Living In a Time of Bruised Hearts

Santa Fe sunset with bruised purple clouds.

clouds flame out, fade to purple
bruised like our hearts

I posted that haiku on social media on Monday, August 5th, after the mass shootings in Gilroy, California; El Paso, Texas; and Dayton, Ohio.

It’s a bruising time personally, politically, nationally, and globally. Hate and divisiveness are flourishing like no time in my memory since the Viet Nam War era, climate change is accelerating, the astonishing diversity of life that makes this planet home for us all is suffering, war and political upheaval are displacing millions of humans, from Syria to Venezuela and Guatemala, from China’s Uighar people to Yemenis starving in their home villages…

On a personal level, I am reeling from the sudden loss of my sister-in-law, Bonnie Cabe.

Ron and Bonnie Cabe at Richard’s memorial service, December 2011

How do we live with hearts heavy and bruised? How do we get up and face each day, go to work, tend our kids and parents, our communities and our planet; how do we laugh and love when there is so much to grieve and fear and rage against? How do we cultivate resilience in a time that seems to defeat every effort?

There is no one answer, because we are all different. (And bless that diversity, because we need the creative energy of differing voices and viewpoints and talents and energy!).

One thing we can all do is listen within for the goodness that lives inside us all, the “small, still voice” of love and kindness, justice and compassion. Whether you call that voice God or Allah or Pachmama or Universal Consciousness or simply lovingkindness, we can honor and do our best to live by its call to be our best selves, to, as Quakers say, add to the “Ocean of Light and Love” that pours over the “Ocean of Darkness and Fear.”

It seems to me that if we live each day according to what we know is right, treating others with kindness and compassion, if we stand up with grace and courage for what we believe in, we can indeed turn this bruising time toward the best humanity is capable of, and away from the worst.

How do we find the energy and resilience to act in even small kindly ways in a time that is so bruising? Again, I think there is no one answer, but I also know the benefits of time outside in nature, or “Vitamin N” as some researchers call it. Studies show that time in nature calms us physically, lowering our heart rates and blood pressure, and slowing our production of cortisol, the fight-or-flight hormone. Vitamin N also helps us think more clearly, focus better, and learn more easily; it reduces aggression and increases our empathy (including empathy to our own selves), all of which are critical to living in these frightening and painful times.

The arroyo that runs through my neighborhood, a natural walking path for everyone from humans to coyotes, roadrunners, and horned toads. 

“Nature” doesn’t have to be a wilderness; it can be the wildness that flourishes everywhere around us, whether the arroyo running through my neighborhood or the less-manicured corners of a city park.

For me, as I wrote in a proposal for the new book I’m working on, solace and resilience and the other benefits of Vitamin N come from hanging out with native plants:

Plants have been my solace and my inspiration for as long as I can remember: As I child, I cycled with my mom to vacant lots scheduled for bulldozing, and carefully rescued native wildflowers, carrying the plants home in my bike basket to relocate to her woodland garden. As a young scientist, I studied ecosystems from the plants’ point of view. I’ve grown gardens of native and edible plants, designed landscapes and given talks on gardening for habitat and humans, and worked at ecological restoration involving plants. 

I never reflected on why plants wove themselves through my days. Until my husband was diagnosed with brain cancer. Over the two and a quarter years that we walked with his brain tumors, I went from being Richard’s lover, creative collaborator, best friend, and co-parent, to being his caregiver, driver and chef, medicine administrator, butt-wiper, diaper wrangler, and eventually, the midwife of his death.

Escaping outside to the company of the restored mountain prairie of our front yard, our patio pollinator garden, or my organic kitchen garden was all that kept me even partly sane. After Richard died, I recognized that working with native plants to restore Earth is my calling, an expression of my Terraphilia. In this time of climate crisis, gun violence, racism, and sickening divisiveness, we need urgently need what plants can teach us about reweaving healthy community, about restoration and the power of simply working together.

A sacred datura flower (Datura wrightii), opening in my patio garden tonight, rain-washed by a grumbling thunderstorm.

In short, we need nature, and we need each other. So get outside, hug your family and friends, live with kindness, speak up and act out with courage, and love long and well. We can live with bruised hearts, and we can help each other heal and bring positive changes to this battered world.

I’m not saying it will be easy, but we have to keep working at it. Together. With love and laughter, with outrage and steadfastness, with compassion and kindness and creativity.

Coming Home to Rain and Beauty

After driving 4,652 miles in the past three weeks, through six states, plus presenting at two writing conferences, and spending time in three national parks, two national wildlife refuges, and I forget how many state parks and natural areas, and hunkering down for two very productive writing days in a little town within sight of the Pacific Ocean, I am home again.

(The photo above is a line of cottonwood trees golden with autumn along a wash in the sagebrush desert northeast of Moab, Utah. The brilliance of their leaves in the gray day caught my eye and reminded me of how much I treasure my time on this glorious planet.)

Along the way, I visited friends, had the gift of a long lunchtime conversation with the writer Barry Lopez, and spent a few wonderful days with the Washington contingent of the Tweit family. I camped out under some of the starriest skies I’ve ever seen, with the Milky Way a brilliant river running from horizon to horizon, and stayed in a few sketchy motels, a resort at an eerily green golf course in the high desert (a conference hotel), a cozy motel where the booming waves of the not-so-Pacific-Ocean lulled me to sleep, plus spent a night at a grand and historic hotel on the rim of Crater Lake.

The beach at Yachats, Oregon, below my motel. 

I talked about writing, and place, and the unraveling–and restoration–of this earth and we humans; I ate impromptu picnics as I drove, savored delicious meals at the homes of friends and family, and relished dinner at an Italian bistro with my brother and sister-in-law before they took me to “Recent Tragic Events,” a play very much worth seeing, as my belated birthday present. 

I heard sandhill cranes call as they migrated overhead, ducks chuckling as they settled down at night, trains passing, waves crashing, and the hum of Red’s tires on the road over the howling of the wind. I smelled rain-wet sagebrush, briny ocean breezes, dead fish on the shore, diesel exhaust, fried clams, roasting coffee, and damp evergreen forests.

The forest at Cape Perpetua Natural Area, on the central Oregon Coast.

I walked along the Snake River, crunched over the cracked mud of dry Malheur Lake, strolled the jagged rim of Crater Lake, hiked the soft duff under whitebark pines on the Pacific Crest Trail, trotted on sand packed firm by the waves on the beach at Yachats, toured the flowers of my sister-in-law’s garden, and watched the muddy Colorado River slip past massive red sandstone cliffs…

The Colorado River just north and east of Moab, Utah, near Arches National Park.

Tonight, I sit at the kitchen island in my cozy house with the welcome sound of a fall rain pattering on the roof, a blessing after eight weeks with nary a drop falling from the sky. The cheerful flames of a fire in my little gas stove warm the house and my spirits. 

Tonight, “home” is one of the sweetest words in the English language. A word that sounds as comforting as it feels to be here.

I’m eating a bowl of soup from Ploughboy Local Market, enriched by tomatoes and broccoli just harvested from my front-deck garden, and pondering all I saw and experienced and felt in my days on the road.

I did a lot of listening while I drove. For the first thousand miles or so, I listened with music in the background, a random selection from my iPhone that I boosts my mood through the long miles. For the next three-and-a-half thousand miles, I eschewed even that favored music and listened within, following the tracings of thoughts, intuitions, and feelings.

Sunset over the Klamath Valley from Crater Lake Lodge

There’s a lot going on inside me. I’m 59 years old, a widow nearly four years now, and I am still learning who I am and what I want to be when I grow up. The thinking time in all those miles, the being away from my usual routine, resulted in a new understanding of my mission in life. And some ideas about furthering that mission that may be wild or may be brilliant–sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference!–which I’ll be writing about in coming weeks. 

When I arrived home, I found a gift, a painting by Catalina Garretón, an artist and textile designer who stayed at Treehouse on a Terraphlia Residency while I was away.


Catalina’s painting of “hózhó,”  an interpretation as exquisite as an oriental screen or a glimmering tapestry. 

As I look at her canvas with its images of mountains and leaves from the cottonwood tree outside the studio window (the tree for which Treehouse is named) and the colors of earth and sky and sagebrush desert, colors echoed on the walls of my house, I think again of how lucky I am to simply be able to take part in this life, to “walk the skin of this earth,” as Richard used to say.

And how much I want my days on this planet to reflect that kind of beauty in Catalina’s painting, beauty in the sense of the Navajo word “hózhó,” which means a state of being in life. “Hózhó” also means harmony, balance, and wholeness. 

Whatever is ahead in my life, I am determined to walk it in beauty, with my heart outstretched as if it were my hand. And to use my time to heal this earth and we humans, wherever and however I can. 

Bless you all for walking with me.