"It's as if a great bird lives inside the stone of our days and since no sculptor can free it, it has to wait for the elements to wear us down, till it is free to fly." Mark Nepo

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Baby Teeth

Toby has lost most of his baby teeth by now. I've watched his mouth grow and stretch over the last months, and along with that have watched his little puppy teeth be pushed out by big dog teeth meant to provide him sustenance and protection for the next decade or so. As near as I can tell, he has four baby teeth left. His canines. The fangs. The Dracula teeth.

Sometime during his fourth week of life, according to what I've read, 28 little teeth more or less simultaneously appeared in his mouth. During his fourth month the permanent teeth began to  push the babies out. He will have 42 big dog teeth when the process is finished. 

I've wondered about the fact that these four needle sharp weapons of defense are the last to leave Toby's puppy mouth as it becomes dog mouth. As long as they are in place, his mouth is a dangerous place to be in or even near. Once they're gone, even with more and bigger teeth, his mouth will be a place where a hand or a kitten or a dead bird might rest safely without fear of any more harm than a thorough saliva bath.

This is a being who has  not had serious need of defending himself in his short life. Yet he came equipped with fangs that mean business even when he's playing. I have a scar on the palm of my hand that appears to be here to stay. He was playing ferociously one morning. My hand went the wrong direction, the tooth just happened to be there, and I was instantly punctured. Blood flowed. I cursed. He was sorry. 

That was an accident. If he had intended harm, it would have been much worse.

He came to me with those four particular teeth. He came with built-in protection that works pretty much without his conscious intent, and that protection is staying with him to the last of his puppyhood. 

I wonder if my baby canines will be leaving soon. Those internal sharp points that protect me still from those who would do me harm. Never mind that the little girls whose protection they are,  who were so deeply wounded and in need of defense, have long since been comforted, nurtured, and healed. Never mind that the adults who inflicted the wounds have long since lost their power over those babies, and in fact have long since lost any power they once held.  Never mind that my adult being longs for a soft mouth that delivers only love and kindness and truth.

My adult being longs to be a safe place for tender hands, babies and soft hearts

I seem to have lost all my other baby teeth. The tiny milk teeth that helped me keep a grip on whatever might sustain me. The grinding baby molars that broke life into pieces I could swallow. Only the sharp, pointy, front-and-cornered canines remain. These are the teeth that draw blood if needed, shred flesh, puncture enemies. If I have no enemies, it seems time to let them go. This most powerful defense has served me well, but there are new teeth pushing hard to take their place. 

As I check Toby's mouth each morning, in part so he'll be used to my hands there, in part looking for loose teeth, I push against each of the four tiny needle sharp canines. I can see the adult teeth just beginning to bulge behind them. Any day now, I'll have them in hand. 

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Toby Training

This week is the three month mark of Toby's occupation of our home and lives. Much has changed.

The back yard has an interesting variety of holes dug at random intervals. Toby is rock hunting. He loves rocks. Chews on them. Flings them. Leaves them on the porch (where I step on them if I'm not watching out). I've found a few broken rocks on his lounge. No broken teeth so far.

My hour long full-out walks in the park are now hour long start and stop  and start and stop - "Toby, stop PULLING!" - and start and stop hops to the camp below our house. Toby loves walks. He turns into a sled dog, snorkeler (going for rocks in the river), ambulance going to an emergency with no care for the tether trying to guide him. I have not yet found the bottom of his pool of energy. 

Toby loves the cats. He loves when they rub up against him and seems to think it's funny when they hiss, growl and scratch him when he gets out of control with his displays of affection. Toby chases the cats, no matter how much trouble he gets into when he does. He has been told he'll be given away if he hurts a cat.  I'm pretty sure I mean that, but he doesn't believe me. Although he doesn't vocalize it, his face says, "You worry too much, Mom. I'd never hurt one. It's just a game we play - me and the cats."

About a month ago, he started waking up at the crack of doom again. Walt started getting up and putting him outside and going back to bed. Just as an experiment, we left him out one night. He slept through the night and has slept out every night since. He sleeps on the lounge that was a wedding present from Walt's grandma. The crate sits unused in a corner of the patio. 

Morning wake up is still the best time with him. He comes in excited and lovey and we spend a long time on the floor cuddling and softly wrestling. He loves being brushed, especially if I let him chew/suck on my robe. I adore his swirls and curls and fairy tale soft fur. I admire his still angelic ears. I explore his mouth for lost baby teeth and new dog teeth and I rub his gums. I drum his Buddha belly and nuzzle the soft places of his face. My days start happy.

He's not supposed to be in our bird feeder area. Has been chased out, growled at, put in time out for being there from his first days here. Now when we look out the window and see him sitting under the feeders in the wooden wheelbarrow Walt built for me we say, "Look, isn't he cute?!" I don't really miss the Nandina he ate and he's leaving the Potentilla alone, so it seems a fair compromise. Besides, the birds aren't complaining, and the cats can't hunt them if Toby's in the middle of the area.

Hundreds of dollars worth of toys are strewn everywhere - outside, upstairs, in his room. His toy of choice is always, without exception, whatever Costco box is available. The big chunky ones that once held Craisins or frozen chicken breasts or Tillamook cheese. He growls at them, attacks them, chews them into smaller chunks which he devours. He drags them through the kitchen and dining room, trophies of pride and canine triumph. His second favorite toy is whatever chunk of wood he can find in the back yard. Some days the patio looks like a sawmill floor.

When I come home at the end of the day, the first thing I look for as I pull into the driveway is his sweet, happy, eager face peeking through the fence. He waits semi-patiently for me to change, then turns himself inside out when I go to him on the patio. That joy is hot oil rubbed onto sore muscles by gifted hands.

I don't remember being taken over quite in the same way with our other dogs. I thought I had more control, was more in charge, had more influence. I'm not entirely sure if Toby's that much different, or if it's me. I am sure that pleasure is the goal. Not utter obedience. Toby's happy with that.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Catherine Creek

As we drive east into the Columbia River Gorge, the wind scours the sky clear of late winter clouds. By the time we get to Catherine Creek the wind has gentled considerably, apparently enjoying a job well done. The sky is a poem of blue stretched from horizon to horizon.

The strip that serves as a parking lot is full. An encouraging sign. I've been worried that we're too early for the wildflowers that are the reason we've driven two hours on a Saturday afternoon. It's Walt's birthday and he's chosen this place for the maiden voyage of his new camera. It's also our first hike of the year. The day is primed for joy.

The first thing I see are tufts of purple bells sprinkled in the rocky field that is the trailhead. The field guide is a frustration because there's not just one flower with purple bells and my impatience to know now makes the pages stick together. I decide I'll figure it out later and head for the bathroom. On the way back a woman asks me if I know whether the purple flowers are called Widow Grass. I reluctantly admit that I don't know, and rush back to my field guide.

Widow Grass. She was right, and I feel somehow as though I've been given a gift. 

Walt and I set out on the trail. We walk side by side. He's focused on getting used to the new weight of his camera gear. I'm scouting perfect shots and  new flowers. 

"Look, Honey! Look at the way this clump of Widow Grass (now that I know its name, I can't say it enough) nests in the grass."

Usually on these hikes, Walt will reluctantly stop and humor my latest discovery ("Honey, look at this cool fungus!") with a mild acknowledgment of the wonder I'm experiencing. Today he's looking with different eyes. He has a new macro lens to go with his new digital SLR camera.  He has a new appreciation for up close and little miracles of nature.

I can't remember at what point on the hike that I realize that he's being exactly the man I've been in despair of ever seeing again. He's focused, intent, engaged. He's fully present. He's fun to be with.

It might have been  his willingness to shoot, at my request, the Crater Lake blue of the sky through the puzzle of oak branches overhead. It might have been when he turned his cap bill backward in that sexy bad-boy way so it didn't keep bumping the camera. It might have been when he got down on his belly to get a better shot of  Yellow Bells framed perfectly against scales of gray bark.

It might just have been how purely happy he was.

The trail at Catherine Creek winds and climbs through an old homestead. Even though there is little left of the farm, pioneer ghosts and dreams hover over the scrub oak and rock landscape. There is magic here. Every flower we see today is new to me. Gifts from the soul of the place. I collect the names in my heart while Walt documents their existence with his camera.

 Grass Widow.  Yellow Bells. Oaks Toothwort. Desert Parsley, pink and yellow. Smooth Prairie Star.  Western Saxifrage. Gold Stars.

I  feel hope and eternity in these names. 

The trail loops back toward the road along a rocky ridge where the wind, apparently rested, plays with our footing on the rough ground. It's hard to decide whether we're invigorated or intimidated by its power. We walk quietly in the buffet and buzz of the wind, a lovely connected silence full of life and love. Our heads are mostly down so that the wind and rocks don't have their way with us.

I become aware of a single melodic note floating on the air. A bird call that I haven't heard before. I stop and look up in time to see a male Western Bluebird, sky on top - rusty earth below, perched on a bush just close enough for me to be certain what I'm seeing. He sends out another perfect note. His mate, all earth and no sky, responds from another bush slightly farther away from us. They both fly as Walt tries to get closer for a shot, but I don't care.

 In the currency of my naturalist life, a new bird is worth a whole book full of new flowers.

In the currency of my life as a wife, this day overflows with riches that I will be counting for the remainder of my days. Happy Birthday, Walt. Thank you for giving me the present of your full presence on this day. Thank you for giving me the present of renewed hope. Thank you for allowing me to love you.

Pictures by Walt Shucka

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Letting Go of Leaving

In a conversation with my brother Mark a while ago, we were comparing those things we hold in front of ourselves as the ultimate reward. The big carrot if-onlys of our lives. The Once I Get There Everything Will Be Fine things. The final, irrefutable proofs that we've succeeded as human beings. Arrived. Healed. Finally enough.

Our oldest brother, the one in age between Mark and me, is building a boat. A Big Boat.  For years he has believed that when this boat is finished and he's living on it, all will be well. He'll have peace finally and control over his life and the accomplishment of his life's dream. He's the only one in the family who isn't concerned about how he's going to handle the disappointment when he discovers that he followed himself onto the boat.

Our youngest brother has moved a certain Camaro from house to house to house for years. It doesn't run and he can never quite afford to fix it, but he keeps saving and hoping and hauling the body and its parts with him wherever he goes. This car is a relic from a younger, freer, wilder time. A tie to a happier past that promises happiness in some uncalendared future.

When I asked Mark what his Once-I-Get-There thing was, he hesitated only a moment before declaring his career had been. He achieved the top of his career, then lost it, and so has had the rare opportunity to learn that Getting There doesn't get you what you think it will.

Even before Mark asked, I knew what my answer would be. My weight. Once I'm Thin Enough Everything Will Be Fine. Thin will bring happiness, success, peace. Never mind that I have been thin(ner) and it didn't change much besides the size of my clothes. I still saw the same person I see in the mirror when I'm not thin(ner). And if anything, the inside darkness grew as the weight fell away instead of diminishing.

This week I've realized that my Once-I-Get-There-Thing holds much less power over me than the Possibility of Leaving. Because from the age of eleven when life became inescapable hell I've believed that in order to be happy, at peace, and free, I had to leave. I didn't realize until this winter that it was in my blood, my lineage  - the leaving thing. 

I come from a long line of leavers. Pack up your bags and walk out the door leavers. Kill yourself leavers. Drink yourself to death leavers. Escape into madness leavers.

I have to leave to be happy. A simple message that plays subliminally throughout my being like an advertisement convincing me that a certain product will change my life forever.

When I left the cult, which I actually needed to do to survive, I was determined never to leave anything again. I was not going to be a perpetual quitter. I was going to prove to God that I was a serious, stable, committed adult.

And so I anchored myself. In a marriage to a man who loved me and who wanted nothing more than to be a quiet family together. In a career that shouted respectability and security. In a persona that tried hard to be proper and impeccably clean. With beautiful Golden Retrievers and multitudes of cats and hobbies my mother would have approved of.

But there has always been a longing to be somewhere else. I live with one foot out the door, ready to carry me to safety when the pain gets too bad. My favorite escape is the possibility of getting in my car and driving to freedom - away from the loneliness and pain and grief that greet me each morning like old friends. New Mexico, Maine, Canada. Fresh start. No baggage. Adrenaline high.

I know better. I've known better for a very long time. What I didn't know until yesterday was how deeply that belief has impacted my life.

I have to leave to be happy. It's a lie. But oh, what a pretty lie.

What I know also is that by hanging on to the possibility of leaving, I've managed to avoid feeling most of the pain that that eleven year old girl stuffed away so that she could survive her inescapable hell. I've managed to avoid feeling the pain and disappointments of a marriage struggling to keep up with twenty years of change. I've stayed safe (mostly) from the frustration and powerlessness of working in a rigidly sick system that has no room for creativity or spiritual growth.

Leaving, the hope of leaving and the illusion of leaving - none of them have worked. They are not going to work. I am finally willing to say goodbye to them. To thank them for keeping me safe and alive. But to release them so that I can embrace here, now, myself.

I choose to stay.