The Gift of Renovation: New Understanding

One of the things that fascinates me about house renovation, or any kind of restoration work (including digging invasive weeds in Yellowstone, which I'll be doing next month) is that the process of changing something outside ourselves often shifts our internal perspective as well.

In the process of working with my contractor, the amazing Jeff Durham, and the other tradesfolk who have helped me revive this long-neglected house, I've experienced "aha!" moments that I'm not sure I would have seen in any other way. Certainly not so quickly or so clearly.  

Take our current project, replacing the old, leaky, and cloudy windows in the bay in my office with new ones. (My office is the extension off the back of the house in the photo above, with the bay where my desk has sat since I moved in a year and a half ago.)

We replaced all of the other windows in the house last summer and fall. (Except for one other bay window, which I'm not going to replace, but I am going to refinish.) I didn't plan on replacing the windows in my office bay, first because I thought since they were 30 years newer than the rest of the windows in the house, I could live with them. 

I could have, except that with new windows throughout the rest of the house, it was painfully clear how cloudy the ones in my office were. Looking through them was like looking through a perpetual mist.

My office, pre-window-replacement

Then over the winter, I realized how leaky they were compared to the new windows in my bedroom, which shares the same airspace with my office (the two rooms are separated only by a wide doorway and two steps down). The hot water baseboard heat was on in my office about twice as much as in the rest of the house, and I still had to run my electric fireplace to stay warm. 

Once I decided to replace those windows, I ran into issue number three: design. My office was added to the house in 1982, when bay windows were in vogue and mid-century modern design was not. So neither the windows nor the bay follow the horizontal lines of the original house. (In the photo at the top of the post, notice how even the huge triple-window unit in the living/dining room is wider than it is tall, and the horizontal framing separating the lower panes emphasizes that.)

The office windows were taller than wide, proportionately wrong for the rest of the house. So the question was, without tearing off the bay itself (an expensive proposition), how could we give the windows a more horizontal look? 

I decided to make them shorter, so they would be proportionately similar to the large upper panes in the living/dining room windows. After measuring the windows, we settled on two-thirds of their original length. Meaning below the top of my desk would be solid wall, with glass from there up. 

We ordered the new windows and then Jeff got busy with other jobs, and soon it was winter, when neither of us wanted to tear out the old windows in below-zero (F) temperatures. 

Window replacement time finally came this week. I spent Sunday evening moving my desk, plus printer stand and file cabinets, and reassembling the whole thing under the bookshelves on the east wall of my office. 

My desk in its new location, before window replacement

As soon as I finished, I sat down at my computer to try out the new configuration. I looked over my left shoulder at the window bay and realized the now empty space would be perfect for a window-seat. So now instead of moving my desk back there once new windows are in, Jeff will build a deep, comfy window seat to fill the bay. 

I would never have "seen" that window seat without moving my desk out of the space, and reconfiguring my office. And I wouldn't have gone to the trouble of moving my desk at all if it hadn't been smack in the way of replacing those old windows. 

The open-air office: windows out, framing for the new ones in progress, with the studs for the wall behind the new window-seat in place.

Moving my desk shifted my perspective in some deeper ways too. Instead of facing the windows and my backyard-renovation-in-progress, my view is now my bookshelves with their rows of volumes by favorite writers on the West. Looking at those spines revived a long-dormant dream of spending more time exploring these expansive landscapes, and less time taking care of my beautiful but large-for-one house and yard.

New windows in, wall "dried in" with sheathing and house-wrap, and a much clearer view of my backyard… 

Since I was a child, I've imagined "someday" hitting the road fulltime to wander, write, and explore wild places throughout the West. I'll be 62 this year, older for the first time than Richard was when he died of brain cancer. That fact reminds me that I can't assume life will offer me a "someday." If I want to follow my long-time dream, I need to start planning now.

So I've decided that my next house will have four wheels and solar panels on the roof. But first, I have a house and yard to finish renovating. With a great deal of love and care, and eyes open for what other new perspectives the process may yield. 

Trimming the exterior of the new windows. Shingles and paint to come… 

When Life Gives Us “Bonus Time”

I was curled up in my sleeping bag in Red one night on my road-trip, cozy and warm and digesting both dinner, and what I had seen and heard over the day's miles. As I started to drift off to sleep, a phrase drifted across the screen of my mind, "bonus time." Then I heard or dreamed a voice saying, "This is your bonus time. Use it well." 

The next morning, I woke before dawn to frost on the inside of the windows in my truck topper. I snuggled deeper into my sleeping bag and thought about the message I had heard. What does "bonus time" mean? And what will I do to use it well? 

I pondered the idea for another two days and 900 miles. (I am definitely not a fast thinker!) I think for me, bonus time means that after 16 years of intense caregiving of others, beginning when we moved my parents to Denver in 2002, I have reached a period in my life where I am free to do what I want to do, whatever that may be. (Assuming I can pay the bills, of course, and stay healthy.)  

Richard, the love of my life and my husband for nearly 29 years, has been gone six years and three months, and the years of scrambling to pay the debts left from his journey with brain cancer and find sound financial footing are behind me. No more working two jobs, no more evenings and weekends spent finishing the house and his shop with the help of patient friends (thank you, Grant Pound and crew, and Maggie and Tony!) so I could sell that property before I lost it. No more racing to finish the little house, my next home, so I would have a place to live while I figured out what was next.

Richard and Molly, January, 2010: He has survived his first brain surgery (that sinuous scar on the side of his head will be re-incised three more times), and is a few days from finishing his first course of radiation for brain cancer. She is about to head back to San Francisco after spending a week in Denver with him while I was on an island off La Paz, Mexico, leading a writing retreat.

No more driving hell-bent-for-leather over the mountains in all manner of weather to sort out a problem with Dad, living alone in Denver after Mom's death. Dad is now comfortably settled in the Assisted Living unit of the retirement community in Western Washington where he moved to be closer to the rest of the Tweit clan (my brother, sister-in-law, and their girls and families). Molly is settled in San Francisco in a challenging career in advertising. And I, who wasn't supposed to live beyond my twenties, am still chugging along, albeit more slowly than I once did. 

So this is truly my bonus time, however long it lasts. "Bonus" because I didn't expect to be here, alone, with no one depending on me. "Bonus" because I am here at all. "Bonus" because with the help of friends and my family, I am debt-free and can pursue the work I love, writing, and restoring houses and land. Of course to get that bonus, I had to find a gracious and discerning way to help two of the people I love most in this world live through the end of their lives. And then I had to survive their loss, and learn how to live well without them. 

 

My restored living-dining room on a sunny day recently when the spring weather wasn't spitting snow the way it is right now. 

I realize that it could be argued that rescuing a house as badly dilapidated as this one was, or hand-digging invasive weeds in a landscape as enormous as Yellowstone and its 3,500 square miles of wildness could be considered forms of caregiving. Of a particularly insane sort. 

To me though, caring for a house or the community of the land is less fraught than caring for most people. I can enjoy the creative effort, the fast-on-my-feet problem-solving, and the complexities of restoration without having to pick my way through a minefield of human emotions. So neither feels as emotionally taxing. Yet like human caregiving, both are ways to make positive change in this increasingly negative time.

So what am I going to do with my bonus time? I think I've answered my own question: write, and restore neglected or injured places, both buildings and land. Exactly what any of those projects look like and where the path ahead will take me, I don't know. I do know I am looking forward to the journey, and I will do my best to make good use of this bonus time. 

Snow, sleet, and wind have not daunted this little yellow species iris (Iris danfordiae) blooming in my yard, a tiny but heartening harbinger of spring to come. 

Windshield Time: Listening and Making Time


I’ve been on the road since a few days after I wrote the last blog post, driving almost 4,000 miles in two and a half weeks. Which may prompt you to ask, “Didn’t you just write about re-learning your limits?” 


I did. This trip was very much an exercise in making time to remember what I do well and what inspires that doing. With reminding myself (again) how intimately linked the doing good work well and the taking care of myself are. One does not happen without the other. And remembering (again) that doing what I love means nurturing myself in the doing. 


I drove to central California via the southern route (St. George, Utah, Las Vegas, and Bakersfield, California) in order to avoid spring snowstorms in the Great Basin and the Sierra Nevada. On my way, I stopped to visit a couple of places Richard and I always intended to see but never made time for, including Carrizo Plain National Monument between California’s Central Valley and the chaparral-covered, sage-scented coast ranges. (Photo at the top of the post.)


I drove into the faulted, grassy hills of Carrizo Plain from the south end, on a paved road so little used the prairie is actively reclaiming the edges and the middle is crumbling. The road follows the fracture of the San Andres Fault, so its term is limited anyway. Nature, as the bumper sticker says, really does bat last. 


I spent a couple of fruitful hours there with absolutely no agenda other than to stroll the unpeopled expanse of grasslands, searching for spring wildflowers and listening to the wind whisper in last year’s silvered grasses as meadowlarks fluted around me. I saw one other person, an intern who had driven the 50-some miles from the interpretive center to check on the un-staffed kiosk near the south “entrance,” where the barbed wire fence is the only sign of the monument’s boundary. We chatted about bird songs and wildflowers, and his work interpreting the Painted Rocks archeology site. And then he left, his truck rumbling away over the far ridge, leaving me with the peaceful winnowing of wind in the grass, sun warming my skin, and those melodious meadowlarks.  


Next stop: San Luis Obispo, where I took the time to spend the night with my dear friend Sharon Lovejoy, author and illustrator extraordinaire, and her husband Jeff Prostovich. (Here’s a blog post that gives a wonderful taste of Sharon and her work.) Some years back, Sharon and Jeff invited me to stay with them in the charming loft above Sharon’s painting and writing studio, with its walls of books old and new on nature and art and life. On subsequent trips to California, I have never had time to take them up on their offer. This trip, I made time, and had the gift of dinner and conversation in their Mission-style Craftsman bungalow, sleeping to rain pattering on the roof, and waking to birdsong and Sharon’s garden.



Part of Sharon’s garden, a riot of plants, from edibles like lemon trees to native shrubs and wildflowers, and a mecca for birds of all sorts. 


From Sharon and Jeff’s, I headed north to the Bay Area. The traffic on the 101 was miserable, and it rained almost all the way to San Francisco, but I saw two double rainbows on the way, which I took to be a good omen. 


The sun came out as Red and I wended our way through the city and then across the Golden Gate Bridge. I made time to stop in Marin City to meet with Nita Winter and Rob Badger, the two incredible photographers behind The Beauty & The Beast: California Wildflowers and Climate Change, a traveling museum exhibit and coffee-table book in progress. (I wrote an essay for the latter.) Seeing their photos up close was inspiring, as was trading stories of our work. 


From Marin City, I wound my way north and west to Fairfax, and up the narrow road with blind curves to the hillside house of my friend Jenny Barry, designer and packager of award-winning photo, illustrated, and cook books (books she has created have won the James Beard Award, the Colorado Book Award, and many others). Jenny’s husband, architect and sculptor Tom Powell designed their house with its clean lines, great light, and wonderful view. She needed a Girls’ Night, so we wound our way back down the hill to Tamal, a restaurant inspired by the cuisines of southern Mexico, where we ate a leisurely and delicious dinner and talked about our passions: books and publishing and kids and caregiving and ecological restoration. 


The next morning, I got up early and drove west toward Tomales Bay through fog giving way to sunlit meadows and the deep shade of redwood groves, aimed for Point Reyes Station and the Geography of Hope Conference. The Conference, an annual gathering focused this year on “finding resilience in nature in perilous times,” was my reason for the trip. When I first saw the announcement, the theme spoke to me on all sorts of levels: in terms of my ecological restoration work, of finding and nurturing resilience, and just the idea of turning to nature when times feel perilous, as they have for me since the year I midwifed my mother, and my husband and the love of my life through their deaths. 


I saw the announcement, read the theme, and said to myself, “Oh, I would love to go, but I don’t have time.” And then I realized that I needed to make time to go to the conference. My intuition said, “Go! You will find what you need.” I argued, but my inner voice held firm. So I made time. 


And therein is one theme of this blog post: Being the best me I can be means finding time to do what feeds heart, mind, and soul. That is the essence of learning both my limits, and how to love me while doing the work I am passionate about: healing and restoring this earth and we who share our singular blue planet. Finding time, making time, taking time… to do what matters, what inspires, what helps me be who I am, and fuels what I love about what I do. 


The conference promised inspiration in building spiritual and emotional resilience, using nature as a touchstone. We heard from and were inspired by Peter Forbes, former Vice-President of the Trust for Public Land and now Vermont farmer, educator, and facilitator in the areas of leadership, conservation, and social justice; Rue Mapp, founder of the conservation and outdoor leadership program Outdoor Afro; and Caleen Sisk, Spiritual Leader and Tribal Chief of the Winnemem Wintu people, the “Middle River People” of the McCloud River in northern California. Three very different people with very different stories, but all resilient and optimistic about the power of nature and culture to help us survive and even thrive in these perilous times. 


Their words and stories shook and reformed my understanding of what it means to be white and privileged, what it means to share the outdoors with people of different cultures and his/herstories, and what it means to have a deep spiritual relationship with a place stretching back many generations, and to heal the wounds of being ripped away from the place, and in the case of the Winnemem Wintu from the source of your identity, the salmon and the river. 


Even more inspiration and leadings came in conversations and stories of of other conference participants, having lunch with Susan Page Tillett, Director of The Mesa Refuge, where I have been fortunate to have a writing residency. In hanging out with Gavin Van Horn, Jeremy Ohmes, and Kate Cummins of the Center for Humans & Nature, a co-sponsor of the conference and an organization I write for now and again. In walking the marsh near the conference center with Kate and talking about our passions, being female in a perilous world, and about dealing with wrenching change.



Sky Road Webb kindling fire with a horseweed flower stalk in a cedar plank. It’s like magic… 


And more still, especially the hands-on work when 100 or so of the conference attendees, ranging from upper teens to 80s, gathered on the banks of Lagunitas Creek to plant over 300 native trees and willow cuttings and restore habitat for the creek’s unique winter-run Chinook salmon. First we searched the muddy banks for dry lichens and twigs to help Sky Road Webb, a Coast Miwok born to that watershed, kindle a sacred fire with a fire-stick of horseweed and a plank of cedar. Then Sky sang and taught us Coast Miwok songs for the creek and its salmon beside that sacred fire, so that by the time we broke into small groups to do the planting, we were singing and laughing and celebrating the work and the water and the land. 


I told myself that if I was going to take/make the time to go to the conference, I would open myself to whatever came. I did that all along the way, and at the conference I simply listened, not taking any notes other than what wrote itself on my heart and spirit. I kept that attitude over the thousand-mile drive east to Santa Fe, and during the week I spent in the City of Holy Faith before driving the last leg home. What I heard and did opened doors I hadn’t realized even existed.


I’m still contemplating what it means for my path. For now, it’s enough that I’m home in Cody, with snow flurrying outside, and my newly planted tomato, basil, and herb starts–the beginnings of this summer’s edible garden–are cozy on their heat-mat in my greenhouse window.


Happy Easter, Passover, Oestre, Spring… It’s the season of renewal and new life, and I feel that deeply in my heart and in my spirit. As the year turns toward light and new life it’s time to listen closely to what that renewal is asking of us. I want to honor that turning by continuing to stay open to what I hear and feel. Blessings!


 


Six varieties of heritage tomatoes, most organic and one of basil, plus raab and broccoli, and two kinds of flowers for pollinators, all seeded in. Thanks to Renee Shepherd and Renee’s Garden for the great seeds and garden inspiration!

Staying Balanced in Chaotic Times

Variegated sage leaves perfuming my indoor herb garden.

These feel like chaotic times, with racism and greed living in the White House, and disasters filling the news, whether it’s the mudslides devastating Montecito, California, or the erroneous nuclear-missile-incoming warning that terrified Hawaii. I’m not sure these times really are any more chaotic than any other time in history, but with the instant access to the news, and social media amplifying every crisis, small or large, and affording every idiot a soap-box and virtual microphone, it certainly seems that way.

So how can we keep from going crazy? Retain our equilibrium personally and as a nation? How can we all keep calm and chive on, as the saying goes?

Everyone is different, so what works for me might not for you. Still, here are some ideas:

Watch less news. Or at the very least, be choosy about what you watch. Look for news shows that are in-depth analyses and less likely to veer into sensationalism and hysteria. Don’t watch the news right before going to bed–it’s bad for your sleep, and sleep helps keep our bodies healthy and our minds in good shape.
I read the news online (not on social media, on actual news sites like National Public Radio, the Los Angeles Times, and the New York Times). That way I avoid being deluged with drama, and can chose to focus on the news that interests me most. 

Limit social media time so that you don’t get sucked in and depressed. Use a timer if necessary!
I give myself half an hour in the morning, half an hour at midday, and half an hour in the evening (but again, not right before I go to bed). I spend time connecting to friends, family, and readers. And reading posts from people whose take on the world I find interesting. I ignore rants of any kind or flavor. 

Heart Mountain, the landmark of the area I call home, seen from over Cody.

Get moving regularly, and get outside. Every day. Preferably in a natural setting, the wilder the better. Research shows that time in nature, or Vitamin N, as author Rich Louv calls it, is calming emotionally and physiologically, and it helps us make better decisions, focus more easily, and increases our ability to be empathetic and forgiving (even to ourselves).
I take a brisk half-hour or longer walk every day, no matter the weather. Because I come from a Calvinist activity-must-be-useful background, I do some of my errands along the way. 

Take a positive action every day. Write your members of Congress, do volunteer work, be kind to someone not from your tribe, speak up at a hearing, contribute to a good cause, support a candidate, smile at everyone you meet… Do something small or large that counters the climate of negativity and division in this country. Exercise your right to free speech, your expectations of civility and honesty and respect, your part in our democracy.
I’m much better at quiet participation and spreading kindness than at actively speaking out. But these are times that require increased participation from all of us. So I have challenged myself to speak up regularly in letters to the editor, and in emails to members of congress and local leaders. I also support others who are more active than I am in whatever way I can. 

The beauty of a Christmas cactus blossom.

Feed your spirit daily. Whether you spend five minutes in morning prayers or half an hour meditating, whether you do yoga in a spiritual way, light candles, or simply gaze at a beautiful flower in mindful awe, practice some kind of daily ritual that gets you out of yourself and taps into the universal sense of awe, wonder, connectedness–the sacredness that gives this world and each of us that ineffable numinousness.
I start each day with mindful yoga and prayer (even if I have to talk myself into taking the time!). Yoga to strengthen both body and spirit, and prayer (the intentional kind, not the pleading with God or gods kind), to send my love and goodwill out into the world. 

Find joy. Do something every day that brings you joy, whether quiet satisfaction or exuberant delight. Whatever it is, relish in the experience and make immersive. Don’t short-change joy. Ever.
I have a daily haiku practice that reminds me to look for beauty and wonder every day. I shoot a photo and write a haiku, and then post both on social media (Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram) to share my bit of gratitude for being alive. (To follow me on any of those platforms, go to the main page of this site, scroll down and click on one of the social media icons on the lower right-hand side of the page.) Today’s example:

snow melts/ shining bubbles float down sidewalk/ then pop! into air

Keeping our balance personally and as a nation takes practice and sustained effort. It takes each of us working at it in a small or large way every day. We won’t always succeed, but that’s okay. We just keep working on it. Together.

New Year: Begin as you intend to continue

Full moon rises over the Big Horn Basin outside Cody.

“Begin as you intend to continue,” my Scots grandmother, Christine Faquharson Tweit used to say. (She was a Highland Scot by birth–that’s the Faquharson part, who married a Norwegian, hence the Tweit.)

It’s an old-fashioned piece of advice that seems almost self-evident, but it’s easy to forget how powerful setting the tone and intentions at the beginning of any endeavor can be, whether a New Year, a new task, or a new path in life. Start on your best foot, and you’ll give yourself the best chance for success.

So this morning when I woke an hour late after being out at a New Year’s Eve party last night, I thought, I’ll just be lazy, skip yoga, and go right to breakfast.

Then I heard my grandmother’s voice in my head, and I decided to start this first day of 2018 by remembering my intentions, which are:

To live with my heart outstretched as if it were my hand, as a way to further my mission:

To heal and restore this Earth and the Life and lives who share our glorious blue planet.

To nurture and celebrate diversity, that all may thrive.

And after a moment of internal grumbling, I unrolled my yoga mat and began my practice.

What does yoga have to do with those high-toned intentions? The yoga I practice is about physical and spiritual well-being, which are essential both to living with love, and having the strength and courage to work at mending and nurturing this battered world and we who share it.

Yoga is my morning tune-up, my time to check in with my body, and stretch and strengthen muscle, ligament, bone, and being. It’s also my time to stretch and strengthen my spirit through prayer, not the I-ask-the-surpreme-being-for-something kind. Prayers that invoke my connection to the earth and all that is sacred in this world, and my intentions for living with love and compassion, as I say at the end, “To everyone everywhere.” By which I mean, all beings, and all forms of life.

And wouldn’t you know, when I finished, I remembered that yoga is worth the time and energy, even when, perhaps especially when I don’t want to make the time and to put in the effort. It never fails: that half-hour of exercise and prayer always sets the tone of my day in a positive way. It helps me see the beauty around me, even when that’s difficult.

The spruce tree visible from my yoga spot.

(Beauty like the full moon, huge and butter-yellow, and peeking over Beacon Hill tonight in the photo at the top of the post. Or like the hoarfrost on the spruce needles out my bedroom window when it was minus two this morning.)

That exhortation to begin as I intend to continue is also why I dove into writing today, instead of spending this Monday holiday lazing around. All of my spare writing time for the past nine months has gone into a radical rewrite of my memoir, Bless the Birds, a story I thought finished last year, and which turned out to need a new perspective and its own new beginning.

In starting over, I took a risk familiar to every writer beginning any project: your idea about how to proceed may seem great at the outset, but it may not pan out. Creative writing–any creative work–is at least partly a gamble that you can make your inner vision come real, and that it’s a compelling vision that will speak to others.

The gamble is that you won’t necessarily know if your idea is working right away. You might spent hours, days, weeks, months, or even years on a project that simply doesn’t ever cohere and sing.

That’s where I’ve been with this re-envisioning of Bless the Birds. I felt intuitively that the new narrative framework was worth a try, but I didn’t know if it would carry the story all the way through to the end in a way that was compelling, relatable, and believable.

These past few weeks, I’ve been writing in kind of a fever, pushed along by the work itself, as if it was racing toward that ending. On Saturday afternoon, I wrote the very last page, printed it out, and took the stack of 270 pages to my dining room. I set the manuscript on the table, fixed my lunch, and ate it with a stinking big grin on my face. I was and am proud of myself.

The manuscript for Bless the Birds

I finished. And the story works. In fact, I think this new version of Bless the Birds is the best writing I have ever done. I am a bit stunned that I pulled these words, sentences, paragraphs, and pages out of me.

I gave myself a day to bask in having completed a great draft. And then this morning, I dove back in and began revising. I read the first five chapters (45 pages) aloud as if narrating the audio version of the book. As I read, I listened to the story and I took out a bit here and there, added in other bits, adjusted words and sentences and paragraphs. Polishing the whole.

At the end of those five chapters, at quarter to four this afternoon as the light was going gold toward sunset, I had the same grin on my face. I like this story. A lot. It sings, it howls, it flows, it laughs, it sobs, it savors. It’s full of love and humor, silliness, pain, beauty, wisdom, and heartbreak. Life.

I’m going to give myself this week to read all 77,000 words (27 chapters plus the Epilogue) out loud, revising as I go. Then, if I still feel good about the story, off it goes to my agent to see what she thinks. And I will get back to the deadlines I’ve been ignoring as I poured my heart and mind and all my writing skill into Bless the Birds.

So as I sit here tonight, grinning like a lunatic at the stack of manuscript pages that will be my 13th book, I wish you all the most blessed of New Year’s. May you begin this year as you intend to continue.

May 2018 bring you joy and all sorts of unexpected gifts. And may you live with love, kindness, and courage, bringing your light to the darkness of this world, every day.

Oh yeah, I’m gonna shine!

Lighting the Darkness (again)

A luminaria bag from Richard’s memorial service.

For many years, Richard and I celebrated Winter Solstice by inviting friends and family to help us “light the darkness” by filling and lighting dozens of luminarias to glow through the year’s longest night. The little candles on a scoop of sand in a fragile paper bag lined our half-block of reclaimed industrial property, and their light shone until dawn.

After lighting the luminarias (not easy in the cold and wind!), the crowd trooped inside to sample my Sinfully Delicious Eggnog, which I made by the gallon for the occasion (literally, using four dozen eggs, two pounds of confectioner’s sugar, many cups of dark rum, and a dairy-cow’s worth of cream), and other goodies. The sound of laughter and happy voices filled our house into the night as the luminarias glimmered outside. The warmth and love were palpable for days afterwards.

Solstice and the Light the Darkness party were a highlight of the year for Richard, and when we had to move to Denver for his radiation treatments during the first year of his brain cancer, he was low about missing the celebration until I decided to throw the party via the internet. Our community of friends, family, and readers of my blog sent in images from around the world, and in Salida, a small crowd gathered to light luminarias and continue the tradition at our house. (Thank you all!)

We told ourselves that we would revive the Light the Darkness party the next Winter Solsice, but it was not to be. My mother was dying that winter, and we commuted back and forth to Denver so I could manage her hospice care and be with my folks through her end.

Luminarias ltght “Matriculation,” Richard’s sculpture in the Salida Steamplant Sculpture Garden. (It’s the slanting stone atop two stones that open like a book on the far left side of the photo.)

The following Winter Solstice, we did light the darkness again, but Richard was only with us in spirit: Molly and I revived the tradition for Richard’s Celebration of Life, a moving and racous remembrance in the ballroom of Salida’s Steamplant Theatre and Conference Center. The luminarias, with messages to Richard written on the bags, circled his sculpture, “Matriculation,” in the Strawn/Grether Sculpture Garden outside.

I revived the Light the Darkness party the following Winter Solstice, partly because our friends and family loved the celebration and partly in Richard’s memory. But the next year I had just moved into the little house, and it didn’t have the space for the kind of big sprawling party that Richard had loved, and I didn’t have the heart. I did light luminarias on Solstice, and I made a batch of eggnog and gifted it in jars.

This year, my first Winter Solstice at home in Wyoming, I was determined to light the darkness again. Both for the symbolism of illuminating the year’s longest night as a promise that warmth and life will return, as well as the act of spreading light and love to brighten a dark time in our country and the world.

I also wanted to avoid the divisiveness of today’s discourse and celebrate the winter holidays by being inclusive. It’s no coincidence that winter holidays in the Northern Hemisphere, including Channukah, Kwanzaa, Christmas, and Yule revolve around light. They all fall around Winter Solstice, that “hinge-pin” where the year turns from the darkness of those long nights back toward longer and brighter days and the warmth of spring. Celebrating Solstice itself honors all of those traditions in a spiritual way without choosing just one.

Luminarias light the frozen darkness of my front walk on Gerrans Ave in Cody.

So last Thursday, on a still and cold evening, a couple of dozen friends and I lit the darkness: That afternoon, I poured sand into paper bags, put a candle in each, and set out 50 luminarias. At dusk, friends arrived to help light them. Afterwards, we went inside and drank homemade eggnog and other festive beverages, nibbled on holiday goodies, and enjoyed each other’s company. Just as with the parties in Richard’s day, laughter and love filled my house, blessing it with the joy of the season. The luminarias glowed through the night, casting their light on darkness literal and metaphorical.

That’s my wish for each of you, our country, and for the world: that the light and love of this holiday season fills your hearts, and that you remember and nurture our shared humanity. That we all make the turn toward the warmth and life of spring, and resolve to share the best of who we are, to behave with kindness and compassion for everyone. No exceptions.

Blessings to you all!

I saved some of the luminaria bags from Richard’s Celebration of Life. This inscription and sketch is from painter Charles Frizzell. 

Counting My Blessings

It's been a challenging month on the national scene, and in my personal life too. I'll leave the analysis of the insanity that is our current political environment to those who are good at that, and likewise the rants. After being flat-out-sick for ten days and then straining my rib muscles working out at the gym, I don't have the energy for either. 

What is on my mind tonight is how to keep my spirits up in these difficult times. Not so I can be some kind of Pollyanna-everything-is-rosy person. Because if anything is clear in these times, it's that rosy is not the color of the day. No, I want to tend my own inner light in a way that it shines through the darkness of the world. So that as I walk through this life, I spread that light and its goodness.

Which is why even though I am still coughing from being sick, and wincing each time because coughing hurts those strained ribs, I am counting my blessings. I have blessings to count, something that's good to remember right now. 

In no particular order, the main blessings that come to mind are these:

MY HOUSE, which when I moved in during a blizzard this past January, was in such sad shape that I seriously questioned what I had gotten myself into. A good night's sleep in my cozy sleeping bag on the scarred floor of my bedroom mostly quelled that questioning, and I swear I felt the house sigh with relief the next morning as soon as I began hand-scraping the red-oak floors to restore them. Renovation has proceeded apace in the months since, from those floors to the mechanical systems to insulation to bathrooms (the joys of working fixtures cannot be overstated!) to carefully replacing the original windows with new efficient ones in the same mid-century modern style to… Well, we're still working.

The big bank of windows in the living room (that's 750 pounds of wood-framed, double-paned window unit there!) getting their exterior trim. 

But as I sit on my cozy couch in my beautifully painted living room tonight, with a fire in the gas fireplace in front of me, and the new windows solid and tight as a storm rushes past outside, I am simply grateful to have this house, this haven. Just to have a roof over my head (yeah, replacing the roof is on the list too). Better still, to live in beautifully crafted but long-neglected spaces that are coming bck to life day by day as we work to restore them. That's a blessing.

FRIENDS, those here in Cody who have called or texted with concern and offers of food and help while I was sick. Who laughed with me (carefully, because that hurts too) over my gym mishap. Who miss me when I don't make it to the eight o'clock service at church, who don't mind my off-key singing when I do, who gather Thursday evenings to just enjoy each other. Friends who welcomed me back warmly even though I have been gone for 35 years. I am blessed to belong to this warm community. 

And to the far-flung community of friends and colleagues in the larger world too, all of you who walk with me through this blog and in so many other ways. Thank you for your company, your thoughts, your ideas, your support. 

FAMILY, who I will be spending Thanksgiving with next week in Western Washington, including my 89-year-old dad, who is still "there" enoigh to spend half an hour on the phone with me this afternoon discoursing on what is wrong with the "tax reform" bills now in Congress. And the family who won't be there, including Molly in San Francisco, and my middle niece Sienna and her family in Germany. 

Part of my tribe visiting in August, on an excursion to the alpine country of the Beartooth Plateau. (Left to right: my youngest niece, Alice, holding Pepper; her mom, my sister-in-law Lucy, with Sarge; my brother, Bill; and Dad.) 

WRITING and RESTORATION, twin paths in pursuing my mission: To heal and restore this Earth, with love. To nurture and celebrate diversity, of Life and lives–that all may thrive. Without that work, the words and the heart-work of restoring the nature and beauty of this world, my inner light would surely flicker and go out. Neither pays well enough to earn what anyone sane would call a living, but both fuel my heart and soul. 

SAGEBRUSH COUNTRY, the wild landscapes that have been the home of my heart since I was a child. Walking home from the gym the other day, ribs sore,  muscles aching, I brushed past the branches of a big sagebrush leaning through the highway guardrail . And there was that fragrance, resiny, sweet, unforgettable. The instant I breathed in the familiar smell, I forgot that my ribs hurt, forgot the traffic rushing by, forgot the wind, icy on my cheeks. I smiled, breathed deeply, and walked on. HOME. I am home. 

Heart Mountain, my landmark, the heart of this part of sagebrush country. 

This isn't the path I imagined, this walking through the world as Woman Alone, without the love of my life by my side. But it's the path I have, and whenever the world feels hopeless or I feel sorry for myself, I remind myself that I have much to be thankful for. Oh, sure, I mope for a while first. That's part of the process. And then I count my blessings.

We all have them, no matter where we are, or what troubles dog our lives. Remembering our blessings reminds us that there is still good in the world. Even when the darkness feels absolute, there is always light somewhere. We have only to look, and let ourselves see. 

Walk in Love

Sunday night, after the latest mass shooting at a small Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, I went to Evensong at Christ Episcopal, the church I attend.

I don't think of myself as a "churchy" person; in the tradition of Quakers, I live my spiritual beliefs in my everyday life. But there's no Quaker Meeting in Cody, and Christ Episcopal is nearby. It offers great music, plus inspiring and thoughtful sermons by the Rector, Rev. Mary Caucutt; also, I have good friends are among the eight-o-clockers, the attendees of the early service. All of which equals community for me.

Evensong is a sung worship service that grew out of the Catholic tradition of vespers, evening prayers. I first heard it in Cambridge, England, when for two college terms, I attended lectures, worked with the Conservation Corps, and once a week took in Evensong at Kings College Chapel with its soaring Gothic architecture and famed choir. 

The beauty of any kind of spiritual liturgy sung, chanted, and set to music transcends anything I can write. Perhaps that is due to music's power to move us beyond words, and into the realm of awe unfettered by our analyzing, critical left brains. (Listen to the voices of Kings College Choir sing Evensong here, to see what I mean.)

The news of the shooting in Texas came on the heels of another spate of deaths among my close friends, two expected but still leaving huge holes, another totally out of the blue–a friend with two kids in high school who died of sudden heart failure. My own heart was pretty sore when I walked across the church parking lot in the snow on Sunday evening and slipped inside to find a seat.

And then the music began, first just the organ, soaring notes that filled the church the way good music can, twining around each of us, as if drawing us closer and wrapping us in its warmth and richness. And then the choir, their voices adding to the ribbons of sound.

Then quiet, and all of us chanting a prayer, before the organ took over again, and the choir coming in, voices mixing and melding. Then silence, another chant, and the bell choir, ringing out a gorgeous round, each note holding and then fading, the whole a sonic tapestry. 

The service continued on, music alternating with chanting, and some spoken word. I felt my heart swell with the notes and crack open. I felt the music rush in to soothe the pain. At the end of the hour, it was just the organ again, swelling and then receding, the echoes hanging in the air with the most gossamer of shimmers. 

The choir at Westminster Abbey singing evensong. (Photo from the Westminster Abbey website.)

Sated and uplifted by that spiritual hour in the company of friends, I walked back home in the darkness and snow to my cozy house, feeling more at peace with the world. I grieve still, but my heart no longer feels like a bleeding wound. 

The words that stayed with me are these four, "And walk in love…." If you're a Bible-person, you may recognize the phrase from Ephesians 5:2, an epistle written to early Christians guiding them in living their faith. (I had to look it up, a Bible scholar I am not!)

What does it mean to "walk in love"? To me, it means:

  • Doing whatever we can to heal our own hurts, and then extending our compassion and kindness to the world. 
  • Speaking our own version of truth to power, not letting ourselves be cowed or silenced.
  • Standing up for fairness and justice, for the right to be safe in our daily lives.  
  • Spreading Light in the form of loving daily actions, not engaging in the darkness of hatred and fear. 
  • Nurturing and celebrating diversity of thought and lives; appreciating that when we walk with love, we will take many different paths.
  • Sheltering and tending the "least among us," who may not have all they need to live whole, healthy lives. 
  • Embracing all of life, finding the beauty in each day, and the humanity in each heart. 

In sum, for me, it means living with my heart outstretched as if it were my hand. (I'm paraphrasing a line from a song by Mary Chapin Carpenter.)

I'm sure you can think of many more ways to walk in love through our days. There are many different ways to live a life with love, just as there are many different people in the world. That's a good thing; if we were all alike, the world would be a poorer place. If we decree that there was only one "right path," we block others from  walking their version of love. 

There is quiet but muscled power in walking in love through life, in speaking up for what we believe in. In tending to heart and spirit in order to use their strength for healing and action and restoration of this battered world.

Together, we can walk in love. We must. 

A flock of American White Pelicans migrating toward safe water in the snowstorm, each bird's huge wings drafting the one just behind it, and the leaders rotating to the quieter air behind the flock when they tire. It's the pelican version of walking in love, a community nurturing itself because each member matters. 

Loving this World in Difficult Times

I sometimes feel guilty because I don't comment more on politics and current affairs. Politics and current affairs are not, I remind myself, my beat, my area of expertise. The truth is, I shy away from that kind of commentary because it seems to me that the tone and tenor of public discourse leave no space for my voice.

It is all so shrill and angry and fear-mongering, all extremes and labels and I-hate-you-because-you-disagree-with-me. All sides, no middle. No time or place for thoughtfulness, for pondering and reflecting and trying to see, much less respect, other points of view. 

Thoughtfulness and respecting other points of view are critically important values for me. I am an INFJ personality type in the Myers-Briggs spectrum of understanding human personalities. The "I" is for introverted and intuitive (yes, I like people; I just need a lot of time alone to process and reflect). "F" stands is for feeling in the empathetic sense because I am sensitive to the non-verbal signals we humans give off with such abundance, and "J" because I value concrete data and the ability to think over the patterns it creates to explain the world.

(If you're curious about where you land in the personality spectrum, check out the test at 16 Personalities. It's thorough without taking too much time, and surprisingly and sometimes a bit uncomfortably informative.)

Put more succinctly, sound bites and labels and divisions are not my thing; fairness and consideration and justice are. Love is.

Look up photos of me and I'm the one smiling with my arm around someone else, or on hands and knees admiring some detail of leaf or flower or rock. I'm the one in love with this world and life, hard as that may be. 

That's me expressing two kinds of love, love for the Chihuahuan Desert  in southern New Mexico, and big "L" love for the man who has his arm around me, the late Richard Cabe. (Photo by Susan Kask. Thanks, Sue!)

My mission is loving and restoring the world, not tearing it to bits by reducing its human and wild communities to warring factions. 

I believe that our species' greatest attribute is not our big brains–those are wonderful, but can also get us in serious trouble. Nor our intellect, strength, or even our creativity. What we humans do best, I think, is love. As I wrote in one of my books:

What we do best comes not from our heads but our hearts, from an ineffable impulse that resists logic and definitions and calculation: love. Love is what connects us to the rest of the living world, the divine urging from within that guides our best steps in the dance of life.

–From The San Luis Valley: Sand Dunes and Sandhill Cranes

Loving Molly Cabe at the Fine Arts Museum in San Francisco

I've been pondering lately how to best live that love in these times. Not so much in my writing, because my love for this troubled world threads through everything I write, from the haiku and photo I post each morning on social media to the columns I write for Houzz and Rocky Mountain Gardening Magazine, to my work re-imagining Bless the Birds, my memoir-in-progress. And of course my podcasts on end-of-life choices for The Conversation Project, a national effort begun by writer Ellen Goodman to encourage dialog on how we want our lives to go at the end. 

In the being. How can I, how can we keep that love flowing, and encourage it in others when the world seems to value love so little, when fear and anger seem to have so much power? 

To express love is a conscious choice that comes from within. Which means that we have to have love to express. We have to nurture our own supply by taking time every day to restore both heart and spirit. 

Here are some suggestions adapted from a list I posted on social media in the wake of the Las Vegas shooting:

* TAKE A BREAK from the news–watching violence over and over triggers more stress and grief, exhausting our ability to love. 
* BREATHE: Take a deep breath, hold it for a few seconds, then exhale slowly and completely. Repeat a few times. 
* GO OUTSIDE. Find a quiet space, as natural as possible. Nature nurtures our empathy and ability to love.
* SIT. Let your mind empty. Listen for the wind, bird sounds, the flutter of leaves. Look for the beauty of flowers or form. Feel the sun on your skin. Let the pulse of life soothe your pulse, refill your capacity for feeling beauty, awe, and gratitude.
* CRY, SCREAM, RANT if necessary. Then find quiet again. 
* CONSCIOUSLY SPREAD LOVE and light, not fear and anger: Smile at strangers; be kind in a difficult situation; offer help to someone who is struggling; act with generosity and compassion. 

How can we practice love in a world as troubled and frightening as ours seems right now? By remembering that love is not about being perfect, either us or the world. It is about actively looking for and nurturing beauty, diversity, kindness, courage, compassion, empathy, creativity–the basic goodness of life, all lives, in the community of this planet. It is about seeking and nurturing the heart in every living being, in every moment. 

Remembering that love is always stronger than hatred. 

And deliberately adding our mite of love to the world. Every day. 

Thank you. 

It's not perfect by any means, but I love this community, this place, this life.

Fall Reckoning

The verb reckon, says my dictionary, means to calculate, be of the opinion of, or be sure of. It comes from the Old English (ge)recenian, meaning "to count up."

At this time of year, when summer has given way to autumn, I like to spend a little time reckoning with where I am in life. In that, I am using reckon in the old sense: to count up. As in, count up what I have achieved in the year as fall slides toward winter, toward shorter days and longer nights, my time to be more contemplative.

I am in a reckoning mood because I have spent the day preparing my yard for the end of gardening season. Cody's municipal irrigation water ceases running tomorrow, so I did the last watering today. And then emptied, rolled up, and stored my hoses for the winter. 

I also cut down my tomato "jungle," the heritage tomato plants I grew from six varieties of seeds from Renee's Garden Seeds, and took the last tomatoes still clinging to those exuberant vines into the kitchen to ripen in bowls. 

That's only part of the harvest! I grew Tangerine, Stupice, Pompeii Roma, Pandorino Grape, and Black Cherry tomatoes. All delicious and heavy-producers, despite the deer, who persist in "trimming" the vines. 

Now it's time to stop and take stock the year so far, to reckon what I've accomplished. 

The biggest thing is that with a lot of help from friends and family, I moved back to Cody, Wyoming, the home of my heart. In January. In the midst of the snowiest, most blizzardy winter in decades.

January 18th: Almost home!

Next biggest is that I've run a full-scale renovation project to bring this house back to life since then, starting with replacing house guts, those essentials that no one sees but which we depend on (boiler, hot water heater, wiring, plumbing, insulation). 

Pancho (in blue) and Lefty (the round online hot-water heater tank) moving in to replace Igor, the antique and failing boiler.

I sometimes forget how much we (my trades-folk and I) have gotten done in nine months. Here are a few before and after photos show the scope of the project. 

The living/dining room in January, looking less awful after I finished hand-scraping and refinishing floors that had suffered thirty years of neglect. 

The living/dining room now, with new windows, new light fixtures and ceiling fan, paint, new blinds, furniture, and so on… 

My bedroom the first night (a week before the moving van arrived)… 

My bedroom now, after new windows, new floor, paint, new light fixtures, etc… 

And looking in the other direction, at what was empty space, the new en-suite bathroom with soaking tub, and the new laundry center

I have hundreds of photos documenting the restoration, peeling away layers of neglect and unfortunate changes to bring this lovely mid-century modern ranch house back to life. When I look at them, I am amazed to realize the transformation we've effected.

There's more to do. There are more windows to replace, and there's one more bathroom to restore, a deck to build out back, and a new roof, along with repairing damaged soffits and fascia.

But wow! The house and I have come along way since January.

A detail of my restored kitchen, including the original beach blue oven and copper range hood, both brought back to their original look, still working after 61 years.

Next biggest thing in this reckoning is Bless the Birds, my memoir-in-progress. I started over in March, writing the story anew from the beginning. I thought I'd be finished by now. I'm not (surprise, surprise!), mostly because I keep having to put it aside to earn a living. But I am more than halfway through and eager to pick it up when I get back from a work trip to Colorado next weekend. 

The other thing that's surprised me about Bless the Birds is that this experiment in telling the story in a radical new way actually seems to be working. Stay tuned… 

Another huge thing in this reckoning is personal. I am happier than I've been since Richard, the love of my life and my husband for nearly 29 years, saw the birds that were the only major symptom of the brain tumor that eventually killed him

That happiness comes in part from being home in a place that has always lifted my spirits and made my heart sing, and in part from the community of friends here who have welcomed me so warmly. It also stems from being able to spend almost four weeks this summer in Yellowstone doing my "radical weeding" work to restore a small part of our planet, as well as from the project to restore this house and its equally neglected yard, and from my writing. 

My happiness comes despite the turmoil in the world, the hatred and division that dominate our nation's politics and public discourse. 

I am determined to shine the re-kindled light in my heart and spirit beyond my own skin. My mission in life is to restore this beautiful blue planet and nurture all who share it. Every one of us. 

That means restoring kindness and generosity of spirit. Day by day, word by word, action by action, person by person, species by species. 

We all carry our own light inside. Like love, that light increases when shared. Together, our ocean of light and love will spread. Together, we can turn the tide. 

I send the light and warmth of the flames in my restored hearth to you all. Blessings!