"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, 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

Doorway



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

Dreams

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

Anniversary

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

Ceremony



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

Seeing


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

Wild Life


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.