"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, October 20, 2013


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


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. :-)