"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, August 25, 2013


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


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.