"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

Monday, December 27, 2010

Gone



It strikes me as odd now that I didn't expect the news I received when I returned her call. Her voice on the message was neutral, and since I'd only heard it one time before, I didn't have a frame of reference for reading anything into her tone. I've wondered if some part of me already knew, and was protecting me.

"This is Shirley, Kathleen's adoptive mom. Would you call me as soon as you get this?"

I remember thinking that it was interesting for her to be calling the Monday before Christmas. Maybe she wanted me to be a part of a surprise of some kind for Kathleen. Or maybe Kathleen had ended up back in the hospital and wanted me by her side badly enough to ask her mom to call me. Maybe even one of Kathleen's children was ready for contact, and Shirley was the messenger.

I called back right away, my voice cheerfully friendly as I said, "What's up?" still thinking it both odd and cool that Shirley was reaching out to me. Shirley, the adoptive mother of my daughter, Kathleen. Shirley, the woman I love, fear and owe an unpayable debt to.

"Kathleen took her life on Friday. I thought you'd want to know."

The human body is an amazing entity. I could feel mine flood with feeling that was quickly surrounded by a blessed blankness.  Questions flooded that space. The ones you would expect, and many more I've been holding all these years of watching my daughter reach toward me and pull back before my reaching toward her could complete the connection.

I asked as many as I thought I could and still respect the great loss of the woman who had spent the last forty years trying to keep our daughter safe from herself and (in Shirley's words) the profound and insidious illness that she had battled for many years.

It was hard to stay with the conversation even though I wanted to know everything. My mind kept bouncing away from our words to another phone call. The first one from Kathleen sixteen years before - the call I'd been hoping for for twenty-four years. The miracle of hearing the voice of the woman I'd relinquished at birth and had been told it would be as though I'd never had her. She was no longer mine, but from that point forward, someone else's daughter.

Except she was always my daughter, too. Every birthday I saw her at that age in other children and wondered about her life. Every milestone I saw in my students, my nieces, characters in movies, I wondered about hers. I looked for her in every chocolate-skinned, curly-haired smiling girl who crossed my path.

And even after I met her and fell in love with the reality of her, as wounded as she was, and she could not deliver what we both so desperately wanted, I waited and hoped and prayed for her healing and the possibility of a real relationship with her. I stood with open arms and a mother's heart and a fierce desire to somehow lighten her burden.

My daughter is gone. Just turned forty in July. The mother of three children she loved. A woman much loved by many. Beautiful. Bright. Kind. Funny. Haunted. Mentally ill.

She left me without goodbye, without ever allowing the relationship she initiated reunion to have with me, without ever really feeling how deeply I love her.

I'm surprised at the depth and strength of this loss. I can't imagine how her other mother is managing, except she has Kathleen's children, both to be strong for and to turn her love toward. I have what I've always had: love and sadness. It's just magnified and without possibility of being anything else. What I also have is a family and friends who accept that I am a mother who has lost her child - for the second and last time - and who hold me gently in my grieving.

I am so sorry there was no way any of us could give Kathleen the power to feel that very same unjudging and embracing love, to feel her value, to feel anything that would have allowed her to stay.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Chickadee


As I tucked suet into the feeder, I could feel tiny eyes watching. I looked up into our sweet gum to see a chestnut-backed chickadee perched on the slimmest of branches, clearly waiting for me to get out of the way. He flitted down the minute I stepped back, scolding as he came, grabbed food and disappeared back up into the depths of the tree.

I was so engrossed in his antics, the whir of wings zipping past one ear startled me. A second one darted to the sunflower feeder, grabbed one shiny black seed, and sped away. My eyes followed him up into the tree where I saw an entire banditry of chickadees scattered among the branches waiting to drift down like wind-driven leaves for their turn at the feeders.

With a million things calling to me from the house, and Toby at my feet wondering why I wasn't throwing the ball for him, I almost moved on. Plus it was cold, nose-running cold. But the sky was blue and there were shadows and I felt such pleasure in the moment, I simply stood where I was and watched. Nothing I did - laugh, shift for a better vantage point, exclaim in surprise - seemed to impact the birds' behavior at all.

Chickadees are social, sociable and very vocal. They're as common around here as robins or juncoes - all-year residents. Yet there is something so uncommon in the delight I feel in their presence. Their size is a part of it: both local varieties, the chestnut-backed and the slightly larger black-capped, would fit nicely in an egg carton. Yet there seems to be an impossible amount of life and energy in those compact bodies.

The richness of their vocabulary also tickles me. From the classic chickadee-dee-dee to the one-note chipping declarations of presence to the cheeseburger song that announces spring, the sound track of my life is full of their voices.

The most incredible thing about them, though, is their lack of fear. No other bird in my experience is so willing to allow my presence in such an easy way. They go about the rhythm of their feeding, and it definitely has all the rhythm of a well-choreographed dance, regardless of my position.

I'm comforted knowing that wherever I might find myself, I'm most likely going to find chickadees, too. The mountains. The ocean. The city. They're resourceful and adapt to an endless variety of environments. I'm comforted by their constancy, no matter the season. I'm comforted that a being so simple and so common has the power to make my heart sing.

While not as majestic as the bald eagle, or as romantic as a hummingbird, chickadee's gift is to remind us that even ordinary contains magic and power and beauty.


Photos by Walt Shucka, taken in our back yard.
A group of chickadees is known as a "banditry" or a "dissimulation" or the much more pedestrian, "flock."

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Becoming Human


I was sitting in a pew, alone, enjoying the final rehearsal for the Christmas program I'd come north to see. My brother Mark sings in the choir and it's become a tradition for me to be in the audience for him. This year I went a day early so we could do some antiquing, which is how I found myself at the practice. Because it was my fourth year, as I watched, many people were familiar to me. I know outlines of their stories. I'm happy when I learn about their successes, sad when I hear of their suffering. I like these people.

I have an uneasy relationship with church. It's very difficult for me to feel anything but judgement, shame and not enough in the formal company of people who follow the religion I was born to. It's not their fault, mostly. Raised with a God used as my mom's hit man and enforcer, baptised into a church where the pastor did not practice what he preached, a decade spent in a small Bible-based cult where obedience and fear were everything - there was nothing in any of those places of love or relationship or simple acceptance.

Some have suggested that I should walk away from trying to believe in any God, but that's never been an option. It sure would make things easier if it was. However, somewhere along the line I decided that the only chance I had of experiencing the light of his love was to be very very still and to separate myself as much as possible from all that made me human: my passion, my body, my temper, my impulsiveness, my heart, my impatience. If I could be good enough, then  - I'm not sure exactly what, but it seemed the only way.

A quarter of a century of being good, respectable and careful left me with not much but exhaustion. Still no closer to feeling completely accepted or acceptable, loved or lovable.

Don't get me wrong, it's been a great life. I've felt love and loved. I've felt joy and success and pain.  I've experienced moments of pure light where there was not one doubt of God's presence or care. It's just that I've felt all of it through so many layers of separation from my humanity, it's been like listening to glorious music through a fortress wall. That wall grows thinner with each new insight, each new miracle, each new stirring of my heart.

As I sat in the dark watching the band and choir practice for a program meant to celebrate God become human in the form of Jesus, I noticed how very human these people were. They talked when they were supposed to listen. One of the soloists looked like he should have been in a studio recording rap music. Another, the pastor's daughter with a voice of angels, wore clothes that spoke rock concert much more than church. People didn't follow directions, wandered off stage in the middle of a song, dashed in late. There was silliness, laughter, and occasional sarcasm.

All shapes. All sizes. Each person a story filled with all the same elements that mine is, just manifested in different forms. And each person on that stage was there in relationship with a God unavailable to me because I'd always felt too human.

Becoming human, as I've worked so hard to do in the last few years, turns out to be the only path to a relationship of any kind. It's only by first knowing, then accepting, all that I am that I can be willing to reveal enough of myself to be available for relationship. The irony of having spent so much of my life doing the exact thing (trying to be some form of perfect) that kept me farthest from the exact thing I wanted and needed most (love and acceptance) is not lost on me.

There is a Buddhist parable about an old blind turtle living at the bottom of the ocean who swims to the surface for air once every hundred years. A golden yoke floats around in the waves, never still for a moment. The likelihood of the blind turtle swimming up and putting his head through the hole of the yoke when he surfaces is the same likelihood of our being born as a human being.

It's a story that's stuck with me since I first read it years ago. Being human is a rare and wonderful gift, not to be taken lightly.

This month we celebrate a birth of a boy given to the world as proof God loves humanity. For the very first time, sitting in the joy-filled, song-saturated dark last weekend, I began to understand with more than my head. Becoming human, being what I was born to be, embracing it all, is the only true path to everything I've ever wanted.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Dormant


The edges between the seasons are never clean or straight or even easy to find. It's officially fall for two more weeks, but little in the weather feels like anything but winter. All that makes fall a time of reflection and celebration of harvest and abundance has been replaced by bare branches and cold hard rain. In the same way spring will arrive on its own time, not driven by the calendar, but an early arrival of spring is so much more welcome than early winter.

I resist winter, both as a season and as a natural part of a life's process. I can't go barefoot or feel the kiss of warm air on my arms and face. Blessings are simpler and require more attention to find. Beauty hides in shadows. Light comes sideways and for such short bursts, if it can even break through the thick weight of wet gray wool, that it never feels like quite enough.

I resist the dormancy brought on by cold and dark. I don't want to rest and wait. I want to grow and soar. I'm tempted by the sweet escape of hibernation, the turning inward and avoidance of winter's stark lessons. But, I'm not bear. Only human. And no cave will protect me from the rhythms of my own life.

So I bundle up, follow Toby's excitement into the forest, and face the cold. On our walks I notice buds on trees and bushes. The minute leaves fall, buds appear. Fat, juicy, tightly packed buds. It doesn't seem possible that these tiny eggs of leaves could survive the harsh rigors of winter, but they do. And they serve to remind me of just how entwined life and death are.

It helps me to accept the dormant darkness, to surrender to it, knowing the potential for whatever comes next grows out of sight. It helps me to see that even as one thing dies, new life is already finding its way to the light - waiting for the time and conditions that will allow it the best possible chance of thriving into the full expression of its being.

As I study the buds it's also impossible to believe that death - even as the closing of a door - is a punishment. New life, unseen possibilities and gifts, cannot happen without the passing of old.

The red oak that stands strong and visible from my window does not release its dead rust leaves until spring. It clings to the old until compelled to let go by sap rising from its roots and sun calling from above. And even then I can find buds at the very tips of branches, promising new life to be born from cold dormancy. So even stubborn holding on cannot stand against the cycles of the seasons.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Sanctuary


Returning home on Monday, imprisoned in a space so small contortion was required to fit my body into it, breathing air both stale and sterile, and working to share the narrow armrest with my sleeping neighbor, I escaped into the memory of the day before. A day full of everything missing from the airplane.

When Suzy picked me up on our second bright and sunny morning, she handed me a packet with the most wonderful grin on her face. It was directions to and promotion for the Norman Bird Sanctuary in Newport, Rhode Island. I looked a question at her.

"You said you like birds, right? And we were going to Rhode Island anyway, so I found this online."

It took some mental searching before I remembered I'd been commenting on the Red-tailed Hawks that patrol the sides of the highways, just like home, only the east coast birds are a lot lighter. I'd done it often enough to prompt Suzy to ask if I liked birds. Because of the stereotypes surrounding bird watchers, I don't often tell people that I own enough bird guides to fill an entire shelf on my bookcase, that I always look and listen for birds in hopes of discovering one new to me, that one of my favorite places in the world is the refuge near our home where we see some new avian delight every single time we visit.

We filled the travel time with a continuation of the conversation that hadn't stopped from the minute I first got in Suzy's car at the airport. We got lost and didn't care. We laughed at ourselves, saw some amazing old homes, a lot of Rhode Island, and eventually drove across the long bridge from the mainland to Newport.

Suzy is a city girl with no real interest in birds or the outdoors. She really wanted me to have this experience (and I really wanted to have it), and she really wanted to not have it with me. An interesting test of a fairly new friendship. She had phone calls to make and a book to read and maybe a nap to take and promised all three were exactly what she wanted. And so I trusted her, accepted the gift, and walked into the sanctuary alone.

Sanctuary. Alone.

The sun shone. Colors vibrated. Song birds chattered in the brush. The wind played hide and seek. Each new turn in the trail I followed to a place called Hanging Rock so I could see the Atlantic offered some new visual delight. Bright berries against blue sky. A deer's presence revealed by the rustle of leaves under foot. The trail beneath my feet first grass, then gravel, then dirt, then boardwalk, then stone called puddingrock. I found myself scrambling along a ridge of both rounded and sheared rock, wondering if it was really a trail at all, until the end which revealed a glorious view of the ocean.

Not many birds. Wrong time of year. Some mallards. A sparrow or two. Chickadees. One hawk.

I didn't care. As I walked back, thrilled at the perfection of each step of my adventure, I breathed in air that held hints of sea and oak and rich earth, savoring and storing away. I was almost back to the entrance when a flash of red caught my eye. I sought its source in the berry bush just off the trail and laughed out loud when I realized it was a cardinal.


Cardinals don't exist on the west coast. I saw my first one last summer in Iowa, but didn't have the opportunity then to just be with these bright red wonders. On this day, I stood for the longest time, just watching a pair feed and flit. When I finally turned to go, another flew directly in front of my face. A little farther along, I'd stopped to take pictures of the stone fence, one last shot of beauty, when I saw one more cardinal perched on blackberry brambles in the sunshine like a king overseeing his realm.

I don't think it's ever failed me. I find what I'm looking for, eventually, even when I'm not exactly clear what that might be. Adventure always. Beauty. Gift after gift of magic and wonder. The love and generosity of fellow travelers. Fun. One new bird.

In the days since my return, there has been a bend in my path that could make me doubt all of it. But I can close my eyes and be in that sanctuary and feel the presence that promises wings and lift and sky to soar into. I believe. A friend asked me last week what I thought the trip meant. And without hesitation I replied that it was irrefutable evidence that I'm held and led and loved, even when the path becomes rocky and seems to be going in the wrong direction. All I have to do is remember one bright bird, one amazing friend, and four magical days.

Taken by our server at the French restaurant where we celebrated our last night together and where we were treated like royalty. 

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Body Work


I woke up that Saturday in my beautiful blue room, in Connecticut, to a day that promised blue skies, sunshine and adventure. After breakfast we headed north toward Massachusetts and ultimately Kripalu in the Berkshires for my spa day.

The trip went fast, as time does that's spent full of rich conversation and beautiful sights. The leaves were mostly gone, but the arms that held them still reached skyward from softly rounded shapes. Suzy and I laughed together about the difference between the hills in the Northeast (barely distinguishable bumps) versus the hills of the Northwest (peaks exceeding 10,000 feet). We talked about writing and life and traffic. I was as happy as I know how to be.

It wasn't until we arrived at the nearly hidden entrance to Kripalu that I first felt the stirrings of anxiety, and by the time we'd pulled into the lot outside a surprisingly stark and unattractive building, I wondered how the hell I'd allowed myself to say yes to this day. Except I knew. Suzy's generous gift was an answer to prayer, the perfect bit of serendipity at the perfect time. And in that moment I wondered if there was any way at all I could nicely decline all the body work and maybe just walk the labyrinth and eat lunch.

I arrived knowing my day would consist of a yoga lesson, a Thai massage, lunch, and then an Ayurveda Vishesh massage. I'd done a little research, so had an idea what was coming, but no more than you can get from reading a description meant to be as inviting as possible. I'd been looking forward to the yoga lesson in particular, grateful to have an expert to consult about recent concerns that had developed about my practice.

The massages (two in one day!) I had convinced myself to be brave about and was even anticipating the amazing relaxation that follows body work like that. The fact that I'd only had two massages total before that day, made this a bigger leap of faith than it might have been for someone else.

Here's where the serendipity enters the scene (and God laughs). I was an abused child who grew up believing sex was love. As an adolescent, my childhood belief and the hormone floods of puberty drove me to finding sexual pleasure at any cost. My young adulthood was adolescence carried into the world, until I joined the cult, which put an end to all physical pleasure and in an ironic twist, sex as love was replaced by obedience as love. I learned to detach from the body that had caused me so much emotional pain - from its desires, its warnings, its uncomfortable messy truths.

Years of therapy had brought the detachment to the surface, yet somehow I'd never gotten beyond an acknowledgement that, yes, I preferred to operate as far from the physical realm as possible. Beginning my practice of Bikram yoga over a year ago was a step toward being willing to repartner with my body. The pain that I started yoga to heal and that had grown steadily worse in the last few months made sure I listened to my body, or pay the price in immobility.

So the thought of having an hour of private instruction with a yoga instructor seemed like an answer to prayer. And the thought of expanding my massage repertoire sounded sort of cool. Until I was walking through the doors of Kripalu, feeling like an interloper, and aware that I was going to be the focus of conversation - that my body!, my lumpy overweight out-of-shape body!, was going to be the center of attention - for the next several hours. Somehow shaving my legs didn't seem like enough preparation for this.

I was caught, though, in the loveliest of traps. My sweet friend had given me this day because she knew I practiced yoga and she knew I'd always wanted to see Kripalu. Our friendship is new enough that she didn't know the strength of my aversion to any attention paid to my body. Turning back or away was not an option. And I am so very grateful I really had no choice at all but to thank my fear for its warning and to show up for my first appointment with a smile.

The amazing Jennifer Reis quickly turned my yoga lesson into yoga therapy. She answered my questions and concerns about my Bikram practice (another story for another day), saw immediately what was going on with my pain, and gave me a series of moves to do to realign, stretch and strengthen my out-of-whack pelvis. Her approach was gentle and caring and respectful. She said, "Let the weakest limb decide how far your body goes." She helped me realize that my threshold for pain is much lower than I've ever believed - I don't even register pain until it stops me (literally in this case) in my tracks.  She said, "No pain. If it hurts, stop."

From her I went to Tara who loved my bird earrings and talked easily about what she was going to do with my body lying fulling clothed (whew!) on the ground. As she stretched and pulled my limbs and applied her feet to pressure points, she would gently encourage me to breath, or to push against her so she could help me relax more into myself when I released the pressure. Every so often I could feel her brush away old energy and I could hear her breathe, as though the work she was doing on me was a meditation for her.

Lunch was next and I was like a stranger in my own body. This vessel was relaxed, almost fluid, and seemed friendly. I liked being there, and enjoyed fueling my new friend with the healthy vegan fare of Kripalu's cafeteria where the energy was serenity personified. Suzy was happy with the amount of writing she'd accomplished in the morning, and I was ready to see what surprises my last appointment had for me.

Lauren, the therapist, was soft-spoken and gentle. She asked about any issues I had, explained what her particular form of massage was all about, and casually slipped in, "Did anyone tell you your breasts will be exposed for this?" And before any little voices from the inside could argue, I replied that no, no one had mentioned that, but I was okay with it. I lied, but it was a lie with the hope saying the words would make them true. She put the oil on to heat and left me to get undressed.

I was on my back, covered, barely, by the towel she'd left for me, when she returned to the room. "I invite you to rest in the silence," were the last words spoken until the end. Then she proceeded to fold that towel until it was the smallest of rectangles covering so little it seemed a pointless symbolism. After which she proceeded to oil and massage every square inch of my body, with the exception of my nipples and the tiny territory covered by the towel, front and back. By the time she left the room for me to get dressed, my head was full of the scent of lavender and my body was purring louder than all three of my cats put together. I floated, glided, soared back to Suzy.

The drive home was a bit quieter than our morning journey. I sat in the car, enjoying the scenery and Suzy, slightly stunned by what had just happened to me. Dinner was a comedy of Suzy reacting to all the lavender radiating from my body and me barely articulate. I slept that night for ten hours, straight through, and woke the next morning feeling more rested than I have since sometime in childhood. My body liked the attention, didn't mind the exposure, was ready for more. Is ready for more. It may be time finally for me to hold up my side of this friendship, and to listen to the voice of my body over the voice of the shame that has kept me disconnected from it for all these years.

Suzy wasn't done surprising me. The next morning when I got in the car she handed me a packet of information she'd printed, telling me where we were headed for the day. Come along with us for the ride in the next installment of this most amazing adventure.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Abundance

Suzy: friend, chauffeur, host, writer, generous spirit, maker of dreams come true

When I saw an e-mail from Suzy in my inbox in October, I expected a friendly note, or a writerly exchange, but not what I actually received. It was an invitation to join her in Connecticut,where she lives, for a long weekend to celebrate my birthday. She would fly me there and put me up in a bed and breakfast and we would do whatever I wanted.

As with many of you, I find it much easier to give than receive, and especially difficult to accept such unearned generosity. But it was a chance to spend time with this amazing friend I'd only seen in person once when we met at a writing retreat four years ago. And I can't actually imagine the circumstances under which I might refuse the chance for a travel adventure. 

So I said yes. From the very first I was aware of the enormity of the gift I was receiving and the hugeness of the heart giving it. All of which made my own heart swell and my mouth curl into smiles of easy delight. Our plans were open-ended - there was a lot of talk about writing and talking about writing and just hanging out together. But a week before my departure, I received another e-mail informing me I'd be having a spa day at Kripalu

Suzy spent the weekend before our visit in a workshop with Natalie Goldberg at Kripalu. She knew how excited I was for her. She also knew Kripalu was a place I'd read about and intended to find a way to someday. She moved up my time table.

I traveled on the Friday before Thanksgiving, in the midst of all the hoorah about airport security. I'd convinced myself that being scanned was a small price to pay for the adventure and the friend waiting for me on the other side of the country. I mostly believed myself, but was relieved to discover that going through security, at least in Portland, was no more challenging than when I last flew in July. It might have been an omen, except I was determined that there were not going to be any bad events this trip - only interesting experiences.

Suzy greeted me at the Hartford airport with a great warm smile and before my passenger door was closed we were visiting as though our conversation was the continuation of one conducted over years and years of friendship. Even jet-laggy after a twelve hour day I soaked up all I could, from the drive to Branford, to our first meal at an Italian restaurant, to the incredible comfort of my room.

As she left me for the night, promising to get me in the morning in time for breakfast and our long drive to Massachusetts for my Kripalu experience, Suzy said, not for the first time, "I'm so glad you're here." And by the time I returned home the following Monday, there was not one single doubt about that.

When I woke up the next morning to clear skies and crisp air, I had no idea how much the next hours were going to change my life, or how they'd reveal the hand of a loving divinity with a sublime sense of humor. 
Queen Ann Room at By the Sea Inn, Branford, CT

There's too much to tell, too much magic to share, to try to put it all into one story. So, you'll need to be patient and come back. Next post: Kripalu Saturday. Sunday is a whole other set of wonders to be shared in yet another post.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Sharing Gratitude



I'm doing my very first guest appearance today at Laura's wonderful blog, Shine the Divine. Come visit me, and while you're there, spend some time getting to know this most creative and spiritual and kind woman. It's a month of gratitude at her place, each day a different guest - a lovely inspiration and reminder of all that we have to be thankful for. Namaste.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Alone



I've been at the beach. Alone. Three nights, four days. I had a purpose. It wasn't meant to be a vacation, but instead a space in which I might get closer to finishing the first draft of my current WIP. No dog wanting to play, or cats wanting in/out/up/down. No husband to greet or feed or visit with. Just me. And my words.


I've been alone a lot in the last year and a half, and enjoyed the solitude for the most part. I enjoy my own company and even more, I enjoy the freedom that comes from no schedule and no other human's immediate needs driving my decisions. It wasn't until this weekend, however, that I considered how distracted I've kept myself, even without the outer distractions found in the busy life I left behind when I stepped out of public education.


Pema Chodron talks about how we all live with a feeling of edginess and anxiety, although often at a level so low we're not even aware it's there. We want solid ground under our feet, which is an impossibility, and the insecurity feels so unbearable, we'll do anything to not experience it. That's where addictions are born, in our desperate attempt to not feel so lost. And alone.


Because I'm writing a memoir, I was not only alone these last few days, I was also alone with the very deepest parts of me. And when I wasn't writing, I was walking in the vast openness of sand and ocean and western horizon - from the depths of as far inward as I could go to an outside as wide as forever and back again. And no other human for witness or comfort. Or distraction.


Something in the intensity of my focus and the lack of distraction (except for occasional e-mail, I stayed offline) helped me understand on a new level that the answers I'm constantly seeking are all tucked away in my own heart. It's where God's voice whispers. It's where the wisdom of my ancestors pulses. It's where the clearest, brightest truth lives.


The only way to access that, however, is to be willing to stand alone and turn inward. To, as Pema Chodron reminds, be Ulysses suffering the voices of the sirens to ultimately break their power. So this anxiety that is my constant companion and that is at its loudest when I'm alone, will not be distracted away. I don't need to feed it, or ignore it or worry that it means there's something wrong with me. I only need to stop resisting its existence.


I'm learning I can hold awareness of the edge, and not be any worse off than I was before. I can be alone with every aspect of my interior exposed to the light, and still be okay. Somewhere in childhood, feeling alone came to mean feeling unloved, which felt like falling forever in complete darkness. To survive that, I found a multitude of ways to avoid the one state of being which, paradoxically, was the only way to access the spark of divine love necessary for all other love.


As I've written this, the old hymn, "His Eye Is on the Sparrow," kept coming to mind, so I did what I usually do when words are talking to me - I Googled it. The verse from the Gospel of Matthew that provided the inspiration for the song holds this wisdom: "Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?"


A single bird has value and is known and seen, an important spark of divine light. And so, too, a single person. Alone.





Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Happy Birthday


I love birthdays. Always have. It doesn't matter whether it's mine, or the special day of someone I love, or a celebration of a character in a movie. Birthdays make me happy.

Childhood birthdays were a complicated mix of anticipation, thrill at being the center of attention and disappointment that the day was never quite enough of something I couldn't quite name. There were visits from grandparents and cakes and memorable gifts. I still have the topaz heart necklace that was my first official piece of jewelry, given the year I turned seven - a year that became one of those that alters the course of a family's life. There were also always the days after the birthday when life returned to a normal that seemed bleaker for having experienced the light and magic of one special day.

The one constant, from my earliest memory until my mom lost her way, was her saying on my birthday, "Ten (or twenty-nine, or forty-five) years ago today, at exactly 3:53 P.M., I was bringing you into the world." Even when I'd left home, even in the years when I couldn't bear to breathe air that had been in her lungs, for one day of every year she reached out to me to declare our connection.

I don't think she ever did that with my brothers. I've not asked them, and now I'll need to, but there are no memories of them sharing similar stories.

As this year's birthday approached, the last one of my fifties, I found myself thinking about why I still get excited. At this point in life, birthdays bring a burning away of illusion and a diminishment of potential. Death, which at twenty seemed impossible, begins to take shape as an inevitable reality, showing itself in new wrinkles and pains and memory losses. Not something normally celebrated.

I miss my mom's calls, even though many times I could hardly wait to get off the phone and back to a life safe from her. The year I entered the decade I'm about to leave, our family was split down the middle, a fracture that meant she (and one brother) didn't get invited to my surprise party. Even then, she called and left a message.

It's only now I realize her tradition was a way I knew she loved me, even when her actions often indicated otherwise. All those years she swore she'd done the best she could, it turns out to be the truth. And although that best wasn't nearly enough for a developing child, it was love.

And it's love that makes me thrilled every year at this time, thrilled at every birthday for anyone besides me. Birthday celebrations are a concentration of all the love that exists for a person in their life at a point in time. Cards, phone calls, Facebook messages, parties, lunches - each person's expression of birthday wishes is a spark in what becomes a brilliant light of love.

Each new year now, that light seems to grow brighter and brighter, even though my expectations for the day have diminished along with my eyesight and flexibility and stamina. In a life that started on a starvation diet of love, with barely enough to sustain a spirit, I feel rich beyond expression to experience such abundant love on my birthdays. An abundance that stays with me from one November 5 to the next.

Last Friday as I was helping my middle brother, Mark, set up his new antique business, he mentioned in the most casual of ways that we'd be having dinner with our other two brothers and their wives. I was excited to get to celebrate my birthday with all my brothers (and I love surprises), but it wasn't until the six of us were seated at the restaurant that I became truly aware of the unfolding miracle.


Five people went out of their way to spend an evening in the company of others that just a short time ago they couldn't share air or space with - to celebrate me. For the second time in a year, Mom's four children sat together in laughter and ease, teasing and taking pictures and sharing food and bits of lives with each other. This time, for the first time, we were joined by the two brave and beautiful women who married brothers whose paths diverged to the point of estrangement for the last decade.

I love birthdays because they are a time, like the brightest summer day, when it's impossible to not know that love exists in unlimited abundance. It's a time when I get close to understanding in a concrete way what God's love means. To be loved - there is no greater gift to receive. A gift from which even more love grows and finds its way back into the world. Light that releases even more light until the darkness is reduced to shadow with no power beyond what light allows.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Toby Turns Three


Our magnificent and goofy boy turned three yesterday. Because it's fall and because I'm a year and three days away from sixty, the passage of time has been on my mind a lot lately. There's nothing quite like having a child or a dog to remind you just how fast time goes.

Having caught on to the trickeries of the calendar, I have been determined not to let a minute with Toby slip past without celebrating the wonder of him and his presence in our lives. There's been a special magic about him from the day I met him, and if anything that seems to be getting stronger. I'm certain he's here to teach. I'm even relatively certain he knows that.

He is a study in paradox.

Greeting each new person who comes into his life as though they are long lost friends, he expresses his pleasure with tooth-baring grins and wide plume sweeps of his tail that have managed to  significantly thin the leaves on a house plant in our entry. Then he'll run to me (or to Walt) and bury his head against our thighs,  looking for reassurance, pushing so hard he breathes like Darth Vader and I have to lean on something for support. Confident to shy in no time at all.

Bred and born a bird dog, he adores things with wings. However, not quite in the way one might expect from a retriever. He loves playing outside, especially when the sun is out and there are bird shadows to chase. He'll gallop after them for hours without stopping. But his game only works, apparently, when one of us sits on the patio while he runs. We're not invited to join him, but neither are we free to go. He doesn't actually retrieve anything, unless he wants someone to throw it for him, and then he may or may not bring it back. Independent but needing connection.

His hearing ability is sporadic - coming and going without warning. If he's found a nice fresh cache of deer poop, he goes completely deaf. On the other hand, he could be upstairs, sound asleep, and hear the rustling of the treat bag downstairs on the other end of the house for which he'll make a run and sit perfectly, just like he learned at school. Stubborn and oh so sweet.

One of his new habits in this last year has quickly become a favorite. At bedtime, he'll get up on the bed with me for a while, then move to a corner of the bedroom, then to his favorite corner of the kitchen. At some point, he wakes up, comes into the bedroom to check on me, goes upstairs to check on Walt at his computer, then crawls into the big blue chair that has become his to spend the rest of the night. It's the fact that he needs to check on each of us before he calls it a day that just takes my breath away.

At three, there's still a lot of puppy in Toby. If he wants to play and I'm not paying attention (trying to get some work done here) he'll stand behind me and make noises like an engine trying to turn over until I turn around. If I take too long, he throws himself on the floor and sighs a sigh of despair, whimpering until I can't take it any more. It works every single time. Cesar Millan would not approve.

As Toby helps me end this decade of my life, reminding me daily what's important and what's not, insisting I laugh and play and love, I wonder if he realizes what a truly great teacher he is.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Autumn Dawn


One of the best parts of any day is early morning when the light first breaks through the trees. I'm often sitting here at my east-facing window, beginning my work for the day, when night surrenders. The view of sky and beyond is mostly held prisoner behind the bars of cedars and firs  that line that side of our place. But the light always pushes through eventually, and some pink almost always glows from behind, and new day always arrives no matter what.

Some mornings, like today, the view is further muted by thick fog rising from the ground like memories, drawn out from a place of dark stillness. Blocking panoramic vision, but allowing shape and color through. Cool fingers of moisture playing guess-who against my eyes.

I feel both comforted and constrained by the gray mist and gray-green sentinel trees that cushion me from the vast unknowing and freedom on the other side.

The world on this side is soft and cocooned, silent, safe. Since all is shadow, there are no lurking shadows to fear. Dim light allows for just enough vision to promise night doesn't last forever. It's a soft nest of gray down held in the protective arms of Mother. No longer asleep, yet not quite fully awake in this time, a part of me wants to stay here forever.

The world on the other side tugs at me with its tourmaline blush and sapphire promises. Light sparkles through my eyes and pulls from within - inviting, urging, singing.  "Let go." "Come play." "There's lots of room."

"You can't fall."

With the rising sun, light continues to brighten the sky, scatter the fog, and declare victory over darkness once again. It won't be denied, but neither will it insist I step out of the shadows. The choice is mine.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Bear in the Woods


The phone ringing in the kitchen woke me up. A bleary glance at the clock told me it was after 9:00, which meant the call wasn't going to be good news. I'm an early-to-bed-early-to-rise person,  and all my friends know that. No one calls that late unless they have to.

"Debbie, it's Courtney. I wanted you to know there really is a bear. We got pictures this time and caught him in the neighbor's garage. Be careful when you're walking Toby."

Courtney is one of my favorite people in the world. Twenty something, she lives in the neighborhood below us, a group of lovely homes strung out along the river farther along the small peninsula where Toby and I have our adventures. Because she's been our critter sitter since she was eleven, she knows our routines, and she loves our animals.

She had mentioned the possibility of bear on the peninsula before, but there was no real evidence and there were lots of other possibilities to explain the knocked over garbage cans and noises in the night. That neighborhood is full of dogs, for one thing. Plus there are raccoons, opossums, coyotes, deer, and bobcats here. The likelihood of the culprit being a bear seemed slim.

Her last message was not welcome news, and for days after, I found myself frozen with fear and frustration.

The thought of losing my walking route with Toby was deeply upsetting, and made me realize how much I treasure every bit of the trail and every minute I spend there with my dog. It's my church and my meditation and my best entertainment. Whether it's spotting my beloved eagles or allowing the sound of the river to soothe my heart or simply soaking up the beauty of Toby's unfettered joy - the best part of my life happens on our walks.

I was left with a huge dilemma. There is clearly a bear in that area and he's probably been around for a while. We've walked there for over two years without incident, rabbits and deer the only four-legged life we've encountered. But now knowing about an ursine presence changed everything.

My first thought was that I couldn't risk walking there again. You can't un-know a thing, and now if we did run into the bear, and Toby got hurt, it would be my fault. Toby hurt under any circumstances would be difficult to endure. Toby hurt because I was wrong would be unbearable (pun unintended but perfect).

I spent hours and hours going back and forth in my mind exploring reasons on both sides of the argument. I decided that it was silly to give up the trail. The bear had never been seen that far up the peninsula. I looked up black bear scat, and knew I'd never seen it anywhere Toby and I walk. I know bears are shy and will run (unless cubs are involved, and that's not the case here). Even at that, I found reasons not to walk for several days.

The fear was a real and physical force and it was not going to let me move.

So yesterday, I moved. Toby and I returned to our trail, without incident. I stayed aware, not letting myself drift inward at all, kept him a bit closer to me than usual. Fear kept me company, but her voice was a whisper, not the heart-stopping scream of days before.

I'm not certain I'm making the right choice. All I know is that I can't let fear of anything choose for me. I can appreciate her concerns without allowing them to be the only voice in the room. I'll stay informed and alert and careful. And later today I'll thank fear for her help, and head out with Toby for another adventure in the woods.

photo from firstpeople.us

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

One Perfect Pear



The rhythm of the seasons is reflected in the produce available at my favorite farmer's market. Starting with strawberries in June, through the summer's abundant variety of fruits and vegetables, to the pumpkin patch this month. Each visit offers me something new, some delicious treasure I've been waiting for since the year before. The arrival of the first cherries, or the first sweet corn, or the first new crop apples makes me as happy as an eagle sighting.

Some of the produce is from other parts of the state - areas known for the perfection of the conditions  for growing orchard fruits in particular. So when I walk into the market so see huge wooden bins in the center, I know I'm in for a treat. Recently one of the bins was full of Bartlett pears - huge hard green knobby things holding nothing more than the promise of sweetness available only to those willing to be patient.

With my hands caressing the new fruit, I traveled back fifty years to my childhood home where Mom would wait eagerly for the truck from Yakima carrying crates of peaches and pears - fruit that couldn't be grown in our short North Idaho summers. I could smell the simple syrup and the pressurized steam and the hot pear perfume created as we canned what would be our winter desserts. I could see her usually stern and angry face softened by the heat and contentment.

I remembered getting to choose one pear from the boxes, which we'd been watching for days to catch the fruit at its perfect point of ripeness. It was not an easy choice. There could be no bruises or green showing - not too ripe or too unripe. I wanted the biggest one I could find. I wanted perfection.

The first bite was always the best. Teeth sinking into flesh that resisted only slightly and then a mouth filled with sweetness that was too much to contain and that flowed down my chin. Not chewing exactly, but pressing the fruit against the roof of my mouth so that the flavor filled my head. Then bite after bite, not waiting to completely swallow the previous mouthful, until their was nothing left but a stem with a clump of seeds hanging from it. And a deep deep almost drunken sense of satisfaction.

In the time between that childhood and now, I found myself living with a group of people who were as self-sufficient as possible as part of our belief system. Canning pears was a different experience shared with three or four other women in a kitchen meant to be common ground but really the territory of the eldest in our midst. We put up enough - not just pears, but peaches, cherries, beans, tomatoes, applesauce -  to feed four families and visitors through the winter.

As the newest member, a handmaiden, it was my job to peel the pears just as it had been in childhood, which I didn't mind. In part because it allowed me to quietly choose and set aside one perfect pear for my own enjoyment. Personal pleasure was frowned on, as was anything that wavered from a strict set of rules. But somehow no one ever noticed my claiming that small jewel of delight as we worked in obedience to our calling.

The resident cat, a young marmalade tom, strolled through the market bringing me back into the present and scattering ghosts like so many mice into the fall air.

I don't can any more, haven't for years, so didn't need to ask for crates. The women who were my guides, for better or for worse, are gone from my life now. Mom reduced to a crone-like body in a nursing home conversing with ghosts of her own. My fellow followers gone to lives far from my knowing.

 But still there is the power to choose one pear, to bring it home and set it in a place of honor where I can watch it ripen into perfection. And where I can indulge in the singular pleasure of losing myself in the sensory wonder of fragrance and juice and flesh, the experience a spark bright enough to carry me through to next year.

photo from healthmed.com

Sunday, October 17, 2010

A Moment


The happy warbling of goldfinches as they hopped from sweet gum to feeders brought me out of my book and back into the sunny fall afternoon. Bundled against the distinct bite of air already owned by winter, I was surprised to hear such a summer sound. When I looked up, I could see the finches only after a search. Their distinctive golden breeding plumage was replaced weeks ago by drabness meant to camouflage as they travel to warmer climes.

As I watched them feed, only a half dozen or so, and listened to their musical chortles and murmurs, I realized I hadn't seen our grosbeaks for a very long time. And I couldn't remember when I'd last been aware of their presence. They were with us all summer, mixed in with the finches and jays and chickadees and nuthatches and doves and sparrows. I marveled every day at the simple beauty of the particular arrangement of their orange and black and white. Their tails spread in flight reminded me of the flared skirts of Flamenco dancers. The fledglings, and there were so many this year, made me laugh in wonder and amusement as they learned to fly and feed themselves. 

How does that happen? One day life is a certain way, nicely drawn in reliable lines of comfortable familiarity, colored in a reassuring rainbow of the season. I savor and observe and immerse myself in the magic of everyday. And still one afternoon I realize I've missed an important shift.  

I used to comfort myself with the belief that there was always next year. If I didn't take the time to appreciate the wealth of finches so thick they dripped from the feeding tube like molten gold, there would be another time. But over the years I've begun to  realize the danger in that thinking. After several summers of finches so abundant we couldn't keep the feeders filled, the last couple have given us only a couple dozen.

This year the abundance came in the form of grosbeaks and jays. Next year - well there's no way to know or predict. And not only about the rhythm of the birds. 

I don't mind the changing of the seasons. I don't mind getting older. I do mind how much faster the whole process seems to be with each successive year. Just when I finally understand how important each moment is and how I can't count on a second moment to absorb what the first has to offer, time has seemed to accelerate. 

On another day recently, a very different warble brought me out of my chair and into the yard, my eyes searching the sky before I was even completely on my feet. Sounding for all the world like someone whistling their dog home, with a plaintive and urgent quality, I recognized the voice as that of a raptor. What I saw was a bald eagle, mature female judging from size and color, leading two other eagles across the sky. They were smaller, their plumage just beginning to show the distinctive white. All three were close enough and low enough for a time I could tell the whistle came from the bigger bird. 

I stood, watched, listened. I opened up every part of me to absorb as much as possible, not entirely certain what I was seeing, but knowing without doubt this viewing was a once in a lifetime event. The trio wheeled and soared its way across the sky until all that was left was the faint chuckle of the bigger bird's call. Finally the empty sky and stillness released me to ponder the message, which eluded me until now. 

Without exception, whenever a bald eagle is present, I am the most fully present I'm capable of being. Every moment they're available to my awareness is complete and focused. The result is that I am full of eagle moments. Vivid pictures with sound, scent and color that are as much a part of me as my eyes.

And that's the answer. Full presence without worry about what's being missed. Each moment absorbed and completely lived becomes a part of me, regardless of the speed of its passing. Each moment intentionally embraced slows just long enough to be captured.

No moment claimed is ever lost. Every new moment offers itself as a gift. We have the power to live those gifts - starting with this single moment.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Invisible



"Deb, would you like to demonstrate a sit-up for us?"

It was toward the end of my most recent yoga class, well into the floor series, and I was in a groove of knowing the hardest was behind, and a nice long savasana and cold water were within reach. At first I thought Eric was asking someone else. There are two other Debs who practice often at the same time I do. But then I figured out I was the only Deb in the room.

The second I realized he meant me and he was serious, I found myself back in seventh grade, the first year of junior high.

The year I turned twelve. The year my period started. The year I knew for certain I would give anything to be someone else.

P.E. was required. Uniforms, full participation and group showers were mandatory. A complete nightmare for a girl miserable in her own body whose favorite physical activity was turning the pages of a book.

Memory transported me from cute stretchy yoga clothes into the junior high P.E. uniform, a royal blue short-sleeved, short jumpsuit with snaps and elastic waist that binds at every possible intersection of body parts. I'm praying the snaps will hold as I throw my torso forward from the floor toward my bent knees, hands behind my head, elbows flapping like the wings of a desperate bird. A classmate, someone as overweight, out of shape and uncool as I am, holds my feet and counts. The teacher, who after all these years is nothing more in my mind than a whistle and harsh judgement, walks around making sure we keep trying and don't pad the numbers on our recording sheets. Sit-ups aren't the worst thing we have to do. I can at least approximate those, unlike chin-ups which are as beyond me as the cute boys in ninth grade.

The problem is that I'm trying not to sweat, and I can't get a decent count without sweating. I've figured out that if I make it to the locker room after class without sweat, I can usually slip back into my school clothes without showering. The chaos and steam and fact that I'm not a part of any group work in my favor. If someone notices I'm the first one dressed, I just say I was fast.

I will do anything to avoid exposing my round body with boobs barely more than bumps in a room where all I see are beautiful, thin and shapely girls. I will even choose to be less successful than I might otherwise be to stay as invisible as possible.

Invisible. That thought dropped me back into the heat of the yoga studio where at least I've learned to sweat comfortably. While I've accepted that I'm not ever going to catch up with my mostly younger, and incredibly flexible classmates, and I've gotten good at focusing on my own practice, I've also shown up every day with an invisibility cloak draped over my yoga uniform.

I don't want to be noticed. Acceptance, at least the way I've managed it so far, does not include wanting to be seen attempting a practice I'm not that good at in a body I'm still, after all these years, trying to learn to love. And until the last class, except for an occasional gentle adjustment or word of encouragement, the teachers have honored my cloak.

"Deb, would you like to demonstrate a sit-up for us?"

 Lying flat in savasana on my mat, I rolled my head toward Eric's voice and with my eyes asked, "Are you out of your  mind?"

"I'm serious. Everyone, watch Deb as she does this sit-up. Pay attention to how she exhales."

And so before my brain had a chance to offer me any advice at all, I pointed my feet back toward my face, raised my arms over my head, joined my thumbs, breathed in pushing my lower back to the floor, sat up, grabbed my feet, and exhaled sharply twice. Eric praised. The class clapped. I grinned.

One of the most amazing things I've learned in my life, is that as alone as I felt in childhood and adolescence and young adulthood, I was not alone in that feeling. The world is full of people wearing invisibility cloaks, some wearing many layers of them. What I think I'm still learning is that when a person is willing to shine light on their invisibility and to risk exposing what is vulnerable and tender, the resulting glow reveals beauty beyond any previous definition.

Image from virtualdali.com

Saturday, October 9, 2010

The Mystery of Enna Scott


I love a good mystery. Starting with Nancy Drew, through Miss Marple and Rebecca, to Kinsey Millhone and Harry Bosch - the characters in those books were as real to me as the people or situations I was reading to escape. They became my friends and my models and my heroes.

So I'm thrilled to find a new mysterious character has entered my life.

It started with an e-mail from an address I didn't recognize, inviting me to visit a new blog. The name of the writer was intriguing: Enna Scott.  The fact that Enna is a fictional character, created by a writer who prefers to allow her narrator to hold the stage alone, does nothing to diminish my interest in her, or my curiosity about her story.

Even though it took me years to get over the news that Carolyn Keene was not a real person, after time to reflect, that actually made Nancy seem even more real in some way. Her being was not dependent on one person alone, but was in fact so powerful she still finds ways to be alive in the world. Some characters, while not in a human body, simply need to be in the world.

I think Enna is one of those characters. She's young. She's searching for something she can't quite define. She's spunky.

The story is still new enough that you can catch up in one easy sitting. Then you'll have new installments to look forward to when you're hungry for story or missing Enna, much like the serialized stories of times past. I hope you'll give yourself the gift of Enna Scott. She's eager to be known.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Weaving Reality


In the absence of information, I fill in the blanks, usually without much awareness that I've woven a reality out of nothing more than some impulses in my brain. Because of that, I often reach conclusions about people and situations that are wrong, and I never fail to be surprised at how one small brushstroke can change an entire picture. As is often the case, something will trigger a wondering for me, then life provides an abundance of answering.

The webbing was strung from one bush to another across at least twelve feet of open space. Its weaver hung at eye level, the sun illuminating the silk and her body so I saw in time to avoid destroying her work. At first she was alone, but after fussing with my camera, determined to get a shot of this arachnid in the air,  I looked up to discover two spiders, face to face with each other.

I stood watching them for the longest time, expecting the smaller to end up in a tightly cocooned bundle to be hauled away for the larger spider's dinner. I assumed the web was the work of the larger because I'd seen her there first. I assumed the smaller was at a disadvantage and could not figure out why she stayed, or why she wasn't consumed. I assumed they had to be enemies.

But aside from some leg waving, the two spiders did nothing to confirm my assumptions. Neither gave ground or seemed to try to push the other into retreat. I finally moved on, finished my usual circuit with Toby, and when we came back, the web was empty. I was left to write my own ending. Which I did, trying out multiple scenarios, but the not really knowing still haunts, just a little.

The spider encounter still fresh in my mind, I was at Costco checking out a few days later. The young man at the register was not one I'd seen before and he seemed much more interested in talking to the guy who was doing the boxing than he was in customer relations. He didn't look up once, or greet me in any way.  I studied him, deciding he was probably a snotty narcissistic hotshot who was mean to his mother, and thinking Costco made a huge mistake allowing him on a register.

He scanned my items with skilled efficiency, all the while keeping up a running banter with his friend. He stopped with the latest issue of People Magazine in his hands, and inspected the cover as though it held the secrets of the universe. I amped up my stare, willing him to notice. He finally looked up, made eye contact for the first time, and said, "That obvious, huh?" The grin on his face made me laugh out loud.

We ended up talking about fame, laughing over a headline that declared an actress's big comeback as an appearance on Dancing With the Stars. From there he said something about how today's movies just didn't tell stories in the same way they used to. How nothing is like the old black and white films, like his favorite, Of Mice and Men. As I agreed that it was one of the greatest, he went on to say he not only watched it a couple of times a year, he also reread the book every year.

A Steinbeck fan. A literary man. With a wicked sense of humor. Maybe the other things I decided he was earlier weren't wrong - those could still be true. They just weren't all of him. And the new information turned him from potential enemy into a connection that has the power to make me smile even now.

I don't get to know the ending to the Costco guy's story any more than I'll ever know what really happened with the spiders. What I do know, if I can remember to remember, is that people, situations, and stories are always more complex and more interesting than anything the threads of my imagination can possibly weave.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Indian Summer


Restless. Edgy. Like a goose getting ready to migrate. The particular quality of light, and touch of sun that is both warm and cool, the urgent whisperings of a south wind. I feel longing, a yearning,  for which there is no name. Wings push against the skin of my shoulder blades like new teeth breaking through, wanting to carry me up to join the wind in her travels.

This aching in my soul happens every year at this time, on days of unusual warmth and brilliant blue skies and air full of mysterious and unpredictable motion. I used to think I needed to be somewhere else, to be loved more, to take action about something - anything at all. Except I don't really want to be anywhere else, I am loved to overflowing, and if I've learned nothing else, I know action for the sake of movement is not going to ease the pressure for long.

One of my first childhood beliefs was that the wind came to me bearing words of wisdom and comfort and hope. Even though I could never hear the message in my head, my heart always seemed to understand exactly what was said. I remember standing in a field, little, my arms outstretched, wishing with every fiber of my being to be carried aloft and away. With eyes squeezed shut, face lifted skyward and the wind at my back I knew flying. I felt the companionable wing winds of my fellow citizens of the air. For long stretches of time, gravity released me.

Much like the spring and summer just past, those seasons of my life were dampened and cool and not ideal for flourishing growth. I approach sixty (in another year) knowing autumn has arrived, a time of glorious letting go and muted colors and surrender to the inevitable turning. Winter is next and with it death. Death, both the little dyings of loss and physical diminishment, and the big final transition, is no longer hidden in fresh green shoots or bright flashy blossoms.

I've spent a fair amount of time worrying that I found my way to healing too late. Like the cosmos I planted late in the season, waiting for the rains to let up, just blooming now. The plants are not the lush growth of summer, but the few flowers that have managed to bloom are fragrant and beautiful and perfect cosmos. It's easy to miss that in my disappointment at what isn't.

After days and days of cold rain and nights and nights of cold air, we've had a short stretch of perfect weather. I wander my trails with Toby, marveling at mushrooms and the cast of light through the branches. I go to bed at night with windows wide open and fall asleep under the warm breath of the wind billowing sheers into the room like angels' wings. I wake up in the morning and step outside into balmy air with the Big Dipper taking summer into the north and Orion bringing winter from the south.

In North Idaho where I grew up, we had true Indian Summer - unseasonable warm days late in the fall after a frost. In the Pacific Northwest where I live now, frost doesn't happen until very late and some years doesn't happen at all. But it's the surprise of summer's gifts at any time in autumn that makes my wing buds itchy. And my heart yearn. And this year for the very first time, my ears hear that mine is an Indian Summer life.

The dictionary says it perfectly: " [Indian summer] A pleasant, tranquil, or flourishing period occurring near the end of something." It's not too late. Flourishing is still possible. The wind is waiting and my wings are growing.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Making Lemonade


When he first got out of the car I could see a difference. I couldn't quite put my finger on it, totally missed the new glasses I'd been gently (mostly) urging him to get for months, thinking maybe he'd lost weight.

"You look great." And I meant it. He couldn't return the compliment (I'd just returned from yoga), which left my words to fill the air with more meaning than if they'd merely been part of a social exchange.

I'd been looking forward to Mark's visit all month, knowing it would involve deep conversation, new spiritual insights and some great antiquing. Plus, because he's currently single, when he's here I get to spoil him a bit, to cook favorite foods, to provide space and sanctuary. And as our relationship has grown in the three years since he returned from prison, I've come to love my brother, and feel his love for me, in ways I didn't know were possible.

The last decade of his life has been difficult. Difficult isn't the right word, but I'm not sure what word to use to describe the devastation wrought by decisions he made borne from deeply buried wounds - decisions that cost him everything that mattered, and that sent him to prison for three years. Decisions he takes complete responsibility for, but that are not him. And the man he's become on the other side is someone with the power to heal a family, someone with a clear and certain connection to God, someone whose suffering has burned away all but light and truth.

In some ways the time since his release has been the most challenging of all. While he never ever complains or indulges in self-pity, the losses and restrictions are a reality that hurt. Freedom from the walls of prison did not restore his life to its former abundance. Yet he only looks forward. He's built a respectable life. He laughs. He loves.

I've marveled at his ability to be grateful and to allow God to work through him. He's often my evidence of a loving God - one who understands, forgives and creates wealth from poverty. And the news Mark brought with him last weekend, the reason for the looking great, took that evidence to a whole new level.

Once I showered and we got settled at my kitchen table with coffee, and apples, cheese and bread between us, he started pulling items from the box sitting on the bay window behind him. The first was a small cardboard cube, which I needed his help to open, and which turned out to be a mug. A pretty ordinary mug, as mugs go, except this one had writing on the side: Angelwings Antiques.

And I knew, without him saying a word, that I was witnessing another miracle. He directed me to look inside the mug, where I found business cards that confirmed what my heart had just told me. My brother Mark, who has lost so much, had claimed a lifelong dream. He is now an antique dealer.

Our mutual love of antiques and the treasure hunt aspect of antiquing has provided hours of pleasurable wanderings during our visits together. It was one such adventure that provided the miracle of my yellow vase last summer. Recently Mark went beyond the store level of shopping and began going to auctions and playing in eBay. I mentioned once that he should consider setting up a booth in an antique mall so he could fund his habit. As his big sister, I'd like to take credit for the nudge that was the catalyst for this dream-come-true. But I know, while I get to participate in the miracle, it wasn't my hand that guided him to this path.

Besides the mug and the revelation, Mark had brought several other gifts, treasures from his hunting chosen just for me. Several new pieces for my collection of yellow American pottery. A sweet snuff bottle with flowers and a dragonfly. "I saw the dragonfly and thought of you." That statement a huge gift in itself.

Then two boxes brought in from his car. "You have to choose one. You might hate me after this, because you have to choose." As I opened the first, I knew from the shape under the paper protection what I was about to uncover. Last summer Mark and I discovered lemonade sets - beautiful old pitchers and mugs designed specifically for the service of lemonade. Like wooden screen doors and the scent of lilacs, these porcelain vessels evoke all that's best about summer and a Pollyanna past that was slower, easier, gentler. They're also very hard to find, and usually far beyond the budget of a casual collector of memory-bearing artifacts.

So the fact that there were not one, but two sets in front of me, that in itself seemed something of a miracle. It turned out the choice was easy. One set had been more loved, and its colors were deeper and richer - the purples and sky blues that speak soaring and possibility to me always. While he was very careful to allow me a clear choice, I'm pretty sure Mark's preference was for the other set. The one that is his now, a visual reminder we'll share that lemonade will always be the outcome when a heart is clear and open and surrendered.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Value


When I took this picture a few days ago, I was so enthralled with the gemstone glitter of waterdrops woven in spider webbing, I saw nothing but the jewel-encrusted quilt on the monitor of my camera. I took several shots from a variety of angles. Even then, it wasn't until viewing the photos on my computer that I saw the spider herself. Big as life. In every single picture.

It made me think how our brains settle on one thing at the expense of unlimited other possibilities. I have always had a strong inclination to assign value to, to define, to decide about things, and people, and situations. Good/bad. Pleasure/pain. Strong/weak. Pretty/ugly. Happy/sad.  Almost always in opposing pairs - one or the other.  Black. White.

Once I've defined a thing by whatever value seems to fit in the moment (usually the one that makes me right or safe or energized in some way), it's very difficult to see anything else.  And almost impossible to allow new information in. I was so focused on the beauty of the raindrops, I missed entirely the wonder of the spider.

Assigning absolute value in relationship, ceasing to look beyond the first glimmer, often leaves me backed into an emotional corner with no easy way out.

For better or worse, Walt, whom I love more than anyone else is also the one whom I've judged harsher than anyone else. A habit of old survival defenses I'm trying hard to break. With some success.

We've been having a problem with mice in the pantry. The cats are no longer interested in playing Cat and Mouse, and so the rodents have become bold. First a few black specks, then the discovery of a bag of almonds nearly emptied, and before long the sound of rustling during the day and the surprise of a face to face meeting upon opening the pantry door. Enough was finally enough. I emptied the pantry of everything so Walt could plug the holes, denying the mice access, and life could go on. Except plugging the holes didn't work. Morning after morning we woke up to either a dead mouse or traps licked clean of their peanut butter lure. For weeks. 

In the meantime the contents of the pantry, which is in my office, have been stacked on the floor of my office. For weeks. 

My old habit would have been to be mad at Walt. For weeks, or longer.

And I would have justified the anger with a litany of his past behaviors that proved (to me, only to  me) he wasn't trying hard enough. That anger would have blocked my view of the fact that this was happening at the beginning of the school year, the most intense and exhausting time for any teacher.  He was already spending every spare minute trying to fix his recently broken tractor himself to save money and to get the lawns mowed before the fall rains made it impossible.  I wouldn't have heard the unbelievable sacrifice he offered when he asked if I wanted him to do the new walls and shelves we've been talking about forever, since the pantry was empty. I wouldn't have been able to share the victory with him when, two nights ago, he found out how the mice were still finding their way into a completely sealed off space.

Because no value was assigned this time - Walt was not the bad guy - the situation was inconvenient but without emotional suffering (beyond my angst over killing the mice). The problem was solved in a way that means it will be unlikely we'll find mice in the pantry again. And best of all I'm seeing my husband in multiple beautiful shades of gray - neither black nor white. 

A whole picture that includes both the living center and the magic webbing spun outward, ever-shifting to catch moisture, light and sustenance.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Friendship Flowers


My flowerbeds have been a constant source of wonder and surprise this summer. When I did my early spring clearing, I left anything that looked like it might be something other than a weed. And even a few known weeds were allowed to stay: Queen Anne's Lace, Pearly Everlasting, Oxeye Daisies.

We planted wildflowers a year ago so I expected some results from reseeding. What I didn't expect were flowers in abundance that didn't show up last year at all. Lupine. Wallflower. Black-eyed Susan. There were a handful I've yet to identify, but which provided some of the prettiest cuttings for bouquets of the summer. Even the buddleia which we had pulled out, managed to return.

While I've loved the variety, and ever-changing palette of colors and fragrance, it's the Black-eyed Susan that's giving me the greatest pleasure. There are at least three different types in my garden. They last the longest in bouquets, complement everything I've found to put them with, and seem unphased by changes in the weather or the passing of time.

Research reveals that Black-eyed Susan is a name given to a number of completely different flowers. Some wild. Some cultivated. Rudbeckia hirta, the flower whose official common name is Black-eyed Susan, has a number of other names, including Brown-eyed Susan, Golden Jerusalem, and Gloriosa Daisy.

Considered the most common of American wildflowers, it thrives in most soils and forgives neglect. The one nonnegotiable that it needs is sun. And when it dies, it reseeds.

Much like long-term friendships.

Several months ago Julie came back into my life. Her oldest son had been my fifth grade student (he's married now with a second child on the way) and then we became colleagues who enjoyed each other's company. I left the school we shared, moved a second time, and one beginning-of-the-year was delighted to find she'd been transferred and would be teaching my ELL kids. A friendship formed based on some common background and a lot of common beliefs about kids and teaching. We laughed together and commiserated together and my day was always brightened by contact with her. When I left that district, Julie was one of the people I knew I'd miss, hoped not to lose contact with, but did.

Then she found me on Facebook, we exchanged e-mails, and started meeting for lunch. It was like we'd never been apart. Even more amazing, in our older wiser less protected conversations, we're learning just how parallel our lives have been. I've felt blessed by her renewed presence in my life and the pleasure it's brought.

After his back-to-school barbecue just a couple of weeks ago, Walt came home talking about a student whose mom had once been my teaching partner and close friend. The whole family was at the event and the mom had asked about me. She followed up with an e-mail, which led to an exchange of e-mails, which led to our first face-to-face visit yesterday in eight years.

Daune and I have known each other as long as Julie and I, but our friendship bloomed in the school between the two I shared with Julie. We taught next door to each other for two years, piloting full-time classrooms for highly capable students. She had the younger, I had the older, and our partnership was powerful. Our friendship grew out of the intensity of that experience, as well as the fact that we live five minutes away from each other, and have more in common than many blood relatives.

I found myself on the wrong side of some political and parental issues, and ended up leaving the program as a result. Daune was supportive of me through the entire difficult time, but my hurt made it difficult to feel safe with her. So without ever declaring the end of the friendship, and without ever losing a bit of love and respect for each other, we drifted apart and all communication faded away.

When she told me yesterday she thought the separation was because I found her boring, I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. She is one of the smartest, kindest, most reflective people I've ever known. If anything, my own uncertainty about being worthy of her friendship helped keep me silent.

Greeting her at my door yesterday afternoon, it was like no time had passed at all. She looked exactly the same to me - maybe softer around the edges, maybe a little more tired - but so little changed in nearly a decade. Our hug was profound and emotional. Our three hour tear and laughter filled visit ended only because we both had families waiting. Our promise to not let any more time be lost to us is one I know we'll keep.

These recently renewed relationships give me such joy. When I look out  my window or wander in my yard and revel in the golden glory of my Black-eyed Susans, I'm brimming with gratitude for the gift of both flowers and friends. I'm also filled with hope. Hope that, like the hearty flowers which seem to require little beyond abundant light to thrive, other friendships lying fallow might soon grow into new life.