Completing a circle: an “artifact” returns home

The antique Indian basket with the strangely plain inside

(Warning: This is a long post, in part because the story takes place over decades. As one of the participants in this tale said: Everything takes time.)

When I was a child, the most fascinating artifact in the treasure-trove of exotic things that my brother and I were not allowed to touch in the Spanish Mission bungalow in Berkeley where my mother grew up was a finely woven basket with intricate geometric designs on the outside, and a curiously plain inside. It was about the diameter of a person’s head, and sat in a niche in the hall leading from the parlor to the bedrooms. I would quietly sneak the basket from its niche and carry it to a sunny spot where I would simply sit with it, admiring the detailed patterns and feeling the unusual “dimple” indent in the bottom.

The finely woven basket upside down to show the intricately detailed bottom with its indented “dimple.”

That curious upside down basket came to me when I was in graduate school. I carried it home to Wyoming. From there, carefully packed inside my favorite set of mixing bowls, it traveled with us to West Virginia, on to Washington state, to Colorado, Iowa, New Mexico, and then finally, back to Colorado when we settled in Salida. In each place, I unpacked the basket and displayed it in a prominent spot.

I figured it was Native American, probably from a California tradition, but my mother couldn’t remember anything about it.

Eventually I showed the basket to an expert in Southwest Indian basketry and to a dealer in antique Indian artifacts. The former guessed I was right about its origin but couldn’t shed any light on which group it might come from; the latter was focused on how much money an antique Indian basket might be worth. (A lot, it turns out.) I just wanted to know its people.

Inset “dimple” on the bottom of the basket, with the wooden button where the weaver anchored the fibers.

In one of those twists of luck or fate, I was awarded a writing residency at The Mesa Refuge in Point Reyes, California. One day I was in Point Reyes Books browsing the shelves before giving an evening reading, and found a book on California Indian Basketry. I flipped through the pages, and there was a weaver working on a basket very like mine, and wearing another–on her head!

Of course! I thought, wondering why I hadn’t figured it out sooner. That’s why the inside is so plain and why it looks more natural upside down than right side up: it’s a hat.

I bought the book, more determined than ever to find the place my basket-hat called home. Only life intervened: Richard’s dad went into hospice care in Arkansas and died the next fall; Molly was diagnosed with thyroid cancer the summer after that; we moved my parents to Denver the following year….

I thought about the basket now and then, but didn’t have time to figure out the next steps on its journey. One spring day five years ago, Richard and I were telling what we knew of its story to Grant Pound, Executive Director of Colorado Art Ranch. I told him that I felt like it was time to send it home, but I didn’t know who its people were. When I mentioned the Yurok/Hoopa weaver in the book, his eyes brightened. His sister’s partner, an anthropologist, had worked with California Indian basket-weavers.

Grant called his sister, and her partner suggested contacting the California Indian Basketweavers Association. I felt a little apprehensive about calling strangers and saying I had this basket that I didn’t know anything about, but which I would like to send “home” to its people. But my inner voice was firm: it was time. So I mustered my courage. The woman who answered the phone turned out to be a Hoopa basketweaver. She was cautious but cordial. (I probably sounded pretty flaky.)

The “basket” now looking more like the ceremonial hat it is.

She offered that if I emailed her photos, she would try to figure out which tribe what I was now calling the basket-hat came from. I did, and she emailed back a few months later to say it was likely Hoopa. I asked if she had ideas about where I could send it. No response. Months later, I called again, and she gave me the names of some museums. I wrote them down, but giving it to a museum didn’t feel right. The hat needed to be in use, I felt, not in storage or on display.

While I mulled my options, life continued, and it was a while before I decided: I would give the hat directly to a Native weaver, preferably one who was both practicing and teaching. But who? The weaver who I had been in contact with seemed a perfect fit. If she didn’t want it, I thought, perhaps she’d know who might.

I contacted her again. A year or more had passed, but she remembered me. When she realized I didn’t want to sell the hat, she said she would be honored to have it. I asked only that she use it in whatever way seemed appropriate. And that she send me a photo sometime.

I packed the hat carefully, insured it, and shipped it off to Hoopa. (“You gave it away?” said the dealer I had talked to. “You might as well have burned money!”)

Deanna James participating in a Hoopa healing ceremony for a child, wearing the basket-hat.

Months later, I got an envelope in the mail containing a thank-you letter from Deborah McConnell, the weaver I had sent the hat to, along with a photo. The girl in the picture was her niece, Deanna James, said Deborah, and she was wearing the hat as she took part in her first healing dance, for a sick child.

Tears filled my eyes. The basket I had so loved as a child was back at home doing what it was meant to do: participate in the life of a culture and its people. “Seeing the hat take its place at home is worth a lot more than money,” Richard commented when he saw the photo.

That was two years ago. I imagined telling this story then, but life intervened again, most particularly in our journey with Richard’s brain cancer.

A few months ago, when I finally wrote Deborah to ask  permission to tell this story, and to use Deanna’s photograph and their names, she wrote back:

It is okay to use our names and the photograph of Deanna for your blog…. Perhaps your efforts will help people understand that the baskets are an important aspect of our culture and continue to be used today. I am once again teaching basket weaving and it feels good. Everything just takes time.

Everything does take time. Sometimes that time is exactly what is needed to complete the circle, bringing the healing home.

Stumbling on stories

The mother-in-law apartment in back of my grandparent’s house

In my family, we don’t tell stories. We are reserved and refrain from either gossip or boasting, in part because of our northern European heritage with its inherent emotional reticence, compounded by a Calvinist view of gossip and boasting as two sides of the same sin, pride. The result is a family lore as depauperate as forest on exposed granite; stories—like plants—struggle to sprout on its meager soil.

I wrote those words in my memoir Walking Nature Home, to illustrate a challenge in finding my writing voice: I know so little about the people I come from. Their stories are as obscure as the view of my great-grandmother Mira’s apartment in the photo above.

The Big Sur Coast, by my great-grandmother, Jennie Cannon

My parents, both only children, didn’t share my fascination with their families. The only clues I had of the fascinating lives of my forebears came in the artifacts scattered through my grandparents’ houses, including my great-grandmother Mira’s writing and my great-grandmother Jennie’s impressionist landscape paintings.

The people who could explain those artifacts are gone: my great-grandparents, including the botanist great-granddad who studied deserts around the world, and whose research I discovered only as an adult; my grandparents; and now my mom, who died a year ago February.

My great-grandmother, Janet Maclay (Cannon) with her horse, Danny Boy

My grandmother, Janet Maclay Cannon with  Danny Boy (~1918)

As a story-collector, I cherish those tales that come my way, like the one my grandmother Janet told then-ten-year-old Molly, about riding her horse, Danny Boy, all the way up the East Bay when her family moved from their farm near San Jose (what is now Silicon Valley) to a house in the Berkeley Hills so she could attend UC-Berkeley.

Molly shares my fascination with family stories, so when we were planning my recent visit to she and Mark in San Francisco, I asked if she’d be interested in spending a day in Berkeley exploring the neighborhood where my mom grew up. Molly was all for it.

On the appointed day, they drove me through downtown San Francisco and across the Bay Bridge. Molly navigated through the UC-Berkeley campus, where my parents met, he a grad student in Organic Chemistry, she an undergrad majoring in history and music.

The top of the campanile from 1631 La Vereda Road

Our destination: 1631 La Vereda Road, the address in the north Berkeley Hills I had found for my great-grandparents, Dr. William Austin Cannon (the desert botanist) and Jennie Vennerstrom Cannon (the painter). We wound uphill on steep, narrow and switch-backing streets, and not only found the house, I recognized it from childhood walks with my granddad. We parked there, admired the view through the trees of the iconic campanile, bell-tower, on the UC-Berkeley campus, and set off downhill to explore the rest of the neighborhood.

At mid-afternoon, we puffed our way back up those same steep hills to La Vereda Road and the car. I noticed a man unlocking the front door at my great-grandparents’ house.

On impulse, I called, “Do you live here?”

He turned and looked down at the street.

My great-grandparents’ house at 1631 La Vereda Road

“I don’t mean to be rude,” I said. “This was my great-grandparents’ house.”

“Who were they?”

“Dr. William Austin Cannon,” I said, and he interrupted,

“Any relation to Jennie?”

“She was his wife,” I said. “How do you know her?”

“Everyone here knows Jennie,” he said. “This was an artist’s enclave back then, and she was a key part of it.”

I was stunned. I had no idea. A guy who had never met my family knew more about my great-grandmother than I did.

I thanked him, and he turned to go inside. I didn’t even think to ask his name.

“The Campanile,” by Jennie Vennerstrom Cannon

As Molly navigated carefully down that steep bit of street, I looked one more time at the view from my great-grandmother’s house. And another chunk of family story fell into place.

I had always wondered about the odd foreshortened perspective in one of her paintings, “The Campanile,” a view of that bell-tower. Now I could see Jennie had painted it from her front porch high above the campus, only she turned the tower a quarter turn in the painting.

Having seen her view, I feel a bond with the great-grandmother who died not long before I was born, and the world she lived in. She was a noted California painter in the early 20th century, a time when the terms “noted painter” and “woman” did not often go together.

I’m no artist, but I’ve always gone against the tide in my work. I have also always loved to find a high point and look for the stories in the landscape spread out below. Perhaps those are her gifts.

Thanks, Molly and Mark, for exploring Berkeley with me. And thanks, Jennie, for sharing your view.

Finding forgotten treasures


If I’ve been quiet lately, it’s because I’m up to my ears with projects out of my comfort zone. I’m working with Colorado Art Ranch to get our guest cottage and Richard’s shop ready for the Terraphilia Artist/Writer Residency program beginning later this year.

Working with Art Ranch isn’t outside my comfort zone; it’s the remodeling and renovation part of the “getting ready.” Design of built spaces was Richard’s thing. I paid bills, kept him semi-organized, chose colors and dreamed landscaping. I don’t have the “object manipulation gene” he and Molly share that allows them to see intuitively how physical objects and buildings work.

Fortunately, I do have knowledgeable family and friends. Our nephew Andrew Cabe, who picked up the woodworking branch of Richard’s art meme, is finishing the trim and cabinet work in the guest cottage (and when he’s done there, he’ll tackle the main house) in trade for several of the big shop machines that won’t be needed for the artist residency (a planer, jointer, mortising machine, and a bandsaw). I get a finished house and Andrew gets a start on the woodshop of his dreams. Seems like a good trade.


Andrew lives five hours away, works as a seafood-monger, and has two kids. So his time is limited. Still, in three long days last week–with the help of his mom, Bonnie, and a contractor friend, Bob Spencer, he cased and framed all eight doors, plus three windows, and milled and put up all the baseboard in the cottage, including making fancy posts for the bullnose corners. (That’s the cottage living room with new trim in the photo above, and one of the baseboard corners below.)


The bigger project–and scarier to me–is finishing the renovation of Richard’s historic brick shop building, built in 1902 as a millwork shop for a long-defunct lumber company. It had been essentially abandoned for several decades before we bought.

Richard spent about ten years (in between building our house next door) getting its structure in good shape, but never finished. Still to come: installing a ceiling (did I mention the building is 1,700 square feet, and the ceiling is two stories high at the center beam of the timber frame?), some rewiring (ditto the above) and repairing the aging plumbing. (That’s the shop entrance in the photo below, under the old lumber-drying shed on the side of the building. You can see the front with its high brick gable in the first photo of the post, behind Richard and the sculpture he is securing on a trailer.)


Before we can even start on the renovation (which will be done mostly by volunteers, and will likely bankrupt my small hoard of shop-repair cash), there’s a LOT of cleaning and organizing to do. My love was a pack rat. He collected old industrial metal and gears for sculptures, saved scraps of wood to use for levers and fulcrums and chocks in moving boulders, and seemingly hoarded every piece of paper that came across his desk in the almost-three decades I knew him.

Molly and her sweetie Mark Allen tackled the six four-drawer filing cabinets last fall, hauling 65 pounds of paper to a shredder. That cleared two file cabinets. Then there’s his office, and the boxes and boxes of books. I’ve been going through shelves and drawers and cabinets, all coated with years of dust, sorting out what can be saved from what can be recycled and what is simply trash. That’s where the “treasures” of the title come in.

Tucked into every pile and file, whether it’s outdated supply catalogs or receipts, are mementos: love notes  I wrote, sketches for sculptures, jottings of favorite quotes, cards from Molly, and in one case, a whole folder of precise pen-and-ink botanical illustrations I sketched for my newspaper columns thirty years ago, and had completely forgotten. (I think he was saving them to frame… someday.)

Rsketch Rcrosssection
The sorting-through is slow work. And hard on my tender heart. When I come to things like the shirt-pocked-sized notebook containing the sketch for a Craftsman-style pergola and bridge he planned to build in our front yard (in the scans above), I dust them off, read them, and then must wipe my tears and blow my nose before continuing on.

I miss my love–his brilliant mind, his soaring creativity, the inborn affection for this numinous Earth that showed in all his work, and most of all, his company. I will always miss him. And now I have a growing stash of poignant–and dusty–treasures to remind me of why I do.

More on YoungARTS week

I promised to write more about YoungARTS Week when I had more brain power and wasn’t so exhausted. Then I plunged back into getting caught up on my various deadlines, and filling out more after-death paperwork (I’ve come to think that paperwork is perhaps the only eternal part of our existence) and the week flew by. So much for good intentions.

(The photo above, from poet and finalist Maggie Zhang, is our writers at Books & Books, downtown Miami’s fabulous indie bookstore, where we had a master class with fiction writer John Dufresne and store owner Mitch Kaplan.)

YoungARTS week is the flagship program of National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts, and it’s open to kids who will are seniors in high school or who will be 17 or 18 in the year they’re applying. (They also need to be U.S. citizens or Permanent Residents, but don’t necessarily need to be living in the U.S. when they apply–one of our finalists this year is at Bath University in England and grew up mostly in Africa.)


For the 2011-2012 year, over 5,000 kids applied to YoungARTS in nine artistic disciplines: dance, cinematic arts, jazz, visual arts, music (all instrumental except jazz), photography, theatre, writing, and vocal. Some apply in more than one discipline–these are truly talented kids. The 150 kids chosen as finalists, those who attend YoungARTS week, come from high schools that specialize in the arts, prep schools, and ordinary public high schools.

Three things unite the writing finalists (and I suspect the finalists in other disciplines too, but I only work with the writers): a passion to be heard, a hunger to learn more about writing, both craft and art, and a yearning to be around others of their kind.

Watching our 22 young writers bond over the week was just sweet. We told them repeatedly that they weren’t competing with each other, and they took it to heart.

By the end of the first full workshop day they were clustered at dinner, exchanging stories. (They had formed a Facebook group when they learned they were finalists for YoungARTS week, so their meeting was punctuated with cries of “I recognize you!” “So you’re…!”) They each were chosen based on a submission in a particular genre: short story, creative non-fiction, or poetry–we didn’t have any playwrights or novelists this year.

That first night they began helping each other cut down their winning pieces their three-minute selections for the big Thursday night reading. Over the course of the week, they gave each other constructive feedback and support in workshop, and continued working and playing together outside workshop.

By the end of the week, they were inseparable. For young artists, finding compatriots who understand their passion for something society often sees as a “frill” at best is critical to their survival. (They’re still chatting away about adjusting to life after YoungARTS week on that Facebook group.)

If past years are any guide, at least some of these young writers will be friends for life. And we’ll be reading their words in coming decades.

We nominated ten of our writers to be considered for the twenty total slots (among all nine disciplines) as Presidential Scholars Medals in the Arts. The winners will receive their medals at the White House and read at the Smithsonian Institution. Heady stuff. But they’re that good.

So yeah, I worked too hard (our teaching days begin at breakfast and end after the last performance at ten or eleven o’clock at night), got too little sleep, ate too much, didn’t exercise enough… And it was more than worth it to work with these talented young writers, and with my fellow panelists, poet Dave Lee, novelist Rob Van Wagoner, and poet Gailmarie Pahmeier, and our coordinator, visual artist Mary Lee Adler. You all rock!


Now I’m home in the land of spectacular dawn skies, working to finish up projects with immediate deadlines and looking forward some time to think about what’s ahead now that my life has been radically reshaped by the death of my husband, sculptor and economist Richard Cabe.

I didn’t imagine that our nearly 29-year partnership in love, life and art would dissolve this soon. But it did. Which gives me the opportunity–perhaps unwanted, but still an opportunity–to reshape my life, rethink my path. Thanks for walking with me…

Intense, Inspiring: YoungARTS Week 2012

Even if I had gotten more than four hours of sleep last night, I still wouldn’t be able to do justice to the week I’ve just spent in Miami working with three inspiring writing colleagues, and 22 amazing 17- and 18-year-old writers.

When National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts asked me to return to their national writing panel last summer, I was excited. The organization exists to honor and nurture the nation’s best young artists in nine disciplines: visual arts, photography, cinematography, dance, music, jazz, vocal, theatre, and of course, writing. Kids approaching their senior year apply by submitting their work, and panelists see, hear, read, and evaluate thousands of applicants, inviting the top 150 to Miami each January for YoungARTS Week, where those budding artists work with panelists and master teachers to hone their work.

Each discipline showcases their work a professional-quality event every night of the week, and the whole ends with a star-studded performance and gala, with awards given to people who are longtime leaders in the arts. (Robert Redford was an awardee this year.)


I’m too exhausted this morning to muster the words that would do these young writers justice. Watch the video (the writers are the first few minutes, rehearsing for a bit of theater that opened their reading) and consider this: “our” writers came from as far away as Bath, England, and Hawai’i. Their work ranges from memoir and creative non-fiction essays to short stories and poetry. Their voices are fresh, honest, funny, sad, angry, bemused, reportorial, thoughtful.

They write about losing siblings after a mother goes to prison, surviving teenaged love, childhood innocence and dancing to Johnny and June, life in skid row, growing up rootless in Africa, rescued swallows set free, homes lost, homes found, surviving schitzophrenia… They tell stories in the voice of rape survivors, art critics, people reaching the end of their lives, people making homes in foreign cultures; those finding their voices and losing them.

Here are some first lines from their work:

“In the thirties, my grandmother was a girl and walked/to her Idaho twon limits where heaps of surplus potatoes/were beginning to decompose.” (Sarah Rhu, poetry)

“Ingrid Harris’ work first caught the public attention in August, 1991, when prominent local artist Aleksandr Stoya featured some of her paintings in his annual exhibition.” (Charles McCrory, short story)

“All that research I did—reading and rereading articles from different scientific journals, watching the same episode of Through the Wormhole with  Morgan Freeman six times, Googling general relativeity and the Schwarzschild radius and primordial black holes and black hole thermodynamics—and for what?” (Da’Shawn Mosley, creative non-fiction)

“In summer, we spent days assembling paper airplanes, folding the white sheets until we could see light coming through the fragile creases.” (Kelly Clare, short story)

“You start off in Italy, on the third story of an apartment, located above Teatro Grego, a Greek-style theatre with beautiful dancers twirling each night.” (Danny Rothschild, creative non-fiction)

“He looks up from his laptop, toward a class that should be working quietly.” (Kamry Goodwin, short story)

“As a child, my mother and grandmother took me to buy/sweetgrass baskets propped on card tables near the corner/of streets people knew to meet on.” (Emily Nason, poetry)

“Thomas always felt like he was filled with the ocean.” (Emma Townley-Smith, short story)

Don’t those just make you want to read on? There’s no recording of their showcase reading up on the YoungARTS website yet, but it was a stunning performance. The audience laughed, cried, nodded in understanding, and gave them a standing ovation at the end.

And that’s just writing. Throughout the week, we saw and heard the magic of talented dancers, actors, photographers, visual artists, vocalists, jazz and classical musicians. My head is still spinning!

Thanks to my fellow writing panelists, poet Dave Lee, novelist Rob Van Wagoner, and poet Gailmarie Pahmeier, plus our discipline coordinator, sculptor Mary Lee Adler, for understanding why I couldn’t be with youin November to select the finalists, and for welcoming me so warmly this week.

And thanks to the writing finalists themselves, for bringing your words, and your bright spirits and minds to Miami Beach, for daring to stretch and grow and dream with us.

That’s you, in order of your appearance in the anthology: Maggie, Hannah, Sarah, Emily N, Nia, Kamry, Stephanie, Charles, Dalia, Alina, Niki, Kelly, Emily C, Emma, Chris, Christine, Da’Shawn, Kam, Sophia, Danny, Ryan, Lily.

Write more. Write well!

As for me, I’m in the Miami Airport on my long way home via Dallas and Denver, and then over the mountains. I can’t wait to see the Upper Arkansas Valley stretch out below me as I come down Trout Creek Pass tomorrow afternoon…

Almost 29 years


Last Saturday was the 29th anniversary of the party when Richard Cabe and I met. We were graduate students at the University of Wyoming, he in the PhD program in natural-resource economics and me working as the director of the University Women’s Center, and trying to knit together the disparate disciplines of writing and field science.

One of my volunteers–still a dear friend–kept trying to fix me up with Richard, her fellow econ grad student, who was, she insisted, perfect for me: he was the smartest of their bunch, helped all the other grad students, was a dedicated dad to his three-year-old daughter, loved to hike and watch birds and collect rocks… Blah, blah, blah.

I was divorced, I said. I wasn’t interested in men.

That December, she threw herself a birthday party at a local restaurant. I arrived late, and the only remaining seat was next to… Richard. (Molly, said three-year-old, was playing happily under the table.) By the end of the evening, I was hooked.

Then came winter break and travel: to New York for him, Tucson for me. He called after we both returned. I invited him over for dinner. If he got a thumbs up from my housemates, I figured, we could try a date.

He did, and we did.

We headed over the Medicine Bow Range to Saratoga, Wyoming, for a soak in the hot springs followed by dinner at the historic Wolf Hotel. By the end of the two-hour trip on snow-packed mountain roads, sitting elbow-to-elbow in the cab of my Datsun pickup, it felt like we’d known each other our whole lives. After a soak in water so hot I swear the snowflakes sizzled when they hit my skin, dinner and a drink, I let him take the wheel of the truck I never let anyone drive, and fell asleep on his shoulder.


We moved in together. That August, we married in a Quakerly ceremony on the front lawn of my house, followed by a yard party.


The next day, we left for West Virginia and Richard’s first faculty job. Two semesters later, we moved to Washington state, where Molly learned that if you lick a slug, your tongue will go numb, and her daddy and I worked in state government for three years. Until he decided to finish his PhD and try academics again.


We moved to Boulder, Colorado (I wrote my first book, Pieces of Light, there). After Richard finished his degree, we moved again, to Ames, Iowa, where he had a post-doc fellowship.


Two years later, we moved to Las Cruces, New Mexico, where Richard joined the faculty of New Mexico State University. We stayed seven years, while Molly went through middle school, high school, and started college; Richard got tenure; and I wrote books two through six. Then I got homesick for sagebrush, he took a leave of absence from teaching, and we moved to Salida.


We never went back. Richard’s work as an expert witness took him around the country, and we settled first in a tiny but charming historic duplex just off downtown, and then built a new house on blighted industrial property across the alley we bought for its huge but decaying brick shop building–Richard’s studio.


When the consulting work ended, Richard cast around for another career until I convinced him to follow his heart into abstract sculpture, working with the rocks he called “ambassadors of the earth.” In that at last, he found his vocation.


Through those almost 29 years and all the moves (nine in our first 15 years together); through Molly’s growing up, her graduation from a small Quaker high school followed by a liberal arts college; through Richard’s career migrations and my writing challenges; as his hair turned silver and receded while mine went from red to sandy with white threads; as we weathered life-challenges including Molly’s thyroid cancer, Richard’s father’s death, my mother’s death, and then Richard’s brain cancer; two things stayed constant:


Richard’s smile, the outward expression of his spirit,


and the love we discovered at that birthday party 29 years ago, love which carried us through a journey both more beautiful and more difficult than we ever imagined.

As I walk on without Richard, I intend to share those two gifts: the smiles of a bright spirit and unwavering love. The world can surely use more of both.

Rocks from hand to heart


My solstice tree stands undecorated in the corner of the living room, my email in-box overfloweth, and it’s been almost a week since I wrote in this blog. (That’s the solstice tree in the photo above. The beautiful watercolor of the lily bed adjoining my kitchen garden to the right is by artist and neighbor Sherrie York.)

Last week got away from me, in part because I headed over the mountains to Denver on Wednesday, didn’t get home until Friday afternoon, and then needed a day to recover.

The 128-mile drive to Denver is something I do not undertake lightly at this time of the year, when traveling over the three mountain passes between our valley and the city can be… exciting. But I needed to spend some time with my dad, and I wanted to deliver the hand-to-heart rocks Molly had carved to Richard’s doctors and key staff at the VA Medical Center. (That’s one in the photo below, a hand-sized, river-rounded cobble carved with his signature polished concavity.)


Each rock was packaged in a classy black corrugated cardboard gift box donated by Jerry Scavezee and Toni Tischer of Gallery 150, the Salida gallery that carries Richard’s sculpture, and accompanied by a small broadsheet, which said in part:

“Richard thought of his sculpture work as a way to bring our natural love of this planet and its living communities into our daily lives and experiences. One of his signature ways to help people ‘see’ a rock as something unique and worth respecting was to take a rough native rock–whether a one-ton boulder or a pebble–and grind out and polish a concave place in the rock’s surface. In essence, he was making a ‘window’ into the rock’s interior to reveal its beauty.

“When it was clear that his life was ending, he showed Molly how to use his carving tools and asked her to make a set of rocks with his signature polished window, rocks that would be comforting when held in the hand and would convey his love of the earth… I helped him choose the rocks, Molly carved and polished them, and together we decided who each rock belonged to.”


I carried a shopping bag full of the boxed rocks into the VA Medical Center first thing Wednesday morning, eager to return to the facility where we had spent so much time since he saw bird hallucinations in September, 2009, a place where he had been hospitalized six times–four for brain surgeries, and where we had been treated with skill and kindness. My first stop: Richard’s oncologist.

On the way to meet her, I ran into the social worker from his palliative care team. As soon as she expressed condolences, my eyes filled.

“I warned you that most people find it hard to come back,” his oncologist said a few minutes later, fingering the rock we had picked out for her with its silky smooth concavity revealing big pink feldspar crystals in a gray and white matrix.

“I thought I’d be okay,” I said. “And then as soon as I saw Sarah…” My eyes filled again.

His oncologist hugged me. We talked for a few more minutes, and once she was sure I was indeed okay, she headed back to the consult room, her rock in her hand.

“Keep in touch,” she said.

“I will,” I promised.

And on I went. Each rock-delivery visit was similarly sweet and painful, yielding stories about Richard. By the time the shopping bag was empty, I was wrung out.


As I headed down the stairs, I realized that part of the grief I felt was that not only had I lost my love, now I was losing a community of people who I had come to care for in the time they cared for him.

Just before I left the building, I spotted one of the nurse-practitioners from neurosurgery.

She expressed her sympathy, and then as we parted, she said, “If you need anything, call. We’re here to serve you, too.”

Tears filled my eyes.

“Thank you, Fran,” I said.

Then I walked on out to the car to cry in private.



We’re celebrating Richard’s life on December 23rd (the day after Winter Solstice, his favorite holiday) from 2:30-4:30 p.m. at Salida’s SteamPlant Event Center, next to the Sculpture Park that features his “Matriculation.”

We’ll take time to gather and socialize, to listen to recollections of his life, to reflect in silence and speak if so moved. We’ll end the celebration by placing luminarias–small candles set on sand in paper lunch bags, with a few words for Richard written on each bag–in the sculpture park, to illuminate the night and signal the turning of the year, when the days grow slowly longer. 

If you’re in the area, please join us. If you can’t be here, you can join in spirit by putting out a few luminarias of your own. Help us spread Richard’s light and love!

Brain Cancer: After enlightenment, the paperwork…


It’s Wednesday, day three of my journey without Richard. After pouring myself into helping the love of my life live as well as possible with brain cancer over the past two-plus years, I figured I was due to sleep for a few days, do some moping, shed tears, and then resume my quiet writing  routine.

Except I forgot the paperwork. The forms that must be filled out, signed and filed in order to keep the cycle of life–or at least the cycle of institutions–turning. (Warning: I have a slightly skewed sense of humor. If you’re easily offended, stop reading here.)

Richard’s after-death journey in paperwork began with the State Anatomical Board, the agency which handles donations of bodies to the University of Colorado Medical School. Ever the teacher, he wanted his body to return to school after death to teach medical students. First though, the appropriate forms had to be faxed in…

(The photo below shows my love bbc–before brain cancer–carving a basin in a one-ton granite boulder to help it morph into a gas firepit, one of my favorite of his big functional sculptures.)

Next came the forms for the funeral home. After I signed them, the guys apologized as they loaded his limp body onto a gurney. Turns out their fridge didn’t have room to hold him until the next day, when he would be transported to Denver.

“We’ll have to take him to the County Coroner’s for the night,” they said, as if embarrassed by the substandard accommodations. “Is that okay?”

“Of course,” I replied, biting my tongue to keep from adding, “I don’t have room for him in my fridge either.” (Sometimes you just have to laugh…)

Then came the Family Medical Leave Act forms allowing Molly to return to her job as a strategist at a busy advertising agency after taking five weeks to help with her dad’s hospice care. Those required a couple of hours condensing Richard’s medical history to fit into tiny spaces.

Next, the death certificates, printed on special paper with watermarks and heavily engraved borders (at $57 for five copies it’s very fancy paper). Those make his death official, allowing me to begin notifying institutions and spawning yet more paperwork.

Our local bank was fairly easy–except for the trees killed in manufacturing the multiple sheets of paper required to remove his name from a single account. Still, a real person answered the phone, and I was treated very kindly when I walked into the bank.

The journey through the charge card company was okay once I got to a human being; doing so required navigating many nested levels of robotic voice menus. The appropriate paperwork will be emailed to me in… 48 hours. So much for instant communication.

At our insurance agency, the agent came out of her office to hug me. She’d read the obituary in the local newspaper.

“Don’t worry. We’ll handle it,” she said. And then smiled ruefully, “Resulting in the usual blizzard of mail from the company.” (More trees killed. Sorry, my love. I’m trying to be green.)

Tomorrow I’ll brave the phone menus for our retirement accounts, and visit the county clerk and the ever-dour staff at the driver’s license bureau. And so on, traveling in the paperwork realm of the circle of endings as beginnings…


(The photo above shows Richard bbeginning to polish the firepit boulder.)

Before Molly and Mark departed on Tuesday, we began two healing efforts. We decided on a public celebration of Richard’s life on December 23rd, the day after winter solstice, from 2:30 to 4:00 p.m., at Salida’s SteamPlant Event Center, next to the Sculpture Park that features Richard’s “Matriculation.” (Details to come.) If you’re in the area, please join us.

To honor his life and art in the longer term, we’re creating a fund to support the Richard Cabe Artist/Writer Residency Program in partnership with Colorado Art Ranch. Writers and artists will be able to apply for a week to a month of uninterrupted time here in tiny, scenic Salida using Richard’s studio and our guest cottage to purse projects that reflect his interest in rekindling terraphilia, our inborn attachment to the earth and its inhabitants. We hope contributions to the fund will help his ending inspire many beginnings.


Brain Cancer: It won’t be long enough


A month ago, Richard and I were returning home from our last-minute, rushed trip to see his mother and family in northwest Arkansas. He was walking with a cane, dressing himself, and generally able to function perfectly competently if perhaps less gracefully than he once had. We figured that he’d be good for a while longer.

Four weeks later, he is bed-bound, and has been since the morning 17 days ago when he was “too tired” to transfer to the wheelchair and be rolled to the table for breakfast. He hasn’t left the bed since.

He’s now too weak to sit up without help, or even roll over. He can’t dress himself or manage the in-bed urinal. (His sense of humor is still intact though. He asked the other day if I had known I would be adding “urinal wrangler” to my job title. I said, “No, I didn’t. But I don’t mind.”)


His left arm and leg have gone limp, apparently because the glioblastoma which has fingered throughout his right hemisphere now impedes his brain’s ability to process signals from his left side.

Instead of the button-down shirts and creased Wrangler jeans he used to wear, he’s now clad in a long-sleeved duofold t-shirt and an adult diaper under a mound of blankets. (I’ve added “diaper changer” to my job title as well. It’s stinky and messy, but vital.)

For the first time in the nearly 29 years I’ve known him, my 180-pound husband eats less than I do, ingesting around two cups of food a day. But he can and does feed himself, and he enjoys his food–and his morning coffee and evening half-a-Belgian beer.

And even though his once-rich tenor voice has shrunk to a halting whisper, he can still talk, and does, commenting with wit and intelligence on any conversation swirling around him.

In short, he’s pretty healthy for someone who is dying.

“Healthy” in the context of the journey he is on, and in the sense of the origin of the word, which comes from an Old German root related to “whole.” Whole as in able to take this journey with eyes wide open and a healthy heart and spirit, determined to enjoy the moments as he can.

“Dying” in the sense of “in decline.” He gets weaker every day, and all sorts of nasty little problems have begun to crop up of the sort that indicate physical decline: skin sores, dry mucous membranes, difficulty with bowel functions, those scary gulp/choke noises he makes every so often…

As his oncologist pointed out, he’s been healthy throughout, especially considering that he has weathered four brain surgeries, a course of radiation, and two courses of chemotherapy. “He’s had two good years.” (It’s actually two years and 89 days since the Sunday morning in August when he saw birds–not that I’m counting.)


In that time, he’s been able to do some sculpture, travel, take long walks, go on a week-long meditation retreat, perfect his sourdough bread recipe, teach me how to lay sandstone pavers, swim in the snowmelt-cold Arkansas River on his birthday, finish projects around the house, collaborate on the design of a public interpretive garden, and participate in a couple of art shows. (The photo below is from “33 Ideas,” a show put together by Colorado Art Ranch at Denver International Airport.)


Two years, she reminds me, is long for someone with Grade IV brain cancer. The usual prognosis is a year from diagnosis, and he started out with traumatic brain swelling that could have killed him right then.

The other morning, after I shoehorned myself between the rails of his hospital bed and his warm body for our snuggle time, he said,

“I used to say I felt gratitude for being able to walk about on the surface of this extraordinary planet. But now…”

He paused.

After a while, I said, “And now you can’t walk about. But you can still be grateful to participate in life on this extraordinary planet.”

“Yes,” he said. “I am.”

Two years and 89 days… However many more days we have, it won’t be long enough.


Brain cancer: Passing on the art meme


Recently, while lying awake in my “thinking hour” before dawn, I was musing about Richard’s art and how to keep it alive even as brain cancer gradually takes his life.


I remembered seeing Molly use her iPhone to record a conversation, and that provoked what may be one of my best-ever ideas: I could email photos of Richard’s work to Molly, she could choose a piece, put a photo of it on her iPad, set it up at the table like an easel, and ask him questions while recording their conversation. We could at once archive his work and capture a series of informal teachings about art and his sculpture process. And if Molly’s partner Mark, a photographer, wanted to join the project, he could shoot professional-quality photos of Richard’s work to enhance the archive.


Further, I thought, the interviews might be a sneaky way to inspire Molly to join Grant, our friend and the executive director of Colorado Art Ranch, in apprenticing with Richard. Molly’s got his artistic talent: she helped with the carving on the very first boulder-sink that Richard sculpted (the beautiful gneiss basin in two of the photos above) and has explored other artistic projects, but has never found a focus for her creativity.

My thoughts rolled on, and it occurred to me that if Molly and Grant took to the work, Richard could offer them the possibility of taking on his projects-in-progress and carrying on the tradition of his Salida Millwork studio.


(His sculptural wildlife drinking basins in the photo above are part of a project to restore wildlife habitat to the gritty industrial site surrounding a coal-fired power plant).

I looked at the clock: it was only five, too early to wake Richard. As I lay there contemplating the idea of giving Richard a way to pass on his art meme (a meme, as coined by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, allows units of culture leap from mind to mind, just as genes pass on biological properties), I thought about his woodworking, including the cabinet and trim work in our house.

Drawer Drawerpull

That work, I thought, would be perfect for our nephew Andrew, if he was interested. Andrew helped build the house and inspired by “Unc,” loves woodworking.

The more I thought about the whole concept of passing on Richard’s art to new hands and minds, the more excited I got. Finally, I snuggled close, woke him and poured out my ideas. He thought for a while and then said,

“That’s really good.”

“I thought it was brilliant,” I said modestly.


Over breakfast, we proposed the interview idea to Molly. She immediately got her iPad and iPhone and went to work, starting with a photo of his very first piece, a shallow granite basin in the photo below. That began a series of breakfast talks, sometimes with Andrew and Grant, sometimes with other listeners, in which Richard elaborated on why he works with the rocks he calls “ambassadors of the earth,” how he listens to what each rock has to say, and his tools and techniques.


The next afternoon, we four-wheeled Richard’s wheelchair up the dirt driveway to the shop for a granite-carving lesson. Grant (working at the wet-grinder carving station in the photo above, with Richard and Molly watching) took to the work as soon as he saw the inner rock emerge.

The next afternoon Molly headed out to the studio for some solo carving time, and an hour later came in bearing one of the small “sampler stones” Richard had picked out. (In the photo below, finished sampler stones sit on an inlaid steel dining table that Richard designed.)


“I got it Sus!” she said, with a smile that echoed her daddy’s smile when he finished that first basin.

When Richard’s strength faded before he could get out to his studio again, they brought the studio to him, shooting photos of his tools and rocks, and clustering around his bed to talk over the images.

Now, even those conversations have ebbed as he grows weaker. Still, it seems my idea worked: Richard’s art meme will live on in other minds and hands, their work extending his vision of bringing rocks, steel, and wood into our everyday lives as ambassadors to reconnect us to this wondrous earth, our home.