Susan J. Tweit
A trained field ecologist, Susan J. Tweit became interested in writing what she calls "the stories behind the data," the interrelationships that form what Aldo Leopold called the "community of the land." Her work has appeared in magazines and newspapers from Audubon and Popular Mechanics to High Country News and the Los Angeles Times. She is a sought-after keynote, workshop presenter, writing coach, editor, nature writer and photographer, radio commentator, and contributor to "The Perch," the blog of Audubon magazine, "Native Plants & Wildlife Gardens," a national blog-magazine, and Story Circle Network's "Telling HerStories" blog. The award-winning author of twelve books including Walking Nature Home (UT Press, Marcy 2009), Susan began her blog of the same name shortly before her husband of 28 years, sculptor Richard Cabe, was diagnosed with brain cancer. A Quaker as well as a scientist, Susan's writing is rich in the wisdom of a woman who has come face-to-face with the fragility and beauty and poetry of everyday life in the face of inevitable death. Susan will be a keynote speaker at SCN's Stories from the Heart national conference April 13-15, 2012.
Interviewed via email by Lisa Shirah-Hiers for the The Story Circle Journal (Vol. 16, No. 1, March 2012).
Posted on 02/13/2012
Your memoir, Walking Nature Home, describes your journey of healing through love and nature that began when, in your twenties, you were diagnosed with an autoimmune disease that was supposed to have taken your life in just 2-5 years. Not long after its publication, your husband was diagnosed with brain cancer. What has the new "walk with nature" been like, now that you are no longer the patient but the care-giver?
I often say that my thirty years of learning how to live with Lupus were the perfect training for helping Richard live as well and as long as possible with brain cancer. I manage my Lupus largely by paying attention to the symptoms and adapting my life to minimize them as much as possible. So I taught Richard how to pay attention to his body and mind and to be aware of his symptoms—not an easy thing for a big, strong guy who had been rudely healthy his whole life to learn. As we so often do, he had taken his health—and, I suspect, his "right" to live a long life—for granted, until he began seeing birds by the hundreds one August morning in 2009, birds that existed only in his mind (those birds were the only symptom of his brain tumors). In that moment, our lives took us down a road we had never imagined walking, a road that ended in his death two years and three months later.
The lessons that helped me as a caregiver were both hard-won: First, the understanding that I can't change what life gives me, but I can change my experience of it by how I respond. So I didn't waste time and energy banging my head against the fact of Richard's brain cancer. Instead I determined to walk the journey with love and compassion, and to find joy in each day, even if only for a moment, no matter what happened. That determination made the days easier and brought out the grace inherent in journeying through life, regardless of the circumstances.
Second, my years with chronic illness continue to teach me that I have only so much energy each day. When that day's allotment is gone, it's gone. If I try to "push through," I'll pay with my health. As a caregiver, especially in the two months Richard was at home in hospice care, and the final weeks when he was bedridden—still his bright, incisive, creative, and compassionate self, but eventually dependent on me for everything from feeding to wiping—knowing my own limits was crucial being able to care for him with love and care without hurting myself. I did pretty well. I wasn't perfect, but I feel good about finding a balance that allowed our love for each other to shine all the way through a journey that took all we each had to walk mindfully and well.
A running theme in both your book and blog is that like nature, love heals and life requires courage. Can you speak a little about these themes?
Since I wrote Walking Nature Home: A Life's Journey, the body of research showing that love truly can heal has continued to grow. (Love in this case is defined as physical, emotional and spiritual affection given freely with no expectations attached.) Research shows that something as simple as affectionate touch can ease pain, speed healing, and result in fewer complications after major surgery. That we can prove it well enough to satisfy logical, unemotional, data-oriented western science is stunning. Imagine the power of such love unleashed on the world!
Mind you, when I say that research shows that love indeed can heal, that doesn't imply it can also "cure." I'm speaking of healing in the sense of "restoring to health," and curing in the sense of "freeing from disease." Healing the way I'm using it is about being in mental, emotional and spiritual balance. Love can give us the tools to live as healthfully as possible with our particular life situation. Love did not cure my husband's brain cancer, but it surely did make it possible for him to live a full and healthy life for two years longer than his doctors imagined.
That the act of living requires courage seems pretty self-evident to me. Tragedy and hardship come to all of us in different forms and different measures throughout our existence. To live with the "hard stuff," to face it and speak with it and not let it destroy you, takes courage—not the monster-slaying kind of courage, but the everyday kind that allows women everywhere to get pregnant and bear (or adopt) and rear children and their kids' children, to care for aging parents, to work and love and nurture our own spirits, and all the while, to get up and face each day, knowing that life is just as fragile as it is beautiful. Meeting each day with an attitude of openness to whatever it will bring is the truest kind of courage I know.
In your post on Earth Day, April 22, 2010 you offered four maxims to live by: "1. Honor: Take a moment to honor the place where you find yourself. 2. Respect: Get to know the species with whom you share your everyday landscapes. 3. Share: Live as if you are part of a community. Make space for other species in your daily habits. 4. Enjoy: Stop to smell the metaphorical roses and do whatever nurtures your sense of wonder." Why are these four so important?
These four are critical because we are connected to this numinous blue planet, the only home our species has ever known, at the cellular level. Part of what makes us human is a deeply-rooted affection for the earth and its living communities of species, from the tiniest microbe to the most gargantuan blue whale or the tallest coast redwood tree. In fact, we share the basic building blocks of life, the atoms that make us up, with all these other lives and with the planet itself. We forget that connection at our own peril, the peril that science is just beginning to show us of succumbing to a range of physical, emotional, and mental nature-deficit ills, from attention-deficit disorder in kids (which has been shown to be controlled most effectively by regular exposure to nature, the wilder the better) to high-blood pressure and other stress-related conditions, depression, and many cancers. Our health depends on our connection to the intertwined community of lives we call nature, and the planet that nurtures that community.
These four maxims are also, at their core, about us. They are a way of practicing living with loving-kindness, generosity, and appreciation for this very existence, and for own lives. It turns out that a healthy relationship with the earth leads to a healthy relationship with ourselves. We shouldn't be surprised by that, but we often are.
In your post on August 25, 2010, you write "I have this odd sense that Richard and I are being stripped to our essences too, all of our unnecessary habits, behaviors and preoccupations honed by this journey with brain cancer as if to prepare us for—what? Some work ahead that will call on who we are at heart and spirit, perhaps." Now that more than a year has passed do you have a better sense yet of what that work might be?
I know now that the work ahead when I wrote that post was the work of living whole, healthy lives, living with thoughtful awareness, up until the moment death parted us. Richard was determined to live his days mindfully and in a loving way, to be "present in my moments," as he put it, for as long as possible. And he was: he was able to continue his sculpture work until a few months before he died; he was able to read and think and talk with friends until a few days before his death; he maintained his sense of humor even when he could no longer talk and had to communicate with his expressive eyebrows and by squeezing his hand or raising one thumb in an "okay!" gesture; he was responsive until his last breath. He went into death as he lived his life: curious, thinking, feeling, aware, wanting to be part of whatever came. To be able to live through his decline and death with openness and love, we had to drop our baggage along the way. His practice of approaching death with an open heart was inspiring to all who met or read about him. My work was helping him be that person, reminding him of what he was capable of and giving him the support to do it.
And now—another chapter is unfolding. Richard will always be my love; our life together will always inform who I am. I am exploring what it means to live alone for the first time in more than three decades. It is not the role I looked for or wanted, but here it is, and I am open to whatever possibilities this new phase of my life brings.
Let's switch gears a bit. You recently joined the SCN Board of Directors and will be a keynote speaker at the April Stories for the Heart Conference. Why is SCN important to you? What are some of your hopes for this organization?
I believe Story Circle Network is more than a writing community; it is a sisterhood in the best sense of that word, a nurturing community of women who share stories, comment constructively on each other's work, nudge, prod, and encourage each other in writing and life, and commiserate losses as warmly as celebrating successes. That kind of sisterhood without competition or envy is rare and precious, even among writers. We need more of it in this world! I've chosen to serve on the Membership committee of the SCN board because I want to see more women writers of life stories receiving the support, encouragement, inspiration—and practical writing and life tools—that Story Circle Network offers so generously. Story Circle Network is growing, but we're still the best-ever, little-known organization nurturing women's memoir and women's voices.
What are some things you are thinking about as you prepare your Sunday keynote address?
The word that comes to mind for my talk is "courage." Courage in writing honestly, openly, and constructively about our lives and our learnings, and how we make time and space to let the words come, and to hone our voices as writers.
What do you hope people will take away from your talk and from the conference itself?
Inspiration and courage... An understanding that our stories—each and every one of them—matter, to us and to others. "Good stories," says psychologist and author Mary Pipher, "can save us." I hope we'll also take away motivation, a kick in the butt to go home and WRITE. And then rewrite, until those stories sing—and cry and shout and simply leap off the page demanding to be read, to be heard!
What is it that makes Stories from the Heart different from other conferences?
It's like entering into an embrace, a gathering that strengthens a community of women writing memoir and life stories. It's full of practical, professional advice, plus encouragement and nurturing, laughter and love. We'll all leave inspired, literally "breathing in" lungsful of the very air we need to jump-start our writing, deepen and enrich your stories, get them out to readers, find new audiences, and then dive back into writing again. And [afterward] we'll look forward to the next Stories from the Heart conference, in 2014.
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