"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

Monday, December 27, 2010


It strikes me as odd now that I didn't expect the news I received when I returned her call. Her voice on the message was neutral, and since I'd only heard it one time before, I didn't have a frame of reference for reading anything into her tone. I've wondered if some part of me already knew, and was protecting me.

"This is Shirley, Kathleen's adoptive mom. Would you call me as soon as you get this?"

I remember thinking that it was interesting for her to be calling the Monday before Christmas. Maybe she wanted me to be a part of a surprise of some kind for Kathleen. Or maybe Kathleen had ended up back in the hospital and wanted me by her side badly enough to ask her mom to call me. Maybe even one of Kathleen's children was ready for contact, and Shirley was the messenger.

I called back right away, my voice cheerfully friendly as I said, "What's up?" still thinking it both odd and cool that Shirley was reaching out to me. Shirley, the adoptive mother of my daughter, Kathleen. Shirley, the woman I love, fear and owe an unpayable debt to.

"Kathleen took her life on Friday. I thought you'd want to know."

The human body is an amazing entity. I could feel mine flood with feeling that was quickly surrounded by a blessed blankness.  Questions flooded that space. The ones you would expect, and many more I've been holding all these years of watching my daughter reach toward me and pull back before my reaching toward her could complete the connection.

I asked as many as I thought I could and still respect the great loss of the woman who had spent the last forty years trying to keep our daughter safe from herself and (in Shirley's words) the profound and insidious illness that she had battled for many years.

It was hard to stay with the conversation even though I wanted to know everything. My mind kept bouncing away from our words to another phone call. The first one from Kathleen sixteen years before - the call I'd been hoping for for twenty-four years. The miracle of hearing the voice of the woman I'd relinquished at birth and had been told it would be as though I'd never had her. She was no longer mine, but from that point forward, someone else's daughter.

Except she was always my daughter, too. Every birthday I saw her at that age in other children and wondered about her life. Every milestone I saw in my students, my nieces, characters in movies, I wondered about hers. I looked for her in every chocolate-skinned, curly-haired smiling girl who crossed my path.

And even after I met her and fell in love with the reality of her, as wounded as she was, and she could not deliver what we both so desperately wanted, I waited and hoped and prayed for her healing and the possibility of a real relationship with her. I stood with open arms and a mother's heart and a fierce desire to somehow lighten her burden.

My daughter is gone. Just turned forty in July. The mother of three children she loved. A woman much loved by many. Beautiful. Bright. Kind. Funny. Haunted. Mentally ill.

She left me without goodbye, without ever allowing the relationship she initiated reunion to have with me, without ever really feeling how deeply I love her.

I'm surprised at the depth and strength of this loss. I can't imagine how her other mother is managing, except she has Kathleen's children, both to be strong for and to turn her love toward. I have what I've always had: love and sadness. It's just magnified and without possibility of being anything else. What I also have is a family and friends who accept that I am a mother who has lost her child - for the second and last time - and who hold me gently in my grieving.

I am so sorry there was no way any of us could give Kathleen the power to feel that very same unjudging and embracing love, to feel her value, to feel anything that would have allowed her to stay.

Saturday, December 18, 2010


As I tucked suet into the feeder, I could feel tiny eyes watching. I looked up into our sweet gum to see a chestnut-backed chickadee perched on the slimmest of branches, clearly waiting for me to get out of the way. He flitted down the minute I stepped back, scolding as he came, grabbed food and disappeared back up into the depths of the tree.

I was so engrossed in his antics, the whir of wings zipping past one ear startled me. A second one darted to the sunflower feeder, grabbed one shiny black seed, and sped away. My eyes followed him up into the tree where I saw an entire banditry of chickadees scattered among the branches waiting to drift down like wind-driven leaves for their turn at the feeders.

With a million things calling to me from the house, and Toby at my feet wondering why I wasn't throwing the ball for him, I almost moved on. Plus it was cold, nose-running cold. But the sky was blue and there were shadows and I felt such pleasure in the moment, I simply stood where I was and watched. Nothing I did - laugh, shift for a better vantage point, exclaim in surprise - seemed to impact the birds' behavior at all.

Chickadees are social, sociable and very vocal. They're as common around here as robins or juncoes - all-year residents. Yet there is something so uncommon in the delight I feel in their presence. Their size is a part of it: both local varieties, the chestnut-backed and the slightly larger black-capped, would fit nicely in an egg carton. Yet there seems to be an impossible amount of life and energy in those compact bodies.

The richness of their vocabulary also tickles me. From the classic chickadee-dee-dee to the one-note chipping declarations of presence to the cheeseburger song that announces spring, the sound track of my life is full of their voices.

The most incredible thing about them, though, is their lack of fear. No other bird in my experience is so willing to allow my presence in such an easy way. They go about the rhythm of their feeding, and it definitely has all the rhythm of a well-choreographed dance, regardless of my position.

I'm comforted knowing that wherever I might find myself, I'm most likely going to find chickadees, too. The mountains. The ocean. The city. They're resourceful and adapt to an endless variety of environments. I'm comforted by their constancy, no matter the season. I'm comforted that a being so simple and so common has the power to make my heart sing.

While not as majestic as the bald eagle, or as romantic as a hummingbird, chickadee's gift is to remind us that even ordinary contains magic and power and beauty.

Photos by Walt Shucka, taken in our back yard.
A group of chickadees is known as a "banditry" or a "dissimulation" or the much more pedestrian, "flock."

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Becoming Human

I was sitting in a pew, alone, enjoying the final rehearsal for the Christmas program I'd come north to see. My brother Mark sings in the choir and it's become a tradition for me to be in the audience for him. This year I went a day early so we could do some antiquing, which is how I found myself at the practice. Because it was my fourth year, as I watched, many people were familiar to me. I know outlines of their stories. I'm happy when I learn about their successes, sad when I hear of their suffering. I like these people.

I have an uneasy relationship with church. It's very difficult for me to feel anything but judgement, shame and not enough in the formal company of people who follow the religion I was born to. It's not their fault, mostly. Raised with a God used as my mom's hit man and enforcer, baptised into a church where the pastor did not practice what he preached, a decade spent in a small Bible-based cult where obedience and fear were everything - there was nothing in any of those places of love or relationship or simple acceptance.

Some have suggested that I should walk away from trying to believe in any God, but that's never been an option. It sure would make things easier if it was. However, somewhere along the line I decided that the only chance I had of experiencing the light of his love was to be very very still and to separate myself as much as possible from all that made me human: my passion, my body, my temper, my impulsiveness, my heart, my impatience. If I could be good enough, then  - I'm not sure exactly what, but it seemed the only way.

A quarter of a century of being good, respectable and careful left me with not much but exhaustion. Still no closer to feeling completely accepted or acceptable, loved or lovable.

Don't get me wrong, it's been a great life. I've felt love and loved. I've felt joy and success and pain.  I've experienced moments of pure light where there was not one doubt of God's presence or care. It's just that I've felt all of it through so many layers of separation from my humanity, it's been like listening to glorious music through a fortress wall. That wall grows thinner with each new insight, each new miracle, each new stirring of my heart.

As I sat in the dark watching the band and choir practice for a program meant to celebrate God become human in the form of Jesus, I noticed how very human these people were. They talked when they were supposed to listen. One of the soloists looked like he should have been in a studio recording rap music. Another, the pastor's daughter with a voice of angels, wore clothes that spoke rock concert much more than church. People didn't follow directions, wandered off stage in the middle of a song, dashed in late. There was silliness, laughter, and occasional sarcasm.

All shapes. All sizes. Each person a story filled with all the same elements that mine is, just manifested in different forms. And each person on that stage was there in relationship with a God unavailable to me because I'd always felt too human.

Becoming human, as I've worked so hard to do in the last few years, turns out to be the only path to a relationship of any kind. It's only by first knowing, then accepting, all that I am that I can be willing to reveal enough of myself to be available for relationship. The irony of having spent so much of my life doing the exact thing (trying to be some form of perfect) that kept me farthest from the exact thing I wanted and needed most (love and acceptance) is not lost on me.

There is a Buddhist parable about an old blind turtle living at the bottom of the ocean who swims to the surface for air once every hundred years. A golden yoke floats around in the waves, never still for a moment. The likelihood of the blind turtle swimming up and putting his head through the hole of the yoke when he surfaces is the same likelihood of our being born as a human being.

It's a story that's stuck with me since I first read it years ago. Being human is a rare and wonderful gift, not to be taken lightly.

This month we celebrate a birth of a boy given to the world as proof God loves humanity. For the very first time, sitting in the joy-filled, song-saturated dark last weekend, I began to understand with more than my head. Becoming human, being what I was born to be, embracing it all, is the only true path to everything I've ever wanted.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010


The edges between the seasons are never clean or straight or even easy to find. It's officially fall for two more weeks, but little in the weather feels like anything but winter. All that makes fall a time of reflection and celebration of harvest and abundance has been replaced by bare branches and cold hard rain. In the same way spring will arrive on its own time, not driven by the calendar, but an early arrival of spring is so much more welcome than early winter.

I resist winter, both as a season and as a natural part of a life's process. I can't go barefoot or feel the kiss of warm air on my arms and face. Blessings are simpler and require more attention to find. Beauty hides in shadows. Light comes sideways and for such short bursts, if it can even break through the thick weight of wet gray wool, that it never feels like quite enough.

I resist the dormancy brought on by cold and dark. I don't want to rest and wait. I want to grow and soar. I'm tempted by the sweet escape of hibernation, the turning inward and avoidance of winter's stark lessons. But, I'm not bear. Only human. And no cave will protect me from the rhythms of my own life.

So I bundle up, follow Toby's excitement into the forest, and face the cold. On our walks I notice buds on trees and bushes. The minute leaves fall, buds appear. Fat, juicy, tightly packed buds. It doesn't seem possible that these tiny eggs of leaves could survive the harsh rigors of winter, but they do. And they serve to remind me of just how entwined life and death are.

It helps me to accept the dormant darkness, to surrender to it, knowing the potential for whatever comes next grows out of sight. It helps me to see that even as one thing dies, new life is already finding its way to the light - waiting for the time and conditions that will allow it the best possible chance of thriving into the full expression of its being.

As I study the buds it's also impossible to believe that death - even as the closing of a door - is a punishment. New life, unseen possibilities and gifts, cannot happen without the passing of old.

The red oak that stands strong and visible from my window does not release its dead rust leaves until spring. It clings to the old until compelled to let go by sap rising from its roots and sun calling from above. And even then I can find buds at the very tips of branches, promising new life to be born from cold dormancy. So even stubborn holding on cannot stand against the cycles of the seasons.

Saturday, December 4, 2010


Returning home on Monday, imprisoned in a space so small contortion was required to fit my body into it, breathing air both stale and sterile, and working to share the narrow armrest with my sleeping neighbor, I escaped into the memory of the day before. A day full of everything missing from the airplane.

When Suzy picked me up on our second bright and sunny morning, she handed me a packet with the most wonderful grin on her face. It was directions to and promotion for the Norman Bird Sanctuary in Newport, Rhode Island. I looked a question at her.

"You said you like birds, right? And we were going to Rhode Island anyway, so I found this online."

It took some mental searching before I remembered I'd been commenting on the Red-tailed Hawks that patrol the sides of the highways, just like home, only the east coast birds are a lot lighter. I'd done it often enough to prompt Suzy to ask if I liked birds. Because of the stereotypes surrounding bird watchers, I don't often tell people that I own enough bird guides to fill an entire shelf on my bookcase, that I always look and listen for birds in hopes of discovering one new to me, that one of my favorite places in the world is the refuge near our home where we see some new avian delight every single time we visit.

We filled the travel time with a continuation of the conversation that hadn't stopped from the minute I first got in Suzy's car at the airport. We got lost and didn't care. We laughed at ourselves, saw some amazing old homes, a lot of Rhode Island, and eventually drove across the long bridge from the mainland to Newport.

Suzy is a city girl with no real interest in birds or the outdoors. She really wanted me to have this experience (and I really wanted to have it), and she really wanted to not have it with me. An interesting test of a fairly new friendship. She had phone calls to make and a book to read and maybe a nap to take and promised all three were exactly what she wanted. And so I trusted her, accepted the gift, and walked into the sanctuary alone.

Sanctuary. Alone.

The sun shone. Colors vibrated. Song birds chattered in the brush. The wind played hide and seek. Each new turn in the trail I followed to a place called Hanging Rock so I could see the Atlantic offered some new visual delight. Bright berries against blue sky. A deer's presence revealed by the rustle of leaves under foot. The trail beneath my feet first grass, then gravel, then dirt, then boardwalk, then stone called puddingrock. I found myself scrambling along a ridge of both rounded and sheared rock, wondering if it was really a trail at all, until the end which revealed a glorious view of the ocean.

Not many birds. Wrong time of year. Some mallards. A sparrow or two. Chickadees. One hawk.

I didn't care. As I walked back, thrilled at the perfection of each step of my adventure, I breathed in air that held hints of sea and oak and rich earth, savoring and storing away. I was almost back to the entrance when a flash of red caught my eye. I sought its source in the berry bush just off the trail and laughed out loud when I realized it was a cardinal.

Cardinals don't exist on the west coast. I saw my first one last summer in Iowa, but didn't have the opportunity then to just be with these bright red wonders. On this day, I stood for the longest time, just watching a pair feed and flit. When I finally turned to go, another flew directly in front of my face. A little farther along, I'd stopped to take pictures of the stone fence, one last shot of beauty, when I saw one more cardinal perched on blackberry brambles in the sunshine like a king overseeing his realm.

I don't think it's ever failed me. I find what I'm looking for, eventually, even when I'm not exactly clear what that might be. Adventure always. Beauty. Gift after gift of magic and wonder. The love and generosity of fellow travelers. Fun. One new bird.

In the days since my return, there has been a bend in my path that could make me doubt all of it. But I can close my eyes and be in that sanctuary and feel the presence that promises wings and lift and sky to soar into. I believe. A friend asked me last week what I thought the trip meant. And without hesitation I replied that it was irrefutable evidence that I'm held and led and loved, even when the path becomes rocky and seems to be going in the wrong direction. All I have to do is remember one bright bird, one amazing friend, and four magical days.

Taken by our server at the French restaurant where we celebrated our last night together and where we were treated like royalty. 

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Body Work

I woke up that Saturday in my beautiful blue room, in Connecticut, to a day that promised blue skies, sunshine and adventure. After breakfast we headed north toward Massachusetts and ultimately Kripalu in the Berkshires for my spa day.

The trip went fast, as time does that's spent full of rich conversation and beautiful sights. The leaves were mostly gone, but the arms that held them still reached skyward from softly rounded shapes. Suzy and I laughed together about the difference between the hills in the Northeast (barely distinguishable bumps) versus the hills of the Northwest (peaks exceeding 10,000 feet). We talked about writing and life and traffic. I was as happy as I know how to be.

It wasn't until we arrived at the nearly hidden entrance to Kripalu that I first felt the stirrings of anxiety, and by the time we'd pulled into the lot outside a surprisingly stark and unattractive building, I wondered how the hell I'd allowed myself to say yes to this day. Except I knew. Suzy's generous gift was an answer to prayer, the perfect bit of serendipity at the perfect time. And in that moment I wondered if there was any way at all I could nicely decline all the body work and maybe just walk the labyrinth and eat lunch.

I arrived knowing my day would consist of a yoga lesson, a Thai massage, lunch, and then an Ayurveda Vishesh massage. I'd done a little research, so had an idea what was coming, but no more than you can get from reading a description meant to be as inviting as possible. I'd been looking forward to the yoga lesson in particular, grateful to have an expert to consult about recent concerns that had developed about my practice.

The massages (two in one day!) I had convinced myself to be brave about and was even anticipating the amazing relaxation that follows body work like that. The fact that I'd only had two massages total before that day, made this a bigger leap of faith than it might have been for someone else.

Here's where the serendipity enters the scene (and God laughs). I was an abused child who grew up believing sex was love. As an adolescent, my childhood belief and the hormone floods of puberty drove me to finding sexual pleasure at any cost. My young adulthood was adolescence carried into the world, until I joined the cult, which put an end to all physical pleasure and in an ironic twist, sex as love was replaced by obedience as love. I learned to detach from the body that had caused me so much emotional pain - from its desires, its warnings, its uncomfortable messy truths.

Years of therapy had brought the detachment to the surface, yet somehow I'd never gotten beyond an acknowledgement that, yes, I preferred to operate as far from the physical realm as possible. Beginning my practice of Bikram yoga over a year ago was a step toward being willing to repartner with my body. The pain that I started yoga to heal and that had grown steadily worse in the last few months made sure I listened to my body, or pay the price in immobility.

So the thought of having an hour of private instruction with a yoga instructor seemed like an answer to prayer. And the thought of expanding my massage repertoire sounded sort of cool. Until I was walking through the doors of Kripalu, feeling like an interloper, and aware that I was going to be the focus of conversation - that my body!, my lumpy overweight out-of-shape body!, was going to be the center of attention - for the next several hours. Somehow shaving my legs didn't seem like enough preparation for this.

I was caught, though, in the loveliest of traps. My sweet friend had given me this day because she knew I practiced yoga and she knew I'd always wanted to see Kripalu. Our friendship is new enough that she didn't know the strength of my aversion to any attention paid to my body. Turning back or away was not an option. And I am so very grateful I really had no choice at all but to thank my fear for its warning and to show up for my first appointment with a smile.

The amazing Jennifer Reis quickly turned my yoga lesson into yoga therapy. She answered my questions and concerns about my Bikram practice (another story for another day), saw immediately what was going on with my pain, and gave me a series of moves to do to realign, stretch and strengthen my out-of-whack pelvis. Her approach was gentle and caring and respectful. She said, "Let the weakest limb decide how far your body goes." She helped me realize that my threshold for pain is much lower than I've ever believed - I don't even register pain until it stops me (literally in this case) in my tracks.  She said, "No pain. If it hurts, stop."

From her I went to Tara who loved my bird earrings and talked easily about what she was going to do with my body lying fulling clothed (whew!) on the ground. As she stretched and pulled my limbs and applied her feet to pressure points, she would gently encourage me to breath, or to push against her so she could help me relax more into myself when I released the pressure. Every so often I could feel her brush away old energy and I could hear her breathe, as though the work she was doing on me was a meditation for her.

Lunch was next and I was like a stranger in my own body. This vessel was relaxed, almost fluid, and seemed friendly. I liked being there, and enjoyed fueling my new friend with the healthy vegan fare of Kripalu's cafeteria where the energy was serenity personified. Suzy was happy with the amount of writing she'd accomplished in the morning, and I was ready to see what surprises my last appointment had for me.

Lauren, the therapist, was soft-spoken and gentle. She asked about any issues I had, explained what her particular form of massage was all about, and casually slipped in, "Did anyone tell you your breasts will be exposed for this?" And before any little voices from the inside could argue, I replied that no, no one had mentioned that, but I was okay with it. I lied, but it was a lie with the hope saying the words would make them true. She put the oil on to heat and left me to get undressed.

I was on my back, covered, barely, by the towel she'd left for me, when she returned to the room. "I invite you to rest in the silence," were the last words spoken until the end. Then she proceeded to fold that towel until it was the smallest of rectangles covering so little it seemed a pointless symbolism. After which she proceeded to oil and massage every square inch of my body, with the exception of my nipples and the tiny territory covered by the towel, front and back. By the time she left the room for me to get dressed, my head was full of the scent of lavender and my body was purring louder than all three of my cats put together. I floated, glided, soared back to Suzy.

The drive home was a bit quieter than our morning journey. I sat in the car, enjoying the scenery and Suzy, slightly stunned by what had just happened to me. Dinner was a comedy of Suzy reacting to all the lavender radiating from my body and me barely articulate. I slept that night for ten hours, straight through, and woke the next morning feeling more rested than I have since sometime in childhood. My body liked the attention, didn't mind the exposure, was ready for more. Is ready for more. It may be time finally for me to hold up my side of this friendship, and to listen to the voice of my body over the voice of the shame that has kept me disconnected from it for all these years.

Suzy wasn't done surprising me. The next morning when I got in the car she handed me a packet of information she'd printed, telling me where we were headed for the day. Come along with us for the ride in the next installment of this most amazing adventure.