"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, June 29, 2014

Grand Romance

Often while in that particular state of relaxed presence of a vacation, Walt and I will begin talking about where we'd like to go next. Last year was no different. I'm not certain where or how the conversation started. I think for me, internally, it began the night we were driving away from Ashland after seeing a play. The air caressed and comforted. The sky was a blizzard of stars. We stood by the side of the road breathing it all in as the car ticked its heat away behind us and the universe spun webs of wonder above. And I wanted more.

The conversations ultimately led, a year ago, to a decision to float the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. At that time the idea was romantic and adventurous and just risky enough to be exciting without being truly dangerous. A bucket list vacation for two people in their sixties, deeply aware that if not now, possibly never.

I dreamed of seeing California Condors soaring overhead and peregrine falcons nesting in canyon walls. I dreamed night skies of concentrated glory. I dreamed basking in the sun-kissed glory of ancient rocks standing sentinel, and breathing air electrified by the power of an untamable river.

This was a dream I would reach for and dare to claim its awakened counterpart. This dream I would not allow to collect cobwebs and regrets in the far reaches of my heart. In a rare confluence of inner integrity, all parts of me were ready to leap into this adventure. All parts of me were, and still are, more than a little amazed that I get to be that person.

Before the school year started, we had the beginnings of a concrete plan and our first reservations. At the start of the new calendar year we made the financial commitment and signed our lives away, promising not to hold our tour company responsible for any of the myriad possible disasters which might occur. Throughout the weeks and months of the last year, Walt and I have had endless conversations, made decision after decision, and spend hours preparing for this trip. The planning has been energizing, bonding, and fun.

I began reading right away: A novel about our exact trip. A just-released book about the history of rafting the Colorado and one man's obsession with the river. The website of the rafting company we booked with. I bought a river guide, a field guide, and a canyon guide book. I found a book written specifically as a record of all the people who have died in the Grand Canyon and how they died. And then I started reading books of stories about the canyon.

All of that new information served to make me fall even more in love with a place that still isn't quite real to me. It's also served to make me a little nervous. Sometimes even more than nervous. There have been a fair share of what-were-we-thinking moments when fear threatened to overwhelm the sense of adventure. Fears that reveal the hold the comforts of day-to-day life have on me.

There are no bathrooms in the Inner Gorge. No beds. No air conditioning or communication with the outside world. There are snakes and scorpions and strangers sharing space. July daytime temperatures regularly exceed the 105 degree heat of a Bikram yoga studio. Nighttime temperatures rarely go below our Pacific Northwest summer daytime 80 degree highs. The river itself, where we'll be bathing, hovers around 50 degrees. And if we forget to pack something, we will do without it for the 13 days it will take us to float the 225 miles from Lees Ferry to Diamond Creek.

One friend, on hearing the details of our trip, said, "And you're paying money for this?"

Which is one of the big reasons we're doing this trip. To break the hold of the ordinary, the mundane, the routine. To experience life on its own terms with no distractions easily available. To honor a part of ourselves we all too often relegate to the realm of romantic ponderings.

The romantic is about to become real. All the pictures and words in my head are about to be replaced with Arizona sun on my skin, Colorado River water carrying me to uncharted inner territory, and Grand Canyon walls guiding, holding, teaching along the way. For the first time in my life, or at least in the clearest possible way, I get to step out of my head and into the land of my heart and spirit. Regardless of whether I fall in love with the reality of floating the Colorado through the Grand Canyon, I know I will love even more deeply than I already do the two people who emerge from the adventure at Diamond Creek.

Almost ready!

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Are You a Mom?

In the barely contained chaos that is the end of a school day this time of year I reminded the kids to be nice to their moms this weekend. Even though it was a testing week, and a getting-ready-for-more-testing week, I had found some time for them to make Mother's Day cards. Many kids were still tucking away the construction paper, glitter and glue confections into backpacks when someone asked over the general hubbub, "Are you a mom, Mrs. Shucka?"

It was one of those rare times when, despite the noise, everyone heard the question. A small chorus of voices piped in: Are you? You never talk about kids. Are you a grandma? You don't have pictures like the other teachers do.

It's funny to me, but not surprising, that we're five weeks away from the end of the year, and this was the first time the subject came up. Kids accept what is offered of a teacher. In my case it's stories about my brothers and Walt and Toby and Bunkie, and that gives them enough to feel like they know me. Every year, though, someone asks about motherhood. Every year I tell a version of the truth. Every year I wish I had a different story to tell.

I always say, "Yes, I'm a mom." Sometimes that's all the kids want to know. This year they wanted more. So I said, as I always do at this point, "I had a daughter." A weird thing happens here. More often than not, the kids hear "have" and not "had." At which point they'll ask if I have grandkids, I'll say yes, and their attention spans reach the limit which sends them somewhere else.

This year this class heard the "had" part of my response. They wanted to know what that meant. We were talking at the end of the day on a Friday, and pictures ran through my head of kids going home telling their parents on Mother's Day weekend that their teacher had told them a story of her dead daughter. How was I going to give them a story that would satisfy their curiosity without causing pain?

I love these kids. I love all my kids, especially at this time of year, but I love these kids especially. I think it has more to do with who I am in my sixties than who they are, but regardless of the reason, I love them. It could be because as a group their childhoods most resemble mine. This is a class full of kids who know pain that no one should know until much later in life, if ever. Their collective story is heartbreaking: Abuse. Weird physical illnesses. Homelessness. Mental illness - both kids and parents. Deaths of parents, uncles, grandparents, beloved pets. Drug and alcohol abuse. They are highly sensitive to adult energy, and to what's true or not.

So maybe it's not a surprise they connected to the past tense of my motherhood. But still, to send them away on a Friday with that new information - I'm never certain how much truth is fair to give a child. So I said, "My daughter died. It's a sad story, and not one I want to send you away with. If you still want to know next week, we can talk then."

Most were satisfied, and eager to get out into the air and weekend freedoms. One boy raised his hand despite the fact that at that point everyone was talking at once. When I called on him he looked me right in the eyes and said, "I'm sorry for your loss."

A couple of girls came up after I dismissed the class, clearly wanting more information. And just as clearly having missed what I'd said. They wanted to know if I'd miscarried or had to give her away. I repeated that my daughter had died, and added that she'd been an adult. They somehow seemed relieved, gave me hugs, and bounded out of the room like puppies through an open gate. I wondered, and still wonder, how they came to a place that they could ask those questions of their teacher without batting an eye. Even more, how they, at eleven, know a world in which those things exist as normal.

Tomorrow they will come full of weekend stories, wanting to hear my latest Bunkie story, and overflowing with their lives. If they want to know more, I'll tell them, as I have told kids in the past, that Kathleen was ill. It's a truth. Enough of a truth to feel honest.

Just like saying I am a mom is a truth. Enough of a truth to feel honest. A truth that breaks my heart every time I remember all the stories that spin out of that one small fact. Stories that I wish had different endings. Even so, I'm grateful I can say yes, I am a mom. I'm grateful to be creating stories with kids that allow my mother-heart to continue to grow. I'm grateful that, even if I couldn't save her,  the story Kathleen and I wrote together was one of love.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

What I'm Looking For

The splash of bright purple arrayed like a fairy rug in front of the weathered stump brought me to a complete halt. Toby lolloped ahead, joy radiating and trailing behind. The river rushed by just out of sight. Sun-warmed air, along with the pace of the walk until then, made my blood rush and pinked my face.

Wild violets, the first flower of spring here, surprised me. Even though I've been looking for them since early February, I'd never seen them in this place before. I found them in their usual patch in the park, first white and then the signature violet color. They were in full purple glory in the lawn I've come to expect to see them. So thick there that their clean sweet metallic scent fills the air.

There is something so compelling, and hopeful, about the fact that such a delicate elfin flower is one of the first to declare the end of winter.

Seeing violets in a new place felt like a special gift. Although this time of year every new splash of color, every bird sighting,  and every gentle breath of wind feels like a special gift. While the gifts of winter are hard-earned and stark in their beauty, spring's are lush and abundant and generous.

The route of Toby's walk goes from the campground where I saw the violets to a particular beach on the river. Without really thinking about it, at certain places on the trail that runs parallel to the water, I stop and search. This is where I often find eagles on the snags on the other side.

Lately a pair of common mergansers has paddled along the shore most days I'm there. The only thing common about them is their name. Like Lucy and Ricky, she a wild redhead, he looking slickly polished with a dark green head, they move with the current. Even Toby in the water rarely concerns them into flight or a more hurried paddle.

On this particular day they were nowhere to be found. Neither were the eagles, which I know are nesting now somewhere in another part of their territory. Instead my searching eyes found high-flying swallows, the first of the season.

In a clearing on the same walk, I stood rapt, witness to the wild courtship display of an Anna's hummingbird. He caught my eye as he flew straight up, so high I almost lost sight. And then, like a car on a roller coaster, he swooped down in a perfect half-circle arc, ending in a curlicue directly above the female whose attention he sought. He repeated the maneuver a dozen times or more until they both flew off in the same direction.

At some point in the walk, the words, "you find what you're looking for," bounced around in my head. I could even hear Amy Grant's voice, although song lyrics are rarely a part of my thought processes. I realized that I do find exactly what I'm looking for, and that there is great power in knowing that.

My daily walks are one constant search for surprises and for the comfort of the reliable. I don't see eagles every day. I don't spot magic carpets of violets every day. I don't even see anything exciting every day. But what I do find is confirmation that the world is full of beauty and miracles and gifts both large and small. Every single walk provides some bit of light to eyes searching for evidence of it.

I considered that what is true for my time in nature might also be true for the rest of my life. The defenses of childhood are no longer necessary. Looking for danger, which was real and ever-present, helped keep me safe. I could hide. Or I could armor myself. Vigilance was essential for survival. Looking for gifts was risky business, especially in relationships, and I found I couldn't do both at the same time.

As is so often the case, the danger is long past, but the defenses are slow to come down. For one thing, they become so automatic, it's easy to not see them at all. For another, habit is habit, and cannot be broken without conscious effort.

 So what if I consciously and intentionally look for the miracles in relationships that I see so easily in nature? If I look for confirmation of my worth. If I look for the best in people.  If I look beyond fear and anger and acting out. If I look for adventure in routine, freedom in structure, laughter to soften hard edges. If I look for love in every situation. I will find what I'm looking for.

Sunday, March 16, 2014


The Oxford dictionary defines labyrinth as, "a complicated irregular network of passages or paths in which it is difficult to find one's way." In the labyrinths constructed for meditation, there is always one way out if the walker will only stay to the path in front of her. My life this winter has felt more maze-like than labyrinthine—all complicated paths running into dead-ends with the way out cleverly hidden and always just out of reach. 

Yesterday we found ourselves, Walt and I, on a hike named The Labyrinth. The name didn't register until we were there because the hike starts with an ascent up a steep ridge called Coyote Wall. In reading about the place, I hadn't noticed what the loop veering off from the wall was called. Sometime mid-hike, however, I began to realize what a gift we'd been given in this place named for its winding, wandering path.

Directions for this hike were simple even though there were paths going in every possible direction: go up and to the left until you come to the fence and then go right and stay on the main path. Not quite in summer hiking shape, we took the ascent very slowly. There was lots of resting, which meant lots of time to look around. The Labyrinth loop involved some seriously steep descending, which meant we had to go slowly, which meant lots of time to look around.

Under a sunny sky, accompanied by capricious breezes, we saw the season's first wildflowers. Delicate desert parsley in lemony bloom grew through the rocks at the beginning of the path. Some sections of open meadow were purple with grass widow, and others were polka-dotted with grass widow and yellow bells. One rare magenta desert parsley plant blushed from under gray underbrush not yet revived from its winter death. Gold stars glowed demurely from the trail's edge. 

Western meadowlarks burbled and called from the tops of solitary wind-shaped pines. It's a sound from early childhood that, like the call of killdeers and the chortle of barn swallows, lifts me to the sky.

Ravens soared in tandem overhead, their whiskey-voiced croaks floating to us on random wind gusts. We watched one, all glossy big-beaked glory, eating something on a rock. Once finished, he flew to the top of a rocky bluff. As he watched us wind our way toward home, I felt his intense gaze as benediction.

Outcroppings of columnar basalt, so symmetrical it seems impossible they aren't carved by man's hand, surprised us from time to time around bends in the trail . The product of ancient volcanic eruptions, the columns stand against wind and temperature and time. Like beings in shoulder to shoulder formation, made powerful in their unity, they offer proof of eternity. 

Water in rivulets and seepings and one laughing tumbling plunging creek kept us company the whole day. It cooled the air, sang for our picnic, supported the beating of our hearts. The milky green of the stream turned the rocks of its bed into one long string of strange pearls adorning the hillside. 

Once in the Labyrinth there was never any doubt which trail we were to follow despite the number of times it turned back on itself. Fainter trails took off in random directions. Some were declared closed, and others were mysterious and tempting in a road-less-traveled way. We even talked about the possibility of bushwacking our way across country, but our energy and the time kept us on our intended path. 

Four hours later, footsore and sweaty, blood singing, heart overflowing, we made our way back to the car. Our way found. 

The metaphor is cliche. But the message was one I needed the way a lost child needs a mother's reassuring hug: A chosen destination, followed step by step will get a person where they need to be. It doesn't really matter what the choice is. What matters is the one foot in front of the other movement forward on a committed and intentional path. Even in a seemingly desolate place still officially in winter, beauty exists in bounty beyond comprehension. Rushing to the end means the possibility of injury (those trails were steep and rocky!), and the probability of missing most of the miracles along the way. 

This particular winter ended for me yesterday in The Labyrinth. Hope outshines despair again. A spark has been re-ignited. I move forward with a lighter step and my eyes focused more on my immediate surroundings. I left some part of me behind in the dark coldness of this last season. Something frozen and fallen away. While I'm not quite sure yet who is left, I look forward to getting to know her as we set out on new trails. 

Monday, February 17, 2014

New Light

A colleague asked me this week what I did before I was a teacher. I gave her the simple answer, the true answer: "I was in a cult." It had been a long time since anyone had asked that particular question, and the same amount of time since I'd really thought about what my answer meant. I realized that over the years, I've told the story in different ways. Each story is true, but none is all the truth.

In the early years after I left, the story was full of pain and outrage and betrayal. I had sought God in as clean a way as I knew how and ended up giving up my whole self to men whose good intentions were corrupted by the seductions of power. In obedience I married the man that was chosen for me. I foreswore material possessions. I strove to serve and study and to humble myself. I read and prayed and obeyed. I obeyed. I obeyed. And still at the end I was unchanged and my life made no more sense than it had when I joined.

There were some years when I was reluctant to talk about the cult at all, so I told the story in another way. I was a housewife whose life was centered around a small home-based church. My husband made enough money that I could stay home and be domestic to my heart's content. I had a built-in family with the church. We lived across the street from the head of our little church and shared everything. I gardened and canned and made a home. I took in foster kids. I sewed and volunteered and did respite care. I trained a golden retriever and went for long walks.

I wrote a book about my time in the cult. I called it God Has No Daughters. The title pretty much tells the point of view of that story. It wasn't until I tried to get the book published, after spending years writing and revising and polishing, that I realized how skewed and wounded it was. It wasn't until I was on the other side of the agency rejections and careful feedback from friends that I realized clearly that I hadn't actually left the cult behind.  I'm not sure how I managed to believe that I could simply decide to be finished with a decade of my life which started with a vow to God and ended with an affair (because that was the only way I could figure out how to leave). But for a long time that belief held. Until it didn't any more. When I had evidence of its wrong-headedness in my own writing.

In more recent years I've told the cult story as tragicomedy. Sort of a David Sedaris approach. I joined trying to get away from a rough childhood and a young adulthood fairly typical of the free love era. I was given a husband and we married in obedience to God and the elders of The Body (the name of our church). A primary tenet of the church was obedience, especially wives to their husbands. I tried. And failed. At this point in the story, my listener, without fail, laughs. The assumption is that, of course, I would fail at being a submissive wife. There is nothing about my personality, at least the part people see, that indicates I would find submission and obedience appealing let alone possible.

Last week, for the first time even as I laughed along with my listener, I wasn't sure how I felt about being perceived as the kind of woman who would naturally fail at attempts to be a submissive wife and obedient servant. One of the foundation blocks of my childhood is that anything can be achieved if I'm willing to work hard enough. And so failure at anything means I simply needed to work harder.

There is a new story wanting to be told about my time in The Body. One that is deeply shaded in the nuance and complications of being human. This one neither black nor white, but more like a winter sky at sunset full of gradations of gray and shot through with color that cannot in any way be seen as anything but beautiful. Not failure. Not betrayal. Simply a life lived toward healing in the gloriously messy way of all lives.

Monday, February 10, 2014


Varied Thrushes are year-round residents here. Except for an occasional glimpse of one in the underbrush, however, the only time I really seem them is when it snows. Then they move into our feeder area as though they'd had reservations for months ahead.

Usually there are a couple, maybe a half dozen at most. One year a particular thrush held my attention and concern as he attacked any bird who got even remotely close to him. It's not often you see a bird with issues, but this one was clearly suffering from some avian form of madness.

This year there are a dozen or more thrushes occupying not only the feeder area, but also the entire back yard. Granted it's been snowing or icing off and on since last Thursday. That's not enough to explain their abundance though. Not that an explanation is necessary, but I do like to know these things.

Ordinary birds, like robins with the orange arranged differently, there's nothing much about thrushes to excite imagination. Their call is a long haunting whistle—no beautiful trilling or melodic harmonies. They aren't majestic like eagles or whimsical like hummingbirds. They aren't endangered or even of concern for species survival.

Maybe it's because I've been housebound. Maybe it's because winter already felt like it had way overstayed its welcome even before this storm. Maybe it's that I'm desperately searching for some bit of light in this wilderness that is my life right now. Whatever it is, every time I spot a thrush, I feel a lifting of a weight I thought unliftable.  And just a smidgeon of delight.

Bunkie and I stand at the bay window in my dining room watching birds in companionable quiet. He clearly has dreams of somehow breaching the invisible barrier and finally, finally, taking down one of his tormentors. Although I have to say he doesn't look tormented. He looks alive and eager and a version of happiness that is uniquely feline.

I admire the black collars and orange headbands, the incredible symmetry of color distribution on wings. I marvel at the wind-up toy movement on top of the snow as one thrush dashes at another in a peckish flurry. With Bunkie purring under my hand, I'm grateful for the window keeping us in and the birds out.

I'm reminded of a day last week, before the storm. I was teaching, actually wandering the room talking to kids while they worked on poetry. My classroom looks out onto the playground, which was empty of kids at that moment. What I saw instead was eight killdeers motoring across the grass, their black and gray and brown and white markings standing out in stark contrast to the green of the field. It didn't take long before most of the class joined me at the window. Some had never seen a killdeer before. None of us had seen so many at one time. All of us stood in wonder for long minutes, absorbing the gift of ordinary birds in extraordinary numbers. When we finally returned to the day, we were all lifted.

Ordinary birds. Extraordinary presentation. Maybe that's it. In these sightings I get to be reminded that an ordinary life (and mine seems unbearably ordinary these days) is rich with wonder and surprise. It's there, the evidence that very small miracles are everywhere. Beauty offered, even in its simplest form, has the power to lift a heart and light a darkness.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014


I am an alcoholic. Alcoholism and mental illness are prominent in my gene pool. My early life was more about shame than love, fear than adventure, rage than peace. I spent a fair number of years in self-destructive prophecy fulfillment (if you think I'm bad, then watch this). I also spent an equal amount of time in all-out war against the demons I was born with and the ones who joined the party in childhood.

A decade in a cult was meant to cleanse and purify and set me on a path away from myself. When that didn't work I chose a life of extreme respectability: teaching, country living, a good marriage, and golden retrievers. That did work after a fashion. It worked better after I stopped drinking, although the raw ugliness exposed without alcohol to blunt the edges nearly upended even that.

I've been sober and in recovery (two very different things) for over two decades now. Long enough that when someone opens a bottle of wine and offers me a glass, I consider saying yes, because after all I'm doing so well. Surely one glass wouldn't make a difference. And I do get tired of being the different one at celebrations.

See how easy it is for the lie to worm its way back in?

Whenever a celebrity succumbs to addiction as happened in the last week, it feels like the enemy has scored another victory. I ponder that enemy a lot, although certainly more so during times like this. Whether you call it Shame or Addiction or Satan (or something else), this energy/being hates us with unfettered passion. Fame, wealth, freedom, power, intelligence, adoration—none of the things we measure success by are enough to shield us from that being for long.

I don't believe, however, that the enemy's victory is inevitable. Despite powerful lies that contain just enough truth to be difficult to refute, despite promises of erased pain, despite whispers of discontent, it is possible to stand up to the voice that is always slightly louder than the one that can truly save us.

I don't actually know what distinguishes my life as an addict from that of Philip Seymour Hoffman or Marilyn Monroe or my daughter. The one thing I do know they all had is that they were truly loved as real people by real people. And that somehow for them it wasn't enough. It seems trite to say they didn't love themselves enough, but even as I write these words, I recognize the truth in them.

For me, this war is fought day by day, hour by hour. It is fought not in direct combat, but rather by allowing the enemy full voice. I don't hide. I don't run. I don't deny. I listen. And in that Buddhist way of creating space around pain, eventually all that light and air diminish the enemy's voice.

In that sky-wide space I can hear the other. The quiet voice that speaks through the throaty hoots of owls courting in a February twilight. The steadfast hand that pushes crocuses up through frozen ground. The loving eyes that look at me from every person I'm lucky enough to call friend.

The paradox both settles me and makes me sad. It is not money or attention or being important that keep me sober or happy, although even now the temptation to believe otherwise is there. How could I not be more of everything if I had more money and freedom? Right?

The truth is, nothing in my life does more to keep me present with myself, and thus not needing the escape so tantalizingly offered by Addiction, than the grace of simple miracles. A bald eagle floating against a winter sky in the refuge. A cat purring in my lap. A dog dancing delight every single time he sees me. A gentle breeze, surprisingly warm and most certainly carrying promises that can be trusted. A husband handing over a bouquet of flowers for no reason.

All of that would be lost if I were to allow myself the indulgence of just one glass of wine (which will never be just one). Not the events. I could still have those. What I wouldn't have is the connection to them, the ability to feel them, the light they create in me and around me. I wouldn't have myself, and I would soon forget how dear that loss was.

I don't know why I'm okay and Mr. Hoffman (or any of the myriad others) is not. I wonder if he might have looked at my life and wished for something he saw there. I wonder where the turning point was, where he lost sight and hearing and hope. I wonder still those same things about Kathleen. The best I can answer for myself on this day is that it, the losing, happens one choice at a time, in the dark, in isolation. Just as victory happens one choice at a time, in the light, in full connection with our own flawed and wounded selves.