Seven Gratitudes from 2014

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

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

So here’s my list of gratitudes from 2014:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blessings to you all!

My special cobalt blue solstice candle-holder

Winter Solstice: Lighting the New Year

My special cobalt blue solstice candle-holder My special cobalt blue solstice candle-holder that has traveled with me for decades….

Today is Winter Solstice, the shortest day and longest night of the year here in the Northern Hemisphere. For me, the day when Earth’s tilted rotation brings the sun to its farthest south arc across the sky marks the year’s turning point.

After today, the sun “turns around” on its southward journey, and moves north again. The days grow ever-so-gradually longer and our hemisphere wobbles back toward light and spring.

It is a time for celebration, time to light the darkness, to feel the emotional and psychological lift of knowing that we’ve passed through the darkest times.

Luminarias burning before dawn in freezing rain. Luminarias burning before dawn despite freezing rain.

I’ve marked Winter Solstice by lighting candles all my life. After Richard, Molly and I moved to southern New Mexico, we adopted the custom of lighting luminarias, small votive candles nestled in sand on paper bags that symbolize lighting the way for the Holy Family on Christmas Eve.

For me, those luminarias also represented the solstice, each tiny candle glowing through the darkness to herald the our hemisphere’s return to light and warmth.

The luminarias lining the block at Terraphilia with Christmas Mountain in the background. The luminarias lining the block at Terraphilia with Christmas Mountain in the background.

When we moved to Salida, we brought the luminaria tradition with us, and shifted it to Winter Solstice. When Richard was alive and we lived in Terraphilia, the house he built for us, we made a celebration of Winter Solstice every year, inviting friends and family to help us line our half-block with luminarias, followed by an open house highlighted by my Sinful Solstice Eggnog and other treats.

Richard loved a party, the bigger the better, and circulated through the crowd talking and laughing. I loved his joy and the idea of the celebration with its metaphor of lighting the darkness, both with the tiny candles in their paper bags, and the gathering of our community.

Matriculation with luminarias, lighting the way for Richard's spirit. Matriculation with luminarias, lighting the way for Richard’s spirit.

Molly and I held Richard’s memorial service on the weekend closest to Winter Solstice. With his favorite celebration in mind, we invited everyone to write on a luminaria bag, fill it with sand and a candle, and place it near “Matriculation,” his sculpture in the Salida Steamplant Sculpture Park. Those flickering candles lit the night for his journey.

I thought that after I got through the hectic years of doing the finish work on Terraphilia, selling the house and his historic studio, and then building my little place, I would revive the tradition of that Winter Solstice “Light the Darkness” party.

Last Winter Solstice, I was living in my new little place, Creek House, but only on a provisional occupancy permit; I had no front entry deck and thus couldn’t hold an open house. So I made and distributed jars of eggnog, and put out a few luminarias.

Luminarias line the deck foundation last year Luminarias line the deck foundation last year

This year, I knew I couldn’t throw the party. Maybe it’s being deep in this revision to Bless the Birds, the memoir I’m writing about how Richard and I came to be the sort of people who could walk his journey through brain cancer with love.

Or maybe it’s just that I’m realizing who I am without the love of my life to be my front man. I’m an introvert: I love people. In small groups. A few at a time, with quiet in between.

Sinful Solstice Eggnog Sinful Solstice Eggnog

So I’m beginning my own “Light the Darkness” tradition: I made 2.5 gallons of Sinful Solstice Eggnog (recipe in the next post) and spent a happy afternoon as “Eggnog Elf” giving decorated jars to friends.

Eggnog elf off to spread joy and homemade goodness Eggnog Elf ready to spread joy….

And in a few minutes, I will go outside in to the chill air that smells like snow, and light the luminarias I placed on the Creek house front deck and steps, and the second-story deck at Treehouse, my garage and studio.

As this shortest day of the year deepens into the longest night, and my solar-calendar cycles around, Richard’s spirit will be with me. Love lasts.

Blessed Winter Solstice to all! May you find the light you need to carry you through the darkness.

Winter Solstice, 2014 Winter Solstice, 2014

The biologist out in the field before being promoted to desk work and people-management.

Do What You Love….

The biologist out in the field before being promoted to desk work and people-management. The biologist out in the field before being promoted to desk work and people-management.

When I read Do What You Love, The Money Will Follow, by Marsha Sinetar, I was a frustrated mid-level manager, a plant biologist behind a desk instead of out in the field, a scientist tasked with parsing the relationships that make people tick (or not) instead of those that weave the community of nature.

I was doing useful work and earning a decent living. I was not doing what I loved. Thus the appeal of the book’s subtitle, “Discovering Your Right Livelihood.”

Sinetar suggests that if you tap into what you love and what really motivates you, if you clear away the inner barriers and look for new opportunities, you’ll find ways to earn a living that are satisfying and financially rewarding.

What I loved then–and still do–is writing.

Words well chosen.... Words well-chosen….

Specifically, summoning the power of words well-chosen and stories well-told to change our view of the world and ourselves, to cause us to open hearts and minds and spirits to new ideas and perspectives. To make us laugh, cry, nod our heads in agreement, or shake our heads in frustration or wonder. To move us. To give us hope when all seems bleak. To make the world a little better—or perhaps a lot better.

With Richard’s support, I quit the work that produced a comfortable paycheck but made body and spirit sick, and set out to find right livelihood as a writer.

Which turned out to be not so easy. It wasn’t so much the figuring out what to write about—my background as a plant biologist gave me stories galore about the characters whose relationships weave life on this planet.

My first book, Pieces of Light, a year's journal of nature right around home. My first book, Pieces of Light, a journal of nature right around home.

It was the figuring out how to earn a living that was challenging. I needed to find my writing voice, that combination of language, story, subject and perspective that makes a writer’s work pop. And find my niche, markets that appreciated my work enough to buy it.

At first, I wrote a lot and didn’t sell much. But I kept at it. Eventually I learned how to tell a good story, and figured out my unique angle.

I sold my first book. It didn’t become a best-seller. Nor was it discovered by the New York Times. (It is still in print as an eBook twenty-three years later.) It did open doors and begin teaching me what mattered to readers.

I wrote from a scientist’s expert voice at first, and gradually learned to be more personal and fallible. I found my “beat” in writing about nature nearby, and in illuminating what we can learn from our turn on the cycle of life.

Twelve books and hundreds of newspaper columns, radio scripts and magazine articles later, Richard saw the birds that presaged his brain cancer.

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

For the first year of that journey, I kept up with income-producing assignments as best I could. By the second year, my creative effort was going into living well as my love’s time wound down. I wrote for my sanity, not for money.

In the two-plus years after his death, I’ve worked very hard—if I’m honest, way too hard to be sustainable—to deal with the immediate crises.

Now, I’m thinking about right livelihood again.

Writing is still the work that sustains my mind and spirit, and keeps my challenged body healthy. The issue is how to earn a living in an environment that changed enormously while I was “away” walking with Richard through the end of his life and then sorting through the afters to make a life for myself.

So as the cycle of the year turns toward spring and new growth, as I busy myself with good work that pays, but is not the work my heart craves, I have set myself a goal to figure out how to make writing my focus again.

Because in a life so wrenchingly altered, I know this to be true: Writing is not only right livelihood for me; it’s a calling I’m determined to heed.

Sunrise at 7:52 a.m. near Winter Solstice.

Lighting the Solstice Darkness

Sunrise at 7:52 a.m. near Winter Solstice. Sunrise at 7:52 a.m. near Winter Solstice.

Winter Solstice, the day the sun “stands still” in its apparent journey southward, is the turning-point in my personal year.

The calendar year runs ten more days past solstice, but to me, the old year ends the day the sun pauses, when the tilt in earth’s axis–our planet rotates through space at a surprising 23.5 degrees off vertical–means the Northern Hemisphere is pointed as far from the sun as it will get.

After Winter Solstice, the Northern Hemisphere eases ever so slowly back toward the sun’s light and warmth—the logical beginning of the new year to me.

Winter Solstice is the year’s shortest day in this hemisphere, averaging nine and a half hours long, depending on latitude and topography, leaving about fourteen and a half hours of darkness.

Sunset at 4:35 p.m. Sunset at 4:35 p.m.

If you live where hills or mountains block the sunrise and sunset, as I do, your shortest day may be considerably shorter.

The sun here rose over a 10,000-foot-high ridge at a few minutes before eight yesterday, and set at behind a 13,000-plus-foot peak at about four-thirty. That’s only an eight-and-a-half hour day and a long fifteen and a half hours of night.

Richard and I celebrated Winter Solstice with luminarias, votive candles in paper bags. (These “little lights” are called farolitos in northern New Mexico and luminarias across the rest of the Southwest and Mexico.)

Each year on solstice night we would throw a “Light the Darkness” party to celebrate earth’s turn toward light and warmth. A crowd of friends and family would help us fill, place and light luminarias along our half-block.

Luminarias line the sidewalk with Salida's Christmas Mountain in the background. Luminarias line the sidewalk with Salida’s Christmas Mountain in the background.

We’d troop inside to get warm, drink the eggnog I make just once a year (scroll to the bottom of the link for the recipe), and nosh on holiday goodies.

Outside, the little candles in their bags glowed, lighting the longest night; inside, the love and cheer lit our hearts.

The year Richard died, we held the celebration of his life on the Saturday closest to Winter Solstice, and the crowd who turned out helped us light luminarias in his memory. Last year, my first full year alone, I revived the Light the Darkness party.

This year I intended to, but couldn’t. Terraphilia, the house that accommodated crowds, is no longer mine, my new, much smaller nest isn’t finished, and the truth is, Richard was the one who thrived on crowds and loved a big party. (I did my best to hide in the kitchen.)

Still, I wanted to honor the turning of the season and year, and the tradition that so delighted my late love. I needed to light the metaphorical darkness I feel from national and international events, and the personal darkness that creeps in from time to time as I confront the daily task of shaping a new life alone.

Lighting the dusk on the longest night of the year.... Lighting the dusk on the longest night of the year….

So I pulled the box of luminaria bags off a shelf in the garage, dug out a bucket of sand, found candles, and filled two dozen luminarias, just enough to line the retaining wall that will one day (soon, I hope) support my front entry deck, and to light the seating area and steps on the street side of Creek House.

At dusk, I lit each candle, and watched as the bags began to glow, magnifying each tiny flame. Then I went inside and made a batch of eggnog to toast my late love, and to “jar” as gifts.

A bitter wind sprang up as I headed to bed, and I wondered if my luminaria candles would stay lit. Or if the bags would catch fire in the wind and burn up. Or if roving mule deer–Salida’s yard rats–would eat them. (Creative worrying is one of my talents.)

Still lit at dawn after the longest night Still lit at dawn after the longest night

This morning when I woke and looked outside, all two dozen luminarias glowed in the stillness before dawn.

A small miracle, and one I take as a good sign for the beginning of my new year.

The first page of the two-page current issue

Hot off the press: eNewsletter and life

The first page of the two-page current issue The first page of the two-page current issue

I send out a “News from Sus[an]” newsletter by email every so often with updates on my writing, teaching and life in general. I try to put them out quarterly, but sometimes circumstances intervene, hence the gap between the January issue and the eLetter I just finished yesterday. (If you want to be on my eNewsletter list, send me an email and I’ll subscribe you. If you are and don’t, just let me know, and I’ll remove you.)

I don’t usually put the newsletter up on my website, but it’s occurred to me that I should. So here it is. Click on that link (or the one in the previous paragraph) and you should get the PDF, either downloaded or opening in a new window.

The eNewsletter is two pages long with images, it totals half a megabite and may take a few moments to load. Just be patient.

Which is great advice for life in general, and advice I’ve certainly been taking to heart since the universe in the form of three different injuries smacked me upside the head (literally, the last injury was to my face–with my own car door) and reminded me to slow down. No matter how fast life swirls around me, I’m determined to pause, take deep breaths, and not move faster than suits me.

You can see the long, curving laminate counter with the galvanized edge and the two sinks on that wall, right? You can't? I almost can.... You can see the long, curving laminate counter with the galvanized edge and the two sinks on that wall, right? You can’t? Not to worry. It’s coming soon….

It seems to be working. As I just told my Dad, despite glitches in permitting for the front-entry deck of my new house and the fact that the master bathroom in this house is still not done, and that I’ve had to set the memoir aside this week to prepare a talk for the Plant Select program at Denver Botanic Gardens on Thursday, I’m enjoying myself.

I’m enjoying finish work, even though it’s hard, the learning curve is steep, and it doesn’t always go smoothly. It’s going well, and I’m proud of my work. That makes it satisfying.

I’m enjoying building the new house, even though the glitches in permitting my front deck have meant a lot of scrambling around to get forms filed and then a lot of back-and-forth about possible solutions.

Downtown Salida and the Arkansas Hills seen from the future deck off my bedroom. Downtown Salida and the Arkansas Hills seen from the future deck off my bedroom.

It’s still not clear what’s going to happen, but I have faith that my builder and designer and I will work with the city to figure out a solution that is aesthetically pleasing, environmentally friendly and allows an accessible house. It’s hard not to enjoy a house that’s as sweet as my new one is, even though it’s still at the gangly studs and wiring stage. Look at that view out my bedroom door….

(Yes, you have to imagine the deck at door-sill height. It’ll appear in time.)

I’m even enjoying working on the talk and accompanying digital presentation because, hey, it’s about gardening in a way that restores habitat for wildlife and leaves a patch of ground in better shape than you found it–inspiring stuff.

The truth is, I feel pretty fortunate. Yes, I have a house to finish. But it’s a beautiful house. I’m doing work my late love would appreciate, and that makes me feel closer to him.

Yes, I have two construction projects going at once, something I tried to avoid. But the new house makes me smile every time I set foot in it.

Needle-and-thread grass (in foreground) and sidebells penstemon (lavender spikes) blooming in my front yard grassland Needle-and-thread grass (in foreground) and sidebells penstemon (lavender spikes behind the pot) blooming in my front-yard native mountain prairie.

And yes, the landscape I love is still in a drought and the larger world is full of war and pain and global climate change. But it’s also full of love and light and hope.

The sidebells penstemon and needle-and-thread grass are blooming in my yard. A black-headed grosbeak was warbling down by the creek this morning. It’s the end of spring, summer is coming in a rush, and I’m alive.

That last alone makes me very fortunate. Walking with Richard through death from brain cancer taught us both to love life. All of it. That’s a lesson I hope to never forget.



Cranes and home

Sandhill cranes flying over a marsh, Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge, Colorado

Last weekend, I taught a creative writing workshop at the Monte Vista Crane Festival, an annual celebration of the return of some 20,000 Greater Sandhill Cranes to the San Luis Valley.

After we settled in around the table in the meeting room at the Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge, I asked each of the 16 attendees why they had signed up for the workshop. Their answers ranged from “I love nature and want to learn how to articulate that without sounding cliched” to “I’m not a writer but I love to read.”

As I listened to them, I thought about how I would answer my own question. As is so often true when I teach, I learned at least as much as my students.

Sandhill cranes gathering over Blanca Peak, San Luis Valley, Colorado

Why had I driven to the San Luis Valley on the night before a snowstorm was predicted to arrive, in order to donate my time to teach a creative writing workshop?

The simple answer is to support the Crane Festival, an example of a community loving its environment and sharing it (economic development of the sort that spreads the “wealth,” that is the cranes and the wonder of their time in the valley, without consuming it).

That’s not all of it though.

It was an excuse to haul myself out of my twin ruts of writing and carpentry and witness the spectacle of thousands of sandhill cranes on “spring break” in their long migration, feeding and loafing, dancing as pairs court each other anew, and calling in those low, throaty voices.

When I hear the purring, rhythmic call of sandhill cranes, whether in the air overhead or issuing from hundreds of throats in a marsh, I know I am home. The sound is as elemental as the earth itself breathing, and as basic to my place on earth as the fragrance of sagebrush, turpentine-sweet, after a summer rain.

Slithering slowly down Poncha Pass last weekend in a  snowstorm.

Although I was born and raised in the Midwest, I belong here, where the Rocky Mountains spear up against skies so clear and intensely blue we habitually squint, where the shrub desert spreads out, dust-dry, to the far horizon. Where spring sounds like sandhill cranes, ravens call in winter dawns so cold your breath freezes in the air, where summers sparkle with wildflowers and buzz with hummingbirds, and fall smells like snow clinging to golden aspen leaves. (And late winter storms sometimes make my road-trips more exciting than I’d like.)

In the end,love is why I drove to Monte Vista to teach, and why I write: Because I love this life and the community it weaves on Earth. This watery blue and green planet and all its inhabitants–huge to microscopic; four-legged, eight-legged, rooted, finned, winged, wriggling or ciliate–have my heart.

My attachment to this place and to life in all its breathtaking diversity is an essential part of who I am, an expression of my elemental terraphilia, our species’ innate love of this planet and its communities of lives.

The San Luis Valley, text by Susan J. Tweit, photographs by Glenn Oakley

As I wrote in The San Luis Valley: Sand Dunes and Sandhill Cranes, my love song to this place with photographer Glenn Oakley,

Perhaps what allows a newcomer to belong to the valley is the same gift that allows humanity to belong to this rare blue planet: an ability to love its miraculous as well as its mundane. This paradoxical desert of water and sand, a place that dances in the wind and echoes with the throaty calls of sandhill cranes, reminds me of what it is to love with a whole heart, to be at home, no matter who I am, where I was born, or how long I will stay.

In ten days, I’ll be back in the Valley, this time leading a group of writers in a four-day Write & Retreat workshop, with a field trip to see and hear the cranes, as well as time to soak, think, write and rediscover the calling of heart and spirit.


Filmmaker, writer and birder June Inuzuka attended my Crane Fest workshop and was kind enough to give me a shout-out on her blog. A bow in thanks to you, June.

Books: True Nature & Resilience

Two extraordinary hand-made books have landed on my desk recently, one printed conventionally but written in the author’s fluid calligraphy and illustrated from her field-journals, and the other entirely hand-made, even the paper.

Barbara Bash’s revised book, True Nature

The first, a revised edition of Barbara Bash’s beloved True Nature: An Illustrated Journal of Four Seasons in Solitude, chronicles a spiritual journey and an artistic one, as Bash makes clear up front:

This is the story of four solitary retreats spent in a cabin in the Catskill Mountains of upstate New York. During these times I practiced sitting meditation and nature journaling. Both activities are contemplative, developing awareness and attentiveness to the world. I wanted to see how they might weave together when mixed with the simplicity and starkness of solitude.

True Nature is simply beautiful, and as adventurous as the author finds herself to be. Sometimes the words become BIG, sometimes they dance around on the page, sometimes they stand out in bright colors.

Bash is candid about the difficulties of her solitary retreats, the fears that rush in uninvited, including a debilitating fear of the dark discovered years before in her only previous solitary retreat.

She is tests that fear, but the darkness defeats her each time. Finally, on her final session, she realizes she can “enter [the woods] at twilight and let the darkness gather around me.” She climbs onto a flat rock and waits,

my heart … beating fast, my breath high in my chest. Afraid of the dark. Afraid of what I can’t see. … Relax the brow. Relax the mind. Sitting, watching, listening.

The pages of the book itself trace the gathering dusk, shifting from ivory to a purplish watercolor wash, to deepest gray and then black with tiny stars and white writing. Bash stays through her fears until she “feels her way” off the rock in complete darkness:

Just as I step out of the woods, a bat banks and turns right in front of my face; its soft wings beat the air against my cheek. It feels like a salute.

(Read the full review on Story Circle Book Reviews.)

Resilience, Aimee Lee’s handmade book, with its handmade wrappings and a key to the paper, along with a note from the artist.

Resilience, the other book, came like a gift out of the air, a small package in my post box wrapped in pink handmade paper, from an unfamiliar address. I carried it home and opened it carefully, making sure to not damage the wrappings. Inside was a book and this note:

Dear Susan, I have been wanting to give this to you since I made it. Please accept it as a token of thanks for sharing all you have been living through. After having my first book published this fall, I admire your work even more! with love, Aimee

I held the book tenderly and read it through, even the hand-lettered colophon. Then I went to Aimee’s website and looked through her work. (Watch this video of her building a traditional Korean papermaking studio and teaching how to make the paper. Fiber-folk, check out her knitted books!)

A two-page spread from Resilience, illustrating the careful word-placement on the rough-textured paper.

A free-form poem written in pencil on just nine two-page spreads, Resilience is brief. But wise. And beautiful.

Here is the entire text, with apologies that I cannot achieve Aimee’s gorgeous word-placement on the page:

There are the famous words about
your one wild and precious life* (footnote: *Mary Oliver)

and those about how life is like getting into a boat that’s just
about to sail out to sea and sink* (footnote: *Suzuki)

There are words,
so many words.
So many words in the world.

when you are lying in bed
deciding if it is best for the hot tears to run into your ears or
onto the pillow,

more than words course through your body.


Then you pick up the pencil


and return to words.

I read the key Aimee had included detailing what fibers each paper was made from and where it was made. And lay on the couch thinking that the world is full of such love and beauty and that sometimes we humans rise and embrace those qualities. Breaking our hearts open–intentionally or not–invites that goodness in, changing us in ways we cannot imagine.

Thank you, Barbara and Aimee, for opening my heart in new ways. And thanks to you all for journeying with me.

Rain! (and an update)

A sheen of moisture on the paving stoves of my bedroom patio before dusk fell.

It’s raining tonight, a fall of small droplets visible in the lights of the parking lot across the way. The rain is so gentle we’ve probably not received enough to measure. Still, the air is heavy, warm and wet, redolent of the earthy fragrances of life awakening.

If you live somewhere rain is a regular occurrence or where the air is normally moist enough to cause hair to frizz, my excitement at this very small amount of moisture may not make sense. But here in the bone-dry high desert, where we ended last year with under 7 inches of total precipitation, any moisture is a big deal.

It’s been so dry here that when the wind blows, the air fills with an eerie tan haze of blowing soil. So dry that trees are dying, the creek that runs past my place hasn’t run since last July, and the prospect of another summer of huge and destructive forest fires seems all too real.

Clouds lower over town as the rain began. You can see fresh snow on the slopes above.

Tonight’s rain isn’t enough to make a real difference–except to our parched spirits. When I walked over to my neighbor’s house at dusk, I could hear voices from porches of the houses I passed, as people came outside to revel in the feeling of wet, so rare in this years-long  drought.

It will make a difference to our popular local ski area, Monarch, which relies on the fluffy stuff that falls from the sky, not grainy man-made “snow” blown out of giant cannons. It’s snowing up there now at 10,000 feet elevation and the forecast predicts the ski area could get as much as a foot of new snow over the next few days.

That snow is our moisture savings account, the water-bank that supplies streams and rivers, which need substantial deposits indeed if they are to revive this spring and hold through summer and fall. Whether we’ll get enough to build up the scanty snow pack isn’t clear. But each hour of moisture feels good, moistening the dust-dry landscape and we who live here.

Rain puddling on the row cover protecting the strawberry plants from nighttime temperatures that normally dip into the single digits this time of year.

Rain is not normal here in late January, when the temperature is usually far below freezing at night, and creeps up into the 40s during the day. But nothing is usual about our weather anymore, and we’ll take whatever moisture we get.

When I went outside a few minutes ago to fetch one last armful of wood for the stove in the living room, I turned my head upward to feel the mist of moisture on my skin. Then I said softly out loud, “Rain and snow on, heavy-bellied clouds! Thank you for your gift.”


The update: I’ve been absorbed in writing my new memoir, Bless the Birds. Working on this book is about as fun as pressing on a deep bruise, but the story is so beautiful, I press on anyway. (Yes, that pun was intentional.)

Cranes on the ground, dancing and preening, and in the air over the San Luis Valley with the snow-covered Sangre de Cristo Range in the background.

I’m also busy organizing my first Write & Retreat workshop, scheduled for the first weekend of spring, March 21-24, at Joyful Journey Hot Springs Spa in Colorado’s wild San Luis Valley. I have always wanted to teach a writing workshop at the time thousands of sandhill cranes arrive to dance and call, renewing their pair bonds before migrating farther north to nest. My plan is for an inspiring and restorative “time-out” to write, soak, read and sit quietly, to share in the miracle of cranes and spring. (There are two spaces left in the workshop.)

I’ve finished the trim around eight windows and one side of five door openings, which may sound like a lot, but it’s not even half of the trim project. After which comes approximately 700 miles of baseboard and then finishing the master bath. Gulp. I’m feeling a little overwhelmed, but I am lucky to have painting and staining help from my neighbor, Bev, and the patient tutelage of my ace-building & renovating friends, Maggie and Tony.

So onward, I go, reveling in the gifts of rain, writing, power tools and life….

Beginnings and endings

The courtyard between the lodge and the hot springs at Joyful Journey as winter sunset colors the Sangre de Cristo Range in the background.

“Begin as you intend to continue,” my Scots grandmother used to say. Which to me means,

Be thoughtful about how you enter into something, whether a project or a new year. Don’t rush into it; take care with your intentions and dreams, what you hope to achieve and how you imagine getting there.

I heard Grandmother Chris’ lilting voice in my head last Friday during a trip with girlfriends to soak in the hot springs at Joyful Journey Spa. A chance encounter with the conference coordinator  led to my learning that the lodge and events center had an opening for a group the first weekend of spring.

Begin as you intend to continue. 

I’ve been considering beginning a series of writing workshops that nurture both spirit and creativity, based in comfortable surroundings in places that inspire awe and deep thinking. Joyful Journey fits that bill: the small lodge and spa encompass a rural hot springs with a panoramic view of snow-capped peaks, star-studded skies at night, and the peace and quiet of Colorado’s “forgotten” San Luis Valley. Especially in spring when the entire Rocky Mountain Flyway population of sandhill cranes, 20,000 or so statuesque, long-legged and long-necked birds, arrive to dance their spring courting rituals and call in their percussive voices.

So I’m taking a leap and beginning a “Write & Retreat” workshop series offering time out for creative renewal and writing practice, time to let the community of nature work its magic on heart, spirit and inspiration. The first workshop, “Write & Retreat: Cranes & Hot Springs” will take place–appropriately for the renewal theme–on the first weekend of spring, March 21-24, 2013, at Joyful Journey Hot Springs Spa, about 3.5 hours southwest of Denver and an equal distance north of Albuquerque.

Sandhill cranes in the San Luis Valley in spring.

The agenda for this four-day retreatful writing workshop is simple: soak, write, read and talk writing in a small-group workshop setting, retreat into contemplative time, take a drive to watch and listen to the spectacle of the cranes’ dawn flight and dancing, write, read, soak, contemplative time….

Imagine these four days as time to nourish your inner self, to take your writing to new, richer places with an intuitive and experienced teacher, and to practice retreatful habits to bring home to your daily life.

Begin as you intend to continue.

If you’re interested, let me know. I’m still working out the details. Spaces are limited by my preferred workshop size (10-15 writers; there’s also room for companions who come along to soak and see cranes, but won’t attend the workshop).


Trimming the window over the kitchen sink. One down, 36 more to go….

The endings of the title? My new sideline as a trim and finish carpenter is something of a gentle transition (gentle emotionally, if not physically!) to a rather huge ending. Once I’ve finished trimming all 37 openings, put up what seems like miles of baseboard, and invent a shower and tub surround plus a counter for the master bath, this whole half-block property will go up for sale: the house with its custom sculptural sinks, cabinets and sandstone shelves, the cozy guest cottage, and the historic shop (plus the pentanque court, organic kitchen garden and wildflower “lawn”).

I’ll move around the corner to a tiny house built just for me, plus a studio over the garage to house guests and Terraphilia residents.

Endings and beginnings

None of this will happen overnight, which is what I mean by a “gentle” transition. Regardless, I’m ending my time in the house my love helped design and build for us, the place we imagined living out our lives together. We did that, only the end of “together” came sooner than either of us could ever have imagined.

I’m beginning this new year as I intend to continue, walking a mindful and loving path as writer, teacher, and–this I would never have guessed a year ago–finish carpenter. Building a new life with care, and a great appreciation for the community of lives with whom we share this green and blue planet, sparkling with life.

Learning Forgiveness

Richard and Molly with Isis on a hike.

Some years back, I wrote an newspaper column titled “Learning Forgiveness” about our Great Dane, Isis.

Isis was rescued from a puppy mill by Animal Control officers one January day ten years ago. She was emaciated, weighing less than 70 pounds and had borne at least one litter of dead puppies. Her body was dotted with sores; the skin on one side hung in rotting tatters.

No one who saw her then expected Isis to survive. She did–and then some. Six months later when we adopted her, she had gained 20 pounds and her burned side had healed.

She put on another 40 pounds in her first three months with us, and her snazzy black and white coat regained its glossy shine. When Isis pranced along with her huge black ears up and her long, white-tipped tail gently waving, as I wrote, she looked every inch the Goddess she was named for–on one side.

Isis’ burned side

Her other side records a nightmare life, a story etched in misshapen ribs and slick burn scars that crosshatch her flank from muzzle to tail, giving a tragic-comic droop to one eye and leaving one shoulder shrunken.

Still, Isis was simply happy: to be in the world, to take walks and eat three meals a day, to snooze on her cozy bed. Her friendly good nature was so obvious that her beauty, not the scars she would carry for life, was the first thing people noticed when they met her (along with her giant size). In that, I saw a lesson:

Isis in our kitchen garden. (She loved to browse the yellow pear tomatoes, nibbling them right off the vine. Funny dog!)

The two sides of Isis’ body stand as a permanent record of the duality of human nature: we are equally capable of unusual cruelty and extraordinary kindness, of great hatred and lasting love.

Isis’ gracious behavior toward all she meets makes it clear which path she has chosen. No matter the circumstances, her example says, our response is what shapes who we are.

Isis taught me true forgiveness. She might be (and often was) stubborn, she might be playful, but she was never aggressive. She loved everyone, drawing on a body of loving-kindness that was apparently as immense as her physical body.

In this year of learning to live as Woman Alone, I have thought of Isis often. Partly because I am lonely, having lost Richard, the love of my life, last November, and have thought seriously about adopting another Great Dane. (They’re easier to train than people.)

Partly because my most difficult and most urgent lesson this year has been forgiveness.

Not forgiving someone else–though this year’s succession of tragedies has asked that of us all. Forgiving me. For failing over and over again (I am nothing if not consistent) to find a sustainable, healthy pace for my life. Whether it’s writing or road trips, gardening or carpentry, managing the household accounts, getting my dad moved to Washington or throwing a luminaria party, I cannot seem to learn that I cannot just push through and do everything–today.

Forgiving myself for being surprised when I find myself on the couch alternately flushed and aching all over, and shivering and aching all over.

As if I didn’t know better. I have lived with a chronic illness my entire life. I know from extensive and bitter experience that there are unyielding limits to my energy; I know that the consequences of exceeding those limits begin with the nasty flulike symptoms and get much worse if I don’t pay heed.

And still I don’t.

Which is why while I have been on the couch this last evening of 2012, flushed and aching deep in my bones, I have been struggling to not be angry at myself. To forgive myself for pushing too hard. Again.

Isis with a doggy grin and a much younger Richard and me by the Arkansas River.

When Isis’ face floats into my mind smiling her immense doggy grin, it occurs to me that I missed part of the lesson: For, the first part of forgiveness, means “to renounce.” Renounce involves letting go: of the anger, of the tension, of the expectations, of whatever keeps us stuck in that unending do-loop, unable to change. Just letting go.

Which for me, may mean summoning up a grin, and learning to laugh at myself when I forget that I can’t actually do everything. Today. By myself.

That’s the lesson I’ll practice in 2013: Letting go. Lightening my load. Learning when to laugh at myself.

May your New Year be full of laughter and the light of true forgiveness. We can all use both.