Emotional Anniversaries & Bless the Birds

Richard Cabe two months before his death in 2011, his head misshapen from five brain surgeries and swollen from steroids, but his smile undimmed.

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.

Richard before brain cancer, with a local boulder he was carving into a sculptural sink.

“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.”

Richard (center) and Grant Pound in October of 2011, talking sculpture over the steel trestle dining table that Richard designed and made.

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.

Me in my favorite shirt

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.

Postcards from my summer not-vacation

Sunrise at the ranch, looking down the valley toward the Absaroka Mountains in the far distance.

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.”

The ranch’s horse herd comes to visit, grazing around the cabins.

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.)

Trail Lake, at the upper edge of the ranch, after sunset.

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.”

Lake Louise, a popular hiking destination, six miles round-trip and over 2,000 feet higher than the ranch. A hard climb, but worth the sweat!

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.

The view from a cabin porch of Trail Lake and the ranch’s labyrinth.

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.

One of the perks of being up before sunrise was the wildlife encounters, including this young great-horned owl perched by the corral one morning. 

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.

Rest time on a Sunday ride into the wilderness.

Leading hikes brought the joys of spending time with wildflowers of all sorts, and wildlife too.

Fringed gentian, one of my favorite mountain wildflowers.

One day, the youngest member of our hiking group, Lucas, aged nine and a budding herpetologist, found this horned lizard on a badlands hike.

A tiny short-horned lizard, a cold-hardy species of “horny toad” found in the badlands.

Another day, a grizzly bear heard us coming, and hustled off, leaving just footprints in the trail.

A grizzly-bear front paw print (note the claw marks to the left of the toe pads), less than a minute old. 

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.

The back side of the Pinnacles on the way to Bonneville Pass in the Absaroka Range.

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.

Ring Lake at sunset.

Time Out (from writing)

Sunset over Torrey Rim, from my cabin at Ring Lake Ranch

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.

The cover of Bless the Birds, with a stunning endorsement from author Lyanda Haupt

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.

Torrey Creek falls through a narrow chute on one of our regular hikes from the ranch.

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.

Sometimes the horses graze just outside our cabins.

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.

The view up Torrey Creek above the ranch.

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.”

Wow!

Thank you all for joining me on this journey, and for your support. I am honored. Blessings.

Settling In

My living room with that comfy couch and art on the walls.

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 real bed to sleep on!

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.

After the movers left, there were stacks of boxes everywhere…
And now, it’s starting to look like a home.

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.

My office before floor work and painting…
And after. A much lighter and more cheerful space.

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.

Experimenting with sunny yellow to lighten the gloomy rooms. (Notice how dark the hall is.)

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.

The hall after painting one wall yellow; my office down the hall with sage green and pale blue walls–and shelves and books!

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.

The boxelder trimmed into a tree-shape again.

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.

A yard-bag full of flammable 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.

When Home Calls

Spring in the sagebrush country on the west edge of Cody, Wyoming, with the Shoshone River Canyon splitting Spirit (on the left) from Rattlesnake Mountain (on the right).

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.

Badger and his Guy, hiking Galisteo Basin in a dry winter.

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.

As I wrote in my first memoir, Walking Nature Home,

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.

The Shoshone River

“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.

Casa Alegría at moonrise.

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.

Somehow it all worked out, with a lot of help from two wonderful real estate agents, some amazing trades-folk (thank you, Pipeworks Plumbing and Richard’s Electrical Solutions!), and support from the Guy, who was in the midst of preparing Badger and the horses to migrate to Ring Lake Ranch for the summer.

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.

Heart Mountain (right of center) rising on the northern horizon. When I see that distinctive peak, I know I am home.

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.

Sunset over the Shoshone River in my new neighborhood.

4,000 miles in ten days

Sunset from my Eldorado house

I love a road trip across the open spaces of the West. The time spent in my truck watching these expansive landscapes pass by out the windows with Emmy Lou or Carrie or Ian or whomever on the stereo is curiously restful and energizing. “Windshield time,” a friend of mine calls it.

It’s time unplugged, because I’m usually solo and I don’t use my phone to surf the internet or text while driving–for reasons that should be obvious, but clearly aren’t to the hordes who text while at the wheel. I let my mind wander from the balsamroot and lupine blooming gold and purple on the hillsides to the hawks wheeling overhead to the trucks passing by–what is that huge lumpy thing under the enormous tarp on that oversized load, and where is it going? My imagination soars over the horizon; my memory conjures other times when I’ve traveled this road or worked nearby….

Red Canyon on Wyoming’s Wind River. Seriously inspiring windshield time!

Road trips are my dreaming time, my relaxing time, my solo time (unless I’m traveling with the Guy). But sometimes I overdo it, and I have to say that’s the case for this last one. Before I left Santa Fe last Wednesday afternoon, I took Rojita in for her 10,000 mile service. This morning I looked at her dusty odometer screen and realized with a start that I’ve driven almost 4,000 miles since then. In ten days.

No wonder I’m tired.

But what a trip it’s been! First, north to Salida, where Richard and I lived for the better part of two decades. That night, my dear friend Sheila Veazey opened her She-la-Vie hair and skin studio to give me the great haircut that only Sheila can. We spent two hours catching up and drinking Cava (Spanish sparkling wine), which may count as the best spa experience I have ever had. The haircut is insanely great too.

Sagebrush bluebells (Mertensia oblongifolia) in bloom at Ring Lake Ranch

From there I headed north to Ring Lake Ranch, where the Guy works in summer with the horse herd. The spring wildflowers were in full show, and the peaks were still splattered with snow, which was seriously refreshing after months of brown and dry in northern New Mexico. But I had miles to go, so after a night there I pushed on. (And was in such a hurry that I left my laptop on the table in his cabin. Big oops.)

First to Cody, in far northwest Wyoming, where I had work. And then, on a hot Friday afternoon, I aimed Rojita north and way west on the long trek to my brother and sister-in-law’s land above the Columbia River Gorge in eastern Washington, a patch of meadows fingered with oak and ponderosa pine forest with views of the snowy cone of Mt. Adams.

Mt. Adams from the meadow where we buried our dead.

The Tweit clan–four generations of us–gathered there to bless their new house, and to bury our beloved dead in one of those meadows under a gnarled old pair of Oregon oak trees, with the last of the golden balsamroot blooming around them, along with pale frasera, purple lupine, and other wildflowers. As we placed the porcelain jar with Richard’s ashes in one hole, and co-mingled our parents’ ashes in another hole, black-headed grosbeaks sang their robin-like songs as swallows dipped and swooped overhead.

Mimosas are a morning tradition for we women at a Tweit-clan gathering.

The weekend was rich, with lots of time to catch up and be outside on the land, and only one major meltdown, which I figure is pretty good with all of us together. The less than pretty parts of our messy family relationships are bound to come up when we gather, and that’s healthy, I think. It’s how we respond–with as much love as we can muster–that makes me proud of my clan, even when we screw up.

From Klickitat County, Washington, Rojita and I headed back to Cody, only this time via the longer southern route across Oregon and Idaho, passing through Jackson Hole and down the Wind River to Ring Lake Ranch to retrieve my laptop.

Coming over Teton Pass from Idaho into Wyoming, the shades of green were almost intoxicating.

With the high desert desperately dry this year, I thirst for water and green, and I savored both in the mountains of western Wyoming, and walking the trail along the river with friends in Cody.

From Cody, I headed south to Lander, Wyoming, for a weekend of teaching workshops at Wyoming Writers annual conference. And then, after that immersion in words and creative energy, Rojita and I made one more long push to return to Santa Fe.

What’s next for me?

On Thursday, June 10th, at 6 pm RMT I’m talking with Sharman Russell, author of Within Our Grasp, for the second Zoom-based conversation in my monthly series. We’ll be looking at how childhood malnutrition affects our economies, cultures, and the future of the planet—and also the very reasonable solutions for this global problem, as well as what it all has to do with living with love. The event is sponsored and hosted by Women’s International Study Center.

Join Sharman and me for a Zoom-based conversation on our new books Thursday, June 10th at 6 pm RMT.

And on Friday, I hit the road again, headed back to Wyoming for my summer work. More on that in another blog post!

Where’s Susan?

Signing advance orders for Bless the Birds at Collected Works Bookstore.

I meant to write a post last month, but between the launch of my new memoir, Bless the Birds: Living With Love in a Time of Dying, and driving a few thousand miles for a couple of new projects, the weeks whizzed by with me barely keeping up. (You can imagine me running as fast as possible just to stay in place, like the Red Queen in Lewis Carroll’s fantasy novel, Through the Looking Glass.)

Where have I been? Mid-April found me on the road to the Guy’s farm, where I spent ten days designing and installing a pollinator garden on the south side of the farmhouse. No small garden, this: it’s approximately 400 square feet in size, bigger than most tiny houses!

The new pollinator garden in progress.

I’ve been preparing the ground for the better part of a year, doing my best to kill the bindweed and other invasive weeds, and to rejuvenate some existing perennials, including two bunches of peonies, that had been buried under overgrown plants from a previous and long-neglected garden.

The old garden featured plants not adapted to the hot, south-facing site, and not providing much in the way of habitat and food for pollinators and songbirds. The idea of the new garden is rely heavily on native plants to attract native bees, butterflies, and other pollinators, and provide drought-resistant beauty from spring through fall while requiring much less water.

Before planting, I worked on the “hardscape,” the elements of the garden that don’t require watering or pruning or other tending: rocks. The Guy drove the tractor down the lane to his lower gate, and we worked together to load the bucket with uber-local rocks (sandstone and basalt cleared from his hayfields). Two bucket-loads later, I went to work creating a wide rock border between the garden and the lawn area, and then placing rocks within the garden to delineate planting areas and provide topographic relief.

And then came the plants, some of which had been waiting in pots all winter, plus about 60 baby plants I had brought with me from horticulturist David Salman’s Waterwise Garden nursery in Santa Fe, and another two dozen ordered from High Country Gardens online.

Some of the plants for the new garden, on their way to the farm.

All of that work plus farm-chores took the better part of a week, and when I had planted everything I had, we took a day off to go to a nursery in Grand Junction to look for a few native shrubs to add height to the garden. We came back with several, including two Ribes odoratum, clove-scented currant, which are wonderfully fragrant and very attractive to native pollinators.

So attractive, in fact, that within an hour of planting the first one, a Hunt’s bumblebee queen buzzed over to feed on and pollinate its flowers. Her near-instant arrival illustrated nicely what we in the native-plant landscaping world like to say: plant them and they will come!

Hunt’s bumblebee queen sipping nectar from newly-planted clove-scented currant.

When the garden project was as finished as it’s going to get this spring, I headed back to Santa Fe for two weeks of book promotion, including my launch event, a frank and wide-ranging conversation with memoirist Kati Standefer, whose debut, Lightning Flowers, has been lauded by Oprah, Terry Gross of Fresh Air, and the New York Times book review. (And yes, it’s that good!)

Our conversation via Zoom was hosted by our wonderful local bookstore, Collected Works in Santa Fe, and co-sponsored by Women’s International Study Center, where I was a fellow in 2016. If you missed what was an amazing heart-to-heart exchange on living on the edge of death, you can watch the event here.

The beautiful event poster designed by Cecile Lipworth, Collected Works’ event manager.

If you’ve not read Bless the Birds yet, or Kati’s Lighting Flowers, you can buy signed copies of both by calling or emailing Collected Works. I’m happy to personalize your book if you let the folks at Collected Works know.

The next event in my year-long series of conversations with authors whose work I admire is June 9th, 6 pm (RMT) with Sharman Apt Russell, on her new book, Within Our Grasp, a look the global problem of childhood malnutrition and how empowering women can make a huge difference. That conversation will be hosted by Women’s International Study Center. Registration information on the Events page soon.

Immediately after the book launch conversation, I hopped into Rojita, my trusty bright red Toyota Tacoma pickup, and headed north to Wyoming to lay the groundwork for my summer work in Yellowstone National Park and at Ring Lake Ranch. Four days later, I drove back home again to Santa Fe via a night with the Guy at his farm, which means I put 1,900 miles on Rojita’s odometer and my body in–gulp!–six days. Crazy, but necessary.

Now I’m home at Casa Alegria, packing and organizing. My trailer, Cabanita, is being serviced, and when she’s ready in a week or ten days, I’ll hitch her up to Rojita, and off we’ll go (slowly) for weeding in Yellowstone, and working at Ring Lake Ranch. But first, I’m taking a few days to just be right here, in place!

Bless the Birds Coming Soon!

Bless the Birds cover layout, with great blurbs from Lyanda Haupt, Craig Childs, and Kathleen Dean Moore. Thanks to all who read and wrote blurbs (there are more inside the book).

I confess that I have spent a lot of March playing hooky. My lack of discipline either comes from the sheer terror of having Bless the Birds, the newest and most gutsy of my book ouevre, close to hitting the streets, or from my resolve to take advantage of the company of the Guy, Badger, and the horses for the nearly four weeks they were here.

Honestly, I think it’s a combination of both. I haven’t entirely neglected book promotion, but I’ve logged more miles in the saddle than I have hours at my desk. Which is probably healthy, and part of why I am in pretty great physical shape right now.

Me, riding the arroyo on Sal, followed by my faithful shadow.

When the Guy arrived at the end of February, we were determined to ride every day if we could, and we managed at least a mile or two most days, and some days we went out for much longer, including one weekend when we rode a twelve-mile loop one day and then did a seven-mile cross-country (off trail) ride to a ruined 14th century pueblo the next. I admit that I needed a day to rest after that!

Three blondes and a paint head cross-country…. (That’s the horses; we riders are all going silver.)

The herd, Badger, and the Guy headed north on Thursday morning in a huge swirl of spring-is-coming-and-the-hayfields-need-preparation energy. So it’s suddenly pretty quiet around here, and I have no excuse for neglecting magazine and journal interviews, upcoming radio appearances, a potential blog book tour, and my planned year-long author conversation/podcast series, Living with Love — Cultivating Earth Sense. (Thanks to the amazing Dan Blank of We Grow Media for helping me clarify what I have to offer, which lead to the idea of this series.)

What’s ahead?

  • April 27 is the official publication date for Bless the Birds. If you’ve already ordered the book, you should get it then. If you haven’t, and you want a signed copy, Collected Works Bookstore here in Santa Fe has kindly agreed to be my official source for shipping signed books, so please contact the good folks there.
  • April 26 my blog book tour begins with a wide-ranging interview with author and translator C.M. Mayo on her Madam Mayo blog. C.M asks great questions, so we covered a lot of topics within Bless the Birds and beyond.
  • April 30, at 8:30 pm (ET), I’m reading as part of the NYC-based “The Greatest Indoor Reading Series.” It’s virtual, and I don’t know what other readers I’m paired with, but it’s bound to be an interesting evening! Join us via Zoom through the website.
  • May 4, Interview on the Richard Eeds Show. (Time TBA, sometime between 1:00 and 4:00 pm RMT, available as a podcast after the show.)
  • May 6, at 6:oo pm (RMT) is the big day: BOOK LAUNCH! Collected Works is hosting my Zoom-based conversation with fellow memoirist Kati Standefer, author of Lightning Flowersa personal and environmental accounting of the cost of advanced medical technology. Lightning Flowers is an Oprah and NYT book review editor’s pick, among other honors. Our talk is also the first conversation in my upcoming Living with Love — Cultivating Earth Sense series. Our topic: Living on the edge of death. Join us for what I know will be a fascinating and insightful exchange.
  • June 5 & 6 I’ll be in Lander, Wyoming, as faculty at Wyoming Writers 46th annual conference. If you can’t make it to Lander, at the foot of the spectacular Wind River Mountains and in the heart of Eastern Shoshone and Arapaho Indian country, you can also attend virtually.

There’s more, including an author conversation with philosopher Kathleen Dean Moore, author of Earth’s Wild Music, in June, followed by a conversation with Lyanda Haupt, author of Rooted: Life at the Crossroads of Science, Nature, and Spiritin July. But this is enough for now. (If you haven’t subscribed to my email newsletter, now’s a good time. I’ll send out periodic updates on my schedule.)

Bless the Birds and an interview with me was featured in the March-April issue of Neighbors Magazine. Illustration courtesy of editor Cheryl Fallstead.

Love Language: Communicating Without Words

The amaryllis I gave the Guy for Christmas, on its second bloom stalk.

It’s been a year and a half since the Guy and I met, and we’re still learning each other. We have so much in common–from the books we’re reading, the ideas we share, and a mutual need for time in the big wild, to a wide circle of friends we met separately long before we met each other. We share a passion for science and spiritual seeking, a love of horses and dogs, and cooking and food.

We’re also very different in some ways that are critical to nurturing a relationship.

Take communication. I am, in the Guy’s parlance, “a word person.” When I am trying to figure something out, I talk about it. When I am upset, I am vocal. When I am happy, I am voluble. Words are my way of communicating.

The Guy is much more internal. He tends to work through things in his head before he’s ready to speak. (Not that his body language doesn’t “speak” for him.) He likes silence. He needs space. And sometimes he forgets entirely to communicate in words what he has already processed in his mind.

Those differing communication styles have tripped us up more than once. I’m learning to leave space for his silence; he’s learning to use words to acknowledge his moods and let me know they’re not aimed at me.

A frozen puddle with a heart-shaped open spot we found on our morning walk.

One thing he communicates often is that he loves me. He doesn’t always say it; he acts it.

It’s the little things: The gentle pat of his hand as he passes me in in the bathroom as we’re dressing in the morning. The way he remembers to put my milk out on the breakfast table along with the half ‘n half he prefers.

When he heads outside to feed the horses, he often backtracks before he going out the door to kiss me.

When he borrowed my truck to visit a dying friend in the hospital a few hours away, he washed the truck on the way home. When I make dinner, he clears the table and washes the dishes without comment. (When he makes dinner, I do the same.)

For Christmas, he gave me a pair of riding chaps, the kind he has and I wanted but was too cheap to buy for myself. Then he gave me a pair of long johns too, just to make sure I’d be warm on winter rides.

He found me a saddle that fits my slender frame perfectly, and he oils and cleans it when he cleans his saddles.

He listens when I talk, even when he doesn’t want to hear what I have to say. He doesn’t pretend: he listens with his whole body, with a kind of attentiveness that is rare and precious.

When we’re apart (which is more often than not for our long-distance relationship), he remembers to call to catch up, even though neither of us really likes phone conversations. But they’re a way of tending our bond. He also sends me photos of the horses, links to news articles he knows will interest me, and funny cartoons.

He’s not demonstrative in the sense of hugging or holding hands often in public. But when I’m upset, he always remembers to hold me.

And at night in bed, he pulls me close. When I turn over, he rearranges himself to snuggle against me. Every time. And every time, it makes me smile.

He doesn’t have to say, “I love you.” His actions say it. Words matter, but as I’m learning, actions can speak the language of love too.

A heart-shaped and face-sized chunk of native sandstone.

Sabbatical Report: Taking the Non-traditional Path

Along US 50, the loneliest road, across Nevada

When I wrote about taking a sabbatical from forcing my writing to earn a living back in November, many of you left supportive comments on the blog or on social media, all of which I very much appreciated. Now that I’m two months in, I thought I’d let you know how it’s going.

Which is probably not the way you may have imagined. I’m not spending my days in leisurely reading and contemplation of the universe in its wondrous and chaotic ways. Nor am I writing up a storm.

What am I doing? A lot of planning for the April release of Bless the Birds, my upcoming memoir. I’ve been sending advance review copies to magazines and newspapers that have book review sections, which involves a lot of tedious looking up of addresses and editors’ names, and finding their requirements for review copies in these COVID times when many people are still working remotely.

The advance review copies of Bless the Birds

I’m also dreaming up virtual book events involving bookstores and libraries. The idea I am percolating is a series of internet-based conversations with fellow authors whose work intersects with mine, exchanges on topics that relate to our work.

One idea, for example, is a conversation with my over-the-ridge neighbor, Kati Standefer, whose absolutely stunning debut memoir, Lightning Flowers, tracks in gorgeous and raw prose the human and environmental cost of the defibrillator implanted in her chest that both saved and irretrievably altered her life. We could talk about living on the edge of death, a subject we both know more about than we’d like. My dream is to have that event sponsored by Collected Works, my favorite Santa Fe bookstore, as my book launch event.

I’d like to have a conversation with Ken Lamberton, author of Wilderness and Razor Wire, among other fine books, about stumbling into the understanding that the world outside our skin boundaries, the wild world nearby, can save us. I’d like to talk with Kathy Moore, author of Earth’s Wild Music, about what humans lose when we lose other species, when the tapestry of this living planet frays beyond what seems repairable.

Lichen, an entity made of two kinds of lives that are entirely different but manage to cooperate for their mutual benefit, a fungus and a photosynthesizing algae or bacteria.

I imagine these virtual events as a series of thoughtful interactions between people you’d like to listen to, conversations that explore ideas you’d like to know more about. Conversations that are inspiring and thought-provoking, and yes, might relate to our books, but are mostly offerings from us to you.

Because what I’ve realized during this sabbatical is that, while I do have a book to promote, what’s most important to both the writer me and the scientist me is that I have experiences and ideas that I want to share, and I know writers whose ideas and experiences I want to delve into. So if I can combine those things, book promotion will be something useful to all of us, instead of merely an exercise in selling something.

In dreaming up this series of conversations, I’m taking a non-traditional path, focusing more on what I have to share than on sales. Because that’s in alignment with why I wrote, which is to offer something I know to others in a way that I hope will be useful, inspiring, life-changing, or simply worth the read.

I owe this realization in part to work I did last year with Beata Lewis, goddess of transformational work (you could call her an executive coach, but that’s too limiting), and work I am doing now with human-centered marketer Dan Blank of We Grow Media. Both of them pushed me to look beyond the conventional view of what success in writing means, to integrate the left-brained scientist and the right-brained writer, and to listen to what my heart and spirit ask of me.

Which occurs to me is very much in the spirit of this sabbatical: reflecting on who I am and what I am doing with my life.

Hence this new mission statement:

I aim to restore our love and care for this numinous Earth, and help us be our best and kindest selves–wholly at home on a healthy planet.

Reflections on a lake in the Cascades above Bend, Oregon