The Three Rs: Running, Renovation, Revision

I went for a run today, my first since I moved home to Cody two months and two days ago. I would say it felt great to be running again, but my relationship with running is much more complicated than that.

I need to run, something I know intellectually. But it takes a lot of emotional energy to talk myself into it, each time. I have an amazing ability to find excuses and wimp out. And then I feel bad because I didn’t run. 

Once I get going though and find my pace, I feel pretty good, except when I run out of breath and don’t. Still, the fact that I’m out and running keeps me going, both because I am competitive and hate to quit, and because I feel pretty darned saintly to be exercising. 

The best part is after I finish, when I feel simply and unambiguously great, my body tired, but loose and limber, my mind righteous, and my spirits high because running takes me outside, and as my artist-friend Sherrie York says on her website, “outside fuels our insides.” Time in nature is the best medicine for body, mind, and spirit. 

Today’s run wasn’t long–I did about 2.5 miles through quiet streets and down the hill to the upper bench above the Shoshone River where it winds in its shallow canyon past town. I ran through fragrant sagebrush, looking for signs of spring in the still-winter-brown high desert landscape, like the mat of dwarf phlox in the photo above, the living parts of the aged mat greening up.

I followed the city-maintained river trail with its great views of the surrounding Bighorn Basin landscape until its end, and then I headed back, slowing to a walk for the switchbacks up the steep hill, and then running through city streets to home. 

(The photo at the top of the post is from that river trail, looking southwest to Spirit and Rattlesnake mountains on the way to Yellowstone; the photo above is looking down-river in the opposite direction toward McCullough Peaks, a badlands wilderness northeast of Cody.)

On the renovation front, the biggest progress this week has been in the attic, where my contractor, Jeff, has been adding vents so the attic can breathe, which is important for all sorts of reasons, including letting the roof cool down in summer, and keeping mold from growing up there.  

The other big change is the small bathroom taking shape in my bedroom, with a washer-dryer closet next to it, and a narrow linen closet between. When it’s all finished, I’ll have my own little suite–bedroom, bath, laundry, and my office opening off the bedroom. 

The unused end of my bedroom before, with my office on the right. 

And now, with the walls of the bathroom and laundry center taking shape, the plumbing and wiring roughed in. 

Looking the other direction at my bed and its corner of windows that makes me feel like I’m sleeping in a treehouse…

On the writing front, I finished a feature article for Wildflower Magazine, and when I turned it in, my editor wrote back to say she loved it, “and thanks for making my job easier.” That’s music to any writer’s ears! 

The more difficult part of my writing week was yet another rejection for my memoir, Bless the Birds, with a lovely note from the editor who said the writing was beautiful, the story touching and engrossing, and the characters and sense of place powerful. But she didn’t want it. 

After listening to a webinar with Brooke Warner, publisher of SheWrites Press, I think I know what’s wrong and why despite all of the praise for this memoir of my heart, no editor has snatched it up: it’s the economics of publishing today. Memoirs normally run between 70,000 and 80,000 words, and Bless the Birds is 97,000 words, albeit downsized significantly from 125,000 in last summer’s intense revision

Brooke explained the money end in a way I hadn’t heard it before. Sure, she said, a memoir or novel can be longer, but when an editor is making the calculations to sell a manuscript to the publication committee, she or he has to justify additional length in terms of some kind of great platform to drive sales, because the longer a book is, the more it costs, “and margins in publishing are already thin.” 

A manuscript of more than 80,000 words, Brooke said, simply costs too much to produce. And then she added for me what was the kicker, “and people are reading shorter and shorter these days,” in part, she explained, because they’re reading in snatches of time between other commitments, or on a mobile device. 

So I’ve made the difficult decision to clear time in my schedule and dive back into a manuscript I thought I was done with. My aim: shrink the word count by more than 20 percent and make the story stronger and more compelling, more universal, as I do so.

And not shred my heart along the way; this is a love story, but it’s a painful one. I owe it to the guy in the photo below, and the life we made even as brain cancer ended his, to get the story right so it can help us all live our days well and with grace, whatever our path.

Richard Cabe, 1950-2011

PS: My apologies about the issues with the comment function on this blog. It’s always been annoying, and now it doesn’t work at all. Sigh. Another thing to deal with in time, and thanks for your patience! 

News on Writing, Teaching and Moving

When I left Santa Fe last Wednesday at the end of my amazingly fruitful fellowship at the Women’s International Study Center, I had written 13,400 words, a solid beginning of my new book, The Ditch & The Meadow. (The subtitle–also my elevator pitch–is still evolving, but right now it’s How Native Plants and Passionate Plantswomen are Restoring Health to Humanity, Our Communities, and the Earth.)

Thirteen-thousand-plus words in a month may not seem like much for those who took on the NaNoWriMo challenge and wrote a whole novel in November. But I’ve never been a fast writer, in part because I revise the previous day’s work before I inch forward. So these are three fairly polished chapters and part of a fourth, and a table of contents that is actually a pretty good guide for the book to come. 

Of course, that’s all the writing I’ll likely get done on The Ditch & The Meadow until, oh, about mid-February. Because between now and then I have two real estate deals to finalize (one selling, one buying, both scheduled to close in the first two weeks of January), a household to pack up and move (in late January), a renovation project to get started (which I’ll live in for a few months), a couple of columns to write for Houzz, one for Rocky Mountain Gardening, and two presentations to prepare for garden conferences. 

So the new book will have to wait until after I’m moved, settled, and have done the garden-conference thing. 

My tiny and wonderful podcasting microphone, a Raspberry from Blu Microphones, next to a script

In the meantime, I’m happy to report that my first podcast for The Conversation Project in Boulder is up and already drawing an audience. It’s a short excerpt from my memoir, Bless the Birds, with lessons for us all about talking about quality-of-life values with the people we love. Give it a listen and let me know what you think! 

I’ve wanted to get into podcasting for several years, and simply lacked the reason to learn the technology, so this first one got me going. I’m aiming for one a month for The Conversation Project, and I’m also going to start my own podcast series using some of my recent short commentaries, plus new ones I’ll write.

I haven’t figured out a series name though. It has to be something general enough that the podcasts can range from commentaries on nature to sustainability, and to memoir and the occasional foray into politics. Ideas? Leave them in the comments below. 

I’m also honored to be part of the first webinar-based writing workshop series from WordHarvest, the parent organization of the Tony Hillerman Writing Conference. If you’re looking for ways to sharpen your writing craft and your ability to market your work, check out the package here. My webinar, Sculpting Compelling Stories, is a digest of my favorite revising techniques to polish your work from draft to ready to submit, gleaned from my Write & Retreat Workshops. 

You can buy the package or just one webinar, and listen to them as often as you like. They even come with bonus gifts from each workshop presenter. I have to say, I wasn’t sure about how well I’d do teaching a workshop to a video camera and no students, but the videographer, Robert Muller (who also shot my wonderful new publicity photos), was a delight to work with, as was Jean Schaumberg, the co-Director of Wordharvest with Anne Hillerman. 

Webinar graphic courtesy of Robert Muller

And on a personal note, as the Northern Hemisphere heads into the cold season of short days and long nights, and the US heads into a political transition that looks dark, I’m more than ever determined to live my values and be part of what Quakers call “the Ocean of Light.” I believe in the power of our individual actions in making the world a better place to be. 

Thanks for joining me and spreading that Ocean of Light. Together we can grow positive change. 

What to Do Now?

Every morning, I post a haiku and photo on social media: Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. That observation in words and imagery of a moment in time, of the natural world, of a bit of beauty is my way of reminding us all to take time to engage with the real world beyond our digital devices. To be aware and mindful, to be grateful for the miracle that is life on this numinous, breathing planet. 

Wednesday morning, after the election, I was moved to post a statement in haiku form, rather than my usual poem. (I’ve written about the rules of classical haiku before; here’s a reminder if you’re interested.)

what to do now? 

stand for kindness, compassion, respect

for all on earth

That statement felt right at the time, and still feels right. My mission in life is to reconnect us all with nature and its power to heal, inspire, and inform. Research shows what we might guess intuitively: time spent in nature–the more natural the better–is a powerful cure, restoring our physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health.

Nature is also a teacher, showing us the value of diversity (ecosystems comprised of more kinds of species are generally healthier and more stabile than those with few), cooperation (species cooperate as much as they compete), and what I would express as hope (life finds creative ways to continue, though not always the way we would most prefer). 

As I know by my own experience with our formerly decaying industrial property and its block of urban creek, restoring nature can revitalize our neighborhoods and communities, clean the water and air we depend on, and provide homes and food for the wild species who are our partners in making earth a nurturing place. It can in fact, remind us that miracles are possible, given time, thoughtful action, and a loving and persistent commitment to the work. 

So as I’ve gone through this post-election week, writing, talking with friends and family, hugging strangers, and taking long walks around Santa Fe, I’ve kept that haiku-form statement in my mind. It helps to have something positive to focus on. 

Today I spent some time with the migrating salmon sculpture that Richard loved to visit whenever we came to Santa Fe. I thought about how salmon smell their way home to their natal streams from thousands of miles out in the open ocean, how they swim upstream to get to their spawning grounds, leaping waterfalls if necessary.

And I thought about these carved granite salmon sculptures, forever swimming upstream in the waterless high desert. “Doing the work” as my friend and fellow writer Steve Edwards said tonight on Twitter. 

I am re-committing myself to doing my work, to my mission to reconnect we humans with nature, our home and teacher. I am more determined than ever to do that work with kindness, compassion, and respect for all. With, as I like to say, my heart outstretched as if it were my hand. 

Walking home to the casita where I am staying this month thanks to the generosity of the Women’s International Study Center, I looked overhead and noticed that next year’s leaf buds are already swelling on the cottonwood trees. Those cottonwood trees are doing the work, steadily continuing in the business of life–making food, growing, healing their wounds, reproducing, and when the time comes to move on, moving on to leave room for new life. 

That’s heartening. Life continues. 


If you’re in northern New Mexico, please join me and my fellow WISC resident, playwright DS Magid, for a presentation about our work at Collected Works Bookstore this Wednesday, November 16, at 6:00 pm. DS and a local actor will read her 10-minute play about May Sarton and the boulder in her garden, and then DS will talk about her project here, a longer play on Sarton and gender issues, among other themes. (A strikingly relevant theme.) I’ll talk about the book I’m working on, The Ditch & The Meadow: The Power of Native Plants and Passionate Plantswomen to Restore Communities and Mend the World. (Also pretty darned relevant.) I hope to see you there!

Writing: A Typical Day at WISC

One of the reasons writers crave time away to write is that so much of our daily lives isn’t actually spent writing. We all have family, friends, community work, administration (answering inquiries about writing assignments, talks, workshops; publicity, paying the bills, reminding people to pay us, accounting, etc), and so on.

If you asked the average fulltime writer how much time they actually had to put pen to paper or hands on keyboard, the answer is likely considerably less than 8 hours a day (except in the days or weeks immediately preceding a big deadline, when we panic and make those words fly!).

Two hours of actual hands-on, uninterrupted time is a figure I hear. I’ve been writing a long time, so I have more practice in focusing and ignoring interruptions than many writers, which means on a good day I might get in three or four hours. But that’s a lot. 

So when we have the opportunity to leave our daily routine behind and just focus on our writing, we’re ecstatic. Or terrified, because then we have to actually produce something. Or both ecstatic and terrified. 

Which I think describes how I feel having a whole month here in Santa Fe at the Women’s International Study Center, with few responsibilities besides writing. I’ve gone through the whole gamut from over-the-top excited to what-the-heck-am-I-doing-here? And that was just the first day… 

So what’s a typical day of my writing fellowship like? 

Pretty ordinary. I get up at my usual time, around six a.m.. (Which is easier now that we’re past daylight savings time and those very dark mornings!)

An especially lovely dawn

I take a moment to appreciate the dawn out my windows, and then I do half an hour of yoga (which reminds me to be in my body while I write, not just in my mind), and my morning gratitudes, which include a salute to the four directions, plus earth, sky, and self, in place wherever I am; plus sending out love and good wishes to friends, family, and my far-flung community, human and moreso. 

After yoga I write in my journal for half an hour or so, and then I bathe, dress, and eat my simple hot breakfast cereal of organic whole oats and other grains, plus organic dried fruits, and cinnamon for sweetness and blood pressure/ blood sugar control. I read the news online over breakfast (although some days I wonder why I even want to know), and then head back to work. 

Breakfast (earthenware bowl by Jim Kempes–see below)

I do my best to focus and write until early afternoon, usually about one-thirty or two. Usually that means I write for a while, then have to stop to think, pace around, check my email, resist the obsessive urge to read the news, and then sit back down at the keyboard again. 

When the stream of words dwindles to a trickle and nothing I try restarts it, I break for a late lunch, answer more messages, and then go back to the writing to see if there’s anything else I can say. If not, I need to move, so I head out for a walk. 

Sometimes I have an errand (like walking to the grocery store for food!), but mostly I just ramble at random, letting the writing rest in my subconscious while I look at interesting walls, gates, gardens, sculptures, plants, and other sights, and listen to bird calls or ravens croaking, people talking in different languages, traffic whizzing past, cathedral bells… I smell tortillas frying or chiles or spicy piñon smoke. 

Eye-catching details in a woodbine (Parthenocissus vitacea) vine with blue berries and red stems

When I get tired, I come “home” to this quiet casita on a dirt side street and read a book from my stack, or check the news or answer emails… I usually eat my simple dinner early and then read until bedtime, do a bit of yoga and am asleep by ten. 

Yesterday I played hooky all afternoon and drove out to the Chama River Valley (Georgia O’Keeffe country) near Abiquiu with my agent, Elizabeth Trupin-Pulli. Our mission was to visit Lesley Poling-Kempes and Jim Kempes, she a fine writer (and another of Liz’s clients) and he a ceramic artist. (Lesley and Jim stayed with me last month in Salida and brought me one of Jim’s wonderful ceramic vessels.) 

Jim’s large sculptural ceramic forms issue from the desert along the dirt road leading their house; I could have spent all day finding and sitting with them. (And I so wished Richard could have been there to delight in them and talk art with Jim.)

See it?

As it was, we had just time to admire the beautiful adobe house they built with their own hands (building the studio first, as is proper for any artist, and then the house), and then we followed Lesley to the house of a member of her writing workshop. We had tea with Peggy and another poet and workshop member, Ginger, and talked writing and women’s history and elections, and life. 

And then, all too soon, the sun set to the south of Pedernal Mesa, and it was time to head home to Santa Fe, tired but full from the time with friends and art and beautiful landscapes. 

Sunset from Peggy’s house

Today was an ordinary day, which meant I wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote, a joy in itself. 

Thank you to my Santa Fe friends for understanding my need to write, and also making sure I get out of my cave from time to time, and to Laurel and Jordan of the Women’s International Study Center for the blessing of this time. It is rare and precious, and I am using it well!

Thank you, Peggy Thompson, for the gorgeous hand-knitted wool scarf as well… 

The Gift of a Month in Santa Fe

I’m back in Santa Fe and beginning a month-long fellowship at the Women’s International Study Center. It’s an honor–really a miracle–to have the gift of time and space to simply research, read and write for a month, with no obligation other than to give one program on my work, tentatively scheduled for mid-November at my favorite Santa Fe bookstore, Collected Works

The casita where I’m staying is around the corner from Acequia Madre House, the home of the Study Center, and the real-life historic adobe that was home to three generations of interesting and talented women–artists, businesswomen, preservationists–whose Santa Fe legacy began in the 1880s.

The three women of Acequia Madre House

Even though none of them lived in Santa Fe year-round, the three, Eva Scott Féneys (1849-1930), her daughter, Leonora Scott Muse Curtin (1879-1972), and her daughter, Eva’s granddaughter, Leonora Frances Curtin Paloheimo (1903-1999), were influential in the arts and cultural life of the city they adopted as their own. 

My bedroom at the casita

The casita where I’m staying is an adobe house bigger than my place in Salida (it’s got three bedrooms and two baths) that looks to have been built in the early 1900s, and has been well-kept up. The center has furnished it with everything a resident might need to be comfortable, down to books and a wifi network, dishes, and even art, including some by the three women. 

The living room (yup, that’s a working kiva fireplace!)

The kitchen, my favorite inside hang-out… 

I’m fortunate to be sharing the casita with one other fellow at the end of her month-long residence, Stanlie James, a feminist scholar of african-american studies and gender studies at Arizona State University, and the new Vice-provost for Inclusion and Community Engagement. She’s as warm and funny and smart and interesting as the picture suggests, and after 24 hours of sharing the casita, I feel blessed by her perspective and company.

Stanlie James

The third fellow, playwright, composer actress, and poet Deborah Magid will arrive sometime in the coming week, overlapping for a few days with Stanlie.

This heavenly gift of “time out” in a wonderfully comfortable setting to focus on just one project is thanks to both WISC and the Paloheimo Foundation. Huge gratitude to WISC and its Executive director, Laurel Savino, and Program Associate Jordan Young, for the opportunity!

So that’s where I am, and what I’ll be doing for the next four weeks. I’ve had a great first full day of my fellowship, including writing the first 500 words of a piece called “Imagine Being a Plant,” partly inspired by friend and extraordinary author Craig Childs‘ book, The Animal Dialogues. The essay will go into the book I’m here to work on, so it’s a great start. And I walked about five miles, exploring the neighborhood. 

Now it’s time for dinner (a ham and green chile croissant with a salad of baby organic greens–yum!) and then some reading before bed. Tomorrow I may spend some time in the little back yard, sketching fall leaves. I could get used to this life… 🙂

The sunny little backyard with an apricot tree just losing its leaves



Road Report: Red, the “micro-RV”

Red and I left home almost a week ago, headed some 1,500 miles to our eventual destination, my brother and sister-in-law's house in Olympia, Washington. I gave myself four days for the trip, including two nights with friends Julie Weston and Garry Morrison in Hailey. 

Our first night out was an experiment in free camping: at Price, I pulled Red into the parking lot of the Walmart, and headed for a small collection of motorhomes and trailers at the far corner of the lot. Actually, I parked near the smallest, and then called to the couple sitting in folding chairs by the trailer, "I figured the small motorhome section was the right place for my micro-RV." They laughed and waved. 

I stretched my legs by walking across the lot to the store and buying some chocolate chip cookies milk for dessert with my dinner-on-the-road. When I finished eating, my neighbors were still sitting out and watching the last of the colors in the sunset, so I walked over and offered to share my cookies.

They happily accepted and as we chatted, I learned they were headed by slow stages from Wenatchee, Washington, to Alabama, to visit family. They asked where I was headed, and about Red, my "micro-RV." 

My "nest" in Red

After our cookie course, I headed for my cozy nest in Red, and they headed into their trailer. I slept well, woke early, and spent time writing in my journal while snuggled in my sleeping bag before climbing out to cook my tailgate breakfast (oatmeal) on my little JetBoil stove.

I ate as the sun crept its way across the valley toward Price, and was on the road, aimed for Spanish Fork, Utah, followed by the congested I-15 corridor through Salt Lake City and then on north to where I-84 takes off northwest into southern Idaho. 

My destination that night: Hailey, Idaho, and the home of friends Julie Weston and Gerry Morrison, where I would spend the next two nights. My time there was a lovely respite: we talked writing (Julie) and photography (Gerry), and they took me up Mt. Baldy at the Sun Valley ski area, where they are both fearless black-diamond-run skiers in winter. 

Gerry shooting a photo of Julie atop Mt. Baldy

We ate lunch halfway down the mountain and explored the historic Sun Valley lodge and surroundings. Back at their house, I spent some time removing in invasive musk thistle and mullein from the draw below their house in thanks for their hospitality. 

That evening, Gerry and Julie treated me to an excellent local-food dinner at CK's in Hailey, which lived up to its reputation as the best restaurant in the valley. After dinner, I read to them from the latest revision of Bless the Birds, explaining my editing decisions to give Julie some ideas for her own memoir. 

Dawn over the Indian Creek Valley outside Hailey, Idaho

The next morning, I said goodbye to Julie and Gerry, and Red and I hit the road again, bound for Hermiston, Oregon, and another WalMart parking lot. As Red hummed west on US 20, aimed for I-84 and on northwest, I realized that it was five years ago, almost to the day, when Richard and I headed for the West Coast on The Big Trip, our last long road-trip together. 

Five years. And here I was, driving almost the identical route. In Red, the truck that Richard never knew, in the life I never imagined–without him.  

As I drove down the Boise River Valley, across the wide and powerful Snake River at the Idaho-Oregon border, climbed the steep, sagebrush- and grass-clothed hills of far eastern Oregon, continued up and up into the wide intermountain valleys, and then wound over the Blue Mountains with their summer-green larch trees spearing through the darker coniferous forest, and thought down into the high plateaus above the Columbia River, I thought about those decades with the love of my life, and the path I've taken now that I'm solo. 

Saturday morning I woke early in Hermiston, and hit the road for the end of this leg of my journey. I headed first to Lakewood, south of Tacoma in western Washington, to meet Molly's bus from the airport, and then south on traffic-clogged I-5 to Olympia, where we've spent the weekend with my family. 

Molly Cabe, Alice Tweit, me

Sunday morning, Molly and I went for a run with Alice, my youngest niece. I kept up with the two of them for 4.2 miles, and our reward was my sister-in-law's fresh-baked popovers when we got back–thank you, Lucy!

And as Molly, who just walked by and put a kiss on the top of my head, said, "and then we ate for 24 hours straight." That's about it. The Tweit clan in gathered yesterday evening for dinner (we're missing Sienna and Matt Bryant, my middle niece and her husband, and their two kids, Fiona and Porter, who are living in Germany now).

Cousins: Molly; my eldest niece, Heather Roland; and her youngest sister, Alice (we miss you, Sienna!)

We ate, we laughed, we talked politics and travel and birds and kids; then this morning we hung out and ate some more (Bill's blueberry coffeecake this morning, followed by Lucy and Alice's gazpacho for lunch with Alice's fabulous kohlrabi-apple-mint coleslaw). 

I helped Bill weed the garden and pick tomatoes and green beans for dinner, and harvest rhubarb for tonight's crisp. Tomorrow morning, Red and I hit the road again, first to take Molly to the airport bus, and then on the long drive east for the next leg of the road trip. 

But for now, I'm sitting at the dining table in the midst of family. The house smells like pizza crust as Lucy prepares dinner; Alice is on the couch resting and Molly just came downstairs to toss crust. Bill is off fetching Dad to join us for dinner, and life is very sweet. 

Betwixt & Between: Creativity in a Liminal Time

liminal – adj. [technical]

1. of or relating to an initial or transitional stage of a process

2. occupying a position at, or on both sides of, a threshhold. 

origin: late 19th century; from Latin limen, limin ‘threshhold’ 

For the past few weeks, the word “liminal” has been in my mind. It’s a curious word most often used in sociology, anthropology and psychology, and it is almost oenomatopoetic (sounding like its meaning). Say “liminal” out loud and the word feels drifty, as if it’s a kind of floating place, there in transition, on the threshhold to… what? 

I think I first heard the word from Molly, home on break from Reed College more than 15 years ago. Her daddy was talking about how he was struggling with the transition from being a professor of Economics, his time structured–constrained, really–by classes and grad students and committees, to a self-employed consultant who had to find his own work and schedule every day. 

Molly said something like, “You’re in a liminal state, Dad.” He who always loved learning new words or new anything asked what ‘liminal’ meant. She explained. 

I listened to their discussion as I prepared dinner for the three of us, and rolled the word around in my mouth like a marble, intrigued by the way the consonants and vowels slid out like quiet water.

Richard, Molly, and Isis, our late, great, Great Dane, at Christmas break in 2003

As a freelance writer, I knew the feeling of it, that curious pause, the hesitation at being betwixt and between that came when I finished a writing project, whether one that had required months and months of my attention like a book, or just the days and weeks devoted to reserching and writing a feature article or commentary. 

As soon as a manuscript leaves my desk, I enter that liminal time–even though I didn’t know the word until Molly mentioned it–that shift and confusion in reorientating my life and world to whatever the next project is. There is always that moment, standing on the threshhold or just before it, when I feel a queer combination of bereft and adrift, and also the quickening of excitement (and no small amount of terror) at taking off into the unknown. 

Liminal comes to mind now because it’s where I am. I finished what I hope is the final major rewrite of Bless the Birds almost three weeks ago–the day before what what be Richard’s 66th birthday–and sent it off to my agent (who is reading it right now). 

I have some smaller projects to work on, but they’re not occupying the same intense and exhilirating creative space the memoir did. They’re good work but not the deep work of heart and spirit that I’ve come to put into my books. 

I can’t quite see what’s ahead, though I have a vague outline, and I’m drifting a bit. When I’m not engaged in those immediate deadlines, I read and let my mind wander, which is sometimes comfortable but often not.

I am much more used to a focus and a schedule, but honestly, creativity does not come from being comfortable. This betwixt and between state is far more open to creativity than when I have my tidy self organized and pointed at a deadline.

I need this unmoored, edgy, awkward time to push my boundaries, to throw open the doors in my mind, to think of ten impossible things before breakfast, to be surprised and amazed and unsettled, to open myself to what I didn’t know I didn’t know, the paths that will take me far beyond the familiar and comfortable and safe. 

It helps to have useful work to occupy the front of my mind right now, so my subconscious can wander and integrate things that didn’t necessarily seem to be related, find pattern in chaos and meaning in random thoughts and memories and ideas. So that I can weather the uneasiness of knowing that possibilities are so wide open that it’s bewildering and somewhat overwhelming, that I have no set goal to aim at or even more than the vaugest idea of a general direction I might want to take.

Come November, thanks to the Women’s International Study Center and the residency they awarded me at Acequia Madre House in Santa Fe, I’ll have a whole glorious month to explore whatever has presented itself in this liminal time. A month to wander paths–both literal and metaphorical–without caring where they go, just to see and feel whatever is there.

Liminal time, that state when anything and everything is possible, when we have yet to choose the path or even know which door we will go through. It’s scary, discomfiting, annoying, and increatibly [oops, that was supposed to be “incredibly,” but I kind of like “increatibly” too!] liberating; if we can stay with it, that awkward and difficult process may yield our most creative inspirations, like a bud, cells dividing seemingly at random until the whole assemblage forms a glorious bloom. 

Tool Girl Again: The Rewards of Finish Work

A little over two years ago when I finally got the Certificate of Occupancy for my little house and garage-studio, there were a few things undone still, details large and small I knew I'd want to finish at some point. But by then I'd been living with construction guys coming and going for nine months, and I just wanted peace and quiet to settle into the spaces I designed for myself and this new solo life. 

Last winter, I started thinking about finishing those last projects. I spent some time designing in my head, and then mentioned to Dan Thomas, my wonderful contractor at Natural Habitats, that if his crews had any time, I was in "finish-it" mode. 

A couple of weeks ago, two of Dan's lead carpenters, Mike Downey ("Mackie") and Mike Potts, came over. Both of them worked on the house and garage/studio at various stages of construction, so they know the place well. 

We talked about the projects: a porch "roofette" over my front door in the style of the existing porch roofs on both buildings, a built-in breakfast counter in my kitchen to add dining space, a counter/nightstand next to my bed in the bedroom, and a built-in bench for the new flagstone dining patio I've mostly finished at the foot of the stairs to the studio. 

They measured and asked questions, and the three of us tossed around ideas. Mike P drew sketches in his notebook and wrote notes about dimensions and materials; Mackie made notes in his head because that's what he does.

At the end of our discussion, I okayed the materials order, and they said they'd be back the next week to start work when it came in.

The next Monday morning, they set up chop saws and table saws, and began work on the front-door porch. And I found to my surprise that I enjoyed having construction guys around again; the creative work of dealing with the details of design and building was a good counterpoint to the emotional intensity of revising Bless the Birds

Mike P is on the ladder attaching the galvilume roofing; Mackie is giving advice… 

By early afternoon on Wednesday, they were putting on the roofing and flashing, and I was admiring the way it shades and shelters my south-facing front entry, giving it a welcoming feel.

Then Mike P went to work on the counters, and Mackie cut and sanded the rough-cut Douglas-fir we had decided on for the dining patio benches. That evening, Mackie's son-in-law, Lee, came over to consult about the brackets to hold the benches for my dining nook to the existing metal railings. 

Friday, Mike and Mackie finished shaping the counters, which involved more design questions, and a trip for me to Johnny Berndt & Sons, the local heating/cooling shop where the galvanized metal edging would be made, so I could explain my design to Ken and his helper. In between finishing up edits on my memoir, I painted both counters and Mackie took them to Berndt & Sons, and then Lee brought over the brackets, and they installed my gorgeous new dining benches.

Mackie and Lee installing the brackets for the dining patio benches. 

Over the weekend, I applied deck oil to the top and sides of the new benches. I stopped often to admire the benches and the front-door entry roofette. I was ridiculously pleased to see my ideas come to life, even better than I had imagined them, thanks to the skills of "my" guys.

The dining bench, thanks to Mackie and Lee; the steel table is one Richard designed and built for his gallery in Denver. I lacquered the table to protect it from the weather. 

On Monday, I picked up the finished counter edging, and then Mackie and I consulted about how to install it. Because my workshop is small and the construction adhesive needed to dry overnight, he worked on one counter at a time. Which was fine because it gave me time to touch up the painted upper surfaces. 

On Wednesday afternoon, Mike and Mackie and I discussed counter installation details. A few hours later, the counters were in and they were packing up their tools again. By evening, I was enjoying peace and quiet, and a wonderful sense of accomplishment that comes with being involved with tools and materials and construction again. 

Over the weekend, I cut and installed carpet squares to go under the new breakfast counter in the kitchen, and finished some other little details. And then just walked around and beamed at what we'd built: the porch roof, both counters, and the dining benches. 

The new breakfast nook counter on the right. Richard's steel table used to take up that space. 

Writing–spinning words into compelling stories–is my way of understanding the world, and sharing what I know. It's rewarding work even when it's frustrating and intense and difficult.

But it's largely a mental exercise. I forget sometimes how gratifying it is to spend time creating physical objects. Especially ones that improve my little house and the way I live in it.  

As with writing, houses are never actually finished–each change made shifts our perspective and understanding of the whole, and new ideas emerge. So while I say my house is now finished, the truth is that now I'm thinking about a few other improvements…  

The new counter in my bedroom, which gives me space for an "altar" of family photos where I do yoga and say my gratitudes every morning. 

Writing Transformation

Last weekend at the time I would normally write a blog post, I was in Silver City, New Mexico, with my co-teacher Dawn Wink, preparing for the final days of an intense and incredible Write & Retreat workshop. We had reached that exhilarating point where everyone was on a creative high, and feeling so good about the writing, our discussions, and the new perspectives we had gain on our work that we didn’t want it the workshop to end.

We had spent three days writing–creating mission statements for our work, crafting scenes from works in progress, and delving into sensory descriptions of place. We had sketched physical maps of the actual or imaginary places where our writing is based, and then written about what we learned from those maps.

We read bits of our writing out loud, talked about them in pairs and as a group (always constructively). We shared our excitement at each now insight, and our fears about the writing as well. We talked about writing and how it fits or doesn’t fit into our lives–our day jobs, our relationships, our families.

We took walks around Silver City and talked about nature and place and history and how they impact our work. We shared meals and listened to readings while eating great food. Dawn and I held individual consultations with each writer to talk about their hopes and dreams and the practicalities of their work. 

Dawn and Will talking writing over dessert at Cafe 1zero6

We lived, breathed and discussed writing, and played with words and rhythm and writing for the better part of four days. 

In the doing, the magic I always aim for when working with a group of writers came to pass: we were all–even Dawn and I–transformed by our time together. We understood our writing in new ways, we found new depth and inspiration for our current work, we gained insight in how to integrate our writing into our daily lives.

Like the peach tree in the photo at the top of the post, shot on one of our walks around Silver City, our buds burst into fragrant bloom. 

Don’t take my word for it though. Here are some comments from participants:

Thank you for providing such a safe, supportive, and thought-provoking atmosphere at the retreat. The group energy and sense of kinship was very encouraging. The experience inspired me and broadened my vision of what writing can be. –memoir writer Melanie Budd

Loved being there. It inspired me to set aside all the talk of  “word count too long, wrong genre for us, etc, etc” and write what my heart and head say.   –fiction writer Bonnie Hobbs

Thank you for the wonderful and stimulating retreat. You have a way of bringing out depths of thought which one didn’t know were there! –fiction writer Linda Jacobs

We talk so often as writers about the ways in which writing can transform our lives, and I know I totally depend on my writing practice each day, just to stay sane.  But at the workshop I realized it isn’t just the daily practice of crafting and making.  It’s like the answers are actually in there!  There is something really magic about this.  In that strange vortex of inspiration and creation, if we can follow it, and trust our imagination and instinct, the pathway will become clear, the words tell us what to do. … So the real work is about listening and about trust. — poet Will Barnes 

We ended on such a high that Dawn and I immediately began planning next year’s workshop, also in Silver City and at the Murray Hotel, February 17 – 20, 2017. The focus will change, but we’ll aim for the same magic: a transformation that gives us all new energy and insight into our writing and our lives. We’d love to have you join us. 

Coloring for the Right & Write Brain

Since my word for 2016 is abundance, I decided to give myself the gift of taking the time to do some of the things I have never “had time for” (read: given myself time for). One of those pursuits is coloring. Perhaps because I grew up with a colorblind mother–Mom saw the world in black, white, and shades of gray–light and color have always fascinated me.

One of my earliest memories is the way the sunlight lay across the windowsill in my tiny bedroom in our family’s first house. I was entranced by the color, the warmth, and the way the light beam shifted, moving as the hours passed. 

As an older child, I thought I might become an artist like my great-grandmother, Jennie Vennerstrom Cannon, a California impressionist, member of the Berkeley art scene, and an initiator of the Carmel arts colony. I grew up with her paintings and lithographs around the house, and it seemed reasonable to think that my love of light and color would lead me into painting.

Until I took painting lessons and discovered I have no real talent. I was a passable scientific illustrator, back in the days when that meant being able to use a Rapidiograph pen and graph paper. I have half a degree in fine arts photography too. The truth is, my artistic talent shines with words, not images. 

A pen-and-ink illustration of a sego lily or mariposa lily I drew, oh, thirty years ago.

Still, I harbor a secret desire to play with color and form, and to remind myself what it’s like to sketch–just for me. A couple of years ago, I got as far as buying a gorgeous tin of colored pencils with the aim of practicing illustrated journaling.

Only the pencils sat on my desk untouched. The blank pages in my field journals filled with words, but no images. 

This year I decided to use those pencils. Even if just to color. 

Which is why today I whiled away a happy hour coloring a greeting card to send to a friend. At first I was worried I’d mess up the illustrator’s rendering of a rufuos hummingbird feeding at trumpet-vine flowers, and then I realized it didn’t matter. There was nothing to “mess up.” 

After that I relaxed and just enjoyed myself playing with the different colors and strokes and shadings. 

Why does coloring relax us? (Some of us, at least. Some people tense up trying to stay in the lines.)

For three main reasons, says Clinical Psychologist Scott M. Bea of the Cleveland Clinic’s health blog:

  • It takes us away from ourselves and focuses us on the present moment. Which makes coloring something like meditating, which has a host of physical, emotional, and psychological benefits. 
  • It relaxes the brain. Once we shut off our stream of conscious worries and thoughts and anticipations, what Buddhists call “monkey mind,” our brains relax. 
  • The stakes are low. As I realized, coloring is not a test. There is no failure. It’s play. 

And for me, it’s a way to exercise parts of the right brain that writing does not. Like strengthening muscles (or synapses) I don’t use often, but might need. 

Who knows what long-unused creative pathways coloring might re-open in my brain. Or how entertaining myself with color and shape and light might enrich my thinking and writing.

Not to mention that coloring is simply fun.

So excuse me, the colored pencils are calling. I’m off to play…