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Not Exactly As Planned

I had my first cancer treatment yesterday. Not what I’d imagined I’d be doing when I returned to Minnesota after my season in Wyoming. As I wrote in November, I’d set other goals. What occurred in December got me off track. Wait. Did it?

The particulars
It’s a form of colorectal cancer. I’ll spare you the details. It’s not very common—there are no brown ribbons for it. But here in the Twin Cities, one of the colo-rectal capitals of the country (who knew?), it’s common enough to have successful protocols that lead to a cure. I have every reason to be optimistic. And so I am.

I knew when I came back to Minnesota I would have to have a polyp removed—one that the doctor said could wait when I was examined before I left for Wyoming. There were no additional symptoms that concerned me over the summer, none really, until early November.

As I became conscious in the recovery room of the hospital where I went to have the polyp snipped out, the surgeon appeared at my bed and informed me that it wasn’te as simple as a snip. Tumor. Cancer. Fixable. Six weeks of radiation and chemotherapy needed to kill the remains of the tumor. To remove it all surgically would have meant he’d have sent me home with a colostomy bag. That would have been quite the surprise. And I have a hard enough time finding shoes that fit, let alone match my accessories. Oh, and here’s a tip: always try and get bad news while under the remains of anesthesia—it’s a remarkable cushion.

Leading up to and through the holiday period, I recovered from my bottom surgery, saw medical and radiation oncologists, nurses, got my flu shot, had a chemo delivery port implanted, talked to social workers (remember, I’m self-insured, unemployed), went to Chemo Class, talked to legal folks about what to say to prospective employers, etc. The good news for me: my sisters and daughter were spending their Christmas vacations here. Accompanying me to appointments, they learned more about cancer, Minnesota-style, than I’m sure they ever wanted. Oh, and I attended a splendid New Year’s Eve dinner party with good friends. I was in position to have the cure begin on January 5.

The power of WE
Backing up a bit. After the doctor gave me the news and disappeared from my recovery bed, the nurse noticed the tear sliding down from the corner of my eye. She handed me a tissue from the box and plucked one for herself. I told her I was thinking about my daughter who was coming home from New York for Christmas. The nurse removed her glasses and dabbed her eyes. She said they were trying to phone my good friend Barb, who had offered to be my driver that day since I couldn’t drive myself home under anesthesia. They found her in the waiting room.

I’d mentioned to the nurse that I’d tell Barb about the diagnosis later—sometime, when I knew more. The nurse sternly said, “Tell her now. You must talk about this.” I did tell Barb in the dressing room. And when we got back to Barb’s house (where, thanks to her generosity, I’d been invited to live until I landed a job), she encouraged me to start informing those who should know.

I got on the phone to my sister in New York, who offered to call our siblings. I told my mother. I phoned each of my closest girlfriends. I wasn’t fully informed at that point, having to wait for days to get a sit-down with the surgeon who would start me along the path of fixing it.

“The girlfriends” came over to the house one night and I deputized my posse. We drank wine and called for “bottoms up” and the rear end humor just kept coming (“when it comes out the other end”). I stopped by my other friends’ home to deliver the news and to get their medical perspective; I sent emails and private Facebook messages. And thus, my support system began to flourish and spread. There was something so reassuring in receiving a hug and hearing my friend’s husband, who’d had his own cancer experience, say “we’ll get through this.” And so WE will.

Supported, comforted, and so busy running the cancer care racetrack, I began to notice that I never even had the big cry. Curious.

Wow. Oh Wow. It’s coming together.
I have spent the better part of two years living in Wyoming working at a seasonal job. I L-O-V-E-D it there. I believe I’ve made that point abundantly clear in previous posts. But returning home after a third season, I felt I’d gotten the clarity I was seeking. I was ready to start yet another phase of my life.

I’m opting for a full time, steady job over being self-employed. I crave the stability and structure and want to work more closely with people. I want a carefree apartment where I have my own bathroom and don’t have a 20-something roommate. That Wyoming lifestyle has run its course.

I was going to interviews and feeling confident about my value. Yoga was making my body strong and flexible. I was a week and a half into a 21-Day Meditation Challenge I was doing online (and loving it).

Then, cancer showed up. Seriously? Why now? What was at work here? My life hadn’t felt so peaceful and calm in so many years—and this happens?

So many aspects of my life seem to have curiously synchronized in the past three weeks—I’m looking for signs, a meaning.  Late last night in bed, as I squirmed with discomfort in my pelvis and winced at tweaks of pain from the needle in my chemo port, I believe I learned the answer.

Unable to sleep due to a dose of steroid that was part of my chemo treatment, I turned to a box that Barb, knowing how much I enjoyed my online meditation challenge, had lent to me. (Barb, coincidentally, is a Mindfulness Meditation teacher). This box was a kit containing a booklet and guided meditation CDs that she’d had in her library for years. So last night I popped a CD into my laptop and meditated. Boy, I needed that. But it was the accompanying book that cracked the code of mystery about this ordeal. It read:

“…there is an inner Wyoming—a potential for openness, peace, spaciousness, clarity and freedom that exists with each of us. …to make the journey to an inner Wyoming—to discover it, nurture it and be able to trust that it is there to return to even when we might have wandered away—we need to slow down…”                                                                                                                

Sharon Salzberg

After re-reading these passages, I opened iTunes, cranked up my most meaningful Wyoming road tune and the answer was revealed: without the experience of Wyoming, the healing Grand Teton mountains, I would not have gained my confidence, clarity and sense of community. I have all that now. I have the reserves to face anything with grace and ease. As much as I can muster over the next two months. I began to see how all of this was coming together.

And, with the Dizie Chicks singing through my earphones about wide open spaces, the tears began to flow. Finally. Big fat tears, full of love, support and possibility.

My soundtrack today: Grammy nominated “I’m Gonna Love You Through It” by Martina McBride (thanks Cindy C-D for making sure I heard this)

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Going Going Gone

It’s over. The last gasp has gasped. It is no more. That three-minute walking commute to work, that view of mountains across the road, the open space, that simplicity of life (eat, work, hike, socialize, sleep), the predictability, and also, the freedom. The nearly five months of mountain living in Grand Teton National Park has ceased. I’ve returned home—to my Minneapolis home. Where everything now is unpredictable, and yet, eerily, the same.

When the lodge closed its doors on the 2011 season on that Sunday morning, it was as I’d hoped and predicted: it was out of my system, I was eager (really) to move on. Indeed, the third time was the charm.

There’s always a flurry of activity at the end of the season, breaking down the lodge and the cabins, getting them ready to safely withstand the long and snowy Wyoming winter. Then there is packing up and cleaning our own cabins, where I discovered how much more stuff I had in my little space than meets the eye. And then there were the good-byes, which, in the age of Facebook,  have been made a little easier; that, and feeling that I have made friendships that will withstand the miles. I did not break down in sobs like I did the first year.

I dawdled on my way home, waking up that first morning in the comfortable guest room of a friend who lives near the town of Jackson, WY.  Lying in bed, I opened my eyes to the first rays of sun hitting the snow-dusted mountains. There was no going back to sleep with that show happening through the window.

Then there were two precious nights with the lovely man who has kept my attention for the past two seasons, followed by a very fun weekend with a girlfriend who shared my most audacious exploits over 30 years ago. As I drove away from her house in Boise, Idaho, my Western adventure came to an end.

The Tetons fade away in the side view mirror

Driving  north in Idaho toward Montana, the backside of the whole snowy Teton range appeared in the distance. Jaw-dropping. Gorgeous. And as I passed an exit sign for Jackson, WY, my heart seized with longing.

My antidote to moments like these is a list I devised of things I will NOT miss:

  • Walking to the bathhouse in the rain or in the middle of the night (or both at the same time)
  • Crappy food in the employee dining room (although there were some very good meals and an always-ready supply of ice cream)
  • Sharing my bedroom (well, that wasn’t terrible), but the quarters were close and there was little privacy
  • Witnessing a long marriage dissolve
  • Seeing drunk and/or stoned people show up for work
  • Clueless tourists (I couldn’t possibly give out another hiking map)
  •  Thinking my experience is an asset when the inference is otherwise (hard on the spirit)

It doesn’t matter so much what I do miss. That list is kept in memory and it pops up, usually in my dreams, where mountains, sagebrush and the faces of certain guests make fairly regular appearances.

The ride home on that wide-open Interstate across Montana and North Dakota was my transition—CDs, radio, dreams, all diversions for what lie ahead.

Now my attention is set on some new chapter—the first piece of which has yet to fall into place. Keeping my goal simple (and therefore quickly attainable), what I do know is that I will work at a job that offers healthcare benefits. In a fragile economy, how long will it take for a 57-year-old woman, with years of self-employment and a little off-roading (metaphorically speaking) in a national park, to get hired? Here’s my self-induced pep talk: “the past is no predictor of future occurrences” (to borrow a phrase from my investment literature), and anything can happen.

Sounds like a different kind of adventure. Starting now.

My on-the-road soundtrack: 8 Hour Drive by Lynn Miles

As Luck Would Have It

I’m the luckiest person in the world.
Am I the only person to have this kind of moment? When a nearly tangible wave of pure contentment—a little stirring in the gut—gives rise to the realization that Lady Luck, Providence, my Fairy Godmother, or whomever, is routing for ME. And all is right in the world. At least at that moment.

I had one of those moments recently and I paid close attention to how it unfolded, so I could savor the feeling.  It came over me while seated in the center of the concert hall in Teton Village, where I was hearing the Grand Teton Music Festival Orchestra perform. I’d finished my job that day in enough time to take the 45-minute drive to Festival Hall and get a $10 rush ticket (fortune was smilin’ already). Half way into the program’s first piece it happened: stirred by the music, the sensation bubbled up inside me:

I am the luckiest person in the world to be sitting where I am at this moment, listening, seeing and feeling…well, blessed.

Nestled in that comfort, I was ready for the debut of a commissioned piece, “All Things Majestic” from the composer Jennifer Higdon, in which she expresses her impression of the Tetons via 99 musicians on stage. Ahhhh. Those kinds of chills don’t occur often, which makes it especially noticeable when they do.

Maybe I should begin cataloging these waves of blessed contentment. Would I notice a pattern? Does it occur in proximity to an art form or performance? Does it happen when I’m already feeling confident, or when I need a boost after a rough patch? Does it matter whether I’m alone or in someone else’s company? Just curious. Not necessarily looking to create conditions that produce more of the same. I rather like the intermittent, stealth appearance. It can happen any time. If I stay conscious, notice, I’ll recognize its arrival.

What do your moments look like? Hands around a hot cup of aromatic tea, watching waves lap at your toes, looking fabulous in the dressing room at Banana? When does everything feel totally right in your world?

My soundtrack today: “Luck Be a Lady Tonight,” Sinatra, of course.

The Nature of Nature

How to write about nature?

Here I am, in the middle of so much nature. This is the kind of place where conversations among friends frequently halt mid-sentence because it’s necessary to interject a remark about the beauty around us. “Wow” is an overused word here. So are “spectacular” and “awesome.” The intense beauty we witness often causes  palpable pain, i.e., it’s so beautiful it hurts.  This “nature” effect prompts my desire to dissect its parts, discover the formula and gain some sort of understanding of its power.

I’m  aware, also, that there are people for whom nature’s effect is merely a tentative or vague pleasantness.  These people are as bewildered by my exuberance for the physical world as I am about their lack of it (“my idea of camping is the Motel 6”). My daughter, for example, now says after having visited me here, that the skyline of Manhattan does for her what the landscape of Western Wyoming does for me. To each her own.

But back to dissecting the nature of nature. Here’s my problem: in attempting to describe the effect of this deeply natural place, what observations could I possibly muster that haven’t already been described by nature writers more eloquent than I? I’ve been pondering this question and have come to the conclusion that I can only give it my best shot, and take an assist from those whose words resonate best with me.

I am simply seduced by nature. In its midst, my eyes widen to take it all in; my throat tightens because there’s something I want to express, but can’t; my chest expands with a fullness that may be excitement. Full, but at the same time, speechless. It’s a feeling worth experiencing again and again. In the Tetons, I am in a “cathedral of nature,” surrounded by the spectacular—a feast of breathless and restorative beauty. I share the beliefs of the mid-19th century transcendentalist  writer Ralph Waldo Emerson and his followers:

“If you want to know God first hand, the way to do that is not to enter a cathedral, not to open a book, but to go to the mountain top. And on the mountain top, there you will see God as God truly is in the world.”*

There’s this awesome landscape in Grand Teton National Park: the distinctively craggy young mountain range, of course, but also, wide swaths of flat valley loaded with two-tone shades of sagebrush and dotted with tress. A pristine and preserved area of land. The Snake River (which has been running ferociously after the winter’s record snowpack), cuts through the valley and travels on for a thousand miles, and there are lakes upon lakes—some of which I’ll never see because they are so high up in the mountains. I’m rather proud of all the wildflowers I can name when I hike. My favorites, Indian Paintbrush (pictured in the masthead above) and  Scarlet Gilia; prolific Buckwheat,  Sticky Geranium, delicate Lupine and Larkspur, bright Buttercup—so plentiful they overflow the senses and fill guide books.

Light is very important here:  the way it casts shadows over the rolling hills and how it affects the clouds that drift over from the Idaho side of the Teton range. At sunset (the sun falls on the other side of the mountains,  in Idaho), the clouds over here turn soft pink or blaze orange. Wispy pink clouds on a baby blue sky …

The full moon shines so brightly that it’s customary for lodge employees to do a six-mile midnight hike up (way up) to Inspiration Point and back. I prefer to stay on the ground, where the moon works better than a flashlight.

This is what nature does—has always done—for me:

  • It helps me see a universe that is bigger than my own
  • It diminishes my problems
  • It soothes and comforts
  • It inspires wonder and delight, literally taking my breath away
  • It substitutes for sex

Terry Tempest Williams is a a contemporary nature writer whose eloquence doesn’t need to resort to bullet points:

“We see the great peaks mirrored in water.   Stillness, fullness, renewal.  Reflection leads us to restoration.”

For those of us with minds that crave rejuvenation or healing, I encourage finding some nature to wallow in. It’s awe-inspiring (in the truest sense of the word) and restorative. And if you don’t believe me, heed environmentalist and writer Rachel Carson:

 “Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.”

My cathedral is majestic—built of clouds, mountains, rivers, lakes, animals and glorious vistas. It’s where I gain perspective, peace, strength. Amen.

My soundtrack today: “Amaze Me” by Girlyman

*This quote appears in Episode One of Ken Burns’ “The National Parks, America’s Best Idea.” I believe historian William Cronan is quoting Emerson.

The Mating Game

This was meant to be posted over two weeks ago, so the time references that appear are dated. There is a sorry lack of WiFi where I live, so I’ve learned I have to be in an area with a stronger signal to work on WordPress. I will adjust accordingly.

I arrived in western Wyoming May 25. By now I’ve settled into my cabin—the same one I was in last year—at base of the Grand Tetons, my home for over four months. It’s always interesting arriving here, meeting the new roommate, getting to know my new co-workers from around the world. This experience is so much different from the first time  I came here in 2009, and I’m enjoying the comfort that comes from  familiarity. I have great empathy for those stepping into a new situation.

Here we are, all thrown together. Over the course of the first four days, our goal was to learn our jobs and open the lodge for the season on May 30. It’s intense—especially for those who aren’t used to being away from home. But eventually it all comes together, and inside of our first three weeks, we managed to form both social and workplace bonds. We’re all in this together.

I like the part about getting to know people. For me, it’s gradual—a conversation in the women’s bath house or on a road trip to town; post dinner talks in the employee cafeteria, hanging around the campfire or riding shotgun on a bar run. There are all sorts of small occasions to get to know one another. There are more “older” people to keep me company here this year. To qualify as “older,” one has to be mid-40s. Admittedly, my peers are not all that interesting. Not when compared to the 20-something set. Now that’s interesting.

No time to lose
The young crew, many fresh out of college and with varying degrees of work experience, seem to have their own language for getting to know one another. Night after night they gather outside various cabins, drink beers or vodka or Capt. Morgan, sit around the campfire and talk. They’ll hit town for Whiskey Wednesday, swing dance at the Cadillace or caravan to neighboring lodge bars. They size each other up and … the mating game begins.

In keeping with my past two years here, the boys and girls are generally paired off by the third week. This is risky business:  hooking up with someone you’re living and working with. But it’s inevitable. Cute kids stuck in the same remote place for four and a half months. It’s a charged atmosphere. They have to move fast because they don’t want to be the last one standing.  Not everyone gets chosen and I wonder how that feels. Actually, I remember exactly how that feels.

One young man I know from last year asked me to put in a good word about him to one of my teammates. But it appears he’s lost ground to a rival. By now it has become more obvious—who’s pairing up with whom. Or who longs for whom. Or who’s teasing whom.

There will be the drunken “mistakes” and subsequent awkwardness when they see each other at work. But somehow, this annual rite of spring works itself out. Despite the Peyton Place this employee village has a tendency to become, I’ve never witnessed any big dramas that had a serious impact (in an earlier year, though, it came close to a melt-down that was thankfully avoided).

This is a good thing. Because we’re all in this together—in our little community of 20-30-40-50-60-somethings in the mountains.

My soundtrack today: “New York City” by Mason Jennings.

Running Away From Home

I’m doing it  … again. I’m running away from home. Actually, I’m trying out a different perspective. Consistent with my increasingly positive attitude about life in general (and mine, specifically),  “running away,” has become “I’m running to.”  In this case I’m running to:

  • Open space
  • A simple life
  • Mountains
  • Hikes and bike rides
  • Cowgirls
  • Community living
  • Punching a time clock
  • Meeting lots of people
  • Peace and  Insight

The next two weeks will be devoted to organizing my life so that I can head out to a seasonal job in Wyoming.  You might say I’ve been down this road before—twice, in fact, in 2009 and 2010. So, this third time’s the charm. I’m sure of it.

I’ve had a precious opportunity to reinvent myself and consider what I want the rest of my life (or the foreseeable future) to look like. And boy has it been a process! When it originally started two years ago, I thought I’d have my life figured out in six months, but I confess I’m still saying, “I don’t know,” more often than I probably should. On several occasions I’ve questioned whether this “timeout” is age appropriate.

A little background
It began with selling my house in 2009, mercifully right before the real estate crash. Undecided about where I’d live next, I weighed some options. After research on CoolWorks.com, a web site advertising seasonal work primarily in National Parks, I made the leap and applied for jobs in Grand Teton National Park. Ever grateful to the man who took a chance by hiring (over the phone, no less!) a middle-aged woman whose previous hotel experience was over 20 years ago, I landed a job at a small, high-end mountain lodge where I’d also be housed and fed. Housing problem solved! I chronicled the horror and delight of my transition from owning a home to living in a cabin with roommates in an article for More.com early in my first season.

For each of the past two years, when my contract was completed, I left Wyoming thinking I would not return to the job. Now as I prepare for my third season, we can see how that turned out. Each time, though, I’ve struggled with the decision about whether to go back (I struggle with decisions in general, but that’s another post entirely).  There’s the rational pragmatist trying to beat some sense into the creative dreamer, and the dreamer resisting the threat to her freedom. The pull (or more precisely, the yanking) can be downright exhausting. But now it’s settled and I’m returning to the mountains to absorb anything I previously may have left behind.

It’s no place like home
I crave the simplicity of seasonal life in the mountains. My domestic responsibilities involve only a small part of a small cabin.  Meals are cooked—I just show up and eat. I go to my eight-hour shift at the front desk or as concierge. Afterward I develop and nurture friendships over a glass of wine or a White Russian at the local establishment, check out Facebook, and read or write. I try to never miss a sunset, hike daily, bike after dinner, ride the occasional horse, or paddle the canoe. This business of being immersed in nature really appeals to me: “awesome,” “thrills,” “joy” are at the top of my vocabulary list when I’m there.  And that easy-going western lifestyle—with all that open space and sagebrush—is so unlike home. I’ll be looking for a way to somehow bottle “mountain essence” and bring it back to Minnesota in October. I’ll rub it into my skin so every fiber of me absorbs it, and design a life where I feel like I do in Wyoming.

Don’t misunderstand, I like my life at home in Minneapolis where I have close, fun friends and there’s always lots to do. If I stuck around for the Twin Cities’ beautiful summers instead of their long winters, I’d love to be here even more. But life at home is different—you don’t realize how different until you’ve had an experience of being away and living simply for a serious length of time.

Moving at my own speed
It’s been a process, this quest—for clarity, peace and ease, fulfillment, and relatedness. And it takes on an added curiosity (or urgency?) inside the wisdom of my age. How do I take my insight and experience, and make this time of life extraordinary?

I get it: running away from home isn’t all that productive. Moving forward, however pokey I may be, is. I’m getting there. Third time’s the charm 😉

My soundtrack today: Wide Open Spaces by the Dixie Chicks

(800) 989-8255

(in honor of National Poetry Month)
Earlier this week, I pulled off the road into a parking lot to do an Internet search on my iPhone.  Neal Conan broadcasts his phone number time and again, but I can’t manage to commit it to memory long enough to dial. So I was searching for the number to call the NPR program, Talk of the Nation. I was unsuccessful in quickly finding the number, so I pulled out my notebook and a pen and waited for Neal to announce the call-in number again. While I waited I formulated my thoughts. I wanted to talk to his guest, Billy Collins.

This didn’t happen, because instead of repeating the call-in number (800-989-8255), Neal wrapped up the segment with Billy. It was over. I love Billy Collins. So do several of my girlfriends. We think he’s a rock star. Seriously. He makes my heart jump (as it did when I heard him on the radio) nearly as much as Bruce Springsteen does. But Billy’s not a rock star. He’s a poet—a former poet laureate of the nation, in fact.  I attribute my renewed love of poetry to him and he’s had similar impact on my friends.

Several years ago, one of my girlfriends suggested that we all attend a literary event at which Billy would be speaking and reading his poetry. I’d never heard of Billy Collins, but sure, why not try something different? My love affair with poetry spanned several phases of my life, beginning my senior year in high school when my poetry teacher let us analyze our favorite song for a class presentation (mine  was “Ladies of the Canyon” by Joni Mitchell). In college, Sylvia Path and Robert Frost were my go-to poets. But in later years, my relationship with poetry was only casual.

Oh, we were thrilled with the poetry event at the synagogue; on the edge of our seats, hanging on every word as Billy enraptured us. We were by turns in the throes of laughter and then touched to the point of tears by his verse. So unpretentious, like everyman; we wanted to grab him and escape for cocktails after the reading. We didn’t. But it spurred another thought.

Instead of sitting around someone’s house just swilling wine on a Friday night, we thought, why not do something more productive with our time? That is how “Martinis and Poetry” began. While the cocktail menu may have changed (and thus the name of our group), we continued to have several Poetry Society get-togethers. Each of us would bring a poem or two to read aloud. While this was a new genre to some of us, we plunged in fully. Reciting, listening, laughing so hard, quietly wiping away tears, and requesting repeat performances because the visions in our minds’ eyes were so lucid we wanted them appear again. I treasure our experience in sharing—such unexpected insights into each other.

Billy Collins wasn’t the only poet on our playlist, of course. Garrison Keillor’s compilations pointed us to unfamiliar names. We became acquainted with Mary Oliver’s view of the natural world and bought tickets to her appearance when she came to town. As our Poetry Society grew in number, the more poetically inclined of us opened the doors wider, introducing additional voices.

His critics say that Billy is too accessible (read commercial). I guess that means he’s not esoteric enough. Imagine! A poet who wants to bring his readers along instead of leaving them scratching their heads and giving up in frustration.

Not to rush the divine plan, but I’ve selected one of Billy’s poems to be read at my memorial service. Here’s the first part of “The Dead”:

The dead are always looking down on us, they say,
while we are putting on our shoes or making a sandwich,
they are looking down through the glass-bottom boats of heaven
as they row themselves slowly through eternity.

At our Poetry Society get-togethers my friends and I experienced how the genre invites us to slow down, be challenged, contemplate the small, stir our imaginations, and discover what touches us.

I appreciate Billy for all the joy he spawned at the reading we attended years ago. I pulled into the parking lot wanting so much to let him know.

My soundtrack today: Neal interviews Billy