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.
Sunday, December 14, 2014
Forty people were tucked into the cozy living room of my friend's house on a Saturday afternoon. Walt and I stood in the back, waiting along with everyone else, our focus on the steps leading into the kitchen. The room was warm, both with all the bodies and with all the years of family love embedded in every surface. The homeyness of her antiques and plants and quilts was brightened further by the reds and greens of Christmas. I've always admired this house constructed and filled and lived in by people with deep vision and total commitment to creating home. I love this friend and the family she and her husband built from a powerful sense of purpose.
Scanning the people around me, most of whom I didn't know, I marveled at how perfect the moment felt. This gathering of strangers to celebrate a coming together of lives in a formal ceremony. My friend's adult daughter sat at the piano and played music that might have brought tears to the eyes of angels. The younger daughter sat just in front of us, on the cusp of adulthood herself, and I wondered if she was imagining her own future wedding as I might have done in her shoes.
My friend's adult son came to stand at the top step with his great friend, who would officiate, where they both waited for the bride to arrive from upstairs.
While I don't know the son well, his mom and I have been friends for almost twenty years now. So I know him in the same way friends know everything that matters about each other. His path has been a rocky and rutted one. There were times when it seemed he followed no path at all and was in danger of careering off a precipice into a place of no return. I relate. Maybe we all do in some way.
He's no longer young, but there was a peace and quiet joy about him as he waited to marry a woman he's already created a good life with. He smiled fondly at his almost-teenaged daughter and her friend as they came forward giggling and tossing petals. The daughter stood at his side. His face lit up like Christmas morning at the sight of his bride wearing spring green and looking so much like new life.
The ceremony was light and filled with laughter. Joy radiated from the steps. My friend's son asked his daughter at the beginning if she gave her approval. She did. She helped push the ring onto the bride's hand. At one point she wrapped the bride in a fierce hug and thanked her for becoming her mom. The bride cried, as did every other person in the room.
The pronouncement came very quickly, followed by the kiss and the introduction of the couple as Mr. and Mrs. They stood for a moment absorbing the applause and the love and perfect moment of fresh start. That point in time from which every new thing would be seasoned by the fact that they were now officially married. Afterwards were pictures and visiting over tables of food. Toasting with sparkling cider. The cutting of the cake. More pictures. So much tradition. So much love. So much hope.
We left the party feeling a satisfied sense of witness and possibility. Grateful to have been included. Cleansed, at least for the moment, of the weight of a too-busy life and the clutter of the urgent masquerading as the important.
I don't know what the future holds for this new family. I know it won't all be easy and that the joy of their wedding day will be strained to the point of breaking in ways they can't even imagine yet. But I do know that somehow there is power in the gathering of loving witnesses, the speaking of vows, the declaring of family. I hope, I choose to believe, that power will be enough to sustain them and weld them and mold them into lives that fulfill the promise born on the day of their wedding ceremony.
Sunday, November 30, 2014
Stillness enfolds me in her healing embrace. The unrisen sun fills the eastern sky with winter-pale light while wind chimes chant a soft morning song. The house is sleeping behind me. Today is the last day of a five day break from school. Today is the first day since mid-August that isn't already spent before it's begun.
I breathe in the air of possibility. I breathe out exhaustion. I breathe in gratitude - so much to be grateful for my lungs could burst. I breathe out fear that I will never be enough. I breathe in this moment of perfect stillness. I breathe out these last months of overwhelming expectations.
This quiet morning feels like a miracle, and I realize that until a couple of weeks ago, I'd lost connection to the daily small miracles that are the touchstones of my life. Those small gifts are the lights along the path that show me I'm traveling in the right direction. When my eyesight becomes blurry with the fatigue that results from trying to be the impossible, I pass by those messages of hope without seeing. And I begin to believe the lie of unrelieved darkness.
Earlier this month I was at the beach with my friend, Lisa. It's a friendship where we don't see each other often, but when we do it's as though no time has passed. There is a knowing in this friendship that eliminates the need for explanations and that provides a sense of being loved and understood. We laugh and we cry, and every bump in the road becomes adventure rather than crisis.
On the drive to the beach under cold and sunny skies I looked up to see a Bald Eagle soaring overhead. Because of my relationship with Baldies, we both took it as a sign that our time together would be especially blessed. We joked for the rest of that day about our expectations that my bird would make an appearance on the beach where we were staying. It was neither a surprise nor a particular disappointment that we saw only gulls. One eagle sighting a trip felt like gift enough.
After breakfast the next morning at a funky cafe where the waitress wore skin-tight leather leggings under a too-big flannel shirt, and the food was both substantial and tasty, we made our way to Manzanita. The beach there is long and open and rarely crowded. We had just crested the berm separating the beach from the road. The ocean arced against the horizon, deep blue water against bright blue sky. We moved across soft sand toward the harder tidal sand closer to the edge.
With my eyes straight ahead and my voice playful, I said, "Where's my eagle?" Lisa's reply had not found air before movement overhead drew both our heads upward. And there, directly above us, soared a beautiful mature Bald Eagle. We stood, rooted, and watched as she followed the coastline north, and then disappeared. There in the air one moment, and the next simply gone as I've seen Baldies do so many time before.
Something in that gift began to work against the darkness, to restore my vision. The days since, while still full of demands I can never hope to meet completely, have seemed to contain more flickers of light. And the more I focus on those small and simple gifts, the more seem to appear.
The sun is up, casting golden shadows against the muted greens of almost-winter in this part of the country. I know we're at the beginning of the long dark - days where shades of gray are the only color and where gifts of light require intention to find. And so I breathe in this moment. I breathe out my fear of the dark and its lies. I look for the next light on the path.
Sunday, October 5, 2014
One of the best things about teaching in the new building is that I have to go outside to get to the old building. It's a trip I make several times a day because the old building still holds essentials: mailboxes, copy machines, ice. The distance between the two buildings is enough that a journey from one to the other brings me up from the depths of the to-do list in my brain. The cool predawn air, or the warmth of a recess sun on my shoulders, or the pull of afternoon light when the kids are gone and I'm about to be - all feel like kindness and answered prayer.
I had just stepped out of the old building on a morning last week, my arms full of copies for the week, my heart tight with that feeling of already being behind. The conversation in my head involved solving several problems that weren't even mine. That competed for space with thinking about what I needed to do to be ready for the new student arriving the next day, the coming goal conference with my principal I was struggling not to be afraid of, and getting ready for next week's outdoor school adventure.
A sound made me stop, literally in my tracks. Geese honking. The first of the season. This little town I teach in is on the edge of a National Wildlife Refuge. Geese are a common sight and sound. Except that in the summer you only see them in pairs or on the water with babies trailing behind. The vee formation is unique to fall and winter here.
I moved from the porch out to the driveway, my eyes skyward, my head empty, my heart pulled wide open. The morning air still held the chill of autumn night, but was painted the rose and dove colors that always promise the sun's arrival. One small vee announced its way across the western sky: We are home!
The only other person at school at that hour was the custodian, and she was working hard indoors somewhere. I had the moment entirely to myself. A gift. A blessing. A miracle. I stood and watched and absorbed, marking the moment and claiming it. Smiling to myself, standing a bit taller, I moved toward the new building. More honking drew my eyes skyward again. I stopped again. Chains of geese were scattered from one end of the sky to the other. Fluid letters that shaped and reshaped themselves into prayers. Avian chanting, a wild kirtan.
Fall has always been my favorite season, and as I age, it becomes even more so. For the obvious metaphor (I'm in the fall of life), but the geese reminded me this week of something else. This time of fading life and light is also a time of birth and new beginnings. Not the lush exuberance of spring birthing, but instead a quieter pull toward a clear light.
We leave today, a Sunday, for outdoor school. We'll come home late Thursday. A week away from home, on the mountain, with two hundred fifth graders and assorted adults. On duty in some capacity the whole time. Sleeping on thin pads in wooden bunks. Eating food chosen for it's economy and kid appeal. Teaching lessons about subjects I have little knowledge of. The kids think I'm as excited as they are for this experience. Part of me is. Part of me feels like a mule dug in and being dragged mercilessly toward a place I do not want to be.
My solution is this: to look for the wild. Up for geese and cloud feathers. Down for spawning salmon and elk sign. Out for that particularly beautiful feral energy of kids discovering. Inward for the spirit that flames like autumn leaves. I carry with me the memory of witnessing the glory of geese arriving home, the reminder of where my own home lies, the knowledge that I only have to open to be there no matter where I am physically.
One of the things teachers do at camp is take turns sharing a poem at the beginning of a meal. Last week I decided to read Mary Oliver's Wild Geese, in part because of the morning this post is about. I want to give the kids a taste of that wildness written by the wildest wisest poet I know. Rereading the poem just now, I realized she feels fall in much the same way I do. There's comfort in that.
Sunday, September 21, 2014
I started this school year with great hope and eager anticipation. I was rested and renewed, still full of canyon dreams and river memories. Missing kids and the satisfying conversations that can only happen with colleagues, I didn't mind going back. This teaching career that I've struggled with from the very beginning was starting to feel like the right choice after all. As I get closer to retirement and the thought of not being a teacher, it has been somehow easier to appreciate that I am a teacher.
In the early years I loved the weeks of preparation before kids. The bulletin boards and organizing and shiny new supplies. The list of students who were about to become my family for the next nine months. The sense of possibility and fresh start.
I didn't even mind the inservices and meetings, until somewhere along the line I got tired of hearing that everything I'd learned previously was wrong and the only way to be a good teacher was to abandon that and to drink the kool-aid of the latest pendulum swing pedagogy. Even then I managed to find nuggets that helped me improve my teaching, and I was always glad to see my friends after a summer away from each other.
The best part was always meeting the kids, seeing all the potential, carefully molding the group into a family, working to create memories that had the power to illuminate a life's path.
This year for the first time in a long time that flutter of excitement from the early years returned. We were moving into a new building. My room was on the second floor with huge banks of windows and killer views. For the first time I was sharing a hallway with only teachers of reading and writing. I was again going to get to teach the one thing that I've loved the longest, the thing that has save my life over and over again - the magic of our language.
We are three weeks in. Exhaustion is my constant companion, lining my face, blocking my thinking, and dragging me out of sleep at 1:00 A.M. to remind me of all I didn't get done that day. The cheerful flexibility I was able to bring to every new situation has stiffened like lava cooling into granite. Despite my every effort to stay in balance, I am tipped.
It is some consolation to see that much younger and less conflicted teachers than I am are equally tipped and tired. On Friday as I left for the weekend, a pile of ungraded papers and unfinished planning for this week neatly stacked on my desk, I realized something about the profession. Teaching demands everything, and everything will never be enough. And so it is up to me to find a way to be okay with not being enough, to decide for myself that enough is enough. To do the impossible for as long as I can, and to be okay when I can't.
I have worked hard in the last month (we were allowed in our new rooms for the first time on August 25) to focus on what really matters. Relationship. With myself, my colleagues, my kids, their families. Every time some new problem required time and energy I had allotted for something else, I'd breathe and smile and remind myself that by the time the rains returned, all of it would be distant memory.
No one problem during the beginning this year has been overwhelming. Furniture deliveries that weren't complete until a week after the start so we unpacked with no place to put our stuff. A shared printer that hasn't worked consistently since its installation. No access to the building without someone letting us in until a week after the start. Heat blasting from the system on the first day of school when it was in the 80's outside. New standards, new testing, technology changes we weren't told about. New teacher evaluation expectations. New routines for a two-story building. No paper towels. And for fifth grade, classes of 31 and 32 students with no relief in sight.
What feels overwhelming is the fact that accommodating all of that has left me drained and feeling like rock formations in the canyon pushed to vertical by volcanic forces too powerful to withstand. Tipped sideways when my natural self longs for the gentle and restful horizontal of sandstone and schist. As I consider the long list of tasks requiring my attention when I walk in the door tomorrow, my stomach tightens and my heart closes just a little. I remember the information I left school with on Friday, and my breath won't come.
At the very end of the day I learned that the one thing I never want to happen, happened. One of my students felt that I had shamed her (not her word, but my interpretation) for not completing work. That one piece of information was enough to wipe out all of the smiles, and hugs, and laughter of the day. The beaming pride on faces when my class, for the very first time, worked together to line up quietly as a surprise for me - faded out of focus. The coffee brought by a mom, the camaraderie at lunch, the joy I feel at the wonder of my spacious and light-filled room - all dust.
This is perhaps the core of what teaching does to me. It exposes everything, just like the winds and water of the canyon reveal eons of history. The fatigue and impossible expectations strip away defenses and decoration, leaving me to face my humanity and fallibility. Leaving me to question every time whether I'm suited for a profession in which my flaws have the power to do harm.
I will repair my relationship with that girl tomorrow, as best I can. I have some practice with this, and kids tend to be far more resilient and understanding and forgiving than we give them credit for. I will do what I can to be fully present and kind with each child I'm given, and to remember what's most important. My job is to help kids develop into whole people. That involves helping them manipulate words in meaningful ways. But more than anything it involves showing them how to access the best parts of themselves, and showing them a world in which they matter and have the power to make things happen.
Today I will do what I can to restore balance. I'll walk and absorb sunlight and the sound of a giggling river. I'll appreciate the stretch of my legs. I'll forgive. I'll laugh with friends, hug my husband, allow the feel of Toby's fur and Bunkie's purr to penetrate the stiffness. I'll remember the canyon and who I was there. Who I am still. Who I strive to be more than the person who forgets from time to time what really matters.
Sunday, August 31, 2014
Sweet peas are a flower of my childhood. Their fragrance has the power to send me back to North Idaho summers, a version of my mom I saw far too little of, and the innocence of a time when I believed anything was possible. Nearly every year of my adult life I plant sweet peas. Some years they do better than others, but I always look forward to the bit of time travel the bright jewel blooms provide.
I had high hopes this year. I got the seeds planted early, in a half barrel that gets good sunlight. I stuck with traditional seeds bought at a local feed store, unlike last year when I spent a lot of money on fancy mail order heirloom seeds that didn't produce any more flowers, or any better fragrance than the cheap kind. I watched the shoots push through the soil and grow into vining stalks that climbed and clung to the trellis. The foliage was thick and green and healthy.
And for weeks, there were no flowers. Not one. When we got back from the canyon, I expected to see a cascade of color and to walk into a storm of radiated fragrance. That was certainly the case for our other flowers. But not my sweet peas.
Eventually a flower bloomed. One. And then there was another a few days later. Within a week I was able to make a very small bouquet, which left the plants completely bare of flowers. And they stayed bare for quite a while longer.
A week ago school preparations took over our lives. Walt started with kids last Wednesday. I start with kids this coming Wednesday. This particular year is more consuming than normal for me with a new building where we have limited access, are still waiting for pieces of furniture, and where all routines have to be redefined and relearned. We have new standards, new testing, and a whole new way of scheduling.
So when I got home a couple of days ago, my mind was busy trying to sort all of that out. I greeted Toby and Bunkie and Walt through a fog of half-formed solutions and myriad unanswered questions, made thicker by the fog of accumulating fatigue from badly slept nights. As I stood in our backyard, working to still my mind and to be home, soaking up the particular warmth of the late afternoon late summer sun, the sweet peas caught my eye.
They were covered in color. Little dots of pink and red and purple and white, making the whole plant look for all the world like a lit Christmas tree. At the end of August when I would have expected the plants to be dried and shriveled and done, their blooming season is just starting.
Exactly like my life.
For a long time I despaired about ever blooming at all. It seemed like too much had happened, and it took me too long to heal, and I was too old. It seemed like whatever flowers I might produce would be weak and spindly and starved-looking. Second best. More foliage than anything, without the rich aroma and vivid colors guaranteed from plants that bloom in season.
In the canyon this summer something awakened in me that I expect will carry me to the end of my days. An emerging understanding of my connection to the larger whole of life. A clarity about what's important, what's needed, and what's the opposite of those two things. A new ability to not try so hard to make things fit my picture of how they should be, and to live with the resulting uncertainty with a spirit of adventure.
Even though retirement is close enough for me to smell its sweet fragrance, the years between here and there offer their own promise of deep living. A school year I'm actually excited about. A fresher version of myself I'm looking forward to getting to know. A trip to Italy in the spring. An old marriage re-energized by the wild flow of the Colorado River. I may be blooming late, like this year's sweet peas, but the flowers are that much more precious because of their unexpected arrival.
Wednesday, August 13, 2014
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.