Thursday, December 17, 2015
I walked out of yoga last Monday into a damp gray morning that was only slightly lighter than when I'd gone in at 6:00 A.M. One of the teachers has said she likes to watch us leave the studio on these early winter mornings because steam rises from us as we move into the day. This particular class left me not only steaming, but sore and frustrated.
Three months of four-days-a-week practice has resulted in some pretty big changes. None that show on the outside necessarily, but I'm occupying my body very differently these days. It doesn't hurt to stand after sitting for a while. The chronic hip flexor pain I've dealt with in the three years since my hip replacement has improved dramatically. And when I bend over to pick something up, nothing hurts.
Some postures are much easier than they were all those weeks ago. Some I still can't do the full expression of. Most classes, I focus on my breathing and the form of the postures and don't worry about how far I get into them. When I get farther that I did the week before, it's a lovely surprise. As long as I don't expect my body to do more than it can, all's well.
Last week there were two classes in a row where amazing things happened. I did camel twice, the second time actually seeing the floor under me. I did the sit-ups with no pain at all. I was able to grab the sides of my feet for the forward bending posture where before I was lucky to reach the floor in front of me. It felt like I'd moved into new territory, was practicing from a new normal.
I walked into class Monday feeling like I do for most classes, nothing out of the ordinary, only maybe a little more eager because of last week's successes. The temperature in the studio was not overly warm (meaning it stayed around 105) and the humidity didn't seem oppressive. As is usually the case for the early morning classes, the atmosphere was serious and focused, calm and rhythmic.
From the beginning, however, I was stiffer than normal for me. I had to keep coming back to my breath because assuming my body would go back to where it had been two days before wasn't working. I fell out of postures I hadn't fallen out of for a long time. I started to get frustrated, and I could feel tears gathering in my chest, working their way up my throat. I was so glad when the standing series ended and we moved to the floor. As we settled into savasana the teacher said, as she often does, "Let the ground hold your weight." On this day the relief of that almost brought the tears all the way to the surface.
When we got to camel, the posture that is known as the emotional pose, I considered not even getting out of savasana. But I did a partial sit-up (those weren't working at all) and got to my knees for the set-up. I put my hands on my hips, breathed in and tipped my head back. And that's where I stayed. I was dizzy and my back hurt and my left leg wanted to cramp. When the teacher called us into savasana, I was already sitting on my knees in anticipation. Often, the second time (most of the postures are done twice) is easier. That was not the case for me on Monday. I got my head back, but didn't even try to reach my heels. I considered it a victory that the tears stayed inside.
When I finally walked toward my car after class, my mood matched the dark gray morning. The shame voice was ramping up, going from subtle to all-inclusive at the speed of light: All that time and work and you still suck. Is this really how you want to spend your retirement? And while we're on the subject of retirement, weren't you going to focus on your writing? What a joke.
I wasn't laughing. And I was trying hard not to listen. But it was hard, as it always seems to be with shame.
I had just put my sweaty pad in the trunk when something caught my eye. I looked up to see a break in the clouds where gold shone through. It was the first time in days that I'd seen anything but gray. That opening got larger as I drove home. Pink softened the gold and brightened into blue by the time I hit the freeway. The sky was still more gray than anything. My body was still sore. I was still discouraged. But I held that bit of light and color as a gift, and it was enough to sent shame scurrying back into the shadows.
Wednesday's class was easier. I got into camel both times. I was able to make breathing the priority, to return to my breath when the voice tried to get me to force my body into places it's not ready for yet. Places it may never be ready for.
Three months ago I made a commitment to myself to go to yoga regardless of how I feel, and regardless of how fast I see results. It's the one bit of structure I've imposed on this new retired life, the perfect amount. It may be time to add one other commitment to the mix. One, like yoga, that may not show much on the outside, but that will make worlds of difference for me on the inside. Like yoga, showing up consistently for this new commitment is how success needs to be measured. Just showing up with sincere intention, believing the light will find a way through.
Thursday, October 22, 2015
"There are two gifts in life: strength and flexibility. Everyone is given one and then spends their life learning or being challenged by the other." The instructor's soft words during savasana rang particularly true in that moment. I'd just fallen out of tree pose again and again trying to get my leg to bend up enough to be where it was supposed to be, resting foot-up on my thigh.
I know myself to be strong - body, mind, and spirit. What has served me well in life so far, serves me well in yoga. Staying in the 105 degree room for ninety minutes, while challenging, is never an obstacle. Pushing through discomfort is automatic, and I have to pay attention to not push too hard, over the edge into pain. I don't quit.
It is definitely true in my case that flexibility was not included in the original package. Teaching helped me develop mental and emotional flexibility. It was either become flexible or be miserable, and misery is no place to live. I can look into my past and see that some of my hardest times came when I dug in and tried to power through situations that might have been eased with a softer, bendier approach. Marriage, one of life's greatest schools, has offered lessons in flexibility that came close to breaking me when I tried too hard to control the direction of things.
When I returned to Bikram yoga six weeks ago, I was shocked to discover how much physical flexibility I'd lost in the five years I was away from practice. Not that I had that much physical flexibility to begin with, but what little I had gained from that initial year of yoga was gone. Nothing wanted to bend - my neck, my back, my legs. There was not one single posture I could do the full expression of, no matter how hot the room, or how hard I stretched.
This was not something strength could help me with. Pushing harder just meant I lost my breath and my focus and I'd find myself looking around at everyone who seemed to be so much more successful (and thinner and younger and better-everything) than I was.
Fortunately, with age has come some measure of wisdom. I know I have choices, and that more often than not, the automatic choice will not get me closest to where I want to be. In this new adventure that is older age and retirement, I have the chance to do things differently. I have the chance to be differently.
I started yoga this time determined to focus on what I could do, and the benefits of that. On showing up regularly and being as fully present as possible when I did. I promised my body I'd be kind and gentle and grateful. It didn't believe me at first, for good reason, but with each class I can feel it begin to trust that I've told the truth this time.
The tenth posture in the series, standing separate leg head to knee pose, is one I've had to work at not dreading. Every single time I have had to quiet my mind and visualize the full expression while pointing my body gently toward that goal, knowing I won't even get close. It requires a tucked chin and choked breathing while rounding over and trying to touch your forehead to the knee of the leg stretched straight out before you.
The most important part of this posture is getting the forehead to the knee, so it's allowed to bend the leg up until that happens. The problem for me is that my forehead wouldn't touch my knee no matter how much I bent my leg. And I struggled so much with the choked breathing that I'd lose track of both my forehead and my knee.
Until one day last week. I followed the directions, one by one: arms overhead, hands in prayer, step over your mat four feet, pivot to the right, twist hips, twist, twist, twist, two hips in one line, tuck your chin, look at your navel, and with exhale breathing round over like a cat touching your head to your knee, bend your knee up if you have to but get your forehead on your knee, hands lightly touching the ground in front of you.
I followed the directions all the way through. To the full expression of the posture.
My knee was bent, but my forehead was definitely touching it. And then it touched when we did the posture going the other direction and it touched twice more when we repeated the posture. I wanted to do a happy dance, but we were already onto tree pose which required all my concentration, and which brought me back to myself as I fell out again and again.
My forehead touches my knee every time now, some days with more ease than others, but it's just there like it's been there all along. I still have to bend my knee, but I can feel a release that lets me know that might not always be the case.
Even though it's just one yoga pose, and one tiny accomplishment, what I'm left with is profound. That forehead on my knee offered clear proof that I don't have to work so hard. Not at yoga. Not at life. Persistence. Showing up. Being grateful for what's already there. Breathing. Focus on what's right in front of me. The rest, amazingly, takes care of itself.
Friday, October 9, 2015
Who made the world?
Who made the swan and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
For five days at the beginning of this month, a group of six bloggers met for our fourth annual gathering at Lavender Hill Farm on Vashon Island. For the first time we were all retired, and so we decided to meet longer and to use the time to write. The magic that happened during those days as we responded to prompts and allowed stories to emerge from our depths is hard to describe. As a way to celebrate that time, we decided to share our last writing in each of our blogs, and to link so that you, our lovely readers, can see what different and powerful responses a prompt can evoke. We followed Pat Schneider's AWA method as explained in her book Writing Alone and With Others.
Our facilitator (me - what a joy that was!) read Mary Oliver's The Summer Day out loud, and the group responded to the question that ends the poem. We had ten minutes to write by hand the pieces you'll read, and we will all have done some revision before publishing on our blogs. You can read their responses here: Sandi, Jann, Linda, DJan, Sally. My response is below.
What do I plan to do with my one wild and precious life?
I plan to be as fully awake as I can be and to bear witness to a life of joy earned through both suffering and grace.
I plan to sing in full voice, not with my mouth, not in haunting melody or joyous carol, but through my writing.
I plan to seek Divinity in the face of every person who crosses my path. I plan to let my light radiate and encircle and heal.
I plan to seek both the wild and the precious in the birds of the air - my beloved bald eagle appearing out of nowhere, hummingbirds hovering before my face, robins ringing in the seasons. I will soak in the wild and the precious in sea breezes, sun filtering through brilliant fall leaves, the delight of the juice of a freshly picked apple exploding in my mouth.
I plan to continue to seek beauty in the mundane, the painful, the broken and ugly.
I plan to breathe gratitude deeper and deeper into my body, and to release it back into the world through my eyes, my smile, and whatever words are given to me to express all that's wild and precious.
Thursday, September 24, 2015
We're in savasana, the first of the session. Two glorious minutes spent lying on our mats after fifty minutes of standing postures that have us all dripping and breathing hard. A respite before the floor series which will challenge in a completely different way. Each teacher approaches this time slightly differently. Some are mostly quiet, making the time meditative. Some will offer instruction on postures. Some will tell stories about people who have healed lives and bodies with yoga, my favorite.
Every teacher talks about the importance of keeping our eyes open during savasana. We've already been reminded at the beginning of the day to practice with eyes open, but the instruction while we're in this resting pose is especially clear. "Keeping your eyes open helps you stay present and gain the most benefit. This time allows your body to absorb what it's just done. If you close your eyes you'll drift away."
Eyes open during savasana is easy. There is no struggle to stay present. Nothing is expected in those moments beyond being and breathing.
The only time I'm even tempted to close my eyes during a class is when I'm pushing too hard. My mind tells me my body stretched that far last class so it should this one. My body tells me no. And even though I've sworn I will not compete this time, I will only do what I can and be grateful for that, I start to feel like a failure. I need to close my eyes and go inside where it feels safe.
But closing my eyes makes me dizzy. I lose my balance. I can't do the posture at all, let alone as deeply as I think I should. I get frustrated, and catch myself at the top of a spiral I do not want to spin down. And so I open my eyes, focus on my breathing, and stand facing myself in the mirrors until the spinning stops.
My life right now feels like one long savasana. A savasana earned after years of sweating and pushing myself to and sometimes beyond my limits. There is nothing expected of me. Nothing. So I breathe. I am. I see.
In past years I staggered through autumn, exhausted from the start of another school year, grasping for moments of stillness and beauty. I longed for a time when I could drink in all of autumn's glories through eyes not clouded with stress and fatigue. That time is here, and I'm drinking it in like a blind woman seeing for the first time.
Everyday sights take on a brighter hue and have the power to delight so much more deeply than I ever imagined. It doesn't hurt that we're having possibly the most beautiful autumn ever.
My daily walks with Toby have become sacred ritual. While they've always been important, when I worked I used that time to process the day. That often meant I saw very little around me while I wrestled inwardly with whatever monsters the day exposed. I was also walking at the end of a day, exhausted and sludgy.
It's become our habit to walk in the early afternoon. The sun has warmed the air just enough, and accompanies us like a benevolent spirit. Toby sprints after deer, or the hope of deer, and I marvel every time at how beautiful and regal he is. Graying around the muzzle now, almost 8, he is still the best companion a wanderer of the world could hope for.
Our route rarely varies, and I anticipate parts of it eagerly. On clear days, there is an open spot where the blue blue sky meets dark evergreens in a storybook scene often enhanced with sheeply clouds. At a certain bend in the river the resident pair of kingfishers begin their clattering call. It feels like they're announcing our arrival, although Toby is usually in the river before I catch the flashes of white and black and blue shooting just above the water.
The river itself is both a soothing constant and a source of daily surprises. One day it was eleven mallards resting on the opposite bank. I watched them preen and dabble and sleep through a frame of big leaf maple leaves while the river chuckled over smooth stones and Toby dived for rocks farther upstream, completely oblivious.
Often after our walk Toby and I will hang out in the back yard together. He chases bird shadows as they race across the lawn. I sit on the patio with a book, sometimes reading, sometimes just watching. Toby's red coat against the bright green of lawn, his marcelled ears on high alert, his plumed tail curled skyward. A Red-tailed Hawk wheeling overhead, or his Sharp-shinned cousin swooping through the feeders in search of a Junco or Chickadee lunch. The newly arrived Evening Grosbecks like oversized Goldfinches crowding the feeders and filling the air with their distinctive piercing chirps.
My favorite, however, is one particular hummingbird. Either a female, or more likely one of this year's fledglings, this bird has a singular buzz. More playing card on bicycle spokes than anything else. A much louder whirr-click than any of her counterparts. She is drab, with only the tiniest of hints of color at her throat. And she is fearless. She'll eat at the feeder to my left and then she'll move to the huge hanging fuchsia to my left, often stopping in the middle to study me. She hovers a few feet away and then moves closer, often getting close enough I could reach up to pet her without extending my arm. The first time she came to study me, I was nervous she'd get too close and I'd lose an eye. Over these last weeks I've relaxed. I pull my glasses down so we're looking directly at each other, eye to eye.
Even in a life that is now mostly savasana, where it's easy to be as open-eyed and open-hearted as my being is capable of, there are challenges that make me want to close my eyes. Both in denial and in an effort to cope. What's different now, just like in class, is that I am more willing to re-open my eyes and to face whatever is in front of me. I don't like being off-balance and dizzy, and I'd rather move through.
I'm in my third week back at yoga. I'm adjusting to the heat and the rigor and the routines. I'm learning to listen to my body and to push right up to the point where just right becomes too much. And perhaps unsurprisingly, I've begun to find savasana clarity in the middle of postures more and more. I stand before the mirror, body in correct form, breathing and concentrating. Eyes wide open. Heart wide open. Open to whatever comes next.
Sunday, September 13, 2015
The tiniest sliver of moon and a few scattered stars provide the only light as I step out the door into the morning. I breath in air that holds both summer's warmth and autumn's promise. It's earlier even than if I were going to work, and being out at this hour is a surprising gift.
I'm on my way to a 6:00 AM Bikram Yoga class, the first time in over four years.
On the drive in I think about all that's happened in those years: I returned to teaching after a two year leave in which I intended to get my book published and become an income-earning writing, neither of which happened. I got a new hip, the old ruined one the reason I had to leave yoga. I taught for four more years and learned a lifetime's worth of new lessons, as much as I'd learned in all the years prior. I quit writing almost completely except for a random blog post and my daily journaling. I explored Belize, rafted the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, and toured Italy. I retired.
Finding the studio is easy. My beloved Pat whose buddy pass and gentle encouragement brought me here has given good directions. Plus I Google Mapped it, and read the directions on the website. I also read the entire website in the belief that the more I knew the easier the experience would be.
Few others are on the road this early and I arrive ten minutes earlier than I expect. That's on top of the ten minute cushion I gave myself - just in case. Only one other car is in the lot and I see a woman moving about the brightly lighted studio. I don't want to be the first one in, so I sit in my car and wait until more cars arrive.
I walk in behind two people who are clearly regulars, and introduce myself to Mica, the teacher and owner of the studio. She is warm, friendly, welcoming. The place has a clean and vibrant energy. Pat arrives, we visit. Kay, who was our first Bikram instructor and now attends and teaches at this studio, gives me hug and we visit. And then it's time to move into the room.
The heat is a palpable force. 105 degrees. I tell myself that we had days hotter in the canyon last summer, but some inner voice responds that there is no 50 degree river to dip into here. The room is comfortably full of a variety of people. I realize I don't stand out one way or the other, and relax just a little. Mica welcomes us, tells us to stand with our feet together and bring our hands together and up to our throats. The words are familiar, and my body responds automatically. Or at least tries to.
Over the next 90 minutes and 26 postures my mind is kept busy monitoring my body. I attempt each posture and discover that parts of me have frozen stiff in the last four years. I also discover that I feel no sense of competition with my fellow yogis - a change from my previous experience. I am here for myself. I am patient with muscles that had decided on an early retirement without telling me. I breathe gently through waves of dizziness. I sweat, at first in annoying dribbles down my forehead into my eyes, and finally in one huge body-shaped film that covers me like a living being.
The final savasana comes as such a relief and with such a sense of accomplishment that I would dance if my body weren't a jellyfish blob on my mat. Just before Mica exits the room she offers us Namaste, which we return, a word and prayer that completes the sense of homecoming that has been building over the last couple of hours.
The lively and loud world beyond the studio door startles me and brings me out of myself. I breathe in the fresh morning air, pulling it deep through freshly cleared pathways. Something not fresh follows the morning into my lungs - acrid, thick, and familiar. The unique cleansing stench of a body purging poisons. The smell stays with me, even after a long shower, hovering like a malicious spirit.
I feel slightly ill the rest of the day, while at the same time feeling deeply relaxed. By the next morning I'm sore in places I've never been sore before: front neck muscles, upper back, triceps. But I'm also feeling a relief from other pains and tightness that have dogged me since my hip surgery. I feel alive in ways I haven't since last summer in the canyon.
That first class was on a Wednesday. I went back Friday. The second day was so much easier. Not the class itself. That will never be easier because there will always be another level to aspire to, another posture to attempt more depth with. And 105 degrees requires full attention and focus every time. But I did a little more, the time went a little faster, and the potency of the smell was diminished significantly. And I felt both vibrantly alive and deeply serene for the rest of the day. A feeling that lingers still.
I'll go again on Monday. My commitment to myself is three days a week, maybe even four. My gift to myself, this time and this immersion in body, spirit and breath. In-spiration that will provide the light and energy for the inspiration I seek to live this new life to the fullest.
Monday, September 7, 2015
Pompeii was on the itinerary for our second day in Italy. In the months leading up to the April trip, that was the one thing I looked forward to the most. I first discovered Pompeii as a child in the pages of old National Geographic magazines, and so had waited a lifetime to experience the reality of the place.
I can conjure the memory: I'm 10, or 8 or 12. It's a North Idaho winter and I'm home sick with pneumonia or mumps or the flu. While snow drifts down outside, or blizzards as it so often did, and ice frames the inside of the windows, I'm tucked in on the couch in the living room surrounded by old magazines and Readers Digest Condensed Books, all donated by customers from our milk route. Mom and Dad are out working the dairy, my brothers are at school, and I'm left alone with that bounty of print, and my imagination.
I would study the detailed and lifelike illustrations of Pompeii endlessly. I read enough of the text to understand the basics of what happened to the residents on August 24, 79 AD, but it was the pictures that captured me. Vesuvius loomed large in my mind, an evil force with the power to wipe out an entire town in a day. Herculaneum was mentioned, but it was the streets of Pompeii I walked during those long winter hours.
Two years of high school Latin cemented my fascination with that ancient city. In the years that followed I read everything I found about Pompeii and was determined I would walk those streets for real one day.
The morning of our Pompeii day dawned cold and blustery with the sun and clouds wrestling for possession of the sky. Still slightly jet-lagged from our arrival in Rome and then Sorento the day before, and buzzing with the excitement of a ten year old's dream finally coming true, I saw Vesuvius for the first time from the train carrying us to meet our guide for the day.
That was the first clash of imagination and reality. Not even close to evil looking, Vesuvius sat serenely in the distance, a soft green mound, and the only landform to break the flat horizon. While it grew larger as the train approached Herculaneum, our first stop, the gentle slopes became more appealing rather than less. I found myself wishing we had another day so I could hike the mountain's trails.
I hadn't cared that we were seeing Herculaneum, but looked forward to it as a part of the whole adventure. The first view as we entered the gates and proceeded across the bridge brought tears to my eyes. The reality of the ancient ruins exposed in the center of the towering apartment buildings of an active town overwhelmed everything my imagination had created.
As Pina, our amazing guide with two PhD's in Pompeii history, led us through the streets and the homes telling stories the whole time, I struggled to absorb both the information and the sensations. I was walking the same streets, standing in the same courtyards, viewing the same mosaics and frescoes as the people who perished centuries ago. I was in Italy, in Herculaneum, with a group of incredible women, falling in love with this little town. And Pompeii was next.
Where Herculaneum was small and intimate-feeling, with only a handful of other people present, Pompeii was a production. The lines to get in were long. The city was huge, the streets crowded enough our progress in was often slowed. It was much harder to imagine life during the time of the eruption, to find the city of my childhood dreams in the crowds and endless walls and streets of stone.
And so I released the dream and fully claimed the reality. A reality that included both ruts in the stone roads left by chariot and cart traffic and a tacky modern cafeteria/bathroom built smack in the middle of town. A reality that included plaster casts of bodies and litter on the streets. A reality that included seeing the actual Cave Canem mosaic with my own eyes and souvenir stands tucked in random corners.
I discovered that day following Pina through the streets of Pompeii that I no longer needed the dreams of childhood to sustain me. They had gotten me through unbearable realities. But I was, I am, no longer that powerless child. A child who found her power in the pages of books and magazines, in a past not her own, and in her imagination.
I am now a woman of a certain age, newly retired, just days into this new adventure. I didn't actually dream of retirement as a child, or even as a young adult. It was never my intention to live a conventional life, so retirement wouldn't have been a need. In the later years of my teaching career, in the midst of much more convention than I ever expected for myself, retirement became the light at the end of a very long tunnel. The dream of unlimited choices for my days, no schedule, and travel kept me going through some challenging times.
So here I am. With unlimited choices for my days. A schedule I set, or don't. More travel possibilities than I ever imagined possible. A dream come true. Yet I know, as was the case with Pompeii, that the reality will be both a bit disappointing and a far greater adventure than I can currently grasp. As I travel these new streets of my freed days, I will remember how the disappointment of the grit and crowds of Pompeii turned so quickly into wonder at what it meant to be standing in the sunshine on stone streets in the shadow of Vesuvius.
Monday, August 31, 2015
Walt is back on the clock today. My work friends have been on the clock since last week. Kids start back to school tomorrow or Wednesday.
The summer has been long, relaxed, full of small adventures. Hikes. Friends. Family. New sights. Reading on the patio while warm breezes and Toby play around me. Everything one could hope for in a summer. And it's over now. Even the weather has gone from summer to fall overnight.
All summer I've answered the question, "How does it feel to be retired?", with "It's summer. My retirement hasn't really started yet."
Today is the day. I am retired. I am not losing sleep over whether I'm ready for kids tomorrow. I haven't spent the last two weeks setting up a classroom, sitting in meetings, shopping for sticky notes and new read alouds and cool borders. I don't have a new first day dress. I'm not dreading open house tonight, and I'm not excited either to see old friends and meet new ones. I'm not exhausted already, with all of summer's accumulated healing and energy lost in the frustration of facing moment by moment so much wrong I have no way to right.
I. Am. Retired.
I am in charge of my life in a way I've never been before. My choices are limited only by my imagination and my energy and the resources at hand. The list of possibilities is long. I don't know where to start. What do I want the most?
All summer my seventeen year old self has been close by. She was driven to college around this time of year to begin her freshman year. Her parents were in the front seat of the family Rambler station wagon, and she was crammed in the back with her three teen-aged brothers, as they had been for every outing of her childhood. She sat next to the window in deference to her frequent car sickness, watching the known world slip away.
It was not a happy occasion. The tension was thick as the cigarette smoke from her mom's Pall Malls. Mom and Dad had expected her to go to a community college and live at home. Her high school counselor (who just happened to be the mom of her best friend) helped her get admitted to and scholarships for this small private college a couple of hours away from her home. All summer she'd lived with her parents' stony silent anger, every preparation for going away poisoned by her betrayal of her parents' wishes.
She was both terrified and thrilled as they pulled in front of her dorm. So eager to be away from her family and the pain and shame, and to begin her new life. A new life in which she was certain she'd prove herself to be a strong and capable adult. She believed her family was just as happy to be rid of her, and it wasn't until this summer that it occurred to me that Mom might have been sad to leave her only daughter. Might have been afraid for her.
As it turns out, those fears were justified. Seventeen. Small town. Farm girl. Sheltered in that way of families who don't want the world to know their business. Smart, but completely unprepared for the choices and freedoms she faced. Refusing to ask for help, because that meant weakness, and she had much to prove.
All summer that scared seventeen year old has worried about today.
Of course today is very different from that day 46 years ago. I am not running away from anything, and I'm not needing to prove anything. I don't feel alone. Or afraid.
I do feel - what? Grateful. Deeply grateful. Overwhelmed - where do I start? A little at sea - the choices swirling and crowding, making a clear path impossible to see. And so I start where I know for certain I will find myself and answers, by putting words on the page. I start by keeping my promise to myself - I will write my way into my future, with no expectation beyond the magic that has always been there when meaning reveals itself in those words.
Day one. I am retired. I am happy. I am blessed. I am.
Sunday, June 14, 2015
I was traveling in this dream, toward an unknown destination, trying to find my way. It was dark, maybe raining. Vaguely familiar people were traveling with me. There was a sense of urgency. At some point I realized I had lost my wallet and spent the remainder of the dream considering the consequences of that.
When I awoke from that dream it took hours before I realized I hadn't really lost the wallet. Never mind that I don't use a wallet. I started my day thinking I was going to have to start making phone calls to cancel credit cards - the dream was that strong.
It didn't take long before I realized the startlingly clear message of the dream: this loss of identity as I prepare to retire from teaching is a much bigger deal than I want to believe or have given credit to.
Regular readers here will know how much I've struggled in the last three decades with my teacher identity. I never intended for teaching to be a long-term career. There was too much about the profession that frustrated me and pinched me like Cinderella's slipper on the wrong foot. And as the years passed, what I loved about teaching got harder and harder to claim.
Somehow I came to believe that because teaching was hard, and I struggled, and sometimes I failed, I couldn't really claim the title. I wasn't really sure I wanted to claim it. I wanted more for my life, and the older I got, the less I was able to claim any energy for more. So I became a teacher, a very tired teacher, and very little else. The ever elusive balance became harder and harder to achieve, and no matter how hard I tried, I could not do the job with only part of my heart and focus. Teaching is a profession that demands everything, and then some. I'm a person who has never been able to do anything in half measures.
It's only been these last few weeks, as the end of my career grows closer, that I have managed to embrace the whole package of my teacher identity. Just in time to release it.
I have been that teacher for a multitude of students - the one they'll never forget and the one who helped them discover a love of learning. The one who wore weird earrings and loved birds and books and writing. The one who was always ready with a hug and who cried with them over sad stories, whether from a book or from their lives. The one who told stories about her own childhood and her crazy pets. The one who promised to always be there if they needed anything.
I have been another kind of teacher for a handful of students - the one they remember as mean and too strict. If I could hug them all today and tell them I only wanted them to believe in themselves as much as I did, that I loved them, I would. If I could tell them I'm truly sorry for any pain I caused them, I would. I would tell them that the fear of hurting any child has stolen more hours of sleep from me than I care to count. And then I would encourage them to use their feelings and experiences with me to grow into kinder and more compassionate people, and move on.
The 1987-88 school year was my first as a teacher. I had 29 fifth grade students. One of them was a sweet and delightful girl named Mandi. Mandi was one of those students we'd love to fill our classes with: well-behaved, eager to learn and please, liked by her peers. She was someone I remembered clearly out of the nearly two thousand kids I've taught. At the beginning of this year, one of my girls, also a fifth grader, asked me if I remembered a student called Mandi (and she used her last name). I did. My new student was excited to tell me that former student is her Auntie Mandi.
Auntie Mandi came to the spring barbecue with my student's mom, her best friend. She came to see me. She's nearly 40 now, the short, dark, over-permed hair that embarrassed her so much in fifth grade replaced by longer lighter softer curls. But she was essentially the same Mandi I remembered. Light. Happy. Open. We laughed together over the album that contained pictures of her year, and she shared stories of some of her classmates she's still in contact with. We hugged like old friends. She said I was her favorite teacher, and whether it was a simple truth or a kindness, I accepted the gift of her words.
Yesterday Walt and I went to a soccer game. Several of my girls are on the same team and this was a much anticipated command appearance. I've gone to countless games and concerts and recitals over the years, and always loved seeing my kids out of the school context. I looked forward to this last one, knowing it was another last thing. Also knowing I'd get to see Bella. Bella who started the year with us, but moved midyear. One of those kids, like Mandi, who make the world a better place just with her easy presence.
As we stood on the sidelines in the late spring sunlight, watching girls I love play a game they love with power and intention, visiting with parents who were grateful for our attendance, I felt a deep sense of joy. When the game was over they made their way to me one by one until we were a rough circle. Bella was the first, so I had a few minutes to catch up with just her, to drink in her pretty face and lovely energy. Soon the space was filled with hard sweaty hugs and congratulations on hard play and goals shot. Smiles and laughter. Parting hugs. Parting waves.
Walking back to the car I realized this is what I'll miss most. Being a rock star. The spontaneous hugs. Seeing eyes light up when they see me. Feeling like a part of a hundred different families, and creating a nine-month family with 20 or 30 kids (or 100 like this year). Having a role in guiding another life toward their best path. Being a catalyst in the formation of a love of learning and books and words and birds and the whole large world that awaits each of my kids.
There is a movie trailer playing right now. It shows a man standing at the top of a skyscraper looking out over a city. He walks to the edge of the building, where a large metal beam extends out into the air. He steps onto the beam, looks down into nothingness with the ground so far away it's nearly invisible. The sense of vertigo is so strong I grip the arms of my chair. He extends his arms and one leg, a beautiful wingless bird on the verge of flight. That's what my life feels like right now as I prepare to create a new identity as a retired teacher (instead of a tired teacher). Leaving familiar ground, stepping joyfully into the air, trusting new ground to form as I go.
Saturday, May 16, 2015
Last summer on day eleven of our Colorado River float, we woke up to a camp vibrant in anticipation of that day's run through Lava Falls Rapid. Rated 8-10 on the scale of 1-10 developed strictly for that river, this rapid has a reputation for chewing up boats and spitting them and their passengers out at the bottom. Even the guides were a little more sober that morning, although their talk to us was positive and full of reminders that if we followed their direction, we'd be fine.
As we had for two previous rapids, also with bad-boy reputations, we scouted Lava. Standing above the roiling waters, listening to the guides discuss the holes to avoid and the best route to follow to avoid those holes, I felt for the first time that trip a small frisson of fear. The possibility of being overturned was very real. Those rocks were huge and the water was the wildest I'd ever seen. The noise alone, which we began hearing well before the approach, felt like fair warning. A warning we were ignoring.
The guide we traveled with in a raft with three other people was one we swore at the beginning of the trip we wouldn't ride with at all. His bad-boy swagger and attitude, much like that of Lava Falls, made me unsure about trusting him with my life. When we'd traveled with all the other guides, and it was becoming obvious to us and to this guide we hadn't been in his boat yet, we decided he hadn't dumped anyone else in the water, so we should give him a chance. It was one of our best days. He was funny and smart and knew a ton about the canyon. And he was a master at the oars, reading the current like a favorite book, making choices with rapids that maximized our fun while never making us feel unsafe. So the morning of Lava Falls we chose his raft.
Because of the 13 foot drop, you don't actually see Lava Falls until the raft has been pulled in and there is nothing to be done but hunker down and hang on. What looked wild from the top, was heart-stopping at the mouth. Waves so high we could see nothing except a wall of water that crashed over us before the screams left our mouths. We'd just get through one and barely clear our eyes when another would consume everything. I was laughing and shouting (maybe swearing a little), too inundated with water and sound and movement to feel anything but exhilaration. To feel anything but more fully alive than I ever had before.
The whole thing took less than two minutes. We were bailing like crazy at the bottom, and looking back to watch other rafts carom through, when the guide told us to stow the buckets and hang on. A second smaller rapid awaited us with a deeper and shorter drop. At the bottom of that we pulled into an eddy and celebrated. All of us, the guide included, were giddy with the experience. Adrenalin pumped. Fists pumped. Voices called between rafts, everyone checking in, the guides comparing runs with each others' and with their own previous experiences.
The brightness of feeling and the sharpening of senses born of that ride stayed with me for the rest of our time on the river. It followed me home. And while it faded in the weeks and months that followed, it has returned full force in the last few days. This time the rapid I negotiate is my last month as a classroom teacher. With just a month to go, 22 teaching days, I am aware of the eddy that awaits at the bottom, but can do nothing now but hang on and feel and be in every moment.
The guide I'm trusting to oar me safely through these wild waters is that still voice that is both God and my own heart. There are no more choices to make right now, except the one that keeps me awake and grateful and present. My eyes wide open, my face wet with tears that surprise me with their increasing frequency.
While there have been moments in the last few weeks when I just wished it could be over, this trek to the end of a school year and my career, now there is no room left for wishing or thinking or anything but hanging on. I am surrounded by waves of sadness and gladness and relief and joy. I am awash with gratitude. I am tumbled in the voices and arms of children exuberant with affection. These last days pass with a speed that stuns, each day as a second on the Colorado River. Each moment a gift to be savored and thankful for. Experience and memory coming together to form the most powerful rapid of my life so far.
Sunday, March 29, 2015
Anyone walking into the classroom would have seen chaos. It was late in the school day. Thirty-one fifth graders had, with varying degrees of success, held themselves together and learned as much as they could in the previous hours. They were in homeroom, and relaxed, transitioning into their favorite time of day: read aloud. The burst of noise and energy made conversation impossible, and I didn't try. I knew they'd settle themselves quickly without my intervention. Billy is about to take Old Dan and Little Ann on their first coon hunt and everyone wants to know what will happen next.
Some kids were settled and waiting expectantly. Others impatiently urged classmates to sit down and listen. Still others made a beeline to the back of the room to get a copy of the book to follow along in. There was a last minute scramble for bathroom passes and some giggling in the back of the room I pretended not to notice. And then finally the room began to still.
I sat in front, my worn copy of Where the Red Fern Grows on my lap, waiting and watching. Smiling. Absorbing. Thinking: this is my last class, my last spring with kids I love. These are our last days together. They are so silly and happy and safe - a room full of golden retriever puppies - my goldens in a space I've created.
I marveled at how quickly things can change.
We returned to the financial guy a couple of weeks ago. Since the first visit I'd become aware that one more year beyond this one felt like one year too many. I was - I am - tired to the bone. The magical moments with kids, my glorious classroom, and laughter with colleagues are no longer enough to compensate for the drain of everything else. Despite my intention to kick back and just enjoy the good parts in the time I had left, I've discovered I can't do this job with half a heart, or half my attention.
Teaching takes everything you have to give and demands more. Firm boundaries do nothing to still the questioning voices. Even without the constant seismic activity of new standards and new tests and new evaluations, simply being enough for the young lives whose fifth grade year I hold the reins to is increasingly impossible. I heard myself describe being a teacher as like being stuck inside a car in a wrecking yard that's being crushed from all sides until it's nothing but a compact cube of scrap metal.
It is time to go.
And thankfully, I can. Things will be a bit tighter, but we'll still be able to travel. Walt will continue to teach for a few more years, happy in ways I envy. I'll have to sub, but right now that feels like a gift. A chance to see these kids again, and to be the grandma instead of the mom.
Every day now is a last day for something, sometimes many things. I look at my classroom and my things through different eyes. As much as I love the room I teach in this year with it's newness and open space and radiant light, I will only mind a little bit giving it to someone else. I think about who will get my stuff, and what I can do to set things up for whoever inherits my spot. I clean out files. I breathe in hugs a bit more deeply, look into faces a little more closely, love like there is no tomorrow.
I was just pulling myself back into the present reality of thirty-one mostly quiet faces waiting expectantly for me to open the book, when one of my girls said, "Mrs. Shucka, look! A bald eagle." Before I'd decided she was telling the truth and not playing one of her many tricks, half the class was at the windows. By the time I got to a window, the rest of the class was crowded around, craning to see.
And there he was. Soaring so closely we could see the gold of his beak and talons. He floated toward us until we could see the definition of his talons and the texture of his wing feathers, and then he disappeared past the last window, leaving us all buzzing with excitement. When the room had settled enough for me to speak, I told the story - how had I not told this to them before? - of my childhood experience with bald eagles. The imminent extinction. My belief that I would never get to see one because they would all be gone before I had the chance. And then the miracle of their comeback. The wonder that bald eagles are an every-day sight for these kids. For me.
In a little more than ten weeks, I will begin a new life. In many ways this new life mirrors the story of the bald eagle. As dramatic as it sounds, extinction was a very real possibility for me, too. And yet here I am, thriving, as alive as is possible. Moving forward into a future as wide as the blue sky holding the eagle who guides me forward.
Monday, February 16, 2015
The last time I found myself at a doorway like this, I was in my mid thirties and leaving a church, a marriage, a home I had believed I would spend the rest of my life in. The transition from the protected and enclosed safety of life bounded by the Word of God as understood by his prophet, Harold, into a world I had been taught was full of Satan's stumbling blocks, was terrifying. I left The Body believing I was leaving God behind, too, but feeling like I had no other choice. If I was breaking vows by walking away, God had broken with me first by allowing my husband to withhold parenthood from me.
In the nearly three decades since, I've created a life. Without really understanding what I was doing, it was a life that provided a near-perfect environment for healing. It was a life of safe respectability: teaching, a sweet and loving husband, golden retrievers, a home in the country, friends, and even reconciliation with my family of origin. A good life. Within the nest of that life I began the very hard work of excavating buried pain and wounds. I got sober. I gave my trust to a gifted counselor. I felt and dug, and felt and dug, and all the while learned to love. And forgive. And I healed.
Now I find myself on the threshold of yet another of life's transitions. I am 260 school days away from retirement - a year and a half in real time. This time I have the chance to walk into the light of a new adventure free from the weight of unfinished business.
It's been a month since our meeting with the financial guy who showed us how I could leave teaching comfortably at the end of next year. In that time I've gone from a state of giddy and grateful euphoria, to realizing that I still need to live all the days until a year from this June. That means accepting that regardless of how much I might be able to let go of because I'm no longer building a career, I'm still teaching, and teaching is still heartbreakingly hard. Besides, I absolutely do not want to wish away any part of my life. So I'm in the process of settling myself down and refocusing on the days before me.
That said, every day I think about what life will be like next. It feels like one final gift of unlimited possibility, and I don't want to waste that. I've always thought I would just move from teaching to something else that mattered. Some way to contribute to life that justified my place here. As I've interviewed friends who retired before me, I searched for ways they find meaning in their lives beyond career. The answers to those questions are as varied as my friends. The one common element is aging, and the reduced energy and cognitive function that is an inevitable product. That and the fact that we all know that the next big door is death, beyond which we take nothing but what really matters.
We make choices at this time of life aware that there are not decades ahead for second chances. And somehow in all of that, it's finally okay to focus on the inner voice that has all along been telling us that we matter enough to simply live. I see my friends make choices based on what feels right, or what they feel like doing in the moment. No longer driven by family or work expectations, or the need to look a certain way, or compelled to accomplish certain things.
My list of things I've always thought I wanted to do in retirement is long, and not all that unique: gardening, decluttering, painting my house, travel, volunteer work, reading, hiking, walking, learning, writing. Busy. Meaningful. Contributing in some way. I will probably do all of those things, but there is a niggle in the back of my mind that's telling me those don't matter.
I'm just beginning to understand I don't have to know what will matter until I get there. My job for now is to embrace the gifts of the moments right in front of me. If I'm a little more relaxed because I can see a new horizon, I think that's okay. But if I focus entirely on that horizon, I'm going to miss some great scenery along the way.
A year ago, during a time when the door of retirement felt like an illusion, I decided to create a door I could walk through now. The result of that decision is a two week trip to Italy, starting April 4, seven weeks from now. I am about to see with my own eyes sights first encountered in the National Geographics of my childhood and carried with longing in my heart since. If I am one of the unlucky who don't make it to their dreamed-of retirement, I won't have put everything off until then.
All my paths and all the doors I've walked through to this point have brought me to this: I am a world traveler. I have rafted the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. I have choices enough for several lifetimes. I am rich. I am healthy. I am loved. I love. I have the chance to leave teaching at the top of my game. Not as defined by the new evaluation system or test scores, but by the faces of the children I see every day. And by the small still voice of my heart.
While I don't know exactly what comes next, I do know I have done everything in my power to be as ready for it as I can. Better, I'm not waiting for next, even as I prepare for it. Today the sun shines. I'm home. With choices. And oh so much gratitude for the gifts of each unfurling moment as I make my way toward that next doorway.
Monday, January 19, 2015
When I left childhood and Sandpoint and my family, the image of Red stayed with me. The comfort of her constancy and bright colors. The promise of the sweetness she was designed to hold. She was the one thing of my grandma's that I wanted to inherit. A cousin who lived close by and who had a day-to-day relationship with our grandmother got Red when Grandma died. It was fair. But still.
I never quite got over that loss. Those losses. The loss of Grandma before I was healed enough to thank her and truly appreciate her. The loss of a symbol of one of the few bright spots of my childhood.
The first time I saw Red in an antique store, my heart leapt. Until I saw the price. Years of searching revealed many Reds, but all of a similar price. And I just couldn't bring myself to spend $300 on a childhood memory. I convinced myself that I didn't really need her. I tucked the want of her into that corner of my heart where other unfulfilled dreams live. Life went on.
This last fall I made what has become an annual birthday trip to the Seattle area to spend a day with my middle brother, Mark, and to have dinner with all three of my brothers. We stopped by Mark's house, and when I walked into his kitchen, my eyes landed on Red. Sitting on his counter. Waiting for me. He'd gotten her at auction for next to nothing because her head has been repaired. She was mine if I wanted her, if I didn't mind the wound, if she still mattered to me.
I had a hard time hearing anything Mark said about Red because several little girls inside of me were jumping up and down, shouting for joy. I struggled to say thank you because no words would do justice to the gratitude I felt, the surge of relief and rush of lightness.
She lives now in the corner behind my kitchen sink, the actual heart place of my home. A dream fulfilled through the love of a brother I once thought lost to me as well. Every time I see her, I'm reminded of that love. The crack in her head, instead of diminishing her appeal, reminds me every day of the deep beauty of flawed things. As much as Red was once a symbol of love and sweetness, she's now become a symbol of never giving up on dreams. A reminder that deferred dreams fulfilled after hope has been released are so much sweeter than a grandmother's cookies.
Walt and I visited our financial guy last week. I had finally gotten brave enough, and sick enough of the fear of what I expected to hear, to face the truth. At 63, I am on the cusp of old age, and traveling the first steps of what I hope is the last third of my life. My lifelong dream of being a writer whose words open hearts, a singer of the highest magnitude on the page - that dream has felt lost to me since I returned to the classroom four years ago. With every new calendar I put up, the dream seems to slip farther away. Aging comes at a price. My biggest fear these last four years has been that by the time I could afford to retire, my mind and my heart would no longer be available for the fulfillment of my deepest, longest held dream.
The news was miraculous. I will teach one year beyond this one. Walt will probably go three more years to reach forty years of service. I won't have to sub, or supplement our income at all. We can travel. I can focus my time and energy on this elusive dream that refuses to stay tucked away. There are choices. Not a bread-and-water old age, but a banquet of possibility as long as our health holds.
This hope for the future feels very much like seeing Red in my own kitchen. A reminder that dreams are all the sweeter in a fulfillment where the packaging is a gift all its own. A reminder that "Wait." is not the same as "No." At least not always. A reminder of the Power beyond my own with a knowing beyond my own whose flawed gifts hold a perfection that can only be experienced in brokenness and surrender.