From Santa Fe, I cruised south to Albuquerque for the Women Writing the West Conference. This group is a warm and supportive community of women who write about the West, whether the historical West or the present-day one, whether in fiction, creative non-fiction, poetry, screenplays or memoir. The conference was a weekend of connecting and re-connecting, and much inspiration.

The opening slide for my keynote at the WWW conference

I was honored to give the opening night talk, “Writing With Heart,” and I’ll have a video of it to share with you before too long. (One without annoying noises!) I don’t brag well at all, so I’ll just say the reception to my talk was gratifying. In fact, I think I knocked that particular ball out of the park.

Other highlights included talks with two agents–I may be working with an agent again after many years on my own, and that’s exciting. And breakfast with Saturday night’s keynote speaker, Professor Virginia Scharff, Historian and Director of the Center for Southwest Studies, and her husband, Chris Wilson, J.B. Jackson professor in the School of Architecture and Planning. I’ve known Virginia since grad school at University of Wyoming in Laramie, where I slept on her porch one summer between jobs….

From Albuquerque, I blew east across the mesa country and the Texas Panhandle to Amarillo, where I spent the night. The next day I tacked into a fierce cross-wind across Oklahoma, and after almost nine hours on the road, made it my sister-in-law’s house in Springdale, Arkansas, sore and tired.

Crystal Springs Museum of American Art, Bentonville

Yesterday Letitia and I wandered part of the extensive woods at the new Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville (otherwise known as the home of Walmart; the museum is Alice Walton’s creation). The buildings were closed, but I can attest that they and the grounds are gorgeous, designed in an organic way that compliments the dramatic site, a deep ravine in oak-hickory woods.

Today we picked up my 95-year-old mother-in-law, Miss Alice, and drove east on winding roads over ridges and down valleys colored in the crimson, gold, toffee, orange, and lemon yellow of autumn in the Ozarks to explore the west end of the Buffalo National River. Just seeing the very west end of this clear, un-dammed river winding its way through the steep ridges under thick limestone bluffs makes me want to explore more.

Letitia Hitz, Miss Alice Cabe, and me, Buffalo National River

Tomorrow I’m headed home, on that two-day drive across the Southern Plains with a winter storm threatening. By the time I get there, I’ll have driven almost two thousand miles in eight days. (No wonder I’m tired.)

But look at those smiles–worth the trip, wouldn’t you say?

Ridges above the Buffalo River, Arkansas Ozarks