Monday, December 17, 2012
This is a season of darkness. Night barely gives day a chance to speak, and even then the skies are thick with rain-dense clouds. Terrible things are born in the deep shadows, then burst forth into the light before being consumed completely by their own black hearts.
Two years ago today, my adult daughter was overcome by her own inner darkness, unable to believe that light could break through. Many days now I don't think of her at all. But when I do, the thing that strikes me over and over again is the permanence of her death. There will be no more chances for her, for us, for a different sort of future.
On this unwanted anniversary I think about the other members of this club who helped me find my way in the earlier days of grieving. I know they mark their own anniversaries in a variety of ways. I know we've all learned to live and love though hearts exploded and tender and healing. I know the ending of our children's lives was just the beginning of a whole new landscape of endings for us.
The club grew by a significant number last week in a public and horrifying way.
This is also a season of hope. In a few days the Christian world celebrates the birth of a baby whose presence is a promise to defeat darkness forever. A birth symbolized by a shining star, one brilliant diamond of light in a night sky. A birth so threatening to the forces of darkness that great efforts were made to extinguish the light of that babe before he had a chance to become. Yet become he did.
In these last weeks as I've rested and healed, time has stretched long before me. Without the day-to-day to distract, and in the midst of gray gray hours, sparks that fill existence frequently unnoticed seem to be showering down:
A hundred Pine Siskins filling the air with fairy music, flurries of feathers, and flashes of sunlight embedded in their wings. Tame. Fearless. One so close I might have reached out to touch.
A Bald Eagle flying low and close, the first I've seen in months.
The kindness of friends willing to take time out of busy lives to make mine easier in a myriad of ways.
An owl duet in the pre-dawn.
Lilac buds, tight and green and full of promise.
A morning with my mom as I made apple butter, using her recipe, my house filled with the perfume of cinnamon and cloves and forgiveness. I'm sorry she had to die before I could share my kitchen and my heart comfortably with her. I'm happy that even without her physical presence, it's not too late to learn to love her better.
The pulsing rhythms of drumming class that make music with my heartbeat and chase shadows to the far reaches of awareness.
Packages of heirloom sweet pea seeds, ordered, arrived and now waiting for the season to turn so the dormant life can be buried and then resurrected into fragrant, fragile blooms reaching and twining their way to the sun.
This is a season, too, of unlimited possibility—of choosing to see the sparks. We can reach out to each other in love. We can speak gratitude. We can pray. We can remember that astonishing beauty grows from the deepest darkness.
Saturday, December 8, 2012
I walked through the challenges of the first three weeks like a deer eating her way through the tender leaves and buds of June roses—the thorns barely registering. Every new day brought the gift of new healing, less pain, an ability restored. Last weekend brought my first opportunity to go out into the world, and I embraced that as fully as I had all the rest.
Saturday was lunch out with my dear friend, Patricia, then a long and satisfying visit at home with my teammate and friend, Kelly. I was tired at the end of the day. Well more than tired, but I had an even better day planned for Sunday, so I ignored it.
Sunday was the first day since my surgery that looked and felt like a regular day. Walt and I went to breakfast at The Cricket, our favorite place on Belmont in Portland. Then we went to drumming class just down the street. Then we went to Costco. It was a perfect late fall day, cool and crisp and dry. A pretty standard Sunday for us. Fun. Productive. Relaxed.
Except for all the other Sundays I hadn't just had major surgery three weeks before. And by the time we got home I could barely move. I found Tylenol and ice and my chair while Walt unloaded and put away everything, and got dinner together. I couldn't get comfortable at bedtime and spent the night right on the edge of sleep, beyond exhausted.
I had an appointment Monday morning, which my kind friend Daune drove me to. I actually felt pretty well for that, but by the time Daune dropped me off at home just before noon, I knew I was done for the day. And maybe done for more than just a day.
Perhaps the hardest part of this whole process has been to allow my body to tell me how much I can do each day. To be present and to listen carefully. Nothing is automatic and I have to consider each step I take and each task I choose to take on. Energy is a finite resource, and when it runs out, I sputter to a stop like an unwound wind-up toy. There is no pushing through as I could in pre-surgery days.
So when last weekend my body seemed to say, yes let's try stepping out into the world, I embraced the permission like a long lost friend.
And I stopped listening to the signals.
It's a pattern for me. This is not the first time I've found myself facing a line. On one side is optimal circumstance, exactly where I'm supposed to be. Experience tells me the other side is too much. But because the line moves—every day I can do a little bit more than I could the day before, in life as well as in this healing process—I feel the need to test it constantly. I nudge. I push. I step over.
I step back. This week I took a giant step back. For three days I iced and rested and walked and exercised and iced and rested some more. I listened carefully to every little thing my body had to say. I did what it asked without complaint. By yesterday I was sleeping better, the soreness had receded, and there was a literal spring in my step. I realized I could take several balanced steps without my walker, and I managed a 40 minute outside walk with my walker.
It's a new weekend and my body is saying, Okay let's try this again. Today I'm going to drive for the first time. A short distance, with Walt in the car beside me so if my body says enough, I'll be able to listen and step back. Tomorrow we're going to Tacoma to hear my brother Mark sing in his church's Christmas program, a yearly tradition that is one of my favorite holiday events. Walt will drive. I'll sit in a correct posture, wearing my compression hose. We'll take breaks so I can walk. I'll take ice and Tylenol. I'll nap on the way home. I'll stay behind the line.
I know I'll challenge the line again. Sooner rather than later probably. Like my blue eyes and my curved pinkies, wanting just a little bit more seems to be an unalterable part of me. Fortunately, knowing that, and feeling the consequences of overstepping this last week, will keep me from wandering too far away from myself. At least for a little while.
Friday, November 30, 2012
It's been almost three weeks. A short lifetime of culture shock and new experiences I never expected to have. Not one bit of this time has been horrible, and most of it has held gifts that break my heart open wide at every turn.
Everything about the morning of November 12 was calm. I gave information and followed directions. I said "right hip" repeatedly. I laughed at silly comments meant to ease stress. I didn't smack the overweight, overtired, over-it nurse who couldn't get my IV port in, although Walt looked like he was considering it. I marveled at how many different people I was handed off to in such a short amount of time.
I remember thinking how huge the operating room looked and how medieval some of the tools seemed. There were masked people moving around quietly with clear purpose. I scooted onto a narrow table, swung my legs around to sit as the nurse directed, and saw the anesthesiologist out of the corner of my eye shoot something into the IV port.
The next thing I remember was being asked if I wanted water, if I'd like to get a clean gown, if I could move my feet. It wasn't noon yet. I was snaky with tubes and sticky with I-didn't-know-what and the space between my hip and knee felt like someone had implanted a two-by-four.
For the next two and a half days I lived in a world of diminishment. Diminished freedom. Diminished abilities. Diminished mental capacity. For a while it was also a world of no pain. And when the pain made itself known, the thing I'd worried about most, it was not the devouring monster I'd feared. It certainly was no worse than what I'd been living with. Narcotics helped - given freely and often.
From the beginning I knew that all of it was temporary. Which made the catheter easier to tolerate, and the moaning patient in the room next door, and the absolute weirdness of the whole situation. I'd been telling myself for weeks that every part of the surgical process and all of the accommodations would only be with me for a short time. And in that I decided I could bear anything.
I was right about the temporary part. And very wrong about my decision to bear the experience. There has been nothing to bear. It's all been interesting and freeing. Every minute of every day brings new movement, new healing, new awareness that more has changed for me than a new hip.
Not all has been perfect for sure. There was the night, as I tried unsuccessfully to swing my legs into bed, I fell over nearly in tears with the frustration of not being able to make my body move. There were a couple of days when I overdid (taking my walker for longer walks than I was ready for) and worried that I'd set myself back. And there was the whole detox experience after quitting the oxycodone which caught me by surprise.
But, in what seems to be a new normal for me, the good has far outweighed the not-so-good.
I have traveled these weeks in the most amazing company imaginable. Friends visiting me in the hospital - who knew that would be so fun, so delightful? Flowers. Text messages. Cards. Phone calls. Meals dropped off. Lovely and loving women sitting on my couch visiting, or bringing me a hamburger in the hospital, or baking bread in my kitchen. Brothers reaching out, each in their own way, taking my breath away with their generosity and prayers and attention. Walt doing laundry, cleaning the litter box, cooking Thanksgiving dinner. Walt bringing me little gifts that made me smile and reminded me how lucky I am that he's in my life.
Acts of kindness and thoughtfulness given in grace and without expectation for anything in return. I'm humbled, and so happy to know that this is the life I've earned.
Emma and Toby are my constant companions. Toby is tickled to have me home, but doesn't understand how it's possible that I'm going walking without him. Emma has taken full advantage of the new lap opportunities. I study them, and marvel at the miracle of their presence in my life.
Toby at five is mellow and sweet and affectionate. I look at him and know we're probably halfway through his life, and always feel the smallest pinch of sadness, but even more feel so grateful for his grand company.
Emma at twenty and some months is my North Star through this time. I know for certain that her days are numbered. She's mostly deaf, having a hard time jumping, her coat is lumpy and stringy, and she wobbles when she walks after sleeping for a while. Her beautiful tabby face often has the pinched look of an old cat, something I haven't seen until recently. She still demands attention, food, a faucet turned on. She still purrs. She sits on my chest as I do my physical therapy.
These days at home allowing my body to heal and my self to return contain the surprise gift of extra time with Emma. And in that I've gained this most amazing insight that there is nothing beyond love that is not temporary. I stroke her fur, rub noses, take in her yeasty breath, knowing that soon all I'll have left of her is memories and the love I've learned with her in our time together. So everything can be lived with, and every minute should be treasured, even the hard ones, because nothing lasts.
Nothing lasts. Not pain. Not constraints. Not even grief. It all changes, expands, diffuses with each passing moment.
Only love. And that clearly has the power to make everything else shrink into the shadows with the brilliance of its confident and perfect light.
I'm headed out into the cold gray of this first day of December. I'll walk until my leg says no, enjoying each smooth and rolling step, not limping, and knowing tomorrow I will probably walk a little farther, a little easier - knowing soon my walking companion will be Toby again, and not my walker. I claim all that this day offers with gratitude, knowing tomorrow will be a whole new adventure in itself.
Sunday, November 11, 2012
It's been less than a month since I first saw the surgeon who will give me a new hip in the morning. From the moment I limped out of his office into a beautiful fall afternoon I felt changed. It took some time for me to identify what the change was.
At first I felt shocky. I had just willingly decided to have a part of my body removed and replaced with metal and ceramic. After a lifetime characterized by an avoidance of all things medical, my world was suddenly about to be full of doctors and procedures and endless questions about every nook and cranny of my body.
By the next day as I talked to the scheduling nurse to set up the four appointments necessary before the surgery, I found myself more curious than anything. This was a whole new world for me with new people to meet, a new language to learn, new stuff to experience. And it had started to sink in that on the other side of the surgery I would walk fluidly on both legs again with no joint pain.
As I talked to the people who line my life with their soft and grace-filled care and love, I heard gratitude and wonder in my explanations of what was coming for me. "I'm getting a new hip!" "Isn't it amazing to live in a time where joint replacements are so common?" "I feel so blessed to have the resources to be able to do this."
Overwhelmed at times by the long list of school and life chores I felt I needed to get done before surgery, I managed most of the time to stay present and to do calmly what was in front of me to do. As the time grew shorter, however, I found myself doing odd things like writing and rewriting lists, organizing drawers and cleaning out my email address book. Finally on Wednesday last week, although I'd heard her say it many times before, when my best school friend Kelly said, "Let it go," I was finally able to.
Last weekend I was in the kitchen fixing dinner when I heard a thump. The unique thump that told me another bird had flown into the bay window of our dining area. When I went to investigate, there was a round spot of dust and feathers in the middle of the window. I moved closer, scanning the ground, not sure I wanted to see what might be there, hoping against hope I would see nothing.
I saw a fairly large bird, big-sparrow-sized, not the junco I expected. It sat with its back to the window, clearly stunned, but also clearly alive. Something was off though. The head didn't look right and for a minute I thought maybe it had been smashed in the collision. But then it started to rotate — slowly, slowly, slowly in my direction. Owl!
A Northern Pygmy Owl to be precise. Only the second I've ever seen. Certainly not a regular visitor to our feeders. I stood and watched it for the longest time. Walt ended up finishing dinner. While I studied that amazing little bird and watched it slowly regain its equilibrium, I was filled with a sense of joy and well-being. Not a new feeling exactly, but one brightened and enhanced in some way. After a bit, it was clear the owl was going to be okay—his head rotations increased both in number and speed—so I wasn't at all surprised when he flew to the fir tree at the side of our yard.
For the rest of that evening I returned again and again to both the owl and the feeling. Wondering why I was moved far beyond my normal reaction. And I realized somewhere in those meandering thoughts that I had been feeling that joy and sense of well-being, a feeling of everything being exactly right, since the day I walked out of the surgeon's office.
And more, I had been feeling— I still do—like I'd been opened. By making myself vulnerable to this great medical adventure, somehow I let go of defenses I wasn't aware I still held. And in that openness, underneath the skin of protection, I found a tenderness that exceeds anything I've ever known. The tenderness makes everything so much more - like new skin, or sunlight after months of gray skies, or falling in love.
I'm as prepared as I can be for tomorrow. I believe them when they say the first ten days are hard. I know it's going to hurt. But I've done hard before, and well. And this pain will diminish a bit each day, unlike the pain I've been living with for years now. But more than anything I'll travel into tomorrow, wide open and as tender as innocence, held in love and prayers and support that humble me and make me sing with gratitude.
Sunday, October 21, 2012
The dairy I spent the latter half of my childhood on was seven miles from town. That seven miles was often the reason I couldn't go to parties or go to the beach and hang with friends in the summer, at least until we were old enough to drive. I begged to be allowed to walk into town, was told it was too far, unsafe, "No!" But one summer day when I was in my early teens Mom said yes and I walked those seven miles along the highway with a friend.
There's a lot I don't remember about that day, but what does stand out for me still is the sense of total freedom and the intimacy with everything I walked by. Daisies seemed more exotic, as did the Canadian thistles and tansy that also dotted our fields at home. Dogs rushing to the edge of properties barking fiercely made us laugh with relief once we made our way past. The wind of cars rushing by, headed in the opposite direction to possibly the Canadian border, rocked us and whipped our hair and made me feel so alive.
That walk gave me access to the adventurer in my soul I'd only found previously in the depths of my imagination. I remember the arrival in town was a little disappointing. Even though my legs were rubbery, my feet were blistered (cheap flipfops not good hiking shoes), and my nose would peel in the days to come, I would have walked all the way to Spokane 80 miles farther with just the littlest bit of encouragement.
In the nearly half century since then walking has been my meditation, my exercise, my solitude, my everything.
The summer I was pregnant with Kathleen and as alone as I'd ever been, I walked the streets of Spokane every day for hours, finding comfort in my body's movement and the sense of relief from the oppressive heat of my attic room and the shame that threatened to consume me.
In the years between Kathleen and the cult I roamed the streets of Seattle, Great Falls and then Spokane again. When I moved to Portland, I rode a bike for a while, but found that two wheels and the balance and attention required to stay alive on them were nothing like traveling on the power of my own two legs. So I got rid of the bike and walked Portland as well. On those walks I imagined myself living in the beautiful old homes I passed. I prayed endlessly to be changed and to be loved. I inhaled the fragrances of flowers, and often took them with me as company for the rest of the walk.
I almost always walked alone, although much much later I came to understand I was accompanied on every single walk of my life by the Creator of the mysteries I absorbed with each step.
Even during the cult years I found bits of time here and there to escape into long wandering walks. Shortly after my marriage a golden retriever named Jesse came into our lives, and my walks took on a purpose. I found wild trails nearby our suburban home on which I would let him off-leash and I would watch the seasons change and be delighted with small scurrying thing and larger flying ones.
When that life and my marriage disintegrated, I began running. Mile after mile after mile around a high school track until my shins stung and my lungs ached. I ran everywhere, but found pleasure only in the accumulation of miles and the escape from myself. Running kept me safely separate from the world, my feelings, and the Companion of my walks whom I'd felt I betrayed when I left the cult.
Then I met Walt, and the walks began again. At first on the wild trails of our suburban neighborhood with a new golden retriever named Kelly. Then, when we moved to the country 20 years ago, on the miles of trails of nearby Lewisville Park with Kelly, then Riley (another golden) for the ten years of his life.
When we got Toby five years ago I found the park walks were too hard. In part it was his strength and stubbornness. But looking back, the decision to take the shorter paths closer to home had more to do with my own increasing pain than it did with Toby.
My right hip became a constant aching presence in my life. I ignored it as best I could for a long time. Then sought every alternative treatment possible, and did all I could to take care of it. Until one day I realized I was avoiding walking because it hurt too much. Where I used to park as far away from my destinations as possible so I could walk farther, I found myself avoiding places altogether if I couldn't park close by. Walking across my classroom seemed impossible and I made the kids come to me more and more. Shopping for groceries I got even more efficient than I'd ever been before, and if I forgot something on an aisle I'd already passed, it had to wait until the next trip.
What had once been a light and lively gait became a Lurch-like limp that inspired one of my students to say recently that I looked like a penguin.
The injection that provided enough relief for me to enjoy Belize this summer as though nothing was wrong wore off in three months. And so I find myself, at sixty, with a date to receive a new hip. In three weeks, I'll turn myself over to a surgeon who will remove a part of me that has served me so well for so long and is finally worn out. He'll replace it with a modern contraption of metal and ceramic that is meant to give me back my ability to make my way through the world on my own two feet, powered by my own two legs, freely and pain-free.
I'm as prepared as I can be for this new adventure. I feel deep gratitude that I live in a time and have the resources that make the replacement both possible and almost an ordinary event. I feel even more gratitude for this hip that finally wore out, and I'm sad to be saying goodbye to her. I will welcome her replacement and learn to love her as well.
The one thing I'm struggling most with right now is the fact that I'll have to use a walker for a couple of months after the surgery. I know it's not a rational thing, but I can hardly bear the mental picture of me shuffling along, pushing that metal contraption in front of me. I see old, decrepit, crippled. And even knowing that walker is going to be my ticket to independent walking, I'm having to breathe my way through the thought of it.
Walking saved me. I've found my true self in those miles, found freedom, found a God who loves me and understands me. The miles strengthened my body without my trying. And when I picture myself as an old woman, I see someone like Mary Oliver who strides out into the wilds of the world discovering the magic and wonder and beauty there until I draw my last breath.
I will make friends with the walker about to come into my life, not because she's someone I'd ever consider friend material, but because I need her to restore the most important part of my being to me. And I will soon be a walker again in every important sense of the word.
Saturday, October 13, 2012
Gray has returned to us, just in time to provide the perfect backdrop to fall colors that are more vivid than any I can remember in recent years. I wandered into my yard yesterday morning, camera in hand, determined to capture as much of the color as I could. It's an annual ritual. I have probably hundreds of pictures of the dying flames of summer, and none come close to actually reproducing what my eyes see and my heart feels. Yet that doesn't stop me from trying.
As I snapped the sunset maple and the parrotia and the sumac and the blueberries and the burning bush my mind kept going back to the colors of last weekend. Then I found a perfect rose in the midst of all the fall splendor and that took me straight to memories of the women I shared the weekend with.
A group of blogger friends met at an incredible house on a sweet island. We knew each other through our words, and the instant bonds that were formed in real life were absolute proof to me that the written word exposes both heart and soul in ways we might not ever realize.
Some of us had met previously, but this group of six women, all in their sixties, with uncanny life connections, had never gathered as a unit before. A bystander would never have guessed from the nonstop chatter, the endless smiles, the frequent laughter.
We all got lost on our way to meet each other. Two of us weren't technically lost, but thought we were, which turns out is pretty much the same thing. The other four had gotten really lost, the result of too many directions and a number of wrong turns. What was amazing was that our first contact of the weekend happened while two of us were on a ferry the rest of the group was waiting to catch.
Fall was in full glory on Vashon Island, and we had a ringside seat to its beauty, illuminated under unseasonably sunny skies. Our home for the weekend was a three story, fully-restored, 1930s farmhouse. The air was redolent of the scent of lavender. Mt. Rainier stood faded and majestic in the distance like a sentinel watching over us. Water surrounded us, a soothing and envigorating presence, blessing us at every turn.
I spent some time one afternoon wandering the grounds of Lavender Hill Farm, camera in hand, determined to capture the color and beauty of the place. I picked an apple and ate it, savoring the crisp and juicy wildness. I picked late raspberries and ate them, too, delighted with the pops of summer tartness on my tongue. I cut lavender, stopping often to look back up the hill to the porch where the rest of the women sat.
As the youngest of the group I felt their presence above me like a protective shield. Wisdom, love, understanding, acceptance, curiosity, openness - all radiated toward me. Wandering in solitude, seeking color and magic, held in the larger hand that is the gift of aging women whose light shines as brightly as the fall colors do against the backdrop of graying skies.
When I downloaded the pictures from our weekend, not one really captured the friendships, the color, the powerful energy our coming together created. They will, however serve to refresh the vivid splashes of memory I've carried with me all week, when they fade, as they inevitably will.
I see DJan, the oldest of the group, just a few weeks left in her sixties. Beautiful, serene, and incredibly fit, she hikes and jumps out of airplanes and writes about all of it. She makes aging something to be looked forward to, to be envied even.
I see Linda, whom I'd met once before, and felt drawn to instantly. Since retirement she's traveled more than most people do in a lifetime. She says she's not adventurous, but shows no fear about facing any challenge before her. She inspires me to pursue my own travel dreams with more intention.
I see Jann, whose dry wit is even sharper in person and whose irreverence and honesty had us all laughing to the point of tears. She reminds me that truth does not have to hurt, but instead can bring light and lightness to any situation.
I see Sally, traveled the farthest from Colorado, the one whose words had offered me healing comfort in the weeks after Kathleen died. Fellow members of a terrible club, our bond all stronger for that, we found our sisterhood went beyond the deaths of our daughters.
I see Sandi, my dear dear friend and sister of my soul. A fellow member of that terrible club, yet she is one of the most generous, open and loving people I know. We traveled together, coming and going, our friendship somehow strengthened through our contact with the other women.
All women in the fall of life, yet all full of flashing, flaming light that radiates both heat and the brightest colors imaginable.
So while my camera cannot quite capture the full palette of fall, and my words will not quite capture the magic of our weekend, the woman that I am radiates more fully, more brightly, because of my time with five women whose vivid colors will shine forever in my heart.
|Sandi, Sally, Jann, Linda, DJan|
Saturday, September 8, 2012
I try not to think about the list of unfinished work on my desk at school, or the pile of correcting I brought home, or the new reading adoption I begin teaching on Monday. I try not to worry about the kids whose stories have begun to emerge more clearly and who I'm already wondering if I'll be enough for. But it was these thoughts that awakened me, and they cling to me, like the spiderwebs I walk into on Toby's walks these days.
The house is blessedly quiet. Walt still sleeping. Toby and Emma back to sleep. I do some laundry, sweep the floors, but then can't settle into any of the many tasks awaiting. As I stand, trying to decide what to do next, a glimpse of color catches my eye. The sky on the other side of the kitchen window shows the faintest blush possible. Just enough to draw me outside.
The air is surprisingly warm for a September dawn, but I can feel the bite underneath—like a really good lemonade. I wander into the yard, toward the eastern sky, but a movement to the west redirects my course. It's the head of a runner bobbing on the other side of our field and neighbor, on the road that connects us with the highway. I barely have time to register a frisson of envy, when a much larger movement explodes into our field.
The runner must have startled the deer as they breakfasted on our neighbor's fine selection of fruit. We've been seeing deer more often in the last few weeks: a pair nibbling on my red twig dogwood, a yearling crashing out of the woods in front of me, a doe and her twins wandering across our back fence line. This morning, however, there are five. It looks like two does, a spike, and the very small twins we've seen before.
I watch them graze across the field, the fawns dashing ahead, and then back, until all five have moved into the trees the mark our eastern boundary. In all the years we've lived here, this is the first time I've seen five deer at the same time. And while deer are as ordinary as rabbits here, this sighting creates a huge space around my worries, lifting them away enough that I breathe freely for the first time in days.
After standing in the freshness of a new day for a while, wrapped in the wonder of the gift I'd just been given, I turned to go back in. Looking up, I saw a perfect half moon, with her friend Venus, both gazing down on me as though they were there just for me.
In every way measurable, this morning was ordinary. Yet the short time I was outside felt like an adventure of heart, soul, and spirit. An answer to a prayer I didn't know I'd sent. I walk into the dawned day now lighter, clearer, and with an energy that even sleep can't provide.
Curious about what message the deer might have brought me, I did some research and found these words: We can learn that the gift of gentleness and caring can help us overcome and put aside many testing situations. Only love, both for ourselves and for others, helps us understand the true meaning of wholeness. May you be blessed by them, the deer and the words, as much as I am this morning.
Sunday, September 2, 2012
During the planning of our trip to Belize we researched thoroughly the land of our coming adventure. We read books, went online, talked to people who had traveled there before us. Over the course of that learning, I formed very distinct and detailed mental pictures of what I expected to find on arrival: Large flocks of bright-billed toucans everywhere. Time in the jungle canopy (during our zip-lining day) to savor the mysteries of life above-ground. Our cabana on the beach a perfect romantic tropical retreat.
Those things, and many others, did not even come close to my imagined pictures. Fortunately the delights and wonders that surprised me, far exceeded anything I might have anticipated. So Belize was not quite what I expected in either direction, as seems to be the case for just about everything in life.
We're given information about a new thing. We form pictures of the new thing based on that information and our previous life experiences. The more information we have, and the broader our previous experiences, the more accurate our pictures often are. However, for me at least, the reality is always different than the anticipation. A reality for which I find myself more grateful with each passing year.
For most of last year, as I was enjoying a particularly cohesive and delightful group of fifth graders, I was told by both current and previous teachers to enjoy them, because the next group coming up was not going to be that way at all. Stories were told about a class taking the sharp edges out of all the hand-held pencil sharpeners in the room. It seemed that half the boys in the class were severely ADHD, and unmedicated. I was told once in the spring that I would need to "wear my helmet" with the new group of kids. They were described as needy, busy, exhausting, low (academic), unparented, immature, lacking leadership skills, poor writers, non readers. There were exceptions, of course, but those kids were seriously outnumbered.
My teammates and I were determined to love these kids. The four of us believe strongly in the fresh start each year offers, and we knew this class deserved the same clean slate being offered to every other group of kids. We knew they needed it more than many. But in spite of our doggedly optimistic conversations about this coming year, I was worried about my ability to provide the unconditional love and acceptance that were my only chance of reaching this class.
The exact kinds of kids I was receiving warnings about were often the ones I've had the hardest time loving, and working with, in the past. I knew I was sunk if I was going to rely on will-power, or training, or any of the myriad management tricks in my teacher toolkit. So I did something unusual for me. I prayed, and turned the whole thing over. That's not that unusual in itself. The fact that I did it before things got bad—that's unusual.
I didn't sleep well the last night of summer vacation. I never do. Not because I was worried about the kids, but because of the infinite list of last minute details needing attention before I opened the door at 7:50 the next day. I woke the next morning, my twenty-fourth first-day-of-school as a teacher, calm and even eager to meet the day. That sense of calm stayed with me as I set up for the day, as I opened the door to greet my new students, as I introduced twenty-five wide-eyed kids to their fifth grade year.
The first day was perhaps the best first day I've had. It went fast, there were no (seriously, not one) problems, and we had fun. While I'd been prepared for the need for the don't-smile-until-Thanksgiving rule, I found myself smiling often and easily, with no adverse effects. The kids I'd been warned about were the most responsive I've ever experienced to a smile, a hug (these guys are huggers in a big way), a promise of good things to come.
On the second day a boy I'll call Daniel, whom several people had given me warnings about, went out of his way to clean up a mess in the lunch bin—without being asked. When I pointed out his initiative to the class, another boy wanted to know what had happened to Daniel, who that boy was, because last year Daniel was mean and nothing at all like the boy I was acknowledging.
By the end of the third day, the end of our first week, my sense of calm had, if anything, grown. Yes, I was exhausted. My feet hurt. My hip hurt. The pile of correcting on my desk threatened to steal precious weekend time. But none of that mattered. I knew that no matter what I was going to bring to my kids this year, no matter how much love or learning, none of that would be bigger than the gift of the sense of divine calm that seems to be a new default position for me.
I never was entirely clear last year why I had to return to teaching. I'm thinking this is the year that holds that answer. An answer that offers as much abundant grace, and love, for me as it does for my kids.
Sunday, August 19, 2012
Deciding to solo in last night's performance was like so many choices in life: You say a reluctant yes, believing you can change your mind at any time, when in reality the yes refuses to be so easily undone.
I'm a new drummer. An accidental drummer, truth be told. Walt and I started classes with Clifford at the beginning of March. We had such a great time with the first one, we took a second, and a third. The only option for summer drumming was a performance class, so we signed up for that, trusting Clifford's right hand Audra when she said we'd do well and it would be fun.
And it was so much fun. Learning whole rhythms that involved not only the djembes we play, but also dununs, the bass drums of Western African drumming. Meeting new people. Getting to know new friends better. Feeling like a real drummer, with a true sense of the music, the beat, the complex weaving of sounds.
From the beginning Clifford talked casually about the fact that he wanted us each to at least consider soloing for the performance. Part of one class session was spent practicing both individual and group solos, with nothing decided about who would or would not do a solo at the end.
At another session closer to the actual performance date, he asked us all to try a solo during practice. Nothing big, just a couple of good hits to mark our place and intention. After we'd all survived that, he asked us who wanted to solo for at least one of our three rhythms at the performance. Mine was the next to last hand in the air.
I didn't want to solo. But neither did I want to be the only person who didn't solo—yes, there apparently is an adolescent alive and well inside. Plus I was hooked by the challenge of it, and maybe lulled by Clifford's easy confidence that we couldn't fail. Mostly, though, I agreed because I was so afraid of soloing. And I figured it wouldn't be too bad to hit a few quiet notes for one rhythm from the safety of our line of djembe players.
Then Clifford told us we needed to play loudly enough that we could be heard over the other drums when we soloed. Once we'd practiced a few times with very short and sufficiently loud solos, he mentioned that it would be a good idea if we each stepped forward when it was our turn. When we all managed that without trauma, he added that we could play a solo for all three of our rhythms if we wanted.
No place to hide.
The thought of the performance itself didn't make me nervous at all. I practiced nearly every day and listened to recordings of our classes when I wasn't practicing. My handing and tones improved noticeably from week to week, and although I knew I wasn't even close to sounding like Clifford or Audra or any of the drummers in the advanced class, I felt confident that I would hold my own in the group.
The thought of soloing was another story. It wasn't really something I could practice because it was supposed to be from the heart—my own personal rhythm in response to the larger rhythms being played around me. In order to solo, I had to be willing to step toward an audience, away from the safety of the group, and do my best knowing best would be far more about enthusiasm and guts than skill.
When my turn came last night, the first solo in our second rhythm, I stepped forward and made myself look into the audience. Where I saw two of my brothers and a sister-in-law smiling wildly, cameras at the ready. Where I saw my dear friend Daune and her husband and daughter with faces full of curiosity and kindness. I smiled back and gave myself over to a nervous, short and sufficiently loud rhythm. When I stepped back into the safety of the line with the warmth of Walt's approval to my immediate left and the palpable love of my friends and family to the front, I felt the same sense of satisfaction I'd felt earlier in the summer at the end of our day in Actun Tunichil Muknal.
There was a second solo for the last rhythm, also short, also nervous, and nothing like the intricate and wonderful performances of both my husband and the more experienced drummers in the group. My success came not in the quality of my rhythms, but in my willingness to open the door for them to emerge. My willingness to be seen as less than perfect (even though I do really know perfection is a toxic myth). My willingness to celebrate my particular place in this process of learning without feeling the shame I often do that I'm not somewhere farther ahead.
Monday, August 13, 2012
We sat outside the Tillamook Cheese Factory savoring rich ice cream and the perfect coast weather when Lisa asked if I'd ever been to Pacific City. We were on an adventure at the beach with the plan of continuing north to wander Manzanita and Cannon Beach. Pacific City was to the south, but the possible adventure of dune climbing at Cape Kiwanda made the change of plans an easy decision.
She knew of a place by the dune that stood above a crevasse where the ocean had cut through the sandstone. It had seemed magical to her, even in the fog of the day she was there—a place that might receive a hearts' desire and return it fulfilled beyond the asking. It was a perfect destination for two friends who hold each other's dreams as close as their own, whose times together are always gifts of discovery.
Our trudge up impossibly steep and loose sand in the sunny salt air was invigorating. Instead of arriving at the edge of the crevasse, we found ourselves at a fence with a sign warning us that to proceed was extremely dangerous. Even that far back from the edge, I felt the first stirrings of vertigo, my body's warning system warming up. We both held rocks gathered at a beach on the way intended to hold the wishes we were going to send into the crevasse and out into the universe. I decided that neither a fence nor my fear would interfere with our intentions.
I found a spot to duck under the heavy wire, leaving my shoes behind and proceeding carefully toward the edge. Each step was a bare foot connecting carefully with solid packed sand, until I saw the cut and the rush of compressed surf far below. Lisa was right, it was a magical place, even more powerful on this incredible cloudless, sun-filled day.
She joined me. After looking over the edge we stood back a bit, and held hands while she wished for both of us and flung her rock as far as she could. There was no sound beyond the surf and our breathing—no splash, no ricochet report of rock against rock, as if the wishes flew beyond. When it was my turn, we held hands again, I offered my wishes, one for Lisa, one for me, and hurled them with the perfect round stone over the edge. Again silence.
Satisfied, but not finished, we decided to proceed to the top of the dune. We watched people half our age climbing on hands and knees, rested with a young man whose face was geranium red, marveled at how tiny the people below appeared.
Finally standing atop the dune at Cape Kiwanda, my face stinging from the wind-blasted sand and the exertion of the climb, I took in the forever view of the rugged Oregon coastline. On one side, far below and spread out before me in a panorama of greens and blues with white lace trim, lay the Pacific Ocean. On the other, young people loped pell mell down the tawny mountain we had just climbed. I realized for the first time that high places no longer have the power to rob me of possibility.
Just a week later, on another part of the Oregon coast, with Sandi this time, I stood at the foot of a very long flight of stairs leading up from the beach. We were on the second day of our adventure which included antiquing and one long deeply satisfying conversation with roots in the ease of a common history and the sisterhood of shared tragedy. Our morning began with a slow meander up the beach picking the wrack line for rocks and shells accompanied by a lone pelican hunting in the surf.
Looking up the concrete stairs, I thought of the Maya pyramids I'd climbed with Walt earlier in the summer. I remembered the dune climb with Lisa. As Sandi and I moved upward, one slow step at a time, I considered how easy climbing felt when done in the company of connected hearts. We reached the top much faster than either of us anticipated, with much more wind remaining than we believed possible.
I'm going into my classroom this morning for the first time this year. It's time to begin setting up. To begin thinking like a teacher again. To begin trading the flowing gauzy freedom of summer for the more substantial crisp structure of school. Today represents the beginning of a different kind of climb, a metaphoric mountain looming above. In years past, last year in particular, the climb felt daunting—impossible even. Certainly not one whose summit I anticipated would hold a life-changing, soul-feeding view.
This summer has given me a new appreciation of heights and the often long and difficult climb to achieve them. As long as I'm not climbing alone, I have nothing to fear, and everything to hope for. And every step upward in the company of shared love is an adventure in itself. I'm ready for the next one: adventure, mountain, climb.
Sunday, July 29, 2012
I felt it yesterday for the first time. On a sunny, 80 degree day in July, the light and air held hints of a changing of seasons. Shadows were a bit longer, the blue of the sky gone from new denim to faded, the heat scalloped around the edges from tiny bites of cold. While not a date on my calendar, every year that day presents itself to me in a clear and unmistakable way. Some years it feels like a warning. Some years a gift. This year, as with so many things viewed through my older and wiser heart, it's both.
Technically, summer isn't even half over. Still, fall's approach is unmistakable. The greens are more subdued. Vivid blossoms that heralded the season's arrival are now brown. And the bright unlimited possibilities of June and early July are now softened with a whisper of endings carried on afternoon breezes.
For the first time, my awareness of the transition is happening at the same time of another huge awareness. Everywhere I look, no matter where I am, the air (and the ground, and every twig and solid surface in between) is full of fledgling birds.
Fledgling sightings are among my favorite things in life. I love their downy, wing-flapping awkwardness as they learn to fly, and learn that the bird next to them is not going to put food into their gaping beaks. They arrive in our feeder area in what appear to be an entire nest unit, a family exploring the world together for the first time, adults finally able to be more concerned about feeding themselves than their offspring.
This is what I've spotted in the last week: Two hummingbirds, one dipping into my bee balm while the other zoomed in a perfect pendulum swing above, one doggedly following the other when it few away. A half dozen Steller's Jays, all with top notches looking more Don King than the Elvis look of jay adulthood, scratching at the ground, hopping frantically after the adults, still not quite believing they're not going to be fed. Mourning Doves flying up from the driveway in front of my car, barely clearing the ground. Black-headed Grosbeaks cheeping loudly from the sweet gum tree, scooting out on the edge of branches, and making death-defying wing-assisted leaps at the feeders, sometimes landing and sometimes overshooting and ending up on the clothesline.
A couple of days ago, as I drove to town, I noticed a large bird perched on a low snag very close to the road. Definitely not a usual resting or hunting place for birds of prey. When I stopped and rolled my window down, I saw more fluff than feather, smudged grays and browns not quite emerged into the defining marks of a Red Tail Hawk. It occurred to me as I watched him in amusement and wonder, that I've never seen a fledgling hawk before. New happens every day, small miracles showing up out of the blue, no matter the season.
Summer is ending, as it always does. In a couple of weeks I'll start thinking serious teacher thoughts again, and the hours of freedom in my days will grow ever shorter along with the hours of daylight. For now each day is still more summer than anything else, so full of its own form of air and light and flight, offered for the exact and unique and unrepeatable gifts it brings.
I hold the picture of the Red Tail, launching himself into the air, great wings pushing gravity away as he wheeled away from me and into a life's waiting promise.
Sunday, July 22, 2012
I noticed the building and its bright colors on our arrival in Hopkins as we made our way south to find our hostess Ingrid. It stood alone on a large parcel of land that also contained a school and playground. We'd been in Belize for nine days by that time and I'd seen a number of schools. Each village had its own primary school, which corresponds with our version of a K-8 building. All pretty much the same: long low buildings with door and window openings for each classroom in the row; scrubby playgrounds with little or no equipment; two-door outbuilding for the bathroom; a feeling of age and fatigue radiating from the grounds.
It wasn't until I saw Miss Bertie's Library that I realized I hadn't seen any other libraries in any of the many villages we passed through. And I certainly hadn't seen anything school related that was that bright and inviting. The decorations had a distinctly American flavor, which intrigued me as well.
Because Hopkins is a village itself, we either drove or walked past Miss Bertie's several times during our week there. To my disappointment the library was never open. My heart lifted a bit every time I saw the bright building though, and I was curious about the story behind it.
Strangely, it didn't occur to me to ask anyone during our week in Hopkins. In part I think because I continued to struggle with my feelings of unease about being in Belize as a prosperous American. Nothing in Hopkins did anything to alleviate those feelings.
I had decided it wasn't the poverty that was the source of my disequilibrium. I grew up poor (wood for heat and cooking, no washer or drier, most of our food from the land we lived on). There is still comparable poverty in America, and while I don't necessarily see poverty that extreme every day, I'm aware it exists, I care, I do what I can to help. I don't walk around wearing my awareness like a wool shirt on a hot day. And I certainly don't feel like that aspect of my childhood hurt me in any way.
I considered the possibility that the discomfort came from being "clear" (what light-skinned people are called) in a country full of every shade of beautiful brown imaginable. Except for our hosts who were primarily clear, our fellow guests at the lodges where we stayed, and our fellow travelers on the excursions we took, we rarely saw other clear skin. Not driving around, not walking the streets of the towns we visited, not even in the occasional gift shop. But no, that wasn't it either. I like being surrounded by people who look different from me, who have different life experiences, who have different world views. That's a big part of why I love to travel.
Although the travel guide described the people of Hopkins to be warm and welcoming, we did not find that to generally be the case. They were warily civil when we said hi first. But no one of color ever initiated a greeting or a conversation. Often our waves or greetings were ignored completely. Even when we ate at restaurants owned by locals, there was no sense that the people who served us were actually glad to have our business. I engaged everyone within conversational distance, and while my many questions were answered politely, and I even managed to elicit smiles, I never felt like I broke through a really tough reserve.
On our last day we were talking to the caretaker, a cheek-kissing French-Canadian chiropractor named Yves. He asked how we'd liked our time in Hopkins, and was visibly shocked when I told him of our feelings of discomfort.
"No one has ever said that before. Everyone tells us how polite the locals are when they're spoken to." Then after thinking for a minute he continued. "The locals have seemed less happy in the last couple of years. Things have gotten harder for them. They have less money than they had before. Maybe that's what's going on."
And at that moment I got what was bothering me.
We as American tourists brought our money into a country where most of the citizens would not benefit from that largesse. The enormous homes we saw being built on the seashore did not belong to the locals, but rather to Americans who saw a chance at less expensive luxury. The travel guides which invited us to come and enjoy the incredible resources of this edenic country did not ask the locals if they wanted tourism to become the number one industry in their country. And there seemed to be nothing in place, at least that we could see, that could break the dam separating the very rich from the very poor.
While I grew up in poverty, I always knew of the many opportunities available to me to move out of poverty. I knew that if I worked hard and got a good education, my life could be better. My parents worked hard to provide a life where a good education was the primary goal, the highest expectation. I nourished myself with endless books, and found both hope and salvation in magical combinations of words. My inherent sense of curiosity thrived in those conditions, my need to ask questions, to know whatever is unknown.
Shortly after our conversation with Dr. Yves, we found Ingrid, our German hostess, to pay our bill. I asked about Miss Bertie's Library.
"Oh, that's kind of a sad story," Ingrid answered. She went on to explain that Miss Bertie was a 72 year old Peace Corps volunteer who had been working with the primary school in Hopkins. Miss Bertie was appalled that there were no books for the kids, so she created the library I'd asked about. Then just a couple of years ago she'd been found dead in her home. Since that time local women had taken over.
When we got home I did some research on education in Belize. While their system might not be as sophisticated or developed as ours, the stated purposes are very much the same. At the highest level, it is understood that a good education is the key to helping the citizens of Belize to find a way to a better life, to help them have hope, to diminish the huge discrepancy between the many poor and the few rich.
Miss Bertie clearly understood that when she created the library that the locals gave her name to after her death. While Ingrid didn't say, I'm guessing Miss Bertie was a retired American school teacher with a passion for reading and children. A passion so strong she was willing to spend her last days in a village that was surely difficult to become accepted into, working with children who had little experience with books or hope of a brighter future.
Another thing my research revealed was that Belize has a public library system with 18 branches serving a population of just over 350,000. The system in Clark County, where I live, has 13 branches serving around 430,000 people. A country that cares that much about books is going to be okay.
I am left with great hope for the people of Belize, along with a respect and admiration that continues to grow in these weeks since our return. Books and education—two of the things most central to my own life—are the key. And the willingness and heart of just one teacher to provide those, no matter the circumstances.
Friday, July 20, 2012
Close-ups of vivid avian colors in the wild. The scarlet macaws are endangered and hard to find. Green parrots wouldn't sit still long enough. And you already know the toucan story.
The woman washing her clothes, in her yard, on a stone slab, just yards away from where we turned into a new and luxurious resort where we went zip lining.
The river we drove by a number of times where there were six large flat stones set up for washing clothes, always in full use. A short distance up the river from the women doing laundry, we saw men bathing. One time we drove by to find a car immersed in the river being washed with great enthusiasm by a handful of young men.
The table set up by the side of the road, just outside a prison, where men in orange suits were selling products (including some nice looking furniture) I'm guessing they made in the prison. We didn't stop, but I sort of wish we had.
A young girl crossing the road in front of us with a cereal bowl balanced on her head. Our guide laughed and said she was practicing for adulthood.
Just a couple of days later we saw a woman walking in the middle of the main road in Hopkins, bare feet dusty red, a scowl scorching the air around her, hands swinging, plantains draped on her head— like Medusa with fat yellow snakes.
The two boys, about three and five, standing in the street after dark on a Saturday night in Hopkins, asking, "You got dollah?" as we walked by. We didn't have dollah, but I couldn't quite get comfortable with how they'd learned to ask that in the first place.
A man trudging up the highway carrying a load of wood, nearly as big as he was, on his back, supported by a head strap, just as the Mayas carried anything heavy hundreds of years ago. With all of their brilliance, the Maya did not have the wheel.
Incredible thunder storms, lightning lighting up the sky with a force and fury I've never experienced here. At the same time, lightning bugs flitting and blinking in the night air, all to the music of pulsing cicadas and chuckling frogs in the background.
The bright yellow police station in Hattieville where we were caught in a traffic check. Cars were being stopped going both ways through town and policemen were checking papers. We were asked to produce proof of insurance by a man who looked like Idi Amin, who did not smile the whole time he studied our papers, who studied our papers like he was memorizing them, and who only handed them back when another policeman came along side and told him it was okay. That one did smile and wish us a good day. I wanted more than anything to take pictures during the whole thing, but figured it might not have been a good idea.
The sounds. I tried to record the howler monkeys and parrots and motmots, but it didn't work. And no recording could have captured the magic of lying in bed on a morning surrounded by the wild wonder of that chorus.
The experience of picking a Valencia orange from a tree and eating it right there, barely able to contain the juice as it exploded from the membranes.
Walt and I standing under a mango tree, waiting out the rain, at Lubaantun, our last and favorite Maya ruins, kissing like we were new.
We've been home for two weeks now. In many ways, because of these reflections and all the work with the pictures, a big part of me has still been in Belize. I dream about it. I miss some of the people we met. Every day I remember and re-feel and re-see. I have one more story to tell, one last bit of reflecting, before I'm ready to return fully to the Pacific Northwest, a place I've come to love even more as I've explored Belize. I'm so glad you've all been here to share with me.
Wednesday, July 18, 2012
As much as it is everything in the last post, Belize is also one of the most breathtaking places I've ever experienced.
|A house in Hopkins we walked by every day, and every time it made me stop.|
|Sunrise at Crooked Tree|
|A small Ceiba tree, considered sacred by the Maya. The branches hold up the sky. The roots connect with the underworld.|
|Soldiers were at two of the ruins we visited. Boys with big guns, and equally big grins.|
|Silk Cayes where we went snorkeling. Tropical postcard perfection.|
|Walt had so much fun shooting birds. One of many incredible photos.|
|El Castillo at Xunantunich. We climbed to the top of that!|
|Ivar (ee-var'), one of the many guides who led us, taught us, and entertained us. True ambassadors, every one.|
|Shot while we drove around San Ignacio|
|At the Community Baboon Sanctuary (where they call Howler Monkeys baboons for some unknown reason), the monkeys live in a wild made possible by the cooperation of the many landowners in the area.|
|The Hummingbird Highway, our last morning in Belize.|
|Green Iguana in the wild.|
|And another - these prehistoric monsters were everywhere, yet every time we saw one was an event.|
|Kids on the main street of Hopkins.|
|Champagne cup mushrooms seen hiking through the jungle.|
|A sunrise from the beach outside our house in Hopkins.|
|I felt like I should know this tree, but do not. They were common in the south.|
|You'll need to expand this for full effect. Oropendola nests with a bird, also known as a Yellow Tail, flying toward a nest.|
|The pier in Placencia.|
|A random house in Hopkins.|
|Sunrise from our deck in Hopkins.|
|Bromeliads (air plants) grew everywhere, some on power lines, some enormous like this one. Notice the vulture whose head is the same color as the flowers.|
|The market in San Ignacio, one of my favorite experiences in Belize, with my favorite guy.|
|We didn't follow this sign into the jungle, as the trail was big rocks, going straight up. For me this picture is a reminder that I'm living my life This Way.|
Monday, July 16, 2012
|Many Amish and Mennonite settlements in Belize|
|$1Bz for entrance and a wad of paper - at the market in San Ignacio|
|All the cemeteries were above ground - a tradition one of our guides said.|
|My first of five pyramids.|
|I was disappointed they were never open.|
|We took turns holding him before this shot. He liked Walt better.|
|Just the way it sounds.|
|I wonder where they were before 1981.|
|Do you just knock on the door?|
|Omar himself served us lobster for lunch that had been caught that morning.|
|Much later we did see people washing a car up to its fenders in a river - not this one, though.|
|Every village had a school that looked much like this one. Most were church schools.|
|This made me laugh every time we drove by. It was never open.|
|They were also called pedestrian ramps and speed bumps, but we liked this the best.|
|He turned out to be really nice, but had the intimidation thing in spades.|
|Straight into the jungle.|