Blossoming in Groups

Monument Plant


Monument Plant

I’ve always thought of gardens as a great metaphor for learning about human development.  The entire process reflects an enormous variety of needs, styles, product.  There’s also something straightforward about gardens and their gardeners that comforts me.  From design to ground, from tender emerging to hazards confronted before harvest — each plant tells its own story, intertwined with the hopes and dreams of the person who nurtures it.

Plant a seed.  Watch it grow.  A row of spinach here, a stalk of tomatoes there, a fence climbing with peas on the outside edge.  They each have their own timeline.  The spinach is so eager to sprout and unfurl into sturdy little leaves of nutrition, it practically flings itself onto your dinner plate just weeks after it’s planted.  Peas announce themselves with pretty blossoms, tenderly wrap themselves around their trellis or stakes with string, or whatever is close at hand for climbing onto.  Tomatoes take their time, creating a solid frame of greenery to support and showcase their ultimate work of edible art.

People understand this kind of growth.  It reassures us that we too can build our lives one goal, event, task at a time — pausing briefly to admire our accomplishments or ponder our failures.  Hesitating to step out on any path similar to ones before it that didn’t lead to pure satisfaction.  Overworking fertile patches that seem predictably safe.

When I get scared or bogged down by my inability to please others, my inability to please myself, I get even more focused on singular pursuits.  Get this done here, that done there, this now, then that.  Make a list, call a meeting, map a course of action.  Get organized.

 Across the Mountainside


Across the Mountainside

But that’s not how it works on the wild mountainsides of northern Colorado and southern Wyoming.  At 8500 feet above sea level and higher, the season without a killing frost lasts little more than a month.  This creates unique growth demands.

I was recently reminded of this fact while hiking to check the llama herd on summer mountain pasture.  I was lost in contemplation about how to arrange the coming week of meetings, interviews, planning.   I was tallying the needs of the people I’d be working with, imagining their separate desires and ideas, the shape of their individual pursuits, when I ran headlong into a six-foot tall Monument Plant.

The ranchers out here call them skunk cabbage, but they look nothing like the skunk cabbage I knew in the New England of my youth (squat, smelly things growing on brook banks).  Pale green Monument Plants soar into the air in the middle of aspen and pine groves, with tiny white blossoms nestled close to their thick stocks.  The cowboys say they grow as tall as the snow will be in the coming winter.  It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a six-foot tall Monument Plant.   But before I could fully rejoice in the lore-based prediction that we have a snowy season ahead, I realized I was standing on a bushy spray of Lupine.  I apologetically stepped off the fat bundles of purple blossoms, only to crush the wild tulip beside them.  Which began a Rocky Mountain dance of please don’t smash the daisies.

 Columbine


Columbine

There is no gardener’s design or spread of time up here.  The flowers come all at once.  Dozens of types, colors, sizes.  They show off in clusters and single blossoms, but share the same space so when you step back you see a wash of shade and natural dye, shape and height.

 Yarrow


Yarrow

I’m stunned by this.  Moved to joy by this.  I take photos of them and write about them; struck by a lesson I don’t grasp easily or quickly.

 Wild Rose


Wild Rose

In the social equity work I’m involved with, we dedicate ourselves to honoring and supporting the individual struggle for visibility and voice so often plowed under by rules intended to benefit only a few.  We set out like gardeners to plan a design that assists growth in neat rows, at carefully thinned distances, in sections according to customized fertile conditions.  We nurture in distinct timelines, guiding the process forward to our vision of a collective harvest.

 Sticky Geranium


Sticky Geranium

But here, the blooms just come.  In a jumble of locations, soils, sun and shade, they burst open all at once and in a riot of disorganization.  There’s no mistaking their individual identity, yet they march across the slopes in a coincident assault of color.  There’s no time to do it any other way.  There’s no other way it could be this lovely.

 Sweet Pea


Sweet Pea

This is a particularly generous year, which makes the delicate petal of the Sticky Geranium shine; the velvet of the rose extra soft; the thin stem of the Sky Pilot sturdier, the translucence of the Columbine breathtaking.  In last year’s drought, the flowers worked harder for shorter stocks and less brilliant tints, but still they came.  Always they surge with beauty that only the most hard core cynics could claim is without grand purpose, blossoming in groups that spill down the mountainside and through the meadow.  Calling attention to each gorgeous, unique, individual bloom.  Creating a trumpeting bouquet across the landscape.

 Sulphur Flower


Sulphur Flower

 Sage Bloom


Sage Bloom, with a Fireweed beginning to bloom beside it.

 

 Wild Parsnip


Wild Parsnip

 

 Sweet Clover


Sweet Clover

 

 Lupine


Lupine

 I Call Them Little Snowball Flowers


I Call Them Little Snowball Flowers

 

 Sunflower


Sunflower

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Llamas and Estes Park, and the Scheme of all things Meaningful


Roads of Meaning

Estes Park at the Feet of the Rockies


Estes Park at the Feet of the Rockies

 

There’s a distinct possibility that at some point in time, all roads of meaning pass through Estes Park, Colorado.

In 1873, Isabella Bird visited Estes Park when the only other human resident was mountain man James Nugent and the one human dwelling was a small log cabin.  Who knows what really transpired between the two when she hitched up her long, heavy, British Victorian skirts, hopped on her pony and rode alone through the steep canyon to visit him there.  She stayed a very long time — only leaving regretfully when the snows became so deep the pony would have trouble negotiating them if they didn’t get going.  Her adventures were first published in 1879 in A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains (a book very much of — and not of — its times, that as far as I know has never been out of print).

I read A Lady’s Life before ever going to Estes Park, and by the time I got there, it was full of hotels, condominiums and souvenir shops.  Barbara was my mountain woman and Quito, the irascible pack llama, was my pony.

“Watch this, watch this,” Barbara kept repeating to me the day I met Quito.

I nodded my head politely and watched, one more time, as she walked away and Quito fell into step just to the right of and behind her, the lead rope between them never tightening.  She walked a few yards, glanced over her shoulder to be sure I really was watching, then came to an abrupt halt.  Without changing the distance between them, Quito stopped as well.

“Did you see that?  How he keeps the perfect distance from me?”  Barbara beamed with delight, and again I nodded and tried to murmur the right words of appreciation.  I didn’t understand her excitement.  Not yet.

Quito was Barbara’s first llama, bought to ease pain that came from decades worth of hauling 60-pound packs on her own back, up and down mountains on this and that side of the world.  Quito was my first llama, too.  That there were many more to come, was something else I didn’t understand when I met him.  Nevertheless, they were the reason I made my way to Estes Park in the mid 1990s.  Barbara brought me to the wool market there to watch a llama pack demonstration.

The demonstration was interesting enough.  But it was Estes Park that grabbed onto me.  Walking through the fairgrounds, which sit a couple of miles from the village, it seemed as though there was a kind of weight to the air.

The mountains around the park roll down on themselves in rocky slabs and velvety slopes, all topped by the signature blue green peaks and tenacious snows of the northern Rockies.  Clouds and light bounce lightly off their surface, slip between them as if exploring what’s hidden from view.  When you’re in Estes Park, the mountains insist that you feel them as much as see them.  They blanket you and muffle the sound and sight of what humans have piled at their feet.  At night, these mountains tuck you in.

It’s always been llamas who’ve brought me to Estes Park.  After Quito, there was Jafar and Chakote, the first llamas I ever had a part in showing.  They were just two among nearly 500 of them who took center stage in the early years of what would become one of the largest and most popular wool markets in the United States.  At Estes Park, Chakote brought home a second place ribbon in a class of 50, whetting an appetite in me for llama showing.

Since then, I’ve returned to Estes Park every year for the wool market.  For the llamas.  For the people.  But mostly for those particular mountains.  They contain a magnet.  A magic.  It’s as if they manufacture meaning — not just for me, and not just in response to simple natural beauty.  Or anything simple, for that matter.

All I have to do is mention the llama show at Estes Park online to be swamped with beloved stories of the rain, snow, sun, floods and fire that accompany anyone’s trips there.  No one talks about the resorts, restaurants or shops.  It’s something in the air.

My annual sojourn is my own Same Time, Next Year.  Every June, what happens in Estes Park takes stock of the evolving events of my life in the greater world as both rotate toward an unknown future.  For less than a week, I hitch myself to this place and the people who show up at the same time.  And every year, I replay what came before even as I gather a new moment of intense meaning that carries me through the coming months.

The collection of memories pilots more of my life than it would seem they should.  Brief hours with people I know so little about take on relationship depth I’ve come to believe is magnified by the mountains themselves, and the way they contain Estes Park.  I almost wonder if when I die, and my life passes before my eyes, at least one stream of events will be on location there.  Then again, I don’t have to wait for my last moments on earth.  The film reel of reflection clicks and whirs continuously, telling me something I don’t always understand but hang onto just the same.

The year of deep snow at wool market — I can still see the early morning shapes of llamas and humans walking the fairgrounds in the gray chill of it.

Showing llamas to Virginia and Hank who years later would teach me to become a llama judge in my own right.

The hummingbirds from the porch of the ancient Bald Pate Lodge overlooking the Park.

Linda, who first envisioned the wool market and ran it for so many years because she knew the mountains would help make it one of the greatest.

Jane and Sharon and Bobra and Virginia who were once the life of every Estes llama party I attended, but are all gone now.

Lougene zipping through the llama show on her electric golf cart, running a top notch event for the years I didn’t know I would become its organizer for a decade of my own.

Walking llamas round and round the fairgrounds, then round and round again.

Kasha, my first reserve champion.  Caliente, my first performance llama.  Sand Dollar, my first grand champion.  All at Estes Park.

The roar of the crowds cheering on the leaping and limboing llamas who fly and crawl more charmingly with every round of applause.

Sitting in Tim’s truck with him, sheltering ourselves from the cold, wet weather, sharing sweet life stories and planning wool market details for what turned out to be the last weekend of his life.

The year Sam vacuumed sugar out of my fuel tank and Bo loaned me his hitch to replace the one of mine that had been stolen.

The day Jerry let me cry on her shoulder when an exhibitor from the Midwest screamed at me that all my llama rescue work was destroying the llama industry.

How Jim told me the negative effects of my relationship breakup would last seven years and I hoped he was wrong but it turned out he was right.

A dozen years of children showing my llamas, then growing up and away, except for Laurel who keeps growing up and staying.

How I’ve overworked family and friends and strangers who volunteered.

The parade of show llamas I’ve led to the silly joy of ribbons and trophies – here where I’ve experienced so many first wins in a life where competition has always frightened me and the llamas don’t care about any of it but humor me with good humor nonetheless.

How year after year, Rhonda and Nancy clerk and announce and work 12-hour days and call it their annual vacation.

The year we watched from the grandstands as the High Park fire started and rose like a cloud in the distance.  Which was the same year I was bald and sick from cancer and everyone loved me and took care of me and I knew they meant it.

Patti, who put new decals on my trailer as a surprise – wiping out the decals of my lost past and helping me show the world a glimpse of my claims to a better future.

How Matt made me laugh all weekend long by playing my late night, whiny, slightly snippy messages to him about how my ordered hay and straw weren’t waiting for me when I arrived.

Lora, who came to judge one year while battling her own cancer, then came back to judge again when I was fighting mine, and came again this year, still fighting the disease that now tags after us both, just to be a friend.

The shy joy that streamed through me when the mayor of Estes Park made a public presentation to me of an appreciation plaque that I knew really came from Bo and Lexy.

And always, always, the silent soar of these particular mountains — the deep energy of this unexpected, not always pretty or perfect but forever beautiful and healing and eternal place in the scheme of all things meaningful.


Sunset over the Estes Park Wool Market 2013

 

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Finding Place. And Hanging Onto It.

in the shadow of the Zirkel wilderness


in the shadow of the Zirkel wilderness

 

platform preparation at the foot of Peterson ridge


platform preparation at the foot of Peterson ridge

 

Place.  There’s such a need to claim one.  A complicated process for finding it.  A sometimes desperate struggle to hold onto it.  A thousand ways of naming it.

Sometimes it feels as if my entire life has revolved around the core need to find my place in the world — a place to be safe, a place to call home, a place to be myself, a place to be free, creative, rested, loved.  A place that won’t evaporate or be snatched away.  One worth committing to with every fiber of my being.  A place to belong.

For the last several weeks, I’ve been immersed in the planning and coordination of a meeting for an extraordinary group of people.  Over 40 women and men from New York, Wyoming, California and Michigan absorbed in social justice work on behalf of food insecurity (which is how we now sweepingly and respectfully refer to not having enough of the right things to eat), showed up for the meeting I’ve been working on.  Good people do this food sovereignty work — who else would dedicate time, energy and acceptance of an unglamorous, mostly poorly paid career path that switchbacks endlessly uphill?

These particular good people came together in Wyoming to share experiences and ideas, to strategize tactics capable of changing the world.  In a swoop of color, culture, class and age, they brought with them the kind of passion for justice that can only flame up from the steaming coals of personal pain, empathy and visionary brilliance.  Which is to say, they are a demanding lot.

There’s a tendency in event planning to be convinced it’s all about organizational skills — that it’s all in the details.  Transportation in the air and on the ground, lodging, meeting rooms, menus.  Receptions, press conference, field trips.  Location, location, location.  Catering, dinner entertainment, room design.  Flip charts, projectors, speakers, easels, handouts, packets, name tags, pens and markers.  Confer with project directors and coordinators, planning committees and sub-committees, professional facilitator and past history, then work and re-work a dozen or more agenda drafts.  Be on time, deliver what was asked for, be consistent, be strong, be flexible, be willing to stand tall, sweet and humble in the face of admiration and derision.  Get this right, and everyone will be satisfied.

Wrong.  Forget that it’s impossible to get it all right.  The bottom line is that everyone attending is, in some form or another, seeking their place.  A place to learn, process, shine, heal, speak out, connect.  A place to belong.  Forget the professional goals, the formal trappings.  Bring a few dozen acquaintances together for a week of working intensity and the most powerful thing we bring with us, the most important thing we share, the sharpest color we spread across the experience, is our private vulnerability of the quest for our place in the world.

Four years ago, when I found myself homeless with a herd of llamas and various other dependent domesticated critters in tow, my search for that place was immediate and literal.  A few days of motels, temporary inadequate housing for a year, and an act of great love brought me back to North Park.  Nearly all of my personal possessions and many of the beloved animals were kept from me.  The place I landed in was both beautiful and ridden with challenges of poverty.

Each turning day asked me if I was in the right place.  When the junkyard pressed against me, humiliation made it hard to breathe.  When the frackers cut through stone beneath my feet a half mile away, fear rattled my bones.  When the furnace died, when the cancer came, when hay prices quadrupled, when my own food  was scarce, I wasn’t even sure if I belonged on the face of this earth.  Then the day would turn again and here I was, scrambling up a mountainside with a llama companion, gazing at a sunset draped over the Zirkel wilderness, feeling the velvet soft nudge of Destiny’s nuzzle seeking horse treats from my pocket.

A couple of weeks ago, ten more llamas joined the Coral Dawn herd.  The final group I’m capable of caring for.  The ten I had worked hardest with and been closest to before they were taken from me.  In that group were two daughters who had been separated from their mothers in the battle over them.  On Mother’s Day, I turned the llamas in together, and after three years apart, watched mothers and daughters reunite in a frenzy of surprise and joy, celebrating a return to sharing their own sense of place in life.

When I left North Park to attend and help host the meeting of food activists, I drove through its wild basin of budding sagebrush, sweet wetlands, buttes and ridges, with an eye of farewell.  Not because I’m leaving, although the thought has occurred to me, but because it’s about to be taken from me.  From all of us who live here.

Without warning or hint of any kind, we’ve been told the southern half of the breathtaking landscape of North Park will soon become one long stretch of oil field.  Over the next 14 months, somewhere between 13 and 16 rigs will be drilled, fracked, sunk into the delicate beauty here to suck every last drop of fossil fuel that can be found.  Drill, baby, drill.  A man camp is slated to be developed a few miles southeast of where I live.  The 14-story towers will be built to send light across the Park and blot out the most vivid night skies imaginable.  Excess natural gas will be burned off in roaring, useless flames of chemical spill and waste.

When I first received the news from the ranch woman 10 miles down the road (who is my hairdresser) all I could think was that once again it was being proven to me that there was no place on earth that would ever truly be mine.  I was in a panic about how and where I could go next.

Then I heard the heartbreak and fear of my neighbor, who lives across the road from the greatest concentration of expected oil wells, who hasn’t been told if they’ve lost grazing land they’ve counted on for years, whose view of the Arapaho ridge is about to be obliterated, who doesn’t know what this will mean for their water supply, whose place in the world is no more secure than mine.  As we shared our outrage, our powerlessness, our grief, I realized that my sense of belonging here comes as much from the people and animals who struggle to be here, from the land’s own battle for survival, as it does from the magnificence of natural beauty that surrounds me and my narcissistic craving to claim it as mine.

The greatest gift I receive in this little piece of the world, is the space and support to figure out once and for all, who I am and where I belong in the scheme of things.  Apparently, in the next turning to come, I’ll be part of a battle far beyond my individual yearnings.  Only time will tell how strong I can be as the invasion of human greed makes its way over the boundaries of the North Park mountains in greater numbers and more stunning impact than this land has ever known.

tower going up just beyond the willow wetland draw


tower going up just beyond the willow wetland draw

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Barren Landscapes Are an Illusion

barren landscapes are an illusion


barren landscapes are an illusion

 

 “….the rush forward to the end, the leap that you take into the middle of danger when all you can do is look straight at it, because whatever is coming will come.”  — from The Postmistress, by Sarah Blake

I found it because of a sudden chill.  I was chatting on the phone when a draft floated by, making me step closer to the hot wood stove and tuck my right hand into my left armpit for warmth.  The swollen lymph node, the size of a pigeon’s egg, floated into my cupped fingers and rested there.

In that instant, I knew.  I knew that my steady plod through a life I was trying to rebuild was about to come to a screeching halt, that once again I was going to be pummeled with the simple fact that life is not predictable or controllable.

Lina says I’m the unluckiest person she knows.  I tell her no, really, I’m the luckiest person in the world.  We’re both right.  And we each know what the other means.

In the months just before I found the cancer, I was deep into the clean-it-up, patch-it-up, make-sure-it-isn’t-going to cave in phase of refurbishing the barns at my new place in North Park.  They are actually four separate buildings, strung together into one long row of shelters.  A couple of the sections were built 40 or more years ago, on site.  One was moved in from a homesteading ranch on the west side of the Park.  I’m not sure where the shed on the end originated.

Right from the start, in spite of precariously sagging roofs and cockeyed doors, it wasn’t hard for me to imagine these weather beaten buildings coming back to life to house the horse, sheep, goats, geese and llamas who needed to live there.  Beneath the floor to ceiling  jumble of rusting motorcycles, broken furniture, discarded boxes of books-turned-mouse nests, shattered glass, and an ancient Coca-Cola machine, there was a whiff of the spirit of survival I knew could shelter the animals I love with a passion beyond reason.

It took me weeks to clear out the debris and haul it to the landfill and rudimentary recycling center 18 miles away.  It took two hydraulic lifts I found rusting in the sinking junkyard on the eastern end of the small ranch, and several hours of coerced help from Don, to jack up the one shed roof most at risk of imminent collapse.

By the time I’d made my way to the northern end of the string of barns, Don was offering advice on what could and couldn’t be done to salvage them.  Of the small section that originally sat on homesteading land, he said it couldn’t be saved.  Shouldn’t be saved.  That one piece of history had to be torn down.

Which is what was decided about my left breast and all the lymph nodes in my left armpit.  The cancer in them had gotten too large and spread too far for repair work or rebuilding.

And so, after stumbling across it, after painstakingly assessing it, treatment for my cancer began with the demolition of a big chunk of my body.  Throughout it all, there would be dozens of people to cook for me, send me sympathy, pour love on all my hurting places.  But in the beginning, when the demolition began, three people bore witness and carried me across the threshold from whole to diminished.  Barbara, Lina and Don paced the hospital hallways, monitored my pain, helped drain blood from my body.  They guarded my passage into a less certain life, doing so with comfort, admonishment and humor.

Two days after surgery, I was engulfed in a kind of pain I didn’t know how to describe.  It felt as if my heart was hurting — stretching, burning, skipping beats over what had been torn away from it.  As if it was realizing greater vulnerability because the breast above it was gone.  Who knew that a woman’s breast is also the heart’s shield?

As Barbara looked in on me before going to bed, I drank in her familiar expression of sweet concern.  She showered me with love, but all I could think was that I hadn’t stayed ahead of the pain, hadn’t judged the right quantity, type, or time spacing for pain medication.  When Don called to check in one last time for the day, I told him it was my fault I felt so awful — I didn’t deserve any sympathy.  He told me he felt sorry for me, even if it was my fault.

Settling into the long, nightmare journey of treatment, I stubbornly resisted adopting a cancer identity for myself.  It’s a club, after all, against which I’d sworn becoming a member.  I tried to immediately squash a well meaning friend’s  suggestion that perhaps “you’ll write a book about this!”  No, no, I assured her.  This won’t become another one of my causes.  I can’t possibly create an entire life composed of personal crisis-induced career paths.  “Well,” she said, “you never know.”

The conversation left me in a hyper on-guard state.  The journey through cancer proceeded in spite of myself.

When I pushed strands of hair behind my left ear, the sensation radiated down the side of my face and neck, into my armpit, on to the muscles, nerves and skin where my left breast used to be.  What connection was that?  What reminder?  Of the missing lymph nodes now marked like a grave by tightly puckered ridges of skin that in the beginning screamed in protest when, daily, I forced them to stretch a little more than the day before?  My determined grab for range of motion.  What connection was that?  The physical and emotional struggle, casting around for evidence of spiritual purpose?

After a while, it wasn’t quite pain that tugged against the muscles connected to the breast bone that no longer supported a breast.  It was more like memory.  Years of pleasure and purpose, identity, aesthetics and objectification, all rolled up together and peeled away to carry off the enormous tumor that had set up housekeeping there.

I don’t understand cancer.  It’s something about unchecked cell growth, but really, how many people with cancer understand what the hell that means?  I don’t even understand cells.  Have no desire to.

For a long time after surgery, when I pushed strands of hair behind my left ear, I felt it in my left armpit.  It was a tug of memory that traveled through every nerve and muscle traumatized by the demolition that dug into and around them.  Every once in a while, the pull reached far enough to remind me how my son’s cry used to tug on the same region, in a demand for milk that flowed willingly, pleasantly, in a life giving response to that connection.

some barns are not worth repairing


some barns are not worth repairing

 

 

Posted in Animals, Cancer, Life, Llamas, Writing | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Caliente on My Mind (the unusual and wondrous task of writing the book, Saving Elizabeth)

Caliente on My Mind


Caliente on My Mind

If you can’t tolerate being alone with yourself in silence for hours on end, don’t contemplate taking up writing as a career.  There’s a possibility that the deliciously documented insanity of an impressively large number of literary greats might simply revolve around the extended isolation required by the craft of putting word into print.  Or rather, putting hundreds of thousands of words into print.  (It’s conceivable that one can be saved from this occupational hazard by writing only short pieces.  Like blog entries, for instance.)

The older I get, the more astonished I am not just by my tolerance for solitude, but my utter craving for it.  Which makes me a great candidate for my chosen (albeit poorly paid) profession, as well as for bouts of insanity.

However, because I’m now in my late 50s, and because I’ve written a lot of books (adding up to over a million words to date), I know a little too much about what’s ahead of me when I start a new one.  Or at least I thought I did before starting Saving Elizabeth.

This is a book about the time I spent in Nirada, Montana, trying to help save over 600 llamas who were starving to death on the beautiful hillsides of a sanctuary created for large animals.  It’s a complicated story of human indifference, failure, cruelty, naïveté, innocence, determination, courage, love.  It’s also a complicated story of animal dependence, welfare, rights, wisdom and magic.

Even before I left the ice and mud covered corrals of the defunct Montana Large Animal Sanctuary, I knew I would be compelled to write the tale of its rise and fall — the story of the animals there and of the dozens of people across the country who moved heaven and earth to rescue them.  Within weeks of my return home, I drafted several chapters, created an outline, began to circulate them to a few agents I thought might be interested in representing Saving Elizabeth.  It turned out they were interested.  And would talk more seriously once I finished the entire book.

Another major work on spec.  Sigh.  Immediately after getting this green light demand, a year lost to cancer treatment.  Gulp.  Coming out the other side, I found the same first page staring me in the face, waiting for me to get over the fear and dread of fully committing to writing my next hundred thousand words.

Never before in 50 years of writing, have I talked so openly and widely about a book I hadn’t yet begun to write.  Having done so might turn out to be a huge tactical error.  It also might be the primary reason I was able to get over my fear of taking the leap into actually starting to write it.

My first surprise came after completing what would turn out to be a new rough draft for Chapter One.  While tidying up the closing paragraph, an odd feeling swept over me.  It took a while for me to identify it, but then I realized it was hope.  I’d been writing about one of the first llamas I got to know in Montana — an old, collapsing,  light wool gelding who ended up coming home with me.  In the act of writing a few pages about him, I was reeled in.  To him.  To the days of the rescue.  To Karyn Moltzen, Animeals, and her Fab 4 who went where angels feared to go.  To Patty Finch who got the first call, then became the United Nations of animal rescue.  And then to all the llama rescue people who moved mountains and state transport restrictions and empty money coffers to find new homes, new lives so the llamas of the Montana 600 could have another chance.

Writing a long story always carries me away, gets me deeply involved.  But not quite like this, the way it’s happening as I write Saving Elizabeth.  It has something to do with the way the story continues to live all around me, even as I try to make art out of an event that occurred two years ago.

Recently, I’ve heard again from Susi (Safari) Sinay, one of the first volunteers to show up and get to work; Olin Allen who set the stage for so many foster homes; Deborah Logan of Southeast Llama Rescue, Wes Laraway of Northeast Llama Rescue.  They sent notes to touch base, report in.  Not because they know I’m writing a book, but because they’ve been looking at their llamas and thinking about saving their lives and want to know how the Montana Blues are doing at my place.  We all stay in touch with each other like war buddies.  We also stay in touch because the refugees of that war continue to breathe, eat and play all around us.

Just the other day, Joanne Beckmann was thinking of those things, and sent me an article by Chris Stull and Ann Bodnyk about llamas adopted from the rescue, and about Montana’s Rebound – a cria born after the rescue.  They call him Bounder.  Theirs is a story of sorrow, survival, hard work and resilience.  It’s all part of the story of Saving Elizabeth I’m trying to write.  One that’s ongoing and alive even as it rolls into the past.

Which is what makes writing this book different from any writing experience I’ve ever had.  It’s living all around me, not just in my head or in my memory.  Like when early in the morning, as I type, Oscar rattles the dormant branches of the bush outside my bedroom window, happily grooming the rough overcoat of his ancient fiber.   Or when Sergio breaks the pre-dawn silence with a strange sound that comes out almost like a half-strangle as he yawns.  Or like yesterday, when I finished writing a chapter about Caliente’s own llama journey that mirrored my own, went to the kitchen to get tea, and saw him lying comfortably alone in the field, surrounded by six inches of freshly fallen snow.

In the April Snow


In the April Snow

 

 

 

 

Posted in Animals, Life, Llamas, Montana Llama Rescue, Writing | Tagged , , , , , , | 11 Comments

Finding Balance in Human Empathy

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between the individual and the collective

 

Is there such a thing as collective human experience?  Can a moment in time really bind us together with threads of shared emotion, reaction, resolution in such a way as to transcend the individual?  We certainly seem to design our world in a way that at least tries to make this be so.  We gather to play, celebrate, honor, mourn and pray.  We, more often than not, build the essence of our lives around couple, family, neighborhood, community and tradition.

To what effect?  Social empathy makes us cry for the heartbreak of others, spurs us to small and great acts of generosity, courage, hard work and simple kindness.  Yet at the center of it all remains the brightly burning self that can’t help but call the shots.  Genuine sorrow on behalf of suffering that barely brushes the hem of our own lived lives, flows through the murky river of “there but for the grace of damned good luck go I, and what a relief that is.”

When tragedy explodes in the face of our collective consciousness, like it did in Boston a couple of days ago, it’s hard to understand precisely what it is that moves those of us who are far away from the bloodied finish line.  It’s even harder to know how best to cradle or offer our response.  How can we deal with our feelings, or help, or even talk about emerging news without stomping all over the brutally private individual experiences of the people who were actually there?

Perhaps it’s walking the tightrope of that particular balancing act that is the collective human experience — learning to recognize the difference between personal empathy that gives birth to selfless acts, and narcissism so powerful we turn every event into an opportunity to stand center stage with our own emotions on display.

Human beings aren’t herd animals.  Not like the enormous herds of antelope I see charging across the high Wyoming plains, or the hundreds of elk amassed early this spring on North Park’s basin floor.  Humans don’t navigate life the way the herd of 50 or so llamas do in the barns and fields behind my home.  These animal herds have a much more finely tuned sense of each other when it comes to raw survival.  Threatened by danger, they respond in one thoughtless, instinctive move guaranteed to keep the largest number of them alive.  They don’t scatter in different directions or trample one another in self-interest.  Regardless of what actually drives them, true herd behaviors are predicated on the understanding that survival of the individual depends on survival of the entire herd.

Although humans seem to continually evolve in the direction of greater and greater autonomy, gifts of sympathy and support offered up on a global scale when tragedy strikes us, are deeply reassuring.  It also serves us well to witness the actual process of the human balancing act between other and self — shared with us this week in the conversation of Bostonians talking about coping by doing everything from clinging to life, donating blood, providing investigation tips, to the brazen act of getting back on public transportation in order to enter the busy city center and complete one more day of work.

In my own simplistic way, I watch the llamas outside my window for clues on how to navigate my particular dance of balance between the struggle for self actualization and contribution to the collective whole of my own species.  I see those stoic creatures huddle together for warmth as a spring snowstorm blows around them for days.  I see family units bed down together at night.  And when moments of calm descend during the storm that waxes and wanes even as it goes on, I see many of the llamas venture out on their own — settling far from the herd, quietly alone, for a moment of private and individual contemplation.

From here to Boston, to Sandy Hook, to hurricane Sandy, to a Denver theater last summer, and a thousand and one horrors in between just this year alone, human individuals as well as the human collective are tumbled against one another.  Herd animals or not, I guess the best we can do is find enough individual strength and wisdom to know when it’s time to hold each other tight, and when it’s time to graciously step out of the way to help clear the path for someone else’s journey.

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Writing the Dream

Four pages, four paragraphs, four sentences, four words.

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Thumper — living the dream with me here in North Park, at Coral Dawn Ranch

 

Jewel sings about there being a difference between dreaming and pretending.  I think in most cases, the difference ends up being hard work.  And if you want to harbor any hope of stretching all the way from dreaming to victory, the simple truth is it’s a devil of a difficult slog.  The bigger, more complex the dream, the messier and more taxing the slog.

I’ve always been pretty good at dreaming, imagining, envisioning.   Hallmarks, I like to think, of being a writer.  Not bad at hard work either, if the amassed production of novels and nonfiction manuscripts are any indication.  But it wasn’t until I was well into my 50s, staring down a substantial body of fictional work more rejected than published, that Jewel’s lyrics about dreaming and pretending hit me like an admonition.

Is there a chance that what I’ve been doing since starting my first novel at the age of 15 is pretending to be a writer?  If all I can hone is the starving artist bit, how long can I really hold onto the identity?  The dream?

I finished my first novel, The Cause, at the age of 19.  It didn’t take long to realize I wasn’t going to be a teenaged bestseller.  By the age of 25, I had four more novel manuscripts under my belt, and they were all yellowing in ream-size boxes on the top shelf of my home office closet (wherever that was at the time – I was moving a lot in those days).

The process of completing a novel slowed down after that.  A baby came along.  Tristan.  He got sick, was dealt profound disabilities and pain, then died at the age of six.  I took on meaningful grassroots organizing work that eventually paid a little (unlike the novels), put me on the international speaking stage, and included massive amounts of nonfiction writing.   It would be over 15 years before the next novel joined the previous five on the shelf in my closet.  Twelve more years before novel number seven, now awaiting a third rewrite, reached the end of its first draft.

When I forget how much I’ll regret it, and read little “how to” articles on perfecting the query letter, choosing the right agent, refining a manuscript for submission, I inevitably run across two basic asserted truisms doled out by the author.  1.  It’s incredibly difficult to get a novel published.  2.  Novels that offer excellent writing and page-turning storytelling will always, eventually, find a publisher.

My responses to these statements are as follows:

1.  Duh.

2.  Is this really true?  And if it is, what does it mean for me?  Am I lacking in excellent writing and page-turning storytelling skills?  Or have I just not reached “eventually,” yet?

In the meantime, of course, life goes on.  I wrack up a seemingly never-ending series of dramatic experiences, adventures and tragedies, which keep the “where do you get your ideas?” question off my list of things to ponder.

The clock is ticking.  In a couple of weeks, I’ll turn 57.  With a history of Stage III breast cancer added to my resume, my goal of becoming a centenarian might be in jeopardy.  Still poverty stricken.  Ongoing interesting, exciting, but for the most part disastrous relationship history.  Novel #8 still in mere good-idea and working title stage.  All of which leads me back to the hard work, difficult slog part of the writing dream.  The writing life.

On good days, I know better than I know most anything else, that I’m a writer to the core of my soul.  I simply can’t not write.  I’ve been doing it steadily, better with each passing year, since I was seven years old.  Although the novels haven’t seen the light of day, plenty of nonfiction has been successfully published and appreciated, if not overly financially lucrative.

On bad days — well, they really aren’t that bad.  I write every single day.  A long time ago, I created for myself a means of getting through the slog days.  Generally speaking, I shoot for being able to write for four hours every day.  When life makes a joke out of that goal, I try to write at least four pages.  If that’s out of reach, I go for four paragraphs.  Four sentences.

On days that feel like it’s all falling apart and worries of being nothing but a pretender begin to take over, I fight back with my barest of bare minimums:  four words.

That’s my secret to living the writing life — to hanging onto the writing dream.  However little, however poor, put words to print every day.  Every.  Single.  Day.  Make writing an inescapable demand.  As much a required daily chore as feeding the dog, brushing your teeth, washing the dishes.

Isaac Asimov once said that if he was told he had only six minutes to live, he wouldn’t brood, he would only write faster.  Considering the mountains of work produced by Mr. Asimov, I have no reason to doubt the truth of this statement.  (Prolific, we say.)  But was he taking into consideration the physical drain, the terror of confronting mortality once and for all, the cloying needs of his loved ones that would also lay claim to their rightful portion of those last six minutes of life?  Did he realize that maybe in the end, if he was lucky, he would be left with less than one minute of clarity, strength and purpose all to himself during which he could actually write?  Yes, he probably understood this.

Six minutes, six lines, six thoughts, six seconds — it doesn’t matter — just write.  That’s what it takes to keep the dream real. To keep the dream alive.  Just write.

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In Pursuit of the Happy Ending

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The Snowy Mountains of Wyoming

 

A good friend of mine who lives on the Wind River Indian Reservation, doesn’t like my blog.  He says it’s sad.  This is from an Arapaho man who grieves over the new Wyoming hunting season on wolves, who carries his respect and love for them in his very name, who speaks with passion and frustration over the short life span of the people in his challenged nation.  He doesn’t want my blog to make him sad.  I guess he gets enough of that emotion elsewhere in his life.

Happiness and happy endings are such flighty things.  We think we have a clear eye on them, only to discover they can slip away the moment we claim ownership of them.  Happy anything is such a personal construct, not to mention downright mysterious at times.

My son, Tristan, spent the last three years of his six-year life in a wheelchair, experiencing excruciating pain from a systemic disease.  Yet when he completed what would be his final year of school, he came home wearing a badge declaring him the winner of the “Happiest Student” award.  There was no doubt in my mind as to how much he deserved the honor.

When I was in the seventh grade, I rounded a hallway corner one day and ran into a large girl who had made it clear for a very long time that she didn’t like me.  On that particular day, she pushed me up against the wall and stared into my eyes.

“I just want you to know why I’ve always hated you,” she said.  I said nothing.  “I’ve hated you for years, because you walk around looking so happy all the time.”  I didn’t really know what she meant by the strange confession, but there was something about it that made me feel good.  And sad.

During the most debilitating and frightening days of cancer treatment, nothing made me grumpier than running into people who told me to be positive, be grateful.    Don’t worry, be happy.  Some said my life depended on it — which really pissed me off.

Actually, throughout some of the darkest times in my life, I’ve been keenly aware of my capacity for joy.  In fact, I’ve counted on it.  But because of that impressive collection of dark times, I generally see sweetness through a veil — almost as if the very path to a happy ending requires shadowed passage.

I don’t like the idea of making anyone sad.  But I do like the idea of sharing an uncertain expedition, pointing out the pinpricks of light I spy along the way.  Often, it’s when I’m crawling through dimness that I stumble across the edge of happy — in a quiet, subtle, sometimes slightly sad way.

For example, in deciding where to place my bed when I first moved back to North Park, I recognized the bedroom was designed with a long wall that, if the bed were set there, offered a beautiful view out toward the Never Summer mountains.  Unfortunately, there’s the long stretch of junkyard to gaze at between the windows and those mountains.  Especially in the early days of trying to imagine this as my new home, I couldn’t bear to start each morning looking at rusted machines, unusable tires and mountains of discarded cans, buckets and twisted fencing.  So, ignoring a vague understanding that the window above my head would be cold and would go against what little I knew about how to properly Feng Shue a bedroom, I pushed the used queen-sized mattress, boxspring and folding metal frame that had been given to me, up against the windows.  After securing the storm windows with added screws to keep them from falling on my head, I threw an old sheet up over the curtain rod and settled in.

Two and a half years later, a couple of pairs of cream colored panel drapes still in their packages, sit on my nightstand waiting to be ironed and hung.  But a few mornings ago, just before my 4:00 alarm went off and long before the sun began to climb up over the peaks behind my head, it was the old sheet I grabbed in my hands while still snuggled down into my pile of pillows.  I tipped my head back and simultaneously pulled the sheet forward.  There, as I looked straight up into the pre-dawn blackness, was North Park’s display of stars so bright and so vast, for at least a moment or two it wasn’t possible to be aware of anything else.  Except perhaps the round robin of coyote song between packs to the north, west and south of where I lay, no longer needing an alarm to start my day.

I can’t help but hope that the wolf packs of my Arapaho friend’s backyard and the coyote packs of my own backyard will find a way to sing us both a little closer to a real and eternal happy ending.  One that doesn’t feel too sad along the way.

 

 

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Then the Frackers Came

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Fracking Derrick in North Park, Colorado – September, 2010

 

When I returned to North Park in August of 2010, little had changed since I last lived here twelve years earlier.  The mountain ranges, the wildlife, the way the Park fans out in reality-defying magnificence when you top Peterson’s ridge heading south — they all looked the same.

When I returned to North Park in August of 2010, there was profound change that tapped lightly on the door of my consciousness at first, then moved in to take up residence as my closest neighbor.

August 15, 2010

Sunday evenings haunt me.  They always have.  The struggle is an ancient inheritance from a long ago unhappy childhood, from which remain visceral responses to certain perpetual cues.  Like the arrival of Sunday night.

I’ve learned to be strategic in managing it.  Here and now, in this midlife starting over, in this scattered junkyard surrounded by mountains, I make sure I’m outside as the sun sets on Sunday, to gather up peace as if it’s nourishment.  The quiet here is heavy with a density I remember well.  It’s rich and comforting.  It’s a simple, perfect blanket of comfort without being absolute.  It’s framed by coyote song and something that wasn’t here 20 years ago — the soft thup, thup, thup of oil wells pumping their way into the veins of the Park.

August 16, 2010

For weeks, I’ve been ignoring the grid of orange flags fluttering in the wind like plastic flowers blossoming in the hay field to the east.  When they first appeared halfway between my new home and the road a mile in the distance, I was panic struck by the possibility someone might actually build a house there and I’d have to cope with neighbors.  It was Gene who set me straight.  “It looks like you’re getting yourself an oil well,” he said.

Today the flags are gone.  So is a ten-acre swath of the hay field, bulldozed into a flat slick of dirt surrounded by gleaming strands of barbed wire stretched tight and sharp to keep out the cows.  And my llamas.

August 17, 2010

Heading out early for a day in town, my truck rattles by the scraped-bare patch of ground awaiting its fate.  Sharon, Gene and Rick are standing in the middle of it.  I stop to visit.  It turns out they’re waiting for a check to be delivered by the oil men who are on their way.  Apparently, during the enthusiastic efforts to flatten the hay field, the bulldozer and fencers have crossed a land boundary by a few yards, encroaching on Rick’s junkyard.  Rather than demand the new fence be moved, the family is accepting a check in payment.  It will be an amount large enough to replace the rusting, leaking, tire-topped roof of the trailer I now live in.

August 18, 2010

Trucks, backhoes, more bulldozers, modular living quarters, portable outhouses and a dozen or more men move onto the newly cleared land.  The workers work until midnight, while the bouncing lights of their vehicles dance their way through my bedroom windows.

August 19, 2010

The rig, the derrick, comes with sunrise.  Engine roar, clanking, and deep throated shouts fill the air.  After the sun goes down, flood lights are erected and lit.  The noise goes on all night long.  A lighted tower, four stories high, creates a throbbing nightlight that pierces the sky, dims the stars, stops the coyote song.  No one can tell me how long it will be like this.  Not in hours or days or months.  “Until they find oil,” I’m told.  Then the tower and the lights and the grinding noise will go away.  The men will leave us with a well and one more source of “thup, thup, thup” that is closer than it was before.

I don’t know how to write about my sorrow.  It reaches far, spreads wide, becomes so quickly complicated.  Sorrow over oil wells in this country of North Park of great poverty, where the long time people of this place celebrate a sign of economic hope; in this country of the United States of America where there is so much oil dependent self indulgence; in this state of my being when a Ford F250 super cab truck is my only mode of transportation taking me hundreds of miles, burning many gallons of high cost diesel fuel every week.

August 20, 2010

I visit with friends in Laramie.  I say the words out loud, hoping to ease my pain by voicing it:  “An oil well is being drilled a half mile from where I live.”  They look at me, stunned.  Blaming.  “What are you going to do?  Where will you go now?”  They would never dream of living next to an oil well.  I’m now part of the picture of something they hate, don’t believe in, fight against with all their might.

August 21, 2010

Oil drilling pulses in my dreams all night long, when I’m able to sleep at all.

I write with distraction.  I write with fear, unhappiness.

Hercules the puppy isn’t afraid of the night any more.  The oil rig lights comfort him, make him brave.

August 22, 2010

Hercules and I walk past the oil drilling encampment of buildings, equipment, men, all caged in by barbed wire, chain link fencing, a massive new double gate.  A neighboring rancher has parked his truck on the side of the road.  He’s sitting in the driver’s seat, watching.

“What do you think of all that?” he asks as I pass.

“There’s a lot going on,” I answer.

“Some of the ranchers are saying the money they got for mineral rights isn’t really as much as they thought it was when it was first offered to them,” he tells me.

I nod and pull Hercules away from the truck door he’s jumping at in enthusiastic greeting of the rancher.

August 26, 2010

The rig is gone.  The coyotes are back, porcupines are on the move, hawks perch on fence posts eating their prey, and the cows still don’t seem to notice any of it.

A man named Dale climbs up the side of the trailer, knocks several dozen tires to the ground, and starts to replace the old roof with a slick, solid green, sheet metal one.

September 4, 2010

The nights have been sharp, and I’ve made sure I’ve stepped into them before going to bed each night.  I know that the silence and darkness from the oil field is just a temporary break, and I’ve been determined to be active in my gratitude.  The nighttime temperatures drop quickly into the 20s, which always seems to add to the brightness of the stars.  For over a week now, the coyote song is back as the loudest sound after dark, and the Milky Way has returned without interference.

September 7, 2010

The drilling of the oil well was just the warmup act.  Now a small city is being built; enormous truckbeds carrying pieces of rigging rumble in one after another for hours on end.  This is it.  The big one.  The one that will bring dozens of men from far away, to work for months in my backyard.  It’s the frackers who are coming now.

September 10, 2010

This tower dwarfs the one that came before.  It soars with alarming speed to a height of 11 stories of platforms.  This one sends noise and artificial light across the junkyard and on out into the meadows, onto the willows, over the backs of the coyotes, all the way to the western peaks.  There are two wells in one place.  Apparently, this spot in North Park is not only fertile ground for meadow grass, but for fossil fuel as well.

September 12, 2010

The frackers have come.  With a grinding, screeching shudder, they go thousands of feet deep and a mile each across to the north and south, forcing water and secret chemicals into the widening cracks in the rocks they pummel.

I know nothing about this process, other than it comes with political and environmental controversy, and sounds painful to the earth.  Rape.  I can’t help but think the word as I lie awake listening to it night after night.  Or am I projecting my own pain, my own resistance to change onto everything happening around me?

October 20, 2010

Men are imported from all over the country to do the work required of digging and setting up a productive oil well here.  As far as I know, no local people are hired for these jobs.  The only economic benefit to the town comes from temporary motel room rentals, restaurant meals, and increased business to the liquor stores and bars.  The laundromat is also used more heavily.  The distinct smell of grease, oil and sweat fill its tiny space when I go in to do my weekly washing.

I don’t want to visit with these laborers.  I avoid talking to them, looking at them.  But today, after several of them left with their clothes stuffed back into pillow cases, the remaining one won’t accept my increasingly pointed rebuffs to his conversational overtures.

“You live here in town?”

“No.”

“Where do you live?”

“About 18 miles out .”

“Whereabouts?”

“South.”

“On a ranch?”

“Yes.”

“I’m working out that way.”

My hands instinctively grip the pair of jeans I’m folding.   Suddenly, the smell of petroleum radiating from him and the clothes he’s pulling out of a dryer, smell like the air around my home.

“We’re out there fracking — I’m sure you’ve seen the rig.”

“I’ve seen it.”  I take a deep breath.  “How long will you be there?”

“A couple more weeks.  Unless this cold keeps up.  Whoever heard of below zero weather in October?  The bosses are talking about calling it quits, like maybe we’ve ground up enough rock.  It’s fine with me.  The only thing I like about working on that rig is the view I have of a big herd of llamas that come up to the fence and watch us every day.  They sure are curious things.”

October 28, 2010

Just like that, the tower and the city are gone.  In the snow, after chores and before bed, I realize there are no towering lights to dim the stars.  No grinding screech screaming out at me.  Instead, a single flame flares into the night, burning off excess gas, marking one of the largest, most productive oil wells in North Park.

 

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It Takes a Small Town

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The local farrier showed up at 9:00 in the morning the other day, while I was still out feeding.  Once again, I had to try and explain to him that the llamas who greeted him were being curious, not trying to warn him away from where Destiny the horse was eating her breakfast.  He never quite believes me.  While he pulled tools out of the back of his truck, he kept talking about the disgruntled look on their faces and how they flattened their ears back when he reached out to them.

He eased his way through the herd and trimmed up Destiny’s hooves.  I finished my chores.  We met back at his truck so I could pay him and he could fill me on the busy couple of days he’d had with death in North Park.  My farrier is also the county coroner.

This is how I found out that Gene’s brother Bob had died.

“He’s in a better place,” my farrier/coroner assured me.  “I barely recognized him.”

Gene and Sharon own the property I live on, the ranch cabin I lived in when I first came to North Park 20+ years ago, the mountain pasture my llamas graze in the summer.  We visit on the phone regularly and see each other several times a week when the weather is good.  Sharon had called the day before to talk about our shared electric bill.  She didn’t mention that Bob had died.  Not because I didn’t know Bob, I did — spent many cattle drives, branding day lunches and haying time visits with him over the years.  I also know that Bob and Gene had shared more than 80 years of deep connection.  Sharon didn’t mention Bob’s passing because fresh pain and loss are really difficult to bring up.

I was so grateful to the farrier that day, carrying important news I might not have learned for several more days until I went into town and saw the notice of Bob’s memorial service tacked on the post office bulletin board.  The moment the farrier left, I ran inside to call Gene and Sharon.

This is one of the things I love about small towns.  News still travels faster in person than by any other means — even in North Park where only about 600 people live in town and the other 600 are spread out over 2400 square miles.

Small town living has always suited me best.  I like being where individual life moments are marked with little spontaneous celebrations.  Like last Thursday when several of us ended up hanging out in the post office lobby talking about retirement and life with the postmaster on his last day of work after 25 years of being the guy we handed our packages to and bought our stamps from.  He’s taking up sheet rocking next.

There’s more flexibility in small towns.  Last December, a truck was parked outside the North Park Visitors Bureau with a For Sale sign on it.  It was precisely what was needed for some community food project work I’m connected to 80 miles away in Laramie, Wyoming.  I made a few calls, did some test driving, and through the woman who was selling it for him, convinced 86-year-old Jimmy who owned the truck, to hold onto it for almost three months until we could raise enough money to buy it.

There’s more trust in small towns, fewer locked doors.  All this balanced with practical realism, of course.  On the day I finally brought a check and picked up the truck from Jimmy, I saw him again ten minutes later.  He was riding his tricycle down Main Street, his canister of oxygen in the giant basket behind him, heading straight for the bank to deposit that check.

The problem with small towns is that you feel rigidity and intolerance more when they do raise their ugly heads.  When a married woman in town fell in love with one of my closest friends, and the two women moved in together, scandalous gossip turned to spitting on sidewalks when they passed.  It all grew into the kind of shunning a small town knows how to hone to a high art, eventually forcing the couple to leave a home they once loved.

When I travel in big cities, I protect myself by walking tall, sticking to the outside of the sidewalk, and by not making eye contact.  Living 15 miles outside a very small town, I protect myself by offering up juicy bits of gossip about my life before someone else makes it up.

Because everyone in town knows where I live, what I do, and how much I love being part of this unusual part of the world, they keep an eye on me.  When I spent a year in cancer treatment, I got cards every day from people I know only because we share a small grocery store, the same three restaurants, and vote on paper ballots at the library every November.  If I had died in the process, the coroner would have let everyone know, there would have been an announcement on the post office bulletin board, and it’s quite possible a few businesses would have shut down for my memorial service.

But the truth is that all the bad things happening in big communities are also happening here in my small town — poverty, alcoholism, drug addiction, suicide, domestic violence, gun violence, sexual abuse, bullying, racism, sexism, environmental poisoning and destruction.  In some ways it hits us harder when it does come along, because we don’t have enough people to provide emotional distance from it.

What we do have, is heart.  Hearts that have been raised on and nurtured by the breathtaking beauty of our mountains, rivers and lakes, and a long history of survival made possible by human perseverance and kindness.

A lot of us will show up for Bob’s memorial service this Saturday.  It will be the only event happening in town that day.  We’ll spend time together talking about how he spent his life on the Wamsley ranch, got his schooling in a one-room schoolhouse, rode his old gray mare in a halter rather than a bridle and bit, was one of the sweetest people we’ve ever known.  We’ll have lunch together.  We’ll mourn the loss of one of our own, just like people everywhere do.  And not at all like any place else, because this is our small town, and we know how special that makes us.

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