"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

Thursday, February 26, 2009


When I sell my book and get to do readings and signings and get interviewed for major publications and NPR, I will be ready for any question anyone might throw my way. My third graders are making sure that I am exposed to a wide variety of queries, tossed to me like one of those tennis ball machines gone wild. It's not uncommon for six or eight or ten kids to stand around me (while they're supposed to be going to recess) all asking questions at the same time.

Here's a small sampling from the last few days:

"Mrs. Shucka, have you ever heard of pantihose?" Asked while the girl shows me hers, worn under jeans that are worn under a dress, ending in a pair of little girl heels that she manages to make sound like castanets when she walks.

"Hey, Mrs. Shucka, guess what?" While this seems a simple enough question, there is no way to answer it correctly. If I say, "What?" the asker often will giggle something about I have twenty seconds to pass it on and duck away. Or she will say, "No you have to guess!" So I guess. "You're going to give me chocolate." And I get told, "No, silly. Guess again."

"Hey Mrs. Shucka, ya know what?" This is the boy variation of "Guess what?" When I say, "What?" I get shown some outlandish thing from the Guinness Book of World Records, or Ripley's Believe or Not. Or, like today, a book on monster trucks. The answer to the monster truck "ya know what?" was that the tires have really thick sidewalls. To which the only appropriate response was, "Wow!"

"Hey, Mrs. Shucka, are we ever going to get to go on a field trip?" Again, a reasonable enough question. The problem was that it came smack in the middle of a discussion about bathroom etiquette.

"Mrs. Shucka, how old are you?" They know how old I am. I've told them, more than once. They know that I'm older than some of their grandparents. The question came up again today because their journal prompt tonight was to tell us who their favorite old person is. I told them I don't qualify as old.

"Will you come home with me? My mom won't care."

"Mrs. Shucka, did my dad call you this morning?" This from a girl whose dad often does call. "No, I haven't heard from him today." "Are you sure? He said he'd call. My sister just had her appendix out and I told him to call you and tell you."

"What's fourth grade like?" That one came today. Two-thirds of the way through the year and they're beginning to know that third grade ends. No one has asked quite yet, but someone will soon, "Will you be our teacher next year?" I always respond, "I would love to be your teacher forever, but you'll love your fourth grade teacher, too. Besides, I'll always be your teacher, even if you're not in my class."

As third grade ends for me this year, too, I will always be grateful to these magical beings for  teaching me so much. And for preparing me so well for what comes next - whatever that might be. 

photo from Flickr

Sunday, February 22, 2009

It's the Stories

Ah. Now I remember. It's the stories. 

These people are my much shinier, much richer, much more sophisticated story-teller cousins. Their lives are dedicated to story. Their lives tonight became stories in themselves. The stories that all started, every single one, with someone's writing. Stories that reveal truth, inspire love, and open doors to unasked and often unanswerable questions.

Tonight is about dreams coming true. Dreams that can come true for all of us. Maybe not so dramatically. Maybe not so publicly. Maybe not honored by Sophia Loren or Robert DeNiro. But so very possible.

Only three hundred sixty five days until the next Academy Awards. I can hardly wait. Only a few hours until tomorrow when I continue my own journey to a dream fulfilled. I can hardly wait for that, too.

My Oscar Habit

The Academy Awards is tonight. 

I've been looking forward to this night since the end of last year's event. I've planned my weekend so that I can  get myself upstairs in front of our television early enough to see every single minute of  every single bit of it. I will watch from the first of the red carpet until the end of the credits - hours that will go too fast. 

I'm willing to pay the price of mad knees, complaining back and a too tired Monday. I will not be answering the phone, doing the dishes or playing with Toby. I will not be available for conversation, even during commercials. Those are for bathroom breaks and refueling.

I'm not one to go to Oscar parties. The one year I did, I missed a lot of good stuff because there was so much talking going on. I prefer having the whole experience to myself. Walt will drift in and out, but mostly I'm on my own.  Just me and all the dreamy little girl parts of me and all the hopeful teenage parts of me, and maybe a cat if she sits really really still.

I haven't seen this year's movies. I often don't care for the nominated films because of their dark intensity or too-commercial quality. More often than not, I disagree with the Academy's choices in almost every category - whether I've actually seen the performances or not.

That doesn't matter at all. This is not a place for reason. 

It's the magic that draws me year after year after year. Even knowing that it's manufactured magic doesn't faze me. I feel the excitement of the winners, the disappointment of the losers equally, and feel more alive for both. I imagine myself in the gorgeous gowns, grateful for Judi Dench and Helen Mirren and Emma Thompson in the last few years. I admire the handsome men, although more and more thinking they could be my sons, which greatly diminishes their impact as fantasy  material. 

I love seeing Jack Nicholson in the front row every year. I wonder how he manages that. I wonder if those people in the front few rows are enjoying the experience, or if they're worried about winning, or about keeping body parts where they belong and breathing at the same time. I wonder if the thrill of being nominated and recognized will be enough to soften the pain of not winning. I wonder if the thrill of winning will last beyond tomorrow morning.

I wonder at the hungry sapling women in Barbie gowns and borrowed jewels that are worth more than the Gross National Product of many small countries. Are they happy? Am I contributing to their unhealth by watching the show? What would it be like to have lunch and get to know them?

Mostly I wonder why I find such pleasure in something so superficial and fleeting and frivolously expensive. But not enough  to be willing to give up this Oscar night habit.  Three hours until the red carpet. I can hardly wait.

photo from Flickr

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Father Daughter Dance

The Saturday before Valentine's Day the P.T.A. of our school sponsored a father/daughter dance. Every day for the week before, I heard little else from the seven of my girls who were planning to attend.

"We went shopping for my dress last weekend. It's so pretty. I really want you to see it. Are you going to come to the dance to see me?"

All the conversations were startlingly similar. The girls were beside themselves with excitement. Many had appointments for special hair attention and for manicures and pedicures. As we left school the Friday before, without exception, each girl had to remind me about the dance and ask me one more time (even though I had repeatedly explained I had other plans) if I could come and watch them.

When we talked about their weekend on Monday, as is our custom, the chatter was all about how they had done the chicken dance. Each time a girl shared about attending the dance with her dad I got to see some part of the chicken dance and hear the catchy rhythm. They laughed in conspiracy about how silly their dads looked. 

After that we all pretty much forgot about the affair in the swirl and chaos that is typical of life in an elementary school. Until the pictures came this week.

It was last recess when I found them in my box. I had maybe ten minutes to scan them before the kids came in. Sitting at my desk, I opened one envelope at a time, barely breathing. I was totally unprepared for the powerful impact those pictures had on me.

The dads came in a variety of sizes, shapes and ages. Their expressions ranged from proud, to serene, to stiff and uncomfortable. They were all touching their daughters in some way. Some had their girls on their laps. Some knelt beside them. Some stood with arms wrapped around, careful not to cover the beautiful dresses.

The girls, however, could have been interchangeable. 

Granted, they too came in a variety of shapes and sizes. Their dresses were all different - some little girl cute, and some older girl sophisticated. Their hair was fixed and curled, although one girl's wild red hair looked as uncombed and untamable as it does every day in class. Some wore makeup and jewelry borrowed from their moms, while others were simply sparkling clean.

What made them interchangeable was the smiles on their faces. These girls beamed as though they had been given the richest treasure on earth. Their little bodies leaned toward or into their dads bigger bodies. I've never seen that kind of unfettered, innocent, perfect happiness so clearly before.

I made the most of those ten minutes, studying each picture as deeply as the time would allow. Eight or nine year old girls. Loved. Safe. Cherished. Adored. On a date with the first and most important men in their lives. Happy. Unafraid. Whole.

Some tiny spark of my inner eight year old longed to crawl into any one of the pictures, to be any one of those loved little girls, to experience the safety of a father's love. I ache for her, knowing that she will never have that. I celebrate with her as she sees firsthand that dads can love daughters in ways that honor them both, and that the fact that she didn't have that is not about her. She knows those little girls well enough to understand  she was no better or worse, no more disobedient or behaved, no more dishonest or truthful than any of them.  Yet they are loved without reservation or condition. It's there. In those pictures.

And so might she have been with a daddy who had a different heart. Hers beats strong and free, finally, of the tyranny of his shame. She and I dance together - a happy chicken dance with arms akimbo and knees a-knockin' - laughing for the sheer joy of being alive.

photo from Flickr

Saturday, February 14, 2009

The Best (and Last) Valentine's Day

Valentine's Day is a big deal in third grade, exceeded in level of excitement only by Christmas. The energy ramped from normal to nuts over the course of the two weeks from the day I talked about the party and card exchange at the beginning of the month until yesterday. This was my last elementary school Valentine's Day party as a teacher in charge. Here are some of the highlights:

Best Gift - A wooden heart adorned with hideous red gel hearts and cupids, with #1 Teacher written in glitter glue. The erased first draft in pencil shows clearly. From my blooming flower.

Best Almost Gift - For days the twins, a boy and a girl, had been promising me a gift that I was sure to love. "Chocolate," they said. "My favorite," I said. "I know, it's really your favorite, See's Truffles," he said. "I can hardly wait," I said. "We bought your chocolates over the weekend," she said. "Do I have to wait until Friday?" I said. 

Two days before the party he said, "My sister left your chocolate in a dressing room at the mall. We don't have anything for you now." She confirmed his story. I hope someone is enjoying my truffles.

Best Real Chocolate - One of my boys who insists loudly and often that he doesn't like girls, Jim Carey funny and bright as a sun's ray through winter clouds, "I have some chocolate. Where should I put it?" "I'm not sure. Where do you want to put it?" I'm thinking it's for the party. "Where do you want it?" he insists. The light dawns, "Oh, is it for me?" Blond boy head nods with eyes cast to the floor. 

When I get to my desk later I find a red, heart-shaped, cellophane-covered box of cheap chocolates, probably bought by mom, but delivered so that there was no doubt about its real worth or who it was really from.

Best Moment - The bags have been distributed and kids are carefully pulling card after card out, yelling their thanks to each other across the room. Coming to me holding the small purple and gold package they know is from me  ("because it's purple, of course!") asking if they can open it, like it's a great treasure to be handled with great reverence. The noise is deafening and overwhelming and I allow myself to stand and absorb the wild love of this little family I've created.

Best Surprise - One of my  moms had insisted on hosting our party herself. Generally a group of moms will get together and  decide on snacks and an activity, bring everything in, hang out with their kids and everyone is happy. I've never had just one be so determined to do a party by herself. I think she might have hurt the feelings of a couple of the other moms, but my approach has always been to say yes, provide the time, and stay out of the way. 

This mom has been a bit unreliable all year, not showing up for conferences, often getting her daughter to school late. I wasn't sure what to expect. What we got was amazing. Hand made, heart-shaped sandwiches. A huge fruit plate. Heart-shaped, pink Rice Krispies treats. Sticky, crusty brownies. (I totally forgot - honest - about the no home-made food rule until my principal walked in while we were eating. She didn't notice. Whew!) 

This mom brought a variety of crafts for the kids to do, the favorite being bandanas that they could fabric paint, and then wear like gangsters for the rest of the day. She bought an apron for them to paint for me. As soon as I put it on, every time a child would come up to me they would have to point to their name and tell me that it was theirs.

I couldn't have planned or built a better day. I'm very aware of the connection between how magical it was and how little control I exerted. The kids created memories that I know they'll retrieve with happy nostalgia in later years. They thought - no they knew -  the entire day was about them and their pleasure. And because I did, too, the pleasure of it sits lightly in my heart. A perfect last Valentine's Day.

picture from Flickr

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Winter Weary

The weight of winter becomes more than I'm willing to bear cheerfully by the time February rolls around. No sun. No lushness. No warmth. The long dark begins in November, but  is softened by Thanksgiving. The holiday demands of December provide significant distraction from days that are more night than anything. January, however, is one long road of dead world resting with no visible promise of life. Even the lengthening days provide little relief.

February is just too much - a last straw of endless gray days. It doesn't help knowing that March is next and always offers the relief of real spring. Too much is too much. The determined gratitude with which I color long winter days grows weaker and weaker. I grow more and more weary.

Weary of having to wear multiple layers of clothes to be outside. Weary of dark colors and heavy sweaters. Weary of shoes and socks. Weary of gray air and tired green and mud brown. Weary of winter viruses that steal what little energy I've managed to hang onto. 

Weary of my own whiny weariness.

My life is in late winter mode as well. One chapter is closing. No longer lush and vital. It's more and more challenging to enjoy the quieter, less substantial, gifts the ending offers. I work hard to tame my impatience, to not wish the days away, to practice being my fullest and best self in the cold dark days of waiting. I refuse to hibernate or hide or distract. As much as I hate winter, I bow to its necessity and its lessons. I want to be fully awake and ripe when spring finally arrives.

Yesterday I walked in the park, by myself,  for the first time in ages. It was a sunny day and I was thrilled to leave the house in two heavy layers rather than the three I've kept warm with all winter. I was even more thrilled halfway through to have to remove one of the layers because I got too warm. Maybe it wasn't quite that warm, but being in one layer was worth enduring the bit of nip keeping my pace brisk.

I had intended to do a short version of my usual route, but my feet had other ideas. I ended up walking the entire park, including a small side trail that calls to me every year at this time.

This is where the first violets show, and offer my first concrete evidence that winter won't last forever. That spring is arriving. Yesterday, there were no tiny white and purple blossoms showing through the dry dead blanket of last year's maple leaves. But there was an abundance of bright green, heart-shaped leaves from which the violets will unfold.

As I stood admiring them, checking for even one tiny bit of petal, I heard birdsong that was completely new to me. Complex, melodic, joyful. I never did pinpoint the source exactly, but decided it was most likely a song sparrow celebrating the warm sunshine with a brand new chorus. It's likely, as well, that this song was meant to attract a female. If I were a female sparrow, we'd be building the nest together right now.

Standing still, I became aware of movement in the branches directly over my head. A flock of yellow-crowned kinglets, like out-sized pussy willow catkins,  flitted from cone to cone searching out food. A pair of thrushes leap-frogged across my line of sight, the distance between them never varying, engaged in a courtship dance of their own. I could hear the soft metallic buzz of a nuthatch calling in the distance, and an answering buzz even farther on. The clear carillon chirp of a robin - a single urgent note - hung in the air as crystalline as snow.

Spring is putting the final touches on her finery before she takes the helm from tired winter with her abundance of color and light and new life. The evidence may require some special care to find, but it's there. Spring is coming, no matter what I do or don't do, feel or don't feel. Just as winter will not be finished until it is. All I can do is keep my eyes and heart open. And celebrate with happy gratitude the reminders that the light always returns.

photo from Flickr

Thursday, February 5, 2009

This Town's Not Big Enough for the Both of Us.

We live in a really great rural neighborhood. Everyone is friendly, and helpful, but not too much of either of those. We've been here going on seventeen years, and many of our neighbors have been here longer. There have been a number of changes over the years: new paint, new cars, trees grown out of control. But mostly things stay the same, in a familiar comfort that sings home to me every day.

There is a short, bumpy country road that leads to our driveway. On one side is our neighbor whose apple trees attract the annual deer family. On the other is our neighbor whose horses I can always get to come see me at the fence with a handful of greener grass than exists in their pasture.

Tonight as I was driving in, something about the three strand barbed wire fence that contains Mike's horses caught my eye. A blob hanging from the middle strand - oblong, brown, just big enough to disturb the familiar picture and make me look. I was almost past the thing before the wrongness registered. Brain said, "mole." Eyes cast over my shoulder said, "mole." Reason said, "Moles don't climb fences."

I continued home, trying to find something in my brain that might make sense of what I'd just seen. Mike is a bit unconventional, in a really cool way. He looks like ZZ Top, loves his Harley and his wife, and tells the greatest stories. He's kind and generous and protective of the neighborhood. In all these years, he's never given us reason for concern about his mental health.

It didn't take me long to walk back for a closer look, with camera in hand. 

Mole. Big, full grown, handsome mole. Hung from the middle strand of barbed wire like a horse thief. All the mole hills along the fence line had been driven over. A small crater along the line of crushed hills made it clear that the mole had not been captured without a tussle.

This mole was clearly hung to send a message to the rest of his gang: "Dig at the risk of your lives. There is a serious hunter here, who won't give up until the last  mole is dead. Tunnel for the hills."

Except moles can't see. They don't even come above ground on purpose. Mike didn't seem to care. When I hollered into his yard because I wasn't going to be able to rest without the real story, he all but pounded his chest in pride at having captured that mole. His laugh was just south of jolly when he said he hung it as a warning. His smile was nearly feral when he said he'd be hanging more there when he caught them. Leaving no doubt at all that he intended to hunt until they were all dead - or moved on to someone else's yard.

Like ours.