Swede Lane

Yesterday my neighbor and I went on adventure to the Rio Grande County (we live in Rio Grande County 🙂 ) museum in Del Norte. My friend is Swedish and my grandma was,  so when I heard of a Midsommar Celebration. I suggested we go. It was billed as a celebration of the Swedish heritage of the San Luis Valley. It was an all-day reception with a talk about the handful  of Swedish families who settled in the San Luis Valley.

Behind us, about a mile, is “Swede Lane.” Why? Well, as might be obvious, it’s where many Swedish immigrants settled toward the end of the 19th century.

Hundreds of thousands of Swedes left Sweden for America at the end of our Civil War, like my great-grandparents who settled in Minnesota. Of the families who came, here, one of them struck it rich in a gold mine but used his money to enrich his farm in Kansas. There’s something about those values that is solid and very sweet. Mostly they just put down their roots and farmed their farms.

After the talk, my friend and I wandered around the small and charming Rio Grande County Museum. Like a lot of small town, rural museums it has beautiful displays of things that are meaningful to the people here but that you’d never find in a big city museum. Among them was a huge quilt made of individual squares decorated by women of a Ladies Aid Society for the 50th wedding anniversary of another one of their members.

Only in a rural museum like this one would you find photos of the first doctors and their wives, books containing transcriptions of interviews of early settlers just there for people to read. It’s the kind of place a person could spend half a day to experience everything completely, not the kind of place you rush through. All the exhibits show affection, respect and even reverence.

In her talk, the presenter spoke about the families who have lived in the San Luis Valley for hundreds of years. She is a descendant of these families. Many of the names in the valley are the same names as those settlers — notably the Hispanic names, but not only. She was clearly proud of the deep roots – including Swedish roots – she has here and shares with others. As she talked I thought about human nature. Some of us can’t stay home, whatever that is. I don’t feel I have roots anywhere. Home has always been a base. Even when I thought I was “home” I wasn’t. For me it’s always been temporary. My family roots are in Montana, but I’m not.

Though this might be a rather cringe-worthy image, it seems that some of us are snails, carrying our psychic house with us wherever we go. Some of us are earthworms, digging in deep.






I listened to my friend recount a moment in her life — a long moment — but a moment that began with, had clearly been enhanced by, that potent potion, yearning — and I thought, “I know about that.”

“I had to stop it. It was a long distance relationship, you know? We didn’t see each other much. I had to figure out was it real? Or was it the adventure? The alcohol? What was it?”

She couldn’t see inside my head, to every little brain cell nodding in total comprehension, saying, “I know exactly what you mean.”

There is a belief in Hinduism that everything in our world, ourselves, our lives, is a kind of illusion. I thought about that for a while and then thought, “Yeah, but on a practical level, how is that useful? I still have to live here.” But there is the point that none of this is real, and there is reality somewhere.

The idea behind the Hindu notion of Maya, illusion, is that we exist as a dream in the mind of the universe. That makes all our squabbles and terrors and delights pretty minor as we are nothing but a dream in the mind of god. I get that. My life makes no more sense to me than do most of my dreams. In fact, last night — again — I dreamed about deception and subtle, sinister plots. It seemed very real that someone would have sewn scorpions, snakes and spiders into the hem of a skirt. Sure. Why not? And it seemed equally likely that when I was about to kill the scorpions, snakes and spiders with a heavy book, someone would have given me a different skirt and I would be left wondering if I had been wrong about the scorpions, snakes and spiders in the first place. Had I deceived myself? Had I been deceived?

Or is that idea just part of the illusion?

You’d think that if there is illusion there has to be reality, or illusion IS the reality. I thought about that seriously 25 years ago. And then I went nuts. Truly.

The difference between Truth and Belief is sometimes non-existent and sometimes as wide as the universe. Desire amplifies the power of illusion, “If wishes were horses…” I try to remember that though something feels “real,” and I believe in it with all my heart,it may still not be real.

These days, when I identify an illusion, I look at it and I ask this question, “Is this illusion useful to me as a human being? Does it improve my life and my interaction with other people? Does it hurt anyone and is it likely to hurt me? Do I KNOW — in full consciousness — what I am seeing and basing my actions on?” Why? Because some illusions are useful. 🙂





(Warning! Not the most interesting post you will ever read. It’s about a longterm relationship and as we know, they are long slogs from time to time.)

A garden is a commitment.

When I moved here nearly three years ago, I wasn’t sure about having a garden. First because there was a nice lawn all around the house, and, second, there is a sprinkler system. I thought, “Wow. Low maintenance. I’ll just have to mow.” This seemed like a break after the 1/4 acre of dirt and foxtails I’d been fighting with for eleven years in the mountains of Southern California. Out of that wilderness — populated by gophers — I’d managed to carve out couple of flower beds, but it was constant labor to keep things under some kind of control. And you can forget controlling gophers…

The first summer I learned I’d rather go at a plot of ground with a pick-axe than mow. I hate mowing the grass. I do it, but I’m out there pushing the mower, muttering, “I hate this, I f@*&ing hate this.”

I understand that a sprinkler system is a labor saving thing and so on, but it turned out that don’t like it. It means one cannot freely sling one’s pick-axe. One must worry about hitting a sprinkler. Raised beds seemed the answer, but what did I know about that?

The first spring, I tentatively made a commitment to a garden. I planted peonies and stargazer lilies that March. The lilies have done well every year (so far)

Stargazer lily, summer 2016

The peonies finally bloomed this year.

Pink Peony, June 2017

I needed to grow tomatoes and basil because I love caprese, and you can’t have that without tomatoes and basil. Home grown tomatoes are better than store bought (as everyone knows) and fresh basil is essential. That winter I had started tomatoes and some flowers in the house, so when spring arrived (or what, with my still-California mindset I thought was spring) I dug two flower beds in the back yard (now the dog’s yard) and put the tomatoes in containers. Everything grew. When fall arrived, I ordered a giant bulb assortment from Breck’s, dug more beds planted spring bulbs, daffodils and tulips and crocus and some other stuff but ran out of space and gave the rest of the bulbs away. Oh well…

Last summer I tried a big fabric raised bed and put flowers in it. I bought tomatoes at the nursery instead of starting them myself. The flowers were grand, but the tomatoes never really did anything.

Last year’s flowers, tomatoes, basil and Rosemary

Meanwhile I’d ordered fancy iris from Brecks and had iris last spring. When fall came around, my neighbor gave me dozens of iris and I had to plant them right away, so now the garden has iris that I will have to move this year, but that’s OK.


My next door neighbor — who is an amazingly talented gardener — gave me some plants so I dug more beds. Then, this week, I found a hardy hibiscus at the grocery store and decided to bring it home and put a little California in my Colorado garden. So far she seems happy.


This past winter I again started tomatoes in the house (I like growing things from seeds), a little too early, but they don’t seem to mind that. When it got (absurdly) warm in March and April, I decided to build the raised bed kits I ordered three years ago. The fabric raised bed looked pretty grim after the winter, so I shoveled out the dirt and tossed it.

I had big plans, but the big load of dirt to realize these big plans didn’t arrive, so it was A Little Lady dragging several 85 pound dirt bags into the back yard. Now there are two raised beds; one is wild flowers (it’s doing too well) and the other vegetables — tomatoes, basil, Swiss chard and zucchini. I’ve already eaten chard from my garden. I remember, now, why a vegetable garden is so great — it’s a supermarket in your backyard. Next year, I’m growing more vegetables.


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I love paper the way Imelda Marcos loved shoes and in my “art room” there is a pretty good — if small — collection of beautiful handmade papers. Paper is a miraculous thing.

When I started writing Martin of Gfenn, a novel about an artist set in 13th century Zürich, Martin had paper. Then I learned that he could not have had paper because Northern Europe did not have paper and even the exotic, cosmopolitain trading center of Venice had only two or three sheets brought in from Asia. Yep. It was very difficult for me to imagine being an artist without paper, but Martin had to succeed at that and I had to write so no one reading it would feel the absence, would feel — as I felt — that Martin had a big challenge. No one’s challenged by the absence of something that has not yet existed, right? I couldn’t really do it until I acquired my own small piece of parchment. Wow. I have kept it safe for a decade and don’t think I’ll ever do anything worthy of its surface.

THEN I had to consider that every animal back then was skinned and many of the skins were made into something to write on. Squirrel skin was especially prized for parchment. However, squirrel pelts were also highly valued for the linings of rich peoples cloaks… I began to imagine incredibly high prices for dead squirrels, and that led me to imagine a completely different economy. In fact, the problem of paper more than any other thing, awakened me to the fact that the 13th Century was an alien world.

When paper paper took off, the squirrels must have been really, really, really happy about it.

Early paper was made from something plentiful in medieval times — linen rags. There are echoes of this in some papers used for stationary (Classic Laid) and for charcoal drawings in which you can see the “laid,” the way the fibers were pressed. Laid paper was all there was for the first 500 years of European paper making.

I’ve made paper — recycled paper made from, uh, paper, and fibers and leaves. My brother taught me and I made it on my stove, using macaroni and/or rice for binder. It was fun and I did a few paintings with it. I didn’t have a lot of the fancy tools or expertise many other people have. I had only an old silkscreen and pressed the pulp by hand. I am pretty sure everything I made that way has disintegrated by now — I don’t have any of it. I sold the two or three pieces.

There is an art supply store in Denver — Meiningers — that in these days has, of course, branched out to more than one store, that sells more kinds of paper than any place I know, except the vast world of the Internet. I recently bought a selection of papers — and I think the most beautiful papers come from India and Japan. Since I’m not an artist any more, I don’t know what I’ll do with it, but it’s there, safely rolled and cared for.


Mi Familia Mexicana, un Sueño

“I should’ve found a nice Mexican guy, married him, had lots of kids, been part of a huge extended family, had great barbecues in the backyard with tequila and carne asada, and done the Mexican two-step under colored lights on the concrete patio. That’s what I should’ve done with my life.”

“What are you talking about?”

“It would have simplified things like getting my roof fixed. Chayo’s cousin would’ve been a roofer.”

“OK, seems a little nuts to me. You wouldn’t have been able to do the things you’ve done if you’d taken that road.”

“Yeah, but, here I am at the end of the day and all I’m worried about is a broken garage door and a hole in my garage roof. That has, by the way, been the story of my life.”

“What if Chayo’s brother wasn’t a roofer? What if he was, I dunno, a biochemist?”

“That’d be OK. Because Lupe’s cousin Tomás would’ve been a roofer.”

“Who’s Lupe?”

“You know Lupe. She’s my sister-in-law’s half sister?”

“Good god.”

“I love those families. Some of the best times of my middle years were at those parties, sitting around laughing at everything at nothing.”

“You understood them?”

“Hablo Español, dork. No muy bien, pues suficiente.”

“I forgot. I would’ve been out of the loop.”

“That’s your fault. Anyone can learn another language. I always thought it was funny when I sat between a grandma and her grandkid and translated.”

“I guess it must have been funny.”

“I loved it. Going to baby showers, drinking tequila, laughing. Lots, and lots of laughing.”

“From what you’ve told me, some of those parties got pretty violent.”

“The teenagers, but not when the whole family was there and a little kid was trying to bash a piñata. You don’t know. It’s an experience you never had. But I had it and I’m grateful for it. Amo la cultura Mexicana con todo mi corazon. And, I wish I’d married Chayo and SOMEONE in the family could fix my damned garage.”


P.S. Small political statement. I believe that our society is enriched by immigrants. My life would have been — and would be — much less if I had not had the chance to know people from many different cultures and nations. I believe that foreign languages should be taught in our schools starting in kindergarten and not as a “subject” but as a real language. I believe that isolating the US is one of the biggest mistakes of the current administration.



Curmudgeon du Jour

“Bye, bye missed American Pie, put the petal to the meddle but the Levis were dry.”

“What? Those aren’t the words.”

“They’re not?”

“I hate that song. In the first place it’s sappy. Second, it’s way too long and third, it’s an ear worm.”

“You’re in a great mood.”

“Shut up.”

“How’d you sleep?”

“Not great.”

“Leg cramps again?”

“Yeah. It could be worse. I am not going to say, ‘Getting old is not for sissies’.”

“No, please don’t say that.”

“You know, I thought retirement would be different.”


“I thought it would be time for me to be completely impractical most of the time, but no. It’s the same shit. Broken plumbing, car payment, a garage that needs work, lawn to mow, no money.”

“That’s just life. I don’t think you can get away from it — well you can, but…”

“Even that’s a problem. I had to organize all that ahead of time.”

“So did you?”

“Most of it. But, you know I live in a small town and…”


“You want some coffee?”

“Love some.”




A New Way to Read


Yesterday was a big day for me in a very small way. For the last months I’ve been clearing out the relics. All that remains of upward of 20 boxes in the garage are three bins of stuff and three boxes of books. I think I could go out there today and dump the bins into the trash can, but I won’t. Still, after loading a friend’s car with boxes of books to take to a bigger city to sell or donate, I don’t want more books in my life. I still have plenty that I could box up and donate or sell, but as they’re in shelves and not bothering anyone, I’m leaving them be.

Then I learned yesterday of a new biography of Goethe, GOETHELife as a Work of Art By Rüdiger Safranski, translated by David Dollenmayer

The NYT doesn’t give the book a glowing review — Anglo-centered wretches that we are — saying:

“Safranski’s book (a best seller in Germany) is aimed squarely at a German readership of Bildungsbürger, educated and tolerant of abstractions and paraphrases. It doesn’t feel the need to locate Goethe for a non-German readership. Safranski is an energetic writer, without much refinement or subtlety. Dozens of obscure names scoot past the reader’s eye with nary a word of introduction or presentation.”

BUT I could not read that review yesterday because the NYT shut me out for not subscribing. I went on Amazon. There was the book in Kindle and as a hardback book of nearly 700 pages. All I could think of was, “Damn, another book,” and that far outweighed (ha ha) my desire to read it. I put it in my “cart” without buying it and went on with my day, but, but, but…

Later I thought, “What if I had a Kindle?” I went back to Amazon and priced Kindles. I didn’t want to spend $80 for the lowest priced eReader then I thought, “Wait. I have an iPad.” It might be nearly 10 years old, and I might not use it very much, but I do have an iPad. And, for the first time made the conscious decision to read that way. I downloaded the book and, so far, I like it a LOT. Exactly what annoyed the NYT reviewer makes me happy. Another reviewer wrote that the book is not great for someone who doesn’t know Goethe’s oeuvre, which sounds slightly obscene, but I am familiar with Goethe’s work as would be many of the German readers of this book (for whom it was actually written), so I’m happy. The author relied on primary sources, letters, Goethe’s own work and I like that, too. Anyway, the author’s unrefined, energetic prose captivated me and the fact that it will not go on some shelf in this house was a relief.

Reading the review this morning I was struck by the fact that this reviewer thinks it’s a bad thing to assume one’s readers are, “…educated and tolerant of abstractions and paraphrases…”




“C’mon MAK. Let’s go for a ride.”

“Where are you taking her?” My mom was angry at me again for something.

“There’s a record at the music store I want to look at, Helen. C’mon, MAK. Get your coat.”

I put on my ski jacket. It was the early 60s, I was 14, and the jacket was pure — and new — fashion. It was reversible. One side a flowery pattern in mostly orange, the other side — the usual side for me — black because I didn’t like orange.

“Listen, MAK,” my dad said turning the key in the ignition. “Stay away from your mom when she’s been drinking. Some people are funny when they’ve been drinking. Some people are mean. Your mom’s mean. When she’s like that, just get away.”

We backed out of the driveway.

What was he talking about? I was already living in the disconnect a lot of kids of an alcoholic parent live in. But from then on I took my dad’s advice and got out when the fireworks began.

In the wings of our lives was a move from Nebraska back to Colorado, my dad’s soon-to-be-rapid physical decline from Multiple Sclerosis, my family’s disintegration. That night we stood in the neon-lit music store in Bellevue, Nebraska and bought an album, Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme. Most of my generation knows this one, grew up with this one, but one song was particularly important to my dad.



I have a garden and stuff is growing in it. Some of it is blooming, too. The peonies I planted three years ago bloomed this year — it’s my fault that I did not protect the buds from freezing in past years, but live and learn.

The late hard frost meant very few lilacs this spring. The frost was hard on the iris, too, but some made it into bloom before and some after; those caught in bud in between suffered the most.

The yellow rose that has been in my yard since godnose how long — maybe as long as the house has been here — has been poorly since I moved in. It’s a nasty rose, covered with grasping thorns, and somehow I was just never quite sure what to do with it. Each year it pumped out some blossoms then faded into a white-fly ridden mess of faded leaves.

But this year I decided, “OK, rose, you bloom every June no matter what. I’m cleaning the ground around you, I’m going to fertilize you and do something about your parasites. I hope you end up happy about it.” She’s very happy.


The downside of the rose (beyond the thorns) is that it spreads like a son-of-a-bitch, as does everything else — aspen, lilac and elm. It’s a war out there, I tell you, a war. This is the season of pulling minuscule elm-trees out of the places they don’t belong. You have to give it to elm tree, though. They bloom first and with an inspiring ferocity. “Nobody likes us. We gotta’ get out there and on that ground before anyone else and before the humans notice.” I know they think this.

baby elm trees

I’m not a great gardener. I’m just a person who putzes around the yard. I like best the gardens that grow on their own hook out there in “nature” (it still seems weird to me that “nature” is a place apart from my house and yard, but there it is). I am attempting such a garden in my yard. I bought wildflower seeds and followed the directions for sowing them. I do not think that the people who wrote those directions expected the results I have gotten. At the back, near the fence, I planted a Colorado Columbine. This thing is a dense mass of sprouts which I have thinned and thinned. Still…


Even Bear, seeing this as a cool place to lie down after a walk, had no effect on its determination to grow like crazy. I’m very eager to see what the flowers will be — I recognize some of the plants — sweet alyssum, flax, cornflower and California poppy — but what else is there???

Another seed I planted is Love in the Mist. A few years ago one or two came up after I scattered wildflower seeds in a small garden. I had never seen such a lovely thing before. I bought seeds — 1/4 pound — and shared with everyone around, so maybe it will be a big winner in my literal corner of the world.

Love in the Mist

Last but not least — though no blossoms, yet — is my little veggie garden. Tomatoes, basil, chard and zucchini.


After all…

Garden sign:mine



The Stucco Angel

Back in the late 90s, my brother — an incorrigible drunk — was picked up by the cops, taken to a hospital, dried out for four weeks (at the government’s expense because he was indigent), sent to rehab, brought back from rehab, put in a motel with a few bucks to get him started. Naturally, he got drunk. At that point he realized that he had no place to live. His landlord had evicted him from his apartment. All the money left him by my mom through the sale of her house was gone, apparently stolen from under his mattress by his drinking buddies. In short, he was up shit crick without a paddle.

I’d been given strict instructions from his social worker not to help him, not to send him money, to do what I could to push him into sobriety. He had already told me how little sobriety interested him, but…

So one late afternoon the phone rang. “Martha Ann? This is Kirk. Your brother.” I only ever had the one but this is what he always said when he called. “I just want you to know I’m OK. I’m living at the Montana Rescue Mission. It’s nice and they’re giving me a job.”

My brother was living at a rescue mission. I didn’t know what that meant, how to take it, nothing. I was numb inside from two years of trauma in my family — my mom dying, my brother self-destructing all while trying, in my own life, to patch things up and hold them together.

While I was on the phone, there was a knock at my front door. “Someone’s at the door. You want to call me back?” He said he’d call me the next day.

A neat and clean, poorly dressed man about 40 stood there with a stenographer’s notebook and a bag over his shoulder holding flyers.

“I’m here to invite you to a Thanksgiving Dinner.”


“At the San Diego Rescue Mission. It’s $2.50 a ticket.”

I felt very strange hearing that. “I’ll take two tickets.” I thought one for me, one for Kirk. “Do you live there?” I asked him.


“Can you tell me what it’s like living at a rescue mission? I just talked to my brother on the phone and he’s living at a rescue mission now. He’s an alcoholic.”

“I can tell you.”

So we sat down on the stoop and he told me all about himself. His name was John and he’d been a drunk and a druggy, he said. Lost everything to his habits but he really wanted to be sober this time. He was a soft-spoken man, without the inexplicable charisma a lot of users have. “God will help your brother, if he lets Him.”

I didn’t doubt that.

“It will be good for your brother. He’ll be with a lot of people like him who are trying to do better. It’ll be easier for him without the pressure of all the people outside who judge and aren’t fighting that demon.”

I could see the logic there. We talked for nearly an hour and then he said, “I have to invite more people. What’s your brother’s name? This is my prayer list.” He showed me the steno notebook. “These are the people I pray for every day. I’ll add your brother’s name.”

“Kirk Kennedy.”

So my brother’s name went into that book and John was on his way with $5 for the dinner. I set my two tickets on the table and went out back to be with my dogs, never thinking I’d ever see John again, but I was wrong. He came by two weeks later to check on me.

“How’s your brother?”

“He’s doing all right.”

“So far,” said John. “Always remember, ‘so far’.”

“Yeah,” I laughed.

And John came back nearly every month just to be sure that I was doing all right. Then he disappeared. “Oh well,” I thought, “so far.” A year passed and I didn’t see John. Meanwhile, my brother had given up on the Rescue Mission, gone to Colorado, got a job with a friend, and seemed to be doing well. I went to Colorado and visited him. During the visit he did something that showed me that if there was a wagon, he’d fallen off and the wagon was long gone. That was the last time I saw my brother alive.

More time passed — four years? My brother headed back down that chute, though this time in Arizona. I was working four jobs, one of which was supporting him in rehab. Housing prices went up and I decided to move out of the “barrio” and up to the mountains if I could find a place. I did. There was work that needed to be done on my house before the deal could close. I was working frantically to get it done, but I was out of money. There remained a 12 inch bit of wall all around an enclosed veranda that needed to be stuccoed. My real estate agent was going to do it, but had a heart attack instead. I was given 10 days to patch that bit. On Friday, home from school early, I decided to try it myself. After all, I’d textured a lot of walls and I was a painter, but I quickly leraned that troweling stucco above my head was impossible. It was too heavy. As I was standing on the step ladder, giving up on the stucco, there was a knock at my front door and the dogs went wild.

You know what’s coming.

It was John.

“I haven’t seen you in a long time,” I said. “Are you OK?”

“I messed up and had to leave the mission, but I’m back.”

“I’m glad,” I said.

“How are you? How’s your brother?”

“My brother’s in rehab again and I’m OK. I sold my house.”

“THIS house? How could you sell it?”

“I want to move up to the mountains.”

“That’ll be nice.”

I thought for a minute, guys like John… “Hey John, in all your work, did you ever do stucco?”

“Yeah. That was my trade. Why?”

I told him my stucco problem. He laughed and said, “Where is it?”

And he did a beautiful stucco job for me.

“I want to pay you,” I said.

“No,” he said. “You can’t pay me. We’re friends. You’ve always been here when I’ve knocked on your door. You never judged me. Your brother costs you enough and I know you work hard. Let’s go get a pizza sometime. You can buy.”

I gave him my cell phone number so he could call me about the pizza, and he left. A few weeks later I moved up to the mountains and five weeks after that came the Cedar Fire, the worst fire in California history. I was evacuated from my new house, scared and all the emotions that come from finding oneself living in a place surrounded by flames.

I was driving down the freeway toward a friend’s house where I would wait out the fire with my dogs when my cell phone rang. “Hello?”

“Martha? This is John. I just want to know that you’re all right.”

“I’m all right. We’ve been evacuated, but I’m fine.”

“Are the dogs fine?”

“We’re all fine.”

“Thank God,” he said. “Well I gotta’ go. I’m on the mission’s phone. No personal calls.”

I never heard from John again.

You can’t create stories like this. Life writes them.