Sunday, December 18, 2011
A raw early November day, my birthday. I enjoy the day as much as I've enjoyed anything in the last year. Which means I'm as fully present as possible around the grieving that's taken up residence in my body since last December. As we walked toward the restaurant on the Tacoma waterfront, where I anticipated a wonderful evening with family, the sky caught my eye. I gasped gratitude, both at the incredible beauty, and for the flare of joy the view ignited.
It was as though I hadn't seen the sky in months. And it's not that I didn't look. I love the sky in ways I love little else in my life. It's where I meet God, find answers, see birds. It's what lifts my heart and stirs my spirit. It is both constantly changing and constant. Even when I can't see it, which is often in the Pacific Northwest, I know it's there waiting for me.
Sky has been there every single day for the last year, yet it has seemed beyond reach in some way. Muted, veiled, distant.
When it spoke to me on my birthday I accepted it as one more gift of the day, and then forgot about it. Although the picture I took stayed with me, pushing itself into my consciousness at odd and random moments.
Then a couple of weeks later I was up at my regular predawn hour, doing my usual morning tasks, when a faint glow caught my eye. I looked east to see the palest infant pink behind the half-century-old douglas fir sentinels that surround our place. It's a common sight for me, one I almost take for granted. One I've seen and turned away from without praying gratitude for the last year. On this day, however, that tender light found its way through a crack of my broken heart, and something new stirred.
Since then the sky has showered me with gifts, as though to strengthen our renewed connection: A full lunar eclipse viewed alone in holy stillness. A young bald eagle flying directly overhead. My owl perched on the flagpole for the first time in months. Bright blinding sunshine filling an afternoon with gold. A whiskey-throated raven flying up the river, then back again, offering some message I can't quite grasp, but don't seem to mind missing.
On this first anniversary of her death I am able to imagine my daughter held in the arms of the sky, freed from gravity in all its forms. I long to grow wings and search for her among the stars, to bring her home. Yet I accept Sky's timing and the grace of its wisdom. I look upward to stars made brighter through my tears, and breathe gratitude.
It's been weeks since I've been around to visit my virtual friends, and I want you to know I miss you. Walt is recovering from shoulder replacement surgery. Work has been insane. Christmas is at our house this year. I'll be back to a routine after the holidays, both as a blog friend and as a blogger. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for all of your lovely wishes, your prayers and your understanding. It helps more than I can say.
Sunday, December 4, 2011
I sat at my desk, hoping to get two hours of work done in an hour of planning time. The room was blessedly still and I was in a groove correcting, planning, organizing. I barely heard the faint knocking, but looked up to see a pair of eyes focused intently on me through the thin rectangular window of my back door.
For a brief second I considered ignoring the face and the knocking, but experience told me that seldom works. So I waved a welcome to two very small children. First graders as it turned out, bearing cupcakes. The leader, a spunky red-head who told me her name was Cheyenne, extended the plastic grocery store cupcake holder in my direction.
"Do you want a cupcake?" she asked.
"Is it your birthday?" I replied. I've had this conversation a hundred times or more in my teaching career. I know my lines well by now.
"No. It's his," Cheyenne said, pointing to the solemn pale boy standing eyes-down behind her.
"Happy Birthday! What's your name?"
"His name is Igor." Clearly Cheyenne had her own script.
Igor looked up at the sound of his name, but didn't seem concerned that he wasn't being allowed to talk. He stood quietly as I selected a cupcake as pale as he was, except for the lime green sprinkles. His expression didn't change even the slightest as I lavished birthday happiness on him. Cheyenne was also not interested in my chitchat. She was on a mission.
They were in my room for kindergarten last year and wanted to know (Cheyenne did anyway) where their former teacher was. She would be the next recipient of a birthday cupcake. It dawned on me that my cupcake was a toll willingly paid for directions.
By then I was so intrigued by the six-year-old woman in charge, I didn't mind losing the desperately needed work time. I enjoyed her confidence as much as I wondered how much Igor understood what was going on. I stood and walked the two to the other door in my room, and pointed them in the right direction with clear instructions. As I turned back to my desk I heard her say to him, "I told you her nice!"
I spent the rest of that planning time pondering this weird elementary school birthday tradition. Kids bring cupcakes (store-bought—homemade is not allowed) to school to share with classmates for their birthdays. The birthday child and one chosen friend scoot around the school at some point with whatever is left over to share with teachers. It doesn't seem to matter whether they actually know the teacher or not.
Although I never eat the cupcakes, I never refuse them either. I've always loved birthdays particularly, and there's something about being even a small part of celebrating the lives of these incredible, still-forming beings that eases my heart. For the moments of our exchange when they get to see an adult happy for their existence and when I get to see potential in all its brightest glory, nothing else matters. And for the rest of the day as I work around the sticky cake with lardy frosting decorated in colors never found in nature I hold that child in all the light I can bring to bear.
Occasionally the cupcake ritual will give me two kids instead of one to celebrate.
Photo from blogs.dallasobserver.com
Sunday, November 13, 2011
No Indian Summer this year after a summer that was barely summer. One of the shortest autumns I can remember. November has become everything that makes winter so hard to bear here: cold, gray and bone-gnawing damp. Days begin in darkness, and fade all too quickly back into deeper darkness, with more than a month before the light begins to assert itself again.
So much in my life to be grateful for. A long list easily accessed and appreciated. Called upon as a shield against winters: the season coming and the year just ending.
Like the black depths of tidal waters, winter threatens to pull me under. It's only November. The month of my birth. This year a significant transition in more ways than the new decade might account for. Usually I enter winter saturated with the warmth and light of the previous year, enough to get me close to spring when I can feel new light beckon.
Not this year. I'm tired. And cold. And try as I might, the shield refuses to hold.
I've read about anniversaries, held friends through theirs, prayed for comfort for survivors facing the end of the first year without loved ones. This is my first. Like so many of life's biggest events, there is no preparing for or even describing what it feels like.
Kathleen's death date is a bit more than a month away, yet every day now it's as though I just heard the news for the first time.
The night of my birthday celebration, my SIL, the one whose son took his life two weeks after my daughter took hers, gave me a book. Privately, out of the glare of the family gaiety. A memoir written by a women about her sister's suicide. While it might seem to be an inappropriate birthday present, it was my favorite. Both because it was the first real acknowledgment she's made of our shared loss, and because she knew exactly what that book would mean to me.
With the early onset of winter weather, most of the leaves which light the darkness of November have fallen prematurely. For days last week the wind whipped foliage from trees in blizzards of dying color. Yet there remains in our yard a maple in full flame. It's been aglow for more than a week and continues to pulse red through the fog that clings to everything from sunup to sundown.
At first I looked at it, admired it, then turned away, certain it's beauty would be stripped away as quickly as it has been for every other tree in our yard. But it continued to beckon from the edge of the yard until it pulled me outside with my camera. I tried to resist. I have lots of pictures of more fall beauty than this year could ever hope to offer. But I found myself drawn, in bathrobe and rubber boots, hair spiky from sleep, into the cold morning mists.
I'd moved around to shoot the tree from its most symmetrical angle, still not sure what I was looking for, or what it was offering. Then I realized it wasn't just the fiery maple I needed to see. It was the maple behind her sister, already stripped bare for the winter, and in front of the sequoia, which will never be anything but lush and green and strong.
The layers are a perfect metaphor for my life right now. Seeing everything through the filter of death, the light of dying flaring brighter than ever in the time left, the constant shape and color of life that doesn't die. No one more true or more real than the other, all existing together in a tableau that offers comfort. Not warm quilt, hot cocoa, warm fire comfort. But a small, significant flame of comfort, like a pilot light - enough I believe to hold me through the winter ahead.
Saturday, November 5, 2011
Today's the day. At 3:53 this afternoon I will be 60. Mom used to try to call me at the exact time of my birth—one of the few rituals in our life together that let me know she celebrated my presence in her life.
As you know, this last year of my fifties has been difficult. I came to the end of it shaken and unsure of my path. The dream I'd spent the last several years in pursuit of was as tattered as storm-torn foliage after a level 5 hurricane. Instead of asking myself about next steps toward fulfillment, my questions became more and more about whether I'd been fooling myself all along.
So, this is the birthday present I'm giving myself: the reclaiming of my dream. I do it here with you all as witness because I know you understand more than anyone could.
I will write. I will be published. I will teach and edit and coach.
My words will matter, will be a force of light and healing in the world. I was given the gift of words and the gift of the dream to offer those words to anyone who might benefit, or simply enjoy. I claim it as my privilege and responsibility.
I sit here at my computer, the place where I meet my Muse and the place where I unfurl the wings that will carry me toward the dream I didn't ask for, but that is mine nonetheless. There are feathers everywhere, and birds and angels. A lush peace lily provides backdrop. A huge picture window lets in light and gives my eyes hundreds of shades of green to rest on. The picture of my mom gazing with such love at my newborn self is to my right. On both sides and behind me are hundreds of books—my inspiration, my guides.
This is the place where time ceases to have power or meaning.
On this machine I have your words and wishes, your love and support, which mean more to me than a thank you could possibly express.
And on the small bulletin board hung to hold artifacts for current work are these words from Ernest Hemingway:
From things that have happened and from all things that you know and all those you cannot know, you make something through your invention that is not a representation but a whole new thing truer than anything true and alive, and you make it alive, and if you make it well enough, you give it immortality. That is why you write and for no other reason.
Here's to immortality. Here's to a new decade and dreams come true. Here's to you, dear reader, for being here and sharing this incredible adventure with me.
Sunday, October 30, 2011
Four is a good number. Round and compatible. In a dog's life, four is no longer puppy—even for a golden. After many months of thinking perhaps he would never soften into legendary golden mellowness, one more time, he's fooled us. Four is the perfect number for him.
Toby is still playful. He loves his walks. He gets neurotically focused when we play ball in the back yard. He offers toys for tugging.
He is still self-possessed. He does nothing without a reason, never just out of obedience. He chases squirrels, barks at deer both real and imagined, and often decides he'd like to go outside in the middle of the night. No is not an answer he understands.
But more than anything now, he's affectionate. Finally, he's become something resembling the dog we thought we wanted. He frets if one of us comes home late, and grins with glee when the missing person finally arrives. After two years of having me home mostly full time, this fall has been hard for him. When I am home now he'll sprawl where I have to step over him, or follow me around and do his head-bury in my legs every chance he gets.
My birthday is Saturday. Sixty years ago in a hospital in Spokane, I was born to a nineteen-year-old girl already divorced from my father. While she didn't pick me, and her life definitely was not following the path of her dreams, she loved the baby who was me.
The girl I became was not what my mom expected or even understood. Outspoken. Curious. Fearless. Always asking questions and frustrated if the answers didn't satisfy. A nose for truth and not-truth. Challenging. Strong-willed. Impatient. Everything she was not.
And by the time I had mellowed enough to reach beyond the walls we both erected to survive our relationship, she was lost behind hers. I wonder sometimes, even now, if there might not have been a way for her to have found her way back to love.
Sixty is a good number. Round and compatible. Someone said recently that when we turned fifty it was easy to still believe we had half our life to go. It's not out of the realm of possibility to live to one hundred. That's not as easy to rationalize at sixty. One hundred and twenty seems neither possible nor desirable. I've spent this last year knowing it was coming, and uncertain how it would feel. It turns out sixty is the perfect number for me.
Like Toby, I still possess all those same qualities from my youth. And, like Toby, more than anything I've become the human version of a loyal and affectionate dog. I'm ready to be here, and eager for the adventure that is this next leg of my journey. Full of gratitude to have arrived healthy, surrounded by love, and able to love. Grateful for dreams demanding fulfillment. Joyfully grateful to be sharing this birthday season with Toby. My gift. My buddy. My teacher.
Tuesday, October 18, 2011
I meant that it's harder to remember things, harder to hold large quantities of information in short term memory, harder to make the hundreds of decisions an hour the job demands. I spend my days worrying I'll forget something important, let my team down, hurt a child in some way because I'm just not at the top of my game.
In a life full of loss and disappointment, I learned early on to rely on my brain. It was the one thing I could trust to provide answers, even though it's taken me years to realize not all of the answers were helpful or even completely true. I was one sharp cookie. I felt special for being so smart, for being a step or two ahead of everyone else. It was the one thing I knew my mom valued in me. The one thing I was encouraged to develop.
Aging (I'll be sixty so very soon) has been a definite factor. The early days of menopause were a nightmare of forgetting, and a new inability to find the right words for anything. Hot flashes were a walk in the park compared to the frustration of losing the one thing I had always been able to rely on. Over time I got used to the softening of my thinking, and clung to what remained. Worked at sharpening my remaining faculties so I wouldn't hit old age with a brain dull as river rock.
Then this last year happened. The losses. The grieving. The new demands of a job that was hard when I left and has gotten harder even for people still sharp and in shape for it. The war between my head and my heart. Head furiously trying to find sharpness again and thwarted at every turn. Heart wanting gentle quiet, slow movement, time to heal.
Pat, always honest even when I'm not sure I want her to be, replied, "I know you're not as sharp. But you are much more wise. Isn't that what you've always wanted?"
Well, yes. But I thought I'd get wisdom and still get to keep what I had before. I didn't realize the price for a life lived more gently, with more kindness and tenderness, was going to be my sharpness.
In the days since that conversation I've thought a lot about being sharp. The picture I get is of honed knives, paper edges, pointy objects. Things that cut, sever, separate. My own sharpness keeping me safe from the unknown and possible hurt. But also keeping me alone, lonely, isolated.
My heart has been waiting a very long time for this. Unlike my brain who has always demanded total control, heart is willing to share. All she wants is a chance to be heard and trusted. To have her language understood. Her timing valued. So this is wisdom: trust, acceptance, surrender. No sharp edges allowed, or more importantly, needed any longer.
Sunday, October 2, 2011
Friday morning. An hour or so before sunrise. Cold dew clings to my toes. It's a work day, but I'm in my back yard, hanging sheets on the line. There's so little light, I'm working by feel. Square corner to square corner, pegged. Pillowcases snapped out, my fingers doing the dance of setting them against the line and attaching the pins, all without conscious thought.
The forecast said rain for the weekend, and for the forseeable future. I need to have one last week sleeping surrounded by the scent of outdoors, on the soothing scratchiness of line dried sheets.
It takes less than ten minutes. Toby wandering just out of sight, happy to have company, not needing more than that. The air holding a distinct bite. I look up at one point, survey the sky. Big Dipper, summer companion since childhood, to the north. Orion, a winter constellation, to the south. I take a deep breath that tastes like mountain streams.
My task done, toes beginning to numb, I move slowly toward the house. I'm reluctant to let go of this feeling of connection, freedom, mystery. Reluctant to step back into this life I've accepted, but that I still don't see the purpose of. Not the larger one - the one that holds my dreams at its center.
Wishing to stay a while longer in this moist glittering darkness that seems to understand. Delaying the return to artificial light, soon to be the primary light available for months to come.
I send a prayer to a friend who died this week, and to her family. She'd lived a long and full life. Even so, it's too soon.
Summer fading into fall, the season of dying. Not death itself, which is winter. But the season of transition from one form of life to another. Days shorten. Nights lengthen. Sunlight visits from time to time as a reminder that it will always return. Darkness beckons, offering a place to heal, a safe protected nest for transformation.
On this morning, for maybe the first time, I release my longing for the light. Trust it will come to dry my sheets when I'm gone into the world . Trust it to return as summer in due time as I set out to explore what the darkness has to teach me. Orion will travel across the sky in the months to come, my companion for winter, my reminder that beauty and meaning exist even in the darkest of nights.
Friday, September 23, 2011
Driving away from a Friday morning coffee date with Walt, my eyes were drawn to one particular cloud in the predawn sky. A pure glowing white-gold, it sat on the eastern horizon just above the hills that embrace this area. The light was so clear and bright it was as though a piece of the almost-risen sun had broken off and flown over the treetops on its own.
My heart lifted. I was reminded of other shreds of sunlight this week that somehow managed to sear away the darkness of exhaustion, a suffocating workload, and enduring shadows of grief.
A friend stopping by school at the end of the day, just to visit with me, to see how I'm doing. We both knew I could have used that time to chip away at the massive pile on my desk. However, those fifteen minutes of laughter and connection mattered much more than a batch of corrected papers. Patricia's words about remembering to have fun helped me refocus. When we walked out together my step was much lighter than it had been all day.
There was a parent night this week. One I didn't want to attend because of the time: 7:00 to 8:00 P.M.—my bedtime. We go to outdoor school next week and this was the informational meeting. I had no part in the program beyond being a familiar face for my families. The energy in the packed gym was intoxicating. Families seemed genuinely pleased to visit with me before things officially started. My kids came up to me beaming, as though we hadn't seen each other for days instead of hours. More than once I turned to a tap on a shoulder into the grinning face of a former student, and savored the warm unrestrained hug. I smiled the entire drive home, even though it was close to 9:00.
A morning in my classroom. The day hadn't officially started and I was checking to see who was missing. The desk next to Joy's was empty. Grace hadn't yet arrived. I said something about hoping she'd be there soon. Joy said, "I hope so, too. We'll all be clumsy and falling down if she doesn't come." It took me a minute to get what she was saying.
When I did, I laughed and replied, "You're right. Which means you can never be absent, because we couldn't get through a day with no joy."
These shred-of-sunlight moments don't drive the darkness away, any more than my bright cloud this morning was responsible for ending the night.
But they do fill my eyes and soul with hope and life when my principal asks me at lunch if I can have my data matrix done the by the next day even though no due date had ever been stated, and I'd never done one before, and it would not be a short task. Or when a team meeting is co-opted by a special ed teacher full of advice so disconnected from the world of a regular classroom we might as well have been from different planets. Or when I spend hours collecting data to be told I need to do it over because the directions I was given were wrong.
Today is the fall solstice, when darkness begins its season of domination. I love this time of year—have always loved the soft quality of the lingering light and the colors of dying leaves that imitate summer sunsets. More than anything I love the promise held in the air—a smell, an energy—that leaves no doubt that light will never be completely extinguished no matter how deep the darkness.
A single golden cloud. A caring friend. A child's brilliance. Shreds of sunlight in the darkness. Promises. Reminders of where the power truly lays.
Sunday, September 18, 2011
My early morning routine has changed little since the beginning of this school year: I'm up at 4:00, greeted by a wriggling, grinning Toby who acts like we've been apart for much longer than a night. He goes out, gets fed, then I put water on for tea. By then the cats are letting me know they just might expire if they have to wait another minute for their food.
Once they've all had their breakfasts, my tea (turmeric ginger green) is ready and I settle into my rocker to journal, read, and meditate. That's where the routine has taken on a new twist. Until earlier this month Toby almost always went back to bed until Walt got up, leaving me a lovely space of quiet time with which to start my day. But because of the long lonely days he faces now with both his humans at work, he considers every minute I'm home to be his.
It's challenging to be prayerful and meditative under the weight of his beseeching eyes. It's hard to write in a journal holding a tug toy in one hand while Toby does his best to pull me out of the rocker. It's almost impossible to follow a thread of an idea in whatever book I'm reading (Brene Brown right now) with the background music of his soft insistent growls for attention.
So we play. Sometimes that's all I get done. Sometimes Toby will wander off after a bit and leave me to my time alone.
As I get ready for work, he's never far away. Usually he ends up sprawled in the hall outside my bathroom while I do hair and makeup. Or he'll lie on the bed halfway between his two humans. When I move from one room to the next, I feel his eyes follow. Frequently I'll turn to leave my closet (originally a very small computer room) only to find the way blocked by 80 pounds of sad-eyed dejected retriever, looking for comfort.
When Toby needs comfort, he'll butt his head into the tops of my legs (or the legs of anyone else who will stand still for what at first seems very weird behavior). He stands that way for as long as I'll allow, often breathing like an asthmatic Darth Vader, pushing against me if I try to pull away. He never ends this stance first. I have to hold his head and push him away, or say "treat" to break the hold.
I love those times with him because he's incredibly sweet then. I can lean over and hug him hard. I can play in his fur and inhale his warm toast scent to my heart's content. The cost of all that loving is dog hair and slobber on the front of my legs. Which is not a problem unless I'm dressed for work.
So I accept his love. Sometimes I change clothes afterwards. Sometimes if he's not too liquid I can brush the hair off and be good to go.
Toby has the power like nothing and no one else to keep me from getting completely lost in the demands of a teacher's life. I make myself leave school close to the actual end of my workday, knowing he's waiting at home. His needs are a priority in our weekend planning.
He simply doesn't accept no when he needs attention. I come home in the afternoon foot-sore, heart-weary, and ready to curl up like a sowbug against stresses that follow me home no matter what I do. And there he is, ball in mouth, tail going gangbusters, ready to romp and run and receive enough love to make up for the empty hours he's just slept his way through.
So we walk, and I'm renewed. Sometimes that's all I have time for before dinner. Sometimes Walt takes a shift and I can get some housework done first.
One of the hardest things about being back at work is enduring the tight box of scheduled days. Every minute counts, and there are not nearly enough minutes to be an effective teacher and continue the very full life I was living before mid-August. Much that I love—most of my writing life, leisurely visits with friends, antiquing with my brother, taking a day to read a book, time to just be—has taken a huge hit.
Toby keeps me connected to what really matters: play, love, the spiritual and physical energy that walking creates for me. When we brought him home almost four years ago, I could not have imagined what a powerful teacher he would become in my life. Or how much my heart would soften and expand in response to his headstrong loyalty, and simple exuberant joy.
Sunday, September 11, 2011
The honeymoon ended on Thursday. Right on schedule. Except it was one of many things I'd forgotten about, and caught me completely off-guard. So instead of feeling like a normal part of the process of beginning a school year, the day felt like a confirmation of all my fears. Fears I'd kept at bay during the happy sunny beginning as I fell in love with my class.
I went home Thursday night shaken, my limbs leaden, my heart protesting. Sad that the new self I'd brought to the classroom seemed to last only last six days. Wondering how I was going to get through the next 174.
Then, as I have so many times in the last weeks, I decided to take fear on.
Yes, the kids wouldn't stop talking. Yes, I spoke to them sternly. No, nothing I did seemed to work.
However, I have good systems in place. I wasn't using them because I didn't want to seem mean or too strict. Too many chances, too many warnings, with the result that we were all frustrated.
Yes, it was a long day for us all—three hours without a break in the afternoon. Yes, it would have been better if I'd taken them outside for a bit. No, I didn't think of that because I was too busy trying to push through.
So the bigger problem was a too long stretch of time without respite. Easily solved.
Yes, I'm behind in just about every way possible. Yes, the workload is unrelenting, two new demands appearing for every one I manage to meet. No, I'm not going to be able to live this way for an entire year.
I brought work home for the weekend, and spent most of yesterday slogging through the piles of tests and standards and unfinished curriculum maps. Walt made forms for me, and self manager badges for the kids. He got groceries. He held me. At the end I could feel my breathing ease and my whole self loosen.
Friday was as good a day as Thursday was not. Returning my focus to having fun and building connections (as opposed to the pressure to catch up, to teach more faster, to do it right), I planned a day of community building. We did math, but we also had our first auction and the kids got to change their seats for the first time. We practiced vocabulary, but it was a game. The silent ball game we always end the day with might have been a little longer than usual. Everyone left for the weekend smiling.
Yesterday morning as I sat by the river while Toby dived for rocks, I watched a vulture sit uncertainly at the top of a tall snag on the other side. While I couldn't see clearly enough to know for sure, he seemed young. Maybe it was the way he kept throwing his wings out for balance. Or the way he edged himself gingerly out on a branch before flapping himself to the next snag over.
I enjoyed his antics for a long time, thinking as I often do with vultures, how misunderstood they are. They symbolize and live on death and decay. Yet they're highly social and curious. On the ground they look like giant pin-headed chickens, but if you don't look too closely at their heads they are incredibly beautiful, especially in flight.
Maybe fear isn't so much different. It definitely peddles death and decay. No one's happy to see it arrive. But examined more closely, confronted and studied, fear's just another bird with a job to do. It's not nearly as powerful as its appearance would lead us to believe. Information is provided. I have the power to choose what to do with it.
I'll go in early again tomorrow. As I sit here writing I remember I need to do my parent letter first thing, plus there's copying and setting up for the day, and, and, and. And my stomach contracts—fear, sneaky and silent in its approach, does a fly-by. I breathe, enjoy the beauty of its black wings, and allow it to soar out of sight. Today is for playing. Tomorrow is for work (with generous helpings of play). I can handle both.
Monday, September 5, 2011
Sitting on a mottled mossy rock by the river, Toby diving for rocks and a pair of pintails paddling in the eddies, I find myself thinking of home. It may be the utter stillness: only the faintest hint of water rushing over stones farther up the river stirs the air. It may be the annual autumnal longings stirred to the surface by the tiniest hint of chill in the breeze. Or it may just be these thoughts are born from what feels like a new open space in my heart.
Open House, the night before school started, was packed, chaotic, and deeply satisfying. I felt completely at home greeting and shaking hands with my new families and gathering hugs from former families. But something was different this time. I've always loved this night, loved the celebrity aspect of being the center of so much attention, as well as discovering the first chapter of all the new stories to be written in the months ahead. This year, even though my room was full of people curious about their new teacher, it didn't feel like any of it was about me at all. I was able to let go of worries about how I was going to be perceived, and to focus completely on my kids.
From the moment the kids walked in on the first day until I sent them home on Friday, I felt at home. As though I'd never left the classroom. And my first priority was to make sure the kids felt at home—safe, happy, cared for.
Those were things I did not feel in my own childhood home, especially at ten. Instead I was afraid, sad, and certain I was the reason our family was so broken. School was the closest I came to feeling at home. But even there, because I knew in my bones I wasn't acceptable to my own family, I felt I had to be on guard to present what I thought was an acceptable version of myself.
It's taken years of work, and most likely my mom's death in June, for me to make the connection between my belief in my acceptability and my sense of home.
So as the first week of school passed in a blurred series of snapshot moments, I knew with each one how at home I was feeling. I realized the person who left two years ago was no longer present. She's been replaced by someone with serenity and optimism and faith; someone who laughs easily and ruffles almost not at all; someone who can and does choose to release resistance.
The eyes of this new person brimmed with tears repeatedly as love for my deliciously varied crew of ten-year-olds swept over me time and time again.
Lovely names, each a prayer: Angelina, Sterling, Joy, Grace. Shy smiles and dancing eyes and invitations to conversations. "Hey, Mrs. Shucka, you know what?" An offering of a homemade peanut butter cookie. Hundreds of questions: one boy needing to ask every minute or so with great sincerity and intensity. A girl hiding under her desk, separating herself at lunch, wearing a winter coat zipped to the chin. Another child wearing dirty hole-spattered clothes, and smiling at me through grime that would require some serious scrubbing to conquer. Playing games, celebrating our first birthday, setting a strong foundation for this new nine-month family.
I am at home in the world of ten-year-olds, in the classroom, in school. In going back, I've discovered I'm at home in my own skin, my own soul, where true home exists. While I still prefer the home of sharing a sweet September afternoon with Toby, or wrapped in Walt's arms, or in the company of my brothers, or sitting at my kitchen table watching goldfinches feed, I can't help but think feeling home wherever I am is one of the greatest gifts I've ever received.
Photo by Walt
Sunday, August 28, 2011
In the two weeks since I stepped back into the world of public education I've heard one question more than any other: Are you excited to be back?
Well, no, as a matter of fact, I'm not. But I don't say that. Not because I'm avoiding the truth, but because being excited is not the point.
The art teacher, my across-the-hall neighbor, was in my room last week introducing himself. Hired the year I left, he's young and clearly loves teaching even more than he loves his own art. He lives and breathes creativity. As I worked to express to him my belief that returning to the classroom will ultimately sharpen my writing, he said the perfect thing:
"Creativity works best under pressure."
It's not a new idea. A John Stewart quote with identical meaning found its way to me early last winter as I struggled to make peace with having to return to teaching.
But it was just one of many moments that are standouts as I've prepared for the first day of school, which is Wednesday.
The teacher desk left in my room was a small blond desk-wannabe that would have held my computer and phone with no surface left to spread out and work. While hunting for other furniture, I noticed a huge scarred dark wood slab buried under a pile of tattered books and torn borders. My desk! The one I had before, and loved. Set up in my room now in all its aged battered glory, it greets me every time I step into the room with a broad welcoming expanse and drawers enough for a paper addict's needs.
Vinnie, our district maintenance guy, was in my room fixing cupboard doors. I asked him if he'd seen the work order to move my projection screen (the focal point of the classroom), the thing I needed done much more than I needed doors tightened. He hadn't received that order yet, but took the time to move the screen while he was there, which made it possible for me to finish setting up my furniture.
I returned to my room during a break from meetings on Friday to find a newer computer on my desk. The tech guy, Chase, has months' worth of work that needs to get done before school starts. He can't walk down the hall without a teacher following him throwing out lists of urgent needs. Despite that, he took the time as he set up my computer, without having been asked, to enlarge what shows on the screen so I no longer have to peer through squinted eyes to read.
Sitting in meetings (five days worth in two weeks), something that usually brings out every resistant bone in my body, has been mostly a pleasure. I hadn't realized how much I missed being surrounded by the wonderful quirks and stories and energies of my fellow travelers. I've laughed more (cried more, too), talked more, absorbed more, in the last two weeks than I have in ages.
Yesterday morning I wrote post cards to my new students. The list changes on a daily basis, but since the first time I saw it early last week, I've already begun to love the names. I've also begun to form pictures of some of the kids as fourth grade teachers look to see which of their kids I got. I have siblings of three former students, all families I'm eager to work with again. As I finished each post card, I would set it aside with a blessing and a prayer for that child, our relationship, and their fifth grade year.
Tomorrow is another meeting day. So is Tuesday morning. Tuesday afternoon we have "free" to prepare for Open House Tuesday night. Wednesday morning at least 26 ten-year-olds will step into a new year with me. They'll see this quote by Douglas Pagels on the back bulletin board:
"Each new day is a blank page in the diary of life. The secret of success is in turning that diary into the best story you possibly can."
While I may not be exactly excited to be back, I am confident this year will be full of the best stories I've ever experienced, both mine and my students'. A year of pinnacles to be celebrated, admired, and grateful for. And under all of that, a glimmer of hope that one story in particular will find its way to the surface, and grow into a reality that exceeds my imagination.
Photo of The Pinnacles at Crater Lake taken by Walt.
Saturday, August 20, 2011
My brother Mark and I were walking into a building together when I noticed the row of neatly symmetrical deciduous trees lining the sidewalk. Their unfamiliar tissuey pink flowers, more suited to spring than the hot August day, caught my eye first. The tremendous leaning of the trees toward the parking lot and away from the wall—like ladies in a row looking out together for the bus up the street—stopped us both.
"Do you know why plants lean toward the light?" Mark asked.
My mind immediately went to my elementary school answer. But I know my brother, who used to teach high school science. This was a trick question if ever I heard one.
"Isn't it to reach the sunlight? For photosynthesis?" I answered. "Is there more to it than that?"
And it turns out the answer is yes, to both questions.
I've taught kids for years that plants need light for photosynthesis. It was a relief to know I hadn't somehow been teaching the wrong thing. There is, however, another process called phototropism in which cell growth occurs on the shaded side of leaves, pushing the plant toward the light.
As I marveled at the fact that growth was happening in the shadows, which seems so counter-intuitive, Mark tossed out, "Yup. Growth requires darkness. Life requires light."
We both recognized the power of those words the minute they left his mouth. My brother is experiencing his own time of shadows and intense growth. I'm not sure which of us needed his message more.
Growth happens in the darkness. Growth that nudges a plant toward the source of life. Toward warmth and light that provide nutrition and strength which in turn creates more of the hormone triggering more growth in the shadows.
We're finally having the summer that usually happens in July, or at least much earlier in August. It's hot and sunny. Bright air is full of life-giving light. My life right now feels much like the dark side of those trees. Shadowed with so much inner growth it's nearly impossible to find a comfortable way to be. As the cells on the backs of my inner leaves stretch and expand beyond their previously comfortable walls, I find myself leaning. Off-balance. Seeking the lush light of summer that seems just beyond my reach.
This design offers me much comfort in these days of my return to public education. It gives purpose to the shadows that lurk at every turn, and reminds me that only good can come from what now feels not-so-good. The sun meets my upturned face with a radiance that fills me with all I need to nourish a full flowering, driven by the growth of these dark days.
After our day together, I asked Mark to write about this same experience. He told me this morning that he had (I love it when my brothers listen to me!), but I didn't read his post until after I'd written this. I encourage you to read his story. His explanation of the science exceeds my elementary understanding. His wisdom and heart shine bright in every word.
Monday, August 15, 2011
When I drove into the parking lot of school this morning, I was grateful to see there were no other cars. My first day back after two years away, and I struggled to quiet the fear and anxiety that grew louder during my drive from home, like a geiger counter approaching uranium. I pulled around to the back of the building, just outside my room, and let myself in as quietly as possible. Almost like I was sneaking in, shy to be there.
I'd been prepared for the worst. Expecting dregs as far as furniture and supplies, knowing that all the good stuff would have been scavenged by other teachers at the end of last year. It wasn't the worst, but neither was it good. As I stood in the middle of the room, adjusting to the reality of what I had to work with, I noticed the floors weren't clean.
My original plan had been to go in last week and get started with set-up and planning. I wanted to work my way back into the groove slowly, a few hours at a time. That was derailed by a last-minute directive from our principal to stay out of the building until today, because the custodians needed the extra time to finish the floors.
My initial reaction was to ignore the message and go in anyway. I was mad at the restriction after having been told I could go in early, then upset that my first contact with the new year resulted in my being mad. After listening to the calm counsel of a thoughtful friend, I decided it was wiser (and easier) to accept the change. The result was an extra week of freedom: time with friends, soaking up sun, reading, finishing home projects.
Today I expected to put in a full day to make up for the time I lost last week. But uncleaned carpets and unpolished tiles meant I was stymied. At first I considered moving in anyway, pretending I didn't know the floors weren't done. There was a time when I would have done just that, justifying my actions with my need and the promised completion time.
Instead I went in search of the custodian and information.
As I tracked the sound of her footsteps, I reminded myself to stay focused on what is important and what is not. What matters is relationship, balance, and kindness. Anything attempted or gained through any other means is poisoned. It's not personal. Not about me in any way. None of it. The only thing that's about me is how I respond to what's presented.
When I found her, she seemed surprised to see me in the building, but was friendly. She's new since I was last there. Her name is Glinda (yes, like the Good Witch—I asked), which made me like her instantly. I had to restrain myself from interviewing her on the spot, but I look forward to learning what has to be a wonderful story, both about how she got her name and how it's influenced her life. Instead I asked about the floors, and learned the crew had lost three weeks of work time this summer because of circumstances beyond their control. I explained my time issues. She told me she'd get my carpet done today. I can move in tomorrow.
So I got my soft entry back to school, found the start to an intriguing new story, and gained one more day of freedom. More importantly, I got to see what happens when I shift my view of things just a little. When I choose not to listen to the voice that tells me to fight, and instead seek understanding and connection.
Tomorrow, I'm sure there will be many more opportunities for me to choose the softer view as I begin my search for furniture.
Tuesday, August 9, 2011
Our conversation turned to the perfect day: sunny, balmy, no wind, no bugs.
"It feels like the time for hunting and gathering," the man said. "There's change in the air."
And I knew that to be true, even though I'd been trying not to know. I had been sensing the smallest shift in the color of light, feeling the first inner stirrings of restlessness, seeing the first yellowing of big leaf maple.
Despite the fact that we've hardly had summer, autumn's breath is making itself known.
This is the flat time, neither fully one season nor the other. Summer not quite over, autumn not quite here. Still more summer than not, but past the time where it feels like summer might last forever.
I'm finding feathers everywhere these days, in unusual abundance it seems to me. Owl. Eagle. Jay. An egret feather floating next to us toward the end of the canoe trip that felt like an omen and a gift. As though the birds preparing for migration are sending me invitations to join them.
In the hours we spent paddling the flat water of the marshy refuge, we saw hundreds of dragonflies. At least four different varieties. I considered the contrast between that abundance and the huge numbers of turkey vultures we'd seen as we drove south from home the day before. Both are beings that have always touched me at that intersection of spirit and heart. The vultures whose job it is to clean away that which has died. The dragonflies who symbolize change and spiritual renewal.
A lone bald eagle soared overhead, close enough that his white head and tail, deep brown body, and golden beak were sharply defined against the Crater Lake blue of the sky. Just in case, apparently, I needed the reminder that our day on the water was both love letter and extended hand from the Divine.
A love letter that included a pair of otters playing on the bank, two deer swimming not far ahead of us, shy egrets peering at us through the reeds. A gentle hand that held us for miles of perfect stillness in amiable companionship with each other, ourselves and the world around us.
Change is in the air. It comes in its own time, at its own pace. But it comes. Full of promise, hope, and songs of waiting adventures.
Photos by Walt
Wednesday, August 3, 2011
Like scouts for the Perseid meteor showers due later this month, bits of light flash across the sky of my life. At first I notice one or two shooting stars and they barely register as extraordinary: several days of sunshine in a row, the scent of petunias playing around my head as I relax on our patio.
Then they start to occur with regularity, streaking through with little time between, impossible to register anything but wonder and joy.
A breakfast yesterday with a fairly new friend in which the conversation was deep and satisfying—vulnerable and intimate. As I left the restaurant, running into two former and beloved students and their mom and a sister I can hope to have in a couple of years—hugs and happiness and warmth. From there to coffee with a friend with whom my relationship has grown this summer from an occasional pleasure to a constant source of comfort.
With time to spare before an afternoon appointment, I decide to get a pedicure. My first in two years. A luxury I'd decided to forego along with many other luxuries to better afford my leave time. Sitting in the big black throne of a chair with a breeze dancing through the open door to Enya's voice while my feet and legs are given gentle care. Walking out with a lighter step and purple toes.
More time to spend as I wish. An awareness that time freedom is the greatest gift of all, and soon will be even more precious to me for its rarity.
I go to an office supply store. The fall of my first year of leave, this is what I missed most: having a reason to lose myself in the world of paper and pencils and post-its, and to bring home an abundance of treasures from that place. Yesterday I gave myself that gift. Meandering each aisle as though visiting a familiar trail in the wilderness. Grinning with delight at new choices and products. Starting with a basket, which I quickly trade for a cart, and fill.
At my appointment, finally, hearing myself say, "I have hope." Surprising us both with the words and the depth of the truth underneath.
Coming home to a frantically happy dog and complaining cats, Walt gone to a day of golf, sitting on the patio in the last of the day's warmth and feeling nothing but gratitude.
Each event a clean flash of light, barely faded before the next one follows. As though I were actually lying in the grass of my field watching the shower of miracles, I feel held by the earth. Safe. Grounded. One with it all.
The Perseids are at their most spectacular in the darkest hours of night just before dawn. Bits of rock, distant cousins to the sun, ignited by the speed of their travels, announcing like the Star of Bethlehem the arrival of a new beginning.
photo by Mell P from Planetsave
Wednesday, July 27, 2011
The soft soil under my bare feet is both damp and warm. I stand rolling plump purplish pearls between thumb and index finger, one at a time, dropping them into the bucket belted at my waist. The one lone chickadee whose lunch I interrupted when I came out into the garden has long since flown. My mouth is full of blueberry nectar. My teeth wait patiently for the next frosted orb to pop.
One of the gifts of this strange summer is a very late crop which has somehow fooled the robins into leaving me the first picking of blueberries. Every other year I've had to wait until they got their fill and make do with the second or third round of ripening. I never mind sharing, but still enjoy the rare treat of the best my blueberry bushes have to offer.
The sun plays hide and seek behind the clouds, and the wind seems to be in on the game in gusts that reveal the light in increasingly long stretches. I absorb the heat into my skin, through the top of my head, like parched earth soaking up rain. And for the first time in days, I'm able to release my breath fully.
The reality of the next chapter of my life grows larger and more certain with each day that falls away. I look at the bright side, count my blessings, don't borrow trouble. I embrace each new day for the gifts it brings. I focus on the positive: being with kids, an income, the fact that I'm good at this thing I thought I'd never have to do again. And still the sadness works its way to the surface, and it will be heard no matter how hard I try not to give it power.
In the stillness of my blueberries I remember a June day two years ago when I was so full of joy and hope and determination. I was surrounded by an abundance of love and support; there was no way I wasn't going to fly where I meant to go, and beyond. I remember a year of adventure: agents queried, classes taken, classes taught, learning about the world of publication, making new friends, writing every day and feeling like a real writer to my bones. I remember a second year, this last one, that held as much darkness as the first year did light: realizing it's going to take longer to write this book than I'd ever anticipated, coming face to face with economic realities, a series of deaths, and now living with the impending loss of both freedom and the original shape of my dreams.
Popping a handful of blue sugar into my mouth I recall the long conversation I had yesterday with my friend and new teammate Kelly. Her presence in my life is one of those incongruities that leave no doubt about the presence and intervention of the Divine. Our story started this way. And now she's my guide back to a place I don't want to be. I couldn't ask for a better companion for this leg of my journey. We talked about kids and calendars and projects. She answered my many questions with patience and humor. We laughed—a lot.
My fingers gently tug berry after berry into the bucket. Wind stirs the tops of the trees and the clouds are magically gone. Sun keeps me company. Earth holds me, grounds me. I hold it all in this moment: gratitude to my generous friend, grief at one more loss, a flicker of anticipation at what the unknown future might hold.
Thursday, July 21, 2011
"Deb, come here." The tension in Walt's voice told me I was being summoned to see something I'd be sorry to miss if I didn't move. I hurried into the dining room where he was looking out the bay window through binoculars. On the far end of our field, perched in a large Douglas fir, were two owls—my owls. Out in broad daylight, pretty far from the meadow where I usually see them.
Walt had come in just a few afternoons before with an owl feather he'd found in our yard. (I do know how lucky I am to be married to someone who offers me gifts of sightings and feathers.) And yesterday, not too long after watching the owls preen and perch, as I was looking for a gift to offer a friend, I realized I have an abundance of owl feathers. Enough that sharing didn't feel like a sacrifice (although for this friend, I would have made the sacrifice gladly).
Spotting the owls for the first time last summer was one of the highlights of the season for me. Since then they've become a regular part of my life. I listen for them whenever I'm outside, or for the screeching jays that tell me they're near. My summer days start with their sleepy squawks. My winter days start with their mating hoots and calls.
I'm just beginning to realize that owls have joined the ranks of eagles and hawks and the myriad of songbirds that provide color and music to my days. No longer a novelty. A regular every-day occurrence. Still thrilling to behold.
When I catch a glimpse of one flying away from me, just a second or two too late for the full experience of owl flight, it no longer feels like I've missed something irretrievable. I know there will be another time, another sighting, and probably sooner rather than later.
The sheer glory of living a life in which abundance is measured in feathers and wings and avian variety is a gift beyond measure. To know that whenever I step outside I can expect to have my breath swept away by some small miracle of life. Each one is a tiny explosion of joyous light in the darkness of this grieving time.
Seeing my owls, knowing they're nocturnal and not that easy to spot under any circumstances, makes me consider what else exists in the trees and air around me. Birds, critters, possibilities that are just beyond my sensory grasp.
A fine definition of faith. A certainty of the existence of that which you can't actually see or experience sensually. Faith made stronger by the unlikely, unexpected, but regular appearance of my owls. If I know such wonders as great horned owls and their babies, bald eagles soaring over my head, hummingbirds peering into my eyes with curiosity, it seems easier somehow to trust in the existence of all the wonders I haven't yet met.
Monday, July 18, 2011
For twenty-four years on this summer morning I awoke not seeing the unfolding day. My vision turned inward as I wondered: What does she look like? Who is she with? Is she happy?
Did she miss me? Did she wonder where I was, what I looked like, if I was happy? Could she feel my love and longing from whatever distance separated us?
Happy Birthday, my daughter, I would whisper throughout the day. And while for the rest of the year I wouldn't allow myself to dwell, on this day my heart would open as fully as possible to knowing my child was out there somewhere. Blowing out candles on a cake prepared by another mom.
I imagined her at one: chubby legs, gleeful smile, reaching arms. A darker-skinned, curly-haired version of myself at that age. I imagined her at five, starting kindergarten: eager to learn, bravely facing a world away from home. I imagined her at sixteen: beautiful, spirited, on the cusp of an easier life than I could have given her.
On Kathleen's eighteenth birthday I imagined her beginning her search for me as she prepared for college and a career.
When she really did find me the spring before she turned twenty-five, I was certain we'd spend every birthday together from that time forward.
By July of that year she'd already begun the reaching out and withdrawing that would become the hallmark of our relationship. There was always a good reason she wasn't available to spend the day with me. One involving her children or her parents. One I couldn't argue against for the simple reason I had given up all rights to her and could only accept what she was willing to give. There were always promises of next year.
For her twenty-fifth birthday, our first in each other's lives, I bought her a ring. A ruby. Her birthstone. I wanted her to have something she could wear every day that would remind her how much I loved her. How much I'd always loved her. When she cancelled our plans at the last minute, I put the ring away, thinking I'd give it to her the next year. It sat in a drawer for a number of years before I finally mailed it to her. Still hoping that next year would be different.
Sixteen years of hoping. Sixteen years in which I could at least picture her clearly, and hear her voice or see her words.
Last year when she turned forty I wrote this and emailed her and told her I'd like her to read it. I meant it as an offering of understanding and love. A reaching out to embrace her. She saw only the acknowledgment of her mental illness and pulled even farther away.
I woke up this morning to a dawn in which I once more wonder where she is. What happens to the spirit of a young woman who feels too much pain to continue to live? As I send my heart out into the pinking sky, searching for some sign of her, I find only emptiness and sadness in the fog softened air. To have come full circle in this way leaves me spinning.
I wonder now how her daughter is, and her other mother, on this day. Her two sons. Her ex-husband. I wonder if she can, wherever she is, finally feel how loved she is. If she sees how much she's missed. If she knows peace.
Friday, July 15, 2011
It's one of those friendships where you can't remember ever not being friends, even though you know the beginning wasn't that long ago.
I knew her first as a parent. Sandi's older daughter was in my (all time favorite) fifth grade class. Sometime in the two years before I had her younger daughter (whose class I also adored), we discovered a sisterhood that has only grown stronger over the last dozen years or more. My first clear memory of us is a lunch during which we shared Readers' Digest condensed versions of our stories. I can still feel the delight I realized as so many of our life experiences overlapped.
She was working as a teaching assistant, and was one of those helping and involved parents all teachers treasure. Then she became a teacher herself, was hired before the ink was dry on her certificate, and eventually became my teaching partner.
We had so much fun. We shared ideas, supplies, solutions to problems with each other. We held each other up when the weight of the job got to be too much for one person to bear alone. We pushed each other's buttons from time to time (much like sisters), but never lost our connection or our desire to work together. Then I changed districts and we lost touch for a time, except for a random email now and then and an annual antiquing expedition.
Sometime in the last couple of years, our emails became more frequent, and we found our friendship waiting for us right where we'd left off. It hasn't lost any of its magic, and has perhaps even acquired more. She asked me the other day if I'd read a particular book, one not that well-known. I had just ordered it from the library, and neither of us was that surprised because it's not the first time that's happened.
Sandi wanted to start a blog, so we spent some hours together as I helped her set it up (one of my favorite things to do). For a long time, she was shy about having anyone read her writing, even though she's a brilliant writer with amazing stories to tell.
Finally, my great friend Sandi is ready for a larger audience. She's housebound right now recovering from knee replacement surgery, and the writing she's doing about that experience will make you wince and laugh and be very grateful for limbs that work well.
I hope you'll give yourself the gift of her stories and visit her at Flying into the Light. I promise you won't be sorry.
Monday, July 11, 2011
His needs are few: a ball, shadows to chase, the companionship of his pack. He finds ecstasy in the scent of deer, swimming for a stick in the river, and belly scratches. He grins wildly when one of us returns after a long day. He is the picture of abject defeat when an invitation to play is not responded to with enthusiasm.
Like Dug the dog in the movie Up, his weakness is squirrels. He'll explode out the back door, into the bird area, ready to chase, before he's even checked to see if there are any squirrels there. Since there almost always are, he's rarely disappointed. He's never caught one, but I'm not entirely convinced he couldn't if he really wanted to.
It's all or nothing with this dog. Full tilt or catatonic. He still will not obey automatically—there's always a space of time, sometimes long, in which he decides for himself. He'll do anything for a treat, though, whether commanded to or not. Sit. Lie down. Sit. Speak. Lie Down. Sit. All in a dizzying routine during which his bright eyes never leave the desired treasure.
He's the earliest bird in the house. His inner alarm is highly accurate, but has no adjustment for weekends or mornings I might want to sleep in. My day always starts with the sound of his ninety pounds hurtling down the stairs and his nose bumping whatever part of me he can reach easily.
He is single-minded—persistent in a way that defines faith. If he wants a thing, he believes it will happen if only he waits long enough or asks loudly enough. He seems not to know about impossible. It doesn't matter whether it's convincing me it's time for his walk, or time to play, or he needs loves—he's certain it will happen.
This is a dog who has never met a stranger or an enemy. Every new person is both his friend and a potential playmate. He willingly shares his toys, even with the canine companions of human visitors. He never lets rejection interfere with his friendliness, and always gives people as many chances as it takes for them to recognize the gifts he offers.
Sharing a home with three cats is not something all dogs could do with as much forbearance as he. He tolerates Emma's romancing of his face and curling up between his front legs. He avoids Cooper (won't even look at her) because she's been known to hit for no good reason. And when Grace decides she wants his food, he backs away (and looks longingly for me to rescue him).
Just looking at Toby lifts my heart. His magnificence, his quiet power, the light he radiates. His smell feels like home. Stroking his ears, still so much like angel's wings even in adulthood, soothes all the way to my center. It's impossible to be with him and not smile. The comfort he offers, the joy he creates, just by being his grand doggy self is a gift beyond measure.
Wednesday, July 6, 2011
Part of the trail Toby and I take has become so overgrown I only know it's there because we've walked it so many times. Bracken ferns tower over my head and wrap me in a soft embrace of fronds and pungent, almost-sweet perfume. Sunlight filters through just enough to illuminate the green, but the wind that keeps me company like another playful puppy doesn't follow me into the thicket.
There's no room for anything else in this space except sound: a soft insect buzz; the gruff gronking conversation of the raven pair who showed up in my sky earlier this summer; Toby crashing through the brush in search of scent. I am cocooned, and very very still.
Walt and I have spent the last few days trimming trees in our yard. Old Douglas firs whose lower branches block light from neighboring planting areas. A newer sequoia, one of the first things we planted when we moved here twenty summers ago, grown far beyond our earlier envisioned boundaries. A red twig dogwood that exploded from a one-gallon clump into a small forest of its own.
I've always been reluctant to remove even a few branches from our trees, unwilling to give up the shield and security they provide. Pruning has always felt so brutal to me. The removal of living parts. Going from lush wild growth to controlled cut angularity. But things have finally reached the point where I recognize that if the trees don't get trimmed, other plants will die from lack of sunlight and overcrowding.
The work itself was pleasant and satisfying, even with sore muscles and the unavoidable scrapes and bruises. The results were surprising. Because we'd been intent on creating light for smaller plants, I hadn't really focused on what else was being opened up. Our view beyond the fence line has been expanded considerably. In the back yard, we can see a neighbor's place clearly at the far side of our field. A place of cute outbuildings and bee boxes and a huge garden. A sight that both soothes and brings smiles.
In the front yard, for the first time ever, we can see the top of our immediate neighbor's house just behind the cedar fence that backs the sequoia. It was that sight that got my attention.
I love our neighbors, but I don't love seeing their house. For a few minutes I wished hard that we could put back a few of the branches we'd worked so hard to chop off. This was exactly why I'd always been so against trimming. And I couldn't even blame Walt because I'd been right there with him.
As I stood staring at the offending housetop, my focus shifted ever so slightly. I saw the rich red trunk of the sequoia fringed with sword ferns at its base. I saw the smoke bush already reaching toward the new light. I saw open ground ready to receive new life. I realized that eventually I'll see only green again, but it will be healthier, more diverse, richer.
Caught in the spell of the prehistoric ferns, a part of me wants to stay right here in this moment forever. No pain. No loss. No fear. Nothing but now. But I get restless, and I haven't heard Toby for a bit, so I move forward into a clearing that is as blue and open as the trail was green and enclosed. Against that brilliant backdrop that opens to forever is a trio of leafless twigs, upon which rest two dragonflies. My old friends of a couple of summers ago, here now reminding me of their message of renewal and insight—the end of illusion and clearer vision into life's realities.
Gifts of light, given as grace, received with gratitude.
Tuesday, June 28, 2011
The early days of my grieving for Kathleen were done in the cold dark of early winter. There was comfort in the starkness of weather that matched my interior. Bare trees and hard ground. Biting air driven into bone by fierce winds. Clouds, deep gray and heavy with moisture released in torrents of rain or damping blankets of snow.
Now in the lush green moistness of June I adjust to a world without a mother. And I find equal comfort in daily reminders of the irrepressibility of life.
This is the season of fledging. There's a new baby owl in the meadow below us. The bald eagles that have nested somewhere to the north spent a recent Sunday teaching a dark and awkward eaglet how to fly. Stellar's jay babies chase parents around the bird feeders, demanding to be fed in pre-teen boy voices.
Our wildflower area surprised us this year with a profusion of foxglove. The rich exuberance of color, texture and sheer abundance offers a visual delight that never fails to lift my heart, even on the harder days.
Although this has been a cooler and wetter year than normal, the world around me seems not to have noticed. Mornings are full of wild birdsong. The river chuckles and chortles its way to the ocean. Deer visit. Coyotes claim the night with their yips and howls. Rabbits graze the lawn.
The wind is warm and gentle, so full of promise and hope, I long to be carried away in its arms.
After Mom's service last weekend, my youngest brother drove to our old home while the rest of us began the long trek back to our lives. He posted pictures on our family site, and I wasn't far into the slide show before I realized something was missing.
The place was sold to a large corporation whose plans for it never materialized. So it has sat for years just as it was left, a tiny ghost town consisting of house, garage, barns and overgrown trees. A caretaker lived in a trailer at the back of the property, but it was always possible to visit and step easily into childhood memory.
I drove out just two years ago—walked through the house, wandered outside a bit, and knew for the first time ever that I would never find the answers I was looking for there.
Still, it was a shock when I realized, looking at Geoff's pictures, that the house had been torn down. Nothing remains but a crumpled pile of aluminum roofing and flat ground. Something about the finality of the razed house drove home the finality of Mom's death, and the death of those remaining childhood hopes and illusions.
I watched picture after picture of bare ground surrounded by trees, a disorienting array of proof that our childhood home was really gone. In the background were the barns and old garage, all soft around the edges, slowly melting into the ground. Then, toward the end, there was a shot of yellow roses that seemed out of place with all that evidence of destruction.
Mom loved yellow roses, the wildly fragrant climbing kind, and Dad had planted these outside the milking parlor where she spent so much of her time. Here they were, untended and undaunted, growing into June against cold gray concrete, as they had every summer for decades. Hardy enough to withstand the cruel North Idaho winters. Hardy enough to thrive in the short summers. Hardy enough to survive from a beginning that might have preordained them to die without the care so many roses require.
My daughter is gone. My mother is gone. Someday, I will be gone. But until that time, I journey in a world that sings life at the top of its lungs. That shines light so bright the darkness has no chance to win. That reaches into my heart and releases love, gratitude and hope.
Tuesday, June 21, 2011
Sitting in the living room of my brother Geoff''s Seattle area home I noticed the copper box on the mantel. "Is that Mom?" I asked my sister-in-law. We were leaving early the next morning to take the ashes of both our parents to their final resting place very close to where we grew up in North Idaho.
"No, that's Dad," she said. He'd been stored away for the last twenty years because Mom wanted him close and then buried with her. I looked at my brother Mark, sitting next to me, then back at my SIL.
SIL turned ten shades of pale, shrieked, and went for the phone. Mom's ashes were at the funeral home and they'd forgotten to get them earlier in the day. By the time of our conversation, the place had been closed for over an hour.
It looked like we were going to have a burial service for Mom without Mom.
Mark and I looked at each other again, and had to look away because we were both on the edge of giggles. And it was at that point I knew I'd finally let go of my last lingering expectation for how the weekend needed to go.
In the previous days I'd found myself wondering if I was going to have to retract all I'd said about the legacy of love that was our mom's best gift to us. During the planning of her burial service, every lingering bit of family dysfunction popped to the surface as we struggled to communicate through our grief. My hopes for the weekend of our saying goodbye to Mom were first tipped off-kilter, then turned on their head, and finally shattered completely.
I had struggled to accept the changes, to resist declaring big sister edicts, to hang on to my belief that none of us were really in control of how things turned out. Once I grasped that the fantasy weekend I'd created in my mind was more about my little girl need than anything else, and that I could take care of that in other ways, I began to let go and look forward to the surprises.
My ability to laugh at the possibility that Mom might not even be at her own burial told me I'd achieved the equanimity I was working so hard for.
Of course everything turned out better than any of us could have hoped for.
Ten people: Mom's four children, two daughters-in-law, two grandchildren, a favorite cousin, a friend. Each of us there because her life mattered to us, and because we loved her enough to drive the many miles and brave the blustery weather to gather and say goodbye.
Mark led the ceremony, and as he told stories about Mom's life that made us laugh and cry, I thought about what a gift he has for speaking. Frank, the older brother, had organized the tent and chairs and flowers in addition to making all the reservations for the weekend. He reserved a room for the dinner afterwards and created a game involving facts about Mom's life that had us talking about her and our growing-up for hours. Geoff had taken on all the responsibilities around Mom's care for her later years, including the end-of-life jobs of the last days.
And he managed to get someone to open the funeral home and give us Mom's ashes on Friday evening.
My role was small. I read a letter to Mom at the service. I asked tons of questions and shared information. I stood back, and looked for ways to help. I released my expectations, stepped out of safe roles, and kept my whole and best self as present as possible.
As we placed the ashes of our parents side by side in the small hole, and left them with two roses—one white, one red—there was a definite sense of completion. Mark had shared with me a vision he had of Mom walking away from her old body into the light—radiant, forever young, joyful. I walk forward now in a world without a mother. Missing, perhaps always, the lost possibilities, but free in ways I'm just beginning to realize. Backlit by the place of all Love where she is finally at rest, and walking in the company of my beloved brothers.
Tuesday, June 14, 2011
As I sort through the box of old pictures and papers in preparation for Mom's burial service on Saturday, my history takes shape like glorious and intricate spiders' webs revealed in bright sunlight. New images surface. Pictures appear that I would swear were not there before. Or I'll see something in a familiar picture that weaves an entirely new connection.
There are contradictions and confusions. A last name spelled three different ways. Two different wedding books with two different dates and locations for one marriage. Evidence that the stories heard in childhood might not have been completely true.
Mom's mom, always more legend than human, reveals little of herself, even after a thorough focused search through the box.
Velma LaJene Conley Cain Williams. Mom used to tell us she'd died when Mom was eighteen months old, of alcoholism. In the childhood stories my grandmother Velma was half Cherokee, the daughter of royalty, a princess. Mysterious. Wild. Romantic. She and my grandfather Mahlon had loved each other deeply and he was devastated by her death. I used to stand and stare at her picture, hoping beyond hope that I might grow up to be that beautiful. Wishing beyond reason that she had lived, certain she would have been the one person who truly understood and loved me.
There is no information about Velma's family. No way to know for certain about her Cherokee heritage. No explanation for the fact that her last name has a number of different spellings, or why she had a second last name before she was married to my grandfather. No explanation for the two different wedding dates. And of course everyone who might be able to answer those questions is gone.
The fact that Velma was twenty-two when she died really hit me for the first time this week. Married at seventeen, mother to Mark at eighteen, mother to Joyce at twenty, and gone less than two years later. Twenty-two is so young, and seems too young to me for alcohol to have been the primary cause of her death.
I also noticed that there are many pictures of Velma with her first-born, her son, and I only have one of her with Mom. It's a haunting picture—she had to have died not too long after it was taken. What stands out even more is the gleeful grin on my mother's baby face. A smile none of us ever saw from the adult version of her, and that isn't evident in any of the pictures taken as she grew into womanhood.
I wonder at the webs of memory Mom wove to create a mother for herself. She wouldn't have remembered much beyond what her body held from a year and half of whatever love and attention Velma gave her. Any stories were told by her dad's family: the grandparents who raised her and the aunt who big-sistered her. A family who felt their son had married beneath his station. A family who did not approve of his half Indian wife. It seems likely her best pictures of her mom would have been woven of imagination and longing.
I hope a circle has been fulfilled with Mom's death—that she's somehow with the mother she needed so badly and learned to live without. That she's bathed in the maternal love she spent her life convincing herself she didn't need. And maybe even that the two of them are caring for my daughter until it's my time to join them all.
Wednesday, June 8, 2011
The two men worked side by side in a state of perfectly synchronized concentration on the job before them. Both in their fifties, their mirrored hairlines and mustaches marking them as brothers. I stood by as invisibly as possible, thrilled to be witness to their closeness and their ease with one another.
As we worked throughout the day setting up Mark's expanded antique space, I felt such gratitude for the relationships the four of us have forged in the last few years. Our older brother had been there helping the night before and would check in with us repeatedly throughout the day.
As adult siblings raised in a home where we rarely got beyond survival, the fact that we've grown so close is a blessing beyond belief. It's not always easy to find common ground, and our differences often create challenges that require a strong inclination to forgive. However, these three men, my younger brothers, are the people I love the most and feel the safest with (except for Walt). I know without doubt that they'd do anything for me, as I would for them.
Our mom died on Monday, two days after we set up Mark's space. She'd been in a nursing home for years, and just recently been placed in the care of Hospice. So her death wasn't unexpected, but neither were we prepared for it to be so soon.
In the hours after we were notified, I was amazed at the flurry of phone calls between us. Everyone talked to everyone else, and some of us talked a number of times. Through the physical shock of the first onset of grief I was aware and deeply grateful that we were reaching out to each other automatically.
As many of you know, I had a complicated relationship with my mom. One which I've spent most of my life reconciling, and one that I'd come to accept for what it was. I discovered in the last few years that I'd forgiven her to the point of loving her and feeling compassion for the difficult life she endured.
She was 79, and had been lost in the canyons of dementia for years. Before then she was reclusive, shy, and intensely private. Her childhood was a nightmare we only learned the barest bones about well after our own childhoods were distant memories. She was an equal partner in our dairy, kept books for other businesses, raised four children, and cared for her sick husband in his last months. She loved flowers and puzzles and little dogs. Giving gifts made her happier than just about anything else. She was a bad cook who still managed to create memorable meals that continue to speak comfort to us. She believed God would provide. She had beautiful hands, and when I was a girl I thought she looked just like a young Elizabeth Taylor.
There weren't many calls to make, and there won't be a public memorial service or a funeral. There aren't many people for whom her death holds any meaning at all.
Except for her four children. We are her legacy, and I hope that she can finally enjoy what she created and shaped. We are resilient, productive and resourceful. We are creative, amazing problem-solvers, and easily generous. By a number of different measures, we are successful and contributing members of society. And we love each other.
As we've spoken in the last couple of days, it's clear we're all grieving. And that may be the greatest part of her legacy. That somehow, in spite of enduring all her wounding words and coldness and mercurial moods, we emerged as adults who love. Somehow, in spite of the crooked brokenness with which she loved us, each of us has found a way to encircle her with love. Somehow, the love she felt for her babies, and lost hold of along the way, was enough for us to remember - was the seed from which a stronger softer love could grow in each of us.
|The first picture of Mom as a mother.|