"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

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

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Common Cold

I have a cold.

No big deal. Everyone gets them. Mine show up usually twice a year, fall and spring. I can only think of one October when I didn't catch cold.

It makes a certain kind of sense. Two months of pushing myself to my limits and beyond in preparation for a new school year. Constant exposure to liquid, slimy, germy kids who are a never ending source of new bugs. (On Friday one of my boys came up to me and said cheerfully, "I bet you got your cold from me!" He just giggled when I offered to give it back.) Work in a place that is marginally clean - every time I touch a door knob my hand comes away slightly sticky.

This cold is different somehow.

I have always before pushed myself through. Slowing down a bit, but still able to accomplish all of the many daily tasks that make up my life. Taking more vitamins and other remedies to damp the symptoms enough to function with relative competence. Confident that in a week all will be back to normal.

I don't have any push this time.

I'm exhausted. I'm grumpy. I'm weepy. My head and the brain it contains are both refusing to talk to me at all. Sleep provides temporary relief, but I wake up in a liquid, choking fog of confusion. 

I'm mad that I'm canceling fun. My book group this afternoon. A book study tomorrow. Work on my book now. Still deciding about staying home tomorrow, but the thought of writing sub plans is overwhelming.

Listen to this. I'm whining. I never whine. I'm never so sick that I let it slow me down. I don't like being slowed down. I'm sure there's a lesson here, but my hearing isn't working any better than my thinking right now.

I'm going to go lie down now and be still. And try to let the gift of this cold reveal itself to me.