Author Archives: susanjtweit

What Do You Truly Want to Become?

Richard on California’s Big Sur Coast

A year ago, Richard and I were in Denver at what turned out to be his last appointment with Dr. Klein, his oncologist at the VA Medical Center. We looked over his most recent MRI. Dr. Klein pointed out that the rapidly growing tumor in his right brain looked stable, a surprise given his increasing difficulty using his left side, as well as new skin sores and other physical issues. His mind was still clear, his sense of humor quick, and his smile positively incandescent. But his body was clearly beginning to fail.

Because of that, she said, it would be best to cancel his monthly chemo infusion. “Are you okay with that?”

Richard looked at her, his gaze straight, understanding the implication. “I’’s not working, is it?”

She shook her head, and after a moment, passed a box of tissues. We all sniffled and blew our noses. Richard and I held hands.

“I’ll call to check on you in a few days,” she said, after asking if we needed anything. “You can always reach me.”

We hugged her and left, Richard walking slowly but confidently, using the cane he needed then for balance.

I think back to that day now as the wind howls and the temperature plummets; the weather reminds me of the drive home after that visit with Dr. Klein. A wintery wind buffeted our Subaru as we crossed the high country, as if echoing the grief chilling my heart. Richard held my hand even when he slept.

Kayaking on the Columbia River off Portland. (Photo by Molly Cabe)

He and I were partners in ways that are difficult to explain without sounding trite or sappy. We let each other in more deeply and trustingly than anyone before or since.

That kind of heart- and soul-connection is rare and precious, a gift I didn’t expect to receive and one I don’t imagine will come my way again. Which is okay. I say that only to explain why I haven’t, as some have asked lately, “moved on” yet.

We had almost 29 years to grow our love and partnership, and those years and that deep connection are not something to move on from. It takes time to sort out what my life means without Richard, just as it took time to grow what he called the “body of love” that sustained us, especially through the journey with his brain cancer.

Me riding a ferry in Alaska this summer. (Photo by Roberta Smith)

It’s not that I’m not living fully. But learning how to be me without him involves a lot of trial and error, thinking, and practice. Decisions that once would have been simple are not. The path forward isn’t clear.

As I was writing this post, I found a quote from the late Steve Jobs in my journal that’s the reminder I need as I feel my way forward….

Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become.

What do you truly want to become? How does your writing contribute to that you?

Completing the circle: after decades, a basket returns home

The antique basket with the curiously plain inside

When I was a child, the most fascinating artifact in the treasure-trove of exotic things that my brother and I were not allowed to touch in the Spanish Mission bungalow in Berkeley where my mother grew up was a finely woven basket with intricate geometric designs on the outside, and a curiously plain inside. It was about the diameter of a person’s head, and sat in a niche in the hall leading from the parlor to the bedrooms. I would quietly sneak the basket from its niche and carry it to a sunny spot where I would simply sit with it, admiring the detailed patterns and feeling the unusual “dimple” indent in the bottom.

That curious upside down basket came to me when I was in graduate school. I carried it home to Wyoming. From there, carefully packed inside my favorite set of mixing bowls, it traveled with us to West Virginia, on to Washington state, to Colorado, Iowa, New Mexico, and then finally, back to Colorado when we settled in Salida. In each place, I unpacked the basket and displayed it in a prominent spot.

The finely woven basket upside down to show the intricately detailed bottom with its indented “dimple.”

I figured it was Native American, probably from a California tradition, but my mother couldn’t remember anything about it.

Eventually I showed the basket to an expert in Southwest Indian basketry and to a dealer in antique Indian artifacts. The former guessed I was right about its origin but couldn’t shed any light on which group it might come from; the latter was focused on how much money an antique Indian basket might be worth. (A lot, it turns out.) I just wanted to know its people.

Inset “dimple” on the bottom of the basket, with the wooden button where the weaver anchored the fibers.

In a twist of luck or fate, I was browsing the shelves in Point Reyes Books in California before giving a reading, and found a book on California Indian Basketry. I flipped through the pages, and there was a weaver working on a basket very like mine, and wearing another–on her head!

Of course! I thought, wondering why I hadn’t figured it out sooner. That’s why the inside is so plain and why it looks more natural upside down than right side up: it’s a hat. Knowing it had a use made me more determined than ever to find the place my basket-hat called home.

One day five years ago, Richard and I showed the basket we know knew was a ceremonial cap to Grant Pound, Executive Director of Colorado Art Ranch. I told him that I felt like it was time to send it home, but I didn’t know who its people were. When I mentioned the Yurok/Hoopa weaver in the book, his eyes brightened. His sister’s partner, an anthropologist, had worked with California Indian basket-weavers.

Grant called his sister, and her partner suggested contacting the California Indian Basketweavers Association. I felt a little apprehensive about calling strangers and saying I had this basket that I didn’t know anything about, but which I would like to send “home” to its people. But my inner voice was firm: it was time. So I mustered my courage. The woman who answered the phone turned out to be a Hoopa basketweaver.

The “basket” now looking more like the ceremonial hat it is.

She offered that if I emailed her photos, she would try to figure out which tribe what I was now calling the basket-hat came from. I did, and she emailed back a few months later to say it was likely Hoopa. I asked if she had ideas about where I could send it. She said she’d think about it. Months later, I called again, and she gave me the names of some museums. Giving it to a museum didn’t feel right. The hat needed to be in use, I felt, not in storage or on display.

While I mulled my options, life continued, and it was a while before I decided: I would give the hat directly to a Native weaver, preferably one who was both practicing and teaching. But who? The weaver who I had been in contact with seemed a perfect fit. If she didn’t want it, I thought, perhaps she’d know who might.

I contacted her again. A year or more had passed, but she remembered me. When she realized I didn’t want to sell the hat, she said she would be honored to have it. I asked only that she use it in whatever way seemed appropriate. And that she would send me a photo sometime.

I packed the hat carefully, insured it, and shipped it off to Hoopa. My heart felt lighter.

Deanna James participating in a Hoopa healing ceremony for a child, wearing the basket-hat.

Months later, I got an envelope in the mail containing a thank-you letter from Deborah McConnell, the weaver I had sent the hat to, along with a photo. The girl in the picture was her niece, Deanna James, said Deborah, and she was wearing the hat as she took part in her first healing dance, for a sick child.

Tears filled my eyes. The basket I had so loved as a child was back at home doing what it was meant to do: participate in the life of a culture and its people.

“Seeing the hat take its place at home is worth a lot more than money,” Richard commented when he saw the photo.

That was two years ago. I imagined telling this story then, but life intervened again, most particularly in our journey with Richard’s brain cancer.

A few months ago, when I finally wrote Deborah to ask  permission to tell this story, and to use Deanna’s photograph and their names, she wrote back:

Perhaps your efforts will help people understand that the baskets are an important aspect of our culture and continue to be used today. I am once again teaching basket weaving and it feels good. Everything just takes time.

Everything does take time. Sometimes that time is exactly what is needed to complete the circle, bringing the healing home. And to me, the story of that basket-hat’s journey home is worth so much more than money.