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!

Memoir: Voice and Intensity and Love

I thought I was done with Bless the Birds. Ready to send it out in the world to find an eager publisher. (The photo above is the guy who the story is about, happily striding through the forest between brain surgeries two and three. Loving his moments.)

Until the thoughtful and complimentary rejection letters from editors who clearly gave manuscript a careful read and loved the writing ("beautifully written"), the story ("the love between the two main characters made me gasp"), and the musing ("deeply reflective"). All of which sound great, but… 

But… A thoughtful "but," mind you, but still a rejection. 

I began to see hints of a pattern. A few weeks ago, when I was in Santa Fe, my agent read me the latest rejection. Which as usual began with compliments:

This is a lovely project. The writing is beautiful, the story well told, and I found myself liking Susan very much. …There is a lot to like here—the haiku, the connection to nature and art; no matter what direction Susan takes the manuscript it is a wonderful project.

And then came the "but":

…I found there to be too much about the specifics of Susan’s story in this manuscript… Because she goes into such detail about her life, there is little room for the reader to see themselves in the story. The pinnacle moments would need to be distilled further so the emotional resonance was given more room to reverberate with the reader. 

Her words made sense in a way other's hadn't, and I saw what I needed to do: strengthen the objective voice to dial back the emotional intensity of the story.

Bless the Birds is about Richard's brain cancer, and how we lived with that terrible disease as well as we could, right up to the end of his life. It's inherently intense. I can't change that, but what I can do is change the way I tell the story: make it more objective and less breath-takingly immediate.

I started revising that very day, skimming the manuscript and "listening" for that objective voice. Wherever I felt a sort of gap, a place that voice was missing or hadn't quite finished speaking, I stopped and listened within for what came to me. And then I wrote. And revised. 

Here's an example of that new voice. The first paragraph is from the previous version of the memoir, at a point where Richard, post-brain-surgery and taking medications that affect his ability be aware of anger, threatens me physically without knowing what he's done. The second paragraph is the new objective voice, giving context to our story:

I stalked into my office. I sat at my computer but couldn’t write. I was still angry, but not, I realized, at Richard—I was furious and frightened by the sudden shift in our lives. Before brain surgery, our paths were intertwined but independent. And now? Now, he needed me in ways neither of us had foreseen. And his surgery-altered brain couldn’t recognize the changes.

Health crises can alter patients in ways they cannot see; their self-image is almost always slow to adjust to the new reality. One of the ironies of caregiving is that we who give the care, whether paid professionals or unpaid family or friends, face the delicate and difficult task of tending to someone who is no longer who they think they are. Because caregivers are in the most intimate contact with those whom we care for, we end up feeling the brunt of those changes. Another irony is the origin of the word care itself: it comes from a German root related to 'grief' or 'lament,' and a Norse word meaning 'sickbed.' We who care tend the sickbed. And grieve the inevitable losses. 

Can you hear the difference? That objective voice backs us out of the intensity of the story, giving us breathing room to think about what it means. What it all means is the essential "why" question of memoir, as in "why should I care about your experience?" Without that, memoir is just another exercise in personal storytelling.

As I have worked my way through the manuscript, I've also realized that in choosing to tell much of the story as dialogue, I've also increased the intensity. Dialogue (whether internal or external) makes a story go faster. Which can be good. It can also be claustrophobic, too much inside the charater's heads. 

So I'm evaluating the dialogue. I'm retaining sections that reveal important things about the characters or the story, and switching the rest to narration. Which gives a little more distance on the story, lowering the intensity and opening space for readers to pause and reflect. 

Why bother revising? I'm putting more work into Bless the Birds because the story matters to me. Because I want to give it whatever it needs to find a wide audience.

Richard and me with one of his functional sculptures, a ton-sized granite boulder carved into a firepit. 

It matters because Bless the Birds is a love story, not just about the love between a man and a woman and a daughter; it's about loving life itself, all the way through. It's about death as part of how we live, a passage we can approach with care and grace. And love.

It's a story we need because we're all going to die, and doing it well makes a difference to our passage and those who we leave behind. And because love is something we cannot have too much of.