It would take great determination to ignore the nudge of implied importance each new year brings with it. When it came around a year ago, I felt it through a muffle of physical exhaustion and the sense that I was floating somewhere beneath the surface of real life.
Absorbing almost a year’s worth of pharmaceuticals, chemical injections and laser sharp radiation beams for advanced stage breast cancer ages body composition by a full decade. Swimming my way through a fog of emotional lethargy, I saw evidence of that medical fact staring back at me in the mirror. On the face of it, I’d emerged seemingly overnight with countless wrinkles and age spots, poor skin tone, thinner hair on my head and more on my face. There was a corresponding dullness in my heart.
The dawn of 2013 implored me to see light in the symbolic renewal of time, promise of resolutions fulfilled. With no gladness in my heart, all I could think to do was buckle down and get to work. Time was wasting away (look again in the mirror I reminded myself).
I plodded. I goaded myself at every hesitant step, and the year unfurled in what turned out to be a slow and steady year of unexpected enchantments — some dark, some light, every one of them an extraordinary gift — that increased with speed until the last two months of it became a streak of time that took my breath away and pretty much stayed my ability to keep up. By November, the best I could do was hold on for the ride, glory in the gasps of delight whooshing in and out of me, and wait for the inevitable slowing.
I began to grow up again in the year of 2013. In some ways, in the 57th year of my life, I began to grow up for the very first time; to understand the moment had come for me to make happen the core dreams I’d been sketching, nurturing, reaching for since childhood. It was time for the final commitment, to draw from the deepest part of myself, throw every last shred of caution in the self-doubting corners of my being out into the battering winds of the northern Rocky Mountains, to let them be carried wherever they might go in the world.
Where the doubt went to be pummeled and reshaped was second only to the people and animals waiting there for me. I jetted and drove and hiked — some of it paid work, much of it a compulsive investment in wanting to bring about an imagined future.
From the crashing waves of the Pacific Ocean in Bodega Bay to the white trimmed brick buildings of Yale just out of reach of the New England coastline; from the Canadian border to Arizona. A blink of days and I found myself in California, Connecticut, at the waterfalls of Ithaca, on the stone steps of Brooklyn; in Maine, Oklahoma, Montana, Wyoming and Colorado like I was scouring every inch of a giant cooking pot only to pluck new ingredients along the roadsides to fill it up with a new kind of stew.
Turning around, I found myself at Avalanche Lake in Glacier National Park, in the gardens of the unincorporated kingdom of Ashland-Cherryland, beneath the towering rows of Wind River Indian Corn now growing in East New York, on the Tablelands in Newfoundland, on the shores of the sacred Moccasin Lake in Arapaho territory.
In between, I walked across an uneven piece of land in Laramie begging to be saved from development and seducing me with dreams of seeing gardens grow there, then spent weeks moving dust across the floors and off the walls of the historic building in LaBonte Park that will become a home to community work.
I crawled through fencing Kiana had jumped and been injured by at the base of Spicer peak because elk or bear or cat had scared the llamas on their summer mountain. I went with llamas to Shawnee and Estes Park and Colorado Springs, for llamas to Albany. Llamas came home to me with illness and need, llamas left me because it was their time. The Forest Service called me into the North Park backcountry to save a young llama wandering there just days before hunting season was to begin. Birds arrived to be rescued, an invisible cat moved onto my little ranch to hide yet cry at night to be fed. There were days of crows and hawks and the new species of doves that arrived without explanation.
It isn’t really possible to scrapbook or album or stream a year as extraordinary as the one that took me away from cancer and loss to whip the blindfold from my face and push me off in the direction of what I most need to learn. In 2013 I was humbled and humiliated and honored and most often of all given love through lessons from people at the center of my days and more I’m only beginning to know. At each of the places I was whisked away to and dropped off for a momentary visit, there was someone with something important to share and teach.
For most of my life, I’ve journeyed around the world alone, the air-kissing brevity of on-the-road relationships my preference. In 2013, there was someone waiting for me or accompanying me on every trip I took. And that made all the difference. It was the demands of and gifts from other people that kept me from losing site of a distant horizon.
It wasn’t really a new path I embarked on, nor or a change in direction. It was at last a maturing of the courage I needed to shout out at the spotlight of personal exposure, “Here. Here I am. This is what I imagine. This is what I believe in. This is what I want. Take it or leave it, here it is — this idea, this deed, this work of art.”
I could not have predicted the great privilege of travel and adventure that came to me last year: the chance to see up close the extraordinary work of meaning being done by so many people, the way my writing came back to me, a new depth of connection to the land, animals and humans who roam it.
It isn’t that everything has become easy or beautiful. I’m rough and ill prepared enough to find myself frequently falling short or falling flat. I’m saddled with mind numbing debt for years to come. Cancer is now a personal specter as well as a universal one. I still live in a junkyard.
But the point, of course, is that I’m still living. And writing. And loving. And being loved. If that’s not a great starting point for any new year, I can’t imagine what is.