"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

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Magi Gifts

If ever there was a good Christmas to be snowed in, this was it for us. We had not planned to travel. We hadn't planned a big gathering. In fact there were no firm plans at all.

My middle brother, Mark, was maybe going to come down from Tacoma, but even that wasn't firm. So the house was decorated for us. The meal was planned for us. And I was open to whatever might come, and open if nothing came.

Mark decided to come Christmas Eve in an attempt to beat the next storm. He had other offers for the holiday that would have been much easier for him, but he drove for three hours on what turned out to be mostly dry pavement (until he got to our nightmare road) to be with his big sister. 

That was the first gift.

My three brothers and I have a complicated adult relationship, probably not that unusual. Until very recently you needed a play map to understand who was speaking to whom, and the possibility of the four of us ever being together happily under the same roof seemed about as likely as two weeks of heavy snow in the Pacific Northwest.

Mark arrived at our house later than he might have because our baby brother, Geoff, wanted to send a gift with him. I was puzzled by that because we don't exchange gifts usually, and financially Geoff is not in a position to be buying gifts this year. 

He made a picture album - the same one for all three of us. It includes prints of pictures of our paternal grandparents, great grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. There are pictures of our dad as a child, our mom as a child, and one absolute favorite of the four of us on a couch as very young children. The captions for the pictures are  moving, informative, and laugh out loud funny. The cover letter that my baby brother (who barely graduated from high school, struggles with reading and does not have an intimate relationship with words) wrote is one of the most beautiful things I've ever read.

The theme was the power of family love and especially sibling love. It was an offering of a heart no longer willing to exclude members of family because of disagreements or differing beliefs. It is a peace offering to my older brother, and opens the door to the possibility of the four of us being together again.

That was the second gift.

Mark's gift came wrapped in gift wrap, tucked in a huge gift bag. As I picked it up I could feel plastic through the paper - the kind that blankets come in. So even before I got the paper torn off I had an idea what he'd done. My brother made me a quilt. From fabric we had picked out together on his birthday last spring (for a quilt for him)  on one of my favorite all-time days with him. On a very busy schedule in a very tiny home. He made me a quilt. The colors are warm, the pattern  (which he created himself) eye-pleasing, the weight that of a loving hug.

That was the third gift.

For my part, I had decided to make jam for my brothers for Christmas. Our mom used to make a jam she called apple butter, but which is really spiced apply jelly. Made with apple pulp instead of apple juice because she didn't want to take the time to strain the pulp to get the juice. Geoff has asked me for the recipe countless times and lost it the same exact number of times. So I pulled out mom's original browned and stained recipe, bought the ingredients, and made apple butter for my brothers. In honor of one of the rare common pleasures of our childhood. Mark surprised me by telling me it's his favorite jam. I wish I could be there to hear Geoff's laugh when he sees what I've done. I hope it touches Frank in the same way I hope Geoff's album will.

In an amazement of synchronicity - without discussion, plans or questioning - we surprised each other with gifts of the purest, simplest love I can imagine. The world is a brighter place, my heart beats a lighter tune, and hope is a more certain blessing than I believed possible before this Christmas.

Top photo: Mark, Frank, Geoff, Big Sister - circa 1957. Geoff's caption: "Debbie, why are you squeezing my hand so hard?"

Wednesday, December 24, 2008


From the perspective of my office window, the world is snowbound. Tree branches bow to earth and begin to break under the weight. Squirrels scamper across the surface in search of food, somehow knowing that movement is all that keeps them from sinking. White has erased every color but gray and green, and significantly muted those.

And the snow continues to fall.

It's just warm enough that the icicles on our eaves are drip, drip, dripping. Great clots of snow avalanche from fir branches, driven by some unseen combination of weight, heat and gravity. Change is coming.

We're far enough from town that it's easy to believe the whole world is this beautiful, isolated, whiteness. It's easy to believe that this will never end - that we'll be stuck here forever with no easy way out. It's easy to believe that nothing that mattered so much a week ago really matters at all.

But we got to town yesterday, with relative ease: Walt carefully driving our four-wheel-drive pick-up over packed snow ruts and barely thawed pavement, me sitting warm, cozy and carefree on the passenger side. Town, three miles away, was bustling. 

The store was full of men pushing shopping carts as wives figured out what to substitute for the many things that were missing from shelves. Neighbors greeted each other heartily and happily, as though it had been an entire winter rather than days since they saw each other. The clerk who checked us out was more interested in telling us about her frozen shower drain and two feet of snow than she was in the looks of mild frustration from the several people in line behind us. 

I think we could probably get to town again today if we needed or wanted to. My brother is sure he can make the drive south from Tacoma late this afternoon. The mailman drove up to our door with a package just a bit ago.

Yet there is a part of me that isn't quite ready to release the quiet, no-expectation peace of these last few days. I like the rhythm of days centered around Toby's exercise and playtime, cats' needs for lap time, and hour upon hour here at my computer doing what makes my heart laugh and dance. I like choosing, guilt-free, to sit and read until the book is done (or to sit and do nothing at all). I like enjoying Walt's gentle, comfortable presence.

And that leaves me with this question: Why do I need to be snowbound to give myself, guilt and anxiety free,  those gifts?

photo by Walt Shucka

Sunday, December 21, 2008

A Year, Already!

Well, that year went fast. Impossibly so. There's nothing to mark how much can change in twelve months quite like a puppy, and most especially our Toby.

Just a year ago Walt and I were bringing Toby home. An adorable armful of sweet butterscotch fluff who quickly turned our expectations, our lives, and our home inside out, upside down,  and every which way but what we thought we were getting.

After sleepless months of futile effort to crate train him, Toby decided to sleep in his open crate on the patio. Since the recent cold snap, he's been sleeping in the house - anywhere he decides to land. As I write this he's sleeping on (yes, on) our bed. In fact Walt just called me to come see Toby on "his" bed. The one he allows us to use at night, apparently.

I finally gave up trying to rescue the cats from his no-holds-barred, dog nose to cat tail chases. Somewhere along the line they stopped running, so he had nothing to chase. He satisfies that urge now with squirrels and birds and shadows on the other side of the fence. 

The cats love him, or at least tolerate his presence - depending on which of the three we're talking about. Emma, the queen of the household, who doesn't like anyone, including me sometimes, adores Toby. Sometimes in a sort of inappropriate creepy way - but it works for them, so who am I to judge?

We've reached a compromise with the whole walking on a leash business. I don't take him for long strolls in the park with a beautifully slack leash connecting us in a lovely symbolic way. He tolerates the leash for the distance it takes to get to get to the campground and river, where I can release him. He checks in with me (and to claim his treat) regularly. I walk happily. We both have fun.

I'm really grateful that neither Walt nor I verbalized our separate and identical fears that we had acquired the wrong dog. That we might have made a huge mistake. That we might need to consider giving him to a family who could appreciate his independence and strong will.

"That face!"

"Look at him!"

"Come see! Isn't he amazing?"

Every day we fall in love with him a little bit more. I'm not exactly sure when I reached the place where I need the smell of his sweet wild fur and the mischievous gleam of his bright eyes and the smile of his under-bit mouth to feel whole. But I'm there.

He's most certainly not the dog I thought we were getting. He's not even the dog I thought we wanted. He is, exactly, the dog who completes this family and who reflects a rich and abundant part of my inner being I didn't even know existed. He is, always, his own dog, and yet he chooses, always, to be delighted with my company. He is fully physical, completely in the moment, and forgives instantly. Lessons I continue to learn.

All that in a year.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Snow Day

Being on the teacher end of a snow day is one of life's greatest gifts. It's a summer day in the middle of winter - unspent, unpromised and full of undefined possibility. Wednesday's snow day was particularly sweet, a midweek break from classroom Christmas craziness. 

One day would have been sufficient. The three we've received are a bounty of time that I'm rolling around in like Toby does bad-smelling things in the woods.

I spent most of Wednesday on the couch, in my Christmas decorated living room, wrapped in the wool throw I brought back from my summer Scotland adventures, absorbed in the latest Wally Lamb book. One cat stretched on the back of the couch by my head, another tucked at my knees, the third curled in a tight ball in my rocker across the room. The cold white outside is achingly beautiful from my nest in the warm red inside.

A combination of guilt, twinging back (from all that laying around), and curiosity compelled me to take Toby for a walk. In the below freezing, slippery, snowy blowy outdoors. 

I've become old-ladyish about being cold - actually about most physical discomfort. I'd rather not be cold or uncomfortable. But I'd also rather not be old-ladyish, so I made myself move.

I bundled. Two pairs of pants. Three heavy shirts and a lined denim barn coat. Two pairs of socks and rubber boots. Gloves, a wool scarf, a hat. I felt like the little kid in A Christmas Story. If I fell, I would have to roll home because there was no way I could bend enough to get back up.

By the time I was putting socks on, Toby had to be put outside because he was so excited his tail was sweeping things off of every nearby surface. Plus it's hard to put things on feet that are being stood on by 95 pounds of happy golden dog.

Toby's excitement took me well into the walk before I realized that I was actually enjoying my own self, not just his bouncing enthusiasm. I was plenty warm. The deep crunch of snow underfoot resonated clear up to my chest. And the transformed world was a wonder to behold.

The river had gone from its usual green/blue/brown translucence to an opaque shade somewhere between mercury and steel. A thick elemental being, flowing around snow-covered rocks, barely registering the sky-jumping flakes landing on its surface.

I stood at the bank and looked up into the dizzying other-worldly dance. Stuck my tongue out to catch flakes. Noticed a hint of movement at the top of a tall snag across the river. My eagle. Sitting high, still and almost invisible. Watching. I watched back, happy. He flew, eventually, upstream and away and I headed for home. 

There's still work to be done, obligations to meet, snow days to be made up. I'll be complaining in June about having to be in school longer than the original calendar promised. But June is months and lifetimes away. And just maybe I can enjoy these days enough that the remembering will make the later start of summer seem worth the cost. It seems a necessary happiness.

photos by Walt Shucka

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Peace on Earth

This week's calendar is as full as the winner of a pie eating contest. 

A party at my house Monday after school. A date with my favorite cousin on Tuesday. The school music program on Thursday.  Gift shopping and wrapping that have to be done before Friday and the beginning of winter break. Fudge and buckeyes and gingerbread to make. And a surprise addition to the venue: the temporary crown the dentist gave me last Tuesday is singing ugly songs in my head and will need to be dealt with as soon as the office opens tomorrow. 

All of that on top of a job which right now consists mostly of finding  ways to be more interesting to twenty-six eight year olds than Santa, grandparents coming in from out of town, and the looming magic of Christmas morning.

The weather is no respecter of plans, not even time-sensitive holiday plans. Dire forecasts of the coldest weather in ten years, snow that won't melt for days, and blizzard level winds threaten to completely undo the week.

My book group Christmas gathering, scheduled for this afternoon, has already been cancelled. Everything else is wait and see.

In past years, I would be fretting mightily at this point. The not knowing. The fact that some things can't be rescheduled. The complete lack of control.

The winds blow, tossing tree branches in a manic symphony of feathered green gyrations. Snow comes. One meandering white dot here. A second lazy descending bit of ice there. At first. Then I look up to see the air crowded with small doilies of white lace swirling their way to earth. A moment later there is nothing but stainless steel light filled with dozens and dozens of pine siskins waiting their turn to gorge at the thistle feeders. 

The thermometer on the patio has dropped ten degrees from an already chilly place since I fed Toby this morning. The weatherman says it's going get even colder, before this day is done. I'll take his word. I'm not planning to go outside and find out for myself.

The house is cozy warm. Smells of chocolate and cinnamon and ginger will soon join the evergreen fragrance that lives here this time of year. Emma, Grace and Cooper dream feline dreams on separate chairs, the perfect picture of ease and entitled safety. 

Walt and I sat and talked this morning, about this and that, dreams and hopes, the past and the future. No urgency. No agenda. A conversation that increased the warmth of our home and the day in a way no fire could. 

 Walt and Toby are outside playing soccer on the sugar dusted lawn in the razor sharp air as I write. The happy murmur of Walt's voice and Toby's answering growls provide melody to the rhythm of the blowing wind.

Gratitude that I can feel the gift of this day, completely free from anxiety about what the week might bring, fills me now. Even my angry tooth is not enough to dim the light. I marvel at the peace of this release of plans and expectations and what-ifs. I glory in the grace of it, and hope that it finds a home in my heart.

photo from Flickr

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Wing Song

This happened weeks ago, and I can still hear the sound. In fact it lives inside me now like the scent of sweet peas and lilacs from childhood, the taste of my grandma's gingerbread cookies at Christmas, the sight of a tropical sunrise viewed while the rest of the world slept.

I was walking the path in the park, as I've done hundreds of times, lost in roiling rapids of dark thoughts that no amount of attention seems to still these days.  I was so deep in my head that it's a wonder I heard the sound at all. 

Off to my left, where the river was running clear and clean, a wind-kissed snap stirred the air just enough to find my ear. Clean sheets on a windy August clothesline. Fingers popping to happy dancing music. God's "ahem" to bring me fully into the day.

I turned my head, not entirely sure I'd actually heard a real sound, to see a Bald Eagle making her way downstream, maybe six feet above my troubled head. As the realization of what I'd really heard dawned, my eyes followed her flight. She was mature, fully white head and tail, dark body, bright yellow beak and talons - regal in every way. I had a clear view a long way down the river, but at some point she simply disappeared. One moment she was there. One moment she wasn't.

The analogy is too simple, but the only one that fits. The sound of an eagle's wing in flight is exactly as I believe an angel's wing would sound. This is not the first time a Bald Eagle has arrived at the exact moment  I needed a Voice to remind me that I am not alone. This was not the first time the bird simply vanished from the sky as I tracked its flight.

 Usually I spot them as  they fly directly overhead, almost close enough to reach up and touch. I've spotted pairs soaring in a distant spring sky. A peripheral flash of white will often reveal a full grown eagle, occasionally with companions, perched majestically in the branches of  tree skeletons. Once, a long time ago, a perfect feather, earth brown and cloud white,  presented itself in my path. 

I remember loving Bald Eagles as a child, and being terrified that I'd never get to see one in the wild. Those were the days of DDT and soft eggs and the brink of extinction for the species. I didn't see any until I had reached adulthood, and sadly can no longer recall the first one. Every time I see one, however, it feels like the first one. The grace and glory and wonder of a spotting never fails to take my breath away.

This was the  first time I heard an eagle's wing sing for me. A soft song of one pure note that has not diminished at all in the week's since it first made its way into my heart. The sound of hope and comfort and a power greater than any threatening darkness.

photo from Flickr

Saturday, November 29, 2008


The park is surprisingly busy for a late fall afternoon where the cold and damp worm their  way up sleeves, down backs and through not enough layers of clothing. There is little beauty to offset the biting air - fall's fireworks are heavy wet ashes dripping from branches, sliming the trail, dimming what little light the sun still offers. But it's not raining. That alone may be enough to account for all of the company I have today. 

Many families are here with kids shrieking on the merry-go-round and the swings and the slides. Fishermen wander along searching for the perfect hole the will reveal the perfect fish. Couples walk hand in hand, heads bent in intimacy that radiates outward in quiet laughter or a choral greeting to fellow walkers.

I'm at the halfway point of this day's walk, making the turn for home, cutting through the parking lot, when I notice a small dented  pickup  pulled straight into a parking space right next to a mid-size SUV that is backed in. Something about those two cars catches my eye, but  I'm actually past them and headed up the hill out of the park when I realize what I've seen.

Two pale hands form a garland between the two cars, holding each other in what feels like an embrace. I circle back to confirm what my memory has sketched lightly - one male, one female hand, holding each other across the short distance between the two vehicles.

I read longing in the suspension of limbs. And a story of stolen moments. Maybe heartbreak.

Why else would they be holding hands from separate spaces? Why aren't they walking together? Sitting in one car together?

I make myself continue along my own journey. It's their story, not mine. But the picture of two pale hands, holding each other and something unknown in the cold space between seasons, won't leave me. It's unsettled me and I don't know why. And so the rest of my walk is spent sending them love and a wish for peace. What else can I offer? How else can I help? Who else will know?

photo from Flickr

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Frozen Turkey

Armed with a thorough and organized list, I push my cart up and down the aisles of our local one-stop shopping mecca. I know that shopping on the Sunday morning before Thanksgiving is asking for trouble, but I am determinedly cheerful. 

 Two carts blocking the aisle while the women they belong to are completely absorbed in their label studies? No problem. "Excuse me, can I get through, please?" With a smile that I mean.

Halfway through the store, as I check the list that I am sticking to like dried mashed potatoes to a bowl, I realize I forgot the shortening which is several aisles back. No problem. I park my cart on the end of an aisle and congratulate myself on the extra walking I'm getting to do. 

Once back at my cart, Crisco in hand, I notice that someone either crashed into it, or decided to rearrange it at a jaunty in-the-way angle. No worries. No harm. I push the corners of my mouth up another notch as I push my cart toward the cat litter aisle. It's blessedly quiet here and I take advantage of the oasis to study my list and my coupons.

This is where things start to go sideways. 

I realize that I have a coupon for a turkey that will be mine for free if my total at the register exceeds a certain astronomical amount. I have definitely spent that amount, due in large part to the exorbitant cost of canned cherries that I have to have because my brothers asked for cherry pie (one of the few things our mom baked that we all love) and I'm not about to disappoint them because someone somewhere has surely confused the value of cherries with the value of rubies.

I already have a turkey in my shopping cart. This bird spent its life on a farm, grazing peacefully on sweet grass and insects, basking in sunlight, sleeping in a sweet-smelling coop with her sisters and brothers. Her death was humane and she gladly gave herself so that I can enjoy healthy and tasty sandwiches all weekend long. Or at least that's what the packaging said.

The free turkey, on the other hand,  spent its wretched life cooped up in a windowless, airless factory with thousands of other wretched birds, fed corn and antibiotics and who-knows-what. It was probably glad to die just to end the wretchedness, but all the wrapper tells me it that it is full of broth and butter and that I don't have to worry about anything because of the handy dandy pop-up timer.

As I stand by the freezer section studying the wretched turkey, which will cost me nothing, and glancing into my cart at the happy turkey, which will cost me a pretty penny, I am frozen with frustration and indecision.

I only need one turkey. I want the happy turkey. It seems wasteful not to get the wretched turkey. I could get both and give someone the wretched turkey, but that feels too much like my students giving me the Halloween candy that they don't like. Also, how do you find someone to give a frozen bird to? If I get the wretched turkey, I'm perpetuating cruelty and unhealthy practices. If I get the happy turkey, I'm wasting money.

For a while I wander the store with both turkeys in my cart. I consider leaving the cart and the store and the dilemma behind, but I need those damned cherries. I consider no turkey at all, but can't imagine Thanksgiving weekend without turkey sandwiches. I run the conversation through my head where I explain to Walt that we'll be doing peanut butter and jelly this year, and know for sure that no turkey is not an option.

There is a wretched turkey in my freezer. I got it for free. A happy turkey is still calling to me from the store. I'm pretty sure the wretched turkey would be calling if I had left it behind. I wonder if Walt would mind if I raised my own turkeys for next year. 

picture from Flickr

Tuesday, November 18, 2008


Things at work are not fun right now. The kids are just getting over the sugar chaos of Halloween - in time to start getting geared up for the Santa chaos of Christmas. Report cards need to be done before the Thanksgiving break. Conferences are the week after Thanksgiving. One of my teammates  is creating dramas right and left. I go to work in the dark. I come home in the dark. In between feels like its own special kind of darkness.

The year that wasn't supposed to be is getting harder and harder to appreciate.

Except that I have Lars in my life.

We have a kindergarten buddy class. A couple of times a month we get together and my little third graders become big guy teachers for the even littler kindergartners. The kids are matched in buddy pairs, and for the hour they're together, the kindergarten teacher and I sit back and marvel at the joyous, busy, nurturing noise that fills the room.

Whenever my class passes the buddies in the hall, the kindergartners become wild fans and my babies the celebrity recipients of their hero worship. I of course get to be the head celebrity and there is little to compare to the unsolicited adoration of twenty-some five year olds.

Lars is one of our buddies. He has the sweetest corn silk hair. He has the brightest and readiest of  smiles. He has Down Syndrome.

It takes me a while to learn the buddies' names. Those little guys do in fact all look alike from the top down. But Lars I learned early, because his third grade buddy wanted a new buddy right away - something that rarely happens. 

He was frustrated because Lars, who has a full time assistant, wouldn't do what my student asked. Lars is cheerfully unbound by the restrictions of guilt or fear of consequences. Once I explained to the third grader that Lars learned differently, and that it was okay to not complete the day's tasks, they've been inseparable. In fact, in a twist of irony this is not uncommon with these buddies, the two boys look like they could be brothers.

Every time I come into a room Lars' face turns to me like a flower to the sun. And breaks into a smile like the sun through clouds. I can walk into our crowded and riotously noisy cafeteria, and somehow his smile finds me. Now, of course I look for it. And I'm never disappointed. I make a point to walk up and say hi, and his whole body smiles. Much the same way Toby smiles when we come home at the end of the day. It's pure, and clean and sweet.

I'm not sure why he seems drawn to me. I don't think it matters. I wish there was a way to let this little creature of undiluted light and love know how much he means to me. How much my dreary days are brightened by his powerfully gentle smile.

As I continue to search for the gifts and lessons this year has to offer, I'm beginning to think that Lars might just be enough of a gift all by himself. I'm in love in the light of his presence.

photo from Flickr

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Leaving the Nest

God Has No Daughters is done, one more time. I've finished the draft that I thought would be done last summer, and revised that one as well. I stayed up late Monday night because I was so close to the end and I was determined that it was finally time to be done. Then when the last page showed up on my screen, I didn't quite know what to do. I'm still a little stunned.

This child of my heart and soul began her entry into the world less than two years ago. The birth was as painful as any child-bearing. The growing pains have been significant. There has been joy and celebration and immense wonder. There have been tears and tears and tears. 

She has been transformed from a clumsy toddler into a beautiful adolescent. One I'm ready to be away from for a while. One I'm ready to send into the world to make her mark. She is glorious and fractious all at the same time. Eager to leave the nest, and terrified to test her wings. One minute she's soft and gentle and wise, the next angry and stubborn and refusing to reveal any truth at all. 

I found myself this last time adding commas and then taking them out, beginning to add a paragraph that I discovered I'd already written on the next page, reading and not having any idea whether it made sense or not. There were spaces of time when I hated coming to the book, hated that I'd ever started it, hated how much of me it consumed. Then I would surprise myself, she would surprise me, by being simply and gracefully the pure light of truth.

I have high hopes for her, and I will always love her in that special way that all first-borns are loved. But I'm aware that from this point forward, who she becomes is not so much in my control. I will certainly do my part to give her everything she needs to be a success, to be all that she came here to be, but her life is her own now.

  God Has No Daughters. 323 pages. 60 chapters. 88,000 words, give or take. Who knows who she'll be in another year. I can hardly wait to find out.

I love you. I'm proud of you. Fly on strong wings my daughter. The sky is yours.

photo from Flickr

Sunday, November 9, 2008


It's a perfect fall day, just the other side of Indian Summer. Balmy still, but the fading has begun: temperature, light, color. 

The leaves have just begun to fall in earnest, so that half remain on the trees while the other half form a softly glowing carpet. A yellow brick road made of big leaf maple leaves gone from lemon yellow to sun yellow to treasure chest gold. The effect is one of perpetual light in spite of the high gray sky. I leaf-kick shuffle my way along, not caring whether I find Oz or not.

A sudden gust of wind sends leaves pouring from trees, whirling around me in a surreal snowstorm of giant gold flakes. I want to go airborne with them, and lift my arms just in case it might be possible.

The park is nearly empty, one of the things I love about these autumn walks. Just two days ago, as I was searching  for spawning salmon, I startled a bald eagle who flew lazily up from the gravel banks of the the river. We were looking for the same thing, but for very different reasons. I'm searching for the magic and wonder of giant silvers returned from the salt sea to their freshwater birthplace to complete the circle of their lives. He was searching for an easy meal.

Today as I look around the small grove of paper birches to the spawning grounds, an odor catches my attention. A faint whiff of death inviting scavengers to a feast. Hoping that the bald eagle might still be hanging around, I follow the tendrils of rot to the bank of the river where I find, just at the edge, the source.

He's huge. As long as my arm, and perfectly formed - fleshy and firm looking. The first thing that catches my eye is his mouth. The hooked snout, curled over a lower jaw, both full of sharp dog-like teeth. Salmon stop eating once they head from their ocean home to their original birth place in the fresh water rivers where they will spawn. The teeth are to fight for female attention.

His eye is still dark and alive looking. Clear and liquid. Looking skyward. Seeing all that cannot be seen in this life.

He is the color of  fallen dogwood leaves - a rose blush meant to be attractive to the mate who will help him create new life. The rose is muted with death mushroom circles of grayish white that began forming on his journey up the river. His body dying even as he was preparing to create new life. 

I can't stop looking at him - the perfect beauty of his death. As beautiful as the brilliance of the dying leaves pushed from their branches by unborn buds.

Soon the trees will be completely bare. The rains will extinguish the lights from the fallen leaves as they feed the soil for the next generation. Soon the river will flood the salmon's remains away, whatever the scavengers have not consumed. Remains that will ultimately nourish his offspring when they hatch in the months to come. Soon winter and darkness will fall, giving us all rest as a new season prepares to be born.

photo from Flickr

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Toby Turns One

One year ago today Toby was born - the second of his litter, breach and big. His first family referred to him as Pounder - as in he weighed a pound, when his littermates barely tilted the scale in ounces.

One year ago today Walt and I were wavering on our decision to never get another dog. That decision was made in our grief for Riley who had left us just nine months before. We started talking about maybe getting a pound puppy. Or a rescue dog. Or a different breed that might be hardier than arthritis and cancer prone Golden Retrievers. Or a mixed breed - like Golden Doodles. 

The only problem was that when we really started looking, the only dogs we liked were the ones who were red and fluffy and goofy with big ears, big bodies, and broad faces. Golden Retrievers.

And so we found our way to Toby. Who somehow is no longer a puppy, but a grown dog.

He is not the dog we thought we wanted. He is not the dog we thought we were getting. He is nothing like any dog I've ever owned.

He is so much more.

It is said that dogs look like their owners, and that they reflect their owners personalities often. I've always liked that my dogs were soft and gentle and galumphy - fluffy and funny and a little neurotic - friendly, curious, empathic. All characteristics I strive for, and while I don't always think I get there, I've loved the reflected softness of being with a Golden.

Those are not Toby's primary traits. Powerful. Self-possessed. Regal. That's what I see first as I watch our boy bound up the trail, or sit waiting for me to throw a toy, or dive for rocks in the river. 

Toby looks us straight in the eye, without flinching. And his eyes are the most intelligent, sparkling, inquisitive topaz lights imaginable.

Oh, he has the other traits. Our morning ritual involves sitting on the floor together while he buries his head in my lap and I pet every part of him, until breakfast becomes a priority. His greetings when we return at the end of a day involve deep grins and pretzel-like contortions and tail-waving of such intensity that dust devils dance in his wake. He looks at Walt with eager adoration during their training sessions, just waiting for a command to carry out.

I never think of Toby as actually obeying anything we ask him to do. He chooses to do as we ask fairly regularly now, and seems pleased with the results. But I never ever feel like he does anything he doesn't really want to.

He is not a subservient dog. When he meets other dogs on the trail, he's happy to see them and not shy about getting to know them in that lovely way dogs have. He's never rolled over for another dog, or cowered or tucked tail.

He is not a dominant dog, either. I've never seen him impose himself on other dogs. It's like he knows who he is and what he's about and has no need to prove it to anyone.

He is incredibly funny. Challenging one of the cats to a game of chase. Jumping up on the bed and looking too cute to be told to get off - even the guest bed with company. Playing king of the hill on dirt mounds in the yard. Going through his entire repertoire of skills in a five second routine in hopes that one of the moves will get him the treat being offered.

This photo taken by Kari O. as Toby helped her make the bed in our guest room.

Not the easy, pliable, slightly goofy companion we sought. So much more. And so I marvel that if the dog and master connection is true, Toby's owners have somewhere along the line found a quiet, regal power for themselves that needs no proving.

Happy Birthday, Toby One (my favorite nickname for him). There is no gift we could give you - not enough ice cream, not enough new toys, not enough walks - that could even come close to the gifts you give us every single day. Good dog.

Photos by Walt Shucka

Monday, October 27, 2008


I'm standing in the yard of Carrie's house in Sisters. She and Kari are  asleep inside - still finishing the adventures of their dream lives. An afghan shawls my flannel pajamas. Bare feet delight in the carpeting of Ponderosa Pine needles. At once supple silk and brittle glass, the needles provide both the smooth comfort of earthy slippers and the heady incense of purifying pine. 

The clock by my bed announced morning. The deep dark air and the sky above both shout night.

 My eyes are drawn to Orion, one of two constellations I know for sure - the other being the Big Dipper, which I find easily on the opposite side of the sky. Something about Orion brings my attention back to him. The four corner stars are there. Nothing unusual about that. The three stars cinching the middle in a perfect belt hold no surprises. It's the sword hanging from the belt that's unusual. Unusual because it's really rare to see it so clearly. Even more unusual are the impossible numbers of stars in the background.

How is it possible for such darkness to exist around me when there is so much light above?

I'm reminded of childhood nights in Idaho. So many stars crowding the darkness that the summer-clear skies seemed cloudy. I remember stretching some aching part of myself upward, longing to leave the heaviness holding me to earth and to join the brilliance and spaciousness above.

At this moment, the heaviness of fear and anxiety that has been my constant companion since those long ago summer nights seems to be gone. Gone along with the Mommy voice that I've released. Gone along with the hope that the voice might ever change. Gone along with the belief that I am not enough.

The space left behind seems impossibly infinite within the confines of my body. I'm not entirely comfortable with it and turn my attention inward. Nothing there. Empty. Ready to be filled. Or not. Not longing or seeking or reaching. Just empty. Not cold. Not hot. Not wet. Not dry. Not good. Not bad. Empty.

Like the sky over me. The sky that looks empty during the day, and yet is so lush with light and possibilities on this night. It doesn't decide to fill itself when the sun goes down. The stars are just there. Providing light in the emptiness.

 The cold wicking up through my bare feet brings my attention back to the sky. Just in time to see a shooting star throw itself earthward. In that moment the space inside joins the larger space above me and for a brief crystalline instant, they are the same. 

Photo from Flickr

Tuesday, October 21, 2008


I went to see my mom on Sunday. 

Such an ordinary statement. Such an extraordinary event. Such a surprise.

I hadn't seen her in over two years. The last time she was on her death bed, in hospice, given only hours to live. My baby brother, Geoff, and I gathered at her bedside to send her off with love and forgiveness. And for me at least, to send her off with a sense of relief and release and completion.

Even the hospice people were surprised when she started eating again and rallied. Her body did anyway. She left most of what little clear-thinking she had left on the other side. She babbled, and talked to long-dead relatives. Some words made sense. Most did not. She seemed happy, peaceful, at ease - completely unlike her in real life. 

I went to say goodbye to her on my way home. She would be moved back into a nursing home as soon as a Medicare bed could be found for her somewhere in the state. She was sleeping when I arrived, and continued to doze as I said my goodbyes to her. Suddenly, in the middle of my tender monologue, her eyes flew open and pierced my heart in the same way she had done to me as a child. Fury. Coyness. Control.  

"I'm not in any hurry to go."

I fled the room, her words, the remnants of childhood terror awakened by her look.

And didn't go back until Sunday. I didn't intend to ever go back. Didn't need to for myself, and knowing my presence wouldn't make a difference one way or the other to her.

Just the week before, with the help of my precious Pat, the last of the girls that my mom so terrorized finally came to know that Mommy was wrong about nearly everything. Most importantly she was wrong about my worth. 

Those girls finally got to know that they deserve love, and deserved love, and that Mommy was wrong.

So I went to see her on Sunday, with my baby brother, Geoff. The brother who has taken care of her and her needs for all of this time without complaint and with a grace and dignity and selfless love that I am in awe of.

She didn't know me. She hardly acknowledged my presence. She couldn't take her eyes off Geoff, who she thought was our older brother. Other times with Geoff, she thinks he's Daddy, or her brother, or our other brother. What she knows without doubt is that he is the nice man who comes to see her every week. 

I'm no one to her. Even when Geoff said, "This is Debbie. Your daughter." She looked at me and said, "Yes, you look like her." Then turned back to Geoff with a look of simple adoration while she handed him the kernels of corn left in her toothless mouth from lunch.

It was a good visit. She babbled - a few words of English, a few words of something else. If the inflection was a question, both Geoff and I agreed heartily, safe in the knowledge that in a few seconds she would have forgotten whatever we might have promised. If the inflection was a statement we asked questions - not necessarily connected to any of her words - just to keep the conversation going. If she laughed, we laughed, and then she laughed more.

When we got up to leave, she seemed sad that Geoff was going, but he soothed her by saying he had to go to work. She hardly noticed me, but seemed happy enough when I hugged her and told her I loved her. When we looked back, just at the door, she was struggling to roll her wheelchair across the room - away from us, as if we'd never been there. 

I went to see a woman on Sunday who is my mother. 

We remain connected by the thin threads of the web that holds all mothers and daughters together. As battered and tired as it is, there is deep beauty in the silk of the remaining connections.  I am a distant memory of daughter caught in the synapses of a dying brain. She is my mother. An old woman spending her last days happy, peaceful and at ease. An old woman who can no longer hurt me. An old woman who is my history and my future, just as I am hers.

Photo by Walt Shucka

Thursday, October 16, 2008


In over twenty years as an elementary school teacher, I've observed many patterns that occur from one year to the next. The years themselves unfold in a predictable rhythm that is actually taught to new teachers so that they don't freak out when in late fall all of their September energy and idealism seem to have vanished into thin air.

Until this year I've never had a number pattern surface. They may have been there, but they were quiet and I wasn't really looking. I wasn't looking for this one either. But pattern I have, and it's an amazing one. 

I have twenty-four students (8 x 3). I'm the only third grade teacher of the four at my school with this number.

Five of my students were born on the eighth of a month.

Eight of us share a birthday with one other person. My birthday is the same as one boy in the class. I have a set of twins. Two other pairs also share birthdays.

Kids are eight when they start third grade.

I'm fifty-six (8 x 7) - for a few more weeks anyway.

It's 2008.

It was all those kids born on the eighth of the month that got my attention first. And then the shared birthdays. After that I started looking for other eights.

I've spent some time online looking for the symbolism of  eight. The amount of information available is overwhelming, and can be conflicting depending on which cultural or religious site I'm reading.

Here's the meaning that I like best: Starting afresh on a higher level or octave.

I don't know that it really matters. The comfort I take from the clear evidence of eights in my life right now is the validation that this year is no accident. This year that I had anticipated being somewhere else. This year that I've been longing to be somewhere else. This year that it's become  brilliantly clear I'm right where I need to be.

Yesterday in a conversation with one of my moms I said for the first time, "I think this class is going to make my top three all-time favorite list." The words and the truth of them surprised me. 

This group of kids is the happiest, huggiest, funniest I've ever taught. I belly laugh nearly every day. When it's time for them to go out for recess, several will come up to me and moan dramatically exclaiming that it will be such a long time before we see each other again while draping themselves all over me. In the mornings before I let them in, they stand at the windows, tap tap tapping away until I look up so they can smile and wave and show me the treasures in their warm little hands.

They're bringing me rocks. Every day. I have little piles all over the room. I ooh and aah and admire all of them. Driveway rocks. Playground rocks. Found on the way to school rocks. In truth I love rocks in some deep, primal, passionate way. I haven't told my kids that, but they seem to know anyway.

They seem to know a me that I've been trying to bring to the surface for a very long time now. And of course their knowing is helping me to clear away the last of the rubble to reveal what shines beneath.

I think the eights were there just to get me to pay attention to the gifts right under my nose. They're a reminder that this year of waiting is not that at all. It is its very own powerful gift of time and healing and a magical class of twenty-four eight-year-olds.

Photo from Flickr

Sunday, October 12, 2008

October Saturday

I'm hanging sheets on my clothesline on a sunny Saturday morning in October. The dewy grass is so cold my bare toes are beginning to numb. Dew clings still to the  line, even though the sun has been up for hours. Spider webs swag from clothespin to clothespin, sparkling in the sideways sunlight. Juncoes chatter fractiously in the cedar tree on one side while winter-brown Goldfinches gorge on thistle, their winter journey almost begun,  to the other side. 

Driving into town for this season's last visit to the Farmers' Market, my eyes are drawn skyward by a stitched shadow moving across the far away blue. Canada Geese by the hundreds. Vee after vee, traveling in shifting formation from west to east. Arrived from their summer homes, surveying for shifts in the landscape of their wintering place. Walt comments that hunting season starts today, and I send an urgent silent message skyward: Be safe!

The market is quiet. Maybe a third of the booths that contribute to the summer bustle are gone. The summer crowds are gone as well and it's easy to meander. Wandering with Walt, enjoying his company and the feel of my arm tucked in his, enjoying the space, savoring this last visit to hold me over the long winter waiting in the wings. Sun-filled spots make me wish I'd dressed lighter. Shady spots make me wish I'd worn real shoes. 

I'm drawn to the dahlias, the dogs and apples.

 We pass several flower vendors with bright flashy spidery bouquets, any of which make my heart leap with pleasure, headed for my favorite. I've been buying flowers from this booth all summer, and while I can't say exactly why I love this particular vendor, it's a relationship I treasure nonetheless. Sometimes I'll ask her to make a bouquet for me, just to watch her work and for the surprise of the results. Sometimes I'll ponder the choices and pick from the many possibilities at my feet. Sometimes, like today, Walt and I pick together and I feel loved in a particularly precious way while he pays.

There is always an abundance of dogs here. Not all are well-behaved. Not all are pretty. Not all are happy to be here. But I revel in the variety, laugh at the antics, and thrill every time I see a cousin of Toby. Today we meet a couple with a pair of Golden Retrievers and ask to say hello. The conversation is satisfying in a hot chocolate on a cold day kind of way. Comforting, familiar, energizing.

For weeks now, my primary objective at the market besides flowers has been to find the season's new apples. There is no food that satisfies my body and spirit as much as the first crisp sweet explosive apples of the season. An entire summer contained in a compact package of pure pleasure, consumed during the darkening days beyond summer. 

Apples were very late ripening this year, and I've had to make do with scant selection. When we arrived today I wasn't expecting much. And of course today was the day that every single produce booth had samples of several varieties of apples at the absolute peak of perfection. I flitted like a bee gathering nectar from the season's last flowers to create enough honey to survive winter. Fuji. Rome. Golden Delicious. Gala. Granny Smith. Winter Banana. Some new varieties with names that delighted but didn't stick. I barely restrain myself from cramming my mouth completely full of apple and letting the juices run wild down my face.

Walking Toby in the late afternoon on this same Saturday. The washed out, shadowy light makes the afternoon feel later than it actually is. The wind has picked up, but is surprisingly warm. Tear-shaped alder leaves are flung to the ground in its wake. Giant hands of big leaf maple wander the sky for a bit before settling here and there. Rusty douglas fir needles color the path red, creating a soft carpet over the dying grass. 

Toby at the river, in the fading light, in the fading day, in the fading season. This dog at the beginning of his life, splashing with reckless abandon in his ageless river. A river newly lush with recent rains, ready for the spawning salmon which should arrive any day. 

I pull the air and the day as deeply into my lungs as I can. Air that still holds summer's heat in the midst of the moist coolness of fall. Air that holds life and death, hope and despair, light and dark in equal measure without any visible distinction between the differences. 

Photos by Walt Shucka