I have to write. it’s what I do. it’s not my only occupation, but it’s what I am here to do. it’s what I do to solidify my place in the universe, to make sense of my world, to free what’s inside, growing and burbling and seeking opportunities to escape. this site will allow you glimpses into my written words, my written world.   feedback is welcome, anytime, all the time, because as much as I live in my own world of wonder and words, I love to visit others’ worlds as well.

I leave you with these thoughts about landscape, and how it has taught me

To honor who and what I am. To always breathe.

To remain rooted even when I’m soaring and flying.

That seasons are inevitable and restorative.

That a circle of mountains, no matter how far away, as long as they’re in sight, can hug.

That the sound of even an unseen creek heals.

That when I slow and listen the world around me grows deeper and richer and full of song.

To accept the purposefulness of all that naturally occurs.

To work hard and then soar.

That peaks and summits are places to pause and celebrate.

That every mountain began as disruption.

To do what it is I’m meant to do.

To be patient.

To howl.

namaste, susan

 

listen to susan discuss Howl on Access Utah with Tom Williams

click here to listen

my first book, a mouse’s wish, was published when I was eight.  a tale of a young mouse who fell in love, the slender volume was illustrated by the author and graced with a gray, sueded cover.  the first (and only) press run of 50 copies was devoured by friends and family, and the publisher, my grandfather, was proud of his printing students at the tech school for the excellent type-setting and production job they did.

other conferences, workshops, and awards follow.

writers @ work writing conference

memoir workshop with w. scott olsen

entrada institute writing conference

memoir workshop with judy blunt

lds storymakers writing conference

utah humanities council, original writing competition, 1st place award, short story

what writer isn’t a voracious reader?

I often buy books only after I’ve read them (borrowing them first), because I only want to own books I love.  my book shelf is filled with books that have changed me, an iota here, a belief there . . . these are a sampling of books which have impacted me and thus will always be a part of who I am.  this is what a good book does for you.

the history of love, nicole krauss.    simply my favorite book.  from leo gursky’s incomparable voice to the beautifully knit plot to young alma’s believable quirks, nicole has created the story of a lifetime.  each time I finish reading this book I place it down, tears in my eyes, and can’t imagine ever crafting such a perfect work.

the time traveler’s wife, audrey niffenegger.  okay, maybe a tie for my favorite book.  while reading this I was mesmerized, astonished, captivated, engrossed . . . I didn’t want to put it down and I never wanted it to end.  can one offer a book greater praise?  I wanted to be clare; at times I still want to be clare.

the invisible bridge, julie orringer.  I fell in love with julie’s characters and lived with them during nightmarish years in poland and france.  this book is a song, a symphony, beautifully composed and performed.

the art of racing in the rain, garth stein.  not many dogs are able to write this well.  tears, laughter, validation, and confirmation of the richly rewarding, painful lives we all lead.

angle of repose, wallace stegner.  stegner is a master, and reading this book is like visiting an italian museum each time you open the tome:  your eyes startlingly wide, reveling in what surrounds you, being amazed by what has been created with ordinary tools.

the alchemist, paulo coelho.  everything you need to know about life, told in a simple tale.  I re-read this whenever I find myself off track: it reminds me to follow my heart, to persevere, and to have faith, always.

the social animal, james brooks.  why we are as we are:  what fun!

the book thief, mark zusak.  a story of a young girl who falls in love with words and books . . . well, of course I’d choose this.

the language of the night, ursula k leguin (ed, susan wood).  if you are a writer in need of inspiration and encouragement, give this a try.  I had to search used copies for the version with the fanciful, fantastical designs on the cover, and it was well worth every hour I spent doing so. atlas shrugged, ayn rand.  I fell in love with this book two decades ago:  ayn’s characters lived within me as I read, and stayed there for years and years afterward.  during a recent re-read I did, however, have to skip paragraphs and pages that felt redundant.  an amazing work.

the poisonwood bible, barbara kingsolver.  just read it.  it’s fabulous, mesmerizing, haunting, beautiful.

true love, thich nhat hanh.  it’s right.

the artist’s way, julia cameron.  this book birthed me as a writer, and gave me this visual I share with all who will listen:  when I am in the flow of writing it’s as if I connect with this river that runs deep within me, a spiritual place, a gift from god, where I am one with this universal place of energy and divinity.  what comes forth onto paper (or computer screen) from this process is a creation greater than my thinking self could ever imagine.

kick-ass creativity, mary beth maziarz.  another great book for creative-type people, this one could energize a snail.  speaking of, here’s my favorite joke of all time (or at least this phase of my life):   what did the snail say as it was riding on the turtle’s back?  (answer below, under learning to fall.)

learning to fall: the blessings of an imperfect life, philip simmons.  a good friend led me to this book which was written by a man diagnosed with als, or lou gehrig’s disease.  in his essays, philip connects the life surrounding him, in which he is participating, with his internal existence, and shares his epiphanies.  the answer:  whee!

Manuscripts

desert varnish
mia mancini is a prima ballerina.  it’s what she does; it’s who she is.  but after she retires and finds herself mothering two spirited children, both her identity and her marriage begin crumbling beneath her.  when she takes her own life her friends are shocked, heartbroken, and determined to keep her legacy alive.  mia’s story, told through the voices of those who knew her best, is their gift to mia’s son.  an excerpt follows. Desert Varnish   OVERTURE I.  Russell, 2008 The picture: five women in swimsuits and baggy shorts standing on the bank of a river, their feet perched on rocks and sand, the reeds around and between their legs bending slightly with the wind.  Their faces solemn, all five are staring straight into the camera, sunglasses hanging by ropes around their necks or pushed up and back against their hair. One of them, in a tie-dyed swimsuit and faded purple shorts, holds a small, dark brown, wooden box and a slender book, the edges of a playbill sticking out.  The woman next to her is tall, tall and lean, her breasts full, her eyes wounded, and if you look closely you can see the dusty tracks tears have left as they pushed their way down her cheeks, earthward. My mom’s ashes were in that box.  It is empty now; it was empty by the time that photograph was taken.  They were white with bits of bone mixed in, and they fluttered above the water before settling down into the rushing current, onto the rocks by the edge, dusting the legs of three of the women who were in the path of the fickle wind.  They shimmered, those ashes, reflecting the clear, strong sunlight that poured over the walls of the canyon carved out by the river thousands of years before.  The dusty red canyon walls, blackened by desert varnish, stretched up above the heads of these women fourteen hundred feet, two thousand feet.  The women’s bodies, five-foot-two to five-foot-eight, would have appeared as only dots in a photograph that captured the entire wall of the canyon. My mom’s ashes were a single speck of sand in the life of this canyon, that box full of ashes, full of all that remained of my mother. My name is Russell, and I’m twenty-nine years old.  The picture is eighteen years old, taken in late May, the canyon bursting with vernal life and spring run-off that year when I was an eleven-year-old, pre-pubescent male.  The winter had been one of only normal snowfall—though the winter of my mom’s life had been bleak and full of blizzards and burying blasts of snow—the water of the Green rushing at forty-six hundred cubic feet per second that Memorial Day weekend.  Those five women were rafting the Green River, putting my mom’s ashes to rest in the place she had first lain out at night and watched the stars paint their story across the night sky.  Those women had known my mother, they had loved her, they had been torn apart when she, at forty-one, had taken her own life. I feel as if I had been there that day.  I’ve been told the story hundreds of times, by each one of the women who was there.  Robin, her roommate.  KellyJo, who danced with her.  Marcy, a fellow mom.  Bethany, who’d known her since before I was born.  And Anne, her ballet student.  The details of their stories don’t all weave together perfectly, and I’ve lived long enough to know that each person’s truth is colored by their own cloth.  Yet the story I’ve woven together of what happened that day is true for me; I can see how it happened, and I know these women well enough by now to understand a little bit about why they each saw things from a different perspective.  They were each positioned on a different rock that day. And I’ve run that river myself, the mighty Green, and Lodore Canyon is as close to home for me as any other place in the world.  I’ve camped on the shore where they unleashed her ashes, and I’ve camped on the beach where they were hoping those ashes would wash up, that beach where my mom first spent a night under the stars, unprotected by a tent, vulnerable to the night.  Part of me lives in that canyon, along with the part of my mom that will forever be part of Lodore. My life, of course, spun off in its own peculiar course after mom died, and that is part of this story, I suppose.  What I want to tell here, though, is the story of my mom, Mia Mancini Stark, a woman who danced, who loved, who ached, who challenged herself and grew, and who gave to me the ability to be myself, Russell Stark, and to stand tall and proud beside the picture of the woman she was. There is another picture from this trip that came to me with that wooden box, the book and the playbill.  This picture was taken by the one wearing yellow shorts and a flowered swimsuit, the one almost hidden behind the others.  She gave me the picture, said she didn’t know why, but she just felt that I needed to have it.  It’s a picture of the canyon wall, a mighty section of red Uintah Mountain Quartzite over a billion years old.  Desert varnish has painted itself freely here, the black shiny and thick, hugging curves and crevices, the stuff proudly claiming the wall for its own.  There is little plant growth on this wall—every hundred feet or so as the wall rises a copse of trees hovers on a ledge, small bushes cling to what must be miniscule handfuls of dirt—and at the top of the wall, on the last ridge visible in this picture, you see a solitary juniper.  Its silhouette, outlined by the cloudless blue sky behind, winds its way upward, its knobby branches, the sparse needles, the ancient skeleton.  This Utah juniper has fought long and hard to retain its king of the hill status.  It has been pummeled by the wind, whipped by winter storms, starved by seasons of drought.  Insects have preyed upon it, birds have visited and sung to it.  The sun has beaten down upon this juniper day in and day out for months at a time.  It has pushed its roots, reaching, grasping, begging, into layers of sandstone in search of a foothold, life.  This craggy tree, a two-hundred-year-old juniper that has dug its heels into the ridge of this canyon wall, for eighteen years has been part of me.  I sleep with this picture tucked into the pages of the playbill, sandwiched with the picture of those five women, in the drawer of whichever piece of furniture is closest to my bed.  These pieces of my mom’s life have traveled with me in and out of many homes the past ten years. For eighteen years, though, this tree has been an icon, my mentor, the giver of my strength.  This juniper fought for its life, had clung on despite glaring sun and tumultuous weather: it was living, breathing, sending out new shoots, showering the canyon wall with its opaque lavender berries. I, too, have fought for life.  I, too, have been parched and windblown, and I, too, have searched desperately for roots and a foothold.  These two pictures are creased with age and smudged with my fingerprints but they tell the story of who my mom was, and, by association and through blood, who Russell Alexander Stark is.

II.  Taylor, 2008

I’m the photographer.  I’m the one behind the camera, the one who tagged along, somewhat reluctantly, to document the event for Mark and Russell, and for Maggie. My name is Taylor Jacobs, they call me TJ, and I’m a river guide.  A river guide by nature, a river guide down to the marrow in my bones and to the depths of my soul.  I’m fifty-three now, and I don’t run rivers like I used to back then, back in the days of that picture.  Back in my heyday, I suppose. Since this here’s all about the picture, and you can’t see me in it, I feel obligated to tell you what I looked like that day.  So as you can envision the scene, the whole thing.  No small stage, the whole damn canyon, the whole story. My hair was short, a crewcut on top and all around, and I had a mustache and a neat little beard.  I’m a redhead, and my skin doesn’t take well to all the sun I get on the river, so I’m usually wearing a long-sleeved shirt unless I’m going through the rapids.  Then I peel off my shirt because cotton takes a long time to dry, even out there in the heat of the desert canyon. So I’m covered when I snapped this photo, a long-sleeved white cotton shirt buttoned up to my chest, long khaki shorts reaching almost to my knees, water sandals on my feet.  I was with the five women during their ceremony, kind of a silent observer, feeling like a voyeur more than anything. I knew Mia, too, yet I wasn’t really a part of this ceremony.  Robin asked me to stay behind with them, then to take them downriver to meet the rest of the group when they were done.  Robin asked me as opposed to any of the other guides because she’s known me longest, I suppose, and because I’d known Mia, too. This trip was a women’s trip, eighteen women, one masseuse, one yoga instructor, and us four male guides.  The five in the photo were Mia’s friends; Mia was supposed to be there too. I was a guide on Mia’s first trip, three years before, down this same river, through this same canyon.  Lodore Canyon, our put-in three hours out of Vernal, Utah.  The Gates of Lodore—a canyon so unique, so stunning as you enter its mouth, you want to kneel down and thank God for putting you on this earth.  I know it sounds like we’re going to say the Gates of Hell, but it’s just the opposite.  You feel that heaven might just be a little like this. My father-in-law owns this company—Dirk Whiting—a self-taught geologist who blows away the best of them, Ph.D. or no.  He taught me, taught all of us guides back then.  Dirk’s an old man now, but his knowledge still ranks up there with the best: when the youngest rock formations are millions of years old, there isn’t a great deal of emerging news, you know.  There’s growth in that canyon, sure, and yes, things do change—a slice of rock will fall, a new drainage trench is dug by changing run-off patterns—but Dirk still runs that canyon at least once a summer, eighty-five years old if he’s a day.  All I know about that canyon, and I know it like the back of my hand, I know from Dirk. Mia’s first trip down this canyon was with a handful of her friends and their families.  Dancers, a bunch of them, the lone male dancer, Ryan, just another one of the girls if you catch my drift.  They had all retired from the ballet by then, and Robin was always encouraging them to join her on the river.  Robin, Dirk’s daughter, had of course grown up running rivers, it was in her blood, on the water she was fulfilled in ways she couldn’t be on dry land.  Her sister Julie, my wife, is the same way.  You couldn’t be Dirk’s progeny and not be one with the river. So Robin decided that Mia, age thirty-eight, was ready to face this river.  It was her time.  And I, TJ, was honored to be the lead guide on that trip.  I had known who Mia was, of course, ever since I first met Julie and Robin, seeing as Mia and Robin were roommates before they stood up for each other at their respective weddings.  They were those close-forever kinds of friends. Mia wasn’t a prima donna, but she was a ballerina.  A bona fide ballerina, like all those little girls dream about when they’re young, toe shoes and ribbons, tutus and hair all rolled into a bun thing on top of their heads.  Mia was little, just over five feet, a teeny thing built of solid muscle during the years she danced.  And oh, was she beautiful.  Her crystal blue eyes were huge, her hair blonde and fine, her eyebrows just enough darker than her hair to make her eyes stand out.  They decorated her with make-up, of course, when she danced, but even without she made my heart sing. And she was nice.  Kind to me—a nobody, just a guy who loved life on the river, sometimes pretty fragrant, well-read but not ever what you’d call cultured—and kind to everyone she met.  Here she was, famous and all, a principal with the ballet, her name and face plastered all over posters and playbills, and she was kind to me.  That impressed the hell out of me, and I always had a special place in my heart for her because of it. That trip, three years before I recorded on film her ashes being spread in the river, is really someone else’s story, but I just wanted to make it clear what a fine person Mia was, how she was never too good for anybody else, how she was a down-to-earth person who had the ability to make others feel good about themselves.  She was a thing of beauty, a joy to behold, and she taught me what true grace was all about. I was proud as hell to be the photographer that day, sorry as shit that what we were documenting was the end of Mia’s life on this green earth.

grace
it began, as most things do, with a girl who fell in love.  she married her soul mate and traveled the world with him performing humanitarian work, planting seeds that grew into tools for ending poverty.  then she had babies, her husband was promoted, she became manic, then psychotic, then a runaway who abandoned and subsequently lost everything she’d had.  she eventually found her way back; she began taking lithium, returning to who she’d been except that she was wiser, stronger, more aware of the fragility of human life.  two years later she boarded a plane in guatemala, heading to a small village where she was to lead a group of humanitarian workers.  the plane malfunctioned mid-flight and crashed, she clung to life for another fifteen hours, and then she was gone again, this time forever. her soul mate, chris, is the program director for CHOICE humanitarian.  when that plane crashed on august 25, 2008, chris lost not only his guatemalan directors and six other humanitarian workers—volunteers from across the united states—but also his wife, soul mate, and mother of their three children, liz valentiner johnson. the constant possibility of grace takes the reader on a journey both geographical and spiritual.  it is the story of chris johnson’s and CHOICE’s commitment to humanitarian work across the continents, liz johnson’s vibrant life and battle with bipolar disorder, and the indomitability of the human spirit.  The threads of these realities weave together during my trip, with CHOICE, to nepal, where by interacting with villagers whose lives are graced by centuries of tradition and the steady gaze of the Himalayas I discover the powerful impact of CHOICE’s methodology, a divine connection with the son I had let die from pneumonia nearly two years before, and insight into the journey we all walk in this life.  in addition, the connection chris and I share is intriguingly potent and an enigma we explore throughout the journey.  the constant possibility of grace moves from utah to nepal and back with humor, humility, love, growth, and always, grace. an excerpt follows.   The Constant Possibility of Grace:  A Story of Love, Loss, and the Tools for Ending Poverty Prologue  The speed limit is fifty.  Two lanes in each direction; an even, wide stretch of asphalt connecting the southeast part of town with the east side belt route.  It’s the route you’d take to Snowbird, Alta, the Cottonwood canyons, to the freeway if you’re commuting.  People travel at fifty-five, sixty; the road is smooth and the grade is conducive to fast travel.  She’s in the middle of the road, it looks as though she’s trying to walk the double yellow line.  Cars slow to forty, forty-five, and give her room, changing to the outside lanes, every driver’s head turning, eyes staring, disbelieving, at this smiling, brown-haired girl with no clothes on. She’s somewhere between fit and zaftig, her generous breasts one of her best features.  That and her beatific smile, her absolute delight in every step she takes. Horns honk, she waves, she is having the time of her life.  I On the morning of the day his wife’s plane crashed in Guatemala, I got up in the dark and went for a bike ride.  This is what I did; I was a cyclist—mom, business owner, writer—training for an endurance event just two weeks away.  I rode to the south, I rode hard, starting in the crisp near autumn air, droplets of evaporating sweat cooling me to a state of goosebumps and chattering teeth, ending eighty-five miles later in the high desert heat, slick with fresh sweat and weary from the effort. At the time of the crash itself my earth didn’t shake, nor did I feel a shift in planetary energy.  I didn’t suddenly sit up taller; I didn’t feel a twitch or a tremble.  I just kept pedaling. And when I received the phone call from Kat, telling me of the disaster and of his wife’s critical condition and rush to the hospital, the information sat on the surface of my skin for hours before I could let it in and absorb its reality. They’ve taken her to the hospital, it doesn’t look good, she’s been terribly hurt.  Send love, light, prayers, everything you have.  Send them to Chris, too, and their kids. I tried.  The disconnect was so huge, though, I could barely feel her, or know how to get any of my love and prayers across the expanse of land, mountain, desert, and ocean that lay between us.   I tried to think of him, to think of their kids, to send love and protection to their hearts, but they were only vague concepts to me, people I’d never met, didn’t know, couldn’t visualize. When his wife died, in the dark, early hours of the next morning, I slept through it, not feeling a bump, not experiencing a vivid dream of light or connection, not aware of anything.   I didn’t feel the world shift, not a hundredth of a degree or a smidgen of a millimeter.  But it did.

***

I had to turn to an atlas to understand exactly where Guatemala was.  Somewhere south, I knew, somewhere hot and dry, I thought.  Somewhere poor.  She was going there because it was a country where myriad people lived on next to nothing, she and the others on that small plane.  They left Guatemala City that morning, August 24, 2008, and were flying to El Estor, then heading to the small village of Sepamac to work with members of the local community on constructing a school.   She’d mentioned the trip to me, more in passing than anything else, and it had become a tidbit of information I stored in my mental “Liz” file. “I’m going to Guatemala next month; I’m so excited to be down there again.  I love the people, they’re so earthy, so real, so loving, really.  I haven’t been in a long time, and it will be so good to be there again.  I’m more me in places like that, I love these trips.” “Are you going alone?” I’d asked, flipping through magazines, waiting for pictures or images that called to me.  A purple spiral beckoned and I cautiously tore the paper, setting aside my find. “Oh, no, I’m going with CHOICE, that’s the organization my partner runs, there’ll be a group of us, maybe eight or ten.”  Liz was cutting cardboard circles, using a template, tracing the circumference with a pencil then using a cutting wheel to free the circles from the surrounding board.  The discs were six inches across, and she had a stack of them by her right knee. “I don’t know anything about CHOICE,” I said, shaking my head.  “What is it?” There were five of us sitting on a mossy green carpet in Kat’s house, stacks of magazines in the spaces between and around us, a few hardcover books spread among them, scissors and glue sticks and decorative papers scattered throughout.  We’d come together to create our own personal set of “soul cards,” a concept described by Liz as a personal deck of Oracle Soul Cards that are uniquely you, that resonate with who you are and what pleases your soul.  Liz was guiding us, directing us to just let the pictures and images call to our unconscious, letting intuition choose instead of our thinking selves.  Our instruction was simply to keep tearing and cutting out images until we felt we had enough to get startedmaking themed cards. “It’s a humanitarian organization; they work with communities in rural areas in poorer countries.  They do things like help build schools and clinics, and work on water systems, and it’s all about teaching the villagers themselves how to set goals, work with agencies, and create better lives for everyone.”  Liz’s blue eyes sparkled as a grin lit her face.  “I’m kind-of connected with it, in a way.” “Yeah,” Kat laughed.  “The love of her life runs the whole thing.” Liz glowed, her rounded, bronzed cheeks taking on a pink tinge as she adjusted her position on the floor.  Her khaki shorts were wrinkled, her tank top snug on her generous chest, her bare toes surprisingly dainty, delicate.  A pendant on a leather cord hung around her neck, and her light brown hair, blonde strands shining through, hung in gentle waves almost to her shoulders.  What makeup she might be wearing was all but undetectable; she radiated pure, joyful health. I wasn’t much of one for classes and workshops, but I had met Kat a few years earlier and been drawn to her world of deeper exploration of what lies within and beyond our human existences.  Kat, clairaudient and clairvoyant, is able to hear and often see what most of us are unable to easily connect with from our traditional, three-dimensional perspective.  Her wide smile and long, dark tresses grace a slender, yoga-toned form, and she looks a good dozen years younger than her five decades on earth say she is.  Kat laughs easily and often, and rolls her eyes when she listens to guides tell us to just relax, not worry, and enjoy what life sends our way.  She’s been practicing for years the concept of life being simply a human experience for a spiritual being. Kat’s intuitive arts workshops were held in her home, a narrow, faded red brick house that was old enough to be on the Utah Historical Register, its tiny original structure built in the 1860’s.  The high ceilings and decorative iron furnace grates pleased me inordinately, as did her decorating, which was simple, uncluttered, Eastern but with luxurious touches, a thick chenille throw, pillows, scented candles.  A large carved, wooden mandala dominated the back wall of the main room, the room in which we spread ourselves, and soft green walls surrounded us.  The few pieces of furniture swooped with a grace somewhere between Victorian and Asian.   A large Kali sat on a sideboard, and candles and crystals rested on the mantle above the century-and-a-half old fireplace.  A partially open door allowed a glimpse into a room with pale purple walls and a huge four poster bed, beaded and mirrored hangings, and a metal light fixture punched with a thousand tiny holes that let the light dance outward and dot itself across every surface. Over a period of years I’d been here for a day-long workshop on accessing our inner, divine self, and for multi-evening classes on manifesting, bringing forth into our lives the experiences we desired.  I’d attended a sweat lodge in the teepee far in the back of her property behind her garden, her lot extending almost three hundred feet deep and holding a second house and a garage behind the front house where we met.   I had, on occasion, visited with Kat by myself as well, engaging in a reading of where I was and where I could be headed, listening to my guides speak through Kat, absorbing this different level of understanding of what life might possibly be about.  I always left feeling validated, as if my vaguely understood sense of purpose was right on target and that I just needed to keep believing in myself.  Cheaper than therapy, it wasn’t so much about looking out into the future as it was about looking into the self, realigning purpose with action. This workshop was Liz’s, though we gathered in Kat’s space.  Kat was on the floor playing with magazines as well, grinning with the same mischievous kick as I felt to be cutting pictures out of a hardbound book.  Not much more was said about CHOICE, and conversation was light as we focused on growing our stacks of torn pages. “When you feel you’ve got enough pictures to start,” Liz shifted her legs beneath her, “what I usually suggest is that you put them into piles based on what feels like it might go with something else.  Try not to think too much, just let it happen.  And then, when you finish that—you might have a few that don’t seem to go anywhere, and that’s okay, just leave them there—what I do is take one cardboard disc, and start trying to create a collage from one of your piles.  The cool thing is there’s no right or wrong, and you’ll be amazed by what comes together naturally, without a whole lot of thought.” A bead of sweat trickled its way down the hollow of my back.  Oh God, I hate this.  The pressure, the having to create when I don’t know what I’m doing.  There were just the five of us, I told myself, and no one really cared about what I did.  Right?  I breathed, rolled my eyes, and dug in.  A purple pile developed, and without too much thought came a pile of brown, earthy images, including a leopard and an image of an old map.  An iridescent fish anchored another small collection, and my mood lightened perceptibly.  Maybe I could do this. Silence reigned, each of us intent on creating collections.  I’d set a goal of creating thirteen different cards, thus knew I needed thirteen different themes.  The first eight came together without too much effort, and then I found myself stumbling, stuck, and returned to searching the magazines for new inspiration.  I started from the front of one magazine, from the rear of another, and was well into the third when it was suddenly staring me in the face:  a sketch of narrow tree trunks, shades of gray and brown, branches sprouting here and there and a very few blue-tinted leaves hanging in end of fall derangement.  A stylized autumn scene except for the fact that if you looked closely you saw a limb crossing the trunks perpendicularly, and then another taking off downward from that at a diagonal, and then, on either side, twigs bent into circles, and as if by magic you instantly saw the bicycle.  A giggle escaped me.  Well, a bicycle made out of tree limbs, perched in the fullness of a tree?  Absolutely, this was meant to be on one of my cards. “Something funny?” “Oh,” I said, shaking my head, “just life.  I just found the perfect picture, you know, that’s all.” Heads nodded, eyes remaining on their own cards, except for Liz’s, which rose to meet mine and send a wink across to me.  Yep.  We both recognized the thrill of being connected with something larger than ourselves.  I was meant to find that picture and it was meant for me.  Cycling was a large part of my life, a part that had found a way to reconnect a lost piece of me with myself. Two years earlier I’d moved to Sugarhouse, a part of our city full of pre- and post-war bungalows, Tudors, and simple brick homes.  My neighborhood is an eclectic mix of older folk, fresh young families, same sex couples, Mormons, non-religious, tall, thin, overweight, short, Asian, Mediterranean; we are a small melting pot that begets an accepting, welcoming environment.  Joggers and dog walkers and runners and cyclists pass by my corner windows throughout the day, snippets of conversations floating through my often open casement windows.  My house is a 1940’s custom brick design graced with windows galore and spacious rooms, shaded by huge lindens and maples and two great, grand old blue spruces, one in front, one in back.  Salt Lake City is hugged tightly by mountains on the north and east, and my home sits less than a mile from the eastern foothills.  Canyons take off up little crevasses in these foothills, and these roads are where I love to ride.  Shortly after settling into my house I began riding regularly, loving the challenge of the ups and downs of the foothills, slowly building the courage and fortitude to head all the way up to the top of our canyons. Emigration canyon is closest to me, a gradual, almost gentle ten mile climb from my house to its summit.  Once I conquered this, I began riding up other canyons, then lengthened my rides, then added extended, multiple canyon rides.  I discovered that I wasn’t the fastest one out there, but I could hang in forever.  Along the way I took a winter-long indoor cycling class, met a few friends, got sucked up in the excitement of it all and found myself registered for a two-hundred-six mile bike race across three states called Lotoja.  The longest one-day race in the United States, Lotoja holds a certain fascination for many of us in the cycling world.  Cyclists begin at first light on the first Saturday after Labor Day; the fastest cyclists complete the course in nine hours or so, and the organizers ask that cyclists stop riding after the sun sets and darkness falls.  That first year my goal was simply to beat the sun, to not have to be pulled off the course in the dark.  I finished before sunset, twelve hours after I began, and felt like I’d accomplished something significant. And then signed up for the next year. So at the time I was in the process of clipping pictures and working to create my first ever set of Soul Cards, I was also in training for the upcoming Lotoja, my second, seven weeks away. Liz looked over, saw my picture of tree limbs bent into bicycle wheels. “Oh, look what you found, that is so cool!  Do you ride a bike?” I nodded, a smile moving up my cheeks.  “Yep, I ride a lot.” “She’s always riding,” Kat pitched in, “and she does those rides where they go all day and stuff.  I can’t even imagine.” “I love to ride,” Liz offered, “but I do more mountain biking, not road.  My partner rides, and so do a lot of my family.  In fact, they’re doing Lotoja this fall, do you do that?” “I do,” I replied, my eyebrows lifting.  “I’m not the fastest, but I get there.” “Oh, cool, maybe you’ll see them.  They all wear jerseys with my dad’s company’s name on them, VCBO, and they’re turquoise, with black and white writing.” “I’ll look for them,” I grinned.  “I see a lot of jerseys going past me throughout the day, all those faster people, passing me, you know.” We all laughed and the conversation flowed on to someone else’s pictures or cards or interests or thoughts, and I kept scissoring and shaping my pictures into landscapes that reflected or at least could have conversations with my soul. When we hugged goodbye at the end of the evening, I had seven finished cards, four in various stages of completion, and two piles of pictures awaiting inspiration.  Liz wished me well with my riding and the upcoming Lotoja race in September, and after thanking her for the terrific workshop, I wished her a great trip to Guatemala.

  ***

August began with a heat wave, as it often does in our high desert.  We sit about forty-five hundred feet above sea level, but we’re really not much more than a desert basin, encompassed by foothills and mountains, that the early pioneers plied with enough water and seed to create a shaded oasis, out of and away from the arid land that surrounds us. My habit was to ride early in the morning to avoid the dry heat of the day, loving the chirping crickets and exuberant bird chatter, basking in the joy of being part of the world as it wakened to the day.  I would leave home in time to meet the sunrise at the top of the canyon, flying back down feeling invigorated, refreshed, grateful for the gift of welcoming in the morning.  Most weekdays I’d ride twenty to twenty-five miles, and on weekend days I’d go long.  Sixty, eighty, ninety miles, depending upon the route and what group rides might have come together via email planning with friends throughout the week. A new sense of exhilaration clung to me during that stretch of time from mid July to the end of August.  Liz’s workshop had lit a fire in me, igniting pieces of me that had lain dormant waiting for inspiration.  I recommitted to my writing, I felt more connected to the creative me that hovered beneath productive, efficient me.  I’d tapped into the me who could look outside the lines and maybe even dare to daub a little color there.  I began a blog; I posted every day.  I wrote about the thoughts, feelings, inspirations that came to me while I was riding, ideas that leapt about in my oxygen-starved brain.  I had my eye on the goal of riding Lotoja every bit as well as the year before, and riding was still a great pleasure.  Not every minute of every ride, of course, but the gratification far outweighed the pain and I kept riding, and writing. Until the day of Kat’s phone call, the day the world shifted and I didn’t know it.

violet earth
to give birth to a baby is to unleash a dream.  months spent in anticipation are filled with hopes, wishes, and visions of the future.  to be pregnant with twins can double your imaginings–until you learn that your future may be wildly different than anything you’ve ever known. violet earth: a story of transplantation is a memoir of this writer’s first experience with motherhood, with losing a baby, and with being given a gift larger than can be contained within a human body.  an excerpt follows. Life is this brilliantly colorful thing—this kaleidoscope—dancing greens and warm, deep, life-giving reds and soaring blues and flashing yellows and whites soft and thick and plush—ever changing, reconfiguring—multicolored bits and pieces tossing about and rearranging themselves—while held, still, in this wooden grip, the stable cabinet that holds life upright.  And yet we turn, fall, straddle what seem to be gloriously clashing mosaics of two separate worlds until we ultimately find ourselves in a new composition: different, riskier, scary at first until we slowly gather our bearings and become rooted in our new environment, growing slender cables that reach down into our souls and hold us firmly where it is that we were meant to be. One: Verdigris

 The day fear took its wiry tendrils and wrapped them around my heart was a Thursday in April, a day bursting with sunshine, crisp air and promises of new growth, the trees thick  with plump buds, the grass dense and violently green.

I drank all of this in during my drive to the hospital, but the exuberance was slowly fading—the vibrant colors paling, the earthy smell of moist soil slipping away—the longer I remained in the artificially lit, disinfectant-scrubbed ultrasound lab.  I’d been there, Bobby by my side, long enough for my legs to go numb and anxiety to creep its way into every nerve of my body.  It was my third ultrasound, and the results would either confirm or alleviate our fears, would either free us to revel in the glorious day or leave us instead focused upon the fragility of life in utero and our inability to change a course set in motion almost seven months before. “Knock, knock,” Dr. Wren’s voice and the sound of knuckles on wood came toward me from the open doorway. “Hi. ”  the feeble sound that left my mouth surprised me, and I quickly cleared my throat. Bobby nodded a greeting and tightened his grip on my hand, his hip perched on the edge of the stool that he’d dragged to the side of the table.  The hard, hospital-issue diagnostic table upon which I lay. “Okay, here we are again.” Dr. Wren threw a smile my way, then busied himself with the metal-rimmed x-ray plates that lay on the stack of ultrasound equipment by my right side.  “How have the last few weeks gone?” “Fine,” I said, my voice deeper, clearer, absolutely in control.  “I’ve felt fine, and everything’s been pretty much the same.  Nothing unusual at all.” “Well, I’m going to take another look at these fellows here, and see what’s going on.” Sarah, the lab technician, had already spent twenty minutes with me, measuring body parts and fluid levels, taking pictures and typing letters and numbers on the screen.  The pregnant woman was always at a disadvantage in the ultrasound lab: the sideways, upward view I had of the ultrasound monitor distorted the screen, and I never knew for sure if I was seeing what everyone else saw.  The numbers were so little, the bones the technician was measuring so grainy—was she really getting the entire length of the bone?  Maybe she couldn’t see any better than me and was measuring completely inaccurately.  And maybe Dr. Wren would catch those errors, or maybe he would do the same thing.  This entire process was fraught with the possibility of error.  How could they arrive at decisions based upon this fragile technology? After the twenty minutes of silent measuring, Sarah then left the room, telling us that the doctor would be with us shortly to check things over before they released us.  Dr. Wren appeared minutes later.  Though only the second time I’d met him, he appeared to be familiar with the x-rays of my twins.  Our twins.  Those two bundles of organs and tissue and bones packaged neatly in my belly.  Those two bundles that were supposed to be identical, but were, for some reason, not the same size. “Let’s see,” Dr. Wren muttered as he searched the table, an “ah” escaping his lips as his hand closed on the bottle of gel. “Let’s take a look now.”  His free hand drew back the towel that covered my exposed abdomen, my gown rolled up to the top of my fundus.  The gel was cool and an involuntary shiver tickled my spine. “Sorry about that—it should’ve been on the warmer.” He rolled the transducer around my belly, spreading the gel, preparing his workspace.  His eyes glued to the screen, his right hand gathered information while his left was temporarily at rest.  The screen in front of him began to delineate itself before my eyes, and I quickly picked out a gray shape that looked like what I’d seen during my past ultrasounds, one of my babies.  Which one I had no idea, not until he typed in an LT or a RT that would show on the screen.  Ah, LT.  This was the baby on the left.  This was Little Joe. The images on the screen rearranged themselves, the pressure on my left hand remained warm and constant, and my mind drifted.  Hoss and Little Joe, the nicknames I—loyal Bonanza fan—had lovingly given my two boys after the last ultrasound.  The baby on the left is about two weeks behind the baby on the right, they had said.  Hoss was my big, whopping two-pound baby on the right side, and Little Joe was on the left, a few ounces behind.  Sharing a placenta, they were identical twins and should thus be, well, identical.  The doctors could find no reason for the discrepancy in size.  It’s just something we’ll keep an eye on.  And here we were, keeping an eye on it.  Here I was, praying, praying that things had changed for the better, that Little Joe had been eating up a storm, that he had grown more than Hoss during the past month. “Hhrmm . . . ” Dr. Wren cleared his throat and moved his chair closer to the screen,  pressing down more firmly on my abdomen. I turned my head and caught Bobby’s eye, sending reassurance, comfort, love.  Don’t let the worry show, please, he’s worried enough.  “Well, it looks like Sarah’s done a good job here,” the doctor began, wiping the ultrasound wand with a soft towel, then using another to clean the goop from my belly.  “The measurements she shows are the same as what I find.” He pulled my gown down over my belly, and told me I could swing my legs around and sit up. “So, what are the measurements, how are things?”  Bobby finally spoke, his voice loud in the small, cold room. “Well, the measurements we took today indicate that the twin on the left is still a bit smaller than your fellow on the right, and I still don’t see anything that tells me why this is so.  Your baby on the right is measuring just under 31 weeks, which is right where he should be.  The little guy on the left, he’s still growing, but he’s not growing quite as quickly as your other fellow.” There was a brief pause, the silence filling the space, swelling and pressing in on me. “Last time,” Bobby’s voice broke in, pushing away the pressure, “they told us that they were about two weeks apart, that the smaller one was two weeks behind.  Is that still the same?” “Well, these measurements show a little greater discrepancy.”  He looked down, smoothing a wrinkle in his white coat, glancing at the x-ray films.  He then raised his eyes to Bobby’s and gave a little nod,  “We’re talking here more like three weeks.” The moisture evaporated from my mouth and my throat.  I couldn’t have spoken if I tried. “So what do we do?” “Well,” Dr. Wren began, “I’ll want to share these results with Dr. Connor, and then I’m sure he’ll get in touch with you.  The difficult thing here is that everything else looks fine on your ultrasound: amniotic fluid is good, blood volume through the umbilical cord looks fine.  We’ll have to let Dr. Connor take a look at these pictures.” Bobby and I exchanged another glance, and I looked down, nodding my head. “Okay,” Bobby said, squeezing my hand. “I’ll get these to Dr. Connor—you two can go ahead and go.” Wasatch Boulevard runs a ribbon around the northeast curve of Salt Lake, fading briefly into Foothill Boulevard, then reemerging further south and continuing on for miles.  It was my way home, a familiar path that I had driven for years as it was the route that connected my alma mater, the University of Utah, and its hospital with the south-eastern part of our city.  Bobby had headed the opposite direction, back to his office, and I was alone.  I navigated my way down the hill from the hospital and turned onto Wasatch, tears threatening, my hands trembling.  It’s okay, it’s okay, everything will work out.   I followed the curve of the road, joining two lanes of cars waiting to turn onto Foothill Boulevard at the light. Billy Joel sang a forlorn song on the radio and my hands were still as I sat, my car in neutral with the left blinker flashing, waiting.  Waiting.  Oh my God, I can’t take this, this waiting, this not knowing.  Not knowing what’s going on, what’s wrong.  The worry.   The light changed to green arrows, and cars in the front of the line moved.  I shifted into first, moving forward when my turn came.  As I rotated the steering wheel the tears began.  They spilled down my cheeks and I let them well in my eyes, welcoming the discomfort, the blurred vision, the pain.  My car stayed in its lane, my body on autopilot, my head and heart engorged with fear. We’re going to lose one of my babies.