I promised to post photos of my cottage renovation, and then I got busy writing and well, renovating (go figure!), and February flew by. So here is a tour of what I’ve done so far.
The house was built in 1938, and boasts a deep front porch and two rooms (now opened up) up front, plus three rooms in an addition at the back. The whole place totals just 672 square feet, so it’s… compact.
My neighbor across the street, who grew up here, says the cottage was built to house the manager of the apple orchard that grew where the neighborhood is now. Originally, the house was just the two front rooms, and a family of eight (six kids, two adults) lived here! When the back portion was added on a few years later, it must have made the space seem positively commodious.
Come on in with me. The first set of photos are how the interior looked when I saw it last fall (before my wonderful excavator, John Long, and his colleague, Jerry Fritts, who basically does everything related to building, carefully jacked up the side where the foundation had collapsed and built a new foundation under it).
Note those classy vinyl stick-on tiles over the stove, and the lack of drawer and door pulls on the cabinets. You can’t tell, but the place was filthy, with food stuck to the floors and grime on every surface. It smelled of rotten wood from the water leak that caused the foundation collapse. The interior, slanting floors and all, had been cheaply renovated after a drug-dealer tenant trashed it, breaking out the windows and setting fire to the inside. Despite the abuses the cottage has suffered, it feels welcoming.
Roaring One, the old gas wall furnace in the living room that provided the only heat, was so loud I had to turn it off at night to sleep.
Let’s go through that door to the right.
My bedroom is cozy at all of 8.5 by 11 feet in size!
Okay, back to the living room and through the opening into the hall….
Go left around the bend in the hall, and there is the smaller bedroom, which will be my office.
Now let’s fast-forward to today, and do that tour again, starting with coming up the steps and into the front door. There’s the kitchen, transformed.
Yet to come: a tile backsplash in the blue color of one of the tiles behind the stove. The tiles are locally made from sediment dredged out of a nearby irrigation reservoir, and the glazes are gorgeous.
Where Roaring One lived is now a wall with an antique shelf holding cookbooks and kitchen implements. I replaced the old wall-furnace with a mini-split system for heating and cooling. (You can see one of the mini-split heads above the hall doorway.)
Now come down the hall, and ignore the bathroom. I have ideas, but they’ll have to wait until I have a few weeks clear to get Jerry Fritts to help me to tear the whole thing apart…. As I said, the plumbing works, and the water is hot and plentiful thanks to my new tankless water heater, I’m grateful for that.
Arabella, my venerable Christmas cactus, is happy with her southwest-facing window. She’s been blooming steadily since I moved her in a January blizzard, so I think she’s forgiven me for the grueling trip.
Now that I’ve taken care of the immediate needs (heating, hot water, replacing some fixtures, stabilizing the foundation and so on), I’m starting in on the neglected yard, where the first daffodils are blooming. Yet to come for the house: new windows throughout, new exterior doors (that don’t leak), and some galvanized steel wainscot for where the beautiful tongue-and-grove siding on the exterior walls was damaged at the lower edges. And then I’ll tackle that bathroom….
This cottage is my happy place. No matter the tragic events of its recent past, and no matter the sloping floors and slanting ceilings, the place is solid, and has a sweet feel and a good spirit. In these difficult times, I feel blessed to have not just a roof over my head and a comfy place to sleep, but a place that feels like–and is–home.
This year started out with events I would not have imagined six months ago: a house sale and a move. Last June, I followed my heart home to Wyoming’s sagebrush country, selling my Santa Fe house and moving to a house on “the rim,” as it’s called in Cody, above the Shoshone River. (Click the link at “a house” to see the “after” photos of the house. It did not look like that when I bought it!)
The Cody house needed some love–I’ve never bought one that didn’t–and it was too big for me. But it was in a great location, and I figured I would spend a few years fixing it up, and eventually trade it for a little cottage in the historic neighborhoods around downtown (which, of course, would need fixing up, because that’s how I roll–and how I earn an income from my real estate deals).
Only the universe had other ideas. Just before Thanksgiving, a stranger knocked on my door and asked if I would ever consider selling my house. I said I’d talk to my friend Yuliya Martsul, who is also one of the smartest real estate people I know, and see what she thought the place was worth. I showed them around and then I called Yuliya.
Six days later, I accepted an all-cash offer on the house at a price that paid me back for the work I had put into it, and covered my move. The closing date was–gulp!–mid-January.
Which gave me seven weeks to thoughtfully downsize, pack, search for a smaller place in Cody, and move. Piece of cake, right? After all, this would be my sixth move in ten years, so I’ve had plenty of practice.
“Right-sizing” from 2,200 square feet to something smaller and packing was the easy part. Finding another place to live in Cody proved impossible.
So I pivoted–flexibility is my middle name since I stumbled into this side-gig of buying unloved properties and re-storying them–I would move into the cottage in Montrose, in western Colorado, that I had bought for my winter writing retreat earlier last fall. (Have I confused you yet?)
My plan was simple: Winnow my stuff down to what would comfortably fit into the 672 square foot cottage–five rooms, counting the bathroom–and store what I couldn’t bear to part with. I’d look for a Cody place come spring, I thought, when the real estate market might be less insane.
Okay. Except that I would be moving from far northwestern Wyoming to far western Colorado, eleven hours south, in January, on a route that’s pretty much off the map for movers. Fortunately, Rick Cook of Cody’s Cook Moving & Storage, who has moved me twice before, figured out how to fit me and my not-very-much stuff on one of his trucks headed for Las Vegas, Nevada. (Thank you, Rick, and ace mover/driver Phil!)
The only hitch was that I would have to move January 7th, a week earlier than I had planned. Which gave me just six weeks to get ready. And to finish some projects in the house that I hadn’t bothered to with, thinking I had lots of time.
So between giving away some furniture and lots of books, downsizing my files, and packing, packing, packing, I was up on a ladder on my front porch replacing the tacky front porch lights with much cooler and more efficient ones that didn’t blind people coming up the walk. And finishing the cabinets in the kitchen, replacing a couple of really ugly bathroom faucets, and the like.
And I spent a week of that six in Montrose overseeing foundation work on my cottage, which had plumbing issues before I bought it, resulting in part of the beautiful stacked sandstone foundation under the oldest part of the cottage collapsing. Fixing that involved jacking up one side of the cottage and digging out the cellar, which fortunately I did not have to do myself!
It’s no wonder that I was a little insane by the time the week of January 7th rolled around. And wouldn’t you know, that was the week when Wyoming’s way-too-balmy-and-dry winter delivered a real northern Rockies blizzard, dropping a foot of much-needed but very inconvenient snow with sub-zero temperatures and howling winds. Fun stuff.
Thanks to last-minute help from my dear friends Connie and Jay Moody and the careful loading skills of Phil and his crew, my belongings were out of the house by closing on the afternoon of the 7th. My neighbor Bill helped me load my huge Christmas cactus, Arabella, into my truck, and Jay and Connie kindly housed me, the truck, and Arabella until the roads cleared enough for me to head south two days later.
Where the Guy welcomed me (and Arabella) into his comfortable farmhouse an hour’s drive from my cottage until Phil arrived with my stuff on a sunny Tuesday morning not quite two weeks ago.
Are you dizzy yet? I’ll save the details of the renovation I’ve done on the cottage in the past twelve days for another post.
Suffice it to say that I’m settled, my stuff is all out of boxes and stowed away, and I am happily exploring my new surroundings–I have a river to walk here, too–and I’m back to work on the new book. Whew!
Tuesday, December 21st, marks winter solstice, the day with the fewest hours of daylight here in the Northern Hemisphere, and consequently, the longest night of the year.
The word “solstice” comes from “stands still,” because for a few days around the winter and summer solstices, the sun seems to stand still in its apparent migration from the southern sky to the northern sky and back over the course of the year. (“Apparent” because it’s not the sun moving, but the tilt in earth’s axis as it rotates around our giant source of heat and light–the sun–that causes that seeming solar movement.)
For many of us, the short days and long nights bring a kind of existential discomfort and dread, something deep in our cells that harks back to the days before electric lighting, when our lives were entirely shaped by the coming and going of natural light.
No wonder that our major winter holidays all feature light in some form, whether Christmas lights or Chanukah menorahs, the candles of Kwanzaa, or the Hindu Diwali festival of lights (although Diwali fell in late October this year).
In this time of literal darkness, we need light to remind us that our hemisphere will turn back toward the light, and that spring and green will return. With the Omicron variant of COVID, continuing political and social divisiveness, racism taking violent and deadly forms, and our climate in meltdown, we need signs of light and hope to ameliorate the figurative darkness weighing on us all.
One of my favorite traditions of lighting the darkness at this time of year comes from southern New Mexico, where Richard and Molly and I lived for seven years: luminarias, little candles sitting on a bed of sand and nestled in lunch-box sized paper bags. Traditionally, luminarias are lit on Christmas Eve, to light the way of the holy family to the stable. The fragile lights burn all night long, guttering out as dawn comes, signaling the turn toward longer days and shorter nights. (In northern New Mexico, they’re called farolitos.)
We adapted luminarias to our winter solstice celebration, one of two big parties we held each year. At the celebration of Richard’s life, Molly and I supplied luminaria-makings, and guests decorated the bags with messages for Richard and placed them around “Matriculation,” his sculpture in the Salida Sculpture Park.
I still have some of those decorated luminaria bags, which I re-use year after year. They remind me of the outpouring of love from our community as Richard, Molly and I journeyed with his brain cancer, and after his death. Our friends and family truly lit our way, and I am grateful.
In this dark season, ten years after Richard died, I am turning toward the light in another way, engaging in a mindful “divestiture” (in the apt words of my playwright friend, DS Magid). I’m working at freeing myself of literal and figurative stuff I’ve been carrying with me, lightening my load as I move on.
That means finding new homes for books, beds, and other possessions; sorting through the boxes of Richard’s archives I’ve moved from place to place to place and picking out what I think Molly might want someday; and also taking a close look at my mental and emotional stuff, working to let go of habits, expectations, fears and misperceptions that don’t serve me.
It’s not easy to let go–especially of books!–but it is freeing. And that feels right for me now.
Ten years ago yesterday, the guy in the red shirt with his hand around my waist in the photo above died of brain cancer. He was 61 when he died, and I was 55.
(The photo was taken right after our Quaker-style wedding in the yard of the house where I lived in Laramie, Wyoming in August of 1983. Richard, 33 then, still had a full head of black hair; mine was still red, and reached almost to my waist when I let it down–the way he liked it best. Molly wasn’t at that informal ceremony, but she was our attendant at the legal one the next day. Susan Kask, Dale Doremus, Rosemary Harden, Tommy Williams and Cielette Karn, do you recognize yourselves?)
Now I’m 65, four years older than Richard ever got to be. In those ten years, I have explored widely, worked hard, learned much, laughed, loved, and survived more losses. I’ve embraced things I never imagined, including becoming conversant at tools and building, and living happily alone.
As I reflect on the past ten years and ready myself to turn the page into the next chapter of my life, here are a few things that stand out, in no particular order:
Helping visionary conservationist Connie Holsinger of Terra Foundation create the Habitat Hero program, now run by Audubon Rockies, to educate homeowners and landscapers about how to garden for pollinators and songbirds.
Learning tools and building to finish Terraphilia, the big house, and Richard’s historic studio. Thanks to Andrew Cabe for finishing the guest apartment, Bob Spencer for teaching me to hang doors, to Grand Pound and the volunteers of Colorado Art Ranch for hanging the ceiling in the studio; and especially to Tony and Maggie Niemann of Tracks software, who coached and worked with me for months and months to finish the house. (They also created this website and blog.)
Using those skills to design and oversee construction of Creek House and Treehouse, my little house and guest apartment atop the garage. That was the first time I had ever designed a house just for me, and it turned out to be a very attractive real estate investment. (Who knew!)
Which lead to my move to Cody, and the great adventure of renovating a mid-century modern house from basement to roof. Working with my friend and contractor, Jeff Durham, was a delight. (A good thing, because we spent two years on that project.)
Then on to Santa Fe, where I renovated two small condos–I lived in one and rented the other–and then moved to Casa Alegria outside town, which I also renovated.
This spring, I moved back to Cody and my house on the “rim” overlooking the river. Which, yes, I also renovated, because “re-storying” houses in need of love is what I do. And which is now on the market, because as the ten-year anniversary of Richard’s death approached, I realized that what I most want for the coming years is to downsize and be free to wander a bit more.
Writing: Some of my magazine feature articles ended up as cover features, including Reading the Rings on what tree rings tell us about history, climate, and our future for WILDFLOWER Magazine, a finalist for the Sybil Downing Journalism award from Women Writing the West.
Winning four Colorado Authors League Awards for my blogs, articles, and “WildLives,” my spoken-word CD compiling favorite radio commentaries.
Being granted the life-changing gift of two writing residencies, one at Women’s International Study Center in Santa Fe, where I was privileged to spend a month sharing a casita with the incomparable playwright, singer, and actor DS Magid and professor Stanlie James, Vice-Provost at Arizona State University and a powerful voice for women, especially African-American women. The other residency, at Mesa Refuge in California, I shared walks, talks, and meals with Syrian-American writer, justice advocate, and lawyer Alia Malek, author of the stunning memoir, The Home That Was Our Country.
Writing, rewriting, rewriting, and rewriting Bless the Birds: Living with Love in a Time of Dying, published by She Writes Press this spring. And about which one reviewer recently wrote: Susan J. Tweit maps the immense capacity of the human heart to hold love and grief, gratitude and despair—and wonder, at the same time. Tweit shows such tenderness and wisdom in this beautiful memoir that I know I will turn to again.
Traveling to a place I had never been before, Ring Lake Ranch in the Wind River Range of western Wyoming, to teach a seminar, and falling in love–both with the guest ranch/spiritual retreat center, and the Guy. (Plus his dog, Badger, who sadly left this life this summer, and his four horses.) Another lesson in how much your life can change in a moment, and when you least expect it.
Re-discovering my love for riding and horse-packing, and spending time in the very wild, where grizzly bears and wolves still out-number humans.
So here I am at 65, turning the page on the last ten years, and readying myself to open my arms to whatever the next ten bring. Still living with my heart outstretched, still loving, writing, re-storying houses and landscapes, and doing my bit to heal this battered earth and our communities. Thanks for your support on this journey!
I’ve been working on my house on weekends, and it’s looking pretty great (partly because my painters finally fit me into their crammed schedule, so the interior walls are now all finished). Here are some before and after photos, so you can see the progress.
I’ve done a bunch of other things that don’t show in the photos above, including insulating the garage and giving it a pegboard wall for tool storage, replacing the old mercury-based thermostats with new programmable ones, and replacing dated and leaky faucets in the upstairs bathroom. I’ve never done electrical or plumbing work on my own before, so I’ve had some interesting learning. Turns out I’m not bad at it.
What’s next? In this reflective time as the days shorten in fall, I’ve been assessing where I am and what I hope to do, and reading and thinking about new and old ideas. By the time Winter Solstice comes around, the sun shifts on its apparent journey south, and lengthening nights yield to lengthening days again, my aim is to have sorted through what I want to carry with me into the year to come and what I’ll let go.
One thing I’ve already decided on is that I’m going to give myself the gift of a self-directed writing retreat this winter, so I can focus on the next book.
I’ve found a charming cottage in a town about an hour from the Guy’s farm in western Colorado where I’ll hide away. (“Charming” because it’s got a sweet front porch and steeply pitched metal roof shaded by two enormous old cottonwood trees; “cottage” because it’s all of 672 square feet in size, perfect for the one of me.)
And yes, it needs some work, so I’ll bring my tools with me so I can putter between writing sessions.
Have a wonderful Thanksgiving! If you need practice finding things to be grateful for in these times, this post from two years ago might be useful.
Ten years ago today, I was preparing the guest apartment at Terraphilia, the house that Richard built for us, for the arrival of our friend Grant Pound, director of Colorado Art Ranch. Richard came in from his studio, his steps slow as he leaned on the cane he had begun to use to aid his wobbly balance after we returned from the Big Trip, our 4,000 mile honeymoon drive to the Pacific Coast.
“I feel like a sculptor again.” He beamed, his once-chiseled face now round from the steroids he took to combat the swelling from the brain tumor threading its way through his right hemisphere, but his smile undimmed.
“Because Grant is coming?” Grant had suggested a sculpture apprenticeship with Richard BC–before brain cancer–when Richard was busy with commissions. But now, he hadn’t worked in months. I hoped teaching Grant might revive Richard’s passion for working with native rocks as, in his words, “Ambassadors of the Earth,” revealing their inner beauty in functional sculptures.
“Yes.” Richard’s smile erupted into a laugh. “Even though it looks like my brain exploded out there,” he said, referring to the chaotic state of his studio, where dozens of hand-tools were spread willy-nilly on every surface, since he no longer had any spatial memory. “Working with Grant will help me get organized.”
It did, for a short while. Until his once strong and muscled body began to fail. For those few weeks though, he reveled in having his hands on the rocks he so loved.
I didn’t remember that moment in Richard’s journey with terminal brain cancer when I woke this morning with my heart racing and my mind awash in unsettling dreams.
I got up and did yoga, which almost always settles me, but didn’t this time. My balance was bad. I took a hot bath, but the anxiety only got worse. My hands shook. My stomach hurt. I got dressed, and fumbled with the buttons on my favorite shirt. Even breakfast–a soothing hot cereal blend of organic grains with raisins, blueberries, and pecans–didn’t help.
I couldn’t imagine what was wrong.
“What is going on?” I asked out loud in the quiet house. “I don’t have anxiety attacks!”
And then I remembered a time when I did, ten years ago. I was caring for Richard at home, and he was dying.
I looked at the date on my phone: October 10th. I opened Bless the Birds: Living With Love in a Time of Dying, my new memoir, and began looking for anecdotes from ten years ago. And I heard Richard’s voice in my head, as clearly as if he had been in the room with me: “I feel like a sculptor again.”
Ten years ago, he was doing his best to live with severe brain impairment. I had just begun to grasp how emotionally intense and physically demanding caring for him 24/7 was. And to wonder how long my energy would hold out.
That’s when the anxiety attacks began, waking me in a sweat at night, sending my heart racing and my body shaking at odd moments. My greatest fear was not living up to what I had promised: to care for him with as much love as I could through his death.
I somehow did. With a lot of help: Molly, my stepdaughter, moved home for the last five weeks of her daddy’s life to help out; my family circled around us with support; Richard’s hospice team, led by nurse Wil Archuletta, were there whenever I needed them. And, as I wrote in Bless the Birds:
Love continued to pour in from near and far. Cards bearing sweet and funny messages filled the mailbox, along with books, hand-knitted socks, and a cap “to keep Richard warm,” plus gift certificates for local restaurants. Poems arrived via email. A food drive through Ploughboy (a local grocery store) paid for our groceries. Meals appeared at our front door, plus other offerings: special stones, flower bouquets, and the monthly envelope containing four crisp $100 bills: “For whatever you need.”
I was grateful for the support, even as my pride resented our needing help. My emotions were all over the map. One thing was constant: My heart wanted a different ending to our story.
There wouldn’t be a different ending. Richard died on Sunday, November 27, 2011, encircled by love, with Molly and me, one of his hospice nurses, and our dear friends Doris and Bill.
After his death, the anxiety attacks vanished. I had kept my promise.
It’s not like everything was fine then. I was alone for the first time in my adult life and deeply in debt after setting aside my writing to care for Richard and my mother, who died earlier that year. I didn’t know who this newly solo “me” was. But I knew I could manage all that, though it took years.
And now, a decade later, the anxiety has returned. The rekindling of those muscle memories leaves me feeling frail and exhausted, as if those grueling weeks of 24/7 caregiving were just yesterday, not ten years ago.
I don’t like admitting to frailty. But I hear the message: Slow down! I’ve got a feature-article deadline coming up, and I had planned a series of author conversations for the fall and winter. I need to seriously consider what I can handle.
Because when I was caring for Richard with as much love as possible, I also promised to care for me with love for the rest of my life. I want to honor that promise, too.
I’m home after spending two months working at Ring Lake Ranch, a spiritual retreat center nestled high in the Torrey Creek valley of Wyoming’s Wind River Range. The ranch operates like a guest ranch, with guests coming for a week or two, to stay in comfortable cabins and take horseback rides, hikes, flyfish, paddle the lake, or just sit on their porch and relax in what the ranch calls “sacred wilderness.”
What makes Ring Lake Ranch different than most guest ranches are two things: First, the weekly programs, seminars on various aspects of spiritual life offered by a variety of well-known thinkers. Topics range from reinventing the Christian church as a more compassionate and welcoming community to the study of enneagrams, and the culture of the nearby eastern Shoshone people. Second, guests participate in some of the ranch chores, including dish-clearing and washing after meals, and helping clean and set up their cabins for the next set of guests. (Those activities build community and keep the costs relatively affordable.)
What was I doing there? Working as hike leader and housekeeping coordinator, two theoretically part-time jobs combined into one way-more-than-fulltime position. As hike leader, I took groups on excursions ranging from rambles into the shale badlands across the river to more rigorous hikes into the high country. Along the way, I interpreted the landscape and the community of our more-than-human relatives who bring the place to life. I see reconnecting people with the community of the land–our wilder kin and their relationships–as my “ministry.”
As housekeeping coordinator, I maintained the ranch’s linen closet, providing supplies for all the guest cabins and staff housing; cleaned the public toilets every day–something I decided quickly that in order to not grow resentful, I would treat as an act of love; hauled bins of dirty cabin laundry to the laundromat in town and picked up the clean laundry; washed the kitchen laundry every couple of days; and supervised the cabin changeover every weekend, which meant cabin checking and cleaning. I came to see housekeeping as another form of ministry, part of welcoming guests to this place of rest and renewal.
Still, I worked six days a week, 10 or 12 hours a day. Weekends were my crunch time, with all 18 cabin spaces needing new linens and cleaning since one set of guests left on Saturday morning, and the next week’s set arrived on Sunday afternoon. Some weeks I had volunteer help–thank you Sarah and Katy!–which meant I might actually finish work before bedtime.
Between hiking and housekeeping, I walked eight or ten miles a day. Despite the ranch’s delicious meals and fabulous desserts, I lost weight. I just couldn’t eat enough for the exercise I was getting!
On Sundays, my only day off, the Guy and I got away from the ranch on hikes, rides, or trips to the nearby “cities” of Lander or Riverton for meals out and errands.
Leading hikes brought the joys of spending time with wildflowers of all sorts, and wildlife too.
One day, the youngest member of our hiking group, Lucas, aged nine and a budding herpetologist, found this horned lizard on a badlands hike.
Another day, a grizzly bear heard us coming, and hustled off, leaving just footprints in the trail.
It was an exhausting and exhilarating two months, full of hard physical work, fascinating people, mind-enriching seminars, and the balm of time in the wild.
Would I do it again? I don’t know. But I’m glad I had the “time away” and the nourishment of my whole self.
If you are looking for a place to go to renew your relationship with the wild, shed your burdens, and rekindle your spirit, consider Ring Lake Ranch. It’s a magical place.
I’ve been on an extended time-out from income-producing writing for much of the past year. (Other than promoting my new book, Bless the Birds: Living with Love in a Time of Dying.) It’s not that I haven’t been working, I just haven’t been forcing my writing to pay the bills.
I thought when I first began this time-out from freelance writing that I would spend last winter thinking and reading (and finishing renovating my house outside Santa Fe). And then come spring, I would be ready to dive into book promotion and begin writing the next book.
I did read and think, and I did dive into book promotion, but I couldn’t make myself start the next book. The fire that has always driven me to write and revise, and write and revise until the story sings was not there. I wrote in my journal (I’m up to 145,000 words for the year), wrote my daily haiku for social media (I’ve written more than 5,000 of those over the past 15 years); and wrote some manuscript reviews, and blurbed a couple of books. But no book.
After Bless the Birds was published, I wrote up a plan for a series of monthly Living with Love author conversations that will eventually become podcasts. The first two conversations were in May (with memoirist Kati Standefer) and June (with author and fellow Quaker Sharman Apt Russell); the series will restart in October.
Then I sold my house outside Santa Fe, and moved home to Cody, Wyoming, where I bought a sweet house on a bluff overlooking the Shoshone River. While I waited five weeks for my belongings to arrive, I started renovating that house, rather than writing the next book. (Do you see a pattern here?)
Five days after the big truck arrived with my furniture and cartons of books and other household goods, I headed to Ring Lake Ranch, a spiritual retreat center and guest ranch in the wild Torrey Creek drainage of the Wind River Mountains in western Wyoming, to work for the remainder of the summer season.
My official title is hike leader and housekeeping coordinator, which means I wear at least two hats.
My work day starts at 6:50 am when I walk to the corral with the Guy to help he and the wranglers with horse chores–scooping poop and spreading hay to entice the ranch’s 30 horses to come into the corral so it’s easier to catch and saddle them for the day’s rides.
After horse chores, I put on my housekeeping coordinator hat and head uphill to clean and restock supplies in the public bathrooms. And then collect the kitchen laundry and put it in the washer.
Then comes breakfast (which I don’t have to prepare, thank heavens!), after which I trade for my hike leader hat and fill my knapsack with first-aid kit, water, sunscreen, bug repellent and other hike-leader supplies, and then lead a group of guests on a half-day or over-lunch hike. Along the way, I “read the landscape,” telling stories about the geology, history, and the relationships between plants and other species that make up the community of the land.
After the hike, I switch to my housekeeping hat again and hang the kitchen laundry on the line. Then I work in the linen room, organizing dozens of sets of sheets, towels, and other cabin linens, plus maintaining vacuums, mops, and other housekeeping tools.
On Thursdays, I head to town, a 20-minute drive down a winding gravel road and then up the highway, to pick up garbage cans full of clean and folded cabin linens. On Fridays, I check the incoming guest list and make up supply bags for each cabin with sheets, towels, and other supplies, and hand them out to departing guests with instructions on cabin cleaning. (Guests generally leave Saturday morning and arrive Sunday afternoon.)
On Saturdays, I haul the garbage cans full of dirty cabin linens to the truck and then drive to town to leave them at the laundry. And then I check each cabin to make sure the beds are made, re-stock soaps and other supplies, and finish cleaning (the guests help, but the truth is that everyone’s definition of “clean” is different!). I also clean the living room (our main meeting place for the weekly seminars and other programs) and the chapel.
If you are getting the idea that each day’s work swallows up most of my time and energy, you are correct. There are compensations though: Not only is the place gorgeous and brimming with the rejuvenating energy of wild mountain landscapes, the community of humans is inspiring and nurturing as well. The food is great too, and spending time with the Guy is a bonus in itself.
I’m not at all unhappy to be working here. But I am also not writing the next book. I remind myself I can write this winter when the nights are long and the days short, and the snow flies. For now, I’m storing up time in the wild, and new ideas and experiences. And that is more than enough.
I want to share two extraordinary write-ups about Bless the Birds:
First, a tweet completely out of the blue from Jacob J. Erickson, Professor of Theological Ethics at Trinity College, Dublin (Ireland):
“Been spending time reading Susan J. Tweit’s heartbreaking and love-wrapped book this week. Such a story of personal and political love for our earthy lives, terraphilia made intimate. ‘Love couldn’t heal all wounds, but it could carry us through.’ [A quote from BtB] Amen.”
And then my friend and fellow writer Len Leatherwood recommended Bless the Birds on her blog, calling it “exceptional,” and writing praise about the book including this passage:
“Susan’s book is peppered with wisdom, warmth, honesty and a generous dose of reality-based humor. It also tells a real love story of two people who face losing one another far sooner than they had anticipated and how they savor the time they have left. I laughed, cried and excused myself from several family gatherings so I could sneak away and continue reading. I highly recommend this book for anyone who wishes to have a glimpse into a world where consciously living in the present teaches us how not to be so terribly afraid of dying.”
Thank you all for joining me on this journey, and for your support. I am honored. Blessings.
I have my stuff! Friday morning, five weeks after Dan and Ryan and crew from Santa Fe Moving & Storage loaded my furniture, many boxes of books, tools, art, and other household goods onto a truck to move out of my house on Altura Road, a semi-truck and trailer from Cody’s own Cook Moving & Storage pulled up in front of my house here with my load.
I meant to shoot a photo of the truck and crew, but I was so excited, I forgot. (A real bed after five weeks of sleeping on my camping mattress on the floor! My office desk and chair! My pots and china instead of paper plates and a battered camping pan! A couch to relax on in the evening instead of my little backpacking chair!)
A friend said, “It’ll be like Christmas when your stuff finally comes.” Well yes, if Christmas involved a lot of sweaty work moving furniture, assembling shelves, hauling, unpacking and collapsing boxes; and many trips to the recycling center with packing materials….
By the time the Guy arrived 28 hours after the movers left, I had much of the unpacking and arranging done.
The Guy hadn’t seen the house, except online, and as I explained my renovation plans and we walked my neighborhood trails, he nodded and smiled.
“I approve,” he said in his thoughtful way when he left this afternoon. “It’s simple, it’s a good size, and it’s a great location with nearby wild in sight and in easy reach. It’s home.”
He’s already talking about a longer visit in mid-September, when Ring Lake Ranch, where we will both be working for the next two months, closes for the season. I look forward to time together exploring the Buffalo Bill Center for the West, Cody’s world-class museum complex, checking out the riding trails in the McCullough Peaks, and wandering the river.
What have I been doing while I waited for my household goods to arrive? Beginning house renovations, of course. Starting with insulating and putting up walls in the small attached garage so it won’t heat up the house in summer, and freeze it in winter.
And then choosing and ordering plank flooring to replace the ancient shag carpet in my office.
I did the painting; my contractor installed the plank floors. Painting walls in my office was the beginning of “un-browning” the house, which the previous owners had painted a shade of mocha brown throughout–including the ceilings of all of the upstairs bedrooms! The whole effect was just… dark.
I picked three colors, a soft sage-green for the dominant color, plus a pale blue with hints of turquoise and a sunny yellow for really dark areas, and set to painting a wall a day. I knew I couldn’t get the whole house done in the time before I leave to work at Ring Lake Ranch on Thursday; my aim was simply to brighten select walls throughout the house.
In between painting and cleaning, I’ve been tending my new landscape, both the domesticated yard and the strip of sagebrush-bunchgrass prairie outside my fence atop the river bluff.
I pruned a pickup-load of sprouts from under the neglected boxelder tree in the side yard to encourage it to grow upward and shade the west wall of the house. I cut down another truck-load of fat and half-dead Mugo pine stems, and trimmed dead branches out of the big cottonwood tree that shades the front yard.
I also spent some sweaty hours crouched on the river bluff, hand-pulling cheatgrass, an invasive annual grass that not only crowds out the local wildflowers and bunch grasses, it is extremely flammable. I haven’t finished the whole strip of bluff-top, but I have made a good start by removing three yard-bags of cheatgrass and its seeds.
The renovation of the house and the tending of the yard and nearby wild are all part of my mission to restore–or as the Guy says, “re-story”–this place where I live. Bringing light back into this house gives it back its healthy and essential beauty; tending the landscape and removing invasive weeds–the bullies of the plant world–helps the community of the land withstand climate change. I am reciprocating for the gifts I receive: the shelter of the house and the joy I take from the land and river.
Botanist and member of the Potawatomi Nation Robin Wall Kimmerer calls reciprocity one of two responses that transform our commodification of the living world into a healthy relationship of giving. The first response, she writes, is gratitude for the gifts of the living world, and the second is reciprocity: what can I give these beings in return for the gifts they give me?
What I can give is my time, sweat, creative energy, and a deep appreciation of the stories of this house and the land.
Restore, re-story, reciprocate–all imply a new or renewed relationship. And that is something we sorely need these days: a new and respectful relationship with the community of our fellow humans and those with whom we share this living planet, and with life itself. I cannot change the world, but I can change my small part of it by building a reciprocal relationship based on respect and appreciation, and my own sweat, creative energy, and time. It’s part of living with love, even in–especially in–this hard time of dying.
Last winter, as the snowstorms that once sparingly but reliably watered the high-desert around Santa Fe failed to appear, and the soil blew skyward in hazy clouds on the winds, I realized I felt uneasy. Restless. Anxious, even.
My body, always a reliable barometer, began to send “all-is-not-well” signals: I developed a chronic sore throat, blood clots in my sinuses, nighttime fevers, and a grinding burn in my lower esophagus that no change of diet alleviated.
I ignored these signals. For weeks. My body is always way ahead of my brain’s ability to acknowledge reality.
A dry winter turned to a hot and windy spring, and the Guy and Badger and the horses departed for Colorado, leaving me with no distractions.
I woke one morning with pain flickering along the nerve channels in my legs, like lightning igniting thin internal wires. That got my attention.
I asked my body what was wrong. The word I heard was “homesick.” I saw a familiar image: a sea of big sagebrush stretching west to the uptilted ridges of Spirit and Rattlesnake mountains, west of Cody, Wyoming, with the Shoshone River canyon a dark gap splitting them. (Like the photo at the top of the post.)
“I can’t go home,” I said out loud. “It’s not practical. The winters are too cold. I haven’t finished this house. My book is launching soon: I don’t have time to move.”
The burning in my esophagus notched up, and a storm of pain raged down the nerves in my legs.
Homesickness may not be a diagnosable illness, but it is more than mere sentiment. The word itself, writes Carolyn Servid in Of Landscape and Longing, allows the truth that when we are away from the places that nurture heart and spirit we feel “unhealthy, ill at ease.” Americans are a restless culture, moving constantly in search of new opportunities, which we define in terms of money, possessions, and power, not the richness of connection. If we valued roots — attachment to place and the community of species who live there over material success, we might well be happier, less driven to accumulate things and more able to be nourished by what we have and who we love. The malaise that captures us when we live in a place or culture that nurtures neither heart nor spirit may be telling us that we, like ET, need to honor the call to go home.
My roots have always been in northwest Wyoming, specifically from Cody west through the Absaroka Mountains and Yellowstone National Park. I wasn’t born there, but I attached to that landscape stubbornly in childhood, and have lived there more than once over my adult life. My heart soars just thinking about those expanses of sagebrush and rugged volcanic plateaus, the resident grizzly bears and sandhill cranes.
The idea of moving home stuck. I couldn’t do it now, I thought, but maybe sometime in the next few years…. I began idly surfing real estate websites, looking at property for sale around Cody.
One day in late March, as I was plotting out a native-plant pollinator garden I had promised the Guy for his farm, I saw a house listed for sale on a bluff above the Shoshone River right in Cody. It was an ordinary ranch house, with small rooms and 1990s dark paint and trim, but the backyard ended in a fence overlooking the river, sagebrush in view and the mountains on the western horizon. A cottonwood tree shaded the front yard.
“I could live there,” I thought. And half an hour later, I noticed that the burning in my esophagus was gone, and my legs didn’t hurt. “It’s not practical,” I said, curious about how my body would respond. Within minutes, the burn and the flickering nerves were back.
I called my friend Yuliya Martsul, a real estate agent in Cody. The house was already under contract, she said. Ah well. If it’s meant to be mine, it will be, I reminded myself. And I went back to looking, my mind finally accepting the idea of moving home.
I talked to the Guy: “If it’s what you need to do, we’ll adjust our home range to make it work,” he said. That night, I slept soundly, with no fevers or two-am anxiety.
In mid-April, I was driving to the Guy’s farm, hauling flats of plants for that pollinator garden, when Yuliya texted to say the house was available again. We arranged a video walk-through. By which time it was under contract again.
Still, Yuliya video-toured me through the house. I could see it needed more light and a connection to the outdoors, but otherwise there was nothing alarming. And the location above the river was perfect for me. It felt like I could make it home.
I made a back-up offer, and by the end of the day, the house was under contract again. This time to me.
There were a few obstacles. The biggest? I can’t afford to own two houses. So I’d have to sell Casa Alegría, my house outside Santa Fe, to make the Cody house deal work. And I wasn’t finished renovating. Plus the back yard was still dirt, not the charming native pollinator meadow and borders I imagined.
Also, I was still in Colorado, planting the Guy’s garden. I wouldn’t get back to Santa Fe for another week. Oh, and the owners of the Cody house needed to close the deal by June 1st, then six weeks away.
Still, I was sure I could make it work. Somehow.
On Earth Day, April 21st, I was back at Casa Alegría organizing the last major renovation project with help from my friend and handyman, Carlos Ornelas. I pulled out a legal pad and made a long list of other things that needed doing, including planting that pollinator meadow, and finishing landscaping the back yard. Every day, I checked a few items off of that list.
Four days later, my friend and Santa Fe real estate agent Agnes Leyba-Cruz and her husband Gil came to look at the house. By that night, they had listed it. Within 24 hours, it had shown four times, and the first offer was in. At the end of the week, we were under contract.
Then began the craziness of racing to finish the house and yard, dealing with appraisers, septic inspectors, and the house inspection, which happened while I was away in Cody inspecting the house I was buying. There was a last-minute plumbing crisis, and I had Bless the Birds, my new memoir, to launch. And I had a household to pack up and move. (Plus a 4,000-mile road-trip for work and a family reunion to fit in there.)
I didn’t sleep much, but I did get my massive to-do list whittled down.
Ten days ago, I watered the pollinator meadow in the backyard at Casa Alegría for one last time, carefully loaded Arabella, my huge Christmas cactus, into my truck; hitched the truck to Cabanita, my teardrop trailer filled with all I would need until the movers brought my furniture, books, and household goods; and hit the road for the long, slow trip north.
When I came over the last divide and saw Heart Mountain, one of the four “corners” of the land I call home, on the horizon, I am not ashamed to say I cried. My heart filled. I let go of tension I had probably been holding ever since I left Cody almost three years ago, bound for Santa Fe.
The late Barry Lopez, who I miss very much, described what I feel in Arctic Dreams:
For some people, what they are is not finished at the skin, but continues with the reach of the senses out into the land. … Such people are connected to the land as if by luminous fibers, and they live in a kind of time that is not of the moment, but in concert with memory, extensive, measured by a lifetime. To cut these fibers causes not only pain but a sense of dislocation.
Home is not some abstract place or community for me. It is part of who I am. I am less me when I am away from the sagebrush country of northwest Wyoming. Less grounded, less present, less whole. Even less well.
Arabella is now settled in the living room, and I am busy painting and designing renovations. My furniture and household goods have yet to arrive, but I’m managing. I am home, and grateful to be here. My longtime community of friends has folded me in as if I never left.
Each morning and evening, I walk trails through sagebrush and along the river. My symptoms haven’t returned, and the anxiety that woke me every night at two am is gone.
My body knew that I was homesick. My brain just took a while to catch up. All I needed was to move 900 miles to northwest Wyoming. Home.