When Life Gives Us “Bonus Time”

I was curled up in my sleeping bag in Red one night on my road-trip, cozy and warm and digesting both dinner, and what I had seen and heard over the day's miles. As I started to drift off to sleep, a phrase drifted across the screen of my mind, "bonus time." Then I heard or dreamed a voice saying, "This is your bonus time. Use it well." 

The next morning, I woke before dawn to frost on the inside of the windows in my truck topper. I snuggled deeper into my sleeping bag and thought about the message I had heard. What does "bonus time" mean? And what will I do to use it well? 

I pondered the idea for another two days and 900 miles. (I am definitely not a fast thinker!) I think for me, bonus time means that after 16 years of intense caregiving of others, beginning when we moved my parents to Denver in 2002, I have reached a period in my life where I am free to do what I want to do, whatever that may be. (Assuming I can pay the bills, of course, and stay healthy.)  

Richard, the love of my life and my husband for nearly 29 years, has been gone six years and three months, and the years of scrambling to pay the debts left from his journey with brain cancer and find sound financial footing are behind me. No more working two jobs, no more evenings and weekends spent finishing the house and his shop with the help of patient friends (thank you, Grant Pound and crew, and Maggie and Tony!) so I could sell that property before I lost it. No more racing to finish the little house, my next home, so I would have a place to live while I figured out what was next.

Richard and Molly, January, 2010: He has survived his first brain surgery (that sinuous scar on the side of his head will be re-incised three more times), and is a few days from finishing his first course of radiation for brain cancer. She is about to head back to San Francisco after spending a week in Denver with him while I was on an island off La Paz, Mexico, leading a writing retreat.

No more driving hell-bent-for-leather over the mountains in all manner of weather to sort out a problem with Dad, living alone in Denver after Mom's death. Dad is now comfortably settled in the Assisted Living unit of the retirement community in Western Washington where he moved to be closer to the rest of the Tweit clan (my brother, sister-in-law, and their girls and families). Molly is settled in San Francisco in a challenging career in advertising. And I, who wasn't supposed to live beyond my twenties, am still chugging along, albeit more slowly than I once did. 

So this is truly my bonus time, however long it lasts. "Bonus" because I didn't expect to be here, alone, with no one depending on me. "Bonus" because I am here at all. "Bonus" because with the help of friends and my family, I am debt-free and can pursue the work I love, writing, and restoring houses and land. Of course to get that bonus, I had to find a gracious and discerning way to help two of the people I love most in this world live through the end of their lives. And then I had to survive their loss, and learn how to live well without them. 


My restored living-dining room on a sunny day recently when the spring weather wasn't spitting snow the way it is right now. 

I realize that it could be argued that rescuing a house as badly dilapidated as this one was, or hand-digging invasive weeds in a landscape as enormous as Yellowstone and its 3,500 square miles of wildness could be considered forms of caregiving. Of a particularly insane sort. 

To me though, caring for a house or the community of the land is less fraught than caring for most people. I can enjoy the creative effort, the fast-on-my-feet problem-solving, and the complexities of restoration without having to pick my way through a minefield of human emotions. So neither feels as emotionally taxing. Yet like human caregiving, both are ways to make positive change in this increasingly negative time.

So what am I going to do with my bonus time? I think I've answered my own question: write, and restore neglected or injured places, both buildings and land. Exactly what any of those projects look like and where the path ahead will take me, I don't know. I do know I am looking forward to the journey, and I will do my best to make good use of this bonus time. 

Snow, sleet, and wind have not daunted this little yellow species iris (Iris danfordiae) blooming in my yard, a tiny but heartening harbinger of spring to come. 

Me Too: Why #metoo matters

When I first saw "Me too" and the #metoo hashtag appearing on Facebook and Twitter, I had mixed feelings. I was sad to see how many women I know  have experienced sexual harassment or sexual abuse in their lives. Too many of us, but then, even one would be too many. 

I was proud of us for being willing to speak out and speak up. And proud of so many men speaking up in support too. 

I wondered if it would do any good. Because it feels like we're going backwards as a society and culture.  

The more I saw though, the more I thought, this is right. We have to be willing to talk before anything will change. We have to admit what we have tried to ignore or suppress because we are ashamed or embarrassed or threatened or we think it's all in the past, so why bother… 

We have to bring sexual harassment and abuse into the open before it matters. And that's what both the hastag, and the original Me Too movement begun by Tarana Burke, are about. Empowerment.

For Burke, a strong and saavy African-American activist, who began the original Me Too movement in 2006 as a way to help survivors of sexual abuse from marginalized communities, "Me Too" is not just about speaking up and gaining empathy from others. It's about what comes next: the effort needed to heal, to bring opportunity to those who feel rejected, broken. That will take more than a hashtag. There is real work to be done. 

So yes, Me too. I've been sexually harassed many times in my life. I've been sexually abused too, by a man who believed he had the legal right, even when I said, "No." And fought. And said "No" again and again. He won, but he lost me. I left him. And more recently by another man who was a good friend of my late husband and tried to take advantage of the grieving widow he assured himself who needed his "comfort." 

The most enduring episodes, I've recently realized, came when I was a young field scientist working for the US Forest Service. The subtle harassment like making sure I knew I was just a token, hired only because I was a "girl" and the Forest Service had a quota of "girls" to fill so they would meet "diversity targets." (When a young middle-class white woman is hired to add "diversity," it's a pretty sad situation.)

Me as a Forest Service plant ecologist, out in the field, in about 1981. 

The less-than-subtle stuff like one of my colleagues letting me know during a long drive in a Forest Service pickup where it was just the two of us, he at the wheel, of course, on the way to a conference that he could show me "some good times." "And mentor you on your way up in the ranks." (He was married, with several kids, and I was still a seasonal employee, working toward a permanent job.) I rode back with a different colleague.

The time another colleague, also male, because all of my fieldwork colleagues were male then, took me aside for some career advice, which included "blending in more in terms of your looks" and "not socializing with 'the girls'," the highly trained Personnel and Purchasing officers for the Forest, plus the rest of the office staff. 

I did get my permanent job without the help of my married-with-children colleague, and I didn't quit socializing with "the girls." But I did blend in. I wore my waist length red hair up in a bun, or hid it under a ball-cap, as in the photo above. I wore baggy jeans and chamois shirts in winter, long-sleeved tee-shirts and baggy chinos in summer. I deliberately downplayed my femininity, which wasn't all that hard for skinny, freckled me.

And when I got divorced from my first husband, also a colleague, and the Forest Supervisor, a very nice man, but not exactly enlightened, told me that he was sorry, but he couldn't keep both of us. "You'll marry again," he said, his face kind, "and your husband will support you. But [my ex] has to support himself." 

I was speechless for a moment (something that will surprise anyone who knows me well). And then I resigned. It was the early 1980s, and I didn't know what sexual harassment was. I also knew I was broke from the divorce and had no power. 

In the end, I didn't just leave the Forest Service, I left science, too. I went back to graduate school, turned to writing as a way to heal the world, and fell in love. I married, raised a step-daughter, moved around the country with her daddy's career. Wrote 12 published books, hundreds of newspaper columns and magazine articles. Wrote and narrated a popular nature commentary on public radio in the Southwest. Won awards. Settled in southern Colorado with my love and weathered his journey through brain cancer and my mother's death the same year. 

With Molly and Richard Cabe, the focus of my life for many years, in Boulder, Colorado in about 1988 when I was writing my first book, Pieces of Light

What the #metoo hashtag showed me is not just that I'm not alone. I see now that those experiences so long ago shaped me in ways I didn't realize. Only now as a widow, "Woman Alone," as I prefer to put it, do I recognize that I used my marriage as my shield against the world. Yes, I wrote; yes, I spoke about issues that concerned me; yes, I reached readers and listeners, changed hearts and minds. 

I also hid when I chose, taking shelter behind the larger, more gregarious figure of my husband, Richard, who was a muscled 6-foot-tall and 180 pounds. We went everywhere hand in hand, so it was easy to slip into the background of his larger personality. 

It's not that I can't take care of myself alone. I may not be tall or large, but I have muscles and I am proud of them. In the course of finishing, building, and restoring three houses since he died, I have learned to use tools and design knowledge, to work with construction guys and trades-folk of all sorts. I run 3.5 miles twice a week. I work alone digging weeds in Yellowstone, my ears cocked for grizzly bears or simply amorous elk. 

Yet somehow I internalized the lesson of that long-ago sexual harassment: I was only hired to fill a quota. Because I was a "girl." That my work has no worth. I have struggled to earn a living from my writing and speaking since Richard died. 

Because, I see now, I don't speak up for myself. I take what I'm offered, which is all-too-often close to nothing. I don't believe I am worth more. 

So yes. Me too. And it is still affecting me. I can see the ways it is holding me back more clearly now. I can work on that. 

It seems to me that's what we need to do to carry #metoo onward. It's good to speak up–if we can. It's good to empathize. It's good to see that we're not alone. 

Now each us needs to find a way to take that onward. Work with an organization that helps survivors, that empowers women (and men and others who define their gender differently). Work on your own healing. Speak up and out, and help those who aren't empowered or able to speak. 

Because #metoo is really about all of us. Empowering and healing each other, and this troubled world. 


Family and Windshield Time

I didn't blog last weekend because I was in western Washington with my family. It's so rare that the whole Tweit clan can gather (only Molly was missing) that I wanted to soak up every moment. Even my middle niece, Sienna, and her husband and kids were there from Germany, where Matt is on detail with the Army Corps of Engineers. I haven't seen them in three years! 

I left on Friday morning and intended to be leisurely about the 14-hour drive, stopping in Coeur D'Alene, in Idaho's Panhandle, for the night. Only when I got to Coeur D'Alene, it was only five o'clock and the temperature was 97 degrees. Not ideal weather for sleeping in my truck. I pressed on to Spokane (98 degrees) and continued west across eastern Washington in heat that just didn't let up. So I just kept driving. 

By the time bug-splattered Red and I crossed the Columbia River upstream of Yakima it was nine o'clock, 95 degrees, and the sun was close to setting. I calculated through a gritty brain (I had been driving for 12 hours by then) that I had about two and a half hours to go if the traffic in the Seattle-Tacoma corridor wasn't too horrible. 

I texted my brother and Lucy, his wife, that I was aiming for a late arrival. "So if you see Red in the driveway tomorrow morning, don't wake me up!"

They texted back that they couldn't wait to see me. "But drive carefully!"

I made it to their house on Tumwater Hill at a few minutes after eleven. They were still up, so I got to sleep inside in a real bed, always a plus. 

The next day was a mellow morning, and then we all–Bill, Lucy, their youngest, Alice, and I–headed out to Ocean Shores for the weekend, where most of the rest of the clan joined us. (Dad and my eldest niece's husband, Duane, couldn't join us there.) We feasted on fresh Dungeness crab that night (I was too busy cracking legs and eating the succulent meat to shoot a photo), and ate at a seafood shack that Heather and Duane had discovered on an earlier trip. (Great choice, Heath!)

Some of the clan around the big table at the seafood shack (I couldn't fit everyone in the photo!). Left to right, my youngest niece Alice, who is channeling her uncle Richard and studying economics; my brother Bill; my sister-in-law Lucy; Sienna and Matt; Colin, middle son of Heather (who is sitting next to me and not in the photo); and Fiona, Sienna and Matt's eldest. (Not in the photo: Porter, Sienna and Matt's youngest; Liam, Heather's youngest; and Heather.)

In between meals there was beach-time (Porter and Colin even braved the cold waves, agile and fearless as seals), explore-the-nearby-playground time, put-together-ridiculously-hard-puzzle time (my great-niece, Fiona is the artistic one and a puzzle champ), and just hang-out time. 

On the Fourth, half of us went to a lunchtime picnic at Panorama Dad's retirement village, and then we all gathered at Heather and Duane's gorgeous new house on Lake Tapps, outside Sumner, for a barbecue and fireworks. (Where I had such a great time I also forgot to shoot any photos.)

At the Panorama picnic: Sienna on the left, Matt next to her with Fiona in front, Bill with Porter in front of him, Lucy peeking over Dad's shoulder, and Dad showing off the walker he is using at 88 to help straighten up his spine (he's pretty stooped, but he'll be 89 in two weeks, so he's not doing badly). 

By the time I set out for the long drive home the next morning, I was feeling full of family and love, and ready for some quiet windshield time.

I'm an INFJ-A if you know the Myers-Briggs system of personality types. (If you don't, you might find the test and descriptions of personality types at Sixteen Personalities illuminating.) The 'I' stands for introvert. I'm not an extreme introvert, but I do need a lot of quiet thinking and digesting time. 

So instead of retracing the 14-hour route on Interstate 90 I took on the way to Washington, I took a longer route home. I dropped south to Portland, Oregon, on I-5, and then east through the Columbia River Gorge on I-84, over the Blue Mountains, and south and east through Boise, across southern Idaho, and then north along the back side of the Teton Range, and home through "The Park," as we refer to Yellowstone here where the nation's first national park is our backyard. 

Mt. Hood in the distance over the Columbia River as I headed south to I-84 and the Gorge. 

That's a drive of about 1,300 miles, instead of the just-under a thousand miles on the westward leg. Not a distance I could do in a day. 

Going the longer route gave me more windshield time for thinking, and also meant I got to travel a loop, rather than out and back. I like seeing the West's open landscapes, the more variety the better. 

It took me two full days of driving, and I spent the hottest night I've camped in Red's topper in a Walmart parking lot in Mountain View, Idaho, where the temperature at sunset was 97 degrees F, down from 100. (I was just too tired to drive on, and once the air cooled down, I slept pretty well.)

Still, it was a lovely time. I'm a reader of landscapes, parsing geology and landform, asking myself why these particular plants grow here but not there, or these plants are absent, pondering the human pattern of occupation, both historic and present day. I observe and think about what my observations mean, what the landscape and its patterns have to say to us. There is a lot to look at between Tumwater and Cody, and thinking about all I saw kept me pretty occupied. 

Driving into the Columbia River Gorge on the west end… 

And driving out on the east end. What's different about these two ends of the Gorge? And what explains that difference? Those are the kinds of questions I ask myself in reading landscapes. (Leave a comment at the bottom of the post if you guess the answer!)

I also spent time on my daily gratitudes, which include being grateful for these mostly wild and open landscapes and the many ways they inspire me. And being grateful for the time with my family, as well as for being able to come home to the place that is the home of my heart: Northwest Wyoming.

I thought about Richard, because he was always up for a road trip, and because he would have loved this family gathering (we talked about him over the weekend–my family misses him the way I do, like an ache in a limb you no longer have). And because part of my route home was on our Big Trip, the 29-year-late honeymoon drive we took two months before he died. 

Richard greets the redwood forest on The Big Trip (September, 2011)

And I thought about the question that preoccupies me this year more than other because I will turn 61 this fall, the age Richard was when he died: Who am I in this post-Richard life? 

It's a question that's been on my mind ever since November 27th, 2011, when I looked out at the slender silver sliver of new moon cupping Venus in the western sky and he was no longer there to share that sight. 

For the first three years after he died, I focused on digging myself out of the financial hole that brain cancer and losing him left me in. With the help of family and friends (special thanks to Andrew Cabe, Grand Pound, and Maggie and Tony Niemann), I finished and sold Terraphilia, the big house he built for us but never quite got around to finishing, and his historic studio building, which he began renovating but didn't finish either. (There was always an interesting sculpture challenge to solve first…)

Then I was focused getting my little house built, and on returning to freelance writing, along with writing the first half-dozen drafts of Bless the Birds, the memoir about learning to love the end of life that I still haven't finished. (I has taken a lot longer to get the story right than I imagined.)

And now, I'm home in Cody and realizing again how much of who I became over those almost 29 years together was because I was half of "us," "Richard 'n Susan," a pair so close we often finished each other's sentences, a pair mated for life. 

Richard 'n Susan, in the landscape he loved so much, and I loved because it was a home we could agree on, the Upper Arkansas River Valley in southern Colorado.

Without the other half of that pair, who am I? 

That is what I am working on finding out.

I know that I am most at home here in the sagebrush country on the east edge of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. That plants are my "people." That my mission in life is restoring and celebrating this earth and its vibrant web of lives, plant by plant and word by word. And that love is perhaps my greatest strength. (Earning a living clearly is not! Still haven't figured that one out.)

That's a lot, don't you think? 

But it's not everything. I'm still discovering parts of me I had forgotten for decades. This figuring out who I am as Woman Alone, the "just me" me, is a fascinating and sometimes disconcerting quest. 

I am very grateful to be home to do it. And to have such a warm and welcoming home to return to. Seeing this house come back to life is so heart-filling. Maybe that's what I'm doing too: Coming back to life. As just me. Whoever she is. 

My bedroom with new windows (same style as the old, just tight, thermally efficient, and the glass is so clear!), a new floor, and new paint. It's the first room in the house to be finished… 

What Home Feels Like

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I was homesick.

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

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

Silvery lupine and Wyoming indian paintbrush blooming among big sagebrush

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

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

A gnarled old big sagebrush shrub hanging on through winter

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

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

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

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

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

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

My bedroom (still unfinished, but quite snug)

Road Trip: Fear and Traveling Alone

In the past twelve days since I pulled Red out of the garage on October 1st to head south to Silver City and the Southwest Festival of the Written Word, I’ve driven nearly 2,500 miles, presented at two writing conferences, seen some gorgeous country, met inspiring writers, and gotten to hang out with dear friends. (The photo above is Crater Lake at dawn seen from the historic lodge at the South Rim, where I was two nights ago. Now I’m on the Oregon Coast at Yachats.)

Along the way and over the miles, I’ve also done a lot of thinking about my work. This morning, I finally could see MEADOW, the next book, clearly enough to begin drafting a book proposal, which was a great relief.

(Having a book rattle around in your head but not being able to conceive it clearly is kind of like being tapada, which can be translated as ‘blocked.’ In a particularly well, personal way that’s not at all pleasant.)

I’ve also realized and accepted some important things about myself and this unlooked-for solo life. The biggest came on the second day of the westward leg of this road-trip, when I stopped at Three Island Crossing State Park on the Snake River in southern Idaho. I had driven six hours already that day, coming nearly 400 miles from Price, Utah, and was headed on to Boise for the night, a destination I had calculated would leave me with a reasonable drive to Redmond, Oregon, the next day, the site of this year’s Women Writing the West Conference

I stopped at Three Island out of sentiment. On The Big Trip, the belated honeymoon Richard and I took ten weeks before he died in 2011, when we (actually I, since the glioblastoma in his right brain no longer allowed Richard to drive) drove a 4,000-mile route to follow the Pacific Coast from Washington to Southern California, we stopped at Three Island Crossing for a picnic one hot September day. 

Although Richard’s right brain was crippled by the tumor and his body swollen from high doses of steroids, he was happy to be with me, happy to be on the road, happy to be alive. “I’m a lucky guy,” he said right after I shot the photo below. 

Richard at Three Island Crossing, arms upraised in his habitual expression of joy, September 10, 2011

It’s not that he was fooling himself–he knew his life wouldn’t last long. He was just determined to enjoy it while he could. So he did. 

When I exited I-84 last Tuesday late afternoon and wound my way through the tiny town of Glenns Ferry and out to the state park, I wasn’t sure how I’d feel. I paid the entrance fee, drove past the campground and the new Oregon Trail Interpretive Center (closed by the time I got to the park that day), and parked at the exact same table in the now-deserted picnic ground at the edge of the Snake River. 

For a moment, I sat without moving. My heart whimpered, but then the view of the river, the shade of the big trees and the peace of the place soothed me. I got out, walked to the picnic table, laid my hand on it and repeated something I say every night to Richard’s spirit, “Thanks for being you and loving me.”

Then I wandered to the river’s edge and idly watched a Clark’s Grebe riding the current until it arced forward, long neck curving gracefully, to dive under the surface for a fish. 

When I turned back to Red, I spotted the cluster of tiny cabins in the shade by the edge of the picnic ground. Richard and I had considered staying at one of the cabins. The porches with swings facing the river looked awfully inviting. But by then, as he said, “my bladder doesn’t always communicate with my brain,” so a night in a cabin with no plumbing was just not possible. 

Last Tuesday night, I had an impulse to stay the night in that peaceful spot as a sort of tribute to Richard and me and all we shared. That would add a long hour to the next day’s drive, but what the heck, I thought. If they were still available for the season, I’d do it. 

Idaho State Parks photo

They were, so I did. I travel ready to camp, so it was easy to transfer my sleeping bag, water bottles, picnic basket and camp stove to the little cabin. 

I spent the evening listening to ducks gabble from the river, fish jump, grebes chuckle, blackbirds chatter, flickers call, and sandhill cranes “Khrrrr! Khrrrr!” from the distance as they migrated south high overhead.

Snake River at dusk, Three Island Crossing State Park

As the sunset faded and the great-horned owls took over from the daytime birds, a fishing skiff puttered by in the river. Voices drifted downhill from the campground, but I had the picnic ground, cabins and the riverside all to myself. I rocked on the creaking porch swing, the travel-stress melting away. 

A multitude of stars began to appear in the kind of darkness only found a long ways from cities. I identifed constellations, planets and more. 

And then my fears crowded in. I went inside the cabin and turned on the light, which I realized shone like a beacon, proclaiming for all to know that it was occupied. By me, alone. 

What if someone came down the deserted park road to cause trouble? I worried. The park staff had gone home for the night, the campground was too far away. I was a target there alone, and the cell phone service was questionable. What would I do? Where would I go? What if someone vandalized Red in the night? How would I find help? 

(I have a very vivid imagination.)

Once I had Richard’s solid form to comfort me. Now I don’t. I locked the cabin door, found my flashlight and set it by the bed, turned off the light and crawled into my sleeping bag. 

And then I did something I’ve never done before. I embraced the stream of fears, gave each thorough consideration and thought about what I’d do. I realized that I’ll always have a vivid imagination; I’ll always have fears. It’s just part of who I am, a skinny, freckled gabacha nearing sixty. 

Me on a solo ramble up the Pacific Crest Trail yesterday morning

I’ll also (I hope) always be the kind of person who doesn’t hestitate to take off on a solo road trip, to camp alone. The fears don’t have to keep me from reveling in the time out on the road, away from other human beings; the time in the tonic of the wild on my own. 

The owls continued their soft duet. A big fish splashed from the river. The night air flowed in cool and moist through the window screens. 

I got up and checked to make sure Red was locked. I looked at the night sky and breathed in awe at the river of the Milky Way pouring from black horizon to horizon. 

And I went back inside and slept soundly. At home on my own, fears and all.

The Snake River at Three Island Crossings State Park.


Clothes: Shelter for Woman Alone

I live in a small house (725 square feet) that I helped design and build, approving every detail. It is wholly my house, the first one I’ve ever had designed just for me.

Even my clothes closet is small. Although it takes up one wall of my bedroom, it measures just an inch shy of two feet deep and six feet, three inches wide, which equals just over 12 square feet of floor space–no walk-in closet, this one. My dresser, a re-purposed set of cherry wood bookshelves from the big house, just fits inside. 

I like clothes. No, I’ll be honest, I love clothes. I have an affection for fabric and cut, for drape and detail, for the way a great outfit can make me feel invincible, and how the swish of a skirt or the fit of a pair of jeans makes me smile simply because it’s fun to wear them. 

I live in a small house by choice–I prefer small spaces. If designed well, they feel comfortable, nest-like.

My late love, Richard, preferred expansive spaces; he delighted in entertaining, the more people the better. In the house he designed and built for us, which was almost exactly four times the size of this one, my office was by far the smallest room. It was my hide-out. 

My office at Terraphilia, the big house. 

I enjoyed the big house. But when it came time for me to build just for me, building small seemed sustainable to me on all sorts of levels, including use of resources (I used as many repurposed and recycled materials as possible), energy use, and conservation of cash.

The latter is especially important, because as a freelance writer and restorer of nature, I don’t earn much. I could probably make a better living as a greeter at Walmart. Except that I wouldn’t last half an hour–I couldn’t abide either the corporate culture or the prevalence of plastic items.

I’ve done pretty well at conserving my cash in the nearly four years since Richard died. I have a budget, and I’m good about sticking to it–it’s not really a hardship, because in general, what makes me happy doesn’t involve spending much money. 

Except clothes. 

Jeans, jersey, rayon, lace, silk–all in my closet…

I’ve bought what for me is a lot of clothes in the past four years. Most of them I haven’t kept–they’ve been gifted to friends or family, been consigned at a local shop, or returned to the store if unworn. I’m slowly building a small wardrobe that really suits me, but it’s taken a lot of experimentation to get there. 

That’s frustrated the frugal part of me. On the surface, I have good reasons: All through Richard’s brain cancer journey and my mom’s death in the same year Richard died, I didn’t buy clothes. Then there were two years of spending nights and weekends on finish carpentry and other building and landscaping work, which tends to be hard even on the most serviceable of jeans, t-shirts and hoodies. 

And then there’s the fact that my taste in clothes has changed since I was half of a pair who happily lived in each other’s pockets, held hands wherever we went, and often inadvertently picked clothes in similar colors.

All of that is logical. But it doesn’t completely explain why I couldn’t rein in my clothes-buying.

Last week, my friend Kerry Nelson, owner of Ploughboy Local Market, gave me a gift certificate to my favorite local clothing store for my birthday. (The store, Yolo, happens to be owned by another friend and former neighbor, Loni Walton.) 

I held onto that gift certificate for exactly 24 hours. As I was walking home with the drapy bamboo rayon t-shirt (black, because black goes with everything) and fabulously swishy organic cotton and Lycra skirt to go with it, I realized why I’ve had this need for clothes. 

They’re my shield in a world that was torn wide open the morning of November 27, 2011, when the love of my life and my companion of 29 years died. Richard was my buffer in many ways. He was not only physically larger than I am (6 feet tall and a well-muscled 180 pounds), he was also gregarious where I am not by nature (I can be, but it’s learned behavior–although I love people, en masse, they wear me out). 

Now I’m Woman Alone. Without Richard’s comforting bulk to insulate me, I feel naked. Clothes serve as my shelter, my bulwark against the constant stimulation of people. 

Once I saw that, I also knew that I was done buying new clothes. I have what I need, and I like what I have.

And tonight, as I watch Earth’s shadow slowly darken the brilliant face of the harvest moon out my kitchen window, I am struck by how happy I am. Perhaps it took a total eclipse of the moon to let me see that. 

Out of darkness comes light–if we’re lucky, patient and paying attention. I know the truth of that from the experience of losing Richard. And tonight, the dance of the earth and its moon remind me.