Author Archives: susanjtweit

Writing Through Burn-out

Double rainbow over my neighborhood.

Double rainbow over my neighborhood.

Last month I wrote about realizing that I’ve worn my creative self down so much over the past five years that I’m “ground to dust,” as a friend put it. It’s not that I’m sick of writing; I’m just sick of doing the sort of writing I get paid for. That writing feels like drudgery to me right now. It doesn’t refill my creative well or my spirit.

So as I work on the remaining assignments I’ve promised I’ll finish, I’ve been thinking about why I write and what I love. (Which would include the double rainbow in the photo above that graced my view last night–without the rain we need, but still a glorious sight.)

Tonight, as I was looking up a quote from my memoir, Walking Nature Home, for a friend, I came across this passage that sums up the kind of writing that does feed my spirit:

Our truest and most compelling writing comes from deep within, conscious or unconscious knowledge that is innately part of who we are. For me that is the set of relationships that make up what we call nature: who sleeps with whom, who eats whom, who cooperates and competes, and who cannot survive without whom. I know these stories both from the rigorous observation of field ecology and the experience of intimacy in my kinship with other species. –Susan J. Tweit, Walking Nature Home

It is that intimate kinship with other species that sustains me these days. Not that the human community isn’t wonderful too. But right now the company of other species is more restful–equally fascinating and nurturing, without being quite so demanding as people can be.

For example, here two photos of wildflowers I shot this evening in the restored mountain prairie that is beginning to flourish in my post-industrial-dump yard. Watching these plants re-colonize a very-much-altered landscape they clearly still recognize and embrace brings me a great deal of reassurance and joy.

The rough blazing-star at the foot of my front steps has dozens of flowers open this evening. Notice the tiny hunting spider with front legs extended on the middle flower of this group, waiting patiently to catch one of the small flies that pollinate these starry blossoms.

The rough blazing-star at the foot of my front steps has dozens of flowers open this evening. Notice the tiny hunting spider with front legs extended on the middle flower of this group, waiting patiently to catch one of the small flies that pollinate these starry blossoms.

And here's wholeleaf indian paintbrush, one of my favorite wildflowers because it won't just sprout anywhere. A hummingbird was feeding at this cluster of flowers before I shot the photo (I wasn't quick enough to catch the hummer).

And here’s wholeleaf indian paintbrush, one of my favorite wildflowers because it only sprouts where its favorite native grass and sagebrush flourish as well. A hummingbird was feeding at this cluster of flowers before I shot the photo (I wasn’t quick enough to catch the hummer).

That these native plants can return to this blighted site, it seems to me, that they sprout from the seeds I carefully spread, grow, bloom, and reweave the relationships with other species that make a healthy prairie community, is evidence that we can restore this beleaguered earth. Bit by bit, day by day.

If these wildflowers can flourish in a place that was for a century an informal railroad-track-side dump; if their lives and the relationships they sustain can return the beauty of this land, my thinking goes, I too can revive and crawl out of this deep slump of the soul, this weariness to the bone.

I just need to remember to go outside. To watch the community of the land go about its exquisitely complicated business, full of inter-weavings and interdependencies, right out my front door.

Those wildflowers are the voices I want to listen to and the stories I want to write. They are the metaphorical pots of gold at the end of the double-rainbow in my heart, the tangerine sunset that fills me with awe.

When I begin telling these stories, I believe my delight in playing with words and narrative, with articulating the love I feel for this glorious blue planet–battered as it may be–will return full force.

Prompt: What stories and voices speak to you so urgently that you must tell them? What kind of writing feeds your soul?

(This post was originally published on my blog.)

A tangerine sunset from my side deck...

A tangerine sunset from my side deck…

Burn Out

"Paula's Find," a firepit sculpted by my late husband, Richard Cabe.

“Paula’s Find,” a firepit sculpted by my late husband, Richard Cabe.

The title of this post comes from one of my favorite books in Marcia Muller’s mystery series starring Sharon McCone, a smart, self-aware and generous San Francisco Private Investigator who finds herself so worn down from the violence and greed she experiences in her work that she becomes numb, barely able to function.

McCone takes refuge at a remote ranch in eastern California and wonders if she will ever be able to lead her agency again, or care about the work that has inspired and intrigued her for so long. In the end, it is another case that draws her gradually out of her malaise, but not before McCone learns some important things about who she is and why she cares.

I’ve been struggling with a form of burn-out lately. I have two major magazine assignments due in mid-August, and while I’ve been working on them both, to say I’m not motivated is to put it mildly.

Motivation has never been a problem for me before. I have always been able to dive into whatever’s uppermost on my writing to-do list, and work methodically toward my deadlines.

Now, I struggle to make myself focus, and spend a lot of time looking out the window, pacing the house, tending my gardens, walking to the Post Office to check my mail, reading the news on my laptop… Anything other than work on the stories I need to research and write.

It’s not that I don’t love to write–I do. Writing is one of my two life-passions; the other is playing with plants–especially native plants, the pioneers for restoring nature to our everyday places and lives.

What I don’t love anymore, I realize, is the freelancing part of writing, writing what others will pay me for. Which of course has been a major part of how I’ve made my small living for decades. I’ve been fortunate enough to land interesting assignments for good magazines; even though the magazine market has shrunk drastically, I still do.

Why am I now struggling to motivate myself?

Five years of pushing too hard–through my late husband Richard’s journey with terminal brain cancer, through my mother’s simultaneous decline, through caring for my dad in his first years alone, through finishing my former house and Richard’s studio and selling that property, through paying off the last of the brain cancer bills and building my small house and studio–five years of scrambling to cope with whatever was most urgent has simply taken a toll.

I thought (optimistically) that I had skated through those hard years without consequences. I was wrong.

I’m tired. Not too tired to prune the heritage tomato plants growing vigorously in the stock tank on the front deck, to pull invasive weeds along the creek, or write my daily haiku for Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Not too tired to think about the next book even.

I’m tired of chasing a living, tired of writing to order.

Part of that is timing. Thursday, July 16th, would have been Richard’s 65th birthday, the date he aimed to retire and focus solely on his art without worrying making it pay. He didn’t make it.

I’m not old enough to retire. I’ll be 59 this fall. Yet I find myself wanting to–not to quit writing. Like Richard, I just want to quit struggling to make the work I love pay.

So I’ve made myself a promise: After I finish the next two assignments, I’ll take a break. Not from writing, just from the hustle of freelancing. I’ll work in the garden, pull weeds along the creek and think about the next book. And while I’m doing all that, I’ll take a hard look at my finances and see how far my savings would take me.

I have things to say, and my patch of earth to continue restoring, whether or not anyone will pay me for it. I could get excited about that work.

Prompt: What writing excites you? How can you free yourself to spend more time on it?

Sus short hairSusan J. Tweit is a plant biologist and award-winning author whose mission is to restore Earth and we humans–one book, one yard, one place and one heart at a time. She lives in Salida, Colorado, in a house she helped design and build on a reclaimed former industrial dump site with a gorgeous view of the Rocky Mountains. This essay originally appeared on her blog.

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.

Stumbling on stories

The mother-in-law apartment behind my grandparents house in Berkeley, California, where my great-grandmother Mira Maclay, a writer and journalist, lived.

In my family, we don’t tell stories. We are reserved and refrain from either gossip or boasting, in part because of our northern European heritage with its inherent emotional reticence, compounded by a Calvinist view of gossip and boasting as two sides of the same sin, pride. The result is a family lore as depauperate as forest on exposed granite; stories—like plants—struggle to sprout on its meager soil.

I wrote those words in my memoir Walking Nature Home to illustrate a challenge in finding my writing voice: I know so little about the people I come from. Their stories are as obscure as the view of my great-grandmother Mira’s apartment in the photo above.

My parents, both only children, didn’t share my fascination with their families. The only clues I had of the fascinating lives of my forebears came in the artifacts scattered through my grandparents’ houses, including my great-grandmother Mira’s writing and my great-grandmother Jennie’s impressionist landscape paintings.

Big Sur Coast by my great-grandmother Jennie Cannon

The people who could explain those artifacts are gone: my great-grandparents, including the botanist great-granddad who studied deserts around the world, and whose research I discovered only as an adult; my grandparents; and now my mom, who died a year ago February.

As a story-collector, I cherish those tales that come my way, like the one my grandmother Janet told then-ten-year-old Molly, about riding her horse, Danny Boy, all the way up the East Bay when her family moved from their farm near San Jose (what is now Silicon Valley) to a house in the Berkeley Hills so she could attend UC-Berkeley.

My grandmother, Janet Maclay Cannon with her horse, Danny Boy, in about 1918

When my step-daughter Molly and I were planning my visit to she and Mark in San Francisco, I asked if she’d be interested in spending a day in Berkeley exploring the neighborhood where my mom grew up. Molly was all for it.

So off we headed through downtown San Francisco and across the Bay Bridge. We drove through the UC-Berkeley campus, where my parents met, he a grad student in Organic Chemistry, she an undergrad majoring in history and music.

My Cannon great-grandparents’ house in the north Berkeley Hills.

Our destination: 1631 La Vereda Road, the address in the north Berkeley Hills I had found for my great-grandparents, Dr. William Austin Cannon (the desert botanist) and Jennie Vennerstrom Cannon (the painter). We wound uphill on steep, narrow and switch-backing streets, and not only found the house, I recognized it from childhood walks with my granddad.

We parked, admired the view through the trees of the iconic campanile, bell-tower, on the UC-Berkeley campus, and set off downhill to explore the rest of the neighborhood.

At mid-afternoon, we puffed our way back up those same steep hills to La Vereda Road and the car. I noticed a man unlocking the front door at my great-grandparents’ house.

On impulse, I called, “Do you live here?”

He turned and looked down at me, on the street.

The iconic campanile on the UC-Berkeley campus from my great-grandparents’ house.

“I don’t mean to be rude,” I said. “This was my great-grandparents’ house.”

“Who were they?”

“Dr. William Austin Cannon–” He interrupted,

“Any relation to Jennie?”

“She was his wife,” I said. “How do you know her?”

“Everyone here knows Jennie,” he said. “This was an artist’s enclave back then, and she was a key part of it.”

I was stunned. I had no idea. A guy who had never met my family knew more about my great-grandmother than I did.

I thanked him, and he turned to go inside. I didn’t even think to ask his name.

“The Campanile,” by Jennie Vennerstrom Cannon

Before we left, I looked one more time at the view from my great-grandmother’s house. And another chunk of family story fell into place.

I had always wondered about the odd foreshortened perspective in one of her paintings, “The Campanile,” a view of that bell-tower. Now I could see Jennie had painted it from her front porch high above the campus, only she turned the tower a quarter turn in the painting.

Having seen her view, I feel a bond with the great-grandmother who died not long before I was born, and the world she lived in. She was a noted California painter in the early 20th century, a time when the terms “noted painter” and “woman” did not often go together.

I’m no artist, but I’ve always gone against the tide in my work. I have also always loved to find a high point and look for the stories in the landscape spread out below. Perhaps those are her gifts.

Thanks, Jennie, for sharing your view.

Brain Cancer by the Numbers

Richard and me at Carpenter Ranch in northwestern Colorado, last September

Recently, I devoted an entire afternoon to pulling together last year’s financial information for taxes. I had procrastinated as long as I could because looking at our accounts reminds me forcibly that there is no “our” anymore—the love of my life and my husband for more than 28 years, Richard Cabe, died four months ago.

Opening the computer file containing our household accounts reminded me of the gift of Richard’s presence in my life—and now, my grief at his absence. After he was diagnosed with brain cancer and had to give up a regular work schedule, he took over the chore of keeping our books; he continued until about three months before he died, when the glioblastoma trashing his right brain made deciphering a spreadsheet impossible.

As I began tallying the various categories of expenses and income for the tax forms, I realized that those data tell part of the story of the last year in our journey with his brain cancer. It’s a skewed picture, but interesting nonetheless.

For instance, there’s Richard’s income for the year: $19,250. That’s ten months of Social Security Disability Insurance benefits, beginning last January. (Since he didn’t survive the entire month of November, he didn’t get that month’s disability payment.)

My income is a more complex calculation since I’m self-employed. I grossed less than his total disability benefits, no surprise since most of my attention was going to helping him live well with brain cancer for as long as he could, and my expenses were higher than usual. The bottom line: I earned… nothing. Looked at strictly from an accounting perspective, caregiving clearly does not pay.

Our co-pays to the Veterans Administration for his medical care topped $5,000 for the year. Which sounds like a lot until you consider the extent of that care: two brain surgeries, one cranial drain procedure, and three separate stays in the ICU; a five-month course of Avastin, a chemo drug administered intravenously every two weeks at the VA Medical Center’s infusion clinic; six MRIs just in February and March, plus two CT scans in that same time period; visits to his oncologist every other week between March and his last visit in October (and weekly calls from her thereafter); the services of the palliative care team; and two full months of hospice care at home.

"Mountain Goat," our trusty Subaru, on the road to Denver

Probably the most telling fact for me is that we racked up 6,387 miles on our Subaru odometer just driving back and forth to Denver. At an average of 350 miles round-trip, that’s 18 trips over the mountains in nine months. Actually, there were 19 trips, but the one where Richard rode to Denver via emergency ambulance transport in the middle of the night and friends drove me wasn’t logged on our car’s odometer.

What those figures don’t reveal is also remarkable. For much of the year, he lived well. His brain didn’t always dance to the tune he wanted it to, but that didn’t keep him from working on his sculpture, harvesting the garden, fixing things in the house, reading formidable art theory tomes, and having thoughtful conversations about sculpture, the idea of terraphilia, the economics of local food production, and the daily practice of lovingkindness.

His brain cancer didn’t hinder his enjoyment of his morning coffee and daily dose of dark chocolate and Belgian beer, the feel of sunshine on his back, the sound of goldfinches’ bell-like voices, long walks around town, or our Big Trip, a 4,000-mile swing across the West and down the Pacific Coast from Puget Sound to San Simeon.

Nor can those careful numbers show just how improbably happy we were at the miracle of being together even as we knew his life was coming to an end.

What a smile!

It’s not that the numbers lie; they’re only part of the story of our journey with his brain cancer, a journey that took us each through a metamorphosis neither of us imagined happening so soon. Yet here we are, me doing “our” taxes and Richard… wherever bright spirits go. Still smiling, I bet.

Data are just that: data. But numbers sometimes tell a story we hadn’t seen before. What life-stories do your personal numbers reveal?

(Adapted from a post on Susan’s personal blog.)

Pushing My Limits

One recent Saturday morning, I hopped into my trusty little Subaru Forester, the car I call “Mountain Goat” for its ability to nimbly handle seemingly any road conditions, and drove to Westcliffe, a former mining town on the upper edge of the wide Wet Mountain Valley to attend an all-day workshop on creating websites with WordPress.

I left home at quarter past seven, as dawn light fingered down the mountainsides from the high peaks. I arrived in Westcliffe a bit over an hour later, ready to dive into the workshop. Eight-and-a-half hours later, when I closed my laptop, I had set up my gorgeous new website/blog and had the first of many pages finished. I was elated—and completely wrung out.

Sangre de Cristo Range at sunset

My eyes ached, my brain quivered like jello, and I was acutely aware that home was an hour’s drive away. A very scenic two-hour-drive mind you, with post-card pretty peaks rising from wide valley-bottoms, plus a winding river canyon. But not an easy one: the two-lane roads alternate between fast and straight, and narrow, winding and slow.

I was all too aware it would soon be evening mule deer commute time, when deer amble across the highway aimed for evening browse, oblivious of traffic.

I forced my gritty eyes to scan the landscape as I drove, alert for twin-hoofed travelers. I wasn’t five miles out of Westcliffe when I spotted some, but not the kind I was watching for: a herd of about 100 pronghorn drifted up the grassy slope, the last stragglers still crossing the road.

Pronghorn drift up a grassy slope after crossing the highway

I stopped to shoot a few photos. As I admired the sleek pronghorn, I felt a physical pang of grief that my late husband Richard was not with me to admire them. We shared a delight in all of the wild lives that inhabit these spectacular and harsh landscapes.

It felt like my heart was splitting. I pressed my hand to my chest. “I miss you,” I said out loud, and swiped tears from my eyes. After a moment, the pain receded; I put my camera down and drove on.

A pronghorn herd buck grazing, watchful of "his" does

The road swooped around a curve and wound through scattered pinon and ponderosa pines. I slowed for a tighter curve, and three robins flew low over the road. Then two more, with a third behind them.

The last bird suddenly turned and flew right into the car hood. I braked, but couldn’t avoid the bird. I felt the soft thud of contact and looked up to see the robin fluttering. And I didn’t stop.

Maybe it was the grief, maybe the exhaustion… Whatever, I drove on. And castigated myself.

Perhaps that sounds soft-hearted. It was “only” a robin, a common bird by all accounts. There are lots of robins. But only one specific bird that hit my car. And I didn’t stop.

It wasn’t until I reached home that I realized why: I simply couldn’t deal with another death. I hit my limit last Thanksgiving weekend when I helped the love of my life die as gracefully and mindfully as possible from brain cancer. My heart isn’t ready to weather another, be it robin or man.

Richard Cabe with one of his "tree-buddies" a massive sugar pine

Grief, I am learning, is no more linear than life. Both twist and turn, offering spectacular beauty and serious pain; the calm of long, straight stretches interrupted by hair-raising rises or drops; and without warning, events that sometimes simply fly straight at us.

We duck, a robin flutters on, and somewhere, if we’re lucky, love smiles.

When have you pushed your limits? What did you learn from the experience? Write about it!