A September Encounter


While it saddens me to say goodbye to friends who retire elsewhere, I understand their reasons for leaving Craig. I can be as grumpy as anybody about life in my small town: the absence of shoe stores, medical specialists and grandchildren, the presence of turkey buzzards and un-muffled pickup trucks, the irritation of mosquitoes, the length of our winters. But my husband and I are content here; we will remain.

We chose to retire in Craig in large part because nature here is unbridled, immediate, a powerful presence easily accessed.

A few years ago, I experienced the natural richness of our area as I walked one of the many trails that twine like tendrils of spaghetti behind the Sandrock Cliffs north of town. The unexpected encounter riveted my attention and saturated my senses; to this day, a glimpse of furtive movement, a September sun falling on my face or the spicy smell of sage deliver it to me again.

I shared the moment  with a Sue, a friend, and her companion Eddie, a small dog of dignity, on a Colorado morning filled with the promise of perfection. Eddie was the first to notice. Romping and sniffing back and forth in front of us, he sensed another presence and froze in place, as though turned into a pillar of salt for disobedience.

Sue and I, involved in a wandering conversation, eventually became aware of Eddie’s lack of movement and, concerned, scanned the path ahead looking for him. When we found him, his intense gaze directed ours. Twelve yards to our right, a statuesque silhouette stood on the crest of a yellowed hill backlit by a blue-white sky devoid of summer’s intense luster.

“It’s beautiful,” Sue breathed with the wonder and excitement she reserves for a pot shard found on a desert bluff, a summit view of mountain peaks marching into distant clouds or the Yampa River, ice-bound and lined by frosted trees on a foggy morning.

The three of us — a dog on high alert and two talkative women pulled out of ourselves by what we saw — stood as still as the shadowed elk: its muscles quieted; its head and antlers turned toward us; each point and branch of its symmetrical spread outlined by the unpolished sky.

Eddie quivered with an electric charge of awakened instinct, his ears, like teepees, standing tall. Sue and I stared in silence, wanting to observe completely, to secure forever this September moment of motionless splendor.

The elk, the most imposing member in our stare-down, tired of it first. Our presence no longer interested him, and he told us so with a stately exit, turning in a slow, four-quarter beat, moving at a regal pace: unfrightened, unhurried, unimpressed.

We watched; and when we could no longer see him, we  exclaimed about his size, his power, his control of the situation and our joy at having had a front-row seat for his dismissive performance.

We then turned back to the trail, and Eddie again ran in front, patrolling for tantalizing smells. But an ordinary walk had been transformed to the extraordinary by our encounter with a commanding wild animal. A few blocks from our homes.

And that’s why I love living in Craig.


Moments of Clarity



Throughout my life, I experienced moments of clarity that occurred without fanfare or expectation and illuminated my future: moments of insight that arrived unbidden and surprised me with their power.

At fourteen, rather than going home after the church youth meeting as instructed by our parents, five friends and I took a joyride through the countryside in an old Ford. I climbed into the back seat with the Anderson sisters as we defied parental authority and took a joyride through a lake-tinged night.

The newly-licensed driver, the oldest among us, chattered nonstop, her ponytail swishing as she turned her head to look around, waved her hands for emphasis and ignored warning signs about an upcoming curve.

The sisters — made anxious by the speed, the darkness and the disapproval we’d face should our parents discover this crazed ride — held hands and worried in silence. But a sudden understanding liberated me and filled me with anticipation: I had lived my life based on the expectations and conventions of others; but as I traveled into my future, I would have the power of choice. My decisions, wise or foolish, would decide my future. Sensing my coming independence, I laughed aloud in the window-wind of the back seat.

At twenty, I walked across the grounds of the Wyoming State Training School with my special-needs charges: a group of happy, chattering female residents. We were returning to the ward where I worked and they lived after attending a 4th of July party where everybody danced every dance with total joy and abandon. We strolled beneath the fluttering leaves of large ash trees that filtered the light of a mellow moon and softened the lines of the institutional buildings we passed.

My mind preoccupied with thoughts of a recent break-up with a boyfriend I’d once thought perfect, full of self doubt and bleakness, I hardly noticed when Yvonne, a large woman with garbled speech, multiple disabilities and the mental age of a child, moved to my side, put an arm around me, smiled broadly and pointed at the gentleness of the glowing moon. Then, in half-swallowed words I had learned to interpret, she said, “I love you, Mom.”

In that instant, I knew as surely as I’d ever known anything, that throughout my life love would come to me from many different sources, that I would love and be loved in return. I slid my arm around Yvonne as we walked together through the shimmering night.

At sixty, sweltering in the heat and humidity of a Midwest summer, I sat on a chair shaded by an over-arching pecan tree, glad my husband Joel and our daughter Jenny were fitting and cementing stones to form a patio, while I had the easier task of entertaining grandchildren.

One child sat on my lap holding a picture book he wanted to hear “one more time, please, please, please,” while a toddler, fiercely determined, scrabbled and squeezed onto my lap as well, demanding “Me, too!”

I opened Grahame Green’s Jabberwocky and began to read.

When I married Joel, I immediately liked and became friends with his mostly grown children. Then, as they had children, I became a grandparent, responding, as grandparents do, with patience, pleasure, and love.

But always, unconsciously, I held something back, kept a part of myself in reserve, felt I was an interloper. Then, on this heat-slick day, holding two sticky boys on my lap, smelling their sun-warmed hair, I realized I had never been happier, that I loved and would protect these children and their siblings, that I was as totally committed to them as I would be if my blood ran through their veins.

Such moments of enlightenment don’t come to me often, but when they do, they enrich my life.

Giving Thanks


happy-thanksgivingLast week, I worked on my annual Thanksgiving newspaper column in which I express gratitude for small things that improve my life — duct tape, naps, peanut brittle and the death of girdles. As I generated ideas, chuckling at my wit, a question crept into my mind and interrupted my merriment: “Rather than trying to be a comedienne every year, why don’t I acknowledge the significant blessings that grace my life?”

In answer, important blessings worthy of sincere gratitude demanded my attention, and when I wrote about them, words of thanks flowed easily.

I’m grateful for autumn’s splendor when days of untrammeled sunshine softened by cool breezes make it impossible to stay indoors; when color-burnished leaves swirl around families readying for Halloween and Thanksgiving, crunch under the feet of walkers and wait in wind-drifts for the attention of children. A time when people of all ages pause, turn their faces to the sun, breathe deeply of the cinnamon-scented air and rejoice in this season that fills my heart with gratitude.

I’m thankful that through my increased online activity, I’ve re-introduced myself to my nieces and nephews. I let these precious people I knew as cuddly babies, delightful toddlers, inventive children and funny teenagers gradually withdraw from my life as they matured, moved away from my siblings’ homes, scattered across the country and became preoccupied with spouses and children of their own.

For years, I confused hearing about my nieces and nephews from their parents with learning about them through their words flavored by their personalities. But now, the youngsters who delighted me with their antics have returned as they interact with one another and me on Facebook or my blog: teasing, supporting, agreeing, disagreeing, and sharing. Occasionally, they address affectionate words and memories to me, and I feel the same rush of happiness I experienced when they were young and climbed on my lap or threw their arms around me.

I’m also grateful for the brothers and sisters who enrich my life. I used to feel alarmed when I thought about the years we had had accumulated and the inevitable outcome of having lived so many. Then I experienced the initial grief and lingering loneliness that accompanies the death of a brother and emerged thankful that my siblings and I walked life’s journey together, even as I missed Lawrence, who no longer walks with us.

Finally, I feel gratitude for the community in which I live. Every day the people of Craig bless me with smiles: the young boy walking to school who calls “Hi!” with a gap-toothed grin, the clerks and workers who glance up with a smile even at the end of a long day, the drivers who wave whether we’re acquainted or not; the parents who smile when I laugh at the cute actions of their little ones.

I know some of those who initiate a smile or return mine aren’t feeling well, are concerned about a child, are mourning a loved one, are feeling the pinch of our economic times, are lonely; yet they smile. Thus, I give thanks for them.

Happy Thanksgiving

A Conundrum


We returned to a Cedar Mountain outlined by strong-willed wildflowers. Fields of purposeful green stretched below; the untroubled sky melted away; and grasshoppers bounced off our legs.

We topped a hill and stepped into a meadow where staccato calls announced the glossy presence of magpies dressed in burnished black and white, reminiscent of penguins and nuns. Startled by our presence, the birds fled the scrub-brush where they chatted, then, their wing-beats alternating between shallow and deep, they wheeled into the sky and executed sharp turns with their rudder-like tails.

We watched as the slender-bodied birds, trailing tail feathers and reproachful calls, crossed a boulder-strewn ravine and perched on a distant juniper where, discussing our rudeness and debating our worth, they moved about restlessly, dislodging one another as though playing a graceful game of musical chairs. We watched until, tired of either their location or our attention, they took to the sky again and disappeared over a rough-backed ridge.

As we continued our hike, we talked about humanity’s split decision on the worth of the bold and showy birds we enjoyed watching. We knew from conversations with others that people hold contrasting viewpoints about the merit of magpies, opinions as stark as the black-and-white plumage of the birds in question.

When magpies are tried in the courtroom of public opinion, prosecutors claim the birds have an arrogant, entitled attitude. They feel free to collect and keep shiny objects, whether they own them or not; and they regularly dine with satisfaction on the nested eggs of their fellow birds. Thus, they, and they alone, are responsible for the dismaying disappearance of entire flocks of songbirds. No wonder folklore portrays magpies as evil. They are.

The defense responds that magpies are wondrous to watch and would never eat breeding song birds as do our adored house cats, which gobble them whenever possible. Furthermore, we humans pave and poison the landscapes where birds used to frolic and sing, so we are the culprits most responsible for their declining population. The magnificent magpies, in fact, serve humanity by destroying pesky insects and eating road kill. No wonder some nations view magpies as birds of beauty, intelligence and sturdy spirit. They are.

So, ladies and gentlemen of the jury: Are magpies innocent beauties of intelligence performing valuable community service, or are they empty-headed killers waging war on songbirds? In bird land, do they belong in beauty pageants because of their physical magnificence or in covens because of their wicked ways?

Each must decide whether to condemn  or laud magpies; but, either way, they won’t give a damn.

Rediscovering Summer

Summer: when parents push strollers through mellow evenings; laughter drifts across backyard fences; and multitudinous shades of geen shimmer in all directions.

Under the sun of summer, I’m less obsessed by what to fix for dinner and how well I slept. I stand taller, breathe easier and open more readily to spontaneity, idle chit-chat and stray dogs.

Yesterday while running errands, I stopped to visit with a friend well into her eighth decade. “I love this time of year; it makes me feel like a child again,” she said. “I used to spend my summers helping with chores mostly, but when I had time I studied anthills, watched butterflies, listened to bird song, scanned the night sky for fallings stars and walked barefoot on cool grass. There are few summers left to me now, and I like to spend them doing those same things.”

Later, remembering her words, I thought about my childhood excitement when the bus pulled away from our elementary school, and we chanted, “No more pencils, no more books, no more teachers’ dirty looks.” School and winter were vanquished; summer would never end; and the rituals of a Lake Shore childhood could begin.

To pass a self-imposed test of endurance and nerve, my siblings and I walked barefooted outdoors in the heat of the day on all available surfaces — course gravel, asphalt, the sharp edges of salt grass, baked mud and the chicken run — hopping and complaining unthinkable. When not testing our bare-foot bravado, we timed each other to see who rode the bike to the end of the lane and back the fastest. When a treacherous rut toppled us mid-ride, we wore our scabbed knees and elbows as badges of honor.

We dove or belly-flopped into the chlorine-heavy water of Arrowhead Pool and swam as far as we could underwater, carefully marking one another’s progress. Riding bareback and double, we guided our horse along country lanes framed by sugar beets and alfalfa. Those who rode behind tried not to hold on to the rider in front, even during a gallop, but usually did. When eating watermelon, we saved the heart of our piece to eat last so we could mock those less disciplined whose last taste was gnawed rind.

We held buttercups under one another’s chins, checking to see who liked butter, and split the ends of dandelion stems with our tongues, sucking on them until they curled up like a slinky. We plucked petals from daisies to discover if he loved us or loved us not and made dolls from hollyhock blossoms, which, more often than not, we threw at each other.

When young, one day melted into another and summer seemed endless. But, inevitably, our childhood summers yielded to the responsibilities and restraints of adulthood. Then, as we busily accomplished stuff, June, July and August raced by like crazed carousel horses; and we didn’t notice.

Now, like my friend, retirement has restored summer to me. Once again, I have time to focus on the elusive smell of honeysuckle, the cool breath of an evening breeze, the sight of goldfinches jostling for position on a bird feeder and the voices of children riding their bicycles pell-mell to the pool.

My summer days will never again slow to the pace they kept during my childhood, but my pleasure in them has been renewed — and they are as delicious as ever.

Oh To Be a Child in Spring                       

It pleased me when winter finally gave way to spring and children came out to play. As daytime temperatures responded to an insistent sun, young bicyclists, wearing smiles, swarmed outdoors and turned my neighborhood into a colony of happy bees.

Two sisters pedaled along the sidewalk: both in dresses with bows in their hair, both on bicycles with the shine of Christmas presents, and both singing in clear young voices. Joel and I, discussing the green shoots battling winter’s silt in our flowerbeds, stopped talking and listened. Riding together, singing together, the young cyclists echoed happiness back to us.

Then three pre-adolescent boys hooted derisively when a fourth, the last to try, attempted to jump his bicycle onto our curb and nearly toppled. Shrugging his shoulders, the youngster laughed, accepted their judgment, then pedaled after them ready to try again.

A helmeted child, relying on the security of training wheels, rode ahead of his bicycling parents and, in response to their forceful and repeated demands, stopped at the corner. When I caught his eye, he gave me a shy wave and a grin, clearly communicating, “Look at me; I’m riding a bike!”

In addition to the bicyclists, I watched teenagers down the block, a boy and his older sister, playing a hoopless basketball game in the street and following their own rules. They dribbled aggressively, guarded illegally and made fun of one another. Laughing, bumping, yelling “No fair” and stopping only when a car invaded their court, they played all day.

In the afternoon, I walked by Breeze Park where newly installed playground equipment of many colors and tiers hosted children of all ages who swung, climbed, crawled and slid on its interconnected pieces. Some inhabited the playhouse where they filled their pretend play with intense conversations and indignant corrections of one another’s behavior.

Toddlers, plopped down to play in the soft fill below the equipment, and older children competed to be first to swing their bodies across long stretches of overhead bars. Those too young to have cars and too sophisticated to play on the equipment, gathered to sit on picnic tables and exhibit teenage behaviors. Parents watched, encouraged, coaxed and caught as dogs chased frisbees across the newly greened grass in the background.

When I was a child playing the first softball game of spring in our pasture, I got into a shouting match with my brother Bob about whether my foot had been on the base when I tagged him at first: an argument I was bound to lose. Finally, giving up, I told him he was stupid, smelled like a barnyard, and I wasn’t playing his dumb game. Then I stormed into the house, slamming the screen door behind me.

After a few minutes, Bob yelled it was my turn to bat. Face saved by this peace offering, I returned to the game. But I didn’t escape retribution: As I picked up the bat, he added, “You didn’t have to be such a big bawl baby, though.” This time, I quietly accepted his words because he was right; it was a nature-bursting day; and I couldn’t stay angry.

Children know how to welcome spring.

When Will It Happen?

We couldn’t stop talking about it.

We looked through frost-free windows at visible ground, walked ice-less sidewalks, drove cars without brushing away snow, and talked about the unseemliness of these actions.

When we met, we exchanged words like unseasonal, unbelievable, eerie, and bizarre.

We questioned long-time residents: “When was the last time you saw fall fade into winter with so little snow?”

Their answers lacked consensus.

Each morning, when I raised the blinds and looked out at a scene more typical of March, I gaped in disbelief: a baby surprised by every peek-a-boo. Confused plants didn’t know whether to die or live, the grass looked over-exposed, and dormant shrubs seemed stark without a layer of snow to soften them.

Around town, lonely roof rakes leaned at the ready below unburdened eaves, and children without jackets wandered at will on bicycles usually stored in a garage by now. At the hardware store, new snow blowers wearing red coats of paint looked embarrassed, as though shamed by their lack of customer appeal.

Joel and I compared this year’s weather with four years ago when our children and grandchildren visited. They skied, skated, fanned arms and legs for snow angels, leaped out of the hot tub to roll in snowdrifts, and flew down hills on anything that would slide.

They built two snowmen: a sophisticated fellow with expressive features from the older crowd and a startling, headless version from the little ones who managed to drop six heads trying to lift them into place.

This year, had they visited, we’d have worn out all the board games first and then one another’s patience.

As we moved toward Thanksgiving, I thought about our lack of snow; and a flood of questions popped into my head:

When will it happen? How long will it last? How deep will it be?

Will we remember how to behave when our world turns white?

Will enough snowpack accumulate to meet our needs? Will the Yampa River flow enlivened and refreshed next spring or move cautiously to hoard its sparse lifeblood?

Then it happened. On Thanksgiving morning we looked out at a white carpet spread over yards, streets, and houses. By Christmas, plowed ridges of snow lined streets and blocked sidewalks; parking lots held heaps of scraped snow shaped by snowplows. Vehicles crept cautiously on snow-packed streets, and hungry deer foraged for inaccessible food.

buck in snow

A common sight during Craig’s long winters

And — when not complaining about freezing temperatures or unavoidable fender-benders — we gave thanks for the abundant snow now gracing our mountains.

Yampa in winter

A partially frozen Yampa after our first snow