"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, December 22, 2013

Gift

When I opened the door to let the kids into the classroom, it was the usual happy chaos of good mornings and good-natured pushing around those whose need to share something with me couldn't wait until they were in the room. On this day, unusually for them, two girls hung back to be the last. One blonde and brash, the other dark and shy, both deeply dear to me.

The blonde shoved a small wrapped package into my hands, her words tripping over each other like rocks rolling down a hill. The shy girl watched intently as I took the gift, and offered her own words, which got lost in the other's avalanche. "Secret Santa" emerged a few times, but I heard little else beyond, "Open it now!"

There was a note taped to the outside of the gift, with "Shucka" (no Mrs. in sight) written in ink on top of the folds. Both girls were crowded so close to me that I had to unfold the paper with elbows tucked to my sides. The paper itself was from a notepad with a hole at the top for a pencil to rest with the initial F at the top. Neither girl has an F as an initial for either first or last names.

I read:
Represents
about
Alex  

-secret santa

:-) <3

p.s. secret santa will be the one to hold you at the end of the day to the buses. 

The package was wrapped so tightly I knew it was a heart before the paper came off - with the girls still so close to me I felt gift-wrapped myself. And what a heart it was. Large, poufy, sparkly, only slightly grimy around the edges. The Goodwill tag still attached. (I didn't see that word as part of the gift until much later.)

The girls were beside themselves with  a weird combination of glee and tenderness. "We don't know who your Secret Santa is. Someone put the package in our hands and told us to give it to you. The heart is Alex."

I played my part, although I was having a hard time holding back tears. "I guess I'll have to wait until after school to find out. I wonder who would have done such a wonderful thing for me."

With the heart placed prominently on my desk I pushed us all into the day. During the morning I felt both girls watching me whenever I would reread the note, or shift the heart out of the way. For a bit I wondered which was my Secret Santa, but then forgot about the whole thing as I gave myself over to the thousands of decisions and conversations that are the hallmark of every teacher's day.

At the end of the day, after giving closing directions and while overseeing the usual pandemonium of twenty-four kids on the verge of freedom, I felt a nudge at my left arm, which I lifted to encircle the unseen child. I looked down into huge brown eyes beaming up from a porcelain face framed by waves of almost-black hair. 

I smiled back down at her, and for long moments there were no words at all. Just knowing. And love. And the ghost of a kitty only two weeks gone.

She stood under my wing for the rest of the day - as I guided the kids to the bell, and all the way to the buses.

Eventually there were words: "I saw the heart and I thought of Alex, so it's him to remind you he's still with you so you won't be sad."

"This is the best gift a student has ever given me, and now I'll remember both you and Alex whenever I see the heart."

At the doorway to her bus, we hugged, I kissed the top of her head in benediction, told her I loved her and breathed the purity of her love in and back out into a world greatly in need.

Wishing for all of you at least one gift of this magnitude this holiday season. Your presence in my life, your comments of encouragement and love, your stories - these are all gifts I treasure in the same way I'll always cherish that Goodwill heart. 

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Promise

Just a couple of days before our recent stretch of clear cold, I found myself driving into blackness on the way home from school. A storm had passed before me, a big one that soaked us as we walked kids to buses and that left the asphalt shiny and hissing. At one point the road and sky seemed to blend together.

We often get storms like this in the summer and I'm oddly energized by them. As light and dark battle it out across the sky I feel more alive, like I'm watching Creation unfold. I also know that rainbows are inevitable, and none are ever more vivid than at the juncture created by the passing storm.

My mind is always a jumble after a work day. As hard as I try, I can't leave the kids or the problems or the to-do list at school. Worse, every instance where I might have been kinder buzzes and bites like a mosquito with a vendetta. If I'm lucky I can clear most of it by the time I've gotten home and walked. If I'm not so lucky, I lug the whole load through a restless night and back to school the next day.

So the storm and the search for the rainbow were a welcome distraction on this day. A reminder that summer, both literal and figurative, really did exist, and will come again. As my eyes scanned the sky for color, the world expanded beyond school and my own limitations. When I first spotted a section of the vibrant arc in the distance, one end touching ground far away and the other swallowed by darkness, I smiled.

I drive home on country roads. At that time of day I often have them to myself. That made it easy to slow to a creep from time to time and scan the sky. I wasn't disappointed. The other half of the original section touched down right where my eyes searched. And before too long the color stretched up from both sides to meet in the middle, forming a perfect and complete arc. There was even a shadow of a second rainbow mirrored above the first.

The miracle of color at the intersection of light and dark never fails to fill me with wonder. I'm reminded of God's promise to Noah, but somehow that seems weak compared to the promise I feel with every rainbow given to me. And they all do feel like personal gifts.

As I continued my drive, and the storm traveled ever eastward, the rainbow danced and wavered and shifted. I lost it completely at one point. A little farther on it reappeared much closer, a short section, the bands of color fat and distinct. I realized I was driving toward it, wondered if I might go under it—or through it. A golden glow on the asphalt just ahead caught my eye. The rainbow ended on the road right in front of me. And it stayed there while I drew close and drove through, and then it was gone.

In a life abundant with grace and miracles, it's easy to take gifts for granted. Always to recognize them, and always grateful, but perhaps to not appreciate fully the love behind them. Often forgetting when the darkness threatens to overwhelm that light always returns. And so the Giver of gifts offers a moment like that one, with a rainbow just for me, promising to light the way unfailingly.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Thanksgiving


When people asked last week what I was doing for Thanksgiving, I was aware that my response felt so ordinary: a three hour drive north to my baby brother's. We've gone enough years in a row now that I can't remember when this became our family tradition. I take it for granted, while at the same time holding deep gratitude for its existence. There were some years where we didn't talk, let alone sit at a common table and hold hands in grace to offer a communal thank you.

Three generations formed the circle around the table, and three different families of origin were represented there. Two of my three brothers, one to my left and one on the right just on the other side of Walt, laughing and pitching shit and embodying that combination of child and adult unique to sibling relationships.

Our missing family members were there in other ways. The absent brother and a daughter/niece via phone. Our mother in the cherry pie I'd gotten up early that morning to bake. Our father, the good parts, in the eyes and voices of my brothers.

The food honored childhood traditions while incorporating the creations of a new generation. Turkey and stuffing. Mashed potatoes and gravy. Cranberries made from scratch by my middle brother. Green bean casserole. Rolls and butter. A small creamed corn casserole just for my youngest brother, a remnant of our childhood that only he enjoys. Pumpkin pie to go with the cherry. Phyllo-dough roll-ups filled with kale and mushrooms.

We played Mexican Train as we always do now when there's a sibling gathering. A game that takes hours to complete, and that brings out a competitiveness we don't often reveal. There is grumbling and laughing and some swearing, and there is fun in its most satisfying form.

So when the phone call came on Friday morning, I received the news from the nest of that profoundly ordinary yet powerfully extraordinary love.

Alex had died Thanksgiving night. One of the two cats we got last winter. Apparently a stroke, he collapsed and was gone in minutes. Our fifteen-year-old pet sitter was with him. Her mom, who made the call, had decided not to ruin my Thanksgiving, to give me as much time not knowing as possible. The drive home was one of the longest ever on a road we've traveled hundreds of times. Traffic was bad, but mostly I was afraid I'd get home and find Bunkie gone, too. My friend said he was hiding under a bed, and not eating. Bunkie who was fearless and who had an endless appetite. Bunkie who had never been away from his brother, and who was now alone.

Grief is the ultimate paradox: simple and complicated in their most extreme forms. Loss. Sadness. Emptiness. The pain surprisingly physical. Many-layered—new grief seems to attach itself to old grief and be flavored by it. Unresolved grieving finds outlet in new loss, magnifying it exponentially. Grief allowed to live on the surface teaches the new grief, like a kind old dog with a puppy, and somehow softens its impact.

And therein lies the biggest gift of Alex's death. My grief for him is clean. It burns like snow on bare feet, but it does not threaten to avalanche. Even though the third anniversary of Kathleen's death is just a couple of weeks away, and I am reminded more deeply of her loss now, this new grief seems a separate thing.

Maybe I've finally reached the place in life where losing loved ones is familiar. There is a loose pattern to grieving, and I know if I'll allow the sadness its voice, it will lose much of its bite. The initial impact is not influenced by the length or type of relationship.  I also know there are gifts to be found in this time that cannot be experienced in any other arena.

As I was on the phone Friday morning hearing the news, I became aware that everyone in the house stood in a circle before me. Looks of love and concern filled the space between us, and held both Walt and me as we struggled to absorb the impact.

A young woman, no stranger to loss already, had her first experience being present at a death. She got to learn that she could not only survive the pain and shock of it, but she did so in the arms and hearts of people who love her and who are more concerned about her well-being than anything else.

Walt, determined to soften my pain, insisted on burying Alex himself. I stayed inside holding Bunkie.

Bunkie ate on his own this morning for the first time since Alex died. He hasn't been back under the bed since yesterday morning when I pulled him out to let our sitter see him. Right now he's curled, purring, in my lap. I breathe a prayer of gratitude that he's not going to grieve himself to death, and that he seems to have chosen me as an acceptable substitute for his brother.

The world has not yet settled itself back into ordinary. The aftershocks are frequent (I see Alex out of the corner of my eye constantly), but lessening in intensity with each one. The reminder that death comes on its own terms stays fresh, making life in this moment all the more precious. The warm bundle in my lap. Good coffee. Rain tapping out music on the window. Toby snoring peacefully in another room. Walt doing the same at the other end of the house. Brothers in my life in all the best senses of the relationship. Friends who offer love in ways that constantly magnify the meaning of the word. This breath I take in, and release, softening my heart with each contraction and expansion.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Between


Retirement has become a regular topic of conversation in our household. I bring it up. Often. Walt, who could retire in another year and a half, loves his days as a teacher of math to middle school kids. He got his 35 year pin a couple of years ago, and he seems to gain more satisfaction with his job every year. I'm really grateful for that. Because it's not his retirement I'm wanting. It's mine.

I feel much like I did when I was twelve. I can barely see that girl across the half-century gap that separates us, but I remember her unhappiness. No longer a child, not quite a teenager, not wanting to be there (wherever that was), but not sure where exactly she did want to be. Adulthood beckoned like big city lights, offering freedom, independence, adventure unrestricted by authority. Childhood had not been so great, but a stubborn part of her held out hope it wasn't too late to recover at least some tendrils of the uncomplicated joy she believed she'd missed out on.

She would look in the mirror and be confused by what she saw. Still expecting the braids and bangs and freckles that had defined her younger face, not yet able to see the sophisticated beauty she hoped her adult face would bring, nothing seemed quite right. A seventh-grader, barely surviving the seas of junior high after the quiet pond of elementary school (which she longed to be away from), she endlessly compared herself to flashing schools of town girls. They seemed confident, comfortable, and oh so worldly. Everything she was not.

Caught between the past and the future, the present offering nothing her soul longed for, she waited. She made a friend. She resisted her family. She wrote and read her way into her deeper truer self.

Fifty years later, retirement beckons in the same way adulthood once did. I see retired friends enjoying freedom, and exploring new adventures with energy I get to experience only one month out of every year. I'm at the end of a career I never expected to practice for so long and which has never fit quite right, like a beautiful dress bought one size too small. With the stubborn hope that has sustained me over the decades, I start every new school year searching for spiritual gifts and some answer that will finally make that dress fit.

Looking in the mirror is just as confusing as it was all those years ago. While my face never did morph into sophisticated beauty, it did become a friendly face that people often believed they'd seen before and felt comfortable with. A pretty face with an easy smile. And she's still in there, that younger adult, just harder to find behind the wrinkles and jowls and eyes that show everything whether I want it revealed or not.

I want to do more than just wait out these next few years. It might be only two. It might be three. Or it might be more depending on the bottom line financially. But unlike when I was twelve, there is not the luxury of the appearance of unlimited time. However, maybe I can borrow from the wisdom that kept her safe and whole enough to get to the freedom and independence she sought:

Rely on friends for comfort and fun and true mirroring. Resist whatever seeks to kill dreaming and hope. Embrace the one thing that has remained constant from the time squiggles on a page became a magic door; read and write the way through.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Longing

One afternoon on the way home from work this week I drove into a massive field of blue over which shreds of cloud drifted. A half moon, pregnant toward full, sat in the middle of everything, emulating the clouds around it. An unclasped necklace of geese scattered across the sky, moving purposefully toward a destination I could not discern.

Often when I'm outside in these shortening days I can hear geese calling even when I can't see them through fog that seems to be the handmaiden of winter darkness. Come join us, I hear. Vestigial wing buds twitch and burn beneath my skin.

A morning driving in later than usual, late enough that the thickly clouded sky reveals both texture and form, I realize that beneath the myriad shades of gray flickers the faintest fire of pink. In the west. Not the east where one would expect to see a sunrise. I look behind me to be sure, and the east is as gray as the down of a goose. The pale blush stays with me for most of the trip to school before it's absorbed by sky mountains of thick moisture.

Even in these days when Persephone has returned to Hades and her mother's grief leaves the world to fend for itself, surprising bits of color manage to survive. Nasturtiums glow orange and gold. Geraniums offer flecks of magenta and salmon. Even roses unfurl hopeful reds into gray days.

Occasionally a strong wind will swoop out of nowhere, first tickling the tops of trees, and then scouring everything in its path below. Blizzards of leaves fill the air, along with maple seeds rotoring madly to the ground. Nakedness follows in its wake: trees stripped, the air empty and clean, my defenses breached.

Always this time of year fills me with a formless longing. This year is no different. Except the quality of yearning has shifted.

Before, I thought I knew what my wings would carry me to if I could only find a way to release them. That destination changed from year to year, but there was always some concrete missing thing or person or accomplishment that I believed I was destined to find. And that I believed would once and for all be my ticket to a life in the sky.

I finally know that it's not that simple. There will be no one event to release me from this sense that I'm missing something important. This feeling that life is passing me by and I'm approaching the end and I'll get there without having done what I came here to do. I feel more fully alive in these days of darkness in which everything is magnified like the flare of a dying star. Maybe that's enough. Each day received as a gift, approached with a sense of adventure, spent thoughtfully. Maybe the longing itself is an offering of love meant to be accepted and treasured and explored.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Circumstance

The weekend could have been a disaster. Maybe even should have been. The circumstances for a ruined adventure jumped on like fleas on a dog in summer.

When I opened the card from Walt on Tuesday, birthday morning, the weekend ahead contained all the elements for a perfect romantic getaway. A drive down the Oregon coast on a school day (we both took personal days). Breakfast, our favorite traveling meal, at a new place en route. The promise of all the shopping my heart desired along the way. Things at home left in the capable and loving hands of our favorite critter sitter and her family. Our destination a highly rated bed and breakfast that looked like a European chateau in the website picture.

The first bump in the road happened on Thursday night. Out of the blue we lost water pressure. We're on a well. It was after hours. There was no one to come help us until morning. Which would have delayed our departure by who-knew-how-long. Some time after I went to bed, the pressure returned, so that by the time we left on Friday morning, it was as though nothing had happened.

Our breakfast restaurant, a place Walt found on the internet, was clearly a local fixture, slightly grimy and packed to the door with people who all seemed to know each other. It was a seat-yourself place, depending on people to be honorable. We'd gotten a late start and were both hungry, so leaving wasn't a good option. We resigned ourselves to waiting. Tables emptied with surprising speed, and soon we found ourselves standing alone with just one other couple who had walked in just before us. A table came open. The woman of the couple asked her husband if he'd mind sitting at the bar, and then told us to take the table. That one small act of kindness stayed with me for the rest of the weekend. Plus the breakfast was good.

The drive was fun. We chatted about things we never seem to have time for in our busy day-to-day: retirement, vacations, house needs, school, holidays, family. We shopped. We laughed. We held hands. So when we finally arrived at the bed and breakfast we were in a happy state of mind and looking for the magic to continue.

My first sight of the place was breathtaking. A turret and cedar that glowed in the late afternoon light. It did truly look like something out of a fairy tale. The innkeeper was warm and welcoming, the living room beachy comfortable, the dining room cute and inviting. Walt had reserved the Heather Room for us. The walls were a beautiful shade of purple. We could see the ocean from the windows.

The next morning Walt began the conversation with his disappointment in the room. I was relieved. There was no way I was going to be disappointed with something he'd worked so hard to provide for the sole purpose of pleasing me. There was no one big thing, but so many little things. The bed and pillows were uncomfortable. A strong mildew odor permeated the air. The noise from the highway that separated us from the ocean kept us from hearing the waves crashing. Perhaps things to be expected from a standard mom-and-pop beach motel, but not from a very expensive B&B that promoted itself as a retreat from the cares of the world.

Breakfast that first morning was good, and we set out on our day with good energy and high hopes. Despite my lingering bronchitis and Walt's newly developing sore throat. A long satisfying walk on the beach in mild still air. More shopping. A stop for coffee that turned out to be exceptionally good during which a man with shoe-polish black hair curling around his face struck up a conversation. It was his dog that opened the door. A sweet terrier-sized mutt with huge paws that he told incredible tales about: a mixture of Saint Bernard and corgi, trained by the queen, drug sniffing and recently took down a large man by the throat. I couldn't quite figure the guy out. He was clean and articulate, although his stories were wilder than any a child might tell. He was vain enough to color the mop of hair his hat barely contained, although it might have been a wig. The missing front tooth further complicated the picture. I was enjoying the experience and the dog, although I could feel Walt at my side wanting to get us both away from there. Finally, the point of the conversation became clear: he tried to sell me a necklace made of beads found at some archeological site for a price far below their true value because he needed gas money. I let Walt pull me away, feeling weirdly more alive and richer for the conversation.

The rest of the weekend was much the same. Huge disappointments (our second breakfast of cold and undercooked vegetable hash and over-poached eggs) absorbed, laughed at, moved on from. Delightful surprises (two baldies dancing in the air overhead as we drove home) received with gratitude and awe. The time together an adventure we'll treasure forever, as much because of the challenges as in spite of them.

What better way to start a new year than knowing we can roll with it all, finding love and adventure anywhere we're together. Even in the later years of life, understanding it's possible to achieve new levels of contentment and acceptance and wonder unconnected to circumstance.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

All Things Holy

Earth, ocean, air. Every once in a while the elements come together in a way that makes it clear that life is a sacred event to be experienced with wonder and awe. Fall is the time of year where that's most likely to happen for me, and this fall is exploding with all things holy.

Last weekend I was feeling that sense of rightness and ease and joy that comes from physical movement and a choice to release expectations. Exploring Vashon Island with five friends for our second annual retreat at Lavender Hill Farm, we'd been to breakfast, the farmers' market and on a long hike through gorgeous terrain full of fall's glory. We'd finally found Wingehaven Park, a tucked-away beach that was the site of a former estate, and were spread out, each woman engaged in her own reflective communion.

As we walked back toward the stairs that led us to the narrow beach, two things happened simultaneously. I heard a loon cry. A bald eagle flew directly overhead. Both birds are voice of God for me, and to get them both at the same time on a day full of love and laughter and acceptance—it was overwhelming in the best way possible.

We watched the eagle for a long time before making our way back to the cars. Six women (Sandy, Sally, DJan, Jann, Linda), all of a certain age, brought together last year by a desire to meet blog friends whose words spoke to our hearts strongly. Returned to our place this year by some undefinable pull (and a shared spirit of adventure) and joined in a comfortable sisterhood more like that of lifelong friends than internet acquaintances.

Everything glowed last weekend. Even more brilliant by contrast in the sharp gray air, reds and oranges and golds radiated from dying deciduous leaves. The small-town family feel of Vashon infused every interaction (a sign on the trail to the beach said dogs off leash only if they don't bother others). The returned-home ambience of Lavender Hill where the six of us settled in almost like we'd never left. The faces of women who have suffered much and have found ways to live in joy and gratitude, including giving ourselves the gift of time together.

In the week that's followed, gifts have continued to swirl around me like leaves blown away to make room for next year's buds. An abundance that I'm so grateful for—both for its presence and for my ability to recognize it.

Yesterday was a perfect illustration. A day spent with my brother, Mark, working in his space at an antique mall, cleaning and rearranging everything except the furniture. Five hours of hard work spent in mostly quiet camaraderie reflective of our adult friendship, one of the greatest treasures of my life. A dinner after, arranged by Mark, with our two brothers and their wives. Our fourth annual dinner celebration of my birthday—an accidental tradition that is the only time we're all together in the course of a year. I sat in the midst of people who have known me longer than anyone, so happy to listen to the conversations, so grateful that in spite of odds that might have sent us in an entirely different direction, we love each other. And would do anything for each other. A return home to Walt who hadn't joined me because he wanted to surprise me with the new computer I'm working from right this minute.

I turn 62 on Tuesday. It is a time of life full of loss, so like the autumn I love best. And just like autumn, a time full of bright promise and the flaming, unmistakable glory that leaves no doubt that I live held in the wings of holiness and love. I can hardly wait to see what comes next.


Sunday, October 20, 2013

Circles

One of the gifts of being in the last third of life is a different relationship with time than I had in earlier decades. It is far more flexible than I ever imagined in childhood when a year was a lifetime, and the night before Christmas seemed to stretch endlessly. I marvel a bit that it's only when a definite end sits on the horizon, when I can no longer ignore that there will be an end—that's when the complexity of time actually begins to be revealed.

Days, weeks, months careen by. I have a vivid memory of writing birthdays on the calendar last January and hanging it in my kitchen, savoring the unflipped pages like money in my wallet. It seems impossible that was ten months ago and it's time to order a new calendar already.

Walking in the bright and balmy glory that is autumn here, watching salmon spawn in the Lewis River, I feel all the seasons at once. The new life of spring exists in the eggs being laid and milted over. Remnants of summer whisper from the warm breezes. Winter's bones are just beginning to show in the branches of big leaf maples whose leaves provide the quintessential fall delight as I kick my way through. My habitual dread of the cold gray days of winter is tempered by my vision of spring on the other side.

The school year just started. Yet seven weeks have passed. The kids already don't look like the pictures I took of them on the first day. And in scanning the school calendar, the end of the year is just a series of events away: conferences, Thanksgiving, conferences, Christmas, Presidents Day, MLK Day, Spring Break, testing, June12. In that light, retirement will be here far sooner than it feels most days when I'm surrounded by small voices making large demands and having to make a thousand important decisions on the fly.

However the velocity of time seems to increase as I age, leaving me breathless and sometimes afraid, I'm discovering it's not as linear as days on a calendar. Opportunities and relationships I thought irretrievably gone circle back around. Struggles I thought would never end fade away in the turning, and reappear on the next rotation, but often transformed. Parts of myself, the wounded ugly unbearable parts, I thought safely buried in the past, push to the surface, rowdy children demanding to be heard.

And friendships. Oh friendships. That's where I'm seeing the circular nature of time the most these days.

A book group. Four of us met regularly for over a dozen years. More than a year ago we stopped meeting without warning or explanation. None of us tried to get things going again, and I figured we'd run our course. I've missed our conversations, although they were rarely about books—or maybe it's because they were rarely about books. I've missed the women and wondered about their lives. There has been some contact, but nothing like the intimacy of our Sunday afternoon gatherings. A week ago a message on my phone informed me we're starting up again the beginning of next month. I'm ready and eager to meet who we are now, both as individuals and as a group.

A blog group. A year ago six of us met each other for the first time. Bloggers who had connected in pairs and had conversations about wanting to meet others in that circle, we made the gathering happen. On a gorgeous sunny weekend in a magical Victorian house overlooking the Puget Sound, we felt in many ways like we'd known each other forever. We talked about making it an annual event, but at the end of the first weekend, no one was willing to commit to the future. I figured it was a one-time gift, savored the memories, and felt a much stronger connection to these women as I read their blogs. Then a few weeks ago an email came asking if we wanted to meet again. In a matter of hours we all said yes. Next weekend we'll see each other in person for the second time. In every way that matters, we are old friends of a certain age who know and see deeply into each other, and hold dear what we see.

A writing group. After years of trying to find a group of writers to work with, late last summer four of us came together with a common desire for the accountability of a committed circle and a common love of writing. The thing I love most about us, aside from the joy of writing with other women, is that each of the other women is an especially treasured friend. The family of my heart: one a sibling, one a cousin, one a daughter. Watching the group form into its own entity is a wonder, a gift of great measure. We meet today for the fourth time.

There's so much more: childhood friends, my brothers, my husband, a cherished cousin, students, parents of students, colleagues. The relationships ebb and flow, like the ocean, always present and forming the horizon line of my life. Some seem pulled out beyond my reach, until one day the tides bring them to my shore once again. Some manage to become the ocean itself, being sustenance and security—being there always. Some are pulled or drift away, floating somewhere beyond my sight, on the other side of the great circle.

Here's what's different in this last third of my life: I recognize the magic in time's flexibility. As long as I stay open, no relationship is ever over. No possibility is ever extinguished. Nothing really ever ends. As time seems to run out, I'm thinking it may being doing something else entirely. If it can go from the linearity of childhood to the circles of this stage, I wonder if time might not simply take on a new form in the next leg of the journey.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Vulnerable

The curtains were opened just enough that I could see straight down the hall to the surgery doors. Walt lay on the gurney next to me coming out of anesthetic fog after a successful repair to his shoulder replacement. Even though there is promise of privacy in medical situations, the curtains and crowding created a setting of peculiar intimacy.

For a while it felt like we were alone, except for the gently smiling, soft-footed nurses. Then there was a flurry at the double doors leading to surgery. A gurney was pushed through, escorted by three people in caps and scrubs. A woman's head nearly blended in with the blankets that swaddled her and I was just about to turn away as they turned the corner right in front of me, feeling like I shouldn't be observing someone in this way, when I noticed her foot.

One small perfect pink foot emerged from the blankets. Striking—startling—in both color and nakedness. They took her several curtains away from us, so I was left with only that image of her exposed foot that seemed both intimate and vulnerable.

A short while later, the scene was replayed, in almost identical detail. A woman, eyes closed, as pale has her blankets, wheeled out of surgery, with her exposed foot the only sign of real life. I couldn't get the vulnerability of those feet out of my mind. How that one exposed part seemed more intimate and naked than if the women had been completely uncovered.

She, too, was wheeled far away from us. While I sat praying for both women, marveling at this strange world we were visiting, a third gurney came through the doors.

This time it was a man and he was talking to his escorts. No bare parts were exposed. There was gravel in his voice, and something else I didn't figure out until later. He was wheeled into the space next to ours. I listened as a doctor explained the procedure and the man responded through a druggy haze. I heard nurses offer food and comfort. It was during the time they spelled out what the remainder of his time in post-op would look like that things got interesting.

Hospital rules say patients in day surgery have to have another person present to hear after-care details and to provide a ride home and to be with the patient for the first 24 hours. The man next door was alone. His girlfriend had to work and was unable to be there. She couldn't get off work until early evening, which would leave him sitting on the ward for five more hours. She'd only started the job three days before and he wasn't going to risk her losing that job by asking her to come get him.

He said he'd left on his own before. This clearly wasn't his first rodeo. The nurse insisted that hadn't happened at this hospital. He insisted it had. And he was going to leave this time, too.

Over the course of their conversation it became clear this man was alone. He had no family, no friends, no one besides the girlfriend who also was not available. He fully intended to leave the hospital by himself, by bus or cab, he didn't seem too concerned which.

On my way back from the bathroom, I glanced into his face peering balefully through the opening in his curtain. Surprisingly young, he looked like a fledgling raptor, all hunger and sharp talons and fierceness but fuzzy around the edges. I smiled. He did not.

By the time Walt and I left it was apparent the man was going to get his way. He would be required to sign a form saying he was leaving against medical advice. I guessed a nurse would call a cab for him, someone would wheel him to it, help him inside, and then he would be back in the world. Wounded. More alone than not. Tough.

Even in a situation where vulnerability is inherent in physical frailty and the medical world's attempts to repair, where drugs weaken most of our usual defenses, this man managed to maintain a wall. No pink foot exposed to the world for this guy, even in the most extreme of circumstances. For one irrational moment (until I remembered why I was there in the first place) I considered offering to take him home. I wanted to step into his cubicle and hold his hand and tell him he could choose another way. I wish I could have reached in and pulled his blankets gently away, exposing one perfect foot.



Sunday, October 6, 2013

Nature Makes Stairs

Camp was everything I feared.

The first night we stood in pouring rain as two cabin groups brought down a flag so wet it looked like it was weeping. The next morning that same wet flag was raised while we stood in a semi-circle, eyes puffy with not-enough-sleep, voices singing America froggy in the saturated cold air. Puddles the size of small ponds were scattered throughout camp, so it was impossible to walk anywhere without stepping in one. It rained every day. The cold was a constant presence, burrowing through our layers into our bones.

Monday breakfast, the first of our official camp meals, consisted of pancakes and peaches in heavy syrup. Every meal but one was brown, full of starch, low on protein: bread, pasta, potatoes. Lettuce was served once. Vegetables were canned: beans, mixed, carrots. Fresh fruit was served three times, but in limited quantities.

The women's cabin was overcrowded this year. All nice people, but all on different sleep schedules and with different ideas about how to spend the cabin time. Half thought it was a slumber party. Half just wanted to go to sleep. Several snored loudly enough that sleep became impossible for those who didn't snore.

Camp was everything I feared, and the gifts I anticipated were everywhere.

My class did the big waterfall hike on the first morning. It's a highlight of camp every year, an almost four mile round trip of steep climbing on narrow root-heaved trails. As we set out, the rain eased a bit. The hike was vigorous enough that no one noticed the cold. The kids were chattering happily ahead of and behind me, occasionally shouting out discovered wonders: neon orange mushrooms, conks, nurse logs, deer trails. One boy challenged me to a duel with the sword ferns. At a particularly steep place in the trail, a girl in the back said, "Nature makes stairs." Roots were shoring up the trail so that there were indeed natural stairs for us to climb.

For the rest of the week, stairs appeared through the mud and downpours and fatigue.

The rest of the waterfall hike was amazing. The sun came out several times, and the heavy rain held off until we were down. The waterfall itself was a torrential wonder, so heavy I couldn't see the kids standing on the trail behind it. No one whined. No one got hurt. And for the first time ever on this hike, I felt no pain and was able to enjoy every step.

The kids were all we could have hoped for kids to be. They learned and had fun and were in awe of the beauty surrounding them. They hugged and smiled and asked countless questions, their curiosity deep and wonderful. They sang and laughed and declared the food the best they'd ever eaten.

This year for the first time teachers were with their own classes the whole time, which meant we had to teach every field study. We received the lessons the week before camp, and most of us had specialized in one or two of the eight in the previous years. The result of that were free-form lessons in which I was decidedly not the expert, in which the kids and counselors often provided answers to questions, in which we all learned together, in which many questions went unanswered.

There were many times when stairs appeared for me as personal gifts.

A volunteer, the oldest person there, a former teacher, at the end of our astronomy lesson which was way more question than answer, saying to everyone what an incredible teacher I am and how lucky the kids are to have me. It's such a rare gift, to be told how you're seen by someone who knows how hard this job is.

The day of our fire lesson, which I didn't have to teach (thank goodness, or we'd still be staring at wet wood), sitting around a crackling blaze, my kids sitting quietly with their counselors, the volunteer showing the steps to building a fire, I watched ravens fall silently into the trees around us like bits of perfect emptiness in the shining green air. I saw them study us and decide we had nothing they wanted and slip away into the afternoon leaving behind shadows of themselves that only I could see.

On the morning of our final hike, we were on a creek bank looking for rocks. The creek roared past us in flood, more river than anything, but receded enough that the kids were having great success finding the perfect rocks to take home. I had just looked up to tell the kids to gather gear and head back when I noticed movement directly overhead. Flying upstream, no more than twenty feet from us, was a Bald Eagle, who turned and looked directly at me just before she disappeared out of sight in that magical way of eagles.

Like all grand adventures, this one left us changed. On Friday morning—yes we had regular school on Friday—when I let my kids into the room, they were singing camp songs. United as a group singing happily as they went about the morning routine. The hugs I got were a little tighter, the laughter we shared was a little lighter, our conversations enriched by the unspoken bonds forged on the mountain in the rain.

Camp was everything I feared, the challenges as difficult and uncomfortable as I knew they'd be. The only real surprise was in the abundance and quality of the gifts. Nature makes stairs—always. We just have to be willing to allow our feet to find them, our hearts to accept the grace of gifts not sought but so much richer than anything we could ask for ourselves.
The size of a backpack, this is the rock the kids found for me. We did not bring it home. :-)











Sunday, September 29, 2013

Weather

One Year Ago
The forecast for Randle has not changed in the last several days, except to perhaps get gloomier. The chance of rain sits at 100%, the temperature below 60. Yesterday there was a flood watch through Monday. This morning there is a winter storm watch in place for Monday and Tuesday.

We leave this afternoon for outdoor school on the mountain where Randle is the closest town. It's bad enough that I lose this entire weekend to the preparation and departure, but the rain splatting outside my window taunts with the promise of what the next week holds: hours of being cold and damp, days of nothing but brown food (iceberg lettuce the only green food, and that only for one meal), no time off, homesick kids smelling like wet puppies.

It's so easy to be optimistic and spiritual when the sun shines. Even when life slides sideways, if the air is warm and golden, and I know I can come  home to dry clothes, a good meal, and the comfort of my own bed, hope always wins the day. I'm having a really difficult time being sunny about this coming week.

I've done what I can to prepare. New rain gear, including new boots with owls on them. Apples and healthy snacks. Extra bedding. Until the rain, I was even looking forward to this year's camp. Mostly because this will be the first one I'm not in pain, or sick. And for the chance to spend time in the woods with my class, with whom I fall more in love every day.

My sense of dread is as heavy as wet clothes. Walt's reassurances and offers to help only annoy. If there was any graceful way to not go, I would choose it.

But there's no way out that allows me to be the person I want to be. If I can somehow find of my sense of adventure, trust that I can not only endure but also enjoy, face each moment as it arrives rather than deciding (knowing, even) ahead how bad it will be—and there is the key. Not just to the coming week, but to everything.

I don't know what gifts the next few days are going to bring. I do know they're not going to be what I'd pictured, or wanted. I don't know where I'll find the grit to be cheerful and happy and to laugh at the misery that will surely try to dominate. There's even a chance I won't. And maybe that fear is the root of my dread.

A Pema Chodron quote is pinned to the bulletin board to my right: "You are the sky. Everything else—it's just the weather." I set out into this day, and into the week, claiming the sky beyond the weather, and choosing to be grateful for the opportunity to do just that.


Sunday, September 22, 2013

Balance

In a class once an instructor showed a graph of the emotional year of teaching. It started on a high with all the promise of a fresh start, new kids, and the renewed energy from summer. Then it gradually declined as reality and exhaustion and obstacles slowly wore away at the optimism of September. There were other dips and upswings throughout the year, although none as high as the beginning.

Four weeks into the year and the decline has begun.

The good stuff is still there: Teaching writing to kids is as much fun as I thought it would be. As a group these kids are sweet and funny and so easy to love. And I like only having to plan for one subject to teach instead of four.

The challenges, however, pile on like logs on a spavined donkey. None of them unusual or even that big a deal on their own. It's the one-more-thing aspect that makes getting through the days so difficult. Upset parents who go straight to district office when an email or a conversation with the teacher would have solved concerns easily. Forms to create. Forms to fill out. Letters to write. Emails to answer. Power point presentations to do. Curriculum night. IEP meetings and 504 meetings and SIP meetings and PLC meetings and PAT meetings. Special ed, speech, ELL teachers to listen to and schedules to accommodate.  Test data to analyze. All done in the midst of construction next door (more than once we've thought earthquake) and a ventilation system that works inconsistently and part time.

The log that has the potential to drive the donkey to the ground? Fifth grade leaves for outdoor school a week from today—yes, on a Sunday. On a mountain with 175 kids (two elementary schools), few amenities, a good chance of rain, and no real off-duty time. We return late Thursday evening and the next Friday is a regular school day.

This is the life of a teacher. It's no different than it's ever been, except the demands grow each year with little taken away to make room for the new. More to the point, I get sucked in every single year. Trying to do and be everything to everyone. Believing somehow that this year I'm strong enough and healthy enough—enough period—to accomplish the impossible.

I was startled on Friday morning as Walt and I walked out of Starbucks into a brilliant red-sky dawn.  Even though I could really use that extra hour at my desk, our Friday breakfast date is sacred and one bit of balance I've managed to cling to. The gift this day gave was far greater than quality time with my best friend husband.

A harvest moon smiled gently through a soft haze from the western sky. A mango sun lit the eastern sky and infused the world with pink. Fall flavored the air I breathed deeply in a sense of awe and wonder. Standing there, I remembered. Remembered that while I can't control the system or anything outside myself really, I can control who I am no matter what's happening. Not with determination or will or white knuckles. But with acceptance and surrender and prayer.

I choose to rest in the balance of night and day. To hold what's important closer than what's urgent. It's a choice I'll need to make every day, something I knew going into this school year. I forgot for a moment, but I'm deeply grateful for the moon's reminder.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Path

Sisters, one twelve, the other six or seven, went into foster care last week. Remarkable only because I know them and love the older sister (probably would love the younger, too, but I haven't spent time with her). Unfortunately, not an unusual event - one source I checked said there are more than 400,000 kids in out-of-home care in our country every day. Sadly, and maybe even inevitably, this move guarantees a rougher road ahead for both girls.

I've been thinking a lot lately about the paths we find ourselves on, some intentional, but many out of our control.

My own childhood could easily have ended with me in foster care, except it was the early 60s in rural Idaho and nothing showed on the outside.

I was a foster mom for a short stretch during my cult years—twelve kids in three years ranging in age from newborn to thirteen. I hated it. Loved the kids, but hated fostering. Mostly because I wanted a baby of my own and in my relative youth and religious judgment could not understand how giving the kids back to parents who lost them in the first place could possibly be good for them.

Of course it's not that simple. And it's only been recently that I've come to really understand that even kids raised by loving, intentional, child-centered parents can find themselves on rutted and rocky roads. That perhaps every life path veers and winds and reverses and even seems to diminish into nothing from time to time. I believed for the longest time that my own path was too broken to take me anywhere  but shadowlands of scrub and second-best.

I can't say why one person's journey, no matter the twists and turns, takes them into the light, while another's seems only to draw them further and further into darkness. For myself, now, the path is golden with light. Light that beckons from without and warms from within. A gift of light. Grace. Not something earned for sure.

Although I know things will be hard, maybe even horrendous, for a while, I'm optimistic for those two girls. As long as there's enough light for them to see a path, as long as they travel in the protected guidance of guardian adults who love them, as long as there's time, their journeys can be abundant with all the best life has to offer. No matter the path, they can become who they came here to be. The gift of light available to us all illuminates their possibilities, hopefully enough to keep their eyes and hearts open to their own best destinations.


Sunday, September 8, 2013

Aftermath

Well into September and the days continue to be sunny. Last week's thunder storm brought much needed rain, so now we have sunshine and air that's moist and plump and soothing to both skin and soul. Perfect spider webs bejeweled with the night's moisture adorn random corners. Even flowers that were beginning to fade seem to have found new vibrancy.

The day after the storm in the small community where I teach, two teenaged boys, both new seniors, were in a terrible accident. The driver walked away. The passenger died. The trajectory of two families forever altered, and to a smaller degree that of most of the people in the town.

For those in deep grief, the early autumn beauty around them is unseeable and inaccessible. For those two families I expect bright skies and vivid flowers and dew-sparkled webs feel like an assault and are anathema. Winter has already started for them and will be the season of their lives for a very long time to come. I know. I remember.

For those of us only peripherally touched by that particular tragedy, as we are touched every day by so many losses that we have no power to prevent or end or ease, the question is how do we honor those who are suffering.

There are the traditions of course: food, prayers, memorial sites. The day after the accident, all the parents I came into contact with had spent extra time hugging their own children. And for most of us whose lives have been touched by this tragedy but not torn asunder, the darkness serves to make the light in our lives seem even brighter. Those of us who have been members of that terrible club for several seasons know that light will eventually return to homes where darkness now consumes everything. It will not be as bright for a while, and it will never look the same.

But one day, something will happen, a random magical thing, and they'll realize joy as vivid and brilliant as summer flowers after a rainstorm.

Two weeks ago, second day of school, while standing outside at the end of the day helping kids get where they needed to be, I noticed a mom and her two kids walk toward me. The boy probably third grade, the girl a kindergartner. Because I was focused on the mom, who was going the wrong way, it took a minute for me to see the girl standing directly in front of me. "You are beautiful!" she said. And walked away with her mom and brother as though nothing extraordinary had happened.

God's words and voice coming through the tiny body of a five-year-old girl. Received directly into the heart of a woman who at one time was certain her heart could no longer hold such joy.

Kathleen has been gone for almost three years. The sense of loss never diminishes. But life does indeed go on. And a heart can heal enough to make room for both the deep darkness of the unimaginable and the luminosity of pure seeing and love.

While these families are wrapped in raven wings of grieving, I will hold the promise of bright skies for them. And offer prayers for safe passage through this perilous time.


Sunday, September 1, 2013

Fledgling

In the later days of August, as we sat on the patio absorbing the heat and ease of summer, we were often visited by juncoes just fledged and finding their way in the world for the first time. The newest fledglings were nearly unrecognizable as juncoes with their gray and brown tufts—more sparrow-looking than anything. I was only ever certain it was a junco I was seeing when it flew, because even from the beginning the white tail laterals were present.

Last week on Tuesday I welcomed twenty-three fledglings of the human variety into my room and my heart. Then on Thursday by the end of the day, seventy-eight more had landed in my classroom as awkwardly and exuberantly as any baby bird just out of the nest. We're doing rotations this year, which means I'm teaching writing and only writing to the entire fifth grade.

One hundred or so ten-year-olds. Not quite the people they came here to be. Still holding the roundness and fluff of babyhood, but with wings that work. Like mother juncoes knowing their fledglings need help finding food, the adults in these kids' lives still provide varying degrees of support as they move out into the world. Like beings everywhere with a newly discovered ability to fly, the kids flap and flutter with varying degrees of effectiveness.

When I watch a baby junco peck around in the grass or hit the jackpot with a fuschia berry, all the wonders of childhood are present in those new discoveries. And everything that he will ever be is present in that tiny body.

That's the thing I love the most about being a teacher. The deepest privilege of my profession. Each child comes to me only partially formed, and I get to see all of the potential of what they might be. Just as I know that adult juncoes are beautifully, crisply uniform with gray-black heads, buff underparts and darker backs, I see in each child the possibility of a best, pure, completely expressed person.

So many already have obstacles that threaten to ground them before they've even cleared the trees, let alone finding the whole width of the sky. Labels and life circumstances that have the potential to prevent the full expression of their being: ADHD, ODD, BD, IEP, 504; parents in jail, siblings lost to suicide, poverty, severe allergies, days that start with shame and beatings and no clean clothes to wear.

Before I ever meet the kids I see paperwork, hear stories, occasionally see pictures. None of those things come close to matching the people I meet. And while it's helpful to have the other information, to know what might be hindering flight so I can work around those obstacles, what matters more to me is the vision I get of who that child could be.

I know from my own life that childhood circumstance isn't the final word on how much potential can be fulfilled. And so I believe in the possibility of complete dream fulfillment for each of those not-quite-formed people who will be writing with me this year. Even knowing that not all of them will soar into the world on strong wings, for this one year I can give them a space where all things are possible and offer tools they can use to build lives where they have access to the whole wide sky.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Slant


Three mornings last week I found myself outside before the sun crowned the treeline guarding the east. As I walked, clouds ignited from within across the entire sky. The sharp exclamations of crows and jays tore night's stillness away. The low running Lewis River burbled and sang over glowing rocks exposed by the dry summer.

The sun rose at my back. The air around me went from pink to yellow, and the music of finches and sparrows and chickadees erupted as though directed by a maestro at his podium. When I made the turn for  home, light shone directly in my eyes, the impact softened and dappled by the already turning leaves of maple and hazel and cottonwood.

I greet a new group of ten-year-olds on Tuesday. Summer is over. I'm 61 and have spent more of my life in school than not, either as a student or as a teacher (which is really student, too). Because of that, fall is my new year, the time of new beginnings and fresh starts. I've always thought that was why I love this season more than any other. That and my fall birthday.

However, it's been a while since I eagerly awaited the return to a classroom. And yet this year, as summer burns out and fall's light dominates even on hot days, I've felt the pull and longing and anticipation. Not for a new school year, but for something undefinable.

On the last of the three walks, as the sun played peek-a-boo through the trees, that undefinable thing took form. In the slanted light of late summer and early fall, it's possible to see past, present and future at the same time. All three are lit equally and for a few weeks new doors feel opened so that travel from one end to the other is conceivable.

In that slanted light, the mystery that created it seems accessible and benevolent. Finding answers seems less important than basking in the wholeness of me and the moment. My past feels finished and softened in the long shadows behind.  I love the girls who got me to the present with a maternal love that feels holy. The present, for once, is enough—I, for once, am enough walking alone and not alone on a late August morning. The future is lit too brightly for me to make out details, but the brightness and warmth are reassuring and comforting.

I have the thought that when the time does come for me to step finally into that ultimate light, I want it to be at this turning of the seasons when the slant shows everything from start to finish with all the shadows long and far behind.

With the freedoms of summer already fading into shadow, replaced by long days of meetings and long lists of things to do and soon long hours of accomplishing the impossible with kids, I set my face toward the slanted light that promises everything and hides nothing.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Sunflower

Every summer we let one sunflower grow in the bird area: a volunteer that survives hungry birds, no water and the baking we do beforehand so that the seeds won't sprout. We pull every other seedling except for the one, and it gets to stay based entirely on how we think it will fit in with the rest of the area.

This year's grew quickly, as sunflowers seem to, a long gangly stem with no evidence of flower for weeks and weeks. Then one day I saw a flash of golden yellow through the leaves of the sweet gum tree it had grown up into. Even though I had said I wouldn't, and I have a really hard time trimming any part of a tree away, I did trim just enough so that the sunflower could easily turn its shaggy face to the sun. And so that I could enjoy the explosion of what looks like an entire flock of goldfinches radiating from that particular green that is summer's signature.

Sitting on the patio with iced tea and a book at hand, Toby chasing swallow shadows in the yard, my eyes rest on the sunflower. I'm grateful for the distraction from the distress I'm feeling about the rapid advance of a new school year. And then I realize my entire summer is contained in that one sturdy flower.

There were no huge trips for us this summer as we're saving for the next big adventure. I was prepared to sort of suffer through and make the best of the sacrifice in the name of delayed gratification. As it's turned out, this has been one of the best summers I can remember. Simple. Sunny. And oh so satisfying.

Like the sunflower, my summer developed spontaneously. There was a loose plan, but much was left open. What happened in the open spaces is of course what made these last weeks so wonderful.

Also like the sunflower, at the center there was a pattern I couldn't really see until recently, and that I can take no credit for creating. That Mysterious design at the center of everything that I all too often forget exists.

The seedling at the center of our summer was new carpet upstairs, a trip to Ashland to see two plays, a writing class for me, and a golf trip for Walt.

The new carpet meant clearing out everything from upstairs where Walt's office, the tv room and our guest room are. A space where for twenty years we've added many things and taken away nothing, including several bookcases full of books. In the process of moving things downstairs, we decided not to move anything back upstairs we didn't really want. You see where this is going, right? Loads to Good Will. Boxes and boxes of pictures and mementoes sorted and sifted. An empty guest room that we decided to paint which led to new trim and a new door and new messes downstairs needing attention.

Our trip to Ashland, home of a world-class Shakespeare Festival, exceeded my expectations. The plays were a delight, the country gorgeous, the company of my husband a comfortable pleasure. A moment in the midst of those days stands out as one that will provide a window to wonder even in the darkest days of winter.

On our drive back to the condo late at night after one of the plays, I asked Walt to pull over. We got out of the car and stood in warm desert air with no sound but our breathing and no light at all. Except for the amazement of sky overhead. I haven't seen the spill of the Milky Way that white or broad since childhood summers sleeping outside in rural North Idaho. The entire sky looked like a mythical god child had spilled an economy-sized container of glitter. Stars shone all the way to the edges of the sky.

The five week writing class got me writing again, and helped me answer again the question of whether I'm really a writer and whether it really matters if I write. Walt's golf trip gave me a week home alone, a gift in itself.

So here's what grew from that basic seedling of summer into a glorious bright flower with enough light to cut through even the darkest of shadows: frequent walks with friends (how did I get so lucky to have this richness in friendship?) which also meant frequent heartfelt conversations; two antique sales held with a friend; a second trip to Ashland, this time with a friend, and as fun and satisfying as you might imagine a road trip with a sister friend might be; a weekend hiking trip with two brothers, a beloved SIL, and Walt, through 9 miles of beach and Olympic Peninsula lushness;  a long hike in a state park with another friend where we talked nonstop and saw 10 waterfalls in the five hours we took to complete the loop; a weekend with one brother spent antiquing and enjoying our adult friendship; movies holding hands with Walt in the dark while improbable but entertaining stories spun out across giant screens; long long hours doing nothing at all beyond reading and resting and playing with Toby and Alex and Bunkie.

There's more and at that you probably skimmed past most of that list. Because it's the pattern in the whorled seeds of the sunflower that matters, not looking at each individual seed. A pattern that shows a life full of friends and family and freedom and fun. A life bursting with lights of love.

My life as a teacher of ten-year-olds in public school resumes next week when I go in to set up my room for the twenty-fifth time. Meetings start the following week and the first day with kids is the next week. I will love the kids and I'm excited that this year for the first time I will only teach writing (to all 100+ fifth-graders). The future is bright, even though it's one I'd rather not step into. I look forward to the next season's sunflower surprises, even as I continue to drink in this summer's, hoping to fill myself to the brim and overflowing.



Friday, June 14, 2013

Every Teacher's Dream

We sat at the table at the side of my classroom, two women of an age, watching a young man teaching a math lesson to my students. She was his supervisor. He was student teaching in another fifth grade room and had needed for her to see a lesson at that particular time and my kids were available while his were not.

I liked her right away. Friendly, but not too; respectful; interested and curious and clearly into kids. As we watched her charge explain division of decimals to my charges she whispered in an aside how well-behaved the class was. I sort-of-jokingly responded that they should be since it was May. Then I added what I always do when anyone notices, "This is such a great group of kids. I always seem to get the best ones. I really love every one of them."

The words she said next, with an understanding smile, have stayed with me: "That's every teacher's dream."

Because this is the class that had been every teacher's nightmare in the past. The one I wrote about at the beginning of the year, for which I believed the only way to success was with the help of Someone with more of everything than I possess.

And in spite the dire warnings from previous years, in spite of a principal who seemed determined to clip my wings at every turn despite my attempts to stay off her radar, in spite of countless days of forgotten medication (theirs, not mine) and the accompanying chaos, in spite of my being out for weeks late last fall—in spite of all of that and more, this was the best year of my teaching career.

As I pondered whether I would really classify this class as every teacher's dream, I realized that it all depends what the dream is.

If the dream is an easy year with bright, motivated, well-parented kids who are eager to learn, eager to please and easy to love, and whose test scores will make everyone smile—well that was not this year or this class. I have had classes like that, and remember them fondly, sometimes with nostalgic longing, but I suspect I'm not remembering the challenges at all.

If the dream is a year where everyone, including the teacher, grows far beyond previously understood possibilities; where at the end love is palpable and easy; where regrets are few—that was this year with this group of kids. Given the choice, I would never have chosen this combination of personalities and needs. But given the class and the circumstances, and my decision to accept the whole package with as much grace and love as I could, I am as grateful for this unchosen experience as I would be for any chosen dream coming true.

Wednesday was our last day. Yesterday they came to my house for one last afternoon of celebration. Seventeen of the twenty-five were there eating hotdogs and ice cream, running around in the rain shooting each other with squirt-guns, playing with Toby, meeting Bunkie (Alex hid), and talking nonstop. To each other. To me. To Walt. And laughing. There was so much laughter. Who knew that one girl with a whoopie cushion could be so funny? Or that squirts of whipped cream into baby-bird mouths could be so hilarious?

We ended the day with a walk to the park. My walk. To my park. With a handful of kids I learned whole new universes about love with. As they spread out in front of me in twos and threes, frolicking like puppies let loose for the first time, one girl held back and asked about the trail of hearts. I'd told the class that story the Monday after I discovered the hearts for the first time. And I told them when the hearts vanished. We shared the joy of my discovery and the disappointment of their disappearance together.

I reminded her that the hearts were gone, and showed her a tree trunk where one might have been. She pointed to the tree just ahead of us and said, "They're not all gone. There's one right there." And there it was, tucked in tightly, almost invisible, a lingering bit of evidence, and one final gift of the day. This teacher's dream come true.



Monday, May 27, 2013

Trail of Hearts

The trail, wide and dirt-packed, is reassuringly familiar every time I walk it. For the last two decades I've traveled this path, and while it changes predictably with each season, my seasons have extended one into the other much more slowly.

I was barely in my forties when we moved here, when I discovered the park, when I began exploring all it had to offer—the trail in particular. I was newly sober. I had not yet met Kathleen. I still believed that in leaving the cult, I had also left God behind, and any hope of ever being acceptable to him again. I went about creating as respectably normal a life as I could, a sort of substitute for God: teaching, being married, trying to find a place in my family of origin. We had a golden retriever, a handful of cats, and a cute cottage in the country.

There is no memory of the first walk in the park, or of any walk really except the most recent. Yet every time I set foot on this particular trail, I feel at home in away I don't anywhere else. The seasons present themselves in comforting symmetry.

Summer, my first season there, meant lush overarching greenery, sun-dappled shadows, the river singing in the distance, and each step accompanied by the chirps, whirs, and melodies of towhees, robins, juncos, song sparrows. Once, on an early morning stroll, a deer bounded across the path. At the beginning of the season, salmonberries offered sustenance. At the end of the season, it was plump wild blackberries.

I learned to anticipate the turning into fall when big leaf maples dropped giant yellow leaves onto the trail, at first one here and there, and then in thick blankets that invited kicking through. Vine maples flamed. The trail itself became dusty, all greens muted under shades of gray. Winter wrens arrived, and flocks of golden-crowned kinglets ringing like fairy bells in fir branches overhead.

When the rains began, bringing winter in, washing leaves and dust away, the trail's beauty shifted. Deciduous branches sketched stark shadows against gray skies. Views previously blocked by endless green revealed the river rolling wildly, its gentle summer song became giant's roar. Air nipped exposed skin. Breathing was like swallowing snow.

Just when it seemed winter would strip all color from life and the world, that it would be the final, permanent season, violets would appear in a certain spot, first as heart-shaped leaves, then flowering into delicate purple and white posies. At the same time robins returned in all their raucous glory. Shortly after, trilliums bloomed, then bleeding hearts, and false solomon's seal. And before I knew it, the cycle repeated once more, with variations from year to year, but mostly, reassuringly, the same.

I returned to the trail at the end of this last winter after a long absence caused by a very young and headstrong puppy and my failing hip.

That first walk this year was like returning home. The trail had not changed at all in the months without me. I was giddy with both my ability to walk pain-free and with the sense of connection to the seasons with a capital "s." I was also carrying the weight of a particularly harsh inner winter which seemed to not want to release its hold and step aside for a new season.

It was on one of those walks—the violets had already bloomed and gone, the trilliums were still in their prime, and baby pink bleeding hearts were just emerging from lacy green nests—that I first noticed the heart-shaped rock embedded in the bark of an ancient douglas fir tree.

At first I wondered if it had always been there, pushed up from the ground as the tree grew. But it was at eye level and tucked so neatly between the grooves of the bark, I knew someone had placed it intentionally. This rock was at the beginning of the trail and as I proceeded, wondering about its story, I noticed another. The next one was just as neatly tucked at eye level. Then it became a treasure hunt, and I was not disappointed. There was a pattern to the placement—always close to the trail, near eye level and tucked in the gnarled bark gullies of venerable old firs. More than two dozen stone hearts, sentinels along the trail, stretching from one end to the other.  

By the end of the trail, I was completely enchanted. An enchantment that followed me home that day and that electrifies my heart still. My winter began to lift. Wonder began to replace darkness. Curiosity about the story behind the trail of hearts seemed to open doors and windows I didn't realize were blocked.

A couple of weeks later the hearts were gone. Every last one. All at once. I still look for them. Create stories about them. Send gratitude to the hand that placed them and to the hand that directed my eyes to them.

I ponder my own trail of hearts, the seasons that led me to this particular spring. Sobriety stable. Kathleen passed through, our season together way too short. Still sorting out the complicated spiritual relationship that both led me to the cult and took me away from it, and that all these years later remains a mystery to me. Finally feeling at home in the life created to prove something that couldn't be proved, and that turns out to be more real and satisfying than I could ever have imagined.

My heart carries them all, the stone hearts and the seasons passed, with abundant room and eager anticipation for whatever the path brings next.




Monday, April 22, 2013

Cartwheel



Four eleven-year-old girls stand on a sunny school playground. Three are in eleven-year-old bodies. One peers out from the decades-older body of their teacher. One girl, a happy healthy athletic bursting-with-happiness-and-energy long-limbed girl, does a cartwheel out of nowhere, for no particular reason beyond the invitation of the warm bright air and her own inner joy.

The three other girls watch and admire her form, and so she does another, also with perfect cartwheel form: First one hand on the ground, then the other, with legs going perfectly overhead, each landing in its turn, the torso perpendicular to the ground the entire time. Perfect 360 degree rotations. She ends each revolution with a victory stance, arms raised high, exuberant grin on her face.

The peeking-out girl says wow, that was amazing, I've never done a cartwheel.

One of the other girls laughs and says I can't do one either. She's about to show them her not-doing-a-cartwheel when the fourth girls spins out three in a row.  Her audience watches in admiration. This is not someone who looks like she could do any cartwheels, let alone a beautifully executed series. Short of stature, short-limbed, solid, the best artist in the class with an artist's intense inner focus and no previously apparent athletic inclinations. She barely smiles at the applause and praise offered by her peers, but the blush pushing up from her collar reveals her pleasure.

The peeking-out girl asks how did you learn to do that. Thinking about her own short solid body that she could never coax into the light freedom of a cartwheel.

The reply from the artist: gymnastics, lessons from the time she was a much littler girl.

The peeking-out girl remembers a childhood where there was neither the money nor the parental energy for gymnastics or dance (she desperately wanted to be a ballerina) or piano even (let alone the harp she knew she was born to play). She recalls friends trying to show her the steps to a cartwheel, and her frustration at not being able to follow the simple instructions, and the shame voice saying stupid fat girl. She thinks she remembers being laughed at, although she's not so sure about that any more. She remembers the hot flush of humiliation, her fury at a body that would not bend to her mind's demands, her decision to never try again.

Do you want to see me try offers the girl who has said she's never done a cartwheel either. This girl is a soccer celebrity who plays whatever sport a season has to offer. A child of supreme confidence in herself despite a life where adults betray and disappoint her in heartbreaking ways. Without waiting for an answer from her audience, she spins herself awkwardly around, head down, her body moving in a twisted "u" shape, her limbs going every which way but where they should. She lands on her bottom, laughing, her face alight with joy.

Everyone claps for her, and laughs with her, and then the three in-time eleven-year-olds wander away, distracted by a kick-ball game. The peeking-out eleven-year-old, safely hidden behind the eyes of her sixty-year-old body, marvels at what she's just seen. Success by someone who wasn't a cool kid. Failure by someone who was. But failure that no one saw as failure. Failure seen as fun and not one bit of anything more.

She offers a question tentatively, inwardly, longingly. Maybe we could try again?

The sixty-year-old teacher stands watching her students frolic like wild things on a sunny spring playground, holding her own inner eleven-year-old close. You know it's too late for cartwheels in this body. But look, it's not too late to see that shame does not have to be a part of that loss. It's not too late to understand that not doing cartwheels never ever meant there was something wrong. It's not too late to finally realize that you are as wonderful, talented, and beautiful as any of the girls you watch every day with envy and yearning.

Together, they form a picture of a freckle-faced girl with braids and strong sturdy limbs, banged up knees and bare feet, doing a perfect hand, hand, foot, foot, perpendicular rotation in the long faded sunlight of a North Idaho summer. It didn't happen, but it might have, and they applaud the girl together. A girl no longer defined by an unaccomplished cartwheel.


Monday, April 1, 2013

Suspension



The view from my office window is bookended by two trees.

On one side is my beloved red oak. The tree that a few winters ago was bent double by ice and now stands thirty feet tall, straight and strong. Its fall fire red leaves have faded to the apricot of age-faded red hair and thinned in the same way. A close examination of branches would reveal the new life waiting to burst forth, but from this vantage it still looks very much a winter tree.

On the other side is a big leaf maple that we transplanted from the edge of the yard just a few years ago.    By the time the breezes of fall have escorted in the wilder winds of winter, its leaves are long gone. And it's one of the first trees in the yard to begin unfurling the new-green glory of spring.

I feel suspended exactly between the two. Neither winter nor spring, but yet both somehow.

Smoke floats across the yard, carrying the occasional oak leaf with it. Walt's burning last year's cuttings and brush - so much accumulates from a place with so many trees. It will take a couple of days before the pile is reduced to a gray circle surrounded by grass, the perfect symbolism from which cliche is born.

I wonder how long it will take for my deadwood, my dead leaves, to be replaced with new life, fresh hope, a lighter perspective.

Winter was hard this year. Not the weather of winter but the length of it, the death inherent in it, the darkness of it. It clings to me still, even as I soak up the sun of a new season. I wonder at its persistence.  I worry that I won't be able to shed the last of the dead leaves, and that somehow, this time, the new growth won't come in.

Is this what being older does? Makes winter hang around a bit longer every year until there is nothing left but that? No. I refuse that notion. There will always be new green to counter the ashes. There will.

But in my suspension between seasons, I have a sense of transformation. Something that requires more than a planetary orbit to complete. Something that manages to include both winter and spring no matter what the calendar says. Something I can't quite yet name - or grasp.

That, I believe, is connected to being in the shallows of old age. The horizon I see is significantly different than at any other time of my life. My body refuses to be ignored. My mind ignores me all the time. My feelings are alien to me, much in the same way as those of adolescence. Death and the mystery of what lies beyond are real, and loom every so slightly larger every day.

This suspended space reveals my dreams in the oak tree. Some lived to their fulfillment and long off the tree. Others unfulfilled and still hanging from the branch, dry and dead. I see the possibilities of new dreams in the maple, but I can't reach those until I release the oak dreams. Until I accept and grieve the dreams of my younger life that will never come true, I cannot aspire to new ones.

The sun is out finally. Smoke and the occasional oak leaf continue to drift across my line of sight. The maple branches nod gently in a breeze that shows up every afternoon at this time. I will walk, pain-free and powerfully, into the vibrant air, on the lookout for expressions of spring and the songs they might sing to me, the secrets they might unlock.



Sunday, February 3, 2013

Dear Furry Friends


Dear Furry Friends,

While we may not have been completely appreciative of all you did for us during our three weeks in your care, we'd like you to know we've landed in the catbird seat for sure. We still miss our first human a lot, but every day he becomes fainter and fainter in our memories. The two humans you gave to us are more than satisfactory replacements.

You wouldn't believe how posh our new castle is. There are many many rooms to explore, and two levels. We can explore, and hide, and play to our hearts' content. There is a tree much like the one we loved at your place with the exact same tube I (Alex) felt so safe in. There are more toys than we've ever seen before, each one more fun that the last. I (Bunkie) especially love the flying feathers that allow me to demonstrate my magnificent acrobatic skills.

The food is plentiful and tasty. The female human even understands we each need our own space to eat. Bedtime treats are provided in the form of lovely green morsels both humans feed to us by hand. We're so happy you gave us such well-trained humans.

There are many soft places for napping, including two laps. I (Bunkie) have taken advantage of both, and am still deciding which I prefer. It's so nice to have variety, and I may need more time in which to choose a favorite. I (Alex) still don't want to be anywhere I can't make a quick escape from, so my lap time has been short. I'm a bit worried Bunkie will take them both over before I've had a chance to get braver.


We've already chosen our favorite spot from which to view the outside world. Our humans seem to have gone to great trouble to create a place for birds to come just for our pleasure. We would prefer a softer viewing post, and will be making that desire clear in the future.

These humans seem to understand our language surprisingly well. Every time we speak to them, they respond immediately, and mostly correctly. As they seem to be fairly bright for humans, we expect they'll get better at that over time.


The same cannot be said for the very large dog who lives here. That is the one complaint we might have about our new home. He seems very slow to understand that we have no interest in being friends no matter how much he wags that ridiculous tail or how often he approaches us with an invitation to play. Since we know that what we don't see doesn't exist, we expect he'll be vanishing soon.

As humans go, you all are as good as they come. What you did for us, and what you do for so many of our cousins, is worth gratitude and more - even from those of us who don't ordinarily believe in being grateful for what is our just due. We would purr for you any time, as we purr now for our new and forever humans.

Love,

Alex & Bunkie