"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, June 29, 2008

Rock Flying

A few days ago while walking Toby along the river bank I made the coolest discovery. If I walk along the tops of the biggest rocks, it feels like I'm flying. After the first  few steps I get some momentum going so I barely touch the tops of the rocks and I become weightless and no longer earthbound.

I have to be careful, to concentrate and to choose the rocks carefully. A loose one will end my flight instantly and could result in a nasty spill and possibly hurt body parts. Silt covered rocks and damp ones have the same potential. The feeling of unrestrained freedom, the complete lifting of my being without effort makes the risk worthwhile, however.

This morning while I was in flight, a rock wobbled underfoot. My mom's voice came suddenly to my ears, loudly as though she were traveling on my shoulder.

"If you get hurt, you'll have no one to blame but yourself."

How many times in my life have I held myself back because of that statement? How many times have I done the safe thing so that I  wouldn't be hurt and so that I couldn't be blamed? How much of the sky have I not seen in my efforts to please the voice that will not be pleased?

My heart voice replied to the  Mommy voice - gently, quietly and firmly. "Hurt happens no matter whether I keep my feet on the ground or whether I soar.  It's not wrong to want to fly. It's what I need to do. So, there will be no blame."

I finished my book on Friday. I was so busy trying to get this draft done before the weekend that I hadn't really focused on the fact that when the printer whirred out the last page it meant I had a real honest-to-goodness book in my hands. The product of a year and a half of work. A title. A subtitle. Chapters. Beginning. Middle. End. 282 pages. A book.

When I took it to the store to have one copy made to share with one trusted soul, the man helping me seemed impressed by the size of the stack of papers I handed him.

"This a book?"

"Yes. I just finished it this afternoon."

"You wrote this? Are you a writer?"

"Yup." I'm smiling big.

"You somebody famous?"

"Not yet." I don't think he got that, but I did. The brave words flew out of my mouth without my permission. I would have given them permission if they'd asked.

From the printer to the post office to send my book to that one trusted soul I find myself smiling gently. The line is long and for once, I don't really care. I stand with my precious package held to my chest, kind of hoping someone will ask me what's in it. No one does, but when I finally get to the counter I tell the clerk that my package is a manuscript. She smiles, says, "Congratulations." and ships it cheap - book rate. 

For the rest of the day I occupy the same sky my rock flying takes me to. I am a writer. I wrote a book. No one says, "Who do you think you're fooling?" No one says, "If this doesn't work, you'll have no one but yourself to blame." Nothing matters except that I've accomplished this book. I know the book is not finished.  There's a lot of work ahead, and at least two more drafts to complete. There's sharing the book with more than one person, getting feedback, getting an editor, finding an agent. There's the photo for the back of the book and my outfit for Oprah.  I'm scared by some of what's ahead, by a lot of it if I'm honest, but I am not going to bind myself to the earth to feel safe this time.

Tomorrow I will be flying literally - in a plane, not under my own wing power. I'm leaving for Scotland with a new friend for an adventure of new places, new people and more uncertainty in nine days than I usually allow myself in nine months. I will look for the big rocks to fly across so that I don't miss a single bit of the sky.

Photo by  x-jax-x from Flickr

Friday, June 27, 2008

Dawn Surprise

Two short urgent yowls bring me out of my dream this morning. For a second I think they were in my dream, but  still vibrating eardrums tell me otherwise. My body pulls the rest of me from  bed to investigate. By the time I hit the dark hallway I've sorted this much out: 

It's a little after 4:00. The sound was feline. It was not Tabasco, my marmalade male with fragile health, because Walt had just put him out. It was not Emma, the tabby and white queen of the house because I had to pull my legs up and around her curled form to get out of bed. That left Cooper, Tabasco's nearly feral mother, or Grace, the half-siamese sister of Emma and Cooper, as the only possible suspects.

I flick the light on in the bathroom across the hall from our bedroom, hoping to avoid any possible vomit or other kitty fluids in the dark. All I see is Grace, sitting in the hall, staring at me, blue crossed eyes wide, tail twitching.

"Do you want out? What's going on?"

She continues to sit and stare at me. I pick her up and put her outside - the default decision when the cats don't communicate more clearly than she is right now. I need to pee and while I'm sitting in my way-too-bright bathroom, something gray and tiny zooms along the edge of my bathtub. Its trajectory carries it past my feet and behind the toilet.

As my fuzzy brain registers "mouse" an involuntary and surprisingly loud grunt makes Walt ask from the dark bedroom if I'm okay. With feet lifted as far off the floor as possible without lodging myself beyond a point of no return, I reply that there's a mouse in the bathroom. When I'm pretty sure the mouse is done scurrying for the moment, I stretch my feet as far forward as possible and fling myself to standing. I look behind the toilet. Nothing. I move the shower curtain and a flash of gray transports to the opposite corner where it shivers to a standstill.

This little thing is the size of a small hen's egg. Pretty dusk gray. Long trembly whiskers. Snow white belly. Slender tail. Bette Davis eyes. 

I get myself out of the bathroom, briefly consider siccing Emma on the mouse and decide I can't do that. She's so annoyed that I picked her off the bed - I came that close -  that she huffs into the kitchen and out of sight. I close the bathroom door on my small visitor and try to sort things out.

Clearly Grace cornered the mouse in the bathroom. Where it came from is a mystery. Why she woke me up to deal with it, a bigger mystery still. This is the cat who brings mice the size of Weimaraner puppies in from the field. Sometimes she shares them with Toby after eating about half. Sometimes she gives the whole thing to him. Sometimes she marches right past him and out the gate where he can't follow and eats the mouse just out of his reach. 

Whatever. I have a mouse in my bathroom. It can't stay there, no matter how cute it is.

This actually is not the first time I've rescued a mouse from my house. Four cats, five acres surrounded by more acres and many trees, an older not-so-air-tight house have all contributed to mouse invasions before. Even in my sleep-soaked state, I know what to do. 

I grab a large plastic glass and a magazine from the kitchen, open the bathroom door carefully and tiptoe inside. She's right where I left her in the corner behind the toilet, whiskers trembling, eyes bugging, but otherwise frozen. I set the cup over her quickly, pull it and her out of the corner and slip the magazine underneath. She popcorns in the cup - clearly not understanding that I'm a good guy here.

I carry my package carefully to the front door where Grace and Tabasco are waiting to come in. Grace shoots in, Tabasco writhes around on the mat playing coy.  My hands full of mouse and precarious mouse trap, I finally boot him through the door, and close it behind. I step onto the front lawn and gently release the mouse. She sits very still for a moment, and I resist my little girl urge to reach down and stroke her soft fur. Instead,  I nudge her with the cup and she scurries for the flower bed.

Mission accomplished, I become aware of the dawn chorus going on around me. Robins are raising a racket in surround sound. Our two hoot owls have a throaty conversation in the neighbors' fir trees to the west. A perfect crescent moon hangs just above the trees in the east while Venus announces the coming of a new day from her solo perch to the south. There's only a hint of chill in the air, no hint of clouds in the sky. Another perfect summer day is about to begin. I breathe deeply, send a small prayer toward my rodent friend, and smile at the glory that is my life.

Photo by Phillipe Carrier

Tuesday, June 24, 2008


Here are some things I've noticed about weeds while spending a mild summer morning removing them from my flowerbeds and planting areas.

Weeds will grow anywhere there is bare ground. You can pull them, poison them, smother them. They come back. The only way to keep them away is to plant something else that will occupy the soil. Big trees, small bushes, dense riots of flowers - it doesn't matter what. If you don't want weeds, you have to want something else.

Weeds take longer to grow back if you pull the roots and not just the green stuff on top. Sometimes getting only the green stuff is good enough. Sore muscles, tired body and  boredom often drive me to a get-it-done-quick approach. It just means that I have to go back and weed again sooner. Once the green parts have been ripped off, the roots are harder to get to. However, out of sight, out of mind. Temporarily.

Some weeds do not give up their roots easily. Quackgrass produces beautiful green blades that clump together, making it nearly impossible for anything else to grow in their space. It chokes out whatever existed in the ground previously. Animals love to graze on  Quackgrass and one single blade makes a perfect whistle when held tightly between fingers. It is equally useful, attractive and deadly. 

No ordinary roots for this hearty survivor. It is held in the ground by rhizomes that look like thin white snakes. One small clump of grass, pulled out carefully, can reveal a disproportionately huge mass of tangled, writhing roots. Roots that snap off easily, leaving parts safely hidden in the soil. Even the smallest section is enough for a whole new clump to grow from.

Weeds come out of  the ground easier if the ground is moist and soft. Hard dry ground will not yield even the green parts of weeds without scraping the skin from hands or the fabric from gloves. Roots are impossible to pull. Weeding tools just bounce right back at the weeder leaving only minor scratches in the soil.

Weeding is easier if the weeds are not allowed to grow out of control. Catching them when they are small means much less work, happier muscles and much more time for planting big trees, small bushes and dense riots of flowers. I almost never pull weeds until they are huge and a huge chore. I almost always say I'll get to this earlier next year.

Weeding does not have to be completed in one hour, one day, or even one summer. The commitment to pull  some weeds every day gets the job done eventually. That approach leaves time to enjoy the rest of life and to appreciate the contrast between weeded areas and non-weeded areas. It also leaves my body less angry with me for ignoring its pleas for mercy.

Sometimes a weed becomes a treasured friend. Several years ago while weeding our bird feeder area I noticed a wild strawberry plant at the base of the bird bath. Wild strawberries evoke childhood memories of safe sunny respites from a harsh home. I would wander the railroad tracks in search of patches of the zigzagged triple leaves that always revealed tiny tart jewels fit for fairy royalty when gently tugged apart. I'd carefully fill the bottom of my t-shirt with the compact bounty and offer it to my mom as a gift. It was a gift she always received with pleasure - or so I remember. Her pleasure in me was as hard to find and as short-seasoned as those berries. 

And so this plant felt like an offering from the gods of summer. I let it be. It has grown into a lush patch, not quite wild, but restrained only by its own ability to spread. I get to watch squirrels sit in its midst, sitting on haunches devouring tiny strawberries held between tiny paws. I get to savor the taste of red wildness on my tongue that speaks freedom to me. I get to enjoy the sight of Toby lying smack in the middle of the thick greenery knowing that he can't hurt these plants.

What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered. ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Summer Day

This  summer day starts with a lazy gray morning, at the kitchen table, looking through my bay window onto a freshly mowed lawn and a freshly weeded bird area. Walt is still asleep, the cats scattered like Grandma's throw rugs throughout the house, Toby outside exploring. The bird feeders are a busy breakfast drive-through for Robins, American Goldfinches, House Finches, Chickadees, Juncoes, Towhees, White-crowned Sparrows, Song Sparrows, Black-headed Grosbeaks, and at least one family of fractious squirrels. Coffee brewed from fresh-ground beans, perfectly hot and perfectly mellowed with half and half, provides as much sustenance with its fragrance as with the wake-up-gently flavor. 

Silence. No place to be. No expectations. Just this moment.

The afternoon brings a trip with Walt to my favorite farmer's market just to see what's new. We discover the first strawberries of the season. And peas. And eggs from this farm. And bread that's new this year from a bakery where they grind their own grains. I am a child on Christmas morning in this place, darting from delight to delight, thrilled at the bounty. I pop strawberries from our chosen flat into my mouth  on the way to check-out. I'm nearly moaning with the pleasure of the sweet red explosions that fill my mouth and threaten to burst into the air.

On the way home we stop at a nursery for hanging baskets. We're late this year because of the weather, our schedules, and something else that sits between us in the car - a boulder that no amount of effort seems to dislodge. This excursion is quietly tense with too much time together after so long of not enough time together. The vibrancy and variety of flowers, the task of choosing from the wealth, the easy familiarity of this yearly ritual work together to spin strings of silk connection across the divide of our tired marriage.

Once home, Walt busies himself hanging the baskets while I tend to the peas and berries. My fingers dance along the seams of the peas, happy to be engaged in a task that has always brought a meditative joy. I eat my fill, handfuls from the bowl, sweet green pops of pleasure between my teeth. Then I move to the strawberries, cleaning, eating, slicing, eating, smashing, eating, adding sugar for shortcake later, eating, adding pectin and sugar for jam - finally full and grinning from the inside out. The absolute luxury of selecting the fattest, reddest, firmest berries; putting the them whole into my mouth, one at a time; biting, savoring, juicing, swallowing - there are no riches to compare.

The sun finally arrives in the late afternoon and I join it in the front yard. Pulling weeds is not my favorite thing to do, but the satisfaction of preparing this flower bed for the purple petunias and fairy pink cosmos and  golden coin marigolds and bright blue lobelia that are regular summer renters outweighs the annoyance of whining muscles. 

I reward the job well done with a bouquet of lipstick pink peonies for the house. Their fragrance has kept me company, along with a cat or two, while I was weeding. They continue to keep me company, and to make me happy, from the sun-purpled jar where they sit like a bridal bouquet on my kitchen counter.

The day ends with a long shower, dirt scrubbed away, soreness melted away, worries faded away. To bed between sun-dried sheets in a too big t-shirt with a new mystery to escape into. The windows  are wide open to clean cool air, the protective green arms of my yard and the almost full sentinel moon. For just a moment, I pause, smile gratitude, and breathe life.

Silence. No place to be. No expectations. Just this moment.

Thursday, June 12, 2008


A heart is preserved in layer upon layer of ice. A new layer of frozen protection added for every soul wound that threatened to still the steady beat of life. The very first chilling walls almost certainly created by a primal body buying time for consciousness to take over the job of maintaining life. The remaining blankets of cold added consciously, intentionally, because no other option seemed viable.

Does a two year old know that pain can kill? Can she decide to protect herself against it, or does her body do that for her? When does she decide for herself? Seven? Eleven? Seventeen? Does she know the cost? Does she care? Survival is all that matters when it's all she can do. No time to be concerned about the cost when the promised price of unbuffered pain is death. She knows she cannot survive without her heart, and does the only thing she knows to keep it safe. She encases it in thick walls of solid water.

Year after year the heart lay protected, barely beating, beneath the treacherous frozen beauty. The walls of ice so thick that pain could no longer penetrate. The walls of ice so thick that nothing could penetrate. 

Finally the longings of all those hibernated girls threatened to stop the heart from within. Unfulfilled desires, it turns out, have the same capacity to still a heart's song as the pain they were being protected from.

How do you thaw something that has been frozen so deeply for such a long time?

The blow torch method worked for a while. Intense heat applied intensely. Speed and maximum results were the goal. Too much time had been lost, and the heart was crying for release. 

But the heart does not like to be treated roughly. Not even when it's for a good cause. Going from intense cold to intense heat is a recipe for intense pain. Feeling returning to previously frozen chambers burned like the fire meant to provide freedom. Nostalgia for the cool comforts of ice threatened re-imprisonment.

And so came the discovery that the mere removal of intention to freeze allows melting. An ice cube taken out of the freezer will eventually melt on its own, even if the room is very cold. Doing nothing resulted in its own form of freedom. This method was much less painful, but far too slow. 

Somehow in the slow ease of nothing, the heart came to believe in its ability to beat in the open and withstand whatever life has to offer. It became ready for the thaw to be completed. It became ready to release the final layers of ice. It became ready to trust its own song.

This awareness brought an amazing gift. The heart discovered that liquid  melts frozen and then water is water, embracing and absorbing itself. The last layers of ice are dissolved by the gentle steady summer rains of tears, compassion and loving-kindness. Ice cannot form in this warm wash of fluid life. Ice is no longer necessary. 

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

I Can't Leave My Post

It's a sunny Friday afternoon - almost June - and the air holds the balmy promise of summer evenings waiting to be born. I'm sitting on my daypack in a scratchy-soft  field, Oz green under me, Forget-me-not blue above, watching a soccer game. Not just any soccer game. These are my students. We've been a family since September. They are about to leave my nest.

Slightly more than half the class is on the field. They've been smoothly and quickly divided into teams and are being coached and reffed by the mom who was asked by the kids to join us on this outing. Except for a couple of boys discussing video games on the sidelines, the rest of the kids not in the game are forming themselves into cheering squads. One for each team.

Usually any time I'm out in public with kids I'm on high alert. Twenty-plus kids and the world are often a dangerous and volatile combination. This afternoon, however, I'm as relaxed as I've ever been. I can see all my kids - have counted them from time to time just to reassure myself. They're all having fun and happy to stay in the bounds of my sight and the rules of the day. We have this time to celebrate a successful year and we need to celebrate together. Best Third Grade behavior is expected, even on an after school excursion to the park.

Because I know the mom has a good grip on the game, I allow my attention to wander leisurely among the kids on the sidelines. The boys are still deeply engaged in their conversation - I hear "levels" and "kills" and "No fair, I wish I had that game!" One group of girls has formed a surprisingly sophisticated cheering squad and is in the process of building a human pyramid with the mom's three-year-old on top. A brief concern about safety wafts through my brain, but I let it blow right on through. The pyramid is only three layers deep counting the baby and the second layer of kids, all two of them, have feet on the ground. They've managed to get a boy involved and are laughing so hard at his antics the pile keeps collapsing, which makes them laugh even harder.

My  eye moves on and stops at a single girl, a wispy blonde sprite whose coordination has not yet caught up with her imagination. Her glitter jeans sparkle in the sunlight as she buzzes around trying desperately to get someone - anyone - to join her cheer squad. She's not willing to join the other group, can't coax anyone away from it,  and is totally unsuccessful in her attempts to snare the video game boys. She comforts herself with a solo cheer complete with dance moves, and finding that not to be satisfactory, turns to the players in the game for potential recruitment.

She makes her way to the end of the field where her best friend stands watching the action which is clumped at the opposite goal. This child is all soft roundness and budding femininity. She is wearing a pink flowered, tiered sundress topped with a pink crocheted half-sweater tied at her midriff. Her headband and nail polish are both complimentary shades of pink. Her only concession to the active nature of the outing is the athletic shoes and socks that I'm pretty sure her mom made her put on earlier in the day.

Cheerleader Girl: Hey Jenny, wanna be on my squad? Jenny! Over here! Let's go cheer.

Jenny: What?

Cheerleader Girl: C'mon. Don't you want to cheer? Team one needs someone to cheer for them.

Jenny: What? What do you want?

Cheerleader Girl: Jenny, come on. Let's be cheerleaders. Team Two is going to win if Team One doesn't have anyone to cheer for them.

Jenny: I can't.

Cheerleader Girl: Why not?

Jenny: Because Tracy (the mom) told me to stand here.

Cheerleader Girl: Why?

Jenny: I don't know. I'm supposed to be a . . . I don't remember what it's called, but I have to be here. I can't leave my post.

Cheerleader Girl gives up and joins the other cheering squad who have no problem working her in to their complex routine. The soccer game heats up and moves to Jenny's end of the field. I'm amazed as I watch her mix it up fearlessly with boys who live and breathe soccer. Her expression never changes. She's serious, determined and unflappable. Her singular spirit and her girly-girl style and her spunkiness bring tears to my eyes. 

I tuck this moment away - consciously - knowing that I will need to rely on this water-pure happiness to ease the inevitable fiery pain that will come as my fledglings leave the nest in the days to come.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Golden Gifts

Toby turned seven months old yesterday. He came to live with us when he was seven weeks old. The time between has been nothing like I expected.

In the dreamy time while we were deciding to get another dog, ten months dogless, missing Riley and his tender easy sweetness, I could hardly wait for the adventure and comfort of a new puppy. I longed for the loving companionship, the unwavering loyalty, the reliable I'm-here-to-please-you attitude that Goldens are known for. 

Until this morning I didn't realize that what I really wanted was something secure and completely knowable in a life of perpetually shifting landscape that I'm trying to travel lightly on rather than build walls of safety around. I have declared a release of control. I have chosen to stop running. Acceptance, letting go, trusting  - ideas I'm striving to embrace, without clinging too tightly. I seek to walk in the uncertain world with a sense of wonder and curiosity. I long to soar in the unbounded sky without the constraining weight of a parachute.

Yet some sneaky part of me thought we could hang on to one little bit of security with a dog. A Golden Retriever - the poster dog for mellow, pliable, affectionate. Surely not too much to ask - one thing in my life that delivers simple, uncomplicated, reliable comfort.

What we got was Toby. 

Oh, he's sweet and loving - when he's really tired or has been alone for a time. He's playful, but only if it's a game he's in the mood for. He's obedient, unless another stimulus is more compelling.

Toby is unbelievably single-minded. No amount of bad-dogging, alpha training or time outs have worked to keep him from chasing the cats. He takes off after any one of the four like a greyhound at the track. He is a gorgeous wonder of speed, form and intensity. The cats get away every time, but my heart stops in anticipation of the possibility that they won't. 

 Of the four cats, our Siamese mix Grace loves Toby the best. She'll hang out with him on the patio, and has recently begun to join him on the lounge that is his bed outside. More than once I've seen her sleeping in the middle of it while Toby sleeps on the concrete below. She twines his legs in bizarre ballroom dance routines. She repeatedly rubs his nose with hers in blissful affection. She brings him mice, a mother cat teaching her kitten about finding food.

He returns the affection by chasing her. He gives fair warning. Butt in the air, tail in full plume, the starter flag at the speedway. A couple of woofs. Front feet bouncing the ground in Sumo-like ritual. And they're off. 

I am fully aware that there would be no chase if the cats didn't run. I am fully aware that they have the capacity to hamburger his nose to protect themselves. I am fully aware that at fifteen, with two  previous dogs under her belt, Grace can take care of herself without my help. And yet the fear I feel when I watch him chase her, or the other cats,  nearly incapacitates me. My fear. Not theirs.

Toby is fearless. He doesn't fear being alone. He doesn't fear anger. He doesn't fear the unknown. 

Yesterday at the river three kayakers floated by as we explored the shore. Toby saw them before I did and alerted me with deep-throated full-voiced woofs. He ran back to my side to check in, then turned immediately back to the river. If I hadn't grabbed his collar, I'm sure he would have been in the river with the guys who probably looked like giant ducks to my retrieving dog.

Last week, while retrieving sticks in our favorite riverside eddy, he swam too far out and got caught in the current right at the edge of the pool. I called him, trying to keep the panic out of my voice. He tried as hard as he could to swim toward me, creating a tugboat froth of foam in his efforts. Twice the water swamped his head. Pushing toward him through knee-deep water, hoping to grab him before the current got control, I slipped on the rocks. As I fell, the current carried him around a boulder and out of sight. I kept calling his name, the only lifeline I had to offer, while I dragged myself up and back into the river. Before I could get to the boulder, he swam around the shore side of it, excited to find me in the water with him. Totally unfazed and ready to see how much fun this new game might be. 

Having Toby in my life has not kept fear or insecurity or worry at bay. If anything I feel fear with much more intensity than I did before. I do not have the power to control the world to keep him, or myself, safe from pain or harm or uncertainty.  I do have this fierce love for him that intensifies the light of my days. I have the gift of his unique and independent being that keeps me walking in wonder. I have a dawning awareness of the possibility of flight - not from fear, but into a sky where fear is just another shade of blue.