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

Monday, August 31, 2015

Day One

Walt is back on the clock today. My work friends have been on the clock since last week. Kids start back to school tomorrow or Wednesday.

The summer has been long, relaxed, full of small adventures. Hikes. Friends. Family. New sights. Reading on the patio while warm breezes and Toby play around me. Everything one could hope for in a summer. And it's over now. Even the weather has gone from summer to fall overnight.

All summer I've answered the question, "How does it feel to be retired?", with "It's summer. My retirement hasn't really started yet."

Today is the day. I am retired. I am not losing sleep over whether I'm ready for kids tomorrow. I haven't spent the last two weeks setting up a classroom, sitting in meetings, shopping for sticky notes and new read alouds and cool borders. I don't have a new first day dress. I'm not dreading open house tonight, and I'm not excited either to see old friends and meet new ones. I'm not exhausted already, with all of summer's accumulated healing and energy lost in the frustration of facing moment by moment so much wrong I have no way to right.

I. Am. Retired.

I am in charge of my life in a way I've never been before. My choices are limited only by my imagination and my energy and the resources at hand. The list of possibilities is long. I don't know where to start. What do I want the most?

All summer my seventeen year old self has been close by. She was driven to college around this time of year to begin her freshman year. Her parents were in the front seat of the family Rambler station wagon, and she was crammed in the back with her three teen-aged brothers, as they had been for every outing of her childhood. She sat next to the window in deference to her frequent car sickness, watching the known world slip away.

It was not a happy occasion. The tension was thick as the cigarette smoke from her mom's Pall Malls. Mom and Dad had expected her to go to a community college and live at home. Her high school counselor (who just happened to be the mom of her best friend) helped her get admitted to and scholarships for this small private college a couple of hours away from her home. All summer she'd lived with her parents' stony silent anger, every preparation for going away poisoned by her betrayal of her parents' wishes.

She was both terrified and thrilled as they pulled in front of her dorm. So eager to be away from her family and the pain and shame, and to begin her new life. A new life in which she was certain she'd prove herself to be a strong and capable adult. She believed her family was just as happy to be rid of her, and it wasn't until this summer that it occurred to me that Mom might have been sad to leave her only daughter. Might have been afraid for her.

As it turns out, those fears were justified. Seventeen. Small town. Farm girl. Sheltered in that way of families who don't want the world to know their business. Smart, but completely unprepared for the choices and freedoms she faced. Refusing to ask for help, because that meant weakness, and she had much to prove.

All summer that scared seventeen year old has worried about today.

Of course today is very different from that day 46 years ago. I am not running away from anything, and I'm not needing to prove anything. I don't feel alone. Or afraid.

I do feel  - what? Grateful. Deeply grateful. Overwhelmed - where do I start? A little at sea - the choices swirling and crowding, making a clear path impossible to see. And so I start where I know for certain I will find myself and answers, by putting words on the page. I start by keeping my promise to myself - I will write my way into my future, with no expectation beyond the magic that has always been there when meaning reveals itself in those words.

Day one. I am retired. I am happy. I am blessed. I am.

Sunday, June 14, 2015


I was traveling in this dream, toward an unknown destination, trying to find my way. It was dark, maybe raining. Vaguely familiar people were traveling with me. There was a sense of urgency. At some point I realized I had lost my wallet and spent the remainder of the dream considering the consequences of that.

When I awoke from that dream it took hours before I realized I hadn't really lost the wallet. Never mind that I don't use a wallet. I started my day thinking I was going to have to start making phone calls to cancel credit cards - the dream was that strong.

It didn't take long before I realized the startlingly clear message of the dream: this loss of identity as I prepare to retire from teaching is a much bigger deal than I want to believe or have given credit to.

Regular readers here will know how much I've struggled in the last three decades with my teacher identity. I never intended for teaching to be a long-term career. There was too much about the profession that frustrated me and pinched me like Cinderella's slipper on the wrong foot.  And as the years passed, what I loved about teaching got harder and harder to claim.

Somehow I came to believe that because teaching was hard, and I struggled, and sometimes I failed, I couldn't really claim the title. I wasn't really sure I wanted to claim it. I wanted more for my life, and the older I got, the less I was able to claim any energy for more. So I became a teacher, a very tired teacher, and very little else. The ever elusive balance became harder and harder to achieve, and no matter how hard I tried, I could not do the job with only part of my heart and focus. Teaching is a profession that demands everything, and then some. I'm a person who has never been able to do anything in half measures.

It's only been these last few weeks, as the end of my career grows closer, that I have managed to embrace the whole package of my teacher identity. Just in time to release it.

I have been that teacher for a multitude of students - the one they'll never forget and the one who helped them discover a love of learning. The one who wore weird earrings and loved birds and books and writing. The one who was always ready with a hug and who cried with them over sad stories, whether from a book or from their lives. The one who told stories about her own childhood and her crazy pets. The one who promised to always be there if they needed anything.

I have been another kind of teacher for a handful of students - the one they remember as mean and too strict. If I could hug them all today and tell them I only wanted them to believe in themselves as much as I did, that I loved them, I would. If I could tell them I'm truly sorry for any pain I caused them, I would. I would tell them that the fear of hurting any child has stolen more hours of sleep from me than I care to count. And then I would encourage them to use their feelings and experiences with me to grow into kinder and more compassionate people, and move on.

The 1987-88 school year was my first as a teacher. I had 29 fifth grade students. One of them was a sweet and delightful girl named Mandi. Mandi was one of those students we'd love to fill our classes with: well-behaved, eager to learn and please, liked by her peers. She was someone I remembered clearly out of the nearly two thousand kids I've taught. At the beginning of this year, one of my girls, also a fifth grader, asked me if I remembered a student called Mandi (and she used her last name). I did. My new student was excited to tell me that former student is her Auntie Mandi.

Auntie Mandi came to the spring barbecue with my student's mom, her best friend. She came to see me. She's nearly 40 now, the short, dark, over-permed hair that embarrassed her so much in fifth grade replaced by longer lighter softer curls. But she was essentially the same Mandi I remembered. Light. Happy. Open. We laughed together over the album that contained pictures of her year, and she shared stories of some of her classmates she's still in contact with. We hugged like old friends. She said I was her favorite teacher, and whether it was a simple truth or a kindness, I accepted the gift of her words.

Yesterday Walt and I went to a soccer game. Several of my girls are on the same team and this was a much anticipated command appearance. I've gone to countless games and concerts and recitals over the years, and always loved seeing my kids out of the school context. I looked forward to this last one, knowing it was another last thing. Also knowing I'd get to see Bella. Bella who started the year with us, but moved midyear. One of those kids, like Mandi, who make the world a better place just with her easy presence.

As we stood on the sidelines in the late spring sunlight, watching girls I love play a game they love with power and intention, visiting with parents who were grateful for our attendance, I felt a deep sense of joy. When the game was over they made their way to me one by one until we were a rough circle. Bella was the first, so I had a few minutes to catch up with just her, to drink in her pretty face and lovely energy. Soon the space was filled with hard sweaty hugs and congratulations on hard play and goals shot. Smiles and laughter. Parting hugs. Parting waves.

Walking back to the car I realized this is what I'll miss most. Being a rock star. The spontaneous hugs. Seeing eyes light up when they see me. Feeling like a part of a hundred different families, and creating a nine-month family with 20 or 30 kids (or 100 like this year). Having a role in guiding another life toward their best path. Being a catalyst in the formation of a love of learning and books and words and birds and the whole large world that awaits each of my kids.

There is a movie trailer playing right now. It shows a man standing at the top of a skyscraper looking out over a city. He walks to the edge of the building, where a large metal beam extends out into the air. He steps onto the beam, looks down into nothingness with the ground so far away it's nearly invisible. The sense of vertigo is so strong I grip the arms of my chair. He extends his arms and one leg, a beautiful wingless bird on the verge of flight. That's what my life feels like right now as I prepare to create a new identity as a retired teacher (instead of a tired teacher). Leaving familiar ground, stepping joyfully into the air, trusting new ground to form as I go.

Saturday, May 16, 2015


Last summer on day eleven of our Colorado River float, we woke up to a camp vibrant in anticipation of that day's run through Lava Falls Rapid. Rated 8-10 on the scale of 1-10 developed strictly for that river, this rapid has a reputation for chewing up boats and spitting them and their passengers out at the bottom. Even the guides were a little more sober that morning, although their talk to us was positive and full of reminders that if we followed their direction, we'd be fine.

As we had for two previous rapids, also with bad-boy reputations, we scouted Lava. Standing above the roiling waters, listening to the guides discuss the holes to avoid and the best route to follow to avoid those holes, I felt for the first time that trip a small frisson of fear. The possibility of being overturned was very real. Those rocks were huge and the water was the wildest I'd ever seen. The noise alone, which we began hearing well before the approach, felt like fair warning. A warning we were ignoring.

The guide we traveled with in a raft with three other people was one we swore at the beginning of the trip we wouldn't ride with at all. His bad-boy swagger and attitude, much like that of Lava Falls, made me unsure about trusting him with my life. When we'd traveled with all the other guides, and it was becoming obvious to us and to this guide we hadn't been in his boat yet, we decided he hadn't dumped anyone else in the water, so we should give him a chance. It was one of our best days. He was funny and smart and knew a ton about the canyon. And he was a master at the oars, reading the current like a favorite book, making choices with rapids that maximized our fun while never making us feel unsafe. So the morning of Lava Falls we chose his raft.

Because of the 13 foot drop, you don't actually see Lava Falls until the raft has been pulled in and there is nothing to be done but hunker down and hang on. What looked wild from the top, was heart-stopping at the mouth. Waves so high we could see nothing except a wall of water that crashed over us before the screams left our mouths. We'd just get through one and barely clear our eyes when another would consume everything. I was laughing and shouting (maybe swearing a little), too inundated with water and sound and movement to feel anything but exhilaration.  To feel anything but more fully alive than I ever had before.

The whole thing took less than two minutes. We were bailing like crazy at the bottom, and looking back to watch other rafts carom through, when the guide told us to stow the buckets and hang on. A second smaller rapid awaited us with a deeper and shorter drop. At the bottom of that we pulled into an eddy and celebrated. All of us, the guide included, were giddy with the experience. Adrenalin pumped. Fists pumped. Voices called between rafts, everyone checking in, the guides comparing runs with each others' and with their own previous experiences.

The brightness of feeling and the sharpening of senses born of that ride stayed with me for the rest of our time on the river. It followed me home. And while it faded in the weeks and months that followed, it has returned full force in the last few days. This time the rapid I negotiate is my last month as a classroom teacher. With just a month to go, 22 teaching days, I am aware of the eddy that awaits at the bottom, but can do nothing now but hang on and feel and be in every moment.

The guide I'm trusting to oar me safely through these wild waters is that still voice that is both God and my own heart. There are no more choices to make right now, except the one that keeps me awake and grateful and present. My eyes wide open, my face wet with tears that surprise me with their increasing frequency.

While there have been moments in the last few weeks when I just wished it could be over, this trek to the end of a school year and my career, now there is no room left for wishing or thinking or anything but hanging on. I am surrounded by waves of sadness and gladness and relief and joy. I am awash with gratitude. I am tumbled in the voices and arms of children exuberant with affection. These last days pass with a speed that stuns, each day as a second on the Colorado River. Each moment a gift to be savored and thankful for. Experience and memory coming together to form the most powerful rapid of my life so far.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Golden Moment

Anyone walking into the classroom would have seen chaos. It was late in the school day. Thirty-one fifth graders had, with varying degrees of success, held themselves together and learned as much as they could in the previous hours. They were in homeroom, and relaxed, transitioning into their favorite time of day: read aloud. The burst of noise and energy made conversation impossible, and I didn't try. I knew they'd settle themselves quickly without my intervention. Billy is about to take Old Dan and Little Ann on their first coon hunt and everyone wants to know what will happen next.

Some kids were settled and waiting expectantly. Others impatiently urged classmates to sit down and listen. Still others made a beeline to the back of the room to get a copy of the book to follow along in. There was a last minute scramble for bathroom passes and some giggling in the back of the room I pretended not to notice. And then finally the room began to still.

I sat in front, my worn copy of Where the Red Fern Grows on my lap, waiting and watching. Smiling. Absorbing. Thinking: this is my last class, my last spring with kids I love. These are our last days together. They are so silly and happy and safe - a room full of golden retriever puppies - my goldens in a space I've created.

I marveled at how quickly things can change.

We returned to the financial guy a couple of weeks ago. Since the first visit I'd become aware that one more year beyond this one felt like one year too many. I was - I am - tired to the bone. The magical moments with kids, my glorious classroom, and laughter with colleagues are no longer enough to compensate for the drain of everything else. Despite my intention to kick back and just enjoy the good parts in the time I had left, I've discovered I can't do this job with half a heart, or half my attention.

Teaching takes everything you have to give and demands more. Firm boundaries do nothing to still the questioning voices. Even without the constant seismic activity of new standards and new tests and new evaluations, simply being enough for the young lives whose fifth grade year I hold the reins to is increasingly impossible. I heard myself describe being a teacher as like being stuck inside a car in a wrecking yard that's being crushed from all sides until it's nothing but a compact cube of scrap metal.

It is time to go.

And thankfully, I can. Things will be a bit tighter, but we'll still be able to travel. Walt will continue to teach for a few more years, happy in ways I envy. I'll have to sub, but right now that feels like a gift. A chance to see these kids again, and to be the grandma instead of the mom.

Every day now is a last day for something, sometimes many things. I look at my classroom and my things through different eyes. As much as I love the room I teach in this year with it's newness and open space and radiant light, I will only mind a little bit giving it to someone else. I think about who will get my stuff, and what I can do to set things up for whoever inherits my spot. I clean out files. I breathe in hugs a bit more deeply, look into faces a little more closely, love like there is no tomorrow.

I was just pulling myself back into the present reality of thirty-one mostly quiet faces waiting expectantly for me to open the book, when one of my girls said, "Mrs. Shucka, look! A bald eagle." Before I'd decided she was telling the truth and not playing one of her many tricks, half the class was at the windows. By the time I got to a window, the rest of the class was crowded around, craning to see.

And there he was. Soaring so closely we could see the gold of his beak and talons. He floated toward us until we could see the definition of his talons and the texture of his wing feathers, and then he disappeared past the last window, leaving us all buzzing with excitement. When the room had settled enough for me to speak, I told the story - how had I not told this to them before? - of my childhood experience with bald eagles. The imminent extinction. My belief that I would never get to see one because they would all be gone before I had the chance. And then the miracle of their comeback. The wonder that bald eagles are an every-day sight for these kids. For me.

In a little more than ten weeks, I will begin a new life. In many ways this new life mirrors the story of the bald eagle. As dramatic as it sounds, extinction was a very real possibility for me, too. And yet here I am, thriving, as alive as is possible. Moving forward into a future as wide as the blue sky holding the eagle who guides me forward.

Monday, February 16, 2015


The last time I found myself at a doorway like this, I was in my mid thirties and leaving a church, a marriage, a home I had believed I would spend the rest of my life in. The transition from the protected and enclosed safety of life bounded by the Word of God as understood by his prophet, Harold, into a world I had been taught was full of Satan's stumbling blocks, was terrifying. I left The Body believing I was leaving God behind, too, but feeling like I had no other choice. If I was breaking vows by walking away, God had broken with me first by allowing my husband to withhold parenthood from me.

In the nearly three decades since, I've created a life. Without really understanding what I was doing, it was a life that provided a near-perfect environment for healing. It was a life of safe respectability: teaching, a sweet and loving husband, golden retrievers, a home in the country, friends, and even reconciliation with my family of origin. A good life. Within the nest of that life I began the very hard work of excavating buried pain and wounds. I got sober. I gave my trust to a gifted counselor. I felt and dug, and felt and dug, and all the while learned to love. And forgive. And I healed.

Now I find myself on the threshold of yet another of life's transitions. I am 260 school days away from retirement - a year and a half in real time. This time I have the chance to walk into the light of a new adventure free from the weight of unfinished business.

It's been a month since our meeting with the financial guy who showed us how I could leave teaching comfortably at the end of next year. In that time I've gone from a state of giddy and grateful euphoria, to realizing that I still need to live all the days until a year from this June. That means accepting that regardless of how much I might be able to let go of because I'm no longer building a career, I'm still teaching, and teaching is still heartbreakingly hard. Besides, I absolutely do not want to wish away any part of my life. So I'm in the process of settling myself down and refocusing on the days before me.

That said, every day I think about what life will be like next. It feels like one final gift of unlimited possibility, and I don't want to waste that. I've always thought I would just move from teaching to something else that mattered. Some way to contribute to life that justified my place here. As I've interviewed friends who retired before me, I searched for ways they find meaning in their lives beyond career. The answers to those questions are as varied as my friends. The one common element is aging, and the reduced energy and cognitive function that is an inevitable product. That and the fact that we all know that the next big door is death, beyond which we take nothing but what really matters.

We make choices at this time of life aware that there are not decades ahead for second chances. And somehow in all of that, it's finally okay to focus on the inner voice that has all along been telling us that we matter enough to simply live. I see my friends make choices based on what feels right, or what they feel like doing in the moment. No longer driven by family or work expectations, or the need to look a certain way, or compelled to accomplish certain things.

My list of things I've always thought I wanted to do in retirement is long, and not all that unique: gardening, decluttering, painting my house, travel, volunteer work, reading, hiking, walking, learning, writing. Busy. Meaningful. Contributing in some way. I will probably do all of those things, but there is a niggle in the back of my mind that's telling me those don't matter.

I'm just beginning to understand I don't have to know what will matter until I get there. My job for now is to embrace the gifts of the moments right in front of me. If I'm a little more relaxed because I can see a new horizon, I think that's okay. But if I focus entirely on that horizon, I'm going to miss some great scenery along the way.

A year ago, during a time when the door of retirement felt like an illusion, I decided to create a door I could walk through now. The result of that decision is a two week trip to Italy, starting April 4, seven weeks from now. I am about to see with my own eyes sights first encountered in the National Geographics of my childhood and carried with longing in my heart since. If I am one of the unlucky who don't make it to their dreamed-of retirement, I won't have put everything off until then.

All my paths and all the doors I've walked through to this point have brought me to this: I am a world traveler. I have rafted the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. I have choices enough for several lifetimes. I am rich. I am healthy. I am loved. I love. I have the chance to leave teaching at the top of my game. Not as defined by the new evaluation system or test scores, but by the faces of the children I see every day. And by the small still voice of my heart.

While I don't know exactly what comes next, I do know I have done everything in my power to be as ready for it as I can. Better, I'm not waiting for next, even as I prepare for it. Today the sun shines. I'm home. With choices. And oh so much gratitude for the gifts of each unfurling moment as I make my way toward that next doorway.

Monday, January 19, 2015


Red Riding Hood sat on the counter of Grandma's house for my entire childhood. She was never moved. She was always full of cookies. Grandma, all ninety German pounds of her, could bake. She wasn't a cuddler or an ooh-er and aah-er, but her cookies felt like love. We didn't make the long drive from Sandpoint to Kingston often, but when we did that cookie jar was waiting for me. And I was happy to see her every single time.

When I left childhood and Sandpoint and my family, the image of Red stayed with me. The comfort of her constancy and bright colors. The promise of the sweetness she was designed to hold. She was the one thing of my grandma's that I wanted to inherit. A cousin who lived close by and who had a day-to-day relationship with our grandmother got Red when Grandma died. It was fair. But still.

I never quite got over that loss. Those losses. The loss of Grandma before I was healed enough to thank her and truly appreciate her. The loss of a symbol of one of the few bright spots of my childhood.

The first time I saw Red in an antique store, my heart leapt. Until I saw the price. Years of searching revealed many Reds, but all of a similar price. And I just couldn't bring myself to spend $300 on a childhood memory. I convinced myself that I didn't really need her. I tucked the want of her into that corner of my heart where other unfulfilled dreams live. Life went on.

This last fall I made what has become an annual birthday trip to the Seattle area to spend a day with  my middle brother, Mark, and to have dinner with all three of my brothers. We stopped by Mark's house, and when I walked into his kitchen, my eyes landed on Red. Sitting on his counter. Waiting for me. He'd gotten her at auction for next to nothing because her head has been repaired. She was mine if I wanted her, if I didn't mind the wound, if she still mattered to me.

I had a hard time hearing anything Mark said about Red because several little girls inside of me were jumping up and down, shouting for joy. I struggled to say thank you because no words would do justice to the gratitude I felt, the surge of relief and rush of lightness.

She lives now in the corner behind my kitchen sink, the actual heart place of my home. A dream fulfilled through the love of a brother I once thought lost to me as well. Every time I see her, I'm reminded of that love. The crack in her head, instead of diminishing her appeal, reminds me every day of the deep beauty of flawed things. As much as Red was once a symbol of love and sweetness, she's now become a symbol of never giving up on dreams. A reminder that deferred dreams fulfilled after hope has been released are so much sweeter than a grandmother's cookies.

Walt and I visited our financial guy last week. I had finally gotten brave enough, and sick enough of the fear of what I expected to hear, to face the truth. At 63, I am on the cusp of old age, and traveling the first steps of what I hope is the last third of my life. My lifelong dream of being a writer whose words open hearts, a singer of the highest magnitude on the page - that dream has felt lost to me since I returned to the classroom four years ago. With every new calendar I put up, the dream seems to slip farther away. Aging comes at a price. My biggest fear these last four years has been that by the time I could afford to retire, my mind and my heart would no longer be available for the fulfillment of my deepest, longest held dream.

The news was miraculous. I will teach one year beyond this one. Walt will probably go three more years to reach forty years of service. I won't have to sub, or supplement our income at all. We can travel. I can focus my time and energy on this elusive dream that refuses to stay tucked away. There are choices. Not a bread-and-water old age, but a banquet of possibility as long as our health holds.

This hope for the future feels very much like seeing Red in my own kitchen. A reminder that dreams are all the sweeter in a fulfillment where the packaging is a gift all its own. A reminder that "Wait." is not the same as "No." At least not always. A reminder of the Power beyond my own with a knowing beyond my own whose flawed gifts hold a perfection that can only be experienced in brokenness and surrender.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014


It's the middle of the night. I can't sleep. Usually when I have nights like this I move to the couch and read and then doze. Tonight I know that won't work. Actually it's very early morning of a day that will look like any other day. In a couple of hours I'll start the routine of a work day, and except that I may look a bit more tired than usual, nothing will appear out of the ordinary.

That's what's so strange about this particular anniversary. There is no formal marking of the day. No ceremony for this. Last year I didn't even remember the day until a couple of days after it passed. I remember thinking that felt like a victory of sorts, a healing, a moving on.

At the wedding on Saturday, probably because of the whole feeling of family, a bud of memory began to push through the membrane of my consciousness. Kathleen was more on my mind than usual, and  on Sunday walking with Toby in crisp sunshine, I took the time to wonder why. And focused on the date. And counted forward 14, 15, 16, 17 - Wednesday.

Four years ago today, my forty year old daughter decided living was too hard. Her adoptive mother called me to tell me. I went to my family Christmas as though only a small bump had occurred, only realizing much later that I was in shock. The grieving held off just long enough for the new year to arrive and then moved in to the space in my heart that had been Kathleen's since I was eighteen and signed her over to people I hoped could provide her with so much more than I might.

When we met, she was 24 and I was 42. She was beautiful and sweet and funny. She was full of love and life. She loved to cook and give gifts and shop. She loved cats. She loved her kids. And beyond all possibility or expectation, she loved me. She was also mentally ill, a reality which took some time for me to grasp because she worked so hard at hiding it.

Our reunion went from romantic to rocky in less than a year. But there was always some contact, and that contact always included a sharing of love. She always called me mom. I always called her my daughter, even as I doubted my right to claim either declaration. While I was often sad and frustrated and afraid, there was always hope. I was grateful to have whatever part of her I could have in my life. I believed in the possibility of healing.

I think about her mom and her husband and her kids this morning, and wish for a world where we might share this grief. I don't wish for the grief to be gone. Because what then would fill the Kathleen shaped space in my heart? I don't mind the sadness. I know I can live with it. I know how much light really does shine through the cracks of a broken heart, both ways. I wish, oh how I wish, I could have given her that wisdom.

Because I really do understand I had no power to save her - if she couldn't stay for her kids, she wasn't going to stay for me - it's easier to just miss her. And so I do. With love.