Exploring Creativity: Musings Journal

When I took Sherrie York’s field journal workshop at Rocky Mountain Land Library‘s Buffalo Peaks campus in August, I came home inspired and vowed to make sketching a part of my creative routine. “I’ll do a few sketches every week,” I told myself. 

And… I didn’t. Of course I have good excuses: writing and workshop deadlines got crazy. In September, I was on the road most of the month, driving almost 5,000 miles in just over three weeks. And so on. 

Still, I could have made the time and I didn’t. Clearly, I needed a nudge. 

So when my neighbor, Lisa DeYoung of Mountain Mermaid Studios, mentioned the other day that she had finished the new edition of her Musings Journal, I bought one on the spot. 

Today I took time to play with it. (Lisa offers two versions of this hand-designed tool for creative play: a daily one dated with the months of the the year, and an undated one. I bought the latter so I wouldn’t feel guilty about missing a few weeks now and again.)

Pages in the undated journal, just waiting for me to fill those rectangles with something…

I took my journal and my trusty mechanical pencil out to the front steps to think about where to start. A comma butterfly fluttered in and landed on the rabbitbrush near me and began to feed. It sipped nectar from one flower cluster, crawled to the next, and sipped more. 

I picked up my pencil and began a simple gesture drawing, sketching the general form with quick shapes, and then beginning to fill in the details. The comma was so cooperative that I had gotten the ragged outline of the wings and had begun on the somewhat complicated wing pattern when I looked up and… 

The butterfly was gone. 

Since the rabbitbrush hadn’t flown away, I sketched one of the small, compound flowers, and then took my journal inside. I dug out my favorite colored pencils and added color. 

Derwent “inktense” colored pencils, which I love for the tin they come in as well as their great feel and handling.

I even colored in the shapes Lisa had drawn as a playful border for the page, and thought wryly as I did that my kindergarten report card probably said something like, “Very enthusiastic, but cannot stay in the lines.” 

Which is quite true about my approach to life as well: show me a line or a wall or a boundary of any kind, and I’ll be the one quietly figuring out how to stray beyond it. 

When I finished coloring, I made some notes (ever the scientist, observing and recording those observations), and looked at my first “creative play” page. My butterfly sketch isn’t finished–the comma flew away mid-pattern–but it pleased me, which is important. 

The butterfly was actually perched upside down as it fed, so I drew it that way… 

I learned something about myself in the doing. I’m not a doodler; doodles are abstractions, and I’ve never been particularly good at the abstract, whether in philosophy or art. I’m rooted in what I can touch, smell, taste; what I can measure and observe, describe and record. (There’s that scientist again!)

Nor am I am artist. I have friends who are wonderfully talented at interpreting life through visual and sculptural forms, who practice art in their daily life. My late love was one such. 

I’m an observer of details, one who notices the everyday marvels around me, one who wonders constantly about how it all works: how all of the beings involved in creating this animate world fit together, the why and who and how and where of life. I’m happy practicing sketching as a way to notice and record, to witness life going about its business.  

This moment, this now. 

This comma butterfly who flitted before I could puzzle out the pattern on those dusky orange wings. 

For now, I’m just happy to be able to translate a moment onto a journal page as a way to focus, to learn, and to express my gratitude in being alive on this glorious autumn day. 

Thank you Lisa for the nudge, Sherrie for reminding me that I do love to sketch, and comma butterfly for fluttering into my day… 

Betwixt & Between: Creativity in a Liminal Time

liminal – adj. [technical]

1. of or relating to an initial or transitional stage of a process

2. occupying a position at, or on both sides of, a threshhold. 

origin: late 19th century; from Latin limen, limin ‘threshhold’ 

For the past few weeks, the word “liminal” has been in my mind. It’s a curious word most often used in sociology, anthropology and psychology, and it is almost oenomatopoetic (sounding like its meaning). Say “liminal” out loud and the word feels drifty, as if it’s a kind of floating place, there in transition, on the threshhold to… what? 

I think I first heard the word from Molly, home on break from Reed College more than 15 years ago. Her daddy was talking about how he was struggling with the transition from being a professor of Economics, his time structured–constrained, really–by classes and grad students and committees, to a self-employed consultant who had to find his own work and schedule every day. 

Molly said something like, “You’re in a liminal state, Dad.” He who always loved learning new words or new anything asked what ‘liminal’ meant. She explained. 

I listened to their discussion as I prepared dinner for the three of us, and rolled the word around in my mouth like a marble, intrigued by the way the consonants and vowels slid out like quiet water.

Richard, Molly, and Isis, our late, great, Great Dane, at Christmas break in 2003

As a freelance writer, I knew the feeling of it, that curious pause, the hesitation at being betwixt and between that came when I finished a writing project, whether one that had required months and months of my attention like a book, or just the days and weeks devoted to reserching and writing a feature article or commentary. 

As soon as a manuscript leaves my desk, I enter that liminal time–even though I didn’t know the word until Molly mentioned it–that shift and confusion in reorientating my life and world to whatever the next project is. There is always that moment, standing on the threshhold or just before it, when I feel a queer combination of bereft and adrift, and also the quickening of excitement (and no small amount of terror) at taking off into the unknown. 

Liminal comes to mind now because it’s where I am. I finished what I hope is the final major rewrite of Bless the Birds almost three weeks ago–the day before what what be Richard’s 66th birthday–and sent it off to my agent (who is reading it right now). 

I have some smaller projects to work on, but they’re not occupying the same intense and exhilirating creative space the memoir did. They’re good work but not the deep work of heart and spirit that I’ve come to put into my books. 

I can’t quite see what’s ahead, though I have a vague outline, and I’m drifting a bit. When I’m not engaged in those immediate deadlines, I read and let my mind wander, which is sometimes comfortable but often not.

I am much more used to a focus and a schedule, but honestly, creativity does not come from being comfortable. This betwixt and between state is far more open to creativity than when I have my tidy self organized and pointed at a deadline.

I need this unmoored, edgy, awkward time to push my boundaries, to throw open the doors in my mind, to think of ten impossible things before breakfast, to be surprised and amazed and unsettled, to open myself to what I didn’t know I didn’t know, the paths that will take me far beyond the familiar and comfortable and safe. 

It helps to have useful work to occupy the front of my mind right now, so my subconscious can wander and integrate things that didn’t necessarily seem to be related, find pattern in chaos and meaning in random thoughts and memories and ideas. So that I can weather the uneasiness of knowing that possibilities are so wide open that it’s bewildering and somewhat overwhelming, that I have no set goal to aim at or even more than the vaugest idea of a general direction I might want to take.

Come November, thanks to the Women’s International Study Center and the residency they awarded me at Acequia Madre House in Santa Fe, I’ll have a whole glorious month to explore whatever has presented itself in this liminal time. A month to wander paths–both literal and metaphorical–without caring where they go, just to see and feel whatever is there.

Liminal time, that state when anything and everything is possible, when we have yet to choose the path or even know which door we will go through. It’s scary, discomfiting, annoying, and increatibly [oops, that was supposed to be “incredibly,” but I kind of like “increatibly” too!] liberating; if we can stay with it, that awkward and difficult process may yield our most creative inspirations, like a bud, cells dividing seemingly at random until the whole assemblage forms a glorious bloom. 

Writing Transformation

Last weekend at the time I would normally write a blog post, I was in Silver City, New Mexico, with my co-teacher Dawn Wink, preparing for the final days of an intense and incredible Write & Retreat workshop. We had reached that exhilarating point where everyone was on a creative high, and feeling so good about the writing, our discussions, and the new perspectives we had gain on our work that we didn’t want it the workshop to end.

We had spent three days writing–creating mission statements for our work, crafting scenes from works in progress, and delving into sensory descriptions of place. We had sketched physical maps of the actual or imaginary places where our writing is based, and then written about what we learned from those maps.

We read bits of our writing out loud, talked about them in pairs and as a group (always constructively). We shared our excitement at each now insight, and our fears about the writing as well. We talked about writing and how it fits or doesn’t fit into our lives–our day jobs, our relationships, our families.

We took walks around Silver City and talked about nature and place and history and how they impact our work. We shared meals and listened to readings while eating great food. Dawn and I held individual consultations with each writer to talk about their hopes and dreams and the practicalities of their work. 

Dawn and Will talking writing over dessert at Cafe 1zero6

We lived, breathed and discussed writing, and played with words and rhythm and writing for the better part of four days. 

In the doing, the magic I always aim for when working with a group of writers came to pass: we were all–even Dawn and I–transformed by our time together. We understood our writing in new ways, we found new depth and inspiration for our current work, we gained insight in how to integrate our writing into our daily lives.

Like the peach tree in the photo at the top of the post, shot on one of our walks around Silver City, our buds burst into fragrant bloom. 

Don’t take my word for it though. Here are some comments from participants:

Thank you for providing such a safe, supportive, and thought-provoking atmosphere at the retreat. The group energy and sense of kinship was very encouraging. The experience inspired me and broadened my vision of what writing can be. –memoir writer Melanie Budd

Loved being there. It inspired me to set aside all the talk of  “word count too long, wrong genre for us, etc, etc” and write what my heart and head say.   –fiction writer Bonnie Hobbs

Thank you for the wonderful and stimulating retreat. You have a way of bringing out depths of thought which one didn’t know were there! –fiction writer Linda Jacobs

We talk so often as writers about the ways in which writing can transform our lives, and I know I totally depend on my writing practice each day, just to stay sane.  But at the workshop I realized it isn’t just the daily practice of crafting and making.  It’s like the answers are actually in there!  There is something really magic about this.  In that strange vortex of inspiration and creation, if we can follow it, and trust our imagination and instinct, the pathway will become clear, the words tell us what to do. … So the real work is about listening and about trust. — poet Will Barnes 

We ended on such a high that Dawn and I immediately began planning next year’s workshop, also in Silver City and at the Murray Hotel, February 17 – 20, 2017. The focus will change, but we’ll aim for the same magic: a transformation that gives us all new energy and insight into our writing and our lives. We’d love to have you join us. 

Coloring for the Right & Write Brain

Since my word for 2016 is abundance, I decided to give myself the gift of taking the time to do some of the things I have never “had time for” (read: given myself time for). One of those pursuits is coloring. Perhaps because I grew up with a colorblind mother–Mom saw the world in black, white, and shades of gray–light and color have always fascinated me.

One of my earliest memories is the way the sunlight lay across the windowsill in my tiny bedroom in our family’s first house. I was entranced by the color, the warmth, and the way the light beam shifted, moving as the hours passed. 

As an older child, I thought I might become an artist like my great-grandmother, Jennie Vennerstrom Cannon, a California impressionist, member of the Berkeley art scene, and an initiator of the Carmel arts colony. I grew up with her paintings and lithographs around the house, and it seemed reasonable to think that my love of light and color would lead me into painting.

Until I took painting lessons and discovered I have no real talent. I was a passable scientific illustrator, back in the days when that meant being able to use a Rapidiograph pen and graph paper. I have half a degree in fine arts photography too. The truth is, my artistic talent shines with words, not images. 

A pen-and-ink illustration of a sego lily or mariposa lily I drew, oh, thirty years ago.

Still, I harbor a secret desire to play with color and form, and to remind myself what it’s like to sketch–just for me. A couple of years ago, I got as far as buying a gorgeous tin of colored pencils with the aim of practicing illustrated journaling.

Only the pencils sat on my desk untouched. The blank pages in my field journals filled with words, but no images. 

This year I decided to use those pencils. Even if just to color. 

Which is why today I whiled away a happy hour coloring a greeting card to send to a friend. At first I was worried I’d mess up the illustrator’s rendering of a rufuos hummingbird feeding at trumpet-vine flowers, and then I realized it didn’t matter. There was nothing to “mess up.” 

After that I relaxed and just enjoyed myself playing with the different colors and strokes and shadings. 

Why does coloring relax us? (Some of us, at least. Some people tense up trying to stay in the lines.)

For three main reasons, says Clinical Psychologist Scott M. Bea of the Cleveland Clinic’s health blog:

  • It takes us away from ourselves and focuses us on the present moment. Which makes coloring something like meditating, which has a host of physical, emotional, and psychological benefits. 
  • It relaxes the brain. Once we shut off our stream of conscious worries and thoughts and anticipations, what Buddhists call “monkey mind,” our brains relax. 
  • The stakes are low. As I realized, coloring is not a test. There is no failure. It’s play. 

And for me, it’s a way to exercise parts of the right brain that writing does not. Like strengthening muscles (or synapses) I don’t use often, but might need. 

Who knows what long-unused creative pathways coloring might re-open in my brain. Or how entertaining myself with color and shape and light might enrich my thinking and writing.

Not to mention that coloring is simply fun.

So excuse me, the colored pencils are calling. I’m off to play… 

Kent Haruf, award-winning novelist, all-around good human being

Writing and Living “Not Too Small”

At Kent Haruf‘s memorial service in Salida a few months ago, the Wyoming writer Mark Spragg told a story he had heard Kent tell that struck a chord with me. I recently found that story again in “The Making of a Writer,” a memoir-essay Kent wrote for the magazine Granta.

Kent Haruf, award-winning novelist, all-around good human being Kent Haruf, award-winning novelist, all-around good human being–we surely miss him here in Salida.

I want to share the story with you because it’s a powerful example of how the small things in life can teach us lessons so big that we may miss them if we’re not paying attention. And it’s so characteristic Kent, quiet, modest, deep and absolutely right.

Kent was, he writes, teaching in the MFA program at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale (my undergraduate alma mater, though I was there a decade earlier), “living in a trailer court in a one-room trailer.”

Across the road from me in the trailer court was a family who were all mentally disabled. Darrell and Retta and their little boy, Kevin. I used to help them a little by driving them to the grocery store and to their appointments with Social Services. On one of these trips, Retta said to me: “Well, Keinnt”–she always called me Keinnt–“Well, Keinnt, what do you do for a living?”

And I said: “I try to help students learn how to write better.”

And she said: “Well, Keinnt, Darrell says I write too small.” She thought of course that I was teaching penmanship. Which, in truth, probably would be more useful than trying how to help anyone learn how to write convincing lies and literary fictions.

Kent goes on to say, “Now for the last thirteen years, Cathy and I have been back in Colorado [his home state], in Salida, and I wrote Eventide and … I wrote this new novel Benediction, working out in my writer’s shed in the mountains, heeding my hours, and I feel as if I’ve been very lucky in my life.”

Benediction, published in 2013 and shortlisted for the international Folio Prize Benediction, published in 2013 and shortlisted for the international Folio Prize

And here’s the kicker that arrows right to my soul:

And I want to think, as Darrell warned Retta: over the years I have tried not to write too small, and I want to believe I have tried not to live too small, either.

So that’s my new resolve. In addition to living with my heart outstretched as if it were my hand (a line I adapted from a Mary Chapin Carpenter song), I want to write and live “not too small.”

It’s an aim we could all adopt. The world can surely use more not-too-small minds and hearts.

Writing: Postpartum Shift

If you’ve ever finished a big project of whatever sort, one that took months or years, and required a kind of intensity and focus that left you feeling hulled out at the end of each day, you know something of what I’m feeling after sending my new memoir, the story I call Bless the Birds off to my agent last Monday.

The first "spring" bud on the cyclamen plant on my windowsill, finally beginning to open.... The first “spring” bud on the cyclamen plant on my windowsill, finally beginning to open, its petals unfurling like my postpartum creativity….

The feeling is something like postpartum blues, that sense of emptiness when the work (or baby) that absorbed you from within begins its journey outward into the larger world. It’s still yours, but no longer exclusively and no longer inside you.

Bless the Birds isn’t out of my life or my hands entirely. I still need to do some fine weaving, adding ordinary details and working threads of themes all the way through the larger manuscript. Nothing major, but important for the finished story nonetheless.

And after my agent reads and approves of the manuscript, then comes selling it to a publisher. Somewhere down the months, I’ll be working with that editorial team; the manuscript and I have a journey and more changes ahead.

Already my relationship to the work has changed. I can feel the inner shift; the story is no longer contained inside me, absorbing my attention in small and large ways over the course of the day.

I’m still thinking about it, just not every moment. And now I’m thinking about other writing too, specifically the feature article I promised to Rocky Mountain Gardening by (gulp!) March 1st, and beyond that, a bigger project. For the first time since I began work on Bless the Birds, I’m thinking seriously about the next book.

Part of my front-yard meadow (plus a drive-wheel from an old steam-powered pump Richard collected for a sculpture) drifting over with snow this afternoon. Part of my front-yard meadow (plus a drive-wheel from an old steam-powered pump Richard intended to use in a sculpture) drifting over with snow this afternoon.

Which is why on this snowy evening, I’m on the couch getting ready to pick up Robin Wall Kimmerer’s wise new book, Braiding Sweetgrass, first on my to-read list as that next book takes shape in my mind.

And I’m listening to Lyle Lovett’s “Natural Forces” CD, hoping that some Texas two-step will warm things up here in unusually frozen south central Colorado.

The world outside is white with wind-driven snow and a temperature of nine degrees F, down from the day’s pitiful “high” of 13 degrees. Yesterday afternoon, it was 52 degrees and sunny, and I was outside in a sweater, installing solar-powered landscape lighting.

I think I have climate change whiplash.

And yes, climate change is one of the themes in that next book, which may be called MEADOW, What I Learned About Healing Ourselves and the Earth From the Industrial Property No One Else Loved. It’s the book about plants I’ve been thinking about writing for most of my career. (No pressure there!)

Blessings to you all, and thanks for walking with me on this journey we call life….

A very much younger me, thinking about plants and the communities they weave as a field biologist in northwest Wyoming. A very much younger me, thinking about plants and the communities they weave as a field biologist in northwest Wyoming.

Streetside view of the blank wall in a hailstorm last July

Small House Living: Tool Girl Redux

I live in a small house by choice. I like compact spaces and I like living simply. I also want to be comfortable, efficient with energy and materials, and happy in my space. And after living for almost 29 years with a sculptor who could and did design and build anything, I’m picky about details.

So even though my little house and its companion garage/studio were finished last year, I’m still completing a few projects. Today’s was a combination of design and whimsy.

Streetside view of the blank wall in a hailstorm last July Streetside view of the blank wall in a hailstorm last July

My house faces south to harvest the sun’s heat in winter, so it’s sideways to the street with a tall blank wall on that side. Tom Pokorny, my inspired designer, specified a window in that wall. That window got nixed because of noise issues. Instead, we added a Craftsman-stye porch roof over a sandstone bench.

Only there was still too much blank wall. I decided it needed a faux window–my little joke, the window that’s not a window–and asked my glass guy, Steve Duhaime, another amazing designer, if he had any junky wood window frames lying around.

The faux window before painting. The faux window last August before painting

He did. I hauled home a shabby frame about six feet wide by three feet high, divided into three lights. I sanded it down, added brackets to reinforce joints long since warped in our dry climate, and screwed it to the wall above the bench. Then I painted it red to match the existing doors and windows.

Still, it needed something more. While I was inventing back-splashes of galvanized sheet steel for the galley kitchen in Treehouse, my studio, I realized what that something was: window boxes.

Not just any window boxes, mind you—ones that honored the industrial history of the place. I measured and thought, and then drew up plans for three simple galvanized sheet-steel window boxes.

Last September, I took the plans to Janet at Johnny Berndt & Sons, a local fabrication shop. “No rush,” I said. “Just ask Ken to make them when he has time.”

Window box interior with drain hole, and at top, the lip that they hang from on the frame. Window box interior with drain hole, and at top, the lip that they hang from.

She called last week to say they were ready. All they needed were drain holes. I drilled those this morning, and then fitted my glorious new window boxes on their faux window frame.

The window boxes, partly filled with wreath greens The window boxes, partly filled with wreath greens

It’s too early to plant, so I took apart the big wreath I had hung up for the winter holidays, and filled the boxes with its fragrant juniper and fir greenery.

I was so pleased with myself, and it was so warm in the sun against that wall that I took my lunch outside and ate on the sandstone bench under my new window boxes.

Window boxes in place and full of fragrant wreath greens Window boxes in place and full of fragrant wreath greens

I’ve thought a lot since having to learn power tools and carpentry in order to finish the big house about what it is that is so satisfying about acquiring this basic competence with building and designing. Every time I finish a project, no matter how simple, I am ridiculously pleased with myself, as if it’s a huge achievement.

The truth is, it is a huge achievement. I never so much as picked up a power tool before Richard died. He was so completely and elegantly competent at using tools, designing with wood, stone and steel, and building anything from a hand-operated crane to heft boulders to a whole house, that I never tried to learn. My efforts would have been painfully slow and clumsy by comparison.

Richard with "Matriculation," ready to load it on a trailer to install in the Steamplant Sculpture Garden Richard with “Matriculation,” a sculpture, and the hand-crane he invented and built

Nor did I grow up with that competence. My Norwegian granddad Olav, a mechanical engineer and the only one in my small family who could design and build, never considered teaching me to use his tools. And I, the good girl, never asked.

Now it’s just me, and while my efforts may be slow and clumsy, they work. That I can cut and mill lumber, work with steel, and design things like custom window boxes that actually look and function as I imagined is a huge source of pride for me. I didn’t know I could.

This “tool girl” work has expanded my sense of me, of possibilities. (Thank you, Susan Tomlinson, for the phrase and for your example!)

That sense of possibilities is what is so satisfying: there is more to me than I realized. I like knowing that.

Those window boxes and the red faux window make the wall friendly and make me smile.... Those window boxes and the red faux window make the wall a human scale and make me smile….

Winter Bird Feeders: DIY Junco Stars

American Bushtits feeding on seedheads in a native rubber rabbitbush shrub. American Bushtits feeding on seed heads in a native rubber rabbitbush shrub. (Look closely and you’ll see four of them–two of the tiny birds are inside the bush, two are on top. They live in flocks and chatter while they feed, so I often hear them before I see them.)

I don’t generally put out bird feeders. I prefer to provide natural food by planting species native to my area that offer food and habitat throughout the year.

People like bird feeders because they attract large concentrations of birds and bring them close where we can watch them. Those attributes create problems for the birds though.

Concentrating birds in one place spreads disease, and the noise of their feeding flocks attracts bird predators, from free-roaming cats to speedy and agile bird hawks like Coopers and Sharp-shinned Hawks.

Bringing the birds closer to the house increases the likelihood of collisions with windows. Cornell University’s Laboratory of Ornithology estimates that bird-window collisions kill as many as 100 million birds a year, mostly small songbirds of the sort attracted to feeders.

Still, winter is a tough time for birds, especially during storms. That’s when I hang out my “junco stars,” fat and nutrition-laden wood cutouts aimed at feeding juncos, chickadees, and other small seed-eating birds that shelter in the native shrubs along the creek below my house.

Junco picking bits of nut and fruit from a star in a snowstorm. Junco picking bits of nut and fruit from a star in a snowstorm.

The stars are small enough that only one bird at a time can perch on them, which reduces crowding issues. I hang them away from windows, and I don’t leave them up when the weather improves, so they don’t attract predators.

Junco stars easy to make for yourself with particle board, wire or twine, a drill and a jig- or band saw. Start with a 3/4-inch thick sheet of unfinished MDF or particle board, and trace a simple five-pointed star on the flat surface of the board. (You can use any shape you want as long as it has “arms” where the birds can perch.)

Use the saw to carefully cut out the shape. Sand off any rough spots, drill a hole for twine or wire to hang up the star in the top point, and you’re ready to “load” the star with food.

Stars waiting for a base layer of peanut butter and then a coat of nuts and dried fruits. Well-used stars waiting for a base layer of peanut butter and then a coat of nuts and dried fruits.

I slather them with fresh-ground organic peanut butter as a base layer. (Fresh-ground peanut butter has no additives that might hurt the birds; if it’s organic, I’m pretty sure it doesn’t include pesticides either.)

After coating with chopped nuts and dried fruits.... Coating with chopped nuts and dried fruits….

Then I roll or press the stars into a mix of chopped organic raisins, cranberries, and pecans. (You can use any fruits or nuts you want, but again, make sure they’re only fruit and nuts without additives. Research shows that fruits high in anti-oxidants are best for birds, just as they’re best for us.)

When the stars thoroughly coated, I hang them in a place that’s sheltered, near natural perches and out of reach of the mule deer in my neighborhood so they don’t get the food before the birds do. Then I watch to see who comes to feed at my stars!

A junco star hanging by my workshop A junco star hanging by my workshop

Seven Gratitudes from 2014

Gratitude (noun) The quality of being thankful; readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness. From the Latin, gratis, meaning, “pleasing,” “thankful”

As one year transitions into the next, I like to stop and take time to appreciate the gifts of the year about to pass before I make my list of hopes, dreams and resolutions for the year to come. (If you can’t stop and appreciate where you’ve been, you won’t really be able to appreciate where you’re going either.)

So here’s my list of gratitudes from 2014:

Creek House and Treehouse (my two-story garage, workshop, studio) in August Creek House and Treehouse (my two-story garage, workshop, studio) in August

  • Not Moving My move in 2013 didn’t involve going far, but it meant downsizing from half a block of property and 2,400 square feet of living space, a two-car garage, and 1,600 square feet of Richard’s studio. Figuring out what stuff I needed, what I wanted, and what would fit into my 725 square feet of new house with its detached single-car garage, 192 square feet of workshop and 384 square feet of studio above the garage/workshop was complex and emotionally draining. (My home, studio and workshop space equals 31 percent of what I had before.) It meant sorting through almost 29 years of “us” (Richard and me) for “me” and this new solo life.
    A fall evening in my living room, with the mountains rising over town in the distance. A fall evening in my living room, with the mountains rising over town in the distance.

  • My House I love Creek House, and its companion garage/workshop/studio, Treehouse. When I moved in last year, neither building was finished. Both places are now–okay, I’m still doing some customizing of details, but that’s because I can and I enjoy the work. (Thanks, Natural Habitats and all of my sub-contractors!) My two little buildings just as cozy, efficient, light-filled and comfortable as I imagined. The sun provides the bulk of my heat in winter; down-valley breezes keep the buildings cool in summer. And I get a check from the electric company every month for the clean power produced by my photovoltaic panels. (Thanks, Peak Solar Designs!)
    My own restored prairie yard, just one summer after planting, attracted all four species of hummingbirds that migrate through my valley. That's the power of restoring habitat! My own restored prairie yard, just one summer after planting, attracted all four species of hummingbirds that migrate through my valley. That’s the power of restoring habitat!

  • Meaningful Work My more-than-halftime job this year involved starting up the Be a Habitat Hero project. The project’s mission is dear to my inner restoration ecologist: Grow a network of habitat for pollinators and songbirds in gardens, parks and public spaces across the Rocky Mountain region and restore our joy in nature every day. I got to teach with Lauren Springer Ogden, passionate plantswoman and designer of great gardens and wildscapes; and work with Connie Holsinger, visionary founder of the program, and Sienna Bryant, social media coordinator extraordinaire. The Habitat Hero project has great partners in Plant Select® and High Country Gardens, and starting next month, it will become part of Audubon Rockies. Which brings me to my fourthgraditude:
    That memoir-in-progress.... That memoir-in-progress….

  • #AmWriting I’ll be writing full-time in 2015 (okay, I’ll teach a few more Habitat Hero workshops, including two with Lauren). I’m already seeing the benefits: Bless the Birds, my memoir-in-revision, is going deeper and moving toward the universal, how we become the people we are and what that means about what we bring to this life. My columns for Zone 4 Magazine (soon to be renamed Rocky Mountain Gardening) and Native Plants & Wildlife Gardens are benefiting from my creative focus too.
    Molly, Richard and me in Boulder (we had an old Volvo station wagon then) The threesome who star in Bless the Birds years ago in Boulder, Colorado

  • Red My truck. Yeah, I know that sounds silly, but not when you see Red as a metaphor for finding myself in this solo life. I’ve been camping in Red (in weather so cold the topper windows frosted up on the inside); I’ve taken Red up a few Jeep roads, and Red and I have even braved the congestion of downtown Denver together. I smile just climbing into Red. My shiny red truck is my companion in exploring new routes, literal and figurative.
    Red, hanging out among the aspens while I shoot photos... Red, hanging out among the aspens while I shoot photos…

  • My Community All of you: my family, spread now from the West Coast to Germany; the fabulous small town where I live; my fellow writers, plant and garden geeks and nature-lovers; my friends far and near; all who read this blog and my books and articles, who befriend and inspire me on social media, via letters and emails, and in the community of the digital world; my antepasados (ancestors) in writing, science and spirit; all who love this world and see the possibilities in the human spirit. Thank you. In a year that has had more than its share of death, pain, tragedy and suffering, you give me hope. You keep the flame burning. I am grateful for each of you.
    Winter Solstice, 2014 Keeping those flames burning on Winter Solstice

  • This Planet It may be battered by wars, global warming, overpopulation, and all manner of other ills, but Earth is still the best planet we know, a glorious web of life and lives, blue and green and red and yellow and purple and black and brown and orange; spotted, striped, with legs or wings or fins or roots and leaves…. Every day, I wake up marveling that I get to live here and that I am alive to appreciate it.
    Just an ordinary dawn here on the only planet humans have ever known Just an ordinary dawn here on Earth….

Blessings to you all!

The last few leaves on Ruby's cottonwood.

#amwriting Update: Finished!

The last few leaves on Ruby's cottonwood. The last few leaves cling to the branches of Ruby’s cottonwood behind Treehouse. They were still green last time I thought I was finished with this manuscript.

#amwriting update: When I last wrote about my progress on the new memoir, I was close to finishing a major revision. I figured I’d be done by the end of the week.

Wrong. When I got to the last page of the story I call Bless the Birds, I knew I needed to read the whole manuscript one more time before I sent it off.

Only first I needed to prepare for the Women Writing the West Conference.

The sacred datura along the Treehouse retaining wall were just opening when I got home from the conference. The sacred datura blooming along the retaining wall when I got home.

I got home from the conference Sunday evening just as the datura flowers were opening for the night; Monday morning I woke eager to begin reading.

After yoga and breakfast, I opened the file and began, making small changes here and there, smoothing out rough places so the story would really shine. I got so absorbed that I forgot everything else until my belly politely reminded me that it was past two o’clock and lunch would be welcome….

I made myself a salad with some of the last speckled “troutback” lettuce from my front-deck container kitchen garden, added sun-ripened Stupice tomatoes from the same, plus local cheese and not-local organic avocado.

The troutback lettuce that went into my salad (thanks to Renee's Garden Seeds!). The troutback lettuce that went into my salad (thanks to Renee’s Garden Seeds!).

And then continued to read as I ate, the laptop open on the kitchen island next to my lunch.

I came up for air after working through six chapters. It was past four o’clock and time to stop before my brain quit reading critically.

I took my daily walk to the Post Office across town; back at home, I changed into my running togs and set off on my twice-weekly run.

Tuesday I got up and did the same thing (without the run), reading my way steadily through the manuscript, changing a word here or there, refining a sentence, subtracting a bit that seemed unnecessary, adding something I had forgotten. I worked until late afternoon again, making it through another six chapters.

Wednesday I read 8 chapters, which took me to Chapter 20. (There are 34 chapters in total.) Thursday I made it through another seven.

While I was immersed in the story, the milkweed seeds began to float away.... While I was immersed in the story, the milkweed seeds began to float away….

Friday I had a morning conference call and a one o’clock meeting, so I wasn’t sure I’d have any reading time. But I dove in after the meeting, and by the time I headed out on my Friday evening run, I only had three chapters left to read.

“I’ll finish those on Saturday morning,” I said to myself. Only somewhere in mile three of my run, when my body was tired enough that my mind quit its chatter, I thought of something I had forgotten to say, a loose thread I needed to weave into the narrative.

When I got home, I opened the file, wove in that thread, and then continued reading, beginning with the end of the chapter I had finished earlier in the day–I find it helps to start a few pages before where I quit reading  to get myself back into the story.

I read through dinner, sitting at the kitchen island with the laptop open, and then washed dishes, made my evening tea, and took my laptop and tea to the couch and continued reading. I read the last page through tears at eight o-three that night.

Indian ricegrass in my front-yard mountain prairie. Richard’s favorite grass, Indian ricegrass, in my front-yard mountain prairie.

I almost hit the “send” button right then. Only my inner writer said, “No, read the new bits over one last time tomorrow morning. And then see if it feels done.”

I did, and made a few more changes.

I woke this morning thinking I had left something out early in the story. When I opened the file and looked, the bit I thought I had forgotten was already there. I remembered another little detail, looked for it, and lo and behold! It was there too.

That’s when I knew I was done. When I start fussing about things I’ve already included, it’s time to let the manuscript go.

Tomorrow morning, I’ll send off Bless the Birds. May the story I wrote with heart outstretched as if it were my hand at last be on the road to finding a publisher and its audience.

Treehouse at sunset tonight. Treehouse at sunset tonight, just before I started writing this post.