Learning My Limits (Still)

I was sitting in the exam room with my family doctor, Mary Reeves, last Thursday morning, when she said, “You know I read your blog.”

“I do,” I looked away, a little embarrassed.

“I always chuckle when you write another post that says, ’I’m re-learning how to work less.’”

Mary, who has been my family physician and friend for the better part of 18 years, has a long memory and knows me too well. She’s also brilliant at pinpointing when I go off the track with my health.

Like the acute attack last Monday night of what felt like appendicitis. I was so sick by Tuesday morning that I couldn’t even stand. I crawled to the bathroom, not an experience I’m eager to repeat. (Good thing my house is small.)

To make a long health story short, I didn’t have to have my appendix removed; however, the flare-up in my abdomen may be chronic, and was most likely aggravated by stress.

After my wonderful doctor talked about what it isn’t and what it might be, she gave me a come-to-Jesus talk that boils down to (I’m paraphrasing):

  1. You’re grounded. Stay home and rest up until you reach these specific recovery milestones.
  2. Work on lowering the level of stress in your life.
  3. Your health comes first. You have to make changes or this will get worse.

So here I go again, working on learning my limits, again, for the I-don’t-know-how-manyth-time.

You’d think I’d have limits down by now. I’ve lived with an autoimmune disease for most of my adult life.

Drugs are not my friends (I am the poster child for pharmaceutical side-effects, even for weak drugs like aspirin), so I manage my health with what western medicine calls “lifestyle remedies”—adjusting my work, diet, activity, sleep, and that kind of thing, plus taking time to deliberately nurture body, mind, and spirit.

That’s generally worked well for me, but for nearly 29 years I had a partner and love-of-my-life who helped out with those adjustments, who picked up the slack when I needed it (sometimes even before I asked him to).

Richard in a wildflower meadow near Crested Butte

Now I don’t. And in the two years before Richard died of brain cancer in 2011, I became his caregiver. I also oversaw my mother’s care during that time—Mom died in February of the year Richard died in November.

For the first two years after Richard died, I was my dad’s primary support, while I scrambled—scrabbled is more like it—to finish the big house and his studio, sell that property, and oversee building my little place.

And I worked for the Be A Habitat Hero project, which involved a lot of travel, while also working nights and weekends on my own writing.

Stress? What stress? Bad habits? What bad habits?

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that the stress is catching up with me, and the habits I formed during those years of pushing through one crisis to dive into the next are still with me.

I am not surprised; I am chagrined. And after last week’s experience, I am resolved (again) to figure out a more sustainable pace for work and life.

I was explaining my dilemma to my friend Kerry, a former lawyer who owns Ploughboy Local Foods here in Salida and who is notorious for going at life full-tilt boogie.

“I have to figure out how to leave time for the things I love but which don’t necessarily pay the bills,” I said, frustrated.

She looked at me for a moment, her head cocked as if I was particularly slow. “No,” she said, “you’re going about it wrong. You have to do those things first.”

Oh. As if they’re more important. As if what restores me (and my troubled appendix region) has priority over the stuff I do to pay the bills.

Kerry’s right, and so is Mary. I’ve had my priorities wrong. What that means exactly, I'll have to figure out.

But I'll have time, because of this week's good news: I finished my revision of the memoir I call Bless the Birds and sent it to my agent. (Fingers crossed!)

Re-learning My Limits (again)

There’s a Buddhist story about a frustrated student who asks the retreat leader how many times she has to learn a lesson before she can move on. The teacher pauses, thinks, and says, “As many times as you need.”

Sunrise from Yavapai Point, Grand Canyon Sunrise from Yavapai Point, Grand Canyon National Park

I think of that story because I am learning (again) the limits of my energy. Meaning what I can actually do without hurting myself, as opposed to what I think I can do.

My recent 12-day, 3,300-mile drive to central California provided the latest iteration of that lesson. I planned my itinerary carefully to not exceed my daily energy budget, spacing the drive out over what I thought was a reasonable amount of time for a sustainable trip. I was wrong.

Not about my stamina. The drive was reasonable–if everything worked. I forgot that life rarely goes as planned.

Snowdrifts on the South Rim, not what I expected in late March. Deep snow on the South Rim, not what I expected in late March.

Which I found out the second night out, when I arrived at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon to camp and found snow. A lot of it. I took a long walk on the rim trail anyway, and cooked my simple dinner with my little stove on Red’s tailgate as I watched the sun set over the canyon, purple shadows rising from the depths as the sky flared gold and orange and then faded to rose and violet. All good.

By the time I crawled into my cozy sleeping bag inside Red’s topper, stars littered the black heavens and the temperature was plummeting. I reassured myself I would be fine and went to sleep. When I woke before dawn, I was curled in a ball in my sleeping bag, frost sparkled on the inside of the topper and the thermometer read 18 degrees.

I headed for the Rim, boiled water for my oatmeal with my little stove, and ate my breakfast as the sun rose. After which I set off for southern California, knowing that by the end of the day I’d be in the Mojave Desert, my convulsive shivers a distant memory.

A carpet of golden wildflowers in the Mojave National Preserve, California. A carpet of golden wildflowers in the Mojave National Preserve, California.

As I drove south and west, I shed layers. By the day’s end, the cold was indeed a memory, but the ache in my lower jaw was not and I was exhausted, never a good sign.

Both the ache and the exhaustion got worse. By the time I reached San Francisco several days later, the lymph gland under my jaw had become a hard lump, and the left side of my face was swollen and tender. My immune system was clearly unhappy.

On Saturday, I participated in the Geography of Hope Conference in Point Reyes Station, throbbing jaw and all. During lunch break, I walked out to my truck, and stopped to talk to Inez, an herbalist/healer.

She looked at my swollen jaw. “May I give you a sound therapy treatment?”

“Absolutely,” I said. “Please.”

Inez took a tuning fork out of a velvet bag (the fork tuned to middle C, if you’re curious), struck the fork and then touched it very gently to my left shoulder, where the clavicle meets the shoulder joint. She let the tuning fork rest there until it quit vibrating, then struck it again and touched it to my right shoulder.

By the time Inez finished, my headache had vanished and my jaw was no longer throbbing. A day later, the swelling was much reduced, and by several days later, almost all of the pain had vanished too.

I wish I could say the lesson ended there and well. But this is real life.

California poppies blooming just off Highway One. California poppies blooming just off Highway One.

The swelling, it turns out, stemmed from an infection in the root of one of my front teeth, an infection aggravated by the stress of a solo trip that was overly ambitious even though it was also incredibly rewarding.

Once again, my body reminds me that I’m not Superwoman. When I push myself too hard, there are consequences. In this case, those consequences include an appointment with an endodontist in the city this Thursday, and the prospect of very expensive dental work.

Perhaps those consequences will finally teach me the lesson about limits, so I won’t have to repeat it. Again and again….

Yellow pear tomatoes, round red stupice, and oblong Pompeii romas, all from plants I grew with my own hands, thanks to Renee's Garden Seeds.

Local Food & Author Platform

Yellow pear tomatoes, round red stupice, and oblong Pompeii romas, all from plants I grew with my own hands, thanks to Renee's Garden Seeds. Yellow pear tomatoes, round red Stupice, and oblong Pompeii romas, all from plants I grew with my own hands, thanks to Renee’s Garden Seeds.

It’s 21 degrees F outside and the mercury is falling fast, stars are pricking the evening sky, and I’m snug on my couch, sipping local whiskey, nibbling bite-sized tomatoes from my summer garden, and thinking about my author platform.

What is “author platform,” and what does it have to do with local food?

Platform is what a writer brings to selling a book in addition to her writing. It’s your expertise in your subject (which mostly applies to non-fiction), your following on social media and your blog; plus your contacts, personality, previously published work, and your message. It is also who you are and how you live.

These days, great writing isn’t enough. Writing is a business, and the truth is, we’re selling a bit of ourselves along with our books.

Hence platform, which is basically the foundation a publisher uses to help sell your books.

Local drinks: Tenderfoot Whiskey, from two blocks away, in a hand-blown glass from Gallery 150, two store-fronts from Woods. Local drinks: Tenderfoot Whiskey, from two blocks away, in a hand-blown glass from Gallery 150, in the same block.

Okay, but why am I sitting on the couch on Sunday evening sipping local whiskey (thank you PT Woods!), snacking on tomatoes harvested a month ago before a hard frost (I took in 15.35 pounds of tomatoes from three plants), and thinking about author platform?

The whiskey is because it’s a cold night; the tomatoes are because their touch of sweetness reminds me of summer on my deck where they grew. (I rarely drink–with me, a little goes a long way–but I do love to sip a finger of good, neat whiskey now and again to clear my thoughts.)

The platform thinking is because I sent Bless the Birds, my memoir-in-progress, to my agent three weeks ago; she read it promptly and loved it. (“Beautifully written, clear in its direction, very strong in description…. Congratulations, you have written the book this story was meant to be.”)

Bless the Birds, a pile of pages on my desk.... Bless the Birds, a pile of pages on my desk….

She also said that the market for “health memoirs” is soft, not a good thing in the midst of the confusion that is publishing these days.

So I’ve been thinking about platform in the sense of what my message is, with this new memoir as well as my twelve previous books and all of my other writing. I’ve always resisted the idea of distilling my mission into a few words.

(I really hate being pigeon-holed. Put me in a box and I’ll have broken out in no time flat. That could be claustrophobia, which I confess to, or it could be sheer cussed stubbornness, which I have to own as well.)

It occurs to me though that articulating my mission would help, not just in selling this new memoir, in seeing whether the story articulates that mission clearly enough to be so visionary that it breaks out of that “health memoir” box.

The storyline that drives the narrative in Bless the Birds is the two-plus years Richard and I spent figuring out how to live well with his brain cancer. That’s health and memoir.

But is it “just” a health memoir? There’s the question. If I’ve done my job well, it’s more than that. Not that cancer, living mindfully and death aren’t universal themes. But….

Which brings me to back platform and local food.

Dinner was local too: Moroccan meatball soup from Ploughboy Local Market, featuring Colorado-grown ingredients. (And a recipe inspired by my neighbors.) Dinner tonight: Moroccan meatball soup from Ploughboy Local Market, featuring Colorado-grown ingredients. (And a recipe from my neighbors.)

I eat local food to support my community (dollars spent close to home have a greater “multiplier effect” than dollars that go to some distant corporate headquarters and return diminished by the many hands they’ve passed through). And because local food is more likely to be grown with care for the community of the land as well.

Nurturing my local community—including that of the land that nourishes all of us—is part of living my mission and platform. Which I now see as this:

Reconnecting humans to nature to restore us to our best selves and fullest lives—healthy in body, mind and spirit—and also to nurture this Earth, the home of our hearts.

Now to make sure I’ve articulated that message in the story. That’s the visionary part.

The aspens were turning gold on the slopes of Buffalo Peaks in South Park on Saturday, something I saw only because I tore myself away from work to take Red for a drive.

Financial Sustainability: Tools for Awareness

The aspens were turning gold on the slopes of Buffalo Peaks in South Park on Saturday, something I saw only because I tore myself away from work to take Red for a drive. Aspens turning gold on the slopes of Buffalo Peaks in South Park–definitely worth the time and gas for a drive in Red.

I turned 58 last week, so I’ve begun thinking about financial sustainability in terms of retirement. My idea of retirement isn’t quitting working, it’s having the flexibility to do what I love most–writing, and restoring nature in the places where we live and work–at a pace that feels less like work and more like play.

As I’ve written here before, I’m practicing being aware of how I use my money, in part because I’ve had to make some serious and difficult trade-offs after Richard, the love of my life and my husband for nearly three decades, died of brain cancer.

I’m lucky: my parents, my terminally cheap dad and my generous but goal-oriented mom, taught me how to be intentional about my money, aware of how I use my dollars and what that means for the future.

Dad and Mom at our house in Salida on a Christmas visit Dad and Mom in matching turtlenecks (bought on sale) one Christmas

Any of us, whatever our background, culture and current situation, can take steps toward financial stability by practicing thinking before we spend.

Like yoga, meditation or sobriety, working toward financial sustainability is a practice. It takes daily work. Some days go better than others. On the bad days, you pick yourself up, learn from what when wrong and start again, resolved to resume with enlightened mind and heart.

On the good days, you understand that whatever you have can indeed be enough, and in fact, more than enough. That’s a wonderful and liberating feeling.

What are some tools I use to practice financial sustainability? One is awareness.

Eating outside at Ploughboy on a nice day. Eating outside at Ploughboy on a nice day.

Before I spend any money, whether it’s putting a dollar in the tip jar for the employees at Ploughboy Local Market, my neighborhood grocery store, or buying a new pair of glasses (not a trivial expense since I wear progressive trifocals), I stop and think: Is this really how I want to use this money?

In the doing, I acknowledge that money is a finite resource: what I spend in one place isn’t available to spend somewhere else. (Which does not keep me from being generous whenever possible. I just think about it first.)

Another tool is paying by cash or check when I can, rather than using my charge card. Yes, credit cards “pay” rewards—as a way to suck you into spending more money. It works; you do. But is that what you really want?

Red in Big Horn Sheep Canyon on the Arkansas River Red, my truck and topper, which I own outright and paid for by check. (Writing that number made me think!)

When I have to stop and pull out cash or write a check, I think about what I’m spending. It’s harder to be impulsive that way. Which is the point.

That little plastic card (whether credit or debit) makes the transaction too automatic, too far removed from actual money. With credit cards, that can have catastrophic consequences: You are borrowing the money you spend. If you can’t pay it off at the end of the monthly cycle, you pay, and pay, and pay.

Richard and Molly on a bench outside the VA Medical Center after he first saw the birds that presaged his tumor. Richard and Molly on a bench outside the VA Medical Center at the beginning of our journey with his brain cancer.

Sometimes we have no choice; a big expense comes up unexpectedly, and we have to borrow the money, whether from the credit card company or the bank. That’s life.

But it doesn’t have to be a daily habit.

Financial sustainability isn’t something you achieve and then don’t have to think about anymore. It grows from the seemingly small decisions we make every day, like buying the fancy drink at the coffeehouse on the way to work.

cocoa heart Chocolate art by a barrista

Five days a week for fifty weeks (assuming two weeks for vacation) and that $4 per drink adds up to $1,000 a year. That’s not small change.

Maybe that thousand dollars is worth it. And maybe not. Learning to be conscious and decide is part of the everyday practice that leads to financial sustainability.

That daily practice is a key part of my retirement plan: What I don’t spend buys me more time to stop and admire the aspens, and just enjoy life.

Aspens on Trout Creek Pass Aspens on Trout Creek Pass

Mom posing on her honeymoon at Mt. Lassen, 1952

The Dangerous Power of Thin

Last week, when 24-year-old Rachel Fredrickson walked on stage as the winner of season 15 of “The Biggest Loser,” many viewers gasped. Fredrickson started the show at 260 pounds; she ended up 105, losing 155 pounds, more than half her body weight. She looked anorexic.

Mom posing on her honeymoon at Mt. Lassen, 1952 Mom posing on her honeymoon at Mt. Lassen, June 1952.

I thought immediately of my mom, who died three years ago at age 79. Her death certificate lists “severe rheumatoid arthritis” as the cause, and it’s clear that her RA contributed, as did early Alzheimer’s.

But what sent my bright, quick, funny, and intensely loving mother on her final slide was an obsession with thin.

Joan Cannon (later Tweit) in the Sierras in her teens Mom in the Sierras in her teens

Mom, a California girl who grew up hiking and camping in the Sierra Nevadas, and who was always happiest outside with mountains in sight, was a healthy weight until one summer in her late 50s when a combination of rheumatoid arthritis drugs robbed her of her appetite. In three months, she lost 20 pounds from her 135-pound, 5″6″ frame.

Mom and Dad in Tucson, Arizona, in about 1990 Mom and Dad in Tucson, Arizona, in about 1990

She never regained that weight. By her sixtieth birthday, I realized with a shock that Mom was no longer taller than I. I commented and she denied it–until we measured each of us. She had lost 3/4 of an inch in height.

“How much do you weigh?” I asked, suddenly worried.

“I’m healthy; I don’t weigh myself.” Her tone was both lofty and evasive.

Perhaps I should have clued in, but I didn’t. She and Dad continued hiking, birdwatching, and traveling the world.

Mom and Dad with my brother Bill in Norway, August 2008. Mom and Dad with my brother Bill in Norway

And Mom continued to shrink. By the time they took their last trip overseas, she stood 5’2″ and weighed (she claimed), “around 100 pounds.”

By then, I was on a campaign to help her gain weight. Only it was already too late. Mom understood intellectually that she needed to stop losing, but she simply couldn’t.

Mom in the Never Summer Mountains on her last camping trip. Mom in the Never Summer Mountains on her last camping trip.

Her weight continued to slip, her bones continued to thin and her health deteriorated until one January morning in 2011, when she stepped out of bed and one hip shattered. It was unrepairable.

We brought Mom home. She lived another three weeks, long enough for all of us to be able to spend time with her, and to say goodbye.

Months later, I asked Dad if he knew where things went wrong.

“Thinking back, I guess when some boys called her ‘piano legs’ in high school. It stung so much that she never forgot.”

As he said the words, a childhood memory surfaced: My blue-eyed, curvy mom with the English-rose complexion and wavy brown hair eyed herself in the mirror and vowed to fit into a size 8 dress again. I had forgotten that part of Mom.

“That summer when she lost those 20 pounds must have triggered it. Losing weight was something she could control when she couldn’t control the arthritis. It was power.”

Dad nodded. “Something like that.”

I shivered. I know precisely the power of numbers on the scale dropping.

I inherited Dad’s slender build (and his Scots-Norwegian freckles and reddish hair too), and, I realize now, I learned Mom’s unhealthy fixation with weight.

Hiking with Mom and Dad. Yes, I'm too thin. Hiking with Mom and Dad.

No matter how thin my reflection in the mirror, it always looks just a little fat to me. When times are tough, it is comforting in a way I can’t explain logically to watch the numbers on the scale drop, pound by pound. I’ll stop when I get to this number, I say to myself, meaning it.

Except at that number, the idea of going lower is awfully appealing. Only the memory of caring for Mom as her body consumed itself, skin eroding from within, bones poking through, keeps me from sliding farther.

Which is why the photos of Rachel Fredrickson made me sad. Losing weight, she said, helped her find herself again. I hope so, and I hope she can find a healthy weight too.

The power of being thin is dangerously addictive. I know. So did my smart, funny and beautiful Mom.

The Oklahoma Panhandle, between Guymon and Boise City, a landscape that brings new meaning to the word 'level.'

Pacing the Journey

The Oklahoma Panhandle, between Guymon and Boise City, a landscape that brings new meaning to the word 'level.' the Oklahoma Panhandle between Guymon and Boise City

When I smacked my face with the car door last Monday evening in Guymon, Oklahoma, my first thought after “I can’t believe I did that,” and “Holy Toledo, that hurts!” (only I didn’t actually say “Holy Toledo”) was “I’ve got to slow down. I’m trying to do too much.”

With 400 miles to drive the next day and the first hundred traversing the western end of the Oklahoma Panhandle, one of the flattest landscapes I know, I had plenty of time and space to think about that last observation.

What responsibilities and to-dos could I let go of?

The most obvious is selling my beloved house/guest cottage/studio creative complex. I had planned to handle the sale myself, since I know the place better than anyone else, and honestly, a real estate agent’s commission amounts to a pretty big chunk of change for someone who has had essentially no income for the past several years.

But I’m not a real estate professional. And sales is not my forte, as evinced by the fact that I’ve given away many of what may be the most valuable books in Richard’s extensive library, preferring to pass them to friends who would appreciate them or donate them to our public library rather than sell them.

Sangre de Cristo Range, east of Raton, New Mexico Sangre de Cristo Range, east of Raton, New Mexico

Okay. Selling the house/cottage/shop is one rather large responsibility I could shed. What else could I let go of?

I pondered that question as the Panhandle gave way to the rumpled black basalt flows and volcanic cones of northeastern New Mexico, and finally to the first views of the snow-streaked Sangre de Cristo Range, the mountains I follow home.

Well…. I could ask for more help with the final push to finish my beautiful-but-not-quite-ready-to-sell place. Thanks to my friends Maggie and Tony Niemann, plus Bob Spencer and my nephew, Andrew Cabe, a lot of the finish work is done. There’s just the master bathroom and then all the “fluffing” details. Which is still a lot.

The tiny house with windows! The tiny house with windows!

Beyond those two things though, I got stuck. No one else can write Bless the Birds, the memoir I’m immersed in. Or mastermind the launch of the landscaping-for-wildlife project for Terra Foundation and Audubon Rockies. Or give the talk at Denver Botanic Garden in just over two weeks. Or keep tabs on the myriad details involved in construction of the new tiny house. Or….

The next morning, I woke in my own comfy bed remembering Christian McEwen’s book, World Enough & Time, which I reviewed last August. One of the things I learned in reading McEwen’s book is shedding to-dos and responsibilities is only part of making “enough” time. The other and perhaps more important part is pacing.

I could choose to race frenziedly through each day, telling myself that once I got through this crunch, I’d take some time to rest and recover. (That’s my usual M.O.) Or I could choose to recognize that this isn’t a temporary crunch, it’s simply a full and interesting life. And I need to find the time each day to breathe, rest, and take care of myself.

It’s that old saying about life being what happens along the way, not the end of the journey. Oh, yeah.

It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters in the end. (attributed to Ursula K. LeGuin)

I’ve spent the week practicing pacing my journey more deliberately. Every time I feel that panicky need to race through something just to get it done, I remind myself that this isn’t a temporary crisis. It is the journey.

Sitting in the doorway of my tiny house yesterday evening, dangling my legs over what will be the deck, this is what I saw--a gift of taking time to just be. The view from the doorway of my tiny house yesterday evening, as I sat and dangled my legs over the space where the deck will be, a gift of taking time to just be.

And I rest when I need to rest. I stop and breathe. I look around me and appreciate that I am here. Now.

I’m accomplishing just as much, and appreciating more. I’m finding more grace and delight and outright joy. And I’m less overwhelmed and burnt out.

Also, I haven’t fallen, smacked myself in the face or injured myself in any way. I think I’m making progress. 🙂

Evening-primrose "snow" on a flat above the Arkansas River, Colorado

Road Report: Going too fast

Evening-primrose "snow" on a flat above the Arkansas River, Colorado Pallid evening-primrose “snow” on a flat along the Arkansas River, Bighorn Sheep Canyon, Colorado

Thursday morning, I set out for Northwest Arkansas, 800 miles across the Southern Great Plains from Salida, a two-day drive, to visit my  Arkansas in-laws. I planned to drive nine hours the first day to Woodward, just east of the Oklahoma Panhandle, more than halfway.

That gave me a shorter drive the second day, so I would arrive at my sister-in-law’s house in Springdale a little more relaxed.

Peaks of the Sangre de Cristo Range above Texas Creek, Colorado Sangre de Cristo Range above Colorado’s Wet Mountain Valley

I meant to leave at ten that morning, but I wasn’t on the road until eleven. So when I saw the white evening-primroses blooming on the flats in Bighorn Sheep Canyon just downriver from home, I didn’t stop. Even though there were so many the high-desert looked dotted with snow.

Until I came around a curve and spotted thousands across the river. I had to shoot a photo. I parked, dashed across the highway and clambered atop a guardrail post for a better view. I snapped a couple of photos, and then stepped down. Only I fell. Backwards. Onto the pavement.

I lay there, saying, “Oh sh___!” for a moment. Then I hauled myself up. My left leg didn’t work, so I stood on my right, holding the guardrail for balance. After a few seconds, my left leg responded and I limped across the highway to my car.

Missouri evening-primrose blooming in the highway margins right outside my motel in Woodward, Oklahoma. Missouri evening-primrose blooming in the highway margins right outside my motel in Woodward, Oklahoma.

I debated about turning around and driving the 40 minutes home to the closest hospital. My knee was wrenched, my hip aching, and my ankle was weighing in with pain signals too. But they all still worked. Pretty much.

Further, Molly and I planned the Arkansas trip weeks ago. She and her partner Mark were flying in to meet me. (M&M live in San Francisco.)

So I drove on until I found a deserted side road where I could stop and slather arnica ointment on the offended hip, knee, and ankle. The stop also offered the view of the snowy peaks of the Sangre de Cristo Range in the second photo above.

Then I drove on. And on, and on, and on until I reached my motel in Woodward at nine that night. It was 88 degrees out. I applied more arnica ointment, plus ice. And fell into bed thinking I had been stupid and lucky and that I should slow the frenetic pace of my life.

Indian paintbrush, coreopsis, and yarrow blooming along the highway east of Tulsa. Indian paintbrush, coreopsis, and yarrow blooming along the highway east of Tulsa.

I woke the next morning very stiff and very sore, but the hip, knee and ankle worked, and weren’t too swollen. I applied the arnica and ice again, and then hit the road. (Not literally this time.)

As I exited the driveway of my motel, located on an ugly industrial strip, I spotted clumps of glorious yellow Missouri evening-primroses blooming along the highway margins. I stopped to photograph them, limping considerably. But I didn’t fall.

Molly Cabe and her partner, Mark Allen Molly Cabe and her partner, Mark Allen

And then I drove on. The roadside wildflowers all across Oklahoma were lovely, which cheered me considerably.

I reached my sister-in-law Letitia’s house late that afternoon, and limped inside to warm greetings from Molly and Mark and Tish, all of whom were sympathetic and impressed by my story. (Impressed, that is, by my stupidity.)

Still, it was a great weekend of visiting with Molly and Mark, Miss Alice, Tish, and her daughter Carolyn, spouse Doug, and their son Oliver, who at four is quite excited about becoming a big brother this fall. (I am very lucky in all my family.)

My niece, Carolyn Myrick and her grandmother, Miss Alice Cabe (Richard's mom). My niece, Carolyn Myrick and her grandmother, Miss Alice Cabe (Richard’s mom).

We ate well, had time to catch up on each others’ lives, look over family photos, plant Miss Alice’s windowboxes, and visit the spectacular Crystal Bridges Museum of America Art, an outing organized by Tish.

(If you’re anywhere near northwest Arkansas, it’s worth a visit to Crystal Bridges just to see the woods-and-wildflowers setting and the gorgeously curved building tucked into that landscape. The art collection is superb too.)

This morning I headed out on the long drive home. The weather maps showed a gap between fronts (including the one that spawned the tornado that devastated Moore, near Oklahoma City).

Magenta locoweed and yellow evening-primrose along the highway in the Oklahoma Panhandle Magenta locoweed and yellow evening-primrose along the highway in the Oklahoma Panhandle

After I passed through Tulsa, the rain abated and the wind dropped. The driving was pretty smooth and the roadsides were abloom with wildflowers. I was tired but eager to get home. I have things to do.

I drove almost nine hours to Guymon on the Oklahoma Panhandle. As I unloaded my car at the motel, I congratulated myself on  weathering the grueling drive pretty well despite my fall at the beginning. And promptly smacked myself in the face opening the car door. By the time I got upstairs to my room just moments later and went to get ice, there was a lump below my eye socket the size of a jumbo green olive.

Good thing I have that arnica ointment. And the ice machine is just across the hall.

Okay. I get the message. Tomorrow, while I carefully drive the rest of the way home, I will make concrete plans to slow the pace of my life.

First, though, I’m going to bed. As I do, I will send Light and love out to the people of Moore, Oklahoma. What a terrible, terrible tragedy. Bless us all.

Giving Thanks for Hospice

Molly Cabe and Carol Ley, harpist for Angel of Shavano Hospice, play a duet in our living room, November, 2011

A year ago, this house was filled with people. Molly and her sweetie Mark were staying in the guest cottage, Richard was ensconced in the hospital bed in our bedroom; friends and family came and went along with nurses, home health care aides and others from his hospice team. Even while I appreciated their support and love, the parade of people often overwhelmed me. I craved peace and quiet.

Today, it’s just me. I have peace and quiet in spades, and of course, I would trade it to bring Richard back, his smile beaming like sunshine. (Ttechnically it’s not just me here: Buffy Noble, an English poet, is staying in the guest cottage with the Terraphilia Residency Program. She’s very quiet though.)

My late love and his incandescent smile….

The approach of Thanksgiving has me thinking about what I’m thankful for. The list is long, beginning with the love and support of my wonderful family, the generous community of this small town, and the rich fellowship of friends and readers and colleagues.

Right up near the top of that list is hospice. Last year I got to know two hospice organizations: Visiting Nurses Association of Denver cared for my mom until her death in early February. Seven months later to the day, Richard’s oncologist told us it was time to refer him for hospice care. So the day after we returned from The Big Trip, our three-week, nearly 4,000-mile-long drive across the interior West and down the Pacific Coast from Washington state to southern California, his team from Angel of Shavano Hospice made their first visit.

What is hospice? Simply put, it is team-oriented, compassionate care for people with a terminal illness or injury, and their families. Hospice care focuses on combining therapeutic medical care, pain management, and emotional and spiritual support to allow people to live the end of their lives in dignity and comfort, whether in a hospice facility or at home. The word originated with shelters for travelers on pilgrimages in the Middle Ages; the first modern facility to employ hospice principles in caring for the terminally ill was established 1967 by Dame Cicely Saunders, a British physician.

None of us want to think about death. But if we do, most of us would prefer to die at home or in a comfortable facility with expert care. Why wouldn’t we?

Mom, celebrating her 79th birthday with high tea at Denver’s Brown Palace Hotel

That’s where hospice comes in. When my bright and tenacious 79-year-old mother’s body began to fail, stressed by decades of living with what her doctor said was the most severe case of rheumatoid arthritis she had ever seen, and aggravated by the early stages of Alzheimer’s Disease, Mom was sure she would be “fine” soon. But after she stepped out of bed one night (having forgotten she could no longer walk) and her brittle right hip shattered, she was sent to a rehab center. All she wanted was to go home with Dad, and the Denver Visiting Nurses Association made that possible. By the time Mom drew her last breath, holding Dad’s hand as she had for more than 58 years, she had come to look forward to visits from her hospice team, and her sparkling smile bloomed.

Then in September, it was my love’s turn. The two months between when we got home from The Big Trip and his death on November 27th could have been dominated by fear and grief. Instead, thanks to the warm and skilled support of his team from Angel of Shavano Hospice, especially his nurse, Will Archuletta, and the presence of Molly, who spent the last five weeks of his life with us, love and laughter and sweetness prevailed. We were blessed, and hospice was a big part of that.

Thanksgiving 2009: Richard, Dad, Mom, and my sister-in-law, Lucy Winter

So in this time of giving thanks, I am thankful for Dame Cicely Saunders for her vision and courage, for the Veteran’s Administration for embracing hospice and palliative care, and for hospice caregivers and organizations everywhere.

I encourage you to learn about and support your local hospice organization. Because much as we hate to think about it, they’ll likely support you or those you love one of these days.

(Two other outstanding hospice organizations in Colorado are Pikes Peak Hospice and Palliative Care in Colorado Springs, and The Denver Hospice.)

The contemplative season again

Richard talking about his sculpture work, Salida Artposium, Colorado Art Ranch. (Photo by Grant Pound, courtesy of Colorado Art Ranch)

Nine months ago, after Richard’s death, I promised myself that when I got through the crazyness of after-death business, I would take the first quarter of the new year for some much-needed contemplative time to begin processing the drastic changes in my life.

After a work trip to Miami in early January to teach in the YoungArts program, I came home eager to settle in and have that inward time. My spirit was weary from two years of caregiving for my parents before my mom’s death, and then walking Richard through his journey with brain cancer.

I imagined quiet time to write and read, to catch up on my sleep and dream, to envision a new path as Woman Alone. And I managed some. But life kept intruding. My dad needed increasing amounts of time, sorting out post-Richard financial and other affairs dragged on, deferred house and shop projects demanded my attention….

Late winter flashed past, then spring in a flurry of work travel and preparing for the Terraphilia Residency Program, and then summer whizzed by as well. Now it’s September, my birth-month; fall is just around the corner. And I never really got that uninterrupted time to contemplate the wrenching changes of last year.

Richard with my parents, Joan and Bob Tweit, at the Betty Ford Alpine Garden, Vail

As the days grow shorter once again and our summer of record heat and drought limps to an end, I am once again thinking of finding contemplative time, of slowing down to absorb the shocks of the last year and some. That time won’t come this month: my dad is planning on being in his new apartment at Panorama City in Lacey, Washington, halfway across the continent on October 1st. He flies home from Washington this Wednesday, where he has spent the past two months in an intensive training program for veterans with vision challenges.

After picking him up at the airport, my task will be to help him sort through what he wants to move back to Washington with him, and to get bids on packing and transporting his small household. Then there’s the transfer of his banking and other services, plus moving his medical records from Colorado to the Southern Puget Sound VA system, and a plethora of other details.

And making sure that Dad, who is eagerly anticipating this move, takes time to say his goodbyes after a decade here in Colorado, to friends at the Westland Meridian, where he has lived for the past four years, at the church he attends, and in the Highlands Garden Village garden group, a community he and Mom treasured. (Thank you, Erica, for making them so welcome!)

The next few weeks bring a crush of writing deadlines too, so I’ll really be scrambling to meet my work commitments and help Dad. Which means my birth-month will rush by without time for quiet, much less contemplation. That’s okay; I’m determined to make that time happen once Dad’s safely off to begin the next chapter of his life in Washington, where my brother and family are as excited about his arrival as Dad is. (Bill, Lucy, Alice, Heather, and Sienna and families–you are simply wonderful.)

Succor for the spirit: a moment of beauty at dawn.

The pull of quiet time to tend heart and spirit has felt particularly strong these past few days, in part because the nights are lengthening and the weather is beginning to hint at winter, in part because of the sudden loss of my sister-in-law Lucy’s dad, Bill Winter, who died in his sleep at home on Wednesday night. He was 90-something and we knew he wouldn’t last forever, but still…. It’s a shock to think of the world without Big Bill’s dry wit and questing mind.

So many changes.

I yearn for quiet time to let those changes “season” as Quakers say, referring to the time necessary for experiences and issues to become less tender and touchy, making thoughtful responses possible.

Fall and winter have always been my contemplative season; I intend to give my spirit that restful, rejuvenating gift this time.

Blessings to you all for walking this journey with me.

Finding middle gear

Coast redwood grove at dawn

After several decades of living with a chronic, potentially debilitating illness, you’d think I’d know my limits. (I have either mixed connective tissue disease or lupus, depending the doc and the interpretation. The name doesn’t particularly matter; it doesn’t change the symptoms I experience every day.)

Apparently I don’t. (Know my limits.) Since I returned home from a Mother’s Day weekend trip to California, I’ve been half-sick with various symptoms. Some days my bones ache deep inside like I’m getting the flu (there’s nothing like aching bones to make me feel old); some days I’m feverish all night long and sleep restlessly; some days I wake with a throat so sore it feels like someone’s abraded it with one of the big-toothed files in Richard’s shop, and the glands in my throat are swollen in hard, painful knots.

That’s my body speaking to me. When I fail to pay attention to its more subtle messages—tiredness, forgetting words, losing my balance, struggling to breathe, or dropping things, it speaks louder, raising its “voice” the way we do when we feel like our audience isn’t listening. If speaking louder doesn’t work, we resort to other, more drastic methods, like shouting or throwing things. I’m afraid my body is approaching the throw-things stage.

Banksia and Monterey cypress at the University of California-Santa Cruz arboretum

It’s my own fault. I’ve been in high gear since I got home, trying to catch up, to make progress on my various projects, all of which feel urgent, before I leave again in two weeks to take my dad to Washington state for a family gathering. I’ve been “pushing through” instead of listening within. I’ve been frantically ticking off things on my to-do list. A list which does not, now that I think about it, include resting and refilling the well I draw my energy from, whether physical, emotional, creative, or spiritual.

It occurs to me that part of the problem is that I seem to have only two gears: up and at ’em, and horizontal (as in lying flat-out on the couch). I’m either going full-tilt-boogie or I’m not going at all. That doesn’t sound particularly sustainable, does it?

That’s what I suspect my body is trying to communicate to me. Slow down or else…. I know that “or else,” though it’s been a very long time since I got myself into a bad enough patch that I’ve had to pay really drastic consequences for neglecting my own well-being.

Claret cup cactus blooming in my restored native grassland front yard

How drastic? Oh, just two bouts of mono, one after another, walking pneumonia, plus several serious injuries attributable to severe fatigue and a car crash that could have killed me. How long since my body had to shout that loud? Um, since Richard and I began living together almost thirty years ago.


Could there be a connection between my current inability to find a sustainable middle gear and the loss of the love of my life?

Well, duh.

There’s one of me know, and in my own stubbornly independent way, I’m trying to do what two people did before. Huh.

Rocky Mountain iris, the native iris, growing along our restored block of urban creek

Apparently I need to re-think how I’m approaching this Woman Alone thing. I could start with learning to say “no” more often, and asking for help before I get stuck. (I’m working on both of those.) I could also practice recognizing that grief and exhaustion are part of the process and that they require their own time and space. I could add “rest” and “reflect” to my to-do list.

What it comes down to is that I need find a new life-rhythm. I’m still living as if there are two of us, and the other one is a strong and healthy guy who can do everything I cannot. And more besides.

This coming Sunday will mark six months since Richard’s death. It’s time for me to get serious about finding that middle gear so I can live a healthy life without him.

I’m going to start by heading out to the kitchen garden and picking myself a bowl of fresh salad greens for lunch. Preparing meals from the food I’ve grown with my own hands in our soil takes time, but it’s a wonderful way to slow down and nourish myself, body, mind and spirit.