Sliding Into Home

July 1st, 2012
Two Days Before My Fifty-Fifth Birthday

Dear Friends,

Guess what I’m getting for my birthday this year?  A NEW HOUSE!!! That’s right, we passed final inspection on the house on Friday, so I am really, finally, going home. At last.

When the inspector arrived on Friday, I was nervous. There were only a few electrical corrections to make from the previous inspection, but we’ve had so many setbacks these last few months that I held my breath and barely dared to hope. And when the inspector turned to me and said, “Well, you can start moving your stuff in now,” I choked up. I thought that when that moment came I would jump up and down and hug him, but instead I just stared blankly at him and said, “Really? Are you sure?” He laughed, and said, “Yep!” and I turned to Jerry the Contractor and said “Oh my God! I have a HOUSE!” And I have not stopped smiling since.

Building a house is an incredible privilege, and it is also a maddeningly imperfect process. You can make impeccable lists, research every topic down to the finest detail, check and re-check, and things go wrong anyway. The wrong bathtub gets ordered (that one was my fault) the light fixtures somehow get lost in the mail, you end up a box short on the bathroom tile and can’t quite get the back splashes done, and on and on. The countertops you thought were ordered two months ago somehow slipped through the cracks and never got ordered at all, and you have to send the plumber and the electrician and the tile setter home, and everyone gets grumpy and irritable, especially you.

Each major delay sent me into a new emotional tailspin. The worst was this spring, when I found out the house wouldn’t be done by the first of May as we had planned, which meant I had to go look for yet ANOTHER place to live (number four.) That was one of my low points. I was already so exhausted from moving three times, managing all the details of the insurance AND building a house AND helping other fire survivors AND working, and I just couldn’t face yet another temporary rental. People would ask, cheerily, “When will the new house be done?” and I would grumble, “Oh, don’t ask!” I was clearly not at my best.

Things never turn out quite the way we imagine, do they? We think we have a level of control, or security, and if we do everything right, voila! We’ll get what we expected. If we work hard and save, we’ll get to retire. Who knew the company would go belly up, and the retirement fund disappear? We think if we eat right and take care of ourselves, we’ll be healthy. And then wham – a terrible illness hits, out of the blue. We think, “Wait a minute, this wasn’t supposed to happen.” As John Lennon wrote,  (over quoted, but so, so true) “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.”

In the beginning of this process, I imagined I would build the perfect house.  Instead, I’ve gotten to the “good enough” phase, where instead of perfection, you just want to be finished.  In the final months of a house building project, you’re just plain exhausted. The house is gorgeous, yes, and you love it, but your brain is fried, the money is running out, and it’s a race with the clock. By the time I got to choosing light switches, I was about done. “Plastic or metal? Paddles or levers? Dimmers or on/off? Screwless plates or the standard kind? White, almond, or a custom color?”  Oh, I don’t know. Whatever. Just put something up there and we’ll call it good.

For the last two years, I have imagined that finishing the house would be like hitting a home run. I’d swing the bat and crack! the ball would sail out over the field, over the fence, while the crowd cheered. I’d take a leisurely victory lap around the bases, waving my little hat, and gracefully touch home plate without breaking a sweat.  But these last few months have been more like being stuck on third. I’ve been standing there, itchy and restless, inching my way toward home plate, waiting, and waiting, and wondering if this inning of my life would ever be over.

And now, instead of a graceful jog around the diamond, I am sliding into home.  On Friday, when I move – for real and forever – I will at last leap off of third, and run as fast as I can toward the plate. I will dive into the dirt – reaching, and reaching – and finally, finally touch home. It will be messy, and imperfect, but I will stand up, and dust myself off, and cheer, as the Umpire declares, in a loud and triumphant voice, “SAFE!”

And I know you’ll be cheering with me.

Thanks for being on my Home Team, and Sweet Dreams,


Posted in Good Moments, Moving On, The New House | 20 Comments
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Ring of Fire

Thursday, June 28th, 2012
Twenty-Two Months Since the Four Mile Canyon Fire

“I fell into a burning ring of fire.
I went down, down, down and the flames went higher.
And it burned, burned, burned, the ring of fire.
The ring of fire.”

-Johnny Cash

Hello Dear Friends,

I know Johnny Cash was writing a song about Hell when he wrote those words, and Hell is not a word often associated with Colorado.  But these past two weeks have been hellish, to say the least. It feels like the whole state is burning, and that we are  surrounded by a ring of fire and destruction.

The names of these terrible fires ring in my head – the Lower North Fork Fire, the High Park Fire, the Crystal Fire, the Waldo Canyon Fire. Last weekend I decided I’d had enough of fire and smoke, and rented a small cabin on a stream, near the town of Leadville. Believe it or not, I’d been there only one day when the Treasure Fire broke out and a column of smoke appeared on the ridge above the cabin.  I threw everything in the car and went back to Boulder. I thought, “Sheesh! I just should have gone to see my friends Rusty and Kaye in Estes Park.” And the next day, 23 homes burned to the ground in Estes Park. My friends’ home was not among them, thank God.

And then two days later, I was up with the guys working at the new house, and we watched lighting strike just a few miles away. We all gaped in horror as a column of smoke and flame appeared across the ridge. I turned to the guys and said, “I gotta tell ya, this does NOT make me happy.”

Flagstaff Fire as Seen From the New House





Close Up of the Flagstaff Fire as Seen From My Deck

Watching the fire blow up and start to eat the mountainside made me feel sick. And it also made me realize that Nellie was at home alone down in town. I threw my stuff in the car and drove down the mountain, fighting the urge to panic. “I’m okay,” I told myself. “The fire is miles from the house.” And then I remembered what I thought when I first heard about the Four Mile Canyon Fire – “Oh, that’s miles from my house. Nothing to worry about.”

On the way home, I called my kind and wonderful friend Linda, and said, “Hi there. I need a babysitter. Want to come over for dinner?” She cheerfully agreed to pick up some Chinese food and come over, and shortly after I got home, she arrived, food in tow, and Nellie was wildly happy to see her. When I let her in, acrid smoke poured in the front door, and I slammed it behind her. The wind had changed. The fire was still miles away, but now blowing in our direction. Deep breath, do not panic.

Living through disaster has taught me to ask for help when I need it, and to never pretend that I’m okay when I’m not. And, of course, to “Keep Calm and Carry On,” a phrase I have clung to for the past two years.

Linda and I cranked up the air conditioning, checked the Office of Emergency Management website about every two minutes, and watched the fire through the sliding glass doors as we ate. We talked about how tired we were of fire, of talking about fire, and seeing fire, and smelling smoke for weeks on end.  How sick we feel for the people who have lost homes in just these past few weeks. And then I looked at Linda and said, “STUPID fire! Tricksy fire! We hates fire, we do, Hobbit!” and she cracked up. Then Linda said, “Why aren’t there a hundred helicopters up there fighting this fire? Why aren’t there a MILLION!? Or a BILLION! Stupid budgets.” Then we sighed, and ate our basil eggplant chicken, and gave thanks to the Goddess of Chlorofluorocarbons for our ozone-destroying but lung-saving air conditioning.

Linda went home, and the next day I went back up to the house, and another storm blew through, but this time, it brought rain.  Not just a sprinkle, but forty-five minutes of pouring, gully-washing, cold, sopping RAIN.  Again, everyone stopped work to look across the ridge, but this time it was to watch the rain put out most of the fire.  We stood out in the pouring rain – the trim carpenters, the cabinet maker, the electricians, the mason working on the fireplace, the contractor, the granite installers, and me.  We cheered the rain, we hooted and hollered and clapped and said, “Go rain! Put out that fire!” It was a glorious, wet, thunderous celebration.  And then the clouds cleared, and everyone went back to work.

Today there were more thunderstorms, more lightning strikes, and blessedly, more rain. We had our first inspection on the house, and that means that with a few corrections and a re-inspection, I will actually be able to go home, for real, in less than two weeks. The reality of it hasn’t hit me yet, as I’m still pretty distracted by this Ring of Fire that is currently Colorado. Every day I think of the new sorrows facing people – thousands of them at the time of this writing – who have just lost their homes and all their precious treasures. And I wonder how I can help.  I hope I can share with them what I have felt, and learned, and experienced, over these past two years.  I hope they can find this blog, and that it will bring them just a moment of comfort, a voice of reassurance in these darkest of hours.

So I am okay. I refuse to let fear run my life.  I stare at the pillar of smoke out the window and say, out loud, “You and I know each other all too well, but you are not the boss of me.” I can’t predict or control the wind, the flames, or the future, but whatever happens, I will take it as it comes.  I will cry, and fuss, and keep breathing. I will ask for help and keep trying to help others. For as my father was so fond of saying, quoting Abraham Lincoln, “To ease another’s heartache is to forget one’s own.” If I can ease the heartache of others, even just a little, then it makes it all worthwhile.

Right now Nellie is curled up beside me, the “Fire Boxes,” containing my birth certificate, my backup hard drive, my little bit of new jewelry –  are loaded into the car, in case we have to evacuate. And you know, I’m probably one of the few people on the planet who actually has a paper receipt, filed in chronological order,  for every single thing she now owns. I’m as ready as I’ll ever be.

Tonight I think I’ll order some sushi delivered, because one of the miracles of living in town is that someone will actually  cook food and bring it to your door. We mountain folk are not used to such luxuries.  So I’ll have some sushi sent over, and I’ll mix the hot wasabi with the salty soy sauce. And I’ll  dip the sweet fish and rice into it, and it will rush into my mouth and burn, burn, burn, and at the same time, be absolutely delicious.  Kind of like life.

Sending you lots of love, and wishes for sweet dreams,


Nellie keeps calm and carries on… even in the midst of construction.

The New Living Room

Looking forward to our final inspection tomorrow! Fingers crossed…


Posted in Other Fires, The New House | 16 Comments
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A Rose is Not a Rose

May 1, 2012

Rose (noun)
1. Any of numerous shrubs or vines of the genus Rosa, having prickly stems, pinnately compound leaves, and variously colored, often fragrant flowers.
2. An ornament, such as a decorative knot, resembling a rose in form; a rosette.
3. A form of gem cut marked by a flat base and a faceted, hemispheric upper surface.
4. A compass card or its representation, as on a map.

Idioms: Come up roses
To result favorably or successfully: Those were difficult times but now everything’s coming up roses.

Dear Friends,

You would not believe what I’m doing. It’s midnight, and I’m on line, shopping for locks and levers.  That’s fancy contractor talk for “door knobs.” Yes, I am picking out doorknobs.  That’s how far along I am on the house.

That, of course, is the good news.  Nellie and I are still about two months from being “home,” and we have to move AGAIN because our lease has expired and the construction is delayed. (Sigh. Really BIG sigh.)

Two months sounds like a nano-second compared to this almost two-year process, and yet it still feels impossibly far away. My brain still cannot let me grasp the fact that soon we will be home again, back on my land, in my new house. Part of me refuses to accept that, and won’t believe it until it’s real. Denial, caution, overwhelm –  or a combination of all three? What is it that holds me back, what voice has begun to whisper in my ear, “Don’t believe it until you see it?” I don’t remember hearing that voice before. For most of my life, I have been Ms. Throw-Caution-to-the-Wind. The fire has made me a bit more wary, and frankly, I’m just plain tired.

A friend was over the other day and said, “Wow, you look kind of exhausted.” I  said, “Oh hon, I passed ‘exhausted’ about a year ago –  that landmark is long gone.” Recovery from loss is a marathon, not a sprint, and now that I am in the home stretch, I am feeling the distance – trying to catch my breath yet again for the final run across the Finish Line. And yet I know there is no Finish Line – just a different life waiting for me up ahead; a life full of question marks, new experiences, and possible adventures.

Anyway, back to locks and levers.  Yesterday I drove about a half-hour to a doorknob showroom (yes, doorknob showrooms do exist) to go look at levers for the doors to the new house. You’re probably thinking, “Oh for God’s sake just go to Home Depot and be done with it!”  Well, apparently some doorknobs are made from plastic, some from metal, and if you go to a real doorknob guy you’ll probably get something more long lasting and durable.  As I’ve said, I’m building a house to die in, and part of the design of my new house is what’s called “aging in place.” So I actually don’t have door knobs in my new house, I have levers. No twisting, just a gentle push and voila! The door opens. Mom in her walker, my friends with mobility issues – everyone can move around easily in my new home. And thus, I am taking some time to thoughtfully choose door hardware. And besides, as a writer and researcher, I tend to be neurotically detail oriented, so this is right up my alley.

I sat down with the very nice guy in the showroom and started looking at catalogs. We found a simple hardware set for the pocket doors – a bracket and lock that you can grab easily – stainless steel, looked nice. I asked how much it was and he said, “Let’s see… that one is…five hundred dollars.” I said, “FIVE HUNDRED DOLLARS?!!! That’s my entire budget! One one doorknob? What do you have in the forty dollar range?” (Note to Self – Always tell the vendor your budget before you start shopping for anything.) Sigh.

And of course, you not only have to pick out the levers, but the locks – what kind of locks? Keys? Keypads? A separate deadbolt? Keyed in the plate, or in the knob? Do you want locking pins for stability? (Take another breath, you can do this…)

We picked out some inexpensive hardware that will do the job, and this still took over an hour. This was my fourth house-building appointment of the day, and I was feeling a little overwhelmed, but okay. Then he said, “What kind of rose do you want on these?”  I looked at him and said, “Rose? What kind of rose do I want?”  “Yes,” he said, “The rose is the plate that goes behind the lever – this part right here…” He pointed to the little metal plate behind the lever I chose. “Do you want round roses, square, oblong, rectangular, custom…?”  I stared at him blankly and said, “I have to decide what kind of ROSE to get?” And at that moment, I felt my brain starting to shut down. I could almost hear the little computer inside my head beeping; “Warning! Hard drive full! Crash imminent!” I stared at him and said, “Uhhhh….”  This was decision number ten-thousand-two-hundred and eighty-four, and my brain just decided to take a little vacation. It was refusing to cooperate. He said kindly, “Would you like to call your architect?” I said, “No, no, just give me a second.” Roses, for Pete’s sake.

My little dog Nellie was with me, and she came over, wagging, and licked my hand. I picked her up and said, “Okay Nellie, what kind of roses do you want on your doorknobs? Round, square, oblong…. perhaps dog-shaped?” and then we laughed. That seemed to snap me out of it. “Round,” I said. “Round it is,” he said.

And so, another milestone. I have picked out locks, levers and roses. Phew.

I drove down the highway from the showroom back to Boulder, chomping on an apple, feeling rather proud of myself. Nellie was crashed out in the back seat, exhausted from being dragged around to various places all day, and I felt strangely happy. I wasn’t raised to be handy, or to know anything about building a house. I always thought, like many people, that it was a wildly complex project, far beyond my abilities.  But when push comes to shove, you just do it.

Even though I’m exhausted and overwhelmed, I realize that this is a precious gift that has been dropped in my lap, through both dire and happy circumstance.  Who gets to build a house from the ground up? Mostly people with a lot of time and money, which has never been the case with me.  My friends and I like to raise money for charities, but we don’t tend to stash away a lot for ourselves. Freelancers, nurses, artists, teachers – these are the folks I spend most of my time with. Building a house would be like flying to the moon for most of us, and yet here I am, working with architects, builders, painters – picking out doors and locks and levers, paint colors, tile, and designing rooms. And learning, with surprise, that I am rather good at it.  Who knew?

I am finding that when life pushes us far beyond our comfort zone, we seem to rise to the occasion.  When we are stripped of comfort, of all familiarity, all that is left is our inner strength, our true resiliency, our inner core of being.  And I am finding, at that core, my Warrior Princess, my Inner Super Hero, who can sometimes leap tall buildings in a single bound, who can coordinate crazy amounts of details, and who can orchestrate, with a lot of help, an entire house rising from the ashes of disaster.

Who knew, almost two years ago, when I drove down the driveway of my old house, off to spend the summer on the Washington coast, that this is where I’d be two years later? Who knew that I was embarking on a heartbreaking and wonderful adventure, or that I would meet scores of new people along the way? Who knew that I would learn so much, and find so much joy, in spite of everything?

When I look at a house, I will never again see just a house. I will see the thousands of decisions that someone made, and the agony and overwhelm and excitement and love that it took to make that house a reality. I will see the dozens and dozens of people – architects, contractors, excavators, masons, framers, roofers, electricians, plumbers, and painters, to name a few –  who worked night and day to make that house a reality. I will see the village that it took to raise that house.

I realize that a rose is not just a rose, it can be many things – a lovely flower, a diamond, a compass marker, and even the little plate behind a doorknob.  Who knew?

Wishing You Sweet Dreams, and Days Full of Roses,


South Side of the House and the Giant Deck

Cheerful Roofer Guys

Hooking Up the Phone

Amy the Brilliant Architect

Cute Drywall Guy

The Trim Carpenter and Chet the Tile Guy

Lars the Cute Painter

Warren the Amazingly Patient Electrician

Jerry Long, My Wonderful Contractor (left) and John Chambers, Supervisor Extraordinaire and All Around Nice Guy

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“Smile” sung by Madeline Peyroux; Composed by Charlie Chaplin. Time lapse photos courtesy of Jerry Long, JA Long Construction. Architectural design by Barrett Studio Architects; David Barrett, Amy Kirtland and Sam Nishek, Architects.

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Colorado Burning

Colorado is on fire – again. A huge wildfire is burning about thirty miles from me. It has already claimed two, possibly three lives, and destroyed dozens of homes. My friend and fellow writer Melanie Mulhall wrote and asked how I was doing, and if I would comment on the fire for our writer’s list serve.  This is what I wrote;

Hi Melanie and Friends,

Thank you so much for asking, Melanie. Several other folks have checked in with me to see how I’m doing.

Right now I’m feeling great sadness for the people who have lost their homes, and empathy for evacuees who are in that strange limbo of “not knowing.” The twenty-four hours I spent waiting to hear if my home was destroyed were oddly attenuated and quite surreal; time slowed down to a crawl, I felt dizzy and disoriented, and my mind was spinning. As most of you know, I was on the West Coast when my house burned down, and had to start my 1,700 mile cross-country road trip while in that odd limbo – hoping for the best, trying to prepare for the worst.

Eighteen months after the fire, I am better. The smoke in the air sends me into a place of concern, but not panic. I am deeply heartbroken for people who have lost everything, and so sad for the folks who lost their lives.  When I heard that news this afternoon, I picked up Nellie and whispered, “That could have been me – that could have been us.” It gave me a renewed sense of gratitude that no one died in the Four Mile Fire, and that I did not have to run through the woods with flaming chunks of debris raining down, as some of my neighbors did. I did not have to look quickly at my belongings and make that terrible choice – what goes in the car? What stays? I did not have to chase my animals around in a blind panic, desperately trying to get them into the car, as did some of my neighbors, who lost beloved pets they could not catch as the wall of fire approached.

My next door neighbor has four horses, and had a horse trailer that only fit two. She had to choose who got to go in the trailer, and who didn’t. Her husband loaded up two horses, and then she grabbed the other two by the halters and started running down the mountainside as her husband drove the trailer down the road to safety. Remembering this makes me so grateful that Nellie and I were, and continue to be, safe. And I am grateful that when my house burned down when I was twelve years old, I was not at home. I did not have to jump out of a window of a burning building, as my family did – I was at a friend’s slumber party, telling ghost stories in a tent in the backyard, and then blissfully asleep.

Losing everything to fire is a bizarre and wrenching life passage, and one I would not wish on anyone. And, it has opened up my life in myriad ways that are still unfolding. What has gotten me through this year and a half is the love of friends, and writing, and service.  I’ve been working with Boulder County and with United Way, trying to coordinate services for other Four Mile Fire survivors, and I continue to do that work.  The support of my friends has been extraordinary, and I wish for the survivors of this fire that they have a community as generous and loving as you all. Your kind words, gifts, love and encouragement have kept me going each day, through these difficult and transformative months.

My father carried a small card in his pocket until the day he died that read, “To ease another’s heartache is to forget one’s own. – Abraham Lincoln.” That small card was one of my prized possessions, and it burned up in the fire, but I continue to try to follow in my father’s footsteps and live by those words.  I hope I can help the survivors of this most recent fire, either through the blog, or in person, and that my words will somehow help them through the shock and despair of these early days.

Thank you for thinking of me, Melanie. Those of us who have experienced tragedy know that our redemption and our resurrection lie in the love of our community, and in our families and friends and families of choice, who hold us in their hearts and minds and take our hands and say, “I’m here – I’m still here.”  For we are all surrounded by fire, really, in one form or another.  Flames stand ready to incinerate our old lives at any minute.  The fires that have taken two homes have taught me true gratitude for the simple fact that I am alive and breathing on this Great Green Earth, and at least for the moment, content, and ready for another day.

Sending Love and Gratitude to All,


My neighbor took these photos of my house as the Four Mile Fire came up over the hill.

... as the fire came closer...

...the sky turned red, and it was time to go.

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Table for One

February 14th, 2012
Seventeen Months After the Fire

Dear Friends,

It’s February 14th, and this morning I woke up with my little dog Nellie snuggled up next to me, warm and cozy.  I rolled over and looked at her and said, “Will you be my Valentine?” She looked at me and wagged – thump, thump, thump – and then spun around on the bed, flopped over on to her back with her feet in the air, and then stared at me upside down, wagging wildly. I said, “I take it that means Yes,” and smiled. When it comes to unabashed, unconditional love, dogs have cornered the market.

Culturally and socially, there are a lot of messages out there trying to tell me that I’m not supposed to be happy with a little fifteen-pound dog as my valentine today; I’m supposed to feel like a Pitiful Single Person.  Which I do not – most of the time, at least. I’ve learned a lot about being single since my house burned down. Mostly, that there are pluses and minuses to going through a big disaster as a single person.

I think many single folks feel, deep down, that part of the reason for getting married or making a lifetime commitment with a partner is that someone will be there when the chips are down, when things fall apart.  We think, What if something REALLY bad happens, shouldn’t you have a partner there to see you through? Well, yes and no.  Research tells us that many marriages actually don’t make it through Big Disasters, because they put so much strain on the relationship.  As a friend of mine who works as a marriage and family counselor says, “Often people turn against each other, rather than toward each other, when they are grieving.”  My home building and contractor friends tell me that many relationships don’t survive the complex and stressful process of building a house, which is really sad.

Right now a relationship might be a blessing, but honestly, it feels like one less thing for me to worry about. I like being able to build my own house – one that’s designed just for me. I like being able to pick exactly what I want, within reason, and not have to negotiate about every single window, doorknob, and kitchen appliance.

That said, building a house as a single woman is an interesting process. For example, the guy at the tile and flooring place calls me “Dear,” when he talks to me on the phone.  He’s about my age, and says things like, “We’ll find you the right kind of wood flooring, dear, don’t you worry.”  He knows my house has burned down, he knows I’m single, and I think he wants to “take care of me.” And there are moments when that’s comforting, and soothing in a way.  But honestly, I’m professional researcher, a former college professor with a PhD, and I just spent three years as the Principal Investigator for a pretty big training and development project for the U.S. government.  When I present at conferences in Washington DC, no one calls me “Dear,” they call me “Doctor O’Conor.” This is the paradox of being female in the twenty-first century, I think. Being taken care of is sometimes nice, but when does it slide over into condescension? A fine line, to be sure.

The other thing I deal with is what I call “Single Person Invisibility” when I’m in certain types of stores.  If I walk into an appliance store, a plumbing supply store, or any other kind of place that deals with building a home, I am generally ignored.  If a couple walks in at the same time, the salespeople make a beeline for them.  The other day I was in a store that sells beds, the kind that have all these layers of foam and air and fancy push-buttony kinds of things. I walked in, and at the same time, two couples walked in. The salespeople ran over to the couples and said eagerly, “May I help you?” as I stood there by myself. One salesperson called out as he walked away, “I”ll just let you look around…” Which I did, for about ten minutes, while they fussed over the couples, and then I left, never having spoken to anyone. This has happened more times than I can tell you.

Frankly, it’s far more likely that I’m going to buy a bed, or perhaps TWO beds, than either of those couples.  I’ve been doing this kind of reconnaissance for over a year now, and I can tell you that if it’s a weekend, and it’s a young couple, there’s a good chance they’re just window shopping. It’s pretty likely that they have a perfectly good bed at home and they’re just dreaming of a new one someday (a great practice, to be sure – we can all dream.) I, on the other hand, have insurance money in the bank and an empty house to fill. I HAVE to buy a bed, so it would behoove them to run over to me, the single person, and ask if I need help.

But for some odd reason, this is rarely the case.  I’m left alone in all kinds of stores while couples are whisked around the showrooms. I have to search for a salesperson, who usually doesn’t perk up until I tell them my situation, and then they unconsciously look around for my husband, or say things like, “So you and your husband are rebuilding?”  When they realize (after I tell them emphatically) that it’s JUST ME, they have to adjust a bit. Yes, I tell them, I’m making all the decisions myself. Yes, I’ll be deciding on which photovoltaic system I’ll be using. Yes, I’ll be deciding on the hot water system. Yes, I’d like the plumbing set up so that I can flush the system and drain the water from the house if I’m traveling for an extended time period.  Yes, I’d like two extra inches of insulation in the walls, and cellulose rather than foam, which the EPA has some concerns about. Yes, I know it’s more expensive, and yes, I really do want to do that.

One guy actually said, “Should I talk with your husband about this?” at which point I laughed and said, “Nope, you only get to deal with me.”  He finally got the picture, and we sat down and worked it out, cordially. I have to say also that my contractor, Jerry Long, has always treated me with respect, listened to me, and taken my ideas seriously.  He also tells me up front if what I want to do is either a) kind of ridiculous (“Can we build an observation tower above my bedroom?”)  b) really expensive (“Can I afford an indoor pool?”) or c) almost impossible, given the laws of physics (“Hey, how about a spiral staircase leading to a hot tub on the roof?”)

And the contractor who cleared my land, Pat Minniear, used to call me a “force of nature.”  Of course, I would joke, “Which one, Pat? A hurricane? A wildfire? A calm, soothing wind?” and we would laugh. Pat and I are friends now, and have a lot of respect for each other.

So it’s not the entire building industry that makes it tough to build a house as a single woman, it’s a whole culture that is geared toward couplehood. And you know, for the good of us all, I think that’s got to change.  I was listening to an NPR report yesterday in which they mentioned that one out of every two households in New York City consists of a single person, living alone. That’s right, FIFTY PERCENT of the population of that city. According to the US Census Bureau, nearly 44% of the American public is single. And I would surmise that on this Valentine’s Day, most of us are doing pretty well.

So while every romantic comedy tells me that the ultimate Happy Ending is the end of singlehood, I have to admit that I’m pretty happy being single right now. And I think it’s not really a question of who we love, or how we love, but that we love.  That there is love in our lives, love in whatever form – love of friends or family or dogs or cats or your favorite pot-bellied pig; love that will get you through from one hard time to the next, one good time to the next, one year to the next, in this grand dance of life.

Tonight I will not go out and sit at a Table for One. I’m heading out with a whole gang of friends, some singles, some couples, to hear my friend Sharon’s band, The Jamesons Co-Dependent Country Band, play.  They’re a hysterically funny, talented group of local musicians, and we’ll sit in a big group and eat and drink and laugh and dance, and celebrate our friendship and the fact that we’re alive and well and together on this beautiful earth. Nellie will be home, holding down the fort, and will be ready to snuggle when I get back.

And next year, I’ll be home, in my new house, and I may be single, or I may not be, who’s to say. I’m open to what happens, but in the meantime, how about if we dance?

Happy Valentine’s Day to You and Yours, and Lots of Love,

Andi (with Valentine’s wags from Nellie)

All You Need is Love

Posted in Friends, Good Moments, Nellie the Dog | 10 Comments
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A Rest Between Measures

February 5th, 2012
Seventeen Months After the Fire

Dear Friends,

It’s a quiet Sunday evening here in Colorado. The weekend’s blizzard has covered everything in more than a foot of snow, and a winter stillness has fallen over our neighborhood.

Snow on the Back Porch of the Cottage at Chautauqua

This morning I went out to my back porch, coffee in hand, to look at the newly fallen snow.  As I stood there in my pajamas and big Sorel snow boots, I thought about shoveling off the porch, but instead decided to build Princess Nellie a snow castle, so she could see over the drifts into the meadow. I figured I’d play around in the snow a little, then get on with my long To-Do list for the day.

I picked up my snow shovel and started digging, and Nellie ran around wagging, wondering what I was doing. It was so much fun that I didn’t want to go back inside, so the little castle got more and more elaborate.  I added spires, turrets, and a little “moat” so other dogs couldn’t get in, and Nellie couldn’t get out. When the castle was finished, Nellie scrambled up and sat, contented, as if to say, “Finally!  An abode befitting my station.”

Nellie in Her Snow Castle

Nice View from Up Here!

I finally decided to go back inside, and climbed on to the couch for a little rest (really – architecture is an exhausting job!) and promptly fell asleep, with Nellie curled up at my feet. When I awoke it was late in the afternoon, and it was time to get up and get ready to go to a friend’s house for dinner.  I started to stir and Nellie opened one eye, then promptly put her head on my feet so I couldn’t move.  I said, “Nellie, I have to get up and get ready to go out.”  When I tried to move again, she crawled onto my chest, then lay down and closed her eyes with a long sigh, as if to say, “Oh, no you don’t. What you need is rest.”

Well, Dog usually knows best, so I called my friends and canceled. I got back on the couch with Nellie and realized how deeply exhausted I am from this process of recovering from the fire. At a meeting a few months ago, a woman who lost her home to fire several years ago, said, “Remember, you’re not even half way through this process. For most people, this takes years. It’s a marathon, not a sprint, so pace yourselves.”

A marathon; that was an apt description. I have been working on rebuilding my home for over a year, and it’s still behind schedule.  The insurance settlement alone took over a year. I’ve moved three times, and lived in three different rental houses. The piles of paperwork are still daunting, and there are still a million daily decisions to be made. And then there are those resurfacing feelings of grief, anger, and fear that I juggle each and every day.  I still search for things that aren’t there, and the momentary amnesia of loss strikes at odd times – “Where is my winter hat? It must be here somewhere… Oh, wait a minute…”

I am tired; right down to my bones.  It’s been a year and half, and for most people the Four Mile Fire is just a distant memory, one disaster among many in the daily news.  But for those of us who lost homes, neighborhoods, everything we owned – the process is still in full swing.  Only a handful of people have rebuilt, some are still trying to figure out if they’re going to rebuild or not, and some are still in shock, waiting for the emotional dust to settle before moving forward. Most of us are still displaced, or as one writer said, “we’re still traveling; we’re not yet home.”

I have been “traveling” for many, many months now. And I am tired. And Nellie knows this, as dogs do, and so she pins me to the couch and says, “Sit. Stay.” Sigh.

So I made a pot of tea and now I’m back on the couch, watching the full moon rise in the sky, and relishing the quiet.  Nellie is curled up on my lap, watching me, and when I look at her, she wags. “Good girl,” she seems to say, “Good, good girl.”

Sending you wishes for peaceful naps, puppy love, and sweet dreams,

Andi and Princess Nellie

Posted in Chautauqua, Nellie the Dog | 9 Comments
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Friends in the Meadow on New Year's Day

January 1st, 2012

Dear Friends,

Happy New Year!

Today, New Year’s Day, I hosted a small gathering of friends here at the cottage – mostly new friends since the fire – and we ate and drank and played games and laughed for hours.  At one point we went around in a circle and talked about our “lowlights” and “highlights” of 2011, and each of us spoke about our joys and sorrows of the past year, and what we wished/expected/hoped for in 2012.  We talked of our dreams, disappointments, and our hopes for meaningful work, prosperity and service.  I was so moved by what everyone shared.

So precious, these times with friends. Since the fire I appreciate everything more, knowing how quickly things can change, disappear, or turn upside down. Life truly feels short, and I feel a need more than ever to pay attention, to really see what is going on around me right NOW. For who knows what waits around the next corner?

Right now it is the first of January, 2012, and I am still smiling from the day. My friends have gone home, and I’ve piled the dishes in the sink to soak (I’ll think about them tomorrow, at Tara.) I am here in my little cottage, listening to Christine Kane sing, “Overjoyed,” and Nellie is sleeping curled up in her bed, and I am deeply content. I am alone, but not lonely.  Single, but so loved.

My friend Kathy Davis used to say to me, “Andi O’Conor, you are the luckiest person I know.”  I used to brush it off, or roll my eyes, but now I see the truth of her words.  Fire and terrible loss have brought me to a new place, where I am not destroyed, but renewed.  Today I have new friends, a new career, and a new house in progress.  My heart and mind have opened in ways I could never have anticipated, and my life has taken a direction that I never thought possible.

I realize that my friend Kathy is right – I am absolutely, positively, the luckiest person I know.

Wishing You Great Good Fortune, Peace and Prosperity in the New Year, and Sweet Dreams,


Overjoyed – by Christine Kane

The midnight sky all stars and black
Like darkened glass and glitter
Suggests that I go back inside
And wait for warmer weather
So here it’s New Year’s Eve again
And everything keeps changing
I raise my glass and toast the Gods
In charge of rearranging

All of the world is designed to remind you
All of the light you could find is inside
Under all of the noise
What’s it like to be overjoyed

In spite of day-time planners higher standards
Dreams defended
There’s not a single thing that’s turned out
Quite like I intended
And so you learn that holding on
Is nothing less than panic
When big things fall apart
Then hearts get that much more gigantic

All of the world is designed to remind you
All of the light you could find is inside
Under all of the noise
Are you scared to be overjoyed

It used to be a race to see
Just who’d get there the fastest
But this frozen night it’s only right
To consecrate the madness

All of the world is designed to remind you
All of the light you could find is inside
Under all of the noise
Here’s your chance to be overjoyed

(Copyright 2007 – Firepink Music. You can buy this song and Christine’s music here.)

Posted in Good Moments | 3 Comments
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All I Want for Christmas

Dear Friends,

It is Christmas Eve, almost midnight, and my little Charlie Brown tree glows softly in the corner of my tiny cottage. Nellie and I are back at Chautauqua for the winter, our second-to-last move before our final move home sometime in the Spring. Today Nellie paraded around the Park in her Santa Dog outfit, spreading smiles wherever she went. One little boy toddled over to her and said “Doggie! …Santa?” and looked at his parents, who chuckled.

Chautauqua is a magical fairyland of snow – we had about fourteen inches the other day – and the whole town has been up here sledding, snow boarding, skiing and snowshoeing. Yesterday, the first official day of Winter, I woke up early and as I made coffee in my little kitchen, I heard the sound of distant drumming. I opened the kitchen door to see a gathering of men on the mountainside, drumming in a circle as the first sunrise of winter touched the Flatirons. It was freezing cold outside, but they were out there, drumming, paying homage to the Great Spirit of Nature, to the Sun, to the eternal mystery that is this life of ours. I raised my coffee cup to them as they stood in the meadow, drumming up the sunrise.

And so it is Winter, a new season, and soon, a new year.  Nellie and I will curl up and stay warm, knowing that up the hill, in our meadow, on our mountain, our new house is rising, beam by beam, room by room.  In the spring, we will be “home,” though I’m not sure what that will mean.  For it will be a new home, a strange yet familiar place, one that I will have to get to know all over again. And what will that be like? Another journey, another new adventure.

It is Christmas Eve, and the star on the mountain glows outside my window, and I suppose, far up in the heavens, Santa is riding his mythical sleigh, heaving that big red bag over his shoulder, and delivering toys to all the good little girls and boys.  I’m reminded of the scene in the Wizard of Oz, where Dorothy says sadly to the Wizard, “Oh, I don’t think there’s anything in that bag for me.”  All she wanted was to go home, and she had to go through fire, and hardship, and a long, long road before she got there.  The funny thing was, when Dorothy got swept up by that tornado and landed in Oz, everything changed from black and white into color. She had what was probably the greatest adventure of her life, because you know, when she finally got her wish and went home, she was going to spend the rest of her life in Kansas.

Sometimes it feels like Nellie and I are in Oz – a beautiful place full of interesting people, some who are nice, and some who are not so nice, and I free the scarecrow and smack the lion on the nose and battle the witch and keep telling everyone that I just want to go home. I am exhausted from this long journey, but I also know that I am lucky, for I will go home some day. I think of the many people who are not at home right now – they are at sea, at war, homeless, or the bank has taken their home and set them adrift.  I want to reach out to them all, and take their hands, and say hang on, hang on. You’ll get there.  You’ll get through the fire and the smoke and the fear and the sadness, and one day turn the corner and find you are home, at last.  And you’ll kiss the ground and say, Oh, yes, there’s no place like home.

All I want for Christmas is for all of us to be “home,” wherever that may be.

I look out my window into the night, and see the great constellations wheel in the sky overhead, and I notice that it is now midnight – Christmas Day.  Nellie sleeps curled on the bed, dreaming her doggie dreams, and I am going to turn off the lights, and fall asleep with the tree glowing softly in the corner. And in the morning I will wake up in my little rented cottage, and it will be Christmas, and a new day, a day of celebration, and love, and I will be one step closer to the Emerald City, and Home.

Wishing You and Yours a Happy Holiday Season, and of course, Sweet Dreams,


View from my Kitchen Door out to the Park

Friends Michael and Nancy skiied over to say hi on Christmas Eve

Keep Calm and Carry On

Posted in Chautauqua | 13 Comments
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December, 2011
A Year and Three Months After the Fire

It does not matter
how slowly you go,
as long as you do not stop.
– Confucious

Dear Friends,

Last week I had a meltdown in the parking lot of Ferguson’s Plumbing in Denver.  I walked out of the store, got in the car, put the key in the ignition, and promptly burst into tears.  I put my head down on the steering wheel and sobbed those long, choking sobs that come from pure grief, from a place so deep you can’t even name it.

When I realized I couldn’t stop crying, I started punching numbers on my phone, and finally got a hold of my friend Karen in Dayton, Ohio.  When she picked up the phone, I sobbed, “Karen, I’m in a parking lot in Denver and I can’t stop crying.” She said, “Oh, sweetie, what is it?” “Everything,” I said, “It’s just everything. I’m doing my best but I feel like things are going so fast and I just can’t keep up. I want to get off this roller coaster. I just want to GET OFF. And I can’t believe I’m crying in a plumbing supply PARKING LOT for god’s sake…”

So what brought on this recent meltdown?  What traumatic experience made me sob in a parking lot on a sunny Tuesday afternoon? Was someone mean to me? Did I get some bad news from the insurance company? No, it was picking out plumbing fixtures. That’s right, I completely lost it after looking at too many faucets, toilets, sinks and bathtubs.

I know, I know, you’re thinking, “Wow, people are starving and out of work, and she’s crying over faucets? Get over it, will you?”  Well, as I’ve said before, it’s all a matter of perspective. Building a house from the ground up, all by yourself, on a limited budget, is a daunting prospect, especially when it’s not something you ever wanted to do.  In fact, many people from the Four Mile Fire opted out of rebuilding – the very thought of it was so exhausting that they cashed out and found another place to live.

Building a house is a hopeful endeavor, to be sure.  Watching my house literally rise from the ashes has been amazing. Seeing the first walls go up took my breath away, and brought happy tears to my eyes.  But now that the house is being rebuilt, everyone asks me, “Aren’t you just having fun with it?”  Having fun? Not exactly.  As I told an interviewer recently, there are moments of fun. But the overall process is frankly overwhelming and exhausting most of the time.

It’s a huge and complicated process – one that involves making hundreds of decisions, and choosing things that you’ll have to live with for the rest of your life.  The human brain is wired to make lots of decisions quickly in times of crisis – I remember the overwhelming amount of details my mother had to deal with after my father died – but we’re just not built to do this for months and months on end. We get tired. The hard drive that is your brain starts to beep and say it’s “full.”  And then you melt down, right there in the plumbing supply parking lot.

So, back to the plumbing supply store. When I drove out there that day I was full of enthusiasm. I walked in and met the very nice saleswoman, who pulled out a sheet of paper and said, “Where do you want to start?”  I looked at her and said, “Uh, I dunno…”  Keep in mind that I have never so much as remodeled a bathroom in my entire life.  I have never chosen a paint color, or a sink, or even a towel rack.  My home was completely redone right before I bought it twenty years ago, and my concept of remodeling was to paint all the walls white and call it good. “Where do you want to start?”  That’s a huge question. My enthusiasm started to wane. This might be a little harder than I thought.

She saw the look of panic on my face and said, “How about the master bathroom? Want to start there? Let’s start with faucets.” Okay, I said, that sounds easy. So we walked over to where the faucets were and I found myself facing three entire WALLS of faucets. Just faucets. Oh my god, I thought, I’m supposed to pick ONE? “Well,” said the cheerful saleswoman, “What do you see here that you like? Do you want single handle, double handle, wall-mounted, or touch-free?”  I looked at them and just blanked.  There were flat faucets, curved faucets, gooseneck faucets, faucets that looked like Japanese bamboo, tall and short faucets, modern and classic faucets, chrome, brushed nickel, antique bronze, and colors that I don’t even know the names of. Walls and walls of bathroom faucets. And some of those faucets cost FIVE HUNDRED DOLLARS.  And I was supposed to sort out what I liked from what I can afford, try to imagine what my future bathroom is going to look like, and then pick one that I can live with for the next twenty years? One faucet?

The Little Voice of Panic that lives inside me popped up and whispered, “You are never, never going to be able to do this.”  Then my other voice, the Irish Warrior Princess Voice, told the Voice of Panic to Shut the Hell Up, and then said, “Just take this one faucet at a time.” I took a breath. Okay, one faucet at a time. We proceeded to walk around the store, she with her clipboard, me trying to breathe, and I looked at the walls of bathroom faucets, and kitchen faucets, and tub fillers, and shower fixtures, and hand-held sprayers, soap dispensers, kitchen sinks, laundry sinks, laundry faucets, bathroom sinks, vanities, toilets, bathtubs…it seemed to just go on and on and on.

After two hours, the list wasn’t even half finished, and the cheerful saleswoman was frustrated and burned out, and I was exhausted.  She had another appointment, and I had only a rough idea of what I wanted. She looked at me and said, “According to your building schedule, we really need to get these choices to the plumber, so you’ll need to come back  again really soon.” That meant making the hour and a half drive, each way, all over again, taking time out from work, and from all the other house decisions I have to make, to look again at walls of faucets and sinks and toilets. “Okay,” I said, “I can come back day after tomorrow.” I smiled and shook her hand, and then I walked out to my car, got in, and started to sob uncontrollably.

I did finally get my meltdown under control, and my friend Karen made me laugh again, and I hung up and started the long drive home. I was way out past the airport, on a little-used highway at the edge of the city, out near the eastern plains.  As I drove toward Boulder I watched the late afternoon sunlight paint the Rocky Mountains pink. I popped in a CD with a talk by spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle, who spoke about staying in the present, and how most of our troubles are brought about by dwelling in the past, or fearfully anticipating the future. I took a breath, and tried to forget about faucets and sinks and hurried salespeople and plumbing schedules, and focused on the moment.

In that moment, I was driving an empty Colorado highway, on a winter afternoon, with beautiful mountains in the distance. Around me, the lights of houses were starting to come on; houses full of people who were already home, people with their own problems, many of which were surely greater than mine.  I was on my way back to my little rented cottage in a beautiful park, where a small, furry bundle of love was waiting to greet me, tail wagging, full of joy, as if I were the Greatest Person on Earth. I had loving and faithful friends who could talk me down from silly plumbing meltdowns and make me laugh again. And because I had parents who told me I could do anything I put my mind to, I had an Irish Warrior Princess inside who was going to cheer me on, every step of the way.

As I drove, I felt a smile creep over my face. “I’m going to do this,” I thought. “I’m actually going to build an entire house, and I’m going to pick all the damn appliances and faucets and light switches and doors and plumbing fixtures. And then someday I’m going to be home again in a beautiful new house, and it doesn’t matter if I’ve never done this before or I don’t have a lot of money or I’m doing it alone. I’m going to do this. One faucet at a time.” And I smiled, and turned off Eckhart Tolle, and turned on the radio, and started to sing.

Sometimes, after a great loss, the strangest things send you over the edge – an unkind word from a stranger, or dropping your favorite cup and gasping as it shatters on the floor.  And sometimes it’s the smallest things that get you through – a beautiful sunset, a talk with a friend, a little dog. There is so much grace in our lives, and there are so many small things waiting to lift us up, and talk us down, and help us breathe again.  Each day I’m reminded of the great paradox of our lives on Earth – how each day brings so many challenges, so much heartache, and also so much unexpected joy.

Each day when I open the door to go out into the world, I know that there are traps waiting for me – mean people, bad traffic, and tiny, sharp hurts. Life sometimes feels like wading across a river full of piranhas; it’s not the big shark bites that get you, it’s those hundreds of little nibbles.  And there are also gifts waiting around each corner, little acts of love and kindness – a card in the mail from a stranger, a friend who calls out of the blue and tells me she’s thinking of me. Each day, it seems, is the Best of Times, and the Worst of Times, and it’s all part of this great Dance of Life. I think the important thing is to just keep going, to get up each day and go out that door, and peek around that corner, and see what’s out there. It might turn out better than you think –  even the plumbing.

Wishing You Days of Joy, and Hopeful Prospects,


The House in the Snow, and Kenda, Jerry the Contractor's Cute Dog

Posted in The New House | 15 Comments
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