Author Archives: susanjtweit

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!

Finding Forgotten Stories

Richard outside his historic shop building with "Matriculation" on the hand-crane he designed for moving boulders and large sculptures.

I’m up to my ears and out of my comfort zone. I’m working with Colorado Art Ranch to get our guest cottage and Richard’s shop ready for the Terraphilia Artist/Writer Residency program beginning later this year.

Working with Art Ranch isn’t outside my comfort zone; it’s the remodeling and renovation part of the “getting ready.” Design of built spaces was Richard’s thing. I paid bills, kept him semi-organized, chose colors and dreamed landscaping. I don’t have the “object manipulation gene” he and Molly share that allows them to see intuitively how physical objects and buildings work.

The bigger project–and scarier to me–is finishing the renovation of Richard’s historic brick shop building, built in 1902 as a millwork shop for a long-defunct lumber company. It had been essentially abandoned for several decades before we bought it in 1997.

Richard spent about ten years (in between building our house next door) getting its structure in good shape, but never finished. Still to come: installing a ceiling (did I mention the building is 1,700 square feet, and the ceiling is two stories high at the center beam of the timber frame?), some rewiring (ditto the above) and repairing the aging plumbing.

The main door to the shop, surrounded by some of the stuff collected by a sculptor who worked with found objects.

Before we can even start on the renovation (which will be done mostly by volunteers, and will likely use up my small hoard of shop-repair cash), there’s a LOT of cleaning and organizing to do. My love was a pack rat. He collected old industrial metal and gears for sculptures, saved scraps of wood to use for levers and fulcrums and chocks in moving boulders, and seemingly hoarded every piece of paper that came across his desk in the almost-three decades I knew him.

“Our” Molly and her sweetie Mark Allen tackled the six four-drawer filing cabinets last fall, hauling 65 pounds of paper to a shredder. That cleared two file cabinets. Then there’s his office, and the boxes and boxes of books. I’ve been going through shelves and drawers and cabinets, all coated with years of dust, sorting out what can be saved from what can be recycled and what is simply trash. That’s where the stories of the title come in.

Tucked into every pile and file, whether it’s outdated supply catalogs or receipts, are mementos he saved: love notes  I wrote, sketches for sculptures, jottings of favorite quotes, cards from Molly, and in one case, a whole folder of precise pen-and-ink botanical illustrations I sketched for my newspaper columns thirty years ago, and had completely forgotten. (I think he was saving them to frame… someday.)

An illustration of a mariposa lily I drew for a newspaper column some 30 years ago.

I lifted each sketch, shaking off the dust, and my hands remembered the feel of the old rapiograph ink pens with their interchangeable points that always got clogged. Feeling the paper, seeing the detailed shading, I recaptured a forgotten part of me. I wouldn’t say I had ever been an artist, but I used to draw plants. That’s a story about myself I didn’t remember.

The sorting-through is slow work. And hard on my tender heart. When I come to things like the shirt-pocked-sized notebook containing the sketch for a Craftsman-style pergola and bridge he planned to build in our front yard, I dust them off, read them, and then must wipe my tears and blow my nose before continuing on.

Cross-section sketch of a Craftsman-style pergola/bridge for our front yard

I miss my love–his brilliant mind, his soaring creativity, the inborn affection for this numinous Earth that showed in all his work, and most of all, his company. I will always miss him. And because he was a packrat, I have a growing stash of poignant–and dusty–treasures to remind me of stories I have yet to write about our journey through this life, together and separately.

Writing On Alone

Red sky in the morning, sailors take warning...

The last day of 2011 began with waves of Chinook winds roaring past my house. The cadence of these downslope winds is distinct: first a long whooshing sound as the wave of moving air approaches, growing louder and cresting in a percussive “thud!” as the leading edge hits the house, followed by a cacophony of ringing, crashing, banging, rattling and creaking, all of which diminish as the wave of air passes. Then a lull before the next chinook wave approaches.

At first the slapping waves of wind were disconcerting. I lay in bed, listening to the stream of noise and mentally reviewed the yard, garden, and courtyards. Was everything secure out there? Were my porch chairs blowing about, my raised-bed row covers coming undone?

As day came and the wind continued, I started my morning routine: turn on the gas fireplace, pad to the kitchen and measure out the organic dried fruits and grains to soak for my breakfast bowl of hot cereal, return to the bedroom to greet the day with yoga; wash, dress and eat breakfast.

By the time I got to the stretch-out-sideways-on-the-loveseat-and-soak-up-the-morning-sun part of my morning, laptop on a pillow in my lap, the chinook winds had become simply a part of the rhythm of this particular day. Not my choice, but life.

Which is, come to think of it, a good way to describe how 2011 felt: not my choice of events, just life.

It was a heck of a ride, beginning with my mom entering hospice care in January and her death at home on February 3rd, followed quickly by Richard’s brain-swelling crises and two brain surgeries in one month, and then what seemed like a promising recovery until the tumor came roaring back to destroy his right brain, leading to his death from brain cancer–also at home in hospice care–on November 27th.

A year that has been disturbing, disorienting, difficult–so much so that at points I wondered how I’d find the strength to go on, much less to do so with any measure of grace. A year that has also brought soaring moments of joy, and a lot of quiet contentment. Looking back, it’s the latter I remember most.

Still smiling on that last trip...

Times like when Richard and I were on our “Big Trip” in September–our last trip, we knew. We had stopped at Devil’s Punchbowl, a little wayside on the Oregon Coast we’ve visited before to watch the waves pound the rocky shoreline, exploding in white fountains of spray.

This time, we got out stiffly and stretched. I grabbed my camera and headed for the cliff edge. Richard followed slowly, and when I turned, he had stopped, smiling.

“Listen,” he said. I did, and heard the bass “thump!” as a wave crashed into the hollows in the cliff, shaking the ground. A song sparrow warbled a few notes. The sun canted toward the horizon.

We grinned at each other, loving every bit of that moment.

Sun sets over the Pacific Ocean, Oregon Coast

So yes, 2011 was disturbing, disorienting, difficult in ways I couldn’t have imagined. But like anything that weaves itself into our daily existence, the tough parts have simply become part of life. Not my choice, but life all the same. A life whose rhythm I am getting used to, just as I got accustomed to the thrashing waves of wind rolling down our valley on that last morning of the year.

If this year-almost-past has taught me nothing else, it’s that those waves won’t sink me. They may crash over me, but those moments of joy–the thump of the surf, the song sparrow’s sweet notes, the slanting sunlight–will buoy me, and on I’ll go.

Fuchsias bloom on a foggy dawn at Lucia Lodge, Big Sur Coast

Alone now, but not lonely. I have the whole of the living world for company–wind, song sparrows, sunsets, and all–and I intend to enjoy the miracle we call life thoroughly, just as I did when my love and I shared the rhythm of these days.

And I have writing to help me sift through the changes in words, pouring out my life onto the page and then reading it over to see what stands out, what patterns and trends and narrative arcs, to get a sense of what it all means.

What will you write about this year?

Living Well–Heart Outstretched

Twelve days ago, the love of my life, my husband Richard Cabe, died of brain cancer at home in hospice care. He died as he had lived: he was present, gracious and loving until the end.

Richard toasting the evening fog at Lucia Lodge, Big Sur Coast, on our September "Big Trip"

After we sat in silent meditation/worship with his body, sending him on his way with mindful hearts; after we washed his body and consigned him to the care of the funeral home folks on the way to the CU Medical School to be used for research, our little group of family and friends walked over to a favorite local restaurant for brunch, as has been our Sunday habit for a long time.

We ate, toasted Richard, and laughed and cried. Then we walked home.

So it’s gone in my new life without the man I loved and lived with for almost 29 years: Though the seemingly endless rounds of official phone calls and filling out forms, the cleaning and organizing, answering cards and emails–through all the word generated by any death, gracious, graceful, or otherwise, I’ve made a conscious effort to live well, mindfully and with thankfulness for the life I have.

Each day I get up before dawn, measure out the whole grains and organic dried fruits for my hot breakfast cereal, clean the wood stove and make a fire, and do yoga to greet the day, centering myself in this landscape, at home.

Each day I think my love for helping design and build this house which enfolds me in the work of his hand and heart. Each day I look for some grace note.

Each day I also consciously do something to bring joy to my life, honoring Richard’s memory and our shared love of this numinous blue planet and the lives it supports.

And each day I put hands to keyboard and write, even if only for an hour.

Last Sunday, I went cross-country skiing with my friend Lisa. Neither of us had gotten our cross-country skis out in more than a year, so getting ready for our jaunt around the neighborhood golf course meant dusting off skis and poles, and searching for gaiters and other gear.

When Lisa walked over, skis on her shoulder, and confessed that she had completely forgotten how to operate her bindings, we spent a few hilarious minutes of random poking and prying until the bindings popped open.

Then we passed a glorious hour at the golf course schussing on fresh snow, our skis swishing and our legs moving in a rhythm that has always seemed to me close to what it must feel to be able to cup wings on air and take flight. We skied past a hundred or so Canada and cackling geese, roosting with bare feet on the snow, past fox tracks and pounce marks, past quiet houses and noisy dogs.

Does it seem wrong to look for joy a less than two weeks after my love’s death? Perhaps I should be doubled over, wracked with sobs, or curled up under the covers, eyes shut to the world.

Holding hands in the days before Richard died

That’s not for me. I think the best way to honor the love Richard and I worked hard to grow over nearly 29 years, to honor his love for all life, large and small, common or obscure, beautiful and grotesque; his attitude of lovingkindness toward the earth, and the smile that touched everyone who met him is to practice living well on my own.

By “living well,” I mean living in the spirit that we shared: living with my heart outstretched as if it were my hand–an attitude of love, kindness, joy, generosity, and appreciation for the gift of each moment.

And I mean writing. Every day.

What does living well mean to you? Why? Write that down!

A Gift for the Future

More than a decade ago, when Richard and I began restoring our “dream place,” the formerly blighted industrial property bounded by the thread of channelized creek where we live, we had no plan, no budget, and no real concept of how much work lay ahead. We did have a vision of healing the land and its degraded creek, reestablishing the community of the land right in town, and a comfortable sense of time in which to do the work.

Wildflowers and native grasses thrive where oil tanker trucks once loaded on our formerly industrial property.

Today, 14 years after we bought the place (or it adopted us, depending on your point of view), that vision flourishes in richer ways than we imagined: our block of creek is a thriving thread of fall color, enlivened by the sound of running water; our restored native meadow yard is dotted with late wildflowers and resounds with the bell-like calls of feeding goldfinches; the organic kitchen garden that grows where oil tanks once stood feeds us—and friends and neighbors.

There’s still a good bit of work to be done: piles of red sandstone pavers wait where our bedroom patio will be, for instance, the creek-side dining area is still a barely revegetated dirt road on the upper bank, and the inner courtyard looks more like the parking lot for heavy equipment it was than a peaceful retreat with pond and falling water.

A sculptor's finials, made of river-worn rocks dug from our own soil.

Some day those things may be completed. But it’ll be by one of us, not two: my partner in this work, the sculptor responsible for the structures that enliven and interpret the stories of this reclaimed formerly industrial plot, and the native rocks that give a sense of contour and place, my husband Richard and the love of my life for the past 28 years, has terminal brain cancer.

These days he talks about his plans for the water feature in the courtyard or the stacks of flagstone, but struggles to muster sufficient energy to sit up in bed, much less to maneuver boulders and granite-carving tools.

I grieve for the work he will not do, for his vision of working with native rocks as “ambassadors of the earth” to connect our daily lives and routines to this planet and our place, whether river-rock finials on an arbor, bathroom lavatories carved from rough local rock, or the spectacular gas fire pit he created from a ton of native granite boulder for an architect’s courtyard.

A ton of native rock transformed into a fire pit that brings the presence of the earth home to our daily lives.

I grieve for his bright spirit, for all I’ve learned from him, for the work we’ve collaborated on, most especially this place we share.

As I sit beside him looking out at the bright autumn sunshine, I realize that even when Richard’s no longer beside me, he’ll live on in his work and in this place, the ugly industrial property no one wanted, now flourishing with a tapestry of native lives, from the lichen-covered boulders he placed just so to the riot of wildflowers, butterflies, native bees and hummingbirds, to the tiny trout swimming under the native shrubs in the revived creek.

A lesser goldfinch calls with chiming notes and we smile at each other. The slanting rays of the sun pick out the last few crimson Indian paintbrush and highlight the whimsical, eyebrow-like flower heads of the blue grama grass. Brain cancer or no, joy blooms here.

Whatever else we have done in our lives together, this place, restored to beautiful life again after decades of disrespect and degradation, carries on the love we share. As life cycles on in ways we could not have imagined, its revival is our final joint work, our gift to the future.