"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, August 24, 2008

One More Year

A new school year is about to start. For parents this means regained hours of freedom as kids go back into classrooms for a big chunk of the day. For those of us who are about to welcome those kids into our classrooms and into our hearts, this means a sudden and severe curtailment of freedom.

For the last two weeks, I've been going in to school to get my room ready, and to try to get myself ready - to ease myself back into the confinement of a tightly scheduled life. Two days last week were spent sitting in math training - to prepare us for the latest I (and we're told the absolute last) pendulum swing of math instruction. The first two days of this coming week will be spent sitting in staff meetings and welcoming my new charges at open house. 

My room is ready. I've reconnected with my team and other colleagues. I've written twenty-five new names at least a dozen times - welcoming postcards, bookmarks, desk names, rosters, lunch chart, on and on and on. If the kids came tomorrow, all systems are go and the room is ready to receive them.

I'm about to welcome my twenty-first class. 

I don't want to. 

I don't want to spend the next two days listening to the long lists of new things we're expected to do with not enough time or resources to do them with. I didn't appreciate the two days of training that were just like the last two decades of trainings I've sat through - the latest new thing to solve everything before we've had a chance to really learn the last latest new thing. I don't want to spend the evening before the first day of school meeting my new families and receiving the piles of school supplies they're all out buying as I write this. I don't want to spend my prime energy in this way any longer. 

It sounds so harsh to say. If I were one of my parents reading this I would be concerned. My heart is not in public education. My heart has headed in a whole new direction in the last couple of years, and it's not happy to be held back. We, my heart and soul and I, were going to be done with teaching elementary school last year. Life and economics decided otherwise.

And so for one more year, I am an elementary school teacher. I don't know why. I do know it's where I'm meant to be. I believe - I need to believe - that when I learn the lesson this job has to teach, I will be finally be freed to travel where my heart is leading me. I pray that this will be the year.

Here are my teacher goals for this year: To love my kids. To do all I can to help them feel that love. To be kind, compassionate, forgiving - even (or especially) when it's hard. To have fun. To find a way to get more energy than I lose. To be. To not work so hard. To not worry so much.

Here are not my teacher goals for this year: To fix anyone. To get good scores on the state assessment. To impress anyone with anything. To fit in and belong. 

I had my first student encounter last week. Joe and his sister Maddie, who was in my room two years ago, came by while I was working in my room. I got great hugs from both kids and they came in for a visit. Maddie is one of my all time favorite people. Joe is mine this year. 

"I burp a lot." This out of the blue, and offered as a friendly challenge.

"Well, I hope you won't be burping during class."

"But I can't help it. The burps just come out."

I've had this conversation a time or two before, with boys much like Joe. "Sure you can help it. My youngest brother is the world's champion burper. He swallows more air than anyone I've ever seen." 

"Do you want to hear me burp?" I've got him now. The challenge has been reversed.


The burp is nicely loud, but short in duration. I tell Joe this. "My brother can burp ten times louder and longer than that."

"It was just a practice burp. I can do better. Listen."

He does in fact double both volume and duration, and I praise his efforts. By this time he's done with the whole burping thing. I'm having fun, delighted that I've been able to surprise him, and for the first time feeling a spark of something resembling anticipation for the year.

During the sleepless and restless nights that consume my last hours of freedom relentlessly, I try to replay  that conversation. It contains all I want for the year. Now if I can only do that with all twenty-five of my new babies. And come home at the end of my days with enough energy to give my heart its deepest desire.

photo by another sergio from Flickr

Saturday, August 16, 2008


I'm awakened by the face of the perfect full moon peering into my bedroom windows. Windows left open for hope of relief from this dying summer heat. Coyotes sing in the distance, taking up the night chorus from the owls who sang me to sleep.

Sleep is gone for good. My head is filled with thoughts of lace - a picture that came to me a couple of days ago that persists and seems to have a message. I get up and stand at the living room window, absorbing the moon's gentle light, aware of the lace being created in my yard by its shadows. The giant fir boughs, the water from the sprinkler, the more delicate patterns of my flowers  - all part of the tapestry of  moonlit lace. Light and dark. Full and empty. Life and death.

Tabasco has been gone three weeks. He is gone. Dead. Not coming home. The power of my grieving has caught me by surprise. But the power of grieving always does. I am never prepared for the unique pain and emptiness and relentlessness of it. 

The hole left in his stead is perfectly Tabasco shaped. His furry bulk, long tail, marmalade coat. No other can fill that particular shape, or the place he filled in my life and heart. I keep checking to see if he's back, and continue to find the hole where he once purred under my chin.

As is my pattern, losing Tabasco has touched other losses  in my life. Some old, some new. Some resolved, some not. Some being illuminated more clearly by the pain of this loss, much like the illumination of tonight's full moon. Each loss leaving a pool of darkness, a hole that cannot be filled.

The losses started early - too early. There is a hole where an accepting mommy should be. There is a hole where an adoring daddy should be. There is a hole where innocence should be.

I've spent a lifetime trying to fill those holes with substitutes. And it's only now that I realize truly that they can't be filled. Each has a unique shape, like Tabasco's, that cannot be filled by other love or more attention or fame or success or words or food. There is no comfort for their loss. There is only time.

And the life that happens around the empty places. The silk threads of relationship and love that give shape to the holes and that create a fabric that is whole and beautiful.

On my walks in the park this week with Toby, I've been running into spider webs spun clear across the four foot span of the trail. More air than silk, they are startlingly strong. If the light is just right, I'll see one and avoid walking through it, stopping to admire its symmetry, strength and resident weaver.

Holes are lace. Without the empty places, the shadows, the holes - without those things, lace would be thread. Nothing more. 

That offers me comfort. Knowing that the losses are part of the tapestry of my life. A beautiful and satisfying life. A life where a perfect sunrise over Lake Quinault, the return of a friend I thought lost to me, and the memory of a giant orange cat are  silk. Silk and shadows. Lace.

Photo by Lynn from Flickr

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Pavlov Would Be Proud

I'm fixing my usual summer breakfast. Whole grain toast with peanut butter. Standing at the counter, my mind on the million things that fill it on a morning at the end of summer and the beginning of a new school year.

Toby is sitting quietly, expectantly, and eagerly behind me, as he usually does. He likes peanut butter. Once, maybe twice, (alright, maybe more than that) I've globbed some on my finger and given him a taste at the end of my toast-preparing routine. I love seeing his happy face and I'm entertained by what his tongue does with the peanut goo.

This morning I'm so lost in my thoughts that I screw the lid back on the peanut butter jar without getting a glob for Toby and turn around to cross the kitchen and put it away. I've completely forgotten that he's sitting there and almost run into him. 

His golden eyes are beaming hope at my face. He's in a perfect sit position and his tail sweeps the floor, sending tumbleweeds of his fur scurrying for the corners. One long string of drool travels from the corner of his mouth to my kitchen floor - unbroken, thick, viscous. A pool forms at Toby's feet, even before the drool detaches itself from his lips. I reopen the peanut butter jar as he scoots forward over the puddle.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Lake Quinault

We're otter hunting on Lake Quinault in a small plastic two-man kayak. When we arrived yesterday and took the kayak out for the first time, exploring this cove full of drift logs and skeletal branches, we got our first brief glimpse of otter. 

At first it was a noise that was not bird or branch or waves tickling the shore. Then it was movement in the water, then two movements, then three. Small dark turtle-shapes on the surface of the lake disappearing into its depths as sleek serpentine shadows. We froze and watched as those odd forms shaped themselves into three very real and very skittish river otters. From a distance we watched as they dove and surfaced, munching on the small fish that frequently broke the smooth surface of the lake as they jumped for food of their own. Walt tried to paddle us closer, but the otters maintained their distance from us by swimming away, and far too soon by scurrying up onto the shore and disappearing into the brush.

We're here again tonight in that same cove, hunting and hoping but not really expecting. This vacation has already surprised us with such gifts that hoping for another otter sighting seems almost greedy. 

We were supposed to stay at a resort a couple of miles  up the lake, a generous gift from my older brother. Walt and the owner of the resort had been talking for a year about our staying in a cabin at the resort which was supposed to be completed by the time of our vacation. The cabins didn't get done (or even started, but that's another story) and the owner overbooked, which meant he had no place to put us. He called a friend who owned a rental cabin and she just happened to have four free nights that coincided with our vacation. 

So instead of a cute resort room in a direct motel-style line with eleven other resort rooms with a lake view but a long flight of stairs down to the lake, we found ourselves in a small rustic house just steps from the lake with a free kayak at our disposal and no through-the-wall neighbors. A red wooden adirondack rocking chair sat on the deck, from which I could watch countless birds feed on cascara, salal and huckleberries. Before sunset on the first day I had seen Osprey, Bald Eagles, three varieties of warbler, Cedar Waxwings and my first Townsend's Solitaire. This place was a dream that I didn't even know I had, become a reality more appealing than any dream could be.

We've passed the area where the otters made their appearance last night and are almost beyond the clutter of old logs that line the beach of this cove. A noise - small, splashy, and out of rhythm with the other early evening sounds - makes me look behind us. Walt has heard the same thing and has already begun to swing the kayak around.

And there they are. Four tonight, although it takes me some time to count. They are rarely on the surface at the same time and they never hold still. Walt paddles us as close as he can without spooking them. Tonight, however, they don't seem as concerned. Each of the otters at one time or another has popped its head up and stared directly at us. One dove, and bubbles came straight toward the kayak for several heart-stopping seconds before they veered off.

They take turns diving, eating, rolling around in the water by twos like boys wrestling in a school yard. The unexpectedly loud sound of tiny otter teeth crunching tiny fingerlings is unsettling. The blowing sound they make as they surface is reminiscent of the blowing of whales, and very slightly sinister. A sharp bark from the shore makes us stop breathing for just a moment. Are we being warned to stay away, or are the otters in the water being warned about us?

 The otters start to swim away from us, parallel to the shore. We follow with as respectful a distance as the otters demand by their movement. They dive under the logs into a large drift of floating forest, and I'm sure we've lost them for the night. Walt, ever more patient than I and in charge of paddling, stays and we wait. Before too long we see them playing on the logs and hear loud energetic splashes in the water behind the logs. Otter faces continue to check us out from time to time. Whenever one looks our way, I find myself willing an invisibility cloak around our kayak. I don't want to give this up, but neither do I want to mess with their evening routine. 

Another space of time passes with no movement, no telltale bubbles on the surface of the water, no sound beyond the creaking of old tree bones. I'm so full of the wonder of this evening I don't care if the otters are gone for good. The skin-kissing softness of the summer air, the rare and tangible connection I'm feeling with my husband, the gently nurturing rock of the boat on the lake - I am full of enough, I am overflowing with gratitude, I am perfectly happy.

Walt has angled the kayak within ten feet of the old growth graveyard where we last saw the otters. More time passes - enough that I've begun breathing normally again and released the trying-to-be-invisible tension in my body. We've been silent for most of this time, occasionally hissing excitedly, "Look!" to one another, but mostly sitting in reverential stillness. During this last longer wait we begin to celebrate our wonder in whispers. Until movement on the logs catches our attention once more.

One by one, the otters pull themselves up onto the logs and begin to groom. They transform themselves  from sleek shiny sea creatures into soft furry land mammals. There is much writhing and wrestling and nuzzling.  One otter rolls over on her back and  two of the other three approach her. We can't tell if they're nursing or grooming, but all three seem to be thoroughly enjoying the contact. She is the first to become still. The other three continue to move like leaves on a tree after the wind has stopped, but before the energy is completely spent. Eventually even that movement slows and only one is still unable to release the day.

What was four distinct shapes has now become one very large blanket of lush inviting fur quickly fading into the shadows of the logs as the day darkens into dusk. We decide to leave them to their rest and Walt begins to paddle us back. One otter head pops up from the pile. He looks directly at us with piercing intelligent eyes; his whiskers twitching, testing the air. I look directly back, hoping he's gathering the respect and awe and gratitude I'm sending across the glassy waters of Lake Quinault.

Otter photo by Loud Pics from Flickr

Friday, August 1, 2008

When Is Goodbye?

The last time I know for sure I saw Tabasco was Monday morning. As has been his routine for this summer, he slept outside and the minute I was up in the morning, he would be at the living room window, loudly demanding to be let in and fed.

On Monday, I  greeted him at the door as I always have. "Good mornin', Buddy. Hungry? Look out, I can't get your food if you keep getting in my way."

His return greeting consisted of several sharp "Yeowp" sounds and then his signature diesel engine purr the minute I reached down to pat his back and tug on his long tail.

I know he was around during the day on Monday. Sprawling on the kitchen table while I tried to eat breakfast. Sprawling on my bed while I tried to make it. Sprawling on the back of the couch finally, settled in for a nap that lasted the rest of the day. 

Walt remembers letting him out late Monday night.

He hasn't been home since.

Tabasco. My seventeen pound marmalade monster. Born in this very room to Cooper who has been his constant companion for the last fifteen years. They go out together. They come in together. They share a food bowl. 

He's never been gone for more than twenty-four hours before. Just a couple of weeks ago he was gone for a full cycle of the clock, but showed up the next morning, hungry and demanding as usual.

I've looked for him. Wandering the roads, searching reluctantly for a glimpse of his wild orange amidst the wilder green of the countryside. My eyes constantly pull toward the living room window, drawn by movement that is only hope. Every time I pass my bed, I almost see him there. I hear his insistent call, but when I go to let him in, there is nothing to see but brick and mat and a shimmer in the air. 

I've known this day was coming. It doesn't help. I've hoped that my old cats, when their time comes, would wander into the woods to relinquish the last of their nine lives. What was I thinking? No goodbye. No last cuddle. No gentle sending off. Just these empty places in my life that this  one large cat filled to overflowing for fifteen years.

The year that Tabasco was born, I found myself with a total of nineteen cats. Two litters of new kittens, plus a nearly grown litter I hadn't quite found a home for, plus assorted adults. I joked about believing that the more cats I had, the easier it would be when one died. Of course that didn't work. I didn't even fool myself very well with the illusion, but it seemed possible. Over time, I either found homes for the cats, or the coyotes got them, or the road out front claimed them. I was only able to bury two ultimately. The rest just left one day and never came home. 

I grieved each, no matter how long they'd been here. No matter how much easier life became with one less cat. No matter how much happier the remaining cats seemed to not have to share their humans and the attention they bestowed.

Over time, the cat population here settled to four. Everyone was neutered. I stopped bringing kittens home. Tabasco and Cooper regularly chased off hopeful feline visitors. The final four figured out how to avoid coyotes, cars and neighborhood kids.

And finally, this summer, I realized that I have four old cats. Tabasco's mom, Cooper, and her archenemy litter-mate, Emma, are almost sixteen. Grace was born to another mom around the time that Tabasco was born to Cooper. I've never had old cats before. I've never had any animal who lived to a ripe old age. I've never gotten used to the pain of losing any of my animal friends.

I'm trying not to imagine Tabasco's end beyond a peaceful sleep. He was so alive and so ornery the last day I saw him, that's hard to cling to. I wish I wasn't imagining his end at all. I'm trying not to lose hope too soon. He could come home still. Emma was gone a full week once and marched up the driveway on the seventh day - hungry, peevish, but otherwise no worse for the wear. 

I don't know when I'll stop looking for him. I don't know when goodbye becomes a certain thing. I don't know what to do with this pain. I do know that my heart hurts. I would give just about anything to feel the hard bump of his head under my chin and the soft drape of his body curled under my arm, the pulse of his purrs soothing me to sleep like the swooshing of water on a beach.