"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

Wednesday, August 13, 2014


We started seeing prickly pear cactus fairly early in the trip. Actually Walt and I saw an abundance of it on the shuttle ride from Phoenix to Flagstaff. We'd also seen squadrons of saguaros standing at attention on the side of the freeway. Because my blood runs with the forest moss fern green of the Pacific Northwest, all those cacti were an otherworldly delight to my eyes.

On day six of our float twenty-one of the twenty-four of us hiked up the Bright Angel Trail, and twenty-one new people hiked down to join the trip. Several of those new people had the age-old red rock of Arizona in their blood, and so cactus was every-day to them.

The farther west we floated, the more desert-like the beaches became so prickly pears were everywhere. Several varieties of rotund barrels dotted the slopes. On a calm flat stretch as we scanned the shores for signs of sheep, someone pointed out what looked like a giant bundle of incense sticks poking out of the rocky ground.

Ocotillo. And while not a true cactus, they are spiny and live in deserts and among cacti.

The Arizona natives seemed particularly happy to see these sticks. I was less than impressed. Erin, my new friend from Tucson, explained that ocotillo go dormant in the dry season, but once the monsoons start, and there's moisture, they turn bright green. And, she said, when they bloom, there is a single red blossom at the end of each branch.

Incense sticks turned into lighted Christmas tapers.

The monsoons had just begun, even though it was very early in July. We'd encountered rain off and on since the second day of the trip. Never for long, and always a welcome relief from the heat. So I was not surprised when just a bit farther downstream people started pointing out ocotillo in all its green glory.

The Arizona people would soften as they talked about ocotillo. There would always be a quiet thrill of excitement whenever we'd see patches of the green stick bouquets adorning the rocky shores or perched at the tops of canyon walls like guardians granting us permission to pass. They all had ocotillo stories, and many had ocotillos in their yards. One woman said it was her favorite plant from childhood because it played a significant role in her favorite picture book, Roxaboxen.

Hearing that, I felt like an old friend had just walked into the room. I've used Roxaboxen in my teaching often, and had rediscovered it just last year. Until that moment I'd never made a particular connection to the ocotillos that fill the pages of that book.

That was when I started seeing ocotillo differently than the other flora that are a part of the Inner Gorge ecosystems. Prickly pear was cool because it was in fruit and barrels were entertaining because they looked a bit like minions (or as one of the guides said, penis gardens). But ocotillo tugged at the same part of me the river and the colors and the song of the canyon wren did.

For the remainder of the trip, people would be heard quietly murmuring, "ocotillo," almost like a prayer. It was not at all unusual for someone to call out "ocotillo" as we passed, much in the same way they'd call, "sheep," (big horn sheep) or "GBH," (great blue heron ). Occasionally someone would point out a plant in bloom, flickers of red light dancing at the ends of long fuzzy green stems against a sapphire sky.

One evening in camp, when all the color of the day had followed the sun behind the canyon walls,  I looked up to see a single ocotillo standing over us, silhouetted against a fading Impressionist sky. It maintained its post all night, its shape defined by starlight later, offering comfort of a kind when I was up to pee in the small hours. Even as we broke camp and floated away the next morning, I watched it sit in solitary dignity and felt its whispers of sanctuary.

On the last day, as we traveled by school bus from the take-out at Diamond Creek along a road that was barely more than a rocky stream bed, one of the last sights my heart absorbed before we found ourselves on the pavement of civilization was a grove of ocotillos. The thickest stand any of us had seen so far. Someone in the back of the bus pointed it out, although I expect most of us had spotted it on our own. Several were blooming. Ocotillos can live to be a hundred, and judging from the size of many that we were seeing, this was a grandmother garden.

In the weeks since our return, our canyon experience has continued to expand the boundaries of my heart. The wonders we saw and felt grow brighter in memory. The river and the sand and the heat and the ancient rocks and the people I shared them with are all embedded, permanently I hope. And standing in the midst of it all, watching over,  is the miraculous, marvelous ocotillo.

Monday, July 28, 2014


Standing at the sink of my bathroom, surrounded by treasures I've collected over the years that speak beauty and love and warmth, toothbrush in hand, I smile at the face in the mirror. I close my eyes. Open them again, but only the eyes of my heart this time.

I'm standing on the bank of the Colorado River. Toothbrush in one hand, GCW mug in the other. The water is quietly lapping at my feet, but just a small distance away rushes and roars into a rapid we'll be starting our day with. The air is feathers on my skin. My feet sink into silt that soothes even as it holds and will make me work to get out of when I'm done here.

Most of the camp is still asleep, or just beginning to stir. The guides whose turn it is to cook breakfast turned on the blasters a bit ago (my alarm clock most mornings) to make the coffee. I smile at the memory of the morning I was up early enough to watch them make coffee: put large stainless steel bucket of water on blaster (a larger rocket-launcher looking burner); bring to a boil; add a pound of ground coffee; stir; walk away to let steep; pour through a strainer into the dispenser. The call "Coffeeeeee!" is the official alarm for the camp.

For now I feel like I have the whole canyon to myself. The sun is just beginning to paint the world above me in colors I'm certain come straight from God's own mind. At the bottom of the canyon, where morning is still a promise, gray softens the grandeur. As I perform the simple task of brushing my teeth, I am more whole and connected to life than I knew it was possible to be. No worries nag at me. No problems kept me awake in the night. No plans spin complicated webs in my head.

I am simply here.

I woke up this morning with a few inches of foam and an open sleeping bag separating me from the sand. Walt, still clinging to sleep by my side, missed the bats swooping overhead and the first call of the canyon wren and the first blush in the east. I got up to pee at the edge of the river, claiming a small bit of privacy while everyone else slept, and returned to our bed to find Walt awake. We lay side by side, holding hands, marveling at our presence together in this magical place. Marveling at our ability to not only manage but also thrive on the rigor of the days. The blasters told us the camp would be wide awake soon, so we got up to claim the quiet of a canyon morning for ourselves.

And now I am here, my feet bathed in the waters of the Colorado River, brushing my teeth. This moment is enough. I'm not thinking about what rapids we'll run today, or what new sights will take my breath away, or about the guides who make me wish I was 40 years younger so I can be them. I'm not thinking about the food which tastes better than any food I've eaten. I'm not thinking about the 22 other passengers, all of whom I love in the way you love people you share a sacred experience with. I'm not thinking about the new friendship I hope will survive in the Rim World. I'm not thinking about how I look. I'm not thinking about home or school or books. I haven't read a word since day one on the river (and it will turn out I don't read anything until we're out of the canyon). I'm not thinking at all, and my brain, once it gets over the shock, is deeply relieved to rest.

I am simply here. In this one perfect moment.

I open my eyes, back in my home. A place I love. The man I love is somewhere in the house, his presence always a comfort. Toby sleeps on the bed we've recently vacated. Bunkie does laps in the kitchen. Summer stretches languidly before me. And yet I feel homesick. For the place that was my home for a day short of two weeks. For a time my heart was fully open. For a river and a canyon and a state of being it seems I've spent my whole life searching for.

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.