"It's as if a great bird lives inside the stone of our days and since no sculptor can free it, it has to wait for the elements to wear us down, till it is free to fly." Mark Nepo

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Crate Training

We're five minutes late as we pull into the circular drive lined with happily barking dogs. We're late because Alice agreed to let us come three hours earlier than her suggested time and we didn't want to push our luck. So we stalled to make sure we weren't early. And now we're late and barely containing ourselves. I'm not sure the car has come to a complete stop before I'm out my door and walking toward Alice's door. 

The doorbell plays a loud and strange song that makes us take a small step back, unsettled. Then we hear Alice's cheerful voice greeting us as she invites us in through the opaque plastic covering the screen door.

I'm aware of her, try to be polite and look at her, try to register her words about a too small collar and the shiny ribbon she's holding onto it so Toby looks like a Christmas present.

All I really see though is Toby.  His sweet peach face lights up and says,"There you are. I've been waiting for you!" His sturdy self is tucked in the crook of Alice's elbow, front legs draped over her arm, back legs hanging loosely, the in between all round softness. His still conical puppy tail beats an enthusiastic greeting that only intensifies as she hands him into my eager arms.


That first day only gets more perfect as it develops. He's mellow, affectionate, playful. He loves his toys. He doesn't have one accident - perhaps because he gets taken outside every time he stands up - but no accident is no accident. Asleep he's a vision of unbearable cuteness and innocence. Awake he's fun and joy romping on four stubby legs.

We're thrilled when he goes in and out of his crate. We ooh and aah whenever he lies down in his crate. We congratulate ourselves that our dog already loves this artificial den that all the books and Alice say is an essential part of his training and happiness. This is the place he'll sleep and travel in. This is the place he'll go to for peace and quiet. This is the place that his canine brain recognizes as safe and secure.

As responsible dog owners we are committed to crate training Toby and we're counting our blessings that we got a dog who seems so happy to be in his crate.

Until we close the door.

The first day, we were so startled - actually frightened - by the sound that came out of him on the other side of that closed door we opened it again right away. Surely this was an anomaly. He just needed more time to adjust to us. Maybe he just wasn't tired enough.

Bedtime is worse, not better. The pitiful crying and whimpering that we've prepared ourselves for never happens. Our sweet boy becomes Linda Blair in The Exorcist. He is the Hounds of Hell - a pack of legions, not just one. He is the terrible screaming of multitudes of tortured souls in hell.

For relentless hours.  For every time we "practice" during the days that follow. For night after endless night.

Our gratitude at getting such a compliant dog is replaced with gratitude that we have no close neighbors who might call 911 and report screams of terror. Our open-hearted optimism is replaced with grim determination. Our wide-eyed well-informed wonder is replaced with gritty-eyed sleep-deprived uncertainty. 

The books say he'll adjust in a few days, a week at the most. Alice's literature says human babies take months and we should buck up. It could be worse. Toby seems not to have received any of that information.

On the ninth day we call Alice for help. We're reassured that this is a test of wills. We can't give in. We should get earplugs.

We haven't done anything wrong. But all of her suggestions are about doing more of the right things. If I weren't so tired I might ponder the power of that idea and appreciate its beauty.

 Instead of pondering, we do. Everything she suggested. As quickly as we can.

 We spend the day making Toby's crate a doggy version of Disneyland. Treats are hidden in the folds of the towel. All of his toys are tossed in. We tuck as much of ourselves as we can into the crate with him and are as excited as it's possible to be. Our voices are high and hysterically happy and enticing. 

He responds just the way we hoped. He spends long periods of time inside the crate searching for goodies, nuzzling toys, resting. He goes in and out regularly throughout the day. He loves this new game with the enthusiasm that he loves everything. Full tilt, nothing withheld.

Until bedtime. 

Roaring. Shrieking. Howling. The silent spaces may be slightly longer than previous nights. Or maybe it's just the earplugs and wishful thinking.

Day ten. More doggy Disneyland. More determined holding firm. A trip to the store for better ear plugs. 

I think that perhaps Toby is not the one being trained here.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Golden Hope

Toby comes to live with us on Thursday. We weren't going to get a new puppy until spring - at the soonest. When Riley died last February, the week of his tenth birthday, we weren't actually ever going to get another dog. The pain of watching him suffer with cancer the last weeks of his life was something neither of us wanted to repeat.

Well, maybe we would get another dog - eventually - but certainly never another Golden Retriever.

My first Golden, Jesse, was the rescued orphan upon whom I could lavish my overflowing mother heart and love while I waited for children that would never arrive. He was my biggest sacrifice in the bid for freedom from the life he cushioned me against.

Just as soon as I was settled into a new life and a new dog became a possibility, I knew I had to have another Golden. Convincing my new husband was easy, and the hunt was on. Once we decided, the search took on an urgency I didn't understand, but had no desire to deny. We found ourselves in a dirty house being shown three scrawny older pups by an equally scrawny man who smelled of mildew and cigarettes. I would have taken all three, just to get them away from that place. The new husband, often the voice of reason in the midst of my emotion hurricanes, said no as gently as possible. I chose the one who looked like she needed me the most.

And so Kelly came into my life. I loved her with an intensity born of fierce guilt and aching hope for redemption and a deep well of unfulfilled mothering. Before she was two she nearly died from a thyroid condition that left her paralyzed for months. A determined vet and my need to not abandon another life that depended on me kept her going until she was back on her feet. Weeks of daily visits to the vet clinic, more weeks of carrying her outside to our back yard and daily baths in our tub, and still more weeks of teaching her how to walk again restored her to a life that lasted for five more years. The medication that kept her going and those months of illness took their toll and her body eventually just shut down, organ by organ. She died in a clinic, alone, on a weekend I had decided to play instead of visiting her.

I was never going to feel that pain again. I was never going to feel that guilt again. I was never going to care that much again.

I held out for three years, then found a perfect solution. Walt, my no longer new husband, was ready for a dog. We had grieved Kelly long enough. He wanted the experience of being the primary person for our next dog, and he wanted another Golden. I was getting the best of both worlds. A Golden in my life to love, but he wouldn't really be mine, so the pain wouldn't be as bad when he eventually died.

Again, spring break was the time. A week home to get the puppy settled, then a few short months until the summer when we could both be home with him. We were going to be strong this time. No rescuing. No emotional decisions. No problem.

We found ourselves in the back yard of a restored Arts and Crafts bungalow in an older Portland neighborhood. I loved the home, I loved the men who owned the home, and I especially loved sitting on their lawn being overrun by thirteen balls of frenetic red fluff while Walt chose his puppy.

Somehow in the ten years Riley lived with us, he managed to become my dog, too. I was the one who took him for long walks in the park. Walks made longer by his love of the river we walked next to. I was the one who had dozens of silly nicknames for him. I was the one who made sure we remembered to give him ice cream on his birthday every year. I was the one who noticed his failing health two years before we lost him, and began grieving his departure long before he died.

When it became clear, just weeks after Riley died, that no dog ever was not possible, we began to cautiously explore our options. We figured spring break in a year would be a good time and far enough away to be choosing a new companion and not trying to replace Riley.

Clearly Golden Retrievers were a breed that were too fragile. We could avoid the pain of a too early loss by choosing a dog that was hardier. We talked about getting a pound puppy. We looked at breeds that looked like Goldens. Flat-coated Retrievers. Irish Setters. Golden Doodles. None of them felt right. The only ones either of us felt drawn to at all were the ones who looked the most like Golden Retrievers.

We finally decided this fall that we'd get a Golden, but choose a breeder very carefully. And we didn't have to decide for a long time. Spring was months away.

Somewhere in the last month or two, I found myself asking Walt fairly regularly whether he was ready for a new dog yet. Not nagging exactly, but not that subtle either. I would point out pictures of Goldens at every opportunity, and suggest online searches for kennels. We had already decided that Walt would be the primary person for our next dog, so he needed to be ready before anything could happen.

Then just last weekend, in a series of events that are nothing short of miraculous, the decision was made. The day after Walt said he was finally ready to have another dog, a friend whose Golden is in her last days called with the name of a kennel. A reputable, long-established kennel only eight miles away with puppies that would be available at Christmas. Christmas. When we have two weeks off, not just one. And this a year with no plans at all. A Christmas at home with nothing special demanding our time.

Walt called. We went to look on Monday.

We were greeted into a homey clean house by a friendly comfortable woman with an air of caution about her. She led us into her kitchen where four male puppies were gated into the dining nook. I had planned to enjoy the experience and the dogs and support Walt in his choice.

All that went out the window the minute I saw the puppies. I actually only saw one. He was redder, bigger, galumphier than the others. He had my heart completely before I had time to remember he was going to be Walt's dog.

I was in the pen, on the floor, with him in my arms before Walt even had a chance to see him. It didn't take much convincing. Walt fell just as hard as I had. An hour later, the owner was showing us to the door, all traces of caution gone, congratulating us on our choice.

Toby comes home on Thursday. He'll be seven weeks old. He'll be
our dog. He'll be loved with open eyes and open hearts. Hearts that know what they want and won't be denied.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Catbird Scouts New Skies

That's it. I'm done with Book One. Freedom was the last chapter. 

One draft done, who knows how many to go. When I took wing into this writing sky with Jennifer and Carrie and my sister circle last February, I had no idea the cult would be my first book. I had no idea how revealing and healing the writing would be. I had no idea how hard it was going to be.

In present time I have no idea where all this will lead. I know where I want it to lead, and I hold that vision lightly and reverently in my heart. I know I'm on a journey I love and I know I'll follow it as far as it will take me. Getting to write words every day that give wings lift is what I came here to do. It's amazing to me that I'm finally getting to do just that. 

For those of you who have followed the story for these last months,  and who don't know me in my present life, here is how things turned out:

While Marlene the Unsmiling couldn't be the nurturing mom I wanted her to be, she was the skilled attorney I needed her to be. When the divorce was final seven months later I was granted maintenance and tuition and fees until I got a Master's degree or got re-married - whichever happened first.

Marv wanted to give me Jesse so that he wouldn't have to see me whenever I came to visit. The visits were pretty awful anyway - having to see Marv and having to leave Jesse behind every time. I couldn't afford a rental that would allow a big dog, and decided to let Marv have him. A decision that still stings.

The single teacher next door turned out to be everything that Marv was not and much much more. 

I graduated from Portland State with a teaching degree  in May of 1987. Walt (the guy next door) and I were married on August 16 of that year. I decided marriage was more important at that point than a Master's degree. A week after we got back from our honeymoon I was hired for a fifth grade position - a week before school started.

The cult and trucking company both ended within a year of our divorce. Through Harold's oldest daughter, who I ran into occasionally, I learned that Marv eventually remarried, moved to California and had a couple of kids. That still stings, too. Harold and Bonnie are both dead now. Laurel and I stayed in touch for years, but she stopped writing a while ago.

I'm still married to Walt, and grateful for the gifts our relationship has brought and continues to bring me. I'm still teaching, and ready for that chapter to end. I'm trying hard to be as present and grateful as possible while the lessons to learn as a teacher are still unfolding.

So, my blog will be changing. During the winter break (a week and a half away) I'm going to pull the story off, change my format, and write about my life as it unfolds in real time. I have a terrifically cool life - a wonderful home in the country, a loving and very understanding husband, a gifted counselor, four cats, twenty-one third graders, great books to read, growing relationships with my brothers, an unfolding spiritual life, amazing friends for fun and support.

 Oh, and we're getting a puppy in the next couple of weeks. A Golden Retriever. My third, our second - the first chosen with eyes wide open. We go tomorrow to choose and will bring him home before Christmas. 

I am so grateful to everyone who has read and commented on my story up to this point. If you still have unanswered questions, ask away. Or wait for the book (big grin here!). I hope you'll continue to visit me here as I stretch my wings into a new sky.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Me! Me!

Thank you Carrie and Kari for including me in the meming.

1. I love writing more than anything else in life, and I always have. There were a number of years when I couldn't write because my heart was closed for repairs, so I read instead. Now I get to do both and sometimes I forget there's a difference between being a reader and a writer.

2. If I want to find the truth of a thing I write about it. The words always always reveal what's going on in my deepest self.

3. I tolerated technology until I discovered blogging in February. I'm not exactly a Luddite, but the computer world has always made no sense to me and has been too cold and metallic for me to want to be a member. Now I can't imagine life without this world. I've met a family here. I've found a home - I've found myself.

4. I'm way more intense than I want to be and I worry that my writing scares people. I want my writing to be funny, but so far it's not been willing to follow that road. My third graders think I'm funny, so that will do for now.

5. I love (in a giddy and probably over the top way) knowing that people read my words. I reward myself with the blog comments in the same way I reward myself with See's truffles. The dots on my map make me really happy. When someone says "I read your blog" I feel like a celebrity. And I like the feeling.

6. There is nothing quite so satisfying as a well turned phrase, a perfect title or a delicious ending. It doesn't matter whose being those come from. I can smile for hours reflecting on just the right combination of words.

7. I won an award for an essay I wrote when I went back to school to get my teaching degree at the end of my first marriage. I include that here because that award and that essay have helped me believe all these years (over 20) that I am a writer just waiting to find her voice. I have found my voice.

Hmmm. That was fun. And it provided me with another day's delay in getting back to the work I set aside before Sisters. I offer Julie and Blair the same fun. Tag, you're it. It's back to work for me - just as soon as I go check for comments and look at my map.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Magic Revealed - Water, Air, Earth

Floating in the Pacific Ocean, tropical waters, on the edge of a reef. The prehistoric Na Pali coastline keeps stoic watch from the shore. The surf beckons from the other side of the coral, sometimes gently luring, sometimes furiously demanding. I only notice the difference when I come to the surface to clear my mask. Breathe in, breathe out. Flippers keeping me steady in the surge and current, hands making minor adjustments like the pectoral fins of the fish I'm trying to be one with. Breathe in, breathe out. Snorkel mask tight against my face, allowing me the convincing illusion that I'm a resident of this slightly murky, very salty world. Breathe in, breathe out.

The soothing rhythmic rush of my breathing is nearly drowned out by the snapping crackle of hordes of invisible shrimp declaring their territory.

I taste salt. Primeval, life-creating, sweet salt. I float, bob, breath. I give myself to the vastness and majesty of this saline universe. My body is no longer middle aged, over-indulged limbs and bulges. My body is ocean body, defined by coastlines, not cultural conventions.

Bits of vivid rainbow flair here and there. Aptly named green and red and turquoise Christmas Wrasses. Buttercup yellow Butterfly Fishes. Convict Tangs in their black uniform stripes over pops of lemon. Neon purple and yellow Cleaner Wrasses, the most beautiful garbage men in the universe. A huge Parrotfish, luminescing carnival glass purples, pinks, yellows, blues. Black Surgeonfish suddenly revealed as yellow neon spotted violet in a random ray of sunlight.

One amazing fish, the disappointingly named Yellowtail Coris, is the rainbow all by himself. The colors do not say ROY G. BIV, but they do shout more splendor than even a double rainbow over the Grand Canyon. I lose my breathing in his impossible glory and have to surface to find it again.

A busy Christmas Wrasse draws my attention to a particular coral outcropping. As I focus on his manic dance I realize that he's feeding around the mouth of a Green Sea Turtle - Honu. Honu grazes placidly on the algae patches growing here and there among the nooks and crannies of the reef. His cafe table shell, a nearly invisible mosaic in the brownish green depths, is maneuvered effortlessly from spot to spot with wing-like flippers.

My vision is suddenly blurred. Tears have leapt to the surface to declare the wonder and awe of the moment since words are impossible and salt water is the language of this place. I'm aware of a moan vibrating at the back of my throat, but I swallow it quickly. I want Honu to stay. I want to be in his world for as long as possible. I don't want to offend.

Honu continues to graze intently and peacefully, totally ignoring the Wrasse gleefully consuming his leftovers. I continue to float above him sending silent prayerful petitions for permission to be with him. Finally he drifts toward the surface, ready for air. I stop breathing as his face pauses slightly more than an arm's length from mine. His huge, gentle eyes meet my huge, awe-struck eyes. I send love, respect, admiration. He receives my reverence and surfaces. As he pokes his massive fist of a head into the sea air, I poke my alien masked face up at the same time. Once, twice, a third time we do our synchronized swim moves before he floats back down to his pasture.

We repeat our surface dance twice more before he glides to depths my eyesight can't follow into. Given a choice in that moment, I would shed my humanity for the chance to follow him wherever he went. I'm not given that choice, however, and I comfort myself with the colorful company of our mutual friend Wrasse.


Morning solitude on our third floor lanai. I'm in my chair facing east, facing the Trade Winds, before sunrise. Breathe in, pause, breathe out, pause. Again. Again. My breath and the wind play together in the moist morning air. Roosters crow imperiously and idiotically, mynahs chuckle and cackle, doves coo in coy whispers. I'm aware of the light changing beyond my lids, can feel its radiance growing around me. With a final breathe in, pause, breathe out, pause, my heart sends gratitudes into the morning. I open my eyes to find myself looking full in the face of Light.


Home again. Back to earth. Fifteen days away. No travel worries or hassles. All our luggage home with us in one piece. No injury or illness. All four cats alive, well and happy to see me. (Revenge for being left with a caretaker exacted after I get home - the guest bedding I'm washing for this week's company mysteriously peed upon.) Butterfly bushes have bloomed in my absence, welcoming me home in neon purple and blushing pink, very like the ocean rainbows I've left behind. Flower beds a riot of lipstick red Bee Balm, sun yellow Coreopsis, feathery purple Liatris, singing tangerine Day Lilies. I've traded fish for flowers, but the rainbow of promised hope has followed me home. Hope is the magic revealed. A message so vivid and clear that I trust. I breathe. I pause.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

There Is Nothing Left To Desire


Walt and I have been on the Garden Island of Kauai for the last week. I had a grand picture of blogging our vacation every day, both as a way to stay connected here and as a way to record our adventures. As is often the case when I picture how something is going to go, it goes in very different ways.

The first couple of days I was dealing with some disappointment and disillusionment. Kauai is much drier and less lush than I remember from my girlfriend trip here a decade ago. The locals are more unfriendly than friendly. Our condo is not ocean view as I've spent that last several months anticipating it would be. The magic that I was so looking forward to reclaiming in this tropical paradise just seemed to elude me at every turn.

Our twentieth wedding anniversary is August 16, so this trip is a celebration of that milestone. And it is a milestone worthy of celebration. The problem is that the ebb and flow of a long relationship doesn't necessarily follow a calendar. All of the changes that have occurred for me as a result of the February workshop have meant a significant rocking of our marital boat.

I'm not just writing as much as I can, a big change in itself, I'm more focused on what I want out of my life. My ongoing spiritual quest has deepened and is actually beginning to coalesce into a practice. I'm more aware of how my time is spent and I'm wanting more light and honesty in my relationships.

Walt has been tremendously supportive. He bought me a laptop. He reads my blog and talks to me about it. He does dishes more often. He encourages me at every turn.

Even with all of our efforts to stay connected, our connection has been stretched very thin over the last few months.

So when we arrived in Lihue last Thursday, everything felt off. Not romantic (which I wasn't expecting). Not even best friend companionable (which I was expecting).There is a mural in the airport showing beautiful Hawaiian men dancing the words "There is nothing left to desire." The phrase caught my eye and followed me into the humid Hawaiian afternoon.

A perfect description of this tropical paradise. How fortunate we are to be able to be here. How ungrateful and wrong I was feeling for desiring much much more.

When the room wasn't what I had been led to believe it was going to be (by my marital partner), I tipped into a space of fear that I can usually keep myself out of.

I have learned that when things don't work out the way I want them to, if I can stay open, there are always bigger gifts waiting around the bend. I stayed with the fear and disappointment this time instead of converting all of that energy into the power of anger, which has been my habit in previous years.

Because I stayed honest, and because he doesn't give up, Walt and I have had a couple of really powerful conversations about where we are, why we're here and how we might get where we both really want to be but can't quite find our way to.

And we are finding grand adventures and having great fun together. We've snorkeled nearly every day, including an amazing catamaran excursion to Niihau and Lehua. We've hiked canyons and explored beaches and eaten a ton of Shave Ice. In spite of quarts of heavy-duty sun screen I managed to burn the backs of my legs a bit (maybe more than a bit), but for the most part we've stayed healthy.

There are chickens running wild everywhere here. The roosters start crowing around 4:00 AM. Hens and chicks scurry along the roadsides, in parking lots, in the parks and on the beaches. They roost in the trees by the pool. Because I love chickens - it's an irrational thing, kind of like some people are afraid of spiders - the poultry has been a highlight.

We've seen amazing sights.

Kalalua Valley on the Na Pali coastline - the view from our hike.

Green turtles playing in the water yesterday right next to our snorkeling spot at Queen's Bath.

Spinner dolphins and bottle nose dolphins keeping us company on the catamaran trip. Monk seals swimming by underwater during another snorkeling day. Great (this is part of the name, not just a description) Frigatebirds and Tropicbirds and Boobies and Albatross soaring above Kilauea Lighthouse.

Fish of every color and size and shape swimming with us in every snorkel spot we've found. Some have taste tested us - just tentative nibbles on calves. The first time that happened, I thought Walt was fooling around and was very surprised when no one was there.

Two of our favorite snorkeling companions.

Walt is golfing Princeville this morning. If you're a golfer this is a big deal. I'm so glad he's doing something cool for himself, and pretty darned happy to have the time to be here.

We're going to 'Anini Beach to snorkel this afternoon. It used to be Wanini Beach until someone got annoyed and shot the "W" off the sign. Everyone thought it was one of those corrections back into old Hawaiian and the name stuck. That kind of sums up this place. Rules are followed loosely, if at all. It's made me think about how rule-oriented I really am, even though I think I hate rules. It appears that I feel safer when I know what the rules are, what the expectations are. It appears to be part of my whole good girl pattern, the pattern I'm well on my way to breaking. I wonder what consonant I could shoot off a sign. . .!

I find that I'm awake early here, usually 5:00 or 5:30. Next to snorkeling, the morning time is my favorite thing about this trip. I sit on our third floor lanai, facing the clouded eastern sky and playful trade winds and meditate. Then I watch the day come to life as the clouds race across the sky away from the rising sun, leaving the palms swaying in their wake. The ubiquitous Mynahs screech at the Moas (the official Hawaiian word for the chickens that have overrun the island) who crow and cluck and cheep themselves awake. Coffee, papaya with lime, apple bananas for breakfast. A precious hour of crowded solitude.

I'm aware that snorkeling is much like my morning meditation. Breathe in. Breathe out. Be present. Breathe in. Breathe out. Be aware. Nothing exists but my breath, my being and that moment in time. And for that moment there truly is nothing left to desire. I am being in as many of those moments as I can.

We have another week. Who knows what magic might happen in these next days. It seems like this would be the perfect place for our desire for a stronger, happier, more intimate marrage to begin to bear fruit.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Mother Daughter

Walt and I go to our local Starbucks nearly every Friday morning before work. We started these dates as a way to set aside a chunk of time to talk and reconnect during a particularly busy time several years ago. Our Starbucks is small and has always seemed sort of seedy, even when it was new. The service is maddeningly inconsistent as are the lattes we order every week. It is, however, the only comfortable coffee place open at 6:00 AM in our small town. Because of that it offers the comfort of familiarity and the small town family feel of the regulars and neighbors we greet as punctuation to our conversations.

I'm not exactly sure when this particular little girl came into focus for me. Looking back, it seems as though she and her mother have always been a part of our Friday morning ritual. She was a tiny thing, staying close to her mom like a new colt exploring the world for the first time. She had the long thin legs and spirit of a colt as well.

Two things drew my eyes back to her again and again.

The first was the clear fact that this child was allowed to dress herself. Every Friday she would appear like a tropical bird - bright colors that declared confidence and courage. The colors did not necessarily agree with one another, but this little girl wore them with such flair, it didn't matter. Her tights were often Pippi Longstocking stripes. She would wear pink cowboy boots and lacy dresses and a green rabbit fur jacket.

Her hair was as creatively done as her clothes, but done neatly enough her mom had to have put it into the styles that this child asked for. Multiple ponytails with a confused rainbow of scrunchies or ties. Parts in unusual places with the resulting curtain pulled back by funky barrettes. Occasionally loose and wild, suggesting a getting-ready that didn't go smoothly.

The second thing about this child and her mother that tugged at me was their relationship. They were always in deep conversation with each other. They would sit together with what appeared to be regular orders, continuing their companionable talk while they ate. The mom spoke directly to her daughter and the daughter spoke just as directly back. They would laugh easily together. While there didn't seem to be a lot of physical contact, the connection between this mother and daughter was palpable. It made me want to weep for my own inner girls who would never know that maternal love.

At some point I started to look forward to their appearance as part of our Friday morning date. Wondering what the girl would wear this week. Wanting to be in the presence of that connection. Wishing she would look at me and smile. Even though they were regulars, neither mother nor daughter ever made eye contact with me. The energy of my gaze, as intense as it was, could not break through the bubble of their relationship.

Our coffee dates went on hiatus for the summers, following the rhythm of a teacher's life. When we resumed our routine in the fall, mother and daughter were there as though no time had passed. The girl grew noticeably taller from September to September, but little else changed. I continued my quiet inner love affair with the power emanating from this pair.

Last September everything changed.

As I was settling into my new school this fall, teachers would stop by and ask to see my class list. We are always curious to know about our former students and what their fate will be for the next year. There are certain students who stand out in a school for one reason or another, and whose placement is always of particular interest. Without exception, I heard about one special girl from every person who looked at my list. She is a pistol. Very creative. Very artistic. A performer. You'll need to win her over or your year will be a tough one. You'll need to win her mom over or your life in this district will be miserable. Mom is a teacher at the middle school and a force to be reckoned with.

I'm sitting with my new colleagues at cafeteria tables in the high school for the annual back to school breakfast. This is a first for me - to be eating breakfast with every employee of the district in one room. The air is filled with the buzz of people greeting each other after the summer, sharing vacation stories and getting filled in on the surprise staff changes that happen every year. Someone says there's K and her mom, referring to the infamous pistol who is about to become one of my students. My eyes search the area that has been pointed out to me. They stop at a familiar face: the mom from Starbucks. For a moment I'm excited at her familiarity in this room of strangers, then my eyes continue scanning for K and her mom. There is only one girl in the vicinity who could be the notorious K. She's walking toward her mom. My eyes follow her path to the Starbucks mom and the realization stuns me.

This child that I've been admiring from afar for so many years is about to become my student. I get to experience first-hand the energy and love of this mother/daughter partnership. Any lingering doubt about whether I made the right move or not evaporates completely in that moment of recognition.


In five days, K will no longer be my student. I love the reality of her even more than I loved the idea of her. I didn't actually win her until January. She was polite and went along, but she already had one strong woman in her life. She didn't need me. She was not an easy student. The work of school interfered with her social life and she barely tolerated the inconvenience. Her desk was a disaster area, full of the sticky notes she spent all of her time folding, writing on, decorating with. She blatantly passed notes while I was teaching. She would come in from recess filthy, leaving clots of mud across my carpet in her wake. She usually stopped just short of behavior that would require an e-mail to her teacher mom. If I did need to call in reinforcements, K went back to her polite going-along demeanor without rancor.

I've watched her all year in a state of awe. Her unwavering confidence, unfettered spirit, unshakable certainty in her rightness take my breath away. Nothing I said or did, positive or not, had any impact on her sense of herself. In a lifetime of searching for role models, I'm amazed to find such a powerful one in the being of an eight-year-old child. She is enough and more.

I don't know what shifted, but one day after the Winter Break during morning check-in she made a joke about my appearance. I laughed and joked back. She told me I was weird. I said thank you. And just like that I was in. She didn't become an easier student. Her behavior didn't change at all in that regard. What changed was the air between us, and that truly changed everything.

She invited me to her birthday party last weekend. It was a tea party at Myrtle's, the local teashop, complete with finger sandwiches, fine china, and pots of interesting teas. I wore my best hat, a bright pink velvet affair with netting in the front. K wore a lighter pink brimmed hat that matched the cake they had made for her. The adults present seemed surprised that a teacher would take time out of a Saturday to go to a birthday party. K accepted my presence as her due - she expected nothing less.

So a relationship which began in a coffee shop reaches its conclusion in a tea shop. A lovely bit of synchronicity.

Regardless of what might be next for K, her mom, and I, a part of us will always be set in the amber of this third grade year. It's a jewel that will warm and brighten my heart forever, and that helps me to bear the ache of ending that fills my days right now.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

White-winged Crow

After nineteen years of teaching in a large suburban district of twenty elementary schools, I moved to a small rural district with two elementary schools last August. I had spent most of my previous teaching life with ten to twelve year-olds. During the three years just prior to my move I completed the course work for an administrative credential - the paper that would allow me to become a principal. I wanted to go to this new district to work with the principal of my new school, and to prepare to do an internship next year - the final step in completing my credential.

I spent last summer waiting for an opening to occur, and it did. Two weeks before the new year was to start. In third grade. If I hadn't been so sure that God had led me to this place, I might have hesitated at teaching children so young. I've always been a teacher who expected a lot of her kids, who ran a tight ship, who worked best with the high kids. Third graders are very tender and I was worried I might be too tough for them.

I said yes. And the tornado kicked in. In the amount of time I usually take to set up my room and plan for a year that is not too different from the year before, I applied for my job, waited, interviewed, waited, accepted my job, resigned from my old district, said goodbye, packed, moved, was oriented to my new district, set up my new room, attended inservice, smiled through open house and started school the week before Labor Day.

During one of those setting up days I found myself alone in my new room. The school is over 70 years old, so my room is huge by today's standards. From my battered old wooden desk with sticky drawers (which I love) I look across the room through a bank of windows that opens up the top half of one whole wall. My view is a sloping field that's part of our playground, and maple trees beyond that. As I reveled in the energy of this funky, spacious old room with its generous gift of light, I noticed a flock of crows flying by. For just an instant I thought I'd seen a flash of white on the wings of one of the crows. It could just as easily have been a trick of light, but I was intrigued. I accepted this bird as a sign - of what I wasn't sure yet. But it gave me a zing of energy and hope, and that was enough.

Throughout the year, I would see my crow occasionally. Always flying by my window quickly, so I would get no more than a glance. But more and more I believed he was special and truly white-winged.

The first part of the year was much more difficult than I anticipated. I was determined to be gentle and kind and serene with my new babies. Most days I managed that, but I was not prepared for how much energy it took to train them and to keep up with them and to stay calm. I missed my old school, my old friends, my old status with a homesickness similar to that of kids at camp for the first time. Everyone was pleasant enough at my new school, but I was the new kid and had to earn my place. My grade level team had a bad experience the year before so they left me to my own devices. My principal and I had been friends years before, but hadn't seen each other for almost a decade. And now she was my boss. I felt more alone than I had in years.

My white-winged crow, as it became more clear that the white was more than reflection, was a small comfort every time I saw him. He reminded me that miracles occur in the midst of day to day. He was evidence to me that it's possible to find magic in the most ordinary (or in my case difficult) of circumstances.

I started asking around about my crow. I was careful to ask people who had been identified as birders, but none of them had noticed such a bird.

So I asked my kids. They all, every one of them, swore they had seen my white-winged crow at one time or another. One of the most delightful (and most maddening) things I've discovered about third graders is their willingness to join a story wholeheartedly, whether they have actual experience in it or not. They want to have had the experience, and that's good enough for them. Their desire becomes reality instantly.

As the year progressed, I settled into the rhythm of my new life. I fell in love with third graders, and learned to let go of more control than I thought I still possessed. I began to make friends and to find kindred spirits on the staff and in my parents. I made some kids cry, but hugged them out of it, and made sure I got more sleep the next night. I learned how to make them laugh, and found myself belly-laughing with (sometimes at) them every day. I learned to trust their innocence and in the process began to rediscover my own. I discovered that just being was enough - I didn't have to prove myself.

I got glimpses of my crow frequently this spring. Enough to be certain that his wings do in fact contain white feathers. The wings look like the fancy dancing shoes certain men wear to make a statement of style.

Just a week ago I was standing in my doorway, calling my kids in from an extra recess. I was starting to miss them already - a gnawing ache that visits me every year at this time. Tears tickled the backs of my eyes as 25 bundles of pure life and energy bounded toward me like a pack of golden retriever puppies. I feel proud of participating in the tremendous growth they've accomplished in the last nine months. I feel sad for the kids I've missed the point of or not reached as deeply as they needed. I celebrate the connections we've made together and the fact that they really know they're the Best Third Grade. I wish I had their energy. I am so grateful to be their teacher.

Just as the last child went into the room (they always say best for last and hang back for the position), my white-winged crow swooped right across my line of sight up to the roof. I got a full look at both the top and under side of his wings. The white is real. He is real. The miracles of this year are real. I am real.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Celebrate the Written Word

I've just returned from one of my most extraordinary weekends - ever. The February workshop with Jennifer that birthed this blog and a multitude of other changes in my life is the only recent event that tops these last few days.

Four old friends, a book group with more than a decade's worth of reading and playing together, take their act on the road. The Los Angeles Times Book Festival at UCLA. Our hotel is an easy walk to the center of the action. We have tickets to panels, maps, lists of authors and high hearts as we enter this magical world of words. The weather is Southern California in the spring perfect. The crowds are mellow and happy and united by the love of books. I fit in perfectly.

I might be walking on air, I'm so happy, except that my tired feet remind me they are definitely treading solid ground.

I'm rooming with Patty, who has been my friend the longest in this group. We have shared rooms together often enough over the years that we settle in together as comfortably as an old married couple. My days begin in incredible fellow-writer conversations with the other Deb in the group. My days end as co-pilot with Lou, our planner and event coordinator. She drives us out on our nightly adventures while I navigate. I drive us home while she navigates. We're a great team. Such different relationships with each other, such a sisterhood, such a powerful force. I love them deeply, these women who are one of my best families.

We all have different things we want at the festival itself. Our wants overlap occasionally and at those times we wander the hundreds of booths together or sit together to hear authors talk. At other times we go our separate ways and don't see each other for hours. I share S.E. Hinton, Cynthia Kahodata and a love of children's literature with Deb. We're thrilled and shocked to learn how incredibly funny S.E. Hinton is. Patty and I share Mark Doty and a panel about memoirs. The four of us enjoy David Baldacci together, giggling like schoolgirls at his rugged good looks and polished presentation. Children's literature again brings Deb and I together to see Cornelia Funke - the one thing I promised my students I would do for them. I try to memorize her so I can take as much of her back with me as possible.

I go alone to hear another panel on memoir (I found three in all and felt like I had discovered chocolate in the words of my soon to be peer group.) and listen to Arianna Huffington. That's a treat I'll give to myself again as soon as possible. I saw movie stars (familiar faces, but no names to go with) in this session and had the most satisfying conversation with an elderly man who seemed very academic and curmudgeonly until he tapped me on the shoulder and wished me luck as he was leaving. That simple sweet gesture is one of my favorite memories of the whole time.

I have an unofficial date on Saturday afternoon at the Border's booth. I know that one of my favorite authors will be there at 4:00, and I rush out of the Cornelia Funke panel (Deb already said she didn't want to join me - I don't exactly abandon her), run up several flights of stairs, and stand out of breath as Border's employees get her set up for the signing. I'm the first one there!

Yup. It's Monica Holloway. World renowned author of Driving With Dead People. My friend and fellow writer. Her joyful energy, generous spirit and beauty spill over the table and out onto the bricks of the courtyard. I don't realize how excited I am to see her again, my sister of the yellow couch, until she looks up and smiles at me. Our visit is short but energizing and inspiring. I meet her husband Mike, the proud guy sitting next to her; Wills, her cute promoter son; and her sister whose warmth, sweet smile and welcoming hug made me feel like she was a favorite cousin. I'm so excited I forget to take pictures, so circle back again - and I'm so glad I did.

It's going to take some time to process all that I experienced in those four days. I'm excited at the prospect. For now it's enough to know without doubt that I was fully present, fully grateful and fully joyful for every minute. Amazingly that presence, gratitude and joy seem to have become permanent residents in my heart.