Transitions and Transformations

Me and Richard out in the hills above Salida, Colorado.

Twelve years ago next month, on a sunny and chill Sunday morning at just past eleven o’clock, Richard Cabe, the man I had lived with and loved for nearly 30 years, the man I had shaped my adult life around, died of brain cancer. To say that my life changed in that moment is a massive understatement.

The drastic revision of my life story had begun more than two years before, when Richard saw the thousands of birds–avian hallucinations–that were the only significant symptom of the brain tumors that eventually killed him. He would undergo five brain surgeries, and with each one, our roles would gradually shift from life-partners of equal responsibility, to caregiver (me) and cared-for (him). But even when Richard was bed-ridden, no longer walking except metaphorically toward death, we were still partners.

And then we were not, and he was gone. Leaving me wondering who this new solo “me” really was.

For the first few years, I didn’t have the leisure to wonder that much. I had a small mountain of medical-related debt to dig myself out of, a property to finish and sell, my legally blind and stubbornly independent dad to take care of, and other details to sort out.

I turned into Tool Girl with the help of Tony and Maggie Niemann, who taught me a lot of what I know about house re-storying.

Once I had worked my way through those immediate obligations, I decided to allow myself to wander the part of the West I call home, supporting myself by “re-storying” unloved real estate, and in the doing, figure out who I was and where I wanted to plant roots.

I moved from Salida, where Richard and I had lived together for 15 years, and I for another five alone, to Cody, in Wyoming’s sagebrush sea, forever the landscape of my heart. After two years, one basement-to-roof house renovation, and my dad’s death, I headed south to Santa Fe, where I renovated two condos and one house. (And in summers, returned to Wyoming to work at controlling invasive weeds in Yellowstone. Read my essay about that work here.)

The sagebrush sea in northern Yellowstone, the navel of my universe.

And then I returned to Cody again, and another house that needed re-storying. When that sold out from under me before I had even finished, I wandered to western Colorado for a while, and rescued a 1930s cottage with a partly collapsed foundation, followed by a 1902 house.

After realizing that western Colorado was not my place, I headed back south to Santa Fe and found my sunny and light-filled condo in the piñon pine – juniper woodlands at the north edge of town, with its view of the Sangre de Cristo range to the east and the glorious desert sunsets to the west.

Over those wanderings, I learned a lot about tools and house guts and being self-reliant. I fell in love again–a completely unlooked for development which has enriched my life in countless ways, although we will never live together. I re-discovered my inner truck-girl and horsewoman and trail-rider. I remembered how much I need wildness for joy and spiritual nourishment, and a daily off-pavement walk to immerse myself in the community of the land.

Me in my happy place.

When I bought this condo, I thought I would stay. It had good access to trails in the nearby wild, an arroyo where I could practice ecological restoration by removing invasive plants and seeding in natives, and it didn’t need any major renovation. It’s a beautiful space, and my things fit the place well.

But…. Over the months I’ve lived here, I’ve come to realize that while it is a lovely space with wonderful light and views, this is not home in the longer term. There are too many people nearby, for one thing. And too much asphalt and pavement between me and the nearby wild, for another. I need more space and more solitude. And I miss having a house to tend.

So next month, I will move again, to a house outside town in a planned development with no lawns, sidewalks, street trees or even streetlights. I found a small and very charming Santa Fe style house there with a walled courtyard–just big enough for a small garden–nestled into the prairie with juniper trees around it for shelter.

I call the place Casa Contenta. It is my nido, nest in Spanish, my hidey-hole, my refuge. And yes, it needs some work–a new roof, a new boiler for the hot-water radiant-floor heat, and eventually new stucco, plus a host of smaller fixes.

The 90-some-year old lady who has lived there for almost thirty years–since the house was built–is an artist. She has hand-tinted the walls, and even painted a few small trompe l’oeil murals. The house is well-loved, and I look forward to tending it for another few decades. And growing roots. To this transformed me being home. At last.

The front gate at Casa Contenta

44 thoughts on “Transitions and Transformations

  • Ellen Van Allen says:

    Looks perfect, Susan! Such character and beauty. I could not see you settling in the condo. This looks like a much better fit! 🥰

    • Thank you, Ellen!. It’s a charming house, just the right size, and with enough projects to keep me busy over the next decade or so, but not so many I’ll go bankrupt (I think!).

    • Thank you, Donna! And what a lovely benediction. I agree: courtyards are very special, and this one is very beautifully northern New Mexico-centric. I fell in love with that blue gate first, and then the courtyard behind it, and then the house. Lots of lovely detailing throughout.

  • Nancy Johnston says:

    Casa Contenta holds real promise, even with just the glimpse you have shown here. It will soon share its dreams with you.

    • What a lovely benediction, Nancy! I do believe that Casa Contenta and I were looking for each other. I am fortunate and look forward to getting to know the house and the land and their dreams and stories….

    • Thank you so much, Lynn! (Both for the blessings and the compliment.) I’m fortunate in being able to write and in finding delight and challenge in house re-storying. Both are my way of loving this world.

  • I’m not surprised! Or, maybe I’m fibbing! I am surprised! But you’re moving into something that is more La querencia! I just want you to be content so you can create more beauty!

    Sending love,

    • I was surprised too, honestly. It was as if the house and land called out to me, and I had no option but to respond. I think perhaps we need each other. And I will promise to settle in and create more beauty. Hugs to you and Jeff!

  • Well. Agreed with others that condo life didn’t seem quite the right dimensions. Interesting that the idea of the courtyard brings to mind for me the transition areas in some Japanese homes and ryōkan I’ve stayed in: one could call them courtyards as well. I’ve always liked that idea of a buffer between the outside world and the inside one. May this be your settled place, if that’s what it’s meant to be. Which I suspect it might.

    • Deb, thanks! One of the things that is so attractive to me about the house is exactly that sense of a buffer, a place to be outside but protected, sheltered, private. And the fact that the rest of the acre-plus land is simply wild and doesn’t need gardening or mowing or regular tending. (Though I am sure there will be some invasive weeds to eradicate!) The inside is full of beautiful details too, tongue and grove wood ceilings, vigas in the living room, carved corbels in the doorways, plus the owner’s trompe l’oeil paintings in a few rooms. I think the house and I were looking for each other!

  • Stephanie Graf says:

    What a lovely read. Your so brave, Susan. Brave to keep searching for a special place that nurtures your soul … until that place is found. I admire that greatly. 🧡

    • Stephanie, I don’t think of my search as brave (loca, perhaps!). It’s just part of figuring out who I am after a life with Richard. And I am fortunate to be able to search and still support myself. I truly think Casa Contenta could be my home. Hugs to you and yours.

  • Denese Vlosky says:

    Oh my goodness, Susan. Another move. Well, whatever it takes for you to find your casa contenta. I am watching your journey with awe and inspiration. So much love to you.

    • Denese, I know. Crazy, isn’t it? But I have to find the place I can root. I think Casa Contenta is my querencia. Hugs to you!

    • Thank you, Mary! I am so looking forward to Casa Contenta as a quiet refuge. As for a horse, I am blessed by friends with horses, and plenty of opportunities to ride. And the Guy brings his horses, my favorite herd, for a couple of months in winter, and occasionally at other times. He owns a small barn at the community’s barn area, which is a 6-minute drive away from Casa Contenta.

  • I love that blue gate. And I know I’ll love the interior. Can’t wait to see photos of the murals and how you transform it into your space. Wishing you joy in this next place you call home, Casa Contenta. A perfect name.

    • That gate got me right off! It is a really sweet house, and very private and quiet, both of which I’m craving. I’m looking forward to my first winter snugged into Casa Contenta, and working on new projects. Love to you!

    • Thank you so much, Samantha. I am fortunate to have found the house–I think we were looking for each other! Blessings to you.

  • This sounds like the perfect place for you. It is a place for you to use your many talents that you have developed over the years. When you get through, it will be beautiful and a wonderful home for you.

    • Thank you, Cousin Dave! I think it is already a beautiful and wonderful home, it just needs some deferred maintenance to keep it whole and healthy. (Like a new roof, and no mice inside!)

    • Thanks, Susan! Closing is in November, so photos will have to wait until after I get settled. Casa Contenta is totally charming, but it needs some big work on infrastructure and the exterior (new boiler, new roof, new stucco and a few other things). It’ll take some time, because I can’t afford to fix everything at once. I’m going to enjoy the heck out of living there though!

  • I love the gate! And what it beckons to. And I love that you knew you needed to be here! I’m so happy for you that you called to each other. And I love the former owner’s love and shaping of the house. Enjoy making it your home! Hope to visit you if I even make it to Santa Fe again.

    • Thank you, Carolyn! I’m excited about Casa Contenta and settling in to the peace and quiet there. I’d love to see you if you make a trip this way. Big hugs to you.

  • Suzanne MacAulay says:

    I bought the townhome in the Springs because of the tiled staircase; the house in Whanganui, N.Z. because of the pebbled glass door; and, the cabin on the Pacific of the South Island, NZ, because of its neighboring cliff. I totally understand about being seduced by features of houses (such as blue gates). I am still doing research around Santa Fe & Taos. Hopefully our paths will cross!

    • Suzanne! How lovely to “hear” your voice on this digital page. And thanks for that recitative on the features that have caused you to fall in love with your various houses over time. I can envision them a bit with your description. I still remember your house above Boulder with the murals you painted on the walls. I would love to see you whenever you get down this way! Many blessings to you.

  • A somber feeling to realize it’s been twelve years since Richard died. You must miss him so much. I hope Casa Contenta is what your soul needs to really feel “in place.” It really is beautiful.

    • Lisa, Thank you. It’s sobering in part because I am now six years older than he was when he died, exactly the age span between us when he was alive (he was six years older than I). And because sometimes it seems like yesterday, and other times it seems like another life. I’m happy in this life I’ve created for myself; it’s different than “our” life was, and that’s okay. As for Casa Contenta, I am looking forward to settling into my “nido”–my nest. And that’s how it feels. Blessings, S

  • Dear Susan, It’s been a pleasure reading this and catching up with your life …and houses, and now home! In Santa fe! I can feel/see how “contenta” you can be in that lovely place. I wish you much warmth and joy there!
    I still come home to Santa Fe from time to time, so will let you know if I do a reading. It would be wonderful to see you in person again after many many years! All the best for now,
    and Happy Thanksgiving to come!
    Quebec and Santa Fe

    • Hello, Rae, It’s lovely to hear from you. And thank you for the good wishes on Casa Contenta. I’m actually in mid-move right now and camping out at Casa Contenta for a couple of nights before the movers bring my furniture and heavy stuff. It’s lovely and quiet, and after moving two pickup loads of books and kitchen stuff, my back is ready for a rest and some sleep! I’ll look forward to hearing from you when you come to Santa Fe. Blessings, Susan

    • I do not love moving! But I did need to get out of town and back to the landscape that nurtures me. Also, this house is just so charming (and it needs some serious work). It’s my nido, my nest, and I look forward to living here until, as a friend said, “they take you out, toes up, in a pine box”! This is my last blog post, so any pics will come in my Substack newsletter.

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