59: A Certain Age

Since sometime last fall, I’ve been struggling to not succumb to a kind of low-level, background malaise that is uncharacteristic for me. I’m usually sunny, or at least resilient and optimistic.

But lately, I find myself close to tears at odd moments, or wrestling with a formless anxiety that seems to come from nowhere. I worry more. I feel insecure about my future. Where I have always been firmly decisive, now I second-guess decisions even after I've made them. Should I really have done that? Would it have been better to… 

Yet when people ask how I’m doing, I say “Fine.” I’m not. I just don’t know how to explain what’s wrong. 

Life’s not always sunny. It’s natural to worry, to feel anxious and out-of-balance at times. But I’m sick of this. I want the old me back. And I can’t seem to will that to happen. 


Yesterday, as I was walking along Cherry Creek, headed back to my hotel after helping host a workshop at Denver Botanic Gardens, I suddenly realized what’s wrong.

It’s not me. It’s my age: I’m 59, the same age Richard was when he saw those legions of birds on a hot August morning in 2009. The bird hallucinations that were the only major symptom of something drastically wrong in his brain, the tumor that would eventually kill him.

Richard shoots an "us" selfie, 2009

His 59th year was the beginning of the end of us, though we didn’t understand (or allow ourselves to admit) that reality for a long while. 

So it’s no wonder that beneath the surface of my conscious mind, my subconscious is watchful, looping in a whirl of unease and anxiety. Waiting for the other shoe to drop. Waiting for some unimaginably horrible thing to carve another hole in my heart. 

The January when Richard was 59, we had our first hint of the parting to come when he stayed in Colorado for his “radiation residency” while I led a writing workshop on Isla Espíritu Santo off Baja in subtropical Mexico. 

I had planned the workshop a year before as a decades-belated honeymoon that would allow us to explore one of our dream destinations, that wild desert island surrounded by the azure blue waters of the Gulf of California. 

And then came the bird hallucinations, the cancerous tumor, and the radiation treatment that couldn’t be delayed. I wanted to cancel the workshop; Richard was adamant that I needed to go. (When he made up his mind, nothing could move that man!)

So I left him in Aurora with Molly the day after Christmas. Going to Mexico without my love was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. We had always traveled hand in hand.


HIking the shore near camp, Isla Espíritu Santo, Baja California. (Photo: Chris Bradley)

Until that week when he was undergoing radiation treatment in snowy Colorado and I was camped on a beach in balmy Mexico, kayaking with sea turtles, snorkeling with sea lions, seeing the place we had dreamed about—without him. It was a foretaste of a solo existence I never wished for.

The dread of what Richard’s 59th year brought to us has apparently been lurking in my subconscious ever since, awakened once I reached that same age. 

Now that I recognize the cause of my malaise, will it dissipate and lose its power? I don’t know. I do know why I am feeling so out of balance, so alert for the disaster my subconscious is sure is about to happen. 

It’s comforting to remember that magical time on Isla Espíritu Santo, being lulled to sleep by the shushing of the sea and waking to pelican bellies thwacking the water as they stunned fish to eat; a week of canyon wren trills echoing off rocky cliffs above our camp and Pedro, our guide, laughing as he showed us the secret waterfall, the sea lion colony, the petroglyphs in a cave. 

Clamming, "our" bay on Isla Espiritu Santo, Baja California

To remember how Richard’s smile beamed bright as the Baja sunshine when he and Molly spotted me in the crowd at the airport, his joy in hearing my stories of that wondrous place. 

Most of all, it is deeply reassuring to remember the strong and sweet love that flowed between us even as his life headed around that bend to whatever’s next. When I feel the warmth of that love and his smile, I know it is possible to live happily and well, despite the hole his leaving carved in my heart. 

Before… (Photo by Scott Calhoun)

HomeWork: Patio Progress

On weekends, I put the creative energy I use for writing into homework: projects around my little house and yard.

This weekend, I was determined to make more progress on the flagstone dining patio I’m laying on the east side of the garage/studio. I had laid the first four flagstones early this summer, when the ground was still moist and workable. 

Now after weeks without rain, the rocky, compacted ground is dry and hard. Which means digging a bed for flagstones requires some serious muscle. 

My favorite digging tool, a well-used mattock with a pointed blade at one end and a scooping blade at the other. The granite river rock I’m prying out there is about half the size of my head and weighs a good ten pounds. 

Fortunately, after the past two-plus years of finish carpenty and construction work, plus landscaping, I’m pretty buff. And I have good tools. 

I woke yesterday morning feeling a little cranky and out-of-sorts, unusual for me. I figured that honest manual labor would put me in a better mood, so after I finished my household chores, I got out my mattock, industrial strength rake, flat-bottomed shovel, and the screen Richard made me when he taught me how to lay flagstone. 

The screen in use

And I set to work loosening the hard-packed ground, prying out rocks, and screening the rubble. The fine material serves as a bed for the flagstones, the gravel-sized rocks go on a nearby path, and I set aside the larger rocks for other landscaping work. 

A couple of sweaty hours later, I had laid three flagstones, and used up all of my energy. But my mood was significantly better.

I felt so good, in fact, that I figured I’d put in another few hours today if I wasn’t too sore. Which I wasn’t, although I woke feeling curiously out-of-sorts again. 

This afternoon, I whaled away with the mattock and loosened up another section of ground, raked and screened, and laid two smaller flagstones. (Smaller meaning they weigh less than about 75 pounds and I can move them by myself.)

The flags I laid this weekend are the five on the left side of the photo. 

Then I spent measured some of the big flagstones in my stack to find one that was the right size for the gap between the flags I had just laid.

(I don’t cut the flagstones to fit–it’s more fun to use the shapes as I find them, fitting them together like pieces in a puzzle. Sometimes they fit closely, sometimes not so much and I fill in between them with tightly packed gravel. I enjoy the creative process and seeing the pattern emerge.)

I found one that I think will work, and then tried to figure out how I could slide it down the hill from the stack to the patio. But it’s simply too big for me to handle, so I’ll wait until I can get someone to help me move it.

The tape measure marks my chosen stone: It’s almost two feet wide by four feet long, and about three inches thick. I figure it weighs about 150 pounds, or 40 pounds more than I do!

As I was cleaning up and stowing my tools, I had Richard on my mind: except for the screen, which he made for me, the tools are his.

And I realized why my mood was low. Six years ago this very weekend, Richard and I were headed to a joint artist/writer residency in the San Juan Mountains, two weeks of time out that we both badly needed. The Sunday morning we were to drive to the cabin and settle in, he began seeing birds.

Thousands of them. Birds no one else could see; hallucinations that were the only major symptom of the tumor growing in his brain that would eventually kill him. 

Oh. That’s a pretty significant anniversary. 

The patio-in-progress

As I was writing this post, I thought about why I find it so tremendously satisfying to lay flagstone. Part of that satisfaction comes from knowing that I am capable of the hard physical work. Another part comes from being able to use my muscle and creativity to work with rock and earth, and create sculptural forms. 

That love of using muscle and creativity to sculpt stone, steel and wood into abstract forms is part of what motivated Richard’s art; creating pieces that expressed his love for the common materials that speak of the beauty of this earth. 

It seems fitting that on this anniversary of the birds, the hallucinations that wrenched apart our life the way a catastrophic earthquake dramatically reshapes solid ground, I would feel compelled to lay flagstones, using the tools and skills taught me by the man who held my hand and my heart for almost 29 years. The man I love still–and always will.


Richard Cabe, his face steroid-puffy, his right brain and vision both impaired, but his hands still sure when they touch the rock, smiling as he demonstrates how to lay flagstones, three months before he died…



I’ve been cranky around the edges for the past several weeks, less patient than usual, easily irritated and sometimes outright bitchy. I’ve embarrassed myself with my moods, and wondered more than once where the good-natured me went and who is this out-of-sorts woman currently inhabiting my skin.

Yesterday afternoon was a particular low point. I got up feeling good and blazed through my Saturday household to-do list. I cleaned the guest studio after a recent visitor, vacuumed the house, painted the formerly boring gray mailbox poppy red to match the exterior window and door trim (that’s my quite eye-catching mailbox in the photo above), and pruned the tomato plants attempting to grow into a jungle in the stock tank on my side deck. 

By two-thirty though, I was edgy and restless. I could feel a mood coming on.

(Just in case Donald Trump happens to be reading this, I’d like to point out that a woman is entitled to have a ‘tude without any blood issuing from her body whatsoever.) 

I thought about going for a hike in the hills across the river, but I didn’t feel like going alone. And I also didn’t want to impose my potentially whining, grumpy self on any of my hiking buddies either. 

After some dithering–which only made me more annoyed with myself–I headed downtown to visit my two favorite galleries, thinking that looking at art and chatting with the friends who own each place would cheer me up. 

I was right. I also indulged in some retail therapy, something normally off-limits in the service of sticking to my budget. But I couldn’t resist the ice cream scoop with the beautiful hand-carved wood handle at Gallery 150.

The wood felt so smooth and comfortable in my hand, and the scoop reminded me of something Richard would make–a “functional sculpture,” as he called the household objects he created, lending a connection with the earth to things we use everyday. 

And then down the street at Cultureclash, I indulged myself again and bought a pair of mini-carpenter’s level earrings I’ve eyed for quite some time. The symbolism (harking to tool girl) made me smile, and when I read the artist’s card that accompanied the earrings, I knew I needed them: 

These levels are a wonderful reminder to keep your life in balance.

Oh yeah. 

From Cultureclash I strolled across the street to YOLO Clothing, and found exactly the swing cardigan I’ve been looking for. It was in my budget, so I bought that too.  

As I walked home, I gave myself a lecture. “You can’t just indulge in buying things whenever your mood needs a lift,” I told myself firmly.

And then I thought idly about the date and a light went on in my brain. I knew immediately why I was restless and out-of-sorts: It was Richard’s and my 32nd wedding anniversary.

I had spent the day doing just the sorts of things we would have done: putzing around the house and yard, perhaps taking a hike in the hills, strolling Richard’s favorite galleries downtown, buying something special for each other (the ice cream scoop for him, the earrings for me), and then treating each other to dinner out. (Which I did not do, in part because of the budget, in part because celebrating alone is still too painful.)

As I walked on, I also realized why the extended period of crankiness around the edges. Richard’s 65th birthday fell almost exactly three weeks ago yesterday, on July 16th. 

We had plans for the year: Richard would retire and be free to sculpt without worrying about money; we’d celebrate his significant birthday and our anniversary by taking one of the dream trips on the list on our refrigerator, to Ireland and Scotland, exploring the Celtic cultures we both were born to. 

Only that didn’t happen. Richard, my partner in love, laughter and life, died of brain cancer four years ago this coming November, at age 61.

I weathered the shock, the grief, and the wrenching apart of my life. I charted a new path, one that acknowledges and celebrates the decades we spent together and the way we shaped each other into the people we were and are, and also one that allows me to be happy in this unasked-for solo life. I am happy–mostly.

Only these particular two anniversaries brought another chunk of grief to the surface.

I didn’t recognize that until yesterday evening as I walked home, my purchases in hand, Richard clearly still in my heart.

As he will always be.

There’s the laughter part: Richard posing with the giant artichoke in Castroville, California. 

Candles for grief and remembering

#JeSuisCharlie, Ahmed and All Other Humans

Candles for grief and remembering Candles for grief and remembering

When I heard the news of the horrific attack on the French newspaper Charlie Hebdo on January 7th, when gunmen burst into the offices during the weekly editorial meeting and killed nine staffers and contributors, plus one policeman guarding the offices, one out on the street (Ahmed Merabet, whose name and Muslim faith inspired the Twitter hastag #JeSuisAhmed, “I am Ahmed”), and a maintenance man who was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, I grieved for their lives and for how violence diminishes all of us. A world in which we massacre others for whatever reason is a world where all humanity is stained.

#JeSuisCharlie. In reality, I am not Charlie (the name of the satirical paper comes from the cartoon character Charlie Brown). Nor am I Ahmed. I am not French, I do not draw what we here in the United States call editorial cartoons, but in France are a beloved and revered form of art and political commentary.

Nor am I the young Muslim man who reportedly hid hostages at the Jewish grocery store in the freezer yesterday in the second chapter of that terrorist saga. I am not those shoppers who were held hostage for five hours, or the four who died. Nor am I the police who rescued the remaining hostages, or shot the gunmen in separate incidents in separate parts of Paris.

I am a middle-aged, middle-class white American woman who has never been threatened by terrorists, never had to worry about whether the color of my skin, my political beliefs, or the sound of my voice would inspire others to shoot me.

I do know something of the terror of random violence. Late one snowy night decades ago in Laramie, Wyoming, I chanced to walk by an alley where a man wearing a ski mask and a dark coat exposed himself. I ran, terrified, aiming for the porch of my friends’ house two blocks away. I can still hear the pounding of his feet on the creaking snow, and the ragged gasping of my breath and his as his longer legs gradually closed the distance between us. He didn’t catch me. The door opened, my friends pulled me safely in, and he faded into the night.

Matriculation with luminarias, lighting the way for Richard's spirit Luminarias lighting the literal and metaphorical darkness.

So while I am truly not the victims of the horrible attacks in France, or in Nigeria, where the Boko Haram killed hundreds more people last week, or Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, or anywhere else in the world where people are massacred simply because they are who they are, and someone else who believes they have the right to kill because of it, I am human. And that connects me. It connects all of us.

As the Sixteenth-Century English poet, lawyer and cleric John Donne so famously wrote in his essay “XVII Meditation”:

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

To paraphrase Donne’s gorgeous language, Every person is a piece of the continent, a part of the whole. … Anyone’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind…. The [funeral] bell tolls for me and thee, for all of us.

#JeSuisAhmed. #IamMichaelBrown. We are all connected. Any violence diminishes our shared humanity.

The tea bag tag says it all: Sing from your heart. For me that is my writing, and in particular, the books I envision ahead. (That's sagebrush next to the tag, and a pebble Richard carried in his pocket--one of his special rocks. Practice kindness and generosity….

How do we respond? For me, it’s important to remember is that there are about 7.2 billion people on this planet. And most of them aren’t shooting or terrorizing each other.

So while the terrorists and haters may shout/shoot the loudest and get the most attention, they’re not by any means the majority of human beings. Most of us are still, well, human. Which to my mind means capable of understanding that we are different. That we won’t always agree. Which in fact is a good thing, because diversity is healthy for humans and all other species.

My response is to redouble my resolve to practice kindness and generosity. Especially toward those who don’t look like me, speak like me, or behave like me. Because they are part of the main, the species, my people, too.

No, I am not Charlie or Ahmed, or Michael Brown or the Nigerian schoolgirls. But I am human, and I will behave like the best we humans are capable of, not the worst.

My beeswax intentions candle, burning with lavender and sagebrush from my garden My beeswax intentions candle, burning with lavender and sagebrush from my garden

Driving Richard Home

Richard Cabe, 1950-2011, with one of his beloved "ambassadors of the earth." Richard Cabe, 1950-2011, with one of his beloved “ambassadors of the earth.”

Friday morning, I headed over the mountains in Red on an errand that was a long time in coming: driving Richard home.

Back in 2011, when it became clear that he was in the final stages of life with brain cancer, Richard decided to donate his body to the CU Medical School.

“I’d like to teach one last time,” he said as we snuggled in bed one morning. “Do you mind?”

Richard and Susan in the restored riparian area along Ditch Creek Richard and Susan in summer of 2010. Photo courtesy Jim Steinberg

“No.” I gulped tears. “A body’s just a body. Our love is what will last.”

On November 28, 2011, the day after Richard died, his body was “transported” to Denver to the Medical School’s Anatomy Lab.

The administrator there told me he had been placed in the “long program,” so it could be two or three years before I would get his cremated remains back. That seemed appropriate since Richard didn’t rush about anything. Ever.

Two years ticked toward three. I began to wonder. I called in September. Nothing. Last Wednesday, I called again. The nice administrator said he had “completed the program” and was ready for me to pick up.

She offered to mail him. But I realized I needed the ritual of driving him home.

Richard (box on the right) in the passenger seat of Red. Richard (box on the right) in the passenger seat of Red.

Friday afternoon, three years and fourteen days after his death, I chatted with the administrator, signed the papers and then hefted the box containing the ten pounds of Richard’s cremated remains.

On impulse, I mentioned that I planned to take photos on the drive, as a way to document his journey home.

“There’s a new memorial garden right outside the building,” the administrator said. “You could take one there.”

Richard in the memorial garden at the CU Medical School. Richard in the memorial garden.

As I posed the box, I realized that in far background was “Corpus Callosum,” his favorite of the outdoor sculptures on that campus where we lived in the winter of ’09/’10 during his radiation treatment.

Richard on the concrete barrier at the wave rock. Richard on the concrete barrier below the wave rock.

The next stop was the “wave” rock, a boulder along US 285 in Turkey Creek Canyon. Richard really wanted to use that rock in a sculpture. But he never figured out how to discretely retrieve the ton or so of boulder from beside a busy highway.

Perched on Red (no, I did not pour coffee into the box!) Perched on Red (no, I did not pour coffee into the box!)

After that, it was the Starbucks in Conifer, his coffee-for-the-drive stop.

Yes, that's ice along the edges of the North Fork. Yes, that’s ice along the edges of the North Fork.

And then a quiet stretch of the North Fork of the South Platte.

It's not easy to balance a 10-pound box of remains on a cliff.... It’s not easy to balance a 10-pound box of remains on a cliff….

The cliff going up Kenosha Pass where he found the boulder that became the sink in the guest cottage at Terraphilia, the big house.

"Let's go there," he'd say, pointing at "our mountains" in the distance. “Let’s go there,” Richard would say, pointing at “our mountains” in the distance.

And the viewpoint atop Kenosha Pass (10,000 feet elevation), where he loved to look over South Park, toward the distant mountains above Salida.

The Sawatch Range in the distance after sunset The Sawatch Range in the distance after sunset

Another favorite rock outcrop, coming down Trout Creek Pass into our home valley.

It was almost dark by the time we got home to the little house he never knew, the one I helped design and build after his death, when I realized I couldn’t keep up half a block of property, our 2,400-square-foot house, and his 1,600 square feet of hundred-year-old studio.

I lifted Richard up on the flagstone shelf in the living room, the one that echoes the “cliff” he built for me at the big house.

Yesterday I walked to Gallery 150, the gallery that showed his work in Salida, and with goldsmith/gallery owner Jerry Scavezze’s help (and consultation from goldsmith Toni Tischer and fiber-artist Jane Carpenter–thanks all!) selected a porcelain urn with a lid by a potter whose work Richard had admired.

Richard and the urn Richard and the urn

I brought it home, poured Richard’s remains into it (which is not as easy as you’d think). They fit, exactly.

Richard, home at last (above the stove) Richard, home at last (above the stove)

This afternoon was Kent Haruf’s memorial service. The program included this poem from Rumi, a favorite of he and his wife, Cathy:

The minute I heard my first love story
I started looking for you, not knowing
how blind that was.

Lovers don’t finally meet somewhere.
They’re in each other all along.

—Jelaluddin Rumi, 1207-1273

Richard and now, Kent. In my heart still.

Cottonwoods showing autumn's final colors along the Rio Chama.

Trickster Grief

Cottonwoods showing autumn's final colors along the Rio Chama. Cottonwoods showing bronzey-gold fire along the Rio Chama.

On my drive home today after teaching at the Tony Hillerman Writing Conference in Santa Fe, I stopped in the cottonwood bosque (“woods” in Spanish) along the Rio Chama and was surprised by grief. As I stepped out of Red, my ears filled with the “Chur-ee!” calls of red-winged blackbirds, my noise filled with the tannic smell of decaying cottonwood leaves, and my eyes filled with tears.

The sharp pain in my heart and the wrenching sense of loss shouldn’t have hit me unawares. The drive between Santa Fe and Salida on US 285 was one of Richard’s and my favorite “threads,” or shared road-trips. We first took it together in the fall of 1984, thirty years ago, and retraced the route many times over the decades.

Big Sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata or Seriphidium tridentatum, depending on your taxonomy) on the Taos Plateau. Big Sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata or Seriphidium tridentatum, depending on your taxonomy) on the Taos Plateau.

My memory is layered with snapshots of those trips: The first shocking flush of chartreuse leaves in the cottonwood bosque in spring, when the rivers are running full, their water hissing with red and ochre sediment. The sweetly resinous smell of big sagebrush after a warm summer thundershower.

The sound of a flock of piñon jays whinnying as they forage for nuts from the tree’s cones; the sight of sandhill cranes, wide wings spread and long necks outstretched, flying down the valley in long strings in late fall.

The dazzle of stars in the black night sky one winter night, starlight so bright that the snow along the roadsides glowed even with no moon.

Over the years, we got in the habit of stopping in particular places. The bosque by the bridge where the highway crosses the Rio Chama, the river draining Georgia O’Keeffe’s beloved badland and mesa landscapes, was one of those stops, especially in autumn.

The last cottonwood trees still bright gold along the wash above the Rio Chama A few bright gold cottonwood trees along the wash above the Rio Chama.

So I should have known I’d miss Richard when I stopped out of my truck. But it’s been almost three years since he died. (Actually, it’s been two years, eleven months and 18 days, not that I’m counting obsessively or anything.)

In that time, I’ve deliberately built a good life for myself, one both radically different (new tiny house/studio complex, new truck, new writing projects) and very much the same (same block, same town, my life and work inspired by the same terraphilia we shared, a mindful love for the earth and its living communities).

I’m happy in this new life. Sometimes so much that I feel guilty about it.

Richard 'n Susan, twenty years ago.... Richard ‘n Susan, twenty years ago….

Richard and I were together—so together that we finished the other’s sentences and held hands wherever we went—for just shy of 29 years, much of our adult lives. Our bond shaped us—for good mostly, but not always, I must admit.

That kind of deep connection does not go away at death. Richard is still part of who I am, and the love we shared profoundly affects my understanding of myself and my approach to life.

I should have known that when I stepped out of Red and heard the blackbird voices over the rush of the river, and smelled the spice of the decaying cottonwood leaves, I would feel Richard and the sharp pain of our parting.

The Richard-sculpted blue granite basin in my bathroom The Richard-sculpted blue granite basin in my bathroom

I didn’t know, because that acute grief is not something I feel every day. I feel his love; I often smile and think of something we shared. I live with his sculpture around me. I feel the loss, but it’s more like a chronic ache than a piercing shaft to the heart.

Grief is a bit of a trickster, surprising us when we least expect it. Today’s encounter was no doubt triggered by the sensory memories attached to the sound of the blackbirds’ calls, the quality of the light coming through the cottonwood trees, and the spicy resin of the cottonwood leaves.

I don’t flinch from the visits of Trickster Grief. I’d rather be reminded of the love I had, even when it hurts like… heck, than never have known that love at all.

Sierra San Antonio, another memory-place on the drive.... Sierra San Antonio, another memory-place on the drive

Buffalo Peaks, on the way up Trout Creek Pass, one entrance to South Park

Rejoicing in the Moment

Buffalo Peaks, on the way up Trout Creek Pass, one entrance to South Park Buffalo Peaks, on the way up Trout Creek Pass, one entrance to South Park

I left home Wednesday on one of those glorious sunny spring days with the temperature headed for a high in the 70s and almost no wind. The peaks stood out crisply white against a bluebird sky.

I watched idly for wildlife as I cruised across South Park, winding up and over three high passes. I spotted mountain bluebirds, ravens playing on the wind, red-tailed hawks soaring in lazy circles as they scoped the mountain grassland for prey, and a herd of about 50 cow elk grazing near a looping stream. All very bucolic.

Elk in South Park Elk grazing in South Park

When I drove home last night, fluffy clouds draped the highest peaks, the wind was blowing hard out of the southwest, the bluebirds had found shelter, the hawks and ravens were perched, and the herd of elk had swelled to 200, bunched tight as commuters waiting for a subway train.

The wild ones were preparing for a storm.

Dawn clouds hint at a storm coming. Dawn clouds hint at a storm coming.

This morning dawned still with fat clouds clogging blue sky. Over the course of the day, the wind shifted to the southeast and the temperature dropped steadily from 46 degreesF at dawn to 29 degrees.

Around noon, rain splattered the windows as a shower passed by. Then came the rattle of hail, loud on my metal roof and photovoltaic panels. After the hail came flakes of wet snow.

Snow clings to tiny crapapple leaves and other surfaces. Snow clings to tiny crabapple leaves.

Showers of snow blew past, none sticking—the ground was still warm from the balmy weather earlier. Until the temperature fell far enough that a thin white veneer accumulated on roofs, fences, lawns and cars.

After finishing my outside chores, I spent most of the day cozily inside, catching up on bills and taxes and other details of household life, happy at the drizzle of moisture.

As dusk fell and flakes continued to spill out of gray-bellied clouds and the pavement shone with water, I curled up on the couch, feeling rich. Not in the financial sense.

decksnow Wet snow begins to coat the grating of the deck and the chair.

Rich in abundance. This wet snow probably hasn’t totaled more than a quarter-inch of precipitation, which may not sound like much.

It’s enough though. Enough to fill the air with moisture and the smells of life waking up—the microbes in the soil exhaling at the touch of life-giving water, the plants breathing a sigh of relief because for the moment, they aren’t losing more water vapor to the air than their roots take in; the earth itself welcoming moisture and life.

That rare-for-here feeling of water-saturated air plus the heady fragrance of respiration make me feel rich, like opening the pantry door in winter and seeing jar after jar of food. Rich in life, rich in spring, rich in the joy of water where water is always scarce.

That feeling of abundance reminds me that I am rich in other ways: Rich in nurturing family, friendships and love; rich in having this cozy home to return to after exciting and exhausting work-trips.

Daffodils, quite sure it's spring... Daffodils, quite sure it’s spring…

Rich in the seedlings sprouting on the windowsill (tomatoes and basil for the kitchen garden) and outside under sheltering layers of mulch (wildflowers and native grasses that will weave their living tapestry over my formerly unloved industrial yard). Rich in daffodil leaves sprouting through the snow.

I don’t always feel rich. Sometimes I feel impoverished, worn down and sorry for myself from the continuing effort to figure out this unlooked-for life as Woman Alone.

Snow at the front door Snow at the front door

Just now though, writing about my quiet joy with the snow still falling in a thin rain of flakes outside, I think perhaps what makes my existence worthwhile is precisely that ability to feel joy, to see the beauty and promise in an April snowfall.

That I can rejoice in the abundance of life in this moment is itself a gift worth celebrating. And practicing for those times when it does not come easily.

Richard and me (and our Great Dane, Isis) by the Arkansas River in earlier years.

Love: Baggage Worth Carrying

Richard and me (and our Great Dane, Isis) by the Arkansas River in earlier years. Richard and me (and our Great Dane, Isis) by the Arkansas River in 2003.

I never want to be a person who can’t let go, who carries the tragedies and disappointments of her life as so much baggage. I also don’t want to ignore the past and how it has shaped my life.

I try to walk a path between those two poles, staying mindful of the passage of time and the “anniversary dates” that mark significant personal events. I do my best to honor each, and my feelings.

Still, sometimes those dates blindside me.

Friday, March 27th, was one such. Richard died on the 27th of November; each 27th, I am reminded that another month has passed in this life alone. March marks 2- 1/4 years since his death.

Buffalo Peaks through the car windshield, on the approach to Trout Creek Pass, the first mountain pass on my commute to Denver. Buffalo Peaks through the car windshield, on the approach to Trout Creek Pass, the first on my commute to Denver.

I remembered earlier in the week and thought, Oh yeah. I’ll be driving to Denver that afternoon to prepare for the next Wildscape 101 workshop. The route is familiar, one we took many times between home and the VA Medical Center.

I’d shed a few tears, I suspected, and think about how much we loved that drive, no matter the weather and the inconvenience of being three hours from the city, and how lucky we both felt to live in this spacious landscape.

A herd of about 200 elk gathered in South Park in winter, one of the benefits of the drive over the high country. A herd of about 200 elk in South Park in fall, one of the benefits of the sometimes difficult drive over the high country.

I’d remind myself of how our journey with his brain cancer was eased by the relative quiet and slow pace of our small town, its dark night skies and the river two blocks away, the peaks spearing up on the western horizon, and the community that surrounded us with such love.

I couldn’t know that Friday would end up bringing nasty mountain weather and that I would need to leave early in order to make it safely over the three mountain passes, all above 10,000 feet elevation.

Driving straight into a snowstorm whipping in on howling winds on Friday while crossing South Park. Driving straight into a snowstorm whipping in on howling winds on Friday.

Or that the organization sponsoring the workshop would schedule a last-minute conference call during which logistical issues would arise, requiring me to be on the phone while navigating howling wind, icy roads and blowing snow.

Or that the stress would distract me from honoring the date as I had planned.

It wasn’t until I was driving across Denver that evening and passed near the VA Medical Center that I realized why my shoulders and neck had set like concrete.

Richard and Molly on a bench outside the VA Medical Center after he first saw the birds that presaged his tumor. Richard and Molly outside the Medical Center after he saw the birds that presaged his tumor.

Right. It’s the 27th and I’m in the neighborhood where Richard learned he had a cancerous brain tumor, where he survived four brain surgeries, radiation and a course of chemo infusions, and I don’t remember how many brain MRIs and other procedures.

So before I went to bed that night, after I prepared for the next day’s workshop, I had a little conversation with the man I will always love, just catching up.

And then I slept soundly.

Saturday morning’s workshop was a success, with some 200 people in the audience, and knots of attendees surrounding Lauren Springer Ogden and me afterward to tell us how inspired they were by our talks and to ask eager questions.

By the time I drove back over the mountains that afternoon, the weather had turned balmy, but I was so exhausted I navigated on auto-pilot.

I was aimed for home. Not home to the house Richard and I shared. Home to the little house at the other end of the block I built for my solo self after his death.

Home to this harsh and glorious high desert landscape and the community where Richard’s spirit lives on in his art and in everyone he touched in his brilliant, incisive and generous way.

Home where I walk on alone, grateful to be here and to have had his company for almost 29 years. Yeah, I still miss him; yeah, I grieve. I smile and laugh too. It’s all part of carrying on the love we shared, baggage I never want to forget.

Photograph of love, couple, Carpenter Ranch, The Nature Conservancy Sunset at Carpenter Ranch on our last trip together….

New year, new moon--and long nights....

Counting My Blessings

New year, new moon--and long nights.... New year, new moon–and long nights….

This time of year as the long nights of winter yield much-too-gradually to the turn of our hemisphere toward light and warmth, I spend time deliberately tallying my blessings.

Not in a superficial, oh-isn’t-life-wonderful way.

This particular ritual is part survival, part talisman and part intention. When times seem darkest, I can usually haul myself back to the light by conjuring what I have to be thankful for.

Counting my blessings helped me weather some hard blows these past few years, especially losing both my mother and the love of my life in 2011–Mom in February and Richard in November.

It’s taken me all this time to (mostly) work through the financial and emotional aftermath, and just as I was seeing my way clear this fall came another smack to the heart that’s too close yet to write about.

Whenever I begin to curl inward and feel sorry for myself or harden in righteous anger, what works best to pull myself out is remembering what I have, not dwelling on what I have not.

So in the spirit of my intention to live with my heart outstretched as if it were my hand, here is a by-no-means-complete tally of blessings in no particular order:

  • Blanketflower and Rocky Mountain penstemon bloom over native bunchgrasses in a native meadow "lawn." Blanketflower and Rocky Mountain penstemon bloom over native bunchgrasses in a native meadow “lawn.”

    Life itself, every sweet, joyous, frantic or painful day that comes my way for as long as they do

  • Wildflowers scattered like fallen stars in my yard in the midst of town–and the myriad of bees, butterflies and other lives they summon to their company.
  • My sweet new nest, Creek House, and Treehouse, its companion garage and studio
  • Clouds drifting across the face of the rising moon
  • Blue skies, vivid sunrises and sunsets
  • My family, the extended Tweit clan, including you spouses and that wild and wonderful pack of kids, and Molly and her partner, Mark
  • The pungent smell of sagebrush after a warm rain
  • Molly in the hottest pool at Joyful Journey on her visit home for the holidays Molly in the hottest pool at Joyful Journey Hot Springs on her visit home for the holidays

    The hum of my Subaru tires on pavement; the fact that I have a car and can take to the road now and again.

  • Looking out my front door in the lung-freezing cold just now to see Orion, my favorite constellation, sparkling bright.
  • This town and my dear friends–you know who you are–who help out when I need it, who remind me of why this place holds my heart, who greet me warmly and care how I am, who teach me daily what love means.
  • Hummingbirds trilling past in summer’s heat.
  • Hearing the chuckle of the creek out my door, even under layers of ice.
  • You all, this far-flung digital community weaving a network of care and empathy, humor and wisdom as we reach for each other across the miles.
  • The delicate tracery of frost riming window panes; a feathery fall of snow.
  • Female broad-tailed hummingbird nectars at Zauschneria flowers. Female broad-tailed hummingbird nectars at Zauschneria flowers.

    The joy of restoring this formerly junky industrial parcel to a vibrant community of the land, thrumming with lives of all kinds.

  • The heft of shovel and rake, the chatter of drill and saw, the glow of work well and carefully done.
  • A brisk walk in the shelter of high peaks.
  • The cross-country skis and kayak in my garage waiting for me to play.
  • Writing: the gift and practice of creativity, and the time and sweat it takes to get words and narrative right
  • Books, stories, words; movies and music; art of all kinds
  • I look into the beauty of the earth each time I wash my hands, and I remember my love.... I look into the beauty of the earth each time I wash my hands, and I remember my love….

    Learning the feel of wood, steel and stone

  • The warm sweetness of a tomato fresh from the garden, the crisp crunch of just-harvested greens
  • That single coyote howl I heard at sunset
  • The beautiful stone basin that serves as my bathroom sink, the last I have of Richard’s work, an ambassador of the earth and of his love for it….


Happiness is a form of courage –George Holbrook Jackson

Indeed. It takes work to find the joy in life when life isn’t pretty. But as the list above demonstrates, it’s worth the effort.

Thank you for walking with me. I am truly blessed.


Summer silliness (photo by Scott Calhoun)

Taking Stock

Summer silliness (photo by Scott Calhoun) Summer silliness (photo by Scott Calhoun)

Last Wednesday, the second anniversary of Richard’s death, I thought about what I’ve accomplished over the past 104 weeks.

I’m not being obsessive (I hope). I’m attempting to be mindful about adapting to the wrenching and unwanted change of losing my robustly healthy heart’s partner to brain cancer at age 61.

For almost 29 years, Richard and I were a pair, “two halves of the same brain,” as my friend Kerry put it this afternoon, describing she and her husband Dave, proprietor/owners of Salida’s Ploughboy Local Market.

“That was Richard and me,” I said.

It’s not only my life which changed when Richard died. I’m not just the remaining half of Richard-and-Susan. I’m different now that I’m on my own.

Taking stock is one way to check in with my inner self about how this complex process of working through grief and building a new life is going.

Terraphilia buffed up and ready to for its next owners. Terraphilia buffed up and ready to for its next owners.

Here’s what I’ve done (not necessarily in chronological order):

  • completed a lot of paperwork (death initiates a proliferation of forms)
  • subdivided our reclaimed former industrial property
  • learned finish carpentry and other skills to complete Terraphilia, the sculptural, earth-embracing house Richard built for us (thank you, Maggie and Tony, for teaching and working with me, and buoying my flagging spirits)
  • finished the renovation of Richard’s historic studio building (thanks to Grant Pound, Colorado Art Ranch volunteers, and Bob Spencer, among others)
  • founded a small artist/writer residency program
  • given a few really good keynote talks, including one for TEDx Homer
  • moved Dad from Colorado to a senior community in Washington near my brother and family (where he’s very, very happy)
  • sold Terraphilia and the studio (thank you, Kathleen Nelson and Judy Shuford!)
  • My new place after winter arrived a mite prematurely before Thanksgiving. My new place after winter arrived a mite prematurely before Thanksgiving.

    downsized (thank you, Free the Monkey)

  • moved my stuff box-by-box with the help of amazingly patient friends, and Eric of Artful Moving
  • mentored incredibly talented young writers through the national program YoungArts
  • invented an inspiring and rewarding “Write & Retreat” workshop
  • wrote the first draft of a new memoir
  • began reading the manuscript aloud to shape it into a compelling story
  • helped develop Be a Habitat Hero, a project that aims to inspire us all to save songbirds and pollinators–and water–by replacing lawns with healthy habitat
  • wrote 734 daily haiku (they’re not all especially good) and posted each with one of my photos on Facebook (and Twitter and Pinterest–I’m experimenting with social media)
  • redesigned my website and blog
  • rediscovered my inner redhead

Then I thought about what I haven’t done. One thing is probably obvious from the list above:

  • just be
cocoa heart cocoa heart

I’ve been a bit like a particle of cocoa in the hot chocolate I make myself every morning. I steam the milk, exciting the molecules with heat energy, and then stir in cocoa. The energized milk molecules collide with the cocoa particles, setting the cocoa into random Brownian motion.

(I would argue here that unlike the cocoa particles I haven’t been bouncing around randomly. Although my life does sometimes feel as if I’ve been colliding with much-too-energized events….)

As the milk cools, the movement of its molecules slows. The cocoa particles, no longer held in suspension by random collisions, drift to the bottom of the cup.

After two years, the momentum that sustained me through the changes I needed to make (before I ran out of energy, gumption and/or money) is waning, like that milk cooling.

I’m ready to slow. In fact, I’m ready to curl inward and see if I can’t do some deep healing. Or perhaps deep howling. (Whichever works.)

I’m ready to just hang with this solo me and see who she is, and what that means for this life I didn’t imagine I’d be building.

I know this about her already: she’s a redhead who isn’t inclined to take much… guff. I like that.