"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, 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.

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

Late Blooming

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


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.