My thoughts today are lingering on a pretty little ranch outside of Sundance, Wyoming. My friend Gaydell invited Milt and I out one day to walk along the ridges and gullies of her ranch with her dog Maxi. The sun was warm and bright, and we stepped over little trickling rivulets carrying walking sticks (Gaydell always had a few outside of her back door.) She showed me the places she had seen animals and special plants, she showed us where her son Frank was buried, dead from a logging accident at a young age.
She wanted me to see where she lived. Her house was a rugged homestead-type place that burned only wood and used a cook stove. One room was to the roof with books. She wanted me to see how much this place was a part of her spirit. I got it.
This past weekend I heard that she had passed away. I was so very sad and yet so aware that a spirit such as this is never really gone from the world but lives on in the many lives she touched. She loved and mentored so many that we have lost count.
As I write this, Leonard Cohen’s “Halleluiah” is playing on a sound system somewhere as if perfectly timed to my last paragraph. Leonard Cohen, another great poet.
I first met Gaydell in a room in the Cook County Library where I showed up for my first Bearlodge Writer’s gathering. This group had been meeting for decades, its members coming and going in various stages of their writing lives. Novelists, poets, history buffs, essayists. The group had quite a list of publishing credits to their names. I was looking for a home for my own writer self to take root and grow, and I found it with the Bearlodge Writers who also called themselves the Bearlodge Eaters because there were always treats (especially chocolates) centering the tables. Twice a month they gathered, and I’d faithfully make the hour and a half drive from Rapid City to be a part of their community.
It’s a scary thing to bare your writer’s soul and your tentative, newly-written words to others. We need a safe environment, a place to try things out, experiment, test a listener or reader’s reaction. Gaydell became my tuning fork for good writing. I’d take my turn in the circle and begin reading my piece, and I’d surreptitiously glance up every once in a while to check my tuning fork. If tears were gathering in Gaydell’s eyes, I knew I was on track. If she took a Kleenex, even better. It was such a treasure to get to know her over time. We became good friends, sharing manuscripts, critiquing each other’s work, or just hanging out for a cup of coffee at Two Pines in Spearfish. When I moved away we kept in touch, and she constantly cautioned or scolded me to to get so busy that I give up on my beautiful writing. You cannot imagine how much it fed my spirit to have her see my writing (and me) as beautiful. And I loved her writing as well. My favorite was of her washing a red dress in the river in preparation for taking a place on the library council (I think) and how connected she felt to all the women of all time just by washing a dress in the river.
One fun Gaydell story before I end my tribute to my friend. One day Gaydell found two bicyclists hunkering down at the Buffalo jump in a terrible sandstorm. She stuffed the bikers and their bikes into her jeep and took them home to the ranch to wait out the storm. They were a French couple biking across the world. They had a lot of fun getting to know each other and during the evening she shared my story with them, The Wind of a Thousand Years, and gave them each a Bead Person. They thought it was great—having just got tossed around in the wind themselves. Before they left they attached the little Bead People to their bikes and later Gaydell got pictures of The Bead People, now a bit travel weary, still attached to the bikes–in India this time. They had traveled over 10,000 miles with our French friends.
You can’t imagine the sweetness of this woman’s soul. Humble, generous, giving, always there to offer encouragement, comfort, tears and soggy tissues. I can count on one hand the people I have known with this rare combination of soul, sense of place, and a natural need to serve others. She would hate that I am even writing this about her—it would seem too much.
I loved Gaydell.
Skip the past tense, I love her. Like her little ranch in Wyoming, she has a place roaming my heart forever. We will miss you, my dear friend. And I miss all of you Bearlodge Writers who are gathering today in her honor. Remember, grief is just liquid love!
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